With a qualm that would have amazed the polite world, the dowager Lady Forrester drew a deep breath before announcing, “Since you refuse to engage a companion, I’ve done it for you.”
Lady Antonia Thornton had been carefully darkening her brows, but at the statement she whipped her bright head around to stare at her aunt. “You did what?” she asked in a dangerous tone.
Strong men had been known to crumble under the beautiful Lady Antonia’s cinnamon-brown gaze, but her aunt was made of sterner stuff. Lady Forrester had deliberately chosen to approach her niece in the young woman’s boudoir, hoping that the informal setting might make the girl more malleable.
It had been a very slim hope. “I have engaged a companion for you. It is bad enough that you insist on setting up your own establishment now that your father is dead, but it is unthinkable that you should live alone.”
Antonia swiveled around on the chair to face her aunt. “I am twenty-four years old, the daughter of the ninth Earl of Spenston, a baroness in my own right, and the mistress of my own indecently large fortune,” she said coolly. “Why the devil should I have to tolerate the vagaries of some insipid, bantling-brained female?”
“Because you are a part of society, no matter how much you choose to think otherwise,” Lady Forrester snapped. “Even birth and wealth will not allow you unlimited license. Already you have the reputation as a bluestocking and an eccentric even before you jilted Lord Ramsay. What would your father say if he were alive?”
Antonia stood, drawing herself up to her full, impressive height. “My father would have encouraged me to do what I thought best. He abhorred missishness and was the one who taught me how foolish most social rules are.”
The dowager realized it had been a mistake to invoke Antonia’s father. The late earl had been a politician noted for his radical beliefs, and he’d passed those beliefs on to his daughter.
Trying a more conciliatory tack, Lady Forrester said, “I won’t deny that many of society’s strictures are foolish. However, paying lip service will give you more freedom to do what you wish. Your father would have been the first to recommend holding your fire for the battles that matter most.”
Seeing that her words were having some effect, she continued, “I know better than to engage a companion who is, as you so vulgarly put it, ‘bantling-brained.’ Judith Winslow is a young widow, a connection of my husband’s family. She’s only a couple of years older than you, very intelligent, and no more missish than you are. I think you would deal extremely well together.”
“I don’t care if she’s a Fellow of the Royal Society!” Antonia exclaimed. “I don’t want a companion, and that’s final. Go foist your poor relation off on someone else.”
The door to Lady Antonia’s boudoir was open, so every word of the battling ladyships carried clearly to the slight young woman who sat in the adjoining sitting room, hands and expression carefully blank. Judith Winslow was used to being unwanted. As an orphan she had been shuttled between the homes of various relations, treated as something between a charity girl and a nursery maid.
Judith had learned early that to be noticed by men invited trouble, so for safety’s sake she’d learned to dress drably. Dowdiness had served her well. The only person who had ever shown serious interest in her was the curate who had briefly been her husband.
She didn’t learn till later that Edwin Winslow’s real wish had been to acquire a nurse for the fatal illness he’d concealed until after their marriage. At least his attentions had been honorable.
In spite of her appearance of calm, the hand Judith raised to subdue a strand of chestnut hair trembled. She had known this journey was a mistake. But Lady Forrester had been insistent and she was not an easy woman to withstand.
Well, in a few minutes it would be over and they could leave. Surely Lady Forrester would allow Judith to stay at her home for a few weeks while the poor relation searched the London agencies for a situation.
She listened to the raised voices critically. Her situation had made her expert in judging other people’s moods, and it was clear that Lady Antonia was not amused by her aunt’s presumption.
Judith had had quite enough of being passed around the Forrester family like a parcel of worn clothes. It was time to find a position on merit. Perhaps she would be lucky enough to find an employer who wanted his daughters educated in natural philosophy as well as embroidery and sketching.
Lady Forrester abruptly gave up the fight. “Very well, if you won’t have Mrs. Winslow, tell her yourself. She in your sitting room.”
