Authors: Allison Lane
TWO BEAUX AND A PROMISE
3 Allison Lane Novellas
[parts 2 & 3 of The Three Beaux trilogy]
* * *
FOR RICHER OR POORER
The Three Beaux, Part 2
— 1 —
“Dearly beloved…” The bishop’s voice filled the nave.
Richard Hughes finally relaxed. There was nothing more he could do. The bride and groom glowed with an unmistakable happiness, and the witnesses validated the match.
He stood to one side of the altar, where he could see both the wedding party and the guests. Every gossip in town was in attendance, so the scandal should finally dissipate, leaving only envy that his sister had snared one of society’s prizes.
The term annoyed him, though he didn’t let it show. Emily was lucky. Because she was female, attaching a wealthy suitor increased her credit. Even if she’d deliberately sought such a prize, no one would condemn her – not that Jacob’s fortune mattered; the pair were wildly in love.
But he was not so lucky. His modest means meant many considered him a fortune hunter. Gossips watched his every move, waiting for him to pounce on an heiress. He need only dance with a girl who had a good dowry to ignite whispers. Fathers looked at him askance. That his closest friends were wealthy enough to rival Midas increased people’s suspicions.
He forced himself to calm down lest the guests mistake the cause.
Damn the gossips and their constant buzzing. He might have to watch his purse, but he was not in debt. Never would he stoop to wedding money. When he took a wife, she would be sweet, frugal, and have no more than a modest dowry.
He nearly cursed as he recalled the most recent rumors. All he’d done was speak to Miss Downes at a rout – a conversationshehad initiated with a question about Emily. They hadn’t exchanged a dozen words, yet half of London expected him to seduce her so he could claim her ten-thousand-pound dowry. Lord Downes was furious.
Herriard had to have started the tale. If the scoundrel had discovered Richard’s investigation, he might think that discrediting him would prevent people from listening to his accusations. No one else would blow the incident so badly out of proportion. Herriard was a cheat, a liar, a vicious—
“Do you take this man…” The words recalled his attention to the service.
He unclenched his fists, hoping no one had noticed. His sister’s wedding was no place to think about Herriard. Renewed speculation about why Emily had switched grooms only five days ago would undo all his efforts.
He searched the crowd for Lady Beatrice, London’s most powerful gossip. With luck, she was watching Emily, not him. Only her support would rid this union of scandal.
* * * *
Georgiana Whittaker scrambled to her feet, suppressing a shudder when she noted the gutter’s filth. She had no time to fret about horse droppings.
Ignoring the pain slicing her left ankle, she hobbled up George Street. Derrick had been gaining on her even before her fall. Now it would be worse. She had to reach Hanover Square before he spotted her. It was her only chance. The square had a dozen exits. Derrick would never guess which one she chose.
But Hanover Square was two blocks away, and every step was agony. Her pace slowed, then slowed again. Even terror couldn’t prod her ankle faster. She was doomed.
A sob escaped as reality crashed over her.
Horses and carriages crowded George Street and jammed Hanover Square. Pedestrians thronged the walkways. Vendors accosted every passerby. With so many eyes peering about, someone would remember her. Many someones. They would tell Derrick.
Desperate, she ducked behind the broad columns of St. George’s Church, rushed up the steps, and stumbled inside. Maybe the rector would offer her refuge. Maybe—
As the door closed, a woman’s voice replaced the cacophony from the street. “…for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health…”
A wedding. She nearly groaned. She should have known that the crowded street meant the church was full.
Curses nearly tumbled from her lips. A hundred people had gathered here. A hundred aristocrats, judging from their finery.
So far no one had noticed her. All eyes were fixed on five people standing before the altar. Four faced the bishop, who was prompting the bride. But the fifth was half turned toward the crowd.
His presence so near the altar was odd enough, but he seemed too aloof to be part of the proceedings. The bride and groom glowed with happiness, even when seen from behind. The redheaded witnesses radiated joy. But the lone blond was tense, almost poised for battle, with his gloved hands clenched and his weight balanced on his toes. It was an odd posture for a wedding. Who did he think would attack?
She shook away the thought, her own problems more urgent than a puzzle of no import. The rector stood behind the bishop, so she could not approach him. Nor could she afford to be seen. Yet leaving was impossible. Derrick would have reached George Stre—
Angry voices outside sent her heart into her throat. He was closer than she’d thought.
Trapped but not yet ready to surrender, she limped quickly along the wall and ducked into a chapel.
He doesn’t know I fell, she prayed as she crouched behind the chapel’s altar. Let him believe I at least reached Maddox Street. Send him around the church, not into it. Please!
But she knew her luck had run out.
* * * *
Richard studied Lady Beatrice. Did she recognize the love that bound Emily and Jacob, or was she too devoted to rules to excuse so juicy a scandal? He couldn’t tell, for the gossip’s face showed nothing. Unlike him, she was in complete control.
In the days since Emily had jilted Charles, Richard had done what he could to minimize the scandal. Charles stood beside Jacob at the altar. Charles’s sister stood beside Emily. Charles’s cousin, the bishop, presided. Charles’s mother was overseeing the wedding breakfast. But one never knew what Lady Beatrice would do. And without her support…
A disheveled maid slipped into the church and paused in dismay – as well she might. She was caked with mud and intruding on her betters. Yet his gaze was caught by an enchanting face whose big eyes, tilted nose, and blonde curls belonged to an angel. The contrast with her tattered cloak was striking.
Her eyes suddenly widened. Glancing wildly around, she ducked into the chapel.
At least she wouldn’t interrupt. Relaxing, he concentrated on the service. Or tried to. Her face teased his mind, igniting a familiar heat that distracted him from Emily’s vows. He wondered where the girl worked. Maids often enjoyed a lighthearted romp in bed. Would she…
The door banged open, fracturing his fantasy.
Everyone turned to stare as two men stormed inside – Herriard and his maggoty friend Stagleigh, their faces black with fury. Both were undoubtedly drunk.
Richard nearly snarled.
As Jacob raised his voice for the ring ceremony, reclaiming the crowd’s attention, Richard hurried toward the door. It would be just like Herriard to stage an embarrassing scene.
“Is there a problem?” he murmured, blocking access to the nave.
“Nothing I can’t handle.” Herriard glared.
“Hawthorne’s wedding is no concern of yours.”
“But the wench who stole my purse is. She ducked in here.”
Richard raised his brows. “When?”
“Just now. Two minutes ago. Maybe three.”
“I’ve had the door in sight since the service started,” he lied. “Only Hawthorne’s guests came in.” The girl must be fleeing Herriard. No wonder she was terrified. He dismissed the theft charge, for Herriard was a liar. And even if it were true, Richard could not in good conscience help Herriard catch her. Whether making love or war, the man had a reputation for brutality that turned Richard’s stomach. And Stagleigh was worse.
Herriard clenched his fists. “You must have seen her – blonde hair, brown cloak, height about here.” He extended his hand level with his shoulder. “A coachman saw her enter.”
“The only brown cloak was his.” He nodded toward Leonard Waters, who was standing at the back of the crowd. “He arrived about five minutes ago – late, as usual.”
Herriard glared at the diminutive dandy. Golden hair glistened above brown velvet.
“You are certain?” demanded Stagleigh.
“Absolutely. The wench probably slipped around the corner.” He looked pointedly at the door.
“She didn’t have time to reach the corner,” insisted Herriard. “She’s here somewhere, and I’m going to find her.”
“If you want to find her, check Maddox Street. No one came this way. The longer you delay, the more likely she is to escape.”
“Shall we ask the bishop who came in? He was also facing the door. As was the rector.”
To his relief, Herriard shook his head and left, dragging Stagleigh with him.
Richard returned to the altar, but his mind remained on the girl. Herriard had to be lying – all else aside, he had nothing to steal. So she must be fleeing his advances.
He shook his head, wondering how she’d been unfortunate enough to catch Herriard’s eye.
As the brief ceremony drew to a close, he nodded. Misdirecting Herriard wouldn’t protect the girl for long – Herriard had to know where she worked. The man would press her again in the future. So the only way to help her was to find her a new position.
While the bishop led the wedding party to the rector’s office to sign the register, Richard sped the guests toward Hawthorne House for the wedding breakfast, keeping one eye on the chapel lest the girl slip away before he could address her problem. She wouldn’t be the first he’d helped, though Lady Beatrice would likely expire of shock to learn of it. Such activities stood at odds with his reputation.
* * * *
Georgiana scrubbed the tears from her cheeks, berating herself for falling into despair. No matter what happened, she could not give up. And perhaps her prayers had been answered. Had Derrick really left? She’d heard the front door open and close.
But it was likely only a brief reprieve.
Voices rose as the wedding guests departed. She considered mingling with the crowd, but her fall had turned her cloak from shabby to disgusting. Someone was bound to object.
And Derrick would be watching. He might have hesitated to interrupt a society wedding, but he knew she was here – had probably seen her enter. So he would also know that she was limping. The moment the church was empty, he would search every nook and cranny. He was only waiting because he wanted no witnesses when he found her.
She was trapped.
Questions without answers battered her mind. How many exits did the church have? Which ones would Derrick watch? How many men were helping him? Would the rector stand up to a lord?
Her task seemed hopeless. If she hadn’t caught him by surprise, she would never have escaped the first time. That wouldn’t happen again, and not just because of Derrick’s vigilance. Her swelling ankle was already twice its usual size. The very thought of standing made it throb. And where would she go?
But she had to try. Remaining here was impossible.
The last of the voices died away. The doors closed, again muffling the street noise. She was rising when footsteps approached the chapel.
Derrick! She shrank against the back of the altar.
“You can come out now,” said an unfamiliar voice. “Everyone is gone.”
She paused, suspecting a trick.
“Are you a thief, as Lord Herriard claims?” asked the man.
“Thief!” she choked. “How dare he?”
“Come out. I can’t advise you until I know what he wants.”
With no real alternative, she shakily stood, grasping the corner of the altar when her leg tried to buckle. Her eyes widened as she turned toward the door. The blond man from the wedding party blocked her escape.
“You’re hurt.” His voice gentled.
Before she realized his intent, he swept her into his arms and carried her to a bench.
He was strong.
Also tall. And handsome. His hair brushed the collar of his blue superfine jacket. Brown eyes beamed from a face that reminded her of a Greek god – a rather wicked Eros, actually. Something about him demanded her touch.
Her heart lodged in her throat as she clasped her hands to keep them still.
He joined her on the bench. “Richard, at your service. And you are…?”
“Georgiana.” She hesitantly offered her hand. Heat tingled up her arm when he raised it to his lips.
“If you aren’t a thief, why does Herriard claim you stole his purse?” His tone seemed curious rather than accusatory. That in itself set her at ease. Most men accepted a lord’s word as gospel, no matter how ridiculous his charges.
“He is my cousin and guardian.”
His eyes widened. “Guardian? I’ve not heard that he has a ward.”
“Hardly a surprise. He keeps me hidden. Despising my mother’s marriage, he refused to bring me out. But his debts are now so great that he’s selling me to Lord Stagleigh.”
“Not good. Stagleigh is venal.”
“I’m glad you agree. My skin crawls whenever he is in the house. I try to avoid him.”
“But no longer possible. Stagleigh agreed to pay Derrick’s debts in exchange for my hand. Neither of them cares a whit for me. But Derrick needs money so badly that he swore to beat me into compliance. Stagleigh doesn’t care. He considers my hatred a challenge.”
Richard nodded. “He would. So how did you escape?”
“They didn’t realize I overheard them negotiating terms. I slipped out before they could give me the good news. Unfortunately, they discovered my absence almost immediately and chased me here.”
“I sent them away.”
She shook her head. “They won’t go far. Derrick may have declined to make a scene in front of society’scrème de la crème, but he knows I’m here. He was too close behind not to have seen me enter.”
“Where were you going?”
She sighed. “I had no time to think.” She hesitated to say more, but Richard was her best hope of escape. Unless he believed her, he would turn her over to her guardian. So she must reveal the full story – or most of it. “I have no other close relatives, and I have no money – my quarterly allowance is only two pounds.”
“That’s less than a maid makes.”
“I know.” She patted the large reticule hanging from her arm. “I grabbed Mama’s pearls and a few other things before fleeing. Selling them will pay my keep for a time.” She shrugged.
“Do you think he will change his mind?”
“No. But I turn twenty-one in six days. My dowry will then come to me. It will let me set up my own household.”
“Not if you hope to retain your reputation.”
Again she shrugged. “Society doesn’t don’t know I exist and would reject me if it did. My mother may have been a baron’s daughter, but my father was a merchant. The business went to his partner, of course, but my inheritance will do. One can live on very little in the country.”
“But what about marriage?”
She laughed. Bitterly. “Why should I put myself at the mercy of yet another man? Five years with Derrick has cured me of any romantical notions.” She had yet to meet a man she could trust when her needs opposed his desires. Even Grandfather had ignored her preferences.
“This isn’t the time to argue your future. We must leave. How bad is your ankle?”
“I fell rounding the corner from Conduit to George Street.” She lifted her skirts to reveal the ankle, which had swollen even larger. “It can’t be broken, for I continued running on it, but it hurts like blazes.”
Richard knelt, gently bending the ankle as his fingers prodded the bones. She nearly screamed.
He shook his head. “It’s the worst sprain I’ve seen in some time. I’ll have to carry you.”
“To my horse. It’s waiting on Mill Street, just outside the rector’s office.”
She tried to protest, but he cut her off.
“I can’t remain here. My sister will already be wondering where I am – she just married my best friend, so I’m expected at the breakfast. We’ll stash you out of sight until I have time to think about your problem.”
“I won’t return to Derrick.”
“Of course not. What the devil was your father about to leave Herriard in charge of you in the first place? He must have known the man is a scoundrel.”
“He named Grandfather. But Grandfather and Derrick’s father died in a carriage accident a week after my father died, so Derrick inherited my guardianship along with the title.” She still shuddered to recall those days. Her grandfather had wanted her to make the society match her mother had refused, though he’d long since come to terms with his daughter’s elopement. Derrick abhorred his grandfather’s acceptance of so base a union, but he’d been careful not to admit it while the old man controlled his allowance. Only after the accident had he shown his true colors, relegating his low-class ward to the attics and refusing to recognize their blood ties.
“We will discuss alternatives later. Come along.” He lifted her easily, then peeked out the chapel door to make sure the nave was empty before heading for the office and his horse.
— 2 —
Richard was shaking with fury by the time he reached Hawthorne House. Their departure from St. George’s had not gone as smoothly as he’d expected. He had set Georgiana across his horse, then mounted behind her. But he’d hardly settled into the saddle before Herriard had attacked. If the man had been mounted, they would never have escaped. As it was, Herriard had caught Georgiana’s foot and nearly pulled her off. Only a sharp kick had freed her.
Herriard was a menace and a disgrace to his breeding. He should never have been put in charge of an innocent maiden. But no one who might have objected had known about her. Once her mother had eloped with a merchant, she’d ceased to exist in society.
It wasn’t the first time he’d questioned the dictates of his class. Young ladies ought to be more than breeding stock or assets to stave off financial disaster. Guardians should not have total control of their wards. Nor should parents. Society should protect girls from the Herriards of the world – or so he’d argued with Charles more than once.
Georgiana was a prime example. Imagining her under Herriard’s roof made his blood boil. And Stagleigh would be worse. So lovely a girl was no match for a lecher. He had to protect her – and not just because it would let him pursue Herriard openly. She deserved more than a life of abuse.
The question was how to proceed.
Keeping her at Hughes House until he dealt with Herriard would expose his mother to Herriard’s spite. Not a price he was willing to pay; her health was too fragile. Yet there was nowhere else he could take her. He had no rooms of his own and lacked the means to lease something. Even an inexpensive hotel would cost too much just now – his pockets were empty until next quarter day, still two weeks away.
His only option was to swallow his pride and beg help from his friends.
“Stay here,” he ordered, laying Georgiana on the couch in Jacob’s study. “I must attend the wedding breakfast, but I will lock the door so no one can bother you. As soon as I can get away, we will discuss the next step.”
“Relax. I won’t return you to Herriard. The man is a cad. But this is my sister’s wedding day. I cannot abandon her.”
“Of course not.”
“I’d rather keep your presence quiet for now, even from the staff, so I’ll bring refreshments when I return.”
He didn’t like to leave her alone, but he had no choice. Slipping the key into his pocket, he hurried toward the drawing room. Locking the door protected her, but it also protected him if he’d misjudged her – as occasionally happened. She could not rob Jacob and flee before he returned.
“Where have you been?” hissed Emily as he joined the receiving line.
“Finishing up at the church.”
Jacob raised an aristocratic brow, but said nothing as he turned to greet Lady Debenham, another of London’s most ferocious gossips.
An hour passed before arrivals dwindled to a trickle. As usual, many more people attended the wedding breakfast than had witnessed the actual wedding.
When Emily finally headed for the drawing room, Richard held Jacob back. “I need your help. Let me know when you can get free.”
“Not this time.” Though the three had been friends for twenty years, Charles supported the rights of guardians, even when doing so was not in the ward’s best interests. Jacob had no such reservations.
“Very well, but why now?”
“I didn’t choose the time. The problem arose without warning.”
“Is this why you were late?” Jacob asked as they entered the drawing room.
Richard nodded, then flashed a practiced smile at Lady Beatrice as Jacob moved to his wife’s side.
Lady Beatrice glared at Jacob’s retreating back and snorted. “I know the Beaux share everything, but passing around a fiancée is beyond enough.” She transferred her scowl to Emily.
“My sister would object to that charge,” he said lightly, though this was exactly what he’d feared. Jilting a gentleman always raised brows, but the Beaux’ reputations made it worse.
He, Jacob, and Charles had acquired the sobriquet The Three Beaux ten years earlier, in part because of their closeness, but mostly because all three were rakes – though not as incorrigible as rumor claimed; he knew of only one female who’d actually lain with all three of them, and he knew about her only because she’d thrown a public fit when Jacob turned down a second encounter. The incident had tarred them with an unwarranted reputation for sharing conquests, adding to the scandal when Emily jilted Charles to wed Jacob.
Richard met Lady Beatrice’s stare. “Emily and Lord Charles mistook friendship for something deeper. I find it commendable that they addressed the problem as soon as they recognized it. That marriage would have made all three of them miserable. Since the decision occurred only a few days ago, it was easier to change grooms than to cancel the wedding arrangements.”
“Perhaps.” She raised a lorgnette to study the new Countess of Hawthorne. “I must admit I’ve rarely seen two people so pleased with each other.”
“Exactly. This was meant to be.” He stifled a spurt of envy as he watched the pair move through the room. Even as they spoke with guests, they were enclosed in a bubble of mutual awareness that excluded those around them. Their joy shone brightly enough to cast all others in the shade.
“She has done very well for herself,” Lady Beatrice continued. “Impoverished girls have sought Hawthorne’s eye for years. No one else has his combination of title, wealth, and good looks. The connection will serve you well, too. Better than the other would have done.”
Richard nearly ground his teeth. Why did she insist that Emily was a fortune hunter? Not only had the pair been close since childhood, but Em had a decent dowry. And why did she think Em’s marriage could help him? Jacob was his closest friend. They didn’t need weddings to further that bond.
