|jeanrossewing.com Love's Reward|
Love's Reward by Jean R. Ewing
(Originally published by Zebra Books ISBN 0-8217-5812-8)
Romance Writers of America RITA Award for Best Regency
Nominated: Romantic Times Best Regency Romance of the Year
|E-book available now!|
"Exciting, moving and literate. . .
really knows how to write a good Regency." -
"Intriguing and witty ... a cloak and dagger of the highest quality. Be sure to read Love's Reward. One for the keeper shelf." - The Literary Times
"Positively addictive... Put this on your list of favorite books right now!" - 4½ Stars - Rave Review - Romantic Times
"It is a question of power," Lady Elizabeth said archly. "I have it. You do not."
Fitzroy Monteith Mountfitchet raised a brow and settled more deeply against the upholstered back of the chaise longue. He appeared to be a little foxed, his sprawl too relaxed to be seemly, his elegant coattails crushed haphazardly beneath him.
Lady Elizabeth laughed. She stood gracefully at the fireplace. Her gown of apricot silk exquisitely enhanced her slender figure. Diamonds flashed fire at her neck as she moved.
"Men have power everywhere else in this wicked world," she said. "Why shouldn’t ladies wield it somewhere? So we have chosen our battleground and this is it. A gentleman gives way to a lady’s wishes here, does he not?"
He swung his feet up onto the chaise longue and leaned back. The red gleam from the fire was swallowed into dark shadows in his carelessly tousled hair and cast a frantic, carmine glow over his strong cheekbones and firm mouth. He was dressed for the evening: white linen cravat, ivory breeches, silk stockings, black dancing shoes, all tinged to pink by the firelight.
Dear God, the man was glorious—like a dark, exotic hero from some lost myth from the Arabian Nights!
He glanced up at her from narrowed eyes and smiled.
"In the bedroom? Undoubtedly! Guinevere glances from her window at Lancelot, and Camelot falls into ruin. Let Helen but smile, and Trojans and Greeks war to the death. Men are helpless when it comes to a beautiful woman."
Lady Elizabeth billowed about, allowing the soft fall of her skirts to outline her legs. Music drifted into the chamber and delicately decorated the air, a lace-edge of sound, a faint echo from the distant ballroom.
She could see herself in the mirror. The flattering firelight brought a warm flush to her cheeks and cast shadows beneath her delicate jaw. She kept her voice soft, teasing.
"You speak of the heroes of romance? Bachelors all, of course! There’s such a charming inevitability to it, isn’t there? The unattached warrior and the married lady set fire to history and fable, while the poor husband boasts cuckold’s horns and finally consoles himself with a noble death. Why aren’t you married, Lord Tarrant? The rest have wives, do they not? All of Wellington’s jeunesse dorée: Lenwood, Hawksley, de Dagonet, Deyncourt? Lenwood even has a daughter, I hear. They say he has become distressingly domestic with some provincial little wife, and never comes to town except to badger the peers about factories and working hours. It’s too boring."
A slight wariness crept into his features, but his voice remained casual.
"So I understand. What do you suppose is their connection to myself, madam?"
"Oh, stuff! It’s common knowledge, all that derring-do against Napoleon. You were one of them, one of the secret scouts who organized the partisans, worth a brigade to our Iron Duke."
He held his right hand up to the firelight and studied it. The palm was square and strong. His carefully manicured nails gleamed faintly. She had a sudden vision of that hand scarred by calluses, its elegant lines blurred with dirt. For four years he had used it to wield sword or pistol, and for the more tedious daily toil of the campaign.
"We’re at peace with France now, if not with each other," he said. "I haven’t seen any of them privately since. It’s a long time ago."
"It’s not even two years. Wellington boasts that you conquered more Spanish hearts on the dance floor than Frenchmen on the battlefield. I can see why." She moved closer, giving a sultry little laugh. "Then the Peninsular heroes came home to conquer hearts in England. Now they’re all married, except you."
He glanced up and dropped his hand. "How lovely for them!"
