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Forbidden to Love the Duke(6)

By:Jillian Hunter

Ivy sighed. “For the last time, I didn’t dare stop to find out. He missed capturing me by mere inches. Details might be important to a writer, but a woman running for her life doesn’t care whether the man chasing her has blue eyes or brown.”

Lilac rubbed a smudge of dust from the windowpane. “He had gray eyes, I believe, and a noble face, although it looked not overly pleased when Rue and I slammed the door on it.”

“The jackdaws took off from the chimney as if the house were on fire.” Rosemary was studying Ivy now in concern. She usually needed a good hour after writing to return to the world. “And I haven’t heard Quigley threaten anyone to stay away from the gate in years. How did you outrun the man, Ivy?”

Ivy guided the others away from the window. “I didn’t. The garden slowed his chase. I knew the pitfalls and thorny places. He came up against every one.”

“You shouldn’t have gone outside in view of the road.” Rosemary pulled a foxglove blossom from Ivy’s hair. “I’m almost finished with the story. Can we hold out for three more months?”

Ivy stared through a chink in one of the windows to the back gardens of Fenwick Manor. The front of the house might deceive the unwanted visitor into believing that chaos ruled. But behind the back walls, the land was immaculately maintained by her sisters and Quigley, the gardener, and displayed geometric beds, fruit orchards, and knot parterres that remained true to their original Tudor design.

As did the manor house, for all it was crumbling into decay. Time held its breath within the walls. Few structural changes had been made since the first Earl of Arthur had built the house over three centuries before.

Rue’s voice startled her from her musings. Her sister had climbed the stairs so quietly that Ivy hadn’t heard her approach. “Didn’t you say that most of our bills have been paid?”

“I thought they had. Even so, the roof can’t hold up through another barrage of storms. And I won’t make our only footman clean the flue again and get stuck in the chimney. We have to do something besides hide.”

“But what?” Rue asked. Her hair was blacker than Ivy’s, her nature more secretive than her eldest sister’s intense sensibility.

“We’ll decide after supper,” Ivy said.

“After Rosemary reads her latest chapter,” Lilac added, bending to pick up the foxglove bloom from the bare floor. “These are poisonous, as you know. I wonder we shan’t have a sick puppy on our hands tonight.”

“Or an unwanted visitor,” Ivy thought aloud. She felt vulnerable after that man’s pursuit, caught outside with only herself and Quigley to blame. “To be truthful I don’t care that society believes living in seclusion has turned us into spinsters, or that it has forgotten we even exist. It rarely crosses my mind what others think of us.”

“It seems hard to believe that we were once popular and had our dance cards filled at a masquerade ball in London,” Rosemary said, not truly wistful, either.

“I’ve never been to a ball,” Lilac offered. “I’ve forgotten how to dance. Besides, I was never good at it.”

“You play the virginal beautifully,” Ivy said, smiling at her. “That’s worth more than being able to dance.”

“Except that we sold the virginal last year,” Rue reminded her. “I do miss listening to Lilac’s music before going to bed. One can play an instrument by oneself. You don’t need a partner to accompany you.”

Lilac frowned. “But you need someone to appreciate what you play.”

“And that’s why you have sisters,” Ivy said, hoping a little cheer would counteract their ominous mood.

For the first time in years a persistent stranger had stolen a glimpse into their secret world. Her sisters might not have admitted it aloud, but Ivy knew they must have been feeling as shaken up by the intrusion as she did. Then and there Ivy took a silent oath to do whatever was necessary to keep possession of Fenwick Manor.

Chapter 3

It was no secret to the staff of Ellsworth Park that the duke had returned home to indulge in a liaison. He had written a fortnight earlier to alert his estate manager of his impending arrival. The letter was a mere formality. His servants kept abreast of the master’s affairs as reported in the gossip papers. His housekeeper followed the details of his intimate life with embarrassing pride.

It was almost twilight when his heavy carriage rolled to a stop in the drive. The estate looked as elegant as ever. Yet without his family it stirred in him a sense of loneliness and loss.

Still, he wouldn’t be alone for long. He might not have appreciated the park’s seclusion in the year since he had inherited it and lost his father. But in another week he would spend his days entertaining Elora and allowing her to return the favor at night. He only hoped there were delights in store once she arrived, rather than disappointments.