Meredith Burnley hated spring. All the bad things in her life happened to her on blooming April days like this.
She stood on the edge of a dirt path, staring at bluebells that swirled into the dense woods encircling her family’s manor house. Sunshine peeked through the overhanging branches, sparking a patchwork of blue petals and young green grass into a living mosaic of light-dappled color.
It really was lovely, she thought gloomily.
With a resolute sigh, she thrust painful memories into the dark corners of her mind and resumed her brisk pace through the trees, wanting to return to the house before Annabel awoke from her afternoon nap.
Her half-sister’s mysterious ailment had returned with a vengeance these last few months. Although Annabel had seemed much improved last year, a strange decline had now taken hold, in spite of treatment by a new doctor from Bristol. Meredith couldn’t understand it, and anxiety for her sister shadowed every waking moment.
She emerged from under the ancient copper beeches, catching sight of the pale stone gables of the Jacobean manor that had been her home since she was a little girl. Swallow Hill had been a welcome and necessary refuge for as long as she could remember.
But as she approached the house, Meredith drew in a startled breath at the sight of a groomsman leading a curricle and pair away from the front door. They were not expecting visitors, and only the doctor ever called without notice. She lengthened her stride, cutting across the lawn in her hurry to reach the front steps. The old fear clutched at her heart—had Annabel taken a turn for the worse?
The soles of her half-boots rang on the shallow marble steps as she dashed through the oak doors standing open to the warm April weather. The stooped figure of her butler emerged from a doorway at the back of the entrance hall, his wrinkled face creased in a benevolent smile.
“Good afternoon, miss,” said Creed. “How was your walk to the village?”
“My walk was fine.” Meredith yanked her gloves off, tossing them onto a side table by the door as she struggled to repress her impatience with the elderly retainer. “Do we have visitors, Creed?”
“Yes, miss. Your cousin, Mr. Jacob Burnley, has just arrived from Bristol.”
“My cousin!” She frowned, slowly untying the ribbons of her bonnet. “Aunt Nora didn’t mention he was due for a visit.”
“No, Miss Burnley, she did not.”
Meredith turned on her heel at the sound of the drawing room door opening behind her. Jacob Burnley sauntered out, still dressed in his caped greatcoat and boots.
“Well, little cousin,” he drawled, “it’s been months since I’ve seen you. Why you bury yourself in the country all the time, when you could come to Bristol for a bit of fun is beyond me.”
Meredith greeted him with a smile. “Jacob, how are you?”
She extended her hand, but was stunned when he grabbed her shoulders and yanked her to his chest, lowering his head as if to kiss her on the mouth. Meredith shied away, feeling his moist lips press against her face. He laughed softly as her cheeks flared with heat.
“Come now, cousin,” he murmured in a low voice. “You don’t have to be so stand-offish. Aren’t you happy to see me?”
She pushed herself out of his arms. “Of course I am, but that doesn’t mean you have to maul away at me, Jacob!”
Something ugly flashed across his face, surprising her.
“Pardon me, Merry,” Jacob said. “It’s been quite a long time, and I’d forgotten what a very fine woman you are.” His eyes raked over her figure with a look she had never seen before.
“Oh, now I know you are teasing.” She laughed uncertainly, but took a few steps away from him.
She cautiously eyed the man who had always treated her with an affectionate but casual regard, never displaying any evidence he was attracted to her. In fact, although they had once been close, they had drifted apart over the last several years. Jacob had developed into a stocky, strongly built man with blunt features and thick, dark brows. Meredith secretly thought his character had grown coarse as well, which made her feel guilty and disloyal.
She retreated a few more steps, her mind seized with the unwelcome possibility that he might be flirting with her.
Jacob rolled his eyes and chuckled. “Lord, cousin, you look like a dunce standing there, staring off into nothing. Been out in the sun too long?”
She shook her head and smiled. That sounded more like the Jacob she knew. “No, no, I’m fine. I’m just surprised to see you. I thought that with Uncle Isaac away from the mill, you would not be able to visit Swallow Hill this spring.”
