In all the time she’d been in the countryside—six months, in fact—Phoebe had not ventured from the cottage grounds. She had been banished, pregnant and ashamed. Isolated from anyone who knew her. Alone, save for the midwife who took her in.
Her mother and father had only visited once. Mama sobbed at the sight of the child in her arms. Papa could not meet her eyes. The nurse they’d brought to collect the babe had recoiled in horror.
Cursed, they had cried.
Her ‘child of shame’ had been marked, her sin displayed for all good people to see.
Only Mrs. Wickstead—the sensible and steady midwife—understood that baby Ellen’s cleft palate was simply a defect of birth. Nothing sinister. Unpleasant, perhaps, but certainly not biblical.
To Phoebe, her daughter’s unusual appearance was a blessing, for the wet-nurse refused to nurse her. The family who had originally agreed to adopt her now turned their noses up at a deformed infant.
Foolish superstitions and backward beliefs gave her three months with her daughter. She would not trade this time together for anything in the world.
Phoebe pushed open the cottage gate and let it swing wide. The rutted path stretched out before her, farmland on either side. Warm sunshine baked the fields and sparse clumps of trees dotted the horizon. A beautiful day in the height of summer, and for once in her life, Lady Phoebe de Moncy had no idea where to go.
She walked onward, seeing the countryside of St. Lawrence for the first time since she’d arrived in the sleepy, riverside village. She was thankful she’d worn her wide-brimmed straw bonnet, as it would shield her from both the sun and any prying eyes she might encounter.
With Ellen fed and napping in her cot, Mrs. Wickstead had chased Phoebe from the cottage.
“Fresh air and exercise,” the grumbling midwife scolded as she’d forced her into her corset.
Phoebe knew this outing was not merely a scheme to lose pregnancy weight before reentering society. Mrs. Wickstead was slowly separating mother and babe to prepare them both for the future, yet she wanted nothing more than to cuddle her little one for all the days they had left.
Sadly, Lady Phoebe learned all too quickly that life did not care what she wanted. Fate was not moved by the whims of an earl’s daughter.
So she walked because this was St. Lawrence, and there was nothing else to do. Gone were the days of carriage rides through Regent’s Park, afternoon At-Homes, dinners, and dancing well past midnight. She had been sent where no one of any consequence would find her.
Her silk skirts kicked up dust from the lane. She coughed, scaring a bird from the scrubby brush lining the path.
Phoebe lifted her eyes to watch it fly.
The sun sat high. Not a cloud shaded the sky. Phoebe began to perspire, and it took all her willpower not to wipe her face with her sleeve.
Mama would never forgive her if she stained the pristine white blouse with sweat.
But Lady Rudham was not there to scold. Phoebe was no longer a schoolgirl—she was a mother in her own right, and put her comfort over her dress allowance any day.
Ever the rebel, she mopped her forehead with whitework muslin until the delicate fabric came away damp.
Phoebe strolled through the countryside. To her left and right, fields and pastures rolled toward the river. Farmhouses sat back from the lane, their barns and gabled rooftops barely visible over the hedgerows.
Truthfully, St. Lawrence was beautiful. This nugget of England where fishing boats bobbed and livestock surely outnumbered the residents fostered a sense of nostalgia, for nothing was mechanized here. The nearest train station was an hour away. It was secluded, sequestered.
She and Ellen could build a fine life here, with room to run and romp. Freedom from prying eyes and spiteful London gossip. Perhaps the world would forget about her. Mama and Papa might wash their hands of her, and she would never, ever have to leave.
She would purchase a fine stone cottage like Mrs. Wickstead’s, and don an apron to do her chores while Ellen tottered about the garden. All the windows would be open to the breeze, curtains fluttering. Everything would be sun-bleached and faded, worn soft by busy hands and time.
Her mind wandered as she moved along the footpath. She held the hems of her skirts up and quickened her pace. Smiling, Phoebe turned her face into the sun, feeling the summer rays kiss her cheeks. She’d grow freckled, but did not care.
She felt young, alive, and adventurous.
Up ahead, she reached a bend in the road. The lane veered away from a copse of trees where a narrow, reedy brook snaked through the pasture. There, in the dappled shade, strawberries grew wild. Phoebe could smell their ripe sweetness from the dusty place where she stood.
Whether the heat had gone to her head, or she truly was rebellious to her core, Lady Phoebe de Moncy, disgraced daughter of the Earl of Rudham, couldn’t resist the fragrant pull of those red berries drooping on the vine.
She stepped off the path.
Crisp grass crunched beneath her feet. Her skirts skimmed over the blades, which tickled her stockinged calves as she clambered through the field. Grasshoppers flitted. Little gnats danced in the heady air.
Phoebe sank to her bottom in the shady, overgrown grass and plucked a ripe strawberry. Oh, it had been ages since she indulged! Not since girlhood had she been allowed to ransack the kitchen gardens or pick through the hothouse.
She filled her belly with miniature berries. Feeling full and rather hot, Phoebe untied the ribbon from her straw sun-bonnet. She fanned herself with the brim, glancing around for the sound of footsteps or the clip of a cart moving along the nearby lane.
She hadn’t encountered another soul since leaving the cottage. Surely, no one would come upon her now, with her head bare and lips stained from plundered fruit.
Mrs. Wickstead had told her not to return until Ellen needed feeding…
Phoebe lifted her silk skirts. She bared her ankles, her calves. She loosened her garters to let her stockings droop.
The debutante daughter of the Earl of Rudham—beautiful, graceful, and much admired by all who knew her—would never have dared. Yet Phoebe was no longer that starry-eyed girl. She tucked up her hems and stripped off her stockings.
