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Мортимер Кэрол

The Wicked Lord Montague

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Chapter Two

Giles had put aside the encounter in the glade with the beautiful Miss Lily Seagrove by the time he handed over the reins of his horse to one of the grooms at Castonbury Park. His thoughts were now on the signs of neglect, both to the outside of the house itself and other parts of the estate, which he had noted as he rode down the hillside and along the side of the lake.

Several tiles were missing from the roof at the back of the house, the stonework at the front was also in need of attention and there were weeds growing in several places about the foundations. The gardens that surrounded the house seemed to be well tended, but Giles had noted that several trees had toppled over in the woods at the back of the house, and the lake was also in need of clearing of the debris that had accumulated from the past winter. And they were only the things that Giles had noted at first glance; there were sure to be others he had not had the chance to see as yet.

They would no doubt confirm that things here were as dire as his sister Phaedra had warned they were. Something which did not please Giles at all, if it meant he would have to prolong his stay here …

Lumsden—the butler who had been with the Montague family for more years than Giles could remember—opened the front door as he reached the top step. ‘Master Giles!’ His mouth gaped open in surprise. ‘I mean, Lord Giles,’ he corrected as he obviously recovered his usual calm equilibrium. ‘We had not been told to expect you.’

‘I did not send word of my coming,’ Giles assured as he strode past the older man and into the house.

It was almost ten months since Giles had last stepped through this doorway, on the occasion of Edward’s funeral, and whilst the inside of the house was as clean and neat as it had ever been—Mrs Stratton, Giles knew, would allow nothing less from her household staff!—there was nevertheless an air of emptiness about it, of a house that no longer felt like a home.

An emptiness that Giles had expected—and so determinedly avoided these past nine months.

His mouth tightened as he turned back to hand the butler his hat and riding crop before shrugging off his outer coat. ‘My father is in his rooms in the east wing?’

‘Yes, my lord.’ Lumsden’s seriousness of tone somehow managed to convey so much more than was said in those three words. ‘I will go and enquire of Smithins if he considers His Grace well enough to receive you—’

‘No need, Lumsden,’ Giles dismissed airily. ‘I am sure I will be able to judge that for myself once I have seen my father.’

‘But—’

‘What is it, Lumsden?’ He frowned his irritation with this further delay, anxious now to see his father for himself, so that he might best decide what needed to be done here in order that he might leave again as soon as was possible.

The butler looked uncomfortable. ‘Smithins has issued orders that no one is allowed to see His Grace without his permission.’

Giles raised autocratic brows. ‘Am I to understand that my father’s valet now says who is and is not to visit him?’ He conveyed his incredulity in his tone.

‘I believe that sums up the situation very well, my lord, yes.’ The butler looked even more uncomfortable.

‘We shall see about that!’ Giles assured determinedly. ‘If you could organise a decanter of brandy brought into us, Lumsden, I would be most obliged?’

The elderly man straightened with renewed purpose. ‘Certainly, my lord.’

Giles turned with that same sense of purpose, his expression grim as he strode through to his father’s suite of rooms in the east wing of the house, more than ready to do battle with the man who was employed to be his father’s valet and not his jailer!

‘His Grace will be overjoyed, I am sure.’ Mr Seagrove beamed approvingly, having just been informed by Lily that Lord Giles Montague was returned to Castonbury Park, after all.

There was no answering pleasure in Lily’s face as she sat across the dinner table from her father in the small family dining room at the vicarage. ‘No doubt,’ she dismissed uninterestedly. ‘Would you care for more potatoes, Father?’ She held up the dish temptingly in the hopes of changing the conversation from the subject of the hateful Giles Montague, knowing full well that the creamy vegetable was one of her father’s weaknesses.

‘Thank you, Lily.’ He nodded distractedly as she spooned the potatoes onto this plate before replacing the bowl on the table, a worried frown marring his usually smooth brow. ‘I trust you and Lord Giles had a pleasant conversation together?’

She gave that earlier conversation some thought. ‘I believe I can say that I succeeded in being as polite to Lord Giles as he was to me,’ she finally replied carefully.

