The Meaning of Love
An original Stephanie Laurens novel
Connected to Lady Osbaldestone's Christmas Chronicles
PRINT ISBN: 978-1-925559-50-7
E-BOOK ISBN: 978-1-925559-49-1
Release Date: October 14, 2021
#1 New York Times bestselling author Stephanie Laurens explores the strength of a fated love, one that was left in abeyance when the protagonists were too young, but that roars back to life when, as adults, they meet again.
A lady ready and waiting to be deemed on the shelf has her transition into spinsterhood disrupted when the nobleman she’d once thought she loved returns to London and fate and circumstance conspire to force them to discover what love truly is and what it means to them.
What happens when a love left behind doesn’t die?
Melissa North had assumed that after eight years of not setting eyes on each other, her youthful attraction to—or was it infatuation with?—Julian Delamere, once Viscount Dagenham and now Earl of Carsely, would have faded to nothing and gasped its last. Unfortunately, during the intervening years, she’s failed to find any suitable suitor who measures up to her mark and is resigned to ending her days an old maid.
Then she sees Julian across a crowded ballroom, and he sees her, and the intensity of their connection shocks her. She seizes the first chance that offers to flee, only to discover she’s jumped from the frying pan into the fire.
Within twenty-four hours, she and Julian are the newly engaged toast of the ton.
Julian has never forgotten Melissa. Now, having inherited the earldom, he must marry and is determined to choose his own bride. He’d assumed that by now, Melissa would be married to someone else, but apparently not. Consequently, he’s not averse to the path Fate seems to be steering them down.
And, indeed, as they discover, enforced separation has made their hearts grow fonder, and the attraction between them flares even more intensely.
However, it’s soon apparent that someone is intent on ensuring their married life is cut short in deadly fashion. Through a whirlwind courtship, a massive ton wedding, and finally, blissful country peace, they fend off increasingly dangerous, potentially lethal threats, until, together, they unravel the conspiracy that’s dogged their heels and expose the villain behind it all.
March 4, 1821
Carsington Castle, Derbyshire
Julian Delamere, seventh Earl of Carsely, drew rein on the rise where the bridle path emerged from the woods to the west of his home and looked down on the sprawling pile that was Carsington Castle.
The sight was as familiar as his own face. Built of local stone in a mix of colors from pale cream to toffee gold, despite its substantial walls, crenellated battlements, and twin towers, his home exuded a warmth that beckoned, particularly on such a cold gray day. Originally a fortified manor house, the castle had been added to over the centuries and remodeled and enlarged several times. As all projects had continued to use the local stone, the end result was both visually pleasing as well as reasonably practical. He and his four siblings had grown up there, and each of them knew every inch of the house, grounds, and surrounding woods.
Scanning from right to left, he took in the fields waiting to be sown and the herds of cows and sheep lazily grazing. Spring had yet to show its face in Derbyshire, but a group of red deer had emerged from the woods north of the castle to nibble on the emerging grass.
All was as it should be—as it needed to be. He’d spent the past year picking up the reins of the far-flung estates he’d inherited on the unexpected death of his father. He hadn’t thought it would take that long, but it had. He didn’t begrudge the time; he’d always accepted that, along with the title, would come that responsibility—and others.
The heavy hunter beneath him shifted and settled, perfectly content to wait while his rider wasted time. Julian patted the gray’s neck. Regis had been his father’s mount. It still puzzled Julian that, although Regis was the least flighty or temperamental horse he’d ever known, it was from Regis’s back that his father had been thrown.
He still couldn’t reconcile that.
At the time, he’d been in Ireland, with the Home Office, as right-hand man to the Under-Secretary for Ireland in Dublin Castle. The news of his father’s death had come as a bolt from the blue; as far as he’d known, his father had been in excellent health. Although he’d rushed to get back, he’d barely been in time for the funeral—far too late to investigate anything. Now, a year later, he still felt unsettled over what they assumed must have occurred, uneasy over simply not knowing—not being sure. His father had been an accomplished rider who had ridden to hounds all his life, yet he’d apparently been unseated by a jump over a perfectly ordinary three-barred gate, one Regis would have taken with ease. The horse had sustained no injury, but his father’s neck had been broken.
Fatal riding accidents weren’t unknown in those parts, yet…
After several moments of staring unseeing at the castle, Julian shook aside the unsettling uncertainty and refocused on his next inevitable step in assuming the mantle of the Earl of Carsely. The management of the estate was firmly in his hands, with the necessary adjustments in place to ensure that all continued running smoothly subsequent to the execution of his father’s will. All was done and complete, and there was no reason to further delay facing the next issue he needed to address.
