About the Author
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Another inch. One little inch, and she would have it.
Maris Oliver stood on tiptoe on the chair and stretched her arm across the top shelf, groping for the box she had seen from the floor. When she had asked the cook about a box of small cups, Mrs. Ford told her to look in the stillroom. She wanted to retrieve the cups that were decorated with nursery rhyme characters to use in the nursery.
"Just another inch," she muttered to herself as the stool wobbled under her toes.
She could have waited and asked a footman to help her, but she wanted the cups for the children's next meal. She had read the rhymes to them, and they would be excited to see the characters. Making the youngsters smile always was a delight.
The four tots and tiny baby in the nursery, as well as the little boy who lived with the parson and his wife, had been discovered floating in a jolly boat in the harbor. Brought to Cothaire, the great house on the hill overlooking the cove, they were taken in by the Tre-lawney family. Its patriarch, the Earl of Launceston, had given his children carte blanche to provide for the youngsters until it could be discovered who had put them into that boat and set them afloat and why.
Shortly after their arrival, Maris was offered the position of nurse to oversee the children and the nursery. The position would end once the search for their real families proved fruitful. She should worry about where she would go next, but she spent her time focused on the children, guiding them, teaching them manners, playing games with them in the nursery.
She doted on the adorable urchins. When she was with them, she could forget why she had run away to West Cornwall in the first place. She had found a haven in Porthlowen, and the children had found a way into her heart.
A perfect solution at least for now.
Her fingers brushed the edge of the box she sought. It rocked.
"C'mon," she murmured. "An inch more."
Could she stand higher on her toes? She tried and managed to push aside the box beside the one she wanted. It bumped into others, and one toppled onto another. She held her breath, but nothing fell to the floor.
One more try.
Extending her arm and hand as far as she could, she hooked one finger over the side of the box. She drew it back carefully. It moved an inch, then stopped.
She was not going to give up. She gave another tug, then a harder one.
Too hard. Her finger popped off the side of the box. The motion propelled her backward. She windmilled her arms before grasping the edge of the shelf. The stool stopped rocking beneath her. She let out her breath in a soft sigh. That had been close.
Suddenly, an arm wrapped around her waist, yanking her off her feet. A shriek burst from her throat. The moment her toes touched the stone floor, she was shoved against the lower shelves. As she was held there by a firm chest, terror took control of her. No! She would not let this happen. Not again! She tried to pull away, but broad hands tightened on her.
Exactly as hands had at her dear friend's house that evening when Lord Litchfield refused to let her escape him as he squeezed her to the shelves behind her. The brash, flirtatious young lord had proved he was no gentlemen when he had chanced upon her in the book room. The echo of her own screams burst from her memories, his breath hot against her face, the screech of ripping fabric the laughter of his friends.
Not again! She would not let it happen again.
She drew back her arm and drove her fist into her captor's gut. Air whooshed out of him, but he did not release her. She aimed her fist at him again. She froze when boxes cascaded down beyond her captor. They struck the stone floor and broke apart. Wood splinters flew in every direction. He pushed her head to his chest. His face hid in her hair. Glass shattered, and metal clanged.
Silence except for her uneven breathing and her captor's. No, not her captor. Her rescuer!
Voices rang through the room. She started to raise her head, but the man pushed it against him again. She opened her mouth to protest. Anything she might have said vanished as another storm of boxes fell from overhead, crashing and splintering.
The man holding her recoiled toward her. Had he been struck? She did not move until he lifted his head off hers as silence returned.
"Are you hurt?" called Mrs. Ford from the direction of the kitchen.
Maris opened her eyes and closed them as a cloud of dust and debris swirled around her. How many boxes had fallen? There had been more than a score on the topmost shelf and many others on the lower ones.
Mrs. Ford's voice grew more frantic. "Are you hurt? Miss Oliver? Lord Trelawney?"
