Authors: Lynne Connolly
Ever ready to do the right thing, The Emperors of London act bravely—and when it comes to matters of the heart, impetuously…
Despite her cover as the daughter of the land steward for Lord Malton, Marcus Aurelius, spiritedViola Gates is tied by birth to the treacherous Jacobite legacy. Not that this keeps her from falling for the dashing Lord from afar. Despite his staid demeanor, Marcus is devastatingly handsome—and hopelessly beyond her reach. Then Viola’s father is mortally wounded and her secret identity revealed, sending her straight into danger’s path—and Marcus’s arms…
For years, he’d only known her as a wild child, the tempting—and forbidden—daughter of his trusted steward. But when Viola’s life is threatened, Marcus must act as duty—and his barely contained passion—dictates. Ferrying the bold beauty on an eventful journey to safer quarters, he offers her the protection of his name. Their tempestuous union might succeed in vanquishing their enemies, but will the chivalrous lord and his unsuitable wife surrender to the power of love?
“Lynne Connolly writes Georgian romances with a deft touch. Her characters amuse, entertain and reach into your heart.”
“Plots, deviousness and passion galore…a truly enjoyable read.”
–Fresh FictiononTemptation Has Green Eyes
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Books by Lynne Connolly
Emperors of London
Temptation Has Green Eyes
Danger Wears White
Reckless In Pink
Published by Kensington Publishing Corporation
Dilemma In Yellow Silk
An Emperors of London Novel
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Copyright © 2015 by Lynne Connolly
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First Electronic Edition: April 2016
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A cloud of dust puffed out of the window of one of the state apartments at Haxby Hall. It was about time someone shook out the rugs.
Standing at her drawing-room window, Viola Gates had a good vantage point of the great building, the pride of the neighborhood. By her reckoning, the cleaning team had reached the double salon.
She turned around to face the other occupant of the room.
“What are they doing, girl?” her father asked.
“Bottoming,” she said succinctly. “Nobody bottoms like Mrs. Lancaster.” She cast a backward glance at the hall. “I should go and help, since it’s your fault the marquess is coming.”
Her father chuckled. “They didn’t expect him for another month. More fool they. And do you know why he is coming?”
She turned her attention to his heavily bandaged foot, wondering why he was stating the obvious. “To see you, Papa. You’re an old retainer.”
He snorted. “I’m a bit more than that, my girl. I’m related.”
“In a way.” He was a cousin of a cousin of a cousin. Her father had used the nebulous connection many years ago, and the previous marquess had given him the position of land steward here. Well, not land steward immediately, but he’d gained the position, and he wasn’t about to give it up any time soon.
Situations like his often ran in families, but since she was the only child, they weren’t about to give her the job. “Do you think they’ll use your broken ankle as an excuse to force you into retirement?”
Her father shook his head. “Not a chance.” He fidgeted, wincing when his foot shifted on the padded footstool. Mrs. Lancaster had brought it from the house for his use while he recovered. She’d always been a bit sweet on Viola’s papa, but he wasn’t buying her careful solicitude. Not yet, at any rate. She wouldn’t surrender her position at Haxby yet. If she married him, she would probably have to retire, and she was queen of the hall, except when the marchioness was in residence.
“His lordship is sick and tired of London. Any excuse will serve to get him back. He’s probably made out I’m at death’s door. That’s the actual reason he’s coming.”
The Gates household had heard the marquess was coming yesterday. From what she knew of the current incumbent of the Strenshall title, that information meant he’d arrive soon.
Her father was right. The family had lingered in London this year. His lordship was probably aching to get back to the country. Viola should really go to the hall to help.
The drawing room she currently stood in was beautifully neat and tidy, its comfortable furnishings inviting guests to take their ease. They did not want for visitors, especially since her father’s recent fall. Nobody expected George Gates, who was perfectly at ease on a horse, to fall, much less suffer a tumble bad enough to cause his horse distress. However, he had, and now both participants were recovering in their respective residences. The land would hardly go to rack and ruin in the two months it would take her father to fully recover.
The great hall drew her. Mrs. Lancaster would need all the help she could get. Her father was comfortably ensconced in his favorite armchair with the newspapers that had been brought to the hall fresh off the mail. After tomorrow, the staff would keep them at the hall for the use of his lordship. Her father would only receive them in the afternoon.
Apart from that small hitch, estate managers at Haxby tended to live well. They even had the use of this house for the duration of her father’s tenure, though he owned a perfectly good one in nearby Scarborough. Too far to travel when his impatient lordship required his presence.
George Gates hated fuss and bother. The fewer people who disturbed him, the better he liked it. And while he was off his feet, he said, he could concentrate on going through the books. He had the overview of not just Haxby Hall, but all his lordship’s properties. That made for a lot of paperwork.
“Perhaps you should open one of those books, Papa,” Viola said.
He scowled at the stack of account books on the side table awaiting his attention, as they had for the last week. “Perhaps. Account books have never held much appeal for me, but the sooner I start, the sooner I’m done. Your dear mother always proved of signal help there.”
“She was more dutiful than I am, I fear,” Viola confessed. “But if you wish it, I’ll take half.” She heaved a heartfelt sigh, letting her shoulders rise and fall.
Her father chuckled. “You could never abide adding up, but be warned; I’ll make use of you later.” He made a scooting motion with his hand. “Go, girl. Make the housekeeper happy.”
Laughing, Viola hurried from the room, making her way to the front door before her father could change his mind.
Had she been in the city, she’d have had to don gloves, shawl, cloak, bonnet, fan, all the accoutrements of required outdoor wear, even on this glorious summer day. Instead, she crammed on her old straw hat to protect her complexion from the sun, shoved her feet into her sturdy leather shoes, and set off. Her small hooped petticoat kept the fabric of her gown away from her body. When she ran, holding on to the hoop to keep her skirts from swinging, a comfortable breeze gusted around her legs.
The hall was less than half a mile away, a distance she accomplished in very little time, around ten minutes by her reckoning. The side door to the hall was never locked, except when the marchioness took it into her head to have every door and window secured. Viola went in and grinned at the footman standing inside.
Tranmere was in full uniform, the blue-and-silver livery blinding in the sun.
“That must be hot,” she commented.
“Don’t want his lordship to catch me out,” Tranmere said, his deep voice booming across the spacious hall.
“You could always take the coat off and then put it back on when you hear he’s arrived. He won’t come in this way.”
Tranmere grimaced. “I can’t. Mrs. Lancaster’s orders. She wanted to inspect us all, although it’s not her place.”
“Don’t let her hear you say that.”
He grinned, the expression revealing the severe lack of teeth on his lower jaw. In his chequered past, Tranmere had engaged in prize fighting and had, so he claimed, won a trophy and a purse for each tooth. “She’s all right, as long as you do what she says.”
While they spoke, Viola was unbuckling her heavy outdoor shoes and putting on the light slippers she used inside the hall. Haxby had too many treasures to risk damaging the floors or the rugs. Mrs. Lancaster would have her hide if she caught Viola indoors with outdoor shoes on.
With a cheeky wave to the footman, who had taken her advice and slipped off the heavy coat, she ran up the wrought-iron staircase. It was built on a cantilevered spiral, one of the wonders of the house, based on the Tulip Stairs at Greenwich. Not that Viola had seen the Tulip Stairs, but she’d accompanied Mrs. Lancaster on so many guided tours she knew the words by heart. Almost without thinking about them.
Along the corridor, she opened a jib door and scampered up the servants’ staircase. The only stair she was forbidden to use was the grand staircase in the main hall. She rarely went that way, and in any case, she had no desire to use it. If anyone asked, she’d touch an imaginary forelock and tell them it was too good for a servant girl like her. But in reality, the estate manager was more than a servant.
If Viola had insisted on her consequence, she’d have found herself very lonely indeed. She preferred to let everyone forget she was a daughter of a cousin of a cousin. There might even be another cousin in the way there.
Upstairs she opened the door at the top and entered the great state rooms. These were the absolute pinnacle of the house’s grandeur and wealth. Public openings centered here, and when the family were in residence, they would hold balls and gatherings here. Viola had attended a few, but always standing at the back, not drawing attention to herself.
In the first room, she paused. The covers were off here, the glass, furniture, and china buffed to a fine dustless sheen. From the Meissen figures on the elaborately carved marble fireplace to the glittering crystal drops on the chandelier, the room looked pristinely perfect.
The rooms were set in a line—enfilade people called it—and when all the doors were open, a person could see right to the end. At the moment, the staff were opening the doors as they moved to the next room in the sequence.
The second chamber was the huge double room, so called because it could be split into two spacious rooms by using the panels embedded into the walls on each side. The current marquess preferred to keep it open. He only used it for large gatherings and when he wanted to impress people. A couple of maids were dusting, holding each ornament carefully while plying the feather dusters. Both greeted Viola with smiles, and she nodded back before moving on. The cleaning army had finished with the music room, too, so she passed on.
Mrs. Lancaster and most of her cohorts carried out their duties in the library. The family only kept precious books here, the ones they rarely read. Between each bookcase was a marquetry wooden panel depicting a literary figure. Mrs. Lancaster was applying a liberal amount of honey and lavender polish to Chaucer’s nose. “Ah,” she said, looking over the tops of her spectacles at Viola. “I wondered when you’d get here.” Since she was standing at the top of a stepladder, she could look down at Viola. The rest of her staff, half a dozen maids, all sweeping, buffing and dusting. “Could you go into the music room and check the instruments? The tuner came last week, but nobody else can try them.”
Viola had undergone torturous music lessons because one of the marquess’s daughters, Lady Claudia, had hated learning, and Viola had to help her. Claudia still avoided musical instruments when possible, although her twin, Lady Livia, could hammer out a piece if forced to it.
Viola had hated the lessons, but once she could pick out a tune, she changed her mind. Not that she would ever make a professional musician, but she was at the level of a decent amateur. None of the maids could play.
Delighted she was spared the dirtier work, she went into the music room.
The instruments here were precious. A gold-encrusted harp stood in the center of the Aubusson carpet. She padded over to it and tested the strings. They sounded all right to her, but she didn’t play the harp. Such a lovely instrument, with nobody to play it.
The room also contained an old set of virginals dating back to the time of James the First. Viola knew better than to touch that. It was a relic, not a real instrument. The king had presented it to one of his gentlemen as a token of his thanks for some favor long forgotten. A case contained wind instruments, but they would be fine. A mandolin stood in one corner.
Viola turned to the harpsichord. The inner lid bore a painting of a woman dressed as the Muse of music, Euterpe. Viola lifted it carefully and put the prop under it. The strings gleamed, daring her to touch them.
Sitting on the broad padded bench-like seat, she ran her hands over the white-and-black keys. They trilled. She did some scales, up and down, the automatic movement of her hands lulling her into a state where she could link with the keys. Each note sank into her. She absorbed them and made them hers. She could have stopped there. It sounded fine.
The piece of sheet music propped on the stand was a two-hander. She could always play one part of it, but mischief led her into doing something else. The locals had a wonderful collection of music, some of it scurrilous, some quaint. She started with a few quaint ones, and when she sang the verses, a few voices rose in song from the next room.
How far could she take them? An urge took her to hear the ditties in this beautiful treasure-chest of a state room.
Viola began with a few more local songs, the innocent kind about lovers losing their ladies, ladies losing their soldier lovers and running away with the gypsies. Moving closer to her goal, she played a tune about a poacher and his boy.
The song described poaching from a more innocent age, when peasants snared creatures for the pot instead of gangs of organized ruffians stealing animals by the dozen. It bled innocence. Except in the last verses, when the song revealed the uncomfortable punishment demanded in those days—the stocks, where a man could die if the crowd took a dislike to him.
She grew a little bawdier in her choice. Not all the way, or Mrs. Lancaster would call a halt to her playing, but the maids would work well for a little entertainment. Mrs. Lancaster would not have been the superb housekeeper she was if she had not understood that.
They sang. She joined in, singing of maids lying in the fields, tossing up their skirts for their swains and paying for their sins, or simply marrying. The keys, cool to the touch, warmed, the ivory taking on the heat from her fingers as she progressed.
She’d played with the notion of finding someone who could help her assuage the need she occasionally felt, but then dismissed the notion as foolish. At her age, she would probably never marry. The prospect didn’t worry her as it might another. In fact, she had agreed with her father that she was probably better remaining a spinster. She would inherit a comfortable income and a house, the one her father owned in Scarborough, so she would not want. But sometimes, when she allowed herself to think about it, her body heated and the memory of kisses seared her.
Several people next door joined in, so she continued on to a local song she’d found in a gossip paper recently. At first she played just the tune, a folk tune from another part of the country. Many people hereabouts considered Yorkshire the only part of the country that mattered. Although loyal to the county where she lived, Viola was aware of what was going on elsewhere. She had to be. Her father and she shared more knowledge than most, and they had to maintain a certain level of vigilance.
This tune spoke of the King, and the other king—the one in Rome—and the confusion between the two together with the futility of choosing one side or the other. The cheerful jig-like tune belied the underlying cynicism in the words.
This one took some concentration, for she had only just learned it. She failed to notice the silence that had fallen until too late.
* * * *
Marcus loved coming home. He always regarded Haxby as his home, not the London mansion his family occupied during the season. This time he’d come with his father alone, a fast journey to see Gates and arrange affairs for the estate manager’s period of infirmity.
The gatekeepers barely got the huge iron gates open in time, but the coachman was stopping for no one and he swept through. Any faster and he’d be taking the corner on two wheels.
The impetus pressed Marcus against the side of the coach. “You need to tell Harrison not to travel so fast,” he said to his father.
“Ah, but his thoughts of seeing his sweetheart engross him,” the marquess said, smiling. “He left her behind to take us to London. We’ll find someone else to take us back.”
Marcus groaned. “Do I have to return? It’s the end of the season. Surely there is no need to have me there.”
“Your sister is marrying, and your mother is on the verge of betrothing two of your sisters. What do you think?”
The curse of being the eldest of a large family. They expected Marcus to wish them well and substitute for his father, if necessary, when he’d prefer to stay here. He’d had enough of London and its intrigues. With the season nearly over, he’d hoped to remain at home, one of the main reasons for accompanying his father.
“Could they not marry from home?”
“If they marry at all.” He cleared his throat. “Besides, I have something particular to discuss with Gates. It seemed an opportune moment to do so.”
Another sweep of the drive and the house came into view. As always, Marcus feasted his eyes on the place. The central structure boasted a tower in the middle capped by a lantern dome. It was not the largest of the great houses in the county, but to his mind it was the most beautiful. The central block rose a story above the side wings, the huge pilasters fronting the façade creating a grand display.
When his father died—may that be many years hence—Marcus would inherit this and all the responsibilities that went with it. The notion of becoming the marquess had always shocked him, an emotion he kept to himself, as not worthy of the heir to the marquisate. Hundreds of people would depend on him for their livelihood.
They swept up the elm-lined drive, the spaces between the trees affording glimpses of the parkland beyond. The occasional sheep, kept here to keep the grass down between scything, lifted its head to watch the coach going past. The sight warmed him. This—not the house in London—was home for Marcus.
“Your mother says she will look out for a likely bride for you,” his father said.
Marcus sighed. “I would like nothing better than to select my own bride. I swear I will choose someone suitable.”
“She has eyes and ears that penetrate further than ours. She knows the most promising young women about to make their debut in society.” Lord Strenshall shifted in his seat. “Devil take it, these seats are damnably uncomfortable. I’ll have this carriage reupholstered when we return to town.”
“There are people perfectly capable of doing the job locally,” Marcus pointed out. “Then you won’t have to pay London prices.”
“But we need to get back in it.” His father sighed. “Perhaps I can wait until the summer.”
Considering this was June, Marcus considered summer well under way. The day was fine, and they had come home. It had taken three days, since they could move faster without the ladies to cater for. Both Marcus and his father preferred to travel for longer and eat quickly rather than linger on the road.
“We’ll have a shooting party, come August,” his father said.
That gave Marcus a clear eight weeks until he needed to concern himself with entertaining guests, including the ones who wanted to marry him. He didn’t fool himself. They wanted his title and his family name as much, if not more, than his person. While not exactly unprepossessing, he wasn’t the kind of person who enjoyed dallying with ladies when there was work waiting for him.
There was always work. Mostly Marcus told himself he didn’t mind, but sometimes he fretted at the bit. When he dreamed, he soared free, but he rarely remembered his dreams. Just the sensation of flying remained for a few moments after he woke.
While here he’d talk to the gamekeeper, and ensure the coverts were well stocked. “If Gates is—” He couldn’t finish the sentence. He’d known Gates all his life—and his daughter, although they had drawn apart recently. Necessary, because they lives were destined to take different paths. His duty took him somewhere she couldn’t join him. Much to his regret. But he would not burden the free spirit he remembered with the duties that belonged to him.
She didn’t deserve that.
The carriage drew up outside the front door and the efficient machine that ran Haxby Hall clicked into action, its cogs running to the inevitable conclusion. When the liveried footman unfolded the steps of the carriage, Marcus got out and stood before the magnificence of his house with his hat in his hand. The butler stood at the top of the stone staircase. As his father climbed down to join him, Marcus took his first step, and then hesitated.
The spirit of rebellion stirred within him, as if it had remained dormant until now.
“I’ll go around the side way,” he said.
“Trying to catch out the servants?” his father said with a grin.
Marcus returned the smile. “Something of that nature.”
He would avoid going through the “Good afternoon, my lord” ritual the footman, and then the butler, and then the maids would go through. His father enjoyed it as little as he did, but Marcus didn’t have to endure it yet.
He strode off to the side of the house. That in itself was a fair walk, but one he enjoyed, as he reacquainted himself with the place. He’d been in London too long. In November he would refuse to rush to town at the start of the Parliamentary season. What was the point? They never got anything done.
Scents assailed him as his feet crunched on the gravel path. Flowers, mostly, the kind women enjoyed, but they made a fine show in the beds at the front of the house. His mother had decided to remodel, and they were looking into replacing the formal Tudor gardens with a more informal stretch of parkland.
While the house would appear more à la mode, Marcus would miss the bright displays. Perhaps they could keep something. He wanted the flowers.
The stone walls were not entirely even, partly from design and partly because the Palladian façade covered a much older house. Parts of the central block dated from Tudor times, when a courtier of Elizabeth won the land for singular service to his queen. Marcus’s grandfather had extended the house, making the E shape into a closed double quadrangle and adding to the wings on either side. He’d created the grand enfilade of state rooms from a hodgepodge of salons, creating the house Marcus had grown up in.
Marcus descended a staircase, opened a door, and entered the servants’ quarters. He looked to neither right nor left as he took the well-remembered shortcut to the side door. That cut out traversing the wings. He wasn’t in the passage long enough to create a commotion; in fact, nobody saw him as far as he knew. He was into the inner courtyard before anyone could register his presence.
A short walk along the stone paved path took him to the side entrance, and the shortcut to his rooms. His valet had set off early that morning, so he could arrive early and have everything ready for his master. Marcus prayed that included a decanter of burgundy and something to eat. Freshly baked bread and local cheese would not come amiss.
Then, fortified, he’d return to being the Earl of Malton and join his father for whatever duties awaited him.
Entering the side door without ceremony, Marcus enjoyed the sight of a large footman scrambling into his silver-laced coat. “My lord!”
“Good afternoon, Tranmere. How is Gates?”
Tranmere stared at him and then found his voice. “Broken ankle, my lord. He’s resting at his house.”
“Ah.” Well. That was one concern dealt with. Gates had fallen from his horse and hurt himself, but the messenger had left in such haste they had not ascertained precisely what was the matter. Marcus had been glad to use the excuse, but worry for the estate manager had also driven him to discover for himself.
Leaving the man stammering, Marcus climbed the stairs two at a time, not giving the poor footman a chance to sort himself out. His childish amusement was not worthy of him, he knew that. But the welcome had suited him in his present mood more than the ceremonial one awaiting his father.
Pausing at the state rooms, he decided to go through them. His rooms were equidistant if he took the corridor with guest rooms or the state rooms.
He opened the first door. He recognized the sign that maids were about. The door at the end was closed, but the others were open. That meant they’d finished up to the closed door.
Marcus grinned. Mrs. Lancaster would be furious he’d caught them working. She preferred the family to think that fairies dealt with their needs, invisible ones preferably.
Notes of music drifted to him, so delicate his fanciful notion of fairies became real. Through the first salon, the anteroom, and then the main salon, the huge space that never got warm in winter unless they packed it with people. Then the third. The music room.
He paused. The maids chattered in the library. Some sang along with the music. Smiling, he tiptoed across the parquet floor to the connecting door and closed it as silently as he could.Chapter 2
Concentrating on her music, Viola nearly jumped out of her skin when a large body plumped down on the stool next to her. She shrieked, spun around, and closed her eyes. “You!”
“Why, weren’t you expecting me?”
His expression of innocence did not fool her for a minute.
“Not here, not like this. Did you run from the last staging post?” she demanded. She should not talk to the Earl of Malton like this. Right now he was less the earl and more Marcus, the boy she’d known so long ago. “Oh, my lord, sir, I’m sorry!”
She should recall her place, but she was finding the task difficult when he was wearing the same mischievous grin he’d used at nine years old.
“I couldn’t resist. Do you know what you were playing?”
The heat rushed to her face. “Yes.” No sense dissimulating. Of course she knew.
“And if you don’t stop ‘my lord’ and ‘sir’ing me, I’ll have you sent home forthwith. When we’re alone, it’s still Marcus.”
What had happened to him? Marcus had slowly moved away from her, gone from a childhood friend to a dignified, proper aristocrat. She understood the move, because he would have responsibilities to take care of, but sometimes she missed him. He’d remained a distant figure ever since, growing more pompous every time she saw him. Now he seemed to have cast all that off.
“I thought—that’s not right.”
Sighing, he shook his head. “And I’ve stopped you playing. A pity—I was enjoying that. Carry on.”
“Is that an order—sir?”
He growled deep in his throat, such a small sound she’d have missed it if he were not sitting so close to her. “Stop it. I’ll be Malton in about an hour.” He pinched the bridge of his nose. “I’ve spent the last three days in a closed carriage with my father, and I want to forget the stateliness. He would, given the chance. But with outriders and men riding ahead to warn innkeepers we were on our way, we had little chance.”
“So they commit the great crime of ensuring the best bedrooms are free. The cook is bursting from his waistcoat, trying to cook the best meal he’s capable of making. If only my journeys were so tedious!”
His laugh rang around the room. “Exactly. But we’re welcomed with ‘Good evening, my lord,’ and ‘How can I serve you, my lord?’”
“You poor thing.” She should guard her tongue, but she delighted in reacquainting herself with the man she used to know.
He rewarded her with another laugh. “I know. It’s such a hardship.” Lifting his feet, he spun around on the bench so he faced the keyboard, as she did. “You got a phrase wrong. The tune is based on the traditional one, but it’s varied in the last line of each verse. Slightly different each time. Like this.”
