A Knight in Shining Armor: Chapter 12


Dougless watched Nicholas atop the stallion and held her breath. She’d heard of people riding horses like this one, but she’d never seen it. Every employee and every visitor at the riding stables had stopped to watch as Nicholas brought the high-strung, angry, mean-tempered animal under control.

Last night they’d stayed up until after one A.M. while Dougless made him tell her all about his relationship to the Harewoods. They’d had estates near one another. Dickie was old enough to be Nicholas’s father and he’d had a daughter, Arabella, who’d married Lord Robert Sydney. She and her husband had hated each other, so after she’d given him an heir, they’d lived apart, although Arabella had given birth to three more children.

“One of them yours,” Dougless had said, taking notes.

Nicholas’s face softened. “There is no reason to think ill of her. She and the child died in that childbirth.”

“I’m sorry,” Dougless said with a grimace, and knew that the woman could easily have died from something as simple as the midwife’s not washing her hands.

Dougless tried to think of a way to get invited to the Harewood estates as quickly as possible, but she had no credentials as a scholar, and although Nicholas was an earl, his title had been taken from him when he was condemned for treason. He couldn’t even claim to be his own aristocratic descendant. She thought until she couldn’t stay awake any longer; then she’d bid Nicholas good night and gone to her own bed.

“This is better,” she thought as she drifted into sleep. She had her emotions under control. She was getting over Robert and she was no longer thinking she was falling for a married man. She’d help Nicholas get back to his wife, help him clear his name; then she’d go home feeling good about herself. For once in her life she was not going to fall for an unsuitable man.

Nicholas woke her early the next morning by throwing open the sitting room door. “Can you ride a horse? Can anyone today ride a horse?”

Dougless assured him she could ride, courtesy of her Colorado cousins; then after breakfast she’d found a nearby riding stables. It was four miles to the stables and Nicholas insisted they walk. “Your machines have made you lazy,” he said, slapping her on the back as he set off at a brisk pace. At the stables, as Dougless sat on a bench fanning herself, Nicholas had turned up his nose at all the horses for rent, but his eyes had lit up at the sight of an enormous black horse in a field. The animal was prancing about and tossing its head as though it dared anyone to come near it. As though in a trance, Nicholas had walked toward the creature. When the horse ran toward him, Dougless sat up and bit her knuckles in fear.

“This one,” Nicholas said to the stableman.

Dougless hurried to him. “You can’t really think of riding that horse. There are lots of horses here; why don’t you pick one of them?”

But nothing anyone could say would change Nicholas’s mind. The owner of the stables came into the yard, and he seemed to think it would be a great joke to see Nicholas break his neck. Dougless knew that in America there’d be talk of insurance, but not in England. A groom got a rope around the stallion’s neck, then led it into a stall, where another groom saddled it. Finally, the horse was led into a cobbled courtyard and the reins were gleefully handed to Nicholas.

“I never seen nobody ride like that,” one of the grooms said as soon as Nicholas had mounted and pulled the horse under control. “He ride a lot?”

“Always,” Dougless answered. “He’ll get on a horse before he’ll get in a car. In fact, he’s spent much more of his life on a horse than in a car.”

“Must have,” the groom mumbled, watching Nicholas with awe.

“You are ready?” Nicholas asked Dougless.

She mounted her sedate mare and followed him as he took off. Never had she seen a happier man, and it struck Dougless afresh how different the modern world must be from what he knew. He and the horse fit together as one being, as though he’d become a centaur.

Rural England is full of footpaths and horse trails, and Nicholas went galloping down one of them as though he’d been down it a thousand times—which he probably had, Dougless thought. She called out to him that maybe he should ask directions, but then she doubted if someone had moved Goshawk Hall in the last few hundred years.

She had trouble keeping up with him, lost him repeatedly, and once he returned for her. She had stopped at a crossroads and was looking at the ground for his tracks. When he saw her, he was very interested in what she was doing. Dougless, trying her best to control her mare, who was reacting to the aggressive nearness of Nicholas’s stallion, told him she’d buy him some Louis L’Amour books and read to him about tracking. Laughing, he pointed the way to her, then left in a flurry of mud and leaves.

At last she reached an open gate with a small brass plaque that said, “Goshawk Hall.” She rode down the drive to see an enormous, rectangular fortress of a house set amid acres of beautiful, rolling gardens.