“What!” Lady Antonia’s rich contralto rose to a new level of outrage. “You dragged that poor woman over here and left her where she would hear us brangling? I’ve known you to do some cow-handed things. Aunt Lettie, but this is the outside of enough. How could you?”
The statement was accompanied by the sound of swift footsteps. Judith was already on her feet when Lady Antonia swept into the sitting room, but she was hard-pressed not to gasp.
She’d heard that Lady Antonia was beautiful and had taken the evaluation with a grain of salt. Though all heiresses are beautiful by definition, the lady’s intemperate language implied a masculine sort of female. But there was nothing the least bit masculine about the dazzling young woman who appeared.
Lady Antonia had a perfection of form and feature that mere money could never have achieved. Above average height, she had a splendid figure and a glowing vitality that illuminated the sitting room. Her most striking feature was a cascade of hair that was neither red nor gold, but a shimmering color somewhere in between, a molten shade reminiscent of apricots and sunsets.
Her wide, direct eyes were a warm brown with cinnamon depths, and her mobile, high-cheek boned face looked better suited to laughter than tears. Even mourning could not dim her sparkle. Indeed, she looked magnificent in black.
With weary resignation, Judith’s eyes met Lady Antonia’s across the width of the room. In the face of such splendor, Judith drew in on herself, unconsciously raising her chin as she waited to be sent away. She had survived worse than this. It had not been her idea to come, so she had no reason to feel humiliated by her rejection.
The moment stretched as the young women’s gazes locked and held. Though her aunt had said the proposed companion was young, Antonia was still surprised at the widow’s youthfulness.
Mrs. Winslow looked scarcely old enough to have been married, much less widowed. She was small-boned and fragile of build, her thick chestnut hair pulled severely back, her fair complexion drained of color by her mourning blacks. Though her face would have been attractive under other circumstances, today her translucent skin was stark and tight over the delicate bones.
Clothing was a mere detail. What struck Antonia was the fine gray eyes that returned Antonia’s gaze with bleak bravery.
In a flash of insight, Antonia sensed a lifetime of forced patience, of poverty, of hopelessness. The life of an outsider who lives on the sufferance of others.
Yet Judith Winslow was not defeated. There was strength and courage in those clear eyes that held her own. Antonia responded to those qualities, wondering if she herself would be equally brave under such circumstances. “I’m sorry you heard that, Mrs. Winslow. You’ll have gathered that I find the idea of a companion quite insupportable.”
The widow lifted her small chin as if bracing for a blow, and her gallantry triggered one of Antonia’s impulsive decisions. “I don’t need a companion or a slave, but one can always use more friends.” She crossed the room and offered her hand. “Shall we see if we can be friends?”
The expressive gray eyes registered shock, then a rush of emotion that came perilously near tears. Antonia understood the other woman’s struggle for composure. When one is hurting, kindness can be harder to accept than cruelty.
Mastering herself, Judith Winslow accepted Antonia’s hand. “I should like that very much,” she said in a soft, cultured voice. “Very much indeed.”
Though Antonia did not know it then, the casual, unthinking generosity that was the despair and delight of her intimates had just won her a lifetime’s loyalty.
Antonia gazed at the book in her lap and realized that her eyes had traversed the page three times, yet she couldn’t remember a single word. In fact, she didn’t even remember what the book was. A novel, apparently.
She raised her head and glanced across the sitting room to Judith. “Do you think Adam will be here soon? It must be almost noon.”
Curled up in the window seat with her embroidery, Judith offered a sympathetic smile. “It is now five minutes later than the last time you asked that question, and midday won’t be here for some time yet.’’
Antonia wrinkled her nose ruefully and gave up on her book, setting it on a table before starting to pace the sitting room with long impatient strides. For the hundredth time since receiving her cousin’s letter the month before, she fretted, “If I had known what ship he was arriving on, I could have met him.”
