Eyeworth Manor, Near Fritham in the New Forest, Hampshire
Late June, 1825.
Wife, wife, wife, wife.
Michael Anstruther-Wetherby swore beneath his breath. That refrain had plagued him for the last twenty-four hours. When he'd driven away from Amelia Cynster's wedding breakfast it had run to the rhythm of his curricle's wheels; now it was playing to the steady clop of his bay gelding's hooves.
Lips setting, he wheeled Atlas out of the stableyard and set out along the drive circling his home.
If he hadn't gone to Cambridgeshire to attend Amelia's wedding, he'd already be one step closer to being an affianced man. But the wedding had been one event he hadn't even thought of missing; aside from the fact his sister Honoria, Duchess of St. Ives, had been the hostess, the wedding had been a family gathering and he valued family ties.
Familial links had helped him immeasurably in recent years, first in gaining his position as Member of Parliament for this district, and subsequently in forging his path upward through the ranks, yet that wasn't the wellspring of his appreciation; family had always meant a great deal to him.
Rounding his house, a sturdy, three-storied manor house built of grey stone, his gaze went - as it always did when he passed this way - to the monument that stood on the verge halfway between the house and the gates. Set against the dark-leaved shrubs filling the gaps beneath the tall trees, the simple stone had stood for fourteen years; it marked the spot where his family - his parents and younger brother and sister racing home in a curricle in the teeth of a storm - had been killed by a falling tree. He and Honoria had witnessed the accident from the schoolroom windows high above.
Perhaps it was simply human nature to value highly something one had lost.
Left shocked, grieving and adrift, he and Honoria had still had each other, but with him barely nineteen and her sixteen, they'd had to part. They'd never lost touch - they were, even now, close - but Honoria had since met Devil Cynster; she now had a family of her own.
Slowing Atlas as he approached the stone, Michael was acutely aware he did not. His life was full to bursting, his schedule perennially crammed; it was only in moments like this that the lack shone so clearly, and loneliness jabbed.
He paused, studying the stone, then, jaw setting, faced forward and flicked the reins. Atlas picked up his pace; passing through the gates, Michael held him to a steady canter along the narrow lane.
The nightmarish sound of horses screaming slowly faded.
Today he was determined to take the first step toward establishing a family of his own.
Wife, wife, wife, wife.
The countryside closed around him, embraced him in its lush green arms, welcomed him into the woods and forests that to him were the essence of home. Sunlight flickered, glimmered through shifting leaves. Birds called and twittered; beyond the rustle of the canopies there was no other sound to punctuate the clop of Atlas's hooves. Narrow and winding, the lane led nowhere but to the Manor, joining a wider road that led south to Lyndhurst. Not far from that junction another lane wended east to the village of Bramshaw, and Bramshaw House, his destination.
He'd decided on his course some months ago, but once again government concerns had demanded his attention and he'd let matters slide...when he'd realized, he'd pulled himself up short, sat down, and laid out a schedule. Despite the distraction of Amelia's wedding, he'd stuck rigidly to his selfimposed timetable and left the wedding breakfast in good time to drive down here. To his necessary destiny.
Leaving Somersham in midafternoon, he'd stopped with a friend at Basingstoke overnight. He hadn't mentioned his reason for heading home, yet it had weighed - preyed - on his mind. He'd set out early and arrived home midmorning; it was now two o'clock, and he was determined to delay no longer. The die would be cast, the matter, if not finished with, then at least begun - halfway arranged.
A constituency matter? You might say that.
Amelia's question, his answer, perfectly true in its way. To a sitting member, one who'd reached the age of thirty-three unwed and been informed he was being considered for advancement into the ministry, marriage was definitely a "constituency matter."
He accepted he had to marry - indeed, he'd always assumed he would someday. How else was he to establish the family he craved? Yet the years had rolled by and he'd become caught up in his developing career, and through that and his close links with the Cynsters and the haut ton increasingly cognizant of the breadth of experience the state of marriage encompassed - he'd become less and less inclined to pursue it.
Now, however, his time had come. When Parliament had risen for the summer, he'd been left in no doubt that the Prime Minister expected him to return in autumn with a wife on his arm, thereby enabling his name to be considered in the cabinet reshuffle widely tipped to occur at that time. Since April, he'd been actively seeking his ideal bride.
The peace of the countryside wrapped him about; the wife, wife, wife refrain remained, but its tone grew less compulsive the closer he got to his goal.
