Authors: Alexandra Ivy
Escorting his aunt and Mercy to a small parlor, he kissed their hands and forced himself to make his way through the marble hallways until he at last reached the connecting passageway that led to the conservatory.
Reaching the glass doors, he found himself pausing.
As a child this room had been forbidden territory. His father had claimed that he was concerned that a young Ian might cause devastation among his precious blooms, but Ian knew even then that it was merely an excuse to escape his unwelcome presence.
So, of course, once his father had retreated to his bedchamber, he had nightly slipped from his bed to sneak into the sacred space.
Not only because he was just stubborn enough to prove (if only to himself) that there was no place he could not enter, but because he had some ridiculous notion that he might discover some key to his father's heart amidst the fragrant beauty.
Muttering a curse beneath his breath, Ian reached out and thrust the door open. The scent of rich, black earth and flowers in bloom hit him as he stepped inside and carefully made his way down the path. It was a scent that he detested, he acknowledged as he continued to the back of the glass-lined room, at last discovering his father carefully repotting a strange orange plant.
At his approach, the older man turned, his expression far from pleased.
Welcome home, Ian Breckford,
he thought wryly.
“This is quite a collection,” he murmured, well aware that his father would never speak first. He pointed toward the orange flower. “Very exotic.”
With an awkward motion, Lord Norrington returned his attention to his plant.
“Lord Walford traveled to Africa last year and was kind enough to acquire several rare species for me. I am attempting to make them a sturdier plant to endure our English climate.”
Ian hid his start of surprise. His father had not only spoken, but, wonder of wonders, it was not in a voice of dismissal.
Could the old man at last feel some guilt for treating his son as an unwanted bit of rubbish?
Whatever the cause, Ian knew that he could not waste the opportunity.
“Can you do that?” he demanded. “Actually alter them?”
Careful not to stray too close to Norrington, Ian moved to lean against the heavy wooden table, watching as his father deftly handled the fragile plant.
“How did you become interested in flowers?” he asked, hoping if he could just get his father into a conversation, he might reveal something. Anything.
There was a long, awkward silence before Norrington at last cleared his throat.
“My mother. She loved to spend her days in the garden, and she taught me everything she knew.” His profile tightened as he reached for a rag to roughly wipe his fingers. “My father disapproved, of course.”
“Disapproved?” Ian studied the older man in confusion. “Why?”
“He thought his heir should be more interested in hunting and drinking with the other fribbles who lived in the neighborhood. It did not matter that my skills were increasing our crop yield and returning a profit he could never hope to achieve on his own.” He gave a short, humorless laugh. “I was a disappointment, to say the least.”
Ian felt a familiar sharp pang in the region of his heart. He knew all about being a disappointment. There was not a day of his childhood that he was not aware he was lacking what his father desired in a son.
Astonishingly, however, he realized there was something else in that pang. Something that might have been pity.
“Perhaps he resented your superiority as a farmer. Tending to your land is, after all, the most important part of being a nobleman, is it not?”
Norrington shrugged, using the rag in his hand to wipe the stray dirt off the table. The silence stretched. And just kept stretching.
For once, Ian resisted the urge to walk away in hurt disdain or fill the air with mindless chatter. He just leaned casually against the table and waited for whatever might come.
At last it was the father who cleared his throat and turned to study the son.
“Is there a reason for your journey to Rosehill?”
Ian was prepared for the question. “Did you know that Dunnington recently passed?”
“No.” Astonishment followed by . . . what? It was impossible to say. “No, I had not heard the news.”
“I found London a depressing place with the old man gone.”
Ian smiled wryly. “Do not fear. I will not linger for long.” Stiffening, Norrington turned to fuss with the pots that were spread across the table.
“This will always be your home, Ian.”
“Thank you.” He didn't roll his eyes, but it was a near thing. “It is very peaceful here.”
“Yes, it is. That is what I love most about this estate.”
“But you do seek the entertainments in London on occasion, do you not?” Ian asked casually. “Peace is all well and good, but every gentleman is in need of a diversion now and then.”
The wariness that suddenly wrapped about Norrington was near tangible. As if he had some reason he did not wish to discuss his trips to London.
A gentleman could hide any number of sins in the crowded city.
Ian should know.
“I must meet with my man of business in the city at least once a month,” his father at last muttered in low tones. “And, of course, my position in the House of Lords demands that I attend for the more important votes.”
“I know that you rarely open the townhouse. Where do you stay?”
“I stay at a hotel or with friends who are kind enough to issue an invitation.” The dark eyes stabbed him with a growing annoyance. “Why do you ask?”
Ian shrugged, his smile one of utter innocence. It was the smile he used when he was about to fleece his latest pigeon.
