It was enough. After supper Sir Francis escorted her to her chamber and, with a poor attempt at regret, announced that he greatly feared they wouldn't suit. Not at all.
Elizabeth and Berta departed at dawn the following morning. an hour before Sir Francis's servants stirred themselves. Clad in a dressing robe, Sir Francis watched from his bedchamber window as Elizabeth's coachman helped her into her conveyance. He was about to turn away when a sudden gust of wind caught Elizabeth's black gown, exposing a long and exceptionally shapely leg to Sir Francis's riveted gaze. He was still staring at the coach as it circled the drive; through its open window he saw Elizabeth laugh and reach up, unpinning her hair. Clouds of golden tresses whipped about the open window, obscuring her face, and Sir Francis thoughtfully wet his lips.
The Country seat of Lord John Marchman, Earl of Canford, was a place of such unhampered, unplanned, raw beauty that Elizabeth temporarily forgot the purpose of her visit as she stared out the window. The house was the largest she'd ever seen-a sprawling, half-timbered Tudor structure-but it was the grounds that held her enthralled. Weeping willows marched along a stream that ran through a park at the front of the property, and lilacs bloomed unhampered and untamed beside the willows, their soft colors blending in natural splendor with blue columbine and wild lilies.
Before their chaise drew to a complete halt in front of the house a door was already being flung open, and a tall, stocky man was bounding down the steps.
"It would appear that our greeting here is going to be far more enthusiastic than the one we received at our last stop," Elizabeth said in a resolute voice that still shook with nerves as she drew on her gloves, bravely preparing to meet and defy the next obstacle to her happiness and independence.
The door of their chaise was wrenched open with enough force to pull it from its hinges, and a masculine face poked inside. "Lady Elizabeth!" boomed Lord Marchman, his face flushed with eagerness-or drink; Elizabeth wasn't certain. "This is indeed a long-awaited surprise," and then, as if dumbstruck by his inane remark, he shook his large head and hastily said. "A long-awaited pleasure, that is! The surprise is that you've arrived early."
Elizabeth firmly repressed a surge of compassion for his obvious embarrassment, along with the thought that he might be rather likable, "I hope we haven't inconvenienced you overmuch," she said.
"Not overmuch. That is," he corrected, gazing into her wide eyes and feeling himself drowning, "not at all."
Elizabeth smiled and introduced "Aunt Berta," then allowed their exuberant host to escort them up the steps, Beside her Berta whispered with some satisfaction, "I think he's as nervous as I am."
The interior of the house seemed drab and rather gloomy after the sunny splendor outside. As their host led her forward Elizabeth glimpsed the furnishings in the salon and drawing room-all of which were upholstered in dark leathers that appeared to have once been maroon and brown, Lord Marchman, who was watching her closely and hopefully, glanced about and suddenly saw his home as she must be seeing it. Trying to explain away the inadequacies of his furnishings, he said hastily, "This home is in need of a woman's touch. I'm an old bachelor, you see, as was my father,"
Berta's eyes snapped to his face. "Well, I never!" she exclaimed in outraged reaction to his apparent admission of being a bastard.
"I didn't mean," Lord Marchman hastily assured, "that my father was never married. I mean"-he paused to nervously tug on his neckcloth, as if trying to loosen it-"that my mother died when I was very young, and my father never remarried. We lived here together."
At the juncture of two hallways and the stairs Lord Marchman turned and looked at Berta and Elizabeth. "Would you care for refreshment, or would you rather go straight to bed?"
Elizabeth wanted a rest, and she particularly wanted to spend as little time in his company as was possible. "The latter, if you please."
"In that case," he said with a sweeping gesture of his arm toward the staircase, "let's go."
Berta let out a gasp of indignant outrage at what she perceived to be a clear indication that he was no better than Sir Francis. "Now see here, milord! I've been putting her to bed for nigh onto two score, and I don't need help from the likes of you!" And then, as if she realized her true station, she ruined the whole magnificent effect by curtsying and adding in a servile whisper, "if you don't mind, sir."
"Mind? No, I-" It finally occurred to John Marchman what she thought, and he colored up clear to the roots of his hair. "I-I only meant to show you how," he began, and then he leaned his head back and briefly closed his eyes as if praying for deliverance, from his own tongue, "how to find the way, he finished with a gusty sigh of relief.
Elizabeth was secretly touched by his sincerity and his awkwardness, and were the situation less threatening, she would have gone out of her way to put him at his ease.
Reluctantly opening her eyes, Elizabeth rolled over onto her back. Sunlight was streaming in through the windows, and a faint smile teased the comers of her lips as she stretched and thought back on the previous night's meal. Lord Marchman had turned out to be as endearing, awkward, and eager to please as he'd seemed upon their arrival.
Berta bustled in, still managing to look like a maid despite her stylish puce gown. "That man," she announced huffily, referring to their host, "can't put two words together without losing his meaning." Obviously she'd expected better of the quality during the time she was allowed to mix with them.
"He's afraid of us, I think," Elizabeth replied, climbing out of bed. "Do you know the time? He desired me to accompany him fishing this morning at seven."
"Half past ten," Berta replied, opening drawers and turning toward Elizabeth for her decision as to which gown to wear. "He waited until a few minutes ago, then went off without you. He was carrying two poles. Said you could join him when you arose."
"In that case, I think I'll wear the pink muslin," she decided with a mischievous smile." The Earl of Marchman could scarcely believe his eyes when he finally saw his intended making her way toward him. Decked out in a frothy pink gown with an equally frothy pink parasol and a delicate pink bonnet, she came tripping across the bank. Amazed at the vagaries of the female mind, he quickly turned his attention back to the grandfather trout he'd been trying to catch for five years. Ever so gently, he jiggled his pole, trying to entice or else annoy the wily old fish into taking his fly. The giant fish swam around his hook as if he knew it might be a trick and then he suddenly charged it, nearly jerking the pole out of John's hands. The fish hurtled out of the water, breaking the surface in a tremendous, thrilling arch at the same moment John's intended bride deliberately chose to let out a piercing shriek: "Snake!"