Dougless sat in the back of the big black taxi, luggage all around her. This is where I came in, she thought, remembering being in the back of Robert’s rental car and trying to get comfortable around Gloria’s luggage. But now, sprawled beside her, his long legs stretched out, was Nicholas. He was absorbed in a battery-powered video game that they’d purchased this morning.
Putting her head back, Dougless closed her eyes and thought about the last several hours. After tea at Bellwood yesterday, she had called a taxi and asked to be taken to a nice hotel in Bath. The driver had taken them to a lovely eighteenth-century building where she was able to get a double room for the night. Neither she nor Nicholas mentioned asking for separate rooms. It was a beautiful room done in yellow chintz and flowered wallpaper, with white bedspreads piped in yellow on the two beds. Nicholas ran his hand over the wallpaper and vowed that when he got home, he was going to have someone paint the walls of his house with lilies and roses.
After they checked in, they went walking to look in the windows of the wonderful shops in Bath. It was near dinnertime when Dougless saw a movie house called the American Cinema.
“We could always go to a movie and eat hot dogs and popcorn for dinner,” she said, making a joke.
But Nicholas had been so intrigued that he’d started asking questions, so Dougless bought tickets. She thought it was a bit ironic that an “American” Cinema was playing an English movie—Room With a View—but they did have American hot dogs, popcorn, Cokes, and Reese’s peanut butter cups. Knowing Nicholas’s appetite, Dougless bought so much of everything that they could hardly waddle down the aisle for the load they were carrying.
Nicholas loved the popcorn, choked on the Coke, thought the hot dog had possibilities, and nearly cried in delight over the peanut butter and chocolate. Before the movie started, Dougless tried to explain what a movie was, and how very large the people would look. But Nicholas was too interested in what was going on in his mouth to listen very carefully.
He was fascinated when the lights went down, then nearly jumped out of his seat when the music came on. At the first sight of the enormous people, the expression on his face was so horrified that Dougless nearly dropped her popcorn.
Throughout the film, watching Nicholas was much more interesting than watching the movie—which Dougless had already seen twice before anyway.
As they walked back to the hotel after the film was over, he was full of questions. He’d been so enamored with the technical aspect of the movie that he could hardly follow the story. Also, he couldn’t understand the clothes. It took some explaining to make him understand that Edwardian was “old.”
In the hotel, they shared the toiletries Dougless had in her handbag, and what was in the little basket in the hotel. Dougless meant to sleep in her underwear so, after a shower, she wrapped herself in the robe supplied by the hotel. She’d planned to go straight to bed, but Nicholas wanted her to read to him, so she took her Agatha Christie from her bag, sat on a chair by him, and read until he fell asleep.
Before she turned out the light, she stood over him for a moment, looking down at his soft black hair against the crisp white sheets. On impulse, she lightly kissed his forehead. “Good night, my prince,” she whispered.
Without opening his eyes, Nicholas clasped her fingers. “I am but a mere earl,” he said softly, not opening his eyes, “but my thankings for the tribute.”
Embarrassed but smiling, she pulled away from him and went to her own bed. But, tired as she was, she lay awake for a long while, listening carefully for any sounds from him, wondering if he’d have bad dreams as he had the night before. But when he was silent, she at last drifted off. When she awoke, it was morning and he was already up and in the bathroom. Her first feeling was one of disappointment that she’d not slept cuddled in his arms, but she reprimanded herself. She was in love with Robert, wasn’t she? She couldn’t be so frivolous as to have fallen out of love in just a few days, could she? Not over one argument?
And she couldn’t possibly imagine herself to be in love with a man who was not and never could be hers, could she? She could never love a man who at any minute could go up in a puff of smoke and leave as quickly as he had arrived. Could she?
Nicholas came out of the bathroom, barefoot and barechested, wearing only his trousers, and toweling his wet hair. There were much worse sights in the morning than the broad, nude chest of a beautiful man, she thought. Dougless lay back against the pillows and sighed.
At her sigh, Nicholas looked at her and frowned. “Do you waste the day? We must find me a barber to shave this,” he said as he ran his hand over the growing whiskers.
“It’s quite fashionable now to have black stubble. Movie stars go to formal ceremonies with five o’clock shadow,” she said. But Nicholas didn’t like that idea. He said it was a beard or bare and “naught between.” In the end, she used the razor and tiny can of lather furnished by the hotel to show him how to shave. Unfortunately, before she could stop him, he ran his fingertips over the blade of the razor and sliced them. He laughed at Dougless for the to-do she made over such a little cut.
Later, dressed, fortified with a hearty English breakfast, they went shopping. Dougless was becoming accustomed to helping Nicholas do the most ordinary of things, but, this time, when he shopped for clothes, he knew exactly what he wanted. Dougless was amazed at how much he’d learned from an evening of looking at fashion magazines.
This time in an exclusive shop, Nicholas the earl took over, while Dougless merely stood in the background and watched. The English clerks seemed to recognize that they were dealing with aristocracy because it was “Yes, sir” and “No, sir” to him right and left.
