Lady Letitia Parker walked unhurriedly along the narrow road bordering the fields, keeping to the shade cast by a line of old, large-canopied trees. She would rather put up with the pervasive afternoon heat than suffer the depressing gloom of the country house her father chose for their temporary home in Norfolk.
Wycombe Oaks was a ruin. No one had lived there in years, and the last resident had stripped it of everything that might make it a home. A hasty attempt to improve this sad situation while they stayed there only shed brighter light on the building’s progressing demise. The room she had been given had been haphazardly furnished with a collection of odd pieces, some looking as if they had come directly from the servants’ quarters. Faded wallpaper had peeled off in corners and hung in loose despondence below the ceiling. Windowpanes were opaque with dinge. The room portrayed quite accurately her life since it had fallen to pieces ten days ago.
Delayed five years, first by her mother’s death, then by her father’s prolonged stay in the West Indies, her first Season ended in disaster. Vicious and utterly nonsensical gossip had trampled everything in its way and left behind only mindless destruction. Nothing had prepared her for such savagery in the midst of the high society.
At first, the Season unfolded along the well-established path: the presentation to the Queen, the come-out ball, admirers swarming around her, and the betrothal arranged by her father. Naturally, her marriage was meant to give the Earl of Stanville an alliance he wanted. The man fitting that category turned out to be Viscount Darnley.
To the ton, Viscount Darnley epitomized the most eligible bachelor. Young, wealthy, and well connected, he was a suitor many only dreamed about and a high prize on the marriage mart she snatched without even trying. And yet, her heart did not stir for him once. Why would it? His always polite and stiffly proper demeanor bespoke the viscount’s desire to marry the Earl of Stanville’s fortune, not his daughter.
The familiar old pain, still cloaked in a piercing disappointment, returned together with the recollection of the once beloved face of Sir Walter Hasting. Walter had been her childhood friend. Her first love. And an excellent actor.
Letitia bit her lip and fingered the straps of the military knapsack slung over her shoulder. It had belonged to her brother before he fell in Egypt six years ago. The Stanville wealth, or at least its unentailed part, became her inheritance, but she valued it less than the old, stained knapsack she took with her everywhere.
“Oh, John,” she whispered. “How I miss you and Mama.”
She blinked rapidly and gazed at the intense blue of a mid-June sky.
When Viscount Darnley withdrew from the engagement after that silly business with Lord Ogilby, her father’s ire erupted like Vesuvius, spewing an unending fury and an ultimatum—instant marriage to another man of his choice, or transportation to Botany Bay. The threat was not idle. Her father’s business ventures seemed unlimited. She had once found at Fratton Hall a report from his man of business. It contained tallies from the slavers the Earl of Stanville owned and employed for the transport of convicts. As many died during the voyage to the antipodes as survived the journey. Terrified by this recollection, Letitia chose marriage in England over certain death on the high seas. At least she knew what to expect: a red-faced, obese squire who, for a proper portion of the Stanville fortune, would generously overlook the scandal attached to her name.
She forced away the thought of her impending nuptials. Today was her last afternoon as Lady Letitia Parker.
At the end of the wood, she turned left and followed the narrowing path that soon left the trees behind and meandered through a meadow. The fragrant heat sitting heavily atop the ripening grasses swallowed her almost instantly. Letitia pulled out a handkerchief and wiped the beads of moisture collecting under the bonnet’s rim.
This could be her last day of freedom to sketch outdoors. She still cherished the hope of having her own painting studio—a real studio, not a small easel tucked away in a poorly lit spare room. “A lady does not dirty her hands with an artisan’s work,” her father had shouted when he discovered what she had done with the sitting room off the yellow parlor during his absence. “A lady makes watercolors, and that’s all you’ll do!”
A few small oils she had painted during those three years of his absence, lucky to escape his punishing hand, now rested hidden among her clothes. She doubted the squire would let her have a studio in his house—which was probably as horrible as the squire himself—but she wasn’t ready to extinguish the feeble flame of hope just yet.
