Evie Whitney watched in admiration as her sister’s arrow flew straight and true, landing with a satisfying thud in the center of the target.
“Well done,” she said to her twin. “It still amazes me how accurate you are, even though your eyesight is as bad as mine and you refuse to wear spectacles.”
Eden flashed a satisfied smirk and handed her the bow. “That’s because you think about it too much, Evie, just like you do about everything. All I do is aim for the big red circle and fire away.”
It was more than that, of course, and they both knew it. Eden—or Edie, to friends and family—excelled at almost every activity she took up, despite the curse of dreadful eyesight. She had learned to compensate for her poor vision with an array of little tricks. It also helped that she was naturally graceful and confident, and adept at smoothing over awkward moments that might arise, say, from failing to recognize a friend from across the room.
Lacking her sister’s talent and grace, Evie couldn’t count the times she’d walked into potted plants or offended an acquaintance when she breezed right past them unawares. Finally, when she turned twenty, she’d stood up to her mother and insisted on acquiring a pair of spectacles. Though they placed her even more firmly in the wallflower category, at least she was no longer in danger of falling down stairs or giving the impression that she was rude.
Evie notched her arrow in the bowstring. Taking a deep breath, she enjoyed the drift of the soft breeze across the back of her neck. It was a gorgeous September day, when summer slowly melted into fall and the sky seemed to shimmer with gold around the edges.
She glanced across the lawn to the back of Maywood Manor, her family’s gracious old house. Lady Polk and her daughters, who’d been enjoying the late afternoon sun on the terrace, had gone indoors, no doubt in anticipation of the gong. Other guests, who had been strolling on the lawns or had joined Evie and Eden in the impromptu archery contest, had also drifted away to their rooms to change. Evie and her sister should be going up too, before their mother came out to scold them for being late.
Not that Mamma would dream of scolding Eden. She would just smile and chuck Eden under the chin, calling her a naughty puss before delivering a stern lecture to Evie. It was the natural state of affairs in their family, and had been for as long as Evie could remember.
“Are you going to shoot or just stand there all day like some kind of looby?” her sister said, stripping off her leather gloves. She dropped into one of the wrought-iron chairs under the canopy that sheltered the refreshments table. “Mamma will have our heads if we’re late for dinner, so you’d better make this shot your last.”
“You mean she’ll have my head, don’t you? You could set the house on fire and she’d find some way to excuse you.”
Her sister’s face twisted with sympathy. “It’s beastly, isn’t it?”
Evie stretched the bowstring and took aim. “It’s not your fault, pet. It’s just the way she is.” She loosed the arrow and followed its flight.
Eden leaned forward, squinting. “You almost hit the bull’s-eye that time.”
“I’ve been practicing. Maybe one of these days I’ll be as good as you.”
“Dream on, Sister dear,” Eden retorted as she came to her feet, lazily stretching her arms in front of her. “When it comes to—”
“When it comes to what?” Evie asked absently, retrieving her bonnet that had blown under the table. Her mother would scold if she saw her bareheaded outdoors, but the day was warm and fine and simply too lovely to wear one. Plopping the hat on her head, she turned to see her twin peering toward the house.
And felt as if the earth had just dropped away beneath her feet.
“Someone’s coming,” Eden said, “but I can’t make out who it is, confound it.”
Evie struggled to form the impossible words. “It’s . . . it’s Will. Endicott!”
Her twin’s mouth dropped open. “Wolf? Are you sure?”
“Of course I’m sure.” Evie blinked several times, as if that would somehow make Will disappear. “Do you think I could ever forget what he looks like?”
“Here, hand me your spectacles,” Eden said. Before Evie could answer, she snatched them from her nose and held them before her eyes. Then she let out a low whistle. “Well, I’ll be damned. It is Wolf Endicott. But who’s that delicious-looking fellow he’s got with him?”
Evie retrieved her spectacles. “I don’t know and I don’t care. What I do want to know is what that . . . that . . .”
Words often failed her, but never more so than today.
“Bounder? Poltroon?” Eden helpfully supplied.
Evie could only give her head a despairing shake in response.
