“Damn James! He has stayed away for five years, why did he have to hurry back now and ruin everything?”
Nell Ashley winced at her companion’s words, but after one look at him she decided that it would be neither sensible nor kind to protest. The Honorable Darcy Mayland’s blue eyes sparkled with anger, and a scowl had replaced his usual smile.
“Perhaps he has remembered his obligations here,” she said, trying to speak mildly although she did not believe her own words.
“You mustn’t cherish false hopes,” he said, brushing a curling lock of golden hair from his forehead. “My dear brother thought little enough of such things all the while he was having all sorts of great adventures in the Peninsula. If he did, he would have returned two years ago.”
He paused. Nell kept a sympathetic silence as they walked through the rose-garden, even as she tried to hide her dismay at the unhappy turn their conversation had taken. She had expected something quite different when his stepmother, Lady Langdon, had relaxed her chaperonage so far as to suggest that she and Darcy go for a stroll alone through the grounds at Charlwood, the ancestral home of Darcy and his older brother, the Fifth Earl of Langdon.
Her pulse had been jumping ever since he had taken her arm in his and they had stepped out onto the terrace. But then she had foolishly made some random remark about Lord Langdon’s homecoming and triggered Darcy’s outburst. Now she had to calm herself, for he was clearly in need of an understanding confidante, a role she was well used to playing.
“No, more likely he just thinks there’s no glory in staying in the military during peacetime,” he continued. “He can't ride roughshod over any more Frenchmen, so he must content himself with his own family.” He laughed, but the sound was harsh and discordant in the quiet garden.
“I know how much you wished to follow your brother into the army. Believe me, I at least know it was no lack of courage that kept you from doing so.”
“No, it was my purse-pinching brother who wouldn’t purchase me a commission when it was of all things what I most wanted. But it is ever so - he cares for no one but himself!”
“I am sorry. You have not spoken to him about the cottages, then?”
“No, I did not.”
She felt his arm tense under hers. She bit her lip, wishing she had never brought up the subject of the earl and his iniquities.
“Please forgive me. I did not mean to press you. No doubt you and your brother had many other things to speak of last night.”
“Forgive me instead,” he said, giving her arm a little squeeze. “You do not deserve to bear the brunt of my bad temper. It’s just that all James did last evening was lecture Lady Langdon and myself about our extravagance and wastefulness.”
“How could he behave so unfeelingly on the very eve of his return?” she asked. But she didn’t expect an answer. Anything was possible from one who had shown such callous disregard for the well-being of his family and dependents.
Nell could only guess at Darcy’s feelings on being reunited with Lord Langdon. It had been a mere few weeks since they had received word of victory at the Battle of Toulouse, and of Napoleon’s abdication. She remembered how relieved Darcy had looked upon seeing that the earl’s name was not among those who had fallen in the last battle. It was then that she had known for certain that beneath his resentment, Darcy still cared for his brother. Her heart ached for him. She had always longed for a younger brother or sister of her own. She would never have treated them as Lord Langdon had treated Darcy.
“I suppose it was hardly the moment to apply to your brother to spend more money on the estate,” she continued, regretfully. “But I do hope you will still try to speak to him. The hovels some of your laborers are living in are not fit for pigs! And many of the pensioners are suffering needlessly from illnesses that could be prevented, or at least eased, by a few simple comforts. And there really ought to be a village school to—”
She stopped, fearing she had said too much. “I am sorry. You must be tired of hearing me on this subject by now.” She was torn between hope that Darcy shared her concern and fear that he, like most of the local gentry, would laugh at her for her obsession with the poor of the parish. But in the past month, since he had returned to Charlwood and they had become reacquainted, he had shown nothing but sympathy for her concerns, and a ready kindness toward his family’s dependents. Nor did he disappoint her now.
“I could never tire of listening to you. And you are right about the estate. I will talk to James, but I warn you, it may not do any good.”
