Penniless Prospect | Marrying
the Major | Rake's
Reward | A
Poor Relation | My Lady Angel
Penrose had been pacing up and down in the drawing room for fully half an hour. The delay was doing nothing for his temper. Trust a woman to pretend to be indisposed in order to avoid an unwelcome visitor. She would learn that he was not so easily gulled. He would force her to receive him, even if he had to pace this room for a week.
He only hoped that she would come alone, when she did finally arrive, for he was not sure that he would be able to curb his temper if she brought her aunt. The old hag had encouraged the unforgivable insults to Aunt Mary. And now she had produced a French pretender, like a rabbit from a hat. Did she really think she could succeed with such an obvious deception? She had probably helped her niece to start all these confounded rumours, too. No doubt these two harpies thought that it would improve their protégé’s chances if all London was buzzing with gossip about the long-lost heir.
Long-lost impostor, more like! If the Frenchman --
The double doors opened. For a second, a tall stately lady dressed in half-mourning stood framed within the opening. Then she nodded slightly and took a pace forward, allowing the butler to close the doors at her back.
She did not speak, nor did she offer her hand. She was assessing him, just as he was assessing her. He would not have called her beautiful -- her expression was much too severe for beauty -- but her colouring was striking. She had hair like spun silver. He recognised it as the famous Rosevale hair, inherited from the first Baroness, centuries before, but not found in anyone on his side of the family. Would she think him a changeling, with his dark locks?
No. She would not give a thought to such a detail. A warrior entering the lists did not concern himself with his opponent’s colouring, but with his ability to fight. The woman who was coolly appraising him had the look of a doughty adversary. He would do well to be on his guard.
He bowed from the neck, not lowering his eyes. It was important to watch every move she made.
She dropped him a quick curtsy, the very minimum demanded by good manners. ‘I understand you wished to see me, Cousin Frederick?’
Her voice was low, with a hard edge that was not pleasing to the ear. Had she deliberately chosen the mode of address that he most hated? Only his father and his grandfather had ever called him Frederick. He had despised them both; and he detested the name they had bestowed on him.
‘I am obliged, ma’am, that you have felt able to rise from your sickbed to receive me. I trust you are quite recovered?’ He saw a flash of anger in her eyes. A hit! Excellent. It was important to keep her on the defensive.
‘You are too kind, sir. I understand you have important business you wished to discuss with me? Business that could not wait?’
‘Indeed, ma’am.’ Max waited for her to invite him to sit, but she did not. She simply stood there, glaring at him. It seemed he had caught her on the raw. So, that was to be the way of it. If she wanted a bout with the buttons off, he would happily oblige her. ‘I must ask you for an explanation of this disreputable imposture you are promoting. You --’
‘I am promoting nothing of the sort,’ she snapped. ‘How dare you suggest such a thing?’
‘Do not think to play me for a fool, Cousin,’ Max replied. ‘I am perfectly well aware that you and your aunt are behind the rumours that are circulating in London. I am only surprised that you have not arrived in town already, with your French puppet in tow. I warn you now, I will not tolerate any attempt to undermine my position. Even from a woman.’ The last few words came out in a hard, rasping voice that he barely recognised. He stopped abruptly, conscious that he was allowing his temper to get the better of him after all. What was it about this woman? He prided himself on his self-control with the female sex, but with her…
She lifted her chin and stared at him, with astonishingly dark blue eyes that were alight with fury. Her skin seemed to have grown paler; or perhaps it was the contrast with the spots of anger now burning on her cheeks. She took a step forward as though she might like to strike him, but her arms were held rigidly at her sides. She was controlling herself with difficulty. ‘I take it you have proof of your outrageous allegations?’ she said.
‘Do I need proof? The fact that you do not need to ask for details of them is proof enough for me, Cousin.’ Confound the woman, she was as bad as he had expected --worse, perhaps. Why had he bothered to make this journey? He should have known better. He was struck by the irony of it all. ‘Like father, like daughter,’ he said acidly. ‘It is perhaps as well that one title, at least, is no longer the preserve of the more dubious side of the Rosevale family.’
She gasped and turned completely white.
He had never felt such searing anger. He had gone much too far, and he knew it. By attacking her dishonourable behaviour in such terms, he had sunk to her level. He should apologise. But his throat was so constricted that, for a moment, he could not utter a word.
