Early July, 1816.
Crowhurst Castle, Cornwall.
"How the devil did they break the mill?" Gervase Tregarth, 6th Earl of Crowhurst paced before the hearth in the elegant drawing room of Crowhurst Castle. The exasperation of a man driven to the limits of frustration colored his face, tone and every long-legged stride. "And am I to surmise that they were also behind all the rest? The broken fences, the damaged boats, the mix-up with the grain, the unexplained ringing of the church bells at midnight?"
Swinging around, he pinned his stepmother, Sybil, with a sharply interrogatory, hard hazel gaze.
Seated on the chaise, a silk shawl about her shoulders, Sybil returned his stare with a blank look, as if she hadn't fully comprehended his meaning.
Gervase knew better. Sybil was wondering how to answer. She knew he was one step away from losing his temper, and would much rather he didn't. He narrowed his eyes even further. "They were, weren't they? Of course they were."
His voice had lowered to a growl; the past months of futile traveling to London only to be summoned back within a few days to deal with some inexplicable calamity flashed across his mind - and frayed the reins of his temper even more. "What in all creation do they think they're about?"
He wasn't shouting, but the force behind his words was enough to overset a more robust female than Sybil; he drew in a breath and tamped down his welling fury. The "they" he and she were discussing were her daughters - his three halfsisters - currently featuring as the bane of his life.
Belinda, Annabel, and Jane took after their father, as did he, which was why Sybil, mild, sweet Sybil, fair-haired and gentle, was entirely unable to control them. Or comprehend them; all three were more intelligent, clever and quick than she. They were also more vigorous, bold and outgoing, altogether more confident.
He, on the other hand, shared with the three the affinity of character. They'd always been close; as their adored older and only brother he'd grown accustomed to them being on his side.
Or at least operating on some form of Tregarth logic he could understand.
Instead, over the past six months they'd apparently transformed from loveable if mischievous hoydens of whom he was deeply fond to secretive, demon-inspired harpies whose primary focus in life was to drive him demented.
His last question had thus been rhetorical; if he couldn't fathom what had possessed his dear sisters to stage what amounted to six months of guerilla mayhem designed to overthrow his sanity, he didn't imagine Sybil would.
Yet to his surprise she looked down, and picked at her shawl's fringe. "Actually…" She strung the word out, then glanced up at him. "I think it's because of what happened to the Hardesty girls."
"The Hardesty girls?" He halted, frowned, struggling to place them. "The Hardestys of Helston Grange?"
Sybil nodded. "Robert Hardesty - Lord Hardesty now his father is dead - went to London last September, and came home with a wife."
Gervase's recollection of Robert Hardesty was of a wet-behind-the-ears whelp, but that memory was more than twelve years old. "Robert must be…what? Twenty-five?"
"Twenty-six, I believe."
"A trifle young for marriage perhaps, yet if, as I suppose, he has his sisters to establish, a wife seems a sensible addition to his household." His sisters' futures rated as one of the many reasons he himself felt compelled to wed. Gervase tried to recall the Hardesty girls, but drew a blank. "His sisters are about Belinda's age, aren't they?"
"A year or two older - eighteen and seventeen. Everyone thought Melissa and Katherine would be presented this past Season, and with Robert marrying…well, we all imagined that the new Lady Hardesty - a young widow said to have been a London beauty - would, naturally, take the girls under her wing."
From Sybil's tone it was clear the generally held expectations hadn't been met. "What happened?"
"Robert brought his lady home just before Christmas." Sybil's rosebud lips tightened into an expression of severe disapprobation. "In January, with the snows still blocking the roads, Robert dispatched Melissa and Katherine to visit their aunt in York. It seemed his new wife wanted time to settle into her new life without the distraction of having to deal with the girls. However, it's now July and the girls are still in York. Meanwhile, Lady Hardesty spent the Season in London, then returned to the Grange a week ago with a bevy of London friends in tow. I understand she's told Robert that it would not be wise to have the girls return home while they have so many London gentlemen under their roof."
