by Allison Lane
London was huge and full of people.
Maggie Adams stared at the crowds as her hired carriage rounded a corner. Even knowing that London was the largest city in the world had not prepared her for its immensity.
It had taken two hours to reach Mayfair from the docks, though they had crossed only a portion of the city. She had seen areas of unimagined squalor, streets so elegant that her breath caught, and more people than she could count. A market square had seemed to hold the entire population of Halifax, yet more women had bustled along the next street than had huddled outside the mine after last spring's disaster. Every corner they rounded revealed more -- piemen vying for a workman's custom, maids scurrying about on errands or flirting with handsome young footmen, horses jamming the intersections, delivery boys, shoppers, crones, pickpockets…
Never had she felt so insignificant - or so helpless. She'd already been turned away from every hotel Captain Harding considered suitable for ladies. What if the Grand Regent was also full?
"I still think we should go to Adams House," said Alice stoutly.
"No. I promised Father to heal the breach with his family, but he warned me to remain cautious. Arriving on their doorstep without warning will put me at a disadvantage. I must learn more about the family before making demands." To begin with, she must find out whether her grandfather was still alive. It had been twenty-eight years since her father had left home.
"You know how your father would feel about patronizing a second-rate hotel," Alice said, returning to their ongoing argument.
"The clerk at the Clarendon swore that the Grand Regency is an excellent house."
"The clerk at the Clarendon thought you a rustic colonial with little money and less consequence."
Alice was right -- not that she'd had any choice. Hiding her circumstances was another promise she'd made to her father. If she failed to heal this breach, she wanted no further contact with her English family. The only way to assure that was to hide her home and give them no incentive to look for her.
The carriage pulled to a stop.
"It's impressive enough," conceded Alice as the door opened. Columns punctuated the facade, which overlooked a broad street divided by a tree-studded garden.
"Let's hope they have room." Maggie accepted a footman's hand down.
"Good day, Mr. Simmons." She prayed the nameplate was his. "Mr. Louillier at the Clarendon believes you have a suite available - all he could offer was a single room. I trust you can accommodate me."
She glared in the way that usually cowed her employees, giving him no chance to assess her gown. It worked.
"Of course, madam."
She nodded regally. "Margaret Adams, of Halifax." This lie had little to do with promises. She could hardly admit being an American. War had raged between England and the United States for two years.
She signed the register and paid a week in advance, then sent Alice to deal with their driver. Exhaustion swept over her in a debilitating wave. The journey had been grueling -- jolting along corduroy roads, canoeing down rivers, leading pack animals through dense forest. Eventually she'd caught a fishing boat to Halifax, where she'd boarded a ship for England.
But now that she was finally here, the uncertainty she had been ignoring returned. How was she to approach her family?
Deep in thought, she headed for the stairs and promptly ran into a gentleman.
"Pardon me, madam," he said stiffly, grabbing her arm to keep her from falling.
Flames burned her cheeks. "It was entirely my fault, sir. Are you all right?" Odd sensations radiated from his hand. "I should have been paying attention -- though it could have been worse. I might have sent you sprawling." She winced at her babbling, for the words were embarrassingly true. She had been beset by clumsiness since leaving for England. Only last week, she'd nearly knocked the first mate overboard.
"Am I supposed to be grateful?" he asked coolly.
"That wasn't what I meant!" New heat flushed her face. She shook her head in an effort to restore wits scattered by his touch. Where had her sangfroid gone? He was only a man.
But what a man! His clothes were more fashionable than evening wear in Pittsburgh. A striped waistcoat peeked from under a dark blue coat stretched across powerful shoulders. Gray pantaloons showed off muscular thighs and impeccably polished boots. His eyes were an odd shade of green -- something between old moss and a pale stone she'd once found along the river. Only his hair countered his elegance, framing his face in a riot of dark curls. She suppressed a ridiculous urge to test its softness.
"The accent is American," he said after quizzing her from head to toe. "But from neither Philadelphia nor Boston."
"Canadian," she countered, meeting his gaze in a test of wills.
He blinked, his eyes lightening with laughter. "Intelligent."
"What is your point, Mr.--"
"Widmer. Marcus Widmer. Forgive me. Your nationality is your own business, though this demonstrates why I resigned from diplomatic service. My tongue sometimes runs on its own."
"Maggie Adams, from Halifax." She offered her hand as if meeting a business acquaintance, then chided herself as he gravely shook it. "What can you tell me of the Grand Regent? I had expected to stay at the Pulteney or the Clarendon."
"You and half the aristocracy." He offered his arm to escort her upstairs. "All the better London hotels are crowded because of Napoleon's abdication. In June, we entertained a host of foreign dignitaries, including several heads of state. In July, innumerable dinners honored Wellington. Now London is holding the public festivities. They will conclude tomorrow, but you should be careful when you venture out. Excitement often leads to rowdiness, and this heat has done nothing to soothe tempers."
She nodded, though London was cooler than August at home.
"As to your question, I've lived at the Grand Regent since it opened last month. The service remains what Americans call spotty, but the prices are reasonable and the food is outstanding. Would you dine with me this evening?"
"My companion and I will be delighted," she replied without thinking, then chided herself roundly ....
A week later, Max turned his curricle through Redrock's gates. The estate was nestled against a line of hills just north of Dartmoor. The land seemed wilder than Kent or Lincolnshire, stirring his senses and making him feel reckless.
He stifled the excitement that had been building since that night at Brook's. He could not afford more recklessness. It had already threatened his purse.
But at the moment, he had more urgent considerations. He'd outpaced his baggage coach to make sure he arrived before his friends, though with luck their journey was as plagued with trouble as his had been - delaying rains, a lame horse near Bath, a cracked wheel five miles later. But they could arrive as early as this evening. He hoped the staff was adequate.
He frowned as the drive entered a small wood. Several trees were dead or dying. Broken branches littered the ground, raising questions about the steward's competence.
Other problems caught his eye as he emerged. By the time he reached the house, he was furious. The park was unkempt, with walls in disrepair and a drive so rutted it would jolt teeth even in a well-sprung carriage. The house was equally grim, its double wings tucked behind a narrow facade boasting cracked windows and crumbling brick. Had Ashburton increased his profits by allowing a house he never used to decay?
He hated men who raped the land to line their own pockets. Landowners were caretakers for the future. Even an unused house would eventually be pressed into service for a relative or other dependent. How could anyone justify such neglect?
But Ashburton might not be at fault, he admitted as he climbed down from his curricle. If an owner never visited, a dishonest steward could claim fictitious repairs, appropriating the cost for himself.
He grimaced. If that were true, the house might be unstaffed and in worse condition than it appeared. If only he had been sober when the idea of a house party had come up. He might have been less willing to believe another man's solicitor.
Frowning at the cracked paint on the door, he tried the latch. It was open.
The entrance hall seemed dark as a cave. But his eyes soon adjusted, bringing details into focus - satinwood paneling that showed signs of recent care, a marble floor, six-panel doors leading to rooms on either side, arched hallway openings just beyond, and a graceful stairway rising in the back.
Not until a gasp sounded in the shadows did he realize that a maid in a dark brown gown stood beneath the stairs, one hand clutching a feather duster, the other clasped to a generous bosom. She wore no cap. Auburn hair had come loose from a tight knot, framing her face in a nimbus of fire. Gray eyes held surprise and curiosity. His groin stirred.
"Who are-" she began, but he cut her off.
"What a charming picture, though it looks like you need help," he added, noting cobwebs near the ceiling.
Three steps brought him to her side, allowing light from the open door to turn her hair into a blazing inferno, driving all thought of cleaning from his mind. His arm circled her shoulders, holding her still while he studied that stunning face.
Lust engulfed him, stronger than anything raised by Annette's most practiced tricks. "Lovely," he murmured. "A welcome addition to any staff. You would be an instant success at Covent Garden, sweetings. Gentlemen would overrun the greenroom to meet you."
Her head reached his eyes. She twisted away from his gaze, grazing his chin with an elegant ear. Surrendering to irresistible temptation, he nibbled it.
"Cad!" Her hand connected firmly with his cheek as she jerked out of his grip.
Only then did he realize that she'd been trying to escape. He clenched his fists against retaliating, for she had every right to protest his reckless assault. "My apo-"
She interrupted. "How dare you walk in without even knocking?"
"I own this house. Where is the caretaker?"
Hope stared at the stranger. He looked perfectly normal, if she ignored the fury seething in his eyes. Dark hair curled from under an elegant top hat, one strand escaping down his forehead to draw attention to brilliant blue eyes. A greatcoat broadened shoulders already wide enough to rival those of her most powerful tenant. But he was typical of the aristocracy - selfish, arrogant, and demanding. Might he become dangerous when she pointed out his error?
Fear choked her. He probably embodied every vice her mother had warned her against. His willingness to enter a strange house and accost the first female he met branded him a rakehell, and he was clearly contemplating how to avenge her slap.
She suppressed her dread of the power embodied in those shoulders, for displaying fear, or even nervousness, would be a mistake. Like any predator, he would pounce on the first sign of weakness. Backing another pace, she spoke slowly, as to a dull-witted child.
"Your driver has lost his way, sir, bringing you to the wrong estate. My mother and I lease this property from my uncle."
His brow furrowed. "Is this not Redrock House?"
"Then it is mine."
"You must have fallen victim to a charlatan. My uncle would never sell it."
"He did not sell it. He lost it in a card game."
Her knees nearly buckled. "You are sure?"
Sympathy flashed briefly in his eyes, surprising her. "My apologies for being the bearer of bad news, Miss-"
"Ashburton," she said when he paused.
"And I am Lord Merimont." He proffered a card. "Ashburton wagered Redrock House eight days ago. I won."
She cursed herself for flinching at the abrupt words. He was watching her like a hawk and would not have missed so telltale a reaction. When she refused to respond - she didn't trust her voice - he continued.
"You are in shock, Miss Ashburton. Not that I blame you. Losing one's home is always upsetting. Why don't you summon your mother so we can sort out the next step?"
Losing one's home? The gall of the man! "Mother is ill." She motioned him toward the office.
Damn Uncle Edward for finding a new way to annoy her. It was just like him to hand over his despised relations to a man who would use them ill. She recognized Merimont's name. Only last summer the London papers had reported an incident at an unsavory brothel, and no one would ever forget his appalling behavior at the Horseley ball.
But she could not allow him to intimidate her. Redrock House was all they had. She should have expected something like this, for troubles never arrived singly. Her mother's chill had returned with a vengeance, sinking deep into her chest with wracking coughs that occasionally led to vomiting. She must deal with Merimont quickly, so her mother would not discover so dangerous a man under her roof.
She took the seat behind the desk, ignoring another flash of his fury. He had the most expressive eyes she had ever seen - odd for a man reputed to have no morals and no regrets.
"As I said," he continued, assuming his own chair. "I am sorry to bear bad news, but the estate is now mine. As I am in need of it, I must cancel your lease."
His eyes widened. "You are misinformed. A contract with your uncle does not bind me. He can house you elsewhere."
"You are misinformed, my lord. If not for the lease, my uncle would have tossed us out ten years ago. It was established by my grandfather. Changes in ownership do not affect its terms. They remain in force until it expires - in another seventy-five years."
"What?" He sagged into his chair, his shock too overdone for sincerity. Everyone knew his father owned property in half the shires of England, so finding this house occupied was hardly a tragedy.
She forced calm into her voice. "It is a ninety-nine-year lease, my lord, and attaches to the estate itself, giving us free, unmolested use of the house and guaranteeing us half the estate income. Obviously you were unaware of its provisions, but winning an estate at the gaming table is no different from buying a pig in a poke. You have no cause to complain if it is less than you expected."
"No buts, my lord. The lease cannot be broken. Believe me, my uncle tried everything, including a petition to the king, but he could not evict us. Nor can you. The White Heron in the village is simple but clean if you need accommodation. Or you might prefer the Spotted Pony in Oakhampton, which is larger and renowned hereabouts for its ale." Oakhampton was three miles away.
"Not so fast, Miss Ashburton. Where is this infamous lease?"
Pulling open a drawer, she extracted a sheaf of papers. "This is a copy, as is the one my solicitor holds. Another is on file at Somerset House in London, as part of my grandfather's will. Copies are also lodged in other places, so it would be nearly impossible to destroy evidence of its existence."
"If you were a man, I would call you out for such calumny," he growled.
She frowned, detecting real pain in his voice. "Then I beg your pardon. Uncle Edward burned two copies before he discovered that Grandfather had anticipated his reaction. I have no evidence that you are different. Not only are you Uncle's friend, but you have already proven yourself a lecherous gamester."
The new blast of fury from his eyes nearly made her falter, but she could not afford to show weakness. So she glared back until he dropped his eyes.
"I must look into this matter further," he finally said on a long sigh. "Who is your solicitor?"
"Mr. Fisk of Fisk and Farley in Oakhampton." Before
he could raise new objections, she whisked him out the door and bolted
it behind him.
© 1998 Allison Lane
Murch rapped on the workroom door.
"Is dinner ready?" Alexandra Merideth Vale asked. She often lost track of time.
"Two hours yet, Miss Alex. But a carriage met with an accident near the gates, laming one of the horses. No one was hurt, but the passengers request beds for the night."
"Do they have names?" Murch had never been so close-mouthed.
He extended a small tray. Two cards lay in its center, corners turned up to indicate a personal call.
"The Honorable Tony Linden," she read from the uppermost, stifling an oath. "Who is Mr. Torwell?" she asked, holding out the second.
