At the age of twenty-six, Agnes Keeping had never been in love or ever expected to be—or even wished to be. She rather chose to be in control of her own emotions and her own life, such as it was.
At the age of eighteen she had chosen to marry William Keeping, a neighboring gentleman of sober address and steady habits and modest means, after he had very properly called upon her father to make his offer and had then made her a very civil marriage proposal in the presence of her father’s second wife. Agnes had been fond of her husband and comfortable with him for almost five years before he died of one of his frequent winter chills. She had mourned him with an empty sort of desolation for longer than the requisite year of wearing her black widow’s weeds and still sadly missed him.
She had not been in love with him, however, or he with her. The very idea seemed absurd, suggestive as it was of a wild, unbridled sort of passion.
She smiled at her image in the glass as she tried to imagine poor William in an unbridled passion, romantic or otherwise. But then her eyes focused upon herself, and it occurred to her that she had better admire her splendor now while she had the chance, for once she arrived at the ball, it would be instantly apparent that in reality she did not look very magnificent at all.
She was wearing her green silk evening gown, which she loved despite the fact that it was far from new—indeed, she had had it when William was still alive—and had not been in the height of fashion even when it was. It was high waisted with a moderately low neckline and short puffy sleeves and was embroidered with silver thread about the hem and the edges of the sleeves. It was not shabby despite its age. One did not, after all, wear one’s best evening gown very often, unless one moved in far more elevated social circles than Agnes did. She had been living for several months now in a modest cottage in the village of Inglebrook in Gloucestershire with her elder sister, Dora.
Agnes had never attended a ball before. She had been to assemblies, of course, and it could be argued that a ball was the same thing by another name. But really there was a world of difference. Assemblies were held in public halls, usually above an inn. Balls were private entertainments hosted by those rich and socially prominent enough to inhabit a house with a ballroom. Such people and such houses did not abound in the English countryside.
There was one close by, however.
Middlebury Park, a mere mile from Inglebrook, was a stately mansion belonging to Viscount Darleigh, husband of Agnes’s new and dear friend, Sophia. The long wing east of the massive central block housed the state apartments, which were dazzlingly magnificent—or so they had appeared to Agnes when Sophia had given her a tour one afternoon not long after they first met. They included a spacious ballroom.
The viscount had succeeded to his title when his uncle and cousin died a sudden and violent death together, and it was only now, four years later, that Middlebury Park had again become the social center of the neighborhood. Lord Darleigh had been blinded at the age of seventeen when he was an artillery officer in the Peninsular Wars, two years before the title and property and fortune became his. He had lived a retired life at Middlebury until he met and married Sophia in London in the late spring of this year, just before Agnes herself moved to the neighborhood. His marriage and perhaps a growing maturity had instilled in the viscount a confidence he had apparently lacked before, and Sophia herself had set about the task of assisting him and at the same time making a new life for herself as mistress of a large home and estate.
Hence the ball.
The two of them were reviving the old tradition of a harvest ball, which had always been held early in October. It was being spoken of in the village, however, as more of a wedding dance and reception than a harvest celebration, for the viscount and his wife had married quietly in London a mere week after they met, and there had been no public celebration of their nuptials. Even their families had not been in attendance. Sophia had promised soon after she arrived at Middlebury that a reception would be held at some time in the foreseeable future, and this ball was it, despite the fact that Sophia was already increasing, a condition that could no longer be quite hidden despite the current fashion for dresses with loosely flowing skirts. Everyone in the neighborhood knew, even though no official announcement had been made.
It was no exclusive honor to have been invited to the ball, for almost everyone else from the village and the surrounding countryside had been invited too. And Dora had quite a close connection with the viscount and his wife, since she gave both of them pianoforte lessons as well as instruction in the violin and harp to Lord Darleigh. Agnes had been Sophia’s friend ever since they had discovered a mutual passion for art, Agnes as a watercolorist, Sophia as a very clever caricaturist and illustrator of children’s stories.
There were to be other, more illustrious guests at the ball than just the people from the neighborhood, however. Lord Darleigh’s sisters and their husbands were coming, as well as Viscount Ponsonby, one of the viscount’s friends. Sophia had explained that the two men were part of a group of seven persons who had spent several years together in Cornwall recovering from various war wounds. Most of them had been military officers. They called themselves the Survivors’ Club and spent a few weeks of each year in company with one another.
Sophia had family members coming too: her uncle Sir Terrence Fry, a senior government diplomat, and another uncle and aunt—Sir Clarence and Lady March—with their daughter.
It all sounded very imposing and had Agnes looking forward to it with something bordering on excitement. She had never thought of herself as a person who coveted social splendor, just as she did not think of herself as someone who would ever fall in love. But she was eagerly anticipating this ball, perhaps because Sophia herself was, and Agnes had grown very fond of her young friend. She earnestly wanted the ball to be a great success for Sophia’s sake.
She looked critically at her hair, which she had dressed herself. She had managed to coax some height out of her curls and had left a few tendrils to wave along her neck and over her ears. The style could hardly be called elaborate, nonetheless. And there was nothing remarkable about the hair itself, a nondescript midbrown color, though it did have a healthy shine to it. There was nothing particularly remarkable about the face beneath the hair either, she thought, smiling ruefully at her image. She was not ugly, it was true. Perhaps she was not even quite plain. But she was no ravishing beauty. And, good heavens, had she ever wanted to be? This going-to-a-ball business was turning her head and making her giddy.
She and Dora arrived early, as most of the outside guests did. Being late was fashionable with the ton during the Season in London, Dora had commented when they set out ten minutes earlier than the early start they had planned. Or so she had heard. But in the country people tended to have better manners. So they were early.
Agnes was feeling rather breathless by the time they reached the doors of the ballroom. The state apartments looked somehow different and far more magnificent with banks of flowers and hanging baskets everywhere and candles blazing from every wall sconce.
Sophia was standing just inside the double doors, receiving her guests with Lord Darleigh beside her, and Agnes instantly relaxed and smiled with genuine warmth. Although she did not expect to fall in love herself, she could not deny that such a state existed and that it could be beautiful to behold when it did. Lord and Lady Darleigh positively glowed with a romantic affection for each other, though they never openly demonstrated their feelings in public.
