Authors: Patricia Gaffney
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #General
(book # 2 in the Wyckerley series)
Suave, cynical, and too handsome for his own good, Sebastian Verlaine never expects to become a magistrate judging the petty crimes of his tenants and neighbors. Nor can the new Viscount D'Aubrey foresee that, when a fallen woman appears before him, he'll find himself beguiled against all reason to alter her terrible fate....
Rachel Wade has served time in prison for her husband's violent death, but she soon discovers that freedom has its own price. For no one will offer her a second chance but a jaded viscount who needs a housekeeper. Scorned by the townspeople of Wyckerley as D'Aubrey's mistress, tempted beyond her will by the devilish lord, Rachel risks all she had to claim a life of her own... and a love that will last for all time.
"But it is too rude of you, Bastian! How can you send me away like this? Don't you like Lili anymore?"
"I adore you," Sebastian Verlaine avowed, prying away the grip of his mistress's tiny white hand, clamped to his thigh like a nutcracker. Through the carriage window, he watched the chimneys of Lynton Great Hall, his dubious inheritance, recede behind a screen of ancient oak trees. He couldn't help liking the look of his new house. But it was hard to sustain admiration for its rough granite grandeur when he thought of everything that was broken, peeling, crumbling, smoking, or leaking, and how much even rudimentary repairs were going to cost him.
"And have we not had a nice time? Did we not play lovely games in your new
Eh? Bastian, listen to me!"
"It was paradise, my sweet," he answered automatically, kissing her fingers. They smelled of perfume and sex, an essence he wasn't capable of appreciating just now, at least not in any way that required virility. Enough occasionally was enough, and four days and nights in the intimate company of Lili Duchamps was, as the lady herself would put it,
plus qu'il n'en fant
—more than enough.
she agreed, insinuating her index finger between his lips and tapping his teeth with her fingernail. "Put off your silly men's business and come to London with me. We have never made love on a train,
"Not with each other," he conceded after a second's thought. He bit down on her finger hard enough to make her snatch it away and glare at him. It would have been amusing to say, "You're beautiful when you're angry," but it wouldn't have been true.
"Oh, you are cruel! To send me off all alone to— to—
—" she made it sound like
— "and make me ride on the train to London all by myself—
c'est barbare, c'est vil!
by yourself," he pointed out reasonably, "and now you just have to do everything in reverse." Past her lavishly styled, champagne-colored hair, he watched the quaint parade of thatched-roof cottages glide by as the carriage bumped and rumbled up Wyckerley's cobblestoned High Street. The cottages were charming, he supposed, with their fat dormers, profuse gardens, and pastel fronts; but his aesthetic appreciation was tempered by the thought that his own tenants probably lived in'half of them. Then they weren't so charming. Then, like the manor house, they were just a lot of old buildings that needed his money and attention.
can you not come with me? Why? Ooh, I hate you for this!" She drew back her hand, but he grabbed it before she could strike him. By now he knew her shallow tempers; she rarely caught him off guard anymore. "Take care," he said in the soft, menacing tone with which he'd originally seduced her; the fact that it still worked was one reason their affair was growing stale. "Do not try my patience,
or I'll have to punish you."
The lurid flare of excitement in her eyes made him laugh—spoiling the mood. "Oh!" she cried, thumping him on the chest with her fist. "Beast! Cad! Ungrateful bitch!"
"No, darling, that's
he corrected, holding her
hands still in her lap. Lili's English wasn't fluent, and sometimes she called him the things her own spurned lovers called her. "Now, kiss me and say good-bye. Justice is waiting for me."
"Who? Oh, your silly court business." Suddenly her peevish scowl lifted. "I know—Bastian, I will come with you and watch!"
"No, you will not." The good souls of Wyckerley already worried that their new viscount was a degenerate; one look at Lili and their worst fears would be confirmed. He wanted to save them.from that, or at least delay the awful truth a little longer.
I want to see you in your black robes and your
sending poor criminals to the
"Ah, darling, what charming blood lust." He leaned across the carriage seat, intending to retrieve his walking stick. Lili intercepted the move by seizing his hand and pressing it to her powdered white bosom, inhaling to inflate it to the maximum—a needless augmentation of an already prodigious endowment. In fact, Lili's bust was what had first attracted Sebastian, four months ago at the Theatre de la Porte, where she'd made her debut in
as the living statue of
la Belle Hélene
—a good role for her because it didn't require her to speak. Despite her reputation as one of the most heartless of the
she'd proven an easy conquest: one intimate supper at Tortoni's, absinthe afterward at the Café des Variétés, and then the
coup de grâce,
a pair of diamond eardrops in the bottom of a bottle of Pontet-Canet—
they were disporting themselves on the black satin sheets in her gaudy rue Frochot apartment. She'd been his mistress ever since, but she wouldn't be for much longer. They both knew it—how could they not? They were professionals, he as keeper, she as kept; they knew how to recognize the first stirrings of ennui before it could blossom into foll-fledged contempt.
With a little shimmy, Lili got her left breast into the center of his palm; he felt the nipple harden into a warm little peak. She uncovered her teeth in a carnivorous smile and slipped one of her knees over his.
The carriage had just stopped at the entrance to Wyckerley's exceedingly modest town hall, or "moot hall" as they still called it, inside of which two magistrates and who knew how many poor criminals were waiting for him to help dispense justice in the petty session. Pedestrians were passing on the street, staring openly at the new D'Aubrey brougham, while above, the coachman waited patiently for his lordship to alight. Satisfying Lili didn't take long, Sebastian knew from experience, and sending her away happy would be the better part of discretion. But the logistics, not to mention a disinterest that might be temporary but was nevertheless profound, defeated him. With a sigh, he gave her luscious breast a soft farewell squeeze and withdrew his hand.