She had reached out a hand to clutch the back of a chair. A spasm crossed her face. It looked almost like pain. Then she straightened again and said, with an obvious effort, ‘This discussion is now at an end, sir. I will thank you to leave. My aunt and I plan to travel to London next week. If you have anything more to say to me, you may say it there. And you may be sure that I shall take the greatest of pleasure in introducing you to my cousin, the rightful Earl of Penrose.’ She spun on her heel and started to move to the door without giving him any chance to reply.
‘Not so fast, Cousin.’ Max strode forward and grasped her wrist, forcing her to stop in her tracks. ‘We have not finished this interview yet.’
‘Release me this instant.’ Her voice was a furious hiss. She kept her head turned towards the door as if she could not bear to look at him.
Max took a long slow breath and then deliberately reached round to grasp her other wrist. Her bones felt tiny and fragile. He had no intention of injuring her, but he was determined that she would hear him out. For several seconds, they both stood motionless. Then Max exerted just enough pressure to turn her back to face him.
She did not try to pull herself free. She simply stood there, refusing to look at him. Her extraordinary silver hair was on a level with his chin.
‘So, madam, you have decided to pit your French impostor against me, have you? Are you sure that is wise?’
‘I am sure that the rightful Earl of Penrose is a gentleman, sir,’ she replied evenly, gazing fixedly at her trapped wrists, ‘which you are not.’
Max had recovered just enough control over his temper to recognise that she was deliberately trying to provoke him. He resisted the immediate temptation to let her go. ‘Clever,’ he said softly. ‘But also rash. If you are so sure I am no gentleman, ma’am, why did you consent to this private interview?’
He paused. She did not reply.
‘Quite. However, I am gentleman enough to remember that you are a lady, in spite of this fraud you are intent upon. I ask you, as a lady, to abandon it, for your own sake. It will do you -- and the Rosevale family -- nothing but harm.’
She looked up then. For a moment, Max thought he saw real pain in her eyes, but it was quickly replaced by black anger. ‘My position is unassailable, sir,’ she retorted. ‘Yours, on the other hand, is somewhat precarious. I will thank you to release me and leave my house. We have nothing more to say to each other.’
The woman was impossible! Why had he ever thought to reason with her? It was a waste of words!
‘You are foolish, madam,’ he said, dropping her wrists abruptly. ‘Your family already has enemies enough. You cannot afford more. But, I promise you, you have added another today.’
He stalked to the door and wrenched it open. Then he turned and bowed mockingly. ‘Good day to you, Cousin. Be sure that we shall continue this discussion at a later date.’
Then he walked smartly down the stairs to the entrance hall to retrieve his coat and hat. The butler was waiting for him, with a look of alarm on his face. It was almost as if he expected Max to strike him!
Max caught the reflection of a black-browed man with a face like thunder in the glass near the bottom of the stairs. Good God! It was himself! No wonder the old butler was quaking in his boots.
Taking a long deep breath, Max willed his heart to slow. It had been pounding fit to burst, as if he were about to charge the enemy. That silver-haired woman must be a witch to have affected him so.
The butler silently helped Max into his coat. Then he held out Max’s hat and gloves, without raising his eyes from them, as if he could not trust himself to look Max in the face.
Max was not about to enter into an altercation with a mere servant. He took his things with a brief nod of thanks and hurried out into the gathering gloom where Ramsey was waiting with his carriage.
‘Drive back to Speenhamland, Ramsey. There is nothing more for us here.’ He flung himself inside and threw his hat and gloves into the furthest corner, the moment the carriage began to move down the driveway.
What on earth had come over him?
He stared unseeingly ahead. He must have run stark mad to allow his temper to rule him in such a way. With a lady, too. What had happened to his manners? Dear God, if Aunt Mary could have heard him…
Aunt Mary. Yes. There was something about the Baroness that reminded him of Aunt Mary. The two were totally unlike in looks, to be sure, but still there was something in their manner… Perhaps that had been the spark? The contrast between Aunt Mary’s honesty and the Baroness’s flagrant disregard for it had been too much. His temper had gone off like a rocket. In all those years as a soldier, Max had never lost his temper with anyone weaker than himself but, faced with a single silver-haired Jezebel, he had forgotten every vestige of how a gentleman should behave.
