When Henrietta Watson learns that the man she loves plans to marry London’s most beautiful and fashionable debutante, she plots to win him back. She’ll give him some competition by transforming her boring bumpkin neighbor, the Earl of Kesseley, into a rakish gothic hero worthy of this Season’s Diamond.
After years of unrequited love for Henrietta, Kesseley is resigned to go along with her plan and woo himself a willing bride. But once in London, everything changes. Kesseley, long more concerned with his land than his title, discovers that he’s interested in sowing wild oats as well as radishes. And Henrietta realizes that gothic heroes don’t make ideal husbands. Despite an explosive kiss that opens her eyes to the love that’s been in front of her all along, Henrietta must face the possibility that Kesseley is no longer looking to marry at all.
“Once in a while, I read a book that’s so emotive that I find myself thinking about it long after I have put it down and Rakes and Radishes, with its theme of love and forgiveness, is such a book. I am sure opinions about this book will vary greatly; some readers will love it and others will hate it. I am definitely one of those readers who love it. I found it refreshingly different probably because it doesn’t conform to the usual norms of the Historical Romance genre.” — The Romance Reviews
Norfolk, England 1819
Lord Blackraven could see her from the rocky cliff. She walked, trancelike, into the murky ocean of her doom. The moonlight illuminated her pale skin as her raven hair floated on the water. He jammed his heels into his stallion’s ribs, sending the beast sailing over the ravine. The branches slapped his face, keeping him from his beloved. He screamed her name wildly, “Arabellina! Arabellina!”
She heard his call but mistook it for the fevered voices in her confused mind. Lord Blackraven was never coming back. He was dead. Stabbed. Every dream of happiness lay buried with him. She took a long breath, her last, and sank into the swirling waves, the stone tied to her feet taking—
A quick motion in the periphery of Henrietta’s watering eye yanked her attention from her book. Had the mail coach come? She anxiously peered out the window to the cobblestone road just beyond the ivy-covered garden gate.
No mail coach. Just her elderly neighbor standing in her worn, sagging morning dress, shooing chickens off the road with a straw broom. Henrietta’s heart sank. The mantel clock chimed the hour, sounding like two spoons being clanked together ten times. The mail was twenty minutes late! This proved what she always suspected, that the Royal Mail Service held a personal grudge against her.
Nestling back in her chair, she drew the thick woolen blanket about her to shield herself from the ever-present draft in the old parlor, and returned to the last page of The Mysterious Lord Blackraven.
She took a long breath, her last, and sank into the waves, the stone tied to her feet taking her deep into the sea’s turbulent belly.
“Arabellina! No!” Lord Blackraven scrambled down the rocks as the last bit of Arabellina’s raven hair disappeared under the foaming waves. He dove in, grabbing her sinking body and pulling her up.
In her confused state, Arabellina fought his arms. He lifted her shaking body to the surface and wiped the curls from her face, his eyes frantically searching hers.
“Am I dead? Is this heaven?” she asked.
“No, my love. It is I, Lord Blackraven. I’ve come back for you, my darling. I love you. I’ve always loved you.”
Henrietta closed the book, wiped her weeping eyes with the sleeve of her muslin gown, and peeked out the window again. A chicken and a few fat, dirty sheep. But no mail coach.
Oh, hang it!
She exhaled, blowing stray black curls off her forehead. In just three days she had gobbled up the novel while waiting on a letter from her cousin Mr. Edward Watson. Now she would have to wait another year for her next book—and pray to God that Edward’s letter would arrive first!
She tossed the finished volume onto the side table with its sisters. She had promised to smuggle the books to the other ladies in the village. They, too, were wild to read Mrs. Fairfax’s latest gothic creation, even if they had to hide the sensational volumes under their beds or in their sewing boxes. Henrietta had no need for such measures. Her father gave little notice to his daughter’s reading habits, too lost in his theoretical world of numbers and space.
She watched the diamond-shaped patches of sunlight shining through the crosshatched panes of the ancient parlor window, exposing every flaw in the newly painted walls. She sighed, frustrated. The clean lines and airy colors of the Greek classical style didn’t translate onto the low timbered ceilings and pitlike fireplaces of Rose House. Henrietta could feel the medieval ghosts of old sitting about some great table, pounding their ale mugs in disgust at the new cool mint walls with delicate faux gilt. This room—this house—was hopeless. No paint, classical vases or Grecian sofa could hide its Tudor quaintness. Her best efforts only looked like an annoyed pig dressed in a silk gown.