It had been easy to define the qualities and attributes he required in his bride - passable beauty, loyalty, supportive abilities such as hostessly talents, and some degree of intelligence lightened with a touch of humor. Finding such a paragon proved another matter; after spending hours in the ballrooms, he'd concluded he'd be wiser to seek a bride with some understanding of a politician's life - even better, a successful politician's life.
Then he'd met Elizabeth Mollison, or rather remet her for strictly speaking he'd known her all her life. Her father, Geoffrey Mollison, owned Bramshaw House and had been the previous member for the district. Brought low by his wife's unexpected death, Geoffrey had resigned the seat just as Michael had approached the party with his grandfather Magnus Anstruther-Wetherby's and the Cynsters' backing. It had seemed a stroke of fate. Geoffrey, a conscientious man, had been relieved to be able to hand the reins to someone he knew. Even though he and Geoffrey were from different generations and markedly different in character - namely in ambition - he'd always found Geoffrey encouraging, always ready to help.
He hoped he'd help now, and support his notion of marrying Elizabeth.
She was, in his estimation, remarkably close to his ideal. True, she was young - nineteen - but she was also well-bred, well-groomed and unquestionably well-brought-up and, so he judged, capable of learning all she needed to know. She was a very English beauty, with pale blond hair and blue eyes, a fine complexion and a slender figure well-suited to the current fashions; most importantly, however, she had grown up in a political house. Even after her mother had died and Geoffrey had retired from the fray, Elizabeth had been placed in the care of her aunt Augusta, Lady Cunningham, who was married to a senior diplomat.
Even more, her younger aunt, Caroline, had been married to the British ambassador to Portugal; Elizabeth had spent time at the embassy in Lisbon under her aunt Caro's wing.
Elizabeth had lived all her life in political and diplomatic households. He was perfectly certain she'd know how to manage his. And, of course, marrying her would strengthen his admittedly already strong position locally; that wasn't something to sneeze at given that by all accounts in future he'd be spending much of his time on international affairs. A wife who could be relied on to keep the home fires stoked would be a godsend.
Mentally, he rehearsed what he would say to Geoffrey. He did not, yet, wish to make a formal offer for Elizabeth's hand - he needed to get to know her better and allow her to get to know him - but given the connection between himself and the Mollisons, he deemed it wise to sound Geoffrey out; no sense in proceeding if he was set against it.
Michael doubted that would be the case, but it wouldn't hurt to ask, to keep Geoffrey firmly in his camp. If over two or three meetings Elizabeth proved as pleasant and amenable as she'd appeared in town, they could progress to an offer, and thence to the altar, all in good time for autumn.
Coldblooded perhaps, yet in his opinion a marriage based on mutual affection rather than passion would suit him best.
Despite his links with the Cynsters, he did not consider himself as one with them when it came to marriage; he was a different sort of man. They were passionate, determined, highhandedly arrogant; he would admit to being determined, but he'd long ago learned to disguise his arrogance and he was a politician, ergo not a man given to the wilder passions.
Not a man to allow his heart to rule his head.
A straightforward marriage to a lady close to his ideal - that was what he needed. He'd discussed the prospect and specifically Elizabeth Mollison with his grandfather, and also with his aunt, Mrs. Harriet Jennet, a political hostess of note; both had supported his stance, in both cases with typical Anstruther-Wetherby ascerbity.
Harriet had snorted. "Glad to see Honoria and that lot haven't turned your head. The position of your wife is too important to be decided by the color of a lady's eyes."
He doubted that the color of a lady's eyes had ever featured highly in any male Cynster's mind as a deciding factor in marriage - other physical attributes perhaps...of course, he'd held his tongue.
Magnus had made various stringent comments about the unwisdom of allowing passion to rule one's life. Strangely, however, although almost daily prodding him to get on with the business of securing Elizabeth's hand, at Amelia's wedding at Somersham Magnus had ignored the perfect opportunity to press...then again, history had it that all weddings celebrated at Somersham Place were love-matches. Perhaps it was that - that the marriage he was set on, indeed, needed to be set on, would not be one such - that had persuaded his grandfather to cling to wisdom and in that company hold his tongue.
The lane wended on; a strange impatience rose within him but he held Atlas to his steady pace. Ahead, the trees thinned; beyond, glimpsed through their trunks and the thick undergrowth, he could see the rippling fields lining the Lyndhurst lane.
