About the book
All he wants is the taste that her lips allow…
Unrequited love for her brother’s best friend is all Lady Margaret Whitfield has ever known. With her father’s death sinking her into depression, his daily visits only push her further into despair.
Philip Winston, second son of the Earl of Camden, knows that the woman he loves only has eyes for another man. With only a few days left before he must leave with the Navy, he finds himself on a different mission: mending Margaret’s broken heart.
On the path to hapiness, Margaret and Phillip finally see their dreams take shape in the form of each other. Until the man she used to be in love with suddenly declares his affection. Following a paper trail of sinister letters that haunt his nights, Phillip finds himself in a familiar place. A sinister ghost of the past will make sure that all will pay for the mistakes of one…
Lady Margaret Whitfield was watching eagerly from her window as her brother Leonard, the Marquess of Cunningham, and his friends played in the sprawling yard of Bartley Manor.
“Miss Joan!” she called out, kicking her legs against the divan she was sitting on, her dress brushing against her shins. “He is here! The boy I keep telling you about!”
Miss Joan, the governess, sighed loudly, to prove that she had long suffered at the hand of such nonsense. She lifted the gauze curtain by the window and peered out.
“So I see, Lady Margaret. But you know, you should focus on your studies while you are with me. Boys will not elevate your mind. They are distracting you already.”
Margaret scrunched up her nose as she was wont to do when upset or confused. “Is there not plenty of time for lessons? There are only some days when Lord Durby comes around.”
Margaret had a book open on her lap, and she closed it loudly. Pushing herself off of the divan she ran to the door. Miss Joan clutched at her chest, her eyes wide with horror.
“Child! Where are you going?”
Margaret pointed a thumb at her chest. “I am going outside to play. I am tired of sitting in here watching him and reading stuffy old books. Why do the boys get to play and I do not?”
Miss Joan’s strangled cry of disapproval did nothing to stop young Margaret leaping from the study room into the hall and out the door to her garden. There, she spied her brother, Leonard, her brother’s friend Philip Winston, and Charles, her dearest love.
At eight years old, she did not entirely know what love was. All she knew was that it was all she could think about. Charles Hitchcock, the Lord of Durby, was exactly what she thought a boy ought to be. He was tall, had good hair and teeth, and he could run fast. She wanted to race him to show him that she could run fast too!
She rushed outside and crept against the side of the house, watching the three boys in their game. It looked like the green-eyed boy, Philip Winston, the Earl of Camden’s younger son, was trying to show his best friends Leonard and Charles the latest moves he’d learned from his fencing instructor. Leonard had told her once that Philip was very skilled at fencing. She thought it sounded like a magical word but didn’t understand how it worked.
It looked even stranger, for the boys were plunging their arms forward into the air and spinning about.
“This is ridiculous!” Charles cried, and Philip frowned.
Margaret’s eyes widened. Perhaps it was not so nice a game after all, if Charles thought it was stupid. She wanted to think whatever he thought. Charles was the wisest boy she had ever known, better than her brother.
Philip said, “Are we too old to use our imaginations? Come on, you will be jealous unless you know the latest move. The other boys at school will knock you down during fencing instruction.”
With a frown, Charles leaned forward and pushed Philip on the shoulders.
“Hey!” Philip yelled out and pushed back.
Her brother rushed forward and pushed the two of them hard in the chest.
“Come, you two. Let us just find some sticks or something. Why does it matter? Or we can find something else to play.”
“Yes, you could!” Margaret called out to them in her best, most adorable voice. No one could resist Margaret when she used her best voice. All three boys turned, and she grinned widely. Her brother narrowed his eyes at her and crossed his arms.
“Margaret, what are you doing out here? Are you not supposed to be with your governess?”
Margaret made a yawning motion with her hand. She preferred to be as dramatic as possible. “I was too bored. I thought it would be much more exciting watching you out here. Come, race me!”
“We cannot race you! You are a girl!” her brother pointed at her, and it made her angry. When she got angry, her face turned the color of a beet. She didn’t know why it happened, but it always made her mother sigh and scold. She kept telling Margaret that ladies did not resemble vegetables.
“You will see. Charles, race me!”