Gervase stood before the fireplace staring at Sybil while he grappled with the implied connection. Then he blinked. "Am I to understand…" Lifting his head, he looked past Sybil, trying to see the Hardesty story from his sisters' perspective. "They can't possibly be equating me with Robert Hardesty."
His tone made it clear he found the notion inconceivable. He refocused on Sybil's face in time to meet her widening eyes.
"Well of course they are, dear. The parallels are rather obvious."
He felt his face harden. "No. They're not." He paused, then growled, "Good God! They can't seriously imagine -"
He broke off and looked toward the main door as it opened to admit his halfsisters. He'd sent for them the instant he'd stalked into his front hall, having been met in the castle forecourt by Gregson, the local bailiff, with the news that the three had been discovered creeping away from the mill just after midnight. Subsequently, it had been discovered that the mill was no longer functional.
Despite the best efforts of the miller, it still wasn't.
In the wake of the string of strange accidents that had plagued the estate for the past six months, Gervase and Gregson had set up a secret watch. But the very last culprits they'd expected to catch were the three schoolgirls who marched into the room.
Belinda, the eldest, led the small procession. At sixteen she was already taller than Sybil and bade fair to turn men's heads with her lustrous light brown hair and long, long legs. But if the expression on her heart-shaped face was any guide, any man would have his hands full with her. Defiant determination oozed from every pore and flashed in her hazel eyes.
She lifted her chin as she halted behind the chaise, facing Gervase, meeting his hard gaze with her own Tregarth stubbornness.
Annabel, fairer in coloring, with almost blond hair and blue eyes, ranged alongside Belinda. There was less than a year between them, and barely an inch; while Belinda had started to wear her hair up, Annabel was content to let her long pale tresses ripple over her shoulders in a romantic veil.
Gervase met Annabel's eyes, and saw the same trenchant purpose infusing Belinda repeated there.
Increasingly wary, he shifted his gaze to the third and youngest of the three, lowering it to her sweet, delicate face, still very much that of a child. Jane was barely ten, and had always been devoted to him. Confined in neat plaits on either side of her small face, her hair was a darker brown than the others', more his coloring, but her eyes were Sybil's blue.
Meeting those usually innocent orbs, Gervase was faintly stunned to encounter unwavering, resolute determination - further accentuated by the set of her little chin.
Keeping his own expression impassive, he glanced again at the other two, mentally at sea. What on earth had changed them? Why…why had they lost faith in him?
He suddenly comprehended that he was treading on ground that wasn't as firm as he'd thought. He had to go carefully.
Where to start?
He let the silence stretch, but while Sybil fidgeted, her daughters were made of sterner stuff. They just waited for him to speak, their gazes locked on him.
"I've just heard from Gregson that the three of you were caught leaving the mill last night, apparently after sabotaging it. The mill is still out of action, and John Miller is in danger of losing what little hair he has left. I'll admit I'm having trouble believing that the three of you could be so unthinking as to deliberately cause Miller and all those who rely on the mill so much unnecessary trouble for no good reason. So I assume you have an excellent reason for what you've done - I hope you'll share it with me, so I can explain your actions to the rest of the neighborhood."
Belinda's chin tilted a fraction higher. "We do have an excellent reason - for the mill and all the rest." She briefly scanned his eyes, confirming that he had, indeed, guessed about "all the rest." "However," she continued, "you might not wish to make that reason public. We had to find ways to bring you back from London, and preferably keep you here, although as of yet we haven't managed the latter."
"We thought we'd be able to make you stay by creating a mystery by ringing the bells," Annabel said, "but you just took away the ropes. So we had to think of something else."
"None of the other things we did kept you at home." Jane looked at him severely, as if that were his fault. "You just came home and fixed them, and then left again - back to London."
It was, apparently, his fault.
He was starting to feel a little disoriented. "Why do you want me to stay at home?"
Belinda shifted, lips pressing together; he could see she was hunting not for just words but for how to explain. The other two looked at her, deferring to her. Eventually she met his eyes. "We asked you to stay, each of us every time, but you always just smiled and insisted that you had to go back to town. We suspected - well, everyone in the neighborhood knew - that you were going there to find a wife. We didn't want you to do that, but we couldn't just say so, could we? You wouldn't have listened to us, that was obvious. So we had to find some other way of stopping you."