A feeling of certainty gripped him; it was the right time for him to go forward and marry, to build another family here, the next generation, to put down deeper roots and grow into the next phase of his life.
The lane was a succession of curves, the trees and undergrowth thick enough to screen sounds at any distance; by the time the rattle of the fast approaching carriage, the thud of flying hooves reached him, the carriage was almost upon him.
He just had time to draw Atlas to the side of the lane before a gig, out of control and careening wildly, exploded around the bend.
It flashed past, heading toward the Manor. Grim-faced, pale as death, a slim woman wrestled with the reins, desperately trying to control the horse.
Michael cursed and wheeled Atlas. He was thundering in the gig's wake before he'd even thought. Then he did, and cursed again. Carriage accidents were his worst nightmare; the threat of witnessing another sank like a spur into his side. He urged Atlas on.
The gig was rocketing, almost flying; the horse would soon tire, but the lane led only to the Manor - and that would be reached too soon.
He'd been born at the Manor, had lived his first nineteen years there; he knew every foot of the lane. Atlas was fresh; dropping the reins, he rode with hands and knees.
They were gaining, but not enough.
Soon the lane would become the drive, which ended in a sharp turn into the forecourt before the Manor steps. The horse would take the curve; the gig wouldn't. It would overturn, the lady would be thrown...onto the rocks edging the front beds.
Inwardly cursing, he pushed Atlas on. The big gelding responded, stretching out, legs flashing as they gained inch by inch on the wildly rocking gig. They were almost alongside...
The gates flashed up, then were behind.
No more time.
Gathering himself, Michael sprang from the saddle to the gig. He caught the seat, dragged himself half over it. Lunging across the lady, he grabbed the reins and yanked hard.
The lady screamed.
So did the horse.
Michael hung on, with all his strength hauled back. There was no time - no drive left - to worry about anything but halting the horse.
Hooves skidded; the horse screamed again, swung sideways - and halted. Michael grabbed the brake - too late. Momentum whipped the gig around; pure luck kept it upright.
The lady was flung out of the gig onto the grassy verge.
He was thrown after her.
She landed face down; he sprawled half atop her.
For an instant, he couldn't move - couldn't draw breath, couldn't think. Reactions - dozens - poured through him. The slender, fragile body trapped beneath his, delicate yet elementally womanly, sent protectiveness flaring - only to trigger horror and nascent fury over what had so nearly transpired. Over what had been risked.
Then fear welled, black, roiling, irrational and old, dark and deep. It swelled, gripped hard, strangled all else.
Hooves shifted on the gravel - he looked around. The horse, blowing hard, tried to walk, but the gig dragged; the horse stopped. Atlas had halted on the other side of the lawn and stood watching, ears pricked.
Beneath him, the lady struggled. His shoulder lay across her back, his hips anchoring her thighs; she couldn't move until he did.
He rolled back, sat up. His gaze fell on the stone monument, two yards away.
The terror of screaming horses filled his mind.
Jaw setting, he drew in a tight breath, and got to his feet. Watched, grim-faced, as the lady pushed back, then swung around to sit.
He reached down, grabbed her hands, hauled her unceremoniously to her feet. "Of all the stupid, witless-" He broke off, fought to shackle his temper, soaring on the wings of that roiling irrational fear. Lost the battle. Hands rising to his hips, he glared at its cause. "If you can't handle the reins, you shouldn't be driving." He snapped the words out, didn't care if they cut. "You came within yards of serious injury if not death!"
For an instant, he wondered if she was deaf; she gave no indication she'd heard him.
Caroline Sutcliffe dusted her gloved hands, and thanked her stars she'd worn gloves. Ignoring the solid lump of male reverberating with aggravation before her - she had no idea who he was; she hadn't yet seen his face - she shook out her skirts, inwardly grimaced at the grass stains, then straightened the bodice, the sleeves, her gauzy scarf. And finally consented to look up.
And up - he was taller than she'd thought. Wider of shoulder, too...the physical shock when he'd appeared beside her in the gig, compounded when he'd landed atop her on the grass, flashed back into her mind; she thrust it out again. "Thank you, sir, whoever you are, for your rescue, however ungracious." Her tone would have done a duchess credit - cool, confident, assured and haughty. Precisely the right tone to use on a presumptuous male. "However-"
Her rising gaze reached his face. She blinked. The sun was behind him; she stood in full light, but his face was shadowed.
