Only one day until the official release of Lady Griffith’s Second Chance! I am doing a very good job of not letting anxiety take over by crocheting and baking and scrubbing my bathroom tiles and laundry laundry laundry and really super wishing that I could have chocolate right now.
Did I mention the laundry? There’s a lot of it.
Here. We. Go.
The roses were not yet in bloom. The lack of flowers in no way inhibited the beauty of the garden, narrow paths of white gravel and a small maze of stones laid out on the way towards a gazebo, pleasantly situated in the center of it all. The gazebo’s trellised walls had long disappeared beneath the foliage of the roses-in-waiting, and Regan brushed a surreptitious hand across her brow as she sent up a prayer of thanks for the shade the lush greenery provided.
She’d exchanged her battered bonnet for one in better shape, though in her haste she’d tied the ribbon too tight and now the thing irritated her throat. Small wonder she never wore a hat unless in company, no matter the risk of a tan and freckles that Aunt Agnes seemed to take tremendous pleasure in warning her about. Itchy, uncomfortable tools of torture, hats were. Even worse than stays, in her opinion. And only marginally worse than stockings.
But there she sat, properly laced and stockinged and hatted, while Katharine dispersed tea cups and milk and strawberry tarts. Even Jack and Maria behaved well on the other side of the garden, following the progress of a turtle they’d followed up from the stream.
“Did you have any opportunity to visit London for the season?” Regan directed her question towards Mr. Talbot. Since only a few minutes after their arrival, Mr. Cranmer seemed to have withdrawn into himself. Gone was the smiling, seductive gentleman from the previous evening. This version of him was more withdrawn, yet no less observant of what happened around him. Regan tore her glance from him and returned her attention to Mr. Talbot. Smiling politely, she sipped her tea, which was ridiculously sweet, just as she liked it. “Or have the delights of town already begun to lose their luster for the year?”
“Business kept me from London this year,” Mr. Talbot said, his smile faltering at the edges. “As my father’s health declines, more of the responsibility of caring for our family’s estate falls to me. Not that I am one to complain!” he added quickly, and with a brief glance in Katharine’s direction. “It will all settle on my shoulders one day, so I assume it’s better to be prepared in advance, don’t you think?”
Regan held her smiled and nodded, though she guessed it was to Katharine alone that he was determined to impress his ability to take on the family yoke.
“And what of you, Mr. Cranmer?” Katharine asked, drawing their other guest into a conversation he had otherwise been sitting on the sidelines of thus far.
Regan took another sip and glanced over her shoulder through the leaves covering the gazebo. Jack and Maria’s heads could still be seen bobbing behind a hedge, having abandoned the turtle for an impromptu game of leapfrog. When Mr. Cranmer seemed to hesitate, she prompted him with a query of her own. “Do you hail from Kent originally? You do not sound as if you do.”
“Oh, much farther north!” Mr. Talbot put in, his grin returned to its former glory.
“This is my first visit to Kent,” Mr. Cranmer said, the first string of words he had put together since they had seated themselves beneath the roof of the gazebo. “I’ve only been here a few days, but I do hope to enjoy the beauty of the place before everyone escapes from London to avoid the worst of the city’s heat.”
His voice… She had noticed it the night before, a heaviness, a definite burr to his words. Was he Scottish? Lord, she was terrible with accents. Some people, she knew, would be able to hear a few words and have no difficulty pinning the speaker down to the very avenue of their birth. But the most she could dare to assume was that Mr. Cranmer did not hail from anywhere south of Leicester.
“I do hope you enjoy your stay,” she said. “I cannot abide London this time of year.” Or most of the year, she neglected to add. “It is good you made your journey away when you did.”
“I was not in London, either,” Mr. Cranmer corrected her. “I was in Suffolk, visiting a friend, before I found my way towards this part of the country.”
“Well, as long as you are here, please don’t disregard my invitation to fish or shoot on our property as mere politeness. We’re nearly overrun with deer, and poor Jack alone can catch only so many trout.”
“Thank you, Lady Griffith.” He dipped his chin, and when he raised his face again, there was a small smile at the corners of his mouth. And with that smile, his eyes gleamed, more blue than grey in the small measure of sunlight that shone through the leaves.
She allowed herself the freedom to watch him for a moment, before finally returning her gaze to the second cup of tea Katharine had poured for her and that had already begun to cool. Mr. Talbot had managed to draw Katharine into conversation, and was gesturing to various parts of the garden while she elaborated on the features and when they had been built.
Regan chanced another look at Mr. Cranmer before she could stop herself. He wasn’t paying attention to her, his gaze pinned on something far away, his thoughts seemingly elsewhere. There was that furrow between his brows again, the same one that appeared when he and Mr. Talbot had first met them near the pond. He hadn’t been so pensive last night, when his expression had been lit with something almost like mischief. Today, he was more serious. More quiet. And yet just as yesterday Regan found she had difficulty concentrating on anything as long as he was nearby.
