Authors: Joan Overfield
"I should have thought that last night would have shown you that I am no milk-and-water miss," she said, raising her chin until she was gazing straight into his startlingly green eyes. "A car
riage journey is well within my poor powers, I assure you."
The belligerent tone in her voice as well as the defiant tilt to her chin had no discernible effect on the earl. "We will leave within the hour," he said, his voice as cold and smooth as ice. He then rose to his feet and left the room.
Portia watched him go, more than a little ashamed of her shrewish performance. So much for her vow to be a lady, she thought with an unhappy sigh. It was apparently going to prove far more difficult than she had anticipated.
It was approaching twilight as they arrived at the earl's estate, which was located some five miles from York. The manor house had been built during the middle part of the last century, and its elegant lines and graceful columns made the breath catch in Portia's throat. "It's beautiful," she whispered, her eyes filled with awe as she turned to Doncaster.
Connor gazed at the house, feeling the same sense of joy he always felt when returning home. "Yes, it is," he said, the quiet pride of ownership evident in his deep voice. "Shall we go inside? I am sure my mother will be waiting to meet you."
To Portia's disappointment, however, the countess had already retired for the evening, leaving a message that she would meet her new companion in the morning. Gwynnen paused long enough to explain that her ladyship often retired early, and then hurried upstairs to attend her mistress. Nancy also excused herself to see to the unpacking, and Connor and Portia were left to eye each other uncertainly. Connor was the first to break the uneasy silence.
"We normally take our meals at country hours, Miss Haverall," he said, clearly making a deter
mined effort to be polite. "Would you care to join me for dinner in an hour?"
Portia hesitated, knowing the earl was extending the olive branch to her. The thought of food was tempting, but not so tempting as a hot bath and a soft bed. Although she knew she should accept, she shook her head with regret.
"If your lordship has no objections, I would rather have a tray in my room," she said, offering a soft smile of apology. "It has been rather a long day."
"Yes, it has," he agreed, so solemnly that Portia was uncertain whether he was relieved or disappointed. "In that case, ma'am, allow me to bid you good night. I shall be gone when you awaken, but after lunch I should be happy to show you about the place. Do you ride?"
She debated whether or not to own to the truth, then shrugged her shoulders in resignation. Her deficiency would be more than obvious to his lordship the first time she tried to take a fence. "After a fashion," she confessed with a selfdeprecatory laugh. "We usually rented our hacks as we needed them, and the only chance I had to ride was when I visited my friends in the country. But I'm a fast learner," she added somewhat anxiously, lest he think her a complete ninnyhammer.
He studied her for a moment, and then his mouth curved in a smile that made her heart race. "Of that, Miss Haverall, I make no doubt," he drawled, his eyes bright with the first flash of warmth she'd seen in hours. "Until tomorrow, then."
The room to which the maid conducted her was the most luxurious Portia had ever seen. The walls were papered in a bright-yellow print that was vaguely Oriental, and the furniture was a charm
ing collection of delicate Queen Anne and gilded Italian rococo. After indulging herself in a soak in the copper tub set before the fire, Portia climbed into the high, canopied bed to enjoy the tray of tea and cakes that had been delivered by a giggling parlor maid.
"It seems I've been deceived all these years," she remarked to Nancy, her expression rueful as she glanced about her. "The lot of a companion isn't nearly so grim as I have been led to believe. It's quite comfortable, in fact."
"Don't let this fool you, Miss Portia," the older woman warned sagely as she arranged Portia's brushes on the polished surface of the dressing table. "This is a guest room, not servant's quarters like you'd have in another house. Although," she added grudgingly, "even the servants' rooms here aren't so bad. I have my own room."
"You do?" Portia was impressed. At home Nancy had had to share her cramped room beneath the eaves with the other maid. "The house must be quite large, then."
"Thirty rooms, not counting the servants' quarters," Nancy provided, repeating what Gwynnen had told her. "And there's a town house in London, too, although it's not been used in years."
The tea and the delicious food, along with the warm bath, were beginning to have a soporific effect on Portia. She set the tray on the side table and snuggled down beneath the thick covers. "Really?" she asked around a yawn, her eyes already drifting closed. "Why is that?"
