Authors: A Dangerous Man
HE FUNERAL PYRE WAS
arranged on the beach, a simple bier of wooden planks resting on two branches at either end, crossed and nailed into disproportionate X-shapes. Below the bier, the wood was stacked—a jumble of hewn logs, branches and smaller pieces of driftwood gathered from the beach itself, all soaked with kerosene to make them burn fast and hot. On the two wide planks rested a still figure, wrapped round with a sheet, the shape of a man but faceless, and all the more stark and lonely for that.
The widow stood at some distance, tall and statuesque, imposing in her severe black mourning. It was as close as they would let her stand. The authorities had tried to dissuade her, even sending a priest to counsel reason. It was too upsetting for delicate feminine sensibilities, they explained, too harsh a thing for her to witness.
“Rather more harsh for my husband, I imagine,” Eleanor, Lady Scarbrough, had answered in the flat way that would have warned anyone familiar with her that the lady’s mind was made up. “I will see him through to the end.”
The Italian authorities had had no experience with her, but eventually they, too, learned that Eleanor Townsend Scarbrough rarely lost an argument, and finally they had had to accede to her wishes—though they had not budged on the place where she must stand, finally dropping their delicate phrasings in exasperation and pointing out bluntly that the smell would be overpowering any closer up.
So she now stood on a hillock, still and straight, gazing across the sand to where Sir Edmund Scarbrough’s body lay in its final resting place. The wind molded the long black mantle to her body and whipped her veil, and she shivered, thinking bitterly that it should not be so cold on the sunny coast of the Kingdom of Naples.
The short, rotund man beside her glanced at Eleanor uneasily. In less somber circumstances, they would have looked comical side-by-side, she so tall and straight, he so round and short, especially given his ineffective efforts to play the role of male protector. He touched her arm, then dropped his hand, which hovered at her back, not quite daring to place it upon her unyielding form. Finally he glanced at her and then at the scene playing out below them, and his features contracted in dismay. He quickly glanced away.
“I do not think…you must be cold…Please, Lady Scarbrough…”
Eleanor spared him a brief glance. “It is all right, Signore Castellati, you need not stay. I will be perfectly fine.”
The man’s round face reflected his horror. “No, no, no.” He burst into impassioned Italian, too fast for Eleanor to follow entirely, but she understood enough to get the gist of his speech, which was that the opera impresario had no thought for himself but only for the lady’s discomfort and distress. He ended with a quick glance at the pile of wood, putting the lie to his own words.
“Thank you, Signore,” Eleanor said sincerely, reaching out and patting the short man’s arm. However silly the man might seem, he was standing fast in his determination to see her through this moment, despite his obvious dislike, even fear, and that, she thought, was very brave of him. “You have helped me a great deal.”
It was true. Castellati had been at her side throughout the last few days, ever since Sir Edmund had not returned from his afternoon of boating. While it was true that Castellati had a vested interest in Edmund’s welfare, as he was in the midst of producing Edmund’s opera, and while at times Eleanor had wished him elsewhere, he had been helpful in dealing with the Italian authorities.
Of course, Dario Paradella, Sir Edmund’s closest friend in Naples, had been by her side, as well, but he, caught up in his own grief, had been of little help. In any case, Dario, she well knew, was not on the best of terms with the Neapolitan government, as he had some rather liberal leanings that did not sit well with them.
ma donna bella…
” Dario, standing on the other side of Eleanor, turned toward her and took her hand, squeezing it tightly. “It is so sad…so sad…such a genius.”
They lit the funeral pyre then, the flames licking to life along the kerosene-soaked logs, dancing and setting the smaller pieces of driftwood alight. The men who had set it afire moved back hastily, several of them crossing themselves.
It was a macabre scene—the lifeless, covered form, the flames crawling up the wood toward it. A shudder ran through Eleanor’s body.
How had it come to this? Edmund should not have died so soon.
Guilt and regret welled up in her.
Had she been wrong to bring him here?
She had been so certain that she could help him. Improve his life, his health. She could see now what utter gall it had been on her part, what false pride she had indulged in, to think she could cheat death of its intended victim.
