Authors: Jane Feather
Her visitor swept her an elegant bow, the black velvet skirts of his coat flaring. “Jack Fortescu, at your service, my lady.” He rose and extended his hand in greeting.
“His Grace of St. Jules?” Arabella queried.
“The very same, madam.” He bowed again, and picked up the dropped secateurs, setting them down on a trestle table.
“I’m afraid my brother is not here at present,” she said. “You will find him in London, I believe.”
He appeared to have no interest in the information, merely observed, “The orchids are lovely.”
“They are something of a hobby of mine,” she replied. If he wasn’t going to come to the point of this sudden appearance, she was damned if she was going to show any curiosity. She clicked her fingers at the dogs, who rather reluctantly, she thought, left the duke’s side and came over to her, sitting obediently against her legs.
“Beautiful dogs,” he said.
“Yes,” she agreed. She brushed a sticky strand of hair from her forehead and knew that her face was unbecomingly flushed with the heat.
“Perhaps we could go somewhere a little cooler,” he suggested with a solicitous air. “You seem a little … um … overheated, if you’ll forgive my saying so.”
“I’ve been working in a hothouse on a broiling day in mid-August,” she pointed out with a snap. He didn’t seem to have a hair out of place and his ruffles were still as crisp as if they’d just been under the gauffering iron, although he was standing directly beneath the point in the glass roof where the sun blazed down.
He inclined his head and stepped back to the door, opening it for her with an inviting gesture. Arabella swept past him, catching the scent of laundered linen and lavender. She was probably rank as a groom, she reflected, giving an involuntary sigh of relief at the relative cool of the stone-flagged hallway. The dogs flung themselves down on the flags with breathy sighs.
“My lady, is everything as it should be?” Her steward emerged from the shadows looking a little worried. “I explained to His Grace that Lord Dunston was absent and that you were occupied but …” He let the rest of the
sentence fade but it was clear that the duke of St. Jules had not given him the opportunity to follow correct procedure.
“I’m not quite sure what the situation is, to be honest, Franklin,” she said, looking up at her visitor. “Perhaps you would take His Grace to the drawing room. I’m sure he’d appreciate a tankard of ale in this heat and I should like a jug of lemonade … if you’ll excuse me, my lord duke, I’ll join you in a few minutes.” She hesitated, then said, “Unless, of course, you wish to discharge your errand immediately? I assume there is some purpose behind your delightful visit? Perhaps it is a very brief purpose.”
An appreciative smile touched his mouth and glimmered for an instant in his eyes. The challenge in her voice was unmistakable. “I’m afraid it’s not quickly discharged, my lady,” he said. “I will await you.”
She frowned, puzzled, intrigued, and aware of an unmistakable sense of foreboding. Then with a tiny shrug she snapped her fingers at the dogs, turned, and took the back stairs to her bedchamber, Boris and Oscar on her heels. “Bring me hot water, Lucy,” she said as she walked in, pulling at the limp ribbon in her hair. “My hands are filthy and I have a visitor.”
When she went back downstairs, she was aware that she’d left her visitor to his own devices for more than half an hour. The red setters’ toenails clicked on the waxed floorboards as they followed her. Franklin was hovering in the front hall as she descended the Elizabethan staircase.
“His Grace is in the library, my lady. He preferred it to the drawing room.”
Arabella raised her eyebrows. “Has he examined all the rooms down here, Franklin?”
“He did look in one or two of the receiving rooms, my lady.” The steward sounded both helpless and apologetic.
Arabella frowned. Visitors didn’t in general reject a host’s directions and roam the house in search of a venue they preferred. In fact, it was both rude and impertinent
and she began to wonder just what kind of a man she was harboring under her roof. It deepened her sense of foreboding. “Did you bring him ale?”
“He asked for burgundy, madam. I took the decanter in a while ago. And a jug of lemonade for you.”
Arabella nodded and crossed the hall to the library. It was a much smaller room than the grand drawing room, darker and more intimate, smelling of books and old leather and beeswax.
His Grace of St. Jules was standing at the window overlooking the side garden, a glass of wine in his hand. He turned as she came in, the dogs bounding ahead of her. She closed the door quietly behind her. “Does your orchid hobby extend to gardening in general?”
“Yes,” she said.
“It’s clear that someone has an eye for landscaping,” he offered with a smile, leaving the window to take an armless chair beside the empty grate. “The rock garden is magnificent.”
“Thank you,” she said simply, pouring herself a glass of lemonade from the jug on a little gilt table. “How do you find the wine?”
“A fine vintage,” he said. “Your brother kept a good cellar.”
Her hand paused in the act of lifting the glass to her lips. “Kept?”
He regarded her for a moment before saying quietly, “I’m afraid I am the bearer of bad news, Lady Arabella.”
She didn’t say anything immediately. She set her lemonade untasted on the table and unconsciously crossed her arms, clasping her elbows, her eyes gazing into the middle distance.
Jack waited, watching her as she absorbed the implications. He caught himself observing that the ringlets that framed her face were the rich, sumptuous color of chocolate, and her eyes were a rather fascinating tawny color. He couldn’t decide whether they were more gold or brown. Her
complexion was the color of thick cream. But despite the appealing color scheme, she was not in any conventional sense either beautiful or pretty, or even handsome. Her face was too strong, too uncompromising, dominated by high cheekbones, a firm square jaw, and a straight aquiline nose. Her dark eyebrows were thicker than prevailing fashion demanded, but her mouth was full, with a long upper lip tip-tilted at the corners.
Finally she let her hands drop from her elbows and her arms fell to her sides. “How did he die?”
The directness of the question surprised him at first, and then he realized it shouldn’t have. She didn’t strike him as a woman who would avoid unpleasantness or beat about the bush. “By his own hand,” he replied, keeping his tone even.
She frowned at that. “Why?”
“He lost everything at the tables.”
“I’m afraid so.”
Her nostrils flared slightly and she touched her mouth with her fingertips. It was clear to Jack that she understood all the implications. Then she said, “I’ll make a wild guess here. Frederick was the loser, and you, Your Grace, were the winner.”
“An accurate guess.” He reached into his coat and drew out the document that her brother had drawn up at the faro table. He rose from the chair and handed it to her.
Arabella took it and turned away from him as she unfolded it. She read it in silence, then refolded it, turned again, and handed it back. “My congratulations, Your Grace,” she said without expression. “When would you like me to leave my home?”
He slipped the document back inside his coat and said calmly, “Curiously enough, my dear, I didn’t come here to dispossess you. I came to offer you my protection.”
A faintly incredulous smile curled her lips and her voice dripped contempt. “A carte blanche, Your Grace …
how very kind of you. But I’m afraid I must decline your so generous offer.”
He held up an arresting hand and shook his head. “Don’t jump to conclusions, Lady Arabella. I already have a mistress, a most satisfactory one, and I neither want nor need another. I am, however, in need of a wife.”
CHASE THE DAWN
A Bantam Book
Avon mass market edition published February 1988
Bantam mass market edition/October 2004
A Division of Random House, Inc.
New York, New York
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
All rights reserved
Copyright © 1988 by Jane Feather
Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 87-91630
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