John’s eyes lifted to her and he smiled.
She smiled too. “Lord Edward asks us to make ready. Shall we pack some bread and cheese into a napkin and take a picnic?”
She’d not seen John for two years. He was so much taller, older. She had only seen him a few times since the day he’d been taken from her, hardly more than a baby. Blinking back tears, she crossed the room to him.
He stood. “Mama, is something wrong?” The concern in his voice reminded her of his father, all bristling honour and pride.
“Nothing is wrong, John, nothing.” Everything is right now I have you. She lifted his chin and kissed his cheek. He was growing up. One day he’d be a man—a man she feared would not respect her once he knew what she was. Casting the thought aside, she hugged him firmly. She would think of the time they had together and nothing else, she was going to make the most of it, however long it lasted.
The entrance was guarded by two formidable lion statues with the Barrington family crest resting before their paws. The carriage swept through and stopped just inside the gates as Edward leaned forward in his saddle to speak with a man in maroon and gold edged livery. On the other side of the carriage, John twisted to kneel on the seat by the window and pressed his brow and fingers against the frigid glass, his breath forming an area of fog on the translucent pane while he watched the gatekeeper remove his hat and bow. Then, lifting his hand, Edward called the coach back into motion and the man stepped back.
“Mama, may I open the window to see?” At her nod John slid off the seat and crossed the carriage to climb onto her lap, then tugged the window strap to jolt it down. The cold winter air rushed into the small carriage and she slipped her arms about his lean midriff, holding him securely as he leaned out the window.
The carriage rumbled along through a long avenue lined with towering horse-chestnut trees and at a turn in the gravelled drive she saw it snaked down into a valley and back up the other side.
When the coach reached the next brow and crossed over the top, in the distance she saw the first glimpse of Edward’s home, Farnborough, the Earl of Barrington’s country residence, Edward’s family seat. The carriage continued on a downward slope into the valley where his brother’s property stood.
The place was vast, fronted by in the region of two dozen windows or more. At the heart, an ancient Norman keep reached skyward, surrounded by towering turrets. It was flanked by two large wings, built in a gothic style, gray stone, to blend in with the old, although their appearance was more histrionic than historic.
Her feelings of trepidation grew, her eyes never leaving the building as the carriage drew closer. Then they swept beneath an archway and a raised portcullis into a central courtyard. The noise of iron horseshoes ringing on the cobbles filled the air as the carriage and outriders came to a halt. Edward dismounted before a large fountain which splashed in the center of the courtyard.
No wonder she’d heard people say he was at a loss for what to do in London. He’d managed all this on behalf of his brother for years. It was his home. A cold shiver ran across her skin. What if they were not welcome? She’d had days to fret over it and when she’d tried to speak to Edward he’d merely dismissed her concerns. They’d had no opportunity to speak in private. She still had no knowledge of his feelings and feared he was only helping them to fulfil his promise. A gentleman’s word was his honour. Honour. That godforsaken word. Oh, she knew all about that cold-hearted sanctuary of reputation. She didn’t want Edward to help them because he’d made a promise before he’d even known of John. She wanted him to help them because he wanted to. She wanted to know how he felt about her now and what he felt about John.
When Edward opened the carriage door, he smiled and lifted John down. “Welcome to Farnborough,” Edward said, pleasure and pride in every syllable as he set John on his feet.
Then Edward turned to her, while John beamed, his eyes skimming over the buildings about the courtyard, wide with expectation.
“Ellen?” Edward offered his hand to help her onto the step which a man, clothed in the same livery as the gatekeeper, had dropped into place. “We are home.” Edward’s whole demeanour was flooded with pride. But it wasn’t her home.
She accepted his aid and stepped down, aware of her travel-stained clothes and the increasing number of servants filling the small courtyard. She still wore the evening dress she had fled in. Pulling her cloak about her more securely, she found herself facing an approaching servant.
“Davis!” Edward acknowledged, his voice full of affection.
“Lord Edward. The Earl will be pleased you have returned, but I am afraid he is not here. He’s gone to London, my Lord. I had believed his Lordship’s intention was to speak with you. He received an urgent letter from Lord Rupert.”
Ellen felt the servant’s eyes scan her in assessment and saw Edward’s expression darken. “Rupert? When did Robert leave?”
“Two days ago, my Lord.”
“Then it could be a week or more before he returns.
“Davis, I must introduce Mrs Harding and her son, Master John.”
As the servant gave her a slightly austere and judgemental look, Edward added, “They are to be made welcome, they are my guests, Davis. Give Mrs Harding the yellow room with the view of the lake, John may have full use of the nursery floor. I believe our collection of soldiers is still up there.” He cast a smile to John. “Margaret can take him up. And we all require baths and refreshment at once, Davis. You may ask Jill to attend Mrs Harding.” Edward turned to Ellen then, as John tugged her hand, urging her to follow the servant.
“Go with Davis. I’ll see to the horses and men, Ellen. Take John in.”
Meeting his gaze, Ellen felt herself dismissed in the same way he’d dismissed his brother’s servant. She nodded and turned to face the sober, challenging gaze of the man he’d called Davis. She’d encountered this judging look most of her life, but not before her son. She pulled John close, her instinct to flee, but without Edward there was nowhere they could go. She did not even have a farthing to her name. There was nothing else to do but follow the scowling servant.