When Anne Sherwood heard footsteps crunching down the gravel drive toward her, she clenched her pencil and groaned aloud. She was in a black mood and wanted only to be left alone, to wrestle with her sketchbook. The curves and lines in her illustration of Violaceae looked all wrong, the flower head too large, the leaves too pointed.
A child, she thought, could do better.
She'd spent most of the morning on that drawing, trying to duplicate the winsome beauty of spring's first violets peeping out from beneath brown, moldy leaves. She'd wanted to capture that excitement of new beginnings in her sketch. And yet she seemed fated to draw only rubbish today. Perhaps her sketch looked dull because she felt dull.
The sound of boots striding along the gravel path grew louder. She looked up and recognized the man coming toward her. Sir Richard Hooker, her cousin, had given her a post as botanical illustrator at Kew Gardens. He'd raved about the beauty of the violets in this spot, but she couldn't drag her attention from the cracked fountain, clogged with debris and abandoned, which squatted among the dead leaves like a rotting mushroom. Rather than smell promise in the moist earth, she smelled decay. Even the sunlight that fought its way through the canopy of leaves above her shone a sickly yellow.
If there was beauty to be found here, she couldn't see it. Indeed, beauty held no interest for her. She felt unlovely and severe, far older than her five-and-twenty years, and for good reason. Her brief marriage had aged her a lifetime. Henry, Baron Sherwood, had been her husband for five long years before dying of apoplexy. He had touched her but left her untouched.
Still, that severity didn't show in the lustrous sheen of her dark blond hair or in her full lower lip. It certainly didn't show in the more-than-generous breasts and hips that mocked the loneliness she'd deliberately immersed herself in. Only the small lines above her delicate nose hinted of cynicism and broken dreams.
Frowning, Anne pressed her pencil firmly against the paper, creating her first truly smooth line in hours... until the black core slid out of the top of the pencil. Suddenly bereft of lead, the wood casing created a tiny rip on the paper. She glared at the pencil for a moment, then crumpled the paper she'd been sketching on. She had no patience for failure, particularly her own.
Sir Richard stopped by her side. "How does it go, Anne?"
He stood nearly a head taller than she, his eyes a faded blue in his thin, bewhiskered face. Dressed in a tweed frock coat and fawn trousers, both impeccably tailored and pressed, he appeared both a scholar and a man who knew his way around the drawing rooms of London. He laced his hands behind his back and studied her, his expression kind.
"Fairly well." She placed her pencil and sketchbook in her lap and disciplined her features into a pleasant expression.
His gaze slid to the crumpled piece of paper. He must have known she was lying, but he nodded anyway. "Isn't this a beautiful spot?"
Unwilling to answer, she shrugged. She didn't want to tell him how she couldn't see anything but the crumbling fountain. She didn't want to admit how she loathed these gardens but accepted them, too. The tentative unfurling of color around her reminded her how lifeless she'd become, but at the same time, Kew Gardens represented her salvation. Her post as botanical illustrator was her one good chance of emerging in the world as a respected scholar in her own right.
He shifted from one foot to the other. "Eliza and I missed you at breakfast."
"I've been here since dawn." She did that sometimes -- left the house before anyone knew she had gone. Her time with Henry had left her with more than black moods. She'd also learned to treasure her freedom. She was an artist, one who saw past the frills to the simple lines beneath, and her marriage had taught her a glaring truth about herself. She required independence. She would never again live by anyone's dictates but her own.
"'Tis nearly noon. Come back to Kew Cottage with me," he coaxed. "Eliza has asked Cook to prepare us a small repast."
Sir Richard held out a hand. She accepted it and rose from her wooden folding chair, noticing how moist his skin felt. He gripped her hand slightly harder than necessary before letting her go.
She eyed him carefully. "A repast? Why?"
"We have a visitor."
"I didn't know you and Eliza were expecting anyone today."
He grimaced wryly. "Lord Connock, an Irish nobleman, has been in London visiting with the Royal Botanic Society in Regent's Park. He's decided to pay us a call."
Nonplussed, Anne searched her memory. The name sounded familiar, but she couldn't remember the context in which she'd heard it before. Regardless, she wasn't in the mood to entertain anyone. "Have I met him before?"
"I don't think so."
"His name sounds familiar."
"You've probably heard Eliza and me grumbling about him," he admitted. "Lord Connock's gardens in Ireland are the only ones that have more rare species of plants than Kew Gardens. Her Majesty is highly annoyed with the man for threatening the superiority of the royal gardens."
"He is a collector, then?"
"An obsessive one. Nearly bankrupted himself cultivating his glasshouses. He regained his fortune by selling rare plants. Oddly enough, a few of his rare plants were thought exclusively Kew's."