As if he sensed her attention on him, his head turned and he looked at her from under those dark lashes, almost as dark as the hair that curled out from beneath the brim of his hat.
She returned his previous smile in an effort to cover her embarrassment at having been discovered studying him. She couldn’t comprehend what it was about the man that drew her eyes. He was handsome, yes, but nothing out of the common way. At least, that was what she told herself while her heart fluttered in her chest and her stomach tightened. And there was a slight line of discoloration on his cheek that she hadn’t noticed the day before, though the full light of the afternoon sun showed what looked to be a faint birthmark or scar. She noticed it only when he smiled, when the skin there crinkled and the pale mark was pushed into a position of prominence on his face. The rest of his features were put together well enough, though she supposed he was too young for her to know how he would carry the set of his jaw and cheekbones as he matured.
“Well,” she said suddenly, and took a hasty sip of cold tea when she realized they’d been looking at one another for some time without speaking. “I should see what the children are up to. If I leave them alone for too long, I’ll no doubt find them voyaging on a homemade raft across the pond in search of sea monsters.”
Both men stood as she rose from her seat, the cups clattering as she accidentally bumped into the corner of the tray. Katharine stood up as well, inviting their guests on a tour of the rose garden. Mr. Talbot did not hesitate to accept, and offered his arm to her as they stepped out of the gazebo and into the sunshine.
Regan turned away and made to venture in the direction she’d last seen Jack and Maria, but Mr. Cranmer remained a step behind her, bowing slightly as Katharine and Mr. Talbot set off towards a brick maze laid out at one end of the garden.
“Might I accompany you, Lady Griffith?”
Regan opened her mouth and closed it again. Was this what he had been waiting for? An opportunity to separate her from the others so he could continue to tease her as he had the night before? Or perhaps she was being ridiculous, and the poor man was simply being polite by offering to accompany her.
“Thank you, Mr. Cranmer.” She reached up and tugged at the brim of her bonnet, which had begun to slide backwards, threatening to choke her. Though if she would take the trouble to tie it properly… “I must warn you however, it will be a dull chore. They’ve probably tangled themselves up in some nettles or caked themselves in mud from head to heel. And I’m sure Katharine will take you out to the folly should you ask her to. The f-former Sir Griffith had it erected before his death.”
She was babbling, and she knew it. She suspected he knew it, too. And then there had been that subtle catch in her voice when she mentioned her husband, no matter that she had spoken lightly, as if referring to Edmund’s former presence in the household should no longer have the power to affect her.
“I think I find nettles and mud infinitely preferable to the latest in fashionable garden architecture,” he said. And there was that smile again, almost like the ones he had graced her with the previous night. “That is, if you will not take offense at my presence?”
“Not at all, Mr. Cranmer.”
He didn’t hold out his arm for her, instead falling into step beside her as she navigated through the garden, beginning at the last place she had seen Jack and Maria’s bobbing heads during their game of leapfrog.
“I must admit,” she began, keeping her gaze pinned ahead, anywhere but at his face. “I am surprised to see you here. I take it you were able to find out who I was despite our lack of introduction last night?”
“I was, yes.” She heard the smile in his voice. “And you… you didn’t interrogate any of the guests as to my identity?”
“No.” It sounded curt to her own ears, but she would not apologize for it. Already a blush had begun to creep into her cheeks. Because she had considered asking Mrs. Boyd who that tall, dark-haired gentleman was. Anyone would have assumed she was more than likely asking for the sake of Katharine, but still she had not worked up the courage to do it. “But you have found me, and I must admit I am curious as to your purpose here.”
“My purpose?” He chuckled, and she stopped walking and turned around to look at him. “You make it sound almost as if my head is full of nothing but complicated plans and machinations.”
“Then tell me,” she said, and tipped her chin up another inch. It was meant to be an assertive tilt of her head, but only managed to tug at the too-tight ribbon around her neck and make it more difficult to breathe. “What is in your head, Mr. Cranmer?”
“Right now? Thoughts of beautiful ladies with wine-stained gowns and the light of a dozen candles gleaming off the gold in their hair.”
She pursed her lips. “So there is more than one lady, is there?”
“You have not been privy to many men’s fantasies, have you?”
She wanted to laugh. She wanted to appear furious or offended or completely disinterested in everything about him. She wanted to find her children and run back to the house and hide away again as she had for the last seven years. “You are rather bold for someone who doesn’t know anything about me.”
“No, I do not know you,” he admitted, his teeth biting at the inside of his cheek. “But we all must begin somewhere.”
“And what are we meant to begin, Mr. Cranmer?” She could not understand it, the urge to continue speaking to him, to draw out their frivolous banter. Even as a twinge of guilt twisted inside of her, a harsh note sullying the peace she had found during the years of grief she had endured after Edmund’s death.
