But men are men, and sometimes the best forget.
Othello, William Shakespeare (1564-1616)
Summer of 1870, Lancashire, England
Freedom. A dear luxury. Cloud-filtered sunshine and a leather-bound volume of Shakespeare, so worn the pages lay open — simple pleasures. Alysia Villier lounged in the grass before the lake, sketching in charcoal. Scenes of Ophelia’s lunatic singing started taking shape when sounds of commotion wafted from the direction of Ashton Manor. The clatter of what must be fallen drapery rods, accompanied by a shrill voice gave her twinges of guilt, but not enough to make her run home and mediate. The Tilmores should accustom themselves to managing their own disasters.
Two weeks, and she would be dropped from the nest, a baby bird with quills for feathers and the faintest instinct how to fly. A demimondaine had an air of sophistication, wit as sharp as a rapier, and ice in her veins by osmosis, apparently. Her mother, the legendary courtesan Violet Villier, had passed such improper magnificence to her daughter, or so all assumed.
After helping produce Elizabeth Tilmore’s wedding to the Duke of Belmont in two weeks, Alysia Villier — housekeeper, lady’s companion, family friend, whichever explanation seemed least embarrassing for the occasion — would become who she was born to be. Courtesan, ladybird, mistress, light-skirt, kept woman: pretty-sounding words with one ugly synonym.
The averted eyes and shallow curtsies she was already accustomed to. But Switzerland, Milan, Prague? Ballrooms, calling cards, gossip — all foreign. Ostentatious gifts from men, clandestine letters, discreet packages from unscrupulous apothecaries…
Oh, saints. Please, no.
She lay back on the grass and squeezed her eyes shut until red spots flashed over her eyelids. Young men will do’t if they come to’t, By Cock, they are to blame. Quoth she, ‘Before you tumbled me, You promis’d me to wed. Alysia credited herself with greater wisdom than Shakespeare’s Ophelia; she had neither allowed men to tumble her, nor did she expect marriage proposals. If only she could convince the Tilmores she harbored no such ambitions, that she posed no such threat…
A long shadow blocked the sun, accompanied by broad footsteps trampling the grass.
“What have we here, a unicorn caught sunbathing? Prime hunting,” came an almost familiar voice. A sonorous chocolatey bass, somehow deeper and throatier than when she had last heard it, and his Lancashire accent replaced by a genteel inflection she found jarring.
“Not at all,” she replied without opening her eyes, rattled by the jolt in her pulse. “Such plodding footsteps could only belong to a troll. Easily outrun by a unicorn. But trolls are really quite harmless, if you keep them fed.”
“On unicorn meat?”
“No. Pomeranians.” An old joke stemming from their mutual love of mastiffs and disdain for yapping small dogs.
The sound of his laughter was perfectly familiar. She distrusted the easy, boyish, tone tempting her to believe all would be well now that he was here. She winked open one eye, unsurprised to find their years of separation had rendered him not at all like a troll. Over six feet of Gallic demi-god sharing the same body with the most bookish man she ever met. Andrew Tilmore, Lord Preston, heir to the illustrious Marquess of Courtenay. Drew, to her, or when he deserved it, Troll.
“Lisa,” he said in a tone he should reserve for a hot bath or rare cognac, and sat beside her on the grass. “As lazy as ever, I see.” Adolescent teasing which meant, So you managed to sneak away. Bravo.
“You were not expected until Friday next, Drew. Unfortunate timing you will no doubt regret.”
“Why? Is something amiss?”
“Only the apocalypse.”
Andrew snorted, waiting for her to explain. She would not. Lady Courtenay trying to run her household for the first time — while pretending to arrange a ducal wedding, which Alysia was truthfully in charge of — would not mix well with the problem Andrew’s presence would bring. Specifically, his being in the vicinity with Alysia.
She pushed herself up on her elbows, mindful of the buttons she had loosed on her bodice. He wasn’t looking, but fastening them would draw his attention. She sat up and wrapped her arms around her bent knees.
Andrew leaned in to catch her gaze, and she suppressed a shock. Of anxiety or lust-related, she couldn’t say, but in the seconds it took to trade glances, it became apparent that what his parents had tried to douse between them had not yet faded. He cradled her chin between his thumb and forefinger then stroked the edge of her jaw, which in times past heralded a kiss.