When he demonstrated, Viola understood exactly what he meant. But with the amusement, her heart ached. She had missed him so much. At the delicate age of nine, two years after his breeching, Marcus had begun his training, and since then, he’d become engrossed in his life’s work. Before then, the laughing boy had had no cares, and they’d played together.
Until someone remembered their different stations in life, and she did not think it was Marcus.
After giving him a doubtful glance, she copied the phrase. He sang the verse along with her, his baritone blending with her untrained mezzo. At the end of the verse they continued with the next one. Then he added one she hadn’t known about.
By the end of the song, she was quite in charity with him. The years slipped away. Or rather, they did not, because never at any time did she forget that a man sat next to her, not a boy.
Viola hadn’t been this close to Marcus for years. In this lovely room, with sunshine streaming in through the windows, they could be in another world—one of their own, a place out of time.
Playing scurrilous songs on a valuable string instrument seemed part of their world. Eventually she joined with him as his infectious laughter rang around the room.
“Do you remember this?” She played a few notes. A two-handed exercise taught to children to help them accustom themselves to the keyboard.
“Ha, yes I do.”
He joined in, taking the upper part of the tune. It was simple but capable of infinite variations. At the end of the piece she changed the pitch and they continued. Four times they went around, until she stopped with an emphatic chord.
She rested her palms on the edge of the harpsichord. “This was tuned last week. I was only supposed to check it, not play it until it’s out of tune again.”
“Do harpsichords lose their tuning so easily?”
He really didn’t know? “It’s a harpsichord. The strings are delicate. Even damp can send them completely wrong. Each quill has to be checked and replaced if necessary. Don’t you know anything?”
He shrugged. “I know how to address a duchess and how to dance a minuet. I can shoot straight and use a sword.”
“So can I. The last part.”
He widened his eyes. Such a perfect shade of blue they were. She hadn’t seen them this close for years. Far too long. “You can fence and shoot?” he said, his voice rising.
“I shoot better than I fence, but I know one end of a sword from the other. I know how to stop someone taking it off me.” Considering her position, her father had considered the training useful. The daughter of a land steward, especially an only child, needed to know how to take care of herself.
“I will certainly test you on that.” He patted his hip. “But I don’t generally travel with a sword at my side. We have them in the carriage, though. Shall I send for them?”
She bestowed a jaded smile on him. “No. Or fetch them yourself, come to that.”
His cheek indented slightly, as if he were biting it inside. Stopping laughter? Then she was a source of ridicule? No, he wouldn’t do that, not the Marcus she’d known.
But she had not known him for years. Only seen him at a distance and occasionally exchanged polite nothings.
He shook his head as his smile faded. “Why did we not tell my tutors to go to the devil, Viola? What harm did our friendship do?”
“They were teaching you to be an earl, and eventually a marquess.”
“Ah yes. That. But you continued to play with my brothers and sisters.”
She lifted one shoulder. “I hardly missed you at all.”
That was a lie. She had missed him very much. His way of talking, the way he would say what he was thinking without hesitation—but he would hardly do that any longer. People hung on his every word, at least some people did. The people wanting the ear of his father, or for Marcus to do them a favor.
“I missed you,” he said softly. “I would like us to be friends again, as we used to be.” He covered her hand with his own.
Startled, she stared at it, but she didn’t move. His warmth seeped through her, heating more than her fingers. He’d been her childhood sweetheart, but they had both known they were only playing.
He did not mean it in that way. Occasionally she’d allowed herself to dream of him, but never allowed her fantasies to creep through to real life.
Marcus had grown up tall and handsome, and unlike most men she knew, he wore his own hair tied back in a simple queue. He rarely powdered, his one concession to his wishes rather than the dictates of fashion, but he would consent to wear a wig on ceremonial occasions.
The first time she’d seen him dressed for a grand occasion had served to distance him completely from her. Without those glossy dark brown locks, and dressed in the finest London could provide, Marcus appeared a different person, one Viola didn’t know at all. So when he said he missed her, he probably meant the carefree days of his childhood.
Viola could not pass this opportunity by. She turned her hand and curled her fingers between his. He clasped her hand warmly.
She stared at that symbol of friendship, as if it weren’t her hand. “I missed you, too.”
“You’ve grown up a beauty, Viola,” he said softly.
She shook her head vigorously. “No. I’m ordinary. You’re—” She cut off her words, fearing she would give away more than she meant to.
“Your hair is darker than mine, and it shines like a raven’s wing. Your eyes are fathoms deep.”
His words made her laugh, but that was to prevent her heart cracking. Once she’d dreamed of a man saying such things to her. But now she knew better. She would never hear that in love. Friendship would have to serve. “My face is too narrow, and I’m too tall.”
“You are only too tall for short men,” he said. “I’ll show you. Stand up.”
His voice did not ring with command, as she knew it could. Nevertheless, she pushed against the floor and got to her feet, rounding the end of the stool to avoid stumbling. She wanted to put something between them, because her emotions rose until she was barely able to keep her features still.
Their hands were still linked. “Satisfied?” She made to pull her hand away, but he only gripped it more firmly.
“Not nearly.” He stood too, and then stepped over the bench so they were close.
Far too close. In his simple traveling clothes he had the appearance of a gentleman rather than a great lord, but that did not fool her for a minute. She could not think that way. Must not, if she wanted to keep her peace of mind. This close, closer than he’d been for years, he devastated her senses.
“See?” he said brightly. “You come up to my shoulder. Far too few ladies do that.”
“It makes me stand out too much,” she grumbled. She was not freakishly tall, though. Lanky Annie, the woman in the village who took in sewing from the hall, she was oddly tall. Six feet, her father said.
“Not at all. It makes you graceful.” He touched her chin, tilting her head up.
This close, the little black pinpricks of beard under his skin were apparent. The way his eyes shaded darker at the edge, to the brilliant shade inside. She stared in wonder, reacquainting herself with him this close.
Something else sparked in his eyes, passion and heat, passing from him to her and back again.
“A kiss of friendship, Viola,” he murmured, and suited words to actions.
Viola lifted her hands, grasping for purchase, and found his coat. She clutched it gratefully as her world spun, realigning into a new space.
When he touched her lips with his tongue she opened for him, and he tasted her. Delicately at first, licking softly, like a cat at milk, but then stronger, he entered her mouth with a mastery that made her helpless under his onslaught.
Nobody had ever kissed her like this.
She had thought he meant a kiss of friendship, a sweet salute, but this was so different as to be from a different place. He hungrily pressed his mouth to hers, and she responded in a way that came instinctively to her.
He held her in the circle of his arms, her breasts pressed against his chest. Although layers of cloth and whalebone lay between them, she felt the heat of his body. His closeness overwhelmed her, heated her from head to toe. He made those secret, private nooks and crannies of her body tingle with new awareness.
Was this, then, what Mr. Ridley had meant at the New Year’s dance when he’d told Viola that she excited him? She’d barely escaped his clumsy caresses, whereas she had gone willingly to Marcus, eager to learn whatever he wanted to teach her.
Her mind whispered the word, and then it grew louder. Recklessness took her soul, the same kind of heedless joy as when she kicked her horse into a gallop or danced in a field at midnight, barefoot and all on her own. When she dared fate to do what it would.
She dared it now. Nobody could stop her.
Marcus led her through the blending of not only their mouths, but a forbidden closeness. She yearned for more, even as he gave it to her, and deepened their kiss. He spread his hands wide over her back, encompassing her.
A sound from the room next door pierced her senses, reminding her they were not alone. These rooms were the public rooms, for heaven’s sake!
She jerked away, breaking the kiss with a clumsy unsealing of their mouths.
Her breasts heaved as if she’d run around the house ten times, breath sawing in and out of her. Tentatively, Viola touched her lips. They felt tender, swollen, and hot.
Marcus stood completely still and watched her, his eyes wide and dark, his hair disheveled. Dimly she recalled thrusting her fingers into the silky mass, holding him to her.
He said the one word bound to push her away. “Wanton.”
Indignation swamped her arousal. “Me? What are you talking about?” How dare he speak to her like this?
“The way you attacked me.”
Had she? Honestly she couldn’t be sure, but his response to her was anything but reluctant. “So you’re the poor, helpless victim. Is that what you’re telling me?” She curled her lip. “Truly?”
“How else would you explain it? Who have you been practicing with?”
* * * *
Marcus heard his words as they left his mouth. Tendrils of jealousy curled their green fronds within him. She kissed as if she’d done it many times before, so if not with him, then who?
She tasted sweet, and the moment he acquainted himself with her taste, he realized once was not enough. He could stand here, in this gleaming polished room and kiss her all day.
A movement gave him pause, and he glimpsed his reflection in the large pier-glass hung between the two big windows. She had turned him into a lover, although he had never thought of Viola in that way before.
Liar.Of course he had. He’d carefully kept his distance until the way they behaved with each other had changed. She’d left his life when he’d left the nursery. But he’d seen her at a distance, watched her grow into the lovely woman standing before him now, her breasts swollen under the clean but no longer neat fichu tucked into her bodice.
In another moment that fichu would not have been tucked into anything. Need to the point of agony had come to life inside him, roaring for its release. He’d have had her across that bench on the silk-tufted carpet. Hell, on the gravel path outside if someone had not moved next door.
He’d heard it too, the telltale shift of furniture, reminding them where they were and what they were doing.
What had started as a kiss of friendship, of re-acquaintance, had served to push them apart again. Because as sure as Styx rowed the dead to Hades, he could not come anywhere near her again. She was temptation personified, a reminder of what he wished for when he awoke alone in the middle of the night in his luxurious bed in Mayfair. A symbol of everything he could not have and should not want.
What was that woman’s name, the one he’d danced the quadrille with a week ago at Lady Costigan’s ball? Ah, yes, Lady Myra Smedley. His mother had introduced them. On paper Lady Myra was his perfect match, a woman of taste, refinement, and no passionate emotions. Just the kind of wife he needed. Not a wanton like this one. And unlike many of his compatriots, he did not intend to cuckold his wife before the sheets on the marriage bed had cooled.
He could not afford to get close to Viola again. She was dangerous to him, and what he wanted to do with her was dangerous to her. He would take what steps he could to get her to stay away. Unfair accusations should do it. He curled his lip into a sneer. “Have you been practicing on the nearest ploughman, Viola?” No, of course she had not. Her kiss had been tentative, unpracticed, and utterly delicious.
He would not debauch the daughter of the estate manager. Such behavior was below them both.
“While I’m here,” he said, keeping his voice low for fear it would shake, “Do not approach me. Spend as little time in my company as possible. I don’t know where you learned those tricks, but you will not use them on me.” Clearly he could not trust himself around her. The discovery made his head spin.
A woman of sense would have gathered her skirts, held her head high, and walked out of the room, keeping her dignity intact. Not Viola. He might have known she’d retaliate. She was always a spitfire.
Instead of retreating, she advanced. “How could you say those things, Marcus? My first kiss—my first grown-up kiss—and you think I’ve been doing it with every footman and farmer who comes my way?” She waved her hand. “Do you really think I would do that with anyone? How do you imagine I could do that? Oh, wait, because you do it?” Her eyes sparked fire. “Do you kiss every half-decent woman you come across? Does it lead to more? I heard you had a good reputation, but you just put the lie to that, did you not? Perhaps you keep your affairs to yourself, unlike your brother Val!”
Marcus gritted his teeth. How dare she compare him to Valentinian, who chased anything in a skirt and then lost interest the next day? “How else do you explain…?” Lost for words, he gestured. “You, me, the way you know what to do?”
Her first kiss? He’d given her her first kiss? Deep down, the knowledge staggered him. Surely she could not have reached the age she was—mid-twenties? Yes, she must be that—without kissing someone. Not fond kisses, friendly kisses, but passionate ones? How had the local gentry kept their hands off her?
He spun around and headed for the door to the library. “Remember what I said. Do not come near me again!”
A dry, “Yes, my lord,” followed in his wake.
He didn’t regain his senses until he’d arrived at the relative privacy of his chambers. Dismissing his valet with a request for coffee, he strode to and fro, eating up the floor and carpet with his restless walking.
He was a fool. The sight of her pinched white features as he left told him that. She’d retaliated, and so she should after he’d hurled so many insults at her. How could he have destroyed their tentative friendship that way? Kissing her, proving his lack of self-discipline. Of all things he was proud of, his self-control came first.
He was afraid. No, not afraid. He had nothing to be afraid of. Her sweet, innocent kiss had taunted him with the things he could not have, the foolish boyhood dreams he’d put aside. Love, happiness, and friendship were all tainted by his position. His damned responsibility.
He drove his fingers through his hair, dislodging the velvet ribbon tied neatly at his nape. “What is wrong with me?” he moaned aloud, but it didn’t sound any better in words than it had in his head.
Marcus was born to a position most people would give their eye teeth for. It involved nothing he could not do and no life-threatening duties. As a soldier, his cousin Antoninus had stared death in the eye. Marcus would do no such thing. Instead he’d be master of great estates, have the attention of the greatest men in the land, and control the country. Why would that fill him with terror in the dead of night when he couldn’t sleep?
When his valet returned, the well-trained man didn’t blink at his master’s restlessness. Instead he put down the tray with the coffee, picked up the ribbon, and stood by the dressing table, ready to apply a fresh one when Marcus was ready.
Viola had given him a vision of freedom he had no right to expect or even consider. He owed her an apology, but he did not know how to deliver it without putting both of them in peril.
He must regain control of the emotion that had broken free when his mouth had touched hers. Viola deserved better than what he could give her.
* * * *
How much better Marcus had not realized until his father called him into the meeting with Gates later that afternoon. Expecting to discuss estate business, he went down to the estate office to discover his father and the estate manager sitting at the large circular rent table. But none of the usual account books and bills littered the table. Only a few papers.
“Close the door, Marcus. Come and sit.”
Marcus did as his father bade him. Lord Strenshall pushed the papers across to him. Marcus perused them in silence and then closed his eyes.
He’d seen similar documents before—copies of a marriage certificate, a birth certificate and a letter written in Italian. He did not need to know the language to know what it said. He’d seen one of those before, too.
The birth certificate was for a baby girl, born in Rome in 1729 to a woman named Maria Rubio and a father named as James Francis Edward Stuart. The marriage certificate was dated 1719, wherein it stated James Francis Edward Stuart and Maria Rubio were man and wife. The letter was from Maria Rubio, certifying the accompanying documents were genuine and asking the bearer to care for the baby girl.
Maria Rubio had married James Stuart, otherwise known as the Old Pretender, and borne him God knew how many children.
“It’s Viola,” his father said. “We’ve kept the secret since she was born, but we have to do something about it now.”
Marcus didn’t want to believe what he was seeing. “No. It’s not true.”
“It is,” his father said quietly.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” He knew as much about the affair as his father. At least he’d thought so.
“Because the fewer people who knew, the better,” the marquess replied. “Until recent developments, we thought the marriage certificate at least was false. But now we know it is not.” That discovery had brought the children into danger. It made the Young Pretender, Charles Stuart, and his brother, Henry, bastards, and it gave remaining Jacobites a new cause.
Marcus and his relatives had discovered two children so far and a bastard girl, the product of another of the Old Pretender’s liaisons. Viola made three legitimate children.
“Does she know?” he demanded.
Gates grimaced. “She discovered the papers, but she believes it’s a fanciful legend. Indeed, until recently we considered the marriage part to be false. The rest?” He shrugged. “Kings and pretenders have bastards.”
Marcus dropped the certificate as if it were steeped in poison and addressed his father. “So that’s why you wanted to rush here.”
The marquess nodded. “I needed to tell Gates of recent developments and get his permission to tell you. His accident was a good excuse. We need to keep Viola safe. That is why I elected not to tell anyone of this. I still believe secrecy is our best defense.”
“But what about Viola? Doesn’t she have a right to know?”
“Why, when it would only upset her?”
Marcus needed to talk to his cousin Julius, who knew much more about this affair than he did. But every sense went against him leaving Viola here in the country, unsuspecting. Enemies were gathering on the horizon, and with the current state of affairs in London, very little would urge the more hotheaded amongst them to action. “Viola is a grown woman,” he insisted. “She should know.”
Her father shook his head. Or her foster-father, more like. But as her guardian, he had more rights than Julius to say how his daughter should be treated. Marcus hated that, but he could not go behind Gates’s back and tell her. He’d try to persuade the estate manager his daughter should know.
“We will continue as normal,” Gates said now. “Behave as if nothing has changed. Because if people are watching and they see unusual activity, the game will be up.”
At least Marcus could agree with that decision.Chapter 3
“His lordship wants us to come to dinner,” Viola’s father said the next day.
“Why?” Viola demanded.
“The usual reasons.” Her father smiled at her mildly. “To catch up on local gossip, to ascertain that I’m recovering properly, to speak about the weather, I have no doubt. The day after, he will have me conveyed to the offices, and we will spend the day closeted with Lord Malton, going through the accounts. Quarter day is not far off.”
“Quarter day is never far off.” With four a year, the seasons tended to be marked by the quarter days. Rent days, the days when magistrates were busy, and country life coalesced into a mild climax. Then on to the next one. The process was comfortable, never-ending and reassuring. Only the seasons were different. Now they headed into summer, and after that came the frantic activity of harvest. But first, mellow days when plants were tender.
Mr. Gates shook out his paper, which the marquess had sent over once he’d done with it. She should see to ordering one for her father while the marquess was in residence, but cancelling it could be more trouble than it was worth. Making an order was always easier than cancelling.
Fear rose in her throat. She had not seen Marcus since he’d told her to get out of his sight. In fact, whenever she’d heard his voice or sensed his presence, she turned around and went the other way. She would not face such humiliation again willingly. He was the lord. He could do as he pleased, but he could not have her.
They had guests due today at the house, local visitors—another reason for her not to venture forth. Many of the local residents knew her well. The village held two houses of reasonable size, and a little farther off, Scarborough and York held people who knew them. Once the marquess and his son had let people know they were in residence, the local gentry had sent in their cards. The marquess had announced an open day.
“While you were out this afternoon, the marquess sent a note. He wants you to act as hostess for a few days,” her father said. He gazed over his spectacles at her, his brows drawn together in a frown.
Her immediate reaction was, “No,” but she should have known better.
“I accepted on your behalf,” he continued, as if she hadn’t spoken. “What else could I do?”
“I cannot.” Frantically she searched for an excuse and came up empty. As well born as many of the gentry hereabouts, she had acted as the marquess’s hostess before, when the marchioness had been absent. Ladies could not visit gentlemen on their own, even to accompany their husbands, so her presence was necessary. Her status as distant relative made Viola the most eligible.
“Yes, you can. And you will.” Her father picked up his cane from its perch at the side of his chair. “Viola, what has happened? You came back from the house the day before yesterday in an agitated state. Has something occurred?”
She had not realized he’d noticed. Nothing of note had happened, after all. Only her first kiss from a man she should never consider as anything but her father’s employer. “No. I was merely surprised to see Marcus again. Lord Malton,” she corrected herself. Too late. Her father would have noticed that slip. “We spoke, but Papa, he was insufferable!” She could tell him part of the truth, at least. “Arrogant and behaving as if my only reason for being present was because he was there.”
“Did he touch you?” Her father’s voice turned hard.
“No.” She hated lying, but she could do nothing else. She rushed on. “But the thought of pandering to him, after— We were friends, Papa!”
Marcus had faced her, white-faced, drawing his cloak of arrogance around him to accuse her of monstrous injustices. He had the right, as her father’s employer, to treat her that way, but not as the friend of her childhood.
That was the truth. She had lost her friend. Even though they had grown apart, she’d always known she could turn to him if she needed help. But now—no. She wouldn’t turn to him if he were the last man on earth.
“You will do your duty, daughter.”
When her father spoke in that tone of voice, she could not argue with him.
Viola curtseyed and said, “Yes Papa,” in as obedient a voice as she could muster.
* * * *
Despite the sunny weather, Viola set out at ten for the hall the next day with a heavy heart. She was to preside over afternoon visits and a dinner. She took a dinner gown packed in a bandbox, as well as her best wine-red day gown. She had few gowns that were presentable to company, but what she had served her well. Her father would have bought her more, but she couldn’t see the point. She spent most of her days in more practical clothes in fabrics she could have laundered.
For all her stout declarations, she had to admit silk felt better against her skin in this hot weather.
As she rounded the side of the house, a sound made itself apparent—a horse being walked, the clop of its hooves melting into the sounds of an English summer day. Birds chirruped, and the breeze made the trees and bushes rustle as if they were gossiping. About her, no doubt.
Why had the marchioness not accompanied her husband? Was London so fascinating she could not tear herself away?
Tranmere was on duty again. He touched his finger to his powdered wig as she entered. His face was gleaming and flushed.
“You look hot,” she said.
“I’m fine, ma’am,” the footman said, obviously on his best behavior. What a shame he could not doff his coat and wig, but he was in full blue-and-silver today.
She passed on, climbing the stone steps, the iron rail cool to her touch. Today she adopted a sedate walk and set a polite half-smile in place on her face. She would go through the day by rote and try not to think about anything. Or anyone, come to that.
They would open the Blue Saloon. It was not one of the state rooms, but a cheerful, sunny drawing room on the east side of the house that caught the morning sun. Mrs. Lancaster usually kept the curtains closed for fear the carpets and furniture should fade, but today the sun blazed through the sparkling windows.
The marquess was already sitting there, his legs crossed over the knee, a newspaper in his hand, and his spectacles perched on his nose. At her entrance, he rose and smiled at her. “You are looking in good heart today, Viola. You did not linger when we arrived, so I could not greet you. You are well?”
She dropped a curtsey. “Yes, my lord, I’m in good health.”
“Unlike your poor father.”
“He is immensely gratified by your visit, sir.”
The marquess cleared his throat. “Yes, well, I could not leave him to handle matters. The message we received in London merely said he had suffered a fall from his horse and he’d taken to his bed. At first I thought him at death’s door. It was a relief to find he was not.”
His lordship was as tall as his sons and easily controlled his boisterous and numerous family members, although they would have daunted a lesser man. Dressed fashionably in a green coat and waistcoat, his garb was nonetheless appropriate for the country. “I appreciate you stepping in today,” he said affably. “Since your father is about as far from his last breath as I am, I plan to return to London on Thursday.” The day after tomorrow.
She tried not to allow her sigh of relief to disturb her too much. That meant Marcus would go too, and with matters between them, it was better so. “We were very pleased to see you, sir.”
“And we are working on a few matters. In a way, your father’s enforced rest will help. The books need checking before quarter day. I don’t know if I will be here for that. There are matters in town clamoring for my attention.” He motioned the chair opposite his. “Please take a seat. Do you wish for tea?”
“No, sir, I had sufficient before I left home.”
He nodded. “Very well.” Being a man of impeccable manners, he waited until she had sat and disposed her skirts before he retook his seat. He plucked his glasses off his nose and placed them on the table by his side.
