Read Jacquie D'Alessandro Online

Authors: Loveand the Single Heiress

Jacquie D'Alessandro (5 page)

“I promised Spencer I’d be home tomorrow, Father.”

“We’ll have the lad brought to London.”

“No. You know how he hates the city. And after tonight, can you blame me for not relishing a prolonged stay in Town myself?”

“I suppose not, but I don’t like the thought of you alone, isolated in the country while you’re recovering. You need someone to take care of you.”

“I agree,” she said slowly, frowning in a way that made Andrew wonder what she was thinking. He agreed wholeheartedly with the earl, but somehow he’d expected the new “headstrong, independent” Lady Catherine to demur. To claim that her staff could adequately care for her.

“’Tis a pity Philip cannot come to Little Longstone for an extended visit.” She said the words lightly, but something in her tone caught Andrew’s attention. That and the fact that she hadn’t said “Philip and Meredith.”

“Yes,” the earl mused, “but he cannot leave Meredith now. I’d volunteer my services, but I’m afraid acting the nursemaid is not my strong suit.”

Andrew forced himself not to point out that acting the nursemaid was hardly Philip’s strong suit either. He looked at Lady Catherine, and their gazes met. His stomach tightened when he again saw a flash of fear, and something else he couldn’t decipher in her eyes. Then her expression turned speculative, and almost…calculating?

Before he could decide, she said, “I believe I have thought of the perfect solution. Mr. Stanton, would you consider accompanying me to Little Longstone, then remaining as my guest? It would prevent me from having to travel alone, and I’m certain you would enjoy a visit to the country. Spencer would love to see you again and hear more of your adventures with Philip in Egypt. You had little opportunity to get acquainted at my husband’s funeral.
And with Spencer there as chaperone, your visit would, of course, be above reproach and quite proper.”

For reasons he couldn’t explain, a warning tingled in his gut—an instinctual reaction that had served him well over the years—telling him that there was more to her invitation than met the eye. But what? And did he really want to question her motives right now? No. He’d spent the better part of the last hour trying to figure out a plausible argument for going to Little Longstone with her and staying for an extended visit, and here she’d solved the problem.

“I realize you have responsibilities in London—”

“None that cannot wait,” he assured her. “It would be my honor to accompany you, then remain for a visit, Lady Catherine. You may rest assured that I will see to it no further harm befalls you.” Indeed, God help anyone who attempted to hurt her again.

“An excellent solution, my dear,” the earl said, with an approving nod. “You’ll have company
and
protection.”

“Yes. Protection…” Her voice trailed off. There was no mistaking her obvious relief. Clearly she didn’t feel safe in London, a sentiment he could well understand. But he suspected she’d asked him to remain in Little Longstone for an extended visit for the same reason—protection. Why? Did she not feel safe in own home?

He didn’t know, but he surely intended to find out.

Chapter 4

Men possess so little understanding of women because they seek out advice and information about women from other equally uninformed men. Winning his lady’s favor would proceed in a much smoother manner if the gentleman simply asked her, “What do you want?” Should Today’s Modern Woman ever be fortunate enough to be asked that question, it is hoped she will answer truthfully.

A Ladies’ Guide to the Pursuit of
Personal Happiness and Intimate Fulfillment
by Charles Brightmore

“H
ow are you feeling, Lady Catherine?”

Catherine looked up from her embroidery to peer across the seat at her traveling companion, whom she’d managed quite successfully under the guise of needlework to ignore for the past hour—or at least as much as one can ignore a man seated barely an arm’s length away. A man who seemed to take up so much
space
. She’d never realized how imposing Mr. Stanton’s presence was. It was one thing to share a drawing room or dining room
with him, but, as she’d discovered, quite another to share the confines of a carriage.

Her gaze met his concern-filled dark eyes. “I’m a bit achy, but all right.”

“Would you like to stop for a short rest?”

