The Hermit: Withdrawal from the outer world and meditation on the meaning of life; predicts a meeting with one who will assist the seeker . . .
June 23, 1817
Village of South Kindale, Hampshire, England
Lady Julia Lacey gasped in blatant disbelief as the clerk at the Queen’s Cross Inn handed her a small parcel. Shocked, she stood motionless for a moment, heart pounding, mind racing over what the package might contain. Though it was clearly addressed to her, she didn’t trust what she saw. Surely, it was a mirage and would soon vanish before her very eyes. When it didn’t, she brought it in for a closer look.
With a smile, the clerk said, “If you’ll excuse me, my lady, we’ve a situation in the kitchen, and I’m needed in the back. Good day.” He then disappeared through a door behind the counter, leaving her alone with her box.
It was very ordinary, as boxes went, rectangular in shape, wrapped in brown paper, and tied up with string. The only remarkable thing about it—other than the fact that it was in her possession—was its stamp of origin: Calcutta. She had long ago given up hope of receiving an answer to the inquiry she had sent her friend Kitty Blake in India last year. In fact, she had thought stopping at the Queen’s Cross this morning to check her mail, as she did every Monday, would yield nothing more than the usual letters from her sisters in London. Yet, here was a package that could either answer all her prayers or dash all her hopes into the fire.
Tentatively, she shook the package. Several items rattled around inside it. She debated for a second whether to open it right there or wait until she got home. Curiosity prevailed, and she ripped the string and tore at the paper to reveal a wooden box. Again, heart pounding, she gently lifted the lid. She peeked into the box to find a folded letter sealed with wax and resting on top of several other items wrapped in tissue paper. She closed her eyes and drew a deep breath to steady herself. She held that breath as she took the paper and broke open the wax seal to read what it said.
December 15, 1816
You cannot imagine how happy I was to receive your letter two months ago. I had begun to despair that something dreadful had happened to you when I didn’t hear back from you after all this time. I can only think that Niles must have destroyed my letters to you or else you would have written me before now. I am just glad that you found Sidney’s letter to Niles and decided to write me with your questions about his friend and doctor, Renesh Sengupta. Sadly, yes, it’s true about Dr. Sengupta. He was not dead when you and Niles left Calcutta, but Sidney believes that Niles had him poisoned shortly after the two of you left for home.
As for Niles, I was not surprised to hear about his demise, given how sick he was when you and he left India. Nor can I say that I’m sorry he suffered. That is un-Christian of me, I know, but there it is. I do hope this letter finds you in good health, however.
And now for the good news: I am thrilled to report to you that, yes, Camille is indeed alive and well and living with Sidney and me here in Calcutta! I am certain she would love nothing better than for you to come and stay with her in India at long last, as you said you would do in your letter if you found out she were still alive. I know I would welcome your return. As for Camille, she is a lively, precocious child with a great deal of curiosity. She is thoroughly lovely, and though she looks very much like her father, I daresay she also resembles her mother about the eyes. You can judge this assessment for yourself, however, as I have enclosed a miniature portrait of her that I commissioned for you when I received your letter in October. I hope you like it. Please do write me and let me know when you plan on returning to Calcutta. I can hardly wait to see you again!
Your devoted friend,
P.S. I have enclosed some incense from the market in Calcutta for you. I remember how much you liked it.
Anxious to see the miniature of Camille, Julia pawed through the items in the box and found an oval-shaped object wrapped in tissue paper. She ripped away the tissue to reveal the gilt-framed portrait of a little girl with dark hair and big, bright eyes. Though she did not frown, the child’s expression was still somber and sad, almost forlorn. Julia teared up and covered her mouth to stifle a sob as a thousand emotions rushed over her. Love, hate. Joy, anger. Happiness, grief. Gratitude, betrayal. Relief, disbelief. Resolve, uncertainty. And as each emotion played over her senses, hundreds of questions raced through her mind, not the least of which was how? How was it possible that sweet, precious Camille was still alive? Had Niles not told her before they left for England that the child had died of a fever?