The door opened. Marcus appeared. He wore riding-dress, but a lady leaned on each of his crooked arms and two gentlemen walked behind.
They were early. The Stewarts lived closest, barely five miles from the Haxby estate. The marquess and Viola rose and made their greetings. Viola rang the bell for tea and received a sharp look from Lady Stewart. Her husband, a baronet, made Viola well aware of her position in local society. When the marquess and his family were not in residence, they led local society.
Sir Henry Stewart had a certain solidity about him the marquess lacked, although the two men were equal in age. His wig sprinkled fresh powder on the shoulders of his velvet coat. The ladies also wore their hair powdered. While that was a valid choice, Viola disliked the fuss of having her hair done that way and frequently avoided it, as she had today. His lady was as thin as he was not, and Viola was hard put not to mouth their nicknames—Jack Spratt and his wife, only in reverse.
Fortunately, she refrained, but in the tedium of settling them and attending to the tea, she caught Marcus’s direct gaze. She flinched, an instinctive reaction she could not stop. Fortunately nobody saw the tell-tale twitch and her sharp intake of breath.
He was staring at her. Snared by him, she could not look away. She could not read what he was silently telling her, but at least he did not appear hostile. Still, her senses went on alert. In her imagination, she felt his lips on hers, his hands on her back. This time her shiver was not one of revulsion.
She hated herself. Why, especially after his unspeakable behavior to her, could she not resist his gaze and force herself to be indifferent in his presence?
A thought struck her. The marquess had said developments. Did that include Marcus? Did he know her darkest secret?
Surely not. Lord Strenshall had always told her he would inform her if he found it necessary to tell another person. Not even his wife knew, because she’d asked him not to tell anyone. He would not have betrayed her with Marcus, surely?
When the maids came in with tea and all the accoutrements—the china dishes, the deep saucers, plates of bread and butter and other delicacies—Viola busied herself helping them. She tried not to worry about Marcus and what he did or did not know. She handed around tea and offered tidbits on the delicate plates that were part of the Dresden set Lady Strenshall had received as a wedding present.
When she met the eyes of the younger lady, Miss Emma Stewart, the woman looked away immediately. Her attention skittered from Viola to Marcus who sat next to her on the sofa. Marcus’s lips thinned, but Miss continued with her artless chatter.
She had just cut Viola, treated her as a servant. Her brief word of thanks was no less than a servant deserved, and certainly no more. Did she resent Viola, or more likely, viewed her of little importance?
Viola’s ire rose, but that smile she’d fixed on her face remained firmly in place, if a little harder at the edges. When she would have returned to her seat, she discovered her ladyship had taken her place next to the marquess. She glanced at Lord Strenshall, who raised a brow but said nothing.
Viola found somewhere else, a seat near a young sprig and Sir Henry’s heir, Mr. Jeremy Stewart—a likely youth, just returned from Oxford, only a few years younger than Viola. With none of the attitude of his sister, he engaged her in chatter about the city of Oxford. She found his talk restful, even though his boyish enthusiasm, when he swept his arm wide to express a point, nearly cost Lord Strenshall one of his precious tea dishes.
This being an informal visit, they could stay longer than the prescribed half hour. Soon Lord Strenshall bore Sir Henry off to his study to discuss business matters. That included a land dispute they hoped to settle without the help of the courts.
When Marcus suggested a visit to the gardens at the back of the house, the others agreed.
“It is too lovely to be cooped up indoors,” Viola said. She received a response from Lady Stewart that she would have said was less than friendly.
“Indeed, Miss Gates, you are often abroad, are you not? It is surprising you are not brown as a nut from your outdoor excursions.”
True, she spent much time outdoors at this time of year, but Viola always took care to wear her gloves and hat. At least, when people were watching. “It would be wrong to suggest that I don’t care what color my complexion is, would it not?” she said sweetly. “So I won’t.”
A snort told her that Mr. Stewart had caught her remark. “I’ve never noticed your complexion any other but clear and healthy,” he said. “But I’m afraid I rarely look further than a lady’s address and figure.”
That was nicely said. Marcus remained silent, but she felt his temper as if it were her own.
After a necessary respite while they donned outer gear, they met again on the south terrace. The gardens sloped before them, and by mutual consent, they headed for the rose garden. “It is at its best,” Viola said. “Lady Strenshall was considering sending for a yellow rose.”
“I did not think there was such a thing,” Lady Stewart said. “Is it not a legend? The fabled yellow rose?”
“I have seen them,” Marcus said, “in London. But it is true. They are passing rare.” He glanced at Viola, who was tying her hat ribbon. “Precious.”
“I have never seen one,” she said briskly. “But I have never seen a giraffe either, although I know they exist.”
“I shall ensure you see one,” Marcus told her.
What was he doing? He had said he never wanted to see her again. She could not believe his cordiality was due to anything other than common politeness. As soon as the guests had left, he would probably disappear.
Miss Stewart pouted and put her gloved hand on Marcus’s sleeve. “Will you not show me the maze?”
Where they could get conveniently lost. Her mother shot her a warning glance. “I doubt the maze is ready to receive visitors.”
“The gardeners need to clip the hedges,” Marcus said smoothly. “Else the overgrown twigs would tear your charming gown to pieces.”
Miss Stewart indeed wore a fetching gown of pale pink silk with rosebuds embroidered in relief rioting around the hem—not entirely practical for outdoor walking, but undoubtedly becoming to her porcelain complexion. She must sleep with lemon juice on her face to achieve that effect.
Viola castigated herself for her acidity. Why should she care if Miss Stewart was intent on flirting? It was none of her business. She should be glad, because it took Marcus’s attention from her.
She walked behind them, her hand on Mr. Stewart’s arm, conversing comfortably on the subject of roses. “My father loves the blooms. Our small garden has a number of bushes.”
“You live on the estate, do you not?”
“Yes,” she said, for they did not advertise the presence of the Scarborough house. Her father regarded it as a retreat and a safeguard against his old age. If the marquess should take against him, they would not find themselves sleeping in a ditch, he said. “The house is charming, perfect for my father and me.”
Miss Stewart’s voice floated back to them, her piercingly crisp accent sending sparks flying. “I should hate to live as someone’s pensioner. However, I can understand people who do. It must be so convenient, living on the estate. Mr. Gates has hardly any distance to go to work.”
“Since he has the managing of all his lordship’s estates,” Viola replied, doing her best to keep her tone level and reasonable, “he sometimes has to travel a great deal. His lordship has extensive holdings.”
Miss Stewart turned her lovely face up to Marcus. “Have you seen them all?”
“I believe so. The larger ones, certainly, and most of the smaller holdings. There is a small estate in Devonshire I’m particularly fond of.”
“Oh, but there’s nowhere as lovely as Yorkshire!” Miss Stewart exclaimed.
Marcus flashed a grin. “Spoken like a true Yorkshirewoman.”
The gravel path was doing no favors to Miss Stewart’s skirt. Her maid would curse when she saw the increasingly ragged hem and the rosebuds that had picked up tiny stones. Not that Miss Stewart appeared to notice. A lady did not deign to pay attention to such trivial matters. Viola couldn’t help thinking of the poor seamstress who’d worked through night and day to produce the pretty effect.
They turned off on to a harder packed gravel path to stroll between the roses. Lady Stewart, leading them, paused to sniff a pink rose. She made a charming picture, the cream color of her gown setting off the velvety petals. Her fingers cupped the bloom gracefully. She stood and cast a smiling glance at her daughter, and Viola realized the mother had just demonstrated a lesson to her daughter. The older lady’s gaze passed on to Viola and hardened a fraction, although Viola retained her smiling mien. Her jaw was beginning to ache.
The scent of the roses wove around her, soothing her. She had always enjoyed their perfume. The warm day, the roses, and the lush grass all worked their magic on her. A dreamy sense of wellbeing filled her as they slowly strolled around the lovely garden. She strove to keep their little garden pretty and neat, but it did not have the magic that this one always evoked in her. She loved to sit on the bench against the old stone wall at the side of the house with a book. A house cat would often join her and wash itself before stretching out to bask. She’d do that tomorrow, when Marcus and his father had gone. That would give her something to look forward to.
Not that the prospect of him leaving filled her with anything but resignation. He would return in a month, in any case, with a houseful of guests for the shooting season. She would see him then, unless she could devise an absence. She was not without friends. Perhaps she could go to Harrogate and do a little shopping or visit her aunt Charlotte in York. That would keep her out of his way.
After what she was now categorizing as The Kiss, she could not look at Marcus without recalling how she felt in his arms. He’d controlled their embrace so well without overwhelming her. She badly wanted to try it again, but she would not. As he’d said, they’d had an aberration and nearly lost what friendship they still had.
Rather than watch him with society ladies and his friends, she’d take herself off.
Mr. Stewart held her arm rather firmly. When she made to follow the others along another path, he led her in the opposite direction. No harm in that, so long as they kept the others in sight. “Miss Gates, I am so glad to see you again,” he said as they walked. “I trust I may bespeak a dance with you at the next assembly.”
“If I attend, I would be delighted, thank you.” Assemblies were held once a month in York and in Scarborough. The assembly rooms in York were housed in a particularly fine building. That was her excuse. She could visit her aunt and attend an assembly. “I was thinking of going in August.”
“During the house party?” He sounded scandalized, his voice rising in tone and pitch.
“It has little to do with me. I am only hostess here today because nobody else may serve.”
“But you are a relative of his lordship?”
She waved her hand. “Only distantly. The connection is hardly worth mentioning.”
“I don’t believe that.” He was holding her very firmly now and rather alarmingly leading her toward the maze. Ostensibly built to afford people a chance to exercise without going too far from the house, it had become a trysting place for the younger members of any gathering here. It had formed the backdrop to not a few downfalls of young maids. Lady Strenshall had more than once demanded it razed to the ground. Perhaps that was behind her desire to remodel the gardens. The work would give her a chance to rid herself of the hated maze.
Hedges rose higher than her head, the box-trees so dense she could not see through them. Too private. But Mr. Stewart was a boy, barely capable of overcoming her.
Once inside and a few paths in, he turned and backed her against a hedge. Her spirits sank. She had no mind to upset his lordship’s guests. But if she had to, she knew how to bring her knee up and depress a few pretensions.
“You should not allow my sister to speak to you in that way,” he said.
She liked him for that. “She is a guest, and young besides.”
“So are you, but you never traduce anyone.”
She smiled. “Not within their hearing, at any rate.”
His smile broadened. He was a good-looking man. In a few years he’d be a heartbreaker. “So we’re to dance. What if I want more?”
“You will have to want.” Her heart beat faster. He was becoming too bold. If he tried to kiss her, how would she deter him without offending him? “Sir, we should be seeking your mother.”
“We will, in a moment. You know my sister means to have the earl?”
Viola tried not to laugh. “Why does she think she will succeed when so many have failed? The whole of eligible London seeks his hand.”
“She means to trap him before that time.”
She would not tell him Marcus was leaving the next day. Otherwise he might tell his sister, and then she might do something foolish, like try to entrap him. Marcus would be adept at avoiding his fate.
That made their kiss even more inexplicable. Why would he kiss her alone in a room where they could be interrupted at any minute? What had pushed him to take that step? Not hard for her, because she had wanted to kiss him for a long time. But him? She doubted he thought of her from one end of the year to the next. Not half as much as she thought of him.
If she hadn’t had on her full armor of gown, stays, and petticoat, the hedge would be pricking her back. Mr. Stewart was pressing too hard. “We should really return.” Ah, now she understood what was going on. “You’re helping your sister now, are you not?”
His smile turned wry. “I’m afraid so. She bribed me with five guineas and time alone with you. You’re worth more than the guineas.”
“I should hope so.” If she tried to leave, she’d have to get past his body. He really had grown since she’d seen him last. Should she risk getting close to a man twice in two days? This time with none of the eagerness she’d experienced with Marcus.
As if she’d summoned him, his voice drifted over the hedge. “Miss Gates?”
“Here!” she called out before Mr. Stewart could prevent her. “We are trapped in the maze!” It seemed like the most expedient explanation, although she knew the place better than she knew her own bedroom. Oh, no, why did she have to think of bedrooms?
“If you follow my voice, you will find your way out. It’s really not difficult.” He continued to talk, probably because that assured them that he was doing nothing he should not. And so that Miss Stewart could not claim anything of the kind.
Within five minutes, including a detour she took for appearance’s sake, she’d left the maze. Miss Stewart had her hand on Marcus’s arm, but he appeared unharmed, positively cheerful.
Miss Stewart glared at her. “You are quite disheveled, Miss Gates.”
Viola plucked a twig from her hair. “So I am. When we return to the house you must excuse me while I right my appearance.” And change into a gown more suited to dinner, although she would not say that. She stuck her chin in the air and walked past them. “Thank you for rescuing me, my lord.”
“Think nothing of it,” he said, humor coloring his voice.
He must know she needed no rescuing from the maze. She had rescued him just as much.Chapter 4
The other dinner guests had arrived by the time they returned to the house. Excusing herself, Viola raced upstairs and into the red bedroom, the one she usually used when she visited here. Once the room had been a grand showplace. Now the lovely silk on the walls hung in shreds, the floor was bare, and the paintings had gone from the wall. It was even emptier than usual, only the bed remaining. The marquess must have decided to deal with the room at last. Viola would have to find another room to use in future.
Tranmere had brought up her bag. Viola wasted no time shrugging out of her red gown and shaking out the yellow silk she used for dinners. A modest gown worn over a small hoop, it was nevertheless a reliable one, its cheerful color making up for its deficiencies in other departments.
Hastily she pinned the lace ruffles to her sleeves and shook her petticoat. She was about to push her arms through the sleeves of the gown when a tap came on the door. “Come in!” A maid would be useful. She could help pin the gown to her stays.
But it wasn’t a maid.
Viola shrieked, then clapped her hand over her mouth.
“Maidenly modesty?” Marcus said, strolling into the room. “I never would have thought that of you, Viola.”
“You’re doing it again!” She clutched the gown to her chest.
“If they caught us, you’d be compromised. I’m a lady, you know. Kind of.”
He smiled. “Kind of?” He advanced on her. “Ladies don’t compromise gentlemen.”
“And gentlemen don’t compromise ladies!” She was still angry with him for his behavior in the music room. “What are you doing here?”
He lost the smile. “I came to apologize.”
“What for?” Not that he didn’t owe her an apology, but she wanted specifics.
“For kissing me?”
He shook his head and a trace of the smile returned. “Not that. I can’t regret that. But for what happened afterward. I should never have accused you of something that was my fault. I should not have come near you.”
He spread his arms wide. He was in his shirtsleeves, and the pose gave her a view of the powerful muscles. That shade of intimacy sent a small shiver through her.
She gripped the yellow silk. She wouldn’t admit she’d enjoyed it too. “You made me feel cheap. As if I were yours for the taking.”
“Aren’t you?” He clapped his hand to his forehead. “No, I didn’t mean that, I swear it. I do apologize for everything. For the kiss if you need me to. Could we go back to the way we were before?”
No.“Barely knowing each other?”
He shook his head once more. “I want to be your friend, Viola. In truth—no, I can’t say anything on that score. But what I said afterwards?” He placed his hand on his heart and bowed. “Please forgive me.”
Of course she forgave him, although she wasn’t quite ready to say so. “Why did you say it?”
He regarded her solemnly, dropped his chin, and sighed. “Because I was angry with myself. I want to remain your friend, Viola. You’re a woman alone in the world except for your father, and you may need my help in the future. I want to be in a position to give it.”
“My father is an extremely healthy man.” Marcus was right, though. “He will live for years yet. By then I could be a matron with children of my own. Plump and content,” she added because she wanted to see his reaction.
He didn’t disappoint her. “You will continue to be lovely no matter what you do.”
She let a smile curve her lips. “And I heard you were not a lady’s man.”
“I’m not, but I am a truthful man.”
His words unnerved her. She could not afford to believe him. He was not for her, and such talk would only lead her down paths she should not even think about, much less dream about.
But those eyes, gazing into hers fearlessly, and his soft hair, worse since she had felt it for herself, were enough to push her mind to places she had never explored. The thought of touching those arms, sliding her hands over them, and more—was his chest as strong? Under the elaborate waistcoat did he have muscles to rival the ones on his arms?
Likely she’d never know.
She released her grip on her gown. She was perfectly well covered, after all.
As casually as she dared, she slipped one arm into the sleeve and dragged it up. “I need to finish dressing.”
“I like what you have on now.” He sounded half-strangled, as if he had something stuck in his throat. That was not true, but then she realized her action had pushed her breasts up in her stays. She was still decent, but barely. The stays fit her well; she’d had several new pairs made last year. The shoulder straps prevented them slipping, but her décolleté was extreme.
“Thank you. Marcus, you should not be here.” Thus she broke her resolve to call him by his title. He should be “Malton” or “sir,” but she found it so easy to call him by his given name.
“I know. I’ll leave in a minute.” He glanced around. “You can’t be comfortable here.”
“No.” She followed his gaze and pushed her other arm through its corresponding sleeve. “It used to be better, but Mrs. Lancaster must have stripped it ready for its refurbishment.”
“Ah, I see.” His attention went to the big old-fashioned four-poster bed. “We’ll find you somewhere better to use.”
“This serves.” She glanced to where she was used to seeing the dressing table. Of course it was gone, and the mirror that lived on top of it. “Ah.” She would have to dress by guesswork. “The mirror’s gone.”
“You could use my room.”
Her incredulous laugh rang around the bare walls. “You are joking, aren’t you? Of course I cannot! But I would appreciate the use of a bedroom for a few moments so I can put my hair to rights. Just wait while I fasten the front.”
She set to fastening the gown, hooking it together. Fastening the decorative ribbons over the top proved more difficult. She was used to accomplishing that task with the help of a mirror. She sighed. “Well, at least I’m decent.”
“More than decent.” He cleared his throat. “Do you have everything? Let’s find another room you can use.”
She cast a wistful glance back at the room. She liked it; it was at the end of the corridor with easy access to the side stairs. Convenient, when she’d helped with dirty work like cleaning the attics and she wanted to make herself clean for the walk home. However, she could not use it when it was so bare. He picked up the bag with her day clothes in it and held out his arm. “Let’s hope nobody sees me in this state.” Her hair was loose and tousled, and her bows done up any old how. She could not appear at dinner like this.
Unfortunately, as they strolled along the corridor, a door opened and Miss Stewart popped out as if she’d been in waiting for them. She glanced at them and blinked. “Why, my lord!”
“Indeed,” Marcus said, at his most urbane. “Good evening, Miss Stewart.”
She curtseyed. She must have brought a change of clothes too, as she wore a delightful white silk gown sprinkled with embroidered forget-me-nots. Her elbows sported double ruffles of finest Nottingham lace. Her hair was dressed up, a couple of curls left to tease and tickle the bare skin of her shoulder. “Shall we be seeing you downstairs, Miss Gates?” Her voice was frozen.
Emboldened by the man next to her, Viola smiled and agreed. “Indeed. I merely have to find a mirror.”
Miss Stewart did not offer the one in her room. If she had any sense, she would have, and then she would have had Marcus to herself for a while.
With a nod to Miss Stewart, Marcus led Viola on.
Viola could have died of shame. But Marcus showed no reaction as he led her into a room at the end. This was furnished in a much more modern style, with little Chinese people going about their duties all over the walls.
The Chinese Room with its precious wallpaper was one of the best guest rooms in the house. “Oh, but I can’t!”
Marcus raised a brow. “I fail to see why not. Feel free to enjoy it, Viola.”
At least one of them appeared to have recovered his sang-froid. He released her and bowed. “I’ll go and make myself decent. If I appear at dinner in my shirt sleeves, my father will have my blood.”
Alone in the lovely room, Viola allowed herself a skip of glee. The mirror sat on top of a draped dressing table, its three leaves artfully angled to allow her to view herself from most angles. Retrieving her packet of pins, she secured her bodice and then put her bows in order. Now she had a mirror, she took but a few moments to brush out her hair. She twisted it and secured it into a bun at the back of her head. Once accomplished, she tilted her head on one side and studied herself.
She’d never make a London beauty, but she’d do. She touched the place where she could, if she wished, pull out strands of hair to make curls, as Miss Stewart had done. No, as Miss Stewart’s maid had done.
Viola did not have a maid to adjust the lacings under the skirts of the gown that made for a perfect fit. But the gown would not disgrace her.
After popping her brush and the remainder of the hairpins in her bag, she made her way downstairs to the drawing room.
Dinner was unexceptional. The marquess had invited the prominent local gentry, most of whom Viola knew. They accepted her presence unquestioningly, but few treated her as an equal. More as one might treat a companion or a poor relative. The subtle distinction was not lost on Viola. These people might talk with her, the men dance with her at the local assemblies, but here she was most certainly the hired help.
But she refused to behave like one, to retreat and behave deferentially to everyone. Graciously she offered food. She sent the buttered potatoes, almost marble-small and tender, to the marquess at the other end of the table because he liked them.
He shot her a grateful smile and a nod. She watched the hake in parsley sauce go unused next to Miss Stewart and had the dish exchanged with the apple pie at the other end of the table. She discussed politics with the gentlemen—gently, the subjects of local interest rather than national—and listened to the Stewart ladies discuss the latest fashion.
She learned something she had not been aware of before. Miss Stewart, in a bid to attract Marcus’s attention said, louder than she needed to, “Although we spell our name differently, we are related to the royal house of Scotland.”
Silence fell, but only briefly. “We must assume not the disgraced branch,” Viola said.
“Of course not.” Miss Stewart picked up her fan and snapped it open, fanning herself so vigorously the candle nearest to her was nearly blown out. “But our own dear King George is himself a relative, is he not? The Stuarts once had a benign influence. Before the Catholics gained the upper hand with them.”
Ah, yes, the Catholics. Blamed for everything in certain quarters, especially with good county Tories. Because of her peculiar and distinctive background, Viola had always sought more than simply blaming someone else for her troubles. She wanted to know reasons, not excuses.
This time she understood because she’d read widely on the subject. “The Young Pretender converted to Protestantism a few years ago,” she said. “Nobody cared.”
“It’s too late for him,” Mr. Quick, a local magistrate, said. He held up his glass of wine, the red liquid wavering in the candlelight. “And since he has only a bastard daughter and his brother is a man of the cloth, we may see the end of that branch of the family soon. Certainly they are finished as monarchs.”
He turned his attention to Miss Stewart and her mother and raised his glass to them in a silent toast. “However, the legends are romantic, if inaccurate. The Stuarts have a long and distinguished history far beyond the current generation and the one before.”
“We all have our black sheep,” Lord Strenshall said. “Even the Emperors of London have their wicked side.”
Thus he deftly moved the conversation on when it appeared to become mired in controversy. His own family—or rather, his wife’s family—was known as the Emperors.
Viola toyed with the food on her plate. She had not eaten much of the delicious offerings, but her appetite had fled long before she sat at table. “Lord Malton is Marcus Aurelius,” she reminded them.