He stared at her. "You don't want me to find a wife?"
"We don't want you to find a wife in London." Belinda capped the statement with a definite nod - repeated by the other two, one after the other.
It was, indeed, as Sybil had guessed. Compressing his lips, he battled to shore up a patience that six months of mayhem - let alone all the futile racing back and forth - had worn wafer-thin. "Sybil has just told me about the situation with the Hardestys." He managed to keep his tone even, his diction not so clipped that it would cut. He was still very fond of them, even if they'd temporarily turned into bedlamites. "You can't seriously imagine that I would marry a lady who I would subsequently allow to send you away."
Yes, they could. Yes, they did.
They didn't say the words. They didn't have to; the truth was writ large in their eyes, in their expressions.
He felt positively insulted, and didn't know what to say - how to defend himself. The idea that he needed to was irritation enough.
"I'm older, and wiser, and far more experienced than Robert Hardesty. Just because he's married unwisely is no reason whatever to imagine I'll do the same."
The look Belinda bent on him was as contemptuously pitying as only a younger sister could manage; it was mirrored to an unsettling degree by Annabel and Jane.
"Gentlemen," Belinda stated, "always think they know what they're doing when it comes to ladies, and they never do. They think they're in charge, but they're blind. Any lady worth the title knows that gentlemen, once hooked, can be led by the nose if the lady is so minded. So if an attractive London lady gets her hooks into you, and decides like Lady Hardesty that having girls like us to puff-off isn't a proposition she wants to take on, where will that leave us?"
"Living in the North Riding with Great-aunt Agatha," Annabel supplied.
"So it was obvious we had to take action," Jane concluded. Her eyes narrowed on Gervase. "Drastic action - whatever was necessary."
Before he could even think of a reply, Belinda went on, "And there's no use citing your age as any indication of your wisdom in such matters. You've spent the last twelve years out of society - it's not a case of your skills in this regard being rusty so much as you've never developed the relevant skills at all."
"It's not the same as if you'd spent those years in London," Annabel informed him, "watching and learning about choosing a wife."
"This is not a battlefield on which you have any experience," Jane declared in her most serious voice. "In this theater, you're vulnerable."
She was obviously reciting arguments they'd discussed at length; just the thought was horrifying. Trying to assimilate their unexpected and peculiarly female point of view was making Gervase giddy.
He held up a hand. "Wait. Just stop. Let's approach this logically." He cast a glance at Sybil, only to surmise from her attentive expression that however much she might deplore her daughters' actions, she didn't, materially, disagree with their assessment. No help there. He drew breath, and stated, "You're worried that, like Robert Hardesty, I'll fall victim to some fashionable London lady who will take a dislike to you and convince me to send you to live with Great-aunt Agatha."
All three girls nodded.
"To prevent such an occurrence, you made sure I had no time in the capital during which to meet any such lady."
Again three definite nods.
"But you know I need a wife. You understand that I have to marry?" Not least to secure the title and the entailed estate, given he was the last male Tregarth.
"That's obvious," Belinda informed him. "Aside from anything else, you're never going to manage the social obligations adequately on your own, and Mama can help only so far. Once we wed, she'll live with us, so you should marry as soon as possible so your countess can learn the ropes."
"Besides which," Annabel put in, "you having the right lady as your countess will make it much easier for us to make our come-outs properly. We're now titled ladies, and poor Mama is going to have a time of it if she has to manage our come-outs on her own."
"And, of course," little Jane continued, her voice lighter than the other two, "there's the fact you need to sire an heir, or else when you die the estate will revere…" She stopped, frowned.
"Revert," Gervase supplied.
She thanked him with a serious little nod. "Revert to that disgustingly fat, dissolute reprobate, the Prince Regent." She met Gervase's gaze. "And no one would want that."
Gervase stared at her, then glanced at the other two. Clearly he didn't need to explain the facts of his life - familial or social - to them. "If you understand all that, then you must see that in order to find the, as Annabel put it, right lady to be my countess, I need to go to London -"
He broke off as all three vehemently shook their heads. It wasn't just the action, but the look in their narrowing eyes, and the set of their firming lips and chins that stilled his tongue.
