The Reluctant Debutante – Chapter One

The Reluctant Debutante

Chapter One

It was late into the evening and fully dark when the travelling carriage crested the hill at Hampstead and began the long toil down into London. The coachman, an experienced Londoner in his forties, had travelled this road so many times that he had barely to think about his route. The sole occupant of the carriage was similarly familiar with the journey. For most of the time she had occupied herself with a book but as she drew closer to town and darkness fell she laid the volume aside and leaned back against the comfortable upholstery. Generally speaking Cordelia Summers looked forward to returning to her London home. She divided her time between the tall house in the City and the rambling Tudor estate in Leicestershire which had belonged to her long dead mother and she felt equally at home in each of them.
In London she enjoyed spending time with her father, who seldom left town, having no faith in his subordinates to manage his vast array of business interests. Cordelia enjoyed the amenities of London, the bookshops and libraries, the exhibitions and concerts. Regarded with some horror by her contemporaries as something approaching a blue stocking, Miss Summers had a wide variety of interests. She also enjoyed talking to her father, who lacking a son, had always been accustomed to discussing everything with Cordelia from his daily business, to the politics of Europe and the conduct of the recent war. In Leicestershire she was able to spend her days outdoors and enjoyed and a far greater degree of freedom. She loved to ride, fish and go for long rambling walks with her dogs. In the country there was no need to dress with propriety or take her maid out with her, nobody to lecture her about her manners or behaviour. The middle aged lady who acted as her nominal chaperone gave her no trouble and Cordelia’s only regret about her time in the country was that she could not persuade her father to spend more time there with her.
The journey between her two worlds was comfortable if tedious. Mr Henry Summers’ immense wealth meant that their travelling carriage was modern, comfortable and fast, that they could change horses as often as necessary and although Cordelia scornfully refused the escort of grooms, servants and outriders it had never been a problem since the journey could generally be completed in a day. Smith, her elderly coachman insisted on taking at least one groom with him, but on this occasion they had been obliged to abandon the young man at the first posting house, suffering from a distressing stomach complaint. Smith had wanted to send for a replacement, but Cordelia scorned the idea Friends of the Summers’ might tell grisly tales of highwaymen and robbers but Cordelia, a young woman of immense practicality had pointed out that since both she and her coachman carried loaded pistols there was nothing a groom could not do against this danger which she could not, while a maid in those circumstances would be a positive handicap.
On this occasion Cordelia was less sanguine about her arrival in London. She was looking forward to seeing her father, but she would only be with him for a day while her packing was completed, and then she was going to stay, for the interminable months of the London Season, with the Dowager Lady Carlton, a friend of her father’s who had agreed for reasons which remained unfathomable to the exasperated Cordelia, to take the unfashionable, unwilling, ungrateful daughter of a humble merchant and sponsor her into the haute ton.
Just thinking about it made Cordelia angry all over again. She had always known that her father’s hopes and ambitions for her were very different to her own, but in all her nineteen years she had never failed to bend her parent to her will. Never once in matters of education, freedom and independence had her father insisted on his way. He had been deeply in love with his wife and had given all of his devotion after her death to his tiny daughter and to building a business empire which spanned half the globe and brought huge wealth and the prospect of a knighthood.
For all that, Henry Summers had no social ambitions of his own. He was a plain, bluff, blunt spoken man who enjoyed friendships with his city friends, and regarded his occasional business dealings with members of the upper classes as necessary, but not a source of personal triumph. It may have been this modesty which attracted the attention of Lord Carlton, a Whig peer who had encountered Mr Summers during some business affairs and had struck up an unlikely friendship with him.
The friendship was strictly personal. Mr Summers was not encroaching and made no effort to enter his noble friend’s world, or to introduce Lord Carlton to his City friends. The two dined together, and sometimes Lady Carlton would visit them when Cordelia was in town. She had tried to encourage a friendship between Cordelia and her only daughter who was a few years older, but the two girls had little in common. Miss Lucasta Carlton had made a successful marriage the year after her brother was lost at Waterloo, and her father had died quite unexpectedly the following year leaving Lady Carlton and her eldest son as the only members of the family remaining in London. The new Lord Carlton did not share his father’s friendship with Mr Summers, but her ladyship had remained in touch.
Lady Carlton, having sponsored first her daughter and then a niece through the Season and into successful marriages, had conceived the plan with Mr Summers of giving his wayward daughter the opportunity to spread her wings in a far grander arena than the homes of their City friends. Cordelia’s protests at this, to her surprise, had fallen on deaf ears.
“I don’t know what is to become of you, Cordelia!” her father had said. “You’re almost twenty and there isn’t the least hope of you being married. You have no time for any of the young men of your acquaintance, and I’ve yet to meet a man I’d approve as your husband.”
