It took a moment for Sara’s eyes to adjust to the darker lighting in the general mercantile. There weren’t many customers, for which she was grateful. She nodded greetings to those she knew as she made her way to the service counter. Mrs. Yardley, the church pianist, ran the store with her husband. Rather intimidated by the woman’s large husband, Sara waited patiently for Mrs. Yardley to finish with her current customer.
“Good afternoon, Mrs. Yardley,” Sara greeted with a smile. “Has anything arrived in the post for us this week?”
Mrs. Yardley confirmed with a nod. “I will fetch it for you.” When she returned from the back with several letters in her hand, she said, “We received some nice white and yellow ribbons this week that would complement your hair nicely.”
Sara raised a self-conscious hand to her red curls and offered a weak smile. “Thank you, perhaps I will browse through them.” Don’t draw attention to yourself, girl; vanity is the Devil’s vice.
Mrs. Yardley smiled back and handed her the letters after noting the cost on the Ridgestone page in the account ledger. “It has been some time since you bought something for yourself. We all deserve a little spoiling now and then, Miss Collins.”
“Thank you,” she replied. She made her way over to the ribbons as suggested and fingered the new arrivals. The colors would indeed go well with her hair, but she had not allowed for any extra expenses this afternoon. Louisa had spent much of the evening yesterday discussing their finances, and Sara did not feel that new ribbons for herself would be looked upon favorably.
With a glance back at Mrs. Yardley to see if she was paying mind to Sara, she made her way to the door and slipped out, slipping the letters into her basket. The bright sun caused her to squint momentarily, but Sara did not hesitate to head back the way she had come, toward Ridgestone.
Waving at the greetings of students and parents, Sara left Taft behind her and slowed her pace, enjoying the unusually warm spring day. She took joy in the weekly task of walking to the village to fetch the post and other little necessities required. It was her one time of the week, time to be kept company by her own thoughts and to not concern herself with the trials and tribulations of the Governess Club.
It was precious time to herself and she guarded it as best as she was able.
Today was particularly pleasant and Sara decided to take a longer route across the fields. Climbing over a stile, she swung the basket in her hand and tilted her face up to the sun. The long dry grass teased her ankles, bringing a smile to her face. Coming to a hill, she had to lean into it to keep her balance and she lifted her skirts so she wouldn’t trip on them. She didn’t pause in her walk until she crested the hill when she stopped to catch her breath.
Looking out over the spring scenery, she inhaled deeply, as though she could bring the sunshine into her body and have it warm her from the inside out. She turned her gaze to Ridgestone, still two miles distant in the valley. The boxy building was surrounded by a sea of green, grass and trees carpeting the land. Sara could see the back gardens, Claire’s passion, the vibrant flowers creating sparks of color in the greenery.
Ridgestone had been her home for nearly a year now, a safe place, and one of growth. Her governess position had been relatively simple; two young, biddable girls who primarily wanted to be her friends. Coming here, creating the Governess Club, had been an enlightening experience for her. Instructing a large group of children was vastly different than two, something Sara found outside of her skills. Seeing her struggles, Claire and Louisa had made the decision to have her focus on the youngest children in their school, the four- and five-year-olds who came for half-days only. These students focused on basic reading and manners, primarily. In this, Sara found her mornings combining play with learning, laughter and love.
Bringing herself back to her task, Sara descended the other side of the hill, holding onto her bonnet as gravity sped up her steps. Once again breathless at the bottom, she allowed herself a giddy laugh for behaving like one of her students.
She entered a path that wound through the trees, leading back to Ridgestone. In the shade provided by the canopy, she pulled the letters out of her basket and flipped through them. Most were, as expected, addressed to Claire and Jacob; they were the owners of the estate after all. One was addressed to all of them, from their friend and fellow Governess Club member Bonnie Montgomery, now living at Darrowgate with her husband and their wards. But one in particular excited Sara as it was addressed to her, written in her brother’s hand.
Without a moment’s thought, Sara situated herself at the base of a tree and broke open the seal. His letters were infrequent and she cherished every one, treasuring the link to her sibling. She quickly became engrossed in her brother’s retelling of his seafaring adventures.
Nathan Grant paused at a junction in the path. He had the choice of three directions, including the one he had just come by. He looked back in brief contemplation but did not want to return that way; he had been wandering in this godforsaken maze of shrubbery and trees for the last hour and still had not found the path leading out.