As she had on numerous other occasions, Judith patiently replied, “I’m sure that is exactly why he didn’t tell you. Even though you haven’t seen each other in eight years, obviously your cousin remembers you very well. He must have known you would go rushing down to the port in person, and the Isle of Dogs is hardly the place for a lady to wait.”
“Don’t you dare be logical!’’ Antonia exclaimed, laughing in spite of herself. She went back to pacing the sitting room, where the two women spent much of their time when they were in London. Less formal than the drawing room, it commanded a fine view of Grosvenor Square. The furniture was chosen more for comfort than for style, and books, periodicals, and musical instruments gave the room a friendly air. It was not as good as being at her estate, Thornleigh, but it was the most welcoming spot in the house.
Absently plucking the strings of Judith’s harp, she said, “You’re quite right. Even after eight years Adam knows me better than anyone else.”
Adam Yorke was not a near relation, only her second cousin, but they had been raised together. Three years older than Antonia, he was the brother she had never had. When they were young, he had been the most important person in her world; she had even once thought. . .
She cut the thought off sharply. What mattered was that he was her best friend. Antonia shot Judith a quick, guilty glance. Well, Adam was her best male friend. One can be close to friends in different ways. Certainly Judith was the closest female friend Antonia had ever had.
As she had done approximately once a day for over two years, Antonia blessed the chance that had brought Judith into her life. Though the women appeared very different on the surface, their minds, opinions, and humor matched beautifully. Judith was the best of companions, while at the same time respecting Antonia’s need for privacy, because Judith herself needed time alone.
Aunt Lettie still preened herself on the success of her meddling and took considerable pleasure in the fact that Judith’s calm good sense checked some of Antonia’s wilder starts.
In return, Judith had blossomed in an atmosphere where she was not only encouraged, but required, to speak her mind. The pale little widow was gone forever. Now she was a quietly lovely young woman, her rich chestnut hair falling in gentle waves around a delicate face that looked younger than her twenty-eight years.
The two women had emerged from mourning about the same time, and Antonia had taken the occasion to coax her companion into a new wardrobe, arguing that it was Judith’s duty to be in her best looks, since Antonia was the one required to see her. Judith would have balked if she had known how much her elegantly simple clothing cost, but the bills were a secret between Antonia and the fashionable modiste both women patronized.
Abandoning the harp, Antonia crossed to the mantel and lifted a graceful wood sculpture of a peregrine falcon resting on a branch, its head cocked to one side, as if recalling the joy of flight. Adam had carved the falcon when he was fifteen, giving it to her for her twelfth birthday. She stroked the polished wood lovingly. It was beautifully made; her cousin had always been clever with his hands. As children, they had roamed the hills hunting nests together, taking care not to frighten the parent birds so the eggs and babies wouldn’t be neglected.
As Antonia set the sculpture back on the mantel, Judith said slowly, “I probably shouldn’t even suggest this, but have you considered how much your cousin might have changed over the years? He was scarcely twenty-one when he went to the East Indies. He’s a man now. Things might not be the same.”
“Nonsense!” Antonia caressed the satiny wood again. “With all the letters we’ve exchanged over the years, I would have noticed if Adam had suddenly become someone else. He’ll have changed some, of course—who doesn’t change in eight years?—but he’ll still be Adam.”
Antonia consciously smoothed away the frown forming between her brows. She’d never understood why Adam had left England the way he did. Her father had intended to buy Adam a commission in the army when he came down from Cambridge.
Then, abruptly, Adam was gone, leaving only a hastily scribbled note that he had decided to enter the East India Company instead, and he must catch a ship immediately. He had apologized for not saying a proper good-bye and had written faithfully over the years since, but had never once explained why he had not discussed such an important decision with her.
Antonia repressed a sigh. Perhaps Adam had known she would have tried to talk him out of leaving. His cavalier departure had been a tremendous shock, making Antonia understand how much she had misjudged his feelings.
