It was three days later that the Earl of Stanhope, bareheaded and in his shirtsleeves, finally tooled his phaeton at an unremarkable pace into Deepdene. Seeking some solitude, he had set out a day in advance of the carriage containing his valet and most of his luggage, and so arrived quietly, with none of the fanfare that ordinarily accompanied a traveling earl.
Stopping to ask the Lyttworth’s direction of the first person he chanced upon, he found himself looking down at a young woman. That she was gently bred was immediately clear to him despite the fact that she was wearing a brown wool morning dress so atrocious that your average London scullery maid would have refused to venture abroad in it. Not by any means a beauty in the current mode, he nevertheless found himself thinking that she was very fresh and appealing—a thought he immediately attributed to the country air, as he personally preferred a much more polished, voluptuous type. She was possessed of a clean-scrubbed, heart-shaped face with a small, straight nose, and large hazel eyes fringed by dark lashes. Her auburn curls threatened escape from the ribbon intended to hold them back, and her mouth, he mused, feeling suddenly fanciful, was made to laugh.
Unfortunately, it was primmed up with disapproval at the moment. “The Lyttworth’s?” she replied to his query. “You will find Moreford Park just down this road a half-mile of so. It would seem unlikely that you will find much in the way of a cordial reception, however,” she went on in such disgusted accents that Stanhope thought for a delighted moment that she would actually snort in disgust. To his disappointment, she restrained herself and continued. “…As they—and the rest of the county, to be disgracefully fair—can think of nothing but the imminent arrival of the Somewhich.”
“The what?” Stanhope asked, momentarily diverted.
“The Somewhich,” she replied in tones that left no doubt as to her feelings regarding such personage. “A regular out-and-outer, very high in the instep, who, if Elmo Lyttworth’s raptures are to be countenanced, will no doubt arrive in a driving cape sporting no fewer than fifteen capes, behind four of the finest horses in a red high perch—” She trailed off, eyeing his red conveyance as if noticing it for the first time, a hint of pink washing over her face.
And very becomingly, too, Stanhope thought, reflecting that he might just enjoy the country more than he had expected. “I must plead guilty,” he said, as he executed a slight bow. “But it is the Nonesuch.”
“I beg your pardon?” She looked full at his face and realized with a little shock that he was without a doubt the handsomest man she had ever seen. He was tall and broad of shoulder without being heavy in any way. Even seated atop his ridiculously high sprung curricle, his lithe, athletic grace was apparent. He was possessed of thick, dark hair that was lifting slightly in the breeze. His green eyes held a gleam of wicked-looking amusement, but his finely chiseled lips were turned up in a warm smile, and to her own chagrin, Calista felt an unasked-for flutter of response.
“It is the Nonesuch, not the Somewhich. It is not, however, a sobriquet of which I am over fond, so do not trouble yourself in the least.” He jumped down lightly from the vehicle. “Please accept my apologies. I am devastated to disappoint you, but a tragic circumstance has delayed the arrival of my valet with said driving coat—with any luck it should be among us in but a day, and I promise to sport it often. And apparently that font of wisdom, Mr. Lyttworth, mistakes himself, as it needs only two cattle to pull this conveyance.” He made a graceful bow. “Tristan Rutherford-Hayes. Your servant, ma’am.”
“Otherwise known as the Earl of Stanhope.” It was a statement, not a question, and although her blush deepened, her tone warned him that his title was as little asset in her eyes as his sporting reputation appeared to be. “I should have realized. Even a miserable judge of horseflesh such as myself can see that these two are bang up to the mark.”
“Just so,” he said, gravely. “If it would but appease your image of me, I just might see my way to having my teeth filed to points during my stay here.”
“There is no need to bam me, sir,” she said severely, but Stanhope thought he had almost realized his goal of seeing her smile. “You had best continue on to Moreford Park, as word of your arrival has surely taken the village by storm. There has been talk of little else these three days past, and Lady Lyttworth is certain to be close to a swoon should you fail to make an appearance soon.”
“Well, I should dislike above all things to be responsible for Lady Lyttworth’s discomposure,” he replied, thinking that really he’d much prefer to tarry in the lane and try to entice a smile. “I don’t suppose you have seen the horse?” he inquired, half hoping to hear that the exhausted old hack and the good fortune to have expired en route.
“Horse, my lord?” Calista queried, thinking that he might be almost unbearably gorgeous, but it was exactly as she had expected: the man was quite unable to converse for more than thirty seconds without introducing sporting pursuits.
Surely in such a small town everyone would know why he was come—an earl’s arrival was hardly an everyday occurrence, as she herself had pointed out, Stanhope thought with perhaps a touch of arrogance. Perhaps the poor girl was not altogether there, which seemed a shame, but went a long way toward explaining her absolute lack of interest in his arrival. “The-horse-I-am-come-to-purchase.” He spoke slowly to give her a chance to understand.
