Book 1 in the Jaded Gentlemen series
Thomas Jennings, Baron Sutcliffe, relinquishes his position as man of business for David, Lord Fairly, to take up life as a country squire. Thomas’s newly purchased estate, Linden, is managed by Miss Loris Tanner, daughter of the former steward who abandoned his post—and his only child—under a cloud of scandal. Thomas is willing to give Loris a chance to prove her competence in a profession uniformly undertaken by men, but the situation becomes complicated. Will Loris give Thomas a chance to become something more dear and lasting to her than simply her broad-minded employer, or will the scandal in her past come back to ruin her future, too?
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Enjoy An Excerpt
What did it portend, when a man arrived to his newly acquired estate and found an execution in progress?
“The damned beast is done for,” a squat, pot-bellied fellow declared from halfway down the barn aisle.
Thomas Jennings, Baron Sutcliffe, had an advantage of height over the crowd gathered in the stable. Nonetheless, he apparently hadn’t been spotted as he’d ridden up the lane, and he didn’t draw attention watching from the shadows near the door.
“The damned beast was rallying until some idiot fed him oats at midday, Mr. Chesterton,” a woman retorted.
She stood at the front of the group, slightly above average height, a neat dark braid hanging down a ramrod-straight back. Her dress was muddy about the hem and so far from fashionable Thomas could not have accurately named the color.
“Horses in work get grain at midday,” the Chesterton fellow retorted. “If you wanted special treatment for your personal mount, you should have come to me.” He uncoiled a bullwhip from around his middle, an ugly length of braided leather lashed to a heavy wooden stock. “I say the horse needs to be put down and I’m the stable master here, missy.”
This woman would not take kindly to being called missy. A blind man could have discerned that from the command in her tone.
Thomas was far from blind.
The lady stood in profile to him, her nose a trifle bold, her mouth wide and full. Not precisely a pretty woman, though her looks were memorable. She blocked the door to a stall that housed a raw-boned bay gelding. The beast stood with his head down, flanks matted with sweat. A back hoof lifted in a desultory attempt to kick at the horse’s own belly.
“The horse wants walking,” she said. “A few minutes on grass every hour, clean, tepid water, and no more damned oats.”
Chesterton let the coils of his whip fall, the tip of the lash landing on the toes of the lady’s dusty boots.
“You are prolonging that animal’s suffering, Miss Tanner,” Chesterton said. “What will the new owner think of your cruelty? The beast turns up colicky after you ride him to exhaustion in this heat, and you won’t even give your own horse the mercy of a quick death.”
“We’ve had two other cases of colic in your stable in the last month, Mr. Chesterton. Any fool knows a horse recovering from colic ought not to be given oats.”
Thomas had certainly known that.
“If a horse can’t handle his regular rations without coming down with a bellyache, then he’s not recovering, is he?” Chesterton retorted.
Chesterton flicked his wrist, so the whip uncoiled behind him. With one more jerk of his wrist, and he could wrap that whip around the woman’s boots, wrench her off her feet, and get to the horse.
A stable lad sidled closer to the lady, though she gave no indication she’d noticed the advance of Chesterton’s infantry.
“Chesterton, think,” Miss Tanner said, more exasperation than pleading in her tone. “Baron Sutcliffe has only recently purchased Linden, and he will now receive my reports on the crops and livestock. When he learns of three dead horses in one month, every one of them a valuable adult animal in otherwise good health, what conclusion will he draw about his stable master? Give me another twelve hours with the gelding, and then you can shoot him if he’s not coming around.”
The offer was reasonable to the point of shrewdness.
“No baron worth a title will listen to a woman’s opinion regarding his land or livestock. You’d best be packing your things, Miss Tanner, or I’ll be the one reporting to the nancy baron what goes on at Linden.”
Time to end this.
“As it happens,” Thomas said, sauntering forward, “the nancy baron is here, and willing to listen to any knowledgeable opinion on most topics. Perhaps somebody might begin by explaining why a half dozen men to whom I pay regular wages are loitering about in the middle of the afternoon?”
The lady did not give up her place in front of the stall, but Chesterton coiled his whip and puffed out his chest.
“Alvinus Chesterton, your lordship. I’m Linden’s stable master. Yon beast is suffering badly, and Miss Tanner is too soft-hearted to allow the horse a merciful end.”
Miss Tanner’s soft heart was nowhere in evidence that Thomas could divine.
He assayed a bow in the lady’s direction, though manners would likely impress her not one bit.
The point was to impress the louts surrounding her. “Miss Tanner, Thomas, Baron Sutcliffe, at your service. Chesterton, if you’d see to my horse. He’s endured a long, hot journey down from London and needs a thorough cooling out.”
Chesterton clearly didn’t like that suggestion. In any stable, the lowliest lad was usually stuck with the job of walking a sweaty horse until the animal could be safely given water and put in its stall. The stable master stomped off, bellowing for somebody named Anderson to tend to the baron’s horse.
Now for the greater challenge.
“Your horse is ailing?” Thomas asked the lady.
“I own him,” she said, chin tipping up a half inch. A good chin, determined without being stubborn. In contrast, her eyes were a soft, misty gray—also guarded and weary.
“Chesterton tried to tell you what to do with your own livestock?”
“He tried to shoot my horse, and would have done so except I came by to make sure Seamus was continuing to recover.”
Amid the pungent, dusty, horsy scents of the stable Thomas picked up a whiff of roses coming from—her?
“Let’s have a look, shall we, Miss Tanner?”
Oh, she did not want to allow a stranger into her horse’s stall, but the realm’s only female steward—and possibly its most stubborn of either gender—defied her new employer at her peril.
“Miss Tanner, I will not shoot the animal without your permission. You could have me charged before the king’s man for such behavior, baron or not.”
Thomas would have preferred “or not,” though that choice had been taken from him.
Still, he refrained from physically moving the lady aside, reaching past her to open the door, or otherwise publicly disrespecting her authority as owner of the horse and de facto steward at Linden.
Standing this close to Miss Tanner, Thomas could see she was worried for her horse, though Chesterton had been about to use his bullwhip on the lady.
“The gums tell the tale,” Thomas said, quietly. “Your gelding is not trying to get down and roll, and that’s a good sign.”
Outside the stable, Rupert’s hoof beats went clip-clopping by on the lane.
“Tell the fools to walk your horse out in the shade,” the lady said. “They should get his saddle off too.”
Miss Tanner was trying to distract Thomas, trying to wave him off for however long it took her to inspect her sorry beast. Thomas was not willing to be distracted, not as long as Chesterton and a half dozen of his dimwitted minions lurked about.
“Rupert walked the last two miles from the village,” Thomas said. “He’s barely sweating and will manage well enough. I wanted to make a point to my stable master, and you, my dear, are stalling.”
That chin dipped. “Chesterton could be right. I don’t want to put Seamus down.”
A spine of steel, nerves of iron, and a heart of honest sentiment. Interesting combination.
“Miss Tanner, the last time I saw a horse shot, I cried shamelessly. It’s a sad business all around.” Thomas had been twelve years old, and Grandfather’s afternoon hunter had broken a foreleg in a damned rabbit hole. The twins had sworn off foxhunting, and Theresa had cried loudest of all.
Grandpapa, for the only time in Thomas’s memory, had got thoroughly inebriated.
Miss Tanner pushed the stall door open, and the horse lifted his head to inspect the visitors. A horse approaching death would have ignored them or turned away.
“Seamus, this is Baron Sutcliffe,” Miss Tanner informed her gelding. “His lordship says he won’t shoot you.”
“A ringing endorsement.” Thomas let the horse sniff his glove. “Also the truth. When did you first notice a problem?”
“Last night. I came down in the evening, and Wee Nick alerted me. He and Beckman took turns with me walking Seamus for most of the night, offering him water and periodic nibbles of grass. By morning, Seamus seemed to be functioning normally, and I thought we were through the worst.”
Functioning normally was doubtless a euphemism for passing manure.
“Somebody gave him oats at noon?”
A horse who’d done without much fodder the previous night and skipped his morning ration of oats would have been ravenous for grain by noon, and bolting grain never boded well for an equine’s digestion.
Thomas stroked a hand down the gelding’s sweaty neck. “Part of Seamus’s problem is simply the heat. Why wasn’t a bucket hung in his stall?”
“I don’t know. We usually water them at the trough. Nick hung a bucket last night, but in summer, the buckets need to be scrubbed regularly.”
Seamus craned his neck in the lady’s direction.
“Shameless old man,” she murmured, scratching one hairy ear.
Uncomfortable the gelding might be, but he was not at death’s door if he could flirt with his owner. Thomas lifted the horse’s lip and pressed gently on healthy pink gums. A horse in the later stages of colic would have dark or even purple gums.
“He’s uncomfortable,” Thomas said, “but not in immediate danger. He should be on limited rations—hay and grass, not grain—and no work for several days, exactly as you intended. Was this Nick person among those watching Chesterton threaten your horse?”
Had Thomas not come along, the men might have started exchanging bets, or worse.
Miss Tanner scratched the horse’s other ear. “Nick, Beck, and Jamie have gone into the village to get the last of the provisions for the house in preparation for your arrival. Chesterton timed this confrontation for their absence. None of those three would have allowed Seamus to be fed oats.”
The lady did not want to leave her horse undefended, and Thomas couldn’t blame her, but she would have to learn to trust her employer’s authority.
“Come, Miss Tanner. I’ve yet to see my new house, and as the closest thing I have to a land steward, you are the first among the staff with whom I must become better acquainted.”
