Owen Renderwell, the first Viscount Renderwell, marched up the front steps of Willowbend House with the determined stride of a man who was less enthusiastic about reaching his destination than he was reliant upon the power of momentum to see him there.
He stopped short of reaching for the knocker.
Behind him, Sir Samuel Brass shifted his mountainous frame and scratched thoughtfully at his full beard. “Reconsidering, are you?”
Brushing at the sleeves of his fashionable coat, Sir Gabriel Arkwright’s equally fashionable face lit with a mocking grin. “I believe our fearless leader is now contemplating the fact that this is our last chance to turn back.”
“It’s too late to turn back,” Samuel pointed out. “We’re already here.”
“We are not turning back.”
“One can turn back after arrival,” Gabriel countered. “It’s called retreat.”
“We are not turning back.”
Owen didn’t want to turn back. That was, perhaps, the most disconcerting aspect of his current predicament. A good part of him wanted to be here, in Norfolk, on the steps of this very country house. That part of him had, in fact, wanted to make the trip years ago and was as eager to knock on the door as the rest of him was reluctant.
It was an uncomfortable thing to simultaneously wish to press forward and step back, and Owen recognized his incongruent feelings as the same he’d experienced at age nine, when his sister Eliza had convinced him it would be great fun to hurl a stone at a wasp’s nest. It was the delicious thrill that came from succumbing to the allure of a very bad idea.
Resolute, he grasped the knocker and brought it down for three quick raps. Then he stood back and waited to regret his decision.
A silver-haired woman with light eyes clouded by age opened the door. She looked between them with open suspicion. “Yes?”
“Lord Renderwell to see—”
“Oh.” Instantly, her demeanor changed. She stepped back, allowing them entrance, and waved a maid forward to take their hats and coats. “Welcome, my lord. Welcome to Willowbend. You honor us.”
It still amazed him how efficiently his title removed obstacles from his path. It had been a revelation when he’d inherited the barony at sixteen and had only become more pronounced since he’d received the viscountcy.
As a child, he’d known few advantages of being the son of a baron. His family of nine had resided in what was laughably referred to as genteel poverty, which was, as far as he’d been able to tell, really no different than your common variety poverty. One could not fill
an empty belly with an obscure title.
But a smart man could use it to open doors like this one.
The housekeeper showed them into a small but well-appointed parlor, and for a few disorienting seconds, it seemed to Owen as if he had stepped into the past. He’d never been in this house, never seen it. But he knew this room. How many times had he walked across that counterfeit Axminster carpet, or lit one of the brass lamps, or smirked at the large, imposing oil portrait of William Walker hanging over the fireplace? How many times had he sat on the pale blue sofa or in one of the matching wing chairs?
“Someone has taken up sketching,” Gabriel announced.
Owen turned to see him pick up a sketchbook from a monstrously oversized escritoire (featuring a large number of carved animal heads) that was shoved awkwardly into a far corner.
“Quite good, really,” Gabriel said, and he held up a skilled rendering of a rearing horse.
And just like that, the illusion was broken. Owen couldn’t say with any degree of certainty if one of the younger Walker children had been artistically inclined eight years ago. But he knew with absolute certainty that he had never seen that hideous desk.
“Miss Esther Bales is quite accomplished,” the housekeeper said with pride. “Fond of horses, that one. Doesn’t miss a single detail.” Then she took a second look at the sketch and paled. Because it wasn’t just a horse. It was a stallion. In all his intact glory. And Esther had, indeed, not missed a single detail.
With a speed that was nothing short of miraculous, she darted across the room and nipped the sketch out of Gabriel’s hands. “That is… I do believe this is Mr. Bales’s effort. I’ll just…I’ll see he finds it, shall I? And fetch Miss Bales. I shall fetch Miss Bales directly.” She headed for the door, paused, and turned round again, this time with a small blush. “It is Miss Bales you wish to see, is it not? Miss Charlotte Bales?”
“It is,” Owen confirmed. “Thank you, Mrs…”
“Oh. Lewis, my lord. I do beg your pardon. Mrs. Lewis.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Lewis.”
Owen waited for the housekeeper to curtsy and hurry out of the room. “Is distressing elderly women a new vice of yours?” he asked Gabriel. “Or one I’ve merely overlooked?”
Gabriel lacked the shame to hide his smile. “It wasn’t intentional. I didn’t notice the details; I was taken with the picture as a whole.” He walked past the settee to inspect a door to an adjoining parlor.
“Charlotte won’t agree to see us, you know. We’ll have to fetch her out.”
“Perhaps.” Owen hoped not. He couldn’t imagine this going well, exactly, but with any luck, it wouldn’t go so badly as to require brute force.
“She refused to see you the last time,” Samuel reminded him.
“That was a long time ago.”
“Think she’s changed?” There was an unmistakable wisp of hopefulness in Gabriel’s voice. He headed to the row of windows along the front wall and closed the two left cracked open.
“Do you suppose any of the Walkers have changed?”
“It’s Bales now, and I don’t know.”
“Peter will have,” Samuel pointed out, unnecessarily. Peter had been no more than six when last they’d seen him.
Gabriel shook his head. “I still say he’s the one we should be asking—”
“No.” They’d agreed to keep the youngest Bales-formerly-Walker removed from the situation until they knew how informed the boy was of his family’s past. Or rather, Owen had ordered his men to keep their mouths shut around the lad, and his men would obey.
“Please see we are not disturbed, Mrs. Lewis,” a familiar voice sounded from the foyer.
Owen barely had time to register the pleasant tingle up the back of his neck before the parlor door opened and Charlotte strode into the room, exactly as she had the first time they’d met—with the grace, confidence, and bold defiance of a monarch whose claim to the throne came by virtue of having personally pried its original occupant off with a sword.
If pirates had a queen, he mused, she would enter a room like Miss Charlotte Walker-Bales.
Owen resisted the urge to shift his weight. Seeing her again felt like an unexpected shove. The sort one had a masculine obligation to pretend not to notice.
No easy task, that. Not when everything about her was just as he remembered—keen dark eyes in a heart-shaped face, thick black hair done up in a loose topknot.
She’d adopted the current fashion of narrow skirts and bustle, he noted, but he saw none of the flounces and frippery that were all the rage in London. No ruffled underskirts for Charlotte. No fringe or bows or buckles, nor dizzying, contrasting patterns that made a man’s eyes cross. Just a simple gray gown with a small train and a single red ribbon woven through the top edge of a square-cut bodice. Elegant, severe, and alluring, all at once.
And there was that stubborn jaw and the mouth that turned up ever so slightly at the corners, lending the impression of a woman in possession of a wicked secret. Quite possibly your wicked secret.
There had been a time when he’d been captivated by that secretive mouth and spent more hours than he cared to admit looking for ways to turn that promise of a smile into the sparkling laugh he knew was hiding just beneath the surface. He couldn’t imagine trying, let
alone succeeding, in such an endeavor today. And so he kept his own voice polite but detached as he greeted her.
The three men bowed in unison. In return she said, “Well,” and looked at each of them separately. “You’re still alive, I see.”
“And you’re still angry,” he replied.
“How very observant of you. Eight years and not a thing has changed,” she drawled. “I vow, I feel a young woman of two-and-twenty again.”
Things had changed. Drastically, in his mind. They’d been friends once. But her father’s death had shattered her world, and for that, it seemed she would never forgive him.