She rushed forward to him and pulled on his arm, jumping up and down. She wanted him to see just how well she could jump too. Wasn’t she marvelous? She hoped Charles thought so. Her brother was always spoiling everything with his mean words, and Philip often just looked at her with a strange look on his face. She didn’t like to talk to him.
Charles frowned. “No, I cannot race you. Like your brother said, you are just a girl. No one would want to run against you. Especially not boys.” The three boys laughed at Charles’ comment, and Margaret felt her anger and humiliation expand and grow.
She kept becoming more like a beet when Leonard said, “I think my sister likes you, Charles.”
He laughed loudly.
Philip chimed in, “A little girl likes you, Charles!”
All three of the boys erupted into raucous laughter. Margaret felt like her face was on hot coals, the flush of embarrassment was on her cheeks. What rude boys they were! They did not even want to race her! She rushed forward to her Charles and with all her strength, she kicked him in the shin and gave him her meanest look.
“You will regret that, Charles Hitchcock!”
She didn’t want to see what his stupid face did, or look at him any longer after he’d embarrassed her so, and she ran off back to the governess. In the study room, Miss Joan was standing in her dark gown and cap, her arms crossed, making a tsking sound with her tongue.
Margaret sighed. “I know. It was foolishness.”
“So it was, Young Lady.”
Margaret wanted to forget that Charles Hitchcock ever existed.
Clutching her chest and feeling perspiration break out on her forehead, Margaret woke. She blinked into the darkness, and once she realized she was home, in her own room, she laid back on her pillow trying to catch her breath. A few strands of dark, raven-black hair were clutching to her forehead and she swept them away, feeling the cold moisture on her fingertips.
The dreams continued, and while they weren’t always horrible nightmares, they troubled the previously blissful sleep she used to enjoy. She covered her eyes with her hands. Tears pricked at her eyes. Her father, Lord George Whitfield, Duke of Bartley, had just passed away a few months before, and ever since then, Margaret’s dreams were relentless. Most of them were innocuous, full of nothings, but they often turned back to when she was a child, the time of innocence before the world’s cruelty was revealed.
Unfortunately, they often contained thoughts of Charles. He had been coming to their home nearly every day in recent months, and while he had never paid any mind to her as more than Leonard’s younger sister, little Margaret was still inside of her, feeling that same childlike passion she had felt for him all those years ago. Now, at twenty she wished that he would see her as a woman, and not as the girl who kicked him in the leg at eight years old.
“There is no more chance for sleep tonight,” she whispered from inside her bed curtains, and so decided to swing out of bed and find occupation until the morning hours. Once she exited the cocoon of her bed, she could detect the slightest bit of dawn creeping in through her windows. At least she had her eyes closed in a sort of sleep for most of the night. She moved to the window and clutched her arms to herself.
The world was a strange place without her father. She wasn’t sure who she was anymore. She had now been given a new sister-in-law, Juliet, married to her brother, Leonard, but there would always be a chasm yawning deep within her at the loss of her father, and so early. He did not even get to see her wed!
Life would continue on, she supposed. And somehow she could find a way back from the sorrow that threatened to suffocate her.
A few hours later, Margaret was dressed and walking to breakfast, hoping against hope that her sleepless night would not be etched on her face. But she was not to be rewarded. When she arrived in the breakfast room, her sister-in-law, Juliet, drew in a sharp breath. She rushed to Margaret’s side, and Margaret silently thanked Heaven that no one else was about.
Juliet said urgently, “Margaret, you look terrible.”
“Why, thank you, my dearest Sister.”
“No, I mean you have not slept again? Are you ill?”
Margaret felt Juliet’s hand clutching her own. She had never had a sister, and so did not know what it would be like. To her delight, it had been a wonderful, beautiful thing, but Margaret did not feel worthy of it. Juliet was like a bright spot of sunshine with her hazel eyes and heart-shaped face, and she was a dark cave with brooding glances underneath her raven hair.
“Let us sit down, Juliet. I do not want to be the cause of you not taking breakfast. What would my brother say?” Margaret attempted to lighten the mood.
