Authors: Samantha Holt
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Genre Fiction, #Historical, #Romance, #Victorian, #Historical Fiction, #British, #Regency, #Historical Romance
“Thank you,” she repeated, a little louder this time.
“Do not thank me yet. Your skirt is torn.”
She let out a little gasp and did a twirl in an effort to spot the rip. He groaned inwardly. Not only had her skirts torn at the back, revealing a lacy petticoat, but her shirt had too. Underneath her jacket, the white cotton gaped, giving him a glimpse of her undergarments.
“Miss Foster,” he hissed, taking up her arm once more and easing her back away from the party. “Look down.”
“What?” She glanced down herself and gasped. “Oh no.” Tearing her arm from his, she fumbled to cover herself with her jacket but it only did up to just underneath her breasts.
“Perhaps you will allow me to escort you out of here?”
A sheen of moisture revealed itself in her eyes. He almost felt bad for laughing at her.
“I cannot very well walk past all these people.”
“There is a rear entrance.” He led her toward the narrow, quite rusty and unused gate. With a strong push, he had the thing open and they were out into the lamp-lit street. “A lot easier than exit by bush, I find.”
A spluttered laugh escaped her, taking him by surprise. He peered down at her but the smile had vanished and she was back to being the prim miss once more. With the exception of her torn clothes and gaping shirt. She let out another sound of indignation and clutched the cotton together.
“Do not look!”
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” he drawled. But the truth was, the sight of that lace, no matter how prim and simple it was, would remain indelibly marked on his mind. He looked up the street, empty save from a few workers and the carriages parked for the party. “You won’t find a carriage at this time of night.”
“I can walk.”
“You bloody well cannot. What sort of gentleman would I be to let a woman walk alone in London at night?”
“From what I’ve heard you’re no gentleman at all. I am not sure I would be any safer with you than out on the streets.”
“Touché.” He put on his most serious expression and turned to face her. “Miss Foster, my house is not far from here and I have some women’s garments that are likely to fit. Let me escort you there. At least then you shall not have to return home looking like you’ve been ravaged.” He lifted a hand as if giving an oath. “I promise I will be nothing but gentlemanly.”
Her gaze narrowed on him and she studied him for quite some time. Jasper fought the desire to tug at his necktie. Finally, she nodded. “As you will.”
“So grateful,” he murmured with a chuckle.
Jasper managed to slip her into his carriage easily enough without being spotted. He settled opposite her and latched his gaze onto the embroidery of the seat next to her. Somehow the knowledge that there were breasts beneath those undergarments plagued him. Which was ridiculous. He’d seen more breasts than most men, of all shapes and sizes. Why should starchy Miss Foster’s breasts interest him?
Thankfully he didn’t have too much time to ponder that as the streets were quieter than when he’d headed out. The carriage came to a stop in front of his house on Queen Anne’s Gate and he aided Miss Foster down, narrowly avoiding another glimpse of lace. Leering at women’s undergarments was not gentlemanly. Had he not promised to be gentlemanly?
In truth, he was probably a little out of practice but it wouldn’t hurt to try, he supposed.
His butler opened the double black doors for him, revealing only the tiniest bit of surprise on his face at the early return of his master with a rather unusual woman in tow.
Not at all like his usual conquests
, he was willing to bet the butler would be saying to the rest of his staff later.
“Have some tea brought into the library if you will,” he ordered the butler and ushered Miss Foster through the hallway toward the library. The fire would be lit there and a chill had seeped into the evening. With only a thin jacket and a ripped shirt, he imagined she’d be a little cold. Though her bountiful curves might keep her a little warmer than some women.
Jasper forced his gaze away from her rear. There he went again. First it was her breasts, now it was her arse. He couldn’t help imagining what her full rear would feel like against his palms. It was the kind of arse that a man could squeeze and mould and pull onto him as she rode him.
Oh bloody hell. Now he was getting hard. Over Miss Foster of all people.
Miss Foster did a little turn about the room, running her fingers over the spines of the books. The move interested him. It was bold and made her appear as though she practically owned the place. She really wasn’t a meek little miss.
“Will you have a seat? Fredericks will be here with warm tea in but a moment.”
