His Lady Peregrine by Ruth J. Hartman

Percy Radcliff’s family thought him mad. He knew that. Though they tried to hide their reactions to his love of anything avian, it came across very clearly that they didn’t share his interest. Certainly they admired birds, but none of them often wished to actually be one. If he said so himself, his imitation of a cawing crow was spot on.
His Lady Peregrine
His Lady Peregrine by Ruth J. Hartman
As he sat on the shaded bench near the front gate of Regent’s Park Bird Sanctuary, he observed the objects of his greatest interest. Birds of various sizes, squawking, chirping, or otherwise speaking in his or her own tongue, darted around, intent on completing their daily tasks. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to join them in their airborne pursuits? To know the joy of wind through your feathers and raising your young, freshly hatched from the egg? The majestic peregrine, however, was by far Percy’s favorite. With its blue-grey feathers, orange eyes, white throat, and black feathers on each side of its face to resemble a long moustache, it was a fascinating specimen indeed. And quite funny. He’d spotted one on his visit the week before. Perhaps today he’d be just as fortunate. Somehow, if he went too long of a time without seeing one, it felt as if something was lacking. Because of his love of birds, he often spoke of them at home. More often than not, he overheard whispered jokes about him belonging at Bedlam. If only they understood the importance of a relationship with birds, that man’s feathered friends were much more than just something to view. Something to occasionally pay attention to. Alas, his family’s admiration didn’t go beyond watching and listening to them. Or the occasional exclamation of delight after seeing this bird or that doing something unusual or entertaining. But it wasn’t the same thing. Not at all. Percy let out a deep sigh. If one of his family or friends, just one, felt the same way he did about his feathered friends, his life would be filled with so much more fulfillment. So much joy. Maybe it wasn’t meant to be. A sudden crash startled him. He turned and gasped. Someone was lying in a heap a few yards away. Good heavens, it was a woman! Percy jumped up and ran in her direction. Though he couldn’t run fast — few men of his age of one and fifty could, after all — he got there as quickly as his booted feet would allow. The woman, who from her greying hair and slightly wrinkled skin appeared to be not a young woman yet not quite his age, blinked up at him in surprise. Her features, though, were cloaked in shadow from beneath the dipping branches of the large oak tree. “Madam, are you well?” She quirked one eyebrow. “Sir, if I were well, would I be sitting here in a tangled lump beneath this tree?” He’d expected tears and wailing, as was the usual response from most women. “Uh… I suppose not.” “Are you or are you not going to assist me to my feet?” “Certainly. Pardon my… uh—” The woman swiped a lock of hair from in front of her eyes. “Never mind that, just lend me your hand.” Percy wrapped his hand around hers and gave a hefty tug. With a squeak of surprise, the woman thudded hard against his chest. He tightened his arms around her so she wouldn’t fall. A beam of sunshine washed across the woman’s face. Percy’s breath caught in his throat, nearly depriving him of air altogether. Could it be? Black hair with just a touch of grey. Ivory skin on her face and throat. As a bright ray of sunlight glinted in her eyes, their light brown color appeared nearly… orange. The woman resembled a peregrine. Without the moustache. Thankfully. She pushed against his chest until he released her. “What are you gawking at? Your open mouth resembles a chiff-chaff’s beak.” He closed his beak, uh, mouth. “I… beg your pardon?” “I don’t believe I stuttered.” “B-but—” She pointed to his mouth. “Though, you just did.” Without preamble, as if he hadn’t just hauled her into his arms, she gave a moderate curtsey. “I am Lady Ollerton.” Lady? The woman had no pretense, no formality about her. And she’d just introduced herself to a man as they stood alone beneath a tree. How odd. Yet somehow refreshing. An interesting tingle began in his toes and crawled upward. Percy shrugged. Might as well respond in kind. With one hand at his waist and the other performing a slight flourish to the side, he gave a bow. “And I am Mr. Radcliff.” “Here. Hold this.” Lady Ollerton thrust a large fabric sack into his arms. He’d expected it to be heavy, though it was light as a feather. “What’s this?” “Feathers.” “You don’t say?” How odd that he’d thought— “I believe I just did.” The woman’s tongue was as sharp as a woodpecker’s. “May I ask why you’re carrying around a sack of feathers?” She crossed her arms beneath her ample breasts, causing her cleavage to deepen in the most fascinating way. “You may.” “I… uh.” Wasn’t the asking if he could ask the same as asking? “Go on, Mr. Radcliff. I don’t have the whole of the day to spend conversing, now do I?” With his brow furrowed, Percy forced the words from his mouth, though a part of him thought it silly. She was perplexing, yet… he somehow felt a certain kinship with her. As if he’d found someone who would pique his interest. Someone of whom he would never tire. “Why are you carrying those around?” He pointed directly at the sack so she’d not have a chance to act as if she had no notion of what he meant. Miss Ollerton placed one hand on her chest as if preparing to utter the most profound proclamation. Percy’s gaze followed her hand. “I find birds to be the most interesting creatures God ever made. Their beaks, their impossibly tiny feet, their beady little eyes, and especially—” She gave the bag a poke with her finger. “—their feathers.” She held up her hand. “Oh, I know what you’re thinking.” He snapped his gaze up from where it had wandered to her breasts. “I highly doubt that.” She ignored his words. “You’re wondering how I obtain said feathers.” He shrugged. “I assumed you gathered them from the ground.” She smacked him on the arm. “Now see? You actually have some sense! Do you know there are people who have accused me of trapping birds simply to pluck their feathers before setting them free again?” “How ghastly.” Percy rubbed his arm. The woman had given him a true wallop. “Precisely.” Percy shook his head. “People have no sense.” “People are the worst. Some of them, even my own relations, think I’m mad simply because I happen to have such a strong affinity for birds. Can you imagine being talked about in such a way?” He raised both eyebrows. More than you could ever know. “Say, why were you staring at my face right after we met? Do I have something unmentionable on my skin? Dirt? Bird dung?” Good heavens! He’d never heard a woman speak so freely about bird refuse before. “Not at all. You look very…” “Yes?” “Well… fetching.” “Then why the need to gawk?” Should he tell her? Would she think him mad like the rest of his family did? What did he really have to lose? She was a stranger and he’d likely never see her again. “If you must know—” “Oh I must.” “You remind me very much of a—” “Yes go on.” He drummed the fingers of his right hand against his thigh. “I will if you’ll stop interrupting—” “You were interrupting me.” “My lady, do you want your question answered or not?” “If you don’t mind.” She tapped one boot in the dirt. “Very well.” He let out a breath. “You, my good woman, remind me of a peregrine falcon.” There. He’d said it. Would she laugh in his face or kick him in the knee? She blinked. “Oh.” Not quite the reaction he’d expected. Perhaps, even though she was fond of birds, the peregrine wasn’t a favorite. Too late to take back the sentiment. Though even if he could retract it, he wouldn’t. Such divine avian features deserved admiration. “By the way, how had you happened to end up in a heap?” “I fell from the tree, of course.” Of course. “Aren’t you going to ask me what I was doing in the tree, Mr. Radcliff?” “Do you want me to ask?” “It is my deepest wish.” “Then by all means, pray tell me.” “I was trying to climb that tree because I’d heard the call of a willow warbler and very much wanted to see it close up. Somehow, though, I must have lost my footing and well, fell. You know, pesky gravity and all.” “Don’t you suppose someone who works at the Sanctuary might frown on a visitor climbing one of the trees? It simply isn’t done.” Lady Ollerton stood on her toes, bringing her face quite close to his. “Don’t you suppose a person with a love for birds has a right to do as she pleases?” Percy tilted his head to one side. The woman was sarcastic, blunt, and demanding. She was perfect. Chapter Two Georgiana Ollerton upended her sack of feathers onto her kitchen floor. Sorting them was one of her favorite pastimes. She catalogued them by bird of origin, color, size and of course, which were the prettiest. If she had extra feathers from the same type of bird, she wasn’t above using them to decorate a hat or two. Her small notebook and quill were on her lap, as she jotted down her most recent finds. Two from warblers, five chiff-chaffs, three cuckoos, and ten wagtails — though to be fair the ten were divided up between male and female feathers. Thank goodness. Otherwise some poor bird was flying around half-naked. Her thoughts turned to Mr. Radcliff. What an interesting man. She shook her head. Had that really occurred? The chance meeting with handsome Mr. Radcliff had come as a shock. Normally when she tried to climb trees and fell there wasn’t anyone around to help her up. What a pleasant surprise to have had him come to her rescue. Not that she needed rescuing, mind, but she’d enjoyed it all the same. Since her husband, the Earl of Graverly, had passed, she’d not taken much interest in men. To be fair, none had taken a fancy to her either at her age of two and forty, but Mr. Radcliff seemed to have. The man asked her to accompany him on an outing. Her. She was no spring chicken. Not some silly debutante to simper and bat her eyelashes at a possible suitor. Yet, he’d shown an interest. And she’d said yes. Am I mad? Probably. That would prove her brothers right, at least. Give them something to crow about. She shrugged. But then what was new? Even her late husband, Albert, God rest his soul, had merely tolerated her interest in birds. Had he thought her mad, as well? She’d never know. Was the fact that Mr. Radcliff had been in attendance at the Sanctuary a sign that he loved birds as she did? Or was he simply passing the time until something more amusing came along? But he had compared her to a peregrine falcon. A finer compliment she’d never received. She wasn’t used to the attentions of someone of the masculine sex. At that moment, she’d felt like a silly, simpering debutante, pleased at something a handsome gentleman had said to her. Georgiana, you’re being daft. After Mr. Radcliff had rescued her, he’d asked to spend some time with her. The surprise had nearly knocked her down again. Surely he hadn’t actually meant it? Perhaps he only wanted her to accompany him to some outing and that would be the end of it. Had she met someone interesting only to have it end up short-lived? The case clock in the corner chimed. Georgiana gasped. Was that the time? She’d better change and get ready for Mr. Radcliff to collect her. Something shuffled behind her then scratched at the floor. It was Winston. “Oh no you don’t, Mr. Fluffy-breeches. You know these feathers aren’t for you!” She scooped up her long-haired grey cat before he could pounce on her treasures. She set him down again and shooed him a few feet away. With a sigh, she gathered up the feathers again and put the bag inside a cupboard because she knew Winston couldn’t be trusted when it came to feathers. As she headed toward her bedchamber, the cat raced ahead of her. Uh-oh. Winston was heading there too. Georgiana had asked her maid, Mary, to lay out her best day gown on top of the bed before her outing with Mr. Radcliff. Sure enough, Winston was on top of her gown. Kneading the fabric and purring. Loudly. “You wicked cat. You know that’s my best day dress.” Now I’m out of time! Even with Mary helping her to dress, they wouldn’t be able to remove the multitude of cat hairs before Mr. Radcliff arrived. Would he believe it if she told him the cat hair was there on purpose? Some sort of decoration like the feathers in her hat? No. Probably not. Perhaps he loved cats as much as birds and wouldn’t think it odd. Or maybe he wouldn’t even notice them. One could hope. She’d been so excited to be asked on an outing she’d forgotten to inquire as to what their destination was to be. No matter. This was the most exciting event to have happened to her since a willow warbler had done a flip to rival a court jester on a tree branch outside her bedroom window. After Mary had helped her into her gown and had fixed, or tried to, her unruly hair, Georgiana was ready. Wait, that wasn’t right. She might appear ready on the surface, but her insides quivered like a baby bird’s spindly legs on the edge of the nest. Ever since she’d been left on her own, she’d worked very hard to develop a kind of protective shell around her. Sarcasm often emerged when she was nervous, scaring away all except the heartiest of souls. What if Mr. Radcliff found her not to his liking? Too outspoken or rude? Or thought her mad when he discovered her abiding love for birds? Or if he decided she was too old to court. He appeared to be older than her, but many men seemed to want women young enough to be their daughters. She put on her pelisse and