Authors: Charis Michaels
can get me out,” Elisabeth insisted. “We can both go. Together. Out the front door. Or the back door. Out
Marie only laughed.
“You're smarter than these men, Marie,” Elisabeth said. “The man in charge? He may be strong, but you are clever, and I am fast.”
Marie shook her head. “Forget about the doors. Forget about me. You've got one job tonight, and that's to please the young lord. Whatever he wants, you do it. Do it with a smile on your pretty face. And when it's all said and done, ask him for a little boost, patient and pretty, like. I'll keep the father busy all night long. He'll never know the difference.”
“There must be another way,” Elisabeth whispered, her voice cracking.
Marie shook her head. “Been here five years, since I was younger than you, and I've not seen it.” She studied Elisabeth with sad, shrewd eyes and yanked the remnants of Elisabeth's ill-fitting shift back over her wounded shoulder. “We've had some bit of luckâwith those men last night, sniffing around, getting a nice long look at you. Their little taste gave us fair warning, didn't it? And when do we ever get that?”
Elisabeth nearly retched at the memory of the men who had arrived the previous night. She'd been dragged her from her bed and presented to them like a meal. At the urging of the eager proprietor, they had ogled her, pinched herâtouched her. The feel of their hands on her body had made her actually pray for death.
“It cannot be so far to London,” Elisabeth had whispered to the wall. “My parents and I were only to Windsor Road when our carriage was attacked. The highwaymen rode only a few hours to reach this place.” Elisabeth could recite the circumstances of the last forty-eight hours, but she could not dwell on it. She'd set aside the sickening grief of her parents' murders and her abduction, and her unspeakable first night in this place. She would not think of her future without her mother and father. She would not think of the searing burn on her shoulder. Instead, survival had become her entire world. It was survival or choking on her own fear and pain.
She implored Marie again. “If it's even a day's walk to town, I can make it on foot, truly I can.”
“Put it out of your mind,” Marie scolded. “This won't be so bad. A lot easier than walking back to London in the wet, I'll tell you that.”
Elisabeth's voice broke. “I cannot be given to any of them.”
Marie went on as if she hadn't heard. “The young men are quite shy, really. Timid-like. Easy to manage. How old are you? Sixteen? Seventeen?”
“Fifteen,” Elisabeth said. “Only just.”
“Oh. Well.” She thought this over. “Nothing we can do about that, is it
The old lord wanted a young one, didn't he? But the boy will expect experience, remember. He will expect me.”
“This is not helping me,” Elisabeth repeated. She would say it again and again and again.
“It will be what you make it. Tell him who you are; tell him what happened to you and your parents. Show him the mark that Snill burned into your shoulder. It'll heal, by the way. Leave a scar, but it will not pain you forever.”
“I don't want to talk to him! I don't want to see him at all. Marie, please. I cannot do this.” Elisabeth pulled the course, torn garment over the fiery wound on her shoulder.
“You can do it, and you will do it,” Marie said, taking her by the hand.
Voices, loud and slurred, intruded on the hushed tones of their conversation, and Marie held up a hand to quiet her. It was a group. Four men, maybe five. In the taproom below. One of them angry, others laughing. A piece of furniture splintered. Elisabeth squeezed her eyes shut.
“They've come,” whispered Marie. “ 'Tis time. We'll stash you in my room, and I will go to where Snill left you to wait for the father. Exactly as I've said, little miss,” she continued, pulling Elisabeth along. “You must do everything exactly as I've said.”
t rained the night of the Countess's dinner, a foggy, fitting damp. Rainsleigh welcomed itâwhat else could he expect for his first foray into the inner sanctum of London's social elite? He'd toiled years for an invitation such as this, but he refused to sail into the evening thinking it would be easy. Old habits died hard. A lifetime of exclusion had prepared him. At the very least, it should rain.
Ah, but it was just a meal, and on a day when Parliament sat. This guaranteed that the dinner would not run long. Few people of distinction would attend. The best wine, he knew, would not be served. Considering the stack of work waiting for him at home and the rare appearance of his brother, Rainsleigh didn't really even want to attend. What he'd
wanted had been the invitation. Simply to make the bloody list. The real triumph was access. Now that he had it, it meant inane chitchat with lofty strangers. He immediately wished attendance had been optional. Or not tonight.
But he had said that he would come. And he was mildly curious. And really, these sorts of engagements were necessary, he knew, if his ultimate goal was to be regarded as equal. A reclusive viscount would be known as a degenerate one, if no one ever saw him.
Rain meant carriage traffic, lurching and slow, and after ten minutes of waiting, Rainsleigh bade the coachman park behind the last vehicle so he could walk. Soames had outfitted him with hat and umbrella, overcoat and boots. He had not come so far that he could not get wet.
My lord . . .
” enthused the hostess, Lady Banning, five minutes later, smiling inside the warm confines of her sprawling entry hall. She reached out, two delicate gloved hands clasping his, and ushered him in. “What a pleasure it is to meet you at last. We're so pleased that you've been able to join us on such short notice, especially when you must be terribly preoccupied with settling in.”
