THE GYPSY AND THE GENTLEMAN
by Beverley Oakley
Impersonating the cousin of a debutante who is to attend Lady Quamby’s “Instruction in the Art of Graceful Accomplishments”, Tilly finds herself out of her depth when she falls for the man she believes is just the lowly dancing master.
But when their roles are reversed and Tilly discovers Henry is about to inherit an earldom, can she accept his marriage offer in good conscience?
For while Henry is determined that the disparity in their social standing will not prevent their happily-ever-after, Tilly knows something – or someone – who will.
The Gypsy and the Gentleman is Book 8 in the Scandalous Miss Brightwell series but can be read as a standalone.
The dancing ended, the ladies rested.
And then it was time to stitch companionably in the drawing room.
Tilly had never been more bored in her life. The daffodil embroidery with which Matilda had saddled her was going to send her screaming round the bend, as Yasmin, her elder sister, used to say.
The company was tedious in the extreme, and the heat threatened to send her to sleep.
What she’d like was a refreshing dip in the river which—she glanced up as movement through the window caught her eye—was exactly what Mr Garrick had in mind.
Yes, there he was, alone and striding across the lawn with purposeful steps. Not the gait of a man enjoying a country ramble. He didn’t seem that sort of fellow, either.
But a fellow on a mission.
And he was going to the river to cool down, which was exactly what Tilly wanted more than anything.
And why not?
She straightened, glancing about at her fellow stitchers. “I’m running out of thread. I’ll go to my room now,” she said. A couple of her companions nodded, as if it was of no account. Which it wasn’t.
“Actually,” she amended, “I think I’ll have a rest. The dancing lesson earlier was quite strenuous.”
Out in the fresh air, with a shawl about her shoulders—with which she could use to dry herself later—Tilly felt a rare sense of freedom.
Lord, if this was how stifling Matilda’s life really was, then Tilly wanted none of it. What better way to discover how good she had it than to have to step into Miss Matilda’s shoes for a few days?
That said, Matilda had more freedom than most of her contemporaries, though perhaps having a disinterested guardian wasn’t as good as having a tumble-down cottage full of affectionate sisters.
Well, gratuitous, grasping and affectionate. Tilly loved the two women who’d brought her up, but she had no illusions as to how far they’d go to get what they wanted. Self-interest trumped sentimentality. She’d always known that.
It wasn’t difficult to ascertain Mr Garrick’s location. The splashing of water and the occasional groan of appreciation lured Tilly to the precise spot, and she’d been standing on a gnarled tree root for some time before he blinked open his eyes and found he was the object of her interested study.
“Good lord, Miss Manners! You shouldn’t be here!” were his first words, which Tilly thought rather odd. Why shouldn’t she? She roamed freely about the countryside when she was in familiar territory. But there seemed to be an endless list of things nicely brought up young ladies didn’t do. Matilda had schooled her in many of them during the few days of coaching Tilly had received beforehand.
“I swim at home, Mr Garrick,” she said. “And when I saw you were obviously going to swim, I thought it a splendid idea.”
He looked alarmed. “But… you can’t swim here. Not alone, and certainly not alone with me. Why, I have no—”
He stopped suddenly, and Tilly supplied, “No clothes on? But of course. I’d not have expected anything else, for how else is one to swim? And that is why I’ll ask you to avert your eyes while I undress and enter the water a little further upstream.” She frowned. “I’ll keep my distance, if that’s what you wish, but I didn’t think you’d dislike the idea so very much.”
“I… don’t!” He shook his head, and seemed unable to formulate a proper sentence until he said, “What if you were followed?”
“I don’t think I was, and—even though I don’t believe that would present a problem—I can remain under water quite some time, if that’s what you’d prefer.” She drew off her shawl and sat on it while she pulled off her walking boots. “There really are so many rules, aren’t there? I find it quite difficult to keep them all in my head.”
“But, Miss Manners, it’s not very hard. Young ladies and young gentleman must not be alone together unless—”
“Unless marriage is the intention?” Tilly asked, now taking off her stockings, one by one, and draping them neatly over a low-hanging tree branch. “But marriage isn’t the intention, is it, Mr Garrick? We’ve only just met.”
“But… if someone were to find us together like this, then I would be obliged…”
Tilly, having just pulled her gown over her head, rose to her feet in only her chemise and regarded him steadily. “Then I promise not to accept.”
“But there’d be your reputation….”
