Copyright © 2021 Sue London, All rights reserved
Philip was thoroughly tired of, well, everything. He was so tired that he’d taken his pension and escaped to that most quintessential of British places to rest, Bath. It had been, as he was coming to discover, a mistake.
It was certainly a delightful novelty to be treated like a gentleman. Upon arriving in the city he’d strolled around in his red regimentals and been summarily invited to a number of dances. But the dances had proven to be even more boring than the ones he’d attended while stationed on the Continent. The only reason, in fact, that he was still in residence after a fortnight was the Widow.
He’d seen her on his third day in town. She was draped in black with a thick set of veils. Her body was small and she tended to hunch over, almost as though she was expecting a blow. Something about her echoed his own sentiment in this life. He had no idea of her age or much of anything else about her, he just knew he felt a kinship. And kinship was something that had been sorely missing from his life for some time.
It seemed she was a boarder and took in sewing. He’d heard she excelled at embroidery and considered requesting to have some handkerchiefs embroidered, but had not yet mustered the nerve. He could send them to his mother and sisters as gifts.
He never saw her at the entertainments, and his own interest in them was quickly waning. In truth he’d been born to work. Idleness and frivolity did not become him. If it weren’t for the rare sightings of the Widow walking near her rooms he would have left Bath already.
This evening’s event was particularly borish, at least for Philip. It had more elegant people, more nobles, than anything he’d attended thus far. Growing up he’d certainly been around a great deal of the nobility, but he’d not really had to interact with them. So now he loitered on a balcony off the ballroom, staying out of the way of people who actually wanted to be rubbing shoulders. This would be, he thought, the last invitation he would accept before he left the city.
He heard a laugh that was so familiar to him that for a moment he didn’t even remark it. Much like seeing a pair of shoes one has owned for years, or the back of one’s hand. That’s my shoe, you might think. That’s my hand. He simply had the fleeting thought that’s the earl’s laugh.
Then he realized what he’d thought and his blood ran colder than ice. Why would Gideon Wolfe, Earl of Harington be in Bath? Philip looked for opportunities to escape. Apparently the only options were to leap from the balcony into some suspiciously thorny looking shrubs below, or reenter the ballroom to make his way to the front door. Neither option was particularly appealing. Given that, he decided to maintain his station at the balustrade as though he’d been assigned to guard it.
Time passed and music played. People chatted and walked by, and he didn’t hear the earl again. Just that one laugh lifted over the crowd. Perhaps it had been a mistake. Or the earl had some laughter doppelganger here in the west. He was beginning to relax and consider that he could make his way through the throng now to make his escape and not darken the hallways of fancy entertainments ever again. He heard the scuff of a shoe as someone came through the doorway from the ballroom. He didn’t turn since he was still slightly paranoid enough to not do so. But he tipped his head to the side, listening.
“Good God. Philip?” The earl’s voice was uncharacteristically hushed.
Philip closed his eyes and swallowed his fear. He would much rather be on a battlefield than turn around and address the earl. But he’d been a coward once in his life and learned the consequences. He’d promised himself he would never be a coward again. Steeling his spine he turned.
“My Lord,” he said quietly with a deferential nod. He couldn’t meet the earl’s eye. Didn’t dare. To say they’d separated on acrimonious terms was to put it lightly. Philip had turned a blind eye to smuggling on the edge of the earl’s land, had helped them under duress, and that had culminated in the earl himself being kidnapped by the owlers as they ferociously defended their illegal activities.
“Philip!” With that the earl stepped forward and swept him up in a hug, as though they were long lost brothers rather than employer and disgraced employee. For a moment, just a moment, Philip let himself enjoy being back in what felt like the earl’s good graces. He’d grown up with Gideon Wolfe and hadn’t realized at the time how completely singular the man was. In the army he’d seen officers try to emulate the sort of charm and fortitude that the earl had naturally. It had only seemed a poor imitation and often served to make Philip miss that which he’d lost.
The earl finally stepped back, keeping hold of Philip’s arms. “Look at you. A Lieutenant!” Gideon was grinning. It made Philip want to cry.
“Yes, you told me to do something worthwhile with the money.”
“Jack will want to see you.” The earl turned, still keeping a strong grip on one arm. Philip wasn’t the same young man who’d left the earl’s estate three years ago. If he wanted to make the earl let him go he was confident he could do so. Even if it was never a good idea to upset Quality, sometimes self-preservation called for severe action.
