Authors: Rose Gordon
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #Victorian, #Regency, #Historical Romance
SECRETS OF A VISCOUNT
Copyright © 2013 C. Rose Gordon
Cover image copyright Lily Smith
All rights reserved.
Parchment & Plume, LLC
This book is a work of fiction. All names, events and locales are a product of this author’s imagination. If any name, event and/or locale did exist, it is purely by coincidence it appears in this book.
This book may not be reproduced by any means, including but not limited to, mechanical, Xerox, digital, auditorial and/or in print without consent.
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A sharp, scraping sound rent the chilly night’s air, jolting Isabelle Knight awake from her dreamless sleep.
Isabelle’s green eyes sprang open and her fingers clutched the bed sheets.
Another loud screech from the direction of her only bedroom window broke the deafening silence that had once again fallen over the room.
Her heart hammering wildly in her chest, she forced her eyes to the window. A billowed curtain of cream and lace and the tops of a pair of black leather boots was all she could see through the dim moonlight. The blood in her veins sped up, but her body was still paralyzed. Someone was breaking into her room and she was too frightened to do a single thing about it except remain still with her eyes locked in terror at the curtains.
“Are you ready?” a male voice whispered in the dark.
Relief flooded Isabelle's body. She knew that voice. It belonged to her neighbor Sebastian Gentry, Viscount Belgrave. Isabelle and her sister Rachel had known Sebastian since they were children. However, just because she’d known him nearly all her life and trusted him entirely, did not explain why he was in her room, nor why was he asking if she were ready.
“Ready?” she queried, sitting up in bed and instinctively putting her hand over her chest to keep him from seeing any part of her that he shouldn’t.
Sebastian heaved a heavy sigh. “Have you changed your mind?”
“Changed my mind about what?”
The elopement,” he burst out.
Shock, followed by anger, filled Isabelle. Rachel and Sebastian had made plans for an elopement? And they hadn't told her. Of course they hadn't told her. It was an elopement. That was the point. Elopements were about sneaking off and getting married without telling anyone.
She gazed at the outline of Sebastian's broad form by her window; she had only a second to make a decision that would alter both of their lives in more ways than she could even comprehend at the moment. But the truth was, she was the daughter of a country squire in the most unpopulated part of England. Her prospects were slim at best. If she didn’t wish to become a spinster, or worse, marry a man thrice her age, there was no need to question the good fortune that had just befallen her.
I've not changed my mind,” she whispered, hoping he hadn’t yet realized he’d entered the wrong room. “Why don’t you go wait on the balcony? I need to grab something, then I’ll be ready.”
Very well,” he said crisply. He stepped through the open window to wait for her on the balcony.
Isabelle sat still for a minute. Did he not want to marry Rachel, either? His tone would suggest as much. With a shrug, she pushed to her stocking-clad feet and slid them into a pair of black slippers she kept under the edge of the bed, then grabbed her biggest hooded cloak and put it on. Though her room had been so dark all she could see of him was his outline, and she doubted he could see any more of her than that, too, she had no doubt that outside where the moon was illuminating the hillside, he'd be able to see her and know right away he’d fetched the wrong sister. That was the last thing she wanted to have happen.
Satisfied she could both walk and conceal her identity at the same time, Isabelle made her way to the window and tentatively allowed Sebastian to help her through.
How do we get down?” she asked, scowling at the trellis. Not that she was scared to climb down it, mind you. She'd climb to the top of the Great Pyramids on her hands and knees if it meant she could have someone as young, virile, honest and sincere as Sebastian for her husband. The problem was more of how she’d climb down the trellis without having to remove her cloak and expose her identity.
Not to worry,” he said, breaking into her thoughts. He pointed to the far end of the balcony. “To my good fortune I passed a ladder as I came through the garden.”
Isabelle nodded. A ladder would be much easier to navigate with her cloak than the trellis. “All right, then. I’ll just be on my way and wait for you at the bottom.”
Sebastian's large, tanned hand covered hers just as her fingers closed around the top of the ladder. “I think not. I’ll go down first, that way I can hold the ladder steady for you as you come down.”
Pursing her lips and biting her tongue so not to make the retort that was waiting on the tip of her tongue, thus giving away her identity, she politely nodded her head and stepped away from the ladder. The exact thing Rachel would do.
As soon as Isabelle was far enough away from the ladder to give Sebastian ample room to climb down, he swung his leg over and descended the ladder so quickly she’d have missed it had she blinked. “All right, Rachel,” he called. He grabbed onto the sides of the ladder to keep it from moving. “Come on down. Nice and slow.”
