Authors: Stephanie Laurens
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical
There was no need. Martin came through the door and stopped by her side. One comprehensive glance was all it took for him to grasp the conclusion the inhabitants of the Frog and Duck had jumped to. He scowled at the landlord. ‘A private parlour, host, where my wife can be at ease.’
The growled command wiped the leer from the landlord’s face so fast, he had no expression ready to cover the ensuing blankness.
Helen was not sure whether to laugh or gasp.
? In the end, she covered her left hand with her right and, tipping up her chin, looked down her nose at the landlord, a feat assisted by the fact that she was taller than he. The man shrank as obsequiousness took hold.
‘Yes, m’lord! Certainly, m’lord. If madam would step this way?’
Bowing every two paces, he led them to a neat little parlour. While Martin gave orders for a substantial meal, Helen sank, with a little sigh of thankfulness, into a well-padded armchair by the hearth, carefully avoiding the mirror above the mantelpiece. She had little real idea how bad her state was, but could not imagine knowing would help.
Martin heard her sigh. He glanced at her, then said to the landlord, ‘We had an accident with our chaise. Our servants are following behind, with our luggage. Perhaps,’ he continued, raising his voice and turning to address a weary Juno, ‘you’d like to refresh yourself above stairs, my dear?’
Helen blinked, then readily agreed. Led to a small chamber and supplied with warm water, she washed the dust of the road from her face and hands, then steeled herself to examine the damage her adventures had wrought
in her appearance. It was not as bad as she had feared. Her eyes were sparkling clear and the wind had whipped colour into her cheeks. Clearly, driving about the countryside with Martin Willesden agreed with her constitution. In the end, she undid her hair and reformed the mass of curls into a simpler knot. Her dress, the apricot silk marred by a host of creases, was beyond her ability to change. Other than shaking and straightening her skirts, there was little else she could do.
Returning to the parlour, she found their repast laid out upon the table. Martin rose with a smile and held a chair for her.
At her nod, he filled her glass. Then, without more ado, they applied themselves to the task of demolishing the food before them.
Finally satisfied, Martin sat back in his chair and put aside contemplation of their problems the better to savour his wine while quietly studying fair Juno, absorbed in peeling a plum. His eyes slid over her generous curves— generous, ample—such words came readily to mind. Along with luscious, ripe and other, less acceptable terms. Martin hid a smile behind his goblet. All in all, he had no fault to find in the arrangement of fair Juno’s dispositions.
‘We won’t reach London tonight, will we?’
The question drew Martin’s gaze to her lips, full and
richly curved and presently stained with plum juice. A driving urge to taste them seared through him. Abruptly, he refocused his mind on their problem. He raised his eyes to Juno’s, troubled green and concerned. He smiled reassuringly. ‘No.’
Helen felt justified in ignoring the smile. ‘No’, he said, and smiled. Did he have any idea of the panic she was holding at bay by dint of sheer determination?
Apparently, he did, for he continued, more seriously, ‘Getting stuck in that ford has delayed us too much. However, I draw the line at driving my horses through the night, not that that would avail us, for I can’t see arriving in London at dawn to be much improvement over our current state.’
Helen frowned, forced to acknowledge the truth of that remark. He would not be able to hire a chaise for her if they passed by Hounslow in the middle of the night.
‘And, before you suggest it, I refuse to be a party to any scheme to hire a chaise for you to travel alone through the night.’
Helen’s frown deepened. She opened her mouth to argue.
Helen shut her mouth and glared. But his tone and the set of his jaw warned her that no argument would shift him. And, in truth, she had no wish to spend the night jolting over the roads, a prey to fears of highwaymen and worse. ‘What, then?’ she asked in her most reasonable tone.
She was rewarded with a brilliant smile which quite took her breath away. Luckily, he did not expect her to speak.
‘I had wondered,’ Martin began diffidently, unsure how his plan would be received, ‘if we could find an inn where neither of us is known, to put up in for the night.’
Helen considered the suggestion. She could see no alternative. Raising her napkin to wipe her lips, she raised her eyes to his. ‘How will we explain our disreputable state— and our lack of servants and luggage?’