But another part of him wanted to see what would happen. The earl had dismissed him with the parting words that he was never to be heard or seen again and it was a command Philip never planned to betray.
Last he’d seen the countess she was organizing a search party for her husband. She was easy enough to spot at the edge of the ballroom floor talking with a circle of ladies. Tall and glamorous, much like her husband, she was difficult to miss. Where Gideon had dark hair, his wife’s was a honey brown.
Philip saw the moment her husband caught her eye, as her gaze lit with pleasure. And then the moment his own presence was recognized as something other than an anonymous red coat. Her surprise was marked.
“Look who I found on the balcony,” the earl said, coming to a stop near his wife and at last surrendering Phililp’s arm.
“Philip Gladstone, what a surprise.” It was impossible to decipher her tone, but she granted him a small smile.
He bowed deeply. “My lady.”
She gave a small curtsy, in keeping with their difference in station.
The earl turned back to Philip. “Join us for a drink at our townhouse.”
The part of Philip still afraid of the earl from their last confrontation almost panicked at that suggestion. But on balance he was curious. He’d known Gideon his whole life, save these last three years. It was not typical for the earl to change his mind about anything, thus why Philip had taken as gospel that he was never welcome in the earl’s presence again. But here Gideon was, offering to share in one of his favorite pastimes. Drinking.
“Of course,” Philip finally managed to say. His voice sounded faint to his own ears.
Gideon gave their direction and extracted the promise that Philip would come over forthwith, this very evening.
Phlip agreed, still reeling in some ways from the entire event. Was he forgiven? If so then the healing powers of Bath were far greater than he’d given them credit.
Gideon fisted his hand again and felt Jack cover it softly with her own in the darkness of the carriage.
“I’m glad he’s done well for himself,” Gideon said, his voice rough.
“Yes,” Jack agreed. “He wears the colors well. I think the army was good for him.”
“I’d like at least thirty minutes to speak with him before you join us.”
He chuckled, surprised by her quick acceptance. “What, no rebellion about the men talking and drinking without you?” he teased.
“I would also want some time with my friend I hadn’t seen in years.”
Gideon cleared his throat. “He was my employee.”
Jack made a dismissive noise. “People aren’t just their titles, Giddy. You know that.”
He knew that. Life was much more complicated than anyone wanted it to be.
Philip knocked at the townhouse door, which honestly felt quite an odd thing to do at midnight. But the earl insisted, and never in his life had Philip had it in him to deny Gideon Wolfe anything. He’d thought that impulse well and truly dead, but this evening put the lie to that assumption.
The servant who opened the door was unfamiliar, hired into the earl’s service since Philip left. It was the first thing to make him realize that time had truly passed in the earl’s household in his absence. As though he somehow thought everything would still be the same.
Philip followed the butler to a study on the lower level where Gideon was already pouring. When he’d been Gideon’s steward it was a rare treat to have a drink with the earl. Usually as a reward for a job well done or because of a holiday.
The earl held up a tumbler. “Still cherry brandy for you?”
“Yes, my lord.” Philip accepted the glass gratefully. Perhaps after two or three of equal size he would feel less like a rat cornered by a hungry cat.
Philip noted that the earl was pouring a whiskey for himself. A whiskey signaled the earl was grappling with a problem. He and Josh Dibbs made something of a study of Gideon’s drinking habits, as they found it very illuminating. The only thing worse than whiskey was Geneva, as the blue ruin signaled that he’d given up on solving the problem.
It occurred to Philip that if Gideon had a problem it was no longer in his purview to try to fix it. He tipped up the glass and tossed back a rather lovely cherry brandy much faster than the scrumptious liquor deserved. He didn’t have quite the sweet tooth that he did as a youth, but the drink proved to be nostalgia and comfort in a glass.
Gideon looked curious at how quickly Philip drank the first tumbler but merely set his own drink aside to pour Philip another one.
Handing the fresh drink over Gideon waved to the deep leather seats in front of the fireplace. “Sit, let us catch up.”
Philip waited for the earl to sit first, of course. They both crossed their legs and sipped their drinks, for all the world the very picture of modern men of leisure.
Having talked over one another they both stopped.
“Go ahead,” Gideon said graciously.
“No, please,” Philip insisted. One did not interrupt an earl, even if what one wanted to say burned a hole in one’s tongue.
“Well,” Gideon looked down and cleared his throat. “In retrospect I worry that I was too harsh with you and hope you can forgive me.”