She returned her gaze to the window. Outside, spring was barreling in. Little green buds bulged from the rose bushes, all the animals sniffed each other, and the village men walked about encased in dirt, holding hoes, with copies of Lord Kesseley’s latest planting guide in their worn pockets. Everywhere, undeniable signs of spring, but Henrietta’s heart was still stuck in winter, waiting. Why hadn’t Edward written?
Henrietta rubbed her late mother’s pendant as if the tiny ruby necklace could ward off her misgivings. If a letter didn’t arrive soon, she might resort to Arabellina’s tragic example. She closed her eyes, imagining herself weighted with sorrow, stones sewed to her scarlet gown, wading into the rocky oceans of Italy.
Her raven hair flowed loose in beautiful silken curls, not frizzing as it usually did in the salty winds. Her ivory skin glowed, unmarred by the blemish on her chin that had popped up overnight.
“Henrietta, I mean, Arabellina. Don’t do it. I love you!”
Arabellina turned. Towering high above her on the rocky cliff’s edge stood Lord Blackraven, who looked suddenly like Mr. Edward Watson. A black cape billowed in the wind behind him. His beautiful mahogany locks blew about his face, and the moonlight illuminated those intense, heavily lashed green eyes that made her heart flip-flop.
“How can you say you love me when you never wrote? Every day I waited for a letter that you were safe in London and not robbed by some highwaymen, left to die alone on a deserted road. One small poem of how you dreamed and yearned for me every moment we were apart. But nothing! I’m so devastated. How could you leave me in this barren place?” Arabellina looked at the waiting waves, swirling and foaming about her.
“Stop! Don’t take your life! I wrote you every day. Poems and poems.”
“I never received them.”
Lord Blackraven paused, biting his index finger as Edward was prone to do. Then he said, “It was the Royal Mail Service! That villainous Royal Mail! Why I could crush him—it—with a—a large rock.”
“A large rock?”
“The Royal Mail is quite huge. It carries 500,000 letters a day. They employ 150,000 horses each year.”
“Never mind the mail service! You said to wait, and for weeks I’ve waited and waited!”
“The mail’s come,” interrupted Mrs. Potts.
The rotund housekeeper stood at the parlor entry, drying a large wooden spoon with a rag, an infuriatingly knowing look in her eyes. Beyond the window, the mail coach rattled and crunched up the cobblestones past Henrietta’s house. Passengers clung to the top and edges. How could she have missed it?
Henrietta feigned a bored yawn. “Already? My, how late the morning has grown.”
“Hrmph,” the housekeeper said and left. Cruel woman.
Henrietta willed herself still until Mrs. Potts’s footsteps echoed in the back of the house. Then she flew up to her chamber, threw on her pelisse and bonnet and rushed back down, slowing to a casual saunter as the massive front door thudded closed behind her. All of the neighbors were leaving their homes, as well, and heading up the street. The arrival of the post was the most exciting part of everyone’s day.
The mail carriage paused before a dirty, narrow pub that seemed to sag under the weight of four floors of filthy, shuttered windows. The hunched postmaster, pub owner and sometime barber limped out with the village mail. A young mail boy high up on the perch threw down a knotted yellow bag and waited. The postmaster heaved his small bag into the air three times before an exasperated passenger, hanging off the side, snagged it. The carriage jerked to a start and thundered down the road, kicking dirt and loose cobbles behind it.
Everyone followed the postmaster inside the ancient pub that smelled like a thousand years of bad fish and hops. He dumped the mail onto a battered old table, then held each letter to the tip of his nose, slowly reading each address and putting it into the correct pile. The villagers looked on, speculating which child, grandchild or physician had sent a letter. It was the same conversation every mail day of every year.
Henrietta lingered about the entrance, trying not to appear eager.
The door swung open and the reek of livestock and mud assaulted her nose as her neighbor’s tall form ducked under the doorframe. He wore his usual ensemble of muddy doeskins and a worn green coat. Shaggy chestnut curls sticky with perspiration and in terrible need of a barber fell into his gray eyes. Fuzzy side-whiskers softened his otherwise hard, lean face. Judging from the dirt under his nails, one would think he hadn’t a passel of farmhands and tenants and was reduced to planting crops with his fingers. His hound Samuel, a big boned, thick brown dog of no obvious breed, trotted in behind him, sniffing about the floor.
When Samuel saw Henrietta, he scrambled around his master’s boots and jabbed his nose under the hem of her skirt. She knelt, letting the happy hound give her wet licks on her cheek. She looked up. Kesseley stared down at her, unsmiling. His face wore that tight expression again, chin high, eyes hard—the look she always pretended not to notice. If only he could be a tenth as pleased as his dog to see her.