Juliet did as she was asked, but as soon as they were both seated, Juliet said again, “You must tell me. Is there anything I can do for you?”
Margaret poured herself tea from a white steaming pot in the center of the table.
“No, there is nothing you can do. It is the dreams I told you about. They keep coming, and while my eyes may be closed and my mind closed to the present world, I awake exhausted from my ventures into the past.”
“I see.” Juliet leaned back a little, and Margaret could tell she was scrutinizing her. “Is Charles a common feature in your dreams?”
Margaret lifted an eyebrow and clutched her tea cup. “What do you think, dear Sister?”
Juliet sighed. “Blast him! I think you should just forget about him. I had hoped for it, but then he started coming around nearly every day to talk business with Leonard!”
Margaret watched Juliet’s tiny fit of anger with amusement.
“At least I have you to defend me, Juliet. Good thing Leonard knows nothing of my feelings. But Charles is not as bad as all that. He is intelligent, interesting, and handsome. I could have fallen in love with a far less suitable person. Are not those wonderful qualities one can find in a man?”
Juliet tapped her fingers on the table with irritation. “Of course they are, Margaret, but what of kindness? Generosity? Mutual feeling?”
At the last words, Margaret blushed and looked away, ashamed of the fact that she knew and Juliet knew that Charles felt nothing for her. It was this extra pain during her time of mourning that sent her over the edge and made her feel like she was drowning.
Juliet squeaked a little in embarrassment.
“Oh, Margaret, do forgive me. I do not wish to cause you any kind of pain. I am simply infuriated that this man does not know how wonderful you are! He is too blind to see, and I call him a fool for it. I wish he would simply stay away and leave you be!”
Margaret smiled. “Thank you, Juliet. Now I say we take our breakfast and leave men behind.”
She began to butter a piece of toast even though she did not really feel like eating. Juliet looked at her for another moment, and then pulled the pot of jam next to her.
“I suppose you are right. They are foolish beings after all.” Juliet giggled.
“Who are foolish beings, My Love?” Margaret’s brother Leonard’s loud, deep voice filled the room, and Margaret was glad that at least he had not heard her mention the name of Charles.
Juliet grinned. “Men. Who else could we be discussing who would fit under that description?”
Leonard laughed and kissed his wife on the head.
“You are quite right, My Dear. How could I have thought otherwise? Good morning, Margaret.”
Margaret wanted to hate her brother for so many reasons. He had teased her relentlessly over the years, but in the end, he turned out quite well, always being kind to her and never pushing her to do something she did not want to do. He never discussed marriage with her, and so she felt free to allow her heart to latch on to whoever it wanted. Even though no one else had caught her interest since she was a child. Leonard was also very loving and tender to his wife and new child.
“Good morning, Leonard.”
“And so, what do you two ladies have planned for the day?”
Juliet began, “I do not know, but I am certain I will be taking young George out to the gardens, if Margaret will join me.”
“Of course. And you, Brother? What will you be doing?”
Leonard was shuffling through a few letters he had brought to the table. Juliet highly disapproved of reading correspondence during mealtimes, but at breakfast she was a little more lenient.
“I have another appointment with Charles. He is coming by in a little while.”
Margaret’s heart clenched painfully. Would there be no end to his appearances? He would sweep in the room and look around in that handsome, lordly way of his. Margaret always felt weak under his gaze, and she dreaded each of the moments that he arrived. She wanted to stay tucked away in the library, lost in a book, but she knew that she would not be able to resist sharing at least a few words with him or getting another glimpse of him.
Juliet glanced her way and then said, “Darling, when will these appointments be finished? Charles has been coming nearly every day. Has he nothing else to do?”
Leonard chuckled and looked at his wife. “Have you grown tired of him, My Love?”
Juliet looked down. Margaret wanted to giggle. Juliet had always had trouble with lying.
“Of course not. Charles is wildly entertaining, but I was simply curious. How does he have time to work on his other ventures when he is so constantly here?”
Leonard nodded. “Once we have everything organized for the new wine variety, he will be traveling a lot more, attempting to sell to different areas, setting up auctions, that sort of thing.”