Mr. Cranmer took a step towards her. Or perhaps she had only imagined it and she had been the one to chisel away a bit of the distance between them. “Anything you want, Lady Griffith.”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake.” And she did turn away from him then, striding off again in search of the children while a blush flooded her cheeks and her legs quivered traitorously beneath her skirt. He kept pace with her, no matter that she was walking as fast as she could without breaking into a run.
“Ah, there they are!” she announced breathlessly as they rounded another hedge. Both children were crouched on the ground, half burrowed into a topiary that acted as the southern boundary of the garden, the lawn stretching out beyond it. Maria heard their approach and squirmed out from under the bush, leaves and bits of twigs sticking to her curls as she beckoned her mother and Mr. Cranmer to come near.
“We’ve found a bluebirds’ nest!” she crowed in hushed tones. “And there are babies in it! Ooh, Mama! They’re so tiny! You must have a look!”
Forgetting Mr. Cranmer’s presence beside her in the face of her youngest child’s excitement, Regan tugged at the ribbons that held her bonnet in place and pulled it off her head before dropping onto her knees beside Jack. “You haven’t gone and disturbed them, have you? I’m sure their mother will be quite cross if she comes back to find you’ve poked at her babies.”
“No, we haven’t laid a finger on them,” Jack assured her. He shimmied out from the bush, brushed a few leaves from his shoulders, and gave her room to look for herself.
There would be grass stains on the front of her gown, she knew. But what was a second ruined gown in as many days? She tossed her bonnet aside and crawled forward, pushing her head into the dense foliage until she saw the edge of a nest. There were several small birds tucked inside, a few of them still sporting downy fluff for feathers while one had already begun to show a bit of blue under his wings.
“A spectacular find,” she said to her children as she slipped out again. She remembered Mr. Cranmer and glanced behind her. He stood a few paces back from them, as if he did not wish to trespass on their familial scene. “Would you like to see the baby birds, Mr. Cranmer? A bit longer, and I fear they’ll be off on their own and the opportunity will be lost to you.”
It was her turn to tease him. She did not think he would accept. What young gentleman would wish to ruin his trousers or the shine on his boots crawling through a hedge? He seemed to be weighing the decision as well, his spark and his smile muted as some secret battle waged within him.
“Right,” he said, and removed his hat.
She moved aside as Mr. Cranmer came close, staying on her knees beside the children while he crawled forward into the topiary. Regan bit back a grin at the sight, and she wondered if the man’s valet—if, indeed, he had one—would ever forgive him for the grass stains on his knees and the streaks of dirt on his boots.
When he backed out from the leaves—a few of which had found their way into his unruly hair—his eyes sparked with a new light, his smile transforming his expression into one she had not seen from him yet, excited and almost boyish in its joy. “I must admit, I’ve not crawled on the ground in search of wildlife since I was still in the nursery. You should be proud of your discovery,” he said to Jack and Maria. “But now, I think it’s best if we leave them be. I wouldn’t be surprised if their parents are somewhere about, waiting to rain down terror on our heads should it look like we’re going to encroach on their hiding place any longer.”
Mr. Cranmer dusted off his knees, picked up his abandoned hat, and held out a hand for Regan. She took it without thinking, his fingers cool and strong around hers. For the briefest of moments, she didn’t want him to let go. Neither of them wore gloves, and he had yet to clap his hat back onto his head, allowing the breeze to ruffle his dark curls.
“You’ve a bit of something…” Regan rose onto the balls of her feet and plucked the leaves from his hair. There should have been nothing in the gesture. It was the same thing she had done a hundred times over for her children: wiped crumbs from their mouths, smoothed down a few errant strands of hair, plucked at a wrinkled collar. But her breath stuttered when she realized she must have crossed an etiquette boundary, fussing over the man as if he were nothing more than a scruffy child. “Back to the gazebo, then?” She looked at both of her children. “I’m sure there are a few tarts left, and I’m certain Katharine and Mr. Talbot will be wending their way back for a respite from this heat.”
She took Jack and Maria by the hand and began to walk across the garden. She thought Mr. Cranmer was with them, but when she glanced over her shoulder, she saw him return to the topiary and pick something up from the ground.
“Your bonnet.” He walked quickly to catch up and held it out to her. One side of it was decidedly squashed while the edges bore bits of grass that had worked their way into the weave of the brim. Regan laughed at the sight of it, brushed off what dirt she could and passed it to Maria, who plopped the hat on her own head and began tackling the ribbon with as much delicacy as her small fingers could manage.
“If I may?” Mr. Cranmer dropped down to his haunches in front of Maria, his hands poised and waiting several inches from the ribbons she’d managed to knot at a remarkable speed. The girl’s face broke into a broad, toothy grin at his request and she nodded.
