Authors: Alissa Johnson
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #General
“You can’t really be so obtuse as to hold those books responsible for your sister’s unmarried state.”
He stared at her for a moment, his eyes boring into her own. “Actually, I have an entirely different theory on what, or who, is responsible.”
That rather hurt. It shouldn’t after so many years of traded insults, but it did. Briefly, she was taken aback by the force of her feelings, by the realization that all of his unkind comments over the course of the day had affected her more strongly than ever before. She felt a lump form in her throat,
but then, to her vast relief, the thought that this coldhearted man had so completely upset her composure spurred her to anger. That he should suspect her of standing in the way of his sister’s happiness was unimaginable, insupportable, and just…very, very stupid.
“If you honestly believe that I ever have anything but the greatest of care for your sister’s happiness, then you are a greater fool than even I imagined. Furthermore, if you honestly believe that your sister hasn’t the backbone to tell me and my great care to go straight to the devil, should it please her, then you’re a disloyal brother
a fool. Furthermore…”
In a blink of an eye, he had the box from her hands.
One moment she had been heartily enjoying her tirade, which she had punctuated with sharp little jabs of her finger to his chest, and the next he was standing several feet away, holding her box, absently rubbing his chest, and grinning like the fool she had just accused him of being.
“God, you’re fun to rile,” he laughed. “And so delightfully easy. You’ll believe near to anything, won’t you?”
Mirabelle felt a brief flash of relief that he hadn’t meant his earlier accusation, but it was almost immediately replaced by indignation at the insinuation that she was gullible, and
was very promptly pushed aside by dread at the thought of her blue chemise. Whit’s fingers moved to idly play with the strings keeping the box closed, and her emotions shifted yet again, to something dangerously close to panic. She took several deep breaths to calm herself. The effects were negligible.
“What is it in this box that has you so jumpy?” Whit asked, toying with the knot.
She was mortified, but she’d submit to every torture known to man before she let Whit know it. “Good Lord, cretin, how did you ever convince your nanny to let you out of your gowns?”
Whit shrugged nonchalantly and she fought the urge to slap him, and blue satin be damned. “One of the benefits of being so charming. You get to wear what ever you like.”
“This is beneath even you.”
Whit raised the box to his ear and shook it. “Actually, I can’t imagine anyone it
be beneath, but I find my curiosity has gotten the better of me. I’ve never seen you look so guilty.” He frowned thoughtfully and gave the box another shake. “So what is it, imp? It’s soft…rather light…”
“I’m humbled by your brilliance, your lordship,” Mirabelle drawled. “It’s soft, it’s light, and I’ve just come from the modiste’s.”
Whit shook the box again.
“The modiste’s, Whit. It’s cloth, it’s light, and I was…uncomfortable. Must I spell it out for you?”
By the glint in his eye, there was clearly no need.
“On the contrary, I just wanted to see if you could bring yourself to say the word.”
She glared at him.
“You can’t, can you? Very well, I shall do the dirty for you.” He wiggled his eyebrows ridiculously and, in his best rake’s voice, whispered, “Unmentionables.” Ignoring her eye roll, he continued on in his normal tone. “Silly name for a garment, or a set of garments as the case may be. Why go through the bother of naming them, then deciding they can’t be mentioned, then mentioning them as unmentionables, as if that somehow negates the fact they were just mentioned?”
“Yes, it’s a fascinating puzzle. May I have my box back now?”
“Of course not, this is far too great a prize to relinquish without payment.”
“I’ve already paid for what’s in it.”
“You haven’t paid me.”
“It doesn’t belong to you,” she managed to spit out through gritted teeth.
“Nonetheless, I have the box now, and for its return I require recompense.”
“I cannot begin to imagine…”
“No? How sadly uncreative of you. I can think of at least a dozen varieties of payment, some of them quite interesting.”
“What is it you want, Whit?”
He settled the box securely under his arm. “A favor,” he replied clearly. Mirabelle couldn’t help but notice his tone and expression had suddenly become rather serious.
“What is the nature of this favor?” she asked suspiciously.
