Authors: Sarah Mallory
‘Sarah Mallory’s nameis set to become a favourite with readers of historicalromantic fiction the world over!’
‘MORE THAN A GOVERNESS is a richly woven taleof passion, intrigue and suspense that deserves a placeon your keeper shelf!’
‘You know what people are saying about you and Mortimer?’
She recoiled a little.
‘I neither know nor care,’ she retorted.
‘I would not have you dishonour your husband’s name, madam.’
Her eyes darkened angrily.
‘How dare you suggest I would do that?’
Her eyes darted fire, and she moved forward as if to engage with him. Jack could not look away: his gaze was locked with hers and he felt as if he was drowning in the blue depths of her eyes. She was so close that her perfume filled his head, suspending reason. A sudden, fierce desire coursed through him. He reached out and grabbed her, pulling her close, and as her lips parted to object he captured them with his own. He felt her tremble in his arms, then she was still, her mouth yielding and compliant beneath the onslaught of his kiss.Disgrace and DesireSarah Mallory
Every book is special to its author, and DISGRACE AND DESIRE is no exception. It is the story of exceptional friendship and loyalty as well as love.
Eloise’s childhood friend Alex sums her up perfectly when he says of her, ‘She was loyal to a fault, and often took the blame for our pranks…She spent most of her time rescuing us from our more outlandish scrapes.’
This was the premise for my story of a widow who is so fiercely loyal to the memory of her husband that she will go to almost any lengths to protect his good name, even risking her own reputation. She is aptly named, too, after Heloise, the lover of Peter Abelard and a woman revered for her fidelity and piety.
I wanted a very special hero to complement my heroine, and Major Jack Clifton came striding onto the scene. Darkly handsome, an honourable soldier and intensely chivalrous, Jack comes from the bloody battlefield of Waterloo to the glittering ballrooms of London to fulfil a promise made to a dying colleague, and he finds Lady Allyngham is not the shy, retiring widow he was expecting! He is captivated by her beauty but increasingly intrigued by her behaviour: is her reputation as a wicked flirt merely a façade?
Eloise discovers that she is attracted to the dashing Major in a way she has never experienced before, and she is torn between her new love and old loyalties. She doesn’t want Jack to think badly of her, and she needs his help, yet she is not prepared to confess to him her secrets—secrets that she says are not hers to share.
Eloise needs to protect the reputation of her friend and the good name of Allyngham, and also defeat the villain who threatens to expose her before she can even consider winning Jack’s love. It’s a tall order, but this is, after all, a romance, so there must be a way. I hope you enjoy her story.About the Author
SARAH MALLORYwas born in Bristol, and now lives in an old farmhouse on the edge of the Pennines with her husband and family. She left grammar school at sixteen, to work in companies as varied as stockbrokers, marine engineers, insurance brokers, biscuit manufacturers and even a quarrying company. Her first book was published shortly after the birth of her daughter. She has published more than a dozen books under the pen-name of Melinda Hammond, winning the Reviewers’ Choice Award in 2005 fromSingletitles.comforDance for a Diamondand the Historical Novel Society’s Editors’ Choice in November 2006 forGentlemen in Question.
Recent novels by the same author:
THE WICKED BARON MORE THAN A GOVERNESS (part ofOn Mothering Sunday)WICKED CAPTAIN, WAYWARD WIFE THE EARL’S RUNAWAY BRIDE
For Dave, Roger and Norman, my very first heroes!Prologue
Major Jack Clifton dragged one grimy sleeve across his brow. The battle had been raging all day near the little village of Waterloo. The tall fields of rye grass had been trampled into the ground as wave after wave of cavalry charged the British squares between bouts of deadly artillery fire. A smoky grey cloud hung over the battlefield and the bright colours of the uniforms were muted by a thick film of dust and mud.
‘Look,’ said his sergeant, pointing to the far ridge. ‘That’s Bonaparte up there!’
A nervous murmur ran through the square.
‘Aye,’ Jack countered cheerfully. ‘And Wellington’s behind us, watching our every move.’
‘So ’e is,’ grinned the sergeant. ‘Well, then, let’s show the Duke we ain’t afraid of those Frenchies.’
Another cavalry charge came thundering towards them, only to fall back in a welter of mud, blood and confusion. Jack rallied his men, knowing that as long as he stayed calm the square would hold. A sudden flurry of activity caught his attention and a party of soldiers approached him, carrying someone in a blanket.
‘Lord Allyngham, Major,’ called one of the men as they laid their burden on the ground. ‘Took a cannonball in his shoulder. He was asking for you.’
The bloodied figure on the blanket raised his hand.
‘Clifton. Is he here?’
Jack dropped on one knee beside him. He averted his eyes from the shattered shoulder.
‘I’m here, my lord.’
Jack took the raised hand.
‘I’m here, Tony.’
His calm words seemed to reassure Lord Allyngham.
‘Letters,’ he muttered. ‘In my jacket. Will you see they are sent back to England, Jack? One for my wife, one for Mortimer, my…neighbour. Important…that they get them.’
‘Of course. I’ll make sure they are sent tonight with the despatches.’
Jack glanced up at the sergeant.
‘Take him back, Robert, and get a surgeon—’
‘No.’ The grip on his hand suddenly tightened. ‘No point: I know I’m done for.’
‘Nonsense,’ growled Jack. ‘We’ll have the sawbones patch you up—’
The glazed eyes seemed to clear and gain focus as he looked at Jack.
‘Not enough left to patch,’ he gasped. ‘No, Jack, listen to me! One more thing—do I still have my hand?’
Jack glanced at the mangled mess of blood and bone that was his left side.
‘Aye, you do.’
‘Good. Can you take my ring? And the locket—on a ribbon about my neck. Take ’em back to my wife, will you? In person,Jack. I’ll not trust these damned carriers with anything so dear. Take ’em now, my friend.’ He gritted his teeth against the pain as he struggled to pull a silk ribbon from beneath his jacket.
‘Be assured, Tony, I’ll deliver them in person,’ said Jack quietly, easing the ring from the bloodied little finger.
‘I’m obliged to you.’ He closed his eyes. ‘Good woman, Eloise. Very loyal. Deserved better. Tell her—’ He broke off, wincing. He clutched at Jack’s hand again. ‘Tell her to be happy.’
Jack dropped the locket and the ring into his pocket and carefully buttoned the flap.
‘I will, you have my word. And if there is anything I can do to help Lady Allyngham, be sure I shall do it.’
‘Thank you. Mortimer will look after her while she is in mourning but after that, keep an eye on her for me, Jack. She’s such an innocent little thing.’
A sudden shout went up. Jack looked up. For the past few moments he had been oblivious of the noise of the battle raging around him. Allyngham opened his eyes.
‘What is it, why are they shouting?’
All around them the men were beginning to cheer.
‘The French are in retreat,’ said Jack, his voice not quite steady.
Allyngham nodded, his cracked lips stretching into a smile.
‘Damnation, I knew the Duke would do it.’ He waved his hand. ‘Go now, Major. Go and do your duty. My men will look after me here.’
An ensign at his side nodded.
‘Aye, we’ll take care of him, sir,’ he said, tears in his eyes. ‘You may be sure we won’t leave him.’
Jack looked down at the pain-racked face. Lord Allyngham gave a strained smile and said, ‘Off you go, my friend.’
Jack rose and followed his men down the hill in pursuit of the French, who were now in full flight.
‘Steady, lads,’ he called, drawing his sword. ‘We’ll chase ’em all the way to Paris!’
In the drawing room of Allyngham Park, Eloise stood by one of the long windows, gazing out across the park, but the fine view swam before her eyes. There were two sheets of paper clutched in her hand and she glanced down at them before placing them upon the console table beside her. It would be useless to try to read while her eyes were so full of tears. She took out her handkerchief. It was already damp and of little use in drying her cheeks.
‘Mr Mortimer, my lady.’
At the butler’s solemn pronouncement she turned to see Alex Mortimer standing in the doorway. His naturally fair countenance was paler than ever and there was a stricken look in his eyes.
‘You have heard?’ She forced the words out.
‘Yes.’ He pulled a letter from his pocket. ‘I came over as soon as this arrived. I am so very sorry.’
With a cry she flew across the room and threw herself upon his chest.
‘Oh Alex, he is d-dead,’ she sobbed. ‘What are we going to do?’
She felt a shudder run through him. For a long while they sat on the sofa with their arms around each other. The shadows lengthened in the room and at last Eloise gently released herself.
‘It says he d-died at the end of the day, and…and he knewthat the battle was won.’ She dabbed at her eyes with the edge of the fine linen fichu that covered her shoulders.
‘Then at least he knew he had not died in vain.’ Alex had turned away but she knew he, too, was wiping away the tears. ‘I had the news from a Major Clifton. He enclosed Tony’s last message to me.’
Eloise rose and took a deep breath, striving for some semblance of normality. She walked over to pick up the papers.
‘Yes, that is the name here, too. He says Tony gave him our letters to send on.’ She swallowed painfully. ‘Tony knew what danger he was facing. He…he wrote to say goodbye to us.’
Alex nodded. ‘He bids me look after you, until you marry again.’
‘Oh.’ Eloise put her hands over her face. ‘I shall never marry again,’ she said at last.
Alex put his hands on her shoulders.
‘Elle, you do not know that.’
‘Oh, I do,’ she sobbed, ‘I doubt there is another man in the world as good, and kind, and generous as Tony Allyngham.’
‘How can I disagree with that?’ He gave her a sad little smile. ‘And yet you are young, too young to bury yourself away here at Allyngham.’
She held up Tony’s last letter.
‘He has asked me to ensure that our plans for the foundling hospital go ahead. You will remember we discussed it just before he left for Brussels.’ She sighed. ‘How typical that when he was facing such danger Tony should think of others.’
He took her hand, saying gently, ‘My dear, you will be able to do nothing until the formalities are complete. You will need to summon your man of business, and notify everyone.’
‘Yes, yes.’ She clutched his fingers. ‘You will help me, will you not, Alex? You won’t leave me?’
He patted her hand.
‘No, I won’t leave. How could I, when my heart is here?’Chapter One
It was more than a year after the decisive battle at Waterloo that Jack Clifton returned to England. As he rode away from his comrades and the army, which had been his life for more than a decade, there were two commissions that he had assigned himself before he could attend to his own affairs. One was to return Allyngham’s ring and locket to his widow, but first he would make a trip to a small country churchyard in Berkshire.
The little village outside Thatcham was deserted and there was no one to see the dusty traveller tie his horse to the gatepost of the churchyard. Jack shrugged off his greatcoat and threw it over the saddle. The rain that had accompanied him all the way from the coast had eased and now a hot September sun blazed overhead. He strode purposefully between the graves until he came to a small plot in one corner, shaded by the overhanging beech trees. The grave was marked only by a headstone. There were no flowers on the grassy mound and he was momentarily surprised, then his lip curled.
‘Who is there but me to mourn your passing?’ he muttered.
He knelt beside the grave, gently placing a bunch of white roses against the headstone.
‘For you, Clara. I pray you are at peace now.’
He rose, removed his hat and stood, bareheaded in the sun for a few moments then, squaring his shoulders, he turned away from the grave and set his mind towards London.
Eloise clutched at her escort’s arm as they entered Lady Parham’s crowded reception rooms.
‘I am glad you are with me, Alex, to give me courage.’
‘You have never wanted courage, Elle.’
She managed one speaking look at him before she turned to greet her hostess, who was sweeping towards her, beaming.
‘My dear Lady Allyngham! I am delighted to see you here. And honoured, too, that you should attend my little ball when everyone is quitedesperatefor your company! Some expected to see you in the summer, but depend upon it, I said, we will not see Lady Allyngham until the Little Season. She will not come to town until the full twelve months’ mourning is done. As the widow of a hero of Waterloo we should not expect anything less. And Mr Mortimer, too. Welcome, sir.’
Lady Parham’s sharp little eyes flickered over Alex. Eloise knew exactly the thoughts running through her hostess’s mind and felt a little kick of anger. Everyone in town thought Alex was her lover. Nothing she could say would convince them otherwise, so she did not make the attempt. Besides, it suited her purposes to have the world think she was Alex’s mistress. She had seen too many virtuous women hounded by rakes and roués until their resolve crumbled away. At least while the gentlemen thought she was living under Alex’s protection they might flirt with her but they would not encroach upon another man’s territory. Yet occasionally it galled her, whenshe saw that knowing look in the eyes of hostesses such as Lady Parham.
Twelve months of mourning had done much to assuage the feelings of grief and loss that had overwhelmed Eloise when she had learned of Tony’s death. Through those lonely early weeks Alex had always been there to support her and to share her suffering. He was a true friend: they had grown up together and she loved him as a brother. She did not want the world to think him a deceitful womaniser who would steal his best friend’s husband, but Alex assured her he was happy to be thought of as hercicisbeo.
‘If it satisfies their curiosity then we should let it be,’ he told her, adding with a rueful smile, ‘Much less dangerous than the truth, Elle.’
And Eloise was forced to admit it kept the wolves at bay. Now she fixed her smile as she regarded her hostess, determined no one should think her anything less than happy.
‘Mr Mortimer was kind enough to escort me this evening.’
‘La, but you need no escort to my parties, dear ma’am. I am sure you will find only friends here.’
‘Yes, the sort of friends who smile and simper and cannot wait to tear my character to shreds behind my back,’ muttered Eloise, when her hostess had turned her attention to another arrival. Angrily she shook out the apricot skirts of her high-waisted gown.
‘They are jealous because you cast them all into the shade,’ remarked Alex.
‘I did not think it would be so difficult,’ sighed Eloise, ‘coming back into society again.’
‘We could always go back to Allyngham.’
‘If I were not so determined to get on with fulfilling Tony’s last wish to build a foundling hospital I would leave now!’muttered Eloise angrily. After a moment she squeezed Alex’s arm and gave a rueful little smile. ‘No, in truth, I would not. I have no wish to be an outcast and live all my life in the country. I am no recluse, Alex. I want to be able to come to London and—anddance,or visit the theatre, or join a debating society. But I could do none of these things if you were not with me, my friend.’
‘You could, if you would only hire yourself a respectable companion.’
She pulled a face.
‘That might give me respectability, but I would still be vulnerable. Even worse, it might make people think I was on the catch for another husband.’
‘And is there anything wrong with that?’
‘Everything,’ she retorted. ‘I have been my own mistress for far too long to want to change my situation.’
‘But you might fall in love, you know.’
She glanced up at him and found herself responding to his smile.
‘I might, of course, but it is unlikely.’ She squeezed his arm. ‘I have some experience of a sincere, deep devotion, Alex. Only a true meeting of minds could persuade me to contemplate another marriage. But such a partnership is very rare, I think.’
‘It is,’ said Alex solemnly. ‘To love someone in that way, and to know that you are loved in return, it is the greatest blessing imaginable.’
Eloise was silent for a moment, considering his words.
‘And I could settle for nothing less,’ she said softly. She looked up and smiled. ‘But these are grave thoughts, and unsuitable for a party! Suffice it to say, my friend, that I am very happy to have you as my protector.’
‘Then you must also accept the gossip,’ he told her. ‘It is nodifferent from when Tony was in the Peninsula and I escorted you to town.’
‘But itis,Alex. Somehow, the talk seems so much more salacious when one is a widow.’
He patted her arm.
‘You will grow accustomed, I am sure. But never mind that now.’ He looked around the room. ‘I cannot see Berrow here.’
‘No, I thought if he was going to be anywhere this evening it would be here, for Lord Parham is an old friend. Oh, devil take the man, why is he so elusive?’
‘You could write to him.’
‘My lawyer has been writing to him for these past six months to no avail,’ she replied bitterly. ‘That is why I want to see him for myself.’
‘To charm him into giving you what you want?’ asked Alex, smiling.
‘Well, yes. But to do that I need to find him. Still, the night is young; he may yet arrive.’
‘And until then you are free to enjoy yourself,’ said Alex. ‘Do you intend to dance this evening, my lady?’
‘You know I do, Alex. I have been longing to dance again for the past several months.’
He made her a flourishing bow.
‘Then will my lady honour me with the next two dances?’
Alex Mortimer was an excellent dancer and Eloise enjoyed standing up with him. She would not waltz, of course: that would invite censure. She wondered bitterly why she worried so about it. Waltzing was a small misdemeanour compared to the gossip that was spreading about her after only a few weeks in London—already she was being called the WantonWidow, a title she hated but would endure, if it protected those she loved. Eight years ago, when Lord Anthony Allyngham had first introduced his beautiful wife to society everyone agreed he was a very lucky man: his lady was a treasure and he guarded her well. During his years fighting in the Peninsula he had asked Alex to accompany Eloise to town, but it was only now that she realised the full meaning of the knowing looks they had received and the sly comments. It angered her that anyone should think her capable of betraying her marriage vows, even more that they should think ill of Alex, but since the truth was even more shocking, she and Alex had agreed to keep up the pretence.
The arrival of the beautiful Lady Allyngham at Parham House had been eagerly awaited and Eloise soon had a group of gentlemen around her. She spread her favours evenly amongst them, giving one gentleman a roguish look over the top of her fan while a second whispered fulsome compliments in her ear and a third hovered very close, quizzing glass raised, with the avowed intention of studying the flowers of her corsage.
She smiled at them all, using her elegant wit to prevent any man from becoming too familiar, all the time comfortable in the knowledge that Alex was in the background, watching out for her. She was surprised to find, at five-and-twenty, that the gentlemen considered her as beautiful and alluring as ever and they were falling over themselves to win a friendly glance from the widow’s entrancing blue eyes. The ladies might look askance at her behaviour but the gentlemen adored her. And even while they were shaking their heads and commiserating with her over the loss of her husband, each one secretly hoped to be the lucky recipient of her favours. Eloise did her best to discourage any young man who might develop a serioustendrefor her—she had no desire to marry again and wanted no broken hearts at her feet—but she was willing to indulgeany gentlemen in a flirtation, secure in the knowledge that Alex would ensure it did not get out of hand.
It could not be denied that such attention was intoxicating. Eloise danced and laughed her way through the evening and when Alex suggested they should go down to supper she almost ran ahead of him out of the ballroom, fanning herself vigorously.
‘Dear me, I had forgotten how much I enjoy parties, but I am quite out of practice! And perhaps I should not have had a third glass of—oh!’
She broke off as she collided with someone in the doorway.
Eloise found herself staring at a solid wall of dark blue. She blinked and realised it was the front of a gentleman’s fine woollen evening coat. She thought that he must be very big, for she had always considered herself to be tall and yet her eyes were only level with the broad shoulder to which this particular coat was moulded. Her eyes travelled across to the snow-white neckcloth, tied in exquisite folds, and moved up until they reached the strong chin and mobile mouth. For a long time she felt herself unable to look beyond those finely sculpted lips with the faint laughter lines etched at each side. It was quite the most beautiful mouth she had ever seen. A feeling she had never before experienced thrummed through her. With a shock she realised what it was. Desire.
Summoning all her resources, she moved her glance upwards to meet a pair of deep brown eyes set beneath straight black brows. Almost immediately she saw a gleam of amusement creep into those dark eyes.
‘I beg your pardon, madam.’
He spoke slowly but did not drawl, his voice deep and rich and it wrapped around Eloise like a warm cloak, sending atinyfrissonof excitement running down her spine. Really, she must pull herself together!
‘Pray think nothing of it, sir…’
‘But I must, Lady Allyngham.’
She had been enjoying the sound of his voice, running over her like honey, but at the use of her name she gave a little start.
‘You know who I am?’
He gave her a slow smile. Eloise wondered if she had taken too much wine, for all at once she felt a little dizzy.
‘You were described to me as the most beautiful woman in the room.’
She had thought herself immune to flattery, but she was inordinately pleased by his words. She did not know whether to be glad or sorry when she felt Alex’s hand under her elbow.
‘Shall we get on, my lady?’
‘Yes,’ she said, her eyes still fixed upon the smiling stranger. ‘Yes, I suppose we must.’
Really, she felt quite light-headed. Just how many glasses of wine had she taken?
The stranger was standing aside. The candlelight gleamed on his black hair and one glossy raven’s lock fell forwards as he bowed to her. Eloise quelled an impulse to reach out and smooth it back from his temple.
Alex firmly propelled her through the doorway and across the hall to the supper room.
‘Who is he?’ she hissed, glancing back over her shoulder. The stranger was still watching her, a dark, unfathomable look in his eyes.
‘I have no idea,’ said Alex, guiding her to a table. ‘But you should be careful, Elle. I saw the way he looked at you. It was pure, predatory lust.’
She sighed. ‘That is true of so many men.’
‘Which is why I am here,’ replied Alex. ‘To protect you.’
She reached for his hand.
‘Dear Alex. Do you never tire of looking after me?’
‘It is what Tony would have wished,’ he said simply, adding with a rueful grin, ‘besides, if you had not dragged me to London, I should be alone in Norfolk, pining away.’
‘And that would never do.’ She smiled and squeezed his hand. ‘Thank you, my friend.’
When supper was over, Eloise sent Alex away.
‘Try if you can to discover if Lord Berrow plans to attend,’ she begged him. ‘If he does not, then we need not stay much beyond midnight. Although I think you must do the pretty and dance with some of the other ladies in the room.’
His pained look drew a laugh from her.
‘Yes, you must, Alex. You cannot sit in my pocket all night. Several of the young ladies are already looking daggers at me for keeping you by my side for half the evening. You need not be anxious about me; I have seen several acquaintances I wish to talk to.’
When he had gone, Eloise moved around the room, bestowing her smiles freely but never stopping, nor would she promise to dance with any of the gentlemen who begged for that honour. Her eyes constantly ranged over the room, but it was not an acquaintance she was seeking. It was a dark-haired stranger she had seen but once.
Suddenly he was beside her.
‘Will you dance, my lady?’
‘Sir, we have not been introduced.’
‘Does that matter?’
A little bubble of laughter welled up. All at once she felt quite reckless. She held out her hand.
‘No, it does not matter one jot.’
He led her to join the set that was forming.
‘I thought you would never escape your guard dog.’
‘Mr Mortimer is my very good friend. He defends me from unwelcome attentions.’
‘Oh? Am I to understand, then, that my attentions are not unwelcome?’
Eloise hesitated. This encounter was moving a little too fast and for once she was not in control. She said cautiously, ‘I think you would be presumptuous to infer so much.’
His smile grew and he leaned a little closer.
‘Yet you refused to stand up with the last four gentlemen who solicited your hand.’
‘Ah, but I have danced with them all before. I like the novelty of a new partner.’ She smiled as the dance parted them, pleased to see the gleam of interest in his eyes.
‘And does my dancing please you, my lady?’ he asked as soon as they joined hands again.
‘For the moment,’ she responded airily.
‘I agree,’ he said, his eyes glinting. ‘I can think of much more pleasant things to do for the remainder of the evening.’
She blushed hotly and was relieved that they parted again and she was not obliged to answer.
Eloise began to wonder if she had been wise to dance with this stranger: she was disturbed by his effect upon her. Goodness, he had only to smile and she found herself behaving like a giddy schoolgirl! She must end this now, before the intoxication became too great. When the music drew to a close she gave a little curtsy and stepped away. Her partner followed.
‘I know I have not been in town for a while,’ he said, ‘but it is still customary to stand up for two dances, I believe.’
She put up her chin.
‘I will not pander to your vanity, sir. One dance is sufficient for you, until we have been introduced.’
She flicked open her fan and with a little smile she walked away from him.
Alex was waiting for her.
‘Our host tells me Lord Berrow has sent his apologies for tonight. He is gone out of town. However, Parham expects to see him at the Renwicks’ soirée tomorrow.’
‘How very tiresome,’ said Eloise. ‘If we had known we need not have come.’ She tucked her hand in his arm. ‘Let us go now.’
‘Are you sure? You will disappoint any number of gentlemen if you leave now: they all hope to stand up with you at least once.’
Eloise shrugged. If she could not dance with her dark stranger she did not want to dance with anyone.
‘There will be other nights.’
She concentrated on disposing her diaphanous stole across her shoulders rather than meet Alex’s intent gaze.
‘What has occurred, Elle? I mislike that glitter in your eyes. Did your last partner say anything to upset you?’
She dismissed his concern with a wave of one gloved hand.
‘No, no, nothing like that. He was a diversion, nothing more.’
‘He was very taken with you.’
‘Did you think so?’ she asked him, a little too eagerly.
‘Does it matter to you that he should?’
Eloise looked away,
‘No, of course not. But it is very flattering.’ She tried for a lighter note. ‘He was very amusing.’
Alex looked back across the room to where the tall stranger was standing against the wall, watching them.
‘I think,’ he said slowly, ‘that he could be very dangerous.’
‘Hell and damnation!’
Jack watched Lady Allyngham walk away on Mortimer’s arm.
It would not have taken much to have Parham present him to the lady. That had been his design when he had first arrived, but the sight of Eloise Allyngham had wiped all intentions, good or bad, from his mind.
He had carried Allyngham’s locket with him for the past year and was well acquainted with the tiny portrait inside, but he had been taken aback when he saw the lady herself. The painting only hinted at the glorious abundance of guinea-gold curls that framed her face. It had not prepared him for her dazzling smile, nor the look of humour and intelligence he observed in her deep blue eyes.
