|A LADY OF HIS OWN - EXCERPT
Restormel Abbey, Lostwithiel, Cornwall
A log shattered in the grate; sparks sizzled and flew. Flames leapt, sending fingers of light playing over the leather spines lining the library walls.
Charles St. Austell, Earl of Lostwithiel, lifted his head from the padded depths of his armchair and checked that no embers had reached the shaggy pelts of his wolfhounds, Cassius and Brutus. Slumped in hairy mounds at his booted feet, neither hound twitched; neither was smoldering. Lips easing, Charles let his head loll back on the wellworn leather; raising the glass in his hand, he sipped, and returned to his cogitations.
On life and its vicissitudes, and its sometimes unexpected evolution.
Outside the wind whistled, faint and shrill about the high stone walls; the night tonight was relatively calm, alive but not turbulent, not always the case along Cornwall's southern coast. Within the abbey, all was slumberingly still; it was after midnight - other than he, no human remained awake.
It was a good time to take stock.
He was here on a mission, but that was largely incidental; learning whether there was any truth in tales of Foreign Office secrets being run through the local smuggling channels wasn't likely to tax him, certainly not on a personal level. His principal objective in seizing the excuse his erstwhile commander Dalziel had created, and thus returning to the abbey, his ancestral home, now his, was to gain sufficient perspective to examine and, he prayed, resolve the increasingly fraught clash between his desperate need for a wife, and his deepening pessimism over finding a lady suitable to fill the position.
In London, he'd found himself hip-deep in candidates, not one of whom was anything like the lady he needed. Being mobbed by giddy young misses with more hair than wit who viewed him only as a handsome and wealthy nobleman, with the added cachet of being a mysterious war hero, had proved something of a personal purgatory. He wasn't going back into society until he had a firm and definite vision of the lady he wanted for his own.
Truth to tell, the depth of his need of a wife - the right wife - unnerved him. When he'd first returned after Waterloo, he'd been able to assure himself that that need was only natural; his association with six others so very like himself, all equally in need of wives, and the camaraderie that had flowed through their formation of the Bastion Club - their last bastion against the matchmaking mamas of the ton - had reassured and soothed his impatience, and blunted the spur for some months.
But now Tristan Wemyss and Tony Blake had both found and secured their wives, while he, with his more edgy, restless, desperate need, was still waiting for his lady to appear.
It had taken the last few weeks in London, being sucked into the whirl as society prepared for the intense months of the Season, to fully comprehend what fed that increasingly edgy need. For thirteen years, he'd been dislocated, cut off from the society to which he'd been born and to which he'd now returned. He'd spent thirteen tense years buried in enemy society, never relaxing, never less than alert and aware. Now, even though he knew he was home and the war was over, he still found himself, at parties, balls, any large gathering, mentally apart. Still the disguised outsider watching, observing, never able to let down his guard and freely merge.
He needed a wife to connect him again, to be a bridge between him and all around him, especially in the social sense. He was an earl with numerous sisters, relatives, connections and obligations; he couldn't hide himself away. He didn't want to hide himself away-he was constitutionally unsuited to being a recluse. He liked parties, balls, dancing - liked people and jokes and having fun - yet at present, even though he might be standing in the middle of a ballroom surrounded by laughing hordes, he still felt he was outside, looking in. Not a part of it.
Connection. That was the one vital ability he needed in a wife, that she should be able to connect him to his life again. But to do so, she needed to connect with him, and that was where all the bright young things failed.
They couldn't even see him clearly, let alone understand him - and he wasn't at all sure they had any real interest in that last. Their notion of marriage, of the relationship underlying that state, seemed determinedly and unalterably fixed in the superficial. Which, to his mind, came perilously close to deception, to pretence. After thirteen years of lying, both living a lie and constantly dealing in fabrication, the last thing he would permit to touch his life - his real life, the one he was determined to reclaim - was any element of deceit.
Fixing his gaze on the flames leaping in the hearth, he focused his mind on his objective - on finding the right lady. He'd had no difficulty rejecting all those he'd met thus far; accustomed to gauging character swiftly, it usually took him no more than a minute. Yet identifying what characteristics his right lady possessed, let alone her whereabouts, had thus far defeated him. If she wasn't in London, where else should he look?
The sound of footsteps, faint but definite, reached him.
He blinked, listened. He'd dismissed his staff for the night; they'd gone to their beds long ago.
