|A shiver snaked down Alberta Brown’s spine, and she
gripped the Seaward Lady’s wood railing. Hoping she appeared outwardly
calm, she quickly scanned her surroundings.
to one another, laughing as they tossed thick ropes and adjusted sails
in preparation for the ship’s imminent arrival in London. Voices
from the bustling English port drifted over the tangy sea-scented air,
blending into an indistinguishable hum. Passengers stood in clusters
around the ship’s rail, chatting in excited tones, grinning, waving to
people on the docks. Everyone appeared perfectly normal and eager
at the prospect of stepping on dry land after nearly three months at sea
on the voyage from America. No one’s gaze appeared fixed upon her.
Still, she could
not dismiss the eerie sensation of menace. The weight of someone’s
stare surrounded her like a shroud. Her heart thumped in slow, hard
beats, and she forced herself to draw a deep, calming breath and return
her attention to the nearby active port. I am perfectly
safe. No one is trying to hurt me.
She prayed to
God it was true.
Yet she couldn’t
banish the sick feeling it was not. She glanced downward, at
the frothing water tossed upon the hull as the ship cut through the gentle
waves, and her stomach turned over. Dear God, less than three hours
ago she’d fallen into that indigo water…
A shudder passed
through her, and she squeezed her eyes shut. The shock of being shoved
from behind, falling…falling, desperately clawing the air, frightened cries
ripped from her throat, cut off when chilling water closed over her head.
She would be forever grateful to the trio of barking dogs who’d alerted
a quick-witted crewman to the accident. Yet, in spite of his fast
thinking and her swimming ability, she’d nearly drowned.
Yes, that’s what everyone was calling it. An improperly secured winch
had swung around, catching her between the shoulders, propelling her over
the side. Captain Whitstead had reprimanded the entire crew.
But was it really
an accident? Or had someone purposely unfastened the winch and pushed
it toward her?
edged through her, and she sternly told herself it was merely due to the
fact that her hair remained damp under her bonnet. Yet she could
not ignore that her near-tragic tumble into the sea was not the first strange
incident to befall her on this voyage. First had been the inexplicable
disappearance of her silver wedding band. Had she lost it--or had
it been stolen? While the piece held no great monetary value, she
sorely missed the sentimental token as it was a physical reminder of what
she’d had…and what she’d lost.
Then there was
that headlong flight down the stairs, which had thankfully not resulted
in any broken bones, although the painful bruises marking her skin had
taken weeks to fade. She’d felt a shove…common sense told her it
was merely an accidental jostling, yet she couldn’t dismiss the feeling
that she’d been pushed. And what of the mysterious stomach malady
she’d suffered last week? No one else had been ill. Could someone
have tampered with her food?
Why would someone wish her harm? She’d asked herself that question
dozens of times, yet could not arrive at a definite answer. She wanted
to believe she was perfectly safe, but an inner voice warned her that the
possibility she wasn’t was all too real. Had some threatening menace
from the past followed her to England?
She glanced around
again, but noted nothing amiss. Her unease abated a bit and
she gave herself a mental shake. The ship would be docked in less
than an hour. She’d simply melt into the crowd and disappear into
the anonymity offered by a large city. No one knew her here.
No one knew…
Her gaze lowered,
riveting on her black mourning gown, the stark bombazine rippled by the
brisk breeze. An image of David’s smiling face flashed through her
mind, and she squeezed her eyes shut in a vain attempt to ward off the
onslaught of pain that thoughts of her late husband still brought, even
now, three years after his sudden death. Dear God, would the
ache squeezing her heart ever cease? Would she ever truly feel whole
Her fingers involuntarily
drifted over the material of her gown, while in her mind’s eye she pictured
the small item hidden beneath the voluminous folds, sewn into the hem of
her petticoat. To keep it safe. And always close to her.
Especially after the unexplained disappearance of her wedding band.
This is the last leg of my journey, David. After I right this
last wrong, I’ll be free.
There you are. The boys and I have been searching for you everywhere!”
toward the familiar, imperious voice, grateful for the interruption of
her disturbing thoughts. Baroness Gaddlestone approached Allie with
a vigor that belied her plump figure and sixty-three years. Of course,
part of the reason for the baroness’s brisk pace was the three energetic
Maltese straining at the ends of their leads. “The boys”, as the
baroness referred to her furry brood, dragged their mistress along as if
they were mighty oxen and she a produce-laden cart.
