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A RITA Award Finalist for Best Regency Romance
A FOOTLOOSE BEAUTY
How dare her guardian stop sending her allowance? The very independent Miss Jillian Lamb leaves her beloved countryside and travels to London to set matters straight with the obviously pompous and old-fashioned Earl of Coltrane. She’s been on her own for quite some time, thank you, and has devoted her life to helping the widows of war veterans. She has no desire to enter society or have a stranger meddle in her life.
Nothing prepares her for the shock of discovery. The Earl, a veteran himself, suffering from permanent injuries, is hardly old and out of fashion. In fact, he’s fairly irresistible, with extraordinary blue eyes. He is, however, stubbornly prepared to do his duty as her guardian. His immediate mission? To present his wayward ward to the ton and find her a husband.
A MAN OF HIS WORD
How has one sharp-witted young woman taken control of his household overnight? Mark Delacourt, Earl of Coltrane, finds his gentlemanly manners tested to their limits; his courtly charms have been rusty ever since his return from the war in a wheelchair.
Determined to follow the rules of decorum, he’ll battle her willfulness and see her wed according to society’s demands. And yet once she becomes a sensation, his heart tells him he may be making a terrible mistake.
Lynn Kerstan, former college professor, folksinger, professional bridge player, and nun, is the author of sixteen romance novels and four novellas, all set in Regency England. A RITA winner and five-time RITA Finalist, her books are regularly listed among the best in the world. Lynn Kerstan is the RITA-award-winning author of nine Regency romances and seven historical romances. The Golden Leopard and Heart of the Tiger were selected by Library Journal for its Best Romances of the Year list (2002 and 2003), and Dangerous Passions was named by Booklist as one of the Top Ten Romances of 2005.
"I am so happy to have read this book! I could not put it down.” -- Sissy Hicks, Amazon
"Great weekend read. One of those books you start and have to finish!” -- Adela Curtiss, Netgalley
THE EARL SAW the black lumps right away, although he couldn’t make out what they were through the rain-streaked carriage window. With a sigh, he leaned back against the leather squabs to wait for Perkins, who, judging from the clatter overhead, was rummaging through the driver’s box for an umbrella.
It was unlike Perkins to be unprepared, but the evening had been starlit and balmy when they set out for a night on the town. The driver steered the crested coach from club to club as the Earl of Coltrane stopped in to dine at Watier’s, toss the dice at Brooks’s, and play a few hands of whist at White’s. Then, stubbornly resisting an order to return home, Perkins hunched inside the carriage until noon, waiting for his master to emerge from the Swan’s Nest. Mark took a mental note to reward him with a bonus, and the Swan with that diamond bracelet she’d admired. They had both served him well last night, and Coltrane men always paid their debts.
Yawning into his white glove, he leaned forward and peered again through the glass at the wide marble staircase leading to his front door. Three black lumps . . . on the stoop if he were not mistaken.
How came Jaspers to permit lumps on the doorstoop? Even in a rainstorm, Berkeley Square scarcely permitted windblown leaves to defile its pristine sidewalks. At the first sign of clearing, servants would bustle out to spirit them away. No doubt puddles evaporated faster in Berkeley Square than in lesser neighborhoods, and of all the imposing mansions enthroned there, none was less likely to be blighted by unsightly blotches than his own. The Old Earl, rest his icy soul, had been fastidious to a fault, and in his thirty-three years Mark Delacourt had never detected so much as a dust mote on a polished armoire at Coltrane House. Black lumps in full public view were unthinkable.
The Earl, hearing Perkins clamber down, tugged his curly-brimmed beaver lower on his forehead. As he picked up his whitethorn cane the door swung back, carried by a gust of wind, and an enormous black umbrella appeared directly in front of him. "Higher, please,” he said, tapping the umbrella with his cane.
Perkins was not a tall man, and from his position on the sidewalk he could do no better. The Earl scrunched his long body double and maneuvered with unaccustomed gracelessness out of the coach.
"Watch your feet, Milord,” advised Perkins just as Mark’s polished Hessians submerged in the water-logged gutter.
"Thank you, Perkins.” The capes on the Earl’s greatcoat flapped in the wind, muffling his always quiet voice. "I’ll take the umbrella now.”
"Oh, no, Milord. ‘T’wouldn’t be proper.”
His servants had a knife-edged sense of what was due his consequence, however impractical, and some battles were not worth fighting in the rain. Mark turned up the stairs, with Perkins trailing behind and umbrella spines jabbing at his forehead. Blinded by a curve of black silk, he got scarcely a glimpse of the three black lumps as he swept by them to the door. It opened in front of him.
"I shall require the carriage at nine o’clock this evening, Perkins,” said the Earl, passing his hat and cane to the waiting butler.
"Ay, Milord,” the coachman acknowledged with a bow. He was still bent over when a sudden hard blow at his shoulder sent him flying. He skidded on his buttocks down the wet marble stairs to the sidewalk, while the umbrella took off in a blast of wind. Scrambling to his knees, Perkins saw a black shape launch itself inside the house. It might have been a small bear on the attack. The door slammed shut and he heard a loud screech.
Mark was unfastening his greatcoat when a furious commotion erupted behind him.
"Oh no you don’t!”
"Take your hands off me!”
"Get out of my way, you great booby!”
Pivoting on his heel, the Earl spied his butler grappling with a mass of wet fabric. Jaspers shuffled like a pugilist, dancing a frantic fandango with something resembling a sackful of angry cats. A head emerged from the sack, nearly invisible beneath a water-soaked hat, and Mark guessed it was a young boy. He watched with some amusement as the boy planted several hard kicks on Jaspers’s shins.