grabbed her reticule. Any minute now, his carriage would come up her drive. That is, unless he changed his mind. Decided against taking her on an outing. Thought about his rash invitation and reconsidered. Stop! She needed to calm herself. Even if nothing came of today, if he didn’t come for her or he did but found her not to his liking, she’d not count it as a loss. Who am I trying to fool? Her shoulders slumped. With the exception of Winston, Georgiana had been incredibly lonely since the loss of Albert. They’d never been blessed with children, and her nieces and nephews, now grown, lived too far away to see very often. How silly, though, to even think of Mr. Radcliff as someone who might fill her husband’s place in her heart. She’d barely spoken to the man. What if he— A horse’s whinny came from just outside her front window. She peeked past the curtain at the sleek, black horses pulling the large, shiny carriage. My goodness… Was Mr. Radcliff a man of means? She hadn’t bothered to take much notice of his attire the day prior. No, she’d been too enamored of being compared to a peregrine to think about anything as mundane as clothing. The knock on the door startled her, though it shouldn’t have. The man was right outside, after all. Georgiana, regretting the fact that she no longer could afford a footman, opened the door herself. Mr. Radcliff’s attire was impeccable. Shiny hessian boots, trousers without a tear, spot, or blemish, black coat over a white shirt, and a dove grey cravat. Hmm. Dove grey. Was that a good sign? When her gaze met his, her heart gave a little bump. He was smiling, as if extraordinarily pleased to see her. Aside from Winston, no males other than birds had given her more than a passing notice for some time. “Lady Ollerton.” He gave a bow. “How lovely you look today.” Out of practice curtseying very often, she executed one now, relieved not to have fallen on her bottom in the process. Wouldn’t that have made a fine impression? Mr. Radcliff reached for her hand, kissed the back of it, and looped her arm through his. “Ready for our outing, Lady Peregrine?” Georgiana sputtered a laugh. “Pardon?” “It’s what I’ve decided to call you. It’s a compliment, by the way.” “Yes… quite.” Something warm curled around her heart, thawing a little bit of her longing for companionship. “Thank you, it’s… it’s lovely.” “Glad you approve, my lady.” He helped her to the carriage. Georgiana fretted the entire time that she would trip over her skirt. Or her boots. Or his boots. Concentrate! She’d never been graceful. Perhaps that’s one reason she loved to watch the birds fly. They were perfection in motion. Only a few more steps and then she could— Something was thrust in her path and she stumbled. And landed right in Mr. Radcliff’s lap. How had that happened? Had she tripped him when she stumbled? Oh the horror… “P-p-pardon, my d-dear.” His face had gone pale. With care, hoping not to injure the poor man any further, Georgiana regained her feet. She reached down and grabbed his hand, hauling him to stand. “Much obliged.” A wheezing noise came from the vicinity of his lips. “Are you—” She placed her hand flat on his chest, noticing his warmth even through his coat. “Mr. Radcliff, are you hurt?” He swallowed, his throat moving his cravat down and up. “F-fine. P-perfectly fine.” She shook her head. He’d never want to see her again after today. “Please forgive my—” “Oh no, Lady Peregrine. It wasn’t your doing at all.” “It wasn’t?” “I’m afraid… that is, I’ve always been a little clumsy. It was my own foot that tripped you, I’m loath to admit. Are you injured?” Was it true that it had been his clumsiness, or was he only being kind to save her from being embarrassed? Either way, it was quite sweet. If it really had been his fault, she’d hate for him to feel embarrassed. “Never fear, Mr. Radcliff. I am quite well and the day is not ruined. I’m very much looking forward to… er…” Hard to complete the thought when she didn’t know where they were headed. His face lit up. “Splendid.” After they’d successfully climbed into the carriage, Georgiana tried very hard not to stare at the interior. It reminded her so much of a carriage of Albert’s many years ago. Before his financial downfall. While it was true she could claim the title of Lady Ollerton, she no longer had any resources to aid her lifestyle. Mores the pity. Not that she’d gone without. No, not at all. And while she didn’t crave the treasures of the world, sometimes she wished things were a trifle easier. She’d hated the day she’d had to let her footman and other servants go. Mary, bless her, had agreed to stay on for little more than room and board. Even with all of that, with little income and widowhood, she had a mostly happy life as long as she could visit with her birds. She glanced up at Mr. Radcliff and smiled. Though finding a new love would certainly be a wonderful surprise, wouldn’t it? He gave her a wink, causing shivers to race up her arms. He wasn’t the most handsome man, yet there was something about him… Rakish wasn’t exactly the word, though he had a gleam in his eye that told of wild secrets just begging to jump free. No it was more an expression of an experienced man. In matters of love. Had he been previously married? Most men his age were either widowed or married. A part of her longed to know. To ask about his past, delve into his depths and discover what made him unique. Of course, once she opened that particular door, she’d feel as if she’d have to speak of Albert. Terrible memories of his painful illness were best kept hidden. Maybe someday, if she and Mr. Radcliff formed a friendship, she’d speak of her husband. But not today. Today was for new beginnings. At least, she hoped so. “Lovely day, isn’t it, Lady Peregrine?” “What?” Georgiana’s heart gave a lurch at his words. “Oh. Certainly.” What must he think? He’d invited her for an outing to… wherever, and she sat across from him woolgathering about her former husband. Very improper, Georgiana. Focus. It was killing her not to know their destination. Don’t ask, don’t ask, don’t — I can’t stand it! “I don’t believe you mentioned where it was we were going.” “I didn’t?” “No.” “Oh.” She tapped her finger on her knee and frowned. Was that all he was going to say on the subject? Georgiana opened her mouth, intent on making a scathing reply but closed it just as quickly. You must be on your best behavior today. Gritting her teeth together as a reminder to watch her tongue, she forced out the words, “I’m sure wherever we’re headed will be a nice adventure indeed.” Mr. Radcliff raised one eyebrow and leaned forward, studying her face as if she was a rare albino goose. “Are you unwell, Lady Peregrine?” “No. Why?” “Your face has gone quite red.” He pointed toward her. “And your mouth…” “Yes, what about it?” Her jaws were beginning to ache from clenching. “Well it… it reminds me of a pelican I once saw a portrait of.” Unable to stand it anymore, she relaxed her mouth. “A pelican?” Something told her this was not going to be as complimentary as Mr. Radcliff’s peregrine comment. “It had a downturned mouth, lips, that is if pelican’s indeed do possess lips, were pulled low at the sides, nearly to its chin. Do those birds even have chins?” “I’m sure I wouldn’t know.” Though it was an interesting question… His eyes widened. “Oh, I just realized you might have misconstrued my pelican comment.” “You mean about its lips, or its chin? Or the question of whether it is in possession of either.” “I hadn’t meant it in any way negative, I assure you.” “Of course not. How could a woman ever find even a hint of anything untoward in your comment?” Georgiana, you’re doing it again. Be pleasant. Mr. Radcliff sat back against his seat. He openly stared at her. Was he regretting his invitation for today? Contemplating tossing her from the moving carriage? Then, a slow — could she even call it seductive? — smile appeared. “I say, you really are a saucy one, aren’t you?” Saucy? She blinked. He wasn’t angry? “I can honestly say you’re the first to give me that particular adjective, Mr. Radcliff.” He leaned toward her again and grabbed her hand. “Please. Call me Percy.” Christian names? Already? “Oh, well… I am Georgiana.” He tilted his head to one side and closed his eyes. Was he going to take a nap? “Georgiana. I’ve never heard such a melodious name.” He tugged her hand closer until it rested against his chest. This left Georgiana in a very uncomfortable stance half-sitting, half-standing, trying not to fall into his lap. Again. Much more of inspecting the man’s private area and she really would earn the saucy nomenclature. Her left leg, upon which most of her weight rested, began to tingle. Not now. Please don’t fall asleep here. A quick check told her the man’s eyes were still closed. How long was she expected to— Abruptly, he opened his eyes and let go of her hand at the same instant. Georgiana’s leg, now completely gone numb, gave way. Her awkward position, still bent over him forced her forward. Not again! She collapsed in a heap, draped across his chest and yes, his lap. He’d think her a trollop. “My dear Lady Peregrine!” He grabbed her upper arms to steady her. “If you wish to spend time on top of my person, you could have simply asked.” “Excuse me?” “Obviously, you like what you see.” He wiggled his eyebrows and gave a slight toss of his head. As if he was preening. Like a bird. Good heavens, could it be? Had she actually found someone with whom she could share her love of— Percy’s lips crashed down on hers. Georgiana gasped, though she couldn’t really get much air into her lungs around his lips. What did he think he was about? She placed her hands against his chest, intent on shoving him away. But something came over her. A warmth that started in her lips, traveled down and circled around her heart, then shot lower to her pelvis. It had been so long since she’d felt that sensation she nearly hadn’t recognized it. Well hello there. Nice to have you back again. She grinned against Percy’s lips, fully intent on spending the rest of the day right in that very spot. Perhaps if she pressed closer they could— The carriage slowed and stopped. Percy, looking reluctant, ended the kiss and blinked. “Perhaps it’s a good thing we’re already on a Christian name basis, hmmm?” Chapter Three Percy tamped down the nervous butterflies in his stomach. Although as obnoxious as they were behaving, perhaps they were more like courting bats. Why in the world was he so fidgety? He’d been with countless women in his lifetime. Countless. What was so different about this one? He snuck a glance at Georgiana, who had her hand atop his arm. Not a raving beauty. And as clumsy as he was. There was just something about her. Something that drew him in, beckoned for another look, an invitation to spend time getting to know her better. And she did like birds. Percy led her around to the back garden where a picnic was to have been arranged. Too bad it wouldn’t be just the two of them. His nephew Barrington and niece Cecilia would be there too. Percy couldn’t very well decline the invitation. He did live with them, after all. Barrington’s valet, Daniel, and Cecilia’s maid Leah, who was Daniel’s wife, would also be in attendance. Perhaps some would think it strange that the servants would be guests at the picnic, but they happened to be close, treasured friends of Percy’s niece and nephew as well, more like family. Percy took great delight in the fact that he’d been instrumental in getting the two couples to find matrimonial bliss. His family often teased him about that. About his success at finding love for others but not for himself. It wasn’t that he was unlucky with the fairer sex — he wasn’t. In truth, he’d had more than his share of conquests. Still, that elusive state of happily ever after continued to escape him. With a glance at Georgiana, he wondered, Will this time be different? Is it finally my turn? As Georgiana and Percy reached the garden, he spotted others seated beneath a shade tree. He squinted, not quite able to identify the guests. Darn these aging eyes! Ah… It was Cecilia’s brother and wife, Lord and Lady Lofton — Conrad and Amelia — and… An older woman plump and frowning, perhaps his age, was also seated there. Oh. It was Conrad’s mother, the dowager. What was her name… Miriam? Percy had met her once or twice over the years, but she’d never been terribly social. Or friendly. What was she doing here today? He’d heard she rarely made an attempt to leave her house. A gasp came from Georgiana as she stumbled. “Oh!” Percy wrapped his arm around her shoulders, steadying her, and gave a squeeze. “I’ve got you, my lady.” What he wouldn’t give to be back in the carriage, his lips locked with hers, his hands ready to explore her— “Uncle Percy!” Barrington waved them over. Percy sighed and directed Georgiana toward the others. Sadly, today was not meant for continuing the mating ritual. Some days he really envied birds their privacy of a nest high in a tree. Cecilia stepped toward them. Her blue eyes sparkled as she gave a beautiful smile. “Good day. And who is your lovely guest?” Percy nodded toward Georgiana. “May I present Lady Peregrine.” Georgiana cleared her throat just loud enough for him to hear. What was she — Oh. Right. “I beg your pardon. This is Lady Ollerton.” Barrington came closer and bowed to Georgiana. After greeting her, he stared straight at Percy, one eyebrow raised, but made no other expression about Percy’s faux pas. Percy was certain his slip of the tongue would not go unnoticed. As Cecilia took Georgiana by the hand and led her to meet