Jacquie D'Alessandro - [Regency Historical 04]

BOOK: Jacquie D'Alessandro - [Regency Historical 04]
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Jacquie D’Alessandro
Not Quite A Gentleman

This book is dedicated with my love and gratitude to my sister-in-law Brenda D’Alessandro, who is not only World’s Greatest Shopper, but also World’s Greatest Hairdresser. Thanks for making me laugh and for wielding your magic scissors
.

And to Erika Tsang, for being such a great editor. Thank you for helping me bring this story to life and for loving it so much. And for forcing me to clean my house by coming to visit (my family thanks you for this as well)
.

And as always, to my wonderful, encouraging husband Joe, for always being my perfect gentleman, and my makes-me-so-proud son Chris, aka Perfect Gentleman, Jr., who I know will grow up to be the same sort of terrific gentleman as his dad
.

Contents

Prologue

Nathan Oliver gripped the worn leather cache of stolen jewels…

One

“What is that you’re reading so intently, Victoria?”

Two

Nathan hammered another nail into place, banging on the small…

Three

After finally finishing the animal pen, Nathan introduced his menagerie…

Four

Nathan sat at the mahogany dining room table feeling very…

Five

Victoria planted her hands on her hips and stared down…

Six

Gritty-eyed from a troubled night filled with much thinking, exhaustive…

Seven

Nathan looked at the blush spreading riotous color on Lady…

Eight

After fashioning a basket of sorts by tying her bonnet…

Nine

Nathan stared at her, nonplussed, ragged breaths puffing from between…

Ten

Her stomach churning with disbelief and dread, Victoria watched Nathan’s…

Eleven

After rereading the note she’d written for a final time,…

Twelve

Victoria left her bedchamber early the next morning with a…

Thirteen

Nathan slowed Midnight as they neared the curve in the…

Fourteen

Three hours after arriving back at Creston Manor and leaving…

Fifteen

“One sound, one movement out of you,” the man growled…

Sixteen

Victoria set aside her silver dinner tray, then leaned back…

Seventeen

With the catlike grace that had served him well during…

Eighteen

Nathan didn’t hesitate. He already felt as if he’d waited…

Nineteen

Victoria hurried down the corridor toward her bedchamber, filled with…

Twenty

Late that night, Nathan paced the confines of his bedchamber.

Twenty-One

Nathan was aware of Victoria dashing to her father, falling…

Twenty-Two

Dinner that evening seemed a somber, tense affair to Victoria,…

Epilogue

Nathan stood at the altar in the small parish church…

 

Cornwall, 1817

 

N
athan Oliver gripped the worn leather cache of stolen jewels to his chest and leaned back against the rough bark of the towering elm to catch his breath.
A king’s ransom…almost there…almost done
. He had only to cross the moonlit clearing, deliver the goods to the man waiting on the opposite side of the woods, then it would be finished. And he’d enjoy financial security for the rest of his life.

He dragged a long, slow, deep breath into his burning lungs, allowing his racing pulse to slow. His heart thundered in his chest, he could hear its beat in his ears, feel it in the hollow pit of his stomach. All familiar reactions he’d experienced the dozens of times he’d done this before, but this time all those sensations were heightened—for reasons he ruthlessly shoved aside. Damn it, his conscience certainly chose an inconvenient time to rouse itself. Still, in spite of his best efforts to prevent their intrusion, the second thoughts and guilt that had plagued him since agreeing to this particular commission contin
ued to claw at him.
Forget it. What’s done is done. Just finish this
.

He cautiously peered out from behind the tree, senses on alert. The moon slipped behind a cloud, drenching him in darkness. A cool, sea-scented breeze rustled the leaves, mingling with the night songs of crickets and a nearby owl. Nothing seemed amiss, yet his gut tightened in warning—an instinct that had served him well in the past. He remained perfectly still for another full two minutes, gaze scanning, ears straining, but detected nothing out of place. Anchoring his bundle more firmly under his arm, he drew another deep breath, then ran forward.

He’d almost reached the protection of the copse of trees on the opposite side when a shot rang out. Nathan dove forward, hitting the ground with a skidding thud that jolted pain through his ribs. Another pistol report came in quick succession, followed by a cry of surprised pain, then, “Watch out!”

Everything in him froze. Bloody hell, he recognized that voice.