Sophia looked gorgeous in a turquoise gown that perfectly complemented her auburn hair. That hair had been boyishly short when she was first married. She had been growing it ever since. It was still not long, but her maid had done something clever with it to make it look sleek and elegant, and for the first time it struck Agnes that her friend was more than just pretty in an elfin kind of way. She beamed at Dora and Agnes and hugged them both, and Lord Darleigh, blind though he was, seemed to look directly at them with his very blue eyes as he smiled and shook them by the hand.
“Mrs. Keeping, Miss Debbins,” he said, “how very kind of you to come to make our evening perfect.”
As though his guests were the ones doing him a favor. He was looking elegant and handsome in black and white.
It was not difficult to pick out the strangers in the ballroom. One result of living in the country, even when one had been here for only a few months, was that one tended to see the same people wherever one went. And the strangers had brought high fashion with them and quite cast Agnes’s best green gown into the shade, as she had fully expected. They outshone everyone else too, except one another.
Mrs. Hunt, the viscount’s mother, kindly undertook to take Dora and Agnes about to introduce them, first to Sir Clarence and Lady March and Miss March, all of whom were looking very distinguished indeed, even if the height of Lady March’s hair plumes was rather startling. They nodded with stiff condescension—the plumes too—and Agnes followed Dora’s lead and curtsied. Then there were Sir Terrence Fry and Mr. Sebastian Maycock, his stepson, both of whom were smartly but not ostentatiously clad. The former bowed politely to them and remarked upon the prettiness of the village. The latter, a tall, handsome, personable-looking young gentleman, flashed his teeth at them and pronounced himself to be delighted. He hoped to engage them in some dancing later in the evening, though he did not make any definite appointment with either of them.
A charmer, Agnes decided, but more enamored of his own charms than other people’s. And she really ought not to indulge in such unkind snap judgments when she had almost nothing upon which to base them.
And then Mrs. Hunt presented them to Viscount Ponsonby, whose immaculately formal evening clothes, all black except for the pristine white of his linen and intricately tied neck cloth and the silver of his waistcoat, set every other man present into the shade except perhaps Viscount Darleigh himself. He was tall and well formed, a blond god of a man, though his hair was not the white blond or the yellow blond that never looked quite right on a man, in Agnes’s opinion. His features were classically perfect, his eyes decidedly green. There was a certain world-weariness to those eyes, and the suggestion of mockery in the set of his lips. One long-fingered hand held a silver-handled quizzing glass.
Agnes felt annoyingly aware of her own ordinariness. And though he did not raise his glass to his eye when Mrs. Hunt introduced them—he was, she sensed, far too well mannered to do any such thing—she felt nevertheless that she had been thoroughly inspected and dismissed, despite the fact that he bowed to both Dora and herself and asked them how they did and even paid attention to their less than scintillating answers.
He was the sort of man who always made Agnes uncomfortable, though she had not met many such, it was true. For such stunningly handsome and attractive men made her feel dull and plodding as well as very ordinary, and she always ended up despising herself. How did she want to appear to such men? As an empty-headed eyelid-flutterer? Or as sophisticated and witty, perhaps? What utter nonsense.
She could not get away from him quickly enough in order to feel like herself again as she spoke with Mr. and Mrs. Latchley and commiserated with the former, who had fallen off the roof of his barn only the week before and broken his leg. He could not sufficiently praise Lord and Lady Darleigh, who had paid him a personal visit and insisted upon sending their own carriage to bring him and his wife to the ball and had even coaxed them into staying the night before being conveyed back home on the morrow.
Agnes looked around with great enjoyment as they talked. The wooden floor had been polished to a high gloss. There were large pots of autumn-hued flowers everywhere. Three large chandeliers, all the candles alight, hung from a ceiling painted with scenes from mythology. They glinted off the gilded frieze above the wood paneling of the walls and reflected in the many long mirrors, which made the already spacious room look many times larger and many times fuller of flowers and guests. The members of the orchestra—yes, there was actually an eight-piece orchestra come all the way from Gloucester—had taken their places on the dais at one end of the room and were tuning their instruments.
Everyone, it seemed, had arrived. Lord Darleigh and Sophia had turned into the room, and Sir Terrence Fry was making his way toward them with the obvious intention of leading his niece out for the first set of country dances. Agnes smiled. It was also amusing to watch the Marches maneuver themselves closer to Viscount Ponsonby. It was very clear that they intended him to partner Miss March for the first set. It was doubly amusing to watch him stroll unhurriedly away from them without even glancing in their direction. He was clearly a gentleman accustomed to avoiding unwelcome advances. Oh, she must share this with Sophia when she next saw her after tonight. Sophia was wickedly good at sketching caricatures.
Agnes was so busy observing the look of chagrin on the faces of all three Marches that she did not notice at first that Viscount Ponsonby was moving in the direction of the sofa along which Mr. Latchley’s splinted leg was stretched. Except that he was not coming to commiserate or even to nod a greeting to the injured man. Instead he stopped and bowed to her.
“Mrs. Keeping,” he said, his voice languid, even a trifle bored, “one is expected to d-dance, I believe, at such gatherings. At least, that is what my friend Darleigh informed me this afternoon. And although he is quite b-blind and one might assume he would not see if I did not dance, I know him well enough to feel quite c-certain that he would see even if no one told him. What is the point of having a blind friend, I sometimes ask myself, if one cannot deceive him in such matters?”
Oh, he stuttered slightly—surely his only outward imperfection. His eyelids partly drooped over his eyes as he spoke to give him his slightly sleepy look, though the eyes themselves did not look sleepy at all.
Agnes laughed. She did not know what else to do. Was he asking her to dance? But he had not said so, had he?
“Ah,” he said, raising his quizzing glass almost but not quite to his eye. He had beautifully manicured nails, she saw, on a hand that was nevertheless quite unmistakably male. “Quite so. You s-sympathize with me, I see. But one must dance. Will you do me the honor, ma’am, of hoofing it about the floor with me?”