She needed to get back to Calcutta. Now. To see the girl for herself. But how? Overcome with the sudden urge to do something, anything, to set in motion her return to India, Julia whirled away from the front desk, oblivious to her surroundings, and in doing so, ran directly into the gentleman standing right behind her, knocking him into a pile of luggage that stood waiting for the arrival of the next stagecoach. The luggage toppled, the man fell backward on top of it, and Julia fell forward landing on top of the man—practically nose-to-nose with him. Knocked breathless and stunned into silence, she could only stare insipidly into the most beautiful pair of blue eyes she’d ever seen. Aquamarines they were, and they stared back at her with a look of utter surprise and . . . something else. Irritation, perhaps? He squirmed and huffed. Yes, irritation. It was definitely irritation.
Had she been less perturbed herself, she might have admitted that a woman could get lost in those blue eyes, but her skin bristled with abject annoyance at the fact that he had been standing so close behind her. Had he no regard for her personal space? And though his intoxicating scent—a mixture of bergamot and cedar wood—teased her senses, vexation coiled through her veins at their predicament.
After what seemed like an eternity, he clasped her arms in an attempt to right himself. The very nerve of the man rankled her. How audacious to grab her in such an intimate manner. It was simply not done.
“Sir, if you don’t mind.” Shocked and embarrassed, she could not hide the indignation in her voice. She glanced around the lobby for someone to assist her to her feet, but not a soul was present. As she lay atop the man on the floor, the situation grew more awkward with each tick of the clock hanging on the wall.
“Madam, brace yourself.” His voice betrayed his own exasperation as he grasped her arms even tighter.
Julia squealed as he began to sit up, knocking her to the floor beside him.
“Oomph.” She landed on her side, and as she did, she lost her grip on the box and watched as it sailed through the air, landing several feet from her. The lid flew open as it hit the tiles, dashing the contents of the package all over the floor.
“Oh, no! My box!” Panicked that she might have lost something valuable from the parcel, she shot him her most withering glare.
The man ignored her as he rose to his feet and held out his hand to help her stand. Seeing no other alternative, she took his hand with severe reluctance and plenty of asperity, and he pulled her to her feet with much ado and very little grace.
Once upright, she dusted off her dress. “I certainly hope nothing is broken.” Only a simpleton would have missed the accusation in her voice as she bent over to pick up a couple of things that lay strewn across the tiles.
He picked up his own hat and set it on his head. “Allow me to assist you.”
“No, thank you. You’ve done quite enough as it is,” she snapped.
“But I insist.” He clenched his chiseled jaw, and without waiting for her permission, he bent down and picked up a heart-shaped, silver locket that had come unwrapped from its tissue and handed it to her.
She took it from him and popped it open without thinking. Inside was a lock of dark hair curled into the shape of a heart. Camille’s, no doubt. Her heart melted as she stroked her finger over the girl’s hair. She was too engrossed in examining the memento to notice him as he continued picking things off the floor. Finally, he stood in front of her once more holding the box, along with a handful of other items, most of which were still wrapped in tissue. He placed everything inside the box and handed it to her. She snatched it from his grip with very little gratitude and no attempt at civility. She rummaged through the box’s contents searching for the portrait, but it was not there. She picked through everything again more carefully, certain the portrait was lying on the bottom and she had just overlooked it. When she couldn’t find it, she gasped audibly and clutched her chest. Frantic, she glanced around the floor for the missing picture but didn’t see it. “Where is it?”
“Where is what?”
Panic set in. “The picture! The portrait. It’s not here. It’s gone!”
“Well, what does it look like?”
Again, she directed a withering gaze at him. “It’s a picture. It looks like a picture.”
He raised a brow and tipped his head to the side. “You don’t say.” His mouth quirked into a moue of annoyance. “A picture of what?”