Idly opening and closing her fan, she watched him, fascinated. There was no other gentleman in London as wickedly attractive as Fitzroy Mountfitchet, Viscount Tarrant, and with such a very dashing and mysterious reputation.
"So did those black Spanish ladies spoil you for golden hair and fair skin?" she asked. "I refuse to believe it. Don’t you find me attractive?"
His head dropped back against the arm of the chaise longue.
"I find you delectable, madam. Why do you ask? Why else do you suppose I am here, in your boudoir, while Lord Carhill entertains your guests in his ballroom without you?"
She made a small moue. "I told him I had the headache and would slip away for a while. I shall have to reappear in an hour or so, of course, or face husbandly tantrums, but no one will miss me till then."
"Nor suspect?" He laughed. "Do you think an hour enough?"
In a whisper of silk, Lady Elizabeth stepped up to the chaise longue and dropped down beside it.
"Tarrant! Don’t be silly! How much time do we need?"
He turned on his elbow, caught her nape in an outstretched hand, and held her there for a moment, examining her features. She looked up at him under her lashes, a gesture of pure coquetry, and ran her tongue along her upper lip.
"That depends," he said, pulling her toward him, "on whether I may dispense with the pretty flattery the situation obviously demands now."
Lady Elizabeth bent like a willow as he lifted her face up to his and began to kiss her. Heat flushed her cheeks.
He slipped both hands into her hair. His fingers caressed her ears and jaw as his mouth searched hers. She moaned against his lips, a little sob of desire.
A log fell in the fireplace with a distinct crack.
He released her.
Lady Elizabeth collapsed back onto her knees, panting a little, her breasts rising and falling rapidly beneath her deep décolletage.
"Ah, Fitzroy, I knew how it would be with you." She sighed, her blood racing. "Come, my darling hero! How can I let you remain unconquered? Let me enslave you."
She slid one hand onto his chest to tug at his cravat.
He caught and held it. "Your maid will not come looking for you with salts?"
The question seemed lazy, unconcerned, but he kept her hand imprisoned in his.
"I have locked the door. The key is here." She laughed as she touched her cleavage, where the diamonds sparkled. "She cannot enter. As you cannot leave. Unless you wish to retrieve the key yourself? Perhaps I will let you beg me for it."
He ran his tongue lightly over her fingertips. "I am imprisoned, then?"
She leaned forward to touch his jaw with one forefinger.
"Admit that I have mastery over you, Fitzroy. You want me, don’t you? Then take me, darling, as Lancelot seized Guinevere."
"Here on the chaise longue?" A faint trace of derision colored his voice.
Lord Tarrant kissed her palm. "I’m not sure that I shall."
"What do you mean?"
He stood, pulling her up with him in a hiss of apricot silk. He was over a head taller. Releasing her fingers he forced her to step back, away from him, and folded his arms across his chest.
Her pulse pounded as he swept his gaze over her delicate gold evening slippers, and up to the fine border of embroidery at the neck of her gown, and let it linger there for a moment.
"Take off your dress, Lady Carhill."
She laughed, a little nervously. "What?"
Leaving her standing alone on the Aubusson carpet, he dropped back to the chaise longue and gazed up at her.
"Since you have so cavalierly locked out your maid, I assume you can manage without her. So, pray, take off your dress."
She swallowed her confusion. "But I thought we would . . ."
"No," he said softly, "you thought that I would. But I’m not prepared to do all the work when this little rendezvous was your idea. So let us take all the usual first steps as read. I have been plied with excellent wine and titillated with coteries of lovely women. We have flirted and danced and you have looked at me just so over your fan. One of your lackeys has discreetly extracted me from the ballroom to place me here in your sumptuous boudoir. You have told your husband a small falsehood and have managed to join me. We have exchanged compliments. We have kissed. There is less than an hour left. So take off your dress, madam, and let us get to it."
Lady Elizabeth stared down at him. With a small, shaky laugh, she reached up to the clasp on her diamond necklace.
"Oh, no," he said softly. "Leave the jewels, sweetheart. Just the dress, if you please."
There were two sets of tiny buttons at the shoulders of the apricot silk gown. She began to unfasten them, one at a time. He lay relaxed on the couch and watched her.
