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One Year Later
For Lady Pippa Harrington, it wasn't going to be the usual Sunday family dinner at Uncle Bertie's. Those were full of ridiculous speeches by her stepfather, Mr. Wilfred Trickle, followed by taut silences and the occasional grrr from one of Uncle Bertie's eight corgis under the table. No, tonight, Pippa's great-uncle was celebrating his birthday, and as a guest he'd have his godson Gregory Sherwood, Lord Westdale, son of the Marquess and Marchioness of Brady—one of the most eligible bachelors in London and an up-and-coming architect.
And the last man on earth I want to see, thought Pippa.
But he was back in England—back from an extended stay in America.
"Pippa?" Mother stood at the door to the small, private studio near the kitchen, her soft brown hair in a tidy chignon held back with painted Spanish combs, her delicate shoulders draped in a spectacular spangled gold shawl.
Her exotic accessories had come from Uncle Bertie's trunks. He owned five modest theaters in southwest England, including his pride and joy, the Roger, in the big city of Bristol. Every once in a while, costume inventory in transit from one theater to another between shows made its way to his country house, where Mother, Pippa, and two maids repaired or retired them, depending on their general state.
"Oh, Mother!" Pippa looked up from attaching the final miniature crown to a tiny window on a pale silver sugar sculpture she'd made for Uncle Bertie's birthday celebration. "The red gown is beautiful on you. Are you Desdemona?"
"I'm not sure," Mother said shyly, but she had the proud look of a young girl at her debut. "I think the entire ensemble might be a combination of Lady Macbeth and Kate, from The Taming of the Shrew."
Pippa laughed. "You're not the least bit like either of those ladies. But you look lovely, and you should dress like that always. Not only on Uncle Bertie's birthday."
"I wouldn't dare," said Mother. "This is for Bertie. You know how he is."
"Yes, I do, and you need to be like that, too." Pippa was kitted out in a severe ivory satin frock with seed pearls sewn in a square pattern across the bodice—an altered Ophelia from Hamlet, actually—protected, for the most part, by a sunny blue floral apron. "You were well on your way to becoming the toast of the London stage at one time, and no matter what your situation in life, you should never forget it."
Mother ignored her, but she knew very well Pippa was implying that Mr. Trickle, whom Pippa had secretly nicknamed the Toad—with his protruding eyes, ample jowls, and bald head covered in a perpetual sheen of perspiration—had stolen nearly all the light from his wife's eyes. Some of the blame also had to go to Pippa's own late father, Uncle Bertie's nephew, who'd fallen in love with Mother when he saw her on the stage, married her, and cast her off when he'd tired of her.
Now Mother's limpid blue gaze took in the pretty disarray of molds, marzipan, and cutting tools surrounding Pippa's sparkling creation on the table.
"What do you think?" Pippa spread her arms wide so her mother could experience the full effect of viewing the miniature castle unimpeded.
"Very nice, as always, darling." Mother pulled distractedly at her shawl. "But shouldn't you be preparing yourself for this evening?" With a harried eye, she scanned her daughter for imperfections. "Now that Gregory is back, you must at least try to entice him to marry you. Your gown is perfection, but your hair needs taming."
"After you leave, I'll braid it." Pippa strode across the room to a drawer and pulled out a comb.
"Here?" Mother sounded aghast.
"Why not? I even have a spare tiara in this drawer." She pulled one out and blew on it. "See? It's only missing one false emerald. I'll fix it with some green marzipan. Gregory will never notice." She set it back down and returned to the table.
Mother sighed. "It's all that walking across the moors that makes you so uncivilized. It's unseemly."
"But the fells are far too pretty at every turn of the season to stop my daily hikes." Deftly forming a marzipan turret for the castle, Pippa looked up with an arched brow. "I wish you'd join me. It would do you good to get away from—" She nearly said the Toad, but caught herself just in time. "Nothing's ever the same on the moor."
The way it is here, she wanted to add. Day after day of tension between the Toad and Mother, Uncle Bertie steadily ignoring them, lost in his own theater dreams. And Pippa wishing for …
Wishing for something else.
"Pish," her parent replied. "Every day, the moor's the same. Sky, meadow, tor. Over and over again."
