The second book in the Blydon series, 1995
For my father, who never forgets to tell me how proud he is of me. I'm proud of you, too!
And for Paul, even though he seemed to think the story could be improved by moving the whole thing to the rain forest.
Oxfordshire, England, 1816
If, one by one, you weeded all the world- Arabella Blydon blinked. That couldn't be right. There weren't any gardeners in The Winter's Tale. She held the book farther from her face. Even worse. She pulled the book closer. The type on the page slowly focused. If, one by one, you wedded all the world-Belle sighed and leaned back against a tree trunk. That made a lot more sense. She blinked a couple of times, willing her bright blue eyes to focus on the words that lay before her on the page. They refused to obey, but she wasn't about to read with her face pressed into the book, so she squinted and plodded on.
A chilly wind passed across her, and she glanced up at the overcast sky. It was going to rain, no doubt about that, but if she were lucky she'd have another hour until the first drops fell. That was all the time she'd need to finish The Winter's Tale. And that would mark the end of her Grand Shakespearean Quest, the semi-academic endeavor that had occupied her spare time for nearly six months. She'd started with All's Well that Ends Well and proceeded alphabetically, wending her way through Hamlet, all the Henrys, Romeo and Juliet, and a host of other plays she hadn't even heard of before. She wasn't exactly sure why she'd done it, other than the simple fact that she liked to read, but now that the end was in sight she was damned if she was going to let a few raindrops get in her way.
Belle gulped and looked this way and that, as if afraid that someone had heard her cursing in her thoughts. She glanced back up at the sky. A beam of sunshine burst through a tiny hole in the clouds. Belle took that as a sign for optimism and plucked a chicken sandwich out of her picnic lunch. She bit into it daintily and picked up her book again. The words seemed just as unwilling to focus as before, so she moved the volume closer to her face, which she contorted in a number of different ways until she found a squint that worked.
"There you go, Arabella," she muttered. "If you can just hold mis exceedingly uncomfortable pose for another forty-five minutes, you should have no problem with the rest of your book."
"Of course your facial muscles will probably be quite sore by that point," drawled a voice from behind her.
Belle dropped her book and whirled her head around. Standing a few yards away was a gentleman in casual, yet elegant, attire. His hair was a rich chocolate brown and his eyes were the exact same color. He was looking down at her and her solitary picnic with an amused expression, and his lazy pose indicated that he'd been watching her for some time. Belle glared at him, unable to think of anything to say but hoping that her scornful gaze would put him in his place.
It didn't seem to do the trick. In fact, he looked even more amused by her. "You need spectacles," he said simply.
"And you are trespassing," she retorted.
"Am I? I rather thought you were trespassing."
"I most certainly am not. This land belongs to the Duke of Ashbourne. My cousin," she added for emphasis.
The stranger pointed to the west. "That land belongs to the Duke of Ashbourne. The boundary is that ridge over there. And thus you are trespassing."
Belle narrowed her eyes and pushed a lock of her wavy blond hair behind her ear. "Are you certain?"
"Absolutely. I realize that Ashbourne's land holdings are vast, but they are not infinite."
She shifted uncomfortably. "Oh. Well, in that case, I am very sorry for disturbing you," she said in a haughty voice. "I'll just see to my horse and be off."
"Don't be silly," he said quickly. "I hope I am not so ill-tempered that I cannot allow a lady to read under one of my trees. By all means, stay as long as you like."
Belle considered leaving anyway, but comfort won out over pride. "Thank you. I've been here for several hours and am quite ensconced."
"So I see." He smiled, but it was a small one, and Belle got the impression that he was not a man who smiled often. "Perhaps," he said, "since you will be spending the rest of the day on my land, you might introduce yourself."
Belle hesitated, unable to discern whether he was being condescending or polite. "I'm sorry. I am Lady Arabella Blydon."
"Pleased to meet you, my lady. And I am John, Lord Blackwood."
"How do you do?"
"Very well, but you still need spectacles."
Belle felt her spine stiffen. Emma and Alex had been urging her to get her eyes examined for the last month, but they were, after all, family. This John Blackwood was a perfect stranger and certainly had no right to offer her such a suggestion. "You can be sure I will take your advice under consideration," she muttered, somewhat ungraciously.
John inclined his head, a wry smile touching his lips. "What are you reading?"