But he refused to vent his frustration aloud and even managed several more exchanges before moving on, though his mood remained black. He was tired of her relentless suspicion and very tired of how she pounced on every sign that he might need money.
This wedding breakfast was yet another thorn in his side, for it was far more elaborate than they had originally planned – thanks to Lady Inslip’s handling the arrangements and tapping Jacob’s bottomless coffers. His own marriage would not be celebrated in such style. His family couldn’t afford it, and he was determined that his wife would never overshadow him, financially or otherwise.
Long practice stifled any resentment, for thinking of money always strained his friendship with the very wealthy Beaux. It had nearly fractured the group when they’d pressed him too hard to join an expensive outing one summer. Jacob had finally healed the rift and no longer argued when Richard refused. But memories continued to hover, casting shadows on his soul.
The next hour passed in a blur as he dampened further hints at scandal and toasted the bride and groom. The gossips grumbled, but followed Charles’s lead. Lady Beatrice’s toast finally eliminated his fears for Emily’s future, allowing him to fully relax.
Now he could concentrate on Georgiana.
The thought ignited anticipation – because helping her would irritate Herriard, he assured himself. It was the battle, not the girl, that stirred his senses. He could hardly wait to learn her full story. She might even have information that could help his investigation.
* * * *
Jacob found Richard in the refreshment room half an hour later. “What happened?” he demanded softly, helping himself to a lobster patty.
“Herriard and Stagleigh.” Richard handed him a plate.
Jacob tensed, noting the fury that changed Richard’s warm brown eyes to a feral ocher. To keep his hands busy, he piled delicacies on the plate. “Is that who barged in during the service?”
Richard nodded. “I maneuvered them outside, but they accosted me afterward.”
“What do they want this time?” The pair had long been a wart on society’s backside and were no longer included in even the most inclusive invitations. But their feud with the Beaux was personal. Herriard had cheated Richard some years earlier. If the Beaux had not recovered the funds, Richard would have been forced to leave London. It was unlikely that he could have returned.
Herriard had hated the Beaux ever since, especially Richard, who wasn’t satisfied with recouping his losses. Determined to protect other young men from Herriard’s predations, he kept a close eye on Herriard’s gaming, seeking evidence of cheating that would expel him from the clubs.
“Did you know that Herriard has a ward? A female ward?” Richard added cream cakes and a lemon biscuit to his own plate.
“My God!” Jacob lowered his voice when heads turned his way. “Who would trust him within a hundred miles of an innocent? How old is she?”
“Twenty – until Friday, when she gains control of her dowry and hopes to move out.”
“Herriard won’t stand for that. He’s always deep in the River Tick, so he’ll demand the money as payment for keeping her. Especially now.” Herriard had lost badly the night before. It was doubtful that he could cover his vowels.
“Her small inheritance won’t begin to pay his debts,” said Richard, pat on the thought. “So he’s selling her to Stagleigh.”
Jacob cursed. His butler took one look at his face, then herded nearby guests toward the drawing room. “Why didn’t you say something earlier?” Jacob asked when he had his temper under control.
“I told you, I just found out about it. She escaped this morning and is currently in your study.”
“Devil take it. Can’t you keep your lame ducks away from my wedding?”
Jacob waved a hand in apology. “That was uncalled for. But why the devil don’t you let people know about your crusades? At least then you could ask someone besides us to help you.”
“It isn’t evenusthis time. I can’t involve Charles.”
“I know.” He grimaced. “He can be a real prig when it comes to the letter of the law. What do you need?”
“A place where she can stay.”
“Not here,” Richard added. “Herriard nearly grabbed her as we left St. George’s. Since everyone in town knows where I was headed, he must already be watching the house. I hoped she could use Oakhaven for a week.”
“Possibly. But first I need to meet her.” He had to decide for himself if she was telling the truth. Richard had fallen prey to false pleas for help before. He had no sense when his compassion stirred. Herriard’s involvement would skew his logic even further. “What is her name?”
“Georgiana. Her mother and Herriard’s father were siblings. The mother married beneath her, drawing Herriard’s contempt, but I haven’t had time to learn more.”
Jacob shook his head as he led the way to his study, the plate still in his hand. Richard regularly leaped to the rescue without learning anything relevant. But Jacob wasn’t so gullible.
The library door refused to open.
“It’s locked,” said Richard, proffering the key. “I didn’t want her to be disturbed.”
“Ah.” And maybe Richard wasn’t as oblivious as he seemed.
His papers seemed undisturbed, allowing him to relax – his parliamentary work meant he often kept sensitive documents at home. The girl was asleep on the couch, a filthy cloak jumbled on the floor beside it. While her face was fair enough in a vapid blonde way, her body could best be described as plump. And her gown was frankly hideous.
He could see why she’d caught Richard’s eye, though. The lost-waif expression would appeal to his soft heart. And her connection to Herriard made her irresistible.
“Georgiana?” Having set his plate on the desk, Richard gently shook her shoulder. “Wake up.”
Startled, she shot upright, then groaned.
“Be careful of that ankle,” he added.
“What happened?” asked Jacob.
“Bad sprain.” He helped her settle, his hand lingering overlong on her shoulder, then joined her on the couch. “This is the Earl of Hawthorne, Georgiana. He will help you.”
“Georgiana what?” Jacob sat behind the desk. A surreptitious glance into the top drawer confirmed that his cash box remained intact.
“And your father?”
She paused. “Humphrey Whittaker, my lord.”
“Ah.” Jacob nearly laughed at the puzzlement in Richard’s eyes. Richard rarely heeded financial opportunities because he didn’t have any money. Thus he didn’t recognize the name. But Humphrey Whittaker had founded one of the more profitable independent import companies. Jacob had reaped several fortunes by investing in it.Small inheritance, indeed. Miss Whittaker was a considerable heiress – which explained Herriard’s interest. And Stagleigh’s.
Despite his frequent protests to the contrary, Richard needed an heiress. Jacob had sworn only last week to see that his friends found suitable wives. It was time that Richard swallowed his pride and stopped pretending he liked living frugally.
He could summon the bishop from the drawing room and demand an immediate hearing on replacing Miss Whittaker’s guardian, but this was not the time to exercise his influence. Far better to make Richard stay with her while the matter crept through the legal process. Already he could see sparks flying between them. All he had to do was shut them up somewhere safe and let nature take its course.
But first he must verify his impressions.
He soon set her at ease and elicited the full tale of her life with Herriard. It wasn’t pretty.
* * * *
Richard’s fists clenched as Georgiana revealed Herriard’s refusal to bring her out, the petty cruelties he’d inflicted, and her duties as an unofficial – and thus unpaid – governess for Herriard’s three hellions. She’d been a virtual slave. Never mind that Herriard’s wife was nearly as abused. The thought of Georgiana enduring such hardships fanned his fury.
When she finished describing her flight, Jacob nodded. “You are right,” he told Richard. “She must stay out of sight until her birthday. Take her to Oakhaven. My solicitor will file a petition on Monday to end Herriard’s guardianship.”
“So I will be free?” Hope lit her face.
“Not completely.” Richard patted her hand. “You still need a guardian. The court will not dismiss Herriard unless there is another willing to assume responsibility for you. Who would you prefer?”
“That is the law, Miss Whittaker,” said Jacob firmly. “All unmarried females must be under the care of a parent or guardian. Consider it a form of protection. Many businesses won’t deal with females. Others will cheat you beyond charging you higher prices. You need someone who can see after your interests and prevent scoundrels from taking advantage of you.”
* * * *
Georgiana wanted to scream. At the world. At Hawthorne. But mostly at herself. This wasn’t something she’d learned in childhood, nor had the subject come up under Derrick’s roof. All her plans had focused on escape. She’d not considered how she would go on afterward. How many other problems would prove troublesome? It was a question she must answer.
“Finding another guardian will be difficult,” she admitted. “I know very few people. Father’s partner now owns the business, but he criticized Father’s marriage and accused him of giving me airs above my station, so he would not make a comfortable guardian. I know no other relatives. And I was not allowed to meet callers while living with Lord Herriard.”
Richard shook his head. “We can discuss possible guardians after the guests leave. For now, Hawthorne and I must return to the drawing room.” He stood.
But she had more questions. “Where is Oakhaven?”
Hawthorne smiled. “Four hours south of London. It’s one of my smaller estates. My staff will make you comfortable.” He picked up a pen.
“You know we can’t stay here,” added Richard as Hawthorne pulled out a sheet of paper and began to write. “It’s the first place Herriard will look. And moving you to another town house – or even a hotel – would start rumors that would attract his attention. My friend Charles can’t help either. So going to Oakhaven will keep you out of sight.”
She nodded, then froze as his friend’s name suddenly connected the other two. Richard. Charles. The Earl of Hawthorne.
The Three Beaux.
Dear Lord, she’d fallen into a nest of degenerate rakehells.
Even living as an unpaid servant didn’t insulate her from gossip. Everyone knew of the Beaux, for the tales titillated all classes. Their escapades were legion. So were their conquests.
The Earl of Hawthorne was renowned for the swath he’d cut through the demimonde. Tales claimed he bedded someone every night, but never the same person twice. His wealth was legendary, his exploits larger than life. Even seducing his best friend’s fiancée did not tarnish his social standing, though he’d had to wed the girl. Richard’s sister.
Lord Charles Beaumont always had the most desirable courtesan in London under his protection, yet he flirted with everyone he met and wasn’t averse to seducing matrons. Rumors claimed he’d bedded most of society’s hostesses. Like Hawthorne, he was wealthy, with an inviolable social position. Even being jilted in favor of Hawthorne hadn’t hurt him.
Richard Hughes was different. Not in breeding – he was heir to a viscountcy. But the family coffers were dry, so he couldn’t afford courtesans. Thus he limited his attentions to widows and matrons, who expected nothing beyond a sample of his amazing prowess. Such conquests had led to threats, fisticuffs, and at least one duel, all of which diminished his credit. Only the support of the other Beaux kept him acceptable. He was also known as a hellion, with many pranks and scrapes to his credit. Derrick hated Hughes. She didn’t know why, but they were bitter enemies – which raised the question of why Richard was helping her.
She could understand his reputation as a rake. His potent masculinity demanded attention, saturating the air until it was hard to breathe. His gentleness made him all the more attractive. But if she had any sense, she would decline further assistance.
“Before we leave, she needs to have her ankle wrapped,” Richard was saying. “It’s the worst sprain I’ve ever seen.”
“That bad?” Hawthorne shook his head. “My housekeeper can see after it. And you will need to change clothes. You can hardly travel unnoticed in formal attire. Help yourself to my wardrobe.”
“What?” asked Georgiana, realizing she’d missed something.
Richard smiled. “Once the guests are gone, you will borrow a cloak and bonnet from Emily, then leave, accompanied by Hawthorne. If Herriard is watching, he will think you are Lady Hawthorne leaving on your wedding journey.”
“Don’t fret. The Hawthornes aren’t actually leaving until tomorrow. I will slip out the back, then follow. Once I’m certain Herriard isn’t behind you, Hawthorne and I will change places. He can return to his bride, while you and I go to Oakhaven.”
“You needn’t accompany me. I appreciate the use of his estate, but I cannot trouble you further.”
“Nonsense. Herriard will remain a threat until the court severs his guardianship. If this ruse does not work – and it might not, for he knows you are here, and he might know when Hawthorne plans to leave – then he will follow. Even if we escape him now, he might check Oakhaven when he discovers that Hawthorne remains in town. I must be there to protect you.”
He was right. The very thought of Derrick finding her alone in the earl’s carriage made her stomach clench. Even Oakhaven would not be completely safe, for how could she trust the earl’s staff to turn away a lord who had a legal claim on her person?
She reluctantly nodded.
“Good. The housekeeper will bind your ankle and help you change. I will return when it is time to leave – we’ve been away from the guests too long already. In the meantime, eat. You’ve had nothing in hours and won’t have another chance for some time.”
He slipped out. Hawthorne studied her a moment longer, then followed. But before the door latched, she heard him murmur, “At least this lame duck is better than the last one.”
Lame duck? She shook her irritation away and turned to the plates on the desk. How could she have missed them? They were loaded with a vast array of delicacies the like of which she’d never seen before. Delectable aromas filled the room.
But even fabulous food could not keep her mind from the Beaux. The future had never seemed so uncertain. Would Richard seduce her? And would it matter if he did? Even losing her virtue to a rake was better than staying with Derrick.
Not that it would happen, she assured herself stoutly. The Beaux might have larger-than-life reputations, but no one had ever accused them of forcing a reluctant female. So as long as she remained reluctant, she would be safe.
Her only fight would be against her own base nature, which wondered why every voice that mentioned his prowess held awe. She must not let this unexpected attraction grow. He had no reason to push her.
But he did not know how large her inheritance was. She’d already made light of it. Since the business had gone to her father’s partner, he wouldn’t expect her to have anything beyond a reasonable dowry. If he ever found out otherwise…
One more reason to remain aloof. She could not cope with another fortune hunter.
— 3 —
Richard peered out the window as the carriage drew away from the tollgate and moved briskly south. So far their escape had gone smoothly. He’d given the carriage a ten-minute head start before following, then examined every rider and vehicle he passed as he caught up. There was no sign of Herriard, who must still be watching Hawthorne House. Their ruse had worked.
Unfortunately, his machinations couldn’t guarantee safety. Herriard would play least in sight where there were witnesses. And he might suspect their destination. The man would have studied the Beaux during their years of animosity. Everyone in town knew about Oakhaven, for Jacob stayed there often, as did Richard. Scrutiny of their every move was the price the Beaux paid for notoriety.
He bit back a sigh. There was no point in mentioning the possibility to Georgiana. She had enough problems as it was. Her ankle had to hurt like the very devil. Binding it had let her walk from door to carriage without limping, aided by Jacob’s arm around her shoulders. But she had been white-faced with pain by the time he and Jacob had traded places at the second tollgate. Now she sat on the facing seat, alternately biting her lip and staring out the window.
Richard wished he’d kept his horse instead of turning it over to Jacob. Riding inside the carriage was torturing him. Georgiana was too attractive. He’d chosen the opposite seat because he’d feared that rubbing her with every jolt would severely test his control. What he hadn’t counted on was the effect of looking at her for four hours.
The housekeeper had arranged her hair into soft curls that did interesting things to his libido. As did her current gown – a different one than she’d worn earlier. It might be unfashionable, but it stretched tightly across a stunning bosom, leaving him awash in sensation as his body recalled how perfectly she fit against him.
“Have you given further thought to a new guardian?” he asked to avoid hauling her into his lap so he could he ravish those luscious lips.
She shook her head. “The court will have to appoint someone. I have no suggestions.”
“Think,” she snapped. “Few people know I exist. Even before Papa died, I spent most of my time with my governess. I’d barely recovered from his burial before Grandfather and my uncle died. Derrick kept me confined to the house, less visible even than his wife.”
He nodded. “Now that I think on it, she never accepts invitations.”
“Of course not. She must even deny callers.”
“Derrick’s orders. The house has not been redecorated in sixty years, so most of the furnishings are shabby. He refuses to waste money on it. Then there is the matter of fashion. Despite being a baroness, Margaret has a wardrobe no better than mine – simple gowns more suited to the working classes. Which proved fortunate in the end. Before I fled, I was able to don all of my gowns. Carrying a valise would have drawn attention.”
He nodded, irritated that his investigations had revealed none of this information. Her words also explained why her bosom seemed more prominent than before. The borrowed valise under her seat must contain the rest of her wardrobe. “I will consider possible guardians. I know several men who might do.”
“I doubt it. Aristocrats don’t soil their hands with merchants’ daughters.”
“Wrong!” His temper snapped at yet another cut of a class she knew little about. “Hawthorne had a ward until recently. Her father was a soldier of no particular breeding, and her mother the bastard daughter of a whore. Yet he took her in and found her a decent husband. The only reason I won’t ask him to take charge of you is his marriage. He deserves privacy for a time. Nor can I ask my father. Not because of your background,” he added over her protest. “My mother’s health is failing. I doubt she’ll see Christmas. New responsibilities will hasten her demise.”
“Oh.” She had the grace to look abashed.
“Herriard’s behavior is not typical of the aristocracy,” he continued sternly. “Nor is Stagleigh’s. Most of us can’t stand either of them. Instead, remember your grandfather. I did not know him well, but he struck me as a reasonable and kindly gentleman.”
“True.” She sighed. “But you must know that most of your peers consider themselves superior to merchants. Perhaps we should find my guardian outside the aristocracy. Even Grandfather admitted that my breeding would reduce my credit.”
“Not necessarily. While there are a few sticklers who will frown, the fact remains that many ladies are in your position. Consider Lady Jersey, whose mother was a banker’s daughter. Yet she is an Almack’s patroness with the power to ostracize the highest in the land. As long as your manners conform, you should be fine. You mentioned a governess. Who was she?”
“Miss Elizabeth Coburn, Sir Reginald Coburn’s youngest daughter.”
Richard raised his brows.
“Did you know him?”
“Not personally, though I’ve heard the stories. He lost everything at cards, including his estate. Drunk, of course, though that is no excuse for ignoring his duty. The shock drove him to his death.”
“You are putting too nice a face on the incident. He wasn’t a greenling gaming away his allowance. He was a forty-year-old man responsible for his own extensive family, four tenant families, and a hundred employees. Family and friends had often urged him to protect his estate by entailing it, but he refused. Just as he refused to learn anything from earlier losses – except cowardice. His wife had been furious after the previous disaster lost all of her jewelry, so rather than tell her that they must leave their home, he shot himself. Miss Elizabeth found his body the next morning.”
“She rarely spoke of it. And she was never openly bitter. She did her best to mold me into a lady.” She sighed. “Derrick turned her off the day Grandfather died. I’d always suspected he was cold, but that confirmed it. She would have starved if I hadn’t written a glowing reference and convinced Grandfather’s secretary to sign his name to it. It let her find a position with a squire in Hampshire. When Derrick discovered that we were corresponding, he burned her letters and forbade further contact. Never again was the post left where anyone else could see it.”
“I’m liking Herriard less and less.”
“He deserves it. But returning to your question, Miss Elizabeth came to us when I was five, so I had her for ten years. And Mother was quick to correct any mistakes. She died when I was fourteen.”
“Good. Your training settles the matter. I will speak to Lady Inslip – my friend Charles’s mother,” he added when she frowned. “Once she agrees to present you, we can ask Inslip to stand as your guardian. A marquess will carry the day in court no matter what protest Herriard raises.”
“You don’t know Derrick.”
“I know Herriard very well. He’ll lose – not that it matters, for he won’t be able to bother you much longer anyway.”
“He is a cheat. I’ve been trying to catch him for years.”
“Why? Cheating at cards isn’t illegal.”
“True, but he would be banned from the clubs and dunned by his victims for recompense. The unpleasantness would probably drive him to the Continent. Not a satisfactory solution, but the only one available, at least until recently.”
“He switched to fraud. I’ll be presenting evidence to Lords next week. In the meantime, the bishop will readily sever his guardianship. Fraud aside, the bishop is Inslip’s cousin.”
She frowned. “That should work in my favor,” she agreed. “But I have no intention of letting Lady Inslip push me into society. I fully intend to set up my own establishment.”
