Lucy Ashbrook finds a pleasant diversion when she visits the Regent’s Park Bird Sanctuary to sketch the different birds that live there. Birds aren’t the only pleasing thing she finds, though. A certain Sanctuary worker has stolen her heart. But Lucy’s father will have none of it. No daughter of his will marry a common laborer.
Oliver Barrow loves everything about his work at the Sanctuary. The birds, the trees, the ponds…a certain young miss who mesmerizes him. Miss Ashbrook is beautiful and sweet and shares his love of birds. But Oliver has a secret that just might get in the way of anything more than friendship developing between them. And he can’t share that secret with her. Not yet.
How can Lucy convince her father of Oliver’s worth? That love isn't just for the birds?
LORD CONRAD CROOME, the fifth Earl of Lofton, glared at the back of Alfred’s head as he followed the butler to Mr. Ashbrook’s study. Portraits of generations of the indecently wealthy family lined the dark paneled walls of the entryway. The smell of beeswax rose from the wood and tickled his nose. Certainly, Ashbrook could afford to spare no expense in the care and furnishing of his vast estate.
At long last, after years of showing up at the man’s home every week, sitting quietly in the parlor with Lucy and biding his time… Conrad had the means to force Ashbrook into giving him what he wanted. What he deserved.
The butler turned and motioned toward the open doorway. “He will see you now, Lord Lofton.”
“Thank you.” The words leached out from between Conrad’s clenched teeth. No use letting on to Ashbrook that things between him and the servant were anything other than a visitor to the home thanking a servant.
“Very good, my lord.” Alfred appeared to be docile and subservient. Of course, Conrad now knew the man would betray his employer for enough money.
The door snapped closed behind him. Conrad smiled at the top of Mr. Ashbrook’s bent head and waited for the older man to acknowledge him. The large study, paneled in wood, smelled of cigar smoke. A window behind the settee allowed a glimpse of the massive, manicured lawn.
After today, things will be different. This is the last time I shall be required to wait. He nervously tapped the large portfolio of valuable papers beneath his coat.
Ashbrook glanced up and frowned. The man always wore a frown. That feature, added to his bulky frame, could be quite off-putting. “Lofton. Have a seat.” He looked back down at the papers strewn about his desk as if Conrad wasn’t even there.
In but a few moments, he’ll be treating me with much more respect.
Conrad walked to the settee across from the large desk and sat. And waited. Nervous energy caused him to fidget. His fingers drummed on his knees and his boots tapped. Nothing he told himself made a difference. It was as if he couldn’t stay calm.
Conrad gasped and jumped.
“What’s gotten into you, Lofton? See a ghost?”
“N-no… of course not.”
Ashbrook waved a hand at the papers on his desk. “What’s it to be? Haven’t got the whole of the day now do I?”
Resentment at being treated lower than mud on the man’s boot washed over Conrad. How dare he? Fidgeting was replaced by calm assurance that Mr. Ashbrook would indeed speak to him. Now.
Lucy’s father rolled his eyes. “Speak your piece, man, so I can—”
Conrad held out a hand toward Ashbrook.
The older man stopped mid-sentence and stared, opened-mouthed. “How dare you interrupt me in my own home? Why, I have a mind to—”
Ashbrook stood. His meaty hands squeezed into fists. “I’ll not put up with—”
Widening his eyes, Mr. Ashbrook stared at him. “I beg your pardon?”
Conrad patted his coat. “Trust me when I tell you that you will indeed want to hear what I have to say.”
“You can’t speak to me that way.” He looked toward the closed door. “Alfred! Get in here!”
The door remained closed.
Silence mocked Ashbrook’s bellow for assistance.
Conrad smiled. “Perhaps your butler is otherwise engaged.”
Ashbrook stared toward the door a few seconds longer and slowly swung his gaze to Conrad. “I don’t know what you think you’re doing. Perhaps you’re foxed. Or Bedlam might be your next stop. But there must be some explanation for your outrageous behavior, Lofton. And if you think you are going to marry Lucy now that you’ve—”
“Oh yes. I’ll marry her.”
“She’ll not be giving her inheritance to the likes of you.”
Conrad removed the papers from his coat. “She will, and you’ll give her to me gladly.” He tapped the top of the portfolio. “And you’ll be giving me much, much more than just her inheritance when we marry.”
“In fact, as soon as I disclose what’s in this envelope, you will grant me anything I ask for.”
Red, the shade of a sunset, covered Ashbrook’s round face. His gaze slid to Conrad’s hand. He lowered his brows to a frown. “What’s that?”
“If you sit down, I will tell you all about it.”
