Laurel Ames

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“You would be doing me a favor. What is your hotel? I shall call for you at ten.”

“Greeves Hotel, but I...”

“That is no more than a mile from here. What a happy coincidence.”

“But I do not know what Stanley, my brother, may have planned.”

“I shall bring horses anyway. At least you and I may ride.”

“Bennet,” his mother admonished. “With no chaperon?”

“With a groom, of course,” Bennet added.

“I should be delighted to ride,” Rose said for no other reason than to see Edith Varner’s expression turn sour again.

Bennet looked thoughtful for a moment. “You know the season is just starting, Miss Wall. I would encourage your party to spend a month with us at least to get a proper taste of London before venturing off to foreign parts. Why, you can stay at Varner House.”

This offer brought such sharp gasps from Edith and Harriet that Rose hastened to say, “We simply cannot impose in such a way. It will not be worth the bother of removing from our hotel to here, for I am quite sure Stanley has secured passage for us by now.”

“Oh, I shall speak to him. He should leave that up to me. If you want decent accommodations I will get you staterooms on one of my ships.”

And so it went until the prescribed half hour was up. Then Rose asked if the butler could call a hack for her. Bennet immediately sent round for the carriage and insisted on delivering her to Greeves Hotel himself, giving her a running account about all the buildings they passed as they made their way down Oxford Street.

Rose was careful not to mention a liking for bonbons or diamonds, for she feared Bennet would simply stop the carriage to hop out and purchase some. He was a strange man, not at all what one would expect of a London smart. Rose decided he was some sort of cit, with a family aspiring to society. She could almost feel sorry for Edith and Harriet. Almost, but not quite, for she had no doubt that if Bennet had not dragged her into the house, both mother and daughter would have refused to acknowledge her. What of that? She had been snubbed before and was quite used to it. She rather thought she had grown a thick enough skin to carry her through any situation.

Rose had thought Greeves Hotel a rather grand structure with all its rows of windows and wrought-iron railings, until she had seen Varner House. But Bennet had given specific directions to his coachman, so Greeves could not be too pedestrian. Though why she would care what Bennet Varner thought was beyond her.

“At ten tomorrow,” he said, kissing her gloved hand as he helped her down from the open carriage. “I shall hope to meet your brother and his wife.” He was gone then in a flurry of orders to his driver and a spin of carriage wheels. Rose stared after him as she walked up the steps and through the double doors into the lobby. They were on the third floor and the long climb gave Rose time to consider just what Bennet Varner’s game was. Could he be smitten with her? She knew she was pretty, but she did not think about it much since she knew she would never marry. Bennet might be boyish, amusing and sweet in the middle of a crisp February afternoon, but what was he like when drunk? That was what mattered. She shrugged off such thoughts and went to unpack her riding habit and shake out the wrinkles from the dark green velvet. At least she could look forward to a ride the next day.

“Sir, just three more,” the spectacled young man said as he deftly slid documents under the poised pen of Ben-net Varner. Any possible boyishness was wiped from Varner’s face as he perused the papers with a knit brow. He focused his gaze on the contracts and tried to put out of his mind the surprised green eyes of Miss Gwen Rose Wall as he had held her on the steps of his house. Her eyes were more of a blue-green, he decided, picturing them in his mind and causing his secretary to clear his throat to get his attention. Bennet signed a document without reading it at all. That look she had, like a startled doe, her russet hair brushing her shoulders, her pert nose, those eyebrows drawn in concern and those luscious lips...

“Sir? Sir? Are you unwell?”

“Fine, Walters, I’m fine.” Bennet cleared his throat. “Is the Celestine still in port?”

“Yes, due to sail tomorrow.”

“Her departure will be delayed,” Bennet said absently.

“Some special cargo you have engaged?”

“No. She needs her...her mainmast replaced.”

“Her mainmast? It’s the first I have heard of it. I would have thought Captain Cooley—”

“He doesn’t know it yet,” Bennet said firmly.

“But, sir.”