"Mr. Linden's cousin. He serves as vicar to the village near Linden Park."
"Ah." She met Murch's eyes. Both knew there had been no accident. Cursing her father for putting her in this position, she sighed. "Put them in the west wing. I will see them in the drawing room before dinner. Is Sarah back?" One of the tenants was ill.
"An hour ago."
"I will warn her."
Once Murch left, she stared at the cards, pacing her workroom as she pondered this new complication. She should have expected Linden's heir to track her down. How else could he recover the fortune her father had stolen? She ought to bar the door, but she couldn't.
"The Honorable Tony Linden," she repeated, staring at a London address not far from her father's. Everyone knew that the very dishonorable Tony Linden cared little about rules, taking what he wanted, without regret.
Was this her father's real goal? If Linden dragged her off to the altar, Sir Winton would be spared participation in the Season - and he could keep the cost of one for himself. Did he not care that she would be tied to a monster?
She snorted. Of course he didn't care. Ridding himself of an unwanted daughter was his only goal.
Banishing images of her father, she considered Linden. Unsavory stories had abounded for years, even in this remote valley. He was a rakehell who had ruined more than one innocent, though his legendary charm still made him welcome in all but the strictest drawing rooms. After so many years of dealing with her father's debauched friends, his rakish adventures did not bother her, but his reputation as a drunken gamester did. The only reason he was not in debtor's prison was the generous allowance he received from his wealthy father.
Forty thousand pounds and a lucrative estate …
The allowance was now gone. Not only his inheritance, but his very livelihood was locked into a trust that could be recovered only by wedding her.
So he had come to seduce her. And he had gone about it quite cleverly. The staged accident. The vicar in attendance. Did he have a special license tucked away in his luggage?
Her feet picked up speed.
Damn the man! And damn her father for putting her in this position. Even if Linden gave up and left her alone, others would be close behind. Sir Winton would already be spreading the word that she was an heiress. Why would a desperate man wait until she arrived in London, where he must vie with others for her attention?
Linden was beyond desperate. He would also be furious that he must abandon more interesting diversions to recover what should never have been lost. To conclude this distasteful business as quickly as possible, he might break into her room, his vicar cousin in tow, and wed her that very night.
She shivered, but guilt was stronger than fear. She knew, deep in her bones, that her father had cheated. Even his shattered leg could not atone for so despicable an act. He had deliberately destroyed an entire family for his own convenience. Reparation was possible only by wedding Linden's son.
So she must consider his offer.
Yet his reputation was terrifying. Accepting parson's mousetrap was bad enough with any man. Could she condone it with one she could never respect? The answer might well be no.
She pondered her dilemma as she headed upstairs, searching for a way out.
Perhaps she was being too harsh on her father. Her only evidence that he'd cheated was her own instinct and Murch's hints. What if Tony Linden had learned his vices at his father's knee? If the viscount was also a gamester, she owed him nothing.
Yet she had even less evidence for that scenario, she admitted wearily. Could a confirmed gamester keep his family fortune intact for decades? Her father couldn't. And what about Linden's wife, mother, daughters, younger sons? Were other family members being hurt through no fault of their own? Gamesters cared nothing for others, but that did not mean their families were culpable.
In the absence of facts, her own beliefs were all that mattered. It was unconscionable to strip a man of everything he owned, so she must do whatever she could to rectify this crime. But until she determined whether marriage was possible - his reputation made her shiver every time she thought of it - she must protect herself from a compromising attack.
There was only one solution, she decided, rapping on the door to her companion's bedchamber. She hated deceit, but this situation was too dangerous.
"Tony Linden is here," she announced when Sarah answered.
"The Tony Linden?"
"Dear Lord! Why did you let him in? He is in league with the devil. Whenever parishioners strayed from righteousness, Papa would remind them that they risked the same damnation as Linden."
Alex bit back a sarcastic retort, for her uncle had been far from saintly. "I am well aware of his reputation, but I could hardly turn him away after Father stripped his family of every penny." She explained her fears.
"Do you honestly believe you can live with so debauched a man?" Her needlework fell unnoticed to the floor.
"I don't know. That's why you must help me. I cannot risk a compromise, so you must pretend to be me. Even a hardened libertine would balk at attacking so obvious an innocent."
It was the closest she could come to mentioning Sarah's clubfoot. A man accustomed to escorting beautiful women would be even less tolerant of imperfection than her father, whose pointed disgust forced Sarah to hide whenever his friends visited. Those friends were just as free with insults. As were the neighbors, who rarely called and never included Sarah on invitations. Linden would hesitate to attach a cripple until he was sure he could live with the consequences.
"You must be mad," countered Sarah, her eyes wide with shock. "Deceit never works. And how will you explain employing it if you do decide to accept him?"
"He would not care. All he wants is his inheritance." Her conscience cringed at the choice she faced, but it had to be done.
"What about the staff?"
"Murch will see that they behave."
"And what about callers? I grant that we receive few, but Mrs. Nobles has not been here in more than a fortnight. And news that we have two gentlemen in residence is bound to excite interest."
"Mrs. Nobles was called away to her sister's sickbed last week."
"I had forgotten," Sarah admitted.
"And Murch will keep news of this from spreading. The masquerade cannot last more than a day or two. Linden's excuse for seeking shelter will stretch no longer, and I will know by then if I can accept him."
"You should decide tonight. With your luck, one of Uncle's friends will appear at dawn. You know they never warn us that they are coming." Her irritation grew at each new objection. "Those who visit London in autumn are already there. The others are unlikely to travel again until spring."
"You cannot have thought this through," Sarah protested. "No matter what his motives, a man of Linden's reputation will be slow to forgive trickery."
"I have no choice!" Alex barely controlled her temper. "If I followed my heart, I would refuse him admittance. You know I have no interest in marriage. Placing myself under the thumb of a husband would be far worse than having to deal with Father. But Linden would not accept so summary a dismissal, and I cannot ignore the probability that Father cheated. I must consider accepting this offer, but I must also protect myself from coercion. A man of his reputation would think nothing of forcing himself on an antidote, but I believe he retains enough decency to respect you."
They argued for half an hour, but in the end Sarah agreed. The only change she suggested was with names. To avoid confusion, Alex would become Miss Merideth, companion to the crippled Miss Vale.
Sarah had known quite well why Alex considered her safe from Linden's advances, for her own father had made it clear from birth that well-born ladies and gentlemen would never tolerate her. She decided to exaggerate the infirmity, even pulling out her hated crutch.
Alex returned to her room to look over her wardrobe, then realized that anything would do. None of her gowns were stylish, and all showed signs of wear. So the only change she would make was with her hair. Instead of bundling it haphazardly atop her head, she would pull it into a knot on her neck. A companion could not afford new clothing, but she would at least make the effort to be neat - unlike Miss Alex Vale, who had long ago abandoned any attempt to make a good impression on the world.
The admission raised nervous trepidation for the first
time. Her usual attitude around men was belligerence. Could she behave
like a normal lady tonight? And a subservient one, at that …
Anthony Torwell Linden tied his cravat into an undistinguished knot, then
donned his cousin Jon's worn evening jacket. Already their exchange
of places was causing problems. Though Torwell's work clothes would
suit the role he was playing, his evening wear was clearly a product
of Weston's genius. So he had traded with Jon. The fit wasn't perfect
for either of them, but a country recluse would hardly notice. And it
was too late to change tactics.
Anthony Torwell Linden tied his cravat into an undistinguished knot, then donned his cousin Jon's worn evening jacket. Already their exchange of places was causing problems. Though Torwell's work clothes would suit the role he was playing, his evening wear was clearly a product of Weston's genius. So he had traded with Jon. The fit wasn't perfect for either of them, but a country recluse would hardly notice. And it was too late to change tactics.
He cursed. If he had known that Sir Winton was in London, he would have introduced Jon as the vicar and Torwell as an antiquarian, removing his reputation from the picture. But he'd found out too late. Asking about Vale House in the village would have put his supposed accident to the lie. And he'd already produced his own two calling cards before requesting an audience with Sir Winton. Changing stories now would turn Miss Vale against him. The play was in progress. He could only pray that she was tolerable.
The description had plagued him for days. It must be truly serious for her own father to describe her so. Even confirmed gamesters usually guarded their families.
"It doesn't matter," he said aloud, trying to convince himself. He must protect his mother.
He opened the connecting door to Jon's room - the two had once formed a suite - then choked. "Good Lord! You can't go down looking like that!"
"That cravat would shame a tradesman." Ripping off the offending garment, he dug out a freshly starched square of linen and fashioned an impeccable Oriental, drawing Jon's squeaking protest when he pulled the knot tight. "Why did Simms not tie this?"
"I sent him for a posset. My stomach is roiling so badly I fear it will rebel at dinner."
"Nonsense." He slapped Jon's hand aside, preventing him from loosening the cravat. "Why should you be nervous? You are not trying to make a good impression. Quite the opposite."
"You are not mimicking me, but the dishonorable Tony Linden, product of imagination. Not only is his reputation a sham, but his mannerisms have always been an act. If I can manage them, you can." His arm swept dramatically through the air as he executed a theatrical bow.
Jon stiffened, but gamely tried to reproduce the motion.
"Relax. You look like a puppet."
Jon clutched his stomach.
Tony grimaced. "Try it again. Think of a swallow sweeping across the sky, or the grace of a swan gliding along the Thames." He should not have offered criticism when they must soon meet their hostess. Jon was unaccustomed to attracting attention and sometimes panicked when faced with unfamiliar situations.
The next attempt was worse. Brick would be more flexible. A drunkard showed more grace.
"Much better," he lied.
Simms returned with a glass.
Jon gulped the greenish liquid. An enormous belch filled the room. "Please reconsider, Tony," he said, setting the glass on the washstand. "This idea is insane. Nothing good ever comes of lying."
"Which is why we are in this pickle to begin with!" He strode to the window, running his hands through his hair. "My reputation is the lie, Jon. But I haven't time to convince Miss Vale of the truth - you know our poor, lame horse will have to recover in a day or two. We must conclude this project by then."
"Don't lose sight of why we are here. Does Mother deserve to lose her home?"
Jon flushed. "No, but-"
He flung up his hands. "Very well. But I am no actor. And I'll never be able to cut a dash like you do." Grimacing, he flung open the door and strode into the hall. Within ten feet he stumbled, knocking over a ginger jar and nearly falling down the stairs.
I am no actor …
What had he wrought? But it was too late to change course. Tony descended to meet his fate.
"Mr. Linden and Mr. Torwell," the butler intoned, preceding them into the drawing room.
Tony followed his gaze. The lady nearest the fire was a petite blonde. A very pretty blonde, with sparkling blue eyes and a sweet smile.
"Miss Vale," announced the butler.
Deformed? The girl was enchanting. But even as the thought surfaced, he spotted a crutch. She shifted, revealing a grotesquely twisted foot.
Relief weakened his knees. He could live with a clubfooted wife. As could society, though they usually shunned anyone less than perfect. But people had become accustomed to Byron.
Locking eyes with his quarry, he hardly noticed the second introduction.
"Your generosity will surely be rewarded." He smiled into those blue eyes, careful to overlay impeccable manners with the merest hint of sudden infatuation. "Offering shelter to strangers in need reveals the goodness of your heart. You have our eternal gratitude, Miss Vale."
"Thank you, sir." Her responding smile produced twin dimples. "I trust Mr. Linden's horse was not seriously injured."
"A strain. No more. With luck, we can continue our journey in the morning and count meeting a charming lady as an unexpected blessing. Life is full of rewards."
Jon jumped in front of him, executing a bow that resembled a stooping hawk more closely than a graceful swan. Grabbing Miss Vale's hand, he raised it so briskly to his lips that he smacked it into his nose. "A goddess, forsooth! Why has such remarkable beauty remained secluded where no one can enjoy it?" But the demand lacked force. Already his nose was swelling, combining with his tight cravat to turn his voice to a nasal squeak.
Grimacing, she rescued her hand. "This is my home."
"Are the neighbors dullards that they've allowed so tasty a morsel to remain unclaimed? Gloucestershire must be peopled by fools."
Battling an urge to laugh, Tony frowned at his cousin.
"Will you please be seated?" Miss Vale cringed. "I do not enjoy people looming over me."
Jon nodded, vehemently. "Of course, my dear lady. I would not dream of discommoding my delectable hostess. You must forgive me." He jerked an armchair closer, ramming it into her shin. Sweeping his tails aside, he sat, but the gesture flung his arm out, jostling a tea table. A decanter of sherry crashed to the floor.
Miss Vale gasped.
"Damme! What a clumsy oaf I am tonight," he exclaimed, jumping to his feet and treading on her good foot. His face flushed crimson. As he bent to apologize, his hip knocked the table onto its side even as his head cracked against her shoulder.
Satisfied that Jon was making an ass of himself, though irritated that he was adding new vices to a reputation that already had too many, Tony turned to the companion - and nearly tripped over his own feet.
She was an Amazon. And not just in size. She was glaring at Jon as if she'd like nothing better than to drive a spear through his heart.
His body stirred. He'd always had a weakness for combative women. This one could offer a real challenge. Those flashing eyes alone had his blood moving. When added to blazing hair, a generous bosom, a-
You are a vicar, he reminded himself. Though many a vicar was more sinful than the flock he led, he was determined to play the role of a saint. He could not afford any connection to Tony Linden's reputation, no matter what temptations he faced.
"Dinner, Miss Vale," announced the butler, rescuing Jon from further apologies.
Tony extended his arm. "I fear I did not catch your name."