He should be ashamed. It did not matter what she had done. Or what she might still do. He owed it to himself -- to his own honour -- to behave like a gentleman.
He would have to apologise.
He let his shoulders droop and let out a long sigh. Yes, he would apologise. Eventually. But certainly not today. He could not face her again today.
Besides, she was ill…
He sat up sharply, his senses all on the alert. No. He had not imagined it. There had been pain in her face.
She really was ill.
And he had forced her to meet him, forced her to listen to his insults, forced her to remain when she wished only to flee from him.
His behaviour had been totally unforgivable.
My Lady Angel by Joanna Maitland
Amy paused outside the door to the master bedchamber and listened. Nothing. Nor should there be. The master of the house was at dinner with all his guests. Amy herself had seen his valet below stairs not five minutes before, comfortably settled with a decanter of port. And since poor Major Lyndhurst had no wife to warm his bed, there was no one else who had reason to be in his bedchamber.
Still, Amy hesitated.
She put her hands to her huge, ugly cap to ensure it was still straight. A tiny wisp of hair had escaped just above her right ear. Ruthlessly, she tucked it away. No one must see her hair. Its silver-blonde colour was much too memorable. As were her violet-blue eyes, even hidden behind thick spectacles. Either might lead some of those above stairs to look at her, instead of through her, as they normally did. And that could be a disaster for her role as Amelia Dent, high-class dresser to the noble Countess of Mardon.
Amy’s heart was racing. She reached for the door handle and turned. It slipped under her damp palm. Goodness, she was nervous. She rapidly wiped her hand on the skirt of her plain, loose-fitting gown.
Deep breath. Turn the handle. Walk into the chamber as if you had every right to be there. And if anyone should be there to challenge you, you have only to say that you are on an errand for your mistress and must have mistaken the room. Do it now!
In a trice, Amy was inside and had closed the door at her back. She let out a long breath. Although it was still light outside, the curtains were tightly closed. With no candles burning, there was only the light of the fire to see by. Amy stood for a moment, waiting for her eyes to adjust to the gloom, then scanned the huge empty chamber. Everything was in immaculate order. Except that a tall screen stood between the door and the fireplace, no doubt to keep the draught from the Major while he took his bath.
Oh, heavens! What if the maids had yet to come to empty it?
With pounding heart, Amy moved swiftly towards the fireplace. She dared not search the room until she had checked the bath.
Amy let out a gasp and stopped dead. There, standing in the bath tub in front of the fire, was a totally naked man.
‘Hand me that towel, will you?’
Amy could not move. Her throat was suddenly so tight that she could barely breathe. Her skin seemed to be on fire.
Every last inch of it.
‘Are you deaf, woman? The towel, if you please.’
For a long, dangerous moment, Amy could not tear her gaze from his naked body. Eventually, she forced herself to bow her head and close her eyes against the sight. But the image was still there, engraven on her mind. The first naked man she had ever seen. Leashed power under smooth skin, shimmering with the last drops of moisture from his bath.
He had grown tired of waiting. With an oath, he stepped out of the bath and reached for the huge towel hanging in front of the fire.
But he made no move to wrap it round his naked body. Instead, he turned back to Amy, the towel dangling from his fingers. He looked at her searchingly, studying her scarlet face for a long moment and then allowing his gaze to roam slowly over her body. Even in the half-light, he was stripping her with his eyes. As if she were as naked as he!
At last, his eyes came back to her slightly bowed head. They were hard eyes. Assessing eyes. ‘Who are you?’ he snapped. ‘What are you doing here?’
Amy swallowed nervously, not daring to look directly at him. Her brain was refusing to function. She could not think. And she certainly could not speak.
He cursed again. More vehemently this time. Then, with a single supple movement, he put his hands to Amy’s shoulders and drew her towards him. She could feel the soft warmth of the towel against the skin of her neck. And the strength of his long fingers biting into the flesh of her shoulders through her coarse gown.
‘Perhaps this will restore your voice,’ he murmured softly.
And then he lowered his mouth towards hers.
Amy was too shocked to pull away. She felt, for a second, as if she were dreaming. A misty dream filled with the subtle scents of soap and clean skin. Then the dream burst into life. With vivid colour. And the warmth of his mouth hovering just above her own. Amy’s parched lips seemed to open of their own accord. She ran her tongue over her bottom lip.
