Read A Phantom Affair Online

Authors: Jo Ann Ferguson

A Phantom Affair

A Phantom Affair

A Regency Romance

Jo Ann Ferguson

With gratitude, this book is dedicated to my students
.

Your talent and enthusiasm consistently inspire me
.

Thanks for teaching me as well
.

One

“He is more than a bit mad, you know.”

Corey Wolfe chuckled as he drew on his boot, bending to polish the tip of the toe. His hope that Lorenzo would fail to hear his amusement faded when he straightened and saw the disapproving expression on his cousin's long face. Yet Lorenzo's face was perpetually lengthened with some concern or another. Corey wondered how his cousin had managed to oversee Wolfe Abbey for those months he had been gone.

Standing, he frowned as well when he realized his left heel had not settled into his boot. Blast these boots! He was not usually such a slave to the vagaries of fashion, but he wanted to look his best tonight when he was throwing open the doors of the Abbey for the first time since his father's death more than four years ago, only a few months after Corey had purchased his commission and was sent to fight the French. He stamped his foot on the thick rug, but the stubborn leather refused to yield.

“Take care,” cautioned Lorenzo.

“The stone floors of the Abbey have been battered far worse over the centuries.” He tried again with no more success. “By the by, who is mad?”

“The boots are too tight,” Lorenzo continued, adding to Corey's vexation. Why was his cousin so obsessed with these blasted boots when he should explain his comment?

Gripping the top, he gave a tug. He tried wiggling his toes to reach the very tip of the boot. Nothing worked. He pounded the heel against his bedroom floor once more.

“They shall cut off your circulation,” Lorenzo continued.

“The goal of all clothing one would wear in good twig, I collect.”

Lorenzo's frown threaded lines into his forehead and marred his jaw's firm line, which was as much a part of their family as their name. “Your clothing need not be uncomfortable, Corey. Why, if you are dissatisfied with your rig-out, I can suggest an excellent snip who can make you up a set that will be
à la modality
.”

“You misunderstand me,” he said, chuckling as he sat on a wooden chair beside the oak tester bed. “Although I cannot guess how you might be baffled when my Aunt Carolyn is forever after me to select a wife who can give this grand old place an heir.”

“I still do not understand.”

Each word was punctuated with a shove of his foot into the boot. “Proper clothing is geared at catching the eye of the proper miss, who shall in turn garner my attention and my heart. Soon
I
would be out of circulation.”

Lorenzo shook his head. “With such comments, I can understand why you remain unwed.”

“I do not see you leg-shackling yourself to a buxom lass, cousin.”

“I am not the Marquess of Wulfric. You have a duty to this family and this estate.”

Corey rocked the boot on the end of his foot and silently cursed the arbiter of fashion who had decreed that a man's riding boots should be so tightly fit. “You had the duty once, cousin. It could be yours again.”

“Nonsense.” He shuddered and brushed his hands against his dark green coat. “You are home now. Are you going to go to the fete like that, or will you see sense and send Armstead for another pair?”

Corey glanced across his bedroom to where his man was trying to keep a somber face. Armstead and he had shared too many adventures for too many years for his valet to hide anything.

The short man, who was as round as Lorenzo was thin, asked, “Would you wish me to fetch you another pair of boots, my lord?”

“That would be a needless task, when they all are of a size.” With a satisfied smile, he jammed his foot into the boot and stood. “There. All set.”

“Then mayhap,” said Lorenzo, “you will listen to what I came in here to say. That ancient cabbage-head in the stables is unquestionably dicked in the nob.”

Corey took his black wool coat from Armstead and shrugged it on. Adjusting the high collar beneath his dark hair, he asked, “Do you mean Fenton?”

“You know exactly whom I mean.”

Again he resisted laughing aloud. He did know exactly what his cousin meant, and as well, he knew why he was complaining. Fenton had been one of the few at Wolfe Abbey who had resisted Lorenzo's wardship during the war. How many times had Corey heard the aged man say that no one but the old marquess's lad should look after the Abbey? Apparently Lorenzo had heard it, too.

“What has he said now?” Corey asked.

“That you should cancel the fireworks tonight.”

“Did he say why?”

“Said they were sure to cause trouble, shedding light where there should not be any but heaven's.”

“Even to celebrate the end of this blasted war?” Reaching for the tall beaver that Armstead held out to him, Corey patted his cousin on the shoulder. “Lorenzo, when you start heeding the words of an old man who is more set in his ways than this house on its foundation, you deserve to be bothered.”

“He should be retired.”

“Retired?” This time he allowed himself the luxury of laughing aloud. “Fenton has been here since long before you or I was born. I suspect he may be here long after we hop off the perch and leave this earth.”

Lorenzo did not relent. “You may speak the truth for yourself, Corey, but that crazy old man could cause all kinds of trouble in the midst of his delusion. I had thought your sojourn on the continent, when you nearly lost your life at the hands of the French army, would put an end to your reckless ways. Mayhap you should listen to Fenton.”

“I thought you disagreed with him.”

“I am concerned he might do something to create trouble. Fireworks are dangerous. You know I think only of your best interests.”

“My best interests are in entertaining my guests tonight as I promised.”

Lorenzo sighed. “I had hoped you would listen. However, my words seem to have had no effect.”

“No effect?” This was the most laughable thing Lorenzo had said all day, but Corey had no yearning to laugh.

He turned away, catching a glance of himself in the mirror. Damn! He usually avoided mirrors … or he had since he had returned from France. Not that he was vain, for it was not bruised vanity that unsettled him when he saw the patch covering his right eye. It was the gut-wrenching reminder of the days, weeks, and months lost to the war.