“I don’t want a husband,” Cordelia said shortly.
“But you cannot spend the rest of your life taking care of me! And what about when I have gone?”
“Fiddlesticks!” Cordelia said rudely. “Do not tell me you are expecting to turn up your toes at any minute when you are as strong as an ox! Besides, I should do very well. I will have my friends and my dogs and my horses. Perhaps I could travel. I have always wanted to see more of the world. I could hire a companion and see Europe.”
“Or you could find a husband and travel with him.”
Cordelia snorted. “A titled husband? Are we aiming at a Viscount, father, or should we go higher? An Earl? A Duke?”
“Why not?” her father countered, much to her surprise.
“Because I am your daughter! I’m a Cit and happy to be so. I haven’t the least ambition to cut a dash and I’ve no wish to give the tonnish folk the opportunity to snub me – leave well alone, father.”
But her father had not left well alone. To her surprise he had brought in Lady Carlton anyway. Between the two of them they had cajoled, charmed and bullied Cordelia in turn until she was heartily sick of them both. She had given in with some exasperation and purely to please her father. It would, she had thought, only be for one Season, just a few months, and then she could retire thankfully back into obscurity. It had seemed an acceptable compromise last year when Cordelia had made the agreement, and the Season had seemed a long time away. This evening, with the start of the Season looming and her removal to Lady Carlton’s town house imminent, Cordelia felt slightly depressed.
She was startled out of her reverie by a sharp crack and the carriage lurched violently. Cordelia was almost thrown from the seat but managed to keep her balance. Outside she could hear Smith cursing fluently. Grinning, Cordelia opened the window.
“What happened, Smith?”
“Wheel’s gone, miss. This road is a disgrace! Something should be done about it”
Cordelia opened the door and jumped down into the road to inspect the damage. It was immediately obvious that there was no possibility that the vehicle would be moving anywhere soon.
“Where are we?” Cordelia looked around her. They appeared to be in a semi rural area with no other vehicles in sight. One or two small farmhouses could be seen in the distance, but only one building, a little further along the road, was showing any lights. No doubt in time another carriage would pass this way, and a message might be sent, but it was growing late. Shivering slightly, Cordelia pulled her thick pelisse closer around her.
“Just north of Somer Town, miss. Not so far from home, but it might as well be fifty miles for all the good it will do us!” Smith looked at her frowningly. “We should have turned back when we had to leave Dagnall! Another day wouldn’t have hurt us, and now look at the mess we’re in!”
“We’re not far from town, I can smell it.”
“Too far to walk for help, and with all your baggage left here!” Smith said. “We should have a groom with us! Then I could stay with you and…”
“Well we don’t!” Cordelia said practically.
“I could get you a hackney or hire a carriage if we were closer to town,” the coachman grumbled. He looked around him again. The building further along the road appeared to be a small tavern, silent but well lit. Cordelia followed his gaze.
“Is that an inn, Smith?”
Her coachman snorted. “Not much more than a low alehouse, miss, and not for the likes of you!”
“Nonsense! We can hardly stay out here all night! Let us go and….”
She broke off as a portly middle aged man erupted from the door of the tavern and surged up the street towards them.
“Well, well, well!” he said as he arrived, breathless. “How unlucky! Really, how very unlucky! Tell me, dear lady – what can I do to help?”
Cordelia felt Smith bristle and she lifted a warning hand to stop him speaking. She regarded the newcomer thoughtfully. He was probably in his late fifties, a big man once, now running to fat, with the broad nasal accent of the true cockney. His face was florid with a nose which looked as if it had been broken more than once, and cheerful green eyes. His clothes showed no signs of affluence but they were clean and his apron was respectable.
“Are you the owner of that inn, sir?” she enquired pleasantly.
“I am indeed, miss. John Jenson at your service! My man saw what happened and ran to tell me. You will be needing some help I think. Unless your man….?” He peered around the dark street as if expecting a footman or groom to materialise from somewhere.
“We have no other servant with us, sir, which presents a problem as you can see.”
“Only a temporary one!” their new acquaintance said cheerfully. “We need a carriage to convey you into town, and we may arrange the collection and repair of your carriage tomorrow! Do you live in London, ma’am?”
“My home is in Russell Square,” Cordelia said.
“Excellent. I have no carriage which would be suitable for you and your luggage, but Mr Wilkinson has one and will be happy to lend it, I know.”
“Where does he live, sir.”
“No more than a mile and a half up this lane.”
It was a good plan. Cordelia could see Smith chewing uncertainly at his lip, reluctant to leave her. “Sir, do you have a man we could send?”