"The Winter's Tale." Belle sat back and waited for the usual condescending comments about women and reading.
"An excellent play, but not, I think, Shakespeare's finest," John commented. "I myself am partial to Coriolanus. It's not very well-known, but I quite liked it. You might read that sometime."
Belle forgot to be pleased that she had met a man who was actually encouraging her to read and said, "Thank you for the suggestion, but I've read it already."
"I'm impressed," John said. "Have you read Othello?"
John searched his brain for the most obscure
Shakespearean work he could recall. "What about The Passionate Pilgrim?"
"Not my favorite, but I plodded through it." Belle tried but couldn't stop the smile that was creeping across her face.
He chuckled. "My compliments, Lady Arabella. I don't think I've ever even seen a copy of The Passionate Pilgrim."
Belle grinned, graciously accepting the compliment as her previous antagonism toward the man melted away. "Won't you join me for a few minutes?" she asked him, waving toward the empty expanse of blanket spread out beneath her. "I still have most of my picnic lunch, and I would be happy to share it with you."
For a moment it looked as if he would accept. He opened his mouth to say something, then let out a tiny sigh and closed it. When he finally spoke, his voice was very stiff and formal and all he said was "No, thank you." He took a couple of steps away from her and turned his head so that he could stare out across the fields.
Belle cocked her head and was about to say something further when she noticed with surprise that he limped. She wondered if he'd been injured in the peninsular war. An intriguing man, this John. She wouldn't have half minded spending an hour or so in his company. And, she had to admit, he was really quite handsome, with strong, even features, and a body which was lean and powerful in spite of his injured leg. His velvety brown eyes displayed obvious intelligence, but they also seemed hooded with pain and skepticism. Belle was starting to find him very mysterious, indeed.
"Are you certain?" she asked.
"Certain of what?" He didn't turn around.
She bristled at his rudeness. "Certain that you don't want to join me for lunch."
That got her attention. No one had ever before told her that he was quite certain he could do without her company.
Belle sat uncomfortably on her blanket, her copy of The Winter's Tale lying limply in her lap. There didn't seem to be anything she could say with his back half to her. And it would have been impolite to start reading again.
John suddenly turned around and cleared his throat.
"It was really too bad of you to tell me I need spectacles," she said abruptly, mostly just to get something in before he could.
"I apologize. I've never been very good at polite conversation."
"Perhaps you should converse more," she retorted.
"Were you using a different tone of voice, my lady, one might suspect that you were flirting with me."
She slammed The Winter's Taleshut and stood. "I can see that you were not lying. You are not dreadful at merely polite conversation. You are lacking at all forms of it."
He shrugged. "One of my many qualities."
Her mouth fell open.
"I can see that you do not subscribe to my particular brand of humor."
"1 cannot imagine that many people do."
There was a pause, and then a strange, sad light appeared in his eyes. It disappeared just as quickly, and the tone of his voice sharpened as he said, "Don't come out here alone again."
Belle shoved her belongings into her satchel.
"Don't worry. I shan't trespass again."
"I didn't say you couldn't come on my property. Just don't do it alone."
She had no idea how to reply to that so she merely said, "I'm going home."
He glanced up at the sky. "Yes. You probably should. It's going to rain soon. I've two or so miles to walk home myself. I shall certainly be drenched."
She glanced around. "Didn't you bring a horse?"
"Sometimes, my lady, it is better to use one's feet." He inclined his head. "It has been a pleasure."
"For you, perhaps," Belle muttered under her breath. She watched his back as he walked away from her. His limp was quite pronounced, but he moved much more quickly than she would have thought possible. She kept her gaze fixed on him until he disappeared over the horizon. As she mounted her mare, however, a compelling thought entered her head.
He limped. What kind of man was he that he preferred to walk?
John Blackwood listened to the hoofbeats of Lady Arabella's mare as she cantered off. He sighed. He'd acted like an ass.
He sighed again, this time loud with sorrow and self-loathing and pure, simple irritation. Damn. He never knew what to say to women anymore.
Belle set off back to Westonbirt, the home of her relations. Her American-born cousin Emma had married the Duke of Ashbourne a few months earlier. The newlyweds preferred the privacy of country life to London and had resided at Westonbirt almost continuously since their wedding. Of course the season was over, so no one was in London anyway. Still, Belle had a feeling that Emma and her husband would probably avoid much of London's social scene even when the next season was underway.