He shook the reins. It was time to get on with his life and take charge of shaping his own future.
* * *
Julian reached the stable yard, dismounted, and led Regis toward the open stable door.
Hockey, the grizzled stable master, emerged from the depths of the large building and met Julian at the door. “Just as well you took the old man out.” His expression grim, Hockey reached for Regis’s reins.
Julian met Hockey’s gaze. “Why?”
“Because Regis is the size he is, you had to use your father’s saddle rather than your own, and when Mitchell went to put your saddle back in the tack room”—Hockey tipped his head toward the far end of the stable—“he noticed the inner seam was split and a wicked big thorn had been tucked inside.”
Julian stared at Hockey. He’d intended to ride his own mount, Argus, a flighty Arab, that morning, but neither he nor Hockey had liked the way Argus had been favoring his right front hoof. Consequently, he’d opted to take Regis; the big hunter hadn’t been ridden as much as he was accustomed to since Julian’s father’s death. “Any idea how the thorn got there?”
His lips compressed, Hockey shook his head. “But I do know that the way it was set, it would likely have worked its way out while you rode and, at some point, would have given Argus a nasty jab, perhaps more than one, and he wouldn’t have liked that one bit.” Hockey’s gaze grew concerned. “Who knows if you’d’ve been able to hold on? And with your father—”
Julian gripped Hockey’s arm. “That wasn’t your fault.” He couldn’t bring himself to state that it had been an accident; he still wasn’t convinced it had been.
Hockey humphed and looked away.
Julian understood Hockey’s sensitivity. A few days after his father’s death, his father’s groom, Campbell, had hung himself in the tack room. No one knew whether the suicide had been prompted by misplaced guilt—which, given how long Campbell had been his father’s groom and how devoted to the late earl Campbell had been, was a definite possibility—or if there’d been more to it and, for reasons unknown, Campbell had somehow contributed to whatever had caused the late earl to be thrown.
Although none of them could imagine the latter, the thought lingered in the backs of many minds.
Julian released Hockey. “Nevertheless, that’s…disturbing.”
“Aye, it’s that, all right.” Hockey looked deeper into the stable. “I’m thinking of locking the stable and carriage barn when we’re not around. At least for a time.”
Julian nodded. “That’s a sound idea.” At least until he could figure out what was going on.
He met Hockey’s eyes, nodded in dismissal, and strode toward the house.
His saddle was newish and in excellent condition; the seam couldn’t have split by itself. It was even less likely that a large thorn would have found its way into the gap—not without assistance. But assistance from whom? The stable had a large staff of grooms and stablemen. Other than Mitchell, who was relatively new, the rest had been employed at the castle for years if not decades, and most were from families who lived on the estate.
Julian crossed the drive and walked up the gravel path that led to one of the castle’s side terraces. He was climbing the terrace steps when the sound of footsteps on the flagstones above had him looking up. His brother Felix appeared at the top of the steep steps.
Felix saw him, smiled, and halted. “How was the ride?”
Julian stepped onto the terrace and grunted. “Relaxing. What wasn’t so relaxing was discovering that someone had stuck a thorn under the saddle I was going to use but, by sheer luck, didn’t.”
Consternation swamped Felix’s expression. “What?” He fell in beside Julian as he continued toward the side door.
Succinctly, Julian relayed what Hockey had told him.
“I suppose there’s no easy way to find out who did it?”
His expression as grim as Hockey’s had been, Julian shook his head.
After a second, Felix ventured, “After what happened with Papa—”
“Exactly. But sadly, neither you nor I was here at the time, and for all we know, that was an accident.”
“A thorn in your new saddle’s seam isn’t any accident,” Felix countered.
“No, it’s not.” They’d reached the terrace door. Julian gripped the handle and paused. “But no more than I can reconcile that Papa was simply thrown can I make sense of it. I’ve been largely absent for more than a decade. I was in Ireland for eight years before returning, and as far as I know, I’ve made no enemies, before or since. Why anyone would arrange to have me thrown…I have absolutely no idea.”
Worry was written all over Felix’s face. “So what will you do?”
Julian arched his brows. “As far as I can see, there’s nothing—at least nothing useful—I can do. Too many people, including someone sneaking in from outside, could have gained access to the saddle. The stable hasn’t been locked.”
