She ignored their whispers as she left the garden and made her way to the house. The gentlemen were out hunting and the older ladies still at tea. It was the perfect time for a stolen couple of hours in Lord Darlington’s library. She shed her bonnet in her room, then hurried down the main hallway to a staircase with a great carved banister that led to the main floor. With no footmen in sight, Harmony let herself into the library and closed the doors behind her. The room was tucked away in a corner of the manor, an intimate space with an ornate ceiling and tall, laden shelves. There were several chairs and a deep, tufted sofa near the fireplace, with a massive desk between the two windows, facing out into the room.
How Harmony would love a desk like that. After she scanned the shelves and selected a couple of titles, she crossed to the mahogany monstrosity, running her fingers over the carved edges. Why, the desktop was large enough to be a bed. She imagined lying across the top under a blanket, with a pillow cradling her head. Whenever she finished a book and wanted another, she would be right there in the library to fetch one. Bliss!
She moved to the chair, which was nearly as tall as she. With some effort she drew it back and sat down on its weathered seat. So this was how it felt to be lord of the manor. She planted her elbows on the armrests and snuggled back into the chair. If only she were lord of her own estate. Then she might do as she pleased without her brother telling her no, or that it wasn’t ladylike, or she must ask her father or some other nonsense.
Halfway through a vivid fantasy about telling her brother off, she heard a creak and the sound of the library doors swinging open. She slid from the chair into the recessed underside of the desk. Was it only a servant come to dust and organize the books? Was it Lord Darlington, home early from the hunt? Why had she hidden? Now she would have to spring out and shock the person, or risk being found crouched down in this hideyhole, skirts tangled around her legs. Perhaps she would just be very still and hope she wasn’t found. The person would have to leave eventually.
She made her ample figure as small as she could and inched a little farther against the back of the desk’s enclosure, gripping her books in her lap. Quiet. Quiet as a mouse.
*** *** ***
Court prowled the library shelves, relieved to be sprung from the confines of the ducal carriage, luxurious though it might be. It had taken an entire week to travel north from London to Harrogate, a week during which his mother and her companion’s chatter never ceased. Court had nearly recovered in the lazy baths of the spa town when he had to travel again with the elderly ladies to this house party in Sedgefield. Then there would be the lengthy journey back to London in a few weeks’ time.
He couldn’t think of that now. He would put it out of his mind and enjoy the comforts of the Darlingtons’ home. “Only the quality,” his mother had crowed on the journey. “Such elegant affairs, always. There will be grand dinners and fine conversation, and music and dancing every night for the young people. With such bright company, how could a hostess resist? Perhaps we shall even watch affection blossom between some lucky lady and gentleman.”
Mrs. Lyndon had grinned. “Oh, yes, madam. A country match and a winter wedding back in town.”
Both old women had then looked pointedly at Court.
God confound him. Until a few weeks ago the matter of his marriage had been settled, the proper alliance decided upon when he was a young boy. Ah, Gwen, with her sleek dark hair, her wide, serene eyes. They had grown up on neighboring estates in Hertfordshire, and from their earliest years had understood their intertwined destinies. While other boys teased and chased her skirts, Court treated her with the tender deference due a future wife. When he’d gone to London as a young man, he’d been discreet in his wilder adventures lest he shame her or cause her discomfort. Court, his parents, and everyone in society had assumed she would eventually become the mother of the Courtland heirs.
Until her father, Lord Tremayne, announced her betrothal to the Earl of Wembley, a man lesser to Court in every way. A love match, Tremayne explained in an attempt to preserve the long-standing bonds between the families.
But there was more to it than that. Gwen had looked at him differently once the gossip started to surface, sordid tales and half-truths exaggerating his use of spanking parlors and brothels. Oh, Court was bad, but he wasn’t that bad. Her worshipful gazes had become something more like fear. Didn’t she understand he never would have exposed her to that side of him? On pure rumor—so much of it untrue—his Gwendolyn, the future Duchess of Courtland, had passed on his great wealth and attributes to marry a silly country earl.
