* * * * * *
Eduard paused in the doorway to the workshop, turned in time to watch as Elise board the Duchess of Greenbriar’s coach. She epitomized elegance as she climbed the step, almost as though she were a lady instead of a governess. He particularly enjoyed watching her when she played lawn games with the children. When she combined her natural grace with all that lively energy…
Before the footman closed the door, she poked her head back outside. Catching his stare, she waved and then ducked back inside.
Heat invaded Eduard’s face like a horde of French soldiers. Bee’s bells, he hated being caught in the act of ogling the woman. But he grinned as the coach drove out of sight — the view had been worth it. Shaking his head, he turned and stepped over the threshold. His young guest sat on one of the work stools, an open book before him on the bench, the stub of a pencil held loosely in his hand as he drew fast, sure lines across the page. Frowning, Eduard leaned closer. The leather-bound book with the gilt-edged pages looked expensive.
“Is that one of your father’s Shakespeare volumes?”
Howard lifted one shoulder and continued to draw.
“Does he know you have it?”
Irritation began a slow crawl along Eduard’s nerves. “Have your manners deserted you, boy?”
“No, sir,” mumbled Howard, his hand drifting to a stop in mid-sketch, and finally he looked up. He worried at his bottom lip with his teeth. His gaze strayed to the book, but he put the pencil down and waited.
The hollow expression in the boy’s eyes tugged at Eduard. He knew that expression well. It had once stared back at him every time he’d looked in a mirror. “Does the duke know you’ve made off with one of his books and you’re scribbling in it?”
“I’m not—” Howard stiffened, then he seemed to deflate in his seat. “No, sir. That is, he knows I borrow his books, but he doesn’t know I draw in them.”
“Them?” Eduard heaved an exasperated sigh. Obviously, the problem was larger than he’d imagined. If the boy could only understand that his adoptive father would give him anything in the world — even the world itself were it possible. He crossed his arms over his chest. “In exactly how many of your father’s books have you been drawing?”
Howard lowered his head. Though he no longer chewed his lip, his mouth worked as though he fought the need for tears.
Eduard relaxed his stance and laid one hand on the boy’s thin shoulders, speaking in a gentler tone. “He’ll not hold it against you, boy. But what possessed you to ruin your father’s books?”
“I didn’t ruin them!” Howard jumped from the work stool and stood almost eye-to-eye with Eduard. His clear greenish gaze flashed as he closed the book and snatched it up. “I only draw in the blank spaces! Not on the words. You can still read the words!” Breathing heavily, he thrust the book into Eduard’s hands. Then he pushed his way past and ran for the door.
Stunned, Eduard could only watch Howard make his hasty exit. The boy obviously needed a moment or two, some time to recover a bit of composure. Eduard could give him that. Greenbriar Meade wasn’t a place anyone could get lost in for very long.
The book’s leather binding cooled his fingers. Gold letters proclaiming the book to be A Midsummer Night’s Dream graced the cover. One of the duke’s favorite volumes at that. Idly, Eduard lifted the cover and flipped through the pages. Phillip would rather replace a set of priceless books than punish the boy who had already lost his natural parents at a young…
Eduard stopped flipping and began turning the pages one at a time. Howard hadn’t lied. He’d confined his drawings to the margins, the blank spaces at beginnings and endings of chapters. Details seemed to leap off the pages. Jenny, riding on her adoptive papa’s shoulders, baby Reggie sitting astride a stick horse Phillip had made especially for him, Jenny again, this time cradling her peg doll. And a picture of the Duchess of Greenbriar in her curricle. The details had been drawn with exquisite care, down to the fine scratches along the sides, made several months earlier when the carriage had run off the road and into some bushes.
As he closed the book, more pencil markings on the last page caught his eye, and he lifted the back cover again.
Elise stared out at him. Gradually, his mind filtered in other details. The boy had been sketching the fun in the square earlier. A grin tugged Eduard’s mouth upward as he recognized himself on the rope, apples flying through the air in front of him. His gaze slid back to Elise’s likeness. She stared at the performance with rapt attention. The lovely smile curving her lips tugged an answering one from Eduard.
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