“So”—Julian opened the door—“I’m going to carry on as I’d intended.” He led the way inside. “I’m going to London. I’ve decided it’s time to plunge into the fray and look for a wife who will suit me. A preemptive strike, as it were.”
Felix’s “Really?” rang with stunned surprise.
Cynically, Julian smiled. “Far better that I choose my own wife than have the grandes dames foist their preferred candidate on me.” He glanced at Felix. “You know they will.”
“Well, yes, but…this seems a mite precipitous.”
“Not at all. It’s the start of the Season, and I’m hoping no one will expect me, that they won’t anticipate me being proactive. I’m counting on having the element of surprise, at least long enough to look over the field without interference.” He’d long ago learned that in any negotiation, acting unpredictably never hurt.
* * *
The man who had arranged for the thorn to be placed in the Earl of Carsely’s saddle closed the door to his sitting room, then crossed to an armchair angled before the hearth and sank into its comfort. He smiled to himself. He felt entirely confident that no one would ever suspect him of having designs on Carsely’s life.
He drew out the letter with the Wirksworth postmark that he’d picked up from the salver in the front hall earlier in the day. Now that his landlady, as he thought of her, had taken herself off to some ball, he could peruse the missive in peace. Eagerly, he broke the plain seal, spread the single sheet, and read.
“Damn it!” The oath exploded from him, and his expression, which had been radiating eager expectation, contorted into one of petulant anger. He muttered another oath, then crumpled the note, flung it into the fire, and watched it burn.
He stared at the flames.
Gradually, his expression eased. “It was a long shot,” he reminded himself. “An opportunity worth seizing, but in no way guaranteed.”
After a moment, he went on, “At least it seems that the attempt hasn’t harmed his usefulness. In fact, it might have consolidated his position, and that can only help. Another opportunity—a more certain opportunity—will come his way soon enough, and when it does…”
He had his agents in place, primed to take advantage.
“Steady and sure will win this race, and in this case, time is very much on my side.”
This was a complex mission—one far more challenging than any of his previous advances—and he prided himself on being patient in pursuit of long-term gains.
* * *
Melissa North stood by the side of Lady Connaught’s ballroom and wished she could have remained at home. For years, she’d been able to use her much prettier sister, Mandy, as a social shield. Where Melissa was tall and willowy, with straight sable-brown hair, very pale fair skin, dark-blue eyes, and a naturally reserved manner, Mandy had bright golden curls, sparkling light-blue eyes, and a peaches-and-cream complexion, and she’d always bubbled with an enthusiasm for life that had guaranteed every gentleman’s eye had fixed on her.
Mandy and Melissa, less than a year apart in age, had made their come-outs together. Mandy, the elder, had insisted on that, and Melissa had been happy to agree. While outwardly, Mandy was socially confident, in reality, it was Melissa who was the calm, collected one able to deal with any drama, and thus it had always been. Mandy was the bright light while Melissa was the anchor.
The sisters had made a pact that they would not make any matrimonial choices during their first Season, when they’d been just nineteen and eighteen respectively. They’d held to that and, instead, had enjoyed themselves learning society’s ropes. Unsurprisingly, in their second Season, Mandy had caught the eye of Rufus, Lord Sedon. Unfortunately, due to the death of their paternal grandmother, they’d missed the subsequent Season entirely, so it was only two Seasons ago that Mandy and Rufus had been able to announce their engagement.
And then Melissa had had two beautiful people to hide behind, which had suited her very well.
Inevitably, however, toward the end of the previous Season, Mandy and Rufus had wed. Consequently, this Season, Mandy, expecting their first child and rather large, wasn’t around to act as a distraction.
That left Melissa having to fend off those gentlemen who, finally, had noticed her.
She didn’t want to be noticed.
The musicians put bow to string, and irritatingly, two gentlemen determinedly approached. A yard away, they saw each other, halted, and eyed each other discouragingly.
Lord Cargill’s son blinked first, and with a triumphant smile, Lord Hopgood advanced, beaming winningly at Melissa. “My dear Miss North, might I request the pleasure of this dance?”
Summoning a weak smile, Melissa met his brown eyes and flicked open the fan she carried for such moments. Fanning her face, in a timid, almost faltering voice, she replied, “I fear, sir, that I’m feeling rather faint. Perhaps…later.”
The thought of a female swooning in their arms was usually enough to make gentlemen rethink the wisdom of pursuing her company, and so it proved, although to give Hopgood his due, he did solicitously inquire as to whether she wished to be escorted to her mother’s side.