Lifting her hand, she shaded her eyes, and unabashedly peered. At a strong-featured face with a square jaw and the harsh, angular planes of her own class. A patrician face with a wide brow delimited by straight dark brows over eyes memory painted a soft blue. His hair was thick, dark brown; the silver tracery at his temples only made him more distinguished.
It was a face that held a great deal of character.
It was the face she'd come there to find.
She tilted her head. "Michael? It is Michael Anstruther-Wetherby, isn't it?"
Michael stared - at a heart - shaped face surrounded by a nimbus of fine, sheening brown hair so light it was flyaway, puffed soft as a dandelion crown about her head, at eyes, silver-blue, slightly tip-tilted... "Caro." The name came to his lips without real thought.
She smiled up at him, clearly delighted; for one instant, he - all of him - stilled.
The screaming horses abruptly fell silent.
"Yes. It's been years since we've spoken..." Her gaze grew vague as she cast her mind back.
"At Camden's funeral," he reminded her. Her late husband, Camden Sutcliffe, a legend in diplomatic circles, had been His Majesty's Ambassador to Portugal; Caro had been Sutcliffe's third wife.
She refocused on his face. "You're right - two years ago."
"I haven't seen you about town." He had, however, heard of her; the diplomatic corps had dubbed her the Merry Widow. "How are you faring?"
"Very well, thank you. Camden was a good man and I miss him, but..." She shrugged lightly. "There were more than forty years between us, so it was always going to be this way."
The horse shifted, ineffectually dragging the braked gig. Recalled to the present, they both went forward; Caro held the horse's head while he untangled the reins, then checked the harness. He frowned. "What happened?"
"I have no idea." Frowning, too, Caro stroked the horse's nose. "I was coming from a Ladies Association meeting at Fordingham."
The crisp clop of hooves had them both glancing toward the gates. A gig came trotting smartly through; the large lady driving saw them, waved, then briskly steered the gig toward them.
"Muriel insisted I attend the meeting - you know how she is." Caro spoke quickly, beneath the rattle of the gig's approach. "She offered to drive me, but I decided if I was traveling all that way I would use the trip to call on Lady Kirkwright. So I drove over early, then attended the meeting, and Muriel and I drove back in tandem."
Michael understood all she was telling him. Muriel was Camden's niece, Caro's niece-by-marriage, although Muriel was seven years the elder. She, too, had grown up in Bramshaw; unlike the pair of them, Muriel had never left. Born and raised at Sutcliffe Hall at the far end of the village, she now lived in the village center in Hedderwick House, her husband's residence, a stone's throw from the drive of Bramshaw House, Caro's family home.
More to the point, Muriel had elected herself the organizer of the parish, a role she'd filled for years. Although her manner was often overbearing, everyone, themselves included, bore with her managing disposition for the simple reason that she did a necessary job well.
With a stylish flourish, Muriel brought her gig to a halt in the forecourt. She was handsome in a mannish way, undeniably striking with her upright carriage and dark hair.
She stared at Caro. "Great heavens, Caro! - were you thrown? You've grass stains on your gown. Are you all right?" Her tone was faint, as if she couldn't quite credit her eyes. "The way you took off, I never would have believed you'd succeed in reining Henry in."
"I didn't." Caro waved at Michael. "Luckily Michael was riding out - he bravely leapt into the gig and performed the necessary feat."
Michael met her eyes, saw the lurking, gracefully grateful smile. Managed not to smile in return.
"Thank goodness for that." Muriel turned to him, nodding in greeting. "Michael - I didn't know you'd returned."
"I arrived this morning. Have you any idea why Henry bolted? I've checked reins and harness - there doesn't seem to be any obvious cause."
Muriel frowned at Henry. "No. Caro and I were driving home together, then Caro turned into your lane and waved. She was just a little way along when Henry started, then" - Muriel gestured - "off he went." She looked at Caro.
Who nodded. "Yes, it happened just like that." She stroked Henry's nose. "Which is strange - he's normally a placid beast. I drive him whenever I'm home."
"Well next time we meet at Fordingham, I'll take you up with me, you may be sure." Muriel widened her eyes. "I nearly had palpitations - I expected to come upon you bloody and broken."
Caro made no direct answer; frowning, she studied Henry. "Something must have startled him."