the other women and Conrad, Barrington chuckled. “Lady Peregrine? For a bird lover like you, what a coincidence that must be to have your new, uh, friend, be named for a falcon.” “If you must know, dear boy, the bird reference is just a pet name from me.” Daniel, who’d been close behind Barrington, unsuccessfully made his laugh into a cough. “And just how long have you been in her acquaintance?” Percy lowered his eyebrows, pretending he had trouble recalling the date of their first meeting. Prepare yourself to be teased, Percy. “Well, that would have to be… yesterday.” “Pardon?” Barrington leaned closer. “You’ve given the woman a pet name and you’ve only just met?” “Why does that strike you as odd?” Somehow the name Peregrine just fit. It made perfect sense to him to call her thus. If the younger men paid more attention to birds, surely they would have seen the resemblance too. And Georgiana hadn’t protested. She hadn’t kicked him anyplace painful. So far. “Because, Uncle Percy, in all the years I’ve known you and have listened to you spout, yes spout about your conquests, never — not once — have you given a woman a pet name.” Percy gazed somewhere near Barrington’s left ear. “Haven’t I?” “Never.” “Well… Hmm. Not sure what to say to that.” Daniel glanced over his shoulder at the group of women a few yards away. “I have to say this is the first time I’ve ever seen you not know what to say.” Percy harrumphed. “This from one of the men I personally helped to marry the love of his life when he thought there was no hope.” “I’m just teasing you, you know.” One side of Daniel’s mouth rose. Barrington tilted his head to the side. “What’s wrong, Uncle? Is there something about this Lady Peregrine that troubles you?” Troubles me? You have no idea. His thoughts flew back to the carriage. His lips pressed to hers. His hands massaging the pliant flesh beneath the back of her gown. The heat that coiled like an impatient snake low in his belly ready to strike at the least provocation. “Oh I like her indeed. So much it frightens me.” Barrington glanced toward the others and then touched Percy’s arm. “Say… you really do, don’t you?” Percy shook his head in bewilderment. “I’m not really sure how it happened. And so quickly.” “Didn’t you always tell us that it matters not how long you’ve known someone but it’s what’s in your heart that counts?” “Did I? Must be smarter than I realized.” Percy glanced across the yard. Conrad’s mother was saying something to Georgiana, the latter standing ramrod straight as if ready to go on the attack. Were they going to fight? Good heavens! Better not let something like that happen. He pointed toward the women, indicating his intention, and then hurried to them. When he reached Georgiana, it was obvious she was upset. Flushed cheeks, narrowed eyes. Toe of her boot tapping on the grass. What in the world had happened? She’d only been there for a few minutes. He couldn’t come right out and ask, though. Not in front of everyone else. A loud squawk came from his left. A common cuckoo sat perched on the bench where Conrad’s family had previously been. Seemed to be a perfect opportunity to draw Georgiana away from Conrad’s grumping mother. He took Georgiana’s arm. “Have a look over there. At the bench. Do you see it?” All eyes followed to where he pointed. Amelia clapped. Conrad paled, Cecilia nodded, and the dowager scowled. But his lovely Lady Peregrine’s expression said it all. Eyes wide in wonder. Smile broad and open, her white teeth just peeking through her lips. Hands clasped in delight. “Oh,” she whispered, “might we get closer?” “Of course.” Not only would it serve the purpose of separating her from the dowager, it would also give her pleasure. And from the moment he’d met her, doing that had dominated his thoughts. With hastened steps they hurried toward the bench, slowing a few feet away from the bird. Without comment or a glance to each other, they slowed at exactly the same time, not wanting to frighten the bird. How extraordinary. Georgiana reached up and placed her hand on Percy’s arm. Hers trembled. Not in fear, he knew, because his did the same. No, in excitement, wonder. Percy’s heart pounded hard against his ribs. He’d never experienced this before. Never had the joy of having another person take such delight in seeing a bird. How was it possible he’d gone his entire life without it? No matter. It’s here now. And I intend to enjoy it and Georgiana to the fullest. With their steps in unison, they tiptoed until they were a scant few feet from the bird. The cuckoo didn’t fly away but sat on the bench, its little head tilted to one side, its dark eyes staring at them. Was it as interested in them? From behind them, Percy heard laughter and then his name. The others, of course, gained amusement from his love of birds. It used to bother him a bit. But being here with Georgiana, sharing this experience, knowing she felt as strongly as he did, made all the years of good-natured ridicule seem worth it. The cuckoo hopped closer to the edge of the bench but still didn’t fly away. Somehow, it almost seemed that it knew Percy and Georgiana meant it no harm. It lifted one wing, preened a bit, and fluffed its magnificent feathers, which brought a lovely sheen to its overall appearance. Georgiana whispered, “Isn’t it extraordinary?” Percy kept his voice low too. “Indeed.” Without warning, the bird’s eyes widened and it flapped its wings. What on earth? From behind them, stomping footsteps approached. “Go away! You disgusting creature!” It was the dowager. Percy turned, his mouth dropping open, as he watched the woman storm toward the bench, waving her arms. Percy glanced back at the bird. Did the dowager have any idea that right at that moment she mirrored the bird as it flapped its wings? With an indignant squawk, the bird flew away and up, circling around and landing on a branch a few feet above them. Georgiana, with storm clouds brewing behind her eyes, frowned at the dowager. “Why did you do that?” The dowager didn’t bother addressing Georgiana, but instead pointed at the bird. “Those things are repulsive. I don’t want it anywhere in my vicinity.” “I’m quite certain it wanted nothing to do with you, either!” Georgiana leaned forward as if ready for battle. Oh dear. Percy grabbed her arm and propelled her back toward the others. Instead of embarrassment at the scene between the two women, he felt pride. Yes, his Lady Peregrine, defending the bird, had warmed his heart as nothing else could have possibly done. Ah, Georgiana, where have you been all of my life? Chapter Four Miriam Croome, dowager of the Lofton estate, nearly salivated at the sight of the elder Mr. Radcliff. She’d seen him in the past but hadn’t exchanged more than a few words. Why hadn’t she noticed his appeal before? The man had an almost feral quality about him, as if he were one with nature. Heat crept up her face. What are you thinking? One with nature? You despise nature. Hadn’t she always tried to keep her son Conrad from any outdoor activities? Demanded that he stay clean and tidy, having nothing to do with dirt and animals? Not that it mattered now, as his wife, Amelia, had put a stop to that. Still, she was inexplicably drawn to Mr. Radcliff. How extraordinary. She hadn’t wanted to be with a man since the one who had actually fathered Conrad a few months before she married Lord Lofton. And that had been… Well never mind how long ago. Parts of her person that she’d thought dead and buried were suddenly springing to life. But that woman, the one who had accompanied him. She was quite attached to the man. Literally. She seemed to not want to stand apart from him. Can I blame her? Surely she senses the masculine sexual attraction rolling off of Mr. Radcliff? Blast it all. Why did that Lady Ollerton have to be here anyway? Miriam, aghast at the way her body was reacting to the man yet loath to part with the sensation, was sure she could come up with some way to get to know him better. They’d been previously introduced, so that wasn’t an issue. But simply talking to the man wasn’t really what she had in mind anyway. Miriam! What has come over you? She tamped down her conscience, something she’d never let interfere in what she wanted to do in the past. Now was not the time to start listening to it whine and wheedle. No, there had to be a way, some way, that she could get Mr. Radcliff to notice her. But what? After having words with the simpering Lady Ollerton, Amelia had hurriedly called for food to be brought out. Had she been hoping to diffuse the tension between the two women? Everyone had gathered around the tables, waiting for their meal. Impatient at having to wait to eat, Miriam wandered away from the group and returned to the bench to sit and gaze at her new obsession. She eyed the seat carefully first, making sure not to sit on anything unmentionable or disgusting that might have been left by that bird. Why did these people always long to spend time out-of-doors, anyway? Sitting in the shadows as she was, Miriam was somewhat hidden from view of anyone coming from the house. Two maids walked past, each carrying a tray of food. Miriam, seeing servants as lazy and mostly worthless, did however perk up her ears when she heard her own name. “Why is that awful dowager Croome even here?” asked one. “She is so unpleasant.” “I agree,” said the other. “A maid in her employ told me how disagreeable she is to work for.” The two young women reached the table and set down their trays. Miriam’s blood boiled. One of her own servants badmouthed her to another maid? The gall! Too bad Miriam didn’t know which servant, then she could merrily torment the girl and make her life miserable for spouting off. Mr. Radcliff laughed from across the yard, drawing Miriam’s attention from the stupid maids. She gritted her teeth together when Percy took hold of Lady Ollerton’s hand and placed it on his arm. Why can’t that be me? Though if she was close enough to him to do that, she’d want to do more. So much more. Her fingers ran a circle around her knee, imagining it was his knee instead. The maids, now empty-handed after delivering the trays, passed by Miriam’s hiding place once more. Though Miriam didn’t believe they were right, that she was so disagreeable, was that what Mr. Radcliff would think? If a maid in his household had heard the lies, it was entirely possible that he’d heard something of the like too. That wouldn’t do. Not at all. How could she convince him otherwise? She still couldn’t believe she was actually considering all of this. What was it about the man that beckoned to her? Caused her to think thoughts she’d not had since she was a girl of seventeen? She hadn’t a clue. All Miriam knew was she didn’t want to let it, let him slip away. The rush of physical sensations was too wonderful to let go. Glaring through narrowed eyes at Lady Ollerton, Miriam almost wished some harm would come to the woman. Then there wouldn’t be an obstacle to the dashing Mr. Radcliff. As she watched, Lady Ollerton stumbled. Mr. Radcliff quickly came to her aid, wrapping a strong arm around her shoulders. And pulling her much too close. That’s it! Miriam could stage some sort of accident while in Mr. Radcliff’s presence. Of course, she’d have to tag along with her son and daughter-in-law once more, but it would be worth it. Mr. Radcliff seemed the sort to come to someone’s rescue. She’d just have to convince him that she wasn’t as bad as others made her out to be. A bump on the head from a faked fall and temporary amnesia just might do the trick. After that, she’d make sure to get him in her clutches. And never let go. Chapter Five Percy gave a pat to Georgiana’s hand that rested on his arm. “I thought perhaps we could do some bird-watching here at Hyde Park.” “Wouldn’t a better place have been the Bird Sanctuary?” She arched one eyebrow. “My dear Lady Peregrine, that’s where everyone goes to see birds. This is more original.” “I must agree about the original part. That is, you are certainly an original.” He puffed out his chest. “Why, thank you.” Georgiana laughed and lightly smacked his shoulder. “Are you certain that was a compliment?” He frowned. “How could it have been otherwise intended?” “I must say, I’ve never met anyone quite like you.” She tilted her head and studied him closely, her gaze roving over his face and shoulders. “Why thank—” Percy snapped his mouth closed. Another questionable compliment? A man could get a complex after too many of those. Georgiana squeezed his arm, seeming not to notice his mental discomfort. “Hopefully we’ll see some birds while we’re here.” “That is the general idea.” He stopped so abruptly they both nearly stumbled. “Do you like secrets?” She raised one eyebrow and smiled, looking every bit like a little girl who’d hidden something special and wouldn’t share the details of where she’d put it. “I live for them.” He angled his head until he was close to her ear. A few wisps of her hair tickled his lips. “Another reason for not going to the Sanctuary was so a certain attractive woman wouldn’t fall out of any trees.” She straightened. “But it wasn’t so bad. If you hadn’t seen me in a lump beneath that tree, we wouldn’t have met.” He nodded and drew his arm across her shoulders, glancing around to make sure no one else was nearby. “That would have been a terrible shame indeed.” “Besides, there are trees here.” She waved her hand vaguely to the side. Oh no… “But, Georgiana, you wouldn’t. Surely.” “And why not? Who’s to prevent me?” A light shushing sound came from below them as she tapped her boot in the grass. Percy leaned down until