Dougless felt a bit embarrassed to be riding up to this house uninvited, but Nicholas was there, already off his horse and walking toward a tall, grubby-looking man on his hands and knees in a bed of petunias.

Gratefully dismounting, Dougless took her horse’s reins and ran after him. “Don’t you think we should knock on the front door first?” Dougless asked when she reached him. “Why don’t you ask for Mr. Harewood and tell him we’d like to see the papers.”

“You are on my ground now,” he said over his shoulder as he walked toward the gardener.

“Nicholas!” she hissed at him.

“Harewood?” Nicholas said to the man on his knees in the flower bed.

Turning, the tall man looked up at Nicholas. He had blue eyes and blond hair that was now turning gray, and his face had the smooth, pink complexion of a baby’s. He also didn’t look especially intelligent. “Ah, yes. Do I know you?”

“Nicholas Stafford of Thornwyck.”

“Hmmm,” the man said as he stood up, not bothering to dust off his dirty old trousers. “Not the Staffords with that rogue son who got himself tried for treason?”

Dougless thought the man could have been speaking of something that happened last year.

“The same,” Nicholas said, his back straight.

Harewood looked from him to his horse. Nicholas was wearing a very expensive riding outfit with tall, shiny black boots, and Dougless suddenly felt grubby in her Levi’s, cotton shirt, and Nikes. “You ride that?” Harewood asked.

“I did. I hear you have some papers on my family.”

“Oh, yes, we found them when a wall fell down,” he said, smiling. “Looks like somebody hid them. Come in and we’ll have some tea and see if we can find the papers. I think Arabella has them.”

Dougless started to follow them, but Nicholas, without looking at her, dropped the reins of his horse into her hand, then calmly strode off with Lord Harewood.

“Just a minute,” she said as she started after the men, leading the horses behind her. But when Nicholas’s stallion started prancing, Dougless looked back at the animal. It was looking at her with a wild-eyed expression, as though it meant to do something bad. Dougless had had enough of men—any kind of man! “Just try it,” she warned, and the horse stopped prancing.

Now what do I do, she wondered. If she was supposed to be Nicholas’s secretary and she was supposed to find out what secrets may or may not be in the papers, why was she standing here holding the horses?

“Should I rub them down, your lordship?” she muttered as she started walking toward the back of the house. Maybe there was a stables where she could get rid of the animals.

There were half a dozen buildings in the back of the house, so Dougless headed toward one that looked as though it might be a stables. She was nearly there when a horse and rider came tearing past her. The horse was as large and as mean-looking as Nicholas’s stallion (it was probably a stallion too, but Dougless always thought it was rude to look) and on top of it was a stunning woman. She looked like what all women wanted to grow up to look like: tall, slim-hipped, long, long legs, an aristocratic face, big breasts, a straight-backed carriage that would make a piece of steel envious. She had on English riding breeches that could have been painted on, and her dark hair was pulled back in a severe bun, but that only emphasized the striking features of her beautiful face.

The woman halted her horse, then jerked on the reins and turned it around. “Whose horse is that?” she demanded in a voice that Dougless knew men would love: deep, throaty, husky, and powerful. Let me guess, Dougless thought, this is the great-great-great-etcetera-grand-daughter of Arabella-on-the-table. Just my luck.

“Nicholas Stafford’s,” Dougless said.

The woman’s face turned pale—which made her lips redder, and her eyes even darker. “Was that meant to amuse me?” she asked, glaring down at Dougless.

“He’s a descendant of the Nicholas Stafford, if that’s what you mean,” Dougless answered. Dougless tried to imagine how an American family would react if someone mentioned the name of an Elizabethan-era ancestor. They’d have no idea whom she was talking about, but these people acted as though Nicholas had been gone only a couple of years.

The woman dismounted beautifully, then tossed Dougless the reins. “Rub him down,” she said as she started toward the house.

“I wouldn’t hold my breath,” Dougless muttered. She now held three horses, two of whom looked as though they liked to kill small females before breakfast. She didn’t dare look at the horses but kept walking toward the stables.

An older man, sitting in the sun, drinking a mug of tea and reading a newspaper, did a double take when he saw her.

