RoseHill Manor, England
The doors blew open under the stormy force of a taffeta cyclone.
“Constance, I need your help!” Lady Larissa Wakefield burst into the library, fuchsia skirts still in motion, ebony curls bouncing.
“Good morning, Larissa.” Without turning, Lady Constance Chambreville continued to layer mugwort and lavender stems in a heavy crystal vase.
“Please promise you’ll help me. Quickly, before it is too late.”
“Mugwort,” mused Constance with a frown as she twirled a woody stalk. “Who dreams up these unattractive names?” She wedged the purplish-red spear into the arrangement, then glanced over her shoulder in time to see Lady Larissa slump gracefully onto a sofa. “Do you suppose it’s the same person who came up with the name ‘Wormwood?’ Or ‘Constance?’”
Larissa, her face buried in delicate hands, dropped them and looked up. “I’m to become a prisoner,” she whispered hoarsely. Her large, sapphire-blue eyes brimmed with tears. “I am practically a grown woman and I’m being imprisoned.”
Constance carried the vase to a large walnut desk that squatted near terrace windows. “Larissa, what scheme are you about this time?” She returned to the giltwood side table, scooped up leftover lavender branches, and brushed them from her hands into the fireplace. A stray branch fell on the marble surround, and she bent to pick it up.
Noting her friend’s uncustomary silence, Constance glanced across the room, then quickly carried the amethyst stem to the sofa and took a seat close to the young lady. “Larissa, you’re so pale. What is it?”
“It’s the very worst luck you could imagine.” Springy curls swung merrily as she shook her head, in contrast to her somber tone. “My brother has returned from his commission early. And he’s convinced Aunt and Uncle I’ve become much too wild under their guardianship.” Her eyelids narrowed. “Here I was anticipating the three of us would remove to Brighton, or perhaps to Bath for the summer. Yet suddenly my brother arrives and begins ordering everyone about as if he is still playing the commanding officer. And now, instead of an exhilarating summer, he insists I rusticate in the country. Like you. Oh!” Her cherry cheeks burned a shade more scarlet, and she reached for the other young woman’s hand. “Constance, I didn’t mean that. I know there is a reason you do not go about in society.”
“I’m not offended.” Constance squeezed Larissa’s hand. “Truthfully, I prefer the quiet solitude of the country. I find . . . rusticating—” She grinned, showing a brief dimple. “—suits me.”
It had been almost three months, Constance realized in surprise, since she’d fled from London in the wake of her brother’s scandal. She’d chosen to retreat to their country home, while Alec thought it most prudent he leave England’s shores posthaste. Now she wished she’d followed him to the continent. This waiting and worrying wore upon her; a dozen times a day she wondered if he was safe.
The single dry stalk of lavender snapped in her fists, returning her attention to Lady Larissa. She caught only the last word. “Did you say ‘tyrant?’”
“Yes. He was a tyrant before he left, and seeing the world has not improved him one whit. He is still a tyrant. Perhaps worse.” Larissa puckered her smooth brow. “What is worse than a tyrant?”
“A dictator?” offered Constance in the dry tone she’d learned so well from her Aunt Agatha.
“Precisely.” Larissa nodded primly. “A dictator, then. Lord help the woman he should deign to marry—if ever, that is, he should find one perfect enough to match himself.” She jumped up and paced, wringing her small hands. “He will lock her in the pantry, I am sure, and only allow her out on social occasions.” She spun to face her friend, eyes wild. “Constance, he’ll lock me in the pantry, and for the entire summer.”
“Larissa, sit down and calm yourself. Mrs. Dewberry will be in shortly with tea. You’re getting yourself worked into hysterics.” She watched the young woman continue to pace. “Besides, how could I possibly help?”
“I have an idea.”
Constance groaned. She’d learned to fear these four words over the years she’d known Lady Larissa Wakefield. Whenever Larissa was in a bind she would draw upon the heroines of her novels. These wild schemes might work in a world of fiction but were never practical—or successful—in reality.
