Authors: Stacey Brutger
She prayed he was right. The train lurched when the engineers hit the brakes, and she was thrown forward. She slammed into Gabriel, grabbing his jacket to stay on her feet. He caught her close, wrapping her in the safety of his arms, and they both froze.
Her breath caught as he stared down at her hungrily. Just when she thought he would kiss her, someone knocked. “My lord, we’ll be ready for you to depart in five minutes.”
As if he’d been caught in a compromising position, Gabriel hastily released her and retreated.
He rubbed the back of his neck, a slight blush darkening his cheeks as he glanced at her. “Sorry.”
Diana watched him busy himself around the room. She didn’t like the way he dismissed the connection between them so easily. She decided to use his tactic. Every time he drew near, she brushed against him, careful to stifle her smile when he stiffened and sucked in a sharp breath.
After the second time, understanding darkened his eyes, though he seemed a bit puzzled by her motives.
All too soon, the train came to a stop.
As they departed, Gabriel scooped up a giggling Emilie and swung her down from the train. Wolf jumped to the platform, barking and chasing after Emilie’s swinging legs. When Gabriel set Emilie down, she and the dog landed in a tangle of legs and fur and much giggling.
Gabriel turned toward Diana, mischief dancing in his eyes. He ignored her hand, grabbed her waist and swung her to the ground without batting an eye about her weight. Her heart fluttered at the romantic gesture, and she clutched his shoulders, losing herself at the desire in his eyes when he peered down at her. The heat from his palms soaked into her body, and she swayed toward him, seeking more.
Wolf tugged at her skirts, then jumped around to chase Emilie. Their antics broke the spell and Diana pulled away, groaning as she straightened her back, stiff from being immobile for so long.
Emilie laughed while Wolf chased her skirts and licked her face every chance he got. When she heard a long-suffering sigh behind her, she knew she’d won. Wolf would be staying.
Gabriel guided them to a waiting carriage. As they travelled through London, Diana stared out the window, conscious of Gabriel seated just inches from her. Emilie and Wolf sat in the opposite seat, their eyes wide as they took in the spectacle outside. Smells and sounds assaulted her, the combination well-nigh overwhelming. The stench of the wharf battled the nearly overpowering odor of horses and press of sweaty humans. Coal smoke thickened the air, leaving a dirty taste in her mouth. The constant clatter of hooves and wheels over the cobblestones couldn’t drown out the unrelenting din of voices.
Overwhelmed by the commotion, hating that she wasn’t able to keep track of all the action, Diana leaned away from the window. The lack of wide-open spaces pressed down on her, and the inside of the carriage began to feel like a cage.
She felt so out of her element, her gut churned with dread, and she began to doubt the wisdom of their plan.
How was she supposed to keep them safe in such unfamiliar surroundings?
Gabriel’s hand came to rest on her own and squeezed, startling her out of her ruminations.
He studied her with a frown. “You don’t enjoy the city.”
It wasn’t a question, and he seemed genuinely confused.
She gave him a tired smile and lied through her teeth. “It’s been a long ride.”
He didn’t look convinced but accepted her explanation, and once again she found his big presence comforting.
“You should try to rest. We won’t reach the house for another hour.” Gabriel unbuttoned his jacket, stretched out, and closed his eyes. Wolf huffed at being forced to make room, and Gabriel cracked open one eye, lowered his brows, and another standoff ensued as they battled to decide who was the alpha. As if making his point, Gabriel closed his eyes. Diana allowed herself to relax as the scenery passed by in a blur, and she nodded off.
* * *
of motion penetrated Diana’s consciousness, but the warmth beneath her encouraged her to linger…until the surface moved.
Her eyes shot open and it took her brain precious seconds to understand she was sprawled across Gabriel.
Mortified that she had practically crawled in his lap while she slept, she bolted upright, but the lack of space in the carriage left her nowhere to go.