“We will discuss that later. For now, relax. In another hour we will stop for dinner. I can’t ask the Oakhaven staff to feed us without warning.”
* * * *
Georgiana laid down her fork and smiled. The food at the Yellow Oak was surprisingly tasty. Only the refreshments at Hawthorne House had been better – but they had been made for a wedding.
“Delicious,” she said, wishing she had room for more. “Do all inns serve food like this?”
Richard looked surprised. “Delicious? I would describe it as average myself. Youhavehad a rough time of it, haven’t you?”
“It is over.”
He was opening his mouth to respond when a voice boomed outside the door. “Herriard! What are you doing so far from town?”
Georgiana gasped as all the blood drained from her head. “How—”
“Shhh!” Richard covered her mouth. He’d removed his gloves to dine, so his hand felt shockingly warm.
“Looking for my cousin.” Herriard made his disgust clear.
“I didn’t know you had a cousin.”
“We don’t talk about it much. My aunt married a tradesman.”
“It doesn’t matter. The girl’s a thief. I’ve tracked her this far, but…” The voices faded as the men moved across the hall to the taproom.
“Damn!” cursed Richard softly, dropping his hand.
“Who was that?” she hissed.
“Sir William Trent. He and Herriard are friends, though not close.” He pressed his ear to the door, then frowned. “Herriard must have spotted Jacob returning to Hawthorne House. And he will have noted the carriage outside.”
“I have to leave.” She could barely choke out the words as her eyes searched frantically for another exit. Her thinking had been muddled in the church, but that was no longer true. Derrick was more devious than she’d thought. Branding her a thief gave him a huge advantage, for his oath alone would convince any court of her guilt. No one would accept a female’s word over a lord’s. Even worse, Richard would be prosecuted for helping her. Was that part of the plot? Derrick hated Richard. If he knew Richard meant to lay charges…
Hopelessness nearly overwhelmed her.
“Sit down and let me think.” Richard paced to the window and back.
She sat, but her mind continued circling. She should have known that flight was useless. Unless she wed Stagleigh, Derrick would transport her for thef—
Dear God, but she was stupid. Transportation wouldn’t help him. But convicting her of grand theft would see her hung. As next of kin, he could then claim her inheritance. She might have to throw herself at Stagleigh to escape death.
She should have refused Richard’s help the moment she’d realized his identity. He might be heir to a title, but for now he was a commoner. Evenhisword would be suspect when set against a lord’s.
“I’ve got it.” Richard’s voice startled her. “Stay here while I speak to the coachman.”
“I can’t let you risk your reputation, or worse,” she said, shaking her head. “This changes everything. He will see me hanged.”
“No.” He pulled her tightly against him, forcing her to meet his gaze.
Frissons of electricity rampaged along her nerves, making her dizzy. Rake, indeed. One touch could melt lead.
“You’ve done nothing wrong, Georgiana,” he swore. “I will not let him abuse you. And Fate is clearly on your side. Witness Sir William’s providential arrival. Gather your courage, my dear. I’ll be back in a moment.” He dropped a light kiss on her mouth and released her.
Before she could respond, he was gone.
Her lips tingled, muddling her thoughts. She could still feel his muscular form pressed against her. Was there really an alternative to Stagleigh or death?
She couldn’t risk it. Nor could she believe anyone would risk his reputation – let alone his life – for a stranger. No man was that magnanimous. Richard must have an ulterior motive.
The most obvious one was her inheritance. Many aristocrats had invested in her father’s ventures, to their benefit. And Richard admitted that he’d studied Derrick’s family. It was possible that he’d not recognized her in the church – she rarely left the house. But he would certainly have known her father’s name.
That she didn’t want to believe he was driven by greed proved how dangerous he was. His charm was already affecting her. His every touch made her crave more. But succumbing to seduction played into his hands. Remaining with him also played into Derrick’s. So she must leave. Maybe she could escape, or maybe Derrick would win. But either way, she must go now.
She limped to the door. As she reached for the latch, it opened.
Richard shut the door behind him and glared. “Where are you going?”
“I have to do this alone, Richard. Anyone who helps me risks prosecution. I couldn’t bear to harm you.”
“You don’t trust me.”
“It isn’t a matter of trust,” she insisted, cursing her delay. “I know Derrick. He won’t back down. Charging me with theft will supersede my petition to the bishop. Charging you with abetting a thief will prevent your presentation to Lords and might well see you transported.”
“And what will he claim was stolen?” Arms akimbo, he glared – and blocked the door.
“God knows. But his claims will convince any court that I’m guilty. He’s a lord.”
“I can produce a hundred lords who will testify that he is a liar and a cheat. I can also produce witnesses who will swear that he had nothing left to steal after last night’s losses, and that you took nothing but the clothes on your back when you escaped his house.”
“You don’t know him.”
Richard’s face hardened. “I know him. Too well. Now, enough of this. He and Sir William are sharing a tankard of ale. We must be gone before they finish. Give me your cloak.”
“It is leaving now. The bonnet, too.” He handed her a black cloak and a man’s hat.
“What are you doing?” she demanded even as she passed him her borrowed garments.
“One of Hawthorne’s grooms is about your height. He will climb into the carriage and leave.” A patterned tap sounded. Richard opened it to a man wearing the Hawthorne livery. “Here,” said Richard, draping the cloak around the man’s shoulders. He handed over the bonnet. “You know what to do.”
The man tied the ribbons and left.
“I don’t understand,” said Georgiana. Her head was swimming.
“He now looks like you – that bonnet shields the face, which is why we chose it for you to begin with. The coachman will assist him inside, then address him by your name as he closes the door. They will continue to Oakhaven. The stable staff is too busy to watch closely, so they will remember only that a lady drove off alone in the Hawthorne carriage.”
“But what about us? The landlord knows we are here. If we do not disappear along with the carriage, Derrick will find out.”
He ignored her. “How is your ankle?”
“Can you walk a hundred yards without drawing attention?”
“If I must.”
“Good. You will slip out the back and follow the stream to the spinney around the hill. It is out of sight of the inn. I will hire a horse and return to London, having seen you safely on your way to Oakhaven. I’ll pick you up by the spinney.”
“And return to town? I thought—”
“We will discuss that later. For the moment, we need distance between us and Herriard.” He tucked her hair under the hat, sorry to lose sight of those soft curls even for a few minutes. “Keep your head down and your skirts tucked in. No one should think twice about a gentleman slipping down to the stream to stretch his legs and take care of business. Just be grateful that Hawthorne’s footmen wear long cloaks.”
— 4 —
Richard waited until Georgiana reached the stream before heading for the stable. He could only pray she would be all right. Her face was several shades whiter than it had been earlier. He wasn’t sure if it was from pain or fear, but his only choice had been to watch her walk away. Alone. If they left together, someone would spot them.
He hired a horse and joked with the grooms, letting them know that his escort was no longer necessary. The lady could finish her journey alone while he returned to town for his usual evening activities – a wink hinted at what tonight’s activity would be. Then he rode back up the road. He’d known Herriard was in desperate straits. If Georgiana were not involved, he would let events play out on their own, for it was only fitting that Herriard’s own vices had been turned against him.
Last night had been the climax of a monthlong debauch during which Herriard had lost all the money he’d taken in that fraud scheme, and then some. So he’d returned to what he knew best – cardsharping.
The game had not gone according to plan, though. Herriard had been desperate and too drunk to think clearly. Watson was a known cheat who took his own brand of revenge against anyone who reneged on a debt. Smart men avoided him. Stupid men paid dearly.
Herriard might have thought he was the better cheat, but he hadn’t even noticed when Watson replaced Herriard’s deck with his own. Thus when Herriard made his move, Watson laid down a better hand. Herriard had signed vowels for ten thousand pounds. He had until Wednesday to pay.
Stagleigh was flush from recent wins, so he was the obvious choice to purchase Herriard’s last remaining asset. And since Stagleigh enjoyed defiling innocence, he would pay a pretty penny for her. The situation made both men very dangerous.
Richard couldn’t allow it, but he had no delusions about the lengths to which Herriard would go to regain possession of Georgiana. The only true protection he could offer her was his name.
Heat pooled in his groin.
He must wed soon if he wanted his mother to attend the ceremony. Assuring the succession would ease her mind at a time when fretting worsened her condition. With Emily now wed, marriage became even more urgent, for Emily had run the household for years. So he’d intended to use the remainder of the Season to find a wife.
Fate seemed to be helping him. Georgiana was much like his ideal wife. Marginal breeding. No fortune to speak of – merchants’ dowries would hardly impress society. Excellent training. And after five years as Herriard’s slave, even his modest circumstances would seem like heaven. As a bonus, her antipathy to society meant they could remain in the country much of the year, reducing his expenses.
He’d stayed in London after coming down from school because he’d needed freedom from his parents’ scrutiny. And because liaisons were more difficult to arrange in Gloucestershire. But marriage negated both reasons. The Beaux had long since taken vows of marital fidelity.
This was no time to broach the subject, though. Despite that riding off alone technically compromised her, he felt no obligation, for she was unharmed and would remain so. He had time to learn more about her, for they could not wed before her birthday. But soon…
He nodded as the spinney appeared around the corner. His immediate goal was to slip back into London without Herriard’s knowledge. Once she was safely hidden, he could consider the future.
* * * *
Georgiana bit back a whimper as pain slashed up her leg, buckling her knee. Only grabbing a branch kept her upright. Walking a hundred yards had seemed easy when Richard had suggested it, but she’d barely made it.
She leaned weakly against a tree, praying that he could slip away without drawing Derrick’s attention. She couldn’t move another step. But at least Richard had revived her determination to escape. Giving up had never been her way. Even if Derrick won, she had to thank Richard for renewing her hope and her courage. She would not face her fate as a coward.
He’ll win, whispered a voice in her mind. Derrick always does. No one can keep you safe.
Her newfound courage wavered, then collapsed entirely when hoofbeats approached along the road.
She tried to dodge behind the tree, but her legs wouldn’t move. A sob escaped. When Richard appeared, she nearly swooned in relief.
“Are you all right?” he asked softly, sliding to the ground. The horse stood dully behind him, showing no sign of spirit. A sluggard.
“Of course,” she answered.
His eyes turned skeptical. “How bad is the pain?”
She sighed. “I can’t walk another step.”
He cut off a curse. “I shouldn’t have—”
“There was no other choice.”
“I know, but…” He shook his head, then lifted her across the horse, mounting behind her. Before she realized his intent, she was tight against his chest with his cloak encasing both of them. She had to work to keep from melting against him. His heat was too enticing, especially when his hand caressed her arm before taking up the reins. He was a rake to the bone.
“Relax, Georgiana,” he murmured, letting the horse pick its way through the spinney. “I will take care of you. Herriard won’t threaten you again.” His mouth nearly touched her ear.
“He won’t give up.”
“He will have no choice. So set aside your fear.” His arms pulled her closer against him. Her heartbeat quickened to match his.
She fought the warmth that spread from his touch. This sudden seductiveness – for how else could she describe his current behavior? – was suspicious, to say the least. Her fortune would tempt a saint, and God knew the Beaux weren’t saints, especially Richard. Now that they were alone, he might claim compromise, forcing her into marriage.
It wouldn’t be force.
Of course it would, she snapped at Temptation. She had no use for aristocrats and less for fortune hunters. Tying herself to Richard would destroy her.
They emerged from the trees and turned down a footpath between two fields, heading straight into the setting sun.
She stiffened. “I thought we were returning to London.”
“We are, but not by the Brighton road. Herriard’s carriage cannot follow us if we circle out to Richmond before turning back to town.”
“We’ll never make it before dark,” she protested. It would have been difficult anyway, but now they wouldn’t reach London for many hours.
“It can’t be helped. The ostler knows I am returning to town, which means that Herriard will also know. I hope he believes we parted company, but we can’t count on it, so remaining on the road is foolish.
She had to admit the logic of his argument. Riders could go anywhere, while drivers were restricted to roads. And even if Derrick left his carriage behind and hired a horse – which was unlikely, given his finances – he would have no trail to follow.
She relaxed, letting her head fall against Richard’s shoulder. She knew she shouldn’t, but she was tired and in too much pain to care. She needed to absorb his strength. There would be time later to plan the next step.
* * * *
Richard smiled when Georgiana fell asleep. She felt good curled against him. And maybe she finally trusted him.
But his smile soon slipped. The horse was a slug that refused to move faster than a walk. He’d known the moment the groom led it out that it would be a problem, but raising a fuss would have drawn unwanted attention. And a better horse would have cost more than he had. His pride had turned down a loan from Jacob, which in retrospect had been stupid. He should have foreseen that plans could change, separating them from the carriage and Oakhaven.
Feeling far too exposed, he picked a path between fields and along rutted lanes, keeping hedgerows and stands of trees behind him. He also bypassed villages, for the fewer people who saw them, the more likely they would reach London undetected.
An hour passed before his fears waned. There was no sign of pursuit and no interest in their passage.
A second hour slid by. The sun dipped lower, playing peekaboo with the treetops and dazzling his eyes whenever it pierced the foliage.
Georgiana stirred in his arms.
“Feeling better?” he asked.
“Mmm.” She stiffened as her eyes blinked open.
“Relax.” He shifted her to a more comfortable position, ignoring what the motion did to his groin. “Are you thirsty?”
“We should stop, though. London is still hours away. Most travelers halt at dusk, so seeking refreshments now will draw less notice than it would later.”
“Are we at Richmond yet?”
“No. It’s about five miles north of us.”
“We could stop there.”
An objection hovered on his lips, for he hadn’t intended to go through Richmond itself, where he would likely encounter acquaintances – and not only his peers. Most of the innkeepers knew him, for he’d often eaten there with friends or liaisons.
Running into friends would settle the question of marriage, though. Georgiana would have to accept him, saving him from an argument. He could already imagine her objections.
But she had no idea how hard it would be to set up her own establishment. Nor did she understand how isolated she would become if she tried. It would sever any ties to society, of course. But her father’s peers would also condemn her. Where would she find friends? Marriage was clearly her best course. Even if a few brows lifted now, she would be ennobled when he inherited the viscountcy. That would terminate any doubts. The easiest way to assure that course was to be caught traveling together.
“Very well,” he agreed. “Richmond it is. The Crown and Anchor has excellent ale and a meat pie that melts in your mouth.” It was also the inn most likely to be jammed with acquaintances.
He turned north, following another footpath between two fields.
* * * *
Georgiana was appalled that she’d fallen asleep in Richard’s arms. How had she relaxed so thoroughly? Her ankle should have kept her awake, if nothing else.
But this proved how dangerous he could be. One heated look from those brown eyes could seduce a statue, and those talented hands…
He’d carried her, held her, embraced her, caressed her. It was the first time she’d been touched since her father’s death. She had never considered herself susceptible to male charm, so it was unnerving to realize how vulnerable she really was. A little kindness, a little warmth, and she melted into a pool of need.
It had to stop.
To divert her mind, she concentrated on her naïveté. Only an idiot would have thought Derrick would give up the income from her trust. He’d been living on it for five years. Losing it would force him to sell the town house and retire to his derelict country estate. He hated the country. And now that she understood his character, she had to admit that Margaret had saved her from an even worse fate. If Derrick had not already been saddled with a wife five years ago, he would have forced her to the altar much earlier. With him.
An intelligent ward would have run away long ago, slipping out when everyone was asleep. London was big enough so that he would never have found her. And proper planning would have turned up someone to help her. Someone besides a notorious rake.
Instead she had grown complaisant, thinking that caring for the boys made her indispensable. So while she’d dreamed of breaking free once she controlled her inheritance, she had done nothing to further that goal, not even consider the obstacles she would face. Learning that unwed ladies required guardians had shocked her. It wasn’t true of gentlemen, who were free when they came of age. But Derrick’s guardianship would not have ended. Nor would he have stopped dipping into her funds. He would have found a way to confiscate everything.
What else had her ignorance overlooked?
Richard’s arm shifted along her back, sending excitement rippling along her skin. Even his inadvertent touches burned her to the core. They felt nothing like her grandfather’s pats as she’d cried on his shoulder after the funeral. Nor did they resemble her father’s protective hugs – or even his congratulatory ones when he’d shared her excitement over a new accomplishment.
She banished the memories. Richard was not for her. No one was, least of all a fortune hunter.
To distract herself from his touch, she studied the sun as it dipped below the horizon, turning previously unnoticed cloudlets a brilliant orange. Lingering rays pierced the gathering night. “Pretty.”
“Very. Are you warm enough?” He tugged his cloak tighter – forcing her closer against his chest.
“How is your ankle?”
“Much better. It no longer throbs.”
“I wouldn’t risk walking on it, though. The Crown and Anchor has a private parlor just inside the door, so I’ll carry you.”
“I can walk that far,” she protested, not wanting to appear in public in his arms.
“We’ll see.” His tone made it clear that she would not walk, but she didn’t argue. Time enough for that later.
He forded a stream, then turned down a narrow road. “We’ll have to follow lanes from now on,” he said. “Darkness makes it hard to see the footpaths. I don’t want to ruin someone’s crops.”
His concern surprised her even more than his courtesy in stopping at the Yellow Oak so Hawthorne’s staff needn’t provide an unexpected meal. The aristocrats she knew cared only for themselves. Few would notice if they trampled a tenant’s fields or disrupted a household. Fewer would care. Especially Derrick, who delighted in exerting his authority over underlings.
Richard’s consideration was even odder, for it did not mesh with the Beaux’ reputations as conscienceless rakehells. Which raised questions about Richard’s character. Did gossip malign him?
“Why did you let your sister wed a rake like Hawthorne?” The question was out before she realized how rude it sounded.
“Jacob?” He sounded surprised. “He is one of the best men I know.”
“But his reputation—”
“If you judge people solely on gossip, what are you doing with me?”
“I’m not quite sure,” she admitted with a sigh. “I’ve had no time to think since fleeing this morning. It gave me a jolt to realize you were one of the Beaux.”
“I suppose it was too much to hope you hadn’t heard of us.”
“Quite.” She grinned. “People more isolated than I am know of your exploits.”
“Not true. Oh, they’ve doubtless heard tales, but most rumors are exaggerated, and many are downright false.”
“Really?” She twisted to look him in the eye.
“Really. Gossip loves scandal, so it twists anything out of the ordinary to make it more shocking. Events that contradict a scandalous image get swept under the rug. Virtues are ignored unless their owners are saints. Too boring.”
“Are you saying that you didn’t loose a bear in Lord Cardway’s drawing room, where his prospective bride’s father would find it?”
He laughed. “That one is true, I must admit. But a great many details disappeared in the retelling.”
“The girl had already refused Cardway’s suit, but her father insisted she accept him – Cardway had offered a fortune for her. Very like Stagleigh’s offer for you.”
“Exactly. Cardway was obsessed with her – she is quite lovely. Convinced that she was just being coy, he ignored her refusal. Only after her father encountered the bear did the man reconsider the proposed alliance. By the time he learned that Cardway was not responsible for his scare, his daughter had accepted another suitor. Someone she loved.”
“How did you become involved?”
“The man she loved is a friend.”
“So why not tell people the truth?”
