Much of my promotion for BEGUILING THE BARON includes mention of a kitten. He doesn’t enter the story until later, but features in my favourite scene of the book. Well, there are others, but they are either too hot for the blog, or would give away too much of the story…
Anyway, here’s the final bit of “free peek” into the reclusive Baron Ansford’s somewhat Gothic world…
On a damp, unseasonably cold afternoon in late May, Tia and her mama arrived at Foxleaze Abbey. Despite the forbidding aspect created by the gloomy weather, Tia was delighted by the modern honey-colored facade of the building and professed herself fascinated by the medley of uneven roof lines and turrets behind it, proclaiming its more ancient past.
So long as no ghostly nuns—or late baronesses—lurked in the crypts or corridors, she could be exceedingly happy in such a place. Compared to the poorhouse, it was heaven—there was so much space, so much architectural beauty, and such splendidly landscaped grounds.
If only Polly Pelham proved to be an amenable child, and her father not nearly so peculiar—or dangerous—as rumor suggested, Tia decided she could grow to love the place in no time.
A smartly dressed lady bobbed a curtsy as she and Mama entered the building. “Good day to you. I am Mrs. Dunne, Lord Ansford’s housekeeper. Please follow me.”
In no time at all, their luggage had been brought inside and taken upstairs. “May I offer you refreshment or a brief tour of the house?” Mrs. Dunne inquired.
Tia shot a hopeful look at her mama. “Oh, I should much prefer to see the house, for it seems the kind of place one might get lost in, so best start finding our way around immediately. Assuming you’re fit to wait a short while longer for your tea, Mama?”
Hugely improved in both health and mind since their escape from the poorhouse, Mama nodded her agreement. “Is your master away at present?”
Was that a flash of awareness staining the housekeeper’s cheeks? About what was she embarrassed?
“No, madam, he is not away.”
“Has he not been told of our arrival?” Surely, he must have noticed their carriage.
“I regret his Lordship does not wish to be disturbed at present.”
Tia exchanged a glance with Mama. How unutterably rude of him not to be here to welcome his guests. Not so much peculiar as ill-mannered. This did not bode well.
“Oh, how disappointing.” She laughed lightly. “I hope he’s not avoiding us deliberately.”
The housekeeper said quickly, “No, indeed, miss. But his Lordship is always occupied. He does most of his work at home and goes out no more than he needs to. But that’s not to say you may not make social calls of your own. There are riding horses available and both winter and summer carriages at your disposal, as well as a curricle if either of you ladies cares to drive.”
Tia brightened. No, she didn’t know how to drive a carriage, having been brought up in the busy port of Southampton where the roads were too clogged to be safe. But she’d love to learn. There must be many splendid sights hereabouts, and what a wonderful sense of freedom it must give to be able to drive oneself. She would take Polly out with her.
Would Lord Ansford have the patience to teach her to drive? Or even the inclination to do so? Lucy had tried to enlighten Tia as to Lord Ansford’s character, but it seemed the more she heard about him, the less she knew.
That matter could be put aside for now. First, she must learn to find her way around the house. She could hardly expect her new pupil to respect her if she were constantly getting lost.
Despite the modern facade, much of the original abbey remained. There were some obvious Tudor period renovations, including the addition of wooden paneling and vast brick fireplaces. These had presumably been added after the Dissolution by the new lay owners, to make the place more like a home and less like an institution.
Tia shuddered. After the poorhouse, she never wanted to set foot inside an institution again.
As she followed her mama and the housekeeper through the maze of passageways, she discovered her new home was a real hotchpotch of different styles and intentions, testament to the wealth and taste—or lack thereof—of many generations of Pelhams.
As they ascended a sweeping staircase, a dark oak affair of the previous century, she paused in front of a multifaceted window of yellowed glass. This ancient insertion shone a sickly light onto the half landing and the menacing suit of armor set there as adornment. Through the glass Tia could make out the wavy shapes of trees and, realizing how high up she was, she impulsively opened the window to see what manner of view it afforded.
“Oh!” The sight that met her eyes was the very last thing she’d expected to see.
A half-naked man striding past the house.
She stood and stared, transfixed by his grace as he walked barefoot across the lawn, his dark gold hair hanging in damp tendrils down his back, only partially concealing the well-defined musculature of his torso. His sole item of clothing was a pair of soaked black breeches, clinging revealingly to his muscular thighs. He was wringing something out in his hands as he walked. His shirt, perhaps?
Well, who’d have imagined Lord Ansford employed a hermit? Tia knew some members of the aristocracy kept them, for the amusement of their friends. Oh, to have the money to waste on such foolishness. The hapless creatures were expected to live in caves or grottoes, often constructed in the previous century when the building of fanciful follies on country estates was highly popular.
Something hung about the hermit’s neck and swung as he walked, but he was already too far away for her to identify it. A crucifix, perhaps? The man continued on in the direction of a stand of tall trees and melted from view when a sudden squall of rain cut across Tia’s vision.
As she struggled to close the ancient catch of the window, she refused to be shocked by what she’d seen. Fascinating, though. Might the man be not only a hermit but a flagellant as well? But no—she’d seen no marks on his pale flesh. Maybe there was such a thing as a partial flagellant, someone who exposed themselves to the rain and the cold as a penance but didn’t go so far as beating themselves with sticks. Perhaps the black garment he’d been holding was his horsehair shirt.
She hoped not. Concealing such a splendid body beneath a hair shirt would be like putting a frock coat on a Praxiteles—all that masculine magnificence hidden away . . .
As Tia hurried to catch up with her mama and the housekeeper, she wondered what young Polly thought about this hermit. Surely the sight of him was enough to terrify a child, and the idea of him lurking in some rocky cave within the grounds might deter her from venturing out alone.
She’d talk to Lord Ansford about it—when he finally made an appearance. Half-naked men wandering around the place did not create a comfortable environment for a gently bred young girl.
Nor—as the heat suffusing her own cheeks testified—did it create a comfortable environment for a woman of one-and-twenty.
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