“A little girl. Not that it’s any of your business, sir.”
His eyebrows drew together into a scowl, and he appeared to be holding back a comment. “Well, how big is it? What’s its shape?”
She continued scouring the floor for the portrait. “Small-ish. It’s not big. Oval. In a gilded frame.”
They both paced the lobby tiles searching for the portrait. He went this way; she went that, but it was gone without a trace, as though the floor had swallowed it whole.
Finally, he threw up his arms in obvious surrender. “I don’t see it, madam.”
Tears threatened to spill from her lashes, but she managed to hold back a sob. “I just don’t understand. Where could it have gone? What could have happened to it?”
He watched her for a moment, his features softening just a little. “Don’t despair. Surely, it will show up.”
She shook her head and swiped at a few tears that had fallen from her eyes. “No. I fear it is lost. Gone forever.”
“Let’s tell the clerk. He can watch for it, and if it turns up, he can save it for you.”
Julia closed her eyes. She should just nod and say nothing, just walk away, but the last of her patience and civility slipped away as her ire rose. “If only you had not been standing so close to me, sir, I would not have collided with you and dropped everything.”
He narrowed his eyes, as he caught her meaning. Again, only a simpleton would have misunderstood the accusation in her words. And while it was true that she was laying the blame for her situation squarely at his feet, she couldn’t muster a scintilla of conscience for it. He took a deep breath, obviously struggling with his own loss of patience and civility. “Well, madam, may I suggest that you watch where you are going the next time? Had you not been twirling blindly about like a whirling dervish, you might have noticed me and not run me over.”
“Run you over!”
“Yes, run me over. Like a postilion at high speed.”
“That is rich. You were standing so close behind me that I couldn’t have avoided you had I turned on my tiptoes. Why were you so near me? It was really quite unseemly.”
His outrage was palpable. He huffed as he crossed his arms in obvious indignation. “I was reaching for the bell on the counter. I was anxious to ring for the clerk because I am locked out of my room and need him to let me in.”
“Humph. Well, then, don’t let me keep you. If you’ll excuse me, sir, I will leave you to it.” Raising her brow, she gave him one final haughty sweep with her eyes as she waved her hand in dismissal and stalked off toward the door.
“Madam,” he said behind her. “Good day.”
She sensed, rather than saw, him bow. And from the main door of the hotel, she turned and caught a glimpse of him out of the corner of her eye as he straightened his cravat and strode to the front desk. He rang the bell for service as she opened the door and stepped out of the lobby into the brilliant sunlight of the summer morning.
Embarrassment vied with outrage for uppermost spot in her mind as she climbed into her gig and sat next to her maid Burton, who’d accompanied her into town. She took several deep breaths to calm herself. She had been a graceless oaf, it was true, and should have apologized for bowling him over, but his own testiness and ill humor with the situation had provoked her. Then, she had been so upset over losing Camille’s portrait that she had forgotten her breeding. Perhaps if they ever met again, however, she would say she was sorry to him. Perhaps. More likely, though, she would never have the opportunity to apologize to him. He was probably on his way out of town this morning and she would never see the gentleman again. Though she should not have taken consolation in that fact, she did, in fact, take consolation in the notion that they would never cross paths again.
* * *
Charles Rodman stepped away from the main desk and peeked out the window of the lobby to watch the flustered, albeit bewitching, redhead steal away in her carriage. He had not known what to do about their predicament as she lay atop him in the lobby minutes ago. Irritation had prickled his skin at her clumsiness, however, and he had wanted nothing more than to rant at her. He’d been about to scold her when he’d gazed into her lovely eyes, with irises the color of cinnamon, and his mind had gone blank.