"Get out!” screamed the butler. "Stop kicking me, you little beast. Get out!”
"Let go of me, jackass. I said let go!”
"Eeahh!” He let go.
"That will be enough.” The Earl spoke so softly it was amazing the two combatants even heard him, but they untangled themselves and stood panting, eyeing each other belligerently.
Jaspers was nursing a spot on the pad of his hand, just above his thumb. "She bit me,” he whined.
"She?” Mark examined the black-cloaked creature with more interest. No way to tell under all that wet wool. A limp hat concealed hair and forehead, but two dark eyes blazed at him over a stubborn, triangular chin. When her mouth, a very wide one, opened, he wagged a gloved finger. "I’ll get to you later,” he said meaningfully, and the mouth snapped shut. "Jaspers, there is what I take to be luggage on the doorstep. I presume it belongs to this person. How long has it been there and why was it not removed?”
"It wouldn’t go, Milord.”
The Earl sighed. "Can you not manage to dispose of a small girl and two cases?”
"Not without a direct order, Milord.” The butler’s long, skinny legs drew up, rigid as fenceposts, until he stood just a shade higher than the tall man he served. Jaspers relished that half inch and never failed to exploit it. "Unusual situations always require a decision from the Master. That was my instruction from the Old Earl when I came here eight-and-thirty years ago, but of course the Old Earl was generally available when a decision was required. It was not his habit to absent himself for the entire night.”
Mark saw from the comer of his eye that the girl’s mouth opened again, but not to speak. She was clearly aghast, whether at the butler’s insolence or at his own nocturnal roamings he couldn’t tell. "Apparently, Jaspers, my father dared not rely on you to make an intelligent decision for yourself, even in trivial matters such as this. In future, I shall expect more of you. For now, you may remove my coat.”
The Earl felt as if he’d drawn a line across the black-and-white checked foyer with a saber. These days, nearly all the excitement in his life was occasioned by such petty squabbles with his staff. His father’s staff, he reminded himself as Jaspers deliberately moved first to retrieve the cane and beaver hat from the floor. Mark undid the last few buttons and held out his arms expectantly. To acknowledge the butler’s slanted defiance would be to concede him a tiny victory.
"I fear, Milord,” said Jaspers as he lifted the greatcoat from the Earl’s broad shoulders, "that your valet will find bloodstains on this cloak from my wound.”
Mark would have sworn Jaspers didn’t have a drop of blood in him. "Foxworth will doubtless commend your gallantry in the line of duty,” he said acidly.
"What shall I do about her, Your Lordship?” The Earl ran his gaze up and down the small shape, now quivering with barely leashed fury, streaming water like a fountain over the polished marble floor. "Ah, yes. Something must certainly be done about her. Have you ascertained the purpose of her encroachment?”
"Ascertained the purpose of her encroachment?” The girl stared at him in wonder. "Sheep dip!” When Mark lifted an eyebrow, she lowered her gaze. The chit’s accent was surprisingly cultured, although everything else about her was straight from the streets. Streets to which she would be returned, rain notwithstanding, as soon as he determined if the butler merited the pleasure of evicting her himself. With help, of course.
The Earl groaned, wondering why he ever bothered to come back to this ice cave. The minute he walked in the door, he invariably felt cold to the bone. "You first, Jaspers. Explain yourself. What has been going on here?”
"As to that, Your Lordship, I can tell you only that this creature appeared at the front door at four minutes to seven and demanded to speak with you. I did not, you understand, take the message myself, as my duties commence at precisely eight o’clock. The footman instructed her to apply at the tradesmen’s entrance and she instructed him to go to perdition. He interrupted my breakfast to inquire where that might be.”
"You don’t mean to say that pile of trash has been arrayed on my doorstep since seven this morning?”
"Just so, Milord. Of course, at eight o’clock I made it my first duty to deal with the situation, but the trash refused to take herself off. In your absence I could only guess that you would not wish a public scene, so I left well enough alone.”
"A squatter at my door all morning is not a public scene? Jaspers, you never cease to amaze me.”
"It was what she said, Milord. What she threatened to scream out in Berkeley Square for all to hear if anyone put a hand on her.”
"Ah, blackmail.” Mark’s eyes narrowed. "Exactly what story did our neighbors miss hearing, thanks to your discretion?”
Jaspers drew his tall, angular body to new heights. "The wench declared, Milord, that she finds herself in a desperate situation and that you are responsible.” Thin, greyish lips widened to a smirk.
The Earl had long suspected that Jaspers, approaching his sixties, approached them as a virgin. Mark sliced a glance at the bedraggled, fire-eyed wisp of a girl he was supposed to have got with child and wondered that anyone, even a dried-up old stick like Jaspers, could imagine him with such execrable taste. The tall, leggy blonde he’d left only an hour ago was the best money could buy. "In that case,” he said smoothly, "I must speak with her. But not, I think, immediately. Clean her up, Jaspers. She’s dripping all over the floor. And present her to me in one half hour. The library will do.”
"Now!” She stomped a mutinous foot, producing an unsatisfying squish. "I want to see you now.”
Mark glanced up in surprise. Foolish child. Did she fail to apprehend that she’d just won? "I beg your pardon?” he inquired coolly.
"And well you might! Didn’t you hear that old goat? I’ve been waiting five hours for you. Five hours!”