“Oh, things are quite in hand in Bristol. No need to worry about that. Wouldn’t think of missing time with the family.”
His manner was hearty, but he refused to meet her eyes. She had a strong suspicion he was being evasive. Normally, Isaac Burnley was adamant that either he or his son be present at the wool factory throughout the year. Meredith had been dismayed when her uncle and his wife had moved some months ago to Swallow Hill, but it seemed even more unsettling now that Jacob had suddenly appeared.
As she strove to identify exactly what bothered her about the situation, a piercing voice rang out from the upper gallery.
“Jacob! My darling boy, here you are at last.”
Aunt Nora’s high-pitched, nasal tone had its usual grating effect on Meredith’s nerves. Jacob also winced.
“Yes, I’m here, Mama. There’s no need to screech so loudly.”
“I’m just so happy to see you.” She hurried down the wide oak staircase. “Meredith, is it not lovely to have the whole family together again?”
“Yes, lovely, Aunt Nora.”
Even at her most charitable, Meredith still could not think of the thin, pinched faced woman standing before her as part of the family. Her uncle’s wife had never shown her or Annabel the least bit of affection.
“Meredith, have you greeted your cousin properly? Does he not look handsome in his driving rig? I vow, Jacob, it is no wonder you are quite the most popular bachelor in Bristol. I’m sure all the young ladies must be devastated by your absence. Don’t you agree, niece?”
Meredith struggled to keep the amusement from her voice. “Yes, Aunt Nora.” She glanced at her cousin, knowing he would be annoyed by the inane flattery.
“Don’t be such a fool, Mama.” Jacob glared at his mother.
Aunt Nora’s thick brows snapped together. She sucked in an angry breath as she prepared to embark on what would, no doubt, be a tiresome lecture on her son’s manners.
Meredith hated these scenes between mother and son, so she quickly intervened. “Pardon me, Aunt Nora, but I must see Annabel before I change for dinner. I know you will not want me to be late, especially with Jacob now here to stay.”
Aunt Nora’s jaw locked for a moment, but then she tried to compose her crabbed features into a pleasant expression. She failed miserably.
“Of course, my dear,” she said, displaying her yellowed teeth in what passed for her as a smile. “If I may, Meredith, I’d like to stop in for a chat before dinner. It will only take a moment, but I have something most particular I wish to discuss.”
Meredith couldn’t imagine what that might be, but simply nodded her head and escaped up the polished oak stairs to the open gallery that led to her sister’s bedroom. When she reached the top she glanced back down to the foot of the staircase. She almost tripped over her feet, stunned by what she saw there.
Aunt Nora appeared to be studying her, her narrow features twisted into a bitter expression of anger and contempt. But Jacob’s face gave Meredith an even greater shock, for he looked at her with a ravenous and strangely desperate gaze, as if he would devour her whole.
* * *
“He wants to do what?”
Meredith’s jaw dropped open, the impact of her aunt’s words reverberating through her. Her hands froze in the process of removing her walking dress, as she briefly lost all sensation in her body.
“Don’t be a ninny! You heard what I said. Jacob intends to ask for your hand in marriage this very evening. I certainly hope you have the good sense to accept his proposal. You have been on the shelf for so long, it’s a miracle he would choose to marry you at all. Certainly no one else wants to.”
Meredith ignored the insult, dazed by the notion of marrying her cousin. She hoped for a wild moment her aunt was making a jest at her expense, but the other woman seemed to be unnervingly serious.
“Forgive me, Aunt Nora, but why should my lack of offers require me to marry my cousin?”
“Meredith, your father died three years ago. Until your uncle and I came here to stay, you had only that old governess to lend you the appearance of propriety. It’s simply unreasonable to expect us to give up our life in Bristol, just to play chaperone to you and your sister.”
Meredith almost exclaimed that she had never asked them to give up anything, but she bit her tongue before the hasty words could escape. Aunt Nora would only berate her for her lack of gratitude.