The instant she asked the question, she knew the answer. Deliciously wicked, but, she reasoned, it was all part of her adventure and thus could be viewed with a lenient eye.
Pleased by her tacit acceptance of the only viable plan he had, Martin relaxed. ‘We can tell the same story I edified our host with—that we’ve had an accident and our retainers are following behind with the luggage.’
Still a little nervous of the idea, Helen nodded. Did he intend to claim they were wed?
‘Which reminds me,’ said Martin, sliding the gold signet from his right hand. ‘You had better wear this for the duration.’ He held the heavy ring out and dropped it into her palm.
Helen studied the ring, still warm from his hand. Obviously, they were to appear married. She slipped it on to the third finger of her left hand. To her surprise, its weight, in that remembered place, did not evoke the expected horror.
Instead, it was strangely reassuring, a source of strength, a pledge of protection.
‘Very well,’ she said. She drew a deep breath and purposefully added, ‘But we’ll have to have separate rooms.’ Determined to be clear on that point, she raised her eyes to his darkly handsome face and beheld a haughty expression.
‘Naturally,’ returned Martin repressively. It would undoubtedly be safer that way. Aside from anything else, he would need to get some sleep. He studied Juno’s fair countenance and the need to know her real name grew. Given that they were to masquerade cloaked in wedded bliss, he felt that their increasing intimacy justified a request for enlightenment. ‘I rather think, my dear, that, given our new relationship, it might be appropriate if I knew your name.’
Engrossed in fantasies revolving around their new relationship, Helen gave a start. ‘Oh.’ She thought once more of the matter, inwardly acknowledging her reluctance and her reasons for it. Eyeing the handsome face, the strangely compelling eyes fixed on hers, she admitted to an urge to tell him, to confide in a man so transparently at ease in her world. But hard on the heels of that feeling came a premonition of how he would look when he heard her name. He would know of her husband; they would likely have met. What would he feel—pity? Revulsion, albeit carefully cloaked? Doing anything to damage the closeness she sensed between them was repugnant.
Letting her gaze fall, she picked up her napkin, creasing the folds between her fingers. ‘I…really…’ Her words trailed away. How to explain what she felt?
Martin smiled a little crookedly. He would have liked her to confide in him but the point was not worth disturbing her over. ‘You really feel you shouldn’t?’
Helen threw him a grateful look. ‘It’s just that the adventure seems more…complete—and,’ she added, determined at least to have some of the truth, ‘my behaviour more excusable if I continue incognito.’
Smiling more broadly, Martin inclined his head in acceptance. ‘Very well. But what should I call you?’
With a gentle smile that, unbeknown to her, held an element of sweet shyness quite at odds with her years, Helen said, ‘You choose. I’m sure you can invent something appropriate.’
Her smile very nearly overset Martin’s much tried control. He had thought it strengthened by the years, but fair Juno was temptation beyond any he had ever faced. Invent something? His mind was seething with invention, did she but know it. But, as knowledge of his thoughts would hardly be conducive to allowing her to continue with reasonable calm in his company, he could only be thankful that they did not show in his face.
They did show in his eyes. Even with the table between them, Helen saw the smoke rise and cloud the grey. Stormy
heat caressed her. Mesmerised, she sat and waited, breathless and trying to hide it. Heaven forbid that he ever realise how much he affected her!
‘Juno,’ Martin said, just managing to keep his voice within acceptable range. ‘Fair Juno.’ His smile was entirely beyond his control, laced with wicked thoughts and scandalous suggestion.
Helen lifted one brow, trying to pour cold water on the flames she could feel flickering around them. ‘I hardly think, my lord, that such an allusion is appropriate.’
His smile only gained in intensity. ‘On the contrary, my dear. I feel it entirely appropriate.’
Helen tried to frown. Juno—queen of the goddesses. How could she argue with that?
