Authors: Audrey Harrison
Henry, Earl of Grinstead leaned against the wall. He must be getting old; the operation had nearly come unstuck. If the raid had gone wrong, the lives of his men could have been lost. A year ago that thought would not have affected him, but tonight ̶ tonight he went cold at the different scenarios that could have happened. It was more good luck than good judgement that had saved the day. He let out a long breath; not for the first time, the thought flickered into his mind that he wanted a change.
Millicent Holland, cousin of Baron Glazebrook and chaperone of Miss Baker, respectively, stormed around the edge of the building where Henry had sought a moment’s refuge from the scene of arrests and uproar that was currently taking place on the estate of Baron Glazebrook.
Milly came to a halt before Henry and put her hands on her hips. She blazed with anger; Henry would wonder later if he had actually seen flames flaring at him from her eyes.
“You nearly got them killed!” Milly hissed at Henry. Those who knew her would be astounded if they heard Milly’s tone, or the fact that she was berating the great Lord Grinstead. His position in society, handsome features and confident air would have been enough to silence most people if disagreeing with him. But Milly was not afraid of the man standing before her; oh, he was older than she and had far more influence and power; even more than she had guessed, if the evening’s events were anything to go by, but it did not matter; his actions had threatened her family.
“But I didn’t,” Henry responded, easily falling back into his normal devil-may-care slightly cold attitude.
“That was because of Charles’s actions to save his sister; you didn’t give a fig about what could have happened to them!”
“So, the young Baron is a hero in everyone’s eyes and can live on his brave deed for the rest of his days. I’m surprised he’s not shaking my hand in thanks,” came the derisive response.
Henry must have been more bone tired than he thought because he did not see the slap coming. His head whipped to the side with the force of Milly’s hand striking him across the face. She might be slightly built, but a strike fuelled by anger hit its mark well.
“Don’t you dare speak so carelessly about my cousins!” Milly hissed. She had never hated anyone in her life; in fact, she took pride in the knowledge that she could face most things with calmness. Tonight’s events had stretched her to the limit, and only one person was responsible for it in her eyes.
Henry tenderly touched the outside of his cheek; he could taste blood on his tongue. “Most people would be dead after delivering a blow like that,” he said quietly.
“That doesn’t surprise me! You’re obviously easy with anyone’s life except your own. Let’s just say that it’s a warning from me to you to stay away from my family,” Milly ground out. She had the overwhelming urge to continue slapping him until she saw something other than coldness in his hazel eyes.
“Anyone who mixes with smugglers and thieves will always be fair game, Miss Holland.” Henry had to admire the spinster, despite wishing her a million miles away; not many would stand up to him the way she was doing.
“It just proves what sort of a man you are if you go about risking lives so carelessly. Looking after the country’s safety includes considering all the people who live here not just the higher members of society!”
Henry paused for a moment; she was right. He had become so focused on Joshua Shambles that he had forgotten what was at risk; people could have died, and Joshua had escaped capture anyway. What was worse, the scoundrel now knew that Henry was on his trail. He looked at Milly standing before him, glaring at him with the same disgust and contempt that had started to creep into his own expressions when gazing at his reflection. He had started to avoid mirrors to try and block out the feelings that he needed to keep constrained if he was to be effective.
Henry gritted his teeth; he was being a sentimental fool; of course, lives would be put at risk. They were at war with a man who, for the greater part, seemed unstoppable; who the hell did she think she was questioning him? “You have no idea what you are talking about. Go back to your drawing books, Miss Holland and leave the professionals to keep you safe.” His tone was bored and dismissive.
Milly sneered at Henry. “If my safety is dependent on the likes of you, thank goodness I can handle myself. I dread to think what would happen if you were faced with real criminals; you couldn’t even arrest a bunch of smugglers without their ringleader escaping!”
Milly had hit Henry’s pride, shame and guilty conscience in two sentences, and he reacted badly. He took hold of Milly by the tops of her arms and dragged her closer to him. Lowering his face so that their faces were inches apart, gritting his teeth, he almost spat the words out. “You protect yourself? Ha! That’s a joke indeed! You while the hours away drawing or playing some inane instrument while, yes, I do try and protect the likes of you! From the look of you, you’ve never seen an angry man in your life! Tell me this: what would you do if faced by the men your family has seen tonight? Would you stab them with a pencil? What about the man that had his throat slit so badly that he could no longer speak but could still fight off half a dozen excise men? I’d bring him to you only he blew himself apart rather than face capture. I would have loved to see you stand up to him. These men are not the fops that frequented the ballrooms when you were in your youth; don’t confuse the two.”