his forehead nearly brushed hers. “I believe I’m the man for that position.” “Do you?” She poked his chest. “That confident of your qualifications, are you?” “If I must say so, yes.” If there was one attribute of which he could be sure when it came to ladies, it was confidence. He pushed away the dawning realization that with this woman it might be different. She ran one finger coyly down his chest. “I do like a confident man.” Percy stood up to his full height and took a deep breath. “Though… over confidence isn’t very becoming.” “I see.” Deflating indeed. His shoulders slumped. “Oh, I didn’t mean you.” Georgiana grabbed his arm and held it so tight to her side that his sleeve brushed against her breast. Warmth caused perspiration to form around his cravat. “I… that is… well now I’m not at all sure what I’d intended to say…” He tugged at the piece of cloth to try and breathe a little easier. Why did men have to wear the blasted things anyway? Some geese flew overhead, honking and flapping their wings in a steady beat. Georgiana shaded her eyes as she tilted back her head. “Don’t you find geese fascinating?” “Quite.” But he wasn’t watching the geese. With her head angled back, all he could think of was placing kisses up and down her throat. “And I love it when they honk.” “Um-hmm.” He could imagine running his tongue right below her ear. “They speak to each other while in the air, signaling who should be next in line to fly to the front and lead the formation.” “Certainly.” Was there someplace private nearby where they could be alone? Being so near her yet unable to act out his thoughts was a torment he nearly couldn’t stand. “Such a pity people can’t get along and be more like the geese.” “Oh, I agree.” Perhaps he could unbutton the top of her dress and press his lips to her bare shoulders. “Wouldn’t it be lovely to be up there with them? To flap our arms and peer at the world below?” “I can’t think of anything I’d rather do.” And after that I could— She changed her focus back to him, her light brown eyes wide and unblinking. “Why are you looking at me? The geese are up there.” “Because you’re more beautiful than geese, my little peregrine.” “Oh, Percy, you do say the sweetest things.” She giggled and fluttered her long eyelashes. Percy smirked. “So I’ve been told before.” That seemed to have gotten her attention. “Oh? By whom?” Perhaps he shouldn’t speak so easily of his other conquests. “Oh, no one in particular.” She narrowed her eyes. “Are there so many that you can’t recall of which woman you speak?” He shrugged. This wasn’t going at all how he’d planned. “I—” “So you’re saying there are other women…” He held up his hand. “No, uh… Not, well now.” Both of her eyebrows shot up. “Not now?” “No one but you.” “And just how long has it been since there was another? I’m merely one in a long line of—” “Certainly not!” He’d spoken the words too loud, frightening a small nearby sparrow into frantic flight. She tilted her head. “I like you. Very much. But I’m not one to be trifled with. I’ll not be one of many eggs in your basket, so to speak.” “I can assure you, Georgiana, that at this moment, you are the only egg about whom I care.” She bit her lip and smiled. Percy took that as a good sign. Maybe he could talk her into finding a private spot somewhere. “Say, would you like to—” Georgiana turned her head suddenly to something just off to their right. “Oh look! There’s a red-breasted flycatcher!” Taking hold of Percy’s hand, jerking him nearly off his feet as well as from his thoughts, Georgiana took off at a walk so brisk to be nearly a run. Percy stumbled and went down. Georgiana, still clinging to him, toppled too. They’d ended up in a small valley, well out of sight of the main path. “Woman, it’s clear from your actions that you desire me.” “But I—” Percy cupped her face in his palm. “How often in a short period of time have I ended up with you on top of my person?” She raised one hand and pointed behind him. “But I thought I saw a red-breasted flycatcher.” He shook his head, a slow grin spreading across his face. “You can use a bird as an excuse for your exuberance, but you and I both really know the reason.” “Reason for what?” She struggled against him, trying to move away. “That you appear to have a fondness for being exceedingly close to me.” Georgiana glanced to their left. “But the bird. It will get away!” “Ah… comparing me to a bird now, are we? I’ll take that as a compliment. I’m not going to fly away, Lady Peregrine.” She blinked and peered down at him as if for the first time. “Pardon?” “You’ve successfully captured my attention, I assure you. I do believe you’re trying to ensnare me.” Her face colored, giving her an attractive pinkish hue. “Well, I…” Percy tugged her close, fully intending on an extended kiss. Something shuffled in the grass a few feet away, and Georgiana angled around and gasped. Percy finally pulled his gaze from her and turned too. A very large woman stood staring at them, her hand clutching the arm of a man only a third her width. “Of all the… well! Come along, Mr. Smyth. Some things one shouldn’t have to witness in polite society.” The pair tromped off with Mrs. Smyth, Percy presumed, muttering about people having immoral relations in a park. Georgiana wiggled, struggling to move from on top of him. Her movement only inflamed his desire. He clasped her upper arms. “My good woman, cease your thrashing about, or we’ll give passersby more to observe than a fully clothed couple simply lying on the grass.” With a loud gasp, Georgiana held as still as a sleeping owl on a branch. “Now, slowly, roll to the side — no knees thrust at me if you please — and sit in the grass.” Georgiana complied, but her face had darkened to the shade of a setting sun. Percy stood and brushed off his clothing. He reached down and assisted Georgiana to her feet. He brushed her dress free of grass. When he reached around to dust off her bottom, Georgiana grabbed his hand tightly. “Percy, I think not.” She glanced behind her to the direction in which the rotund woman had waddled. Percy sighed. And it had been shaping up to be such a delightful visit to the park. Chapter Six Georgiana hummed softly as she added some chiff-chaff feathers to an old hat, hoping to give it some extra life since she couldn’t spare the money for a new one. Percy was coming for her today. Again! Yesterday at Hyde Park and the day prior at his home must have gone more smoothly than she’d thought. With all the tumbling about, though enjoyable, she’d feared it would have put Percy off. Then when that woman, that dowager started glaring at her and making veiled insults, Georgiana was ready to pounce on the other woman like Winston on a feather. The nerve! She’d never even set eyes on the woman before. Why had she been so hateful and rude? It wasn’t as if Georgiana had anything she could want. Wait. There’d been a few moments, a blissful few minutes when the dowager had hastened off to sulk on a shady bench. Georgiana had noticed the other woman watching Percy in a predatory manner, leaning forward, eyes wide and staring. No. Surely not. Georgiana hadn’t given it much thought before, given the fact that she was ready to shove the dowager into a nearby creek, but thinking about it now… Could it be? Could she have seen the way Percy was so solicitous to Georgiana and gotten jealous? With a shrug, Georgiana tried on the finished hat and checked herself in the looking glass. She was wearing her third best dress. Wouldn’t do to wear the same ones as the two days prior, though this one was noticeably more worn around the hem. Perhaps he wouldn’t notice. And just like before, he hadn’t told her what their destination would be. It vexed her not to know. Did he gain delight from keeping things a secret, or was it possible he didn’t do it on purpose? A knock came from the front door. Georgiana had instructed Mary to open the door in lieu of Georgiana doing it again herself. A titled lady had to have some respect, didn’t she? Too excited to see Percy again, she didn’t wait for Mary to fetch her. She hurried down the stairs, slowing only when she remembered the tumble she’d taken down them only last week. Keeping a firm grip on the banister, she forced her feet to take things slow. A good impression was needed today after falling in Percy’s lap, more than once, and also nearly getting into a hissing match with the dowager over nothing. If the dowager did indeed have an interest in Percy, all the more reason for Georgiana to make progress today. By the time she reached the bottom of the stairs, Mary hovered in the doorway. Was Percy in the parlor? Mary’s eyes darted back and forth between Georgiana and that room. The woman resembled a common cuckoo, which wasn’t a compliment. Much as Georgiana liked and appreciated Mary, the maid could often be somewhat of a dolt. Georgiana walked to the doorway and peeked in. “Thank you, Mary, for showing Mr. Radcliff to the parlor.” Mary gave a perfect curtsey, much to Georgiana’s chagrin. Just once I’d like to execute one of those without feeling like I will topple over. “Your tea is in the parlor, as requested, Lady Ollerton.” “Thank—” Before Georgiana could finish her sentiment, Mary all but ran up the stairs and out of sight. What in the world had that been about? She’d counted on Mary being a sort of chaperone as long as Percy was in her house. Though, not having one in Percy’s carriage had been lovely. Yes, very nice indeed. She stepped into the parlor and glanced up at Percy, who now stood. “Ah, my lovely Lady Peregrine. How is it you’re more beautiful than last I saw you?” He took both of her hands in his, kissing the back of first the right, then the left. Warmth flowed through Georgiana. And all from the man kissing her hand through her gloves. If she was already this heated by his presence, perhaps they’d better forgo tea and hurry to their destination. Much as she longed to share more embraces with him, it was so soon in their relationship. No sense giving him the notion that she would willingly be a light-skirt. After a glance over her shoulder, wondering what became of Mary, Georgiana allowed Percy to help her sit on the settee. Though they needed to leave, and soon, propriety demanded she show at least a modicum of manners. “Would you care for some tea, Percy, before we depart?” He waved a hand at the tray, as if shooing away a bee. “No time for tea.” “Are you in a hurry, then?” She frowned. “Yes.” He leaned closer. “Definitely in a hurry.” She raised one eyebrow. “Oh. Then perhaps we should—” “No. Don’t.” “Don’t what?” Percy flicked a glance toward the open doorway and stood. “Pardon me, won’t you?” “I… suppose.” What is he doing? I thought he was too busy for tea and in a rush to leave. She glanced down at the bodice of her dress, hoping the quick mend Mary had done on the lace still held. How nice it would be to have been able to purchase a new dress for today. The unmistakable click of a closing door reached her. Angling in that direction, she saw Percy standing there, his back pressed against the door, hands splayed on either side of him, fingers drumming on the wood. “Percy?” As if that was some sort of invitation, he left his place by the door and approached her. Stealthily. Like a cat after a wayward field mouse. He sat down once again. Very close. The man was practically on her lap! “I don’t under—” Percy placed his finger over her lips, stifling her words. As if just noticing what she wore, his gaze roamed up from her face to her hat. “May I remove your hat?” “Why?” Did he think the hat was ugly? “It will make things go so much more smoothly.” “What things?” “Has anyone ever told you that you ask too many questions?” He let out a sigh. “Has anyone ever told you that it’s vexing not to be told what’s going on?” He chuckled. A deep seductive sound that awakened every nerve in her body. Good heavens. What kind of power did this man possess that all he had to do was— Percy reached up, slowly, and pulled out the pins holding her hat in place.” “Wait, I—” He shook his head, as if gently scolding a naughty child. “Georgiana, do you trust me?” Did she? Part of her knew she shouldn’t. Not even a little. The other part, though, the part that controlled her cravings and urges, urges she’d almost forgotten were even there, stood up and shouted that yes, she would do anything he asked of her. “Yes.” One side of his mouth rose beneath a deep dimple. “Splendid.” “But I really don’t think—” “You don’t have to think, just be.” Be? “Be what?” He sighed. “You’re not helping my plan come to fruition.” She held up one hand. “Speaking of plans, I thought we were to go—” “Go? Who said anything about leaving this room?” She lowered her eyebrows. “But—” One by one, he removed the pins holding up her long, thick, graying hair. He smoothed the locks down around her shoulders and then leaned forward, inhaling the hair just above her earlobe. Her thoughts were getting muddy. What was she… oh yes. “I… I thought we were to have an outing.” “We are. Of a sort.” “But doesn’t an outing usually mean going… out?” “This is more of an inning. Normally I would agree with you, my dear. But I thought that it might be pleasant—” He kissed her left temple with such tenderness she nearly cried. “—to stay here and get better acquainted.” Georgiana closed her eyes as he pulled her close. The man was intoxicating. Time slowed, and a sluggish feeling of having over imbibed on spirits took control. “So we’re not leaving?” “No.” He ran his tongue just below her right ear. Georgiana’s eyes popped open. “But my maid!” “She isn’t invited to our