‘That is good.’ The vicar nodded, apparently unaware of the true meaning of Lily’s reply. ‘However, I think it best if we both call at the Park tomorrow morning to pay our formal respects.’

Lily felt her heart sink. ‘Oh, must I come too? I have several calls to make in the morning, Father. Mrs Jenkins and her new baby, and the youngest Hurst boy’s leg is in need of—’

‘Yes, yes, I appreciate that you are very busy about the parish, Lily.’ Mr Seagrove beamed his approval of the care and attention she had given to his parishioners since the death of his wife five years ago. ‘But His Grace is my patron, after all, and it would seem rude if we did not both call upon his heir.’

Lily could appreciate the logic of her father’s argument; Mr Seagrove’s tenure in Castonbury, although of long duration, was nevertheless still dependent upon the Duke of Rothermere’s goodwill. She just wished she did not have to see Lord Giles Montague again quite so soon. She had no wish to see that unpleasant man ever again, if truth be told! Though Lily knew it would never do for her father to suspect such a thing, which meant Lily had no choice but to accept she was to accompany her father to the Park tomorrow morning and make polite conversation with Lord Giles Montague.

‘It is good to see you again, Mr Seagrove.’ Lord Giles smiled with genuine warmth as he strode forcefully into the elegant salon where they waited.

Lily was momentarily taken aback by the change wrought on that haughty gentleman’s countenance when he smiled down at her father as the two men greeted each other; those grey eyes had softened to the warmth of a dove’s wing, laughter lines grooved into those hard and chiselled cheeks, his teeth appearing very white and even between the relaxed line of sculpted lips.

Even the bruising on his jaw could not succeed in detracting from his pleasant demeanour.

Indeed, for those few brief moments Giles Montague looked almost … rakishly handsome, Lily realised in surprise. A rakish handsomeness, his sister Phaedra had confided to Lily, he had reputedly taken full advantage of these past months in London!

‘And Miss Seagrove.’ Lord Giles turned to bow, the genuine warmth of the smile he had given her father fading to be replaced by one of mocking humour. ‘I had not expected to see you again quite so soon.’

‘My lord.’ She met that gaze coolly as she curtseyed, her best peach-coloured bonnet covering the darkness of her curls today, a perfect match for the high-waisted gown she usually wore to church on a Sunday, her cream lace gloves upon her hands.

Mr Seagrove had been born the fourth son of a country squire, and so possessed a small private income to go with the stipend he received yearly from the Duke of Rothermere, but even so Lily possessed only half a dozen gowns, gowns she made for herself after acquiring the material from an establishment in the village. Unfortunately only three of the gowns Lily owned were fashionable enough, and of a quality, to wear out in company; including the gown Lily had been wearing yesterday, Giles Montague had already seen two of those gowns.

Which was a very strange thought for her to have—was it not?—when she had absolutely no interest in Giles Montague’s opinion, either of her personally, or the gowns she wore …?

No one likes to appear wanting in front of another, she told herself firmly as she answered, ‘My father, once told of your return, was of course anxious to call and pay his respects.’

Giles gave a knowing grimace as he easily discerned Lily’s own lack of enthusiasm at seeing him again. He fully appreciated the reasons for her antagonism after the frankness of their conversation a year ago. It was a conversation Giles had had serious reason to regret since Edward’s death; a marriage between his youngest brother and this particular young lady would still be most unsuitable. But Giles would far rather Edward had enjoyed even a few months with the woman he had declared himself to be deeply in love with, than for his brother to have died without knowing the joy of a union he so desired.

Surely Lily’s words yesterday, regarding her intention of loving his brother until she died, implied her heart still yearned for the young man she had loved and lost …?

‘Would you care for tea, Miss Seagrove?’ Giles’s voice was gentler than he usually managed when in this particular young woman’s company.

‘I—’

‘That would be most acceptable, my lord.’ Mr Seagrove warmly accepted in place of what Giles was convinced would have been Lily’s refusal. ‘His Grace is no doubt pleased at your return?’ Mr Seagrove looked across at him pleasantly.

