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Authors: Candace Camp

Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #Regency, #General

A Winter Scandal (7 page)

BOOK: A Winter Scandal
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“What’s happened?” Lord Wofford went on, coming farther into the room. “Who is that child?” He turned toward the other two men. “Myles? Alan? Gabriel! What the devil is going on?”

Lord Morecombe shook his head, seemingly coming out of his stupor. He cast a glance at Wofford. “Tell you later.” Reaching out, Morecombe grabbed Thea’s wrist and strode out of the room, pulling her after him.

“What are you doing? Let go of me!” Thea protested, trying in vain to wrest her arm from his grasp. She turned toward the other men and saw that they were all three staring after them, mouths agape in astonishment.

“Don’t just stand there,” Morecombe snapped at the footman, who was also goggling at them. “Fetch her cloak.”

“Yes, my lord. Of course, my lord.” The man jumped to retrieve Thea’s cloak and advanced toward them, holding out the garment with some trepidation.

“Good God, man, she won’t bite.” Morecombe grabbed the cloak from the servant’s hands and draped it around her shoulders. “At least,” he added as he tied the strings at her throat, looking down at her with—unbelievably!—a small smile playing at the corners of his mouth, “I don’t think she would bite very hard.”

“Really!” His smile managed, somehow, to both light her indignation and at the same time wipe out her spurt of fear. “If that isn’t the outside of enough! Clearly, you must be accustomed to dragging ladies off into the night.”

He let out a chuckle as he grabbed his many-caped greatcoat from the hall tree and thrust his arms into it. “Oh, but I rarely drag off
ladies,
” he countered provocatively, taking her by the arm again, this time with a less bruising grip, and steering her out the front door.

He guided her across the yard toward the stables, shouting to his grooms to saddle his horse. It was still misting, and Thea pulled up her hood and wrapped her cloak protectively over the baby as well. For his part, the baby seemed to find this latest trip great fun and kept squirming until his head was once again free of the enveloping cloak.

“Your friends are utterly useless,” Thea grumbled. “They just stood there as you
abducted
me.”

“I would say they were quite useful to me,” he pointed out, and grinned, showing white, even teeth.

“Scarcely gentlemen,” she countered.

“In their defense, my friends, being rational men, were not afraid that I was about to run mad and slaughter you. Though given your behavior, I can certainly understand why you might expect that sort of reaction from men.”

“It will no doubt surprise you to learn that I have never before been threatened by a man.”

Again came that slashing grin. “It does, indeed. But let me reassure you on that score. All I want is for you to show me where you found this child.”

They had reached the shelter of the stables, and a groom hurried forward, leading a splendid roan gelding. As Thea looked at the animal, wondering exactly how they would ride, given that there was only one horse and she was holding a baby, Gabriel took the baby from her and handed it to the startled groom, then lifted Thea onto the horse. She was so shocked she could not speak, just took Matthew as Gabriel handed him up to her. Morecombe swung up into the saddle behind her and took the reins from the groom, and they started off.

“You might have at least asked,” Thea snapped, struggling to hold the baby and manage to stay perfectly upright and not let her body touch his even though his arms were around her on either side.

“Asked what?” He glanced down at her.

“If I wished to go or whether I wanted to get on this horse. Or—or anything.”

“Did you wish to remain at my house?”

“No, of course not.”

“Would you have preferred to walk back to town?”

“No. That’s not the point.”

“What is the point?”

“That you are arrogant and unmannerly, and you treat people as if they were your servants.”

“I beg your pardon.” His tone implied that he did not mean those words in the slightest. “I did not order you to do anything.”

“No, you didn’t even speak, just grabbed my arm and pulled me along behind you.”

He grimaced. “Holy hell, are you going to continue to natter about this all the way into town? I need to see where you found my sister’s brooch. My manners were not the first thought on my mind. And would you quit squirming about? What are you doing?”

“Trying to stay upright. It’s a trifle difficult when one is holding a baby and has no purchase and is riding sideways in front of another.”

“Oh, the devil! What is the matter with you?” One arm tightened around her, pulling her flush against him. “Relax and you’ll be fine. I won’t let you fall off. Tempting as it might be to jettison you, I have to keep you.”

