Authors: Alexandra Ivy
The surrounding parkland was dotted with formal gardens, hedge mazes, fishponds, deer parks, and a formal gazebo that overlooked the lake. In the far distance lay the rich fields and woodlands that had provided a steady source of income for the Norrington family for the past five hundred years.
Riding along the lane that was lined with rosebushes, he brought his horse to a halt in front of the double oak doors. A young stable boy that Ian did not recognize raced to take the reins while Ian leaped easily to the ground and paused to gather his composure.
No, not his composureâhis courage, he ruefully admitted.
This opulent house filled with its acres of cold marble and lofted, gilded ceilings had always managed to make him feel small. Inconsequential.
Precisely as his father had always managed to make him feel.
On impulse, Ian turned from the looming portico and angled his way toward a side door. He disliked the pomp and ceremony that servants insisted were a part of a viscount's household. They were even more stiff-rumped than his father.
Quite an accomplishment.
For himself, he preferred a less formal entrance.
Slipping through the servants' door, Ian made his way through the silent, oppressive house.
Others might have been impressed by the sweeping halls with their mural ceilings and Van Dycks lining the satin-paneled walls. Certainly most would catch their breath at the magnificent black-and-white marble floors and Roman statues that filled the alcoves.
Ian, however, barely noted the exquisite beauty. Rosehill might be considered one of the finest estates in all of England, but he far preferred the shabby comfort of Dunnington's townhouse to such icy splendor. Or even the impersonal monotony of his rented rooms.
At least there he did not fear a mere sneeze might ruin a nearby masterpiece.
Making his way past the public rooms, Ian at last paused before the private back parlor that his aunt preferred for her tea.
He stepped over the threshold, a small smile curving his lips as his gaze skimmed over the fine Brussels tapestry that was framed on the walls and delicate porcelain that his aunt had collected over the years. Although less imposing than most of the house, it still held that unmistakable elegance that had made Rosehill famous throughout the world.
Not surprisingly, he discovered Miss Ella Breckford arranging a tea tray next to the bay window, humming softly as she cut slices of seed cake.
She had aged, he ruefully admitted. The puff of brown hair that she had dressed in pretty curls held far more gray than he remembered, and her round face held a few small wrinkles about her brown eyes. And if he was not mistaken, he would say that her curves had become somewhat plumper beneath the violet silk gown.
One thing that had not changed, however, was the vitality that crackled about her as she busied herself with her task. For all her sweet manners, his aunt could be a force of nature when she set her mind to it.
Quietly crossing the Persian carpet, Ian waited until he was standing directly behind his aunt before he spoke.
“Aunt Ella, when will you learn that you possess servants to take care of such tedious tasks?” he murmured softly.
“Ian?” Slowly turning, the woman clapped her hands to her face, her expression one of shocked pleasure. “Ian.”
He chuckled. “It is I.”
“What a wonderful surprise.” Without warning, she threw herself into his arms, tears streaming down her cheeks. “What are you doing here? Has something happened?”
“Everything is well, my dear.”
The older woman pulled back and gave a small sound as she noticed Ian's wrinkled lapels.
“Oh . . . forgive me, I have ruined your beautiful coat.”
“It is no matter.” Ian smiled fondly as warmth filled his heart. This woman's love was the only pleasant memory he had of his childhood. “I would ask how you do, but it is obvious you are extremely well.”
Ella gave a flutter of her hands, a pleased color staining her cheeks. “I feel extremely well, but I fear that the mirror is not so kind.”
“Nonsense.” Capturing her fingers, he pulled them to his lips for a kiss. “Your beauty is the sort that will never fade.”
“Ian.” Ella pulled her hand free, lightly patting his cheek. “You were born with a silver tongue in your mouth.”
“I seem to hear that with remarkable frequency,” he murmured before his lips twisted in a wry smile. “Although I must confess that not all women share your appreciation for my supposedly silver tongue.”
“I do not believe you,” Ella denied with stout loyalty. “There is not a woman born who can resist your charm.”
“You are wrong.” He tugged off his gloves and tossed them absently on a nearby chair. “She has not only been born, but she is currently residing beneath your roof.”
