Fair as a Star: Sneak Peek II

Mark entered the library at Rivenhall Park, shutting the door behind him. The dark wood-paneled room was unchanged from his father’s time. Bookcases laden with heavy leather-bound volumes still lined the walls, and a rich red-and-gold Aubusson carpet still covered the floor. The faint residue of pipesmoke lingered in the air. Father’s favorite blend. And at the opposite end of the room, in lonely splendor, was a mahogany desk of truly magnificent proportions. Father’s desk.

But not anymore.

Behind it, his head bent over a ledger, sat Mark’s older brother, Henry.

Sir Henry, now.

He looked so much like their father that Mark almost recoiled. But he was no longer a lad. He was a man of thirty. A sensible clergyman who had long since ceased being intimidated by his brother’s granite exterior.

Crossing the room, he came to stand in front of the desk. He saw no utility in mincing words. “I’ve just encountered Miss Burnham.”

Henry’s quill stilled in his hand. He slowly raised his head. His eyes registered no surprise at Mark’s revelation. “Oh?”

“Why didn’t you tell me she was coming home early?”

His brother’s expression was as implacable as his words. “Why do you think?”

Mark inwardly winced. Henry was many things, but he was no fool. “You might have done. I’d have liked to prepare myself for the shock.”

“Was it a shock? You must have known she’d return eventually.” Setting aside his quill. Henry leaned back in his chair. “Oh, do sit down, Mark. I don’t care for you looming over me.”

Mark grudgingly sank into one of the leather-upholstered chairs facing the desk. They were usually occupied by Henry’s subordinates. Those petitioning for his help or—more often—his funds.

“Where is she now?” Henry asked.

“Gone home. I expect she’ll send a note round to you when she gets there.”

“Her mother will, at least. Mrs. Burnham is nothing if not obliging.” Henry rubbed a hand over the side of his face. There were deep lines etched around his mouth and at the corners of his eyes that hadn’t been present a year ago. Evidence of overwork and too many days consumed with grief after news had come of Jack’s death in Bhutan. “They’ll no doubt invite me to dine.”

“Well,” Mark said, “consider yourself warned.”

“I’m obliged to you.” Henry stood, pushing his chair out behind him. “Would you care for a glass of brandy?”

“No, thank you.” It hadn’t escaped Mark that, the moment he sat down, Henry rose. His brother didn’t care much for being loomed over, but he rather enjoyed doing the looming.

“Suit yourself.” Henry went to his drinks table and poured himself a measure from the crystal decanter on the tray. He drank it down in one swallow. “How did she look?”

Exceedingly dear.

“Fashionable,” Mark said.

Henry refilled his glass. “I suppose that’s to be expected after a year in Paris.”

Mark refrained from commenting. It hadn’t been a lie. He had noticed that Beryl appeared to be more fashionably turned out.

But that hadn’t been all he’d noticed.

Her honey-blond hair was streaked golden from the sun, and the bridge of her nose lightly dusted with freckles. She’d been outdoors while she was away. A great deal of the time, if he was to guess. She looked healthy, but…she hadn’t looked entirely well.

There had been a vulnerability in her countenance. A hint of some hidden worry Mark couldn’t quite put his finger on. But he’d recognized it all the same. Indeed, when she’d drawn back from kissing him, her wide blue-green eyes had seemed a bit sad somehow. A bit lost.

It was the same vulnerability he’d glimpsed in her face a year ago, on the day before she’d left Shepton Worthy without saying goodbye.

He’d wanted to reach out to her. To ask her what was wrong. Instead, he’d just stood there, utterly flummoxed by the sensation of her pillow-soft lips brushing his cheek.

She’d never kissed him before, not in all the years he’d known her. Not even so much as a friendly peck.

Which was all this had been.

A kiss any young lady might have bestowed on a future brother-in-law. It didn’t mean anything. He reminded himself of that fact for what felt like the hundredth time.

“Her aunt will have purchased her wedding clothes there,” Henry said, taking another drink of brandy.

“I really have no idea.”

“The subject never came up in any of the letters the two of you exchanged?”

Mark’s gaze narrowed. “You make it sound as though we were in constant correspondence.”

“Weren’t you? I know you wrote to her regularly.”

“I relayed entertaining anecdotes about the village. About my parishioners and their children.” Mark stood. He was in no mood to argue with his brother. “Speaking of which, I’d best get back to them.”

Henry sloshed his brandy in his glass. “You may well be invited to dinner this evening, too.”

“You can rest easy. I’m not likely to accept.” Mark walked to the door. As he reached to open it, a haphazard flower arrangement on a low table caught his eye. It was wildflowers—an entire porcelain vase spilling over with them. He wondered that he hadn’t noticed it before. “Mrs. Guthrie’s tastes have changed since last I visited.”

Rivenhall Park’s rather despotic housekeeper wasn’t known for frivolity. A dignified arrangement of roses was her preferred decoration, and that in the drawing or dining room—never in the library.

Henry cast a brief look at the wildflowers. His mouth twisted into a dry smile. “That’s not Mrs. Guthrie’s doing. Those came from Miss Winnifred. She brought them this morning when she came to go riding.”

Winnifred Burnham was Beryl’s younger sister. She had the dubious distinction of being the village’s most eligible young lady. She was also unrepentantly horse mad. As a girl, she’d been a regular fixture at the Rivenhall Park stables.

“Is she here often?”

“More than usual of late,” Henry said. “I’ve given her leave to exercise that stallion I bought at the sales. She has a way with the brute.”

Mark frowned. Winnifred was a capable enough horsewoman when mounted on a sensible mare or a gelding, but stallions were something else altogether. They could be dangerously unpredictable. “Her mother approves?”

“I don’t believe she knows of it. Thus far, Miss Winnifred has restricted her riding to the Park.”

Mark’s frown deepened. It wasn’t like Henry to be so careless. “You’d better pray no harm comes to the girl.”

“Is that a warning, little brother?” Something dark flickered at the back of Henry’s gaze. “Shall I give you one in return? Or is that particular warning, perhaps, better left unsaid?”

Mark’s expression hardened. He didn’t dignify his brother’s word with a reply. Settling his hat back on his head, he exited the library, shutting the door behind him.

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