Read The Mistress of His Manor Online

Authors: Catherine George

Tags: #Fiction

The Mistress of His Manor

His eyes held hers. ‘Did you get my messages?’

‘Yes. But I didn’t want to speak to you.’ She shrugged. ‘I still don’t, Lord Arnborough.’

His mouth twisted. ‘It’s just a title, Joanna. I’m still the same man.’

‘Rubbish,’ she spat at him with sudden heat. ‘You’re the umpteenth Baron Arnborough. And I assume the “sort of flat” you live in is a suite of apartments roped off from the public at the Hall. No wonder you laughed when I said I’d like to marry the heir.’

‘All right, Joanna. If you mean that, there’s nothing more to say. I am who I am. Thank you for supper. Again. I’ll be on my way.’

Jo leapt up in consternation. ‘No. Please. Don’t go yet.’

‘Why not?’

She glared in him resentfully. ‘You could at least try a little more persuasion.’

Suddenly very still, March raised an unsettling eyebrow. ‘If I do resort to persuasion, Miss Logan, it might not be to your taste.’

‘Try me.’

Catherine George
was born in Wales, and early on developed a passion for reading which eventually fuelled her compulsion to write. Marriage to an engineer led to nine years in Brazil, but on his later travels the education of her son and daughter kept her in the UK. And, instead of constant reading to pass her lonely evenings, she began to write the first of her romantic novels. When not writing and reading she loves to cook, listen to opera, and browse in antiques shops.

The Mistress
of His Manor

by

Catherine George

www.millsandboon.co.uk

Chapter One

L
OW
afternoon sunlight was so dazzling after the gloom of the grafting house he fished dark glasses from a pocket as he walked past the potting sheds and greenhouses to skirt a virtual traffic jam of loaded trolleys on the main concourse. Excellent. Business was good. Even better, one of the trolleys was manned by a very attractive girl. He heaved a sigh as two men joined her, one of them holding a toddler by the hand. Damn. Not single, then. And years younger than her husband. Lucky dog. As he drew level the girl gave him a smile that stopped him in his tracks.

‘Could you give us directions, please? We need winter-flowering pansies.’

‘Of course. I’ll take you there,’ he said promptly. Or anywhere she wanted.

‘Thank you.’ She bent to kiss the child’s cheek. ‘You go with Daddy and Grandpa, poppet.’

‘Come with
you,
’ the little girl said mutinously.

‘Darling, you’re a bit hot, and it will be even hotter where the pansies live, so ask Daddy to buy you an ice cream.’

The magic words sent the child towards her father, beaming.

‘I’ll meet you all at the main entrance afterwards,’ called the mother, and turned to her guide. ‘Right—sorry to keep you hanging about.’

‘No problem at all,’ he assured her, and led her on a shamelessly roundabout route. Her husband could spare her for a minute or two, he told his conscience. When they finally reached the colourful display of pansies he commandeered an empty trolley and took his customer on a conducted tour.

She gave him the smile again. ‘How beautiful. You have the most gorgeous plants here.’

‘You come here often?’ Hell—couldn’t he have come up with something better than that?

‘No. First visit. My mother trusted pansy selection to me. She wants every shade of pink on offer, plus yellow and white.’

‘No violet?’ he said, surprised.

‘Apparently not. Thank you for your help,’ she added, ‘but you must be busy. I can manage now.’

‘I can spare a few minutes.’ Or hours. ‘You choose; I’ll load up.’

He eyed her covertly as she made her choice, sure he’d seen her somewhere before. But for the life of him he couldn’t remember where or when. She was certainly a pleasure to look at as she moved from tray to tray to pore over the blooms. Nothing size zero about this lady. She was delectably curvy in jeans and a plain white T-shirt, with a sweater knotted by its sleeves at her waist. The straight, heavy hair curving in below chin level was the exact sheen and colour of the conkers it would soon be his interminable job to help clear up, but the eyes she turned on him were dark, almond-shaped, and bright with that traffic-stopping smile again.

‘There,’ she said with satisfaction as he put the last tray on the trolley. ‘Time to call a halt before I break the bank.’

‘Our prices are very reasonable,’ he assured her. ‘Competitive, at least.’

‘I’m sure they are. But we rather went mad today before I even started on the pansies. And now I must find my way back to the tribe. Thank you so much for your help.’

‘My pleasure,’ he assured her, and summoned a hovering assistant. ‘Show the lady where to pay and take her back to the main entrance, please.’

‘You’ve been a long time,’ said her father, Jack Logan, when Jo rejoined the others. ‘Madam here was getting restless.’

‘Sorry. It was a really long way to the pansies.’ She grinned. ‘Funny thing, though, the way back was really short.’

Jack raised an eyebrow. ‘Led up the garden path, were you?’

‘Literally.’ Her eyes danced. ‘Which is flattering. My guide was very tasty under all that earth.’

