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Authors: Marilyn Clay

Tags: #London Season, #Marilyn Clay, #Regency England, #Chester England, #Regency Romance Novels

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BOOK: BRIGHTON BEAUTY
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Lord Rathbone laughed at his betrothed's seeming outrage. "It is the way it is, Alayna. Most of us provide quite well for our people. I intend to build snug new homes for my workers and their families; and a school house, so the children of my servants will not grow up completely illiterate."

"Perhaps Alayna could supervise the new school," Lady Rathbone put in quietly.

Chelsea squirmed, but said nothing.

"We are not so uncivilized as you may think, Alayna."

Chelsea ventured nothing further and for a long moment, it appeared the conversation had ground to a halt. Then, following a particularly loud clap of thunder, Lady Rathbone spoke up. "I expect it is time I toddled off to bed."

Before she could yell for Jared, Chelsea jumped to her feet. "I shall see you to your room, Aunt Millicent."

Lady Rathbone gazed pointedly from Chelsea to her son. "That won't be necessary, my dear, I shall just . . . "

At that second Jared appeared in the doorway.

"Ah, there you are, Jared. I was just about to call for you."

"Yes, my lady." The butler's features were as immovable as stone as he stepped forward to push Lady Rathbone's chair from the room.

"Good night, children," she called gaily over her shoulder.

The ping, ping of raindrops hitting the narrow slit of window above the hearth and the receding squeak of Lady Rathbone's chair in the corridor were the only sounds to be heard until Lord Rathbone said quietly, "I believe I have uncovered the real reason for your reticence in returning to Honduras with me, Alayna."

Chelsea's ears sprang immediately to attention.

"You are simply afraid," he said wisely.

"Afraid?"

"Indeed. And I'll allow that such a response is understandable. I wonder that I did not think of it sooner. To leave your family and friends to travel to such a far-off place must seem a terrifying prospect to you. You are so . . . very young."

Chelsea said nothing. At the moment, she realized that she would sooner travel to the moon than be left alone in this isolated wing of the castle with Lord Rathbone, a man she was beginning to feel so very . . . she swallowed tightly . . . drawn to.

She cast a fearful gaze his direction. He looked quite harmless seated peacefully before the fire, the glow from the flames turning his already tanned face a beautiful shade of bronze. His fingers were steepled beneath his chin as he sat gazing into the flames. She had never felt such an odd pull toward a man before. At dinner she had caught herself a number of times, studying him with acute fascination, her eyes lingering on the disheveled look of his damp hair, the resolute line of his jaw, the strength of his hands as he cut up his beefsteak. It was as if she wished to memorize every detail about his person.

And, a moment ago, as he spoke to them of his home, every time his eyes met hers, she experienced the same trembly-feeling in the pit of her stomach as she had this morning when he leaned over her to jot down numbers in the account books. It was most unsettling.

Suddenly, Lord Rathbone leaned forward in his chair, his gaze meeting hers. "Just look at you now, Alayna. You are gazing at me as if virtually terrified." He rose to his feet and strode across the room to the small cellarette that had been placed near a side table.

Withdrawing a bottle of aged sherry, he busied himself opening the bottle and pouring himself a drink. "The logic of it actually came to me this afternoon," he continued. "Other than your little trips to Brighton and Bath and back again to London, you have never been anywhere before. Therefore, the very thought of being uprooted and transported across the ocean must seem horrific to you."

He settled the bottle back into the well, then glanced at Chelsea. "Forgive me, would you care for a glass of sherry? Can be quite good for the nerves, you know."

"Umm . . ." Chelsea wasn't the least accustomed to strong drink, but her nerves could certainly use settling. "Yes, I . . . I believe I will have a drop, thank you."

After retrieving the bottle again, he poured the drink and crossed the room to hand her a glass. "I was pleased when Mother asked me to speak of my home this evening," he said, moving to stand before the fire. "I had already decided that the more you know of Honduras, the less you will be inclined to fear it."

After swirling a sip of the amber liquid around in his mouth, he asked, "What else might I tell you about your future home, my dear?"