Thea would have liked to make a sharp retort, but her brain would not work. She was sure a blush must be spreading over her entire person. She had never had her body pressed against a man’s this way. Even with his coat and her cloak and all their clothes between them, it seemed positively immoral to be leaning against him. But the motion of the horse worked against her; it
was
much easier to sit this way, letting his body support hers.

However, she could not say that she was comfortable. She was far too aware of Gabriel’s body. His coat was unbuttoned, and as they rode, the sides fell apart, so that even the protection of that heavy cloth between them was gone. He was hard and muscular. She could feel his chest slide against her side with the rhythm of the horse, and the tightening and relaxation of his thigh muscles as he guided the animal. His arms enveloped her. Her nostrils were filled with the scent of his skin and the faint trace of shaving soap, the tang of spiced wine on his breath. Thea shivered at her immediate response to his nearness.

“Cold?” he asked, reaching down to draw his coat around her and the baby. He tightened his arms around her to hold the coat in place, literally wrapping her in his warmth.

Thea closed her eyes and lowered her head to rest against the baby’s. He was nestled against her, his small body relaxed, and she realized that Matthew was falling asleep. He made a soft noise and rubbed his head against her chest, sinking more deeply into sleep. Her throat closed, and she found herself blinking back tears. It seemed so sweet, so right, to hold the precious weight of this small body against her, to be cocooned in Gabriel’s embrace, his heat and strength all around her, protecting and sheltering her.

It was silly, she told herself. Gabriel’s gesture had been only a gentlemanly move, done more to protect the baby than anything else. It meant nothing. She did not want anything from him anyway. But she could not deny the way emotion surged in her, warming and opening her, a variety of sensations tangling through her in a most confusing way. How could she experience this maternal tenderness spreading through her chest and at the same time have an altogether different sort of stirring lower in her body? It seemed perverse and a little wicked, yet she could not deny that she felt both things.

She shifted fractionally, and something stirred against her hip. She realized that Gabriel’s body had moved in response to her own movement, and her cheeks flamed. Was he … had he … Thea could not even think the words; in truth, she could not really put words to what she instinctively knew. It was embarrassing, scandalous, and even worse was that she wanted, perversely, to feel that movement again. She was tempted to shift once more and see what happened, to press herself more firmly into his body, or to rub her cheek against his hard chest.

She knew that was wrong. It had to be wrong. She shouldn’t be wanting such things, thinking such thoughts. Thea squeezed her eyes even more tightly shut, concentrating on willing away her errant emotions. That was something she had mastered long ago, shoving aside that which did not fit or was not right or hurt too much. But it was rather harder, she realized now, to deny sensations that she was continuing to feel. How was she to stop thinking of the strength of his arms when they were hard around her? It was impossible, surely, not to notice the muscles that bunched in his thighs when the horse skittered a little to one side. And when his torso rubbed against hers with every step their mount took, causing the most intriguing friction, well, her mind simply could not seem to maintain control. She was a jumble of nerves, a confusing mixture of hot and cold and fear and eagerness.

With relief, she saw the first houses of the village in front of her. She straightened, putting a little distance between her and Gabriel, and glanced up at him. He turned his eyes down to look at her, but she could read nothing in his countenance. It was almost completely dark now, and his eyes were shadows in the planes and angles of his face.

She wondered what he had felt earlier, what he had thought. Had that physical reaction meant anything? She had no way of knowing. The male mind was a mystery to her. The only men she had ever known well were her father and brother, and she was certain that they were a world away from a man like Gabriel Morecombe.

“Well?” he asked, and Thea jumped, startled. For an instant, she thought he had been asking her about the direction of her thoughts, but then he went on, “Where are we going?”

“Oh. Yes. Turn left in the center of the village and go almost to the edge of town.” When they neared the vicarage, she pointed to it, saying, “There.”

“You found the baby here?” Gabriel pulled the horse to a stop. He dismounted, then reached up to lift Thea from the horse and set her on her feet. “What is this house?” He glanced toward the church looming past the house as he reached down to tie his mount’s reins to the low iron fence. “The vicarage?”

“Yes. I mean, yes, this is the vicarage. But it’s not where I found the baby.” She started up the walk, curving around to go in the kitchen door.

He fell into step beside her. “Then why are we going here? I thought you were going to show me where you found him.”

“I live here,” Thea answered simply.