Well, not blank exactly. But he couldn’t remember his name while he stared at her, so he said nothing. Dangerous, those eyes. Altogether too beguiling. For several seconds, they had left him too feebleminded for words. Then, as her lovely jasmine scent washed over him, it only served to further obliterate his faculties. His irritation finally spiked into anger over his body’s inappropriate reaction to her as he lay beneath her. Had he not already been so annoyed at having managed to lock himself out of his room a while ago, he might have behaved more civilly toward her, but when she had crashed into him, he had lost all patience. He had been downright rude and offensive to her. Still, if he were honest with himself, he would have had to admit that his bad behavior toward her was driven more by resentment for the unsettling effect she’d had over him than by the accident. He had despised himself for being so consumed by her natural charms that he took his frustration out on her, blaming her entirely for running into him when he had clearly been standing too close to her in the lobby.
He dismissed his reaction to her as idiocy as a porter emerged from the door behind the front desk, presumably in answer to the bell. The poor man’s jaw dropped when he saw the luggage strewn all across the floor.
Charles attempted a smile as he cleared his throat. “I’m most sorry, good sir. There was a small accident just a minute ago with the lady who was at the desk before me. She turned and collided into me, and we ended up knocking into the bags.”
Unamused, the other man frowned and huffed in obvious frustration as he began to right the bags.
“Here. Let me help you.” Charles bent down to pick up a satchel, but the porter merely shooed his hand away.
“That will not be necessary, sir. I have everything in order.”
Not knowing what to do in this awkward situation, Charles scratched his head as the other man continued righting the bags. He hovered about while the porter worked, waiting for the man to finish with the luggage. At last, after all the bags were in a neat pile, he cleared his throat once again.
The porter raised a brow. “Is there something I can help you with, sir?”
“Yes, if you please. I am locked out of my room and need to get in to retrieve my watch.”
The porter nodded and strode to the front desk and opened the half door to let himself back behind the counter. He stepped toward the cubbyholes holding keys and other miscellany for hotel guests. He reached toward the key slots. “Are you in Room 201, Mr. Rodman?”
“No, that’s the duke’s room. I’m across from him in Room 202.”
“Ah. Yes.” The porter plucked the extra key for Room 202 from its compartment and handed it to Charles.
“Thank you. I’ll return it shortly.”
The porter nodded and then disappeared through the door behind the counter without further conversation. Charles, meanwhile, jogged up the flight of stairs to his room and retrieved his watch and then ran back down to the lobby. As he walked past the pile of luggage, the light in the room glinted off something on the floor, catching his eye. He stopped and looked down to see a gilt-framed, oval portrait of a little girl. This had to be the woman’s lost picture. It must have slid beneath one of the bags when she dropped her box. He bent to pick it up and examined the likeness of the child. She had very dark, almost black hair and light brown skin. Though animated, her ebony eyes seemed to convey a sadness a child her age shouldn’t know.
He looked up from the picture and searched the lobby for the porter who had given him the extra room key, but he then remembered that the man had retreated into the back. He decided that rather than ring the bell and wait around for someone to answer it, he would stow the portrait safely inside his pocket and give it to the porter or desk clerk when he returned from his errand.
That decided, he strode toward the door and stepped out into the morning sun. He wanted to get a sense of the village of South Kindale, since he would likely be spending the rest of his life in this little town if he were appointed vicar of St. Blaise’s Church. To that end, he walked toward the square, which wasn’t far from the coaching inn on the main road into town. He took in the early morning air, which was still cool and refreshing, not yet as warm as it would get once the sun climbed higher in the sky. When he arrived at the center of town, he looked up and searched for the church spire.
Spying the steeple standing up from the church’s tower high above the rooftops in town, he turned south down a quiet lane where he saw the church itself. It was a modest structure of Gothic architecture, constructed of local stone from the looks of it. A graveyard stood to the left of it, while a house, which he assumed was the parsonage, stood some ways on its right. The whole aspect gave him a sense of peace and serenity. He liked this church. With luck, it would be his, and after ten long years of hiding away from the world as a curate in a small parish outside London, he would once again have a living to call his own and a flock to minister to.