Pushing her worries
firmly aside, Allie crouched down to receive the enthusiastic yip-filled
greeting the small balls of fluff bestowed upon her.
yourself,” the baroness scolded as the smallest of the trio dampened Allie’s
face with joyful kisses. “Tedmund! Frederick! Cease at once!”
The boys blithely
ignored their mistress as was often the case when they were excited, but
Allie enjoyed the noisy confusion that followed the dogs like a bouncing
shadow. Indeed, she owed them a debt she could never repay.
Their insistent barking had alerted the crewman when she’d fallen overboard.
She therefore quite willingly overlooked their individual bad habits and
focused on their undeniable charm. What did it matter that Edward
was fond of marking as his own every bit of wood and rope within his reach?
Of course, on a ship, this kept the small dog quite busy, and he fell into
his doggie bed each night completely exhausted.
And how could
she fault Frederick’s predilection for nipping ankles when he’d all but
dragged her rescuing crewman to the rail while his brothers barked themselves
Her gaze found Tedmund, who had wandered several yards away to engage in
his favorite activity, this time with a discarded pile of rags. Oh
dear. She had tried on numerous occasions to explain to Tedmund that
it was not polite to try and make puppies with anything other than a female
dog, and then only in private, but Tedmund remained unrepentant.
removing Tedmund from the pile of rags, Allie doled out equal parts of
affection for all three dogs, then stood and gazed down at their prancing
antics. “Sit,” she commanded.
bottoms instantly settled on the deck.
“You simply must
explain to me how you do that, my dear,” the baroness said, her voice tinged
with exasperation. “I’ve been unable to calm them since I told them
we were arriving home this morning. You know how anxious they
are to run in the park.” She beamed a smile at her babies.
“Don’t worry, darlings. Mama promises to bring you for a nice, long
walk this afternoon.” The boys’ tails swished across the deck like
a trio of mops at the happy news.
through Allie. She genuinely liked the baroness whose bright green
eyes and rounded, yet somehow elfin, features reminded Allie of a grandmotherly
sprite. She was grateful to the woman for hiring her on as
her traveling companion. Without the baroness, she wouldn’t have
been able to afford the passage to England. And there was no denying
that the baroness’s lively, talkative nature and her energetic pets had
relieved some of the loneliness Allie had lived with for so long.
“You were looking
for me, Lady Gaddlestone?”
“Indeed, my dear.
I wanted a private moment to thank you for your excellent companionship
on this voyage. My previous companion who accompanied me to
America proved most unsatisfactory.” She leaned closer to
Allie and confided, “Several times I detected the odor of brandy
on her breath. Most shocking. But worst of all, she had
no patience with the boys. Edward, Tedmund, and Frederick
could not abide her at all. Oh, that Mrs. Atkins was simply horrid,
wasn’t she boys?” The baroness wrinkled her nose and shivered, and
the boys narrowed their black eyes and growled their agreement. Allie
could almost hear them saying, “Yes, Mama, she was horrid, and if she ever
dares come back we’ll bite her ankles, chew her shoes, and piddle on her
my dear,” the baroness continued, smiling warmly at Allie, “you are what
I call a ‘dog person.’ Not everyone is, you know.”
“I enjoyed your
company as well, Lady Gaddlestone.” She looked down and winked at
the trio of mischief makers. “You and the boys.”
“Yes, well, I
hope you enjoy your visit to my country.” Her gaze flicked over Allie’s
black mourning gown. Sympathy softened the woman’s features, and
reaching out, she clasped Allie’s hands. “Clearly you adored your
David, but three years is long enough to mourn, my dear. I understand
perfectly that it’s difficult to move on. Heavens, I never thought
I’d recover when Gaddlestone passed on. But time does heal those
her lips together to keep them from trembling. “Some wounds can never
truly heal,” she said quietly.
how you feel, my dear. But you’re still young. Don’t close
your mind to the possibility of finding happiness again. The Season
is just beginning. A mere word from your friend, the Duchess of Bradford,
could offer you entre into any soiree you wished to attend. ‘Twould
do you good to socialize a bit.” Her gaze turned speculative.
“I recall you saying that the duchess’s brother-in-law will meet you at
young man,” the baroness mused. “Known him since he was a boy.
