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Authors: Kay Hooper; Lisa Kleypas

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BOOK: Gifts of Love
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Sooner or later, she would give herself away. Sooner or later, Richard Allerton, the Duke of Lyonshall, would realize that the woman who had jilted him was still foolishly in love with him.

Dorothea Wingate, Countess of Ware, kept Wingate Castle fully staffed, despite the fact that she was the sole occupant throughout most of the year. Other residents of such out-of-the-way and inconvenient estates as hers wondered how on earth she managed to keep servants, especially since hers tended to be a quiet life, with few visitors and fewer social events. But the truth was that Lady Ware paid her people very well. The butler, four footmen, six housemaids, three kitchen maids, and cook—as well as numerous gardeners and stable men—were amply compensated for the drawbacks of service at the castle.

The countess seldom visited London; her most recent trip had been two years previously, when Antonia’s engagement had been announced. She had returned to Wingate several months later when the engagement ended, and after Antonia had refused to discuss the situation with anyone. The scandal had obviously distressed her, for Antonia knew that her grandmother had had her heart set on the match.

Her eldest son, the present Earl of Ware, was a dedicated bachelor who spent his time in London and on another of his estates outside the city, and was not much concerned with the continuance of his family line; in all likelihood, the title would perish with him. The family had dwindled over the years, and since the countess’s younger son, Antonia’s father, died leaving no male offspring, only Antonia remained to carry on the family line—if not the name itself. And since the castle was not entailed, it would most probably be left to Antonia.

She wondered if that was part of her grandmother’s reason for this house party. Antonia had made no secret of her aversion to the castle; it was entirely too large, too damp, too chilly, and too far from London. She did not want it. Despite her Uncle Royce’s determined bachelorhood, she continued to cherish the hope that he would fall head over heels in love and start his nursery before gout or an apoplexy carried him off.

Still, it seemed possible that Lady Ware was attempting to arouse in her granddaughter’s breast some flicker of feeling for the ancestral home—as well as a reminder of what she owed to her family—and had chosen this holiday visit as a first step toward that goal.

Antonia considered the situation as she dressed for dinner that evening, wrestling her distantly polite social mask into place with all her will. There was nothing she could do except keep her wits and her calm. Ignoring Plimpton’s meaningful glances and mumbled remarks, she chose a heavy velvet gown in olive green. Neither the high-necked style nor the drab color was particularly flattering, which satisfied Antonia inordinately.

Lady Ware was a stickler for promptness, and dinner at the castle was served at the unfashionable hour of six; it was just after five o’clock when Antonia left her room for the long walk to the drawing room on the ground floor. She had hoped that by going down early, she could avoid a chance encounter with Lyonshall. But fate was against her.

He stepped from his room when she was still several feet away, allowing her little time to collect herself. Normally, in social situations, she saw him first across a crowded room and was granted ample opportunity for the shoring up of her defenses; now, although she had tried to prepare herself, his sudden appearance caught her off guard.

It was clearly not so with him. He bowed with the exquisite grace for which he was famed and offered his arm. His deep voice was the caressing drawl she hadn’t heard from him in nearly two years.

“Toni. You’re looking lovely, as always.”

To say that Antonia was taken aback would have been a considerable understatement. Expecting the distant courtesy he had shown her since their engagement had ended, she had no idea how to react to his voice, the compliment, or the unsettling warmth in his gray eyes. She had a small feeling that her mouth was open, but accepted his arm automatically.

As they began walking down the long, silent corridor, she tried to collect herself, and was unable to keep from stealing glances up at him. Gifted with an old and honorable title as well as a considerable fortune, Richard Allerton had also been blessed with a tall, powerful frame set off admirably by his usual sportsman’s style of dress, and a handsome face that had broken any number of thudding female hearts.

He had been called a nonesuch, his skill with horses and his athletic prowess unequaled—and uncommon in one of his rank. He was not held to be a rake, since he neither toyed with the affections of innocent young ladies nor scandalized society by openly indulging in indiscretions. He was not above being pleased in company, and could be counted on by any hostess to dance with the plainest damsel or spend half an hour charmingly entertaining even the rudest or most outspoken of matrons.