Philip stared at the earl, certain he’d misheard the man. The words didn’t even make sense. He’d betrayed the earl, the whole household. He’d had his reasons, but in retrospect they seemed the hollow excuses of a boy too scared to take the stand he’d needed to. That anyone of moral strength and fortitude would have done.
Once he accepted the words he felt incipient tears prick the back of his eyes. As an officer didn’t cry he tossed back the second glass of brandy, causing himself a coughing fit. Gideon rose to pat at his back.
“Are you quite all right, old man?”
He stayed hunched over his knees, fists pressed to his eyes. “You’ve no need to apologize, my lord.” He hoped that the strangled tone to his voice was dismissed as part of swallowing his brandy the wrong way.
He heard the earl sigh and sit down again. As much as Philip might want to look up he was fairly certain that he would start crying. He was suspicious that the brandy was actually making that situation worse rather than better.
The earl continued. “I’ve just come to view things differently since having my son.”
That did make Philip raise his eyes again. Hopefully the bloodshot wateriness would also be put off to his brandy coughing fit. “You have a son?” Somehow that piece of information made the years seem longer and more distant than they had before. His mother had not mentioned it in her letters, but then again they’d rather studiously avoided mentioning the earl in their correspondence.
Gideon smiled with some combination of pleasure and pride that Philip had never seen before. In that moment he knew that the earl was an excellent father. It wasn’t something that Philip had been anticipating because Gideon had always been an odd combination of driven and exacting on one side, while intemperate and debauched on the other. Hardly the recipe for a doting and stable father. Philip wasn’t sure if it was the countess or the son that had changed the earl so much.
“Yes, Oliver was born in November of ‘15.” Gideon settled back as though this was a topic he could speak on for some time. Then, surprisingly, the earl turned the conversation back to Philip. “But tell me what you’ve been about.”
“Well, my lord-”
“Gideon,” the earl interrupted with an encouraging smile.
Philip wasn’t sure he would be comfortable addressing the earl by his given name, so simply continued. “I’d hoped to join the fighting on the Continent, but managed to arrive in Waterloo too late for that. But it was just when they needed a man of my talents, which means they needed my quill more than my sword.”
“Then you’ve done well?” Gideon probed.
“Well enough,” Philip confirmed. What did the earl want him to say? “I earned a promotion, but soon it became clear that staying in the army was not for me.”
“I hadn’t heard you’d mustered out.”
Which indicated that the earl had heard other things over the years. Philip well remembered how intrusive the earl could be in others’ affairs. Although the cherry brandy had him a bit foxed he found that he was more irritated than delighted at the prospect that Gideon had been monitoring his career.
Fortunately, before he could address it the countess arrived.
Desdemona set her embroidery aside for a moment to stretch her fingers. She loved sewing, but doing it constantly was quite wearing. Her eyes were also tired in the dim light. She’d stopped sitting so close to the window since the Officer started watching her.
At first she’d assumed it was just fretting on her part to believe he paid her any particular mind. Most people were averse to engaging with anyone who seemed as bereft as she did. Such was the cleverness of her disguise. No one truly wanted to ask after a widow’s grief. They wanted to dole out sympathy like sweets, as though satisfying death with their false concern would be enough to keep him from their doors. She was too cynical for any of it. Grief visited everyone in turn, no matter how one might try to appease the gods.
She’d grown up far from here, with a different language and different gods, but now she felt she was a woman of no land. Here was as good as anywhere else so long as he was not here. She wouldn’t even think of his name. Thinking of him might summon him. It was possible that he’d sent the Officer but not likely, although she had no other explanation for why the Officer watched her. Her dress was shapeless and black as night. Her veils kept her face covered. There was nothing about her to intrigue or entice.
She heard a knock at her door and tensed. It wasn’t a knock she recognized and was loath to answer it. But it could be a new client and she needed money. She donned her veil and went to open the door.
Seeing the Officer on the other side she almost gasped.
“Ma’am,” he said with a small bow, “I’ve heard that you do excellent embroidery and wondered if you would consider sewing these kerchiefs for my mother and sisters?”
She now saw that he was holding out kerchiefs, almost like an offering. She reached forward with a gloved hand and delicately took them. “What would you like on them?”
He tipped his head slightly and she knew he was trying to place her accent. She almost laughed because he would never place it.
“Flowers and their monograms?” he suggested.
“Which flowers? What letters?”
“Errr, that is to say. You can choose the flowers.” He took a small pad of paper and pencil from his pocket. “I’ll write down their initials.”
