I’m sitting comfortably at a gilt-trimmed writing table set close to a window in my lovely little bedchamber in Lord and Lady B’s house in the country. I have my laptop before me and I’m writing very happily. Days like this, quiet, peaceful days spent only writing are few and far between and I’m pretty much in heaven.
The window overlooks a corner of the gardens as well as a marvelous stretch of green lawn where Monty, Tessa and Lauren seem to have struck up what looks like a triangular tennis game, sans net. They’re laughing a lot, especially Monty in that wonderfully vigorous manner of his, and occasionally my attention strays. Lauren lobs a nice one way over Monty’s head and crows in triumph, so I’ve got to assume it landed within the invisible bounds. I lean forward to push open the window and call out “Woot woot!”
That’s when I see it.
My heartbeat does an awful stumble and adrenaline kicks into my bloodstream.
The dog is sitting on the lawn not far from the game, but it’s not watching Lord Montague and my sister authoresses. It’s watching me. Like it’s been waiting there for me to notice it.
Which it has, of course.
My stomach goes zingy. I know why this dog is here.
And I am abruptly thrown into panic.
Don’t get me wrong. I adore dogs. Really a lot. And I adore this one especially a lot. He’s scruffy, no particular color to speak of, and limps along on three legs. But he has the wisest, kindest black eyes of any creature alive and he knows a good man when he meets one. (A very, very good man, in this case, even though that man has no idea he’s good.)
There’s only one reason this dog could possibly be here staring up at my window.
No. It’s too soon! We’ve only been here a month or so, haven’t we?
I click the date icon on my laptop. Holy cow! It’s September 3 already? How did that happen? Where did our lovely post-season sojourn in the country go?
But that’s not important, because now we’ve got to get back to town!
I snap shut my laptop, stuff it into my briefcase, and leap out of the chair. Dashing to the garderobe while grabbing my suitcase from a corner I shout out my open door.
“Sarah! Holy cow, holy cow, holy cow.” I stuff gowns and pelisses and intimate what-have-you’s into my bag. “Where is she? Her room’s just down the hall. Where is she?” I slam the suitcase closed. “Holycowholycowholycow. Saaarrrrraaaaahhhhhhh!!!”
“What?!” Sarah swings into the doorway, eyes wide. “Is the house on fire?!”
“No! Where’s Lady B?”
“Last I saw her she was scolding Monty about painting moustaches on that Gainsborough portrait of him as a child. But actually I think it may have been Miranda who did that. The moustaches had a German flair and—”
“Never mind! I’ll find her!” I shove the suitcase at her. “Can you please oh pretty please tell the coachman to get the traveling chaise ready and Lady B’s maid to pack her necessary things. I’ve got to get her back to town. Now!”
“What? Yes, but Kath—”
But I’m gone, racing down the hall, snatching open doors, swiftly scanning each room as I run. The library door is already open and I catch the Moustache Bandit deep in a comfy chair with her nose in a book.
“Miranda, have you seen Lady B?”
“Not since breakfast. She was feeding Albert steak and kippers from her own plate and I nearly had to leave the—”
Her words fade behind me as I rush along yet another corridor. This house is enormous. I’ll never find her!
I try more rooms. No Lady B! One door handle won’t budge. I try again but it’s locked fast. From behind it I hear muffled laughter and rustling and quite possibly the squeak of a bedframe. Aha! The newlyweds.
“Kate!” I shout indelicately through the panel. “Have you seen Lady B?” But all I get in response is more muffled sounds. So I head off up the corridor anew. I’m pretty sure Kate and her new hubby haven’t seen anybody for days anyway.
I’m nearly out of rooms, though, and still no sign of Lady B! Rushing down I bump headlong into Sabrina at the foot of the stairs.
“Whoa. What’s the rush, Katharine?”
“I’ve got to find Lady B! Have you seen her?”
“Earlier this morning. She was heading outside with a basket, a pair of clipping sheers and a fabulously broad-brimmed straw hat. Who would have taken her for a lady gardener?”
“Thanks!” I turn away.