Marcus groaned and clasped his forehead. “Don’t remind me.”
“It could be worse,” she continued. “Your cousins Nicephorus and Antoninus have interesting names.”
Mrs. Stewart tilted her head on one side. “I did not know your family was blessed with such unusual names.”
In an age when men were often known even to their wives by their surname or their title, the remark would not raise brows. Except the Emperors were famous, if not notorious, and the gossip sheets loved to spread news about them, however scurrilous or defamatory. The worst of the papers rarely paused to check such trivialities as facts.
“My siblings are Valentinian, Darius, Drusilla, Claudia, and Livia,” Marcus said, twirling his empty glass, watching the facets flash. “I have cousins called Julius Caesar and Poppea. Surely you knew this?”
“I did not think the matter was relevant,” Mrs. Stewart said. Her jowls shook when she moved her head. “Why a gentleman is given as his first name is hardly apropos. But now you mention the names, taken together I understand the way you are referred to by the Grub Street press. My education did not include the ancients of Greece.”
“Rome.” Viola mouthed the word but did not say it. That would have been rude, but the correction lay there. She couldn’t have been the only person here tonight to think it.
Glancing up, she caught Marcus’s gaze. He was not smiling, but the tiny lines at the corners of his eyes revealed his amusement.
He picked up his wine glass and tilted it toward her, the toast for her eyes alone. “My namesake was a great Roman emperor and a renowned general. I have no intention of following his example. He was also a philosopher, something I bear in mind in my less…philosophical moments.” The slight pause gave his words a wicked innuendo.
Her face heating, Viola glanced down at her empty plate. No conversation was safe with Marcus. Why did other people not see that? It appeared only she had noticed the warmth in his eyes.
Candlelight added warmth to features, of course, but it was more than that. It was as if his blue eyes were lit inside with a tiny flame of their own.
She got to her feet. “Ladies, shall we leave the gentlemen to their port?”
Although the ladies had finished eating, some demonstrated a reluctance to leave the men. Viola wanted to get away, to compose herself for the next part of the evening. Although the clock chimed seven as they went into the drawing room, it felt like much later. It wasn’t even fully dark yet. “Daringly late for a dinner,” a lady remarked.
“They eat at this time and much later in town,” Mrs. Stewart said airily, as if fully conversant with the ways of London. She had probably never been there in her life. Neither had Viola, come to that, but she never pretended she had.
They were using the Blue Drawing Room as it had windows that opened on to the garden. The scent of roses and honeysuckle drifted through the air. The maids had been in to light the candles. They sent a warm glow over the blue-upholstered sofas and chairs set in an informal arrangement.
“Are we not to go into the state drawing room?” one lady asked. Viola was in danger of causing insult, so she gave the answer she’d heard the marchioness use once or twice before.
“This is a private family room. His lordship thought you would enjoy the intimate atmosphere more,” she said and received a gratified smile and gentle agreement.
Mrs. Stewart took control as much as she could. When the maids brought in the tea-trays, she organized them on the tables and took charge of one, while Viola took the other. Soon every lady was furnished with a dish of tea or a sweet cordial. Viola took a small glass of the elderberry wine.
“Darling Emma, sing that new piece for us,” Mrs. Stewart said. The harpsichord in here was not as fine as one in the music room. However it had been tuned at the same time, and it sounded just as good.
Her daughter stood and went to the harpsichord, where her sheet music lay ready.Quelle surprise, Viola thought.
“I would rather concentrate on singing the piece,” Miss Stewart said, leafing through the pages. “Is there nobody who will play for me?” She glared at Viola. Hardly a gentle hint.
Taking her glass with her, Viola stood and went to the harpsichord, taking a moment to go through the pages. “Would you prefer to start with something more traditional?” That was a kindness, because the piece Emma Stewart handed to her was fiendishly tricky to sing. Viola sang indifferently, and she would never have attempted this piece. Perhaps Emma had been taking lessons.
After Emma decided on a sweet popular ditty, Viola played the introduction and Emma began to sing. She had a pretty voice, better than Viola’s for sure, but not opera standard. But Viola had to give her credit for singing the song about a soldier leaving his lass at home with feeling and intonation.
When the gentlemen came in, Emma did not stop. She bowed her head at the patter of applause and nodded to Viola, just as if Viola was hired for the evening. “The new piece, please.”
Viola did not argue, but began to play. She had to concentrate on the unfamiliar air. That meant she didn’t notice anyone standing behind her until an arm clad in figured green velvet reached over and turned the page for her. Even if she had not been aware what Marcus was wearing, she’d have recognized him from his distinctive male aroma. Spicy and slightly peppery—that was Marcus.
The ruffles at the end of his sleeve brushed the bare skin of her neck as he withdrew. Viola suppressed a shiver of response. As always, her senses went on alert, although she tried to conquer her reaction to him. Every time he had that effect on her she swore he would not again. But here she was, responding as if he’d taught her body to do so.
Determinedly she turned her mind to the music.
Emma began to sing. She’d given Viola the music, so she must have been working on this piece for some time. It was Italian, an aria from one of the newest operas. At first Emma made a fair attempt. She hit all the notes and even managed a trill or two. However in doing so, she lost the meaning of the piece. That was a shame, since the song was a lament that the lady was waiting for her lover, the one man she could never openly give her heart to.
As the song wound its way along, Emma lost her way. She missed more notes and forgot the trills. She was obviously finding it hard work. She should have kept to ditties.
And all the time Marcus stood behind Viola, turning the pages.
Relief filled Viola when they reached the end.
While he leaned over to gather the sheets together, Marcus murmured to Viola, “How on earth did you allow yourself to be maneuvered into this?”
Lady Stewart had taken charge. She was dispensing tea and leading the conversation as if born to it.
“I gave up the fight,” Viola confessed.
Marcus straightened but remained by Viola’s side. “Why don’t you give us the piece you were playing the other day?” he said mildly, when the applause was done and compliments given. “You remember, the one you used to test the other keyboard.”
What was he doing? She glared at him. “It’s just a local song.” She began one of the innocent airs, but he interrupted her by touching her hand. Immediately she stopped.
“Not that one. The one you played last.”
The scurrilous one. Could she remember the words for the sweet version? No, damn him, she could not. Only the other rang through her head, mocking her.
Stepping over the bench, he joined her, sitting by her said. “Perhaps just the tune,” he said softly. His eyes gleamed, but with wickedness.
She wanted to hit him, but all she could do was glare.
They played the two-hander. Over the tinkle of the notes, talk swelled and then faded. Someone laughed. At her, no doubt. She kept her head down as she finished the piece. Despite the smatter of applause, she felt tainted, as if caught out playing a trick.
“Goodness, that was clever,” Lady Stewart said. “My lord, I did not know you played.”
“Everybody plays,” he drawled. He turned toward the lady, allowing Viola a moment to recall herself. “Do you not?”
“No,” her ladyship said shortly. “I do not. I take it Miss Gates learned with you?”
“We learned together,” he said, “But my sisters spent more time in the music room. I believe at one time they formed a quartet, but after my mother begged them to stop, they went their separate ways.”
The marquess laughed. “Oh, yes. Each played their own version of the piece. Only Viola ever kept in time.”
“And Drusilla,” Marcus said quietly.
Dru had been a solitary child. Sandwiched between two sets of twins in birth order, she had spent much time alone. Viola recognized something of her own situation, except that Dru was alone in the middle of her family, and Viola was an only child. However the two girls had not gravitated together. For some reason their fathers worked to keep them apart, even when they were small.
Viola sometimes wondered if the cool and collected Dru had ever found someone as a particular trusted friend. Viola had her father to keep her company.
Tonight Dru’s brother was tormenting Viola, sitting next to her much closer than a gentleman should, but the cramped stool they shared necessitated that. He must know that, surely. Would he tease her so if he knew what he was doing to her? Probably not, and he must never know. She would die if he discovered how deep her feelings went for him. He’d marry a grand lady and become a marquess in the fullness of time. His wife would give him a quiverful of children for the title and estate, and they would most likely remain content.
She would be happy for him; she truly would. Heartbreak did not last forever.
Marcus got to his feet and held his hand to help her up. “Yellow suits you,” he said softly. “I like this gown. Will you wear it again for me?”
She swallowed and smiled. “Of course. You’ll see it again without a doubt. I only bought it this year, so it has to last me for a while.”
“It is extremely becoming,” Lady Stewart said, seemingly heedless of joining in a private conversation. She must have ears like a bat. “A little simple for my taste, but if you need it to last a few years, it is best to keep the style simple.” She made the decision sound like a sin. She shook back her triple ruffles. “Come and take some tea, my dear. You must be parched.”
“I find singing fills me with inspiration,” Emma said. “I shall take out my sketchbook tomorrow.”
Only Viola was close enough to hear Marcus’s soft groan. No sign of his unspoken comment appeared on his face, a skill she would dearly love to emulate. He made her smile. Far too much, if truth be told.
The party did not decide to call for carriages until nine o’clock. All that time Lady Stewart had animadverted on her daughter’s skills and their plans for the year.
It took until ten before they all left.
In the now quiet drawing room, the marquess turned to Viola. “I must thank you for this evening,” he said. “You showed a great deal of fortitude. Lady Stewart can be a little wearing. When she began on the family tree of the Scottish Stuarts, I thought she would be here all night.”
Viola dropped a small curtsey. “It was my pleasure, my lord.”
“I doubt that.” But he raised her and kissed her cheek. “I will leave first thing in the morning, probably before you are awake. You will stay here tonight?”
She had not expected that. “Oh, but it’s not far. Only half a mile. It’s a fine summer evening.”
“And full dark,” the marquess said. “I insist. Do you need a maid to help you?”
When he spoke in that tone she knew better than to argue with him. And, she realized with a flip of pleasure, they had put her in the Chinese room. They could not mean her to use that. “I can manage perfectly well, my lord. Should I find a room?”
“I took her to the Chinese room,” Marcus said. “She should be comfortable there.”
His lordship smiled and nodded. “Yes, indeed. Since I intend to leave at dawn, I’ll bid you goodnight.” He bowed over her hand. Enchanted, Viola loved it, even the wink he bestowed on her when he straightened.
She could smile back, none of the reticence she felt when the Stewarts patronized her tainting her mood. “If you will excuse me, then, I’ll make my way upstairs.”
“Of course. Feel free to ring for whatever you need.”
As if she would. But with another word of thanks, she lifted her skirts to run upstairs.
His lordship said to Marcus, “A word with you before you retire.”
So they were leaving in the morning. Gloom settled on her. They would go back to London, and she would return to her father and spend her days caring for him and his house, as she always wanted to. Why should she not be happy with the prospect?
In the room, she lit the candles in the sconces and pirouetted in front of the mirrors. The light played over the gleaming folds of her skirt. But her enjoyment had faded with the prospect of losing her friend so quickly. Yes, her friend. It was all Marcus could ever be and she should feel glad. He might write this time, now he had the opportunity. She’d like that.
Reluctantly she took off her clothes, plucked her day gown from the bag, and laid it out for the morning. The yellow silk she folded carefully and put away. Perhaps she’d attend the assembly next month in York and give it another airing. If the Stewarts deigned to attend, no doubt they would remark on the reappearance.
Hot water sat in a can by the door. She washed with the finely milled white soap on the dish and finished undressing.
She had no night-rail with her, so she climbed into bed in her shift. The sheets were fresh and the room smelled of lavender from the sprigs used to preserve the linen. What would it be like to live this way? To have the best all the time?
She’d be bored in a month.
Determined to enjoy her night of luxury, she snuggled down and laid her head on the pillow.Chapter 5
Viola opened her eyes to the sound of carriage wheels bowling along the drive. Dawn filtered through the windows, but she was awake. She would not sleep any more tonight. Today.
Turning her head, she could just make out the little clock on the mantel, but she could not read the time. She didn’t really need it. With the light at this level, it must be around six. Time to get up.
She could get some food in the kitchens here, but Mrs. Lancaster would tut at the disruption. The housekeeper’s formidable counterpart in the kitchens would most likely do the same. They’d be serving breakfast at her house, so she’d get up and work up a fine appetite on the walk over.
Besides, with Marcus gone, she wanted to get back to her real life as soon as possible.
Her decision gave her the impetus to swing her legs out of bed, wash in fresh water—cold now—and dress. It did not take her long. The only sign of her presence was the not-quite-straight cover on the bed and a few hairs in the brush on the dressing table.
Time to go back to normal. Her deflated spirits would revive in no time.
Downstairs, she was surprised to find Tranmere standing in the hall, in full livery. They usually had them in storage when the family were not in residence.
“So his lordship left in good order?”
“Yes, Miss Gates, he did.”
“Back to normal then,” she said, swinging her bag as she left the house.
She could probably walk back to her house blindfolded, but she decided to enjoy the day. Until a voice hailed her. “Viola!”
Spinning around, she nearly stumbled when her skirts tangled around her legs. “Marcus?”
He was close enough to speed up and catch her, but he put her on her feet as soon as her skirts settled. “You’re up early. I was looking forward to sharing breakfast with you.”
“I thought you left with your father.” She blinked, not sure he was really there. She’d set her mind to her normal life, and seeing him again had thrown her senses. When he’d steadied her, the brief touch of his hands had sent her senses spinning.
“I decided to stay behind. The Stewarts cannot visit me when I’m alone in the house, can they?”
“I thought you quite taken by Emma.”
He laughed. “No, you did not. You knew what a bore she was. Oh, she’s pretty, and she’ll do well, but I desire more than looks in a wife. And that mother of hers… I have no wish to saddle myself with such a creature.”
“You should not speak so of her. She means well.”
“No, she does not. At least she doesn’t where it concerns you.” His voice lowered. “I need to speak with your father. My father gave me some information last night that I’m eager to discuss with him. Do you mind if I walk along with you?”
She glanced down at him. He was dressed for riding. “Will those boots take to walking?”
“Yes, of course. What, you thought I was the kind of coxcomb who had boots for different occasions? Sometimes when I ride I like to get off my horse and stroll apace. How could I do that with boots I could not walk in?”
He fell in by her side, although thankfully he did not offer her his arm. But he did take her bag. She knew better than to argue.
They enjoyed their walk, chatting about the countryside and the estate and their neighbors. Nothing of consequence. But oh, she’d miss him, if only as a friend. At one point she said, “Shall I write to you?” Then unaccustomed shyness seized her. “No, no, I should not.”
“I would like that, but I will return next month.”
“With a houseful of guests.” Who would keep him busy.
“Indeed, but I will make some time for you.”
“You don’t have to.” Looking anywhere but at him, she lengthened her stride.
* * * *
Since Viola was pointedly avoiding his gaze, Marcus had an opportunity to study her. Now his father had let him into her secret, he could see the resemblance to the disgraced royal family plainly.
According to the marquess, Viola spent little time worrying about it, instead preferring to believe it was a falsehood. Indeed, everyone had believed it a falsehood until recently. Yet another political lie put out by the enemies of the King to try to dislodge him from his throne.
Slightly taller than the average female, Viola was built on slender lines, which also fit with his information. Her black hair was darker than others he’d seen, but his cousin Tony’s wife resembled her more than somewhat.
How would Viola feel when he told her the legend was real? Once he had confirmed the details from her father and acquired his permission, he had every intention of telling her. She should know; she had every right.
But for this brief twenty minutes they had peace and companionship. He longed to make it half an hour and stop to kiss her, but he had no idea how she would take it. Their kiss should never have happened, but now it had, he wanted more.
He could not make her his mistress. Would she even consider the position of wife? She was uncomfortable in society, not herself. He would not be the leash around her neck, holding her back when she wanted to run free.
His parents would be bitterly disappointed if he threw himself away on the estate manager’s daughter. Society wouldn’t approve, either, and that could prove tricky.
With regret, he discarded the passing thought.
He’d read a poem that reminded him of Viola recently. Ah, yes. He recited it aloud.
“Noli me tangere, for Caesar’s I am
And wild for to hold, though I seem tame.”
She stopped, turned and faced him. “That’s pretty. Who wrote it?”
“Thomas Wyatt. He wrote it for Anne Boleyn.” He should have remembered before he quoted the poem. That affair did not have a happy ending.
But she smiled. “It’s pretty.”
“So are you.” The words emerged before he could put a cap on them. But it was true. She was pretty. Very much so, her lively personality showing through when she danced, or smiled when she thought nobody was by. Or with a tranquil expression lost in reading unfamiliar music.
He was not sorry he’d spoken. But he could not allow any more. They were on their own, and she was vulnerable. So was he, the way his mind was going this morning.
“I’m returning to London soon,” he said, as much to remind himself as her.
“Yes.” Her face lost a little of its animation, her eyes slightly duller.
That made him happy, although it shouldn’t have. It meant she would miss him when he was gone. He was a selfish bastard for thinking that way, but his spirits, unlike hers, lifted. He would see her again in August, and despite what she obviously believed, he would ensure he had time for her.
Marcus no longer bothered denying he desired her, but the knowledge his father had imparted complicated matters. He would have to force patience on himself and bide his time. As she was right now, she was safe. As safe as anyone in her position could be.
Impotent fury filled him, as it had last night when he demanded to know why the marquess had not told him before. “It’s getting obvious that we are racing to discover the children before the Dankworths. Viola knows nothing of this, or of our struggle. How could you not tell her?”
“Her father knows,” his father had told him calmly. “He is keeping her safe.”
She should know, and today Marcus would ensure she did.
The news would distress her, that the father who had cared for her all her life was no blood relative.
Her father’s house came into view. Not far now, and then all hell would break loose. Marcus didn’t imagine for a moment Viola would accept her fate meekly and let the men take charge of her life. Oh, no, she was more likely to do something completely unexpected and shock everyone.
“You nearly made me laugh at the most inopportune moments last night,” she said abruptly.
“Why?” Shocked, he stopped walking once more. “I don’t make anyone laugh. What did I do?”
“You make me laugh. You looked at me just so, and when you suggested I play that tune for the guests, you very nearly overset me.”
She had noticed? “I shall have to guard myself closer. Everyone is convinced I’m a most staid, ordinary fellow. I am considered one of the safest prospects in London.”
“I have noticed that in you, of course.” She skipped over a molehill and back on to the path, her skirts swinging indecorously. Her plain stockings and stout shoes flashed into his view. “Not the safest prospect, I wouldn’t know that, but you think of yourself as ordinary. You are definitely not ordinary, Marcus. But people treat you with the greatest respect and the kindest consideration. They defer to you.”
He shoved his hands in his breeches’ pockets. “Yes, I know. It’s a bore, but if I tell them not to, they do it more. Or they become embarrassingly close. Overdoing it. I do have friends, of course, but most of them are in the same situation I am.”
She clucked her tongue. “Poor boy!”
So of course he laughed, and she joined in, which eased the situation considerably. Nobody made him laugh as much as Viola. Or sweat, like the time she’d taken the worst-behaved horse in the stables for a morning ride.
She’d explained to his father later that she didn’t realize she’d taken the gelding, mistaking him for another. He only half believed her. Viola had a restless streak, and every so often she had to release it or burst. Or that was how she’d explained it to him after the incident with the horse, one of the few times he’d sought her out. Killing herself was not the answer, he’d told her firmly before walking away.
He’d spent far too much time walking away from her. He would make an effort not to do so any longer. Time to face whatever waited for him here. To claim something for his own, in spite of his responsibilities. If their relationship deepened into friendship, he would enjoy it, but in his heart, he wanted more.
They had reached the gate. He swung it open and waited for her to go through. The land steward’s house was what his father had termed a “comfortable” size. “I’d have enjoyed living in a house like this.”
“What? How can you say that?” She paused in the act of finding her key for the front door. “We have four bedrooms and three servants, no more. How could it compare to what you have?”
“That’s the point.” He halted abruptly. “What was that?” Had that male shout come from inside the house? He laid a hand on her arm. “Go back. Go back now.”
A shot rang from inside the house, and someone yelled.
He didn’t even have his sword. “Where does your father keep his weapons?”
“In a locked case in the study.” Typical of her to keep her head. Thank God.
He pushed her behind him. “Stay out of sight.”
Two men rushed out of the side door and along the path, heading for the copse of trees nearest to the house. Marcus’s first instinct was to give chase, but if he did, he would leave her unprotected, and who knew how many men were inside? He had to let the ruffian go and hope someone remained in the house for him to beat senseless. Anything to assuage the fury seething through him.
“Papa!” she cried, and would have rushed inside, had he not seized her arm and held her back.
“Don’t do that. Wait for me.” They would go in through the side door. Likely he might find a weapon there.
No person stood inside. He spotted the sword, the one Gates always claimed his great-great-grandfather had wielded at the Battle of Marston Moor. Well, it would give him good service now. He wrenched the weapon from its scabbard.
“Keep close,” he told her. With those two men on the loose, he couldn’t risk her making a run for it. He would have to take care of her. He needed to keep his wits about him. Protect her with his life, if need be.
This house was a mile from the main gates and the wall, but anyone could bring a horse in if he knew the different entrances.
Sure enough, the sound of galloping hooves on turf met his ears. He firmed his mouth. The ruffian would not get far, if Marcus had anything to do with it.
Viola might have a wild streak, but it did not usually tend to the stupid, especially in such circumstances. She jerked her head toward the stairs, indicating the way they should go.
They crept up a stair at a time, listening for any response. The house was deadly silent. Where were the servants?
At the top, they heard a groan. She would have pushed past him, but he held her back and headed toward the source of the sound.
In the main parlor, her father lay on the rucked-up and torn carpet, holding his head. He struggled as they entered, revealing his tied hands. They had not bothered to tie his feet. The thick bandage around his ankle would have made the task too difficult. The room was smashed, the furniture tipped over, the ornaments, the lamp on the table, and a shelf of books overturned and broken.
Viola rushed forward and dropped to her knees by her father’s side.
Fear shaded his gray eyes. “You must go,” he said, his voice barely above a whisper. “Get out of here.”
“Is there someone else here?” she asked.
“How many people left?” He used a similar undertone when she spoke.
“Then they’ve gone.” He made to sit up and retched.
Immediately she supported his head. “They hurt you, Papa.” Her voice ached. “Was it thieves?”
Glass from the lamp crunched under Marcus’s feet as he went to the window. “How badly is he hurt?” He could see nothing outside. Everything appeared perfectly normal.
“I’ll recover. Help me to sit.” Before he could go to them, Viola had her hand behind his back and was easing him up.
Marcus hurried to his side and helped, keeping his arm firmly behind Gates’s back. “What happened? Can you tell us?” Already a bruise was forming on his temple.
“Not thieves. They wanted something particular.” He turned his head and met his daughter’s gaze. “They wanted you.”
* * * *
Viola listened to her father, dull shock reverberating through her. “What would they want with me?”
“You are a prize, my dear. A treasure. It is no longer safe for you here.” Her father stopped and closed his eyes. Had they broken his head? He opened his eyes once more. He gripped her arm. “Go to Scarborough.”
