April 7, 1813, Doyle’s Grange, Somerset. Near the Exmoor Mountains, England
Northword stood to one side of the lawn and twitched with the need to do something, to say something. Anything. Words, any words, would be better than standing here mute. Action would be better than inaction. If he did nothing, the lump currently occupying the region of his heart would turn into dust. Where this woman was concerned, actions or words without reflection would be the metaphorical equivalent of throwing himself off the edge of the world.
He tapped the side of his left with two fingers. Then he cleared his throat. Portia sent a questioning look his way. Words stuck in his throat. He coughed again and managed to say, “A fine day.”
“Mm. A touch cold for me.” She returned her attention to the sapling that was the reason he was standing out here in the first place.
He’d known Portia Tempest since he was a boy of eight and she a girl of six. Twenty-one years. For the first ten years he’d never thought of her as anything but a friend and companion who by a quirk of fate happened to be female. Pity for her when boys were so superior, and how annoying that she’d disagreed. For the second ten years he’d managed to put her neatly into a box in which she was devoid of femininity yet continued to exist as his best friend’s sister. A woman he avoided, but with whom he kept a friendly correspondence. Friendly. Nothing more.
He did his best not to think about time between that bookend of decades. Silence reached out and set fire to his nerves. “It’s spring. One ought not be cold in spring.”
That got him another careless glance, and he was even more convinced that she, unlike him, had found a way to forget.
She stared at the sapling, head tilted. “You’ve been away too long. You’ve forgotten our weather.”
This was his first visit to Doyle’s Grange in ten years and his first time socializing since his wife’s passing nearly two years ago. He ought to have visited sooner. Her brother had asked him several times. Resentment boiled in him. Forgotten? That was unfair. He straightened the lay of his coat and said with sharp intent, “I’ve not forgotten.”
“We’ll disagree on that.” If he’d not been watching her so closely, he might have missed the flicker of pain that crossed her face. But he had been watching, and he did, and it ripped him to shreds. He didn’t know if she disagreed with him about the weather or his having forgotten their past.
She put a hand on one of the slender branches. One would think that in ten years she would have changed significantly. He had. Her brother Magnus had. She wasn’t unchanged, but she was, at the same time, remarkably unaltered. Smiling, too-tall-for-a-woman, auburn-haired, full of life. It was— almost —as if those second ten years had never been.
While he watched her, she lifted the hem of her muslin skirt and tamped down the last shovelful of dirt around the tree she’d just planted. She was wholly unconscious that he watched her with his breath in his throat. Memories escaped like demons from the internal Pandora’s box of his heart. No. He’d not forgotten anything.
Mud coated the bottom and sides of her plain leather half-boots. Spatters of dirt clung to her hem. Her gown was serviceable. Nothing more. She’d not been careful when she pinned her hair this morning, for there were curls, and not the fashionable sort. Hers came loose every which way. In daylight, there was no disguising that her hair was more red than brown, and of all things, that was what doomed him. That dark red hair.
To no avail, he reminded himself she was Magnus’s younger sister. He had years of correspondence from her. Her spirit had sunk into the pages and words she’d written, filling that box that ought never to have been opened. Years of her words had crept into his heart until there seemed no way to separate them, and he’d not even known it was happening until too late.
“What do you think, Crispin?” She wore thick gloves of the sort ladies wore when they gardened, and when she swiped a wisp of hair out of her face the careless motion left dirt on her cheek. The breeze sent the curl free to dangle at the side of her face. An undeniably red wisp of hair. Most women with hair that color insisted it was brown. Hers was a deep, dark, secret red. Soft in a man’s hands, a river of curling, mysterious color that glinted with stands of gold.
He had been careful, over the last ten years, never to make love to a woman with red hair.
“Well? What do you think?”
“About?” His query came late enough that she was already laughing at him.
“You didn’t have to come out here. I told you you’d be bored.” She put her hands on her hips. “What do you think about my tree?”
One afternoon, one unforgettable day, God, they’d been so heartbreakingly young, she’d changed him forever while she went on being Portia. She knew him better than anyone. Still did. For God’s sake, she knew him better than the woman he’d married. She hadn’t blamed him for his choice. Never a reproach for his decisions, never even a hint that she understood he had been avoiding her these last ten years. She knew, of course. She was too intelligent not to know. She’d been his friend even when he hadn’t deserved it. Even when he’d blamed her, though as to that, not without some cause. She wasn’t blameless either.
“Well.” He pretended to study the tree, but he was really looking at her. Her gown was a striped muslin with no bows, no lace, no fancy trim to direct a man’s attention to the curve of a breast or the column of a throat. Yet here he stood remembering his hand sliding down smooth skin, the bang of his heart against his ribs because he had never touched a naked woman before, and, Lord, how sinfully luscious she was. Had been. Still was.
