End of February 1815. Leicestershire, England.
The sky had darkened and wind rocked the carriage, causing at least one wheel to leave the road. Hail mixed with freezing rain battered the windows. Lady Grace Carpenter pounded on the roof of her coach, trying to make herself heard over the storm. “How close are we to the Crow and Hound?”
“Not far, my lady,” her coachman bellowed over the wind. “I'm think'n' we should stop.”
“Yes, indeed. Make it so.” She huddled deeper into her warm sable cloak. When they'd started out this morning, the weather had been dry and sunny, giving no indication a storm of this magnitude would come on.
She was only an hour or so from her home, Stanwood Hall, but they wouldn't make it. It was better to trust in the Crow and Hound's innkeeper's discretion than risk her servants and cattle to this weather.
A few minutes later, they turned off the road, and her coachman bellowed for an ostler. Moments later, her coach's door was quickly opened and the steps let down. Her groom, Neep, hustled her from the carriage to the open entrance of the inn.
The innkeeper, Mr. Brown, was there to greet her. Saxon blond, with blue eyes and of middling height and age, he shut the heavy wooden door against the weather. “My lady,” he said in a surprised tone, “we didn't expect to see you this evenin'.”
“For good reason.” Grace whipped off her damp cloak and shook it. “I didn't expect to be here. I was visiting an elderly cousin, and the storm blew up on our way back.”
“It's as they say, my lady,” he said, nodding, “no good deed goes unpunished.”
“Well,” she blew out an exasperated huff, “it certainly seems like that at times. Thank God, we were close to you. I have my coachman, groom, and two outriders”âGrace grimacedâ“but not my maid.” She prayed no one would discover she was there without her lady's maid, Bolton, who was sure to give Grace her
I told you so
look when she finally made it home. “I shall require the use of one of your girls. It should go without saying you have not seen me here.”
“Yes, my lady.” He nodded, tapping the side of his nose. “You were never here. Don't expect to see anyone else in this weather. You and your servants will sleep warm and dry tonight.” He pointed to the door next to the stairs and within easy reach of the common room. “I'll put you in this parlor for dinner.”
She gave him a grateful smile. “Thank you. That will be perfect.”
Susan, one of Brown's daughters, showed Grace to the large chamber at the back of the inn on the first floor. She handed the girl her cloak to dry, then shook out her skirts. “I'll call for you when I am ready to retire.”
“Yes, my lady. Anything you need, just pull the bell.” Susan bobbed a curtsey and left.
Grace glanced around. Although she had stopped here any number of times on family outings, she'd never spent the night. The inn had been in the Brown family for several generations. The building was old, but it was clean and well maintained.
She took a book and Norwich shawl from her large muff before descending the stairs to the parlor. Although it was early, not much past two o'clock, Mr. Brown had closed the shutters, and a fire was lit, as well as sufficient candles to brighten the room.
An hour later, warm and dry, she was engrossed in
the latest romance from the Minerva Press. Over the storm, sounds of another carriage arriving could be heard. Grace lowered the book, wondering who the newcomer could be.
The inn door slammed opened. Moments later, Mr. Brown's agitated tone and that of another man, a gentleman by his speech, reached her.
Her heart skipped a beat. Worthington? Could it really be him? She hadn't heard his voice for four years, but she'd never forget it.
Opening the door slightly, she peeked out. It was him. The man she'd wanted to marry her whole first Season and had never seen again. His dark brown, almost black, hair was wet at the ends where his tall beaver hat had failed to keep it dry. If he turned, she knew she would see his startling lapis eyes and long lashes.
“Could you not just ask the traveler in the parlor if I might share it with him?” Worthington asked the landlord, his tone strained, but still polite. He was probably already cold and wet, and the common room would be chilly at best.
The kernel of an idea began to form. Swallowing her trepidation, Grace stepped boldly into the hall. “Mr. Brown, his lordship is welcome to dine with me.”
“If you're sure, my . . .”
She flashed him a quelling glance. If he said “my lady,” there'd be too many questions from Worthington. Whatever happened, he could not know her identity.
She tried not to show her relief. “Yes. You may serve us after his lordship has had time to change.” Grace dipped a slight curtsey to Worthington and returned to the parlor.
Closing the door, she leaned back against it. This was her opportunity, maybe her only one, and she was going to take it.
“What are you doing, my girl? Are you out of your mind?”
her conscience berated her
No one will know. Brown will deny I was here.
“How do you expect to preach propriety to the children when you areâ”
“Oh, do be quiet,” Grace muttered. “When will I have another chance? Answer me that. All I want is to spend some time with him. What is the harm in that?”
Water dripped off the greatcoat of Mattheus, Earl of Worthington, as it had dripped off his hat earlier. A puddle had to be forming at his feet. He was not particularly impressed with the small inn. Although he'd passed it every time he made the trip to Town, he'd never stopped here before. If it weren't for the weather, he wouldn't have done so now.
“I can add more wood to the fire in the common room, my lord,” the landlord said. “But me parlor's already got a guest.”
He glanced over at the fairly large space. Even with the shutters closed, the windows rattled. Cold and drafty. “Would you please ask your guest if he will share the parlor for a short time?”
“Couldn't do that, my lord.” The older man shook his head. “I could send the meal to your room, but I ain't got an extra table. Once it warms up, you'll be right comfortable in the common room.”
He sincerely doubted that would be the case.
“Mr. Brown . . .”
Matt turned at the sound of the low, well-bred, no-nonsense female voice. He suspected it would belong to an older lady, perhaps a governess, most definitely not the vision of loveliness standing before him. Before he could even thank her, she gave a curt nod and closed the door.