"Then a few more minutes will be no hardship, firebrand. Take yourself off with Jaspers and behave, because if you do not, I shall personally toss you out that door. And if you hunker down to wait me out, you will remain only so long as it takes to summon the Watch. No arguments, little girl. Another word from you will send you back to the streets.”
Without looking at her again, Mark strode up the sweeping staircase. If eyes could fire needles, he thought with an interior smile, his back would be a pincushion. And if ever two baseborn reprobates deserved each other, they were his butler and that tiny extortionist. Could she really be swollen with child under her shabby, voluminous cloak? Too young, really, but on the streets they started young. If she was properly humble during their interview, perhaps he would see her cared for. She had, after all, done to Jaspers what he’d longed to do since he was five years old.
Jillian had remained silent through most of the proceedings, with unnatural self-discipline. After twenty hours crammed into a stuffy mailcoach, where she was sneezed on by two ill-mannered children, and more hours making her way in a run-down hack. Not easy to come by for a diminutive female with few coins in her purse, but she’d reached her goal, only to be confronted by a stiff-rumped donkey with an intellect to match his breeding. And the Earl was measurably worse. An iceberg on two legs, dictating her fate as if she were a mildly interesting insect that had scuttled into his home to get out of the rain.
She could not believe how effortlessly he’d controlled her. He never raised his voice. Scarcely moved a muscle. Tall, yes, but compared to her, most men were. And for all that she could chew the even taller Jaspers into little pieces and spit him out, Jillian was certain the Earl could as easily dispose of her. It was his confidence, she decided, studying the broad back and long legs as he disappeared up the arced staircase. One ought never to underestimate self-assurance. It was her own stock-in-trade, and she respected it when she saw it.
The butler strode down the hall, leaving it to her to follow, and with a shudder, she obeyed. What energy she had left must be hoarded for that glacier of an earl, not squandered on a witless toothpick. He led her to a narrow staircase and through swinging doors into a large kitchen, fragrant with baking bread. Jillian paused at the door, cold and wet and suddenly ravenous. The apple she’d saved for breakfast seemed eons ago.
A short, fat woman, all rolls and bulges under her high-necked grey dress and white apron, regarded the intruder with hostile eyes from a wooden chair. The housekeeper, judging by a large key-ring where her waist should have been, although she didn’t look capable of mounting a staircase to the second floor without two men pushing from behind.
"What’s this refuse doing in my kitchen?” the woman wheezed. Greasy fingers, plump as sausages, pinched a currant-studded scone from the platter on the table and waved it in the air. A tiny maid scurried over with a saucer of fresh butter, and Jillian watched enviously as the housekeeper slathered the scone and chomped off an enormous bite. Crumbs settled on her chin like snowflakes. "Take her out of here,” she mumbled between chews. "The chit is dripping over everything.”
"His Lordship wishes to speak with her, God knows why,” Jaspers said with a scowl. "She is to be dried and presentable in”—he drew out his watch and studied it— "twenty-six minutes.”
"Do it somewhere else, then,” the housekeeper grumbled. "Take her to the mews, Ribley.”
An acne-pocked footman jumped from his slouched position at the trestle table. "Yez, Miz Jaspers.”
Jillian chuckled under her breath. That skeletal butler was married to the suet pudding? What a pair.
"His Lordship was very precise about the time,” Jaspers objected, sliding his watch into a waistcoat pocket. "I shall leave this business in your hands, Arabella, and retrieve her in twenty-four minutes. Ribley, you will find luggage outside the front door. Bring it in, and then mop the hallway. Polly, remove your finger from your mouth and be of some use. Conduct this creature into the pantry, dry her off, and select something from her cases appropriate for an interview with His Lordship.” In a huff he was gone, followed quickly by the nervous boy.
"My, my,” said Jillian. "What a lovely welcome.” She turned to the maid, who stood gawking at her. "Where, pray tell, is the pantry?”
"Well, see to it, girlie,” snapped the housekeeper. A currant flew out of her mouth and bounced across the table.
The pantry was cramped and dark. Jillian stripped down to her wet chemise and accepted, with genuine gratitude, a handful of kitchen towels to dry herself. The maid’s shy smile was the first indication of human life she’d encountered in this mausoleum.
"I’ll get you sumfin’ to wear, M’lady,” the girl offered, bobbing a curtsey. She was gone a long time, and Jillian stood nearly naked in the pantry, examining shadowy jars and packets on the shelves, looking for something edible. She was considering a sack of rice when the maid returned, holding out a scruffy dress of indeterminate color which Jillian didn’t recognize as one of her own.
"Sorry, M’lady, but your cases are soaked through and nothin’s fit to put on. This is me Sunday dress. It’s old and not much to look at, but it’s dry.”
"Why, Polly . . . is that your name?”
The girl, too thin, with straggly brown hair and a face full of freckles looked absurdly young. "Yes, M’lady, if it pleases you.”
Jillian knew how easily small females could get trampled on, and her heart went out. "Polly is a lovely name. Lots of character. I’m very grateful for the loan of your dress, but you must not call me that. Lady, I mean.”
"But you are a right proper lady, M’lady. I could tell it first look.”
"Truly? In my father’s old cloak, with the ostler’s hat?”
"It’s in the eyes,” Polly said wisely. "Been in service all me life, in better ‘ouses than this. I know what’s what and when I’m lookin’ at ‘quality.’ Not like the pushy snobs what runs this place from belowstairs.”
