Impossible, Impertinent and Irreverent

by

Ember

Chapter One

The diary of Miss Samantha Parks

July 24th 1822

Carmarthenshire, Wales.

I arrived in Wales two days ago, and have been sadly remiss with my diary within that time—for which I shall make remedy tonight.

White Rose Cottage, or Ty Rhosyn Gwyn, as I am told it is spoken in Welsh, is a small but very comfortable traditional cob building sitting half a mile from the village of Canaefty in Carmarthenshire. I am somewhat surprised to find myself happy in my situation; but if, after all, I should begin to pine for the larger rooms of Coltridge House, or for the endlessly fascinating opinions and personality I once grew to love from its formidable mistress, then I have only to look through my window and see what a remarkable part of the world I am in to make me feel better.

Wales is a country full of lush green fields, hedgerows and hills—although we are not so very far from the sea here—and whichever way one looks one feels like an explorer; in possession of the first set of eyes to view the hills; the first pair of feet to walk on the grass; and the first breathing lungs to take in the air.

Catrin has made me feel very welcome in her home. Adam chose his wife well and they seem blissfully happy in their new life together. I came prepared to meet a very serious and sober lady, maybe with the same ink splatters up her arms as my brother is always sporting, but I am happy to report that this is not the case. Catrin is an energetic young woman, only a year older than I am, with a vivacity and joie de vivre which makes her impossible to dislike.

On stepping down from the carriage I was at once greeted by her nervous smile, folded in her eager embrace, and welcomed by her hearty effusions. From there I was taken to the kitchen where she was adding the finishing touches to a fruit cake. Indeed, she urged me to try the confection upon completion, and since my stomach has forever been my guide, I simply know now that we will go on well together. Yes, she is not the serious bluestocking I expected Adam to marry, but likewise she is not lacking for understanding or common sense. Indeed, I am grateful for her kindness, and to be with my brother again. I have been sadly lacking friends in my grief.

Mr Kempton said to me on the day of his mother's funeral that I had not the right to wear black—to mourn Rose—because I was nothing more to her than an expensive servant. He informed me that my affection for his mother was as false as my morals in accepting her generosity. I remind myself, however, that he knows even less of my circumstances than he does of affection and kindness. I was not a relative to Rose by blood, I admit this and understand it, but we were friends, and so I will mourn her in full black for six weeks as we agreed on her deathbed. A place, incidentally, her son chose not to visit.

A spiteful part of me is glad he is as ignorant as he is arrogant, and yet by the same token, I am entirely devastated. He is a man full of his own importance, who is at the same time expensive and blind to duty. He will not look after his inheritance.

I am done though. Rose told me I was not to be sad, that I was to welcome her death as an opportunity. For herself she viewed Heaven as nothing more than a new challenge to be explored.

"Death is but one more adventure," she told me, "and the chance for adventure and change is an elixir—an enigmatic and powerful force which no one should resist. Do not ever let it pass you by."

At the same time she made me promise to remember and celebrate her life—a life which spanned eight decades; a life which was lived with privilege, family and with love, even at the very end.

I am determined to heed her advice. Instead of sadness I will focus on the future and what I am to do in the weeks and months to come, and where I am to go from here, on my new adventure.

Adam does not want me to work again. Now he has permanent employment, a fixed home and a new wife, he wants us to live as a normal family. I am not sure what he means by that, perhaps nothing more than to live a settled life. It is something neither of us has known since Mama's death. As for me, I am not convinced that this cottage is the adventure Rose spoke of.

However Adam is right in one respect, I do not have to work. I went to Coltridge House because I did not like the idea of being idle, not because I was destitute.

I am used to being busy; I am used to being useful to others. Only, I find I am not a woman who can stay emotionally aloof from people, and to love another as I loved Rose, and to lose them too…well, I am not sure I could go through it again.

There is one excellent circumstance in being come to Wales. It hides in the guise of liberty. Adam's new employer is a lord—a marquess, in fact—and a man of great consequence in the world. His estate is a castle which is situated only two miles away from this cottage, and over-looking the Towy estuary. His lordship, I am told, has been incredibly kind to Adam and allows him and Catrin access to his grounds. Adam informs me that Lord Rothminster has extended the access of his land to include me while I am staying here. I am incredibly glad for it. It feels like I have been confined for too long, which I know is unfair to Rose, for she could not help her invalidism. However I do miss long walks in the countryside—across the fields and through the woodlands. I plan to take up his lordship's hospitality as soon as may be. Perhaps as early as tomorrow afternoon, if I get the chance for it; and if the weather stays fine.