Pushing himself up, Nathan dashed toward where he’d heard the cry. As he rounded a curve in the path, he saw the masculine form on the ground. With all his attention focused on the fallen man, he didn’t hear the noise behind him until it was too late. Before he could react, he was shoved, the blow catching him squarely between the shoulder blades. Thrown off balance, the pouch containing the jewels propelled from his grasp. A black-gloved hand snatched up the cache, then the shadowy figure dashed into the woods.

For the space of one stunned heartbeat, Nathan lay on the path, watching the figure melt into the darkness, clutching that which seconds ago had belonged to him. Then, with sharp talons of dread urging him on, Nathan
rose and ran to the fallen man. Dropping to his knees, he looked into the pain-filled eyes of his closest friend.

“Damn it, Gordon, what the hell are you doing here?” Nathan asked, his voice rigid with fright while he began a hasty examination. When he touched Gordon’s shoulder, he encountered the slick warmth of blood.

“Was going to ask you the same thing,” Gordon ground out.

“Were you hit only once?”

Gordon winced, then nodded. “Second shot got me. Hurts like hellfire, but only clipped me. Don’t know if Colin was as lucky. Saw him go down with the first shot.”

Nathan froze at the mention of his brother’s name. “Where is he?”

Gordon jerked his head to the left. Nathan turned and saw a pair of boots protruding from beneath a hedge. The sight hit him like a physical blow and he had to clamp his jaws together to contain the agonized
Nooooo!
that roared into his throat. Whipping out his handkerchief, he set the linen to Gordon’s wound, then pressed Gordon’s opposite hand on it. “Keep as much pressure on that as you can.” He then jumped up, grasped the boots, and, as gently as he could, slid the body onto the dirt path, his mind reverberating with a single prayer:
Don’t let him die. Don’t let my greed have killed him
.

The instant Colin was free of the bushes, Nathan knelt beside him. Colin looked up at him and groaned, and Nathan released the pent-up breath trapped in his lungs. His brother was alive. Now if he could only keep him that way.

“Colin, can you hear me? Where are you hit?” He pushed the words through clenched teeth, his medical training cleaving through the panic, forcing him to remain calm, to concentrate on the task at hand.

“Leg,” Colin rasped.

Nathan located the bleeding injury in Colin’s thigh, and after a brief examination, said tersely, “There’s no exit wound.” He unwound his cravat and applied pressure to stem the blood flow. “I need to remove the lead ball as quickly as possible. Then Gordon needs to be stitched up. We have to get back to the house. Do you have horses?”

“No,” said Gordon from directly behind him. “And why the hell do you think I’d allow
you
to stitch me up?”

Nathan glanced over his shoulder and noted Gordon standing, glaring down at him. His friend’s hand remained pressed to his upper arm, but even in the dim light, Nathan could see the blood dripping from between his fingers. Just as he could see the anger glittering in Gordon’s eyes.

“Perhaps because I’m the only doctor in your immediate vicinity and you both require immediate medical care.”

“Seems to me that you’re a bit more than a doctor this evening, Nathan.” Gordon’s gaze swiveled to Colin. “I told you something foul was afoot.” He shifted his glare back to Nathan. “Why? Damn it, why did you do it?”

The carefully fabricated lie that was supposed to protect him lodged in Nathan’s throat then unraveled like poorly woven cloth in the face of tonight’s debacle. His brain, normally so nimble, felt incapable of thought at the sight of his best friend bleeding and his brother felled by a pistol shot. Clearly, Gordon believed him guilty of something—and with good reason. Yet, based on Gordon’s tone and frosty glare, he also clearly believed the worst.

Nathan slowly turned back to Colin, then stilled. As much as Gordon’s words had cut him, it was the look in Colin’s eyes that struck Nathan like a blow to the gut. And the heart. Their gazes met and held, and Nathan’s insides
cramped at the doubt and accusation so eloquently evident in his brother’s eyes.

“Nathan?”

Only one word. But the way he said it, the look in his eyes, was enough to drive a stake through Nathan’s heart.

One

Today’s Modern Woman should never allow a gentleman to take advantage of her, toy with her affections, or to view her as a mere plaything to be discarded after a pleasurable interlude. If a gentleman makes the mistake of doing so, she should retaliate by treating him in a similar dismissive fashion. A deed once avenged can then be buried in the past.