He was a paragon.

So, at any rate, Antonia had believed when she had tumbled into love with him during their first dance together. He had no need of her fortune, and had seemed interested in her views and opinions, encouraging her to share her thoughts rather than accept the usual platitudes so common among persons of their social order.

It had been a magical, dizzying experience for Antonia, being loved by him. He had treated her as a person in her own right, a woman whose mind mattered to him. Antonia had long been appalled by the “civilized” arrangements that passed for marriage; she had desired a partner, an equal with whom to share her life—and she had believed, with all her heart and soul, that Richard was that man. Until she found out otherwise.

Now, walking beside her former betrothed, her thoughts tangled and confused, she fought to raise her defenses again in the face of his changed attitude.

“This is quite a place,” he said, looking around. His voice still held that drawling, caressing note, though the words were casual. “Lady Ware has done an excellent job with the renovations.”

Conscious of the strength of his arm under her hand, Antonia blurted, “I hardly expected to see you here, Your Grace.”

“You know very well what my name is, Toni—don’t use my title,” he said calmly.

Antonia caught the gleam in his gray eyes and looked hastily away. “That wouldn’t be proper,” she said stiffly.

“Would it not?” His free hand covered hers, the long fingers curling under her own in a strangely intimate touch. “You have called me Richard many times. You have even whispered it, as I recall. Remember that early spring ride at Lyonshall? We were caught unexpectedly in a storm, and had to take shelter in an old stable while the groom rode back for a carriage. You whispered my name then, didn’t you, Toni?”

She wanted to display a dignified offense at the reminder of a scene any gentleman would have wiped from his memory, but she found herself unable to utter a word. He was stroking the sensitive hollow of her palm in a secret caress, and an achingly familiar warmth was stealing through her body.

“How delighted I was that day,” he mused, a husky note entering his deep voice. “I had believed you were everything I wanted in a woman, with your excellent mind and strong spirit; that day I discovered the wonderful passion in you. You responded to me so sweetly, with none of the missish alarm or dismay our society mistakenly insists must be the response of a lady of quality to passion. I held a loving, giving woman in my arms, and thanked God I had found her.”

“Stop,” she managed finally, her cheeks burning as she made a useless attempt to pull her hand from his grasp. “To remind me of such a—a shameful episode—”

“If I thought you really believed that, I’d box your ears,” he said, and his eyes then were a little fierce. “There is nothing shameful about the desire two people feel for one another. We were to be married—”

“But we were
not
married, not then and not afterward,” Antonia said unsteadily, grateful to see the first flight of stairs just ahead, but painfully aware that it was still some distance to the ground floor of the castle where the presence of other people would certainly curb her companion’s shocking conversation. She didn’t know how much more of this she could bear.

“I am aware of that,” he said evenly. “What I don’t know is why we were not married afterward. You never gave me a reason, Toni. You talked a great deal of nonsense, saying that you had realized we wouldn’t suit—”

“It was true!”

“Balderdash. We were together nearly every day for months, and found one another splendid company. Parties, the theater, riding, driving in the park, spending quiet evenings in your home and mine—we suited admirably, Toni.”

She remained silent, staring straight ahead.

“I intend to discover your reason for jilting me. I know there
was
a reason; you are far from being so flighty as to do such a thing on a whim.”

“It has been nearly two years,” she said at last, refusing to look at him. “Past. Do me the—the courtesy of allowing the entire incident to remain undisturbed.”

“Incident? Is that how you recall our engagement, as a meaningless
incident
in your past? Is that how you remember our lovemaking?”

It required an enormous effort, but Antonia managed to make her voice cold. “Is that not how any mistake should be termed?”