Her dress fell in a soft crumple at her feet and she stepped out of it. A tightly laced corset lay beneath it, rich with white ribbons and lace, over a fine white chemise, almost transparent, stitched with a delicate border of silver embroidery. She was breathing a little fast.
"Now the lacing," he said, as if faintly amused. "You won’t need all that whalebone."
Lady Elizabeth pouted. "But I shall need help with the back laces."
"Alas, I don’t feel inclined to give it. Never mind, I suppose we can manage with the corset on, like swimming in the willows."
Her flush became fiery. "How dare you! This is outrageous."
"Is it? How about the stockings? Can you manage them by yourself?"
"How can you expect me to undress like this, while you watch me?"
He grinned and stretched with deliberate unconcern, genuine humor warming his eyes.
"Why not? You don’t imagine that if you undress like this I shall avert my gaze, do you?"
Lady Elizabeth lost her temper, just enough to be provocative.
"It’s indecent! Not even Carhill would demand such a thing! You must look away."
Lord Tarrant closed his eyes. "Do you mean to tell me that you deny your husband his rights to your person while offering yourself to any passing guest, and then have the effrontery to suggest that shedding your clothes in front of him is improper? Original, madam, but hardly logical."
She stamped her foot. "I must have been mad to invite you here. I thought you were—"
"What?" He opened one eye and looked at her. "What did you think?"
"I thought you were Don Juan, if you must know. That’s what they say, isn’t it? Yet you have no more gallantry than a . . . than a barnyard rooster. Dear God! What’s the matter with you? Are you incapable?"
He stooped to the carpet and retrieved the key, where it had fallen from her dress.
"Not incapable, madam," he replied calmly. "I just prefer to choose my own mistresses."
Lady Elizabeth turned her back and caught up her apricot silk. "Dear heavens, you are a bastard, aren’t you?"
"Indeed not. I am the most impeccably legal heir to my father, and my mother is a lady of irreproachable propriety and always has been. I am certain that she would never have strayed from her marriage vows. Unlike you."
She struggled into her dress. "What the devil can you know about it? You obviously have little interest in females. Do you think you have succeeded in humiliating me? There are hundreds more like you, footloose young dandies, wasting their lives on dissipation and fashion. I can see why you aren’t married like the others."
He sounded merely tired. "I have no interest in marriage."
She spun about, triumphant, and pointed her finger at him.
"Then you prefer boys? A common enough vice. But you’re an earl’s son. How can you not want an heir? Are you so unable that you fear you can’t get one?"
"Your sleeve is twisted." He turned the key in his hand. "At the back."
She tugged at the sleeve and rapidly fastened the buttons.
"I feel sorry for you." Turning to the mirror, she patted her hair and adjusted her neckline. "What lady would willingly have you, in spite of that air of the conquering hero? Don’t tell me you’re a virgin, Lord Tarrant?"
The question was obviously absurd, and she knew it. But Lady Elizabeth, Countess of Carhill, was not prepared in any way for what he said next, nor for the deadly self-derision with which he said it.
"I have been married. She is dead."
She spun back to see something close to anger in his face.
"It was not my intention to humiliate you," he said. "I thought you were enjoying yourself, and that it was rather at my expense. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I shall rejoin your guests and your husband, before it’s noticed that I’m gone. I trust your headache will be better shortly."
"You were married?" She caught at his sleeve as he stood up. "Fitzroy! I had no idea. I am sorry. It was in Spain?"
"Don’t be distressed." He ran one hand gently down her cheek, then leaned forward and gave her a light kiss. "How could you have known?"
Lady Elizabeth stared up at him for a moment. So she had been misled and she had failed. She supposed she ought to be angry, for although she had acted as she had promised, she was deeply disappointed. Yet she did not feel humbled, she only felt puzzled. If he had not intended to become her lover, why had he agreed to come privately to her room?
She put one forefinger on his chest. "I’m not distressed anymore. You’re quite foxed and you’re hiding a broken heart. You made me take off my dress just to get the key, didn’t you? That was very wicked of you."