"Well, technically I suppose you are correct, because my father was a baronet, but he didn’t care anything for that and neither do I. Besides, at the moment I’m scarcely in a position to stand on ceremony. This chemise is awfully damp. What do you think? Should I leave it off?”
Rarely consulted for her opinion—and never in this house—Polly gave the matter considerable thought. She was even smaller than the dark-haired lady, and the kerseymere dress would be very snug if it closed at all.
"Off,” she determined, helping a stark-naked Jillian into the scratchy material. It did close, barely, but was inches too short. "Oh, this won’t do at all,” she wailed.
"Of course it will.” Jillian patted her hand. "And besides, we’ve no choice, have we, unless I drape myself in a sheet like a Roman senator.”
The maid’s experience did not encompass senatorial fashion, but she knew better than to put her hands unbidden on one of Miz Jaspers’s sheets. "No choice at all, M’lady. I’ve none other shoes but these and they bein’t much, but y’ur welcome to ‘em.”
"Don’t ask me to take the shoes right off your feet, Polly. I feel badly enough dirtying your Sunday best, and I’ll make this up to you when I can.”
"Oh, no, M’lady. This is the most interesting thing what’s ‘appened in this ‘ouse since I come ‘ere. ‘Is Lordship ain’t so bad, mind you, but ‘e don’t stay ‘ome much. Can’t say as I blame ‘im. The cook’s a proper ‘un, even if ‘e talks Frenchie most ‘o the time, and the upstairs maid is friendly-like, but she’s new too. So’s Ribley. ‘E’s my beau, but ‘e’s too scared of Jaspers to be of any use. Rest of ‘em ought to be turned off, but don’t pay ‘em no mind. If you need sumfin’, let me know and I’ll see to it.”
"You are very kind, Polly. Thank you.”
The maid curtsied as Jillian stepped past her into the bright kitchen, blinking against the sudden light. A rotund man with a receding hairline and a pencil-thin moustache was bent over the oven, lifting out a tray of croissants. The chef, and by Polly’s report, a proper ‘un. Jillian flashed him a blazing smile when he looked up at her.
"Mais oui, you seem much improved, cherie. How do you do?” He set down the hot tray, wiped his hands on a floury apron, and smiled back at her. "I took myself off when you appeared, as a gentleman must when a lady finds herself deshabille, but when the bread was finished there was no one to remove it.” He shot a glance at the housekeeper, who sagged in the chair with her pudgy hands clasped over her belly, snoring raspily.
"The rolls smell wonderful,” Jillian told him. Her mouth watered. "Can you tell me what time it is?” He pointed to a clock on the opposite wall. "You must wait ten minutes, jepense. Le Seigneur is never early and never late. Enough time, n’est-ce pas, for a cup of tea and a croissant?”
Jillian plopped down at the trestle table while Polly fixed up a mug of tea laced with milk and honey. A plate with two flaky croissants was set before her, along with the saucer of butter and a knife.
"Heavenly!” Jillian was well into the second croissant before she could make herself stop eating long enough to speak. "This is, without doubt, the best thing I’ve ever tasted.”
The Frenchman bowed, preening with Gallic male charm. "Is anything so magnifique,” he rhapsodized, "as the union of hunger and bread?” Jillian laughed. "I’m embarrassed to eat so greedily, when these rolls ought to be savored, but I can’t help myself. Thank you.”
"De rien. I am Marcel Gribeaux, most pleased to be at your service.”
"Jillian Lamb, even more pleased to enjoy your croissants. Tell me, are they married? The housekeeper and the butler?”
"The swine and the tentpole? Alas no, but it teases the imagination, does it not? They are brother and sister, spawned together, sans doute in a bog.”
"Twins?” Jillian nearly strangled on a bite of roll. "Nature is filled with wonders,” observed Marcel with a wink. "I suspect LeBon Dieu has the sense of humor formidable "
Jillian giggled. What a lovely man, altogether out of place in this nest of vipers. Just then the head reptile slithered in, studying his watch.
"Bon chance, cherie,” whispered Marcel, discreetly turning his attention to a bubbling pot on the stove.
Jillian crammed the last hunk of croissant in her mouth and sprang to her feet, searching the floor for her soaked half-boots. They’d begun to stiffen and hurt her feet when she pulled them on.
"His Lordship will see you now,” intoned the butler with papal solemnity.
The sopping boots made a dreadful noise as Jillian followed Jaspers down the long marble hallway, with Ribley right behind her swishing a mop. The grim little procession made its way to the library door and halted there while Jaspers pulled out his watch. With the acute concentration of a cymbalist, hand poised to knock on beat, he counted down the seconds.
"Hell’s bells,” Jillian muttered, struck by the fathomless silliness of the man. Ducking under his upraised arm, she twisted the knob and flung open the door.
AS THE EARL OPENED the door to his suite, he was still thinking about the odd creature he’d left dripping in the foyer. Even soaking wet, she crackled like a hot fire. No doubt that was the reason she intrigued him. He’d always been drawn to fire.
A gruff voice claimed his attention. "Think you’ve got me now, eh?”
Mark chuckled as he crossed the room and glanced at the chessboard. The position hadn’t changed since his last move two days earlier. "Not at all. You can escape, as well you know.”
"Said the frying pan to the bacon.” Foxworth slumped back in the chair, his bushy salt-and-pepper eyebrows knitted in a frown. "But I’m not for the coals this time, Milord. I’ll find me some clean, cool ground on which to regroup, and then your king is mincemeat.”
"Only in your dreams, Foxy. Are you of a mind to play at valet for a few minutes, or should I call for a footman?”
