In the orchard, Miranda bids goodbye to her only friend, 17-year-old Cyril, who is leaving for Oxford University.
Miranda sighed and slumped back against the pear tree. “I know my duty, Cyril. My place is here to care for my aunt in her old age. I do not understand her desire for such seclusion for us, but there it is.” She sat straighter, waving away a bee intent on the blossoms. “Aunt Joan has been very kind,” she observed briskly. “I am totally dependent on her, yet she has never thrown my poverty up to me. She is generosity itself. Now let us talk of something else.”
Cyril sat up with a grunt. “Blast! There is Cargill, coming across the lawn. Goodbye, Miranda. Here is my address in Oxford. Take care of yourself, my dear friend, and do nothing rash. I’m off.”
He clumsily kissed Miranda’s cheek, scrambled to his feet, and slipped away through the trees. Miranda slid the paper with his address into her book, and was innocently reading when the butler arrived with a fine glow of perspiration on his round, jowly countenance.
“Miss Armitage requires your presence soonest, miss,” he told her, panting a little, “in the drawing room.”
“Thank you, Cargill. I shall come at once.”
Miranda rose, shook out her creased muslin skirts, brushed futilely at a grass stain, and caught up her book and broad-brimmed gypsy hat. Preceding the butler from the fragrant orchard, she wondered at this strange summons. Her aunt usually rested at this hour. At the edge of a broad sweep of immaculate lawn, Miranda paused and looked up at the elegant Elizabethan manor house of timber and russet brick that crowned a low rise. Rose Haven was beautiful, fitted with every modern amenity and comfort, and she loved it. Sometimes, though, she wistfully if vaguely recollected a smaller house, filled with gaiety, safety, and love.
She shook her head. Where was her gratitude? It was unfair to Aunt Joan to dwell on the past or to wish for a different future.
“Cargill,” she said over her shoulder, “do you know why my aunt has sent for me? She has not suddenly taken ill?”
“No, miss,” puffed the butler. “Perhaps her request for your presence is occasioned by Miss Armitage’s visitor.”
“A visitor! Oh, who is it, pray?”
The butler hesitated, and Miranda’s eagerness faded. “Is it the vicar, Cargill? Has he come again about the church renovation fund?”
Without waiting for a reply, she picked up her skirts and ran across the lawn to the house. With visitors in prodigious short supply, even the dear vicar was welcome, but as she slipped through the tall window open to the terrace, she wished someone exciting might someday find his way to Rose Haven’s door.
Pushing back some curls escaped from their combs, and hoping the grass stain did not show too much, she assumed her most decorous air and entered the drawing room.
She saw him at once, standing by a window, a gentleman as far removed from the vicar as might be imagined. Instead of black garb he wore a claret-colored coat, buff breeches and polished top-boots. She stopped in mid-step, amazement and awed delight robbing her of breath as well as manners. She gave no thought or glance to her aunt, but simply stared.
The visitor was tall and straight, with a great breadth of chest and shoulders, and was quite the most attractive gentleman Miranda had ever seen. He stood with feet firmly planted, with the manly grace and confidence of the knights of Arthur in the very book she had left on the hall table. He moved forward as her aunt’s voice broke her trance.
“Miranda, ‘tis my honor and pleasure to introduce Thane, Lord Welford. My lord, may I name Miss Armitage, my niece and ward.”
Warned by the edge in her aunt’s voice to give off staring like a ninny-hammer, Miranda lowered her eyes, dipped her head, and sank into her best curtsy. His lordship must not think her a raw bumpkin, and earn her another of her aunt’s lectures.
“H-How do you do, my lord.” To her chagrin, the words were little more than a hesitant murmur.
“Your servant, Miss Armitage.”
His voice was thrillingly deep. It sent strange tremors along her nerves, and she grew aware of the beating of her heart. As he bowed, his dark hair had the gloss of a blackbird’s feather she had once found. His skin was deeply tanned, but it was his eyes that caught and held her attention as he straightened. Wide-set, black-fringed, and a clear, piercing deep blue, they met her bemused glance levelly, although, she thought suddenly, with a wintry remoteness akin to dislike. He did not smile.
