Saving him from solitude, no matter how hard he protests…
Seeking shelter in a storm, Lady Iris Springfeld arrives at the doorstep of Theo Crighton, the grumpy Earl of Greystone. Discovering he has shut himself away since the fire that took his eyesight, Iris uses her sunny optimism to counter his dourness. Theo is the first man to appreciate her for herself, not her looks or social connections. Now can she be the one to bring him back to life?
Lady Iris Springfeld was an enigma. Everywhere she went, the whispers exchanged behind gloved hands and fans were always the same. Why wasn’t she married? After all, she possessed the necessary qualities a man looked for in a wife. She was beautiful, graceful, sweet-natured and was known to come with a sizeable marriage settlement.
During her first Season, when she turned down several proposals, no one thought anything was amiss, as an attractive daughter of an earl could have her pick. She must be waiting for a better offer, everyone assumed. By the end of her second Season, with still no marriage prospects, a few eyebrows were raised, a few questions were asked, but most expected a marriage announcement to happen some time soon. But now that she had reached the advanced age of twenty-three, in the middle of her fifth Season, and still no ring on her finger, Society ladies were avidly discussing the situation.
Something must be wrong with Iris Springfeld.
What the gossips didn’t know was that Iris harboured a closely guarded secret, one she had only shared with her two sisters, Daisy and Hazel. Unlike most members of the British aristocracy, Iris Springfeld was determined to marry for love. Until she met a man she truly loved, one she knew for certain loved her for who she really was, not her pretty face and not her social status, she would remain single.
And that man most certainly would not be Lord Pratley. Iris shuddered and pulled her jacket more tightly around her arms to try and protect herself from the inclement weather. Lord Pratley had been taking full advantage of Iris’s presence at Lady Walberton’s house party to pursue her relentlessly, so relentlessly he had driven her to take the dramatic action of feigning a headache and telling her mother she needed an early night.
She didn’t like lying to her mother, but what choice did she have? It was the only sensible course of action she could take under the circumstances. She was sure if Lord Pratley had given her one more compliment she would have forgotten every lesson that had been drummed into her on correct etiquette and how a young lady must conduct herself in Society, and would have given him what for.
Iris wiped away the raindrop dripping from her nose. If Lord Pratley could see her now, she doubted if he would be complimenting her on her beauty. Not when that thick blonde hair, which he admired so much, was no longer piled on top of her head in a carefully structured coiffure but hanging in a bedraggled mess down her back. He most certainly would not be describing her now limp locks as like spun gold or silken sunlight. As for her eyes, the ones he had said were as blue as cornflowers, and designed to capture a man’s heart, they were now hardly visible as she squinted through the increasingly heavy rain.
And it would be stretching the truth to say she was graceful and elegant, certainly not in her present circumstances. With her fashionable blue hat flopping around her face like a damp rag, her pale blue skirt now splattered with mud and her boots full of water, she looked more like a tramp than a fashionable young lady. She giggled to herself, wishing he could see how she looked. On second thoughts, she was sure he would still be able to think of some fawning comment to make, even about this state of dishevelment.
Her giggle turned to a grimace as wet mud flowed over the top of her ankle boots. She looked down to discover she was standing in the middle of a puddle, and her once cream silk boots were now a dirty brown. Extracting herself from the sucking mud, she tried not to think about the damage she was doing. Her lady’s maid was not going to be happy when she finally returned home and all this bedraggled clothing had to be washed and mended.
Perhaps it wasn’t the most sensible thing to do—go for a muddy walk in clothing designed for spending a comfortable evening in a warm drawing room and light footwear that had never been expected to withstand the rigours of country paths.
Claiming to have a headache so she could retire to her room had seemed like a good idea at the time. As had her plan to quickly escape from the house so she could have a quiet walk. All she had wanted was to enjoy the sunset and a few moments’ peace away from Lord Pratley’s flattery. How was she supposed to know that the weather in Cornwall could change so quickly?
If Iris were superstitious, she would see this drenching as the price she had to pay for telling her mother a white lie. Could a small white lie really cause the gods to make the wind howl, the rain to pelt down and to turn what had previously been a cloudy but otherwise pleasant early evening into a raging tempest just to punish Iris for telling lies?
As if the gods were listening in on her thoughts, the rain fell harder. She pulled her sodden hat more tightly down onto her head. ‘All right, all right,’ she said to the all-powerful gods. ‘You’ve proved your point. I shouldn’t have lied to Mother.’