“Sometimes truth can do more harm than good. Cardway is a wealthy viscount, which makes him a marital prize. Her father was admired for negotiating such a good match. Had people known about her refusal, they would have ridiculed her, reducing her credit. Had they learned why the bear was there, I would have been roundly condemned for interfering. So I let people believe that a joke on Cardway had gone awry. Better for all concerned.”
“Actually, Cardway formed a new obsession within months. And the girl’s father did not need the fortune Cardway offered. Neither of them was harmed by the incident. Both gained sympathy from society.”
She fell silent, reflecting that the one who had been hurt was Richard, whose reputation had suffered from his presumed irresponsibility. Yet it didn’t seem to bother him.
Perhaps he didn’t know about her inheritance after all. She was obviously not the first lady he’d helped to escape an unwanted match, which explained Hawthorne’slame duckcomment. Richard must make a habit of helping others. But such a virtue stood at odds with his reputation as a rake and prankster, so society ignored it.
Her heart warmed. There was more substance to him than she’d expected. He wasn’t the malicious prankster rumor supposed. Was his reputation as a rake likewise exaggerated?
Before she could ask, he pulled the horse to a halt and backed up.
She glanced around, surprised that they were approaching an inn. Or had been. Richard whisked them around a corner, out of sight of the stable yard. His reason became clear when Stagleigh’s voice cut through the night.
“…crested carriage with yellow wheels. A man and a woman. Both blond.”
A coarser murmur was too soft to understand.
“My betrothed, damn him. Hughes abducted her. I must catch them before he ruins her.”
Richard’s hand slid up to cover her mouth. “Quiet,” he whispered in her ear. “I underestimated Herriard. He is checking all the likely routes from London. This is another way to Oakhaven. And it’s also the route to Gloucestershire.”
“I cain’t believe that, milord,” drawled the ostler. Georgiana could almost see him shaking his head. “Master Hughes is a real gentleman, he is. Always ’as a kind word for us.”
Stagleigh cursed. “The man’s a villain. Have you seen him?”
“Not lately. Must be all of a month since he last drove this way. Part of a party, he was. Ten. Maybe twelve others.”
“Today, man! Have you seen him today?”
“No, not today. Now Mr. Montgomery, he’s in the taproom with a party of bucks. And—”
“Peter!” exclaimed another voice. “What are you doing out here? Thought you hated Richmond.”
“I could say the same for you, Francis.”
Francis laughed. “Sister’s wedding next week. Dragged my feet so I could stop on the road – Mother is terrifying when she readies the castle for guests, and I’ve no use for my cousins. But you?”
“Chasing Hughes. He abducted my betrothed.”
“Betrothed! I hadn’t heard.”
“I hadn’t made an announcement. And if I don’t catch the bastard—”
“That doesn’t sound like Hughes,” said Francis slowly. “Granted, he’s a prankster, but he’s never hurt anyone.”
“But this is different.” Stagleigh’s voice grew fainter as he turned toward the inn. “Share a pint with me. My horse threw a shoe and won’t be ready for a quarter hour.”
“What is different about it?” Francis ignored the change of subject.
“The girl’s an heiress. Hughes started sniffing around when he discovered her inheritance. Pounced whenever she poked her nose out the door. She complained, of course, to him and to me – we’ve been promised for years. But he must be in the briers again, for he snatched her this afternoon.”
“Who is she?”
“Herriard’s cousin. Father made a fortune in trade. All hers now—” A door slapped shut, cutting off their voices.
Richard’s hand dug into her chin as he twisted her head to face him. “Heiress?”
“He exaggerates. The business went to Father’s partner,” she reminded him.
“He would hardly leave his only daughter penniless. I need facts, Miss Whittaker. How desperate is Herriard to find you?” Fury threaded his whisper. The combination seemed more ferocious than any of Derrick’s rants.
But she refused to collapse. “Derrick demanded fifty thousand pounds. Stagleigh signed a contract to pay it.”
— 5 —
Fifty thou— Richard nearly fell off the horse. “How much would that leave Stagleigh?”
“You can’t expect me to believe that. Stagleigh isn’t stupid.”
“But Derrick lied. He swore I was worth two hundred, but I can’t be.”
She sighed. “Papa left me thirty. There is no way the trustees could have increased the principle that much.”
“Not without investing returns. I’ve not seen a statement from the trust in five years, but Derrick has been living on the quarterly income. I would be shocked if anything was reinvested.”
Richard gritted his teeth. He believed her, not that it mattered. Ten thousand made a girl an heiress. If Georgiana had thirty…
Dear Lord. He was squiring a damned heiress, not a waif. Why didn’t she simply hire guards to keep Herriard away until her birthday? He had to get free of her before someone spotted them.
Stifling the attraction that had been growing all day, he kicked himself for not asking questions earlier. But at least he hadn’t offered for her. Marriage was now out of the question.
Paying his own way was the only way he could live with himself and was how he’d retained his friendship with Jacob and Charles. He would never accept money from others. Nor could he keep Georgiana in the style she’d enjoyed before Herriard. No one with her background would be satisfied with what he could offer.
Cold to the bone, he guided the horse around Richmond and headed for London.
“What’s wrong?” she asked, sounding surprised.
“You should have mentioned your inheritance earlier. If I’d known how desperate Herriard was…” The man must be even more desperate than Richard had thought. Why else would he stoop to cheating his closest friend?
He kicked the horse into a reluctant trot. “At least the road to London will be clear. But we can’t stop until we have you safely hidden.”
“Where? Hawthorne House?”
“No. There is no way to hide you in Mayfair. Servants talk.” How else did Lady Beatrice learn everything that happened? “But Charles owns a cottage that is currently empty. On Monday we’ll speak to the solicitor. Inslip can expedite your petition to the bishop. With luck, it will be decided this week.”
He would have to stay with her, though, he admitted grimly. If Herriard was this desperate, he might find her.
Damnation! The last thing he needed was to live in a cottage with a damned heiress. But he would never forgive himself if Herriard found her before she was free.
At least Stagleigh would be easy to handle. Once he learned the truth, he would wash his hands of the affair.
But his earlier conclusion was truer than ever. Georgiana would never be safe without a husband. He must find her one. Immediately. Not him, of course. But only marriage would protect her.
* * * *
By the time they reached London, Richard was mad at the world and everything in it. Fate had played him a prank worse than any he’d ever pulled. Lust was driving him insane. Holding Georgiana in his lap for six hours had stretched his control to the limit. How the devil was he to remain aloof under the same roof with her for a week or more?
But he had to. Even if Herriard had dipped into her principle – which wasn’t likely under most trust rules – she was far beyond his reach. He should have realized it earlier. She might be uninformed about some things, but her merchant father would have taught her enough about finances that she would never try to live on the few hundred pounds he’d expected her to have.
He’d been unbelievably stupid. Even after he’d realized that her clothes did not match her breeding, he had not questioned his other impressions. He was too accustomed to people who hid empty purses behind the latest fashion to think an heiress would dress in rags. Now he was trapped.
He’d wracked his brains for a solution that would keep her safe without risking scandal or involving others. But there wasn’t one. Until she was no longer Herriard’s ward, he could not approach her trustees or anyone else who cared more for legalities than people.
So he was on his own. And the prospects were no better than they’d been earlier. He couldn’t afford an inn – which would be dangerously compromising anyway. None of his many friends could house her. Which returned him to Charles’s love nest.
Charles had dismissed his most recent mistress after proposing to Emily and hadn’t yet replaced her. So the cottage remained vacant. Its staff was accustomed to ignoring whatever occurred under its roof. And it was far enough from Mayfair that gossip would spread slowly.
He would use false names, though, and wouldn’t mention Georgiana to Charles.
“Where is this cottage?” asked Georgiana once they passed Hyde Park.
“A couple miles back. But I have to get permission to use it – which means finding Charles.”
“Do you know where he is?”
“Probably White’s. Pull that hat down to shade your face,” he murmured into her ear. “You will have to hold the horse while I’m inside. Pretend to be a groom.”
He turned up St. James’s Street, his eyes searching the shadows for anyone he knew. So far they were in luck. It was after midnight, but the balls had not yet ended, and the farce was still under way at the theaters. In another hour the street would be mobbed as gentlemen converged on the clubs, but for now it was quiet. Only two carriages moved toward him, with another parked in front of Brooks’s. The bow window at White’s was empty, and the street denizens were not yet out in force. Most waited until they had their pick of inebriated targets.
He ducked into a narrow passage between buildings and dismounted.
“Steady,” he murmured, setting Georgiana on her feet. She was so stiff she nearly fell.
“What do I do?”
“Stay against the wall so the horse shields you from view. Don’t talk to anyone.”
She nodded, accepting the reins.
“I will be back as soon as possible.” He strode away, praying that Charles was inside. The last thing he needed was to make a round of the brothels. Charles patronized several. Or he might have changed his mind and accepted one of the invitations that still arrived by the dozen every day. It would be another month before the Season wound down.
But his luck held. Charles was leaning over the hazard table – just as Richard had found him a week earlier. At least this time he wasn’t drunk.
He waited until Charles lost the throw, then tapped him on the shoulder. “I need a moment,” he murmured.
Charles raised his brows, but followed without a word.
“What?” he asked once they reached an empty corner of the reading room.
“Is your Kensington cottage still vacant?”
“May I use it for a few days?”
“Of course.” But his eyes widened. Richard never begged favors.
“Thank you. When you write to the butler, please omit my name.”
“Curious.” Charles moved to a writing table and pulled out a piece of paper. “You’ve been odd all day.”
“I’m avoiding Herriard.”
“Ah. I thought I recognized that bellow in church this morning. What the devil does he want?”
Richard hesitated, but Charles was too stiff-rumped to risk the truth. “He may have learned about my meeting at Lords next week.”
“So you found the evidence.”
“And an unimpeachable witness. I’ve an appointment on Monday.”
“If you live that long.”
“Exactly. Herriard enlisted Stagleigh’s help to find me. I don’t want them bothering Mother. She was ready to collapse by the time she headed home this afternoon.”
“True. Should I mention that you’ve moved out of Hughes House?”
Richard nodded. “Casually. I’ve left town now that Emily is settled.”
“Let me know if you need anything else.”
“Of course.” Not that he could involve Charles any further. He would demand marriage if he learned of today’s escapade with Georgiana.
He couldn’t wed her. Period.
But he couldn’t help fretting over her, he admitted as he hurried toward the walkway. Not until he found her unscathed did he recognize the fear that had been knotting his shoulders.
Swearing under his breath, he shoved the letter into his pocket. In moments they were back on the horse and heading for Kensington.
— 6 —
On Monday morning Georgiana sharpened a pen, hoping she could complete a letter to her trustees. But, as had happened all three times she’d tried on Sunday, her brain refused to cooperate. Richard dominated her thoughts, confusing her more with each passing hour.
When they’d fled the Yellow Oak, he’d been warm. Almost seductive. By the time they’d reached this cottage, he’d turned curt, barely controlling fury. At breakfast yesterday he’d been pleasant but aloof. At lunch he’d sent her into gales of laughter by describing mishaps he’d witnessed and pranks he’d played. His eyes had flashed with humor and camaraderie. Yet an hour later she’d heard him pacing and muttering in the next room, so irritated that his tension had seeped through the closed door to stifle her. And last night he’d blown hot and cold throughout dinner, then retired without even bidding her good night. So she shouldn’t have been surprised that he’d been gone when she’d come down for breakfast.
Another oddity was that he’d stationed the maid outside her door both nights, as if he expected her to bolt at any moment. She didn’t like the implication. It couldn’t be for protection against Derrick – the maid was all of sixty and quite dull-witted. So he must be keeping her fortune within reach.
She tried to force her mind back to the letter. It was time to remind her trustees that she was to take charge of her inheritance on her birthday. She must also warn them of Derrick’s greed. Giving the money to Derrick to handle for her would not only break faith with her father but guarantee she never saw a groat of the funds. It shouldn’t happen, of course, but she was rapidly learning that men too often twisted the law for their own benefit. And few believed females could be trusted with more than a few shillings.
She penned a salutation, then paused, mind blank.
Perhaps her problem was this sitting room instead of Richard. It was not designed to facilitate thought, being sumptuously furnished in red and gold, its satins and velvets blatantly sensual. A painting of naked nymphs cavorting in a garden hung above the fireplace. Several well-thumbed books sat atop a table, but she’d not dared examine them closely after one fell open to a shocking illustration. The memory had produced some very odd dreams last night.
Richard had seemed oblivious to the décor, proving his familiarity with such rooms – why this surprised her was a question she ignored. Hehadtaken the main bedchamber for himself, though. Her one glimpse through the door had revealed some provocatively placed mirrors, so he did have some concern for her sensibilities.
Concentrate on the letter.
Yes, the letter. No purpose was served by imagining that illustration brought to life in front of a mirror, with Richard’s hand on her—
She wrenched her mind back to business. How could she convince her trustees to ignore Derrick’s claims? Derrick was a lord. She was an unknown who had met them only once, when she’d been fifteen. Why would he—
Richard pushed open the door. He was frowning.
“Is there a problem?” she asked.
“Nothing you need to fret over.” He smoothed his expression. “I met with Hawthorne’s solicitor. He will present your petition to the bishop this afternoon. Inslip’s support should gain you a hearing tomorrow. A notice to that effect is on its way to Herriard.”
“There are times when influence is useful. I also spoke with Inslip. He will call on you this afternoon and will accept your guardianship, if you approve. We can still find someone else if need be, but I believe you will suit.”
She wasn’t so sure, but he was in no mood to argue. So she must prepare to meet a marquess.
A glance at her gown made her cringe. Brushing had helped, but it remained unfashionable and shabby. It was also her only gown at the moment. She’d left her other ones in Hawthorne’s carriage.
Shaking her head, she returned to her letter. Now that she had a willing guardian and a definite hearing with the bishop, her words flowed easily.
* * * *
Richard stood when Tester showed Inslip into the sitting room. Once the butler left, Richard performed introductions.
Arranging this meeting had been tricky. The staff did not know his name or Georgiana’s. He hoped to survive Inslip’s call with that situation intact. And inviting Charles’s father into Charles’s love nest was not done, so he’d not mentioned whose cottage he was using. If he wasn’t careful, the half-truths would soon strangle him.
“Miss Whittaker,” Inslip said, pressing her hand before taking the seat she indicated. He turned his gaze on Richard. “This tangle is worse than you implied, Hughes.”
“Stagleigh and Herriard returned to town this morning.”
“Then Stagleigh should now be at Herriard’s throat.”
“Why?” asked Georgiana.
“I sent him proof that Herriard was cheating him.”
“He hasn’t received it,” said Inslip. “They went directly to Herriard House. Half an hour later, Stagleigh rode north.”
“Why?” This time Richard asked the question.
“Herriard claims you abducted his ward and are headed for Scotland.”
“Absurd!” Georgiana snapped.
“So they’ve adopted Stagleigh’s explanation,” murmured Richard. “I’m surprised Herriard gave in on that point. Or perhaps not. He must know he can’t prove theft.”
“What theft?” asked Inslip.
“Yesterday Herriard claimed Miss Whittaker had robbed him. It was Stagleigh who swore I’d abducted his betrothed.”
“Which is ridiculous,” insisted Georgiana. “Even the groom at that inn didn’t believe him, so why would they expect society to?”
“But it fits his reputation very well,” said Inslip. “Many will accept the claim.”
Richard’s face heated as Inslip’s gaze clashed with his own. “Not those who know me,” he swore. “I have no use for heiresses.”
“I know that. The Beaux know that. But most of society believes otherwise. This escapade has placed Miss Whittaker in an untenable position and destroyed what was left of your reputation.”
Richard shrugged. He cared nothing for what society thought of him. Only his friends’ opinions mattered.
“I won’t be responsible for hurting you,” said Georgiana. “Surely there is a way to counter these lies.”
“They will die the moment Stagleigh realizes that Herriard tricked him into handing over your entire trust and then some,” swore Richard. When Inslip raised his brows, he let Georgiana explain her cousin’s perfidy, then added, “So there is no problem. Stagleigh will recant his claims. Herriard’s credibility is already suspect and will disappear entirely once I present my evidence to Lords.”
“Wasn’t your meeting today?”
“I rescheduled for Wednesday. By then the bishop will have ruled on Miss Whittaker’s petition.”
“Maybe, but she should immediately move to Inslip House. That will—”
“No.” Richard glared.
Inslip raised his brows.
“That would play into Herriard’s hands. Moving her now would raise the question of where she has been for two days. Once you are officially her guardian, bringing her to Inslip House will seem natural. Few will wonder where she was previously.”
“I don’t see—”
“If anyone who deserves a response wants details, you are keeping her at another property until your status is official. You don’t wish to burden Lady Inslip and your daughter with Herriard’s temper.”
“But I have no other property near town.”
Richard gave in to the inevitable. “Charles does.”
Inslip’s gaze took in the décor. “I see.”
Richard pressed his advantage. “Knowing that Herriard is greedy and vicious, you had to hide her until her legal status was settled.”
“Your reputation will still suffer.”
“I doubt it. Herriard must already regret mentioning her. People will demand to know who she is and what she’s been doing these past five years. The barrage must fluster him.”
“What are you planning?” Inslip’s eyes gleamed.
“I will make the usual social rounds tonight, disproving his claim that I am headed for Scotland.” It might make Charles seem curiously uninformed, but there was no help for it. “A few words to Lady Beatrice will raise the awkward questions that Herriard doesn’t want to face – like why society knows nothing of his ward’s existence though she’s lived with him for years, what his arrangement was with Stagleigh, and how that arrangement relates to Friday’s losses. Once he is exposed as a scoundrel, society will welcome Miss Whittaker with open arms. She will be feted for surviving his plots. If anyone asks where you met her, you were introduced at Emily’s wedding breakfast. Upon hearing her story, you immediately offered your support.”
“Perhaps that will work,” he grudgingly agreed. “But don’t wait to call on Lady Beatrice. Go now. Herriard’s lies are already on every tongue. You want the truth out before evening. I will remain here and become acquainted with Miss Whittaker.”
Richard nodded. The errand should take only an hour. Inslip would watch her until then.
His growing need to protect her nearly suffocated him. He beat it back, reminding himself that she was not for him. Never would it be said that he had feathered his nest with a lady’s fortune.
— 7 —
Richard inhaled deeply as he followed the butler to the drawing room. Lady Beatrice was not a woman he enjoyed confronting, especially when he was the subject of gossip.
She gestured him to a seat, her face the grimmest he’d ever seen it. Even Emily’s announcement that she had jilted Charles to wed Jacob hadn’t made her this disapproving.
“Thank you for seeing me,” he said, feigning calm.
“I trust you have an explanation.”
He nodded. “The very fact that I am in London should tell you that Herriard is lying.”
“To confiscate his ward’s trust so he can cover Friday’s gaming debts. To discredit me before I can present evidence to Lords accusing him of fraud. To—”
His tongue froze as her eyes widened in shock. He’d done a better job of hiding his investigation than he’d thought. Few people could surprise Lady Beatrice. No one surpassed her knowledge of society. She knew everything that happened almost before the participants did.
She stroked her chin. “Let’s start with his ward. Who is she?”
“Miss Georgiana Whittaker. Her mother was Herriard’s paternal aunt. Her father was a merchant – Whittaker and Metcalf Imports.” Again her eyes widened. “Herriard has had the care of her since his grandfather’s death.”