“I'll show ye to yer room, my lord.” The landlord grumbled as he picked up Matt's bag.
“Thank you. It will be nice to be dry again.” Halfway up the stairs, he stopped as a memory played hide-and-seek with him. He knew her, but from where? London. During the Season. He shook his head trying to knock the memory loose, but nothing more came to him.
“This way, my lord.”
“Coming.” It was her hair that stuck in his mind. It shone like a new guinea coin.
The landlord held a door at the end of the corridor open. “Thank you.”
“I'll send one of my boys up with warm water.”
“I would appreciate that.”
Brown set about lighting the fire.
Matt didn't know many ladies who would offer to share their parlor with a complete stranger. The feeling that they had met before grew stronger. Who the hell was she?
“There ye be, my lord.”
Once the door closed behind the landlord, Matt began shedding his damp clothing. The sooner he got back downstairs, the sooner he'd know who his mystery woman was.
* * *
Less than a half hour later, Matt made his way downstairs and knocked on the parlor door before entering. He bowed. “Thank you for agreeing to share your parlor and your meal. Permit me to introduce myself. Worthington, at your service.”
Nothing like sounding pompous.
He was almost surprised when she smiled and rose instead of turning her pretty nose up at him. “How could I refuse to assist a fellow traveler and in such dreadful weather as we are having?”
That was the first word that sprang to mind as Matt watched her glide to the bell-pull. When he had entered the parlor, the table had already been set up for tea. She took a seat, motioning him to the chair opposite her. “Please. There is no need to stand on formality.”
She handed him a plate, and in a few moments a young girl brought in a pot covered in a brightly colored cloth, set it down, then left.
“Do you take sugar?” the lady asked, glancing from beneath her long gold-tipped lashes.
It was clear the lady, for she was certainly gently bred, had no intention of telling Matt her name. “I do, Missâ”
“Milk or cream?” she responded hastily.
“Two lumps of sugar and a splash of milk if you would.”
The corners of her lush lips tilted up slightly.
He made a point of looking around the room as if searching for something. “Are you traveling alone?”
A deep rose crept up into her face. Though, under the circumstances, that wasn't surprising.
“Sometimes one cannot order the weather to suit one's convenience.” Her voice was tight as if she did not approve of either his question or the weather.
Her long, slender fingers showed no indication of a wedding ring. A fleeting memory of seeing her before niggled at him once more. How could any red-blooded man forget that glorious hair, gold glinting with burnished copper in the candlelight? On the other hand, the hair he remembered. It was her name he'd forgot. Her brows, a little darker than her golden curls, arched perfectly over eyes that tilted slightly upward at the corners. He'd never seen a more beautiful woman.
He wished he could make out the exact color of her expressive eyes, but the light was too dim.
. That was encouraging. Now if he could only remember the rest. Damn the devil. He had seen her before, but where and when, and why couldn't he remember? His gaze was drawn to her mouth, deep rose and a little wider than what was considered fashionable. What would it be like to taste her, to feel her soft lips on his and where had that desire sprung from?
Grace's heart was in her throat by the time Worthington joined her. In the short time he had been gone she'd changed her mind a dozen times at least about inviting him to join her.
Mattheus, Earl of Worthington
Grace allowed her eyes to trail over his perfect form, adding to her still-clear memories of him. He was tall and broad-shouldered, his jacket was cut to perfection. His cravat perfectly tied. He had always been so well dressed. She never thought she'd see him again, or if she did, he probably would be married with several children. Come to think of it, even though he wasn't wearing a ring, he could still be married . . . Oh, he was speaking.
“Miss . . . ?”
When she did not give him her name, he looked at her curiously. Grace walked over to the bell-pull, giving a sigh of relief when a few moments later Mr. Brown's daughter entered the room.
She'd have to do better than that if she wanted him to . . . well . . . She fought the blush rising in her cheeks. “Please take a seat. I shall enjoy the company.”
There, that was much better. Remember you are five and twenty, not eighteen.
This was not going to be as easy as Grace had thought it would be.
Worthington took a sip and his almost-black brows drew together. “This is extraordinarily good tea for an inn.”
“It is my blend. I travel with it.” She only had it this time as a treat for her elderly cousin who professed to love Grace's tea, but would never allow her to leave the canister.
Now what was she to say? With the exception of her vicar, it had been so long since she had spoken with any non-family-member male and those had not been pleasant discussions. “Have you family that will worry about you?”
“Only my sisters and stepmother and they do not know when I plan to return home.” He took another sip of tea. “I imagine your family will be anxious.”
They would be frightened to death. She should have been home long before now, but her cousin was lonely and had needed the company. “A bit.”
“Do you have far to travel?”
Grace studied him over the rim of her cup. She had thought there'd been a spark of recognition in his eyes, but it was clear he did not remember her. That was not surprising. It had been several years since they had seen each other. He had probably danced with thousands of ladies since her one dance with him. In any event, she did not want him to know who she was. It would only complicate her already overly complicated life.
“Within a day,” she finally answered. True, but misleading. She had to turn the course of this conversation to a safer subject. “What do you think about the progress of the peace treaty?”
A small smile formed on his well-molded lips. “That the process has gone on far too long and that the new French government is not as strong as it needs to be.”
Mr. Brown tapped on the door, then entered with another of his many daughters. “Come to clear the tea away, if you're ready.”
Grace tore her gaze from Worthington's mouth. Oh, my. If she'd thought he was mesmerizing before, it was nothing to what he was doing to her insides now. She had to pull herself together. “Yes, please. We shall dine at six.”