Read Once an Innocent Online

Authors: Elizabeth Boyce

Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #Regency

Once an Innocent (10 page)

After a time, the angle of the sun and a discomfort in her middle told Naomi it was nearly time for luncheon. The innkeeper’s wife at the Swan Song had packed them a picnic basket, now tucked behind the coachman’s seat. The rain had stopped a short time ago, but the ground remained wet. It would probably be a while yet before the driver spotted a suitable location for the meal.

Aunt Janine’s internal clock must have matched Naomi’s. Out of her voluminous reticule, she produced a cloth-wrapped parcel, from which emerged two scones. “Oh, dear,” Janine said, glancing guiltily at Lord Freese, “I only brought two.”

“Lord Freese can share mine,” Naomi suggested. The gentleman’s blue eyes widened a fraction. Naomi felt herself blush. “That is, if you wish, my lord. I’m not very hungry.”

“Thank you, that’s very kind.” He accepted the larger of the two pieces. It vanished in two bites before Naomi had begun to nibble hers.

As she lifted her morsel to her mouth, the coach hit a rut. Aunt Janine’s scone plummeted from her hand and crumbled into bits on the dirty floor. Auntie looked longingly after the ruined bread, then sat back with a heavy sigh.

With a wistful glance at her own treat, Naomi held it out to the older woman. “Have mine, Auntie. I’m really not hungry.”

Her aunt took the offering with a smile of gratitude. “Thank you, dearest.”

Naomi looked out the window again and tried not to think about food. The grass was drying. Perhaps they would stop soon.

Her stomach emitted an audible growl. Naomi clenched her muscles, willing her body to cease its dreadful row.

She felt
looking at her. Mortified, she turned her head the barest degree, fully expecting to witness his disgust at her indelicate digestive tract. Instead, his too-blue eyes were trained thoughtfully on her.

After the much-needed break for luncheon, they settled back into the coach for the final leg of the journey. The next few hours saw them through villages nestled in the Yorkshire hills and its rugged farmland. Despite her reluctance to spend the remainder of the summer at Lord Freese’s home, Naomi began to feel excitement as she examined the unfamiliar countryside.

Lord Freese’s head leaned back against the squabs, his hat tilted forward to cover his eyes. She thought him asleep, but then a slit of blue peeked from under the brim.

“Tell us what we shall find at Lintern Abbey, my lord.”

He cleared his throat. “My stepmother will be there, Clara, Countess of Whithorn. She’s a pleasant type, and I expect you’ll get along famously.” He nodded to Aunt Janine. “An uncle lives with me at Lintern Abbey. Sir Randell.”

Aunt Janine sniffed. “I prefer the company of young people to tottering old men.”

Jordan laughed. “You will find that Uncle Randell is neither particularly old nor tottering, my lady. But I would encourage you to tell him so, in any case. There’s nothing he likes better than someone to trade barbs with.”

Naomi’s gaze slid to her aunt. “He sounds like you, Auntie.”

Aunt Janine harrumphed. “Not a bit of it.”

Smiling, Naomi looked back to Lord Freese. “How much longer before we arrive, my lord?”

“As I am riding backwards, it’s hard to say for certain, but … ” He leaned forward and craned his neck around to peer out the window. “Yes, that is Lintern Village, just ahead. We’ll be on my land in a moment, though it’s another two miles to the house.”

Soon they rolled down a broad high street lined with neat shops and houses. Curious villagers stepped out of the way and watched them pass.

“Do they know you’re coming home?” Naomi asked.

Jordan smiled ruefully. “Servants at the Abbey will have made sure of that.”

“They’re proud of you, I’m sure,” she rejoined gently. “How long have you lived here, my lord?”

“All my life,” he answered. “My father’s seat moved to Crummock Grange when he was granted the earldom. Prior to that, Lintern Abbey had been the family heap for generations. There’s been a Viscount Freese at the Abbey for two-and-a-half centuries. Father saw no reason to disrupt the tradition. He gave me use of the estate and its income when the title became mine.”

Naomi breathed in at the thought of it. “You see, the people depend on you.”

As they passed through the other side of the village, Jordan’s brows drew together in a frown. “Lady Naomi, I feel it incumbent upon me to warn you: Lintern Abbey boasts little to amuse ladies. We gentlemen will be hunting every day.”

“There will be entertainments at night, will there not?”

“There will,” he assured her. “But you shall be left to your own devices during the day, and there isn’t much to choose from.”