‘Tired,’ wailed a small voice.

Her father smoothed the dark curls from the little face burrowed against his shoulder. ‘All right, Kitty-cat, let’s go home to Mummy. We’ve stowed the other plants in the car already, Jo. Are you staying on to look over the Hall?’

She hesitated, not sure she still felt like it, but then nodded. ‘After making a fuss about driving myself here to do just that, I may as well. I’ll leave my car here and walk over to see how the other half lives.’

‘I could stay with you,’ her grandfather offered, but she shook her head and kissed him lovingly.

‘You look tired. Go home with Jack and Kitty, and tell Kate I did my best with the pansy selection. I’ll ring later to see how she is.’

‘I just hope she spent the afternoon in bed, as promised,’ said Jack, frowning.

‘If you’d stayed there with her she might have done,’ said Jo. ‘Grandpa and I could have brought Kitty to buy the plants.’

‘The idea was to get Kate to rest.’

‘So put Kitty to bed for her, then make a nice little supper for two.’

He smiled. ‘That was my plan, Miss Bossy. Are you going to share it with us?’

‘No. After my tour of the stately pile I’ll drive straight home to my place and get an early night.’ Jo reached up to kiss the drowsy child, then with a wave to her men set off along a carriageway that wound through undulating parkland for a longer distance than she’d expected before it reached the crenellated gatehouse of Arnborough Hall.

She bought a guidebook, handed over the substantial entrance fee, and then walked along a paved pathway through green velvet lawns to cross a moat so wide the ancient house appeared to float in it like an enchanted castle.

‘I’m afraid you’ve missed the last tour of the day,’ said a steward, when Jo entered the Great Hall. ‘But if you care to look round on your own, please do. Your guidebook gives the route.’

‘Thank you. I’ll do my best not to trespass.’ Jo gazed with pleasure at the lofty ceiling and the suits of armour in niches in the high stone walls. ‘It’s such an impressive space, yet the comfortable furniture gives it the feel of a huge, welcoming drawing room.’

The woman smiled. ‘That’s exactly what it is. On special occasions the family use it to entertain. Please take your time. Forty minutes yet before we close, and you’ll find stewards everywhere to answer questions.’

‘Thank you.’ Jo was only too happy to explore alone. Guidebook at the ready, she started in the library to admire its wealth of books and a pair of magnificent terrestrial and celestial globes. The room smelt of old leather sweetened by potpourri, and she paused, frowning a little, sure she’d seen a room like this before. She had the same feeling in a small formal drawing room with gilded furniture, and again in a lofty dining room with a long table laid for a banquet. By the time she reached the ballroom she was convinced she’d visited Arnborough Hall in a former life, and indulged in a pleasant little fantasy—imagining herself twirling around in waltz-time under its magnificent chandeliers.

With no time to follow the usual visitors’ route, she took a shortcut to a long gallery hung with her particular interest, the Hall’s valuable paintings, which included, so the guidebook told her, a rare portrait by Constable. The family portraits dated from as far back as the early Tudor period, and Jo studied each one at length. She spotted a possible Holbein, and farther on a Stuart Lely, and in the Georgian section her eyebrows rose when she found both a Gainsborough and a Lawrence. But she slowed to a halt under the Victorian portraits. The resemblance between the men of the family in the nineteenth century was not only marked, there was something familiar about them. She’d seen the distinctive features of the Victorian Lord Arnborough and his sons before somewhere. In that other life again? Creepy. She sighed as she checked her watch. Time was up.

‘I hope I haven’t kept you waiting,’ she apologised to the steward waiting to lock up in the Great Hall. ‘I should have started earlier. I had to miss part of it.’

‘Then do come again,’ said the friendly woman. ‘We have lots to offer in the run-up to Christmas, both here and at our garden centre.’

‘Thank you. I will. Goodbye.’

As Jo left the gatehouse she felt a leap of pleasure as she spotted a tall figure in the distance. Her hot gardener looked very different now, in clean, elderly jeans and a white T-shirt which clung to his broad shoulders and lean waist. His shaggy ink-black hair was damp round the edges, and he was minus the dark stubble and sunglasses. As he came close, smiling in recognition, she drew in a deep, surreptitious breath. His eyes were the dark amber colour she associated with lions. Hot was right. He scrubbed up
really
well.

‘Hello again,’ he said warmly. ‘You’ve been looking over the house?’

Jo nodded, smiling. ‘The others went straight home from the
garden centre. I came under my own steam so I could look round the Hall afterwards.’

‘Will your husband have your little girl in bed by the time you get home?’

‘Actually that was my father, who looks far too young for the role, so I call him Jack. And Kitty’s my little sister. If you want the complete picture, the handsome older gentleman in the family group was my grandfather.’ To her delight a trace of colour showed along the knife-edge cheekbones.