"Possibly a stag." Muriel gathered her reins. "The bushes are so thick along that stretch it's impossible to see what may be lurking."
"True." Caro nodded. "But Henry would have known."
"Indeed. But now you're safe, I must get on." Muriel glanced at Michael. "We were discussing arrangements for the church fete, and I must make a start. I assume you'll be attending?"
He smiled easily. "Of course." He made a mental note to learn when the fete was. "My regards to Hedderwick, and George if you see him."
Muriel inclined her head. "I'll pass your wishes on." She exchanged a gracious nod with Caro, then eyed Caro's gig, presently blocking the exit from the forecourt.
Michael glanced at Caro. "Let's take Henry to the stables. I'll have Hardacre examine him, see if he can suggest anything to account for his start."
"An excellent notion." Caro waited while he reached over and released the gig's brake, then she waved to Muriel and led Henry forward.
Michael checked that the gig was undamaged and the wheels rolling freely. Once it cleared the forecourt, he saluted Muriel. With a regal nod, she trotted her horse past and around toward the gates. He turned to follow Caro.
Atlas was still standing patiently; he clicked his fingers and the bay ambled up. Catching the reins, he wound them about one hand, then lengthened his stride. Coming up on Henry's other side, he looked across at Caro - at the section of her face he could see over the horse's head. Her hair glimmered and shimmered in the sunshine, totally unfashionable yet it appeared so soft, it simply begged to be touched. "Are you fixed at Bramshaw House for the summer?"
She glanced at him. "For the moment." She patted Henry. "I move around between Geoffrey here, and Augusta in Derby and Angela in Berkshire. I have the house in London, but I haven't yet reopened it."
He nodded. Geoffrey was her brother, Augusta and Angela her sisters, but Caro was the baby, the youngest by many years. He glanced at her again; she was murmuring soothingly to Henry.
A peculiar disorientation still gripped him, as if he were slightly off-balance. And it had to do with her - he knew her, yet didn't. When they'd briefly met two years ago, she'd been recently bereaved, draped in widow's weeds and heavily veiled; they'd exchanged a few murmured words, but he hadn't truly seen or spoken with her. Prior to that, she'd spent the previous decade or so in Lisbon; he'd occasionally glimpsed her across ballrooms or crossed her path when she and Camden were in London, but had never shared more than the usual social pleasantries.
There were only five years between them, yet although they'd known each other since childhood and had spent their formative years growing up in this restricted area of the New Forest, he didn't truly know her at all.
He certainly didn't know the elegant and assured lady she'd become.
She looked at him - caught him looking at her - and smiled easily, as if acknowledging a mutual curiosity.
The temptation to assuage it grew.
She looked forward; he followed her gaze. Summoned by the crunch of the gig's wheels, Hardacre, his stableman, had come out of the stable. Michael beckoned; Hardacre came over, bobbing a deferential greeting to Caro who returned it with his name and one of her serene smiles. While they walked the gig into the stableyard, he and she explained what had happened.
Frowning, Hardacre ran knowledgable eyes over both horse and gig, then scratched his balding pate. "Best leave him with me for an hour or so - I'll unharness and check him over. See if there's some problem."
Michael looked at Caro. "Are you in a hurry? I could lend you a gig and horse if you are."
"No, no." She waved aside the offer with a smile. "An hour of peace would be welcome."
He recalled, reached solicitously for her arm. "Would you care for tea?"
"That would be delightful." Caro smiled more definitely as he settled her hand on his sleeve. With a nod for Hardacre, she let Michael steer her toward the house. Her nerves were still flickering, twitching, hardly surprising, yet the panic of being in a runaway gig was already fading - who could have predicted that near - disaster would turn out so well? "Is Mrs. Entwhistle still your housekeeper?"
"Yes. None of the staff have changed, not for years."
She looked ahead at the solid stone house with its gabled roof and dormer windows. They were walking through an orchard, the dappled shade sweet with the scent of swelling fruit. Between that and the back door lay a rambling herb garden bisected by a flagged path; to the left beyond a low wall lay the kitchen garden. "But that's what draws us back, isn't it?" She glanced at him, caught his eye. "That things stay comfortingly the same."
He held her gaze for a moment. "I hadn't really thought...but you're right." He stopped to let her precede him up the narrow path. "Will you be remaining at Bramshaw for long?"