“And how long do you expect that to take?” Margaret tried to take all emotion out of her voice. She’d never wanted to mention Charles very much, since her brother had discovered her childhood love for him, and so she did not want to give him any clues to her continued, womanly affection for him.
Leonard shrugged. “A few more weeks, I should think. Then, Juliet, you shall be rid of him.” He took his wife’s hand in his and kissed it before pouring himself a cup of tea.
Inside, Margaret bemoaned her fate. Even if Charles did go away to work on the business elsewhere, she knew that she could never truly be rid of him.
Philip Winston awoke to the sound of clanging. At first he thought it was something inside of his head, for his headache matched the feeling of pans banging together inside of it, but when his eyes flickered open, he merely saw a maid lighting the fire in the hearth of his rented room. He sat up with a bit of effort, wincing as he did so.
“Good God,” he breathed. “The Lord has punished me rightly enough now, I say.”
At his words, the maid jumped. He held a hand out to placate her.
“Do continue, young woman. Do not let me frighten you.”
The woman’s eyes were wide with fright. He was certain that she was not used to be spoken to or being manhandled by drunken lords who came to the gaming hell. She did not reply but merely returned to her work. Philip rubbed his face with his hands, feeling the growing stubble underneath them. He looked around, searching for Charles.
He finally spotted him, crumpled up in a chair, his eyes open with a brooding expression.
Philip stood and moved to the side table to splash cold water on his face. He turned to hear the closing of the door as the maid left and a fire began to grow in the hearth.
“How does your head feel this morning, Charles? Mine feels like a lovely drum being played upon, and I cannot say that you look much better.”
Charles chuckled, losing the brooding look in an instant. “You have never learned to take your liquor, have you? It is too bad that you continue to bring yourself to these dens of iniquity, when you do not know how to properly partake in them. I feel right as can be.”
Philip turned around, pulling at his white cravat to tie it again properly. “Well, as you know, friend, I am not most men. Perhaps my inability to awaken joyfully after a night of indulgence means that I am too pure of heart.”
Charles laughed. “You always enjoy a bit of lording your morality over others, do you not?” With a little difficulty, he stood up and moved in front of the looking glass, adjusting his shirt. “I will be late if I do not hurry.”
“Oh? Where are you off to on this fine day of the Lord?”
Charles grimaced at Philip’s continued religious references. “I am off to see Leonard, our old friend, as usual. We have much business to discuss.”
Philip pulled on his jacket, glad it had not been crinkled in the night.
“Is that so?”
Philip’s heart flipped at the thought of Margaret Whitfield who had grown into quite a beauty over the years, but he hadn’t seen her in over six months. Last time he did, she had been veiled in her mourning attire, but perhaps about a year before that, when he had seen her at Sir Felix Andrews and Sarah’s wedding, friends of Leonard and his wife Juliet. However, she had been busy trying to get Charles’ attention and had even asked him to dance! Philip remembered steaming with jealousy.
He knew that he had always had a foolish passion for her, but her eyes were never turned his way. Only in the direction of Charles, but he knew that Charles had no interest, or at least he had never shown any in all the years they had known each other.
“Yes.” Charles grabbed his hat from a side table and turned to Philip. “See you another time, old friend.”
Philip got an idea. It had been too long since he’d last seen Margaret, and he found he was curious to do so. “What if I came with you to see Leonard? I have not seen the family since the funeral. Perhaps I ought to pay my respects.”
Charles shrugged. “That does not bother me in the slightest. Come along if you must. But remember, the family is still in mourning. Margaret especially has taken the death quite hard. I worry about the poor girl.”
Now, Philip knew he really needed to see her. He needed to know that the cheerful Margaret he had known and loved since his youth was well. “Is Leonard not also upset by the loss of his father?”
“Of course, but he acts as a Duke must. With stoicism and an eye to caring for the businesses under his care.”
“I see.” He knew that he should have written to Leonard more often, or even checked in, to make sure that his old friend was coping well.
“Come, let us go. I do not want to waste any more time. Get your coat and hat.” Philip roused himself from his reverie and dressed hurriedly to follow Charles out of the room.
