Truly Beloved – Grace Burrowes

The lady stalking across the frozen garden had apparently passed from the brave phase of widowhood into the indomitable phase. Her unrelievedly black attire showed starkly against the winter-white landscape, and her brisk movements contrasted with the deep stillness surrounding her. Fabianus Haviland, Viscount Penweather, sensed the woman’s determination from her stride, her posture, the measured speed with which she covered the snowy ground. Instinct told him she’d been recently bereaved. This was not a dowager of long standing, but rather, a woman new to her grief and bent on besting it. “My sister comes to pay her weekly call,” Grey Dorning, Earl of Casriel, said, passing Fabianus a tot of brandy. “To your health.” “And yours,” Fabianus replied, silently toasting the lady’s fortitude as well. Some widows never reached the indomitable stage. They remained paralyzed for years by the shock of a spouse’s passing, becoming vague, faded creatures whom family worried over and resented by turns. Casriel took the place beside Fabianus at the window. “Lady Daisy has made it through the first three months of widowhood. My wife, who has reason to know, claims that’s the hardest part.” Fabianus took a sip of fine libation, savoring the mellow burn in his vitals. “Everyone grieves differently.

For some, the condolence calls are the greater difficulty. For others, the early days are the worst tribulation.” For still others, the occasional widower, for example, the real torment began when life was supposed to return to normal, which it could never, ever do. Casriel eyed him speculatively. “I forgot you once had something of a reputation.” Fabianus’s nickname in the less genteel clubs had been The Widow’s Revenge, and he —dimwitted cockerel—had found that a source of amusement. The whole business had started out innocently enough, with a few merry widows popping out at him from shadowed alcoves when he’d come down from university. His breeding organs had popped out of his breeches with equal regularity, and a pattern had formed. He’d soon learned that some widows sought to be pursued, some sought to be temporarily caught, some sought nothing more than affectionate friendship. The woman in the garden stopped at the fountain in the center of the formal parterres.

The month being February, any body of water would be covered with a sheet of ice. Her ladyship toed through the dusting of snow until she found a stout stick, which she jabbed at the interior of the fountain. “She’s breaking the ice for the birds and squirrels,” Casriel said. “My father taught me to do that. I’m not sure who taught Daisy. She’s considerably my junior, and while not exactly a stranger to me, she also married before the rest of us. I am now ordered by my countess to reacquaint myself with my younger sister. One hardly knows where to begin with such a fraught endeavor, but aided by my—” “My lord, excuse me.” Fabianus set down his drink. “Your garden has been invaded by a demon sprite, and I must notify my nursery staff.

” Fabianus had known dragging Pandora along on this trip was ill-advised, but then, leaving the child to wreak havoc in Hampshire would have been patently stupid. “My gracious,” Casriel said, peering at the scene in the garden and taking another sip of his drink. “Intrepid little thing.” Casriel could afford to see humor in the situation. He wasn’t responsible for the imp scampering around a snowy garden clad in nothing more than a pair of unlaced boots. Fabianus paused at Dorning Hall’s terrace entrance long enough to snatch his cloak before facing the frigid air. “Pandora Haviland, you will stop this nonsense at once.” He walked, he did not run, across the terrace. “For shame, child, to behave in such a manner.” Lady Daisy had tossed her stick away and left the fountain.

She’d also withdrawn a small white cloth bag from a pocket in her black skirts. Pandora veered right, down a path that would intersect with Lady Daisy’s. Fabianus did not favor sprinting after the girl, but neither could he allow her to cavort unclad in the bitter cold. “Pandora,” Lady Daisy called, shaking her little cloth bag. “Are the pirates after you?” Pandora changed course again, this time heading straight for Lady Daisy. “I’m a pirate,” the child bellowed. “I have escaped the Royal Navy!” What fool put such fancies into an already imaginative head, and why must those boots be unlaced? Visions of a little smashed nose, a scarred chin, chipped teeth, bloody knees, and endless tears filled Fabianus’s mind. He stalked after the child onto the path that led to the fountain, resisting with every footfall the urge to simply run Pandora to earth. A footman in Penweather livery and a nursemaid with her cap askew pelted onto the terrace and skidded to a halt at the top of the steps. “I have booty,” Lady Daisy announced, extracting some sort of sweet from the bag, tossing the treat into the air, and catching it in her mouth.