“This is surely an excellent day for travel, my lord, now that the rains have ended. I trust the roads were in good condition? Have you come far?” Inane remarks made in a breathless rush, but Miranda could think of nothing better with that discerning, distracting gaze upon her.
“Not far, Miss Armitage,” he replied, crisply polite. His eyes never moved, yet she felt he saw and noted with disapproval every aspect of her face, stained gown, and wind-blown hair. “A matter of sixty-five miles or so.”
“Sixty-five miles! Why, sir, that is a prodigious distance. London itself is scarce farther on, is it not?” She was doubtless babbling, made even more nervous by his cool manner. But mayhap grand gentlemen, especially young ones, always behaved thus. The gentlemen of her acquaintance—Squire Bogner, the vicar, and Dr. Crocker, all of whom she saw rarely—hardly warranted to be called grand. Or young.
“Indeed.” His cold, clear eyes never left her face. “I come from a different direction. From Hampshire. And sixty-five miles is no great thing. I was used to greater distances in India.”
“India!” She could not help her delighted exclamation or the eager clasping of her hands. “Oh, I have read of it! Sir, pray tell me of that fascinating country. Is it true that elephants freely roam about, even in the large cities?”
Lord Welford raised a brow, and Miranda flushed. She had shocked him with her eagerness, but how could he know how rare were visitors to this lonely house?
“Pray be seated, Lord Welford,” her aunt broke in, moving to a cream and gold striped sofa.
“Thank you, Miss Armitage.”
Miranda’s flush deepened as their visitor accepted a chair. Despite her aunt’s determined lessons on manners, she had kept a guest standing long minutes while she jabbered at him. A guest rudely treated might not come again. That thought stilled Miranda’s tongue as she sat beside her aunt.
“My niece is not without accomplishments, my lord,” her aunt went on, and Miranda wondered at her hard, crisp tone, “which will not come amiss in the better class of society. I have spared no expense or consideration to give her the finest training, and her deportment is always above reproach.”
Embarrassed beyond words, Miranda stared down at her hands folded tightly in her lap. Why was Aunt Joan saying these things?
“My niece can read and converse in both French and German,” Joan Armitage continued relentlessly, “and has studied Latin and Greek. As well, she is familiar with the best of English literature.”
Miranda looked up to see a rather odd expression cross Lord Welford’s features. She cringed inwardly, fearing he was as embarrassed as she.
“In the meantime, my lord, would you enjoy some music? Miranda is not without a little talent in that direction.”
“Nothing would give me greater pleasure than to hear Miss Armitage exhibit her talent,” the baron murmured dryly.
“Oh, but I-I—” Miranda immediately felt all thumbs. Never had she played for an audience, other than her aunt. Besides, she much preferred to talk with him, if her tongue did not tangle and make her look the widgeon he undoubtedly thought her. She sent her aunt a beseeching glance. The telling look she received brooked no argument.
“Yes, Aunt Joan,” Miranda said quietly, dipping her head and rising to her feet. As she did so, she realized her aunt was dressed exceedingly fine. Her gown of lilac corded silk was new, her amethyst and pearl jewelry impressive without being ostentatious, and her fair hair, hardly touched with gray, arranged most becomingly.
The visitor had been expected and carefully prepared for.
As Miranda obediently went to the pianoforte at the far end of the large room, she wondered why she had not been told of his coming. Why was he here? And why did anger underlie Aunt Joan’s brusque manner?
Hunting through her music for something suitable, she glanced again at the visitor. He was more than handsome, she decided. The broad brow, the firm set of his shapely mouth, the fine creases fanning from the corners of his eyes all added character to his features. He appeared calm, but it was a watchful quiet, as if even here in this peaceful country drawing room he did not fully let down his guard. Or was it that he wished to be anywhere but in this same drawing room?