But self-pity had had its day. Tonight the Abbey would be ablaze with fireworks to celebrate the glorious conclusion of that conflict. No doomsayer, neither his cousin nor an old man in the stables, would ruin this night that he had feared might never come.

“I thought three would be your lucky number, Ellen.”

Ellen Dunbar was glad for the twilight oozing through the open windows of the carriage. It hid her smile as she heard her bosom-bow, Lady Marian Herrold, sigh deeply. Dear Marian fretted herself far too much about Ellen ending up on the shelf for the rest of her days. Marian had been her friend since the first time they met at an assembly hosted by the Duke of Westhampton to announce the arrival of his first great-grandchild. Marian had rescued Ellen from a conversation with the duke and her husband, Lord Herrold, about the merits of various breeds of hunting dogs. Marian shared Ellen's disinterest in the hunt, and soon they discovered they both had been raised in the country. Although Marian had been raised in genteel grandeur along the coast here and Ellen in a far simpler house north of the Scottish border, they could laugh over many similar adventures they had enjoyed as children.

From that moment until now, Marian had been unceasing in her efforts to find Ellen a husband, so she might be settled happily as she was in childhood. Through the next two Seasons Ellen had spent in London, Marian had had her hopes dashed many times.

“Apparently not,” she replied. “Mayhap four will be fortunate for me.”

“How can you jest about such an important matter?”

Tapping her fingers on the edge of the window, Ellen peered past the tulle brim of her green satin bonnet and watched as they came closer to the lights of the grand house on the water's edge. She had lost count of the number of times she had listened to Marian lament about how Ellen had gone through yet another Season without a betrothal.

“I shall find a match eventually,” she said quietly.

“Will you?” Marian gave a most unladylike snort, astounding Ellen, for her manners usually offered no source of complaint. “How can you when you are waiting for a combination of your blessed St. Andrew and some hero out of a Scott novel?”

“We Scots are uncommonly romantic at heart.”

“Then how can it be that you have found no one to fall in love with?”

She toyed with the gold fringe on her French silk shawl. “Oh, I have fallen in love a dozen times.”

“But—”

“I fall right back out. I have discovered that falling in love is the simplest thing to do. Staying in love is more difficult.”

Marian sighed. “Will you cease your funning? This is a most serious matter.”

“On that we agree. That is why I will not give my heart to a man who will not cherish it as I shall cherish his.” She leaned her elbow on the open window and stared across the shadowed fields. Birds darted through the navy velvet sky, enjoying a feast of insects and welcoming the stars. “Marian, you have no idea how much I wish I could fall in love to stay.”

“You need only open your eyes. You have many admirers. Surely one of them will touch your heart.” A sly smile brightened her face. “I understand our host Lord Wulfric remains unwed.”

Ellen did not answer. There was no answer other than the one she had already given Marian. She had seen what happened when two hearts found each other despite impossible odds, and she wanted that splendid joy for herself. She was sure that, once she found it, the waiting would be worth that happiness.

The carriage followed the curving road along the side of the cliff edging the sea. Seeing Marian tense and look away from the view of the ocean, Ellen remained silent. She had noted how her friend avoided any windows at Herrold Hall that offered a glance of the sea beyond the fields. Curiosity had taunted her, but she had said nothing. If Marian wished her to know what unsettled her, she would speak of it.

When the carriage slowed, Ellen stared out at the meandering building that must be Wolfe Abbey. The house seemed to be a part of the cliff, a flower that had blossomed from a rocky garden. The house's wings unfolded like a trio of petals, flowing along the precipice. Dozens of windows were candle-lit against the night.

Music caressed Ellen's ears as she stepped from the carriage. Not the sound of a bow upon the strings of a violin, but a more primitive song. It drew her to the waist-high wall edging the road. Looking down, she saw starlight splattering the froth-beaten boulders at the base of the cliff. The sea retreated, only to fling itself back upon the rocks in a never-ending, ever-changing quadrille.

“Do come back from there,” Marian said with a shudder. “You must be careful.”

“I'm in no danger.” She leaned forward to look at the very base of the stone wall. “'Tis wonderful!”

“'Tis frightening!” Marian hooked her arm through Ellen's and tugged her away from the wall. “I have always abhorred coming here unless it is dark. During the day, when I can see the base of the cliff so far below, I cannot help but envision the carriage careening over that crag to leave us broken on the shore.”

“How horrible! Has such a thing happened?”

“No,” Marian said with another shudder, “but it may one day.”

“If folks are careful—”

“But folks don't always take caution.” Closing her eyes, she whispered, “I have not trusted these cliffs since the day, as a child, when I took a misstep and tumbled down one that was not as viciously steep as this one.”

“Oh, Marian, were you hurt?”

“Just enough to convince me to put as much distance as possible between me and the seawall when I must travel along this road. In the dark, I can pretend the cliff is not there.”

Putting her hand over Marian's, she smiled. She would have guessed a ride through the night along the seawall to be much more terrifying, for any curve could betray the driver into making the wrong turn. To speak of that would only unnerve her friend more.

The darkness thickened around them as they walked through the front garden, settling on their shoulders like a favorite cloak. Dew sparkled in the glow of candles set along the garden path. The flowers had tucked themselves away for the night, but their perfume remained on the air, a seductive invitation to excitement.

Ellen resisted reaching out to run her fingers along the leaves. How she loved the country! Although nothing could match the whirl of life in Town, she longed too often for this simple world, which she had enjoyed in Scotland.

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