In truth she would have liked nothing more than for the carriage to stop its lurching ride. Each thump and bump radiated discomfort through her aching shoulder and reminded her of the dull ache behind her eyes. But each bump brought her closer to Little Longstone and Spencer, and farther away from the nightmare of last night. Closer to the safety of her home, and farther away from whoever had fired that shot…that shot she was far from convinced was an accident. Closer to Genevieve, whom she needed to speak with as soon as possible. She needed to tell her dear friend about the shooting and the investigator who’d been hired to find Charles Brightmore. Warn her about the danger. Warn her she might be next.

“It is not necessary to stop,” she said.

“You look pale.”

“Why, thank you. Such flattery will surely swell my head—which is, thanks to last evening’s fall, quite swollen enough already.”

Her attempt at humor clearly sailed over his own head, for his brows bunched tighter. “You’re in pain—”

“I’m
fine
. Perfectly fit. Dr. Gibbens gave his permission for me to travel—”

“After you browbeat the poor man. I believe his exact words when he departed your father’s town house this morning were, ‘Never in my life have I met a more obstinate woman.’”

“I’m certain you heard him incorrectly.”

“I’m certain I didn’t.”

“Yet, I recall that last evening we’d established that most men’s hearing is not all it should be.”

Several seconds of silence stretched between them, and she had to stifle the sudden urge to squirm under his steady regard. “I am not most men, Lady Catherine,” he finally said quietly. “You’re also very preoccupied.”

“I am merely anxious to get home.”

“I’m sure you are. But there’s something else. Something is worrying you.”

“What makes you say that?” she asked, forcing a light note into her voice. Damnation, just her luck to be stuck in a carriage with the one perceptive man in all of England.

“Your uncharacteristic reticence. I’ve never known you to be so…untalkative.”

“Ah. Well, that is simply because I have been engrossed in my embroidery.”

“Which I find intriguing as you detest embroidery.” Clearly he read the guilty flush she felt searing her cheeks for he added, “You mentioned your aversion to needlework during your visit to London two months ago.”

Double damnation. The man was perceptive
and
recalled trivial details. How utterly irritating. “I’m, er, hoping to develop a fondness for the activity. And besides that, I simply have nothing to say.”

“I see. In general—or to me in particular?”

She debated trying to put him off with a polite fib, but as he obviously wasn’t easily dissuaded, she admitted the truth. “To you in particular.”

Instead of looking offended, he nodded solemnly. “I suspected as much. About our conversation last evening…it was not my intention to upset you.”

“You did not upset me, Mr. Stanton.”

Doubt flashed across his features, raising one dark
brow. “Indeed? Then you normally resemble a teakettle on the verge of boiling over?”

“Again, I must beg you to cease your flattery. In truth, ‘upset’ is merely a poor choice of word. Disappointment is closer to what I felt.”

“In me?”

“Yes.”

“Simply because I did not agree with you? If so, that disappoints
me
.”

Feeling somehow chastised, she considered his words for several seconds, then shook her head. “No, not because we didn’t agree, but because you made some very strong statements without benefit of firsthand knowledge. That, to me, is unfair, which I find to be a disappointing, not to mention irksome, quality in a person.”

“I see. Tell me, had I ever in any of our past meetings impressed you as being unfair?”

“Not at all, which is why I found last evening’s discussion so—”

“Disappointing?”

“Yes.” She cleared her throat. “Not to mention irksome.”

“Indeed. We wouldn’t want not to mention that.”

Again silence swelled between them, uncomfortable in an inexplicable way that unsettled her. Before last evening, she’d always felt at ease in Mr. Stanton’s company. Indeed, she’d found her brother’s closest friend intelligent, witty, and charming, and had enjoyed the easy friendship and camaraderie that had developed between them during the half dozen or so times they’d met. His comments last evening about the
Guide
, however, had proved most disillusioning. Scandalous, appalling, trash-filled balderdash indeed. Humph. And his opinion of Charles Brightmore as a renegade who possesses little, if any, literary talent had quite set her teeth on edge. It had
required all her strength not to jab her finger at his nose and inquire exactly how many books
he’d
written.