“I will always admire you for having tried, and for wishing to do what is right,” she said and promptly blushed. He must think she sounded hopelessly moralistic.
But then he rewarded her with one of his dazzling smiles. It was as if Michelangelo’s David had come to life and beamed down at her.
“To have your good opinion means a great deal to me, dearest Helen. You do not mind if I dispense with ‘Miss Ashley’, do you?”
“No, not at all. But please, call me Nell.” Although they had played together as children in a dimly remembered past, she wouldn’t have expected Darcy, an earl’s son, to be so eager to abandon formality now. She was glad of it. But even as she smiled at the thought, a slight chill crept over her, despite the warm May sunshine. She wondered whether Lord Langdon would view things the same way. For all she knew, he might regard her as a mere countrified Nobody, totally unworthy of his younger brother.
Darcy must have seen the worry in her face.
“What is wrong, dear Nell?” he asked.
She was moved by his perceptiveness, but how could she answer? How could she say that she feared that Lord Langdon would part them, when Darcy had not yet declared his feelings for her? “Nothing, really,” she said after a pause.
“But I am sure there is something wrong; I see it in your face. I hope it is not anything I have said or done. If so, I shall be obliged to shoot myself!” he said theatrically.
She had to laugh, but then she shook her head. “If you must know, I am a trifle concerned that Lord Langdon may not approve of our . . . friendship.”
“And what if I were to tell you I don’t care a snap of my fingers for what James does or does not approve of? Anyway, I don’t want to think about him any more. Shall we talk of something more pleasant? The rose-garden is coming along well, is it not?”
“Indeed it is,” she said, looking about her. Weeks of vigorous pruning and weeding had done much to begin reversing the neglect caused by the sixteen years that the Maylands had not been in residence at Charlwood. A multitude of buds promised a splendid show of blooms in less than a month’s time. Better yet, the task had provided some much-needed employment to the sons of some of the needier families in the parish.
Just a few days previously, all this would have given her great satisfaction. Now all she could think of was Lord Langdon’s likely reaction. Although Darcy and his stepmother had been given leave to engage as many servants as necessary to make Charlwood livable again, none of them really knew whether the earl would consider the restoration of the gardens a reasonable expense.
“Shall we go down to the lake?” asked Darcy, interrupting her uneasy thoughts. “I think the ground is finally dry enough to walk about on the island.”
She was sorely tempted. Darcy seemed to have gotten over his earlier irritation, and this might be their only chance to spend some time alone together before she had to meet Lord Langdon. Perhaps Lady Langdon had had that in mind when she had suggested that they take a turn about the gardens while the earl was engaged with his steward. But she had also invited Nell to share their noonday meal, and it would not do to make a tardy appearance.
Nell looked a little doubtfully at the sun, which seemed ominously high already.
“Is there time, do you think?”
“Of course there is time,” Darcy assured her, and led her out of the rose-garden, toward the ornamental lake just visible through the stand of trees that grew just beyond. A few bluebells still lingered under the trees, giving out a subtle, enchanting fragrance. When they came out by the lake, she saw that the rhododendrons and azaleas along its banks were bursting into bloom, reflecting splashes of brilliant color into the still waters. The end of the sinuous lake was screened by another stand of trees, giving it the impression of a river-bend, and an island in the center was adorned with a miniature Greek temple.
Nell was struck afresh by the beauty of the scene. What a shame it was that Darcy had been denied the opportunity to enjoy Charlwood for all the years since his mother’s death. But then, she reminded herself, it was not by choice that he was here now. Lord Langdon, while still in France, had sent orders to close the London townhouse, and his man of business had made certain that Darcy and Lady Langdon removed to Charlwood, with strict orders to remain there, on pain of having their funds cut off.
But Nell could not be sorry for circumstances that had brought them together. Perhaps her companionship had consoled Darcy for missing his usual friends and entertainments at the height of the London Season.
