“Mama?” Allie dropped her aunt’s hand. “Who have you got there? He’s quite interesting.”

Allie would want to paint him. Oh, bother. Bother, bother, bother.

“Allemande Hunt,” Sara said, trying for sternness, “you do not address a guest in such a fashion. Make your curtsy to Mr. Haddonfield and apologize for your manners.”

Allie complied, but she continued to stare at Mr. Haddonfield with a combination of girlish fascination and artistic assessment. A polite version of the same expression—minus the girlish fascination—graced Polly’s face.

“Polly Hunt.” Sara’s sister curtsied prettily. “And if you’ve been traveling in this weather, we’d best see to feeding you. I am Cook in this household, so you’ll please excuse me that I might be about my tasks.”

“I can manage on what’s available,” Mr. Haddonfield replied, offering Polly a smile all the more charming for the fatigue it conveyed. “And I’ve brought in some cooking spices. There’s a particular muffin recipe I’m partial to.”

“You make muffins?” Allie exclaimed. “You do, yourself?”

Sara braced herself to hear her daughter receive a much-deserved set down about children being seen and not heard, particularly the children of servants, but Mr. Haddonfield reached out and tapped Allie’s nose with one long, elegant finger.

“I make muffins, but I require the assistance of competent help, and I cannot possibly bother Miss Polly when she has the entire household to cook for. Perhaps I might prevail upon you, for you are obviously a discerning young lady.”

His countenance changed when he addressed the child. His eyes became clearer, and the smile dimmed to lurk around his mouth. He became not more charming, or not more charming in the way an adult woman might understand it, but… benevolent.

“Aunt Polly? Mama?” Allie turned her great green eyes on the adults. “May I? When Mr. Haddonfield bakes his muffins? May I help?”

Polly, as always, deferred to Sara on matters relating to Allie.

“You may,” Sara said, knowing it was the wrong decision. “Tonight our guest is cold, wet, hungry, and likely exhausted. We must allow him his comforts before imposing on him to teach you a muffin recipe.”

Though they had no real comforts to offer him, only the barest necessities, which added a dollop of embarrassment to Sara’s feelings toward him.

“Shall you take a tray?” Polly asked him. “You have to be famished.”

Mr. Haddonfield shrugged broad shoulders. “I can eat with the rest of the household. I don’t relish a solitary meal above stairs. Is supper served in here when Lady Warne is not in residence?”

“We eat in here,” Polly said. “We have two footmen-of-all-work, but they’ve gone into the village with Mr. North and will likely eat at the posting inn with him. The groom left at Yuletide to be with his parents over the winter but will be back when planting begins—we hope.”

“So I’m to have the company of three lovely ladies at my supper,” Mr. Haddonfield said. “I’d best get presentable then. I assume you keep country hours?”

“We do,” Sara replied, wondering how an earl’s son became presentable for eating with the servants in the kitchen. “By the time you’ve had your bath, Polly will have supper ready. Allie, you can take off your cloak and boots and help Aunt Polly while I show Mr. Haddonfield to his rooms.”

“Yes, Mama.” Allie’s tone was deferential, though her gaze still strayed speculatively to their guest. Sara could see her daughter taking him apart visually then adding his features back together, one pigment and line at a time. Polly was doing likewise, though she had of necessity grown better at hiding her skills.

* * *

Beck fell in behind the housekeeper as she departed the kitchen, his gaze fixing on the twitch of her skirts. He idly labeled it a pity a woman with such a pleasing shape and such glorious red hair—albeit glorious red hair mostly tucked up under a voluminous white cap—should be sequestered here, bailing with a teacup against an ocean tide of neglect.

“Are there writing implements to hand?” he asked as Mrs. Hunt preceded him along a chilly, darkened corridor. She held the carrying candle in one hand and shielded it with the other, there being no lit sconces that Beck could see.

“Of course.” She didn’t slow or turn to face him. “We’ve put you in the master suite, and you’ll find most amenities at your disposal. Three Springs was well appointed when Lady Warne was younger. The house is still in good condition, though the land needs attention.”

A polite way of saying yet again what the earl had put more bluntly: the estate had been neglected.

“I’m here to put the land to rights,” Beck heard himself volunteer. “If that’s possible before my father shuffles off this mortal coil.”

“I did not know the earl was indisposed.” Mrs. Hunt’s bustling progress came to a pause in the gathering gloom of a sitting room. She used the candle to light a branch on the mantel above a cold hearth.

“His lordship is quite frail. My stay here may be very brief indeed.” Though Beck shuddered to consider crossing the Downs again, much less to attend his father’s funeral.

Mrs. Hunt paused in circumnavigation of the room and gazed at him for a moment, but thank ye gods, there was no pity in her eyes. “And if the land cannot be put to rights while you’re here?”

“That is not my decision. Lady Warne can sell the place, of course. She isn’t likely to be leaving Town much when my younger sisters are poised for their come outs. This is a charming room.” Beck saw sturdy masculine furnishings, thick Turkish rugs in burgundy and green, and three large windows covered with heavy burgundy drapes.

“Charming, if outdated,” Mrs. Hunt said. “Lady Warne left the house much as she inherited it, and that was some time ago. Your bedroom is in here.” She opened a discreetly paneled door and led Beck into the cold space beyond. “Had I known when to expect you, I would have lit the fire in here. My apologies for the chill.”

Maybe he was hearing irony in her apology where none was intended, and perhaps threatening a woman’s life was not the best way to make a good first impression, and yet, Beck hadn’t known what or whom to expect on the far side of that wagon. He’d been cold, tired, and in unfamiliar surroundings yet again, almost happy to consider some thief might be attempting to steal from him.

Perhaps he’d apologize. Perhaps if she unbent the least little bit he would tell her he hadn’t meant to frighten her, because that’s what all this sniffy condescension was about, whether she knew it or not—he was big, strong, male, and he’d frightened her.

The fire caught—it probably wouldn’t dare do otherwise—and Mrs. Hunt continued her speechifying.

“We typically bathe in the laundry rather than carry the water any distance in cold weather.” She used the bellows to fan the flames, her movements casual and practiced, though they called attention to uncommonly elegant hands.

“I’ll be down shortly to see to my ablutions,” Beck said, unbuttoning his coat as he spoke. “And I’ll make short work of this bath, since dinner looms like divine salvation.”

“Until dinner then,” she said, casting one last glance at him before leaving him in the chill and solitude of his comfortable, if old-fashioned, bedroom.

That last glance stayed with him as he rummaged in his luggage for clean clothes and made his way to the laundry. She was a widow, Beck recalled as he lowered his grateful, sore body into steaming water some minutes later. The look she’d shot him when he’d started on his coat buttons had been hard to decipher: fascinated, dismissive, and wistful, all

at once.

Wistful was interesting, Beck thought as he started making use of the soap. No doubt the idea of a man preparing for his bath brought back memories of her departed husband. After Devona’s passing, Beck had cast such glances at the wives being happily handed up into carts in the churchyard, at the matrons cheerfully dancing with their spouses at the assemblies.

Beck closed his eyes and shoved the memories away. He’d traveled like a demon, pushing Ulysses to the limit of the gelding’s considerable capability, wanting to get them both out of the damned miserable weather. Sooner begun was sooner done, and his every instinct was telling him there was much to do here at Three Springs.

“Mr. Haddonfield?” A soft voice pierced the haze of sleep that had descended once Beck had finished

Вы читаете Beckman: Lord of Sins
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