He frowned, examining his two alternatives, as if the force of his glare would cut down the bloody trees and simply show him how to get the hell out of here. He never would have found himself in this sort of situation in London or at Cloverfields, his maternal grandmother’s estate. But foolishly, he had wanted a new place where no one knew him, so he could indulge his recently acquired misanthropy.
Bloody hell, he thought. I don’t have time for this.
Nathan chose a direction and strode down it, ignoring the pain in his left thigh.
I can be honest with you, sister, Sara was reading, her entire body tense. I was shaking in fear. The Barbary pirate was advancing on me, a sword in one hand and a cruel knife in the other. Around me I could hear the yells of my shipmates, fighting their own battles. I knew I was on my own. My sword was drawn, my pistol spent, and I dared not look away from my opponent. Without warning, he let out ferocious yell and—
The clearing of a throat interrupted her reading. Blinking, Sara looked up. Still caught up in her brother’s adventure, it took a moment to realize that it was Mr. Grant looking down at her.
Sara felt the blood drain from her face and the ants materialized in her throat. She scrambled to her feet, ignoring his offered hand. She stood several feet away from him, the letter clutched in her hand, her eyes focused on his perfectly tied cravat.
He was still as unsettlingly handsome as he had been the day before. His face was clean-shaven, accentuating the sharp angles of his jawline. His stance obviously favored his left leg, yet he did not have his cane with him. His glacial blue eyes were piercing.
“Miss Collins,” Mr. Grant greeted with a bow. Sara automatically responded with a curtsey. They both straightened and she noticed he was more than a head taller than her, the top of her head only reaching his chest. Heavens, but he made her feel small, something she was not accustomed to feeling.
When she did not speak, Mr. Grant continued. “A lovely day to be reading letters outside.” He gestured to her brother’s letter in her hand.
Sara could still not respond, the ants running rampant in her throat. Her breathing was unaffected, but speech was beyond her. Anxiety rushed through her veins, tightening her appendages; she could feel the parchment of her brother’s letter crumpling in her hand and she silently prayed the words would not be destroyed beyond reading.
Mr. Grant cleared his throat again and looked down the path. “Is this the way out?”
Sara swallowed, trying to rid her throat of the ants.
He pursed his lips and cocked a brow at her. “You’re not going to make this easy for me, are you?”
Sara blinked at him.
He let out a breath and spoke impatiently. “Right. I was beyond rude when you visited Windent Hall. Accept my apology.”
She stared at him, unsure whether she should be shocked or offended by his blatant insincerity.
Uncertain, Sara nodded.
“Excellent. Now tell me how to get out of here.”
She shook her head. The ants were lessening, but she still could not speak.
His brows lowered and his jaw tightened. “I see. So much for the welcoming nature of the community. Good day to you, Miss Collins.” He tipped his hat and made to move past her.
Oh dear. He thought she was deliberately being unhelpful. Sara rushed forward and stopped him by placing her hand on his arm. The steely muscles beneath his coat bunched and flexed under her fingers. An unexpected thought appeared—this man was capable of protecting her.
Sara stared at where her hand cupped his bicep, her small digits barely able to span it. Glancing up, she saw he too was staring at where she touched him. A heat flared in his eyes, shocking and unexpected. She had the absurd desire to move her hand to his chest to see if those muscles were just as strong, just as hard, just as inspiring.
She dropped her hand as if she were scalded and took a step back.
“What is it?” he asked, his voice low.
Sara swallowed again and put her hand to her throat, tapping it.
He furrowed his brow. “Your throat? Something is the matter with your throat?”
She nodded, smiling apologetically.
“You cannot speak? But you spoke to me yesterday.”
She took a deep breath. Perhaps the ants had receded enough that she could speak again. “I am sorry,” she squeaked out, her voice barely audible.
Mr. Grant had to move his head toward her. “I beg your pardon?”
“I am sorry,” she repeated more loudly, though her voice still retained the squeak.
He looked at her for a long moment. He said, “I will make you a deal. Get me out of this godforsaken trap and I will accept your apology.”
She raised her brows at his language.
He placed a hand over his heart. “I swear, ’pon my honor, I will be pleasant.”
At that, Sara had to suppress a snort. Noticing, Mr. Grant tipped his head to the side and contemplated her. For the first time she saw his mouth curl into an actual smile, both corners turning up and giving a glimpse of straight white teeth. His features softened, making him seem less cold and more approachable. A warmth began to spread through her belly at that smile and she relaxed.
“I suppose I deserved that,” he said ruefully. He shook his head. “You have seen me at my worst. I am normally very charming and endearing.”
Sara smiled at that. “I shall have to take your word for it, sir.”