“I suppose I do have something to be grateful to James for,” he said, leading her over the stone bridge that arched over the narrow channel to the island. “If I had not been rusticating here, I would not have met you, beautiful Nell.”
She couldn’t think of a reply. How could he have read her thoughts so easily? And his compliments always left her feeling both elated and confused. She had never thought of herself as beautiful.
True, she was looking much prettier than she ever had. Her soft-brown hair, with its hints of chestnut, was now cut in front so that it fell in ringlets about her face rather than pulled severely back into a knot atop her head. And her new primrose muslin gown was certainly more cheerful than the sober-colored, high-necked gowns she was used to wearing. But she knew that neither the hairstyle nor the new dress could disguise the fact that her features lacked a certain classical perfection, that her eyes were a rather ordinary hazel, and her figure was not at all dainty. She was too tall, and built more like a buxom milkmaid than a fashionably slender sylph.
If the local gossips were correct, Darcy was accustomed to flirting with all the prettiest ladies in London. She had initially resisted his advances, thinking he was just amusing himself with the best available substitute. But lately there was a look in his eye and a warmth in his voice that she was sure had little to do with mere flirtation.
Since she wasn’t a true beauty, didn’t his words prove that he cared for her in ways that extended far beyond the merely superficial? Moreover, Lady Langdon would not have thrown her and Darcy together in such a way if she did not think his intentions were totally honorable.
Nell felt her pulse quicken again at the thought. At nineteen, she still hoped to find a love such as her parents had shared. Yet a little doubt entwined itself about her growing anticipation. Could such perfect happiness really be in store for her?
Darcy stopped as they reached the top of the curving bridge. Turning to face her, he took her hands in his.
“You know I have had an uncommon pleasure in your company, do you not?” he asked.
She nodded, unable to answer because of the sudden lump in her throat.
“I hope I have been able to bring you some happiness as well,” he said. She looked up into his face, touched and thrilled to see that he was looking anxious himself. Her own unease lessened a little.
“Of course you have,” she said. Daringly, she returned the pressure of his fingers.
“I am glad,” he said, looking relieved. “For I hope and trust that this is only the beginning.”
She gave him a shaky smile, as he led her the rest of the way across the bridge, and under the open columns of the folly. There a stone bench had been built to command a view of the surrounding lake. Although the bench seemed warm and dry, he took off his coat and spread it out for her to sit on anyway.
She thanked him awkwardly and sat down. She told herself it was pleasant to have someone looking after her comfort for a change. She just hadn’t become accustomed to it, yet.
Darcy sat down beside her, so close that his knee brushed hers. She should move away. What if someone were to see them? But Lady Langdon would not intrude, and the earl was probably still going over accounts with his steward.
Putting one arm around her, Darcy moved closer. With his other hand, he took her hand in a warm, firm clasp.
She stiffened. She could practically hear the voice of Hannah, the cook and housekeeper at the Vicarage, warning her not to permit such a familiarity. But Hannah hated men, so it was no wonder that she mistrusted Darcy, even though his behavior had always been perfectly gentlemanly.
His embrace could only be a prelude to a declaration. It would be tempting fate to resist him now. Indeed, she had no wish to do so. Only a vague sense of unease that threatened to spoil what should have been a perfect moment. She pushed it down, and willed herself to think only of Darcy and the happiness they would soon share.
He brought her hand up to his lips and kissed it, sending a little shudder of delight up her arm. A few final doubts floated through her mind, only to drown in the sight of his intensely blue eyes. He leaned toward her, and she knew she was about to be kissed for the first time. Her heart thudding, she closed her eyes in anticipation.
She opened them again as Darcy suddenly cursed and sprang to his feet. In shock and disappointment, she followed the direction of his gaze, and saw a tall gentleman in a scarlet uniform advancing purposefully towards them across the bridge. His uniform, as well as his unmistakable resemblance to his brother, warned her that she was about to meet Lord Langdon.
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