At one time, Will Endicott had meant the world to her. She’d told him all the secrets of her soul and had adored him with the blind passion that only a young girl could feel for her first love. And she’d thought Will felt the same way, equally devoted to her and equally determined that they’d grow up and grow old together.
What a silly little fool she’d been. And what made it worse was that she really couldn’t hold it against him. After all, they’d both been so young. Will had gone on to other things, of course, as had she—eventually. It was foolish to harbor resentment and anger, especially after so many years.
But as she watched him stride across the wide expanse of lush, green lawn, Evie realized how unprepared she was to see him again, as if she were still that wounded girl of sixteen.
“What in God’s name can he be doing here?” she asked.
“I expect he’s come to see you,” her twin answered.
“But why now? He hasn’t seen any of us in years.”
Eden nodded grimly. “Let me handle it.” She stepped forward to close the gap before Will and his companion reached them. “Is that truly you, Wolf Endicott? Goodness, what brings you to our quiet little corner of North Hampshire?”
While her sister greeted the new arrivals with her usual panache, Evie could only stand there, fighting the impulse to clench her fists into her skirts. She’d never been more grateful for her sister’s skillful managing of an awkward situation.
Staring helplessly at Will as he responded to Eden’s greeting, Evie took in his tall physique and handsome features. She’d seen him a few years ago at a military review in London that her mother had insisted they attend, but he’d been several hundred feet away from where she stood, and was mounted on horseback. Now, at close quarters, she had no choice but to brace herself against the shock of his overwhelming physical presence.
He was no longer the lanky, eighteen-year-old boy of long-cherished memories. He was very much a man, with broad shoulders showcased by his close-fitting coat and long, muscular legs sheathed in breeches and riding boots. But his face had changed perhaps even more than his body. Those extraordinary pale blue eyes of his, so like a wolf’s and startling against his tanned complexion, had naturally remained the same. But a hardened maturity had replaced their youthful gleam. His features were lean, the cheekbones and jaw hard-cut and formidably masculine. His expressive mouth was now bracketed with grooves, and faint lines extended from the corners of his eyes. Some would call them laugh lines, but she suspected he’d garnered them from squinting in the harsh sunlight of Spain. Besides, he didn’t look like he laughed much these days, and after what he must have seen in war, she couldn’t blame him. She could only stare at him and wonder at the changes to the boy she’d once loved.
Eden forestalled Will’s somewhat labored greetings by throwing her arms around his neck and depositing a swift kiss on his cheek. “Oh, never mind that. It’s splendid to see you, Wolf. We were all quite worried about you and our other friends after Waterloo, but you seem perfectly fit.”
Will gave Eden a sheepish smile, obviously startled by her enthusiastic greeting. “Er, it’s wonderful to see you too, Eden. And, yes, I’m fine.”
Then he turned to Evie, his smile turning cautious, almost as if he expected that she too would throw herself into his arms. “Evie, it’s splendid to see you again, too,” he said rather formally. “You’re looking well.”
That was patently untrue. Evie knew her face must be flushed an unattractive red from a combination of heat and nerves, and her unruly hair was no doubt curling damply around her face. Never had she felt more awkward and graceless, and she wanted to bash Will over the head for putting her in this position.
“What are you doing here?” she blurted out. “Did my mother invite you?”
It would be just like Mamma to forget to tell her something so important.
Will snorted. “Not bloody likely. She looked like she’d swallowed a lemon when she caught sight of me in the entrance hall. Clearly, her feelings for me haven’t changed.”
Oddly enough, his blunt speech eased her anxiety. This was the Will she knew, not the formal, smoothly handsome stranger who’d greeted her. “And I’m being just as rude as Mamma, but you caught us by surprise.”
He nodded. “I know, but I ran into your brother at White’s. He invited us to come down with him and visit for a few days. It seemed a good opportunity to drop in on old friends and visit Aunt Rebecca.”
“How is Mrs. Endicott?” she asked. “I hope you found her well.”
Will hesitated for a second before responding. “Actually, she’s gone to Bath with her sister. I missed her by a few days.”
