1:00 am, Bitterward, seat of the Dukes of Mountjoy, near High Tearing, Sheffieldshire, England, 1816.
Lily Wellstone wasn’t the only one to have been caught in the downpour. She ignored the rain dripping off her bonnet and gazed at the other occupant of the entrance hall.
He was tall with dark hair and an ill-fitting and very wet greatcoat about his broad shoulders. Raindrops darkened his worn boots and glistened in his hair. His eyes were deep-set and private. This was a man who did not share his secrets, a man who could only be unraveled bit-by-tortuous-bit. Not for a moment did she mistake him for a fellow caller, though his clothes were hardly better than something a country squire might wear. This most fascinating man stood at the opposite side of the room from the front door, near the magnificent arched doorway to the second floor. To the right, if she was correct about Bitterward’s architectural integrity, that same archway ended at the butler’s pantry. Two sets of crossed swords hung on the wall on either side of the doorway’s pointed top.
As the shape of the doorway proved, Bitterward was Gothic. Legitimately several centuries old and therefore not a reconstitution of the medieval as was the fashion of the recent past. Such follies as the modern Gothic only demonstrated, in her opinion, a failure of imagination.
Her as yet silent companion could have passed for the ghost of one of Bitterward’s ancient lords. His present-century clothes spoiled the effect, but notwithstanding that anachronism, the ancient spirit gazing out of his eyes sent a shiver of anticipation through her.
Behind her, a servant pushed the heavy wooden door closed with an ominous thunk. The drum of rain diminished. On the table beside the door, a lantern threw her elongated shadow onto the marble floor. The floor was not the original surface, of course, but the marble, laid out in horizontal stripes of Vs that alternated black and white, was worn enough to be quite old.
The gentleman’s wet boot was planted in the shadow of her head. Sensible footwear, those boots. Not even five minutes in the rain, and her slippers were soaked through. The damp from her shoes and the rain dripping off her cloak already penetrated her bones. Neither her shoes nor her coat had proven sufficient protection against this night’s weather.
The footman who’d met her carriage and held the umbrella over her head all the way up the front stairs—or all the good it did what with the wind blowing the rain sideways—disappeared through a side exit, umbrella in hand, leaving but one footman with her and the mysterious stranger.
“Welcome to Bitterward,” the gentleman said. He did not smile that she could see. The gloom of the entryway made it difficult to tell. Smile or no, the sound of his voice was intimate and very much at odds with the roughness of his clothes. That voice was a thing of dreams, entwining with her emotions, already at a high pitch after too many hours traveling and then this downpour that had her chilled to her marrow.
She resisted the urge to take a step back and instead indulged a fancy that she would be unable to move until he removed his boot from her shadow. She removed her bonnet to stop the water from falling into her face and passed the back of a hand over her forehead. Her glove was too damp, as it turned out, to do much besides redistribute the wet. His gaze followed the motion of her hand. In the dimness, she was forced to guess his age. Thirty, she thought. The prime of life for a gentleman, be he real or ghost.
“Thank you, your grace.” She peeled off her gloves. The gentleman did not deny he was entitled to the honorific. She removed her cloak, too, and gave it a shake. Water cascaded onto the floor. Her traveling gown had been spared the worst of the drenching, thank goodness.
The remaining footman stepped forward to take her cloak. She dropped her gloves into the well of her upturned bonnet and handed that over, too. “Thank you.” To the duke, she said, “I hope you have ordered your sister and me better weather tomorrow.”
He didn’t react right away, and she had the impression he was deciding whether she had amused him or convinced him she was a fool. Perhaps a bit of both. Well. She was cold and wet. His boot yet pinned her shadow to the floor, so she remained where she was. Behind him, she caught a glimpse of a stone staircase that quickly narrowed and turned as it spiraled toward the first floor and disappeared into darkness.
Lily pointed to the painting on the wall beside the stairs, a gentleman dressed in the fashion of the Italians from two hundred years ago. “Is that a Gossart?”