"No," Belinda stated. "No London ladies. Now that you understand our position, you must see that we can't allow you to simply swan off and search by yourself in London."
"If you do," Annabel prophesied, "you'll be caught."
"Some London harpy will get her claws into you, and we won't be there to drive her off."
That last came from Jane. Gervase looked into her eyes, hoping to see that she was joking, or to at least detect some comprehension that she was overextrapolating, some indication that she understood that he had no need of their protection, especially in such an arena. Instead, all he saw was that same, dogged, unbending purpose. One glance at the other two confirmed that they, too, saw her words as a simple statement of fact.
He stared at them, feeling like he'd strayed into a reality he no longer recognized. He really couldn't believe he was having this discussion. One part of his mind was convinced he must be dreaming. "But" - he seemed to have no alternative but to ask the obvious - "if I can't go to London and find a bride there, where do you imagine I'll find a suitable lady to be my countess?"
That earned him a three-pronged look that suggested he was being deliberately obtuse.
"You need to look around here, of course," Belinda informed him.
"In the neighborhood and nearby towns," Annabel clarified.
"So you can bring her home and show her the castle, and us," Jane added. "Before you marry her."
He suddenly understood - or rather, his brain finally accepted what his intellect had deduced. "You want to vet my choice?"
All three blinked at him; Sybil did, too.
"Well, of course!" Belinda said.
His expression set like stone. "No."
That should have been the end of it. He should have said not one more word and stalked from the room. Should have realized from what had already passed that in the last ten years his sisters had grown even more like him - until he was no match for the three of them together.
They could talk rings around a philosophy professor.
The one peculiar talent he'd brought to his decade and more as a covert agent operating primarily on foreign soil, slipping in and out of the ports of France during the final years of the wars, was his ability to persuade. It wasn't charm; it owed nothing to a smile or a glib tongue. It was more a matter of being able to twist arguments, of having the sort of mind that could see possibilities and frame connections in such a way that they seemed plausible, causal and direct. Even when they were in no way linked.
He was an expert in persuasion, in the art of framing the reasonable suggestion.
Yet every point he made, his sisters attacked. From three sides. At once. He knew where he stood, knew the rational ground beneath his feet was solid, yet no matter how hard he fought, he couldn't seem to defend his position.
He was driven back, step by step. Onto a slippery slope that he suddenly realized led straight to abject surrender.
"Enough!" Running a hand through his hair, only just suppressing the urge to clutch the close curls, he ignored their pressing, leading questions designed to send him sliding down that slope and forced them to return to the single central point. "Regardless of anything and everything, as there is no lady anywhere near who might be suitable, I have to go to London to make my choice."
"No," Belinda said.
"Not without us," Annabel belligerently declared.
"If you try to return to London alone," Jane warned, "you'll force us to do something terrible to bring you back."
Gervase looked into all three pairs of eyes, each brimming with a determination equal to his own. They weren't going to budge.
But this was his life. His wife.
And he was so tired of the mounting frustration of not being able to even start his search for her.
All, it now seemed, because of his sisters.
His temper, already tried beyond bearing, quietly slipped its leash.
"Very well," he said.
All three girls straightened. They'd never, ever, seen him lose his temper, but knew him well enough to sense the change.
His tone cold, even and uninflected, he stated, "As you're so convinced a suitable lady exists hereabouts, and that any such local lady will pose no real threat to you, I'll make a bargain with you. I won't return to London for the next three months, not until the Little Season commences. And I swear on all that's holy that, from this moment on, I'll marry the first suitable lady I meet-suitable on the basis of age, birth and station, temperament, compatibility, and beauty. In return, you three will accept that lady without question." He held their gazes, his own as hard as stone. "And you will not, again, indulge in any behavior designed to influence my decisions, or my life, in any way whatever."
He paused, then said, "That's the bargain. Do you accept it?"
They didn't immediately answer.
All three studied him, then Belinda asked, "What if you don't meet a suitable lady over the next three months?"
He smiled, a chilly gesture. "Then when the Little Season starts and I return to London, I'll have to look there."