“Your uncle and I have given up much to be at Swallow Hill,” her aunt continued. “It would relieve us greatly if you would accept Jacob’s offer. You must do something, niece. You cannot continue in this fashion any longer.”
“What fashion?” asked Meredith, completely bewildered by the strange conversation.
Aunt Nora stood in front of a chest of drawers, her restless fingers fidgeting with the various toiletry items and jewelry boxes laid out on top. She spun around, her voice rising to a shrill pitch.
“Two unmarried girls living together, with no wedding in sight for either of them.” She cast a contemptuous gaze over Meredith, lips curling into a sneer. “When was the last time anyone even looked at you with interest? You should be grateful such a fine young man as Jacob would consider taking you as his wife.”
Her aunt’s vulgarity shocked her, but Meredith knew the unfeeling words held an element of truth. She had been pursued by a fair number of admirers when she was younger, but nothing had ever come if it. Unfortunately, her reserved manner seemed to intimidate potential suitors. Meredith didn’t mean to offend people, but she was impatient, and sometimes the idiocies of courtship were just beyond her.
“You know how much I care for Jacob, but I have never looked at him as anything other than a dear friend and relation,” she finally blurted out. “Jacob has a very … ” Meredith frantically searched her mind for the words to refuse him in a way that would not offend her aunt, “… robust personality, while I have …”
“Be quiet!” her aunt snapped. “You must get ready for dinner. Your uncle does not like to be kept waiting. Take off that dress and I will help you to change.”
Meredith let the gown slide to the floor and turned to face the mirror of her dressing table, as her aunt came up behind her to retie the laces of her stays.
“There is another matter your uncle wishes to discuss with you,” Aunt Nora said, tugging the laces as tightly as she could across Meredith’s back. “It’s obvious that Annabel’s condition is deteriorating. We have discussed the matter with Dr. Leeds, who agrees her recovery while living here at Swallow Hill is most unlikely. He advises that Annabel be placed in a private asylum, where she can be properly attended.”
Meredith gaped at her aunt’s sallow face reflected in the mirror. “What in heaven’s name are you talking about?” she managed to ask.
Aunt Nora gave another vicious tug on the stays. “Your uncle and I will be returning to Bristol very soon. Annabel can no longer stay here with you. She must go to a private asylum where she will receive proper care, or … ”
A cunning look spread across the older woman’s face. Meredith waited, dumbstruck by what she was hearing.
“Or you could marry Jacob. Both you and Annabel would then be under his protection, and you could take your sister to Bristol with you. The city has many fine doctors who could treat her.”
Meredith watched the blood drain slowly from her reflection in the mirror. Lightheaded, she sank into the low chair in front of the dressing table.
“Oh, my dear,” cooed Aunt Nora, her face smug with satisfaction, “I must have laced your stays too tightly. Please forgive me. Let me loosen the strings so you can catch your breath.”
Aunt Nora’s lips parted in a ghastly leer as she finished adjusting Meredith’s stays. “There, that’s better. After all, you must look your best for your cousin tonight. Sometimes men do need a little physical encouragement, you know, to express their affection. Not that Jacob has ever had any problem with the ladies.”
A wave of nausea swept over Meredith, forcing her to swallow a hot rush of bile in her throat. The thought of Jacob touching her in that way sickened her—he had always been like a brother. How could this be happening?
Standing up, she fought to regain her composure and steady her uneven breathing. When she turned to face her aunt, she struggled to speak in her usual controlled fashion.
“I’m sorry, Aunt Nora, perhaps I have misunderstood you. Are you saying that my uncle will confine Annabel to an asylum unless I marry Jacob? Surely that is not what you meant to say.” In spite of her intention to remain calm, Meredith’s voice rose, and she spoke more forcefully than she intended.
Aunt Nora’s false smile disappeared, replaced by a barely concealed anger.
“Meredith! Your uncle is Annabel’s guardian and wants what is best for her. Your sister is very ill, and needs the care of good physicians in a quiet and secluded place. You have been used to having your own way for too long. If you will not submit to the guidance of those who know better, then matters will be taken out of your hands. Whether you marry Jacob or not, you and Annabel will not be allowed to go on in this scandalous manner.”