In horror mixed with dismay, she looked up at the man who still held her close to the shelves. She was accustomed to looking down when she spent time with the children, so it felt strange to raise her eyes to his. Arthur Trelawney, the earl's heir, was strikingly handsome with his ebony hair that curled across his forehead. She had seen him on occasion in Cothaire's hallways, but never this close. His face was tanned, for he often rode across the estate on the family's business. Because his features were sharply drawn, when he moved changes of light and shadow played along them intriguingly. His dark navy coat, which accented his broad shoulders, was cut to his specifications by a skilled tailor. His crystal blue eyes were bright as his gaze moved up and down her.
She tensed, too conscious of how close they stood, for she was aware of each breath he drew in. She must look a complete rump. Her apron was stained with food from the children's luncheon, and her hair was escaping from its sedate chignon to wisp around her face as if she were a hoyden racing across the garden.
"Are you hurt?" the viscount asked.
"No." She hastily looked away. Why was she gawking like a foolish chit when she should be apologizing?
He waved her to silence, stirring the cloud of dust, then called, "Mrs. Ford, we are unharmed."
"I will send Baricoat for footmen to clean up the mess," the cook said, then ordered one of her kitchen maids to take her message to the butler. "I am relieved to hear you are not injured, Lord Trelawney."
His name was an awful reminder that Maris had struck the earl's heir when he was trying to keep her from being hurt. She must hope that he would not give her the bag for such outrageous behavior. Where could she find another safe place to hide?
Again she began, "My lord, I am sorry"
"One moment." He vanished into the brown cloud, and she heard china crack under his boots.
A burst of damp autumn air swept into the room, and the dust was flushed out through the stillroom's garden door. Blinking, Maris coughed as she breathed in fresh air to cleanse her lungs.
When a handkerchief was held out to her, she took it with a whispered, "Thank you." She dabbed her watery eyes, then faltered. Blowing her nose on Lord Tre-lawney's handkerchief did not seem right, especially if he expected her to return it to him.
As if she had spoken her uncertainty aloud, he said, "You may leave it in the laundry, Miss Oliver."
"I shall." She took a steadying breath, then looked at him again. There was something about his cool blue eyes that sent a pulse of warmth through her, even though his terse answers suggested he wished to put an end to this conversation immediately. So did she before she said the wrong thing and jeopardized her position at Cothaire. "Thank you, my lord, for saving me. Please forgive me for striking you."
"I I shall survive." A faint smile tugged at his lips, but was gone so quickly that she was unsure she had seen it. Again his pale eyes examined her without hesitation. "You?"
"I am fine, my lord." Her voice was unsteady, and she was shocked how a wisp of a smile could send another beat of a sweet sensation through her.
She waited for him to say more, but he was silent. Was he waiting for her to speak or move away? Uncertain, she blurted out the first thing that came into her mind. "Next time I need something on a high shelf, I will ask for help."
She wished she could be as calm as he was. Her knees trembled with the residue of her fear. The memories that usually only haunted her in her nightmares had surged forward the moment he had touched her.
Or was it something other than serenity that kept his answers short? The household maids had warned her that the viscount seldom spoke to anyone other than his family or the upper servants. Some believed he was arrogant; others more graciously suggested he might be so busy with his many tasks that he was lost in his thoughts and did not notice anyone around him. A few whispered that he simply was shy.
When Lord Trelawney strode over broken crates and crockery toward the kitchen door, Maris remained where she was. She was not sure which opinion was correct. He had spoken to her. However, he said only as much as necessary. He had come to her rescue, but Lord Litchfield had acted caring, too, before he had forced himself on her. She once had prided herself on being a good judge of character. She had been a fool when she let herself trust Lord Litchfield instead of making sure she was never alone with him. She was no longer that naive girl, and she would not be want-witted with another man, whether he be a gentleman of the ton or a lowly laborer. Before coming to Cornwall, she had chosen the most unflattering clothes and hairstyle. No man in Porthlowen had given her a second look, just as she wished.
