Authors: Manda Collins
He felt like a churl to crush her enthusiasm. But crush it he must.
“I will not go without a concession on your part,” he said firmly.
She frowned. “I don’t understand.”
He gave in to the impulse to run a hand through his hair. “You must allow me to show you just what it is we do here at Nettlefield House. It is not an insignificant amount of work to run an estate such as this. And if my grandmother cannot bestir herself to come here and demand my presence in London herself, the least I can do is impress upon her emissary its importance in my life.”
A flash of annoyance crossed her eyes but was quickly masked with an expression of patience. “Your Grace, I have no doubt that your feelings for this place run deep, but I am hardly the best person to convey that emotion to the Dowager Duchess of Ormonde. I have spent very little time in the country myself, and have no notion what it takes to run an estate of this size. The only opinion I could possibly convey on the subject to your grandmother is that you appear to be attached to the place. And you can do that yourself in a letter if you wish.”
Trevor crossed his arms over his chest and surveyed her from head to toe. She certainly was not the picture of a country lady. But he had little doubt that she could convince the dowager to leave him in peace if she set her mind to it. Since he could not convince his grandmother himself, he would see to it that Lady Isabella did. The more he considered the matter, the more he was certain he was choosing the right course.
“But why bother with a letter when I can have my very own personal champion?” he asked with a tilt of his head. “Once you have seen the farm in all its glory, I am certain you will agree to plead my case to the dowager. Namely that the running of this estate is far more important than swanning about town in fancy clothes to attend foolish entertainments.”
She was vexed. It was obvious from the way her bosom rose and fell with her frustrated breathing. Then, she seemed to come to some decision within herself. “Is that what you think this is about, Your Grace? The dowager wishing for you to buy a new wardrobe and accompany her to soirees and balls?”
“The thought did cross my mind,” he said with a frown. “Do you mean to say that she does not wish for me to do those things? Along with finding some young lady with an enormous dowry to wed and get an heir on as quickly as possible?”
Realizing what he’d just said, he raised a hand in apology. “Your pardon, Lady Wharton,” he said. “It’s just that I cannot help but feel wrongly done by when my grandmother has not bothered in the twenty-eight years of my existence to even seek me out. She washed her hands of my parents years ago, and her sudden interest coincides awfully with my cousin’s death.”
Isabella looked as if she might like to argue but instead gave a short nod. “I do not deny that it looks suspicious. But I can assure you that she has long felt the loss of your father from the family circle. Even so, it does not matter what reason she has for wishing you to come take up your rightful place as head of the family. The fact that she is your elderly relation ought to be reason enough for you to abide by her wishes.”
“Even though she has not abided by my own or my family’s wishes for some twenty years?” he demanded. “That seems a very unbalanced form of familial affection, my lady.”
“It might,” she agreed, “but that is neither here nor there. This is my side of the arrangement. If I agree with you that your endeavors here are important enough to keep you from visiting the Ormonde estates in person, then I will tell the dowager so. But either way, you must come to London with me without argument.”
“So,” he said with a laugh, “you get your way no matter what happens? You drive a hard bargain, my lady.”
“I have my orders from the dowager,” she said coolly. “Now, do we have a bargain?”
Trevor knew that she could simply make up her mind to disagree with him no matter what she thought of the estate. But he somehow doubted she would do that. There was something about her that spoke of integrity. She might have lied to him about the purpose of her visit or made excuses for his grandmother, but she had not. Lady Isabella might have her faults, but lying wasn’t one of them. At least he hoped not.
By having her shadow him about the estate for the next week he would get what he’d been wanting for years: a witness to see that his father’s hard work on the Yorkshire estate had not been the waste of time his family had assured him it would be.
That the dowager herself would know how wrong she’d been.
Short of bringing his grandmother herself to Nettlefield House, Lady Isabella was the next best thing.
“You have my word,” he said, offering his hand to her in a gesture of good faith. She hesitated for the barest second before giving him her hand. Neither of them was wearing gloves and the brief feel of skin on skin sent a jolt through him that had nothing to do with honor and everything to do with lust.