Of course, the part of her that demanded fairness had to admit that the
Guide
could be described as scandalous. While she firmly believed that the information provided in the
Guide
was necessary and valuable to women, part of her had been delighted at the brow-raising aspect of the book and had been the deciding element for her to embark on the endeavor. It gave her untold pleasure and a wickedly secret thrill to tweak the hypocritical members of Society whose ranks she’d turned her back on after their hurtful treatment of her son. That desire, that need for some bit of revenge, was clearly a flaw in her character, but there you had it. And she’d enjoyed every minute of the stir she’d created—until last night. Until she’d realized that the
Guide
had swelled into a scandal of gargantuan proportions. She shuddered to think of the horrific scandal that would ensue if Charles Brightmore’s identity were to be discovered. She’d be ruined. And she wouldn’t be the only one. There was Spencer to think about. And Genevieve…dear God, Genevieve stood to lose as much as, if not more than, Catherine if the truth came out.

Yet last evening’s events suggested that more than her reputation might be at stake. Her very life could be in danger. Of course it was possible that she’d been the victim of an accident—she prayed that was the case—but the timing seemed eerily coincidental. And she was not a firm believer in coincidence…

He cleared his throat, yanking her from her brown study. “What would you say if I told you that I was perhaps considering the possibility of accepting your challenge to read Brightmore’s book?”

Catherine stared at him for several seconds, then burst
into laughter. A combination of annoyance and confusion flickered in his eyes.

“What on earth is so amusing?”

“You. You are
perhaps considering
the
possibility
…if you’d given committing to read the book any wider berth, you’d find yourself afloat in the middle of the Atlantic on your way back to America.” Some inner devil made her add, “Not that I’m surprised however. As Today’s Modern Woman knows, most men will go to great lengths to avoid committing to anything—unless it is for their own pleasure, of course. As for you
perhaps considering
reading the book, I certainly encourage you to do so, Mr. Stanton. Not for my benefit, but for your own. Now, before another argument ensues, I suggest we discuss something else, as it is clear we are in complete disagreement on the subject of the
Guide
.” She held out her gloved hand. “Truce?”

He studied her for several seconds, then reached out to clasp her hand. His hand was large and strong, and she felt the warmth of his palm even through her gloves.

“A truce,” he agreed softly. His lips twitched as his fingers gently squeezed hers. “Although I suspect you’re really angling for my unconditional surrender, in which case, I must warn you”—he leaned forward and flashed a smile—“I don’t surrender easily.”

Was it the deep, soft timbre of his voice, or the compelling yet somehow mischievous glitter in his dark eyes, or the warmth radiating up her arm from where his palm pressed against hers—or perhaps a combination of all three—that suddenly made it seem as if there was a dearth of oxygen in the carriage? She slowly extricated her hand from his. Was it just fancy that he seemed reluctant to let go?

“Your warning is duly noted.” Heavens, she sounded positively…breathless.

“It was not my intention to argue with you—not now, or last evening, Lady Catherine.”

“Indeed? What
was
your intention?”

“I’d intended to ask you to dance.”

An image instantly filled her mind, of swirling across the dance floor to the lilting sounds of a waltz, her hand once again clasped in his, his strong arm around her waist.

“I haven’t danced in over a year,” she murmured. “I very much miss it.”

“Perhaps we shall have the opportunity to enjoy a waltz in Little Longstone.”

“I’m afraid not. Elaborate soirees are not usual there.” Determined to erase the disturbing image of them dancing together from her mind, she asked, “Tell me more about how things are progressing at the museum.”

“We’ve fallen a bit behind schedule with Philip’s recent absence, but the building should be completed by year’s end.”

A frisson of guilt tickled her. “And your taking the time to accompany me to Little Longstone shall set you back even more.” She swallowed the remnants of her annoyance and smiled. After all, he couldn’t help but be irritating—he
was
a man. “You’re a true friend—to me and my entire family—and I’m grateful.” Pain throbbed in her shoulder, a physical reminder that someone might truly mean her harm.
More grateful than you know.