Giles frowned darkly. As Lumsden had warned, Smithins had stood like a guard at the door of the Duke of Rothermere’s rooms the day before, his initial surprise at finding Giles walking through that doorway unannounced lasting only seconds before he informed Giles that his father was resting and not to be disturbed.

It had taken every effort on Giles’s part to hold on to his temper and not bodily lift the insufferable little man out of his way. Instead he had icily informed Smithins what he would do to him if he did not step aside. The valet may be a bumptious little upstart, but he was not a stupid bumptious little upstart, and so had had the foresight to step aside immediately.

Not having seen his father for nine months, Giles had been shocked, deeply so, at his first sight of his father seated in a chair by the window, a blanket across his knees as evidence that, despite the warmer weather, his almost skeletal frame was prone to feel the cold. The duke’s grief at the death of his two sons appeared to have aged him twenty years in just one, his hair having turned grey, his eyes having sunk into the thin pallor of his face whilst deep lines marked his unsmiling mouth.

His dull eyes had brightened slightly at the sight of his son, and his spirits had rallied for a short time too, but Giles could see his father’s strength failing him after they had spoken together for ten minutes, and so he had made his excuses and gone to refresh himself after his journey.

‘I believe so, yes,’ Giles replied to Mr Seagrove; his visit to his father’s rooms before breakfast this morning had led to the discovery that the Duke of Rothermere had completely forgotten his son’s arrival the day before, thereby making it impossible for Giles to ascertain whether his presence back at Castonbury Park was having a positive effect upon his father or not.

The guilt Giles now felt at having neglected his father by remaining from home these past nine months was not something he intended to discuss with anyone, even the kindly Reverend Reginald Seagrove. Certainly Giles did not intend to reveal his feelings of inadequacy in front of the quietly attentive Lily Seagrove. Indeed, she was a young lady who saw far too many faults in him already than was comfortable!

‘Perhaps now that you are home you will be able to see to the necessary repairs about the estate, my lord?’ It was almost as if that young lady knew of at least some of Giles’s thoughts as she smiled sweetly.

‘Perhaps,’ he dismissed stiffly.

She gave a gracious inclination of her head. ‘I am sure His Grace would be most gratified. Not to mention the tenants of the estate.’

Giles’s mouth tightened as Lily Seagrove’s comment hit home. It was a way of pointing out his own shortcomings, he was sure. Shortcomings which Giles needed no reminding of when he had only to see the frailty of his father’s health, and the neglect about the estate, to become all too aware of them himself.

‘Shall I pour, my lord?’ she prompted lightly as Lumsden returned with the tea tray and placed it on the low table in front of her before departing.

‘Please.’ Giles gave a terse inclination of his head. He suffered more than a little inner restlessness as he felt the chains of responsibility for Castonbury Park tighten even more painfully about his throat. Chains which Lily Seagrove no doubt prayed might choke him!

‘Perhaps now that you are home, I might broach the subject of this year’s well-dressing, and the possibility of the celebrations afterwards returning to Castonbury Park?’ Mr Seagrove prompted hopefully. The Duke of Rothermere, having been in a turmoil of emotions the previous year, had requested that the garden party after the well-dressing take place on the village green rather than in the grounds of the estate as was the custom.

Although, as everyone knew, ‘garden party’ did not quite describe the celebrations that took place after the villagers had attended the church service and seen the three adorned wells in the village blessed. Much food was eaten, many barrels of beer consumed, with several stalls for bartering vegetables and livestock, and there was a Gypsy fortune-teller in a garishly adorned tent, and of course there would be music and dancing as the day turned to evening.

Giles was slow to turn his attention back to the older man, so intently was he watching Lily’s slender, gloved hands as they deftly managed the tilting of the teapot. Good heavens, sitting there so primly, her movements gracefully elegant, it was almost possible to imagine that Lily might, after all, have made Edward a passably suitable wife!

Almost.

For one only had to look at that black and curling hair, the ivory-white of her complexion, those lively green eyes and her full and berry-red lips to be reminded that Lily Seagrove’s true parentage was of much more exotic stock than the homely Mr and Mrs Seagrove.