“You’ll want to eat,” she said, tousling the horse’s dark forelock. “To change, and Mrs. Kitts is doubtless in a taking that you’ve tarried in the stable this long.”
Thomas did want to eat, also to drink a large quantity of something cold, and to bathe—God above, did he want to bathe.
“You there!” Thomas called to a skinny older fellow pushing a barrow of straw and muck down the barn aisle. “Your name?”
“Hammersmith, my lord.”
“Hammersmith, if Miss Tanner’s horse shows any signs of renewed distress, or is taken from his stall for any reason by anybody save Miss Tanner, you are to alert me immediately. Not Chesterton, not the local magistrate, not Wellington himself is to handle that animal without Miss Tanner’s permission.”
“And when you’ve dumped that barrow, please see to it Seamus has half a bucket of clean water.”
“Aye, milord. At once, sir.”
“Now will you accompany me to the manor house, Miss Tanner?”
She gave the horse’s chin a deliberate, final scratching. “Yes, my lord.”
Baron Sutcliffe, was entirely too big to stalk about a busy stable as quietly as a hungry tom cat. He spoke softly too, in the cultured tones of a gentleman, but Chesterton had paled at the sight of his new employer—and put away his whip.
For that alone, the baron had Loris’s loyalty.
She’d been so focused on her horse she’d not noticed the addition to the crowd until Sutcliffe had strolled through the grooms like Moses parting a Red Sea of malevolence and mischief. The baron had been a human storm front rolling toward her, heedless of anything in his path.
No, not heedless—indifferent. Sutcliffe had known Chesterton and his lackeys were milling about, and he’d seen Chesterton fondling that infernal whip.
Sutcliffe simply hadn’t cared.
The baron’s exquisitely tailored riding attire and public school diction sat in contrast to Loris’s conviction that his lordship would have relished a display of violence. One man against a half dozen and he’d been amused by the odds.
“So tell me about the enmity between you and Chesterton,” the baron said, lacing his arm with Loris’s. He’d matched his steps to hers—not all men would.
“He’s your stable master, my lord, and we loathe each other.”
Because I have breasts and a womb and am smarter than he or any of his near relations. Because the stable is not my domain and I could run it better than he’ll ever be able to. Because he’s mean, and male, and no stable lad who wants his wages will gainsay such a master.
“Chesterton loathes me because I am an unnatural female,” Loris said. “I loathe him because he is needlessly cruel to the beasts who depend on him. Besides which, he is bigoted, backward, and incapable of hiring competent stable help.”
As soon as the words were out of Loris’s mouth, she wished them back. Not fifteen minutes after meeting her new employer, she was whining. Loris didn’t like that the baron held her livelihood in his titled hands, she didn’t like explaining herself, and she didn’t like—oh, she most sincerely hated—that he’d been on hand for that scene in the stable.
She would have hated more what would have happened if the baron hadn’t come prowling along.
“Chesterton will not trouble you further,” Sutcliffe said as they reached the steps of the manor house. “Of this, I am certain.”
“You expect him to leave?”
The baron regarded her with eyes of such dark blue they might have been a portraitist’s artistic exaggeration. He had a baronial nose that on another man could have shaded toward unfortunate, but on him looked proud in the best sense. Loris did not like Sutcliffe—she didn’t know him—but she approved of that nose.
“I do not expect Chesterton to spontaneously quit my employ,” the baron said. “I can’t abide incompetence in any employee. Either Chesterton did not know how to care for your horse, or he deliberately jeopardized the gelding’s health.”
Sutcliffe held the door for her. Of course, he would not knock on the door to his own home.
And, of course—barons probably set great store by their manners—he was politely warning Loris that her time at Linden Hall could be drawing to a close as well.
Then what would she do? Papa had run off to God knew where, she had no useful skills to fall back on other than stewarding, no family to turn to, and not even a true friend to her name.
Rather than take issue with his lordship’s fussing, Loris preceded him through the door.
Unfortunately for her, all of her fear, fatigue, and uncertainty came trundling right along with her.
No footman, butler, or porter attended the main entrance to the Linden manor house. Thomas began a list of Linden’s shortcomings: an empty stable yard, an incompetent stable master, and an unattended front door.
He gestured to the right. “Let’s have our discussion in the library, Miss Tanner.”
As best Thomas recalled the description of the house, a library lay off that direction. Perhaps an appearance of the Eighty-Second Regiment of Foot would have resulted in one of his staff coming at last to investigate.
Thomas had asked Miss Tanner to join him, mostly to separate the combatants in the stable and test the loyalty of the lads. If harm came to Miss Tanner’s horse despite Thomas’s orders, then the stable master would not be the only one sent packing.
Miss Tanner preceded Thomas to the library, at home in the Linden manor house and not the least bit self-conscious about it. The tip of her long braid kicked up with each impact of her boot heels on the carpeted corridor.
She could not know where that tempted a man to focus his gaze.
The house was exactly as its previous owner had described: lovely with an emphasis on light, and an airy graciousness created by soft colors, ample windows, high ceilings, and elegant appointments.
The help might be lacking, but the fields were in fine shape, the buildings in excellent repair, and the house itself immaculate and welcoming.
The room Miss Tanner lead him to, while not large, yet qualified as a library. A wide fieldstone hearth lined half of the outer wall, French doors graced the other half. A fine oak desk sat near the doors, positioned to take advantage of the natural light. The long, heavily cushioned couch faced the hearth, bookshelves extended behind the couch, and a sideboard stood along the inside wall.
Upon that sideboard sat a full decanter and four sparkling crystal glasses. Thomas lifted the stopper and sniffed the contents, congratulating himself on his purchase again.
Lord Greymoor had sold the place as is, where is, including fixtures and furnishings. Fortunately for Thomas, the estate was kept ready to receive its master—or his guests.
“May I offer you a drink, Miss Tanner?”
She stalked around the room, though her first instinct was likely to sit at Thomas’s desk, where she’d no doubt ensconced her tidy bottom many times before.
She left off pretending to inspect book titles and peered at him.
“A drink. Of?”
“Excellent brandy.” Thomas poured himself a hefty tot. “I intend to sample it myself, but it wasn’t my horse who was just given a reprieve from a firing squad.”
“Perhaps a small portion,” Miss Tanner said, taking a position at the French doors. She’d turned her back to her employer, which was rude, but probably no more rude than referring to an equine firing squad.
Miss Tanner was a conundrum, part lady, part employee, part something else Thomas couldn’t easily label. He was helpless to resist conundrums, because a man who’d made his fortune in commerce craved sense and order in all things.
“A restorative,” Thomas said, crossing the room to pass her what even a high stickler would allow was a tonic to nerves under a severe trial. He stepped back and half-leaned, half-sat on the desk.
They could tally up their respective rudenesses later. “Has Chesterton threatened you previously?”
Miss Tanner tilted her glass and took a sniff of the contents. “Must we discuss this?”
Thomas sipped his drink, studying a tallish, dark-haired woman with gray eyes and a Gypsy cast to her features. Now that he had the chance to examine her riding habit in decent light, he’d classify the color between mud and dust.
She moved, dressed, and spoke to hide the fact, but Loris Tanner was undeniably attractive.
Thomas liked women, generally. Liked their pragmatism and humor, their affection and resilience. He liked the women he took to bed, particularly the ones who found their way there, passed an enjoyable hour or three, then found their way back out of his bed—and his life—with a smile and a wave.
Loris Tanner had a kind of beauty women seldom valued and men never overlooked: earthy, dark, curvaceous, and strong.
If she were sweet and merry, he might have had a problem, but her surliness was helpful, because they’d likely be working in relatively close quarters—provided Miss Tanner was as competent as both Lord Greymoor and Greymoor’s cousin, Guinevere, Lady Amery, had claimed.
“One usually imbibes a drink, Miss Tanner.”
She sampled her brandy, her expression transforming from a pensive scowl to open wonder.
“What a lovely, lovely, business this is.”
Thomas added an intriguing streak of hedonism to Miss Tanner’s inventory of characteristics, because as she partook of the spirits, she closed her eyes and tipped her head back, as if to savor the heat sliding down her throat and warming her insides.
“You are a connoisseur?” Thomas asked, sipping his own drink. The blunt word was tippler, the vulgar word was drunk. Applied to a woman, those terms also implied a class of tragedy Thomas had observed all too often.
“My work requires I be out of doors in all kinds of weather,” Miss Tanner said. “The occasional medicinal indulgence does not go amiss.”
But in all the time Miss Tanner had assumed responsibility for running the estate, she hadn’t sampled the owner’s brandy even once.
The conundrum reared its head again. A lady decided whether a gentleman was to sit in her presence, but an employer was the one who made that offer to the employee.
Thomas’s saddle-weary arse made the decision for him. “Shall we sit, Miss Tanner?”
She took the center of the sofa, back straight, hands quietly holding her drink in her lap, as if she were enduring a social call and trying not to glance at the clock.
“You had questions, my lord?”
Have Chesterton and his like kept their hands off you? “How long have you lived on this property, Miss Tanner?”
“I have lived on this property since before Lord Greymoor purchased it almost ten years ago—he was Lord Andrew Alexander then. My father was steward here until about two years ago.”
Her grip on her drink had grown quite snug.
Best get the next part over with. “What happened to your father?”
“I do not know. He either left or met with foul play. Papa was ruinously fond of drink, but because his lapses were as infrequent as they were spectacular, Lord Greymoor tolerated him.”
