Authors: Madeline Hunter
For my son Joseph,
whose inner strength
impresses me every day
shadow entered the house with the early visitor. Alexia sensed trouble even before she saw who had called.
The low voices in the reception hall caused her to pause on the steps as she descended with her workbasket. She heard the tone of firm demand, even if she could not make out the words. She heard the servant’s deferential resistance have no effect. Falkner, the butler, was called. Faced with determined, quiet power, the house’s forces retreated.
Foreboding entered Alexia much as it had when the men arrived to tell the family about Benjamin. She had too much experience with the sensation to ignore its warning. Bad news alters the world at once. It changes the air. A human heart knows grief is coming as surely as a horse senses an approaching storm.
She could not move. Carrying her workbasket out to the garden to join her cousins in the early afternoon sun flew from her mind.
Legs appeared, heading her way. Long legs, sheathed in black trousers and fine boots. They followed the butler toward the staircase. Falkner wore the expression of a servant who had been commanded by a king.
The visitor’s torso appeared, then his shoulders and dark crown. As if sensing someone observed him, he looked up to her spot on the landing.
Alexia immediately understood Falkner’s submission. This visitor’s stature, face, and demeanor could intimidate even if one did not know his exalted station. Dark hair, unruly as if the brushes had been forgotten this morning, framed a handsome face composed of strong, chiseled planes. Signs of fatigue dulled his deeply set, midnight-blue eyes. Strained forbearance tightened his square jaw and firmly set mouth. Lord Hayden Rothwell, brother of the fourth Marquess of Easterbrook, presented the image of a weary man determined to see through an unpleasant task. It went without saying that he had not come in response to the many calling cards Timothy had left at Easterbrook’s home over the last year.
As they approached her, Falkner caught her eye and communicated his dismay. The butler also sniffed the storm.
Lord Hayden paused on her landing and made the slightest bow. She had been introduced to him once, but he did not address her. As his head rose, his gaze scanned her from toe to head. The assessment was so complete, so oddly interested, that she felt her face warming.
The planes of his face vaguely rearranged themselves. As if a statue had come to life, warmth entered his eyes and his mouth relaxed. Sympathy subtly softened him.
In a blink, his stern demeanor returned and abolished the kindness, but she had seen enough to make her heart sick. She recognized pity in the look he had given her. Oh, yes, this man’s arrival heralded nothing good.
“Are you bringing Lord Hayden to the drawing room or the library, Falkner?” She was being too bold, but she did not care. Over the years she had learned that anticipating bad news was much worse than actually hearing it. She had no intention of submissively waiting and worrying.
“The drawing room, Miss Welbourne.”
Lord Hayden guessed her intentions. “Please do not disturb Miss Longworth on my behalf. This is not a social call.”
“We will not send for her, if that is your request. However, it may be some time before Mr. Longworth can attend on you. We can at least see to your comfort.”
She did not wait for approval but turned on her heel and led the way up to the second level.
She set aside her workbasket in the drawing room and saw to the comfort she promised. She played the hostess even though he did not want one.
“It is uncommonly fair for January, don’t you think?” she asked after he agreed to sit on the new, blue-patterned divan. “The day thus far has been glorious.”
His eyebrows rose a fraction at the unfortunate emphasis she put on “thus far.”
“Yes, unseasonably warm these last days,” he said.
“I think such days are cruel, much as I relish them.”
“They tease one into believing spring is coming, when there are months of cold and damp ahead.”
For a second a mischievous light sparked in his eyes. “It may be no more than a tease, but I prefer to enjoy the pleasure and worry about the cold when it comes.”
It almost sounded improper when he phrased it that way. She changed the topic with an observation about the recent holidays. He agreed with whatever she said. With fits and starts, she cobbled together an awkward conversation.
His mind was not with her, she could tell. It was on his meeting with Timothy. The air in the drawing room grew thick from the impending doom this man exuded.
She could not bear it any longer. “My cousin is ill, Lord Hayden. Composing himself enough to meet with you may be impossible. Could this not wait for another day?”
That was all she got. That one word, spoken flatly, simply, and firmly.
He turned his attention away, to nothing. He kept doing that, just as he had on the stairs. She wondered if he found her company presumptuous. She was not the mistress of the house but merely a cousin. Since he had refused to have Roselyn informed of his visit, it was not her fault he was stuck with a poor second-best.
“Perhaps, sir, if I brought a message to my cousin on the purpose of your visit, he would…”
Her voice trailed off as he stared her down much like a vicar does when silencing a whispering child in church.
She did not care for the expression in his eyes that said he knew what she was doing either. Hayden Rothwell was reputed to be brilliant and brusque and arrogant. She could not disagree with that assessment thus far.
Then again, she had not approached this inquiry very artfully. She tried a different tack. Since he was renowned for his financial acumen, she turned the conversation to that in order to make him amenable to other questions. “Have you heard any news from the City today, Lord Hayden? Does the bank crisis continue?”
“I fear it will continue for some time, Miss Welbourne. Such panics usually do.”
“You have some dealings with my cousin’s bank, I believe. All is well there, I trust.”
“As of an hour ago when I left the City, Darfield and Longworth was still solvent.”
“Thank goodness. There has been no run, then. With so many other banks suffering them, I have been concerned.”
A dark, hard amusement entered his eyes. “No, there has been no run on the bank.”
That relieved her. Several large London banks had failed in the last month. The newspapers were full of stories of the ripples of insolvency hitting smaller county banks. Everywhere one went, there was talk of failure, ruin, and bankruptcy. She suspected that Timothy’s current illness came from worry over his bank’s future.