She grinned, knowing he, now behind her, couldn't see. "I've only just arrived." In response to a panicked summons from Elizabeth, her niece. She glanced back at him. "I expect to be here for some weeks."
They reached the back door; Michael leaned past her to open it, conscious as he did of her - just her. As he followed her into the dim corridor, directing her to the drawing room, he registered how not simply feminine, but female she was. How much as a woman she impinged on his senses, with her slender yet curvaceous figure gowned in filmy muslin.
There was nothing the least unusual about the gown; it was Caro herself who was unusual, and that in more ways than one.
Following her into the drawing room, he tugged the bell pull. When Gladys, the maid, appeared, he ordered tea.
Caro had strolled to the long windows at the end of the room; she smiled at Gladys, who bobbed and left, then she looked at him. "It's such a lovely afternoon - shall we sit out on the terrace and enjoy the sunshine?"
"Why not?" Joining her, he set the French doors wide. He followed her onto the flagged terrace to where a wrought iron table and two chairs stood perfectly placed to capture the sunshine and the vista over the front lawns.
He held one chair for her, then circling the table, took the other. There was a frown in her eyes when she lifted them to his.
"I can't remember - have you a butler?"
"No. We did years ago, but the house was closed up for some time, and he moved on." He grimaced. "I suppose I should look around for one."
Her brows rose. "Indeed." Her expression stated that a local member should certainly have a butler. "But if you're quick, you won't need to look far."
He looked his question; she smiled. "Remember Jeb Carter? He left Fritham village to train as a butler under his uncle in London. He apparently did well, but was seeking to return to the district so he could better watch over his mother. Muriel was searching for a butler - again - and she hired him. Unfortunately Carter, as so many before him, failed to meet Muriel's exacting standards, so she let him go. That was only yesterday - he's currently staying at his mother's cottage."
"I see." He studied her eyes, hoping he was reading the messages in the silvery blue accurately. "So you think I should hire him?"
She smiled one of her quick, approving, warming smiles. "I think you should see if he would suit. You know him and his family - he's honest as the day is long, and the Carters were always good workers."
He nodded. "I'll send a message."
"No." The reproof was gentle, but definite. "Go and see him. Drop by while passing."
He met her eyes, then inclined his head. There were few he would take direct guidance from, but Caro's edicts in such matters he judged to be beyond question. She was, indeed, the perfect person - the unquestionably best qualified person - to sound out regarding his direction with Elizabeth, her niece.
The tea arrived, brought by Mrs. Entwhistle who had clearly come to see Caro. She took her celebrity in stride; he watched as she said all the right things, asking after Mrs. Entwhistle's son, complimenting her on the delicate cream puffs arranged in a dish. Mrs. Entwhistle glowed and retreated, thoroughly pleased.
While Caro poured, Michael wondered if she even registered her performance, if it was calculated or simply came naturally. Then she handed him his cup and smiled, and he decided that while her responses might once have been learned, they were now ingrained. Essentially spontaneous.
Simply the way she was.
While they sipped and consumed - she nibbled, he ate - they exchanged news of mutual acquaintances. They moved in the same circles, were both extremely well-connected on both diplomatic and political fronts; it was supremely easy to fill the time.
The knack of making polite conversation came readily, fluidly, to them both, a skill attesting to their experience. In substance, however, he would bow to her; her comments displayed an insight into people and their reactions that surpassed his own, that struck deeper and truer, illuminating motives.
It was pleasant in the sunshine. He studied her while they traded information; to his eyes she glowed with confidence, not the sort that sparkled and gleamed, but a quiet, steady assurance that shone through, that seemed bone-deep, infinitely sure, almost serene.
She'd grown to be a remarkably calm female, one who effortlessly cast an aura of peace.
It occured to him that time was passing - oh so easily. He set down his cup. "So what are your plans?"
She met his gaze, then opened her eyes wide. "To be honest, I'm not sure." There was a hint of selfdeprecatory humor in her tone. "I traveled for some months while in mourning, so I've satisfied that urge. I did the Season this year - it was lovely to meet friends again, pick up the threads, but..." She grimaced lightly. "That's not enough to fill a life. I stayed with Angela this time - I'm not sure yet what I want to do with the house, if I want to open it again and live there, hold court like some literary hostess, or perhaps immerse myself in good works..." Her lips lifted, her eyes teased. "Can you see me doing any of those things?"
