Authors: Charis Michaels
He leaned in, and she was struck by how tall he was. Had he been this tall at nineteen? He scrunched to remain under the eave.
She swallowed hard and spoke over the rain, “The newspaper was unclear about how to apply. Will you explain the process? I predict fierce competition for such a large amount.”
“My secretary has the paperwork,” he said over the rain. “But surely the staff of this charity you patronize will take care of the application.”
She paused a beat. A gust of wind sprayed them with cold mist, but she barely felt it.
“ 'Tis my own charity,” she said. “I am the founder, and I run it alone. There is no staff beyond a few servants, a teacher, and a nurse trained in medicine.”
He was silent a moment, studying her. “I have not heard of a female at the helm of a charity . . . ”
She bluffed, saying, “Well, you are new to town.”
“Do you have advisors? Someone to guide you and oversee financial matters?”
, she thought, but she said, “Will this be addressed on the application?”
“I don't know, to be honest. My secretary drew up the application.”
The rain continued to pelt. She edged closer to the wall, taking hold of the tangle of wisteria on an iron trellis. She snuggled into his coat. “Well, I shall learn soon enough. I will call upon your secretary.”
“When?” he asked.
Thunder boomed, and she jumped. He reached for her again. She felt his hand on her waist through the wool of his coat.
She answered, “This week?”
He was close enough to read her lips, so she answered quietly. “Very well. Tomorrow.”
Nervously, she bit her bottom lip, and his gaze locked on her mouth. Thunder boomed again, closer this time, and lightning struck. Two pops split the darkness with bright white light, and she saw the intent expression on his face, clear as day. He was so close. Without thinking, she whispered, “I'm sorry about dinner.”
He shook his head. His hand tightened on her waist.
She fought the urge to step closer. Half a step? A fraction of a step? “I am loath to hear what my aunt will say about my outburst. But I warned her. I had too much work to spare the time for a party, and my manners suffered.”
She nodded. “For the charity. There is much work. Always. Especially tonight.”
“This work keeps you too busy to eat?”
She laughed. “Was tonight's purpose really to eat dinner?”
Slowly, he gave a half smile, his first of the night. Her heart missed four beats. Thunder boomed again, and she allowed herself the half step.
He sucked in a breath.
She whispered. “Thank you for the loan of your coat.”
He said, “Why are you not married?”
“Another question for the charity application?” She laughed.
He answered with a single raised eyebrow. Another look that she had remembered. Fondly. Foolishly. For fifteen years.
You were chattier when you were younger,
She looked out at the rain and then back at him. Was he waiting for an answer? She forced herself to whisper, “We should return to the party.”
To this, he said nothing, and for a thrilling moment, she thought he would suggest the oppositeâthat they stay huddled on the wet balconyâbut then he nodded, dropped his hand, and stepped away.
She slipped from the coat and held it out. The cool night closed in around her, and she was immediately cold. She reached for the door. He held it open and, God help her, she brushed against him when she passed. His body felt hard and warm, solid and unmoving. She tucked the sensation away for laterâfor many, many laters. Their previous exchange had sustained her for fifteen years. This would have to last her for the rest of her life.
he morning after the Countess of Banning's dinner party, Rainsleigh held his pen over the notes from his last meeting with Dunhip.
Marry by year's end
He hesitated only a second before crossing out the first two items, but honestly, few decisions felt more decisively right. By nature, Rainsleigh was a careful, measured man, but he was also decisive and swiftly capable of identifying value when he saw it. Elisabeth, he thought, was valuable. She also presented several other captivating qualities on which he would not allow himself to focus, but there was no mistaking it. She came from a good family. She was reserved and mature and clear-minded. She would be ideal for the viscountcyâand for him. Wavering and waffling and (God forbid) love sickness could be left to some other, less practical man. He'd set out to find a wife, and he'd done it. If only he'd known it would be this easy, he would not have burdened Dunhip. Now, he'd have to deal with the secretary's thinly veiled disappointment.
He looked up at the loyal, eager man. “Dunhip, you may let go of the item I mentioned before.” He cleared his throat. “About finding a wife.”
“I beg your pardon, my lord.”
Oh, not again
. Rainsleigh added a note finality to his tone. “I believe I made myself perfectly clear.”
“But, my lord, I wasn't given enough time.” Dunhip began to turn oddly purple. “I wanted to ensure only the bestâ”
“It's not your fault, Cecil.” Rainsleigh sighed. “I have identified a candidate for the position all on my own. Shocking, I know, but perhaps it's for the best. I will, after all, be the one to have to marry her.”
“Found her on your own?”
Rainsleigh made a vague sound of agreement. He was disinclined to justify Lady Elisabeth to bloody Dunhip. “She's the daughter of an earl,” he said. “Lovely girlâa woman really. âOn the shelf,' some might say, but her maturity suits me. Everything about her suits me. In any event, you may remove the task of wife-hunting from the heap.”
The secretary nodded with faux pleasantness, staring at his knees.
“It was ambitious, I think, to pin the whole thing on you.”