Heaven forbid. Melissa’s mother would never believe such a tale of her robustly healthy daughter. “No, thank you. I would rather remain here, out of the way.” Melissa smiled more genuinely and released Hopgood to find some other partner. Cargill had already taken himself off. Having successfully avoided yet another dance, Melissa folded her fan and kept her eyes on it, her gaze directed downward so as not to invite further attention.
By ton standards, she was definitely not in Mandy’s league in terms of visual beauty, and she had to admit that the gentlemen’s attentions, genuine enough, were flattering in a way, yet senselessly encouraging any gentleman formed no part of her forward planning.
Slowly, she allowed her gaze to rise again, until she was contemplating the couples whirling about the dance floor. Idly scanning, she noted the bright, hopeful expressions on the faces of many of the year’s debutantes. Despite her intended direction, she could appreciate the emotions behind those starry-eyed expressions. Once, she, too, had hoped to find a gentleman with whom to spend the rest of her life. The right gentleman—the one she could marry with a glad and whole heart—with whom, hand in hand, she could establish a home and a family of her own. Given her background and her family, such a desire was ingrained, yet despite applying herself diligently to searching for said gentleman, she’d never found him. In the years since her come-out, she’d met no man she could even remotely imagine spending the rest of her life beside.
Within her first two Seasons, she’d established that either the gentleman for her didn’t exist, or she was too picky. Or both.
Then during the year of their missed Season, while the family was in mourning, she’d discovered other interests. Interests society deemed acceptable for a lady, even an unmarried one, to pursue.
On returning to the ton and finding it and her prejudices unchanged, she’d formulated a plan for her future life. Unfortunately, a necessary prerequisite—at least as far as her parents and maternal grandmother were concerned—was attendance at all suitable social events through to the end of this Season.
Only then would her “looking for the right gentleman” ordeal be declared at an end.
She’d badgered her parents into accepting that, come June this year, she would be beyond the age of mixing with debutantes. Although they’d yet to acquiesce to her describing herself as being formally “on the shelf,” they’d agreed that, instead of attending the balls and parties of the social whirl, she could devote her time to improving the welfare of orphaned children up and down the country. That was her aim, and once she reached the end of this Season and had appeased her elders, she was determined to strike out and fashion a satisfying life of enlightened spinsterhood.
She couldn’t wait for the Season to end.
Predictably, the grandes dames were in no way amused by her direction, which they’d learned of from her grandmother and her bosom-bows. Having a grandmother who ranked among the grandest of the grandes dames wasn’t always an advantage. Indeed, several grandes dames had demanded that she describe her “right gentleman,” something she’d found well-nigh impossible to do. It was difficult to explain that some finely honed instinct simply knew—with absolute and unwavering certainty—that none of the gentlemen who had appeared before her was the right one for her.
The grandes dames had not been impressed by her vague replies. She was fairly certain several were combing through their acquaintances, searching for whom they might, in desperation, thrust into her path over the coming months.
The music faded, and the dance ended. As the couples drifted from the floor and conversational groups formed, she wished she could fade into the paneling. Avoiding dancing was one thing. Avoiding conversational interaction was rather more difficult.
Apparently idly, she scanned the room, noting several determined gentlemen who were looking her way, then her gaze snagged on a particular dark head directly across the crowded room.
Curious as to why he, whoever he was, had snared her attention, she focused on his profile, all she could presently see as he spoke with several ladies. He was tall, dark-haired, with upward-angled dark brows and thick black lashes, chiseled cheekbones, a clean-cut jawline, and patrician nose. Something about him seemed familiar…
Her eyes widened. “Good Lord,” she muttered. “It’s Dagenham.”
No, not Dagenham—he’s the Earl of Carsely now.
“What the devil’s he doing here?” She frowned. “He’s likely to be mobbed.”
That was not a facetious prediction. She’d known he’d gone into the Home Office and, subsequently, been sent to Ireland. During her first Season, she’d wondered and, ultimately, had surreptitiously checked and learned that he had still been on the other side of the Irish Sea and had not been expected to make an appearance in London any time soon.
And he hadn’t.
Then last year, his father had unexpectedly died, cutting short Julian’s Home Office career and, presumably, bringing him back to England, but he hadn’t returned to London. Given that, courtesy of succeeding to the title, he’d shot to the very top of the eligible bachelor stakes, she’d considered that a very wise decision.
As far as she’d heard, he hadn’t been sighted in the capital—until tonight.
