Authors: Maggi Andersen
“But of course. I should enjoy it.”
“Perhaps you and your family could come to luncheon.”
“Father won’t come. He’s not as robust as he makes out.” She frowned. “You mustn’t ask him to ride with you yet awhile, Robin. I know he’d accept the challenge, but he’s not yet ready for strenuous exercise.”
“I’ll seek your advice before I do.”
“Thank you.” Her brows met in a worried frown. “Mama won’t come without him. I’ll bring Mercy. She’s at a loose end while we are away from home.”
They walked up the steps into the ornate timber gazebo. Robin grasped the rail to keep his hands occupied. “It is good to see you again, Charity.”
“I feel the same, Robin. When you didn’t write, I confess I sorely missed your friendship.”
“You did?” Pleased, he searched her clear blue eyes. But he no longer believed friendship was enough on which to build a marriage.
“But of course. Why did you stop? Were you too busy?”
Ashamed that he’d employed tactics when she was always so honest, his hands tightened on the rail. “Busy yes, but I also thought my letters might be unwelcome.”
“But why?” She stepped closer, making him aware of her perfume, womanly scent, and the soft sway of her skirts.
He turned and leaned his back against the timber wanting some indication of her true feelings. “Life goes on, Charity. You in one direction, me in another.”
Her blue eyes grew shadowed. “Yes,” she said slowly. “Your life has changed a good deal and will continue to do so.”
“So has yours. For instance, there’s the Scot.” He could have bitten off his tongue. He’d been determined not to mention him.
“Gunn? I merely painted his portrait. It was a business matter.”
Something about her words sounded unconvincing, and a hot bout of irrational jealousy flooded through him. “You don’t intend to see him again?”
“I have no plan to.”
But what does Gunn plan? Robin wondered. He was known to be a man who pursued women. Robin pushed away from the rail. Best he leave now before he spoke out of turn. “I must go. You’ll come tomorrow?”
She smiled. “I shall look forward to it. I know the paintings will be very fine indeed.”
He headed down the steps and turned to see she’d remained where she was. “You’re not returning to the house?”
“I think I’ll stay here awhile. It’s a good place to think.”
He wanted to ask what she wished to think about but clamped his jaw on the question. He put on his hat and started back along the path. He was right not to rattle her with his demands. She was distracted and worried about her father. He would bide his time.
He turned to find her leaning her arms on the rail, agreeably framed by the carved arch of woodwork. “Yes?”
“Edward proposed to Honor here in this gazebo.”
He grinned. “A charming spot for it.” Smart fellow that Edward.
Before luncheon, the next morning, a carriage arrived. Mercy rushed into the bookroom where Charity was sitting with her mother and father. “It’s Lord Gunn!”
“Gunn? What’s he doing here?” Father asked. “I declare the fellow’s most impetuous.”
Lord Gunn stood in the drawing room in his coat, hat in hand, as the family filed in to receive him. “I was passing through on my way to London and wished to ensure you arrived safely,” he said, his gaze on Charity.
“Good of you,” her father said. “Can I persuade you to remove your coat and stay for luncheon?”
“Thank you, sir, but I wish to cover a few miles before dark. If I could speak to Lady Charity for a moment? I wish her to know how much my guests like the portrait.”
Her father nodded, looking pleased, and ushered her mother and sister from the room.
“Please sit, Lord Gunn,” Charity said, taking a chair and folding her hands in her lap.
Gunn perched on the sofa looking big and awkward in his coat. “I could spend these moments heaping praise upon your art, Lady Charity, but I’d rather speak of how much I personally admire you. And how I’d like to see you again.”
Shocked, and a little disconcerted, Charity couldn’t stop her hand as it flew to her neck. “I don’t see that it’s possible, Lord Gunn. We live so far apart.”
“The miles mean little to me if I should see you at the end of the journey.”
She swallowed and shook her head. “I’m sorry. I wish only to return home and continue with my work. It is of utmost importance to me.”
He stood, and she was forced to also. He took her hands, gazing down at her. “I shall give you time to consider. I don’t intend to give up.”
“I am very grateful to you for all that you’ve done,” she said quietly.
His hands tightened around hers, and his green gaze roamed from her head to her feet. “It’s not gratitude I want from you, lassie. But I’m a patient man.”
The door opened, and her mother appeared. “Are you sure we cannot offer you luncheon, Lord Gunn?”
“Thank you, but no. I really must go.”
Charity escorted him to the door. When his carriage rolled away down the drive, she took a deep breath, trying to calm herself. Gunn reminded her of a whirlwind. Swirling across the ground, stirring up the fallen leaves, and then gone.
“Well, what an energetic man!” Mama said when Gunn had left. “He reminds me of the spinning jenny the weavers use!”
Charity nodded and sank back in her chair. “A perfect analogy, Mama!”
Franklin entered the breakfast room, his pained expression in place earlier than usual. Robin paused, his knife poised over a rasher of bacon. “I am here, Franklin. What is it?”
“A maid has informed me that Henry is in your bedchamber again.”
“I begin to think I have little hope of training him.” Robin sighed. His new pet, a whippet pup he’d found wandering around the home farm with one badly torn ear, was far too fond of sleeping in Robin’s bed. That might not be so bad, but the dog tended to slip beneath the covers and lie with his head on the pillow.
“Shall I have the dog removed, Your Grace?”
Robin sliced off a piece of ham, wrapped it in a napkin, and handed it to the butler. “This might move him. Coax him to come here. I’ll take him rabbiting. He needs exercise.”
“It might distract him, Your Grace,” Franklin said. “At least long enough for the housemaids to make your bed.”
Robin grinned. “I daresay a dog in the bed would not appeal to my bride, eh, Franklin?”