party.” “No, I mean what if she—” Percy shook his head. “Your maid won’t bother us.” “How could you possibly know that?” “Because I paid her to make herself disappear for a while. Quite a long while, if I have my say.” His gaze roved over her face from forehead to chin. As if physically touched, Georgiana’s skin warmed. She blinked. While she should be vexed at Mary having taken a bribe to leave them in private, she couldn’t seem to summon any ire. Because the way Percy was caressing her and pressing her close to his chest was too delicious for her to worry about anything else. Chapter Seven Percy waited, but not patiently, while his valet tied his cravat. His hessian boots, though blackened only two days ago, were given another shine. The day prior with Georgiana had been magical. Today he wanted to look his best, because his expectations were to exceed yesterday’s splendor. The valet nodded and stepped away, giving Percy a few moments alone. When he closed his eyes, he could imagine Georgiana was there with him. Right now. In his arms. Her soft skin and lavender scent nearly melting him into a grateful pool of warmth. How had he been so fortunate to have met her? Their chance meeting at the Sanctuary had changed his life. He’d only known her for a little while, but that time had been the happiest of his existence. Who would have guessed that he’d meet someone like her when he was past, no, well past his prime? That mattered not. Percy was one to live in the moment. And this moment would be lived to the fullest. He hurried from his room and reached the bottom of the stairs just as the footman opened the front door. Several people stepped in. Guests? Right now? Oh no. Once the footman moved aside, Percy could identify them. Conrad and Amelia. No surprise there, as they were frequent visitors. But the other… The dowager. Percy frowned. For a woman who had never seemed terribly bent toward being sociable, two visits in one week were unexpected. Ready to give a quick hello and then turn them over to his nephew, Percy inwardly groaned. Barrington and Cecilia were out for the day. The entire day. Basic etiquette demanded that Percy, as the one at home to receive them, put aside his own plans and entertain them. Perfect. Percy got the attention of the maid to bring some tea. Then he turned, forming a pleasant expression on his face that he didn’t mean. “Please, won’t you join me in the parlor?” The younger couple nodded and preceded him into the room a few feet away. Intending to extend his arm for the dowager to take, she gasped when her hand didn’t quite connect with his. And she fell! “Oh!” He sucked in a breath and dropped to his knees beside her. “Are your hurt?” She lay crumpled next to the wall. With a groan, she reached her hand up to her brow. “Oh, my head…” Why? Why did this have to happen here? When no one is about but me? Conrad and Amelia rushed from the room, calling out to Conrad’s mother. Instead of the dowager reaching for her son, she latched onto Percy’s hand and tugged him close to her face. “Darling, is it you?” Darling? Percy frowned. Who did she think— “Oh, my love. How I’ve missed you.” A gasp came from behind him. Had it been Amelia? Conrad tried and failed to kneel next to his mother. Given the lack of space by the wall and the way the dowager had Percy pressed against her, it was no wonder. The woman pulled him even closer, until he could feel her hot breath against his cheek. What was going on? Percy was barely able to call over his shoulder to the footman. “Fetch the physician. Quick!” Just then, he remembered that their usual physician had been called away due to a family emergency of his own. Surely, though, he had someone to take his place in emergencies? Booted steps hurried away as the footman left to see to his errand. Percy closed his eyes briefly. Georgiana was expecting him. He would be late, even if he left now. The problem was he could not leave now. One, because it just wasn’t done to have guests and leave when one was injured. And two, the blasted woman had a hold on him as tight as a falcon on a shrew! “Oh…” The dowager groaned again. “You’ve made me so happy, darling, returning to me. Now I’ll never be alone again.” Why was she babbling on about Percy being her darling? She must have really struck her head hard. Why, today of all days, was Barrington not in residence? Amelia pressed her hand on Percy’s shoulder. “I don’t think we’re supposed to move her, but there’s no way of knowing what the injury is on the back of her head unless we look.” “Please,” moaned the woman on the floor. “The… the hardness of the wood hurts. It hurts so badly!” Percy’s hand was nearly numb from the way she squeezed it. Angling as far to the side as he could, which wasn’t far, he addressed the two behind him. “Shall I carry her to the parlor, then?” “Please,” said Conrad. The dowager had Percy so close he could now kiss her. As if he’d ever want to. Horror washed over him at the mental image that thought produced. After yanking his hand from hers, and with great effort for the woman was quite hefty, Percy wrapped his arms beneath her shoulder and knees and stood. Blood rushed to his head, and he closed his eyes, waiting until the sensation abated. “Are you feeling unwell?” Conrad’s hand rested on Percy’s shoulder. He shook his head, just wanting to get the terribleness of holding the snide woman over with. Though he wanted to have it done with quickly, he took great care in his steps so not to trip. Wouldn’t that have been wonderful? Finally, he reached the settee and placed her gently on the soft surface. “Ahhh.” A smile crossed the dowager’s face. Her eyes popped open and she stared right at him. A groan soon followed as if she’d forgotten her pain temporarily and just recalled it. How odd. The maid rushed in with a blanket and handed it to Percy. He covered the woman and then stepped away. As he tried to massage life back into his numbed hand, Percy shook his head. What an extraordinary, awful, terrible turn of events. And what was he to do about Georgiana? A note. He must send a note post haste as he could not in any way leave, things being as they were. Perhaps after the physician examined her and things were well, Percy could finally slip away. Barrington, come home. I have need of you! The next hour was miserably spent closeted in the parlor with the Loftons and the dowager moaning and wailing. Percy had grown so warm in the room that he’d actually loosened his cravat. Not that he cared about his appearance at this point, and the Loftons were extended family, after all. But Percy found his entire body wreathed in perspiration from the stress of the whole situation of the dowager thinking him to be someone he was not. Finally, thankfully, the physician arrived. He appeared to be young, nearly too young for the post. But Percy was in a tight spot, and he’d take whomever he could get. Dr. Hervey was shown into the parlor. With the physician’s announcement that the room should be cleared, Percy heaved a sigh of relief. He could at least now step away from— “Wait!” The dowager reached out her hand. “I need you to stay.” Oh the horror. Percy glanced at the Loftons who, though frowning, nodded and stepped into the hall. Why? Why me? Percy stayed but didn’t take the dowager’s hand, though she held it out in his direction until it had to have been obvious he wasn’t going to abide by her wish. The physician gave him a sharp look, as if Percy had committed some treacherous crime. “I’ll be right over here.” Percy slumped down in a straight-backed chair, glad to be off of his feet and at least a small distance away from the annoying woman. The physician opened his bag and removed several items. With interest, Percy eyed them. They resembled the ones their usual man used. Perhaps he’d misjudged Dr. Hervey. Low mumblings came from the patient and caregiver, so low that Percy couldn’t hear. Not that he cared. He stood and stretched then wandered to a nearby window for a change of scenery. Oh, Georgiana… Events had unfolded so quickly, Percy hadn’t even gotten the chance to send her a note. What must she think? That he’d ravish her in her parlor one day then not bother to correspond the next, as if once sated, he was content to let her go? He scrubbed his face with his hand. What a terrible set of circumstances he’d been drawn into. “Sir?” Percy turned his head at the physician’s voice. “Yes?” “After my examination and, er, discussion with the lady, it’s my professional opinion that she must stay here until her head injury has lessened enough for her to travel home.” “Oh… I see. And… when might we expect that to be?” “I really can’t say.” Ah. Of course you can’t. Dr. Hervey stepped up next to him and whispered, “Since you are her long-lost husband—” “What?” The physician raised one eyebrow. “It’s her claim.” “It isn’t true!” He put one hand on Percy’s arm. Was he trying to offer comfort? Or condolence? “Be it true or not, the lady believes that’s your identity. It would be disastrous to try to tell her otherwise at this point. I’m… uh, quite worried for her health, physically and emotionally.” “Are you trying to tell me that I must pretend to be this woman’s husband because she is delusional?” “For the sake her health, I am. You must give her constant assurance of your devotion and love. Do not do or say anything to her or anyone else that might get word to her of something upsetting. Otherwise…” With another pat on Percy’s shoulder, the physician left. As Percy stood at his place by the window, the Loftons rushed in from the hall. Now to covey to Conrad that his mother thought Percy was her husband. Hoorah… the joy continues. Chapter Eight A knock on Georgiana’s door was the only thing that could have dragged her attention from her bedroom window. She’d been standing there staring at the drive for the better part of the day. “Come in.” Mary entered and handed her a note. Georgiana’s heart sped up. Was it from Percy? Barely waiting for her maid to curtsey and leave the room, Georgiana quickly opened the paper. My dear Lady Peregrine, Please try to forgive the unforgiveable. I’ve been detained at my home since early today and just now have had the opportunity to send you correspondence. There’s been an accident. Georgiana gasped Please remain calm. I am fine as are the members of my household. She smiled. How had he known she would react right at that moment? Relief shot through her to know that Percy was unharmed. Extended family, the Loftons, whom you met, paid an unexpected call. With them, was Lord Lofton’s mother. Her? At Percy’s home again? Somehow, I’m still not sure how it all happened, the dowager stumbled and struck her head. The physician has confined her to stay here for an undetermined amount of time until she’s well enough to travel. There are other extenuating circumstances that I don’t feel at liberty to go into in a note. I shall be pleased to explain to you when I see you next. Yours most affectionately, Percy. Georgiana bit her lower lip. While the note gave explanation as to why Percy hadn’t come for a visit today, he did not say when they would meet again. She read the note a second time to make sure she hadn’t missed something. No. There was no mention of a day or time when he would return to her. And what circumstances had he alluded to? It all sounded very secretive and mysterious. What in the world was going on over there, and why couldn’t Percy tell her when he could see her again? When Georgiana met the Loftons, Percy hadn’t acted as if he was all that well acquainted with the dowager. What could possibly be the reason for him to have to remain at the house simply because that woman had been injured? Why couldn’t his nephew and niece stay with the woman? Something wasn’t right. She could feel it in her stomach just as surely as a willow warbler knew when she was with egg. But what could Georgiana do about it? Georgiana, you’re not getting any younger. She had finally after all these years of loneliness found a man who not only excited her but warmed her heart. She’d not be so quick to let him go. Grabbing her hat, pelisse, and reticule, she went out to hire a hackney coach to take her to the Radcliff estate. Yes, it mortified her to show up at his abode in a rented carriage, but at this point, if she wanted to see him, she had no choice. And she did want to see him. Very badly. As she sat in the carriage, alone, she fiddled with her clothing, trying to get it just right. Hat tilted slightly to the left. Skirt smoothed over her legs. Pelisse laying straight and unwrinkled over her dress. Why was she so nervous? Percy’s note hadn’t said anything untoward. Nothing that should have put her off. Yet… The thought of that woman, the dowager, being in the same place where Percy resided had Georgiana’s insides in an uproar. The dowager had been positively beastly to her at the Radcliff’s picnic. And for what? Why would she be so outright rude to someone she’d never even met? Had the dowager a tendre for Percy? Squeezing her hands into fists, she tried to ward off the thought. Her boots tapped against the carriage floor, impatient for the horses to get her to her destination before it was too late. Too late for what? She knew not. But there was something. Definitely something. As soon as the hackney delivered her to the Radcliff’s residence, the jarvey asked if she’d like him to wait. Her first impulse was to tell him no. But what if something more was going on? Could it be that once she found out, she wouldn’t want to stay? She’d surely know soon enough whether or not she would need to leave or stay. “Wait