“Five years?” Her face relaxed, thawing the air. She handed him a glass of wine, then poured tea for herself.
“Five years. Miss Whittaker’s father died a week before the old baron’s accident. His will named the baron as her guardian. Herriard inherited that duty along with the title.”
“How old was she?”
“Fifteen. Her grandfather had planned to bring her out, but Herriard refused. He has used her as an unpaid governess while squandering her income on his gaming.”
Lady Beatrice made a sound that in a less exalted person might be called a growl. “How long have you known?”
This was where he must be careful, Richard reminded himself. “Not long,” he said calmly. “Herriard kept her well hidden, so even though I’ve been keeping an eye on him for some time—”
“Since he cheated you.”
He nodded, not surprised she knew about it, though he’d kept the matter quiet. “Exactly. The Beaux dealt with that incident and warned him what would happen if he fleeced anyone else. For a time he was careful to live within his income – at least, I thought it was his until recently.”
“Last week. But Herriard is incapable of watching his purse. The next time he ran short, he fleeced Rothmore.”
“Precipitating his suicide.”
“Exactly. It was a private game that I learned about too late.” A mistake he still rued. “I dug deeper into Herriard’s affairs afterward, forcing him to abandon cardsharping. The next time he needed money, he set up a railroad scheme that fleeced Jameson, among others.”
“Ahh.” Her eyes gleamed.
“It was out-and-out fraud – no rail company existed. So he’ll finally pay. I’ll present the evidence to Lords on Wednesday.”
“You’ve hidden your activities well.”
“I would not have succeeded if I’d talked about it.”
She nodded. “So how does abducting Miss Whittaker fit your plans?”
“I didn’t abduct her. She has long sought to escape Herriard’s abuse. When she heard him blustering about my investigation, she decided to seek my help once she came of age. Herriard’s losses last Friday forced her to act early. She heard him selling her to Stagleigh the next morning, so she fled. It was easy to find me. Everyone in town knew I’d be at St. George’s for Emily’s wedding.”
“True. So you helped her.”
He nodded. “I introduced her to Inslip, who will take over as her guardian, but she must remain hidden until the bishop rules on her petition tomorrow.”
“Herriard swears he tracked you to Oakhaven.”
“He did. I had to distract him while Inslip spirited Miss Whittaker away. One of Hawthorne’s grooms accompanied me, dressed in a cloak and bonnet.”
She shook her head. “Another of your pranks.”
“I wouldn’t call it that.” He kept his hands relaxed, but it wasn’t easy.
She ignored his protest. “This one went too far, Hughes.”
His eyes snapped together. “Should I have returned her to Herriard when she begged for help? No one deserves that fate, especially Georg— Miss Whittaker. Her breeding is every bit as good as Lady Jersey’s. And despite years of mistreatment at Herriard’s hands, she remains sweet.”
“You know her well.”
Richard cursed himself for losing his temper. “My studies of Herriard made it easy to investigate her claims once I learned of her existence.”
“Hmm.” She pursed her lips for a long moment. “It’s true about her breeding, and it’s true that her grandfather accepted her parents’ marriage. I remember the incident well.”
“I can quash most of the stories, Hughes,” she continued. “And I will, for I agree that Herriard is lying. But your little charade with the groom succeeded too well. People saw you, and now that Herriard claims abduction, they no longer think that jaunt was one of your affairs. Her reputation will suffer unless you wed her.”
“No.” He continued over her protest. “She has come to no harm, as you know full well. She is under Inslip’s care and attended by servants.” He almost offered to produce the groom, but didn’t know if the man would back his half-truths. Or if Inslip would, for that matter. Any hint that Georgiana had accompanied him in truth would doom her. “I will not condemn Miss Whittaker to another situation not of her choosing. Nor will I be branded a fortune hunter.”
“You would rather be branded a cad?”
“That is not an issue. If necessary, I will retire to the country. London is rapidly losing its charm anyway.”
“Flight would imply guilt, raising new suspicions about her.” She held his eyes. “You will wed the girl. If pride won’t let you use her fortune, then put it in trust for your children.”
“No. Do you want to lend credence to Herriard’s lie?”
“I’ll see that it won’t.”
“Even your power has bounds, my lady. You cannot force me, nor will your conscience let you malign her when you know full well that she is blameless. As for marriage, Inslip will bring her out next Season, though she may surprise him by refusing. She has a low opinion of men and a lower one of the aristocracy – not that I can blame her, given her experiences.”
“You did not think poorly of my power when you came here.”
“I don’t. Your word can expose Herriard’s lies in a trice. But I draw the line at accepting a marriage I do not want. Miss Whittaker is in good hands and will remain so.”
“Oh, you want her. I can see it in your eyes.”
She smiled. “You haven’t changed a bit, Hughes. Just as prideful and touchy as when you came down from school. I won’t condemn you in public, and I’ll refute Herriard’s claims. But I urge you to reconsider. There is a spark in your eye whenever you mention her that tells me you are not indifferent. I suspect you know her better than you care to admit. Don’t let pride stand in the way of the best marriage you could find.”
Richard cursed himself, but relief was stronger than irritation. Lady Beatrice would expose Herriard, and she would let Georgiana prove herself worthy. One meeting would convince her of Georgiana’s character.
He needed to return to the cottage posthaste but kept himself in check for another quarter hour while Lady Beatrice related the news of the day. Then he excused himself and headed back to Kensington.
* * * *
Georgiana nearly followed Richard out of the sitting room. She knew nothing about entertaining lords – not even barons like Derrick. What was she supposed to do with a marquess?
The question was answered when Tester silently deposited a tea tray at her elbow and departed. It had been years since she’d presided over one, but she hadn’t forgotten how.
Inslip set her at ease with tales of her grandfather, who had been one of his closer friends. They were alike in many ways. While she suspected that Inslip could be ruthless when necessary, today he had chosen kindness and the same bluff camaraderie she had found with her grandfather. Perhaps she could be comfortable with his family after all.
“It would be best if you accepted invitations immediately,” he said once he’d explained how the guardianship would work. “All else aside, your appearance will go far to lay Herriard’s lies to rest.”
“You do understand that my governess left when I was fifteen.”
“It doesn’t show. And my wife will review manners with you. Your most pressing concern will be learning the names and stations of those you will meet. And clothing, of course, though her dressmaker can remedy that soon enough.”
Her reply died when Tester returned, a round silver tray resting on one palm. “A message for you, my lord. Urgent, he said.”
Inslip accepted the missive and broke the seal. His forehead creased into a frown.
“Problem?” asked Georgiana as Tester departed.
“A small one, but it needs immediate attention. If you will excuse me, my dear? We will expect you by dinner tomorrow. Tell Hughes to arrange for a decent gown. Mademoiselle Jeanette dresses my wife. Let her know that Lady Inslip will return with you on Wednesday to order a complete wardrobe.”
“Thank you, my lord.”
He pressed her hand, then left.
Georgiana paced the sitting room, turning the meeting over in her mind. Richard was right. Not all nobles were venal. Her grandfather had been a loving man who had tried always to do the right thing. Inslip seemed the same – as did Richard, she admitted. He was kind and caring and nothing like his reputation. He might be a prankster, but he wasn’t callous or cruel. Even the bear had served a purpose and done no real harm.
She was guilty of judging without facts. Worse, her complaint that Richard blew hot and cold and held himself aloof applied a higher standard to him than to herself. She was doing the same thing – pushing him away for fear that he wanted her trust.
I have no use for heiresses.
It was true. He’d not turned cold until Stagleigh mentioned her inheritance. Then his eyes had flashed in fury – not because she’d withheld information, as he’d claimed, but because he wanted none of her money. If anyone had seen them together and cried compromise…
She reviewed everything that had happened since she’d entered St. George’s. He’d put himself out to help her, even during his sister’s wedding. He’d protected her from Derrick, made arrangements for an honorable future, and kept servants close at hand to guard her reputation even as Derrick was blackening his. Not once had he taken advantage of her. She wished he had.
You are so blind!
She needed his arms around her. And not just because she felt safe in his embrace. He stirred her as no other man could, making her long for his touch, his lips, his—
It was only gratitude, she insisted, refusing to believe that she could fall in love so quickly – and with a rake, of all people. She’d been desperate to escape Derrick. Richard had stepped in to help. Of course she would feel grateful.
But her heart didn’t believe it. Inslip’s plan to bring her out did not interest her. She did not want to parade about London’s marriage mart seeking a husband. The only man she wanted would walk through that door any minute.
So how could she overcome his antipathy to her fortune?
Pacing produced no ideas. Nor did leafing through those books. They merely raised peculiar sensations she didn’t know what to do with. She was wondering if throwing herself into his arms might work when a commotion in the hall announced his return.
She sank onto the couch and raised the cup of now-cold tea to her lips.
Derrick strode through the door.
Tea splashed across the carpet.
“What are you doing here?” she demanded coldly. But her heart was already hammering in her chest. She’d seen that look before, though never directed at her. The last time, he’d beaten his heir badly enough to confine the boy to bed for a week.
“Returning you to the bosom of your family.” His smile belied his cold eyes.
“I am your guardian, Georgie. You will do as I say.”
“The bishop disagrees. Now leave. You are not welcome here.”
He laughed, a dangerous sound. “The bishop won’t rule until tomorrow. Today I’m your guardian and master of your fate. Did you really think to escape me?”
“How did you find me?”
“Followed Inslip. The minute I got that notice, I knew he would lead me to you.”
“So you lured him away.”
“Enough. It’s time you learned your place, Georgie.”
“You have no choice. My word is all that matters. The arrangements are made. You will be Stagleigh’s wife by dinner.”
“Not when he learns how badly you are cheating him.”
“I have a signed contract. There is nothing he can do now.” He jerked her to her feet.
She screamed, dragging her nails down his face before he could pin her arms.
“You’ll pay for that,” he grunted as she kicked him. His slap snapped her head sideways. Twisting her against him with an arm like a steel band, he dragged her toward the door.
Tester was sprawled in the hall, unconscious.
— 8 —
Richard spurred his horse toward Kensington, a growing fear that something was wrong urging him faster. It made no sense, but he had to make sure that Georgiana was safe.
He dodged through a narrow gap between two wagons and cut down an alley, grateful to have his own horse beneath him instead of Saturday’s slug. It willingly broke into a canter.
Tension mounted as he considered the disasters that might befall her. He shouldn’t have left her behind, even with Inslip. The man didn’t understand how beastly Herriard could be.
Logic stepped in to point out that Herriard didn’t know where she was. There was no need to rideventre à terreto her rescue. But he didn’t slow. Nor could he outrun Lady Beatrice’s voice, which still hammered at his head.
She could not seriously believe that Herriard’s lies could harm Georgiana. Not with both she and Inslip denying them. So she must mean to manipulate him into marriage. She smiled indulgently on young men sowing oats, as long as they played by the rules. But her indulgence ended at age thirty, by which time she demanded responsibility and an eye to the future. Since he was rapidly approaching that age, she would expect him to set up his nursery. Jacob’s marriage had cracked the carefree image of the Beaux, encouraging her.
He admitted that he needed a wife. Just not Georgiana. No matter how much he liked her – and two days in her company had made him like her a lot – she remained ineligible. His allowance let him live comfortably. Once he acceded to the title, he would have even more, though he hoped that day would not arrive for many years. He did not need to fill his coffers with someone else’s fortune.
He turned a corner and nearly ran down a carriage headed toward Mayfair. Not until it passed did he identify the crest.
He kicked his horse to a gallop. There was no reason that Inslip’s departure should portend disaster, but he knew Georgiana was in trouble. His dread increased when he spotted a strange carriage in front of the cottage.
Herriard. It had to be.
He tossed the reins over a bush, then charged through the door. Tester lay bleeding on the floor. Herriard was dragging Georgiana from the sitting room. His bloody face stirred Richard’s pride that Georgiana had put up a good fight.
“Let her go,” he snapped, leaping forward. His fist caught Herriard’s shoulder.
Georgiana twisted free.
“You’ve annoyed me for the last time, Hughes.” Herriard shoved Richard off balance.
Richard ducked a would-be facer, then landed a blow to the chest.
Herriard yelled for his coachman.
* * * *
Georgiana gasped as Derrick’s coachman jumped down from the carriage, clearly visible through the open front door. She bolted across the hall to lock it.
“Bitch!” snapped Derrick even as his fist slammed into Richard’s jaw.
The housekeeper rushed in and screamed when she spotted her husband.
Derrick sidestepped a punch, tripped on Tester’s leg, and staggered.
Georgiana pulled the butler out of the way as Richard took advantage of Derrick’s distraction to aim a kick at his groin.
“Foul!” cursed Derrick, twisting so the blow landed on his thigh.
“Gentlemen’s rules apply only to gentlemen,” snapped Richard.
“Then counter this.” Derrick pulled a long-bladed knife from his boot and charged.
“No!” Georgiana grabbed Tester’s tray and spun it toward Derrick. It struck his wrist, deflecting the blow. She jumped on his back, ripping at his hair as Richard grasped the man’s knife hand.
“I’ll kill you!” choked Derrick.
“Never!” Richard’s free fist plowed into his jaw. A second blow struck his temple.
Derrick crumbled, unconscious.
Richard kicked the knife aside, then pulled her into his arms. “Are you all right?”
“Are you sure? He hit you.” His hand gently traced her cheek.
Sparks raced down her spine, weakening her knees. She hooked her arms around his neck to keep from falling. “It was only one slap, but thank God you arrived when you did.” The memory set her whole body trembling.
“Steady, sweetheart,” he murmured, pulling her head against his shoulder. “You acquitted yourself well. Don’t fall apart now.”
“I c-can’t stop.”
“Reaction. I should have realized…” He sat on the stairs, pulling her into his lap. “Put your head down. You’ll feel better in a minute.”
Rushing blood muffled all sound. Spots danced before her eyes, but closing them but made the world seem even vaguer. From a great distance, she heard Richard send the housekeeper for cord.
By the time the woman returned, Georgiana had pulled herself together, so Richard set her down and trussed Derrick, then bent over Tester.
“Is he all right?” she asked, irritated that weakness kept her from helping. But the thought of rising turned her stomach over.
“He’s coming around. Can you get him to bed?” he added to Mrs. Tester as the butler shakily sat up.
The housekeeper nodded.
“Good. Send for a constable when you have him settled.”
* * * *
Richard helped Georgiana into the sitting room, berating himself for leaving her. He should have postponed his visit to Lady Beatrice. Salvaging his reputation meant nothing compared to Georgiana’s safety.
Seeing her in Herriard’s grasp had put his pride in perspective. He loved her. The thought of her wed to someone else made his blood boil. No one would cherish her as he could – and would. The devil with what others might think of his choice. And the devil with whatever names they called him.
Instead of settling her on the couch as he’d intended, he pulled her against him, needing her warmth to convince himself that she was truly all right.
“Forgive me, sweetheart,” he murmured in her ear. “I should have protected you better.”
“You did everything you could.”
“Obviously not. Herriard found you.”
She pulled back to meet his gaze. “Richard, you have done more than anyone could expect. If not for you, Derrick would have caught me at St. George’s. Or at Hawthorne House. Or the Yellow Oak. Or any other place we’ve been.” Her hand cupped his cheek.
He turned to place a kiss on her palm. “I should have done more.”
“Because I love you.” When her eyes widened, he kicked himself for making the declaration sound like a curse. “I love you,” he repeated, softening the tone. “I should have realized it earlier, but my pride refused to accept that Fate had offered me the perfect wife when I least expected it.”
“Pride can be a problem,” she agreed, sliding her hands into his hair. “I’ve enough of it myself. When I realized who you were, I thought you were helping me so you could take over my inheritance.”
“I ignored my attraction because I didn’t want your inheritance.”
She nodded. “I finally realized that. Only then could I admit that I love you.”
His heart swelled at the words. Bending, he kissed her softly, then with increasing urgency. Her taste exploded in his mouth, branding itself on his soul. Her hands explored his shoulders as she pressed closer against him. Love burned away the last fear, opening the doors to a future he had never dared consider.
“I love you,” he repeated, laying her on the couch. “You’re mine. Forever.”
Four weeks later Richard stood before the altar at St. George’s of Hanover Square and watched Georgiana approach. She was breathtakingly beautiful in a gown that showed off her glorious bosom and clung to her sleek legs. Her smile made him wish the service was over so they could be alone.
Totally alone. The past month had been too frustrating.
Herriard had escaped from the constable and fled the country. But he was no longer a problem. If he ever returned, he would be hanged, thanks to Stagleigh.
Stagleigh’s fury when he discovered Herriard’s deceit had forged an alliance with Richard. His revelations had not only supported Richard’s charges but added new, more serious ones, sealing Herriard’s fate.
Richard was content to give Stagleigh the credit. All he wanted was Georgiana. She had taken society by storm, becoming so popular that they could rarely steal a moment alone. But their betrothal was finally over. Tonight…
She reached his side, radiant in the light streaming through the stained-glass window beyond the choir. Thunderous organ music lifted his spirits higher than ever. As he raised her hand for a lingering kiss, the heat in her eyes nearly buckled his knees. Tonight…
The bishop stepped forward. “Dearly beloved…”
Richard kept his eyes fixed on Georgiana’s. Only a month had passed since he’d last heard those words. Who would have guessed how much could change?
When it was time for his vows, his voice filled the nave. “I, Richard … take thee, Georgiana … for richer or poorer…”
Love was worth more than any fortune. Love and Georgiana.
THE ULTIMATE MAGIC
The Three Beaux, Part 3
— 1 —
December 22, 1818
“How dare you call me foolish?” snarled Diana Russell. “Wedding Giles is a mistake, I tell you. There’s no magic when we’re together. He won’t even talk to me! Iwon’ttie myself to a man who ignores me. I won’t! So leave me alone!” She slammed out of the room.
Cursing, Edith Knolton followed. If Diana made it to the altar without scandal, it would be a miracle.
“Only four more days,” she reminded herself as she strode down the hall. Once the wedding was over, she could return home, celebrate a belated Christmas with her family, then relax while she studied the employment offers she was already receiving – but only if Diana avoided scandal. Who would hire a finishing governess who couldn’t control her charge?
The fear of scandal loomed larger every day. Diana was arrogant, selfish, and willful at the best of times. Now that doubts about her betrothal to Giles Merrimont had set in…
Nothing Edith said helped. Diana expected him to mimic the fawning cubs who formed her court – her blue-eyed, blonde loveliness had turned heads all her life. But Giles was a man in his prime, his temperament perfectly suited to the sober negotiations he conducted for the Foreign Office. Girlish whims annoyed him, especially Diana’s insistence on daily proof that she was the center of his world.
Edith shook her head. There was no ignoring that Giles was often called to his office with little advance notice. If Diana fell into hysterics every time the Crown disrupted her plans, no one would blame Giles for shutting her away. Such antics could jeopardize his position.
No footsteps clattered up the staircase, so Edith hurried toward the side door.
She should have followed her custom and taken a new post the moment Diana accepted Giles’s offer. Her job was to prepare girls for their Season, then chaperon them until they made a match. This was the first time she’d agreed to remain through the wedding – and the last. Between Lady Russell’s fragile nerves and Diana’s megrims, what should have been another feather in Edith’s cap threatened to become her first failure.