A Ladies’ Guide to the Pursuit of
Personal Happiness and Intimate Fulfillment
by Charles Brightmore

“W
hat is that you’re reading so intently, Victoria?”

With a guilty start, Lady Victoria Wexhall slammed shut the slim leather-bound
Ladies’ Guide
resting in her lap and looked across the carriage at Aunt Delia, who, for the past hour, had been napping, but was now peering at her through pansy-blue eyes alight with curiosity.

Heat rose in Victoria’s cheeks and she prayed she did not look as red-faced as she felt. She slid the book onto the gray velvet squabs then quickly covered the volume with a flick of her forest-green spencer. Aunt Delia would no
doubt be horrified if she discovered her reading the book whose explicit and provocative contents had recently whipped up a tornado of scandal in London. And she had no doubt at all that her aunt would be horrified to know what she planned to do once they arrived in Cornwall, thanks to her reading of the book.

“’Tis just one of the books I purchased at Wittnower’s Book Emporium before we departed London.” Before her aunt could question her further, Victoria hastily asked, “Are you feeling refreshed after your nap?”

“Yes.” Aunt Delia grimaced and stretched her neck from side to side. “Although I’m relieved we’ll finally arrive in Cornwall today and no longer be confined to this coach.”

“I agree.” Their trip from London had been long and arduous, a journey Victoria normally never would have undertaken. If someone had suggested to her that she would willingly leave the comfort, glamour, and social whirl of London Society—especially as the Little Season was about to commence—to trek to the uncivilized wilds of Cornwall, she would have laughed herself into a seizure. But then, she hadn’t realized she would be handed this perfect opportunity to avenge a past wrong on a man who so richly deserved it. Armed with her well-read copy of the
Ladies’ Guide
and a clear plan, she was prepared. Still, the timing of the trip was not to her liking. “I still cannot credit it that Father insisted we make this journey
now
. Surely waiting a few weeks would not have mattered.”

“You will learn, my dear, that even the most jovial of men are, at heart, utterly vexatious creatures.”

“And vexing this timing is,” Victoria said. The irritation that had bubbled under her skin ever since she’d been unable to convince Father to delay this trip erupted once
again. For reasons she could not decipher, she’d been unable to budge her normally indulgent father. When it became obvious he would not bend, she’d finally consented to his timetable. She didn’t wish to unduly upset or disappoint her father, who rarely asked anything of her. And neither was she willing to forfeit this opportunity to finally put the past to rest, as this would surely be her last chance. If all went according to her carefully constructed life’s plan, by this time next year she would be a married woman, her future secured. Perhaps she’d even be a mother.

“When I think of all the soirees I’m missing…I simply do not understand what Father was thinking.”

Aunt Delia’s brows rose. “Do you not? Why, I’m surprised, what with you being such a bright gel. Clearly, your father wishes for you to marry.”

Victoria blinked. “Naturally. And I intend to do so. But that cannot be his reason for sending me to
Cornwall
. Especially
now
. In the last month alone both Earl Branripple and Earl Dravensby have initiated conversations with Father regarding marriage. With the Little Season about to commence, affording me with numerous opportunities to further my acquaintances with the earls, and meet even more marriageable gentlemen, he’d have been much better served had I remained in Town.”

“Not if the gentleman he wished you to meet was in Cornwall, my dear.” Her aunt pursed her lips. “I wonder which of the Oliver men your father is leaning toward—the widowed earl or his heir Colin, Viscount Sutton? Or perhaps even the younger son, Dr. Nathan Oliver?”

Victoria forced her features to remain impassive at the mention of
his
name. “Surely none of them. I’ve only
briefly met Lord Sutton—once, three years ago—and as for the earl, surely Father wouldn’t encourage me to marry someone so
old
as Lord Rutledge.”

“I believe
old
Earl Rutledge is a year younger than me,” Aunt Delia said in a dust dry tone. Before Victoria could apologize for her faux pas, her aunt continued, “But you forgot Dr. Oliver.”

If only I had…if only I could…but I shall. After this visit he will be exorcised from my mind
. “I didn’t forget him, I just didn’t think it necessary to comment, as neither Father nor I would ever consider such a lowly match. Especially when two earls have expressed interest.”

“I don’t recall you mentioning a
tendre
for either Branripple or Dravensby, my dear.”

