Beatrice Tierney blew out a breath and settled back against a tree in Stratsbury Park’s garden, attempting to find a comfortable position in which to read. The weather was warm, but not unbearably so, and the shade cast by the sprawling canopy overhead provided a pleasant respite from the rays of the sun. A breeze occasionally fluttered the hem of her skirt and attempted to turn the pages of her book. All in all, it would be a perfect summer day, were it not for her cousins, Felicity and Grace Love. Bea’s lips twitched with displeasure as she turned her attention back to the page she had read twice already.
She brushed away a fly that was meandering a path across the words she was attempting to decipher just as a long shadow crossed the page, causing her to look up to see its source.
“Is it a difficult passage?” Graeme Clayton stood looking down at her. He chuckled as her lips puckered into a deeper scowl.
He knew very well that Bea was not short on intelligence. She might be quiet, verging on the edge of overly reserved and gentle, but it was not due to lack of intellect. In fact, when she did open her mouth and speak on any subject, her comments were often impressively well-thought-out. He knew that she studied things ─ mulling them over and over, assessing them from every possible angle, and then, and only then, having decided she had a good grasp of her ideas, her thoughts on a matter might be shared. Equally as often as not, however, she would merely smile softly, raise a brow, and remain silent. It perplexed him how she could keep her opinions to herself so often. He had a devil of a time keeping his tongue from saying exactly what was in his head.
Today, for the past twenty minutes, he had been observing her as she attempted to read and not watch his younger brother, Everett, and her cousin Felicity. She had sighed and shaken her head often, her lips had pursed, her brow had furrowed, and the pages of her book had not flipped in all that time. She was contemplating something, and he was rather certain he knew what it was.
Bea had always followed his brother around with a particular look on her face that spoke of her adoration of him. It was not an obvious expression. It was simply an unmistakable softness in her eyes and the tipping up ever so slightly of the corners of her mouth.
He took a seat next to her on the ground and, giving her shoulder a nudge with his, repeated his question, earning him a very pretty scowl. However, as quickly as the scowl had formed on her lips, it melted away into the pleasant expression she wore in company when she would rather be elsewhere but did not wish to offend.
She was about to deny there was any issue at all ─ much as she always did. Others were permitted to be displeased and out of sorts, but Bea never allowed herself to be so — at least, not in company. One had to look for more subtle clues as to how Bea was really feeling, but that was just one thing what made her uniquely his Bea.
“No,” she began her denial, just as he had predicted in his mind that she would, “the passage is not difficult. I was just distracted by the excellence of the weather.”
Graeme, who was not content to let the situation pass so neatly, snatched her book out of her hands. It might be entirely possible to provoke her into revealing the truth of what he suspected.
“Your distraction has nothing to do with my brother?” he asked as he snapped the book closed on her marker.
Ah, there was her look of panic — a slight widening of the eyes and a sharp, though quiet, inhale of breath. He had obviously hit on the very thing which she was valiantly attempting to conceal.
Though they were only neighbours, Bea and her brother, Maxwell, had spent so many hours in company with Graeme and Everett that Graeme felt he knew the Tierney siblings almost as well as he knew his own brother. Well, “only neighbours” was perhaps not the most accurate way to describe who the Tierneys were to the Claytons.
Captain Tierney and Sir Herbert Clayton had been friends since childhood, and when the captain had come into some money — enough to buy a small estate for his family — he had settled on Heathcote which was not more than four miles distance from the west boundary of Stratsbury Park. And in such a manner had begun a closer friendship between their families. They spent many a day and evening in one another’s company during that first month after the Tierneys’ arrival at Heathcote.
And then had come the day when Captain Tierney had been required to return to his ship. He had called on his friend Sir Herbert the evening before and extracted a promise to care for Mrs. Tierney and his children if something unfortunate should befall him. As fate would have it, the unfortunate did befall the captain, and he had never returned from sea.
Bea had borne the news with far more fortitude than Graeme had expected to find in one so young and female. It was then that he had taken a greater liking to her. She was not like the silly girls he had met over the years. She was unique in her quiet strength and resolve. And so very unlike himself that he found himself compelled to attempt an understanding of such a person. His reward had been a comfortable friendship that allowed him access to the Beatrice others looking on would likely not suspect existed.
He nudged her shoulder again. “I do not believe it was the weather disturbing your reading,” he whispered. “Are you positive your distraction has nothing to do with my brother?”
Seeing he was not likely to get more of a reply from Bea than that, Graeme switched tactics and pressed on. “Miss Love is very pretty. How old is she now?”
Bea heaved a sigh. “Felicity is nineteen, just as I am, and Grace is seventeen.”
“Are they both out?” he asked, moving her book away from the hand that attempted to reclaim it. He was not leaving this spot today without finding out if his suspicions about Bea’s feelings for his brother were correct.
“Yes,” Bea’s lips stretched into a thin smile. “I have been regaled with the delights of the season several times since their arrival a fortnight ago.”
Graeme shifted, placing the book on the grass next to him and stretching out his legs.
“Will you be going to town this next season? I could make a good number of introductions for you, and even with your modest dowry, I believe, we could find you a suitable husband.”
He had not even finished speaking before her head was shaking back and forth.
“You will not go? I thought Max said he had put aside enough to give you a bit of a season.”
“I do not wish to go. I have no desire to endure the crushes about which my cousins have told me. I prefer our small assemblies here.”
“I imagine it will be harder to find a gentleman worthy of you here, but I have not been to an assembly in some time. Perhaps there is someone who has already captured your heart?” He tipped his head and studied her face carefully, looking for any indication that there might be a gentleman she already preferred.
The signs he sought were there ─ the slight blush on her cheek and the lowering of her eyes ─ but he chose to ignore them and continued on.
