Read Jacquie D'Alessandro Online

Authors: Loveand the Single Heiress

Jacquie D'Alessandro (6 page)

Before she could even think of a reply, he seemed to shake off his serious mood, and a crooked smile hitched up one corner of his mouth. “And, of course, if she happened to worship the ground I tread upon, that would be an added plus.”

She firmly tamped down the curiosity—and the feeling of pity—his intriguing words piqued. He’d never struck her as a man who’d suffer from loneliness, a man who would find any part of his life empty. “I do not wish to discourage you, but I feel it only fair to warn you, from my own experience, that marriage is not necessarily a cure for loneliness. However, I wish you luck in locating this paragon you’ve described, Mr. Stanton. I hope she exists.”

“I
know
she exists, Lady Catherine.”

Some imp made her ask, “Do you suppose she’s read
A Ladies’Guide?”

He shot her an odd look. “Given that it seems nearly every woman in London has read the book, it is definitely a possibility.”

“If she has read it, I’m sure you’ll be very pleased when you meet her.”

“Pleased?” There was no missing his skepticism. “What do you mean by that?”

She smiled sweetly. “I wager if you’d read the book, you’d know.”

“Ah, yes, that intriguing challenge. And if I were to take you up on it? What would I win?”

Arrogant man. Assuming he’d merit a reward for reading a book. Still, this could actually work in her favor…

“I hadn’t had a wager in mind at all, but why not?”
Especially since I am almost guaranteed a victory.
“Whoever is victorious shall owe the other a boon—within reason—of the victor’s choice.” She couldn’t contain her grin. “Ah, yes, I can see you now, beating the rugs and weeding the roses. Or perhaps polishing the silver. Setting the stones for the new garden pathway, fixing the stable’s roof—”

“Win or lose, I’d be happy to assist with those chores. But why have they not been seen to?”

She shrugged. “It is difficult to find proper help in the country.”

“I see,” he murmured. “And what determines who is the winner?”

“If you read the book—the entire book, mind you—thus enabling you to engage in a well-informed discussion of the contents, you win. If you fail to do so, then I win.”

When he remained silent, she murmured, “Of course, if you are afraid…”

“Of a simple wager? Hardly.”

“Then why do you hesitate?”

“In truth, because I seriously doubt whether, in spite of my high tolerance for pain, I will actually be able to suffer through Brightmore’s drivel. However, since the worst outcome is that I’d simply owe you a boon, I suppose there is no harm in accepting your wager. What period of time do you suggest?”

“Shall we say three weeks?”

He nodded. “Very well. I accept.”

Catherine could barely suppress her glee. There were many chores a strong, strapping man like Mr. Stanton could do around the estate—all she needed to do was figure out which one would help her—and as an added bonus, irk him—the most. Most likely it should appall her to experience such a thrill at the thought of besting him and erasing a portion of his arrogance. It should—but it didn’t.

“Of course,” Mr. Stanton said, “within three weeks’ time, no doubt the gossip surrounding the actual contents of the
Guide
will be supplanted by the stir that will ensue by the unmasking of Charles Brightmore.”

Catherine’s heart stumbled over itself. He clearly was referring to the investigator who’d been hired. Hopefully the man would not find his way to Little Longstone. But if he did, well, forewarned was forearmed. He’d certainly glean no information from
her
. Forcing a calm she was far from feeling, she laughed lightly. “Unmasking? Heavens, you make Mr. Brightmore sound like a brigand.”

“There are many in London who believe he is just that.”

“Including yourself.”

“Yes.”

“You may change your mind after you read his work—assuming you read it.”

His shrug indicated he had no real intention of reading “that drivel,” and even if he did, his mind would not be changed. Annoyance tickled down her spine. Aggravating man. Had she once thought him gallant? Likable? Clearly she’d been erroneously predisposed to a favorable opinion based on her brother’s glowing reports of Mr. Stan
ton’s character. The easy camaraderie they’d shared in the past must have been due to the topics they’d discussed—namely Philip and Meredith. Their wedding, and most recently the imminent birth of their child. The museum was also a common subject for discourse. A frown pulled down her brows. Casting her mind back, she realized that all of their conversations had been of a very impersonal nature. She actually knew very little about Mr. Stanton. She’d accepted him without question as a friend, as a good man, because Philip said he was. According to Philip, Mr. Stanton had saved him from several scrapes while they were abroad. He categorized his American friend as loyal, steadfast, brave, and excellent with both his fists and a rapier. Well, she had no reason to doubt he was all those things. Philip, however, had ne-glected to add, nor had she discerned on any of their previous meetings, that Mr. Stanton was also opinionated, stubborn, and irritating.

