Anne Jewell first sees Sydnam Butler out on the cliff tops during the dusk of her first evening at the Duke of Bewcastle's Welsh estate. She is struck by his extraordinary good looks until he turns his head and she can see that he is badly maimed all down the right side. She flees in terror, not knowing who he is. When she returns to apologize, he is gone. But the following evening she meets him again when he arrives at the house for dinner, at the duchess's invitation, and she discovers that he is the duke's steward. She is horribly embarrassed and at first obeys a cowardly instinct to keep her distance from him. She cannot in all conscience do it all evening, though. After dinner, when all the guests are in the drawing room, her companions, Lady Aidan Bedwyn and the latter's aunt, Mrs. Pritchard, speak of him.
"That poor man," Mrs. Pritchard said softly in her musical Welsh accent. "It is a good thing he is not of the working classes. He would never have found employment after the wars were over. He would have become a beggar and starved as so many of those soldiers did."
"Oh, I am not so sure of that, Aunt Mari," Lady Aidan said. "There is a thread of steel in him despite his quiet manners. I believe he would have overcome any adversity, even poverty."
They were talking, Anne realized, of Mr. Butler, about whom she had been feeling horribly guilty all evening and whom she had consequently avoided even looking at--though she had been aware of him almost every moment.
"What happened to him?" she asked.
"War," Lady Aidan said. "He followed his brother, Viscount Ravensberg, to the Peninsula against everyone's wishes but his own. His brother brought him home not long after more dead than alive. But he recovered, and eventually he offered his services to Wulfric and came here. That all happened before I met Aidan, who was still a cavalry colonel in the Peninsula at the time, the superior officer of my brother, who never came home. How glad I am that the wars are over at last."
It was some time later when Anne noticed that Mr. Butler was seated alone in a far corner of the room after all the groups had just rearranged themselves with the setting up of some card tables. She herself was with Miss Thompson and the Earl and Countess of Rosthorn, all of whom had declined a place at the tables. But Anne stood and excused herself before she could lose her courage. She could not allow the whole evening to go by without speaking to Mr. Butler, though she doubted he would have any wish to speak with her.
He looked up sharply when he saw her approach and then got to his feet.
"Miss Jewell," he said.
Something in his manner and voice told her that indeed he would have preferred to remain alone, that he did not like her--but she could hardly blame him for that, could she?
She looked into his face and quite deliberately adjusted her focus so that she looked at both sides. He wore a black patch over his right eye--or perhaps over where his right eye had been. The rest of that side of his face was covered from brow to jaw and on down his neck with purplish burn marks. His empty right sleeve was pinned to the side of his evening coat.
He was, she noticed, half a head taller than she--and she had not been mistaken about his broad chest and shoulders. He was clearly not a man who had wallowed in his disabilities.
"I went back last night," she said, "a few minutes after I ran away. But you had gone."
He looked back at her in silence for a few moments.
"I am sorry," he said abruptly then, "that I frightened you. I did not intend to do so."
Courteous words, courteously spoken. Yet she could still feel his dislike, his reluctance to speak with her.
"No, you misunderstand," she said. "I am sorry. It is what I went back to say. I truly am. Sorry."
What else could she say? She could only make matters worse by trying to offer an explanation for her behavior.
Again there was a silence between them long enough to be uncomfortable. She almost turned and walked away. She had said what she had felt compelled to say. There was nothing else.
"Going back was a courageous thing to do," he said. "It was getting dark and the cliff top is a lonely, dangerous place to be at night. And I was a stranger to you. Thank you for returning even though I had already gone home."
She had, she supposed, been forgiven. She did not know if he still disliked her, but that did not really matter. She smiled and nodded and would again have turned away.
"Will you have a seat, Miss Jewell?" He indicated the chair close to the one he had been occupying.
She had hesitated too long, she thought, and courtesy had compelled him to offer her a seat. She would rather have moved off somewhere else. She did not like being close to him. She did not like having to look at him. She felt his pain, his knowledge that his body was half ruined, yet she knew that her glance must hold neither revulsion nor pity. And she knew that when she did look at him, she must look fully at him, not just at the untouched side of his face.
How difficult it was to look at him as if he were any normal man. Did some people who knew about her find it equally difficult to look at her, to treat her as if she were a normal woman? But she was!
She sat straight-backed on the edge of the chair.
"You are a brother of Viscount Ravensberg, Mr. Butler?" she said politely, her mind having turned blank to all the many possibilities of interesting conversational topics.
"I am," he agreed.
And there was nowhere else to go with the topic. She did not even know who Viscount Ravensberg was. But he took pity on her.
"And son of the Earl of Redfied of Alvesley Park in Hampshire," he told her. "The estate adjoins that of Lindsey Hall, Bewcastle's principal seat. My brothers and I grew up with the Bedwyns. They were all hellions--but then so were we."
"Brothers?" She raised her eyebrows.
"Jerome, the eldest, died of a chill taken while rescuing farm laborers and their families from flooded homes," he said. "Kit and I are the only two remaining."
There must have been much nerve damage to the right side of his face, she thought. It was immobile, and his mouth was rather lopsided as he talked.
"It must have been hard to lose a brother," she said.
