Authors: Samantha Holt
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Genre Fiction, #Historical, #Romance, #Victorian, #Historical Fiction, #British, #Regency, #Historical Romance
“You know I can’t remember faces,” he told his wife with a half-smile. He lifted a monocle and peered at the portrait. “No, I’ve never seen her. Does she frequent Hyde Park often?”
Hettie snapped shut the locket and pushed it back into her skirt. “I believe so but I do not know with whom.”
“Well, you’ll have a time asking every person who comes here. I suggest you consider finding out with whom she visited.”
She attempted not to sigh. They were only trying to be helpful after all, but Clara had really offered so little to go on. She’d claimed Emma began to do her own thing and left Clara in the dark. Hettie suspected Clara knew more than she had let on but wanted to protect herself. That had to mean they’d been spending time with some very bad people indeed. If that wine bar was anything to go by, her suspicions seemed correct.
“Thank you for your time,” Hettie said.
The elderly couple gave her their best wishes and continued on their walk. She flicked a glance over the river at the horses thundering down Rotten Row. Was she talking to the wrong people? Would Emma have really ended up spending time with people like that, so far above her station?
Several cabriolets—ones so bright in colour that she winced as they blurred past—raced ahead of her. Hettie clutched her hat as wind and dust from the wheels whipped past her. She took a moment to stand aside when she saw another vehicle a way ahead coming her way, this time in a more sensible black but not going any slower than the others. Were these the sort of people she should be questioning? There was no way of catching up with them unless she wanted to throw herself under the wheels. She was beginning to think today’s venture a complete failure. Had she really thought questioning a tiny minority of London’s population a fine idea? For someone who was supposed to be the clever one in the family, she was not so bright after all.
When another gust of wind fluttered her skirts, she came to the conclusion she had indeed been silly. She would be better off calling on Clara again and seeing if she could not press for more details. No one sensible or fashionable would be out in this breezy weather. She could only conclude the elderly couple were those hearty types who enjoyed a brisk wind to clear out the cobwebs.
Her hat lifted from her head while she was attacked by another gust. She went to slam her hand onto it, but too late. The wind caught it like the wings of a bird and off it went before landing abruptly on the ground. She eyed the hat—her most sensible and practical one—and narrowed her gaze at it. She just knew if she went chasing after it, it would go running off again, making her look an utter fool.
There, the wind grabbed it but no, it flopped down again. She blew out a breath. She supposed she was going to have to look a fool. Snatching her skirt, Hettie hurried after it and sure enough it went on a merry dance, tumbling along the ground while she tried to grab at it.
Hettie froze at the desperate shout and took a stumble back when the black vehicle came to a skidding halt. Her palms struck the ground so hard that she felt the impact rattle through her bones. And her hat—
her blasted hat
—was now lodged under the wheel of the carriage.
A set of well-polished shoes entered her vision, and then a hand. She took it without thinking and the man helped her to her feet with ease. Hettie lifted her gaze and groaned aloud.
She actually groaned.
She didn’t think she needed to waste good manners on this man but, still, she certainly had not meant to do that.
“Are you hurt?” Lord Jasper asked.
She opened her mouth and shut it again before peering at her palms. They were a little dirty and scratched and she imagined her skirt was much the same. Heat filled her cheeks. What a fool she must look to him. First she was attacking men with her umbrella and now she was chasing hats about Hyde Park.
She looked at the accessory in question. Poor hat.
“I-I am well.”
“You nearly got yourself killed, Miss Foster.”
She couldn’t help but gaze into those warm brown eyes that were filled with concern. Actually, no, brown wasn’t right. More like cognac. That was where the warmth came from. They reminded her of the warm, soothing drink that her father would give her on a particularly cold night at the vicarage.
“I am aware of that, my lord,” she bristled, feeling unkempt and frankly hideous next to his beautifully cut Norfolk jacket and pristine trousers.
Even his dark brown hair had that marvellously unkempt look that the wind could only work wonders with, unlike hers that had been hidden under her hat and now likely looked much like a scarecrow’s.
Straightening her shoulders, she ignored the quirk of his lips. “I must offer you my thanks,” she said, barely managing to conceal her begrudging tone. “Had it not been for your quick reaction, I may well have been killed.”