The house? What was he talking about? “I can’t leave you, Papa!”
“I heard them when they thought I was still unconscious. They were searching for the papers.”
Marcus spoke to good effect. “Are they still there?”
She glanced up at the fireplace and nodded.
Casting him a wondering look, she got to her feet and crossed to the fireplace. In a matter of seconds, she had opened the panel, pressed the hidden spring, and opened the inner hidden place. Groping inside, she found the papers and drew them out. Three pieces of paper, all a little the worse for wear.
She gave them to Marcus. He glanced at them, nodded, and shoved them in his pocket. “You will have to show me where to go.”
“You can’t come!” How could he even think it?
“Yes, I can. Either that or you come to London with me. And once we’re there, we will talk.” He shook his head. “Why did you not tell me before? Did my father tell you of recent developments?”
“Yes. You must tell her.” Her father had grasped the sleeve of Marcus’s dark brown riding coat, his hand curved into a claw. “Do not let her out of your sight.”
“I won’t. Who else knows?”
“Of the house? Very few people.”
“Wait here.” Marcus strode to the door and left the room while Viola found some water to bathe her father’s wound. She had cleaned it enough to satisfy herself he was not badly hurt when Marcus returned.
“They went through every room, but your bedroom is more or less intact. Let me carry you there.”
Ignoring the older man’s protests that he could get there himself, Marcus lifted him. He carefully carried him to his room, laying him on the bed still rumpled from the night before. A few items lay on the floor, but the ruffians had not had time to search too closely.
Although she was in control of herself, Viola’s heart beat faster and tears pricked her eyes, more from shock than anything else. She sat on the bed while Marcus paced the room. “Where are your servants?”
“Only two live in. Cook has gone to market and McGregor went to the house to help with the guests. I gave him permission to remain there overnight if Mrs. Lancaster wished it.” He closed his eyes. “My head is spinning.”
Marcus touched her arm. “Come. I will send someone to you.”
“What?” Bewildered, she turned her attention to him. “What are you talking about? I can’t leave my father!”
“You must.” Both men spoke at once.
Marcus took up the thread. “You heard your father. The men wanted you. I will take you to Scarborough today and I will stay there with you until we are certain you are safe.” He appeared as if he would say something else, but he must have changed his mind. He closed his mouth with a snap.
“Papa, how can you think I would leave?”
Tears filmed his eyes. She had never seen him weep before. Never wanted to see it again. “My dear, it’s the only way to keep both of us safe. They want you, and they will stop at nothing to get you. If you stay here, they will kill me to get to you.”
“What?” She shook her head to get rid of the delusions pouring into her ears. “But what will that do for them?”
“The papers…” He coughed and then leaned back against the pillows.
“They’re just fairy tales, a foolish story.”
“They’re not stories; they are real. Now do you understand?”
“I do,” Marcus said.
She had never seen Marcus look like he did now. Every part of him was poised for action, the expression in his eyes hard and determined. Did she know him at all? “He is right, Viola. Come. We’ll talk on the way. Can you run?”
“No,” her father said. “It’s not safe. Ride for the house. My horse is in the stable at the back. Take him.”
Marcus did not argue. He came around the bed and held one hand to her.
Real? Those papers were real? Someone wanted her dead?
When she gazed into Marcus’s face she saw trust there. She needed help, no doubt about it. With only a little hesitation, she took his hand.Chapter 6
Back at the main house, Marcus curved his arm around Viola’s waist and hustled her into the side hall. It seemed an age since they were last there. He had picked up her bag from where he’d dropped it outside, and they’d run all the way. Marcus had kept his body between her and the hedges, leading her away from the path and over the green parkland between her house and his. Protecting her.
“Watch her,” he said to Tranmere. “Guard her with your life.” Catching the footman’s startled attention, he raised a finger. “Mark me, Tranmere. With your life.”
“My lord,” Tranmere said. His face was as grim as Viola had ever seen it.
When Marcus had gone, taking the stairs three at a time, Tranmere turned to her. “What have you done?” he said, his voice laced with wariness.
Viola slumped into the hard hall chair. “Nothing. I did nothing. Someone attacked my father, Tranmere. He’s hurt, but not badly, or I’d have stayed with him. Marcus is taking me away.” She looked up. “Will you go to him?”
Tranmere nodded. “As soon as I can. I won’t let anything happen to him.” Even without further explanation, he proved his worth.
Wearily she leaned forward, resting her elbows on her knees.
In a few moments, Marcus returned. “I’ve ordered two horses saddled. Do you have everything you need in that bag?”
“Yes.” She looked up and met his clear gaze. “But no riding habit.”
He glanced at her gown. “If I found one of my sisters’ habits it would take you ten minutes to get it on, would it not?” She nodded. However fast she changed, she could not do it faster. All that unhooking and unpinning did not take too long. However, the rehooking and repinning, especially of an outfit she was not accustomed to, would easily take longer than ten minutes. “We’ll take a gig,” he said and disappeared again.
A gig? But he did not joke. Just as the clock was striking eight, the sound of rumbling wheels came from outside, and he yelled, “Come out and bring the bag!”
He was not driving a gig, but a fragile-seeming vehicle she doubted would last between here and Scarborough. He’d had two mismatched but good-looking horses put to, or he’d done it himself. She wouldn’t put anything past him in his current mood. She had never known the man she considered as staid and careful behave this way.
Febrile excitement positively radiated from him as he put down a hand to help her up, while Tranmere gave her a boost from below. Anyone would think she was…royalty.
Tranmere threw her bag into the back, Marcus whipped up the horses, and they were off.
Viola did not speak until they reached the main road. Marcus glanced at her, and then briefly shot his attention to where she clutched the rail as hard as she could. Her nails were digging into her palm, but better that than have him jolt her from this thing.
“It’s safe.” He turned a corner so fast the vehicle nearly went on to two wheels. “It’s my new phaeton. I had it brought up from town, thought I’d tool it around the countryside. It’s made from the best materials, to be as light as possible. I ordered it in a moment of madness, and thank goodness I did. My brothers called me staid, so I thought I would outdo them in sporting vehicles. The horses are reliable and I can outstrip most vehicles on the road with it.”
She still did not feel safe. “I see,” she said faintly.
“Don’t worry.” He flashed one of his sudden smiles. “I won’t let anything happen to you.”
Events raced through her mind. “You know about all this?”
“What?” The horses had settled into a brisk trot. “The certificates? The letter?”
He jerked a nod. “Wait until we’re past the village and I’ll tell you. We are stopping for no one. If they try to hold us up, we’re going to shoot them.” He handed her a weapon, a hefty pistol, but he didn’t ask her if she could use it. He already knew the answer.
Silence reigned until they had left the village of Haxby behind them. People stopped to stare at the vehicle that whipped past, but Marcus acknowledged none of them. Keeping her head down, Viola prayed none of them recognized her. Apart from any other consideration, she was sitting in a vehicle alone with a man she was not related to. Enough to ruin her if word got around.
Marcus did not seem in the least perturbed, although he’d complained to her about women trying to trap him. He’d put her in the situation where she could do precisely that. It might appear a small consideration, but not to someone who lived in the district.
Half a mile on, they were on the clear road to Scarborough. Marcus sighed and spoke for the first time. “The certificates are real. I have them in my pocket. But you, my dear, are the prize.”
A sense of betrayal filled her. He knew? Had he known when he kissed her in the music room? “How long have you known?”
“A day.” His mouth flattened. “Your father and mine decided the fewer people who knew, the better. That included me.”
Relief replaced her previous mood. So he’d kissed her before he knew. “You believe it?”
“Of course.” He glanced at her.
“Keep your eyes on the road.”
With a ghost of a smile, he obeyed her. “In the last few months, my cousins and I have discovered the truth. There are others like you, my dear, and they are desperate to get hold of you.”
“Why?” Her recalcitrant mind was still finding the concept difficult. What she’d imagined to be a fairy tale was real. Her father had told her the secret when she’d turned eighteen. So she knew she wasn’t her father’s biological daughter. It didn’t make much difference to her. She was loved and secure in her family.
He flicked her another glance. She wished he wouldn’t. This fragile vehicle made her nervous.
“Take my word for it. You look very much like your father. The same narrow face, dark eyes, and hair. Once they have you, they can do what they want.”
“What will they do? And who are ‘they?’”
“The Dankworths,” he said, lines of strain around his mouth. “And they will probably force your marriage to one. They want the next Stuart heir.”
That was the first time either of them had said the word “Stuart” aloud. The sound made reality from the tattered yellowed pieces of paper snugly tucked into Marcus’s pocket.
“I’m a Stuart,” she said dully.
“Tell me what you know. Then I’ll tell you about the Dankworths.”
The road was straight and true, and if he kept to the center, he avoided the worst of the ruts. By now Marcus had satisfied Viola he was an excellent whip, but she still kept a firm hold on the hand rail.
“My mother was Italian, but she was blond, not like me. My father fell in love with her when he accompanied your father on the Grand Tour. As far as I knew, I was born there, and they brought me home.”
“Humph. And she died shortly thereafter.”
“Yes. When I was barely a year old. She died in childbirth.”
“Presumably Rome is where Maria gave the child to your parents.” His voice tightened. “My father never told me until yesterday. Even recently, when—” He broke off and negotiated a tricky part of the road where someone in a heavy vehicle had driven deep ruts right across the surface.
Viola suspected that was merely an excuse, considering how well he drove.
“Let us start at the beginning. The Dankworths.”
A lock of her hair came loose, but she merely shoved it behind her ear. Apparently distracted by her movement, he glanced at her, but turned his attention back to the road. “The Dankworths,” he repeated. “That is the name of the family of the Duke of Northwich. Do you know of him?”
“I’ve heard of him,” she said cautiously. “They are Jacobites.” Realization followed hard on her words. Of course they would want her. “So they don’t want me dead.”
“No, they do not. But they will hurt as many people as they need to get to you.” Sighing, he slowed the horses to a walk. “You need us. You need the Emperors to stand with you against the power of the Dankworths. They have found you out, and they will stop at very little to find you.”
She waited. There was something else, she was sure of it. “You stopped. Carry on.”
“On the other hand, the Young Pretender might want you. Nowhewants you dead.” As if the words poisoned him, Marcus whipped up the horses and sent them back into a trot. He stared at the road as if it had offended him.
Viola tried to absorb what he said. She was in line to the throne, albeit a displaced branch of the family. Another realization hit her like a brick. “I have brothers and sisters?”
“An unknown number, but we have found two so far, and a half-sister. The Old Pretender’s wife, Maria Rubio, was persuaded to step aside for the wife he officially married, but the marriage did not last long. After it ended, when Maria Clementina left him and entered a nunnery, the Old Pretender’s melancholy moods worsened. They brought Maria Rubio back. She died in a fire, with most of her records, in 1740.”
She hadn’t known that. “Poor lady.”
“Indeed. Traduced, pushed aside and used. But not a helpless lady. She ensured her children were sent away, out of danger. Or she planned to use them as pawns later. We have no idea. We don’t know a lot about her except the bare facts of her life. And that she was beautiful.”
“Is there a portrait?” She would love to see a portrait of the woman who had borne her.
“There doesn’t have to be. I just have to look at you.”
Viola’s head reeled. Cold seeped through her bones, although the day was fine. She didn’t even have a cloak. For goodness’ sake, she was out in public without a hat. “I’m bareheaded in public,” she said dully.
“I have money. We’ll buy what we need in Scarborough.”
“My father bought the house for his retirement, but also as a house he could bring me to if he needed. Few people know it is ours.” She was operating by rote now, too many new pieces of information revolving around her head for her to make sense of any of it. She left it to settle and concentrated on what she knew. “We don’t have servants there, just someone who looks in once a month to make sure mice haven’t eaten it or people haven’t broken in.”
“We may stay there for a while, if it is safe, and then return to Haxby. But you must stay in the main house once we return, so you may be guarded properly.”
“Guarded?” she echoed in alarm, her voice rising.
“Until we discover who knows about you. Then we can ascertain how they found out. The Dankworths are the best outcome. They want to control you.”
“And the Pretender’s people want to kill me.” That still had not sunk in. “Who in their right mind would kill a person for who she is?”
“Madmen,” he snapped. “Fanatics. People who do not think in terms of people, but of causes and rights.”
Weariness swept over her in a great wave, but she dared not sleep. She might tumble from this precarious vehicle. Despite the suspension, the comfort and the modernity of it, she could not feel happy sitting here. She clutched the armrest while Marcus bowled his horses along at a considerable pace. But they were still ten miles from their destination.
Her throat was parched, her stomach rumbled, but she would not stop until they had arrived at the Scarborough house. It was unlikely to have fresh food, but she could find something—salt beef, bacon, some provisions—that would do. An inn lay close to the house. She could go there—or rather, Marcus could, and buy food. “Do you intend for us to stay in the house unchaperoned? Without servants, even?”
“For a day or two, certainly. My valet will follow. I can trust his loyalty. To be safe, I did not tell him I was taking you to the house. He probably assumes I found a doxy, or a lover who does not want to be identified.”
“Is that usual with you?” She hated to think of him with other women. Even though she had no claim on him, she did not want him with anyone else.
“No,” he said calmly. “I do not make a habit of taking strange women to houses belonging to another person.” He flicked a glance at her. “And in case you are wondering, yes, at times I have had a woman in keeping. I have needs, after all. But not one at the moment. And when I marry, I intend to make every effort to cleave to my wife.”
“What if she detests…marital relations?”
“She does not,” he said firmly.
What little she knew of the act of procreating a child was learned from Marcus. At least, the practical side. She had looked at books, but either the marquess did not approve of the more scurrilous works circulating in society or he hid them well, because she had never found anything that went into any detail. From her own tentative explorations, she knew a little about her own body, but not much about males. Except, thanks to the statues his lordship brought back from Italy, what they looked like naked.
“You said ‘she does not,’ not ‘she will not.’ Do you have anyone in mind?” she dared to ask.
After that one word, he fell silent, leaving her to speculate. The only words she spoke to him after that were to direct him to the house.
Scarborough spread out before them in the distance. The town sloped down toward the sea, which made its presence apparent by the brisk breezes that whipped past their cheeks and disordered Viola’s hair. Impatiently, she shoved a strand behind her ear. “I really need to find a hat,” she muttered.
He glanced at her. “I daresay we will find one.”
Climbing down from the carriage, he tossed the reins over a nearby overhanging branch and came around to help her down. When he grasped her waist, she put her hands on his shoulders, his muscles flexing as he swung her to the ground. He did not linger, but released her as if she’d scalded him.
Before they left the carriage, he retrieved their bags. “We might as well take them in.” He tossed the reins back in the vehicle. “As long as the horses are not disturbed, they’ll be fine for five minutes. I want to ensure we’re safe before we settle in.”
The house, a tidy one of a similar size to the one on the Haxby estate, appeared closed up. The shutters were firmly bolted over the windows and the door was fastened tightly shut.
“Do you have a key?” he asked mildly.
“We keep a spare,” she said.
For years, they had kept a key under a hollowed-out stone near the ash tree at the front of the house. With relief, she found it, although ingress was the least of their troubles. A small window at the back of the house led into the cook’s pantry. In extremis, they could have broken it and slid in that way.
She unlocked the back door, a sense of relief filling her. She was safe. And once he had fetched the servants, Marcus could leave her and she would no longer be perturbed by his presence. Absence, she felt sure, would ease their connection. He had shown little sign of the passion he’d demonstrated the other day. That kiss was likely an aberration, something to pass to the annals of time.
It healed, they said. Time, that was.
The house smelled of disuse. No scents of burning wood from the kitchen fire drifted up to the main house, and no potpourri or burning lozenges sweetened the atmosphere. A touch of damp, too—she would have to investigate, but a house by the sea could expect some of that.
The banister on the wooden staircase bore a thin film of dust, but the floor was relatively clean. Viola determined to question the cleaner, who had obviously been skimping in her work.
A sound broke the silence. The whicker of a horse, but not from the front, where they’d stationed the phaeton. From the back of the house.
Before she had properly registered the implications, Marcus spun around, grabbed her arms, and propelled her out.
A shot hammered into the doorframe just above his head, showering them in splinters. Leaving the bags where they fell, Marcus seized her hand and raced away. “The bushes—quickly!”
The hedges around the garden were overgrown, the bases spindly. Vaguely Viola registered that she should have visited earlier and supervised the work herself, but at the moment, gratitude flooded her. Somehow she dragged her body through the hedge, ignoring the tearing sound of fabric. Another shot landed far too close, thumping into the ground. Her gown protected her from the inevitable scraping, but it did not save itself.
Marcus followed, without hooped petticoats hampering him. “Get rid of the damned hoop!”
“If I do that my skirts will drag and I won’t be able to run. The gown is only ankle length as long as I have the hoops.”
“Can you run?”
She was already running. Across the fields, getting away, not knowing where, until his voice, urgent, came from behind her. “Towards the town!”
She didn’t need him to tell her twice.
Picking up her skirts, heedless of modesty and every consideration except saving their lives, she ran. The next hedge caused more of an obstacle, but she managed it. They found themselves on one of the streets leading into the town and eventually the harbor.
Where there were people. Where they couldn’t be shot at without the danger of someone else getting hurt. Where there were witnesses.
A few people strolled down the street, but they continued, hurtling down the street until she tumbled over.
Marcus bent to help her up, and caught by the fever of the chase, she burst into laughter. “Do I look as bad as you?”
His face was smudged with dirt, his coat pockets torn. “Worse,” he said. “But if we’re taken up as vagrants, at least our enemies can’t get to us in jail.”
She cast him a disbelieving look. “What do we do now?”
“I have a plan.” His eyes sparkled. How could he be excited at a time like this? But he was. Under the tension lay a reserve of challenge he was rising to.
She gave him a skeptical stare. “What plan?”
“I still have my purse. We will find somewhere that sells clothes and make ourselves respectable. Then we’ll make our way to the nearest coaching inn and make our plans. We must stay in the vicinity of other people. You understand why?”
She nodded. “So the people chasing us won’t shoot at us.”
Their pursuers were nowhere in sight. Either they had retreated, or they had lost their quarry. Viola doubted it. The men were probably following.
“Take my hand.”
“What?” That kind of intimacy, particularly in public, startled her.
“They may try to separate us. The shots might not have been for you, but for me. Then they will have you to themselves.”
Realization dawned. “If they are Northwich’s men, they want me but not you? What if they’re from the Pretender?”
“Then they will want both of us dead. Nobody to tell tales.”
Loath to argue, she took his proffered hand. He closed his fingers around her and led her farther down, into the town. With her hand in his, Viola had an absurd sense of safety.
Scarborough had grown in popularity since it had developed a spa where the fashionable of Yorkshire could gather. As well as the successful business of fishing and trade, it had drawn the local gentry, and people from farther afield, in droves. Today, a fine day in June, it was busy.
But knowing the town, Viola kept away from the more affluent parts, including the round classically designed spa building and pump room. While they wanted witnesses, they could do without gossip.
In a street populated by the respectable poor, they found what they were looking for—a shop, hung about with a variety of objects, including hooped petticoats and discarded clothes next to odd chairs and sticks of furniture. “How much do you have?” she asked him.
“About twenty guineas.” A veritable fortune, a year’s wages to many of the people moving around here. “Buy what you need to appear respectable.”
“Are we returning to the house?”
“We’ll talk about that in a while,” was all the answer she received. “Get what you need.”
He’d lost all pretense at politeness, but she could not blame him.
After touring the packed premises twice, she found what she needed. A riding habit. It needed no hoops, and it was the right length for her to walk in without tripping. True, it was in a particularly unappealing shade of olive green, but at this stage she was only pleased to find it clean and relatively fresh. Perhaps the original owner realized her mistake when she saw the color made up. To go with it, she chose a shirt and stock, and then picked up two shifts and two pairs of sturdy woolen stockings. A male-style cocked hat turned up, and a pair of gloves would at least have an appearance of respectability. In this get-up, she would look completely different to the way she had looked in the phaeton.
He appeared wearing a dark brown coat so old-fashioned and ill-fitting she nearly burst into laughter. Fresh breeches and hose, too, but he’d kept his shoes and his waistcoat. A new hat, much like hers, crowned his head.
Then she noticed his wig. He’d found a bob-wig, like the ones older men wore, and men who didn’t want to concern themselves with the more elaborate queued kind. It made him look very different—older, less…noticeable. She hated it. He’d tucked all his natural hair underneath.
“That will get hot,” she said.
“It will, but it serves its purpose.”
He had lost the sparkle, and his mien appeared more like his public personality. She hated that, too.
Once he’d paid the ludicrously small amount the dealer wanted—she should shop second-hand more often—he led the way outside, into the brilliant sunshine. Only then did she notice that he’d added a worn leather bag to their purchases.
“What is that for?”
“We’re buying some necessities. We might have to go from here.”
She frowned. “What?”
“Do you know the main coaching inn here?”
That made sense. A coaching inn was where they would hear the best gossip and where people congregated all day. She took him to the Globe, by the docks, an inn that attracted the coaching trade and passengers from the ships.
The large building bustled with life. As they approached, a huge vehicle swept past them and through the arch into the inn, leaving only inches to spare. Viola stepped back, glad it hadn’t rained for a few days, otherwise her new outfit would have been spattered with mud.
Marcus led the way into the main part of the inn. People rushed past, intent on some business known only to them. Ostlers hurried through to the yard outside, and the passengers from the stage coach raced into the main room, intent on getting food.
“We have a way out,” Marcus said, deep satisfaction coloring his tones.
Grabbing her hand, he towed her to the desk where a tattered waybill was tacked to the wall. A man stood by it, watching and counting the passengers. “Sir?”
Before she could protest, he’d bought them tickets to London. Bewildered, she watched precious coins leaving his hand.
Despite the safety of the crowded inn, she needed private conversation with him. She tugged him aside as soon as he’d stowed the tickets in his pocket. “We were lucky to get two inside seats,” he said.
The cacophony around them increased as servers hurried through from the kitchens, plates of steaming food piled on large trays. He tugged her aside, to a relatively quiet corner. “We do not have to travel all the way,” he said, “But this gives us the choice. Normally I’d apply for passage on one of the ships in harbor, but the coach is leaving in half an hour. Besides, we don’t have enough money for the ship. We have gained a march on our pursuers.” He glanced at the way bill. “It goes through Lincoln and Huntingdon. It will take four or five days in this weather, and it finishes in Ludgate Hill.”
“We can’t go to London!”
He regarded her seriously, his eyes grave. “I always meant to take you there.”
“London holds people who can help us.”
Not you but us. “Who?”
“My family, the Emperors.” He took both her hands in his. “How brave are you, sweetheart?”
“I don’t know,” she said honestly. “I’ve never been tested this way.”
“Trust me. I won’t leave you, and I won’t allow anyone to hurt you.” The sparkle returned. “And we have an adventure ahead of us, do we not?”