Belle sighed. She'd no doubt be back in London for the next season. Back at the marriage mart, looking for a husband. She was getting heartily sick of the entire process. She'd been through two seasons already and accumulated over a dozen proposals, but she'd rejected every one. Some of the men had been completely unsuitable, but most were decent sorts, well-connected and quite likeable. She just couldn't seem to make herself accept a man she didn't care deeply about. And now that she'd had a glimpse of how happy her cousin was, she knew that it would be very difficult to settle for anything less than her wildest dreams.
Belle spurred her horse into a canter as the rain began to thicken. It was almost three o'clock, and she knew that Emma would have tea ready for her when she returned. She'd been staying with Emma and her husband Alex for three weeks. A few months after Emma's wedding, Belle's parents had decided to take a holiday in Italy. Ned, their son, was back up at Oxford for his final year so he didn't need any watching over, and Emma was safely married. That left only Belle, and since Emma was now a married lady she was a suitable chaperone, so Belle went off to stay with her cousin.
Belle couldn't imagine a more pleasing arrangement. Emma was her best friend, and after all the mischief they'd gotten into together, it was quite amusing to have her as a chaperone.
Belle breathed a sigh of relief as she rode up a hill and Westonbirt rose over the horizon. The massive building was really quite graceful, with long, narrow columns of windows marching across the facade. Belle was already starting to think of it as home. She headed into the stables, handed her mare over to a groom, and made a mad dash for the house, laughing as she tried to dodge the raindrops which had started to fall at a furious rate. She stumbled up the front steps but before she could push open the heavy door, the butler opened it with a flourish.
"Thank you, Norwood," she said. "You must have been watching for me."
Norwood inclined his head.
"Norwood, has Belle returned yet?"
The feminine voice floated through the air, and Belle heard her cousin's footsteps clattering along the floor of the hallway that led to the foyer.
"It's starting to get quite wet out there." Emma turned the corner into the hall. "Oh good! You're back."
"A little wet, but none the worse for the wear," Belle said cheerily.
"I told you it was going to rain."
"Do you feel responsible for me now that you're an old married matron?"
Emma made a face which told her exactly what she thought of that. "You look like a drowned rat," she said plainly.
Belle made an equally unpleasant face. "I'll change my clothes and come down for tea in a moment."
"In Alex's study," Emma advised. "He's joining us today."
"Oh, good. I'll be right down."
Belle headed up the stairs and through the labyrinth of hallways which led to her room. She quickly peeled off her sodden riding habit, changed into a soft blue dress, and headed back downstairs. The door to Alex's study was closed and she could hear giggling, so she wisely knocked before she entered. There was a moment of silence and then Emma called out, "Come in!"
Belle smiled to herself. She was learning more and more about this married love thing by the minute. Some chaperone Emma was turning out to be. She and Alex couldn't manage to keep their hands off each other whenever they thought no one was looking. Belle's smile grew wider. She wasn't exactly sure about the particulars of making babies, but she had a feeling all this touching had something to do with why Emma was already pregnant. Belle pushed open the door and walked into Alex's very large, very masculine study. "Good afternoon, Alex," she said. "How has your day been?"
"Drier than yours, I understand," he said, pouring some milk in his teacup and ignoring the tea entirely. "Your curls are still dripping."
Belle looked down at her shoulders. The fabric of her dress was damp from her hair. She shrugged. "Oh well, nothing to do about it, I suppose." She settled down on the sofa, and poured herself a cup of tea. "And how was your day, Emma?"
"Fairly uneventful. I've been going over various books and reports from some of our lands in Wales. It looks like there may be some sort of a problem. I'm thinking of heading out there to investigate."
"You are not," Alex growled.
"Oh really?" Emma countered.
"You aren't going anywhere for another six months," he added, glancing lovingly at his flame-haired, violet-eyed wife. "And probably not for another six after that."
"If you think I'm going to lay abed until the baby comes, you're mad in the head."
"And you have to learn who's in charge here."
"Well then, you-"
"Stop, stop," Belle laughed. "Enough." She shook her head. Two more stubborn people in this universe had yet to be found. They were perfect for each other. "Why don't I tell you how my day went?"