Gabriel slowly reached out and tucked a stray strand of hair behind her ear. “We’re here.”
His comment startled her so much she forgot her awkwardness. She leaned across him, bracing her hand against the door to peer out the window and study the house.
The dirty, crowded buildings had vanished, replaced by well-kept, majestic homes. The lawns were manicured, the hedges trimmed, everything was immaculate.
While there was beauty to this part of the city, it was still noisy, smelly, crowded and cold. She much preferred her forest.
Gabriel cleared his throat, and she glanced at him over her shoulder, suddenly conscious that she was once again stretched across his lap, her bottom practically swinging under his nose. Only then did she realize that she was supposed to show polite interest, not climb over him to gape at the house like a ninny.
She opened her mouth, but whatever she was about to say was lost in a face full of fur when Wolf wiggled himself between them.
“Wolf!” Diana lost her balance and landed on Gabriel in a tumble of skirts. She pushed at Wolf’s stubborn hide, lifting her arms to fend off his tongue, struggling to contain her helpless laugher. By the time the zealous dog settled down, she was on the floor, kneeling between Gabriel’s splayed thighs.
In that exact moment, the door to the carriage opened.
She could just imagine the picture she created—breathless, her face flushed from laughing, her hair tumbling about her after her struggle with Wolf.
Not the first best impression, but it ensured no one would soon forget.
She glanced back at the traitor, and saw the rascally dog innocently seated at the other end of the carriage, his head hanging out the window. She’d swear she could almost hear the beast snicker.
Gabriel went rigid, while someone beyond the door coughed, barely disguising a laugh.
“For heaven’s sake, Mendenhall, such inappropriate behavior to bring your doxy out in public. I see you haven’t changed much.” An elderly female voice harrumphed.
Acid churned in Diana’s gut, and she felt mortified for putting Gabriel in such a compromising situation. She opened her mouth to apologize, only to see Gabriel’s slight smirk.
“I’m glad to see I’m not the only one the dog menaces.” His voice was low, meant only for her.
Diana leaned back, completely flabbergasted by his nonchalance. She tried to scramble to her feet when Gabriel smoothly extracted himself and leapt out of the carriage. Her breath stalled at his effortless strength.
She stood to clamber out after him when he plucked her out of the carriage and deposited her by his side, practically tucking her into his arms. Three people stood waiting, an older woman and two men.
“I would like to introduce my new wife, Lady Mendenhall.”
The woman who spoke gasped, her mouth opening and closing like a fish.
“Diana, please meet Gertrude Ashmore, my former mother-in-law, and her companion, Mr. Weasel.”
“Whea-sil. You pronounce it Whea-sil” The rotund man drew himself up to his full height, his nose twitching in affront, but the effect was ruined since he was a foot shorter than Gabriel. She could see the top of his head, his oily, thin hair brushed forward, doing nothing to hide his shiny scalp. He kept licking his pudgy lips like a creepy reptile.
“Of course. That’s what I said.” Humor danced in Gabriel’s eyes when he turned to the last man. “And…”
“Vance Ashmore. I’m Gertrude’s nephew.” The other man nodded, but an amused smile lurked around his mouth. “A pleasure to meet you, my lady.”
Diana couldn’t help feeling a little intimidated. The man was prettier than most women. If this was his first wife’s cousin, she couldn’t imagine how stunning his wife must have been…and how lacking Gabriel must find her plain looks.
Milles calmly emerged from the house. Gabriel nodded to the butler, and the man extracted a sleeping Emilie and carried her into the house without a fuss.
“Why don’t we move into the house?”
Gabriel pushed his way past the others, his arm tightening protectively around her. Diana admitted, if only to herself, that she could become accustomed to his attention.
The outside of the house was large, the exterior made of smooth, white stone. The door was plain, but twice the normal size, the dark wood was set into the stone, reminding her of a fortress. Then Milles was there, opening the door.