She glanced at him. He was staring out the window, a muscle pulsing in his smoothly shaven cheek, verifying the tight set of his jaw. His
stubborn
jaw. Although, she couldn’t deny that it was a
strong
stubborn jaw. With an intriguing hint of a cleft in the center. Philip hadn’t mentioned that. Nor had he mentioned Mr. Stanton’s profile…the slight bump on the bridge of his nose. Most likely a souvenir from one of his pugilistic bouts. It should have detracted from his appearance. Instead, it lent him a rugged air, mixed with just a whiff of danger, reminding her that in spite of his elegant clothes, he was not of her class. Rough around the edges.

And undeniably attractive.

“You’ve a most intriguing expression, Lady Catherine. Would you care to share your thoughts?”

Heat flooded her cheeks. Good Lord, how long had she been staring? And why was he looking at her in that…speculative way? As if he’d already divined her thoughts? Humph. Just another aspect of him to term irritating.

Adopting what she hoped passed for a casual air, she said, “I was thinking that in spite of the time we’ve spent together over the past fourteen months, we really do not know each other very well.” She lifted her brows. “What were
you
thinking?”

“Actually something quite similar—that I do not know you as well as I believed.”

She wrinkled her nose and pointedly sniffed the air. “Somehow that did not smell like a compliment.”

“It was not meant as an insult, I assure you.” Mischief flickered in his eyes. “Would you like a compliment? I’m certain I could think of one, if it would please you.”

“I beg you, do not strain yourself on my account,” she said in a dust-dry voice.

He made a dismissive gesture with his hand. “’Tis no strain, I assure you.” His gaze flickered over her forest green traveling ensemble. “You look lovely.”

Three simple words. Yet something about the quiet way he said “lovely,” combined with the unmistakable warmth in his eyes, quivered a fluttery thrill through her. He stole any reply she might have made by focusing his attention on her mouth. “And your lips…” his eyes appeared to darken, and he leaned forward. Everything inside Catherine stilled—except those inexplicable flutters, which suddenly became so much more…fluttery. Good heavens, was he going to
kiss
her? Surely not…

Her own gaze riveted on his lips, and for the first time she realized what an attractive mouth he possessed. It somehow managed to appear soft and firm at the same
time. The sort of mouth that would know how to kiss a woman—

“Your lips,” he said softly, leaning farther still, until less than two feet separated their faces, until she had to fight the overwhelming urge to lean toward him and erase the small distance. “They look so…much less swollen and bruised than they did after last night’s incident. Almost back to their normal loveliness.”

He leaned back and shot her a grin. Whatever madness had enveloped her disintegrated like a puff of smoke, and she abruptly straightened, pressing her back against the cushion, appalled. Not so much at him, but at herself. Heat crept up her neck, and she prayed her face wasn’t turning red. Good heavens, for one insane instant she’d thought he meant to…that she wanted him to…

Kiss her. But even more humiliating was the fact that she felt deflated because he hadn’t. Egad, she was losing her mind.

“You see?” he said. “Contrary to your belief, I’m perfectly capable of bestowing compliments. And I’m greatly looking forward to my visit to your home, as it will give us the opportunity to discover how much more we don’t know about each other.”

Good Lord, the things he did not know about her, she intended to keep that way. “Wonderful. I cannot…wait.”

Instead of taking offense at her deflating tone, his grin broadened. “Please, do not strain yourself with enthusiasm on my behalf.”

Humph. How dare he have good humor when he was supposed to be abashed? Must be the American in him. Well, he might plan that they would get to know each other better during his stay, but as Today’s Modern
Woman well knew, she did not have to fall in with any man’s plans if she did not want to.

And based on the secrets she had to keep, Catherine most definitely did not want to.

Chapter 5

Today’s Modern Woman needs to recognize that there are times when Society’s restrictive rules should be roundly and soundly ignored. And the more attractive the gentleman in question, the more roundly and soundly the ignoring should be—discreetly, of course.