“Of course I do! But somebody will have to remain with your carriage, miss, to guard the luggage. We have very little trouble with robberies just here, but an abandoned carriage would be too much temptation, you know. I shall send Clem to Mr Wilkinson, since he knows the way, and he shall bring the carriage back here so that he and your man may transfer the luggage over. It shouldn’t take long. Perhaps while you are waiting, miss, you would care to come inside. We are quite empty tonight and there is a private parlour.”
Smith protested and Cordelia gave him a look. “Thank you, that is an excellent idea. If you would ask your man to go for the carriage then Smith may remain with our carriage to guard the luggage. I am sure it will not take long. I am so grateful for your help.”
“Think nothing of it, miss!” Cheerfully Jenson shepherded Cordelia towards the tavern. Inside Cordelia looked around her curiously. The tap room was small and dark with a bar which ran along one wall and a few chairs and tables. It was smoky with the tavern smell of liquor and food but it was scrupulously clean. There were several large mirrors on the walls and a number of drawings and paintings, mainly of sporting events, especially boxing. That might well explain the broken nose, Cordelia thought.
Her host bellowed through the back door for a person named Clem, who turned out to be a gangly youth who stared at Cordelia as if he had never seen a female before. His employer clipped him sharply over the head and sent him off with instructions about Mr Wilkinson’s carriage. Then he led Cordelia through into a small parlour furnished with an elderly oak table, several chairs and a wooden settle. He seated her ceremoniously and went to get her a mug of ale since he admitted regretfully that he had very few female visitors and had nothing suitable for a lady to drink. He also brought her a platter with some bread and cheese, apologising for the simplicity of the fare.
Cordelia actually quite liked ale, although she knew it was unladylike. She settled herself comfortably at the table and tucked in to her meal with an enthusiasm which clearly pleased Mr Jenson. He hovered in the doorway and Cordelia, with a brief, guilty thought for poor Smith waiting with the carriage, suggested that since business was so quiet he should get himself a drink and join her.
They were pleasantly occupied talking about Jenson’s quite distinguished career in the boxing ring when both heard the clatter of horses hooves from outside. It sounded like horsemen rather than a carriage, and Cordelia wondered who could be riding this way at such a late hour. Mindful of his duty, the landlord stood up with an apology to his guest and was making his way to the tap room when the door to the tavern crashed open wide.
“Jenson! Jenson, where the devil are you, you old fool? Bring the brandy, man, and hurry up! We’re dying for a drink!”
A worried frown furrowed the landlord’s brow. “Oh dear! Some of my young gentlemen, miss, and a little the worse for drink by the sound of it! I’ll see to them, but stay within out of sight. Your carriage will be here very soon.
Cordelia did not need the innkeeper to warn her. She could recognise the sounds of drunken revelry well enough, and she stepped back into the small back parlour out of sight as Mr Jenson went to the door to the tap room. Before he could go through and close the door, however, he was shoved aside and three men erupted into the room. They were all fashionably dressed and well spoken, but dishevelled as if their drinking had begun much earlier. Two of them looked to be in their mid twenties, the third, a tall broad shouldered man with fair hair, looked a little older.
One of the younger men howled with glee. “A girl! Jenson has a girl in here!” He swayed towards her with a broad smile. “What’s your name, then?”
Cordelia backed away from them in alarm. The landlord recovered his balance and clawed at their backs in desperate protest.
“A girl! And in our private room! Damn it, Jenson, what is the meaning of this?”
“For shame, gentlemen! This lady is seeking shelter here. Come back into the public room and leave her be!”
He managed to insert himself between Cordelia and her would be assailants, shooing them away like a demented hen. The two younger men obeyed reluctantly, tempted back into the bar by the promise of more brandy. But the third, the tall fair man dressed in the height of fashion but disgracefully dishevelled, merely shoved Jenson aside.
“Go serve the drinks, old fool, and stop fussing. I’m not going to rape the girl in a public tavern!”
Jenson made another grab for his arm. “My lord…”
The man pushed him out of the room so hard that he fell sprawling into the tap room, closed the door behind him and bolted it. Then he turned to look at Cordelia.
“Alone at last!” he mocked.
Cordelia moved to the opposite side of the table. “Sir, you are vilely drunk, and don’t know what you are doing! But I am a respectable woman not a tavern wench, and I want you to leave – now!”
The man laughed. “I am never drunk enough not to know what I am doing,” he said. “And I can see by your clothes that you are not a tavern wench, although that doesn’t explain why you are in a tavern.”
“That is not your concern!” Cordelia said.
“No,” the man said after a moment’s consideration. “I don’t really care anyway.”
He moved around the table. Cordelia edged away from him. They circled the table cautiously, watching each other. There were sounds of laughter from his two friends in the taproom while Jenson hammered at the door shouting demands for it to be opened. Cordelia moved further round the table. If she could get to the door she might be able to reach the bolt before the stranger could stop her. If only she had thought to bring the pistol out of the pocket of the carriage door.
