Jennifer Windwood is as happy as it is possible to be. She is betrothed to the blond and wondrously handsome Lionel, Lord Kersey, whom she has loved for a long time, even though the betrothal has not yet been announced. She is at her first ball during her first London Season and hopes to dance with him a few times—especially the supper dance—and hear him tell her for the first time that he loves her. Meanwhile, she sees again a man she has met once before and does not like—the dark, almost satanic Earl of Thornhill. She hopes he will not ask her to dance, but her hopes are soon dashed.
And then her thoughts were very effectively distracted. A gentleman was bowing before her and soliciting her hand for the next set—for the supper set. A tall gentleman dressed all in black and white. The Earl of Thornhill. Jennifer looked around, startled. Her aunt had brought all her other partners to her. But Aunt Agatha was some distance away, her attention monopolized by a very large and imposing elderly lady in purple.
This was the supper dance. Where was Lionel? She had set her heart on dancing it with him. But he was nowhere in sight. How mortifying!
"Thank you, my lord," she said, dropping a slight curtsy. "It would be my pleasure." She wished there had been a way of refusing. There must have been a way—but she did not know it.
She did not enjoy the dance. He was very tall, far taller than Lionel, and somehow—threatening. No, not that, she told herself when the word leapt to mind. Disturbing was perhaps the better word. He watched her constantly, and his dark eyes somehow compelled her to look back so that for several measures of the dance, when they were face to face, she found herself gazing into his eyes and feeling somehow enveloped in something to which she could not put a name at all. He spoke occasionally.
"I was beginning to believe," he said, "that I had imagined you."
He was referring to that afternoon in the park, she supposed.
"Until tonight," she said, "I have not been out and have been unable to attend parties."
"I gather that after tonight," he said, "you will be seen everywhere. I must make sure, then, that I am everywhere too."
Perhaps she should tell him that she was betrothed, she thought uneasily, but she stopped herself from doing so. His words were the typical gallantry that she must expect in London. He would be amused if he thought she had misunderstood.
"That would be pleasant," she said.
He smiled suddenly, and his severe, satanic features were transformed into an expression that was undoubtedly attractive. "I can almost hear you saying the same words to a tooth-drawer," he said. "In just the same tone of voice."
The idea was so ludicrous and unexpected that she laughed.
"I was wrong," he said softly. "I thought that perhaps you had never been taught to smile. But better than that, you know how to laugh."
She sobered instantly. He was flirting with her, she thought. And she found him a little frightening, though she had no idea why. Perhaps because at heart she was still a gauche little schoolgirl and did not know how to handle gentlemen who had a great deal of town bronze.
Soon after they had started to dance, she caught sight of Lord Kersey, who had returned to the ballroom. Their eyes met briefly and she fancied that he looked annoyed. Indeed, that was perhaps an understatement. For one moment he looked furious. But he had no right to be either. He had not asked for this set and had come late to claim it. Surely he must know how she longed to be dancing it with him. Oh, surely he knew. She tried to tell him so with her eyes, but he had looked away.
A few moments later she saw that he was dancing with Samantha—again. She could have cried with frustration and disappointment. And quite unreasonably she hated the dark gentleman—the Earl of Thornhill—though he could not have known that she had been waiting hopefully for just this set with her betrothed.
Samantha Newman is visiting her cousin and her husband, the Countess and Earl of Thornhill, in the country. Beautiful and much-courted, Samantha is also restless and depressed. She does not believe she will ever find someone she will love as well as she loved the faithless villain, Lionel, Lord Kersey. She goes out walking alone one day and soon realizes that she has wandered off Thornhill land onto that of an absent neighbor. She finds herself looking down upon Highmoor Abbey, though her view of it is obstructed somewhat by one large tree.
"Yes, that tree does need to be removed," a voice said from quite close by, making Samantha jump with alarm. "I was just noticing the same thing."
He was leaning against a tree, one booted foot propped back against it. She felt an instant surging of relief. She had expected to see an arrogant and irate Marquess of Carew—not that she had ever seen him before, of course. It would have been unbearably humiliating to have been caught trespassing and gawking at his ancestral home. Even this was bad enough.
Her first impression that he was a gardener was dismissed even before she reacted to his words. He spoke with cultured English accents, even though he was dressed very informally and not at all elegantly in a brown coat that would have made Weston of Old Bond Street shudder for a week without stopping, breeches that looked as if they were worn for comfort rather than good fit, and top boots that had seen not only better days, but better years.
He was a very ordinary looking gentleman, neither tall nor short, neither herculean nor puny, neither handsome nor ugly. His hair—he was not wearing a hat—was a nondescript brown. His eyes looked gray.
A very unthreatening looking gentleman, she was happy to note. He must be the marquess's steward, or perhaps a minion of the steward.
"I—I do beg your pardon," she said. "I was, er, I was trespassing."
"I will not have the constables sent out to arrest you and haul you before the nearest magistrate," he said. "Not this time, anyway."
His eyes were smiling. They were very nice eyes, Samantha decided, definitely a distinguishing feature in an otherwise very ordinary face.
"I am staying at Chalcote," she said, pointing downward through the trees. "With my cousin, the Countess of Thornhill. And her husband, the Earl of Thornhill," she added unnecessarily.