Rainsleigh bowed over her hands. “The pleasure is all mine, Lady Banning. It was a delight to receive your invitation. We're practically neighbors now. You are between my new house and the park.”
“That park!” the countess complained, smiling still. “My niece spends half her time there, regardless of the weather. But you've met my niece, Lord Rainsleigh? Lady Elisabeth?”
Rainsleigh bristled. It was common knowledge that he'd been introduced to practically no one, especially young women. He put on a neutral face. “I don't believe I've had the pleasure.”
“I don't see her at the moment,” Lady Banning said, “but we'll find her, and you must be introduced. She knows every corner of Hyde Park, especially the damp, boggy bits, judging from the condition of her boots. I'm sure she will be happy to educate you about where the trail has washed out or where the best shade can be found.”
“That would be most useful.”
He bowed again, making way for the dripping older couple behind him. The countess easily soothed them, all sympathy and smiles. Charming woman, he conceded. She'd shown him no veiled slight or indignity. Attractive, too, despite being twenty years his senior.
A footman led him down the wide hall to an adjacent salon. It was a small gathering. Mostly elderly couples and young women. There was a glaring lack of gentlemen and no one easily identifiable as his equal in rank or wealth. Possibly a statement about his inclusion, possibly harmless.
Two more young women strolled into view, which made five girls, all told. He rubbed his jaw. A footman passed with a tray of drinks, and he took a glass, counting in his head. Five young women, the widowed countess, and a clutch of elderly people, old enough to have met Christ. He took a drink. This dinner made no sense.
But now here was Lord Beecham, making for him at a slow waddle from a chair beside the fire.
“Rainsleigh!” the baron called, his politician's smile wide on his ruddy face. “So good of you to come. Lady Banning and my wife have been determined to welcome you to town before the others.”
“Others?” Rainsleigh took another drink.
“But of course! Point of pride, really. Wanted to be first and to make an impression. You've seen the lovely debutantes? Convened the lotâoh, there must be four or five of themâin hopes of lighting the tinder of a brilliant match.”
Rainsleigh choked on his drink. “The young women are for me?”
“Oh, but do not think to keep secrets in this town, old boy. London hostesses can smell a marriage-minded gentleman as far as Middlesex. They'll know it's time to get shackled before you do.”
“How accommodating. I hadn'tâ”
“But before you become distracted by the young ladies, I must bend your ear about my shipping levy . . . ”
And he was off, lobbying on behalf of the maritime legislation he'd been touting to the shipping magnates for weeks. Rainsleigh nodded, only half listening, and allowed his eyes to wander. He surveyed the room.
Four or five young ladies
This had not occurred to him. He took another sip. But he had no idea what to do with four or five young ladies. Mincing through marriage prospects was to be Dunhip's job. Rainsleigh intended to sweep in at the eleventh hour and consider the finalists, perhaps the top four. Or even two.
He narrowed his eyes, studying the girls.
, but they were young. Barely out of the schoolroom. He was thirty-four years of age, head of his family, shipbuilder, landholder, viscount. Certainly maturity in his future bride was a priority. With maturity would come reserve, calm, discretion, self-control . . .
One of the girls looked up and caught him in a stare. She was tall. Frocked in yellow. Brown hair, strong nose. Rainsleigh considered her. She appeared elegant enough. He gave a curt nod. The girl smiled coquettishly and lowered her eyes without breaking the stare. She blinked. While he watched, she discreetly extended the tip of her tiny pink tongue and licked her upper lip. At him.
Rainsleigh turned away.
. Absolutely not. No boldness. First and foremost. Especially no provocative, flirtatious boldness. He'd spent his boyhood with a mother who batted eyelashes and licked lips before she even arose from bed. More often than not, a footman walked away in a better mood. It was a disgrace, one of many. He would not repeat the phenomenon with his own wife.
He drained the last of his glass and nodded along to Lord Beecham's drone, raising his eyebrows in faux interest. He was just about to gesture for another drink when movement caught his attention. A flutter. A flash of blue. Out of sheer boredom, he turned to follow it, craning his head.
It was yet another young woman. In the opposite direction, separate from the party. She was alone, clipping down a staircase at the end of the great hall and holding a piece of unfolded parchment. As she descended, she read.
Must be a relative or member of staff
, he thought. Clearly, she wasn't part of the countess's party. She paid no mind to the raised voices or clinking crystal at the end of the hall, and she was dressed in a simple blue muslin day dress. Rainsleigh almost turned away. Almost, but not quite.
Casually, he looked again.
Perhaps it was that she did not descend the stairs so much as float over them. Purposefully but not stridently. Gracefully but with no flounce. She ignored the handrail and did not glance at the rapidly descending marble beneath her feet. The parchment in her hand obscured her face, but he could make out a serene profile, a small ear.
He looked harder. She appeared . . . Rainsleigh found himself unable to put words precisely how she appeared.
Lord Beecham called to him from five feet away.
The viscount looked up. The baron stood on the threshold of the salon, sputtering and confused.
