When word reaches Deirdre Fenton that her brother is pursuing the notorious actress Mrs. Dewinters, she immediately sets about extricating her incorrigible sibling from his latest folly. But her brother has gone too far this time for his—or Deirdre’s—own good. For Mrs. Dewinters is under the powerful protection of a war hero, the Earl of Rathbourne . . . the very man Deirdre had summarily rejected years before. And the Earl is not a man to forgive an insult—or forget a lady as passionate as Deirdre Fenton . . .
If Rathbourne has learned one thing during his years fighting on the Peninsula, it is to get what he wants by means fair or foul. Now he has Deirdre right where he wants her: at his mercy.
“A major, major talent, Ms. Thornton takes her rightful place as a genre superstar.” —RT Book Reviews
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My Lord Rathbourne's indolent gaze flickered indifferently over the crush of noisy diners in the White Swan's public parlor and came to rest on his silent companion.
"I beg pardon, Wendon, I wasn't listening."
Viscount Wendon, of an age with his friend although of a more pleasantly boyish aspect, was at that moment leaning hard back in his dining chair, which was balanced precariously on only two legs. He brought it slowly down to rest squarely on the carpeted floor and leaned his elbows on the white damask of the covered table.
"I merely remarked, Gareth, that out of regimentals, to all intents and purposes, we veterans become indistinguishable from the rank and file. I have been attempting this age to attract the notice of our estimable landlord, to no avail. I own that the poor fellow may have good reason to be so hard pressed with every man and his dog taking refuge from the elements, but dash it all, don't he recognize Quality when he sees it? Here we are, a couple of peers of the realm, not to mention heroes of the Peninsular Campaign, and we are passed over as if we were a pair of negligible country bumpkins."
This good-natured complaint brought a ghost of a smile to the Earl of Rathbourne's pensive countenance. "Speak for yourself," he said in an amused baritone. He turned slightly in his chair, bent a riveting glance from glittering amber eyes upon the harried landlord, and raised one hand imperceptibly. In a matter of moments, the landlord was at his side with mumbled apologies, and Lords Rathbourne and Wendon had given their order for the best nuncheon the inn had to offer.
"Boiled brisket! I ask you!" said Viscount Wendon in disgust when the landlord was out of earshot. "I swear we did better under Wellington. Well," he amended on noting Rathbourne's incredulous expression, "there were occasions."
"Yes, but very few and far between," averred Rathbourne as he leaned across the table to fill his friend's glass from the opened bottle of Burgundy which stood at his elbow.
Wendon lifted the half-filled glass to his nostrils and savored the bouquet. "The real thing! I wonder ... do you think that they ever went without anything or gave us a thought whilst we squandered the best years of our lives on those squalid treks across the Peninsula hunting down Boney's elusive armies?"
"Not always elusive," responded Rathbourne, his face taking on a grimmer aspect. "We are lucky. We came back in one piece. Thousands didn't."
"Do you miss it at all?"
"Do I miss what?" There was a shade of disbelief in the Earl's voice. "The near starvation? The utter exhaustion? The executions? The needless savagery? The loss of friends I've known since school days? What do you think?"
"Then why didn't you resign your commission?" Wendon persisted.
Rathbourne took a moment or two before replying. He relaxed the imperceptible tension across his shoulders and settled back in his chair. "Who knows? Youthful idealism? Loyalty to one's comrades? Duty to King and Country? It seems such a long time ago now, I hardly remember. It becomes a habit. Sometimes I have to remind myself that the war is over, that I'm not the autocratic officer whose every command must be instantly obeyed. I suppose it will take time to adopt more civilized ways, to resume my former existence. I have little practice in the role of chivalrous gentleman."
Viscount Wendon gave a shout of laughter, and heads turned to look disapprovingly in his direction. He lowered his voice. "Gareth, you scoundrel. You ... chivalrous? Never! I've known you most of your thirty years, since we were both in short coats. Being autocratic comes naturally to you! You didn't learn it in the army! Good God man, when we were at school, at Harrow, who commandeered the best bunk in the lower school dormitory, drawing the cork of no less a pugilist that George Gordon, the present Lord Byron? And that was only the beginning of your scandalous career! And after that, when we were newly up at Oxford, who cut out all the other hopefuls with the fair Griselda, the wife of our illustrious dean — yes, and fought a duel with the poor old codger who was only trying to protect his own?"
Rathbourne suppressed a shudder. "Some episodes in one's life are best forgotten and that is one of them. Can you imagine? He didn't know one end of a pistol from the other! He might have killed himself, poor devil! If I cut you out with the lady, I am sorry for it, but I did you a favor, albeit unconsciously."
"Think nothing of it," said Wendon magnanimously. "I couldn't afford her. My father, the old skinflint, kept me on a very tight leash. I hadn't a feather to fly with from one term to another. You, on the other hand, were never short of the ready." He fell silent as he belatedly recalled that Rathbourne, as an undergraduate, was wont to laugh away his affluence by intimating that his widowed mother bribed him to stay away from the ancestral home. The joke had been too close to the truth for comfort, as he remembered — something to do with a falling-out between mother and son after his younger brother had lost his life in a climbing accident.