Evie frowned. Why hadn’t he written to his aunt before coming down? The explanation for his arrival made little sense. He’d managed to ignore the Reese family for years, so why the sudden change?
With a little laugh, Eden stepped back into the conversation. “You have yet to introduce us to your companion, Wolf.” She gave the tall, brawny man standing slightly behind Will a decidedly interested perusal.
Evie repressed a sigh. She recognized that look on her twin’s face and it usually signaled trouble.
“Don’t mind me,” the man replied. His mouth curved up in a rakish grin as he boldly stared back at Eden. “I’m just enjoying the view.”
Evie didn’t think she imagined Will’s long-suffering glance at his companion.
“Forgive me, ladies. This is Captain Alasdair Gilbride of the 42nd Regiment of Foot, my good friend of many years’ standing. Alec, may I introduce you to Miss Evelyn Whitney and Miss Eden Whitney.”
“Ladies, it’s a pleasure.” Captain Gilbride swept them a flourishing bow. A bare hint of a Scottish accent colored his voice.
Eden dipped into an equally flourishing—and mocking—curtsey. “I’m sure the pleasure is ours,” she said, batting her eyelashes in a ridiculously flirtatious manner.
Clearly, Evie’s sister had just found a new source of interest. She could understand the reaction, since Captain Gilbride’s imposing and almost intimidating physical presence was offset by a charming smile and spectacular gray eyes that gleamed with sardonic laughter. He appeared the sort of man who found a great deal of enjoyment in life. Evie could already envision her twin engaging the captain in a highly improper flirtation that would drive their mother demented.
“Hallo, what’s everyone doing out here in the hot sun?” exclaimed a familiar voice.
Evie leaned around Will to see her brother hurrying across the lawn.
“Matt, you bounder,” Eden cried, throwing herself in his arms. “We were beginning to wonder when you’d show up. It was very naughty of you to leave us to entertain Lady Mary all by ourselves.”
Matthew gave her a brusque but affectionate hug. “You’d think you hadn’t seen me for a month. Besides, my fiancé is charming and you know it. I’m sure you’ve been having a monstrously pleasant time with her.”
“That’s one way of describing it,” Eden said in a wry voice.
Lady Mary Park was almost as great a snob as Evie’s mother, but she was the daughter of an earl, the granddaughter of a duke, and was bringing quite a respectable dowry into her marriage to Matt. Mamma was in alt over the impending nuptials, and Matt—a kind brother and dutiful son but not a person given to deep thinking—seemed more than pleased with his future bride.
Eden, however, couldn’t stand her and Evie wasn’t far behind in her low opinion of Lady Mary.
“Sis, how’ve you been keeping?” Matt asked, bestowing a brotherly kiss on Evie’s cheek. “I see you’ve found Wolf and Captain Gilbride.”
“It was kind of you to invite them down,” Evie said politely. “What luck that you ran into them at your club.”
A puzzled frown creased Matt’s pleasant, round face. “Seemed more like Wolf hunting me down, actually. Oh, I say,” he said with a laugh. “That’s rather a fun joke, don’t you think? Wolf hunting me down? Get it?”
Eden pinched the space between her eyebrows while Captain Gilbride peered at Matt with a bemused expression. Will, however, directed a rather baleful stare at her brother, which struck Evie as odd. He knew as well as anyone that Matt had a ponderous sense of humor, so why should it surprise him now?
“Yes, dear, I’m sure we all appreciated your little joke,” Evie said. “But what do you mean Wolf hunted you—”
“Good Lord,” Captain Gilbride said, whipping a pocket watch from his waistcoat. “Surely it must be past time to change for dinner.”
Drat. Evie cast a nervous glance at the house. In the shock of seeing Will, she’d forgotten about dinner.
“Confound it,” Matt exclaimed. “Mamma expressly sent me out to look for you. She wanted to see you before dinner, Evie. And she looked rather put out, if you want to know the truth. What have you done to rile the old girl up now?”
Her cheeks burning with embarrassment, Evie glanced at Will, but he simply regarded her with a quiet sympathy that looked too much like pity. “I haven’t done anything, as far as I know, but one never knows.”