And for the first time since he’d left London, he began to feel nervous about making a good impression on the patroness of the living. Would he be able to inspire the lady into bestowing the living on him? He hoped so, though according to his brother who had told him about the position, it was essentially his for the taking, for the patroness’s brother was interceding on his behalf.
He took a deep breath and walked down the lane toward the church so that he could survey the outside of the building from up close. When he got to the building, he walked around the perimeter of the grounds and the well-kept churchyard. The old vicar must have been a stickler for the lawn because there was hardly a weed in sight. He strode to the graveyard, which was also well kept, and walked amongst the headstones, many of which were ancient. Much of the carving had worn away with the years, and the headstones themselves stood at odd angles to the ground, rarely upright, a testament to the ravages of time. A newer one, belonging to a Mr. Niles Lacey, caught his eye. From the looks of it, it had been erected within the last few years, judging by how fresh the carving upon it looked and the fact that it stood upright at ninety degrees from the ground.
Lacey. That’s interesting. Could Niles Lacey be any relation to the patroness he would see later today?
He tucked that thought away as he finished strolling the graveyard and turned his attention to the church itself. The stone and rubble used to construct the building appeared to be in decent enough shape, while the stained-glass windows appeared to be newer than the rest of the structure. He attempted to look through one of the windows to get a glimpse of the nave, but the glass was far too opaque to enable him to see into the darkened church. Instead, he peered through clear glass windows into the vestry, which was a room of decent size. He then walked around to the end of the building and tried the doors there, but they were locked.
Unable to gain entry to the church, he walked several yards to where it bordered the parsonage, a quaint, though sturdy, two-story structure with a thatched roof. The well-kept lawn in front of the house was a deep, verdant green, and he walked the narrow stone path leading up to the front door of the parsonage. He rapped on the door several times but received no answer. Supposing the house to be vacant, he looked through one of the windows to the right of the door and spied a well-appointed study with a large desk and several tall bookcases. This would be the perfect room for him to compose his sermons, if he were appointed vicar of St. Blaise’s, and he was now more eager than ever to meet the parish patroness.
He checked his watch then. It was time to return to the hotel to see if the duke had awoken yet. The duke, with whom Charles had traveled from London yesterday, was the patroness’s brother and would make the necessary introductions. To Charles’s knowledge, His Grace had still been abed when he had awoken at the first inkling of dawn. Impatient to see some of the village before going out to visit the duke’s sister, Charles had shaved and washed and taken care of some correspondence in his room.
He had then headed down to the lobby, intent upon stepping out to have a brief look at the church before the duke awoke. He was halfway down the stairs when he realized he’d left his watch in his room. He would need that watch so he wouldn’t lose track of time. Irritated, he backtracked up the stairs only to discover that he had locked himself out of his room. Even more frustrated with himself, he had gone to the lobby to get a spare key from the clerk or porter when he had seen the woman who had run into him this morning.
Humph. Her. Even now, as he walked from the vicarage back to the inn, he shook his head in annoyance when he recalled their encounter earlier. It dawned on him then that if she were receiving her mail at the inn, she was likely from around the area, which, of course, meant that he would see her in church when he assumed his new post as vicar. He groaned aloud with the realization that he would have to apologize to her next time they met for his incivility today. Hopefully, their next meeting would not be so awkward as today’s. Hopefully, she would not try his patience as she had done this morning. And hopefully, she would not affect his senses with her cinnamon eyes and jasmine scent as she had also done earlier. As he recalled his visceral reaction to her previously, he wondered where she was now and what she was doing at that particular moment.
* * *
Tendrils of smoke curled upward from the censer sitting on the floor in front of Julia as she sat in the special corner of her sitting room that she had marked out for the purpose of meditation. She crossed her legs one over the other in the lotus position, as Renesh had taught her to do in India, and rang the chime next to her on the floor, and then, as she had done a thousand times before, she closed her eyes and breathed deeply several times while concentrating on the rhythm of her inhalations and exhalations. The ethereal sound of the chime cleared her mind as it cleared the atmosphere, and the sweet smoke of the myrrh incense she had just received in Kitty’s package this morning perfumed the air while transporting her to another time and another place.
