The Major’s Mistake
Book Three—Scandalous Secrets
Seven years ago, a malicious lie caused Lady Miranda’s husband to cast her off. Shunned by Society, she lives as a recluse with an elderly aunt, using her skills at healing to do good for those in need. It’s a quiet life . . .
Until Lord Sterling returns home from war. Sent by the government to investigate unrest around the Scottish border, he unexpectedly encounters Miranda and discovers he has a young son. Despite the mutual feelings of pain and mistrust, they agree on uneasy truce so that Sterling can become acquainted with the boy.
As they spend time together and experience a reawakening of their love, Sterling and Miranda must confront the mistakes of the past—and decide whether the future can hold a happily ever after.
Miranda found that Justin’s bubbling enthusiasm made any other attempt at conversation unnecessary. With silent thanks for her son’s loquacity, she leaned back against the soft leather of the phaeton and simply watched the countryside rush by. Even without slanting a sideways look in his direction, she was acutely aware of the marquess’s presence, from his firm control of the spirited team to the occasional mellifluous laugh at some remark by the little boy.
It was disturbing, yet oddly poignant, bringing back memories of when they had—
She shook her head to banish such disquieting thoughts.
That was all well in the past.
The horses stopped at an opening in the hedgerow. A narrow path led up through a tumble of wild blackberries to a ridge overlooking rolling pastureland and a gravelly river that wound through the center of the narrow valley. As Lady Thornton had remarked, the day was nearly cloudless, the bright sun bringing a warmth to the air that hinted of the coming summer.
Two large hampers gave promise that Justin would not be disappointed in the array of treats in store for him. The marquess set them down on the grassy verge, then came around to help Miranda and Justin down from the high perch.
Justin rushed over to the heavy baskets and took hold of one of the handles. “I’ll help you, Major.”
The effort to lift it nearly pitched him into the center of an apple tart.
Miranda tactfully held out a folded Merino blanket. “Perhaps you might carry this for me, love.”
“And that way, you might also go ahead and pick out the best spot for us,” added Julian, seeing a hint of mutiny on the little boy’s face at being denied the larger burden.
Instead, Justin fairly beamed with pleasure at being assigned such a grown-up task. “I’ll find the very, very best spot,” he promised. “And I’ll even spread out the blanket all by myself.” With that, he scampered off through the leafy gap.
As the marquess tended to the horses, Miranda took up one of the hampers herself, meaning to follow her son. It was with great surprise that she suddenly felt its weight lifted from her hand.
“You have lugged enough baskets for a time,” he said quietly. “Allow me.”
“But I’m quite used to it,” she answered, reluctant to give it up.
His blue eyes seemed to take on a deeper intensity. “I’ve no doubt that you are—but not today.”
For some reason, she relinquished her hold without further argument. At his bidding, she went on first and though once or twice she heard his step falter over the rough stones, she kept her gaze riveted straight ahead.
Justin waved from beside an outcropping of rock. “Look!” he cried. “See how flat this is—it’s just like a table.”
“Why, how very clever of you,” exclaimed Miranda as she gave him a hug. “I daresay there isn’t a more perfect place than right here.
It took a few minutes for the marquess to reach them. There were beads of perspiration on his temples, though it was evident they had little to do with physical effort. His face was a shade paler and the fine lines around his mouth drawn a little tighter. He put the hampers down on the rock, leaning rather heavily on its edge as well, to take some of the weight off his leg.
“Well done, lad,” he said lightly, striving to hide his discomfort. “A splendid place for a picnic.”
Miranda quickly began unpacking the varied contents. “If you will sit down, sir, I shall pass you the linens and silverware.”
He didn’t argue but lowered himself gingerly down onto the blanket. In a few minutes, his color began to return and the tension wracking his lanky frame seemed to ease a bit. His lips relaxed into a easy smile as Justin pointed out a circling hawk and began to speculate on just what might end up as its next meal.
“Well, we have no such worries about whether we shall suffer empty stomachs, have we?” quipped the marquess.
“Indeed not.” Miranda had already unwrapped a roasted guinea hen, a pigeon pie, several thick slices of Yorkshire ham, along with a generous wedge of Stilton. “Did your Cook imagine she was feeding an entire regiment, sir?”
He grinned. “I mentioned there was a small boy involved. I’m afraid she also feels I’m a sad reflection of her culinary skills and hasn’t given up trying to stuff me like a Strasbourg goose.”
“You are indeed thinner—” Her words cut off abruptly. She turned and began carving the fowl with slow, deliberate strokes.