Court would never admit to nursing a broken heart, but perhaps he was.
His mother didn’t care about his hurt pride, his bruised feelings. She wanted him to choose a different duchess, the sooner the better, and produce a child. This foray north was a matchmaking caper, the house party a convenient aggregation of acceptable female blood. His mother ranted and railed on the topic of Gwen and assured him he could do ten times better if he applied himself. The problem was, after so many years, Court found it difficult to imagine marrying anyone else.
He put these maudlin thoughts aside to enjoy the ambiance of Darlington’s library. It smelled of leather and faintly of cigar smoke, and contained a quantity of interesting volumes. Occasionally he took down a book and leafed through it, looking for some history or novel with which to pass the afternoon, for he was not a man at ease in leisure and he was far from the places he felt at home. His clubs, his political offices, his house in St. James Square. His country estate was off limits, now that Gwen had set up house with her new husband just a few miles from what ought to have been her home at Courtland Manor.
Tomorrow he could join the gentlemen at fishing and hunting, tromp through fields, get dirty and vulgar and shoot a grouse or two. He was good at such sport like any member of his set, though he was generally disinterested in killing things. Something about handing the carcasses over to the servants to be duly prepared and presented at dinner always smacked of wilting affluence to him. He would much rather shoot and prepare his own game over his own fire and eat it standing out in the woods like a savage.
Perhaps that was his problem. There was a savage inside him, trussed up in a waistcoat, coat, and starched neckcloth, gasping for air. Add a couple of elderly companions, a society house party, giggling young ladies, and the savage was smothered completely.
Court gave up on the bookshelves and moved to one of the windows to survey his host’s property. Lovely garden, lake, some outbuildings, and a glass house in the distance. It was very much like Wembley’s estate. Grand but livable. Large, but not so large that one felt dwarfed. In other words, nothing at all like his houses. He crossed to Darlington’s desk, a handsome wooden structure set between the two windows, and sprawled back in the chair. He slung one booted foot over the other and laced his hands behind his head. Ah, but it felt damn good to stretch his legs after so many hours in the coach’s cramped interior—
But then his foot contacted some soft, resistant surface that emitted a feminine squeak.
He leaned down to find a pair of wide blue eyes staring back at him, framed by mussed blonde curls. At first he thought a child had escaped the nursery, but a glance at her bodice dispelled that notion. She was a woman—a beautiful woman—inexplicably crouching at his feet. “What are you doing under there?” His voice sounded sharp. Since the shock of Gwen’s jilting, he’d come to abhor surprises.
“I’m hoping you will leave,” she said in an earnest whisper.
“I would rather not leave until I know why you’re hiding under Lord Darlington’s desk. Are you in some sort of danger?”
“I—I might be.” From the shadows beneath the desk he could see her shapely bosom rise and fall. She peered out at him, one long curl falling over an eye. “Are you, by any chance, going to leave directly?”
“Oh. I wish you would.”
He could see a couple of books clutched in her hand. “What have you there? A pair of romantic novels?”
“No, sir. Not romantic novels exactly. Might I ask who you are?”
“I will tell you who I am if you will show me your books.” He didn’t know why he pestered her. Because it amused him. Because it had discomfited him so to find her hiding there, and he wanted to discomfit her also. She pursed her lips, then looked down to read from the spines.
“A History of English Political Thought in the Sixteenth Century.” She handed it up to him. “And Genghis Khan and the Great Mongol Empire.”
Not romantic novels. Not even close. Court placed the books on Lord Darlington’s desk, feeling unwelcome curiosity about the creature. “Will you come out so I may introduce myself properly?”
“I would rather not.”
“Because you prefer to read under there, or because you’re embarrassed?”
“I am deeply humiliated and wish you would forget this encounter completely.”