As she relaxed, she gently held in her hand the precious locket containing Camille’s hair that Kitty had included in the box she had sent. The girl’s curl was so dark, as dark as her father’s hair, that Julia was briefly overcome with tears at the thought of them both. She swiped them from her eyes, and as she refocused her mind on the task at hand, she chanted quietly, rhythmically, “Om gum ganapatayei namaha. Om gum ganapatayei namaha.”
She concentrated on nothing but the words, dedicating her mantra to Lord Ganesh. Kitty had included a small statue of the Indian god in her package, and he now sat on the floor next to the censer, his smiling elephant head reassuring her, as she repeated the words to him.
“Om gum ganapatayei namaha. Om gum ganapatayei namaha.”
They were a balm to her soul, and with any luck, they would help remove the obstacles facing her.
“Om gum ganapatayei namaha.”
Soon oblivious to the world outside, she retreated within her quieted mind. Her whole mind focused on the chant as minutes passed, perhaps even an hour. Time and place became immaterial to her, as the sound of the ticking clock faded away. Such a state of tranquility enveloped her that everything outside her mind ceased to be. Utterly serene, with all consciousness focused on her one goal, she was connected to the material world only by her breath until she was jarred out of her deep peace and her rhythmic chanting by some intruder calling her name and shaking her shoulder.
“Julia!” said an obviously aggravated male voice. “Ho there, Julia, you’re talking in your sleep. Wake up.”
Jolted from her meditation, confusion flooded her brain. Her eyes fluttered open, and irritation bristled through her veins when she recognized the intruder standing directly before her arrogantly awaiting her attention, a smirk on his face.
“Bloody hell.” Groggy from meditation, she tried to regain her sense of the present. “What are you doing here?”
“Language, my dear. Is that any way to greet your brother? Besides, you have a guest.” His arrogant drawl irked her as he stepped aside to reveal another gentleman standing behind him.
Julia glanced up briefly past her brother and then did a double take when she recognized the man who stood behind him. Lord, if it wasn’t the same gentleman she had gracelessly knocked over in the hotel lobby this morning. Heat rushed to her cheeks as she swallowed her incredulity—and her embarrassment—at meeting him again. If the look of sheer horror on his face was any indication, he too recalled their earlier encounter. His eyes flashed with what seemed like alarm as his jaw tautened into a hard line and his brows drew together in obvious and utter panic. How curious. What could his reaction mean? Did he think she would rise off the floor and bowl him over again?
He didn’t even attempt a smile as she turned her attention back to her brother. “I would say it’s nice to see you, Benthower, but it isn’t. It never is.” She tucked Camille’s hair safely into a pocket in her kameez so as not to lose it and then glanced to the entrance of the sitting room where her maid stood nervously wringing her hands. “And look. You’ve frightened poor Burton. What do you want? And how did you find me?”
“It wasn’t easy, let me tell you. I’ve been all over Hell and half of Hampshire searching for you. It’s lucky I found you as it is.”
“That depends on your point of view.”
Not surprisingly, he scoffed at her. “What, pray tell, are you doing living out here in the middle of nowhere? In your husband’s hunting box, no less?”
“Lexington House is otherwise occupied.”
“Humph. So I noticed. We called there first thing when we arrived last evening. I was hoping you would put us up for the night, but we ended up having to stay at the inn in town. Imagine my surprise at seeing all those strange women milling about your house and you nowhere to be found. They barely let me cross the threshold and absolutely wouldn’t let me past the entryway to ask questions. Me, Julia. They wouldn’t let me in. Your own brother. A duke, no less. The only information I could get from anyone was that you were staying in the hunting box. What are all those women doing at your house anyway?”
