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Once Upon a Tartan
  • Текст добавлен: 9 октября 2016, 02:01

Текст книги "Once Upon a Tartan"

Автор книги: Grace Burrowes

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Текущая страница: 8 (всего у книги 20 страниц)

“Did he hurt you?” The question was not prompted by conscience, but by something more problematic.

The daft woman tried to shift away. He gently prevented it.

“Not the way you mean.” She sounded tired now, and for the first time in Tye’s experience, defeated. To hear it made him furious, though he had wisdom enough to keep his anger to himself. “He confused me.”

Tye waited. Hester Daniels was intelligent and articulate. She’d sort through what she wanted him to know, and he’d sit on this bench until his backside fell asleep while she did.

“Jasper could be so sure of himself, so convincing. He said I’d inflamed his passions, that I wanted what he was doing, and it was my duty, and everybody anticipated their vows. He was very confident of what he said.”

Bastard. “You began to doubt yourself.”

“I didn’t beginto doubt myself. I lost track entirely of what I knew to be true. I’ve never inflamed a man’s passions in my life, you see. I’m the girl none of the fellows needs to take seriously. I’m cute. Adorable, a whacking good sport, or I was.”

At Balfour House, he’d seen a picture of the woman she described. She had the same gorgeous hair and the same wide, pretty eyes as Hester, but that woman had an innocent gaze and a laughing smile. Even sitting still for the interminable length of time necessary to form a photographic image, she’d projected high spirits and joie de vivre.

That woman had not known bitter self-doubt, and Tye doubted he would have found her half so intriguing as he did the bewildered, passionate creature sitting beside him in the moonlight.

And now was not the time to tell her she was still adorable. “I suppose a cute, adorable, adoring fiancée allows her prospective husband any liberties he demands. Was that Merriman’s reasoning?”

She was silent so long worry started to flap around inside Tye’s head, creating all manner of awful scenarios.

“Jasper isn’t built on quite as grand a scale as you, my lord, but he’s a good deal stronger than I suspected.”

“The bastard forcedyou?” Though it made no difference whether the coercion was physical, or physical and emotional, or solely emotional. Hester’s choices had been taken from her, and with them, any confidence she might have had in her right to decide.

“He says Iforced him. I drove him to unbridled lust.”

She ought to have snorted with disgust to relay such tripe; she ought to have laughed with incredulity that a grown man could posit such nonsense in the Queen’s English.

But she still doubted. Tye heard it in her voice, felt it in her tense posture. Because of the violation of her person and her will by a man who ought to have died to keep her safe, Hester Daniels still doubted herself.

“I’ll kill him for you, if that will help. I’ll castrate him first, with a dull, rusty knife. I’m Quinworth’s son. I won’t be held accountable. You know what it means to castrate a man?”

Beneath his arm, her shoulders lifted and dropped, as if she’d found what was very nearly a sincere offer amusing. “A rusty knife, my lord?”

“A dull, rusty knife. A dull, dirtyrusty knife left to lie about on the floor of a stable for a few days first.”

Against him, she eased at his exaggeration. “I lie awake at night, dwelling on such thoughts. I want to maim him, socially if not physically. I want to see him humiliated.”

“So you jilted him. Good for you.”

She scuffed her foot across the grass beneath them. “Jilting him wasn’t enough. I’m doomed to spinsterhood while he’s free to charm his way under some other young lady’s skirts and frog-march her up the church aisle as a result.”

The lady lifted her face to the stars and sighed, not necessarily a sigh of defeat, but maybe of soul weariness. The conversation had been extraordinary in Tye’s experience, not one they could have undertaken in daylight. In the morning, he would resent these confidences from her because they made what he must do to appease his father all the more difficult.

It wasn’t morning yet. The moon was rising full over the eastern horizon, and Hester Daniels was becoming a warm, comfortable weight against his side. He didn’t think before he acted, he merely indulged in a selfish impulse and scooped her onto his lap.

She fit there nicely, a soft, tired, inconveniently delectable, fragrant bundle of woman to whom life had not been very kind. He knew how that felt, knew what it was like to see options disappearing with nothing to take their places.

He desired her. More than he wanted to be her willing and enthusiastic sexual hobbyhorse, however, he wanted her laughter and confidence restored to her. “Go to sleep, Hester.”

She made some little sound of contentment. This wasn’t how she’d intended for the evening to go between them, he was sure of that, and it sure as hell didn’t fit with his plans either.

Still, for her to fall asleep in his arms was good in a way Tye couldn’t put into words. In the moment, holding her soothed and comforted him probably more even than it did her, regardless that this encounter would complicate their breakfast conversation considerably.