Hearing the cantering of a horse upon the long gravel lane, Constance turned her head.
“He’s here!” Larissa turned white and looked about to faint.
“Who is here?” Constance stood and glided over to peer out the bay window. She pulled the sheer curtain to one side and craned, but Larissa grabbed her by the arm, pulling her away and out of view.
“My brother. But I left hours before him.” She lowered her voice, but it was intense with urgency. “Constance, quickly. We are out of time. Do give me your word you’ll help.”
“Larissa, you’re not making sense. And why are we whispering? What is it you expect of me?”
“It’s just . . . I thought . . . if I must be locked away in the country, then perhaps I could spend the summer with you. You certainly have the freedom to do as you please. We could amuse ourselves with outings and picnics. Perhaps a trip to London.”
“That would be fun. I’d love—”
“And Aunt and Uncle agreed before leaving on their trip. You know how they love you like a daughter. We all three agreed it would be delightful, and that I should stay with you for the summer. The whole summer. It was quite settled.”
Constance bit back a smile. “Well, I’m glad everyone has settled the arrangements. Less work for me.”
“But that’s why it is so desperately unfair.” Larissa still whispered. “He’s come home, and now they’ve taken the opportunity to visit Cousin Ruth for several weeks—though I’m sure it was just an excuse to escape from my irritating brother.” She frowned. “They left in such a hurry. And now he’s about to ruin everything.”
“Never tell me they forgot to tell him about your plans before they left? And their approval?”
“They did tell him that I’d be staying safely at RoseHill Manor.” Larissa dropped onto a nearby settee, her shoulders sagging along with the cushions. “But he started interrogating me again this morning, almost as soon as their coach rolled past the gate. I know him. He’s searching for a reason to cancel any enjoyment I might chance to find.” She cast a brief look up at Constance. “He doesn’t believe in having fun, you know.” Larissa glanced nervously toward the window.
“He can’t hear you,” said Constance. This time she did smile, but Larissa didn’t seem to notice.
“I repeated to him, I am sure it was for the second time—or was it the third?—about RoseHill Manor. All of a sudden he snaps his fingers. ‘Chambreville,’ he says. ‘Is this family connected to the Earl of St. Edmunds? Alec Chambreville?’”
Constance stiffened. “Did he? And what else did he say?”
“Nothing more about your brother. But of course, I immediately realized he would make an issue of the scandal that’s befallen this house. As I said, he’s sifting for an excuse to deny me. Any excuse. So I blurted the truth: that Lord St. Edmunds was currently on the continent, and absolutely not in residence. Not even in England. And that this was simply a house belonging to a distant member of the family—”
“A distant member! A sister and brother?”
Larissa bit her lower lip. “Constance, he made me so flustered. And he’s such a stickler for propriety. I was afraid to admit that Aunt and Uncle agreed I’d be staying with you . . . with St. Edmunds’s sister.” She avoided looking at Constance; her gaze slanted to the hearth. “I’m sorry. What with the scandal and all.” She shrugged prettily.
Constance sat down beside Lady Larissa. “You chose not to tell him you’d be staying with me—with Lord St. Edmunds’s sister?”
Larissa’s black curls nodded and she dismissed the question breezily. “I told him that the house had been generously offered. To Aunt and Uncle and to me.” She leaned forward and confided, “I told him you were in Italy.”
Constance’s mouth dropped open at yet another of Larissa’s tales. “But . . . but he certainly wouldn’t allow you to stay here at RoseHill Manor by yourself, even if your aunt and uncle had agreed.”
Larissa’s blue eyes were innocently wide. “Oh no, of course not. He knows I won’t be staying here alone. He just doesn’t know that you are . . . who you really are.”
Constance put a hand to her temple. “I didn’t have a megrim this morning when I awoke. What did you just say?”
“I said that I told him you were in Italy. And he knows I’m staying with you, but he just doesn’t know who you are. Which is why he insists upon meeting you, before he tells me no.” She pouted. “I know he will say no. He will deny me this.”
