The Officer’s Temptation
The sun blazed down from a cloudless, azure sky. Fergus glanced at the handy little map he’d found in his bedchamber – another example of the Duke of Brockmore’s legendary attention to detail – and reckoned he was at the top of the steps leading down to the South Lawn. Sure enough, the waters of the ornamental lake glinted in the distance. It would be much cooler there. He’d be tempted to wander down, were it not for the fact that he’d be likely to be spotted from the drawing room windows.
He descended from the terrace to a lawn so perfect he reckoned the Duke of Brockmore’s gardeners must have trimmed it with grape scissors. Behind him, the house itself seemed to glitter in the sunshine, looking as if it was constructed from spun sugar. The beauty of the country mansion could not be denied, with its pleasing symmetry, its surprising lack of ostentation. It reminded him of an Italian palazzo he’d been billeted in once. He couldn’t remember where, but he did remember it was summer, like this, and the marble floors had been blissfully cool on his feet, which were aching and blistered from long days of marching. There had been a lake there too, where he’d swum.
And there had been a woman. Fergus smiled. There had been a good many women back in those days, and a good many wild parties too, when they were not fighting wild battles. Though he did not forget the tedium of endless drills and weeks of tense waiting, though he did not wish to relive the horrors of the aftermath of battle, he missed – oh, how he missed – the excitement, and the danger, and the thrill, the desire to make the most of every single day, knowing it may well be his last. His smile faded. Those days were most definitely long gone. He tried to conjure the elation he’d felt when he’d first heard about the Egypt posting, but that awkward moment with the woman he would have to share his future with, made his doubts surface once more. He couldn’t afford to be having doubts.
The formal gardens were laid out on the right-hand side of the house. There was a maze there. He’d be sure of some privacy in the maze, but his thoughts already contained enough dead ends and wrong turnings to be going on with. Instead he took the left-hand path, which his plan informed him led to the kitchen gardens. Deciding that he could risk some concession to the heat, Fergus shrugged himself out of his dark-blue coat with some relief. Why was it that fashion went hand-in-hand with discomfort? He tugged longingly at his starched neckcloth, but knowing he’d only have to re-tie the blasted thing before returning to the drawing room, contented himself with rolling up his shirt sleeves. Peering curiously into the Duchess of Brockmore’s famous Orchid House was like opening an oven. Hastily closing the door, Fergus decided against an investigation of the pinery and the huge succession house that reputedly housed the largest vine in England.
The stone archway in front of him must lead to the walled garden. Sure enough, neat vegetable plots vibrant with greenery took up most of the available space. Precisely pruned peach and apricot trees fanned against the walls, and regimented ranks of raspberry and gooseberry canes filled one sunny corner. In the centre of the garden, on the large rectangle of lawn, stood two tall poles with a thick rope strung between them. And on the rope, improbably, dressed in a tiny tunic, balanced a woman.
Fergus drew back against the archway out of the line of her sight. She was slim, slight in stature, but the flimsy fabric she wore revealed a lithe and extremely supple body, with shapely legs, slender, elegant feet clinging to the rope. Her hair was auburn. Her skin, in contrast, was creamy white. She moved expertly and fluidly along the rope, her arms spread wide, as if she were about to fly.
He watched, fascinated, as she balanced, first on one leg and then on the other, traversing the length of the rope before, to his astonishment, she leapt high into the air, executed a perfect, graceful summersault in impossibly slow-motion, and landed soft as a cat on the grass. Bouncing back to her feet, she tumbled over and over in a series of one-handed cartwheels so fast that her body was a blur of cream and auburn, until she came to an abrupt halt and finished with an theatrically flourishing bow. Fergus could not resist giving her a spontaneous round of applause.
Startled, she glared fiercely at him. Her eyes were emerald green, her heart-shaped face flushed. ‘This is a private area,’ she said in heavily accented English. ‘The Duke of Brockmore assured us that we would not be disturbed. Mr Keaton, the head gardener, has instructed his men to work elsewhere. Though you,’ she said, raising one brow and giving him the faintest of smiles, ‘I do not think that you are an under-gardener?’
He made a flourishing bow. ‘Colonel Fergus Kennedy at your service. And you can only be Madame Vengarov. I am sorry to intrude, but in truth, I couldn’t take my eyes off you. You looked as if that rope was glued to your feet.’
‘Spasiba. Thank you, but I am a novice compared to Alexandr.’
‘Your husband, and the other half of the famed Flying Vengarovs, I presume?’
‘Yes, but you presume too much. I am not married. Alexandr is my brother.’
‘Then I am even more delighted to make your acquaintance, Mademoiselle Vengarov.’
She smiled. Her teeth were very white. Her lips were very pink. There was a smattering of freckles across her little nose and teasing light in her almond-shaped eyes. ‘I don’t know why my lack of a husband should cause you delight.’
‘You are quite correct,’ Fergus said, with a guilty pang. ‘It should not, especially under the circumstances.’
‘I am here at the behest of one duke to make a match with the niece of another.’ His words, spoken without thinking, wiped the delightful smile from Mademoiselle Vengarov’s face. Put like that, she would think him the worst sort of social climber, and worse, a compliant pawn in someone else’s game. Fergus could feel himself flushing. What he ought to do was beat a retreat. Though he told himself the exotic Mademoiselle Vengarov thoughts were irrelevant, he felt compelled to explain himself. ‘It’s not how it sounds,’ he said. ‘The first duke in question is Wellington, my commander-in-chief. The second, my host the Duke of Brockmore.’
‘Wellington ordered you to marry Brockmore’s niece?’
Her tone was starkly disbelieving, and no wonder. ‘Not ordered, precisely. I am to take up a diplomatic posting to Egypt. A wife is apparently standard issue in such situations,’ he said, more flippantly than he intended.