“Not personally. But I certainly know the name Bromleigh. Judging from the ‘lady’ with which you began your introduction, I’m guessing that your parents are the Earl and Countess of Farrington.”
“They are,” Noelle assured him proudly. “And they’re the two finest people on earth, Lord …” She paused, her brows knit in puzzlement. “I’m sorry. I don’t know your title. And you didn’t provide it in
“Is that a requirement?”
Well versed on the subject of the Duke of Markham and the irreverent way in which he’d shouldered his title some thirty-four years ago, Noelle felt a flash of excitement. “Have you chosen not to assume one of your father’s courtesy titles?” she demanded, leaning forward. “Do you, like he, shun the nobility?”
Ashford Thornton’s teeth gleamed. “I fear I’m about to disappoint you. No, I don’t shun the nobility. Nor, for that matter, does Father. Only those who boast nobility and demonstrate none. As for my title, if it would make you feel better, by all means use it. In fact, use any one of them. I’m the Earl of Tremlett, Earl of Charsbrow, Viscount Renwick, and Baron Halsbury. Which do you prefer?”
A flush. “You’re mocking me.”
“I’m teasing you,” he amended.
“In that case, I’ll forgive you,” Noelle returned with a peppery spark. “Lord Tremlett,” she added pointedly.
“Ah, you’re very proper.”
“I have to be. My parents are bringing me out this spring, and I’d best know how to address those whom I meet.”
“A prudent decision.” That audacious stare swept over her again. “But if you’ll forgive my boldness, I doubt you’ll need to worry about using the correct forms of address. With beauty such as yours, the gentlemen will lie panting at your feet, no matter what you call them.”
“Really?” Noelle’s eyes twinkled. “All the more reason for me to sharpen my mind. Panting is for dogs, and floors are for carpets.”
The earl threw back his head in laughter. “An excellent point. So tell me, Lady Noelle, what do you hope to bring to your first London Season? More importantly, what do you hope to gain from it?”
Noelle sobered. “Truthfully, I haven’t given it much thought. I’ve been … preoccupied with other matters.”
“I see.” He didn’t press her, just studied her from beneath hooded lids. “Did I offend you by commenting on your beauty?”
“Of course not. Any woman who denies enjoying such a compliment is a liar.”
“Which, by your own admission, you’re not.”
“Exactly.” Noelle shrugged. “I’m pleased to hear myself referred to as beautiful. On the other hand, I’d like to be referred to as more than that. For example, I’m very quick—of mind and tongue. And actions, too, I suppose. Precocious is how my father referred to me when I was a child.” A self-deprecating grin. “That was actually one of his kinder terms. There were others, not nearly as flattering. Let’s suffice it to say that I’ve kept my parents on their toes these past fourteen years.”
Seeing his puzzlement, Noelle explained, “I’m adopted. My parents became my parents when I was four. From that point on, I went from being a holy terror to being merely—as Papa still calls me—a tempest. Before that … well, to sum it up, I was probably the only child in the world who could boast having been ousted from every decent home in the village; several villages, in fact.”
Lord Tremlett was watching her with an unreadable expression on his face.
Noelle shifted uneasily. “Please don’t pity me, my lord. I’ve long since bid that chapter of my life good-bye, with no lingering scars, thanks to Mama and Papa.”
“I wasn’t pitying you,” he replied bluntly. “I was thinking that those families who turned you out were as blind as most of the men you’ll meet this Season. Both groups are incapable of seeing beneath the surface. More fools they.”
Warmth suffused Noelle’s heart. “Thank you for saying that. Clearly, you’ve inherited your parents’ compassion. They must be very proud of you.” A quizzical look. “What do you do with your time?”
“For work or pleasure?”
Noelle flushed. “I’m not
outspoken that I would pry into your personal life. I meant you don’t strike me as an idle man, one who would be content drifting from club to club and diversion to diversion.”
“Do those diversions include women?”
Her jaw dropped. “Are you intentionally trying to embarrass me?”
“No.” The earl leaned forward, propping his elbow on his knee and his chin atop his hand, the motion of the train propelling him even closer—so close Noelle could see his thick fringe of dark lashes. “I just enjoy watching that glorious spark ignite your eyes.” His voice was low, barely audible over the clanging of the train. “It makes them glow like sapphires.” With that, he eased back in his seat, folding his arms across his chest. “To answer your question, you’re right. I detest being idle. I’m also not very good at playing the landed gentleman. So I work—not for one, for many. I’m an investigator.”