The awkward moment passed as Justin tugged on the marquess’s sleeve and directed his attention to a rabbit that had ventured out of the shelter of the brambles to nibble at the tender shoots of grass.
She finished with making up a plate for each of them, then took a seat on the blanket next to Justin. Despite her misgivings, the meal was not nearly as dreadful as she imagined. The boy’s irrepressible spirits, coupled with Julian’s encouragements, ensured no lack of conversation. In fact, she fell to listening with half an ear, hearing more the sound of her son’s clear soprano in concert with the rich baritone of his father than any mere words.
It was a lovely music, she thought, though it struck a deep chord of sadness within her.
There was a sudden stinging in her eyes. She turned her face towards the river and pressed her lids very tightly closed.
“Mama, I’m finished—may I have a piece of shortbread?”
She forced herself to smile. “Just one.”
He made a face but accepted his limit with nought but a small sigh. “What’s that?” he asked between bites, pointing to a long, thin package still wrapped in oilskin that lay behind the hampers.
Julian slanted an apologetic glance at Miranda. “Ah, I haven’t had a chance to ask your mother if you might take a look.”
Her brows came together in question.
“It’s a boat,” he explained in whisper. “There is a small stream nearby, and I thought . . . However I do not wish to overstep—”
“A boat is quite acceptable, sir.” In a louder voice she said, “Justin, His lordship has brought you a present. Come bring it here and unwrap it, love.”
The little boy carried it over and eagerly stripped the covering from a sleek wooden hull. His eyes lit up with awe at the sight of the brass fittings, varnished planking and brightly painted keel.
“Oh, thank you ever so much, Major. It’s smashing!” He turned to Miranda. “Mama. isn’t it the grandest boat in the world?”
“Indeed it is.”
“There is a mast and sails as well, waiting at home,” added Julian, nearly as pleased as Justin himself that the gift been received so well.
“May I take it down to the stream?” Before Miranda could answer, he added,” I shall be very careful not to muddy my shoes or tear my jacket, I promise.”
“I am more concerned that you do not end up in the water, my love, so mind where you step. And yes, of course you may see how she takes to the water, but don’t stray too far.”
Justin tucked it under his arm with the greatest of care and hurried off towards where a shallow stream twisted its way along the edge of the fields.
The marquess watched the boy’s retreating form until his small head was barely visible above the tall grass and clumps of gorse. Save for an occasional cricket or the chirp of a robin, there was silence.
Miranda’s hands tightened in her lap—she hadn’t considered that the two of them would be forced to spend any time alone. She stole a glance at Julian, whose attention was still riveted on Justin. He had removed his coat and his immaculate white linen shirt only emphasized the breadth of his muscled shoulders and taut planes of his chest. The fitted buckskins and polished Hessians were also of the finest quality and showed his form to perfection.
She looked quickly away. If anything, he was even more handsome than when she had first met him. The changes the years had wrought were, to her eyes, only for the better. The fine lines etched around his eyes softened the blind arrogance of youth and the set of his lips somehow bespoke of a firmer, wiser man.
Her breath caught in her throat. She had no illusions of how she must appear—thinner, plainer, poorer. No doubt he must be congratulating himself of being well rid of her.
To make matters worse, she once again felt the prick of tears. She couldn’t restrain a silent oath. Damnation, she knew it had been a mistake to come. A confused anger welled up inside her. Anger at herself for allowing self pity to rear its head, anger at Julian for reappearing in her life. After all, it was much easier to hate a phantom of her own imagination.
With a jerk of her skirts, she made to get up.
“You have been a wonderful mother, Miranda.”
His words, spoken softly, caught her totally off guard. She turned towards him in astonishment.
He shifted uncomfortably on the blanket, but his eyes never wavered from hers.
“I said, you have raised him well.”
There was a sharp intake of breath. “I . . . I never expected to hear you say anything good about me.”
His brows came together for an instant. He looked as if to say something, then turned his gaze off towards the stream, where Justin was dancing along the shore, pushing at the bobbing hull with a long stick to free it from the rocky eddies. Finally, he gave a long sigh. “I wish I had known I had a son all those years I was in the Peninsula. It would have made . . . a difference.”
His tone was not accusatory, merely one of regret.
Miranda twisted a bit of fabric in a hard knot. “It was not out of malice, sir,” she said, her voice barely above a whisper. “Can you truly say you would have believed me if I had written of it?”
Julian’s face creased in thought, then his mouth pursed in a rueful grimace. “Touché.”