As Edith rounded the last corner, she saw Diana slip outside. Since fleeing Edith, the girl had donned her smartest cloak. What did she intend this time?
Edith hoped it would be a brisk ride to settle her nerves, but that wasn’t likely. Diana wasn’t wearing a habit. The girl would never climb on a horse without proper attire and an admiring audience.
Edith feared that Diana was headed for an assignation. This latest outburst seemed contrived, the petulance false, the tears feigned. That she’d stashed a cloak nearby before staging her little drama made it a certainty. She was probably meeting Mr. Jessup. Their flirtation last night had raised more than a few brows.
Even last week Edith would have trusted Jessup – he was Giles’s cousin, best friend, and official witness for the wedding. But he’d been behaving oddly since arriving at Russell House four days earlier, as if determined to prevent this marriage. Giles’s diplomatic mask revealed none of his feelings, but something was clearly wrong between the men.
Icy wind slammed into Edith’s face when she reached the terrace, but she had no time to fetch her own cloak. Diana was already out of sight, probably in the wilderness walk that skirted the drive. Shivering, Edith ran after her.
The breeding that gave Edith access to society let her command a high salary. But the nature of her work meant that few posts lasted more than a year. Even a small smudge on her record could affect future employment. If Diana jilted Giles, many would blame Edith for the resulting scandal.
She’d known that accepting this post had been risky, of course, but Sir Waldo Russell had offered a huge premium for her services. One meeting had convinced Edith that Diana was as spoiled a beauty as walked the earth, but she’d felt up to the challenge. Hadn’t she got the impish Bedford twins safely settled?
And shehadmanaged until now, softening Diana’s arrogance enough that the girl had caught Giles’s eye. He was the son of a viscount and had excellent prospects – many believed he would be Foreign Secretary one day – so it was an outstanding match for the daughter of a minor baronet. Edith should have left Sir Waldo’s employ the next day. But she’d known that Diana needed further training in protocol and world affairs if she hoped to succeed as a diplomatic hostess, so she’d agreed to stay. Now…
“Four more days,” she repeated as the path twisted through shrubbery so thick she could rarely see more than a dozen feet ahead.
She shivered in the icy cold, cursing her own stupidity. She should have spoken to Sir Waldo last night. Yes, he would have lectured Diana about responsibility and duty, putting the girl’s back up and likely making her worse. And yes, his opinion of Edith’s competency would have fallen, jeopardizing her bonus. But he would have designated a couple of footmen to watch his daughter. Edith couldn’t do it alone, as this latest start demonstrated.
“Well, well. A delectable morsel rushing to join me.”
Not now!Edith nearly snapped as she skidded to a halt. Diana’s dissolute brother stood squarely in the path, drunk, though it was barely three. A mad dog could pose no more danger.
Peter grinned maliciously. “You’ve been avoiding me, my sweet.”
“My duties keep me busy with Diana.” She warily backed a step, then another. At twenty-two, Peter was a vicious bully who took what he wanted – which just now was her. Not that he liked her, but she had stupidly made her disdain clear when he’d tried to steal a kiss last week. He hated rejection.
“Your duties are whatever I say they are,” he snarled, springing.
Even as she turned to flee, he slammed her into a tree.
A scream escaped. She clamped her mouth shut, horrified. If anyone discovered her with Peter, her reputation would shatter.
“Shout all you want,” he panted, rubbing against her. “No one can hear.”
It was all too true. Few would brave today’s harsh wind, so she was on her own. “Leave me alone!” she spat, stretching until she could sink her teeth into his neck above his cravat. As he recoiled, she jerked a hand free and gouged his face, drawing blood.
But there was no escape. His backhand snapped her head sideways. Fingers closed around her throat even as he hissed, “Claw me again and you’ll die, bitch. But if you satisfy me well enough, I’ll let you live.”
Live?she wanted to shout.How? Without her reputation, she had nothing.
Closing her eyes, she again scratched at his face. Death was preferable to ruination. Even if she somehow escaped this encounter, she would be ruined. All he had to do was brag that she’d begged to be taken. No one ever believed a servant over a gentleman. Her life was over. Her mother—
She was suddenly free.
Peter roared in pain.
Her eyes flew open, but it took a moment to believe the sight. Peter stood six feet away, half bent over, one hand clutching his privates, the other twisted upward behind him. As someone inched the arm higher, Peter whimpered.
Edith shakily straightened. Only then did she recognize her savior – Lord Charles Beaumont.
She closed her eyes in horror.
She’d often glimpsed him in London, for he stood out in any crowd. The best looking of the Three Beaux – society’s favorite rakehells, whose closeness made them nearly brothers – Lord Charles was six feet of glorious manhood. Broad shoulders. Trim waist. Muscular legs that were the envy of every dandy in town. His auburn curls framed an arresting face dominated by a full, sensuous mouth and the seductive emerald eyes that had lured half of society’s matrons into his bed.
Today those eyes flashed with fury, she realized when she looked again. And his lips drew back in a snarl she suspected few had seen.
Mortification chased away her terror. Of all possible rescuers, why did it have to be him? He already thought her a clumsy fool. His droll account of their first meeting had amused society for days. His account of their second had raised suspicions of her competence. Now he would think her wanton as well. One word would destroy her, and she had no reason to think he would stifle that word. He entertained all of London with his exploits, so turning this encounter into another hilarious anecdote was exactly like him.
Not that he seemed amused at the moment, she admitted as he murmured something that drained the last color from Peter’s face.
“The Beaux will be watching,” he continued, stepping back. “Make one false move in town, and I’ll know. Set one foot wrong here, and I’ll hear about it. Hawthorne lives across that hill, and Hughes just beyond him,” he added, naming his fellow Beaux. “You haven’t a prayer of avoiding them.”
Edith cringed as Lord Charles turned his sardonic gaze on her.
“You again.” He shook his head. “Did he hurt you?”
The question was so unexpected, her jaw dropped. “N-no.”
“Liar. He was choking you when I arrived.” Before she realized his intent, he’d tilted her head back to expose her throat. “That will bruise. You’d best pin a ribbon around it until the marks fade. Adding a sprig of holly will forestall questions and let you wear it all day. ’Tis the season, and all that.”
“Th-thank you.” His touch burned clear to her toes.
“He won’t bother you again,” he continued, turning her so he could brush bark and moss from her skirts. “There. Nothing to raise eyebrows. Are you sure you’re all right?”
She nodded, though if he didn’t stop touching her, she would likely faint.
“Excellent.” He backed away. “You’d best return to the house before you freeze. I’d lend you my coat, but someone would wonder how you came by it.” He grinned. “At least it survived this encounter intact. Let’s keep it that way. My valet will be most upset at another disaster. We brought only one trunk on this jaunt.” He headed for the drive, adding, “Good job on Russell’s face, but a hard knee to the groin is more effective. You might want to remember that.”
And he was gone.
Edith collapsed against a tree, cursing steadily under her breath – at Peter for his attack, at Lord Charles for the reminder of her most embarrassing moments, at herself for her damnable infatuation… Thank heaven he didn’t know about that, or he would roast her worse than ever – if he could stop laughing long enough to speak.
Why had he rescued her?
Gentlemen never interfered with one another’s pleasures, especially when the sport involved servants. Yet he had been furious at Peter. Only Peter. His threats had terrified the younger man – itself a shock, for even Sir Waldo couldn’t control his heir. And not once, by word or deed, had he suggested that she had enticed him. Everyone made that assumption when a servant was discovered with a gentleman.
Damn Charles anyway! How was she to be sensible now that he’d revealed the honor and compassion she’d sworn he didn’t have?
Shoving the thought aside, she headed for the house. It was too late to follow Diana. All she could do was pray that no scandal erupted. In the meantime, she must hide evidence of Peter’s attack. There was a chance it would remain secret after all.
* * * *
Charles remounted his horse, castigating himself for interfering. Yet what else could he have done? He hated men who forced unwilling women.
Russell would pay, he vowed as he trotted up the drive. For the attack. For abandoning honor. But especially for reminding Charles of the day he’d found his sister’s governess broken and bleeding after a brutal rape. She’d died that night. He’d been barely ten.
At least this time he’d arrived before anyone was hurt. But why the devil did the victim have to be the annoying Miss Knolton, bane of his existence?
Oh, he’d known that she worked at Russell House. That was why he’d originally declined the invitation to this house party. But Castlereagh had ordered him to attend. Baron Schechler was another guest. Since Merrimont had failed to wrap up a trade agreement with the Prussian, the Foreign Secretary had sent Charles to deal with the matter.
He would have welcomed the assignment if it had taken him anywhere else, for it gave him an excuse to skip his family’s Christmas gathering. They would present him with a bevy of suitable young ladies, but he wasn’t ready to reconsider marriage. Six months ago Emily had jilted him practically at the altar. Not until he figured out how he’d misjudged her so badly would he try again – though he could hardly explain his reluctance to others; no one must suspect that Lord Charles Beaumont’s judgment was faulty.
But it was.
His spirits plummeted, for the problem could so easily destroy his career. He’d battled Schechler for years. The man was an uncompromising ass at the best of times, but Charles had previously held his own in their discussions. Or so he’d thought. Now he had to wonder. No one who missed fundamental truths could negotiate even a simple contract. Had Schechler taken advantage of his incompetence all this time? Would the wool fall from Castlereagh’s eyes, revealing how incapable Charles really was?
Drawing a deep breath to settle his nerves, he passed between the columns of Russell House’s massive portico and plied the knocker on the front door.
— 2 —
That evening Edith retreated to a corner of the ballroom, hoping to escape further notice. Three men had already complimented the ribbon around her neck. Had Charles meant to draw attention to her?
Yet his suggestion had been sound. Bruises decorated her throat. Even the high-necked evening gown that marked her as an employee didn’t cover them completely. But she wondered at the experience that could both recognize her problem and devise a remedy suited to her means and position.
Her eyes sought him out before she could stop them. He was murmuring into Lady Cavendish’s ear, his words bringing a blush to the lady’s aging cheeks. Edith could only pray she did not figure in his conversation.
She’d avoided him since coming down to dinner, an easy task since she always knew where he was. The air in his vicinity pulsed with energy, and people seemed more vibrant when he was nearby.
Pulling her eyes from the emerald winking in his cravat, she concentrated on her job. It had been Diana who had suggested informal dancing this evening – several neighbors had joined the party for dinner, so there was a sizable crowd. But the last-minute change of plans raised Edith’s suspicions, for it had been Diana who had originally planned an evening of cards and the games at which she excelled.
The girl was clearly up to something. She was avoiding Edith, deliberately separating from each dance partner on the opposite side of the room – which kept her close to Charles. People were beginning to notice. Not that Diana was flirting with him, but—
A footman dropped a tray in a crash of glassware, drawing all eyes. As Miss Parkes fled the scene, Edith whipped her gaze back to Diana in time to see the girl slip outside with Jessup.
Damnation! Miss Parkes was Diana’s closest friend, so this was no accident. Diana must have asked her to create a diversion so she could leave unnoticed.
Edith glanced wildly around, wondering how to follow without drawing attention to Diana’s misbehavior.
“What’s wrong?” murmured a voice in her ear.
Edith sighed in relief. The Earl of Hawthorne might be one of the Beaux, but he claimed to owe her a favor. “Miss Russell slipped outside. Can you fetch her back?” He had recently made a love match, so Diana’s reputation would be safe. No one would suspect him of trifling with her.
He smiled. “Miss Russell’s betrothal removes many restrictions on her behavior. A turn on the terrace does no harm.”
“If that was all…”
“What do you fear?”
She couldn’t explain while they might be overheard, so she led him to the hall. “Miss Russell has become almost fey, flirting and carrying on until people are whispering about it. Mr. Jessup is encouraging her. He followed her outside.”
“Does she disapprove this match, then?” He frowned.
“I don’t believe so. She was in alt about her betrothal, and I honestly think she cares for Mr. Merrimont. But she is young and foolish – and accustomed to constant adoration.”
“Ah.” Hawthorne smiled. “My ward had the same problem. But Merrimont is not a man to fawn.”
“No. Nor should he. I believe he cares for Miss Russell, but he won’t spout nonsense or turn his back on duty when she demands attention.”
“So she’s trying to bring him to heel?”
“I fear so, and the excitement she derives from clandestine meetings doesn’t help. Her determination and Merrimont’s stubborn pride are a dangerous combination – especially now. I can no longer trust Mr. Jessup. His eyes hold a desperation I neither understand nor like. I doubt he will stop with flirtation this time.”
* * * *
Hawthorne nodded as her analysis increased his already high regard for her. He could rescue Miss Russell easily enough. Jessup would never dare counter the Beaux, who were known to punish those who crossed them. Men knew that one word from a Beau was the only warning they would get.
Normally, he wouldn’t care a fig about Miss Russell’s conceits – or about Merrimont, who was a stiff-necked prig with more pride than sense. But he owed Miss Knolton a favor for preventing his ward from causing a scandal last Season.
Yet rescuing Miss Russell from folly would not solve Miss Knolton’s problems for long. Her next charge might be worse than Miss Russell. Or the one after that. What she really needed was a husband.
Charles would be perfect.
Hawthorne had vowed to find wives for both of his friends – payback for an incident last spring. He’d succeeded with Richard Hughes, but Charles was proving to be a challenge. Miss Knolton could meet that challenge, for there was something about her … something beyond the beauty she tried so hard to hide.
“You are right to be concerned,” he said. “I will see that no harm comes to her tonight, but I am not staying at Russell House.”
“I can manage.”
“Not alone.” He flashed the smile that had brought countless women to his bed before his marriage. “Charles will lend a hand until the wedding.”
She paled. “That won’t be necessary, my lord. And he will be too busy, in any case.”
“I appreciate the thought” –she actually interrupted him– “but he will never agree. He despises me.”
Charles despise a female? Impossible.Yet now that he thought on it, there was some truth to her claim. He couldn’t recall a single moment when the pair had kept less than the entire width of a room between them. Such extreme separation could not be coincidence, for both mingled freely with the crowd.
Something must have happened after he’d left town last Season. Something Charles had not shared with his friends. And if it was still affecting him…
“You wrong him, Miss Knolton. He is perfect for the job. Your problem goes beyond tonight’s escapade. I can see that you fear this betrothal might collapse. Charles works with Merrimont and can discover his thoughts. And if Miss Russell threatens scandal, Charles’s diplomatic skills and family ties will be useful. His father is the very powerful Marquess of Inslip, you might recall.”
Giving her no chance for further protest, he slipped away.
* * * *
Charles relaxed the moment Miss Knolton left the ballroom. Perhaps he would survive the evening without another embarrassing confrontation after all. How so clumsy a lack-wit held a responsible position was a mystery.
He made sure that Russell didn’t follow her, then put her out of his mind. It was time for another try at the baron.
Their afternoon meeting had been less than auspicious. Schechler was as intransigent as ever, and Charles had been loath to push too hard lest he reveal his shortcomings by demonstrating an insufficient grasp of the situation. But perhaps these agreeable surroundings would make Schechler more amenable – or the quantity of wine the man had consumed at dinner. Charles had limited his own intake so he would be sharp if he managed to corner the Prussian.
Braying laughter drew his gaze to the punch bowl where Schechler was entertaining several ladies. As Charles watched, Schechler threw himself into his tale, broadening the gestures meant to clarify his heavily accented words – or so it might appear to innocent eyes.
But Charles was no greenling. He could have written the script himself, so it was no surprise when the contents of Schechler’s glass spilled across Lady Frobisher’s bosom.
Horrified, the baron burst into apologies, producing a wholly inadequate handkerchief to daub the drips from her flesh before rushing her away, ostensibly in search of her maid. Charles would wager anything the search would end in the baron’s bedchamber.
He shook his head, wondering if he could use the incident to pry a few concessions from the man. Lord Frobisher was hot-tempered and very protective of his property. If Charles could confirm the baron’s liaison—
“Don’t frown in public.”
Charles flinched, then cursed himself for betraying surprise. “Jacob! Why the devil are you sneaking about?”
“Sneaking? In a room packed with a hundred people?” Hawthorne grinned.
“Yes. Well…” Charles shrugged.
“If I didn’t know better, I’d suspect you were planning a tryst. What is it this time? Negotiations going badly?”
“Schechler’s an ass.”
“That’s hardly news. You’ve known that for five years.”
“Handling him doesn’t grow easier. But if I can verify that he and Lady Frobisher—”
“He isn’t that stupid.”
“I would have agreed if I hadn’t watched him pour wine down her bodice.”
“Really?” Hawthorne’s eyes suddenly gleamed. “That does bear checking – but not by you,” he added as Charles turned to leave.
“Hardly. We need to talk, and you can’t be caught prying.” A gesture brought his wife to his side.
“Charles!” she exclaimed, offering her hand. “We’ve had no chance to speak this evening. You look well.”
“As do you. Quite ravishing, in fact.” He wondered if it was marriage that made her glow, or her advanced pregnancy. Probably both. And he was happy for her. She hadn’t looked nearly this content when she’d acceptedhisproposal – which should have warned him that offering for her was a huge mistake. Jilting him to wed Hawthorne had been right for all of them – the two were wildly in love – but it had tossed them into a storm of gossip.
She laughed. “Don’t look so appalled, Charles. You needn’t fret. I shan’t deliver for weeks yet, and I’m not carrying twins. The midwife insists that all Hawthorne heirs are large.” She exchanged a glance with her husband that nearly set the room ablaze.
Charles thanked Providence that they’d discovered the truth before he’d married her, then raised a brow at Jacob. “Where is Richard? I’d expected him tonight.”
“We were to drive over together, but one of their tenant cottages caught fire. He tried to send Georgiana anyway, but she insisted on helping.”
No surprise there. Richard’s wife was never content to play while others worked. Charles wasn’t used to having his fellow Beaux married, though. Or to their staying in the country. London wasn’t the same without them.
“We’ll get together before you return to town.” Jacob murmured something to his wife, who immediately left. “She’ll discover the present occupation of your baron. Which means you are free to do me a favor.”
Jacob smiled as he stepped into an empty alcove. “Since I knew I could count on you, I already promised the lady you would help.”
Alarms jangled in his mind. “Lady?”
“Miss Knolton. She—”
“You haven’t heard me out.”
“No. The woman is a menace. I want nothing to do with her.”
Jacob’s eyes gleamed. “I wasn’t aware that you were acquainted.”
“Then do me the courtesy of listening instead of jumping down my throat.” He rarely used that tone on his friends.
Charles snapped his mouth shut, cursing himself for losing control. He would still refuse, of course, but first, manners demanded that he endure the tale of the poor exploited Miss Knolton, who was being unjustly persecuted by the villainous Peter Russell. That it was true fanned his fury. But he had to stay away from her. She’d already made him the butt of gossip twice. He would be hard-pressed to maintain his dignity at the Foreign Office if it happened again.
“Miss Russell’s flirting is out of control,” said Jacob bluntly. “If something isn’t done, her antics could jeopardize the wedding.”
“Which is no more than she deserves,” growled Charles to cover his surprise.
“Probably. She is demanding attention, and Merrimont is ignoring her. They are both being ridiculous. If they don’t suit, they should say so. I don’t care what happens to their betrothal, but a scandal will hurt Miss Knolton. We can’t let their idiocy destroy innocents.”
