“This is a pleasure.” Sir Edward Wynne smiled at his guest strolling next to him, her arm resting on his.
“It was good of you to invite me. You have such a beautiful house,” Iona replied.
Then she winced. A beam of delight had spread over Sir Edward’s thin features. His arm pulled her fractionally closer.
“That is, you have such enchanting grounds,” she added hastily.
Which only made things worse, she scolded herself. Why couldn’t she ever think before she spoke? Now Sir Edward would be convinced that she was contemplating both the house and grounds as hers, and that any proposal would be instantly accepted.
Iona glanced over to where her brother was staring discontentedly into the waters of the fountain at the centre of Sir Edward’s extensive rose garden. Rhodri was prodding at it with his walking cane as if to dislodge every mud dweller in its depths.
“It was good of Rhodri to bring me.”
“You know you are always welcome here, Iona. And my sister and my daughter are both happy to act as chaperones.”
“Thank you,” she murmured.
They had by now walked out of earshot of Rhodri. Or so she hoped. Iona took a deep breath.
“I wonder, Sir Edward, if you could possibly do me a favour.”
Her middle-aged suitor came to a halt, his blue eyes resting earnestly on her face.
“Of course, my dear. You know I am always at your service.”
“Oh, it’s not for me.” Disappointment crossed his face. “At least, not directly. I don’t like to see good people suffer through no fault of their own, and I’m sure you don’t, either.”
Sir Edward lifted her hand to his lips.
“You have a warm heart.”
“No, just a sense of justice.”
He blinked at the passion in her voice. Sir Edward Wynne was an old-fashioned gentleman who, although not many years older than her father, seemed at times more like her grandfather.
A true woman, in Sir Edward’s eyes, should be quiet, dutiful and restrained in all things. A blank canvas, ready to be formed and guided by her husband.
The thought made Iona nauseous. It wasn’t that she disliked him – he was a good man in many ways. But to live in his household would drive her demented.
Rhodri was attempting to remove his walking cane from the mouths of a pair of excitable spaniels, who had shot across the lawn at the sight of it, unable to resist the temptation to play.
“Please don’t hurt them, Mr Tudor!” Sir Edward’s daughter, Clarice, cried.
Although several years older than Iona, she still had the appearance of a child with her delicate white dress, her dark hair curled and festooned with ribbons.
“They’re only young. Please don’t hurt them.”
“You might keep the things under control,” Rhodri retorted sullenly, inspecting the teeth marks on the polished wood of the cane. Clarice burst into tears. Rhodri stood frowning, at a loss what to do in the face of such feminine behaviour.
A chill went through Iona at the altercation. Given a choice between Rhodri as the controller of her fate and Sir Edward, the choice did not seem quite so hard, after all. At least as a wife she would have standing, and a chance to forge a life of her own. Rhodri always seemed so angry, so very bitter. She was certain he didn’t care for her feelings at all.
Then reason told Iona that the only freedom she would be permitted as Sir Edward’s wife would be to hold genteel soirées for the ladies of neighbouring gentry and become a patron of the local charity hospital.
She took a deep breath. With Rhodri occupied, it was now or never.
She lowered her voice.
“So, you will help my friends, Sir Edward?”
“Anything you ask. Are they in some kind of trouble?”
“Oh, no.” Iona kept her voice light. “It’s just some of our tenants who have to leave their cottage. It’s in a terrible state and not safe for anyone to live. I’m sure Rhodri would find them somewhere else, but with so many families to house and so much for him to do, running the estate . . .”
“Of course. I should be pleased to help. There’s a cottage on the estate that has recently become empty. I shall speak to your brother this evening.”
“Perhaps it might be easier if your steward spoke directly to the family?” Iona replied smoothly. “Then there would be no need to worry Rhodri.”
“That’s very thoughtful of you.” Sir Edward smiled. “In fact, I shall speak to them myself. We shall arrange it all between us, and Rhodri need not worry about a thing.”
Sir Edward drew her arm through his. Almost, Iona felt with a sinking heart, as if their marriage was a foregone conclusion.
She shut her eyes. Another smile had risen up before her – a bright, intelligent, slightly shy smile, accompanied by the glint of spectacles.
Iona hastily banished the thought from her mind.