Miss Harrietta Eastmont has a secret, but it pales in comparison to the fear of her uncle discovering her whereabouts as she rings Lady Blackstone’s doorbell and prepares her deception.
It took great courage to leave what little security she knew, but Harrietta soon learns it takes even greater daring to trust those who would care about her plight. Lady Blackstone’s handsome and gentle son would have it no other way.
Read an excerpt
Harrietta stood looking out a window that reached from the floor to the ceiling in the morning room where her adventure with Lady Blackstone had begun a week ago. She had come to love this room with walls covered in yellow silk as pale as to give the illusion of a sunny day even when London’s drizzle would color everything gray. Lady Blackstone’s new companion had always felt if she could get through a week, then surely she would survive anything life threw at her. The past seven days had felt like a month of joy. Now it was only nights that brought images to disturb her peace.
The countess and Harrietta were well suited. Their love of quiet days punctuated by meandering conversations delighted both as their natural tendency to philosophize carried them to unexpected insights. Harrietta smiled as she remembered the moment Lady Blackstone’s challenging banter had led to, “You cannot believe you will stay firm over time regarding the king’s morality. You have not lived enough years to know the fine points of choices!”
The spirited debate had ceased suddenly with Harrietta’s dancing eyes. “I apologize for changing the subject, my lady. You sound like my mother. She was forever telling me I could only know my mind in the moment because life always gave one the chance to see more and then one’s truth was necessarily challenged.” The young woman had looked at the older woman for a moment before volunteering, “My mother called me Harri. She said Harrietta was not conducive to the kind of conversation that stimulated one’s mind.”
Both had laughed at the observation. Harrietta had explained. “My mother did not favor Harrietta. My father cajoled her into because it was his sister’s name; she died quite young.”
“I quite agree with Elise,” Lady Blackstone had responded with humor. “Harrietta is a cumbersome name for one as lively as you.” It was then she asked if she might also use Harri.
Since that moment, the two women had felt constraints slipping away. Both were finding themselves uncommonly comfortable in each other’s company.
“Harri, you must not stand by the window when there is cheer and comfort by the fire. I begin to wonder if this rain will ever cease.” Lady Blackstone entered the salon with energy; her cheerful voice belying her complaint while interrupting Harri’s woolgathering. It was time for their afternoon tea.
“I rather like rain,” Harrietta said as she moved away from the window to join Lady Blackstone by the fire. “It makes me feel cozy and invites reading. Would you like your lap blanket, my lady?”
“No Harri, I think the tea and fire will serve me. And perhaps a little Jane Austen. Let us continue to make sense of the events at Mansfield Park.”
Harrietta looked at the books sitting in a small mountain on the table next to her chair. Today it would be fiction. “Shall we begin now or do you need your tea for fortification?”
“You will not get the upper hand throwing down such challenges, my girl. Pick up where we left off. I am content to sit and listen until the tea cart arrives.” Both had excellent voice and infinite capacity to feel the words of the characters so they were inclined to share reading, but the great fun came from their divergent points of view.
Harrietta did not get further than three pages when Holmes entered with the walnut scones, lemon cakes, and Bohea. Lady Blackstone poured the tea and served her companion another example of Miss Austen’s intent to show the lack of morality in those who embraced city life.
Miss Eastmont rallied, “You must first convince me Miss Austen has interest in the larger social issues. I believe you will find her first two books simply explore the relationships of men and women of our time. She is not inclined to moralize, but rather peels away layers so the reader might see the emotions guiding people’s lives. Only consider Sense and Sensibility.” Harrietta paused to reach for a scone while downstairs Holmes was taking Lord Blackstone’s hat and gloves.
“How is my mother doing, Holmes? Has she missed me this past fortnight?”
The butler had years of experience in responding without revealing anything at all and Lady Blackstone’s son knew he was only acknowledging her ladyship’s loyal servant when asking such a question. He was quickly on his way up the stairs, used to finding his mother in her yellow salon at tea time.