Ella tilted her head to one side. “Whatever do you mean?”
“I encountered Miss Simpson in the south meadow.”
“She was quite . . . remarkable.”
“Yes, she is.” His aunt regarded him with a peculiar expression. “Mercy has not only dedicated her life to caring for her aging parents, but she is an eager student of history. Having her here has been a genuine pleasure.”
Mercy. He wisely hid a smile of satisfaction. The name somehow suited her. As did the knowledge that she would devote herself to her family and her ridiculous studies.
She was soft and utterly feminine, and yet possessed a steady, unshakable willpower that shimmered about her like the finest armor.
Devil take her, she had stood there in the meadow confronting a strange gentleman without the least hint of fear. She had even dared to chastise him as if he were no more than a harmless lad.
“That I do not doubt, but I am not quite certain why she is here.” He met the brown gaze with a faint question. “There is not something I should know, is there?”
“Something you should know?”
He reached out to gently push a stray curl from her cheek. “I know you said earlier that you were well. . . .”
“Ian, I assure you that my invitation to Mercy was extended solely out of the desire to offer a sweet and generous young girl the opportunity to fulfill her dreams,” she said firmly. “And, I suppose, I also wished for a bit of female companionship. As much as I love Norry, he does prefer locking himself in his conservatory to sharing tea with his tedious sister.”
Ian gave a short, humorless laugh. He had spent the first seven years of his life in this icy tomb, each day struggling to discover some means of pleasing his father so that the stern, distant man would take notice of him. Hell, he would have been content if the bleeding sod had simply acknowledged his presence.
But day after passing day there had been barely a glance from Lord Norrington, let alone a pat on the head or a kind word.
He might as well have been invisible in his own home.
“Yes, Father has never bothered with such things as good manners or simple decency when there is a flower to occupy his attention,” he drawled.
“Now, Ian, that is not entirely fair. Norry . . .” She deliberately paused. “
is like any other collector who becomes lost among his treasures.”
Ian gave a shake of his head. “Do you know, Aunt Ella, I believe Father could commit murder and you would find some means to excuse his behavior.”
“As I would for you, Ian,” she said as she reached up to pat his cheek.
Ian firmly thrust away the anger that always festered deep in his heart. His aunt had never been able to disguise her distress at the brittle tension that existed between him and Lord Norrington. She deserved better from him.
“Yes, I am certain you would,” he said in lightly teasing tones. “Thank God that for all my sins, I have yet to actually make a habit of doing away with my fellow man.”
“Of course you have not.” Ella's sunny smile slowly returned. “Now, tell me what brings you to Surrey?”
“Can a gentleman not visit home without a reason?”
“Of course. You know I am always delighted to have you here.” The brown eyes held a knowing expression. Ella Breckford could be incredibly tolerant of others, but that did not mean she was blind to their faults. “It is just that you are such a creature of London that I cannot imagine you being content with our quiet ways.”
The image of wood sprites danced through his head. “Do not fear, dearest Aunt, I shall no doubt find some means of occupying myself.”
“Hmm.” A brief suspicion flittered over her countenance before she was waving a heavily bejeweled hand toward the nearby sofa. “Sit down and allow me to offer you tea.”
Ian made no objection as he settled himself on the stiff cushions and allowed his aunt to fill a plate with a number of sandwiches and two slices of the seed cake. He was a man who thoroughly appreciated his appetite. All his appetites. “Will the lovely Miss Simpson not be joining us?”
Ella took a far smaller portion of the bounty for herself. “That depends.”
“On whether or not you have managed to terrify the poor girl into hiding in her chambers.”
“Poor girl?” Ian laughed as he polished off two of the sandwiches. “I was fortunate to survive the encounter. If anyone should be hiding in their chambers and licking their wounds, it is I.”
His aunt smiled, as if pleased he had been neatly put into his place by the wench.
“Mercy is a strong-willed maiden, but she has little experience with gentlemen. Especially gentlemen such as you.”
Ian assumed an expression of mock innocence. “And what is that supposed to mean? Gentlemen such as me?”
She shook a finger in his direction. “Although I am secluded here, I possess many acquaintances that are always eager to keep me informed of your exploits.”