He took her fingers and touched them with his lips in a practiced gesture of gallant submission. Then he kissed her once more, lightly, on the mouth.
"But you are very beautiful, Lady Elizabeth. I would have enjoyed your shedding your gown even without an ulterior motive."
He strode to the door and unlocked it, then tossed her the key and winked, a wink filled with seductive humor.
"Since, as it happens, I do not prefer boys."
* * *
The footman intercepted Fitzroy as he made his way down the stairs. The man did not look surprised to find him there.
"My lord? There’s a message for you. If you would follow me?"
Fitzroy was not expecting it. He usually made the contact himself. Did Lord Grantley think the lovely Countess of Carhill was the one? If so, he was very plainly wrong. She was looking for nothing more than a new lover.
He strode rapidly after the footman and was let into a small room off the hallway, paneled in oak. Dressed in a long cloak, a woman was waiting at the fireplace. A small bag lay on the floor beside her.
As Fitzroy closed the door she spun about. Her fair skin was slightly flushed and beads of dampness lay along her dark hairline. Her face reflected his own strong bones. She also had something of the family’s cavalier grace. Yet she was obviously close to tears.
"Fitzroy! Oh, thank heavens! The most dreadful thing has happened. You must come away at once. There may just be time, if you act quickly enough."
He walked up to her and laid his palm lightly on her forehead.
"I thought you were unwell, Mary. You still have some fever, you silly child. Why the devil have you come out alone like this? Isn’t someone with you?"
She caught at his coat sleeve. "Oh, I’m fine, really! It’s just a cold. I brought Smithers. I had him send to your house to get your phaeton for me. Listen. It’s urgent. Indeed, it’s a disaster."
Fitzroy helped her to a chair. "Then it’s Quentin. What’s he done now? Ravished Cook in her rocking chair? Gamed away my best team to some card sharp from White’s? Whatever it is, I’ll take care of it. So don’t cry like a goose, I beg of you."
"I am not crying. It’s just this silly cold." Lady Mary wiped her eyes and looked ruefully up at him. "If only it were just that! No, Quentin has run away with a girl—stolen her out of school. And he was foolish enough to take one of Papa’s carriages. The ostler told my maid, and she finally found enough courage to tell me what was afoot. Oh, Fitzroy, what on earth are we going to do about our mad brother?"
Fitzroy wrung his hand through his hair. He was torn between genuine distress and laughter.
"Damn his eyes! To wish him posthaste to perdition would be a good start. But first, you will sit there, my dear sister, and compose yourself. I will get you a glass of wine, then you may tell me the whole. Quentin was no doubt foxed. He will wake up beside the poor wench in the morning and regret the whole thing. Then he will beg me to pay off her father and provide for the babe, so the Black Earl doesn’t find out. And for the sake of family honor, and as an alternative to blowing out his brains, I shall do it."
Lady Mary blew her nose. She was trembling a little, but she allowed him to ring the bell and ask the footman to bring wine.
"This time it’s serious, Fitzroy."
He kept his voice very gentle. "I don’t question it." He stroked the hair back from her damp forehead and gave her his own clean handkerchief. "Most of the scapegrace things Quentin does are serious. Why else have I been trying to extricate him from them since he was born? Does Father know?"
"I don’t know. Oh, dear Lord, I hope not."
"Then perhaps I can catch them before any harm is done, and return the foolish child to her convent."
Mary wiped her eyes again and smiled suddenly. "She was at Miss Able’s Academy, where I went myself. It’s very select. Miss Able will die of chagrin."
The door opened and the wine was delivered. As soon as the servant left, Fitzroy turned back to his sister.
"Tell me what you know, from the beginning."
"This isn’t just a mad start, Fitzroy. And I don’t think money will suffice this time. Apparently he’s had it planned for weeks. He met the girl at a weekend house party given by some mutual friends. In spite of his reputation, it’s rare that he’s actually not received, of course. After all, Quentin is your brother."
Fitzroy grinned at her. "I should think it counts a great deal more that he’s also a son of the Earl of Evenham. After all, am I so very respectable?"