“Are you sure Miss Knolton is innocent?” Inciting the girl to riot sounded more like her.
“Of course. Miss Knolton is the most levelheaded female I know, my wife excepted.”
“Levelheaded? She causes trouble wherever she goes.”
“You must have her confused with someone else.”
“What do you know about her?”
Charles shrugged. “Her baronet father died in debt. Her mother and sister now live in a cottage. Her brother perished in Spain – volunteered for the Forlorn Hope since he lacked the blunt to buy a commission.” He kept his voice light, as if everyone knew the story, though it had taken him several days to discover that much. And once he had, he’d wanted to kill Sir Richard for the trouble he’d caused his family. “A sad tale, but hardly unique.”
“Also incomplete. Her mother tries to support herself as a village dressmaker, but it is Miss Knolton who keeps a roof over the family’s head.”
“Which explains why people tolerate her incompetence. They feel sorry for her.”
“Are you blind?” demanded Jacob. “She’s worth every shilling she makes – and more.”
“A clumsy fool?”
“You are absurd.”
“Absurd! Who destroyed my best coat by smearing it with cream cakes in the middle of Lady Beatrice’s drawing room? Who gave me a concussion that kept me in bed for a week?” He snapped his mouth shut as laughter sparkled in Jacob’s eyes.
“O-ho… Sits the wind in that quarter, eh? Since I’ve never known you to hold a grudge, you must have a yen for the girl.”
“Absolutely not! She’s a menace, I tell you.”
“The gentleman doth protest too much, methinks. You’re in love with her.”
“Impossible. I don’t know her – and I don’t want to. I can’t risk another concussion when I’m involved in negotiations.”
“Keep repeating that, and perhaps you will come to believe it. In the meantime, you promised your help. Word of a Beau. I owe Miss Knolton a favor. Since I’m returning home tonight, I’m counting on you to help her. You know Merrimont well enough to do the job.”
Charles cursed. Refusing after he’d agreed would strain a friendship that dated back twenty years. And he had to admit that his animosity was entirely personal and possibly overdone. He’d never heard a word against her, and so few people knew about her family woes that she would hardly win so many positions through pity.
“Very well. What does she want?”
“Nothing. She thinks she can handle Miss Russell herself. But the girl is too determined for a single guardian to keep her in line, no matter how competent. Then there’s Jessup.”
“He’s behaving quite oddly. It isn’t done to toy with a friend’s betrothed.”
Which was why Charles had had to resort to subterfuge to make Jacob and Emily admit their love. He raised his brows.
“They slipped away a quarter hour ago. I found them in a heated embrace on the terrace. Since I don’t believe Jessup cares a fig for the girl, I put the fear of God into him – or at least fear of the Beaux – and vowed you would watch him closely. But I don’t know why he’s taking such risks. It takes a powerful motive to ignore both friendship and kinship. My ignorance bothers me.”
“And me. I’ll look into it. And speaking of the Beaux, I told Russell that you would watch him. I caught him attacking an unwilling female this afternoon.”
Charles shook his head. If he was wrong about Miss Knolton’s character, he could not risk harming her. Jacob would never mention the incident, but the ballroom was too near. One whisper could doom her.
Jacob scowled. “I’ll deal with him. He’s young enough to settle.”
“I doubt he has the brains. It seems to be a family failing. How Merrimont can believe Miss Russell will suit, I don’t know.”
“Find out. If he’s decided she won’t and is trying to make her end it, you can help them avoid scandal.”
Jacob slipped away before Charles could respond, but this explained why he hadn’t just spoken with Sir Waldo, which would have settled the matter. If Jacob thought the betrothal should end, he would expect Charles to manage it cleanly. After all, he’d survived his own jilting virtually unscathed. He knew how it was done.
But he’d not done it alone. The Beaux had rallied around, shielding him from the most vicious gossip, showing their support, deflecting criticism… And Emily’s immediate marriage to Jacob had blunted much of the talk. They were so obviously in love.
He doubted that he could arrange a similar disposition for Merrimont.
Shaking free of the memories, he returned to the ballroom to seek out Miss Knolton.
— 3 —
Edith relaxed when Diana returned barely a minute after Hawthorne had headed for the terrace. There was no sign of Jessup.
Hawthorne’s warning should keep Jessup in line, but eliminating that threat didn’t solve Edith’s problems. Even the width of a candlelit ballroom couldn’t hide the fury simmering in Diana’s eyes. It was clear Hawthorne had put her back up. Pride would make the girl prove that she could do as she pleased.
It didn’t take long. Within a quarter hour Diana was laughing with Mr. Tomling, her hand on his arm as she leaned far too close and whispered in his ear. Tomling flushed.
Edith started to join them, but she’d covered barely half the distance when someone whirled her into a waltz without warning.
“My dance, I believe.” Charles’s green eyes laughed down at her.
She ignored the sudden warmth. “My lord! This is most improper. I’m a chaperon.”
“This is an informal evening at a country house party. You can do anything you like, Miss Knolton. Is Russell behaving himself?”
“I— Of course, he is. You threatened him with the Beaux.”
He raised his brows. “You mean he actually understood the threat?”
“Everyone understandsthatthreat.” She erased her scowl lest people notice.
“How unfortunate. I’d hoped for another encounter. You aren’t his only victim. He is no gentleman.”
“I know, but—”
“He will benefit from an extended trip abroad. I’ll see to it.”
“But—” She stopped, confused and more than a little dizzy as he spun her into a complicated turn. The dizziness had to come from the unaccustomed motion. Or maybe from surprise – his actions belied his reputation. It had nothing to do with laughing green eyes or the way his hand burned into her waist. Or so she insisted.
He grinned, twirling her faster. “I hear your charge is causing trouble.”
“No. I mean, I never—” She stopped, not sure what she was trying to say. Why did she always sound like a ninny around him?
But Dianawasgiving her trouble, and it was getting worse. Gathering her wits, she peered around Charles’s shoulder to see Diana dancing far too close to Tomling. If something wasn’t done – and soon – they would all be in trouble.
For the moment, people smiled indulgently, attributing Diana’s behavior to high spirits as she approached her wedding. But that wouldn’t last. Already Giles was glaring. Since gentlemen could not honorably terminate betrothals, he must see his future going up in flames.
Swallowing her pride, Edith sighed. “Miss Russell is an arrogant, spoiled peagoose. I fear she will never make it to the altar if she keeps this up.”
“Is that what she wants?” He twirled her onto the terrace.
Edith knew she should object, but they could hardly discuss Diana in a crowd. Hawthorne had insisted that Charles could help. The alternative was admitting her failure to Sir Waldo.
The moment they were out of sight, she stepped out of his arms so she could think. The darkness helped, for it kept her from seeing the green, green eyes that haunted her dreams far too often. “I suspect she wants Mr. Merrimont’s attention – according to Miss Russell, he has all but ignored her since their betrothal.”
“He has a job.”
“I know that. I’ve explained that. I’ve made sure that she knows her duties as his wife – duties beyond paying calls and hosting at-homes for society ladies. He will have to entertain often, especially if he stands for Commons.”
His face twisted into surprise. “Did he actually share that ambition with her? Few gentlemen know of it.”
“Of course not, but I was hired to prepare her for the future. That means finding out what skills she will need.”
He shook his head slowly, as if in shock. “Then why is she balking?”
Edith turned toward the yew tree overhanging the balustrade and brushed its delicate foliage. “Lord Hawthorne said I could trust you.” She glanced over her shoulder, waiting until he nodded. “Miss Russell has been the local diamond since the age of fifteen, so she is accustomed to men who fawn over her, accede to her every wish, and praise her at every turn. Her previous governess encouraged her.”
“I don’t know the woman, so I don’t care to speculate. I’ve tried to explain that contrived adulation is the fashion and thus means little. Mr. Merrimont lacks the temperament to indulge in excessive flattery. Nor does he waste his time in idle flirtation.”
Again she glanced back until he nodded.
“Miss Russell equates flattery with love. She thinks his reticence means he doesn’t love her, which raises fears that her beauty is fading. That causes panic, which increases her determination to prove his love by forcing him to flatter her. I suspect tonight’s goal is to make him jealous.”
“I agree, but she no longer listens to me. She is a devotee of romantic novels and expects love to transform the world into a magical place. So far, it hasn’t. We spent last month in town. When Giles refused to forego a Four-in-Hand Club outing so he could take her shopping, she snapped.”
“She expected him to escort her around the shops instead of driving out to Salt Hill?” He sounded appalled. “Merrimont’s prowess as a whip is legendary. I’ve never seen such light hands on the ribbons – or such absolute control. He can trot through a gate with less than an inch of clearance. Hell, he could turn through a gate that tight – at speed. Driving is how he relaxes after tense negotiations.”
“I am aware of that. I’ve explained it very clearly. But Miss Russell is spoiled – still very much a child in some ways. She needs constant reassurance.”
“No wonder Merrimont is making no progress with Schechler.”
It was her turn to raise her brows.
“I was sent out here because he can’t keep his mind on his job,” he explained bluntly. “I expected to find him caught up in wedding preparations. Instead, he is so distracted that I’d barely greeted him before he treated me to an outburst on the insanity of females.” His glare made it clear that he shared that view, at least when it came to her.
Edith ignored it. Diana’s future was more important than Charles’s opinion. She faced him. “I fear he is close to walking away. On the other hand, if he truly doesn’t care…”
Charles paused, then shook his head. “I suspect he cares too much. There was something in his voice… Hawthorne and Hughes use that same tone when speaking of their wives.”
“Then why doesn’t he tell her?”
“Do you honestly suggest that he lay his heart on the floor for Miss Russell to trample?”
“She wou—” Edith bit off the denial, for Diana undoubtedly would, if for no other reason than to prove she could. “You have a point,” she said instead, sighing deeply.
“I have several points.” He ducked into the library to hold his hands over the fire. “This is not the weather for tête-à-têtes in the garden,” he explained when she joined him.
“No. But you were saying—” She shivered now that the air was warmer. Or maybe it was the dismal room, which qualified as a library only because one shelf contained a dozen volumes of old sermons. None of the Russells were scholars.
“Merrimont’s reticence is more than protection against pain. He is a diplomat. We are trained never to reveal our thoughts.”
“That hasn’t stoppedyou.” She glared, recalling the names he’d called her after she’d slipped and knocked him into a suit of armor back in July. The clatter as he and the armor crashed to the marble floor had drawn a dozen spectators.
“We are discussing Merrimont,” he snapped. “Most gentlemen are taught from birth that emotions are vulgar, thus indulging in them reveals inferior breeding. And love is the most vulgar of all, suited only to the lowest classes. Merrimont won’t acknowledge such a feeling and won’t admit he can’t handle Miss Russell. Pride won’t allow it.”
“So it’s all right to be emotional around inferiors, but not your equals?” she asked, suddenly angry.
“That’s not what I said.”
“Really? Mr. Merrimont, younger son of a viscount, can’t tell Miss Russell, daughter of a baronet and his affianced bride, that he loves her. But you, who are a great deal higher, think it’s permissible to attack, revile, and otherwise disdain a lowly governess.”
“That’s not true!” he snarled, slamming his fist on the mantel in a vivid show of temper. “I saidmostfamilies eschew emotion. Mine doesn’t. We’re not quite respectable, if you need the truth, though we’ve enough power that all but the highest sticklers overlook our oddities. We don’t deride emotion. We even champion fidelity after marriage. But that is not the point.” He sucked in a calming breath. “Does Miss Russell want this marriage?”
“Yes, but on her terms. I think she’s terrified that he doesn’t care and that she might face living with a man who ignores her. Somehow I must convince her that compromise is necessary – and trust. That will be easier if Mr. Merrimont makes even a small show of approval. Can you convince him to abandon pride long enough to admit he wants this match?”
“I doubt it. If this has been building for some time, he will see any concession as a defeat. And while he is trained in the art of compromise, he never makes the first move.”
“Damnation,” she muttered under her breath. “Fools, both of them, standing on pride when they ought to trust each other enough to be honest. Why did he offer for her anyway? Surely he could see what she is.”
“Which supports my contention that he loves her. It’s the only reason he might abandon sense. But he won’t admit it even in his mind, and he won’t risk being hurt. Pain is never pleasant. A smart man learns to avoid it.”
The pain in his voice halted her reply, for he’d been trampled rather badly himself not long ago. London had talked of little else for weeks after his fiancée jilted him. “Then we need another approach. What if he finds her in danger? The shock might break down his pride.”
“No.” His tone was final.
She stared. “Why?”
“I once arranged that scenario to force two other proud fools to admit the truth. Despite precautions, one of them nearly died. I won’t risk it again.”
“I doubt it, but it doesn’t matter. I swore then that I would never again meddle in other people’s affairs. I’m already uneasy about involving myself in this. I won’t tempt fate.”
“Very well. What do you suggest?”
He paced to the window, stared over the grounds, then returned to the fire. “You said Miss Russell expects love to produce a magical transformation. How?”
“She is fond of romantic poetry, and her favorite novels always end with the characters transformed by love. So the idea that marriage will saddle her with a host of responsibilities and surround her with serious-minded diplomats instead of fawning suitors does not sit well.”
“She is mad.”
“You asked what she expects.”
“Didn’t she foresee this when she accepted him?”
“I doubt it. She was too caught up in the Season. Reveling in her success left little time to think about how marriage would change her life.”
“Hmm.” He clasped his hands behind him and resumed pacing. “Magical transformations… Does she believe in magic, then?”
“How should I know? I don’t include magic in my lessons.” But her irritation faded when she met his eyes. “What do you have in mind?”
“A magic amulet. Wearing it would force those around her to speak only the truth.”
She snorted. “She won’t believe anyone but Mr. Merrimont, and she won’t accept anything short of capitulation to her demands.”
“I wonder how true that is. Using an amulet might force her to see herself in a different light.”
“Suppose I encourage Merrimont to repeat today’s outburst. Suppose Miss Russell overhears him.” He sharpened his gaze. “If she’s as selfishly arrogant as you imply, I doubt his words will contain much flattery. It will be up to you to control her.”
His smile pooled heat in her womb. Ignoring it, she concentrated on business. “When?”
“It will take a day or so to arrange,” he admitted. “Not the amulet. I can cobble something together easily enough. But I need time to prime Merrimont so he’ll talk, and you’ll need time to convince her that the amulet is truly magic. Start tonight. Mention that I know Granny Gibbs.”
“She has that reputation, though I’ve seen nothing to warrant it. I know her as an excellent healer. She patched me up more than once when I was a boy.”
“While you were visiting Hawthorne and Hughes, I suppose.” He hadn’t lived in the area himself.
“Exactly. Tomorrow morning I’ll give Miss Russell an opportunity to ask me about it. I can produce the amulet the next day.”
“All right. But don’t speak with her alone. If I’m wrong and she’s given up on this match, she may attach a replacement before jilting him – that’s one lesson she would have learned from your imbroglio last Season. Only your betrothed’s immediate marriage to Hawthorne mitigated the scandal. You are the greatest catch in residence just now. More eligible than Merrimont, if truth be told, and far more eligible than Jessup. If she’s looking, she’ll know that.”
Shock flared in his eyes.
Leaving him to brood, she returned to the ballroom. Diana was waltzing with Jessup, much too closely. So much for Hawthorne’s warning. Glaring in the earl’s direction, Edith settled in for a long evening.
* * * *
Following her habit, Edith entered Diana’s room as the girl was preparing for bed. She liked to discuss the day while its events were still fresh.
“Did you enjoy the dancing?” she asked once the maid left.
“Mostly.” Diana frowned. “But Giles is making me look a fool.”
“He ignores me! People notice. He’s hateful!”
“I saw nothing to criticize. He led you out for the first set and again for the fourth, then spent the rest of the evening entertaining your relatives. It would be ill-bred of him to hang on your arm.”
“Ill-bred! We are betrothed! He didn’t even notice my new gown.”
Edith sighed. “Men rarely notice appearance unless your attire is inappropriate. We’ve discussed this before.”
“Mr. Jessup noticed. Mr. Tomling noticed.”
“Because they have little to do beyond flirting with the ladies, so they need things they can praise. Giles has business to conclude before your wedding – business that is not going well from all accounts. He spent the afternoon in meetings with Baron Schechler and Lord Charles.”
“Atmyhouse party? How dare they!”
“The Regent expects an agreement this week,” she snapped crossly, then stifled her temper. “You know Giles has responsibilities. We speak of it every day. As long as he works for the Foreign Office, he will have little control over where or when he conducts business. And if you wish to leave on a wedding trip, you will cease disturbing him. Let him finish his negotiations so he is free to go.” She wondered if the baron was taking advantage of Diana’s antics to wring concessions from a distracted Giles. Not that Charles would let him get away with it, but—
“What business was Lord Hawthorne conducting when he decided to follow me about?” demanded Diana.
“I wasn’t aware that he was,” lied Edith.
“Though I suppose someone as beautiful as I must expect every man to watch her,” Diana continued with complete illogic.
“Having seen the way the earl looks at his wife, I can guarantee that he has no interest in you, no matter how beautiful.”
“Nonsense. Everyone loves me – except Giles. If you’d heard Mr. Tomling praise my eyes, you would understand.”
“Diana!” Edith shook her head. “A man may enjoy looking at beauty. A young man may play at worshiping beauty. But a husband needs more than an ornament.” She sighed. “If you are dissatisfied with Giles, perhaps you should reconsider wedding him.”
“He’s mine!” She flung herself across the bed. “He offered prettily enough, so why won’t he even compliment my new gown.”
“Because you treat any notice as a skirmish won in a war only you are fighting. Yes, a war,” she repeated when Diana tried to object. “You have criticized him so relentlessly that he must conclude you are a shrew.”
“Think, Diana. What did Giles see tonight? It wasn’t your gown, lovely though it is. It wasn’t your face, either. What he saw were flirtations that went well beyond propriety, vulgar laughter, abominable manners… In short, he saw a girl whose behavior will embarrass him at best and possibly harm his position with the Foreign Office. Slipping outside to kiss Mr. Jessup was not well done.”
“How did you—” The words were out before Diana remembered that a denial might serve her better.
“I heard about it, which means that others might also hear about it. Especially Giles. Do you really believe that Jessup will remain quiet? He is working hard to discommode Giles, so he will certainly trumpet his triumph. And if Lord Hawthorne caught you together, Giles can hardly doubt Jessup’s word. Jessup may have arranged for Hawthorne’s presence himself.”
“What are you talking about? Mr. Jessup loves me.”
“Jessup loves only himself. Haven’t you noticed that he is most attentive when Giles is watching?” It wasn’t strictly true, but she needed to penetrate Diana’s arrogance. “His goal is to harm the man you vowed to marry, and you are helping him.”
Diana was off the bed in a trice, palm extended to slap. “You wrong him. He loves me more than Giles ever will.”
Edith caught her wrists. “No, Diana. Calculation fills his eyes. Determination stiffens his jaw. You are too young to recognize it and too determined to see only what you want to see. But in truth, he is using you to further his own goals.” That much was real.
“Why should I accept your so-called truth?”
“Because I am older than you, with more experience of the world.” She shook her head to cut off another protest. “But if you don’t believe me, then seek the truth for yourself. There are foolproof ways to discern it.”