“There is always Bath. I would assume the crowds there are not so great as they are in London, and Mother has been forever begging father to take her there. I am certain she would enjoy taking you along. She does enjoy your company.”
Bea ran a finger absent-mindedly along the chain that held a pendant Graeme knew contained a lock of her father’s hair. Between that action and the way she had pulled the corner of her bottom lip between her teeth, he knew she was considering the possibility of going to Bath. However, as fascinating as that fact was, it did not help him discern her feelings about his brother. So, he circled around to Everett once again.
“Everett is planning one last go of the season before he takes up his position.”
Bea nodded. “I know.”
There was an interesting sadness to her tone.
“Unless, of course, he finds a lady before then. Perhaps Miss Love will be capable of finally snaring him.”
There it was ─ a small, sad, fleeting frown. It was true. Beatrice Tierney was in love with his brother ─ the fortunate clod. Hailed as the more studious of the two Clayton brothers, what Everett possessed in the ability to apply himself to his studies and excel, he lacked in his capacity to see the subtly obvious before him. However, Graeme would contemplate how his brother could have missed recognizing Bea’s preference for him later. Right now, he needed to make Bea smile.
“Many have tried to bring him up to scratch, you know, but none have succeeded. He is a handsome devil — much like his older brother.”
Bea chuckled. “He is, at least, more humble than his brother,” she chided.
“So, you do not deny that the Clayton brothers are handsome?” Graeme teased.
Bea rolled her eyes. “I am not blind,” she said with a light swat to Graeme’s arm.
“Neither am I,” Graeme retorted.
Bea’s brows furrowed in confusion.
“I am not speaking of being blind to my own comeliness.” He smiled at her. “For I assure you that I know precisely how fetching I look.” He winked and then chuckled as she once again rolled her eyes. It was always a joy to provoke her just enough to elicit a small response such as he had just received.
“I see many things clearly. For instance, I can see that Miss Love and Miss Grace are attractive and well-skilled in all the arts required to capture a husband.” He shrugged. “There are many such ladies in London, who, if they wish a desired outcome, will do their best to achieve it no matter the ploys and scheming necessary.”
He nodded in response to her wide-eyed questioning look. “A fellow has to tread carefully. However, that is not all I see clearly.”
“It is not?”
“No, it is not.” He crossed his arms and leaned against the trunk of the tree, his shoulder brushing against hers, and his arm wishing to wrap around her and pull her close to his side as he had done when she was just a girl. However, she was no longer a mere child, and he was not her brother, so unless he wished to get scolded and have her dash away, neither of which would assist his cause, he refrained.
“I also see the way you look at my brother, and frankly, he is a fool to ignore you. I would not ignore a lady of beauty and good character such as yourself if she was to look at me so longingly.” He pressed his lips together to keep from chuckling at the quick breath she drew. He had shocked her just as he had planned.
“I do no such thing,” Bea refuted weakly.
“Lying does not become you, my beautiful Bea.”
“Do not call me that. I am not beautiful.”
He peeked over at her. Her cheeks were aflame as he knew they would be.
“My dear, if there is one thing I know, it is beautiful women, and you are definitely beautiful – beguiling, even, when you blush so prettily.” He reached out a hand and grabbed her arm to prevent her from jumping to her feet and running away. Bea did not like compliments of her person or actions. She preferred to fade into the background — to act without recognition or praise, qualities that would serve a parson’s wife well, but also qualities that made it easy for a numbskull, soon-to-be parson, like his brother to overlook her.
“Now,” he said, holding her arm firmly as she tried to pull it out of his grasp, “as I have said, I am of the belief that my brother is an idiot and Miss Love is a grasping…,” he cleared his throat, “something that is not appropriate for a lady’s ears.”
Bea’s eyes grew wide, and her head tilted as she looked out toward where Felicity was talking in a very animated fashion to her sister while clinging to Everett’s arm.
“I saw both her and her sister in London,” Graeme whispered near Bea’s ear.
“Then, why did you ask me if they were both out?” She gasped as his lips brushed her cheek when she turned her head.
He smirked and shrugged. “I am a cad and wished to hear your opinion of them.”
“Which I did not give,” she pulled on her arm again, finally freeing it from his hold.
“Oh, but you did,” he replied. “Your tone and the shortness of your replies told me all I need to know. You are not pleased with them — or more precisely, you are not pleased with Miss Love since she is the one who has enchanted my brother.”
“I have never enjoyed my cousins,” Bea refuted. “We have little in common. They like fashion and soirees while I prefer books and domestic pursuits. However, you have never been home when they visited before so you would not know how very unalike we are.”
He chuckled. “Deny it if you must, but you are jealous.” He climbed to his feet and extended a hand to her.
Bea looked at his hand warily.
“Come, you cannot sit here the full day. Mother will wish to know you took some exercise. She worries about you.”
Bea’s brow furrowed as she studied his face. “You will not say shocking things, and your lips will not touch me?”
A hint of mischief touched his smile. “You know I am constitutionally incapable of not saying something shocking at some point, but I shall refrain from touching any part of you other than your fingers with my lips.”
Bea sighed and shook her head, but a touch of amusement curled her lips into a small smile as she placed her hand in his and allowed him to help her to her feet.
“Good heavens,” he muttered as he pulled her upright, “if my brother does not marry you, I might. When you smile like that, it is difficult not to wish to break my promise to confine my lips to just your fingers.”
He winked as her mouth dropped open. “As I said, I am constitutionally incapable of not being shocking.” He tucked her hand into the crook of his arm.
He was teasing her, of course — at least, partially. She was both beautiful and beguiling, and were she not so obviously lovesick for his brother and were she not Bea, his friend and the closest thing he had to a sister; he would be hard pressed not to consider her as the next Lady Clayton.