“Golden lemon drops, purloined from the Crown’s dockside warehouses. Who will steal my treasure in these dark, treacherous alleys?” The result of this speech was for Pandora to gleefully attempt to chase her ladyship, who at the opportune moment turned and snatched the child onto her hip. The widow was nimble and strong, for Pandora, at five years of age, was no sylph. “I have taken the fair princess captive,” Lady Daisy announced. “A beautiful maiden who will surely bring a fine ransom.” “Papa, pay the rancid!” Pandora called. “I want a lemon drop.” The child wanted a sound birching, but Fabianus could not bring himself to heed Nanny’s guidance in that regard. Pandora was so small, she had lost her mama, and she did try to be good, according to the nurserymaids and footmen. “Commodore Lord Penweather,” Lady Daisy called, “what shall I do with our prisoner?” Casriel had joined the gawkers on the terrace, and he still looked thoroughly entertained.

Clearly, his children, like every other child in England save Pandora, were the well-behaved sort. “She’s to be taken to the brig,” Fabianus retorted, approaching Lady Daisy. “You lot, make yourselves useful.” The pair on the terrace trotted down into the garden, while Fabianus draped his cloak around Pandora’s chubby form. “My lady, I do thank you, and I apologize for Pandora’s unruly behavior.” Lady Daisy managed to hold the child on her hip with one arm while arranging the cloak with her free hand. “I had gone too long without making the acquaintance of a fellow pirate,” she said, passing the girl to the footman, who bustled off toward the house. “Pleased to make your acquaintance, Lord Penweather. Casriel warned me you’d be visiting, but I thought you weren’t expected until tomorrow.” Fabianus bowed, though why was Casriel idling about on the terrace when he ought to be performing proper introductions? “Penweather, at your service, my lady.

The horses made better time down from Hampshire than expected.” Frozen roads had advantages over muddy roads. “Lady Daisy Fromm.” She tossed off a brisk curtsey and took Fabianus by the arm. “I hadn’t realized you had arrived, else I would not have intruded on my brother’s household. You and Casriel attended university together, if I recall correctly.” She was a small woman, particularly compared to Fabianus, but she was steering him, physically directing his steps to the terrace, and conversationally setting his feet on the path of small talk and pleasantries. She was also attractive, or as attractive as any fair-complected lady could be when wearing weeds. Her features were not exactly delicate—the chin firm, the nose a bit bold —but the whole was interesting and set off by a somewhat full mouth. What raised her appearance beyond mere prettiness, though, were her eyes.

Their color was an unusual lavender hue, which was remarkable in itself, and illuminated her countenance aesthetically. The directness of her gaze, though—un-widowlike, almost unladylike—turned that color to cool amethyst fire. “Your brother tells me you are recently bereaved, my lady,” Fabianus said as they ascended to the terrace. “My condolences on your loss.” She gazed out over the snowy garden at the crows now squawking and flapping at the fountain. “My thanks for your kind words, my lord. You are without a coat. Let’s get you inside, shall we?” Fabianus revised his earlier assessment of her as she escorted him back to the Dorning Hall library. She was not in the indomitable phase of widowhood. Lady Daisy was simply, absolutely, unto her soul, indomitable.

The intriguing question was, why had an earl’s pampered daughter had to develop that trait, much less raise it to a high art? And then another question popped into Fabianus’s head: Who had taught this lady to play pirates and to entrap escaped prisoners with a smile and a promise of lemon drops? LOSING A SPOUSE, even a spouse of middling qualities, was many blows all in one. Erickson DeQuervain Fromm had pitched from his horse while riding home on a frosty autumn night and had expired where he’d landed. The abruptness of his passing had been the first blow, leaving Daisy figuratively jumping at shadows. What great upheaval would life throw at her next? Was little Henry coming down with a lung fever? Would the Americans declare war on Britain again? If a youngish squire who’d practically been born in the saddle could end his life at a stile he’d jumped hundreds of times, then the king might abdicate and the sea rise up to inundate Britain. Finding Viscount Penweather in Casriel’s garden had thus set Daisy off on several mental flights. Had she forgotten what day it was? Immediately following Eric’s death, when the routine of going to market, making calls, and attending the church committee meetings had been taken from her, she’d become that disoriented. Her next fear was that Casriel had told her of company at the Hall other than Lord Penweather, and the entire conversation had slipped her mind. But no. Penweather had explained his presence, and more than that, he had offered the standard platitudes with a sort of dry dispatch that relieved Daisy of awkwardness. Then too, Penweather looked at her, not at her bonnet brim, not at the frogs of her black wool cloak, not at the winter-clad Dorsetshire hills in the distance.