“You slay me with your doubt,” he replied. He looked down the path. “Now which way to Windent?”
Sara gestured the way she had been originally heading. “We start this way.” She retrieved her basket and put her brother’s letter into it. They began to walk side by side, but not touching. She matched her stride to his although his limp was barely noticeable beside her. She wondered where his cane was. Perhaps it was not necessary at all times.
“Do you travel these paths often?” Mr. Grant broke the silence.
Sara shook her head. “It is not the most direct way to Ridgestone from Taft, but it is such a pleasant day I wished to extend my journey. There are times, however, that I will explore them just on a whim.”
He looked at her in surprise. “You do not fear getting lost?”
She smiled. “It has not happened yet.”
Mr. Grant shook his head. “I must be hopeless, then, to have gotten lost on my first time.”
“Do not be so hard on yourself,” Sara said. “I have been living at Ridgestone for nearly a year and am much more familiar with the paths than you. I had Claire with me the first few times I ventured in here.”
He looked at her questioningly. “Claire? Is she your sister?”
She blushed at her faux pas of mentioning Claire. “Mrs. Knightly. She is a friend and owns Ridgestone along with her husband. He is the gentleman who offered you assistance when your horse was lame last Sunday.”
Recognition dawned on him. “Ah. Yes. I thought you were familiar from more than just yesterday. You live with them?”
They were approaching a fork in the path. Mr. Grant must have chosen the wrong one to follow as the other led to a field directly beside Windent Hall. She turned them down that path. “Take note of the three-limbed tree here,” she pointed out. “It indicates the path to Windent Hall. And yes, I do live with them, along with Miss Hurst, another friend.”
Mr. Grant looked surprised. “Three females and one male?”
“Yes,” Sara nodded. “Mrs. Knightly, Miss Hurst and I became friends when we were all governesses in the same area. We banded together to create our own school.”
His eyebrows rose. “How ambitious.”
Sara fell silent, unsure of how to interpret his tone. Was he sincere or mocking? It was difficult to tell and it flustered her.
After a few steps in silence, he spoke again. “If you are involved in a school, how is it you find yourself free in the afternoon? Are there no pupils today?”
She cleared her throat. “I only teach the youngest children, in the mornings; they are too young to be expected to last the whole day. It leaves my afternoons free for administrative duties and errands.”
“Such as fetching the post,” he said, looking at her basket.
She held it more closely to her, tucking the handle around her elbow. “Yes. I fetch the post every Thursday. I enjoy the walk.”
“Do you often sit under a tree to read your letters?”
Was that actually a teasing tone he used? It seemed foreign coming from him. Butterflies appeared in her stomach and she couldn’t stop a slight blush. She looked down into her basket and nodded to the crumpled letter. “I received a letter from my brother today. Adam serves as a midshipman on the HMS Explorer along the Barbary Coast. His letters can be infrequent and I was eager to read his news.”
“No wonder you were so engrossed. Are you close to him?”
Sara shook her head. “Not particularly. He is several years older than I and was always rebellious. He caused my parents a fair amount of grief. He was always out of the house, doing as he pleased. The Navy has been good for him, though. I look forward to his letters.”
“And your parents? Do you see them often?”
She glanced at him, wondering at his inquisitiveness. Was he genuinely interested or merely making small talk? “No, they both passed away some years ago.”
“Thank you.” Sara pointed out another path, one narrower than the rest. “That path leads along the side of a rock face and up a steep climb, coming full circle close to here. It is safe, but one must be cautious. That large rock that looks like an old man is the marker. I recommend walking it; there is a beautiful view of the countryside and a waterfall at the top.”
“I will keep that in mind. Tell me more about the school. How is the teaching divided? Do you have individual students to focus on, as with governessing, or do you teach according to subject, as in university?”
She was grateful for his continued interest. She had not known how to respond or interpret his earlier comment on their ambition. Sarcasm seemed inherent in this man. “We teach according to subject and age. With the younger children, their education consists primarily of basic literacy, numeracy and etiquette.”
“Ah yes, the foundations of our esteemed society.”
There was the sarcasm again. She risked another glance at him, but quickly averted it.
“You have stopped speaking again. You do that frequently.”
Sara forced herself to speak. “I apologize.” They were nearing the end of the path; the light was increasing and she could hear cows.
Mr. Grant stopped and put a hand on her arm, stopping her as well. The contact was light, but Sara felt his touch vibrate all the way to her bones. Shocked, she pulled away.
He dropped his hand to his side. “You do not need to apologize. It is clear that I keep saying something to cause you distress. If you tell me what it is, I can avoid upsetting you in the future.”