Ashbrook opened his mouth but no words came out. He plopped onto the chair. Air whooshed out from his mouth with a low whistle. “Fine. I’m sitting. Get it over with, whatever this thing is you feel is so important. Then you’re leaving and never returning.”
“I think not.” Conrad opened the portfolio, tugged the pages free, and placed them on his lap. “You see, it has come to my attention that you have some very lucrative business heading your way.”
“I am a successful business man, Lofton. If I wasn’t, I wouldn’t have all that I do.”
Conrad nodded. “True. However, this information is very specific.”
“Preposterous. You’d have no way of knowing anything about my business unless I had told you myself.”
“Perhaps that was the case. Before.”
Conrad waved the pages back and forth.
Ashbrook narrowed his eyes. “You keep fumbling with those blasted papers. What do they contain?”
“I’ve heard enough.” He stood abruptly. His chair legs scraped the floor as he pushed away from the desk.
Conrad remained seated. “No. I think not. You see, Jeffrey. May I call you Jeffrey? Or would you prefer Father, since I will soon marry into your family?”
Ashbrook’s eyes bulged. “I don’t know what’s gotten into you, Lofton, but I’ll not put up with any further nonsense!”
“I wouldn’t call something that will double your fortune nonsense.”
“Yes, that’s right. What I have in my possession is proof of your future deal with Lord Proust.”
“Impossible! Why no one else knows… how did you come by that?”
“That’s my secret. And no, I won’t be sharing it with you.”
“A spy!” Ashbrook looked wildly about the room as if someone might be hiding in a corner or behind the drapes. “Who’s been spying on me? My servants are all trustworthy, and Lucy is too stupid to do something like that.”
“You won’t find out who gave me the information. What remains, however, is how we will go about you giving me half of your earnings through Proust.”
“Even if you do have the information you claim to have, there’s no way in—”
“Let’s be reasonable, Jeffrey. I’ve read through these documents thoroughly. And I was smart enough to create a copy for myself. It seems you and Proust have formed an alliance that might be of interest to the public. Shall we say an… illegal alliance? That certainly wouldn’t make you popular now, would it? And I’d wager you’d lose a vast number of business associates as a result.”
Ashbrook ground his teeth together so violently that Conrad heard it from several feet away. He stormed toward Conrad and thrust out his hand.
Conrad tilted his head. “Certainly have a look. As I said, that’s not my only copy.”
He lowered his eyebrows and read the first page, his eyes moving left to right across the paper. Then on to the second, third, and fourth. With each page, his face grew redder.
Conrad sat quietly and waited. His heart thumped in his chest. It was going to happen. He was finally going to get his due!
Crushing the pages in his hand, Ashbrook threw them on the floor. He paced across the room from his desk to the door and back.
And still, Conrad waited.
Ashbrook stopped abruptly and closed his eyes. When he opened them, he peered directly at Conrad. “I see you are in possession of what you claim. I seem to be at your mercy, Lofton. What’s it to be, then?”
Conrad stood. “To begin with, I want to marry your daughter. As soon as possible.”
LUCY CHEWED ON her bottom lip, concentrating as she pressed a bit harder with the graphite pencil to shade in the bird’s eye. A smooth, curved line met in a circle around the iris. Small straight strokes created tiny feathers around its beak.
There. Now the face is complete. That will show snippy Amelia who is the more accomplished artist. The last I saw of hers, the poor bird resembled a hippopotamus.
A light breeze lifted the tendrils of hair around her face. She glanced up again at the bird she was drawing. It squawked and tilted its head, looking right at her.
Lucy sighed. She did love the Sanctuary so. As had her mother before she died. It had been such a joy to come with her as a little girl for occasional visits to see the different birds. Tears pricked the backs of Lucy’s eyes. She looked down at her paper. No. Mama wouldn’t want me to be sad while I’m at her favorite place.
Plus, there was the added bonus of staying out of her father’s way when she was there. No matter what she did, she couldn’t seem to please him.
Steps plodded on the smooth path beside the park bench. Then halted. Someone’s shadow obscured the sunlight that had formerly illuminated Lucy’s drawing paper. Large dusty work boots appeared from the corner of her eye. One boot tapped. Twice.
Lucy gasped, startled by the stranger’s deep voice. Her gaze traveled from the aforementioned boots, to pants with a frayed hem and small hole in the knee, up to broad shoulders covered in a thick dark blue shirt beneath a tweed coat. Widening her eyes when she finally reached his face, she gulped. His collar-length dark hair lifted in the light breeze. The stranger’s eyes were darker than the graphite of her pencil. Had hours in the sun given his cheeks that bronzed hue? And… that smile. Oh my. One corner tipped up, forming a dimple. If she had been the type to swoon, that would have been the perfect moment. And those lips. Surely they would be…
“Looks as if you’ve captured the image of a nuthatch quite nicely.”