“Yes,” he said without a glance at the portrait she meant. “It is.” He cocked his head. “I am informed my great-granduncle brought it here from the Continent.” As everyone knew, the line of descent from the first duke to the fourth was not a straight one. The title had gone into abeyance for a time, and the Crown, she understood, had been poised to take back the lands. Mountjoy had not yet reached his majority when his existence was discovered and his lineage proven. Imagine that. An orphan, living with his younger brother and sister in the home of a maternal uncle. On a farm. On which he himself had labored.
“He had excellent taste.” She declined to mention there was now a Gossart in her own house, but wasn’t that the oddest coincidence?
His mouth quirked on one side. “Thank you, Miss Wellstone.”
The duke might be rough around the edges in respect of his clothes, but there was nothing deficient in his intellect. She curtseyed and caught a glimpse of water stains on her hem.”You’re welcome, your grace.”
“George,” he said to the footman who still held her cloak and bonnet. The silk flowers she had so painstakingly made and affixed to her bonnet might never recover from the damp and, now, from being crushed in the footman’s hands. “Do you know which room my sister meant for Miss Wellstone to have?”
“The Lilac room, your grace.”
“Lilac?” A wry smile appeared on his mouth. “I’d no idea we had a room with a name like that. I don’t know how anyone keeps them straight.”
George bowed. “Your grace.”
“See to it her trunks are taken there forthwith.” He spoke well, with no trace of an accent, a Sheffieldshire one or any other for that matter. “Tell Miss Wellstone’s maid she may have a meal in the kitchen once she’s seen to her mistress’s comfort.”
“Your grace.” The footman bowed and departed to carry out his employer’s instructions, which left Lily wholly alone in the entryway with her friend Ginny’s wholly impressive eldest brother. For a man in such inferior clothes, his manners were faultless, but then he’d been some nine years in possession of the dukedom, and nine years was time enough to acquire some polish. Though, apparently, not quite enough.
“You must be exhausted after traveling for so long.” He moved toward her, treading further on her shadow. Since she was a tall woman, she preferred men who did not make her feel she was a giant. The duke was quite a bit taller than she. Six feet at least. His mouth curved in the most devastating smile. “In such inclement weather as I had ordered up this evening.”
“I forgive you the inconvenience.”
His gaze flicked over her, reminding her, forcefully, that she was female to his male. “Will you?”
“Already done, your grace.” Now that he’d stepped farther into the light cast by the lantern, she adjusted her opinion of his apparent age. He was younger than she’d thought. Not more than twenty-eight or nine and with his looks, a good deal more dangerous to a woman’s virtue, too. “I will correct you in one respect, your grace, and say that I am not the least tired. I never am at this hour.”
Ginny was fair-haired and blue-eyed. She’d expected both her friend’s brothers to have similar coloring. The duke’s hair was dark brown, and his eyes were an extraordinary green with thick sooty lashes she would have killed to have herself. To say that the duke was handsome, however, would do a disservice to men who actually were. Lily stayed where she was, meeting his gaze without blinking or looking away. According to the terms she’d set herself, she could not move while he trod on her shadow. The thought made her smile.
The duke didn’t look away either. Nor did he smile in return. The effect was…bracing.
“I never fall asleep much before four or five in the morning,” she said. “Often as late as six.”
“Is that so?” His voice sent a shiver down her spine. He was doing that on purpose. “I would be happy to show you the library. In the event you would like to take something engaging back to your room.”
She gazed at her slippers, as ruined as the flowers on her bonnet. When she looked up, she saw a condescending smile flitting about his mouth. But she had indeed understood his double entendre. She smiled as if she had not. “Thank you.”
Mountjoy’s eyes widened.
Well then. Excellent. She maintained her most innocent expression though, in fact, she was no longer innocent. A spinster she might be, but she was not decrepit yet, thank you. “I do hope you have something thrilling to show me.”