“Oh, I am quite sure they are.” He gave a snort of disgust. “The old tabbies might grouse and complain about the wickedness of London society, but they are always the first to relish a tidbit of scandal.”
Ella took a delicate sip of her tea. “If you do not wish to be the source of gossip, Ian, then you should not be constantly courting attention.”
He opened his mouth to argue, only to give a sudden laugh. How could he possibly deny that he boldly forged his way through society, ruffling feathers and stepping upon toes whenever possible?
“TouchÃ©.” He gave a dip of his head to acknowledge her direct strike. “And to ease your mind, I will promise not to force anything upon the lovely Miss Simpson that she does not desire.” He wagged his brows. “I will not, however, promise to resist if she should choose to force herself upon me.”
Ella rolled her eyes. “I suppose that is the best I can hope for.”
“It is, indeed.” Popping the last of the cake into his mouth, Ian gracefully lifted himself to his feet. “If you will excuse me, I think I should seek a bath and change of clothes before dinner.”
“Of course.” Rising to her feet, Ella reached out to grasp his hands. “Oh Ian, I am so glad you are home.”
Home . . .
Ian bent to kiss his aunt's cheek before she could see the bitter cynicism in his eyes.
He did not know where home might be, but it sure the hell was not at Rosehill.
As was her habit, Mercy arrived in the front drawing room well before Lord Norrington and Ella descended from their chambers. She loved being alone in the blue and gold room with its rare Van Dyck paintings and delicate French furnishings. There was something very tranquil and ageless about the room. As if it had stood there unscathed for centuries and would remain for centuries more.
Not at all like her father's crumbling cottage, which was decaying a bit more with each passing year, she acknowledged ruefully. Soon they would be living among rubble and praying the roof did not tumble onto their heads.
Stepping into the room, Mercy had nearly crossed to the long bank of windows that overlooked the formal hedge maze when she realized that she was not alone. There was no actual sound or even movement; it was the prickling along her skin that warned that another was near.
No, not another, she silently corrected.
She knew it in the very marrow of her bones.
The knowledge that she was so potently aware of a near stranger was more than a little unnerving, and it was only with an effort that she managed to slowly turn and regard his hard, fiercely male form in a distant corner.
Her breath caught in her throat as she was struck anew by his dark beauty. Good heavens, he looked like a figure from a Renaissance painting. A masterpiece.
A tiny shiver of excitement raced through her body as she studied the finely chiseled profile. She sensed that he was aware of her presence as intensely as she was aware of his, but he continued to study the large vase of roses as if she were invisible.
“They are lovely, are they not?” she said, smiling faintly at his deliberate ploy. He no doubt presumed that his pretense at ignoring her would pique her interest. Foolish when her interest was already dangerously captivated. “I believe Lord Norrington had them shipped from China.”
He slowly straightened, his dark gaze running an intimate survey over her blue muslin gown that was modestly cut to reveal the barest hint of her small bosom. Only when Mercy was certain he had managed to memorize every line of her body did he lift his gaze to offer her that wicked, potent smile.
“I prefer the wild daisies that grow in the south meadow. They have a charming habit of luring wood sprites into their midst.”
She gave a rueful shake of her head. “Good heavens, do you never halt?”
“Not until I am in my grave.” He waved a slender hand toward the heavy sideboard. “Can I offer you a sherry?”
With an effort, she kept her own gaze from straying toward his hard, elegant body that was encased in a smooth champagne jacket and ivory satin waistcoat.
“Thank you, no.”
“I assure you that I did not slip down here early so that I could poison my father's spirits.” His smile twisted. “And even if I did, it would not be the sherry.”
He did not need to say that it would have been his father's brandy. It was written in his mocking expression.
“I do not partake of any spirits.”
“Of course.” Folding his arms over his chest, Ian leaned against the satin-paneled wall. “I forgot you were the dutiful daughter of a vicar.”
“I do not drink spirits because I do not care for the taste,” she corrected.
The humor in his eyes deepened at the reprimand in her voice. “Ah. And do you also dislike the taste of tea?”
“I like tea very well.”
“Then why, I wonder, did you so assiduously avoid sharing a pot with my aunt this afternoon?”