‘And now, having settled our immediate future, I suggest we get on our way.’ Martin rose and stretched, letting languid grace cloak his haste. If he did not get out of here soon, and back to the relative safety of the curricle’s box seat, he would not answer for the consequences. Exposure to fair Juno was sapping all will to resist his rakish inclinations. And he had dinner with her, alone, to look forward to. He had need to recoup what strength he could.
He went around the table and helped her to her feet. Tucking her small hand into the crook of his arm, he led her to the door. ‘Come, my lady. Your carriage awaits.’
hey had chosen the Bells at Cholderton as their overnight stop. The small town nestled just south of the London road, the major traffic passing by without pause. The Bells was an old house, less frequented in these days of rapid travel but still in sufficiently good state to hold promise of a comfortable night.
Shown into a private parlour, Helen glanced about at the faded elegance. She nodded in approval, her haughty demeanour supporting their fiction. Martin had told their story, his natural arrogance wiping out any possibility of disbelief. Lord and Lady Willesden required rooms for the night. The landlord found nothing amiss with the request; he was, in fact, only too pleased to see them.
‘My good wife will have your supper ready directly,
m’lord. There’s duck and partridge, with lamb’s-foot jelly and a wine syllabub to follow.’
Languidly superior, Martin nodded. ‘That should do admirably.’
When the door closed behind the little man, Martin glanced her way, laughter lurking in his grey eyes. ‘Just so,’ he said, his smile warming her every bit as much as the fire in the grate.
Feeling her nervousness increase as he drew nearer, Helen turned to hold out her chilled fingers to the blaze. When the sun had slipped beneath the horizon, he had insisted she don his greatcoat. Her fingers went to the heavy garment to ease it from her shoulders. Instantly, he was beside her. His fingers brushed hers.
‘Here, let me.’
She had to, for she could not have moved if the ceiling had fallen. His gentle touch, so simple but almost a caress, and the velvety quality cloaking his rumbling growl, drowned her senses in dizzying distraction. The effect he had on her was intensifying with time. How on earth was she to survive the evening?
As soon as he stepped away from her to drop the coat over a chair, Helen sank into the armchair by the fire. She drew a deep breath, forcing herself to meet his intent gaze when he turned once more to face her.
Martin studied the vision before him, reading her unease
with accomplished certainty. If circumstances had been different, she would have every reason to feel threatened. As things stood, she was safe. Or at least, he amended, safe enough. He knew she could sense his attraction and was hourly more entertained by her efforts to hide her consciousness of him. Entertained and intrigued. Clearly, fair Juno, if widow she was, was not one of those who dispensed her favours with gay abandon.
As he watched, a small frown creased Juno’s brow.
‘Why aren’t you travelling with a groom or tiger?’
Elegantly disposing his long limbs in the chair opposite hers, Martin smiled, perfectly ready to converse on such innocent topics. ‘My groom fell victim to a severe head cold. I left him at the Hermitage.’ Considering that fact, privately Martin owned to some relief that Joshua had not been perched behind, cramping his style.
‘Does the Hermitage have many farms attached?’
‘Six. They’re all leased to long-term tenants.’
Succeeding questions, which Martin was shrewd enough to know were far from artless, led them to a discussion of farming and the care of estates. He could appreciate Juno’s desire to avoid questions on town pursuits; such topics were likely to give him more clues to her identity. Yet her opinions on the organisation of farm labour and the problems faced by tenant farmers were equally revealing. Her knowledge of the subject could not have been acquired
other than through first-hand experience. All of which added to his mental picture of fair Juno. She had spent a goodly portion of her life on a large and well-run estate.
A brisk knock on the door heralded the landlord. ‘Your dinner, m’lord.’ Carrying a heavily laden tray, he entered, closely followed by a buxom woman with tablecloth and cutlery. Together, they efficiently laid the table, then bowed and withdrew.
Rising, Martin held out his hand. ‘Shall we?’
Placing her hand in his, Helen ruthlessly stifled the thrill that shot through her at his touch, assuming her most regal manner as she allowed him to lead her to the table and seat her at one end. The slight smile which played about his lips suggested he was not deceived by her worldly air.