After a time, after even the lonely fox had gone silent, Tye carried Hester into the house and up to her bedroom, laid her on her bed, kissed her forehead, covered her with a soft tartan blanket, and withdrew to his room.

* * *

“The mail, your ladyship.”

Deirdre, Marchioness of Quinworth, eyed the pile of correspondence with misgiving but took the salver from the maid and set it well to the side on the breakfast table.

“Is Quinworth sending you more love letters?”

Sir Neville Pevensy had waited to ask until the maid had departed. He was a handsome fellow who did not care that he was ten years Deirdre’s junior, any more than she cared that his affections would always be held first and foremost by his business partner, one Earnest Abingdon, Lord Rutherford.

If Deirdre found it curious that Rutherford had three half-grown children, none of whom resembled their father, well, these things happened in the best of families.

“Hale is a reliable correspondent.” Deirdre poured them both more tea, being of the belief that at breakfast, at least, one shouldn’t have to guard one’s tongue against gossiping servants.

Or servants taking her husband’s coin in addition to her own.

“You are very likely the only woman on earth who even knows the old boy’s given name. Cream, my dear?”

“Please, and peel me an orange if you wouldn’t mind.”

He gave her a slow smile, a man who enjoyed a woman comfortable giving orders. “With pleasure. What do you call a reliable correspondent?”

“You are trying to pry confidences from me.”

She poured a generous amount of cream into her tea, cream being the best part of the business, then drizzled a skein of honey into her cup as well. Neville watched her do this, and she liked that he watched her.

And had to wonder if that didn’t make her just the smallest bit pathetic.

“You’re restless,” Neville said, starting on an orange. “Your salons are part of what makes Edinburgh a summer destination, your kitchens are the envy of the North, and you’ve just spent a fortune in Paris on new dresses. And yet, you aren’t entirely enjoying yourself.”

She wanted to ask him if he treated Rutherford to as careful a study as he made of her, but watched him make short work of the orange instead. A man with competent hands—her husband had competent hands—would always have a certain attractiveness.

“Quinworth’s communications follow a pattern. He asks politely if I’d be interested in joining him at this or that house party, claiming that for appearances, we ought occasionally to be seen together.”

The scent of oranges blossomed in the cheery breakfast parlor. “He has a point. Your daughters are not married, and cordially distant doesn’t mean complete strangers.” He passed her a section of orange and appropriated one for himself as well.

“He has a point? Quinworth always has points and sub-points and supporting arguments for his sub-sub-points. When the girls have serious prospects, then I’ll swoop in and impersonate a mother hen. Do not hog that entire orange, Neville.”

He passed over three more sections and gave her a sleepy, rascally look that did nothing to assuage the ache Deirdre felt for the company of her daughters—and her only surviving son.

“So you tell your husband-his-lordship you’ve made other plans and he must endure one house party after another all on his own. You’re a cruel marchioness.”

“I’m a marchioness whose Papa at least made sure she had her own money.” She paused to butter a scone, wondering if Papa would be pleased to see his little marchioness now. She was estranged from her husband and son, missing her daughters, and growing old in the company of mostly male acquaintances whose friendship did not abate a loneliness that became more bitter with each year.

“Are you going to stare that butter into submission or put it on your scone, my dear?”

She slapped a pat of butter onto the scone. “When he’s fed up with offering casual invitations, Hale resorts to seeking my business advice.” She took a bite of scone then passed the rest of it to Neville.

“I ask for your business advice, and then Earnest becomes fascinated with my ingenuity when I quote you.”

“Earnest is fascinated with your ingenuity under most circumstances.” She took a sip of her tea, wondering if she’d sounded like she were whining—and over a man she’d never wanted to more than kiss, for God’s sake.

“My favorite marchioness is out of sorts. Hale must have gone beyond soliciting business advice.”

“I provide him business advice in great detail, in my finest hand, on scented stationery. His next move is usually to demand that I take my place as a proper wife.”

“Doesn’t the man know you better than that?”

“No, Neville, he does not. I’ve borne him five children and been married to him for nearly thirty years, and he does not realize that I take a very dim view of men who comport themselves like domestic field marshals.” A few months shy of thirty years, but who was counting?

“I will endeavor to keep this in mind.” He popped the last section of orange into his mouth, holding her gaze while he chewed, the scamp. “Why did you marry such a blockhead?”

The question was fair, one she’d asked herself many, many times. “He was tall enough.”

Neville’s elegant, manicured hand stopped midreach toward his tea. “My dear, when prone or supine, a man’s height hardly matters.”

“I was seventeen years old, you dratted idiot. I wasn’t thinking about anybody being supine or prone, I was thinking about waltzing with him. Do you know how desperately a girl who is almost six feet tall longs for a partner worthy of her height?”