Henry did not wait for a response from Milly. Some madness had stirred him, and he pressed his mouth roughly against hers, and he kissed her like no gentleman should ever kiss a genteel lady. He possessed her, dragging her into an embrace, pulling her roughly against his hard body.
Milly was tall but slightly built. It felt as if she had been enveloped by a strong beast, but with such passion that it literally took her breath away. She had been kissed before, but no in the manner she was being kissed now. Instead of pushing him away, she used her hands to grab his hair and keep his head bent to hers. The growl the movement caused sent the nerve ends through her body jumping to life.
All too soon, Henry pushed Milly away, not as roughly as he had grabbed her, but the movement forced her to step away from him; he still held her arms loosely, making her wonder if she was going to be pulled towards him again. “You can’t even fight off the advances of the likes of me! What use would you be against someone really intent on doing you serious harm?” he asked with derision.
Milly stiffened at Henry’s words. His words stung more than he could ever have hoped. Milly cursed her weakness as her eyes pooled with tears; she never cried; she had trained herself not to feel so much, but somehow his rejection reminded her of another time when she had not been good enough and, for some reason, it seemed to hurt even more this time, which was ridiculous.
Milly looked at Henry. Her eyes might betray her inner feelings, but she met his glare fully. “I think you have said quite enough, Lord Grinstead. I would be grateful if you could release me; I shall return to the house; I have, after all, drawings and such inane occupations that require my urgent attention.”
Henry released her without a word and stood leaning against the wall once more. He watched the young woman carefully. He had offended her; he had intended to do it, showing a side of him that he would never have shown in any respectable drawing room; only those who were closest to him knew of the block of ice that lived where his heart should have been. She had reacted violently once, but in reality he knew she would not react again; when making a hit, Henry always made sure he hit the target. She had not known what she had unleashed.
Milly straightened her spencer and pulled her skirt straight. Her movements were graceful. “Good evening, Lord Grinstead. I hope our paths never cross again.” She walked away from him with her head held high. He would not see the tears that would be shed during the night hours. She would never acknowledge openly how much he had hurt her.
Henry ran his hands through his hair in frustration. He should follow her and beg her forgiveness; he had been a first class devil, and she had not deserved to be treated in such a way. She had reacted angrily because her family had been in danger; it was understandable; it was commendable.
He turned and leaned his arm against the wall, resting his head on his sleeve, breathing deeply when he thought of the tears his words and actions had caused. He never felt remorse, but there had been dignity in the way she had responded; if he had a heart it would have been affected. Again, he blew out a breath; she was better off without any more antagonism from him; he would not inflict further damage to her that contact with him would undoubtedly bring.
He stood upright; he had a job to complete, and he was going to do it. His pride depended on him carrying out the promise he had vowed to himself. No one could get in the way and, if her kisses were anything to go by, she could quite easily get in the way. No, Miss Millicent Holland was better off as far away from the Earl of Grinstead as she could possibly be.
Unfortunately for Miss Holland and the Earl of Grinstead, fate had other plans.
Two weeks later.
The wedding of Miss Clara Baker and Edmund Ainscough, the Earl of Chertsey was always going to be a small affair. Edmund was not prepared to put his bride in any more danger than she had faced already because of his interference in her life. Admittedly, if he had not interfered he would not be standing in front of a clergyman, marrying the only woman that he had ever cared anything for.
He had forgiven his friend, Henry Howarth for his hand in the fiasco that still haunted Edmund’s dreams. In reality, Henry was the only person he would have standing at his side as witness to the proceedings. Apart from Clara’s brother Charles and Milly, the cousin to the family and previously Clara’s companion, the church was empty.
Edmund was marrying his bride and then taking her far away from the Somerset coast to enjoy a long holiday in Scotland. He wanted to be at the other end of the country from Mr John Beckett at the Home Office, who along with Henry had persuaded him to join the Secret Service. Mr Beckett had decided that he wanted to employ some of the higher echelons of society to try and gather information from every level; usually a spy was from the lower ranks. Edmund had been persuaded as one who stood a little on the outside of society, and the thought appealed to his more nonconformist side. Now, though, he wanted to be the furthest distance as he could from the Home Office, the South coast and anyone else who knew them for as long as possible.
