Authors: Alissa Johnson
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #General
“Lady Thurston? I love her, with all my heart.”
“I know you do. But I forget.” He patted her arm again. “She’s not angry with you in the least. Nor with me. She…Are you looking for a husband?”
“Am I…?” She gaped at him, wondering if the inquiry had really come from nowhere, or if the brandy had begun working much faster than anticipated. “I beg your pardon?”
“It’s a simple enough question. Are you considering marriage?”
Because it was Whit asking, she stared at him long and hard without answering.
She held up a finger. “A moment—I’m trying to ascertain if there’s an insult in the question.”
He straightened his shoulders. “I assure you, when I insult you, you’ll know it.”
“You do lack subtlety,” she agreed and ignored his sneer in favor of thinking aloud. “The question then, was a preamble to the insult. Are you going to offer up an unsuitable candidate for the position? Someone like…” She pursed her lips, thinking. “Jim, for example? That’s cruel, you know. He has troubles enough without people poking fun at him.”
“I’ve no intention of…Who the devil is Jim?”
“Jim Bunt,” she supplied. “Short man with a missing leg? Spends his days outside of Maver’s Tavern, always with a bottle about him? Surely you’ve seen him.”
He blew out an aggrieved breath. “Yes, I’ve seen him, though I can’t begin to imagine how it is you’ve come to use his given name—”
“Oh, Kate and Evie and I often bring him food and—”
He cut her off with a curt wave of his hand. “Never mind. If you would just see your way to answering the question. Are you looking for a husband?”
“No,” she said clearly. “I most certainly am not. Does this have something to do with your mother’s request?”
He leaned forward a bit and searched her face, much as he’d done almost moments ago, but it wasn’t concern in his blue eyes now, it was the inexplicable heat of temper. Why ever would he still be irritated, she wondered. She’d answered the question, hadn’t she? Of course, Whit was irritated with her as a rule—her presence alone was sufficient to spark his ire. But there was something different this time. Unable to put her finger on just what, she watched him in return, fascinated as the fire was banked, if not entirely extinguished.
He straightened once more with a quick nod, as if coming to some decision. “Mother is under the impression that you’re seeking marriage, and that our disagreements could hamper your attempts to find an eligible gentleman.”
“That’s absurd,” she scoffed. “She knows very well I’ve no interest in chaining myself to a husband.”
“Chaining yourself?” He pulled a chair over to sit across from her, close enough that their knees almost brushed as he sat. “That’s a rather grim view of marriage, don’t you think?”
“No,” she replied with all sincerity. “And I doubt you do as well, given that you’re past thirty and still unwed.”
“Taking a wife is an entirely different matter. It’s a responsibility that requires a great deal of forethought, planning, and—”
“I had no idea you were such a romantic,” she drawled.
He shot her a hard look. “My wife, when I take one, will want for nothing—including romance.”
She sighed, suddenly tired and a little fuzzy from the brandy. “I know,” she reached over and patted his knee congenially. “You’ll make some fortunate girl an excellent husband one day, Whit.”
Whit shifted slightly in his seat. He wasn’t about to let her see how her brief touch, her nearness, was suddenly, surprisingly, interfering with his train of thought.
She laughed at his wary stare. “No insult. I’m in earnest. You’re a catch and not just because of your wealth and title, though I can’t imagine that’s a detriment.”
“Will you admit to having said this tomorrow, in front of witnesses?”
“Oh, I’ll suffer the tortures of the damned first.”
“Thought so. You’re just a bit foxed, aren’t you?”
She thought about it, but having never before been foxed, she decided she couldn’t quite say for certain. She’d had a glass or two more champagne than was wise in the past, however, and rather thought she felt now as she had on those occasions.
“I believe I’m a bit tipsy,” she admitted. “It’s your own fault, pushing that brandy on me.”
“I hadn’t expected you to down it in one gulp,” he pointed out.
She shrugged. “Quickest way to get rid of the vile stuff.”
“A man once offered fifty pounds for a bottle of that vile stuff,” he informed her.
“Really?” She puffed out a breath and shrugged. “Well, there’s no accounting for taste, is there?”