He glanced back at the carriage where Hettie finally noticed a pretty woman was waiting. No, make that beautiful. If anyone could make her feel even more like a scarecrow it was this woman. The wind had done nothing to her perfectly coiffed hair and lacy bonnet. This was the sort of woman the artists painted with beautiful creamy skin and a lovely rosebud mouth. Hettie had never really longed for beauty. Her face was well put together and God had blessed her with a nice, healthy figure. What more did a country girl need? But at this moment, she longed to be the most beautiful woman in the world, just so she could raise her chin and not feel like a complete fool.
“I’m afraid your hat did not survive, however.” Lord Jasper bent to tug it out from under the wheel. The floppy brown thing didn’t even resemble a hat anymore. He grinned and turned it over for inspection. “I’d ask for forgiveness but I am not sorry. In fact, I do believe I improved it.”
Hettie let her mouth fall open before snatching it back from him. “That was my favourite hat.”
“Lord knows why. I’ve seen dog turds that looked more attractive.”
Her mouth fell open farther at his words. Goodness, could the man get any ruder? Flustered and hot, she was tempted to run away right this instant except her parasol was on the ground. She bent to retrieve it and Lord Jasper held up his hands in mock surrender.
“I take it all back. It’s a wonderful hat. Please do not attack me.”
His mocking grin only incensed her further. The titter from the woman in the carriage set the heat kindling in her cheeks to flame. She twisted away only to pause when he called her name.
“Be careful, Miss Foster. You do seem to have a tendency to get yourself in trouble.”
“Good day, my lord,” she said through gritted teeth and swivelled on her heel to march away from him.
She didn’t wait to watch him climb into the cabriolet with his beautiful companion, but she did see them whip past her. An uncomfortable twisting sensation knotted her stomach. For the briefest of moments, she wondered what it would be like to be that woman. To not worry about what was right or wrong. To only think of oneself.
To be receiving the attention of a rakishly handsome man like Lord Jasper Cynfell...
Hettie shook her head at herself. Handsome he might be but did her father not remind her the devil disguised himself in many ways? That man was everything her father warned her about. She only hoped she never set eyes on him again.
When Jasper slipped into the library, he released a long breath. Another grin attacked him when he thought of Miss Henrietta Foster. He’d been doing that all day. Grinning at the oddest moments. The trouble was, Constance had noticed his distraction and had not been too impressed. He suspected he would have to try that little bit harder with the woman now. She was quite the handful and thoroughly demanding.
A little like Miss Foster really. That woman was...well he wasn’t sure what she was. He couldn’t claim to have ever come across a woman like her. But with her daggered looks and armed with a parasol, he couldn’t help but keep recalling how she’d stood in front of him, shoulders stiff—all puffed up with self-righteousness. The devilish part of him wondered what it would take to loosen her. Which bit could he pick at and release and have her completely unravel in his arms?
Jasper settled at his desk and eyed the sheaf of papers awaiting him. He played hard, to be sure, but what most people didn’t realise was he worked hard too. He was to attend a garden party later this evening but first he had to have his correspondence done. It was only thanks to some hard work early on in his life that he lived quite so well. Certainly his living from his brother was generous but there were seven of them, after all, and quite a few had growing families now they were married. He couldn’t count on that income forever and nor did he wish to.
He smirked to himself. After all, charming these women wasn’t cheap. The odd trinket and bit of jewellery here, fine dining there, an elegant gown, a naughty piece of lingerie. It all added up. Not that he ever begrudged them those expenses. Part of the pleasure of seduction was showering a woman in gifts, seeing her face light up when he offered her that beautiful diamond necklace or expensive shawl. Finally getting her into bed was only part of the pleasure.
A knock at the door signalled the arrival of tea and biscuits. He’d wait until later for alcohol and, as much as he enjoyed it, he wouldn’t overindulge. He didn’t much like having a foggy head the next day in spite of his reputation.
A reputation that he thoroughly deserved and did not bother him one jot. Since he was a young boy, he’d discovered the quickest route to happiness was to care little for what anyone else said or did.
The butler placed down a stack of books, and Jasper eyed the spines with satisfaction. There was one thing that brought him almost as much pleasure as a beautiful woman in bed and that was seeing his name in print. His most recent articles on astronomy should be in these journals.
“Thank you, Fredericks.”
Jasper flicked open the first journal until he found his article and allowed himself a small smile. Few people of his acquaintance read these, and he had no care to educate them. There was no sense in forcing information on people, he’d discovered, if they had no will to learn. Some of his brothers had declared him a complete bore when he’d begun learning about the stars. That was something no other person would consider calling him.
