regrettably, of mice. Then, as she stood there letting her eyes adjust to the shadows, it seemed as though a faint zephyr of a warm breeze filled the space whispering of laughter, roses, happiness-and as suddenly was gone.

Hester smiled at her own fancy; it seemed that pure happiness could take tangible form. Oh, yes, this was a happy house-she had known that from just a few minutes’ observation over a year ago. She had stood at the gate, staring entranced at the overgrown rose-filled garden, the ivy-hung facade, the felicitous arrangement of doors and windows, the ineffable, indescribable air of charm that hung over the neglected little house. And then she had hurried back over the Green to the Bird in Hand and to John, her friend and protector, who was waiting patiently in the private parlour while she shook the stiffness from her limbs.

He should never have undertaken that journey to Oxford; it marked the sharp deterioration in his condition, which had led to its inevitable end three months ago. They had only been together eighteen months, yet she still ached for his company, for their friendship and intimacy. If he had not protected her, in the face of scandal and family opposition, goodness knows what would have become of her after her father’s death.

Hester shook herself briskly. John had known how short a time he had-better to do what he wanted than to purchase a few weeks at the expense of inaction and boredom. That part of her life was over now and she must learn not to brood upon memories and to stand upon her own two feet. She had learned from it and it had left her a legacy in both experience and scandal, as well as just enough money for genteel independence.

She had never been inside the mysteriously named Moon House, never seen it again after that one brief encounter. All her lengthy negotiations had been undertaken by an agent and she had simply placed her trust in his diligence and her own instinct. Now she pushed the door shut behind her and saw she was in the kitchen. Well, that was just as described- equipped with an old range and pine table, some chairs and dressers, the dulled glint of unpolished copper catching the light from the cobwebbed window. The next job for Jethro would be trying to light the range, if the chimney could be persuaded to draw. Hester smiled wryly: she was beginning to suspect they might have to take themselves over to the Bird in Hand for dinner.

Hester dumped the portmanteau and umbrella unceremoniously on the table, pulled off her bonnet with scant regard for the further chaos it wrought with her hair and tossed her pelisse on the chair. A rummage in the portmanteau produced a shawl, which she tied around her shoulders, a voluminous apron, which she struggled into, and a handful of soft rags ideal for dusting or giving spiders the rightabout.

Setting herself to explore, she emerged through a green baize-covered door into an alcove formed by the gracious upwards sweep of the staircase-somewhat marred now by dangling cobwebs. Hester swiped at them, sneezed, rubbed her nose with the back of her hand, transferring a large smudge on to nose-tip and cheek in the process, and stepped out into the hall.

‘Oh, yes.’

She was unaware of speaking aloud, only conscious of the airy proportions, the elegant staircase, the quality of the cold light filtering through the fanlight over the door, despite the curtain of ivy that hung across it.

The walls were dingy with dirt, marked here and there with ghostly oblongs where pictures or mirrors had once hung. The marble floor, chequered in an unusual grey and white, was grimy-but she could see none of the faults. The feeling of welcome and of belonging swept over her again and Hester walked slowly down the hall, then turned to lean back against the deep-cut panels of the front door.

‘This is mine,’ she said aloud, her tone wondering, then more strongly, ‘Mine.’

The blow on the door behind her was so unexpected, so abrupt, it sounded like thunder. With a shriek Hester leapt away and turned gasping to face it. Effortfully she dragged a breath up from the depths and clasped her trembling hands together while she composed herself. Someone had knocked on the door, that was all. If she had not been mooning like an idiot instead of doing some useful dusting or lighting a fire, it would have sounded perfectly normal.

The knocker fell again. Hester scrabbled in her pocket where she had transferred the keys and found the largest. This must be for the front door. She turned it, struggled for a moment with the bolts and finally dragged the door open.

Guy Westrope tapped one foot irritably on the step and cursed himself for a sentimental fool. What the devil was he doing here when he could have joined Carew’s party in Rutland? Now he was stuck in a muddy Buckinghamshire village in a hideous house, the target of every prying yokel and gossiping goodwife. He raised an impatient hand to the knocker again, then dropped it as the door began to open.

The dishevelled figure revealed by the part-open door regarded him silently. She was of medium height with an oval face, big brown eyes, a wide and solemn mouth and quantities of ill-controlled brown hair. The dirty smudge across the apparition’s face and the voluminous apron indicated that this particular housemaid had been engaged in dusting, a supposition confirmed when she hastily thrust the hand holding a bundle of rags behind her.

Guy realised he was probably scowling and pulled himself together; his unfamiliar inner turmoil was no excuse for treating subordinates rudely. This particular one appeared to have been cowed into speechlessness by his appearance. For some reason he had an almost irresistible urge to lean forward and rub the smudge off her cheek. He clasped his hands behind his back.

‘Good morning. Is your mistress at home?’ Parrott had reported a woman arriving alone, save for a groom. Presumably he would be dealing with a widow.

Something he could have sworn was mischief flashed into the maid’s eyes and was gone. Her voice emerged in a whisper. ‘No, sir. Leastways, she’s not receiving, sir.’ She appeared to pull herself together a little. ‘Would you be wishful of leaving a message, sir?’

Guy extracted a card and held it out. A remarkably delicate hand, the knuckles smeared with cobwebs, took it. ‘Will your mistress be at home tomorrow?’

‘Er, yes, sir… my lord, I should say.’

This was hard work. Was this brown-eyed girl afraid of him or just naturally shy? He tried a smile and saw her eyes widen a little. He entertained the sudden fancy that her thoughts showed in her eyes, but in a language he could not read. ‘And at what time might it be convenient for her to receive me, do you think?’

‘Three o’clock.’ That was unexpectedly decisive, especially as it was not the conventional time of day to receive visitors.

‘Very well, then. Please tell your mistress that I will do myself the honour of calling upon her at three tomorrow. Good day.’

‘Yes, my lord. Um… good day, my lord.’ There was the merest suggestion of a smile on that solemn mouth. It made the swell of the lower lip seem almost pouting.

The door swung shut before he had half-turned on the step. Guy walked slowly back down the overgrown path. A quaint little creature, that maid. Fetching brown eyes and the piquancy of that solemn mouth-it would be interesting to make her smile again. He shook himself briskly and quickened his pace. This would never do-two days in the sticks and he was already eyeing the servant girls. He would take the curricle and the new greys out this afternoon and give himself something to think about other than the Moon House and its present occupants.

In the silent hall Hester leaned against the closed door in the same position she had assumed before and regarded the card in her hand while her heartbeat returned to something approaching normal.

Guy Westrope, Earl of Buckland. Monks Grange, Buckland Regis, Wiltshire and an excellent London address. What on earth was an earl doing calling upon her, especially as he presumably had no idea who she was? Hester pulled herself together and ran into the room to her right to peer through the window. She could just see the top of his tall hat passing the wall of that hideous house opposite.

What was an earl, who one might well expect to be wintering at his own or his acquaintances’ country estates, doing calling upon an unknown lady in a Buckinghamshire village? With the memory of those very blue eyes vivid in her mind, Hester indulged a moment’s fantasy that he had followed her from London, infatuated by her beauty and charm, which he had glimpsed from afar. The thought of being pursued by someone that powerful, that masculine, made her heart race again.

With a laugh at her own foolishness, Hester rubbed her handful of dust cloths over a cracked mirror hanging by the window and peered into its mottled depths. The vision revealed there cut any thought of laughter quite dead.

‘What a fright!’ There was a dark smudge right across her nose and one cheek, her hair was coming down, her collar was marked and a hasty glance down at hands and apron confirmed the picture of a slatternly housemaid.

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