“Do you have funds there?” He seemed actually interested.
“A mere pittance. My concern is for my cousins.”
She had succeeded in garnering his attention with her financial questions. Rather too well. He looked her over again, longer this time, with a casual arrogance that implied he was entitled to such forwardness while lesser men were not. It was the examination of a man who knew his worth too well and who assumed a dispensation from etiquette as a result.
His attention lingered intensely on her eyes, absorbing her so completely that she had to blink to find her thoughts again. Slowly and deliberately, he took in the rest of her. Her face warmed, and an uncomfortable liveliness prickled all her skin. He flustered her badly, in ways that echoed other flusters caused years ago by another man’s gaze.
Her reaction embarrassed her. She did not think of herself as someone susceptible to a handsome man. She wasn’t a silly girl like young Irene. She silently scolded herself for acting like a foolish spinster grateful for any man’s attention.
There was nothing in his expression to indicate he noticed her ill ease. Nor did she suffer any illusion that his interest was of
nature. She knew what he was thinking. With her brown hair and ordinary face, she was not very impressive. No doubt he saw the ways in which pinching pennies affected her appearance too. This old dress not only was out of style but had discreet bits of mending. She suspected that he saw every secret stitch.
“Miss Welbourne, I think that you and I were introduced at Benjamin’s service,” he said. “You are the cousin from Yorkshire, am I right?”
A pang of horror sounded in her pride. He had not known who she was when he entered this drawing room. Her attendance on him must have seemed very peculiar, and her conversation exceedingly bold, if he did not remember they had been introduced.
A touch of vexation followed her momentary shock. The anger was not with him, although it managed to encompass him anyway. It came from the situation that made her so thoroughly forgettable.
“Yes, we met at Benjamin’s service.” The name and reference summoned an echo of old grief. A service, but not a funeral. Benjamin’s body was not in England but lost at sea. It had been four years since he left England, and she still missed him terribly.
Suddenly Lord Hayden did not appear so stern. A more social countenance softened his beautifully sculpted face.
“I counted him as a friend,” he said. “We met as boys. Their property is not far from Easterbrook’s estate in Oxfordshire.”
Timothy had always alluded to a special connection to Easterbrook and his family, one born of their being neighbors in the country. It was not so close a connection that Timothy’s calling cards were ever returned, of course. If the friendship had been between Benjamin and Hayden Rothwell, however, that explained a few things, such as why Lord Hayden had been at that service.
“You also fought in Greece, did you not?” she asked, glad to explore this topic that made him less severe and that touched on dear Benjamin.
“Yes, I was one of the idealistic philhellenes who have joined the Greek cause against Turkey. I was there early in the war, at the same time as your cousin. Unlike him and Byron, I was fortunate enough to survive the adventure.”
She pictured Benjamin, ever the optimist, a man so full of life and joy that it made him reckless, fighting like a hero for a people’s freedom with an ancient temple on the hill behind him. She treasured that image of him. Since Lord Hayden had been there too, she supposed she did not mind too much that he had inventoried her unimpressive appearance.
He was doing it again, only it was not her dress that he scrutinized. It was her face and…
“Forgive me, Miss Welbourne. I do not mean to be forward, but your eyes are an unusual color. Like violets. Is it the light here, or has this been noted before?”
“It is not the light. That color is my one distinctive feature.”
He did not disagree, which she thought ungallant. He weighed her response, then his own. “He spoke of you with respect and affection. Benjamin did, in Greece. Not by name. Violet eyes, however—I remember that reference. I did not notice at the service that yours had that color or I would have told you then, for what comfort it might have offered.”
Her heart flooded with an emotion sweet and perfect, despite the painful nostalgia that provoked it. She barely contained her reaction, and her eyes misted. Benjamin had spoken of her in the days before he died. He had confided in this man sitting with her in the drawing room. Lord Hayden knew of their love and plans. She was sure he did.
She no longer cared about his purpose in coming. Her gratitude for this small indication that Benjamin had truly cared for her, had sincerely meant to marry her, was so intense that she could forgive him anything right now.
She looked on him much more kindly. He was a very handsome man, now that she let herself notice. Not entirely severe either, it seemed. The hardness around his mouth was the fault of breeding, after all. He could not help it if his bones made a portrait of angles and planes instead of happy hills.
“Thank you for telling me that. I miss my cousin badly still. It touches me that he thought of me while he was gone.”
She yearned for him to repeat exactly what Ben had said. If he had such inclinations, they were thwarted. Timothy chose that moment to make his entrance into the drawing room.
Timothy looked quite ill, with florid color and glassy eyes. She wondered if he carried a fever. His valet had turned him out properly, however, so his sandy hair and flushed face topped coats and neckwear that spoke of his tendency to sartorial excess.
“Thank you for making time for me, Longworth.”
Alexia rose at once and took her leave. Her heart still sang with happiness at learning that Benjamin spoke of her eyes to his bachelor friends while in Greece. She could not ignore that the mood of impending bad news had reclaimed the house, however.
Clutching her workbasket, Alexia entered the garden to join her cousins. The ivy and boxwood could not approximate the garden’s summer glory, but the sun burned away the worst of the chill, and the lack of wind made the garden hospitable.
Roselyn and Irene waited at an iron table, with two bonnets and bags of ribbons and notions. Alexia decided not to mention the visitor inside. Maybe the foreboding still throbbing beneath her new joy was ill-founded.