Only the unexpected laughter stopped him short of entering after he opened the door. He paused, not wanting to barge in on his mother’s rare visit, yet hesitant to leave without greeting her after his absence. They were accustomed to having tea together at regular intervals and not because he felt obliged, but today his mother was caught up in conversation and did not notice his presence. Her visitor was turned away from the door as she chided and laughed.
“I vow Lady Blackstone, I cannot have you place all the goodness of the gentry on poor Fanny’s shoulders. She is having a time of it just finding her place in a country estate. More likely, MansfieldPark is about money and poverty, rather than city and countryside. Or perhaps it is nothing more than showing a fish out of water.” Again laughter filled the air around the blonde-touched light brown hair. Its confident, deep rumble drew Lord Blackstone into the room. His desire to meet the person who challenged his mother with levity and logic announced his presence.
“Stone! You’re back. Such a pleasant surprise.” Lady Blackstone’s smile was invitation to share the moment. She knew Holmes would arrive momentarily with a tray carrying a third cup and more hot tea. Most likely cook would add macaroons, a favorite of her son’s.
As Blackstone approached his mother’s chair, she reached for his hand and squeezed it. She glowed with pleasure as he placed a kiss on her cheek and turned to greet her guest.
His mother made him known to Miss Eastmont as the young lady set aside her refreshments and rose from her chair. She graced him with a delicate curtsey and wished him a good day. Her eyes never looked higher than his exquisitely folded cravat.
The countess looked from her companion to her son. Holmes entered to provide the perfect excuse to be seated and fuss over refreshments. As the butler left, Lord Blackstone was handed his tea and offered a large macaroon, gently browned on top.
Lady Blackstone breeched the silence. “Harri, you must try one of these macaroons. They are made especially for Stone and shared only with family.”
Harrietta could sense the plate held out for her selection. Her teeth grabbed the edge of her lower lip as she looked up, hoping to stop her racing heart by attending to her employer’s overture.
Lord Blackstone watched the young woman try to gain control of her inner turmoil, intrigued by the change his presence had wrought for her. She might spend the next moments nibbling at the edge of the cookie, but he was quite content to notice the high color rising from her chest, seeking her cheeks. It was a distinct improvement from the ashen face that had avoided his scrutiny moments before.
Lady Blackstone turned her attention to her son and shared general news of the city that he might have missed in his absence. Only when she was convinced her companion was not going to join the conversation, did she inquire about the state of Blackstone Manor.
At three and thirty, Blackstone was quite capable of making her laugh at the housekeeper’s antics when faced with their wolfhound giving birth to pups in the pantry even as he traced Miss Eastmont’s profile down her pert nose, across her satisfyingly full lips, under her firm chin to a neck that promised soft scents. He relayed messages from their neighbors and noted Miss Eastmont’s delicate fingers. He knew they would be cool and light were they to touch his face. He assured his mother the gardener had been informed about the new plot she had in mind for spring planting and wondered about the color of Miss Eastmont’s eyes.
With the conversation rambling among family interests, Harrietta waited for a pause before suggesting she would leave them for a private coze as she must get to the lists she was preparing. She did not sit waiting for agreement, but stood up as she spoke, looking at Lady Blackstone for her dismissal.
The countess held back her denial when she saw the distress in Harri’s eyes. Blackstone stood, checking his desire to speak to the young woman who obviously wanted escape.
“You are excused, my dear, but do not weary yourself overlong on the lists.”
Harrietta nodded before she turned to Lord Blackstone and curtsied to his cravat once more, wishing him a good day. Both son and mother watched Miss Eastmont make her way out of the salon.
“I am sure I have not caused such distress in a damsel since I put a toad in Bagley’s picnic basket,” Blackstone stated in wry humor. His pregnant question hung in the air as he took his seat expecting to hear his mother explain just what had happened in the past half hour.