Grinning, she dipped one toe in the brook. The water was cool, clear, and as unspoiled as the countryside around her.
She waded in, splashing and laughing at her own boldness. When she grew soggy and tired, Lady Phoebe stretched out on the grassy bank and fell asleep.
She dreamed of Ellen’s darling, lopsided smile…and strawberries.
There were benefits to hiding out in the country. With the rest of the Cherrill clan occupied in London, there was no one to scold or bother him. He could keep hours that pleased him, sleep late and take his meals in his dressing gown—to say nothing of the larders and wine cellars that typically went neglected in his family’s absence.
Lord Douglas Cherrill preferred the life of a country bachelor, and as long as he avoided his mother and her marital schemings, he was in no danger of the leg-shackle.
Yes, there were many benefits to hiding out in the countryside, and passing a summer afternoon strolling down a country lane without a care in the world was one of them.
He walked, hands in his trouser pockets, a whistle on his lips. How could anyone wish to be in London, sipping tea with scandalmongers and choking on soot? Such a fine day was meant to be spent outdoors. Douglas scuffed a rock with the toe of his boot, sending it skipping.
Kick. Scuff. Skip.
Kick. Scuff. Skip.
He knew the lanes of St. Lawrence by heart. Their neatly trimmed hedgerows, the pastures and fields. Ahead sat the Doggett’s farm, tenants since his grandfather’s day. Beyond that, their neighbor, a widow who expected a call from the duchess whenever Her Grace was in residence.
Local color unlike anywhere else. Simple, quiet folk. Hard-working farmers and loyal tenants. God-fearing, honest, and joyful—Lord, but they were joyful! The good people of St. Lawrence loved their fêtes and country dances. He recalled the party they’d thrown when he came of age.
Four years later, his head still reeled from the memory of the food, and drink, and pretty village maidens.
Douglas grinned at the thought and kicked his rock further down the path. It rolled across the rutted road and disappeared into the grass along the side.
He glanced up at the sun, which sat hot and high in the cloudless sky. Douglas knew there was a shady clump of trees just around the bend, where a brook bordered the estate, and had been the scene of much boyhood mischief. It was a fitting place to read a letter from his brother, Leopold, who had been the butt of many pranks and brotherly bullying. All in good fun, of course…
Since he had nothing else to do, he might as well pass the heat of the day with his coat off and his legs in the water.
Douglas followed his pet rock off the lane. His boots sank into the field as he tramped through the grass. Exactly as he remembered, a copse of trees stood a few yards away offering shade for sheep and cattle, and duke’s sons, too.
The Bradwell brook gurgled as it cut its way through the field. Douglas walked alongside it until he reached the place where strawberries grew. Though they were little, the berries were red and ripe. He bent to pluck one and popped it into his mouth.
Satisfied, Douglas stripped off his linen jacket. He tossed it aside as he sank down to rest against a tree trunk. He nibbled a wild strawberry, and then licked his fingers clean.
He retrieved Leo’s letter and began to scan the pages.
A smile crept upon his face. His younger brother asked for money—he’d overextended his credit and his quarterly allowance would not cover it. No doubt he’d asked Edward and decided to press his luck elsewhere.
Unlike their eldest brother, Douglas remembered what it was like to be a fun-loving university student. There were rounds to buy, suppers, sport. Girls. He’d enclose a donation to the Youngest Cherrill Fund in his reply.
The remainder of the letter told of family squabbles and Augusta’s latest failures as a debutante. It seemed his sister could not snag a husband. With Margaret—the ‘doggy duchess’—now heading the clan, it was easy for a giddy, graceless girl to become overshadowed.
Each member of the Cherill family had their own duties and concerns, their selfish little dramas. Douglas looked forward to news, yet he was glad to be far away from that mad circus.
He fished through the vines for another wild strawberry. As he did, juices dribbled onto the letter in his lap. Leopold’s words grew spattered and sticky. The dark ink stained and began to smear.
Cursing, Douglas crumpled the letter and lobbed it. The heavy stationery sailed over the water, missing its mark by a wide margin.
It landed in the long grass with a thwack.
“Oof!” a voice called from the bank.
Lord Douglas was not alone.
He had come to St. Lawrence for solitude. He wanted to eat, and drink, and sleep, and please himself. Only Leo knew his whereabouts, and his little brother could keep a secret—so who spied on him from the opposite side of the brook?
“You there,” he said, “show yourself.”
Grass swayed where the spy shifted, but they did not move from their hiding place.
Douglas wished he had another letter so he could hit them again. He searched the shady strawberry patch for anything worth throwing…and struck upon a brilliant idea.
“This is private property.” He spoke to distract the sneak while carefully plucking a handful of berries. “Part of the Bradwell estate. I warn you, trespassers shall be shot.”
Gripping a wild strawberry between his thumb and index finger, Douglas whipped the little red bullet at the offender. It cut through the grass to strike his target, who cried out in shock.
“There’s plenty more where that came from,” he taunted, popping off one or two more to prove he meant business.
The spy was probably a lad from the village, stripped bare for a midday swim. Or a pair of shy lovers caught in a roll in the berries. Either way, no true threat to anybody.
But damned fun to torment.
One more well-aimed strawberry flushed out the offender. A blonde head lifted above the long grass. He could see her pink cheeks and stained lips from across the brook.
It was a lady—and a pretty one at that.
He expected her to cry, to pout or beg forgiveness. He expected her to run, but Douglas never expected the pretty, fair-haired maiden from across the brook to snatch a berry from her lap, haul back with barely a thought to aiming, and hit him squarely between the eyes.
The strawberry popped off his brow, leaving Lord Douglas Cherrill stung, stunned, and utterly besotted.
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