Ruinously fond. Poetic of her.
This much, Thomas had already been told, but he suspected Mr. Tanner’s minor lapses had been covered up by his daughter, who’d apparently become her father’s right hand despite her gender.
“I cannot abide a drunk, Miss Tanner. Particularly not in a position of responsibility.”
Thomas’s guest raised her glass, as if examining the beauty of sunlight passing through brandy.
“I cannot abide a drunk in any capacity whatsoever, my lord.”
“We are in agreement then.” Thomas also could not bear to bully this woman regarding her father’s shortcomings when she’d tried so hard to atone for them. “How do you find Linden at present?”
Now she swirled her drink, a fortune teller divining her tea leaves.
“Improving,” she said at length. “Prospective buyers came down last autumn, and because they were astute, and members of Lord Greymoor’s family, they were able to inform him of certain changes needed to benefit the property.”
Again, she was being honest, if carefully so. Guinevere Hollister Allen, Lord Greymoor’s cousin, and a frighteningly competent woman, had come to look the property over with Douglas, Lord Amery, now her spouse. They had discovered Loris quietly performing the tasks of a steward in her father’s absence.
“Linden is improving, how?” Thomas asked.
“We’ve sold many of the sheep, which were grazing the place into oblivion. We’re looking at irrigation and drainage improvements, and have started on them in a modest way. We’ll ship the first loads of firewood this autumn, and the ledgers are certainly in better condition than they were.”
We have, we are, we shall. Miss Tanner spoke like a true steward, one who viewed a patch of ground as creating a community of the people who cared for it and depended on it.
“What changes remain to be made?” Thomas crossed to the decanter to top off his glass and gestured with the bottle to inquire if his steward would like more.
“No, thank you.” Her tone suggested drink mattered little when the land was under discussion. “What this property needs is time and people who care about it. For shearing and lambing and so forth, we’re using itinerant crews, as we do for planting and harvest. The local people still work some of the staff positions, but we’re short-handed, and those we do have aren’t as knowledgeable as they should be.”
Thomas suspected much of the “we” aspect of working Linden was in Miss Tanner’s mind—or her heart.
“Is the lack of staff a criticism, Miss Tanner?” Thomas resumed his seat, scooting his chair closer to the sofa. He wanted desperately to prop his feet up on the low table, and might have if his steward were male.
But his steward, or the closest employee he had to a steward, was female, and Thomas would not discommode her unnecessarily.
“Whom would I be criticizing, your lordship?”
“I don’t know you well enough to criticize or praise you, sir. What would I criticize you for?”
Oh, how Thomas longed to pull of his boots and put up his aching feet. “You might criticize me for purchasing a property without even seeing it? For buying land in a part of the country I’m unfamiliar with? For firing my stable manager without having a replacement to hand?”
“Chesterton is an ignorant bully. The horses hate him, and with good reason. He never speaks when he can yell, and he never passes up an opportunity to snap that infernal whip.”
Miss Tanner’s comment reminded Thomas—inappropriately, of course—of when the ladies at the Pleasure House had taken a patron into dislike. Their judgment, sometimes despite all appearances to the contrary, had invariably been sound.
“Who hired Chesterton?”
“One of Lord Greymoor’s factors,” Miss Tanner said, finally taking another sip of her damned drink. “If I were to criticize anybody, it would be my former employer, though he was ever a gentleman and never overtly negligent of his estate.”
“And yet, he fell short in your estimation. Honest of you to admit it,” Thomas remarked. The brandy spread a lassitude through him that revealed a pervasive fatigue. He was tired to the bone, and in need of a meal, a bath, and a clean bed, in that order.
“Lord Greymoor didn’t take this property seriously,” Miss Tanner said. “Oh, he liked to bring his Town cronies down for hunting in the autumn, or come around at planting to ride his horses over hill and dale, but he wasn’t—he did not love his own land. Papa said his lordship had nobody show him how to go on with the property, and his lordship was young.”
Though Miss Tanner was younger than Greymoor, she could apparently neither comprehend nor entirely forgive his lordship’s lack of attachment to the estate.
“You expect me to love Linden, Miss Tanner?”
She set her drink aside. “What I expect matters not one bit, does it?”
Her expectations had been all that had kept Linden together for nearly two years.
“A gentleman isn’t supposed to argue with a lady,” Thomas said, even though arguing with this lady would be a lively undertaking.
They lapsed into a silence Thomas felt stretching into a brood. All the while, his steward sat primly, six feet and a mysterious female universe away.
Thinking of the horse? Thomas rose and stretched a hand down to her. “Thank you for your time. We’ll talk more, I’m sure.”
Miss Tanner looked first at his hand, then up at his face, then down at his hand again before she seemed to grasp that he was offering to assist her to rise.
She stood, dropping his hand immediately. “Shall I fetch Mrs. Kitts to you?” she asked, moving toward the door. Miss Tanner loved the land, but she did not in the least love being interrogated by the landowner.
Lady or not, Thomas was her superior. “Miss Tanner, I haven’t yet excused you.”
She waved a hand. “A small oversight, your lordship. You mustn’t feel the need to stand on ceremony with me.”
Then she was gone, leaving Thomas to put his feet up in a bemused solitude that soothed after the peculiar developments of the day. To arrive to one’s own property—and he had sent notice ahead—and find nothing and no one to greet him, was a lowering comment on the state to which his life had arrived.
He appropriated a portion of his steward’s drink. What did he need with a welcoming committee, for pity’s sake?
A quiet tap on the door heralded the arrival of Mrs. Kitts, a round, graying little terrier of a woman who seemed to think if she smiled long and hard enough, Thomas might smile back.
“Shall I assemble your staff, Baron?”
Baron? Well, yes, Baron. Baron Sutcliffe.
“In twenty minutes, and I’ll take a tray in my rooms for supper, say around half eight.”
“Very good, my lord.” Mrs. Kitts bobbed with the enthusiasm of a female one-third her age. “Very good.”
She withdrew, apparently pleased with her assignment, with her new employer, with the state of life in general, while unease nagged at Thomas. Nobody could be that happy, not all the time, and if they were, they should have the decency not to show it.
He took the last of Miss Tanner’s drink to the French doors and gazed out over the fields and pastures lying between the manor and the home wood. Lord Greymoor and Lord Amery had both told him the home wood was far too large and poorly maintained. The benefit of this neglect was a quantity of deadfall, enough that Thomas would enjoy wood fires at his own hearth where and when he pleased, and he would also have income from selling the excess if he so chose in the short run.
Loris Tanner had pointed out the potential profit to be made, and Greymoor had given her leave to start harvesting the wood last winter. She’d also drafted the plans for the irrigation and drainage system, and she’d culled the flocks to manageable numbers.
All in all, she’d proven competent as an interim steward, but to Thomas’s expert eye, she was utterly inept as a woman.
Women did not interpose themselves between livestock and bullwhips. They did not march about in stifling heat as if on dispatch for Wellington. They did not accept offers of brandy in the afternoon, even on medicinal terms.
Women liked to dress up and be told they were pretty. They flirted, simpered, and manipulated, and were usually very charming with it. Women teared up prettily at the mention of distressing developments—their favorite hair ribbon going missing, for example—and they gazed at a fellow as if they might enjoy activities with him that weren’t mentioned in polite circles.
Loris Tanner had been raised by her father, a drunkard by her own account, who had dragged her from one rural estate to another. She’d never had the benefit of genteel associations, and that lack showed.
Thomas would have to do something about her. He wasn’t quite sure what, but doing something about Loris Tanner went onto his list of matters to be addressed—right at the top.
Thomas had long ago resigned himself to a life full of petty ironies and minor frustrations. Here he was, bone weary and much in need of slumber, but unable to sleep. He’d summoned Chesterton and dismissed him with two months’ wages and no character other than a letter verifying the period of employment and position held.
Chesterton’s gaze had narrowed on the epistle, though Thomas doubted the man could read. Thereafter had come—bless Mrs. Kitts and her staff—a bath, a good meal, and bed.
All a weary fellow could want on such a day, but sleep, fickle lady, would not join Thomas in the bed.
He tossed, he turned, and he tossed the other way. He mentally recited some of Caesar’s Gallic letters in the original Latin. He composed an epistle to his former employer, David Worthington, Viscount Fairly. Next, he made a stab at the Scottish royal succession from Kenneth MacAlpin down through the Jameses, none of which brought slumber closer.
So Thomas got out of bed, pulled on his breeches and shirt, and padded barefoot down to the library for another nip of the “lovely business.”
A niggling cocklebur of a thought intruded on the way to the decanter: Thomas had let his stable master go. A man of business knew that loose ends were the stuff of avoidable disaster, and Chesterton’s dismissal meant nobody was in charge of the stable.
Rupert was in the stable, as was Miss Tanner’s gelding.
Thomas used the flame from the sconce in the corridor to light a carrying candle and left through the French doors. Moonlight gilded the path to the stable, and the night breeze made the air nearly cool, a blessed change from the sweltering day.
Heat lightning flickered to the north, but the horses were calm, some munching hay, some dozing.
Seamus had curled up in the straw of his loose box, his gaze clear, the remains of a pile of hay near a hanging bucket. Somebody had brushed out the gelding’s coat so no trace of his earlier ordeal remained.
Beside the bucket, nestled on a horse blanket, Thomas’s steward lay curled into the corner.
A woman—a tired, badly dressed, inconveniently pretty woman—defended the Linden stable.