He had intended to find the lady, to hand over the bequests and retire gracefully, but then Lady Allyngham had collided with him and when she had turned her laughing face to his, every sensible thought had flown out of his head. He had prowled the room until she returned from the supper room and by then his host was nowhere to be seen, so Jack seized the moment and asked her to dance. He should have told her why he was there, but he could not resist the temptation to flirt with her, to bring that delicious flush to her cheeks and to see the elusive dimple peeping beside her generous mouth.
He pulled himself together. It had been a very pleasantinterlude but he had a duty to perform. He sought out his hostess.
‘Lady Allyngham?’ She looked a little bemused when he made his request. ‘My dear Major, I would happily introduce you to her, if it were in my power, but she is gone.’
‘Why, yes, she took her leave of me a few minutes ago. Mr Mortimer was escorting her back to Dover Street.’ She gave him a knowing smile. ‘He is averyattentive escort.’
Disappointment seared through Jack. He tried to convince himself that it was because he wanted to hand over Tony’s ring and locket and get out of London, but he knew in his heart that it was because he wanted to see Eloise Allyngham again.
Jack took his leave and made his way to St James’s Street, where he was admitted into an imposing white stone building by a liveried servant. White’s was very busy and he paused for a while to watch a lively game of Hazard, refusing more than one invitation to join in. Later he wandered through to the card room where he soon spotted a number of familiar faces, some of whom he had seen in Lady Parham’s ballroom earlier that evening. A group of gentlemen were engaged in a game of bassett. One looked up and waved to him.
‘Had enough of the dancing, Clifton?’
Jack smiled. ‘Something like that, Renwick.’
He looked at the little group: Charles Renwick was an old friend and he recognised another, slightly older man, Edward Graham, who had been a friend of his father, but the others were strangers to him—with one exception, the dealer, a stocky man with a heavily pock-marked face and pomaded hair. Sir Ronald Deforge. A tremor of revulsion ran through Jack. At that moment the dealer looked up at him from beneath his heavy-lidded eyes. Jack saw the recognition in his glanceand observed the contemptuous curl of the man’s thick lips. As he hesitated a gentleman with a florid face and bushy red side-whiskers shifted his chair to make room for him.
‘Doing battle in the ballroom can be as hellish as a full-scale siege, eh, Major? Well, never mind that now. Sit you down, sir, and we’ll deal you in.’
‘Aye, we are here to commiserate with each other,’ declared Mr Graham. ‘Come along, Deforge, deal those cards!’
‘Oh?’ Jack signalled to the waiter to fill his glass.
‘Aye. There was no point in staying at Parham House once Lady Allyngham had left.’ Edward Graham paused, frowning over his cards. ‘Hoped to persuade her to stand up with me later, but then found she had slipped away.’
Jack schooled his features to show no more than mild interest. Sir Ronald cast a fleeting glance at him.
‘It seems Major Clifton was the only one of us to be favoured with a dance.’
The whiskery gentleman dug Jack in the ribs.
‘Aye, Sir Ronald is right, Major. You lucky dog! How did you do it, man? Are you well acquainted with her?’
‘Not at all,’ Jack replied, picking up his cards and trying to give them his attention. ‘I know very little about the lady.’
‘Ah, the Glorious Allyngham.’ Jack’s neighbour raised his glass. ‘The whole of London is at her feet. She would be a cosy armful, for the man that can catch her! We are all her slaves, but she spreads her favours equally: a dance here, a carriage ride there—keeps us all on the lightest of reins—even Sir Ronald there is enthralled, ain’t that right, Deforge?’
A shadow flitted across the dealer’s face but he replied indifferently, ‘She is undoubtedly a diamond.’
‘Rumour has it she is on the catch for a royal duke.’ A gentleman in a puce waistcoat chuckled. ‘Ladies don’t like it,of course, to see their husbands drooling over another woman. They’ve christened her the Wanton Widow!’
‘So they have.’ Mr Graham sighed. ‘But I wish she were a little more wanton, then I might stand a chance!’
Ribald laughter filled the air, replaced by good-natured oaths and curses as Sir Ronald Deforge displayed his winning cards and scooped up the little pile of rouleaux in the centre of the table. There was a pause while a fresh hand was dealt and the waiters leapt forwards to refill the glasses.
‘Where did Allyngham find her?’ asked Jack, intrigued in spite of himself.
‘She was some sort of poor relation, I believe,’ said Graham. ‘Caused quite a stir when Allyngham married her—family expected him to make a brilliant match.’
‘Caused quite a stir when he brought her to town, too,’ remarked Renwick, pushing another pile of rouleaux into the centre of the table. ‘We were all in raptures over her, but Allyngham was careful. He made sure no one became overfamiliar with his new bride.’
‘Except Alex Mortimer, of course,’ remarked one of the players.
‘Nothing surprising in that.’ Edward Graham grimaced as he studied his hand. With a sigh of resignation he threw one card down. ‘He is a neighbour and close friend of Allyngham. Escorted the lady to town while her husband was in the Peninsula.’
‘While the cat’s away,’ said Sir Ronald said softly. ‘And now the cat is dead do you think Mortimer plans to jump into his shoes?’
‘Shouldn’t be surprised if he’s got his eye on the widow,’ said Charles Renwick. ‘Apart from the title, which died with Allyngham, his lady inherits everything, I hear.’
‘In trust, I suppose?’ said Deforge, dropping his own tokens on to the growing pile of rouleaux in the centre of the table.
‘No,’ declared Mr Graham. ‘I heard she has full control of the property.’
‘Making her even more desirable, eh, Deforge?’ murmured Jack.
The dealer grew still.
‘What the devil do you mean by that, Clifton?’
There was a tension around the table. Jack met Deforge’s hard eyes with a steady gaze.
‘I think you might be looking to replenish your fortune.’
‘No sensible man takes a penniless bride.’
‘Your first wife was not penniless,’ remarked Jack, a hard edge to his voice. ‘I hear that there is nothing left of her fortune now, save the house in Berkshire, and you would sell that if it were not mortgaged to the hilt.’
An unpleasant smile curled Sir Ronald’s thick lips. He said softly, ‘Your allegations have all the marks of a disappointed suitor, Clifton.’
‘Gentlemen, gentlemen, this is all history,’ declared the whiskery gentleman sitting beside Jack. ‘If you wish to quarrel then take yourselves off somewhere and let the rest of us get on with our game!’
‘Aye, let us play,’ added Charles Renwick hastily. ‘Deal the cards, Deforge, if you please.’
Jack spread his hands, signifying his acceptance and after a final, angry glare Deforge turned his attention back to the game. It did not last long. Luck was running with the dealer and as soon as the last card was played Sir Ronald scooped up his winnings and left.
Charles Renwick called for a fresh pack of cards.
‘You caught him on the raw there,’ he remarked, watchingDeforge stalk out of the room. ‘Damnation, Jack, why did you have to mention his dead wife?’
‘Because I don’t believe her death was an accident.’
Charles Renwick leaned over and placed his hand on Jack’s sleeve. He said, ‘Let be, my friend. It was years ago. It can do no good for you to dwell on it now.’
Jack’s hands clenched into fists, the knuckles showing white against the green baize of the table. How could he be thankful that the girl he had wanted to marry, the love of his life, was dead?
They subsided into silence as the next game of bassett began. Jack played mechanically, his thoughts still on Deforge. He hated the man because he had stolen the woman he loved, but was that rational? Clara had been free to make her own choice. He had no proof that she had not been happy in her marriage, only a feeling in his gut. He gave himself a mental shake. Clara was dead. There was nothing he could do about that now. It was time to forget the past.
‘I did hear Deforge is running low on funds.’
The remark by one of the players broke into Jack’s thoughts.
‘As long as he can pay his gambling debts, I don’t care,’ laughed Edward Graham.
‘If he marries the Glorious Allyngham his worries will be over,’ said the gentleman with the red side-whiskers.
‘She won’t have him,’ said Jack emphatically.
‘Oho, what do you know, Clifton?’
Jack shook his head. The thought of that beautiful, golden creature marrying Sir Ronald Deforge turned his stomach. He schooled his face into a look of careful indifference.
‘If the lady is as rich and independent as you say she has no need to marry a man like Deforge.’
‘Perhaps you think she might prefer a handsome soldier,’ chuckled Graham, giving a broad wink to his companions.
Charles Renwick cocked an eyebrow.
‘Fancy a touch at the widow yourself, Clifton? Well, I wish you luck.’
‘I need more than that,’ grinned Jack. ‘We have not yet been introduced.’
The red side-whiskers shook as their owner guffawed loudly.
‘What, and you stole a dance with the widow? Impudent young dog!’
‘If you want an introduction, my boy, my wife is giving a little party tomorrow. A soirée, she calls it,’ said Renwick. ‘Come along and she’ll present you to the Glorious Allyngham.’
‘Thank you, I will.’
‘I’ll wager Mortimer won’t let you breach that particular citadel,’ declared Mr Graham. ‘I think Renwick has the right of it and Alex Mortimer’s looking to wed her himself. His principal estate marches with the Allyngham lands: I’d wager a monkey he would very much like to combine the two.’
Jack took another card and studied his hand. He did not like the conversation but knew that any remonstrance on his part would only fuel the speculation.
‘That might behisintention, but what about the lady?’ remarked Renwick, flicking a smile towards Jack. ‘Our mutual acquaintances in Paris tell me the Major has gained quite a reputation over there with the fairer sex, to say nothing of the havoc he wreaked with the beauties of Spain and Portugal.’
‘Ah, but the Glorious Allyngham’s different: you might say Mortimer is already in residence,’ chuckled Graham. ‘He will protect his own interests, I’m sure.’
Jack threw down his hand.
‘Deuce and a pair of fives. I am done, gentlemen.’
Mr Graham gave a snort.
‘Well you know what they say, Clifton, unlucky at cards…I’ll wager Lady Allyngham will be married before the year is out. Any takers, gentlemen?’
Jack smiled but made no reply to that. With a nod he took his leave of them and as he walked away he heard the man with the red side-whiskers calling for the betting book.
Jack made his way to his lodgings in King Street, where his valet was waiting up for him, dozing in a chair. He jerked awake and jumped up as Jack came in.
‘You’s early, Major,’ he said, rubbing his eyes. ‘Didn’t think to see you for an hour or so yet.’
‘I have an appointment with my man of business tomorrow morning.’
Jack allowed himself to be eased out of his coat and waistcoat but then waved his man away.
‘Thank you, Robert. I can manage now. Wake me at eight, if you please.’
When he was alone, Jack delved into the bottom of his trunk, searching for the ring and the locket that he had carried with him since Waterloo. They were safe, tucked into a small leather pouch at one side of the trunk. On impulse he pulled out the locket and carried it to the bed, where he opened it and turned it towards the flickering light of his bedside candle. Two faces stared out at him, the colours jewel-bright. Lord Allyngham’s likeness was very much as Jack remembered him, curling brown hair and a cheerfully confident smile. The other face was but a pale imitation of the original. He frowned. Tony Allyngham’s image of his quiet, loyal, loving wife was sadly at odds with the glorious creature that now had all of London at her feet.
The Renwicks’ narrow town house was full to overflowing by the time Eloise arrived.
‘What a squeeze,’ muttered Alex as he escorted her upstairs. ‘I do not know how you expect to find anyone in this crush!’
‘You are too pessimistic, my friend. If Lord Berrow is here I shall find him.’ She swept ahead of him to greet their hostess, and moments later they were pushing their way through the crowded rooms. There was to be no dancing, just a little music provided by those proficient at the pianoforte and the harp, and Mrs Renwick had hired an Italian singer for their entertainment.
Eloise left Alex talking to an old acquaintance and made her way to the music room in search of her quarry. A young lady was playing the harp and while it could not be said that her audience was universally enraptured, the crowd was a great deal quieter than in the other rooms. It did not take Eloise long to realise that Lord Berrow was not in the music room and she turned to make her way back to the main salon.
‘Ah, Lady Allyngham!’ A silk-coated gentleman approached her. His wizened, painted face looked unnaturally white in the candlelight and it made his crooked teeth look even more yellow. She forced herself to smile, not to flinch as he took her hand and bowed over it. ‘My dear madam, you are looking lovelier than ever tonight.’
She inclined her head, wishing she had not dismissed Alex quite so quickly.
‘And shall we hear you sing, this evening, ma’am?’
She shook her head.
‘No, sir. Tonight I am a mere spectator.’
His yellow smile widened and he leaned towards her.
‘You could never be amereanything, my lady! Shall we find a quiet corner where we may be private?’
‘Alas, sir, that will never do,’ she said archly, treating him to a flutter of her dark lashes. ‘I must not keep you all to myself when there are so many ladies here waiting to talk to you—I see Lady Bressington even now doing her best to attract your attention.’
The old man straightened, his narrow chest puffing out and with a murmured excuse and a flash of her lovely smile Eloise moved away, barely suppressing a shudder. How had she come to this, she wondered miserably, to have every rake and roué hounding her?
You know very well it is your own fault.
The words clattered through her head as clearly as if she had said them aloud. Her spirit sank a little lower. Yes, itwasher own doing. When she had first come to town with her husband he had not objected to her flirting with other gentlemen. Indeed, Tony had been happy to encourage it. It had amused him to see his beautiful new bride the object of such admiration, but Tony had always been there in the background to ensure that the flirtations were not carried too far. Eloise’s return to town as a beautiful young widow had aroused a great amount of interest and it had suited her plans to allow herself to be drawn once more into that heady world of flirtation, but now she wondered perhaps if she had taken the game a little too far. Respectable hostesses were beginning to look askance at her and she was for ever fending off unwanted amorous attentions. She could only be thankful that Mrs Renwick had taken her under her wing and still treated her kindly. Eloise bit back a sigh. Once she had concluded her business with Lord Berrow she would retire to Allyngham and live quietly there until the world had forgotten the Wanton Widow.
She heard her hostess calling to her.
‘My dear Lady Allyngham, I have a gentleman here most eager to make your acquaintance.’
Eloise turned, schooling her face into a polite smile which changed to one of genuine pleasure when she recognised the man beside Mrs Renwick as her dancing partner of the previous evening. There was no smile on the gentleman’s face, however, but a faint look of frowning disapproval. She lifted her chin. No doubt he had seen her encounter with the old roué.
‘May I introduce Major Clifton, madam? He is new to town, having only recently returned to England—he was with the Army of Occupation in Paris.’
‘So you are a soldier, sir?’ She held out her hand.
‘I was, ma’am. I have sold out.’
Major Clifton took her fingers in a firm clasp. She was not prepared for the tiny flutter of excitement she experienced at his touch. Glancing up she saw the startled look in his eyes. Was he, too, shocked by this sudden, unexpected connection? Eloise withdrew her hand and struggled to speak calmly.
‘And what will you do now, sir?’
‘Oh, this and that. Become a gentleman farmer, perhaps.’
His response was cool, distant. If she had not seen that look of surprise and confusion in his face she would have thought him nothing more than a polite stranger. Inconsequential thoughts chased through her head: how dark his eyes were, fringed by long black lashes. She liked the way his hair curled about his ears. She wondered how it would feel to run her fingers through those glossy black locks, to stroke his lean cheek…The major was still speaking and Eloise had to drag her mind back to concentrate on his words.
‘I knew your late husband, my lady. We served together in the Peninsula and at Waterloo.’
‘Ah, yes.’ She gave her head a tiny shake as his words puther frivolous thoughts to flight. She must be serious now. ‘Of course—you wrote to me. I am sorry; I did not recognise your name at first. You were with him when he died.’ Her pleasure drained away. Instead of the laughter and chatter of a London drawing room she imagined the battlefield as Tony had described it to her, the pounding thunder of artillery, the shouts and screams of the soldiers. So much pain and violence.
‘My lady? I beg your pardon, I did not mean to arouse unpleasant memories.’
‘It would be unpardonable for any of us to forget, sir.’ She fixed her eyes upon him. ‘Why did you not tell me this last night?’
The major hesitated, then gave a rueful grin, dispelling his rather disapproving look and making him look suddenly much younger.
‘Last night I was taken by surprise. Our encounter was…unusual. I did not want to ruin the moment.’
So she had not dreamed it! He had felt it, too. Eloise found herself unable to look away as she recalled her dance with a stranger. Yes, it had been special, and slightly alarming. She had never felt such an attraction before. But she must be on her guard, she could not afford to lose her head. The major was speaking again and she twisted her hands together, trying to concentrate.
‘Your husband gave me a commission, to deliver to you certain items. I would like your permission to call, if I may?’
‘What? Oh, yes, yes, of course, Major.’
‘Thank you. Shall we say tomorrow morning, at ten, or is that too early?’ She gazed up at him, fascinated by the laughter lines around his mouth, the way his eyes crinkled when he smiled. He was smiling at her now and she thought how wonderful it would be to stand with him thus all evening,letting his voice drift over her like a soft summer breeze…‘So, madam, shall we say ten?’
She blinked. ‘Um…yes. I mean, ten o’clock tomorrow morning. You have my direction—Dover Street.’ She swallowed. What was happening to her? She was not at all sure that she liked being so out of control. He was very striking, to be sure, but she had met many gentlemen equally good looking, so she did not think it could be his lean, handsome face that caused her emotions to riot. She needed to put a little distance between them so that she could consider these new and alarming sensations dispassionately.
Eloise dragged her mind back to what she had been doing before Mrs Renwick had brought the major to meet her. Oh, yes. She had come in search of Lord Berrow. It was important; she must put duty before pleasure.
‘Now the formalities are over,’ Major Clifton was saying, ‘may I—?’
She interrupted him as she spotted her quarry.
‘I beg your pardon, but I cannot talk now.’
‘Of course.’ He stood back. ‘Perhaps later…?’
‘Yes, perhaps.’ She summoned up her dazzling society smile but directed it at his neckcloth, afraid that if she met his eyes again her resolve would weaken. ‘Excuse me.’
She forced herself to walk away from him, hoping that his magnetism would fade if she put some space between them. Resolutely she fixed her eyes on the jovial-looking gentleman in a grey wig making his way towards the music room.
‘Good evening, Lord Berrow.’
The Earl turned his pale, slightly protuberant eyes towards her.
‘Lady Allyngham!’ he smiled and took her hand. ‘My dear, you are looking positively radiant!’ He hesitated. ‘But youhave been in mourning. My lady wife sent you our condolences, did she not?’
She thought of the neat little letter she had received after Tony’s death, so obviously composed and written by a clerk.
‘You did, my lord, thank you. I was touched by your concern.’
He harrumphed and nodded.
‘Yes, well, least we could do, m’dear! Sad business. We lost so many fine men at Waterloo, did we not? But that’s all in the past now, and here you are, looking more beautiful than ever!’
‘I have been hoping to meet up with you, my lord.’
‘Have you now?’ He beamed at her. ‘Been very busy—government business.’ He puffed out his chest, swelling with self-importance. ‘Member of the Cabinet, you know.’
‘Yes, of course,’ said Eloise. ‘I wanted to talk to you—that is, my lawyer has written several times now, about the land at Ainsley Wood.’
‘Has he? Well, no need to worry ourselves about that, m’dear. My steward is an excellent man. He will deal with everything.’
‘Actually, he will not,’ she replied, determined not to be put off. ‘He writes that he has no authority to sell…’
Lord Berrow waved his hand.
‘Yes, yes, we can discuss that later.’ He took her arm. ‘Come and sit with me, my dear, and we can listen to the soprano our hostess has brought in. She’s not quite Catalini, but I understand she is very good.’
Eloise realised it would be useless to press her case further at that moment. With a smile she allowed the Earl to guide her to the gilded chairs set out for the guests. Having found Lord Berrow, she was determined she would not leave him now until she had explained to him why she needed to purchase Ainsley Wood.
Jack leaned against the wall and watched Lady Allyngham. The tug of attraction was just as strong as it had been the night before. She felt it too, he was sure, but she had not tried to flirt with him. Quite the contrary, she had seemed eager to get away. He observed her now as she took Lord Berrow’s arm, smiling, turning her head to listen to the man as if he were the most interesting person she had ever met. No wonder all the gentlemen were enraptured. Alex Mortimer was on the far side of the room. He, too, was watching Lady Allyngham as she walked off with the Earl and did not seem the least perturbed. If he really was her lover then he must feel very sure of himself to allow her such freedom. Jack frowned. It demeaned Allyngham’s memory to have his widow flaunting herself in town in this way. But she had been discomposed when Jack had mentioned her husband, so perhaps she did have a conscience after all. He gave himself a mental shake. Enough of this: it was no business of his how Tony’s widow behaved.
Suddenly the noise and the chatter was grating on his nerves and he decided to leave. Once he had called at Dover Street tomorrow morning his mission would be complete and he need not see Eloise Allyngham again.Chapter Two
Eloise sipped at her morning chocolate. Last night had not gone quite as planned. Lord Berrow had resolutely refused to discuss selling the land at Ainsley Wood. Despite all her efforts to charm the Earl the best she had achieved was his promise that he would talk to her when he was not quite so busy. She had had to be content with that, and when she left the Earl she had fallen into the clutches of Sir Ronald Deforge. She felt a certain sympathy for Sir Ronald. She knew him to be a widower and she thought perhaps he was lonely, but Sir Ronald with his pomaded hair and oily manner was all smug complacency, and less than twenty minutes in his company had her yawning behind her fan. Thankfully Alex rescued her and carried her off to supper before she had grown too desperate. And she had suffered another disappointment: Major Clifton had left early. Not that that mattered, she told herself, for he was calling upon her at ten o’clock.
It was her habit to breakfast early, no matter how late she had been out. While she nibbled at her freshly baked bread she looked through the morning’s post, putting aside the numerous invitations and letters to be answered and reading carefullythe daily report from her steward at Allyngham. This morning there was one note at the bottom of the pile that caught her attention. She did not recognise the writing, and there was no hint of the sender. She put down her coffee cup and broke the seal.
The single sheet crackled as it unfolded, and as her eyes scanned the untidy black writing her cheeks grew pale. She summoned her butler.
‘Noyes, send a runner to Mr Mortimer. Ask him to join me, immediately, if you please!’
Alone again, she pushed her plate away, her appetite gone.
She hoped Alex would appear soon. He had taken a house only a few doors away but for all she knew he might still be sleeping. Thankfully it was only a matter of minutes before she heard the bell jangling in the hall. Carefully folding the letter and putting it in her pocket, she made her way to the morning room.
Alex was waiting for her. His brows snapped together when she entered.
‘What is it, Elle? You are very pale—what has happened?’
Silently she pulled the letter from her pocket and held it out to him. He scanned it quickly and looked up.
‘Is this all there is?’
She nodded. He looked again at the letter.
‘I know your secret,’he read. ‘Very cryptic.’
‘What should I do?’
‘Do you…do you think someone knows, about us?’
‘No names, no clues—someone is trying to frighten you, Elle. Some jealous wife or mistress, perhaps. Your return to town has put many noses out of joint.’
She spread her hands.
‘Why should anyone be jealous of me? I have not stolen any of their lovers.’
‘Not intentionally, but the gentlemen are singing your praises and laying their hearts at your feet.’
Her lip curled.
‘I do not give the snap of my fingers for any of them. Idle coxcombs!’
‘That is part of your attraction.’
She indicated the letter.
‘So what do you think it means?’
‘I have no idea.’ He turned the letter over. ‘There was nothing to say who sent it?’
‘No. Noyes told me one of the footmen found it on the floor of the hall this morning and put it with the post. Who would do this?’
‘Some idle prankster.’ Alex screwed the letter into a ball and threw it into the fire. ‘You should forget about it. I am sure it is nothing to worry about.’
She eyed him doubtfully and he took her hands, smiling down at her.
‘Truly, it is nothing.’
‘Major Clifton, my lady.’
Jack followed the footman into the morning room. Lady Allyngham turned to greet him, but not before he had seen Mortimer holding her hands. Damnation, what was the fellow doing here so early in the morning, did he live here?’
Setting his jaw, Jack made a stiff bow. Unperturbed, Alex Mortimer nodded to him before addressing Lady Allyngham.
‘I must go. I am going out of town this afternoon: I have business with my land agent in Hertfordshire which will takeme a few days, I think.’ He lifted her hand to his lips. ‘Send a note if you need me, Elle. I can be here in a few hours.’
Jack watched the little scene, his countenance, he hoped, impassive, and waited silently until Alex Mortimer had left the room. There was no doubt that Mortimer and the lady were on the very best of terms. He had to remind himself it was none of his business.
‘What is it you wished to say to me, Major Clifton?’
Lady Allyngham’s softly musical voice recalled his wandering attention. She disposed herself gracefully into a chair and invited him to sit down.
‘Thank you, no,’ he said curtly. ‘This will only take a moment.’
‘Oh. I had hoped you might be able to tell me something of my husband.’
She sounded genuinely disappointed. He reached into his pocket.
‘Before he died, Lord Allyngham gave me these, and asked me to see that they were returned to you.’ He dropped the ring and locket into her hands. ‘I apologise that it has taken so long but I was in Paris until the summer, with the Army of Occupation, and I had given Lord Allyngham my word that I would bring them in person.’