His forecast of a grim party seemed out of place, especially as each turn of the road brought a vista more charming than the last. In the distance, heathered hills gently descended to meet green pastures marked with neat lines of stone walls. How could he claim nothing to offer with such splendid country ready to explore?

They passed through the gates and into a deer park where grass grew lush beneath a canopy of verdant trees. Woods gave way to manicured parkland. A stream ran the length of the park on one side, a shimmering silver ribbon in the late-afternoon light.

At last, they pulled up before the house, a stately Jacobean mansion. Its stone façade had an ethereal, golden gleam in the sunlight. Naomi loved it at once. She thought it the most enchanting house she’d ever seen.

For a moment after Jordan helped her down, she could only stare at it. She counted five stories, but the neat symmetry of the house’s architecture kept its size from overwhelming the observer.

“Dreadful old heap, isn’t it?”

Startled, she glanced up at Lord Freese, who took in the same view as she, but with an attitude of distaste. “Not at all, my lord. I think it’s marvelous.”

He raised a quizzical brow. “You musn’t lie for my sake, Naomi. I know how sadly antiquated it is.”

She was about to argue, but the great door opened. A lady came out on the arm of an older gentleman. They traversed the short walk in front of the door, then descended the stairs coming down to the pebbled drive. Jordan introduced Naomi and Aunt Janine to his stepmother and uncle.

Lady Whithorn took Naomi’s hands. “I’m so happy to meet you at last,” she said kindly. “Jordan’s told us all about your family over the years. I know we shall be friends.”

“I’m sure we shall, my lady,” Naomi said.

The handsome woman looked about forty. Her hazel eyes were wide and bright, and a dimple in her cheek lent her a youthful air. At a glance, Naomi saw that Lady Whithorn had good taste, but was no slave to fashion. Her floral-patterned, calico dress and the lace shawl tied around her shoulders would pass muster in all but the most prickly ladies’ drawing rooms.

While Lady Whithorn gave the Monthwaite servants directions, Sir Randell and Aunt Janine eyed each other as warily as two cats circling in an alley. Jordan’s uncle stood nearly as tall as his nephew. His hair was an impressive silver mane, and the spectacles on his nose did not diminish the impact of fierce, blue eyes. A family trait, Naomi observed.

“We expected you earlier,” Lady Whithorn commented to Jordan as they went up the stairs to the house. “Your friends have settled into their rooms.”

“A horseshoe delayed me,” Lord Freese said. “Thankfully, the ladies accommodated me in their coach, else I’d have been even later.”

“Tell me you aren’t still gallivanting all over the countryside on poor Phantom!” Lady Whithorn exclaimed.

“You see?” Jordan grinned down at Naomi. “My step-mama does suffer so, on my account.”

A squeal from the door caught Naomi’s attention an instant before a bundle of lace and feet hurtled down the walk and straight into Lord Freese’s middle.

Startled, he wrapped his arms around the entity, which, upon stopping, sorted itself out into a young lady. Her muffled voice prattled excitedly against his chest until he pushed her back.

“ … So happy to see you,” the girl said. “It’s been ever so long since you’ve come to the Grange. I
Mama and Papa would take me up to Town this spring, but Mama said I’ll be there soon enough, and Papa wouldn’t budge, even when I told him I only wanted to come see you.”

Naomi was amused by the girl until she saw the shock on Jordan’s face. His cheeks had drained of color. “Just … just a minute, my dear, let me introduce you to my guests.” He seemed completely rattled. Who was this child, Naomi wondered, to cause Lord Freese such alarm?

“Oh!” The girl twirled around to Naomi and Aunt Janine. “I’m sorry. I’ve forgotten myself already.” She was all coltish arms and legs. Her dark hair hung in a braid down her back. A liberal sprinkling of freckles dotted the bridge of her nose and the apples of her cheeks. Her smile was as yet overwide in her thin face, but Naomi could tell she’d bloom into a beauty in a few more years.

She nodded to the girl as Jordan made the introduction. “Lady Janine, Lady Naomi, allow me to present my sister, Lady Kaitlin. Who is not,” he said, rounding on his stepmother, “supposed to be here.”

Chapter Seven

In the entry hall, Jordan reined in his temper. “Kate,” he said to his sister, “please escort Lady Janine and Lady Naomi to their rooms.”