Always high spirited, and quite the charmer. Of course there was
that trouble several years ago, some transgression or another…” A
frown creased her brow. “I cannot recall the details. I was
traveling in the north at the time, and my mind isn’t what it used to be.
Most vexing.” Her expression cleared. “Oh, but you know how
these gossipy things flare up, then fizzle out like a doused flame once
the next enticing on dit kindles to life. I remember
most clearly that Lord Robert’s instance occurred just before Lord Feedly’s
only daughter eloped with one of their footman! Oh, such a
scandal! That news usurped all else at the time, and reached me,
even all the way up in Newcastle. And I do recall that Lord Robert’s
misconduct did not concern a young lady, so you’ve nothing to worry about.
Lord Robert has always been a perfect gentleman.” She waved her hand
in a dismissive gesture. “Naturally young men are prone to find themselves
knee-deep in at least one mishap, and this happened a long time
ago. I’m certain he’ll prove an entertaining escort during your journey
to Bradford Hall.”
The baroness gave her
hands a final squeeze, then released them. “Come along, boys,” she
said. “’Tis time for your morning snack before we disembark.”
To Allie she called, “I’m sure we’ll see you on the pier, my dear,” as
the boys pulled her away.
Alone again, Allie
reached into the deep pocket of her skirt, withdrawing the last letter
she’d received from Elizabeth, now the Duchess of Bradford. The brief
missive had arrived two weeks before Allie sailed to England.
Unfolding the thick
vellum, she re-read the words, although she knew them by heart.
I cannot tell you how
excited I am at the prospect of your visit. I am so eager for you
to meet my wonderful family, most especially my husband and darling son.
Unfortunately I will not be able to meet you in London as I’d planned--but
for a very happy reason. At the same time your ship is scheduled
to arrive, Austin and I shall be awaiting the imminent birth of our second
child! Indeed, by the time you arrive at Bradford Hall, I may already
be a mother again. Please do not worry that your visit will be inconvenient.
I recovered from James’s birth with what Austin calls alarming speed, and
as you know, I am most robust. And do not worry about your journey
to Bradford Hall. The estate is only several hours from London,
and I have already extracted a promise from Austin’s brother Robert that
he will meet your ship and escort you here. I’ve enclosed a sketch
of Lord Robert, and I shall give him one of you so that you can easily
find each other at the pier.
I am counting the days
until we see each other again, Allie. I’ve missed you so!
Wishing you a safe journey,
at those last two words that always brought an ache to her heart.
Your friend. Yes, Elizabeth, you have always been my friend.
If only I had appreciated and understood that more…I bless your forgiving
Drawing a deep
breath, she slowly slid the letter behind the second sheet of vellum and
stared at the sketch of Elizabeth’s brother-in-law. Elizabeth’s
considerable talent with charcoals had only grown over the years, and the
image all but leaped from the page.
It would be easy
to pick this man out of a crowd. She perused his features and her
stomach knotted. He reminded her of David in so many ways…his crooked
smile, his laughing eyes, the boyish charm so evident in his expression.
Except Lord Robert Jamison was even more handsome than David, something
she would not have thought possible.
Lady Gaddlestone’s words regarding Lord Robert. There was
that trouble several years ago, some transgression or another.
What had he done? The instant the question popped into her mind,
she shoved it aside. It did not matter. His past was of no
interest to her. Nor did it matter what he looked like. He
sparked no interest in her other than the fact that she wanted him to get
her away from the docks and the menace she’d felt as quickly as possible.
Still, guilt pricked her at the thought of his wasted trip to fetch her.
How would he
react when she told him she had no intention of traveling to Bradford Hall
* * * *
Robert Jamison stood
on the pier, watching the Seaward Lady’s crew secure the majestic vessel
to the berth. Dragging a deep breath into his lungs, a smile
eased across his face. Damn, but he loved the docks. Loved
the sight of crewmembers working in perfect unison hoisting sails and securing
ropes. Loved the cacophony from the vendors hawking everything from
meat pies to bolts of colorful silk. He even loved the harsh medley
of smells that combined with the pungent sea-scented air to create a scent
that could be found nowhere else in England.
He scanned the faces
of the passengers waiting to disembark, but saw no one resembling the smiling
young woman in the sketch Elizabeth had drawn. Of course, it
was difficult to distinguish faces at this distance. Like everyone
else meeting passengers, he waited at a safe distance away from the swinging
winches unloading the travelers’ trunks and the ship’s cargo.