She looked down at them silently.
Jack cleared his throat.
‘He asked me to tell you…to be happy.’
‘Thank you,’ she whispered.
She placed the ring on her right hand. Jack remembered it had been a tight fit for Lord Allyngham: it had been a struggle to remove it, but now the signet ring looked big and cumbersome on the lady’s dainty finger. He watched her open the locket and stare for a long time at the tiny portraits. At last she said, ‘I had this painted for Tony when we first married.He would not let me accompany him when he went off to war, so I thought he might like it…’ Her voice tailed off and she hunted for her handkerchief.
Jack sat down.
‘He was a very courageous soldier,’ he said quietly. ‘We fought together in the Peninsula: he saved my life at Talavera.’
She looked up and he saw that her eyes were shining with unshed tears.
‘You knew him well, Major Clifton?’
‘As well as anyone, I think. We drank together, fought together—he spoke very fondly of you, madam, and of Allyngham. I think he missed his home.’
‘His letters to me were very brief; he mentioned few of his fellow officers by name.’
‘He kept very much to himself,’ replied Jack.
She nodded, twisting her hands together in her lap.
‘He was a very private man.’ She blinked rapidly. ‘Forgive me, Major Clifton. I know it is more than a year since Waterloo, but still…’ She drew a steadying breath. ‘How…how did he die?’
Jack hesitated. There was no easy way to explain.
‘Artillery fire,’ he said shortly. ‘A cannon ball hit him in the chest. It was very quick.’
Her blue eyes rebuked him.
‘How could that be? You said he had time to ask you to bring these things to me.’
He held her gaze steadily.
‘He was past any pain by then.’ He saw her eyes widen. The colour fled from her cheeks and she swayed slightly in her chair. He said quickly, ‘I beg your pardon, madam, I should not have told you—’
She put up her hand.
‘No, I wanted to know the truth.’ She closed the locket and placed it on the table beside her, then rose and held out her hand, dismissing him. ‘Thank you, Major. I am very grateful to you.’
Jack bowed over her fingers. He hesitated and found she was watching him, a question in her eyes.
‘Forgive me, ma’am, but…’ How the devil was he to phrase this?
‘What is it you wish to say to me, Major Clifton?’
‘I beg your pardon, my lady. Lord Allyngham having given me this commission, I feel an obligation to him. To his memory.’
‘What sort of obligation, Major?’
He shot a look at her from under his brows.
‘You know what people are saying, about you and Mortimer?’
She recoiled a little.
‘I neither know nor care,’ she retorted.
‘I would not have you dishonour your husband’s name, madam.’
Her eyes darkened angrily.
‘How dare you suggest I would do that!’
He frowned, annoyed by her disingenuous answer. Did she think him a fool?
‘But you will not deny that Mortimer is your lover—it is the talk of London!’
She glared at him, angry colour flooding her cheeks.
‘Oh, and gossip must always be true, I suppose!’
Her eyes darted fire and she moved forwards as if to engage with him. Jack could not look away: his gaze was locked with hers and he felt as if he was drowning in the blue depths of her eyes. She was so close that her perfume filled his head,suspending reason. A sudden, fierce desire coursed through him. He reached out and grabbed her, pulling her close and as her lips parted to object he captured them with his own. He felt her tremble in his arms, then she was still, her mouth yielding and compliant beneath the onslaught of his kiss. For a heady, dizzying instant he felt the connection. The shock of it sent him reeling with much the same effect as being too close to the big guns on the battlefield, but it lasted only for a moment. The next she was fighting against him and as sanity returned he let her go. She pushed away from him and brought her hand up to deal him a ringing slap across his cheek.
‘Madam, I beg your pardon.’
She stepped aside, clinging to the back of a chair as she stared at him, outraged.
‘Get out,’ she ordered him, her voice shaking with fury. ‘Get out now before I have you thrown out!’
‘Let me explain—’ Jack had an insane desire to laugh as he uttered the words. How could he explain the madness that had come over him, the all-encompassing, uncontrollable desire. Dear heaven, how could he have been so crass?
Eloise was frantically tugging at the bell-pull, her face as white as the lace around her shoulders.
‘Have no fear, my lady, I am leaving.’ With a stiff little bow he turned on his heel and walked out of the room, but as he closed the door behind him he had the impression of the lady collapsing on to the sofa and heard her first anguished sob.
Eloise cried unrestrainedly for several minutes, but such violence could not be sustained. Yet even when her tears had abated the feeling of outrage remained. She left the sofa and began to stride to and fro about the room.
How dare he abuse her in such a way! He had insinuatedhimself into her house and she had treated him with courtesy. How had he repaid her? First he had accused her of having a lover, then he had molested her as if she had been a common strumpet! She stopped her pacing and clenched her fists, giving a little scream of anger and frustration.
‘Such behaviour may be acceptable in Paris, Major Clifton, but it isnothow a gentleman behaves in London!’
She resumed her pacing, jerking her handkerchief between her fingers. Rage welled up again, like steam in a pot, and with an unladylike oath she scooped up a little Sèvres dish from the table and hurled it into the fireplace, where it shattered with a most satisfying smash. The noise brought her butler hurrying into the room.
‘Madam, I beg your pardon, but I heard…’
The anxiety in his usually calm voice brought Eloise to her senses. She turned away and drew a deep breath before replying.
‘Yes, Noyes, I have broken a dish. You had best send the maid to clear it up: but tell her to be careful, the edges are sharp, and I would not like anyone to cut themselves because of my carelessness.’
When the butler had withdrawn Eloise returned to her chair. Her rage had subsided, but the outpouring of emotion had left her feeling drained and depressed. She could not deny that Major Clifton had some excuse for thinking that Alex was her lover. They had never made any attempt to deny the rumours and Eloise had been content with the situation. Until now.
She was shocked to realise how much Major Clifton’s disapproval had wounded her, and he had had the audacity to compound her distress by attacking her in that disgusting way. She bit her lip. No, she had to be honest: it was not his actions that had distressed her, but the shocking realisation that shehadwantedhim to kiss her. Even when her anger was at its height, some barely acknowledged instinct had made her move closer and for one brief, giddy moment when he had pulled her into his arms, she had blazed with a desire so strong that all other thoughts had been banished from her mind. Only the knowledge of her own inadequacy made her push him away.
She hung her head, wondering if Jack Clifton could tell from that one, brief contact that the Wanton Widow had never before been kissed?
Jack strode quickly out of Dover Street and back to his own lodgings, his mind in turmoil. Whatever had possessed him to behave in that way towards Eloise Allyngham? He might disapprove of her liaison with Mortimer but he had hardly acted as a gentleman himself. Scowling, Jack ran up the stairs and into his sitting room, throwing his cane and his hat down on to a chair.
‘Oho, who’s ruffled your feathers?’ demanded his valet, coming in.
Jack bit back a sharp retort. Bob had served with him as his sergeant throughout the war and was more than capable of giving him his own again. He contented himself by being icily civil.
‘Fetch me pen and ink, if you please, Robert, and some paper. And be quick about it!’
‘We are in a bad skin,’ grinned Bob. ‘Was the widow disagreeable?’
‘Damn your eyes, don’t be so impertinent!’ He rubbed his chin, scowling. ‘If you must know I forgot myself. I need to write an apology to the lady, and quickly.’
Jack rapidly penned his missive, sealed it and despatched Robert to deliver it to Dover Street.
The valet returned some twenty minutes later and handed him back his letter, neatly torn in two.
‘She wouldn’t accept it, Major.’
‘Damnation, I didn’t ask you to wait for a reply!’
‘No, sir, but I arrived at the house just as my lady was coming out, so she heard me tell that sour-faced butler of hers who the letter was from. She didn’t even bother to open it. Just took it from me and ripped it in half. Said if you thought she was the sort to accept acarte blancheyou was very much mistaken.’ He grinned. ‘Seems you upset her right and proper.’
With an oath Jack crumpled the torn paper and hurled it into the fireplace. He would have to talk to her. Whatever her own morals—or lack of them—he was damned if he would have her think him anything less than a gentleman.
A few hours attending to her correspondence and a brisk walk did much to restore Eloise’s composure. She had derived no small satisfaction from being able to tear up Major Clifton’s letter and send it back to him. She thought it might be an apology, but she was determined not to accept it. The man would have to grovel before she would deign to notice him again! However, she could not quite forget his words and when she prepared to attend a party at Clevedon House that evening she decided upon a robe of dark blue satin worn over a gold slip and wore a tiny cap of fluted blue satin that nestled amongst her curls. She added a collar of sapphires and matching eardrops to lend a little lustre to the rather severe lines of the gown, but even so, she considered her appearance very suitable for a widow, and once she had fastened a gold lace fichu over her shoulders no one—not even a certain disagreeable major whom she was determined never to think about—could mistake her for anything other than a respectable widow.
She was a little nervous walking into Clevedon House without Alex by her side, but she hid her anxiety behind a smile as she sought out Lord Berrow. He gave her a quizzical look as she approached.
‘If you are come to talk to me about selling my land again, my dear, then you are wasting your time.’
Eloise laughed and tucked her hand in his arm.
‘Allow me at least to tell you why I want the land, sir.’
‘Very well.’ He gave her an avuncular smile. ‘No harm in my being seen with a pretty woman, eh? Come along, then. We will sit in this little alcove over here, out of the way. Now, what is it you want to say to me, ma’am?’
She conjured up her most winning smile.
‘I want to found a charitable institution as a memorial to my husband. You knew Anthony, Lord Berrow; you will remember how kind-hearted he was.’
‘Aye, a very generous man, and a good neighbour, too,’ nodded the Earl. ‘And he left no children.’ He shook his head. ‘Pity the Allyngham name will die out now.’
‘Yes, and the title, too, is lost.’
‘But everything else comes to you?’
‘Yes.’ Eloise sighed and gazed down at her lap. She put her left hand over the right, feeling the hard outline of her Tony’s ring upon her finger beneath the satin glove. ‘Being a soldier, my husband knew there was a strong possibility that he might die before me, and he saw to it that there would be no difficulties there. And we discussed doing something to help those less fortunate. It has given me something to think about during the past twelve months. I have spoken to the mayor of Allyngham and he has agreed my plans. We have set up a trust and I am giving a parcel of land for the building itself. However, when we came to look at the map there is a narrow stretch of your own land, sir, at Ainsley Wood, thatcuts between the town and the proposed site. It is less than half a mile wide but without a road through it we will need to make a journey of several miles around the boundary.’
‘But the woodland is very profitable for me.’
Lord Berrow’s response convinced her that he had at least been giving her proposal some thought.
‘Of course it is, sir, and we would give you a fair price. The wood could provide timber for the building and of course firewood. However, if the trust cannot buy it then perhaps you would allow us to put in a road, my lord. The project is not viable unless we have access to the town.’
‘Well, we shall see, we shall see.’ He smiled down at her. ‘And just what is this project you are planning?’
Eloise clasped her hands.
‘A foundling hospital, my lord. As you know, the plight of the poor is so much worse since the war ended—’
‘A foundling hospital?’ he exclaimed, horrified. ‘No, no, no, that will never do.’
‘My lord, I assure you—’
‘No, no, madam. Out of the question.’ He shifted away from her, shaking his head. ‘I cannot support such a scheme.’
Eloise was shocked.
‘But my lord, I thought you would be in favour of it! After all, you are a great friend of Wilberforce and his Evangelical set, and I read your speeches to the House, in favour of reform…’
‘Yes, yes, but that is different. A foundling hospital would bring the very worst sort of women to Allyngham, and I spend a great deal of time in Norfolk. I could not countenance having such an institution in the area.’ Lord Berrow stood up. ‘I am sorry, my dear, but I think you should consider some other plan to honour your husband.’
With a little bow he walked off, leaving Eloise wonderingwhat to do next. She had not expected such strong opposition from the Earl. She wondered if he would perhaps be more amenable once he had had time to think about the idea. She hoped so, and decided to renew her argument again in a few days.
Eloise noticed that several of the gentlemen were looking in her direction and she realised that to be sitting alone in the alcove might be construed as an invitation. Even as the thought occurred to her she saw one fashionably dressed gentleman excusing himself from a little group and making his way towards her. Recognising Sir Ronald Deforge, she quickly slipped out of the alcove and lost herself in the crowd.
Eloise whipped round to find Jack Clifton behind her.
‘What are you doing here?’
‘I came to find you.’
She hunched one shoulder at him.
‘Then you have wasted your time, Major Clifton,’ she said coldly. ‘I will not talk to you.’
He grabbed her wrist as she turned away, saying urgently, ‘I want to apologise.’
‘I do not care what you want!’ she hissed at him, wrenching her hand free.
Quickly she pushed her way through the crowds, never pausing until she reached the ante-room. There she glanced around and was obliged to stifle a tiny pang of disappointment when she discovered the major had not followed her. She saw Mrs Renwick coming out of the card-room and went to join her, hoping to avoid any further unwelcome attentions by staying close to the lady and her friends. The ploy worked very well, and she was just beginning to think that she might soon be able to make her excuses and leave without arousingtoo much speculation when a footman approached and held out a silver tray.
Eloise looked doubtfully at the folded note resting on the tray.
‘What is this?’ she asked, suspicion making her voice sharp.
A flicker of surprise disturbed the servant’s wooden features.
‘I do not know, my lady. The under-footman brought it into the ballroom and requested that I deliver it to you.’
One of Mrs Renwick’s companions leaned closer.
‘Ah, an admirer, my dear!’
The arch tone grated upon Eloise, but she merely smiled. Carefully, she picked up the note.
‘Thank you; that will be all.’
She dismissed the footman and stepped away from the little group of ladies. They were all regarding her with varying degrees of curiosity. She hoped her own countenance was impassive as she opened the note and read it.
Go into the garden and look under Apollo’s heel.
Eloise stared at the words, trying to work out their meaning. She realised one of the ladies was stepping towards her and hurriedly folded the note.
‘So, Lady Allyngham, is it an admirer?’
She looked into the woman’s bright, blatantly curious face and forced herself to laugh.
‘What else?’ she said lightly. ‘One is pursued everywhere. Excuse me.’
Her mind was racing. Apollo. A statue, perhaps. She remembered that the long windows of the grand salon had been thrown open, recalled seeing the ink-black sky beyond. She did not know what lay beyond the windows: she had no choice but to find out.
Eloise returned to the salon. The noise and chatter of the room was deafening and she began to make her way around the edge of the room until she reached the first of the long windows. Looking out, she could see a narrow terrace with a flight of steps at each end. Eloise took a quick look around to make sure no one was watching her and slipped out on to the terrace. From her elevated position she could see the dark outlines of the garden and in the far distance, at the perimeter of the grounds, a series of lanterns glowed between several pale figures: marble statues.
In seconds she had descended the steps and was running along the path, the gravel digging painfully into the thin soles of her blue kid slippers. The moon had not yet risen and the gardens were dark, the path only discernible as a grey ribbon. She thought she heard a noise behind her and turned, her heart beating hard against her ribs. She could see nothing behind her except the black wall of the house rearing up, pierced by the four blocks of light from the long windows.
She hurried on, past the rose garden where the late-summer blooms were still perfuming the air, and on through a tree-lined walk. The path led between two rows of clipped yews and was in almost total darkness but at the far end she could see the garden wall and hanging from it the first of the lanterns. Emerging from the yew walk, she saw the statue of a woman ahead of her, the marble gleaming ghostlike in the lamplight. She approached the statue and noted that the path turned to the right and ran past five more statues, each one illuminated by a lamp. She put her hand to her throat: the third statue was clearly male, and holding a lyre in his arms. She stepped forward: yes, it could be Apollo. She moved closer, peering at the base of the statue. One marble heel was slightly raised and tucked beneath it was a small square of folded paper.
Eloise bent to pick it up. She unfolded it, turning the writing towards the golden glow of the lantern. Her heart, thudding so heavily a moment earlier, now stopped. She had expected to find another note but this was obviously a page torn from a book. A journal, judging by the dates in the margin. It was covered with a fine, neat hand that was all too familiar. As she read the page she put a hand to her mouth, her eyes widening with horror. The sentiments, the explicit nature of the words—innermost thoughts that would cause a scandal if they were made public. A scandal that could destroy both her and Alex.
For a sickening moment Eloise thought she might faint. Then, as her brain started to work again, she quickly refolded the paper and thrust it into the bosom of her gown. Her spine began to tingle, and she had the uneasy feeling that she was being watched. She backed away from the statue, straining her eyes and ears against the surrounding darkness. The air was very still and the only sound to reach her was the faint chatter of the guests gathered in the house. Suddenly she wanted nothing more than to be standing safely in that overheated, overcrowded salon. She picked up her skirts and began to run back along the path, trying not to think of who or what might be hiding in the darkness around her. The steps to the terrace were within sight when a figure stepped out and blocked her path. She screamed and tried to turn away. Strong hands reached out and grabbed her, preventing her from falling.
‘Easy, my lady. There is no need to be afraid.’
Recognising Jack Clifton’s deep warm voice did nothing to calm her. The noise coming from the open windows above was such that she felt sure no one had heard her scream and no one would hear her now, if she called out for assistance. Fighting down her panic, she shrugged off his hands.
‘You persist in tormenting me,’ she said in a low, shaking voice.
She heard him laugh and gritted her teeth against her anger.
‘You wrong me, madam. I saw you slip away, so I came outside to wait for you. I thought, perhaps, when you came back from your assignation, I might speak with you.’ His teeth gleamed in the dim light. ‘I did not expect you to return as if the hounds of hell were snapping at your heels.’
She peered at him, trying to read his face, but it was impossible in the gloom.
‘You know why I went into the garden?’
She sensed rather than saw him shrug.
‘I presumed it was to meet a gentleman.’ On this occasion his opinion of her character did not arouse her anger. ‘So now will you accept an apology for my behaviour this morning, madam?’
She said cautiously, ‘I might do so.’
‘Then I humbly beg your pardon. My conduct was not that of a gentleman.’
He was so close, so reassuringly solid, but could she trust him? She glanced nervously over her shoulder. If Major Clifton had not sent her that note, then who could it be? She looked up at him. ‘Did you see anyone else in the gardens, Major?’
‘No. What is it, Lady Allyngham, did not your lover keep the assignation?’
His coldly mocking tone banished all thoughts of seeking his help. She gave a little hiss of anger.
‘You are quite despicable!’
‘And you are hiding something.’
She drew herself up.
‘That,’ she said icily, ‘is none of your business!’
Jack did not move as the lady turned and ran quickly up the steps and into the house. There was a mystery here: shehad seemed genuinely frightened when she came running up to him. If it had been any other woman he would have done his best to reassure her, but Lady Allyngham had made it abundantly clear what she thought of him. And she could take care of herself, could she not? He thought back to that morning, when he had held her in his arms before she wrathfully fought him off. He toyed with the idea of following her and persuading her to confide in him. Then he shrugged. As the lady had said, it was none of his business.
Jack decided to leave. He had come to Clevedon House in search of Lady Allyngham, determined to deliver his apology and he had done so. There was now no reason for him to stay: he took no pleasure in being part of the laughing, chattering crush of guests gathered in the elegant salon. A discreet enquiry at the door elicited the information that Lady Allyngham had already departed and since there was no other amusement to be had, he made his way directly to his rooms in King Street. He decided not to call in at White’s. He had business to conclude in the morning and needed to have a clear head. After that, he thought, he would be glad to quit London and forget the bewitching, contradictory Lady Allyngham.
The following morning Jack took a cab into the City. His first meeting with his lawyer had convinced him that he was right to sell out and take charge of his inheritance, or what was left of it. Now he quickly scanned the papers that were put before him.
‘Once the property in Leicestershire is sold that will give me capital to invest in the Staffordshire estates,’ he decided.
His lawyer’s brows went up.
‘The Leicestershire estate was your father’s pride and joy: he always said the hunting there was second to none.’
‘I shall have precious little time for hunting for the next few years,’ muttered Jack, looking at the figures the lawyer had written out for him. He pushed the papers back across the desk. ‘You say you have a buyer?’
The lawyer steepled his fingers, trying to keep the note of excitement out of his voice. Years of dealing with old Mr Clifton had made him cautious.
‘The owner of the neighbouring property, a Mr Tomlinson, has indicated he is interested in purchasing the houseand the land. He is eager to have the matter settled. He is a manufacturer, but a very gentlemanly man.’
‘As long as he can pay the price I don’t care who he is.’ Jack rose. ‘Very well. Have the papers drawn up for me to sign tomorrow, and I’ll leave the rest to you.’
Ten minutes later Jack walked out into the street, feeling that a weight had lifted from his shoulders. He had always preferred Henchard, the house in Staffordshire. It had been his mother’s favourite, but sadly neglected after her death, his father preferring to live in London or Leicestershire. He had died there following a short illness eighteen months ago, but with Bonaparte gathering his army and Wellington demanding that every able soldier join him in Brussels, Jack had not had time to do more than to send to Henchard any personal effects he wanted to keep before rejoining his regiment. Now he planned to settle down. He would be able to refurbish Henchard, and in time the land might even be profitable again. Settling his hat on his head, he decided to walk back to King Street. He had reached the Strand and was approaching Coutts’s bank when a heavily veiled woman stepped out of the door, escorted by a very attentive bank clerk. Despite the thick veil there was something familiar about the tall, fashionably dressed figure, her purposeful tread, the way her hands twisted together. As she pulled on her gloves he caught sight of the heavy gold ring on her right hand. Even from a distance he recognised Allyngham’s signet ring. Jack smiled to himself, wondering what the lady would say if he approached her. Would she give him a cold, frosty greeting, or perhaps she might simply refuse to acknowledge him? Even as he considered the matter she swept across to a waiting cab and climbed in. Instantly the door was closed and the carriage pulled away.
‘Well, Miss Elle? Is your business ended, can we go home now?’
Eloise put up her veil and gave her maid a strained smile.
‘Yes, Alice, we are going back to Dover Street now.’
The maid gave a little sniff. ‘I do not see why we couldn’t use your own carriage, if you was only coming to the bank. It may be unusual for ladies to visit their bankers, but if they are widows, like yourself, I don’t see what else is to be done.’
Eloise did not reply. Leaning back in one corner, she clutched her reticule nervously. It rested heavily on her knees but she would not put it away from her. She had never been inside a bank before, but the manager himself had taken charge once he realised her identity, and the whole process had been conducted with the utmost ease. When she had said she needed to draw a substantial amount to distribute to her staff he had given her a look which combined sympathy with mild disapproval: no doubt he thought that she really required the money for some much more trivial reason, such as to buy new gowns or to pay off her gambling debts.
She pulled a paper from her bag and unfolded it: the scrawling black letters might have been live serpents for the way they made her skin crawl. When the letter had arrived that morning and she had read it for the first time, she had felt very alone. Her first thought had been to send for Alex, but she had soon dismissed the idea. Alex was a dear friend, but he could be rash, and this matter required discretion. No, she must deal with this herself. She scanned the letter again, chewing at her lip. Her biggest problem now was how to get through the rest of the day?
Mrs Renwick was a little surprised when Eloise appeared at her card party that evening.
‘I know I had sent my apologies,’ said Eloise, giving her hostess a bright smile, ‘but I was not in humour for dancing tonight and thought you would not object…’
‘Not in the least, my dear, you are most welcome here. Come in, come in and join our little party.’ Mrs Renwick drew her towards a quiet room filled with small tables, where ladies and gentleman were gathered, staring at their cards in hushed concentration. Bathed in the glow of the candles, it looked like a room full of golden statues. ‘This is turning out to be an evening of pleasant surprises. Major Clifton, too, made an unexpected appearance. It seems his business in town will not now be concluded until tomorrow so we have the pleasure of his company, too—’
Eloise drew back quickly. She had spotted Jack Clifton on the far side of the room.
‘No! I—I was hoping for something a little…less serious, ma’am.’
Her hostess laughed softly. ‘Well if you would like to come into the morning room, some of our friends are playing looe for penny points: nothing too alarming in that, now is there?’
Resigning herself to an hour or so of tedious play, Eloise smiled and took her place between a bouncing, bubbly young lady fresh from the schoolroom and an emaciated dowager in heavy black bombazine. Concentrating on the cards proved a surprisingly effective distraction for Eloise and when the little group split up to go in search of refreshment she was relieved to note that her evening was nearly over.
She made her way downstairs to the dining room where a long table was loaded with a sumptuous array of food and drink. A little supper might help to settle the nervous anticipation that was beginning to build within her. A group of gentlemen were helping themselves to delicacies from an assortmentof silver dishes. She noted that both Major Clifton and Sir Ronald Deforge were amongst their number so she avoided them and made her way to the far end of the table. She kept her eyes lowered, determined to concentrate on the food displayed before her but the gentlemen’s light-hearted banter intruded and she could not help but listen. The conversation turned to gambling and she found her attention caught when she heard the major’s voice.
‘You know I play the occasional game at White’s but the high stakes are not for me,’ he was saying. ‘You will think me very dull, I dare say, but I prefer my funds to be invested in my land, rather than lining some other fellow’s pockets.’