She smoothed her hands down her skirts, not about to reveal she had needed time to gather her thoughts. The man was smug enough without realizing he had managed to captivate yet another poor maiden with nothing more than a smile.
“I realized that Ella would be anxious to speak with you in private,” she said calmly. “She adores you.”
“I am fairly fond of her myself.”
“Are you?” Mercy gave a lift of her brows. “You disguise it well.”
There was a sharp pause before Ian tilted back his head to give a short laugh.
“The devil take you.”
He reached out to grasp her chin between his thumb and forefinger, gazing deep into her suddenly wide eyes.
“You have an uncanny ability to insult a poor bloke with the voice of an angel. I do not know whether to be annoyed or bewitched.”
Her breath threatened to lodge in her throat as the heat of his touch speared directly to the pit of her stomach. He was so close. Close enough she could catch the scent of sandlewood warming on his skin. It wrapped about her with seductive force.
With a deliberate motion she took a step back. No woman could possibly think clearly when her heart was fluttering like a caged bird.
“I have come to care a great deal for Ella,” she managed to retort, her voice surprisingly steady.
“And that gives you the right to chastise her beloved nephew?”
She shrugged. “Of course not. I am merely a guest in your home.”
“But I notice that does not halt you.”
Absently she reached out to stroke her finger over one of the vibrant rose blooms.
“I believe someone should inform you how your aunt longs to be a part of your life.”
“She has just assured me that she has an entire legion of spies to keep her apprised of my every movement.”
“That is not the same as having your company.”
He muttered a low curse as his brows drew together in an annoyed frown. “Not that I need explain myself to you, Miss Simpson, but I do not like Rosehill.”
She smiled wryly. “Yes, I had gathered as much.”
“Then you should also gather that my father desires me here even less than I desire to be here.”
There was no mistaking the edge in his voice. She was blatantly thrusting herself where she did not belong, but Mercy refused to back away. For all her tingling reaction to Ian Breckford, she had come to care too deeply for Ella not to at least attempt to make him realize just how selfishly he was behaving.
“I do not believe that.”
“You should.” With a jerky motion he pulled a small flask from beneath his jacket and took a deep drink. “It is the God's honest truth. I will even swear to it on the family Bible if you insist. A family Bible I might add that does not include my name.”
His expression was hard as granite, but Mercy did not miss the flare of bitter pain in his eyes. Her heart threatened to melt at the realization that he truly suffered from the rift between he and his father.
Her expression softened as she reached out to lightly touch his arm. His muscles were rigid beneath her fingers, but he did not pull away.
“Fathers rarely find it comfortable to show affection toward their children,” she said gently. “I believe it is because they always feel they need to be strong for their family. That does not mean, however, they do not love us.”
His sardonic laugh rasped through the air. “You truly are naÃ¯ve, are you not?”
She stiffened. “Now who is being insulting?”
Returning the flask to his jacket, Ian smoothly slid an arm about her waist, his expression shifting with a wicked intent.
“There is no insult in innocence,” he murmured, his arm drawing her steadily toward his body. “Indeed, I find it quite enticing.”
Mercy did not fight against his hold, not even when she discovered herself pressed against the hard angles and planes of his male form. She had never been so close to a man, and the sensations streaking through her body were too potent to easily deny.
“I am beginning to suspect you find everything enticing.”
The stunning gold eyes darkened, his large hand splayed at the curve of her back.
She tilted back her head, not nearly as frightened as common sense told her she should be. Not even when she felt the surge of heat rush through her blood.
“Are you going to kiss me?”
He gave a choked sound. “Good Lord.”
“What is the matter?”
“You are the most unpredictable female I have ever encountered.” His gaze studied her upturned countenance as if she were some baffling mystery. “I never know what you might say next.”
She breathed in deeply of sandlewood and pure male as he cupped her cheek in his hand, his thumb lightly stroking her heated cheek.
“I merely say what is upon my mind.”
“I do not know why,” she managed to mutter. “It has always seemed ridiculous to me that a maiden is expected to say one thing while she is feeling another.”
“The rules of society are not supposed to make sense, sweetness.”
“Please do not call me that,” she abruptly demanded.