The silver blue of her gaze seemed layered - open, honest, yet with intriguing depths. "No." He considered her, sitting so relaxed on his terrace; he couldn't see her as anything other than she'd been - an ambassador's lady. "I think you should leave the good works to Muriel, and a court would be too restricted a stage."
She laughed, a golden sound that merged with the gilded afternoon. "You have a politician's tongue." She said it approvingly. "But enough of me-what of you? Were you in London this Season?"
It was the opening he'd been angling for; he let his lips twist wrily. "I was, but various committees and bills proved more distracting than anticipated." He elaborated, content to let her draw him out, to form for herself a picture of his life - and his need of a wife. She was too knowledgable for him to need to spell it out; she would see-and be there to explain and assure Elizabeth when the time came.
There was a subtle attraction in speaking with someone who knew his world and understood its nuances. Watching Caro's face was a pleasure - seeing the expressions flit over her features, watching her gestures, so elegant and graceful, glimpsing the intelligence and humor in her eyes.
Caro, too, was content, yet as he watched her, so she, too, from behind her polished facade, watched him, and waited.
Eventually, he met her gaze, simply asked, "Why were you heading this way?"
The lane led here and only here; they both knew it.
She let her eyes light, beamed a brilliant smile his way. "Thank you for reminding me. What with all this catching up, I'd quite forgotten, yet it's all very apt."
Leaning her forearms on the table, she fixed him with her most beguiling look. "As I said, I'm staying with Geoffrey, but old habits die hard. I know quite a few from the ministries and embassies who are spending their summer in the neighborhood - I've organized a dinner for tonight, but..." She let her smile turn rueful. "I'm one gentleman short. I came to prevail on you to help me balance my table - you, at least, will appreciate how necessary to my peace of mind that is."
He was charmed, had to laugh.
"Now," she continued, ruthlessly gilding the lily, "we have a small party from the Portuguese embassy, and three from the Austrian, and -" She proceed to outline her guest list; no politician worth his salt would refuse the opportunity to bump such elbows.
He made no pretence of doing so, but smiled easily. "I'll be delighted to oblige."
"Thank you." She gave him her very best smile; she might be a trifle out of practice, but it still seemed to work.
A rattle and clop on the graveled drive reached them; they both looked, then rose as Hardacre walked Henry, once more harnessed to her gig, around.
Hardacre saw them and ducked his head. "Seems right as rain now - you shouldn't have any trouble with him."
Caro gathered her reticule and rounded the table. Michael took her elbow and steadied her down the terrace steps. She thanked Hardacre, then allowed Michael to help her up to the gig's seat. Taking the reins, she smiled at him. "At eight o'clock then - I promise you won't be bored."
"I'm sure I won't be." Michael saluted her and stepped back.
She flicked the reins and Henry obliged; in perfect style, she trotted out along the drive.
Michael watched her go - and wondered how she'd known he'd be here to ask. It was the first day in months he'd been home, yet...just luck? Or, given it was Caro, was it good management?
Beside him, Hardacre cleared his throat. "Didn't want to say anything to Mrs. Sutcliffe - no point. But that horse..."
Michael looked at him. "What about it?"
"I reckon the reason he bolted was because he'd been stung with pellets - found three tender spots on his left hindquarter, like marks left by stones from a slingshot."
He frowned. "Boys - for a lark?"
"Dangerous lark if that be so, and I have to say I can't think of any lad hereabouts silly enough to do such a thing."
Hardacre was right; all the locals lived on horses - they'd know the likely outcome of such foolishness. "Perhaps there are visitors from London in the vicinity. Lads who wouldn't know."
"Aye, that's possible," Hardacre admitted. "Anyways, can't see any likelihood of it happening again, least not to Mrs. Sutcliffe."
"No, indeed. That would be like lightning striking twice."
Hardacre headed back to the stable. Michael stood for a full minute, staring down the drive, then he turned and climbed the terrace steps.
It was too late now to call on Geoffrey Mollison, especially not if his household was at sixes and sevens preparing for Caro's dinner party. Doubly so as he himself would be attending and thus would meet Geoffrey later.
Yet his impatience had eased; he was inclined to view Caro's dinner as an opportunity rather than a distraction. Such an event would be the perfect setting in which to refresh his memory and further his acquaintance with Elizabeth, his ideal bride.
Feeling indebted to Caro, he strolled inside - he needed to unpack his evening gear.