And to make matters worse, it appeared she was now completely lost. She paused in her trudging along the path to look around. All these fields looked exactly the same, so how was she expected to get her bearings? And she was sure she had passed that barn already. Or did all barns in the Cornish countryside look identical?
What was becoming increasingly obvious was she had no idea how to get home and she needed help. While getting a thorough drenching was perhaps preferrable to an evening in Lord Pratley’s company, it was starting to get dark, and even his company would be better than being stuck out in the countryside in the middle of the night during a storm.
She looked ahead, turned and looked behind, and pulled her jacket more tightly around her shoulders. Either direction could be the way back to the Walbertons’ estate, and either way could also take her further from her destination. There was only one thing for it. She hadn’t passed a single soul on the path since the rain started, so there was unlikely to be anyone from whom she could get directions. Apparently, the sensible people of Cornwall did not go out walking in storms, so she was going to have to seek help at the very next house she came to.
It was unacceptable behaviour for a young lady to approach an unknown house, uninvited and alone, but what choice did she have? Staying out in this weather all night long was the only other option, and that was no option at all. Surely the rules of etiquette could be abandoned under these conditions.
She took another look behind her, flicked up her jacket collar and made a decision. There was no point retracing her steps. It was better to just keep walking and stop at the very next house she came to, and if no houses appeared before it got dark, she would shelter in one of those identical barns.
At least it was an adventure, she tried to console herself as she walked, or, more accurately, squelched along the muddy track, but it was an adventure she would like to come to an end, sooner rather than later.
She turned the corner, looked in every direction but still saw no houses.
‘All right,’ she called out to anyone who might be listening, including the weather gods. ‘I’ve been suitably punished for lying to my mother.’ She placed her hand on her heart. ‘I solemnly swear that I will never lie to my mother again. If you return me safely to Lady Walberton’s house, I will never, ever misbehave again. I will conduct myself in an exemplary manner throughout the rest of the house party. I will smile politely, laugh at the men’s jokes, listen to the women’s gossip and even join in with my own titbits of information. And I will never tell a lie, never, ever again.’
She waited for the rain to stop falling, the wind to settle down, and a sign to appear pointing her in the direction of the Walbertons’. None of these things happened, so she continued trudging along the path, muttering her annoyance at herself.
Just as she was starting to think that Cornwall was an uninhabited part of the British Isles a large house appeared in the distance. Looking up at it, while holding her hat on her head so it wouldn’t be whipped away by the wind, she said a silent thank-you.
Trying to avoid the worst of the mud, she walked towards the house, then stopped at the start of the long driveway.
‘Please be home, and please be kind,’ she muttered under her breath as she took in the rough stone exterior. Crenellated battlements ran along the top edge of the building and round turrets stood proud and tall at the four corners, showing that it had once been a castle before being converted to a manor house. It was a somewhat forbidding exterior, one originally designed to repel intruders.
But this was not the Middle Ages, she reminded herself as she traipsed up the driveway. It was the eighteen-nineties, not the fourteen-nineties. It was a time of steam trains, electric streetlights, even underground railways—certainly not the Dark Ages, when a man’s home really had been his castle and he had defended it with all the might at his disposal. She paused in her walking and looked up at the building. No, this was not the Middle Ages, a time when young maidens could be held captive in turrets.
She gulped down her trepidation. Now was not the time to get fanciful and be intimidated by the look of a house. On a sunny day it probably looked welcoming and friendly. It was surely just the storm that was making it look like something from one of those gothic novels she so loved to read.
And what choice did she have? She could hardly wait until a friendly cottage appeared with roses round the door and a welcoming mat at the doorstep. No, this intimidating castle would have to suffice.
She approached the house and scanned the windows for lights but found none. Did that mean no one was home? Hopefully, that was not the case. The rain was now falling even more heavily, and the wind was getting stronger. The storm was giving no impression of being about to settle down at all soon and the last thing she wanted was to continue wandering aimlessly around the countryside.
At least the doorway was covered. Finally, she could shelter from the rain. She took off her rather useless blue hat and wrung out the water. The hat was the height of fashion, with its ostrich feathers, lace and bows, but it had been useless at protecting her from the elements and now looked rather sad and pathetic. She brushed down her skirt, trying to remove some of the mud from the bottom, and did her best to straighten her hair.