“I prefer champagne myself,” she said a bit dreamily, leaning back against the cushions.
“Do you?” he asked on a chuckle.
“Hmm. The bubbles are very agreeable.”
“They are that…Perhaps we should resume this conversation in the morning.”
It occurred to her that she should probably be offended by the laughter in his voice. And she would be, she decided—later. When it would be easier to concentrate on the matter. For now, she needed to turn her mind to Lady Thurston’s request.
“I don’t think it’s necessary to postpone this,” she said, attempting to instill a touch of sobriety in her words. “I’m a bit worse for wear, I’ll admit, but I can follow the conversation
well enough. Your mother has asked us to call a truce, correct?”
“Yes,” he replied, and she decided to ignore the twitch of his lips.
“Very well. For how long?”
“Until…” He frowned thoughtfully. “I’ve no idea. If my mother had been right, I’d have suggested we’d keep at it until you were comfortably settled with a husband.”
“Ah, so it would be a permanent sort of arrangement. That might be asking a bit much for the two of us.”
“I agree. I suggest we do the thing in stages.” He leaned back in his chair and steepled his fingers in front of his chest. “We’ll start by agreeing to remain civil for the duration of this house party and any events hereafter in which my mother—or someone likely to report to my mother—is present. Should we find the task to be accomplishable without any great hardship, we can reevaluate and decide at that time if we wish to make it a permanent arrangement.”
“That sounds immensely sensible.” She bobbed her head good-naturedly before tilting it to study him. “You’ve great gobs of sense in that head of yours, don’t you, Whit? You must, to have turned your family’s fortunes around in so short a time.”
“It’s true,” he agreed with another twitch of his lips. “I am all that is good and wise. And my astounding intellect tells me now that it is past time for you to crawl into bed and sleep off the brandy—not that I don’t like you this way,” he added.
“And what way might that be?”
“Inebriated,” he supplied with a grin. “And pleasant.”
She made a face at him. She wasn’t sure what sort of face it was, exactly, as she was experiencing some numbness about the nose and lips, but she was relatively certain it was some form of scowl—possibly even a haughty glower. “I’m not pleasant…that is…I’m not inebriated. I’m only—”
“Tipsy, I know.” He stood and took her hand. “Up you go, then.”
She allowed herself to be pulled to her feet.
“Do you really think we can—” She broke off when she realized he wasn’t listening to her. He wasn’t even looking at her.
actually, and quite intently. But his gaze was clearly focused below her face. A breathlessness stole over her, and her skin seemed to prickle and warm as he did a slow sweep of her figure, his expression one of…
What did one call that? Irritated bemusement? Reluctant interest?
She found the irritated and reluctant aspects a touch insulting. She dropped his hand.
“Is something the matter?” she asked in what she hoped was a cool tone.
“The matter?” he echoed without raising his eyes.
“Yes, the matter,” she repeated. Tucking her chin for a better view of her gown, she trailed her fingers along the neckline.
“Have I a spot?” Oh dear, what if she’d dribbled brandy down the front of herself without realizing? “You might have mentioned earlier, you know,” she grumbled.
She looked up when he didn’t respond and found his gaze focused on where her hand rested against her chest. He looked just as intent as he had a moment ago—standing absolutely still, with his brow furrowed and his jaw clenched. But he didn’t look half as reluctant. And she suddenly felt twice as breathless.
“Whit,” she snapped, a little amazed she’d found the necessary air.
His eyes snapped up to hers. “What? Yes. No. I beg your pardon?”
“Whatever is the matter with you?”
“Not a thing,” he offered, then blinked, waited a beat and added, “I’m checking for swaying.”
“For…oh.” The logical explanation made her feel silly. What else would he have been doing? “Right, well, I’m not. Swaying that is.” She quietly slid her right foot out a little.
“So I can see,” he said with enough lingering amusement that she was reminded of the question she’d meant to ask.
think we can manage to behave civilly to each other for the whole of the week?”
“Of course. Nothing to it—for me, at any rate. You’ll need to employ your skills as an actress.” He gave that some thought. “Or perhaps we should just keep you in brandy.”