She shrugged, impatient with her thoughts. What mattered now was that he was back, and the bonds of blood and friendship were more powerful than romantic dreams had ever been.
Judith watched Antonia sympathetically. Judith herself was almost as impatient for Adam Yorke’s arrival as her mistress was. She had been hearing about Adam for over two years, had listened to lengthy excerpts from his letters, and had a mental image of an intelligent man with a kind heart and a ready sense of humor. She quite looked forward to meeting him.
Sometimes Judith wondered if there was anything romantic in Antonia’s attachment to her cousin, but had seen no sign of that. In fact, Judith had never seen Antonia show even the faintest of tendres for anyone, in spite of the swarms of men who buzzed hopefully around when they were in London.
Her employer was something of an enigma. Antonia was warm and demonstrative by nature, and she could be very outgoing, talking and flirting with her admirers. But she had a restless streak that needed the wide-open spaces and freedom of her estate in the Peak District.
Because of her stunning beauty, she had few close friends. Women resented her and men wanted to bed her, leaving little room for the relaxed pleasures of friendship. Perhaps Judith’s mistress would spend the rest of her days as a happy headstrong spinster since she needn’t marry for either fortune or status.
Considering how poorly many marriages turned out, Judith couldn’t fault her friend for avoiding the state. Why marry unless one was sure it would be an improvement? And even then, a woman could easily be wrong. Judith had been. But perhaps Antonia just hadn’t found the right man—Judith suspected that her friend had a secret romantic streak.
Shrugging, she returned to her embroidery. If Antonia ever decided to many, there would be no lack of candidates for her hand.
As Judith concentrated on her tiny, exquisite stitches, she hoped that Adam Yorke would arrive soon. When her mistress was in this mood, it was like sharing a cage with a tiger. Admittedly Antonia was an amiable tiger, but the situation was not restful.
Time passed. Judith stitched and Antonia played passionately on the pianoforte, nobly refraining from asking the time again. It was nearly noon when Judith straightened up in her window seat and stretched, glancing down into Grosvenor Square as she did. A hackney was stopping, and her gaze sharpened as a man stepped down and looked up at Antonia’s house.
Surely this must be Adam Yorke. Judith studied him as he in turn scanned the marble facade. The sun was coming at an angle that prevented the new arrival from seeing inside, but his uncertain expression was clearly visible to Judith.
Interesting. While Antonia might not think the time that had passed made a difference, apparently her cousin was not so sure. Perhaps eight years building a fortune at the other end of the world were longer than eight years moving through the timeless cycles of English society.
Dismissing the fanciful thought, Judith said casually, as if this was not a much-anticipated event, “I believe your cousin has arrived. At any rate, a gentleman carrying a package is about to knock at the door.”
The pianoforte stopped abruptly, leaving a crashing silence. “What does he look like?”
“Sun-browned, solidly built. I can’t see his hair under his hat,” Judith reported. Before she could say more Antonia was gone, leaving an open door and a rapidly fading sound of footsteps. Even on her most restrained days Antonia was impetuous, and in her present mood she was neither to hold nor to bind. Amused, Judith rose and followed with more dignity. Standing at the top of the stairs that swept down into the entry hall gave her a perfect view of the scene below her.
The newcomer was handing both hat and package to the butler, revealing sun streaked light brown hair. Somewhere in his travels he had found a notable tailor, but even Weston could not have rendered that broad, powerful frame elegant. Judith guessed that Adam Yorke was too muscular, too vital, to be fashionable. He looked like a man who knew a great deal about hard work, and work was very unfashionable indeed.
Antonia wasted no time in analysis. She pelted down the steps, her apricot curls flaring behind her as she cried out, “Adam!”
Her cousin gazed up at the sound of her voice, and Judith got a clear view of his face. His wide-boned features were pleasant rather than handsome, and for a moment Judith saw the same uncertainty she had noticed when he was outside. Then his face lit up at the sight of Antonia’s headlong rush.