"Are you suggesting he bribed someone within Kew to smuggle out plants?"
"No, no, not at all. I'm simply saying that his resources for procuring rare plants are equal to if not better than ours. Lord Connock and I have corresponded about our methods, and if I remember correctly, he has a naturalist working for him, a Michael McEvoy, whose skills in the wild have no equal."
Anne raised an eyebrow, unimpressed. She'd met her share of adventurers who searched foreign lands for new species of plants. They were hard men who had grown used to living alone, in the wild, with only natives to talk to and gourds to drink from. Long spells in the jungle left them without manners and totally unfit for polite society.
Three years ago she'd spoken with Charles Barter just before he'd joined Baikie's Niger expedition. She'd found him a loud-mouthed bore. After Barter had succumbed to dysentery and died somewhere in Africa, Sir Richard had commissioned Richard Oldham, a young gardener, to explore the Japanese islands and China seas. The youth had cornered her and kissed her the night before he'd sailed. She'd felt nothing but a sense of invasion and had left the youth with a decided limp.
She supposed men who lived so close to death took advantage of every chance to live life to its fullest; nevertheless, she shuddered at the thought of Lord Connock's naturalist, an adventurer who knew no equal. "Has Lord Connock brought Mr. McEvoy with him?"
"I don't believe so."
"Anne?" Sir Richard's gaze on her was complex, censuring and sympathetic all at once.
In a flat voice she said, "Michael McEvoy sounds like an adventurer, and a talented one at that. I have no time for adventurers."
Her cousin winced. She knew he'd caught the deeper meaning beneath what she'd said. Baron Sherwood, in his own wizened little way, had been an adventurer, a man who used women. He'd married her because he had recognized her talent. For five years she had acted as his secretary, copyist, and illustrator, and when they had finished Encyclopedia of Flowering Plants, he had taken full credit for the work. But he'd never loved her. The woman who had shown up at his graveside -- Henry's mistress -- was more than adequate proof of that.
"I've corresponded with Lord Connock for more than a year," Sir Richard said more gently. "His naturalist is often abroad. I doubt you'll even meet him. Why not come and talk to Lord Connock? He has some interesting news for us, or so he claims."
She hesitated, hearing the odd inflection to his voice, and tried to fight off an answering spark of curiosity. She didn't want to involve herself in Lord Connock's intrigues in the plant world. She simply wished to sketch.
In the end, however, the excitement in Sir Richard's eyes snared her. "Interesting in what way?"
"Come with me and find out."
She glanced down at her gown. A navy day dress of severe cut and without a single gewgaw, it was hardly fit for entertaining but perfect in Anne's opinion. Her wardrobe stood full of such gowns, uniforms that downplayed her femininity in exchange for competence and trustworthiness. She wanted the men who denied her access to their scholarly circles to see her as a fellow scholar, not a woman. God willing, no one would ever discover her one feminine weakness.
Sir Richard drew her toward the pony cart and helped her climb in. As he joined her and they began to plod back toward Kew Cottage, she imagined the meeting ahead. Anticipations of awkward conversation and embarrassing silences filled her. She had never been good at idle chatter and now refused to indulge in it, while many believed small talk was all a woman could manage. Still, she felt a curious glow within her and realized that Sir Richard's excitement had infected her.
Perhaps this time the awkward conversation and embarrassing silences would prove worthwhile.
In less than ten minutes the pony cart rattled to a halt outside Kew Cottage, a rustic villa Anne had called home for the past two years. Built of red brick, with decorative timber framing and a thatched roof, the cottage sported a tangled mantle of brown vines that would soon bloom into fragrant honeysuckle and scarlet climbing roses. For now, ivy provided the only green foil to the browns of winter, and a tendril of the stuff brushed her hand as she climbed out of the cart and walked with Sir Richard to the front door.
Eliza met them in the foyer, the wrinkles near the corners of her eyes hardly noticeable next to her pretty smile and soft brown waves of hair. She grasped Anne's hands, pausing long enough to level a significant stare at Sir Richard. "Lord Connock has paid us a call. He has exciting news."
"Yes, I've heard."
Anne hardly had time to say anything else, for suddenly Eliza was patting her on the cheeks, drawing color into them, then smoothing her curls with one hand. When she'd finished, the older woman stood back a pace from Anne and considered her for a moment before nodding briskly. "That'll have to do."
Anne grew cold at her pronouncement. Sir Richard and his wife acted as though they considered this mysterious Lord Connock a potential beau. She felt weary and bitter, in no mood to fend off some unexpected and confounding matchmaking attempt. Her mind searched for a way to escape. She cast an involuntary glance at the front door.
Sir Richard stepped to her side and took her arm. Eliza grabbed the other one.
