I think the bees have the right of it,” Mary Davies said as she grasped the top of the bee skep. “Hold a moment.” Miss Penelope Munroe held up a pierced metal can. “Let me spread a bit more smoke.” She whirled the smoking can around the hole at the bottom of the skep, before leaving a thick cloud around the cap. “What do bees have right?” she asked absently. “I read that study you gave me,” Mary said. “According to Monsieur Huber, the queen bee doesn’t marry. She flies away, meets up with her mates, collects what she needs, then comes back to rule the hive alone.” Penelope bit back a grin. She kept sending more smoke between them as Mary worked to remove the sticky bars and frames from the top of the skep. She handed over the new set and kept the smoke moving while it was installed. “Is that what you wish for, Mary?” Penelope asked as they loaded the honey-rich frame into a basket. “To rule your own hive?” “I’d like a hive—a place—all to myself, ’struth,” the girl sighed. Penelope nodded.
An only child herself, she occasionally suffered a pang of envy at the thought of siblings, but Mary was one of seven children, all squashed into a small cottage at the edge of the village. It was a downgrade in circumstance that occurred after the death of her father, a carpenter in Rockwell. None of her family had reconciled to the situation. “Is your mother pressing you to give an answer to Mr. Bell?” Carefully, she helped the girl replace the cap on the skep. “Yes,” answered Mary glumly. “Ever since Susan married her Georgie, there’s been naught to make Ma happy, ’cept the idea of marryin’ me off next. I don’t blame Susan,” she said with a sigh. “She’s happy as a pig in mud.” Leaving the open shelves that held their hives, the girls retreated to the small shed nearby.
Folding the long coats, they removed their veiled, straw hats and hung them away for the next time. “But I don’t want to marry John Bell, even though he does have a good position at the quarry and might make foreman one day.” She frowned. “I don’t want to marry anyone.” Penelope doused the embers in the smoke can and emptied the contents. She knew the girl was uncomfortable around most people and men in particular. So did Mary’s mother. But the odds of the girl turning down an eligible match when her family was in such straits were small. It was one reason why she had asked Mary to help with this project. Together, they had learned to coil straw and build the skeps, and how to use the frames in a separate, top chamber to collect honey without destroying the colony.
She’d asked the girl to clean and filter the honey, so that she could also allow her to sell the finished product. Wherever Mary ended up, Penelope wished her to have a bit of independence, and something of her own. “I just never met a fellow I wanted to snuggle and kiss the way Susan does with Georgie. And without all that, what’s marriage but more drudgery for a different taskmaster? And with no one to help lighten the load.” She sighed as they set out along the lane that would take them to her family’s cottage. Penelope had no answer. She knew she was in the generally enviable position of wanting for herself what her parents wanted for her. In broad terms, at least. In the specifics of it all, however, there were a good many differences. Her father, solid and comfortable in his position of a gentleman of the landed gentry, wished to give her a Season in London.
He wanted her to find a man of at least a similar situation, one who would adore and indulge her, as he did his own wife. If she found him in the ranks of the peerage, so much the better. Penelope’s mother, a noted eccentric, an avid student of botany and a botanical illustrator of some renown, wanted someone who would respect her daughter’s intellect and encourage her interest in the natural sciences. Highly doubtful that such a specimen could be found in the ton, she’d begun to invite scholars in her field for short visits, hoping to spark a match and pre-empt a trip to London. “Have you?” Mary’s question startled her. “Have I what?” “Found someone. You know, someone you . sparked with.” She had. Indeed, she had.
Mr. Barrett Sterne’s status as heir to a baron would please her father. His studies and scholarship would, perhaps, satisfy her mother. Oh, and there were sparks aplenty between them to make Mary happy. But there were so very many other things about him that set Penelope ablaze. His kindness. His conversation. The quick wit that never failed to delight her. The way his smile shone over his whole face and left tiny lines at the corners of his eyes. And the heat that burrowed beneath her skin when he gazed at her, so intensely focused.
“Miss Munroe!” Mary sounded scandalized. “You have!” “Don’t be silly.” Penelope waved a hand and took the heavy basket from the girl. “We must focus on what is important. Finding you steady customers for your honey comes first to mind. As does the idea of approaching Mr. Thomkins. I know the secrets of the honeyed mead he serves at his tavern have come down through the generations of his family, but surely they must include actual honey.” “Oh, I could never ask him to buy our honey!” “Nonsense. You aspire to run a honey business.
You must conquer your fear.” Mary still looked horrified. “Very well. Perhaps you could approach the new Mrs. Thomkins instead. She is new to the village and would likely be happy to make your acquaintance.” The girl shook her head. “She’s even more frightening than he! I heard her dressing down the butcher, with my own ears. She told him the price he charged for a side of bacon was criminal, and he’d be hanged for it back in Stonehouse, where she came from.” “She is likely just an inventive haggler.