He was asking her to dance, and the opening set at that. She had been hoping quite fervently that someone would ask her. She was only twenty-six, after all, and not quite in her dotage. But—Viscount Ponsonby? She was tempted to run for the door and not stop running until she arrived home.
What on earth was the matter with her?
“Thank you, my lord,” she said, sounding her usual restrained self, she was relieved to hear. “Though I shall try to dance with some grace.”
“I would expect no l-less of you,” he said. “I shall hoof it.” And he offered his wrist for her hand, which she somehow held steady as she set it there, and led her off to join the dancers. He bowed to her as she took her place in the line of ladies before joining the men opposite.
Oh, goodness gracious, she thought, and for a moment that was all she could think. But her sense of humor, which she was always quite prepared to turn upon herself, came to her rescue, and she smiled. What enormous fun she would have tomorrow with the memory of this half hour. The grandest triumph of her life. She would live upon it for a week. For a fortnight. She almost laughed aloud.
Opposite her, Viscount Ponsonby, ignoring all the bustle of activity around them, raised one satirical eyebrow as he looked directly back at her. Oh, dear. He would wonder why she was smiling quite so merrily. He would imagine that she was delighted to be dancing with him—which she was, of course, though it would be gauche to grin with triumph for that reason.
The orchestra struck a chord, and the music began.
He had, not surprisingly, completely misrepresented himself as a dancer. He performed the steps and the figures with elegant grace, yet with no sacrifice of masculinity. He drew more than his fair share of glances: envious ones from the men, admiring ones from the women. Even though the intricacies of the dance did not allow for a great deal of conversation, his attention remained focused upon Agnes, so that she felt he danced with her and not just for the sake of being socially agreeable.
It was what being a true gentleman was all about, she told herself when the set was over and he led her to Dora’s side and bowed politely to both of them before moving away. There was nothing particular in the attention he had paid her. Yet she was left with the unexpected conviction that she had never, ever enjoyed any evening even half as well as she had enjoyed this.
Had enjoyed? As though it were already over.
“I am so pleased,” Dora said, “that someone had the good taste to dance with you, Agnes. He is an extremely handsome gentleman, is he not? Though I must confess myself wary of that left eyebrow of his. It has a distinctly mocking quality.”
“It does,” Agnes agreed, cooling her cheeks with her fan while they both laughed.
But she did not feel mocked by either his eyebrow or his person. Instead she felt smug and delicious. And she knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that she would indeed dream of this ball and the opening set and her dancing partner for days, perhaps weeks, to come. Even years. She would be perfectly happy to return home now, though it was quite impossible to do so this early in the evening. Alas, all was going to seem anticlimactic for the rest of it.
It was not so, however.
Everyone had put aside daily cares in order to enjoy the opulent splendor of a harvest ball at Middlebury Park. And everyone had come to celebrate the happy, soon-to-be-fruitful marriage of the young viscount they had so pitied when he came here three and a half years ago, blind and reclusive, suffocated by the protective care of his mother and grandmother and sisters. Everyone had come to celebrate his marriage to the little slip of an elfin creature whose warm charm and boundless energy had won their hearts more and more completely during the seven months she had been here.
How could Agnes not enjoy herself and celebrate with them? She did just those things, in fact. She danced every set and was delighted that Dora danced a number of times too. She was led in to supper by Mr. Pendleton, one of the viscount’s brothers-in-law, an affable gentleman who engaged her in conversation from one side for much of the meal while Mrs. Pearl, the viscount’s maternal grandmother, spoke to her from the other side.
There were toasts and speeches and a wedding cake. It was just like a real and lavish wedding reception, in fact.
Oh, no, there was nothing whatsoever anticlimactic about the ball after the first set. And the dancing was to resume after supper—with a waltz. It was the first of the evening and probably the last too, and occasioned a certain interest among the guests, for though it had been danced in London and other, more fashionable centers for a number of years now, it was still considered somewhat risqué in the country and was rarely included in the program at the local assemblies. Agnes knew the steps. She had practiced them with Dora, who taught dancing to some of her music pupils, Sophia among them. It had been planned, Dora had confided to Agnes, that the viscountess would waltz with her uncle.
It was not with her uncle Sophia intended to waltz, however, as Agnes saw when she turned her head to discover the source of a heightened buzz of raised voices mingled with laughter. Someone began to clap slowly, and others were joining in.
“Waltz with her,” someone said—it was Mr. Harrison, Lord Darleigh’s particular friend.
Sophia was on the dance floor, Agnes could see, her arm stretched out, Viscount Darleigh’s hand clasped in hers. There was laughter in her flushed face. Oh, goodness, she was trying to persuade her husband to dance with her. And by now half the guests in the ballroom were clapping rhythmically. Agnes joined them.
And everyone was repeating what Mr. Harrison had said and making a chant out of it.
“Waltz with her. Waltz with her.”
The viscount took a few steps out onto the empty floor with Sophia.
“If I make a thorough spectacle of myself,” he said as the chant and the clapping died away, “would everyone be kind enough to pretend they have not noticed?”
There was general laughter.
The orchestra did not wait for anyone else to take to the floor with them.
Agnes clasped her hands to her bosom and watched with everyone else, anxious that the viscount not make a spectacle of himself. He waltzed clumsily at first, though he did so with laughter in his face and such obvious enjoyment that Agnes found herself blinking back tears. And then somehow he found the rhythm of the dance, and Sophia looked at him with such radiant adoration that even furious blinking would not stop one tear from trickling down Agnes’s cheek. She wiped it away with a fingertip and glanced furtively about to assure herself that no one had noticed. No one had, but she noticed several other people with unnaturally bright eyes.
After a few minutes there was a break in the music, and other couples joined the viscount and viscountess on the floor. Agnes sighed with contentment and perhaps a bit of longing. Oh, how lovely it would be . . .
She turned to Dora beside her. “You taught Sophia well,” she said.
But Dora’s eyes were focused beyond her sister’s shoulder.
“I do believe,” she murmured, “you are about to be singled out for particular attention for the second time this evening. There will be no living with you for the next week.”
Agnes had no chance either to reply or to whip her head about to see what—or whom—Dora was looking at.