“You did put the poor child out of countenance, dear boy. I think I must thank you for providing another piece in the puzzle that is Miss Harrietta Eastmont.” Lady Blackstone checked her cup and absently poured herself more tea, tilting her head to gauge Blackstone’s desire for more refreshment. He waved his hand in dismissal and waited for more information.
“She’s my companion,” the countess said as she watched to catch her son off guard. She did not often surprise him and relished the opportunity to share the story of Harri’s arrival. The interview and subsequent days were told with flourish, creating a tale of mystery, humor, and tenderness.
Lord Blackstone enjoyed his mother’s animation as she described the past week with Miss Eastmont. He compared the laughter and conversation he had overheard at the door with the meek nervousness he had found upon entering the salon. “What do you make of her circumstance?” he asked as he considered another macaroon.
“Until your arrival, I thought it most likely Harri had found herself destitute upon the death of her mother; it happens so often to young women. Her season would have been curtailed by her mother’s illness and then, most likely, by finances.” Lady Blackstone set her empty cup on the salver before continuing. “However, after seeing her response to you, I am inclined to think she is hiding from a forced marriage. It seems obvious she was intimidated by your masculine presence since she had no time to take a dislike to your person.”
The countess’s eyes lit up at her son’s affront.
“Of course she did not take a dislike to me. She might have been offended by the fold of my cravat, but she could not be averse to my looks since she did not once look directly at me. Neither could she have any idea what sort of man I am from the niceties we discussed in her presence.”
Lord Blackstone was clearly affronted. He was not accustomed to women of his acquaintance shying away; he was used to determining the level of familiarity with the ever-eager females who came into his realm. Harrietta’s offense was more pronounced because he had been captivated by a voice charging forth with humor and intelligence. “I think you will find your new companion averse to all gentlemen.
“I quite agree. She is most likely being forced into a repugnant relationship and holds all men culpable. Either that or she is averse to being identified and is concerned you will place her face or name.”
They sat a moment to consider this possibility. It was Blackstone who broke the meditation. “Would you like me to investigate?’
“I think not. Let some time pass. Harri is a level-headed young lady and I am inclined to believe her choice a wise one without knowing the specifics.” Blackstone watched his mother give the circumstance due consideration. “Yes, for now, I prefer to let things ride. When she feels secure, I am convinced she will come forward and share her dilemma. Let her feel safe before she is required to challenge her circumstance. If I know Harri, she will not hide from her problems any longer than it takes to find a solid solution.”
“I must bow to your perception on this. You know her better than I,” Blackstone acknowledged. “As long as her situation does not embroil you in a scandal or offer you harm, you have nothing to lose in giving her time.” He accredited his mother’s inclinations when he added, “Meanwhile, I know you will be shoring her up with your point of view.”
Lady Blackstone’s pleased nod ended their musing about Miss Eastmont and they passed the next hour catching up and making plans for their visit to Blackstone Manor. It was their habit to miss the beginning of the Season so they could be present for spring planting. This year, the countess was extending her flower garden and putting a new twist on it. Harrietta was already at work compiling information. Any day now they would begin a list of supplies that must be sent on ahead for the project.
Blackstone bid his mother goodbye, well pleased with their time together, except for his feelings toward her companion. He was not a man to let well enough alone when it made him uncomfortable and he was distinctly discomfited by her aversion to him. He would not have the pleasure of his mother’s company invaded by her companion’s reticence. Nor could he shake the feeling that Miss Eastmont needed help.
The following afternoon found Lord Blackstone back in the sunny salon for afternoon tea. He had concluded over a glass of wine the previous evening that Miss Eastmont would be served by continuous exposure to him. Familiarity would lead to a level of comfort; get back up on the horse and all that. His mother’s companion would find, over time, she had nothing to fear.
Blackstone now looked confidently at the bowed head of wavy silken hair tamed by pins. He had purposely seated himself directly across from Harrietta. “She is going to have little choice, but to face me today,” he thought with satisfaction. With his mother conferring with Holmes, he addressed Harrietta. “How went your work on the lists, Miss Eastmont?”