Her eyes widened in surprise—perhaps she felt the jolt, too—and met his before she pulled her hand back and let it fall to her side.
“Well then,” she said briskly, not meeting his eyes. “We have an agreement. How long do you suppose it will take you to show me the workings of the estate? A few days? Might we be able to leave for London at the end of the week?”
It was Tuesday now, but Trevor had no intention of leaving the estate at all, much less at the end of the week. “Oh, I should think it will need more than a few days.” he told her. “And of course there’s the matter of your damaged carriage. No, I think a week at least. Possibly two.”
“But that’s—,” she began to protest before he interrupted her.
“I really must insist, Lady Wharton, that you let me show you the estate on my own terms. Not all of the elements I wish to show you will be available this week. Sheepshearing, for instance, doesn’t begin until next week.”
“Sheepshearing?” Her voice was a high-pitched squeak. “I am hardly the most appropriate judge of how best to shear a sheep, Your Grace. Indeed, I think I might comfortably take your word for it in that case.”
Trevor managed to keep his expression serious for all of two minutes before she caught on.
“You’re joking,” she said with a shake of her head. She put her hands on her hips. “Really, Your Grace, was that altogether necessary?”
He shrugged. “Perhaps not, but you must allow that it was amusing.”
“For you, perhaps,” she said huffily. Then, to his surprise, she softened. “Your Grace, do not think that I do not appreciate the reluctance you feel for joining the rest of your family in London. I do understand what it is like to be estranged from one’s family. But I have my own reasons for being here and I hope that you will not make my chore here any more difficult than it needs to be.”
He wasn’t sure how he knew, but Trevor sensed that it had taken a great deal for her to admit to understanding his plight. “Thank you, my lady. I hope that we will be able to rub along well enough together.
“Which reminds me,” he continued, removing the list of tasks he’d written out for her and handing them over.
“I have written out a list of the things I think you should see to fully understand how much work it takes to oversee an estate like this.” He felt like a schoolboy proffering his first love note. An actual blush was stealing into his cheeks. Gad. “You need not accompany me for all of these, but I do not think you can get a true feeling for the estate without at least knowing about these things.”
She didn’t unfold the paper but instead clutched it in her hand as if it were a lifeline keeping her from being carried away into the open sea.
“Thank you, Your Grace,” she said with a slight curtsy. “I will look at this list later, after I have spoken with my maid about our extended stay here. Might I assume that we won’t begin our tour until tomorrow?”
Grateful for her cool tones, Trevor nodded. “Yes, tomorrow. Now, if you will excuse me, I must go see to some estate business.” Feeling rather like a coward, he hurried off to his study, where he might reflect upon the bargain he’d just made.
As soon as she reached her bedchamber, Isabella unfolded the page the duke had given her and began reading through the list of tasks he would require of her before he would consider making the trip to London.
She might have known from the first that it wouldn’t be as simple as requesting his presence in London and having him accompany her back to town. He was the grandson of the Dowager Duchess of Ormond, after all. It was foolish to imagine that the tendency toward manipulating others would have skipped his generation.
But when Isabella read the list, she wondered if he might have gotten a dose of insanity as well. Not only did the man expect her to visit the tenant farms with him, assist him on a visit to the weavers’ cottages, and sit beside him as he performed the duties of local magistrate; he also wanted her to accompany him to a doubtless provincial dinner party at the home of the local squire. She was, it seemed, to get an up-close view of life as a local farmer, whether she liked it or not.
What would she wear, for goodness’ sake? These were hardly the sort of events Madame Celeste designed Isabella’s gowns for. Though, now she thought of it, Madame Celeste must fashion some gowns for practical use. Surely not every gently bred lady who visited her establishment was in search of a ball gown.
