I´m very excited about the prospect of my latest Regency romance being released as an e-book by Samhain Publishing this April. I don´t yet have the art work for the cover to share with you,so here´s a little excerpt to whet your appetites instead.
From his library window Alex watched his mother and Miss Tilling walking arm-in-arm at a snail´s pace through the orchard. He wondered with amusement who was supposed to be supporting whom. He was relieved to see Miss Tilling out of her chamber at last. It was difficult to tell from this distance, but she appeared to have a spring restored to her step and, if he was not much mistaken, the sound drifting throught the open window was that of her muted laughter.
Who was she? Where had she come from? Alex told himself repeatedly that it was of no consequence and attempted to redirect his attention to the papers he was studying. But his steward´s recommendation for a series of drainage ditches in the lower acres was as dull as the ditchwater they would be intended to channel and stood little chance of diverting his thoughts from the enigmatic Miss Tilling.
On a whim he quit the room and slipped up the stairs to the chamber she was occupying, unsure what he hoped to achieve by intruding. He searched her belongings, careful to put everything back exactly as he had found it, but found few clues as to her identity. A few gowns of a quality too superior for a mere governess, even if they were no longer the last word in fashion.
The only item of interest was awriting case, the initials EST entwined in the leather. Damn, it was locked. It would have been the work of a moment to force the lock. But, even though any letters that might shed light on her background were likely to be inside, he would not invade her privacy to that extent. He left the room, with more questions than answers jostling for position in his brain, determined to discover, at the very least, what the initial E stood for.
Returning to his study, he sighed as he directed his attention towards his steward´s long-winded report again. He disciplined himself to concentrate but had not got beyond the first page before voices in the hall distracted him. He shuddered when he recognized that of the vicar´s wife, who had presumably come to consult his mother about parish affairs. He trusted his mother would not be insensitive enough to expose the convalescing Miss Tilling to the woman´s overbearing company. His mother did not disappoint in that respect since, when Phelps approached her a short time later, Alex observed the two of them return towards the house, leaving Miss Tilling in solitude in the courtyard.
He did not pause to examine the reasons for his urgent desire to bear their guest company. Instead he left his study by a side door to avoid any possibility of encourntering the formidable Mrs. Gibson, who would be more than capable of delaying him for a considerable time.
"Miss Tilling." He approached her position from the southern path. "I trust I do not intrude?"
She started violently. "Oh, I did not see you there."
"I apologize if I appeared to creep up on you. It was not my intention. May I?" He indicated the seat his mother had just vacated.
"May I enquire after your health?"
"Thank you. How could I be anything other than greatly recovered, given the exceptional care Lady Crawley is taking of me?"
"Yes, indeed." He chuckled as he examined her face closely. There was a rosy hue to her delicate features. It had not been present on the only previous occasion he had been in her company, but the haunted expression was still firmly entrenched in her eyes. She bore his scrutiny with apparent equanimity, staring directly ahead, unsmiling. The air of despondency and self-containment he had previously sensed about her lingered still. This girl had learned to keep her aspirations and disappointments to herself, if he was not much mistaken. The realization unsettled him. She ought to be revelling in being young and so uniquely beautiful, not pretending to be someone she was not in order to escape some nameless torment. "I observe that you now have colour in your cheeks and rejoice in seeing you on the road to recovery."
"Thank you." She inclined her head in his direction. "Fresh air and exercise were my only requirements."
"Then I must beg a favour, Miss Tilling."
"What favour, sir?"
"That you do not partake too freely of those remedies." She raied a brow. "I have not seen my mother so happily occupied for many a long month and would not have her newfound purpose taken away from her too soon." He met her gaze and held it. "You comprehend my meaning, I feel assured. Dare I hope you will oblige me?"
"You would have me play the part of the invalid?"
"Do not look so outraged, Miss Tilling. I merely wish you to exaggerate your symptoms for the sake of my mother´s well-being."
"Is it such a bad thing to concern oneself with the feelings of an aging parent?"
"Not at all."
But she still looked discomposed and Alex wanted to kick himself for handling the situation so ineptly. So convinced was he that Miss Tilling has conspired with Susanna in her efforts to procure a companion for his mother that it had not occurred to him that her story might actually be true. He considered the possibility now. Perhaps she really was a displaced governess recuperating from the fever.