Harrietta’s shoulders sagged as her head rose, knowing she could not directly ignore her employer’s son. The past few moments had been spent giving herself a firm reprimand for her missishness. This was no time to give into her qualms; she could lose her position, but more than that, she would not be so rude to Lady Blackstone. The countess had been kind and generous. Her son was obviously the light in her life. Harrietta knew she had to find a way to appear comfortable in Blackstone’s presence.
With an inner sigh, a lift of her chin, Harrietta looked across the carpet and into Lord Blackstone’s eyes. Her voice held no tremor when she answered, “Quite well, my lord.”
Green eyes with flecks of gold to match her hair, noted Blackstone as he replied. “I am glad to see my mother handing over some of her paperwork. Her projects are numerous and I have encouraged her to hire a secretary these past years. Perhaps you will find yourself doing double duty.”
Harrietta sensed his expectation for a response. She felt like a child brought from the nursery to greet the guests. “It is my pleasure to be of service to your mother in any capacity, your lordship.”
“She has made a good choice then. Nothing could please me more than to see her pleasantly situated with someone who can keep apace with her interests.”
He felt a hit of pleasure when Miss Eastmont’s eyes lit up. Appreciation for Lady Blackstone was shared.
“Your mother is an original, I believe.”
Blackstone chuckled and looked to his mother who was dismissing Holmes. Harrietta turned quiet, at a loss for speaking so frankly. Lady Blackstone looked from one to another. “I have missed out on the fun and all because I was making arrangements for your place at the table this evening, Stone.”
“We were only talking about you, Mother, and you know how much better it is to discuss one when they are not participating.”
Harrietta watched as mother and son connected in such easy manner. She was relieved to let them carry the conversation. The high-backed chair felt much like a protective cove in an ocean of discussion. As tea time unfolded, Harrietta let the tête-à-tête wash over her while she observed the gentleman who mirrored his mother’s good looks. Both were tall and slender, but Lady Blackstone had the feminine grace of a sleek housecat while Lord Blackstone electrified the air with the musky power of a trim lion. Intelligence and curiosity marked their brows. And though they shared blue eyes, there was nothing soothing about his gaze.
Harrietta sipped her tea, aware of the short, strong fingers holding Lord Blackstone’s cup. In this he was not like his mother. Her hands seemed all fingers, long and delicate. They were white and ladylike soft. Though manicured, his gentleman’s hands knew activity, perhaps work, thought Harrietta, recalling he had just returned from his estate.
In similarity and differences, this was a man who could offer safety or have his way. There lay the fission that slipped down Harrietta’s spine and kept her silent in the moments she might have added to the conversation.
In spite of her silence Harri was thinking she had managed the time well and was finding a little equilibrium. She was not pleased to hear Lady Blackstone suggesting Stone give Harrietta an opportunity for some air. “The garden is small of course; it can be no other way in the city, but it will be pleasant with today’s sun reminding us spring is just around the corner.”
Blackstone was readily agreeable. “It would be my pleasure, Miss Eastmont. Shall we see if this quirky warm weather has encouraged any buds?”
Harrietta looked to Lady Blackstone to see if there was any opportunity to decline such exposure, but the countess’s satisfied mien dashed any hope for reprieve. “Thank you, my lord, I shall retrieve my shawl and bonnet and join you in but a moment.”
As Stone rose from his chair, Harrietta acknowledged him with a quick curtsey and left the room with her heart pounding. “Oh, every time I think I have managed quite well, another challenge pulls me headlong into a circumstance I cannot like,” thought Harrietta as she climbed the stairs. “Why can’t the odious man see I am not inclined to view the garden or even converse? Must Lady Blackstone throw me together with someone I’m not inclined to enjoy?”
Harrietta entered her room in a fit of dismals. Finding her chip straw and adjusting it on her head, she calmed herself. Grabbing her shawl, she acknowledged this was but one of the many moments she would be required to be in Lord Blackstone’s company as long as she was Lady Blackstone’s companion. She must be careful, but she must also make herself available to Lord Blackstone’s company when propriety was measured and commonplace recommendations were suggested.
