Authors: Anne Ashley
âWhat would you consider adequate largesse, sir?'
For several seconds his lordship didn't know whether to feel amused or annoyed. The chit couldn't be serious! Surely she wasn't so naÃ¯ve as to suppose he was suggesting payment in cash? Or was she?
For several very good reasons Lord Fincham had learned to be mistrustful of the fair sex. Yet, for some obscure reason, which escaped him entirely, he was prepared to give the intriguing little minx opposite, for he no longer doubted her true sex for a moment, the benefit of the doubt. Furthermore, if she wished to continue the charade, then he'd play the game, for the present, at least.
âPut the purse away, child!' he ordered, once again more sharply than he had intended, simply because, had the truth been known, he was annoyed with himself for his own indecisiveness where this girl was concerned. âI require no payment,' he said more gently. âIn view of the service you rendered earlier in the day, it is the very least I can do.'
Even as he said this he was having renewed doubts about their earlier encounter. Had it been all as innocent as it had seemed? Or had the whole incident been very carefully staged by one of his degenerate acquaintances as a jest? For reasons that escaped him entirely, he was once again prepared to give his companion the benefit of the doubt.
âBut as we shall be bearing each other company for the next hour or so, I'd best introduce myself. I am Fincham, Viscount Fincham.'
When she betrayed neither surprise, nor, indeed, any outward sign of discomposure at being in the company
of such a distinguished peer of the realm, doubts again assailed him. She must surely have known who he was?
âAnd you are?'
A slight hesitation, then, âGeorge, my lord GeorgeâerâGreen.'
The Viscount successfully suppressed a knowing smile. âWell, Master Green, are you sure you wouldn't prefer me to convey you to a relative or friend in the metropolis?'
âPositive, my lord, for I have neither residing there. But if you could, as I mentioned before, deposit me at some respectable inn, which is not too expensive, I shall be for ever in your debt.'
The hopeful expression was unmistakable. Was she the most accomplished actress who ever drew breath, or in earnest? He remained frustratingly undecided. âI might,' he at last conceded. âBut first I should very much like to know why you wish to visit the capital?'
The response was prompt enough. âIn order to find employment, my lord.'
He raised a decidedly sceptical brow at this. âIndeed? And what type of employment are you hoping to attain?'
Slender shoulders rose in a shrug. âI hadn't really considered. Maybe a situation in service might suit my purpose bestâa footman, perhaps.'
Again his lordship cocked a sceptical brow. âHow old are you, child?'
Delicate lids lowered. âFifteen, my lord.'
Clearly an untruth. Moreover, one that had been uttered most unwillingly, unless he much mistook the matter. Interestingâ¦. yes, most interesting.
âA little young for a footman, then,' he suggested,
still willing to play along with the subterfuge. âA page, perhaps?'
âA page,' she echoed, seeming to consider the possibility. âYes, that might serve very well.'
Dear God, she couldn't be serious! Her sex would be uncovered in a trice! If she wasn't in the employ of some prankster, and engaged to entice him into committing some act of folly, then he had possibly done more harm than good by suggesting what he had.
Settling himself back against the plush velvet squabs once more, his lordship experienced a rare pang of conscience, simply because he still couldn't quite make up his mind about his intriguing travelling companion, which was most unlike him. He was renowned for being a shrewd judge of character, and although it would be true to say he didn't make snap judgements about people, his first impressions, more often than not, turned out to be accurate.
But young George Green had him well and truly puzzled. Speech alone suggested the chit didn't come from the lower orders. He strongly suspected, too, that she had received a well-rounded education. So what on earth did she imagine she was doing indulging in such an escapade? If she wasn't in disguise as a jest, then there was every likelihood she had run away from home, possibly fleeing some form of persecution, or even an arranged marriage that was not to her taste. If he had any sense at all, he told himself roundly, he would do what she asked, and just deposit her at the first respectable hostelry they came to in the capital! Yet, even as this most sensible course of action crossed his mind, he knew he would not act upon it.
