Page 24

“I should put myself to rights,” Sara said, knowing her clothes were travel-rumpled and her hair disheveled, but Lily was already dragging her into the entrance hall. Burton gave Sara a surreptitious wink and turned to welcome another arriving carriage.

“We’re all quite informal today,” Lily said. “New guests will appear every hour. There are no activities planned until the dance tonight. Entertain yourself in any manner you choose. The horses and carriages, the books in the library, the music room, and anything else you fancy are all at your disposal. Ring for whatever you want.”

“Thank you.” Sara gazed in admiration at the domed white marble entrance hall. A grand staircase with the most elaborate gilded balustrade she had ever seen split into two majestic curving arches that led to the mansion’s upper floors.

Lily whisked her through the great hall, a cavernous room with a barrel-vaulted ceiling, ornate plasterwork, and the solemn atmosphere of a cathedral. “The men will go on a shooting excursion in the morning and play billiards in the afternoon. The women sip tea, gossip, and nap. We all gather to play charades and cards every evening. It’s positively stultifying. You’ll be bored to tears, I assure you.”

“No, not at all.” Sara strove to match Lily’s brisk pace as they progressed through a long gallery in the back of the mansion, lined with mirrors and paintings on one side and French doors on the other. Through the glass-paned doors she could see the borders of a large formal garden.

As Lily led Sara past rooms designed for small gatherings, groups of men and women glanced at them curiously. The music room was filled with a duster of giggling, chattering girls. Lily waved to them cheerfully without breaking pace. “Some of the county families will be presenting their daughters at the ball for their first Season,” she told Sara. “It will be less of a trial for them here than in some stuffy London drawing room. I’ll show you the ballroom presently, but first…”

They paused at the doorway of the billiards room, an exclusively masculine alcove adorned with burgundy damask, leather, and dark wood panelling. Gentlemen of assorted ages lounged around the carved mahogany billiards table. Smoke from their cigars circled the shaded lamps overhead.

“Gentlemen,” Lily informed the room at large, “I came to tell you I must abandon the game to show my new guest ’round the house. Lansdale, perhaps you would take my place at the table?”

“He will, but not half so attractively,” someone remarked. There were assorted chuckles around the room.

Lansdale, a middle-aged man of unusually short stature but possessing a handsome aquiline face, regarded Sara with bold interest. “Perhaps, Lady Raiford, you would keep to the billiards game and allow me to show your guest around.”

Sara blushed at the suggestion, while several of the men laughed.

Rolling her eyes, Lily addressed a remark to Sara. “Watch out for that one, my lamb. In fact, don’t trust a single one of these men. I know them all, and I can vouch for the fact that underneath those attractive exteriors is a pack of wolves.”

Sara could see how Lily’s remark pleased the men, who clearly liked to think of themselves as predators, paunches and receding hairlines notwithstanding. “At least allow us a brief introduction,” Lansdale suggested, coming forward. “Your Miss Fielding is quite the loveliest creature I’ve seen all day.” Taking Sara’s hand, he bowed and imprinted a deferential kiss on the back.

Lily obliged readily. “My lords Lansdale, Over-stone, Aveland, Stokehurst, Bolton, and Ancaster, I should like to present Miss Sara Fielding—a talented author and a charming new acquaintance of mine.”

Sara mustered a shy smile and a curtsey as they bowed to her individually. She remembered having secretly observed some of them at the gambling club. And if she wasn’t mistaken, she had met the duke of Ancaster during her masquerade as Mathilda. In spite of his noble heritage and dignified bearing, he had behaved quite badly at the assembly, fawning drunkenly over her and then chasing after one of the house wenches. Her lips twitched at the corners, but her amusement was wiped away by Lily’s next casual words. “Oh, and that surly-looking one pouring a brandy is my beloved husband, Lord Raiford. Next to him is Mr. Craven, who as you can see has a fondness for lurking in dark corners.”

Sara barely noticed Lily’s large blond spouse. Her round blue eyes flew to the lean, sinister form that detached from the shadows. He bowed as the others had, the movement impeccably graceful for such a large man. There was no sign of recognition on his face.

The air of toughness and vital masculinity was the same as she remembered. His skin looked as swarthy as a pirate’s against the snowy linen of his cravat. The scar on his face had faded, so that his intense green eyes dominated every other feature. Closed in a small room with these gently-born men, he seemed like a panther keeping company with house cats. Sara couldn’t have said a word to save her life. Her mouth felt as if it were filled with dust.