Noelle’s mouth formed a round “o.” “An investigator—do you mean a spy?”
“I’m afraid not. Nothing as exotic as that. I’m an insurance investigator. I check into stolen property, see that victims are compensated for their losses.”
“Are you employed by a company—like Lloyds?”
“I’ve done frequent work for Lloyds, yes. But I’m not exclusively theirs. I prefer to work independently, to pick and choose the assignments I take. For instance, I specialize in the recovery of valuable paintings.”
“Do you live in London?”
“Sometimes. I have a Town home there. I also have a small estate just outside Southampton.” Tremlett’s lips curved slightly. “One I actually purchased, rather than accepted from my father.”
“You’re very proud.”
“I was brought up to be.” An indulgent pause. “Now, have I sufficiently answered all your questions?”
Noelle’s expression turned rueful. “I didn’t mean to interrogate you. When I listed my traits a few minutes ago, I forgot to include over-inquisitive and curious.”
“I don’t feel interrogated. And I suspect there are many more equally colorful traits you neglected to enumerate. In fact, I’m willing to bet there is very little about you that’s blasé, Lady Noelle Bromleigh.”
“You’d definitely win that bet.”
“I generally do.”
That spawned an idea; an exciting way to pass the duration of the trip. “Are you a gambling man, my lord?” Noelle inquired.
“That depends upon the gamble, the stakes, and the winnings,” he returned, flashing her another of those heart-stopping smiles.
“Piquet. No risk. And a delicious late-morning refreshment.”
The earl’s brows rose fractionally. “You’ve lost me.”
Leaning down, Noelle indicated the basket that was nestled on the floor beneath Grace’s seat. “I assume you’re hungry,” she suggested, straightening. “Further, I see you brought with you nothing but a newspaper. Whereas Grace packed enough bread and cheese to feed an army.”
“That sounds enticing.”
“Good.” Noelle extracted her cards from the pocket of her mantle. “I brought these with me in the hopes that Grace and I could play. Unfortunately, …” A quick sideways glance at the deeply slumbering maid, who obliged Noelle by shifting in her seat, muttering something unintelligible and resuming her snores.
Noelle rolled her eyes, and the earl laughed aloud. “Unfortunately, your maid had her own ideas about how she wanted to pass these hours on the railroad,” he supplied.
“Exactly. She’s been asleep since we left Poole Station. Which made the first part of this trip dreadfully boring. Even the scenery lost its appeal after a time: I much prefer conversation to quiet.”
“Then I’m glad I happened along.”
“So am I. And I’d be delighted if you’d join me in a game of piquet. The stakes are nil and the rewards are plenty: all the food you can eat and a wealth of pleasant conversation.”
“That sounds like an ideal wager—for me. What about for you?”
Noelle inclined her head. “For me?”
A nod. “I never wager unfairly. Neither of us is risking anything, but only I stand to gain if I win. You, too, must have an incentive.”
“But there’s nothing I need.”
Tremlett rubbed a hand over his jaw, considering the situation. “What’s your destination once we reach London?”
Noelle hesitated for the barest instant. Then she chided herself. After all, what difference did it make if she told the earl where she was going? “I have two stops to make; one on Regent Street, one just beyond.”
“And then? Will you be staying at your parents’ Town house?”
“No.” Noelle cleared her throat. “I’ll be returning to Poole this evening.”
“I see.” Those penetrating eyes delved inside her. “Then your time in London is short. You won’t want to waste a moment of it.” He waited only until she’d nodded. Then he asked, “How do you intend to get from the station to Regent Street?”
“A hansom, I suppose. I really hadn’t pondered—”
“I’ll take you.”
A corner of his mouth lifted. “If I lose, that is. My carriage will be awaiting me at Waterloo Station. I’ll be riding directly to Regent Street myself; actually, a block and a half beyond. I have several afternoon appointments, beginning with the Franco Art Gallery.”
Noelle’s eyes grew wide as saucers. “Did you say the Franco Art Gallery?”
“Why, yes.” Tremlett looked puzzled. “Is that so odd?”
“No, of course not. It’s just that I, too, am headed there. I have someone I need to see and—” Her mouth snapped shut.