Blackguard, yes. Rake, certainly. Seducer, most definitely. But never a bore. He couldn’t help admit he liked having this secret side to himself. When everything about one was up for public consumption, it was nice to have something for oneself.
Jasper turned his attention back to his letters and vowed to check the other journals tomorrow. He also had his brother, Ash, to write to at Stourbridge House. There had been some trouble with a woman there, and Jasper wanted to ensure all was well. A blackguard he might be but his brothers would always come before women and parties.
By the time he’d finished it was growing dark and his valet would be cursing him about getting him ready in time. However, being fashionably late was not a problem for Lord Jasper Cynfell.
Once dressed, Jasper stepped out of his London townhouse and took a moment to loosen his necktie that his valet had tied far too tight. The breeze from earlier in the day had died down. No ugly brown hats would be rolling under his carriage today. Miss Foster had appeared quite upset by the incident but, honestly, it really had been the most hideous thing. He’d like to see her in a pretty bonnet trimmed with feathers perhaps. Something in a colour to bring out her hair.
Perhaps he ought to buy her one...
No. He shook away the thought as he stepped into the carriage and it rolled off along the cobbled street. He bought gifts for lovers not for disgruntled, umbrella-wielding, uptight prigs. Besides, he was hardly likely to run into her anytime soon. It was clear they ran in different social circles.
Of course, he could visit her easily enough. After all, he knew in which road she was staying...
No. Bloody no. What was he thinking? She didn’t want to see him anymore than he wanted to see her again.
His attention should be on making amends with Constance or maybe finding another conquest. He didn’t much fancy going home alone tonight. Evenings alone were quite the bore when he didn’t have any work to do.
By the time he arrived at the party, he was more than fashionably late. Thankfully a Cynfell didn’t have to rely on manners. Being the brother of one of the most powerful marquesses in England did that for one. Not to mention, society ladies enjoyed the scandal of having him about. It ensured inches in the gossip columns and something for their guests to talk of.
He took a glass of wine and headed out into the garden of Lydworth House to observe the gathering. He noted several politicians in the mix along with some of the gentry and nobility. A few of his friends were here—many of them invited for their notoriety too.
But no Constance.
She had definitely intended to come so where was she? Damn, there went his plans for the evening. Perhaps he could find someone else to take her place but it wouldn’t be nearly as much fun if they gave into him in the space of one evening.
Jasper took a lengthy sip of wine before heading down the stone steps to greet a couple of his friends and find out exactly which eligible maidens were in attendance.
Too few, it turned out. He’d have a devil of at time finding company tonight. He handed over his empty wine glass to a passing servant and headed toward the buffet at the rear of the garden. Perhaps his friends had simply missed some hidden gem somewhere. He snatched a sandwich from the table and paused to take another look around. A pretty little wallflower wouldn’t be terrible. They were grateful for the attention and he quite enjoyed bringing them out of their shells. But there were no such gems to be found at this party. What a bore. He’d have to make his excuses as soon as he could.
He swivelled at the female voice and tried not to look disappointed at the sight of his brother’s wife.
“Viola.” He glanced down at her swollen stomach. “I didn’t think you would be in London. Should you not be resting?”
Julian, the Marquess of Lockwood, and the oldest Cynfell brother came to his wife’s side and took her hand. “She should be. However, Josephine invited us to an exhibition and apparently we could not decline.”
“This was not just any exhibition!” Viola declared, her American accent drawing a little attention their way. “Some of the finest paintings of English castles were on display and seeing as though Julian still has many to take me to, I thought it a fine way of seeing them.”
Jasper chuckled, knowing well of Viola’s passion for castles and all things English. “Your husband has gravely failed you,” he said as seriously as he could.
“He has indeed. However, after the baby is born, he has promised me a trip to the south coast.”
Julian gave his wife an indulgent look and drew her closer to him. “And I always fulfil my promises, do I not?”
“Indeed you do.”
It never failed to tickle him that his forever grouchy brother was letting himself be overrun by an American heiress and their growing brood of children. With a son and a daughter already, they seemed intent on carrying on the family tradition of having as many children as quickly as possible. As near as he could tell, they were both blissfully happy and though they’d been fairly competitive as boys, he always wanted the best for his brothers.