No, as Giles had said only yesterday, it simply would not have done. Lily Seagrove was the type of young lady that gentlemen like the Montagues took to mistress, not to wife.

An opinion, if Giles remembered correctly—and he had no doubts that he did!—to which his brother Edward had taken great exception a year ago. And which, when Giles had made those same remarks to Lily Seagrove, had resulted in her landing a resounding slap upon his cheek!

Giles’s mouth tightened at that memory even as he turned his attention back to Mr Seagrove. ‘What exactly would that entail?’

‘Oh, there is nothing for you to do personally except give your permission, my lord,’ that cheerful gentleman assured him eagerly. ‘Lily and Mrs Stratton usually work together on the organisation of the celebrations.’ He beamed brightly.

‘Indeed?’ Giles’s gaze was unreadable as Lily Seagrove stood up to hand him his cup of tea.

Lily kept her lashes lowered demurely as she avoided all contact with Giles’s long and elegant fingers as she handed over the cup of tea into which she had placed four helpings of sugar, despite having no idea whether or not that gentleman even liked sugar in his tea. Perhaps he would understand that she believed his demeanour could do with sweetening also.

She had felt a slight uplift in her spirits as she saw Giles Montague’s discomfort at mention of the neglect currently obvious about the estate, only to have her heart sink upon hearing her father put forward the idea of the celebrations after the well-dressing once again taking place at Castonbury Park. She knew that if Giles Montague were to agree, it would necessitate her spending far more time here than she would ever have wished, now that he was back in residence.

Lily moved across the room with her father’s tea. ‘I am sure it is not necessary to bother either His Grace or Lord Montague with something so trivial, Father,’ she dismissed evenly. ‘The venue of the village green proved perfectly adequate for our purposes last year.’

‘But, my dear, the garden party after the well-dressing ceremony has, by tradition, always been held at Castonbury Park—’

‘Mrs Stratton informed me only yesterday that His Grace is far more comfortable when he does not have too much rush and bustle about him.’ Lily could literally feel Giles Montague’s gaze upon her as she resumed her seat on the chaise before taking up her own cup of tea.

‘I had not thought of that …’ Mr Seagrove murmured regretfully.

Lily felt a pang of guilt as she saw her father’s disappointment. ‘I am sure that everyone enjoyed themselves just as much last year as they have any of the years previously,’ she encouraged gently.

‘Yes, but—’

‘Perhaps I might be allowed to offer an opinion …?’ Giles Montague interjected softly.

Lily’s gloved fingers tightened about the delicate handle on her teacup as she heard the deceptive mildness of his tone, to such a degree that she had to force herself to relax her grip for fear she might actually disengage the handle completely from the cup. She drew in two deep and calming breaths before turning to look at Giles Montague with polite but distant enquiry.

He was seated comfortably in an armchair, the pale blue of the material a perfect foil for the heavy darkness of his fashionably styled hair. He wore a black superfine over a pale blue waistcoat and snowy white linen, buff-coloured pantaloons tailored to long and powerful legs and black Hessians moulding the length of his calves. He looked, in fact, the epitome of the fashionable dandy about Town.

Not that Lily had ever been to Town, Mr and Mrs Seagrove never having found reason to travel so far as London. But she had often been privileged to see copies of the magazines Lady Phaedra, the younger of the two Montague sisters, had sent over, and the fashionable gentlemen depicted in the sketches inside those magazines had all looked much as Giles Montague did today.

She gave a dismissive shake of her head, as much for her own benefit as anyone else’s. She simply refused to see Giles Montague as anything other than the cold and unpleasant man he had always been to her, but especially so this past year. ‘I trust the tea is to your liking, my lord?’ she prompted as she saw the involuntary wince he gave after taking a sip of the hot and highly sweetened brew.

Narrowed grey eyes met her more innocent gaze. ‘Perfectly, thank you,’ he murmured as he rested the cup back on its saucer before carefully placing both on the table.

Lily’s cheeks warmed guiltily as she realised he was not going to expose her pettiness to her father. ‘I believe you were about to offer us your opinion concerning the well-dressing celebrations, my lord?’ she prompted huskily.