please. I’ll be out in a few minutes to let you know either way.” “Very good, my lady.” Georgiana held her head high and marched up to the front door. A footman allowed her entrance. The first thing she noticed was a kind of keening wail coming from somewhere to her left. Whatever could be making that noise? Had a cow wandered into the house and was having her calf? Georgiana listened closer. No, that chilling screech was made by a human. A shiver ran up her back. I have got to stop reading those horror books at bedtime! The footman who had opened the door for her pivoted and raced down the hall. What odd behavior. Was he headed to the origin of the outburst? Several voices were raised. It was coming from the room the footman had just entered. Curiosity grabbed a hold and practically dragged her toward the sound. Far be it from her to let an interesting event pass by without her seeing it for herself. She’d never been accused of being a slave to formality anyway. With determined steps, she followed the path the footman had taken. Male voices reached her. Was one of them— “Georgiana?” Percy rushed out of the room, nearly knocking her to the floor. He grasped her by her upper arms to help steady her. “What are you doing here?” He glanced over his shoulder into the room and back. “What am I…” That wasn’t a very nice greeting. He grabbed her shoulders, trying to angle her back around. “You shouldn’t be here.” “Whyever not? When I was here just a couple of days ago, your nephew and niece told me I was welcome anytime. Since when does anytime not mean any time?” He wiped perspiration from his forehead. Why was he sweating? It wasn’t hot in the house. “Did you not receive my note?” “The one that left me wondering more than I had before I read it? Yes. You made this whatever it is that’s going on sound quite mysterious.” He laughed, but she could tell it wasn’t genuine. Was it more nervous? “Oh, no… you’re just being… silly.” “Pardon?” Footsteps shuffled behind Percy and Lord Lofton appeared. His eyes widened when he saw Georgiana, but he recovered quickly and inclined his head. “Good day to you, Lady Ollerton.” “And to you, my lord.” He leaned over to Percy and whispered something in his ear. Georgiana tried very hard to hear but it was spoken too low. Blast. “Darling? Where are you?” A woman’s voice. Was that… the dowager? Percy’s face paled. “I’m afraid, Georgiana… I must go.” “Go where?” He swallowed. It was then she noticed he wore no cravat. How odd. “I… I’m expected. In there. Right now.” “Expected by whom?” “Darling?” The dowager’s voice had developed a whine. “Please. I’m lonely.” “I really must go,” said Percy. “Please excuse—” Georgiana grabbed his arm as realization dawned. “Is she referring to… you?” “I’ll explain everything later. I promise.” She blinked. Now that the men had gone back into the room, she could see it was indeed the dowager who reclined on the settee. In her tightly clutched hand was a man’s cravat. And right before Georgiana’s eyes, though she had to tell herself what she witnessed was real, Percy knelt down next to the settee and took the woman’s hand in his. But even that couldn’t compare to what he said. “Of course I still love you, my darling Miriam.” Georgiana turned and fled from the house. Chapter Nine Percy bit back a curse. Now what was he going to do? How would he convince Georgiana that what she saw and heard in the parlor was only a farce? Everything in him wanted to follow her. Actually, he did try, though guilt chased him out the door for leaving his wife in such a sorry state. But when Percy had finally disentangled his hand from the dowager’s and run outside, Georgiana’s carriage was halfway down the street. When he returned to the parlor, the whiny woman heaped more guilt on him until he truly felt as if he’d done something terribly wrong. At the moment, he was hiding like a guilt-ridden boy in the kitchen, hoping to remain undiscovered at least for a time. How had his carefree life and having just met a wonderful woman at the Sanctuary detoured so quickly to where he was now? It was a nightmare. Yet he knew it to be real. He might have blamed it on hallucinations brought on by too much drink, but with all the time spent with that woman in the parlor, he’d not even had the chance to imbibe. Not even a tiny glass of port. Berating himself, Percy couldn’t believe what an idiot he’d been not to have told Georgiana in the note more details of what had transpired. Perhaps if he had, she might not have been so shocked when she saw and heard that atrocious witch pawing at him and insisting he tell her he loved her. What a mess this all had become. Since in good conscience for the time being he could not leave the house, Percy was determined to send another note, this one telling her everything so she’d understand what was going on. She had to! While it was true he’d only just met her, something in his heart told him she was different. Special. The one woman for him who could make all his dreams of true love come true. Hurrying, and hoping to be able to write his letter before being found out and screeched at by the dowager for leaving her presence, Percy made his way along a back hall to his room to retrieve some more foolscap. He would have gone there sooner but knew the footman could have easily found him. He did pity the footman somewhat. The dowager had made him her personal servant. Still, it had to be better than having the wretched woman call him darling. He shuddered, nearly unable to hold the quill to compose his letter. He’d do whatever it took to convince Georgiana of the truth. Guilt scratched at him, reminded him of the physician’s warning about saying anything to anyone about the situation for fear word of it might get back to Miriam and upset her. He must do it, though. There was no other way. Would it really be so bad if Percy just slipped out of the house? Went to see Georgiana and left the dowager to the care of her family and the physician? Dr. Hervey had piled on the guilt. Made it quite clear that if Percy did anything to upset the dowager, her condition might worsen. Percy clenched his jaws together. Leave it to me to develop a conscience now of all times! He closed his door, hoping for a few uninterrupted moments, and tried to summon the right words for the note. Now that he was there with quill and paper, the words he needed to write seemed like a farce. Would he be able to make Georgiana believe that the strange happenings were true? He must try. My dear Lady Peregrine, Let me start by saying how sorry I am that you witnessed what you did in our parlor. Not because I’m ashamed of being caught at something. No. Because what you saw was a lie. In my previous note, I told you of the dowager’s accident here in the house. What I neglected to say was what took place after her injury. For some odd reason of which I cannot fathom, the strange woman has the notion that I am someone I’m not. Believe me when I tell you that I was shocked and appalled. But to make matters much worse, the physician has cautioned me that were I to do anything to upset the dowager at this point, he couldn’t say how it would affect her recovery. In his estimation, it would not be positive in the least. So, while everything in me longs to come and see you, I can’t. Guilt has taken a hold of me. Every time I’m ready to sneak away and see you, I have a sudden remorseful premonition that the woman might get worse or even die. I can’t have that on my conscience. I am much aggrieved that this has happened, especially since I have developed such an incredible fondness for you, my dear. Examine your heart, remember my softly spoken words and our embraces. Then you will know the truth. Yours most affectionately, Percy He read over what he’d written again. Would Georgiana believe his words? What else could he do, aside from actually leaving the house and dying of guilt? At first, he’d hoped that when Barrington and Cecilia returned home he might gain a respite. Alas, it wasn’t to be. Even with them and the Loftons present, the blasted woman only wanted Percy. Why was this happening? He barely knew her. She wasn’t in her right mind because of the injury, of course, but to mistake him for her long lost husband? Perhaps it was as simple as she had loved the man so much and her injured mind latched onto the first man she saw. He’d have to ask Conrad if it was the case with his mother, that she suffered from a longing for her spouse. Might that explain at least some of the bizarre goings-on? After handing the note to the footman to have it delivered, and he’d had to give his best severe look to the footman in order for him to comply, Percy went in search of the Loftons. They were standing outside the parlor and the door was closed. Had something happened to the dowager? Guilt washed over him anew when the thought brought not only remorse but relief. “Might I have a word?” Conrad turned, seeming to not quite have heard him. “Pardon?” “There’s something I must—” He glanced at Amelia, inclined his head in greeting, and studied Conrad. “That is, might I ask you a question? About your mother?” “Oh. Of course.” Conrad addressed his wife. “My dear, will you excuse me for a moment?” She nodded and kept watch by the door. Was something bad happening in the parlor? Percy tilted his head toward the library across the hall. After they entered, Percy closed the door. “There’s something you wish to ask me, Percy?” His pallor was more pale than normal and a frown rested on his face. He looked more ill than his mother. “Yes. But… Are you feeling unwell?” “What? Oh. I’m fine. Physically, that is.” “Worry about a beloved family member can cause heartache.” Conrad shook his head slowly. “If I may be candid?” “Please.” “My entire life, my mother and I have been at odds. I was an unhappy child and, until I met my wife, an unhappy adult. In fact, the only thing spoiling my home life is that my mother insists on living in the house. With us.” Percy nodded. He was aware that though it was common practice for a dowager to have her own quarters, Conrad’s mother did indeed reside with her son and his wife. “But it has taken this terrible tragedy to help me see clearly what a terrible son I’ve been.” “Pardon?” “You saw her in there, lying on the settee, moaning, obviously in pain.” “Indeed.” Percy ran his hand over his face. He couldn’t do it. It didn’t seem right in light of what Conrad had told him to burden the man further with inquiries of his mother’s love for Conrad’s long dead father. Giving himself a shake as if to snap out of his morbid reverie, Conrad focused on Percy. “Do forgive me. We came in here to discuss a concern of yours.” Percy put up his hand. “Under the circumstances, I believe now is not a good time.” “Are you certain?” “Quite.” Conrad’s shoulders slumped. “I suppose I should be returning to the parlor.” He was halfway to the door when he stopped and turned. “Percy, I’m sorry about all the fuss happening at your house. And that my mother somehow has mistaken you for my father.” “Please, think no more of it. I’m… I’m sure everything will work out as it should.” “Thank you.” Percy watched Conrad leave the room and head across the hall. What shall I do now? Chapter Ten Percy watched out the window as Dr. Hervey walked toward his carriage. Though he’d deemed Miriam fit to resume physical activities, the physician felt strongly that her mental faculties were still fragile. Therefore, Miriam was to reside at the Radcliff’s for the foreseeable future. Damn the luck! Percy rubbed his hand over his face, asking himself for the hundredth time why. Why him? Just when he’d been getting closer to Georgiana. It was so unfair. “Darling!” He groaned. “Coming, Miriam.” With legs that felt as heavy as lead, Percy trudged to the parlor. There she sat. His wife. She patted the settee. “Come and sit with me, won’t you, darling?” His skin scrawled at the thought of being near her again. Hadn’t he sat for hour upon hour at her side already? Patting her hand in reassurance? Murmuring endearments he hadn’t felt? But spend time with her, he must. Every time he even contemplated leaving, going to visit Georgiana, guilt crashed down on him like a clumsy elephant. No. He must stay, though his heart was breaking. Reluctantly, he sat down, positioning himself as far away from the woman as he could without falling to the floor. She pouted, a most unbecoming sight. “Why are you so far away? Since my accident, we have so much time to make up for.” She moved a little closer. He leaned away. “Miriam, I… that is, we don’t wish to tire you out, now do we?” She moved a few more inches in his direction. He edged forward on his seat, trying to escape, hoping to avoid the awkward dance of her delusional obsession. “I’m not tired.” She reached up and stroked his neck. “Not at all.” Percy swallowed, hating that the movement pushed against her fingers. He wasn’t wearing a cravat, to his shame, because she put up a fuss whenever he did. She’d absconded with the first one. In order for him to retain the rest, he’d chosen simply not to wear them in her presence. “But the physician—” A slow smile spread on her thin lips. “Dr. Hervey said I can resume all physical activities.” She fluttered her stubby lashes. “All activities.” Good heavens, she couldn’t mean— “I’ve been so terrible lonely, my love. Picturing you and me together… it’s all I can think of.” Percy recoiled from her, abruptly standing and stepping away. “Madam, I bet your pardon?” “Ah, begging? That could be arranged.” His mouth dropped open. Did she expect him to… for them to… No! “I’m afraid—” “There’s