Victoria shrugged. “Both are highly sought-after, fine gentlemen from well-respected families. Either would make an excellent match.”

“It is well known they both seek to wed an heiress.”

“As do many peers with lofty titles and depleted purses. I’ve always known I would be sought for my fortune. Just as I’ve always known I would have to marry well to secure my future. I certainly cannot count on Edward being generous once Father is gone.” Victoria suppressed a sigh at the mention of her older brother. As much as it pained her, there was no denying that Edward—currently on the Continent doing heaven knows what—was an irresponsible, unreliable, gambling, drinking womanizer who would most likely cast her out after Father passed away. Naturally, Father would provide financially for her, but she wanted a family. Children. And a firm place in Society.

“You’ve no preference between Branripple or Dravensby?”

“Not particularly. They are of similar age and temperament. I’d planned to spend more time with them in London during the Little Season to help me decide.”

“So you’re certain that you will marry one of them?”

“Yes.” Why didn’t her heart soar with joy at the prospect? Marriage to either man would provide her with a life of luxury at the pinnacle of Society. Clearly her mind was preoccupied with the task she’d set for herself in Cornwall. Surely her enthusiasm for her suitors would manifest itself once she’d completed her objective.

Aunt Delia sighed. “I’m so sorry, my dear.”

“Sorry? Whatever for?”

“That you haven’t fallen in love.”

“Love?” Victoria laughed. But even as she did so, an inner twinge pinched her. She used to harbor such silly fantasies, as most girls did. But then she’d matured and wisely put such foolishness aside. “You know as well as I that love is a poor basis for a marriage. Especially when family names, titles, fortunes, and estates are involved. Mother and Father’s marriage was not based on love.” An image of her mother’s face rose in Victoria’s mind’s eye, the image she carried in her heart, of her mother smiling and beautiful, before the illness had stolen her vitality and then her life.

“Perhaps not, but their affection for each other eventually blossomed into love,” Aunt Delia said. “Not every couple is so fortunate.
I
was not so fortunate.”

Victoria gently squeezed her aunt’s hand in a show of sympathy. Her widowed aunt’s decade-long marriage hadn’t been a happy one.

“As I understand it,” Aunt Delia continued, “the reason your father insisted you come to Cornwall was to expand your horizons. See more of the country other than your
usual haunts of London, Kent, and Bath. Open your mind, and heart, to new experiences, new people.”

“I suppose. But surely Father cannot be expecting a match in
Cornwall
. He would have told me so.”

“Would he? I think not, my dear. As you will learn, men are often annoyingly secretive creatures.”

She couldn’t argue that, especially where her father was concerned. “Why wouldn’t he tell me?” Yet even as the question passed her lips, Victoria realized the answer. “He wouldn’t tell me because he knows I would never consent to living so far from Town. So far from…” She waved her hand to encompass all the green nothingness. “…civilization. How could I not live in the city during the Season? And for summer, certainly nowhere more than several hours from London—just far enough away for proper rusticating, yet close enough to enjoy the social swirl of Town, the shops, and keep abreast of the latest fashions and
on dits
.”

She sat up straighter. Could Aunt Delia be correct? If so, Father was to be sorely disappointed, for no matter how charming the earl and viscount might prove to be, she would never consent to entering into a marriage that would bind her, by law, to a man who could—and most likely would—relegate her to the desolate wilds of Cornwall. A shudder ran through her at the mere thought.

“I recall that we met Viscount Sutton in London several years ago,” Aunt Delia said. “Handsome young man.”

“Yes.” Exceptionally handsome. Yet it was Lord Sutton’s younger brother who had so thoroughly unsettled her. “But it wouldn’t matter if he were the most comely man on the planet. I am not interested.”

“We met his younger brother on that occasion as well,” Aunt Delia said, her brow creasing. “Dr. Oliver. Bit of the devil in that one, you could tell at a glance.”

The image she’d tried so hard to banish from her memory instantly materialized in Victoria’s mind. A tall, broad-shouldered young man with thick, wavy sun-streaked brown hair, intriguing, flirtatious hazel eyes, and a wicked smile that had inexplicably—yet undeniably—fascinated her the instant they’d met in London three years ago at the Wexhall town house. Even now her heart seemed to skip a beat—no doubt a result of the severe irritation the mere thought of Dr. Oliver brought.