Philip’s headache and general malaise did not abate in the carriage ride to Bartley Manor. Unfortunately, he would have to be as stoic as possible to make sure his friends did not guess where he and Charles had spent their evening. Stoicism, that was something he could most certainly work on. Too often he let his emotions entangle him, and he had no way of getting out.
As the carriage pulled up to the side of the Manor, Charles said with a grin, “Have a care, Philip. Do not yawn so often or so noisily in front of the family. You do remember how to behave yourself in polite society, I hope?”
Philip chuckled. “Of course, Charles. My mother would be very upset if I did not know that yawning was not very appropriate among company, especially when ladies are present.” Philip winked.
Charles grinned. “Let us go, then. To business.”
They walked up to the manor, and Philip took in his surroundings. Even though his father was Earl of Camden, Philip himself never had lived in such grandeur as Bartley Manor. The sprawling gardens, the gothic windows and archways always made him feel a tingle of awe. He was impressed every time he saw the old mansion.
They were allowed to enter by the butler. The man took them to wait in the drawing room, but since Philip was familiar with the house, he left out a side door to enjoy the hallway of paintings he was so fond of. Leonard had a love of painting himself and so he had made a fine collection in his own home.
Feeling the urge to yawn come over him again, Philip decided to rub his face and slap it to try to get himself to wake up. He turned to the side and kept rubbing as he moved a little down the hallway, desiring more than anything to have a hot cup of tea and a scone.
After another moment, he lifted his hands from his eyes and nearly toppled into a woman, who shrieked in surprise and dropped something to the ground.
Philip was suddenly flooded with embarrassment, and he bent down to assist her. “Oh, do forgive me, Miss. I am terribly sorry. I am half asleep this morning.”
“Please, it is my fault.”
Philip spied a leather-bound notebook, and he reached out for it, just as she did. When his fingers touched hers, Philip suddenly had the feeling of being struck by something. It was far from unpleasant, but it did stop his words for a time. She pulled away from his touch, and it made him look up. The notebook was forgotten for the moment, as Philip was lost in a pair of blue eyes, reminding him of what he imagined the sea around an exotic island would look like.
Before he risked making even more of a fool himself, he said softly, “Margaret. I did not see that it was you.”
She smiled, and it was like the clouds parted on a stormy day. He felt a tingle on the back of his neck. “Nor I you.”
He grabbed her notebook, and they both stood. He handed it back to her open hands.
“Thank you,” she said. “I am afraid that I am nearly sleepwalking this morning myself.”
“’Tis no trouble, Lady Margaret. Forgive my informality before.”
“Oh, it is nothing, Mr. Winston. You have nothing to apologize for.” She clutched the notebook in her arms, and Philip stared at her face, the breath moving slowly through his body. Her blue eyes still had that same passion and brightness that they’d always had. They had always intrigued him. He remembered when they would light up with fury as a child, and before her father’s death, he remembered their sparkle whenever she laughed.
But now she was a woman, and he’d forgotten just how much she had bloomed and grown so beautiful. Even after only a year, she continued to grow in loveliness. Her nearly black hair shone with a luster, and it was tied back prettily at the base of her neck. Her lovely red lips were a stark contrast to the paleness of her skin, and she wore a beautiful blue gown that reminded him of what a fairy woman might wear.
Margaret was perfect, and her beauty nearly choked him as she stood before him expectantly. Her long dark lashes fluttered as she looked up at him. All the old feelings he had put away in the past had come plunging forward into the open again, so much so, that he could feel his chest tighten with the weight of them. Margaret had captured his passion again anew, and it rolled through him with a fervor.
I wonder if she is still smitten with Charles.
After breakfast, Juliet went to see little George, Leonard went to his study, and Margaret to her room to collect her notebook. She thought she could busy herself with writing her poetry. It would help calm her mind before she had to see Charles again. She wasn’t sure she could handle it. Yesterday, he had winked at her once, and she’d fallen all to pieces, barely able to utter back a word.
Why couldn’t she be strong and confident like the woman she hoped she was deep down inside? She desperately wanted to be stalwart and powerful, but it felt like an insurmountable task once Charles was in the room and she could smell him and see the color of his eyes and his mouth that was always curved into a wry grin. All she wanted was for him to see her, to one day turn his eyes to her with affection.