no need to be afraid. Don’t you remember how it was between us? In bed?” In bed! He took another step back, longing to make a sign with his hands to ward away the evil that surely was Miriam. The woman was a harridan and a shrew at best. Vile and evil at worst. The more time he had to spend in her presence, the more Percy was convinced it was the worst. “Lady, er, Miriam, I cannot in good conscience—” “I don’t give a rat’s arse about your conscience. In fact, we’d have so much more fun if you left that useless thing at the bedroom door.” What a despicable, vile creature. Miriam slumped against the back of the settee. Her loud groan sickened Percy. “Oh… please… I’m feeling faint.” She held out a limp hand. “Won’t you come and sit beside me again?” Letting out a deep sigh, Percy once again sat next to her. He had no desire to touch her but finally took her hand when she flopped it onto his thigh, very near his— “There now.” Miriam edged close and laid her head on his shoulder. “Isn’t that better?” Better than what? Being eaten by a snake? Trampled by a herd of angry oxen? He tried not to breath in her scent of onions and something worse he couldn’t quite identify. Her fingers slowly but deftly made a trail from his chest downward. What did she think she was — Shock rolled through him as her hand came in contact with his— He grabbed her wayward hand and thrust it safely away from his private area. “Please! Stop this at once!” Her lip pushed out again in a pout. Did she think she was a child? “But, my love, I’ve missed you so. I have needs.” He leaned forward to stand, to escape her, and damn the consequences to her mental stability. Because right at that moment, he would lose his faculties if she persisted in her efforts to seduce him. Apparently, Miriam had other ideas. With a strength she’d not shown until that moment, she wrapped her tentacles around his neck, tugging him close. Too close. “Please, Miriam, you mustn’t!” Her lips, dry and rubbery, moved against his in a seemingly sensuous dance. His internal scream remained silent as he tried to disengage the suddenly strong woman. Finally prying her hands off of his neck, Percy jumped up from the settee and fled the room. Once in the hall and around the corner, Percy allowed himself to finally breathe the sweet air of freedom. Or, as free as he could be until the blasted woman went home. What if she never went home? Never recovered from her injury? What if he was tied to her forever? Sweat broke out over his forehead as a queasy sensation overtook him. No. It couldn’t be true. It couldn’t! “Percy?” He jumped and turned, ready to flee once more, though he relaxed when he saw it was only Amelia. “Ah… g-good day.” She stepped closer and touched his arm. “Are you unwell? You’ve gone quite pale.” He fished a handkerchief from his pocket and mopped his brow. Gesturing vaguely in the direction of the parlor, he muttered, “I don’t know how much more I can stand.” Amelia followed the movement of his hand, tilted her head, and then faced him again. “Oh. I see.” Was she upset with him because he’d spoken ill of her mother-in-law? “Oh, pardon me for—” She held up her hand. “Nothing to pardon. Where she’s concerned, I’m amazed you’ve held up as well as you have. Lesser men would have run away.” Percy lowered his brow. “Are you saying…” “That’s right. I’ve never cared for her. She’s unkind to me, but more importantly, she’d terribly unkind to Conrad. Always has been.” “Is that so? Amelia, may I ask you something of a personal nature?” “Please. I’ll gladly answer anything for you if it will help your cause.” Ah yes, his cause. Trying to not be shackled with the dowager. “I’ve wondered, that is since this whole mess began, well, could the reason for Miriam latching onto me be that she’s so lonely for her dead husband?” Amelia’s sputtered laughter was so loud it was startling. “Oh my goodness. Is that what she’d told you? Percy, she couldn’t stand the man. Nor he her.” “Truly?” “From what Conrad has told me and what I’ve gleaned through wicked comments by her, his mother was happy when her husband died. Thrilled, in fact.” Percy’s mouth dropped open. He looked at Amelia and blinked before remembering his impoliteness and closed his mouth. “Why,” she asked. “Does that matter?” “I’m not sure exactly how, but yes. I think it might. Thank you, Amelia, for your insightful comment.” She smiled and patted his shoulder. “Happy to help.” “May I ask an enormous favor?” “You, my dear man, may ask anything.” “Could you, perhaps, keep Miriam company, distract her for say an hour or so? There’s someone… I must see.” Amelia’s mouth pulled down at the corners. “Is it that pretty Lady Ollerton?” “How did you know?” “It was obvious seeing you with her how much she means to you.” “Through all of this,” he pointed to the parlor, “I’ve not been able to see her or even fully explain. I’ve sent notes, but so far, I don’t think she believes me.” “Of course. I’ll take care of everything. You run along and see your Lady Peregrine.” She winked. Percy’s heart warmed at her use of his pet name for Georgiana. He kissed Amelia’s hand and hurried out the door before Miriam called for him again. The short journey to Georgiana’s seemed to take three lifetimes. Why was his coachman going so slow? As soon as they went up her drive, Percy leaped from the carriage before it had completely stopped. Who cared if someone saw him? He was on a mission for love. He hurried to the door and knocked. Mary opened the door, her welcoming expression changing to a frown. “Oh. Good day.” She didn’t open the door all the way but left only enough room to peer out at him. Obviously, Georgiana had confided the events of late. “Good day. Is Lady Ollerton at home? It’s imperative I speak with her.” “I’m not sure she would—” “I’ll see him,” came from the behind the door. Percy’s shoulders slumped in relief at Georgiana’s voice. When the door opened wider, Percy stepped inside without invitation. Mary scowled but stepped aside when Georgiana shook her head. Georgiana tilted her head toward the parlor. “If you have something to say, let’s go in here.” But she held up her hand. “I’m not saying it will change anything between us. I’m only agreeing to listen.” “That’s all I ask.” Though his heart yearned for more. Once seated in a high-backed chair, for Georgiana refused to share the settee with him, Percy removed his hat, played with the brim nervously, and tried to form the needed words to convince her of the truth. “First let me apologize for any discomfort this… this situation may have caused.” “May have caused?” She raised one eyebrow. He nodded. “Yes, of course, well… You see, it was as I explained in my note—” “Which note?” “The… the first one. That is, at first it was the first one. Then the second one was… I’m not really certain how—” “Please state your point. I have other things to which I must attend.” “Certainly. What happened was… the dowager, uh, you met her at the—” Georgiana narrowed her eyes. “I’m aware of her, yes.” “She accompanied her son and daughter-in-law to our home, and when she crossed the hall, I offered her my arm and—” “You offered her your arm?” He lowered his eyebrows. “It seemed the polite thing to do.” “If you say so.” “When I offered her my arm, she reached out to take it and fell.” “Fell.” “And hit her head.” Georgiana’s mouth gaped. “I do hope she’s not too badly injured.” “That’s the problem. It’s as I explained in my note.” He eyed her. “The second one. Somehow, someway, after she struck her head, it affected her reasoning and she believes me to be her…” He swallowed. “Husband.” “What?” “I don’t really know how it happened. Just all of a sudden. She… I…” Georgiana sliced a hand through the air. “This is preposterous.” “I beg your pardon?” “To come in here and tell me such a wild tale.” “But I haven’t—” “If you did not wish to be in my company any longer, a simple note saying such or even a short visit and a few kind words would have sufficed. But to have—” “No!” He stood. “Please, you must believe me. The physician said that if I didn’t play along, something terrible might befall her. It would be entirely my fault. The guilt — it would have eaten away at me.” She closed her eyes briefly. “How could I have fallen… No. I need you to leave. Now.” “Please, Georgiana. My Lady Peregrine.” “Do not ever refer to me as such ever again. Leave my house”. She pointed to the doorway. “But—” “Go!” Percy stuffed his hat on his head and did her bidding. Once in his carriage, he blinked back tears that threatened. So that was it. His brief time of joy was over? No, he couldn’t believe it. But with that awful woman residing at his house still believing he was her husband, Percy couldn’t risk coming to see Georgiana again anytime soon at another try of convincing her. Because he wasn’t finished trying. No. There must be a way to convince her. There had to be. He’d found the woman of his heart, and fight for her he would! Chapter Eleven Percy returned home, his heart heavy and aching. Georgiana had been so adamant that he not try to see her again. He’d longed to convince her otherwise. Miriam screeched from the parlor. “Get out and leave me alone!” What was going on? He rushed toward the open doorway but stopped when he heard another voice. “I can’t believe what you’ve done!” It was Amelia. He took another step closer. “I’ve done nothing,” said Miriam. “Mother Croome, please don’t continue with this. You’re going to hurt him.” “I’m doing nothing of the sort, Amelia.” “Please don’t do this. If you don’t tell him, I’ll—” Percy edged closer but nearly stumbled and caught himself as he grabbed a nearby small table. “Is that him? My love? Have you returned?” Miriam’s voice increased in volume with each word. Percy sighed. Might as well get it done with. He’d not be able to sneak past the doorway now. He turned the corner and entered the room. Amelia stood, her hands fisted at her sides. Miriam was on her usual perch on the settee, a scowl on her face. “Finally you’ve come back.” Miriam’s mouth transformed into something resembling a smile and she reached out her hand. “Come and see me, my darling.” Percy’s quick glance at Amelia showed a ridge of muscle along her jaws where she clenched them together. “Yes, I’ve come back.” Not wishing to sit anywhere near her, Percy took the chair opposite, reminded as soon as he sat down that Georgiana had refused to sit with him. Miriam glared at Amelia. “I think it’s time you leave now.” “But—” “Leave, or I might have to have words with Conrad, telling him you’ve aggravated my condition. How do you think he would respond to that, hmm?” Amelia tapped her boot on the carpet. “Very well. For now. But this isn’t finished.” She stomped out of the parlor and slammed the door. Percy winced. Not only had the door closing been loud, but now he was stuck in the room with her. Alone. Miriam slumped against the arm of the settee. “Oh, I was so worried when I didn’t know where you were. You mustn’t cause me such pain.” She raised her hand to her forehead and moaned. Fresh waves of guilt poured over him. Against the physician’s wishes, Percy had left the house, left Miriam, and now she was in pain. What if his attempt to make things right with Georgiana had pushed Miriam over the edge? What if her condition worsened? Or she died? Much as he loathed her, didn’t want anything to do with her, he couldn’t do that. He might never recover from the guilt. “Please, come closer.” Percy gripped the arm of the chair, not wanting the leave the safety of being a few feet away from her. “I beg of you. I… I’m not feeling well.” Miriam laid her head down on the settee arm and pulled her legs up on the other cushion. He closed his eyes briefly and then took a slow breath, hoping to relieve the pressure building in his chest. How was he to get out of this predicament? With slow movements like those of a man walking to the guillotine, Percy stood and edged closer. Miriam wiggled her fingers in invitation to take her hand. Percy did, trying not to think about actually touching her. If he imagined it was Georgiana, would it make it any easier? Since she was lying down now, he had to either bend over in an uncomfortable position to hold her hand or kneel down. Fifty-one-year-old knees weren’t made for standing in awkward positions, so kneeling it would have to be. Once in place, he took her hand, closing his fingers over it, but not too tightly as to convey any enjoyment. “I’m so relived you’ve returned to me. I’d started to despair you might have left me. For good.” A tear traveled down her cheek. How was he to comfort her so her condition wouldn’t worsen but not appear to have feelings for her? “I’m in need of an embrace, my darling. Would you mind?” She held out her arms. Oh no, not that! After the way she’d tried to seduce him earlier, he had no wish to go through it again. Another tear joined the first and she sniffed. “Please. I beg of you…” His stomach clenched. Why did guilt have to be such a strong emotion? “Very well.” He leaned forward, ready to accept a light embrace. “I knew it! I knew you still loved me!” She tugged him close. He could barely breathe. “Please, Miriam, I can’t—” She pressed a kiss to his cheek, and he recoiled. With the same surprising strength she’d shown earlier in the day, Miriam grabbed his head on each side and turned him so he was looking directly at her. She pressed her lips to his. He tried to think of something else. Anything else! But when her slimy tongue snaked its way into his mouth, he nearly jumped. “Oh Percy, you’ve made me so happy.” Why did this have to be happening? Wait… He leaned back