“As you say,” said Dunhip carefully, “but would you have me look into the girl's family or her father's holdings? That is, before youâ”
“Protecting me from mercenaries, are you? Bloody good of you, Cecil. I'm touched. But you needn't worry. She comes from an established family and is preoccupied with charity work. Doubtful she's stalked me for my money. If she intends to fleece me, it is for her charitable cause. To that, I will happily submit. Philanthropy is good for business.”
“Very good, my lord.” Dunhip sighed sorrowfully.
“Oh, but this reminds me, leave the paperwork for the charity prize on my desk. She intends to apply and may call today to collect it.”
“She will marry you
apply for the prize?”
“That is the hope, Dunhip, and thank you for your confidence.”
The secretary had the decency to look chastened. “As you say, my lord.”
A heavy pause.
Dunhip cleared his throat. “What, might I inquire, is the nature of your betrothed's charitable cause?”
“We're not betrothed yet; I only met her last night.”
This, Rainsleigh could admit, sounded a trifle reckless and precipitous when he said it out loud, but if Dunhip had been there, he would have seen. He would have
, as Rainsleigh did.
“I don't know about her charity,” the viscount said. “Something to do with lost girls. The poor among us. Innocent children with no hope or some such.”
Dunhip made a face. “My vision for the application was a very detailed description of the charity, along with specific initiatives for current and future work. We would not want to grant the money to a fly-by-night or an unproven group, my lord. If it pleases you, I can explain to her.”
Rainsleigh picked up a file and flipped it open, studying the charcoal rendering of a dry dock. “I alone will be furnishing the paperwork to her, in particular, Cecil.”
“Quite so. Of course. But, my lord, if I might be so bold, I've conceived the application such that we may sift the wheat from the châ”
“I don't care how you conceived it, Cecil.” He tossed the sketch aside and leaned back in his chair. “The application is immaterial. She's here for paperwork, but my motive is to see her again, learn more about her, ask her permission to call.”
“Oh, but certainly, any woman in England would be honored to be called upon by you, my lord.”
Rainsleigh laughed. “ âCertainty' is one of the few things that money won't buy. I cannot say what she might or might not be honored to do. All I know is that I want her.” The words surprised himâout before he realized what he was going to say. He rubbed a hand over his neck and pictured Lady Elisabeth's face in his mind. It was a true statement. He
want her. Very much.
“If only everyone were as easy to impress as you, Dunhip,” Rainsleigh said. “I don't intend to wheedle her for an audience, if that's what you think. It's merely . . . ” He rubbed his finger across his lips. He wasn't entirely sure, he acknowledged, what he would ask her or why. He could hardly go in with his sudden designs on her future. All he knew was that he wanted to see her again.
“I'm sure you won't be surprised that I wish to do things properly,” Rainsleigh finished. “If I intend to call on her, then I should ask permission first. It will sound more natural, I think, if she is already here on the charity errand. That said, leave the paperwork.”
The secretary complied begrudgingly, and they worked on shipyard invoicing for an hour more, until the butler interrupted to announce a guest.
“The Marchioness of Frinfrock,” Sewell intoned, handing the viscount her card. “I told her I would ascertain if you were âin,' my lord, and she assured me that you are. Claims you promised her a tour of the house.”
Rainsleigh thought about it, turning the card in his hand.
His inquisitor from last night. His first inclination was to send her away, if for no other reason than he was exceedingly busy, and Dunhip was already in a petulant mood. Still, in hindsight, the old woman had done him a great service last night. The result of her interrogation was that, for once, everyone had the story straight. The guests left the Countess of Banning's dinner with answers to the questions no one dared ask. No one but this old bat. She'd pumped him for the unknown details of his life and allowed him to speak for himselfâor rather, had allowed a certain ginger-haired lady to leap from her seat and rattle off an impassioned history that summed up everything in glowing terms.
The entire exchange was over and done in a quarter hour or less, and the only person who looked truly ridiculous was the marchioness. Clearly, she couldn't have cared less. The least he could do was give her a tour.
“I will see her,” he told Sewell slowly, dismissing Dunhip with a nod.
Ten minutes later, the marchioness informed him of how the tour would go. “My companion is here to accompany me because the sheer distance we may travel within this mammoth structure might do me ill. Miss Breedlowe,
,” she hissed to the tall woman beside her, “do not hover. I am not on the verge of collapse”âshe shot Rainsleigh a warning lookâ“yet.”
Rainsleigh nodded to the younger woman. “How do you do?”
The woman bobbed a respectful dip and inclined her head. With a gentle smile, she said, “It is a pleasure to meet you, my lord. I am Jocelyn Breedlowe.”
“Miss Breedlowe, yes,” he said, “I believe I've made your acquaintance once or twice before. Next door, is it?”
She nodded. “Indeed. When I am not serving as, er, companion to the marchioness, I assist the Countess of Falcondale with personal matters. Before they sailed for Far East, she spoke very highly of you.”
“Let us not bore Lord Rainsleigh with your myriad occupations, Miss Breedlowe; we'll be here all week.” Lady Frinfrock looked right and left. “Very well, Lord Rainsleigh. Let us commence. My God, is there a written guide? An atlas, perhaps?”