Two steps above the bottom of the stairs, Antonia launched herself at her cousin. It said much for Adam Yorke’s reflexes and strength that he was able to catch her in midair, the force of her leap whirling him halfway around. He gave Antonia an exuberant hug before setting her down on the marble floor.
The cousins’ laughter joined and floated up, Adam exclaiming in a deep, rich baritone, “Good Lord, Lady Hoyden, haven’t you grown up yet?”
“Of course not!” Antonia’s arms were linked around his neck as she beamed up into his face. “Wouldn’t you be dreadfully disappointed if I had?”
“I expect I would.”
Adam touched a gentle hand to his cousin’s bright hair as Judith watched. She felt embarrassed to observe the intimacy between them.
Reminding herself that the butler was also an interested spectator, Judith descended the stairs at a much slower rate than her employer. Antonia might think of Adam as her brother, but the world at large would consider her raptures unseemly, and part of Judith’s job was to protect her employer from censure. That meant making her presence known now.
As she reached the bottom of the staircase, Antonia glanced up with a vivid smile. “Judith, you will have gathered that this is my prodigal cousin, Adam Yorke. Adam, this is my companion, Mrs. Winslow.”
As the newcomer turned to her, Judith saw that Adam was only a little over average height, but his broad frame made him seem larger. His eyes were the changeable kind, gray-green with flecks of brown, and as they fell on her, she saw surprise in them.
His expression warmed to amusement as he bowed very correctly over Judith’s hand. His fingers clasped hers with the practiced gentleness of a man who must be careful of using too much strength, but she still felt power in his touch.
“A pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Winslow. If I look startled, it is because Tony has been systematically misleading me for the last two years.” He glanced at his cousin. “So this is the ferocious widow that Lady Forrester foisted on you. I thought there was something smoky about that tale—I couldn’t imagine you accepting foisting from anyone.”
Antonia laughed. “I assure you, she is the veriest dragon. Say something in dragon, Judith.”
Perfectly straight-faced, Judith said, “Most improper, Lady Antonia. That is the outside of enough. Lady Antonia.” She had the exact inflection of Lady Forrester at her most top-lofty. She ended with “Deplorable what modern manners are coming to, Lady Antonia!” and her listeners succumbed to appreciative laughter.
“I am convinced. Mrs. Winslow is clearly ferocious.” Retrieving his package from the butler, Adam suggested, “Shall we adjourn to the drawing room? In the best traveler’s tradition, I have brought back bits of trumpery from the ends of the earth.”
They went to the more informal sitting room, where Adam produced marvelous gifts that could hardly be called trumpery. There was an exquisite cloisonné pendant, smooth ivory figurines, even a crystal scent bottle from China with elegant goldfish painted on the inside surface.
Antonia unplugged the bottle and sniffed, her eyes closed. “M-m-m, how wonderful. It smells so un-English. I can fancy myself in an Oriental bazaar.”
As Antonia passed the bottle to Judith, Adam said, “The Orient has its share of less appealing odors, but this particular perfume is said to be the favorite of the Emperor of China’s chief concubine.”
He stopped and laughed ruefully. “Now that I am back in England, I expect I shouldn’t mention such a thing to an unmarried lady.”
“Don’t you dare get missish on me,” Antonia said, her voice stern but with laughter shining through. Having Adam within touching distance still seemed to good to be true.
She studied her cousin hungrily, feeling an odd duality. Though his open, laugh-lined face seemed more familiar than her own, at the same time she felt the span of years that lay between them. His warm eyes were the same, as was his teasing half-smile, but years of sun and wind had weathered his complexion, making him look older and more authoritative.
Antonia knew that Adam had done rather well with his business ventures and that he had had experiences she could never really understand. It was easy to imagine him as a formidable adversary. Yet still he felt like her cousin and favorite relation, not like a stranger.
