Authors: Elizabeth Boyce
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #Regency
“Nothing’s caught my eye, my lady,” he replied.
“You’d better dig into those deep pockets of yours,” Lady Janine insisted. “This is for my niece’s school.”
Jordan raised a quizzical brow. “Lady Thorburn is not your niece, ma’am.”
“Don’t contradict me, boy!” Her blue eyes sparked behind the lenses of her gold-rimmed spectacles. “Mind your own damned business and do as I say.”
He chuckled. Jordan had always appreciated Lady Janine’s spunk, even if she was a hopeless bluestocking. He turned around to see Marshall standing at the front of the room again, balancing a pie on each hand.
“The winner of this lot is in for a special treat,” he announced. “These fruit pies were baked by the Duchess of Monthwaite herself, especially for tonight’s auction.”
Another round of applause. Isabelle nodded from her seat, acknowledging the attention.
“What are the fillings, Duchess?” someone called.
“One cherry, one blueberry,” Isabelle answered.
Jordan glanced once more at the door. Still no Naomi. He huffed.
Get out of my head
, he thought in frustration. He had far more important matters to think about.
“Very well,” Marshall announced, “for one cherry and one blueberry pie baked by the Duchess of Monthwaite, who will open the bidding at fifty pounds?”
French agents at his home. They would be former military, he reasoned — as well trained themselves as anyone he could bring to counteract them.
David Hornsby raised his hand.
“We have fifty pounds!” Marshall called. “Who will offer seventy-five?”
These would not be brutes, no, Jordan thought, tapping a finger against his upper lip. Their actions so far had demonstrated an organized elegance, working in small groups to cover more ground. That meant they had established a communication network. They wouldn’t rely upon the English post to carry their reports to one another. Couriers of their own, then. A French intelligence network — in Yorkshire! His mind reeled.
“One hundred pounds,” Mr. Bachman called.
The door still stood vacant. No Naomi. Jordan’s toes tapped out a rapid tattoo.
“Thank you for your generous bid, Mr. Bachman,” Marshall said. “Can one of you best it?”
Lady Janine’s finger dug into the back of his shoulder. Jordan ignored it. “Where the devil is she?” he muttered. He looked at the door again and sighed.
“One hundred fifty!” Hornsby called.
Jordan shook his head. One hundred fifty pounds for two pies? Ludicrous! Lintern Abbey had twenty thousand acres. Jordan had to patrol it with ten men — eleven, including himself. And make it look innocuous. It was preposterous.
Scowling, he turned fully to face the door. “Get back in this room,” he whispered. Why was he growing agitated at Naomi? She hadn’t done anything to earn his ire. Except look utterly delectable this evening and arouse an awareness in him that had never been there before.
“Two hundred,” said Lord Hollier.
“Two hundred pounds from Lord Hollier,” Marshall called. “Are there any more bids?” No one spoke. “Two hundred once.”
Where is she?
Jordan scanned the room to make sure he hadn’t missed seeing her come back in. No, she was not in the salon, he was certain. What if something had happened to her? An uneasiness tightened his chest.
“Two hundred twice!”
“Fifteen hundred pounds!”
A collective, startled gasp filled the room, and every face turned to see who had bid such an outrageous sum for two fruit pies. It took Jordan a moment to realize they were all looking at him.
“Sold,” Marshall called, grinning broadly at Jordan, “for fifteen hundred pounds to the gentleman with the sweet tooth.”
The audience laughed and clapped appreciatively. Jordan stood, feeling like the biggest fool imaginable. Lady Janine wore a satisfied expression.
He realized what he’d really purchased was the right to leave. With a sharp nod to no one in particular, Jordan turned on a heel and stalked out of the salon to find Naomi.
Two hours earlier
Naomi looked over her shoulder into the full-length mirror in the corner of her dressing room while her maid adjusted the bow at the back of her ensemble. Her dress was rose gauze and split at the back to reveal the darker mauve, silk slip beneath. Lace the color of buttercream adorned the short sleeves and low, square neckline.
“Thank you, Brenna,” she said when the bow was just right. She pressed a hand to her fluttering stomach and drew a deep breath as she scrutinized her appearance once more. Her blond hair, marked with strawberry highlights, had been twisted high at the crown of her head, with a single braid wrapped around the knot. A silk peony — its petals touched here and there with glittering crystals — was tucked under the braid. Around her neck, she wore the necklace Marshall had given her for her twentieth birthday, a strand of pearls with a diamond-accented, filigreed pendant.