There was that smooth as honey voice again. Should that make her skin tingle so? Mouth gone dry, Lucy nodded. Nuthatch? What was a nuthatch? And why was the handsome man there? Talking? To her? There she sat, alone in the Bird Sanctuary, drawing any bird that would light close enough for her to view its feathers, and a man, a handsome man, simply strolled up to see what she was about.
“Miss, are you often in the Sanctuary drawing birds?”
Why, oh why, hadn’t she listened to her father when he scolded her for not taking her maid Anna along? Because she had been sure no one would be about this early hour. Certain that having her driver, Carlton, just outside the gate would suffice.
The stranger certainly was being forward, speaking to her like that. Now she would have to either speak to the man staring at her with raised dark eyebrows or act as if she hadn’t seen him. And that would be—
The man’s face reddened. “Pardon my intrusion, miss. I’ll not bother you further.” The heels of his boots scuffed on the path as he turned to go.
What was wrong with her? The man must think her an imbecile. “W-wait!”
Angling back toward her, he squinted against the sun. “Ah, words do indeed flow from your tongue, then.” A mischievous grin graced his perfect, full lips. He took a step toward her. Then another. “Mr. Barrow, at your service.” He gave her a slight bow and nod.
Mr. Barrow’s dress was that of a laborer, dusty and worn. Yet his speech told of someone well enough off to have had the benefit of education. So, which was he? A poor worker or an educated gentleman?
“I'm Miss Ashbrook. Pleased to make your acquaintance.” She glanced at his old, cracked, dirty gloves. Her gloves, white and clean except for a tiny smudge of graphite, gleamed in comparison. She was not often caught in conversation with common workers — except those of her own household, of course. And even then, she didn’t converse with them much. Except for Anna. But that was different.
“Please, think nothing of it, Miss Ashbrook. My work often causes my attire to become soiled.”
Face heating, she lowered her gaze to her lap. He knew. Somehow he knew what she had been thinking. His attire. His soiled gloves. The fact that their stations were different. How mortifying. And how she must seem to him. Uppity. Snooty. Thinking herself better than him. Looking down on those of lesser wealth and status than her. And didn’t that just describe her acquaintance Amelia, whom she could barely tolerate?
Glancing about the path and area surrounding it, she wished she’d indeed brought her maid as a chaperone. What would people think? A young woman sitting on the bench alone. A strange, unkempt — albeit handsome — man standing oh, so very close. Should she be frightened? He didn’t seem dangerous or threatening. Still…
Her gaze strayed to his face. Gone was the dimple. His mouth was drawn down at the corners. The gleam had gone from his eyes. Blasted society and their rules! Ever since an unknown lady of distinction had written down some rules of etiquette, everyone spent much time trying to conform to said rules.
She looked at the long bench on which she sat. Surely it would do no harm to invite him to sit? There would be sufficient room between them if one sat on either end. And no one was about at the moment, anyway.
“Please. Join me.” She waved her hand toward the bench.
“No. I couldn’t.”
“I must insist.”
“So must I.” He crossed his arms.
“But, you must sit.”
He tapped his boot. “No. I mustn’t.”
“I’m trying to be nice.”
“As am I.”
She huffed out a breath and folded her arms. Did his frown and lowered eyebrows mirror hers? Did she seem an immature child, fussing because she wasn't getting her way? How silly she must appear. A smile tugged at her mouth. His did the same, forming the adorable dimple again. Oh, how she’d missed that dimple, even though she’d only first set eyes on it but a moment ago. How silly that sounded.
She tilted her head as she held out her hand. “Please?” For some reason she didn’t understand, it seemed of the utmost importance to have him join her. She’d never met him, and there wasn’t a single logical reason to have him do so, yet she wanted it. Desperately.
He chuckled, a deep sound from his throat. His eyes twinkled as a gleam of sunlight kissed his long dark lashes. “Well, in that case.” Taking her hand in his, he gave it a gentle squeeze. Only once. Then he released it. How odd that disappointment coursed through her. She’d only just met him. They were nothing more than new acquaintances.
The bench shifted a small bit as his weight settled. Lucy had not the courage to look at him now. Why was conversing with him as they sat side by side so much different than face to face? Somehow, it seemed more intimate. Heat rose from her collar, traveled up her neck, and spread across her cheeks. Was her face red? He’d know, then, how uncomfortable she was. Would he think her so young and immature that he’d not stay to talk about the bird she was drawing?