“Good morning, Samuel, and you too, Kesseley.” She rose and gave him a nervous smile. “You look like you’ve been enjoying yourself this morning.”
“I was in the fields.”
“Where else would you be but in your beloved dirt?” She chuckled, hoping he would do the same. Instead, he looked down at his mud-caked boots, a frown bending his lips.
“I’m finishing the planting,” he said. “We’re starting a new crop rotation schedule this year.”
“The one from…Flanders?” His head jerked up, a light sparked in his eyes, and Henrietta felt her heart lighten.
“I thought my talk of farming bored you,” he said.
“Still, I remembered every word.” She touched his wrist. A wave of gentle warmth moved through her. She missed the times when it was so easy between them. “I suppose you will be leaving for the Season in a few days.”
“I’ve made you a little surprise present, but you must come to the house to get it.”
Finally a grin, albeit a tiny one, crossed his face. “Henrietta? A secret? You know you can’t keep secrets. You might as well tell me before you blurt it by accident.”
“That is not true. I keep many secrets from you. You just tend to remember the unfortunate surprise present for your ninth birthday.”
“Just tell me.”
“But I won’t.” She wagged a teasing finger before his face. “I will make you wait in unbearable anticipation.”
“Do you want me to tell everyone how years ago you tried to run away with a traveling production of A Midsummer’s Night Dream masquerading as a fairy, and I had to dash off to Ely to save you?”
“You always hold that over me, don’t you?” she cried, in mock annoyance, but then giggled. “Well, I daresay, I would be leading a much more exciting life traipsing around England in gaudy green pixie wings than stuck here.”
His eyes flashed. “Yes, you’ve made it quite clear that you don’t care for our village or…” He halted, but even so the arrested words hung in the air, so loud he could have shouted them. Or me. You don’t care for me.
That familiar, prickly awkwardness filled the air.
“A diary!” she cried, trying to recapture the previous moment when he had been smiling. “I made you one. That’s the surprise.” She opened her palms and shrugged her shoulders. “You are right, I can’t keep secrets.”
“A diary?” He hiked a brow.
“Since you are going to London for the Season to find, well, a wife, I thought that you could write about when…when…” Oh Lud, suddenly her present seemed like the stupidest idea she’d ever had. “When you meet her,” she finished.
“Your future wife. So you can capture the moment forever in your heart and never let it fade away.”
The muscles at the back of his jaw twitched. She felt so foolish. She just wanted him to fall in love with a wonderful lady as she had fallen in love with Edward. “I’ve done the wrong thing again, haven’t I?” she said.
“No, it’s nice. Thank you for thinking of me.”
“I always think of you,” she whispered. “You’re my dearest friend.” Why did they have to keep up this nonsense? Why couldn’t he be easy Kesseley again? Edward was making her sick with worry and she had no one to confide in.
“That’s four pence for these letters and a journal, Miss Watson,” the postmaster called out.
Henrietta rushed forward, put her coins on the table and scooped up a large bundle of mail. Surely one letter was from Edward! She started for the door, then remembered and turned back to Kesseley, who still waited for his mail. “Please come by before you leave.”
She bent down to Samuel, who had rolled on to his side, exposing his belly for a good scratch. She cupped her hand and pretended to whisper in the dog’s ear, but kept her eyes on Kesseley’s face. “You’ll make sure he doesn’t forget, won’t you?”
“He said yes.” Kesseley chuckled. A chuckle! She grinned to hear the comforting sound again.
“I can always count on dear Samuel.” She curtsied and then hurried outside, her mind quickly returning to the matter of Edward and his lack of correspondence.
She eagerly shuffled through the letters.
And one more time to make sure.
Nothing. Just the March edition of Town and Country. She turned it over and shook it. No letter from Edward fell out.
It felt like a foot had stepped on her heart and flattened it. Now another dull, useless day stretched out before her like a play seen over and over again: going through the household accounts, sewing for the Foundling orphanage, fighting with Mrs. Potts over supper, discussing her father’s mathematical theories over burnt mutton, and reading Edward’s poems by the candlelight until she fell asleep. She began to trudge home, resigned.
“Henrietta! Wait!” Kesseley ran out of the pub to catch up with her, waving a journal, faithful Samuel at his heels. “I’m in the Journal of Agriculture!”
He popped the page with his knuckle. Henrietta leaned over and read, “Increasing Turnip Yield by Addition of Ash Constituents” by the Earl of Kesseley. Why couldn’t she get any good news? Then pride in Kesseley’s eyes made her feel guilty for her jealous thought.
“Kesseley, that’s wonderful.”