She turned wide eyes on him almost as if she’d forgotten he was there before nodding and settling onto the chair on the other side of his desk. Though tempted to sit behind his desk and hide his growing arousal, he doubted very much she’d notice and he didn’t want to appear anymore intimidating. After all she was alone in his house. Thankfully Miss Foster was the sort of innocent virgin who had never even heard of sex let alone understood what the bulge in a man’s trousers could mean.
He sat next to her. Far enough away that he could casually cross his legs and hide the evidence of his thoughts. Just in case. But close enough so that he could reach over and stroke her thigh if he wished.
that he was going to do so.
He settled back against the chair while she shifted in her seat, twining her gloved hands together. “Now, will you tell me exactly why you were sneaking into that party?”
She pressed her lips together.
She flung a reluctant look his way. “I was trying to get information.”
“Was that why you were also at the wine bar?”
“Yes,” she mumbled.
“You know, you need only ask.”
Her gaze snapped to his. “What?”
“In case you hadn’t realised, I do tend to be in the thick of things. If there is something you wish to know, I’m fairly certain I can find it out for you.”
“That did occur to me after we’d met,” she admitted quietly.
“So, what is it, Miss Foster, that is driving you to such extremes?”
Miss Foster stared at her fingers again before seeming to come to a decision. Chin lifted, she met his gaze. “My sister is missing. She has been gone for over a week now.”
“Yes. She was staying with my aunt but it seems my sister kept her in ignorance as to her antics. Then one day she simply didn’t return home. My aunt sent word and I came to London as soon as I could.”
“What about your father? Your mother? Should they not be looking for her?”
“They are in Yorkshire at present, and for that I’m grateful. It would distress them most grievously.”
“So you are gallivanting around London in the hopes of finding her?”
“Or some information at least! Not even her friends can tell me where she went. She had been most mysterious. Her dearest friend mentioned the garden party at Lydworth House. She said Emma had talked of a gentleman attending there whom she was keen to see. I thought—”
“Wait. Emma Foster?”
“Yes, that’s her.”
Jasper pinched the bridge of his nose. Of course. If he hadn’t been so arrogant maybe he would have considered the connection with more seriousness.
“Do you know her?”
“I did. I do.”
Her mouth rounded. “But how? I meant to say, she’s no one of consequence, why would you—” Her brow furrowed. “You took advantage of her, did you not?” A finger jabbed his way and she stood, her chest puffed with indignation. It did little to quell his need. “She is pretty and young and has lived most of her life in the country. What easier conquest could there be? You, my lord, as despicable, you really are—”
Jasper stood and snatched the finger pointed his way as it threatened to jab into his chest. This woman was lethal even without an umbrella.
“Now, wait a minute. I never touched your sister. Even I have some scruples, no matter what your opinion is of me, Miss Foster.”
“You never—” Her shoulders sagged. “Oh.”
They were interrupted by the timely arrival of the butler and some tea and cake. Jasper motioned for her to sit once more and poured the tea. He didn’t ask how many sugars and made it sweet. The woman’s hands trembled. She needed the sugar.
He handed over the cup, a little fearful she was going to spill the hot liquid everywhere, but she cradled it between both hands and a tear rolled down her face. Jasper’s insides bunched. He fished for a handkerchief and swiped the tear away. Miss Foster’s eyes rounded and she met his gaze but said nothing of the far too personal moment.
He eased himself down next to her but ignored the tea. He had need of something more than sugar. A strong brandy ideally. How much should he tell Miss Foster of her sister? And where had the girl gone? Last he’d heard, she was remaining at her aunt’s while she decided how to tell her the awful news. But if she had gone...and in her condition...
Jasper shook his head. This was all that devil Brandon’s fault. He should have challenged him to a fight or at least punched the man when he’d heard the news. After all, the Fosters had no one else to defend their honour. The idiot couldn’t care one jot about Emma and now the girl had run off.
Damn, damn, damn. Why had she not come to him again? She had trusted him enough to tell him all only a month ago.
What to tell her sister though? He nudged the cup of tea and she obediently took a sip. Miss Foster had suffered quite the trial, worrying about her sister and getting into all sorts of trouble. Really, he felt quite bad for her. How would she feel when she heard about Emma?
He cleared his throat, drawing her gaze away from his desk where she’d been absently eyeing the clutter atop it.
“I can help you find her, Miss Foster. If she has indeed quit London—which I think quite likely—then you shall not be able to find her alone. It would not be wise to go running all over England alone now, would it?”
She shook her head slowly.