Sipping at her wine, she grinned back. "Barely, I suppose. But being our father’s heir is bound to give you an entrée everywhere, and Quentin benefits from that. He certainly uses it. Otherwise, there’s no comparison between you."
"For I have the courtesy of being Viscount Tarrant, while Quentin must make do with being just plain Mister Mountfitchet. I wonder sometimes why he hasn’t shot me over it. So he met this schoolgirl and arranged an elopement? Who is the intended bride?"
Lady Mary set down her wine and looked up at him.
"That’s the worst of it, Fitzroy. It’s not just any schoolgirl. It’s Lady Joanna Acton, and she’s not even out."
Fitzroy collapsed into a chair. Then he dropped his head to his knees to bury his face in his hands.
"It is very bad, isn’t it? If she’s ruined, Lord Acton will demand a match—"
He looked up, fighting back a desperate, wild laughter. At the look of open despair on her face, he let it loose.
"A wedding? Then Quentin’s cat will be out of the bag!"
Lady Mary’s eyes filled with indignation. "How can you laugh? She’s the Earl of Acton’s favorite daughter, Fitzroy."
He sprawled back in his chair. "But that’s not really the worst of it, unfortunately."
"What can be worse? Oh, Fitzroy, will you please go after them?"
"Of course." He stood up and rang the bell. A footman appeared at the door. "Lord Evenham’s carriage for Lady Mary, and have my phaeton brought around. We are leaving. Tell Lady Carhill that I am regrettably indisposed. Her excellent wine and the heady intoxication of the company force me to retire early from her enchanting entertainment."
The servant bowed and stepped out.
"I’ve brought you a change of clothes, Fitzroy." Lady Mary indicated the bag. "And Smithers is already waiting with your phaeton. I just hope that unholy team of yours won’t overset you. I was terrified coming here, perched up there above those huge wheels like a crow in a tree."
Fitzroy leaned down and kissed his sister with real tenderness.
"Bless you, my child, for your bravery, sense, and foresight. With my bays in harness, it’s the fastest thing on the turnpike."
He opened the bag and pulled out a driving coat, buckskin breeches, and tall boots. While Lady Mary modestly averted her eyes, Fitzroy changed rapidly from his evening clothes and stuffed them into the bag.
"Oh, Fitzroy! What if her family finds out? Will one of her brothers call Quentin out?"
He pulled on the black boots. "Very likely, dear sister. And I have no doubt that it will be her brother Richard, which adds some considerable irony to the whole situation."
"Like Montague and Capulet, ‘Who set this ancient quarrel new abroach?’ I’m decent now. You may look up."
She glanced into his face, alarmed. "What ancient quarrel?"
"Lady Joanna’s eldest brother is Captain Richard Acton—more correctly known now as Lord Lenwood—my erstwhile comrade in the Peninsula, who now resides, so I hear, in domestic bliss at Acton Mead. He has a wife I’ve never met and a baby daughter. And he has hated me ever since those last days in Spain."
"Hated you? Good Lord! Why?"
His heart contracted a little, but his voice still held an undertone of raillery.
"Lord Lenwood has a regrettably old-fashioned idea of the gallantry due to the female sex. I had the misfortune to trample on his tender sensibilities."
"What on earth do you mean? Oh, Fitzroy, what really happened in Spain?"
"Hush! That’s not our present problem. Just know that Lenwood has his reasons. And now, it seems, my rakehell brother has run away with his little sister, and probably ravished her under a hedge. Add this family mishap to my other transgressions, and Richard Acton, Viscount Lenwood, will doubtless shoot me on sight."
* * *
Ten minutes later, the phaeton thundered north out of London. Once clear of the city streets, Fitzroy gave his team their unsteady heads. The horses lunged into the harness, excited at being allowed to gallop into the night. He was leaving behind all of his business in town. He hadn’t even made his report to Lord Grantley, a serious breach of both duty and manners.
Ruthlessly, Fitzroy thrust aside every other concern but the tyranny of this immediate crisis. Richard Acton’s little sister Joanna, for God’s sake, and his own prodigal brother, Quentin!