“Come, let’s have a glass of ale or tea to celebrate.”
But all Henrietta wanted to do was go home, curl into a small ball under her blanket and feel sorry for herself. “Thank you, Kesseley, but I–I don’t feel so well.”
Concern leaped into his eyes, and he seized her arm. “Did you get some bad news?”
“No. I just have a headache. Congratulations again.” And she meant it. She knew from her father’s struggles what it meant to have one’s work published. She gave his hand a reassuring squeeze, then let go. “Do come by before you go. I will give you the diary. You needn’t write about your wife, perhaps just crop rotations or ideas of future articles.”
“I’m so sorry, I have to go.” She pulled away and continued home to her haven of self-pity. She could feel him watching her leave, disappointed. Guilt flopped about like a fat fish in her heart. Why did he always make her feel so awful about herself? She never wanted to disappoint him, yet inevitably she did.
Maybe she should go back and have one small cup of tea. But then he would go on and on about the minute details of ash constituents, whatever they were. She didn’t have the energy to feign interest in Kesseley’s many agricultural experiments. Not today. She would make it up to him on another occasion, she promised, trying to make herself feel better, even as she knew she had made that same promise many times before and never fulfilled it.
At home, Henrietta threw her bonnet on the sofa so hard it knocked off the silk irises she had sewn on to it. She sat down, put her chin on her hand and let her thoughts swing from guilt over Kesseley to anxiety about Edward.
Edward had been in London for six weeks now with no word. “He said he loved me, to be patient,” she reminded herself, remembering the evening his lips had descended upon hers. The gentle pressure, a tingle up her spine, his warm mouth tasting of cream and wine. Hushed strains of a violin and the murmur of guests had floated into the garden, breaking the quiet wintry November evening. Everything had disappeared when his lips touched hers. Years of wanting and dreaming were over, and now they would begin their lives together.
But he really should have written by now. London was full of fashionable, beautiful women who loved poetry—and handsome poets.
No! He was busy in London seeing to his late father’s estate and finishing another volume of poetry for his editor. He hadn’t the time to write, and she should think herself a selfish creature indeed to impose upon his time.
Then that little voice, the one that snickered like a childish tattler, said, you know, he never formally proposed to you.
Ugh! She slapped her forehead with the mail, trying to swat the little voice silent.
She took the mail upstairs, knocked on the library door and slipped inside the nebula of papers and books composing her father’s existence. Celestial maps and charts covered the dark paneled walls and arching windows. Haphazard piles of papers rose from the floor, making it treacherous to walk, never mind sweep. In the center of this galaxy of disorder stood her father, Walter Watson, a striking gentleman possessing a hawklike nose, wild graying curls, and eyes that seemed perpetually lost in some inner calculation. He hunched over a large table, scribbling notes, across from where his noted astronomer colleague, Mr. Pieter Van Heerlen, sat. Much more fastidious than her father, Mr. Van Heerlen had neatly stacked her father’s books and papers to one side in order to make a clean surface on which to work. He was a rather slight, fair gentleman of about five and thirty years. He possessed those intense Germanic blue eyes, further amplified by thin, round spectacles. He had come for a “mere” week’s visit over a month ago to “glance” at Mr. Watson’s work. Ever proper, he rose and stiffly bowed for Henrietta. She curtsied in reply.
“You appear flushed, Miss Henrietta. I hope you have not strained yourself.” Mr. Van Heerlen seemed to operate under the assumption that Henrietta was a delicate, shrinking flower—the kind pressed and eternally kept in a glass picture box.
Her father dismissively waved his hand. “Oh don’t worry about Henrietta. She is forever tromping about the fields with Kesseley. She wanders home covered in bugs and mud.”
Mr. Van Heerlen’s eyes narrowed with disapproval.
“That was years ago, Papa. When I was a girl,” Henrietta corrected. She didn’t want to upset Mr. Van Heerlen, for he was a very influential astronomer in the German scientific community and could establish or destroy her father’s professional reputation with one word. “I just went to get the mail.”
She kissed her father’s cheek and handed him his letters, all under Mr. Van Heerlen’s scrutinizing gaze.
Mr. Watson put down his pen and wiped his inky fingers on his vest. Henrietta cringed at the black streaks, knowing she had to oversee the laundry the next day. He looked at the address on each letter and then placed them on a pile of other unopened letters, all accounts for her to sort and balance. The last letter, however, he eagerly tore open and read, the paper trembling in his fingers.
“What is it, Papa?” she gasped, aroused from her doldrums.
“Mr. Van Heerlen! You did it! We have an appointment at the Royal Observatory!”