She answered his deprecating smile with a knowing look. "Miss Merideth, companion and cousin to Miss Vale."
Her eyes tunneled into the deepest recesses of his mind, raising considerable discomfort. What did she see?
But the question vanished when she stood. Amazon, indeed. Taller than many men, the top of her head reached his eyes, though he stood over six feet tall. Her complexion spoke of hours in the garden without benefit of a bonnet. She had pulled her hair into a severe knot, emphasizing the masculine planes of her face, but already strands were escaping, adding to her vibrancy…
His mind went blank when his eyes dropped to that glorious bosom. Lust coiled in his gut, sending tremors through his arm as he escorted her from the room.
He repeated the admonition, stifling his instincts. Recovering the Park was too important to allow diversions, no matter how pleasant.
© 1999 Allison Lane
BIRDS OF A FEATHER
Bidding Randolph farewell, Lord Sedgewick Wylie headed for his chambers at Albany. He liked walking, for it allowed him time to think.
In society’s eyes, Randolph was his oddest friend, for they seemed to have nothing in common. Randolph was a renowned expert on medieval manuscripts, who cared little for appearance and less for society. Sedge had replaced Brummell as the quintessential dandy, reveling in gossip and the London Season. Few knew he cared for anything beyond manners and the cut of his coats. Green cubs slavishly copied his style, and even the older bucks looked to him for sartorial leadership.
Sedge kept his serious interests out of the public eye, for society was suspicious of anyone it could not easily understand. One-word labels were comfortable, imparting the order and structure that made thinking unnecessary. Lady Beatrice was a gossip, feared because she knew everything. Lady Warburton was a hostess, her balls the highlight of any Season. Lord Devereaux was a rake, unprincipled enough that parents kept daughters out of his path. Lord Shelford was a Corinthian, determined to best his own numerous speed records. Lord Sedgewick was a dandy, caring only for clothes and on-dits.
He derived considerable amusement from society’s antics, much of it rooted in this willful blindness. Few people acknowledged that Lady Warburton was as obsessed with gossip as Lady Beatrice. No one admitted that Devereaux knew as much about horses as Shelford did. And as for himself, not only did people ignore his intelligence, the pleasure he derived from helping others, and even his love of history and literature, but disclosing these interests would actually reduce his credit.
"Stop that!" The voice cut through the usual street sounds, pulling him from his reverie. A woman dashed in front of a carriage, oblivious to its approach.
"Look out!" he shouted, sprinting forward. Stupid wench! Didn’t anyone think before acting these days? "Move out of the street!" She had frozen at his first warning and now stiffened, turning his way rather than toward the carriage. He lunged, jerking her to safety and slamming her against his chest hard enough to drive the air from their lungs.
Nice body, noted his mind even as his eyes took in her appearance. Well-worn half-boots. A threadbare cloak over a serviceable gown. Spectacles perched on the tip of a pert nose. Plain bonnet hugging her head. Obviously a servant, for she lacked an escort. But her features were refined, so she was probably a governess or companion.
"Not at all the thing to walk about in a fog," he drawled once he managed to inhale. His heart pounded from the aftermath of fear.
"Tha … dog … boys … I don’t—"
He’d overestimated her position. Her voice was cultured, but shock had reduced her to incoherence. Such a woman would make a poor governess. Too bad. Lack-wits had never attracted him.
Nor would they now, he decided, setting her firmly aside. The unflattering garments hid a wealth of curves that were stirring interest in his nether regions.
"Are you blind or merely stupid?" he snapped to cover his reaction.
"Pay attention! You could have been killed."
"D-dog." A finger directed his attention across the street.
Two boys shifted their eyes from the departing carriage to the woman who had nearly died. Discerning their sport was easy. Hands pinned a whimpering dog to the ground.
Raising his quizzing glass, he adopted his most disapproving frown. "Well, well, if it isn’t Tom Pratchard. Up to no good again?" This son of a Jermyn Street tobacconist had a penchant for mischief. He must speak to Pratchard himself this time. The lad’s mother had done nothing to curb his tendencies. He didn’t recognize Tom’s redheaded companion, though learning the boy’s identity would not be difficult. But that was for later. The moment he stepped off the curb, they fled. He turned his gaze to the dog.
"And Maximillian. I might have known you would be here. What have you done now?" Squatting at the animal’s side, he checked him for injuries. Max licked weakly at his gloves. But aside from one shallow cut, he seemed intact.
By following him, the woman had successfully traversed the street. She crouched in the gutter, making incoherent noises. Either she was more addled than he’d thought or fright had affected her wits.
Max took in her concern, wiggling with pleasure when she scratched his ears. He always groveled to females, treating them to none of the questionable temper he inflicted on males. Thus they all adored him.
"Sweet little dog," she crooned, finding her voice under the influence of Max’s charm. "You are having a miserable day, aren’t you. That nasty nurse tried to beat you with her umbrella. And a horse nearly stepped on you. You really must be more careful, you know. If that cat had been less of a coward, it would be dining on you at this very minute. And how did you run afoul of those horrid boys? Wicked monsters! Are you all right?" Max squirmed with pleasure, licking her fingers.
"He will be fine," Sedge assured her, adopting a stern tone to hide his relief.
She ignored him, prattling as inanely as his aunt and her dotty friends, her focus wholly on the dog, who was now pressed close to her side. She seemed unaware of his own presence, which made his fight to regain control of an unruly body even more irritating.
"He will be fine," he repeated sharply, furious at being ignored. "But I can hardly say the same for you. What sort of idiot steps into the street without checking for traffic?"
That gained her attention. "I didn’t … that’s not…" She inhaled deeply several times, lowering her gaze to his cravat. "Are you sure he is all right?"
"Of course." How dare she question his judgment? The woman was more addled than he’d thought. "He merely escaped Lady Barkley’s garden again. As for you, this is London, not a country village. If you wish to survive, think before you act – or stay at home."
"Of all the presumptuous—"
"Thus speaks the woman who threw herself in front of a carriage," he scoffed, interrupting. "Hen-witted fool. Are you even aware that I just saved your miserable life?" Giving her no chance to respond, he batted her hand aside and scooped Max into his arms. "Come along, Maximillian. Your taste in friends grows worse each day." Max growled, snapping at his chin.
He tightened his grip, glaring at the scruffy animal.
"I can carry him," the woman offered. "He seems to like me."
"Which proves his lack of intelligence. Why would I trust an animal to someone incapable of crossing a street unescorted?" he stifled an urge to wring her neck. He hardly expected instant adulation, but couldn’t she at least thank him for risking his life?
Ignoring her reversion to stammered gibberish, he headed for Barkley House. This was not how he wanted to pass the afternoon.
"Don’t turn that innocent look on me," he grumbled at the dog. "Your mistress may fall for that trick, but I know you better. That was a nauseating performance just now. How can you lower yourself to grovel? And to a brainless idiot."
Now that he had no female to wheedle, Maximillian squirmed around to lay a paw on Sedge’s chest.
"No, I won’t forgive you. It is bad enough that you’ve ruined my walking stick, my coat, and my newest pantaloons. Must you also destroy my waistcoat and shirt? Turrett will weep," he added, naming his valet. "He truly loved this outfit."
Maximillian yelped in delight.
"Proud of yourself, aren’t you. Stupid dog. This escapade was not one of your brighter ideas. Adventures are all very well in the country, but sneaking about in London will be the death of you. I cannot be forever available to rescue you from these antics."
Maximillian hung his head.
"As well you should. I must now summon my coach, for I dare not resume my walk. Appearing on the street in so disheveled a state would destroy my reputation."
It was true. Even if none of Maximillian’s blood smeared his coat, dusty paw prints would never escape notice. Every eye turned his way whenever he ventured out.
"But summoning my carriage will not be the worst penalty I must pay," he continued. A commotion in the square was attracting attention, so if he reached Barkley House unseen, he could avoid any questions. "Your mistress is undoubtedly at home."
He cursed, then cursed again when he reached his destination, for his fears proved prescient. His aunt insisted on serving tea, then demanded to know when he planned to wed.
* * *
Joanna swore under her breath as her rescuer left, carrying the dog. Mortification heated her cheeks. After only a week in town, she had already made a cake of herself. Would she never learn to think before acting? Heedlessness had been her bane for years. When something caught her attention, she forgot all else. Her penchant for walking into trouble was well-known at home, her frequent trances spawning countless jokes.
Today’s incident could have cost her dearly. Why hadn’t she stopped to think? Waiting for the carriage to pass would have made no difference, but she hadn’t even noticed it. Thank heaven her anonymous rescuer had come along. She could have been badly hurt – or worse.
His scold was well deserved. Even minor injuries could have consigned her to bed, ruining Harriet’s Season and leaving Wicksfield in the lurch. She should have mentioned her problem during that interview, but she had been sure that her concentration would remain on Harriet, who would thus benefit from her single-mindedness.
Her cheeks heated. Wicksfield had asked if she could handle the job of chaperoning his daughter, and she had said yes. Despite knowing her history, she had agreed. The bitter truth was that she had wanted to visit London so badly that she had lied by omission. If she had told him, he would have hired someone else.
Guilt gnawed at her conscience. She had set the stage for disaster with her lie. What if she fell into an abstraction when she was with Harriet? What if she approved the wrong suitor because she had missed evidence that he had a venal nature? What if she walked into a wall or knocked over a punch bowl, drawing ridicule onto Wicksfield’s family. It wasn’t an idle fear. She had already been guilty of those offenses and more. Her clumsiness attracted as much ridicule as her heedlessness.
So far, she had managed well. Except for treading on a dowager’s foot last night… And jostling the butler’s arm so he spilled soup in her lap… And that little problem at the inn last week … but that had been the maid’s fault; people carrying loaded trays should not rush blindly around corners.
Are you blind or merely stupid?
She was not managing well at all, now that she considered it. Her cheeks heated. Her rescuer was undoubtedly one of the gentlemen Harriet would meet over the next few days. Would this encounter hurt the girl’s chances?
Grimacing, she headed home, grateful that everyone she met was hurrying toward the escalating battle in the square. The foolishness of an impoverished chaperon could never compare to such drama, thank God. She was embarrassed enough as it was.
Her gentleman had actually been quite chivalrous, she admitted as she passed the house into which he had disappeared. Most men would have ignored her in their rush to watch the fight. In fact, rescuing her had been more than remarkable. She was wearing an ancient cloak over one of her older gowns. He must have known that she was a person of no consequence, yet he had risked his life to drag her out of danger, jerking her with such force that her spectacles had slid down to cling precariously to the tip of her nose.
The longer she thought about it, the more incongruous his actions appeared. He’d made no pretense of approving her and had actually sneered at her appearance. His own had been very elegant, which made his behavior incomprehensible.
None of the gentlemen she had met this past week would deign to touch a filthy, bleeding dog. Especially a scraggly mop of indeterminate breeding. Yet he had not only examined the animal, but had actually picked it up, holding it comfortingly against his coat despite its objections. Even knowing the animal did not explain such disregard for his clothing. So he must be an unusual man.
New heat rushed to her face. Her own behavior had been appalling. The stupidity of rushing in front of a carriage was bad enough, but mortification had kept her from acknowledging his presence. Then she had compounded her sins by babbling so incoherently that he could not have understood a word.
That was another of her curses: Embarrassment tied both tongue and brain in knots, turning words into a mishmash of incomprehensible gibberish and mortifying truths.
She shook her head. At least she had only prattled to the dog this time instead of blurting out something horrid – like admiration for his broad shoulders, powerful arms, and unexpectedly muscular chest.
Goose bumps tickled her neck, for he was very well set-up. The encounter had made her too aware of his assets. No padding enhanced that physique, and his strength had astonished her. She was not a frail, petite miss like Harriet. She was as tall as many men, and no one would ever describe her as slender. Yet he had picked her up as though she weighed nothing, crushing her to him from shoulder to thigh, and proving that her head fit perfectly…
Forget his assets!
She repeated the admonition as she climbed the steps to Wicksfield House. He had dismissed her as the insignificant servant she was. Nothing but pain could come from mooning over his splendid form. Her duty lay with Harriet, who would need all her attention. Distractions would only lead to disaster.
© 1998 Allison Lane
"Welcome to Seabrook, my lord," said the footman, gesturing toward the stairs.
Blake looked, then froze as the bottom dropped out of his stomach. A woman was descending. Black hair. Blue eyes. Way too familiar.
He cursed under his breath. Here was that governess again, the one he'd had no luck tracing. Was her charge one of Seabrook's sisters? Perhaps rumor was crediting Catherine with the governess's exploits.
"You!" she snapped. Her hair was looser today, curling provocatively around her pale face. "How dare you follow me home!"
"I warned you I would discover your employer," he replied, though in truth, no one had recognized his description.
"Threatened is closer to the truth, sir. Why don't you hold up a carriage or burn down a stable or two? It would be a less onerous way to amuse yourself."
"Rag-mannered baggage. I can't believe you pulled the wool over Seabrook's eyes."
"Shall I summon Lord Seabrook, madam?" asked the footman uncertainly.
"That won't be necessary, Rob." She inhaled deeply, then gestured toward a drawing room.
Blake followed, silent as he hurriedly rearranged his impressions. Madam? The footman's manner proclaimed that this woman was in charge.
"Who are you?" he managed once she shut the door.
"At last. An intelligent question." The drawing room's faded carpet made her coloring seem even more vibrant. "Mrs. Parrish, Lord Seabrook's sister. I will accept your apologies now, though only a empty-headed nodcock would have behaved so disgracefully. Parading your ignorance in public caused my daughter considerable distress."
