Winner, Affaire de Coeur Magazine, Reader's Choice Poll, Best Regency of 1996
Nominated, Romantic Times's Reviewer's Choice Best Regency Romance of 1996
Mr. Parsifal Wentworth, the eccentric second son of an earl, is a man of incredible strength and shyness, and would much rather cultivate his garden than go to his sister's masquerade ball. But when he discovers and puts on his many-times-great grandfather's cavalier costume, he finds to his horror that he's oddly compelled to commit deeds of derring-do. And what is he to do when the woman he loves is about to be betrothed to an outwardly virtuous but truly villainous duke? Will the Cavalier be the one to save the day, or poor Parsifal Wentworth?
A sudden scuttling sound broke the quiet of the garden, and Annabella looked swiftly around her. It sounded like the shuffling of feet upon gravel...but she could not be sure. She drew in a nervous breath.
"Is anyone there?" she called. No answer. She listened, but heard only the breeze through the trees, and that was all. She shook her head at herself. The attack upon her mother had affected her nerves more than she had thought. Now she would be hearing an enemy in every whisper of the wind, or see shadows behind every bush. What silliness! Really, it was probably some servant that Mr. Wentworth had ordered to patrol the grounds for her safety. But she could not help feeling a little nervous in the garden anyway. She left it quickly--she really wished to see flowers, after all. And of course, there was no one around or about the Grecian garden, when she left it.
A "chunk, chunk, chunk" sound of metal against earth came to her as she came closer to the next garden. No doubt one of the gardeners was within, digging a trench or some such. She hesitated. She wished to be alone, with not even a servant about. Yet, the scent of flowers was stronger here, and she was sure the roses and lilacs were within. She shrugged. She would try to ignore the servant, look at the flowers, and then find another garden with flowers she could enjoy by herself.
The digging sounds became louder as she approached the garden's entrance. The smell of flowers became stronger: the musky perfume of lilies, and the honey-scent of alyssum. Annabella quickened her steps, for the scents promised color and beauty.
She did not see him immediately, for her first vision was of the rich patches of color as she stepped through the garden door, and the ornamental pond. But the sounds of the shovel shoved into the earth took her attention at last, and she gave a stifled gasp.
The man wore no shirt.
She should have averted her eyes, should not have stared. But she had never seen a man without his shirt before, and she could not look away. She remembered long ago when she was a little child, how her father had taught her to swim in the lake at their estate, and how his shirt had stuck to him when it was wet. But his form had been an insignificant thing, compared to her childish delight in swimming.
But this was different. This man before her was different, so very different from herself, now she was grown. All she could see of him was his back; he wore breeches, thank goodness, and tall boots. But she could not help staring at him, at the way the muscles moved across his back as he dug into the earth.
He pushed the shovel into the dirt with his foot, pulled up a huge clod, and tossed it into a pile. It was a simple set of movements, nothing extraordinary. Yet, her eyes followed his motions as if a spell had been cast upon her, keeping her frozen where she stood, and making her helpless so that she could only look and do nothing else.
The sun flickered off the slight sheen upon his skin, making him seem as if he were made of bronze instead of sun-browned flesh. He pushed the shovel, picked it up, and tossed the dirt. Each time he did so, she watched the slide of muscles beneath the breeches clinging to his thighs and buttocks, the bulge upon his arms when he pulled, and the ripple across his broad shoulders and back. For all it was common work, there was an odd elegance and rhythm about his movements, as if it were all a part of an ancient pagan dance.
She did not know how long she stood there, staring at him. But he stopped shoveling at last and raised his arms in a big stretch, like an enormous cat--a lion, thought Annabella, for his hair was long and mane-like around his head, having escaped the queue behind his neck. Then he turned and bent to pick up a potted bush, and she gasped again, loudly. This was no gardener, no servant at all.
Mr. Wentworth raised his head and stared at her. Their eyes met, and it seemed he, too, was frozen in place, for he stayed where he was, bent over the bush he he had begun to lift. The bush left his hands, and Annabella heard a soft thunk as it fell into the hole beneath it. Her face became hot with blushes, but still she could not look away from him. She saw his throat move in a large swallow and suddenly he straightened and strode swiftly to another bush upon which a shirt was laid. He hastily pulled on the shirt, his movements awkward, as if he had lost all his former grace from his body.
He was covered, and Annabella was able to look away at last. The silence between them grew awkward, and she could stand it no longer.
"I am sorry--" she said, and her voice squeaked a little.
