Authors: Elizabeth Hoyt
The maid bustled out again, and Beatrice said softly, “Lottie . . .”
Her friend was pouring the tea, her gaze resolutely fixed on the teapot in her hand. “Did you hear that Lady Hasselthorpe
cut Mrs. Hunt dead at the Fothering’s musicale yesterday? I’ve heard wild speculation that it signals Lord Hasselthorpe’s
disapproval of Mr. Hunt, but one can’t help wonder if Lady Hasselthorpe did it entirely accidentally. She is such a ninny.”
Lottie held out a full teacup, and maybe it was her imagination, but Beatrice thought she saw pleading in her friend’s eyes.
And what could she do? She was a maiden who’d reached the overripe age of four and twenty without ever receiving an offer.
What did she know about matters of the heart anyway?
Beatrice sighed silently and took the teacup. “And how did Mrs. Hunt respond?”
HE PROBLEM WITH
marriage, Lottie Graham reflected, was that there was such a difference between what one dreamed the matrimonial state would
be like and, well, the
Lottie sat back down on her settee—Wallace and Sons, bought just last year for a truly scandalous sum—and stared at the cooling
tea things. She’d seen Beatrice to the door after babbling at her dearest friend in the world for a solid half hour. Poor
Beatrice must heartily regret coming over for their weekly tea.
Lottie sighed and plucked the last biscuit from the plate, crumbling it between her fingers. Darling Pan came to sit beside
her skirts, his foxy little face grinning up at her.
“It’s not good for you, so many sweets,” Lottie murmured, but she gave a bit of the biscuit to him anyway. He delicately took
the treat between his sharp little teeth and retired with his prize beneath the gilded French armchair.
Lottie slumped into the settee, laying her arm wearily along the back. Perhaps she expected too much. Perhaps it was girlish
fantasies that she should’ve outgrown long ago. Perhaps all marriages, even the very best like her own mama and papa’s, ultimately
settled into dreary indifference, and she was simply being a ninny like Lady Hasselthorpe.
Annie, the head downstairs maid, came in to gather up the tea things. She glanced at Lottie and said hesitantly, “Will there
be anything else, ma’am?”
Oh, God, even the servants sensed it.
Lottie straightened a little, trying to look serene. “No, that’ll be all.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Annie curtsied. “Cook was wanting to know if there’ll be one or two for supper tonight?”
“Just one,” Lottie muttered, and turned her face away.
Annie left the room quietly.
She sat there, draped on the settee, for some time, thinking wild thoughts until the door opened again a bit later.
Nate strolled in and then stopped. “Oh, sorry! Didn’t mean to disturb you. I didn’t know anyone was in here.”
At Nate’s voice, Pan emerged from under the armchair and pranced over to be patted. Pan had adored Nate from the very beginning.
Lottie wrinkled her nose at her pet and then said rather carelessly to Nate, “I didn’t know you’d be home for dinner. I just
told Cook there’d be only one.”
“That’s all right.” Nate straightened from Pan and gave her one of his wide, easy smiles—the smile that had first made her
heart quicken. “I’m dining with Collins and Rupert tonight. I just stopped in to see if I’d left that Whig pamphlet here.
Rupert’s interested in seeing it. Ah. There ’tis.”
Nate crossed to a table in the corner, where a messy pile of papers lay, snatching up the pamphlet in evident satisfaction.
He returned to the door, engrossed in the pamphlet, and only as an afterthought did he look up as he was about to leave.
He frowned rather vaguely at Lottie. “I say, that’s all right, isn’t it? I mean, me dining out with Collins and Rupert? I
thought you were attending some other social event when I made the plan.”
Lottie lifted her brow and said loftily, “Oh, don’t mind me. I’m—”
But she was talking to his back.
“Good, good. Knew you’d understand.” And he was out the door, his nose buried in that wretched pamphlet.
Lottie blew out a breath and threw a small cushion at the door, making Pan start and yip.
“Married two years and he’s more interested in dinner with a couple of boring old men than me!”
Pan jumped onto the settee beside her—which he was strictly forbidden to do—and licked her on the nose.
Whereupon Lottie burst into tears.
OUR AND TWENTY
and never even an offer.