“Don’t be afraid,” the stranger said coaxingly. “Just want to be friends.”
Cordelia had made it to the side of the table nearest the door. She edged further round. When she was close enough she spun around and dashed for the door. She had her fingers on the bolt when to her astonishment he made an athletic vault across the table and grasped her wrist, hauling her round and pushing her back against the table.
Cordelia gasped, winded. Her assailant gave a chuckle. “That will teach you to try conclusions with a Waterloo veteran!” he said, and leaned over her, his hands pinning her to the table. His mouth covered hers. Furiously Cordelia bit his lip.
The man released her with a blistering oath. Cordelia slid from under him and tried to run to the door, but he caught her easily about the waist and hauled her back against him.
“That was not nice,” he said reproachfully. “I’m only trying to be friendly. No, stand still. I’m much stronger than you, and you’ll only hurt yourself.”
One arm snaked about her, pinning her arms to her side, her back pressed against his chest. The other hand reached up for her plain travelling bonnet and pulled it off. Fingers raked through her simple chignon, turning it into a riot of dark curls about her shoulders.
“That is so much better,” the man said. His voice in her ear was suddenly softer, husky. To her shock Cordelia felt him harden against her. She froze, her back pressed against the long muscular length of his body, his mouth in her hair. Suddenly the danger felt very real. His free hand moved inside her pelisse and began to explore the curves of her breasts through her gown. “That was a very ugly hat, and the pelisse is worse. But I am beginning to like what they were hiding.
“Please,” Cordelia said. Her voice sounded no louder than a whisper. She hated the feeling of helplessness his strength gave her.
The stranger laughed softly. “Say that again,” he whispered.
“You have to let me go.” Cordelia was becoming breathless. The long fingers moved up her gown and began to caress the long line of her throat. His other arm slid down her front to her stomach and lower, pressing her back against him. His breathing quickened at the feel of her softness pressed against him.
“You’re quite a find,” he said. “I know I said I’d not ravish a girl in a public inn but I’m beginning to rethink.”
“When my father hears about this,” Cordelia choked, “he’ll make you pay for this, whatever your rank may be!”
The breathy laughter stirred her hair. “A father? Let me see – not a lady of quality, given these appalling garments. A wealthy merchant’s daughter, perhaps? Was that your broken carriage I saw in the road outside?”
“It was,” Cordelia said. “And God help you if you don’t stop right now!”
She managed to put some force into her voice, which was an effort. The gentle, persistent hands over her body were distracting her, making it difficult to think clearly. The man laughed again.
“That was very convincing, sweetheart, but I’ve got a strong suspicion that if we had more time I could persuade you to change your mind. How old are you?”
“That is none of your business. Let me go!”
“I might. For a kiss.”
“Absolutely not!” Cordelia said furiously.
She sensed his amusement. “Darling, you’re the one with the reputation to lose here, not me. Any reputation I had is long gone. But you’re unmarried and definitely respectable in those clothes. And who knows who might come wandering in here and recognise your carriage at any moment. You need to believe me when I say that I am not somebody you should be locked in a room with.”
“I do believe you!” Cordelia said waspishly.
“One kiss. Just want to test a theory. Then I will leave you alone, I promise you. Word of a gentleman.”
“Oh you have got to be joking!” Cordelia said furiously and he gave a crow of laughter.
“All right. Word of a light division man. Turn around.”
She felt his hands on her shoulders, turning her into his arms. Cordelia stiffened. “You smell like a distillery!” she snapped, wrinkling her nose.
“You get used to it. You, on the other hand, smell of violets. It is completely charming. Stand still now.”
“Just get this over with and I can get out of here!”
He grinned. “No cheating,” he said. “It doesn’t count if you’re trying to scratch my eyes out.”
“I am tempted!”
“What a little hellcat.” The stranger put his hand under her chin and tilted her head back, bending to cover her mouth with his. Cordelia stiffened at the shock of his lips on hers. She felt him smile. “First time, sweetheart? Don’t worry, it doesn’t hurt. As long as we stop at a kiss…”
She caught his meaning and felt her face flame into embarrassed heat. “How dare you?”
“Stop talking and kiss me.”
His mouth was on hers again and she stood very still trying not to think about it. He was more gentle than she would have expected given that he was clearly a drunken boor and Cordelia was conscious that it was not as unpleasant as she had expected. Very gently he drew her closer, parting her lips under his, and she was shocked as his tongue touched hers gently. She felt a shiver run through her and she parted her lips more and let him do as he wanted. He lifted his head slightly and she looked up in some surprise.
“Not as bad as you thought?” he murmured. “Let’s try again, shall we? A bit closer this time.”