‘I do beg your pardon,’ he said stiffly, then disarmed her with a grin. ‘On the other hand, the no husband part is good news—or is there some other contender lurking around somewhere?’

Jo laughed and shook her head. ‘No. I’m single.’

His eyes gleamed. ‘Excellent—so am I! Let’s celebrate our single blessedness with a drink before you drive home.’

Jo blinked. ‘My word, you gardeners certainly don’t beat about the bush!’

He shook his head. ‘Life’s too short for that. So will you come? The Arnborough Arms is just down the road. I’m March, by the way.’ He held out a long brown hand.

She shook it formally. ‘I’m Joanna, and I’m thirsty, so the answer’s yes.’

‘Right, then, Joanna. If we cross the gardens at this point we can take a shortcut along a footpath.’

‘You obviously know the place well.’

‘Man and boy. Are you expected for dinner with your family?’

She shook her head. ‘I cooked lunch for them before we came, while Jack hovered around my mother—known to me as Kate, by the way—driving her mad by asking how she felt every few minutes.’

‘She’s under the weather?’

‘Expecting another baby soon,’ said Jo, sobering. ‘Lord knows how my father will cope this time—he was bad enough when Kitty was born.’ She pulled a face. ‘Sorry! Too much information.’

‘Not at all. You and your father have my sympathy.’

‘Thank you.’ She smiled up at him. ‘By the way, I hope the pub boasts a comprehensive Ladies’ room. I feel a bit grubby. And you’ve obviously been home for a bath since I saw you last.’

‘Much needed,’ he said with feeling. ‘I’d been slaving away in the grafting house for hours.’ He took her by the waist to swing her over the stile at the end of the overgrown footpath. ‘Here we are: a couple of yards from the pub’s back door. Hang on a minute—I’ll have a word with the landlord.’

Jo watched as her new friend rapped at the closed door, then opened it to lean inside.

‘It’s not opening time yet?’ she asked, when he came back to collect her.

‘Open all day. I merely asked Dan if we could take over the back parlour to chat in peace. Otherwise you’ll get trampled on by people playing darts and so on.’

The pub was attractive, with black beams and white plastered walls. It was also deserted. Jo raised an eyebrow at her escort as he ushered her into a small room behind the bar. ‘Trampled on?’

‘Sure to be later,’ he said firmly. ‘So, what’s your fancy, Joanna?’

‘Grapefruit juice with lemonade and lots of ice, please.’

Their drinks were waiting on a table in a window embrasure when she rejoined March after her repair session.

‘I’ve been toiling all day, and I’m not driving, so I can indulge in a beer,’ he said, and raised his glass to her. ‘Your very good health, Joanna.’

‘Do you live near by?’

‘Just a short stroll, yes. How about you?’

‘An hour’s drive away.’ She sipped gratefully. ‘I was in need of that. Thank you.’

March leaned back, relaxed, his long legs stretched out. ‘What did you think of the Hall?’

‘It’s a glorious place. I don’t suppose the owner’s single by any chance?’ she said hopefully. ‘If so I’ll marry him and move in tomorrow.’

He laughed. ‘You liked it that much?’

‘It’s the atmosphere. Ancient though it may be, it feels like a home.’

‘Probably because the same family has lived there continuously from the fifteenth century.’

‘Really?’ She eyed him in awe. ‘What an incredible feat.’

‘Achieved because the succession swung from branch to branch a bit on the family tree, with the odd bridegroom taking on the bride’s family name to keep things going. Did you take a look at the portraits in the Long Gallery?’ he added casually.

‘Not all of them. My time ran out halfway through Victoria’s era.’

‘Oh, bad luck,’ he said, and sat back, relaxed. ‘So tell me, Joanna, what do you do with your life?’

She sighed. ‘You’ll laugh.’

His eyes gleamed again. ‘Why?’

‘Other men do.’

March sat erect. ‘I am not like other men,’ he assured her with grandeur, then eyed her speculatively. ‘Are you in entertainment of some kind?’

‘Nothing so exciting. Shortly after I qualified my father’s assistant left him to become a full time mother. He suggested I take over from her for a while until I decided what I wanted to do with my life. I liked the work from day one—still do—so there I am. Working for my father.’

‘What does he do?’

‘He’s a builder.’ Which was true enough. Up to a point.

‘And you get on well together, obviously.’

‘Professionally we make a really good team.’ She smiled wryly. ‘But my private life worries Jack. At times he gets all patriarchal and heavy about wanting me to live at home with him and Kate.’

His lips twitched. ‘Why? Are you addicted to wild parties?’

‘I wish!’ She sobered. ‘No, actually, I don’t wish. I did that bit as a student. These days I lead a pretty ordinary life in my own little house near the park in town.’

March eyed her with respect. ‘Your father must pay you well, then.’ He threw up his hand like a fencer. ‘Sorry. Rude. Forget I said that.’

‘Actually, the house was a legacy. Where do you live?’ she asked.

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