Slipping the sketch
from his waistcoat pocket, he gazed upon the face that had piqued his interest
from the first time he’d seen it--months ago--when Elizabeth had given
him the drawing, along with a request to meet Mrs. Brown at the dock.
It was one of the most attractive faces he’d ever seen--lovely not simply
because of the pleasing features, but due to the joy that flowed from her
smile. The warmth and laughter shining in her eyes. And the
sense of mischief and fun that seemed to radiate right off the vellum.
He would have no trouble recognizing this woman in any size crowd.
Indeed, his pulse quickened at the very thought of seeing this lovely creature
in person. As he knew Elizabeth had hoped.
Tucking the sketch
back in his pocket, he recalled the comment Elizabeth had made just before
he’d departed Bradford Hall yesterday. Perhaps you’ll like my
friend, she’d suggested--a phrase he’d heard from the female members
of his family more times than he could count. Ever since he had casually
mentioned last year that he’d like to settle down and start a family, his
sister, sisters-in-law and his mother, were only too eager to toss
eligible females his way. At first he hadn’t objected to their
efforts since his own search for a wife wasn’t yielding any results, and
he couldn’t deny that he’d met an amazing number of charming ladies, some
of whom he’d liked quite well, and several with whom he’d discreetly shared
far more than a waltz.
However, as time wore
on and he hadn’t chosen a bride, the introductions had grown awkward, and
his family, most especially Caroline, had grown impatient with him.
“What on earth is wrong with you?” his sister now demanded every time he
didn’t fall madly in love with the latest woman she’d brought his way.
“She’s beautiful, charming, amenable, docile, wealthy, and for reasons
I cannot explain, she adores you. What the devil are you looking
He didn’t know, but
he did know he hadn’t yet found “the one.” The one who made him feel
that “certain something”--that elusive spark he saw every time Austin and
Elizabeth exchanged a glance. Every time Caroline and her husband
Miles were in the same room. Each time his brother William smiled
at his wife Claudine. He’d seen it everyday, growing up, between
his parents until the day his father died. He couldn’t name it, couldn’t
But by damn, he wanted
Wanted the happiness
and completeness his siblings enjoyed. Wanted to bounce his own child
upon his knee. Wanted a wife to share his life with and to make love
to every night.
Now all he had to do
was find her.
But that was proving
bloody well difficult. Damn it all, it seemed he’d met every
unmarried woman in the entire country. Still, perhaps his luck was
about to change. Elizabeth thought he might like the lovely Mrs.
Brown. In fact, he recalled her exact words-- I have a feeling
you’ll find the happiness you seek in London--and Elizabeth’s “feelings”
had an uncanny way of coming true. Indeed, the way her intuition,
or perception, or visions, or whatever one chose to call it, had led to
his brother William’s incredible rescue, was legendary in his family--and
a closely guarded secret. They’d opted not to tell anyone else so
as not to expose Elizabeth to the inevitable curiosity and skepticism her
unusual talents would provoke.
Had her words been
in reference to Mrs. Brown? Or had she in some way meant finding
some relief, some peace, from the heaviness that lay upon his heart?
A series of images flashed through his mind, and he braced himself as if
to receive a blow. The fire roaring out of control. The panicked
shouts of men, the terrified screams of the horses. The sounds lived
in his head, haunting him. Then Nate’s face…
He squeezed his eyes
shut until the disturbing image faded. He’d never discussed that
night or Nate’s death with Elizabeth, but she did have that unnerving way
of knowing things…
When he’d asked her
to translate her cryptic comment, she’d merely graced him with one of those
indecipherable female smiles that claim I know something you don’t know.
Well, he would know--whatever it was--soon enough. The passengers
were making their way off the ship.
He craned his neck,
scanning each person’s face as they approached. A pair of young men.
Definitely not. A middle-aged gentleman, followed by a weary-looking
couple each holding the hand of a small child. Robert smiled at the
children and received gap-toothed grins in return. Returning his
attention to the passengers, he clicked off mental “no’s” as a clergyman,
a portly gentleman, and a gaggle of chatting matrons passed by. Where
was Mrs. Brown? It seemed almost everyone had disembarked.
His gaze flicked over
a woman swathed head to toe in mourning black, and another mental “no”
quickly formed in his brain. Although Elizabeth had told him
Mrs. Brown was a widow, her husband had died years ago. She’d no
longer wear mourning clothes.