He winced. "Forgive me, but-"
"Nothing here needs your attention. You will understand that I cannot offer refreshments. Perhaps in the future you will think before drawing unwarranted conclusions or intruding into business that does not concern you." She turned toward the door, clearly ready to escort him out.
"Not so fast, Mrs. Parrish," he said, crossing arms and ankles as he leaned against the mantel. Their eyes clashed across the width of the room. "I am not the only one prone to unwarranted assumptions. Perhaps you should summon your brother after all. I am here by his invitation."
"Damn! You must be-" She blanched.
"Blake Townsend, Earl of Rockhurst." He proffered a card.
Clearly dazed, she snatched it from his hand, then retreated to the window. "Dear Lord." She stared at the card as if it might bite. "Why did William drag you all the way from Oxfordshire? He has never mentioned you before."
"He didn't." Unsure what shocked her now, he decided to leave no room for further misunderstanding. "I was in Exeter on business. When I returned to the White Hart after our last meeting, I ran into Seabrook. I had not seen him since Eton, but he described your problem and asked me to investigate. I did not realize he was discussing you, of course."
"Of course. But what was he doing in Exeter?" she murmured, clearly bewildered. Before he could respond, she shook her head. "It matters not. What made him think you could help? I've never met anyone so eager to condemn without examining a single fact."
He could feel his face heat. "I beg your pardon, Mrs. Parrish. I cannot imagine why I behaved so badly. That was Jasper Rankin with you?"
She nodded. "He is adept at pretense, not that his acting excuses you. But no matter. William was mistaken. A man of your credulity cannot help me. Are you always so hasty to judge?"
"Never." His head reeled. Had he actually allowed someone to manipulate him into hurling lurid accusations at a lady? He never jumped to conclusions. He never accepted the unsupported word of one man as truth. He never-
But you did, reminded his conscience. You were so furious that this intriguing a woman had feet of clay, that you lashed out without thought.
He ignored it, unwilling to believe it. "I wronged you. It does not matter that it was an isolated incident. I must atone by exposing Rankin for the liar he is."
"Words." She stalked closer in a swirl of skirts. "Promise the moon, why don't you? It is just as attainable."
"Do not be so quick to commit yourself. You know nothing of the situation."
"I know that rumor makes Jezebel seem pure compared to you. I know that protesting your innocence will accomplish nothing. I know that forcing Rankin to confess is your only hope."
"Do you think that would work?" Her tone implied that he was a simpleton as well as gullible. "Jasper is as persuasive as Eden's snake and just as sly. Even he cannot reverse opinion now. Words won't erase the suspicions he cleverly planted. Evidence can prove guilt, but it can never prove innocence. People will believe that I am immoral and that he is conspiring to keep the evidence secret."
"Not if he reveals his part in starting the tales." He approved the way pacing swirled her skirt provocatively around long legs and raised color in her cheeks. Admiration pulsed in his chest. She was a warrior. He could picture her leading an army against injustice.
Yet her next words snapped the image as despair crept into her voice. "You don't understand. His confession would merely identify him as the anonymous l-lover I've supposedly been meeting. They will think that a spat led him to revile me, but that we have now reconciled and are trying to cover up our affair."
"You are the one who is ignorant," he said, but gently. Her stutter as she choked out so innocuous an indiscretion was additional evidence of innocence. "Have you no idea how sordid the tales are? No lovers' spat would result in such revelations."
"What can be worse than liaisons with a dozen men?"
"Plenty, and I doubt I heard everything yesterday. The tales are clearly meant to destroy. But they can be erased if Rankin admits the truth."
She laughed without humor. "You don't know Jasper. Nothing would compel him to do such a thing, but even if you succeeded, it would do no good. No one will believe him guilty of anything beyond high spirits."
"Was it high spirits that prompted this campaign against you?"
"Of course not. I insulted him. He seeks revenge. That is his way."
"Then we have a starting point. All things are possible, Mrs. Parrish. I will redeem your reputation. I owe you that much in atonement for my own insult."
Lord Grayson bade farewell to his friends and headed for the card room. But he'd not gone three steps before spotting Miss Derrick headed his way. Damnation! The Season's most persistent fortune hunter had already crossed half the room.
He ducked behind a screen of palms and hugged the wall, careful not to brush the branches as he scurried toward the exit. He'd traversed half the distance before he realized he was not alone. A young lady was also hiding.
Curses exploded through his head. He was neatly trapped. Retracing his steps would draw Miss Derrick's attention, yet he must squeeze past this new threat to escape.
But was she a threat?
She almost looked like a companion or governess, though she could not yet be twenty. Brown hair coiled untidily atop her head - or perhaps it was falling out of an attempt at curls. A plain white gown encased her slim body, a single ribbon beneath the bodice its only embellishment. The high neckline covered a lack of jewelry. One hand clutched a pad of paper.
He shook off that notion as she added lines to a picture, the tip of her tongue protruding past her teeth. She couldn't be sketching the ballroom, for she never looked at it. She might have been alone in a field for all the attention she paid her surroundings. Odd. Very odd.
Curiosity is dangerous, warned his conscience.
Ignoring it, he peeked over her shoulder, then inhaled in surprise. She was a talented artist and a student of natural history. Who else could draw so well from memory? A chaffinch perched in a gnarled apple tree, head cocked perkily to one side. A few lines evoked rough bark, soft feathers, and lustrous fruit. But he could see why she was frowning. The bird's beak was too thick, pushing it slightly off balance.
"Try this," he murmured, grabbing the pad.
"Oh!" She whirled, one hand to her breast. "I d-didn't know anyone was here."
"Not so loud." He rubbed out the beak. Brisk strokes reshaped the appendage, bringing the bird to life. "That's better. Are you from the west country?"
She nodded. "How did you know?"
"That is the only place you find apples that shape. Those in the east are rounder. You are an accomplished sketch artist."
"I-" She blushed. "I was hoping to see some different birds in town, but we have so little time to look about."
"If you walk in the park in the mornings, you will see hoopoes and bee eaters. And a magnificent purple heron visits the Serpentine at dawn most days."
"I heard a pair of hobbies was spotted near Kensington Palace recently."
"Interesting. I've not seen them here before." He smiled, leaning negligently against the wall. "Richmond is better suited for bird watching. Forest. Heath. River. Plenty of space and food."
"Perhaps Laura will consider an excursion to Richmond, then," she murmured, half to herself.
"You would enjoy it." Gray knew he should leave before someone spotted him - clothes notwithstanding, this girl was clearly quality, and unmarried quality at that. But he couldn't do it. Aside from the certainty that Miss Derrick still lurked, he was enjoying her company. Obviously she didn't recognize him. She was not flirting or swooning or regarding him as Satan. It had been too long since he had talked with a young lady - or relaxed while talking to anyone. His reputation overshadowed every contact.
He idly turned pages. A sparrow hawk, a hedgehog, a caricature-
"Egad, that is Wigby to the life. We were schoolmates." He chuckled. She had sketched him as a stork. Very appropriate, as the dandy was tall and very lean, with thin legs and a long pointed nose. No amount of padding could cover his defects. The next page depicted Lord Edward Broadburn as a charming pouter pigeon, so overburdened by a thrust-out chest that he teetered on his feet.
"Sir- My l-lord-" She stammered to a halt.
He knew his manners were outrageous - she was an innocent, for God's sake - but something about her drew him. Her presence behind the palms told him she was shy, though her sketches displayed a wicked sense of humor. Four years ago he would have set her at ease. And maybe he still could.
"My apologies," he said softly. "But I must wonder why so talented a lady is hiding in the shadows. London is not filled with ogres."
"Of course not. But it takes only one."
"An ogre? Are you sure? Did someone spurn your smiles? Surely you need not fear rejection." He turned the page and chuckled again. Griffin hung from a tree, his forked tongue hissing. "You've a delightful eye for character, my dear. He is pure poison, though too few see it. But except for ungentlemanly insults, you should be safe enough. He prefers country innocents of fourteen or so."
"I had heard rumors, though no one will confirm them to young ladies. Yet he clearly seeks me out. Though I try to avoid him, he is forever popping up."
"Like a weed?"
She laughed. "Exactly. Bindweed, most likely. One moment the room is quite congenial, the next it contains Mr. Griffin. One cannot root him out."
"So circumvent him. You might befriend Mr. Hempbury. Not only is he fascinated by birds and other natural wonders, but Griffin cannot tolerate the fellow."
"Th-thank you," she stammered.
When she was nervous she seemed quite young, and very unspoiled. Perhaps she had reason to fear the snake after all.
It might be instructive to check on Griffin's current activities. The man inhabited society's fringes. As long as he behaved, he was welcome at large ton gatherings, but even a mild scandal would banish him. Rumors suggested that he frequented a certain house of punishment, though not as a penitent. He was said to have a strong arm with a whip.
Gray returned her pad. "Au revoir, my dear artist. It has been a most delightful meeting. I needed a chuckle after a frustrating day. But be careful whom you parody. There are those who lose all humor when they are the subject."
Stepping past her, he quickly passed the remaining palms and slipped unnoticed into the card room.
But he felt an unexpected tug of regret. She had talent, intelligence, and eyes that saw beneath the surface. Quite different from the usual society miss. Were she a man, they might have become friends.
"Why should I go to Seabrook?" demanded Laura Seabrook, stalking furiously from window to fireplace and back. Her stride lengthened until the narrow skirt of her morning gown threatened to split. "William only invited me so he could humiliate me in front of half the county."
"You know that's not true," murmured Chloe, stifling a sigh as she changed threads for her needlework. Her employer's petulance was becoming tedious. If only William had consulted her before issuing this invitation. A house party offered too many opportunities for disaster.
"Lord Seabrook cares deeply for you. He wants you to share his happiness when he announces his betrothal."
"Then he is mad. How can he invite the rag-mannered offspring of a merchant into the family? Father must be turning in his grave to see the title sink so low."
"Miss Truitt's manners are faultless."
"She is a vulgar nobody!" Laura glared.
"While it's true that her father is a grain merchant, she has connections to a dozen great houses."
"None of whom recognize her. The nearest must be three generations removed."
"Untrue. Lord Ware is Mrs. Truitt's first cousin, and he approves."
Laura ignored the correction, as expected. She cared nothing about Martha Truitt's breeding. Nor did she care about William's use or abuse of his title. Her real complaint was that the merchant's daughter had made a love match with a lord while Laura had not managed even an arranged marriage. "William ought to wed a viscount's daughter, or an earl's. He is sadly lacking in consequence, but should at least respect his title."
"He doesn't know any earl's daughters and cannot afford a London Season. Besides, he loves Miss Truitt."
"Loves her dowry, you mean."
"No, I don't, though I'm sure her dowry is welcome." Chloe again changed threads. "And even if the dowry is his primary goal, one cannot fault him. The world has changed since our grandparents' day. Estates no longer support lords in style, so they need other sources of income."
Laura ignored her. "William plans to humiliate me. He hates me. Why else did he banish me to this godforsaken place? Keeping me out of sight lets him fawn over Grayson. He prefers wealth to his own flesh and blood!"
"That's not true." Chloe set aside her needlework. "Stop imagining trouble, and stop twisting the truth. You told me yourself that you had to beg for months before William would let you leave Seabrook."
"Why do I bother talking when you never listen?" Laura wailed, throwing herself fully into the role of innocent victim. "I begged him to let me stay home, calling on family feeling and propriety and even duty. But he refused. He couldn't stand the sight of me, staring at the carpet whenever I came near. It was infuriating to watch him stumble over introductions. He stopped allowing his friends in the house so they wouldn't see me. He even kept my own callers away. Does he think my wits were damaged as well as my face?"
"Of course not. Your wits are as fine as ever. People still love you."
"You lie!" Laura broke into noisy sobs, interspersed with a long list of slights suffered and insults endured. In her mind, everyone was so jealous of her beauty that they schemed against her. And now that her beauty was marred, they schemed even harder.
Chloe let her rant. Laura had always defined herself by her beauty, setting herself so high that she ignored the rules that governed lesser beings, demanding adulation and expecting instant fulfillment of her wishes. Since accident and scandal had cut her off from society, she didn't know how to live.
Laura's current diatribe demonstrated her three worst problems - she had never been content with what she had, never saw the world as it was, and always blamed her problems on others. Thus the invitation to Seabrook had ignited a war with herself. Leaving Moorside removed her control of the lighting and angles that could hide or reveal her scars. She also despised any gathering in which she was not the center of attention.
Yet she was bored. She had demanded her own establishment, expecting freedom to be a grand adventure. It wasn't. So she passed the long days looking for scapegoats.
"Lord Seabrook will send his carriage on Wednesday," Chloe said when Laura's tirade began to wane. "His footmen will see that we come. We have no choice. He owns this cottage, so can turn you off at any time."
"How dare you-"
The knocker interrupted.
"Don't answer it," snapped Laura.
"That would be unpardonably rude." Chloe stalked to the hall and opened the door. "Andrew! I mean, C-Captain Seabrook," she stammered as eleven years whirled away in an instant. She was fifteen again, standing in the orchard as her closest friend dismounted beside her. She stifled the painful memory.
She'd known he was home, of course. William's monthly letter always contained family news. So Chloe knew that Andrew had been wounded at Waterloo and was recovering at home. She hadn't expected him to call, though. He'd not sent her a word - not even a friendly greeting - on either of his previous trips home to recuperate.