“You don’t know what flowers they love?” She was more amused by this odd Englishman than she expected. He shifted about as though she’d asked him a much more difficult question.
“Well, my father would always bring my mother petunias in the spring, but I don’t know if that means they are her favorite.”
“That is good enough. Write petunia next to her initials.”
He scribbled on the paper.
“And what of your sisters?”
“Oh, I have no idea.” He looked so shocked that she would expect such a thing that she had to stifle her laughter. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d laughed.
“You can’t even ascribe them a personality? She is elegant as a rose? She is hardy as a chrysanthemum?”
“Well, Sarah is always happy-”
She waved at the paper. “Write them down, these words you use to describe them.”
He went back to scribbling on the paper. When he held it up she took it from his hand.
“One week,” she said brusquely and shut the door.
Philip didn’t know any more about the Widow now than he had before he knocked on her door. Well, he knew that she had an intriguing accent. Perhaps Spain or even further south. Her voice was husky and he didn’t know if that indicated she was older, or had a fine taste for whisky, or it was just natural. Her black veils were thick enough that he barely saw a hint of her face. He still had a sense of unexpected kinship, however, that made it impossible to simply abandon the kerchiefs to her keeping as he’d told himself he might when he satisfied his curiosity about her. Although he would have left her money for the work, it wouldn’t be right to do otherwise. Which reminded him that he had no idea what she planned to charge him. Odd, really, that he’d not asked and she’d not said. Not the typical way of doing business. Perhaps she preferred to show off her needlework when she demanded her price.
The other concern that made him want to both flee the town and feel that he couldn’t really leave was, of course, the earl. He hadn’t escaped late night drinks after the ball without an invitation to tea this afternoon. One might assume that he would be delighted. A lowly officer being entertained privately by an earl and countess was, well, beyond all expectations. But however much he might be relieved for the forgiveness, and flabbergasted that the earl even offered an apology, it was clear that he could not, in fact, forgive himself. Seeing the earl only made his guts twist with guilt. He’d been raised to serve and protect the Harington family and he’d not only compromised that duty, he’d done so without achieving the very purpose that prompted the betrayal. The truth was that he’d been a stupid young man, far stupider than Gideon even knew. And among the things he wished to avoid was confessing all and making it quite clear precisely how much of an idiot he was.
He knocked, however reluctantly, on the townhouse door. The staff admitted him without comment now that he was known, conveying him through the house to the earl’s study. Although the room looked nothing like Gideon’s study at Kellington, it still evoked bittersweet memories. The earl was a bit of a taskmaster, blessed with an energy and intellect that few could keep up with. Philip had spent many hours scribbling notes at the edge of the earl’s desk at Kellington, the primary estate, while Gideon went through papers related to his holdings and Parliamentary work. It was sobering to realize, in retrospect, what a tremendous responsibility Philip had been entrusted with at such a young age. That he’d once had the confidence of one of the most powerful men in England. It was perhaps a relief that Gideon had never turned his money and power against him in retribution.
At the moment, however, Philip was cooling his heels in the study, no earl in sight. He was curious, of course, about the papers on the desk, and had a slight compulsion to straighten them. But the mere idea of disrespecting the earl’s privacy in any way made him feel nauseated. He’d not make the mistake of disappointing Gideon again. That was why, ten minutes later, the earl found him still standing a few feet from the doorway.
“Sit,” the earl encouraged, pouring two glasses of sherry. “I’ve received some correspondence this morning that reminded me to ask you a question.”
Philip wondered if this feeling of dread would ever leave him. That no matter what the earl said, he supposed that some horrific outcome was going to be attached. Burying that feeling he politely asked, “Yes, my lord?”
“Have you ever considered working in shipping?”
“I’ll politely remind you that I was an Army man, not Navy.”
Gideon grinned. “Yes, but every shipping office is in need of a good clerk.”
“One supposes that is true. What served to remind you of this?”
The earl waved one of the papers on his desk. “A letter from Robert Bittlesworth. Perhaps you remember him?”
Philip’s heart stuttered in his chest. Yes, he remembered Robert Bittlesworth. But he particularly remembered how adamant the Owlers had been that the man was to hear nothing of their activities on the coast. The Hero of the Home Office was no friend of smugglers. Philip managed to nod so that the earl would continue.
“Robert bemoans his lack of a good clerk in Southampton. I don’t suppose you would be interested in such a position?”