Tilly shrugged. “I don’t want to get married just yet, if that’s what you are worried about. And I’m not too bothered about my reputation. I’m not going to London where it will be under scrutiny. And right now, I’m very hot.” She smiled, hoping she’d allayed his concerns. “I’m sorry to have upset you, Mr Garrick, and I’m certainly very happy to move further upstream. It’s just that the house is so close and I knew we were within an easy walk of the river. Like as not, the others will make up their own bathing party a little later.”
“I hardly think so, Miss Manners, for it is not the thing in our part of the world.” His tone relaxed as he went on, “But, please, now that I have laid out all my objections and you are still of a mind to swim, I would be delighted if you joined me. I promise to avert my eyes.”
“Wonderful!” Tilly said, pulling her chemise over her head and, with a flick of her wrist, sending it to join the pile of clothes on the river bank. “Sadly, I think it wouldn’t be considered seemly to wet my hair before dinner, so I won’t jump in. But… oh my goodness, this is just the refreshment I needed,” she finished as she stepped off the raised riverbank and into the depths, finding the water level to be just above chest level.
“There, Mr Garrick. You didn’t look, did you? And now I’m respectably hidden from view, as are you, so who could possibly raise an objection if they found us companionably swimming together?”
* * *
Henry couldn’t keep his eyes off her. She was speaking to him, while undressing, as if she had not an inhibition in the world. It was only when she was about to remove her chemise that she indicated to him to turn his head.
When he heard her enter the water and then felt the gentle undulation of the waves, she made as she waded into chest height, announcing that she was now not indecent and they could resume proper conversation, he didn’t know whether this was an invitation to something highly illicit.
But her manner seemed devoid of calculation and there was no subtext he could discern as she smiled at him, telling him about the dreary morning she’d had closeted with the other young ladies.
Finally, he had to stop her. “Miss Manners, is this normal behaviour in your part of the country? Swimming in summer with… members of the opposite sex?”
She stopped, surprised by his question, for she frowned and asked, “You’ve not seen so much as my ankles, have you, Mr Garrick? I’m not so beyond the pale that I don’t know what a lady shows and what she doesn’t. Besides, no one knows we’re here and we can return to the house separately, and quite dry, and no one will know. I’m not going to tell them.”
“And I certainly won’t, either.” He still couldn’t fathom the strangeness of her behaviour, however, he would not look a gift horse in the mouth. If Miss Manners was happy to swim naked in his presence, he would not object. “Where did you say you hail from?” he asked.
“Dover. It’s generally colder than here, however, it’s not frowned upon to jump into the river when so inclined.” She looked a trifle defensive. “That is, I didn’t think it was. But then, I’m an orphan. A poor relation. Maybe I don’t know as much as I thought about what was acceptable and what was not.”
He put out his hand as she appeared distressed, and she looked grateful as she took it for a brief moment. “If you think I should not be here, then perhaps you’d be so good as to turn your head away again and I’ll leave.”
He didn’t like that idea and wished he’d not said anything earlier to indicate his surprise at her behaviour, which she took as censure.
And censure it would be if anyone else came upon them. Indeed, Henry would be in just as much trouble as she. Though he didn’t care to think about that.
“The path doesn’t naturally arrive at this part of the river and we are very distant from the grounds. I think we’ll be safe enough,” he said. He wanted to learn more of her strange upbringing. “I know only that you are here in place of your cousin, whom I’ve heard briefly mentioned. However, I am much more interested in you.” He sent her a look that he hoped would invite her to share.
“We are a family of women.” She held out her arms and seemed to study the sheen of water, without consciousness of his own admiration. “My older sisters have guided me.”
“And are they married?”
Only now did she jerk up her head while he thought he detected evasiveness in her tone when she replied, “My sisters are not conventional. Neither has any wish to marry.”
He could not hide his surprise. “So, they are independent women of independent means? While you are here in your cousin’s stead for the… pleasure of it, Miss Manners? Are you like your sisters, or are you the black sheep of the family and wish for a ring upon your finger, despite your earlier assertions?” It was ungentlemanly perhaps to adopt this cynical tone but as he could also be more probing in the circumstances, he went on, “As the lowly dancing tutor, is it presumptuous of me to ask if you suspect you’ve been invited to Quamby House as a prospective wife for one of the young gentlemen Lady Quamby has invited?”
Miss Manners gave a gurgle of laughter, raising her eyes to the sky, her slender throat suddenly an object of intense fascination to Henry, who flicked his eyes to hers rather than succumbing to the pull of exploring that line downwards.