It was no surprise. When he'd arrived in the orchard that day, she'd been so upset over his imminent departure that she'd tried to seduce him into staying. It had been a despicable act every bit as dishonorable as Laura at her worst. Thus she'd destroyed the most important bond in her life. In the eleven years since, she'd heard from him exactly once - a brief letter of condolence after her brother Kevin died. And for seven long years she had feared that Kevin had learned about the day in the orchard, blamed Andrew, and tried to avenge her. Was his blood on her hands?
Forcing her attention back to the man on the doorstep, she gestured him inside. He didn't look ill, or even injured. Nor did he look much like the boy she'd loved. It was a wonder she'd recognized him. Maturity had broadened his shoulders and deepened his chest. It had also added at least five inches, putting him over six feet. Soldiering had weathered his face and lightened his hair to a golden brown, making his green eyes seem even clearer. Fine lines clustered around their corners. But beyond the physical changes, war had hardened him, banishing the laughing boy who had raced across the hills and wrestled on the moors.
Some things remained the same, though. His nearness still stole her breath. Her heart tumbled into a gallop, making her head spin.
"Chloe." He grasped her hand between his own. "More beautiful than ever."
"Hardly." She forced control over her voice and body. He might ignore her dishonor long enough to call on his sister, but that didn't mean he had forgotten. So she must banish any lingering dreams. Never again would she leave herself vulnerable. "You are recovered, it seems. Have you come to bid farewell to Laura?"
He shook his head. "I came to see you." His eyes darkened. "I've bad news, Chloe. Your father died last night."
The blood drained from her head. When she reached for the doorjamb, he pulled her against his side. She hardly noticed as she fought free of the shock. "How?"
"He fell down the stairs. It was very quick."
A quick death was more than he deserved. Anger rushed in, stiffening her knees so she could stand without support. "So he's gone. It's just as well."
"I'll not pretend we were close. He never forgave my failure to attach a fortune or my refusal to lie about our circumstances. When I tried to earn enough to escape his roof, he locked me in my room and forbade all callers. The only reason he let me accept this post was that Moorside is isolated, so he could pretend I was visiting relatives. But if anyone but William had offered, he would have refused this, too."
She clamped her jaw shut to choke off the bitterness. Her father had made her life hell with his false façades and accusations, though living with him made it easier to understand Laura. They had much in common, starting with their stubborn refusal to accept facts.
Andrew still knew her too well, for understanding blossomed in his eyes. "Are you all right?"
"Of course. It is a shock - even estrangement cannot change that he was my father. But I've not heard from him since Mother's funeral, so his passing will make no difference."
Not quite true, she realized as a weight slid from her shoulders.
Seeing her in service had dented his pride. If he'd discovered her plans to buy a cottage of her own, his ranting would have burned her ears to ashes. And he might have stopped her. Now that unpleasantness was averted. She was free to live on her own terms.
Andrew produced a note from her brother Peter. "The funeral is tomorrow morning. I can drive you to Fields House. I'll wait here while you pack."
She opened her mouth to refuse.
"Absolutely not!" screamed Laura, bursting into the hall. "You already took this month's half day. You cannot leave again. I won't have it."
"Laura!" Andrew's tone struck Laura dumb. The army had turned him formidable. "How can you be so insensitive? Sir Nigel lies dead. William claims you were inconsolable after our father died."
"That was different. We were very close. Besides, servants have no feelings."
Despite two years of service, Chloe felt the blow. Maybe attending the funeral was a good idea after all. A full day without Laura would be sheer bliss, even if it meant pretending grief.
Marianne Barnett wandered through the woods that protected her manor from Channel storms. It was a beautiful September afternoon, warm with only a hint of the coming autumn.
Autumn had always been her favorite season. Much had changed since she'd lost her family, but not her love of autumn. The vivid colors and biting air exhilarated her. Wading through drifts of fallen leaves was one of her greatest pleasures. If only-
Thrusting regrets aside, she concentrated on the forest. With no grounds staff to maintain it, it had run wild. Sheep kept Halworth's lawns under control, but the rest grew as it would.
The result was a fairy-tale world not usually seen outside of books.
Dead branches littered the ground, half buried in decaying leaves and moss. Shrubs and vines grew thick along paths and clearings - anywhere they could find a little sun. It was a wild place, a private place, unwatched by servants, known only to her and the resident animals.
A squirrel bounded onto a tree trunk as she passed, scolding her for interrupting his work. This was his busiest time of year as he rushed to collect food for the winter. A flock of geese circled overhead, flapping and honking in unison as they practiced for the journey that would start in a fortnight. Something moved in the shadows. A fox, perhaps. They had made the park a refuge, for here they were safe. No one entered but her. She sometimes felt like Sleeping Beauty, locked in her castle while brambles engulfed it, blocking any escape.
But that would change on her next birthday. In the meantime, books appeased her curiosity about the outside world, knowledge substituting for experience. This year alone she'd climbed Swiss mountains, sailed to China, and explored Etruscan ruins and Greek temples. And if she longed to see through her own eyes instead of through others', she knew better than to question her uncle's decrees. He was her guardian, with absolute control over her person - for another six weeks. That's when her trust would end, placing Halworth and her life in her hands.
She traced the lacy pattern of a fern and forced her thoughts to the future.
The next six weeks would pass too slowly unless she sent for more books. She needed a new challenge, one that would distract her from her growing dissatisfaction - as her day of freedom approached, confinement increasingly chafed her soul.
Solitude now grated, as it had never done in the past, but her uncle's guards would report any attempt to leave the park. She couldn't risk it, for the threat of the asylum was always there.
She was so tired of being at the mercy of others. Yet the nightmarish return to England after she'd lost her family had left its mark. Hiding by day. Stumbling through unfamiliar territory by night. Fearing everyone they met - even children might have betrayed them, and men would have done worse. Francine had protected her as best she could, but the maid had been too scared to think. If not for Jacques...
Melancholia swept over her. Perhaps Jacques had done her a disservice by bringing her home. The life she'd loved had ended that day, and even her imminent freedom would not restore it. It would not even make it easier to face strangers.
Frowning, she halted. She had first met Jacques during that period when strangers had sent her into hysteria, so why had she meekly accepted his help? No hysterics. No screaming nightmares. No kicking and clawing at the first touch of his hand.
You knew I would never hurt you, he murmured in her head. We are kindred spirits.
"How could I have known that? I thought you were French. You were wearing their uniform."
Intuition. You had good instincts in those days - you still would if you trusted yourself.
She shook her head free of his voice. Having no one with whom to converse, she had fallen into the habit of talking to people she had once known. Her favorite companion was Hutch, her old governess, but Jacques ran a close second. He was forever urging her to explore new horizons.
Now she pondered his suggestion. Her intuition had been right, for Jacques had not hurt her. Another proof that her uncle was wrong. If she had tolerated Jacques...
Not just tolerated. She had clung to him as to a rock in a stormy sea. From the moment he had joined them, she had known that they would survive. Jacques was magnificently heroic, remarkably capable, and the most honorable man she had ever met. Without him, she would never have escaped France.
Trust yourself, he murmured again. Your old life may be gone, but you can build a better one.
Test it. Go out and meet people. You can be so much more than you think.
"Soon, I promise. But you know I can't dismiss the guards until my twenty-fifth birthday. As long as they are here, I cannot leave Halworth."
Start by writing letters. You will need a solicitor if you hope to be independent. Now is the time to find one.
She frowned, but he was right. Ending the trust would be just the beginning. A solicitor could tell her of any responsibilities or restrictions she hadn't considered. While the Halworth library was extensive, most of the books had been added by her classicist father, so there were no tomes on legal matters. A solicitor could also recommend a good man of business. She would need help with the trust investments.
The trees thinned as she approached the one place she had always felt free. Here she could embrace the wind, glory in the view, and envy the birds swooping overhead. But as she lifted her face to the sun, she caught an odd movement out of the corner of her eye. A soldier was chipping the rock twenty feet away.
Recognition bloomed. "Jacques! What are you doing here?"
As if her thoughts had conjured him from thin air, he stood before her, hatless, his dark hair whipped by the wind. His shoulders seemed broader than she remembered, though his red coat hung loosely, hinting that he'd recently lost weight. Mud caked the gray breeches clinging to powerful thighs, and a long scrape marred one boot. At her shout, he whirled.
"Jacques!" she gasped as his feet slipped, spilling him over the side. He grabbed a shrub, but it was too fragile to bear his weight.
Screaming, she raced forward, heedless of the danger, terrified that she'd killed him.
You can't let him die! shouted Hutch. He is your savior.
"Give me your hand," she gasped as his walking stick clattered on the rocks below.
Pain, fear, fury, and a strange satisfaction swirled through his gray eyes, but he finally thrust his free hand upward.
He was heavier than he looked. But caring for Halworth's gardens had given her unladylike strength. Bracing her feet against a rock, she pulled with all her might.
The rock sheared off, sliding toward the edge and taking her feet with it.
Emily Hughes wiggled into the carriage seat beside a mountain of packages. This third shopping expedition in as many days had been exhausting, but she'd finally amassed the essentials for her Season. Excitement surged through her veins, making it hard to sit still.
She'd waited seemingly forever for this moment. Four years to finish growing up. Six more interminable years because of her father's financial reverses and her mother's endless illnesses, which always worsened in the spring. Then heavy rains had postponed their departure until the roads were dry enough to let Lady Hughes travel in comfort, so the Season was already underway. But she was in London at last. Only one last wait remained - Jacob had stayed late at Oakhaven, overseeing the spring planting, but he would return next week.
Thoughts of the man she loved increased her excitement. He was tall enough to stand out in any crowd. Sunlight turned his eyes bluer than a summer sky. His silky hair seemed at odds with the rugged planes of his face, but touching it drove her fingers wild. She couldn't wait to again caress those powerful shoulders and mold his chiseled lips with her own.
It had been ten years since she'd last seen him. Ten years since he'd crushed her against his hard body, ravishing her mouth. Ten years since her heart had been her own.
She'd tried to reclaim it - after all, he'd insulted her brutally before abandoning the orchard that day. Yet she'd failed. She might have been barely fourteen, but his kiss had propelled her from the schoolroom into the world of adult passion. His rejection couldn't erase that, especially since she knew how much he'd wanted her. He'd figured prominently in her dreams ever since.
A week had passed before her anger had cooled enough to admit that he'd been right to leave. Fourteen was too young for marriage. She'd needed to grow up before they could be together.
Now the time had finally arrived.
The carriage bounced, feeding her excitement. She was the most fortunate of girls, for the Season held no terrors, no uncertainty, nothing to threaten her success. A fixed future had made it easy to be gracious when her father admitted that he could not afford even a small ball. Jacob would give her a ball the moment they were wed.
She knew how it would be, had dreamed of it over and over, the image growing clearer with each postponement of the moment. He would spot her as she entered her first ballroom. Brushing past the other guests as if they didn't exist, he would rush to her side, sweep her into a waltz, then propose on the spot.
She would wear the pale yellow Venetian gauze with its broad blond flounce edged in roses and pearls. Even her dull brown hair and muddy brown eyes seemed brighter when she wore yellow. The fan she'd bought this morning would be perfect - yellow silk painted with a pastoral scene. Her grandmother's pearls. And the yellow slippers with-
"We're here," said Huggins from beneath a pile of parcels.
"Of course." She pulled herself together. Not once in ten years had she revealed her love, and she wasn't about to slip now. She looked forward to everyone's surprise at her instant success almost as much as to her next meeting with Jacob. So she chattered gaily about the day's shopping even as her mind remained on him.
Jacob, whose dark hair was usually a little too long for fashion, whose laugh could send shivers down her spine that had nothing to do with cold, whose reputation-
She wouldn't think of that. All young men sowed wild oats.
He was one of her brother's best friends and had often visited Cherry Hill during his school days. As had Charles, for that matter. Now that the three lived in town, she had to glean information about Jacob from Richard - which meant listening to interminable tales of Charles, too. But singling Jacob out might raise questions that would reveal that kiss. Even ten years later, the incident could cause him trouble. Richard would be appalled, and her father-
Their footman lowered the steps and helped her down.
Richard wasn't her only source of news, of course. Jacob's aunt, widow of the ninth earl, lived at Hawthorne Park. Emily called often - unremarkable, for she called on all her neighbors. And she had no trouble hiding her interest in Jacob. Lady Hawthorne doted on him, sharing his letters with everyone.
Now her secrecy was nearly at an end. In another week he would claim her, letting her shout her love to the world. The next time she saw Hawthorne Park, it would be as Jacob's countess.
Leaving Huggins to deal with her packages, she skipped up the steps and into the hall … and bounced off a gentleman unaccountably standing inside the door.
"Oomph!" she grunted as his hand shot out to catch her.
"Steady, Miss Hughes. You must temper your exuberance. This isn't a racetrack."
Emily backed into the wall, her head shaking in disbelief. This was all wrong. He wasn't due until next week. She was wearing a faded walking dress two years old. Her bonnet-
Forcing air into her lungs, she curtsied, then managed, "My lord. How pleasant to see you again."
"And you." But his tone dismissed her as negligible.
She cringed. How could she meet the love of her life when she looked like a hoyden who'd been dragged through a hedge?
Without another word, he turned back to Richard. "Convey my appreciation to your father. He has my eternal gratitude. I'd no place else to turn."
"It's nothing," said Richard. "Even Mama seems pleased."
"About what?" Emily forgot her embarrassment, touching Jacob's arm so he had to look at her.
"Ask your mother, Tadpole. I'm pressed for time." His use of the despised childhood nickname threatening her with tears. "White's tonight?" he added to Richard.