Boots, not shoes; the bootsteps marched nearer, and nearer, from the rear of the house. By the time the steps reached the back of the hall, not far from the library, he knew that whoever was strolling through his house after midnight, it wasn't any servant; no servant walked with that relaxed, assured tread.
He glanced at the hounds. As aware as he, they remained slumped, stationary but alert, their amber eyes fixed on the door. He knew that stance. If the person came in, the hounds would rise and greet them, but otherwise were content to let that person pass.
Cassius and Brutus knew more than he; they knew who the person was.
Straightening in his chair, he set his glass aside, almost disbelievingly listened as the intruder rounded the end of the stairs and calmly, steadily, climbed them.
"What the hell?" Rising, he frowned at the wolfhounds, wishing they could communicate. He pointed at them. "Stay."
The next instant he was at the library door, easing it open. Unlike the person marching through his house, he made less sound than a ghost.
Lady Penelope Jane Marissa Selborne reached the head of the stairs. Without conscious thought, she turned her riding boots to the left along the gallery, making for the corridor at its end. She hadn't bothered with a candle - she didn't need one; she'd walked this way countless times over the years. Tonight the shadows of the gallery and the peaceful silence of the abbey itself were balm to her restless, uncertain mind.
What the devil was she to do? More to the point, what was going on?
She felt an urge to run her hand through her hair, to loosen the long strands sleeked back in a tight knot, but she was still wearing her wide brimmed hat. Dressed in breeches and an old hacking jacket, she'd spent the day and all of the evening surreptitiously following and watching the activities of her distant cousin Nicholas Selborne, Viscount Arbry.
Nicholas was the only son of the Marquess of Amberly, who, after her halfbrother Granville's death, had inherited her home, Wallingham Hall, a few miles away. While she felt respect and mild affection for Amberly, who she'd met on a number of occasions, she was less sure of Nicholas; when, in February, he'd appeared unheralded to stay at Wallingham and had started asking questions about Granville's habits and associates, she'd become suspicious. She had sound reasons for believing that anyone asking such questions bore careful watching, but Nicholas had left after five days and she'd hoped that that would be the end of it.
Yesterday, Nicholas had returned, and spent all day visiting the various smugglers' dens dotted along the coast. Tonight, he'd visited Polruan, and spent two hours at the tavern there. She'd spent the same two hours watching from a nearby stand of trees, taverns at night being one of the few places hereabouts she accepted were off limits to her, at least when on her own.
Irritated and increasingly alarmed, she'd waited until Nicholas came out, alone, then followed him back through the night. Once she was sure he was heading back to Wallingham, she'd turned her mare north and ridden here, to her sanctuary.
During her long wait in the trees, she'd thought of a way to learn what Nicholas had been doing in the taverns he'd visited, but putting her plan into action would have to wait for tomorrow. As would racking her brains, yet again, to try and make sense of what she'd thus far learned, of her suspicions and what she feared they might mean, might reveal, might lead to.
Despite the urgency she felt over that last, the long day had drained her; she was so tired she could barely think. She'd get a good night's sleep, then consider her best way forward tomorrow.
At the end of the gallery, she headed down the corridor; the bedchamber two from the end of the wing had been hers for the past decade, whenever she took it into her head to visit her godmother's home. The room was always kept ready, the Abbey staff long-used to her occasional, unheralded appearances; the fire would be laid, but not lit.
Glancing to her right, through the long, uncurtained windows that gave onto the rear courtyard with its fountain and well-tended beds, she decided she wouldn't bother striking a flame. She was bone-weary. All she wanted was to peel off her breeches and boots, jacket and shirt, and tumble under the covers and sleep.
Exhaling, she turned to her bedchamber door and reached for the latch.
A large dense shadow swooped in on her left.
Panic leapt. She looked -
Recognition hit; she clapped a hand over her mouth to cut off her shriek, but he was faster. Her hand landed over his, pressing his hard palm to her lips.
For an instant, she stared into his eyes, dark and unreadable mere inches away. Acutely conscious of the heat of his skin against her lips.
Of him there, tall and broadshouldered in the darkness beside her.
If time could stand still, in that instant, it did.
Then reality came crashing back.
Stiffening, she dropped her hand and stepped back.
Lowering his hand, he let her go, eyes narrowing as he searched her face.