“By the way, I don’t suppose you know if the housekeeper might have some nifty trick for removing oil paint from muslin, do you?” She’s dabbing at a streak of brownish-black paint on her skirt and she’s got this thoroughly innocent I-haven’t-an-idea-as-to-how-paint-the-color-of-Monty’s-whiskers-got-on-my-skirt look in her eyes and I’m now thinking Miranda is totally innocent. Wait. I thought Sabrina was an art lover? But there’s no time for aesthetic ponderings now.
“Sorry, no. Gotta go!” I run out into the garden. Across the lawn Lauren seems to be chasing Monty with her tennis racket in circles around Tessa. I imagine the game is over?
I pick up speed on the path to the flower garden, wishing I were wearing my running shoes instead of these silly slippers (however totally pretty they are: yellow silk with red embroidered roses over the toes), and see Galen on the path to the right that leads off into the woods. She seems so peaceful as she strolls along, I hate to bother her.
“Gaelen!!! Have you seen Lady B out here?”
She looks at me like I’m crazy. I probably am, at least compared to Zen Master Foley. She points and I blow her a kiss then turn in that direction, swearing I’ll take up yoga or something meditational again. Just as soon as I—
There she is! A pretty little pathway lined with rose bushes stretches toward the lake and Lady B, gowned in the most wonderful concoction of lime and violet, is wearing peacock colored gardening gloves and clipping fall-blooming roses. A footman beside her is holding a flat basket and she’s layering the stems on it.
I hurl myself toward her and run into a bush.
“Miss Ashe, do show respect. Lord B’s great-grandmama planted these roses.”
“Oh, gosh. I’m sorry!” I pick a thorn out of my hip. “But, I’ve been looking all over for you. I didn’t realize it was today until a few minutes ago but now I’ve packed and Sarah’s called the carriage for us and—” I’m breathless and actually a little giddy now that I’ve found her. “That is— It’s September!”
Lady B’s gimlet eye studies me. “I daresay.”
“But you see we must get back to town! Without delay! Today!”
“Today, as you may witness, Miss Ashe, I am gardening.”
“I can see that!” I add in a mumble, “And frankly it comes as a bit of a surprise . . .”
I catch the footman grinning. Despite my panic I return his grin. Then I look at him a bit more closely. Good heavens, he’s handsome! Black-haired and dark-eyed with a sort of foreign, Mediterranean look about his really, really nice mouth and . . .
Wait. Just. One. Minute. This footman is way too familiar. But it can’t possibly be him. I mean, I haven’t even started writing his book. He can’t just—
I snap my attention back to the present and to another handsome, black-haired hero (who would, however, never disguise himself as a footman) and his book that comes out in three weeks which is why I’m here right now. Not nearly enough time! Ack!
“Listen, Lady B, you’ve got to get back to town now.” I quaver a bit beneath her stare. “Okay, at latest by the end of the week. We’ve got to write invitations and get everything ready, I tell you! It’s got to be a magnificent event. The event of the month, in fact!”
“My dear gel, do consider your delicate constitution.”
Delicate? I nearly snort. But Lady B folds her hands atop each other in an attitude of gentle patience now that I can’t help but appreciate at this moment. I was already panicking, and it isn’t every day I see a hero I haven’t even started writing yet disguised as a footman in Lady B’s garden. But Lady B really is a kind-hearted person, which is why I did the thing I did in How a Lady Weds a Rogue that has me panicking right now.
I take a deep breath. “We really haven’t much time, my lady.”
“We haven’t time for what, Miss Ashe?”
“To plan a ball. A very particular ball.”
“Dear gel, no one will be in town now to attend a ball. The idea is preposterous.”
“I know! The ball actually happens later in the fall when I assure you everybody’s in town, especially this year. But the book in which the ball happens comes out in three weeks and we’ve got to have a ball that day.”
She waves dismissively. “You authoresses and your insatiable need to celebrate book releases!” She sets her clippers to the stem of a giant pink rose.
Clearly she doesn’t understand. But she must hold that ball so it can happen in my book! It’s crucial. Why, without that ball, Diantha will think that Wyn— Oh! It’s too awful to even imagine!
How on earth am I going to get Lady B to rush to town now in time to throw a ball in three weeks? I’ll try anything you can think of!