“I feel quite strongly that the mainmast is about to go and I want it replaced. I’m sure you can handle all the necessary arrangements.” The piercing look Bennet shot at Walters sent him scurrying from the room, leaving Bennet to get back to a contemplation of Rose. He must stop her from taking ship for Europe by whatever means he could.

Through the half-open door he watched Walters dispatch a messenger to inform Captain Cooley of his fate, then draft an order for the new mast. Probably they could find one in London, but Bennet would stubbornly insist on his course of action even if Walters had to send to the Highlands for a tree. He meant to delay the Celestine, and with good reason.

Bennet pushed aside the dull paperwork on his desk and thought once again of those blue-green eyes and that burnished hair like fine silk. Resignedly he put on his hat and greatcoat and walked through his secretary’s office without a word, leaving Walters to rehearse in his own mind the Banbury story he would feed to Captain Cooley when the man came storming up from the docks.

“I don’t care if we are distantly related,” Stanley said as his long strides carried him down the hotel stairs the next morning. “You cannot just go off riding alone with a perfect stranger.”

Rose looked up to her brother, a serious young man with brown hair and sincere blue eyes. “I am not going alone. My groom is coming,” she said, glancing at the slight youth who followed silently in their wake.

“Martin is just a boy. What sort of protection would he be?”

“All the protection I need. He is...” Rose’s protest trailed off at a warning look from Martin’s sharp brown eyes.

The boy moved around the brother and sister, holding the door open. The street in front of Greeves Hotel seemed to be full of riding horses. Bennet dismounted from a fidgeting black brute and tossed his reins carelessly to his groom, an older man who already seemed to have his hands full.

“I brought enough hacks so we could all ride, or you can have your pick of horses.”

Rose introduced the two men, embarrassed by her brother’s stuffiness. Bennet seemed not to notice he was being sized up by Stanley, and pointed out the most dangerous-looking of his beasts as a little fresh if Wall had a notion for a brisk gallop. Rose did not choose the dainty mare that would have been a good mount for Alice, had she the slightest interest in riding, but the strong-boned gelding with the white blaze, who met her gaze with interest. Martin replaced Bennet’s groom as escort and poor Stilton had to lead the mare back to Varner House.

Conversation was brief and confined solely to the points of the horses as they made their way through the noisy streets to Hyde Park. When they reached this landmark Rose knew she must be smiling foolishly as the full expanse of the park broke upon her gaze. “I had not thought there could be so much grass in all of London,” she said to Bennet with delight.

“Oh, the city isn’t all cobbles and paving stones.”

Bennet let Rose set the pace and try out Gallant’s long strides. Rose smiled at Stanley, who cantered at her side on Victor, and he grinned back. The only time they were in perfect accord was when they were on horseback, for they did both love to ride.

Rose glanced back at Bennet and Martin who seemed to have fallen into conversation. Why this should worry her was beyond her. Martin had far more discretion than she. But there was something so disarming about Bennet Varner. His friendliness, she supposed. She would have to be careful.

As Stanley urged Victor into a gallop, Rose fell back slightly, sacrificing a faster run to talk to Bennet. “You keep a fine stable, sir.”

“Call me Bennet I know it’s unfashionable, but everyone does.”

“Who usually exercises your horses?” Rose asked, matching Gallant’s steady trot to the black’s capricious jogging and head tossing as best she could.

“I do, or the grooms. A bit of town training is good for the young ones. Settle down, Chaos,” Bennet said firmly and the black rolled a wary eye at him.

“You train your own horses, then?”

“As much as I can manage. Business keeps me in town a good deal, so I bring my young favorites with me. Your brother is a bruising rider.”

“It is the one thing he does really well. I shall have no fear in placing the breeding stock at Wall into his hands.”

“I take it that task fell to you before?”

“Before he came of age Stanley was at school the better part of the time. Now...”

“Are you meaning to move to your house in Bristol with your mother?”

“I had hoped to stay at Wall and help him, but he does not want my help. And I am certainly no comfort to Alice. I suppose it will have to be Bristol after all.”
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