Lyonshall did not take offense at what was, in essence, an insult, but he did frown. “So cold. So implacable. What did I do to earn that, Toni? I have wracked my brains, yet I cannot recall a single moment when we were not in harmony—except for that last morning. We had been to the theater the night before, along with a party of friends, and you seemed in excellent spirits. Then, when I came to see you the following morning as usual, you informed me that our engagement was at an end, and that you would be…obliged if I would send a notice to the
Gazette.
You refused to explain, beyond the obvious fiction that we didn’t suit.”

They were descending toward the entrance hall now, and Antonia caught a glimpse of one of the footmen, splendid and stalwart in his livery, stationed near the foot of the stairs. She had never been so relieved to see another person in her life, and a tinge of that emotion was in her voice when she replied to Lyonshall.

“You acceded to my wishes and sent the notice—why must you question me now? There is no reason to do so. It is past, Richard. Past, and best forgotten by everyone.”

He lowered his voice, apparently because of the footman, but the quieter tone did not at all lessen the relentlessness of his words. “If only my pride had been bruised, I would agree with you; such shallow hurts are best put aside and forgotten. But the blow you dealt me went far deeper than pride, my sweet, and in all the months since, I have not forgotten it. This time, there will be an end to things between us. One way or another.”

The endearment surprised her; it was one he had used only in passion—and it triggered a scalding rush of memories that tore at her hard-won composure. But that shock was small compared to what she felt at the clear threat of his words. Dear heaven, had he waited two years to punish her for jilting him? Or had Lady Ware’s invitation presented him with an opportunity he intended to take advantage of, merely to enliven a boring holiday?

She had never believed him to be a cruel man, at least not intentionally so, and found it difficult to believe now. Had she indeed hurt him so badly? And what did he intend now?
An end to things…

It was only years of practice that enabled Antonia to school her features into an expression of calm as she walked beside Lyonshall into the huge drawing room. He released her hand in order to greet her mother and grandmother, but that was no more than a brief respite since he fetched her a glass of sherry and stood near her chair as he talked with his usual charm to the two older ladies.

Any other time, Antonia would have been hard put not to laugh. Her mother, a still-pretty woman with large, startled blue eyes and fading red hair, was clearly baffled and unnerved by Lyonshall’s presence, and hardly knew what to say to him. Lady Sophia had been delighted by the engagement, both for the worldly reason of her daughter’s assured position in society and because she knew Antonia had loved her betrothed. But she was, by nature, a timid woman, and a situation such as this one was bound to be a strain on her nerves.

Lady Ware, on the other hand, was utterly calm and obviously pleased with herself. She was not one to charm, but she was more courteous to Lyonshall than Antonia had ever known her to be to anyone else. She seemed to have an excellent understanding with him.

“I believe we may make your holiday here a memorable one, Duke,” she said at one point, her tone one of certainty rather than hope, and her use of his title a bland indication that she considered them equals despite the difference in their ranks. “Here at the castle, we observe most of the usual Christmas traditions, as well as some which are uniquely our own. Time enough to discuss those tomorrow, of course, when you have completely settled in—but I do trust you mean to be a participant rather than merely an observer?”

He inclined his head politely. “I try always to be a participant, ma’am. What is the point of a holiday if one cannot enjoy oneself, after all? I am looking forward to a very special memory of Christmas at Wingate Castle.”

Antonia sipped her sherry, feeling peculiarly detached. Christmas? That
was
the reason they were all here. It was difficult to think about the usual trappings of Christmas when her mind was so filled with him. This was supposed to be an interlude of peace and good cheer, of high spirits and joy and contentment.

But all Antonia could think of were the memories Lyonshall had dragged from the locked rooms of her mind. Secret memories. To some, they might even be shameful memories.

As they seated themselves in the dining room, she looked at her mother and grandmother, wondering. What would they think if they knew about that rainy spring day? They would undoubtedly condemn her for what she had done. It was shocking enough that she had given herself to a man—even her betrothed—without the sanctity of marriage, but then to end her engagement within a week, seemingly without reason…

BOOK: Gifts of Love
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