“Will you let me assist in the search?”
“I...” Her throat worked against the tight collar of shirt.
Jasper Cynfell never claimed he was an angel. He was concerned for this woman and her sister, yes, but that didn’t stop him from imagining flicking off that ugly cameo broach and undoing her shirt to reveal an expanse of flesh.
“Yes,” she replied.
He had to stare at her for a few moments to realise she hadn’t just granted him permission to begin ravishing her. She wasn’t even his type. Curvaceous and passably pretty aside, he liked women who knew what they were doing in bed. Miss Henrietta Foster would likely remain as stiff as a board when being tumbled, and what a bore that would be.
“I really feel as if I didn’t know my sister all,” she said on a sigh. “I thought I did, but even I was deceived, especially if she was spending time with someone like—” She clamped her mouth shut.
Someone like him. A rake, a seducer, the kind of man mamas warned their daughters about. She was right. He was all of those and it never really bothered him before. No one had ever made him want to prove otherwise. However, there was something about her pinched lips and disdainful expression that made him want to declare there was more to him than that.
A foolish notion indeed. If he didn’t give a fig about what society thought of him, why should he care what this woman thought of him?
“I shall begin my search for your sister tomorrow.”
“I...I thank you.” Her brows dipped. “Why are you helping me, my lord?”
“I have to have something to keep me occupied,” he replied blithely. “After all, what else is a rake about the town meant to do when he’s not seducing innocent women?” That tell-tale colour surged into her cheeks again, and he grinned. “Now let me find something suitable for you to wear. Thankfully I have a few gowns at my disposal. Comes in handy, I find...”
He didn’t mention they were for his conquests because he didn’t need to. Miss Foster was a clever woman and understood well enough why he kept ladies’ clothing in his townhouse.
Though perhaps she didn’t quite understand
why. After ruining one too many gowns, it seemed sensible to have a supply and sometimes the odd garment or two got left behind. Now he had a veritable treasure trove of dresses.
Trying not to think about how he wouldn’t mind ruining that starched shirt and long skirt further, Jasper went off to hunt out a gown.
Lord Jasper might be searching for information but that wasn’t going to stop Hettie. For all she knew, he could have woken up and forgotten all about his offer of help.
As she walked toward Clara’s house, she brushed a hand down her sensible skirt and tried not to recall the gown she’d ended up wearing last night. It had been made of silk and though it was modest enough, it had clung to her figure in a way that had made all of her curves look so much more than bountiful. She couldn’t deny she’d spent quite a few moments staring at herself in the mirror and wondering exactly who that person in the reflection was.
Then she wondered what Lord Jasper had thought of her, which was ridiculous. She couldn’t possibly compare to women like the one in the carriage.
Hand to her new hat, she hurried along. She wanted to be sure to catch Clara before she went out for the day. The girl had to know more about her sister’s antics. She’d never even mentioned they spent time with someone like Lord Jasper. Hettie was keen to find out what else her sister’s friend had been hiding.
The housekeeper recognised her and granted her instant entry. Clara came out to greet her before she had even managed to remove her hat. The girl, who was so similar to her sister in many ways that it made her heart hurt, gripped her hands and ushered her into the drawing room.
“My mother will not hear us in here,” she said, closing the doors.
Hettie lifted a brow but said nothing. Her mother, as far as Hettie knew, was thoroughly aware of her daughter’s antics yet did nothing to dissuade her from behaving so. It seemed to her that all idea of morals and decent behaviour were abandoned when a young girl stepped foot in London. She thanked God for the hundredth time for her simple country upbringing.
“What is it, Clara?”
The girl turned, her blonde curls whirling about her head as she did so, and retrieved a letter on the small circular table between the chairs.
“I received this letter from Emma today.” She passed it over.
Hettie opened it with haste and scanned the words without really taking them in. She re-read it, forcing herself to take it slowly and absorb the information.
Do not worry for me, I am safe. I am in Edinburgh. I have to ask you to do me a favour. Will you make it known to Brandon where I am? I am sure he shall want to find me soon. But, Clara, you must not tell anyone else. Do not make it known to my aunt. If she comes after me, she shall ruin everything.
I shall see you soon, no doubt, and hopefully by then Brandon shall be at my side.
Your dearest friend,
Hettie drew in a breath and eyed the letter for a few moments.