The thought repeated in Beatrice’s head all the way home, a nasty little chant. She’d never put her unmarried state into such
blunt terms before. Where had the time gone? It wasn’t as if she spent her days mooning about, waiting to start a life when
the right gentleman finally presented himself. No, she led a busy life, a full life, she reminded herself, albeit somewhat
defensively. Because Uncle Reggie had been widowed the last ten years, she’d practically grown up learning to hostess for
him. And while political teas, dinners, house parties, and the yearly ball might be a tad dull, they were quite a job to manage.
To be fair, she
been courted. Just last spring, Mr. Matthew Horn had seemed quite interested—before he’d shot himself in the head, poor man.
And she’d once come very close to an offer of marriage. Mr. Freddy Finch—the second son of an earl, no less—had been dashing
and funny and had kissed her so sweetly. He’d escorted her for the better part of a season several years ago. She had enjoyed
their outings—had enjoyed Freddy—but not, as she finally realized, in any special way. She was happy to go with him on a carriage
ride, but if he had to call off for some reason, she was only a little disappointed. Her own complacency she might’ve lived
with, but she’d suspected that Freddy’s emotions were no more entangled than her own, and she couldn’t live with that in a
marriage. When she married—
she married—she wanted a gentleman who was wildly,
in love with her.
A man who would never abandon her.
So she’d broken it off with Freddy, not in any dramatic way, but simply by seeing him less and less often, eventually drifting
away from him. She’d been correct in her assessment of his emotional attachment, too, because not once had Freddy protested
her drawing away. A year later, he’d married Guinevere Crestwood, a rather plain lady who ran a tea party like an army campaign.
Was she jealous? Beatrice stared out the carriage window while she examined her feelings, taking care to be quite honest with
herself, for she despised self-deception. She shook her head. No, she could honestly say that she was not jealous of the new
Mrs. Finch, even if her toddlers were quite adorable. The adorable toddlers might grow up to have Guinevere’s enormous canine
teeth for one thing, and for another, well, Freddy was funny and charming and quite nice-looking, but he hadn’t been in love
with Beatrice. Perhaps Freddy had fallen passionately in love with Guinevere, but Beatrice rather doubted it.
And that was the crux of the matter, was it not? None of the gentlemen whom she’d driven in carriages with and danced with
and strolled with had been interested in her with any real depth of feeling. They complimented her gowns, smiled as they danced
with her, but never truly saw her—the woman behind the facade. Perhaps a marriage without passion was enough for Guinevere
Crestwood, but it wasn’t enough for her.
She remembered now coming home from a ball, a year or more ago, and strolling into the blue sitting room and just gazing at
Lord Hope’s portrait. He’d seemed alive with passion. Next to him—even as a flat, painted image—all the other gentlemen she
knew faded into the background like transparent ghosts. He was more real, even then when she’d thought him long dead, than
those flesh-and-blood gentlemen who’d squired her only hours before.
Perhaps that was the real reason she was still a maiden at four and twenty: she’d been waiting for a man as passionate as
she’d dreamed Lord Hope was.
But was he that man?
The carriage stopped before the Blanchard town house, and Beatrice descended the steps with the help of a footman. Usually
at this time she met with Cook for their weekly consultation about menus. But today she went straight to the kitchen and asked
to have a tray prepared and apprised Cook of her change of plans. Then she mounted the stairs to the third floor and the scarlet
room, the tray in her hands.
George, the footman stationed outside the scarlet room, nodded at her as she neared. “Can I carry that tray for you, miss?”
“Thank you, George, but I believe I can handle it.” She glanced worriedly at the door. “How is he?”
George scratched his head. “Ornery, miss, if you don’t mind me saying so. Didn’t like the maid coming in to tend his fire.
’E was yelling at her something awful in that Frenchie language—or so I think. Don’t speak the lingo myself.”
Beatrice pursed her lips and nodded. “Can you knock for me?”
“Certainly, miss.” George rapped on the door.
“Come,” Hope said.
George held the door open and Beatrice peeked in. The viscount was sitting up in the big bed wearing a loose nightshirt and
writing in a notebook on his lap. His knife lay outside the covers by his right hip. He seemed composed enough now at least,
and she exhaled a grateful breath. His cheeks no longer held the hectic flush they’d had the last two days, though his face
was still gaunt. His long hair had been braided into a tight queue, but his jaw was still covered by his thick black beard.
