Kent, Summer, 1820
Lady Sarah Culhane edged into the dark copse, cursing that women contemplating elopement never chose practical settings for their revels. At least there was a moon. A lantern might attract attention from Holby Manor on the hill. She needed to do this quickly, cleanly and without notice.
Under the trees, the gloom thickened. Although she prided herself on her lack of feminine megrims, she couldn’t stifle a nervous frisson. She felt so very alone and vulnerable, out here at midnight, confronting a stranger.
The leaves rustled ominously. The breath jammed in her throat and her hands clenched in her skirts. “Who’s there? Show yourself.”
Another rustle and her heart slammed against her chest. Then a tall, lean man stepped from the shadows into the moonlight. “Good evening.”
Compared to her imagination’s wild flights—apparently she wasn’t as prosaic as she liked to think — the greeting seemed banal, incongruous. She sucked in a shaky breath. This must be the man she expected. Who else would haunt the shrubbery at this hour?
“Good evening.” The polite response slipped out before she reminded herself she wasn’t here to swap pleasantries.
Her eyes had adjusted so she saw the man clearly. He was powerfully built, wearing a dark coat, breeches and boots, but no hat. His features were distinguished, with a high forehead under thick dark hair, a long, imperious nose and strong bones.
Shock made her speak impulsively. “You’re older than I expected.”
He laughed. “Well, that’s flattering. Are you going to skulk in the bushes all night?”
Reluctantly she emerged into the cold white light. Up close, she realised this was a man in his maturity. Too old for such foolishness. “I’m sorry. That wasn’t polite.”
Another soft laugh. He had an attractive voice, deep and with an undertone of humour she found devilishly appealing. Frankly, she wouldn’t credit Charlotte with the taste to choose this man. She certainly couldn’t believe he’d tumble headlong in love with her flighty niece. The ways of the heart were a mystery.
“It was, however, refreshingly honest.” He studied her with eyes that glinted. “You’re older than I expected too.”
She smiled wryly. She was only thirty. Hardly in her dotage. Even if Charlotte treated her as if she were ninety. “I have disappointing news.”
He arched one sleek dark eyebrow. “Oh?”
She steeled herself to continue. “Mr. Powell, Charlotte isn’t running away to marry you tonight.”
He tautened. “You’re not Charlotte?”
He must know she wasn’t Charlotte. According to the silly chit, Richard Powell had paid illicit court throughout her four-week visit to Brighton with her cousins. “No.”
“Who are you?”
The nervousness that had disappeared in the last minutes stirred. She retreated a step and wondered if she could outrun him. One glance at the long, powerful legs indicated she couldn’t. “I’m Charlotte’s aunt. More importantly, who are you?”
He brushed his hair back as the tension seeped from him. He smiled as if he found life and all its variations amusing. “We’re talking at cross purposes.”
“You’re not Richard Powell?” she said, although she already knew the answer.
“I’m Devlin Travis, the blockhead’s unfortunate guardian. I’ve come to tell your niece that for once in his life, my clodpole godson’s good sense has prevailed.”
“Your godson,” she said flatly.
“Yes.” He bowed with a louche elegance that set her heart on a wild gallop. “Perhaps introductions are in order.”
“Perhaps a strategic withdrawal is in order. It’s the middle of the night.”
He clicked his tongue in reproval. “Oh, that’s poor-spirited.”
She muffled a giggle. Goodness, respectable widows shouldn’t giggle. Charlotte would be appalled. “My name is Sarah Culhane. Charlotte has lived with me since her parents were killed in a carriage accident five years ago.”
“And it’s been the longest five years of your life?”
She smiled with a mixture of grimness and affection. “She’s a dear girl, but a handful.”
“I know exactly what you mean. I’ve had my godson’s care since he was six.” Despite his derisive words, his voice was warm. “I’m just grateful the scapegrace suffered a last-minute crisis of conscience and confessed his plans. I only managed to keep him home by promising to break the news in person. He’s formed a genuine attachment and he hated to let your niece down. I pointed out that creating a scandal did her far worse harm than jilting her tonight.”
“Young men fall in and out of love more often than I change shoes,” she said with the cynicism her ill-fated marriage had taught her.