Studying her friend closely, Constance spoke slowly. “Larissa . . . then who, exactly, am I, if I am still in Italy?”
“Why, you’re the companion we hired.” Larissa beamed.
Constance looked at her friend as if she’d grown an extra nose. “Your aunt and uncle would never have approved of that outrageous scheme.”
Larissa laughed. “Of course not. They left happily secure I’ll be with my best friend, Lady Constance Chambreville, whom they love and approve of.” She nodded primly. “In spite of the scandal, I am pleased to add. For they are not judgmental, such as some people we know.” She glanced toward the door. “But he doesn’t know that you are Lady Constance. I told him they’d already arranged for a proper companion to stay with me at RoseHill.”
“Your brother believed this?” asked Constance in skeptical surprise. “That your aunt and uncle would allow you to stay at this house, with a stranger—a paid companion? For much of the summer?”
Larissa leaned forward again, angled her head confidentially. “I told him they had already interviewed you and that you had impeccable references.” She giggled.
Larissa talked faster now, glancing nervously toward the threshold. “And I told him they also agreed because they know all the servants here.”
“Well, perhaps not all the servants. But their own Jefferson is related by marriage to your James. Besides, this is such a short ride from Amber Crossing. I explained to Marcus they were comfortable because I’m practically in their paddock. Just a short visit away.”
“Practically in their paddock?” repeated Constance. “We are practically in the next village. This is impossible to believe.” She shook her head gently, tiptoeing around the headache.
Larissa’s mouth turned down. Rising swiftly, she continued to pace. “He said the same thing. He insists on rescinding their agreement now they are gone. Which is so very unfair!” This final remark was accompanied by the stamp of a tiny foot.
Constance sighed, watched her friend stride nervously to the window. “I hate to state the obvious, but perhaps if you had told him the truth? He might have agreed immediately. Allowed you to stay with me—the real Lady Constance—not with a stranger. He would understand why your aunt and uncle gave their approval in good faith. And you wouldn’t be in this brine. Perhaps the fact that Alec is my brother would have counted for naught. So why not confess and tell him the truth now?”
Larissa spun toward her and gasped. “Admit I fibbed? Oh, no. Noooo. He hates dishonesty above all else. He’d surely lock me up for the entire summer. In the pantry,” she added.
“Perhaps I agree with your brother. Staying here alone—” As Larissa opened her mouth in protest, Constance held up a hand. “—or with an unknown companion, at your age. . . . This might do irreparable damage to your reputation, Larissa.”
“How can it? I’ll actually be with you, not an unknown companion.”
“Oh. That’s true. I see.” Constance shook her head. “No, I don’t see. I’m still confused.”
Larissa rushed over to take her friend’s hand. Pulling her to her feet, she said, “But there isn’t time to explain more. Please, Constance, you don’t know what an ogre my brother is. All you need do is pretend to be a proper lady’s companion and then he’ll leave, and I’ll be free for the summer, and we’ll have the most splendid time together. Please, Constance, please, please, please.” Again, tears looked on the verge of spilling from Larissa’s dark blue eyes.
“I wouldn’t even know how to pass for a lady’s companion,” declared Constance in consternation just to turn the subject.
Larissa perked up. “Why, you’d be perfect for the role. You’re proper, you dress simply, and . . . I’m sorry, but . . . but look what you’re wearing right now.”
Constance looked down at the faded green muslin skirt, recalling she had matched it with one of her oldest white cambric blouses; so old, the fabric was soft and a bit too sheer. “I was dressed for working in my garden,” she scolded. “And not expecting guests, I might add.” She held out her hands to the room, palms up. “Yet here it appears I have a circus going on.”
At that perfect timing Mrs. Dewberry opened the door and announced crisply, “His Lordship, Marcus Wakefield, Earl of Havington.” Mrs. Dewberry spoke quickly, with barely enough time to move out of the way before Lord Havington strode past the small woman.