His gaze was calm, and he sauntered along as if the wind were the fairest May zephyr rather than a biting February breeze. Were he younger and inclined to smile, he’d be attractive. Not handsome—his features were too severe for that—but striking. His dark hair was so far beyond unfashionably long as to be caught back in an oldfashioned queue. His eyes were a deep brown rather than the Norse blue so favored by Society. His nose was an aquiline lordly proboscis, and his mouth was nearly grim. Eric had had a winsome smile, and his sons had inherited that gift. Penweather’s voice, though, was all smooth fire and sweet honey. A voice like that was meant for reading naughty poems late at night, for whispering compliments no gentleman spoke to a lady in company. “You have my thanks too,” Penweather said, “for taking the fugitive in hand.

I keep expecting Pandora to settle down, but her behavior becomes only more outlandish.” His tone was one of long-suffering rather than censure. “She is your only child?” Daisy asked. “Yes, and you will doubtless think ill of me, but I shudder to contemplate what she’d get up to if she had a few comrades-in-arms. I employ three nursemaids, a nanny, and a rotation of footmen to keep peace in the nursery as it is.” He escorted Daisy up the steps, and then she was facing Casriel. He, despite being her oldest brother, one of her closest neighbors, and also Henry’s god-father, gazed at her left shoulder after a fleeting glance at her bonnet. Did he but know it, Daisy would gladly have begged off this weekly ordeal, except that she was determined to have some answers from him. “Daisy, I see you’ve made Lord Penweather’s acquaintance.” “His lordship’s and Miss Pandora’s.

What is amiss with your hospitality, Casriel, that the poor child went scampering into the elements like that?” Daisy had meant the question as a jest, but Casriel’s brows twitched down in consternation. Penweather kept his hand over Daisy’s where she’d rested her fingers on his forearm, or Daisy would have simply ducked into the house and declared herself in need of a few minutes’ privacy in a guest room. The gentlemen would assume she was tidying her hair, while she would in fact be calming her temper. “Lord Casriel could offer blandishments without number,” Penweather said, “herds of stuffed animals, fairytale books without limit, and Pandora would still get up to mischief. I vow she is a changeling.” “Perhaps she is bored,” Daisy said, which caused Casriel’s brows to rise. “A pet might help.” Penweather’s gaze went to the windows on the third floor. “She regularly tosses her stuffed elephants out the window. One does not trust her deportment with a hapless pet.

” Daisy had lately felt like pitching all manner of valuable objects out the window. Eric’s pipes, his field boots, his collection of farrier’s puzzles and snuff boxes. They remained as he’d left them and would be packed away for his children, just as soon as Daisy could stand to look at the damned things. Then too, she really did need to know if Eric had made any specific bequests to his offspring before she consigned the once-cherished detritus of his life to the attic. “The solution to your dilemma is plain, my lord,” Daisy said, tugging Penweather toward the house. “You will simply have to provide Pandora with a bevy of younger siblings, and she will be so busy managing them that she’ll no longer take the air in shocking dishabille. Come along, Casriel. His lordship has no coat, and one wants a cup of tea after capturing the escaped princess.” The comment about younger siblings was apparently another opportunity for Casriel, the oldest of nine, to take offense where none had been intended. His expression became that of the polite host, which in its way was worse than the wary older brother.

Daisy felt a sob building, for no earthly reason, so she kept up a brisk pace into the house and prayed that Lord Penweather was adept at idle conversation, for her attempts at small talk were apparently doomed. She hated these visits to the Hall, but she was determined that she and her brother have a frank and detailed discussion. Soon. Very soon, if not today. “Siblings,” Casriel said as they approached the library, “can be among life’s greatest comforts. They are both friend and family, if all goes well, and they know us longer than even our parents do, in the usual course. I consider my brothers and sisters among my greatest treasures.” Penweather held the door for Daisy. “Then you are blessed indeed, my lord. My family associations are few and distant.