She merely lifted an eyebrow, which had him swearing, which, in turn, had both her eyebrows lifting.
“From insulting a lady, to swearing at her.” She tsked at him. “You’re beginning very badly, you know.”
“We’ll start tomorrow.”
She turned her head pointedly—if a little wobbly—toward a clock on the mantel. Its hands indicated that it was well past midnight.
“We’ll start,” he ground out, “at sunrise.”
“You see? Gobs and gobs of sense.”
Whit saw Mirabelle back to her room before heading toward his own. She’d probably been capable of finding her way on her own, he mused as he pushed open his door, but he had just as soon not have her stumbling about in the dark. He’d never seen her quite so tipsy before—or perhaps “fuddled” suited better, he thought with a private laugh.
Certainly, he’d never seen her smile at him for such an extended length of time. She had a rather nice smile, he decided, as he pulled off his cravat and tossed it over a chair. It made her nose wrinkle just a little, and the humor in her expression reached all the way up to her chocolate eyes.
He stopped in the act of unbuttoning his shirt. She didn’t have chocolate eyes, did she? Surely not. The imp’s eyes were brown. Just your everyday sort of brown. Where had
he gotten the idea they were something else? And what the devil had he been thinking, looking the chit over as if she were a bit of muslin?
Damn blue satin, he mentally groused. That’s what he’d been thinking.
“Been working too hard,” he decided and resumed undressing.
“If I may be so bold, my lord—yes you have.”
Whit tossed a smile over his shoulder at his valet. Even half asleep the man looked a fashion plate in his dressing gown and quickly, but effectively, arranged hair. “Go back to bed, Stidham.”
“Of course, my lord. Let me help you with that—”
“If I needed help undressing, you may be sure I would have had the foresight to find a pretty young thing to see to the job.”
It felt odd enough, having another man pick out his clothes as if he were a child or an incompetent fool. Under no circumstances, outside of complete physical incapacitation, was he going to let said man undress him as well. In truth, he’d just as soon take care of the whole business on his own, but a gentleman of his station was expected to retain the services of a valet. Besides, he was quite fond of Stidham.
“I’m sure there are a host of pretty young things in the house who would be all too eager to oblige you,” Stidham said with a straight face. “Shall I fetch one for you?”
“Generous of you, but I’ll pass for to night.”
“Very good. If you have no need of me then, I’ll wish you a good night.”
“You’ve been here with me at Haldon for some years now.”
“What…” He hesitated, wondered if there might be a way to form the question without making a complete ass of
himself. And came to the conclusion that there really wasn’t. “What color are the imp’s eyes?”
“Miss Browning?” If Stidham was surprised, or amused, by the inquiry, he was too dignified to show it. “I believe they’re a very dark brown, my lord.”
“Very dark brown,” he repeated. “Would that be another way of saying chocolate?”
“I suppose it would.”
In the small hours of the morning, while the rest of the house slept, a man and a woman stood in the darkest corner of the library and spoke in hurried whispers.
“Is this it, then?” the man asked, reaching for the small box wrapped in brown paper that the woman held.
“It is.” She drew her hand back, out of his reach. “I’ll have your word this won’t come back to haunt my family.”
“I’d like to give it,” he said gently. “I’d like nothing more, but it’ll be for Whit to decide what’s done.”
She nodded once and pressed the package into his hand.
“You’ve great faith in the boy,” he murmured.
“When one has trust and respect, faith becomes irrelevant.”
“Then it is to be hoped our trust is not misplaced.”
irabelle hadn’t enough personal experience with over-imbibing to fully appreciate her good fortune in waking the next morning feeling whole and hale, but she could appreciate fine health on a warm spring day in a general sort of way. She was a trifle muzzy perhaps, but that was easily countered with a cup of hot chocolate and some fresh air.
She avoided the guests in the breakfast room, preferring to take her cup from the kitchen to a small bench in the garden. There wasn’t anyone presently up and about she cared to speak with, at any rate. Kate, Evie, and Sophie were all still in bed. The first two by choice, and the last, no doubt, by virtue of having an overprotective husband. It would be an hour yet, maybe two, before any of them emerged from their rooms.