Clara looked beautiful in her ivory satin pelisse, which had tiny pearl buttons running from its collar all the way to the floor. He would enjoy undoing every one of those buttons very late that night when they were hours away from their present location. He had nearly lost her on the night when the smuggling ring had tried to land Frenchmen and explosives on her brother’s land in an effort to launch an attack on the King. She had survived, and he was damn well sure he was not going to risk her again while some of the gang of criminals were still at large.
Milly stood just behind the bride, watching her darling Clara marry the man she loved. Milly had been suspicious of Edmund’s motives at first, but it was clear to everyone that he adored his new wife, and she was happy her cousin had found a man who they now realised thought so highly of her. Milly would have enjoyed the service far more if Henry was not also in attendance. They had not seen one another since that horrible night. Milly was still affected by everything that had happened; it was not easy to forget that the smugglers were prepared to leave Charles and Clara to drown but, in some respects, her run-in with Henry haunted her more.
It grated on her nerves that he seemed so calm, so sure of himself, and she still flushed when she remembered what had gone on between them. They had both lashed out, but Henry more effectively than Milly. What he had said to her had sliced right through her heart. His words rang in her ears, reminding her of another conversation so long ago.
She stood tall and faced the front. That time was dead and buried now, there no was point going over the past; she had been looking to the future for these last four years; she had to keep doing that. What was done was done.
Henry might have looked relaxed and calm, but he had watched Milly as a hawk watched its prey since she had walked into the church. She was dignified; he acknowledged that; she had gracefully followed her cousins down the aisle, looking elegant in her deep blue pelisse. Her hair framed her face, dark curls peeping out of the sides of her bonnet. He wondered idly if she realised how closely he was watching her; she was refusing to look in his direction, her clear grey eyes focused only on what was going on with the happy couple, which made his lips twitch in amusement. He was not usually so completely ignored and it amused him.
Henry pondered to himself about those pivotal events at Glazebrook House; it was normal to go over time and again an incident after it had come to a head, especially when one of the wanted men had managed to escape. The problem Henry had with it all was that it was the end of that night that haunted the dark hours when he could not sleep. It was her kisses that had him tossing and turning and the look in her eyes when he had made his verbal hit that had him staring at the canopy of his four-poster bed.
He cursed himself to hell and back. Seeing her today would only increase his turmoil. It did tickle him that she refused to look in his direction, but the slight flush on her cheeks betrayed her aloof exterior; no, Miss Holland, you are not as unmoved as you act, Henry thought with some modicum of pleasure.
She was quietly intelligent; he had seen that when the group was acting under the pretence of friendship; Henry’s need to watch the crook, Joshua Shambles, who had befriended the young Baron, Charles Baker, had suddenly made the whole family interesting to Henry and Edmund. Henry had wondered why the pretty, intelligent Miss Holland was unmarried, because she
pretty, having the same dark hair as her cousin, Clara, but Milly’s clear grey eyes were unusual in comparison to her cousin’s blue.
Those grey eyes seemed to miss little as she had been chaperone, cousin and friend to her relations. A protector that had reacted like a mother protecting her young. A shame she was on the shelf and would never experience motherhood, Henry thought to himself before raising his eyes to heaven and letting out a breath. He must be going addled if he was mourning for the unborn children of a spinster! He really needed to get hold of himself.
After the service the party returned to the London home of Clara’s brother Charles, on Half Moon Street, for the wedding breakfast. Henry was seated opposite Milly, which further amused him as he could tell she wished him to Jericho but, although he watched her, he concentrated on entertaining Charles who was bemoaning the fact that he had to wait another month until he married his darling Miss Beresford.
“Let Miss Beresford have the pleasure of planning every stage of her grand affair,” Clara responded teasingly. Brother and sister were back on easy terms, something that had not been the case over the previous few months because of his friendship with Joshua Shambles.
“You didn’t want a grand affair!” Charles grumbled. “I’d have been happy with a celebration like yours.”
“Yes, but you are sociable and will enjoy the fuss and attention; my husband would hate it,” Clara responded, smiling at her new husband.
Edmund smiled lovingly at his wife, all traces of the arrogantly bored Earl that once existed disappeared. “I would’ve done it for you, but it still had to happen as soon as possible.” He refused to wait for any length of time before they could be together legitimately; he had barely left her side since that night in Dorset, not wanting to rely on anyone else with her care and protection.