A bell clanged and a man yelled, at the top of his voice. “The coach to London is departing in five minutes!”
The headlong rush almost swept them away. Outside in the cobbled yard the scene appeared completely without organization. Viola had never been this close to a stage coach before. If she’d been alone, the scene would have overwhelmed her.
As it was, she stayed close to Marcus and followed him into the body of the coach. Above them, heels drummed as the top passengers climbed up and settled themselves on the roof. Behind, thumps heralded the loading of luggage into the boot. This was not the first stage of the journey. That meant the coach contained pieces of clothing, discarded cloaks, and paraphernalia like personalbourdaloues, fans, and gloves. The interior passengers had left them behind in their headlong rush to find food. One of the bourdaloues, a pretty blue-and-white china example, had been used and its contents not dumped over the side of the coach, as was usual. Viola wrinkled her nose at the strong smell of urine.
For the first time in her adult life, Viola had only what she stood up in. “I don’t even have a comb!” she murmured as someone pushed past her to take her place next to Marcus.
“Yes, you do. I bought a few things to weight the bag. My old coat is there, and your discarded gown.”
“It’s ruined. I can never rescue it.”
“Then we’ll replace it with something else,” he said calmly.
How could he remain so stoic in the face of…this? He touched her hand. “I will take care of you. If we do not get to London this way, if you find the passage intolerable, we will stop and find someone to help us. I have an extensive circle of acquaintances, after all.”
Some of the highest in the land. Viola would die rather than present herself to the exalted people Marcus must know in this state. Her hair was barely fastened, as she’d lost most of her hairpins in the struggle though the bushes. She had no fan or any of the accessories she was used to, not even a handkerchief.
With a deafening blast from the yard of tin, warning anyone ahead they were about to move, the coach set off. The six horses pulling the equipage were fresh and snorted as they swept through the inn yard, as precariously as the vehicle had sailed in. A few people stared as they passed, but with coaches arriving and leaving throughout the course of the day, most would be used to it.
Viola was not. The whole experience left her trembling with shock.
The harbor came into sight out of the left-hand window. It bristled with masts and rigging from the big ships. Gathered at one end, like a collection of children were the smaller vessels that plied the fishing trade. Seagulls shrieked and dipped, searching for the discards, as fishwives cleaned the catch and discarded the inevitable detritus. Sea air blew in through the open windows, making Viola clutch her hat for fear she would lose it.
She tried to concentrate on the outside scenery rather than the thoughts and fears whirling around in her head. Someone had tried to kill her, or Marcus. They wanted to capture her. She clutched his arm. “The papers!”
“I have them safe,” was his calm reply, “But more importantly, I have you safe.”
“Did you say we were brother and sister?” It would be acceptable for a brother to escort his sister with no maid or companion.
“Husband and wife,” he replied tersely. “I told you, I do not want to let you out of my sight.”
Yet more shocks reverberated through her. Could she take any more? “I don’t have a ring,” were her first bewildered words.
“That is easily remedied. Besides, not every wife wears a ring.”
That was true enough, but in her confusion, Viola had seized upon the first excuse she could think of. Now she felt idiotic. Marcus clasped her hand tighter. “Sleep. That’s the best cure.”
Despite the relatively early hour of the day, to her surprise she found she could do as he said.Chapter 7
Marcus and Viola were lucky to find a room available on the first overnight stop. Two would have been impossible and more than his limited budget could bear. Marcus had considered taking a gig to the estate of a friend who lived not thirty miles away. But once they had embarked on this reckless journey, he reconsidered.
In the presence of these people—chattering and gossiping, sleeping and staring silently from the windows—they went unremarked. In an open carriage or even a closed one, they were more vulnerable. If he could afford outriders and their weapons, Marcus might have considered the move. However he had no proof of who he was any more, so he could not travel on tick. He had not been carrying his card case. In any case, who would be fool enough to grant him credit on the strength of a visiting card?
The coach jolted over the uneven road, its suspension slack, if it had any at all. He gave one lingering thought to his phaeton and then forced his mind to move on. Such a sweetly balanced vehicle. He must buy another, because that one had gone. Their attackers would steal it or smash it. He’d never get another quite so fine.
Instead, he had the woman next to him. In her sleep Viola had slumped to one side, forcing him to curve his arm around her shoulders to hold her steady. He’d seen people numb with shock, and after what had happened to her and what she’d learned, he was not surprised she had slid into slumber. With any luck, she would accept her fate when she awoke.
Not that he had any intention of telling her everything. She knew too much already. Instead of feeding the information to her slowly, he’d given it to her in one big gulp. Unlike his father, Marcus believed she should know. She had a right, and she would need full knowledge to prepare her for what lay ahead.
Another jolt made him tighten his hold, but after a little moan of complaint, she settled back down. They were passing through a village, thatched cottages lining the main street. If it was like the villages he’d ventured into, behind those doors lay hovels. The family living there shared one room with the most precious of their livestock and a hole in the ceiling to act as a chimney. An inn at the end of the street gave them some respite from their daily labors. But at least they did not have people who wanted to kill them.
The attack at the Scarborough house had worried him deeply. The two shots were indiscriminate, aiming at whomever they could hit. The woman in his arms was precious to more people than he was. She was a valuable commodity. Married to one of the Duke of Northwich’s sons, she’d give the Dankworth family a legitimate claim to the throne. They were dangerous enough without giving them extra ammunition.
The duke had escaped the bloodbath after Culloden, threatened with attainder but not brought to trial. Nothing had been proved against him, mainly because of his wealth and importance to the country. Lesser men had been swept up in the conflagration, but not Northwich. Where he was, plotting followed close behind, and sometimes even led. He would have taken care to send men to capture her and probably render him incapable of following her, but not dead. Death brought complications.
But the Pretender—that was different. Charles Edward Stuart was seriously challenged by the new developments. If anyone ever found the original certificate of marriage between the Old Pretender and Maria Rubio, the children would displace him in the succession. Except, of course, the Hanoverians had already displaced him. But they never gave up, the Jacobites. They’d be dead in the ground before they surrendered their claims to the throne.
He held her snugly, this royal child, the woman he had plans for. If she would accept them, he thought with a wry smile. Nothing was certain where Viola was concerned. She would fight anything she considered wrong, or interfered with what she wanted, or hurt those she loved.
He’d like to be one of the people she loved.
He glanced at his slumbering princess. A thread of a pulse throbbed in the delicate skin of her wrist. An urge took him to kiss her there, but he could not. Must not. He would guard her, a poor palace guard indeed, but he would do his best.
Marcus had found more than someone to protect. He would have this, this one thing for himself. He would have her. Together once more, after so many years watching each other from a distance—he would not let her go again. Friend or more, he would protect her and care for her and ensure she got everything she wanted or needed. Even if it meant returning to Haxby and living her life as the daughter of the estate manager. That had made her happy for the last twenty-six years. Right from the impulsive kiss in the music room, when his long-dormant desire for her had reignited, he had begun to dream.
She felt right snuggled next to him, heating his body more than she should in this confined space. Not just desirable, but right. Marcus had never considered himself an inarticulate person, but he found describing her and his feelings towards her difficult. So difficult he did not know how to begin. So it was probably as well she woke up when the coach hit a rut.
Viola squeezed her eyes tighter and then opened them wide. Tilting her head, she winced and then met his gaze. She tried to jerk away, but he held her firmly.
“Ease yourself back to consciousness,” he murmured. He kissed her forehead, as much to demonstrate their masquerade as to ease his longing to touch or kiss her. In public, he would dare no more, nor would he put her in an invidious position. But he was posing as her husband. They were not exactly in the presence of the cream of society, who detested demonstrations of affection conducted in public. Bad manners and distinctly distasteful, they would have said.
“Why are you smiling?” She sounded petulant, but then, she had good reason to be. None of what had happened that day had been her fault, or even expected.
“We are safe, resting, and on our way to London. You said you wanted to see it. And so you shall.”
“But I thought we were—” She bit her lip, obviously recalling where they were, and completed her sentence. “I thought we were visiting your relatives in Derbyshire.”
“We’re going to London,” he said firmly. “It makes no sense to stop. We were fortunate to catch the coach when we did.”
That gave them the advantage on any pursuers. He’d signed the tickets as Mr. and Mrs. Dunbar. He knew nobody by that name, so nobody would connect the neatly although shabbily dressed Dunbars with the illustrious Earl of Malton and his…friend.
“What time is it?”
“Barely noon,” he said. “We have a way to go yet.”
* * * *
Because of the good weather and healthy passengers, the coach made good time. Healthy passengers were important. They needed to scramble out, eat scalding hot food, and back on again by the time the ostlers had turned the coach and put fresh horses to the traces. Viola became adept at gulping hot coffee without burning her mouth. At the first stage where they paused, she forewent the meal. After begging a shilling from Marcus, she crossed the street to buy a novel from a bookshop there. Putting up with Marcus’s good-natured teasing, she promised to lend it to him when they had done. “But it’s the first part of a three-part story. The publisher says at the end the next installment will follow shortly, although I have no idea when that will be. He does not say. I was fortunate to find it reduced. Perhaps that is because the second and third parts were not forthcoming.”
“It’s unusual for a publisher to take the first part of a book without the others being ready,” he said.
The read concerned a young woman whose conscience pushed her into far too many insane adventures, nearly losing her virtue in almost every chapter. Viola read on, absorbed, the jolting of the badly sprung vehicle hardly troubling her at all. At one point, the man of the cloth sitting opposite to them leaned his head out of the window and heaved. Clearly not everyone travelled well.
She continued with her book and had nearly completed it when they reached their destination for the night. Talk with Marcus had necessarily been short and stilted. They could hardly discuss their situation with the four other passengers, who were, in any case, more interested in their own situations than anyone else’s.
A woman held a basket on her lap, which turned out to contain a cockerel—a breeder, she said, for her reluctant hens. “For with their current cock, they will not lay at all, and I need those eggs. Very good eggs they are too, just not enough of ’em.” She was not travelling farther than a day with them, so either they could spread out more the next day, or they would have a new passenger. The boy in the corner was on his way to school in London and had someone meeting him at their destination. The lady sitting opposite, the one who was ostentatiously reading a book of sermons, was a governess on her way to a new position.
Viola learned about them all, through their chatter, and remained silent, reading her book. Marcus spent most of his time watching the scenery pass by, as if he expected trouble at every turn.
They passed through a number of pretty hamlets, and the day being fine, they appeared at their best. Even a larger town or two, but Viola had no idea where they were until dusk was falling and they reached their destination for the night.
The lady with the cockerel left with a large man, presumably her husband. The others trooped into the inn.
Viola tried to recall where they had been, but found herself getting drowsy once more. How she could, after falling asleep earlier in the day, she didn’t know. When Marcus spoke to the landlord, she opened her eyes wide once more. “Yes, one room is sufficient,” he said.
“Aye, well we’re full with another coach that lost a wheel, but you’re lucky. I have one room left,” the landlord said. He didn’t appear the least suspicious.
To the sound of the other passengers’ complaints, Marcus went off with the key.
“Did you pay over the odds?” she asked.
He smiled, slowly, his eyelids drooping. “I may have done. We have sufficient, my dear. We can afford it.”
“But one room?”
“Plenty of room for two,” he said.
She didn’t need his warning glance to tell her not to say too much. Instead, she tucked her hand in his arm and went into the main room of the inn. She was prepared, for once, to enjoy a meal taken at leisure.
Except her appetite seemed to have fled. The notion of sharing a room with Marcus disturbed her more than somewhat. How could she do that, when her feelings for him were far more than they should be?
After picking at her food, she declared she would go to bed. They had to be up at dawn to make the most of the light, the coachman informed them. Gone at six.
Marcus grabbed their bag, the only one they had, and took her upstairs to their room before anyone else could claim it, as he informed her on the way up. “You appear to have some experience with the stage coach,” she commented as he unlocked the door.
“As a boy, and sometimes at Oxford,” he admitted. “My father made me work to a specific allowance. He wasn’t ungenerous, but sometimes I was too lavish, and at the end of the quarter I would find myself somewhat short of funds.” He shot her a mischievous smile. “The stage isn’t cheap, but it’s much cheaper than keeping a horse stabled or hiring a private vehicle.”
He opened the door and conversation ceased. Going inside, he glanced around and put down the bag. “I’ll sleep in the tap room,” he said abruptly.
His decision made her more than nervous. “But you promised not to leave my side.”
He nodded. “I know. But this inn is a compact one and the room much smaller than I envisioned. I can find a spot where I can see everyone going up and down the stairs. There is only one door to this room.”
She shook her head. “No.” Fear clutched at her, unreasoning and foolish. She’d had enough for one day. “We are supposed to be married. Won’t people think it strange?”
He closed the door, but stayed on her side of it. “What do we care what people think?” He spoke savagely, a vicious edge to his voice. Turning, he grasped her shoulders. “This room—I had counted on a chair, or even a stretch of floor.”
Apart from a tiny washstand and bowl, the only piece of furniture in the room was a huge four-poster bed. The posts and headboard were elaborately carved, the wood nearly black with age but shiny from polishing. “How did they get it in here?” she asked.
“They would have taken it to pieces.” He stared at the posts. “These old beds were often thrown out.”
“You have one at Haxby.” She recalled it in the attics, and yes, it was in pieces. But why crowd such a large bed into such a small room? That was anyone’s guess. Certainly not hers. The sheets were fresh, and the landlord had promised them clean water. “I need to wash, and change, and—um—”
He nodded. “I will stay downstairs. You’ll be safe; I swear it.”
She didn’t want to be safe; she wanted him. But she could not move him, and he left, promising her he would call her in the morning.
Viola finished her book before she climbed into bed. She washed the shift she had taken off and draped it over the washstand to dry. This whole situation was strange, totally unlike anything she had known before. How could she sleep?
In the end, she fell asleep listening to the almost constant noise from downstairs and outside. The inn appeared to be a popular drinking stage, as well as a coaching inn. Was Marcus carousing with them?
With questions revolving through her mind, she finally fell asleep.
A sharp rap on the door woke her from a restless slumber. “Water, missus!” someone shouted in an unfamiliar accent. Viola felt as if she’d barely slept for five minutes, but was keen to appear decent before Marcus appeared.
She was dressed in the skirt of her habit and the shirt by the time Marcus knocked on the door.
Disheveled was putting it politely. She had never seen Marcus less than well-turned out, but today was different. His clothes were crumpled and his eyes bleary. She had lit the candles in the branch, but they were not the best quality and they smoked. He blinked. “Did you sleep well?”
“Yes, thank you. Shall I leave while you dress?”
“No.” He sounded determined. “Go over there and sit on the bed. Turn your back if you wish, but I won’t strip. Only wash and shave.”
“You have a razor?” She had not thought of that. Not being a male, she had little use for a razor.
“Yes, if you can call it that. And yes, I have shaved myself before. I do so on a regular basis.”
“Oh.” She had not thought a man would not be able to shave himself, but someone in his position would have a valet.
She did not look away as he dropped his coat to the floor, followed by his shirt.
His back rippled with muscle, and when he lifted his arms, the flex made her mouth go dry. She had never, ever been this close to a half-naked man. If she moved closer, she could spread her hands over his back and soak up his warmth. She swallowed, and in silence, watched him.
Longing filled her, forbidden and wicked. That was why women were so carefully chaperoned, because for two pins she would give up all idea of propriety and fall on him. Warmth settled between her legs, and she’d never been so aware of her own body before. How could he remain so steady?
Watching him shaving was almost unbearably intimate. Few people would ever see him this way. He was a man of importance, surrounded by attendants in the normal way of things. Yet he was moving heaven and earth for her.
Her birth wasn’t why Viola wanted him to escort her. That was only a legend she had only half believed until a few days ago. She wanted him to care forher.
Scraping the razor across his skin, he said, “If you carry on watching me like that, I’m in danger of slitting my throat from ear to ear.”
“Oh!” Shocked, she stared at her hands instead. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to embarrass you.”
He laid the razor down carefully and turned around. “You can look at me now.”
She didn’t know if she wanted to, but his words were a command. Lifting her gaze, she met his eyes.
He burned. He flicked his gaze over her. “I want you, Viola,” he said baldly. “I can’t think of a better way to say it. I am at the edge of my control. You are lovely, intelligent, utterly desirable.”
“To all men. The way that curate leered at you yesterday made me want to knock his teeth down his throat. Don’t you know how utterly delectable you are?”
She opened her mouth, and closed it again.
In a minute he was across the room and he had her in his arms. He slammed his mouth down on hers, ravenously devouring.
She responded, circling her arms around him, and she had her wish. His warm flesh pulsed under her hands. The sheer power of his body made her feel deliciously weak and helpless, although she knew herself to be no such thing. She’d slept with the pistol he’d given her under her pillow, and she would have used it, had she felt the need.
She did not need it now.
He rolled on to the mattress, holding her close, bringing her over him, but he never stopped kissing her. When she dug her fingers into his back, he shuddered. He covered her breast with his hand. Despite the barriers of her shift, stays, and shirt, his touch made her arch towards him.
He tore his lips from hers. “No.” His eyes were wild as he gazed at her. “This is why I slept downstairs, why I need to keep away from you. We cannot. Must not.”
“No.” Of course not.
“We need to dress and go downstairs.” As if he’d done nothing at all, he turned away. He picked up his shirt from the bottom of the bed, throwing it over his head and thrusting his hands through the sleeves. His abrupt, ungraceful motions told her of his agitation. She said nothing. In truth, she didn’t know if the power of speech had returned to her yet.
He felt so very good all she could think of was more. As she put on her stock and buttoned up her jacket, she could think of nothing else. They went downstairs in silence and ate at the big table with the rest of their fellow passengers. She did note that when they climbed aboard, Marcus ensured she was nowhere near the cleric.
The day passed, giving Viola an opportunity to come to terms with her new existence. She would return to her father and Yorkshire soon enough, but this was her chance to make this an adventure. Their pursuers had either given up the chase or could not find them. They were as safe as they could be, considering the circumstances. Now she could relax more and pay more attention to the experience of travel. Although she had travelled from Italy as a baby, Viola naturally had no remembrance of that time. This counted as the longest journey she had ever taken. Certainly the first on public transport.
The scenery passed, mile after mile of hedgerow, the occasional hamlet, and regular stops at inns to change the horses. Passengers did not alight at every stop, only for meals and to stretch their legs. If the coachman was ready, he would set off without a backward glance.
When she napped during the afternoon, Marcus did not hold her. However she found herself leaning against her corner of the coach with a cushion propped behind her head. So he was taking care of her.
In that position she could watch him. He had taken her book and was reading it in a desultory fashion, occasionally chuckling. Pointedly he did not look in her direction, and she did not disturb him, although she was fairly sure he knew she was not properly asleep.
Marcus was the most handsome man she had ever seen. She had never taken stock of him in this way. However, his appearance that morning, together with his out of control kiss, forced her into the realization this man meant much more to her than he should.
For years she had told herself simply that Marcus was too far above her for her even to dream about, but now that was not true. If anything, she was better born than he. But she felt no different. She was still Viola. Did he feel that way? That his titles were not a part of him, but separate? Was he lonely as a single man? Oh, yes, he’d had mistresses—he’d told her himself—but only to satisfy his physical needs, those needs he had so ably demonstrated that morning.
Towards three in the afternoon, Viola knew several things for sure. She wanted him. After their journey, they would probably separate once more. Even if his family sheltered her until the crisis had concluded, she would not spend such time alone with this man again. Soon Marcus would marry, and then his wife would spend time by his side. Even though the identity of his future wife was yet unknown, unreasoning jealousy seared its way through her heart. Nobody should have him but her.
Foolish thinking. But for this journey she was his wife, and she wanted all marriage brought, although their union would be instantly severed when they reached London. She didn’t care. If unfortunate circumstances occurred, she would cope, somehow. Women often went away, bore their embarrassing child, and gave it away.
Just like her mother—her true mother. She had not wanted Viola enough to keep her, but regarded her as a political pawn. For what loving mother would choose to give her sweet baby to another with the prospect of never seeing her again?
Maria Rubio did not deserve the title of mother, Viola decided bitterly. She was merely the vessel that had borne her. Viola belonged to her father in Yorkshire, not the one in Rome. Her name was Viola Gates, not Viola Stuart.
What would their neighbors the Stewarts think of her alarming, not to say shocking, change in circumstances? Would they deride her or bow down to her? Viola would appreciate neither.
Marcus flicked over a page in the book, his attention apparently completely on the novel. But he glanced up, met her eyes, and smiled. Tentatively, she smiled back, and warmth spread through her. That was exactly how she’d seen the marquess connect with his wife without words.
For the next two days this man belonged to her. He was her husband and she would make him behave like one. He would not leave her again, even if the next bedroom was even tinier, with a narrow bed better suited to a maidservant than a fully grown man.
“The coachman says we are making good time,” she said, knowing she could not feign sleep any longer.
“Indeed,” he said, seemingly engrossed, but he flipped another page. He had not read that one. “We will be in London by Thursday night.”
Tuesday, this was Tuesday. She would be a wife for another two days, that was all. Two days and two nights. Why could this not be a wagon, which would take a full week to reach London? But if she travelled in one of the hulking vehicles that carried passengers and cargo, she would probably sleep there, too. People who could not afford to travel any other way used the carts. Even the stage coach was a step up from that.
“I’d hire a carriage, but we are making good time, and you are not uncomfortable, are you, sweetheart?” he said then, sparing her another glance.
Sweetheart. Another treasure for her meager collection. “Not at all,” she said. The lady with the cockerel had not been replaced by another passenger, although some of the travelers on the roof had agitated to be allowed inside. With vails not forthcoming, the coachman had refused them. “It ain’t fair to the people who paid full fare,” he’d said. “If you can’t pay, you travel on top.”
She could not imagine doing that, but if they ran out of money, she could find herself balancing precariously on top, open to all weather.Chapter 8
The journey lulled her into a drowsy half-awake state of mind. She dreamed she was married to Marcus, who was, in truth, a simple country gentleman visiting his cousin in London. The cousin part might be right, but they were peers of the realm, not simple folk or the Cits he claimed when he spoke casually about them in the hearing of others. They would have their time in London, ogling the rich, attending the play, buying a few clothes, and conducting modest business. Then they would return home to their property, something like the house in Scarborough, comfortable but not spectacular.
Entertaining herself in this way, she was almost startled when dusk shaded the hedges and dulled the colors of the lush countryside passing by the window.
“We’ll stop soon,” the curate said. For he was traveling to a new parish, where he would do all the work while the rector collected the salary and hobnobbed with the gentry. Or so he’d told them. Not that she had conversed with him much. Now Marcus had mentioned it, she did catch the curate’s attention on her too much for his greedy gaze to be coincidental. She was a respectable married woman. How dare he?