He drew her very gently against him and Cordelia’s mouth parted under his. Her body flamed into sudden heat and she arched herself into him, wanting him closer. She could feel the hardness of him pressing into her and she was appalled at the rush of sensation flooding her body. Putting her hands on his chest she pushed him back.
“No!” she said. “No!”
The stranger laughed softly. “No,” he said regretfully. “Although I really wish I could, you’re beautiful.”
The sounds of a commotion outside intruded upon her gradually. Her captor heard them too. Reluctantly he raised his head and they both listened.
“I think that must be your replacement carriage,” the man said. “Damn. I was hoping they would take longer.”
Cordelia took a deep shuddering breath. “You are no gentleman, sir!” she said.
He looked down at her. For the first time she noticed his eyes. They were the deepest blue she had ever seen, the blue sometimes seen at the heart of a flame. There was a fading scar on his left temple. A Waterloo veteran, he had said. No wonder he was so strong and so fast. She could still taste his mouth, a mixture of blood and brandy and an indefinable taste all his own.
Oddly, Cordelia was no longer afraid although she could not have said why. Despite his appalling behaviour, she did not think he would genuinely harm her and she wondered if, when he sobered up, he would be embarrassed by the memory of this evening.
She was also conscious of considerable curiosity. She had never kissed a man before and given her doubts about the married state, she had not expected to do so but it had not stopped her wondering how it would feel. A kiss from a drunken stranger in a tavern had never been part of her dreams but she was faintly surprised that once her fear had ebbed away she had not found the sensation unpleasant. The part of her that knew how to behave was shocked and horrified; there was another part of her that had been curious to know how it felt to be in the arms of a man.
He grinned. “Well my excuse is that I am drunk. But you, sweetheart, are clearly no lady whatever the respectability of those dreadful garments. I wish we had more time. What I’d like to do is taste the rest of you over a long, leisurely night. But this will have to do.”
His arms closed about her. For one long heart-stopping moment Cordelia allowed herself to respond to his kiss. Then he released her, gave her a broad grin and ran to the window. Swiftly he threw up the sash, blew her an impudent kiss and swung his long legs over the sill. Cordelia heard his booted footsteps echoing into the distance. Shakily she adjusted her clothing as best she could. There was nothing to be done about the ruin of her hairstyle, but she combed it through with trembling fingers and jammed the unbecoming bonnet firmly over it. Taking a deep breath she unbolted the door.
Jenson was alone in the tap room, but she could hear voices outside. He was holding an axe.
“I was going to break the door, miss!” he said. “The unspeakable rogue! Did he hurt you?”
“No,” Cordelia said reassuringly. “He was very drunk and very impertinent but I am fine. Thank you, Mr Jenson, for your brave defence of me!”
“Has he gone? How did he get out? His horse is gone, I think. The carriage is here for you, ma’am!”
“I know, I heard it. Yes, he fled out of the window. Have his friends gone?”
“Aye, they left when they saw this!” Jenson said grimly, hefting the axe. He laid it down on the table. “Let me escort you to your carriage, miss. I’m sore ashamed that should have happened to you in my establishment, and when I see them again I’ll make sure they hear about it! Riding around so drunk it’s a wonder they don’t break their stupid necks! Veterans, ma’am, need occupation, and the wealthier they are the worse they show the lack of it! Come along, Clem is helping your man to load the luggage. It’s an old coach, but very sturdy and will take you home.”
Cordelia accompanied him. As Smith helped her into the carriage she whispered her instructions regarding payment to the landlord. Smith looked faintly surprised, but Cordelia felt that the older man had earned a hefty tip along with her gratitude.
She was glad of the time alone in the carriage to compose herself. What had happened at the inn had been so shocking, so far outside her sphere of experience, that she could not even begin to understand it.
Young bucks out on a spree were always likely to behave badly. She understood that. What was difficult to understand was her own very surprising response to his kiss. She had not even liked him, but she had behaved like the worst kind of light-skirt. Perhaps the ale had been stronger than she realised.
He had called her beautiful. Cordelia smiled at herself despite her distress. She did not consider herself vain and she spent very little time studying her appearance. But she had been made far more aware of herself these past weeks as Lady Carlton had trailed her around town to dressmakers, milliners and bootmakers trying to equip her for her first London Season. According to her Ladyship, Cordelia wore clothes which did not flatter her at all.
“You are so pretty, dearest,” she told her charge frequently. “Why not cultivate a little vanity while you are young enough to enjoy it.”
Had the unknown man really found her beautiful? Probably not, Cordelia thought ruefully. He had been so drunk he would have found any young, reasonably personable female irresistible. Tomorrow she doubted that he would be able to remember if she had been dark or fair.