He found himself studying her intently again. Yes, dressed appropriately she would undoubtedly make a
damnably pretty girlâ¦ No, an extremely lovely one, he corrected silently. She was certainly older than fifteenâ¦ Eighteen, or maybe nineteen, he decided. And definitely no sweet simpleton, if he were any judge. She knew precisely what she was doing, too. There was some definite purpose in this outrageous charade of hers. He'd stake his life on it! One thing was certain, though, he found her and the situation intriguing and highly diverting, something he hadn't experienced in many a long year. He was determined to discover who she was and, more importantly, just what she was!
âI am pleased to discover you are not garrulous by nature, Master Green. None the less, I believe a little conversation would be permissible, even between virtual strangers.'
This succeeded in bringing to an end her intense study of the passing countryside. âI do beg your pardon, my lordâonly, I've never visited the capital before, and am finding the landscape quite interesting.'
âI, on the other hand, have travelled this route on numerous occasions and find it faintly tedious,' he countered, âand should much prefer to discover a little more about you.'
There was no mistaking the guarded look that took possession of those enchanting features, but his lordship chose to disregard it. âWhy, for instance, do I find you alone in what, by your own admission, is a foreign part of the land? And why are you not accompanied by a relative?'
âBoth my parents are dead, my lord.'
He found himself readily accepting the truth of this statement, possibly because her gaze had been so unwavering. Yes, already he was well on the way to
knowing for sure when she was spinning him some yarn and when she was not.
âAnd is there no one else responsible for your well-being, childâ¦? No distant relative or guardian?'
âNo, my lord.'
Now, that was most interesting, for if she had continued speaking the truth, and he was inclined to believe she had, it must surely mean that she was somewhat older than he had first imagined, at least one-and-twenty. It possibly meant, also, that she was not running away from some arranged marriage that was not to her taste. Which instantly begged the question of what lay behind the outrageous escapade? With every passing mile his lordship's curiosity was increasing by leaps and bounds!
By the time the carriage had drawn to a halt before a certain much-admired residence in Berkeley Square his lordship had decided on his immediate course of action. His intriguing companion, on the other hand, did not betray any outward sign of being at all impressed by her surroundings when she alighted in his lordship's wake. In fact, when she discovered it was none other than the Viscount's town house they stood before, she appeared decidedly ill-at-ease, not to say a trifle annoyed.
âBut I thought you said you would deposit me at some respectable hostelry, my lord?'
âI cannot recall agreeing to any such thing, child,' he countered, favouring her with one of his haughtiest stares. âI can, in due course, arrange for one of my servants to direct you to just such an establishment, if it is what you wish. First, I have a proposition to put to you. But not here in the street, where the world and his neighbour are at liberty to view proceedings.'
His lordship did not trouble to discover whether his youthful companion was prepared to follow him into the house. When the front door miraculously opened, even before he had made known his arrival by beating a tattoo using the highly polished brass knocker, he strolled languidly into the hall, handing his outdoor garments to the high-ranking retainer who had served him diligently from the moment his lordship had unexpectedly come into the title.
âBring claret and two glasses into the library, Brindle, and inform Cook I shall not be going out again this evening,' and so saying he led the way into the book-lined room, fully aware that he was being closely followed by his newest acquaintance.
Choosing not to acknowledge her presence until he had closed the door so that they could enjoy privacy, he then turned to study her. Although she had removed her hat, she had chosen not to hand it over to the butler, and held it securely against the portmanteau in her right hand. Which instantly revealed two thingsâfirstly, she was alert to the correct forms of behaviour; and, secondly, she remained decidedly ill at ease. When she blatantly refused the offer of a seat, he did not force the issue and merely made himself comfortable in a winged-chair, while all the time studying her closely as she, in turn, considered the painting taking pride of place above the hearth.