He supposed she must be a beauty. Quentin would never bother with a plain miss. Yet his usual entanglements were with opulent opera singers or bad but beautiful actresses.
Why the devil had Quentin decided to elope with an English schoolgirl, for God’s sake, and an earl’s daughter to boot? And why the hell this particular earl’s daughter?
The last time Fitzroy had seen the chit’s brother, he had been known simply as Captain Richard Acton. Although the courtesy title, Lord Lenwood, was his then, he rarely used it. But he was a splendid soldier and a man of infinite integrity. He and Fitzroy had served together on more than one dangerous, dirty mission against Napoleon, and forged the kind of friendship that only shared combat could bring.
Yet on that last day in the camp outside Orthez, Captain Richard Acton had threatened to shoot down Captain Lord Tarrant if their paths ever crossed again—and for good cause.
If their roles had been reversed, Fitzroy doubted that he would have been as forbearing.
He concentrated on the flying manes of his horses and the singing cadence of their hooves. Acton and Mountfitchet. Montague and Capulet.
The devil was determined to pile difficulties onto his head. He didn’t have time for one of Quentin’s foolhardy escapades just now.
Yet Fitzroy hoped to God that word of this latest misadventure wouldn’t reach the ears of his father, the Black Earl. Lord Evenham had a short temper and very little patience with his sons reenacting the classics.
Let Helen but smile, and Trojans and Greeks war to the death.
With a slightly grim smile, Fitzroy thought about the lovely Lady Carhill, and how delectable she had looked in her shift. He hoped he had not made her into a permanent enemy.
Joanna sat in the parlor of the Swan Inn gazing distractedly into the fireplace. She was beginning to wish she had chosen someone other than Quentin Mountfitchet for this particular adventure. For now he was getting visibly drunk. He sat opposite her in a large wing-backed chair, his booted feet tossed onto a stool, and he was working his way steadily through several bottles of claret.
"We’re stuck here for the day," he said. "Do you mind very much?"
His voice was not slurred, and he did not look in the least disheveled. Brown hair curled gaily over his handsome forehead. His cravat was still neatly tied in the mathematical. His green eyes were only faintly bloodshot, and there was just the slightest increase in his air of abandonment.
Obviously Mr. Mountfitchet could hold his liquor, even after a night without sleep. Nevertheless, it did not bode well for their early arrival at Harefell.
"Are you quite sure that the curricle cannot be repaired until tonight?" Joanna could not hide the exasperation in her voice. "Then, pray, why do we not take the public stage?"
It took him just a moment too long to reply.
"Lost all the blunt, Jo. I’m sorry. Rotten run of luck, don’t you know?"
Joanna stood up and flung down the gloves she had been holding. She was still wearing her pelisse, although the parlor was warm.
"Only my brothers call me ‘Jo’, sir. And I am perfectly well aware that while I sat in here and ate my breakfast alone, you indulged in a few rounds of whist with some other gentlemen in the common parlor. I am also aware that you lost very deeply. You told me so at least thirty minutes ago, when you first rejoined me in here."
"Yes, yet you seem to be making no efforts to mend the situation, and I refuse to believe you do not have credit. It is clear dawn. We have been here for three hours. The sun is shining on a frosty world, bright with promise. The rooster cried out his possession of the midden some time ago. So why on earth are we still sitting in this parlor, Mr. Mountfitchet? Good heavens! If you don’t care to accompany me any farther, I shall travel on by myself."
She picked up her gloves and began to walk toward the door.
In a few long strides, Quentin arrived there before her.
"Oh, no! That would be beyond the bounds of anything. You’re very pretty, Lady Joanna, and charmingly young. It would be dangerous for you to attempt to travel alone. I rather fancy sharing your company a little longer. After all, I brought you this far. Don’t you think you owe me something for that?"
She had no idea that he could move so fast. Quentin stood with his back pressed against the door and his arms folded very deliberately across his chest. He grinned at her and tossed back an errant lock of hair. The grin sent dimples into both cheeks.
Joanna looked back at him quite calmly.