"Any of ‘em left down there? Methought the barbarians were at the gate.”
"Oh, you heard that little fracas, did you?”
Foxworth shot him a disparaging look. "‘Twas heard from Cheapside to Chelsea. I’ve sent for your bath.”
Mark unwrapped his cravat and tossed it onto the dressing table, catching a glimpse of himself in the mirror. The night’s growth of whiskers, light brown like his hair, made him look somewhat rakish. "The bath will have to wait, but I could do with a shave.”
"Wait for what?” When there was no response, Foxworth stole a last fond look at the chessboard and went to fetch a pitcher of steaming water. When he returned, the Earl was staring blankly at his image in the mirror. Long accustomed to his moods, Foxy shoved a chair behind his knees, assembled towels and soap, and stropped the razor. "Well, then, did you do it?”
Mark sank down and leaned against the pillow Foxworth placed at his neck. "Did I do what?” The point of the razor nudged the tip of his nose. He held very still.
"Save your evasive tactics for the chessboard,” advised the valet pleasantly, "where they might impress me.”
"I live for the day when I can impress you, Foxy.”
"In that case, Milord, you’ll live to a ripe old age.” Setting the razor aside, Foxworth draped a towel over the Earl’s shoulders and wrapped another towel soaked in hot water around his face. He worked efficiently, carving out a small section with his fingers to allow for air. "I take it Jaspers got the worst of the melee. Heard everything he said, and the girl, too, but when you talk all smooth and polite, I can’t make you out. Now you’ll have to go over it again.”
"Hold your horses. You can explain later, when I’m done.” His hand pressed the towel against the Earl’s mouth. "So, you’ve compromised a little girl, eh?”
"I thought not. Trust that flea-brained butler to get it wrong. When are you going to stop knuckling under to your own servants, Milord?”
Mark ripped the towel away. "When I fire your ass, Foxy.” He sputtered as a handful of lather caught him with his mouth open.
"Fire me?” Foxworth laughed. "Only in your dreams, Milord.”
Grabbing the towel from the floor, Mark scoured French-milled soap from his tongue. "You love this, don’t you? Playing Spanish inquisitor with a razor at my throat. No wonder you can’t win at chess. Too fair a game.” He lowered his head to the pillow, while Foxworth lathered his face and began to shave him with long, delicate strokes.
Nigel Foxworth was more wily than his namesake—smart enough to run a government, wise enough to abbot a monastery, and to the Earl’s great good fortune, a friend and colleague since Cambridge days. Also an exceptional valet when he’d a mind to be. The man was no more destined to be a servant than was the Earl of Coltrane, and how he’d come to pressing neckcloths and polishing boots was an enigma. Certainly it was by choice, because Foxworth never did anything he didn’t want to do. He spoke seven languages, read and quoted poetry in all of them, and was the most skilled fighter with pistol, fists, sword, or wits Mark had ever seen. He also sculpted starched cravats into minor works of art. Almost the only thing he couldn’t do better than his master was play chess. Mark had taught him the game during his own long convalescence from the tortures of a French prison, and he was certain that within a few months Foxy would regularly dispatch him with humiliating ease.
Stocky and thickly muscled, with springy grey hair and pale blue eyes, Foxworth was probably fifty years old. He’d spent his youth in India, never married, and refused to discuss his family. All dead, he insisted. Of noble rank, Mark suspected, but he’d long since given up prying into the man’s personal life. Prying was a privilege Foxworth reserved for himself. He clucked over his employer like a hen, carped at him for reverting to a "stuffed-shirt pompous sonofabitch Coltrane,” and between times was a boon companion.
His value was great in the early years, but incalculable when Mark hared off into Napoleon’s France to infiltrate polite society and spy for the Foreign Office. It had been a bacon-brained scheme, but so audacious that it worked for nearly five years. After months of dancing on eggs, the young Viscount was accepted for what he pretended to be—a wealthy, raffish connoisseur of good living who wisely chose to come home. His mother, Marie du Pres Delacourt, Countess Coltrane, had left her English husband and returned to France, so why not her son?
Mark had no recollection of his mother, who disappeared when he was a toddler and died soon afterward, but he was welcomed with open arms by her impoverished family. At least his money was welcomed, and he spent lavishly to establish himself in the Emperor’s court. What he learned, usually in the arms of gossipy wives, was passed through Foxworth and his network of contacts to the Foreign Office. There was little of value, he often thought— rumor and speculation, the general feel of things.
Perhaps it was all a great waste of time. Inevitably, he was caught out, but the French never got to Foxworth, who turned up as second mate on the packet that carried Mark across the channel when he was released from prison.
The Earl still did not understand why the real hero of their enterprise insisted on remaining a valet. "I’ll go when I’ve a mind to,” Foxy always said, and he never went. For that, Mark thanked God every day.
Another hot towel hit his face as Foxworth rubbed away the residue of whiskers and soap. "A change of clothes, Milord?”
Mark shook his head. "No time. I’ve a small problem to dispose of . . . ten minutes at the most . . . and then I’ll be ready for a long hot bath and something to eat. See to it, will you?”
"You’ll send the chit packing?”
"Wonder why she’s here. Considering you didn’t bed her, that is. Feisty little thing, eh?”
"How do you know she’s little?”
"Came out and looked, of course. Will you take a word of advice?”
"Can I prevent you from giving one?”
"Don’t walk the highwire, Milord, not with me and not with her. It’s why you’ll lose at chess one of these days. Playing by the book works with some and not with others.”