"I apologize--" he said at the same time.
She glanced at his reddened face, and felt more awkward than ever.
"No, I should not have--" she began.
She gave a small, awkward laugh. "We seem to be talking at cross-purposes."
He cleared his throat. "Yes." Silence again, then: "I am sorry, Miss Smith, that you caught me in such...undress. The work--it was very warm--"
"Of course, I--I understand--"
"It is not something I do if I know anyone is about," he said hurriedly. "And the servants know enough to leave me to work alone. I would not in the world have wanted to shock you so." She glanced at him and saw a miserable expression cross his face. Her heart warmed at his concern for her sensibilities, and she went to him, laying her hand on his arm.
"No, no, Mr. Wentworth, you need not feel sorry. I know well it was not intentional, and I did not mind seeing you at all without--" she realized what she was saying, and blushed furiously. "That is to say, I was not shocked, really, for I have seen on my travels fieldhands working--I mean, you are not a fieldhand, of course, but it is somewhat the same, only close up and not from a carriage--" Oh, heavens! She was babbling--why should he care what she might see from a carriage? What must he be thinking of her? "And you must not think I followed you, for I did not, and I am not at all in the habit of looking at gentlemen who do not have shirts--indeed not at all--Oh heavens! What am I saying?" She could feel her face grow hot, and pressed her hand to her cheek. "It is only something I have seen before, thought not in a gentleman--which is not to say you are not a gentleman, for I know you are, of course...."
He was looking at her, his head cocked to one side and a quizzical expression in his eyes.
"I am not explaining myself very well, am I?" she said, looking at him, and hoping desperately he would understand.
"Er, no," he replied, and a dimple appeared briefly in his cheek.
A sudden bubble of laughter grew in her and she burst into giggles. "Oh, heavens! I am sorry! I have made a mess of things, have I not?"
He grinned and went to the ornamental pond, where he scrubbed the dirt from his hands. "No, you have not made a mess of things, I assure you, Miss Smith. It is I who should apologize. I should have locked the door to the garden, which I usually do when we have guests and I am working. I forgot, and naturally you, wishing to view the gardens, came in." He wiped his hand on a towel hung from another bush, then took her hand in his and brought it to his lips. "You are very kind, ma'am, for trying to take the blame from my shoulders." He smiled widely at her.
Annabella gazed into his eyes, at the warm expression in them and felt, suddenly, that she could not look away. How sweet his smile was...and why did she not notice before that he had dimples? One did not usually think of gentlemen having dimples--or at least she never had before, but Mr. Wentworth had very pronounced ones in each cheek, just by the corners of his mouth. She would have thought dimples would have sat oddly in a face with such a square jaw and stubborn chin, but they did not, not at all. Perhaps that was what made his smile so charming--when he did smile, that is. And oh, she would like to make him smile again!
He stared into her eyes and his smile slowly faded, an intent expression replacing it. She felt as if he were going to take a step closer to her...but he drew in a sharp breath and released her hand. "Would you like a tour of the gardens, Miss Smith?" he said.
"I...yes, of course, if you please, sir. Caroline has been telling me that you spend a great deal of time in your gardens." She felt oddly disappointed, though why she should feel so, she did not know.
He nodded. "If you do not mind waiting, I will show you once I plant this bush." He picked up the bush he had dropped and removed it from its pot. "I hope I have not hurt it by dropping it." He gently lowered it into the hole he had dug, carefully, like a mother laying her child into its cot, then tamped the soil firmly around the base of the plant. "There. Now, if you will excuse me, I will wash quickly and change my clothes." He gave her a wry smile. "Even I know it would not do to escort you about in such dirt."
He took a few steps away, then stopped and turned around. "I believe you should come with me back to the house, for your own safety. Indeed, you should not have come here without a servant. I do not know where Sir Quentin is staying at present, though I have already sent queries about, and have sent a message to the magistrate, Lord Laughton, informing him of the attack upon your mother. Until I do know, I would feel more comfortable if you were escorted."
Annabella frowned briefly. "Very well. I thought I need not, since there seemed to be many servants about the grounds."
"True," Mr. Wentworth replied. "But I believe your mother would worry if she knew, and I would not want her upset."
"How thoughtful you are!" Annabella said, and smiled at him. "I am ashamed I did not think of that." He stared at her again, then looked away, clearing his throat.
"Shall we go?" he said, and held out his arm. She placed her hand on it, and they left the garden.