He undid the tangle of ribbons, smoothed them between finger and thumb, then tied them into a neat bow off to the left side, a few inches below Maria’s ear. “That’s how all the ladies are wearing them in London this year,” he told her, and Regan watched her daughter’s smile widen. “Or so I’ve heard.”
“Thank you, sir!” Maria curtsied awkwardly, almost losing her balance as she tried to hold out her skirt and keep the oversized bonnet from slipping down over her hair and covering her eyes.
He stood up again as Maria and Jack skipped off, tracing a winding path back towards the gazebo and any edibles that might be left for them. “Your children…” he began, but his mouth worked silently for a moment, hesitant to finish. “They are unexpected,” he finally said, and held out his arm to her.
“They are, yes.” As are you, she wanted to add, but held back the words. One moment, he seemed ready to flirt with her, as if they were perpetually in a ballroom; she, batting her eyes at him over the top of her fan while the press of too many bodies and the swell of too-loud music and the heat of a hundred candles created an artificial world around them. The next moment, he would withdraw, disappearing into a show of quiet contemplation. And just now, with the children, his patience and gentleness with them, though she could not imagine he had a great deal of experience with young boys and girls…
“According to my aunt,” she pressed on, before her head could fill with too many thoughts of him. But she placed her hand on his arm, her tough tentative at first before she allowed herself a firmer grip. “The children are a scourge, to be classed in with locusts and any of the other biblical plagues. She also says I spend too much time with them, that I should leave them to the care of their nurse. ‘Snip the leading strings,’ as she has often stated. But—” She closed her mouth, cutting off what she had been about to say.
Already, she’d shared too much with Mr. Cranmer, this handsome young man who made her palms sweat at the sight of him taking his time over the tying of a simple bow. But there was something about him, a gleam in his eye that made her wonder… made her wish she could be a young woman again, someone who could catch the interest of such a man, and not as a few minutes of entertainment on his part. “We should not linger,” she said, and hoped he would not see the edge of wistfulness in her smile. “Or else Jack and Maria will raze the gazebo to the ground and we’ll be left with nothing but a pile of rubble.”
They walked in silence, Regan occasionally glancing up at the sky, enjoying the heat of the sun on her cheeks, no matter what it might do to her complexion. A few paces after the gazebo returned into view, Mr. Cranmer slowed until he halted completely.
“You should spend as much time with your children as your heart desires,” he said.
Regan looked at him. His gaze was somewhere far away again, pinned on a place she could not see, if indeed it even existed where she could see it.
“I know what the fashion is, to have your children raised by nurses and governesses, to parade them out from time to time in their finest clothes as if they were nothing more than part of a collection.” A bitterness clung to his words, and Regan held her breath, a new curiosity forming that perhaps Mr. Cranmer’s own childhood echoed his statement. “But a child wants more. A child needs more.” He glanced down at her, his own smile not as bright as it had been a moment ago. “You would fight for your children, I think. And not merely because you saw them as possessions to be won.”
She gave his arm a gentle squeeze before she could stop herself, though what she truly wanted was to ask what had been done to him, or what heinous behavior he had witnessed to make him speak out so. “Thank you,” she said instead, while fully knowing it was not at all what she wanted to say.
They descended again into silence as they approached the gazebo, where everyone else was already gathered. Regan had been flustered, she realized, by his openness, his lack of artifice. Was it just his youth that made him behave in such a way? Or was it a facet of his character, something he would always possess no matter his age? But to be that young again, she thought, and have all of one’s emotions so boldly displayed without fear of censure from those around them.
“More tea?” her voice wobbled slightly, as etiquette took over and she tucked all of her own emotions away, safely hidden where they had been for so long already.
Everyone took another cup, despite the pot having cooled. It was a warm day, and any liquid was considered refreshing, and the children were excited to sit with their elders and pick the crumbs from the tray of tarts while Maria tried to sneak her fingers into the sugar bowl.
“I do hope to see you at Lord and Lady Polmerol’s,” Mr. Talbot said to Katharine, though he did his best to include Regan as well in the sweep of his gaze.
“The house party?” Katharine sipped her tea and shook her head. “No, I am afraid we have already declined. My aunt thinks attending a house party would be too much of a trial for her, and Mama…” She glanced at her mother, and Regan dutifully picked up the thread.
“I would not wish to be away from the children for an extended period of time. I have not travelled from here since Maria was born, to tell the truth. Though I did write to Lady Polmerol and extend my thanks for her kind invitation.”
Mr. Talbot failed to hide his disappointment. Beside him, Mr. Cranmer picked up his cup and swirled its contents once before drinking it down faster than was polite. When he returned the cup to the table, his eyes met Regan’s, and for just a moment, she thought she saw a hint of relief soften the line above his brow.