“Welcome home, my lord.” He bowed, then turned toward her. “My lady.” To her shock, he bowed again.
When she turned, she got her first glimpse at the foyer beyond. The opulence overwhelmed her. The large, circular landing at the base of the stairs was the centerpiece of the room. The stairs curved against the wall, leading up to a large balcony overlooking the open area below. The rich, dark wood gleamed, the spindles spaced evenly, the craftsmanship superb.
Underneath it, a wide hallway led to the back of the house. An open door to the left revealed a study, while the doors to the right were too far away to steal a peek. Plush carpeting in three different shades of green cushioned her footsteps.
Gabriel strode forward boldly, obviously focused on business. Diana was pulled along, trying not to be overwhelmed by the wealth.
The house itself suited Gabriel…until you noted the gaudy paintings and the delicate furniture.
Gabriel turned and pinned her to the spot with a single look. He must have noted something in her expression and twisted to see what held her attention. She might have assumed his expression was neutral if she hadn’t spent the last twenty-four hours studying it. “You will, of course, decorate to your taste,” he said. “I believe there are some older pieces in the attic you might prefer.”
Milles bowed politely. “I will bring them down immediately for your inspection, my lady.”
Feeling out of her depth, Diana nodded. “I’m sure what you decide will be acceptable. Something sturdy. Anything more suited to Mendenhall’s size would work best for me as well.”
Milles beamed, his bruiser appearance vanishing to give him a more boyish look. “Right away, my lady.”
The older woman shoved the two gentlemen out of her way and stalked toward them. Diana was relieved when she was ignored completely, the lady’s beady eyes focused solely on Gabriel. “I wasn’t aware that you had planned to remarry. Isn’t it rather sudden?”
The witch turned her turbaned head to stare at Diana…or more precisely at her stomach, as if she had trapped him with a pregnancy. “I’m sure…other arrangements can be made.”
Gabriel snorted. “No need. The wedding took place yesterday.”
Wolf took that moment to charge through the door after inspecting his new territory. He wove around the people until he stood at her side.
“What is that horrible beast doing in my house?” The old woman screeched, then pulled out a handkerchief and sneezed, covering the bottom half of her face. “I won’t have it. Get him out.”
Diana opened her mouth to defend Wolf, but Gabriel stepped in front of her. “My house, you mean. If you object, you may, of course, find other accommodations.”
Mrs. Ashmore gasped, clutching her face as if Gabriel had reached out and slapped her. “You haven’t changed at all. You’re just as much a beast as when you married my daughter. If not for you, she would still be alive.”
Gabriel didn’t react in any way, and Diana’s chest burned at the abuse. Diana snapped her fingers and pointed up the stairs. “Find Emilie. Protect.”
Without needing any further urging, Wolf launched himself up the stairs. After he dashed out of sight, Diana marched toward the bitter old woman, stopping when there were only inches apart. “That’s enough. I find Gabriel a delight and perfectly acceptable. If you find him so offensive, you should be the one to leave. We wouldn’t want you to feel unsafe.”
The woman sucked in a deep breath, her eyes spitting fire. “Why you ungrateful little—”
“Enough.” Gabriel wrapped his hands around her waist from behind, picked her up and set her aside. “You will not speak to my wife in that manner.”
Gertrude looked furious enough to claw out his eyes, when she suddenly laughed as if their marriage were a joke. “She’s completely unsuitable. You will be a laughing stock of society. I won’t be a party to you tarnishing my poor daughter’s reputation by bringing that creature here. I will stay, but only for my granddaughter’s sake. I will not have this woman taint her with her hoydenish ways. Emilie will be raised as a lady, just like her mother.”
Gabriel narrowed his eyes, his soul chilled at the threat. He would not have his little angel exposed to this viper. “Your daughter wanted nothing to do with Emilie. I will not have you mold her into a duplicate of the spoiled brat you raised.”
Gertrude flushed red, her face turning blotchy under the caked makeup.