“I just think it odd that our paths have never crossed while you are there.”
“Since we have little in common, I doubt that you would haunt the same establishments as myself.”
“Oh, I do not know. My tastes tend to be wide and varied.”
“Yes, so I have heard.” Norrington returned his attention to the plant, his tone without censure. Of course, it was also without the least amount of interest. “It has Ella quite worried.”
Ian's lips twisted. “But not you?”
“Whatever my concerns, I believe that a man should be allowed to choose his own path.”
“Even if it leads him to hell?”
“If that is your desire.”
Ian grimaced, his elegant fingers absently toying with a pile of recently trimmed blooms that had been left to wilt on the counter. His father was rather ruthless in his obsession with pruning, whether it was fading plants or unwelcome family members.
“I do not know if it is so much my desire as my curse,” he muttered.
“Curse?” His father stiffened, almost as if he had a personal knowledge of curses, which was ridiculous. “Why would you say that?”
“I seem to possess a natural tendency to seek out trouble whenever possible. It is a pity I did not inherit your own delight in peace.” Gathering the blooms, Ian absently scattered them over the floor, his gaze trained on the broken splashes of color against the paving stones. “Of course, when you were young, you no doubt sought your own share of trouble?”
“No. Not as a rule.”
Of course he did not. Lord Norrington was nothing less than a paragon. Which begged the question of how he had ever managed to sire a son outside the holy bonds of matrimony.
“Surely there must have been some devilment?” Ian pressed. Dammit, Dunnington had managed to extort twenty thousand pounds from this man. There had to be some sin the prig was hiding. “We both know you were not a perfect gentleman at all times.”
Norrington's hands stilled, his profile tight with some inner emotion.
“I have never claimed to be perfect,” he rasped. “Indeed, I am far from it.”
Ian narrowed his gaze. Christ, was that actual emotion beneath all that ice?
“And yet I have never heard a breath of scandal attached to your name.” Ian was careful to keep his tone casual. “Not even by those hideous tabbies that devote their lives to discovering the sins of others. Rather remarkable.”
With an obvious effort, Lord Norrington wrapped his icy composure about himself like a cloak of protection.
“Really, Ian, it is rather unseemly to speak of such things.”
Ian bit his inner lip, knowing better than to try and force his father to speak of anything he did not wish to. He had banged his head against that particular wall on too many occasions.
“As you wish.” He lifted a nonchalant shoulder. “To be honest, I am simply interested in hearing of your life.”
“You are my father. It seems strange that I know precious little about you.”
“There is nothing you need know of me, Ian.” Reaching for a damp cloth, Norrington carefully wiped the clinging soil from his hands, his movements as concise and contained as his manners. “If you wish heartfelt confessions, then seek out Ella. She would no doubt be eager to share any childhood memory you desire. Now if you will excuse me, I believe I shall seek my rooms.”
Without so much as a glance in his son's direction, Lord Norrington turned and marched from the conservatory, his back so stiff it was a wonder it did not crack beneath the strain.
Abandoned yet again by the father who had devoted a lifetime to ignoring his only child, Ian sucked in a raw, painful breath.
“And they claim me the bastard,” he muttered.
Despite the lateness of the hour, Mercy ignored the comforts of her bed and instead remained curled in a wing chair in the library with a large, leather-bound book spread open on her lap.
The room was her favorite. Although it claimed the same opulent elegance that Rosehill was famous for, with its lofty ceiling and bank of windows overlooking the rose gardens, there was a sense of warmth in the towering shelves crammed with Lord Norrington's astonishing collection of books and the sturdy English furnishings.
When Mercy had first arrived she had been speechless as she stepped into the room. Her mouth had actually watered as she stood in the center of the polished parquet floor and allowed her gaze to wander over the endless shelves. To a young maiden starved for the opportunity to widen her mind, it had seemed as if she had been offered a glimpse of paradise.
A paradise she was determined to savor until she was forced back to the dull reality of her future.
Lost in the past, Mercy had no notion of how fragile she appeared in the depths of the leather chair, or how the nearby fire flickered over the golden curls that had slipped from the once-tidy knot to brush her ivory cheeks and added a hint of translucency to her sensible muslin gown.
Not until there was a sharp intake of breath and she glanced up to discover Ian Breckford regarding her with a smoldering appreciation that sent a jolt of awareness down her spine.
“Ah, so wood sprites have infested even the library,” he taunted, strolling forward with a predatory grace.