” Penelope frowned. “And if that is the case, then perhaps I should approach her first.” She held the frown, thinking as they walked. “Perhaps I’ll take her a jar as a gift. I can extol the virtues of your honey and offer to ask you to give her a special price, should she choose to order from you.” “That is some sly thinking, Miss Munroe,” Mary said with admiration. “Sly? I don’t think so. This honey is lovely. The taste is improved by the bees’ exposure to all of my mother’s many herbs, and the variety of her flowers and shrubs. Mrs.
Thomkins will get a sample, along with a welcome to the neighborhood. If she wishes, she’ll get a good price on volume orders and you will get a fine opportunity for your fledgling enterprise.” She nodded with satisfaction. “Everyone gets what they want.” They’d reached the Davies family’s cottage. Mrs. Davies welcomed them back. “I need ye to get your sister cleaned up before you start on that.” She nodded toward the basket while she hitched a toddler onto her hip. “She’s been in the creek again.
” “Will you bring me a jar from the first batch, first, Mary?” Penelope requested. “Thank you,” she said when her friend returned. She held it up to the light. “It looks as lovely as it tastes. I do think, though, that I will take it home and add a bit of ribbon and lace, as the first jar is meant to be a present.” “Quite right, too,” Mrs. Davies nodded. “It’s only smart to dress something up, when you hope to move it. Which is why I want your best frock pressed and ready for church on Sunday,” she told Mary. “Mr.
Bell mustn’t see you as anything but neat and tidy.” “Yes, ma’am.” Mary’s shoulders drooped as she bid Penelope goodbye. Oh, dear. Penelope tried to smile as she made her farewells, but she highly doubted Mary would win this battle of wills. Nor did she believe the girl would be happy if she did. While she knew Mrs. Davies had her daughter’s best interests at heart, she also suspected the woman would not be at all pleasant to live with, if her plans were thwarted. Everyone gets what they want. It wasn’t possible for everyone.
Perhaps not for Mary. Perhaps not even for herself. Penelope thought she knew what she wanted. Her pulse quickened again at the thought of Mr. Barrett Sterne. She’d met him several weeks ago, during a house party at nearby Greystone Park, when Lady Tensford had been kind enough to invite her take part in some of the activities. Penelope had been fascinated at her first meeting with the gentleman, and her admiration, excitement and longing had only grown with each encounter. But Mr. Sterne had been struck and wounded at the ball on the last night of the party and she’d never had the chance to properly bid him goodbye. Now he was back, recovered, and according to Lady Tensford, raring to investigate the incident and the theft that happened along with it.
Penelope meant to offer him her assistance. First, because she felt a twinge of guilt at the thought that she might have distracted him that evening. And second, because she was determined that she would get a chance at what she wanted. She had a plan, and the first step was to see him again and make sure that what she wanted—was still him. Arriving home, she found her father in his study, with his ledgers spread out upon the desk before him. He looked briefly up at her greeting and waved a hand before bending to his numbers again. “You look terribly busy,” she said. “I am. Lammas is coming and with it the presentations of wheat. You know I like to have the books in order before even the cross-quarter days.
” “Let me help,” she offered. “You know I understand the system. It will go quicker with two of us working.” “No, no.” He waved her off again. “I don’t want to grow to depend on you, as you are aware. Not when it won’t last.” She sighed. “Yes, I am aware, Papa.” Her shoulders drooped a little as she closed the door.
She found her mother indulging in a cup of tea and obeyed the summons to join her. They spoke of her mother’s morning’s work and of the pile of correspondence she had ready for Penelope to file. “No one manages to keep me organized as you do, dearest.” “You taught me well. And it’s both soothing and efficient to stay organized.” “True.” Her mother nodded, but she could not hide a frown. “I know we must find you a scientist to marry, Penelope, but it does irritate me to think of you organizing someone else’s papers as well as you do mine. In any case, the filing would have been done by now, if you’d come when I first called. Where have you been?” “I told you my plans this morning, if you’ll remember.
I’ve been at the hives with Mary Davies.” “Oh, yes, I recall something of it, now.” She tilted her head. “Good heavens, are the two of you still at that project?” “Yes, Mama. And I mean for Mary to continue on with it, indefinitely. Even when I’m gone from home, she should continue.” “Must she? You know how I dislike having people about.” Penelope knew how little her mother liked anything that might disrupt her work. “Mary will never bother you, Mama. She won’t come to the house or even any closer than that far clearing.
It isn’t used for anything else and Papa only keeps fencing rails in the shed, there. Mary needs a bit of independence, poor girl.” She leaned forward to emphasize the killing blow. “And all of your plants are undoubtedly the better for having healthy, active hives about.” “Oh, very well.” Her mother stood. “I’ll be in the second greenhouse this afternoon. Those lilies are still not doing well.” Penelope filed the papers and went to her room. She sat and looked out over the lawns for a few moments, thinking.