Mr. Barrow leaned against the back of his seat and sighed. Reaching into his shirt pocket, he grabbed an old, worn handkerchief and proceeded to wipe his forehead. Was he tired from his labor? How foreign that seemed to her, as her father had workers who did such things at their home and on the grounds. Before now, she’d not given them much thought. They were just there.
But now… now glancing at this man, a gleam of perspiration on his brow, muscles firm from physical work, clothes dusty and boots caked with dirt, things were brought to her attention as never before. How had she not noticed the servants in her own household? How thoughtless to simply brush past them as if they had no worth in life other than to do her bidding? They were people, too, with hopes and dreams, likes and dislikes. They worked and labored and were married and cared for families.
Ashamed, she swallowed past the sudden dryness in her throat. Perhaps she could be an acquaintance of this man. Would that help make up for her thoughtlessness of the past? She laid her artwork aside and clasped her hands in her lap.
“Mr. Barrow, how kind of you to take time from your busy work to join me.”
With raised eyebrows, he smiled. “It’s no hardship, Miss Ashbrook, I assure you.”
“I-I don’t wish for you to be in trouble for… uh, loitering.”
“Don’t worry on my account. I’m quite certain no harm will come to me for relaxing on a park bench for a little while.”
Still uncertain, Lucy shrugged but didn’t reply. She desperately hoped that were true. What if the poor man lost his position because of her?
He leaned forward, his forearms on his knees. “So I assume you have an interest in birds? Since you’re here at the Sanctuary?”
A smile tugged at her lips. “I find them fascinating. Though I will admit to not knowing a great deal about the different ones. It’s enchanting the way they perch on their tiny legs and feet and actually fly through the air. How wonderful to sit and watch them and dream of doing the same.”
“Indeed. Birds are fascinating. They’re the joy of my life.”
“Have you worked here long, Mr. Barrow?”
“Not long.” He chuckled. “It’s just something I… decided to do.”
What an odd choice of words. Decided to do. What Lucy knew of their workers, they hadn’t a choice but to work. And to work at whatever they could find. That made her even more conscious of her standing and wealth. What must it be like to have to toil day after day, earning one’s keep? While she had the luxury of coming to a place like the Bird Sanctuary to sit the whole of a morning, sketching birds and daydreaming?
“Oh, well. It seems to suit you.” That didn’t sound the way she’d meant it. How rude he must think her, to suggest that he should work hard and get soiled for a living. “I mean… that you seem to take pleasure in your work.”
“Indeed. Quite a bit.” He glanced around and then pointed to a branch above them. “There’s your nuthatch again. He must like you.”
Lucy looked up as well. “He’s such a handsome fellow. Thank you for telling me what kind of bird he is. I had no idea. Only that his loud, quick call amused me. And I admire his blue and white markings. Almost as if he wears a cutaway coat.”
Mr. Barrow laughed. “A cutaway coat? I’d never thought of it that way, but you’re right.” He leaned toward her, just a little, just enough for the scent of pine trees and grass to reach Lucy’s nose. “Would you mind if I looked at your drawing once more?”
“It’s really not that impressive.” She lowered her head.
“From what I observed, it was quite the opposite. May I?”
She bit her lip and nodded. The edge of her hat caught on the back of the bench as she leaned over to reach for her paper. “Oh dear!” She tried to pull away from the old wood, but her hat did not follow. She grabbed it and gave a tug, but it still held fast. Some of her dark curls came loose from their pins and fell around her face. Was the ribbon caught on a rough edge of the wood?
“Here, allow me to help, Miss Ashbrook.”
Strong hands, one on her shoulder, the other on her hat, gave a pull.
A small chunk of wood gave way, splintering from the bench. “Oh no!” Her white hat, so delicate with lace, flowers, and ribbons, flipped off of her head and sailed over the grass like a wayward kite.
Mr. Barrow’s eye widened. “I’ll get it!” Jumping up from the bench, he ran toward the hat. As he leaned down, his hand inches from the brim, it skipped away on a strong breeze, hopping and rolling through the grass as if playing hide and seek.
In his boots, which were well suited for present circumstances, he tromped through the tall grass until he came upon the hat again, which had stopped near a pond, as if taking a rest from its play. Mr. Barrow turned toward her, a triumphant smile on his face. “There. Now we’ll recover it, Miss Ashbrook.” Turning back toward the hat, he reached down.
And grabbed air.
“But where’s the—?”
A large grey goose now had possession of Lucy’s pretty, white apparel. The bird honked through the side of its huge beak, forming the sound around the fluffy pink bow at the hat’s side.
