The Wood Nymph(4)

By: Mary Balogh

Even so, Mainwaring drew his horse to a stop and gazed at the figure in green as she galloped across a field to the east. Melissa was destined to be pleased by his appearance. He was a good-looking man, tall and straight in the saddle, his hair dark and quite long beneath his hat, his face thin and almost austere in expression, yet handsome for all that.

It was strange really, he supposed, that he had been surprised by everyone’s attentiveness. He should have learned a year before that a new arrival in a neighborhood was bound to arouse interest and speculation among the families for miles around. It was the home of his childhood and younger manhood that had been the strange one. He had grown up in the Scottish home of his maternal grandfather with almost only the old man and a rather crusty elderly housekeeper for company. They had had virtually no contact with their neighbors and had participated in no social activities. Even when they had gone to church on Sundays they had never lingered to talk with other members of the congregation.

Nothing had changed even when his grandfather had died. He had been one-and-twenty at the time, and he had spent eight more years there, almost totally alone. He had been so used to it, he supposed, that his youth was gone before he had begun to wonder what the outside world had to offer. He was a wealthy man, both as his grandfather’s heir and in his own right. He had properties both in the north and in the south of England. He really should visit both.

But first he had gone to London and had lived there for a few weeks in something like shock. He really had not known how to take his rightful place in society. He had found it very difficult to converse with people or to relax and be at his ease. Had he not struck up a conversation with Robert Denning, Marquess of Hetherington, at White’s one rainy afternoon, he might well have returned to Scotland and become as much of a hermit as his grandfather had been. Hetherington was his opposite in personality. He was as sunny-natured and as gregarious as Mainwaring was reserved and antisocial. Yet for some reason they had become immediate and fast friends.

Hetherington had gone with him to his southern property, Ferndale, along with a few other acquaintances with whom he had learned to be comfortable. And there he had had his first experience of the kind of welcome a new member of a community could expect to receive. He and his houseguests had become involved in a constant round of activities. Invitations had been endless. And he had enjoyed it all, surprising himself with the sense of belonging that he had felt almost from the beginning.

He might have settled there at Ferndale had it not been for that unhappy experience with Elizabeth. She had been a paid companion at the time, but he had been instantly attracted to her quiet charm and tranquil manner. It was only when he was already in love with her, he was sure, that he had realized just how beautiful she was too. It was only then, too, that he had discovered that by some bizarre twist of fate she was the estranged wife of his friend Hetherington. It still seemed impossible, even now, to believe that such a thing could actually have happened.

In his innocence he had not recognized the fact that love still existed between those two. Although Elizabeth had told him that she still loved her husband, he had tried to persuade her to let Robert divorce her so that she might marry him. Hetherington was no longer at Ferndale at the time. And she had agreed, though he realized now that her acquiescence had been a muddled and unhappy one. So, like a knight crusader, he had ridden off to ask Hetherington for the simple matter of a divorce for his wife.

Mainwaring took one hand from the reins of his horse and ran it along his jaw. He could almost feel that first unexpected punch that Hetherington had thrown in the middle of the drawing room of Hetherington Manor. They had fought doggedly and silently for several minutes before the butler and Robert’s secretary had rushed into the room to pull them apart. Hetherington’s voice had been cold and expressionless afterward when they were straightening their clothes and wiping blood from mouths and noses.

“Elizabeth is my wife and will remain so, Mainwaring,” he had said. “You had best forget her. I will not tolerate your touching her, and if I find that you have already done so, I shall kill you, my friend.”

Mainwaring had left without another word, and he had seen neither one of them since. It was not that he was afraid of Hetherington’s threats. Rather, he was a man of high principle. If his erstwhile friend chose to claim his wife, he had every right to do so. Mainwaring himself must not interfere.

He had never been back to Ferndale. He had spent the winter and the spring in London, though he had not involved himself to any large extent in the social life there. He had tried to adjust himself to the first real setback that life had offered him. He had never loved before. Indeed, he had had almost nothing to do with women before. Consequently, when he had fallen in love, he had fallen hard. And he had found that it was impossible to forget Elizabeth. He would love her all his life. No other woman could possibly mean anything to him.