“Good heavens.” Snapping the book shut, Mercy warily rose to her feet, her gaze trained on the advancing gentleman. He was still wearing the elegant attire he had chosen for dinner, but sometime during the evening he had loosened his cravat and opened the buttons of his linen shirt to reveal the strong column of his neck. With his raven hair tousled and his jaw darkened with a hint of whiskers, he appeared utterly earthy, utterly male, and utterly dangerous. Another thrill of awareness charged through her body, reminding Mercy that knowledge was not the only thing she was starved for. “Will you please halt your habit of sneaking up on me?”
“I was hardly sneaking.” The golden gaze ran a lazy path down her body, lingering a deliberate moment on the modest cut of her bodice. “I believe an elephant could have stomped through the room without gaining your attention.”
“Yes, well, I was reading a fascinating history on the plague that swept through the Byzantine empire whileâ”
“I will take your word that it is fascinating,” he drawled.
She smiled wryly, more resigned than annoyed by his interruption. There were few who possessed her passion for the past.
“You have no interest in history?”
“I far prefer the present.” He prowled forward, filling the room with a restless energy. “Especially when it includes a beautiful lady.”
Barely aware that she was moving backward, Mercy came to her senses the same moment her back hit the book-lined shelves. Whatever was the matter with her? This gentleman might be a practiced rake, but he wasn't about to ravish her in his father's library.
Not unless she invited him to do so, the voice of the devil whispered in the back of her mind.
“Yes, I imagine you would,” she managed to retort.
A wicked smile curved his lips. “You sound disapproving.”
That was the problem, of course. Mercy was not at all certain that she disapproved of the heady sensations that were tingling through her body.
His hands landed on the shelves on either side of her shoulders, his lean, muscled body trapping her in a cage of heat.
“If you must persist in thinking the worst of me, then perhaps I should take measures to live up to my reputation,” he warned, his head angling down to brush his lips over the delicate skin of her temple.
“Mr. Breckford . . .”
“Ian.” Her hands lifted to press against his chest. Not so much in protest as in an effort to catch her breath. That soft caress might be meaningless to Ian Breckford, but it shuddered through her body with shocking force. “You appeared troubled when you walked into the room. Is anything the matter?”
He pulled back to reveal a sardonic expression that was not entirely successful in disguising a deep, festering pain.
“I am always troubled after spending time in my father's company. He possesses an uncanny ability to rattle my nerves.”
“I am sorry.”
“Do not be. It is not your fault.” His lips twisted. “Besides, it is nothing that a swig of whiskey will not cure. Well, perhaps more than a swig.”
“It is very late to be partaking of strong spirits.”
The smoldering heat returned to the golden eyes as he studied the soft curve of her lips. Certainly it is well past a proper maiden's bedtime. There are dangers to be found lingering in the shadows of a house.”
“What sort of dangers?”
“Dangers such as this . . .” With a blatant sensuality, he leaned forward until his lips pressed to the pulse that pounded at the base her throat.
Mercy shivered, her hands instinctively lifting to grip the lapels of his jacket. There was the strangest humming racing through her body, making her knees weak and her lower stomach clench with a sharp excitement.
“Are you going to kiss me again?” she demanded dreamily, already imagining those warm lips exploring her mouth.
“I thought that was what I was doing.” With a tantalizing nip, he pulled back, a bold challenge sparkling in the gold eyes. “Perhaps you would prefer that I try some other method?”
“Oh.” Her heart missed a delicious beat. She had always thought of kissing as two sets of lips pressed together, just as he had done earlier. Certainly no one had ever whispered of any other possibility in her hearing. But there had been something wildly arousing in his lips teasing her throat and the brief flick of his tongue against her skin. Just how many other secrets were kept from stifled virgins? “Are there more than one?”
“Devil a bit.” His short burst of laughter echoed through the vast room as he regarded her with amused disbelief. “You are either incredibly naÃ¯ve or a fool.”
Her lips thinned as realization struck. She truly was both naÃ¯ve and a fool. His caresses had not sprung from a natural desire for her. They were nothing more than an effort to goad her.
He would not be the first gentleman to enjoy the game of Shock the Aging Spinster.
“Why?” Mercy arched a cold brow. “Because I am just a provincial bumpkin who is not sophisticated enough to comprehend the rules of such games?”
“Because you should be slapping my face.”
“I may yet.”
He stilled, studying her as if the answers to the universe might be etched upon her upturned countenance.
“Perhaps you truly are a wood sprite,” he murmured. “I have never encountered another woman like you.”
With a motion that was swift enough to catch Ian off guard, Mercy slipped beneath his arm and moved to stand beside the crackling fireplace. Slowly he turned to regard her with a steady, unnervingly watchful gaze. Rather like a predator considering whether to continue toying with his prey or pouncing for the kill.
“I presume that you came to the library in search of the whiskey you claimed to be in need of,” she said, waving her hand toward the distant corner. “I believe Lord Norrington keeps it on the side table.”