* * *
"The enemy is engaged! Our campaign is underway." A triumphant smile wreathing her face, Caro dropped into a chintz-covered armchair in the family parlor at Bramshaw House.
"Yes, but will it work?" Perched on the chaise, picture pretty in a ruffled gown of sprigged muslin with her long fair hair coiled at her nape, Elizabeth eyed her, hope and trepidation in her big blue eyes.
"Of course it will work!" Caro turned her triumph on the only other occupant of the parlor, her secretary, Edward Campbell, seated beside Elizabeth on the chaise. A sober, earnest and reliable gentleman of twenty-three summers, Edward did not look at all the sort of gentleman to have swept Elizabeth off her feet. Appearances, as Caro well knew, could be deceptive.
Letting her smile fade, she met Edward's eyes. "I assure you that when a gentleman like Michael Anstruther-Wetherby makes up his mind you are the ideal candidate for the position of his wife, the only way to avoid having to say the word "no" and cling limpetlike to it in the teeth of the considerable pressure that will - make no doubt - be brought to bear, is to convince him before he makes his offer that he's made a mistake."
Although her words were for Elizabeth, she continued to watch Edward. If the pair were less than rocksolid in their resolve, she wanted to see it, know it, now.
Until five days ago, she'd been happily ensconced in Derbyshire with Augusta and had expected to spend the summer months there. Two urgent summonses from Elizabeth, one to her, one to Edward, had brought them hotfoot to Hampshire via London.
Elizabeth had written, panicked at the prospect of finding herself facing an offer from Michael Anstruther-Wetherby. Caro had thought it a sham - she knew Michael's age and his circle - but Elizabeth had related a conversation with her father in which Geoffrey, having ascertained that Elizabeth had formed no tendre for any gentleman she'd met while in town during the Season, had proceeded to sing Michael's praises.
That, Caro had had to admit, sounded suspicious. Not because Michael wasn't perfectly praiseworthy, but because Geoffrey had sought to point that out.
Edward, too, had had doubts over Elizabeth's conjecture, but stopping in London on their way down, he'd dropped in on certain friends, like him aides and secretaries to the politically powerful. What he'd learned had brought him home pale and tense. The whispers had it that Michael Anstruther-Wetherby had been put on notice for a cabinet position; part of that notice concerned his marital status and the suggestion he alter it by autumn.
Caro had delayed another day in town, long enough to pay a morning call on Michael's formidable aunt, Harriet Jennet. They'd spoken political hostess to diplomatic hostess; Caro hadn't even had to broach the subject - Harriet had seized the opportunity to drop a word in her ear regarding Michael's interest in Elizabeth.
That had been more than confirmation enough. Matters were, indeed, as serious as Elizabeth had supposed.
Caro shifted her gaze to her niece. She herself had been a diplomatic bride, a young and innocent seventeen-year-old swept off her feet by the supremely polished attentions of an older, in her case much older, man. She, admittedly, had had no other love in her life, but not for the world would she wish such a marriage on any other young girl.
Although she'd never known love herself, she had every sympathy for Elizabeth and Edward. It was in her household in Lisbon they'd first met; she'd never encouraged them, but to her mind that also meant not opposing them. If love was to be, it would be, and in their case, it had indeed grown. They'd remained steadfast for over three years, and neither showed any sign of wavering in their affection.
She'd already been thinking of what she might do to further Edward's career, at least to the point he could offer for Elizabeth's hand. That, however, was not a matter for today. Michael's prospective offer had to be dealt with first. Now - immediately.
"You have to understand," she explained, "that once Michael makes an offer it will be much harder to get him to withdraw it, and harder still for you, placed as you are, your father's daughter, to refuse it. Our wisest course therefore is to ensure the offer is never made, and that means changing Michael's mind."
His brown eyes serious, Edward looked at Elizabeth. "I agree. It's by far the best way - the tack most likely to succeed with least damage to all."
Elizabeth met his gaze, then glanced at Caro. Then sighed. "Very well. I concede you're right. So what must I do?"
Caro smiled encouragingly. "For tonight, we must concentrate on raising the question of your suitability in his mind. We don't need to repulse him all at once, but simply make him pause and consider. However, whatever we do can be neither overt nor obvious."
Imagining the possibilities, she narrowed her eyes. "The key to manipulating the opinions of a gentleman like Michael Anstruther-Wetherby is always to be subtle and circumspect."