He stopped abruptly. “You what?”

“I
live
here.” She turned to face him. “I am the vicar’s sister.”

His gaze narrowed, and he reached forward to push her hood back from her face. He stared at her for a long moment. “The devil you say. I met you at the dance. Miss Falbridge.”

Thea rolled her eyes. “Bainbridge,” she snapped at him. “My name is Althea Bainbridge.” She whirled and stalked away.

Five

G
abriel stood for a moment,
looking after Thea, then followed her as she stepped into the kitchen. The warmth of the kitchen enveloped them, the air redolent with the scents of cooking. Mrs. Brewster turned at their entrance, and her eyebrows sailed upward at the sight of Gabriel Morecombe. She cut her eyes toward Thea.

“I was just about to take your brother an early supper on a tray to his office, Miss Althea. We wasn’t sure when you’d be back. You want me to change to the dining table, then?” Her gaze flickered back to Gabriel. “Should I set more places?”

“No, it’s fine.” Thea kept her voice low so as not to disturb the sleeping baby. “Go on. I have something to do. I’m just putting the little one to bed first.”

Thea squatted beside the basket and eased the baby down into it. No one moved or spoke as Matthew squirmed, then let out a tiny sigh and continued to sleep. Thea arranged the blanket over him and stood up.

“I shall return soon,” Thea promised the housekeeper, and Mrs. Brewster nodded as she picked up the tray of food. With a last glance back at Gabriel, she left the room.

Thea lit the candle, then turned and started toward the outside door, all without saying a word to Gabriel. Gabriel opened the door, grinning, and followed her outside.

“I didn’t recognize you earlier,” he said in an explanatory way.

“That was obvious,” Thea snapped. “Since you accused me of being a lightskirt!”

He let out a laugh. “I didn’t accuse you. I merely assumed. You did not, um, look like a vicar’s sister.”

“You are impossible.” Thea whirled to face him. “Any decent man would be embarrassed at making such a mistake. He would be appalled to have insulted a gentlewoman in that manner. All you can do is laugh.”

He grinned. “I suppose I am not a decent man. I have been told so before.”

“You needn’t seem so pleased about it.”

She whipped back around and started toward the church. Gabriel came up beside her, saying conversationally, “In my defense, you did not look like the woman I met the other night.”

Thea reached beneath her cloak and dug her spectacles out of her pocket. She put them on and once again turned to face him. “There. Is that better? Am I Miss ‘Falbridge’ now? Or perhaps Miss ‘Dandridge’?”

He studied her, his head a little to one side. She had meant to shame him, but, she realized, she herself was beginning to feel uncomfortable beneath his gaze. He reached out and smoothed his hand over her tumbled and wayward hair. He picked up a curl and twined it around his finger thoughtfully. Heat slithered through Thea, and her mind went blank for a moment. Gabriel placed his other hand on the opposite side of her head, shoving her hair back and holding it tightly behind her head. Thea tried to suppress her shiver. She had never had a man’s hands on her so. Strangely, she found it excited more than affronted her.

He nodded. “Yes, I can see it now, Miss Bainbridge.” He released her and executed a bow. “Pray accept my abject apologies.”

Thea grimaced, pulling away and once more walking toward the church, shielding the flickering candle with her hand. Gabriel strode along beside her. As they approached the bridge that led across to the church, he asked, “Exactly where are we going?”

Thea lifted her chin in the direction of the church. “Over there. I found him in the manger in St. Margaret’s.”

Her words were met with a moment of silence. Then Gabriel said, “You’re not serious.”

Thea glanced at him. “I am not the sort of woman who makes jests, Lord Morecombe.”

“No. I can see you are not.”

“We have a manger that we plan to use Christmas Eve. It was sitting in the vestibule. As I was decorating the sanctuary, I heard a noise, and when I went to investigate, there was Matthew, peeking over the edge.”

“Matthew?”

Thea shrugged, looking a little uncomfortable. “That is what I decided to call him. I had no idea what his name was, but I could hardly keep calling him
the baby,
now, could I?”

“I imagine many would.”

“Well, I did not.”

“And why did you choose
Matthew
?”

“I would have named him after the church, but it is St. Margaret’s, so that wouldn’t do. The name Matthew means ‘gift of God.’ So it seemed appropriate, given the circumstances.”