Still, there was something
about the woman’s face that brought his gaze back to her. Those wide-spaced
eyes, and that intriguing dimple in the center of her chin…and the way
she was looking at him, as if she recognized him…
him, and he lifted a hand to shade his eyes from the sun. This
couldn’t be the right woman. Where was the bright smile?
The radiating joy? The sense of laughter and mischief?
Sadness, seriousness surrounded this woman like a dark cloud. He
gazed beyond her, but the only passenger behind her was a plump matron
struggling down the gangway with a trio of small, yapping white dogs.
He returned his attention
to the woman in black. She walked toward him swiftly, her eyes scanning
his face. He caught a brief glimpse of an errant brown curl that
escaped her black bonnet. Recognition slapped him, and although he
realized she was indeed Mrs. Brown, his mind struggled to equate this woman
with the sketch Elizabeth had given him. They were precisely alike…yet
nothing alike at all.
“You must be
Lord Robert Jamison,” she said, stopping several feet away from him.
“I recognize you from the sketch Elizabeth gave me.”
I wish I could say
the same. Sympathy for her washed over him. Clearly
she’d adored her husband as his death had tragically depleted her.
Her eyes, the color of fine, aged brandy, appeared haunted and anxious
in her pale face. How sad that mourning had taken such a toll on
her. How unfair that a man she so clearly loved had been stolen from
her, taking all her laughter and joy with him. She looked tiny and
frightened in her stark clothing, as if her state of grieving had literally
swallowed her whole. He shoved aside the disappointment and pity
he hoped didn’t show on his face, then offered her his most charming smile
and a formal bow.
“I am indeed he.
And you must be Mrs. Brown.”
“Yes.” Not even
a ghost of a smile touched her lips. Indeed, her expression grew
even more grave as her gaze darted about their surroundings.
He watched her, feeling uncharacteristically short of words.
He wracked his brain for something to say, but she surprised him into further
silence by stepping closer to him. So close, in fact, that the tips
of her shoes touched his boots and her black skirt brushed his breeches.
So close that her scent drifted over him, a tantalizing combination of
sea air and…he inhaled deeply…some sort of flower. Before he could
identify the delicate, elusive fragrance, she rested her gloved hand on
his sleeve and rose up on her toes, leaning toward him.
Egad, she meant to
kiss him! Was this how things were done in America? The
only other American he’d ever met was Elizabeth, and he couldn’t deny she
possessed a forthright, friendly manner, although not quite this
forthright. Still, he didn’t want to hurt Mrs. Brown’s feelings by
rebuffing her very un-Britishlike greeting.
Lowering his head,
he brushed his lips over her mouth. And everything in him stilled.
For the space of several heartbeats, he couldn’t move. Couldn’t breathe.
Couldn’t do anything save stare down into her shocked eyes while two impossible
words pounded through his brain.
A frown yanked his
brows downward, and he stepped back from her as if she’d turned into a
pillar of fire. At last? Bloody hell, he’d gone mad.
The next stop for him was Bedlham.
Two bright crimson
spots stained her cheeks. “What on earth are you doing?” she asked
in a voice that trembled with unmistakable outrage.
Now he’d done it.
Whatever she’d been about, clearly she hadn’t intended for him to kiss
her. And he wished to hell he hadn’t. His mouth still tingled
with the hint of her taste, and he barely resisted the almost overwhelming
urge to lick his lips. Or lean down and lick hers.
his gaze roamed her face, taking in her becoming blush, the dark lashes
surrounding her golden brown eyes, the pert nose painted by a smattering
of pale freckles, the dimple gracing her chin, and then her mouth…such
a lovely, plump mouth. Moist, deliciously pink, the bottom lip lusciously
full, and the top lip, impossibly, even fuller.
Good God, what sort
of cad was he to entertain even the hint of a lustful thought toward her?
The woman was in mourning. Not that he’d had a lustful thought.
Certainly not. That inexplicable tingle he’d felt had merely been…surprise.
Yes, that’s all it was. She’d surprised him. And that jolt
he’d felt? Nothing more than embarrassment. Yes, he’d simply
made an ass of himself. Not the first time, and unfortunately most
likely not the last.
Relieved that he’d
settled everything back into the proper perspective, he took another step
backward. “My apologies, madam. I meant no offense. In
truth, I thought you’d meant to kiss me.”
“And why would I possibly
want to do that?”