Chelsea delayed a response by sampling the drink he'd placed in her hands. She wanted to know everything about Lord Rathbone's home, but she knew full well Alayna wasn't the least bit interested. Yet . . . it was not Alayna who was ensconced here in the castle with her handsome cousin. Downing another small sip of the golden liquid, she allowed herself to enjoy the burning warmth as it seared a path to her belly. Feeling a good deal more relaxed already, she managed a look upward.

But Lord Rathbone's gaze was fixed on the crackling embers. "A night such as this is unheard of in the tropics," he said quietly. "To say truth, I rather miss the cold, the snow in winter and the sparkling gleam of ice crystals in the tree-tops."

Downing the last of her drink, Chelsea set the small goblet aside and rose, as if compelled, to go and position herself near Lord Rathbone. "You sound almost poetic, my lord," she murmured evenly.

He turned, and finding her near him, their gazes locked. Chelsea likened the burn in his eyes to the sting of the sherry in her throat. When he held the gaze for quite a length she finally grew uncomfortable and looked away.

"I admit I have consulted the bard upon occasion," he said, belatedly resuming the conversation. "There is . . . often very little to do of an evening. It will be pleasant," he added, "to have you read to me, as you do now for Mother."

Chelsea watched him move from her side to set his own emptied goblet down on a nearby table.

"I recently acquired a pianoforte," he told her.

"Oh?" Chelsea enjoyed the sight of his graceful, yet completely masculine stride as he returned again to her side. "Is there . . . someone to play the instrument for you? A neighbor, or perhaps the daughter of a servant?"

The gentleman laughed softly. "You have forgotten a great deal about me, Alayna."

Lowering her gaze, Chelsea's eyes squeezed shut. Dear God, how was she to go on? She was forever saying the wrong thing, and now, she had to contend with this . . . this disquieting manner in which Lord Rathbone's very presence affected her. Feeling him inch closer to her, as if on cue, her knees grew wobbly beneath her skirt, and her throat became inordinately dry.

"Alayna," he breathed, so near her she could feel his breath on her cheek.

She didn't dare raise her eyes to meet his now. Yet, when she felt his large, warm hand move to touch her shoulder, she risked a gaze upward. "Yes."

When he turned her to face him, Chelsea was more acutely aware of the warmth from his hand through the soft fabric of her gown than the heat from the fire blazing in the hearth. "You are so very beautiful, Alayna." Both his gaze and his voice were soft and caressing.

Chelsea held her breath.

"You've nothing to fear in Honduras, Alayna. I will always be there to protect you."

Chelsea felt her lower lip begin to tremble. No one,
no one,
had ever said those words to her before. This man had already saved her life once. Suddenly, it was all she could do not to fling herself into his arms again. Gazing up into his warm golden eyes she did not trust herself to speak. When his gaze dropped to her mouth, Chelsea knew he meant to kiss her.

As if reading her thoughts, Lord Rathbone said, "We are soon to be man and wife, Alayna. You have nothing to fear from me, either."

Chelsea shook herself.
Nothing to fear.
She had
everything
to fear! With a gasp of alarm, she jerked from his grasp. "You forget yourself, sir!" she cried.

"Alayna!" His brows snapped together. "You are behaving like an infant. We are to be married in a fortnight, for God's sake. A certain amount of . . . of contact between a man and a woman is to be expected!"

"
I
do not expect it!" Chelsea cried, realizing that, for once, she and Alayna were of the same mind in the matter. Her eyes large and round, she darted from the room. Gaining the corridor, she broke into a run and did not stop running until she reached the suite of rooms that had become her home.

Inside her chamber, she flung the door shut and leaned breathlessly against it. She was not safe in this house! Whether pretending to be Alayna, or acting of her own accord, one thing was abundantly clear.
She was definitely not safe!

Chapter Seven
“To Quarrel With You is Not My Intent”

T
hough still in a quandary over Alayna's continued resistance to him, Lord Rathbone made an effort to put the puzzle from his mind for the moment and see to the more pressing needs of the castle. After he and Alayna were married and on their way to Honduras, he'd have plenty of time to deal with his new bride's fears.

Early that next morning, he and a small army of workers, set out with the intention of repairing the rickety wooden bridge that served as the only avenue into the castle grounds. Once there, however, Lord Rathbone was chagrined to discover that during the previous night's downpour, the bridge had completely collapsed and all the moorings washed away.