“I’ve wondered why you tolerate my company. Height would never have occurred to me as the sine qua nonof my many charms.”

“Nor humility. Hale had height and a wonderful smile, and his papa was stupid enough to sign the marriage contracts my papa had drawn up. I was besotted with Hale’s beautiful manners and his beautiful speeches.” Also his beautiful body, but it would be disloyal to Hale to bruit that about. “We had some good years, and whatever else is true, my children are well provided for and welcome in every drawing room.”

Neville took a slow, silent sip of tea.

“Just say it, Neville. I consider you a friend.”

“What comes after the blustering? When dear Hale finally figures out that blustering and lecturing and cozening aren’t going to work, what then?”

“I don’t know.” She buttered another scone and took a bite lest some uncomfortable truth try to find its way onto the breakfast menu. Neville was a friend, but he was a man, too.

In less than two years, Deirdre would turn fifty years old, an age unthinkable to that girl waltzing around all those ballrooms years—decades—ago. As a wife and marchioness, she’d learned that nobody could make her as angry as Hale; nobody could bring out her stubborn streak as effectively.

And when he stopped lecturing and cozening and blustering, there was nobody whose letters she’d miss more.

She rang for her confidential secretary, bid the man copy the missive, then told him to fold it back up and return it to the sender with a fresh seal of the same colored wax as it bore when delivered—just as she’d done with every other epistle from her stubborn, pigheaded, high-handed husband.

* * *

“I was hoping Fiona might be free to join me for a short hack this morning.” Tye sent the child what he intended as an avuncular smile, and she grinned back at him and started fidgeting in her chair.

“May I go with Uncle, please?” She swung a pleading gaze from her aunt to her great-aunt while Tye busied himself with whatever he’d put on his plate.

Anythingwas preferable to meeting Hester Daniels’s eyes after that interlude in the garden last night. Sleep had eluded him for far longer than it should have, and for all the wrong reasons.

“My old bones tell me we’re to have rain later today,” Lady Ariadne said. “A ride this morning might be just the thing. Hester, you’ll accompany them?”

Half a question, half a command, both in the gentle tones of a matriarch whom Tye would have pitted against the late Duke of Wellington—with whom the lady had probably flirted in her younger years.

“You’ll want to change into old clothes, Fee.” Miss Daniels aimed a tolerant smile at her niece, a much-softer smile than Tye had seen on her even a day ago.

“If you’d like to join us, Miss Daniels, we’d be pleased to have your company.” Manners required him to say that. Manners did not require that he watch her mouth when she replied.

“I will let Dolly rest up today and maybe join you tomorrow. Fiona will be on her very best behavior if she has you all to herself.”

Even her voice was different, more musical, less clipped and strained. She looked like she’d slept well, too. For which he tried to resent her—unsuccessfully.

Fiona kicked rhythmically at the rungs of her chair. “Then may I please be excused? I have to change my clothes and ask Deal for some carrots and find my boots.”

“Look under your bed,” Tye suggested, helping himself to the bite of toast left on Fiona’s plate. “When I was a boy, my boots migrated there every time I didn’t want to make time to wash the mud off them.”

Lady Ariadne smiled while Miss Daniels hid behind her teacup.

“You’re excused,” Lady Ariadne said. “You might want to wipe off your boots lest you track mud onto your mama’s spotless carpets.”

The child was off like a shot, leaving a domestic quiet in her wake.

“It’s good of you to take her up,” Miss Daniels said. “She was used to having three uncles to tag after before her mother married, and everybody at Balfour treated her as a sort of mascot. This isn’t a MacGregor property, so her situation has changed some.”

“Rowan enjoys frequent exercise, and so do I. She’ll be no bother.”

This went beyond gentlemanly manners to an outright falsehood, and Miss Daniels let him know it by smiling at him directly.

“Eat your eggs, Spathfoy.” Lady Ariadne picked up a buttered toast point. “You’ll need your sustenance.”

Eggs. Tye glanced at his plate, where several bites of steaming omelet yet remained. He didn’t recall serving himself eggs, but then, neither could he recall three consecutive monarchs of the English royal succession when Miss Daniels smiled at him like that.

Fortunately, Fiona came pounding back into the breakfast parlor before Lady Ariadne could abandon Tye in Miss Daniels’s exclusive company. He let the child physically tug him from his seat and out to the stables.

“I want to hunt for the fox,” she was saying. “I hear him at night sometimes, and I think, what if he can’t find his family? What if he’s lonely or homesick?”

Or lust crazed.

“What if his mama signed him up for singing lessons?” Tye shot back. “What if he’s practicing his serenades for all the young lady foxes, or what if he’s had one pint too many at the local fox pub and he’s yodeling his way home?”

“Foxes don’t yodel.”