While she had pondered, Adam produced a length of brilliant silk and laid it in her arms. Antonia gasped at its incredible lightness, and the shimmering, ever-changing colors defied description. One of the rich shades that the sunlight struck from the material was the same apricot as her hair.
There was also a broad border of gold embroidery along one edge, but beyond that, words failed her. She lifted a length of the fragile shining stuff in her hands, admiring its softness and the sensual way it flowed. “This is the most beautiful fabric I’ve ever seen, Adam. Where is it from?”
“India. It’s a sari, the garment Indian women wear.” He reached inside his coat for an envelope and handed it to her. “No mere male could begin to describe how it is worn, but a woman I knew in Bombay wrote down directions for the correct way to fold it. You’ll probably want to have the fabric made into a dress, but I was sure that you would want to try it Indian-style at least once.”
“Of course.” Her arms full of silk, Antonia impulsively leaned across to kiss Adam’s cheek. “As usual, you think of everything. Thank you.”
Adam tensed slightly at her touch. Though he was clean-shaven, her lips registered the faint, barely perceptible prickle of whiskers as they pressed against his cheek. It was a very masculine texture.
More clearly than words, the contact reminded her that Adam was a man, not a boy. Disconcerted, she drew back from the contact quickly.
Perhaps she imagined the slight pause before Adam smiled and dug out one last item. “And this is for you, Mrs. Winslow.”
Judith had been doing her considerable best to efface herself to invisibility, so she was startled when Adam Yorke held the gift out to her. For most of her life she had been an onlooker, the one who had no right to expect presents or special favors. The thoughtfulness of his gesture made her voice catch when she tried to speak. “You shouldn’t have brought me anything, Mr. Yorke. You don’t even know me!”
“True, but I wanted to turn Antonia’s companion up sweet,” he said, using the slang with the utmost gravity. “I thought that a box for medications would be a suitable choice for an aging widow of uncertain temper.”
As Judith gazed into the warm, changeable eyes, she realized that Adam Yorke also knew much about being an outsider. For the first time, she wondered why he had been raised with Antonia and what had become of his parents.
But of course that was none of her business. She bent her head to examine the wooden box he placed in her hands.
“It’s made from sandalwood,” he said.
The box was inlaid with ivory and exquisitely carved in a rich pattern of flowers and leaves. A faint spicy scent was noticeable when Judith raised the lid. The interior was divided into velvet-lined compartments of different sizes. Surely the box had been expensive, and it was a thoughtfully chosen gift that would be useful to any female, of any age or disposition.
“It is the loveliest thing I have ever owned,” Judith said softly as she glanced up. If she had been Adam’s cousin, she would have kissed him, too, but she contented herself with a smile. “Thank you. I shall cherish it always.” Then, teasingly, “It will be perfect for my pills and nostrums.”
They all laughed. Then Judith withdrew to the window seat to resume her embroidery, leaving the cousins talking in the kind of half-completed sentences that close relatives or very good friends use.
Judith also rang for the butler and gave a quiet order for the midday meal to be set back. Antonia and Adam would need to talk the first effusions out before they could think of food.
After an hour of nonstop dialogue, Antonia asked the question that had been prominent in her mind ever since her cousin had written that he was returning to England. “How long will you be staying, Adam? At least a few months, I hope.”
He cocked a quizzical eyebrow. “Will you be hopelessly cast down if I say that I am back for good?”
“That’s wonderful!” Antonia almost bounced in her chair. She seemed to be talking exclusively in exclamation points today. Fortunate that Aunt Lettie wasn’t around. “What are your plans?”
His eyes intent on hers, Adam hesitated for a long moment before shaking his head. “It’s too soon to say. I need time to become reacquainted with England. What about you, Tony? I spent most of a year thinking that you were a respectably married lady, only to have you write that you had sent Lord Ramsay to the rightabout. Have you brought anyone else up to scratch yet?”