Amusement rather than
offense at her question and tone nudged him. “Perhaps an American
I’d merely intended to ask you something, in a discreet manner.”
“Ah. You wished
to whisper in my ear.”
“And what did
you want to--“
you are, my dear.”
Robert turned toward
the high-pitched voice. A short, plump, fashionably dressed matron
walked crookedly toward them, trying without much success to control three
small white dogs that seemed intent upon jerking her in three different
directions. Even if he had not recognized the formidable Lady Gaddlestone,
there was no mistaking her dogs, those mischievous little charmers he clearly
recalled from the last time he’d seen them when he’d mentally dubbed them
Sir Piss-a-lot, Sir Bite-a-bit, and Sir Hump-a-leg.
Edward! Frederick! Cease at once!” The baroness pulled
back on the leads, barely halting the trio before they dragged her past
him and Mrs. Brown. One of the beasts promptly lifted its leg and
watered a weed that had sprouted between the cobblestones. The other
two pranced about, one eyeing his ankle as if contemplating a nibble, while
the other regarded his calf with an unmistakably lustful gleam.
Raising his brows,
Robert intoned, “Sit.” Three canine bottoms instantly hit the cobblestones,
and three sets of shiny black button eyes gazed up at him.
Robert,” the baroness said, her breath puffing in exertion. “Although
I must say it is quite vexing that the boys will listen to a near
stranger rather than their Mama.”
“Ah, but Teddie,
Eddie, and Freddie and I are old friends, are we not?” Robert crouched
down and tickled his fingers over their silky fur and was promptly presented
with three tummies to rub. “We enjoyed several invigorating strolls
during your last visit to Bradford Hall.” He arose, much to the boys’
dismay, and made the baroness a formal bow. “A pleasure to see you
again, Lady Gaddlestone. I see you are already acquainted with my
sister-in-law’s friend, Mrs. Brown.”
proved a wonderful traveling companion. A stroke of genius on my
part, hiring her.”
Hiring her? What
was the baroness talking about? He glanced at Mrs. Brown and noticed
that although a blush stained her cheeks, she lifted her chin and regarded
him with an expression that would have done Prinny proud, almost as if
daring him to look upon her with disfavor for undertaking employment.
Which he did not. Still, the fact that she had surprised him.
And whetted his curiosity.
Before he could think
upon the matter further, the baroness continued, “I would have been
utterly inconsolable if she’d drowned this morning.”
Robert stared at the
“Yes. La, it
was frightful!” A shudder shook Lady Gaddlestone’s ample frame.
“The dear girl was hit in the back with a runaway winch, and over the side
she went. Thank heavens the boys saw the entire incident. They
nearly barked themselves into apoplexy. Captain Whitstead performed
a brilliant maneuver and the crew pulled dear Alberta, who, bless the saints
can swim like a fish, from the sea.”
The baroness waved
her hand in front of her face, and Robert prayed she wasn’t about to swoon.
He recalled that the baroness was not prone to draping herself artistically
over a fainting couch and ringing for her hartshorn--thank goodness--and
true to his memory, she rallied. Once assured that she was steady
on her feet, he turned his attention to Mrs. Brown. “I’m sorry you
suffered such a terrible ordeal. Were you hurt?”
“No. Just frightened.”
“Oh, but you
never would have known she was!” Lady Gaddlestone interjected. “She
was utterly marvelous, remained perfectly calm, bobbing on the surface
like a cork. Heavens, I would have screamed like a banshee, then
sunk like a rock. Captain Whitstead was most impressed, and
dubbed her ‘unsinkable.’ As for me, I’m certain I’d have succumbed
to the vapors for the first time in my life if I hadn’t needed to rescue
one of the other passengers from the boys. All three of them quite
inexplicably threw themselves upon Mr. Redfern’s ankles! Oh,
such snapping and snarling as I’ve never witnessed from my babies!
Luckily Mr. Redfern was very understanding when I explained that all the
excitement had adversely affected the boys’ delicate constitutions.
Of course, his trousers will never quite be the same, I’m sure.”
She drew a quick breath,
then plunged on, “Now we can only pray that dear Alberta does not suffer
any lingering affects, such as a congestion in the chest.” She pinned
a stern glance on Mrs. Brown. “You must take a hot bath the minute
you’re settled, then take yourself off to bed.”
Mrs. Brown nodded.