Isabelle walked up to the ladder and halted. “Can you turn around, please?”
Because if you’re standing beneath the ladder you’ll see right up my nightrail,” she stated primly.
He snorted. “In a matter of hours I'll be seeing everything you have under that nightrail anyway. And more.”
Her face grew hot. She’d forgotten that little detail. If they were about to elope, they were also about to have marital relations. Unfortunately, her mother had never actually informed her of all the details, but she’d surmised from whispers she’d overheard between the servants that it involved both parties removing their clothes. She shivered. She was only sixteen and regarded Sebastian as nothing more than a friend, for her father wouldn’t allow it any other way, often reminding her of her place in this world—which was not at the side of a titled gentleman, for he would never return her love and affection. Therefore, there was no love or affection between them, perhaps a measure of adoration that she went to great pains to conceal. Instead they had friendship. And friendship would be a very acceptable foundation for a marriage, in her opinion. But still, the idea of
seeing up her nightrail—both now and then again in a few hours—made her face burn like it had caught fire.
Are you having second thoughts?” Sebastian asked from the bottom of the ladder.
Did he want her to have second thoughts? Or more specifically, did he want Rachel to be having second thoughts and cry off? Perhaps that’s why he wanted to go down first. It made sense to her. He could have held the ladder still from the top. He'd wanted to go down first in order to find one more way to scare her out of going through with this.
Steeling her spine, she carelessly threw her leg over the edge of the balcony railing (clutching the top of the ladder for dear life at the same time), and in the most disgraceful and unladylike way possible, descended the ladder, stopping only briefly three rungs from the bottom to make sure her hood still covered her face adequately.
Sebastian was shocked. Absolutely shocked. First, he was in shock that he’d allowed Rachel Knight to talk him into stealing her away in the night to avoid marrying her father’s senile second cousin Lord Yourke, a match her father had somehow managed to arrange for her. But then when the shock wore off, he'd come up with a plan: he’d purposely frighten her into crying off. Not that he didn’t like Rachel, he did. But only as a friend, and even that was questionable at times. However, for as temperamental as his feelings were for her as a friend, he liked her far better than her younger sister: Belle.
At sixteen, Belle was three years his junior and had grown up following him like a second shadow when he was a boy. Rachel had too, but her presence didn’t bother him nearly as much. At least Rachel knew her place most of the time and acted like a lady. Belle was stubborn, willful, and so blunt she’d tell Prinny himself he needed to mind what he ate because he was in danger of growing as round as he was tall. Quite frankly, Belle lived up to the nickname he’d given her when she was only eight, and he eleven. She was stubborn, loud, and obnoxious. Decidedly not the kind of young lady a gentleman wanted to make his wife. Not if he didn’t wish to be publicly embarrassed and ridiculed, that is.
When Rachel had so carelessly climbed onto the ladder and made her way down, Sebastian would have sworn it was Belle in all of her defiance on that ladder. If he’d not glimpsed the outline of her bosom while in her dimly lit room earlier, he’d have demanded she remove that cloak as soon as she reached the bottom to confirm he’d retrieved the right sister. But he hadn’t because he knew he had the right sister. See, Rachel had plump, lush breasts, and Belle’s were nearly nonexistent.
They were there of course, but not nearly as prominent as Rachel’s. It hadn't been until a year or so ago that he’d even been aware Belle
breasts. And the only reason he found out then was because he’d accompanied them to go see a traveling circus and some stumbling drunk knocked into her and Sebastian had reached out to right her and accidentally brushed her soft breast with his forearm. If not for that, he’d still think she was as flat as a chessboard due to the way her gowns hung off her in the front.
Shaking his head to dispel all thoughts of Belle and her blasted breasts, he helped Rachel into the carriage and plopped down on the seat across from her.
He hadn’t planned to marry so young. But for some reason he still couldn’t place, he’d softened to Rachel’s chronic pleas and agreed to haul her off, and like any gentleman, he intended to keep his word—even if he didn’t want to and had to drink half a barrel of whisky to force himself to go through with it. He closed his eyes for a moment to let his mind clear. He hadn’t really consumed so much whisky before coming to collect her, but he’d consumed some. He had to. Any gentleman of only nineteen would have to be at least partially foxed in order to willingly hand over his freedom.
He took a deep breath, opened his eyes and gave the roof of the carriage a sharp tap. “Why don’t you take your cloak off now?”