Ah, but I digress. It is getting late and even though the sun is not yet dipping below the horizon, I know I will wake early in the morning. I will write tomorrow of my adventure onto the marquess's land… if I make it. For now, adieu!

Samantha awoke at precisely seven o'clock the next day, for she had placed her travelling clock upon the dresser and set the alarm for that time. White Rose Cottage, she understood, had only two servants—one male and one female—and neither could be classified by a single role or title within the household. They were merely Jack and Mabel, free to perform whatever jobs their mistress asked of them, and free to return to their families at night. It would be unpardonable for her to impose herself on her brother's kindness by insisting that she was catered to as she had been used to at Coltridge House. Performing her own toilette would prove no great obstacle today or any other.

Washed, coiffed, and dressed in one of her gowns died black for mourning, Samantha made her way downstairs for breakfast. Being a traditional Welsh cottage the staircase from her room was of a spiral design and wound behind the chimneybreast at the far end of the house. The passage was incredibly hot and narrow, and it was perhaps fortunate that she lacked for height, for a taller person would have to duck upon unlatching the door at the bottom of the stairs and stepping out into the kitchen.

Eating breakfast was homely and comfortable at White Rose Cottage—a thousand miles away from the rather austere practice at Coltridge House. Indeed, she arrived in time to see her sister-in-law lifting a heavy skillet from the heat of the range and then dishing out part of the contents onto her husband's plate. This was followed by two rounds of freshly toasted bread. Moving along Catrin did the same for her own plate, and on looking up, she smiled at Samantha and set another place at the table.

If Adam had not spoken of their morning habits the previous day, she might not have been so sanguine about finding her new sister-in-law cooking. She knew now, however, that Catrin cooked because she loved to, not out of any pecuniary obligation.

"We prefer to eat in the kitchen," Adam explained to her. "We could ask Mabel to come to the cottage early and cook for us. We could eat breakfast in the dining room, as no doubt you have become used to, but Catrin enjoys cooking and I enjoy her company. What better way to start the day? I spend so much of my time at the castle or on the road with his lordship visiting his other estates; it is a treat for me to be at home and to be pampered by my wife."

Samantha admitted to the convenience of this arrangement and was very glad to see her brother so much in love. There had been times over the years when she had despaired of it, for he went from one job to another and never seemed the type to want to live a peaceful life. She was happy to be wrong on this point; and as for Catrin's skill in the kitchen, well, she had had proof of that the previous day. Even now she remembered the delight of sampling the freshly baked fruitcake. Their morning meal looked no less appetizing.

Catrin took her outside to show her the gardens after breakfast. It was not a particularly large plot to work with—scarcely three acres in total—and yet her sister-in-law's tenacity and joy of life was evident in every aspect. In the sultry July heat the flowerbeds were awash with colour. Roses bloomed in grand magnificence in beds around the large central lawn. These, in turn, were shingled on one side, so visitors could walk between the roses and the herbaceous borders—filled with hollyhocks, asters, marigolds and delphiniums.

The formal gardens were at least partially the work of the previous owner, but pride shone in Catrin's eyes when she spoke of the kitchen gardens as being entirely her own. They strolled around that space for a while. She did not have to feign her interest when Catrin held one herb and then another expectantly under her nose. It was an education for Samantha, who had spent much time cultivating plants for the use of medicinal remedies, but who had never really had much reason to learn how to cook. The morning went by very quickly and it was nice to know that she and Catrin shared an interest, even if it was for very different reasons.

On finding herself at liberty after lunch, Samantha decided to set out for Canaefty Castle. The weather was sunny and warm and might have tempted even the most stalwart recluse to venture out of doors. As for a young lady who knew only too well the torture of being forced to remain indoors on a glorious summer day, it was irresistible. The two mile journey to the castle by foot would be nothing, and part of her was as excited about seeing the castle as she was about exploring the land around it.

Wales was littered with old fortresses, or so the guidebook she purchased in Neath informed her. The only evidence Samantha had seen of this with her own eyes was Morris Castle on the road to Swansea. Unfortunately the coach she travelled on had been headed toward Pontarddulais at the time, and so she had seen no more than a few brief glimpses of the crumbling keep from a great distance, and through a thick line of sprawling trees.

She set out at one o'clock in the afternoon towards Canaefty with Catrin, who had errands to run in the village. They said their goodbyes where the road forked; one lane picked its way through the valley towards the village, and the other steadily climbed and wound its way up a hill which led to the castle. Catrin advised her to stick to the road all the way to the gates.