Outflanked, Anne thought. She examined the pair with a narrowed stare. "I find it very odd that you two have left our distinguished visitor alone in the salon in your effort to find me and make me presentable. Why is it so important that I meet him? What can I possibly add to the conversation? You both know I have no interest in entertaining male suitors -- "
Eliza's step faltered. Guilt flickered behind her brown eyes. "Why, Anne, Lord Connock has not come courting. He reviewed your orchid plates, the ones we donated to the Royal Botanic Society, and was so dazzled that he came here to meet you. He has an exciting proposition for you."
"Tell me Lord Connock's exciting proposition, now, before I meet him. I don't like surprises."
"Neither do I, Mrs. Sherwood," a male voice said from the doorway to the salon.
Anne looked up and met the gaze of an older man, his hair a distinguished-looking brown shot with gray. At least twice her age, he studied her, the pouches beneath his blue eyes making him look weary. His full lips seemed far too pink, surrounded as they were by grayish-brown whiskers and a small mustache.
"Lord Connock, a pleasure to meet you." Anne sank into a curtsey, a rueful smile on her lips.
Connock bowed briefly at the waist, and in that quick moment she scanned him, realizing he didn't stand much taller than she, his body stocky and muscular despite his advancing years.
Eliza, her attitude full of hopeful satisfaction, ushered them into the salon and poured a round of tea for all.
Lord Connock's attention rested briefly on the painted clematis and nasturtium climbing the walls before he focused on Anne. "Did you paint these?" he asked, his voice cultured, mellifluous.
Anne nodded unwillingly. "During the winter months, I often paint flower garlands in rooms that could use a bit of brightening."
Eliza handed out the tea, bringing temporary quiet to the salon. Anne selected a comfortable damask chair and sat, the slight rattle of her cup in its saucer the only evidence of her nervousness.
Sir Richard sank onto a settee and sipped his tea. "Our Anne has talent, does she not?"
"Indeed." Lord Connock, the only one left standing, finally chose a seat. Still, when he sat down, he seemed tense, as if he might spring up from the cushion at any moment. The ruddy glow to his cheeks, his intense gaze, the suppressed energy in his frame, all spoke of a high-strung disposition. "And she doesn't like surprises."
Anne forced a smile to her lips. "Thank you, sir, for your compliment on my talent. I understand you reviewed my orchid plates."
"I did, and I found them marvelous," he enthused. "Tell me about your training. Whom did you study with?"
The enthusiasm drained from his face. "Surely you didn't learn to draw like that on your own."
Startled by the accusation, she said nothing.
Head tilted, Lord Connock leaned forward in his chair. "How much experience have you had in dissection?"
Eyebrows raised, he shot Sir Richard a frown. The other man simply shrugged. Lord Connock returned his attention to Anne. "I find it nearly impossible to imagine anyone could portray orchids in such fine detail without formal training and firsthand experience."
His verbal attack forced her from her chair. She stood and walked to the bay window, where a group of the very orchids she'd drawn sat drooping in the sun. All of the critics who had reviewed her drawings had said the same thing as Lord Connock. Impossible for a woman to have such a fine, detailed hand. Unthinkable for a woman to understand the intricacies of floral structure. The conclusion? She was copying her late husband's work, perhaps even putting her name to drawings he'd never published. They would never believe her if she told them that she, not Henry, had sketched every one of the plates in his Encyclopedia of Flowering Plants. Henry had stolen from her, not the other way around.
"Lord Connock," she began, her voice tight, "I began drawing plants and landscapes just after I started to walk. Through the years I've honed my skills. I have no formal training. Instead I rely upon many years of experience and a determination to improve myself. If you are suggesting that the orchid plates are not my own, I'm afraid I'll have to excuse myself."
"No, no." Lord Connock rose from his chair and stepped quickly to her side. " 'Tis obvious your ability is God-given, an inborn talent so few of us possess."
Some of the stiffness left her limbs. "Thank you for allowing that much."
"Your parents must be very proud of you."
"My parents own a large horse farm in Cambridge that consumes all of their free time. I'm afraid I disappointed them with my drawings. They would rather I had learned to ride."
Anne said this without the slightest hint of bitterness. Her parents had never understood her. When her mother had married her off to Baron Sherwood at the tender age of eighteen, the ties between them had broken completely, much to everyone's satisfaction.
"But we are proud of her," Sir Richard insisted, touching her arm in a fatherly gesture.
Eliza, her face composed but her eyes alight, refilled their cups with tea.
"With good reason." Lord Connock moved closer to her side. "In our correspondence, Sir Richard has often mentioned you. He said you have a remarkable way with the plants themselves. Plants that expire under the supervision of hired gardeners seem to thrive when you tend them."