With plural pronouns, perhaps?
Thomas scooped Miss Tanner up, blanket and all, as gently as he could and cradled her against his chest. For her to share a bed with a horse was ill-advised, unsanitary, and a poor reflection on Linden’s owner.
Miss Tanner muttered, “Tired,” and, “soon.” Possibly, “Papa.”
The stable was one of Linden’s best features, lavishly commodious and sturdily constructed. It would do well enough for Miss Tanner as protection from the elements. Thomas deposited his burden on the pile of hay tossed down for the morning’s rations—he’d slept on worse and been grateful—though he’d likely not looked as fetching.
In the saddle room, he found a wool cooler used to keep a hot horse comfortable in the winter—clean, fortunately. He brought it back to the woman slumbering in the hay and hunkered down to tuck it around her.
“Seamus?” she murmured sleepily.
“Go to sleep, sweetheart. Seamus is well.”
She subsided into her dreams, leaving Thomas nothing more to do but slip from the barn and walk back to the house.
He scrubbed his dusty feet clean, finished a hefty nightcap, and tried once more for sleep, though something would, indeed, have to be done about Miss Tanner.
Linden’s new owner, His Most Exalted Imperial Handsomeness, Thomas Jennings, Baron Sutcliffe, had created a situation, and Loris did not intend that the situation be allowed to fester.
She strode into the barn at full daylight to find that somebody had forked the morning’s ration of hay into each stall, but otherwise, the lads were lounging about, enjoying an absence of supervision.
The stalls had not been mucked. The water buckets had not been scrubbed or refilled. A lead rope was coiled in the dirt, where any unsuspecting horse could tangle a hoof in it and come to grief. The riding horses at pasture overnight had not been brought in.
Loris planted herself in the center of the aisle, between the main doors and the group of idle men, and tugged off her straw hat.
“Good morning, gentlemen.”
Only the largest, referred to as Wee Nick, nodded before resuming his solitary effort to rake the barn aisle.
“Until Baron Sutcliffe finds a replacement for Mr. Chesterton,” Loris said, “I will direct your activities. I expect the stalls to be mucked and rebedded with fresh straw, the water buckets scrubbed and refilled, the riding horses brought in, and the harnesses, saddles, and bridles cleaned, if you please. Should you ask it of me, I will make specific assignments; otherwise, I’ll assume you can sort out who does what among yourselves. Any questions?”
A taut silence followed, during which Wee Nick quietly departed in the direction of the pastures. Loris slapped her straw hat back onto her head and turned to leave.
“I’ve a question,” one fellow called out. Anderson was the natural successor to Chesterton in terms of the stable hierarchy: lazy, mean, and insolent. “If we don’t hop to your commands, Miss Tanner, how will you make us, without Chesterton’s bullwhip?”
Loris nearly thanked Anderson, because a direct, public confrontation would settle matters most efficiently, and she had the perfect—
“Perhaps,” a deep voice drawled, “I’ll equip my steward with a whip.”
Sutcliffe strolled up the barn aisle, attired in snug breeches, spotless linen, gleaming boots, a silk waistcoat the same deep blue as his eyes, and a black riding jacket. The man had no business looking so well put together. He probably even smelled good, of flowers and spices and—
A memory tickled the back of Loris’s mind while His Baronial Handsomeness paused at the half door to his gelding’s stall.
“Dear me,” his lordship murmured. “No one has tended to Rupert’s housekeeping. How puzzling. The women responsible for the manor don’t need a bullwhip to inspire them to do an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay. My quarters were spotless.”
A telling point, easily made.
“Miss Tanner?” the baron called, scratching at Rupert’s withers with every appearance of casual affection.
“My lord?” Loris didn’t move, though she abruptly felt compelled to stand closer to his side.
“How many men should it take to keep this stable up to appropriate standards?”
“Five or six, if they’re hard workers, and we don’t have any difficulties with lameness or illness.”
The baron went on scratching his horse, to the gelding’s obvious delight.
“Miss Tanner, you must advise me as to which of these men are expendable. I cannot abide inefficiency. Perhaps we might discuss this while you ride out with me this morning, assuming you’re free to join me?”
Such manners, while Sutcliffe wielded his authority more tellingly than Chesterton had ever cracked a bullwhip.
“If you wish, my lord.”
“My thanks.” The baron swept the silent group with a glance that conveyed amused disdain. “In addition to your other duties, gentlemen, you will please saddle Rupert for Miss Tanner and a second horse for myself. Have the horses in the stable yard in twenty minutes, for I’d spare myself and Miss Tanner the worst of the day’s heat as we make our initial inspection of the land. Miss Tanner?”
The baron offered Loris his arm, and with the stable boys gawping at that spectacle, Loris took it.
She and his lordship perambulated in silence into the stable yard, as if no one were glaring daggers at their backs. The baron escorted Loris some distance along the front paddock, to a bench in the shade of a spreading oak.
“That was completely unnecessary, my lord.”
“Do not drop my arm,” he replied as they sauntered along, “nor by any gesture or expression shall you imply we are in less than complete charity with each other.”
“We are not in complete charity with each other, sir. You have destroyed any prayer I had of holding authority over that group of scoundrels.”
“I have established your authority,” the baron corrected her, pleasantly. “Which is more than you could have done on your own.”
And yet, somehow, Loris had managed Linden on her own for nearly two years.
“You shamed them,” she hissed, “comparing them to the housemaids. They’ll hate me the worse for it, the housemaids will put on airs, and nothing will be done as it should.”
Sutcliffe took out a handkerchief edged in lace the same shade of blue as his eyes, and batted at the bench, which was perfectly free of dust, dirt, and bird droppings.
“What would you have done if I hadn’t appeared, Miss Tanner? Lectured them into mucking out the stalls?”
“Withheld their blasted pay,” she retorted. “Tomorrow is their half-day, and they’re paid at midday. Any man who didn’t put in a full day’s work wouldn’t get his full pay, and I would have informed them of this fact had you not interrupted me.”
The batting about with the handkerchief went on until the bench was likely cleaner than Mrs. Kitts’s sideboards.
“That might have worked, Miss Tanner, but who would have done the work today?”
“Those who wanted to be paid,” Loris shot back. “Never threaten a pack of jackals with an empty gun, Baron. I would have stated to all that those who didn’t work to my standards would not be paid, and then left the men to sort it out.”
Sutcliffe folded his handkerchief into sixths and tucked it away. “Then you would have the two or three worthy ones covering up for the slackers.”
Oh, he was a quick study, and so early in the day. “They already do, and what care I about that, if the horses are tended to? The burden of enforcing discipline would then fall on the men doing the work, not directly on me.”
Sutcliffe gestured to the bench, and even that, a simple twirling of his wrist, was grace personified.
“Interesting approach, madam, but what if the few honest ones leave in disgust?”
Blast him for putting an elegant finger on Loris’s nagging worry. “They might, though today’s crisis would have been averted.”
“Or merely delayed to a less opportune moment. Will you need to change into a habit if you’re to ride this morning?”
“I will not.” Had his lordship switched topics to avert further argument? “Why put me up on your gelding? Rupert looks quite assured of his own importance.”
Like beast, like master.
The bench sat in the shade a little above the stable, and in the distance, several lads dumped wheelbarrows of soiled straw into the muck pit, horses were brought in and turned out, and water buckets emptied.
“Rupert will behave if I’m about, Miss Tanner. Please do have a seat.”
Loris was tired, more tired than usual even, given the time of year. She sank onto the bench, and Sutcliffe took his time settling in beside her. Did he put himself in such close proximity to her on purpose, or in the past two years, had she lost track of proper deportment between the genders?
“I’m hardly sitting in your lap, Miss Tanner.” Laughter lurked in his lordship’s blue eyes, daring Loris to leave him smirking on his bench in solitude.
She stayed right where she was and pretended to study the activity in the stable yard. “Why did you inform those men I’d be up on Rupert?”
His lordship laid his arm along the back of the bench, a gentleman completely at his perishing, fragrant leisure.
“I am intimately familiar with Rupert’s saddle and bridle, and with the horse himself. If the equipment has been sabotaged, if there’s a burr under the saddle, I will more easily perceive it than I would were your mount unfamiliar to me.”
This was worse than if he’d sought to challenge Loris’s authority. “You think they would try to hurt me?”
“I’m not willing to take that chance, in part because your safety is my responsibility, but also because such insubordination needs to be identified and eradicated immediately.”
E-rad-i-cated. Sutcliffe snapped off each syllable, like a ferret shaking a fat rat by its neck.
“You could eradicate everybody in that group but Wee Nick, old Jamie, and Beckman, and we’d be no worse off.” Loris skimmed her boot along grass overdue for rain. “Chesterton didn’t start his mischief yesterday until those three had taken the wagon into the village. They wouldn’t have stood for his nonsense.”
“Fear not. We’ll decide what to do with the dead wood among the lads, and they won’t plague you much longer. But a question, Miss Tanner.” The baron crossed his long, booted legs, not a care in the world. “Where do you dwell?”
“Dove Cottage.” Did he know she’d neglected to dwell there last night? “My house lies through the trees off the drive and is named for its gray color.”
That was all. Merely a lordly “ah,” and no explanation for the origin of the question or the significance of its answer. At some point in the night, Loris had apparently roused enough to leave Seamus’s stall and cuddle up on the morning’s ration of hay, where somebody had draped a clean wool cooler. She had no recollection of it, surely a sign of extreme fatigue.