Two years ago, he would have mock-whispered, See, I am making eyes at you, Lisa. Wet your lips, I will lean closer, and as soon as you close your eyes, the violins will start. When you see firecrackers, say so. Then he would overly pucker his lips, smacking them together like a fish while she dodged, squealing. But sometimes his manner was quite serious, and those memories were best left buried in the back of her mind.
He was serious now. She knew that expression he wore, as plainly as though she heard his thoughts. Still it made her stomach drop and her lips tingle with longing. Alysia pulled away, not trusting herself to look him in the eye. If she had any hope of surviving two weeks under the same roof with Andrew, she had best set the precedent now for their behavior.
He opened his collar and yanked off his necktie, then used it to dab the sweat and dust from his throat. He eyed the lake as though contemplating jumping in. Instead he blurted, “And how do you find the Duke of Belmont, Lisa? Does he deserve my sister?”
“He is everything one would expect of a duke.”
“As bad as that?”
“Judge for yourself. He is a guest at Ashton. You hadn’t heard?”
“What? No.” He scowled.
“You don’t approve?”
He spun the necktie around his finger and unraveled it again — still fidgeting as a habit, restless as ever. “I know Belmont only by reputation.”
“As bad as that?”
“Worse. Have a care, Lisa, and watch your back. Or your skirts, rather.” He winked, as though the accusation was humorous rather than grave.
“Well. It seems you shall all have a lovely time here at Ashton.” High-strung, strong-willed, mischievous, and dubious characters with the addition of Andrew’s impending antagony, all under one roof? She rose and brushed her skirt. “Which way to the circus, please?”
He tugged her hand, forcing her to sit where he could gather her shoulders under his arm. Lovely, how she fit against his side. She hadn’t forgotten, but what had once been simple affection now seemed alarmingly wonderful.
A shiver brushed her spine. Andrew chuckled and pressed his lips to her temple, which made her eyelids drop. Her poor pleasure-starved soul could not manage even his casual affection. Familiarity had once shielded her with immunity, but it was utterly stripped now. She could afford no such weakness. Perhaps she should depart Ashton early, and leave Lady Courtenay to her domestic chaos.
“You may not believe me, but I am half serious.” She finally noticed his post horse grazing in the reeds, still saddled and in need of a rub-down.
“Do not steal the horse. If I must endure it, so shall you. Will you be my Bedlamite?” He said it like a marriage proposal, and she couldn’t resist a smile.
He sighed through his teeth. “How I have missed you, Lisa. Let me have a look at you. It has been two years.” He reached to hold her face again, and she leaned away. “Keep still. Obey, wench,” he teased, raising her chin.
She met his warm brown stare as he studied the top of her hair to the bottom of her ankles, her raised hem exposing bare skin to mid-calf. He had seen much more in the past.
“You are a woman.”
“Brilliant. I knew those years at Oxford weren’t for nothing.” She tucked her feet under the skirt.
“No, I mean you have grown up.” He still held her chin, tighter when she tried to pull away. “The roundness is gone from your cheeks — you look like your mother. And you have outgrown your freckles.” He traced a finger across the bridge of her nose where the faint trail of sun spots had once been sprinkled. “It seems your hair is darker. Is it proper to call it chestnut or maple? And now you wear it up like a lady. So I can’t tug on your braids?” He pulled on a curl hanging over her shoulder then let it spring back into place. “Your famous lavender eyes are the same. That pleases me.”
“My mother’s eyes were famous, not mine.” He seemed oblivious to her unease.
Andrew looked across her collar, shamelessly down her torso, and back to her face. “I confess you are quite elegant, Alysia. Very well-formed indeed. When I last saw you, you were short and plump.”
“I was sixteen,” she defended. “And you were lanky, Andrew, with hands and feet far too large for your frame. And your ears…”
“Am I not at all improved?”
“I suppose. Your shaggy hair hides the ears, at least.” His hair, no doubt fashioned by London’s finest valet, waved around his temples and neck in a style that made him look like a poet. Teasing came automatically to her, and somebody should keep his ego in check. “Shall I study you in return?”
“Yes, please. Yours is the only honest opinion I shall ever get. Everyone else is either indulgent or mercenary.”