They didn't want to take the risk; the wariness in their eyes said so.
He pressed his advantage. "If you're so sure that a suitable lady lies waiting in the neighborhood, then you should be prepared to let fate take her course and arrange for her to cross my path. You should be prepared to accept my bargain."
The three looked at each other, wordlessly communing, then faced him once more. Belinda spoke. "If you promise on your honor to seriously look for, and then actively pursue any suitable lady, then…" She hesitated, glanced one last time at the others, then looked back at him and nodded. "Yes - we accept your bargain."
"Good." He didn't want to say more, much less hear any further words from them on his inability to choose his own wife. He glanced at Sybil, a silent observer throughout, and curtly nodded. "If you'll excuse me?"
Another rhetorical question. With a last raking glance over his sisters' faces, he turned and strode to the door.
He had to get out - somewhere he could stride so he could let the coiled tension, the inevitable outcome of suppressing his fury, free.
By the time he reached the drawing room door, manifesting temper had infected his movements. Jerking the door open, he swung into the corridor - and nearly ran down Sitwell, his butler.
A paragon of his calling, Sitwell stepped back quickly to avoid a collision. Gervase inwardly sighed. Closing the door, he arched a brow in query.
"Miss Gascoigne has arrived and is asking to see you, my lord."
The Honorable Miss Madeline Gascoigne. He was going to have to swallow his ire. "Where is she?"
"In the front hall, my lord. She intimated the matter wouldn't take long and she did not wish to disturb Lady Sybil."
Thanking Heaven for small mercies, Gervase nodded. "I'll go to her."
He strode down the corridor, leaving Sitwell in his wake.
His bargain with his sisters didn't worry him; he knew beyond doubt that there simply wasn't any suitable lady anywhere in the vicinity. He'd looked about the locality first before accepting the need to look in London. The notion that he'd choose to run the gauntlet of the London marriage mart was absurd; London was simply his only field of choice.
Which meant that for him finding a wife was postponed until the ton returned to the capital in late September. Given he'd had no intention of putting himself through the excruciating ordeal of countless house parties - the summer hunting grounds of the matchmaking mamas - that would have been the case regardless.
So his bargain with his sisters had cost him nothing he hadn't already surrendered, namely the next three months. The point that seriously exercised his temper was that he'd had to make such a bargain at all.
Indeed, the entire subject of his wife - or more specifically his lack of same - had become a sore point, a mental bruise that throbbed every time he thought of it. Let alone spoke of it.
Turning a corner, he looked ahead, and saw a tall figure waiting by the round table in the center of the castle's great front hall. He inwardly grimaced. No doubt Madeline had come to ask about the mill.
The daughter of the previous Viscount Gascoigne, only child of his first marriage, she was the older halfsister of the current viscount, Harold, known to all as Harry, still very much a minor at fifteen. The Gascoignes held the estate of Treleaver Park, situated above Black Head, the eastern headland of the same wide bay on which the castle stood overlooking the western cove. Gascoignes had been at the Park for very nearly as long as Tregarths had been at the castle.
The two families were the principal landowners in the area. As under the terms of her late father's will, Madeline was the primary guardian of her three brothers, including Harry, it was she who was the de facto Gascoigne. She ran the estate and made all necessary decisions. As she'd been groomed by her father for that duty, and had performed in the role since before his lingering death eight years ago, the neighborhood had long grown accustomed to treating her as her brother's surrogate.
Indeed, for the exemplary way she conducted her brother's business and for her devotion to the difficult role of her brothers' keeper, she had earned the respect of every person on the peninsula, and far beyond.
Gervase approached; hearing his bootsteps, Madeline turned, an easy smile lighting her face. Courtesy of his years abroad, he didn't know her well, but as he'd been born at Tregarth Manor outside Falmouth, not that far away, and had spent many months throughout his childhood visiting his uncle and cousins at the castle, he'd known of her existence for most of her life.
Since his unexpected ascension to the earldom three years ago, and even more since he'd sold out the previous year and personally taken up the reins of the estate, he'd dealt with Madeline frequently, although busy as they both were, they most often communicated by letter.