He handed the letter to his colleague, who read it aloud in his crisp Flemish accent.
I have read your appeal for an appointment. Though Mr. Van Heerlen and I have had differences of opinion in the past, I am obliged to grant my esteemed colleague an audience in the later spring…”
“This could be it, Henrietta. What your mother and I always wanted. That we weren’t wrong assuming an unfound planet explained the perturbations of Uranus’s orbit. No, they said, it’s a moon or a comet. We knew nothing could alter the orbit of a planet of such size and mass, unless it was another object of equal or greater size and mass. It just makes sense. I just wish that…” Mr. Watson’s jaw started to tremble. “I wish she could have been here.”
Henrietta wanted to hold her papa and lean her head on his chest but felt restrained by Mr. Van Heerlen’s presence. “You would have made her proud, Papa,” she whispered instead.
“Would I?” Mr. Watson covered his mouth with his hand and gazed at his papers. She could still see her mother’s old calculations among the new work. Tears formed in her father’s eyes, but he blinked them away. “We must get to work. I must not disappoint her.”
“I shall tell Mrs. Potts to set a special table for this evening,” Henrietta said, in an attempt to excuse herself.
“Yes,” Mr. Van Heerlen said at the same time her father cried, “No, no. We need your help.”
Her father grabbed a chair, brushed away the papers piled on it and set it beside Mr. Van Heerlen. Then he handed Henrietta an old dented pen he found under his scribbled pages.
Henrietta waited for her father’s instructions while he shuffled through his papers. Beside her, Mr. Van Heerlen twitched, fuming in silent disapproval. After a long, uncomfortable minute, she opened Town and Country, hoping the latest doings of Lady Sara would divert her self-conscious thoughts.
Henrietta, like all the village girls, kept up with the illustrious debutante. To them, Lady Sara wasn’t a duke’s daughter who had grown up in a vastly different world of luxury and social connection, but a bosom friend whom they could freely praise or censure. Henrietta had heard from an old friend who possessed a tenuous familial link to the famed beauty that Lady Sara hid a copy of The Mysterious Lord Blackraven under her mattress. In Henrietta’s mind, their mutual love for Lord Blackraven made them literary sisters at heart.
Henrietta scanned the page for Lady Sara’s name, finding only boring gossip about the Regent’s old fat uncles. Who cared for them anyway?
“Henrietta, what is the eccentricity if the minimum distance to the sun is 2,737,827,391.4477095 miles and the maximum distance is 2,822,788,999.2901435 miles?”
Henrietta asked her father to repeat the major and minor axes, while she scratched out the formula along the margins of her journal.
“0.011214269,” she said.
Mr. Van Heerlen released a low, annoyed sigh. Oblivious to his colleague’s discomfort, her father kept calling out problems to her. “So what is the distance from a center to a focus?”
She turned the page and wrote 0 then stopped. Beside her pen, Lady Sara’s perfect oval face, with her sad, dreamy eyes, was framed in a heart, linked to another heart containing a rather handsome gentleman. Lady Sara had a beau! Henrietta drew the candle, spreading light across the page. There was something familiar in the suitor’s intense gaze. She looked closer, leaning down until her nose was almost touching the page.
“Miss Watson,” she heard Mr. Van Heerlen say, “are you well?”
She felt his tentative hand touch her shoulder.
“I don’t know! I don’t know!” she cried, gulping air as if she were drowning. She put her hands on her ears but couldn’t silence the terrible realization spinning in her head. Grabbing the journal, she flew from the chair, away from Mr. Van Heerlen’s touch, and ran down the hall to the safety of her chamber. She could hear him calling after her. She closed her door and slammed the lock in place. Then she sank to the floor and splayed the magazine upon the carpet.
Those at White’s will be disappointed to learn the headstrong Lady S-a has rejected all suitors and has fallen under the spell of a handsome gentleman poet from Norfolk. A Mr. E-d W-n. The Duke of H-n reluctantly acknowledges the ardent suitor after a foiled attempt to run to Gretna Greene. It is expected their betrothal will be announced at the end of the Season, giving time, the duke hopes, for a more qualified suitor to win her affections.
Henrietta’s body convulsed with sobs. She stumbled to her bed, rolled herself into her blanket and smothered her cries in her pillow. Years of memories slid across her mind, incoherent things: the wind swishing under their feet in the swing, a tiny emerald that fell from his pin, the poem he hid in her book. And now he would run off with Lady Sara! He couldn’t have known her for more than a few days before they made for Gretna Greene. She felt the same sense of helplessness as when she’d spent days by her mother’s deathbed, unable to make her well and unable to stop the pain.