“This hardly seems your sort of thing, Julian,” Jasper commented to his brother, who was famous for avoiding all things sociable. As far as brothers went, they could not be more opposite.
“Viola decided it would be impolite to decline but we are leaving any moment now, are we not?” he prompted his wife.
She rolled her eyes and nodded. “Yes, apparently I am far too delicate for garden parties.”
Julian ignored the dry tone and merely grinned. “You need your rest.”
“I shall likely get no rest,” Viola muttered and Jasper shook his head.
“I do not think I should be privy to these conversations.”
She arched a brow at him. “Of all people, I should not think such talk offends your sensibilities, Jasper.”
“My dear sister, it seems you have me marked as a man of great scandal.”
Eyes twinkling, her smile expanded. “We have been brother and sister for three years, Jasper. There is no sense in trying to fool me or persuade me otherwise.” Julian gave her a small tug on the arm, so she came onto tiptoes to give Jasper a kiss on the cheek. “If I do not get him home before it’s late, he shall be horribly grumpy. I hope we’ll see you at Lockwood soon.”
“Of course. I have a niece and nephew to spoil rotten, do I not?”
“As if they need spoiling,” Julian grumbled, but Jasper knew full well Julian was already doting on his nearly three-year-old daughter, Ivy, and that the rest of the children would be equally spoiled.
“I also have a need to visit the countryside to do some more studies.”
His brother lifted a brow. “Stars still? Jasper, for a rake, you really are a bore.”
He ignored the insult. “I cannot see them in London. The pollution is too great.”
“You are welcome anytime,” Viola put in diplomatically.
“Excellent. Give a kiss to Ivy and James for me, and tell Ivy his Uncle Jasper shall be bringing some chocolate with him next time.”
His brother and his wife said their goodbyes, with a few more grunts from Julian, and he watched them leave the party with amusement. His adored his niece and nephew and he couldn’t help imagine himself in the same position—looking after a child. He’d seen his brother take to the challenge with relish and it was something that appealed to him also. No one would think Jasper Cynfell was interested in children but the thought of a child to educate and protect appealed to him.
As he reached for another sandwich and pondered the dire garden party, a rustle sounded from the bush behind the table and he twisted with a scowl. A fox? A rabbit? Bold creature indeed to be slipping into a busy party to steal food. But no fluffy little thing emerged from the bushes. Instead, first came a slender hand, wriggling its fingers at him. Then an arm. Next came some skirts. Definitely female. A foot popped out from underneath the tight skirt and he eyed the boot attached to it.
He recognised that boot.
The head came next and he grinned when her gaze met his. Miss Foster’s mouth dropped open and instant colour flooded her face. She looked like some kind of tree nymph, with leaves strewn in her hair and surrounding her. She wriggled again but made no more progress. Her face was now almost red all over. He bit back a laugh.
“Is all well?” he asked, as though there was nothing more common than a woman trying to sneak her way into a party through a bush. She really must want to attend very badly. He didn’t have the heart to tell her it was a dull party.
“Yes,” she replied brightly then the leaves jostled while she fought against them again. The movement stopped and her head dropped. “I’m stuck,” she whispered.
Jasper moved around the buffet, glancing about to see if they’d been spotted. Thankfully he was the only witness to her embarrassment. Perhaps this party wasn’t so dull after all.
“Pardon?” he said to the tree woman.
“I am stuck,” she said through clenched teeth.
“Well, that is a problem.”
She released an audible breath. He could practically hear her fury in it. “Could you help me?”
“I’m not sure...” He couldn’t resist letting his grin expand.
“Please? Please, my lord, will you help me?”
The words must have killed her. They came out tight and strained. Even he couldn’t let her continue to suffer. He latched a hand around her arm and pushed aside some of the bush and tugged.
To no avail. She was stuck fast.
He moved closer and pressed his arm into the bush. He found her waist and latched an arm about it. He tried not to think about how wonderful she felt beneath her jacket. With one pull, and a rip of fabric that made him wince, he had her free. She pushed quickly away from him and almost stumbled back to where she came from until he snatched her arm and steadied her.
Miss Foster did a fine job of trying to appear completely normal. She pushed aside a light brown strand of loose hair and plucked a leaf from it. However, there was nothing normal about her.
This woman was utterly bonkers, Jasper had to conclude. He had to admit, he liked it. Normal, much like this party, was becoming increasingly boring.
She looked up at him, colour still warm on her cheeks and her lips moved.