He continued to smile at her with his eyes and she found herself beginning to relax. "Have you never seen Highmoor Abbey before?" he asked. "It is rather splendid, is it not? If that tree were not there, you would have the best view of it from this vantage point. The tree will be moved."
"Moved?" She smiled broadly at him. "Plucked out and planted somewhere else, just like a flower?"
"Yes," he said. "Why kill a tree when it need not die?"
He was serious.
"But it is so huge," she said, laughing.
He pushed away from the tree trunk against which he had been leaning and came toward her. He walked with a decided limp, Samantha noticed. She also noticed that he held his right arm cradled against his side, his wrist and hand turned in against his hip. He was wearing leather gloves.
"Oh, did you hurt yourself?" she asked.
"No." He stopped beside her. He was not a great deal taller than she, and she was considered small. "Not recently, anyway."
She felt herself blushing uncomfortably. How gauche of her. The man was partly crippled and she had asked if he had hurt himself.
"You see?" he said, pointing downward with his good arm. "If the tree is moved, there will be a full frontal view of the abbey from here, perfectly centered between the other trees on the slope. It is all of two miles away, but an artist could not have done better on a canvas, could he? Except to have left that particular tree off the slope. We will be artists and imagine it removed. Soon it will be removed in fact. We can be artists with nature as surely as with watercolors or oils, you see. It is merely a matter of having an eye for the picturesque or the majestic, or merely for what will be visually pleasing."
"Are you the steward here?" she asked.
"No." He turned his head to look at her over his outstretched arm before lowering it.
"I did not think you could be a gardener," she said. "Your accent suggests that you are a gentleman." She blushed again. "I do beg your pardon. It is none of my business, especially as a trespasser." But it struck her suddenly that perhaps he was a trespasser too.
"I am Hartley Wade," he said, still looking into her face.
"How do you do, Mr. Wade," she said. She extended her right hand to him rather than curtsying—he did not seem the sort of man to whom one would curtsy. "Samantha Newman."
"Miss Newman," he said. "I am pleased to make your acquaintance."
He shook her hand with his right one. She could feel through his glove that his hand was thin and the fingers stiffly bent. She was afraid to exert any pressure and was sorry then for the impulsive gesture of offering the handshake.
"I am considered something of a landscape artist," he said. "I have tramped the estates of many of England's most prominent landowners, giving them advice on how they can make the most of their parks. Many people believe that having well-kept formal gardens before the house and regularly mown lawns is enough."
"And it is not?" she asked.
"Not always. Not often." His eyes were smiling again. "Formal gardens are not always even particularly attractive, especially if the land before the house is unusually flat and there is no possibility of terracing. One would have to be suspended in the sky—in a balloon, perhaps—and looking downward to appreciate the full effect. And usually there is a great deal more to parks than just the house and the mile or so of land directly in front of it. Parks can be extremely pleasant places in which to walk and relax and feast the senses if one exercises just a little care and planning in organizing them."
"Oh," she said, smiling. "And is that what you are doing here? Has the Marquess of Carew employed you to tramp about his park and give him advice?"
"He is about to have one of his trees repositioned at the very least," he said.
"Will he mind?" she asked.
"When someone asks for advice," he said, "he had better be prepared to hear some. A number of things have already been done here to make the most of nature, and to add to it and change it just a little for more pleasing effects. This is not my first visit, you see. But it is always possible to imagine new improvements. As with that tree. I cannot understand how it has escaped my notice before now. Once it is gone, a stone grotto can be erected here so that the marquess and his guests can sit here and enjoy the prospect at their leisure."
"Yes." She looked about her. "It would be the perfect spot, would it not? It would be wonderfully peaceful. If I lived here, I believe I would spend a great deal of time sitting in such a grotto, thinking and dreaming."
"Two very underrated activities," he said. "I am glad you appreciate them, Miss Newman. Or one might be tempted to sit, perhaps, with a special companion, one with whom one can talk or be silent with equal comfort."
She looked at him with sudden understanding. Yes, that was what it was. That was it. That was what was missing. She had felt it and wondered about it and puzzled over it. And here was the answer, so simple that she had not even considered it before. She had no special companion. No one with whom she could be silent in comfort. Even with her dearest relatives, Aunt Aggy and Jenny, she always felt the necessity to converse.
"Yes," she said, a curious ache in her throat. "That would be pleasant. Very pleasant."
"Are you in a hurry to return to Chalcote?" he asked. "Or is there anyone who will be anxious over your absence? A chaperon, perhaps?"
"I have outgrown the need for chaperons, Mr. Wade," she said. "I am four-and-twenty years old."
"You do not look it," he said, smiling. "Would you like to stroll up over the hill, then, and see some of the improvements that have already been made and hear some of my ideas for new ones?"
It was very improper. She was a lady very much alone in a wooded area of the countryside with a strange gentleman, albeit a very ordinary and rather shabby gentleman. She should have turned very firmly in the direction of home. But there was nothing at all threatening about him. He was pleasant. And he had aroused a curiosity in her to see how nature could be manipulated, but not harmed or destroyed, for the pleasure of humans.
"I should like that," she said.
© Mary Balogh