"Yes, I know you admire my raven locks. You told me so at Fenton Stacey when we first met. And although I feel quite ragged for lack of sleep, you remain a perfect replica of a Greek coin. Your profile is flawless, and your cravat the very model of attractiveness. An entire night of debauchery has barely disarranged it. All that is quite beside the point."
He laughed in genuine delight. "A night of debauchery? My dear child, I would like to show you one. Then you would not be so careless with language. It seems to me that we spent five hours in fast driving before we arrived here, and less than three hours in debauchery, which sadly was mine alone."
Joanna shrugged with considerable eloquence, a dismissal of this perfectly correct statement. She felt quite exhausted from her night without sleep, and she was rapidly losing patience with her escort.
"You’re the one careless with words, sir. If I remember rightly, in the garden at Fenton Stacey you compared my eyes to a summer sky, when they are quite black. As black as my hair, in fact."
"A winter sky—at midnight," he corrected, still blocking the doorway so that she could not leave. "Like the darkness we drove through all night. I was creating poetic images, my dear."
"And now you’re truly foxed," Joanna continued as if he had not spoken. "And think to enact a small drama for your amusement. Very well. I wonder why you did not make the attempt before now. If it will be enough for you to let me pass, you may kiss me, if you like."
He narrowed his eyes a little. "May I? Have you ever been kissed, Lady Joanna?"
She turned away and walked to the window. Pushing hard at the catch, she opened it and looked down into the courtyard below.
"By someone like you? No, I haven’t. But I think it might be quite an interesting experience. You’re a rake, aren’t you? I imagine you’ve had lots of practice." Her mood changed suddenly and she put both hands on the sill. "Good Lord! How outrageous! That team is ready to drop."
"What?" Quentin sounded a little disconcerted.
"A man just arrived in a high-perch phaeton, of all things. Beneath a liberal spattering of mire, one can see that the wheels are picked out in yellow and black in the very latest mode. There’s an exactly correct amount of seriously shiny brass. It’s a most expensive rig to risk among the flyers and wagons, yet it would seem that he has driven that showy town carriage at breakneck speed along the turnpike. His cattle are quite soaked with foam."
Joanna leaned further from the window.
"You might have more care for those poor horses, sir!" she yelled. "Do you think to call yourself a gentleman?"
* * *
Fitzroy leaped down from the phaeton, handed the reins to an ostler, and looked up. Some termagant was shouting at him from an upstairs window.
He had driven hard and fast in pursuit of his father’s curricle. It had been absurdly easy to trace. After leaving Miss Able’s Academy, Quentin had obviously made no effort to cover his tracks, and had attracted notice at each toll gate and posting house by the speed with which he was traveling and his liberal dispensing of vails.
By the time the sun was coming up over Bedfordshire, Fitzroy knew he would catch up with the fugitives long before they reached Scotland. But he was also painfully aware that Lady Joanna Acton had just spent a night in his profligate brother’s company.
He was not at all sure what he was going to do about it when he caught up with them.
Nevertheless, his last change of horses had put him not more than a few hours behind them. He would make inquiries here at the Swan, get a quick bite to eat and fresh horses, before pressing on once again.
The sound of a young female voice dropping invective on his head was the cap to an already exhausting journey.
"Do you think to call yourself a gentleman?"
She was leaning from a window, the thin morning sun shining on impossibly rich black hair piled on top of her head in a mass of curls. Above perfectly molded cheekbones, her eyes were impenetrable. Deeply black, they seemed to be all pupil under glossy black brows which arched provocatively up at the center. Her color was high, bringing a deep flush to her cheeks.
For one absurd moment, he thought of the fairy tale: hair black as ebony, skin white as snow, lips red as blood—Snow White, who lay in a glass coffin and waited for a prince to awaken her with a kiss.
Their eyes met for one burning instant before she blushed and spun away. A moment later a brown-haired gentleman appeared at her shoulder.
The man looked at Fitzroy and laughed. With a wink he pulled the girl from the window, only to take her exquisitely delicate chin in his hand.
He searched her face for a moment while she stared back up at him. Then he began to kiss her far too thoroughly on those blood-red lips.
Fitzroy’s driving whip bent almost double in his hands.
Quentin, for God’s sake!