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Noelle nodded, holding her breath as she pressed the third towel to her neck. “I think I’ve caught fire.”

“Not quite.” Chloe lay a palm against Noelle’s cheek, smiling with satisfaction as she headed toward the door. “Hold the towels against your skin until you hear my voice coming down the hall. Then stuff the cloths and the basin under your bed.”

“I’ll probably be numb with pain by then.”

“No,” Chloe assured her, easing open the door. “But you will be if Papa finds out what you’ve done.”

The railway station at Poole was crowded with people awaiting the morning train to London. The January day was grey and cold, inspiring many passengers—especially those with small children—to stay inside the musty one-story building after purchasing their tickets rather than going out to brave the chilly winter air.

Noelle wasn’t one of those people.

Urging Grace along, she pushed through the door and hurried outside to stand as close as possible to the fence bordering the tracks that would soon bring their train. Impatiently, she shifted from one foot to the other, wrapping her mantle more tightly about her and praying the train would arrive on schedule. No one else appeared to be concerned, she noted, observing the businessmen who leaned on their walking sticks, skimming the pages of the
London Times
and taking an occasional peek at their pocket watches, or the women who chatted gaily amongst themselves, keeping a watchful eye on their frolicking children whose peals of laughter emerged in frosty puffs.

Then again, none of these other passengers shared Noelle’s frenzied haste.

“Are you sure the gift you want to buy Lord Farrington can be found only in London?” Grace demanded, retying her bonnet with a scowl.

Noelle sighed, answering that question for the dozenth time since she’d presented her dilemma to the all-too-suspicious lady’s maid—offering her the same vague, easily fulfilled objective as she had the last eleven times. “I’m sure, Grace. The tiepin I spotted for Papa was in a shop on Regent Street. It was exquisite and most unusual. I’m certain we could never find anything even remotely like it in the village.”

“Still, with your parents away from Farrington all day, I’m uneasy about traveling—”

“It’s for Papa, Grace.” Without mincing words, Noelle went straight for the maid’s Achilles’ heel, unwilling to lose the battle now when she was so very close to achieving her goal. “I want his birthday to be special, and I know how much he admires that tiepin. He’s said so countless times—in a most wistful tone.”

“Very well. Since it is for Lord Farrington. …” With a conceding sniff, Grace folded her arms across her ample bosom and fell silent.

Thank goodness. Noelle nearly sagged with relief—although mollifying Grace’s objections was but a small portion of the battle. She’d feel a lot better if they were already seated in their first-class carriage on that bloody train, en route to London. She chewed her lip, reminding herself that, with a modicum of luck she’d be in Town in just over four hours. That would give her several hours before she needed to catch a return train to Poole, then summon a carriage to transport them the five miles back to Farrington Manor.

If her family left the village even one minute earlier than was customary on these full-day excursions, their arrival at Farrington Manor would precede hers, and they’d discover she was gone.

At which point her father would have her head.

Noelle rubbed the folds of her soft blue day dress between nervous fingers. She’d mapped things out thoroughly. The investigation file had clearly stated the location of the art gallery. It was one block off Regent Street, right in the heart of London. Her plan was simple and direct. She’d walk in, stroll about, casually inquire which gentleman was Mr. Baricci, then look her fill—trying to perceive exactly what made such a man tick—and take her leave. She’d have plenty of time to stop off in that dignified men’s shop on Regent Street and purchase her father’s tiepin before she veered off to the art gallery, and more than enough time afterwards to hurry back to the railroad station and catch the late afternoon train to Poole.

Unless something went wrong.

It wouldn’t. She wouldn’t allow it.

A clamor of clanging and hissing interrupted her thoughts, heralding the arrival of her train, and Noelle smiled, triumph surging through her veins. It was on time. She had both Grace’s and her tickets. All she had to do was climb into the first-class coach, settle herself in the compartment to which she’d been assigned, and heave an enormous sigh of relief.

London was at her fingertips.

Promise me you won’t seek him out.

Her father’s words echoed in Noelle’s head, spawning a twinge of guilt.