"His lordship's gateman has asked to see you before you go into the grounds each time. It might not always be convenient for you to visit the castle—if the marquess is entertaining, for example—so you must always check in with him first. He will tell you the best paths to take too, depending on the time of year and the family's wishes."

Samantha admitted the reasonableness of this request and so continued along the well-kept road and then on towards where it twisted and ran though a dense area of woodland. Here the strong summer sunshine glistened through the high bows of the trees and turned the world green. The musky smell of earth and vegetation hung pleasantly in the air and in the distance she could hear the tap-tap-tappings of a lone woodpecker.

She had not been walking through the woods for long, however, when the peace was broken by the pounding of hoof beats on the road behind her. Moving to stand on the grass verge she let the traveller pass. The horse was black with only a whisper of white at its forelock and did not look uncomfortable with the pace its master was setting. The rider was harder to make out. He was leaning low over the neck of the animal and wore no greatcoat. Samantha got the impression of a slim man of perhaps one or two-and-thirty. He wore a tall beaver hat which obscured the colour of his hair, but his eyes, which met hers momentarily as he raced passed, were as blue as the summer sky above the canopy of trees.

Then, as abruptly and speedily as they came, both man and horse were passed, and the road fell silent once more.

The rider had been a gentleman, there was no doubting that. Only in London had Samantha ever seen boots as he wore. Had she, perhaps, just had her first view of Lord Rothminster? She shook her head. From Adam's talking she had always imagined the marquess to be a man nearer forty than thirty—funny how one could so easily gain a false impression of age. She would have to apply to her brother when she saw him this evening and ask him more about the age and habits of his master.

On eventually gaining the top of the hill the woodland thinned and revealed a view like none other. From here Samantha could see the lay of the land for miles around. To the east were the rolling hills and verdant green valleys she had come to attribute to this part of the world, and to the west flat marshes around the mouth of the estuary. In the far distance she could even see where the vast mud flats of the river merged and then gave way to the golden sand of the beaches. More astounding than all of this, however, was the grim authority of Canaefty Castle directly before her. From here the gatehouse—two wide round turrets with a covered walkway between—was not far distant and on a level with where she stood. The hill she had climbed, she now realised, was the bailey of the castle and encompassed land enough for several farms as well as the grounds of the castle.

While in Surrey with Rose, Samantha had once visited the home of an aristocratic family who supposedly lived in a castle. She had been rather disappointed on arrival to find only one tower remained from the age of the Norman rule. The house itself was a pillared structure made of marble, and in design looked as though someone had simply lifted a temple from Greece and then placed it in the rolling English countryside.

Not so Canaefty. Canaefty was a great brute of a stone castle as strong and lasting as a mountain. It dominated the landscape as a black thundercloud might dominate the sky. It stood on a prominence near the steep slopes of the hill fort, all imposing high walls and sharp angles. It was a large complex with walls running the entire perimeter and then more inside, making it difficult to tell which parts were the ancient defences and which parts were habitable. The keep itself stood near forty feet in height with crenulations atop; but for all its stark austerity there was beauty here too, a beauty that came with formal gardens and rolling parkland—albeit designed at a later date—and which fitted seamlessly with the old walls and the imposing castle. They softened the edges, brought colour to severity, and under the power of the hot July sun, made the whole prospect remarkably inviting.

Samantha noticed that the rider who had passed her on the road earlier had come to a stop at the gatehouse and was in discussion with the gatekeeper. On walking nearer she could hear their voices. They were not quarrelling, but the tone of the conversation hinted that it might not be long before they were.

Neither man saw her approach. She had to loudly clear her throat to gain their attention.

"Good day to you," she said holding out her hand to the gatekeeper. He wiped his hand on his leather apron and awkwardly shook it. "My name is Miss Parks. I understand that Lord Rothminster has given permission for me to walk on his land during my stay in Wales. However, if this is not a convenient time then I will turn back and meet with my sister-in-law in Canaefty without further ado. I can easily come back another day."

"No, no," said the gatekeeper. "You're very welcome to enter the estate, Miss Parks. I was speaking to your brother not three hours ago and he mentioned you might show your face at some point today. Go on through, go on through. Only keep to the park today. The family's at home and they've asked not to be disturbed, which is what I've been telling this gentleman here, but he won't listen."