“It’s a very good name,” Gabriel said with a smile. “It suits him.”

“Oh. Well … thank you.”

Gabriel opened the door, and they stepped into the church. The candle’s flame cast a small circle of light, barely illuminating the vestibule. The sanctuary lay like a dark cave beyond the second set of doors. Thea moved over to the manger and held the candle over it.

“This is where he was. I’m afraid there’s little enough here to see.”

He joined her at the small wooden manger. “There was nothing else with him? No note?”

Thea shook her head. “Only the little blanket and his cap. I didn’t see the brooch until later at the vicarage. It was attached to his swaddling band beneath his baby gown.”

“Hidden, then.”

“Yes, I suppose so. I’m not sure why. Maybe she thought if she left it pinned to his gown, someone might steal it without taking the baby. At least if it was beneath his clothes, whoever found it would have been kind enough to take care of him.”

“That would make sense. I wonder if she meant it for payment for the baby’s needs—or did she hope someone would identify the child and bring him to me?”

“I’m not sure it would be obvious that the brooch was yours. I assumed it only because I noticed your ring the other night.”

“A note would be more certain,” he agreed. “Damn it, why wouldn’t she have left some word?”

“My lord! You’re in a church!”

“What? Oh. Yes. Sorry.” He said the words absently, turning away and looking around him. He took the candle from Thea’s hands and squatted down, searching the floor around the manger. “I had hoped there might be footprints.”

“We keep the church clean. There’s no dust. And it’s been too dry recently for anyone to muddy their shoes walking in.”

He straightened and set the candlestick down on the small table by the door. “You said ‘she.’”

“What?”

“You referred to whoever left the baby as ‘she.’ Did you see her? Maybe a glimpse? Something that made you think it was a woman?”

“No.” Thea shook her head. “I didn’t see anyone. I just assumed that the person who left him was his mother. I don’t know who it was at all. I’m sorry. I wish I could tell you more.”

Gabriel sighed and leaned back against the wall, rubbing one hand across his forehead. “No doubt this all seems most peculiar.”

Thea shrugged. “There is no need to explain.”

He cast a sardonic look at her. “After having a baby thrust on you? After being dragged over here to show me where you found him? Surely you must want an explanation.”

“Well, yes, of course I do.

But it would be rude to pry.”

His mouth quirked up appealingly on one side. “Since we have established that I am a man without decency, I think there’s little need to avoid rudeness, don’t you?”

He straightened up and began to pace the length of the vestibule, his hands shoved into his pockets. “My sister, Jocelyn, is eleven years younger than I. My father remarried after my mother died, and Jocelyn is their child. I wasn’t raised with her, really, since I was off to school when she was only two or three years old. So we were not close in that way, but I loved her. Our father died when she was only sixteen, so I was her guardian as well. I tried to look after her and protect her; I wanted what was best for her. I was glad when she became engaged to a good friend of mine. I thought she would have a happy marriage. But then, suddenly, Jocelyn ran away.” He stopped and turned to face Thea. “She left a note saying that she could not marry Lord Rawdon. She said she was going to a ‘better life’ and that we should not try to follow her.”

“And did you … not follow her, I mean?”

He shook his head. “Of course not. She was only nineteen. She had never lived on her own. It was absurd. I went to all her friends, our relatives. But she had not run to any of them. I checked at all the inns to see if she had hired a post chaise. I even inquired about the mail coaches, though I could not imagine Jocelyn taking one. So I brought in a Bow Street Runner, but he had no better luck. I searched everywhere I could think of, but there was nothing. Nothing! That was over a year ago. In all this time, this”—he held up the brooch—”is the first sign I’ve found of her.”

“But what does Matthew have to do with your sister? Is the baby hers, do you think?” Thea stopped abruptly, realizing the implications of what she had said. “I’m sorry. I should not ask such a thing.”

He shook his head. “It doesn’t matter. ’Tis the obvious question. The truth is, I have no idea. Why would her brooch be on the child if he were not hers? But if he is hers, why did she not come to me for help? Did she think I would turn her away? That I would not help her? I would never have done that.”

Moved by his obvious distress, Thea reached out and laid a comforting hand on his arm. “I am sure she must know that.” She smiled. “If your sister is the one who left Matthew here, I am sure she was counting on you. I don’t know why she did not come to you herself, but I suspect it may have been more that she felt embarrassed. Ashamed. But she knew she could trust in your generosity.”