For months, Loris had wished her father would come home. When that wish had proved fruitless, she’d wished Lord Greymoor might take a more active interest in his property. Then she’d learned Linden was for sale, and she’d wished the new owner would take the place in hand.
Loris thus found herself in an unenviable category of people: She’d got what she wished for at last, and could now regret this good fortune at her leisure.
Thomas forced himself to relax and enjoy the morning air, when he wanted to oblige his steward with the rousing set-to she craved.
Alas, the louts across the way would respect neither Miss Tanner nor Thomas for airing vocabulary at such an hour.
The day would soon be brutally hot, and Thomas had come to the stable thinking to give Rupert a chance to stretch his legs. The horse had brought him down from London, jogging through the countryside with unflagging energy. He should be subdued enough for Miss Tanner today, if perhaps a bit stiff from his night of confinement.
Miss Tanner looked fresh, composed, and tidy—certainly none the worse for dreaming away her night on a pile of hay. She’d brushed and plaited her hair, and donned another sturdy, nondescript dress. This morning, she wore a straw hat, wide-brimmed to protect her face from the sun, but as close as Thomas sat to her, he detected a sprinkling of freckles across her nose.
Also a hint of lemon about her person, lemon and something else, something edible—cinnamon or nutmeg. She’d turned to keep an eye on the stable yard, and Thomas’s gaze was drawn to the side of her neck. Her dark hair was swept back into some fancy variety of braid, but in the morning’s humidity, tendrils curled against the soft skin below her ear.
Would Miss Tanner enjoy being kissed there?
Surely, the heat had inspired that idle curiosity.
“The horses are ready,” Miss Tanner said, shooting to her feet.
Thomas rose more lazily and again offered her his arm.
“I detest this,” she muttered as they ambled back toward the stable yard. “Every time I take your arm, I feel you are informing the world I haven’t the physical strength or competence even to walk across level ground.”
“You are so prickly, Miss Tanner,” Thomas replied. “Does it not occur to you that strolling arm in arm is a harmless way for a gentleman and a lady to enjoy proximity to one another without offending convention?”
“Offending convention?” she snorted. “It offends me, sir, and if you’re showing me your manners for the sake of convention, we can dispense with further sacrifices of a similar nature.”
Lord Fairly would like her. Lady Fairly would adore Loris Tanner. “You find this courtesy offensive?” Thomas asked, making no move to withdraw his arm.
“Not the courtesy.”
“Then my person, perhaps?”
“Not your person, particularly, but the fiction that your assistance is required.”
Which implied she also took issue with Thomas’s person generally.
“If you should stumble, madam, would you prefer that I allow you to fall flat on your… face?”
Miss Tanner slipped her arm from his and marched over to Rupert, who waited by the ladies’ mounting block.
Thomas followed her to the horse’s side, one step behind. “Allow me to check the fit of his equipment, madam.”
Miss Tanner comprehended the import of a raised eyebrow, because she stepped aside as Thomas moved the saddle back all of one inch, refastened the girth, loosened and then tightened the noseband on the bridle, and gave Rupert a visual inspection.
The horse was no more reticent than the lady when matters were not to his liking, and he stood placidly in the building heat.
“Rupert awaits the pleasure of your company, Miss Tanner.”
Miss Tanner hopped up the steps of the mounting block and swung a leg over the horse’s back. Thomas realized only then that the horse was not wearing a side-saddle, and his steward was prepared to ride astride, abetted by some manner of divided skirt.
How indelicate, though riding astride was probably more comfortable over the long term than riding aside.
She gestured at a sizeable dapple-gray whose reins were held by an exceptionally large blond fellow.
“That gelding is Evan, your lordship. He’s a steady sort, and not the most enthusiastic about the faster paces.”
While Miss Tanner seemed to prefer life at a dead gallop. “We’ll get along,” Thomas said, swinging up and settling into the saddle. He took a minute to readjust the length of his stirrups, patted the horse, and nudged him firmly with his calves. Evan was apparently preoccupied with weighty matters known only to himself, because he stood stolidly despite Thomas’s suggestion that the time had come to move.
A single, solid whack with the crop on Evan’s broad hindquarters startled the horse into a trot, which earned him a pat on the neck, and had Rupert moving off in his wake.
They rode over the home farm, past two tenant farms, and back onto Linden land proper before Thomas noticed that his steward was smiling at him.
“You make Evan look like quite the blooded gentleman. He’ll be full of himself now, won’t you, Evan Alexander?”
“The horses acquire Greymoor’s surname?” Thomas asked, letting the gelding have a loose rein.
“Why not?” Miss Tanner replied, doing likewise with Rupert. “That would make you Rupert Jennings,” she informed her mount.
“Actually, it’s Sir Rupert Jennings, according to a very young lady I know. Has a pleasant ring to it. Do you like children, Miss Tanner?” Thomas asked, holding a branch back to allow her and Rupert to pass.
“I do, but not those kind of children.” She brought her horse to halt, and Thomas followed her gaze to a farm pond that lay through a break in the trees. The tranquility of the scene was broken by the laughter and yelling of a half dozen stark naked boys of various ages and sizes.
They took turns running the length of the dock, then hurtling into the water, bellowing encouragement and insults at each other all the while.
The pond would feel divine, even this early in the day.
“What’s wrong with that variety of children?” Thomas asked, as the smallest boy went sailing off the dock.
“They are boys. Noisy, trespassing little boys who should not be here unsupervised.”
To Miss Tanner the lack of supervision was apparently a worse transgression than the lack of clothing.
“The day will soon be stifling,” Thomas said, “and they are full of energy. A nice, cool pond makes for a perfect start to their morning.”
“They are children, Baron. They require supervision.”
“They swim like otters.” Would the woman argue whether the sun rose in the east? “The older ones look out for the younger ones.”
“Not always,” Miss Tanner muttered darkly, just as one of the largest boys careened off the dock, landing squarely on top of the little one who’d gone ahead of him.
“Timmie!” a third child screamed. “Our Timmie! He’s gone under! You’ve killed my brother!” Splashing, yelling, and general, wet pandemonium ensued.
“God’s riding boots. Wait here,” Thomas ordered, shrugging out of his jacket and tossing it to the lady. “I mean that. Please wait here.”
He cantered the horse to the edge of the pond, dismounted on the fly, yanked his boots off, and executed a slicing dive from the end of the dock. The whole sequence, from Timmie’s disappearance to the surface dive, took only a handful of seconds.
Timmie had sunk like a stone directly beneath the scene of the impact, and when Thomas broke the surface, he kept his right arm crooked around the child’s chin and swam for the dock. The other boys were still yelling and churning up a tempest, but one of them had the presence of mind to hoist himself onto the dock and reach down for Timmie.
Thomas heaved himself up as well and knelt over Timmie, who wasn’t moving, though he hadn’t been in the water long. Thomas picked the child up and tipped him so his head fell below his chest, but little water drained from his mouth or nose.
“Is he dead?” one of the boys asked. “Me mum will kill me if he’s dead.”
“Timmie’s mum will kill us all,” another pointed out ominously.
“She’ll kill me first,” the bigger boy said. “Mister?”
Thomas beheld a circle of wet, anxious little faces. “Timmie simply got his bell rung a bit too hard. I expect he’ll come coughing back to consciousness directly. Perhaps somebody could fetch his shirt?”
The boys, so casually naked around each other, exchanged glances suggesting they realized that their nudity was now displayed before a grown man, one who’d galloped out of nowhere to rescue Timmie—and the rest of them. They made a collective grab for their shirts, then returned to the dock.
“If someone could tether my horse,” Thomas said, “I’ll be spared a long walk to the manor.”
“You’re that baron fella,” the largest boy remarked. “Down from London, you are. Heard me da talking about you with Timmie’s da.”
“I’m that baron fellow,” Thomas admitted, just as Timmie began to cough and sputter. “Thomas, Baron Sutcliffe, gentlemen. Our friend is back among us.”
The largest boy tousled Timmie’s wet, wheat-blond hair. “You all right then, our Timmie?”
“What happened?” Timmie asked, expression dazed.
“You got your lights put out, my lad,” Thomas said. “Let’s get you into your shirt, lest these ruffians toss you back in the water to assist in your recovery.”
“He talks funny,” Timmie observed as Thomas pulled a shirt over the boy’s head.
“He’s the baron from up the manor,” the biggest boy explained. “He saved your life, Tims, when I jumped atop you and thumped you so hard.”
Timmie regarded Thomas owlishly. “May I please sit, Mr. Baron?”
“You may sit,” Thomas said, easing back to leave the child sitting unsupported on the dock, “but you must answer some questions.”
Tim fumbled with the sole button on his shirt, his manner befuddled. “Questions?”
Thomas went through a litany learned in many a lowly tavern. “What day is this?”
“How many fingers am I holding up?”
“Three. Is that ring gold?”
“Yes, with a sapphire inset. Who is your king?”
“Good King George, though he’s mad as a March hare, and me da says the fat Regent is spending us into the poor house.”
“Whose land are you on?”
“Where does your mama think you are?”
Timmie eyed another boy who resembled him in every particular.
“We took our da his lunch at the mill,” the boy said. “He forgot it when he left this morning.”
“And the rest of you gentlemen?”
Two should have been bringing a plow horse back from the farriers’, the other two were at loose ends, their mother being confined in anticipation of the arrival of their eighth sibling.
Thomas sat crossed-legged on the dock, wondering how long his steward would remain concealed in the trees. Six little boys imitated his posture.