“Such vulgarity, cousin.” She grimaced. “I’ve had no shortage of proposals, but none worth accepting.”
“What happened with Ramsay? You wrote that you had called things off, but you never gave a reason. Did he behave badly?”
“No need to look so protective, Adam. Lord Ramsay was a perfect gentleman.” Antonia smiled wryly and toyed with the Chinese scent bottle. “That was the problem. I decided it was time I accepted somebody, and Ramsay was the best of the lot—handsome, wealthy, titled, good-natured . . . and a complete bore.
“I kept dragging my feet, and finally he gave me an ultimatum. Set a wedding date or the betrothal was off.” She chuckled. “You would not believe the alacrity with which I called things off.’’
“By that time, I think he was as relieved as I was,” Antonia said a trifle defensively.
“Are you determined never to marry, Tony?”
Antonia considered her answer. Even to Adam, she would not reveal her foolish romanticism, her desire to fall totally in love. Especially not to Adam. “I would like to marry,” she said slowly, “but I also would like to feel something more than mild affection for my husband.”
“As romantic as ever, I see.” Adam gave her his warmest smile. “Well, you can always marry me. I rather fancy the idea of settling down, and you’re the only woman I know in England.”
After another silence that lasted a moment too long, Antonia laughed. “Be careful what you say, Adam. Think how appalled you would be if I accepted.”
“I was prepared to accept the consequences,” he lightly.
Across the room, Judith caught a note in Adam Yorke’s voice that made her glance up. Perhaps it took a stranger to see that he was speaking in dead earnest, though her employer seemed oblivious to that fact. Antonia may think of Adam as a brother, but clearly he did not see his beautiful cousin as a sister.
Judith returned to her needlework, embarrassed at seeing more than she should. It was an unfortunate situation. Fond though Antonia was of Adam, she didn’t see him in a romantic light. For Adam’s sake, Judith hoped that he would not pine after what he could never have. Far better that he seek a female who would return his affections.
Such a woman would be very lucky.
The butler entered and made the discreet throat-clearing noise he used to gain attention. “Lady Fairbourne, shall I direct that the midday meal be served?”
Antonia glanced guiltily at the clock. “Lord, look at the time, I’ll wager Cook is furious. We’ll be down in ten minutes.”
After Burton withdrew, Adam said with puzzlement, “Lady Fairbourne?”
Antonia cocked her head to one side. “Didn’t I ever write you about that?”
“As I recall, Fairbourne was one of your father’s minor titles, but surely your cousin Spenston holds that now.”
Antonia straightened up in the sofa and said haughtily, “I, sir, am Baroness Fairbourne in my own right.”
Her dignity dissolved into chuckles. “It’s the strangest thing. After Papa died and the solicitors were dealing with the legal aspects someone noticed that the Fairbourne title is a barony by writ.”
“Such baronies go back to Norman times, and they can be inherited by a female in the absence of male heirs. A barony by writ can be submerged in higher tides, then liberated when there is a female heir but no male one. The rest of Papa’s titles and the entailed property went to Cousin Roger when he became Earl of Spenston, but Fairbourne stayed with me.”
Warming to her topic, she continued, “Papa’s lawyer told me that the de Ros barony, which is thought to be the oldest peerage in England, has gone through eight or nine family names. It’s dreadfully complicated. If I had sisters, we would be coheirs to the title, and none of us would be called Lady Fairbourne. The title would be in abeyance, and it would stay that way until all of the claims were concentrated in one person again—for example, if one sister had a child, and the other sisters didn’t. Some baronies by writ have been in abeyance for centuries.”
Seeing Adam’s bemused expression, she said kindly, “It’s all right if you don’t understand. It took the lawyer ages to explain to me.”
“I can understand why,” Adam said dryly. “So, which are you, Lady Antonia or Lady Fairbourne?”