“No indeed.” The butler’s mouth showed the faintest of smiles before he left the room.
Picking up his coffee cup, he wondered whether Charity would find the dog with his ragged ear amusing. He would ask her this afternoon. There’d been another article in the
that praised Charity’s original style. She worked quickly with a light touch, when other artists labored for months and sometimes years over a portrait. Her style marked a new chapter in art, a bold departure from tradition. It was time for him to ask her to paint his portrait. Aware of the importance of the dukedom entrusted to him, and his legacy for those who followed after him, he’d broached the matter with those whose opinion he respected and had been met with tacit approval.
After breakfast, Henry, tongue lolling, ran ahead of Robin’s horse as he cantered down the avenue. He watched the long-muzzled, sleek hound loping along, the sun shining on his fine silvery coat. A gentle animal, unless he saw a rabbit. When found, he’d been causing havoc at the home farm chasing the fowl, and would have been shot had Robin not intervened.
When Robin visited the gamekeeper’s cottage, Temple advised him poachers were about the estate. He’d taken Robin to view the evidence, and they’d found a fox in a trap with a badly broken leg. Temple had had to shoot the poor creature.
Robin arrived home in a temper. He hated traps and forbade the use of them, even though he was informed they were a necessity. He was then approached by his steward, who advised him that the housekeeper had given notice. She wished to live with her ailing brother in Manchester, and he would need to find a suitable replacement. It was a nuisance. Mrs. Mayberry had been here many years and was discreet and competent. A good housekeeper was of vital importance to the smooth running of the house, and such difficult household matters did little for Robin’s temper.
At three o’clock, Charity arrived with Mercy and joined him in the salon.
“Good afternoon, ladies. Shall we have tea before we begin?”
“A pity you didn’t meet Lord Gunn, Robin,” Mercy said. “He called in on his way to London this morning. He is such an interesting man. I likened him to big cuddly bear.”
“The first of the paintings I wish you to view is hung in this room,” he said in a cool tone. “A frivolous Fragonard I dislike.”
Charity studied the canvas in its heavy guilt frame. “The work suits the salon,” she said, returning to sit down. “Why don’t you like it?”
“I’m not a fan of veiled eroticism.”
She poured tea into porcelain cups. Handing him a cup and saucer, she gazed at him with a smile tugging at her lips. “I didn’t know you were so straight-laced. Or is it because you prefer more serious works? Portraits, paintings of historical events, or the classics, perhaps?”
“I don’t believe I am at all straight-laced.” Her amusement annoyed him. He seemed on a short wick today. “It might look better in a lady’s boudoir.”
She replaced her cup in its saucer. “Then why not have it removed there?”
He frowned. “I’ll have it hung in one of the guest chambers. One that is seldom used.” He’d been waiting to consult his bride on the matter. For some reason, Charity’s indifference annoyed him even more.
She frowned back at him. “I’m not sure you really want my advice.”
“Your opinion is important to me. I’m sorry for being so bad-tempered. It’s been an excruciating morning,” he said. What the devil had gotten into him? He never used to be so dashed impatient. It felt as though he was wading through treacle while the object of his desire just moved farther away. Having a woman reject a fellow tore strips off his self-esteem. Most women would jump at the chance to marry a duke. And now he had this Gunn fellow to contend with. He was too familiar by half. Robin stood. “I see you have finished your tea. Shall we move on to the next painting?”
A scratching came from the French doors. Through the glass, his whippet could be seen, impatiently waiting for his servants to admit him.
Mercy jumped up. “You have a new dog, Robin? He’s adorable.”
“Henry is far from adorable. He has very bad manners. I found him causing a riot at the home farm.” Robin strode to the door and opened it. Henry ran straight into Mercy’s outstretched arms. He settled there as if he’d found a home.
Mercy patted him. “What happened to his ear?”
“He came out worst in a fight, I suspect.”
Mercy gently stroked the dog’s ragged ear. “I shall stay here with Henry while you two go and discuss paintings. I can see you won’t always agree. And I’m afraid that, apart from Charity’s portraits, which do serve a purpose, I don’t really see what the fuss is about.”
“Oh, Mercy.” Charity smiled at her. “You merely want an excuse to stay with the dog.”
“Then you must stay, of course.” Robin eyed Henry as the dog gulped down the last of the shortbread that Mercy offered him. “I’ll instruct the footman to bring more biscuits.”
He turned to Charity. “I seek your opinion on the art in the passage near the ballroom, there’s a couple in the drawing room, another in a bedchamber, and we’ll end the tour with the portrait gallery.”
“Then we should begin.” Charity stood and smoothed the skirts of her slate-blue wool dress, decorated with bands of a darker velvet, which suited her, he thought.
They climbed the divided marble stairway above the Great Hall to where the ballroom doors stood open.
She peered inside. “It’s enormous. Have you held a ball here?”
“Yes. A few weeks ago.”
Her blue eyes held a gleam of interest. “Was it a success?”
“The guests seemed to enjoy it.” He gestured. “The painting in question hangs on the wall over there.”
Charity walked over to the dark oil painting. She examined it closely. “This obviously needs restoration. It’s a fine work by Rembrandt.”
“My secretary has a catalogue of all the artworks, but says it needs updating.” Robin consulted his notes. “I believe this to be
The Blinding of Samson
“A ghoulish subject, although any of his work is worth keeping.”
They continued along the passage discussing those they came across, two of which Robin insisted should be replaced.
“They are all very fine paintings, Robin. It’s a matter of taste.”
“I have one more to show you before we go to the portrait gallery.”
They entered a blue-and-gold bedroom. Charity went straight to the painting he had in mind. A naked lady in her bed welcoming her lover.
“The mythical character, Danae,” he explained, eyeing her carefully, “who later bore Zeus’ son, Perseus.”