The other occupants of the room couldn’t help but notice the sudden electric silence. A few glances were exchanged, and brows were raised an expressive quarter-inch or so. Sara’s raw nerves jangled in warning as Lord Raiford approached her. Slowly she raised her eyes to stare at Lily’s imposing husband, whose broad shoulders blocked them from the gentlemen’s view.

Lord Raiford’s hawklike features were softened by a pair of warm gray eyes and a crop of golden hair the color of ripe wheat. He smiled and took her hand, pressing it between his huge palms in an unexpected breech of formality. “We’re fortunate to have our home graced by your gentle presence, Miss Fielding.” He slanted an ironic glance at Lily. “I suspect my wife hasn’t yet allowed you a few minutes to restore yourself after your journey.”

“I was just showing Sara to her room,” Lily protested, lowering her voice as the men returned to their game. “But I had to stop here first. I couldn’t abandon the lot of you without a word, could I?”

Letting go of Sara, Alex gathered his petite wife close and ducked her underneath the chin. “I know exactly what you’re up to,” he warned softly, in a tone the others couldn’t hear. “My beautiful, meddlesome little bully—for once couldn’t you allow others to manage their own affairs?”

Lily grinned at him cheekily. “Not when I can manage them so much better.”

Alex traced his thumb lightly over Lily’s jaw. “An opinion Craven doesn’t share, my sweet.”

Lily leaned closer to him and replied in a barely audible murmur. Sara averted her gaze as the two drew aside and engaged in a whispered exchange. She didn’t want to eavesdrop on a private conversation. Nevertheless, she caught a few revealing snatches as they talked at the same time.

“—Derek doesn’t know what’s good for him,” Lily was saying.

“—concern should be what’s good for Miss Fielding—”

“But you don’t understand how—”

“—understand all too well,” Alex finished, and they stared into each other’s eyes challengingly.

Sara felt her color rising. There was a palpable attraction between the two that made her feel like an intruder on an intimate scene.

It was clear that Lord Raiford would have liked to say more to Lily, but he let go of her reluctantly and gave her an admonishing glance. “Behave yourself” was the silent but unmistakable message. Lily made a face and looked around him to wave at Lansdale and Aveland. “Enjoy the game, gentlemen,” she called. They responded with agreeable murmurs. Derek Craven was silent, coldly ignoring the womens’ departure.

Dejectedly Sara followed Lily through the carpeted hallway. Craven’s icy manner had been a rude surprise. She scolded herself silently for thinking that he might actually be glad to see her. Instead it seemed likely that he would ignore her for the entire weekend.

They approached a row of guest suites in the west wing, each with its own dressing and sitting room. Sara’s room was decorated in pastel shades of lavender and yellow. The elaborate garden below was visible from a pair of windows hung with divided curtains. Wandering to the tent bed with fluted columns, Sara touched a fold of the bedhangings. They were embroidered to match the delicate floral pattern of the wallpaper.

Lily opened an armoire to reveal Sara’s clothes. In a remarkably short time, the housemaids had unpacked her meager belongings with faultless efficiency. “I hope this room pleases you,” she said, frowning slightly as she saw Sara’s expression. “If you’d prefer another—”

“It’s lovely,” Sara assured her, and made a wry face. “It’s just that…perhaps I should leave. I don’t wish to cause trouble. Mr. Craven is annoyed by my presence here. And he is angry with you for inviting me. The way he looked at you…”

“He’d like to strangle me,” Lily admitted cheerfully. “Slowly. But the way he looked at you…Good God, it was priceless!” She gave a peal of laughter. “How does it feel to have the most unattainable man in England at your feet?”

Sara’s eyes widened. “Oh, he’s not—”

“At your feet,” Lily repeated. “Believe me, Derek has had this coming for years! When I think of all the times he’s infuriated me by acting superior and coldhearted, so utterly in control of himself and everything around him…” She shook her head, chuckling. “Don’t misunderstand me. I adore the big, hardheaded cockney. But it will be the best thing in the world for him if he’s taken down a peg.”

“If anyone’s going to be taken down a peg, it’s I,” Sara said under her breath. Lily didn’t appear to have heard.