I won’t, Papa,
she vowed silently, squelching the unwanted twinge.
I won’t seek him out. All I’ll do is look.

“It appears we’re traveling alone,” Grace commented, wedging her chunky body into the high-backed seat.

Noelle nodded, looking about her and noting the four empty seats. “That should please you. Now you can get that extra sleep you were grumbling I’d deprived you of.”

“Humph.” Muttering a bit, Grace folded her hands in her lap. “I can’t sleep in trains. They’re too noisy.”

She was snoring before they left the station.

With an inward chuckle, Noelle leaned her head back and gazed out the window, watching the final passengers board. Her breath released in a rush when the coach finally jerked into motion, leaving the station behind. Thank goodness. They were on their way.

Twenty minutes later, she was bored.

Shifting restlessly in her seat, Noelle reached into her mantle pocket, extracting the two items she’d brought along to entertain herself: a novel and some playing cards. Well, neither would do. She was far too excited to read, and given that Grace’s head had now drooped into her bosom, there was clearly no partner with whom to share a rousing game of piquet. She’d simply have to watch the passing scenery until she either died of boredom or fell asleep.

The former was more likely than the latter.

She was thumbing idly through her novel when the train reached Southampton’s station about an hour and a half later. With some degree of interest, she studied the crowd of passengers that were boarding, the largest number thus far. Again, mostly businessmen, their faces hidden beneath top hats, only their whiskers peeking out as they climbed into their respective coaches. A few families, children in tow, headed for the second-class section, coats wrapped about them to keep out the chill.

A solitary man standing on the platform, hands jabbed in his pockets, caught Noelle’s eye.

There was something formidable about him, she decided. Maybe it was his size, or perhaps the power of his build. No, more likely it was his stance—straight and unyielding, taut, rigidly still. His massive shoulders were thrown back; his head, even beneath a top hat, was held visibly high—as if he were surveying his army and, as their commander, preparing to lead his men into battle.

Noelle found herself straining to make out his features. But only his chin and mouth—both hard, his lips full, severely set—were visible from this distance and with that bloody impeding hat in the way.

As if sensing her scrutiny, he turned his head in her direction.

Hastily, Noelle looked away. The last thing she needed right now was to daydream about some dark and forbidding stranger. The only stranger she could focus on today was Baricci.

An icy chill shivered up her back as she contemplated coming face to face with her sire. Now that it was no longer a notion but a reality, she wondered how she’d feel when she set eyes on him for the first—the only—time. Oh, he wouldn’t know who she was. But she’d know him: the man who’d impregnated Liza Bromleigh and bolted; the man who, then and now, made a career out of exploiting innocent women, then abandoning them.

Her papa was right. Baricci was a scoundrel. In fact, the only thing more despicable than his actions were those of Liza herself.

Now that Noelle had grown to adulthood, and thanks to a lifetime of familial love, she could reflect on her natural mother with incredulity and denunciation rather than with pain and rage. Although how in the name of heaven a woman could reject her own child, refuse to hold it, nurture it, was beyond Noelle’s comprehension. Still, for her it had turned out to be a blessing, giving her Brigitte and Eric as a mother and father.

It was for that extraordinary father that she ached. Because while she herself had never known Liza, never had to come to terms with who, what, her natural mother really was, Eric had raised Liza from when their own parents had died, loved her and protected her more as a daughter than a sister. And what had she offered him in return? Renunciation. Desertion. Degradation. And more grief and pain than he’d been able to withstand. He’d been emotionally dead when Brigitte came into his life, and without her healing love he might never have recovered.

Just pondering her father’s agony, Noelle’s hands balled into fists at her sides. Sometimes, late at night, she’d lie awake, staring at the ceiling and aching for the torment he’d endured those years after Liza’s death—years she herself had been too young to fully understand. It was that torment, that suffering Liza had caused him, that Noelle could never forgive.

Would seeing Baricci conjure up within her a wealth of resentment for the pain he had caused her father? Probably. But even so, Noelle had to go.

Abruptly, the compartment door slid open and a tall, broad-shouldered man in a dark wool coat stepped in.

It was the man from the platform.