“They are friends.” It was all the explanation she was willing to give. To change the subject, she asked him once again what he wanted.
“Aren’t you going to offer us tea first?” he asked, glancing back at the maid.
“I wasn’t, no, because as you can see, you’ve interrupted me unannounced, and I am not receiving guests. Now. If you will excuse me . . .”
He did not take her hint. “Just what in the hell were you doing anyway, Julia?”
“Language, Michael, we have a guest.” She made the remark to avoid the question of what she had been doing. She then looked from her brother to the blond man with the eyes so blue who was still standing behind him. He was a handsome man, she had to admit, and her cheeks blazed with heat once again when she remembered that she had been on top of him earlier this morning. He still wouldn’t smile at her as he regarded her, though. She tried to read his expression again, but unlike a few second ago, his thoughts were not clearly written on his face. He did lift a brow, giving her the impression that he was still alarmed over something. Perhaps he, too, was recalling their earlier predicament and their unfriendly exchange afterward.
Eventually, she stood after giving up hope of her brother leaving her in peace. “Aren’t you going to introduce us, Benthower?”
“First tell me what you were doing down there on the floor. And, my God, Julia, what on earth are you wearing? They appear to be trousers.”
“These? They are shalwar. They are trousers of a sort, I suppose. From India.” She stuck her leg out to demonstrate. “And the top is a kameez, also from India. Together, they are shalwar kameez. I am wearing them because they make it so much more comfortable to sit on the floor than a dress.”
“Just exactly why were you on the floor? And what strange language were you muttering?”
“Hindi, if you must know, is the language,” she said with indignation, and though she didn’t really want to explain to him what she had been doing in front of the stranger, she squared her shoulders to project the confidence she didn’t necessarily feel. “And I was using yoga to meditate.”
“Using what to what?”
She harrumphed. “I said, I was using yoga—y-o-g-a—to meditate.”
“Yoga? Never heard of it.”
“It’s something you wouldn’t understand, Benthower. I learned it in India.”
He put up his hand. “Say no more. If it’s from the Orient, it’s a mystery to begin with.”
“Tea is from the Orient, yet you say you would like some.”
“Yes. Please. Order us some,” the duke commanded.
Reluctantly, she requested tea from Burton, who left the room to prepare it. Julia then led her brother and the other gentleman out through the hallway to a small parlor done up in hues of evergreen and gold. It was definitely a man’s sitting room. She had made no changes to it since moving into the hunting box over two years ago, though she had a mind to do it up in feminine pinks and frilly laces just to spite her late husband.
“Now, will you please introduce me to your friend?”
“Of course. Rodman, may I present my sister, Lady Julia Lacey. Jules, this is Mr. Charles Rodman. He’s a curate at St. Mary’s in Sunbury-on-Thames, just south of London.”
“It’s a pleasure making your acquaintance, Lady Julia.” The man spoke so softly that she wasn’t sure she heard him as he gave her an obligatory bow. When he stood upright, his chiseled jaw relaxed into what was without a doubt a forced smile.
“Likewise, I’m sure.” She was certain from his mien that he was anything but happy to make her acquaintance. At the same time, however, she sensed his reaction to her was not out of annoyance with what had happened between them at the inn this morning but out of . . . anxiety, maybe? Odd. Why was he so alarmed? She flashed her own fake smile at him and made an equally obligatory, if not equally elegant, curtsy.
After the introductions, Julia offered both her brother and her guest a seat. Tea was brought in by and by. After she served the duke and Mr. Rodman, she poured herself some along with a teaspoonful of sugar and a little cream.
“Pray tell, Benthower,” she said as she stirred her tea. “What brings you all the way out to Hampshire in the middle of June?”
“Well . . .” The duke rubbed his jaw in hesitation as if he were choosing his words carefully. “I have a solution to a problem of yours, Julia.”