Released December 2013.
Haldane Hall, Yorkshire, 1818
“I trust we’ll bag a few birds on the moor tomorrow, Chaloner.” John Haldane, the 4th Earl of Strathairn, glanced at the guests enjoying the Hunt Ball in his ballroom. Bright chatter rose in the warm smoky air as decorative ladies mingled with the more soberly dressed gentlemen. “My chef plans a grouse dish flavored with juniper berries for our dinner.”
“Excellent.” The Marquess of Brandreth raised his glass. “We will be out at the crack of dawn, I daresay.” He took Strathairn’s arm and drew him into a quiet corner. “I don’t wish to strain a friendship I value, John, but I must offer a word of advice.”
“Oh?” Strathairn eyed him warily. He had liked Chaloner better before his father died. The man seemed to lose his sense of humor after inheriting the title.
“You are often seen in Sibella’s company. Don’t get too fond of her.”
Strathairn moved his shoulders in a shrug of anger. He glanced over at Sibella in her white muslin, talking earnestly to Mrs. Bickerstaff. “Your sister is intelligent and good company. I enjoy our conversations. Nothing strange about that.”
“I struggle to believe it is just that. I may not be privy to the details of the work you perform for the military, but rumors do float about the House of Lords. You must admit that due to those circumstances alone, you would not make her a good husband.”
Chaloner’s determination put him in mind of a robin with a worm. Useless to argue. With a sigh, Strathairn acknowledged that he only strove to protect his sister from possible hurt. “No need for concern,” he said. “I have no wish to marry your sister, or anyone else for that matter. I do intend to ask Lady Sibella to dance though. Unless you think my waltzing with her will ruin her reputation.”
Chaloner huffed out a laugh and rubbed the back of his neck. “Don’t be ridiculous. I don’t enjoy having to say this to you, John, but it befalls me as head of the family. Sib has a love of home and hearth. She looks for a husband who will sit by the fire with her at night. That isn’t you, is it?”
“She deserves the best, and no, it isn’t me, Chaloner.”
The following afternoon, after a fruitful day in the fields shooting grouse, the men made their way over the lawns to the Hall.
The gamekeeper, beaters and handlers departed for the stables with the hounds while servants came to take the birds away.
Lady Sibella, in a gown the color of lilacs, sat playing cards and drinking tea with the other women in the late afternoon sun. Strathairn went to greet them before entering the house to bathe and change.
He mounted the terrace, still carrying his shotgun over his shoulder, intent on returning it to the gunroom. “I trust you ladies enjoyed your day?” he enquired.
“We did, my lord.” Lady Sibella’s sister, Viscountess Bathe, smiled. “Or at least those of us who have not lost our pin money at whist.”
“I see you had a successful day, my lord.” Lady Sibella eyed his gun with a faint shudder. “I saw your kill on its way to the kitchens.”
He smiled. “I hope you’ll enjoy our efforts once they are served in a tasty sauce my chef has concocted with mushrooms and whiskey.”
“I expect I shall. It’s very contrary of me, isn’t it?” Lady Sibella frowned up at him. “But please don’t suggest that all women are so.”
He eyed the expectant faces of the other ladies and held up his hands with a laugh. “I wouldn’t dream of it.”
“Perhaps you would like a cup of tea, Lord Strathairn.” Lady Sibella gestured to the teapot a servant was refilling with hot water. “You must be thirsty after your arduous day.”
She well knew how much he hated tea, for he’d been forced to drink it at a morning call at their house in Eaton Place. She had naughtily offered to pour it into a potted plant when her mother was distracted by another guest.
Her playful smile was delicious, and he couldn’t help grinning back. Aware of the sharp-eyes on him from around the table, he shook his head. “I’m afraid I must decline for I’m not fit for company. But, thank you, Lady Sibella.” He bowed and entered the house leaving them to resume their card game.
He cleaned his gun and left it on the rack in the gunroom. Damn Chaloner, he was such a stickler for convention. Strathairn enjoyed Lady Sibella’s friendship like no other lady of his acquaintance. Her humor seemed so in tune with his and he often found she understood his thoughts before he expressed them. But he ensured their relationship never went beyond the bounds of friendship. It wasn’t easy, for he was strongly drawn to her, but friendship was all it could ever be.