‘Very different from Sir Ronald, then,’ laughed Edward Graham. ‘You never refuse a game of chance, ain’t that right, sir?’
‘If it is cards, certainly,’ Sir Ronald replied cheerfully. ‘I have something of a passion for cards. I played young Franklyn ’til dawn last week.’
‘Then you have more energy for the pastime than I do,’ returned the major coolly, turning away.
‘I hear that playing ’til dawn is a common occurrence with you, Deforge,’ remarked Mr Renwick. ‘By Gad, sir, your servants must be falling asleep at their posts if they have to wait up for you every night.’
Sir Ronald laughed.
‘No, no, Renwick, I am not so cruel an employer. My household retires at a Christian hour. Only my valet waits up for me, and he snoozes in a chair in the hall until I give him the knock to let me in.’
‘The pleasures of being a bachelor,’ declared his host. ‘A wife would certainly curtail your nocturnal activities, Deforge!’
‘Oho, when have I ever prevented you doing exactly as youwish?’ demanded Mrs Renwick, walking by at that moment. ‘My husband would have you think his life very restricted.’ She tapped the straining front of Mr Renwick’s waistcoat with her fan. ‘Well, gentlemen? Does he look as if he is wasting away?’
Eloise gave a little chuckle as her hostess came towards her.
‘I am sure we will all find something to tempt our appetite here,’ she smiled. ‘A truly magnificent supper, ma’am.’
‘Thank you, Lady Allyngham. Are you enjoying yourself?’
‘Yes, thank you. It is a most delightful evening.’
‘But, my dear, you are very quiet this evening, and a trifle pale, I think.’ Mrs Renwick came closer. ‘I hope you are not ill?’
‘No, ma’am, a little tired, perhaps.’
Mrs Renwick gave her a warm, sympathetic smile.
‘Too many engagements, ma’am?’
‘I think perhaps I have had enough of town life.’
Overhearing, Mr Graham turned quickly towards her.
‘My dear Lady Allyngham, you will not desert us!’
‘Of course she will not,’ put in Lady Parham, coming up. ‘Not when there are so many diversions to be enjoyed.’
Eloise forced herself to smile. Suddenly she was tired of play-acting.
‘I think I may well go back to Allyngham.’
‘Ah,’ nodded Lady Parham. ‘Perhaps that is why you were in the Strand this morning, settling your affairs with your bankers.’
Eloise stiffened. ‘No, I had no business there today.’
‘Oh, I was so sure it was you!’ Lady Parham gave a tinkling little laugh, glancing around at her friends. ‘I had gone to Ackerman’s, to look at their new prints—so amusing!—andI saw a lady coming out of Coutts’s bank. But she was veiled, so perhaps I was mistaken.’
‘It must have been someone else,’ said Eloise firmly. ‘I was not in the Strand this morning.’
She selected a little pastry and turned away, only to find Jack Clifton regarding her with a little frown in his eyes.
Now what the devil is she about?
Jack had been watching Lady Allyngham for some time. He had noted that she was nervous, her eyes constantly straying to the clock, and her vehement denial of visiting the bank aroused his suspicions. She caught his eye and moved away so fast he abandoned any thought of speaking to her, but when, a short time later, Eloise made her excuses and left the party, he followed.
The press of traffic in the streets made it an easy task for Jack to follow her carriage on foot, and when they arrived at Dover Street he was close enough to hear the lady’s instructions to the coachman to come back in an hour.
Jack grinned. So shewasup to something! He dashed back to King Street, quelling the little voice in his head that objected to the idea of spying on a lady. After all, Tony Allyngham had been a good friend and had asked him to look after his widow—well, perhaps not in so many words, but Jack was not going to admit, even to himself, that he had any personal interest in Eloise Allyngham.
Just over half an hour later he was back in Dover Street, his evening coat replaced by a dark riding jacket and with a muffler covering his snowy neckcloth. Hidden out of sight in Dover Yard, Bob was looking after his horse and in all probability, Jack thought, animadverting bitterly on the ways of the Quality. He positioned himself opposite LadyAllyngham’s door and settled down to wait. As with many of the streets in this area of London, Dover Street housed a variety of residents, from members of thetonto ladies who, while they would never receive an invitation from the great society hostesses, were very well known to their husbands. Courtesans such as Kitty Williams who, it was rumoured, could boast of having a royal duke amongst her many admirers. Jack was not one of their number, but Kitty’s residence had been pointed out to him by his friends, and he watched with interest as an elegant town carriage pulled up at the door. A portly gentleman climbed out and was immediately admitted, as if the doorman had been looking out for him. So Lord Berrow was one of Kitty’s customers. Jack grinned: the Earl professed himself to be one of Wilberforce’s saints—the old hypocrite!
The sounds of another coach clattering into Dover Street caused Jack to step back further into the shadows. He nodded with satisfaction as it drew up outside Lady Allyngham’s house. He saw Eloise come out, wrapped now in a dark cloak, and step up into the carriage. It drew away immediately and Jack turned and ran for his horse.
‘I still think I should come with you,’ grumbled Robert as Jack scrambled into the saddle.
‘No, you go back now and wait for me.’ Jack patted his pocket. He had a pistol, should he need it, and besides, he forced himself to face the thought, if this should prove nothing more than a sordid little assignation with a lover, the less people who knew of it the better.
Keeping a discreet distance, Jack followed the coach as it bowled through the darkened streets. They headed north through Tottenham Court Road and soon the town was left behind and they were bowling along between open fields. Itwas a clear night, the rising moon giving sufficient light for the carriage to set a swift pace. The coach slowed as it climbed through the village of Hampstead. When they reached the open heath Jack drew rein and as the carriage came to a halt he guided his horse off the road into the cover of the stunted trees. He watched Eloise climb out. Silently he dismounted, secured his horse to a branch and followed her.
Eloise hesitated, glancing back at the coach drawn up behind her. The carriage lamps twinkled encouragingly and the solid shape of her coachman sitting up on the box was reassuring. She had also taken the precaution of asking Perkins to come with her. He had been her groom since she was a child and she was confident of his loyalty and discretion. Turning again to face the dark open heath, she took a deep breath and stepped forwards. She suspected it was not the autumnal chill in the night air that made her shiver as she moved along the narrow path. She felt dreadfully alone and had to remind herself that Perkins was discreetly following her. For perhaps the twentieth time since setting out she went over in her mind the instructions she had received in the letter that morning. The carriage had stopped at the fork in the road, as directed, and the path to the right between a boulder and small pond was easily found. She counted silently, thankful that the letter had stated the number of steps she would need to take rather than asking her to judge a half a mile: in her present nervous state she felt as if she had walked at least three miles already. There was sufficient light to see the path, but the trees and bushes on either side were menacingly black, and she had to force herself not to think how many malevolent creatures might be watching her from the shadows.
At one point she saw a black square on her left; a shepherd’s hut, she guessed, although there were no sheep or cattle visible on the heath. Then, ahead of her, she could make outthe path splitting on either side of a fallen tree. She stopped and glanced about her. Everything was silent. Shivering, she stepped up and placed a package under the exposed roots of the tree.
There, it was done. She was just heaving a sigh of relief when she heard a scuffle and crashing in the bushes behind her. She turned in time to see Perkins dragging something large and heavy out from the bushes.
‘I got ’im, m’lady,’ he wheezed, ‘I’ve got yer villain!’
Eloise ran back and gazed down at the unconscious figure lying at the groom’s feet.
It was Major Jack Clifton.Chapter Four
Anger, revulsion and disappointment churned in her stomach. The major might be an odious man but she had not wanted him proved a scoundrel.
‘Check his pockets,’ she said crisply.
‘What exactly is you looking for, m’lady?’
‘A book—a small, leather-bound journal.’
‘Nope,’ muttered Perkins, ‘Nothin’ like that. But there is this!’
He pulled out a pistol and held it up so that the moonlight glinted wickedly on the barrel.
‘Heavens,’ exclaimed Eloise, eyeing the weapon nervously. She straightened her shoulders. ‘We must tie his hands,’ she declared. ‘I’ll not risk him getting away.’
Perkins nudged the still body with the toe of his boot.
‘He’s not going anywhere, m’lady.’
‘Well, we cannot remain out here all night,’ she retorted. ‘We must take him back to town with us.’
‘And just ’ow do you propose we do that? The carriage is a good half a mile hence.’
‘We will carry him,’ she announced. ‘And don’t you dare to argue with me, Perkins!’
Her groom scratched his head.
‘Well, I ain’t arguing, m’lady, but he’s no lightweight. I’d suggest you’d be best takin’ his legs but that ain’t seemly…’
‘Never mind seemly,’ she replied, gazing dubiously at the major’s unconscious form. Suddenly he seemed so much larger than she remembered. ‘You cannot carry him alone, so I must help you.’
Eloise had never carried a body before. She had never even considered how it should be done. When Perkins had lifted the shoulders she took a firm grip of Jack’s booted ankles and heaved. Half-carrying, half-dragging, they staggered back along the path with their burden, but they had not gone many yards before she was forced to call a halt.
‘We will never carry him all the way back to the carriage,’ she gasped.
‘Well, I could always run back and fetch Coachman Herries.’
A cold wind had sprung up and it tugged at her cloak.
‘I do not want to be standing out here any longer than necessary.’ She looked around. ‘There is a hut of some sort over there. Perhaps we could put him in there until he comes around.’ She sensed the groom’s hesitation and stamped her foot. ‘For heaven’s sake, Perkins, do you think we should let him perish out here?’
‘Aw, ’tedn’t that cold, madam, and besides I don’t see why you should worry, if he’s such a villain.’
‘Hemay be a villain but I am not,’ declared Eloise angrily. ‘Now take his shoulders again and help me get him into that shelter!’
It was a struggle but eventually they managed to get their unwieldy burden into the shepherd’s hut. Perkins spotted anoil lamp hanging from the roof and pulled out his tinder box to light it. Eloise, very warm after her exertions, threw off her cloak before picking up a piece of twine to bind the major’s hands behind his back. Not a moment too soon, for even as she finished tying the knot Jack groaned.
‘Quickly, now, help me to sit him up.’
‘If I was you I’d leave him on the floor, where ’e belongs,’ opined Perkins, but she overruled him: she did not like to think of any creature bound and helpless at her feet.
They propped him up against a pile of sacks in one corner and Eloise stood back, watching as the major slowly raised his head.
‘Where am I?’
‘There is no point in struggling,’ she said, trying to sound fierce. ‘You are my prisoner.’
‘The devil I am!’
‘You keep a civil tongue when speakin’ to my lady,’ growled the groom.
‘That is enough, Perkins.’ Eloise turned back to Jack. ‘Where is the journal?’
‘The diary. Where is it?’
‘I have no idea what you mean.’
Her eyes narrowed.
‘What were you doing on the heath?’
Jack looked up at her from under his black brows. The feeble lamplight threw dark shadows across his face and she could not see his eyes.
‘I was following you. What wereyoudoing?’
‘That is nothing to do with you. I—’ She stopped, her eyes widening. She turned to her groom, saying urgently, ‘The package! Run back to the tree, quickly, and collect it.’
‘I don’t like to leave you alone with ’im, m’lady.’
‘His hands are bound, he cannot hurt me. But leave me the pistol, if you like, only go and collect that package!’
As the groom let himself out of the hut she weighed the pistol in her hand.
‘If that is mine I would advise you to keep your fingers away from the trigger, it is very light.’ She glanced up to find Jack watching her. ‘I would guess you had never used one of those.’
‘It should not be difficult, at this range.’
‘Not at all, if you think you can kill a man.’
She glared at him.
‘I can and will, if you give me cause!’
A derisive smile curved his mouth and she looked away.
‘Who tied my hands?’
‘And how did I get in here?’
‘We carried you.’
‘Yes.’ She flushed, saying angrily, ‘It is you who should be answering questions, not I.’
‘Then you had best ask me something.’
She was silent, and after a moment he said wearily, ‘I wish you would sit down. Since I cannot stand it is very impolite of you to put me at such a disadvantage.’
Eloise was suspicious, but she could read nothing from his countenance, save a certain irritation. She glanced around. There was a small stool in one corner and she pulled it forwards, dusted it off and sat down. He smiled.
‘Thank you. Now, what did you want to ask me?’
‘Why were you following me?’
He leaned back, wincing a little as his head touched the sacking piled behind him.
‘I saw you coming out of Coutts’s this morning. When you denied it so fiercely at the Renwicks’ party I became suspicious.’
‘Oh? And just what did you suspect?’
‘I don’t know: that you had run out of money, perhaps.’
‘I am not so irresponsible!’ she flashed, annoyed.
He ignored her interruption.
‘I followed you through Hampstead,’ he continued, watching her carefully. ‘It occurred to me that perhaps someone has a hold on you. This journal that you talked of: are you trying to buy it back?’
‘That is none of your business!’
‘I have a cracked skull that says it is my business,’ he retorted. ‘By the bye, is my head bleeding?’
She looked up, alarmed.
‘I don’t know—does it hurt you very much?’
‘Like the devil.’ He winced. ‘Perhaps you would take a look at it.’
Eloise slid off the stool to kneel beside him. Absently she brushed his hair out of his eyes before gently pulling his head towards her, eyes anxiously scanning the back of his head.
‘Oh heavens, yes, there is blood—oh!’
Even as she realised that he had somehow freed his hands he reached out and seized her. The next moment she was imprisoned in his powerful grasp and he had twisted her around so that it was she who was pinioned against the sacks, with Jack kneeling over her.
‘Some day I’ll teach you how to tie knots, my lady,’ he muttered, taking the pistol from her hand.
‘What are you going to do to me?’
She eyed him warily. Despite the shadows she felt his eyes burning into her.
‘What would you suggest? After all, you have done your best to murder me.’
‘That is quite your own fault!’ She struggled against him. ‘You had no right to be following me, dressed all in black like a common thief! Anyone might have mistaken you!’
She glared up at him, breathing heavily. She became aware of a subtle change in the atmosphere. Everything was still, but the air was charged with energy, like the calm before a thunderstorm. Her breathing was still ragged, but not through anger. He was straddling her, kneeling on her skirts and effectively pinning her down while his hands held her wrists. She stopped struggling and lay passively beneath him, staring at his shadowed face. He released one hand and drew a finger gently along her cheek.
‘I think we may have mistaken each other, Lady Allyngham.’
His voice deepened, the words wrapped about her like velvet. She did not move as he turned his hand and ran the back of his fingers over her throat. Eloise closed her eyes. His body was very close to her own and her nerves tingled. Her senses were heightened, she was aware of every movement, every noise in the small dark hut. She could smell him, a mixture of leather and wool and spices, she could feel his warm breath on her face. Eloise lifted her chin, but whether it was in defiance or whether she was inviting his lips to join hers she could not be sure. Her breasts tensed, her wayward body yearned for his touch.
It never came.
The spell was broken as the door burst open and Perkins’s aggrieved voice preceded him into the hut.
‘Dang me but I couldn’t find it, m’lady. Looked everywherefor that danged package but it’d gone, and nothing in its place! I think it—what the devil!’
The groom pulled up in the doorway, his eyes popping. As he looked around for some sort of weapon Jack eased himself away from Eloise and waved the pistol.
‘Perkins, isn’t it? I beg you will not try to overpower me again,’ he said pleasantly. ‘You would not succeed, you know.’
Eloise struggled to her feet.
‘I didnotuntie him,’ she said, feeling the groom’s accusing eyes upon her. ‘But he is not our villain. The fact that the package is gone confirms it.’
‘He might have an accomplice,’ said Perkins, unconvinced.
‘Believe me, I mean your mistress no harm,’ said Jack, standing up and dropping the pistol back into his pocket. ‘I want to help, but to do that I need to know just what is going on.’
He drew out his handkerchief and pressed it cautiously to the back of his head. Eloise saw the dark stain as he took it away again. She said quickly, ‘Yes, but not now. First we must clean up that wound.’
‘My man will do that for me when I get back to town.’
‘Then let us waste no more time.’
She clutched at his sleeve and led him outside, leaving Perkins to put out the lamp and shut the door.
‘Can you walk?’ she asked. ‘Do you need my groom to support you?’
‘No, I will manage very well with you beside me.’ She felt his weight on her arm. ‘I am not too heavy for you?’
‘I helped carry you,’ she retorted. ‘You were much heavier then.’
She heard him laugh and looked away so he would not seeher own smile. She was not yet ready to admit to a truce. They continued in silence and soon the carriage lights were visible in the distance.
‘Did you ride here?’ asked Eloise.
‘Yes. My horse is tethered to a bush, close to your carriage.’
‘Give Perkins your direction and he will ride it back to the stable.’
‘And just how isheto get back?’ demanded the groom.
‘He will travel back with me in the carriage.’ Eloise bit her lip. ‘I think I owe Major Clifton an explanation.’
Jack followed Eloise into the carriage and settled himself into the corner, resting the undamaged side of his head against the thickly padded squabs. The coachman had orders to go carefully, but the carriage still rocked and jolted alarmingly as they made their way back towards town. He peered through the darkness at his fellow passenger.
‘Are you going to tell me the truth now, madam?’
There was silence. He thought he detected a faint sigh.
‘This morning I received a letter,’ she said at last, ‘asking me to put one hundred guineas under the roots of a fallen tree on Hampstead Heath. The instructions were quite explicit.’
‘And what did you expect to get for your money?’
‘The—the return of a diary. When I went into the Clevedons’ garden last night it was because I had received a note, instructing me to do so. At the base of Apollo I found a piece of paper. It was a page torn from a…a very personal diary.’ There was a pause. ‘I discovered it was missing last year, but with all the grief and confusion over Allyngham’s death, I thought it had been destroyed.’
‘I see. I take it you do not wish the contents of this journal to become public?’
‘That is correct.’ The words were barely audible.
‘And what is it you wish to keep secret, madam?’
There was an infinitesimal pause before she said coldly, ‘That you do not need to know.’
‘I do if I am to help you to recover the book.’
‘If you had not interfered tonight I might already have it back! Who knows but your untimely appearance frightened off the wretch?’
‘He was not too frightened to take your money,’ Jack retorted.
‘Well…mayhap he will return the book to me tomorrow.’
‘You are air-dreaming, Lady Allyngham. In my experience this type of rogue will keep on demanding money until he has bled you dry.’
‘Yes.’ He leaned forwards, saying urgently, ‘The only way to stop this man is to catch him.’
‘There is no perhaps about it.’ The carriage slowed and began to turn.
‘King Street,’ she said, peering out of the window. ‘We have arrived at your rooms, Major. Would you like my footman to accompany you to the door?’
‘No, thank you, I can manage that short distance.’ He stepped carefully down on to the flagway.
Jack turned back to the darkened carriage. Eloise was leaning forwards, her face pale and beautiful in the dim light.
‘I am sorry you were injured,’ she said. ‘And I thank you, truly, for your concern.’
He grasped her outstretched hands, felt the slight pressure of her fingers against his own before she gently pulled free, the carriage door was closed and the carriage rolled off into the night.
Eloise stirred restlessly.Suchdreams had disturbed her sleep: menacing letters, walking alone across a lonely heath, bags of guineas. An encounter with Major Jack Clifton. She sat up.Thatwas no dream. As the reality crowded in upon her she put her hands to her head. She had left a packet containing a hundred guineas on Hampstead Heath. The money had gone, and the diary had not been returned. She gave a little shiver as she thought of the damage that could be done if ever its contents were made known. On top of all that she had been obliged to explain something of her plight to Jack Clifton. For a moment she forgot her own worries to wonder if his head was hurting him this morning—perhaps he had forgotten the night’s events. The thought occurred only to be dismissed. Jack Clifton had not been that badly injured; witness the way he had overpowered her.
Eloise allowed herself to dwell on that scene in the shepherd’s hut, Jack sitting on the floor, looking up at her with a devilish grin on his handsome face. And when she had knelt before him, fooled into concern for the cut on his head, he had not hesitated to seize her. She could still remember the sensation of being at his mercy, the shiver that had run through her when she looked up and saw the devils dancing in his eyes. It had not been fear, but excitement that had coursed through her veins, the thought of pitting herself against him, her wits against his strength. Angrily she gave herself a little shake.
‘Enough,’ she muttered, scrambling out of bed and tugging at the bell-pull. ‘He never thought highly of you, and after last night he thinks even less. You had best forget Major Clifton.’
But it seemed that was easier said than done. As she partook of her solitary breakfast she tried to put him out of hermind but it was almost as if she had conjured him up when Noyes came to announce that she had a visitor.
‘Major Clifton is here to see you, my lady. He is waiting for you in the morning room.’
For a single heartbeat she considered telling Noyes to deny her, but decided against it. After all, it was her servant who had attacked the major: the least she could do was to show a little concern.
‘Thank you, I will go to him directly.’ She rose, putting a hand up to her curls, and it took a conscious effort not to stop at the mirror to check her appearance before entering the morning room.
Major Clifton was standing by the window, staring out into the street. He seemed to fill the room, his tall figure and broad shoulders blocking the light, and when he turned she was disturbed to find she could not read the expression on his shadowed face. He bowed.
She hovered by the door, wishing she had asked the butler to leave it open.
‘Good morning, Major. How is your head?’
‘Sore, but no lasting damage, I hope.’
‘I hope so, too.’ She gave him a tentative smile. ‘Won’t you sit down, sir?’
She indicated a chair and chose for herself a sofa on the far side of the room. To her consternation the major followed and sat down beside her. Heavens, would the man never do as he was bid? She sat bolt upright and stared straight ahead of her, intensely aware of him beside her, his thigh only inches away from her own. Her heightened senses detected the scent of citrus and spice: a scent she was beginning to associate with this man. She made a conscious effort to keep still: shethought wildly it would have been more comfortable sitting next to a wolf!
‘M-may I ask why you are here?’ she enquired, amazed that her voice sounded quite so normal.
‘I want to help you catch whoever is persecuting you.’
Her head came round at that.
‘Thank you, sir, but I do not need your help.’
‘Oh, I think you do. Who else is there to assist you? I presume the journal is your property, so perhaps you intend to enlist the services of a Bow Street Runner to retrieve it?’
‘That is impossible.’ She glared at him. ‘If you had not interfered last night the matter might well have been concluded.’
‘I doubt it. However, I do acknowledge that I am in some small way embroiled in this affair now…’
‘Nonsense! This is nothing to do with you.’
‘I would not call having my head split open nothing.’
‘I should have thoughtthatwould be a warning to you to stay away!’
His slow smile appeared, curving his lips and warming his eyes, so that she was obliged to stand up and move away or risk falling under the spell of his charm.
‘My friends would tell you that I can never resist a challenge, madam.’
‘Andmyfriends would tell you that I am perfectly capable of looking after myself.’
‘Quite clearly that is not true, for you are in serious trouble now, are you not?’ When she did not reply he said softly, ‘Perhaps you intend to enlist the help of Alex Mortimer—’
‘No! Mr Mortimer must know nothing of this.’
‘And why not? I thought he was a close friend of yours. A veryclosefriend.’
His meaning unmistakable, Eloise turned away, flushing.She said in a low voice, ‘You know nothing about this. You do not understand.’
‘Oh, I understand only too well, madam,’ he said coldly. ‘This—journal you are so concerned about: I have no doubt it contains details of your affairs. Details that you do not wish even Mortimer to know.’
She gave a brittle laugh.
‘You are very wide of the mark, Major.’
‘Am I? Tell me, then, what it is in this book that is so terrible?’ She looked at him. There was no smile in his eyes now, only a stony determination. As if sensing her inner turmoil the hard look left his eyes. He said gently, ‘Will you not trust me?’
Eloise bit her lip. She wanted to trust him. She thought at that moment she would trust him with her life, but the secrets in the journal involved others, and she could not betray them. And if he should discover the truth, she thought miserably that he would look upon her with nothing but disgust. Unconsciously her fingers toyed with Tony’s heavy signet ring that she had taken to wearing on her right hand.
‘I cannot,’ she whispered. ‘Please do not ask it of me.’
She met his gaze, her heart sinking when she saw the stony look again on his face. It was no more than she expected, but it hurt her all the same.
Jack watched her in silence. The distress he saw in her every movement tore at him. He wanted to comfort her, but she was no innocent maid: she had told him quite plainly she did not need his protection. So why did he find it so difficult to leave her to her fate? He rose, disappointed, angry with himself for being so foolish. He had wanted her to confide in him, to tell him she was an innocent victim, but it was clear now that she could not do so. Better then to go now, to walk away and forget all about the woman.
‘Very well, madam. If that is all…’
‘I am very sorry,’ she murmured.
‘So, too, am I.’
A soft knock sounded upon the door and Noyes entered.
‘I beg your pardon, madam, but you asked me to bring any messages to you.’
He held out the tray bearing a single letter: she reached for it, hesitating as she recognised the untidy black scrawl.
Jack made no move to leave the room. Eloise had grown very pale and she picked up the letter as if it might burn her fingers.
‘Thank you,’ she said, ‘That will be all.’
‘Well?’ Jack waited until the butler had withdrawn before speaking. ‘Is it another demand? What does he say?’