“Then use them and prove yourself wrong.”
Edith nearly smiled, for the words played into her hands. “Only you can use such methods, Diana. The best way to divine truth is through magic, but magic only reveals truth about its user. It cannot uncover secrets about others.”
“Magic?” Surprise threaded her voice.
“Exactly. I am not skilled in its use, but I overheard Lord Charles discussing Granny Gibbs this evening – he is well acquainted with the woman. She concocts amulets that reveal truth. Perhaps he can obtain one for you. But beware. Truth can be uncomfortable.”
Diana surprised her by nodding. “I will think on it.”
— 4 —
When Edith arrived at breakfast the next morning, Diana and Jessup occupied opposite ends of the table. It made her wonder if Charles had reinforced Hawthorne’s warning to Jessup.
That hope died five minutes later when she intercepted an exchange of sly glances that left Diana nearly bursting with suppressed excitement. They were up to something.
Her fears increased when Peter slid into the seat on Jessup’s right and murmured something into his ear. Jessup nodded briskly, then murmured a reply that brought a smile to Peter’s lips.
Edith hid a frown. Jessup had ignored Peter since arriving at Russell House, so why did they suddenly act like the best of friends?
Peter rose to address the company. “The ice is finally thick enough to be safe. Anyone wishing to skate should meet in the hall at ten. We’ll walk to the lake together.”
Diana squealed in delight. Jessup started to smile, but a word from Peter pulled his face into a scowl.
Edith chewed thoughtfully. Was Peter warning Jessup away from his sister – even the worse cads could be protective of family – or was he pressing Jessup to do something distasteful? She suspected the latter. Peter cared only for himself.
“More trouble?” murmured Charles, sliding into the vacant seat on her left.
She nearly jumped out of her skin, and not just from surprise. Heat sizzled along her nerves until she had to inhale twice to keep her voice steady. “Puzzles rather than problems, my lord. Jessup’s odd behavior extends beyond Miss Russell and Mr. Merrimont.”
“Mr. Russell.” She nodded toward the pair.
“Did they arrive together?”
“No. Russell chose to sit there. Jessup doesn’t like him, yet he seems to be listening, almost as if Russell had some hold over him.”
“That sounds ominous.” His gaze remained on Peter.
“Very. Jessup is full of surprises today. Did you speak to him last night?”
“There was no need. Hawthorne had already done so.”
“With minimal effect. He was waltzing with Miss Russell when I returned, and holding her far too close. They’ve been exchanging secret glances this morning.”
“I’ll see that he—”
“No.” She grasped his wrist when he began to rise, keeping him in his seat. Electricity sparked. Her lungs tightened until she had to fight to draw her next breath. “Something powerful is driving him – why else would he ignore Hawthorne’s warning? Nobodydefies the Beaux. I doubt he cares a fig for Miss Russell, and I don’t like that Mr. Russell can seemingly influence him.”
“Nor do I.” He paused to chew bacon. “Have you mentioned your fears to Miss Russell?”
“No. I only just noted the connection. And she swears that Jessup loves her.” She finished her coffee. “But she may have doubts she won’t admit aloud. My mention of magic last night intrigued her. On the other hand, the news that we can skate this morning produced excessive excitement. Jessup may have sent her a note. I hope she’s not planning something drastic – like eloping. She has become almost frantic for attention, and Jessup is supplying it. His ministrations could easily scramble her wits. Will you be skating?”
“I’m supposed to meet with Schechler.”
“I hear he is stiff-necked and refuses any compromise.”
“Too true.” He sighed.
“Then bring him along. The other guests are already caught up in the Christmas spirit, though the festivities won’t begin until tomorrow. Perhaps their excitement will work some magic on him. It can’t hurt. And be sure that Merrimont joins us.”
“Is that wise? Watching Miss Russell flirt with Jessup is bound to irritate him.”
“Good. They need to confront this problem, not ignore it.”
“Do you want them to call off the wedding?” he asked softly.
“Personally, no. The scandal would make it difficult to find a new position. But neither do I want them to live fifty years in misery.” She frowned as Jessup and Peter left together, heads bent in earnest conversation.
“Yes, that does seem odd,” he agreed. “And eliminates my own suspicions.”
“Which were?” She finished her coffee.
“That Jessup is obeying Merrimont’s orders. If Miss Russell creates a large enough scandal, Merrimont could jilt her with impunity.”
“Is that what happened to you?” The question was out before she could stop it.
“No.” He scowled her into silence. “Russell’s involvement cannot be good. I will postpone my morning meeting and join you at the lake.”
She nodded, then followed the pair from the room, hoping to learn something useful.
* * * *
Charles watched her leave, grateful that she was gone. He was angrier with her today than he’d been after she’d cracked his skull. He knew it was unfair, but he couldn’t help it. She was walking proof that his judgment was hopelessly impaired.
He’d assumed that Miss Knolton was incompetent, ignorant, and lacking common sense.
He’d been wrong.
Yet more than his faulty assumptions irritated him. Everything about her triggered his temper. He’d wanted to destroy last night’s monstrous gown and replace it with a fashionable creation that would show off her intriguing bosom. He’d wanted to slide his hands into her lustrous hair, loosening pins until that severe knot softened to dark waves framing her heart-shaped face. Silky waves that would draw attention to her silver eyes. Those eyes had haunted him since the day she’d fallen into his lap, smearing a plate of cream cakes all over his coat. They were mesmerizing, drawing him into depths he’d not expected. And her mouth! Sinfully red lips begged to be explored… Once he dressed her properly, he would drape rubies around her neck, bringing roses to her creamy cheeks and tempting—
He broke off the thought, appalled. Damn Jacob for planting ideas in his head! It was bad enough that she stirred lust. He didn’t need—
“Good morning, my lord.” The sultry voice shattered his thoughts.
“Miss Russell.” He rose to execute the expected bow, then spotted the gleam in her eyes and sighed. Miss Knolton was right to fear Miss Russell’s intentions. The girl was exploring her options and would jilt Merrimont in a trice if a better offer appeared. At least the breakfast room contained a dozen people.
His cold tone dimmed her gaze, but she quickly rallied, batting her lashes outrageously. “We were delighted that you could accept our invitation, my lord.”
“My presence is purely a business matter, Miss Russell. If I didn’t have to speak with Baron Schechler, I would be with my family.”
“Oh.” She’d obviously expected a compliment.
Laughter rippled from the corner where Riley was entertaining the crowd with the lateston-dits. A Home Office investigator, Riley was another of Merrimont’s friends.
Miss Russell tugged on Charles’s arm. “I need to speak with you, my lord. Privately.”
“So speak. No one is paying attention. It is unseemly to slip away from the others.”
She flashed a smile she must have practiced before a mirror. “But a gentleman of your high breeding can hardly care what others think, my lord.”
“On the contrary, Miss Russell. A diplomat must always consider appearances. Merrimont certainly does.”
“Hardly. Ignoring me cannot do his credit any good.”
Charles laughed. “You really are a peagoose, aren’t you?” He dismissed her indignation. “Don’t you know anything about society? Living in your pocket would reduce his credit – and yours, too, for doing so implies that he cannot trust you to behave.”
“Surely your companion has explained the ways of the world. I pitied Merrimont last night. How he maintained his dignity is a mystery, for your antics would horrify the most broad-minded gentleman. I cannot imagine having a wife who makes such a vulgar cake of herself. If you don’t learn proper manners, he will never advance at the Foreign Office. Nor will he find supporters if he chooses to stand for Commons.”
Her mouth hung open in her first genuine show of emotion. “If that is how he feels, then he should let me find someone who appreciates me,” she snapped.
Charles suppressed a sigh at the arrogance that could twist criticism so far around. “I don’t know how he feels, Miss Russell. All I know is that your behavior affects both of you – not that you seem to care. But I don’t want to see Merrimont’s life ruined by an arrogant little witch. He’s a good man.”
“How dare you, sir!”
“I dare because accepting his offer made you part of him, so your misbehavior harms him – I know what Hawthorne found on the terrace last evening. I dare because I despise selfish girls who don’t care how their actions affect others. You are calling censure down on your family. You are branding Jessup a cad. Staying on this course will force Sir Waldo to turn Miss Knolton off without a reference, which will prevent her from finding a new position. All that damage just so one spoiled miss can soothe her sensibilities and flex her claws. I won’t allow it.”
She stepped back, all thought of flirtation gone. “Youwon’t allow it?” Her voice could have frozen a raging river.
“Exactly. Rather than let you destroy innocents, I will have your father lock you in your room until the wedding.”
“He would never do such a thing! Papa loves me.”
“Of course he loves you, but that won’t stop him from dealing with this tantrum. What do you hope to accomplish?”
“This is Giles’s last chance to prove he loves me. If he doesn’t, I won’t wed him.”
“Childish.” But when tears glinted on her lashes, he relented. “This is not the way to prove anything, Miss Russell. No man worth his salt will give in to blackmail.”
“What else can one call your threats?”
“I’m not threatening anyone. Since most men adore me, why should I tie myself to someone who doesn’t?”
“The so-called adoration of cubs unready for marriage is but a game, Miss Russell. They pretend admiration and profess undying devotion, but anyone of intelligence knows it’s all pretense. A pleasant way to pass the time. No more – as is obvious from the frequency with which they change idols. Those of an age to wed look beyond the color of your hair or the tilt of your chin. Gentlemen need a lady, a hostess, an heir.”
“But I need someone who cares.”
“Don’t confuse caring with poetry. Are you a good person?”
“Of course.” She glared.
“Are you beautiful?”
“Then why do you need to be told twenty times an hour that it is true? Are you afraid it is false?” He held up a hand to prevent an explosion of temper. “Think about it, Miss Russell. If you don’t believe it, then being told so will change nothing. If you do believe it, then it matters not what others might think. Compliments are nice – and they can make you feel better when things are going badly, as they always do from time to time. But they can’t change truth, so demanding them with every breath makes you seem childish. And any compliment that you coerce is worthless.”
“You are hateful.” She twisted her mouth into a pout.
“I don’t believe it, so your opinion doesn’t matter.” He drew a breath. “But if you are seriously questioning your betrothal, perhaps you should consult Granny Gibbs. She is quite skilled at helping people choose the right course.”
“So I’ve heard. Does she really make amulets that reveal truth?”
“Yes.” He paused, but though her eyes begged, she couldn’t bring herself to ask. Perhaps she found the request too embarrassing. Or maybe his harsh words made it impossible to beg a favor. He finally took pity on her. “If you want one, I can call on her for you. But be wary of magic,” he cautioned softly. “It can reveal things you don’t wish to know.”
“I’ll chance it.” She dimpled prettily, satisfied to have achieved her main goal. “Thank you, my lord.”
* * * *
The skating party convened on a shallow cove half a mile from the house. Footmen carried benches and baskets of skates to the shore, then built a fire to warm frozen fingers and let an undercook prepare chocolate. Children shouted, weaving among their elders in games of tag and crack the whip. Laughter followed in their wake, as did gasps of feigned terror as young ladies sought steadying arms from favorite gentlemen.
By half past eleven, Edith had moved beyond the cove itself, gliding in random zigzags that let her keep one eye on Diana and the other on the rest of the company. Too many dramas were disturbing the carefree pleasure of the crowd.
Peter was clearly stirring up trouble. He wouldn’t attack Edith with others nearby, but he’d spoken with Jessup, leaving the man white-faced. Then he’d paused by Schechler, who had speared Charles and Giles with glares the moment Peter skated away. A quarter hour later, he’d cornered Giles.
Perhaps he was seeking revenge for Edith’s escape yesterday. Disrupting Diana’s marriage would hurt Edith, and turning the baron against Charles would repay him for interfering. But that didn’t explain why he could influence Jessup.
A short time later Schechler had surprised her by inviting her to skate. As a chaperon, she should have refused, but she’d taken his arm, hoping to discover what Peter was saying. Diana was skating with Tomling, a picture of propriety this morning.
“The Russells you know well,nein?” Schechler asked once they were moving.
“I’ve been with them for eighteen months.”
He nodded, then maneuvered around several slow-moving couples before continuing. “I know it is not done in your country to speak of certain matters,fraulein, but I have heard a disturbing tale. If true, it could affect my business.”
“Who told you this tale?”
He seemed surprised by her question. “Herr Russell. The son.”
“I see.” She spared a moment to thank Fate that Schechler was less credulous than Peter thought. Schechler might be an incorrigible, stiff-necked ass, as Giles had once described him when he’d thought himself alone, but at least he checked claims before accepting them. “When I hear gossip – and what can one call tales about others if not gossip? – I first consider the source, asking myself if that source has reason to lie. Who was this tale about?”
“Lord Charles Beaumont. Herr Russell brought it to me because we engage now in delicate negotiations. The charges are quite grave.”
She smiled. “I’m sure they are, but I am equally sure they are false. As you say, I know the Russells quite well. I know that Mr. Peter is a dishonorable cad and that he hates Lord Charles. I also know that Lord Charles is an honorable gentleman with a gift for finding equitable solutions to any problem.”
“But his reputation!”
“You speak of the Three Beaux, I presume?”
“The Beaux make exciting drawing room chatter, but they have never drawn true censure. And since society scrutinizes their every move, we would all know instantly if they behaved badly.”
“I do not understand your country.”
“I doubt that it is much different from your own,” she dared. “People abhor dishonor, cruelty, and vulgarity. But they love scandal, as long as it does not touch them personally, and discussing rogues makes them feel dashing. One reason the Beaux are so beloved is that they are larger-than-life men who often flirt with scandal yet never cross that final line. The gossips can exaggerate their exploits, fan themselves furiously over their reputed prowess, and recall every hint of impropriety, but everyone knows the Beaux never abandon honor, so it is a harmless pastime. If you want my advice, share Mr. Russell’s claims with Lord Charles and ask for the truth. He will give it. Then put it behind you and finish your business so you can enjoy the remainder of your holiday.”
Giving him no chance to argue, she’d turned the conversation to the differences between English Christmas customs and those he knew, particularly those that dealt with peace, good will, and the burial of old quarrels.
Diana had still been with Tomling when Edith left the baron, but Edith had intercepted another glance between the girl and Jessup. So when Jessup headed for the thicket covering a spit that protruded into the lake just beyond the cove, Edith had positioned herself where she could keep an eye on him. She didn’t think Jessup had noticed her. Nor had Diana, who had begun picking a fight with Tomling.
Diana shoved Tomling away and left, ostensibly to be alone.
Jessup practiced a lazy spin behind the spit, pointedly ignoring Diana’s tantrum.
Edith knew better. They had planned this interlude well. Miss Parkes, undoubtedly following Diana’s orders, chose this moment to fall in a flurry of skirts. While everyone else rushed to her aid, Diana headed straight for Jessup.
Edith caught Charles’s eye, nodded toward the spit, then picked up speed, flailing her arms as if fighting for balance. As she neared Jessup, she screamed.
Jessup whipped around so fast he tripped.
Edith flattened him.
“Oh, my. Oh, my,” she squeaked, scrabbling along the ice to his side. “Oh, dear. Are you all right, sir? Oh, I’m so terribly sorry. I don’t know what happened. I must have caught the blade— Are you hurt?”
He cursed, tried to sit, then fell a second time when her attempt to help him knocked him over, slamming his head against the ice.
She ignored the thud, keeping to her role. “How awful. You’re bleeding, sir! Let me look. We need help. Yoo-hoo! Over here,” she called, noting that several skaters were following Charles around the end of the spit.
“What happened?” demanded Jessup shakily.
“I’m not sure. I was skating – slowly, so I wouldn’t fall. I am not very accomplished, you understand. Then my toe caught on something. I think it was my toe, or maybe it was the heel. But I lost my balance. Falling is so embarrassing that I tried to catch myself, but that just made my feet move faster, and I couldn’t control anything, and then there you were, so I tried to turn, but you turned, too, and I couldn’t help it, but I ran into you, and you fell so hard, and that awful thunk when your head hit the ice, and now you’re bleeding. Did I kill you?” She finished this artful mishmash by tugging on him until she managed to fall across his chest.
His breath whooshed out.
Charles arrived, closely followed by Diana, Giles, and Miss Richland.
“Mr. Jessup!” squeaked Diana, shoving Edith aside.
Charles caught Diana’s arm so she couldn’t throw herself atop Jessup. “Control yourself, Miss Russell. I know he’s a guest, but you could cause more damage if you aren’t careful. Are you all right, Miss Knolton?”
Edith let Charles pull her to her feet. “Just a tumble. But Mr. Jessup cut his head.”
“I can see that. Have you other injuries, Jessup?” His censorious look struck Jessup square in the eye, raising the hair on Edith’s arms and blanching all color from Jessup’s face. For the first time she understood the Beaux’ power.
“Dizzy,” murmured Jessup as Giles squatted beside him.
“I’m not surprised. Head injuries have that effect.” Charles winked at Edith, then shifted his gaze to Giles. “Take Miss Russell to the fire, then send a pair of footmen to help Jessup to his room.”
“Right.” Giles grabbed Diana’s elbow. “Time for chocolate,” he announced to the growing crowd.
Miss Richland turned to Charles. “Miss Knolton also fell. Escort her to the house. I will see that Mr. Jessup avoids doing anything silly – like trying to rise before the footmen arrive.” Miss Richland was a formidable spinster who could keep the devil himself in line. She’d been supervising the children who had joined the skating expedition.
“An excellent suggestion,” he agreed, offering Edith his arm. “Are you hurt, Miss Knolton?”
“Merely clumsy,” she said as they moved away.
“Hardly.” He chuckled. “I’ve seen you when you were clumsy. This performance was a work of art.”
She didn’t know whether her blush arose from mortification or gratitude. Probably both. “They’d planned an assignation behind the thicket – or so it seemed. I fear Mr. Russell might be involved in some way.” She shared her observations, including her conversation with Schechler.
“Your fears are well founded,” he agreed when she finished. “Russell is clearly stirring up trouble. I will have to deal with him sooner than I’d planned.”
She raised her brows.
“I’d hoped to put it off until after the wedding, but now…” He shook his head. “I don’t believe he would ruin his sister merely to spite you, though. There is something we don’t yet know. Once you are settled, I will speak to Riley. He hears news that escapes even the gossips. In the meantime, Jessup’s head will keep him in bed for the day and give you a chance to divert Miss Russell. I doubt she planned to elope.”
“Elope?” While she had suggested the possibility that morning, she hadn’t thought Diana was ready to abandon Giles just yet.
“After our conversation, I asked my groom to keep an eye on Jessup’s horse so I would have notice of any unusual plans – he has no carriage. My groom sent word an hour ago that Jessup had ordered two horses to wait for him beyond the lake, one with a sidesaddle. He also ordered a carriage from the village. I made sure the horses remained in the stable.” His satisfied smile warmed the air. “Since Miss Russell still seemed undecided when she asked me to procure an amulet, I doubt she had plans to leave with Jessup. And I’m certain that someone of her character would never forego the spectacle of a lavish wedding in front of an admiring crowd.”
“Abduction, then. He must be desperate. But why?”
“I’m hoping Riley will know.” He seated her on a bench and removed her skates, his fingers warm as they unaccountably wandered above her ankles.
Edith tried to ignore the heat blazing up her leg, but she couldn’t control her tremors.