“Its nature is pleasant enough, just not honorable.” He shot her a grin. “That’s why I’m asking you.”
you asking me?”
“Not really. I want you to tell me what Kate has been doing at night.”
Her face must have shown her shock because he continued on. “Don’t look at me like that. I’m not suggesting the sort of behavior you’re clearly thinking of. She’s been writing, and I want to know what, and to whom.”
She folded her arms across her chest. “Go on.”
He shrugged. “Not much else to tell. I sometimes see a light coming from under her door in the small hours of the morning. I want to know what she’s doing.”
Mirabelle wanted to know what
was doing up in the small hours of the morning, but thought it best not to ask. Despite Whit’s earlier assertion, she was creative enough to think of a few reasons he might be sneaking in at dawn, and they were nothing she cared to dwell on.
“Why don’t you simply ask her?” she inquired instead.
“I have. She claims she can’t sleep some nights and keeps busy writing letters.” He scowled absently. “I don’t believe it.”
Neither do I, she thought. “Kate really isn’t one for lying.” Mostly. “And she is a faithful correspondent.”
Whit shook his head. “I need to know for certain.”
“You’re asking me to spy on my friend, your sister.”
“Only you aren’t really asking.”
“And if I refuse?”
Keeping his eyes pinned on hers, Whit reached over and untied the knot at the top of the box.
“You wouldn’t dare,” Mirabelle gasped.
“Of course I would. You know I don’t bluff.”
“I know nothing of the sort. And it doesn’t signify. Even an earl can’t pull out a lady’s unmentionables in the middle of the street and get away with it.”
“You’d be surprised what an earl can get away with.”
“Probably,” she grumbled.
“Besides, I’ve no intention of just pulling out your undergarments in the middle of a sidewalk.” He gave her a wicked smile. “I plan on tripping over that curb and spilling the contents in the street. We Coles are notoriously clumsy, you know.”
“No one who knows you would believe such a pathetic excuse—”
“I’m an earl,” he reminded her with a shrug. “My excuses don’t have to be believable, just available.”
“You’d do this?” she asked quietly. “You’d humiliate me like this?”
Whit looked at her hard. “My sister is very important to me.”
And you are not.
It was amazing how loud unspoken words could sound. And infuriating. The man was an arrogant, selfish, spoiled ass, and it was on the tip of her tongue to tell him to go to hell and take the box with him, and she would have,
if the box had contained just the usual sturdy, practical variety of undergarments. But that damn blue satin chemise was inside. Unmarried, gently reared young women were not supposed to have unusual undergarments. At best she’d be a laughingstock, at worse she’d be utterly ruined.
Seething with resentment, she clenched her fists, ground her teeth, and glared at the man in front of her. “Fine, you coldhearted ass. I’ll do it.”
An emotion passed over Whit’s face, but it was gone before she could interpret it. She decided she was too angry to care.
“On your honor, imp.”
She snorted. “Would that be the honor in succumbing to blackmail, the honor in betraying a friend’s confidence, or the honor you accused me of not having?”
“I want your word you’ll do as I’ve asked.”
“My word, then. Are you quite satisfied?”
She knew he would be. In Whit’s world, there was no conceivable excuse for breaking one’s word of honor—everyone could afford rigid principles. Whit never,
broke his word. He was famous for it, and if she were a little less angry with him, she would admit that she respected him for that. But Mirabelle’s experiences had taught her a somewhat different lesson. Sometimes, those principles were a luxury only the rich and powerful could afford. The richer and more powerful, the more honorable they could afford to be. The rest of the world did the best they could with what fate handed them.
In Mirabelle’s case, self-preservation demanded that her sense of morality be occasionally flexible. She didn’t condone lying. In fact, she was fundamentally opposed to dishonesty, but like Whit’s willingness to use blackmail, some evils were unavoidable.
She wasn’t about to betray Kate’s trust, but she wasn’t going to have her undergarments tossed into the street either.
Whit, clearly sensing something amiss, stared at her a moment longer, but apparently deciding he wasn’t about to receive further reassurances, nodded once and handed her the box.
Looking back, Mirabelle would be forced to admit that what happened next was not Whit’s fault. Not directly anyway.
