Read A Lady of His Own Online

Authors: Stephanie Laurens

A Lady of His Own

BOOK: A Lady of His Own
4.91Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

S
TEPHANIE
L
AURENS

A

Lady

of His

Own

Contents

Restormel Abbey
Lostwithiel, Cornwall
April 1816

C
RACK
!

A log shattered in the grate; sparks sizzled and flew. Flames leapt, sending fingers of light playing over the leather spines lining the library walls.

Charles St. Austell, Earl of Lostwithiel, lifted his head from the padded depths of his armchair and checked that no embers had reached the shaggy pelts of his wolfhounds, Cassius and Brutus. Slumped in hairy mounds at his booted feet, neither hound twitched; neither was smoldering. Lips easing, Charles let his head loll back on the well-worn leather; raising the glass in his hand, he sipped, and returned to his cogitations.

On life and its vicissitudes, and its sometimes unexpected evolution.

Outside the wind whistled, faint and shrill about the high stone walls; the night tonight was relatively calm, alive but not turbulent, not always the case along Cornwall’s southern coast. Within the Abbey, all was slumberingly still; it was after midnight—other than he, no human remained awake.

It was a good time to take stock.

He was there on a mission, but that was largely incidental; learning whether there was any truth in tales of Foreign Office secrets being run through the local smuggling channels wasn’t likely to tax him, certainly not on a personal level. His principal objective in seizing the excuse his erstwhile commander Dalziel had created, and thus returning to the Abbey, his ancestral home, now his, was to gain sufficient perspective to examine and, he prayed, resolve the increasingly fraught clash between his desperate need for a wife and his deepening pessimism over finding a lady suitable to fill the position.

In London, he’d found himself hip deep in candidates, not one of whom was anything like the lady he needed. Being mobbed by giddy young misses with more hair than wit who viewed him only as a handsome and wealthy nobleman, with the added cachet of being a mysterious war hero, had proved something of a personal purgatory. He wasn’t going back into society until he had a firm and definite vision of the lady he wanted for his own.

Truth to tell, the depth of his need of a wife—the right wife—unnerved him. When he’d first returned after Waterloo, he’d been able to assure himself that that need was only natural; his association with six others so very like himself, all equally in need of wives, and the camaraderie that had flowed through their formation of the Bastion Club—their last bastion against the matchmaking mamas of the ton—had reassured and soothed his impatience and blunted the spur for some months.

But now Tristan Wemyss and Tony Blake had both found and secured their wives, while he, with his more edgy, restless, desperate need, was still waiting for his lady to appear.

It had taken the last few weeks in London, being sucked into the whirl as society prepared for the intense months of the Season, to comprehend fully what fed that increasingly edgy need. For thirteen years, he’d been dislocated, cut off from the society to which he’d been born and to which he’d now returned. He’d spent thirteen tense years buried in enemy territory, never relaxing, never less than alert and aware. Now, even though he knew he was home and the war was over, he still found himself, at parties, balls, any large gathering, mentally apart. Still the disguised outsider watching, observing, never able to let down his guard and freely merge.

He needed a wife to connect him again, to be a bridge between him and all around him, especially in the social sense. He was an earl with numerous sisters, relatives, connections, and obligations; he couldn’t hide himself away. He didn’t
want
to hide himself away—he was constitutionally unsuited to being a recluse. He liked parties, balls, dancing—liked people and jokes and having fun—yet at present, even though he might be standing in the middle of a ballroom surrounded by laughing hordes, he still felt he was outside, looking in. Not a part of it.

Connection. That was the one vital ability he needed in a wife, that she should be able to connect him to his life again. But to do so, she needed to connect with
him
, and that was where all the bright young things failed.

They couldn’t even
see
him clearly, let alone understand him—and he wasn’t at all sure they had any real interest in that latter. Their notion of marriage, of the relationship underlying that state, seemed determinedly and unalterably fixed in the superficial. Which, to his mind, came perilously close to deception, to pretense. After thirteen years of lying, both living a lie and constantly dealing in fabrication, the last thing he would permit to touch his life—his real life, the one he was determined to reclaim—was any element of deceit.