She handed it to him.
‘You had best read it.’
Jack ran his eyes over the paper.
‘So he wants to meet with you.’
‘Yes, but at Vauxhall Gardens. That will be very different from Hampstead Heath.’
‘But even more dangerous. Much easier for a villain to lose himself in a crowd than on a lonely heath.’
‘He does not ask for more money,’ she said hopefully. ‘Perhaps he means to give me back the book.’
Jack frowned. ‘I think it more likely that he has other demands to make of you.’ He gave her the letter. ‘He does not expect an answer: the fellow is very sure of himself, damn his eyes!’ He began to pace about the room. All thoughts of abandoning Eloise had disappeared. ‘We will need to use your carriage, ma’am, and I think it would be useful to have your groom and my man there. We could send them on ahead of us: they will not look out of place in the crowd; one sees all sorts at Vauxhall. We have a few days to prepare…’
‘We?’ She raised her brows at him. ‘I told you I do not want your help, Major, and I thought we had agreed I do not deserve it!’
Jack stared at her, unwilling to admit even to himself why he was so determined not to leave her to her fate.
‘Allyngham saved my life,’ he said curtly. ‘I owe it to his memory to help you and to protect his name.’
‘Whatever you may think of me?’
‘Whatever I may think of you!’Chapter Five
Eloise looked around the crowded ballroom. The plans were laid: tonight, very publicly, she was to invite Jack Clifton to escort her to Vauxhall. She experienced a sudden spurt of anger towards the unknown letter-writer: if it were not for him it would not be necessary for her to attend another glittering party. Lord Berrow was adamant that he could not sell her Ainsley Wood, so there was no reason for her to remain in London, and with Alex away she would much rather have returned to Allyngham than be walking alone into a crowded ballroom, knowing that nearly every man present would be turning lustful eyes towards her. She shivered: any one of them could be her villain.
‘My dear Lady Allyngham, you are looking charming this evening, quite charming!’ Lord Berrow was at her side, beaming and offering her his arm. ‘And no Mr Mortimer to escort you.’
‘He is gone into Hertfordshire,’ she responded. ‘But I expect him back very soon.’
She tried to smile, but the idea that any one of her acquaintancescould have the diary had taken hold of her mind and she could not relax.
‘Excellent, then you must allow me to take his place: can’t have such a pretty little thing unattended.’ He held up his hand as she opened her mouth to protest. ‘I know what you are thinking: Lady Berrow is happily engaged with our hostess for the moment, and I know she will not begrudge me a turn about the room with a pretty woman, eh?’
She felt a tiny flicker of amusement at the Earl’s behaviour. He puffed out his chest and strutted beside her, showing her off to his friends as if she was a prize he had won. However, it was not long before she began to find his rather self-centred conversation quite tedious, and it was with relief that she spotted Major Clifton. He made no effort to approach and at length she excused herself prettily from Lord Berrow, who squeezed her arm and invited her to come back and join him whenever she wished.
Eloise moved off but immediately found her way blocked by a stocky figure in an amethyst-coloured coat and white knee-breeches.
‘Lady Allyngham.’ Sir Ronald Deforge bowed his pomaded, iron-grey curls over her hand. ‘A delightful surprise: I was afraid you had left town.’
She gave him a smooth, practised answer.
‘Why should I wish to do that, when so many friends remain?’
‘But you said, the other night, that you were tired of town life.’
‘Did I?’ She managed a laugh. ‘Let us ascribe that to low spirits, Sir Ronald. I am perfectly happy now, I assure you.’
She walked away, making for the refreshment table, where she observed Major Clifton filling a cup from one of the large silver punch-bowls.
‘You cannot know the happiness it gives me to hear you say that,’ declared Sir Ronald, following her.
Eloise paid him no heed: she was watching Jack as he continued to fill his cup: she was sure he had seen her, but unlike every other gentleman in the room, who would have been at her side at the slightest invitation, he was studiously avoiding her eye. Stifling her irritation, she approached the table. Sir Ronald sprang forwards.
‘Let me help you to a cup of punch, ma’am.’
Jack looked around, as if aware of her presence for the first time.
‘Good evening, Major Clifton.’
His slight bow was almost dismissive. Her eyes narrowed.
Deforge handed her a cup. ‘Your punch, Lady Allyngham.’
She thanked him but turned away almost immediately to make it plain she had no further need of his company. As Sir Ronald questioned one of the servants about the ingredients of the punchbowl, she moved a little closer to Jack.
‘A delightful crush tonight, is it not, Major?’ she said, smiling.
His response was polite but hardly encouraging. She reached past him to pick up the ladle and add a little more punch to her cup.
‘Are you avoiding me, sir?’ she asked him quietly. ‘Perhaps you do not wish to continue with our plan?’
A smile tugged at the corners of his mobile mouth.
‘Of course I do,’ he murmured. He took the ladle from her hand, brushing her gloved fingers with his own. ‘Allow me, my lady.’
She carried the refilled cup to her lips, watching him allthe time. His smile grew. He turned slightly so that no one else could hear him.
‘Well, madam? You must invite me to go with you to Vauxhall.’
Indignation swelled within her as she noted the wicked glint in his eye: he was enjoying this!
She raised her voice a little. ‘Have you thought any more about Vauxhall, sir? I should very much like to visit the gardens on Tuesday, if you will escort me.’
He seemed to consider the matter.
‘Tuesday…IthinkI could be free that evening.’
Eloise seethed. Her smile became glacial.
‘If it is too much trouble for you—!’
‘Did you say Vauxhall, my lady?’ Sir Ronald stepped up. ‘I would be more than happy—’
‘Thank you, sir, but having offered to go with Major Clifton, it would be very cruel of me now to deny him.’ She gave Jack a glittering smile. ‘Would it not, Major?’
Her heart missed a beat as he hesitated.
‘It would, of course,’ he said slowly, ‘but if Sir Ronald is willing…’
There could be no mistaking the venomous look that passed between the men. Sir Ronald said coldly, ‘If the major is not able to escort you, madam…’
Jack put up his hand.
‘And yet I do not think that will be necessary. I have not been to Vauxhall for some time, ma’am. It will be amusing to visit the gardens with you.’ His eyes laughed at her. ‘Shall we go by water, or the road?’
‘We will take my carriage, naturally,’ she replied, her calm tone quite at odds with the fury inside her.
‘Naturally,’ he murmured. ‘So much more…intimate.’
Eloise knew her smile did not reach her eyes. She sipped at her punch, determined not to make a hasty retort.
‘Then you will not be requiring my services.’ Sir Ronald’s angry mutter recalled Eloise to her surroundings. She held out her hand to Sir Ronald and gave him a warm smile.
‘Perhaps another time, sir.’
‘Perhaps, my lady.’ He bowed over her hand and walked away.
She and Jack were momentary alone at the table.
‘And what was that little charade about?’ she demanded icily.
‘Just that, a charade.’
‘You made me almostbegyou to come with me!’
‘You have the whole of London at your feet: there has to be some reason for the Glorious Allyngham to accept the escort of a mere major. Everyone will think I played my hand very cleverly and piqued your interest.’
She placed her cup back on the table with a little bang.
‘I wish I had turned you down!’
‘What, and accepted Deforge as your escort instead? You would find him a dead bore, I assure you.’
She ground her teeth in frustration.
‘I do not need you! I could write to Alex: he could be back here tomorrow.’
Jack refilled her cup and handed it back to her.
‘But you do not want him to know what you are about: what excuse would you give him, calling him away from his business just to escort you to Vauxhall?’
She eyed him resentfully, hating the fact that he was right. He laughed again.
‘You may as well accept my help with a good grace, mylady. Now drink your punch and we will let the world see that I have fallen under your spell!’
After a solitary dinner on Tuesday night, Eloise went up to her room to prepare for her trip to Vauxhall Gardens. She chose to wear an open robe of spangled gauze over a slip of celestial blue satin. Her cap was a delicate confection of lace, feathers and diamonds that sparkled atop her golden curls. Looking in the mirror, she was pardonably pleased with the result.
‘You look elegant and very stylish,’ she told her reflection, adding, as thoughts of a certain tall, dark soldier entered her mind, ‘and you do not look in the least fast!’
With her domino of midnight-blue velvet thrown over her arm she made her way downstairs to wait for Major Clifton. Minutes later he was shown into the drawing room, attired in a dark blue coat that seemed moulded to his figure, as did the buff-coloured pantaloons that encased his legs and disappeared into a pair of gleaming, tasselled Hessians. She put up her chin a fraction as she was subjected to his swift, hard scrutiny.
‘Well, Major, do I pass muster?’
Her spirits lifted a little when she saw a flicker of admiration in his face: she had seen that look too often to be mistaken.
‘I have never questioned your beauty, my lady.’
‘Only my morals!’ she flashed.
He put up one hand.
‘Shall we call a truce, ma’am? We will need to work together if we are to succeed this evening.’
‘What do you mean by that?’
‘We have no idea who is writing these letters, but you may be sure that they will be watching you tonight. We must makeeveryone believe that I am there purely as your escort, to be easily dropped while you slip off to…where is it?’
‘The Druid’s Walk.’
‘Yes, the Druid’s Walk for your assignation.’
A smile tugged at the corners of her mouth.
‘Do you really think you can act the role of a mooncalf, Major?’
He grinned back at her.
‘Oh, I think I can manage that, madam.’ He held out his arm. ‘Shall we go?’
The journey to Vauxhall was accomplished much more quickly than they had anticipated, the traffic over the bridge being very light, and they were soon part of the line of carriages making their way to the gardens. Despite her anxiety, Eloise enjoyed Major Clifton’s company far more than she had anticipated. He said nothing contentious, and treated her with such courtesy and consideration that she soon relaxed.
Jack, too, was surprised. He had heard enough of the Glorious Allyngham to expect her to be a witty and entertaining companion but he was taken off guard by the generous, unaffected nature that shone through her conversation: she was as happy to discuss the government or the plight of the poor as she was Edmund Kean’s latest performance. She had little interest in gossip and confessed that she was happier living quietly at Allyngham than being ogled in the ballrooms of London. Intrigued, Jack regarded her across the dim carriage.
‘This is a very different picture of you, my lady. You are not at all the Wanton Widow you are named.’
‘She does not exist.’
‘That is not what I have heard.’
‘Thetonmust gossip about someone. It may as well be me.’
‘And do they not have good reason to talk of you? You have captivated every gentleman in town, and in so doing you have made every lady jealous.’
‘They have no need to be jealous of me: their menfolk may lust after me, they may talk of laying siege to the Glorious Allyngham—you see, Major, I know what is said of me!—but I have no interest in any of them.’
‘If that is so, then why did you come to town?’
‘Oh, for company. For the concerts, and the society.’ She added pointedly, ‘It is possible to enjoy a man’s conversation without wanting to take him for a lover, Major.’ She glanced out of the window. ‘Goodness, we are at the entrance already. How fast time flies when one is talking.’
She turned to smile at him and Jack’s senses reeled. The flames from the blazing torchères illuminated the interior of the carriage, glinting off the lady’s lustrous curls and lighting up her countenance, giving her the appearance of a golden goddess. Desire wrenched at his gut. He wanted to reach out and pull the pins from her hair, to watch those curls tumble down her back in a glorious golden stream. He wanted to take her in his arms and lose himself
‘Major? We must alight: we are holding up the traffic.’
There was a laugh in her soft voice. He snapped out of his reverie and jumped down. Damnation, he must be careful: he was enjoying her company but he had no intention of falling victim to her charms. Jack handed her out of the carriage and waited silently while she adjusted her domino, resisting the temptation to help, knowing if he did so his hands would linger on her shoulders. What was is she had said?It is possible to enjoy a man’s conversation without wanting to take him for a lover.Perhaps that was true: all he knew was that hewanted nothing to mar the easy camaraderie that was growing between them.
‘We have an hour to spare before supper,’ he told her as they walked through the Grove, the sounds of the orchestra drifting through the air towards them. ‘Shall we take a stroll about the gardens?’
‘Yes, if you please. Perhaps we should find the Druid’s Walk, so I know where I am to go later.’
Eloise was happy to accompany Major Clifton through the tree-lined avenues illuminated by thousands of twinkling lamps. At one intersection they spotted Perkins and Jack’s man, Robert, but they exchanged no more than a glance. Until that moment Eloise had been able to forget the purpose of their visit to the gardens. Now the fear came flooding back and she stole anxious glances at each person they passed.
‘It is very unnerving to think that any one of these people might be our villain,’ she muttered.
‘We will know soon enough. Until then let us try to pass the time without worrying. Perhaps you could tell me something of your history.’
She looked up at him, surprised.
‘It is not very interesting. I have done little, and travelled less.’
‘I understand there was some opposition to your marriage to Lord Allyngham?’
‘Strong opposition,’ she told him. ‘My parents died when I was a baby and I was sent to Allyngham to be brought up with the family. Lady Allyngham had no daughter, you see, and she brought me up with the intention that I would be something in the nature of a companion to her.’
‘Did they treat you well?’
‘Yes, very well. Tony and I grew up together—and Alex,of course, who lived on the neighbouring estate. We were all close friends, inseparable until the boys went away to school, and even then we were always together when they came home for the holidays.’
‘If that was the case then the Allynghams might have expected Tony to fall in love with you.’
She sighed. ‘I do not believe the thought occurred to them. He was their second son and it was expected that he would make an advantageous match. It is not surprising that they were mortified when he decided to marry me, a penniless orphan.’
‘That must have been very unpleasant for you.’
‘It was, a little. Oh, they did nothing so very bad; they loved Tony far too much to disinherit him or anything of that nature, but there was always a certain—coolness. It lasted until they died five years ago.’
‘If you had given Allyngham an heir…’
She flinched a little at that.
‘Perhaps that might have helped, but it was not to be.’
He glanced down at her, concerned, and she gave him a strained little smile.
‘You are not to be thinking my life is empty, Major. I have plenty to occupy me, looking after the Allyngham estates.’
‘That must be a heavy burden for you.’
‘Not really, I enjoy it. I took charge initially because Tony was away in the army. He trusted me to look after everything for him and we have an excellent steward, too. And Alex is always there to advise me.’
‘Ah, Mortimer.’ She heard the harsh note creep into his voice. ‘And was he alsoalways therewhile your husband was away?’
She stopped. Suddenly it was important that she make himunderstand. She turned towards him, fixing her eyes upon his face.
‘Alex and I are very close, we share many of the same interests, but we have never been more than friends. Tony knew that: it gave him some comfort to know that when he was away we could look after each other.’ Impulsively she put her hands on his chest. ‘I may flirt a little, Major, but I have never played my husband false, and I never intend to do so. I want you to believe that.’
They stared at one another, oblivious of the raucous laughter and exclamations of the crowds around them. Jack’s hand came up and covered her fingers.
‘I do believe it,’ he said slowly. ‘The more I know of you, the more I am intrigued. I think you are more innocent that you would have me believe.’
Eloise stepped back. Warning bells were clamouring in her head: he was far too close to the truth! She gave a little laugh.
‘Do not put me on a pedestal, Major, I pray you.’ She tucked her hand in his arm. ‘Shall we find our supper box now?’
However, when they were seated in their box, Eloise gave Jack a smiling apology.
‘I am afraid my appetite has quite deserted me. We are so exposed here, with all the world and his wife walking by.’
‘Then let us give them a performance,’ murmured Jack, bringing his chair a little closer. ‘You need to eat, so I shall feed you titbits.’
‘No, I should not—’
He speared a tiny piece of the wafer-thin ham with his fork and held it out to her.
‘Yes, you should.’
‘But everyone is watching!’
‘Exactly. If our man is out there he will be reassured. Andas for the rest, well, they will think I am the luckiest dog alive!’
Looking into his smiling eyes, Eloise capitulated. She opened her lips to take the proffered morsel. It was delicious, which seemed to heighten the decadence of the action, and she did not protest when Jack offered her another. She felt he was tempting her with so much more than a mouthful of food. Eloise put down her wine cup. The arrack punch was very strong and it was already making her senses swim.
‘You are flirting with me, Major.’
‘Very much so. And if I bring my head closer to yours while I pour the wine…’
‘No more for me, thank you! I need to keep a clear head for later. Do you really think we are being watched?’
‘I do. We must show him that I am truly enamoured of you.’
He took her hand.
Her toes tingled with excitement when she saw the wicked gleam in his eye. She watched as he slowly pulled off her glove, holding her hand like a delicate piece of porcelain. Gently he turned it over and lowered his head to press a kiss on the inside of her wrist. She gasped. He continued to drop kisses on the soft skin of her arm. Little arrows of fire were shooting through her; it was all she could do to keep still.
‘I—um—I think we should stop now.’
He ran the tip of his tongue lightly across the hinge of her elbow. Unspeakably pleasurable sensations curled around inside her, so intense she was afraid she might slide off her chair. She gazed at his head as he bent over her: she wanted to reach out and caress the raven’s gloss of his hair. She clenched her free hand to prevent herself from trying such a thing.
‘Major.Jack!’ She hissed his name, almost squirming now under his touch. ‘People are staring.’
He raised his head, fixing her with a devilish grin.
‘That is exactly what we want,’ he murmured. ‘It is almost time for you to keep your appointment in Druid’s Walk.’
Immediately the pleasant lassitude she had been feeling disappeared. She swallowed nervously.
He nodded, slipping one arm around her waist.
‘So I am going to try to kiss you, then you will slap my face and leave me. Can you do that?’
Swallowing again, she nodded. Smiling, Jack gently pulled her into his arms. It was like coming home. Eloise gazed up into his eyes, black and fathomless as night. His face was only inches from her own. Her lips parted instinctively, her eyelids drooped. She ached for him to kiss her but his mouth remained tantalizingly just out of reach.
‘Now you have to slap me.’ Jack’s voice was no more than a croak. He said curtly, ‘Do it!’
Eloise dragged her wandering thoughts back. She knew what was expected of her. Pulling herself out of his grasp, she slapped him with her bare hand. Then, snatching up her glove and her domino, she marched off.
The gardens were much more frightening for an unescorted lady. Eloise pulled the hood of her domino over her head and hurried along the paths, trying to ignore the rowdy laughter coming from the darker walks. She kept her head down. Someone knocked her shoulder.
‘I beg yer pardon, lady.’
She heard Perkins’s familiar voice and felt a rush of gratitude, glancing up in time to see him tugging at his forelockbefore he turned and sauntered away. It was reassuring to know she was not quite alone.
She had memorised the instructions. The second arbour off Druid’s Walk. Now as she turned into the famous avenue she began to worry. What if someone was already there? What if the writer wanted to harm her? She shook her head and tried to think rationally. If her tormentor had the journal then most likely he would want some extortionate payment. She would pay it, too, if it was the only way to get the book back.
She reached the second arbour and slowed down. Cautiously she approached the dark space. A canopy of leaves blotted out almost all the light, but as her eyes adjusted to the darkness she could see an empty bench at the back of the enclosure. Her heart beating, she walked to the bench and sat down to wait. Almost immediately a voice sounded to her right.
‘You keep good time, madam. I congratulate you.’
Eloise jumped up. A black shape detached itself from the shadows. It was a man, wrapped in a dull black cloak and hat, his face hidden beneath a black mask. As he moved forwards the light glittered eerily on the eyes peering through the slits in his mask. She cleared her throat.
‘What do you want of me?’
He held out his hand and she saw the grey oblong held between his fingers. It was too dark to read it but she knew from its shape and size that it was another page from the diary. As her hand reached out he snatched it back.
‘You are very sensible, ma’am. No tears, no hysterics.’
‘Would they do me any good?’
‘Not at all.’
‘Then I will ask you again, how much?’
‘This page I will give you in exchange for a kiss.’
‘And the rest of the book?’
She heard him chuckle. It sent a shiver of revulsion running through her.
‘That depends upon the kiss.’
He reached out and pulled her to him, pressing his lips hard against her mouth. She froze, fighting against an impulse to push him away.
When he let her go she gasped and instinctively dragged the back of her hand across her mouth.
‘Who are you?’
‘You will discover soon enough. Here.’ He held out the grey oblong. ‘Take it. I shall let you know the price for the rest.’
She twitched the paper from his fingers.
‘How…how did you come by the book?’
‘You do not need to know that.’
She put up her chin.
‘It could be a forgery.’
He laughed softly in the darkness.
‘And would you have left me a hundred guineas on Hampstead Heath if it had not been genuine?’
She bit her lip, regretting that first, rash action. She said, coldly, ‘What if I refuse to continue with this?’
‘But you won’t.’ His voice was low, just above a whisper, and it sent unpleasant shivers through her. ‘Neither will you leave town. Do you think if you bury yourself in the country you can escape the scandal? You know that is not true.’
She put up her head.
‘If you publish I shall go abroad—’
‘And what of the Allyngham name? Such an illustrious history—are you content to see it tainted?’
Eloise peered into the darkness. It was impossible to tellmuch about her tormentor: the hat and cloak concealed his body as effectively as he had disguised his voice.
‘What is it you want from me?’
‘You will continue with your engagements. I understand a party will be going to Renwick Hall at the end of the month. You will be invited.’
‘How can you be so sure?’
‘Mrs Renwick likes you. I have heard her say she would like you to be there.’
She turned away, shaking her head.
‘No. I have had enough of your games—’
‘If I publish that book your name will be disgraced.’
‘Allyngham is dead,’ she said dully. ‘It will make no odds.’
‘But others are very much alive, and they will suffer, will they not? Are you willing to risk their disgrace, perhaps even to risk their lives, Lady Allyngham?’
She stopped. He was right, of course. Slowly she turned back.
‘How much do you want?’ she asked again.
‘I shall let you know that in due course. For now you will continue to adorn the London salons and ballrooms while you await my instructions.’
He stepped back into the shadows. There was a rustle of leaves, then silence. She could see nothing. She put her hands out and stepped towards the back of the arbour. Branches and leaves met her fingers; there was no sign of the cloaked man. Eloise backed away. As she moved closer to the main path she held up the paper, still clutched in her fingers. Even in the dim light she recognised the writing. It was another page from that damning journal. Turning the page to catch the best of the light spilling in from the walk, she read it quickly then, with a sob and a shudder, she turned and ran out on to the path.Chapter Six
After the darkness of the arbour the lamps strung amongst the trees of the Druid’s Walk were positively dazzling. Eloise looked around wildly. Perkins and Robert came running up as she emerged on to the path.
‘Did you see him?’ she cried. ‘He was in there. Did you see him?’
‘Wasn’t no one in that nook when we got ’ere,’ said Perkins. ‘We’ve bin watching all the time and no one’s appeared.’
Hasty footsteps scrunched on the gravel and she looked around as Jack approached. He went to put his arm about her but she held him off.
‘Where were you?’ she demanded. ‘You said you would follow me.’
‘I did. I set off shortly after you. I admit the crowds in the main walks impeded my progress but I was no more than five minutes behind you.’
Eloise shivered. Had she been in there such a short time?
Jack took her arm. ‘You are trembling. Come away from here.’
‘No, I must know how he got into the arbour and how he left it again without being seen. There must be a back way.’
Robert reached up and unhooked one of the lanterns from a nearby tree.
‘Well, then, madam, perhaps we should take a look.’
With Jack beside her, she followed Robert and Perkins back into the arbour. The lamplight flickered over the closely woven branches that formed the walls. She pointed behind the bench.
‘He disappeared through there.’
Robert moved closer, holding the lantern aloft.
Jack’s grip on her arm tightened. ‘What is it, Bob?’
‘Two of the uprights have been sawn through. A man could squeeze through there.’
Perkins stepped up.
‘Shall I go after ’im, m’lady?’
‘No,’ said Jack. ‘He will be long gone by now. We must take Lady Allyngham home. Run ahead, Perkins, and summon the carriage.’ He looked down at her. ‘What happened, did he demand more money?’
Beneath her cloak Eloise crumpled the paper in her hand and slipped it into her reticule. She was not about to let Jack read it.
‘He said he will let me know his demands later.’
‘And did you get a look at him, ma’am?’ asked Robert. ‘Was he taller than you, fatter—’
She shook her head.
‘I could not see. It was very dark, and he was disguised.’ She cast a quick glance up at Jack. ‘I am sure it is someone who was at the Renwicks’ party earlier this week—he knew I was thinking of leaving town. I wondered for a moment ifit mightbeMr Renwick, but he is such a short, round, jolly gentleman his size would have been difficult to disguise.’
‘But why should you think of Charles?’
‘Because the man said I would be invited to join the Renwicks at their house party, and I was to accept.’
‘So our villain is not a stranger to society.’ He put his hand over hers. ‘I should not have let you meet with this man alone.’
Eloise said nothing. She found herself listening to his voice, trying to match it to the breathy tones of her tormentor. After all, Jack had been at the Renwicks’ and standing near to her when she had said she might leave London. And he had been nowhere in sight when she had emerged from the arbour. Had he been discarding his disguise?
