Someone Perfect by Mary Balogh

One

 

England was not renowned for long runs of perfect summer days. This year so far even brief runs had been in lamentably short supply. It seemed something of a miracle, then, when the morning had dawned with the promise of being yet another lovely day. The second in a row.

By the middle of the afternoon, the sky was a deep indigo blue and cloudless. The air was hot without being oppressive— the merest hint of a breeze saw to that. It also caused the leaves to flutter on the trees and the water to ripple on the river. The grass on both sides of the river was green and lush after all the rain, and liberally strewn with daisies, buttercups, and clover. Birds trilled from among the thick foliage of the trees, though it was not always easy to see them. Unseen insects whirred and chirped in the grass.

So much life. So much beauty.

Lady Estelle Lamarr had been walking along the riverbank, but she stopped in order to fill all her senses with the perfection of the moment, wild nature at its most profuse and benign. Even the old single-arched stone bridge farther along seemed to be an integral part of the scene rather than a man-made intrusion upon it, just as a bird’s nest or an anthill or a beaver dam would be. There surely could not possibly be anything to surpass the loveliness of the English countryside on a summer day. How very privileged she was to live here.

Yesterday she had fretted a little at being kept at home on a similar day by the impending departure of her uncle and aunt and cousin, who had all been staying at Elm Court for the past three weeks. Although Aunt Jane had talked of leaving early, by eight o’clock at the latest, it was actually after three in the afternoon by the time their carriage rolled out of sight down the drive and the chance to enjoy the outdoors had been virtually at an end.

First Uncle Charles had lingered over breakfast as though he had all day, deep in conversation with Bertrand, Estelle’s twin brother. Then Ellen, their cousin, had decided she really ought to send a quick note to her betrothed to explain that their return home would be delayed because her mama had decided they must call upon friends who lived not far off their intended route, and those friends were bound to invite them to stay for a few days. The conversation finally at an end and Ellen’s letter written, Aunt Jane had been hopeful of a midmorning start. But that hope was dashed when the vicar arrived from the village and was positively delighted to find that he had come in time to send the travelers on their way with a blessing.

The Reverend John Mott, a deeply pious man, was a longtime acquaintance of Aunt Jane’s and a great favorite of hers. At her urging, the blessing had developed into extended prayers and scripture readings in the sitting room and had been succeeded by a lengthy discussion, initiated by Aunt Jane, about the deteriorating moral fiber of the nation, especially its heedless youth. And since by then noon was fast approaching, Estelle had invited the vicar to join them all for a light luncheon that she had guessed— correctly— their cook was already preparing with feverish haste for six people instead of the two she had been planning for.

After the dishes had been cleared from the table and their second cup of coffee had been poured, the conversation had turned to a discussion of the uncertain future of the monarchy, since King George IV was in perennial ill health and the only heir closely related to him was a young girl, Victoria, daughter of the Duke of Kent. The other royal dukes had been prolific in the production of children, it was true, but not, unfortunately, of the legitimate variety. It was all quite scandalous, in Aunt Jane’s opinion.

The carriage had been outside the door at three o’clock, had been fully loaded with its three passengers by quarter past, and had finally rolled on its way at half past, all the last-minute thanks and well-wishes and reminders to do this and be sure to avoid doing that having been called out the window. By Aunt Jane, of course.

“So much for a perfect summer day,” Estelle had said, turning to her brother— but with a twinkle in her eye. For of course she was exceedingly fond of her relatives and had actually enjoyed the day as it unfolded.

“All in a good cause,” Bertrand had said. “We will miss them. There will be other lovely days to spend outdoors.”

And sure enough, along had come the unexpected gift of today.

When she had left the house earlier, Estelle had intended to walk all the way to Prospect Hall to call upon Maria Wiley. The heat was giving her second thoughts by now, however. The hall was a mile or so beyond the bridge, on the other side of the river, and she had already walked more than a mile. She looked down at the wildflowers at her feet and stooped to rub a hand over the grass. It was dry. And blessedly cool to the touch. She changed her mind about going farther and sat down close to the river’s edge. She arranged her skirts neatly about her legs and clasped her arms around her raised knees.