“It would’ve been impossible to arrange!” Clara laughed, knowing full well that her husband would have hated a large wedding. After the previous few weeks she had not wished to have too many people at the venue; she felt uneasy that Joshua Shambles was at large, mainly for the safety of her brother, but she was aware that he now must hate them all with a vengeance. The thought of which was a niggle that would not go away.
“I wasn’t prepared to wait. I don’t trust anyone else to look after you as well as I can,” Edmund responded with a shrug. He was determined never to let his wife out of his sight if he could help it. The thought that he could have lost her still shook him to his core.
“I can look after myself, thank you!” Clara said primly.
“I’m happy to watch from close by then,” Edmund said softly, kissing his wife’s hand.
A silence descended on the small group, each one slightly envious of such open adoration on the part of the happy couple.
Clara smiled at her husband before turning to her cousin. “When we return I want you to come and live with us,” she said.
Milly flushed slightly at the thought that Henry was party to this particular conversation. “Clara, we’ve discussed this already,” she said patiently, but firmly. “I’m to stay with Charles until he’s married, keeping house for him, and then I’m to return home.”
“But-,” Clara started, wanting to raise the same objections she had every time Milly mentioned returning to her home. The cousins were partly aware of what that would involve, although Milly had never fully confided in her cousins, but they knew enough to be concerned for her. Clara wanted to protect her beloved cousin.
“I will visit you, I promise,” Milly said with a slightly strained smile. “I am going home first though, Clara. It’s time I did; I’ve been away for four years now; a visit is long overdue.” And I need to face up to what I have hidden from she thought to herself but knew that Clara was aware of some of what she was thinking.
“Long visits,” Clara said with feeling.
Milly smiled. She adored her cousin and was convinced of the love and affection that Clara and Edmund shared but, in some ways, it would be torture for Milly to be on the side-lines of their affection. It would almost be like watching what she could have had with another if things had turned out differently; but that one, the man whom she had thought to love and care for until her dying breath had let her down so very cruelly. Returning home would put her inevitably in his circle as well as forcing her to face up to other pain, but she had to do it. She had avoided facing her past for the four years she had been companion to Clara, and it was time to exorcise the demons.
Henry had watched the exchange with interest. He was trained to miss nothing in a person’s expression, demeanour or tone of voice, and it seemed from the exchange of the last few minutes there was a lot more to Miss Millicent Holland than he had first presumed.
In some respects it was tempting for Henry to remain in contact with the family to find out a little more about Milly, but then he mentally shook himself. He had a job to do, and if he stayed he was sure the novelty of her would soon wear off; a number of discarded mistresses would attest to that fact; it always happened that way. He could not imagine that an innocent spinster would provide any more entertaining than some of the ladies he had previously chased; no, it was better to leave Miss Holland alone.
The party gathered outside on the narrow pavement on Half Moon Street, saying their goodbyes to the happy couple. Edmund handed his wife into his plush carriage, refitted for their wedding trip. He closed the door behind him, and the couple waved as the carriage pulled away, the small party remaining on the pavement until the carriage had turned the corner.
“Would you like to join us in a walk through Hyde Park, My Lord?” Charles asked cheerfully. He was eager to join his sweetheart on her afternoon promenade.
“No. Thank you, I shall take the opportunity to walk back to Belgrave Square,” Henry said pleasantly. He had experienced enough happiness for one day; he had no desire to witness Charles pandering to his chosen one. Young people in love were tedious at best and in most cases sickeningly boring.
“Very well. I hope to see you in White’s sometime soon,” Charles said easily.
“No doubt,” came the uncommitted reply. Henry turned towards Milly, who it was plain to see was keen to return inside the house. “Miss Holland, I hope to see you at one of the entertainments before the end of the season. You are an exquisite dance partner, and I would hope to have the pleasure again soon.” He took Milly’s hand and placed a kiss on it, enjoying that she wore no gloves and knowing that it would increase her discomfort.
Milly’s breath caught in the back of her throat at Henry’s touch, and she stiffened, wanting to pull her hand away but, because of propriety, not able too. “My Lord,” she said stiffly and curtsied at his bow, turning immediately towards the house. She was not going to remain where he could see her state of tumult; he was the type of man to take pleasure out of it.
She would have been surprised to know that her reaction was enough of a rejection to the confident Earl that it was he who walked away with his mind agitated about the prim Miss Holland.