"Drat and bloody hell!"
he exclaimed, trudging back up the muddy road toward the castle, his workers following dutifully at his heels. In the yard, he set the men to work reinforcing the sidewall of the stable, which looked perilously close to surrendering its thatched roof.

"When you've got that wall upright again," he told them, "we'll see to repairing one of the gigs and perhaps a wagon or two. We'll need them to bring back additional supplies from Chester in the next day or so."

With that he turned and headed again for the castle. Indoors he came upon Chelsea on her way toward Lady Rathbone's chamber.

"Bridge is out," he announced without ceremony.

"Oh, my," Chelsea replied. "I expect that means we will not be accompanying Mrs. Stevens on her parish rounds this afternoon."

"Hmm." Lord Rathbone's dark brows drew together. "I admit I had completely forgot the appointment. Good of you to remember, Alayna. I shall get word to Mr. Stevens somehow."

"Perhaps through the forest?" Chelsea suggested, not at all sure there even was a viable way through the dense thicket of trees at the rear of the grounds.

Suddenly, Lord Rathbone's stern face softened into a smile. "I had completely forgotten that, as well, Alayna. Apparently you remember more than I thought you did about being here." A look of fond remembrance in his eyes, his gaze locked with hers and lingered.

Chelsea grimaced. She had no idea what he was thinking about. "I . . . haven't forgotten everything," she lied.

"Well, I expect we shall have plenty of time to renew old memories, now that we are to be cooped up indoors for a spell." He moved a step away from Chelsea. "Will be no point attempting to rebuild the bridge now until the rain completely lets up and the ground is dry enough to support new timber."

"Hmm." Chelsea grimaced again. Cooped up in the castle with Lord Rathbone . . . for how long? she wondered. When he bent another smile upon her, a sickish feeling began in the pit of her stomach and spread upward to her throat. How she was to endure such close proximity to him without breaking down altogether she did not know.

To her immense relief, however, she did not have occasion to see much of the handsome baron for the next several days. She was as aware of him as ever though . . . three times a day at table, often during the day when she'd overhear his deep baritone imparting instructions to one or another of the servants, and always each evening, when the three of them gathered for a last cup of tea, or in Lord Rathbone's case, a snifter of brandy or sherry, in the sitting room abovestairs.

One evening, as Lady Rathbone sat dozing in her chair, the gentleman said, "Perhaps we might get up a game of chess, or backgammon, Alayna. That's another thing I miss in the tropics, having someone to challenge to a game now and again."

"Oh, well, I . . . " Chelsea racked her brain trying to recall if Alayna was a chess player or not. In the end, she decided it didn't really matter. Nothing that transpired between herself and Lord Rathbone would signify once Alayna returned and the perfidy uncovered. In the meantime, she and the gentleman had to fill the long hours of the evening somehow. At least this way there would be the safe barrier of a game table between them.

Lord Rathbone had crossed the room to a corner cupboard and was rifling through it on a quest for the chess pieces or the backgammon suitcase. "Which shall it be?" he asked, his back to Chelsea as he talked.

"Either," she responded feebly.

"Good." Carrying a small box in his hands, he headed for a circular loo table and after tilting the top into position, began to remove the contents from the box. "How about cribbage?" he asked, with a laugh. "It was all I could find."

Chelsea smiled agreeably. "Cribbage is fine. I used to play with my grandfath . . . " Abruptly she stopped.
She
had played the card game with her Grandpapa Andover many, many times but whether Alayna had played the game or not, she had no idea.

Lord Rathbone was busy dragging a pair of chairs to the table. He glanced up. "You were saying?"

Chelsea swallowed tightly. "I-I haven't played since I was a child. I hope I haven't forgotten the rules."

Lord Rathbone held a chair out for her. "We shall refresh our memories together, Alayna. As I recall, even as a child, you were a fairly apt pupil when it came to games." He positioned the wooden board between them and divided up the small markers, then reached for the deck of cards and began to shuffle them. "The last letter I received from Aunt Hermione said you had taken up whist, or was it faro? I'm not much on gambling, myself," he continued conversationally. "Now, then, let me see . . ." He began to deal the cards.

BOOK: BRIGHTON BEAUTY
4.06Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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