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

“B
ickley cottage will come into view in a moment,” Lady Catherine said two hours later, pointing toward the left. “Just beyond this copse of trees.”

Thank God
. Andrew hoped his relief wasn’t too obvious. The four-hour journey had felt more like four months. The last two hours had consisted of alternating awkward silences and stilted conversation. She’d studiously concentrated on her embroidery, but he prided himself on being able to read people, and she was clearly preoccupied about something. His instincts told him she was thinking about last night’s incident, which he suspected was worrying her far more than she’d admitted.

He focused his attention out the window, taking in the verdant countryside. He couldn’t wait to get out of the close quarters of the carriage, where he’d spent the last four torturous hours breathing in her delicate floral fragrance. He blew out a long, careful breath. God, did a woman exist who smelled better? No. Impossible. It had taken every ounce of his strength not to touch her, to lean closer and simply breathe her in. He had given in to the excruciating temptation and leaned closer once, and the effort he’d expended not to kiss her had cost him.

Patience. He needed to remember his campaign of subtle, gentle wooing. If he moved too quickly, he sensed she would retreat like a frightened doe. Of course, the fact that she was clearly irked with him in regards to the
Guide
didn’t serve him well, although he himself found her enthusiasm for Brightmore’s book and all that Today’s Modern Woman rubbish irritating as well. He suspected she would not be pleased if she were to learn that he’d been hired to locate and unmask her literary idol, Charles Brightmore.

Although his quest to find the man was temporarily suspended while he remained in Little Longstone, he’d apply himself fully to the task once he returned to London. Charles Brightmore would be exposed, Andrew would collect a very handsome fee, and all this nonsense about Today’s Modern Woman would fade away, which in turn would evaporate the tension that had sprung up between him and Lady Catherine. In the meanwhile, he’d take full advantage of his opportunity to spend time with her and set his wooing campaign into motion.

Less than a minute later, they rounded a corner in the path, revealing a stately white-columned, brick home nestled cozily against a backdrop of massive trees, gently rolling hills, and verdant lawns. The variant shades of
green were broken by meandering trails of vivid purple-and-pink, interspersed with blankets of pastel-hued wildflowers. Shards of late-afternoon sunlight glinted off the house’s gleaming, round-topped windows, drenching the mellowed brick façade in a golden glow. The entire scene reflected picturesque, country tranquillity. A calm, safe haven for her and her son, far away from the cruel pettiness of Society.

“I can see why you love it here,” he said.

“It’s home,” she said quietly.

“It’s much larger and grander than I expected. Calling it a ‘cottage’ is rather like referring to a ship as a rowboat.”

“Perhaps. But the surroundings, the friendly atmosphere, and less formal ways here lend the house a coziness that belies it size. I fell in love with it the moment I saw it.”

He turned, and his gaze drifted over her lovely profile. The soft curve of her pale cheek, the gentle line of her jaw. The slight upward tilt of her nose. The lush fullness of her mouth.
Falling in love the moment you see something…yes, I know exactly how that feels.

“Buying this property, where Spencer has easy and private access to the healing warm water springs on the grounds was the one generous gesture Bickley extended to his son.” She spoke softly, her voice utterly devoid of expression. She turned to face him, and he was struck by how her eyes had gone flat. Damn it all, he wanted to erase all the shadows the years of her unhappy marriage had cast upon her.

“Of course, as everyone knows, Bickley’s true reason for the purchase was simply to install Spencer—and me—far away, where he wouldn’t have to see, or be seen with, his imperfect son. Or the woman who had, in his words, foisted that son upon him.”

Because of his close friendship with Philip, Andrew was well aware of what a selfish, unfeeling, indifferent bastard Lady Catherine’s husband had turned out to be to his warm, vibrant wife, and what a poor excuse of a father for a boy who desperately needed one. He barely refrained from saying
I would have liked nothing more than five minutes alone with that bastard you married.
Instead, he said, “I’m very sorry your marriage was not a happy one.”

“As am I. It began with great promise, but after Spencer’s birth…” Hervoice trailed off, and for several seconds her eyes filled with the shadows that clearly haunted her still. His fingers itched with the need to reach out and touch her. To smooth away her hurts. To soothe and comfort her as the mere thought of her comforted him.