Giles, the taste of that unpleasantly syrupy tea still coating the roof of his mouth, did not believe that Miss Lily Seagrove would care to hear his ‘opinion’ of her at this particular moment! Instead he gave her a smile that did little more than bare his teeth in challenge, and was rewarded by a deepening of the blush colouring those ivory cheeks. ‘I have very fond memories of the celebrations being held here when I was a boy.’

‘Of course you must.’ The vicar eagerly took up the conversation. ‘I recall Mrs Seagrove telling me of how, before you were old enough to go to Town for the Season with the rest of the family, you and your brothers would help to put out the tables and chairs and hang up the bunting.’

Giles and his brothers … Of which there was now only one. And Harry, in his role as diplomat, currently resided in Town when not out of the country on other business.

If anyone had asked Giles if he really wanted the garden party to be held at Castonbury Park this year, his honest answer would have been no. But having now seen his father, witnessed the way in which his grief had caused him to become withdrawn, not just from his family but from the estate and village as well, and the way in which that estate had been allowed to fall into a state of gentile decay, Giles was of the opinion, no matter what his personal feelings on the matter, that the return of the annual celebrations in the grounds of Castonbury Park was exactly what was needed to bring about a return of confidence in the Montague family’s interest in both the tenants and the village.

An interest which, it was becoming all too frustratingly apparent, Giles himself would have to facilitate!

As the second son, he’d had very little reason to pay heed to the running of the estate, or the other duties of the Dukes of Rothermere, and had left such matters to his father and Jamie after he had joined the army twelve years ago. Unfortunately Jamie’s death, and his father’s failing health, now necessitated—as Lily Seagrove had all too sweetly taken pleasure in pointing out—that Giles’s disinterest in such matters could not continue.

Fortunately for Giles, his years as an officer in the army had given him an insight into the nature of people—although he thought the villagers of Castonbury would not in the least appreciate being compared to the rough and ready soldiers who had served under him for eleven years, many of them having chosen to serve only as an alternative to prison or worse!—and as such he knew that the quickest and easiest way to win a man or woman’s confidence was to show an interest in them and their comfort.

In the case of the villagers, Giles had no doubts that the return of the annual celebrations to the grounds of Castonbury Park would be the perfect way of showing that interest.

‘Indeed we did,’ Giles answered Mr Seagrove ruefully. ‘And I will be only too happy to offer assistance this year. Under Miss Seagrove’s direction, of course …?’ He raised a dark and challengingly brow as he turned to look across the room at her.

Lily, having lapsed into what she now realised had been a false sense of security, could only stare back at him in wide-eyed disbelief.

The thought of the well-dressing celebrations being held at Castonbury Park, and so necessitating Lily spend more time here than she might ever have wished or asked for, seemed dreadful enough, but having Giles Montague offer his personal help with the organisation of those celebrations was unthinkable!

Nor did she believe for one moment that the haughty and arrogant Lord Giles would ever agree to do anything ‘under her direction.’

‘I really could not ask that of you, my lord, when you obviously have so many other calls upon your time now that you are home at last.’ She gave another of those sweet smiles.

Amusement—no doubt at Lily’s expense!—gleamed briefly in those grey eyes. ‘But you did not ask it, Miss Seagrove, it was I who offered,’ Giles Montague drawled dismissively.

‘But—’

‘As far as I am concerned, the matter is settled, Miss Seagrove.’ He rose abruptly to his feet as an indication that their visit was also at an end.

A dismissal Mr Seagrove, his real purpose in calling having now been settled to his satisfaction, was only too ready to accept as he rose to his feet. ‘I am sure you have made the right decision, my lord, for both the family and village as a whole.’ He beamed his pleasure at the younger man.

For once in her young life Lily could not help but wholeheartedly disagree with her adoptive father. Oh, she had no doubts that the rest of the village would see the reestablishment of the celebrations to Castonbury Park as a positive thing, a return to normality after almost a year of uncertainty.

But as the person who would be required to consult with Giles Montague, Lily could not help but feel a sense of dread….

.

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