“In Switzerland, everybody yodels. They’re proud of their yodeling and their cheese. He might be a fox of Swiss ancestry.” Tye picked the girl up when they reached the stables and sat her on a pile of clean straw. “You are to sit there and not move until I lead Rowan out to the mounting block, do you understand?”

“Yes, Uncle Tye.”

And there she did sit, but ye gods, it seemed the less she moved physically, the more her mind hopped around and her mouth chattered on. What was his favorite bird? Did he know how to yodel? When was he in Switzerland? Her mama and papa might go to Switzerland, because it was near Italy.

By the time Tye had Fiona up on Rowan before him, he realized why the parents of young children wore a perpetually dazed expression. The adult mind was not meant to keep up with such gymnastics. He stopped trying just as Fiona’s chatter slowed to an intelligible rate.

“I like Rowan, even though he’s not very grown-up.”

“Why do you say that?” The gelding was rising five and muscling up quite nicely.

“He’s working on his manners. Like there, when he scooted at the puddle? He wasn’t sure if he was supposed to say may-I-please or just walk right through it. You’re a good boy, Rowan.” She whacked him soundly on the neck, but the horse—perverse beast—didn’t take umbrage. If Tye had attempted to pet his horse thus, they’d be dancing all the way into Ballater.

“Shall we take a fence, Niece? Rowan particularly enjoys showing off his jumping style.”

“Oh, yes, let’s!”

She had the natural seat of the very young, and Tye himself enjoyed hopping the stone walls with her up before him. When Rowan had taken enough fences to have worked off some of his energy, Tye brought the horse back to the walk.

“Your father was not very keen on jumping, but he was a great whip.”

“My father?”

“Your first father.” He didn’t want to say her realfather. Fiona had never met the fellow responsible for her conception—how real could such a man be to her?

“He didn’t like jumping on horseback?”

“He learned, eventually, but give him the reins of any vehicle, and he was quite at home. He abhorred the trains, said they’d put the horse out of business.”

“What else?”

He was learning to read her little body, to know an eager stillness from a tense one from a relaxed one. She was hungry—nigh starving—for knowledge of her father.

“He liked animals, like you do, and he hated asparagus.”

Ihate asparagus too. Even with butter and leeks, it’s still green and mushy.”

They came to a divergence in the path, and Tye took the left fork, away from Ballater. He’d considered making inquiries at the local livery regarding a pony—making them right before his niece’s dazzled eyes—but realized he had something even more fascinating than a pony to offer her.

“Shall I tell you a story about when your father was a young boy?”

“Oh, yes! Tell me every story you know, even if my papa came a cropper or got a birching. Children sometimes make mistakes, you know.”

“I would never have guessed.”

He gave Rowan a loose rein and cast back beyond the difficult years of adolescence to when he and Gordie had still been friends, confidantes, and conspirators. They’d run away together, tippled Papa’s brandy together—and gotten sick together as a result—and even tried smoking the old man’s cigars when they weren’t much older than Fiona.

He could see her getting into the spirits and trying to light cigars without even a sibling to limit her mischief. And while the house went up in flames, her aunts would scold her gently and blame themselves.

“Your father and I once came across a barn cat whose leg had got stuck in a trap,” he began. “We knew if your grandfather or the stable lads got wind of it, they’d shoot the thing. Gordie was young—probably about your age—and he thought we could take the animal to the local surgeon.”

The surgeon had humored them, and the damned cat had lived for years on three legs, too. Every time they’d come home from school, Gordie had gone looking for it, feeding it cheese and sneaking it up to their rooms.

“But what did you name the cat?” Fiona asked some minutes later. “He must have had a name?”

She asked for a detail, the kind of detail that would mean a great deal to a child. The kind of detail Tye had long since put from his adult mind.

“I didn’t want Gordie to name the cat. I told him when you name things, they mean more.”

“My papa named me.”

“Your father was sent to Canada before you were born. He could not possibly have named you.”

“Yes, he could.” Her certainty held an ominous note of impending upset. “He knew my mama was going to have me, and he said if I was a girl, I should have the name Fiona, because it was the prettiest name for a girl. He said if I was a boy, I should be named Lamartine, because it was the name of one of the finest men he knew. My mama told me this, and my papa said it.”

The horse had come to a halt while a strange sensation shivered over Tye’s skin. “I believe you, Fiona.” It seemed they had stories to tell each other. Tye nudged the horse forward.

“So what did my papa name the cat, Uncle Tye?”

He swallowed past the tightness in his throat. “He named her Fiona. Said it was the prettiest name he’d ever heard. She was his favorite, and came to him when he called her name.”

Never for Tye though. Not even when he brought the little beast cheese and tried for hours to coax her to his hand.

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