The gentleman sighed. Now he was dismounted Samantha could tell he was a tall man, near—if not passing—six foot; and she could see the colour of his hair beneath the rim of his hat. It was blonde, a luscious pale golden colour that any woman would be proud to possess, but which belied the wide-shoulders and the tall bearing of a man grown. It made his beauty almost effeminate.

"My good man," he said, with smiling lips and hard eyes. "I am come all the way from Cumberland to make a visit here. Your master and mistress invited me when I stayed at Maddingscote for Christmas. I have not made a journey of some three hundred miles only to be turned away."

"And I am telling you, sir," said the gatekeeper, trying awfully hard to square up to a gentleman who outshone him in every regard and topped him by at least five inches, "that my master expressly told me this morning that he and his lady were accepting no callers."

"But you misunderstand the matter. I am not a caller, I am a guest, come to stay a month complete by the express wish of her ladyship. She will not thank you for sending me away."

"Be that as it may, sir, I was told not to admit anyone who wished to visit the house. Now, Miss Parks, come right this way. There's a pretty little walk you can follow seeing as this is your first visit. It runs around the outer walls and takes in the view of the river. There are paths all around and so long as you stick to them it's not easy to get lost. When you come to the great oak at the far end there is a pathway directly opposite which leads up to the battlements if you're feeling adventurous; only mind your footing. Moss grows on the steps and even though the sun is out it could yet be slippery."

She smiled and thanked him in earnest, but to leave now felt rather cowardly and it would play on her mind during her walk to think of these two men resorting to violence—as men of all ages were apt to do—as soon as her back was turned. Perhaps it would be wise for her to stay and play the voice of reason.

"I am sorry, sir, I did not catch your name," she said to the gatekeeper as he ushered her to the small gate at one side of the main entrance.

"Pennifoot, ma'am… Rhys Pennifoot."

"I am pleased to meet you Mr Pennifoot, but is there not some way to resolve your differences with this gentleman without it escalating into a quarrel? Cannot his card be taken up to the house for Lord Rothminster to see? Surely if he is here by invitation it cannot hurt for you to make his lordship aware of his visit."

Mr Pennifoot's expression was grim. "Ordinarily I would, Miss Parks, but her ladyship hasn't been well and we are all of us under orders not to disturb her rest. Lord Rothminster will have our heads. Very protective of his wife, he is."

This roused the gentleman to speak again. "What's this?" he asked. "What did you say? Lady Rothminster is unwell?"

"Yes, sir, that was what I was trying to tell you. The master will be mighty upset with me if I disturb her for no reason."

Samantha looked up in time to see the gentleman's face turn grim. New grit and resolution settled deep in his eyes. "I understand your dilemma, sir, but now I know her ladyship is unwell I am more determined than ever to have you open this gate and admit me. I am her ladyship's first cousin and I will be da..."—he glanced at Samantha—"dashed unhappy if you prevent me from seeing her. Why did Rothminster not write and tell me?"

"You're her ladyship's cousin?" Mr Pennifoot inquired.

"Yes, did I not just say as much?"

The gatekeeper regarded the gentleman with a new and steady gaze. His expression was thoughtful and he scratched his chin as he made his assessment. "The master did make some mention to me that a relative of Lady Rothminster's might be coming to pay a visit soon, although he told me he was not expected until next week. Let me think on it. The name will come to me eventually. Now why am I thinking of a red kite?"

"Good God, man, how should I know?" The blonde-haired gentleman sounded more amused than he did offended. "My name is—"

"No, no, don't tell me, I almost have it. Not a kite in particular—they're just the most common raptors in these parts—but something similar. Another hunting bird… a hawk… no, that's not it either. Ah, I remember now! It was a part of the bird; not the bird itself."

To which the gentleman laughed out loud. At a guess she would say he was a man who laughed often, for he had dimples in his cheeks and the skin about his eyes crinkled very pleasantly. "You are thinking of its claws, sir."

"Yes!" cried Mr Pennifoot. "That's the ticket! That was the name. A Lord Talon was to come to visit, I remember now. You are this gentleman?"

"Yes, I suppose I am, although my name is Lord Talin, spelt with an 'I.' The name comes from Talinmere in Cumberland, not from the talons of a bird of prey."

"Well, why did you not say so? I will inform my master of your arrival straight away and see if he will not admit you."

The gentleman, Lord Talin, looked to the skies, but all he showed of his frustration was a small shake of his head. "Thank you, sir. That is all I ask. Although I am convinced Rothminster will not turn me away."

"Still, m'lord, I would prefer it if you were to stay here while I make certain."

