Marriage is too great a risk – but what is a lady need of an heir to do?
Gabrielle Frost knows that marrying any man would mean handing over control of her beloved family vineyard in Portugal to her new husband. She won’t take that risk. But she needs an heir! So when Nathaniel Graystone, Earl of Leybourne, arrives to escort her to London, Gabrielle wonders… What if this former soldier, with his courage, strength and dangerous air, could be the one to father her child?
Early October 1815. The Douro Valley, Portugal.
It was the same as his memories, yet different as a dream. The river, tricky, pretending to be benign, ran wide here, below the gorges that lurked lethally upstream. The sky was blue, dotted with cloud, a roof over the valley with its tiers of intricate ancient terraces rising on either side. The harvest was over, the grapes stripped away, the leaves hinting at a change to the gold and crimson of autumn.
There were no sounds of shots or cannon fire, no victims of the fighting clogged the swirling brown waters. From the bushes on the bank a bird sang clear and pure and the scorching heat of summer was turning to something kinder.
The tranquillity was unsettling, dangerous. This was when the enemy struck, when you were lulled into relaxation, distracted by a moment’s peace, a glimpse of beauty. Gray gave himself a mental shake. There was no enemy. He was no longer Colonel Nathaniel Graystone and the war was over. Twice over, with Bonaparte finally defeated scarcely four months ago on the bloody plains of Belgium.
Portugal was free from invaders and had been so for four years now. There were no ambushes here, no snipers behind rocks, no cavalry troops to lead into a hell of gunfire and smoke and blood. He was the Earl of Leybourne and he was a civilian now. And he was here on an inconvenient errand, the kind that assuming the title and the headship of his family seemed to involve.
The two men handling the rabello shouted something in Portuguese as the sail flapped and Gray translated without having to think about it. He ducked low amongst the empty barrels as the boom swung over, then tossed a line to the man at the prow.
Doubtless it was beneath his new dignity to approach the Quinta do Falcão by working boat. He should have creaked for almost a hundred miles along the hilltop road from Porto to Pinhão in one of the lumbering old-fashioned carriages to be hired in the city, then held onto his nerve, his dignity and his hat as it negotiated the hairpin bends of the track leading down to the river. But this was the fast, efficient way to make the journey and twenty months had still not instilled in him the attitudes expected of a peer of the realm. At least, not according to his godmother, Lady Orford.
It was she, and his own uncomfortable sense of duty, that Gray could blame for his present situation. He was up to his ankles in bilge water and facing a situation that, in his opinion, called for either the skills of a diplomat or those of a kidnapper. And he was neither. It did very little for his mood and even less for the condition of his new boots.
The man managing the great steering paddle shouted something and jerked his head towards the bank. There were trees and a wide flat area about ten foot above the waterline and through the foliage he could see glimpses of red-tiled rooftops and the whitewashed walls of a low, sprawling house. As the boat steered nearer, fighting against the current, he saw gardens, then a landing stage.
‘É aquele Quinta do Falcão?’ he called.
The house, the heart of the quinta or wine-growing estate, came fully into sight. It was charming, he thought, something of his edgy mood softening. It was gracious, beautifully kept, radiating prosperity. A pleasant surprise, not the down at heel place hanging on by a thread that he had feared from his godmother’s agitation. The boat angled closer, the boatmen struggling to find slack water nearer the bank. Through a grove of trees Gray glimpsed what looked like gravestones and a woman rising from her knees in the midst of them, a flurry of garnet-red skirts against the green. It was like a fashionable sentimental picture, he thought fancifully, Beauty Amidst the Sorrows or some such nonsense.
Then with a sudden swoop the boat was alongside the long wooden dock. One man jumped ashore, looped a rope around a bollard and gestured to Gray to throw across his baggage. Three valises hit the dock, then Gray vaulted over beside them as the boatman freed the line and was back on board with the boat slipping fast into the current.
Gray waved and they waved back, gap-toothed smiles splitting their faces under the broad-brimmed black hats they both wore.
You may well grin, he thought. The amount I paid you. But money was not the issue. Speed was.
‘Quem são você?’ It was the woman from the graveyard demanding his identity. She made a vivid sight, garnet skirts above soft black ankle boots, a white loose shirt under a tight black waistcoat. Her hands were on her hips, her expression conveyed as little welcome as her tone.
‘Good morning,’ Gray said in English as he straightened up from his bags, ignoring her question as he studied her. The scrutiny brought up a flush of angry colour over her cheekbones and the wide brown eyes narrowed.
‘This is the private landing stage for Quinta do Falcão.’ She switched easily to unaccented English. Despite the costume and her dark hair, this was the mistress of the place, not one of the staff, he realised.
‘Excellent, then I am where I intended to be. It would have been inconvenient to be dropped off ten miles adrift.’ Gray looped the strap of one bag over his shoulder and picked up the others. ‘Miss Frost, I presume?’
A narrowing of her eyes was all the confirmation she offered. ‘I ask again, sir, who you are.’
‘I am Leybourne. You should be expecting me. I presume you had the letter informing you of my arrival? Your Aunt Henrietta, Lady Orford, wrote at least a month ago.’
One lock of dark brown hair slipped from its combs and fell against her cheek. Miss Frost tucked it back behind her ear without taking her hostile gaze from his face. ‘In that case it went on the fire, as do most of her communications when she is in managing mood. You are her godson then, and, if I remember rightly, Lord Leybourne. So you know what she is like.’
‘Yes.’ Gray held on to his temper with the same control he had used when faced with damn-fool orders from superior officers and offered no opinion on the Dowager. She was an imperious and tactless old bat, true enough, but she was doubtless right about what should be done with her niece.
‘And you expect to stay here?’ Miss Frost looked at the fast-disappearing stern of the boat, her lips a tight line. A rhetorical question – unless she intended to refuse him hospitality. There were no other houses within sight and the nearest village was several miles away.