Exhaustion began to creep up on her. Breakfast had only just passed, and yet she wanted to return to slumber. However, that would not do. It did not matter whether she slept at night or during the day, she couldn’t escape her dreams. Her only source of freedom was her writing.
And so, with her mind focused on the current poem she was working on, she wandered to the library and down the long hallway where her brother liked to hang his most prized works of art. It was always a peaceful and quiet place, second to the library of course, and so she treasured her time here, wandering through and looking across the famous picturesque scenes that hung in gilded frames on the wall.
However, she was distracted today. She was trying to piece together a few coherent verses, but her mind was also fuzzy from lack of sleep, and so she hadn’t seen that there was someone else in the hallway as well, someone who wasn’t watching his steps and she ran right into him.
Please do not be Charles. Please do not be Charles.
Her thoughts kept running this repeated pattern as she kept her head down, afraid to look up. She almost breathed a loud sigh of relief when she heard the voice that did not belong to him. But who did it belong to exactly? She knelt down to pick up her notebook that had fallen in the process and her fingertips were brushed lightly by the man’s. It was a strange gentle touch and she almost recoiled from its surprising tenderness.
She finally looked up and recognized Philip Winston, the boy who she had never really spoken to growing up but who now was certainly no longer a boy. The only thing that remained of his past looks was his brown hair and green eyes, but everything else had changed.
She remembered in a sort of haze seeing him at the funeral, but before that, she hadn’t seen him in a year. He was much handsomer than she’d remembered, with his broad, athletic shoulders visible under his coat, and lovely smile with straight, white teeth. She felt a little frisson of something rush through her at the realization.
After their apologies to each other, Margaret could tell Philip looked uncomfortable, and she wondered why. Did she look so terrible from her lack of sleep? She put a hand to her hair. Was something wrong that made the man stare at her so? She was just about to say something when out of nowhere, the world clapped back to cold reality, for Charles emerged from the sitting room, his eyes narrowed, clutching his hat.
“Philip, what in the blazes are you doing? We can go into Leonard now.”
Philip said nothing but just kept facing Margaret. He suddenly spluttered into life.
“Of course, Charles. Forgive me. I was merely admiring the…art. And speaking to Lady Whitfield.”
Charles turned, and when he saw Margaret, the lines of his frustrated expression smoothed, and Margaret’s heart sped up as he smiled lazily in her direction. He stepped forward, ever the gentleman, grasping her hand in his and bowing his head to kiss it.
“My Lady, a good morning to you. I am certain you are getting sick of my presence so often in this house.”
Margaret felt the skin of his lips on her hand, and everything tingled. He had always been kind and attentive in greeting her daily, but this? This was more than he had done in a long while. Why was he suddenly doing it now?
She tried to find her voice as she curtsied to him, but nothing came out. At first it was just a few squeaks and mumbled attempts at replies, but still nothing happened. Her face flushed, and her eyes widened when she realized that it had been several moments that she’d been expected to say something back.
Charles narrowed his eyes at her as if wondering what a curious object stood before him, and then brusquely released his hand from hers. Receiving no reply from Margaret, he turned to Philip. “Come, Philip. Let’s go meet our old friend.”
Margaret finally found her words and said rapidly, “Good morning to you, Lord Charles. Do forgive me,” she laughed nervously. “I fear that my lack of sleep last evening has prevented me from remembering my manners.”
Her voice was tremulous but strong enough to not arouse too much suspicion, or so she hoped. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Philip frowning, but she ignored him, her eyes hungry for Charles’ next expression, her ears awaiting the sound of his voice once more. If only she could feel the touch of his lips again on her skin. Perhaps that would be enough to make her endlessly happy and remove her shroud of grief.
Charles bowed again, and this time he winked. “No trouble, dear Margaret. Now, if you will excuse us.”
Margaret blinked. “Of course.”
Philip bowed quickly and said, “Lovely to see you again, Lady Margaret. I hope to see you again soon.”
She nodded politely and then watched as the two men walked down the hallway to Leonard’s study. Once they were out of earshot, she sighed back against the wall of the corridor and put a hand to her forehead.
