Gordon MacDermond was standing at the door of her parlor. Standing there staring at her, as if she’d invited him into her home. As if she should smile and welcome him.
She’d sooner greet the Devil.
For a moment, Shona just sat there and watched him. Sounds faded away, even the air stilled, leaving Gordon standing there alone, illuminated by the sunlight streaming through the open door.
He took a few steps into the room, his eyes never leaving hers.
Her heart beat so fiercely she could feel the tremors in her throat. And why were her palms so damp?
It was only Gordon.
A stranger would look at him and see a tall man with symmetrical features, a straight nose, and a square jaw. A woman might note that his chin looked stubborn, a correct assumption about his character. His mouth turned up on one corner. As a boy, it had given him an amused air. As a man, it made him appear cynical. His brows were gently curved, his blue eyes intent, almost piercing. His hair was cut shorter than was fashionable, but Gordon had never cared for fashion. A man as handsome as he could do anything he wished, including refuse to grow a beard.
The expression in his eyes was decidedly different, however, from the young man she’d known. The youthful enthusiasm, the smile, the eagerness in his gaze had been replaced by caution.
He’d seen too much. But then, hadn’t they all?
Seven years ago, they’d been so foolish, so naive, and unaware of the world. Now, all of them were a little too knowledgeable about what could happen when they ventured far from home.
Her brother said that Gordon had emerged unscathed from the wars in the Crimea and India, and seeing him here was proof that he’d been luckier than Fergus.
She slowly stood, but didn’t speak. What could she say?
Get the blazes out of my house, Gordon MacDermond.
For however long it was her house.
“Countess,” he said, inclining his head. His attention, however, was drawn to the four stalwart lads at the other end of the room. A frown replaced the look of caution on his face.
Suddenly amused and intensely grateful for it, she sat once again, watching him take in the scene.
The drawing room was shrouded since the only window was heavily curtained. The lumpy horsehair sofa on which she sat was at right angles to the small fireplace. A straight back chair sat nearby, atop a faded Brussels carpet. Over the mantel was an engraving of the Morton coat of arms, a bit of conceit that her husband had commissioned a year before his death.
How often had she wished for the money that garish bit of nonsense had cost? She couldn’t even sell it.
At the far end of the drawing room stood four men, each of them standing silent and respectful.
“Those men are naked,” he said.
Her gaze, insultingly slow, took in Gordon’s well polished shoes, up past the trousers of blue serge to the matching coat and vest. When she met his eyes, she smiled again, immeasurably pleased at his frown.
“Not quite naked,” she said. “They’ve merely removed their shirts.”
Was it any of his concern? Still she answered him, not because he deserved a response, but because the answer would annoy him.
“They’ve applied for the position of footman,” she said.
“Should you be interviewing them without their shirts?” he asked.
If it disturbed him that she did so, he didn’t allow it to show in his voice. Now a small smile curved his lips, but she knew him better than that. He was not amused. His eyes were flat and expressionless.
“Undoubtedly not,” she conceded.
Helen came to stand beside her. Helen’s cheeks had been scarlet for more than an hour. Her companion was filled with all sorts of maidenly virtues, whereas she hadn’t been a maiden for almost a decade now.
“You’re measuring their attributes, is that it?”
She smiled again. Very well, she could match him in sangfroid.
“Perhaps I’m ensuring that the candidate doesn’t have a wasting disease,” she said. “Or merely establishing that he has the strength to assume his duties.”
All four of the men were absolutely perfect. The man second to the end was thinner than the rest, but his stomach muscles were more well developed. The man closer to her had the most impressive shoulders, and as she watched, flexed them in greeting. The candidate to his right could roll his chest, as if he were purring. The last man had a habit of standing with his legs farther apart, evidently needing the distance to accommodate his, well, attributes.
For five years she’d been married to a man forty years her senior. Gazing at four half-naked young men didn’t seem that much a crime. She would hire each one if she had the funds. Unfortunately, she didn’t even have enough money to hire a parlor maid, the reason Helen had answered the door and escorted Gordon into her home.
She almost turned and asked Helen to see Gordon to the door again. Give him back his hat and his gloves and send him on his way.
We don’t need Gordon MacDermond here.
But because she knew why he’d come, she didn’t give voice to his banishment.
“You may dress, now,” she said, sending the four candidates a smile. “Please leave your name with Miss McPherson,” she added, nodding toward Helen.
The cheeky one winked at her as he dressed. For a moment, she was tempted to wink back.
Gordon didn’t look pleased.
What a pity.
They didn’t speak as the men dressed, the strained silence punctuated only as each man gave his name to Helen. One by one, they filed out of the parlor, following Helen to the front door.
When they were gone, she glanced over at Gordon, who returned her look steadily.
Go away, Gordon.
“Congratulations, Sir Gordon, on your baronetcy,” Helen said, returning from the door.
“Oh, yes, you won something, didn’t you?” she said.
“No,” he said, tight-lipped. “It was awarded me.”
“Pity they didn’t award Fergus,” she said, forcing a smile back into place.
“You think receiving a Victoria Cross is nothing, Countess?”
“A baronetcy can be inherited, Sir Gordon,” she said. “You can do absolutely nothing with a Victoria Cross except brag of it. A baronetcy would have made up for a lot.”
He looked at her as if she were a stranger. Never a stranger, Gordon. Never a friend, either.
“Fergus is a fine man. Any woman would recognize that.”
“Oh, I’m certain you’re right,” she said, sending him a look sharp enough to sever his ears from his head. “If she can overlook his limp and the fact he’s in constant pain.”
He didn’t respond, ratcheting up her anger even higher. She took a deep breath and composed herself before continuing.
“You were his commanding officer. You should have kept him free from harm.”
“It was war, countess.”
“He went to war because of you,” she said with enough equanimity that she impressed herself. “He didn’t attend Military College. You did. He wasn’t versed in artillery. You were. He didn’t know anything about war. I daresay you studied it.”
She smiled, tamping down the anger once more. “He went to war because you were going, and as his best friend, you should have protected him.”
“Your husband bought Fergus’s commission. If you were so against him going, you could have prevented it.”
“If you wish to see Fergus, he’s in the garden,” she said, waving her hand toward the other woman. “Helen will show you the way.”
Helen leaned close.
“Are you all right, Shona?” Helen asked.
No, dear God, she was far from all right. She bled from so many internal wounds she was surprised there wasn’t a pool of blood at her feet.
“Yes,” she answered calmly, forcing a smile to her face. “I’m fine, Helen, thank you.”
She waited until they were out of the room before closing her eye and leaning her head back against the chair.
Was Gordon’s arrival the answer to a prayer? She couldn’t leave Fergus here to be tossed out into the street. She had to make arrangements for him. The letter, delivered by messenger yesterday, had stepped up her timetable and also made her situation even more dire.
If she asked him for help, would he agree? Or would he refuse just to punish her?