"Forgive me, Miss Tilling, I fear I have offended you."
"No, Lord Crawley, you have done nothing more than demonstrate concern for your mother´s well-being, which is laudable." She turned to face him for the first time since the commencement of their conversation. His reaction to the full force of her glowing eyes resting on him was embarrassingly visible and entirely inappropriate. He shifted his position in an attempt to conceal the evidence. "I can assure you, your mother´s peace of mind is almost as important to me as it is to you. She has shown me a kindness out of all proportion to my due and there is little I would not do to repay her."
"Then we are agreed." He was aware that his voice sounded strained as he struggled to regain control of himself. "I believe there are worse places in this world to recover from illness than Crawley Hall."
"Indeed, but if I am not to be permitted to roam the grounds then I must find some other activitity. I do not care to be idle."
"A consequence of your occupation, no doubt."
"Indeeed. But, Lord Crawley, there is something I must ask of you."
"Anything, Miss Tilling."
"Well, the thing is ..." Her words trailed off and she looked away from him in evident embarrassment.
"Miss Tilling?" The colour had left her face again and he felt genuine concern for her welfare. "Whatever it is, you may be assured of my discretion."
"No." She shook her head. "It is of no consequence."
In spite of his attempts to persuade her to give voice to whatever it was that concerned her, she refused to be swayed. Being a gentleman, Alex could not insist and politely changed the subject. "Tell me,what does a governess do when she is not supervising her charges?"
She offered him a veiled look. "She has little time for leisure since she shoulders a great deal of responsibility. But when she does find herself with time on her hands she might fill it by embroidering -"
"Did you make this yourself?" He fingered the colourful shawl which was draped over her shoulders on the outside of her pelisse.
"Yes, when I was myself at school."
"I know little about such matters," he said softly, "but even I can see that it is exquisite."
"But I interrupted you. What other pursuits do you enjoy? If there is something that Crawley Hall is not in a position to furnish, that situation could readily be rectified."
"You are too good." Again she almost smiled and Alex was now determined to entice her to do so, not stopping to consider why it should matter to him so much. "I must own that I also enjoy playing the harp."
"Then nothing could be simpler. My mother will be delighted when she learns of your partiality for that particular instrument, if you have not already confided in her. She herself favoured it when she was younger but has not played now for many years. Her fingers, you understand, do not permit it. But we have an excellent harp in our drawing room and I beg you to feel free to utilize it at your leisure."
"You are welcome." He smiled at her but she did not reciprocate, rather looking away from him, her attention apparently completely taken up by a vine creeping across the western corner of the courtyard. "Perhaps if you are not too fatigued you will play for us after dinner this evening? I assume you will be coming down this evening."
"If you do not consider that it would be too much for me in my delicate condition." Her response was formal and entirely correct. Even so, Alex thought he caught a glimpse of mischievousness flash through her remarkable eyes and was almost sure she was teasing him.
"I believe it a risk worth taking."
"Very well, but I think it only fair to warn you that I am shockingly out of practice. I have not played these several months."
"Because of your illness?"
"Yes, because of that." She shivered and pulled her shawl more closely about her.
"Come, Miss Tilling, I am afraid you are cold." He stood and assisted her to her feet. "And your timing is impeccable. I believe that is Mrs. Gibson´s gig I can hear making its way down the drive. I would recognize the sound of her ancient cob´s hooves anywhere." He smiled. "It will be quite safe to return to the house now."
She accepted his hand and placed her arm on his sleeve. They made their way back to the house in silence but Alex was accutely aware of her presence. He was struck by the elgance of her posture, the economically graceful manner in which she moved and the carefully guarded expression he could not begin to interpret. The touch of her fingers on his sleeve was gossamer light at first but as they progressed, she leaned a little more of her weight upon him. He sensed she was tiring and, concerned that she was still so weak, he was ridiculously glad to offer her this small service.
As they slowly traversed the lawn he wondered how she would react if he gave way to the capricious whim that was bubbling away inside him. Whatever would she say if he swept her into his arms and carried her back to the house?