But Lord Trelawney had given her a second look as Lord Litchfield had. She did not want to think of what could happen, but she must be careful. Unlike with Lord Litchfield, warmth had bubbled within her when the earl's heir smiled at her. Letting her thoughts wander in that direction could ruin her as surely as Lord Litchfield had vowed to do.
She knew better than to trust any man. She must make sure she could always trust herself.
"And I assume you will be prepared to announce your plans to marry her before Christmas."
Arthur Trelawney, heir to the Earl of Launceston, fisted his hands behind his back as he listened to his father. He wondered if the whole world had gone mad. What other explanation was there for his father's plan for his older son's future? Maybe one of those boxes had fallen on Arthur's skull in the stillroom. He had thought his only wound was a small cut on his nape where a china shard had struck him while he tried to protect Miss Oliver. He should have moved out of the way, but had kept his face pressed to her golden hair, which was laced with the faint scent of jasmine.
By all that's blue! He should not be letting his mind wander to the pretty nurse. And she was a delight for the eyes, something he had not noticed until they stood close. The few times their paths had crossed before, she had hurried in the opposite direction as if hounds were at her heels. His impression had been of her gray gown and tightly bound hair.
No, he had no time to think of that. Instead, he concentrated on his father. All his life, he had admired the Earl of Launceston, who handled the most dire emergency with a cool head. Even when Father's health began to trouble him, condemning him to pain-filled days and sleepless nights, he had accepted God's will without railing or rancor.
"Pardon me," Arthur said, struggling to keep his voice even. He needed to emulate his father and deal with this unexpected situation with aplomb and solicitude.
As Father had always done, until this outrageous conversation.
"Yes, son? Do you have a question?"
He had a thousand questions, but the foremost one was why his father was acting bizarrely. Instead of blurting that out, Arthur said, "Forgive me, but this is abrupt. When you asked me to come here, I did not expect you to make such a request."
His father leaned back in his favorite chair in his favorite room. The smoking room's windows provided a view of the garden and the moors beyond it. Paintings of horses, some life-size, and hunt scenes were interspersed on the walls along with swords and antiquated pistols. It was a man's room where women were seldom welcome.
"You are my heir," Father said, "and it is high time you have an heir of your own."
He did not let Arthur finish. Or even begin. "Lady Gwendolyn Cranford is the daughter of my oldest friend."
"Gwendolyn?" That was not a name he had thought to hear during this conversation. Perhaps there was more to his father's request than he had guessed. Or his father truly knew. He must proceed with care. He decided the best course would be to act as if his late best friend's wife's name had not set him on alert. "Yes, of course I realize her father is Lord Monkstone, your friend since you were in school together. That does not explain your request."
"Since his daughter was widowed by that heinous attack on her husband by a low highwayman, and left with two young children, Monkstone has fretted about her future. As I have about your future, son, and the future of our family's line. How better to ease our disquiet than solving both with a single offer of marriage?"
It took all of Arthur's willpower not to retort that he believed Louis Cranford's murder had not been a bungled robbery. Someone must have made it appear so, because Cranny, as Arthur thought of him, could have easily fought off a highwayman. His death was murder, and Arthur had futilely sought that cur for more than a year.
"I have not spoken with Lady Gwendolyn since the funeral." Lord, help me keep from lying. Guide me in choosing words that are truth-filled, but allow me to conceal the truth that could endanger my family.
Arthur had also spent the past year fulfilling Cranny's duties as a secret courier for the government. No one but Cranny's wife knew of his work passing along information from the Continent and the war against Napoleon. She had asked Arthur at her husband's funeral to take over the task of conveying coded messages across Cornwall. He had agreed, and so far his family was none the wiser. He explained his absences by saying he was checking the tenant farms on the estate. And he did so, because he refused to lie, but those visits were the perfect cover for his other activities.