Cornelius Blackmore could not decide whether Emmeline Lee was very clever or very stupid. She was one of those elusive creatures that history would never agree on, like Helen of Troy or Mary, Queen of Scots.
She possessed fine-spun gold hair, wide green eyes and a full mouth. She suited the gothic lines of Knightshayes Court perfectly, with its vaulted arches, slender columns and intricate stonework. But her charm went beyond these qualities. It was her vagueness that tangled men’s minds and drove them to peril.
She was sitting on the sofa in dark red satin, gazing at her fiancé Hector Sanders. It was very romantic, Cornelius thought, to see a handsome young artist marrying his muse. Their children would surely be most gifted.
Emmeline smothered a yawn.
“Emmie, do try to keep still, my dear,” Hector said.
“I’m tired,” Emmeline said.
“Just a little longer, my dear,” Hector said. The charcoal in his fingers moved quickly and competently over a large piece of paper.
Cornelius tore his eyes from the young couple and turned to his host, Sir Reuben. “The architecture and grounds are stunning. I must thank you again, Sir Reuben, for inviting me to Knightshayes Court.”
Sir Reuben inclined his large head. He was a most distinguished man, with black and silver hair, and a rich, deep voice. “Of course, Blackmore. Glad to have you.”
Cornelius wondered if he only imagined the slight shade of uneasiness in Sir Reuben’s response. He was a sensitive man and he couldn’t help feeling that Sir Reuben was not entirely pleased to have him.
“There,” Hector said. He smiled at Emmeline. “Do you want it?”
“Let’s give it to Sir Reuben.” She turned to her guardian with an air of childlike pleasure. “Do you like it?”
Hector passed the sketch to Sir Reuben. The sketch showed Emmeline sitting on a chaise with a rose in her hair. For the background, he’d half-transformed the luxurious drawing room into a sort of flower garden. There was something about it that reminded Cornelius of his childhood, the innocence of fairy tales and midsummer nights.
“Exquisite,” Sir Reuben agreed. “I must have it framed.”
“That’s exactly what I want the wedding to look like,” Emmeline said dreamily. “A garden full of roses and peonies.”
Sir Reuben stiffened. “Now, now, let’s not bore our guest.”
Emmeline turned to Cornelius with an appeal. “Don’t you agree that weddings are best in the summer, Mr. Blackmore?”
Cornelius smiled at the young woman. Sixty-odd years of experience kept him from falling into the trap. “My dear, I shouldn’t care to disagree with anyone so passionate.”
Emmeline now turned to Hector, who seemed to feel he must defend his fiancée. “There are so many arrangements to be made and we’ve hardly even settled down to any details.”
Sir Reuben’s distinguished face turned a shade of puce.
Cornelius winced. It simply didn’t do to argue with one’s host. But then, perhaps his own thinking was rather Victorian. He waded into the fray, hoping to ease the tension. “I wonder, Sir Reuben, if you would mind showing us the library after dinner? I’m quite looking forward to seeing The Owl and the Nightingale.”
“Er—yes, I have it in the library,” Sir Reuben said. He still seemed annoyed. “I’d forgotten how much you like books, Blackmore.”
Cornelius almost laughed at this understatement. This was the only reason he’d wheedled an invitation to Knightshayes Court some months ago. Cornelius was a rare book dealer, a star in his own small world, but even he got quite giddy about a chance to see the book.
The Owl and the Nightingale, Being a Poem of the Twelfth Century was a private edition. It had been created in the wake of the Norman Conquest by one of Sir Reuben’s ancestors. Cornelius would give much to purchase the book, but though rumours swirled about its possible sale, he found Sir Reuben quite firm in his refusal.
They were interrupted by the arrival of Violet Woodward and Mrs. Leonora Peters.