Now, in the taxi, around Dougless’s feet were piled shopping bags filled with shirts, trousers, socks, belts, a marvelous coat of waxed cloth, caps, two Italian silk jackets, a luscious leather jacket, ties, and even a full set of evening clothes. It was as they were leaving the fifth store that Dougless had begun making moans of fatigue, especially now that they had several heavy bags to carry. Nicholas had given her a look of disdain, as though she were a real wimp. A moment later he gave a piercing whistle and a taxi stopped. He learns quickly, Dougless thought. Without her help, Nicholas arranged for the taxi to follow them for the rest of the morning as he purchased more clothes. Dougless paid for them while the driver hauled the bags out to the taxi.
At one o’clock she was wilted and ready to suggest lunch when he stopped before a lovely window display of women’s clothes. He looked at the display, then at Dougless, then half-shoved her into the shop, ahead of him. It was truly amazing how her energy revived! Nicholas was as generous as he was good at choosing clothing. He sent three young women clerks scurrying as he demanded that he be shown the best they had to offer. Dougless spent an hour and a half in the dressing room in her underwear, pulling clothes on and off. When they left, three bags full of new clothes for her were added to what Nicholas had bought for himself.
Finally, the only clothing he still needed was shoes. Nicholas had come to enjoy the comfort of modern clothes, but he hated the hard leather of modern shoes. The shoes he liked best were soft leather bedroom slippers. After three stores Dougless persuaded him to purchase two pairs of Italian shoes that were frightfully expensive. He told Dougless she must buy new shoes also, but when he pulled four pair—dress boots, pumps, walking shoes, and loafers—off the shelves, she said he’d already spent too much on her. Nicholas threatened to wear the terry cloth bedroom slippers from the hotel unless she purchased all four. Laughing, she agreed.
They made one last stop to buy luggage to pack everything into. Nicholas wanted leather luggage, but as there was little money left, Dougless talked him into some blue canvas bags with belting leather trim.
By the time they were done shopping, it was three P.M. and all the lunch shops were closed. They purchased bread and cheese, meat pies, and a bottle of wine, then ate in the back of the taxi as it drove them back to the bed-and-breakfast in Ashburton. And since eating while traveling went against Nicholas’s aristocratic ideas of etiquette, she’d had to talk him into it. But she couldn’t move him about the train. Dougless had said they should take the train back, as it was much cheaper than a taxi. But Nicholas had scoffed at her idea that he handle luggage, so they were being driven all the way back to the hotel.
On the return trip Nicholas got his first sight of the six-lane English motorways. She didn’t know how he felt about the speed of the cars around him, but it terrified her. The slow lane traveled at seventy miles per hour, so she couldn’t imagine what the fast, outside lane was doing.
After a while, Nicholas stopped staring at the trucks and asking questions about everything he saw, and settled back against the seat to play with the little video game she’d run into Boots and bought for him. As she watched him, she thought of all the many things in the world there were for him to see and do yet. There were VCRs, TVs, Ferris wheels, airplanes, space rockets. There was all of America: Maine with its boats; the South, which would have to be experienced to be believed; the Southwest with its cowboy heritage and the Native Americans; and there was California with . . . Smiling, she thought of Hollywood and Venice Beach. She could take him to the Pacific Northwest for salmon, to ski in Colorado, to a roundup in Texas. She could—
They arrived back at their little bed-and-breakfast before she could think of all the things she’d like to show him, and before she reminded herself that he was only temporarily with her. But if he really was her Knight in Shining Armor, maybe he wouldn’t return.
Nicholas directed the taxi driver in removing the many bags from the vehicle and setting them in the entryway, while Dougless started to pay the driver with the last of the money from the sale of the coins. While she was figuring out the tip, the landlady came hurrying down the steps.
“He’s been here all day, miss,” Mrs. Beasley said excitedly. “He came this morning and hasn’t left since. He’s in an awful mood, and he’s said some terrible things. I thought you and Mr. Stafford were married,” she said, reproach in her voice.
Dougless knew, of course, who “he” was. Besides Nicholas, there was only one “he” in England who knew where she was—or where she’d been left, that is. So now was her chance to sort out things with Robert. This is what she’d wanted. Why, then, was her stomach starting to hurt? She suddenly remembered the pills the doctor had prescribed for her stomach. She hadn’t needed any in days. “Who is here?” she asked softly, biding for time.
“Robert Whitley,” the landlady said.
“No, there’s a young lady with him.”
Dougless nodded and, with her stomach hurting more with each step, she went up the stairs to the entryway. Nicholas was busy ordering the taxi driver about, but he stopped when he saw Dougless’s face. Calmly, she paid the driver, saying not a word; then she went into the parlor, where Robert and Gloria were waiting for her.
Gloria was seated on a chair, her face angry, but Dougless ignored the girl. Instead, she looked at Robert, who was standing in front of the window. She couldn’t see any remorse on his face.
“At last,” Robert said when Dougless entered. “We have been waiting the entire day. Where is it?”
She knew what he meant, but she refused to let him know she did. Hadn’t he missed her at all? “Where is what?”