Isabella felt quite out of her element. As she was sure the duke wished her to be. It was clear enough to her that he thought her just as frivolous as every other member of the
Perhaps it was her turn to show him that not all London ladies were so disagreeable as the dowager. Indeed, she’d need to prove that to him if she wished to convince him to return to London with her.
Failure was not an option.
After all, if she didn’t come back to London with him by her side the dowager would see to it that Perdita’s marriage to Coniston was well and truly stopped. And Isabella of all people knew how important it was to her sister to make that match work. No, no matter how much she might wish to throw the list of tasks back in the duke’s face, she had to see to it that she performed each and every task to his satisfaction.
When she was finished, he’d be begging her to take him up to London.
Her plan roughly sketched out in her mind, she decided to work on the other tasks the duke had asked for her to assist him with.
After a brief chat with Templeton, who agreed to send a notice to the Yorkshire papers advertising for a governess, and penning a letter to Perdita asking her to inquire among their friends for likely candidates, Isabella found herself in the unusual position of having nothing to do.
When she was in London she could always find ways to amuse herself. Reading or visiting friends or shopping. Her tour of the estate did not begin until tomorrow. And she felt strangely at loose ends here in this unfamiliar country house. Her previous visits to country houses had been for house parties. Which were, as a general rule, brimming with opportunities for amusement.
She was debating the wisdom of donning a walking dress and indulging in a hearty country walk when a knock sounded on her bedchamber door. Watching as Sanders opened it, Isabella was surprised but pleased to see Eleanor and Belinda.
“Hello, Lady Wharton,” Belinda said with a careful curtsy. “We thought perhaps you might wish to join us for an outdoor artistic endeavor. Though Eleanor says you probably won’t, as you are much too elegant for such a thing.”
“Belinda,” Eleanor hissed, “that was not what I said—”
Isabella watched with a pang in her chest as Eleanor’s pale complexion turned rosy. Could she and Perdita ever have been so young? she wondered. It was hard to remember it. And yet there was something familiar about these two sisters, something that made Isabella want to shield them from the hurts and embarrassments that awaited them in the world outside their little village.
Giving in to the impulse to put the girl at ease, Isabella broke into her protest. “I would love to join you. Just let me change into something more suitable.”
The surprise and pleasure in the girls’ faces told Isabella she’d done the right thing. Inviting them into her chamber, she asked Sanders to bring her the green sprig muslin and stepped behind the screen in the dressing room to change.
“I am so glad you thought to ask me,” she called over the screen. “I was debating whether to go to the library, but I didn’t wish to disturb your brother.”
“Oh, he doesn’t spend much time in there during the day,” Belinda said loudly, as if Isabella were in another room. “He spends most days in the estate office.”
Waiting for the maid to finish buttoning her gown, Isabella frowned. “Doesn’t he have an estate agent for that sort of thing?”
“No,” Eleanor said. “Papa preferred to do things himself and Trevor does as well.”
Her gown finally fastened, Isabella stepped out from behind the screen to find Eleanor fingering the silk of one of the gowns neatly hanging in the open wardrobe. When she saw Isabella she snatched her hand back as if she’d been swatted.
Oblivious to their guest’s emergence, Belinda was seated at the dressing table powdering her nose with Isabella’s enormous powder puff.
“It’s all right,” Isabella told Eleanor. “You can touch them. They’re just clothes.”
“They’re lovely clothes,” the girl said mournfully. “I don’t think I shall ever have anything so fine.”
“Of course you will,” Isabella said automatically. It was impossible not to feel for the girl. After all, she was of an age that she should be being outfitted with a new wardrobe and preparing for the excitement of her first season. Instead she was stuck here in the country. And if their guests that morning were any indication, there was little enough to recommend the local society hereabouts. “Why shouldn’t you?”
“For one thing,” Eleanor said glumly, “Trevor would never let me wear something so daring. He doesn’t even like it when I wear my hair up. Though I have tried to tell him that I am no longer a child.”
“Like me,” Belinda said matter-of-factly. “She thinks it’s ever so lowering to be childish. But I think it’s lovely.”