‘No,’ he said softly against her mouth. ‘Tempting... but no.’ He put Amy brusquely away from him and busied himself with the towel.
Amy found herself staring at the floor with wide, unseeing eyes. What on earth had happened to her? Why had she done nothing to stop him?
The man now had his back to her. He was bent towards the fire, towelling his legs. Amy must have made a sound of some kind, for he turned his head to look up at her. His expression was a mixture of boredom and distaste. ‘For such a knowing piece,’ he said harshly, ‘you are remarkably tongue-tied. Do you make a habit of offering yourself to your betters? We are not all so easily taken in, you know.’ He straightened. Then he wrapped the towel around the lower half of his body.
‘I did not--’ Amy’s voice cracked. She took a deep breath and swallowed hard. ‘You are mistaken, sir. And your words are insulting.’ She risked one quick glance at his face.
He raised his eyebrows. ‘Indeed?’
Stupid, stupid! No servant would ever say such a thing to a gentleman. Even when it was true! ‘I beg your pardon, sir, but you...you have done me an injustice. I did not do... what you suggested. My mistress is a visitor in this house and I...I mistook the room. I must go. My mistress will be wondering what has become of me.’ Amy turned for the door.
The urge to flee was strong, but Amy curbed it. She did not turn back to him, however. She was afraid to meet those penetrating eyes.
‘We both know that your employer does not need you at present. She will have gone down to the dining room long since. Just who is this mistress of yours?’
‘The Countess of Mardon. I am her ladyship’s personal maid.’ Amy put as much pride into her voice as she could.
‘Are you, indeed? Well, well. And what is your name, pray?’
‘Dent, sir.’ Amy turned back to face him then. She must focus on the part she played. A high-class servant would not cower, even in the face of such an intimidating man. She straightened her shoulders, but kept her eyes demurely lowered.
His head was cocked slightly to one side as he assessed her. His long fingers were stroking his jaw absently. Even in the gloom, Amy could tell that he had not shaved for at least a week, perhaps longer. His wet hair hung almost to his shoulders. Who on earth was he? What was he doing in Major Lyndhurst’s chamber? And bathing, of all things?
‘I was not aware that another guest had arrived,’ Amy said politely. She was pleased at how calm she sounded. ‘Do you expect to make a long stay, sir?’
She had surprised him into a sharp laugh. ‘Why, if I did not know better, Dent, I should almost have thought you were a lady born. Many a debutante could do no better. I congratulate you.’
Amy felt herself blushing with embarrassment all over again. Or was it anger at her own hasty tongue? She could not afford to be unmasked. She had risked too much to come this far.
She dropped him a servant’s curtsy. ‘If you will excuse me, sir, I have errands to fulfil for my lady. I apologise for having disturbed you. I hope you will...not feel it necessary to complain of me. I...I... cannot afford to lose her ladyship’s good opinion.’ She tried to assume an anxious expression, suitable for a servant who feared to lose her place. It was just possible that even this man had a hint of chivalry in his nature. Somewhere.
He was surveying her with narrowed eyes. No sign of chivalry. None at all. ‘I shall not speak of this encounter to your mistress,’ he said slowly. ‘But I require something from you in return.’
Amy’s heart plummeted to her heavy-soled boots. So he was no different from the rest of the lechers in this house.
‘I require you to say nothing about my presence here. To anyone. Not even to Major Lyndhurst himself. Do you understand?’
‘And we have a bargain, Dent?’
Amy took another deep breath and raised her chin. She could feel his direct gaze on her face. She gave him a sharp nod. ‘Yes, sir. We do.’
In that moment, he smiled at her. Suddenly all the harshness in his face had disappeared. He seemed much younger, dashing even, in spite of that unshaven chin. ‘Then I suggest, Dent, that you return to your duties. Unless you would prefer to remain to help me dress?’
Amy gasped. And fled from the room.
A Regency Invitation by Nicola Cornick,
Joanna Maitland & Elizabeth Rolls
Penniless Prospect | Marrying
the Major | Rake's
Reward | A
Poor Relation | My Lady Angel
This page was last updated on 25 June, 2008