Longing for diversion while visiting his brother, the Viscount Rawleigh propositions young widow Catherine Winters, and the shocked lady finds her virtues challenged by her budding feelings for the rakish lord.
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Mary Balogh has won seven Waldenbook Awards and a B. Dalton Award for her bestselling romances, as well as a Romantic Times Lifetime Achievement Award. She is one of the romance genre's most popular and bestselling authors.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Also by Mary Balogh
Letter to the Reader
Excerpt from UNFORGIVEN
Excerpt from IRRESISTIBLE
About the Author
ONE sure sign of the coming of spring was the return of the Honorable Mr. Claude Adams and his wife to Bodley House, their country home in Derbyshire.
There were other signs, of course. There were snowdrops and primroses and even a few crocuses in the woods and along the hedgerows beside the road, and there were a few shoots of green in otherwise bare gardens. There was a suggestion of green about the branches of trees, though one had to look closely to observe the delicate buds. The air was warmer than it had been and the sun seemed a little brighter. The roads and laneways had dried after the last heavy cover of snow.
Yes, spring was coming. But the surest sign of all, and the one most welcome to many of the inhabitants of the small village of Bodley-on-the-Water, was that the family was returning to the house. Almost invariably they left soon after Christmas, sometimes before, and spent the winter months visiting various friends.
Their absence was a trial to many of the villagers, for whom winter would have been dreary enough anyway. But for those two months they were forced to live without a sight of Mrs. Adams driving through the village, often nodding regally through the window at a fortunate passerby, or of the same Mrs. Adams, a vision of fashionable elegance, entering church and sweeping down the aisle, looking neither to left nor to right, to sit in the padded front pew. The poor and sick and elderly had to live without her personal conveyance of their food baskets—though a footman always carried them from the carriage to the house—and her gracious condescension in inquiring after their health. Those of some social stature had to live without the occasional flattering visit, during which Mrs. Adams would sit inside her carriage, the window down, while the favored recipient of her attention was summoned from the house by a liveried footman in order to stand on the path curtsying or bowing to her and asking how Master William and Miss Juliana did.
Even the children were rarely seen during the winter months, though they were not often taken visiting with their mama and papa. Their nurse was firmly of the belief that winter air was bad for children.
This year Mr. and Mrs. Adams had stayed for the past month at Stratton Park in Kent with no less a personage than Viscount Rawleigh. He was Mr. Adams’s elder brother, as everyone knew. The fact was equally well-known that his lordship was Mr. Adams’s senior by twenty minutes, a singular stroke of good fortune for him since he was now in possession of the title while the younger twin was not. They might have had a viscount and viscountess living at Bodley, some of them often said wistfully during sessions of gossip, if the situation had been reversed. But then perhaps the maternal grandmother would have left the property to the other brother and they would still have had a mere mister living there.
Not that they minded the fact that the family had no title. They had all the other trappings of gentility, and any stranger was soon apprised of the fact that the owner of Bodley was an Honorable and the brother of Viscount Rawleigh of Stratton.
The Honorable Mr. Adams and his wife were returning home within the week. One of the footmen at Bodley brought word to the village inn, where he drank his ale nightly, and from the inn the word was spread through the village. They were bringing houseguests with them, the head groom told the blacksmith, and speculation became rife.
Was Viscount Rawleigh to be one of the guests?
Viscount Rawleigh was to be one of the houseguests. Mrs. Croft, the housekeeper at Bodley, brought the news to Mrs. Lovering, the rector’s wife. And there were to be several other ladies and gentlemen too as guests. She really had no idea if there were any other titles among them. She would not have known about his lordship except that Mrs. Adams’s letter had referred to her brother-in-law, and Mr. Adams had no other brother except the viscount, did he? But one could be certain that any company that included Viscount Rawleigh must be distinguished company.
It was almost worth having been without the family for two dreary months, it was generally agreed. Two years had passed since Mr. and Mrs. Adams had brought home guests with them and it was many years since Viscount Rawleigh had visited his brother in the country.