Constance could see her housekeeper was as shocked as she, that a visitor would barge in without being settled in a sitting room. Yet here he was, filling the doorway with his huge frame.
With dark hair like his sister’s, there all resemblance ended. Larissa was short and soft with a pert little nose and rosy cheeks. The earl had no softness to his face or his lean military frame, and no rosiness in that dark face. He stood over six feet, noted Constance, who was tall herself.
Well, she was not intimidated by large men, especially not in her own domain. And she did not particularly care for that pinched crease above his brows.
“I beg your pardon—” began Constance frostily.
“Marcus,” interrupted Larissa, “I didn’t expect you so quickly.” She turned to face Constance. “May I present my brother, the Earl of Havington? Marcus, this is . . .” Larissa faltered for a half second, her back still to her brother. “My companion—”
Constance saw her friend’s brow clear the moment inspiration struck.
“—Miss Violet,” Larissa blurted, holding her hand toward Constance as a conjurer might. “Miss Constance Violet,” she announced a bit too loudly, her pleading gaze focused on her friend.
Constance blinked, taken aback. Miss Violet, indeed! Goodness, where did Larissa’s imagination stem from?
Ignoring the lie a moment, Constance debated how best to handle her friend’s brother. She’d been taken by surprise when Larissa, flustered and speaking rapidly, had descended upon her. And Constance had fully planned to say no to this absurd scheme. In fact, she ought now to expose Larissa’s game, establishing herself as the lady of the house.
She knew that. Every instinct told her so in the few seconds she delayed.
Constance regarded Larissa’s worried face—eyebrows framing such sad and panicked eyes.
She looked over and met the earl’s steely eyes. A face that could have been handsome, if not for its sternness. Was he judging her? As he’d judged her brother, according to Larissa? His arrogance of manner triggered a reaction that held her tongue.
If she ignored the mis-introduction, it could not be the same as agreeing to the lie. She tilted her chin up slightly; did not hold out her hand, as the man obviously had no manners. Folding her hands carefully on her skirt, Constance nodded her head, saying crisply, “My Lord,” with the tiniest of curtsies.
Lord Havington continued to frown.
* * * * *
Marcus could not help staring at the young woman. Larissa had assured him their aunt and uncle had already approved of a suitable companion, so he was of course expecting an older woman.
She didn’t necessarily need grey hair, but it would have been a plus in her favor, instead of this mass of sun-streaked hair falling in obstinate curls. And she did not necessarily need a large, stout figure, but it would have helped intimidate young men who might think to show interest in his sister.
Plain features would have been very desirable; not exotic eyes that were a mix of emerald green and grey. Companions he’d met were homely spinsters of impoverished noble families, skeptical toward the respectable intentions of gentlemen. That bitterness would have helped keep improper beaux a good distance away.
A prune face might also have helped, he decided. Yet this young chit didn’t even have one wrinkle, let alone enough to fill a prune.
Except, he now noted, that one wrinkling frown above her eyebrows. Perhaps she was nervous about the coming interview. She was right to be; her job was about to end before it had begun. He wasn’t about to allow his sister to remain in this house for the summer. Nor would he entrust his sister’s reputation to someone so green, even if he had not already made up his mind to squash the silly scheme.
“Miss Violet.” His nod was curt. “Lady Larissa has informed me your references are impeccable. However . . . I find you are perhaps a bit young. I trust you will forgive a brother’s concern.”
Constance visibly softened. “You are forgiven, my Lord,” she replied with generosity.
“I was not asking your forgiveness, madam,” he said with impatience. “That was a figure of speech.”
Constance turned pink, and it was not the becoming flush of embarrassment.
“You will excuse us, brother?” Larissa took her friend’s elbow, glancing over her shoulder toward Marcus as she steered Constance forward on wooden legs.