Slowly, cautiously, he rose. “Just be quiet, miss,” he said. “Stand very still and I’ll take both of ’em.”

Dougless didn’t dare move, as the man was moving toward her with the stealth that one would use when approaching a wounded tiger. Slowly, he stuck out his hand, not wanting to get too near, and took the reins to one of the stallions. Cautiously, he led the horse away from her and toward the stables. Moments later he repeated his performance as he took Nicholas’s stallion away.

When the man returned, he removed his cap and wiped the sweat from his brow. “How did you get Lady Arabella’s horse and Sugar together?”

“Sugar?”

“The stud from the Dennison’s stables.”

“Sugar. Great joke. He should be named Enemy of the People. So that was Lady Arabella?” she asked as she looked back at the house and pretended she hadn’t guessed who the woman was. “So how do I get into the house? I’m supposed to be . . . helping.”

When the man looked Dougless up and down, she knew her American clothes and her accent were about four strikes against her.

“That door there’s the kitchen entrance.”

Dougless handed him the reins to her docile mare, thanked him, and went off muttering. “The kitchen entrance. Should I bob a curtsey to the cook and ask for employment as a scullery maid? Wait until I see Nicholas! We’ll settle a few things right away. I am not his horse tender.”

When she knocked on the back door, a man answered, and when she asked for Nicholas, he led her into the kitchen. It was an enormous room, fitted out with new appliances, but in the center of the room was a vast table that had probably been there since William the Conqueror arrived. All five of the people in the kitchen stopped working and stared at her. “Just passing through,” she said. “My, ah . . . employer, he, ah, needs me.” She smiled weakly. Too bad I’m going to kill him, she thought, and imagined the lecture she was going to give him on modern equality.

The man she was following—who didn’t speak to her—led her through several storage rooms for the kitchen, with everyone she saw stopping and staring at her. Nicholas is going to look forward to his execution when I finish with him, Dougless thought.

The man didn’t stop until they were at the entrance hall, a big round room with magnificent staircases going up both sides, portraits hanging everywhere. Lord Harewood, Nicholas, and the dashing Lady Arabella were standing close together, looking as though they were old friends. Arabella, if possible, looked even better now than she had when Dougless had first seen her, and her beautiful eyes were practically eating up Nicholas.

“You have joined us,” Nicholas said when he saw Dougless, acting as though she’d been out taking the air. “My secretary must stay with me.”

“With you?” Arabella said as she looked down her nose at Dougless. Dougless knew how a grape must feel when it was being made into a raisin.

“A place must be made for her,” Nicholas clarified, smiling.

“I think we can find room,” Arabella said.

“Where? In the trash compactor?” Dougless said under her breath.

Nicholas clamped down on her shoulder painfully. “American,” he said, as though that explained everything. “We will be here for tea,” he said; then before Dougless could say another word, he pushed her out the front door before him. He seemed to know exactly where the stables were because he headed toward them.

Dougless had to hurry to keep up with his long strides. There were sometimes disadvantages to being five feet three inches tall. “What have you done now?” she asked. “Are we staying here for the weekend? You didn’t tell them you were from the sixteenth century, did you? And where do get off calling me an American in that tone?”

He stopped on the gravel path. “What do you have to wear to dinner? They dress for dinner.”

“What’s wrong with what I have on?” she said with a smirk.

Turning, he started walking again.

“Think Arabella will dress? Something with a cleavage to the floor, I’ll bet.”

Nicholas glanced over his shoulder, a smile on his face. “What is a trash com . . . ?”

“Compactor,” she filled in, then explained it to him. His laugh floated back to her.

At the stables two grooms stayed well back while Nicholas mounted Sugar. “Had I grooms that cowardly, I would have flogged them,” Nicholas mumbled.

Dougless couldn’t get a word of information out of Nicholas as they rode back to the rental stables. Thankfully, a man at the stables gave them a ride back to Thornwyck Castle, but he and Nicholas talked nonstop about horses, so Dougless couldn’t ask about what Nicholas had found out.

It was lunchtime at the hotel when they returned, and Nicholas, still sweaty, went straight into the dining room, where he ordered three entrees and a bottle of wine.

Only when the wine had been poured did he speak. “What would you know of me?” he asked, his eyes twinkling. Obviously, he’d been well aware that she was drowning in curiosity.

