Read The Hopeless Hoyden Online
Authors: Margaret Bennett
“I can be ready when you are," Sylvia said to Gabriel, again ignoring Emily after the introductions were made.
“Oh, I was about to leave," Emily piped up, pushing back from the table. "They will be looking for me at the Grange."
“The Grange?" inquired Sylvia, all innocence.
“Yes, Pendleton Grange, just over the ridge to the northeast. It is a lovely Elizabethan manor house."
“Lovely," echoed Sylvia, letting her blue eyes roam the palatial proportions of the Park's dining room.
But Emily was used to Sylvia's kind. Rather than take offense, she quickly said goodbye and was out the door before the Viscount could stop her.
Weaving her way through the woods toward her lovely manor house, Emily wondered why the Viscount had been so quick to denounce her warning. When she'd hinted that the killer was one of his guests, he'd hesitated in answering. True, it had been a mere moment. But it was a tell-tale one. He knew or suspected the truth in what she'd related. Well, she'd keep her eyes open and even tell Lindemann's gamekeeper to keep his peepers pealed for any strange or suspicious characters roaming about.
It really was too bad the Viscount was going to be such a nodcock over this. She decided she liked him and would hate to see anything untoward happen.
The sun was barely cresting over the tree tops as Gabriel rode over the ridge separating the two estates. Reining in his black stallion, Ajax, he saw Pendleton Grange off to the right. It was just as Miss Pendleton described it, a lovely old manor house, overlooking acres of apple orchards and verdant farmland. He'd seldom seen her while growing up. Tom, the oldest Pendleton boy, was six years his junior while Emily was closer to twelve years. He barely remembered a daughter existed since he'd been away at war for most of the past ten years.
While his gaze lingered over the Grange’s land, Gabriel remembered how interminably long yesterday had seemed. He'd played the perfect host, overseeing the lawn games after lunch, dodging Sylvia's coy smiles and hiding from Freddy. His foppish friend had taken to wearing patches about his face, an old custom the baron said he hoped to revive, and so he kept pestering Gabriel to follow his lead.
He had let Cecil and Deborah orchestrate the evening's entertainment of parlor games and again avoided Freddy when he hinted at sharing another bottle of brandy. Instead, Gabriel retired early. Throughout the day, he'd thought of little else but the sprightly Miss Pendleton and so, immediately after breakfast, Gabriel was in the saddle, headed for Pendleton Grange.
He figured the vivacious Miss Pendleton would be up and planned to seek her company for his dreaded house party in the hopes of enlivening it. With more guests arriving today, Gabriel needed her smiling countenance, her exuberance. As for her suspicion about a conspiracy to do him in, he felt certain he could persuade the petite young lady into believing otherwise.
Gabriel gave Ajax, a dark brown stallion, his head and cantered down a wide bridle path. Breaking through the trees, he came upon Emily purposely striding across the sunny field. She saw him and, waving a large straw hat in the air, hailed him.
“Good morning, my lord."
He noted with disappointment that her wild curls were caught up in a loose bun at the nape of her slender neck. Still, dressed in a green sprigged, muslin frock, she appeared so much a part of the rich foliage of the trees surrounding them.
He reigned in the stallion, guiding Ajax toward her. "You look particularly pretty this fine morn, Miss Pendleton," he said with sincere admiration.
“Oh pooh, what flummery!" she laughed, a little shyly before dismissing his compliment as easy as a saucy remark one of her brothers might have made. "But why are you here?"
“To ask a favor." Dismounting, he kept Ajax's reins in one hand, took her elbow in the other, and began strolling toward the manor house.
“Is it a very big favor?" she asked when he didn't immediately continue.
“Yes. You see, fair damsel, you must rescue me, the benighted warrior, from the company of my dandified friend, who insists I copy his foppish mannerisms, and all the marriage minded females who have besieged my home along with their Machiavellian relatives."
Her tinkling laugh brought his to the surface, and he marveled at how lighthearted he suddenly felt. This young puss was just what Freddy would order to bring him out of the doldrums.
“You must truly be desperate to ride over to plead your case when a servant with a note could have done the same. Have you planned any activities today?"
“Actually, Miss Pendleton, I had thought you might make up one of the house party. 'Twould save you traipsing back and forth, and you'd be well chaperoned," he added to forestall the negative reply her frowning countenance surely meant.
“It might serve another purpose, too, my lord. With an ally in the house, your enemy might be less likely to do you harm."
“What nonsense is this?" he growled, knowing full well her meaning. He dare not let on that her story held any credence for fear she might become embroiled. "I thought you'd put that silly notion to rest."
Her eyes narrowed as she studied him speculatively before retorting, "I did not take you to be obtuse."
“Now listen up, Miss Pendleton." He halted and turned to her. Then grasping her shoulders with both hands, he said, “I'll not have you sneaking about, checking closets and peering behind draperies, trying to discover some nonexistent murderer--"
“My lord, I would never behave so amateurishly!"
He shook his head, completely exasperated, wanting to laugh at her affront, yet knowing he could not. "Suppose I promise that should the need of an expert manifest itself, I'll call in Bow Street. Their runners know how to hunt a man down without causing a hullabaloo."