The smoother roads approaching the next town came as a relief after the bone-jarring roads outside. While the new turnpike roads were improving travel considerably, not all of the byways, even the biggest ones, had received the benefit of new surfaces and better maintenance.
They had reached Lincoln.
The center of the old city contained a hill so steep many people used the rails provided to climb it hand-over-hand. The coach avoided this peril. It took a side street, but the elevation the hill gave to the cathedral meant the passengers had a magnificent view as the vehicle did its usual breakneck turn into the inn yard.
Viola stared at it in wonder, her problems temporarily forgotten.
“Would you like to see it?” Marcus asked her. “We have time, if we have a late supper.”
“Very much.” And it would stop her sitting in the inn room wondering how she could seduce a man with so much more experience than she had. Perhaps something would occur to her, though surely not while in a sacred building. Perhaps the urge would pass, although since it had not yet shown any signs of doing so, she doubted it.
When the coach disgorged its passengers and the usual rush to the taproom had died down, they left at their leisure. A large coaching inn, it had plenty of room and Marcus had no problem bespeaking a room for each of them. Secretly, Viola hoped they would only use one, although her throat tightened at the prospect of what she meant to do.
He offered his arm, and after she had set the cocked hat on her head and pushed her hands into gloves, they set off. The balmy, warm evening cast a golden glow over their short walk. Viola set her mind to enjoying a rare moment of tranquility. Accompanied by a man who meant more to her than any other, even her father, she could feast her eyes on the vision of beauty that was Lincoln Cathedral and enjoy the fresh air. Despite the passengers keeping the windows open to freshen the atmosphere, the air in the coach had at times become stale and unpleasant.
“In London, you will become my mother’s guest,” Marcus said easily. “I want you to enjoy your time there. I’ll find a likely footman to accompany you at all times, and then you may shop and see more of the sights.”
“Will you take me?” She bit her tongue. She should not have asked that. It sounded too needy.
“To some of them.” He smiled at her. “My father will command my presence for some tasks, and I have others to pursue.”
She gripped his arm a little tighter. “If it concerns me, I want to know. Please, Marcus. I will not allow you to push me aside. It is my fate, and I wish to deal with it.” As she must deal with everything in her life. She would learn to be strong, not to lean on anyone.
“Sometimes I may have to go to places you cannot come.”
“And why not? I’m not your protected society miss. I have few expectations. Why should I not have a hand in my own fate?”
But he would only respond with a vague, “We’ll see,” and she could not push him any further. Marcus could be extremely stubborn when he put his mind to it. He was not perfect, she had always known, but he was the only man she wanted.
They had reached the cathedral. “It’s so much larger close-up,” she commented. The carved stone, blackened with the emissions of soot from the houses crowded around it, loomed up like something out of hell rather than heaven. But the figures set in the niches were of saints, gracefully carved, and the windows shone brightly in the light of the setting sun. The black was an illusion, a fault, that was all. Under it, the house of God remained serene and lovely.
“Would you like to go inside?” he asked. She nodded her assent and he led her forward.
The door was open. Had they just had Evensong? She had not attended church for nearly a week. Viola did not consider herself particularly religious. However, weekly attendance at the parish church at Haxby or the chapel in the house itself formed part of her regular routine. She missed it, the comforting rituals and the gossip afterward with the neighbors. She had not realized how much until now. Her whole life had shifted. Could she ever return home and resume her life? Did she even want to?
That notion came as a new one. She turned it over in her mind, unsure of the answer. The decision might well be made already. People knew about her, and her situation was perilous.
Despite the huge stained glass windows, she had to take a moment to accustom her sight to the relative dimness inside. The stone was paler here, less soot-encrusted, more the gray-tinged stone of the original cathedral.
Viola gazed up at the vaulting far above. “Men made this,” she said in awe. “Could they do it today?”
“Many of the techniques are lost,” he murmured. “However, they weren’t perfect. This cathedral fell apart after an earthquake in the twelfth century and they had to completely rebuild it. This building was the tallest in Europe until the spire collapsed in the sixteenth century.”
“How do you know so much?” she asked.
“I have friends who live just outside the city.” He paused. “We used to come here for services on occasion. The cathedral petitions us regularly for funds.”
He did not seem to think his last words were anything out of the ordinary, which gave her pause for thought. His family was wealthy, something she had forgotten in the last few days. To her he had become Marcus, not Marcus Aurelius Shaw, Earl of Malton. That title belonged to another man, a much better dressed, stately, imposing man. One she would be afraid of.
They strolled slowly around the space and stopped before the choir. “Can you see the imp?”
After glancing at his face, she followed the direction of his pointing finger. “Goodness, yes!”
“It’s the symbol of the cathedral.” A small carved figure, one leg crossed over the other, grinned at them from up above. “The masons often put little figures in the large churches. They may have a wonderful sense of humor, or it might have a meaning lost in the mists of time.”
“Perhaps it has a magical quality,” she murmured.
“Do you believe in magic?”
She opened her mouth to reply, but at that moment, someone said, “Good God, it’s Malton!”
Her heart sinking, Viola tried to pull away, but he clamped his arm hard against his body, trapping her hand. “No you don’t,” he said, and turned to face the stranger.
A man dressed in fashionable, new clothes stared at her curiously. “It is you! What is that monstrosity you have on your head?”
Lifting his hand, Marcus touched the bob-wig. “You don’t like it? I thought I’d give it a try.”
“Why?” The man raised a dark brow. His wig was a fashionable white queued one, not the dismal grey of Marcus’s. She had laughed at it when he first produced it, but she bridled now. Whatever his choices, he was entitled to them.
The stranger glanced at Viola and then lingered to pass an insolent gaze over her. From feet to the top of her head and back again, pausing at the place where her breasts pushed against the lawn of her shirt. But he said nothing. He would cut her unless Marcus introduced her, assuming she was a doxy. If he had accompanied a woman, they would have ignored him. That would have been for the best. Then maybe they would not have a closer look at her.
Marcus ignored the provocative remark about his wig and turned to her. “May I introduce my betrothed? Viola, my dear, this is Lord Frederick Howard. Freddie, this is Miss Viola Gates.”
Freddie’s brows went up even as he made his bow and murmured her name. She curtseyed, her mind temporarily numb. What had he done? And he’d said it loud enough for others to hear.Betrothed?She could not hope people would not gossip. Marcus was too important a personage for anyone standing by them not to chatter. Already they were attracting unwanted attention. The bystanders stared and murmured. Those murmurs would spread like ripples on a pond.
“Are you visiting hereabouts?”
“No, just passing through. While Miss Gates’s duenna rests in their room, I offered to bring her to the cathedral.”
“Thus gaining a few minutes alone, you dog!” Although he teased, Freddie’s expression had undergone a change. He no longer surveyed her as if she were meat on a butcher’s slab, but met her eyes and smiled affably. “I had not thought to see you married.”
“Neither had I, before recently. Miss Gates is the daughter of our estate manager, who is a distant relation of the family.”
“I see. So we have a love match?” Before Marcus could answer, he continued, addressing Viola for the first time. “You are on your way to London?”
“Yes, sir,” she said faintly. Betrothed? He could not mean it. Ah, yes, he would claim they had called it off or she had jilted him. He could do that. Relief filled her. Not that she did not want for—long for—such an eventuality. But although he had kissed her, she could not allow him to sacrifice his freedom for her.
Thoughts chased each other through her head. The uppermost was regret she had allowed him to help her and thus embroiled himself in a situation he could not wish for.
“I shall look forward to your betrothal ball,” Freddie said. He appeared amused more than any other reaction. Viola strongly suspected he did not believe Marcus. And well he might, because who would imagine he would marry the daughter of his estate manager? Love appeared the only explanation possible, yet…did she love him?
Facing her feelings for the first time before someone else she had to admit—probably. For she did not know what love meant or how she should feel. Women in love saw no fault in their beloved, and she certainly saw Marcus’s faults as clearly as she had ever done. His careful consideration of all points in an argument drove her to screaming pitch, for instance.
Keeping the society smile pasted to her face, Viola fought with her emotions. She could show nobody, not even Marcus himself. His overdeveloped protective streak would have her married to him before she could think straight.
She did not like Freddie. His curiosity and his sly innuendo did not give her the best opinion of him.
“I still have to inform my parents of my success, so the ball may not take place until after the wedding,” Marcus said smoothly.
How could he say that word—wedding—and not tremble? She was trembling enough for two, but she could not detect even a quaver in his voice. Or doubt when he gazed down at her and smiled. She forced a smile in return, but she was not sure it convinced him.
A small crease appeared between his brows. “You are tired,” he said softly. “We should go back.”
“No, truly I’m fine.”
“Nevertheless, I think we should return before your duenna awakes and misses you. We don’t want to upset her, do we?”
At last they took their leave.
He would not let them hurry, but paced in a stately way down the aisle with her. Her imagination rioted all on its own. The symbolism was not lost on her. How could they do this in reality? When she would have spoken, he touched a finger to his lips.
“Churches have ears,” he said. “Also unexpected echoes.”
So Freddie might overhear them.
Outside the church, she let out the breath she’d been holding. Without it, she wouldn’t have walked so steadily, or she might have burst out with all her objections. “What was that for?” she demanded, and before he could answer, continued, “You could have said I was your mistress. Why did you not walk away?”
“Because Freddie, bless him, would have gossiped when he reached town. Unfortunately he has an excellent memory for faces, so he would doubtless have recognized you.”
“You sound so calm! How can you?” She wanted to slap the smile off his face.
“What choice do we have? Why the fuss?”
“Oh, you foolish man! You have committed us to the most dreadful masquerade!”
He lost the smile then, just as if she had truly slapped him. “Indeed? Why is it dreadful? Do you fear a fate worse than death?”
She let out a breath and started to walk, abandoning the stately stroll for a full-bodied stride. “No, but you cannot marry me, so why say it? Oh, Marcus, I should never have allowed this to happen!”
The adventure, liberating and exciting up to this point, took on a shade of foolishness. “I should have returned to Haxby, to my father. We could have borrowed some footmen until—”
“Until when?” he demanded. “If we do not find who has done this to you, you aren’t safe. I want you safe, Viola.”
“But there would have been another way!”
“Not on that road.” He brought her memories back to the house at Scarborough and her terror there. She’d thought them both dead. “Until we reached the house, I thought we were relatively safe. But two people attacked your father, and a different two waited at the house.”
“How can you know that?”
“The horses,” he said simply. “And the facts. They did not have time to get there and lie in wait. I drove you in the fastest vehicle in the Haxby stables with two of the freshest horses. They could not have left your father’s house, reached Scarborough, broken in, and waited for you.” He turned, taking her upper arms in his hands. “Even with the half hour it took us to prepare for our journey, even the time it took us to run from your house to the main house, they would not have had time. Their horses were not fresh, and they were riding. It’s not possible, Viola. That means there are more men searching for you. Four at least. How could I leave you to that?”
“Easily, I’d have thought. Haxby has more than four footmen.”
He clicked his tongue. “As if I would do that! Absolutely not, Viola. You are my responsibility. Mine.”
Bewildered, she asked, “Why would you think it?”
She broke in. Although sure he had a ready answer waiting, she would not let him persuade her. “You take too much upon yourself, Marcus. You take charge and care for all your family and your dependents. And now me.” How did her regard her? Family or dependent? She would never ask, fearful of hearing the answer. Either way held fraught challenges she was not yet ready to face.
“And now you,” he said softly.
But she was ready to face one thing. She still wanted him. When he had introduced her as his betrothed, her first unthinking reaction had been pure joy. She could no longer deny that of all the men in the world, given the choice, she would have him.
“Oh, well, I can always jilt you.” Putting up her chin in an imitation of jauntiness, she turned and continued their journey back to the inn.
“You can try,” he said, but so softly she wasn’t sure she’d heard him right.
They couldn’t continue the argument because they had reached the inn.Chapter 9
Marcus watched Viola all through supper. She had not eaten much. The shock of seeing Freddie had coalesced a few matters in his mind. When he’d said “betrothed,” the word sounded like a perfect way to describe her.
He stuck his fork into an overdone potato, parsley sprinkled over it in a desultory fashion. The food on this journey had been uniformly dull and for the most part overcooked. The pie had black edges. The peas could have been spooned out in lumps. The carrots were of the consistency of mash. They would all go in his personal book of remembrance. With any luck, they would never be repeated in his life.
With this woman, he could find himself on another harebrained journey and forced to eat mashed carrots and lumpy, overcooked potato once more. He feared he would do it, too. He never knew where he was with her. He found her volatile moods and unpredictability fascinating. She had agreed with him only when he made it clear he would not give in, but she’d been ready to return home to her father. Her real father, the man who had brought her up from babyhood onward.
Why had he ever allowed his father to separate them? At the age of nine he had little say, but he could have contrived something. If his father had not made him so anxious to fulfill his role in life, perhaps he would have arranged to meet her clandestinely.
He would not allow anyone to separate them now. Whether they would end this adventure as friends or spouses he did not know—he, who organized and planned everything in his life. Who had condemned reckless behavior in his brothers and sisters. They would so enjoy teasing him now he allowed one small woman to lead him around.
Once he’d ensured nobody was following them, Marcus had relaxed considerably. That first night he’d spent in the taproom of the first inn, he had remained awake, watching and waiting for an attack. When none came, he was satisfied they had escaped the people who would have killed her—or him. That was why he’d decided to go to London. He would find out who was doing this, and he would stop them.
Now he leaned back and watched her trying to choke down the food, shooting glances at him when she thought he wasn’t looking. She was planning something. He had not the faintest idea what it could be, but he would wait on events and keep watching her.
His announcement had unnerved her, but surely she would not be so idiotic as to try to escape him. He would find out, no doubt.
Giving up on his meal, he pushed his plate away. “This is by far the worst food in the whole journey. Let’s hope the bedroom is in better heart.”
Ah. Her glance certainly held apprehension. And something else—speculation. She having such dark eyes made interpreting her glances difficult, but he fancied he was improving in that respect. Two more days and they would be in London. Freddie wouldn’t arrive until the beginning of next week, and he would probably not consider undue haste necessary. A betrothal, especially of a man not particularly known for excess, would not excite many gossips. Or so he hoped and prayed.
She forced a few more mouthfuls down before she sighed and leaned back against the hard settle. “You are right, and I’m not particularly hungry.”
“Shall we go?”
She wouldn’t look at him. He rose from his seat and came around the table to hers. She took his hand suspiciously meekly and allowed him to lead her to the stairs.
The inn appeared well kept, no collections of dust in the corners. Not something he usually looked for, but in this case, the food had made him suspicious. If that was bad, was the rest of the inn similarly ill-kept? Were the beds clean?
He opened the door to a bedroom with a reasonably sized bed and gleaming furniture and floors. Simple enough, with no extra furbelows, but adequate. They could find better inns in the city, but he had no mind to seek them out at this time of night. Without compunction, he dragged back the covers on the bed, but he saw nothing but clean white linen. No insects, or traces of them.
When he turned around to speak to her, she leaped at him.
Marcus barely caught her. As it was, she propelled him backward on to the mattress. The timbers creaked alarmingly under their combined weight but it held. She weighed nothing, and without her hoops, her body pressed against his all the way down.
Then she crushed her lips against his, and finally he knew what her plan was.
She would not have this all her own way.
* * * *
When Marcus kissed her back, Viola would have breathed a sigh of relief. Except his mouth was on hers, doing the most delicious things to her. When she opened her lips, he surged inside, exploring her with his tongue. Returning his caresses proved easy. He accepted her with a small groan.
He kissed her like a man denied sustenance, even though they had eaten well that evening. Unless he was hungry for something else. Oh, she hoped so, because she was. She’d tortured herself in the short journey back to the inn from the cathedral and then during the meal she didn’t want. All the time her stomach rebelled against anything but him. Now she had him. On the bed, just where she wanted him.
What next? Should she touch him? Her hands had landed on his chest, and now he held her close she could not move them. His heart thundered in a rhythm that matched the pulse between her legs.
Perhaps she should just follow his lead. Except he still might reject her, as he had before. No, tonight she would discover what all the fuss was about. When he spread his hands over her back she squirmed, trying to make him move, but he needed no encouragement. He slid his hands up to her shoulders where he tugged at her jacket. He left her mouth long enough to mutter, “Take it off,” before he returned to kiss her more.
She could not remove the jacket without breaking the kiss, so reluctantly, she pulled away.
Moving up enough to create a gap between their bodies, she kept his gaze. “I have to unfasten the buttons.”
He did it for her, smoothing his hands around her, until he met the center fastenings. One by one he undid the row of small buttons, watching her reaction. So she smiled, and as he moved down her jacket, she leaned up, sitting astride him.
Keeping her attention on him, she slid her arms out of the sleeves. If she had been wearing a fashionable riding habit, she’d have found the task more difficult. But the sleeves did not fit as tightly as in a custom-made garment. With a little work she had the jacket off. Underneath she wore her shirt and stock. Lifting her hands to her neck, she unfastened the tiny buckles at the back of her neck and let the stock fall. He touched the hollow at the base of her throat, making her feel strangely vulnerable. But desirous. “I want you to touch me all over.”
He smiled, slow and slumberous, his eyes warm. “I would like that. Will you do the same to me?”
She nodded. After undoing the buttons of her cuffs, she tugged the garment out of the skirt. Before she could lose her nerve, she pulled it up and over her head. And off.
“Lovely. You are lovely.” He stroked her from her throat to her cleavage and back again. He traced the lines of her collarbones. Curving his hands over her shoulders, he cupped them. “Your skin feels like silk.”
From his lips, the words did not sound like compliments. He made them sound like the truth. She waited as he explored the areas of skin she had exposed, her shoulders and her upper chest. He lifted his gaze to her face and undid the first hook on her stays. Although they fastened at the back, she had a row of hooks at the front, so she could get into her stays without help. He seemed to approve. He turned his attention to his work, and he finished the job with slow deliberation, as if committing every hook to memory.
Finding the hooks of her skirt, he undid them too. “How far dare you go?” he said with a smile.
“All the way,” she said boldly. Otherwise, she could not see much point in this.
He lifted his hand and gestured like an emperor giving orders. “Continue.”
His aristocratic attitude made Viola smile. She took off the skirt and lifted her foot on to the chair next to the bed to unbuckle her shoes, one after the other. “You should have leather riding boots,” he said. “I will buy you a pair. Then you may wear them for me. And nothing else.”
The thought of the leather caressing her all the time she rode caused shivers to break out, but delicious ones that increased her sensitivity. His eyes heated more as he watched her.
“Should you not undress?”
“How does the idea of you naked and me fully dressed strike you?” Rolling to his side and turning his body the right way, Marcus leaned up on his elbow. He even had his coat on, his neckcloth tied tidily around his throat.
“It’s dangerous,” she said. “I feel like a wanton.”
“What’s happening to your body?”
How could she tell him that? Her jaw dropped, and she paused, her hands on her petticoat drawstring.
“I will find out soon enough,” he said, almost growling the words.
“I thought you’d make me stop.” She swallowed. Confession was difficult, as was admitting her vulnerabilities.
“Did you? Why would I do that? When you want me and I want you?”
Doubt seized her, tightening her throat. “Are you daring me?”
“Do you dare, Viola?”
He was a different person. None of his grave sense of responsibility remained to taunt her. She put up her chin. If he left when she had revealed her body to him, she would never forgive him. But if she did not do it, she would never forgive herself. And she wanted to show herself, to let him know what he could have for the asking. Not even for the asking.
She stuck out her chin. “Yes, I dare.”
Before she could change her mind or let her fears get the better of her, she stripped off her stockings. Then she let her petticoats slip to the floor and lifted her shift over her head. “There!”
He was still fully clothed. He gazed at her, taking his time, his eyes hot, caressing her body, raising goose bumps as if he touched her. “Show me your breasts,” he said. “Hold them for me.”
Her heart beat so fast she was afraid he would see its pounding. But she would do this. Raising her hands, she cupped her breasts and lifted them, displaying them proudly.
“Come here.” His voice held a low command that utterly thrilled her.
She leaned over, releasing her breasts to rest her palms either side of him, letting them swing free.
He closed his eyes and drew in a sharp breath. “I can smell your arousal. It’s sweet and spicy, spiked with sharp fruit. I want you badly, Viola.”
Those simple words made her gasp. But she did not move away, instead crawled on to the mattress, straddling him. That meant she had to open her thighs. He could see anything he cared to. More than she could.
Grasping her waist in a sudden movement, he rolled her over so she lay where he’d been a moment before. The abruptness made her lose her breath. Would he leave her now? Was this just so he could judge her and find her wanting?
He climbed off the bed and stood where she had done a moment ago. “My turn,” he said.
Viola opened her eyes.
He already had his waistcoat half undone when she dared to look at him and see him watching her with simmering heat. “Don’t close your eyes again. If you do, you might find me gone. Keep watching, Viola. I want you to see what you are taking with me. I want to see your reaction, and I want to watch you. See me, not the titles or the wealth. Just me.”
Yes, this was the man she wanted, the direct one, the man who was demanding parity from her now.
He stripped efficiently but without ceremony until he wore only his breeches and stockings. His chest was bare, his nipples crinkled into sharp points. Her mouth watered. Would he allow her to taste him? Or should she just take? What did he like? Would he like her?
Those questions and more rocketed through her as he unfastened the fall of his breeches and stripped them and his underwear off. When he stood, she saw everything.
His member was large, more than she’d imagined, stiff and pointing up. The head looked damp, and a bead of moisture seeped from the tip. Forbidden thoughts entered her mind—tasting, sucking, wrapping her lips around that juicy shaft and tasting him intimately.
“I fear I must be a wanton,” she said. To emphasize the point, she touched her breasts again. Her nipples weren’t soft any more, either.
“You want this?”
“For how long?”
A strange question, surely. “For as long as you will allow me here. With you, naked.”
A slow smile curved his lips. “My answer to you is the same. As long as it lasts.” His eyes promised more than she dared to dream. He’d said he wanted her to see him—the man—but his title and his standing in society were inseparable from that. Even the way he bore himself—proudly and without shame—spoke of it.
Tonight he belonged to her, and she to him. “Are we to stare at each other all night?”
“Perhaps.” He propped his hands on his narrow hips. “What do you see?”
“A man. An earl.”
He shook his head. “Only the man. I don’t see an estate manager’s daughter, only Viola.”
She did not understand what he meant. She was Viola, a woman, and an estate manager’s daughter in all but conception. But she would let him have his way, as long as he let her have her way. “Marcus. Marcus Aurelius Shaw.” Stripped of his title, that was his name. A good one, named after a strong man. He could have made his own way in the world with no trouble at all, just bearing that name and no other.
He cupped his balls and stroked his shaft. “You want this?” A curious expression touched his features, the lines bracketing his mouth deepening fractionally. He had thought of something. She would let him guide her.
“Yes, I do.”
“We shall see,” he said, and at last, at long last, climbed into bed. He pulled her into his arms.
She sighed with sheer pleasure as her breasts grazed his chest. He glanced down and then back at her face.