Before he could move, however, she gathered herself and smiled. “But that’s all in the past,” she said. “Spencer and I love Little Longstone. I hope you’ll enjoy your stay.”

“I’m certain I shall.”

“And you must make use of the warm springs while you’re here. They are very therapeutic. I’m looking forward to taking the waters myself to ease the stiffness in my upper arm.”

Andrew swallowed the apprehension that rose in his throat. He didn’t relish the prospect of spending time
near
the water.
In
the water was out of the question.

He was saved from replying as the carriage jerked to a halt, signaling they’d arrived.

“Before we alight,” she said, her voice low and her words coming fast, “I have a request. I would appreciate it if you did not mention last night’s incident to Spencer. I don’t wish to alarm him.”

Andrew could not hide his surprise. “Surely he will see that you are injured.”

“My sleeve hides the bandage.”

“What about your lip?”

“’Tis hardly swollen at all. I’m certain he won’t notice.”

“But if he does?”

“I shall tell him I bit it, which is the truth.”

“Perhaps, but it is misleading nonetheless.”

“I would rather gently mislead him than worry him.”

The door opened, revealing a formally garbed footman who extended his hand to help Lady Catherine alight, thus ending the conversation. It was just as well since Andrew suspected any further comment on his part might have led to another argument. “Arguments are not conducive to successful courting,” he muttered.

“What did you say, Mr. Stanton?” Poised in the carriage door, her hand resting upon the footman’s, Lady Catherine looked at Andrew over her shoulder with a questioning gaze.

“Er, that I’m, ah,
effusive
at the prospect of, um,
cavorting
.” Good God, he sounded like an ass. Also not conducive to successful courting.


Cavorting
?”

“Yes. In the therapeutic warm waters.” He prayed his skin didn’t go pale just saying the words.

“Ah.” Her expression cleared, but still bore remnants that hinted she hadn’t entirely abandoned the notion that he might be a bit of a dolt.

Also not conducive to successful courting.

After exiting the carriage, Andrew took a moment to look about while Lady Catherine directed the footman regarding their luggage. The drive was shaded by massive elms, sunlight spotting the gravel as it broke through the canopy of leaves. He pulled in a deep breath. The scents
of late summer filled his head with a pleasing mixture redolent of grass and sun-warmed earth, and a pungent hint of hay that indicated stables nearby. Closing his eyes, he allowed an image to flicker to life, a glimmer of long ago when he’d enjoyed life in a place similar to this. Yet, as always when he permitted himself a glimpse into the past, the darkness quickly shrouded those fleeting happy memories, blanketing them with the shadow of guilt and shame. Of loss, regret, and self-condemnation. He opened his eyes and blinked away his previous life. It was dead and gone. Literally.

He turned and stilled when he noted Lady Catherine watching him with a questioning look. “Are you all right?” she asked.

As he had countless times before, he settled his painful memories and guilt deep in his heart, where they could not be seen, and showed an outward smile. “I’m fine. Just enjoying being outdoors after that long journey. And looking forward to seeing your son.”

“I’m certain you won’t have long to wait.” As if on cue, the double oak doors leading into the house swung open, revealing a young man casually dressed in fawn breeches and a plain white shirt. He smiled and waved, calling out, “Welcome home, Mum!”

Spencer awkwardly made his way forward and Andrew’s gaze was drawn to the boy’s club foot. His heart pinched in sympathy for what the lad must suffer on a daily basis, not only from the physical discomfort, but the inner pain of being viewed as different. Flawed. His jaw tightened, knowing that a big part of the reason Lady Catherine and Spencer lived in Little Longstone was because of the cruelty and rejection the boy had experienced in London. Andrew well recalled the awkwardness of that age, nearly twelve years old, teetering on the brink
of manhood. It had been difficult enough without the added burden of an infirmity.

Spencer was met midway down the path by his mother, who enveloped him in a hug which the boy returned with unabashed enthusiasm. A wave of something that felt like envy rippled through Andrew at the warm display of affection. He had no memory of what it was to be wrapped in a mother’s embrace, as his own mother had died bringing him into the world. Spencer was nearly as tall as his mother, Andrew noted, and the lad appeared surprisingly broad-shouldered, while his gangly arms indicated he still had a lot of growing to do. He bore a striking resemblance to Lady Catherine, having inherited her chestnut hair and golden brown eyes.