She dragged in a breath, kept her eyes on his. Her heart was still hammering in her throat. "Damn you, Charles, what the devil do you mean by trying to scare me witless?" The only way to deal with him was to seize the reins and keep them. "You could at least have spoken, or made some sound."
One dark brow arched; his eyes lifted to her hat, then lazily traced downward, all the way to her boots. "I didn't realize it was you."
Beneath the layers of her drab disguise, a lick of heat touched her cold skin. His voice was as deep, as languidly dark as she remembered it, the seductive power simply there whether he intended it or not. Something inside her clenched; she ignored the sensation, tried to think.
The realization that he was the very last person she wished to be there - within ten miles or even more of there - slammed through her and shook her to her toes.
"Well, it is. And now, if you don't mind, I'm going to get some sleep." Lifting the latch, she pushed open the door, went in and shut it.
Tried to. The door stopped four inches short of the jam.
She pushed, then sighed. Deeply. She dropped her forehead against the door. Compared to him, she was still a squib; her senses informed her he had only one palm against the door's other side.
"All right!" Stepping away, she flung her hands in the air. "Be difficult then." She uttered the words through clenched teeth. Tired as she was, her hold on her temper was tenuous-that, she knew, was the very worst state to be in when forced to deal with Charles Maximillian Geoffre St. Austell.
Stalking across the room, she pulled off her hat, then sat on the side of the bed. From under lowered brows, she watched as he entered. Leaving the door ajar, he located her, then scanned the room.
He saw her brushes on the dresser, glanced at the armoire, noting the pair of halfboots she'd left under it, then he looked at the bed, confirming it was made up. All in the time it took him to prowl, long-legged, arrogantly assured, to the armchair before the window. His gaze returning to her, he sat. Not that that word adequately described the motion; he was all fluid grace somehow arranging long, muscled limbs into an inherently masculine, innately elegant sprawl.
His black hair grew in heavy loose curls; presently neatly cropped, the thick locks framed his face. A harsh-featured, aristocratic face with dramatically arched black brows over large, deep-set eyes, strong, sculpted nose and jaw, and lips she didn't need to dwell on.
For the space of ten heartbeats, his gaze rested on her; even through the dimness she could feel it. He'd always had better night vision than she; if she was to survive this interview with her secrets intact, she'd need every last ounce of her control.
Taking charge seemed wise.
"What are you doing home?" All her reasons for believing the Abbey empty, a safe haven, colored the words, transforming question into accusation.
"I live here, remember?" After an instant, he added, "Indeed, I now own the Abbey and all its lands."
"Yes, but -" She wasn't going to let him develop the theme of being her host, of being in any way responsible for her. "Marissa, Jacqueline and Lydia, and Annabelle and Helen, went to London to help you find a wife. My stepmother - your godmother - and my sisters are there, too. They left here enthused, in full flight. There's been talk of little else in the drawing rooms here and at Wallingham Hall since Waterloo. You're supposed to be there, not here." She paused, blinked, then asked, "Do they know you're here?"
Knowing him, that was a pertinent question.
He didn't frown, but she sensed his irritation, sensed, as he answered, that it wasn't directed at her.
"They know I had to come down."
Had to? She fought to cover her dismay. "Why?"
Surely, surely it couldn't be...?
Charles wished the light were better or the chair closer to the bed; he couldn't see Penny's eyes and her expressions - the real ones - were too fleeting to read in the dimness. He'd chosen the safe distance of the chair to avoid aggravating their mutually twitching nerves. That moment in the corridor had been bad enough; the urge to seize her, to have his hands on her again, had been so strong, so unexpectedly intense, it had taken every ounce of his will to resist.
He still felt off-balance, just a touch insane. He'd stay put and make do.
She appeared as he remembered her, tall, lithe and slender, a fair sylph who despite her outward delicacy had always had his measure. Little about her seemed to have changed, but he mistrusted that conclusion. As a gently-bred nobleman's daughter, the thirteen years between sixteen and twenty-nine had to have left their mark, but in what ways he had no clue, except in one respect. He would take his oath her quick wits hadn't got any slower.
"I'm here on business." True enough.
"This and that."
"I'll be attending to whatever's on my study desk while I'm here."
"But you're here for some other reason?"
He could sense agitation building beneath her words; his instincts were awake, alert and suspicious. His mission here was to be open, overt not covert. For once there was no reason he couldn't cheerfully tell all, yet the very last person he'd expected to tell first - if at all - was her.