Lord Talin held his hands up. "Never fear, Mr Pennifoot, I will do as you ask. I should not wish to get you into trouble. Do not keep me waiting, mind. It has been a long journey and I am looking forward to a hot bath and a change of clothes. Speaking of which, my man follows with my bags. He will arrive in my phaeton within the hour. My travelling coach took some damage on the way. If you could direct my grooms to the nearest wheelwright when they arrive I would be much obliged."

"Yes m'lord," bowed the gatekeeper, who hurried off and closed the gate behind him.

For a moment all was silent, but then the gentleman, Lord Talin, turned to regard Samantha. He bowed his head in grim sympathy. "Our gatekeeper has forgotten that he already granted you access to the estate. He has locked us both out, Miss Parks."

Samantha's eyes widened. She tried the door but found that he spoke the truth. It was indeed locked.

"I for one am not sorry," he continued. "It gives me the chance to thank you for coming to my rescue. If I might say so, your arrival was very timely. You know, I thought you a wraith when I passed you in the woods—out to cause mischief and mayhem to unwary travellers upon the road. No doubt it is the black you are wearing and your small frame that confused me, but I am happy to know that you are flesh and blood after all. My fanciful imagination must take the blame. Then again, if you were of another world you could open this gate and save us both the trouble of waiting."

"I am sure your cousin is not as ill as Mr Pennifoot makes her sound," Samantha offered in response. She would not answer the other part of his speech for he was talking nonsense and she certainly had no desire to talk nonsense back to him, even if she was used to conversing with handsome noblemen on an even level, which she most definitely was not. She had lived a very sheltered and humble life up until her time in Rose's company. Even gentleman callers to Coltridge House had been few and far between. Not one had been under the age of sixty, and not one had been a nobleman.

"My cousin is enceinte, Miss Parks, and so any illness is alarming, no matter how slight. She is due to deliver the child in October. Mr Pennifoot is right about one thing, however. Lord Rothminster is very protective of his wife. They are very much a devoted couple. He has only her best interests at heart, and I am glad he is taking such good care of her. If it truly would distress her to see me I would go this instant, but I know it will not; and so will Lord Rothminster when he learns of my arrival. You do not mind waiting with me, I hope, since you have ventured out of doors without your maid."

There was a bench to one side of the gate and he guided her towards it.

"No," she replied in all seriousness. "I have no maid at my disposal. Besides, Mr Pennifoot will return at any moment. There is little chance of anything alarming happening in that time."

"Ah," he replied, studying her properly for the first time, "a voice full of good reason and sound common sense—free from prejudice too, if I find my mark. It is refreshing to hear it. I spend the majority of my time in Town. Perhaps you will not appreciate this, but an honest and reasonable opinion is rather scarce there. I am considered entertainment, you see, and my reputation is a stage I can find no exit from."

"Is it?" she asked, taking a seat in the shade to one side of the bench. Lord Talin took the other side, sprawling negligently along the iron seat—legs stretched long and crossed at the ankle. "I have spent the last four years in London and I am sorry to say I have never once heard word of you, good or ill."

At which he laughed aloud. "And there goes my pride; popped, deflated and flung to the floor. Ah, but it is good for one's soul, I am told, to be reminded of one's insignificance from time to time. I thank you for it, but have you really been in Town all that time? I am sure we should have crossed paths."

"It is not likely, my lord. I was working for a living as a nurse to an elderly lady. She was a gentlewoman, to be sure, but very far from the nobility; and she did not own a Mayfair address, as I presume you must."

"Indeed I must," he agreed. "And yet you are a gentlewoman yourself, are you not?"

Something in his tone instantly put her on edge. "I have already informed you that I work for a living."

"And this precludes all claims to rank, does it?" he inquired sceptically. "No, no, Miss Parks, I refuse to be deflected from my curiosity. From your conversation with our overly-diligent gatekeeper I am to understand that you have a brother who is permitted the free-run of Lord Rothminster's estate. This means he is either a guest of my cousin-in-law, or a valued employee." Then suddenly the gentleman's eyes widened and his mouth turned into a little 'o' of astonishment. "Good Lord! I had not made the connection. You are Miss Parks?"

"Yes, my lord, I thought we had established that."

"You may have established all kinds of things, but I confess I am not as quick as you. Your brother I know from my time in London. He used to work for the…" but here he fell silent.

"My brother has worked in many places, or so he tells me. I admit that we have not always been as close as I should like."

