Prudy, please lay the table and put some bricks in the lower oven to warm up for the beds.’

The meal was good, filling and savoury, and the eyes of her three companions were soon drooping. Hester sent Susan and Prudy to bed, each clutching a flannel-wrapped brick, assuring them she had no further need of them that night, and even Jethro was persuaded to take himself and his lantern off to his bed over the stables after faithfully checking the windows and front door.

Hester twisted the key in the back door after him, dragged the bolts across and gave the fire a final riddle before taking a chamber stick and making her way through the now-silent house.

The darkness closed in behind her softly like a velvet curtain as she climbed the stairs. There was no light from the other rooms. She hesitated on the threshold of her chamber, her eyes on the door leading to the dressing room. In the firelight it seemed to move.

The silence enclosed her, friendly no longer. ‘No,’ Hester said firmly. ‘This is my room and I am not going to be frightened by some broken glass and a stain on the wall.’

She marched over to the table by the chaise-longue and lit the candles in the three- branched stick that stood on it. Her own face reflected in the panes of glass in the unshuttered windows. It was the dark of the moon and only lights from the houses and cottages around the Green punctuated the night.

As she tried to pull the silk curtains closed they crumbled in her hands, rotten from years of neglect. On one window the shutters unfolded and closed easily enough, but on the other they would not shift, even at the cost of a broken fingernail. Hester shrugged; she would undress on the screened side of the room.

In her nightrail and shawl she bent to blow out the branched candlestick and found herself staring at that door again. Was she going to sleep or was she going to lie awake, staring at it in the dark and imagining goodness knows what?

Slowly Hester walked towards it, the single chamber stick in her hand, and finally turned the handle. ‘Oh, bless the boy!’ Jethro had swept and dusted. The glass was gone, the stained patch of wall gleamed newly white. The pearls had been collected up into a bowl on the dressing table and the doors of the presses were shut. He had even opened the window an inch and the chill air had driven away the musty smell. It was an empty, unthreatening room once more. He was a good lad, sensitive beyond his years sometimes. Hester smiled, recalling John’s doubts when she had returned home with her filthy waif. ‘You will regret it,’ he said, studying the lad with a cynical soldier’s eye, but she never had.

She drifted back to bed, reassured and suddenly too tired either to plan or to remember. As she snuggled under the sheets her thoughts flickered to tomorrow’s encounter. What would the earl think of her? she wondered. Strange that it was not his wife who had made the first call. Perhaps he was unmarried…

Hester slept. Across the road in the red brick house Guy Westrope stood in his dark bedchamber, the book he had strolled upstairs to fetch in his hand. He could see in the dark uncannily well and had not troubled to pick up the branch of candles from the landing table when he entered. Now he stood waiting to see whether that slender ghost of a figure in white would cross the room opposite his again. But the window in the Moon House went dark as a candle was extinguished.

Who was she? Not that quaint maid, not in what must be the best bedchamber. The lady of the house? Or simply a phantom of his imagination? No, not that, for the ghost he would expect to conjure up would have blonde hair, not a tumbling mass of brunette curls.

Cursing himself for a fool, not for the first time that day, Guy strode out of the room and downstairs to a solitary meal. The most entertainment he could hope for would be his attempts to catch his butler Parrott betraying by so much as a quiver his utter disapproval of the village, the house and the entire enterprise. His valet was far more vocal on the subject and on the ruination of his hopes of seeing his master outshining every guest at Major Carew’s house party. Guy smiled grimly: he was an extremely generous and considerate employer, but he was not going to be criticised by his own staff for whatever whim he chose to indulge. In this particular case he could do that quite effectively himself.

At ten to three the next afternoon Hester called her household into the newly garnished reception room and surveyed both it and them, They had scoured the morn clean and then stripped the house of suitable furnishings. The chaise-longue from her bedroom, a dresser from the other front chamber and side tables from all over dressed the room and a large, if smoky, fire blazed on the hearth. There were two imposing armchairs, which she placed on each side of the fireplace, and a chair set to one side for Prudy to sit upon. It looked a little like a rented room in an unfashionable part of town, but it would have to do.

At least she and her staff were suitably clad to receive a caller: Jethro in his best dark suit with horizontally striped waistcoat, his hair neatly tied back, Susan in a respectable dimity and Prudy looking every bit the governess in sombre grey with a black knitted shawl, For herself Hester had chosen a gown of fine wool in a soft old gold colour, with a fichu edged with some of the good lace she had inherited from her mother and her best Paisley shawl. Her hair was ruthlessly confined in its net at the back with just a few soft curls at the temples and forehead.

Hester gave her hem one last anxious twitch. ‘I think we look admirably respectable,’ she announced firmly. It was the impression she was striving for, the impression it was essential to convey if she was to hope to have any kind of social life in the village or nearby towns. It was odd enough for young lady of four and twenty to live alone save for a companion, but to produce the slightest suspicion of anything ‘not quite the thing’ would be fatal.

The effort it had taken to transform the front room and the hall had succeeded in distracting her from the nagging feeling that she might already have sunk herself beneath reproach when she answered the door to the earl yesterday. But now it returned. Would he be very affronted when he realised who the maid was? Or, even worse, would he consider it a great joke to be spread around his acquaintance? Being thought to be eccentric was not Hester’s ambition either.

He was most certainly prompt. Hester had hardly settled herself before the fireplace with a piece of embroidery in her hand when the knocker sounded. Jethro tugged down his coat, straightened his face and strode out.

There was the sound of voices in the hail, then Jethro reappeared. ‘The Earl of Buckland, Miss Lattimer.’

Hester rose to her feet, put down her embroidery, looked up and felt her breath catch in her throat. Somehow she retrieved enough of it not to croak as she stepped forward with outstretched hand. ‘Good afternoon, my lord. I am Hester Lattimer.’

How could she not have realised yesterday? Had she been so overwhelmed by the house, so frightened by his sudden knocking? The man standing in front of her was not just extremely attractive-quite simply, he was her ideal. She had no need to do more than to look into those dark blue eyes with their crinkle of laughter lines at the corners, the lurking mixture of intelligence, humour and frank admiration in their depths, to feel a surge of heat in her blood and an indefinable sense of recognition.

He took her hand and her pulse began to thud so that she thought he must have felt it as he touched her. Hastily she retrieved her hand. ‘My lord, may I make known to you my companion, Miss Prudhome?’ He inclined his head with a smile and Prudy produced a gawky curtsy and an unintelligible twitter. Hester sighed inwardly and gestured towards the other chair. ‘Please, my lord, will you not sit down?’

Goodness, he was tall, and broad and… male. Not good looking, she decided, for his nose had definitely been broken, the planes of his face were strong rather than beautiful, his dark blond hair was too long…


Hester started. How long had she been staring at her visitor’? Not too long, surely, for he did not appear discommoded. Jethro was standing by the door, looking abashed. His intended quiet throat-clearing had emerged as rather more of a foghorn than a tactful signal from a butler.

‘Ackland, please fetch us some refreshment. Would you care to take tea, my lord? Or perhaps some Madeira?’

‘Tea would be delightful, thank you, Miss Lattimer.’ She nodded to Jethro, who effaced himself silently.

The earl’s voice exactly suited him, she decided. So often a voice was a sad disappointment, but his was deep, pleasant and carried a hint of authority. He was watching her with composure, those blue eyes resting on her face, betraying no sign that he recognised her from the day before. To refer to it or not? Suddenly Hester felt she would make herself ridiculous in his estimation if she was missish about this.

‘1 am sorry I could not receive you yesterday when you called.’ she began. ‘We had only just arrived and it was

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