She continued to frown. He had to know that he’d become a prime target for every matchmaker in the ton. To come strolling into Lady Connaught’s ballroom… Cynically, she arched her brows. “Perhaps he wants to be mobbed.”
She hadn’t spoken with Julian—Viscount Dagenham as he’d been—for over eight years, and even then, their interactions had spanned only a matter of weeks. She’d been fifteen and he twenty-one when they’d agreed that their budding juvenile romance was a connection neither could see any viable way to pursue. They’d both been too young; either asking the other to wait for three to four years hadn’t been in their cards.
They’d parted and gone their separate ways.
To say that, in the years since, she hadn’t thought of him and of what might have been would be untrue, but equally, not knowing how he’d changed over the years—as he most certainly would have; by her calculation, he was thirty now—she hadn’t felt she’d known him well enough to pine for something that might never have eventuated.
Besides, given he’d been stationed in Dublin and she’d heard that the social round was much the same there, at least in intent, she’d assumed that some enterprising young lady would have caught his eye by now.
Yet there he was, with no enterprising lady hanging on his arm, and for some benighted reason, she couldn’t seem to tear her eyes away from him.
The crowd between them shifted, groups rearranging, and she had a clear line of sight.
She stared, and as if sensing her regard, he turned his head and looked her way.
Their gazes collided.
She felt it as a physical connection—a stunning blow, then being seized and held.
His gray gaze captured her; his presence commanded her awareness and consumed her every sense.
She couldn’t move. She couldn’t breathe as she fell into his gaze—and he fell into hers.
She couldn’t look away, and neither, it seemed, could he. Neither moved or signaled any awareness of the world around them.
The wordless connection held and swelled and gained intensity and weight.
Neither wanted to be the one to break it.
At the edge of her vision, she saw the ladies he’d been conversing with trying to regain his attention, in vain.
Yet he and she couldn’t simply stand there, trapped by memories in a snare of unrequited longing. At any second, people would see and realize…
She sensed movement to her right; someone was approaching.
With a massive effort, she hauled in a huge breath and swung her gaze that way. It landed on the complacent features of Gordon Delamere.
Melissa inwardly groaned, but she was too desperate for something—anything—to counter Julian’s grip on her senses to send Gordon off.
“Good evening, Miss North.” Gordon halted beside her, bowed, and reached for her hand.
Reacting by rote, she turned to him, murmured a greeting, and surrendered her fingers. To her horror, she felt giddy, her wits still whirling and her thoughts consumed by Carsely.
Good Lord! I need to find my feet!
Gordon was only a year or so older than she, yet since the start of the Season, he’d been assiduous in his attentions and annoyingly persistent despite her admittedly subtle discouragements.
Subtlety, one had to conclude, was wasted on Gordon.
True to form, he attempted to engage her in a conversation that might have been appropriate had she been eighteen. At twenty-three, she was past the age of even pretending an interest in a gentleman’s driving exploits, and with her senses still skittering after the impact of locking eyes with Carsely and her thoughts in disarray, she didn’t pay any attention to what Gordon was saying.
Unable to stop herself, from the corner of her eye, she glanced across the room. Her heart leapt as she found Julian—Carsely—still staring at her, but now, he was frowning.
What he was frowning about, she couldn’t guess, but doubted it boded well.
“I say, are you feeling quite the thing?”
She refocused on Gordon and found him peering rather concernedly at her face.
“You’re looking a trifle pale, and if you don’t mind me mentioning it, you seem a bit dazed.” Gordon glanced at the windows beside them. “Perhaps a turn on the terrace might help?”
Her heart was thumping uncomfortably, and she could barely form a coherent thought; cold fresh air on her face and a little time in a quieter space sounded divine. She gripped Gordon’s sleeve. “Yes—you’re right. I’m not feeling a hundred percent and could do with some air.”
She all but pushed him toward the French door that gave onto the terrace running alongside the ballroom.
“Allow me.” Pointedly, Gordon opened the door, lifted her hand from his sleeve, and ushered her through, onto the terrace.
Biting back an acid comment about fragile male egos, she allowed him to lead her along the terrace as if they were strolling in the cool night air. No other couple had yet sought the relative privacy of the flagstone expanse, but the ball was barely halfway through, and there was a chilly breeze blowing.
Surreptitiously, she glanced through the windows into the ballroom—and saw Julian, his expression grim, cutting through the intervening guests, making a beeline for the terrace door.