“I thought you said your destination was Regent Street.”
“It is. That’s my first stop. I have to purchase a birthday gift for Papa. Then I’m off to the gallery.”
“Excellent.” Tremlett seemed thoroughly pleased. “Now the possible winnings are equal. If I win, you fill my stomach with food, and if you win, I provide transport into Town. Is that agreed?”
Noelle cast an uneasy glance in Grace’s direction.
“Don’t worry about your maid,” the earl said as if reading her mind. “I’ll explain the situation. She’ll agree to accept my hospitality.” His lips twitched. “Besides, I have yet to compromise a woman on a short carriage ride and in the presence of her lady’s maid.”
“And on a long carriage ride?” Noelle inquired boldly.
A broad grin. “I thought you weren’t interrogating me.”
“Point well-taken. I’m not.” Noelle waved the cards in the air. “Shall we draw or shall I deal?”
“We’ll draw.” He looked as if he were about to burst out laughing. “Dealer has the advantage, or did you think I didn’t know that?”
“Just testing to see how adept my competition is.”
“Very adept.” He patted the empty seat beside him. “Why don’t we use this for our talon and discard pile? I realize you’ll have to scoot to the edge of your seat and lean forward a bit so you can reach, but I don’t see any other alternative. We can’t very well move Grace over, and the armrest is hardly a sufficient playing table. It’s very narrow, and I’m afraid the vibrations of the train will scatter our cards every which way.”
“I don’t mind leaning forward—provided you promise not to look at the cards I’m holding.”
“You have my word. I’ll restrain myself.”
Noelle grinned. “Don’t sound so cocky, my lord. I happen to be an expert piquet player.”
Tremlett acknowledged her admission with an amused lift of his brows. “If that’s the case, then I’m afraid I’ll be arriving in London hungry.”
“I suspect so. Now go ahead and draw.” Noelle waited until he had, then drew her own card.
Her entire face lit up when she saw she held an ace.
“That, my lady, was luck,” Tremlett reminded her. “Now comes skill.”
luck,” Noelle answered with an impish smile. She flourished some paper and a pen. “For scorekeeping purposes. Let’s begin.”
By the time the train had chugged and squealed its way out of Basingstoke Station an hour and a half later, Noelle had accrued more than the requisite number of points, and the earl was well and truly beaten.
“So much for our contest, my lord. Unless, of course, you’d care to try again,” she baited, enjoying the astonished expression on his face. “I’d hate to think I’ve made a shambles of your pride.”
That brought a lazy smile to his lips, and he gathered the cards, arranging them in a neat pile and handing them back to her. “No, thank you. A good gambler knows when it’s time to quit. As for my pride—fear not. It’s surprisingly resilient.”
“Ah, but is your stomach?” On that quip, Noelle tucked away the cards and bent down, hoisting the basket of food onto the now-empty seat beside the earl. Groping inside, she extracted a chunk of cheese and a loaf of bread, both of which she waved invitingly in the air. “As luck would have it, I happen to be a terrible loser
an extraordinarily gracious winner. Therefore, wager or not, I’d be delighted if you would share my refreshment.”
She inclined her head, no longer teasing but speaking in earnest. “Please. The truth is, you did me a great service by sharing that game of piquet with me. You saved me from dying of boredom. That in itself warrants a reward. Not to mention that there’s more food here than Grace and I could possibly eat—even if we save some for the trip home. I insist; join me.”
Abruptly, the earlier tension she’d perceived in Lord Tremlett returned, those dazzling opal eyes assessing her for a long, thorough minute. Fidgeting beneath the intensity of his stare, Noelle found herself wondering what in God’s name he was thinking.
Just as quickly, his gaze softened, and he gifted her with another lazy smile. “How can I refuse such a charming offer?”
“You can’t. So it’s settled.” Noelle turned her attention to the task of distributing the food, grateful to have something—anything—to do that would divert her attention from the charismatic Earl of Tremlett. He was entirely too distracting, too … too potent.
With a self-conscious sigh, she settled back to nibble on her cheese. “We’re almost in London,” she realized aloud, glancing out the window at the passing scenery.
“Another half hour, I should say,” Tremlett agreed, chewing thoughtfully as he followed her gaze. “My carriage will take you directly to Regent Street, and then on to the Franco Gallery.”