No! She just couldn’t let go. He was as vital to her as her heart or lungs. What would be left of her if he took all her hopes away? A shriveled, old spinster living in a decrepit house, caring for her eccentric father, thinking up the courses for dinner and shooing away chickens with a broom.
She curled herself around her hurting heart. Warm tears slid down her face, wetting the sheet under her head. She rubbed her mother’s pendant. Henrietta hadn’t ached so much since the day her mother finally slipped away. She and Kesseley had quietly sat with their bare feet in the Great Ouse River and listened to its gentle trickle. A blue moth lit upon his finger. He lifted it onto her shoulder, letting its wings brush her skin.
“Kesseley,” she whispered as if he were there. “It hurts so much. She shouldn’t marry him. She is supposed to marry a duke or an—”
Then the idea came as clear as the day the numbers had leaped from Kepler’s pages and formed a perfect ellipse around the sun.
Kesseley dug his boot tips into the dirt of his tenant’s field as he tried to keep an upset ewe captive between his knees. He bent over her hoof, scraping the mud off with his finger and cursing to himself. You’re a sap, a fumbling, cabbage-headed sap. You can’t forget about her, can you? You should have stayed away from the village, but you couldn’t leave her alone.
“Forget her,” he said aloud.
“What’s that you say?” Simmons, his portly tenant, called from several sheep away.
“Nothing. I’m talking to myself.”
“The only intelligent conversation a man can have.”
“Aye.” The ewe bolted away from Kesseley, turned and bit into the hard bone of his shin. Hissing a quiet curse, he bent in pain while the ewe looked on with round, fearful eyes. Kesseley took a slow breath between his teeth. He’d known that fear as a small boy, terrified and huddled, waiting for his angry father’s blow. Kesseley reached out and softly scratched the thick pile between the ewe’s ears. “Calm down, my girl. Calm down,” he whispered, stroking the frightened creature until she trusted him enough to expose her favorite rubbing place below her ear. Then Kesseley raised her foot again and ran his thumb across the tough cartilage of her hoof. It crumbled like brittle straw. “Poor girl, no wonder you’re ill-tempered.” He called out to Mr. Simmons, “It’s foot rot. She needs to be separated.”
Mr. Simmons wiped his sweating, red brow. “I knew it! They probably all have it.”
Kesseley bent to look at another ewe, but stopped. Along the wooden fence, Henrietta approached, cradling a stack of books in her arms. The wind blew her blue pelisse back, exposing the outline of her trim legs and waist. Black curls fell loose from a knot on her head, falling down her back and dancing about her fair face.
Oh hell! Kesseley sucked in a large breath and wiped his hands on his coat. Whatever she wants, just refuse.
But her large dark eyes were glassy, and scarlet blotches—the ones that always came out when she cried—spotted her cheeks. Kesseley raced to her.
“Good God! What is the matter?”
Her chin began to tremble. Little teardrops rolled down her face. She tried to speak, but nothing came out, just an awful squeak.
He stood there, his arms dangling about his body, feeling as useless as when he was a small boy trying to comfort his mother as she cried over some cruel thing his father had done. Kesseley hated feeling this way, hated it all the way down to his soul. He enclosed her shoulder in his hand. She felt as delicate as baby chick feathers.
“Henrietta?” he said softly.
“I was w-wondering if I might t-talk to you?” She looked at Simmons’s wide backside leaning over an ewe. “Perhaps somewhere else.”
“Yes, of course!” Kesseley reached for her books but she held them tight, taking his arm instead. He led her along the old path they had run along every day as children, over the wooden fence and into the thicket of trees surrounding the banks of the River Ouse. Samuel scurried behind, sniffing mole holes and suspicious clumps on the path.
The afternoon sun was low, illuminating the majestic oak growing along the shores of the river. They had always met here—until that Wednesday last year in early autumn.
The oak leaves had finished their fiery show and begun to fall from the branches. He and Samuel were walking out to the fields after a morning meeting with a stonemason concerning repairs to Wrenthorpe. They came upon Henrietta sitting by the banks, bundled in a brown cape, her hands around her knees. He restrained his hound and observed her from behind the oak, letting her beauty fill him. He had not seen her since last Sunday at church, which was unusual, for they seldom went that many days without speaking.
Then as if she could sense him, or smell Samuel, she turned her head. “Were you watching me?” she asked, a little stitch appearing between her brows.
He felt stupid being caught red-handed and tried to play it off as a joke. “Yes, I’m spying on you.”
Her face remained solemn.
“Do you mind if I sit down?” he asked.
She paused, then smiled the beautiful smile that caused his heart to palpitate. “Please,” she said.