Meredith reached out to grasp the post of her bed, each word a blow that threatened to drive her to her knees.
Her aunt looked at her with open contempt. “I suggest you wear your prettiest gown this evening. Jacob could marry any girl in Bristol or Bath. You should be grateful he has decided to have a woman no other man wants.”
She stalked out of the room, banging the door shut behind her.
Meredith sank in a boneless heap to the floor, trying to fathom what had just happened. What possible reason could Uncle Isaac have for wanting to confine Annabel to a private madhouse? Yes, the girl was sick, but clearly not insane. And why in heaven’s name did her sister’s safety depend on her own marriage to Jacob?
She glanced out the window at the beautiful April afternoon. A tiny corner of her mind dispassionately acknowledged the fact that spring was here and, yet again, disaster had befallen her.
A quiet tap sounded on the door. Meredith slowly pulled herself up, stiff and cold in spite of the day’s warmth. With shaking hands she smoothed her crumpled undergarments and called out for her maid to enter the room. Lucy bustled in, tut-tutting at her mistress’s state of undress. Meredith barely noticed as the girl tied her gown and finished combing her hair. Her thoughts ran in circles as she tried to formulate arguments to change her uncle’s mind. For once, she was grateful Annabel rarely joined them for dinner.
Soon set to rights, Meredith could no longer delay joining the others in the drawing room. She trudged along the upstairs gallery and down the wide stairs, feeling as if she were being forced to attend some freakish and ghastly trial.
Coming to a halt outside the drawing room, she listened to her uncle’s harsh voice demanding to know what the devil was keeping her. Aunt Nora began to argue with her husband until Jacob interrupted his mother with a callous disregard. Meredith’s heart constricted as the rough, unfeeling voices washed over her. For a moment, she was tempted to turn and flee back to her bedroom. Instead, she gathered her courage, expelled the breath she suddenly realized she was holding, and walked into the room.
Her relatives turned as one to stare at her in silence. She looked at their faces, her uncle’s cold and unyielding, and her aunt’s disfigured with open hatred.
But Jacob’s hot gaze alarmed her the most. A prickling flush spread up her neck and over her face. Meredith felt as if he had stripped the clothes from her body, leaving her completely exposed and at his mercy.
As a sense of paralyzing fear swept through her, only one coherent idea began to form in her mind. Escape, she thought frantically. We must escape.
* * *
Stephen Rawlings Mallory, Fifth Marquess of Silverton, felt a familiar sense of resignation and boredom creeping over him. Of course, no one observing him would have known that he wasn’t listening attentively to his uncle. Silverton had exquisite manners. He would never commit an act of rudeness unless the recipient of such an act deserved it.
“Are you listening to me, Silverton?” snapped General Stanton. “Have you even heard a word I said?”
“Of course I have, sir. You know how much I value your thoughts on this and any subject you may care to discuss.”
“Don’t try to pull the wool over on me, boy. I’m not your aunt or your mother, and I know you bloody well don’t care what I have to say about you,” his uncle retorted. “You’re nothing but a popinjay who don’t give a damn about what he owes to the title or to his family!”
Silverton’s young cousin, Robert Stanton, had been sitting quietly in the corner, displaying uncommon good sense in keeping his mouth shut during his grandfather’s tirade. But the unjust attack on his mentor and idol proved to be too much of a provocation for Robert, and Silverton could see he was about to come to his defense. He shook his head slightly, willing Robert to silence, but the young man failed to either see or understand the small gesture. Silverton sighed inwardly, lamenting the fact that his cousin had neither the wit nor the sense of self-preservation to avoid bringing his grandfather’s wrath upon himself.
“No, really sir, that’s just not fair. Stephen, a popinjay,” exclaimed Robert. “You must know he is one of the best sportsmen in the country, not to mention having some of the finest horseflesh and hounds in all of England. Really, Grandfather, to compare him to a dandy is just too much.”