“Now look, you lot. You could have had a tragedy here this morning, if Tim had remained in the water and unconscious. You need to bring an older boy along, a strong swimmer, and you need to let your parents know what you’re about.”
“My ma won’t never let me swim,” one of the smaller boys groused. “My brothers wouldn’t come ’cause they say I’m too little to play with.”
“Tell your father, then,” Thomas suggested, “who I am sure swam in this very pond when he was a lad. Your brothers are missing out on the pleasure of a fine, cool swim, and the pleasure of spending time the other older boys.”
The largest lad shook his head. “They can’t give us permission, our papas,” he said, “because they don’t have permission from you. The earl, that Greybeard fellow, he was never here, so nobody cared. But you’re here.”
The situation in a nutshell. “I am here. I intend to live here for the foreseeable future.”
Glances were exchanged all around, assuring Thomas a place on the evening’s gossip agenda in every home in the village.
“That other fellow,” Timmie said, plucking at his damp shirt front. “Greybottom, he wasn’t hardly ever to home.”
“That’s why the earl sold the land to me.” What were these children trying to say?
“Me da,” Timmie replied, scowling at his wrinkled fingers, “he said we’d have to go to Manchester for work if the new owner of Linden weren’t to home any more often than the old. He said the earl ran a bunch of bloody, bleatin’ sheep for quick money to spend up to Londontown.”
Thomas sat among the boys on the dock and recalled Loris Tanner’s judgment of Lord Greymoor: The earl had been an absentee owner who either hadn’t taken the land seriously, or simply hadn’t known how to take the land seriously.
Thomas was similarly ignorant, but he was willing to learn, if Miss Tanner were willing to instruct him.
“We’ve sold a good many of the sheep. They were hard on the land.” We being Thomas and his steward, apparently.
Timmie nodded, not looking half so confused. “That’s good. I’ll tell me da.”
Thomas rose, bringing the boys to their feet as well. “Tell him where you went swimming, but try to have a word with him when your mother won’t overhear. You don’t want to worry her.”
“She’ll worry me with a birching,” Timmie muttered, to the hearty agreement of his confreres. “Has a fearsome arm, does Ma.”
“I’ll be off then, lads, but don’t come here again without one of the older boys, if you please.”
Thomas left amid choruses of “no, guv,” and “never, yer worship.”
Evan had been tied to a bush, which the horse was ingesting with remarkable dispatch for one so lazy. Not until Thomas had gathered up his boots and led the horse back through the trees did he consider the difficulty—the impossibility, rather—of riding home barefoot and sopping wet.
Even sopping wet, with his boots in hand, his lordship looked perfectly at his ease.
“I’ve allowed the drama of the moment to leave me with a problem, Miss Tanner.”
“Sir?” Loris knew good and well what his problem was: Soaked to the skin, he’d ruin a perfectly good saddle if he rode all the way home, and because he couldn’t put boots on over wet breeches, his other option was to walk the distance barefoot.
Her problem was that, attired in his London finery when dry, Thomas Jennings, Baron Sutcliffe, was an imposing figure. After a thorough dunking, his fine linen shirt clung to his muscled chest, his summer-weight breeches hugged his lower half, and—oh, drat him to Hades—his naughty smile said he knew his attributes were disconcertingly obvious.
Loris was blushing. She knew it, he knew it, and he was enjoying her distress—she knew that most of all.
“What shall I do with my wet self, Miss Tanner? I value good equipment as much as the next man, and somebody paid considerable coin for that saddle.”
“I can carry your saddle if you ride bareback, or we can leave the saddle here under a convenient bush.”
Sutcliffe’s nonplussed expression gratified Loris inordinately—though fleetingly.
“Bareback is not particularly comfortable, Miss Tanner, less so when one’s clothing is damp. I’m not about to leave a valuable saddle behind to tempt the youth of Sussex.”
His lordship expected her to solve his problem—doubtless a test of some sort.
“I can ride back to the manor and retrieve dry clothes for you, sir.”
He ran a hand down Rupert’s glossy neck. “Rather a long way, and a long time to leave me here with nobody but Evan to entertain me.”
The baron casually undid his neck cloth and waistcoat, then drew his wet shirt over his head and wrung it out. Loris turned Rupert so the baron’s nudity wasn’t in her direct line of sight.
Though she had peeked, and she did not care if he knew that.
Gracious days, Sutcliffe was breathtaking. Town life apparently left a fellow with sculpted muscles rippling around his frame in the most peculiar fashion. His chest, his arms, his abdomen… ye gods. As the baron squeezed sections of wet linen, his biceps had bunched and his stomach muscles…
“Miss Tanner?” From the corner of her eye, she watched as the baron went on wringing out his shirt. “I haven’t all day to discuss hypotheticals while I broil in the sun. How do you propose to get me home?”
“You could stay here all day, and eventually, as hot as it is, you will dry off.” While Loris would soon expire of mortification.
“That course will not do,” he said, giving his shirt a final, muscular twist. “I have matters to attend to, and idleness is not in my nature.” He stalked around into her line of sight, his boots and waistcoat in one hand, his shirt and cravat slung over one shoulder, Evan’s reins in the other hand.
Loris closed her eyes and bowed to a fate she had probably earned with all those prayers for an estate owner who’d take a personal interest in the property.
“You can ride up behind me.”
“Brilliant idea,” the baron replied, sauntering over to Rupert with a smile that boded ill for somebody. “Fold up the saddle pad to protect the cantle, and I’ll lash my boots and clothing behind Evan’s saddle.”
While he used his cravat for that purpose, Loris did as he instructed and took Evan’s reins so the baron could ride behind her. Even with her leaning forward over Rupert’s neck, getting the baron mounted was an awkward business. The worst moment was when he swung up, and his chest fairly pushed Loris down along the horse’s crest, so she was covered by him, the way a stallion—
God’s riding boots, indeed.
Then his lordship was mounted behind her.
“I’ll steer,” the baron said, settling his bare hands over her gloved ones. “If you’ll pony Evan behind us.”
Loris nodded, carefully, because his lordship’s bare chest was snug against her back, and she didn’t want to hit his nose with her head. She relinquished Rupert’s reins in exchange for Evan’s, and became so much cargo, the baron in control of their mount.
“Rupert can’t be very comfortable,” the baron remarked as the horse ambled off, “having you crouched over his neck like that.”
Loris eased more upright. “You are wet, and I prefer to remain dry. If you’re willing, we can stop at my cottage, which is closer than the manor. My father’s clothing should fit you.”
“That will serve.”
“Must you speak in my ear?”
“Must your ear be so handily located near my lips?”
Loris retreated into silence, a long silence, because the horse, though easily seventeen hands, was carrying double and thus kept to the walk by his master.
“So tell me about my employees in the stable,” the baron said after they’d bumped along dusty lanes and past fields badly in need of rain. “I assume the blond giant is your Wee Nick?”
“Not my Wee Nick. Nicholas is very much his own man. I suspect he’s had to be, with how Chesterton and the others treat him.”
“Wee Nick is treated differently? How?”
This interrogation was another blessing resulting from Loris’s wish for Linden to have an involved owner, and yet, the question was reasonable.
“For one thing, Nick is treated as if strength is his only attribute. He makes lovely birdhouses, beautiful, whimsical creations I’d adore were I a bird. Around the barn, he’s expected to handle the heaviest jobs, and to do so uncomplainingly. He’s expected to be good-natured about constant teasing; he’s generally regarded as not too bright when in fact, he’s simply quiet.”
“How long has he worked here?” the baron asked, turning Rupert along a field lush with clover despite the ongoing lack of rain.
“Nick and Beckman showed up shortly after my father left and have been here since. Few remain who’ve worked at Linden for most of their lives.”
“The boys at the pond conveyed the sense I’m on probation with the locals. They weren’t impressed with Greymoor’s absentee style, and I’m expected to be a similar disappointment.”
Ever so gradually, while they talked, Loris relaxed. Rupert had a steady, smooth walk, even carrying double, and the morning sun dried his lordship off at least above the waist.
“Greymoor was at heart a good man,” Loris said. “He didn’t put on airs, and he was scrupulous about paying the trades, but he relied entirely on Papa’s guidance when it came to managing Linden. His lordship’s brother was here more than Lord Greymoor was the last few years.”
“I believe the earl was traveling on the Continent prior to coming into his title.”
“I didn’t mind his lordship traveling one bit.”
“Because then your papa was more able to indulge his vices?” Sutcliffe suggested.
This again. Always this. “No, Baron.” Loris did not clench her teeth, and she did not drive her elbow back into her employer’s ribs. “Not because my father was less accountable in the earl’s absence, but rather, because when Greymoor was gone, the earl’s titled friends did not impose on his hospitality down here, and make mischief to their wealthy, irresponsible hearts’ content.”
Behind her, the baron came subtly to attention. When he spoke, his voice was quiet and very close to her ear.
“Miss Tanner, did the earl’s friends bother you?”
The man hadn’t been born who wasn’t at least occasionally a bother. “I learned to avoid them, and I suspect his lordship instructed them to leave me in peace. Then the earl went abroad, and his friends were no longer a problem.”
The baron guided Rupert into the orchard that ran behind the home wood. “Miss Tanner, do you know how to disarm a man who seeks to do you mischief?”
“I know to use my knee,” Loris said, coloring at the topic.
“If a man places his hands around your throat, thus,”—Sutcliffe dropped the reins on Rupert’s mane and circled her neck with his hands—“what defense have you?”