“Mrs. Keeping,” the rather languid voice of Viscount Ponsonby said, “d-do tell me I have no rival for your hand for this particular s-set. I would be devastated. If I am to waltz, it really must be w-with a sensible companion.”
Agnes plied her fan and turned toward him.
“Indeed, my lord?” she said. “And what makes you believe I am sensible?” And was that a compliment he had paid her? That she was sensible?
He moved his head back an inch and let his eyes rove over her face.
“There is a c-certain light in your eye and quirk to your lip,” he said, “that proclaims you to be an observer of life as well as a d-doer. A sometimes amusedobserver, if I am not mistaken.”
Goodness gracious. She regarded him in some surprise. She hoped no one else had noticed that. She was not even sure it was true.
“But why would you wish for a sensible partner for the waltz more than for any other dance?” she asked him.
What would be sensible was to accept his offer without further ado, since she could think of nothing more heavenly than to waltz at a real ball. And surely the music would begin again at any moment now, even though the orchestra appeared to be waiting a little while for other couples to gather on the floor. And she had the chance to dance the waltz with Viscount Ponsonby.
“One waltzes face-to-face with one’s p-partner until the bitter end,” he said. “One must hope at least f-for some interesting conversation.”
“Ah,” she said. “The weather is an ineligible topic, then?”
“As are one’s state of health and that of all one’s acquaintances to the third and f-fourth generation,” he added. “W-will you waltz with me?”
“I fear it immensely,” she said, “for now you have surely tied my tongue in knots. Have you left me with any topic upon which I may converse sensibly or, indeed, at all?”
He offered his wrist without replying, and she placed her hand on it and felt her knees threaten to turn to jelly as he smiled at her—a lazy, heavy-lidded smile that seemed to suggest an intimacy quite at variance with the public nature of their surroundings.
She was, she suspected, in the hands of an accomplished flirt.
“Watching Vincent waltz,” he said as they took their places facing each other, “was enough to make one w-weep. Would you not agree, Mrs. Keeping?”
Oh, dear, had he seen that tear?
“Because he danced clumsily?” She raised her eyebrows.
“Because he is in l-l-love,” he said, stumbling badly over the final word.
“You do not approve of romantic love, my lord?”
“In others it is really most affecting,” he said. “But perhaps we ought to talk about the weather after all.”
They did not do so, however, because the orchestra struck up a decisive chord at that moment. He slipped one hand behind her waist, while she set hers on his shoulder. He clasped her other hand in his and moved her immediately into a sweeping twirl that robbed her of breath and at the same time assured her that she was in the hands not just of a flirt, but of an accomplished dancer too. Even if she had not known the steps, it would not have mattered, she was convinced. It would have been quite impossible not to follow his lead.
Colors and light swirled about her. Music engulfed her, as did the sounds of voices and laughter. There were the myriad scents of flowers and candles and colognes. There was the exhilaration of twirling movement, herself a part of it and at the very heart of it.
And there was the man who twirled her about the floor and made no attempt to conduct any conversation, sensible or otherwise, but held her the correct distance from his body and gazed at her with those sleepy yet keen eyes of his, while she gazed back without ever thinking that perhaps she ought to look away or modestly lower her gaze—or find something to say.
He was gloriously handsome and so overpoweringly attractive that she was unable to muster any defensive wall against his allure. There was character in his face and cynicism and intensity and so much mystery that surely a lifetime of knowing him would not completely unmask him. There was power in him and ruthlessness and wit and charm and pain.
But all the awareness she felt was neither conscious nor verbal. She was caught up in a moment so intense that it felt like an eternity—or like the blink of an eye.
There was no further break in the music. When it ended, the set too was over. And the mocking gleam was back in his eyes, and there was the hint of mockery again too about the curl of his lip.
“Not s-sensible after all, then,” he said. “Only enchanting.”
He returned her to Dora’s side, bowed gracefully, and moved off without another word.
And Agnes was in love.
Foolishly, deeply, head over heels, gloriously in love.
With a cynical, practiced, possibly dangerous flirt.
With a man she would never see again after tonight.
Which was really just as well.
Oh, yes, undoubtedly.
Five months later
It was a pleasant enough day for early March, a bit nippy, perhaps, but it was neither raining nor blowing, both of which it had been doing with great frequency and enthusiasm almost since Christmas, and the sun was shining. Flavian Arnott, Viscount Ponsonby, was happy not to be obliged to proceed over the English landscape in the stuffy confines of his traveling carriage, which was trundling along somewhere behind him with his valet and his baggage while he rode his horse.
It was going to feel odd to have the annual gathering of the Survivors’ Club at Middlebury Park, Vincent’s home in Gloucestershire, this year instead of at Penderris Hall, George, Duke of Stanbrook’s home in Cornwall, as usual. The seven of them had spent three years together at Penderris recovering from their various war wounds. When they left, they had agreed to meet there for a few weeks each year to renew their friendship and to share their progress. They had done just that, and only once, two years ago, had one of them been absent, Hugo’s father having died suddenly just as he was about to leave for Cornwall. Hugo had been sorely missed.
And this year they had been in danger of missing Vincent, Viscount Darleigh, who had declared all of five months ago that he would not leave Middlebury Park in March when Lady Darleigh was expecting her first confinement in late February. To be fair, the lady herself had tried to convince him not to miss something she knew meant a great deal to him. Flavian could vouch for that—he had been at Middlebury for the harvest ball at the time. When she had understood, though, that Vincent was quite adamant in his refusal to leave her, she had solved the impasse by suggesting that the Survivors come to them for their gathering instead so that Vincent would not have to miss it or leave her.
The remaining five of them had all been consulted, and they had all agreed to the change of venue, though it did feel strange. And there would be wives this year too—three of them, all acquired since their last gathering—to make things even stranger. But nothing in life ever stood still, did it? Sometimes that was regrettable.
He was almost at the end of his journey, Flavian realized as he rode into the village of Inglebrook and nodded to the butcher, who was sweeping the threshold of his shop, clad in a long apron he had obviously been wearing the last time he cut meat. The turn onto the driveway to Middlebury Park was just beyond the far end of the village street. He wondered whether he would be first to arrive at this gathering of the Survivors’ Club. For some strange reason, he usually was. It suggested a shocking overeagerness in him that was quite out of character. He was usually fashionably late—or even later—to social events.