After Lily left to attend to her guests, Sara rang for a maid to help with her toilette. A French maid a few years older than herself appeared. The woman was blond and small, with round pink cheeks and a droll smile. “Je m’appelle Françoise,” the maid informed her, setting a pair of curling tongs near the coals beyond the fireplace grate. Busily Françoise bustled about the room, selecting a fresh gown from the armoire and holding it up for Sara’s approval.

“Yes, that one will be fine,” Sara said, removing her jacket and bonnet and unbuttoning the front of her wrinkled traveling gown. She sat at the small satinwood dressing table and pulled the pins from her disheveled hair.

The russet and golden-brown locks fell down her back. There was a pleased exclamation behind her. “Comme vos cheveux sont beaux, mademoiselle!” Reverently Françoise brushed out the heavy length of hair until it was a smooth, shining curtain.

“Do you speak any English, Françoise?” Sara asked the maid doubtfully. Françoise met her eyes in the mirror and shook her head with a smile. “I wish you did. Frenchwomen are supposed to know all about matters of the heart. I need some advice.”

Hearing the disconsolate note in her voice, Françoise said something that sounded sympathetic and encouraging.

“I shouldn’t have come here,” Sara continued. “By leaving Perry I’ve thrown away what I thought I always wanted. I hardly recognize myself, Françoise! The feelings I have for another man are so compelling…I’m afraid that I might take whatever I can have of him, no matter how fleeting the moment is. If I heard some other woman confessing to such thoughts, I would condemn her as a fool and worse. I’ve always considered myself a sensible person, guided more by reason than by passion. I can’t explain what’s come over me. All I know is that from the moment I met him—” She broke off, unable to finish the sentence. Sighing, she rubbed her aching forehead. “I don’t think time will help. It hasn’t so far.”

There was a long silence as the maid brushed her hair in soothing strokes. Françoise wore a thoughtful expression, as if she were contemplating the situation. It didn’t matter that they spoke different languages—any woman who had ever suffered heartbreak could recognize it easily. Finally the maid paused in her brushing and gestured toward Sara’s heart. “Faire ce que le coeur vous dit, mademoiselle.”

“Follow my heart?” Sara asked in bewilderment. “Is that what you’re saying?”

“Oui, mademoiselle.” Placidly the girl reached for a narrow blue silk ribbon and began to weave it through the loose locks of hair.

“That could be very dangerous,” Sara whispered.

Several minutes later Sara finished buttoning the high collar of her gray gown and checked her appearance in the mirror. She was pleased by the results of the maid’s efforts. Her hair had been neatly confined on top of her head in a heavy plait, while a few wisps at her temples had been curled into ringlets. Thanking Françoise, Sara left the room and wandered toward the grand staircase. Nervously she considered joining one of the ladies’ gatherings downstairs for some tea and conversation. She hoped the women would be friendly, or at least tolerant of her presence.

Pausing in the hallway to stare at a marble sculpture poised in a semi-circular niche, Sara tried to bolster her courage. She was in awe of the guests downstairs, and half-afraid of them. Lily had said the gathering included ambassadors, politicians, artists, and even a visiting colonial governor and his family. Sara was well-aware that she had nothing in common with them. No doubt they would consider her gauche and unsophisticated. Perhaps this was how Derek Craven felt, hobnobbing with aristocrats who were disdainfully aware of his origins. Poor Mr. Craven, she thought sympathetically. Suddenly she was aware of an icy tingling on her neck, and every hair on her body stood erect. She turned around slowly.

Derek was standing behind her, looking far from deserving of anyone’s sympathy. He stared at her like a jaded sultan surveying his latest female acquisition. His dark handsomeness was matched only by his extraordinary self-possession. “Where is your fiancé?” he asked in a distinctly unfriendly tone.

Sara was unnerved by his threatening stillness. “I don’t have a…That is, h-he…We’re not going to marry.”

“He didn’t propose?”

“No…well, yes, but…” Sara stepped back instinctively. Derek moved to close the distance between them. As they talked, she continued to edge away, and he followed like a stalking cat. “Mr. Kingswood proposed a few nights after my return,” Sara said breathlessly. “I accepted. I was very happy at first…well, not precisely happy, but—”

“What happened?”

“There were problems. He said I had changed. I suppose he was right, although—”

***

***P/S: Copyright -->Novel12__Com

***