She was considerably taller than the average, only a few inches shorter than Gervase. As usual when riding about the county, she was gowned in dark colors; today's gown was a sensible rich brown. A wide-brimmed hat dangled from one hand, worn to protect her fair skin from the sun, but even more to help confine the mass of her hair. Fine and plentiful, no matter how tightly she restrained it in a knot on the top of her head, strands escaped, forming a halo of spun copper filaments about her face, rather like a Russian madonna. Her hair, however, was the only element of her appearance beyond her control; all the rest was deliberately and severely restrained, strictly business.
As Gervase neared, she held out a gloved hand.
He grasped it, shook it. "Madeline."
Retrieving her hand, she returned his easy nod. "Gervase." Her expression turned rueful. "Before you say anything, I'm here to beg your pardon."
He blinked, frowned. "I thought you'd come about the mill."
Her smile widened. "No, although I did hear of your problem. It seems quite bizarre that your sisters were involved. Have you discovered why they did it? Or, as is the case with my brothers, was it simply a matter of 'it seemed a good idea at the time?'"
He managed a rueful smile. "Something like that. But what's your apology for?"
"In light of the mill, you'll understand. I'm afraid my hellborn three's latest interesting idea was to put your bull in among your dairy herd. Don't, pray, ask me why - their logic escapes me. I've already had them out to see your herdsman to apologize, and I supervised them in recapturing the bull and putting him back in his field. He didn't seem any the worse for his adventure, although I'm afraid your milk production might suffer a trifle due to the excitement."
She paused, a frown in her gray-green eyes. "I should, I suppose, have expected something. They're home for the summer, of course, but I had hoped they would have outgrown such schoolboy exploits."
Gervase raised his brows, falling into step beside her as she walked slowly back to the front door. "Harry's fifteen, isn't he? He'll stop his schoolboy tricks soon enough, but when he does, you might well wish he hadn't. In this season a slight disruption to our milk production won't even be noticed, and if that's the worst he and your other two get up to this year, we'll all think ourselves lucky."
"Hmm…be careful what you wish for?" Madeline wrinkled her straight, no-nonsense nose. "In that you might be right."
They paused in the shadow of the front porch. She glanced at him. "When do you expect the mill to be fixed?"
They chatted for several minutes, about the mill and the coming harvest, about the local tin mining in which both estates had an interest, about the latest local business news. Like all the neighborhood gentlemen, Gervase had learned to respect and rely on Madeline's views, drawn as they were from a much wider pool of information than any of them could tap.
There wasn't a local merchant, miner, laborer or farmer who wouldn't readily talk to Miss Gascoigne about their enterprises. Likewise their wives. Madeline had a much deeper understanding of anything and everything that went on on the Lizard Peninsula and in surrounding districts, one no mere man could hope to match.
She glanced up at the sun. "I really must be going." She met his eyes. "Thank you for understanding about the bull."
"If it helps, you can tell your brothers that I was not amused. I'll be going out to the mill shortly."
With a smile, she held out her hand. Gervase shook it, then went with her down the steps to the forecourt where her horse, a tall, powerful chestnut few other women could hope to control, waited, alert and ready to run.
Lifting her hat, she settled it on her head, then reached for the front of her saddle. Gervase held the horse's bridle, watching without a blink as Madeline planted her boot in the stirrup and swung up to the horse's broad back.
She always rode astride, wearing trousers beneath her skirts for the purpose. Given the miles she covered every day watching over her brother's interests, not even the most censorious dowager considered the fact worth mentioning.
Madeline lifted her reins. With a smile and a brisk salute, she backed the chestnut, then wheeled and trotted neatly out of the walled forecourt.
Gervase watched her go, idly aware that her peers in the district were the other male landowners; in their councils, she was never treated as a female - as someone of different status to the men. While no one would actually treat her as a man - thump her on the back or offer her brandy - she occupied a unique position.
Because, in many ways, she was unique.
Thinking of his sisters, Gervase considered that a little of Madeline's uniqueness could, with benefit, rub off on them. Turning back to the castle, he remounted the front steps. And turned his mind back to his temper… only to discover that it was no longer straining at the leash.