She did not usually have undue difficulty making conversation, but everything she had said during the past minute or two was markedly stupid. Her mind, meanwhile, chattered incessantly with questions she knew she could not ask.
What happened out there in the Peninsula?
In which battle did it happen?
Did you sometimes wish you had died?
Do you sometimes still wish it?
Why did you take employment when you are the son of an earl?
Are you lonely?
She did not usually feel so curious about strangers. She wondered if she would feel this curious if he were still as handsome, still as physically perfect as he must once have been. She wondered if she would have felt so drawn to him--and repelled by him. It was strange that one could feel both at the same time.
He must have been extraordinarily, impossibly handsome once upon a time.
"What an utterly foolish thing to say," she said. "As if you could possibly reply that no, it was not hard at all."
His one dark eye met hers with a hard, bleak look for a moment as if he were about to make a sharp retort. Then it twinkled, and surprisingly they both laughed. The left side of his mouth lifted higher than the right in a lopsided grin that was curiously attractive.
"Miss Jewell," he said, "shall we agree, for both our sakes, to pretend that last evening did not happen, that we have met here for the first time this evening?"
"Oh." She sat back a little farther on her chair. "I should like that."
His left hand was resting on his thigh. It was a long-fingered artist's hand, she thought. She hoped she was wrong about that last point--or that he was left-handed. She looked up into his face.
"I have been feeling horribly intimidated since coming here," she was surprised to hear herself admit.
"Have you?" he asked her. "Why?"
She wished she had not said it. But he was waiting for her reply.
"Joshua--Lord Hallmere--offered to bring my son here for the summer so that he would have other children to play with," she explained. "But he is only nine years old, and I have never been separated from him. And so, when I hesitated, the marchioness invited me too and I accepted because I did not want to disappoint my son."
From his short silence, she realized that she had just told him volumes about herself. And perhaps now it was his turn to run from her.
"I teach and live at a girls' school in Bath," she said. "I like it extremely well, and David has always been happy there. But he is getting older. I suppose I ought to have let him come with Joshua--David worships him."
"Children need other children," he said. "They also need a father figure, especially perhaps if they are boys. But most of all, Miss Jewell, they need a mother. You did the right thing in coming here with him."
"Oh." She drew unexpected comfort from his words. "That is very obliging of you."
"I hope," he said, "Bewcastle has not intimidated you. But if he has, you may be consoled to know that he intimidates almost everyone. He was removed abruptly from a wild childhood when his father knew he was dying, and he was carefully, even ruthlessly trained to take over all the vast responsibilities of the dukedom, which he inherited when he was only seventeen or eighteen. He learned his lessons consummately well--too well, some would say. But he is not unfeeling. He has been remarkably good to me."
"I met him for the first time this evening," Anne told him. "He was very gracious though I must confess I was ready to sink through the floor with fear."
They both laughed again.
"The duchess is a delight," she said.
"According to Lauren, my sister-in-law," he said, "it was a love match. It was the sensation of last year. No one would have predicted that Bewcastle would marry for love. But perhaps it is true."
The tea tray was being brought in, and two of the card games were coming to an end.
"I must be going home," Mr. Butler said. "I am pleased to have made your acquaintance, Miss Jewell."
She set both hands on the arms of her chair and got to her feet. She noticed that he got up a little more slowly from his low chair, and it occurred to her that being without one arm and one eye must shift the natural balance of the body that she took so very much for granted. How long had it taken him to adjust to the change? Had he ever adjusted completely?
"I shall go and convey my thanks to the duchess," he said, holding out his hand to her. "Good night."
"Good night, Mr. Butler."
She held out her own hand and he shook it before releasing it and turning away.
Anne was left biting her lip. She should, of course, have given him her left hand as she remembered the duchess had done earlier. Their handshake had been horribly awkward--as if they had been holding hands and swinging them. It had felt almost intimate. Embarrassingly so.
He was bowing to the Duchess of Bewcastle, who smiled warmly at him and set one hand on his arm while she leaned a little toward him to say something. Lord Rannulf came up behind him and slapped a hand on his right shoulder. The two men left the room together.
Where did he live? Anne wondered.
Would she see him again?
But it would not matter too much if she did. She had got past the awkwardness of what had happened last night. She was vastly relieved about that. It would be easier to meet him next time.
Was he lonely?
Did he have friends?
She had never ceased to marvel and give thanks that after several almost solitary years, with only David for company, she had made friends at Claudia's school and that three of those friends--Claudia herself, Susanna, and Frances--had come to be as close as sisters to her. It was so much more than she had ever expected after those long, lean years.
She hoped Mr. Butler had some close friends.
"Come and have tea, Anne," Joshua said, appearing suddenly at her side. "I hope you are enjoying your stay here."
"Oh." She smiled at him. "I am, yes, thank you, Joshua."
But most of all, Miss Jewell, they need a mother. You did the right thing in coming here with him.
The remembered words warmed and comforted her. She had done the right thing. David had been animated and happy all day long with the other children. But he had hugged her when she went to say good night to him before dressing for dinner.
"Thank you, Mama," he had said, "for bringing me here. I am so glad we came."
We not I. He was glad she had come too.
© Mary Balogh