If her mother could see her now, she would be horrified. Not only was Iris doing something almost unforgivable in approaching a stranger’s door unaccompanied, but she was doing it while looking like a complete fright. Escaping from the party really had been a mistake. One that must never be repeated, she reminded herself. She raised her eyes skyward, hoping the gods were still listening to her remorseful thoughts and would take further pity on this poor, drenched creature and ensure that the owners of the house gave her a warm welcome.
She took hold of the brass ring in the mouth of a rather stern-looking lion, and pounded on the solid black wooden door, praying it would be heard above the sound of the storm.
Then she waited. And waited.
Please, please, someone be at home.
She pounded again, harder, with more desperation. Was she going to have to spend the night sheltered in this doorway like a beggar?
Bolts scraped open. Locks clanked as keys were turned. Iris was tempted to run from the ominous sound, then covered her mouth to suppress a nervous giggle. What was she expecting? That the Frankenstein monster was living in Cornwall and was about to attack her? That a ghostly apparition was going to appear before her?
She really did have to stop reading those gothic novels.
The door opened and a rather pleasant-looking, smartly dressed butler peered around the half-open door, the stub of a candle flickering in his pewter candle holder.
‘Good evening,’ she said in her friendliest voice, as if appearing on someone’s doorstep uninvited, in the middle of a storm, looking like a drowned rat, was a perfectly normal thing for a young lady to do. ‘Would you please inform the lady of the house that Lady Iris Springfeld would like to visit?’
The butler continued to stare at her, but his look was bewildered rather than threatening.
‘I’m afraid I’m lost,’ she said, this time hoping to elicit his pity, ‘and, as you can see, rather wet. Would you please tell the lady of the house that I am in need of some assistance?’
The butler stood back to let her in. ‘There is no lady of the house, but I will let the master know of your situation. Please come in.’
Iris entered the home, which was in near darkness, apart from the scant light coming from the butler’s candle and a few candles burning in sconces on the wall. It really was starting to appear as if she had stepped back in time. Or was it simply that the master was a miser who did not want to waste money on keeping his home well lit?
‘Please wait here,’ the butler said and disappeared up the dark hallway.
Iris placed her sodden hat back on her head and tried to straighten up her clothing, then looked down at her muddy boots, which were leaving damp footprints on the oriental rug. She quickly stepped off it and onto the stone tiles. Her eyes adjusted to the dim light and the hallway came into view. This part of the house appeared to be modern, with a large domed window that would let in light during the day, elegant marble pillars, and an expansive divided staircase at the end of the hallway. She looked up at the walls, lined with large portraits glaring down at her through the gloom.
‘His Lordship will see you now.’
Iris emitted a small yelp. It was the butler’s voice she had heard, not one of the painted ancestors coming to life. To cover her embarrassment she gave a small, nervous laugh.
‘Please follow me to the drawing room,’ he said, politely ignoring her rather peculiar behaviour.
‘Thank you,’ she replied, pretending that neither the yelp nor the laugh had actually happened.
The drawing-room door creaked loudly as the butler opened it. Was this house deliberately trying to act as if it was the setting for a horror novel? Was the master going to be a hobgoblin, or some depraved being from the underworld? Right now, she was so desperate for shelter she’d take her chances with a hobgoblin, provided it meant she could get out of the rain.
She entered the room, and the master stood up while the Irish wolfhound lying at his feet raised its head and looked in Iris’s direction.
No, definitely not a hobgoblin. Unless hobgoblins were over six feet tall, broad of shoulder, long of leg and wore dark grey tailored suits.
‘Good evening,’ she said in her sunniest voice as she bobbed a small curtsy. ‘I’m Lady Iris Springfeld. I was caught out in the storm and got rather wet in all that rain.’ She pulled a mock frown and gestured to her wet skirt.
Then she waited for him to say something reassuring. No response came.
‘I’m afraid I also got rather muddy.’ She looked down at the foot of her gown, then sent him another small, apologetic frown. ‘I’m sorry about that.’
‘Come closer to the fire,’ the man said.
His voice wasn’t exactly friendly, but nor was it the voice of a diabolic, depraved creature from the underworld. Not that she actually knew what diabolic, depraved creatures sounded like, but she was sure they would not have deep, masculine voices that were rather pleasant to listen to.
‘Thank you.’ She approached the fire, which was providing the only light in the room, and relished its warmth, while trying to ignore the way her clothing was starting to steam slightly.