"Gwynnen didn't say, miss, but I think it's got something to do with the earl. Gwynnen said his lordship won't go to London, not even for Parliament."
"Mmm." Sleep beckoned, and Portia welcomed it gratefully. Her last conscious thought was to won
der why a man so obviously duty-bound as Doncaster should be so neglectful in his responsibilities. She'd have to speak to him on the matter . . .
"So you're the young lady who tried to kill my son with a bed warmer." Lady Elizabeth Dewhurst's bright-green eyes, a color she had bequeathed her son, sparkled with amusement as she greeted Portia. "Well, I suppose I ought to be grateful your aim wasn't any better. Come closer, and let me have a look at you."
Portia bit back a smile as she obeyed the older woman's teasing command. She'd walked into the countess's bedchamber expecting to find a wan and fading woman, but the vibrant lady dressed to the nines in a fashionable gown of lilac silk was the furthest thing from an invalid she had ever encountered. Indeed, had her ladyship not been sitting in a Bath chair, she would have suspected the earl of spinning her a Banbury tale.
"Ah, that is better." Lady Eliza's lips curved in a pleased smile as she studied Portia with unabashed curiosity. "Yes, you'll do nicely, I think. What did you say your name was?"
"I am Miss Portia Haverall, my lady," Portia said recognizing the earl's full mouth and high cheekbones in his mother's face. "My great-aunt is Lady Lowton. Do you know her?"
"Georgianne? I should say I do. But don't think I shall hold that against you," the countess informed her with a tinkling laugh. "We are none of us responsible for our relations, and I thank God for it. My own family, I fear, leaves a great deal to be desired. Whigs, you know."
"No, my lady, I did not," Portia answered, thinking what a shame it was that the earl had not inherited his mother's warmth and wit along with
her good looks. "I shall try to remember that, and not say anything insulting about the party."
"Oh, you may say what you like, for it can't be any worse than what Connor says. A Tory, like his father, for all the notice he takes of politics as a whole. Sheep, now—sheep are another matter, for he positively dotes on the tiresome creatures. Do you know anything about sheep?"
The leap in the discussion made Portia smile. "No, my lady, I fear I do not," she said, thinking she would enjoy the coming days with the countess. Perhaps she'd even tell his lordship there was no hurry in finding a new companion. Until she heard from her great-aunt, she had nowhere else to go.
The countess gave a dejected sigh. "Pity," she said, the jewels on her fingers winking as she threaded them together. "Ah, well, it was too much to hope, I suppose. Shall we have tea, then? I shall tell you about our home and you may tell me about yourself. I want to know all about the young lady who managed to get the best of my son."
Portia's first morning at Hawkshurst passed quite pleasantly. The countess was a delight, and by luncheon Portia felt as if she'd known the other woman all her life. Lady Eliza had a wry sense of humor, and she showed a lively interest in everything and everyone about her. Portia decided it was because her infirmity made it difficult to leave the house, and tried not to take offense when she began quizzing her about her wardrobe.
"I can understand why you would wish to continue mourning for your father," the countess remarked as Portia wheeled her Bath chair into the dining room. "But surely a bit of color would not be considered improper after all these months! A
deep-sapphire, perhaps, or ruby-red. You would look lovely in red."
Portia recalled a gown she had seen in one of the gazettes. It had been fashioned of shimmering red silk, with tiny puff sleeves and a décolletage that was just this side of proper. It was precisely the sort of gown she would have favored in her old life, but now that she was determined to be a lady, she put the dress firmly from her mind.
"It is very kind of you to say so, my lady." she replied quietly, "but I am afraid such colors are unsuitable for an unmarried lady."
"Posh!" Lady Eliza retorted, shooting Portia a disbelieving look. "You can not mean that nonsense! However is an unmarried lady to attract a husband at all if she goes about draping herself in dismal grays?"
Portia was uncertain how to respond to the scorn in the countess's voice. Chipping Campden was a small village to be sure, but they had never lacked for assemblies and other entertainments. She'd had ample opportunities to observe how the
conducted themselves, and one of the things she noted first was the importance they placed in appearance, a preoccupation she had always viewed with an amused sense of superiority.