Lucy gasped. “No!” She stood and hurried toward the pond. What would become of her hat now? It was covered in goose drivel! The hat might never recover.
She watched in horror as the goose approached the water. With webbed feet, it stepped through the mud. Closer. Closer. Until its toes, making sucking noises in the slimy ooze, edged into the pond. Hunching down and sliding into the water as a ship might leave a harbor, the goose effortlessly glided into the murky, green depths, carrying the hat with it.
Mr. Barrow stepped toward the water’s edge as well. He crouched down, very nearly sitting in the mud, and reached out his hand, teetering back and forth in an effort not to slide into the water. His fingers stretched toward the goose.
“I think… if I can just grab the… brim of the hat, I can still retrieve it for you, Miss—”
As his boots slipped through the mud, he yelped. His arms flailed as he fought to regain his balance.
But to no avail.
Water shot toward the sky as he splashed in headfirst. He submerged beneath the wetness. Head. Chest. Legs. And finally boots. Geese honked and flapped their wings, rising into the air, feathers and feet dripping, as they escaped the loud intrusion into their home. The hat thief dropped his white, lacy prey back into the pond. It settled on the surface, floating as lazily as a cloud in a windless sky.
Seconds ticked by as nothing about the water stirred.
Lucy’s hands flew to her face. “No! Oh no! Mr. Barrow! Where are you?” Had he hit his head and drowned? Her heart raced in her chest. What would she do if he didn’t come back up? Should she jump into the pond to try to save him? She took a step forward. Then another.
The water bubbled. She let out a whoosh of air when his hand appeared above the surface. His glove was missing. It must have come off when he hit the water. His other hand, also unclothed, joined the first, waving back and forth. His head, with hair dripping, finally peeked above the water. He gulped in air, gasping for breath.
“Mr. Barrow! Here, let me assist you.”
He stood up, shoulder-high in the water, and waved her away. “We don’t need both of us falling in the pond.” Water streaming from his clothes, he carefully took one step, then a second, until he climbed over the lip surrounding the pond.
“Well, that was quite the adventure, I must say.” He collapsed on the grass and huffed out a loud breath. “Not every day I take an unplanned swim. I’m only sorry I couldn’t find your hat.”
“But that’s where you’re mistaken.”
“I beg your pardon?”
She pointed up.
For her hat, her very expensive, lacy white hat now rested in a soggy clump.
On Mr. Barrow’s head.
With raised eyebrows, he lifted his gaze.
Until he peered at the brim peeking out over his forehead. “Ah. I see. Not quite my style, now is it?” A grin formed, raising both corners of his mouth.
Covering her mouth with her hand, she sputtered a giggle. Tears, unbidden, streamed from her eyes. It was unseemly to laugh at the man, especially under the circumstances since he was only doing it to assist her.
As if joining in, nearby ducks let loose with raucous quacking sounding quite like laughter. Lucy chuckled with them and wiped her eyes. “It seems they agree with you, Mr. Barrow.”
“Yes. Indeed.” He pointed to his head. “Perhaps they think a darker shade more appropriate?”
Lucy widened her eyes and stared behind him. “Uh… oh… no.”
He frowned. “What’s the matter, Miss—?”
The huge grey goose, otherwise known as the hat thief of the Bird Sanctuary pond, flapped its huge wings and landed just behind Mr. Barrow, who shivered. Was it from the cold of being wet, or did he sense that they were no longer alone?
Gasping, Mr. Barrow turned his head to the side in time to see the goose lunge.
At his head.
And Lucy’s hat.
“Ahhh!” Mr. Barrow closed his eyes just as the hat was snatched from his head.
Lucy reached forward, nearly losing her fingers as the goose snapped at her. “Oh!” She drew back her hand as if burned. “What a wicked goose. Mr. Barrow, are you hurt?”
He took a deep breath and turned slowly, looking behind him. The goose slid into the water with the hat in his bill. Mr. Barrow shook his head. “I’m fine. But what is it about that hat that fascinates that goose so?”
“I don’t know. I really don’t. Perhaps it knows it’s my favorite?”
“It is a lovely hat, I’ll grant you that.” He smirked.
Lucy smiled. “Why thank you, kind sir.”
They stood and watched as the goose swam farther into the water. It let go of the hat and dove beneath the surface.
Rubbing the back of his neck, Mr. Barrow sighed. “I’m truly sorry I was unable to retrieve your favorite hat from the atrocious goose, Miss Ashbrook.”
“Thank you. I do appreciate your valiant effort. But at this point, I don’t think I would even desire to have it returned.” She pointed to the pond.
The goose had surfaced from the water.
Wearing the hat.
Mr. Barrow chuckled. “Understood.”