and grabbed her arms, holding her still. “What did you just say?” Her gaze didn’t quite meet his. “You’ve made me so… happy.” “No.” He sat back on his heels. “You addressed me as Percy.” She shook her head. “No. you’re mistaken.” He stood. “I know my own name, madam.” She sat up quickly. “Why are you calling me that? Come back and let’s—” He held out his hand as if warding off something evil. But perhaps he was. “You know who I am. Who I really am?” “I don’t… that is—” A brisk knock on the door preceded Amelia and Conrad. Amelia glanced from Miriam to Percy. “Forgive our intrusion, but we heard shouting. Is everything…” She eyed her mother-in-law and then looked at Percy, her eyebrows raised in question. Percy stepped toward the couple and safely away from Miriam. “Your mother just addressed me by my name. My real name.” “What?” Conrad widened his eyes. “Mother! Is this true?” She forced out a huff. “I’m admitting nothing.” Amelia grabbed her husband’s arm. “Conrad, it’s true. I’d guessed what she was up to and confronted her.” “Why didn’t you tell me?” “Because you were having such feelings of guilt about it all. That perhaps—” Amelia glanced at Miriam and shook her head. “But you needn’t feel bad any longer. As you can see, your mother appears to be quite healthy.” Percy switched his attention to Miriam. It was true? She sat up straight, pressed a wrinkle from her dress, and then reached up to smooth a wayward lock of hair from her eyes. She seemed to care about her appearance. When she’d been ill, pretended to be ill, she’d appeared to not care about anything except her discomfort. And keeping Percy near. “Has this been a farce all along, then?” Percy clenched his hands at his sides, longing to pummel the woman. Miriam stood, her face transforming from the teary-eyed lovelorn woman into a scowling harridan. “All right. It’s true.” Shock rolled through Percy. “But the physician. He said if I left, you might not recover. Had you fooled him too?” With a shrug, Miriam waved a hand. “I simply paid him enough and he went along.” “But why? Why would you do this? I barely know you. Was it only for your amusement? Have I done something to offend you in some way that you felt you needed to punish me?” She took a step closer, reached out her hand, and then lowered it again. “It was…” She glared at Conrad and Amelia as if wanting them to leave. Percy shook his head. “They aren’t going anywhere. I’ll not be alone with you again.” “Fine. If I must say the words in front of my son, so be it.” Percy crossed his arms and waited. “When I saw you at your family’s picnic, I was… intrigued.” He narrowed his eyes. “What do you mean?” Miriam bit her lip and had the decency to blush but didn’t answer. “If I may be so bold?” Amelia stepped forward. At Percy’s nod she continued. “It seems Mother Croome saw you, desired you, and came up with a way to… have you.” Conrad gasped and clasped his hand over his mouth. Percy, suddenly unsteady, plopped into the same chair he’d occupied before. Feeling deflated, he slumped down. “Well, I’ll be damned.” “No,” said Amelia. “You would have been had she succeeded. Now, though, you are free to pursue the woman you really want.” Miriam stomped her foot. “That awful Lady Ollerton? She’s worthless.” Percy jumped up, rage suddenly giving him strength. “You will not speak of her that way. Ever. I happen to love her.” He pointed at Miriam his hand shaking. “And if your scheme has ruined my chances with her, may God help you, because I’ll—” Conrad took his mother by the hand. “No need, Percy. I’m taking Mother home. This instant.” Chapter Twelve Georgiana sat on her favorite bench at the Bird Sanctuary. She’d not had any desire to leave her house, but somehow had let Mary persuade her into coming here. Perhaps her maid had grown so weary of hearing Georgiana weep that she couldn’t stand it anymore and for once showed her temper. Georgiana had been so taken aback that she’d agreed simply so Mary would calm herself. If the maid had suffered an apoplexy on Georgiana’s account, the guilt would have done her it. Guilt. Hadn’t Percy mentioned that as a large reason for his staying with the dowager? Had Georgiana been too hard on him? She’d brushed aside his words, but… She glanced over at Mary, who was feeding bread crumbs to some ducks. Guilt certainly could be a strong motivator to do things one would rather not. He’d told her to examine her heart for the truth. She remembered his kisses and embraces. The way he’d touched her skin and whispered endearments. She had felt an instant connection with him the first time they met. Georgiana was sure, sure that he’d felt it too. Not just by what he said or did, but by how he seemed when with her. She couldn’t even quite explain it to herself, but the two of them… it was as if they’d been made for each other. They simply fit together. Did any of that really matter? Even if he forgave her for tossing him from her home, if his story was true, then he was stuck. Stuck in his home with that awful woman. And who knew how long it might take for her to recover her right mind? What if she never did? She watched Mary for a few more minutes as she fed the ducks. Would Georgiana’s short leave from the house to visit the sanctuary appease her angry maid? Mary tensed as if something startled her and glanced toward a grove of trees on the other side of the pond. Had she seen some animal that frightened her? Though the ones Georgiana usually saw were quite small. Rabbits, squirrels, and of course birds. Mary poured out the contents of her bag and without a backward glance at her employer, took off walking at a fast clip in the opposite direction. How odd. She had no desire to run after Mary and retrieve her so they could return home. No, ever since all of the unpleasantness had begun with Percy and the dowager, Georgiana had felt as if all her strength had flowed out through her toes, leaving her listless. In that case, I’ll just wait here. She can’t walk around the sanctuary all day. She sat and listened to the warbler sing in a tree right above the bench. Georgiana closed her eyes. The bird’s sweet song lulled her into a near sleep. How pleasant to just sit. If she was lucky, maybe she’d fall asleep and dream of Percy. The sound of footsteps registered somewhere in her mind, but she cared not enough to open her eyes. Whoever it was would surely— “Ah… It seems I’ve discovered a lovely maiden in the middle of a nap.” Percy? Georgiana’s eyes flew open and she gasped. It was true! “Why are you here?” He sat down, uninvited, and angled around so that he partially faced her. “It seemed a lovely day for a visit to my favorite spot. And of course to visit with my favorite lady.” She lowered her eyebrows. “How did you know I would be here today?” “Your maid.” “But—” “If one offers enough incentive, it often spurs people to do one’s bidding.” “You paid my maid? Again?” “Well, yes.” Georgiana fumed. Of all the nerve! Thinking he could force the issue with her to try to worm his way back into her heart. But wait… How could he even be here? Be away from his house and the dowager? “But why are you… I mean, how could you leave home?” “There’s where the story gets interesting, Lady Peregrine.” “I told you not to call—” He grabbed her hand, not giving her a chance to pull away. “If you would please just listen to what I have to say?” She struggled in his grasp. “I don’t—” He stroked the back of her hand with his thumb, and a warm sensation went up her arm straight to her heart. “Please. Just listen. If after I’m finished you still wish to not be of my acquaintance, then…” He swallowed. “Then I will honor your wishes.” He tilted his head and waited. Oh how she longed to reach up and touch his face, stroke his cheek. But no, that wouldn’t do. With a nod, since she couldn’t seem to form the words, she agreed. He sighed and then smiled. “Thank you. Now, you already know the first part of the story… that the dowager fell, hit her head, and then mistook me for her… her husband.” Not trusting her voice to come out as anything other than a sob, she simply nodded. “What you didn’t know was what happened yesterday after I left your house.” She took a deep breath, wanting to apologize for how she’d acted yet feeling that it would be wrong to say she was sorry when she really hadn’t been. “Aren’t you going to ask me what happened?” One side of his mouth rose. Familiar warm feelings flowed through Georgiana’s mind as she remembered his quick wit and odd sense of humor. “Aren’t you going to just go ahead and tell me anyway?” He chuckled. “Well yes. That was the plan.” He winked. “Anyway, when I returned home, she — that is the dowager…” He cleared his throat. “She seemed to be in deep distress because of my hasty departure. The guilt crept in anew and—” “Oh I know how—” He pressed his finger to her lips. “Please let me finish, for I fear if I do not say the words, I might expire from the need to express them.” She smiled. “All right.” “As I said, the guilt threatened to overtake me. So when she requested… when she asked me, begged me for an embrace, I felt I couldn’t refuse.” “I… see.” “As I knelt on the floor next to where she lay, and she wrapped her arms around me…” Her stomach clenched. Oh the agony of picturing Percy in the arms of another! “She pulled me close and addressed me.” Georgiana frowned. “What do you mean? Did she call you darling again as she did when I was there?” The memory tore another small piece of her heart away. “She did call me that, But also—” “What? What did she call you?” Georgiana chastised herself. She’d been so adamant about not speaking, about holding onto her hurt and anger. But she couldn’t stand it. Couldn’t stand not to know! He reached for her other hand and now held them both. The warmth of the gesture, in thoughtfulness along with actual warmth from his skin nearly caused her to weep. “Georgiana, what I mean to say is she said my name.” “Pardon?” “My name. She called me Percy.” “But—” “At first it didn’t hit me, the significance of it. But when I asked her about it, she became defensive, saying I’d been mistaken. That she hadn’t said it. I began to despair that I’d have no way of proving it when an angel by way of Amelia entered with Conrad.” Georgiana smiled in spite of herself. “I like Amelia.” “Me too.” He grinned. “And what… what did Amelia say?” “She’d been suspicious of her mother-in-law from the start. From some things she told me afterward, the two have always had a tempestuous relationship. That Miriam didn’t possess one positive attribute or trait.” “Go on.” “Amelia came right out and demanded that Miriam speak the truth. So she did.” “And what was it? The truth, I mean.” “Miriam definitely had a plan in mind, a reason for what she did for her scheme.” “Tell me.” Before I expire from not knowing. “It seems, my dear Georgiana, that Miriam desired me.” Georgiana waited for more. When there wasn’t anything forthcoming, she tapped her boot against the grass. “And…” “That’s it.” “She did all of that, caused all of the harm and told lies simply because she desired you?” “You don’t think that’s good enough reason? Woman, you wound me.” “Of course I think you’re desirable.” He smirked. “But… it just doesn’t seem like something a person would go to all the trouble to…” Her words died off when she realized how it sounded. “Oh, I didn’t mean that you’re not—” “Perhaps, just perhaps, I need to refresh your memory.” “Of what?” “Of how I can make you feel.” “Oh.” She blinked. “I—” He tugged her hard against his chest, which caused her to gasp. With the force of the embrace, she’d expected his kiss to be hard and quick. Instead, it was so soft, so gentle Georgiana nearly melted into the seat of the bench. His lips traveled over hers in a sensual dance of want and need, love and promises. Her heart raced, and she pressed closer to him. “Well!” The exclamation from a few feet away startled Georgiana. She pulled apart from Percy. That same large woman and skinny man from before stood on the path, staring. Oh good heavens… The woman grabbed the man by the arm. “Come away, Mr. Smyth. You shouldn’t be watching such disgusting behavior.” The woman harrumphed and turned, tugging him in her wake. But before they’d gotten very far down the path, Mr. Smyth peeked over his shoulder. And winked. Amusement overtook Georgiana, starting in her belly and climbing up until laughter bubbled out from her lips. She turned to Percy to see if he’d been as startled as she. His face was red, but she didn’t think it was from embarrassment at being caught doing that in public. No, he was shaking. Trying to hold in laughter as well. He sputtered, obviously unable to contain his mirth. He offered her his handkerchief, and she giggled as she wiped her eyes. She handed it back and he wiped his eyes before stowing the cloth back in his pocket. Georgiana swiped at a stray tear. “Well, that was certainly… uh…” “Indeed.” He took her hand again. “Georgiana, when I kissed you, I was, that is, did it convince you that…” “That you’re desirable enough for the dowager to have pulled a scheme in order to ensnare you? Oh. My. Yes.” He laughed. “Thank you for the compliment, Lady Peregrine.” “You know, even though I told you not to address me as such, I actually do like it.” “That’s too bad.” “Why?” “I’m afraid the term just won’t do any more.” He shook his head sadly. “Why not?” “Because soon, very soon, I’ll be able to call you Mrs. Radcliff.” As Percy pulled her to him for a gentle kiss, Georgiana’s heart soared. She had indeed found the man of her heart. Her love bird.

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