. Was this...? “Is she in love with this Brandon?”
Clara bit her bottom lip and nodded.
Hettie was going to elope with this man, whoever he was. But for the moment she was alone. Oh, what a disaster. Her little sister alone in Scotland waiting for a man who could not be of decent character if he had let her sister go off unaccompanied and wished for them to elope. Why, a good man would have waited to ask for their father’s permission. They must have anticipated they wouldn’t get it. She loathed the man already.
“Do you know where she might have gone?”
Clara shook her head. “I had no idea she’d gone to Edinburgh. She never mentioned leaving at all, I promise.”
“You have not exactly been honest with me, Clara,” Hettie scolded.
“I know. I am sorry. I was ashamed of my behaviour and for encouraging Emma to behave the same.”
“Do you know where I can find Brandon?”
“I do not think he is even in town. Maybe he has already gone after her?”
“But why would she ask you to tell him where she is?”
“Oh.” Clara looked defeated. “I don’t know. She must have written to him too, surely?”
“If she even knows where he is.” Hettie pinched the bridge of her nose. It did not sound to her as though this man had any intention of joining her. Would her sister give up and return home or had she already found herself in trouble? Regardless, Hettie had to get to her.
“If Brandon comes back to London, I am trusting you to let me know,” she told Clara. “I shall go to Edinburgh and track her down. Once I’m there, I shall send a telegram so you can keep me informed.”
“Emma will hate me for telling you about her letter.”
Hettie sighed. “Clara, if my sister does not come home safely, you will have more to worry about than a falling out with a friend.”
The young girl clasped her hands together and her skin paled. Hettie might have regretted her bluntness except it was better the girl understand now that her behaviour had repercussions. Maybe it would prevent her from doing anything foolish in future.
She hurried home and packed her travel bag before finding her aunt in the drawing room. Aunt Flora glanced up at her from her embroidery. “Aunt, I am going to Scotland,” Hettie declared.
“Scotland? Whatever for?”
“I have reason to believe Emma is there.”
She didn’t mention that it was likely Emma was hoping to elope with some no-good blackguard. It wouldn’t do to distress her aunt who, from her shaking fingers, was already feeling the strain of Emma’s disappearance. It was up to Hettie to ensure her sister returned home safely and that none of her family suffered because of her sister’s thoughtlessness.
Aunt Flora peered at the travel bag in her hand. “You’re going now?”
“I see no reason to waste any time. I intend to catch a sleeper train. I heard they ran on Wednesdays.”
“Well, my dear, why not have some tea and sandwiches before you go? You may have to wait around quite a while. I’m sure it doesn’t leave until four o’ clock. Nora took the sleeper train to Glasgow if I remember rightly.”
Hettie had little intention of waiting around and listening to tales of Aunt Flora’s friend and her trip to Glasgow. “The sooner I get a ticket the better. It might be fully booked.”
“Yes, you are right I suppose.”
“It will take me three days. I will send word when I arrive safely.”
Her aunt studied the embroidery in her hand carefully before drawing in a sniff. Hettie took a step forward and awkwardly patted the older woman on the back. Emma had been the one to do hugs and kisses and comforting, not her. Her family relied on her to be the sensible, calm one, so a pat to the back was the best she could do.
“I will bring her home, Aunt, do not worry.”
Aunt Flora put a hand over hers and nodded with a thin smile. “I know you will, Henrietta.You always keep your word.”
Before her aunt burst into a flood of tears, Hettie withdrew her hand and retrieved her luggage. She would have to catch a carriage to the station and the ticket to Scotland would not be cheap. She was using up her limited savings for this. The allowance from her father was more generous than many girls of her station and she earned a little money helping out around the village with the children but chasing after her sister was going to leave her poor indeed. Frustrating, as she was intending to help pay for new linens for the orphanage.
It took her a good twenty minutes to find a cab. She supposed if she was more striking and wearing a gown like the one Jasper had given her, she might be more likely to catch a driver’s attention. Blast. That gown. She had meant to ask her aunt’s maid to have it cleaned and returned.
Oh well, it wasn’t like he’d miss it. He had a whole collection, maybe one for every woman he’d bedded. A twisting sensation pulled at her gut when she climbed into the carriage and considered the other woman who had worn that dress. The chances were, she had looked far prettier than Hettie in it. She probably knew exactly how to wear it to charm a man like Jasper. That lady was probably an expert in enticing men.