She looked around the large yet sparsely furnished drawing room. It was obvious he did not receive guests often. Not only did his rather unfriendly manner suggest that, but also all the furniture had been pushed to the edges of the room, with only one leather armchair in front of the fire.
‘That’s much better,’ she said. ‘Being beside a warm fire is so much better than being out in that weather.’
She looked up at him and smiled. His face was slightly turned away from her, but in the subdued light he appeared to be much more attractive than the average hobgoblin. Her gaze moved down to his jacket. One lapel was slightly tucked under. He must have pulled it on in haste when she entered the room, and she was tempted to straighten it for him. Instead, she continued to smile, hoping he would smile back and show her she was welcome.
‘And who do I have the pleasure of addressing?’ she finally asked, when it became obvious he had no intention of doing the honours himself.
‘I am Theo Crighton, the Earl of Greystone.’
She bobbed another curtsy and waited for him to say something, anything else. Was he deliberately trying to make her feel uncomfortable? If that was his intention then he was succeeding.
‘The lady perhaps requires a change of clothing, my lord,’ the butler said. ‘She is soaked to the bone.’
Iris would have thought that was obvious and not something that His Lordship needed to be informed of, but she said nothing, merely nodded her thanks in the butler’s direction. At least he had some manners, even if his master didn’t.
‘Yes, see to it, Charles,’ the taciturn Earl said. ‘And will you please provide the lady with a chair?’
‘It’s very kind of you to invite me in,’ Iris said, trying to keep her voice light and friendly, as the butler dragged a matching leather chair from across the room.
The Earl really had no choice, but manners would dictate that he at least pretend he was pleased to assist. And it certainly wasn’t the way most men treated her. If she stumbled into Lord Pratley’s home in a state of distress and needing rescuing from a storm, he would be moving heaven and earth to make her comfortable and would have behaved as if she was doing him a great honour by allowing him to assist her.
The butler arranged the chairs beside the fire. ‘I’ve moved your chair two feet to the right, my lord.’
‘Thank you, Charles. And would you also bring some tea for Lady Iris and something for her to eat?’
He turned to nod to the butler, the side of his face that had been in shadow now exposed in the fire’s flickering light.
Iris’s hand shot to her mouth and she was suddenly ashamed of herself and everything she had thought about the Earl. It was all now so obvious. The dim lighting, the pushed-back furniture, even, dare she admit it, his failure to act the way most men did when in her presence. He was blind. Scarring covered his forehead and one eye, and the other eye was lifeless, suggesting it too had either limited or no sight.
Iris was tempted to apologise, although she wasn’t sure what for. Perhaps it was for her uncharitable thoughts about the bleakness of the unlit house, or for her unwanted intrusion, or for whatever had caused the scarring on his otherwise handsome face.
And it was a handsome face. Black hair framed chiselled cheekbones and a strong jawline, which was bearing evening stubble. As she continued to stare at him, for some unknown reason she was tempted to run her finger along the small cleft in the middle of his chin.
Her hand continued to cover her mouth, as if caught in an inappropriate act, and she quickly looked away, surprised at her own boldness, even if it had only been a thought.
The butler bowed and left the room. Iris sank down into the soft leather, trying to push out any thoughts of cleft chins, strong jaws or high cheekbones.
‘Please, won’t you sit down?’ she said, indicating the chair opposite, then withdrew her hand, realising it was a pointless gesture if he couldn’t see her.
The Earl reached out behind him to the arm of the chair then sat down and picked up his glass of brandy.
‘Would you like a brandy or would you rather wait for tea?’
‘Actually, a brandy would be rather nice,’ she said with a polite smile. ‘Just to warm myself up a bit,’ she added.
Certainly not to steady my nerves.
His gruff humph suggested he did not believe her, but he crossed the room and took a glass from the sideboard, then poured her a brandy from the cut-glass decanter and steadily handed it to her. As her hand lightly touched his, the strangest sensation shot up her fingers, her arm, and into her chest, where her heart did a peculiar jump.
That was odd. Touching a man’s hand had never had that effect on her before. It had to be the effect of this rather disconcerting day that was causing her nerves to behave in such an unusual manner. She took a quick gulp of her drink and coughed as the woody alcohol caught her in the back of the throat, then burnt its way down to her stomach.
Oh, for goodness’ sake, Iris, behave yourself. You accidentally touched a man’s hand. That’s no reason to become so flustered.