She had brought Edmund to Naples for his health, hoping that the warm Italian climate would prove salubrious. There was no cure, of course, for consumption, but the doctors had agreed that the damp English weather could only make him worse. But here, she had thought, where Edmund would have warmth, gentle ocean breezes, freedom from the demands of his persistent family and all the time in the world to create his music, in the country where opera was most revered, he would thrive.
Instead, he had died.
The pyre was burning fiercely now, the long form atop the bier engulfed in flames. Despite the distance, the odor of burning flesh was unmistakable. Beside her, Signor Castellati raised one gloved hand to his face, pressing a handkerchief over his nose and mouth, and turned his head away from the sight. Even Dario lowered his gaze.
But Eleanor would not let herself look away. She would not excuse herself from this last duty. It was all she could do for her husband now.
She would watch the fire consume his earthly remains, and she would take his ashes from the fire. And then, once his work was brought to completion, his opera performed in Naples, she would take his ashes home to England.
, sliced through the seal on the note that the footman had just handed him and read through it quickly. He sighed. His older sister, Honoria, was informing him that she planned to visit him that afternoon. Knowing Honoria, he suspected that her carriage would arrive not long after the messenger.
He was aware of a cowardly impulse to send a note to the stables to saddle his horse and pretend that he had not been there to receive Honoria’s message. But he knew, with a sigh, that he could not. It had been only six months since Sir Edmund’s death. Annoying as his sister could be, he could not bring himself to be rude to a grieving mother.
Tossing the letter onto his desk, he rang for the footman and sent a message to the kitchen, informing the butler that his sister would be with them for tea…and perhaps supper.
He walked over to the window and stood looking out on the front drive. It was his favorite view, offering a sweeping expanse of the front yard, the drive and the trees beyond, but at the moment, he scarcely saw it. His thoughts were turned inward, to his nephew and the young man’s death six months ago. He had not been close, he supposed, to Edmund; he was not, he admitted, close to any of his relatives—a fault, no doubt Honoria would tell him, of his own nature. But he had been fond of Edmund, and had thought him a man of great talent and promise. Anthony had been saddened by the news of Edmund’s death, and he was certain that the world would be poorer for the music that it had lost.
It had been clear for years that Edmund would not have a long life. He had always been sickly. But to have lost him this way, in a sudden accident, seemed even more wrong. Anthony could not help but wonder if the young man would still have been alive if it had not been for that stubborn woman he had been foolish enough to marry.
At the time, despite his dislike for Eleanor Townsend, now Lady Scarbrough, he had approved of their moving to Italy, thinking that the warm, sunny clime would be better for Edmund’s consumption than the damp winters of England. Nor, he had thought, would it hurt the young man to be farther away from his mother’s frequent complaints and demands.
But ever since Edmund’s death, Anthony had been weighed down by the guilty thought that he had failed his nephew by not trying to persuade him to remain in England. Only Anthony knew how much of his decision not to talk to Sir Edmund about it had been due to his reluctance to go to Sir Edmund’s house, where he might once again run into Lady Eleanor.
Anthony felt the same uneasy sensations that he always did whenever he thought of Lady Eleanor—a volatile blend of annoyance and sharp physical hunger, as well as a fierce stab of anger at his seeming inability to control those emotions. The devil take the woman, he thought. She was impossible in every way, not the least of which was that she was impossible to forget.
It had been a year since he had first seen her, but he could remember every moment of it perfectly….
on the door of Eleanor Townsend’s house and waited, wishing he were somewhere else, anywhere else. He regretted telling his sister he would talk to the woman Sir Edmund intended to marry.
Anthony had not wanted to do as his older sister asked; everything within him rebelled at the idea of messing about in his relatives’ lives. He was a man who preferred to live his own life free of others’ interference, and he liked to return the favor.
But Honoria had pleaded with him, hands clasped dramatically to her heaving bosom. He must save her only son from the clutches of a money-hungry harpy, she had told him. Edmund was so young and inexperienced that he had asked an American adventuress to marry him. Eleanor Townsend, Honoria was convinced, had tricked her son into it. Anthony, she had decided, must call upon the American siren who had ensnared Edmund and convince her not to marry him. An offer of money, in Honoria’s opinion, would speak volumes with the adventuress.