By the time Harri returned to the salon, she felt she was able to greet Blackstone with apparent calm. She determined Lady Blackstone’s needs were met and gave her a wan smile before being escorted out the French doors. The countess, wishing them a pleasant stroll, picked up her needlework knowing full well her companion would rather be on the arm of a bear and wearing a bee’s bonnet than stepping outside with Stone.
Blackstone was also aware of Harrietta’s personal challenge and did not offer his arm, convinced she would prefer no contact. He accepted the discomfort of being less than gallant. Feeling it did her no harm to withstand his company, his thought was to exhibit an unexceptional moment in his company without the protection of his mother. He would not keep her long.
“This is a time of year that particularly appeals to me. It speaks of the promise of new beginnings,” Blackstone said as he walked beside her down the steps of the terrace. “There is something rather encouraging about fragile buds pushing through the toughened bark of tree branches and crocus reaching out of soil packed by winter rains.” He perused the garden within the walls and continued. “Spring brings all the color and beauty of nature, but this is the moment of anticipating what is to come.”
Harrietta listened carefully, feeling the sincerity of what was being spoken. Her curiosity caused her to pause on the stairs. She felt compelled to look at the man who saw Mother Nature as a metaphor. Searching his expression to determine if he laid a false path with words, she saw nothing but truth and observed, “You share your mother’s love of plants.”
“It was instilled at birth, I believe,” he responded. “And nurtured by her interests, I am afraid. I make a better country gentleman than Member of Parliament. One grabs my attention while the other pulls at me only through obligation and responsibility,” he said, moving them on down the stairs with a nod and step forward.
Blackstone turned right at the bottom of the stairs and initiated a slow pace so Harrietta might look at what was familiar to him. With each step, she became less focused on his disconcerting presence and more entranced by the layout of the garden and the signs of spring. The well-pruned branches created designs she itched to sketch. The sprinkling of green against the browns of the earth and bare branches was a study in color quite different than the lush greens that would soon take over.
Harrietta was seeing with her artist’s eyes and did not know how long she had come to a full stop as potential sketches and paintings faded away to acute awareness. Her face paled when she realized how distracted she had become. Expecting consequences for her lapse, she was uncertain in how to proceed when she realized Lord Blackstone was also preoccupied. She waited at attention until he chanced to look back at her and suggested they take a seat directly ahead.
“Take a seat” rang through her head as Harrietta looked to the ornate wood bench five feet away. Holding up the strips of ribbon she had clutched in her right hand, she postponed. “I had thought I might mark the plants I am listing for your mother. Could we not walk instead, my lord?”
“Lead the way Miss Eastmont. I had wondered what use the ribbons would serve.”
With her wet palms betraying her in a most unladylike manner, Harrietta found comfort in explanation. “Lady Blackstone would like to include all the plants represented in this town garden when we create the spring plot she has planned for your estate. Marking them with the ribbons would assure a complete list.”
“Well done, Miss Eastmont. I am convinced you will have her well on her way with your efficiency. On her own, she would have her historical garden come together in fits and starts, only remembering what it was she had planned as we made our way back to town after the planting. She must be delighted with your efforts.”
“I can not confirm that, my lord. It has occurred to me she might feel confined if I am too obvious in putting all her suggestions down on paper. I try to be discreet.” Harrietta looked to see if Blackstone understood what she said. She found her answer in his smile and continued. “I do try to let her ideas bubble to the top. I would not hold her to any specific plans.”
Lord Blackstone found himself lost in Harrietta’s caring insight. He had been accurate in his assessment of her quick mind. Blackstone was inclined to think the garden too small, the path too short as he completed the circumference of the garden with her. While he had intended to carry the day with cool social graces during a quick tour, they returned to the base of the terrace steps with Miss Eastmont feeling more at ease and Lord Blackstone more disconcerted.