Anticipation ran high in the village. No one knew the exact hour or day of the arrival, but everyone was on the alert. There was bound to be more than one carriage for the family and visitors and a whole fleet of carriages to bring their belongings and their servants. It was a sight not to be missed. Fortunately there was no way for them to come from Kent except through the village. One just had to hope that they would not arrive after dark. But surely they would not when there were lady travelers and one never knew when highwaymen would be lurking on darkened roads.
Spring was coming at last and with it new life and vigor and splendor—splendor in the woods and hedgerows and splendor of another, even more exciting kind at Bodley.
· · ·
DESPITE herself, Mrs. Catherine Winters, widow, found that she glanced far more often than she normally did through the front windows of her little thatched cottage at the southern end of the village street, and that she listened with heightened senses for the sound of approaching carriages. She loved her back garden more than the front because of the fruit trees with their branches hanging over the lawn and the shade they offered in the summer and because the river flowed and gurgled over mossy stones at the end of the garden. But she found herself more often than not in the front garden these days, watching the crocuses come into bud and a few brave shoots of the daffodil bulbs push through the soil. Though she would have scurried indoors fast enough if she really had heard carriages coming. She did so one morning only to find that it was the Reverend Ebenezer Lovering returning in his one-horse cart from a visit to a nearby farm.
She had mixed feelings about the return of the family to Bodley. The children would be happy. They had been longing for weeks for the return of their mama. She would come laden with gifts when she did come, of course, and spoil them for weeks, so that their classes would be disrupted. But then, children needed their mother more than they did lessons of any description. Catherine gave them music lessons at the house twice a week, though neither child had a great deal of aptitude on the pianoforte. Of course, they were young. Juliana was only eight years old, William seven.
Life was marginally more interesting when Mr. Adams and his wife were at home. Occasionally Catherine was invited to the house for dinner or for a card party. She was aware of the fact that it happened only when Mrs. Adams needed to even numbers and was one female short. And she was very aware of the condescension with which she was treated on such occasions. Even so, there was something treacherously pleasant about the opportunity to dress her best—though her self-made clothes must be woefully unfashionable by town standards, she was sure—and to be in company with people who had some conversation.
And Mr. Adams himself was always amiable and courteous. He was an extremely handsome gentleman and had passed on his looks to his children, though Mrs. Adams was rather lovely too. But Catherine had learned to avoid his company at the house. Mrs. Adams’s tongue could become decidedly barbed if the two of them fell into conversation together. Foolish woman—as if Catherine’s behavior had ever indicated that she was interested in dalliance of any kind.
She was not. She was finished with men. And with love. And with flirtation. They had brought her to where she was now. Not that she was complaining. She had a pleasant enough home in a pleasant enough village and she had learned how to occupy her time usefully so that the days were not unbearably tedious.
She was glad that the family was returning—partly glad. But they were bringing houseguests with them—plural. Viscount Rawleigh she did not know. She had never met him and never heard of him before she came to live at Bodley-on-the-Water. But there were to be other guests, doubtless people of ton. And there was the chance that she might know one or more of them—or, more to the point, that at least one of them would know her.
It was a remote chance, but it filled her with unease.
She did not want the peace of her life disturbed. It had been too hard won.
They came in the middle of one brisk but sunny afternoon when she was standing at the end of her front path, bidding farewell to Miss Agatha Downes, spinster daughter of a former rector, who had called on her and taken tea with her. It was quite impossible to scurry back inside so that she might cower behind the parlor curtain and observe while remaining unobserved. All she could do was stand there, without even a bonnet to shield her face, and wait to be recognized. She envied Toby, her terrier, who was safe inside the house, barking noisily.
There were three carriages, if one discounted the baggage coaches, which were some distance behind. It was impossible to see who rode in them, though Mrs. Adams leaned forward in her seat in the first of them in order to raise one hand and incline her head to them. Rather like a queen acknowledging her peasant subjects, Catherine thought with the humor that carried her through all her encounters with Mrs. Adams. She nodded her head in reply to the greeting.
There were three gentlemen on horseback. A quick glance assured Catherine that two of them were strangers. And the third was no threat either. She had smiled at Mr. Adams and curtsied to him—something she always avoided doing whenever she could with his wife—before something in his bearing and in the cool, unsmiling, arrogant way he looked back at her alerted her to the fact that he was not Mr. Adams at all.