A bold-eyed serving maid brought an ornate platter with their dinner, and the two gentlemen fell silent as she set it on the table before them. Her roving eyes darted from one to the other in open appraisal, eliciting an inviting smile from the friendlier of the two gentlemen, but her glances were for the handsomer although austere Rathbourne, who gazed steadfastly out the window until his companion addressed him.
"Nice," said Wendon appreciatively.
"I didn't think you cared for boiled brisket." There was a twinkle in the Earl's eye.
"Never mind." Wendon shook his head. "You were telling me about your sister — the reason for this trip to town, as I recollect. Or could it have anything to do with the darling of Drury Lane, Mrs. Dewinters, who, as I hear, has taken up residence in Chelsea — in one house among many of which you are the acknowledged landlord?"
"Absent landlord," said Rathbourne emphatically as he carved a generous portion of beef. He offered the platter to his friend. "How very well informed you are, Wendon. We could have used you in Intelligence, if only we had known of your penchant for listening to gossip."
"Not I," retorted Wendon with some vehemence. "Your methods are not compatible with my gentle turn of nature. I suppose somebody had to do the dirty work, but ..." He fell silent, realizing the implied insult in his words.
It was only the merest chance that he had ever discovered that his companion was not all that he seemed to be when they served together in Spain with Wellington (or Wellesley as he then was). Wendon had been on a reconnoitering mission with a detachment of cavalry when he had been captured by the French and taken to their headquarters for questioning. The Earl had walked in on that interview, but posing as a French officer. If he was surprised to see the Viscount, he covered it well, much better in fact than Wendon did, who almost gave the game away.
It was the Earl who saved Wendon's hide when things turned ugly and it appeared that he would be summarily shot. Rathbourne had spirited the Viscount away before anyone was the wiser. In so doing, he had almost blown his cover. Wendon supposed that he owed his life to the fact that his acquaintance with the Earl went back to the playing fields of Harrow. He wondered whether Rathbourne would have risked so much for a perfect stranger. He very much doubted it. Once safely back behind British lines, he had been sworn to secrecy and had in fact been close mouthed about the Earl's clandestine activities during the war since then. Until recently, he recalled, with an uncomfortable flash of memory. Still, the war was now over. Rathbourne was safe from a French assassin's hand, and his confidante was someone who could be counted on not to betray his confidence and who posed no threat to the Earl. Nevertheless, he wished he had kept his mouth shut.
He threw a quick glance at his companion and was relieved to note the amused quirk of one dark eyebrow. "Woolgathering?" asked Rathbourne quizzically. Avery recovered himself quickly and rushed into speech. "Forget the war! Old Boney is Emperor of only a pile of rocks on Elba. England is safe from attack, and we are military men no longer. Tell me about your sister."
Rathbourne shrugged his shoulders. "There is nothing to tell. Now that Caro is eighteen, my mother wishes her to make her come-out. My presence will simply add a little countenance to all the parties and balls which she is bound to attend. What the devil is this?" he asked distastefully as he removed the lid from the vegetable tureen. He brought up a ladleful of soggy, dark green leaves.
"Boiled cabbage. What did you expect at an English tavern? Here, put it on my plate. It is the perfect accompaniment to boiled brisket. Yes, and I'll have some of those boiled potatoes too, if you would be so kind."
The Viscount's appetite, apparently, was not impaired by the quality of the food. The Earl, of a more fastidious palate, confined himself to the Burgundy and the Stilton.
"Do you happen to know anything of an Armand St. Jean?" he asked casually after an interval. "You are in town more often than I. I thought perhaps your paths might have crossed."
"I haven't been in town this age, but yes, I know of him," Wendon replied, looking speculatively at his friend's carefully impassive countenance.
"He's a young hothead — no more than twenty, I should say. His propensity for gaming is legion, as are his women, and he hardly out of leading strings. Shocking, ain't it? He's half French, of course. There's an older sister in the wings somewhere who exercises not the slightest restraint upon him. He's a charming devil though. Come to think of it, he's a bit like you were in your salad days. But your cousin, Tony Cavanaugh, can tell you more than I. He's taken him under his wing, so to speak, and has tried to restrain some of St. Jean's wilder impulses — to no avail, I'm sorry to say."
A smile flickered briefly on Rathbourne's lips. "Now I know we should have seconded you to Intelligence, Wendon. The war would have been over in half the time if we'd set you loose behind French lines. You have a veritable talent for gathering information."
Wendon laughed self-consciously. "Well, I do go about a bit. I can't settle into running my estates as you seem to have done. The war has made me restless, I suppose. Perhaps I should find myself a wife and secure the succession as my fond mama keeps telling me."
A thought suddenly struck the Viscount. "Good Lord! St. Jean isn't angling after Caro, is he? He's got nerve, I'll give him that!"
Rathbourne demurred but Wendon continued as if he had not heard the denial. "Be careful, Gareth! He's a dangerous cub with a demon temper! It don't matter to him whether he dispatches you with foil or pistol. He's blessed with cool nerves and natural talent, you see, a deadly combination."