Predictably, her eyes flashed with anger—"eyes like multifaceted marcasite, their soft glance more stimulating than a caress," according to a so-called critic in one of the Paris theater revues. Not so predictably, her dainty little hand drew back and slapped him hard across the cheek; he barely caught her wrist before she could do it again.
she spat, her long-nailed fingers curving into claws.
I loathe you." But the lascivious look was back, and it grew heavier, lewder, the harder he squeezed the bones in her wrist. All at once the carnal gleam in her eyes irritated him. They'd played this game too often, and now he was mildly repelled, not aroused by it.
She must have seen his disgust; when he pushed her away she made no protest, and except for one, brief, longing look at his cane, she seemed to be through with violence. "
then," she said airily, pulling up her low bodice, patting her hair,
every inch the insouciant
once more. "Darling, how do you say
" he answered fervently.
So I will leave you to your so
business affairs. When you are next in London, you must do me a great favor, Bastian.
S'il vous plaît,
do not come to see me."
he murmured, privately amazed that she was letting him off this easily. The Comte de Turenne had been foolish enough to break off his liaison with Lili while dining at the Maison D'Or, where she'd retaliated by dumping a plate of Rhine carp
à la Chambord
in his lap.
He opened the door and sprang down to the pavement, breathing deeply of the unperfumed air. "John will take you to the posting inn where the Plymouth mail coach stops, Lili. I'd let you have my carriage, but then, how would I get home?" He gave a Gallic shrug, enjoying the tightening of her carmine lips. "You'll be fine," he said more kindly. "John will wait with you and see that you're safely ensconced and on your way." He reached into the inside pocket of his frock coat and withdrew a jeweler's box. He flipped it to her in a quick underhand lob she couldn't have been expecting. But with the dexterity of a cricket ace, she threw her hand up and caught it—
Like lead to a magnet, Sebastian analogized; or a lure to a great, hungry bass. "I wish you well," he said in French. Less truthfully he added, "I treasure our time together. You may be sure I'll never forget you."
Mollified by the gift more than the words, she lifted her chin and her theatrical eyebrows in what she no doubt intended to be a regal look; he could imagine her practicing it in front of one of the dozen or so mirrors in her boudoir. "Good-bye, Bastian. You are a terrible man, I do not know why I put out with you."
He grinned. "That's put
with me, darling— although your way is closer to the mark." She was softening, she was all but ready to forgive him. To forestall her, he swept off his hat and made a low, fatuous bow.
Be happy. My heart goes with you." Before she could respond, he slammed the door, sent John a discreetly urgent look, and backed away to the curb, keeping his hand on his breast as if overcome with feeling. The carriage jerked away, and he had a last glimpse of her scowling face, cheeks just beginning to flush with anger as she realized he was mocking her—for whatever else Lili might be, she wasn't stupid. But it scarcely mattered now, and all he could feel as he watched the coach turn the corner and disappear was relief.
There wasn't much to downtown Wyckerley. Like most English villages, it had the requisite old church, picturesque cottages, inn and alehouse, a few shops, and of course, the village green, complete with dilapidated, lichen-covered cross. Two happy accidents of nature lifted Wyckerley out of the ordinary, though, and made it genuinely charming. One was its aspect: it sat on a lush green hill overlooking not only Lynton Great Hall a half mile to the east, but the south Devon coast and the dark, brooding wastes of Dartmoor to the north. The second natural gift, even more delightful, was the Wyck, a cunning little river that ran right through the town, side by side with the High Street, spanned at convenient intervals by stone slabs or humpbacked bridges built by the Romans fifteen centuries ago. In April, violets and marsh marigolds covered the river's steep-sided banks, and strawberries and watercresses and wild daffodils. "O, to be in England now that April's here," Browning had mooned from Italy, and Sebastian found himself in unexpected sympathy with the sentiment as he sniffed the clean, crisp breeze and watched the colored wings of birds flicker in the plane trees across the way.
A man passed him on the narrow sidewalk, bowing respectfully; another tipped his hat and mumbled, "Afternoon, m'lord," as he hurried by. Sebastian was surprised they even recognized him, considering the largely absentee nature of his landlordship up to now. He'd been the Viscount D'Aubrey for more than a year, since the death of his second cousin, Geoffrey Verlaine; Geoffrey's widow had lived on at Lynton Hall until her marriage last Christmas to the village minister, a man named Morrell. Since then, Sebastian's actual residence at the Hall had been brief and sporadic, wedged in between more gratifying entertainments in London and abroad. (Although how gratifying they really were was a question, considering that rewards like the acquisition of Lili Duchamps for a mistress had been the dubious fruit of more than one such "entertainment.")
The church bell ringing the quarter hour reminded him he was late. Town hall was a low, squat building of red Devon stone, with two chimneys and a slate roof. An unprepossessing structure, to say the least, and for a moment he was in sympathy with Lili's incredulity when she'd heard he meant to join two other town worthies on the bench as a justice of the peace. How respectable, how stolid and squirelike of him, how Fieldingesque—how utterly unlike Sebastian Verlaine. He'd been called many things—rake, sensualist, seeker, dilettante, degenerate. What he had never been called was "Your Worship," a magistrate's title. All that could account for this odd turn of events was a momentary lapse of reason, a brainstorm, a transient fit of insanity brought on by the simultaneous importunities of three city fathers, the mayor, the curate, and his own bailiff, all ganging up on him in the guise of a social call while he'd been, to put it delicately, "in his cups." (Putting it candidly, he'd been howling drunk. But they couldn't have known it, since he was a past master at feigning sobriety.) When the civic triumvirate had finished enumerating their concise, cogent, and compelUng reasons why he ought to serve as a justice, he'd been in deep sympathy with them, and ready to don robe and wig that very minute.