He gazed down into Thea’s face for a moment, a faint smile forming on his lips. “Thank you. You are good to say so, considering that I have been less than gentlemanly toward you.” He covered her hand with his. “I truly am sorry that I did not remember you this afternoon.”

Thea stepped back, shrugging. “It was not the first time.”

As soon as the words were out of her mouth, Thea wished she could have them back. They revealed far too much. Quickly she turned away, trying to think of something to stop the questions she could see forming in his eyes. Unfortunately, her mind was an utter blank.

“What did you say?” Morecombe asked. “It wasn’t the first time? What do you mean?”

“Nothing, really. We had best get back to the house now. I’m sure Mrs. Brewster will be ready to leave soon, and—”

“No. Wait.” He circled around to face her again. “I am sure that was not ‘nothing.’ You said that it was not the first time I didn’t remember you?”

“Don’t be absurd. How many times could you forget me?” That had not come out well, either, she thought. There had been the echo of hurt in the words. Why could she not say something light and airy? She had had years of practice at telling polite lies—assuring someone that her new grandson was handsome or thanking a skinflint for his generosity in making a pitifully small donation to the church or declaring that she much preferred to sit and chat with the matrons than dance with the other young people. Why was it proving so difficult to conceal what she felt from this man?

“I would have said I wouldn’t forget a woman even once,” he retorted. “Particularly not one as … um, forthright as you.”

“You mean as shrewish as I.”

He chuckled. “You will not allow one even a sop, will you? My dear Miss Bainbridge, you—” He stopped, narrowing his eyes. “That’s right. You are a Bainbridge. Ian called you ‘cousin,’ did he not? I
have
met you before. Sometime with Ian, no doubt.”

“Do not belabor your memory. It was years and years ago, at a wedding.”

“What wed—” Thea saw the light begin to dawn in his eyes. “Yes! Of course. Sweet Lord, that must have been over ten years ago. How could I not have remembered you at once? You were the girl who tried to talk me out of dancing with her.” His eyes glinted with the same dark mischief they had shown back then, and Thea was sure, her heart sinking, that he remembered everything about that evening, including their kiss.

She turned away again sharply, her cheeks heating up. It just went from bad to worse with this man. Now he would think that the kiss had meant a great deal to her or she would not have remembered it so long. Of course, it was the truth, but it was humiliating that he was aware of it.

“It was nothing, really,” she said, striving for an airy tone. “I cannot think why I would have remembered it myself. I’m sure I must have recalled you only because you were utterly lacking in decorum at the time.”

He reached out and wrapped his hand around her wrist, whirling her back around to face him. Grinning, he said, “Ah, but I am still utterly lacking in decorum.”

He reached out and took her spectacles from her nose, dropping them in the pocket of his coat. Before she could so much as protest or even blink, he wrapped his other arm around her waist and pulled her to him. And, once again, he kissed her.

But this kiss was nothing like the first one. Ten years ago, his mouth had been light on hers, gently pressing into her lips, then pulling away, leaving behind the tingling awareness of him. Now his kiss was hot and searching, his arms enveloping her. She could feel the hard tensile strength of his body all the way up and down her. His scent filled her nostrils, his heat surrounded her. And his mouth … she could not even describe what his mouth did to her, the pandemonium of sensations that flooded through her, igniting her nerves and melting her muscles. His lips caressed and teased; they entreated her to taste the full pleasure of his mouth even as they demanded her response. His tongue invaded her, startling her into a little jerk of surprise. Then, as he caressed and explored, Thea was even more stunned to find her own arms curling around his neck, her tongue twining with his.

He deepened their kiss, his hands sliding down to brazenly cup her buttocks, lifting her up and into him. She felt again, as she had on the ride over, that pressure against her, this time harder and more insistent, and she wanted, wildly, to rub her hips against him just to discover his response. That would be madness, she knew, utter wantonness, but even so she had to firmly clamp down on her desires to keep herself from moving. It was equally difficult to restrain the whimper that threatened to bubble up from the throat, and she had to curl her hands into the cape of his coat to stop them from sliding up into his hair.

BOOK: A Winter Scandal
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