She tried to dismiss the idea as they walked back through the gardens. Her instinct was to trust him, but what did she know about this man? He was a soldier, but that might not make him any less a villain. Every nerve was stretched to breaking point and she could not relax, even when they were seated in her comfortable travelling chaise and on their way back to town. She was not at ease, being so close to Jack Clifton. She remembered that night on the Heath. Was he really as innocent as he claimed? He might well have had an accomplice, who had taken the money from the tree roots. She cast a swift, furtive glance at the black shadowed figure beside her. Had the man in the arbour been taller or shorter than Jack, had he been fat, or thin? It was so difficult to tell; the enveloping cloak and tall hat had been a very effective disguise. She thought perhaps he had been more her own height, but everything had happened so quickly she could not be sure.
She turned to stare out of the window at the dark, shadowy fields and the houses flying by. Jack had kissed her once. Itshould be possible to compare that to her experience in the arbour. Both kisses had been swift and rough, but could they have been from the same man? She tried to think back to Major Clifton’s first visit to Dover Street. She remembered her surprise when he had pulled her into his arms, she could even recall the excitement that had flared within her, the dizzying pleasure that for a brief moment had kept her motionless in his arms. But she could not remember thedetail.
The carriage jolted over the uneven road and she was briefly thrown against her companion. Instead of shrinking away, she held her position, her face only inches from his shoulder. She breathed in, trying to detect any scent that might remind her of the man in the arbour. She leaned closer, desperately searching her memory for any little point that might identify the man. It had been very dark in that leafy bower, and she had seen very little, but she had felt the man’s hands gripping her arms—that certainly had been very similar to Jack’s savage embrace!—and she had been aware of his mouth pressing her lips, and his rough cheek rubbing against hers. If it was the man sitting beside her in the carriage, there was one way to find out. Aware of her proximity, Jack turned towards her.
‘What is it?’ he asked her, concern in his voice. ‘Madam, are you afraid still?’
Amazed at her own daring, Eloise edged a little closer.
‘I vow Iama little nervous, sir.’
Jack put his arm about her shoulders.
‘There is nothing to be nervous of now, Lady Allyngham. I shall not let anything happen to you.’
She leaned against him with a little sigh.
‘You are very good,’ she murmured, looking up towards the paler shadow that was his face. She felt his arm tighten around her. There was a momentary hesitation before he benthis head, blocking out the light. Her face upturned, Eloise closed her eyes and waited for his kiss.
The feel of his lips, soft and warm against her own, almost robbed her of her senses but she battled against the mind-numbing sensations he was arousing within her. She must remain calm and make her comparisons. The man in the arbour had smelled of leather and snuff and wine. Now her head was filled with much more refreshing aromas of citrus and spices. The rogue had been content to press his lips hard against hers but Jack’s mobile mouth was working gently upon her lips, encouraging them to part. She almost swooned as his tongue explored her mouth, playing havoc with her already disordered senses. She had peeled off her gloves, now with a little moan her hand came up to his cheek. It was smooth and cool beneath her fingers, not rough and pitted. Suddenly it was all too clear; Major Jack Clifton wasnotthe villain.
Having established this fact, Eloise knew she should now draw back, but her body would not obey her. Instead of pressing her hands against his chest and pushing him off, they crept up around his neck. In one sudden, swift movement he caught her about the waist and dragged her on to his lap, all the time his mouth locked on hers and his tongue darting and teasing, robbing her of any ability to think.
At last he raised his head and gave a long, ragged sigh but he kept his arms tightly about her, and she could not find the strength to disengage herself from his hold. Instead her fingers clung to his jacket and she buried her face in his shoulder.
‘Oh, what must you think of me?’ she murmured into the folds of his beautifully starched neckcloth.
He rested his cheek on the top of her head.
‘You were in need of comfort,’ he murmured.
She could feel the words reverberating in his chest.
‘I was, of course, but I should not have imposed upon you.’
His laugh rumbled against her cheek.
‘That was no imposition, my dear, it was sheer delight. In fact, I think we should do it again.’
Eloise was filled with horror. She had behaved quite as wantonly as her reputation had led him to expect and suddenly it was very important that he should not think ill of her. She raised her head and tried to slide off his lap, but strong hands held her firm. She blushed in the darkness, aware of his body pressed against her. The heat from his powerful thighs seemed to be transmitting itself to her own limbs and she had to make a determined effort not to wriggle. She said quietly, ‘Please, Major, let me go.’
Immediately he released her and she eased herself back on to the padded seat of the chaise.
‘It—it is not as is seems,’ she began. How much should she tell him? How muchcouldshe tell him?
They were rattling into London now and when she looked up the light from the streetlamps showed her that her companion was smiling.
‘How is it, then?’ he said. ‘Tell me.’
Jack waited, watching as she clasped her hands in her lap, searching around in her mind for words to explain herself. She was such an intriguing mixture of shy innocence and searing passion. It was almost possible to believe she was a virtuous woman. Almost.
‘I am afraid I have given you a very false impression, Major Clifton. I am nothing like the Wanton Widow society has christened me. In fact, I—’
She broke off as the carriage slowed. Jack glanced out of the window.
‘Dover Street. You are home, my lady.’ He opened the doorand jumped down, turning to hold out his hand to her. ‘We will continue this conversation inside.’
‘Oh, no!’ She shrank back. ‘No, I do not think we should to that. It is so very late…’
‘After the events of the past few days I do not think we need to stand upon ceremony, ma’am. Come, we will be more comfortable inside. Besides, your nerves are still disordered and I want to see you take a cup of wine before I leave. It will help you to sleep.’
Jack helped her down from the carriage, but even as they trod up the steps into the house she was suggesting that they should continue their discussions on the morrow. Jack ignored her protests. He was reluctant to leave her: the anger he had felt when he realised the blackguard had escaped them was nothing compared to the cold, gut-wrenching fear he had experienced, knowing that Eloise had been alone with the villain. Lady Allyngham might consider herself a woman of the world, she might enjoy her flirtations with gentlemen of theton,but for a brief time tonight she had been at the mercy of an unscrupulous villain, and Jack’s blood ran cold when he thought of what might have happened to her. With one hand possessively around her waist he swept her into the house and guided her towards the morning room, where a thin strip of candlelight glowed beneath the door.
‘Major Clifton, I assure you I am perfectly composed now.’ She continued to protest as the wooden-faced lackey threw open the door of the morning room. ‘There really is no need for you to stay.’
Jack opened his mouth to reply as he followed her into the room but the words remained unspoken. They were not alone. Alex Mortimer was sitting in a chair beside the fire, a glass ofbrandy on the table beside him and his booted legs stretched out towards the hearth.
The lady’s unfeigned pleasure at the sight of her visitor had Jack grinding his teeth. Mortimer, too, looked particularly at his ease. Damn him. He rose as Eloise went forwards, her hands held out towards him.
‘I did not expect you back in town for days yet.’
‘My business was concluded early.’ Mortimer took her hands and planted a kiss on her cheek. ‘Noyes told me you had gone to Vauxhall, so I thought I would wait for you.’ He looked across at Jack and raised his brows. ‘Am Ide trop?’
‘No, of course not,’ said Eloise quickly. Jack noticed she had the grace to blush. ‘You know Major Clifton?’
‘We have met.’ Alex nodded towards Jack, his eyes wary. ‘Is it the usual practice to bring gentlemen home now, Elle?’
Jack’s chin jutted belligerently. ‘Is it the usual practice to treat a lady’s house as if it was your own?’
Eloise stepped between them.
‘Major Clifton escorted me back from Vauxhall.’
Alex’s brows rose higher. ‘I trust you had a pleasant evening.’
Jack was about to retort that pleasure had not been the object of attending the gardens when he realised Eloise was looking at him, such a look of entreaty in her blue eyes that he could not ignore it. He allowed himself a faint, mocking smile.
‘How could it be otherwise,’ he drawled, ‘with Lady Allyngham at my side? And now that you are safely home, madam, and have no further need of my…services, I shall take my leave.’
There was some bitter satisfaction in the way her cheeks flamed at the inference. Mortimer frowned and took a stepforwards. Jack braced himself for the challenge but it never came. Eloise put out her hand, palm down, saying coolly,
‘Yes, thank you, Major, for escorting me tonight. I am very grateful.’
The shadow of reproach he saw in her eyes flayed his lacerated spirits. He cursed silently. They find Mortimer making himself at home in her house and she expectshimto act like a gentleman. Clenching his jaw against further unwary comments, he gave a stiff little bow and retired, reminding himself that the widow’s behaviour really was no concern of his. But this comforting thought did nothing to alleviate the black mood that enveloped him as he strode back to King Street.
Eloise watched the door close with a snap behind the major and let her breath go in a long and very audible sigh. She untied her cloak and threw it over a chair.
‘I am sorry if I have frightened off your lover,’ murmured Alex.
Eloise swung round.
‘Major Clifton isnotmy lover!’ she retorted, knowing the heat was flooding back into her cheeks.
‘Well, I think he would like to be,’ mused Alex, pressing her down into a chair. ‘The look on his face when he saw me here was one of severe disappointment.’
‘It was?’ She looked up hopefully.
‘Oh, yes. I think he could happily have murdered me. He looked most disapproving.’
‘Well, that is no surprise,’ she retorted. ‘It was a shock formeto find you here at this time of night.’
‘This time in the morning, actually,’ Alex corrected her, sitting down. ‘I was concerned about you. It is not like you to go off to Vauxhall with only Clifton for company.Unless, of course, you have decided to live up to your wicked reputation.’
‘I would never do that!’ she retorted.
She clasped her hands tightly in her lap, thinking back over the events of the evening. She did not know what to do. About the journal. About Jack. He had been angry when he left, and with good reason. To find Alex waiting for them had been a shock. She was so accustomed to having Alex around that she had thought nothing of it, but a moment’s reflection had shown her how it must look to Jack. It confirmed all the disgraceful things he had already heard about her. She gave an inward shrug. It was too late now to worry about that. She turned her mind instead to the problem of the missing journal. She glanced at Alex. Perhaps, after all, she should take him into her confidence. He had always been her friend and she knew she could trust him. Besides, this matter involved him. It was only right that he should know what was happening. She said slowly, ‘You will remember, after Tony died, we searched for the journal and could not find it?’
‘Yes, but I thought Tony had destroyed it.’
‘No. It was stolen.’ Eloise looked up. ‘And now someone is using it against me.’
Alex sat up straight. ‘The devil they are!’
Briefly, Eloise told him all that had happened since he had left town. When it came to explaining Major Clifton’s role in the affair she said only that he wanted to keep Tony’s name free from scandal and to help her to catch the culprit. When she had finished her recital she reached into her reticule and pulled out the crumpled paper. ‘When I met with the villain he gave me this tonight.’ She shuddered as she handed it to him. ‘Burn it, please, once you have read it.’
Alex took it, rubbing his chin as he frowned over the writing.
‘You will see that you are only mentioned there as “M”,’ she said, ‘but if anyone begins to put together the dates and the places, your identity must be known.’
He looked up.
‘Why did you not tell me?’ he asked. ‘Why did you not write to me? I would have come back to town immediately.’
She spread her hands, saying miserably, ‘I thought I could deal with this myself. And then…and then Major Clifton became involved.’
Alex tossed the paper into the fire, a look of distaste marring his fair features. He said, ‘Tony mentioned Clifton to me in one or two of his letters. Thought quite highly of him, so I suppose we can trust him.’ He shot a glance at her. ‘How much does he know, Elle?’
‘Only that I am desperate to recover the diary.’ A knot of unhappiness was twisting itself in her stomach. ‘He knows nothing of its contents.’
She lowered her eyes, unwilling to meet Alex’s keen glance.
‘He thinks it is a scandalous record of your affairs,’ he stated baldly.
Eloise shrugged. ‘Better that than the truth.’
‘And you don’t mind that?’
‘Of course not. Major Clifton is nothing to me!’ She looked away from his searching gaze. ‘And there is no need for you to look at me like that. You know I have no wish for another husband.’ She managed a scornful laugh. ‘Certainly not the major!’
Eloise did not think she sounded very convincing, but Alex seemed satisfied. He said, ‘Well, I am here now, and I will help you recover that damned book. You can tell Major Clifton that we no longer require his help.’
Eloise could not understand herself: she had thought shewanted nothing more than to be free for ever of Jack’s disturbing presence, but Alex’s words gave her pause.
‘I am not sure he will be that easy to put off,’ said Eloise slowly. ‘He is very anxious to protect the Allyngham name.’
‘Is that all he wishes to protect?’
Her cheeks grew warm again as she remembered her behaviour in the carriage. She stifled a sigh.
‘He has no reason to think well of me.’
‘No, it is most likely that Clifton thinks to take you for his mistress.’
‘No!’ cried Eloise, tears starting to her eyes. ‘He must know I would never agree to that!’
‘Are you sure? When you go off alone with him to Vauxhall, and invite him into your house in the middle of the night?’
Eloise bit her lip. She had been about to tell Jack the truth, but had he understood that, or had he thought she was offering to take him to her bed?
‘Much as I hate to admit it, Jack Clifton could be useful to us,’ mused Alex, rubbing his chin. ‘After all, we cannot involve too many people in this affair. And if we are careful, there is no reason why he should ever discover that the journal is anything other than an account of the Wanton Widow’s scandalous past, is there?’
Eloise stared into the fire. A short while ago she had been on the verge of telling the major everything. Now she must continue with her role, and abandon any hope of Jack Clifton ever regarding her with respect.
‘No,’ she said dully. ‘No reason at all.’Chapter Seven
Lady Chastleton’s rout promised to be a huge success: the elegant salons were so full that it was impossible to move freely and even though the tall windows to the garden had been thrown open, the noise and heat had increased to an uncomfortable level.
Catching sight of her reflection in the gilded mirror, Eloise thought that no one watching the Glorious Allyngham would think her anything other than a wicked flirt.
She was in Lady Chastleton’s elegant salon, at the centre of a group of attentive gentlemen. One young buck was gazing at her adoringly, another had taken her fan and was gently waving it to and fro; Sir Ronald Deforge was offering her a glass of champagne while a red-faced gentleman in a powdered wig was bending to take snuff from her upturned wrist.
Her eyes travelled to where Alex was standing, paying court to a shy ingénue who blushed prettily whenever he addressed her. She sighed. They were both playing out their charade and she knew Alex was as sick of it as she. If only they could retire again to their respective country acres. But it could not be, not yet. Not while the threat of exposure hung over them.
‘You must take care not to allow the snuff to stain your fair skin, my lady.’ Sir Ronald’s voice broke into her reverie. ‘Allow me to brush it off.’
He caught her hand and rubbed his thumb over her wrist. It was an effort for her not to pull her hand away with a little shudder of revulsion. Instead she gave him a roguish smile as he bent to touch his lips to the soft whiteness of her inner wrist. Some instinct made her look up at that moment and her smile slipped a little when she saw Major Clifton glowering at her from across the room. Her head went up and she hunched one white shoulder at him. She had heard nothing from him since Vauxhall and it did not matter what he thought, he was nothing to her. When she looked again he had disappeared into the crowd and Eloise tried to convince herself that she did not care, but her dissatisfaction with the evening was intensified.
With soft smiles and caressing words she retrieved her fan, disengaged herself from her entourage and moved away. Lord Berrow was smiling and nodding to her from across the room but she pretended she had not seen him: he might still be persuaded to sell her Ainsley Wood but she had laughed and flirted enough for one night. She would find Alex and ask him to take her home.
‘You are frowning, madam. It does not become you.’
Major Clifton’s voice at her shoulder brought her to a halt. She looked round to find him beside her. Glancing up, she saw no sympathy in his face, only a cool, considering look in his hard eyes.
‘I have the headache,’ she said shortly.
‘A little air will revive you.’ He held out his arm. ‘Let me escort you outside.’
She hesitated but the sight of Sir Ronald Deforge standinga short distance away decided her: if she turned from Major Clifton she knew Sir Ronald would be at her side, offering to escort her, enveloping her with his suffocating attentions. She laid her fingers on Jack’s sleeve and allowed him to lead her to the nearest of the tall windows. His arm was reassuringly solid beneath the soft wool of his evening coat and it was tempting to lean upon him. It was very odd that she should feel so safe with Jack Clifton beside her, despite his obvious disapproval.
As they stepped outside the night air was cool on her face and the exposed skin of her arms. After the cloying heat of the salon it was refreshing. There were several couples already on the wide balcony, and Eloise made no protest as her partner led her away from them.
‘I have not seen you since Vauxhall, Major,’ she began. ‘I wanted to thank you.’
‘For what?’ His voice was harsh. ‘The kiss we shared in the carriage, or for not knocking Mortimer’s teeth down his throat?’
‘Neither! For escorting me to the Gardens. For your protection.’
‘Little enough protection, since the rogue was able to approach you.’
‘Nevertheless, I was very grateful that you were there.’ Eloise released his arm and busied herself with arranging her fine lace shawl over her shoulders. ‘After…after you had gone, the other night, I decided to tell Alex about the letters. He is involved, you see.’
‘I had guessed as much. Well, he will be able to deal with this.’
She paused. She had promised Alex she would seek the major’s assistance in recovering the journal. This was her opportunity. She drew a breath.
‘Actually, I—wewould appreciate your continued help, Major. This is a very delicate matter, and there is no one else we can confide in.’
He turned away from her, staring out across the vast expanse of Green Park that stretched away beyond the moonlit gardens. Eloise looked at him. There was something very reassuring about his strong, uncompromising profile, his upright bearing. He looked honourable, incorruptible. Suddenly it was very important to her to have his support. She reached out and touched his arm.
‘Please, Major Clifton.’
‘Give me one reason why I should help you.’
‘You called Tony your friend. I thought you wanted to protect his good name.’
‘I did, I do, but why should I concern myself with keeping the name of Allyngham free from scandal whenyouare so determined to sully it?’
Her hand dropped.
‘Because I flirt a little—’
He swung round to face her, his countenance as hard as stone in the moonlight.
‘A little? You are the talk of the town, madam. The betting books are filled with wagers about you!’
‘I allow no man to go beyond friendly dalliance.’
He gave a bark of mirthless laughter.
‘Oh? I was watching you tonight, surrounded by your admirers! Why, you even allowed that fop to take his snuff from your hand!’
‘But that is all. It goes no further than that!’
‘Does it not?’Ihave kissed you twice, madam. Was that mere dalliance? And what of Mortimer? You consider itfriendly dallianceto allow him into your house at all hours of the night?’
‘No one but you knows he called upon me.’
‘Oh, so as long as he visits you in secret it does not matter?’
She bit her lip.
‘Alex is an old family friend, nothing more. I told you that.’
‘Aye, you did, and I wanted to believe you, but the more I see and hear of you—’ He shook his head and said bitterly ‘—I fear our standards are not the same. Standards—hah! I have known alley cats with better morals than you.’
‘How dare you!’ Eloise brought her hand up swiftly but he was even quicker. He caught her wrist, his fingers biting into her flesh.
Jack stared at the angry face turned up towards him. The moonlight glinted on her eyes, sending daggers of light towards him. She was radiating fury, her lips parted as if she was about to hiss and spit at him. And with good reason; he had been very uncivil—but what had he said that was not true? It angered him that he threw such accusations at her and she did nothing to deny them. He admitted to himself that he was jealous, too. Jealous that she should bestow her smiles and honeyed words on other men.
They were standing very close and as her breast rose indignantly the flowers of her corsage brushed his waistcoat and filled his senses with a heady perfume. It was distracting, intoxicating. His fingers tightened on her slender wrist, pulling her even closer. Suddenly he wanted to sweep her into his arms and kiss her, transforming her rage into the passion he sensed was just beneath the surface. He saw the anger leave her face. Her eyes widened, as though she was readinghis thoughts. He could take her now, he knew it. They were standing breast to breast; he would only have to move a little to bring his mouth down to hers. It was like holding a taper close to a tinderbox, knowing that the slightest touch would ignite a blaze.
She swallowed hard and his eyes were drawn to the convulsive movement in the slender column of her throat. He would like to kiss her there, he thought distractedly. He would like to trail his mouth over her skin to the base of her throat where a pulse was beating so rapidly, and carry on until his lips reached the soft swell of her breasts. Then…
She gave a little sob.
‘Let me go, you monster!’
His head jerked up and he came to his senses. She was struggling to free herself from his vice-like grip. Jack released her and she stepped away from him, her left hand cradling her wrist. He hardened himself against her look of anger and reproach to say coldly, ‘I am not one of your fawning admirers, Lady Allyngham. You will not strike me for telling the truth.’
Eloise glared up at him, rubbing her sore wrist. She was still furious, but beneath her anger was a lurking fear for the disturbing emotions he aroused in her. The blaze she had seen in his eyes when they had been standing so close had very nearly overset her: she had wanted to throw herself at him, kicking, biting and scratching until he responded. For one dizzying moment she had imagined him pinning her against the wall, subduing her anger with a savage kiss before carrying her off to ravage her in ways that she had heard other women talk of, but had never experienced for herself. Even now, standing before this big, disturbing brute of a man, she did not know whether she was most glad or sorry that he hadlet her go. She struggled to regain some form of dignity and managed to say in glacial accents, ‘We have nothing more to say to each other, Major Clifton. We will consider our acquaintance at an end.’
He clipped his heels together and made her a stiff little bow.
‘As you wish, madam.’
She drew herself up, blinking away the tears that threatened to spill over.
‘Iwish,’she said in a low, trembling voice, ‘that it was you and not Tony who had perished at Waterloo!’
Turning on her heel, she marched back into the ballroom and did not stop until she had found Alex.
He was playing cards, but as soon as he saw her he excused himself and came to meet her.
‘Well, well,’ he said, taking her arm, ‘now what has occurred to ruffle your feathers?’
‘Nothing. I merely want you to take me home.’
‘Then I shall do so, of course, but you cannot storm into the card room with the colours flying in your cheeks and tell me nothing is wrong.’
She almost ground her teeth.
‘Major Clifton has insulted me.’
Alex raised his brows.
‘Oh? Do you want me to call him out?’
‘Yes,’ she said savagely. ‘I want you to challenge him to a duel and then run him through. I want him to die very painfully!’
‘Well, I would, of course, my dear, but Clifton is a soldier, so he is bound to be a much better swordsman than I. Then, of course, he might choose pistols, and you know what a terrible shot I am…’
Even through her rage she could not but laugh at his nonsense. Alex patted her arm.
‘That’s better. Come along then, I will take you home.’
They said nothing more until they were bowling along in the elegant Allyngham town chaise. As they rattled over the cobbles, Alex demanded to know just what had occurred.
‘I was going to tell Major Clifton that I had received my invitation to Renwick Hall. I thought he might help us.’ She rubbed her sore wrist.
‘And what happened?’
‘He told me I had the morals of an alley cat.’ She hunted for her handkerchief. ‘And I c-could not deny it, especially after he found you in my house when we got back from Vauxhall.’
‘He hasn’t spread that about, has he?’
‘No, of course not.’ She blew her nose defiantly. ‘But he thinks me quitesunkin depravity.’
‘As well he might,’ remarked Alex with what she thought was heartless candour. ‘I think he might be jealous.’
‘No, he is not.’ She wiped her eyes. ‘He is merely the most odious man that ever lived. I hate him!’
‘If that is the case, then why are you so upset?’
‘Because I am quitesickof this charade! I hate everyone thinking ill of me.’
‘You mean you hate Jack Clifton thinking ill of you.’
She stamped her foot on the carriage floor.
‘That is not it at all,’ she said crossly.
‘If it’s your reputation you are concerned for, I could always marry you.’
‘Well, it is one solution.’
‘But you do not want to marry.’
‘No, and I do not think it would make you happy, Elle. But if it puts paid to a scandal…’
She shook her head.
‘It will not do that, we both know it.’ She sighed. Putting away her handkerchief, she reached across the carriage to pat his hand. ‘It is very good of you, Alex, but we neither of us want to marry. I am sorry; I should not have let the hateful Major Clifton upset me so. I think I must be very tired tonight.’
‘I think so, too. It is not like you to be so disheartened. If you are truly worried about that journal, Elle, why not come abroad with me and forget about England? It matters little to me now where I live.’
‘No, I am resolved not to run away because some, some insignificant littlewormdares to threaten us!’ She drew herself up, saying in a much stronger voice, ‘But I am determined we will not ask for Major Clifton’s help again. You and I will go to Renwick Hall, we will find a way to recover this wretched book and then I can go back to Allyngham, build my foundling hospital in Tony’s memory and, and become a recluse!’
Eloise found herself looking forward to the Renwicks’ house party. At least it would mean that she need no longer parade herself in the fashionable salons of the town. During her period of mourning she had missed the society, but the role she had set herself was proving to be very wearing. When Tony had introduced her to thetonshe had enjoyed the parties and the company, but then the admiration of the gentlemen for Lord Allyngham’s wife had always been tempered by her husband’s protective presence. Even when Tony was fighting in the Peninsula and she had come to town with only Alex as her escort, somehow Lord Allyngham’s shadow hovered over her and no man dared to go too far. However, all that was now changed. As a widow—and a rich one at that—she seemed toattract the predatory males of the town. They circled about her like a pack of wolves and it was only the fact that they considered her to be under Alex’s protection that kept them from pouncing. She was aware of her precarious position: her wealth and status gave her entrée to all the grand houses of theton,but if she allowed the flirtations to get out of hand, if she caused too much of a scandal, then society’s hostesses would close their doors to her. She would be consigned to the ranks of thedemi-mondeand the proud name of Allyngham would no longer be revered. Her husband would no longer be remembered as a valiant soldier—she might even be obliged to remove the memorial stone from the wall of Allyngham church. That was why it was so important to recover the journal: if its contents ever became known, she and Alex would not only be ostracised by theton,they would be obliged to fly the country.