"Why not her? She’s a street-girl, here on speculation. I’ve no intention of paying her off.”
"Well, I notice she’s still in this house,” Foxworth pointed out. "Wouldn’t be, unless you got some instinct about her.”
"I do. It says get rid of her with all possible speed. And what do your instincts say?” To his own surprise, the Earl was eager for an answer.
"They say, have a bath ready and keep my mouth shut.”
Mark laughed. "Any female that will bite Jaspers and shut your mouth is worth at least ten minutes of my time. We’ll be in the library, if you care to jostle with the butler for a spot by the keyhole.”
"Don’t care to be on the same planet with that nodcock. Do you want me to rig up another cravat?” Mark glanced at his reflection. He did look a bit odd, in a swallowtail coat and brocade waistcoat over an open shirt collar. "Never mind. She won’t know the difference. And while I’m gone, Foxy, look to your bishop and give thought to making a move some time this century.”
The Earl was pleased to discover a fire warming the library and a decanter of sherry on the desk. If nothing else, Jaspers knew when to prime a pump. He poured a full glass and eased into the padded, high- backed chair. By now the girl must be properly cowed—his servants could intimidate royalty—and this interview would be brief. He ought never to have allowed it at all. Exactly what instinct was Foxy talking about?
At precisely the half-hour, the door flew open and the girl charged in like a shot from a crossbow. Mark watched with some amazement as her foot flew out behind her, in a maneuver worthy of an Astley’s gymnast, to kick the door directly into Jaspers’s face. Clipped the old buzzard right on his beak, thought the Earl with pleasure.
He stood as she squished to the desk and proceeded to look him over, head to toe. Like Wellesley sizing up the enemy, he thought, biting back a smile. He regarded her coolly, allowing the bold inspection while conducting one of his own. Now he could see dearly that she was indeed female, a very small female, in a homespun dress even smaller than she. The greyish skirt stopped somewhere above her trim ankles, and the tight bodice revealed she wasn’t small everywhere. Her face was triangular, all eyes above high, slanted cheekbones and a pert, tilted nose. Her coffee-brown eyes, shot with gold, were spiked with long black lashes. Dark hair, matted with rainwater, curled around her ears and neck. She didn’t look pregnant.
The girl’s chin went up as she completed her evaluation, and Mark had the distinct feeling she wasn’t impressed. "Well, my dear,” he said in his most chilling drawl, "what have you to say for yourself?”
"I . . . a . . . ah . . . achooo!”
He passed her a monogrammed linen handkerchief and winced as she put it to use. "Will you be seated?” he asked politely, gesturing to a wing-backed chair angled at the corner of the massive desk.
"I prefer to stand. ‘Tchoo!”
"Well, we can do that if you insist, but I cannot be seated until you do. Manners, you understand. Or do you?” He hoped so, for he very much needed to sit. His back was aching, as it always did when it rained, shooting hot arrows down his legs and cramping the muscles of his thighs.
"Hell’s bells, sit if you want to. I’d rather you did. You are far too tall for my current peace of mind, which isn’t much at the moment, and in that huge chair I’m apt to disappear altogether. I’ll stand, you sit, and that way I can look you in the eye.”
The Earl lowered himself gingerly into his chair and settled back, amused in spite of his annoyance by this wisp of a child with extortion on her mind. He’d never seen her before, let alone fathered a bastard on her, but peers with suspicious wives and guilty consciences sometimes paid off in cases like this to avoid the scandal. He was curious to see how she went about her business.
"Did you imagine that if you ignored me, I’d just go away?” she demanded. "Did you think to keep the money for yourself?”
"I suspect that little short of a regiment would make you go away,” he replied affably. "Now, what money are you talking about? And who are you?” She planted her hands on the desk and leaned over, water dripping from her curly hair onto the scatter of papers. "I’m Jillian Lamb, of course.”
"I see.” He’d never heard the name and it must have showed on his face, because she drew up and regarded him suspiciously.
"Jillian Lamb,” she repeated slowly, as if he might not speak English.
He shook his head. "I’m sorry, Miss Lamb. Is it possible that you . . . er . . . pitched camp on the wrong doorstep this morning?”
"No, it is not. This is the right address, and you are the Earl of Coltrane. I know because you look exactly like your father, and besides, I recognize this.” She picked up a vase from the corner of the desk. "My father acquired this for the late Earl. Ming dynasty. And I remember that, too.” She pointed to a framed da Vinci drawing on the wall. "Oh, I’m in the right place, all right. And I’d no intention of camping on your doorstep, but when I knocked like a civilized person I was refused admittance by that miserable butler, and even when it started to rain he wouldn’t let me in. What choice did I have? I figured you’d trip over me on your way out, but you really weren’t home, were you? I thought he was lying about that.”
"He would have done so, had I been here.” The Earl fingered a letter opener thoughtfully for a moment before tossing it aside. His eyes, normally a calm, impassive blue, went from cool to cold. "And now, Miss Lamb, let us put an end to this drama so that I can have my lunch. You—” He looked directly at her and stared in fascination.
What had been a wet, furry clump of ringlets around her head was starting to . . . well . . . grow. He could almost see her hair expanding, rather like a balloon, as it dried. Even more astonishing, he heard the definite sound of a giggle as she realized what he was gawking at.
"Awful, isn’t it?” Jillian said cheerfully. "I’d forgot about it. Better not to think about it, if you want to know the truth. Between my name and this mop of woolly hair, I grew up listening to bleats and baas from playmates who thought they were clever. Came to a point when they changed their minds, though.”