He no longer had anything to suppress. He felt calm, in control once more, confident and able to deal with whatever might come his way.
His conversation with Madeline - sane, sensible and rational - had regrounded him. Why couldn't his sisters be more like her?
Or was that one of those things he should be wary of wishing for?
He was still pondering that point when he reached the drawing room. Opening the door, he walked in.
Belinda, Annabel and Jane turned from the window overlooking the forecourt, through which they'd obviously been observing him and Madeline. Sybil, swiveled on the chaise, had been watching her daughters, no doubt listening to their report.
Before he could frown at them, all four looked at him, their expressions identical, eager and expectant.
He stared at them. "What?"
As one, they stared back.
"We thought perhaps you might invite her in," Belinda said.
The look they bent on him suggested they were wondering where he'd left his wits.
When he didn't spontaneously find them, Belinda deigned to help. "Madeline. Isn't she a suitable lady?"
He stared at them, and couldn't think of an answer. Not any answer he wanted to give. Oaths, he suspected, wouldn't shock them.
He let his face harden, let his most impenetrable mask settle into place. "I have to go and unjam the mill. I'll speak with you later."
Without another word, he swung around and stalked out.
* * *
That evening, Gervase entered his library-cum-study and headed directly for the tantalus. As he poured himself a brandy, the latter events of the day scrolled through his mind.
Reaching the mill, he'd discovered the frustrated miller about to commence the laborious task of dismantling the grinding mechanism to see why "the damned thing wouldn't budge." Asking him to wait, Gervase had gone outside to where the huge waterwheel sat unmoving in the narrow stream. His sisters knew nothing about gears and axles; there was no evidence they'd even entered the mill. Whatever they'd done to cripple the mechanism had been simple and ingenious - and something three schoolgirls, two of decent height and strength, could physically achieve.
The stream had been bubbling and gurgling along, covering the lower third of the wheel. After squinting into the rippling water, Gervase had called the miller and his sons to lend a hand; they'd managed to turn the wheel - enough to expose the gaps where three paddle blades ought to have been, and the anchor, doubtless purloined from the castle boathouse, that had held the wheel so that the jostling of the stream hadn't shifted it. With the three blades missing, the water rushed freely through the gap, providing no force to turn the big wheel.
John Miller had stared at the gaps, at the anchor, and had sworn.
They'd found the blades, which for ease of replacement simply slotted into grooves in the wheel's inner sides, tucked out of sight among some bushes. A matter of minutes had seen the anchor removed and the blades replaced - and the millstone grinding once more.
His sisters' latest misdeed righted, he'd returned to the castle and had closeted himself in the library until dinnertime.
He'd contributed little to the dinner table conversation; the few exchanges had been of a general nature, of local affairs and local people. No one, however, had mentioned Madeline Gascoigne.
When, with Sybil, his sisters had risen and retreated to the drawing room, he'd watched them go, and then come here. Lifting his glass, he carried it to a well-padded armchair, sank down into the cushioning leather, and sighed.
He sipped, then put his head back and closed his eyes.
Despite their careful silence, his sisters were watching him like hawks. Demanding creatures. He'd made a promise, and they expected him to keep it.
And, of course, he would.
Opening his eyes, he raised his glass again, and refocused on the issue never far from his mind, his principal and continuing problem - his lack of a wife.
When he'd resigned his commission late last year, he'd had a vague notion that now peace was established and he was free to become the Earl of Crowhurst in more than name, then getting himself a wife ought to be his next step.
When a group of close comrades - six others who like him had spent the last ten and more years working behind enemy lines under the orders of the secretive individual they knew only as Dalziel - had proposed banding together and creating a private club to guard against the marauding mamas of the ton, he'd thought it an excellent idea. The Bastion Club had indeed proved useful in facilitating the search for suitable wives - for most of the others.
So much so that as of a day ago, there were only two of the original seven club members still unwed. Christian Allardyce, Marquess of Dearne, and Gervase himself.
Christian, he'd realized, had some secret that was holding him back. Some reason why, despite, of them all, having spent the most time in the ballrooms and being the most comfortable in that milieu, he seemed unable to summon any interest in any lady, not even in passing.