“And you,” the baroness
intoned, swinging her gaze to Robert, “shall make certain she is well taken
care of until she is in the duchess’s care.”
Lady Gaddlestone nodded, clearly satisfied that her dictates would be obeyed.
“Now I understand the duchess is close to giving birth. Has the child
“Not as of this morning.”
A laugh rumbled in Robert’s throat. “But Austin has already paced
a ditch in the drawing room.”
“Well, I shall expect
to be informed when the babe arrives so I may schedule a visit. I
just adore purchasing baby gifts.” She gave Robert a thorough up
and down inspection. “You’re looking quite fit, young man,” she proclaimed
with an approving nod. “Hard to believe, but I dare say you’re even
more handsome than when I saw you last. You’ve the look of your father
about you. That same devilish gleam in your eye.”
“Thank you, my lady.
“Perhaps you can cheer
up Mrs. Brown a bit,” the baroness plowed on. “Poor dear is still
in the doldrums over losing her beloved David. Laughter is what she
needs. I’ve told her at least a dozen time that she’s far too serious
by half, have I not, Mrs. Brown?”
Mrs. Brown had no opportunity
to reply for the baroness continued, “She enjoyed the boys, however.
They managed to coax a number of smiles from her. Remarkably pretty
woman when she smiles, which is of course not to insinuate that she isn’t
remarkably pretty when she isn’t smiling, which is sadly most of the time,
but when she smiles she is very remarkably pretty. Tell me,
dear boy, don’t the duke and duchess have a dog?”
“Yes. They have--“
company will do Mrs. Brown a world of good. And now, dear boy, tell
me, are you married yet?”
“I’m afraid not.”
The baroness raised
her brows and pursed her lips, and Robert could almost hear the gears turning
in her head. “Excellent,” was all she said, and Robert was not certain
he wanted to know what she meant by it. She glanced beyond Robert
and waggled her gloved fingers. “My carriage is ready to depart.”
She extended her hand and Robert obligingly bent and brushed a kiss over
“Always a pleasure,
Lady Gaddlestone. Welcome home.”
“Thank you. I
must say it is a relief to have both feet planted back on English soil.”
She turned to Mrs. Brown. “I shall see you again before you return
to America, my dear.”
“I hope so, “ said
“You may count upon
it.” Giving the leads a slight tug, she set her brood in motion and
was nearly yanked off her feet. “Good bye for now,” she huffed as
she staggered away.
The instant he
judged her out of earshot, Robert turned to Mrs. Brown and offered her
a sheepish grin. “I rather feel as if I’ve just been rolled over
by a runaway carriage.”
Allie looked up at
him, at his striking countenance, lopsided grin, and mischievous eyes,
and her throat tightened. With his ebony hair and dark blue eyes,
he looked nothing like blonde, brown-eyed David, but his teasing manner,
his easy smile…they were so achingly, hauntingly familiar. Clearing
her throat, she said, “Lady Gaddlestone is really very kind.”
“I would never
imply otherwise. She could, however, talk a saddle off of a horse.”
His gaze roamed her face, his eyes reflecting concern. “You’re certain
you’re all right after your accident?”
“Yes, thank you.”
“Now that the baroness
has departed, perhaps you will tell me what you’d been about to say before
she arrived.” A teasing light sparkled in his eyes. “Something
you’d wanted to whisper in my ear?”
Allie’s face. Did this man take nothing seriously? Not only
had he had the temerity to kiss her, but now the gall to tease her about
it! She clutched her gown to keep from touching her lips where he’d
kissed her. How could such a feathery touch, one that had lasted
less than a second, have affected her so? He surprised me, that
is all. That rapid beating of my heart…merely the result of the unexpected.
And the unwanted.
She cast a glance
around the bustling dock area and another chill crept down her spine.
Someone was watching her. She knew it. Biting back her unease,
she said, “I’d simply planned to discreetly ask you if we could leave here
as soon as possible. I’d noticed Lady Gaddlestone coming toward us--”
no more. I quite understand. Even people we like can sometimes
prove exhausting. We shall depart immediately.” He smiled at her
and offered his arm, tilting his head with another David-like gesture that
made her teeth clench. “My carriage is right this way.”
When she hesitated
to take his arm, he simply grabbed her hand and settled it in the crook
of his elbow. “See there?” he said. “I don’t bite. Hardly
She fell into
step beside him, trying to reconcile the impulse to snatch her hand away
from him and the undeniable relief the safety of his presence offered.