Aunt Jane would have been horrified at such unladylike behavior, especially in a public place where anyone might come along at any moment and see her. Estelle smiled fondly at the thought. Aunt Jane and Uncle Charles had raised Bertrand and her. Their mother had died in a horrible accident before they were even a year old, and their father, overcome with grief and guilt over his conviction that he had caused their mother’s death, had effectively disappeared from their lives except for brief, unsatisfactory visits twice a year or so. He had acquired an unsavory reputation as a rake, though they had not known that, of course, until much later.

He was back in their lives now and had been for the past eight years. Estelle loved him dearly, but that did not change the fact that their formative years, from one to seventeen, had been spent in the care of Aunt Jane, their mother’s elder sister, and Uncle Charles. And in the company of Oliver and Ellen, their cousins, both older than they.

It had been a strict upbringing, with much emphasis upon duty and moral rectitude and self-discipline and piety. Estelle and Bertrand had also been loved, though. But there had always been a gaping hole in their lives, partly because their mother was dead, though mainly because their father was not. They had longed and yearned for him, watched for him from the attic room of Elm Court, where they had lived through most of those years and lived again now. Yet whenever he had come, they had held themselves aloof from him, waiting and waiting for him to … to open his arms and his heart to them. Or give some other sign. Make the first move. Stay.

After he left, usually sooner than he had intended, they hated him and wept for him— yes, Bertrand had wept too— and resolved to forget all about him, to cut him from their lives. Until, that was, they found themselves in the attic again, watching for his return. Yearning for him.

Ah. Estelle shook her head. She had not intended to sink into those memories today of all days. Today was for simple enjoyment. Tomorrow there might be clouds and blustery winds and chill temperatures and rain again. Three days in a row was too much to hope for with any confidence this year. Today she was free to do whatever she wished. Much as she had loved having her aunt and uncle and Ellen to stay, she had, as always, felt constrained by their presence. As though she needed to be on her very best behavior every single moment. And to listen meekly to almost daily harangues— though no, that was unfair. Harangues was a negative word. Aunt Jane loved her and wanted the best for her—and of her. She gave suggestions now, and they were often sound advice.

Her aunt did not approve of Estelle’s living at Elm Court virtually alone, though Bertrand lived there too and they had always been extraordinarily close despite the fact that they were not, of course, identical twins. Estelle, in Aunt Jane’s opinion, really ought to have a female companion living with her— just as Lady Maria Wiley of Prospect Hall did, and very proper too, though one could wish that her companion was a decade or so older than she was. It was bordering upon scandalous that Estelle did not have one at all. Aunt Jane could not understand why the marchioness did not insist upon it. The marchioness was Estelle’s stepmother of eight years, her father’s second wife. He was the Marquess of Dorchester.

Estelle did not want a companion. Not a female one, anyway. She had Bertrand, and he was enough for her. For a few years, just before their father’s marriage to Viola Kingsley and then afterward, they had lived at Redcliffe Court in Northamptonshire, where they had been taken after their father inherited the title and property. Two years ago, however, they had come back to Elm Court, just the two of them, having found themselves overwhelmed by the life of the ton into which they had been thrust— with great success, incidentally, and even some enjoyment, until suddenly it had been enjoyable no longer.

They had already been in their twenties when it happened, an age at which Estelle at least ought to have been married, according to conventional wisdom. She had never really been tempted, however, though she liked a number of the eligible men she had met. Instead, she had wanted to … to find herself, for want of a clearer way to describe how she had felt. And of course it was how Bertrand had felt too. They so often thought alike about the important things.

So they had come back to Elm Court to live. Oh, not to become hermits. Far from it. Just this year, for example, they had gone to London for a few weeks of the Season and had proceeded from there to Hinsford Manor in Hampshire to celebrate the thirtieth birthday of Harry Westcott, their stepmother’s son and therefore their stepbrother. It was a large family party that had turned unexpectedly into a celebration of Harry’s wedding to Lydia Tavernor.

All of it had been thoroughly enjoyable— for both Estelle and her twin. But they had come back here well before the end of the Season. Sometimes Estelle wondered if they would grow old together here, to be known as those weird and eccentric twins. But life was ever changing. It was impossible to predict the future. She did not even want to try.

She sat in the sunshine. The heat felt very good. But … Well, it was really quite hot, and temptation beckoned in the form of the river. Poor Aunt Jane would have had heart palpitations. But Aunt Jane was not here, was she? And there was no one else in sight to be scandalized. It was why Estelle always loved walking beside the river north of their property, in fact. No one else ever came here. The bridge, sturdy and picturesque though it was, was rarely used these days, now that the main road nearby had been widened and resurfaced and was far more convenient to travelers than the narrow, rutted track that crossed the bridge. Most people would naturally choose convenience and comfort over a scenic route.