Did the blasted man think she was simple? Calista wondered as Stanhope continued in patient tones. “Master Elmo Lyttworth purchased her at Tattersalls,” he explained, and then remembered to add, in case she was becoming confused, “A horse purveyor in London. I would like to buy her. I wrote expressing my interest. You said yourself that I was expected. I assumed—”
The girl’s laugh that greeted his words was as pleasing as he had first guessed it would be, and the expression of shrewd amusement in her eyes put a stop to any idea of her being simple. That laugh, in fact, was doing something odd to his breathing. Country air was much overrated, he decided. Goodness knows he had never had difficulty breathing in the London smog. “I have amused you, Miss…?” he inquired in silky tones.
“I am so sorry,” she gasped, wishing heartily that she could be there when the true reason for his visit was discovered. “Please accept my apologies for my rag manners.” She paused to recover as another giggle overtook her. “Calista Ashton, sir,” she said without offering the customary curtsey.
Stanhope tried to swallow his gulp of astonishment. “Hardly an elderly dried up spinster!” he exclaimed before he could stop himself.
“Why thank you, sir,” she said tartly. “Small wonder you are known the country over for your polished address.” He felt himself flush like a schoolboy as she continued. “It is no bad thing that your reputation as a shocking flirt precedes you, else I might let your flummery swell my head.”
“Please, Miss Ashton, do accept my apologies,” Stanhope begged, bowing again, feeling at a loss for words for perhaps the first time in his life. “I can only plead great fatigue from the journey. I did not mean—”
“I am sure you did not,” Calista replied as crisply as she was able, as her stomach seemed to have resumed the flip-flopping that it had started the first time she looked him full in the face. Clear broth for supper tonight, she decided, as I am obviously coming down with something.
She waved aside his apologies. “Think nothing of it.” She tilted her head to one side and surveyed him appraisingly. She was actually thinking that Emily and company could hardly be disappointed—the man was an absolute Adonis. Stanhope in his discomposure felt that she was taking his measure and finding him lacking. Not a sensation he was used to. But all she said was, “So you are the famous Nonesuch.”
“Hardly famous,” he supplied hastily.
“I am most cast down, I must say, that you do not even make use of a quizzing glass.”
He smiled evenly, and Calista became aware of that odd, fluttering sensation in her chest again. “Alas, it is also with my valet. Once again I find myself in the position of begging your pardon for having offended your sensibilities. I do try to reserve that item, however, for setting down toadies and mushrooms and would, in any case, be loath to unleash such a fearsome weapon on a defenseless young lady on a country road.”
“Hardly defenseless, sir.”
He smiled, his gaze meeting hers with unspoken understanding, and she felt her heart thud. “Touché, Miss Ashton. Please, allow me to make amends for my abominably rude behavior by offering you a ride to your destination.”
“Thank you, but that won’t be necessary, as I am going only down the lane to the next cottage.”
“Then, please, let us start again,” he begged, somehow wanting to feel that all was right before they parted.
“Certainly,” she replied, smiling up at him, and he noted with surprise that she had dimples.
“Tristan Rutherford-Hayes at your disposal, ma’am,” he said with a proper bow, as if they were being presented to each other at Almack’s.
“Miss Calista Ashton, my lord,” she replied equally properly, offering her hand.
“It has been a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Miss Ashton,” he said, surprising them both by raising her hand to his lips in a brief salute.
So brief, that Calista wondered if she had imagined it. But no, if I had, then it is doubtful that my heart would be pounding so hard, he can probably hear it from where he stands, she thought. “Well, now that we are dispensed with the formalities, I really must be on my way,” she said hastily, suddenly eager to be out of his unnerving presence.
As she made to walk away, Stanhope noted that a hideous, large gray knitted item was snaking out of her basket and dragging in the dirt. “Miss Ashton?” he called in mild tones, feeling that he had once again some control over the situation.
She turned to look at him, “Yes, my lord?”
His lips twitched, and he could not resist teasing her. “You appear to be dragging something. An, er, a deceased animal, perhaps?”
With a look of outrage she snapped, “I will have you know, sir, these are stockings that I knit for the village children who are in need and can ill afford to purchase them on Oxford Street.” She stopped, directing a penetrating glace and the expensive Blucher boots he wore. “You and those of your stamp I am sure, have no such concerns. And now, as I am late to help Billy Trent with learning his letters, I will not detain you longer.”
“The expected parting line, Miss Ashton, would be that it has been a pleasure to make my acquaintance.”
“Would it indeed?” she replied, but to his amusement refrained from uttering the words, saying, instead, as she stuffed the knitted monstrosity firmly into her basket, “I trust you will enjoy your stay in Deepdene, sir.”
“I’m beginning to think I just might, Miss Ashton,” he replied.
“And by the way, my lord”—she paused, laughter coming again, knowing that what she was about to do was absolutely wretched— “about the horse—”
“I do think that you will be so very surprised when you see her!”
“Why—” he began, but she had already turned and was marching down the road, away from him, her sturdy jean half boots kicking dust all over the back hem of her deplorable dress.
She was greatly relieved, she told herself firmly, to be out of his company.
“Alas, it appears the pleasure was all mine, then, Miss Ashton,” Stanhope called out to her retreating figure as he sprang back up behind his restive horses.
And it was, he reflected. In fact, he couldn’t remember the last time he had been so well entertained. And unless he missed his guess, the lady was not going to take kindly to the news that she was the current topic of interest in fashionable London’s most exalted betting parlors.
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