"But it's never the same." Pippa was hurt on behalf of every living creature she'd encountered on the moor, and on behalf of the dramatic landscape itself, a giant, breathing presence—with moods from light to dark—cradling them all.
Ah, but what did she expect? The Toad was a nasty influence on Mother. A dozen years ago, she'd often gladly traipsed hand in hand with Pippa over rough pastures filled with gorse and heather or stood on a rocky outcrop and shouted into the wind.
But those days were no more. Pippa vowed she would never let a man steal her happiness. She would marry for love only, and that didn't seem a bit likely, not when she lived outside the tiny village of Plumtree, which was well off the beaten path.
"Mother, please," she said now. "You know from Uncle Bertie's past birthday dinners that I'm not interested in marrying Gregory, and he doesn't want to marry me, either. We're going to have a perfectly ordinary meal this time, and life will go on as usual—at least until Madame DuPont calls me to Paris."
Madame DuPont was Uncle Bertie's old amour. Her spinster daughter would soon be traveling to Italy for six months, and while she was gone, Madame required a companion, preferably an excellent reader. She'd written Bertie to ask for a recommendation.
"I don't approve of your going to France." Mother's tone was agitated. "You're much better off staying in Devon and finding a husband. Gregory is the perfect one."
An image of him kissing her hard beneath the trees in Eliza's garden—punishing her, taunting her—flooded Pippa's mind, and she felt a moment's shame and anger.
Why had she responded? A year later, and she still regretted it!
She tried for patience. "But this is such a golden opportunity. I'll have a place to live—a safe place with a respectable widow. And on my days off, I'll improve my sugar-sculpting skills under the great Monsieur Perot's tutelage."
"He won't have you in his kitchen," Mother insisted. "You're a woman, and a lady, at that. Only men make fine pastry chefs. You'll find yourself pining away for England, and when you return, you'll be even more firmly on the shelf."
Pippa sighed. "It's a chance I'll have to take. And I have Uncle Bertie's blessing."
"But how can he support your going to Paris when he wants you to marry Gregory?"
"He won't go back on his promise to me just because Gregory chose to come back to England unannounced." Pippa gave a short laugh. "I suspect tonight, because Uncle Bertie loves us both and adores drama, he'll be tempted to interfere, but whatever he says or does won't make any difference to me. As for Gregory, he'll have his pick of dozens of debutantes in London to marry. Bertie's machinations will no doubt fall flat with him, too." She threw her mother a tender look. "Don't forget that I'm like you." The former you, she wanted to add. "I have dreams I want to pursue. And it's not as if six months is a very long time."
Mother let out a sharp sigh. "Well, make haste here. Gregory awaits." She sent Pippa one last warning look then departed.
Slowly, Pippa circled the table and looked at her little castle. Everything felt different now that Gregory was here. The studio seemed bigger and brighter, but she felt smaller, her little castle a feeble testament to the fact that she'd done nothing grand with her life.
At least not yet.
But if she could embrace the unpredictable, brooding nature of Dartmoor—which she did, with every ounce of her being—and if she could endure the despicable Toad and his cruel, conniving ways for ten years, she could certainly withstand Mother's disapproval over her spending half a year in Paris.
She swallowed hard. She could even face seeing Gregory again.
With one brisk movement, she swept up some crumbs of sugary dough into her hand and flung them into the fire. "There," she said to the tiny room which had housed her dreams for the past year, a room Uncle Bertie had used to sketch designs long ago. "I've spoken my wildest aspirations to the world."
Well, almost all of them.
One dream she'd never said aloud, even though Gregory alone already knew what it was. He'd seen it on that sketch pad, but he'd also tasted it on her lips, read it in the way she'd hungrily kissed him back in Eliza's garden.
Quietly, she hung the apron on its hook and began to braid her hair. She wasn't daunted by mere mortal men. A year may have passed since she'd seen Lord Westdale, but she'd known him forever.
Despite the awkwardness between them, he was nothing to fear.
The small mirror next to the door assured her that her braided hair was neat and proper. She placed the tiara on her head, put her chin up, and took a deep breath as she left the studio.
* * *
Several nervous moments later, Pippa rounded a shadowy corner and peeked into the drawing room to spy on Uncle Bertie's birthday dinner guest, and her whole body reacted with a suffusion of heat.