But if she was asking, then his most direct way forward was to tell her, and see how she reacted. Yet he wanted quid pro quo - what the devil was she doing traipsing about the countryside at midnight, let alone dressed as a male? And why the hell was she here and not at her home, Wallingham Hall, a mere four miles away? Come to that, why wasn't she in London, or safely married and living with a husband? Oh, yes, he definitely wanted answers to all those questions, which meant the distance between them wasn't going to work. If she lied...if he couldn't see her face, her eyes, he might not pick it up.
Unhurriedly, he stood; his gaze on her, he walked, as unthreateningly as he could, to the bed and propped one shoulder against the post at its end. Her gaze hadn't left him; he looked down into her eyes. "I'll tell you why, exactly why I'm here, if in return you'll explain to me why, exactly why you've arrived here at this hour, dressed like that."
Her grip on the edge of the bed had tightened, but otherwise she hadn't tensed. She stared up at him for a finite moment, then looked at the door. "I'm hungry."
She rose, walked to the door and without a backward glance went through it.
Lips lifting, he pushed away from the bedpost and followed, closing the door behind him.
He caught up with her on the stairs, and followed her to the kitchen. She marched in and went straight to the kettle, left sitting to one side of the hob; taking it to the pump over the sink, she started filling it. Crossing to the stove, he hunkered down, opened the furnace door and raddled the grate until the coals glowed red. He piled in kindling, then a few split logs, conscious of the sharp, assessing glances she threw him as she moved about the room.
Once the fire was blazing, he shut the furnace door and rose. Reaching across, she set the kettle to heat, and placed a teapot into which she'd ladled leaves on the bench alongside. Glancing at the table, he noted the cups and saucers she'd set out, the plate of Mrs. Slattery's almond biscuits she'd fetched from the pantry. Not once had she hesitated in assembling those things. She knew where everything in his kitchen was stored better than he did.
He studied her as she sank into the chair at one end of the table. Mrs. Slattery, the Abbey's head cook and housekeeper, would never allow her to help herself, which meant she'd learned all she knew on forays like this, long after his staff were abed.
She'd set his cup and saucer halfway along the table, the plate of biscuits between them, beside a single candlestick. The plate was as far from her as she could reach, and equally far from his designated place. He drew up a chair to that spot without comment. The candle flame was steady in the well-sealed kitchen; he'd achieved what he'd wanted-he could see her face.
Picking up a biscuit, she nibbled, over it met his eyes. "So why are you here?"
Leaning back, resisting the lure of the biscuits for the moment, he studied her. If he answered simply, succinctly, what were his chances of getting anything out of her? "My erstwhile commander asked me to take a look around here."
Where to go from there? He could see the question in her gray-blue eyes, could only wonder why she was being so very careful.
"Your commander..." She hesitated, then asked, "What arm of the services were you in, Charles?"
Very few people knew. "Neither the army nor the navy."
"Theoretically one of the Guards."
If he didn't tell her, she wouldn't understand the rest.
She frowned. "Where were you for all those years?"
She blinked; her frown deepened. "With your mother's relatives?"
He shook his head. "They're from Landes. A similar distance south so my coloring and accent were acceptable, but far enough away for me to be relatively safe from being recognized."
She saw, bit by bit realized. Her gaze grew distant, her expression slowly blanked, then she snapped her gaze, now appalled, back on him. "You were a spy?"
He'd steeled himself, so didn't flinch. "An unoffocial agent of his British Majesty's government."
The kettle chose that moment to shriek. His words had sounded sophisticated, dismissively cynical, but he suddenly wanted that tea.
She rose, still staring, lips slightly parted. Her eyes were round, but he couldn't read the expression in them. Then she turned away, snagged the kettle and poured the boiling water over the leaves. Setting the kettle down, she swirled the pot, then left it to steep.
She turned back to him. Her gaze searched his face; she rubbed her hands down her breeches and slowly sat again. This time she leaned forward; the candlelight reached her eyes.
"All those years?"
He hadn't, until that moment, known how she'd react, whether she'd be horrified by the dishonor many considered spying to be, or whether she'd understand.
She understood. Her horror was for him, not over what he'd been doing. A massive weight lifted from his shoulders; he breathed in, lightly shrugged. "Someone had to do it."
"But from when?"
"I was recruited as soon as I joined the Guards."