“We shall see,” he repeated before he kissed her.
He eased her on to her back and came over her, surrounding her as he had before. But he’d never done it naked. His shaft nudged her stomach, as if demanding entry. She knew what should happen next and she opened her legs, eager for him to take possession.
His kiss made her melt. He darted his tongue into her mouth in quick forays, teasing her, and then he finished the kiss and gazed into her eyes. “Remember to keep them open,” he reminded her before dropping sweet, soft kisses on her cheek, her neck, and pausing to tease her throat.
When he nipped her, she yelped in surprise. He had sent a shot of pain around her body, a sharp contrast to the lush waves of pleasure consuming her. The difference sent her soaring.
He did not stop, but kissed further down. Viola held her breath as he pulled a nipple into his mouth and sucked.
His dark hair, unencumbered by his wig but still tied back, tickled her when it swept forward. As he ran his tongue around her nipple, she moaned and squirmed. He covered the other breast with his hand, teasing and plucking until the other peak was stiff and hard. She had not realized her breasts could be so sensitive.
He released the nipple and kissed it lightly. “Such a pretty color. Dusky pink. I shall find a rose that color and dedicate it to you.”
Lavishing her with kisses, he gave the other nipple a similar treatment before moving down once more. He could not be—but she had thought of it, so why should he not think something similar? Dipping his tongue into her navel, he showed her how he could make tingles spread over her torso. They travelled down her arms and legs, so she clenched her fists to keep the sensation.
Down even more. He drew a breath, noisily. “I can’t wait to taste you,” he murmured.
Yes, he was. He was touching her with his tongue. The little peak of flesh at the front of her cleft rose as if to meet him, and then he had it in his mouth. She could say nothing, only gasp and fight to keep her body still. At first warmth spread through her, the peak becoming the center of her body, everything she had to give. He sucked harder and then brought his hand into play. He touched her opening, pressed a finger against it. Would he take her virginity that way? Viola cursed her innocence and wished she knew how she was supposed to respond.
Thoughts fled when her arousal rose to swamp her reasoning, overwhelming her with sheer sensation. As if it had a will of its own, her body jerked up, arched into him. His only response was to hum against her and suck harder.
When he flicked his tongue across the tip, she was lost. Grasping his head, she cried out, heedless of anyone who might hear her, before she crammed her fist into her mouth and bit on the knuckles. If she had not done so, the whole establishment would have heard her screams when she tightened and bucked against him. Ripples turned into a veritable torrent. Viola could not have restrained herself, even had she wanted to.
She was outside herself, a strange experience. Part of her observed the proceedings and condemned them as immoral. That was the part that had always stood outside her, the rational part had warned her and kept her safe.
But tonight she did not want safe. She wanted the man doing wicked, lascivious things to her.
A dreamy lassitude settled over her as Marcus came back to her and eased her into his arms, holding her close. She would have snuggled in and drifted off to sleep, but something made its presence apparent, and guilt rose to swamp her. “But you have not—”
“And will not,” he said softly. “Believe me, what you allowed me to do gave me happiness enough.”
“I want it. I want you.” She did, more than anything.
“Then touch me.”
Grasping her hand, he guided it down to where his shaft still rose hard and hot. She closed her hand around it as much as she could, for it was large enough to give her pause. Then she let him show her what to do. He seemed to want her to move her hand up and down. When she tried to ease her hold, he tightened his hold on hers, so she gripped him more tightly.
“Yes, just like that,” he murmured, his breath hot against the rim of her ear.
When she lifted her chin to see how her actions affected him, he smiled down at her and kissed her. His tongue moved in her mouth in lush praise that went further than words.
She continued the up and down rhythm, hardly noticing when he moved his hand away and laid it on her breast. He kissed her repeatedly, his eyes closed as she worked him.
He paused, completely still, before he rolled on to his back, and covered his eyes with his forearm. He let out groans as he shuddered. Every part of him responded, as she had done in her turn. His shaft pulsed, emitting its seed, which splashed in a hot stream on to his stomach.
His chest heaved as the breath sawed in and out of him. He lay supine, affording her a view that awed and excited her. Naked, Marcus was all man. Hair skimmed his chest, concentrating in a line as it descended to the bush surrounding his member. A shade darker than that on his head, but still with a reddish sheen. He had long, strong legs, sculpted with powerful muscles.
A fine figure of a man, and for tonight at least, all hers.
Tilting his head to one side, he let his arm fall and met her gaze. “What are you looking at?”
“Not just my cock?”
Oh, that word, used by country folk. She had not known a word could contain so much power, but when he said it, it did.
He took a corner of the sheet and roughly cleaned himself before swinging off the bed and going to the washstand to do it more thoroughly. That action gave her a fine view of his back—the rounded buttocks she had a sudden urge to feel under her hands and the long, strong muscles either side of his spine and framing his shoulders.
Glancing at her over his shoulder, he smiled. “Do you need anything?”
“Now those are words every man longs to hear.” He strolled back to her. Although she had pulled the sheet over herself, she felt vulnerable, and she loved it. He could do whatever he wanted to her. She had put herself in his power, and she could not wait for more.
He settled next to her and pulled her into his arms. “We should get some sleep before we leave. We have to be up early, don’t forget.”
Even Viola in her inexperience knew the night was incomplete. “But you haven’t…” How to say it?
Luckily, he got her gist. “We will not. Not tonight.” He gave her a soft kiss, passion temporarily gone. “I do not want to limit your choices, Viola. If you choose me, it will be because you want to, not because I have forced you into it. But I do have one request.”
“What’s that?” His reasoning came from the heart and because of that, Viola could accept it. Reluctantly. She had done her job as far as she could. Falling on him as soon as they had entered the room was the only way she could have shown him she wanted him. While disappointed he had not taken her, she had to accept his reasons.
“We arrive in London as a betrothed couple and we remain that way until we have tracked down who wants you and why.”
“Will the task be easy?”
“We shall see.” His voice gained a grim tone. “I will discover it, though. Never fear that. When it’s over, you may break the engagement, if you will.”
Jilt him. Not that anyone would mourn her loss. Marcus was too good a catch. Once society knew he was looking for a bride, young ladies would flock around him.
She didn’t want to do that, especially now. But she might have to, in the interests of fairness.
When he pulled her into his arms, Viola had no difficulty sliding into slumber. With his scent surrounding her, their bodies pressed close together, she slept better than she had ever in her life before. For now, she forgot her troubles. Tomorrow was time enough.Chapter 10
Dressing seemed wonderfully intimate. He helped her with her stays and petticoats, and she fastened his stock for him. Not without a few kisses punctuating the process of making themselves decent. Viola almost hated leaving the shabby little room.
Another day of weary travel later, after jolting through Northampton, they stopped for the night at Huntingdon. The coachman told them they would reach London the next day. However, Viola was not a little surprised to discover Marcus had bespoken two rooms for them at the inn. They ate in the main inn-room. The food was considerably better than at Lincoln. They lingered over their repast of an excellent mutton stew and oysters, accompanied by apple pie with local cheese. That was when Marcus told Viola he had been fortunate to obtain them a room each.
The other passengers, who had come to view the young couple as their own private romance, frowned.
Marcus continued smoothly, “We must be well rested for our arrival tomorrow. My cousin will have planned several entertainments for us. And you know you sleep better on your own.”
She knew no such thing, and so she told him indignantly when he escorted her upstairs. The night before as dusk was falling they had been engaged in activity so pleasurable she had not noticed anything but him. But tonight, she was to retire with dignity.
Her spirits rose when he went into her room with her. Even more when she saw the neat arrangement of the furniture and the larger size.
As if driven to do it, he pulled her roughly into his arms and kissed her. She arched her back so his hand fit comfortably into the hollow and curled her arm around his neck, the hated bob wig tickling her wrist and fingers. She would have pulled it off, but he drew away. His eyes had that dark, wild look she adored.
“If I spend another night in your bed I will take what I am not entitled to have,” he said.
“My virginity? It is not so precious.” She no longer considered that puny piece of skin of any importance. Not when he could give her so much pleasure removing it.
“Consequences could happen. I will not remove the choice from you.”
“What if I don’t want the choice? What if I give it to you freely?”
He groaned and set his forehead against hers. “I feel it in my bones, Viola. It’s not right to do this to you. Not in an inn room, not hurriedly or furtively. You deserve better. Although I doubt I would hold off for long if you insisted. Please don’t. Not until we know exactly what is happening and who is chasing you. Marriage is for life. It should not be rushed into.”
And so the thoughtful, rational Earl of Malton returned, the man she’d known for so long. He thought every decision through and that, it appeared, included this one.
“But someone has seen us,” she felt compelled to point out.
“Lord Frederick believes we have a duenna with us. He would also believe we are traveling in a chaise or a private carriage. Not on a stage coach, unchaperoned, with the riff-raff of the country drumming a tattoo on the roof.”
The top passengers had not been silent, that was true, but Viola had put it down to the whole experience of her first long-distance journey. She would probably return home in style, but when she thought of it, her heart plummeted to her shoes. Because she might be traveling alone.
Once he spoke, she knew he was right. If he was not willing, and it appeared he was not, it would be unfair to seduce him into marriage. If he took her completely, broke her maidenhead and made her his, he would marry her come what may. She could not do that to him any more than he could compel her.
She slept badly.
* * * *
The next day the coach rumbled on, but as they approached the city, traffic grew more dense and the coachman’s curses more colorful. The horses slowed even more than they had during the rest of the journey, when they had rarely gone above a walk. They had to wait for other drivers to pass or for a comfortable collection of vehicles to gather so they could cross the more dangerous areas close to London in a group. “Highwaymen love it here,” Marcus commented. “There are rich pickings, if they are not caught.”
“They are almost always caught,” the curate remarked.
“Who knows?” Marcus answered. “The authorities like to claim so, but we have no way of knowing.”
True enough. Although her part of the country was not devoid of highway robbery, either. Viola shivered when she recollected the road between Haxby and Scarborough and what could have happened to them there. Any attack on them could have been put down to a random robbery, if nobody was left alive to gainsay the claim.
They crossed the dangerous Heath in a group with some private vehicles and another stage coach. Marcus shaded his face with his hat, appearing so sinister Viola was forced to laugh at him, but he did not join in.
An hour later, she watched, fascinated, as London passed by the windows. Like her own private panorama, scenes rolled past, small dramas she would never know the end of. A pickpocket snatched a handkerchief from the pocket of a man who immediately cried out and ran after the boy. Would the pickpocket get away, or would the man apprehend him? What would happen to the handkerchief? Sold in a shop, like the one where she and Marcus had obtained their clothes?
Clothes she was now heartily sick of. She would never wear the scratchy, ugly riding habit again.
Ladies gathered around a print shop window, laughing at something inside. What was it? A caricature of the royal family? It came as a shock to realize the subjects could be Marcus’s family. The Emperors were powerful and numerous, notorious and famous for the extent of their reach. They had members in the City and county, in court and the law courts.
The coach made its way to Ludgate Hill, the massive dome of St. Paul’s dominating the top of the peak. Viola stared at it in wonder. “How does it hold together? Why does it not just fall down?”
“Engineering,” Marcus answered. “Should you like to visit?”
“Very much.” While Lincoln Cathedral was a marvel of the Middle Ages, St. Paul’s was less than sixty years old, belonging to the modern era. Its air of serene immortality was deceiving.
The coach swung into another inn yard, and relief flooded through her, together with a tinge of regret. Their journey was ending.
They clambered out once the roof passengers had climbed down. Marcus linked her arm through his and went to the back of the coach to collect their bag. The measly single leather bag that had managed to collect a few more scuffs on their journey looked paltry next to the huge trunks some had travelled with. Nobody took any notice of them. The yard was crowded, but she could see no stables at the side. “What do they do with the horses?”
“Underground,” he said briefly. “The stables are under the yard. Property is too valuable in the city for them to waste it on stables.”
“Goodness!” she said faintly. She had expected they kept the horses some distance away. “What an ingenious solution.”
He cast her an amused glance. “I suppose it is. Seeing London through your eyes promises to be very interesting. You will show me things I took for granted before, will you not?”
“I shall try,” she said primly, and received a shout of laughter as her reward.
Outside the inn, people rushed hither and thither. They were intent on business that must be the most important in the world, from the way they refused to slacken their pace. Buildings lined Ludgate Hill, narrow at the front but stretching up to four stories and more, as if some giant had squashed them between his great hands. Two men ran by, a sedan chair between them, the poles in their hands.
Everything was soot-stained, and despite the warm weather, chimneys smoked, adding to the miasma that hung over the great city.
A lady wearing a preposterously large hoop pushed past, cursing under her breath. Marcus shocked her by emitting a sharp whistle.
“What did you do that for?” she demanded.
A cab with faded, cracked paint halted. The poor beast drawing it drooped his head, his blinkers denying him of everything except the road ahead. Marcus opened the door for her and shouted an address to the man, tossing him a shilling. The bright silver turned over in the air before the man deftly snatched and pocketed it. He wore a mishmash of clothes, the bright green of his coat warring with the blue waistcoat for attention.
He tipped his cocked hat. “Right y’are, sir,” he said.
She climbed aboard and made room for Marcus. They were going to Mayfair. She had never imagined visiting Marcus’s exalted family like this, in a shabby riding habit, drawn by an equally shabby cab.
The carriage rocked its way through the streets, passing the raucous and animated city to the quieter Thames-side mansions. Awestruck, Viola gazed over the broad expanse of the river. “I didn’t realize it was so big.”
“It matches the city,” he said, his voice revealing warmth. “It will be my pleasure to show you some of it.”
“After I make myself decent.”
“After that.” Warmth changed to amusement. “I’m sure my sisters will help you.”
The gracious squares and streets of Mayfair were a recent addition to London. They reached as far as Hyde Park, which Marcus referred to casually as “The Park.” Even the newer establishments were soot-blackened, but not as badly. Soot-shrouded might be a better description. These streets had pavements, broad areas lifted an inch or more from the level of the road. Watchmen’s boxes, like upturned coffins with hoods punctuated the corners, and brackets outside the shiny black front doors revealed where torches would be mounted after nightfall.
Many of the doors were without knockers, a sign the residents were not at home. That sent relief washing through her, the knowledge London was not crowded with the great of society. Fewer people to witness the jilting of Marcus Aurelius.
She did not want to hurt him, especially after the way he had cared for her. He deserved better, so much better than her.
The carriage drew up outside an imposing residence, the knocker still firmly in place. Marcus leaped down and held out his hand to help her. She took it without hesitation, remarking how easy that simple act had become. Yet still she thrilled to his touch. Two nights ago she had spent the night curled into his embrace, the safest she had ever felt in her life.
They did not have to ply the knocker or pull the bell mounted beside the door. As they climbed the shallow steps, the door opened, revealing a footman clad in familiar silver-and-blue. Showing no surprise at Marcus’s dress, even the terrible wig, he bowed. “Welcome home, my lord.”
“Thank you. Have hot water prepared, will you? Enough for two baths.”
Oh, yes. She would love a bath. The thought made her sigh with pleasure.
“Is anyone in?”
“His lordship is in the bookroom and her ladyship is entertaining in the drawing room.”
The marchioness would not appreciate a vagabond such as Viola appeared. She felt out of place in this marble hall, the staircase rising in a graceful arch to a landing above. The wrought-iron balustrade was gleaming with polishing. Viola felt grubby. Shewasgrubby. She had not managed her customary all-over wash since she had left Haxby, the inns not providing the privacy or the hot water she required.
After her bath, she would have to scramble back into the hated riding habit. That did not fill her with pleasure.
“Send a maid to Miss Gates, will you? Her maid was taken ill on the journey and we were forced to send her back to Haxby.”
The footman deigned to cast a jaded look on to Viola. “Indeed, sir.” He was a London servant, so Viola did not know him.
“My sisters will be pleased to see their old playfellow. Are they available?”
“I will inform Lady Drusilla and Lady Livia you have arrived.”
“Put her in the bedroom at the back. The one with the blue drapery.” Marcus smiled at her and lifted her hand, brushing his lips across her knuckles. “I will see you at dinner, if not before,” he said.
His gaze spoke of the intimacy they had shared. She had to fight against blushing.
A maid appeared as if from nowhere. The stairs to the basement, the servants’ domain, were not obvious in this style of house. When Viola visited her aunt in York, she stayed in a vastly different style of establishment, built two hundred years before this one. The layout was completely different.
“If you will come this way, ma’am, I will show you to your bedroom.” The maid all but sniffed.
Viola followed her meekly up the stairs and past a pair of closed double doors, where feminine laughter and murmurs sounded softly. They climbed another flight to the bedroom level. “His lordship has requested we put you in here,” the maid said, and opened the door.
The bedroom that met her gaze was utterly lovely, the kind of place she would have designed for herself if she’d had the opportunity. Blue sprigged silk hung from the bed canopy, the same fabric covering the daybed and the chair by the window. Just the place to sit and read a book.
Crossing the room, Viola looked at the garden. A swath of greenery sprinkled with rose bushes and flowerbeds met her eyes. She would hardly believe she was in the city, apart from the distant sound of passing traffic in the street.
Someone knocked at the door, and another maid entered, followed by another, both carrying huge cans of hot water. A footman followed with a large bath and towels.
Viola gave herself up to the attention of the maids. Two of them stripped her and helped her to climb in the bath, washing her with efficiency, including her hair. They dropped fragrant flower petals on to the surface of the water. The water felt heavenly. Then they left her to lean back and rest her head on the edge of the bath.
Viola dreamed of a life spent bathing and loving, attending the highest in society and being feted as a great beauty. Well, she could dream. And at the center of her life, Marcus would remain.
She sat up hurriedly as the door opened, admitting Marcus’s sisters, Livia and Drusilla. Except they were the Ladies Livia and Drusilla, of course.
They demonstrated no such attention to their state. They tossed a pile of fabric on to the bed and joined her, where the bath was set before the fire.
“Marcus says he has proposed to you!” Drusilla was all smiles. They had played together, and while Marcus’s friendship with her was curtailed, the family had allowed her to remain friendly with the girls.
“Yes, he did,” she said, but she could hardly be more forthcoming with the maids still bustling around the room. No doubt London servants gossiped as much as their country counterparts. While the Shaw family travelled with its closest servants, they had a different establishment in town. The butler, not present today, and the ladies’ maids and valets were familiar faces, but not the housemaids and most of the footmen.
“We could not be happier,” Livia said. “Since Claudia left, we’ve had a gap at the dining table.”
Livia and Claudia were twins, and Livia probably missed her sister more than the rest of the family did. Claudia had recently married—a blissful match, by all accounts—leaving her sisters to find their own happiness.
They would find it soon. That was a given truth. They were rich, pretty, and well connected. How could they fail?
On the other hand, Viola would watch the man she had given her heart to marry a well-connected, beautiful lady of fashion. Why would he have her, when he could have someone like his sisters?
Determined not to repine, she signaled the maids she was done, and they helped her out of the tub. The water was decidedly murky, but better there than on her. Roads were dusty, and when they weren’t dusty they were muddy. The maids wrapped her in thick towels and wrapped another around her hair.
“I feel more like me again,” Viola said.
“We brought you clothes,” Drusilla said. She was a lively maiden of twenty-six, the same age as Viola.
Her sister was two years younger. Now Claudia was gone, they were pushed together. Although Drusilla, as the single child between two sets of twins, had not always felt completely comfortable in the family group. She and Viola had played their imaginary games and learned to sew together. Viola had shared Drusilla’s lessons, and for a time they had been as close as sisters. But Viola had made the break between them. Although Dru had offered to ask her mother if Viola could accompany them to London and come out with her, Viola had seen the foolishness of the plan. She gently refused. How could she do that when she had no dowry to offer, nor was she unbelievably good looking? Either of which would have secured her a place in society. Or even better, both. Dru had both. Viola was constantly surprised Dru had not received an offer. Perhaps she had and decided against the gentleman.
“Thank you for the clothes. I will return them in perfect condition.”
“No you will not,” Dru said. “We chose clothes that would suit you on condition you accompany us to the mantua-maker to select new ones.”
“So I am the excuse for a shopping expedition?” she asked, amused despite her intentions to return the garments.
“Indeed you are. That green silk becomes me not at all. I knew when I tried it on it was a mistake. You may keep your maid busy for a time, adjusting them to the latest mode. Some have lingered at the bottom of the clothes press for years.”
Viola rolled her eyes. “So long!” But she was glad she would not have to appear at dinner wearing the riding habit. Rather than that, she would have taken her meal in her room.
“You may refashion the pink,” Livia said. “I do believe any color becomes you.”
“You have never seen me in dark brown,” she said. “Or olive green,” she added, recalling the riding habit.
Dru glanced at the maid. “The rose pink would probably be best for dinner tonight.”
Goodness. They had even thought of stays. A pair of Dru’s would do until she could bespeak her own. Hers were so well-worn as to be useless. She had left all her good clothes at home.
Dru and Livia would not leave until the last minute, declaring they would scramble into their gowns in no time at all, which meant half an hour before the family was due to collect in the drawing room. At least, according to Drusilla, they were not expecting guests tonight.
When she walked into the drawing room, becomingly attired for a change, her hair dressed into a pretty style with the curls she had longed for brushing her shoulders, she was surprised to find Julius, Earl of Winterton there. Or more precisely, Julius Caesar, Earl of Winterton, heir to the Duke of Kirkburton, cousin to the Shaw siblings.
Also a man who intimidated with a look. His effortless air of command seemed inborn and terrifying. He had defied his even more terrifying father more than once.
He greeted her like an equal, bowing to her curtsey and taking her fingers with a smile. His lips did not touch her hand, but remained a polite inch above it. His brilliant blue eyes gazed into hers. “Congratulations, my dear. I hope you are both very happy. I claim the privilege of taking Miss Gates in to dinner. Precedence demands it.” He was magnificent. It was a wonder people had not called himIl Magnifico, but someone else had claimed that epithet before him. He was dressed perfectly, his pure white wig set on his head, his buttons glittering with brilliants. Either that or diamonds.
“But Lord Malton is an earl too,” she protested.
“He is the heir to a marquess. I’m the heir to a duke. It is a near thing, but I scrape through.” He offered his arm and glanced back at Marcus.
Marcus grimaced at him.
Lady Strenshall nodded. “Shall we go in?”
The footman flung open the door, and Lord Winterton led her into the dining room. He seated her himself. “I beg your pardon if I upset your numbers,” he said to his hostess.
Lady Strenshall waved her fan. “Don’t consider it for a minute. We areen famille. Let us be as informal as we usually are.”
In informal terms, Lord and Lady Strenshall, who she could never call anything else, topped and tailed the long table. Between sat Dru, Livia, the twins Valentinian and Darius, and of course Marcus. All Emperors, except, strictly speaking, Lord and Lady Strenshall and her. The lady was the sister of the Duke of Kirkburton, Lord Winterton’s father, so they were first cousins.