On one memorable occasion last spring he had been turned away from the hallowed doors of Almack’s in London because he had arrived there for the weekly ball, correctly clad in old-fashioned knee breeches as the rules of the club demanded, at two minutes past eleven. Another of the club’s rules was that there would be absolutely no admission after eleven. He had been crushed and heartbroken at the realization that his pocket watch was slow—or so he had assured his aunt the next day. He had promised a dance to his cousin, her daughter. His aunt had looked upon him with reproach and had made an ungracious comment on his poor attempt at an apology. Ginny, though, was made of sterner stuff, and had merely stuck her nose in the air and informed him that her dance card had been so full at Almack’s that she would have had to disappoint him if he had deigned to put in an appearance.
Good old Ginny. He wished there were more females like her.
He touched his whip to the brim of his hat as he rode past the vicar’s wife—he had a lamentably poor memory for names, though he had been introduced to her—who was chatting with a large woman across the garden gate of the vicarage. He bade both ladies a good afternoon, and they chirruped cheerfully back at him and assured him that it was indeed good and long may it last.
Another lady was proceeding alone along the street toward him, a largish sketching easel tucked under one arm, a bag, presumably of supplies, in her free hand. She had a trim, youngish figure, he noticed appreciatively. She was dressed neatly, though without any nod to high fashion. She lifted her head, having no doubt heard the approach of his horse, and he recognized her.
Mrs. . . . Working? Looking? Darling? Weeding? Drat it, he could not recall her name. He had danced with her at Vince’s ball, at the request of the viscountess, whose particular friend she was. He had waltzed with her too—yes, by Jove, he had.
He tipped his hat to her as they drew level.
“Good afternoon, ma’am,” he said.
“My lord.” She dipped into a slight curtsy and regarded him with wide eyes and raised eyebrows. Then she blushed. It was not just the March chill that rouged her cheeks. One moment they were not rosy, and the next moment they were. And her eyelids went down to hide her eyes.
She was a good-looking woman without being in any way dazzling, though she did have fine eyes, now decently hidden beneath her eyelids, and a mouth that looked designed for humor—or for kissing. There was something about that humor—but, no, though an image pricked at the edges of his memory for a moment, it flitted away without revealing itself. Annoying, but memories tended to be like that for him—little, or perhaps huge, blanks in the past of which he remained unaware until they blinked into existence, sometimes long enough to be grabbed and brought into focus, sometimes winking out again before they could be nailed down. This was one of the not times. No matter.
She was past the first blush of youth, though she was probably younger than he was. Undoubtedly younger, in fact. Good Lord, he was thirty, practically a relic.
He did not draw his horse quite to a stop. What the devil was her name? He moved on, and so did she.
Sensible, he thought as he reached the end of the street, saw that the gates into Middlebury stood open, and turned his horse onto the winding, wooded driveway. That had been his impression of the woman after he had dutifully solicited her hand for the first set at the harvest ball. And he had asked her for the waltz after supper with the explanation that he hoped for some sensible conversation from her.
Not very flattering, that, he thought now, five months too late. It was hardly the sort of word to induce a woman’s heart into fluttering with romantic dreams over him. But that had not been the point, had it? There had been no conversation, sensible or otherwise, during that waltz. Only . . . enchantment.
Odd that he should remember that impression now, when the thought had vanished completely from his memory as soon as the ball ended. Odd and a little embarrassing too. What the devil had his mind meant by conjuring that particular word? And—was he remembering correctly? Had he spoken it aloud in her hearing?
Not sensible after all, then. Only enchanting.
What the devil had he meant?
She was not enchanting. Trim and neat, vaguely pretty, yes. Nothing more startling than that, though. Fine eyes and a humorous, even perhaps kissable, mouth were not sufficient in themselves to dazzle either the eyes or the mind—or to arouse one’s spring fancy. Anyway, it had been October at the time.
Enchantment, indeed. It was not a word that was particularly active in his vocabulary.
He hoped she had not heard. Or, if she had, he hoped she had not remembered.
She had blushed just now, though.
The driveway drew free of the woods, and he was afforded a magnificent view along a neatly clipped topiary garden and then formal flower parterres—colorful even this early in the year—to the wide, impressive front of the house. And it struck him, as it had each time he came here, that his friend had never been able to see any of it. Blindness, Flavian had always thought, must be one of the worst afflictions of all. Even now, knowing Vincent as he did and how cheerful he always was and how he had got on with his life and made something really quite happy and meaningful of it, even now he felt choked up with grief over Vince’s blindness.
It was just as well there was still some distance to ride before he had to face anyone at the house. What would people think of Viscount Ponsonby of all men riding up with tears in his eyes? The very idea was enough to give him the shudders.
His approach had indeed been noted, he saw when he turned onto the terrace before the great double doors a few minutes later. They were open, and Vincent was out on the top step, his guide dog on a short leash beside him, his free hand clasped in his viscountess’s. Both were beaming down at him.
“I was beginning to think no one was going to come,” Vincent said. “But here you are, Flave.”
He was first to arrive, then.
“How did you know it was me?” Flavian asked, looking fondly up at him. “Confess now. You have been p-peeping.”
The two of them came down the steps as Flavian swung from the saddle and abandoned his horse to the care of a groom who was hurrying across the terrace from the direction of the stables. He caught Vincent up in a tight hug and then turned to take the viscountess’s hand in his own. But she was having none of such formality. She hugged him too.
“We have been so impatient,” she said. “Just like a pair of children awaiting a special treat. This is the first time we have entertained guests entirely alone. My mama-in-law stayed with us until after my confinement, but she went home to Barton Coombs last week. She has been simply pining to be back there, and I was finally able to assure her that we could do without her, though we would miss her dreadfully—which we do.”
“I trust you have recovered your health, ma’am,” Flavian said.
She certainly looked as if she was blooming. She had been brought to bed of a boy about a month ago, a couple of weeks earlier than expected.