"You were only twenty!" She sounded, and was, aghast.
"I was also half-French, looked totally French, spoke like a southern native - I could so easily pass for French." He met her gaze. "And I was ripe for any madness."
He would never tell her that part of that wildness had been because of her.
"But..." She was trying to work it out.
He sighed. "Back then, it was easy to slip into France. Within a few months I was established, just another French businessman in Toulouse."
She viewed him critically. "You look - and act - too aristocratic. Your arrogance would always mark you."
He smiled, all teeth. "I gave it out that I was a bastard of a by-then-extinct family on whose grave I would happily dance."
She studied him, then nodded. "All right. And then you did what?"
"I wormed my way into the good graces of every military and civilian dignitary there, gathering whatever information I could."
Exactly how he'd done that was one question he wasn't prepared to answer, but she didn't ask.
"So you sent the information back, but you stayed there - all that time?"
She rose to fetch the tea, returning to the table to pour; he watched, soothed in some odd way by the simple domestic act. So distracted was she that when she came close to fill his cup, she didn't seem to notice. As she leaned forward, his eyes traced the curve of her hip, plainly visible courtesy of her breeches. His palm tingled, but he ruthlessly kept both hands still until she straightened and moved away.
He nodded his thanks, picked up the cup, cradled it between his hands. He sipped, then went on, "Once it became clear how successfully I could penetrate the highest civil and military ranks, there as more at stake. Leaving became too risky. The French had to believe I was always there, always accounted for - not the slightest question over what I was doing at any time."
Leaving the pot on the sink, she returned to her chair. "So that's why you didn't come back for James's funeral."
"I managed to get out for Papa's and Frederick's, but when James was lost, Wellington's forces were closing on Toulouse. It was more vital than ever that I stay in place." Frederick, his eldest brother, had broken his neck on the hunting field; James, the second eldest, had succeeded Frederick only to drown in a freak boating accident. He, Charles, was the third son of the 6th earl, yet here he now was, proclaimed and established as the 9th earl. One of the vicissitudes of fortune that had overtaken him.
She nodded, her gaze far away; lifting her cup, she sipped.
Eventually she refocused on him. "Where were you at Waterloo?"
He hesitated, but he wanted the truth - all of the truth - from her. "Behind French lines. I led a few others, half-French like me, to join a detachment from Toulouse. They were guarding artillery on a hill overlooking the field."
"You stopped the cannons?"
"That's why we were there."
Her gaze remained steady on his face. "To reduce the slaughter of our troops."
By slaughtering others. He left the words unsaid.
"But after Waterloo, you sold out."
"There was no further need of us - agents like me. And I had other duties waiting."
Her lips curved. "Duties you and everyone else had never imagined you'd have to take up."
Indeed. The mantle of the earldom had fallen to him, the wildest, outwardly least suited, least trained to the challenge of his father's three sons.
She continued to study him, after a moment asked, "How does it feel - being the earl?"
She'd always had an uncanny ability to probe where he was most sensitive. "Odd." He shifted in his chair, stared into his halfempty cup.
Impossible to explain the feeling that had enveloped him when he'd walked up the front steps and through the massive front door earlier that day. The earldom and the Abbey were his. Not just them, but the lands and the responsibilities that came with both, and more - the Abbey was not just his childhood home but the home of his ancestors, the place in which his family had its deepest roots. This was home, and its protection and fostering had fallen to him; to him fell the challenge of seeing it and the estates pass not just intact but improved to the next generation.
The feeling was as compelling as any bugle call had ever been, yet the impulses it stirred were not as yet so clear. Nevertheless, more than anything else, his need to respond by finding his countess, by properly linking himself back into this world, had brought him home; Dalziel had just provided a fortuitous excuse.
"I still find it hard remembering Filchett and Crewther are trying to get my attention when they say 'my lord.'" Filchett and Crewther were his butlers, here and in town respectively.
He'd told her enough. He drained his cup, intending to start his side of the interrogation.
She stopped him with the words, "I heard you and some others had formed a special club to help each other in your search for brides."
He stared at her, simply stared. "Have you been to London recently?"
"Not for seven years."
He'd accepted Dalziel knew all about the Bastion Club, but... "How the hell did you know?"
She set down her cup. "Marissa had it from Lady Amery."