Warmth crept into Anne's cheeks. "Sir Richard tries to turn commonsense plant care into something magical."
"There is a bit of magic in you, Anne," Sir Richard insisted.
Frowning, she fell silent. She had no desire to explain to Lord Connock the strange connection she felt to plants. He would never understand how the petals and leaves of a flower seemed to speak to her, creating colors in her mind that she translated into simple needs. He would think her mad.
Instead, she touched an orchid's ivory petal with a gentle finger, its exotic, almost waxen beauty at odds with its delicate coloring. She focused on its long, swordlike leaves and saw brownish-red. This flower was thirsty. It was dying, despite the moist soil in which it rooted. As always, the contradiction confused her.
"Orchids are my favorite," she said, distracted. "But they don't seem to like England. They die quickly, as though longing for home."
Lord Connock nodded toward the plant on the sill before her. "And this one? It seems healthy enough."
"It will die soon. It's thirsty."
"Thirsty?" He pressed a finger against the mulch at the orchid's base. "The soil feels moist enough."
Anne shrugged. "Kew's orchid losses have always been high, even though we nurse them carefully in our glasshouses. Orchids have needs we don't understand, and until we discover what they are, the orchids will die."
The Irish nobleman nodded thoughtfully. "I have a naturalist working for me who has brought back many species of orchids from foreign locations. Since orchids are your favorites, Mrs. Sherwood, I will ask him what sort of conditions the orchids grow naturally in. Perhaps there is something the English growers have missed. Indeed, you could even ask him yourself."
"He is here?"
"No, Mr. McEvoy is abroad. I expect him to return to Ireland in the next few weeks. I'm hoping you'll accompany me home, Mrs. Sherwood, and discuss orchids with him then."
She stilled, not certain what had prompted his offer. Common sense suggested that when a man asked a woman to his home, he had more than polite conversation in mind. And yet, regardless of Eliza's rather obvious hopes, Lord Connock's expression had remained utterly devoid of physical interest in her. "Why do you wish to bring me to Ireland?"
"I'd like you to return to Glendale Hall with me for a brief stay as a botanical illustrator."
"You want to hire me?"
"Sir Richard has explained to me your difficulty. You're a fine artist who receives no recognition for her work. I had planned to employ Mr. Townsend of the Royal Botanic Society, but when I saw your sketches, I changed my mind. I propose you return to Glendale Hall with me and illustrate the species I have collected, many of them new and rare.
"Indeed, there is a tree you must see, an odd-looking specimen growing on my estate that has no match. If you document this tree for me, Mrs. Sherwood, no one will accuse you of copying your husband's work, because he died before this species was discovered. You will finally be accorded the acclaim you deserve."
"What does this tree look like, and where did it come from?" Anne asked. Doubt gave her voice an inflection that Lord Connock didn't appear to notice.
"My naturalist brought it back from the far reaches of the Himalayas. I've made a sketch of it myself. It's not very good." He reached into his jacket and withdrew a piece of rolled vellum, which he then unfurled before her. "I've tried to make sketches of my collection, but I can't. I haven't the talent. And I demand only the best." He admitted his inadequacy without the slightest degree of shame, his calm dignity swaying her determination to have nothing to do with him.
She took the vellum and examined his sketch near the window, in full light of the afternoon sun. Thick, bold lines and disproportionate shapes cut across the vellum. She had to agree with him. He hadn't much talent as an illustrator. The tree might just as easily have been a new species of primate.
"I need you, Mrs. Sherwood. Just for a few months. I can't pay you much. A stipend, at most. My finances aren't what they used to be. Nevertheless, you won't regret helping me, I assure you." He spoke quietly yet passionately, his hands spread open in a supplicating gesture she couldn't ignore.
His plea struck at the core of her own need. She wanted nothing more than to have her work credited to her name. She rolled the vellum up carefully and handed it back to him. Inside, her stomach knotted in a tight coil.
If she stayed on at Kew Gardens, she might never convince scholarly circles of her expertise as a botanical illustrator. She had submitted sketch after sketch, plate after plate, with little success. Even Sir Richard couldn't convince the critics otherwise. He was family, they said, which rendered his defense of her suspect.
But Lord Connock was not a relative. Indeed, he was a respected peer and a well-known collector. His word would have more weight in scholarly circles. If he promoted her work, she might finally gain what she'd been seeking the past several years.
Breath coming quicker, she realized she couldn't refuse him. His offer came too close to satisfying the compulsions that had ruled her life for the last seven years. With Lord Connock's help, she would realize success. And all she had to do was draw.
"I'll come to Glendale Hall," she said, and felt a spark of excitement she hadn't known in ages.
Copyright © 2000 by Tracy Fobes