She tried to pull away, but he held her shoulders fast. Looking into her blue-violet eyes, he reflected on what Lindemann Park would be like over the next week without her presence.
“Miss Pendleton, please don't be angry." When she refused to meet his gaze, he let out a sigh of defeat. After all, with a house party, someone would be with her every minute, so what harm could she possibly do. "I'll let you do all the sleuthing you want, only come and stay the week." He could swear he saw the devilish workings of her mind behind those vibrant eyes as she thought over his invitation and her angry expression changed with lightening speed to one of sheer joy.
“Done!" she squealed with delight and extended her hand to seal their bargain.
Accepting her dainty fingers in his own large hand, he found himself falling into the violet depths of her eyes and felt like a drowning man, floundering without a life line.
“So, what activities do you have planned, my lord?" She gave her hand a small tug, but he continued holding her fingers.
“Fishing on the lake after lunch today, an excursion to Hailes Abbey, but little else is definite beyond that. Nothing too exciting or strenuous, I'm afraid."
“Sounds lovely. I will ride over later this morning."
“I'd hope you'd let your maid bring your things over while you return with me now."
“Let me change into my habit while Marabell is being saddled," she acquiesced.
“Done," Gabriel mimicked her earlier response with a broad smile and a vigorous handshake. He was reluctant to release her and so tucked her hand in the crook of his elbow and escorted her back to the manor, with Ajax trailing behind them.
A short while later, the two riders loped across the countryside, enjoying the warmth of the sun at their backs. The Viscount rode his powerful stallion with the assurance and control of a man used to spending long hours in the saddle. Emily's own erect posture and competent seat complimented the dainty lines of her chestnut mare. As they approached a wood that partially hid one side of the large lakes on Lindemann's property, Emily slowed Marabell and pointed toward a break in the trees.
“Who is that man?" she asked.
Drawing his mount up to Emily's mare, Gabriel saw Cecil walking between the half dozen dinghies, lying bottom side up, just above the water line. "That's my cousin, Cecil Caldwell."
He knew his tone conveyed his dislike for his cousin, but Emily's interest in Cecil, who had a reputation with the ladies, irked him. Even from this distance, Cecil's tall, lean build and dark looks showed to advantage.
“Come on." Without any warning, Emily jumped down from Marabell's back, looped the reins about a small bush, and started up the small rise that looked down on the lake.
Wondering what Emily was planning to do, Gabriel followed suit, then overtook her when it became apparent she intended to spy on his cousin. Truth to tell, he thought Cecil's actions were rather circumspect and frankly was curious to discover just what his cousin was doing. One thing was blatantly obvious, however. Miss Emily Pendleton was definitely no shy, retiring Bath miss.
Gabriel reached the top of the rise where a row of hedge bushes provided good cover. Parting aside a few branches, he crouched low and leaned forward for a better look. Emily, one step behind him, rose up on her toes and placed her hands on his shoulders to balance herself. As she leaned toward the opening, her breasts brushed against Gabriel's back. Suddenly, he was more conscious of Emily's nearness, her softness, her fragrance, her femininity than Cecil.
Gabriel forced himself to focus on his cousin by the water.
He watched as Cecil pulled something from his pocket and bent over the bottom of one boat. It looked as though he was boring a hole in the dinghy, but Gabriel found his concentration once again waning.
“What is he up to?" Emily whispered.
The low pitch of her voice and the warm moisture of her sweet breath bathed his ear. Was she deliberately trying to drive him mad, he wondered as desire surged through his veins.
“Shh, be quiet and watch," he said, inhaling her lilac scent.
“But I cannot see," she complained, pressing against him to peer over his shoulder.
“Miss Pendleton, by Jove, move!"
“What is the matter with you?" she shot back, seemingly unintimidated by his growl.
Gabriel turned his head to confront her eye to eye. It was his undoing as he took in the loose curls framing her flushed face, her deep violet eyes steadily returning his regard. A groan of defeat escaped him as he twisted around on his heels and grabbed her shoulders. She opened her mouth to protest, and his whole being focused on her pinks lips, so very kissable lips. He pulled her to him.
His lips covered hers, and time seemed to stand still. He deepened the kiss and felt her initial feeling of surprise slowly melt as she brought her arms up around his neck and imitated his actions. While his hands caressed her slender neck and loosened the curly tresses from the confining bun, her fingers tentatively explored the smooth texture of his thick hair, the coarser hairs at the nape, then stroked his face with one hand against the roughness of his beard. When his hands descended the column of her neck to explore the neckline of her habit, she moaned.
It was the jolt Gabriel needed to bring him back to earth. Instead of midnight stars and an experienced woman, he saw the late morning sun and an innocent young girl in his arms. The kind that society expected you to marry if you compromised her reputation in any way.
Jumping back, Gabriel exhaled a ragged breath and stared at her. Her chest, too, was heaving, exhibiting the extent of their shared passion. And despite their wild abandonment of propriety, her innocence was very plain for him to see.
“That was wonderful," Emily breathed with stars shining in her eyes.
“Surely, you've been kissed before?"