“I really could not say, Mr Garrick. I certainly am not in the same league as these other young ladies, so I would be highly surprised if Lady Quamby considered me a prospective match for any young gentlemen here. I had not considered that these few days of education were in fact a matchmaking venture by third parties who have prevailed upon the countess. My cousin did not think so, either, else I can’t imagine she’d have suggested I go in her stead.” She hesitated. “My cousin has a nicety of manner and connections far better than mine. No, Mr Garrick, I do not aspire to marriage with anyone here, so would much rather consort with you, even, than the young ladies who seem to regard me as…” She shrugged, looking for a word.
“More confident than the usual debutante?”
“More bold, I was going to say, and then didn’t wish to tarnish myself in your eyes more than I already have.”
He liked the way she said that. As if she really didn’t care if she had or had not, for her expression was full of humour; and suddenly Henry felt the impulse to launch towards her and whisk her into his arms in the name of spontaneous teasing. Like he might have done with his cousin, Anna, a hoyden if ever there was one, who loved bouncing and splashing and who, he feared, was going to have a very miserable time when she came out in a few months’ time.
“You’re not the slightest bit tarnished in my eyes,” he said, looking her over with an appreciation that made her blush.
“Then I fear I have given you the wrong impression, Mr Garrick.” Embarrassment crossed her features. With a shrug and a laugh, she added, “Oh well, what does it signify if I don’t wish to court your regard? I shall be here only a few days and when I’m gone, you’ll hardly dwell on that pert miss who behaved with such cavalier lack of regard for the proprieties.”
He hadn’t realised he was so close to her until a movement with her hands caught his shoulder as she arced them out of the water to illustrate her words.
At the same time he’d moved his forearm and in the process her hand was suddenly skimming his palm, which he closed in a sudden reflex, causing her to pause, and stare.
But she didn’t move her hand.
She moved nothing, as she remained rooted to the spot, still and unmoving, as he brought his other hand round to clasp her elbow.
For a long second they stared at one another, and Henry felt a voracious surge of desire through every extremity.
And might have acted upon it had the sounds of childish laughter not disturbed them, before three mud-spattered young boys suddenly appeared on the river’s edge.
“You’re swimming in our spot!” the dark-haired boy cried, indignant, before the other two brought up the rear. Their looks were much more interested, but Henry tried to assert a sense of normality as he called back, “It’s our spot if we’re already here, wouldn’t you agree, boys?” he added, scooping up a handful of water.
Only to find Miss Manners had inadvertently moved in front of him and that the water he’d intended for the boys had caught her full in the face.
With a cry of shocked surprise, she plunged both her hands into the water and launched her own cascade in his direction, laughing as she realised, perhaps, the foolishness of her spontaneity.
Henry didn’t mind. The tension was gone, and he was no longer the dangerously aroused young man who must remember himself.
Instead, he was the playful cousin, enjoying a water fight as he often had done with Anna.
The water sprayed all about them, their attempts to half drown the other became more contrived, until suddenly Miss Manners’ lithe girlish body was wrapped about his as she gripped him round the throat as she might have done to her own brother.
Except that a brother would have responded with fraternal indignation.
Henry, by contrast, was struck by the most unbrotherly of emotions, his arms wrapping themselves about her chest, pinioning her against him.
She’d stopped the boisterous play, too. Now pliant, her body pressed against his, he heard the catch in her breath; saw the widening of her eyes.
“We’re coming in, too!”
With a splash, the young boys had slithered down the water’s edge and were now clinging to an overhanging tree branch as they began their own play. They seemed to have lost interest in the adults.
While Henry was acutely conscious of every faint breath—his and hers—and every point of contact: his hand upon the flare of her hip, the tip of her breast touching his chest, his other hand clasped in hers.
The turmoil in his loins.
“We should return to the house,” he murmured, and she agreed; drawing away from him, taking a deep breath, flashing him a smile, then breaking past with present as she clapped her hands like a schoolmarm, exhorting the boys to look at the sky while she pulled herself out of the river’s murky brown depths and then bent, reaching for her shawl.
She’d not told Henry he couldn’t look.
His eyes followed the curve of her body as she sank down upon the leaves, covering herself with her shawl.
She didn’t even glance at Henry. Her thoughts seemed on quite another plane as she slowly and methodically went through the motions of drying herself before pulling her chemise over her head, and then her clothes.
Henry didn’t think he’d ever seen such graceful movements.
He didn’t think he’d been so fascinated by a woman, either.
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