Temptation was not to be resisted, Estelle decided at last, perhaps because she did not put up any great fight against it. She pulled off her shoes and set them neatly beside her, peeled off her stockings and pressed them into the shoes so they would not go wafting away in the breeze, folded the lower half of her skirt neatly over her knees so that some remnant of modesty would be preserved, and lowered her feet gingerly into the river. She gasped at the coldness of the water, but she lowered her legs farther, wiggling her toes as she did so, and found that they quickly adapted. And oh goodness, it felt delicious.

She swished her feet and laughed when a few splashes spread into dark circles on her dress and doubtless penetrated each fold of it. One droplet landed on the side of her nose. She brushed it away and dried her hand on her skirt. She felt herself relax as she brought the whole of her attention back to the scene around her— and in her. For of course she was part of the scene, right to the very core of her being. It was not a case of her and it. She actually was it, just as the birds were and the insects and the grass and the daisies, and that butterfly fluttering over a cluster of clover. This, she thought, was contentment. Even happiness. Just this. She wished Bertrand had come with her.

Her bonnet was protecting her head from the full force of the sun. The brim was shading her eyes and preventing her from acquiring a red and shiny nose, which her maid would cluck over with disapproval and Bertrand would laugh at. But just for a couple of minutes she wanted to feel it all— the brightness and the warmth. She pulled loose the ribbons beneath her chin and took off her bonnet. One of her hairpins caught in the bottom edge of it, and while she wrestled to free it a whole hank of hair came tumbling down over her shoulder. Bother! But it served her right. She set the bonnet on the grass, pulled out the rest of her hairpins, and dropped them carefully into the hat. She shook her head and combed her fingers through her hair in the hope of achieving something like smoothness. It was impossible, of course, since she did not have a brush with her, but so what? She had already decided that she would not go visiting.

A sense of delicious freedom welled up in her and spilled over in exuberance. She kicked her feet, careful not to splash herself again. She propped herself up with her hands spread on the grass behind her, tipped back her head so she could feel the sun on her face and cool air on the back of her neck, and closed her eyes.

This was pure bliss.

Until, that was, she became aware of someone panting— someone who was not her. And then she heard low, menacing growls. And then angry barking. Her eyes flew open and she whipped her head about to see a huge monster of a dog dashing toward her across the grass, all bared teeth and ferocity and flying spittle and giant paws. If Estelle had not been half paralyzed with terror, she might well have jumped screaming right into the river. Instead she sat up sharply, spread her hands before her face, palms out, fingers spread, and cried out. Something idiotic like, “Good doggie,” she thought afterward. By then she hoped fervently she had not actually said doggie.

“Heel, Captain!” The voice that snapped out the command came from somewhere behind Estelle. It was a harsh masculine voice— and instantly effective. The dog stopped in its tracks, a mere six feet from Estelle and towering over her. It growled menacingly once, tipped its head to one side, one brown ear flopping against its head, the other swinging free, black jowls quivering, black nose twitching, black eyes glaring death and destruction— and turned to trot to where the voice had come from.

Estelle sucked in a deep breath of air, perhaps the first since she had heard the panting. She turned more fully, drawing her feet from the water at the same time, curling her legs under her, and pulling her skirt down over them. All a bit too late for modesty.

People never came this way. Well. Almost never.

He was astride a massive horse, an equally massive man, or so he appeared to Estelle from her vantage point close to the ground. Oh dear God, her hair was all about her in a half-tangled, untidy mass. Her dress was soggy and clinging to her bare legs. He, on the other hand, was immaculately clad for riding, a man with wide shoulders and a broad chest and powerful-looking thighs. He was dark and dour of countenance, though the fact that his tall hat was pulled low over his brow and cast his face in shadow might account for at least part of that impression. His black-faced brown bloodhound panted up at him as though awaiting the order to attack and kill.

He was some distance away from Estelle, holding his horse quite still while he regarded her in silence. He made no apology. He asked for no assurance that she was unharmed. He uttered no greeting of any sort. Except that even as she noted this he touched his whip to the brim of his hat and inclined his head perhaps an inch and a half in her direction. Then he rode down the track, across the bridge, in among the trees that lay beyond the bank on the other side, and disappeared.