Thankfully, the food gave her a safe topic for discussion.
‘I have to admit to ignorance of the latest fads. Thirteen years is a long time away from the boards of the fashionable.’
Encouraged by this admission, Helen ignored the laughing understanding lighting his grey eyes and launched into a catalogue of the latest culinary delights.
When the landlord re-entered to draw the covers, Helen grasped the opportunity to retreat to the chair by the fire. She heard the door shut behind their host and wondered, a little frantically, how she was to manage for the next two hours.
Turning to see Martin at the sideboard, decanter in hand, she shook her head. Did he but know it, he did not need any assistance to befuddle her wits.
Helping himself to a large dose, undoubtedly required if he was to sleep with Juno, alone, next door, Martin came to stand by the fire, one booted foot on the fender, his shoulders propped against the mantelpiece.
‘Your man is not going to be impressed with your boots.’
Martin followed her glance and grimaced. ‘I’ll have to entrust them to the boots here. Joshua will, in all probability, never forgive me.’
Helen smiled at his nonsense. Despite the tingling of her nerves, due entirely to her company, she felt relaxed and at peace, not a state she had had much experience of over her life. Content, she thought, searching for the right word. Engaged in a most scandalous escapade and I feel content. How odd.
Catching Martin’s gaze as it rested lightly upon her, she smiled. He smiled back, a slow, pensive smile, and she felt the heat rise inside her. Her eyes locked with his, smoky grey and intent, and she felt her will start to slip from its moorings.
Sounds of an arrival disrupted their silent communion. Martin turned to stare at the door. The noise beyond rose until it resolved into the clamour of many voices. An invasion had found the Bells.
Helen frowned. ‘What could it be?’
Equally at sea, Martin shook his head. ‘Too late for a scheduled stop, I would have thought.’ Inwardly, he hoped that whatever company had sought shelter at the inn did not include any who might recognise either Juno or himself. If it ever became known, there was no possibility that their escapade would be viewed as innocent.
The noise outside subsided to a steady hum. Almost immediately, the landlord arrived to satisfy their curiosity.
‘Excuse me, m’lord, but it seems a night for accidents. The night coach for Plymouth’s lost a wheel just up the road. The smith says as it can’t be fixed ‘til the morrow, so’s we’re having to put up all the passengers here. If it be all the same to you and her ladyship,’ he said, ducking his head in Helen’s direction, ‘I’ve put you in the main chamber. It’s got a huge bed, m’lord—you won’t be disappointed. But there’s more people than we have beds as ‘tis, so I didn’t think as how you’d mind.’
The man looked hopefully at Martin. Martin looked back, wondering how Juno was taking the news. From his point of view, the disaster was a damned nuisance. But if he insisted on separate rooms, they would probably end up sharing with some less suitable bedfellows—the sort who travelled on the night coach. And, all in all, with the extra men in the house, he would much rather Juno was safe by his side, even if he got no sleep as a result. ‘Very well,’ he replied in his most languid voice. He heard the hiss of
Juno’s indrawn breath and suppressed a smile. ‘In the circumstances, your best chamber will have to do.’
Obviously relieved, the landlord bobbed his head and departed.
Martin turned to meet Juno’s reproving gaze. One black brow rose. ‘In truth, my dear, you’ll be far safer with me than alone this night.’
There was no answer to that. Helen dragged her gaze from his face and fastened it on the flames leaping and dancing about the large log in the grate. The prospect of sleeping in the same bed as Martin Willesden left her feeling numb. It was shock, she supposed. She had slept in his arms in the loft last night, but a loft was not the same as a bed. Her adventure was taking a decidedly dangerous turn. No—it was impossible. She would have to think of some alternative.
But she had still to discover another way from the impasse when, at Martin’s suggestion, they went upstairs to their room, the largest chamber as promised. A welcoming fire burned in the grate, a bed which was every bit as huge as her fevered imagination had anticipated stood against one wall. The room was comfortably furnished, the age of the hangings disguised by the soft candlelight. Martin held the door for her, then followed her in.