She was sure—positively sure—that the effect no longer came from girlish fantasies of love. She'd told herself she was well over that. The heat in her palms and on her face now came instead from a combination of embarrassment, chagrin, and humiliation. He'd given her no chance to explain the part she'd played in that horribly awkward situation with Eliza.
She was tempted to be angry, but it always dissolved when she thought about the heartbreak that afternoon, hard and harsh as his expression had been when he'd slammed the billiard room door in her face.
Oh, that expression. She'd seen a whole world in it. What he believed, and what he didn't. And he hadn't believed in love anymore—if he ever did. That much was clear.
In the soft glow of early evening candlelight, he was deep in polite conversation with her uncle and Mother, while the Toad glowered in the corner, alone.
Gregory's profile, Pippa thought, moved her for far more than the usual reasons. He was classically handsome, yes, but she saw the sensitivity in his mouth, the intelligence in his forehead, the unplumbed depths … of him, in his eyes.
Her stomach tightened. One long year she'd pined for him.
The oddest sensation—half dizziness, half wonder—seized her and left her breathless. It was the same heavy feeling she got at night when she looked out her window and remembered their kiss and was so overcome that she had to turn her head into her pillow and breathe goose feathers for a few seconds.
But then the visitor saw her and stood to greet her.
Pippa pretended she hadn't stopped to stare at him and walked in with all the sangfroid she could muster. Good God, she thought, he was completely, utterly different. Gone was even the remotest sign of hurt. Of vulnerability. His eyes were hooded, dark. Inscrutable.
"Lady Pippa." His tone was perfectly cordial, but apart from that, Pippa couldn't distinguish anything else in the greeting.
"Lord Westdale," she said in a throaty voice, genuinely moved by the changes in him. "How are you?"
And she meant it. How was he?
He'd grown even more into his splendid good looks since she'd last seen him. She had to gather her wits when he bent that head of glossy black hair over her hand.
"So good to see you again," he murmured smoothly.
She refused to let the warm, bold pressure of his fingers on her own disconcert her. "It's been rather a long while," she returned, striving for cool but failing miserably. There was that catch in her voice, after all. The truth was, she relished his touch.
He stood tall again. "No more than our usual year. But while I was away, I recalled Plumtree and its inhabitants fondly."
"As we did you," she said, "and wished for your safe return."
To me, she thought.
They eyed each other, measure for measure. It was a whole new world between them now. Gone was her childhood playmate—long gone—but also absent was the artificial friendship that had sprung up between them over the years. In its place was … what was it, exactly?
She couldn't say she hated it. A layer had been peeled away. Now there was only a man. And a woman. A woman rejected, yes. And a man betrayed by two clandestine lovers and Pippa, at least in his mind. Yet it was a more honest place than they'd ever been together before.
"We're very glad you're back," she said gamely, and took a chair near Mother's. "How was your American tour?"
"Productive. Pleasant." Gregory sat on a sofa across from Uncle Bertie and threw his arm across the back. He was at his most casual and charming, but the deep undercurrent between them belied his words and his pose. "I met up with several good friends, made new ones, too, and managed to see a great deal of the country's best architecture, as well."
"Did you receive my letter?" Pippa dared to ask him. "I sent it to the address in Savannah your mother provided. Hopefully, you caught up with it. But I suspect you didn't."
"I did receive it, yes."
"And you read it?" she boldly inquired.
"Of course." He arched a brow. "I'm sorry I wasn't able to write back. Time got away with me."
And pigs flew.
"Heavens, I never expected to hear back." Pippa swept open her fan and waved it in front of her breasts. "You're an important man, my lord."
Who can jump into a lake of those wretched American alligators, for all I care, she said with her eyes.
"We could debate my importance," Gregory said matter-of-factly.
Which was why she was blindsided when for the first time in their long acquaintance, he looked at her as if he saw her without a stitch of clothing on her body.
How had he managed to sneak that look in?
She guessed he was using the garden sketch against her in every way he could—and it was working, damn him. It was working very well.
"So your parents are in the area, too?" Mother asked Gregory in timid fashion.