"Bit them, did you?”
She grinned. "The butler? He deserved it and more. Go at ‘em tooth and nail, my father used to say, but my nails aren’t any use because I keep them short. For the cows, you understand. I specialize in teeth and a swift kick where it will do the most good. That jackass was lucky my feet were tangled in the cloak.”
Mark didn’t want to hear any more. This firebrand wasn’t from the streets. She was straight from the barnyard.
"Father was just as bad,” she plowed on. "Called me his fluffy black sheep. The hair does look like lambswool when it’s short, so I let it grow as much as I can. Then, of course, it looks like—”
"A bush?” the Earl supplied helpfully.
Jillian smiled, and he saw a tiny dimple in one cheek. "I’m afraid so. Fortunately, it makes no difference now what I look like, but when I was a little girl I used to pray that I’d wake up one morning tall and elegant, with masses of long blond hair and a patrician nose. Like yours. One that’s good for looking down when one is annoyed. Tall and long-nosed is much better when one wishes to make a point, don’t you think?”
Her pert nose was decidedly red and the Earl watched it disappear into his handkerchief for another sneeze. For a single-minded, determined little bullet, she had a remarkable capacity for digression. To his own surprise, he found himself suggesting a tray of tea and biscuits.
She was back on course immediately. "Don’t think to change the subject, My Lord. We need to get this settled so I can get home. As it is, I shall miss the night mailcoach unless I take a hack to Lombard Street, and my clothes are soaked through thanks to your butler. I’ll need to buy Polly’s dress from her to wear, and probably a cape as well.”
The Earl, tired and in considerable pain, lost what little fascination the chit had managed to arouse. He needed a hot soaking bath, and soon. It was the only thing that eased the agonizing spasms, other than laudanum, which he dared not take often, or drink, which he was careful to measure out in small doses. What had he been about to say when he noticed the bushy hair? "Perhaps if you would explain exactly why you are here and what you want, I can arrange to see you on your way. It cannot,” he added with calm disdain, "be soon enough for me.”
Jillian’s temper, as quicksilver as her smile, rebounded in a flash. "It is I, My Lord, who has been waiting for hours in the pouring rain for you to deign to appear.” Each declaration was punctuated with a pounding fist on his desk. "It is I who has been waiting for nearly a year for some word from you. Some acknowledgment of my letters and the resumption of the allowance which you have . . . illegally, I am sure . . . withheld from me while my house is practically falling down around my ears and the staff isn’t paid. It is I who wants the explanation, My Lord, and furthermore, I . . . aa . . . achoo!” The rest was smothered in his handkerchief as Jillian sank into the chair to indulge her fit of sneezes.
The Earl stared politely at the ceiling, sorting through what she’d told him. Two words held his attention—letters and allowance. It was possible, just possible, that she had a legitimate complaint against him. Business matters had been in disarray for some time and he rarely looked at any correspondence. He gentled his voice. "Miss Lamb, I assure you that I know nothing about you or any funds due to you. Has this something to do with my father?”
Red-rimmed eyes, watery from sneezing, looked up at him. She really did seem to disappear into the enormous wing-backed chair, and while he couldn’t see her feet from his position behind the desk, he suspected they didn’t quite reach the floor.
"You don’t know who I am, do you?” She shook her head in disbelief. "I can understand some confusion when the Old Earl passed away, and unimportant things—like me—would easily get lost in the shuffle for a time, but hell’s bells, man, don’t you even read your mail? I sent at least ten letters straight here, and expensive it was, too, because I can’t just scrawl a frank like you can.”
"My secretary handles correspondence,” Mark said a little defensively.
"Well, naturally I thought of that. I was afraid I’d got pushed to the bottom of some pile or other, so the last several letters were marked ‘Personal.’ The last two ‘Personal,’ ‘Confidential,’ and ‘Urgent.’ Surely something like that would come into your hands?”
"Yes, Barrows would pass such correspondence on to me, and no doubt he did so. But that does not mean I would read it.” In fact, it assured that he would not. The few friends he’d ever cared about were all dead except for Robin, who’d have done better to get himself killed like the others. No, there were no friends he wanted to hear from, not anymore. He’d closed that door, finally, and opened another that admitted only acquaintances.
The chit was on her feet again. "In that case, My Lord, permit me to introduce myself once more. I am Jillian Theodosia Lamb, and I have the incredible misfortune of being your ward.”
He blinked. "That’s impossible.”
"Unthinkable. Intolerable. And certainly unnecessary. But, unhappily, quite true.” Jillian watched him closely. The Earl looked as self-assured as a cat in a tree, but she knew he was not. He wore aloofness like a cloak, but it slipped every now and then . . . not so you’d notice until he regathered it around him. He really had not known, and culpable as that was, it was also forgivable. At least he had not willingly cheated her. He might be awesomely neglectful, a typical rackety aristocrat with no more on his mind than his hair-styling, cravat, and where to spend the night, but it began to appear they could straighten out this business with a few explanations. Then he’d pay her back allowance and she could return home, where being a ward meant only the nuisance of cashing the quarterly bank drafts. Jillian lowered herself to the edge of the chair, hands folded primly in her lap, giving him a chance to apologize.
"If you are speaking the truth . . .” he began, waving his hand lazily in her direction when she growled, "and naturally I must verify the situation for myself, then I have to inform you that it is not at all the thing for the ward of an earl to travel on a mailcoach . . . alone, I take it, unless you’ve an abigail packed away in that disreputable luggage. Not to mention displaying yourself on a doorstop in Berkeley Square for all the world to see.”