“Good morning, ladies.” He tipped his hat, a flicker of amusement crossing his face as he realized Grace was sound asleep. “Good morning to you, then,” he amended, his gaze meeting Noelle’s as he tossed his hat negligently to the seat.

“Good morning,” Noelle managed, unable to look away, her curiosity spiraling along with her pulses as she openly studied her new companion.

He was perhaps the most charismatic, if not the handsomest, man she’d ever seen—his powerful frame seeming to fill the compartment with that imposing presence she’d sensed from afar. As for handsome—well, the word just didn’t suit. Handsome applied to chiseled beauty, the type of graceful good looks depicted in paintings or sculptures. This man was far too overwhelming to be deemed handsome. His features were too hard, too severe. His raven black hair was unfashionably long in the back, and strands of it slashed across his broad forehead in bold lines; his eyes—a startling contrast of greys and greens highlighted by sparks of burnished orange—were a kaleidoscope of color and intensity. The harsh lines about his mouth emanated power, and yet when he smiled—which he was doing now—he looked almost boyish, as if he possessed some coveted secret that was his alone to savor.

His smile faded, his penetrating stare taking her in from head to toe—not once but twice—assessing her with a self-assurance that bordered on the audacious.

With an undisguised gleam of approval, he took the seat directly across from her, his knees brushing hers as he settled in. “Pardon me.” His voice was as commanding as he, a rich, deep baritone that flowed through Noelle like warm honey.

“That’s quite all right.” Her heart was slamming so hard against her ribs she could scarcely speak. She wet her lips with the tip of her tongue, forcing out the first question that came to mind. “Are you going to London on business?”

Another smile. “I am. And you?” His gaze flickered from Noelle to Grace—who was emitting a series of unladylike snores—to the small basket of bread and cheese Grace had tucked beneath their seats. “Are you off to Town on a shopping spree?”

“More or less.”

“More or less?” The man removed a folded newspaper from beneath his arm, laying it down upon the empty seat beside him. “Now that sounds intriguing.”

“Not really.” With a silent reprimand, Noelle reminded herself that she’d never allowed anyone to intimidate her before, much less the limited number of men to whom she’d been exposed. Not only was she blatantly outspoken, she was far from unworldly. She’d traveled with her parents, accompanied them to the continent, to Scotland, certainly to Town, and she’d been introduced to all the people they knew, men and women alike. Further, she was being brought out in two months and had been well schooled in conversation—something she was rarely at a loss for anyway. So why was she behaving like such a ninny around this man?

Because he took her breath away.

“If you keep staring at me like that, I’ll be forced to ask you why,” he noted in a teasing drawl.

“Please don’t,” Noelle returned swiftly. “Because if you ask, I’ll be forced to answer. And, given that I’m disgustingly forthright, I’ll doubtless blurt out an honest reply. At which point I’ll probably die of embarrassment.”

Husky laughter rumbled from his chest. “We can’t have that. You’re far too lovely to expire. And for so unworthy a cause. I’ll change subjects and instead ask your name.”

Noelle smiled. “A much safer question. I’m Lady Noelle Bromleigh. And you?”

“Ashford Thornton.”

“Ashford Thornton?” Noelle’s eyes widened with interest. “Are you any relation to Pierce Thornton, the Duke of Markham?”

“Indeed I am. He’s my father.”

“Is he?” Noelle’s thoughts spun into motion, careening along as she remembered every wonderful, generous gift the duke had donated to her great-grandfather’s parish, all the needy children he and his duchess had fed—not only through their contributions, but through their personal visits to the villages, and most especially, the schoolhouses. “Your mother and father are exceptional people,” she said fervently. “I can’t tell you what a difference they’ve made—to my great-grandfather, to the children of his parish.”

“I thank you. I also agree—my parents are extraordinary.” Ashford Thornton inclined his head. “Then again, if I’m correct, so are yours. In fact, with regard to your great-grandfather’s parish, Mother and Father had a fair amount of help in providing for those children. Help, I believe, that came from your father and mother.”

“You know Mama and Papa?”

BOOK: Andrea Kane
6.5Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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