Her senses—along with her stupid heart—leapt again; why, she couldn’t have said, but the reaction held a large dose of panic, and the instinct to flee surged.
Abruptly, she turned to Gordon. “I’ve always wanted to examine her ladyship’s gardens by moonlight.” Thankfully, the moon was shining from a largely cloudless sky. “Would you mind if we strolled a little? If we take that path”—she pointed to the gravel path leading away from the bottom of the terrace steps—“we can circle through the gardens.” She leaned closer and all but batted her lashes. “You don’t mind, do you?”
Gordon blinked, then smiled in transparently genuine delight. “Not at all—happy to oblige.” They’d reached the top of the steps, and he waved downward. “Shall we?”
After a fleeting glance at the ballroom—confirming that Julian was still some way from gaining the terrace—Melissa smiled equally sincerely. “Indeed—let’s.”
She matched Gordon as he went swiftly down the steps, then ensured he kept up the pace as they strode swiftly along the path that, she knew, led to a small gazebo.
When the shadows cast by the trees swallowed them, she breathed a touch easier.
* * *
Julian bit his tongue against the urge to tell those who insisted on waylaying him to go to the devil. Instead, he forced himself to pause each time he was hailed, acknowledge whoever spoke, and exchange a modicum of civilized conversation before excusing himself and moving on.
He needed to go after Gordon and Melissa, but for her sake, he shouldn’t draw attention to his mission.
As matters stood, Gordon, who was a cousin twice removed, couldn’t be trusted with any marriageable young lady who commanded a decent dowry, which Melissa, being one of Lord North’s daughters, presumably did. Gordon was in severe financial straits and, apparently, was looking for a well-dowered wife to help him come about. Julian’s mother had informed him of that, and he didn’t doubt she had it right; she rarely made mention of such things, but when she brought something of that nature to his attention, it was because it was true, and she expected that he, as the head of the Delamere family, would at some point have to deal with some less-than-satisfactory development.
Julian had hoped that Melissa would have heard of Gordon’s situation, but it seemed the news was not yet widespread.
The possibility that she did know, but nevertheless, had chosen to go apart with Gordon…
Julian stuffed that notion into a mental compartment labeled Surely Not.
To his abiding surprise, it appeared Melissa was still unmarried. For years, he’d assumed that, while he’d been stuck in Ireland, she would have had her Seasons, and some clod would have snapped her up, but apparently not. She wore no cap or other ornament in her dark hair to signal she was a matron, and if she was married or even promised to another, Gordon wouldn’t be wasting his charm on her.
Regardless of that charm, regardless of what Melissa herself thought, of one thing Julian was absolutely certain. Melissa North was not for the likes of Gordon.
While he smiled and chatted, his mind remained wholly focused on rescuing Melissa. Operating on two levels simultaneously was a skill he’d perfected over the past years; being able to do so was essential when dealing with Dublin’s elite. Analyzing his reactions had also become second nature, yet while he recognized that the intensity of the compulsion to rescue Melissa from Gordon’s clutches bordered on the irrational, he didn’t consider resisting, much less questioning the near-overwhelming impulse.
Finally, he reached the terrace door, opened it, stepped swiftly through, and closed the door behind him.
He’d expected to discover the pair on the terrace—possibly in the shadows that draped the far end—but one searching glance confirmed they weren’t anywhere in sight.
His compulsion ratcheted up several notches along with his temper. “Damn!” Where are they? Surely Melissa knew better than to go into a dark garden with a man like Gordon!
Julian eyed the path that stretched away from either end of the terrace, leading into the night-shrouded gardens. Which way would they have gone?
His hands on his hips, he stared at the path, then closed his eyes. He’d been in this garden years ago; the Connaughts’ son had been a chum at Eton, and one summer, they’d spent several afternoons smoking cheroots—
“In the gazebo.” He opened his eyes and swore.
Without further hesitation, he strode for the steps at the terrace’s farther end. He went quickly down. The instant he hit gravel, he started to run.
* * *
From inside the gazebo, which was wreathed in helpful shadows, Melissa kept watch on the path from the terrace.
She hated feeling panicky, but until she was sure Julian hadn’t followed them, her nerves weren’t going to settle enough to think of anything else.
The breeze sighed through the branches of the conifers that overhung the hexagonal gazebo; she hadn’t realized the interior would be quite so gloomy. She shifted and peered in the opposite direction; if Julian followed, he could approach from either side.
Behind her, Gordon cleared his throat. “I say, Miss North—Melissa, if I may?”