Her first thought was to not give him the satisfaction of asking him anything. Instead, she’d blast him about the way he’d treated her. But, in the end, her curiosity won. “Who? How? What? When?”

He laughed. “A woman without guile.”

As the food began to arrive, he told her how Dickie Harewood was the same, not too bright, wanting only to hunt and tend to his gardens. “His gardens are not near as good as mine,” Nicholas said.

“Stop bragging and go on.” She dug into her plate of roast beef. English beef was one of the great wonders of the earth: tender, succulent, cooked perfectly.

Two months ago workmen were repairing the roof of Goshawk Hall and it seemed their hammering had knocked out a piece of a wall. “They do not build today as well as they should,” Nicholas said. “In my houses—”

He broke off at a look from Dougless. Inside the wall was a trunk full of papers, and when they were examined, they were found to be the letters of Lady Margaret Stafford.

Dougless leaned back against her chair. “That’s wonderful! And now we’re invited to their house to read them. Oh, Colin, you are beautiful.”

Nicholas’s eyes widened at the name she’d called him, but he did not comment. “There are problems.”

“What sort of problems? No, let me guess. In exchange, Lady Arabella wants you served on a platter to her every morning with her orange juice.”

Nicholas nearly choked on his wine. “Your language, madam,” he said primly.

“Am I right or wrong?”

“Incorrect. Lady Arabella is authoring a book on . . .” When he turned away, Dougless wasn’t sure, but she thought his face was turning pink.

“On you?” she gasped.

He looked back at his food but not at her. “It concerns the man she believes to be my ancestor. She has, ah, heard the stories of . . .”

“Of you two on the table.” Dougless grimaced. “Great, now she wants to repeat history. Is she going to let you see the documents or not?”

“She cannot. She has signed a contract with a physician.”

Dougless had to figure that one out. A physician? Was she ill? No, a doctor. “Not the doctor in the magazine? What was his name? Dr. Something Hamilton. No, Hamilton something. That guy?”

Nicholas nodded. “He arrived but yesterday. He hopes to gain something by clearing my name, but I do not know what. Arabella says the book will take years. I do not believe I can wait that long. Your world costs too much.”

Dougless knew from her father’s career how important it was to get published. To the outside world it might not seem important to solve an Elizabethan mystery, but to a scholar, especially a young man just starting out, a book with new information could mean the difference between tenure or not, or between getting a teaching position at a large, well-paid school or at a small community college.

“So,” she said, “Dr. Whatever is there, and he’s sworn your Arabella to secrecy, so you’re not going to be given access to the papers. Yet it seems that we’re invited as houseguests anyway.”

Nicholas smiled over his wineglass. “I have persuaded Arabella to tell me what she knows of me. I hope I can persuade her to tell me all. And you”—he fixed Dougless with a look—“you are to talk to this physician.”

“He’s a Ph.D., not a physician and . . . What! Wait a minute, are you saying what I think you are? I am not, under any circumstances, going to play up to some history nut to help you out. I signed on as a secretary, not as a . . . What are you doing?”

Nicholas had taken her hand in both of his and was kissing her fingertips one by one.

“Stop that! People are looking.” Dougless’s shoes came off her feet. Nicholas’s lips traveled up her arm until they reached the sensitive little spot on her inner elbow. Dougless was sinking down in the chair.

“All right!” she said. “You win! Stop that!”

He looked up at her through his lashes. “You will help me?”

“Yes,” she said as he kissed her arm again.

“Good,” he said, then dropped her arm so that it landed in her dirty plate. “Now we must pack.”

Dougless, grimacing, mopped up her arm and ran after him. “Is that how you’re going to persuade Arabella?” she called after him, then stopped as she saw the other diners staring at her. Dougless gave a crooked smile of apology and ran from the room.

In their suite, Dougless saw a different Nicholas. He was very concerned that his clothes weren’t correct. He held up a gorgeous linen shirt and said, “It needs pluming up.”

Dougless looked at her own meager wardrobe and felt like crying. A weekend at an English lord’s estate, where they dress for dinner, and she had nothing but serviceable wool. She wished she had her mother’s white gown, the one with the pearls, or the red one with—

Halting, she thought for a moment. Then she smiled. And the next minute she was on the phone to her sister Elizabeth in Maine.

