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Authors: Gail Mallin

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The Elusive Heiress

BOOK: The Elusive Heiress
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THE ELUSIVE HEIRESS

 

Gail Mallin

 

Chapter One

 

1811

The house lay drowsing in the afternoon heat. Mellow with age, its sturdy black and white timbers gave it the appearance of a queerly-striped fantastic beast bred from and nourished by the rich soil in which it stood.

Peaceful silence reigned. A flock of geese, preening in the sunlight, paraded solemnly across the sweep of greensward which fronted its ancient walls. They paused for an instant by the massive oaken door before disappearing in the direction of the ornamental lake, but nothing stirred behind the diamond-leaded window panes.

Suddenly, the dream-like silence was shattered by the sound of approaching carriage wheels. Moments later a chaise rounded the final curve of the driveway and slowed to a halt before the main entrance.

The steps were let down and a fashionably-clad young woman descended. She surveyed the rambling structure of Crawford Hall for a long moment and then, lifting her chin, trod purposefully forward.

* * * *

‘A visitor for you, my lord.’

Randal Crawford suppressed a groan. Who the devil wanted to disturb his peace? It was too damned hot to be paying social calls.

‘Tell ‘em, I’m not at home!’

‘I’m afraid the young woman was most insistent, sir,’ his butler murmured apologetically.

Scenting a mystery, Randal carefully closed the volume of Baron Denon’s
Voyages dans la Basse et la Haute Egypte
he been studying. Egyptian antiquities could wait!

‘Who is she, Blake?’

The butler sniffed. ‘She would not give her name. However, I would judge her to be a lady.’

Knowing that his efficient retainer had a keen eye for the niceties of speech and dress, Randal dismissed the fleeting notion that his unknown visitor might be one of the Cyprians who had accompanied Nick and Harry north to Chester for the recent Spring Meeting.

A shudder of distaste ran through him.

His horse, Golden Boy, had won the City Plate and his former comrades-at-arms had invited him to dine with them to celebrate. Flown with champagne, Harry’s little blonde piece had sat upon his knee and plied him with amorous kisses!

Luckily, Harry, full of good food and wine, his pockets well-lined from backing Golden Boy, had merely laughed. Randal’s own amusement had rapidly dissipated when the girl continued to throw out lures in his direction. In the end, he had been almost glad to see Race Week draw to a close.

The friendship formed with Harry when they had both served in the 12th Light Dragoons was too strong to be damaged, but an unwelcome note of constraint had been introduced, not helped by the wench’s brazen hints on their last evening that she would like to remain in Chester when the rest of fashionable world deserted the ancient city and returned to their usual haunts.

Randal frowned at the memory. He had ignored her, of course, but early the next morning a scented
billet-doux
repeating her offer to become his mistress had been delivered to the Hall. Throwing it away, the cynical thought had occurred to him that Harry must have let slip the extent of his fortune.

‘Shall I send the young person away, my lord?’

Recalled to the present, Randal considered the matter. It was unlikely that this present weather would last much longer, which, since he enjoyed the heat, was one reason for not going back on his decision to spend a well-earned, idle afternoon in the shade of the great oak that overlooked the Knot Garden. On the other hand, he was aware of a niggle of curiosity.

Situated in the depths of the Cheshire countryside, Crawford Hall rarely received unexpected visitors. Even patrons of the arts desirous of admiring its well-known Tudor architecture usually had the forethought to ensure that they would be welcome before venturing so far.

‘Did she say why she wished to see me?’

Blake shook his head, his disapproval plain.

Randal handed him the book he had been reading and came lithely to his feet.

‘Show her into the library. I’ll see her in ten minutes,’ he announced briskly, his irritation at being disturbed vanishing at the prospect of action.

‘Very good, my lord,’ Blake replied woodenly.

Randal laughed and strode away into the house, where, true to his word, he swiftly exchanged his informal shirt-sleeves for more decorous attire.

With a minute to spare, he headed for the library, a handsome double cube room which lay beyond the oak-beamed front entrance hall.

‘Good afternoon.’ Randal paused on finding a stout middle-aged dame seated upon the old carved wooden settle by the main door.

She rose swiftly to her feet in response to his greeting and bobbed a silent curtsy.

‘I take it you are waiting for your mistress?’ A lady’s maid, if he was any judge. Clad in black bombazine, she was the image of respectability.

She nodded, but vouchsafed no further answer.

A fleeting smile touched Randal’s well-cut mouth. ‘Then I shall endeavour not to keep you waiting too long,’ he said pleasantly.

Hearing the note of steel underlying this remark, a look of alarm flashed over the woman’s somewhat heavy features. It was swiftly veiled, but Randal realised she was extremely nervous.

His interest quickened. Now, why should she be scared of him?

With a nod of dismissal, he turned away towards the library, a sense of anticipation filling him.

* * * *

She was standing over by the one of the long sash windows, which had been inserted some twenty years ago on his father’s orders. Apparently intent upon the view, she did not turn round.

However, Randal thought he saw her shoulders tense and certain she had heard him enter, he experienced a flicker of affronted surprise. It was not the usual habit of young ladies to ignore him!

Coxcomb! Recovering his sense of humour, his mouth twisted in a wry grin. Instead of reacting like a puffed up popinjay, he ought to take advantage of the situation.

The lady’s excellent figure was certainly worth studying. She wasn’t very tall but, clad in a dashing travelling costume of pomona green, she possessed enticing curves. He preferred brunettes too and the ringlets escaping from the confines of that frivolous little bonnet were very dark.

‘I see you admire our view, ma’am,’ Electing to make the first move, Randal strolled across the thick Turkey carpet towards her. ‘It is generally regarded as one of Repton’s finer prospects.’

