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The Regency Season: Scandalous Awakening: The Viscount's Frozen Heart / The Marquis's Awakening

The Regency Season: Scandalous Awakening: The Viscount's Frozen Heart / The Marquis's Awakening
The Regency Season: Scandalous Awakening: The Viscount's Frozen Heart / The Marquis's Awakening Elizabeth Beacon Undone by a single touch…The Viscount's Frozen HeartLuke Winterley has been trapped within a loveless marriage and now his emotions are hidden behind a wall of ice. Having returned home to fulfil his aunt’s last request he is once more faced with Chloe Wheaton, his first love. This bewitching waif promises to thaw the Viscount’s heart but marriage between a noble and his housekeeper is all but impossible!The Marquis's AwakeningTom Banburgh, Marquis of Mantaigne, reluctantly returns to his childhood home, Dayspring Castle, only to find Polly Trethayne camped out under his roof! Polly is a goddess in breeches: she awakens feelings he thought he’d locked deep inside. Can Polly storm the barricades Tom has erected and bring her fresh vitality to his lonely world? Table of Contents Cover (#uc88febe9-c093-5999-84dd-bede83749237) Title Page (#u777499b1-9693-53be-8f44-ae568f1f99a1) The Viscount’s Frozen Heart (#uce21d551-d06d-5b20-b105-fe323438639d) Back Cover Text (#u70555963-1613-51cc-9119-ab4544b90cab) About the Author (#u08f23c6e-4257-51dc-8e88-182bf486c537) Chapter One (#ubb63477c-a294-5495-8644-7ea45a6703ec) Chapter Two (#u0bdfa6c3-3ba3-553d-b372-e3a465711b1a) Chapter Three (#ua040d125-169a-5346-a258-2009c108f781) Chapter Four (#u62cf21dd-464d-50c1-b375-adc450fdb6b6) Chapter Five (#u14cf864a-6941-5aa3-9eb9-5afdc0e89a0d) Chapter Six (#u8b6f128f-4f0e-5a7d-8f70-e2dcd86ee388) Chapter Seven (#udae6101e-3a1d-5e0b-af75-90b79a518e18) Chapter Eight (#u92eed090-12d3-50f5-8673-495c527a3b2a) Chapter Nine (#u33dab94a-30db-5b5e-b6dd-cba78079e0a3) Chapter Ten (#u69b63559-ec44-54c1-9584-da0c41a48528) Chapter Eleven (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twelve (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Thirteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Fourteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Fifteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Sixteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Seventeen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Eighteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Nineteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twenty (#litres_trial_promo) The Marquis’s Awakening (#litres_trial_promo) Back Cover Text (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter One (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Two (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Three (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Four (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Five (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Six (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Seven (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Eight (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Nine (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Ten (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Eleven (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twelve (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Thirteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Fourteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Fifteen (#litres_trial_promo) Copyright (#litres_trial_promo) The Viscount’s Frozen Heart (#u6f8342fc-d01f-5b15-a7d4-df133dc7c5f4) Elizabeth Beacon THAWED BY HIS HOUSEKEEPER’S KISS Luke Winterley, Viscount Farenze, is duty-bound to fulfill his beloved aunt’s last request—even though it concerns bewitching housekeeper Chloe Wheaton. Years ago they fell in love, but the battle between duty and desire drove them apart. He’s embittered by a loveless marriage, so can the ice around Luke’s long-buried emotions ever thaw? A marriage between a housekeeper and a viscount should be impossible, but maybe the warmth of Chloe’s touch can bring a new beginning for them both…. A Year of Scandal A gentleman for every season ELIZABETH BEACON lives in the beautiful English West Country, and is finally putting her insatiable curiosity about the past to good use. Over the years Elizabeth has worked in her family’s horticultural business, become a mature student, qualified as an English teacher, worked as a secretary and, briefly, tried to be a civil servant. She is now happily ensconced behind her computer, when not trying to exhaust her bouncy rescue dog with as many walks as the Inexhaustible Lurcher can finagle. Elizabeth can’t bring herself to call researching the wonderfully diverse, scandalous Regency period and creating charismatic heroes and feisty heroines work, and she is waiting for someone to find out how