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A Lady Never Tells(165)

By:Candace Camp

It was a rather grim-looking place, and he could not help but hope, for his cousins’ sake, that the widow who resided there was not of the same nature as the house. He thought for a moment of riding past it, but a second thought put that idea to rest. In a village this size, it would be bound to get back to the residents of the vicarage that a stranger was in town, and they would feel slighted that he had not come first to meet them. Fitz knew that many deemed him an irresponsible sort, more interested in pursuing his own pleasure than others’ ideas of his duty, but it was never said that he ignored the social niceties.

Besides, he thought, with a little lift of his spirits, as he swung down off his horse and tied him to the lowest branch of a large tree, he would have an excellent reason to keep his visit short, since he needed to get his animal stabled and find himself a room. Brushing off the dust of the road, he strode up to the front door and knocked. A parlor maid, who goggled at him as though she’d never seen a gentleman before, quickly answered the summons, but when he told her that he wished to speak to Mrs. Hawthorne and handed her his card, the girl whisked him efficiently down the hall into the parlor.#p#分页标题#e#

A moment later a woman of narrow face and form entered the room. Her dark brown hair fell in tight curls on either side of her face, with the rest drawn back under a white cap. Her face was etched with the sort of severe lines of disapproval that made it difficult to guess her age, but the paucity of gray streaks in her hair made him put her on the younger edge of middle age. She had on a gown of dark blue jaconet with a white muslin fichu worn over her shoulders and crossed to a knot at her breasts.

Fitz’s heart fell as he watched her walk toward him. Poor cousins! He had the feeling that the girls had merely traded one martinet for another, and it surprised him that the lively Lady Vivian would have recommended such a woman. However, he kept his face schooled to a pleasant expression and executed a bow.

“Mr. Fitzhugh Talbot, ma’am, at your service. Do I have the honor of addressing Mrs. Bruce Hawthorne?”

“I am Mrs. Childe,” she told him. “Mrs. Hawthorne is my husband’s daughter.”

“A pleasure to meet you, madam. I am the Earl of Stewkesbury’s brother, and I am here to escort Mrs. Hawthorne to Willowmere. I believe he wrote to her regarding the matter.”

“Yes, of course. I have sent a servant to tell Mrs. Hawthorne that you have arrived.”

She gestured toward the sofa, and Fitz sat down, relieved to learn that at least his American cousins had escaped living with this woman—and that he would not have to endure two days of traveling with her.

Mrs. Childe took a seat across from Fitz, her spine as straight as the chair back, which she did not touch, and inquired formally after his trip. They made polite small talk for a few moments before there was the sound of hurrying footsteps in the hallway. A moment later a tall, slender woman dressed in a gown as severe and dark as Mrs. Childe’s, her blond hair pulled back and twisted into a tight knot at the crown of her head, stepped into the room.

Fitz shot to his feet, his customary aplomb for once deserting him. There was no mistaking the woman despite the complete change in her attire. The tightly restrained hair was the same pale ash-blond, the eyes the color of a stormy sea.

The middle-aged widow he had expected was, in fact, his water nymph.