“Because it makes me wonder if you can actually recall my name.”
His eyes briefly widened before a predatory smile curved his lips.
“Mercy. Sweet Mercy. As exquisite as a wood sprite,” he husked, his head slowly beginning to lower. “I shall never forget your name.”
She did not truly believe him, but it no longer mattered as his lips brushed over her own with a startling tenderness. She had expected the warmth of his lips and even the expertise as he stroked and teased at her mouth. But nothing could have warned her of the sharp pleasure that clenched her body.
She felt as if her every nerve was suddenly tingling with a newfound awareness. As if something dormant within her, something that had been waiting all these years for Ian's touch, had been stirred to life.
Yes. This was what the poets spoke of. This was the magic that made perfectly intelligent women toss aside all sense for passion.
Instinctively she arched closer to the hard muscles of his body. He was so warm, so strong, so . . . male.
His fingers shifted to cup the back of her neck, keeping her head in place as he deepened his kiss. Mercy's head spun with pleasure, vibrantly aware of the stirring hardness of his groin as it pressed against her lower stomach.
It was the feel of his tongue parting her lips that at last shocked her back to reality. A reality that included the fact they were standing in the formal drawing room with the threat of Lord Norrington or Ella walking in at any moment.
Lifting her hands, she pressed against the broad width of his chest.
His head shifted so that he could boldly nuzzle the fluttering pulse at the base of her throat.
“My name is Ian.”
She swallowed a low groan before giving his chest another push. As much as she was enjoying (and she was enjoying) his delicious kisses, she was not so lost to reason as to risk being caught in such a compromising position.
Not only would her reputation be in tatters, but she might very well be sent back to her parents. And that she could not bear.
Not yet, at least.
“I did not give you leave to kiss me,” she chided, well aware that her words were a tad ridiculous when her lips must be swollen and her cheeks flushed with lingering pleasure.
He chuckled softly. “I wished you to know that I can be as unpredictable as you.”
Mercy lifted her brows. His words were even more ridiculous than hers.
“Actually, I would say that having you kiss me was very predictable.”
His gaze slowly roamed down her body. “Because you are so irresistible?”
“Because, Ian Breckford, you are a rake, and for the moment, you are trapped in the country with only me to try to seduce.”
For Ian, the dinner that followed was a mixture of fury and fascination.
Fury that his cold jackass of a father had not bothered even to acknowledge his presence as he had taken his seat at the impossibly long dinner table, and fascination with the tiny wood sprite seated across from him.
The fury he expected. When had there been an occasion that Lord Norrington had condescended to actually pretend he was anything but indifferent to his only child?
Against his will, Ian's gaze turned toward the man seated at the head of the table.
With his black hair perfectly crimped and styled to frame his thin face, Lord Norrington looked far younger than his fifty years. His body was lean beneath the tailored gray coat and black waistcoat while his face remained unlined. He could easily have passed for a gentleman half his age if it were not for the jaded glitter in his dark brown eyes. Those eyes revealed a man who had lived a life of disillusionment.
Which was ridiculous considering he had been handed every luxury in the world on a silver platter.
The fascination, however, was rather unexpected.
Readily he switched his attention toward the lovely Mercy Simpson.
He was accustomed to lusting after any pretty woman who entered a room. He was a man, for God's sake. And the fact that their kiss had shattered his staunch defenses to the point he had ached to back her against the wall and take her right there in the formal dining room was obviously because she was the most beautiful woman he had ever laid eyes upon.
His fascination had to be the knowledge that his entire body hummed with anticipation each time she opened those pretty lips that caught him off guard. There was something about that low, beguiling voice and the realization that he had no notion what words might come out of her mouth that held him almost spellbound.
She was completely unique.
A woman like no other.
He found his gaze lingering throughout the long dinner, barely aware of Ella's bright chatter or his father's occasional response. Instead he silently absorbed the sight and scent of Mercy as she delicately tasted the dishes set before her.
It was not until dinner came to an end and his father made a hurried retreat to his conservatory that Ian returned to his senses. Devil take him. He was not here to moon over some innocent chit.
A pity, but there it was.
There was only one person who knew the secret that Lord Norrington harbored. And that was Lord Norrington.