Rachel shook her head.
Suit yourself,” he said with a shrug. Leaning his head back, he closed his eyes again to take a little nap, not sure if he wanted it to sober him up a little more or just pass the time. He’d never cared one way or the other about living so far north. Sure the winters were bitter, but other than that, he saw no difference between living in the northern or southern part of the country. However, just now, he was rather glad he lived so far north because they were only an hour or two from Gretna Green.
Sebastian jolted awake what felt like only minutes later. He blinked his eyes and waited as Abrams, the coachman, came around to open the door for him.
He descended then reached up to help Rachel and nearly rolled his eyes. She still wore her blasted cloak wrapped around herself as if exposing one inch of her would bring her harm.
Here we are,” he said easily, leading Rachel up to the door of the smithy’s shop. Frowning, he took out his pocket watch. It was five. The smithy should be out here waiting for him. As a precaution in the event that Rachel became as stubborn as Belle—and why wouldn’t she be when faced with marriage to a man who had more wrinkles than a prune and breath more foul than the slums of London—he’d sent Fowler, his valet, to make arrangements with the smithy so he and Rachel wouldn’t have to track one down at such an absurd hour.
Milord,” a stout man a few shops down the street called out.
I’s to do ye’s wed’in, milord,” the man said with a large, nearly toothless grin.
Sebastian gave him a curt nod and nudged Rachel to walk in the man’s direction, simultaneously suppressing a shudder at the man’s scraggly appearance. He’d sent Fowler here with three pounds; surely he could have paid a nicer-looking man to officiate.
“Aye, the bride,” the toothless man said, ushering Rachel inside his shop.
Walking behind Rachel as she crossed the threshold, Sebastian saw her tense. After a quick glance around the shop, he knew why. Dirt and filth was everywhere. The dirt floor had turned to mud from the water dripping from who knows what above the ceiling. Rusted anvils and hammers littered the makeshift unsteady worktables, as did an assortment of other broken and poorly cared for tools. The back window was covered in some sort of greasy sludge so thick that even if the sun had been up, there wouldn’t have been a single ray coming through from back there.
Trying not to cringe himself, Sebastian fisted his hands and shoved them into his pockets, silently vowing not to remove them until they were safely out of this shop. Then he took his spot next to Rachel who still wore that blasted cloak, now drawn so tightly around her face he couldn’t see a single facial feature. Not that he blamed her. He wanted as much of his skin covered as was possible, too. Had this been a serious wedding and a love match, he’d have marched her out of the room immediately. Instead, he nodded to her.
In less than twenty seconds the ceremony started.
Sebastian had always assumed these Scotland weddings were informal and lasted about two minutes. He was wrong. Apparently this toothless smithy missed his calling in life and would have preferred a life in the ministry.
Pulling out a Bible, the smithy started flapping his jaw about the sanctity of marriage and other such nonsense that Sebastian nearly snorted at. If this ministering smithy really knew the reason behind this marriage, he likely wouldn’t be performing the ceremony, Sebastian thought wryly.
To take his mind off the sermonette he was hearing, Sebastian let his eyes wander around the dingy room again. A few minutes later, he mumbled something akin to “I do” when the smithy paused in his speech for a few seconds.
Vaguely listening to the smithy as he continued on with the ceremony, his mind started drifting to what would be happening
the ceremony. On the way to the smithy’s shop he’d spotted an inn. It didn't look too terribly grand, but it would be suitable. Though he might not be overly fond of Rachel nor have given much thought to what she concealed under her clothes, only a blind man wouldn’t find her at least mildly physically attractive with her small facial features, auburn hair and flawless skin. Besides, for a man of nineteen, who’d lived under strict orders from his father that hadn’t allowed him much freedom to sample the wares of those in London, but kept him mostly secluded to the high country with no suitable options, he was certainly ready to begin his mastery of the female body.
Blinking to rid himself of those mental images the thought provoked so not to give himself away, he started listening to the smithy more carefully just in time to hear him announce they were now man and wife and he could kiss his bride.
Under any other circumstances, Sebastian would have pushed the hood of Rachel's cloak off her face in order to kiss her. However, his desire not to remove his hands from his pockets and touch anything in this dirty shop was so strong he couldn't force himself to unveil his bride, so to speak.
Leaning toward her, he gave her a quick peck on her surprisingly soft lips before turning back to the smithy and curling his fingers into the fabric lining of his pockets at the idea he was about to have to grab the man’s grubby pen and sign the book he’d opened.