"Yes, Lady Graham, they're in Dawlish. My stepmother loves the place, so Father took her there for a few days' holiday and some good sea air. They were anxious to see you, but he's got very little time to spare away from Whitehall. They asked me to convey to you their deepest wish that you come to London as soon as possible as their guests."
"How kind," barked Bertie.
"You've such a lovely family," said Mother.
"Your stunning stepmother puts every other woman her age to shame," rasped the Toad, which was rude of him as his own wife was Lady Brady's age.
There was a few seconds' painful lull in the conversation, and just when Pippa thought she might actually jump out of her own skin, Uncle Bertie said in a leading fashion, "Speaking of family…"
In a great scarlet chair facing a modest fire, he sat with his stocky legs apart, his back straight, his stomach protruding like a pillow, all because he refused to remove the corgi sleeping behind him. His mouth drew down, and he lowered his brows at Gregory.
It was his recitation mode.
Pippa braced herself. Surely he wouldn't do what he usually did—which was matchmaking—not when he knew she was going to Paris. If so, who would he dangle in front of Gregory this time as a rival for her affections? And how did Uncle Bertie manage to get anyone interested in the first place? Her dowry was nothing, in tonnish terms: his theaters upon his death.
"My great-niece's latest admirer—" he began in a ponderous tone to his godson.
"A handsome lad with fine manners and an abundance of funds—" interrupted the Toad in his croaking voice.
"Is Mr. Broderick Hawthorne, heir to Lord Dalrymple," Uncle Bertie finished just as a corgi squeezed out from behind him and climbed onto his lap.
Pippa's throat constricted. She'd no idea who the man was.
"He's coming sometime next week"—Uncle Bertie wriggled his great girth back into the chair—"and wants my great-niece as his future viscountess. He seeks my blessing. I'm curious to know your thoughts on the matter, godson, as I've never met the man."
Uncle Bertie! Pippa almost sank through the floor. He winked at her, which meant he had high hopes Gregory would be jealous. Knowing there was even further humiliation in store, she burrowed deeper into her chair, toes curling in her slippers, stomach taut with tension, head dizzy with apprehension. Mother touched her false pearl choker, her face ashen white.
Gregory deigned to speak. "I met Hawthorne once. I seem to remember he had a voice like a loud gong and a head that kept splitting into three and back again to one, like a magical mythological creature. Of course, I was in my cups at the time. But I'm still not sure that accounts for the impression."
He sent Pippa a bold, lazy stare. She narrowed her eyes back at him.
"Don't tell me he's an ass." Uncle Bertie leaned forward, his fists on his chubby thighs. "I want to hear more. Shut your ears, Helen and Pippa."
It was a little late for that. Pippa gripped the arms of her chair and stared at their guest.
"He was a sore loser at cards," Gregory replied indifferently. "And despite his lack of chin and his protruding teeth, he declared himself God's gift to women until I challenged him on that point. Of course, the only available judge in the competition was a stooped crone nicknamed the Duchess, who brought us all rum punch and beef sandwiches. But she counts, doesn't she?"
He had the nerve to turn to Mother.
"Of course," she said loyally.
"Thank you, Lady Graham." Gregory gazed at her as if she were a duchess herself—or maybe a queen.
Pippa wanted to be angry, but it was good to see Mother glow the way she was meant to in that splendiferous costume.
"Is that the extent of it?" Uncle Bertie persisted. "He might not be as handsome as you, but he's still Dalrymple's heir. And I don't lose well at cards myself."
Everyone in the room knew that. He'd sulk until someone brought him a fresh glass of whiskey or Pippa hugged his shoulders and kissed his head.
Gregory shrugged. "The Duchess loudly proclaimed that she preferred my devil-eyes to Mr. Hawthorne's puppy ones. She hadn't a word to say about my friends Sir Hugh and Lord Bromley. They were too happily leg shackled to command feminine attention."
"Poor sods," said Mr. Trickle.
"Their hard luck," Gregory replied, his face perfectly serious, the scoundrel.
"Demme, godson." Uncle Bertie gave a chuckle. "You do resemble the spawn of Satan."