The click of the latch jolted Helen to action. She swung to face him, clasping her hands firmly before her. ‘My lord, this is impossible.’
He smiled and moved past her to the window. ‘Martin,’ he said, throwing a mild glance over his shoulder. ‘You’d better stop “my lording” me if we’re supposed to be married.’
Martin checked the window, opening it a crack to let in some air, then rearranged the heavy drapes. He strolled back to the middle of the room, pausing to shrug out of his coat. He draped it over the back of a chair, then smiled at Juno, still standing, uncertain and nervous, near the door. ‘It’s not impossible,’ he said, beckoning her forward. ‘Come here by the fire and let me unlace your gown.’ He ignored the alarm flaring in her eyes. ‘Then you can wrap yourself in the sheet and be as modestly garbed as a nun.’
Helen considered his words, her nerves in knots, her mind incapable of finding any way out. When his hand beckoned again, with increasing imperiousness, she walked hesitantly forward, her eyes reflecting her troubled state.
With a reassuring smile, Martin took her hand and drew her to face the fire. Behind her, he found the lacings of her silk gown. His practised fingers made short work of the closures. He resisted the temptation to part the sides of the garment and run a fingertip down her spine, clad only, as he had suspected, in a fine silk chemise. ‘Stay there a moment. I’ll fetch the sheet.’
Helen stared at the flames, her cheeks rosy red. So far, his behaviour had been as reassuringly unthreatening as his words. It was her own inclinations that were undermining
her confidence. She was perfectly well aware of how close she stood to having an illicit affair with one of the most notorious rakes in England. All she needed to do was to give him a sign that she would welcome his advances and she would learn what it was that made rakes so sought after as lovers. Martin Willesden was temptation incarnate. But her common sense stood firmly in her way, prosaically pointing out that the last thing she needed was a fling, an affair of the moment, based on nothing more than a passing attraction. That had never been her style.
The sheet descended over her shoulders.
‘I’ll look the other way. I promise not to peek.’
Helen did not dare look to see just where he was or if he complied. Hurriedly, she slipped the silk dress down, letting it puddle about her ankles while she wrapped the sheet around and about her, tucking the ends in to secure it. She stepped out of her dress and bent to pick it up.
The sheet rustled as she moved and Martin turned around, just in time to see her pick up her dress. He admired the view before she straightened, shooting him an uncertain look. The firelight gilded her curls, sheening softly on the exposed ivory shoulders and arms. The ache in his loins, a niggling pain for the past twenty-four hours, intensified. Determined to ignore it, he grinned at her. ‘If you get into bed, I’ll tuck you in.’
Discovering the teasing glint inhabiting his grey eyes,
Helen glared, but obediently moved to the bed. ‘Where are you going to sleep?’ There was no armchair in the room.
Martin’s grin grew. ‘As the landlord said, it’s a large bed.’ He unbuttoned his waistcoat then started on the laces of his shirt.
Helen stopped and stared. ‘What are you doing?’
His control under strain, Martin grimaced. ‘Getting ready for bed. I’ll be damned if I sleep another night in these clothes.’ At the look on fair Juno’s face, a picture of scandalised horror, he growled, ‘For God’s sake, woman! Get into bed and turn the other way. You know you’re perfectly safe.’
Which was more than he knew, but the longer she stood there, wide green eyes on him, the more danger she courted. When she blinked, then climbed rapidly on to the bed, curling up on one side and pulling the covers about her ears, Martin let out a sigh of relief.
Nerves skittering uncontrollably, Helen lay and stared at the wall. The candles were snuffed, but the flames from the fire shed enough light to see by. She heard his Hessians hit the floor, then the door opened as he stood them in the corridor for the boots to attend to. He closed the door and she heard the muffled sounds of him undressing. She wished she could stop listening, but her nerves, at full stretch, would not let her. Then the bed at her back sagged. With a small squeak, she clutched the side of the mattress to stop herself from rolling into him.
In spite of his pain, Martin chuckled. He had not anticipated that difficulty. ‘Don’t worry. You have my word as a gentleman that I won’t take advantage.’