“Blast, Margaret, are you a complete and utter fool?”
Philip couldn’t help but allow the sinking feel of disappointment linger in his stomach. It was quite obvious now. Margaret still had feelings for Charles, and the thought irritated him to no end. Why is it that Charles got things that he did not even want?
Charles whispered to Philip as they approached Leonard’s study.
“See, I told you, Philip, the girl is struggling with her father’s death greatly. It has stolen the sparkle from her eyes. “
Philip was going to disagree, that her eyes were just as lovely as ever, grief or no, but they had just entered the study, and Leonard stood to greet them smilingly.
“Philip!” He drew the man into a hug. “What a surprise!”
Philip smiled back, happy to be back with his old friend again. His irritation was momentarily forgotten.
“Leonard, it is good to see you. Is all well? I have not seen you since the funeral.”
Leonard nodded, and knowing him as he did, Philip could tell that the death of his father affected him greatly, whatever Charles had to say on the matter. One could see it in Leonard’s eyes.
“Yes, all is as well as can be expected. We shall get through it well enough.”
“And how is George? Growing up nicely, I hope?”
Leonard grinned like a proud father. “So he is. If you can stay a bit, you should go and see him and Juliet. But first, you must tell me everything that has been happening with you both. Terrorizing London, I suppose?”
Philip grinned and glanced at a laughing Charles, as he took his seat. “We have our moments, of course.” Charles answered.
Philip added, “We have just spent an evening of immorality in the closest gaming hell.”
Leonard smiled. “I would say that I envy you gentlemen that frenzied night of debauchery, but I am safely ensconced in home life now.”
Leonard leaned back, his hands on the back of his head.
Philip smirked. “Ah, yes, you have somehow found a way to make a woman fall in love with you. I feel sorry for the poor woman. What a smug cad for a husband she has.”
The three of them laughed merrily, and after a few moments, Charles added, “But you have done very well for yourself here, friend. The Duchess is a lovely woman.”
Leonard grinned proudly. He pointed to his two friends. “Surely, I can hear wedding announcements from the two of you in the next few years?”
Philip knew Leonard was joking, but he shifted uncomfortably, hopeful that his deepest desire was not evident on his face. None of his friends had ever known about his love for Margaret, and he especially did not wish her own brother to know. Somehow, it felt pointless to share, since she did not feel the same way.
“You shall sooner hear announcements from the dogs in the street, I should say!” Charles guffawed.
Philip chuckled. “Well, as soon as I hone my powers of persuasion, I will let you know.”
He suddenly had the desire to see Margaret. He did not know how long Leonard planned to stay at the house, and he wanted to make sure he had the chance to see her smile before he was forced to leave. He stood.
“Now, I merely came for a visit. I do not wish to disturb your important business. I will busy myself elsewhere.”
Leonard nodded. “As I said, go to see Juliet and little George. They will be walking the grounds with Margaret at this time, I should think.”
Business had never been of interest to Philip, and certainly money had never been his true object in his pursuits. He had really only enjoyed being happy, and while the Navy had never been his ideal, he thought it could give him the sense of adventure that he had been wanting to fulfill. Besides, a walk in the garden where Margaret would be? That sounded like just the thing that would suit him.
“I shall take myself there and come and see you after.”
Leonard sat down behind the desk again. “Please do. We all shall take tea together.”
He left by the usual route, through the lovely open French doors that led out from the conservatory into the sprawling back garden filled with rows and rows of shrubs, trees, and flowers.
It looked only slightly different to what he remembered growing up. Every time he returned to Bartley, the rush of memories came back to him forcefully, and he found himself filled with the pleasant ache of nostalgia, childhood, and everything that was sweet and innocent in the world.
As he turned his eyes to the eastward section of the garden he saw lovely, brown-haired Juliet waving in his direction with a young, plump George in her arms. Margaret walked austerely next to her. Philip straightened up a little out of habit. Even though her affection for Charles was known to everyone, there was no harm in enjoying her company, was there? He felt wicked for his thoughts, but he was no stranger at being able to charm women.
“Philip! How lovely it is to see you. Leonard mentioned you might be coming. Have you come to join us in our walk?” Juliet’s smile was wide and welcoming.