"Lord Westdale could have sported horns and pointed ears," Pippa said with exasperation, "and still have won this dubious contest. The Duchess saw that Mr. Hawthorne was obviously the ruder of the two"—only just barely, was the look she sent Gregory—"which is why you can write him and tell him not to bother coming to woo me, Uncle Bertie."
He gave a wry shake of his head. "Hawthorne might be a tad vain, but that's nothing a dose of marriage can't cure."
Gregory's eyes glinted with amusement. "Anyone who's able to procure the hand of the elusive Lady Pippa will, I'm sure, be subject to a heartfelt remedy of all his ills."
Oh, he was incorrigible!
Although he had called her the elusive Lady Pippa, which sounded rather grand. But how could she care when a bucktoothed, chinless loser at cards was coming to offer for her the next week—and Gregory didn't even mind? Not only did he not object, he seemed to relish the idea.
He wasn't jealous at all.
"We're here to celebrate your birthday," she reminded her uncle with a bright smile to mask her fury and—she must admit—her disappointment. "Tell us about your favorite one."
"Not now, Pippa." Uncle Bertie leaned forward and pushed at Gregory's knee with his hammy fist.
Oh, dear. The push. Pippa bit the inside of her lip. The push meant the excruciating moment had finally arrived.
"I'm not entirely sure Hawthorne's suitable to marry Pippa," Uncle Bertie said in the understatement of the year. "But I'll see her settled before I die—and with the right man. You're the husband for her, and you'll never do better than my Pippa."
Pippa wished she could be grateful—a tiny part of her heart was always touched at this speech of Uncle Bertie's—but instead, she felt a great affinity with the corgi by the hearth scratching his fat, bald hindquarters and whining.
Gregory looked calmly into his godfather's eyes. "Bertie—" he began.
Uncle Bertie's face took on a stubborn look. "It's my birthday wish, young man."
"Bertie," Gregory said again in an unruffled manner, although he didn't look at her. "I agree Lady Pippa's not getting any younger."
She sat up straighter. Of all the nerve!
"That fact alone would make her an ideal candidate for marriage," Gregory went on, "but—" He paused a long second. A long, rude second. "But I'm afraid Lady Pippa is far too whimsical at the moment to become a wife and mistress of a well-run household, much less a ramshackle one, which is the sort I prefer. I don't plan to marry for years, you see. However, consider it a promise that I'll ensure she marries well, to someone who cherishes her as much as you do."
Pippa's heart reluctantly warmed. He'd find someone to cherish her!
"It might take years," Gregory continued—years? She wasn't that difficult to cherish!—"but I swear it on my mother's grave."
Pippa wondered what his mother had been like. He'd never talked of her. But wait—she couldn't be diverted from what was going on, which was the spoiling of all her plans.
"I don't want to marry," she reminded everyone, but not a single person acknowledged that she'd spoken. Not even a dog looked her way.
Uncle Bertie rubbed his chin. "That's an extraordinary promise, godson."
"It's my gift to you." Gregory's mouth and eyes were serious.
Pippa nearly sputtered. Gift to Uncle Bertie? Did her wishes not count for anything?
Bertie stared at Gregory a moment. "I accept it," he finally said. "I'm an old man. It's time to pass the baton to the younger, better man."
Pippa stared back and forth between them, her face agog. This conversation simply couldn't be happening.
"You're hardly old," Gregory replied. "And I'm not the better man." He spoke low, and Pippa detected strong emotion in his reply.
She was horrified to find that she felt vaguely jealous. Gregory was genuinely affectionate to her uncle and her mother, but not to her anymore.
Never to her.
"I'm her stepfather," Trickle croaked. "I'm in charge of whom the girl marries."
"Shut up, Wilfred." Bertie patted Gregory's knee.
"Yes, do be quiet, Wilfred," Mother added, and stared adoringly at Gregory.
"I want it to be you, godson," Bertie reminded him one last time, and linked his pinky fingers together to drive the point home.
"I know you do," Gregory replied softly, "but we've gone over this already. Remember what I said." Swarthy and tempting, like a handsome satyr sent to torment her, he looked directly at Pippa.
"Right." Bertie nodded with great vigor. "She needs challenges."
Pippa couldn't help her chest heaving with entirely appropriate indignation. "I'm not interested in marrying you or anyone else, Lord Westdale." Her voice shook with fury. "I'm going to Paris, and I'm going to become an extraordinary sugar sculptor."