"Charles will join us for dinner."
Jacob nodded, then left without another word.
"What was that all about?" Only fierce effort kept Emily's voice steady. Her hand burned where she'd touched him.
But Richard was as dismissive as Jacob. "Just a small favor, Em. Mama will explain." He headed for the study, leaving her to climb the stairs to the drawing room alone.
Something was up that neither man wanted to discuss - how often had they hidden secrets in just this way? Their capacity for ignoring questions had long infuriated her. It was one reason Jacob's openness that summer had been so precious. But what could he be hiding now? Needing time to regain her composure - and not wanting her mother to spot the sheen in her eyes - she passed the drawing room and continued up to her bedroom.
"Stupid girl!" she cursed her reflection as she removed her bonnet. "Scrape the stars out of your eyes."
Footsteps in the hall snapped her mouth shut, but the oaths continued to bounce through her head. Jacob had been less than dazzled to see her.
She wanted to blame her appearance, but he'd seen her looking worse - like the day he'd fished her from the lake after a tree branch cracked, dumping her in. It had been the most frightening experience of her life - yet also exhilarating. He'd dragged her ashore, then held her until the shaking stopped, all the while murmuring soothing nonsense into her ears. His warmth had driven away her chills, replacing them with heat as sparks rampaged along her nerves.
The next afternoon had been that devastating kiss…
Idiot! He could hardly sweep you into his arms in front of an audience.
"True." He couldn't know that she still loved him - one of his charges had been that she was too young to know her mind. With Richard standing in the hall - to say nothing of the servants - he could only treat her as Richard's baby sister. They must talk privately before pledging their love in public. Perhaps his abrupt departure covered his struggle to remain aloof.
A weight lifted from her chest, restoring her excitement. Everything would be all right. She could wait. Hadn't she waited ten years already? Hadn't she expected a week more?
As Huggins pushed open the door, Emily smiled brightly, smoothed her skirts, and headed downstairs.
The drawing room hadn't been refurbished since her grandmother's tenure, but the staff kept the French furnishings impeccably clean. The red silk wallcoverings had long since faded to rose, but they still added warmth to the space. A new Grecian sofa covered the worn spot in the carpet and gave Lady Hughes a place to lie during the day.
"There you are, dear," she said as Emily entered. Her waxen cheeks were nearly transparent, confirming how difficult she'd found their recent journey. On days like this, Emily felt selfish for expecting a Season. Even stretching the two-day journey into four hadn't kept it from draining Lady Hughes's meager store of energy.
"You look tired, Mama," she said, pressing her hand before taking the nearest seat so Lady Hughes needn't raise her voice.
"A little, but I've wonderful news for you. Lord Hawthorne has asked us to take in his ward. It is a marvelous honor, and she will provide company for you."
"Why would she be in town?" asked Emily, frowning. "It would make more sense to send her and her governess to Hawthorne Park."
"Miss Nichols is past needing a governess. She is coming out, just as you are. The earl and Richard can chaperon you together, allowing me to rest. And I'm sure you will enjoy having a friend beside you at balls. I often wished there was someone with whom to share confidences during my own come-out. So many incidents require a stoic response in public when one would so much prefer to laugh."
Emily stared, the words buzzing loudly in her ears. Share her come-out with a stranger? Six postponements, only to be saddled with a green girl? And Jacob's ward to boot. Where the devil had he acquired a ward? Lady Hawthorne had said nothing of it, though they'd last spoken only a week ago.
She wanted to scream.
But it wasn't possible. Her mother would fall into a swoon at the first sign of unpleasantness. Triggering one of her spells would postpone this come-out yet again.
"Who is Miss Nichols?" Emily asked with credible calm.
"His ward," said Lady Hughes crossly. "I told you."
"But who is her family? I know nothing of any Nichols." She knew Jacob's family tree as well as her own. There wasn't a Nichols on it.
"As to that, he didn't say, though he mentioned India."
"Captain Nichols was a close friend of Jacob's father," said Richard, joining them. "His daughter Harriet is now nineteen. Her mother died last autumn, naming Hawthorne as her guardian. There is no other family. She will arrive from Bombay any day now, and he can hardly house her himself."
"True." Such an arrangement was too scandalous to contemplate. But she was reeling. Of all the times she and Jacob had talked, he had never once mentioned his life in India. Even in childhood, when he'd been back only a short time, he'd turned aside any questions. It was as if the first ten years of his life didn't exist.
She didn't recall his actual return, of course - she'd been in the nursery at the time - and though he'd met Richard shortly afterward, they'd not become close until Jacob started school the following year. Only then had he started spending more time at Cherry Hill than at Hawthorne Park. Richard had once remarked that the death of Jacob's parents had cast shadows over the park that Jacob couldn't forget. Emily understood. She meant to erase those shadows once they were wed. Her success would boost his love even further and-
"This is a wonderful opportunity for all of us," repeated Lady Hughes. "Her housing allowance will let us expand your wardrobe, increasing your chances of drawing attention. Perhaps we can even afford a rout - I know we'd talked of holding one, but I didn't know how we could manage. Everything is so much more dear than I recalled. Your father was complaining only this morning-"
"You needn't fret about our finances," said Richard, patting her hand. "That is not your affair. If you want a rout, we will hold one, but do not schedule anything until you discover how wearying it would be. For now, have you finished the list of friends we must notify of your arrival?"
Emily swallowed a snort. Lady Hughes would never manage a rout, which would keep her in a receiving line for hours. Nor did she know the first thing about expenses, having lost interest in the world twenty years ago after suffering a debilitating miscarriage. Ten years later, she'd turned her last duties over to her only daughter and taken permanently to her sofa, preferring to wallow in her fragility rather than oversee the staff.
Emily suppressed the suspicion that some of her relapses had been exaggerated to keep that daughter home until Richard was of an age to wed, allowing his wife to run the manor.
Richard again patted his mother's hand. "Hawthorne trusts us to take good care of Miss Nichols. She will likely be a trifle rustic, having never moved in the more exalted circles, so we must be ready to smooth her manners. Em and I will take care of that. You need only welcome her."
Emily nodded, but inside she was moaning. How could Jacob do this to her? Not only must she share her Season, but she must teach his ward how to go on in society, then accept the blame if the girl misbehaved.
Yet wasn't this proof of his love and trust? He must know how frail Lady Hughes was. Even a restricted social schedule would exhaust her, so Richard would be Emily's primary escort. If that frailty hadn't postponed her debut, she and Jacob would have long since wed, making Miss Nichols her responsibility. So who better to take charge of the girl?
Housing Miss Nichols at Hughes House would allow him to call often without raising eyebrows and to remain at her side every night. Satisfied, she poured tea and let her mother chatter while her mind recalled today's glimpse of her beloved. Their collision had stolen her breath.
He had become an imposing man, adding breadth to the height he'd achieved at age twenty. His eyes still burned like sunlit sapphires. His hard body exuded a masculinity that recalled the feel of his lips on hers, his long fingers digging into her skin as he crushed her in his arms. His manhood had pressed against her stomach, igniting sensations that loomed large in many a dream. His tongue-
Heat pooled between her legs. Her fingers itched. The longing was more powerful than ever, though she couldn't explain what she wanted beyond Jacob himself. But the wait was unbearable. Heat made her want to rip off her clothes. She might have run for miles as far as her body was concerned.
To hide the breathing that refused to stay even, she excused herself to change for dinner.
Tomorrow she would attend the Penleigh ball, where Jacob would sweep her into his arms forever…
A Signet SuperRegency
May 20, 1814
Helen St. James awoke to cold, dank stone under her cheek and people murmuring off to her right. Where was she?
"-never saw … lengthy swoon." The voice belonged to a stranger.
A pounding head and overwhelming sense of danger kept her motionless. She was clearly indoors, though she dared not open her eyes to find out where. Instead, she sniffed - delicately.
Mustiness blended with the scent of wax candles. And something more - wine, perhaps? The combination was odd. Wine and stone might indicate a cellar, though cellars were usually lit by tallow lanterns. Yet even Audley's disused Tudor wing smelled fresher than this.
A second voice penetrated her fog. "-carriage sickness … nothing since breakfast … excitement too much…"
Her uncle, Sir Steven St. James.
Fear lashed her brain. Fury followed, burning away the fog. Steven was dangerous, and more cunning than she had expected. He'd tricked her by-
"I've seen many a bride swoon, but none who remained insensible for so long," insisted the first man. "I won't be a party to a deathbed marriage. Your man assu-"
Marriage. This must be that church on the edge of London. Her last memory was of Steven ordering the coachman to stop. How long had she been unconscious?
Steven's hearty tone cut across the vicar's words. "It is merely weariness. The lovebirds are so eager to wed, they refused to postpone the ceremony a minute longer."
A snicker rippled from her left. Steven's son, Dudley. She was surrounded.
Helen barely controlled a shudder. Dudley made her skin crawl. Not because of his pockmarked cheeks and scarred forehead - or even his limp. She blamed no one for the ravages of time. It was the gleam in his eyes that she loathed, and his rapacious hands, his quick temper, his disregard for anyone weaker…
The whisper of a silk skirt approached, accompanied by a cloud of cloying perfume that obliterated all other odors. Here was yet another enemy - Maude Cunningham, who doused herself in chypre several times a day. Now exposed as Steven's mistress, she had served as Helen's maid since the day Steven turned off Tessa.
Helen stifled another burst of fury. Why had it taken her so long to realize that Maude was Steven's spy? If she'd paid attention, she might have escaped their clutches.
If only she hadn't been distracted!
Fate had played her a cruel trick, striking her mother with apoplexy at her father's deathbed and throwing the household into chaos. Steven had taken advantage of her inattention to insinuate himself into Audley Court - in flagrant disregard of his brother's will - by convincing her trustees to appoint him as overseer. By the time Lady St. James had died, Sir Steven ruled both house and estate, making Helen a prisoner in her own home, denied callers and forbidden to write letters.
She had still been reeling from that shock when Dudley arrived bearing a special license. Only her vicar's refusal to read services for an unwilling bride had saved her. But this vicar wasn't an ally. Sir Steven would not have stopped here unless a hefty bribe had convinced the man to ignore her objections.
"Wake her, Maude. She must have fallen asleep." Steven's irritation boded ill.
Helen concentrated on remaining limp - Maude loved to kick. Until she could escape, she had to stay unconscious.
She had known that accompanying Steven to London posed risks - he never acted without a reason - but she hadn't expected him to spring his trap so quickly. Underestimating him could cost her everything. Her own plan had been to slip out after dark and find her guardian, Lord Alquist. But they'd stopped before reaching Mayfair. When she'd tried to flee, Steven had bashed her on the head.
A pitcher of cold water suddenly drenched her face and gown. Yelping, she surged to her feet, then cursed. Doom was at hand.
"Excellent," said Steven. "I knew you were eager to conclude the formalities."
Dudley laughed, reaching for her arm.
Shaking off water let her evade Dudley. Her eyes darted about, seeking an exit. But the church was larger than it had appeared from the carriage window. Its nave could easily hold five hundred, so flight was out of the question. As wobbly as she was, even Dudley could catch her before she reached the door. And there were more people to give chase than she'd thought. Steven's secretary and Dudley's valet stood to one side, blocking another avenue of escape.
Fighting was also useless. She could never defeat five opponents.
That left guile. Steven's one weakness was contempt for female intelligence.
She staggered, then clamped a hand over her mouth. "I'm going to be sick!"
Maude and Dudley recoiled. Steven froze.
Helen met the vicar's gaze, then stumbled toward the oversized chalice atop the nearby altar.
As she'd hoped, he didn't want her using his chalice as a basin. Grabbing her arm, he hustled her along the transept and shoved her into his study.
Helen locked the heavy wooden door as her eyes frantically scanned the room. His desk held the parish register, open and ready to sign. A basin atop the low bookcase explained why he'd dragged her here. Her gaze skimmed past it, coming to rest on an open window.
Hiking her skirts to her hips, she wiggled through the narrow casement, then nearly yelped when she landed in a rosebush. Thorns slashed her legs and gown as she struggled free. Other roses covered the walls enclosing this tiny garden. For one terrible moment she feared she must climb them….
A rusty gate was tucked into the corner. Exhaling in relief, she sprinted for freedom. London might be dangerous for a woman alone, but anything was better than Dudley.
"How dare you ignore my summons for four days?" thundered Lord Hillcrest, his face purpling as he pounded on his desk.
"I wasn't at home to receive it." Rafael Thomas glared at his father. "I was attending Alquist's funeral - as you should have been," he added deliberately. "You should at least have sent condolences to his widow."
"Why? She schemed against me for years, undermining my authority, turning my family against me…."
Rafe let the diatribe flow past him. If he withdrew deep enough into his mind, the words made no impact. Hillcrest's complaints never varied. Even the few that contained a grain of truth were pointless.
As he settled into a chair, Rafe wondered what the man wanted this time. They had been at odds for twenty-eight years. Hillcrest made impossible demands. Rafe ignored them. The pattern was too established to change, though a thread of hope wished otherwise.
"Pull your mind out of Lady Willingham's bed and pay attention," snapped Hillcrest, slamming a book down with a crack like thunder.
Rafe opened his mouth - Lady Willingham's obvious availability didn't interest him - but Hillcrest gave him no chance to speak. "You've sowed more than enough oats, boy. It is past time for you and Alice to set up your nursery."