“Do I look all right?” she asked Brenna.
Her lady’s maid smiled warmly, crinkling the corners of her kind eyes. “As beautiful as ever, my lady — more than usual, if it’s possible.”
Naomi smiled wryly. “I doubt very much that my looks are improving. I’m steadily closing in on one-and-twenty.”
“But still in the first bloom of youth,” Brenna said firmly.
Naomi nodded. “You’re right, of course.”
But she wasn’t so sure.
After two Seasons, Naomi was as unattached as she’d been the day she made her bow. In just a couple days, Monthwaite House would close up, and they’d all retire to the country to Helmsdale until next spring.
She slipped out of her room and padded downstairs to join Isabelle and Lily in the salon. Along the way, she noticed familiar family portraits and heirloom furnishings — all the features of home. But increasingly, Naomi had begun to feel as though Monthwaite House was not truly
home. This was Marshall’s house, and Isabelle was mistress here. And then there was Marshall’s collection of estates: Helmsdale, the ducal seat, Bensbury, just outside of London, and several more scattered across the country. All Marshall’s. All Isabelle’s.
Marshall was the very best of brothers and Isabelle was both sister and friend to Naomi. They had never once uttered a syllable to make her feel unwelcome, and Naomi knew she could live with them forever, if she so chose.
But she did not so choose.
The time had come for Naomi to have a home of her own, a place where she was mistress, a life to share with a husband and children. She was ready.
At the moment, however, her marriage prospects were dim. And they would be dimmer yet during the long months when eligible gentlemen guests at Helmsdale would be few and far between. Tonight might be her last chance this year to catch a gentleman’s eye.
In the salon, a footman wearing the maroon Monthwaite livery was lighting the candles on one lowered chandelier, filling the air with a clean, waxy aroma. The other chandelier was already fully illuminated and in place near the ceiling.
Isabelle and Lily stood at the far end of the large room, directing two other footmen in setting up chairs for the evening’s auction. Isabelle turned to say something to Lily, giving Naomi a view of her full profile. The pale green silk of her dress hugged her pregnant curves. As Naomi approached, Isabelle’s hand drifted to the side of her belly and rubbed a small circle there, caressing her unborn child.
A twinge of guilt darted through Naomi. How could she worry about her lack of suitors at a time like this? With less than two months before the arrival of her nephew or niece, Naomi should focus instead on helping Isabelle. What a selfish beast she was, to think about setting up her own house when Isabelle needed her.
Her sister-in-law glanced her way and smiled at her approach. “What a fetching dress!” Isabelle exclaimed. “Turn around, please.”
Naomi did so; the gauze overdress swirled around her hips.
Lily wore a look of frank admiration. “I don’t suppose you’d allow me to put
on the auction block? We would raise a million in one go, and I’d never have to fret about soliciting support again.”
Naomi rolled her eyes at her friend’s suggestion. “And why not you, Lily? That brown is positively luxurious with your complexion.”
“I’m afraid poor Ethan couldn’t bear to part with Lily at any price,” Isabelle said, “not even for a cause as worthy as ours.”
With the chairs arranged in neat rows, the footmen brought in the lots to be auctioned off. The ladies walked to the table where the refreshments would stand and discussed where everything should be placed. When Naomi looked back, she saw the servants were making a muck of arranging the auction items.
She briskly crossed the room. “No, no,” she said to one of the footmen. “That won’t do at all. You see how this is a lopsided configuration? Bring that easel with the landscape down to this side,” she said, gesturing. “That will give some balance to the grouping.”
The footman hesitated. “My lady, Her Grace — ”
“Her Grace told him exactly where to place everything,” Isabelle said, hurrying from the refreshment table. She raised a brow at Naomi before directing the servant to keep the easel right where it was.
Heat flushed Naomi’s cheeks. “I’m sorry, Isa. I didn’t mean anything by it. I just thought … ”
Isabelle sighed. “Not at all, dearest. And now that I look, you have the right of it.” She called to the footman, “Put the painting where Lady Naomi says.”
Isabelle squeezed her hand before rejoining Lily. Naomi smiled, but inside she chilled with humiliation. “It’s not your house,” she whispered softly to herself. Her duty here was to assist, not direct.
