As Theresa Weller stepped down from the coach, Amelia gave her a warm hug and a kiss on the cheek. “I need to speak with you,” her cousin whispered, then released her to greet Tess’s brother Michael.
Amelia had never been a great gossip, but her tone was certainly conspiratorial. Her interest peaked, Theresa made her way through the greetings of her cousin’s husband Stephen, Lord Gardner, and his delightful younger sister, Violet. No other guests seemed to be in attendance.
They went into the morning room just off the foyer rather than upstairs to the drawing room, but since they were all family now, she supposed there was no reason for formality. Before she could take a seat, Amelia grabbed her by the arm and hauled her back toward the hallway. “Theresa and I will be back in a moment,” her cousin said.
“Whatever are you up to?” Theresa asked as they continued down the hallway toward the back of the house.
“Nothing. I just wanted to chat with you in private.”
With a grin, Theresa followed Amelia into her husband’s office. “Grandmama Agnes is after another cat,” she said conversationally. “A black one this time. That’s why she begged off dinner tonight; she thinks Lady Selgrave knows the location of a ‘prime litter’, as she put it.”
“Good Lord. Black cats? She’s not tinkering with witchcraft now, is she?"
“That hadn’t occurred to me.” Laughing, Theresa sank into one of the guest chairs in the small room. “She says it’s because she has all the other colors, but you never know.”
“Well, keep an eye on things. She’s your responsibility now that I’m married.” Amelia settled into the opposite chair. “I met Stephen’s brother this morning.”
“Did you?” It seemed an odd topic for a secret conversation. “What was he like?”
“Not at all what I expected. I told you he was wounded, didn’t I?”
“Yes. And I already told Michael to behave himself tonight. So don’t worry; we will be calm and compassionate.”
“Very calm, I hope.”
Theresa looked again at Amelia. They’d been raised together since Amelia’s mother had died at age eight and her own parents when she’d been ten, more like sisters than cousins. And something – whether it was Colonel James or something else – was clearly troubling her cousin. “I’m very good at conversation,” she said aloud. “And at being charming. You know I won’t leave you to chat with a soldier unassisted.”
Finally Amelia smiled. “I know. And thank you. On our first meeting, he seemed rather fierce.” Amelia stood, offering a hand to Theresa. “Oh, and Stephen’s purchased me a horse,” she continued, returning to the hallway. “Can you believe it? Me, with a horse.”
“I’m certain he chose a gentle animal for y...”
As they looked toward the foyer, Theresa’s voice trailed off. At first glance she thought that Stephen had come looking for them, but almost immediately she realized that the man standing there was not Lord Gardner. For one thing he was taller by a good three or four inches. And the viscount’s brown hair was short and orderly, not the collar-brushing uneven mess of rich mahogany that belonged to this man.
And then there were the eyes. Stephen’s were kind and brown, crinkling at the edges with humor. Not whiskey-colored and gazing straight through her as though she’d already been catalogued and dismissed. She cleared her throat. “Hello.”
He didn’t move. A moment later Amelia stepped between them. “Oh, good. You’ve come,” she said warmly, though she didn’t approach him. “Tess, this is Colonel Bartholomew James. Tolly, my cousin, Theresa Weller.”
“You look like your cousin,” he informed her in a low voice.
Theresa blinked. “Do you think so? Leelee’s hair is so much prettier than mine.”
With a chuckle, Amelia gestured them both to the morning room. “Don’t expect me to disagree with that. We’re all in h–“”I like your hair,” the colonel interrupted. “It reminds me of sunshine.” He glanced at Amelia, and then his gaze caught Theresa’s again. “Where is dinner being served?” he asked.
“Oh, we decided to eat in the breakfast room, so you wouldn’t have to climb the stairs.”
The gaze left Theresa again, and she blinked, feeling almost as though she’d been dragged forward against her will. Or not against her will, rather. His gaze, his bearing – they spoke of raw, barely-contained power. Mesmerizing.
”I’ll wait there, then.” Not until he turned away did she realize that he held a cane in one hand and that he had a terrible limp. Moving further into the shadows, he disappeared through the neighboring doorway.
Realizing she’d been holding her breath, Theresa exhaled sharply. “That is your brother-in-law?” she whispered.
“Yes,” Amelia whispered back. “Much less like Stephen than I ever expected.”
“He’s very...intense.” But it was more than that. In the moments she’d gazed at him, it seemed as though everything not absolutely necessary for him to be alive had been done away with. She nearly felt that she’d seen straight through to his soul. It had been a very dark place.
“Don’t be afraid of him, Tess. Come along,” her cousin said, taking her arm. “I’ll tell Stephen that he’s arrived.”
She shook herself. “I’m not afraid of him. He merely wasn’t what I expected, either.” Not at all.
His brother and sister were charming and chatty and amiable. Colonel James, however, seemed their exact opposite in every way. She shook herself. It wasn’t as though a wild beast had been let loose in London. It was merely that he was...outside of her usual experience. Far outside. Theresa glanced over her shoulder in the direction of the breakfast room doorway. Outside was rather more exciting than she’d expected.
“He’s here?” Lord Gardner said, standing as she and Amelia walked back into the room.
“Yes. He went to sit in the breakfast room.”
The viscount gave a brief frown. “I suppose I should apologize in advance for Tolly,” he said in a low voice. “He’s had a rough go of it.”
Michael patted him on the shoulder. “No need for that, Stephen,” he said warmly. “No one could expect your brother to dance a jig after his unit was massacred.”
He couldn’t dance a jig, regardless, from the look of that cane. Theresa kept silent, only nodding as they all decided to join the colonel in the breakfast room. It seemed a shame about his leg and his fearsome demeanor, because the more she considered it, he was actually quite handsome in a dangerous sort of way. But he needn’t worry about his welcome; he was a wounded hero, and there were oh, so many rules about how one addressed a hero. Luckily, she knew them all.
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