Sir Walter’s surprise triumph in court was part cause for a small celebration at Horseford Hall on March twenty-fifth. Only part because that date in the calendar had other importance for the Stanhope household. It was on that date twenty-three years ago that Sir Walter Stanhope had married Lady Spencer, thus uniting two leading West Riding families. On that same date too, twenty years before, their son Charles was born, giving the Baronet the heir he craved. Add to those considerations a lingering fondness for beginning the new year on Lady Day rather than January first, and there was ample excuse for making merry.
It was a small, family gathering where outside guests were few. Indeed, Eagle was invited only as an afterthought. His presence at the hall on agency business had delayed him longer than expected, so when Sir Walter found him still pouring over his accounts at eight o’clock that evening he asked if he’d care to stay. Eagle had misgivings, not least because of Charles, who made no secret of disliking the young attorney. Nevertheless, if truth be told, he had lingered over those accounts purposely to further his hopes of seeing his sister, Augusta. On several occasions he had ventured out into the hallway and along the corridors hoping for a chance encounter. But not once had he so much as glimpsed her. Lady Luck had deserted him, and brought instead Lady Stanhope, who’d spotted him prowling near her chamber in the east wing.
‘Can I help you, Mr Eagle?’ she had asked, a faint edge of alarm in her soft, almost whispery voice. But the habit she had of ending every sentence with a smile still held, and he was less uneasy than he’d otherwise have been.
‘Yes Madam, perhaps you can,’ he replied, playing for time till he’d invented an excuse. ‘I was looking for the …’ – he noticed the book in her hand – ‘ …for the library.’
She stared with mild amusement. It was the first time he’d exchanged words with this reserved and shadowy figure. Her pale face, still beautiful, had a saddened look that he couldn’t help thinking was mostly Sir Walter’s doing. He studied her graceful posture, her small, slender frame clothed in informal attire of open white robe and contrasting pink petticoat. Her hair, still richly dark like her daughter’s, was piled high and draped with a lace scarf. She had the usual graces of a woman of her years and position: elegance, deportment and refinement, accentuated by that commanding, if fading beauty.
‘You have got yourself woefully lost,’ she said, giving the intruder the benefit of the doubt. ‘The library is in the west wing. I was on the way there myself,’ she added, rustling towards him with her book clasped to her breast.
Her love of flora became apparent as he followed her back along the panelled corridor, and down the winding staircase. She seemed unable to pass a single flower arrangement without stooping to sniff its fragrance with the prolonged, gluttonous enjoyment of a gourmand. Her Ladyship lingered longest over the pots of daffodils in the stairwell, harking back to her girlhood as she pulled one flower from its vase and held it to her nose.
‘Come and sniff,’ she said, holding the lolling trumpet to his face when he’d drawn to her side. The heady sweetness prickled his nostrils, and she was soon sharing the scent alongside him, drawing her finely-shaped nose up close against his own. Her warm breath, tainted by coffee, was maddeningly feminine. He saw by a flicker in her dark-brown eyes that she knew she’d aroused him. Yet what else had he glimpsed in that fleeting look? – possibly a sense of pleasure or power on her part, but had it been wilful, accidental or done without thought?
‘Here,’ she said, giving him the flower, ‘keep it, and remember this precious moment.’ As she withdrew her hand, she allowed her arm, bare below the elbow-length sleeve, to trail across his fingers, but when he looked again for that telling spark, it was gone. The sad resignation had returned as she said, rather archly, ‘The library is just through there.’ She gestured left of the entrance hall, and added, ‘Its serried ranks of books will last you a lifetime, nay several lifetimes.’
‘Are you not to join me?’ Eagle asked, strangely comfortable in this elegant woman’s presence, which by its aged likeness to the daughter might gratify his senses a while longer. But Augusta by proxy it was not to be, for she told him she had changed her mind, and quietly glided away. She had left him flower-in-hand, pondering the nature of her thoughts, wondering how heady he wanted them to be.
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