"I did not mean to imply that I would dress as a sparrow, your ladyship," she said at last, choosing her words with care. "But neither do I intend to deck myself out as a peacock. I would not wished to be considered fast."
"Better to be thought fast than a slowtop," Lady Eliza retorted, her expression making it obvious she was far from pleased. She slumped lower in her chair, her fingers drumming an impatient staccato on the chair's front lever. Suddenly she straightened, her expression softening as she smiled at Portia.
"If it is a matter of money which is making you hesitate, I am sure Connor can be persuaded to advance you some funds on your salary," she suggested gently. "He mentioned your father had disinherited you, and if your purse is a bit light, I should be more than happy to help you."
Portia's cheeks flushed a bright-rose. "It is not the money, my lady," she muttered, all but writhing in embarrassment as she realized the countess thought her destitute. "My father may have cut me from his will, but I still receive a considerable sum from my mother. I am not quite an heiress, but so long as I am prudent, I shall never lack for anything."
"Now I have offended you," the countess said, looking properly penitent. "I didn't mean to. No one knows more than I what it is to have more pride than pounds in one's pocket, and I only wished to help. May I hope you will forgive me?" She cast Portia a hopeful look.
Portia relented, ashamed for having upset the older woman. "Of course I shall forgive you," she said with a gentle smile. "And now that you mention it, I suppose a few gowns would not go amiss. It seems forever since I have had anything new."
"And the colors?" the older woman asked, quick to press her advantage. "You
choose something bright and cheerful, won't you? I know you must think me an interfering old lady," she added when she saw Portia hesitate, "but I adore clothes, and it is no fun choosing gowns for myself so long as I am stuck in this thing." She indicated her Bath chair with a wave of her hand.
Portia leaned over and gave the countess's hand a gentle squeeze. "I will consider it," she promised, then settled back in her own chair and unfolded her napkin. They were just starting the
soup course when she remembered the earl's promise to show her about the estate.
"Will his lordship be joining us for luncheon?" she asked, glancing out the large mullioned windows to the rolling hills of deep-green.
The countess gave a haughty sniff. "I am sure I do not know," she said, raising her spoon to her lips. "I am only his mama, and he seldom sees fit to inform me of his plans. Why do you ask?"
Before Portia could explain, the door to the dining room swung open, and Lord Doncaster strode in, dressed in clothing better suited to a laborer than a peer. "I am sorry I am late, Mother, Miss Haverall," he apologized, bending to press a kiss on his mother's delicate cheek. "There was trouble with seepage in the north field, and we have spent all morning trying to drain it."
The countess eyed her son's mud-spattered boots with pained resignation. "Talk to Mr. Willowby," she suggested before turning her attention back to her food. "Your father always set great store by that wily old shepherd."
"I'd forgotten he was back at the home farm," Connor said, his expression thoughtful as he took his seat. "Perhaps after luncheon I'll—"
"After luncheon you will take our guest for a ride," Lady Eliza interrupted, fixing Connor with a stern look. "Have Grayson consult with Mr. Willowby. The lad does little enough to warrant the salary you pay him."
"Not that I blame Grayson, mind." Lady Eliza addressed her remarks to Portia. "The lad is quite good, but this son of mine refuses to give him any real responsibility. He considers it his duty to see to every little detail of the estate."
Portia saw the look of chagrined exasperation that flashed across the earl's face. It was obvious
his mother kept him firmly under the cat's paw, and given her experiences with her father, she felt a surprising empathy for him.
"If your lordship is too busy to accompany me, I understand," she offered, not wishing to add to his discomfiture. "There will be other days, I am sure."
Rather than appreciating her charitable offer, he shot her an angry glare. "As I had already planned to take you about, Miss Haverall, there is no need to wait." His voice was as cool and remote as she remembered. "Shall we say twenty minutes after we have finished our meal?"
"Twenty minutes will be fine, sir," Portia responded stiffly, vowing it would be a cold day before she gave in to another altruistic impulse. It was just as she had always suspected: being a lady was a thankless task.