Jesus, he still wanted her. Lust and desire mixed up and confused themselves with more powerful emotions.
“It’s a tree, not a sculpture. There is no meaning to divine other than God was right to make them like this.”
“I like oak trees. They’re a proper English tree.” In London, her serviceable frock would have been thought plain two seasons ago. This season? The fact was, no woman of his set would be caught dead in such a gown. But Portia had never been farther from Doyle’s Grange than the village of Aubry Sock, some twenty miles distant. He was guiltily aware that he’d never invited Magnus and Portia to London before or after he was married. The reasons were legion and not all them were to his credit. He’d wanted to think of her here at Doyle’s Grange. Safe. Unchanging. Here in sight of the Exmoor mountains where she would always love him with a passion that moved better men to poetry.
“I’m glad you like oaks, but this isn’t an oak. It’s a rowan.”
“What?” He could not stop staring. Before long Portia was going to be insulted.
She rubbed at her cheek, frowned and pulled off one of her gloves. “Have I got dirt on my face?”
She handed her spade to Hob, the man who served as Doyle Grange’s general servant; footman, groundsman, groom, butler, and any other work there might be. Hob stood several feet back, idly tapping the side of his boot against the bucket of water at his feet. He’d looked a weathered forty-five or a well-preserved sixty for as long as Northword could remember.
Hob came forward to take the spade from Portia then retreated a respectful distance.
Portia took a few more swipes at her cheek and missed the dirt each time. Northword knew he ought not stand there like the sexually stunned lump that he was. She’d know something was wrong, and he didn’t see how he could possibly tell her that absolutely nothing, and everything, had changed. He wanted nothing more than to take her to bed again, and to do it as a man, not a green boy who didn’t know his way around a woman.
Please let me fuck you until you scream my name. Again.
Thank God Hob was here because the Lord only knew what he might say or do. He had made his peace with Portia in words, if not in his heart, and as he stood here, seeing her for the first time in ten hears, his very soul resonated with all that had never been spoken or put to paper.
“Hold still.” He pulled out his spare handkerchief and walked to her. He could, and would, control his base urges. He put one hand underneath her chin, turned her face to the side, and wiped at the dirt. The smudge proved more stubborn than was safe for him. Her lips were full, that bottom lip so tender. Yet another delicate curve. Once, he would he have stolen a kiss. Taken it. Shared it.
“Hurry. It’s cold.”
They’d kissed for hours, what seemed like hours, before he’d brought himself to touch more than her cheek. It wouldn’t be the same. Couldn’t be. The soul-stealing pleasure of his first time was just that. First. And therefore memorable. He knew about women, now, thank you much. Even during that year between, he’d known how the world worked. So had Portia. They knew what it meant for her to be Portia and him to be the future Northword.
Yet here he stood wishing things had played out differently.
She blinked while he worked at the smudge. Her lashes weren’t long, but they were thick and not red or brown but black. He remembered the way her eyes had fluttered closed when he had somehow managed to bring her pleasure during their mutual discovery and clumsiness. Too quick the first time. But slow and tender the next. Oh, the enthusiasm and quick recovery of youth during those weeks he thought, stupidly, they would continue to escape consequences. All that against the deep, wide landscape of loving her.
“What do you think, Hob?” She was oblivious to Northword’s stare and his memories.
“Well and good, Miss Tempest.” The man’s Exmoor accent was as thick as ever, but, for all that Northword hadn’t been anywhere near Exmoor for ten years, he’d not unlearned how to listen to that accent and make sense of it. “Well and good.”
The smudge yielded to him. He held her chin a moment longer than he ought to have. “There you go. As tidy as I can make you.”
“Thank you.” She pulled off her other glove and shoved it in her pocket with the other one where it made an even bigger lump to spoil the line of her gown. They did not have between them the safety imposed by the formality of titles. She’d always been Portia to him, never Miss Tempest. He’d always been Crispin to her. It was only the direction of her letters that styled him according to his title though in her writings to him, she’d often jokingly called him Word. Even Magnus called him Word from time to time.
There were nights when he lay awake remembering the sound of his name on her lips as she came to pleasure. His body came alive at those moments. Crispin.
“Will the lavender be all right there?” She pointed at the plants in question. Again, she was talking to Hob. “Or do you think it will be in too much shade? Too late now, of course.”
“It’ll be years before the tree’s big enough for that.” The servant leaned an arm on the shovel. “Thee and me will be long gone by then.”
“I suppose so.” She was engrossed in her thoughts. “I don’t like to imagine that.” With the toe of her boot, she knocked away a clod of dirt. A smile flashed on her face, and Northword thought of the kind of sex that made lovers laugh. “Perhaps one day relations of mine will stand by this tree.” She used both arms to describe a tree of immense size.