much fun she is having and tell her to stop it. Chapter One (#u6f8342fc-d01f-5b15-a7d4-df133dc7c5f4) Luke Winterley, Viscount Farenze, turned to help his daughter down from the carriage and watched Eve eye the fine house nestled into the rolling Wiltshire hillside like a jewel bedded on winter-pale green velvet. ‘If only I had remembered Farenze Lodge was this beautiful I’d have teased you to bring me here a long time ago, Papa. I do recall Aunt Virginia giving me a sugarplum after I fell down the steps and cut my knee as a little tot, but that’s about all,’ she said and he had to smother a pang of guilt as he handed Eve’s small but formidable maid from the carriage before answering, since he had kept Eve away so he wouldn’t have to spend any more time here than necessary. ‘No wonder that event stuck in your memory, but, yes, it is a very fine house,’ Luke said with the second look the Palladian villa’s neat elegance always deserved. He had to brace himself for the empty feel of it without the last Viscountess Farenze here to make it a home, though. It was his duty to see Eve didn’t feel the loss of her great-great-aunt even more acutely here, despite his own sorrow and frustration, and the less anyone knew about that second, rough-edged emotion and how hard it always bit him under this roof, the better. ‘It doesn’t seem anywhere near as vast to me now as it did back then,’ Eve said, as determined to be cheerful for him as he was for her. ‘No, it was built as a home, for all its grace and classical proportions,’ he replied rather absently. It was currently home to a full complement of grieving staff and one very inconvenient housekeeper. The mere thought of Mrs Chloe Wheaton waiting inside this serenely lovely house made him want to groan out loud, but somehow he kept silent and smothered another pang of guilt that he was about to make her homeless. He couldn’t live under the same roof as Chloe Wheaton, yet still he felt this urgent need to see her again, if only to find out if she was as bitterly overwound by ten years of avoiding each other as he was. ‘Virginia and Virgil liked their comfort, although I’m sure she would have done her best to love Darkmere if he really wanted to live there. Luckily he was always far happier in the home they made together here,’ he told his daughter. Somehow he must distract himself from Mrs Chloe Wheaton’s presence here one more time, or he would end up wanting her almost beyond reason again. She was a widow with a young daughter. He had no right to long for her with this nagging, nonsensical ache whenever they were in the same county, let alone the same house. ‘I don’t remember your Uncle Virgil, Papa, but he looks far too rakish and cynical in that portrait of him in the gallery at home to fall deep in love with anyone, however lovely Aunt Virginia must have been sixty years ago.’ ‘Ah, but that was painted before they met and Virginia was a woman of character as well as an exotic beauty if her portraits are to be believed. I thought them the most deeply devoted couple I ever encountered and I’m far more of a cynic than Virgil ever was,’ he said with a smile that went awry as he missed them both for the first time now Virginia had joined her beloved the other side of eternity. ‘I’m not so sure you’re as hard-headed as you think, Papa, but this is a fine house and it certainly feels as if it’s been done with love.’ ‘I know what you mean,’ Luke said with a brooding glance at the lovely place. Unlike his predecessor, he loved Darkmere Castle and the stark beauty of its airy, windswept setting, but could see the attraction of having a smaller, more modern dwelling to retreat to on an ice-cold January afternoon like this one. He would need to spend part of the year here if he was to make sure it remained the gracious and elegant home Virgil and Virginia had always intended it to be. He cast a brooding glance at the lush parkland and rolling hills around him and decided most men would think him a fool or a liar if he said it was a mixed blessing. Yes, Mrs Chloe Wheaton would have to leave if he was to live here for very long, for both their sakes. Even as he reaffirmed the rightness of his decision he saw a slender feminine figure come to stand below one of the half-lowered blinds at the long window of Virginia’s bedchamber to see who had arrived. Luke felt his heart jar, then race on at the double when the youthful housekeeper of Farenze Lodge visibly flinched under his fierce scrutiny. She met it with a proud lift of her chin and an icy composure he could only envy. He couldn’t swear under his breath with Eve standing so close she could hear every syllable, yet a clutch of unwanted need tightened its hot claw in his gut while he gazed back with furious hunger. It seemed my Lord Farenze wanted the dratted woman as hotly as ever and he still couldn’t have her. * * * He’s here, whispered the