The General’s head swiveled around to his grandson, iron gray eyebrows bristling with irritation as he trapped his next victim in his sights.
“No, you young jackanapes! That honor in the family belongs to you. Look at you. You can barely turn your head in that ridiculous neckwear. You look like a stork peering out of its nest. And all your poetic airs and lamentations. It is enough to drive me to an early grave. No, you are indeed the dandy in the family, and just as useless when it comes to finding a wife and doing your duty to your name.”
Robert turned bright red, sputtering a confused defense that he was still too young to get married. He was easily cowed by his grandfather, and particularly sensitive about both his appearance and his literary aspirations. The lad did not actually write any poetry, but firmly believed that he only awaited the arrival of his muse to unleash what would undoubtedly be his artistic genius. In the meantime he read Byron, spent an inordinate amount of time on his clothes, and generally comported himself in a harmless manner with several fashionable young men whose families the Stantons had known forever.
Silverton understood, however, that General Stanton would no longer tolerate this harmless but idle life. He deemed it time to intercede before the squabble developed into a full-out row.
“Now, Robert,” he interjected in a soothing voice. “Uncle would never call me a dandy, and I’m sure he appreciates my horseflesh as much as the next person. But you can’t blame him for wishing to see us settled, although I do agree you are a bit young to be pushed into the parson’s trap.”
“Not at all,” exclaimed the General. “I was only nineteen and your aunt only seventeen when we tied the knot. I’m sure she has never had any cause for complaint since that day.”
“Perhaps we should ask her,” muttered Robert.
The General whipped his gaze back to his grandson. “What was that?” he growled.
Silverton hastily intervened. “Yes, well, be that as it may, God knows it’s not easy to find a woman with Aunt Georgina’s qualities. You must admit, sir, you were exceedingly lucky to snag such a prize so early in life.”
General Stanton grunted his reply, mollified as always by the thought of his wife. Silverton knew that in spite of the gruff response, his uncle was inordinately fond of Lady Stanton and cherished her in his own inarticulate manner. He also knew his uncle was dismayed that he and Robert did not seem the least bit interested in settling down and starting families of their own.
The three men sat in the library of General Stanton’s richly appointed townhouse in Berkeley Square, shortly before noon on a warm April morning. Silverton thought it much too early in the day to endure a dressing down, but ignoring his uncle’s summons would only have postponed the inevitable. He was, after all, almost thirty-five, and it was indeed high time he took himself a wife.
For many years now he had allowed his mother and aunt to drag him to Almack’s, and from one subscription ball to another, in the hopes of finding a woman whom he could imagine living with on a permanent basis. He had met many charming young ladies, and enjoyed several delightful flirtations. But over time his willingness to be pleased had evaporated, replaced by a cynical amusement with the relentless machinations of the marriage mart.
The fault lay not with the numerous debutantes thrown his way, who were as trapped by the subtle yet unbending rules of the ton as he was. In fact, in his more generous moments he even felt sympathy for the girls whose parents drove them to hunt him like a prized stag. Mostly, though, he felt irritation and contempt, and not much else.
Silverton had come to the conclusion long ago that he was by nature a cold person or, at the very least, lacking in strong feelings. He enjoyed many things—his horses, his dogs and his friends. He was fond of his mother and adored his Aunt Georgina. But he could never seem to muster any real attraction toward the fluttering girls paraded before him, and honestly had no desire to feel otherwise.
When he thought of marriage at all—which wasn’t often—it invariably left a dull, faintly sour taste in his mouth. But he knew it was only a matter of time before he must resign himself to a suitable alliance. Duty required him to marry, and marry he would, but he had no expectations for his own happiness.
Silverton listened absently while his uncle berated Robert. Since it didn’t really seem to matter whom he married, he had compiled a list of eligible candidates in his head to present to the General for discussion and approval. Now seemed as good a time as any to make the decision.
He was about to open his mouth when he heard a commotion out in the hallway, and the raised voice of Tolliver, his uncle’s excruciatingly correct butler. The door to the library flew open and Tolliver exclaimed, “No, no, miss. Wait! You cannot go in there!”