While she did that, Northword’s eye was drawn, inexorably, to her bosom, and he felt an absolute dog for it. She remained lush in her curves, more than a good many woman, less than others.
She lowered her arms. “They’ll curse whoever planted the tree so close to the lavender.”
He had the awful conviction that Hob was aware of his inappropriate thoughts about Portia, and that the servant did not approve. As he ought not. Nothing good could come of his inability to keep those memories at bay. Nothing. “Surely,” he said from the safety of his London drawl, “they’ll wonder what bumblehead planted the lavender so close to the tree.”
Portia laughed, and his heart eased.
She wasn’t one of those delicate women who meant for their sighs and glances to be interpreted. God help the man who guessed wrong with a woman like that. When Portia was amused, she laughed. When she was angry, she told you so. No guessing. He rarely guessed correctly with that sort of woman. Not even with his wife. God, no.
Just once, when he and his wife lay beside each other, her hand on his chest in a moment of perilous intimacy, she’d asked him whether he had ever loved someone else. His denial hadn’t come quickly enough. She never asked again.
“I hope you’re right.” She tapped the ground again with her boot. The view of her ankle damn near brought him low. Was he not a better man than this? Well. No. He wasn’t. She crossed her arms underneath her bosom, and the flesh above her neckline shifted in the most beguiling manner. “Done, then, Hob? Well planted?”
“Aye.” Hob came forward with his bucket and, after a glance at him— was that suspicion in the man’s eyes? —slowly poured the contents around the base of the rowan tree destined to be gigantic in a future that would not include him.
“I should like to know what this tree will look like in a hundred years.” She eyed the tree, but shot him a sideways look, a smile on her lips. “Don’t you, Crispin?”
He shoved his hands in his pockets. “Strong and tall, I should think.”
“Yes. Yes, my rowan tree will be strong and tall.”
Quite deliberately, he closed his eyes and imagined a hundred-year-old tree, thick trunk, branches spreading over the house and shading this corner of the garden. In a hundred years, the world would be a vastly different place, and yet, there would be this tree, which Portia, the sublimely sexual creature inhabiting his senses, had planted with her own hands in honor of her upcoming marriage. She wanted, she’d told him, to know she’d left something of herself behind at Doyle’s Grange. As if she could help doing that.
When he opened his eyes, the first thing he saw was not Portia, but an auburn-haired woman with a delicious mouth and a ripe figure. Not a girl of sixteen not quite grown into her body. A woman with a lover’s mouth and hands. He blinked and forced himself to see her as Portia, his epistolary friend. Sister of his friend and a woman who he’d allowed no claim to a difference in gender.
In the main, he failed.
Hob backed away from the rowan tree and sent a dark look in his direction. “Don’t worry, Miss, if the sapling looks ill for a bit. Root shock, you know.” He nodded sagely but, to Northword’s eye, still a look tainted with suspicion. Hob knew men weren’t to be trusted. “Give her time. Don’t over water.”
“I shan’t, then.”
“I’ll watch over the tree, Miss. Even after thee’s away and married.”
“I know you will.” She focused on Hob. “Thank you. That would be a great comfort.”
“Ah,” said another woman. They all turned, him, Portia, and Hob, and saw Mrs. Magnus Tempest walking toward them.
Portia’s brother Magnus had married eight months ago to the cousin of a friend of Northword’s. Magnus, it turned out, had met her some years ago during one of his visits to London. The living at West Aubry had been Northword’s to give, which he had done the moment the previous possessor passed away. The moment Magnus had the keys to the West Aubry vicarage, he’d traveled all the way to London to propose and then marry her. Think of that. Waiting years to marry the woman you loved. Until the time was right and not a moment past then. He approved of Magnus’s choice. She was a pretty woman with a faultless sense of propriety. What man didn’t appreciate a pretty woman?
Northword had stood up for Magnus at the wedding, which took place by special license at Northword House in London. He’d offered them the chapel here, not even half a mile up the slope at Northword Hill and been refused. They would be married now, please, not in the weeks it would take to open up the house. And so it was done. Had been done, without Portia knowing about the marriage until Magnus had written to her. The couple had honeymooned in Bath, where Northword had a house he’d offered to them for a month.
“There you are, Portia.” Mrs. Tempest arrived at the site of the tree planting and pursed her lips. She pointed at the ground. “What are those?”
“It’s spring,” Portia said. “Crocuses grow here every spring. You cannot hope to obliterate them all.”
“I can and I shall do so.” Mrs. Tempest gestured at Hob and stepped around the patch of ground where the flowers were opening to the sun. “Dig them up, please.” She curtseyed to him and went so far as to bow her head. Her pretty blonde head. “Lord Northword.”
He bowed. “Mrs. Tempest. Good morning to you.”
The woman had the most angelic smile he’d ever seen. “Portia, my dear. Might I have a word?”