“I have no idea why people speak of a confinement as though it were some deadly disease,” she said, linking her arm through his and proceeding up the steps with him while Vincent, guided by his dog, came up on his other side. “I have never felt better. Oh, I do hope everyone else arrives soon so that we do not burst with excitement or do something equally ill-bred.”
“You had better come up to the drawing room for a drink, Flave,” Vincent said, “before one of us takes it into our head to suggest that you come to the nursery to worship and adore our son and heir. We are trying to understand that other people may not be as besotted with him as we are.”
“Does he have all ten toes and fingers?” Flavian asked.
“He does,” Vincent said. “I counted.”
“And everything else in its p-place, I trust?” Flavian said. “I am vastly relieved and satisfied. And I am p-parched.”
Viewing and cooing over infants had never been one of his preferred activities. But here he was swallowing a suspicious soreness in his throat again at the realization that Vincent had never seen his son and never would. He hoped the others would arrive soon. Vince had always been their collective favorite, though none of them had ever said as much. Flavian found it easier to barricade his feelings against a quite inappropriate pity when the others were around too.
Dash it all, Vince would never play cricket with the child.
And here was he, Flavian thought, feeling all fragile and on the verge of tears or worse, just because he was here, because he was home, though that word had nothing to do with place but only everything to do with the people who would be here with him soon along with Vincent. Then he would be safe again. Then he would be well again, and nothing could harm him. Absurd thoughts!
They had scarcely stepped inside the drawing room when they became aware of the clopping of horses’ hooves on the driveway below and the jingling of carriage traces. And it was not his own coach, Flavian saw when he looked through the long windows. It was not George’s either, or Ralph’s. Hugo’s, maybe? Or Ben’s? Ben—Sir Benedict Harper—had recently taken up residence in Wales, of all the godforsaken places he might have chosen, and was managing some coal mines and ironworks there for the grandfather of his new wife. It was all rather bizarre and improbable and not a little alarming. Even more astonishing was the fact that all of them except Vincent had traipsed off there in January for the wedding. They might have been marooned there for a month or more. What would one do in Wales for a month? In the middle of winter? They all needed their heads examined. Of course, his own head had never been quite right since he had been shot through the side of it and then tumbled down onto it from his horse’s back during one memorable battle in the Peninsula. Memorable for others, that was. It remained a huge, colossal blank for him, as if it were something he had slept through and merely heard about afterward.
“Oh,” Lady Darleigh said, clasping her hands to her bosom, “here comes someone else. I must go back down. Will you stay here, Vincent, and see that Lord Ponsonby has his drink?”
“I shall come with you, Sophie,” Vince said. “Flavian is a big boy. He can pour his own drink.”
“And without spilling any,” Flavian agreed. “But I will c-come down too if I may.”
There was that foolish excitement again, the one that always ensured he was first to arrive for the annual gatherings. Soon they would be together again, the seven of them. His favorite people in the world. His friends. His lifeline. He would not have survived those three years without them. Oh, perhaps his body would have, but his sanity most assuredly would not. He would not survive now without them.
They were his family.
He had another family of people who shared his bloodlines and his ancestral history. He was even fond of them, almost without exception, and they of him. But these, his six friends—George, Hugo, Ben, Ralph, Imogen, and Vincent—were the family of his heart.
Devil take it, what a phrase—family of his heart. It was enough to make any self-respecting male want to vomit. It was a good thing he had not said it aloud.
Keeping, he thought apropos of nothing as he went back downstairs to greet the new arrival. His mind had winked, and there it was—the woman’s name. Mrs. Keeping, widow. An odd name, but then, perhaps his own name, Arnott, was odd too. Any name was, when one thought about it long enough.
* * *
By the time Agnes had arrived home and removed her bonnet and pelisse, and tidied her hair and washed her hands, her heart had stopped thumping sufficiently that she did not think Dora would hear it when she went downstairs to join her in the sitting room.
It really, really was not fair that he looked even more handsome and virile on horseback than in a ballroom. He had been wearing a long, drab riding coat with goodness knows how many shoulder capes—it had not occurred to her to count them—and a tall hat set at a very slightly jaunty angle on his near-blond head. She had been suffocatingly aware of his supple leather boots and powerful thighs in tight riding breeches, and of his military posture and broad chest and mocking, handsome face.
The very sight of him just when she thought she was going to make it home safely had thrown her into such a stupid flutter that she could not remember now how she had behaved. Had she acknowledged him in some civil way? Had she gawked? Had she shaken visibly like a leaf in a hurricane? Had she blushed? Oh, dear God, please let her not have blushed. How dreadfully lowering that would be. Good heavens, she was twenty-six. And she was a widow.
“Oh, there you are, dearest,” Dora said, lifting her hands from the keyboard of her ancient but lovingly cared-for and meticulously well-tuned pianoforte. “You are later than you said you would be—but when are you not when you have been painting? You have been missing all the fun.”
“I never mean to be late,” Agnes said, stooping to kiss her sister’s cheek.
“I know.” Dora got to her feet and rang the silver bell on top of the instrument as a signal to their housekeeper to bring in the tea tray. “It happens to me when I play. It is a good thing we are both absentminded artists, or we might be forever bickering and accusing each other of neglect. You found something absorbing to paint, then?”
“Daffodils in the grass,” Agnes said. “They are always so much lovelier there than they are in flower beds. What is the fun I have missed?”
“The guests for Middlebury Park have begun to arrive,” Dora said. “A single horseman rode by a short while ago. He was past the house before I could dash to the window, even though I went at breakneck speed, and I saw only his back, but I believe he might have been the handsome viscount of the mocking eyebrow who was at the October ball.”
“Viscount Ponsonby?” Agnes said, and her heart began its heavy thumping again, threatening to deafen her and make her voice breathless. “Yes, you are quite right. I passed him farther along the street, and he actually acknowledged me and bade me a good afternoon. He could not remember my name, however. I could almost hear him searching his mind for it. He called me ma’am instead.”
Goodness, had she really noticed that much?