She closed her eyes and drew in a slow breath to steady herself, took another sip of her drink and smiled at her host.
‘I’m so pleased I stumbled upon your home,’ she said, keeping her voice light and friendly. ‘Otherwise I’d probably still be wandering around in this storm. And I saw no one during my walk, so I couldn’t ask for any directions to get back to Lord and Lady Walberton’s house.’
He said nothing, just nursed his drink and stroked the head of his dog. The animal growled with contentment, looked up at Iris with its liquid brown eyes then went back to sleep.
‘That’s where I’m staying. At the Walbertons’ estate,’ Iris continued. ‘For a house party. My mother and I. We’re both staying there. All week. But I decided to go for a walk. Silly, really.’
He still said nothing.
‘I didn’t think the storm would come up so quickly,’ she burbled on, trying to fill the silence. ‘One minute the sky was clear. Well, not exactly clear. It was cloudy, and there were a few dark clouds on the horizon, but still, I didn’t expect the sky to open up and for there to be such a downpour. And as for the wind, my goodness, it can certainly blow here, can’t it?’
Her prattling was making her sound like a ninny, but what choice was he giving her? This uncomfortable silence had to be filled, and he wasn’t doing much to help. Iris was not used to anyone sitting in her company and not speaking. At home there was always constant chatter from her mother, brother Nathaniel and sister Daisy, along with her older, married sister Hazel during her frequent visits. And when she was at social events people always made conversation with her, especially men. But this one, this Earl of Greystone, looked as if he was as sparse with his words as he was with his candles.
‘I mean,’ she continued after she had given him enough time to reply, time which he chose not to use, ‘who would expect the weather to change so quickly?’
‘Anyone familiar with English weather, I would have thought.’
Iris laughed, even though the expression on his face suggested he was criticising her, not teasing.
They sank back into an awkward silence, broken when the butler re-entered with a pile of clothing. Iris smiled at him, so grateful for the interruption.
He looked down at the clothing, blushing slightly, an unusual sight as servants were usually well-trained to keep their faces impassive under all conditions. ‘I’m afraid the maids are all somewhat shorter than you, my lady, so their dresses would be rather immodest if you wore them. I hope these will suffice, my lady.’ He blushed a slightly darker shade of red.
Iris took the clothes from his outstretched hands. ‘I’m sure they’ll be perfect,’ she said, trying to reassure the uncomfortable servant. Then looked down at the clothing and frowned. He had handed her a pile of men’s garments.
‘I’m sorry, my lady,’ he rushed on. ‘We tend to retire early in this house, and the other servants are already in bed, but I shall call for a maid to help you change.’
‘Oh, no,’ Iris said. ‘I’ve caused enough inconvenience already. I wouldn’t want to disturb the household any further.’
She looked over at the Earl, expecting him to contradict her, to say it was no inconvenience whatsoever, that her presence was not a disturbance.
No contradiction came, so she continued. ‘Thank you for the clothing and I’m sure I’ll be able to manage on my own.’ Iris knew that the maids would have been working since the early hours of the morning and would have to be up again early tomorrow, so she was not merely being polite when she said not to disturb them. And how hard could it be to dress yourself in men’s clothing? Iris didn’t know but was about to find out.
‘Very good, my lady,’ the butler said with a bow. ‘When you have changed, I’ll take your damp clothing to be cleaned and dried.’
‘You’re very kind.’ She smiled at the butler and was pleased that he smiled back. At least someone in this house was friendly.
The butler departed and the Earl rose from his chair. ‘I’ll give you some privacy and leave you to get changed beside the fire where it’s warm,’ he said, which was possibly the longest sentence he had said since she had arrived.
‘Thank you. And I hope you’ll be joining me for tea. I wouldn’t want to drive you away from your room.’ And what presumably was the only lit fire in this dark, gloomy house, she added to herself.
Instead of a response, he merely bowed and left the room, his dog trotting at his heels.
As she pulled off her damp dress and underclothes Iris tried to count her blessings. She was out of the storm. She had a fire to warm herself beside. Now she had clean, dry clothes to wear, and she wasn’t in the company of a hobgoblin or a diabolic creature from the underworld. She smiled as she undid her corset. Although perhaps falling into the hands of a hobgoblin might have been a better outcome. Such a creature would probably be a better conversationalist than the morose Earl of Greystone.