âThat is your family, is it not, my lord?'
âIndeed it is, child. The tall gentleman had the felicity to be my sire. My mother, although no beauty, as you can perceive for yourself, was possessed of much wit and charm. I am the younger child, holding the dog.'
He watched fine coal-black brows draw together.
âMy condolences, sir. I trust your brother's demise was not recent?'
Clearly the chit took no interest in the goings-on in the ton. âHe died after taking a tumble from his horse some eight years ago.'
What she might have chosen to reply to this he was never to know, for the door opened, and her attention immediately turned to the rigidly correct individual who had served the Fincham family for very many years.
âYou may leave the tray, Brindle. We shall help ourselves. I shall ring when I require you again. In the meantime, I do not wish to be disturbed.'
The major-domo was far too experienced to betray even a modicum of surprise over his master's most unusual companion, and merely bowed stiffly before leaving the room and closing the door almost silently behind him.
âCome here, child,' his lordship demanded, and then sighed when the order was blatantly ignored. âI assure you I have no intention of doing you a mischief. I merely wish to look at your hands.'
Gracefully arching brows rose in surprise. âMy hands, sir! Whatever for?'
The Viscount cast an exasperated glance up at the youthful face. âBe warned that should I decide to offer you employmentâagainst my better judgement, I might addâI shall expect my every request to be obeyed without question. Now, come here!'
This time he succeeded in achieving a favourable response. Lightly grasping the member held shyly out to him, he felt for his quizzing glass and through it studied slender tapering fingers and short clean nails. âAs I suspected, you are not accustomed to hard labour.'
Releasing the finely boned wrist, he reached for the decanter conveniently positioned on the table beside his chair and proceeded to pour out two glasses. âAs I cannot imagine you have quenched your thirst for several hours, you may sit yourself and join me in a glass of wine.'
Although her expression clearly revealed a hint of speculation, there was nothing to suggest that she might have considered it in the least odd to be asked to partake of refreshment in the company of an aristocrat, which succeeded only in intriguing him still further.
âWere you truly in earnest when you declared you were in need of a servant, my lord?' she asked, before sampling her wine in a very ladylike manner.
âI should not otherwise have said so, child. But before we come to any firm arrangement, I shall need to know a little more about you. Firstly, from whom did you acquire an education?'
There was no mistaking the mischievous little smile before she said, âFrom the former rector of our parish, sir. My mother was his cook-housekeeper for a number of years, andâand he had a fondness for me.'
âAnd your father?'
âI never knew him, and he never knew of my existence. He was a soldier, sir, and died in the service of his country shortly after I was born.'
Studying her above the rim of his glass, his lordship considered what she had revealed thus far. She might well have told him the absolute truth. But it was also possible that if she was indeed the bastard daughter of some person of standing, her mother might well have spun the yarn about a deceased father in order to maintain the appearance of respectability. Undeniably the
girl had a quiet dignity that was not feigned, and that certainly suggested she believed her parentage to be above reproach. Which made lending herself to such a start even more surprising!
Deciding to refrain from questioning her further for the present, he said, âI am satisfied you could perform the duties of a page. If you should choose to avail yourself of the position, I shall have a new set of clothes made for you on the morrow.'
She betrayed no sign whatsoever of being delighted by the offer. In fact, if anything, there was a hint of mistrust as she asked, âBut why should you require a page, sir? Are you married?'
âAnd what has that to say to anything, pray?' He cast her a look of exasperation. âNo, I am not, as it happens. Why do you ask?'
There was a suspicion of a twitch at the side of the perfectly shaped mouth again. âWell, because it's usually ladies who engage pages, sir.'
âNot always,' he countered, and then smiled grimly. âAnd that is one of the reasons why I'm prepared to engage your services. I feel the most overwhelming desire to annoy a certain acquaintance of mine. He shall find it quite irksome when he sets eyes on you for the first time.'