He sighed through his teeth. He should have remembered Tony Blake's mother and godmother were French, part of the network of aristocratic emigrées who'd come to England years before the Terror. As was his mother. He frowned. "She didn't tell me she knew."
Penny snorted and stood to retrieve their cups. "She and the rest only went up to town four weeks ago. How much time have you spent with her?"
"I've been busy." He was grateful he didn't blush easily. He'd been actively avoiding, not so much his mother - she understood him so well it was frightening, but consequently she rarely attempted to tell him his business - but his younger sisters, Jacqueline and Lydia, and even more his sisters-in-law, Frederick's wife Annabelle and James's wife Helen.
Their husbands had died without heirs; for some mystical reason that had converted them into the most passionate advocates of marriage for him. They'd infected his sisters with the same zeal. Every time any of the four saw him, they'd drop names. He didn't dare go riding or strolling in the park for fear of being set on and dragged to do the pretty by some witless, spineless miss they thought perfect to fill his countess's shoes.
Initially, he'd welcomed their help, no matter his oft-voiced aversion to such feminine aid, but then he'd realized the young ladies they were steering his way were all wrong - that there apparently wasn't a right one in all of London - but he hadn't known how to explain, how to stop them, couldn't bring himself to utter a straight No; he could imagine their faces falling, the hurt look in their eyes...just the thought made him squirm.
"Have they driven you from town?" Penny watched his head come up, watched his eyes narrow. She held his gaze, amused. "I did warn them - and Elaine and my sisters, too - but they were all quite convinced they knew just who would suit you, and that you'd welcome their assistance."
His snort was a great deal more derisive than hers had been. "Much they know..." He stopped.
She probed. "It's the start of the Season - the very first week - and you've fled."
"Indeed." His voice hardened. "But enough of me." His eyes - she knew they were midnight blue, but in the weak light they looked black - fixed on her face. "What were you doing riding about the countryside dressed like that?" A flick of his eyes indicated her unconventional attire.
She shrugged. "It was easier than riding in skirts, especially at night."
"No doubt. But why were you riding at night, and sufficiently hard to appreciate the difference between sidesaddle and astride?"
She hesitated, then gave him one inch - dangerous, but... "I was following someone."
"Someone doing what?"
"I don't know - that's why I was following them."
"Who are they and where did they go?"
She held his gaze. Telling him was too great a risk, not without knowing why he was there. Especially now she knew the truth of his past.
That hadn't been that great a shock; she'd always suspected something of the sort-she'd known him quite well, the youth he'd once been. But thirteen years had passed; she didn't know the man he now was. Until she did, until she could be sure...she knew enough to be careful. "You said you were asked to look around here by your ex-commander. What sort of ex-commander does an ex-spy have?"
"A very determined one." When she simply waited, he grudgingly elaborated, "Dalziel is a something in Whitehall - exactly what, I've never known. He commanded all British agents on foreign soil for the last thirteen years at least."
"What has he asked you to look into down here?"
He hesitated. She could see him weighing the risk of telling her, of giving her the last piece of information she wanted without any guarantee she'd reciprocate.
She continued to wait, gaze steady.
A muscle shifted in his jaw. His gaze grew colder. "Information has surfaced that suggests there was a spy in the Foreign Office leaking secrets to the French during the war. The information suggests the route of communication lay somewhere near Fowey, presumably via one of the smuggling gangs operating hereabouts."
She'd thought she was up to hiding it, had put all her control into managing her expression. A tremor in her hands gave her away; she saw his eyes flick down before she suppressed it.
Then, slowly, his gaze rose to her face. His eyes locked on hers. "What do you know about it?"
His tone had grown harder, more forceful. She thought of playing the innocent for all of a heartbeat. Futile with him. He knew, and there was nothing she could do to erase that knowledge. Nothing she could do to deflect him, either.
But she could deny him. Refuse to tell him until she'd had time to think, to examine all the facts she'd gathered - as she'd been planning to do after a sound night's sleep.
She glanced at the old clock on the shelf above the stove, ticking stoically on. It was well after one o'clock. "I have to get some sleep."
She pushed back her chair, but then made the mistake of looking up and meeting his eyes. The candle flame glowed in them, giving his face a devilish cast, one the lean, harsh planes, wide brow and bladelike nose, and the tumbling locks of his thick black hair only emphasized. His eyes were heavy-lidded; his jaw was chiseled, but its hard lines were offset by the subtle beauty of lips sculpted by some demon to lure mortal women into sin.