“Is there one?” The baron’s hands were dry and warm. The sensation of his touch on Loris’s neck was both foreign and fascinating.
“You take my smallest finger on each hand,” he instructed, “like that, and you yank it back and away from my own hand. I will be forced to ease my grip.”
Loris peeled his hands away from her neck.
“Is there more I should know?” Because all too often, this kind of common-sense information would have been useful, and yet Loris’s own father hadn’t apprised her of it.
“Of course,” Sutcliffe replied, taking up the reins again. “The first thing you do when threatened by a man is scream bloody murder. Most men can’t perpetrate certain kinds of mischief if an audience is likely to come pounding around the corner. And use your legs—your legs are stronger than your arms. Kick, jab, flail, and aim for his most vulnerable parts when you do.”
“Use your sharp joints—the elbow in the ribs, the knuckle in the eye, your fingernails across his throat,” the baron went on. “Use your dead weight. If he’s got you about the waist, tromp on his foot hard, then sag your entire weight without warning, and throw him off balance.”
Sutcliffe’s voice held a banked force, as if the topic were more than theoretical to him, and yet he was a man—a large, magnificently fit man.
Loris twisted in the saddle to peer at him. “How is it you know of these maneuvers?”
“As Lord Fairly’s factor, I traveled extensively and ended up in interesting situations from time to time. I’ve also had responsibility for females who found themselves in difficult circumstances with unruly men. The ladies needed to be forearmed.”
“Did they carry weapons?” Loris asked as the orchard gave way to the wood itself. When would a lady find herself in difficult circumstances with unruly men—unless she was a makeshift land steward, and the absentee owner’s stable had fallen into the hands of ruffians?
“Some of the ladies carried weapons,” the baron said.
In the shade of the old woods, the temperature was cooler. Loris resisted the lure of his lordship’s heat—barely.
“The ladies preferred knives,” he went on, as if discussing the merits of embroidery over cut work. “From my perspective, most men can overpower a woman sufficiently to wrest a knife from her, and then she’s enraged her attacker and armed him as well.”
Sutcliffe had argued with somebody repeatedly over the wisdom of arming women with knives. Loris thought back to his punctilious escort of her that morning.
“What exactly did these women do that put them in such situations?”
Rupert walked along, twigs snapping beneath the weight of his iron shod hooves. A squirrel scolded from above, and a late blooming patch of wild lilies added a splash of orange to the greenery all around.
Did the baron see the beauty he owned? Did he note that the lilies bloomed later here than in the sunnier locations?
“The women I knew were prostitutes, Miss Tanner. My employer owned a brothel, among many other enterprises. I occasionally managed that establishment for him.”
Gracious flowering gardens. What did one say? “I see.”
Loris remained silent for long moments, while the baron steered the horse along a wagon track that cut across the wood. Sunlight beamed onto the grassy lane through the dense canopy, creating a sense of time having slowed in the quiet of the summer morning.
“What do you see, Miss Tanner?”
The baron would have been fiercely protective of those women. Loris knew this now, but wasn’t sure how she felt about it.
“May we please change the subject?”
“This wood is lovely,” he said. “Such a shame to disturb it to harvest the deadfall.”
Sutcliffe was being considerate. Loris wished she might study his face and tell from his eyes whether he’d accommodated her for her sake or his own.
“Greymoor never even rode through here before approving my plan to sell firewood. I don’t think he could have borne to see this place disturbed if he had.”
“If you didn’t want to disturb the wood, then why did you make the proposal?”
The baron was astute. Loris respected this about him, though his intellect wasn’t always convenient.
“I liked Lord Amery,” she said, “the fellow who came to look at Linden last autumn, and his cousin. They would not have allowed a bunch of rackety fribbles from London onto the property for weeks of drinking and carousing.”
This time, Rupert cut a path right through a patch of lilies, several of the blooms coming to a swift end as a result.
“So you were trying to impress Lord Amery with the profit to be made?” Sutcliffe asked.
“I was. He was kind to me, and struck me as a man worthy of trust.”
“If Douglas Allen cannot be trusted,” Sutcliffe replied, “then Judgment Day has come. He’s about the most sober, responsible, boring fellow you will ever meet.”
Boring was no price at all to pay for kindness and trustworthiness, and Amery’s lady hadn’t found him boring in the least.
“You know Lord Amery, then?” Loris asked.
“I know him fairly well, because that employer I mentioned earlier, Lord Fairly, regards Lord Amery as a close friend. They were brothers-in-law at one point, and they still have some complicated family connection through Fairly’s sisters.”
“How is it a man you describe as boringly proper is friends with a man who owns a brothel?”
“Men are like that. We don’t make sense.”
Must he sound so proud of that shortcoming? “An eternal verity, to be sure, my lord. Take the right fork up here,” Loris said at a divergence of the path. “The trail winds up at my cottage, and this way, you will not be seen in your damp glory by one and all.”
“Protecting my modesty, Miss Tanner? Bend down,” he directed as they approached a sapling hanging low over the path.
“Protecting my own,” she shot back, leaning over Rupert’s neck. Behind her, the baron bent forward as well, so Loris’s was momentarily pressed against his lordship’s naked chest.
“Perhaps I should walk,” she said when they straightened, “or you should ride Evan from here.” Lest she expire from the baron’s proximity before she reached the safety of her cottage.
“We’re almost there, and whatever damage I’ve done to your cantle and Rupert’s back won’t be remedied by switching horses at this point. Down again.” Sutcliffe didn’t wait for Loris to bend, but nudged her forward, his chest to her back.
Fortunately, the trees were thinning, and soon Rupert toddled around a small pond at the foot of Loris’s grassy yard.
The baron drew his gelding to a halt right at the back porch of Loris’s dwelling, a tidy cottage that sat in the middle of a clearing. Blooms spilled from hanging baskets and half barrels, from beds and borders and window boxes. His lordship would probably think them frivolous and a waste of seed and soil.
Though Loris loved her flowers, and made more than pin money from them in a good year.
His lordship slid off the horse’s back end, right over the beast’s tail, then reached up for Loris.
“I’ll wait out here with the horses, my lord.”
“Off you go. You’ve been on that horse all morning. You might as well stretch your legs while I attend to my wardrobe.”
Sutcliffe tugged Loris from the saddle, and she found herself standing beside Rupert, the baron’s hands still on her waist.
And, heaven have mercy, all Loris wanted to do was close her eyes and feel the warm bulk of his lordship’s muscles under her fingers. Thank God she still had her riding gloves on.
The baron stepped back and hung his damp shirt, waistcoat, and cravat over the porch railing.
“My father’s clothes are in the trunk at the foot of his bed,” Loris said. “You’ll find wash water in my bedroom, and you may use my combs and brushes as well.”
Sutcliffe bowed. “My thanks.”
The gesture should have been ridiculous when he was clad only in damp breeches, but when he turned to go, Loris was too mesmerized by the sight of those breeches clinging intimately to the baron’s fundament.
On babies, buttocks were cute. On horses, they could be muscular and impressive. On grown men, Loris had somehow failed to note they existed. But the baron’s muscled flanks were a sight to behold.
For, oh ye trumpeting cherubs, his lordship was not wearing underlinen.
“You followed Chesterton into Haybrick?” Nick asked Beckman.
Beckman paused, a load of dirty straw in the barrow before him. Inside the barn, the air was close, but outside in the stable yard, the temperature would already be stifling.
“I followed him to the Cock and Bull,” Beckman said, taking out a flask and tipping it up. “I tarried with my pint long enough to hear Chesterton railing against the injustice of his fate. He took a room at the inn, and was in the company of Anderson and a couple of the other disaffected stable lads when I left.”
They hardly qualified as stable lads. Most of the crew Chesterton had hired had been little more than incompetent, and Nick was glad to see them go.
As were the horses, no doubt.
Nick had not been glad to see Loris Tanner ride off in the company of Baron Sutcliffe.
“Did any of the grooms mention quitting?” Nick asked.
“Yes,” Beckman said, tucking his flask away and mopping at his brow with a frayed linen handkerchief. “They grumbled about barons who came strutting down from London, and about the daughter of a steward who needed to learn her place. I had the sense talk was mostly for my benefit.”
Mostly, but not entirely. Nick did not need this complication now, and neither did Loris Tanner.
“Sutcliffe seems like a reasonable sort,” Nick said. “I don’t think he’d blame the loss of a half a stable crew on Miss Tanner.”
Beckman stuffed his handkerchief in his pocket. “I’d rather they did quit, Nick. The next man I see mishandle a horse will meet the business end of my fists.”
The heat was making everybody irritable, though Beckman wasn’t simply expressing his temper. He was protective toward those who could not defend themselves, and Nick was painfully familiar with the same impulse.
“Where do you think Miss Tanner and the baron have got off to?” Nick asked.
Beckman hefted the barrow. “It’s too hot for Sutcliffe to get any wayward notions, Nick. By the time you finish raking the aisle, she’ll come trotting up the lane, a tired, befuddled baron trotting after her. For two years, most of the fellows working this estate have worn that expression, and for two years the estate has run more or less well.”
On that observation, Beckman took the dirty straw out to the muck pit, leaving Nick to finish raking the aisle.
By the time he was done, even the barn was becoming as hot as a Dutch oven, and still, Miss Tanner and the baron were nowhere to be seen.
Loris ran up Rupert’s stirrups, loosened his girth, and took his bridle off, doing the same for Evan so they could graze in her back yard. She cast around for something else to do, something to prevent her from dwelling on the damp, impressive baron in her house—likely naked in her house.