“The bracelet you stole!” Gloria said. “That’s why you pushed me down in that graveyard, so you could take my bracelet.”
“I did no such thing,” Dougless said. “You fell against the—”
Moving to stand beside her, Robert put his arm around Dougless. “Look,” he said as he smiled at her, “we didn’t come here to quarrel. Gloria and I have missed you.” He gave a little laugh. “Oh, you should see us. We get lost every few minutes. Neither one of us is good with a road map and we can’t figure out the hotels at all. You were always so good at figuring out schedules and whether a hotel had room service or not.”
Dougless wasn’t sure whether to feel elated or dejected. He wanted her, but only to read the road maps and to order room service for the two of them.
Robert gave her a quick kiss on the cheek. “I know you didn’t steal the bracelet. That was something that was said in the heat of the moment. But it was certainly lucky that you found it.”
When Gloria started to speak, Robert gave her a look to be quiet, and that look made Dougless feel better. Maybe he was going to force his daughter to show her some respect. Maybe—
“Please, Lessa,” Robert said, nuzzling her ear, “please come back with us. You can sit in the front half the time, and Gloria half the time. That’s fair, isn’t it?”
She wasn’t sure what to do. Robert was being so nice, and it was wonderful to hear his apology, and to think that he needed her.
“Well, madam,” Nicholas said, striding into the room, “do you mean to unkiss our bargain?”
Robert jumped away from Dougless, and immediately she was aware of hatred coming from him—a hatred that was directed toward Nicholas. Was Robert jealous? she wondered. Never before had he shown any signs of jealousy. And, as for Nicholas, he was staring at Robert with wide eyes, as though he were staring at an apparition. It took both men a few minutes to recover themselves.
“Who is this?” Robert asked.
“Well, madam?” Nicholas asked.
As Dougless looked from one man to the other, she felt like running from the room and never seeing either of them again.
“Who is this?” Robert demanded. “Have you obtained a . . . a lover in the few days since you left us?”
“Left you?” Dougless said. “You left me, and you took my handbag with you! You left me without money or credit cards or—”
Robert waved his hand in dismissal. “That was all a mistake. Gloria picked up your bag for you. She thought she was helping you. Neither of us had any idea that you’d decide to remain here, or that you’d refuse to travel with us. Isn’t that right, sweetheart?”
“Helping me?” Dougless gasped, so overwhelmed with his twisting of the truth that she could hardly speak. “I decided to remain here?”
“Dougless,” Robert said, “do we have to discuss our private problems in front of this stranger? We have your luggage in the car, so I suggest that we leave here now.” Firmly taking her arm, he started to lead her away.
But Nicholas stood in the doorway, blocking their way. “Do you mean to leave me?” he asked as he looked down at Dougless, anger in his voice. “Do you mean to go with this man who wants you for the service you do him?”
“I . . . I . . .” Dougless said, feeling confused. On the one hand, Robert was being a jerk, but at least he was real. For all the romance that surrounded this Nicholas Stafford, if he found what he was looking for, he’d be gone in a second. Besides, both men wanted her for what she could do for them. Robert wanted her to read road maps; Nicholas wanted her to help him research.
Dougless didn’t know what she should do.
Nicholas decided for her. “This woman has been hired by me,” he said. “Until I have done with her services, she will remain with me.” At that he clamped his hand on Robert’s shoulder and pushed him toward the door.
“Get your hands off of me!” Robert shouted. “You can’t treat me like this, I’ll have the police on you. Gloria, call the police! Dougless, either you come with me now or you’ll never get a marriage proposal out of me. You’ll never—” His last words were cut off as Nicholas shut the door behind him.
Dougless sat on the nearest chair, her head down.
When Nicholas returned, he took one look at Gloria and said, “Out!”
Gloria ran for the doorway, then pounded down the front stairs.
Nicholas went to the window and looked out. “They are gone now, but they have left your capcases on the ground. We are well rid of them.”
Dougless didn’t look up. How did she get herself in these messes? She couldn’t even go away on a vacation without something awful happening to her. Why couldn’t she have a normal, ordinary relationship with a man? She’d meet a man in a classroom somewhere, he’d ask her out, then they’d go on simple dates to movies or to play miniature golf. After a few dates, he’d propose marriage over a bottle of wine. They’d have a nice wedding, a nice house, two nice kids. Her whole life would be simple and ordinary.
Instead, she met guys who had been in jail or were about to be taken off to jail, guys who were ruled by their obnoxious daughters, or men who were from the sixteenth century. Honestly, she didn’t know any other woman who’d ever had as much trouble with men as she’d had.
“What is wrong with me?” she whispered, burying her face in her hands.
Kneeling before her, Nicholas pulled her hands away from her face. “I find I am most tired. Mayhap you will come upstairs and read to me so I may rest.”
Like a dumb animal, she let Nicholas take her hand and lead her upstairs. But once upstairs, he didn’t expect her to read to him. Instead he told her to stretch out on the bed, which she did, while he sat beside her on the bed and began to sing to her. He sang a soft, sweet lullaby that she doubted anyone else in this century had ever heard before. Gradually, she drifted off into sleep.