March 13, 1813, the rear lawn of Doyle’s Grange, Somerset, near the Exmoor hills, England
CRISPIN HOPE, FOURTH VISCOUNT NORTHWORD, stood to one side of the lawn and prayed for a miracle. None arrived. He remained unable to summon a blessed word. He twitched with the need to do something besides stand mute. Words, any words, would be better than his damnable silence. Action, any action, would be better than inaction. He managed to force a smile. A minor miracle, then. Hallelujah.
Naturally, a woman was involved in his present difficulties. A particular and specific woman. Was any man’s heart ever brought to its metaphorical knees except by a woman? Minor miracle or no, he needed to say or do something to convey how unmoved he was by her.
He tapped the side of his left leg with two fingers. Next, he cleared his throat. Portia sent a questioning look his way. Of course, words failed him. He affected what he hoped appeared to be mild interest in the proceedings; practically nonexistent. He coughed again and dug into his store of conversational inanities. “A fine day.”
“Mm.” She arched her eyebrows. “A touch cold for me.” Her attention returned to the sapling that was the reason he was standing out here in the first place.
He’d known Portia Temple 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 set 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 the time between those bookends of decades. Silence reached out and set fire to his nerves. “It’s spring,” he said. Oh, Jesus. Had he really said that? “One ought not be cold in spring.”
That got him another careless glance, and he was convinced that she, unlike him, had found a way to forget. But then, in all their years of friendship, he’d always been the one who felt more deeply.
She stared at the sapling, head tilted. “You’ve been away too long. You’ve forgotten our weather.”
Resentment boiled in him, and he required a monumental amount of sang-froid to let that pass. Forgotten? He bit back a retort but could not quash the sentiment that came with the impulse. He’d not forgotten a damned thing. It was no accident that this was his first visit to Doyle’s Grange in ten years. Nor that this was his first time socializing since his wife’s passing nearly two years ago. Outside the circle of his most intimate friends and women of a certain reputation, that is. He straightened the lay of his coat and said with sharp intent, “I’ve not forgotten anything.”
“We’ll disagree on that.” If he’d not been watching her so closely, he might have missed the distress that briefly replaced her pleasant smile. But he had been watching, and he did, and it ripped him to shreds.
Jesus. They’d made their peace in letters and it was all a lie, all those words they’d written to each other were now stripped of that fantasy pax now that he was here. Instead of the two of them moving on in person as they had in letters, they were mired in the past.
She put a hand on one of the slender branches of the sapling. One would think that in ten years she’d have changed more than she had. He had. Her brother Magnus had. She was 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 of his stare. 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. 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. He’d not realized how her spirit had stolen into the pages and words she’d written. Every time he’d read one of her letters, she’d filled a space in his heart he ought to have closed off. He’d not even known it was happening until now. Far 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 strands of gold.
He had been careful, over the last two years, never to make love to a woman with red hair.
“Well? What do you think?”
“About?” His query came late enough that she laughed 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 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. When it came right down to it, he wasn’t blameless either. Not entirely.
“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.
He still wanted her. There was nothing so surprising about that. Men lusted after women all the time. But his lust and desire had got mixed up and confused with more powerful emotions.
“It’s a tree, not a Venus in marble.” She peeked at him, then returned to her study of the tree. “There is no meaning to divine other than God was right to make them like this.”
“I like oak trees. An oak is 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 hills 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 take offense.
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’s Grange’s general servant; footman, groundsman, groom, butler, and performer of 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. The man had looked a weathered forty-five or a well-preserved sixty for as long as he could remember.
The servant came forward to take the spade from Portia. He retreated a respectful distance.
Portia made a few more swipes at her cheek and missed the dirt each time. So like her. 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. He took a certain piquant satisfaction from imagining the results of his mastery of that.
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 years, his very soul resonated with all that had never been spoken or put to paper. Better, he thought, if they had done. They ought to have screamed and shouted and accused instead of burying everything beneath a veneer of pleasantness.
“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,” she said. “It’s cold.”
“It is.” She blinked while he worked at the smudge. 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 that 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 seemed oblivious to Northword’s stare and his memories.
“Well and good, Miss Temple.” The man’s Exmoor accent was as thick as ever, but, as it happened, Northword had 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. He knew, now, how to conduct an affair—never outside his marriage, he’d kept those vows. “There. As tidy as I can make you.”
“Thank you.” She pulled off her other glove and shoved it in her pocket with the first one and 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 Temple. He’d always been Crispin to her. It was only the direction of her letters that styled him according to his title.
Crispin. 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.
“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.” Of course he said avore not before. Remarkable, really, how easily one slid into understanding that accent. Hob leaned a forearm on the shovel. “Thee and me’ll be long gone by then.”
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, his 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 women, less than others. They’d be as good together as ever. Better. He knew it down to his marrow, that thrill of animal attraction.
She lowered her arms. “They’ll curse whoever planted the tree so close to the lavender.”
“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, to be followed immediately by guilt at his reaction. 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?”
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. He saw a woman with a lover’s mouth and hands. He blinked and forced himself to see her as Portia, his friend. Sister of his friend and a woman 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, his look was tainted with distrust. Hob knew men weren’t to be trusted. “Give her time. Don’t overwater.”
“I shan’t, then.”
“I’ll watch over the tree, Miss. Even after thee’s away.”
“I know you will.” She focused on Hob. He, Northword, might as well not be anywhere near. “Thank you. That would be a great comfort.”
“Ah,” said another woman. They all turned, him, Portia, and Hob. Mrs. Magnus Temple walked toward them.
Portia’s brother had married eight months ago. Magnus, it turned out, had met his wife during one of his visits to Northword’s London home and had been waiting ever since to have a Church living that would support a wife. As it happened, the living at West Aubry had always been Viscount Northword’s to give, which he had done as soon as practical after the previous possessor passed away. Within weeks, Magnus was married. Think of that. Waiting years to marry the woman you loved. Until the time was right and not a moment past then.
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 time 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. Temple arrived at the site of the tree planting and pursed her lips. She pointed at the undisturbed ground between the tree and the lavender. “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. Temple 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 Northword and went so far as to bow her head. Her pretty blonde head. “Lord Northword.”
He bowed. “Mrs. Temple. Good morning to you.”
The woman had the most angelic smile he’d ever seen. “Portia, my dear. Might I have a word?”