“And just a few minutes ago,” Dora said, “there were a couple of carriages. There were two people in the first, a lady and gentleman. The second was loaded down with a prodigious pile of baggage and contained a man who looked so superior that he was either a duke or a valet. I suspect the latter. I almost called up to you, but if I had done that, then Mrs. Henry would have heard too and come bustling to one of the front windows, and all three of us would have been seen to be gawking outward and not minding our own business as genteel ladies ought.”
“Absolutely no one would have paid us any heed,” Agnes said. “Everyone else would have been too busy gawking on their own account.”
They both laughed and took their seats on either side of the fireplace, while Mrs. Henry carried in the tray and informed them that the guests had begun to arrive at Middlebury Park, but she expected Miss Debbins had been too engrossed in her music to notice.
Agnes and Dora smirked at each other when she had left, and then got to their feet to see who was approaching along the village street this time. It was a young gentleman driving himself in a very smart curricle, with a young tiger in livery up behind him. The driver looked like another lithe and handsome man, except that a wicked scar slashing across the cheek nearest their window was horribly visible despite his hat. It gave him a ferocious, piratical appearance.
“I quite despise myself,” Dora said. “But this really is fun.”
“It is,” Agnes agreed. Though she wished it was not happening. She had really not wanted to see him again. Oh, yes, of course she had. No, she had not. Oh, she hated this . . . this juvenile turmoil over a man who had scarcely noticed her five months ago and had forgotten even her name since then.
Sophia had told her about the Survivors’ Club and had explained about their annual gatherings in Cornwall, and how she had persuaded them all to come to Middlebury Park instead this year because her husband, the foolish dear—Sophia’s words—had refused to leave her so soon after her confinement. There were seven of them, including Viscount Darleigh—six men and one woman. Three of them were married, all within the past year. They were going to be here for three weeks. The whole neighborhood was agog with excitement, even though it was to be a mainly private gathering. Every one of the Survivors was titled: the least illustrious of them a baronet, the most illustrious a duke.
Agnes had decided to keep well out of their way. It should not be difficult, she had thought, although she often went up to the house to see Sophia, especially during the last couple of months before Thomas was born, when it had been increasingly difficult for Sophia to come to see her, and during the month since his birth. She would stop going while there were houseguests. She would have stopped even if he was not one of the Survivors, for Sophia would be busy entertaining them all. And though Agnes often went into the park to sketch, at the express invitation of both Sophia and Lord Darleigh, she would avoid the parts of it where the guests were most likely to stroll, and she would be very careful not to be seen coming and going.
She had been careful today—until she had lost track of time. None of the guests would be likely to arrive before the middle of the afternoon, Sophia had told her. Agnes had gone, then, to paint the daffodils, when it was still morning. She could not delay altogether for three weeks, because the daffodils would not delay. She would be home soon after noon, well before anyone could be expected to arrive, she had told Dora before she left. But then she had started to paint and had forgotten the time.
Even then she had taken great care while walking home. She had been painting way over beyond the lake and the trees, close to the summerhouse, not even nearly within sight of the main house. The park about Middlebury was vast, after all. She did not return around the lake and across the bottom of the lawn to the drive. That would have brought her within distant sight of the house for a few minutes, and she would have been exposed along much of the length of the driveway too. No, she had walked down into the woods that grew in a thick band inside the southern wall of the park, and had threaded her way about the ancient trunks, enjoying the green-hued solitude and the lovely smells of the trees. She had emerged far down the driveway, only a few yards from the gates, which stood wide-open, as they usually did during the daytime. Then she had proceeded along the village street toward home. There had been no one in sight except Mrs. Jones, who was standing at the gate outside the vicarage indulging in a gossip with Mrs. Lewis, the apothecary’s wife. And Mr. Henchley was brushing sawdust out through the door of his butcher’s shop at the far end of the street for someone else to have to deal with. Agnes had put her head down and hurried toward home.
She had thought herself safe until she heard the clopping hooves of an approaching horse. She had not looked up. Horses were not an uncommon sight in the village, after all. But she had had no choice as it drew closer. It would be very ill-mannered of her not to acknowledge a neighbor. So she raised her head and looked straight into the sleepy green eyes of the very guest she had most wanted to avoid. Indeed she had no reason to avoid any of the others, all of whom were strangers to her.
It was wretchedly bad luck.
And she had despised herself anew as she looked at him. She had shaken off the whole nonsense of falling in love only weeks after that infernal ball. Nothing like it had ever happened to her before, and she would make good and sure nothing like it ever happened again. Then Sophia had told her about the Survivors’ Club coming here. And Agnes had convinced herself that if she set eyes upon him—which she would take great pains not to do—she would be able to look at him quite dispassionately and see him merely as one of Lord Darleigh’s aristocratic friends with whom she happened to have a slight acquaintance.
He was quite impossibly handsome. And a whole lot of other things she would prefer not to put into words—or even thoughts, if the wretched things could only be suppressed.
Which they could not.
All the nonsense from last autumn had come rushing back, just as if she did not have a droplet of common sense in her whole body or brain.
“I wonder,” Dora said as they returned to their chairs, “if we will be invited to the house at all, Agnes. I suppose not, but you are a particular friend of the viscountess, and I am her music teacher as well as Lord Darleigh’s. Indeed, he remarked to me just last week that since his friends will merely ridicule his efforts on the harp, I had better come and play it for them as it ought to be played, and then they would not laugh. But he was laughing as he said it. I think his friends tease him a great deal, and that means that they love him, does it not? I believe they must be very close friends. I do not suppose Lord Darleigh willinvite me to play, will he?”
Agnes shook off her own foolish palpitations and focused her attention upon her sister, who both looked and sounded wistful. Dora was twelve years her senior and had never married. She had lived at home in Lancashire until their father remarried, a year before Agnes’s own marriage. Then she had expressed her intention to answer the advertisement she had seen for a resident music teacher in the village of Inglebrook in Gloucestershire. Her application had been accepted, and she had moved here and stayed and prospered in a modest way. She was well liked and respected here, and her talent was recognized. She always had more work than she could accept.
Was she happy, though? She had a whole neighborhood of friendly acquaintances but no particular friend. And no beau. She and Agnes had grown very close since they had lived together here—as they had always been at home. But they were for all intents and purposes of different generations. Dora was contented, Agnes believed. But happy?