After that one slight acknowledgment of her existence he had not once looked her way.

Well.

Estelle gaped after him. She was trembling, she realized. Her heart was still beating at what felt like double time. It pounded in her chest and sounded like a drumbeat in her ears. Her hands were tingling with pins and needles. Her teeth were chattering, though certainly not with cold despite the fact that her skirt was definitely wet and uncomfortable about her legs. Her hair felt like a jungle and probably looked like one. She felt foolish and humiliated despite the fact that he was a stranger and it was unlikely she would ever see him again. She also felt indignant and ruffled. Downright angry, in fact. How dared he have a vicious dog like that on the loose where it might attack any unwary person walking alone— or sitting with her feet dangling in the water— and tear her to shreds?

Her heart speeded up further if it was possible and made her feel quite faint for a moment. And how dared he not dismount from that monster of a horse and hurry to her assistance, all gentlemanly concern for her well-being? For all he knew, she might have swooned as soon as his back was turned and toppled into the water and drowned and floated away like Ophelia and eventually sunk, never to be seen or heard of again. At the very least he ought to have been abject in his apologies for frightening her. Instead, his silent stare had somehow put her at fault, as though she had upset his poor dog— had she really called him a doggie? Captain! Whoever had heard of calling a dog Captain?

So much for a perfect summer day.

It was ruined.

She wondered if she would tell Bertrand. She could narrate the encounter amusingly. He would laugh—after ascertaining that she had taken no real harm. But she would have nightmares for a week. Perhaps longer. Perhaps for the rest of her life. She was still breathless. She was almost whimpering. A butterfly fluttering past her face made her jump.

She pulled on her stockings, tried unsuccessfully again to comb her fingers all the way through her hair, gave up the struggle, and got to her feet. She pushed them into her shoes and made her way home, her bonnet dangling from the fingers of one hand, her hairpins tinkling around inside it.

Aunt Jane would have needed to be revived if she could have seen her now. Not, now that Estelle came to think of it, that she had ever seen her aunt swoon.

Justin Wiley, Earl of Brandon, was not in a good mood, and that was putting it mildly. He had no wish to go where he was going, was not looking forward to getting there, and was wondering even now if he should simply turn around and go back even though he had come a long way and was almost at his destination. He did not, then, appreciate a distraction on top of everything else, especially when it came in the form of a woman whom he had mistaken at first for a farm wench playing truant from her chores before realizing that she was far too finely clad to be anything other than a lady. But a lady out alone in the middle of nowhere? With her hair in a dark, unruly cloud down her back and skirts up over her knees while her bare legs and feet dangled in the river?

The very sight of her had irritated him because of course he had reacted as any vigorous male would have in the circumstances— with a surge of sheer startled lust. After he had called off Captain, that was, and watched the woman try to contain her terror and at the same time make herself look respectable. Her efforts had done the opposite by drawing attention to a heaving bosom and bare, shapely legs. And that wanton hair.

It had been a brief distraction, over in a matter of minutes as he rode across the stone bridge that spanned the river and in among the trees on the other side. But his already dark mood had been further darkened, and he did not appreciate it one little bit. He had frightened a helpless woman— or at least Captain had, which was really the same thing since the dog was his. And he had reacted to her in an undisciplined, quite despicable way, even if he had not acted upon his baser instincts.

Prospect Hall must be close, within a mile or so anyway. That meant that the lady who was behaving with such scandalous disregard for propriety back there probably lived somewhere close. It was a fact that accused him, and he did not need more guilt heaped upon him.

For longer than a year now he had had the sole charge of his sister. He was her guardian, but had procrastinated in fulfilling his duty to her simply because she wanted nothing to do with him. He had respected her wishes while she was in mourning for her mother and had stayed away. And so he had perhaps exposed her to the bad influence of neighbors who did not know how to behave. Yet even now, when he had come at last to take charge, he was reluctant to complete his journey and was even tempted not to do so.

Good God, they might be acquaintances, that woman and his sister. Half sister, to be precise. Perhaps they were even friends. It was true that Maria had Miss Vane as a companion for respectability and some protection. But he had never met Miss Vane and knew little about her except that she had once been Maria’s governess. He really had been unpardonably derelict in his duty. Even while Maria’s mother was still alive he had been his sister’s official guardian after his father’s death six years ago.