Of course, Mr. Adams had a twin—Viscount Rawleigh. How humiliating! She could feel the color rising hotly to her cheeks and hoped that he had ridden on far enough not to have noticed. She also hoped it would seem that her curtsy had been in general acknowledgment of the whole group.
“My dear Mrs. Winters,” Miss Downes was saying, “how gratifying it is that we happened to be outside and so close to the road when Mr. Adams and his dear wife and their distinguished guests returned home. It was most agreeable of Mrs. Adams to nod to us, I am sure. She might have stayed back in the shadows, as I am certain she was inclined to do after the tedium of a long journey.”
“Yes,” Catherine agreed, “traveling is indeed a tiresome business, Miss Downes. I am sure they will all be thankful to be at Bodley House in time for tea.”
Miss Downes stepped out through the gateway and turned in the direction of home, eager to share what she had just seen with her aged invalid mother. Catherine looked after her down the street and saw in some amusement that everyone seemed to be out of doors. It was as if a great procession had just gone past and everyone was still basking in the glory of having seen it.
She was still feeling mortified. Perhaps Viscount Rawleigh would have realized the mistake she had made in singling him out for her curtsy—and her smile. Perhaps, she thought hopefully, other people in the village had done the same thing. Perhaps some of them did not realize even yet the mistake they had made.
His looks were almost identical to Mr. Adams’s, she thought. But if first impressions were anything to judge by—and she judged by them even though she realized that she was perhaps being unfair—he was quite different in character. This man was haughty and lacking in humor. There had been a coldness in his dark eyes. Perhaps it was a difference that twenty fateful minutes had wrought. Lord Rawleigh had all the consequence of a title and a large fortune and a rich and vast property to live up to.
She hoped she would not have the embarrassment of meeting him again. She hoped that his stay at Bodley would be of short duration, though it was altogether probable that he had not even noticed her more particularly than anyone else in his regal progress along the street.
· · ·
“WELL,” Eden Wendell, Baron Pelham, said as they progressed along the single street of Bodley-on-the-Water, feeling rather as if they were part of a circus parade, “at least we were wrong about one thing.”
His two friends did not ask him what that one thing was since they had talked specifically about it before deciding to rusticate for a while in Derbyshire and during their journey there.
“But only one among the three of us,” Mr. Nathaniel Gascoigne said with mock gloom, “unless there are a few dozen others hiding behind the curtains of these cottage windows.”
“Ever the dreamer, Nat,” Rex Adams, Viscount Rawleigh, said. “At a guess I would say that every villager and his dog is out on the street to gawk at us going by. And by my observations there has been only one looker among them.”
Lord Pelham sighed. “And she had eyes for no one but you, Rex, damn your eyes,” he said. “My blue eyes have been called irresistible by more than one lady of my acquaintance, but the village looker did not even glance into them. All she saw was you.”
“It might have been as well if one lady had not found your eyes so irresistible, Eden,” Lord Rawleigh said dryly. “If I had been in town, perhaps she would have looked into mine instead and you would not have been forced to rusticate for a few months, including the whole of the Season.”
Lord Pelham winced while Mr. Gascoigne threw back his head and laughed. “A hit, Ede,” he said. “Come, you must admit it.”
“She was new to town,” Lord Pelham said, scowling, “and had a body to die for. How was I to know that she was married? You two may find the idea of being discovered in bed by a husband and in the act, so to speak, to be uproariously hilarious, but I did not and do not.”
“In truth,” Mr. Gascoigne said, one hand to his heart, “I feel for you, Ede. The timing was wretched. He might at least have had the decency to wait in the shadows until you were properly—or improperly—finished.” He threw back his head and laughed again. Fortunately they were beyond the confines of the village street and in progress up the oak-lined driveway that led to Bodley House.
“Well,” his friend said after pursing his lips and deciding against taking up the gauntlet—after all, he had been putting up w...
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Descrizione libro Jove, 1997. Mass Market Paperback. Condizione libro: New. Codice libro della libreria DADAX0515120014
Descrizione libro Jove, 1997. Mass Market Paperback. Condizione libro: New. Codice libro della libreria P110515120014
Descrizione libro Jove, 1997. Mass Market Paperback. Condizione libro: New. book. Codice libro della libreria 515120014