“Don’t worry about Mamma,” Eden said. “I’ll take care of her. But we’d better all get back to the house or there will surely be a scene.”
“That sounds amusing,” Captain Gilbride commented sardonically.
“Trust me, it wouldn’t be,” Will replied.
Evie was almost tempted to laugh. Much had changed in the last ten years, but one thing still had the power to unite them all—fear of Lady Reese.
Her impulse to laugh died when Will stepped forward, as if ready to take her arm and escort her back to the house. She had an alarming sense that if she touched him, she might just faint from sheer nerves
Fortunately, her sister turned her back on Captain Gilbride, who was politely asking if he could escort her to the house. Instead, Eden slipped her hand in the crook of Will’s arm. When he responded with a startled look, she flashed him a grin.
“Come along, Wolf,” Eden said. “I’m dying to hear all about your adventures.” She cast a saucy glance at Gilbride, who looked slightly taken aback by her rebuff. “I’m sure you and the captain got up to all kinds of trouble over there.”
Chattering gaily, Eden pulled Will across the lawn. Captain Gilbride, looking peeved, trailed in their wake.
Taking Matt’s arm, Evie started to follow at a slower pace.
“Looks like Edie’s up to her old tricks.” Matt’s pleasant, rather stolid features registered his disapproval. “She’ll have those two at sixes and sevens before nightfall.”
Evie frowned. “She’s just teasing Will, that’s all.”
“Hope so for your sake, Sis. We all know how you feel about Will. Wouldn’t be very sporting of Edie to try and cut you out.”
She went light-headed at the possibility of Eden falling in love with Will. What a dreadful development that would turn out to be.
Then she remembered it didn’t matter, because she didn’t love Will anymore. “Don’t be silly. There’s hasn’t been anything between us for a very long time.”
“Well, that’s good to hear. You know how Mamma feels about him.”
Their mother had only tolerated Will’s presence because his guardian, Mr. Philip Endicott, was a wealthy member of the local gentry from a distinguished family. Her father thought the world of Mr. Endicott and had always welcomed Will to Maywood Manor. Will’s true parentage was never spoken of, but that didn’t mean her mother wasn’t fully aware of it. To Mamma, just as damning as Will’s illegitimate status was his lack of financial prospects. According to Lady Reese’s social barometer, for all the royal blood that ran through his veins Will had nothing to recommend him as a potential suitor.
Not that Evie had ever cared about his prospects. She would have happily left her quiet comfortable life in the country and followed Will behind the drum in order to be with him.
Unfortunately, Will had never called upon her to make that sacrifice. “You needn’t worry. I’m sure Will’s not here for any reason other than a simple visit to old friends.”
Matt gave a noncommittal grunt. “If you say so, but he seemed fairly keen about wrangling an invitation from me.”
They were about to mount the shallow marble steps that led up to the back terrace, but Evie held him back. “Then you weren’t joking about Wolf hunting you down?”
“But it was . . . oh, I see what you mean,” he said with a slow grin. “You mean I wasn’t joking about the fact that he was insistent about coming down to the old pile.”
“Yes, that’s what I mean,” she said, stifling a sigh. Matt was not the sharpest pin in the box, but he was a kind and affectionate brother.
“He was certainly keen on it, I’ll say that. I was already out the door when he came dashing after me. Said he heard we were having a jolly house party and would like the chance to come visit with everyone.”
“He actually said jolly?”
Matt pursed his lips, obviously thinking hard. “Yes, he did. In fact, Sis, he was so blasted adamant that I was convinced he wanted to come courting, if you see what I mean.”
She pressed a hand to her bodice, hating the instinctive flutter of hope in her chest. “Yes, I do see what you mean.”
But why would Will even consider trying to rekindle their old relationship? What could possibly have sparked an interest in something that had lain dormant—if not lifeless—for years?
“I don’t suppose he’s heard about you and Michael Beaumont has he?” Matt asked.
Evie’s silly flight of fancy crashed back to earth. She could almost imagine the stone of the terrace cracking under her feet with the force of the impact as she was brought down by the fell hand of guilt.
“No, I don’t suppose he has heard,” she said. “After all, why would he?”