Cordelia sighed irritably. Of all the times for this to happen! She would have preferred to keep the incident to herself, but she knew that she could not rely on the discretion of the landlord. He would undoubtedly tell Smith when he returned to arrange for the repair of the carriage, and she knew Smith, who was an old family retainer. He would tell her father and there would be all the more reason for Mr Summers to be convinced that she needed a husband to guide and protect her. At least nobody knew what had actually happened behind the bolted door. That secret would remain between Cordelia and her would-be seducer, and she sincerely hoped they would never set eyes on each other again.
The Earl of Rockcliffe opened his eyes to the brilliance of the morning sun and groaned. His head was thumping and his mouth dry. Pushing himself into a sitting position he glared at his valet who had been responsible for opening the curtains.
“Hodgkins, what the devil did I drink last night?” he demanded.
“I couldn’t say, my lord.” The valet’s voice was placid. With practiced ease he rearranged his lordship’s pillows and handed him a tankard.
“I must remember not to go drinking with Anderson and Burns. They take me to the foulest places with bad port and worse brandy! And then I get drunk!”
Hodgkins remained impassive. “I think it would be hard for either of the gentlemen to take you anywhere you did not wish to go, my lord.”
The Earl picked up a book from his night table and hurled it at his valet. Hodgkins, with the skill of long practice, dodged it and then bent to retrieve it from the floor. “Would you like me to replace this volume in the library, my lord?” he enquired.
“I would like you to go to the devil!” his lordship responded. “We went to a Mill – a depressingly uneven match. Then we ended up at the Bell Inn on the north road. And there was a girl, Hodgkins… is coming back to me now. A very strange girl. I think I kissed her. In fact I distinctly remember doing so!”
“There is generally a female, my lord. And you generally begin by kissing them. You are not thinking of Lady Tremaine, are you? Earlier in the day?”
The Earl of Rockcliffe, somewhat revived by the concoction he had been drinking, thumped the tankard down on the table and said acidly:
“I am beginning to think it is you who have been drinking, Hodgkins! I perfectly recollect my tryst with Lady Tremaine. I suspect it is that which caused me to get so vilely drunk. What a tiresome woman she is!”
“Very beautiful though, my lord.”
“Ah but that begins to pall after a while. I think I have had enough of Lady Tremaine. I must think of some suitably elegant parting gift which will satisfy her vanity and not upset her husband. The girl was at the Bell Inn.” The Earl’s forehead wrinkled as he summoned his erratic memory. “Old Jenson said her carriage had broken down. Her man had gone off for help.”
The valet paused, a look of concern. “My lord, are you telling me that you assaulted a virtuous female in a public inn where you are well known?”
Rockcliffe thought for a while. “Possibly,” he allowed. “Mind, assault is a strong word. And she threatened me first! But reassure yourself, Hodgkins, her virtue remains intact.”
“Very good, my lord.”
“There wasn’t time,” his lordship explained regretfully.
Hodgkins permitted himself a slight grin. “I understand, my lord. Shall I prepare your bath?”
“Thank you.”
When his valet had gone the Earl leaned back on his pillows and reviewed the curious events of the night before. Despite his banter with his servant, he had a very clear recollection of the previous afternoon and evening. His affair with Lady Tremaine, certainly not the first she had indulged in, had been growing stale for weeks. Yesterday he recognised the end. Everything about her – her airs and graces, her stupidity, her spiteful gossip about the shortcomings of her husband – had irritated him. It was not a new sensation. At the age of thirty two, Giles Fenwick, Earl of Rockcliffe had earned himself a reputation in the polite world as a dangerous rake, adept at seduction and quick to boredom with the women he pursued. The matchmaking mammas had welcomed him with open arms three years earlier upon his return from Waterloo, a professional soldier come unexpectedly into the ancient title and accompanying fortune.
These days, the Earl was aware that the same ladies eyed him askance and warned their delicate charges to avoid him if possible. There seemed no prospect of him doing his duty and marrying to secure the succession, and few mothers would have wanted to entrust their daughters to the scarred, cynical Earl with his unpredictable temper, his reputation for seducing married women, for keeping low company, having expensive mistresses in his keeping and for saying whatever outrageous thing should enter his head on any occasion.
The nobility of his birth and the size of his fortune ensured his continued welcome in the houses of the ton. Rockcliffe, who had returned from the army reluctant to be in any kind of society, was sardonically amused at how easy people found it to ignore his behaviour when dazzled by his title and money. But he had little in common with most of the well born people who saw themselves as his equals, and at times found their company stifling and overwhelmingly tedious.