She was going to have to take matters into her own hands. Resolute, she went downstairs in search of her mother’s maid. She must make Mary as steady as she could before she could fully address her own situation. She found the dresser in the servant’s hall and interrupted her stitching long enough to beg a scrap of fabric and ribbon to adorn the honey jar. Glancing at the sun, she decided she had enough time to make it to the village and back before dinner. She didn’t dally, but set out briskly, a small basket on her arm, with a few of cook’s currant scones tucked in for good measure. Normally, she would stop and enjoy the vista on the bridge just before the village, but today she hurried on. She was nearly across when she heard a grunt and saw a hand reach up and grasp the top of the stone railing. “Good heavens.” She held the basket close and stepped back as a man pulled himself up from the steep bank at the edge of the bridge.
Her heart pounded as he straightened up, facing away from her. He pulled down the edge of his familiar looking coat of blue superfine and her pulse raced. It sped up further when she noticed the breadth of his shoulders and the tawny head of hair. “Mr. Sterne?” she asked, gingerly. He spun in surprise and his face lit up. “Miss Munroe!” She stilled, held at attention by the look on his face. Hope flared in her chest. Had anyone ever looked so thoroughly delighted to see her? Pleasure shone in his smile. There was something else there, too.
Perhaps it was just an echo of her own happiness . and relief. “How good it is to see you again,” he said. “Yes. It is.” She sounded a little dazed even to herself, but she had wondered if she would feel the same, when she saw him again, or if her feelings for him had been a passing fancy. Staring into his dark gaze, feeling the warmth of his presence waking all of the quiet spaces inside of her, she had her answer. “That is, it’s good to see you, once more, as well, Mr. Sterne.” Seeking a moment to collect herself, she crossed to the railing.
Placing her basket on the broad edge, she glanced down the steep bank to the stream below. “Whatever were you doing down there?” “Tensford and I were on our way to the village. He needed to stop at a tenant’s home to make a delivery from the countess, but I wished to investigate.” He gestured upstream. “There. In the roots of those elms, on the edge of the bank. Do you see it? I thought it looked like a badger’s sett.” “It is a badger’s sett. I stop here to watch them, occasionally. But you should be careful.
They can be territorial.” “Very true. I should have known you might have noticed it.” He sounded approving of her interest. “I was careful,” he continued. “But I did wish to get a closer look. I found five entrances.” He pointed back into the woods. “Their compound reaches at least twentyfive feet into the embankment. I should think there must be several adults.
” He looked up at the foliage above them. “And perhaps cubs born in the spring.” Leaning with both hands on the stone, he peered toward the just-barely-visible hole in the bank. “I find them most interesting.” Very discreetly, she leaned toward him and inhaled. Her eyes closed. He smelled clean and masculine, of soap and earth and the tang of the plants he’d been scrabbling through. It was his own scent. He hadn’t been at Greystone Park long enough for the smell of Lady Tensford’s famous sachets to saturate his person and all of his clothes. “What is it that interests you so?” she asked, to keep him talking.
“Several things, but the most fascinating is how they live. They dwell together in family units, in compounds that are passed on to new generations, but they don’t appear to be social. They don’t cooperate, or forage together for food. There’s no evidence of hunting together or bringing back sustenance for brooding mates. They seem utterly . singular.” He pursed his lips. “They live both together, and alone.” “Goodness,” she said lightly. He stood so close she could see the sun turning each whiskery hair on his face to red.
But it was the ease with which he talked to her that held her captive. As if it were natural to share such thoughts. He’d been just the same at the house party and she’d found it . addictive. So much so, she’d sought him out every chance she got. Highly unusual behavior for her, but she’d found the easy, open nature of their conversations as much of a lure as his tall, broad form and classic good looks. “I had no notion I had so much in common with badgers.” He glanced over at her in surprise—and in complete sympathy. “Nor I.” Giving himself a little shake, he pushed away from the edge of the bridge.
“But you don’t have to worry, do you? Your solitude will not last. You are friends with Lady Glory. I hear that she and Keswick mean to return to this area after their bridal trip. You will find yourself much occupied then, I’m sure.” “I hope to find myself occupied much sooner.” Breathing deeply, she faced him. “Lady Tensford tells me that you have come back because you hope to track down the man who struck you that night at the ball and stole away Tensford’s fossil.” She straightened her spine. “I would offer my help.” He took a half step back.
“No. I . that is, thank you for your kind offer, but that won’t be necessary.” She reached for courage. “Mr. Sterne, I cannot help but feel partially responsible for what happened that evening. The timing . ” She swallowed. “Any way you piece it together, the villain, whoever he is, must have struck you just after I left you.”