“That’s where the fun comes in.” Antonia smiled wickedly. “In one sense, as the daughter of an earl my rank is higher rank than a mere baron. But Lady Antonia is a courtesy title, while the barony makes me a peer in my own right—one of handful of women in England of whom that can be said. My old friends and servants usually call me Lady Antonia, but Lady Fairbourne is more correct. Burton hasn’t been with me long and is most dreadfully proper, so he always calls me Lady Fairbourne.”
“Which do you prefer, your ladyship?”
“Don’t you dare call me your ladyship, Adam! Or I’ll— I’ll ...” She halted, unable to think of a suitable punishment.
Adam rose and offered his arm. “Or you’ll what?” he teased.
“I’ll think of something,” she said darkly.
“Something wet and slithery, if memory serves me correctly.”
Antonia squeezed her cousin’s arm, then glanced over to the window seat. “Judith, you will join us?”
“Are you sure you want me to be playing gooseberry?” her companion asked. “You must have a thousand things to say to one another.”
Adam looked Judith up and down very carefully. “Not green, not furry. You don’t look in the least like a gooseberry to me.” He offered his other arm. “Do join us, unless you think our reminiscences will be too tedious.”
Judith laughed as she rose and took his arm. During the leisurely meal that followed, she appreciated Adam Yorke’s efforts to include her in the mealtime conversation. He might adore his cousin, but when he looked at Judith, she felt that he truly saw her and listened seriously to what she said.
He really was a most attractive man, far more interesting than any of the London gentlemen who had been pursuing Antonia. Even to an observer as partisan as Judith Winslow, it seemed as if Mr. Yorke was good enough for the Baroness Fairbourne.
A bowl of fruit from the Thornleigh forcing houses was being served when Antonia asked, “By the way, where is your luggage, Adam? Shall I send someone to pick it up at the port?”
He shook his head. “I’m staying at the Clarendon.”
Antonia stared at him. “How ridiculous! Of course you’re staying here.”
“Tony, even with the ferocious chaperonage of Mrs. Winslow, that would be inappropriate.”
“But you’re family!” She bit her lip, remembering that he now had a life she was not a part of. Adam might consider it rather slow to be staying with his cousin. “I’m sorry, I know I shouldn’t press you. It’s just that I had assumed you would stay with me.”
“I would like to,” he admitted, “but we are not children anymore, and we are not that nearly related. Besides, there are any number of reasons why too-close association with me would do your reputation no good.”
Antonia fixed him with a steely glance. “Don’t be ridiculous,” she said. “You make too much of something that is of no importance.”
“I only wish that were true,” Adam murmured.
Judith watched as the two cousins’ gazes caught and held, feeling the tension between them, as if an old argument were being revived. She wondered what they were talking about, but again, it was none other business.
“No one would deny that London delights in gossip,” Judith interposed, “but we will be removing to Thornleigh very shortly, and even the highest stickler would not look askance at Mr. Yorke visiting us there.”
“What a wonderful idea,” Antonia said, sunny again. “I was going to stay in London as long as you were here, Adam, but going to Thornleigh would be better if you could come with us. Surely you can take some time off before returning to work again.”
Adam hesitated. “I would like to, but a friend of mine, Lord Launceston, returned to England on the same ship. You may recall my mentioning him in letters. Simon is visiting his mother in Kent now, but in a fortnight or so we had tentative plans to take a holiday together, perhaps to the Lake District.”
“I remember you mentioning his name. Unless Lord Launceston is the sort of gentleman you wouldn’t introduce to a respectable female relation, stop awhile with us. Derbyshire is on your way,” Antonia suggested.
“Oh, Simon is most presentable, even though he has been out of the country for years. If you’re sure you don’t mind being landed with a stranger, I’ll invite him to Thornleigh.”
Much, much later, Antonia would look back at this moment in amazement that something begun so casually would have such unforeseen, long-reaching consequences.