As for his body, with broad, squared shoulders, lean torso and well-muscled rangy limbs, he exuded strength tempered by a grace only few men possessed. His hands were narrow, long-fingered, by themselves quite beautiful. The entire package was quite sufficient to make an angel weep.
Yet his sensual allure wasn't his greatest threat, not to her. He knew her, far better than anyone else in the world. With her, he had a card he could play - one she sensed he more than any man alive would know how to play - a weapon guaranteed to make her comply.
As he sat and looked at her - did nothing more than let the weight of his gaze rest on her - she had no difficulty imagining and believing what his life had been like for the past decade and more. He didn't need to tell her that he'd been alone for all those years, that he'd let no one close, or that he'd killed, and could kill again, even with his bare hands. She knew he had the strength for it; she now knew beyond doubt that he had the courage and conviction for it.
He never called her Penelope except on formal occasions; he used Penny when they were with family. When they'd been alone, he'd often teased her with a different moniker, Squib, a nickname that said it all; when it came to anything physical, he would always be the victor.
Yet this wasn't physical, and when it wasn't, he didn't always win. She'd dealt with him in the past; she could do so again.
Holding his gaze, she stood. "I can't tell you - not yet. I need to think." Stepping around the table, she walked neither hurriedly nor slowly toward the door. It lay beyond him; she had to pass him to leave.
As she did, he shifted. She sensed his muscles bunch, tense, but he didn't rise.
She reached the doorway, and silently exhaled.
She froze. He'd called her that on only one occasion. His threat was there in his tone, unspoken yet unmistakable.
She waited a heartbeat; when he said nothing more, she looked back. He hadn't moved; he was looking at the candle. He didn't turn to face her.
He couldn't face her...
A knot inside unraveled; tension flowed away. She smiled, softly, knowing he couldn't see. "Don't bother - there's no point. I know you, remember? You're not the sort of man who would."
She hesitated for another second, then quietly said, "Good night."
He didn't reply, didn't move. She turned and walked away down the corridor.
Charles listened to her footsteps retreating, and wondered what malevolent fate had decreed he'd face this. Not the sort of man to blackmail a lady? Much she knew. He'd been exactly such a man for more than a decade.
He heard her reach the front hall, and exhaled, long and deep. She knew not just some minor piece of the puzzle but something major; he trusted her intelligence too well to imagine she was overreacting to some inconsequential detail she'd inadvertently stumbled on. But...
"Damn!" Shoving away from the table, he stood and stalked back to the library. Opening the door, he called Cassius and Brutus, then headed out to the ramparts to walk. To let the sea breeze blow the cobwebs and the memories from his brain. He didn't need them clouding his judgment, especially now.
The ramparts were raised earthworks ringing the Abbey's gardens to the south. The view from their broad, grassed top took in much of the Fowey estuary; on a clear day, one could see the sea, winking and glimmering beyond the heads.
He walked, at first steering his thoughts to mundane things, like the wolfhounds lolloping around him, diverting to investigate scents, but always returning to his side. He'd got his first pair when he'd been eight years old; they'd died of old age just months before he'd joined the Guards. When he'd returned home two years ago with Napoleon exiled to Elba, he'd got these two. But then Napoleon had escaped and he'd gone back into the field, leaving Cassius and Brutus to Lydia's care.
Despite Lydia's affection, much to her disgust the instant he'd reappeared the hounds had reattached themselves to him. Like to like, he'd told her. She'd sniffed and taken herself off, but still snuck treats to the pair.
What was he going to do about Penny?
The question was suddenly there in his mind, driving out all else. Halting, he threw back his head, filled his lungs with the cool, tangy air. Closed his eyes and let all he knew of the Penny who now was to flood his mind.
When he'd first returned home, his mother, unprompted, had informed him, presumably by way of educating his ignorance of their neighbors, that Penny hadn't married. She'd had four perfectly successful London Seasons; she was an earl's daughter, well-dowered and, if not a diamond of the first water, then more than passably pretty with her delicate features, fair, unblemished skin, long flaxen hair and stormy grey eyes. Her height, admittedly, was to some a serious drawback-she was about half-a-head shorter than he, putting her eye-to-eye with many men. And she was...he'd have said willowy rather than skinny, with long limbs and svelte, subtle curves; she was the antithesis of buxom, again not to every man's taste.