The young adolescent wore a stricken expression. She bit her lips nervously, and her hands tangled at her waist. Kate nodded rapidly, her eyes large and pleading on his.

Jordan sighed.

Naomi gently touched her arm. “Lady Kaitlin, if you’d be so kind? I’m beyond ready to change into something less travel worn.”

Kate’s huge eyes rolled toward Naomi, who smiled reassuringly. Thankfully, his sister took Naomi’s gracious cue and led the ladies upstairs.

“Thank God for Naomi Lockwood,” he muttered. “Clara, come with me.”

“For shame!” his stepmother hissed, hurrying to keep pace beside him. “You should not have said what you did in front of Kate. The poor girl adores you, Jordan, and you proclaim her unwelcome!”

Jordan opened the door to his study and gestured her in. The room’s air was stale from disuse.

“Why did you bring her?” he demanded. Clara’s mouth pinched together. “When I wrote,” he said, jabbing his right index finger demonstratively into his left palm, “I specifically instructed that Kate was
to attend. She should be home with her governess.” He crossed to the other end of the room, unlatched a window, flung it wide, and inhaled deep breaths of the cleansing, fresh air.

“Miss Allen has scarlet fever,” Clara explained. “Even you must agree it is better for Kate to be out of the house than cooped up with such an illness.”

“Where is my father, then?”

“In Scotland,” Clara declared with a note of triumph, “fishing.” She raised a brow. “What choice did I have but to bring her with me?”

Jordan growled and ran both hands through his hair. What a fool he was to concoct this ridiculous house party! The whole scheme had already gone wrong, with him being unable to perform the most basic function of keeping his sister out of harm’s way.

“But she’ll feel left out.” He restlessly prowled the room, working the stiffness of his long, cramped confinement in the coach out of his legs. “She cannot participate in most of the evening entertainments — dancing, cards, and so forth. It would be quite beyond the pale. I won’t allow it and, neither, I know, will you.”

“Of course not!” Clara sounded scandalized at the merest suggestion that she might be less than assiduous in protecting her daughter’s reputation. “I have already discussed the matter with Kate, and she understands. But there can be no harm in her mixing with the other ladies during the day. I shall watch her closely, of course. Your claims,” she said, shaking her head, “about her feeling left out are entirely unfounded, and I dismiss them out of hand.” She flicked her wrist as though physically waving away Jordan’s arguments. “It can be nothing to you if she’s here, in any event. You’ll be outdoors while she’s with the ladies, and she’ll be in her room at night while you while away the hours downstairs. When would you even see her?”

Jordan couldn’t help but feel a twinge of guilt at neglecting his sister. True, he could avoid her entirely if he wished. But that wasn’t the point, and he said so.

Confusion clouded Clara’s eyes. “What
the point, Jordan? I must confess I am utterly baffled by your objections. Believe you me, had I known what a fuss you would make over Kate, I would have told you to find yourself another hostess.” Her arms crossed beneath her chest, and one toe peeking from beneath the hem of her dress tapped out an annoyed cadence.

God, this was getting worse and worse. Briefly, he wondered if he should tell Clara the truth — the real reason for the house party. He’d built a career lying and manipulating people. Never before had the lies hit so close to home. Never would he have thought the people he loved would become ensnared in his world of secrecy. But if he told her the truth, everything would fall to pieces.

“I’m sorry, but Kate cannot remain,” he said sharply. “Surely, there’s somewhere else you can send her. Your sister lives not twenty miles from here, I believe?”

Hurt filled Clara’s eyes. “Jordan Atherton,” she said quietly, “you and I have scarcely exchanged harsh words since the day I married your father. Despite the numerous scrapes you’ve gotten yourself into over the years, I have always spoken up for you. It grieves me deeply now to experience this … ” Her lips curled in distaste. “ … this
of you. And I pray never to witness it again. If you want Kate to go, then
shall tell her. I’ll not be the villain in this farce.”

Jordan stood with his feet braced wide and glared down into his stepmother’s fierce expression. He closed his eyes and groaned, his resolve crumbling. He couldn’t bear to disappoint Kate, not after he’d managed to hurt the child seconds after his arrival. And there really wouldn’t be any danger, he supposed, not if he and his men performed their duties as they should.

“Fine.” He flung his hands up in surrender. “She stays. But you
keep her with the other ladies, Clara,” he said emphatically. “I mean it. Keep her close to the house. She cannot go rambling about the estate as she does at the Grange. It isn’t — ”

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