Fixing his gaze on the flames leaping in the hearth, he focused his mind on his objective—on finding the right lady. He’d had no difficulty rejecting all those he’d met thus far; accustomed to gauging character swiftly, it usually took him no more than a minute. Yet identifying what characteristics his
right
lady possessed, let alone her whereabouts, had thus far defeated him. If she wasn’t in London, where else should he look?

The sound of footsteps, faint but definite, reached him.

He blinked, listened. He’d dismissed his staff for the night; they’d gone to their beds long ago.

Boots, not shoes; the boot steps marched nearer, and nearer, from the rear of the house. By the time the steps reached the back of the hall, not far from the library, he knew that whoever was strolling through his house after midnight wasn’t any servant; no servant walked with that relaxed, assured tread.

He glanced at the hounds. As aware as he, they remained slumped, stationary but alert, their amber eyes fixed on the door. He knew that stance. If the person came in, the hounds would rise and greet them, but otherwise were content to let that person pass.

Cassius and Brutus knew more than he; they knew who the person was.

Straightening in his chair, he set his glass aside, almost disbelievingly listened as the intruder rounded the end of the stairs and calmly, steadily, climbed them.

“What the
hell?
” Rising, he frowned at the wolfhounds, wishing they could communicate. He pointed at them. “Stay.”

The next instant he was at the library door, easing it open. Unlike the person marching through his house, he made less sound than a ghost.

Lady Penelope Jane Marissa Selborne reached the head of the stairs. Without conscious thought, she turned her riding boots to the left along the gallery, making for the corridor at its end. She hadn’t bothered with a candle—she didn’t need one; she’d walked this way countless times over the years. Tonight the shadows of the gallery and the peaceful silence of the abbey itself were balm to her restless, uncertain mind.

What the devil was she to do? More to the point, what was going on?

She felt an urge to run her hand through her hair, to loosen the long strands sleeked back in a tight knot, but she was still wearing her wide-brimmed hat. Dressed in breeches and an old hacking jacket, she’d spent the day and all of the evening surreptitiously following and watching the activities of her distant cousin Nicholas Selborne, Viscount Arbry.

Nicholas was the only son of the Marquess of Amberly, who, after her half brother Granville’s death, had inherited her home, Wallingham Hall, a few miles away. While she felt respect and mild affection for Amberly, who she’d met on a number of occasions, she was less sure of Nicholas; when, in February, he’d appeared unheralded to stay at Wallingham and had started asking questions about Granville’s habits and associates, she’d become suspicious. She had sound reasons for believing that anyone asking such questions bore careful watching, but Nicholas had left after five days, and she’d hoped that that would be the end of it.

Yesterday, Nicholas had returned, and spent all day visiting the various smugglers’ dens dotted along the coast. Tonight, he’d visited Polruan, and spent two hours at the tavern there. She’d spent the same two hours watching from a nearby stand of trees, taverns at night being one of the few places hereabouts she accepted were off-limits to her, at least when on her own.

Irritated and increasingly alarmed, she’d waited until Nicholas came out, alone, then followed him back through the night. Once she was sure he was heading back to Wallingham, she’d turned her mare north and ridden here, to her sanctuary.

During her long wait in the trees, she’d thought of a way to learn what Nicholas had been doing in the taverns he’d visited, but putting her plan into action would have to wait for tomorrow. As would racking her brains, yet again, to try and make sense of what she’d thus far learned, of her suspicions and what she feared they might mean, might reveal, might lead to.

Despite the urgency she felt over that last, the long day had drained her; she was so tired she could barely think. She’d get a good night’s sleep, then consider her best way forward tomorrow.

At the end of the gallery, she headed down the corridor; the bedchamber two from the end of the wing had been hers for the past decade, whenever she took it into her head to visit her godmother’s home. The room was always kept ready, the Abbey staff long used to her occasional, unheralded appearances; the fire would be laid, but not lit.

Glancing to her right, through the long, uncurtained windows that gave onto the rear courtyard with its fountain and well-tended beds, she decided she wouldn’t bother striking a flame. She was bone-weary. All she wanted was to peel off her breeches and boots, jacket and shirt, and tumble under the covers and sleep.