"You've proved my point." Gregory's tone was neutral but firm. "You're far too whimsical for your own good. London is where you belong. And London is where you'll find a husband. I leave tomorrow for a house party near Ashburton. On my way back to Town, I'll stop by to fetch you. You'll stay with my mother and sisters. That should be in about two weeks' time."
"Fine idea!" crowed Bertie. "I don't know what I was thinking letting her hare off to Paris."
Pippa pointed a trembling finger at Lord Westdale and looked at Mother and Uncle Bertie. "But he ran away from England for one long year," she insisted, her voice trembling. "Why should you listen to him?"
No one said a word. The tension in the room was thick.
"Doesn't anyone care that I want to make sugar sculptures for a living?" she whispered. "That I have a dream that will make me happy? Mother? Remember you were an actress?"
"Uncle Bertie? You gave up architecture to build your theaters. Because they make you happy. Remember?"
He glowered at the fire, refusing to meet her gaze.
What had happened?
This was all Gregory's fault. Again.
Pippa looked at him. His eyes burned with something that made her wonder if she should check to see if her neckline hadn't slipped down any further. Not that she would. She refused to look down. He wanted her to, no doubt. He was hoping she'd blush and stammer, too.
But instead she raked him with a scornful glance. He'd slung one leg over the other in careless man fashion, an act which stretched the fabric over his thighs to a serious degree, showcasing pleasantly obvious muscles that had no right to be as attractive as they were.
He appeared completely unperturbed by her flagrant perusal of his person. "Duty is its own reward," he said quietly. "You must marry, Lady Pippa."
"Please stop talking about this," she choked out. "Could we—could we have dinner?"
"Let's do," Mother said in a thready voice.
Pippa stood, feeling as vulnerable as a young lady with a precarious hold on her dreams could, especially when faced with a patronizing earl across the carpet who'd decided to be the arbiter of her future.
Gregory crossed the floor before Uncle Bertie—still wedged into his chair—to take her arm. It was a lovely show of "Let's put this behind us, shall we?"
Together, they walked to the dining room.
"Ignore Bertie's disappointment about us," the earl said. "He'll forget it on the morrow."
"No he won't." Pippa's tone was wooden. "He never does."
Gregory pulled out her chair, his nearness causing her to stop breathing long enough that when she did breathe, it would have been an audible gasp for air had not the heavy panting from the crowd of corgis under the table served as a distraction.
She was mortified that after all she'd been through tonight, part of her was still attracted to their glamorous visitor. The entire time he'd kissed her in Eliza's garden, Pippa had known he was using her. Punishing her. So what did this infatuation with him make her? Some kind of empty-headed fool?
Which was why when he asked for the open saltcellar with the darling matching duck spoon at dinner a few minutes later, she reached for the set with alacrity but then wouldn't let go of it right away.
He didn't deserve to use the duck spoon. And for that matter, he hadn't deserved to kiss her. But finally, she relented and handed him the cellar.
When Gregory's mouth twitched with something like amusement, Pippa supposed he had good reason. Here he was, an important man deigning to leave the social whirl in London to come to Dartmoor for an old man's birthday and being forced to sit next to a girl who was pleased by very small things, like duck spoons, fake tiaras, and sugar sculptures—a girl he'd just promised to see to the marriage altar with another, as-yet-unnamed man.
For a moment, it was as if time froze and she were observing the scene from the outside looking in. As the clock on the mantel had done since she was a child, it sounded slightly ill, going tock-tick, tock-tick rather than the more regular ticktock. The same oil painting with the same ship battering through the same choppy seas hung on the wall above the sideboard. The carved roses on the elaborate plaster molding that marched down the seams of the ceiling and framed the cupids painted there were elegant, but she'd seen them a thousand times, and now the fulsome border made the room feel less an airy chamber than a suffocating box.
Dear God, this is my life.
Pippa cast a sideways glance at Gregory and he gave her a secret, knowing smile. He must have taken particular pleasure in rebuffing her today. Oh, he was a heartless, wretched, monster of a man! And try as she might not to, she leaned half an inch closer to him.
Copyright © 2013 by Kieran Kramer