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THE GIRL IN THE GATEHOUSE
Historical Romance, Inspirational
As the April sun dispersed the morning mist, Captain Matthew Bryant strode across the grounds of Windrush Court, feeling like a man surveying his own land. He wore a new olive frock coat, striped waistcoat, cravat, and beaver top hat. And if the looking glass he’d consulted that morning could be trusted, he appeared every inch the gentleman.
A budding tremble of hope, of eagerness and pride, was growing within him. He could see himself here. Could imagine himself master of a grand estate like this. He wondered what his parents would say to find him living in such a place. What she would say. Would her certain surprise be coupled with admiration, with the acknowledgement that she had known he would succeed all along? Would she join him in exalting over the naysayers of his worth and suitability, her own father chief among them?
Ahead of him, Matthew saw a field of bluebells like a purple-blue sea. How lovely. He had spent so much of his life aboard ships that such sights still awed him.
A woman knelt there among the flowers. With her blue dress, he had almost missed her. Her dark hair was pinned in a thick coil at the back of her head. Her long fair neck curved gracefully as she bent over . . . what? . . . a letter? A book?
So still was she that she looked like a figure in a painting, a landscape of vivid green stems reaching up, her blue frock surrounded by bright bluebells nearly to her waist, her head bowed like the head of a lovely flower.
He stared, moved by the scene. Was she praying? Weeping? He stepped forward and a twig snapped. Her head turned at the interruption, mouth ajar.
Her profile was delicate, feminine—upturned nose, high cheekbones—and somehow familiar. Who was she? Prin-Hallsey had not mentioned a wife or sister.
“I beg your pardon,” he said, feeling sheepish to be caught spying. “I did not intend to trespass on your solitude.” He walked closer with hand extended to help her up, but she ignored it and rose to her feet unaided.
She gave her dress an ineffectual swipe with one hand. In her other, she held a folded letter. Her bearing, her gown, bespoke the lady, though her hands, he noticed, were less than pristine. Her complexion was fair. Her features finely formed. When she looked up at him, her eyes were large, amber brown, and fringed with dark lashes. He had spent so many years on ships filled with men that the sight of a beautiful woman still awed him as well.
Then he recognized her with a start. The girl from the gatehouse, who had assisted him in recapturing his horse. He was embarrassed to recall his ineffectual behavior that night, his display of timidity. But he was also grateful for her help all over again.
“It is you,” he began foolishly. “I almost did not recognize you. Without the cap, I mean, and . . . well, you were dressed so . . . That is, I thought you were . . .”
“A maidservant?” she said easily.
He winced. “Forgive me.”
“There is nothing to forgive. You came upon me in my jam-making attire.” She smiled. “Yet I recognize you out of uniform, Captain Bryant.”
What a charming smile she had. Such perfect teeth. He smiled in return, gratified she had remembered his name.
“And how is your horse?” she asked. “No worse for the experience, I hope?”
“No, he seems fine. Thanks to you.”
“I am glad to hear it.”
“And I am glad to happen upon you, so I might thank you again.” He gave her a deep bow, and she curtsied in return.
“I was happy to help,” she said, all warmth and friendliness. “I have always had a tender spot in my heart for horses.”
“Have you? I own I am still growing accustomed to the creatures.”
Her head tilted to one side. “You did not ride a great deal in your youth?”
“Not at all. I was sent to naval academy as a boy and have spent the greatest portion of my life aboard ships since.”
“Ah.” She nodded her understanding. “May I ask what brings you to Windrush Court? I had not expected to see you again.”
“Then you don’t know. I am letting the place for six months with an eye toward owning it one day.”
Her smile fell. “You, sir? You are the new master?”
Her tone rankled. Did she, like so many others, believe navy men had no right to an estate like this? “I suppose I am. What about that, madam, strikes you as so farfetched?”
An angry flush marred her fair cheeks. “I would not have thought it of you.”
She stammered. “Because I thought you . . . I thought you a . . .”
His anger kindled. “Unworthy? Poor? A nobody?”
“No. I thought you a gentleman.” Her dark eyes flashed. “I see I was wrong.”
She turned and ran headlong across the field, unconcerned for the flowers she was crushing beneath her slippers. Yet, why did he feel as though he were the one who had just crushed her? Had she some designs on Windrush Court herself? Why was she so angry?
Matthew sought out Hugh Prin-Hallsey inside the house and found him shooting a solitary game of billiards.
“The girl in the gatehouse,” Matthew began, still irritated. “Who is she?” He realized he had once again failed to ask her name. What an idiot he was. Especially where women were concerned.
Prin-Hallsey took his shot, then straightened to his full height, cue stick cradled in both hands.
“The lovely Miss Mariah Aubrey. The soon-to-depart tenant of the gatehouse, as I believe I mentioned. Some niece of my late father’s wife, by her first marriage. The woman let Miss Aubrey have the old place for nothing, though she had no business doing so.”
“Had she not some right, as your stepmother?”
Hugh grimaced. “You risk my sword, Captain, saying that. She was no mother to me. She managed to bewitch my father and seduce him into matrimony late in his life. Baleful woman. Never understood what the old man saw to admire in her.”
Matthew was surprised Hugh did not plan to honor the woman’s wishes in regard to her niece. “But she was his wife.”
“Yes, and had her widow’s jointure to prove it.”
Matthew pondered this. “Is there some reason Miss Aubrey would not want me here? We crossed paths a short while ago, and she seemed quite vexed with me for no reason I could fathom.”
Hugh gave him a wry glance. “Told her you were the new master, did you?”
“I may have done. She asked what brought me here, after all.”
Hugh nodded. “I recently gave her notice of increased rent.”
“What has that to do with me?”
“I may have let on it was your doing. Sorry to relegate blame, old boy, but you did say you wanted the gatehouse for a friend, if it could be had. And I didn’t think you would mind the misapprehension. You two are strangers, after all, whereas I cannot abide having a beautiful girl cross with me.”
“But . . . ” Matthew began. “We have met twice now. She did me a good turn at our first meting, and I should like to return the favor. What would it hurt to allow Miss Aubrey to stay as she is? At least until another tenant might be found to pay the higher rent.”
“It might hurt more than you think. Your reputation, for example.”
Hugh eyed him curiously. “What do you know of Mariah Aubrey?”
Matthew shrugged. “Nothing. Only that she has a way with horses and is a well-spoken young woman.”
“Then you are correct; you know nothing.” Hugh drew himself up officiously. “But the letting of the gatehouse is not your concern. I need all the funds I can raise at present. She can pay up, or she can go.”