He’d be inspecting her personal dwelling, handling her things, and knowing him, he’d make his assessments without bothering to dress first.
Loris grabbed a watering can, filled it at the pump, gave the pansies an extra drink, then busied herself pulling off dead blooms. To remove the spent blossoms and gently untangle the plants soothed her, like currying a horse or brushing a child’s hair. Tending her garden was usually an activity for the cool of the evening, a time for solitude and winding down from the day’s exertions.
“I see you’ve decided to trust Rupert,” the baron said, as he came down the stairs in stockinged feet. He retrieved his boots from the bottom step and sat to tug them on.
“Have I grown an extra nose?” he asked, standing.
“Those are my father’s clothes.” They had never looked like that on Micah Tanner.
“He liked a well made garment, though I gather he wasn’t quite as tall as I am.” Sutcliffe shrugged into his riding jacket. “Do you miss your father?”
Loris took up Evan’s bridle and slipped it onto the gelding, who didn’t regard a bit as a reason to stop chewing the grass in his mouth.
“For so long,” Loris said, “since I was a girl, I felt responsible for my father, as if my reason for living were to look after him and take care of him. I do miss him—he had a keen sense of humor and never forgot a detail of agricultural science.”
Loris was also relieved that her father had taken himself off. She tightened the horse’s girth and ran the stirrups down the leathers rather than voice such a disloyal, bewildering sentiment.
Her father had never forgotten anything when sober.
The baron said nothing, likely busy with his own stirrups and girth.
“My father was like most of us,” Loris went on. “A mixture of the admirable and the exasperating, and preoccupied with his own concerns. You note that Papa’s taste in clothing was refined. So was his taste in almost everything. He’d do without rather than tolerate goods of merely average quality. He was given to dramatics, which was tiresome for a person not given to dramatics, and who managed the best she could on a modest budget.”
“That’s honest,” Sutcliffe said, coming to stand beside Evan. “Up you go.”
Loris cocked up her left leg at the knee, allowing the baron to grasp her booted ankle. He one, two, three’d her into the saddle.
“What do you think happened to your father?” Sutcliffe asked as he climbed aboard Evan and took up the reins. His wet clothes remained draped over Loris’s porch railing, large, startlingly white, and best ignored.
Loris ought to have resented the baron’s question; instead, having somebody to talk with about Papa’s absence was another relief.
“I honestly do not know what has become of Papa. He could behave himself for months, but then, when he’d drink spirits, he’d binge to the point he could not recall what he had done, where he had been, or with whom. In that condition, he could have been picked up by a press gang.”
“Last I heard,”—the baron nudged his horse into a walk—“few press gangs lurked in the wilds of Sussex.”
“He could well be dead.” Loris suspected the baron had been thinking this, and was too much of a gentleman—too kind—to be so blunt.
“How will you spend the rest of your day, Miss Tanner?”
Another abrupt, welcome change in subject, courtesy of his lordship.
“I will look in on the stable, and make sure Chesterton’s effects are delivered to the Cock and Bull. I’ll send Wee Nick for that, because I’ll want a receipt from the man, and Nick can read. We should also bring in Penny from the mare’s pasture.”
“Who is Penny, and why is she to give up her grass?” the baron asked as they turned up the long driveway.
“She is another of Greymoor’s rescues,” Loris said. “His lordship had a soft spot for damsels in distress. Penny is a draft mare plowed to permanent lameness. Greymoor bought her to tend the yearlings, then decided she wasn’t sound enough to travel to his other properties, where he owns a stud farm. He bred her to Pettigrew’s stallion and hoped to produce a nice, large, placid riding horse.”
The baron’s eyebrows went up, as if women were to believe baby horses came prancing forth from the middle of fairy rings.
“What do we know of Pettigrew’s stud?”
Talk of assaults, fallen women, and a missing steward had not merited much of a reaction from Sutcliffe, but an unusual choice of brood mare had the baronial eyebrow arching heavenward.
“Pettigrew’s stud has good conformation but a sour disposition. I would be cross too, had I his life.”
“You don’t approve of Pettigrew’s husbandry?”
Odd word choice. The horses approached the front paddock, and again, Sutcliffe arranged his mount so Loris and Rupert had the best of the shade.
“Squire Pettigrew died some years ago,” Loris said. “His widow stands the stallion, and she isn’t a horsewoman. The beast is not exercised, not safely confined in a stud paddock, not allowed to consort with any other horses. It’s easy to see how he would become out of sorts, but she continues to keep him bored, isolated, and without meaningful work.”
Sutcliffe glanced over at Loris, as if the terms—bored, isolated, and without meaningful work—might have applied somewhere besides the horse.
“Stallions can be difficult,” Sutcliffe said, as they approached the stable.
A baron could be difficult, too. “A stallion will have a personality, my lord, but the stallion is the horse as God made him, and he’ll need companionship, a sense of purpose, and understanding. Not isolation and harsh handling.”
Old Jamie came out to take their horses and frowned without comment at the ring of dampness at the back of Rupert’s saddle.
“When you are done with your tasks here, Miss Tanner,” the baron said as he assisted her to dismount, “might you attend me in the library at the manor? We have much to discuss, and can reschedule our inspection of the remaining land.”
“As you wish, sir.”
He bowed and sauntered off, and the damned man probably knew full well Loris was watching his retreat.
“You want to get rid of me when we’ve been married only a handful of weeks?” David, Viscount Fairly, asked his wife.
In the privacy of their bed chamber, he could venture such an honest inquiry. Letty sat at her vanity, the picture of domestic innocence, though Fairly knew—and liked—that she watched him in her mirror.
“Sussex is not darkest Africa,” Letty said, setting aside her hair brush and rising to kiss her spouse. “Thomas has no one else to help him settle in, and he would never ask you to visit when we’re so newly wed.”
Thomas Jennings would never ask anybody for anything. Fairly knew himself to be cast in the same mold, and yet, he’d asked the madam of his brothel to marry him. Thank God, and a goodly complement of mutual regard—also mutual lust—she’d accepted.
“You are trying to muddle me,” Fairly said as Letty bit his earlobe.
“Am I succeeding?”
He led her to the bed, a lordly acreage of pillows, quilts, fragrant sheets, and wonderful memories.
“We must talk, Letty-love.” They had enjoyed many conversations in that bed, not always using words.
Letty turned so Fairly could undo her laces. With the neckline of her dress dipping low across her chemise, she undid his cravat and sleeve buttons. In a very short time, these marital courtesies had become routine, and yet, Fairly would never take them for granted.
Letty draped her dress and stays across a chair. Fairly’s shirt, waistcoat, and breeches soon joined the pile, and then—the morning was warm, after all—Letty’s chemise topped the lot, like icing on a sweet.
“Into bed,” Fairly said, smacking Letty’s bum. She’d made the mistake of telling him she liked a confidently playful application of his hand to her fundament, so Fairly was doomed to oblige her frequently.
Letty crawled across the bed to the side closest to the window. “You are going down to Sussex, David. For years, you had no one to rely on but Thomas, and he never once failed you.”
“Why can’t you come to Sussex with me? Amery took Gwen with him, and that turned out rather well.”
Fairly climbed onto the bed and took a moment simply to enjoy the breeze across his naked flesh, his wife’s hand in his, and the rock-solid sense that though they were newly wed, they’d already developed a foundation of honesty and respect.
“I could come to Sussex with you, but then I’d be the odd lady out, and you’d fret, and Thomas would fret, and that is not the point of the excursion.”
Fairly kissed his wife’s knuckles. The day was warm, so a lazy loving was called for, all soft kisses and sweet sighs. His cock stirred in anticipation, and Letty took him in her hand.
“I get the sense Thomas does not enjoy having a title,” she said, her fingers glossing over Fairly like the breeze across the pristine sheets. “Your hair is golden even here, reddish golden.”
“Thomas never wanted a title,” Fairly replied, though he’d soon be unable to form coherent sentences. He and Letty competed with each other to see who could pretend to ignore arousal the longest.
He invariably lost, but in the interests of giving a good account on behalf of new husbands throughout the realm, Fairly turned to his side and drew his hand down Letty’s midline.
“I forbid you to tickle me,” Letty said, arching into his caress. “How long has Thomas been a baron?”
“Two years, that I know of. His twin cousins killed each other in a duel, so the title represents a double tragedy to him. I don’t know as he has any other family, save a sister or a cousin or an aunt at the Sutcliffe family seat. I love to see the sunshine on your naked breasts.”
That was the last thing Fairly said for long minutes, besides, “please,” “now,” “damn it, Letty,” and “my love.”
Letty was dozing on his chest, the breeze cooling them gently as the day advanced, when Fairly bestirred himself to recall their earlier conversation.
“Do you really think I ought to look in on Thomas, Letty-love?”
“You’ll worry otherwise,” she said, running her tongue from his collarbone to his ear. “You must be presumptuous and lordly, Husband. Tell Thomas you’re making a visit. Don’t hint, don’t ask, don’t suggest. He’ll get the knack of baron-ing if you demonstrate some viscount-ing.”
“I rather prefer husband-ing and lover-ing.”
“I’m fond of your husband-ing and lover-ing, too, and because you are leaving for Sussex by the end of the week, perhaps you’d best bestow more of same upon me now, hmm?”
Fairly indulged his lady’s suggestion to the utmost, for the least he could do was make sure she missed the hell out of him when he went a-viscounting in the wilds of Sussex.