Philip was so shocked he could feel his blood running through his veins like lightning. He’d been at loose ends at what to do. That was why he’d taken his ease at Bath before returning to the city to seek work. He remembered quite clearly that Gideon said he would receive no reference. Although his work in the Army was helpful in finding a position, it would eventually come up that he’d worked for the earl. And that he had no reference.
Now Gideon was planning to refer him to Robert Bittlesworth. Perhaps clerking at a port was not his ideal position, but it was better than nothing. His Army pension was meager and he wished for all of it to go to his mother.
“I would be delighted, my lord,” he managed to respond. If the rumors were true, Robert Bittlesworth was a dangerous man. But certainly that danger wouldn’t overly affect a lowly clerk in a southern port.
“Excellent,” Gideon said, thumping his finger on the letter in a move that Philip remembered as a signal that a particular piece of business was concluded. “I will write to Robert and you can leave for Southampton in a fortnight or so.”
Ah. So he was to stay in Bath until then? Not that he would gainsay the earl.
Desdemona smiled and tucked the scrap of paper into her sewing basket again. What a mess of a man. Careful enough to carry paper and pencil with him, yet uncertain how to describe his own sisters. She was happy with Sarah’s daisies. Now she would use lavender for Jane. The soldier had simply scribbled ‘intelligent’, so certainly a flower of admiration would be appropriate. She was very much enjoying the delicate stitch of pale purple flax when there was a knock at the door. She should be pleased to have a busier week, as she needed to take in more work, but she found herself annoyed at the interruption. Donning her veils and gloves, she cracked open the door.
It was the Soldier again. She felt like smiling and wasn’t sure why.
“Pardon,” he said, “but I realized that we’d not discussed price nor time. I thought I might need to leave soon, but will be here at least a fortnight now.”
The British. So entertaining with their clipped language and strange words.
“Stay,” she said, leaving him at the partially opened door. She wasn’t surprised that he was in exactly the same position when she returned. She held out the kerchief she’d embroidered for his mother.
“Oh,” he said softly. “That’s lovely.”
“I charge five pence per piece.”
“All right. Do I need to leave a deposit? I should have asked before.”
“Perhaps five pence for that one and you can take it with you. Then another five pence in advance for the other three.”
The Soldier dug into his pocket, producing some coins. He counted out ten pence. She found herself envious at what seemed to be casual wealth. To produce ten pence she would need to dig into one of her hidden purses. Perhaps she should have charged him more for the work, he’d not even batted an eye.
“Perhaps you would like to,” he paused. “Er, that is to say.”
She was at a loss of what he was trying to ask. “Out with it,” she encouraged, flipping a hand impatiently.
“I’ve not seen you walk at the bath house and thought that perhaps you would like to do so?”
She wasn’t sure if she would have been any more surprised if he’d asked her what breed of cow she preferred. No one here had tried overly to include her in their affairs. Her apparent grief had allowed her to keep to herself and she preferred it that way. She didn’t belong here. She didn’t belong anywhere anymore, but most especially here. That was part of the genius of hiding in England.
Her silence apparently prompted the Soldier to press his suit. “I just hoped to speak to you more before I leave for Southampton, and it would be quite inappropriate to do so here. Although if it is not to your liking I, of course, understand.”
Desdemona was quite used to men being intrigued by her, but not when they couldn’t even see her. Not when she purposefully cultivated an older, bereaved persona.
“Why?” she asked bluntly.
She could tell that he thought her offended. She considered for a moment letting the perception stand. What need did she have for some British officer who didn’t even know what flowers his sisters liked?
“I prefer to walk along the Crescent,” she said. “Perhaps this afternoon?”
“Yes. Yes, that would be excellent.” His grin was enormous even as she closed her door.
What a sad, silly mess of a man. She had to fight her own smile as she took up her sewing again.
Philip couldn’t help the lightness of his step after the Widow agreed to stroll with him along the Crescent. Then he stopped short. He still didn’t know her name, nor shared his. There was something about his reaction to this woman that was singular. Certainly he would remember to introduce himself when next they met? How very odd.
Should he bring her something? A posy? Would that be appropriate, or too much like he was pressing a courtship? He wasn’t trying to court her, of course. He didn’t know her and she was still too early in her grief to consider such a thing. On the other hand, she undoubtedly needed some color to brighten her rooms. He took his luncheon to think it over, then went to the flower seller to see if there might be something modest but colorful that he could take to her. He chose a small bunch of jonquils tied with a bright ribbon.