Rafe rolled his eyes. For ten years Hillcrest had demanded that he wed Alice Pauling, but Rafe refused. Besides that he disliked Alice on her own account, her dowry included the estate adjacent to Hillcrest Manor. Never would he consider living so near. Constant battles would destroy his sanity.
He much preferred London. Gossips might cluck their tongues over his latest conquest and shake their heads at past foibles, but the liveliest courtesans and most passionate matrons vied for his favors. Society hostesses kept him at the top of their lists, for his wit enlivened any gathering. Reformists courted his support against the day he would assume a seat in Parliament.
Marriage could wait until raking lost its charm - another five years, or maybe ten. But Alice Pauling would never be on his list of potential brides. His wife must share his interests and satisfy his libido, for he had vowed fidelity after marriage. She should respect his decisions and defer to his desires. And she must have a limited dowry - preferably no dowry at all.
Steadying his temper, he met Hillcrest's flinty eyes. "I will not wed Alice. I've refused this match for ten years. Nothing has changed."
"Of course you are marrying Alice." Hillcrest shook his balding head. "Pauling and I agreed to the match when Alice was born. You cannot jilt her. She loves you."
"I cannot jilt someone I never offered for," he snapped. "Forget this insanity. I won't wed the chit. She's timid, insipid, and hasn't two thoughts to rub together." Rising, he headed for the door. "I have plans for the evening, so if you will excuse-"
"Sit down!" Exploding from behind the desk, Hillcrest shoved Rafe into a chair.
Rafe stared at his fists while he fought to rein in his temper. This was turning into the worst confrontation yet.
The library had always been dismal, its austerity reflecting Hillcrest's character. But the ghosts of past confrontations made it worse. Here a young Rafe had endured unearned lectures and petty punishments. Here he had repudiated Alice again and again. Here he had declared independence by throwing his allowance in Hillcrest's face.
"I am appalled to claim you as my son," snarled Hillcrest, punctuating the words with his hands. "You are the worst excuse for a gentleman society has ever seen! A debauched, drunken gamester without an ounce of intelligence, a dissipated wastrel who has long since sacrificed honor on the altar of hedonistic impulse. Thank God your mother is gone. She would have wept to see what you have become."
"Don't drag Mother into this!" Rafe surged to his feet, removing Hillcrest's height advantage. He had learned long ago that arguing merely prolonged these meetings, but he could not sit silent while Hillcrest maligned his mother. "She protested this match from the moment you suggested it. Were she here, she would protest even more. She despised arranged marriages - and with good reason. Hers made her miserable!"
"Lies! You misunderstood everything about her. Her only reservation concerned Lady Pauling's weak constitution, so she counseled patience until we discovered whether Alice might share it. She would agree that you need a calm, sober wife to counter your wild ways. Your name has become a byword. Newspapers bulge with your scandals. Everywhere I go, men condemn your public drunkenness and reckless gaming. How many women have you seduced?"
"That is none of your business," Rafe snapped, though in truth he hadn't seduced anyone in years. He didn't have to.
"You are my business."
"No." It was time to stop caring that harsh words might alienate Hillcrest for all time. His hope for reconciliation was a fantasy. "I came of age seven years ago and answer to no one, especially a fool. You are worse than the most irresponsible gossip, accepting baseless speculation and wild exaggeration as truth because you are too stupid to know who to believe and too lazy to investigate for yourself." He kept his tone icy, though his knees shook and curses ricocheted through his head. Hillcrest was so sure of his own judgment that he refused to listen to evidence in Rafe's favor - as Rafe knew all too well.
"Exaggeration?" demanded Hillcrest, shaking his fist. "I can read, boy. As can society. The papers are full of your exploits."
"Most of them false."
"Enough, Rafe. Pauling will forgive you once you settle down-"
"I would never ask him to lower his standards so far." Rafe moved behind the desk so Hillcrest was farther away. "Nor would I associate with anyone who felt it necessary to do so."
"I said enough! He is dying and wants Alice wed before he goes. It is time to assume your responsibilities. The contracts have been accepted-"
"Not by me!"
Hillcrest raised his chin another notch, signaling increased implacability that hardened Rafe's resolve. "We will hold the wedding in three weeks. The betrothal announcement will appear in tomorrow's papers."
"No!" Betrayal. All the worse for being unexpected. Why would Hillcrest court the very scandal he abhorred? "You cannot force me into a union I repudiate."
"You have nothing to say in the matter. Pauling and I signed the settlements last week."
"You signed?" He glared, appalled at this newest evidence of disrespect. "I am of age and cannot be constrained by your signature. I have refused the connection a hundred times. A thousand times. Nothing has changed."
"Exactly. Nothing has changed. Pauling accepted your hand on Alice's behalf twenty years ago. Since you are dragging your feet, I've made all the arrangements. Your valet is closing your rooms and will arrive this evening."
Rafe's temper shattered. "You are worse than Napoleon, trying to force your will on others. But you'll lose, just as he did. I will never wed Alice. Your scheming will only create a new scandal for you to mutter over."
Rafe grabbed the brandy decanter and headed for the door. "I'm leaving - permanently. If Jameson has removed so much as a cravat from my rooms, I'll have him transported for theft. Think about that next time you consider playing God with other people's lives."
"If you walk out that door, I'll leave every groat to a benevolent society. You'll never receive another shilling from me."
Rafe laughed. "A toothless threat from an impotent tyrant. I haven't received a shilling from you in ten years, Hillcrest. Keep your money. I don't need it. As for Alice, if you want Paulus Grange so badly, marry her yourself. I refuse."
"If you leave, Pauling will sue you for breach of promise."
"Impossible." Rafe vulgarly gulped brandy from the decanter, then grinned as Hillcrest's face purpled. "Oh, he can probably sue you. But I signed nothing, and I promised nothing. Do you recall the part of the marriage service that requires a response from the groom? If you drag me to the altar, that response will be Never! Rather than accept Alice, I would marry the first girl I see. Lady or leper, princess or prostitute, it makes no difference. And that's a vow."
Still carrying the decanter, he slammed the library door and stormed from the house.
At least the groom had kept Caesar ready, as ordered. He hoped Jameson was as smart. Swigging brandy to dull the pain of this latest betrayal, he cantered down the drive.
By the time he reached the turnpike, the decanter was empty and the sting of incipient tears had replaced his fury. How could Hillcrest be so cruel?
Rafe shook his head. A better question was why he left himself vulnerable to Hillcrest's attacks. He ought to know better, yet he'd obeyed this summons, hoping yet again that Hillcrest might finally consider him worthy of respect.
Stupid. When would he accept that they would never be close? The battle lines had been drawn the moment an infant Rafe had showed a preference for his doting mother over his stern father. Nothing had changed. The price for his father's acceptance remained repudiation of the woman Hillcrest despised.
Rafe always refused.
Lady Hillcrest had been a saint, devoting her life to shielding him from Hillcrest's diatribes. It had been natural to protect her in turn. But Rafe's loyalty had further inflamed Hillcrest. Her death had changed nothing. Rafe must now protect her memory from Hillcrest's continuing attempts to turn her into the meek-mannered cipher he'd wanted.
He halted at an inn to refill the decanter.
If Alice had been different, he might have considered her, despite her dowry. But she was the antithesis of his ideal wife, having lifeless looks, a bland personality, and a mind incapable of original thought. Bedding her would be less exciting than watching wood decay.
He preferred women with spirit. Nothing heated the blood faster than a lively debate with a witty mind - especially when that mind was attached to a seductive body. And what better way to settle differences than a passionate romp in bed? It was the sort of relationship he enjoyed with his liaisons.
Remounting Caesar, he spurred toward town.
His first call must be on his solicitor. He had never actually studied how much authority a parent had over an adult child. Was he right that Hillcrest's signature could not bind him? Were there other ways Hillcrest could interfere with his life?
That newspaper announcement would create scandal no matter how it played out. A lady could break a betrothal, but a gentleman could not. He hated the idea of publicly denouncing his father, but that might be the only way to avoid ostracism. He would not wed Alice.
Escaping ostracism would not restore his credit, though. His reputation would convince many matrons that he had compromised Alice, then refused to wed her. His two-week absence from town might support such tales.
He cursed his reputation - and his own idiocy. Ten years earlier, his mother's death had triggered a month of debauchery and dissipation as he fought to assuage grief. That brief craziness had founded a reputation that haunted him to this day.
"There has to be a solution," he mumbled, wishing he could think clearly. He shouldn't have drunk so much brandy. Already his head felt muzzy, with swarms of bees buzzing in his ears.
He slowed Caesar to a walk as cobblestones replaced the rutted road. Five- and six-story buildings closed in on either side. A cacophony of clattering wheels, hooves, and shouts enfolded him as carts and carriages jostled for position on the crowded street, most headed for Blackfriar's Bridge.
He swayed. That second bottle had left him more well-to-go than he'd been in years. Dizziness nearly unseated him as he tried to shake away the spots dancing before his eyes. Venders vied for his attention, offering meat pies and fresh milk, flowers and rag dolls, apples and sex.
He squinted at the bony prostitute. She must be starving if she was plying her trade this early. It was barely four.
Tossing her the decanter, he swerved down a side street and out of sight. She could eat for a week by pawning the bottle, and he needed both hands free if he was to stay on his horse.
Cursing this latest stupidity, he squinted at a sign, then turned down another street. He'd drunk fast and deep, so the effects were still catching up with him. His body craved sleep, but he had to see his solicitor. Maybe Shipley could cancel Hillcrest's announcement. Surely the newspapers would cooperate when they learned that the notice was false.
An accident blocked most of the street, but he squeezed past and turned down Green Walk, a narrow lane skirting the wall surrounding Christchurch. Shipley's office stood opposite its rusty gate.
"Devil take it," he muttered, peering around as he dismounted. "Where'sh everybody?" People usually clogged the lane, including half a dozen boys seeking half-farthings in exchange for minor services. He needed one to hold Caesar, but today even the boys were gone. Probably to gape at the accident - or pick the pockets of those gaping at the accident.
He was leading Caesar to the nearest lamppost when the screech of rusty hinges knifed through his head. A woman charged from the churchyard, nearly knocking him over. His free hand caught her before she bounced into the filthy street.
"Oh!" The gasp was a husky contralto that snapped his nether regions to attention. "I didn't see- Ooh!" Her second gasp was wantonly seductive. One hand slid down his chest while the other caressed the scarred cheek that fascinated so many of his conquests.
Another courtesan plying her trade early. But this one he would accept. And if she was half as talented as she seemed, he would keep her awhile.
"Very nice," he murmured, examining her wares. She was nearly as tall as he, her tawny lashes level with his mouth. Fiery curls framed a heart-shaped face containing the greenest eyes he'd ever seen. Nipples puckered by a dampened yellow gown distracted attention from its shabbiness.
Clever. Very clever. His fingers itched to touch, his lips to suckle. What a temptress! Circe herself could do no better. He'd hardened with astonishing speed.
Lust drove all thought from his mind. He wanted her. Needed her. If not for Caesar tugging on the rein, he would take her right now. Where the devil had everyone gone?
Business first, he reminded himself, recalling why he was here. Lust must wait, though he needn't postpone all pleasure.
Jerking her against him, he closed his mouth over hers, plundering her sweetness. His hand shifted to caress a breast already swollen with passion.
One shapely thigh rubbed his throbbing shaft as she swayed.
He lost himself in her taste, images tumbling through his head of fiery curls spread across a pillow, that wanton body pressing-
"No!" she gasped as his hand slipped down the front of her gown. She stumbled backward, shock blazing in her eyes.
It took him a moment to understand that his erection had startled her, and another moment to register that she hadn't kissed him back….
He narrowed his eyes, clawing through the brandy fog to examine her again.
Her features were refined. A rose branch and several thorns clung to her skirt, explaining the snags. A reticule hung from one wrist. Her hair retained the imprint of a bonnet. She'd dashed through the gate as if the hounds of hell nipped at her heels. Was the terror now swirling in her eyes the cause of her flight or the result of his advances? She was probably a virgin.
Damnation! His loins still throbbed. But avoiding virgins was the one rule he'd never broken, not even during the madness of ten years ago.
"Pardon me." Though frustration bit deep, his apology was sincere, if a bit slurred. "I didn't expect to find a lady here. Why are you alone?"
A thud echoed across the churchyard, widening her pupils. "Please help me, sir. Can you direct me to Berkeley Square? My guardian lives there."
"What?" He knew he was drunk, but why was she in Southwark if she was seeking Berkeley Square? It was miles away on the other side of the Thames.
She inhaled, tightening her gown across that magnificent bosom and trapping his gaze on her pebbled nipples. His shaft pressed painfully against his pantaloons.
Words reverberated inside his head - marry the first girl I see. Marriage would be no hardship with this one and might solve all his problems.
"-uncle is forcing me to wed my odious cousin," she was saying in a very cultured voice. "I jumped from a window, but I won't be safe until I reach my guardian. Quickly, sir, before they catch me. How do I reach Berkeley Square?"
"How is it that your guardian lost track of you?" he asked absently, his eyes still trapped. His head whirled faster. Heat surged through his loins. First girl … marry … princess or prostitute…
"My uncle incarcerated me because he wants my estate. Please, sir. There is no time." Louder thuds echoed. She lowered her voice. "They will find me gone at any moment. How do I get to Alquist House in Berkeley Square?"
The name wrenched his gaze to eyes seething with desperation. "Lord Alquist is your guardian?"
"He died a fortnight ago," Rafe said slowly. "I just returned from his burial. Didn't anyone tell you?"