The Earl spoke in a soft undertone, humor lacing every word. "The prospect terrifies me! A callow youth, you say? I'm thankful I never met the hellion on the battlefield. I'd have been tempted to put him across my knee and paddle him."
"You'd be a fool to underrate him," Wendon went on pleasantly. He cut himself a thick slice of brisket which he proceeded to attack with relish. "I've done my duty. If you don't wish to take him seriously, that's your lookout. Don't say I didn't warn you."
The door to the parlor opened and the chill draft of that cold, wintry morning ruffled the covers of their lordships' window table. Rathbourne looked to the door, his brows knit together.
Two women stood on the threshold. The elder was smaller in stature and hung back as if unsure of the propriety of entering the inn's public dining room. The Earl's eyes became riveted to the younger woman, and his fingers tightened on the stem of his wineglass. She stood with head held high, one hand securing a green mantle which hung in loose folds from her shoulders, her clear eyes coolly assessing.
He would have known her anywhere! Five years seemed to slip away as he absorbed every lovely feature, every soft contour, every endearing detail which had been a constant memory since their last encounter. Yet she was different — no longer the fledgling, but a woman with the bloom of promise fulfilled. He felt the constriction in his chest — a reminder that the sight of her classic beauty had always set his pulse to an erratic tempo.
His hand went absently to finger a small faded scar on his left cheekbone. He had hoped for a different setting in which to make himself known to her. No matter. He was not one to cavil at Providence. Better sooner than later.
She removed her high poke bonnet to reveal the thick burnished braids at her nape. He could almost feel their silken smoothness between his fingers. His hands itched to unpin the heavy skein of spun gold and wrap themselves in the curtain of hair that he knew would fall to well below her shoulders. He smiled as she pushed back a stray tendril from her smooth, high forehead in a familiar gesture of impatience. She flashed an encouraging look over her shoulder at her companion then took a halting step into the room, a small smile of anticipation curving her generous mouth, as if she was enjoying every minute of the novelty of finding herself in the White Swan's public dining room.
Her eyes traveled around the interior, lighting with undisguised interest on the various occupants, and Rathbourne had the sudden urge to rob her of that fragile composure, to drive down those thick, dark lashes in confusion and bring the blush to her creamy complexion. He had the overpowering desire to make her as disturbed by his presence as he was by hers.
Her eyes alighted on Wendon momentarily, and he saw the smile on her lips deepen. Then her eyes met his and Rathbourne held them, inexorably, unwaveringly. He was conscious of the startled lift of her dark eyebrows, the defiant tilt of her head, the sudden shock of recognition in the depths of green eyes widened in alarm at the unexpected sight of him, and still he held her.
He knew she was breathing rapidly, fighting him off with every breath, as if they were locked in mortal combat; he knew that she was remembering in vivid detail, as he was, that other time so long ago when she fought him with every ounce of strength which she possessed, and he was determined that, in this contest, he would not be the loser. His smoldering gaze captured her, compelling her to yield to him. The blush on her cheeks deepened, and a slow smile touched Rathbourne's lips. He would have continued the contest, but someone moved between them, and when he sought her eyes again, they were carefully averted.
"Who is she?" Wendon asked softly as she allowed the landlord to seat her at a table, her back turned resolutely against Rathbourne.
"Someone I once knew, a long time ago," said Rathbourne noncommittally.
"Don't think I ever met the lady." Wendon could hardly contain his curiosity. "Don't seem as if she cares to renew the acquaintance."
He looked at his friend expectantly, but Rathbourne's only comment was, "Shall we have coffee and brandy?"
The Earl tried to catch the landlord's eye but he was unsuccessful, for the girl in the green mantle had at that moment crooked her index finger and he was hastening to her side. Rathbourne saw the flash of an emerald ring and he smiled enigmatically.
"If that don't beat all!" exclaimed the Viscount with mingled astonishment and chagrin. "How shall we ever live this down, Rathbourne? To be outranked by a slip of a girl with only a pretty face to recommend her! Look at our host positively drooling over her!"
"Yes, it is a bit of facer, isn't it? But console yourself with the thought that if she were a man and could be persuaded to accept a commission in His Majesty's service, she would quickly rise to the higher ranks."
"Oh?" Wendon intoned encouragingly.
Rathbourne's thoughtful gaze took in her straight spine and squared shoulders. "Defensive strategy would be her forte, I should say." After a moment or two's reflection, he added, "But this is one occasion when she shall not out maneuver me."
He felt in the breast of his dark frock coat and withdrew a scrap of lace from an inside pocket. "Mrs. Dewinters's," he explained with a hint of apology. The stale perfume of carnations was in the air, and Wendon grimaced.
"What do you mean to do?"
"What else? Merely renew an acquaintance of long standing."
The Earl pushed back his chair and rose to his feet in a leisurely manner. There was something in his expression which provoked the Viscount to exclaim, "Good God, Gareth, she's only a slip of a girl! Have a care, man! What on earth was her offense that you look so blasted ... punishing?"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Passionate Prude"
Copyright © 1988 Mary George.
Excerpted by permission of Diversion Publishing Corp..
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