He sat beside her, so close their shoulders touched. Samuel lay at his feet, scratching his neck with his hind paw.
After the normal exchange of “how are yous”, she became quiet, watching the orange and yellow fallen leaves drifting on the river’s surface. The cool, breezy weather had reddened her lips and cheeks, and sunlight reflecting off the water made her eyes sparkle like deep amber. He had been working on the words he would tell her in the coming spring. About how he had finally rescued Wrenthorpe from his father’s suffocating mountain of mortgages, and that he expected his harvest to increase even more when he began a new crop rotation technique. He believed he could properly support a wife and family. But as he gazed at her face, he realized he couldn’t wait those few months. The winter loomed too long when he could keep her warm in his arms…his bed.
“I—I want to ask you a question.” A drop of perspiration rolled down his forehead.
She smiled and raised her brow. “Yes?”
“I…that is, would you…” His mouth went dry. He couldn’t form words, he was so nervous.
In frustration, he slid his hand up the back of her neck, feeling her silken curls on his skin. Her eyes widened as he drew her to him. He reassuringly stroked her cheek with his fingers and careful to be gentle even though his body seemed to be exploding under his skin, he placed his lips on hers. She remained still, not responding to his tentative caresses. He panicked. Did she not feel anything? But then she sighed, low and soft. Her fingers tightened about his biceps and she pulled him close. Her lips returned his kisses with a growing hunger as she pressed the peaks of her breasts against his chest. “Henrietta,” he murmured, then sunk his tongue into her mouth, tasting her, plundering her. But she let out a small cry and slid away from his arms.
She stared at him with large eyes. Her breasts rose and fell with each rapid breath.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to frighten you.” He reached to take her back to his heart. “I love y—”
“Oh God!” She bolted up and began scrubbing her mouth with the back of her hand as if to eradicate the memory of his touch from her skin. “What have I done?” she cried. “And with you.”
Samuel began whimpering.
“Please, Kesseley, I thought we were friends.”
“But I felt…that is,” he began. “I thought you liked my kiss. I thought—”
“No.” She shook her head. “Edward and I are in love. We’re going to London together after his book is published.”
“What?” he cried, hearing the roar of his own blood rushing in his veins. “You love him? When did this happen?”
“For a while now.” She swallowed and gazed out at the horizon. “I—I just couldn’t tell you. I’m sorry.”
Since that day, he felt as if they were in a play of sorts where they pretended to be friends, as if nothing had changed. They still spoke the same lines, had the same smiles, but some cold, invisible fingers held them each at an emotional distance.
He wasn’t as good as Henrietta at pretending that all was well. In his dreams she came to him and they would lie under this oak. The waters would flow by as he unlaced each stay, one by one until she was free, her body moving under him like the current, his lips sunk into the soft valley between her neck and shoulder blade, the rise of her nipples against his chest, his thighs sinking—Whoa there, Kesseley. Easy!
She seemed so delicate as she stood before him now, her arms wrapped about her, staring out at the water.
“Would you like to talk about it, Henrietta?” His voice cracked like that of the awkward adolescent he still felt like inside.
She stepped into him, leaned her head onto his chest and wept. He closed his eyes and put his arms around her, shielding her, pulling her closer as if to squeeze out her sadness. Oh, my dearest love. But again, she stepped away.
She pulled out a small, torn piece of paper from her sleeve and gave it to him. “This was in Town and Country.”
His fists balled with anger as he read the words. How could Edward so easily toss away everything Kesseley had ever wanted? “I’m sorry,” he said gently, handing the paper back. It slipped from her fingers and sailed over the water and away.
“All that time, I thought—oh, Kesseley, it was supposed to be me. Why couldn’t it be me?” She looked at him expectantly, as if he could say something to make it all better. Nothing could take away the pain of being unwanted. Even now, when Henrietta, who told him she could never return his feelings, came crying, all he could do was take her into his arms. This was the closest he’d ever come to having her.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered again.
She continued. “It isn’t fair. He shouldn’t be marrying her. She’s a duke’s daughter. It’s an unequal match! Neither partner will be happy after the first shine of love is gone. She can never understand his spirit, his passionate heart, like I can.” She clenched her hand by her heart. “She should—and I thought this quite randomly—she should marry an earl like you. And then I realized, she should marry you.”
“I said, she should marry you.”
Her hopeful eyes gazed at him unfazed, oblivious to her slide into madness. He ran his finger under the edge of his cravat. “Henrietta, I believe you are a little distraught.”
“No, it’s true! I have thought about it, and I am convinced it is a just solution.”