Honoria, who was in fact his half sister, had, of course, reminded him of his duty as the head of the family and especially of his duty regarding her. She had been fourteen years old when his mother had died giving birth to him and had, at least according to Honoria herself, practically raised him. And, she pointed out, he of all people should know the harm that could be done by a beautiful adventuress who lured a rich man into marriage.
Anthony was well aware of his responsibilities to his family; it was a lesson that had been pounded into his head from childhood. However, he was also quite aware that for his sister, the earl’s duties usually coincided with her own wishes. And since he knew that Honoria had married and left the house when he was five years old, and that he had been primarily raised by his old nurse and a succession of governesses until he was old enough to be sent away to Eton, he was generally unmoved by Honoria’s claims to have been “almost a mother” to him.
Ordinarily, he would have turned down her request, disavowing that one of his responsibilities was meddling about in the private life of a grown man of twenty-four years of age.
But Sir Edmund was different. There was a childlike innocence to him that one rarely saw in an aristocratic young gentleman, and he was possessed of a talent that both awed and puzzled Anthony. He suspected that Edmund was a musical genius, but the young man’s experience with the world—and his ability to deal with it—were as small as his talent was large. Anthony, being fonder of the young man than he was of most of his relatives, had hated to see him crushed between his mother and his fiancée.
Besides, Honoria was right about one thing: He
have a wealth of personal experience in the area of the harm wrought by a beautiful, money-hungry woman. His father had married one when Anthony was sixteen, and she had managed to drive a wedge between Anthony and his father that had almost destroyed their relationship.
So, finally, Anthony had agreed to her request, and here he was, standing on Eleanor Townsend’s doorstep. He allowed himself a small, vain hope that no one would answer the door.
At that moment the door swung open, revealing a man who looked like no other servant Anthony had ever seen. He was short and squarely built, the muscles of his chest and arms straining against the cloth of his jacket. One ear was peculiarly misshapen; his nose appeared to have been broken at least once in the past, and there were two or three small scars on his face. He looked, Anthony thought, more like a pugilist or a ruffian than a servant.
“Lord Neale,” Anthony told him, extracting a calling card from his case and extending it to him.
Unlike a proper British footman or butler, the man did not hold out a small silver tray for him to place the card upon but simply took it from Anthony’s hand. He examined it somewhat suspiciously, then nodded to Anthony.
“I’ll tell her you’re here,” the man told him and strode away, leaving Anthony standing in the entry hall.
Anthony watched him leave, astonished. It was the first time he could remember ever being left to wait in the hall when he called upon someone. His title and wealth usually earned him a deferential bow, after which he was escorted to the best drawing room.
Another man might have been offended. Anthony found it rather amusing.
warned him that Miss Townsend and her household were decidedly “off.” She was, first of all, an American. Secondly, she was an unmarried woman living in London without any sort of proper chaperone—unless one could count a young Indian
for the two children who traveled with her, which Honoria clearly did not. Thirdly, as Honoria had found out by setting one of her own servants to spy on the house from across the street, Miss Townsend’s household consisted of a hodgepodge of people from a variety of countries, including not only the two children whose parentage was decidedly unclear—one of them was American and the other apparently French—and the aforementioned Indian girl who cared for the children, but also an African man who wore not the livery of a servant but the suit of a gentleman and who was, according to the gossip Honoria’s spy had heard in a nearby pub, Miss Townsend’s man of business.
Anthony glanced around him as he waited, taking in the spare yet elegant décor. Whatever else could be said about Miss Townsend, her taste was impeccable.
He wondered if the woman was the grasping harpy his older sister had portrayed her as. Honoria was not only given to dramatic excess, she was, in Anthony’s opinion, far too protective and clinging where her son was concerned. Edmund had been frail from childhood, given to coughs and catarrh. More than once the doctor had assured Honoria that her beloved son would not last through the winter.