They stood by the glass terrace doors, and Larissa whispered, “Please, Constance? Do you see now how he is? Please do not antagonize him. You only need deal with him this afternoon and he’ll be gone. If you refuse to go along with this, then I shall be confined with him all summer, under his constant critical eye at Amber Crossing.” Larissa gripped Constance’s arm as if she were drowning.
Marcus watched the ladies conferring by the window, their heads close. As Constance shifted, backlit by the window, his eyes widened. He could not help but stare at the perfect figure so clearly revealed by her sheer blouse.
Of a sudden, she turned her head his way. His eyes snapped to her face, and he tried not to look guilty as he cleared his throat. In a brisk, husky voice, he said, “Miss Violet, you will now excuse my sister and me, as we must confer.”
“As you wish, my Lord.” She walked across the room and, placing her hands on the desktop, leaned over to smell the lavender arrangement.
He cleared his throat impatiently. She spun around, eyebrows lifted.
“Miss Violet,” Lord Havington said slowly, as if speaking to the village simpleton, “I wish privacy while speaking to my sister. Perhaps you might find a ladies’ room and wait until your attendance is requested?”
Constance hid balled fists behind her skirt. “Excuse me, my Lord. I shall be happy to leave the two of you together.” As she marched toward the door, she said clearly, without looking back, “Though this actually is a lady’s library.”
“One moment,” Marcus ordered.
She turned a look of cool disinterest toward the earl. “Yes, my Lord?”
“Do you really think this to be a lady’s library?” His voice echoed his skepticism.
Constance glanced at Larissa, who appeared to be holding her breath. She turned to Lord Havington and calmly asked, “And why would you suppose otherwise, my Lord?”
“Well, this is obviously a room belonging to an orderly mind.” He gestured around the neat room. “Ladies usually have books of pressed flowers lying everywhere. With delicate little writing tables, not sturdy walnut desks such as that one. And,” he continued, proud of his keen observational skills, “small tapestried stools placed near the window, with sewing baskets upon them.”
“Sewing baskets?” Constance enunciated clearly, as if she had misheard. “It may surprise you, Lord Havington, to know there are some ladies who—”
“Who keep their sewing baskets even closer at hand,” filled in Larissa. “Miss Violet keeps her sewing basket with her at all times. Don’t you, Miss Violet?”
Constance stared at her friend for several ticks of the clock before answering. “Of course,” she said smoothly. “That is, when it is not beside my bed. I find it very comforting to have it at my fingertips. One never knows when a button will pop off unexpectedly or a stitch will slip.” To Lord Havington she added, in bland tones, with eyebrows raised, “And sometimes I dream about exciting embroidery patterns and wake up determined to capture them while they are fresh in my mind.”
Marcus nodded approvingly, distractedly, as he picked up a title on a nearby shelf. “Sir Anthony’s Book of Animal Husbandry? Really, Larissa, how unsuitable for a young lady.” He held the book out toward his sister. “Is this the type of reading you would pursue all summer without proper supervision?”
“I must agree with the earl.” In three strides, Constance grabbed the book midair, drawing a look of shock from her visitors. “As your companion, I insist we dispose of this book, Lady Larissa.” She held the offensive material—one of her favorite books—at arm’s length between two fingers, dangling it as if it were a piece of last year’s rancid cheese. “In fact, I think we should lock up the entire room for the summer. Else, this library will have to be most carefully examined. We shall have to go through every single title on these shelves, and box up the inappropriate books, delegating them to the attics.
“Lord Havington,” Constance continued, looking at him from under long lashes, “would you be willing to inspect these books for us?” She gestured to all four walls covered with books from ceiling to floor. “As a companion, I would be most uncomfortable with the phrases that could be lurking in this room.”
“But . . . there are hundreds of books in this room.” Marcus looked dazed as he surveyed the four walls. His eyes came back to Constance and held her gaze.
She blinked those long lashes innocently. “I shall leave you now, as you so politely requested, my Lord.”
She floated out of the room, closing the twin doors silently behind her with a grand gesture.