Slowly, with a panache Randal found himself admiring, she turned to face him and made a graceful curtsy. The lace veil on her hat was down, obscuring her features, but as she straightened she lifted up her hands and flung it back.

Randal caught his breath in an involuntary gasp of surprise. She was a regular little beauty!

Framed by the bonnet, her face was a pure oval with a straight little nose and a softly rounded chin, but her mouth was no pink rosebud. Randal stared at her soft full lips. Could that rich inviting colour be as natural as it seemed?

Her eyes were even more striking. Long, slanting and as black as midnight, they held a faintly mocking smile as they met his gaze.

‘Lord Redesmere, I presume?’

Her voice was low and sweet…and faintly amused.

Recalled abruptly to his senses, Randal bowed. The movement lacked his usual grace, but his voice was perfectly steady when he answered.

‘You have the advantage of me, ma’am.’

She smiled. ‘Don’t you recognise me, sir?’

Randal shook his head, trying to ignore the sudden fierce surge of attraction that twisted through him at her smile.

‘Should I?’ he enquired, concealing his perturbation and gesturing politely towards one of a pair of comfortable leather-padded armchairs that stood before the richly carved Tudor mantelpiece.

‘No. I suppose not. After all, I dare say you couldn’t have been more than fourteen when we last met.’ She moved towards the chair. ‘And I was still in swaddling clothes,’ she added, glancing back over her shoulder, her expression provocative.

Randal’s brows shot up, but he waited until she was comfortably settled before seating himself and taking up the challenge.

‘May I ask the circumstances surrounding this momentous occasion?’

There was a note of amusement in his attractively deep-toned voice that told her he was enjoying their banter and his visitor experienced a flutter of satisfaction. No matter how Mary protested, she
knew
this roundabout approach was exactly what was needed!

It was essential to engage Lord Redesmere’s interest and support if their plan was to succeed, but it wasn’t going to be easy. Gossip painted him a strong-minded and intelligent man who went his own way careless of public opinion. Since he was as rich as he was well-connected, this eccentricity was forgiven him, particularly by matchmaking mamas who eagerly sought him as a husband for their daughters.

He was also said to be a dangerous man to cross!

‘Actually, sir, it was my christening,’ she answered, still managing to keep her tone light in spite of the sudden chill which feathered down her spine.

‘I attended your christening?’ A puzzled frown banished the admiration in his eyes.

They were very blue eyes. Set in a strong-boned face, they justified all the flattery she had heard. He
was
handsome, although she didn’t care for the way he wore his wheat-blond hair in a Brutus crop.

She could imagine how devastatingly attractive he would be if he ever bothered to smile with genuine warmth.

‘I’m told you declined the honour of becoming my godparent, but I understand we were formally introduced.’ She allowed a hint of mischief to creep into her tone. ‘To be honest, I believe I possetted all down the front of your best coat.’

‘Good God! Are you saying that you are Kitty Nixon?’ Randal ejaculated the name in astonishment.

Gratified by his thunderstruck expression, his visitor nodded, setting her luxuriant sable ringlets dancing.

‘Indeed, sir. I am your long-lost cousin. And you must know why I am here.’

‘Do I?’

A moment ago, he had fallen for that dramatic trick she’d played with her veil, but it seemed he was not quite as bedazzled as she had hoped!

‘Oh come, my lord!’ She gave him a roguish smile. ‘It is not kind of you to tease me when I have travelled all the way from America to see you.’

‘To see me or lay claim to John Nixon’s fortune?’

Nettled by this reply, her thin black brows flew together. ‘Surely you did not think to inherit
everything
?’

All trace of amusement fled Randal’s face. ‘I think, ma’am, that you are impertinent,’ he countered icily.

‘Then I pray you will excuse me.’ Reining in her temper, she adopted a conciliatory expression. ‘I didn’t mean to impugn your honour. My grandfather would not have named you as his executor unless he trusted you.’

She dropped her gaze to her lap and let a convincing sigh escape her. ‘Forgive me. It has been a long journey and I fear my wits are somewhat addled with fatigue.’

Ninnyhammer! Where was the sense in antagonising him? Even if he had hoped to inherit the old nabob’s fabulous wealth he was hardly going to admit it!

To her relief, he acknowledged her apology, adding smoothly, ‘May I offer you some refreshment? A glass of lemonade perhaps?’

She accepted with a pretty show of thanks, hiding her disappointment. Devil take the man, was that all the hospitality he was going to offer her? After such a heavy hint she was sure he would feel duty bound to proffer an invitation to stay to dinner at least. Where was his family feeling!

Swallowing her resentment at this setback to her plans, she watched him rise to summon one of his servants.

He moves very well for such a big man, she admitted grudgingly to herself. Although she had known he was once a major in an elite cavalry regiment, she hadn’t expected him to be quite so tall and broad shouldered…or to exude such an aura of powerful virility!

It was rather disconcerting!

Randal pulled the bell, but did not immediately resume his seat. Instead, he took up a position standing by the wide stone hearth.

‘When did you hear of John Nixon’s death?’ he asked, fixing his gaze attentively on her face.

‘Last November,’ was the prompt reply.

‘He died in July.’ Randal pointed out the fact gently.

‘So we were informed, but the letter you instructed the lawyers to write took a long time to reach us.’

‘May I ask why?’

She clenched her teeth. Until this moment, she wouldn’t have thought it possible to dislike such a velvet-toned voice!

‘It went astray, sir.’ Realising she had fallen into the error of sounding sharp again, she produced a pretty smile. ‘They sent it to our previous address.’

His expression remained polite, but she sensed he was sceptical.

It was very annoying! She hadn’t expected to find him so difficult to convince.

‘Did you know that my grandfather quarrelled with my mother when she wrote to inform him that she was to marry again?’ she asked abruptly.

BOOK: The Elusive Heiress
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