As a result of this—and her innate personality—Honoria had coddled Edmund all his life, keeping him at home with her until, as a grown man, he had finally insisted on moving to London and living on his own. Even then, Honoria had kept him running to her side for one reason or another, alternating her coddling with pleas for him to help her with this problem or that. She had, Anthony thought, ignored her daughter, Samantha, and her late husband in her obsession with her son—which was, he reasoned, probably a good thing as far as the daughter was concerned.
Honoria would not easily give up her son to another woman, and Anthony suspected that even a saint would not have earned the elder Lady Scarbrough’s approval.
However, he could not dismiss her suggestion out of hand, either. Edmund’s title and fortune, while not as great as Anthony’s own, were enough to lure any fortune-hunting female. Moreover, given Edmund’s frail constitution and the frequency with which he suffered from debilitating fevers and lung ailments—which Edmund privately feared was deadly consumption, not just the weak constitution that Honoria believed—the aforesaid fortune-hunting female could feel assured that she would not have to play the role of loving wife for long but would within a few years be a wealthy widow.
At the sound of footsteps, Anthony turned and went absolutely still. The woman walking toward him was stunning.
She was tall and statuesque, with thick jet-black hair and vivid blue eyes. Her firm jaw and prominent cheekbones were, perhaps, a trifle too strong, but those features were softened by a soft, full-lipped mouth and large, compelling eyes. She was dressed in peacock blue, too bold for a proper maiden, and she carried herself with confidence, head up and gaze straight.
A wave of pure physical desire swept through Anthony, so intense and hot that it stunned him. He was a man used to being in control of himself, and at thirty-five years of age, he considered himself long past the adolescent days of being swept this way or that by sheer lust. But this woman…
He took an unconscious step toward her, then stopped, realizing what he was doing. By sheer strength of will, he tamped down the surge of desire.
Clearly, he thought, this was the woman who had captured Sir Edmund’s heart. And, just as clearly, his sister had been correct in her assessment that Miss Eleanor Townsend was a fortune hunter. There was no way a woman like this would be marrying his inarticulate, inexperienced nephew out of love. Indeed, it was astonishing that she had not set her cap for a wealthier man or one of higher title.
She was a beauty of the kind who could inspire poets or start wars. And she had the confident carriage of a woman well aware of her power. Had she been some timid soul, a sweet girl fresh from the country, he could have believed that she had fallen in love with his nephew, dazzled, perhaps, by his genius, or filled with the maternal urge to take care of him.
But this was no naïve girl. This was a woman in the full flush of her beauty, strong and self-assured. It was ludicrous to think that she could have fallen in love with Edmund.
Anthony, much to his regret, was quite familiar with manipulative beauties and the ways in which they ensnared men too weak or lonely to see past their looks.
“Lord Neale?” Eleanor Townsend said, and there was a certain wariness in her eyes that made him feel even more certain that she was an adventuress. An innocent female, surely, would not be so guarded when meeting her fiancé’s relative. “You are Edmund’s uncle?”
He nodded shortly, irritated by the fact that her voice, low and throaty with just the trace of an American inflection, made his loins tighten. “Yes.”
Her eyebrows rose a fraction at his response, and he knew that he had sounded rude. He was not a man who was particularly at ease in social situations. While he enjoyed intelligent conversation, he had never mastered the art of polite small talk. Indeed, he had never tried, disdaining both trivial conversation and the social occasions at which it was employed. He was considered blunt and rather antisocial, and the only reason he continued to be invited to all the best parties, even though he rarely attended, was because of his title and his fortune. But on this occasion, he knew, he was even stiffer than usual, rattled by his body’s intense reaction to this woman.
“Why don’t we converse in the drawing room?” she suggested, gesturing down the hall, then turning and starting in the direction she had indicated. “I am sorry that Edmund is not here.”
“I didn’t expect him to be.” It was, after all, not yet noon, rather early for anyone to be visiting. “I came to see
“Indeed? I am honored.”
Anthony did not miss the slightly ironic twist to her voice as she said the words. She sat down in a chair, motioning him to do likewise, and waited, watching him coolly.