“You may not.” That didn’t require thought.
He made a strangled sound. “Look here, you’re out here, alone with me, in the gardens, and you were the one who wanted to come into the gazebo—you chose to come here.”
“Hmm.” She looked the other way, narrowing her eyes in an effort to pierce the shifting shadows.
“See here.” Gordon was growing belligerent. “The least you can do is pay attention to me.”
Why? “Tell me about your horses.” Gentlemen always wanted to talk about their horses.
“I already have! I use hired hacks—I mentioned that before.”
Now, he sounded petulant.
She squinted. Was that movement on the path?
“Look, I know we haven’t had time to learn much about each other, but I’m sincere when I say”—Gordon’s large hands closed about Melissa’s shoulders, and he forcibly turned her to face him—“that—Ow!”
She’d stamped hard on his foot; as she was wearing hard-soled dance shoes, that had hurt enough to be effective. Her features set, she shoved his hands off her shoulders, stepped into him, and thrust a warning finger in his face. “Don’t you ever—ever—presume to lay hands on me or any other young lady!”
Her nerves were stretched taut, her senses skittish, her wits fragmented. The compulsion to keep her eyes trained on the path was a physical thing—and now, she had to deal with Gordon!
“Presume?” He limped a little as he backed away. “But why did you come out here with me if not to”—he gestured between them—“further our acquaintance?”
Her temper ignited. “I have no interest whatsoever in furthering my acquaintance with you! I came outside—thinking to claim your protection as a gentleman—because I needed to get out of the ballroom and get some fresh air!”
His expression turned ugly. “Well, damn it, we’re here now.” He lunged for her.
She hadn’t expected that, but her brother, Christopher, was only a year younger than she, and years of wrestling with him had taught her a few tricks.
Slamming her elbow into Gordon’s sternum gave him pause and stopped him from hauling her completely into his arms. She kept her head back so that he couldn’t kiss her, narrowed her eyes and trapped his gaze, and in a tone vibrating with fury, succinctly stated, “Let. Go. Of. Me.”
He froze, but didn’t immediately obey.
She smiled chillingly. “If you don’t—if you do not instantly behave in an appropriately gentlemanly manner—on my return to the ballroom, the first people I will speak with are your mother, my mother, my grandmother, and my godmother, Lady Connaught. I will describe your puerile behavior in detail. I’m reasonably certain you will then find that you are persona non grata in all the best ballrooms for the rest of the Season at least—and just think of how your peers will laugh when that news gets around.”
He paled. Then his grip eased, and his expression aggrieved and somewhat puzzled, he released her and stepped back.
“An excellent decision.” The minor triumph was a welcome distraction from her earlier panic.
Frowning, he complained, “You’re supposed to be biddable.”
Incredulous, she all but spluttered, “Biddable? Who told you that?”
“You’re always quiet. Quiet girls do what they’re told, don’t they?”
She stared at him. “Gordon, you’re delusional. For your information, quiet often means stubborn and, most likely, thinking of other things. You’ve met my mother and my grandmother. In what universe would I be biddable?” Her voice had risen. For some reason, she found the suggestion deeply insulting.
Even in the poor light, she saw Gordon blush. “Well,” he said, jaw setting, “we’ll just have to manage this regardless.”
To her surprise, he started determinedly toward her. But then his gaze went past her, and he halted. All color drained from his face. “Carsely.” Shock wreathed Gordon’s features. “What are you doing in London?”
“At this moment, I’m saving Miss North from you.”
Melissa closed her eyes and bit back an oath; thanks to Gordon, she’d taken her eyes off the path. Julian’s voice was deeper, more resonant, than she remembered it; the sound strummed across her taut nerves and set them twanging. Her awareness and every one of her senses flared.
Gordon blustered, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
She blinked, then stepped sideways and turned. Julian was standing, loose-limbed and taller than she remembered him, just inside the gazebo. She hadn’t heard him approach and climb the steps; the sight of him sent frissons dancing over her skin and down her spine.
He’d matured since last she’d seen him; then again, so had she. The man who stood two yards away was a far cry from the lanky young nobleman he’d been; this version was plainly a force to be reckoned with.
His dark, almost-black hair was elegantly cut and fashionably windswept, a style that suited his Byronesque handsomeness. His evening clothes were the height of elegance and fitted his broad-shouldered, lean, and rangy frame to perfection. The impression he projected was one of calm, contained, and controlled power, of flexible, effortless strength of both body and mind. His intelligence was evident, directing every movement and every word.