Rockcliffe knew that the nature of his military service had a good deal to do with that. For many years he had served in the Peninsula under Wellington. Initially an excellent junior officer of light infantry, his intelligence, his talent for languages and his initiative had brought a transfer and he had served for much of the war as an exploring officer. These officers in Wellington’s army were under the command of the Quartermaster General. They operated on their own or with one or two local guides and their task was to collect first-hand tactical intelligence by riding to enemy positions, observing and noting movements and making sketch maps of uncharted land. The work was highly dangerous and required physical fitness, good horsemanship and a willingness to take risks. Captain Giles Fenwick had been a legend in Wellington’s army, his exploits talked of and laughed over in mess and over campfires.
It was a solitary life, and bred independence and impatience with rules and conventions. Hardly the best training, the Earl thought wryly, swinging himself out of bed, for an Earl entering polite society. But he could have done better if he had tried harder. He had not wanted to. The years of danger and excitement, the fights and the killing had culminated in the horror of Waterloo where he had seen friends and comrades cut down around him. He had expected to die from the wounds received on that day. But he had lived, had come home to be courted and feted by the polite world who would have petted him and made a hero of him if they could. He could not bear it – and made no attempt to hide the fact.
The Earl threw on his robe and went to his bath. A rake he might be, but generally innocent and respectable females were safe from him. He liked his women older and more experienced and young girls held no appeal. How old had she been, the girl from the Inn? The plain unfashionable clothes might have belonged to a governess but the carriage and servants spoke wealth, and the girl’s arrogant manner suggested that she had a place in the world. Not his world, of course. The daughter of some city merchant, he supposed. He had no idea of her name or where she had come from. But the Earl of Rockcliffe had no difficulty whatsoever remembering the scent and texture of the dark hair, the proud tilt of her head or the heady feeling of her body through the thick material of her clothing.
His lordship smiled, remembering her prim manner which had suddenly and so unexpectedly melted; the feeling of her mouth opening under his, the heat of her body clinging to him. Christ but he had wanted her, in a way he could not remember wanting any woman for many years. He had become bored with the ease of his conquests, tired of convenience. There was very little difference between his well born mistresses like Lady Tremaine, and the pretty birds of paradise who lived under his financial protection from time to time. All of them were enthusiastic about his money and the gifts he could give them. None of them gave a damn about him personally. It suited the Earl. He had a few good friends, mainly from his army days, and was much attached to the elderly acerbic aunt who resided at his principle estate in Leicestershire, and bullied him mercilessly when he allowed her the opportunity. He did not need romance to complete his life. As a matter of fact it might prove to be the devil of a complication.
Bathed and dressed, the Earl made his way to breakfast with the girl from the inn still vaguely present in his mind. His secretary was at the table with a pile of paperwork which his Lordship eyed askance.
“Matthew – will you tell me when it became our custom to face this mountain of nonsense over the breakfast table?”
“Approximately when I realised how good you were at escaping from the house without remembering to send for me,” Mr Bolt said placidly. He was the Earl’s cousin, youngest son of his Aunt Agatha, and that alone was passport to his Lordships’s favour. Their working relationship was easy and comfortable. Rockcliffe, so abrasive and difficult with his social equals was on the best of terms with his servants and dependents. Perhaps that too, he sometimes wondered, was due to his years of service when his most frequent companions had been the Spanish and Portuguese guerrilla fighters who acted as his guides.
He sat down and regarded his secretary resignedly. “Get it over with,” he said.
Mr Bolt laughed. “Not much, I promise you. There is some Parliamentary business but you will want to read these letters for yourself. There is a debate in the House next month which I think you will wish to attend. Army budgets…”
“Leave those in my study, I’ll read them later. And clear my appointments as necessary.”
“Some matters regarding your estates from Taverner. I can deal with most of those for you – just one letter regarding the sale of some land which you might want to look at. Personal letters from Captain Manson, Colonel van Daan and Lord Wellington. A request for money from a charity for veterans fallen on hard times….”
“Give them a donation, Matthew. And any other help they need.”
“Yes, my lord. A letter from Sir Joseph Garry about a horse he thinks you might want to buy…”
“Undoubtedly an unsound animal. Tell him to go to the devil.”
Mr Bolt grinned. “Very good, my lord. And some invitations. It appears that the Season is beginning early this year.”
His lordship paused, a forkful of ham half way to his mouth. He gave a theatrical groan.
“Matthew, it cannot be that time of year already!”
“Almost, sir.”
“Is there anything in that revolting pile that I must actually attend?”
“That depends. You should really go to Lady Jersey’s reception, as she is very easily offended, and you know that you like his Lordship. And the Dowager Lady Carlton is holding a ball just at the start of the Season.”
“Lady Carlton? Oh – Simon’s mother! Oh damn!”