Walking back to the Widow’s quarters he finally turned his mind to that which he did not want to consider. That he would soon be a port clerk. It was a fine enough life, he supposed. Certainly nothing like his position at Kellington. He’d once had the run, if also the responsibility, of a vast estate. He’d visited the tenants, kept good relations with the vicar, kept the earl’s papers. At Gideon’s insistence he’d read for the law for a year. No, nothing in Southampton could compare with what he’d lost. And lost by dint of his own failings. His own fear and weakness.
He relaxed his grip on the jonquils. They were delicate flowers, not a cutlass he could use to cut down the specters in his own mind. He would never have that life back and needed to accept it. Even if he were to acquire a similar position, it would never be with the same innocent joy that he’d engaged in his duties at Kellington. It was literally the home he’d grown up in, the people he’d known all his life, the work he’d always known he would do. Now any position would always be burdened with his fear of what would steal it from him. Even this bloody position in Southampton. He couldn’t imagine caring overly much about it, but he would harbor a fear of losing it, of being compromised, or causing some disappointment.
Pausing on the roadway he took a moment to calm himself. There was no use in trying to know the Widow if he would only grimace and pace in her presence. She had her own griefs to bear and didn’t need his in addition. He would take her these jonquils, they would stroll along the Crescent, and that would be that. Then he could brood about his future, and his past, as much as he liked.
The knock at the door was the Soldier again. She’d barely said hello before he thrust some yellow flowers at her.
“I thought you might need something cheerful in your rooms.”
She took the flowers delicately. Jonquils, their little heads bobbing with each movement. “Thank you,” she said solemnly. Most people, seeing her black, didn’t dare try to cheer her. The truth was that she adored flowers. Nature of any variety, really. It was a treat to take a long walk outside and she didn’t do it often alone as she felt too vulnerable to enjoy herself. Nor did she care to invite conversation or comment, and others sometimes saw a person alone as one in need of companionship. It was perhaps the height of madness to trust this man, but he didn’t ooze the sort of false appeal of the courtiers she’d been so desperate to escape. Whatever else might be true of him, he seemed earnest.
Although she would enjoy strolling with the posy in hand, she set it aside to put in water upon her return. It would be odd enough that she was strolling with a man, let her not be seen as dotty with romantic notions. She closed and locked the door to her rooms and took the Soldier’s arm when he offered it.
He was the first to break the silence again. “Not that this is the proper way to do it, I suppose, but if I may make your acquaintance, I am Philip Gladstone.”
“What is your,” she indicated his regimentals with a twirling sweep of her finger, “rank? If I may be so bold as to ask.”
She smiled under her veil. “I am pleased to make your acquaintance, Lieutenant Gladstone. You may call me Lady Merlo.”
“I am pleased to make your acquaintance as well, Lady Merlo.”
She still wasn’t anyone, but hearing him say her new name made her feel more of someone than she had in a long time. Perhaps it was his solid arm in her grasp, the warm sun that valiantly tried to reach her skin through the thick veils, or even the fact that she’d made it through yet another day without being found, but as they strolled out onto the walk she finally almost felt like someone. Although her soul yearned to be able to cast the veils aside, to stand resolute and proud in the sunshine with the wind whipping through her hair, she knew she couldn’t. Not yet.
Lady Merlo was the quietest person Philip had ever met. Oddly, it wasn’t particularly awkward. They simply walked along companionably in the sunshine. Her pace was measured, neither rushed nor leisurely. He noted that her posture was quite different than before. Rather than hunched she was alert and poised.
He thought that she was ruining his ability to resolve the intrigue of her. What had started as a determination to solve the mystery of her allure was only bringing him more firmly into her grip. They stopped at a particularly lovely spot, as though they had decided to do so in advance. Under the shade of a tree they could look out over acres of green, rolling lawn.
“I should offer my condolences for your departed husband,” he said.
“Yes, you should,” she agreed. “Had I been married.”
He frowned down at her. “Lady Merlo, I find myself confused.”
She patted his arm as though comforting a fitful child. “Not all grief is from loss of a husband.”
The mystery continued to deepen. He knew that some women created a fiction of widowhood, but it was most often as cover for an unwanted pregnancy. Was she perhaps with child? That question was out of bounds,but not all questions were.
“Then what particular loss do you grieve?”
Her head turned toward him. Although he could barely make out the shape of her face behind the veils, he felt that she studied him with some intensity.
“Myself, Lieutenant Gladstone.”
The moment was so stunning he had to take a deep breath and look away. When his gaze returned to her he said, “As I somehow suspected, we are more alike than we may at first seem, Lady Merlo.”