These sobering thoughts occupied her mind as she journeyed to Renwick Hall. Eloise became even more acutely aware of how society viewed her when she joined her hostess in the drawing room before dinner that evening.
‘My dear, how prompt you are,’ declared Mrs Renwick, coming forwards to meet her. ‘Everyone else is still at theirtoilette.’
‘Oh dear, if I am too early…’
‘By no means. I am glad of the company. Come and sit here beside the fire and tell me how you like your room.’
‘It is very comfortable, ma’am, and has a lovely view of the lake,’ said Eloise, disposing her skirts about her on the satin-covered sofa.
‘I knew you would like the blue bedchamber,’ smiled Mrs Renwick. ‘I regret that we could not find an adjoining room for Mr Mortimer. He sent me word that he will be joining usin the morning. We have had to put him in the bachelor wing, on the far side of the house. With such a house full of guests, I am sure you will appreciate that we have to allocate all the bedchambers in the main building to our married guests.’
Looking into her hostess’s kind face, Eloise’s heart sank at this tacit acceptance that Alex was her lover. She took a deep breath.
‘That is as it should be, ma’am. As a matter of fact, I wanted to ask your advice. I have been thinking for some time that I should have a companion when I am in London. I thought I might ask Allyngham’s cousin, Margaret Cromer. We have lost touch a little in recent years but I hope she will consider my request. I have always been a little in awe of her, but I know she is a good friend of yours, ma’am, and wanted to ask you what you thought of the idea before I write to her: do I presume too much, do you think she would accept?’
‘Meg Cromer? Oh. I had thought you preferrednotto have a chaperon! That is, I mean…’
‘A widow has a great deal more freedom than a single woman,’ said Eloise, taking pity on her hostess’s confusion. ‘I am aware that there is already a great deal of talk about me, although I hope you will believe me when I say that it is all unfounded. And Mr Mortimer…Mr Mortimer is a good friend, but I have imposed upon him long enough. I think I should go on more comfortably now if I had some female company.’
‘You do not think…’ Her hostess looked down at her hands. ‘Have you considered that marriage would give you a great deal more protection, Lady Allyngham? I am sure there can be no shortage of eligible suitors…’
Eloise shook her head.
‘You are very kind to say so, but I have no wish to marry again.’
‘No, of course,’ replied Mrs Renwick quickly. ‘It is very early days, and I believe Lord Allyngham to have been the very best of men. It would be difficult to find his equal.’
‘I would not even attempt it,’ replied Eloise. ‘I am resigned to a single life, but that does not mean I need be bored or lonely. I have a large estate at Allyngham. That brings its own responsibilities, and I intend to travel, now the Continent is safe again, but for the present I need to make a life for myself, and that necessitates spending some little time in London and I find I am growing tired of being labelled the Wanton Widow.’
Mrs Renwick nodded.
‘You are very right, Lady Allyngham, you would be subjected to much less comment if you had Meg as your companion. And you have no need to write to her because she is staying here with me at the moment. So, you may ask her as soon as you wish. She is a stickler for convention, of course: her reputation and character are of such high standing that I feel sure her presence would be an advantage to you.’
‘That is why I thought I might invite Cousin Margaret to come with me when I leave here and return to London.’
‘Very wise, my dear. Talk to her while you are here. As a widow of several years’ standing she is a very independent person, but I am sure she would be happy to stay with you for a few months. But I hope that does not mean you intend to cut short your visit here. I am looking forward to such a happy time, for we have invited only close acquaintances on this occasion—and here is one of Mr Renwick’s oldest friends, now. Major Clifton, you are in good time, sir!’Chapter Eight
Eloise’s head snapped around. She watched Jack Clifton walk into the room, tall and elegant in his black swallow-tailed coat and buff pantaloons. He looked relaxed and at his ease, and she schooled her own features into a look of bland indifference as she rose to her feet. More people were coming into the room and Mrs Renwick hurried away to greet them, leaving Eloise with the major.
‘What are you doing here?’ she demanded as he bowed to her.
He raised his brows.
‘Renwick invited me. Do you think I should remove myself because you do not want me here? I am a guest, madam, as you are. You will have to make the best of it.’ He bared his teeth. ‘Smile, madam, we are in company; you do not want anyone to suspect an intrigue, do you? Or perhaps, considering your reputation, it is of no matter to you.’
‘Your being here is no matter to me, Major,’ Eloise flashed back at him. She gave him a smile as false as his own and swept away to meet the other guests.
With the exception of Alex Mortimer, the party was complete, and when Eloise sat down to dinner it was with the almost certain knowledge that her tormentor from Vauxhall Gardens was amongst the guests. She glanced around the table as the servants came in with the first course. She discounted Mr and Mrs Renwick from her list of suspects and, reluctantly, Major Clifton. Lord and Lady Parham were inveterate gossipmongers, but she did not think either of them capable of such subterfuge. Sitting near her were two other couples, both related to Mrs Renwick, plus Sir Ronald Deforge. Then there was a gentleman called Graham with an unfortunate taste in florid waistcoats and her late-husband’s cousin, Mrs Margaret Cromer, an iron-haired lady whose forbidding countenance was relieved by a decided twinkle in her grey eyes. At the far end of the table was Mr Renwick’s sister, her clergyman husband and two pretty daughters. Eloise knew them slightly, but since Mr Briggate and his family had travelled from Dorset to join the party at Renwick Hall she hoped she might discount them.
With a sigh she turned her attention to her dinner. In truth, she had no idea whom she should suspect. She must not relax, even for a moment. She pushed a piece of chicken across her plate, sadly aware that her appetite had disappeared.
After dinner the ladies withdrew to the long gallery, where fires blazed in the two fireplaces. They disposed themselves gracefully on the elegant sofas while they talked and gossiped, and during a lull in the conversation Eloise wandered off to look at the numerous pictures that covered the walls.
‘We have some very fine paintings here, Lady Allyngham,’ said Mr Renwick, leading the gentlemen into the room at that moment. ‘However, they don’t show to advantage in the candlelight: you are best looking at them during the day.’
‘I should like to do so,’ she replied.
‘And I should be delighted to escort you,’ replied her host, smiling. ‘Or let Clifton be your guide; he knows as much as I about the pictures here at the Hall.’
‘You flatter me, Charles,’ said Jack. ‘I do not claim to be an expert.’
‘But you have an eye for a beautiful work of art,’ returned Mr Renwick.
‘And for a pretty woman,’ added Mr Graham, walking by.
‘And that,’ Jack replied gravely.
He was about to turn away. Eloise said quickly, ‘You consider yourself a connoisseur, perhaps?’
‘Of art, madam, or women?’
‘Oh, Clifton is decidedly a connoisseur of women!’ laughed Mr Renwick, clapping his friend on the shoulder.
‘I take leave to question that,’ muttered Eloise, so quietly that only Jack could hear her. She found his dark, unsmiling gaze resting on her.
‘I have enough experience to know when beauty is merely a sham, a bright veneer to cover a tarnished character.’
Colour flamed through Eloise’s cheek. She turned away, furious with herself for challenging him. It was a game she could not win. She fixed her eyes on a large portrait, pretending to study it while she struggled to regain her composure.
‘What—’ Jack was standing at her shoulder, his words quiet in her ear, ‘—has the Glorious Allyngham no laughing riposte for me?’
She drew herself up and turned to him, masking her anger with a glittering smile.
‘I am amazed, sir, that you claim any expertise at all when it comes to our sex. In my experience you show no aptitude at all and see only what you want to see!’
With no more than a small inclination of her head Eloise moved away, back to the relative safety of the crowd.
It was still early so it came as no surprise when one of the younger members of the group suggested dancing. The party moved to one end of the room where the fine pianoforte was situated and footmen were called to roll away the carpet. With her nerves at full stretch, Eloise could not share in the general high spirits so she stepped up to her hostess and offered to play for the dancers. Mr Graham, overhearing her, immediately cried out at this, saying with a laugh, ‘Would you deprive us of the pleasure of watching you dance, Lady Allyngham?’
‘Would you deprive us of the pleasure of partnering you?’ added Sir Ronald Deforge.
She shook her head.
‘Thank you, but I am very happy to play tonight.’
Mr Graham was inclined to argue.
‘But, my lady—’
‘Someone else may take a turn at the pianoforte later,’ declared Mrs Renwick, the peacemaker. ‘I know Lady Allyngham to be an excellent pianist and it would be an honour to have her play for our little party.’
Major Clifton carried a branched candlestick across to the pianoforte.
‘Out of sorts, Lady Allyngham?’
She gave him a frosty look and turned her attention to leafing through the music piled on a nearby table.
‘I am not always so flighty as you think me, Major.’
‘Perhaps you are missing Alex Mortimer.’
‘Oh, do go away!’
She ground her teeth as he sauntered off, laughing.
Seating herself at the instrument, Eloise began to play. Her fingers flew over the keys, her lively playing accompanied by the happy laughter of the dancers.
After an hour even the most energetic of the young people was glad to take a break and while they refreshed themselves with cups of wine, lemonade or ratafia, Mrs Renwick and her husband were persuaded to sing a duet. This was so successful that their audience clapped and cheered and demanded more. Mrs Renwick beckoned to Mrs Cromer.
‘Meg, my dear, come and join us to sing the trio fromCosì fan tutte.Do you remember, we saw it together at the Haymarket in the year Eleven and immediately purchased the music so we could learn it.?
Margaret Cromer stepped up.
‘I remember it well and will sing it, with pleasure, if Cousin Eloise can play it?’
‘I can,’ said Eloise, waving her hand towards the side-table. ‘If I can find the music.’
Before she could get up Jack picked up a large book and carried it across to the piano.
‘You will need someone to turn the pages for you, my lady.’
‘That is not necessary, Major Clifton, I shall manage.’
‘Do not be so stubborn,’ he murmured, placing the music before her. ‘Would you have the performance ruined because you will not accept a little help?’
Knowing he was right, she set her jaw and began to play. The soft, haunting notes soothed away her anger.Soave sia il vento,‘May the wind be gentle’. She knew the song well, a beautiful, sad farewell sung by two sisters to their soldier sweethearts. The ladies’ voices blended beautifully, with Mr Renwick’s rich baritone adding depth to the gentle, lilting melody. Eloise concentrated on the accompaniment, trying to ignore Jack standing so close, his arm stretching past her as he turned the pages. She was calmed by the music, and bythe singers’ sweeping cadences rising and falling, imitating the gentle breeze of the Italian lyrics. She was almost disappointed when the last notes died away and the applause began. While everyone was praising the singers for their splendid performance, Eloise remained very still, enjoying the sinful sensation of Jack Clifton’s presence beside her, his lean body so close she could feel his heat. Energy emanated from him, making her skin tingle with anticipation. She jumped when he reached out to pick up the book.
‘Mr Mozart’s opera is clearly a favourite,’ he remarked, flicking through the pages. ‘Let me find you something…here it is.’ He replaced the open book on the piano and she looked at the aria he had chosen.‘“Donne mie, la fate a tanti e tanti”,’he read the title. ‘Perhaps you would like me to translate if for you: “my dear ladies, you deceive so many men…”’
Abruptly Eloise stood up.
‘I can translate it very well for myself,’ she muttered, turning away from him.
She forced her lips into a smile as Margaret Cromer approached her.
‘You play most beautifully, Cousin, but you have a delightful singing voice, too. Will you not let us hear it?’
‘Thank you Meg, but I do not think—’
‘Oh, my dear ma’am, do say you will sing for us,’ declared Lady Parham, beaming at her. ‘Mrs Cromer has been telling me that you were used to sing regularly for the guests at Allyngham.’
Eloise tried to decline, but other guests came up, adding their persuasion. Mrs Renwick took her hand and led her back towards the pianoforte.
‘Come along, my dear, you have played so well for us it is your turn now to shine—Mrs Cromer will accompany you, will you not, Meg?’
‘Of course, I should be delighted to play for Eloise—such a beautiful voice you have, Cousin! Now, what will you sing for us, my dear?’
Eloise hesitated, looking around at the happy, expectant faces. To decline would be impolite. She smiled.
‘Something else from Mr Mozart, I think.The Marriage of Figaro.’
‘We have it!’ cried Mrs Renwick, pulling another book from the pile.
Eloise nodded and looked at her cousin.
‘Can you play“Porgi, amor,”Meg?’
‘Oh heavens, my favourite aria!’ declared Lady Parham. ‘Do be quiet, everyone, and listen!’
An expectant silence settled over the room as Mrs Cromer played the short introduction. Eloise ran her tongue over her dry lips and composed herself. Many of the guests had pulled their chairs into a semi-circle to watch. Her eyes strayed around the room, noticing tiny details such as Sir Ronald leaning forwards, hands on his knees, Mr Graham sitting at the back of the group, picking his teeth, Mr and Mrs Renwick sitting shoulder to shoulder. And Jack Clifton, standing a little apart, his face in shadow. She must forget them all.
Eloise began to sing the Countess’s heartbreaking aria about the pain of losing her husband’s love. She had chosen to sing the English translation, but it was still beautiful and she closed her eyes, allowing herself to be swept away by the evocative words and music.
Jack stood in the shadows and listened, entranced. He was familiar with the opera but it had never before had such power to move him. Eloise sang the countess’s role with dignity and restraint, her full, rich voice filling the long gallery. There was such longing in her voice, such sadness in her blue eyesthat he could almost believe her sincere. Almost. As the last, lingering notes died away he found himself swallowing hard to clear some constriction in his throat. There was a moment’s silence, then the room erupted into cheers and applause. Lady Allyngham was blushing, accepting their praise with modestly downcast eyes. Jack scowled as Sir Ronald stepped up to take her hand and kiss it. Damnation, the woman had bewitched them all!
There was a few moments’ stir and confusion. Renwick’s young nieces came up for their turn to perform and the mood lightened considerably as they sang a selection of folk songs. Jack watched Eloise move away from the crowd and he stepped quickly up to her.
‘So you identify yourself with the wronged countess, my lady.’ His tone was harder than he had intended. She cast one brief look up at him and he was taken aback to see her eyes glistening with tears.
She hurried past him without speaking and slipped out of the room while the company’s attention was fixed upon the young performers. In two strides Jack was at the door and following her along the cold stone corridor.
She stopped at his words but did not turn.
‘Will you not leave me alone?’ she muttered as he came up to her. She was hunting for her handkerchief. Jack handed her his own.
‘I beg your pardon. I did not mean to upset you.’
‘Did you not? I think you delight in upsetting me.’
He heard the bitter note in her voice. There was a sudden upsurge of sound as the door to the long gallery opened again. Eloise looked up, startled. Jack caught her arm and pulled her to one side, into an unlit corridor. There was a half-glazed door at the far end, through which pale moonlight gleamedand fell in silvery squares upon the tiled floor of the passage. They stood silently in the semi-darkness, listening to the soft sound of footsteps hurrying past. When the silence settled again Eloise realised that he was still holding her arm and tried to shake him off.
‘Let me go. We have nothing to say to each other!’
‘I think we do.’ Instead of obeying her demands, Jack caught her other arm. Her struggles to free herself were halfhearted. ‘Will you not hear me, madam? Please.’
She grew still suddenly, but did not raise her eyes. Jack breathed out in a long sigh and looked up at the blackness above him. ‘I don’t know why it is, but you bring out the worst in me.’
‘I have done nothing to warrant your cruel jibes.’
‘That is just it! To have spent the whole evening in your company and received not one warm look, one real smile. I confess I wanted to provoke you, to make you respond to me, even if it was with anger.’
‘Then it is better that we should not meet—’
‘No! At least, you must allow me to apologise—to say how sorry I am that Allyngham is dead. Your words when we last parted—that you wish I had perished on the battlefield instead of Tony—I had never before considered what you have lost, what you must have suffered. Watching you in there, hearing you sing, I realised how much you miss him.’ Jack looked at the still figure before him. She was trying very hard not to cry, her bottom lip caught between her teeth to stop it trembling. He said gently, ‘I do not pretend to understand your behaviour, madam, and if I have misjudged you, I pray you will forgive me.’
Even in the dim light he could make out the long lashes fanned out on her pale cheeks. Now those lashes fluttered and lifted slightly. Jack put two fingers under her chin and gentlypushed her head up. He said softly, ‘My lady, will you not cry friends with me?’
She met his eyes for a moment, her own so dark and liquid he thought he might drown in them.
‘Not friends,’ she said quietly. ‘Too many harsh words have been exchanged for that. But it would be better for our hosts if we were not always arguing,’
He smiled, his spirits lifting a little.
‘A truce, then. And if I can help you discover who is sending those letters—’
‘No.’ She was withdrawing from him again. ‘I would not have you concern yourself with that.’
Jack was tempted to argue but he resisted: if she was not willing to confide in him then he would not force her. With time and patience he would win her round, he was sure of it. His instinct was to protect her. He wanted to carry her off, to shelter her from every ill wind. She was, after all, the widow of a valued comrade. With a little nod he stepped back.
‘Very well. But if you need my assistance, you only have to ask.’ He lifted his head, listening to the quiet strains of the pianoforte drifting from the long gallery. ‘They are dancing again. Do you wish to return?’ She gave a little shake of her head and his mouth twisted into a rueful smile. ‘No, nor I.’ Jack held out his arm to her. ‘Perhaps a stroll through the gardens, until you are more composed? There is a full moon tonight.’
Eloise opened her mouth to refuse, but it was as if someone else was controlling her voice.
‘Thank you, I would like that.’
Moments earlier she had been wishing Jack Clifton at Jericho, now she was taking his arm and accompanying him outside. The passage door opened on to a small cobbled yard at the far side of which a narrow gate in the low wall led theway into the rose garden. The bushes were overgrown with only a few late-summer blooms hanging on, but even so it looked beautiful in the moonlight. The only sound was the occasional cry of a fox from the park and the soft crunch of the gravel beneath their feet. Eloise felt her tension draining away. Despite their differences, Jack Clifton was the one man at Renwick Hall she was sure she could trust.
‘You seem to know your way about the house very well, Major.’
‘Renwick and I are old friends. I have stayed here many times before when I have been on leave.’
‘I understand you have quit the army now. What will you do?’
‘Yes, I have sold out. I have no family, My father died just a year ago, leaving me a pretty little property in Staffordshire, Henchard. It needs some work but it is a snug little house and the land could be very profitable, I think. Did I not tell you I shall become a gentleman farmer?’
She smiled at that.
‘Yes, I remember, but somehow I cannot imagine it!’
‘Oh? How do you see me?’
She thought for a moment.
‘As an adventurer.’
It was Jack’s turn to laugh. Eloise liked the sound, it was deep and rich and dangerously attractive. Just like the man.
‘I have had enough of adventure. It is time I settled down.’
She nodded. He was a man of means, it would be very sensible to settle down, marry and have children. Her head jerked up. The thought of Jack taking a wife hit her with such force she felt as if someone had thrown a bucket of cold water over her.
‘Is something wrong? Are you cold, do you want to go indoors?’
‘N-no, a sudden chill, nothing more,’ she said quickly. ‘Do let us continue, the gardens have a different kind of beauty in the moonlight.’
‘Very well, but I cannot have you catching cold.’
He shrugged himself out of his coat and placed it around her, his hands resting on her shoulders for a moment. The action was so personal, so intimate that Eloise was obliged to set her jaw hard to stifle a gasp. The air, so calm a moment ago, now seemed charged with expectation. She knew a brief disappointment when he stepped back and waited for her to stroll on. She stole a glance at him. An exquisitely tailored waistcoat hugged his body, accentuating the broad shoulders. She was dazzled by the whiteness of his billowing shirtsleeves and the tumbling folds of his neckcloth. She found her eyes wandering down the tapering form. The slim hips and flat abdomen drew her attention, as did the strongly muscled thighs outlined by the pantaloons. Swallowing, she dragged her gaze back to his face, but the sight of his clean, chiselled jaw and raven-black hair gave her no relief from the sudden fire that was engulfing her. She realised Jack was watching her, a faint, glinting smile in his eyes. Heavens, had she considered him an adventurer? He was far more dangerous than that! She looked away and began to walk again, this time at a much quicker pace.
‘We should not linger, sir, or it is you who might catch a chill. I see a balustrade directly ahead of us. Is that the end of the garden?’
‘Yes, it runs along a high ridge. There is a fine view of the park from that point.’
Eloise walked on. The scrunch of the gravel beneath her firm step was reassuringly crisp and business-like. The majorhad fallen in beside her, his long legs allowing him to take a much more leisurely stride.
‘I understand Mortimer will be joining us tomorrow.’ His voice was perfectly calm. ‘Renwick tells me you particularly asked that he should be invited.’
‘Yes.’ Had she told him the real reason for coming here? She could not recall. ‘I did not wish to find myself here without any good friends to keep me company. Of course, I did not know then thatyouwould be here.’
Eloise winced: that was just such a flirtatious remark as he might expect from her. She glanced up. Jack’s smile had disappeared, and he was looking directly ahead, his lips pressed firmly together. She sighed and huddled beneath his coat. She turned her head to rub her cheek against the lapel. The fine wool was soft on her skin and she breathed in the faint slightly spicy scent that she now associated with Jack Clifton.
The balustrade was soon reached and she gazed out in genuine admiration at the park stretching out before her, bathed in moonlight. They were standing on a ridge with the land falling away on all sides. The full moon sailing high above cast a silvery sheen over the landscape.
‘It is beautiful,’ she breathed.
‘Yes. Renwick’s grandfather planned it all and planted the trees.’ He pointed. ‘Down there to the south, just beyond the lake, is the deer park.’
Eloise looked around. ‘And what is that building on the promontory over there?’
‘That is the Temple of Diana. The family used to hold dinner parties there, but now I think it is employed mainly by the ladies of the house for their sketching. The path between the temple and the house is thickly wooded, but the views on the other three sides are magnificent. Would you like to walk there now?’
The temptation to accept was very great, to prolong this magical time together, but she knew she must not. She shook her head.
‘Thank you, but no. I think it is time we returned to the house. They will be serving tea soon.’
She took one final look at the little Temple of Diana with its elegant cupola outlined against the night sky. The shallow steps and graceful columns looked most romantic, and the idea of being there in the moonlight with Jack sent a little shiver of excitement down her spine. All the more reason to return to the safety of the house, she thought, setting off back along the path. Without a word Jack fell into step beside her and they walked in silence back through the gardens. She laughed to herself: if she had been alone with any other man he would have taken the opportunity to make love to her, at least to flirt—here she was in the moonlight with the most attractive man she had ever known and he was behaving with perfect propriety.
And she hated it.
They slipped back into the house by the little glazed door and Eloise handed Jack his coat.
‘You will need this before you rejoin the others, Major.’
She helped him into it, telling herself it was necessary for her hands to smooth the coat over his broad shoulders, to brush a speck of dust from one lapel, but it was such an intimate gesture that her mouth went dry and her fingers trembled. Jack caught her hand and carried to his lips. She was immobilised by the tenderness of the gesture. She looked up and did not move as he lowered his head towards her.
‘We…should…not…’ she breathed, still looking up at him.
‘Why not?’ he murmured. ‘Moonlight is the time for stolen kisses.’
‘You cannot steal what I give you freely.’
A fierce gleam lit his eyes: elation, triumph, she could not be sure. She dropped her own gaze, and gave a remorseful little sigh.
‘I should not be here with you. It was very wrong of me to go outside—what must you think of me?’
He pushed up her chin and gently brushed her lips with his own.
‘I think you an enigma, but I hope one day you will explain yourself.’
‘If only that were possible.’
‘Itispossible. You have only to trust me.’
For the space of a heartbeat she was tempted.
‘If it was just my secret—’
She gave her head a little shake, put her hands against his chest to hold him off.
‘Perhaps, one day, I might be able to tell you more, but not yet.’
‘Then I shall not press you. When you are ready, you may come to me and tell me everything.’
Eloise bit her lip and blinked to drive back the tears. The more she knew of Jack Clifton, the more honourable she thought him. And the more impossible it was that he would ever understand. She said, with a masterly effort to keep her voice from shaking, ‘Mrs Renwick will be preparing tea soon. We should go back now, I think.’
‘As you wish, my lady.’ Jack pulled her hand on to his sleeve and walked her through the dark corridor.
They reached the hall just as the butler appeared, carrying the tea tray.
‘I have no doubt our absence will have been noted,’ murmured Jack as they followed him into the long gallery.
‘Then it will be best if we move apart, Major Clifton.’ She pulled her arm from his sleeve, saying nervously, ‘Pray do not speak to me again tonight, sir. I fear we may set tongues wagging.’
‘Not for the first time, Lady Allyngham,’ he said drily.
A little tut of exasperation escaped her. ‘I had hoped to repair my reputation with this visit.’