“Yes, sir.” Mr Bolt said sympathetically. Simon Carlton had been several years younger than the Earl, but an experienced and popular officer and he and Rockcliffe had been good friends for many years. He had died at Waterloo only a few yards away from where Rockcliffe had fallen, wounded.
“Very well,” the Earl said briskly. “I shall attend Lady Jersey’s reception and the Carlton ball. Reply to all the others as you see fit.”
“How I reply to them has no bearing on whether you will attend them or not anyway,” his secretary remarked with a grin. “You have the worst social manners of anybody I know. Either you fail to show up when expected, or fail to reply and then turn up anyway.”
“As the fancy takes me,” the Earl said. “Have some more coffee, Matthew. They forgive me, you see, because I am an Earl.”
“Much you would care if they snubbed you,” Mr Bolt said.
“Just so,” the Earl said dryly. “Your mother informs me that a severe set down would do me a great deal of good.”
“You should hear what she says to me,” Mr Bolt said with feeling.
“I have heard what she says to you. Everybody in the house has heard it. I imagine it is clearly audible in Nottingham.” The Earl finished his coffee and pushed the cup to one side. “Thank you, Matthew. I must go – I have an appointment with my tailor.”
“Very good, my lord. Oh, there is one more thing. An invitation from Mrs Eaton to a house party at Denbigh Hall in the summer.”
The Earl froze. “She’s planning ahead, isn’t she?” he said in matter of fact tones.
“She is, sir.”
“I suppose this is about that daughter of hers.”
“I rather imagine so, sir.”
Rockcliffe sighed. “I will never again attempt to be helpful!” he said. “This is where good deeds lead me, Matthew. How old is the girl?”
“She will be twenty three this year, I believe, sir.”
“And not a husband in sight?”
Matthew shook his head. “No, sir.”
“Can’t we find one for her?”
“Not easily, sir.”
“Don’t reply just yet, Matthew, I will think about it.” Rockcliffe saw his secretary’s face and grinned. “And that expression tells me all I need to know about your views on a potential marriage between myself and the charming Miss Eaton. Don’t worry, I haven’t gone mad. I feel sorry for Eaton, you know I do. He was a good officer and he stayed out there doing his duty when a lot of other men wouldn’t have. But he was fool enough to marry that ghastly woman and produce an entire flock of daughters, and although I like him personally, I am not going to sacrifice myself on the alter of matrimony in order to provide dowries for Miss Charlotte Eaton’s five younger sisters.”
“I am glad to hear it, my lord, I don’t think you would suit.”
“We should not. But I am wondering if I should talk to Colonel Eaton about it and get him to warn his wife off. Socially difficult, I agree, but that woman seems to have told half the Ton that she confidently expects to bring me up to scratch this year. Why she would think so when I barely speak to the girl, I honestly don’t know, but I’m growing tired of it. I don’t suppose Charles will make it up to town this year, they’ve not the money for another Season for the girl, so if I want to speak to him I’ll need to go there. I’ll decide another time.”
“Yes, sir.”
“Oh, and will you find time to visit the Bell Inn near Somers Town for me and give a hefty vail and a heartfelt apology to Mr Jenson. Really, I behaved very badly last night and he’s a good old stick and will be upset.”
“Yes, my lord.”
“And Matthew – find out if he knows the name of the girl.”
“The one you kissed, my lord?”
“Hodgkins has been gossiping, I perceive. Yes.”
His secretary hesitated. The Earl said:
“Matthew – you are having an expression.”
“Yes, my lord.”
“I do not like this expression. Either explain it or stop it!”
“If she was a respectable female, my lord, you can hardly approach her.”
The Earl, remembering the responsive body in his arms gave a slight smile. “One would imagine not,” he said. “But there has to be a point where a respectable female becomes – not respectable. I would like to know where to find her.”
“Yes, my lord.” Mr Bolt said impassively. “Although I find it odd that you seem keen to apologise to Jenson but not to the female you insulted.”
Rockcliffe gave him a look. “Don’t be dense, Matthew. Of course I want to apologise to the bloody girl, I behaved like a complete boor and I’d like to tell her so. I’m surprised she didn’t go into strong hysterics, she must have a very strong constitution. I was joking.”
Mr Bolt smile. “Sorry, sir.”
“You ought to be. Although even if Jenson knows who she is, I can hardly approach her or write to her without putting her reputation at risk. I think I will just have to leave the poor girl alone. I really shouldn’t get drunk, it doesn’t agree with me.”
“It doesn’t, my lord. With regard to Lady Tremaine’s gift, sir. I believe she was talking of wanting a dog. Perhaps a spaniel…..”
“An excellent notion, Matthew, and nothing her husband could complain of. But sadly it is impossible.”
“Have you forgotten that I am very fond of dogs,” the Earl said gently, and waved his secretary from the room.

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