Mother and son drew apart, and with a laugh Lady Catherine reached up—with her uninjured arm, Andrew noted—and ruffled Spencer’s thick hair. “You’re still damp,” she said. “How was your visit to the springs?”

“Excellent.” He frowned and leaned closer. “What happened to your lip?”

“I accidentally bit it. Nothing to worry about.”

The frown cleared. “How was Grandfather’s birthday party?”

“It was…eventful. And I’ve brought the most wonderful surprise.” She nodded toward the rear of the carriage, where Andrew stood.

Spencer’s gaze shifted, and when he caught sight of Andrew, his eyes widened. “I say, is that you, Mr. Stanton?”

“Yes.” Andrew joined the duo and held out his hand to the young man. “Very nice to see you again, Spencer.”

“Likewise.”

“Mr. Stanton kindly consented to escort me home, and has agreed to remain on for a visit. He’s promised to regale us with stories of his adventures with your uncle Philip.”

Spencer’s smile widened. “Excellent. I want to hear how you outsmarted the brigands who locked you in the dungeon. I couldn’t pry the story from Uncle Philip.”

Lady Catherine raised her brows. “Brigands? Dungeon? I’ve not heard of this. I thought you and Philip spent your time unearthing artifacts.”

“We did,” Andrew assured her. “However, as your brother possessed an uncanny penchant for landing in scrapes, I was forced to perform several rescues.”

Mischief gleamed in her eyes. “I see. And you, Mr. Stanton—did
you
never find
yourself
in need of rescuing?”

Andrew did his best to look innocent and pointed to the center of his chest. “
Me?
I, who epitomizes the model of decorum—?”

“There was that time Uncle Philip helped you escape those machete-wielding cutthroats,” Spencer broke in, his voice ringing with animation. “Fought them off using nothing but his cane and quick wits. They were after you because you’d kissed the one blackguard’s daughter.”

“A great exaggeration,” Andrew said, with a dismissive wave of his hand. “Your uncle Philip is notorious for hyperbole.”

Lady Catherine’s lips twitched. “Indeed? Then what is the true story, Mr. Stanton? Did you not kiss the blackguard’s daughter?”

Damn. How did every conversation with her of late veer down these disastrous paths? “It was more like a friendly good-bye peck. Completely innocent.” No need to mention that the two hours prior to that friendly, good-bye peck were anything
but
innocent. “Her father unfortunately objected—rather strenuously, I’m afraid.” He shrugged and smiled. “Just when it appeared I was about to become a human pincushion, a stranger strode into the fray, bold as you please, brandishing his cane and shout
ing out in some foreign language. In truth, I thought he was insane, but he quite saved the day. Turned out to be our very own Philip, and we’ve been friends since that day.”

“What on earth did he say to them?” Lady Catherine asked.

“I don’t know. He refused to tell me, claiming it was his little secret. To this day I do not know.”

“Which means he must have said something absolutely heinous about you,” Spencer said with a grin.

“No doubt,” Andrew agreed, laughing.

“Well, Spencer and I shall look forward to hearing more about your travels during your stay, Mr. Stanton. Shall we get you settled?” She held out her uninjured arm to Spencer. They started up the walkway, and Andrew fell in behind them. He noted how firm she kept her arm, enabling her to bear a great deal of Spencer’s weight as he limped down the path. Admiration for her—for both of them—hit him. He knew the emotional burdens she bore, yet she did so with humor and dignity, her love for her son shining like a warm glow of sunshine. And Spencer, in spite of the physical difficulties he faced, was obviously an amiable and intelligent young man who openly returned his mother’s affection. Most certainly a lad any man would be proud to call his son. Andrew’s hands clenched thinking of the boy’s father rejecting him so cruelly.

They passed over the threshold, stepping into a spacious, parquet-floored foyer. A round mahogany table stood in the middle of the floor, its shiny surface bearing an enormous arrangement of fresh-cut flowers set in a porcelain vase. The bloom’s fragrance filled the air, combined with the pleasant scent of beeswax. Peering beyond the foyer, he noted the wide, curved staircase leading up
ward, and corridors fanning out to the left and right. Several long tables decorated the corridors, all adorned with vases filled with cut flowers.

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