With the image of him now firmly in her mind, the haunting memories of that night three years ago assailed her. She’d recently celebrated her eighteenth birthday and had been flush with feminine confidence from her fabulously successful first Season, confidence that had soared even higher at the unmistakable interest that flared in the eyes of her father’s sinfully attractive guest. Her imagination had immediately cast Dr. Oliver as a swashbuckling, rakish pirate who absconded with her and brought her back to his ship to kiss her and…well, she wasn’t quite sure what else, but certainly whatever it was that brought a fierce blush to her maid Winifred’s cheeks whenever she mentioned Paul, the handsome new footman.

Victoria’s instantaneous attraction to Dr. Oliver had been heady, and breathtaking, unlike anything she’d previously experienced, although it had frankly confused her for she’d certainly seen handsome gentlemen before—handsomer gentlemen. His own brother, Lord Sutton, who’d stood not ten feet away from her, was by far the handsomer of the two, and appeared much more gentlemanly and proper.

Yet while she was at a loss to explain her reaction to Dr. Oliver, there was no denying it. There’d been something about him…perhaps his hair was a bit too long, his cra
vat just a bit mussed, the hints of mischief lurking in his gaze and the corners of his lovely mouth that had captured her fancy. Made her want to touch his hair, smooth his cravat, and ask what he found so amusing.

But mostly it was the way he’d looked at her that had set her heart fluttering and arrowed heated tingles of pleasure to her toes. He’d gazed upon her with a combination of warm amusement and an unabashed flirtation that skimmed the borders of propriety. She should have been appalled, but instead was entranced. He was unlike anything or anyone she’d ever before experienced, and when he suggested that she give him a tour of the portrait gallery, she’d instantly consented, rationalizing that it wasn’t really improper. Her aunt and Lord Sutton would be in the next room. The adjoining door would be ajar….

Once alone with him, however, Victoria’s normal aplomb deserted her. To her horror, her efforts to impress Dr. Oliver with her maturity, new gown, and conversation went completely awry. She found herself chatting in a breathless, nonstop manner she couldn’t control. Everything she’d ever learned about deportment seemed to flee her head and she babbled like a river overflowing its banks, unable to stop the nervous torrent of words bubbling from her. Her mind told her mouth to cease, to raise her chin and gift him with nothing more than a long, cool stare, but for reasons she couldn’t understand, her lips continued to move and the words to spill out. Until he’d silenced her with a kiss.

Heat coursed through her at the memory of that kiss…that incredible, heart-stopping, breath-stealing, wits-robbing, knee-weakening kiss that had ended far, far too soon. She’d opened her eyes and found him looking at her with a crooked smile. “That did the trick,” he’d murmured
in a husky rasp. When she’d remained mute, he cocked a brow and said, “Nothing more to say?” To which she’d managed to whisper one word: “Again.”

Something dark and delicious had flared in his eyes, and he’d obliged her with a different sort of kiss. A slow, deep, lush melding of mouths and breath, a stunningly intimate mating of tongues that awakened every nerve ending in her body. She’d clung to him, filled with a desperation and longing she didn’t understand, other than to know that she wanted more, wanted him to never stop. But stop he did, and with a groan he’d untangled her arms from around his neck and set her firmly away from him.

They’d stared at each other for several long seconds. Victoria had tried to interpret his intense expression, but it was impossible, as she was so very dazed. Then his lips had tilted in a devilish smile and he reached out. With a flick of his long, strong fingers, he adjusted her bodice, which she hadn’t even noticed was shockingly askew, then brushed the pad of his thumb over her still tingling lips. He looked as if he were about to say something when his brother had called from the adjoining room. Dr. Oliver had raised her hand to his mouth and pressed his lips against her fingers. “A most unexpected, pleasurable, interlude, my lady,” he’d whispered, then, after a rakish wink, had swiftly left the room.

Afraid to face her aunt before she’d gathered her wits, Victoria raced to her bedchamber. Standing in front of her cheval glass, she’d been stunned by her own reflection. Her perfect coif was wildly mussed, her gown wrinkled, her skin flushed, her lips red and puffy. But even without those outward manifestations of her passionate exchange with Dr. Oliver, the look of wonder and discovery shining in her eyes would have given her away in a thrice.

BOOK: Jacquie D'Alessandro - [Regency Historical 04]
11.51Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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