There was some story there, some excuse for Christian remaining detached and consequently unwed.
He, however, had no excuse. He wanted to wed, to find the right lady and establish her as his countess. As his sisters had so bluntly enumerated, there were multiple reasons he should, not least among those being them and their futures. He'd set out to find his bride in February. Nearly six months had passed and he'd achieved precisely nothing.
The failure nagged. His was a nature that thrived on achievement. He was constitutionally incapable of accepting failure.
News of the trouble with the mill had reached him just after he'd arrived at Paignton Hall in Devon to witness the nuptials of one of their small band, Deverell, and his Phoebe. So afterward, rather than returning to spend a last week or so in London in the hope that among the few tonnish families lingering in the capital he might discover his future wife, he'd had to hie back home instead. The continuing frustration, even if it had been entirely outside his control, had only exacerbated his already abraded patience - and an irrational sense of time running out and him still not having found his bride.
Courtesy of what he'd now discovered to be his sisters' machinations, he'd spent no more than a few consecutive days in London, not since the Season commenced, but rather than making his failure to find a wife easier to accept, the knowledge that he'd had no real time to look had only given his restless dissatisfaction a keener edge.
Six months, and he'd got nowhere. He hadn't even managed to develop any, as Annabel had termed them, relevant skills.
And he wouldn't get anywhere in the next three months, either.
Draining his glass, he forced himself to face that fact. To accept it, set it aside, and turn to the matter at hand, the one he could actually do something about.
The Honorable Miss Madeline Gascoigne.
He'd made his bargain with his sisters but, of course, he'd left himself an escape route. He'd slipped the loophole in between "temperament" and "beauty." The other criteria he'd listed were ones others - his dear sisters, for example - could judge for themselves, but "compatibility" was entirely his to define.
Just as well he'd been so farsighted; Madeline qualified on all other counts.
She was, he'd calculated, twenty-nine or close to it; her father had died eight years ago and she'd been twenty-one at the time, that much he knew. A trifle long in the tooth perhaps, and she doubtless considered herself well and truly on the shelf, but as he was thirty-four, her advanced years weren't something anyone would hold against her.
Indeed, he'd prefer a wife with more rather than fewer years in her dish, one who had weathered a little of life. God knew, he had. A young young lady would be extremely unlikely to fix, let alone hold, his interest.
And as the daughter of the late Viscount Gascoigne, Madeline unquestionably possessed birth and station appropriate to the position of his countess; there was no fault to be found there.
Although he hadn't stipulated fortune, she was possessed of that as well, having inherited a sizeable sum from maternal relatives, and the Gascoignes were wealthy, so she'd doubtless be well-dowered, too.
As for temperament, he couldn't imagine any lady more competent, more calm and capable, one less likely to enact him any tragedies or fall into hysterics. Indeed, he couldn't imagine any occurrence that might throw Madeline into hysterics, not after some of the exploits she'd dealt with in bringing up her brothers.
His last stipulation had been "beauty." Considering that point he frowned. Although he had an excellent visual memory, especially for people, when it came to Madeline…he knew she was handsome and striking rather than pretty, but beyond that it was hard to decide how he rated her appearance. How he reacted to her as a woman-because he didn't, because he didn't think of her in that way. The years of dealing with her as a surrogate male, as the de facto Gascoigne, had dulled his senses with respect to her, yet he suspected she'd pass any "beauty" test.
Which left "compatibility" as the one criterion on which he could rule her "not suitable."
He'd promised on his honor to actively pursue any suitable lady, and the girls would expect to see him doing just that. So he would; he'd spend a little time with Madeline, enough to establish just why he and she weren't compatible, enough to make his declaration of incompatibility credible.
Time together shouldn't be difficult to arrange. Now he was fixed for the summer at the castle, there were any numer of issues on which his and Madeline's paths would cross - or could be made to cross.
He felt the brandy working its way through his system, relaxing, warming, easing as it went.
His next steps didn't seem too onerous. Not even vaguely problematic. He'd just spend some time with Madeline, and all would be well.
Or as well as things could be, until he could return to London and find himself a wife.