His arm felt firm and muscular beneath her fingers, more so than David’s
had. And although Lord Robert was several inches taller than
David, he matched his longer strides to her shorter ones, unlike David.
She’d always felt as if she had to run to keep up with her husband.
When they arrived
at a handsome black lacquered carriage, Lord Robert instructed the waiting
footman to fetch her trunk. He then handed her into the carriage
and settled himself on the plush, gray velvet squabs across from her.
Deciding the time had arrived to tell him, she cleared her throat.
“I’m afraid I
owe you an apology, Lord Robert. You traveled all this way to escort
me to Bradford Hall to see Elizabeth, but I’m afraid I must remain in London
for at least a day or two. I have some business affairs to see to.”
She forced her hands to stay still and not pluck at the material of her
gown. “There are several matters regarding my late husband’s
possessions that I must take care of. He’d resettled in America,
but he was English, you know. From Liverpool.”
“No, I didn’t
know.” He glanced down at her mourning gown. There was no mistaking
the sympathy in his gaze. “I’m very sorry for your loss.”
She lowered her
lashes so he couldn’t read her eyes. “Thank you.”
not exactly the same, I know what it’s like to lose someone you love.
My father died several years ago. I miss him every day.”
He looked as
if he were about to say something more, but when he remained silent, she
said softly, “I understand. I think about David every day.”
Drawing a deep breath, she continued. “I’m certain you’re anxious
to return to Bradford Hall to await the birth of your niece or nephew,
and I’ve no wish to inconvenience you further. If you could recommend
a reputable inn, I’ll arrange my own transportation to the estate when
my business is completed.”
He was clearly
surprised, but he did not question her. Instead, he offered, “An
inn is not necessary, Mrs. Brown. Elizabeth and Austin would insist
you stay at their London townhouse.”
“Of course you
can. Elizabeth would have my head if I allowed you put up at an inn.
And as I have several business affairs that could stand my attention, I
have no objection to remaining in London until you are ready to travel
to Bradford Hall. I have rooms on Chesterfield which is only a short
distance from the townhouse.”
She studied his
face, and a warning tension gripped her stomach. Something had flashed
in his eyes when he’d said several business affairs…that same evasiveness
she knew all too well, thanks to David. But the look had been so
fleeting. Had she imagined it?
“That is a very
kind offer, Lord Robert but--“
nothing to do with it, believe me. It is simply a case of self-preservation.
If I were to show my face at Bradford Hall without you, after giving my
solemn vow to bring you there, my honor would be irreparably impinged.”
A slow grin lit his face. “And Elizabeth would harangue me until
my ears fell off.”
For the briefest
instant, Allie felt herself involuntarily responding to that grin, allowing
its warmth to wash over her. Dear God, it was so like David’s grin…
turned to one of concern. “Are you all right, Mrs. Brown? You
suddenly appear a bit pale.”
I was simply thinking…”
“That you remind
me very much of my husband.”
He seemed surprised
at her words. Then he smiled gently, his eyes full of sympathy.
At that moment,
the footman arrived with her trunk. After it was secured to the top
of the carriage, they departed, leaving the scents and sounds of the docks
behind. As they moved further away from the riverfront, Allie relaxed
a bit, until she glanced at the man sitting across from her. The
man who was another David, only this time wrapped up in an even more attractive
package. He’d thanked her for the comparison to David. He’d
thought she’d paid him a high compliment.
If you only knew,
Lord Robert. If you only knew…
* * * *
emerged from the long shadows cast by the wooden hull of the Seaward Lady.
He narrowed his eyes on the departing black lacquer carriage, then spit
onto the cobblestones. Damn it all, the woman possessed the devil’s
own luck. How the blazes were he supposed to kill the chit when she
were always surrounded by chattin’ old biddys and yappin’ dogs? He
glanced down at his torn trouser cuffs. Bloody stupid beasts.
They ruined wot would have been a perfect murder. And weren’t
it just his rotten luck that the Brown woman could swim?
And now she’d gone
off with that fancy toff. He set off swiftly on foot to follow
the carriage carrying his quarry. Curse the saints, his employer
would not be pleased that she weren’t already dead. But I’ll see
to it that she’s taken care of. I’ve never failed in a job before,
and I ain’t about to start now. By this time tomorrow, she’ll be
dead. And I’ll be a very rich man.