He had just this moment been deficient also in his duty as a gentleman, he realized with a sudden grimace. He had not apologized to that woman for frightening her or explained to her that Captain was far too well trained to attack anyone, or any creature, in fact, without his master’s say-so— which had never yet been given. Or that Cap was far too good-natured a dog to want to attack anyone. Doubtless he had been galloping up on the woman in the hope that she would allow him to slobber and pant all over her in exchange for a belly rub. It was distinctly to the dog’s disadvantage that he was so large and fierce-looking with his giant paws and black face and wobbling jowls. And that his bark was deep and loud enough to wake the dead.

Justin had not even stopped long enough to assure himself that the woman had recovered from her fright. His dog had not gone within eight feet of her, but she might well be a vaporish sort. She might even now be stretched senseless upon the riverbank, getting fried by the sun.

It was extremely unlikely.

But he resented the distraction and the way the incident had somehow put him in the wrong. He needed to concentrate his mind upon the coming encounter with his sister. Soon. A mile or so beyond the bridge, he had been told at the village he had passed through twenty minutes or so ago. A couple of miles all told. About three miles if he continued along the road, as he would have done if he had been traveling with his carriage. He had sent that by the road with his valet and his baggage and had taken the shorter route himself. Something he now regretted. So. Less than a mile to go.

Maria was the daughter of his father and his father’s second wife, now deceased. She was fourteen years younger than Justin. He had not seen her for twelve years. She had been a child then, eight years old, thin and pale, with fine blond hair and big blue eyes, and he had adored her. And she him. But he had left home abruptly and been gone for six years before he inherited the title and properties and fortune upon the death of his father. One of his first acts as Earl of Brandon, before he went home to Everleigh Park, was to have the countess, his stepmother, and therefore her daughter too, sent here to Prospect Hall to live. It was one of his smaller properties, though the house was said to be a comfortable, attractive manor set in pretty grounds and run by a small but competent staff, most of whom had been here forever. Justin had never come in person.

His stepmother’s health had broken down a year or two after the move and had deteriorated steadily over the following years. Her illness had become more and more debilitating, until by the end she could neither rise from her bed nor move her limbs nor speak. Even swallowing apparently had become well nigh impossible, according to the brief, very factual reports Miss Vane had sent him twice a month. He had sent a physician from London and a few nurses who had come highly recommended. Each of the nurses had been dismissed within a week. Maria had nursed her mother herself right up to the end. The countess had died a little more than a year ago, and Maria had been left alone with her companion. She would remain under Justin’s guardianship until her twenty-fifth birthday or until she married— with his permission. Whichever came first.

His sister had been here, then, since she was fourteen, with a sick mother for three or four of those years. She had been in mourning during the year since her mother’s death. One could only imagine the sort of hell she had lived through. Yet she had refused his summons, couched very carefully as an invitation, to return to Everleigh Park after the funeral and again a year later. On the latter occasion, just a couple of months ago, she had dictated her answer to Miss Vane, who had written it in her small, distinct handwriting.

Lady Maria Wiley must confess to a certain degree of puzzlement over the Earl of Brandon’s invitation to return home. She is already at home. Unless, that is, his lordship should choose to assert his sole ownership of Prospect Hall and require her removal, in which case she will purchase a home of her own with the inheritance left her by her mother and thus free him of an inconvenience and herself of any future harassment.

He had read and reread the extraordinary letter with amazed incredulity. Harassment? Could she hate him so much? It was obvious she could and did.

Did she realize, though, that the money her mother had left her was in trust with him for another five years? Did she understand that he was her legal guardian?

He had thought himself hardened against everything life could possibly hurl his way. He had had long practice, after all. But Maria had found a small chink in his armor. She was all that was left of what he had once valued, of what he had once loved.

A long, long time ago.

A lifetime or two ago.

There was a cluster of cottages up ahead on one side of the track. A picturesque stone manor stood alone on the other side, set back some distance from the road within a large garden of lawns and trellises and roses and myriad other flowers. This must be Prospect Hall.

Even now he considered turning back or simply riding on by. Being hated wore upon one. He was, however, long inured to such pain. He turned onto the wide graveled pathway that led through an open gate and along beside the manor to a stable block behind and to one side of it.

He wondered if in her wildest nightmares Maria expected him to come here in person to fetch her home. But she had given him no choice.