“You can’t make two people fall in love just because you think it’s a good idea.”
She shook her head. “But she is beautiful! All the journals rave about her radiance, charm and accomplishments. My friend Charlotte is married to Lady Sara’s cousin Nigel and assures me Lady Sara is the most ravishing creature she has ever beheld. How could you not love her?”
“Because I’ve never met her.”
“But you will in London.”
He flung out his arms. “She loves another.”
That didn’t faze Henrietta. “It’s a temporary infatuation. Despite his brilliant poetry, Edward is just a plain mister. You must remind her of her station, her noble duty. You must—” Henrietta’s eyes narrowed, “—steal her.”
“Absolutely not!” That was de trop even for crazy Henrietta.
“Fine! What if you steal her just long enough for Edward to come back to his senses? Then you won’t have to marry her.”
“But Edward never had any sense to begin with, so I don’t see how he could come back to it.”
She paused, then the edge of her lip drew up in a coy smile. “Oh, I see,” she said. “You don’t think you can take her from Edward?”
“That’s not fair!” he warned, backing away. “How can you use my feelings—”
“You could be handsome. Very handsome and—and dashing, if you tried. Just look—look at you.” Her nose wrinkled as if he were a rotting cabbage.
He looked down. What was wrong? A few mud smears on his trousers. He twisted around to inspect his coat tails. Maybe something was peculiar there? A few grass stains, nothing to cause such evident offense. “What?”
“You’re so provincial! When you get to London, go to Schweitzer and Davidson. They’re all the crack, I’ve heard. Go and tell them you’re hopeless.”
Kesseley thought of his father’s closets, filled with hundreds of cravats, gold and diamond pins and shining shoes—never mind the tenants’ homes falling in or the barren fields. “You don’t know what you are talking about.”
“I do! Charlotte says her cousin Nigel said that Lady Sara’s mother heard from Lady Sara’s lady’s maid that Lady Sara hides The Mysterious Lord Blackraven under her mattress. So it’s very easy—you must become dashing and handsome like her hero, Lord Blackraven.”
“Henrietta, you’re a little upset, and you’re not being rational.”
“But you can be Lord Blackraven! You’re so clever. It will be easy for you. You just have to turn your mind to it. I mean, look what you’ve done getting Wrenthorpe set to rights.”
He wasn’t going to argue that last point.
She pulled a leather volume from her pile. “So, in The Mysterious Lord Blackraven, Lord Blackraven is dark and brooding, just like you were when all those weevils ate your peas that year. He saves Arabellina’s life only to find out she is engaged to his half brother. Lord Blackraven tries to avoid Arabellina, but his passion grows. She resists him because he has a terrible reputation, and she feels honor bound to marry his half brother who everyone thinks is good, but who is really evil. So, Lord Blackraven kills his half brother. It’s not murder though—”
“Please stop. Where did you get these?”
She drew up tall, jutting her chin out. “They’re mine. I read novels.”
“This Lord Blackbird, you really admire him?”
“Lord Blackraven,” she corrected. “He is romantic, I suppose.” She looked beyond the river, over the patchwork of fields stretching to the horizon. “He lets me escape, feel passion, be me—the real me—not the lady trapped in this village, listening to the same boring gossip over and over. I thought my life would be so much more than it is. I refuse to believe this—” she motioned about her, “—is all it will ever be.”
Kesseley studied the weeping willow branches dipping into the water, and the silver minnows darting about the shores. Then his gaze moved beyond the tranquil river to his fields. When he had inherited his estate, the fields hadn’t been plowed in three decades and a hoe could barely break the hard, eroded surface. Now neat rows, sprouting with tender green wheat stretched to the horizon. He couldn’t understand Henrietta, that she would sacrifice this paradise. He examined her face, blotched and stained with tears. What would make this woman happy?
He took the volumes from her hands. “I will read them,” he said quietly.
Henrietta’s face brightened. “So you will help me?”
“Give me my books! I should have known. You’re so uncaring. Edward will marry Lady Sara, and I will be stuck in this awful place for the rest of my life with all these sheep and chickens and nothingness.” She buried her head in his chest, drawing her arms around his neck, and clung to him, weeping. “It hurts so much. How could he do this?”
Just walk away. This is not a good idea.
He tucked a stray curl behind her ear. “Now, if I read these books and happen to become dashing and mysterious, and Lady Sara naturally falls in love with me without any effort on my part, then I am absolved of any guilt.”
She raised her head. The smile that wavered on her trembling lips as tears still streamed her cheeks was like the sun coming through the rain.
You pathetic fool. You’re going to let her break your heart again.