“Forgive me,” Rainsleigh said, stepping back to him. “Lord Beecham, do you know that girl, there? On the stairs?” The question was out before he realized. He pointed. “The young lady?”
“Eh?” Beecham craned around.
“No, not in the salon. There, in the hall. She's just come down the stairs. It's difficult to see for the parchment in her hand, but I believe she hasâ” He blinked. “Yes. Her hair is an odd sort of pale ginger.”
Beecham squinted down the hall. The young woman had stopped at a sideboard and was rustling in a drawer. She closed it, took up the paper again, and moved on, still not looking up. Now she walked in their direction but stopped at a closed door, halfway down. She reached for the doorknob and pulled it open, speaking to someone on the other side. She gestured. She nodded. She waved the paper in the air. She moved inside the door a step but not all the way.
Rainsleigh could not see her face. He swore and stepped to the side, angling for a better view.
,” said Beecham, drawing his brows together. “ 'Tis only Lady Elisabeth, the countess's niece. My wife did not expect her to attend the party, and it appears she was right. Look how she's dressed at this hour. But she does live here in Denby House. Been a ward of the countess for these many years.”
” mumbled Rainsleigh, studying the tall, thin half profile visible behind the standing door. He looked at the baron. “Why is she not expected to attend?”
“Bit of an odd duck, I'm afraid. She's lived with the countess since her parents were killed in a carriage raid, years ago. Tragic business, really, but she seems well enough. Although she is never really seen out socially, or so they say. Lady Banning never compelled her to make a proper debut, and she did not, as far as I know. Egad, Rainsleigh, with all the other girls here, you'd do well to stay away from that one. On the shelf, really.”
Rainsleigh studied the parts of her he could see beyond the standing open door. The slender point of her shoulders. Her elegant back. The gentle slope of her bottom beneath the soft blue skirt.
A footman walked past her, ferrying drinks on a tray. He offered her a glass, and she used the paper to gently wave him off. The servant proceeded toward Rainsleigh, but she must have called him back because he returned to her. She pivoted, telling him something.
And that's when he saw her face.
For the second time that night, he could not look away.
Her eyes were light. Blue? Perhaps green. He was too far away to tell.
Her hair, he saw, was not strictly ginger but gold and blonde and pale red, all spun together.
Rainsleigh took an inadvertent step toward her. The footman with the drinks passed him now, and he took a glass, not taking his eyes away.
Without warning, she looked up, and their gazes locked. Her eyes grew huge. She sucked in a startled breath.
For a long, taut moment, they stared.
Beecham, reliably, broke the trance. “Egad, Rainsleigh, but you look as if you've seen a ghost. Are you acquainted with Lady Elisabeth?”
Rainsleigh shook his head: one slow, firm shake. He was not.
His mouth had gone strangely dry. His voice was a low rasp. “I've never met her before in my life.”
Fifteen years prior . . .
The Bronze Root Tavern
ryson awakened in the world's smallest, most uncomfortable bed. He blinked at the ceiling, smoky and water-stained, and lifted his head to look at his feet.
At least they'd left him in his clothes and boots.
His head throbbed. They'd drugged himâhis father and his uncle and his cousin Kenneth. Or they'd knocked him out with a blow to the head. Or both. His vision blurred, sharpened, and then blurred again. When it came to the pranks of his father and cousin Kenneth, his priority had always been consciousness. Remain conscious. At all costs. Clearly, he'd failed again.
He swore and shoved up in the damp, unfamiliar bed, willing his eyes to focus. When the room stopped listing, he saw it was small and cold and spare. The adjacent door was closed tight, naturally. If previous abductions were any indication, it would also be locked.
He looked to the opposite wall, andâ
Bloody hell. The room was small, cold, spare, and
Bryson rolled out of bed, blinking against his throbbing headache, and gaped at the silent figure huddled against the far wall.
She stood beside a window, clutching a fireplace poker diagonally across her chest. Her hair hung unbound down her back. Her dress, or rather
was marked with an ominous stain that seeped through the fabric at one shoulder. Blood.
He looked at her face. Her eyes were wide with terror.
“Hello,” he said carefully. He held out his hand in a reassuring gesture. “You're all right.”
He took a step, and she gasped. She pressed herself more tightly against the wall.
“Door,” he told her, taking two steps. “I'm merely going to the door. Is it locked, do you know?”
She didn't move, but he was careful not to turn his back on her and the poker. He reached for the knob.
“Locked,” he said, gripping the knob more tightly, rattling it left and right. It refused to give, and he added his other hand, his shoulder, his foot, kicking the base with his boot. He forgot about the girl and raged at the unmoving door, shouting profanity and threats.
No one came.
He spun back to the room. “The window,” he said, pointing beside the girl.
“It's locked,” she said, her first words. He stopped. My God, but she was young. This had been obvious from across the room, but her voice sounded like that of a frightened child. Was she fifteen? Sixteen? He couldn't guess.
“Careful,” he said, starting again for the window. The girl leapt back and skittered down the wall, wedging herself between a heavy wardrobe and the corner.