‘There is time yet. And Mortimer will be here tomorrow: you will have your guard dog to protect you.’
With a last, fleeting smile he walked away and she joined the crowd around her hostess. It was only when she was preparing for bed that she realised Jack’s handkerchief was still in her pocket. She took it out and held it for a moment, pressed against her mouth. She should of course give it to Alice to have it laundered and returned to the Major. Instead she turned and tucked it quickly under her pillow.Chapter Nine
‘So Mortimer is arrived. The Glorious Allyngham’s lapdog.’
Jack heard Deforge’s words as he walked into the library. Sir Ronald was standing by the window, gazing out at the post chaise and its four sweating horses that had just pulled up at the door of Renwick Hall.
‘Ah, but has he lost his place as the lady’s favourite?’ Edward Graham threw down the newspaper he had been reading and grinned at Jack. ‘Well, Clifton, you and the widow were missing for some considerable time last night: is she well and truly won?’
‘Lady Allyngham required a little air. I accompanied her,’ returned Jack evenly.
Sir Ronald shot a piercing look at him. ‘So you obliged her with a stroll in the moonlight. Are you sure it was nothing more?’
Jack made an effort to keep his countenance impassive.
‘Then you wasted your opportunity, Major.’
‘I do not consider it so,’ said Jack, shrugging. ‘Forcing a woman is notmystyle, Deforge.’
Sir Ronald’s heavy features darkened angrily.
‘Are you saying it is mine?’
‘I have heard so.’ Jack’s lip curled. ‘I have heard that even your wife tried to run away from you.’
‘Blast your eyes, Clifton, you will unsay that!’
‘You will have to make me, Deforge.’
Jack met his look steadily, facing down the blustering challenge in the other man’s eyes. At length Sir Ronald shrugged.
‘Of course you would like to believe that, would you not, Major? It must be galling to know that pretty little Clara chose me over a penniless soldier. I can see how it would be some comfort to think she was unhappy, but she was not.’ He stepped closer. ‘I served her very well, Clifton, remember that when you are lying awake at night!’
Sir Ronald turned on his heel and walked away. He picked up the newspaper and carried it over to the far corner of the room. Mr Graham gave Jack a knowing look.
‘Well,’ he said, rising, ‘I’m off to change for dinner. How about you, Clifton?’
The two men left the room together and as the door closed behind them Graham said softly, ‘A word of warning, Major. Be wary of Deforge. He’s a nasty piece of work.’
‘I am aware,’ muttered Jack grimly, ‘but he won’t call me out, no matter how hard I try.’
‘Not his style,’ Graham retorted. ‘You are more likely to be found in a dark alley with a knife in your back.’
Jack gave an angry snort. ‘I am surprised Renwick invited him.’
‘No choice, old boy. It appears he’s some sort of distant cousin to Mrs Renwick, and he almost invited himself. She ofcourse is far too kind-hearted to turn anyone away, especially family—’ He broke off as they reached the hall, where they found their host greeting Alex Mortimer, who was divesting himself of his greatcoat. ‘Mortimer, how do you do! Good journey?’
Alex Mortimer looked up, a ready smile on his fair, handsome features.
‘The last stage was tiresome. One of the wheelers was lame. Couldn’t make any pace at all.’
‘Well, you are in good time for dinner,’ declared Mr Renwick. ‘I’ll have Grassington show you to your room—’
‘No need,’ cried Mr Graham, stepping forwards. ‘He’s in the room next to me, is he not? Clifton and I will take him up with us. Come along, Mortimer. Grassington can follow on with the bags!’
Linking arms with Jack and Alex, Edward Graham set off up the wide, shallow staircase, chatting merrily. Looking up, Jack realised that Mortimer was regarding him with a very thoughtful expression. No wonder, if Lady Allyngham had told him of their stormy meeting in London. Well, that was past now, and he hoped that after last night he and the lady could at least meet as friends. And once Eloise had explained matters to Mortimer, perhaps they could even work together to help the lady out of her predicament.
When the party gathered in the drawing room before dinner that evening, Eloise greeted Alex with unaffected pleasure, and she was happy to find that most of the party shared her delight. To have another handsome and eligible bachelor staying at Renwick Hall could not be considered anything other than an advantage, and she was amused to watch Mrs Briggate taking every opportunity to bring her daughters to his attention.
Seeing Lady Allyngham was alone, Jack crossed the room to join her. At first she did not notice him, for her eyes were on Alex Mortimer, who was standing on the far side of the room, surrounded by ladies.
‘Mortimer is very patient,’ he murmured. ‘I was not half so polite when the Briggate woman forced her chits under my nose. He will find himself leg-shackled if he doesn’t take care.’
‘Not he! Alex is too good-natured to snub anyone, but he will not allow the situation to get out of hand. Nor will he let either of those silly girls lose their hearts to him. He is far too kind for that.’
‘Perhaps his interests lie in another direction.’
She looked up at him, a startled look in her eyes.
‘I—I don’t understand you, Major.’
He gave her a rueful smile.
‘I thought his heart lay at your feet.’
‘Oh.’ The colour rushed back into her cheeks. ‘Oh, well, yes, I suppose that is true.’
He leaned a little closer.
‘Perhaps, when you talk to him, you will tell him that I am no longer your enemy. He has behaved like a dog with his hackles up ever since he arrived here. You may also tell him, if you please, that I am no rival. He has nothing to fear from me.’
He turned on his heel and walked away. Eloise stared after him, but she had no time to consider his words, for no sooner had he moved off than Sir Ronald Deforge was at her side and she forced herself to listen to his pleasantries and respond with a smile. There was no opportunity to speak to Alex until they were going into dinner, when he offered her his arm as theyprocessed from the drawing room across the hall and into the dining room.
‘Well, my dear, you have all the men enchanted, as usual. And judging by the number of times I heard you laugh I suppose you must be enjoying yourself.’
‘You are mistaken!’ Eloise glanced around to make sure no one was close enough to overhear them. ‘Until I know who has been writing those dreadful letters to me I cannot relax for a moment. Oh, Alex, it is so unsettling! With the exception of yourself and Mr Renwick, not one of the gentlemen can come near me without I have to suppress a shudder.’
‘Not even Major Clifton? I thought we had agreed he was above suspicion.’
Eloise spread her hands.
‘He is, but that does not mean I can bear to have him by me.’ She was not going to admit to Alex that the shaking she experienced when Jack Clifton was near was for a very different reason. ‘However, we are not enemies any more.’
‘You are not?’
‘No. We—um—we understand each other now.’
‘Is that since he took you into the garden last night?’ He grinned at her horrified look. ‘Graham took great delight in telling me that Clifton had cut me out.’
They were entering the dining room and Eloise was obliged to swallow the infelicitous remark that rose to her lips.
‘It was no such thing,’ she hissed. ‘We merely…talked, and he apologised for misjudging me.’ After a brief pause she added, ‘He said to tell you that he is not our enemy. And that he is not your rival.’
Alex handed her to her seat, saying, ‘Generous of him to tell me he has no interest in you.’
‘Yes,’ she said bleakly. ‘Isn’t it?’
The following morning Mr Renwick took the gentlemen off shooting and the ladies were left to amuse themselves. The more energetic of the ladies, including Eloise, joined their hostess for a tour of the grounds, ending with refreshments served at the Temple of Diana. As they approached the pavilion, Eloise could see that it was a perfect cube with shallow steps on four sides leading to columned porticos. It was a bright, sunny day and Mrs Renwick had ordered the wide doors of the pavilion to be opened and the chairs moved out under the porticos so that the ladies could all sit and enjoy the magnificent views. The occasional gunshot could be heard, carried on the light breeze. Miss Briggate and her sister whiled away the time by staring at the woods on the far horizon, trying to spot the gentlemen. Eloise took a chair beside her cousin and they sat in companionable silence, gazing out across the park. The autumn colours were beginning to show themselves and Eloise could not help comparing the cheerful riot of green, red and gold with the silver-blue landscape she had seen the previous night.
‘Such a sad sigh, Cousin,’ remarked Mrs Cromer. ‘I hope you are not unhappy?’
‘Did I sigh? Oh dear, I was not aware of it. I beg your pardon. How could one be unhappy in this beautiful place?’
‘I could not, certainly, and when you were younger I remember how much you enjoyed being in the country,’ returned Meg, smiling. ‘But I have not seen you for a long time, Cousin, you may have changed. We have seen little of each other since you and Tony were married. Understandable, of course.’
‘No, it was very remiss of me,’ declared Eloise. ‘I should have made more effort to invite you to stay—’
Meg threw up her hands and laughed at that.
‘No, no, you young people were far too busy with your own concerns. Besides, I had my girls to look after, and they were a handful, always wanting to be gadding about the town.’ She threw a smiling glance at Eloise. ‘That is why I thought you might be missing the delights of London.’
Eloise quickly disclaimed, ‘Not at all, Meg, why should you think that of me?’
‘Gossip travels, my dear.’
‘Ah.’ Eloise turned in her chair to regard her cousin. ‘Gossip about me, I suppose. I know some people think I am behaving disgracefully.’
Meg leaned across and took her hand. ‘Cousin, it is only natural that you should want to enjoy yourself, after a year in mourning, but perhaps you have let your high spirits run away with you. And it is not only your behaviour in town: I am well aware that you and Major Clifton were missing for more than an hour last night. A reputation is far more easily lost than won, you know.’
Eloise bowed her head.
‘I know it. Did—did anyone else notice?’
‘I am sure they did! Mrs Renwick made some passing comment, but only to the effect that she was glad to see the major taking an interest in women again.’
‘Oh.’ Eloise began to rearrange her skirts, saying casually, ‘Our hostess knows the major well?’
‘Her husband does, certainly,’ replied Meg, turning her face up to the sun. ‘I understand Major Clifton suffered some disappointment in his youth. He was in love with a maid but she married someone else. Seems she was such a paragon that he has not looked at a woman since—not at women of his own class, that is,’ she amended with a knowing smile. ‘I have heard that he has had any number of mistresses.’
Eloise stared across the park in silence as she digested this. She could well imagine the upright, incorruptible Major Clifton falling in love with a model of propriety. In comparison, her own reputation would seem bad indeed, but he was clearly attracted to her. Perhaps he saw her only as mistress material. Suddenly the day did not seem quite so bright.
‘I think perhaps I have been a little careless,’ she said quietly. ‘Some may even call me fast—but I intend to change that.’ She paused. Everything depended upon her recovery of the journal, but she could not tell Meg that. She told herself fiercely that she would not countenance failure. She said decisively, ‘When I leave here I have to return to London for a few weeks, to wind up my affairs before going back to Allyngham for the winter. Once in Norfolk the management of the estate will take up most of my time, but I wanted to ask if you would come back to town with me.’
‘To lend you countenance?’ asked Meg, giving her a quizzical look.
‘Yes, if you like,’ said Eloise, smiling. ‘To make me respectable!’
‘Oh, my dear, you know I would love to come with you, but my daughter is lying in next month and I must go to Shropshire to be with her. I am so sorry. But next Season, if you go to town, it would be my pleasure to come and live with you.’
‘Yes, of course, Meg. Thank you.’
‘And until then I am sure we can find some other respectable lady to keep you company in town—’
‘No, no, I would not wish to take on a stranger for a mere few weeks.’ Eloise shook her head. ‘And once I retire to Allyngham, there is so much to do that I shall not have time to be lonely.’ She smiled reassuringly at her cousin. ‘I am sure I can manage to keep out of trouble for a few more weeks!’
‘Then let us start with this evening,’ retorted Meg, a twinkle in her sharp eyes. ‘There must be no moonlight walks tonight, no matter how handsome the gentleman!’
No one could have been more decorous than Lady Allyngham at dinner that evening. She was gracious and charming, but she could not be persuaded to leave her hostess’s side until the card tables were set up and even then she would only play a friendly game of whist. Jack observed it all. He made no move to approach her, and watched with a detached amusement as the other single gentlemen tried unsuccessfully to draw her away from the group. Mortimer, he noticed, was unconcerned, and he guessed that whatever game the widow was playing, her guard dog knew of it. He was even more convinced when Mortimer agreed to join him for a game of billiards.
‘You would not rather play at cards with us, Mortimer?’ cried Edward Graham, looking up.
Alex grinned and shook his head.
‘If Sir Ronald has only half his usual luck I would be handing over my shirt to him. I shall enjoy a quiet game of billiards with Clifton instead.’
‘On leave from your sentry duty?’ Jack murmured as the two men made their way to the billiard room.
Alex did not pretend to misunderstand him.
‘My lady has turned over a new leaf,’ he replied evenly, selecting a cue from the rack. ‘She wants her cousin to live with her, to protect her reputation.’
‘That sounds very much like shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted.’ Mortimer said nothing, but Jack observed the heavy frown that flitted across his face. He said, ‘Have I offended you?’
‘Not at all. Shall we play?’
‘I would rather you told me about Lady Allyngham.’
‘What is there to tell?’ Alex responded lightly. ‘She is a beautiful woman.’
‘And you have known her a long time?’
‘Almost all my life. We grew up together, as neighbours. She is a very loyal friend.’
‘Then perhaps you know what it is that she is hiding from me.’
Alex did not reply until he had made his first shot.
‘All women have their secrets, Major Clifton.’ His derisory grin flickered. ‘As a man of the world you must know that. Now…’ he nodded towards the billiard table ‘…I have made my play; it is time to see what you can do!’
By the time they returned to the drawing room the card tables were packed away and the party was gathered about the crackling fire, drinking tea. There was a burst of laughter as they entered: Mr Renwick was entertaining his guests with stories of his childhood at Renwick Hall.
‘Always falling into some fix or another,’ he chuckled, shaking his head. ‘The woods were our favourite playground. The poor gamekeeper came pretty close to peppering us with shot on more than one occasion.’
‘Ah, but boys will be boys,’ murmured Mr Briggate, steepling his fingers.
‘And not only boys,’ put in Mrs Cromer with a laughing glance at Eloise, sitting beside her on the sofa. ‘My cousin here was for ever in trouble with Lord and Lady Allyngham.’
‘Meg, please, you will put me to blush!’ Eloise protested laughingly.
‘No, please, do go on, Mrs Cromer,’ Sir Ronald begged. ‘We can never hear enough of Lady Allyngham.’
‘She and my cousin grew up together,’ explained Meg.‘Anthony treated her more like a boy than a girl, and as often as not when I came to call they would be out together clambering over the rocks or climbing trees,’ She nodded towards Alex. ‘And that young man was usually with them. Three scamps they were, but inseparable, until the boys went off to school and Eloise was sent to Bath, where she learned to be a lady.’
‘Ah, so your youthful companions were lost to you after that,’ remarked the eldest Miss Briggate, sighing.
‘Not at all,’ replied Eloise, smiling. ‘We were together in the holidays and once my schooling was over I returned to Allyngham and saw them often and often.’
‘And you were all as wild as ever,’ laughed Meg. ‘The number of times I called and found that Eloise was in disgrace and had been confined to her room! My poor Aunt Allyngham was in despair, wondering how to deal with such a hoyden!’
‘I think I must defend my lady,’ put in Alex, smiling. ‘She was loyal to a fault and often took the blame for our pranks.’ He walked across and stood behind the sofa. ‘Of the three of us, Lady Allyngham was the sensible one. She spent most of her time rescuing Tony and me from our more outlandish scrapes.’
There was general laughter, Mrs Renwick began to refill the teacups and Jack wondered if anyone else had noticed Alex’s hand rest briefly on Eloise’s white shoulder. His eyes made a quick sweep of the room. Most of the guests were chattering but Sir Ronald was silent, staring intently at Eloise, his fingers tapping on the arm of his chair and a sly smile on his face. Jack frowned. He misliked that smile. The man was dangerous, and if Lady Allyngham had somehow offended him, perhaps rejected his advances…
He broke off from his reflections as Miss Briggate broughthim a dish of tea, but even as he joined in the general conversation he made a mental note to keep an eye on Deforge.
It was gone midnight when the party broke up and Eloise accompanied her cousin up the stairs to the main guestrooms. She was very sleepy and was tempted to remark that remaining virtuous all day was extremely tiring, but she did not think Meg would appreciate the joke. They parted on the landing and Eloise retired to the cosy silence of her bedchamber. Several candles were burning and the draught as she shut her door set the shadows dancing on the painted panels of the room. There was no sign of her maid, and she tugged on the embroidered bell-pull, impatient now to get out of her gown. Something on the bed caught her eye, a small, pale square on the near-black of the covers. A letter.
A sudden chill swept through her bones. Her fingers were not quite steady as she picked up the paper and unfolded it. The heavy black writing danced before her eyes and she turned the paper towards the light, blinking until her vision cleared.
‘I beg yer pardon, my lady, I wasn’t expectin’ you quite so soon.’
Eloise pressed the paper to her chest as Alice bounced into the room. She must think, and quickly.
‘Alice, I need you to run an errand for me.’
‘At this time o’ night, m’lady?’
‘Yes, I am afraid so.’ She turned and tried to give her maid a confident smile. ‘I need you to carry a message to Mr Mortimer for me.’
Alice’s eyes grew round.
‘Mr—but ’e’s in the east wing, with all the gentlemen!’
‘I know, Alice, and I am sorry to ask it of you but it is very important, and I cannot trust anyone else.’ She addedcoaxingly, ‘You have known me since we were little girls together at Allyngham: you know I would not ask if it was not very important.’
She could see the maid mentally girding her loins as she digested this.
‘Very well, Miss Elle.’ Alice drew herself up, looking very resolute. ‘What is it you want me to do?’
Eloise stood by the little gate into the rose garden, clutching her cloak around her. She prayed that Alice had carried her message faithfully. A sudden movement to her left made her jump: someone was approaching. She relaxed a little as she recognised Alex’s familiar form.
‘Now, Elle, what is all this?’ he whispered.
‘He has written.’ She held up the note. ‘It is too dark for you to read it, but he wants me to meet him, tonight, at the Temple of Diana.’
‘Does he, by thunder! Then I’ll go back and fetch my pistol—’
She gripped his arm.
‘No, no violence! But I want you to come with me, Alex, and hide in the woods. The letter says I am to come alone but I do not think I am brave enough to do that.’
‘Of course I will come with you, I would not let you go unattended to meet the villain.’
‘Good. We will set off now, if you please. I expect him to be watching out for me, so we must go separately. You must take the path through the woods, I will follow the lower track beside the lake.’
‘It could be dangerous.’ Alex caught her arm. ‘You do not have to do this, Elle.’
‘I do,’ she replied softly. ‘You know that until we destroy the journal we cannot be safe.’
‘There is a way out of this that does not involve paying the blackguard!’
‘Go abroad, you mean? The Allyngham name would still be tarnished, and I will not do that to Tony’s memory.’ She squeezed his arm. ‘Wait for me in the woods, but be ready to come if I call.’
They hurried through the rose garden and Alex set off up the hill. Eloise watched him disappear into the trees and felt a slight moment of panic. Giving herself a mental shake, she pulled her cloak more tightly about her and set off along the lakeside path. Black clouds were scudding across the sky, occasionally blocking out the moon and making it difficult to see the ground in front of her. The sudden cry of a fox made her jump and at one point an owl flew silently overhead like a sinister dark angel. Eloise walked on, keeping her eyes fixed on the solid shape of the temple in the distance. A slight breeze blew across the lake, rippling its calm surface. The trees sighed and a tingle ran the length of her spine: unseen eyes were watching her, she knew it. She left the lakeside and made her way up the slope towards the temple. The steps and the portico gleamed white in the moonlight, but deep shadows filled the interior. Taking a deep breath, she climbed the steps and entered.
The square temple had a glazed door and large windows on each of the four sides, casting a silver-grey light into the centre. Eloise was immediately aware of a figure standing in one of the shadowed corners. His face was a ghostly pale disc against the blackness around him.
‘I have come,’ she said, steeling herself to keep still. ‘What is it you want of me?’
‘Well, that depends.’ The grating whisper jarred on her stretched nerves. ‘How badly do you want the return of that book?’
She shrugged. ‘It is worth something to me, I admit, but not much. There are no names in it, after all.’
He laughed softly.
‘Oh, come now, Lady Allyngham. A full year’s reminiscences: dates, places. It would not take a vast intelligence to work out the identities of those mentioned. I have not yet decided if I should publish it in book form—look how popular Caro Lamb’sGlenarvonhas become in just a few months!—or perhaps I should release it to the newspapers, little by little…’
‘How much do you want?’ she interrupted him sharply.
‘Now you are ridiculous!’
‘Am I? To prevent your ruin, and that of your friends?’
Anger surged through her.
‘Step out of the shadows,’ she challenged him. ‘I am tired of talking to nothing. I want to see the villain who dares to threaten me!’
Again that soft laugh.
‘Villain, madam? I am your most ardent admirer.’
He stepped forwards and as the cloak of darkness fell away she recognised Sir Ronald Deforge. Eloise knew a momentary insane desire to laugh. The fear, shock and horror she should have felt was outweighed by relief. Relief that it was not Jack Clifton. Despite everything she had been afraid her judgement had let her down where Major Clifton was concerned. She stared haughtily at Sir Ronald as he stood before her, one white hand resting negligently on his silver-topped cane. With his tight-waisted frockcoat and tasselled Hessians he looked as if he had just strolled in from Bond Street.
‘An admirer who would stoop to threats,’ she said, her lip curling. ‘Tell me, how did you obtain the diary?’
‘A stroke of great good fortune, nothing more. Some timeago I was travelling back to town on the Great North Road and when we stopped to change horses a ragged wretch approached me. He wanted the fare to London and offered to sell me the journal.’
‘So you bought it.’
‘Of course not. I do not deal with thieves. He had no idea what it contained, I doubt if he could read well enough to know its true value. No, I had him flogged, and told him I would return the book to its rightful owner.’ He grinned. ‘Of course, I did not then know what a pleasant task that would be.’ He moved closer. ‘I admit when I first read that journal I thought only to sell it. After all, I guessed it must be worth something to protect the revered Allyngham name. But then you came to town and I was captivated. The more I see you, the more you inflame me.’
She suppressed a shudder and stepped away from him.
‘And you disgust me.’
‘Now that is a pity, my lady, because there is only one way I will give up the journal to you.’ He waited until she had turned again to face him. ‘You must marry me.’
Eloise laughed at that.
‘The full moon has affected your wits, Sir Ronald! I would never do that.’
‘Oh, I think you will, madam, when you consider the consequences ofnotbecoming my wife. I can tell by your look that you are not convinced. Perhaps you think to wrest the book from me. You will not succeed. It is with my lawyer in London, in a sealed box. He has instructions to make its contents public if anything should happen to me. Anything at all,’ he added softly, ‘so you should pray no ill befalls me!’ He moved towards her. It took all Eloise’s will-power not to back away. He reached out to touch her face. ‘Do not look so shocked, my dear, you might even enjoy being my wife.’
She brushed his hand aside.
‘It astonishes me that you should wish to marry someone you do not know.’
He bared his teeth in a leering smile that made her feel physically sick.
‘Oh, I know you, Lady Allyngham. I have seen you in the salons and ballrooms, throwing out lures to every man in the room. And remember I have read that journal. You are a woman of experience, not averse to the more…unusual demands of the male.’ His hand shot out and grabbed her wrist as she began to back away.
With a cry she tried to pull free. A shadow fell upon them and she heard Alex’s curt voice from the open doorway.
‘Let her go, Deforge!’
Sir Ronald’s brows rose.
‘So you did not come alone as I instructed.’
‘Did you think I would be that foolish?’ she retorted, struggling against his grasp.
‘I thought you had more concern for your friends.’
Even as Sir Ronald was speaking Alex launched himself forwards. Deforge released Eloise and leapt back, putting his hand to the top of his cane and unsheathing a lethal-looking blade.
‘Alex, be careful, he has a sword-stick!’
Her warning came too late. Deforge lunged and the blade pierced Alex’s shoulder. He staggered back. Eloise tried to grab Deforge’s arm but he shook her off so violently that she fell to the floor. In horror she watched him advance upon Alex, who retreated to the door. Moonlight glinted on the sword as Deforge slashed Alex across the thigh and following up with a kick that sent him tumbling down the steps and on to the grass.
Eloise was still struggling to rise when another shadowyfigure flew past the window. She saw Sir Ronald turn but before he could defend himself his head was snapped back by a swift, hard punch to the jaw and he crashed to the ground.
‘Attacking an unarmed man is not worthy of you, Deforge.’
Jack Clifton bent to pick up the sword-stick. For a moment a look of pure hatred transformed Sir Ronald’s face.
‘What are you doing here?’
‘Taking a stroll in the moonlight. It appears to be a very popular pastime.’ Jack stepped into the little room and held out his hand to Eloise. She allowed him to help her up, aware of the tension within him. Despite his casual words he was taught as a bowstring, alert and ready for action.
‘So she has caught you in her web, too, Clifton.’ Sir Ronald was climbing to his feet, one hand feeling his jaw.
‘We will leave the lady out of this, if you please.’
Sir Ronald laughed.
‘Your concern for the lady’s reputation is touching, Major, but misplaced, believe me.’