Exhaling, she turned to her bedchamber door and reached for the latch.

A large dense shadow swooped in on her left.

Panic leapt. She looked—


Ahhee!!
—”

Recognition hit; she clapped a hand over her mouth to cut off her shriek, but he was faster. Her hand landed over his, pressing
his
hard palm to her lips.

For an instant, she stared into his eyes, dark and unreadable mere inches away. Acutely conscious of the heat of his skin against her lips.

Of him
there
, tall and broad-shouldered in the darkness beside her.

If time could stand still, in that instant, it did.

Then reality came crashing back.

Stiffening, she dropped her hand and stepped back.

Lowering his hand, he let her go, eyes narrowing as he searched her face.

She dragged in a breath, kept her eyes on his. Her heart was still hammering in her throat. “Damn you, Charles, what the
devil
do you mean by trying to scare me
witless?
” The only way to deal with him was to seize the reins and keep them. “You could at least have spoken, or made some sound.”

One dark brow arched; his eyes lifted to her hat, then lazily traced downward, all the way to her boots. “I didn’t realize it was you.”

Beneath the layers of her drab disguise, a lick of heat touched her cold skin. His voice was as deep, as languidly dark as she remembered it, the seductive power simply there whether he intended it or not. Something inside her clenched; she ignored the sensation, tried to think.

The realization that he was the very last person she wished to be there—within ten miles or even more of there—slammed through her and shook her to her toes.

“Well, it is. And now, if you don’t mind, I’m going to get some sleep.” Lifting the latch, she pushed open the door, went in, and shut it.

Tried to. The door stopped four inches short of the jamb.

She pushed, then sighed. Deeply. She dropped her forehead against the door. Compared to him, she was still a squib; her senses informed her he had only one palm against the door’s other side.

“All right!” Stepping away, she flung her hands in the air. “
Be
difficult then.” She uttered the words through clenched teeth. Tired as she was, her hold on her temper was tenuous—that, she knew, was the very worst state to be in when forced to deal with Charles Maximillian Geoffre St. Austell.

Stalking across the room, she pulled off her hat, then sat on the side of the bed. From under lowered brows, she watched as he entered. Leaving the door ajar, he located her, then scanned the room.

He saw her brushes on the dresser, glanced at the armoire, noting the pair of half boots she’d left under it, then he looked at the bed, confirming it was made up. All in the time it took him to prowl, long-legged, arrogantly assured, to the armchair before the window. His gaze returning to her, he sat. Not that that word adequately described the motion; he was all fluid grace somehow arranging long, muscled limbs into an inherently masculine, innately elegant sprawl.

His black hair grew in heavy loose curls; presently neatly cropped, the thick locks framed his face. A harsh-featured, aristocratic face with dramatically arched black brows over large, deep-set eyes, strong, sculpted nose and jaw, and lips she didn’t need to dwell on.

For the space of ten heartbeats, his gaze rested on her; even through the dimness she could feel it. He’d always had better night vision than she; if she was to survive this interview with her secrets intact, she’d need every last ounce of her control.

Taking charge seemed wise.

“What
are
you doing home?” All her reasons for believing the Abbey empty, a safe haven, colored the words, transforming question into accusation.

“I live here, remember?” After an instant, he added, “Indeed, I now own the Abbey and all its lands.”

“Yes,
but
—” She wasn’t going to let him develop the theme of being her host, of being in any way responsible for her. “Marissa, Jacqueline, and Lydia, and Annabelle and Helen, went to London to help you find a wife. My stepmother—your godmother—and my sisters are there, too. They left here enthused, in full flight. There’s been talk of little else in the drawing rooms here and at Wallingham Hall since Waterloo. You’re supposed to be there, not here.” She paused, blinked, then asked, “Do they know you’re here?”

BOOK: A Lady of His Own
4.91Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

Assignment - Lowlands by Edward S. Aarons
Ouroboros 2: Before by Odette C. Bell
Irene by Pierre Lemaitre
The Forest of Forever by Thomas Burnett Swann
Earth Girl by Janet Edwards
Tarnished by Becca Jameson
School for Nurses by T. Sayers Ellis