The path narrowed until Letitia could put only one foot in front of another, and disappeared altogether by the time she reached the bottom of a large outcropping. She had discovered the outcropping the day before and hoped it offered a good view of the village outlined on the horizon.
Within minutes, Letitia sat comfortably perched on a cliff at the top, the gently rolling fields stretched out below. With her back turned to her derelict temporary home, she relaxed against an old oak hugging the cliff with its gnarled roots. The view was indeed excellent and well worth the climb. She turned the page in her sketchbook when the sounds of rustling and of steps approaching behind her back sent a cold shiver of apprehension down her spine.
She turned abruptly just as a man appeared around the rock. He was tall, broad-shouldered, and, she estimated, about thirty. Dark curls framed his tanned face. He might be a gentleman if not for his scuffed riding boots and a worn-out coat that had definitely seen better days in the previous century. His gloves showed some use as well. His shirt, though snow-white, was undone at the throat and called attention to the shocking lack of neckcloth. She swallowed at the sight of his Adam’s apple. A true gentleman would not expose himself with such blatant disregard for decorum.
Despite fear gathering in the pit of her stomach, the irony of the situation did not escape her. Instead, it put her in a caustic frame of mind. She was alone with a complete stranger, but this time there wouldn’t be a scandal. There was no one around to see and report her reprehensible behavior. She could do anything she pleased, without consequences.
Worse, the stranger too could do anything he pleased, and without any consequences at all. Josepha, her maid and only friend, had been confined to the house by her father, and no footman hovered nearby to provide protection.
Letitia took a deep breath. Judging by the stranger’s looks, he spent a lot of time outdoors. He might be her father’s steward. Or, God forbid, a highwayman. She hoped he was the former rather than the latter, supporting her conclusion with the fact that they were far from any major highway. Unless he was fleeing prosecution… But he was not brandishing a pistol or a club and seemed in no hurry. Instead, a shadow of astonishment and displeasure passed over his features. It was gone by the time he took off his hat in a gesture of greeting.
“Forgive the intrusion. I did not expect to meet anyone here.” His voice had a pleasantly deep timbre.
“What are you doing on these rocks?” she demanded, glad that her sharp tone disguised the lingering fear.
“I could ask you the same question, miss,” the stranger rejoined. He glanced at the sketchbook in her lap and the pencils lying on top of the knapsack. “It seems I have my answer already.”
Letitia’s panic eased a little. He might not be as dangerous as she imagined. To be on the safe side, she held her ground.
“But why are you here?”
“To admire the view.” He leaned with his back against the same rock a few feet away from her and gazed toward the village clustered beyond the fields. The afternoon breeze played gently with his hair. “You do agree that it is spectacular, or else you wouldn’t be here drawing.”
“Do you live nearby?”
“Are you Lord Stanville’s steward, then?”
He turned toward her. His eyes were as dark as his hair. He let them roam over her face and figure in a leisurely yet bold examination, making her bristle inside at this uninvited forwardness.
“No,” he said. “And who are you? I do not recall seeing you in the village.”
Ah, so he was a mere tenant. Wouldn’t her father have a fit if he knew she was hobnobbing with a man from whom his steward collected rent?
“I have no reason to visit the village,” she said, wishing the stranger would go back to admiring the view instead of making her uneasy with his persistent gaze.
“You might enjoy it.” He finally turned away, this time focusing on the nasty ruin surrounded by a parkland gone wild. “Are you always this pleasant when conversing with others?”
“I am not used to being accosted by trespassing strangers. You are trespassing, my good man, on the Earl of Stanville’s property,” she informed him. “I advise you to remove yourself with utmost celerity.”
He only smiled at that. His words rang with a faint amusement when he said after a moment, “I hope to find you in better spirits when we meet again.”