"No doubt you have not. He is, I believe, currently the marquess's man of business."

"He is."

"And he is a gentleman—if only of the lower orders—which makes you a gentlewoman too, despite your protestations about employment."

What a very strange conversation they were having. "Yes," she finally admitted, unsure if it was wise to keep him guessing. The more she evaded him the more interest he seemed to show in her, and she was not sure if she was comfortable with that. "I am a gentlewoman by both birth and circumstance. I have a competence, regardless of my employment."

"Then why work at all?"

"Because idleness suits me ill."

He looked out over the fall of land, obviously thinking about his answer. "It has suited me ill, too," he admitted eventually. "Alas, I had not your recourse. Still, I must not repine. You say you were in employment for four years with this lady? You must have been young when you first went to her. You cannot be very old, even if you do wear a cap under your poke bonnet. Good God, did man ever create a more absurd fashion! It feels like I am having a conversation with a wicker basket." He chuckled. "Come now, you cannot be more than twenty years of age. I am sure of it." He held up a hand before she could utter a word. "Yes, I know I am impertinent. I have also been called irreverent, irresponsible and impossible, so there is no use trying to naysay me. It will be far easier for you to simply answer the question and let us move on."

That brought a smile to her face. "Are you always this way?"

"Yes always. Your age, Miss Parks?"

"I am five-and-twenty."

He looked shocked. "Five-and-twenty… are you really all of that? I would have placed you as no more than seventeen. Five-and-twenty… are you sure?"

"Yes I am sure. I think it is because I am short and thin that you misinterpret my age. You are not the first, and I doubt you will be the last."

He took a moment to contemplate this. "Perhaps you are right. I remember thinking of your brother as a younger man when I was first introduced to him. He is on the short side too."

"I would imagine most people appear short to you, my lord. If I were as inquisitive as you I might ask you how tall you really are."

"Might you? How highly impertinent! I am offended… mortified… ready to crawl under a rock and never see the light of day again."

She laughed.

"I am six foot and half an inch, Miss Parks. And the half inch is very important to me because I live in the company of giants. You cannot have met Lord Rothminster if you consider me tall. He stands six feet five inches in his stockings. Lady Rothminster's brother has two inches on me as well, and he in not yet one-and-twenty."

"Perhaps it is well we move in different circles, my lord. I should have a constant ache in the neck from looking up at you all."

"True," he said, and for the first time since their meeting they fell silent. Samantha was surprised to find that it was not an altogether unpleasant experience to sit out of doors on a sunny day in the presence of such exalted company. Although she was not precisely clear on his rank, he had to be a baron at the very least if he gave no first name and held the title of lord.

After a moment she decided it would be as well to ask. It was not likely they would meet again, and he seemed to hold no regard for the social niceties that might otherwise hinder a conversation of this nature. "You are Lord Talin?" she inquired, as though to test the water. "You hold a peerage in your own right—it is not a courtesy title?"

"It is not a courtesy title," he replied simply, and something changed in his expression. Indeed, he looked away from the view and stared down at the point where his feet met the earth "What it is, Miss Parks, is a millstone around my neck, weighing me down and making it impossible for me to be the man I want to be." He sighed and shook his head. "Likewise it is something I cannot escape. I am an earl as my father and my grandfather were earls before me." He was silent a moment. "Forgive me. It is not a circumstance I celebrate."

Her curiosity was almost unbearable, but he had spoken very much as a man who wished the topic at a close. It was perhaps fortunate then that Mr Pennifoot chose that moment to return, for had they been forced to converse for longer it might have put a strain on them both, and ruin a rather comfortable fifteen minute interlude.

"Lord Rothminster says you are very welcome, my lord," said the gatekeeper. "Please forgive me for making you wait. I had to make sure. I hope you understand."

"I understand, sir," said Lord Talin as he got to his feet. "I only hope my own servants are a tenth as loyal as you." He turned to Samantha and offered her his hand. Gratefully she took it and likewise got to her feet. He had to leave her almost immediately to gather his horse, but he returned before mounting. "It has been a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Miss Parks. Perhaps our paths may cross again before my visit is over."

"Perhaps," she agreed. "Regardless, I enjoyed our conversation."

"Me too," he said, and then turned to mount his horse. He sprang into the saddle as lightly and nimbly as any man she had seen, before executing a half bow in her direction. "I bid you farewell." Then, with a click of his heels, he continued on through the gate.

Samantha watched him canter down the track towards the castle. Only when he was no more in sight did she carry on with her afternoon walk.