With his gaze locked on Gordon, he walked forward and halted a few feet from her. “I’m referring to your notion of repairing your financial situation by marrying a well-dowered lady—not, of itself, a disreputable aim—but how you go about it, that, dear cuz, does concern me and all the rest of the family.”
The penny dropped, and she realized that Julian, as the earl, was now the head of his family, and apparently, that family was the Delameres. She hadn’t previously heard his last name. He’d always been Dagenham or, more recently, Carsely to her, and in the years since they’d parted, she’d been extremely careful not to evince too much interest in him.
But Julian was still speaking, wielding words like a whip as he laid into Gordon over the younger man’s dissolute habits and profligate ways, which, unsurprisingly, had led to his currently precarious pecuniary state.
Gordon grew surly but, other than tossing Julian dark looks, didn’t even attempt to defend himself, leaving her to conclude that all that Julian so succinctly and clinically laid bare was true.
That Gordon Delamere had set out that evening to somehow force her into marriage gradually sank in.
If she hadn’t been distracted by Julian’s appearance—hadn’t been sent fleeing by the impact of that shared glance—she would never have accepted Gordon’s escort onto the terrace, let alone to the secluded gazebo. She recalled how pleased Gordon had been at her suggestion they go outside; he’d caught her at a weak moment, and she’d fallen like a ripe plum into his hands.
If Julian hadn’t come after her…
That didn’t bear thinking about.
Her temper surged anew, but as Julian was doing such an excellent job of ripping strips off his cousin, she wrestled her temper into submission and let him have the field.
By the time Julian dismissed Gordon with a harshly condemnatory look and a pointed recommendation to rethink his strategy, she almost felt sorry for Gordon.
With his lips compressed, after fleetingly glancing at her, with a careful, wary look at Julian, Gordon stepped past him and left.
Julian turned and watched his cousin go and fought to rein in his raging temper. He’d long ago learned not to lose it—he couldn’t remember the last time he had—but at that moment, bombarded by feelings on so many fronts, he was struggling to harness his fury.
He wasn’t even sure who he was angrier with—Gordon or…
The instant Gordon was out of sight, Julian swung to face Melissa. He looked into her face—a moonlight-pale oval surrounded by the frame of her dark hair. His gaze roved her features, hungrily committing each to renewed memory, overwriting the vision he’d carried of her; her finely arched black brows, large dark-blue eyes, and lips the color of a pale blush rose, their lines drawn by a master, seared into his conscious mind. Important—so important.
Something in him had always known that.
He tried, truly tried, but couldn’t stop his anger from spilling forth. “Don’t you have the sense you were born with? What the devil possessed you to come out here with such an obvious if pretty cad like Gordon?”
Her eyes narrowed, and her lovely lips compressed. After a second, she responded, “He’s not that pretty, and why I chose to accompany him outside is none of your business.”
“Really?” He couldn’t stop himself; he shifted closer, looming over her. “And how did you imagine you were going to manage once he got his hands on you?”
Her eyes all but sparked. “For your information, he’d already tried that and had discovered I’m not some helpless biddable female.” She tipped up her chin. “I didn’t require any rescue. I’m not the young girl you used to know.”
“That’s half right”—she certainly wasn’t the slip of a thing, retiring and reserved, he’d been so attracted to all those years ago—“but trust me when I say Gordon wasn’t about to stand down. He is that desperate.” The notion she would have been able to subdue his cousin was nonsensical. She was slender, sleekly curved, and a lightweight, and Gordon was almost as large and strong as he was.
She wouldn’t have stood a chance.
The realization of how close she’d come to… His temper surged. He gritted his teeth, thrust his face closer to hers so their eyes bored into each other’s, and bit off, “Regardless of your, likely misplaced, confidence in your fighting skills, gentlemen like Gordon are not for you.”
Toe to toe with the man she still occasionally dreamt of, with her temper in the ascendant, Melissa felt not a single qualm in meeting his gray eyes, full of silver fire, and quietly, evenly, and categorically stating, “You have no right whatsoever to dictate with whom I choose to associate.”
She glared into his eyes and saw silver deepen to pewter. His temper was a tangible thing, beating against her own. She sensed more than saw the tension in him waver, as if he teetered on the knife-edge of a decision.
Then he moved.
His hands rose and framed her cheeks, and he drew her to her toes, bent his head, and crushed her lips beneath his in a hard, fiery, passionate kiss.
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