The top two buttons of his nightshirt had been left undone, and a few strands of dark hair were revealed, curling against
the snowy cloth. For a moment, Beatrice found her gaze fixed on the sight.
“Come to tend to me, Cousin Beatrice?” he murmured, and she jerked her gaze up. Knowing black eyes met hers.
“I’ve brought some tea and muffins,” she said tartly. “And you needn’t sound so snide. You’ve scared most of the maids, and
George said you yelled at one just this morning.”
“She didn’t knock.” He watched as she came in and placed the tray on a table by the bed.
“That’s hardly a reason to frighten her.”
He looked away irritably. “I don’t like people in my rooms. She should not have come in without leave.”
She eyed him, her voice softening. “The servants are trained not to knock. I think you’ll have to become used to it. But until
you do, I’ll warn them to knock at your door.”
He shrugged, reaching for a muffin on the tray. He shoved half of it into his mouth rudely.
She sighed and pulled a chair near the bed, sitting in it. “You seem ravenous.”
He paused in the act of grabbing another muffin. “You’ve obviously never had to eat wormy biscuits and watered ale on board
a ship.” He bit into the muffin, his black eyes watching her defiantly.
She stared back calmly, hiding the tremor of unease at his look. His eyes were feral, like a starving wolf. “No, I’ve never
been on board a ship. Did you sail home recently?”
He looked away, silently eating the rest of the second muffin. For a moment, she thought he wouldn’t answer her. Then he said
bitterly, “I took a position as a cook’s assistant. Not that there was much food to cook.”
She looked at him wonderingly. What straits had made the son of an earl take such mean labor? “Where did you sail from?”
He grimaced and then glanced up at her slyly through black eyelashes. “Do you know, I don’t recall having a cousin Beatrice.”
Obviously he had no intention of answering her. Beatrice stifled a sigh of frustration. “That’s because I’m not your cousin.
At least not by blood.”
He might’ve meant his question as a diversion, but now he cocked his head in interest. “Explain.”
He’d set aside his notebook, and his whole attention was concentrated on her, making her feel rather self-conscious. Beatrice
rose and busied herself pouring the tea as she talked. “My mother was sister to Uncle Reggie’s wife, my aunt Mary. Mother
died when I was born, and I was five when my father died. Aunt Mary and Uncle Reggie took me in.”
“A sad story,” he said mockingly.
“No.” Beatrice shook her head, handing him a cup of tea with no milk but with lots of sugar. “Not really. I’ve always been
loved, always been cared for, first by my father and then by Uncle Reggie and Aunt Mary. They had no children of their own,
so they treated me just as they would a daughter, perhaps even better. Uncle Reggie has been wonderful to me.” She looked
at him earnestly. “He’s a good man.”
“Then perhaps I should relinquish my title and let Uncle Reggie keep it.” His voice was sardonic.
“You needn’t be mean,” she replied with dignity.
“Shouldn’t I?” He studied her as if he couldn’t quite make her out.
“No. There’s no need. It’s just that this is our house now—”
“And I’m supposed to take pity on you for that? Lay down my arms and make peace?”
She inhaled to control her temper. “My uncle is old. He doesn’t—”
“My title, my lands, my monies, my goddamned life have been stolen from me, madam,” he said, his voice rising with each word.
“Think you I care a whit for your
She stared. He was so angry, so determined. Where was the laughing boy in the painting? Had he entirely disappeared? “You
were thought dead. No one meant to steal your title from you.”
“Their intention is of no matter to me,” he said. “I care only about the result. I’ve been deprived of what is rightfully
mine. I have no home.”
“But Uncle Reggie isn’t to blame!” she cried, losing her self-possession at last. “I’m just trying to explain to you that
this isn’t a war. We can be civilized about—”
He flung the teacup against the wall and then swept his arm in an abrupt, violent gesture across the table. Beatrice was forced
to hop out of the way as the tray, plate, and teapot—filled with hot tea—all crashed to the floor where’d she been standing.
“How dare you?” she demanded, staring first at the mess on the floor and then at the savage in the bed. “How