“You want me to send you two of Mother’s best gowns?” Elizabeth said. “She will kill both of us.”

“Elizabeth,” Dougless said firmly. “I take full responsibility. Just send them NOW. Overnight mail. Got a pencil?” She gave Elizabeth the address at Goshawk Hall.

“Dougless, what’s going on? First I get a frantic-sounding call from you where you won’t tell me anything, and now you want me to ransack Mother’s closet.”

“Nothing much. How’s your paper coming?”

“It’s making me crazy. And if that weren’t bad enough, I have stopped up drains. A plumber is coming today. Dougless, are you sure you’re all right?”

“I’m fine. Good luck with your paper and your plumber. Bye.”

Dougless packed her suitcase, then Nicholas’s—it was one of those things he wouldn’t consider doing for himself—then she called a taxi. There was no suitcase large enough to hold his armor, so it was put into the biggest shopping bag.

When they arrived at Goshawk Hall, Arabella literally met Nicholas with open arms. “Come inside, darling,” she purred, her hands all over him. “I feel we already know one another. After all, our ancestors were very friendly. Who are we to be any different?” She ushered him inside, leaving Dougless with a half-dozen or so suitcases at her feet.

“Who are we to be any different?” she mocked in a falsetto voice as she paid the cab driver.

It didn’t take Dougless five minutes to learn that she was not considered a houseguest but a servant, and not a very welcome one at that. A man ushered her—Dougless carrying her own suitcases—to a small, barren, cold room not far from the kitchen. Feeling like a governess in a gothic, neither servant nor family, she unpacked and hung her clothes in a grubby little wardrobe. Looking about the ugly little room, she felt martyred. Here she was doing this to help some guy save his life and his family name and she was never even going to be able to tell anyone about it.

She left the room and went into the kitchen to find the big room empty, but tea for two had been set up at one end of the worktable.

“There you are,” said a large woman with graying hair.

Minutes later, Dougless was sitting at the table having tea with the woman. Mrs. Anderson was the cook and the most wonderful gossip Dougless had ever met. There wasn’t a thing the woman didn’t know or was unwilling to tell. She wanted to know why Dougless was there and who Lord Stafford was, and in return she wanted to tell Dougless everything. Dougless obliged with a complicated web of lies that she prayed she’d be able to remember.

An hour later the other servants began filtering back into the kitchen, and Dougless could see they wanted her to leave so Mrs. Anderson could tell them all the juicy news.

Upon leaving the kitchen, Dougless went in search of Nicholas. She found him outside with Arabella under a grape arbor, the two of them cozied up like nesting birds.

“My lord,” Dougless said loudly, “you wanted to dictate letters?”

“His lordship is busy at the moment,” Arabella said, glaring. “He will attend to business on Monday. In the library are notes of mine that you may type.”

“His lordship is—” Dougless had intended to say “my employer, not you,” but Nicholas interrupted her.

“Yes, Miss Montgomery, perhaps you can help Lady Arabella.”

Dougless started to tell him what she thought of him, but his eyes were pleading with her to be obedient. In spite of what she knew she should do, that is, tell them both what she thought of them, she turned and went back into the house. It wasn’t any of her business, she thought. It didn’t matter to her what he did with other women. Of course she might point out to him that his foolishness with Arabella in the past had left generations of people laughing at him, and now it looked as though he was about to repeat himself. Yes, she might bring herself to point out that one small fact to him. And, also, if he was so madly in love with his wife, why was he snuggling up with the overendowed Arabella?

It took Dougless a while to find the library, and when she did, she was pleased to see that it looked just as she thought a library in one of these big, grand houses should look: leather-bound books, leather chairs, dark green walls, oak doors. She was looking around the room so intently that she didn’t at first see the man standing in front of the bookcases, reading a book. She saw him before he saw her, and instantly, she knew who he was. Only a man like her father, a man who had dedicated his life to learning, could be so absorbed in a book that he was oblivious of all else. He was young, blond, broad-shouldered, slim-hipped, and he looked as though he worked out often. Even with his face tipped down, Dougless could see that he was very good looking, not divine, as Nicholas was, but good enough to set a few hearts to beating quickly. She also took in the fact that he was only about five feet six inches tall. However, it had been Dougless’s experience that short, handsome men were as vain as bantam roosters, and they loved short, pretty females such as Dougless.