She was up again, bent over his desk and virtually nose to nose with him. "Not the thing? Displaying myself? Hell’s bells, you snooty, puffed-up, odious toad. I never—”
"But you did,” he informed her cuttingly. "And now you are ill, God knows what will become of your reputation if anyone recognized you, and this is scarcely an optimal way to begin a relationship that neither of us wants. For the time being, compose yourself, young lady. Resume your seat and remain silent long enough for me to finish speaking.”
"Sit!” His voice was quiet, as always, but it could have sliced a tough cut of meat. She sat. He drew out his watch and flipped it open. "It is, perhaps, a bit late to send for John Lakewood. He was my father’s solicitor—although he retired last year—and will doubtless be familiar with this . . . ah . . . unpleasant situation. In fact, there are several people I’d like to consult, so it will be a day or two before I’ll be prepared to inform you of my decision.”
He lifted a cautioning finger and Jillian clamped her mouth shut. When a low rumble sounded from her throat, he shook his head. "I do not tolerate tantrums, Miss Lamb. From anyone. When I am finished, you may speak.” Satisfied by everything except the look of pure malice in her eyes, Mark rubbed his forehead and tried to regain his thoughts. The knives in his back pronged up his neck, sparking the inevitable, disabling headache. Even the questions he wanted to ask seemed less important than easing the pain. She’d waited a year, so she said, and now it seemed she’d have to wait a little longer. He was certain she wasn’t going to like it.
"There is nothing more to accomplish until I have verified your story, my girl. In any case, you must rest for now, so we’ll settle you in with some hot soup and a large supply of handkerchiefs while I begin the necessary inquiries.” He started to rise and thought better of it. "Will you please give a tug at that bell cord?”
Surprised, Jillian jumped up to do as he asked, and before she could sit down again, Jaspers was in the room, bowing unctuously. The old goat had been listening at the door! She swiveled around and bared her teeth at him.
The Earl clipped out rapid orders, Jaspers growing more indignant with each one.
"Here?” he protested. "In this house? How can you permit her to remain? The Old Earl would never hear of such a thing.”
"The Old Earl, in case you have not noticed this last year or more, is dead, and what he can or cannot hear is nothing to the point. Put Miss Lamb in the Ivory Suite and find someone to act as her maid.”
"I want Polly.”
The Earl glared at her for interrupting. "Polly, then. A fire and a hot bath, luncheon, and anything else she asks for so long as—”
"Books. And she is not to leave the room, for any reason, until I say so.” He spoke to Jaspers, but the order was clearly meant for her. Jillian was too busy sneezing to argue.
"Yes, Milord. But if I may say—”
"You may not.”
With a sniff, the butler swung around and exited. The door crashed behind him.
"You ought to fire that man,” Jillian said frankly. "He’s a disgrace to his profession.”
"One does not terminate family retainers without serious cause,” the Earl told her patiently. "Jaspers served my father for nearly forty years.”
"And does so still, I apprehend. That attitude would not be tolerated from anyone on my staff, I can tell you.”
"Be grateful, then, that I am somewhat more long-suffering. It may enable me to tolerate you.”
The dimple winked in her cheek. "I expect, my Lord Earl, to put that to the test.”
He nearly smiled, and for that brief instant Jillian almost liked him, but his eyes clouded over like a storm sweeping across a lake. "You will do better, my girl, to simply obey me. If you are, in fact, my legal ward—don’t snarl because I do believe you—then whatever I decide will certainly be in your best interest. Delacourts always live up to their obligations.”
"As you’ve done so far?” she inquired sweetly.
"Your trick,” he admitted, his face grim. "This has all come as a complete—and unwelcome—surprise, Miss Lamb. It is possible that my neglect of unknown responsibilities may have caused you certain difficulties and precipitated this outrageous behavior, and we shall take up this matter again at a later time when I have ascertained the facts.”
"Hell’s bells, talk English, will you? You’re not addressing Parliament here. The fact is, you didn’t do what you were supposed to do and I did what I had to do. That’s the long and short of it.”
"We shall also,” he continued imperturbably, "address the matter of your indelicate language.” There was a light knock at the door. "That will be someone to take you upstairs. Run along, child, and have a good rest. Tomorrow or the next day, depending on how you feel, we shall come to a proper resolution of what is to be done with you.” The fire in her eyes heated the room, but the girl’s shoulders were slumped, and he could tell she was very tired and feeling not at all well. Perhaps the doctor should come have a look, for it wouldn’t be the thing to have his ward drop dead at Coltrane House. Only Jaspers would be pleased at that.
Jillian managed a curtsey almost as insolent as one of the butler’s bows. "Good day, My Lord,” she said, moving to the door. "I hope you are feeling better when next we meet.” She glanced at him over her shoulder. "Does your back pain you very much?”
"Nothing pains me!” he snapped.
She shrugged. "If you say so.” Her hand was on the latch when he spoke again. "How old are you?”
Jillian turned completely around. "How old do you think?”
Mark regarded her suspiciously. "Fourteen, maybe fifteen. You look younger than that, except for—” Flushing, he gestured vaguely in the direction of her bosom.
Precious Lord, the man could be embarrassed. Jillian dug into that chink in his armor with glee. "Have yourself fitted for spectacles, My Lord. In a few weeks, I shall be four-and-twenty.” She savored his dropped mouth and stunned expression for a delicious moment before sweeping out.
"Hell’s bells,” muttered the Earl.