“Actually, Richard’s a sapskull, but he’s steady in his likes and dislikes.”
“So why didn’t he approach Charlotte’s family? Is he so unacceptable?”
The man laughed with an ironic note that made her pulses race. “You don’t mince words, do you? I think he had some romantic notion of sweeping her off her feet. Who knows what goes through the boy’s mind? The frightening part is he reaches his majority next month and then he’s the world’s problem, not just mine.”
“Perhaps he’s learned his lesson.”
He sighed. “At least I’ve persuaded him to present himself here tomorrow and launch a more conventional courtship.”
“Charlotte will be pleased.” She’d left her niece in a fit of tears. Thank goodness, Charlotte too had confided in her aunt about the elopement. Although there wasn’t an elopement, was there? Lord Berwick would merely have this conversation with Charlotte instead of Sarah. Sarah read enough gossip sheets to know exactly who he was. Devlin Travis, Viscount Berwick, was a rich nobleman from the north with one of the finest stables in the country.
Charlotte’s loss was Sarah’s gain. Flirting in the moonlight with a handsome man was the most fun she’d had in years. An unhappy marriage and bringing up her niece had curbed her natural gaiety. Something about Lord Berwick made that gaiety surge like a welling fountain.
“So…” he said slowly, his eyes not shifting from her. She wondered what he saw. She was a tall woman, striking rather than pretty. Men had found her attractive when she’d entered society, but over recent years, her entertainments were limited to dinners and county assemblies. Lord Berwick must be used to diamonds of the first water and she’d never been that.
She rushed into speech, commanding her wayward heart to settle. Ten minutes at midnight hardly constituted the start of a lifelong relationship. “So disaster is averted. Our charges are safely in their beds.”
“While we’re out threatening to scandalise the neighbours.”
She released a huff of shocked amusement. “Hardly. Nobody questions my movements. I’m the most respectable widow in the parish. And anyway, we’re only talking.”
Her heart lurched as she realised she wasn’t caught alone in the current of attraction. Her voice shook like a young girl’s. “My lord…”
He went on as if he’d never made his astonishing comment. “So I’ve discovered you have no great fondness for young men. What about older ones?”
She couldn’t mistake his meaning. “How old?”
He sent her a devil-may-care grin. “Oh, I’d say about thirty-four.”
“In possession of his teeth?”
“Definitely. No gout. Able to dance a measure without needing to sit down halfway. And willing to fetch his own slippers.”
“At least worth discussing. I’ll accompany my godson when he calls on Miss Charlotte.”
She should take more strolls at midnight. Life was considerably more exciting once the sun went down. She’d set out to console a disappointed suitor and discovered a suitor of her own.
“That’s an excellent idea.” She didn’t waste time on coyness. “Are you in Kent long?”
He sent her a straight look under his marked dark brows. Amazing how much she could see in the moonlight. “As long as it takes.”
Her heart gave another lurch. The reaction was starting to feel familiar. “You’re… very forthright.”
He shrugged. “A man at my advanced stage of life can’t waste time.”
She smothered another giggle. How her behaviour would appall Charlotte. “Very wise.”
“I suspect wisdom is about to fly out the window.” He stepped closer and took her hand. She trembled at the touch of his fingers. “Tell me you feel the same.”
“It’s the moonlight.”
“No, it’s you.” He paused. “And me.”
Stupidly she found herself agreeing, although she was far too level-headed to fall in love in the space of half an hour. “Yes.”
“Until tomorrow.” He raised her hand, holding it in a confident grip she felt to her toes.
“The sweetest word in the language.” He kissed the back of her hand and a delicious heat thrilled her. “Except for ‘Sarah’.”
“I’ll see you then, my lord.” With an aplomb she thought she’d forgotten, she withdrew her hand and flashed him a sparkling glance. “Goodnight.”
Whatever coming days brought, tonight reminded her it was time she stopped hiding in her rural retreat. Life beckoned in the person of Lord Berwick. She meant to answer its call.
With a saucy swish of her skirts that an hour ago would have been unthinkable, she turned and strode back towards the hall, her head held high and her heart carolling a song of hope.
This story first appeared in Woman’s Day (Australia) 24th August 2009