Their hour-long tour visited every room, including the closets and cupboards, with a triple turn around the garden. When they'd finally seen it allâindeed, when they'd heard a critical comment about nearly every detailâthe marchioness pronounced the lone compliment of the day. “ 'Tis, at the very least, an improvement over the neglected heap that Lord Falcondale would have it be. You may call upon me about your garden drains before the next heavy rain.”
“Thank you,” he said, the only appropriate answer. He nodded to Sewell to open the front door and effectively send them on their way. He'd been patient and amenable for forty-five minutes longer than he was, on most days, capable. He'd only just turned to go when the marchioness could be heard gasping on the stoop.
But who is this?
” she breathed.
Gritting his teeth, Rainsleigh turned. A carriage had arrived. The marchioness now squinted disapprovingly into the glare on its polished door. “The Countess of Banning?”
Rainsleigh went still. Something like satisfaction seeped through his chest. In that moment, he became doubly motivated to be rid of the marchioness. Miss Breedlowe sensed his impatience and endeavored to spur the old woman along.
“It is likely,” Miss Breedlowe said, “that the viscount will entertain numerous callers before luncheon. Let us find our own lunch and leave him free to attend other business.”
“Other business?” the marchioness asked. “But he was at Denby House in the company of the countess for hours last night, as was I. The meal was interminable; I thought it would never end.
” the marchioness went on, shaking her head. “But 'tis
the countess. 'Tis the
of the countess.” She shaded her eyes and watched a groom fuss with the carriage steps. “But surely she has not come alone. To call on you, Rainsleigh?” She peered back through the front door.
“I cannot say,” he drawled, “but if it is Lady Elisabeth, she has likely come on the business of her charity. She expressed her interest in my charity donation last night, I believe.”
The marchioness harrumphed and shook her head. She looked at Miss Breedlowe. “What is it about this house, Miss Breedlowe? Young women, turning up alone, with this business or that? If it's not one bachelor, it's another.” She pointed her cane at Rainsleigh. “I urge you to apply to your erstwhile neighbor, Lord Falcondale, if you want to know how much carrying on I will tolerate in Henrietta Place. Very little, in fact. Better still, none at all.”
Rainsleigh sighed. “I can assure you, my lady, there is no âcarrying on.' ” The words were cordial, but he was rapidly becoming genuinely annoyed. Of all the transgressions of which he could be accused, he was most sensitive to imprudence.
He opened his mouth to offer his most civil version of
but Lady Frinfrock spoke over him. “Take note, Lord Rainsleigh. Miss Breedlowe, God save her, has served as chaperone in instances such as this. Do you hear? I cannot speak for her, but I feel certain she would be predisposed if situations with young lady callers persist. I'm sure you are aware this is highly irregular.” She looked back and forth between Rainsleigh and the young woman in the street. “Charity business or not.”
Miss Breedlowe turned pink and sighed. “Oh, Lady Frinfrock.”
Voices could be heard nowâ
voiceâand Rainsleigh lost all interest in the conversation. “There is no cause for concern, I assure you,” he lied, “but I appreciate your attentiveness and resourcefulness. Good day, my lady.” He nodded to Sewell, and the butler assisted the duo down the steps and on their way.
In the next moment, Lady Elisabeth was inside, smiling, fussing with Sewell about her cloak, shooting Rainsleigh a glance and then away, looking around the marble entryway in wide-eyed wonder.
“Thank you,” she said for a third time, declining the butler's help. She held a hand to the clasp on her wool cloak. “I won't stay long.”
Oh, but you might
, Rainsleigh thought, working not to stare.
Today, she wore pale greenâthe cloak, at least, was green. He was immensely curious about what she wore beneath it. Her gloves were ivory. Her hair was bound only at the crown of her head; the length of it spilled long and loose down her back. Last night, she'd worn it pinned. Now, he hoped to never see it pinned again.
She looked bright and energetic, standing in a beam of sunlight that spilled from the transom above the door. He had the unthinkable urge to touch her, as he had done, fleetingly, on the balcony last night. He was bombarded, he realized, with unthinkable urges. He cleared his throat and took a step back.
Elisabeth smiled at him again and craned to see the hall beyond. “Lady Frinfrock was not exaggerating, my lord. This is quite a house. It dwarfs the other houses in the street.”
He stopped short of asking her if she liked it. “Fancy a tour?” he said.
She laughed again. “Oh, no, I wouldn't dream of detaining you. I've only come for the application. In fact, I assumed I would not see you at all. I thought perhaps your secretary could provide it.”
“ 'Tis no disruption. But do allow Sewell to take your cloak. And please,” he said, leading the way, “join me in the library.”
he room into which Elisabeth was led reminded her of an aviary. An ornately carved, dark-stained-oak aviary with at least a thousand books. The ceiling was so high, birds could have flown freely, built nests, preened, sung, perhaps even migrated. She wondered if he considered this possible dual purpose. Likely notâalthough his desk, a massive slab of polished wood in the middle of the roomâwas littered with papers. To catch droppings? She almost laughed out loud. Nerves wreaked havoc on her composure.