She looked in the direction of the clearing, wondering how to answer him.
Mr. Grant shrugged and gave that sardonic smile of his. “If you don’t say anything, I will simply assume that you are a poor conversationalist.”
Her eyes flew to his and he chuckled. “A reaction. Now tell me what the matter is.”
“I do not know what you mean,” Sara blurted out. Shocked by her audacity, her hand flew up and covered her mouth. Disrespectful girl!
He chuckled again. “That is more like it. Tell me what’s on your mind.”
Sara shook her head, her hand still over her mouth.
He reached and gently pulled her hand away. He kept her hand in his and Sara could feel her skin prickle where he touched her. The prickles swam up over her skin, drawing all of her attention to where his skin met hers.
Mr. Grant shifted until he stood so close that she would have to move to see around him. He held her chin up, forcing her to meet his eyes. The prickles now danced around her chin and she instinctively parted her mouth.
“There is nothing to fear,” he murmured. “It is just you and me and there will be no judgment for speaking your mind. Just tell me what you want.”
Sara stared into his eyes. The ice blue orbs began to warm, giving a soft glow that pulled her in. Looking that deep into his eyes, something welled up in her, a sense of security and assurance. He said there was no judgment and she believed him. No harsh reprimand, no chastisement awaited her.
“I don’t know what you mean,” she whispered. “You say things and I don’t know if you are sincere or mocking me. It is disconcerting. That is why I stopped speaking.”
Mr. Grant raised his eyebrow in question. “Is that so?”
She nodded. “Like when you said it was ambitious of us to open a private school. Do you actually admire us or do you feel we are behaving unnaturally for women and believe we will fail? Others have said as much. And the way you mentioned how I fetch the post and make visits with Mr. Pomeroy. Your tone and inflection made me feel ridiculed for doing such things, even though I enjoy them. I dislike conversations where I have to second-guess everything being said to me.”
Oh my, what a sense of exhilaration to speak her mind! Sara continued. “Mr. Pomeroy said you were cynical and I feel I must agree with him. You are not making it easy to welcome you and your cynicism does not endear you to others.”
Mr. Grant looked at her for a long moment. “Perhaps I am cynical. Perhaps it is for a good reason.” He stepped away from her, dropping his hand from his chin. Her skin felt chilled from the sudden lack of contact. “Perhaps I do not wish to endear myself to anyone.”
“If you wish to live the life of a hermit,” she replied, “then you have come to the wrong place. People in Taft are very open and welcoming, generous with their time and affection.”
“Remember, I have seen their welcoming nature in the form of uninvited guests.”
“To which you reacted most abhorrently.”
“Abhorrent?” He let out a humorous laugh. “Ah, the governess is taking me to task. How novel.”
There was no mistaking his tone now. The cynicism was back in full force, making itself known in his cutting words. Sara swallowed, her confidence fleeing; her reprieve was over. She could see it in his glacial eyes and the downward curl of his mouth.
“You do not know the true meaning of ‘abhorrent,’ Miss Collins,” Mr. Grant continued, his cold tone biting. “I assure you that you have never experienced the sort of twisted souls I have and you likely would not recognize them if you did. These people disguise themselves in well-tailored clothing and proper manners, twittering and giggling and speaking and shouting of bettering the world while selling their allegiances and beliefs for nothing more than a few guineas and a slap on the back. These people, these lying mongrels, are so depraved I doubt even Beelzebub himself would welcome them.”
Mr. Grant had become so vehement that Sara took several steps back. He sneered at her. “Do not think to teach me the meaning of abhorrence. I reek of it and it will take more than a quaint country town to cleanse me. My life as an anchorite is well deserved, for I am so polluted I infect the very nature of what surrounds me.”
It was a morbid fascination that kept Sara’s eyes riveted on his face. As she watched, the loathing in his expression shifted until it was directed at himself; she could identify the very moment his eyes registered the reality of his words and the self-hatred appeared.
With another sneer she knew was not intended for her, he said, “It appears I am still not fit for company. Pray excuse me.” He turned his back on her, marched into the clearing and disappeared into the distance. His limp was more pronounced.
Sara stared at the departing man in such shock she did not notice the ants in her throat until it was too late. Even as the noose closed around her throat, she couldn’t help but think that Mr. Pomeroy had been accurate in stating the man had a wounded soul. She struggled to breathe, stumbling to a tree to lean against for support. In two three four, out two three four.
Oh dear heavens, the poor man is practically begging for help.