“Hello,” she said.

The man glanced up from his book, down, then up again, and ended by staring at her with unabashed interest. He put his book away and came forward with his hand outstretched. “Hi, I’m Hamilton Nolman.”

Dougless took his hand. Blue eyes, perfect teeth. What a very interesting man, she thought. “I’m Dougless Montgomery, and you are an American.”

“The same as you,” he said, and there was an immediate bond between them. He stepped closer. “Can you believe this place?” he said as he glanced around the room.

“Never. Or the people. Lady Arabella sent me in here to type and I don’t even work for her.”

Hamilton laughed. “She’ll have you scrubbing toilets before long. She doesn’t allow pretty women near her. All the maids working here are dogs.”

“I hadn’t noticed.” She looked at him. “Aren’t you the doctor who’s working on the Stafford papers? The ones that fell out of the wall?”

“That I am.”

“That must have been exciting,” Dougless said, wide-eyed, trying to look as young and innocent, and as dumb, as possible. “I heard the papers contained secret information. Is that true, Dr. Nolman?”

He chuckled in a fatherly way. “Please, call me Lee. It has been rather exciting, although I’m just now getting into the papers.”

“They’re all about some man who was about to be beheaded, aren’t they? I . . .” She lowered her eyes and her voice. “You wouldn’t possibly tell me about the papers, would you?”

She watched him puff out his chest in pride; then the next minute they were seated and he was telling her about how he’d come to have the job and what had happened since he’d arrived. In spite of the fact that he seemed a tiny bit too full of himself, she found herself liking him. Wouldn’t her father love having a son-in-law who was interested in medieval history?

Wait a minute, Dougless, she cautioned herself. You’re swearing off men, remember? She was listening so intently to Lee that she didn’t hear Nicholas enter the room.

“Miss Montgomery!” Nicholas said so loudly that her arm fell out from under her chin and she nearly fell off the chair. “Are my letters typed?”

“Typing?” she asked. “Oh, Ni . . . Ah, your lordship, I’d like you to meet Dr. Hamilton Nolman, he’s—”

Arrogantly, Nicholas walked past Dr. Nolman, ignoring the doctor’s outstretched hand, as he went to the window. “Leave us,” Nicholas said over his shoulder.

Lee wiggled his eyebrows at Dougless, picked up his books, and left the room, shutting the heavy doors behind him.

“Just who do you think you are?” Dougless asked. “You’re no longer some sixteenth-century lord and master now. You can’t just dismiss people like that. And, besides, what do you know about typing?”

When Nicholas turned to look at her, she could tell by his expression that he had no idea what she was talking about. “You were very close to that small man.”

“I was . . . ?” Dougless trailed off. Was that jealousy in his voice? She walked over to the big oak desk. “He’s very good looking, isn’t he? And a scholar at his age, imagine. How’s Arabella doing? Told her about your wife yet?”

“What conversation did you have with that man?”

“The usual,” she said, running her finger along the desk. “He told me I was pretty, that sort of thing.”

When she looked back at Nicholas, she saw his face had an expression of controlled rage. Her heart swelled with happiness. Revenge, she thought, can be sweet. “I did find out some things though. Lee—that’s Dr. Nolman—hasn’t really read much of the papers yet. It seems that your Arabella took her time in choosing from the many scholars who asked to look at the papers. From what I gather, she chose the best-looking man from the photographs she insisted that the applicants send. Sort of a male beauty contest. I hear she threw away the women’s photos. Pure heterosexual, our lovely Arabella is. Lee said she was awfully disappointed that he turned out to be shorter than she is. He said Arabella took one look at him and said, ‘I thought all Americans were tall.’ Lee, thankfully, seems to have his ego intact, because he just laughed. He pretty much thinks Arabella is a jerk. Oh, sorry, I’m forgetting how much you adore her.”

Nicholas’s face was still enraged, and Dougless gave him her biggest smile. “How is Arabella?” she asked sweetly.

Nicholas glared at her for a moment, then his eyes changed. Turning, he pointed at an old oak table standing against a wall. “That, madam, is the true table.” With a smug little smile, he left the room.

With her fists clenched, Dougless went over to the table and gave it a good, hard kick. Hobbling about, holding her toe, she cursed all men.


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