She was in full possession of the box, but her hands had grown clammy and the sweat had seeped through the cheap material of her gloves. She’d been too eager to get the knot retied, and it was so awkward trying to hold the box and manipulate the string at the same time. In retrospect, she should have set the box down first, because the next thing she knew, it was making a slow descent to the ground.
And it truly was slow. Mirabelle knew it took forever because she had time to mentally recite every invective she had ever heard, some she didn’t even remember hearing until just that moment. Strangely, while her mind rushed, her body seemed frozen in place. She managed only one feeble grasp with her fingers and a soft cry before the bottom of the box hit the pavement with a soft thud. The lid lifted up briefly from the force of the impact, betraying a flash of bright blue, before settling neatly back in place.
Sweet merciful heaven. Thank you.
Her heart beating loudly in her ears, she shot a panicked look toward Whit. He was looking at something across the street. He hadn’t seen.
Thank you, thank you, thank you.
She glanced around furtively to see if anyone had witnessed the accident. Assured of her still untarnished reputation, she quickly made a mental apology for every foul word that had crossed her mind. Then she tied the lid back on with a very secure triple knot, picked up the box with
both hands, and headed for the carriage. Where she would wait for the others. She was quite done with shopping.
Whit couldn’t recall the return trip from Benton to Haldon ever taking quite so long. It wasn’t that the horses were moving slower than usual, or that they’d lost a wheel, or met with some other misfortune.
It was just that he was so damnably uncomfortable.
He turned his eyes to the carriage for what he estimated was the dozenth time in the last quarter hour. He couldn’t seem to stop himself. He couldn’t seem to do anything but recall the way the lid of Mirabelle’s box had lifted to reveal a glimpse of something blue, glossy, and quite obviously flimsy.
He’d been appalled.
He’d been fascinated.
He’d pretended not to have seen. In retrospect, that might not have been the best choice of reactions—how could he ask, let alone tease, her about something he hadn’t seen? But for the first few seconds after the lid had opened, he’d been stunned into speechlessness. And since then, he’d been repeatedly stunned by per sis tent, and entirely unwelcome, images of the imp wearing flimsy blue undergarments.
Undergarments that looked to be satin, now that he thought on it.
Not that he was going to continue thinking on it. Absolutely not. He certainly wasn’t going to dwell on how it would feel…like the skin it would so scarcely cover, he imagined—soft, and cool to the touch, until it warmed under his palms. He’d bunch it up slowly, inch by tantalizing inch, to discover the smooth flesh underneath. He’d use just his hands at first, teasing them both as his mouth found that delightful beauty mark just above her lip. When she was near to begging, when she was writhing beneath him, he’d…he’d…
He shifted in his saddle, now uncomfortable on several levels.
It had to stop. He
stop. He wasn’t a boy of fifteen, to be panting at the mere glimpse of a woman’s unmentionables. Even if they were blue, and soft, and flimsy.
He eyed the carriage again, wondering what Mirabelle was after, purchasing something like that.
And he wondered why he couldn’t stop wondering.
inners at Haldon Hall might have carried the reputation of being unusually informal, with lively conversation and children as young as eight allowed to attend, but there was no mistaking the gathering for a simple meal with friends and family. Dinner was an
—a six-course feast that often stretched for hours and offered everything from the delicacies of lobsters and calf brains to the comforting favorites of roasted fowl and bread pudding. The food was prepared by an efficient kitchen, cooked and seasoned to perfection by the inestimable Mrs. Lowell, and swiftly transferred upstairs to be presented and served by a veritable fleet of footmen.
In her customary seat at the foot of the table, Lady Thurston surveyed her staff with approval, her guests with amusement, and her children with love and—in the cases of Whit and Mirabelle—no small amount of annoyance.
What ever had she been thinking, she wondered, to have
seated them within shouting distance of each other? Not that they were actually shouting, mind you—they knew better than to engage in a yelling match at her table. But even from the other end of the table, she could see that Whit’s face was tight as he spoke, and Mirabelle, she couldn’t help but notice, was grasping a salad fork in a manner that made the countess just a little bit anxious.