All three men turned their heads toward the door and were met with the astonishing sight of an unknown young woman striding into the room. When she found herself confronted by their shocked gazes she stopped in her tracks. Tolliver followed closely behind, and only just managed to avoid barreling into her.
Silverton rose slowly to his feet. Robert seemed paralyzed, but he finally remembered his manners and sprang to attention. For one long moment they all remained trapped in a stunned silence before the General finally found his voice.
“Who the devil are you?”
The intruder’s eyes quickly surveyed the room, skipping Robert and coming to rest on Silverton. Their gazes locked. He felt as if he had been nailed to the floor, so captivated was he by the sight of the feminine whirlwind who had swept into their midst.
A tall, long-limbed creature, her shiny black hair curled out from under a sturdy country bonnet. Although she seemed no more than twenty-one or twenty-two, her self-assurance in confronting a roomful of strangers suggested she could be older.
But more than anything, her eyes captured him by surprise. They were extraordinary; large under straight, determined brows, and framed by thick black lashes. It was their color, however, that so forcefully caught his attention. They were gray, but not the insipid, neutral color one associated with the term. No, they reminded him of a winter rainstorm—turbulent, untamed, and full of secret depths.
He stared at her, dimly aware he was probably making an ass of himself, but it seemed impossible to look elsewhere. She, too, seemed unable to break away, her eyes widening as a faint flush bronzed her cheeks and the bridge of her nose. For just a second he thought the darkness in her gaze transmuted into something lighter, a brief flash of silver in the deep. He couldn’t seem to assemble his thoughts into a coherent order, but it occurred to him that she looked like a young goddess, magnificent and full of righteous anger.
Then she blinked, the spell broke, and she turned to face his uncle.
“I am most sorry, General Stanton,” said Tolliver, who wrung his hands in distress over the astounding breach of etiquette. “I tried to tell this young … woman that she could not disturb you, but she waited until my back was turned and then … ”
He trailed off into silence, too distraught to even finish his sentence.
The General impatiently waved his hand at the butler. “Yes, yes, well you may go, Tolliver. I’ll deal with this situation.”
“Yes, sir.” The butler tottered out of the room, clearly shattered by the disturbance to his well-ordered household.
General Stanton focused his gaze on the young woman standing before him.
“Now, miss,” he said, “perhaps you will be so good as to explain your extraordinary behavior.”
Silverton again saw the faint flush color the woman’s pale complexion, but it was apparent by the way she held her ground that the General’s irascible demeanor failed to intimidate her.
“I am Meredith Burnley, sir,” she replied in a quiet voice. “My step-mother was your daughter Elizabeth, and your granddaughter Annabel is my half-sister.”
Another stunned silence fell over the library. If she had shot a cannonball through the room, the shock could not have been any greater. Silverton grimaced, bracing himself for the inevitable explosion as General Stanton confronted the stepdaughter of his bitterly estranged and long dead child.
The old man was, indeed, turning an alarming shade of red as he rose from his chair to contend with this obviously unwelcome spectre from the past. In fact, he appeared on the verge of an apoplectic fit. Silverton cast about for a way to divert his uncle’s attention, but his mind at the moment felt approximately as agile as a snail crawling through two feet of mud.
“How … how dare you enter this house?” General Stanton finally managed to blurt out. “By God, woman, what right do you have to disturb my peace after your father ruined my daughter’s reputation and her life? A tradesman’s son to marry my child! Her mother and I have spent many years trying to forget our loss. And now, after all this time, you dare come here … to my home.”
The General shook with rage, his hands clenched into white-knuckled fists. “He ruined her life, I tell you, and it broke her mother’s heart.”
For a few seconds General Stanton glared at the silent young woman before turning his back on her. Miss Burnley staggered under the impact of the old man’s wrath, swaying a bit as if she might faint. Repressing a curse, Silverton moved quietly across the thick Aubusson carpet until he stood behind her. He could think of no other response to his uncle’s outburst, but at least he could catch her if she swooned.