Marshall, Lord Thorburn, and Aunt Janine came in, just ahead of housemaids bearing trays of food. Ethan greeted Lily with an arm around her waist and a brief kiss full on the lips. Naomi averted her eyes, only to see Marshall take Isabelle’s hands in his own and kiss the backs of her fingers.
Naomi sighed. Would she ever have such a love of her own?
Aunt Janine pulled Naomi aside. “A little much for public consumption, isn’t it?” she said in a low voice.
“Oh, I don’t mind, Auntie,” Naomi said. “I think they’re sweet.”
Aunt Janine shrugged; her overlarge, lavender frock, with no pretension to style, scarcely moved. “Sweet, yes. But for maidens such as ourselves, with delicate sensibilities … ” She interrupted herself with a decidedly indelicate snort, unable to get through the misrepresentation of her own character with a straight face.
“I don’t think they can help themselves,” Naomi mused. She smiled lightly at her bemused aunt. “Propriety seems not to cross one’s mind when one is possessed of a strong passion.” She quoted a couplet of poetry.
Aunt Janine’s eyes narrowed shrewdly. “I didn’t know you read Marlowe, my girl.”
“John Donne,” Naomi corrected. Aunt Janine cocked a brow, and Naomi realized she’d stepped into a trap. “That is,” she started, “I might be mistaken. Indeed, I almost certainly am. There was a dusty, old book of poetry I picked up off the floor once, and I just happened — by chance — to see a few lines.”
Aunt Janine smiled smugly. “I didn’t discover Donne until I was thirty. And even then, I wouldn’t own to having read some of his more shocking verses.” Leaning in, she added in a whisper, “I always knew you had it in you, my dear. Educating yourself is nothing to be ashamed of.”
Naomi’s lips pressed together. She glanced at the others, who were talking amongst themselves and paying no attention to Naomi and Aunt Janine’s conversation. “I received a proper lady’s education from my governess and tutors,” she hissed. “Beyond that, I have no idea what you — ”
Isabelle suddenly gasped. Her eyes squeezed shut and her hands covered her abdomen.
For a moment, everyone froze with shock.
Marshall moved first; he reflexively wrapped a supporting arm around her waist and took one of her elbows with the other hand. “Isa, what’s wrong?” His dark eyes were wide and his lips white. “It’s too soon, isn’t it?”
“I’ll go for the midwife,” Ethan offered.
“That isn’t necessary,” Isabelle said weakly. She opened her eyes and drew a breath. “It was just a pain, but it’s gone now.”
Marshall’s hand moved to her belly. “Hard as a rock,” he murmured.
“For God’s sake, get her off her feet!” Naomi snapped. Everyone turned to look at her as though she’d sprouted horns. “Listen to me.”
She moved to Isabelle’s other side and rubbed her back. Her sister-in-law’s eyes were filled with fear. Naomi tried to convey a sense of calm and reassurance. “It’s probably nothing but the effects of too much activity. You should have a drink and lie on your left side for a while and see if that brings an end to the pains. If it does not, then I’m afraid the midwife will have to be sent for.”
Lily’s brows furrowed. “Why the left side?”
Briefly, Naomi considered going to her room to retrieve the French book about pregnancy and birth she’d been secretly studying ever since learning of Isabelle’s condition. “It’s an old wives’ tale,” she said instead, shrugging. “But it’s worth a try.”
“I’d rather consult the midwife,” Marshall said. “We should cancel the auction.”
“No.” Isabelle shook her head; the short waves framing her face bobbed. “We promised Lily we’d do this for her school. Please, darling. Let’s try Naomi’s way first. If the contractions continue, we’ll summon the midwife.”
Marshall cast a disapproving glance at his sister, then scooped Isabelle into his arms and strode from the salon.
Naomi exhaled a breath she hadn’t known she’d been holding. She blinked and looked around at the others. Lily tilted her head and studied Naomi as though seeing her in a new light.
Ethan regarded her with admiration. “Left side, you say? File that tidbit away, princess,” he said to his wife. “Might be useful sooner or later.”
Naomi felt Aunt Janine’s eyes boring into her back. She did not wish to turn around and face her knowing smirk again. She cleared her throat. “The guests will arrive shortly,” she announced. “Let’s finish preparations.” With a lift of her chin, she turned back to the refreshment table and made minute adjustments to the platters of food.