“Very well.” She assessed him from head to toe; inexplicably he flushed under her scrutiny. “My, Andrew. You have the look of experience about you. The rakish way you lounge propped on your elbow and how you square your jaw, and there is that directness in your expression. You know you are beautiful.”
Before he could object, she pressed, “A man only behaves in such a manner when he is accustomed to unerring approval from every female he meets. Gone is the self-conscious, curious schoolboy. In his place I see a skilled lover. Enjoyed yourself at Oxford, did you?”
His brows furrowed. “I did not expect that.”
Then she studied him from the perspective of an artist, noting lean, graceful lines at odds with his shrewd manner. Utter confidence. A Gallic warrior at his leisure. “You wear your character on your face, all willfulness and introspection. DaVinci and Michelangelo would fight over you. I wish I could sketch you.”
“At your service.” He said it with a smirk, peppering his charming words with a salacious meaning which she ignored.
He picked up her charcoal pencil and turned it in his fingers then squinted at her drawing of a spritely Ophelia garbed in what Alysia guessed might pass for a renaissance Danish gown. She had only begun cross-hatching the background, so Andrew was likely unimpressed by the mess of lines and blocks of shadow. He turned the page sideways, scowling, then flipped the page and browsed through her sketchbook. A lock of pepper-black hair draped over his brow; unthinkingly she brushed it away. His eyes closed and he leaned into her hand.
His genial chatting lulled her into a pleasant languor, making it seem as though no time had passed since they had last talked this way. His knee bumped hers as he wagged it back and forth. Andrew still smelled of leather and ink, but also now of starch and balsam, like a town gentleman. There had been no conscious decision to lie on her back with her head on his shoulder; she didn’t think about it until his arm hugged their sides together. Comfort warred with anxiety until she shifted to sit up and complained, sniffing, “You need a bath, Drew. And so does that poor horse, though I can’t tell who needs it worse.”
“I rode from Mill Hill, and the day is warm. You know even Prince Charming perspires with exertion, Lisa.” His hand snaked over her ribs, likely in search of the ticklish spot on her side. She caught his hand and bent his fingers back until he howled.
“Boys are odorous, truly, and I declare I have had my fill. Let me up.”
“Kiss me first, for old times’ sake.”
Thankfully she had outgrown blushing, but her insides had misbehaved since the first moment she heard his voice. “So you can compare me to all the lonely widows of London? No, thank you.”
“Oh, come now. No need to be jealous. I taught you to kiss, and therefore you are the best. Remind me, will you?”
“Wherever you learned that wicked tone of voice—”
“Does it not persuade you?”
“Not at all. I have wedding correspondence to answer. Good day.” He let her go. She stood and smoothed her skirt, flustered she could still smell him on her skin. She had lied — he smelled marvelous to her.
Andrew scoffed and sprawled his limbs, as though he had been struck dead by a jealous deity. One with a low tolerance for mortal hubris. “Must I start all over wooing you?”
“You must not start at all, Lord Preston.”
“Our adolescent flirtation is over.”
Andrew appeared puzzled, then injured as he took in her expression which she hoped looked ruthless. He stiffened. “You have a lover?”
“Of course not.”
“Then you are betrothed?”
“Then you have suitors?”
“Whom, Drew? The stable boy? A footman? I have neither the time nor stupidity for dalliance, if even I desired it.”
“What do you mean, you are not precisely engaged?” He ripped shafts of grass and tossed them like miniature javelins.
“Andrew, never mind it.” Another moment and she would either shout or weep. No use confiding the truth ― that she was desperate. He would charge into the fray, gallant and reckless, making yet more turmoil. She knew, because his past attempts to help her had only convinced his parents he had a dangerous attachment to a courtesan’s daughter. And as such, Alysia had one choice before her now, which she had no desire to discuss with Andrew.
“Oh, Lisa. Darling, what is the matter?”
She saw a flash — sunshine reflecting on taffeta. Lady Courtenay and Lady Elizabeth crested the hill, probably having heard from the guards at the gate the prodigal son had returned. Alysia darted past the tree line and took cover behind a hedge before they saw her. She heard Andrew complain at her hasty retreat and turned to see him stuff her dropped stocking in his saddlebag as he waved to his mother and sister.
She had just finished her last private conversation with him. Their last kiss had been more than two years before. After his sister’s wedding, she would never see him again.