Not that she had ever wanted to entice a man. Particularly one like Jasper. Aside from a few kisses when she was younger, Hettie had never had time for men. As far as she could tell, they were fickle creatures, kissing one girl one day before moving onto another. Her family, the village, and the orphanage kept her busy. Why bother with a man who was likely to hurt you?
Why bother indeed? Why bother thinking of Lord Jasper’s cognac eyes? Why bother considering how perfectly cut his jaw was? Or how his nose would make statues envious? Why bother wondering if his wavy hair felt as soft as it looked?
She forced her attention on the passing vehicles and the bikes weaving recklessly between them. Why, then, was he back in her mind again?
Perhaps because she’d never met a man like him. Admittedly she hadn’t met many men but he was a rarity. Rakes were not uncommon in London but he had such a quick tongue and then there was that book...She’d spied it on his desk but hadn’t been able to read it properly. However, it had his name in and it was something to do with the study of astronomy. She shouldn’t even let herself believe it but she suspected Lord Jasper had hidden depths.
Blast. She curled her fingertips over the edge of the open window and leaned closer to let the breeze cool her heated face. This was getting silly.
Must. Stop. Thinking. About. Him.
Except maybe she should have visited to let him know what she’d found out. He had offered to help, after all, and now he might be running about London asking questions for no reason. However, she wasn’t sure she really wanted to see the man again and she did not know if he had been serious. Why would a man like him wish to help her?
The vehicle came to a stop outside of the train station and she paid the driver before heading to the ticket office. The queue stretched for some distance and it was all she could do not to tap her feet on the pavement. Once she had purchased her ticket, she found that her aunt had been right and she would have to wait several hours for the train.
Hettie occupied herself with buying some crumpets from a street vendor, purchasing a newspaper, and watching the passengers come and go. She certainly didn’t waste any time thinking of a certain lord.
With another hour to wait, she turned her attention back to the newspaper. She never normally bothered reading the ladies’ pages but she couldn’t help herself. And sure enough, there was even a mention of him.
One of seven brothers was seen only yesterday stealing away from a party with an unknown woman.
Hettie’s jaw dropped open.
With this lord’s reputation, no doubt the lady found herself made comfortable at his home. As to whom the lady is, it shall remain a mystery. Nothing could be said for her but that she looked ravished. Knowing Lord J, he was impatient to get started and could not restrain himself. We only hope she was offered a new gown.
Scalding heat rushed into her face. Someone had seen them and assumed he was taking her home to bed her! She of all people! Whoever had spotted them could not have seen her very clearly or else they would have known she was not Lord Jasper’s sort at all.
She folded the paper and slapped it onto the bench next to her.
Hettie jerked up her chin. Her insides shrivelled at the same time as doing an odd sort of dance. “What are you doing here?”
She’d thought she had said that in her head until he came to sit next to her and grinned.
“Finding your sister. What about you?”
“The same. But how...?”
“I called upon Clara Thornberry earlier today. I thought she might be a little more open with me. But then I discovered you had already called and that Clara had received a letter.”
“She should never have told you,” Hettie muttered.
“Considering I offered to help you, I’d have rather hoped you might have said something.”
“It’s none of your business,” she snapped, still hot and bothered from the words in the paper and now by his proximity. She drew in a breath. “I do appreciate your help but I can do this by myself.”
His lips curved into a tilted smile and Hettie couldn’t help watch the movement with far too much fascination.
“Somehow I expected as much, which was why I took the liberty of purchasing a ticket to Edinburgh.”
“You do not need to come.”
“Face it, Miss Foster, you are stuck with me.”
She shook her head. “This is ridiculous. You hardly know me and this is none of your business. I am simply not allowing you to come.”
“I hardly think you can stop me. Besides, you don’t even have your umbrella.”
Must he always remind of how she’d had to wield her umbrella? She already felt a fool enough.
“It’s in my travel bag,” she muttered.
The train came into the station with a screech of wheels and hiss of steam.
“You. Are. Not. Coming,” Hettie said through clenched teeth.
How could she stand having him around? He was everything that was wrong with the world, and now she was in a gossip column thanks to him! She hoped he turned around and she never have to see him again.
Lord Jasper glanced at his ticket. “I’m cabin twelve. If you need anything...”
“Miss Foster, have I done something to upset you?”