Philip bowed with his hands behind his back. Both Margaret and Juliet curtsied low.
“So I have. Business bores me to no end, ladies. I hope you will allow me to accompany you?”
“Of course! Join us. Margaret, will you not greet our guest?” Juliet eyed Margaret kindly.
Philip came to Margaret’s aid. “Lady Margaret and I have already seen each other this morning. I was not looking where I was going, and I indecorously bumped into her in the hallway.”
“Is that so?” Julia lifted an interested eyebrow. He thought he could see Margaret blush a little.
“Yes, Juliet.” Margaret’s voice was a little flat. “I was also not looking where I was going this morning. Busy on my way somewhere, you know.”
Margaret’s smile was kind but fleeting. For a moment, Philip wished that she would look up at him the way she looked at Charles, with so much love and wonder. That was the way he looked at her.
“I see. What a morning accident you both have had. Well, if you are sufficiently recovered with no lasting injuries, let us begin our turn about the garden.” She put George down on the ground.
“Hello, little George,” Philip said with a smile.
“Hello,” the little boy replied and stuck his finger into his mouth.
Philip laughed loudly. “Young man, that is exactly what I wish to do sometimes when I speak to incredibly boring people. I shall consider it for my next meeting with them.”
George looked at him curiously while Juliet laughed merrily. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw that even Margaret began to chuckle a little. His heart swelled with pride. Philip decided that he would attempt to make it his goal to make Margaret laugh again while he was visiting.
The rest of the walk passed pleasantly enough with Juliet and Philip leading most of the conversation. He would ask Margaret questions, but she did not often reply in full sentences and did not appear as if she wished to speak very much at all. He did not wish to force her, and so he did not, although he pined for the moment when he could see her smile again, or perhaps even hear her laugh in full.
Back at the entrance to the Manor, Juliet gathered George into her arms.
“I shall return directly. It is time for George’s nap, and while I know that his nursemaid can take him, I prefer to do it myself!” Juliet turned to Margaret. “Now, dear, I have a little surprise for you in the drawing room. I will meet you there presently. Philip, you must join us. I know that Leonard and Charles will come later for tea.”
He nodded politely, and Juliet and George left, leaving the two of them on their own. He motioned Margaret to enter the doorway before him, and he swept in behind her, watching the folds of her delicate dress as she walked slowly ahead of him. He hated to see her so unhappy. It felt wrong somehow. Someone like Margaret deserved happiness. It was too bad that along with the sadness of her father’s death, she still pined for a man whose heart she did not possess.
Philip said, “You must enjoy being an aunt very much. I confess I am rather looking forward to becoming an uncle, if my brother, Edward, would ever deign to marry. He has been too busy out in the world for that, I am afraid.”
“Oh yes. I dote on little George. I never knew that being an aunt could be so much fun.” She smiled up at him, and his heart skipped. “I always remember our aunts as cold, domineering, and harsh.”
Philip nodded. “Me as well. Perhaps they thought it better for us not to be too doted upon.”
“I suppose. How have you been in the last few months, Philip?”
Philip was pleased that she was asking him questions. They were never uncomfortable with one another in the past, but he had never been so starkly alone with her before.
“Well, I have been deciding what my next steps will be.”
“You mean what trade you will embark upon?”
“Exactly. My father has his own ideas for me to join the clergy, but I have decided upon the Navy.”
She turned back to him, her eyes shining with interest.
“How exciting. I do hope you will enjoy it.”
She sighed as they neared the drawing room. “I wonder what Juliet’s surprise could be. She is a wonderful sister-in-law, but one can get a little tired from all the excitement.”
Philip nodded. “She must be trying to find ways to make you feel wonderfully at home with her by your side as the new addition to the family.” Margaret entered the room, and Philip behind.
Suddenly she froze, and Philip could see the line of her back straighten and her shoulders tense. She did not say anything, but she did not proceed further into the room. What could she be seeing? His heart began to speed up, fearful she may have found someone ill or even dead in the room, for that was what her face looked like. It turned even paler than he had seen it earlier, and all former happiness in discussing George was gone from her face.
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