The smithy first held his blackened quill out to Rachel, and before her trembling fingers could close around the stem, Sebastian took it. “I’ll go first,” he murmured, scribbling down his name on the register. When he was finished signing, he held onto the quill and used his other hand to reach into his breast pocket and pull out his handkerchief. Wrapping the quill in his handkerchief, he handed it to Rachel.
She quickly nodded once and her shaking fingers took the quill from him, her eyes never meeting his. Or if they had, he couldn’t tell because of the darkness that the cloak created around her face.
As soon as she had the quill and started scratching out her name, Sebastian grabbed his other handkerchief and wiped off the dirt the quill had left behind on his fingers. “Finished?” he asked inanely when Rachel had finished scratching out her name.
She nodded again without looking in his direction and extended the quill back to the smithy.
“Shall we?” he asked, offering her his arm.
Rachel’s delicate fingers closed around his arm and she allowed him to escort her out of the shop.
“I don’t know about you, but I feel I need a bath,” Sebastian said lightly to his new bride a few minutes later after they’d entered the boarding house. They could have just gone home. But what was the rush? They were married now and going home would only lead to questions and uncomfortable conversations. No need to rush home to that when one could enjoy his new bride for a day or two first.
Sebastian arranged for a room and ordered a bath and breakfast tray brought up to their room while Rachel fidgeted next to him. He smiled. “Don’t be so nervous,” he teased, nudging her with his elbow. “It’s not as bad as your mother explained it, I promise. But you will have to take that blasted cloak off.”
“I know,” she whispered, causing him to shake his head. They were married now; her reputation was not going to suffer by being seen with her own husband at an inn.
The innkeeper handed Sebastian a key and spouted off a few simple directions before the couple left the lobby in search of their room.
“Here we are.” Sebastian slipped the brass key into the lock. He quickly unlocked the door and swung it open to reveal a spacious bedchamber. “Will you take that ugly cloak off now?” he asked as soon as they were both inside the room.
Rachel didn’t have a chance to respond when a knock rattled the door.
A maid carrying an elaborate breakfast tray and two footmen carrying pails of water came in and set up a warm bath and nice breakfast. Tipping the trio handsomely, Sebastian dismissed them and stared at the steaming tub, then at the breakfast. “You’ve been awful silent today, Rachel,” Sebastian mused. “How about you make the decision, eat first or bathe first.”
I’ll bathe. You eat,” she whispered.
He blinked. He’d only attended a dinner theater once in London a year ago and swore never to go again. But this kind of dinner theater he could do every day. “All right,” he said huskily, then went over to the table and fixed himself a plate.
“What are you doing?” Rachel asked quietly when she realized he fully intended to watch her bathe while he breakfasted.
Don’t mind me. I’ll not bother you. Just go on and bathe.”
An unladylike noise formed somewhere in Rachel’s throat and caused Sebastian to stiffen immediately. That was a sound very similar to the one Belle made when she was vexed. He shuddered. Perhaps his wife was more like her wretched sister than he’d originally thought. No matter. He could handle an occasional slip in private. At least Rachel would never make such a horrendous noise in public.
With a shrug and another half-growl, half-grunt, Rachel marched over to the far corner of the room and grabbed the edge of what appeared to be a folded dressing screen and started dragging it across the floor.
Oh, come now, you don’t have to do that,” he protested jovially as she settled the screen in front of the tub to block his view of her.
Rachel’s only answer was tossing her cloak over the top of the screen in such a way it covered the crack in the screen between two of the panels. A second later, her nightrail came to rest on top of the other crack.
Sebastian chuckled at her gesture. “That’s not going to keep me from peeking,” he teased, quietly padding over to the screen. He grabbed the side of her cloak that was hanging on his side of the screen and pulled it off just in time to catch a small glimpse of one of her legs stepping into her steaming bathwater. He snatched down her nightrail and peeked again from that angle, being rewarded with a very generous view of one of her pert, pink-tipped breasts before she shifted in a way that no matter which crack he peeked through all he saw was her back or if he looked over her shoulder he could see her feet at the end of the tub.
Small amounts of water splashed over the side of the tub as his new bride scrubbed her body and washed her long cinnamon-colored hair. Sebastian stood entranced behind the screen as he watched her fingers work the lather into her silky hair. He had no idea she had so much of it. Perhaps tomorrow when she took her bath again she’d allow him to wash it for her.