“The pleasure is all mine.”

He fell silent, and she once again turned her attention to the hated embroidery. With her head lowered, she peeked at him through her lashes and, noting that his at
tention was focused out the window, she allowed her gaze to drift over him. Thick, midnight hair, with one unruly strand falling over his forehead. Dark lashes surrounding ebony eyes that somehow managed to be compelling and composed at the same time. She liked his eyes. They were calm. Patient and steady, although often vexingly unreadable. High cheekbones, strong jaw, and a well-shaped mouth given to teasing grins and blessed with twin dimples that creased his smooth-shaven cheeks when he smiled. While he wasn’t classically handsome, there was no denying Mr. Stanton was a very attractive man, and she suddenly wondered if there was a woman in his life.

“What are you thinking?”

At his softly spoken question, her head jerked upward. Their gazes met, and her heart skipped a beat at the intensity burning in those normally calm, steady dark eyes. The temperature in the carriage suddenly seemed far too warm, and she resisted the urge to snap open her fan. After a quick inner debate, she opted to tell him the unvarnished truth…almost.

“I was wondering if there was a special lady in London who would miss you during your stay in Little Longstone.”

He appeared so nonplussed by her question, she had to laugh. “I know Meredith has attempted to introduce you to some suitable young ladies, Mr. Stanton. She
is
the Matchmaker of Mayfair, you know.”

He shrugged. “She’s tried on several occasions, but I’ve thus far managed to avoid being snared in her net.”

“Ah. Studiously avoiding the altar. How very…man-like of you.”

“On the contrary, I would very much like to have a wife. And family.”

She raised her brows. “I see. You are aware that the chances of that happening would increase dramatically
were you to cease avoiding being snared in Meredith’s matchmaking net.”

“Hmmmm. You make me sound like a fish.”

“A slippery fish,” she agreed with a laugh. “Well, as your friend, I feel it only fair to warn you that Meredith has told me that once she is fully recovered from childbirth,
you
are her next project.”

He inclined his head. “As your friend, I appreciate the warning, however I’m not overly concerned. I know exactly the sort of woman I want—I do not require any help.”

Curiosity pricked Catherine. “And what sort of woman do you want?”

“What sort of woman do you think I want?”

“Beautiful, young, amenable, nubile, soft-spoken, and demure. Worshiping the ground you tread upon would be an added plus.”

He threw back his head and laughed, the rich sound filling the coach. “Do I sense a bit of cynicism, Lady Catherine?”

“Are you saying I’m wrong?”

“‘Wrong’ is perhaps the incorrect term. The correct phrase would be ‘utterly, completely inaccurate.’”

She didn’t even attempt to hide her doubt. “Surely you don’t expect me to believe you long for a hideous, butter-toothed harpy?”

“Noooo. That doesn’t describe her either.”

“Pray, do not keep me in suspense.”

He leaned back against the squabs, his Devonshire brown coat in dark contrast to the pale gray velvet. His merriment faded, turning his expression into an unreadable mask.

“She is kind,” he said quietly, his eyes serious. “Loving. Loyal. And she possesses an inexplicable something that
touches me in a way no one else ever has. Here.” He laid his hand across his chest. “She fills spaces that have been empty for years. With her, there is no more loneliness.”

Catherine’s breath seemed trapped in her lungs. She didn’t know what she’d expected him to say, but it hadn’t been…that. Empty? Lonely? And it wasn’t simply what he said, but the way he said it, with that tinge of desolation resonating in his deep voice that stunned her. God knew
she’d
experienced such isolating feelings more times than she cared to remember, but Mr. Stanton?

Other books

Sanctuary by Meg Cabot
A Time to Dance by Padma Venkatraman
Sybil by Flora Rheta Schreiber
Breaking the Silence by Casey Watson
Girl on the Platform by Josephine Cox
Murder in the Forum by Rosemary Rowe
Scavenger Reef by Laurence Shames
Mordraud, Book One by Fabio Scalini