Olivia organized the rugs, and as soon as Lady Lowry was driven away in the landau, she pulled on her cotton gloves and tied her bonnet strings. In her best walking boots, she set off for Redcliffe Hall. Would the earl agree to see her? Or did he intend to return to London? It hurt her chest to consider it, for too much hinged on the success of this venture. To clear her father’s name, although his grave would remain far from her mother’s and those resting in the church graveyard. If this gambit were successful, it would provide the means for her to rise above the dire straits she now found herself in.
Her only other choice, if she were to stay in this village she loved, would be to accept the farmer Ian Kershaw’s proposal of marriage and become mother to his six unruly children. Although her chances of marriage had grown more remote with each year that passed, because of a sad lack of suitable men, she held onto the dream of holding a baby in her arms. Not Ian Kershaw’s baby. She recoiled at his ignorance and unwashed odor.
How imposing Lord Redcliffe was, she mused, as she walked along. She’d tried, somewhat unsuccessfully, to forget their awkward encounter. The spark of intelligence and interest in his green eyes told her he was a man who rarely missed much. She feared she’d made a bad first impression, unsettled by the naked wheelwright. But she had not missed how attractive the earl was. With a rake’s reputation, she reminded herself. Should he accept the proposal she intended to put to him, and she moved into the house, would she be out of her depth?
Olivia frowned. She could manage him, as she had other overly attentive men who acted with a lack of propriety on discovering she was alone and unprotected.
How long did he intend to stay? It all hinged on that, but she wasn’t confident. A man such as he would soon tire of this quiet place. And he was sure to have engagements in London.
Redcliffe Hall gates stood open, and she passed through them. It was cool beneath the trees. Drawing her shawl around her shoulders as the breeze lifted her bonnet and stirred the hairs on the back of her neck, she hurried on.
The rambling mansion appeared through the trees. Nothing seemed changed, from here, it still looked deserted, with no servants bustling about. She stepped into the welcome summer sun and walked up the path to the front door. She breathed deeply to steady her nerves and took a firm hold of the knocker. A loud clang echoed, accentuating the empty spaces within. There would not yet be a butler or footman to answer the door.
Olivia stepped down onto the path and walked around to the kitchen and peered through the dirty windowpane. She didn’t expect to find a bustling cook rolling dough and a scullery maid scrubbing pots, but were there no staff at all? Did this mean he intended to leave immediately? Sell the house? Disappointment lay heavy in her stomach as she retraced her steps.
Olivia rounded a corner of the house as Lord Redcliffe walked down the drive from the direction of the stables. She took another deep breath to steady her nerves while she waited for him to approach.
Olivia curtsied. “My lord.”
He removed his hat and stood, feet planted, studying her. “We meet again. Miss Jenner, I believe?”
She considered his stance arrogant, but as it also showed off his fine physique to advantage, it sent another shaft of worry through her. “Yes, sir. I hoped I might have a word with you.”
“I would invite you inside, but your gown will suffer from the dust.” He glanced around and motioned to a garden seat beneath an elm tree. “Shall we sit?”
“Yes, thank you.”
They sat at a discreet distance, his hat on the seat between them, and observed each other.
He folded his arms across a wide expanse of rust-colored waistcoat. “I am surprised to see you again, Miss Jenner. But it is a pleasant surprise. You wished to ask me something?”
He remembered her name. She wasn’t sure why this bothered her, but it did. She studied his face. A slender, finely chiseled nose, his mouth full and wide and slightly sensual. There was that determined cast to his chin and jaw she’d noted before. How masculine he was. So strong, and self-confident. Why couldn’t he have been spindly and shortsighted?
She forced herself to look into his penetrating green gaze. “I am here to offer my services as a housekeeper, should you wish for one.”
He arched his dark brows. “Housekeeper? You’re too young for such a post, Miss Jenner. Not above twenty-five at a guess.”
“I’m quite capable of performing any duties required of me.” Holding her age against her flummoxed her. She had intended to add a few years, but now found she couldn’t lie. She huffed in a breath. “I hold the post of housekeeper at Lady Lowry’s establishment, Spelling Park. She is satisfied with my work.”
“Then why not stay there?”
“Because I wish to tackle something new.”
“Audacious of you. And surprising.”
“I don’t believe so,” she said, dismayed at where this conversation was leading.
His gaze roamed her face and then dropped unapologetically to her breasts. Her fingers twitched as she resisted placing her hands there. “What do you think the villagers would make of you living under my roof? I am unmarried and have, at this moment, very few employees.” He spread his wide hands palms up. “No household ones as yet.”
So he planned to remain for the time being. “I assume you shall require servants, my lord?”
“My estate manager must go to Gateshead to find them.” His warm, charming smile quite caught her off guard. “As much as I need competent staff, and I’m not doubting your abilities, Miss Jenner, I cannot hire you without causing a good deal of gossip I’d rather not have.”
“But why? I am hardly in my first flush of youth.”
He laughed. “Perhaps not. But neither are you in your dotage, and much too attractive for a housekeeper,” he said bluntly.
“Lady Lowry expressed no such concerns.”
“Why would she? It would only bother her if you were, er, distracting her male servants too much.”
Her cheeks heated. “I can assure you nothing like that occurred, nor would it.”
He nodded, waiting for her to continue.
“I am good at what I do. And few in the village would disapprove. They know I must work to earn my keep, ever since…” She stopped. She was making a muck of it.
“Since?” he prompted.
He was entirely too observant. “I shan’t trouble you with my affairs, my lord, only to say I wish to work here. I believe I shall be an asset to you.”
He stood and put on his hat. “I don’t doubt it, Miss Jenner. And I regret having to refuse you. Now you must excuse me. I must visit the squire.”