“Perhaps you will indeed be invited to play,” she said. “All hosts like to entertain their houseguests, and what better way than with a musical evening? And Lord Darleigh is blind and therefore more attached to music than any other form of entertainment. Unless there is a great deal of musical talent among the guests, it would make perfect sense for him to invite you to play for them. You have more talent than anyone else I have known, Dora.”
Perhaps it was not wise to raise her sister’s hopes. But how insensitive not to have realized until this moment that Dora too had feelings and anxieties related to the arrival of these guests and that she dreamed of playing for an appreciative audience.
“But confess, dear,” Dora said, a twinkle in her eye. “You have not known many people, talented or otherwise.”
“You are quite right,” Agnes admitted. “But if I had known everyone in the polite world and had heard them all display their talents at musical evenings galore, I would absolutely have discovered that there is no one to match you.”
“What I love about you, Agnes, dear,” her sister said, “is your remarkable lack of partiality.”
They both laughed and then scrambled to their feet again to watch yet another carriage go by, this one with a distinguished-looking older gentleman and a young lady inside—and a ducal crest emblazoned on the door.
“All I need to be entirely happy,” Dora said, “is a discreet and genteel little telescope.”
They laughed again.
For what remained of that first day, after they had all arrived, and for all of the next day as well as much of the night between and the night following, they stayed together as a group and talked almost without ceasing. It was always thus when there was a year’s worth of news to share, and it was still so this year, despite the fact that most of them had met a few times since last spring’s gathering at Penderris Hall and when three of them had married.
Flavian had been a bit afraid that those marriages would somehow affect their closeness. He had been a lot afraid, if the truth were told. It was not that he resented his friends’ happiness or the three wives they had acquired, all of whom were at Middlebury Park with them. But the seven of them had been through hell together and had come out of it together as a tightly knit group. They knew one another as no one else did or could. There was a bond that would be impossible to describe in words. It was a bond without which they would surely crumble—or explode—into a million pieces. At least, he would.
All three wives seemed to know it and respect it, though. Without being in any way overt about it, they gave space to their husbands and the others, though they did not hold themselves entirely aloof either. It was all very well-done of them. Flavian soon had a definite affection for them all, as well as the liking he had felt when he had first met each of them.
One thing he had always valued as much as anything else about the annual gatherings of the Survivors’ Club, though, was that the seven of them did not cling together as an inseparable unit for the whole of their three-week gatherings. There was always the company of friends when one wanted or needed it, but there could always be solitude too when one chose to be alone.
Penderris was perfectly suited for both company and solitude, spacious as the house and park were and situated as they were above a private beach and the sea. Middlebury Park was hardly inferior, however, even though it was inland. The park was large and had been designed in such a way that there were public areas—the formal gardens, the wide lawns, the lake—and more secluded ones such as the wilderness walk through the hills behind the house, and the cedar avenue and summerhouse and meadows behind the trees at the far side of the lake. There would even soon be a five-mile-long riding track around the inner edge of the north and east walls and part of the south; the construction of it was almost finished. The track was to allow Vincent the freedom to ride and to run despite his blindness, and had been his viscountess’s idea, as had the guide dog and other additions to the house and park.
On the second morning, they all had breakfast together after Ben—Sir Benedict Harper—and Vincent had come up from what Ralph Stockwood, Earl of Berwick, described as the dungeon but was in reality an extension of the wine cellar, which had been turned into an exercise room. It was a sunny day again.
“Gwen and Samantha are going to stroll down to the lake,” Lady Darleigh said, indicating Lady Trentham, Hugo’s wife, and Lady Harper, Sir Benedict’s, “while I spend an hour in the nursery, and then I am going to join them. Anyone else is quite welcome to come too, of course.”
“I must spend some time in the music room,” Vincent said. “I have to keep my fingers nimble. It is amazing how quickly they develop into ten thumbs when they are not exercised.”
“Lord love us,” Flavian said. “The v-violin, Vince? The p-pianoforte?”
“Both,” Vincent said with a grin, “as well as the harp.”
“You have persevered with the harp, then, despite all your frustrations with it, Vincent?” Imogen Hayes, Lady Barclay, said. “You are a marvel of determination.”
“You are not planning to favor us with a recital by any chance, Vince?” Ralph asked. “It would be sporting of you to give us all fair warning if you are.”
“Consider it duly given.” Vincent was still grinning.
George Crabbe, Duke of Stanbrook, and Hugo Emes, Lord Trentham, were going to walk over to see how the riding track was coming along. Ralph and Imogen were going to explore the wilderness walk. Ben, who was still very much in the honeymoon stage of his marriage, having been wed to Lady Harper for less than two months, chose to accompany her and Lady Trentham to the lake.
That left Flavian.
“Come with us out to the track, Flave?” Hugo suggested.
“I am going to stroll over to have a look at the cedar avenue,” he said. “I never did get there when I was here last autumn.”
No one protested his seemingly odd and antisocial decision. No one suggested coming with him. They understood his unspoken wish to be alone. Of course they did. They must have half expected it after last night.
The late evenings during their gatherings were almost always taken up with the most serious of their talks. They spoke of setbacks they had encountered with their recoveries, problems they faced, nightmares they endured. It had not been planned that way, and even now they never sat down with the express intention of pouring out their woes. But it almost always ended up that way. Not that they were unalloyed grumbling sessions. Far from it. They spoke from their hearts because they knew they would be understood, because they knew there would be support and sympathy and advice, sometimes even a real solution to a problem.
Last night it had been Flavian’s turn, though he had not intended to talk at all. Not yet. Perhaps later in the visit, when he had settled more fully into the comfort of his friends’ company. But there had been a lull in the conversation after Ben had told them how his recent decision to use a wheeled chair after he had insisted for so long upon hobbling about on his two twisted legs between sturdy canes had transformed his life and actually been a triumph rather than the defeat he had always thought it would be.
And yet they all felt his sadness too, for taking to a chair had been his admission that he would never again be as he once was. None of them would. There had been a brief silence.
“It is almost a whole year since Leonard B-Burton died,” Flavian had blurted out, his voice jerky and unnaturally loud.
They had all turned blank looks upon him.