Then, too, there were the not-inconsequential elements of her intelligence, and her often waspish tongue. Neither bothered him, indeed, he greatly preferred them over the alternatives, but there were, admittedly, not many gentlemen who would feel comfortable with such attributes in their wives. Many would feel challenged in a threatening way, not an attitude he understood but one he'd witnessed often enough to acknowledge as real.
Penny had always challenged him, but in a way that delighted him; he appreciated and enjoyed their near constant battles of wits and wills. Witness the one they were presently engaged in; despite the seriousness of the situation, he was conscious of the past stirring, elements if their long-ago association resurfacing - and part of that was the challenge of dealing with her, of interacting with her again.
According to his mother, she'd received dozens of perfectly good offers, but had refused every one. When asked, she'd said none had filled her with any enthusiasm. She was, apparently, happy living, as she had for the past seven years, at home in Cornwall watching over her family's estate.
She was the only offspring of the late Earl of Wallingham's first marriage; her mother had died when she was very young. Her father had remarried and sired one son and three daughters by his second wife Elaine, a kindly, good-hearted lady - his godmother as a matter of fact. She'd taken Penny under her wing; they'd grown to be not so much mother and daughter as close friends.
The earl had died five years ago; Penny's halfbrother Granville had succeeded to the title. A sole male with a doting mother and four sisters, Granville had always been spoilt, tumbling from one scrape into the next with nary a thought for anyone or anything beyond immediate gratification.
He'd last met Granville when he'd returned home in '14; Granville had still been reckless and wild. Then had come Waterloo. Fired by the prevailing patriotic frenzy, Granville had shut his ears to his mother's and sisters' pleas and joined one of the regiments. He'd fallen somewhere on that bloody plain.
The title and estate had passed to a distant cousin, the Marquess of Amberly, an older gentleman who had assured Elaine and her daughters that they could continue to live as they always had at Wallingham Hall. Amberly had been close to the previous earl, Penny's father, and had been Granville's guardian prior to Granville attaining his majority.
And thus the freedom to get himself killed, leaving his mother and sisters, if far from destitute, then without immediate protectors.
That, Charles decided, opening his eyes and starting to pace again, was what bothered him most. Here was Penny already involved in God knew what, and there wasn't any male in any position to watch over her. Except him.
How she'd feel about that he didn't know.
At the back of his mind hovered a lowering suspicion over why she hadn't been eager to marry, why no gentleman had managed to persuade her to the altar, but how she now thought of him, how she now viewed him, he didn't know and couldn't guess.
She'd be prickly almost certainly, but prickly-yet-willing-to-join-forces, or prickly-and-wanting-nothing-whatever-to-do-with-him? With ladies like her, it wasn't easy, or safe, to guess.
He did know how he felt about her - that had been an unwelcome surprise. He'd thought thirteen years would have dulled his bewitchment, but it hadn't. Not in the least.
Since he'd left to join the army, he'd seen her a few times in '14, and then again over the past six months, but always at a distance with family, both his and hers, all around. Nothing remotely private. Tonight, he'd come upon her unexpectedly alone in his house, and desire had come raging back. Had caught him, snared him, sunk its talons deep.
And shaken him.
Regardless, it was unlikely there was anything he could do to ease the ache. She'd finished with him thirteen years ago - cut him off; he knew better than to hold his breath hoping she'd change her mind. She was, always had been, unbelievably stubborn.
They would have to set that part of their past aside. They couldn't entirely ignore it - it still affected both of them too intensely - but they could, if they had to, work around it.
They'd need to. Whatever was going on, that matter he'd been sent to investigate and that she, it seemed, had already discovered, was potentially too dangerous, too threatening to people as yet unknown, to treat as anything other than a battlefield. Once he knew more, he'd try to separate her from it. He didn't waste a second considering if she, herself, was in any way involved on the wrong side of the ledger; she wouldn't be, not Penny.
She was on the same side he was, but didn't yet trust him. She had to be protecting someone, but who?
He no longer knew enough about her or her friends to guess.
How long before she decided to tell him? Who knew? But they didn't have a lot of time. Now he was there, things would start happening; that was his mission, to stir things up and deal with what rose out of the mire.
If she wouldn't tell him, he'd have to learn her secret some other way.
He strode along the ramparts for half an hour more, then returned to his room, fell into bed, and, surprisingly, slept.
BACK TO TOP