Fortunately, Miss Burnley remained on her feet.
“I am here, sir,” she replied in an unexpectedly sharp voice, “because I have no choice. I wrote to you after our father died, hoping you would realize how much your granddaughter needed the protection of her family. You chose to ignore us, and she has been forced to submit to the direction and guardianship of a man who does not have her best interests at heart. I have imposed myself only to implore that you intervene on Annabel’s behalf, to prevent a most unhappy fate from befalling her.”
Miss Burnley struggled to maintain her composure. She clamped her arms tightly against her sides, attempting to subdue the tremors shaking her body. Silverton felt an oddly powerful impulse to take her in his arms and soothe her. He fought the unfamiliar urge as the young woman deliberately straightened her spine and cocked her elegant chin. Instead of retreating she stepped closer to the massive desk, leaned into it, and fixed her implacable gaze on his uncle.
“General Stanton, I must insist that you listen to me. If you do not, Annabel likely will not survive this threat to her well-being. She is very fragile.”
The General finally looked at her, hostility etched in every line of his face.
“You must help her,” she implored again. A note of faint panic seemed to thread her voice. “I would not have disturbed you if there had been any other way to save Annabel. I cannot lose her. She is all I have.”
Her voice caught and she fell silent. Miss Burnley clutched her reticule in a tight fist and turned away from the General, as if embarrassed by her loss of control. She gasped when she discovered Silverton standing so closely behind her, taking a hasty step back to regain her balance.
Grasping her elbow, he gently steered her to one of the leather club chairs to the side of his uncle’s desk. “Miss Burnley, won’t you sit down? You may tell us everything you need to regarding your sister, but I insist you have some refreshment first.”
Silverton glanced at his cousin, who was glued to the spot, mouth hanging open and eyes popping from their sockets. “Robert,” he admonished, “do stop catching flies and ring the bell for some tea.”
The lad snapped his mouth shut and hurried over to yank on the bell cord.
Silverton returned his gaze to Miss Burnley, who sat bolt upright on the edge of her chair, eyes lowered as she grasped her handkerchief in a death grip. Taking a deep breath to steady herself, she looked up to meet his eyes.
“Thank you, sir. I should be most grateful for a cup of tea.” Her soft mouth trembled into a tentative smile.
He blinked as the force of that shy smile lanced through him. The unexpected jolt of emotion was both surprising and irritating.
General Stanton forcefully cleared his throat, jerking Silverton out of his momentary reverie. After briefly examining Miss Burnley’s pallid complexion, he crossed to a mahogany sideboard holding a collection of decanters and crystal glassware. Silverton poured a small glass of sherry and returned to her side.
“Yes, tea will be just the thing, but I fancy you could use something a bit more fortifying while we wait.”
“No, I’m fine,” she protested. “I don’t need that.” She took another deep breath, folding her hands carefully in her lap.
“Yes, you do,” he replied in a firm voice, willing her with his eyes to take the drink. “Come, Miss Burnley, I insist.”
She looked at him doubtfully. He nodded his encouragement, and she again offered him that painfully sweet and tentative smile. Miss Burnley took the glass and sipped, casting her gaze up as if seeking his approval. Silverton found himself riveted by the luscious tremor of her full pink lips, and the burnished silver of her amazing eyes.
Under the circumstances, his reaction was obviously most inappropriate.
He mentally shook his head at the day’s unexpected turn of events. He had reluctantly dragged himself to Stanton House this morning to meet his uncle. Completely unawares, he had been pitched right into the middle of what his mother called the Great Family Scandal. No one spoke of the estrangement between the General and his daughter. It had always seemed like ancient history to Silverton, especially since Elizabeth Burnley had died so many years ago. But part of that ancient history had come back to life today, and with a vengeance.
He looked thoughtfully at the striking young woman perched on the edge of her seat, cautiously drinking her small glass of sherry. In spite of the obvious distress of all the parties in the library, Silverton had to admit this was much more fun than talking about his impending immolation on the matrimonial altar.
Especially when one of the parties involved was Miss Meredith Burnley.