Tell me, my lady, have you children? You must, for you knew exactly how to foil Pandora’s escape.” How lovely of him to ask after the children rather than after Eric. If Daisy had to reply even once more to the question, Don’t you miss him terribly? she’d stomp on her horrid black bonnet and engage in public profanity. “I have two boys, my lord, nearly eight and nearly seven, and they have a younger sister. I can scold fluently in dog Latin, spy unicorns among the clouds, and give orders like a pirate captain.” Though Daisy had all but forgotten how to sleep through the night, waltz, or laugh. “The lemon drops are an inspired touch,” Penweather said. “I’m partial to them myself.” When had anybody referred to anything Daisy had done or thought as inspired? She undid her bonnet ribbons and hung the dratted hat on the antlers of a buck murdered years ago. The old fellow was a bit moth-eaten, but he was a fixture from Daisy’s childhood, and she was inordinately glad Casriel hadn’t retired him to a bonfire.

Daisy’s cloak came next, and Casriel draped it over the back of the chair at the desk. He was frowning, probably concluding that his baby sister had lost weight, but then, his baby sister had been developing the rounded proportions of a heifer at spring grass prior to Eric’s death. Eric’s assessment, offered with that winsome smile of his. The few dresses she’d chosen to dye black were loose on her now, and she’d selected outfits she didn’t particularly like rather than ruin her favorites. So few women were flattered by black that even the clothes a widow wore formed another blow. They made a lady feel as unattractive on the outside as she feared she was on the inside. “Tea is in order,” Daisy said, tugging the bell-pull twice. “And you must tell me what brings you to this corner of Dorsetshire, my lord.” Penweather eyed the buck sporting Daisy’s mourning bonnet. “I’m in the area on business, thinking to acquire a property more commodious than the ancestral pile in Hampshire.

Casriel’s hospitality is much appreciated.” Perhaps widows weren’t to adorn mounted cervids with mourning bonnets. Perhaps Penweather thought her a bit daft. Perhaps she was a bit daft, and there was Casriel, once again looking anywhere but at his own sister. “Pandora would like that use of your millinery,” Penweather said, regarding the deer. “A touch of the unexpected. Gives yonder buck a certain dashing gravitas.” He smiled at Daisy, the curve of his lips slight, the warmth in his eyes even more subtle, but it was a smile, and she was much in need of smiles. Also answers. She very much needed answers.

Penweather’s presence prevented the questions Daisy wanted to put to her brother. She remained mostly quiet while the men reminisced about old school chums and deadly dull professors. The benefit of this conversation was that Daisy was spared the interrogation Casriel doubtless longed to aim at her. By the time the teapot was empty, flurries were drifting down from the gray sky. “I’ll send you home in the coach,” Casriel said, holding Daisy’s cloak for her. “The temperature is dropping, and this snow looks like it means business.” The snow, to a woman raised in the country, looked like the merest passing weather. “Please do not trouble the grooms,” Daisy said. “I have few enough pretexts to actually leave my own property, and a chance to stretch my legs does much for my mood.” “Might I walk you home?” Penweather asked before Casriel could lapse into polite intractability.

“I was immured in a coach for two days with Pandora for company. I’m in need of some fresh air myself.” Casriel could say nothing to that, and thus Daisy would be permitted—permitted—to walk the entire mile from her childhood home to the manor where she’d kept house for her husband since her wedding day. Such were the great freedoms a widow was permitted. While cornering Casriel on the specifics of Eric’s will would have to wait for another week. FABIANUS REJOICED to be moving through the brisk air. He kept pace with Lady Daisy’s modest stride, content simply to be away from the house and away from the enfant terrible in the Dorning Hall nursery. Traveling with Pandora had been a penance, not so much because the child whined—she was merely a child, and hours shut up in a stuffy, cold coach justified discontent—but because of the endless remonstrations her nursemaids offered in response to her whining. When the whole business had grown too tedious, Fabianus had banished Pandora to the second coach and then felt like an ogre for dismissing her. Lady Daisy took him down a path that led from the extensive Dorning Hall gardens, past a pair of enormous glass houses, and onward beside the carriage house and stables.

“I must pay a call,” she said, veering off along a fence that enclosed what appeared to be a mare’s paddock. Fabianus, as her escort, had no choice but to accompany her, though any excuse to tarry in the out-of-doors suited him. Her ladyship produced two halves of a purple carrot and climbed the first rail of a fourboard fence. “Guinevere! Carrots!” A sway-backed, furry gray mare, apparently blind in one eye, ambled over to the fence, whuffling as her walk became energetic. “An old friend?” Fabianus asked. The horse wouldn’t see twenty again, perhaps not even twenty-five. “The oldest horse on the property. She was my first grown-up mount. I was ten, and so was she. We were young ladies together.

Will I scandalize you if I climb this fence?” “Certainly not.”

.

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