She swayed, blanching, one hand covering her mouth. "Dear Lord. No wonder he dared bring me to London. What am I to do?" Muffled shouts joined the thuds. "He's coming. I have to leave. My trustees are with Formsby's Bank on Broad Street. Can you direct me there?"
The bang of a door hitting a wall signaled a broken lock. Voices shouted over one another.
"-ought to wring her-"
"Damn the bitch!" "-window-"
Rafe's heart raced. Her problem was worse than his. Her pursuers sounded too angry for a rational discussion.
"I'll take you." He tossed her across Caesar's withers, then swung up behind her as curses flowed from the churchyard. "Stay low and hang on."
Spurring to a canter, he kept her head below the top of the wall so the men racing toward the gate would not see her. The moment Caesar cleared the church, he turned down a side street, then into a maze of narrow lanes.
"Who are you?" he demanded when they were out of sight, hoping conversation would distract him from another wave of lust - every stride ground her hip against his erection.
"Helen St. James, daughter of Sir Arthur St. James of Audley Court, Somerset." She flung an arm around his neck as he rounded another corner, plastering her against his body.
"The honorable Rafael Thomas, at your service," he managed. With her head pressed against his chin, her perfume engulfed him. Heliotrope, his mother's favorite scent.
Marry the first girl I see. She was certainly spirited enough.
In a bid to restore his reason, he ducked into an alcove between two buildings so he could put some space between them.
"Relax," he commanded, prying her fingers loose. "You are safe."
She released him, but his relief was short-lived. Now it was her eyes that captured him, drowning him in their green depths. If only he had full control of his faculties! But his head spun worse than ever. Clatters and shouts from the street beat dully against ears awash in the rush of blood. He burned wherever she touched him. Her taste-
Gathering his few remaining wits, he forced his mind back to business. "We have a problem, Miss Shan-Sin" -he couldn't get St. James to roll off his tongue, so he settled on- "Miss Helen. I can deliver you to Broad Street, but the trip will take the best part of an hour. By then the bank will be closed. Is there anyone you can stay with until morning?"
"I have no acquaintances in town just now. My uncle has held me hostage since my father died last year. I planned to slip away tonight and find Lord Alquist, but you say he is dead."
"He was struck down by a wagon two weeks ago."
"Then what am I to do?"
Church bells chimed five.
It was far too late to seek Shipley's help. The solicitor couldn't reach one newspaper before it went to press, let alone the dozen that might have received Hillcrest's announcement. Not all of them were based in Fleet Street.
Dizziness spread to his stomach, which threatened to cast up the brandy. That reckless vow again screamed through his mind. Marry the first girl I see … first girl I see … first-
"You must marry me." The words shocked him, though he didn't reclaim them. It was the best solution for both of them. "It is the only way to retain your reputation. Spending the night together is bad enough. Leaving you alone would be worse. Without my protection, you will be ruined by morning - provided you live that long. London is dangerous."
"Marry you?" She choked.
He met her gaze. "I'm not such a bad bargain, Miss Helen. I'm heir to a viscount and considered a gentlemen in deed as well as blood." At least in most circles. "Marriage will thwart your uncle. But we'll have to hurry. Doctors Commons closes soon."
Helen cursed the shock that froze her tongue. She stared at Mr. Thomas - the very drunk Mr. Thomas. His breath smelled strongly of brandy. His tongue was tied in knots. Green-tinged cheeks and blurry eyes confirmed his condition - foxed to the gills. At least he wasn't violent. She'd barely escaped a beating the last time Dudley had come home in his cups. While Mr. Thomas had been on the verge of ravishing her right on the street, she could hardly deny that she'd invited his advances. Since her refusal, he'd been a perfect gentleman.
He swayed. "We need a special license, Miss Helen. Doctors Commons is the only place to get one." Narrowing his eyes, he added, "You are of age, I presume."
"Twenty-two. Quite on the shelf."
"I wouldn't go that far." He brushed her hip, swirling heat into her stomach. Every touch had done that since she'd run him down. And that kiss…
He scrambled her wits, making the last hour seem even more unreal.
She hadn't seen him before crashing into him, then had been too stunned to back off - and not because of the impact. He was tall, dark, and hard. Very hard. And blazingly masculine, exuding power that demanded attention. Those muscular arms and shoulders needed no padding to fill his well-cut coat. His legs were equally fine. A curly-brimmed beaver hat pressed dark curls onto his forehead, reminding her strongly of Alex-
Wrenching her thoughts from the cad who had jilted her four years earlier, she focused on Mr. Thomas. Or tried to. It was hard to think through a pounding head and churning stomach.
His most surprising feature was the silver filigree that cupped his left cheekbone like delicate lace, reflecting the silver-gray of his eyes and adding intrigue and character to a face that might have seemed conventionally handsome otherwise. Before she'd realized her intent, her finger had traced that enticing scar. It was clearly old, for it blended smoothly into his skin.
Heat had seared her fingertips. Then his mouth had plundered hers, shutting down all thought. Not until she'd identified the hardest muscle of all had she come to her senses.
Thank God she'd pulled away. Another time she would have fled, but she was desperate. And he'd been her only hope. The narrow street had been quite empty, and his arms had seemed so very safe….
Her ears buzzed louder than a beehive.
Rafael Thomas, viscount's heir. That was all she knew about him. Name and station. Why would he offer marriage? She tried to imagine, but Steven's blow had scrambled her wits.
Even with the scar, he could have anyone he chose, and he must know it. She could imagine women throwing themselves at his feet, for he exuded an aura that commanded her to touch, explore, and demand satisfaction. Every brush of his body strengthened the command. Every whiff of his scent urged her closer. Her hand raised-
Shocked at the images forming in her mind, she shook her head - and immediately regretted it as pain knifed through her skull. Steven had halted the carriage as the church tower tolled four. So unless she'd been with Mr. Thomas far longer than she thought, she had been unconscious for half an hour. Concussions muddled thinking, which ought to prompt caution. If these sensual longings were a side effect, they might disappear by morning.
Yet Mr. Thomas was right. With Lord Alquist dead, she had nowhere to go. London was dangerous for a woman alone. With her lack of either money or maid, no reputable innkeeper would accept her. So he was her only hope. She should thank Fate that he was offering marriage rather than ruination. That alone indicated an honorable character. She could do worse - Dudley, for instance.
"Well?" he demanded.
Her hands twisted in her lap, but she nodded. "You have done me a great honor, Mr. Thomas. I will endeavor to make you a proper wife."
Relief was so dizzying that Rafe nearly fell off Caesar. Marry the first girl I see. "You might as well call me Rafe, my dear," he managed. "You have made me the happiest of men."
The declaration dealt a fatal blow to his stomach. Twisting sideways, he retched again and again, dredging up his very toenails. His betrothed - another spasm hit with the word - uttered soothing sounds, adding embarrassment to his discomfort.
Nearly a quarter hour passed before he headed for Blackfriar's Bridge and Doctors Commons, one arm wrapped securely around her as if fearing she might disappear.
Fool … fool … fool.
The charge battered his head with every step. What the devil had he done?
He was worse than a fool. This latest impulse might ruin him completely. What did he know about Miss Helen St. James anyway? She might be mad or diseased or incapable of intelligent thought. Anyone accepting such a ramshackle proposal must have something seriously wrong with her. She possessed an estate, uncommon beauty, and a vibrancy that demanded attention. So why was she unwed at the advanced age of twenty-two?
Yet it was done. Having given his word, he could not renege. And the match would end the fight over Alice once and for all.
But never in his wildest dreams had he expected this to be his wedding night.
Part 2 of the Three
Georgiana Whittaker has just fled from her guardian’s home and hidden in a church to escape his pursuit. A wedding was in progress, so she hid in a side chapel, from where she heard someone sending her guardian away:
But it was likely only a brief reprieve.
Voices rose as the wedding guests departed. She considered mingling with the crowd, but her fall had turned her cloak from shabby to disgusting. Someone was bound to object.
And Derrick would be watching. He might have hesitated to interrupt a society wedding, but he knew she was here – had probably seen her enter. So he would also know that she was limping. The moment the church was empty, he would search every nook and cranny. He was only waiting because he wanted no witnesses when he found her.
She was trapped.
Questions without answers battered her mind. How many exits did the church have? Which ones would Derrick watch? How many men were helping him? Would the rector stand up to a lord?
Her task seemed hopeless. If she hadn’t caught him by surprise, she would never have escaped the first time. That wouldn’t happen again, and not just because of Derrick’s vigilance. Her swelling ankle was already twice its usual size. The very thought of standing made it throb. And where would she go?
But she had to try. Remaining here was impossible.
The last of the voices died away. The doors closed, again muffling
the street noise. She was rising when footsteps approached the chapel.
“ You can come out now,” said an unfamiliar voice. “Everyone is gone.”
She paused, suspecting a trick.
“ Are you a thief, as Lord Herriard claims?” asked the man.
“ Thief!” she choked. “How dare he?”
“ Come out. I can’t advise you until I know what he wants.”
With no real alternative, she shakily stood, grasping the corner of the altar when her leg tried to buckle. Her eyes widened as she turned toward the door. The blond man from the wedding party blocked her escape.
“ You’re hurt.” His voice gentled.
Before she realized his intent, he swept her into his arms and carried her to a bench.
He was strong.
Also tall. And handsome. His hair brushed the collar of his blue superfine jacket. Brown eyes beamed from a face that reminded her of a Greek god – a rather wicked Eros, actually. Something about him demanded her touch.
Her heart lodged in her throat as she clasped her hands to keep them still.
He joined her on the bench. “Richard, at your service. And you are…?”
“ Georgiana.” She hesitantly offered her hand. Heat tingled up her arm when he raised it to his lips.
“ If you aren’t a thief, why does Herriard claim you stole his purse?” His tone seemed curious rather than accusatory. That in itself set her at ease. Most men accepted a lord’s word as gospel, no matter how ridiculous his charges.
“ He is my cousin and guardian.”
His eyes widened. “Guardian? I’ve not heard that he has a ward.”
“ Hardly a surprise. He keeps me hidden. Despising my mother’s marriage, he refused to bring me out. But his debts are now so great that he’s selling me to Lord Stagleigh.”
“ Not good. Stagleigh is venal.”
“ I’m glad you agree. My skin crawls whenever he is in the house. I try to avoid him.”
“ But no longer possible. Stagleigh agreed to pay Derrick’s debts in exchange for my hand. Neither of them cares a whit for me. But Derrick needs money so badly that he swore to beat me into compliance. Stagleigh doesn’t care. He considers my hatred a challenge.”
Richard nodded. “He would. So how did you escape?”
“ They didn’t realize I overheard them negotiating terms. I slipped out before they could give me the good news. Unfortunately, they discovered my absence almost immediately and chased me here.”
“ I sent them away.”
She shook her head. “They won’t go far. Derrick may have declined to make a scene in front of society’s crème de la crème, but he knows I’m here. He was too close behind not to have seen me enter.”
“ Where were you going?”
She sighed. “I had no time to think.” She hesitated to say more, but Richard was her best hope of escape. Unless he believed her, he would turn her over to her guardian. So she must reveal the full story – or most of it. “I have no other close relatives, and I have no money – my quarterly allowance is only two pounds.”
“ That’s less than a maid makes.”
“ I know.” She patted the large reticule hanging from her arm. “I grabbed Mama’s pearls and a few other things before fleeing. Selling them will pay my keep for a time.” She shrugged.
“ Do you think he will change his mind?”
“ No. But I turn twenty-one in six days. My dowry will then come to me. It will let me set up my own household.”
“ Not if you hope to retain your reputation.”
Again she shrugged. “Society doesn’t know I exist and would reject me if it did. My mother may have been a baron’s daughter, but my father was a merchant. The business went to his partner, of course, but my inheritance will do. One can live on very little in the country.”
“ But what about marriage?”
She laughed. Bitterly. “Why should I put myself at the mercy of yet another man? Five years with Derrick has cured me of any romantical notions.” She had yet to meet a man she could trust when her needs opposed his desires. Even Grandfather had ignored her preferences.
“ This isn’t the time to argue your future. We must leave. How bad is your ankle?”
“ I fell rounding the corner from Conduit to George Street.” She lifted her skirts to reveal the ankle, which had swollen even larger. “It can’t be broken, for I continued running on it, but it hurts like blazes.”
Richard knelt, gently bending the ankle as his fingers prodded the bones. She nearly screamed.
He shook his head. “It’s the worst sprain I’ve seen in some time. I’ll have to carry you.”
“ To my horse. It’s waiting on Mill Street, just outside the rector’s office.”
She tried to protest, but he cut her off.
“ I can’t remain here. My sister will already be wondering where I am – she just married my best friend, so I’m expected at the breakfast. We’ll stash you out of sight until I have time to think about your problem.”
“ I won’t return to Derrick.”
“ Of course not. What the devil was your father about to leave Herriard in charge of you in the first place? He must have known the man is a scoundrel.”
“ He named Grandfather. But Grandfather and Derrick’s father died in a carriage accident a week after my father died, so Derrick inherited my guardianship along with the title.” She still shuddered to recall those days. Her grandfather had wanted her to make the society match her mother had refused, though he’d long since come to terms with his daughter’s elopement. Derrick abhorred his grandfather’s acceptance of so base a union, but he’d been careful not to admit it while the old man controlled his allowance. Only after the accident had he shown his true colors, relegating his low-class ward to the attics and refusing to recognize their blood ties.
“ We will discuss alternatives later. Come along.” He lifted her easily, then peeked out the chapel door to make sure the nave was empty before heading for the office and his horse.
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