siren voice of unreason as Chloe glared at her bugbear and did her best to ignore it. He’s come back to you at last, it whispered yearningly and she wished she could silence it for ever. It sprang back to life like some annoying spectre, refusing to be banished to outer darkness whenever she tried to pretend Lord Farenze was a gruff and disagreeable gentleman she could forget when she left for good. Since Virginia became so ill they lost hope of her survival, the thought of the viscount’s arrival to mourn his beloved great-aunt only added to her desolation. Yet she still felt a charge crackle in the air when he set foot on the straw-muffled gravel. Chloe knew who the latest arrival at Farenze Lodge was by some misplaced instinct, so why was she standing here staring at him like an idiot? Lord Farenze quirked a haughty eyebrow as if to ask why she had the right to stare? He was master of Farenze Lodge and so much more and she was only the housekeeper. Her inner fool was so hungry it kept her gazing at him even after she’d made it clear she wasn’t going to shrink and tremble at the sight of him. ‘Imbecile,’ she muttered to herself. He looked dominant, vigorous and cross-grained as ever. She could see that his crow-black hair was untouched by silver and too long for fashion when he mockingly swept off his hat and gave her an almost bow; dark brows drawn sharply above eyes she knew were nothing like the simple grey they looked from here. Close up they were complex as he was; silver grey and would-be icy, but with hints of well-hidden poetry and passion in the rays of gold and green at the centre of his clear irises. She wondered if such feelings would die if a man refused to admit he had them long enough. Recalling a time when he’d almost swept them both to disaster on a raging tide of wanting and needing, she did her best to pretend her shiver was for the cold day and this dark time in both their lives, not the memory of a Luke Winterley nobody else at Farenze Lodge would recognise in the chilly lord on the gravel sweep below. The besotted, angry girl of a decade ago longed for him like a lost puppy, but mature Mrs Wheaton shuddered at the idea of succumbing to the fire and false promise of a younger, more vulnerable Lord Farenze and knew she had been right to say no to him. ‘Who is it, my dear?’ Culdrose, her late mistress’s elderly dresser, asked from her seat by the vast and luxurious bed. ‘Lord Farenze, Cully,’ Chloe said with an unwary sigh and almost felt the older woman’s gaze focusing on her back. ‘And very good time he’s made then, but why call him “imbecile” when he got here as fast as he could?’ ‘You have sharp ears, Cully. I wasn’t talking about Lord Farenze,’ Chloe said and promised herself she’d break free of his compelling gaze any moment now. ‘I may have white hair, but my wits haven’t gone a-begging. His lordship is a fine man, as any woman with two good eyes in her head can see. You’ll only be a fool if you lose your wits over him.’ ‘I shall not,’ Chloe murmured and turned away with a dignified nod she hoped told him: I have seen you, my lord. I will avoid you like the plague from now on, so kindly return the compliment. * * * What was so special about the woman his toes tingled and his innards burned at even the sight of her from afar? Luke told himself to be relieved when she broke that long gaze into each other’s eyes across yards of icy January air. He didn’t want more reminders of how close to disaster he once walked with her. Feeling ruffled and torn by feelings he didn’t want to think about right now, he did his best to let the frigid breeze cool his inner beast and shivered at the idea of how cold it would be to ruin a good woman’s reputation and mire her little girl’s prospects with scandal. He was six and thirty, not a green boy with every second thought of the female sex and an incessant urge to mate. If she could turn away with such cool disdain, he would get through this without begging for her glorious body in his bed. She was an upper servant; he recalled the fate of such women whose lovers wanted them so badly that they married beneath them out of desperation and shuddered. He might not like her much just now, but he couldn’t wish such a fate on a woman he respected for her strength of character, even if it got confoundedly in the way of the pleasure they could have had in each other if she wasn’t so sternly armoured against it. ‘I wonder how it feels to love someone as deeply as Virginia did,’ Eve mused and jarred Luke back to here and now. His heartbeat leapt into a panicky race at the idea his daughter had inherited her mother’s ridiculous romantic notions. ‘Painful and dangerous, I should imagine,’ he replied brusquely. ‘Now I think it could be wondrous and exhilarating to love the right person and have them love you back, Papa.’ ‘Your mother would have agreed with you, time after time,’ he cautioned and shuddered at the memory of his wife falling in ‘love’ again and again as soon as she decided her young husband wasn’t her ideal after all. Sometimes traces of Pamela’s pettish outbursts shook him if Eve pouted mulishly, or flounced out of the room in a headlong temper, but his Eve was too kind-hearted to treat a man as if he had no more feelings than a block of wood. He often wondered how such a loving child came from such an ill-starred marriage. ‘Please choose someone worthy of you when you marry, Eve,’ he cautioned. ‘Don’t accept the first beau to say he loves you one day and someone else the next.’ ‘I’m not an idiot, Papa, and you’ll end up a lonely old cynic when I do find a fine man to spend my life with if you’re not careful.’ ‘I want you settled before I find a suitable wife.’ Eve grimaced and rolled her eyes. ‘Suitable?’ she echoed dubiously. ‘Aunt Virginia would hate to hear you speak so. It sounds as if you’re expecting to choose a wife from an emporium and have her delivered to the church on an appropriate day for a wedding, complete with her bridal attire and a suite of attendants.’ ‘Although you’re an impertinent young miss, I have to admit Virginia wasn’t happy with the idea,’ Luke said, his last conversation with his great-aunt by marriage running through his mind a little too vividly for comfort. ‘You only married That Fool because your father and stepmother threw her at your head and it seemed a good idea at the time,’ Virginia raged when he unwarily set out his plan to remarry as soon as Eve was settled. ‘If you wed a “suitable” young lady, at least have the decency to fall in love with a mistress.’ Virginia had given a weary sigh when he smiled cynically at the very idea of loving a female he must marry to beget an heir. ‘No,’ she argued with herself. ‘Don’t. No woman deserves to marry the cold fish you think you are, then watch you love a hussy instead. You’re a passionate man under all the starch and to-hell-with-you manner and another marriage like the last one will break you. Please don’t imagine you’ll be lucky enough to breed a sweet child on a ninny twice in one lifetime—no man deserves to be that fortunate.’ ‘I’m not a lovable man,’ Luke said gruffly. His mistress’s enthusiasm told him he was a good enough lover, but lust wasn’t love. ‘Then your Eve and I secretly hate you, do we?’ Virginia argued. ‘And your staff and tenants loathe you behind your back as well, I suppose? Obviously they only put up with you brooding and barking at them because you pay well enough and don’t burn their cottages down for fun, or prey on their womenfolk when you feel the urge to rut. You married an empty-headed flirt who dedicated her life to falling in love with any rogue she took a fancy to when she had a good and handsome husband, but it wasn’t your fault, Luke. Your father knew he was dying and persuaded you to marry far too young, and how lucky for that harridan he wed after your mother died that Pamela birthed a daughter, then ran off with the first rogue who would have her.’ ‘Lucky for me as well. I love Eve dearly,’ he had said stiffly. ‘Yes, yes I know, and James will be your heir if needs be. But he needs to be his own man instead and your second trip up the aisle will be a bigger disaster than the first if you only intend to wed a “suitable” wife,’ she warned a little too seriously for comfort. ‘If I thought James would manage the Winterley interests with half the dedication he puts into carousing, curricle racing and gambling, he could have it all with my blessing. If I were leaving my downtrodden tenants in safe hands when I meet my maker, there would be no need for me to remarry.’ ‘Safer than either of you think, but James can’t spend his life waiting to step into your shoes; he deserves better.’ ‘Does he indeed?’ Luke had replied harshly, wondering if even Virginia had any idea how deep the rift between them ran. ‘Papa?’ Eve prompted now and he wondered how Chloe Wheaton stepping into that window shot his concentration into the ether. ‘I should have made you stay home, Eve. For all Virginia wanted nobody to mourn her, her household loved her too much to carry on as if nothing has happened.’ ‘This is real life, not a pretty fairy story, Papa,’ his daughter chided as if she were an adult and he the sixteen-year-old. ‘Then I suppose we’d better get on with facing this place without Virginia to welcome us, since you would come.’ ‘Yes, I would. I loved her too.’ ‘And she adored you from the day she laid eyes on the squalling brat you were back then, my Eve. It was beyond the rest of us at the time why she should, since you were screaming like a banshee about some new teeth we were all having trouble with at the time. Virginia spent three months at Darkmere every summer until you were old enough for us to meet her in Brighton for sea air and shopping, so you must know she loved you back, considering she couldn’t abide the place.’ ‘I do,’ she said and looked so bereft he wanted to hug her, then send her back to Darkmere straight away, but he knew she was right—his daughter was almost an adult. He must let her make her own decisions, even if they went against his instincts to guard her from anything that might hurt her. ‘Why didn’t we come here instead when I was young, Papa?’ she asked. ‘You never stay at Farenze Lodge for more than a few days, yet you seem to love it almost as much as Darkmere.’ ‘It’s easier not to,’ Luke replied carefully. Easier for him, since it was either that or stay here and make Chloe Wheaton his mistress by stoking this fire between them until she gave in instead of dousing it as best he could by avoiding her. The lady had had some very pithy things to say when he was driven to suggest it years ago and it would have been a long siege, but something told him it would have succeeded in the end. So how would it feel to love and be loved? Impossible; intolerable even and he didn’t love the woman and she certainly didn’t love him. He would wait a year or two and find his suitable wife once Eve had decided her own future. A pretty and biddable young widow or some sweet-natured, overlooked spinster lady he could marry for an heir would suit him very well. Even as he reaffirmed that sensible plan with his rational mind the image of a very different Mrs Chloe Winterley from the sad-eyed female he’d just seen drifted into his head and made him bite back a virulent curse. The first summer day she strolled into his life she looked warm and open as well as ridiculously young and stunningly beautiful. That version of Chloe Wheaton jarred something into life inside him he’d thought he was far too cynical and weary to feel by the time he was six and twenty. Luke frowned now as he had then, because people who felt that vividly got hurt. He hadn’t wanted that lovely, ardent young creature with her red-gold locks escaping the bands she’d tried to confine them to end up narrowed and disappointed as he was, yet the woman he had just seen was nothing like the warm and irresistible girl he thought he’d met that day. Somehow he had made himself leave her to swing her bonnet by its strings as she walked home to whatever well-to-do family she hailed from with impossible dreams in her heart he’d only wished he could make come true. No, he was too embittered and shop-soiled for such a hopeful young lady, he’d decided regretfully, even as he met her astonishing violet eyes and only just prevented himself falling headlong into them as if that was where he belonged. Riding away from her was one of the hardest things he’d ever had to do, but he’d been disillusioned about her even sooner than he had about Pamela. Only a couple of hours later he found out the girl was Virginia’s new companion and supposed housekeeper, on the way back from visiting her baby daughter at nurse. A widow who claimed to be two and twenty and looked a young eighteen. Virginia had reassured him she was as well aware of the tallness of Mrs Chloe Wheaton’s story, but she hadn’t had so much fun in years. So what could he do about an encroaching so-called widow when Virginia did indeed seem almost as full of life again at last as she had been when her beloved Virgil was still alive? Her furious rejection of his offer of a carte blanche ten years ago still rang in his ears as if she’d denounced him an arrogant and repellent rake only yesterday. If she still felt the same hellish tension that roared through him whenever he set eyes on her, she had learnt to hide it very well. Seeing her drawn and exhausted hadn’t helped him ignore it so regally though. Instead it laid a line of fellow feeling between them to see her so grief-stricken and he didn’t want to share anything with Mrs Chloe Wheaton. Luke shook his head and thanked heaven he was wearing a long greatcoat to conceal how eagerly his body ignored his stern orders not to want the housekeeper as he turned his gaze away from the now empty windows and silently cursed himself for being such a fool. Chapter Two (#u6f8342fc-d01f-5b15-a7d4-df133dc7c5f4) ‘Who was that, Papa?’ Eve asked. ‘Whom do you mean?’ he asked stiffly, like a schoolboy caught out in a blatant lie, he decided, as he wondered what sort of blundering beast the wretched woman would turn him into next. ‘The lady at the window.’ ‘A maid on the alert for mourners?’ ‘She looked more like the housekeeper, although if so she looked very young for such a responsible role.’ ‘She is,’ Luke replied grimly. ‘She must have been in the schoolroom when she met Wheaton.’ ‘Who on earth is Wheaton? The January air seems to have addled your brain instead of sharpening it as you claimed it would when you left us to count church spires and grey mares while you rode most of the way here, Papa.’ ‘I thought you two had enough schemes to hatch out for who was to do what and when after we got here to keep you occupied for a sennight.’ ‘Slander; we’re not at all managing, are we, Bran?’ Eve quizzed her diminutive one time-nurse and now ladies’ maid. ‘Even if we was, we’d be well and truly talked to a standstill by now,’ Eve’s unlikely personal dragon answered with a sharp look that told Luke she understood his latest battle of wills with Chloe Wheaton even if his innocent daughter didn’t. ‘Well, now we’re here you will have too many people to talk to rather than too few,’ he warned as they climbed the shallow steps. The hatchment over the door was a stark reminder why they were here and Luke felt the wrongness of this place without the lady who had loved and lived here for so long to bid him welcome. He sighed and told himself the next few days would pass and life would go relentlessly on, whatever he had to say about it. * * * ‘Miss Winterley is with his lordship,’ Chloe remarked as she turned from the window and only wished she dared avoid the master of the house a little longer. ‘No doubt she had to plague Master Luke something relentless to make that happen. Very protective he is; a good father and a fine man, whatever that stepmother of his says.’ ‘I imagine he takes little very notice of her,’ Chloe said absently. Having been on the wrong end of his protective nature herself, ten years of enduring his distrust stung more sharply than it should. He was probably surprised she hadn’t run off with Virginia’s jewellery or the housekeeping money long ago. ‘That woman made the poor lad’s life a misery. I can’t understand to this day why Mr Oswald married her. Mr Oakham overheard her telling Mr James to do all he could to blacken Mr Luke’s name now the family are here to put the “old besom in her grave”, as the nasty-minded old crow put it. Lady Virginia wouldn’t have her over the threshold if she was alive to say her nay, but Master Luke was always too kind-hearted for his own good and no doubt he’ll let her stay.’ ‘I’m sure Mrs Winterley will behave herself now his lordship is here, whatever she might say to her son. She seems in awe of Lord Farenze and I’ve heard he controls her purse strings.’ ‘Then I hope he gives her short shrift one day; she deserves no better.’ ‘I don’t want any more tension and upset, so please don’t put something noxious in her soup, Cully. She might never leave if she fancied herself too ill to travel and think how awful it might be if she once got her feet under the table.’ ‘She’ll leave fast enough if I put a purge in her coffee, and good riddance.’ ‘No, wait out the week and most of the mourners will go home and leave you all in peace,’ Chloe urged, trying not to wonder where she would be by then. ‘I suppose so,’ Culdrose agreed reluctantly, ‘but it’s hard to stay silent when we loved her ladyship dearly. I won’t have her name blackened now she’s not here to stand up for herself.’ ‘Nobody would do so at her funeral. It would be disrespectful and heartless.’ Culdrose sniffed loudly; ‘I still caught the woman sneaking about her ladyship’s boudoir yesterday. Searching through her letters and personal things she was as if she had every right to do what she liked here. It’s as well we locked Lady Virginia’s treasures away in the strongroom after Oakham caught that Miss Carbottle taking her ladyship’s diamond brooch as a keepsake, or so she said. Keepsake indeed, she’s no better than a jackdaw.’ ‘She does have a habit of taking anything pretty or shiny that’s lying about. Her sister always brings it back, but I’m glad you spared her the embarrassment. Now I must go down and greet Miss Winterley as she is the new mistress of the house. Promise you won’t make things worse between Mrs Winterley and the staff than they already are though, Cully?’ ‘You know it’s my way to let my feelings out with them I trust to keep their counsel, so I don’t say aught I shouldn’t in front of the quality. Miss Eve being mistress of this house until his lordship marries again won’t go down well with Mrs Winterley though, you mark my words.’ ‘So noted,’ Chloe said and went downstairs to do her duty. Stupid to feel as if a knife had been stabbed in her heart at mention of Lord Farenze remarrying, as he must to beget an heir. Best not to think where she would go next until the mourners left either. Lord Farenze wouldn’t keep her on and she couldn’t stay even if he wanted her to, but there was a deal of work before she could walk away with her last duty to her late mistress done. * * * Luke signalled at the waiting footman to close the doors behind them against the icy easterly wind and missed Virginia’s imperious command to come on in do, lest she expire in the howling gale he was letting in. ‘Thank you, Oakham,’ he said, seeing the butler had set chairs near the blazing fire and offered hot toddies to Eve and Bran to stave off the cold. ‘I would wish you a good day, but we both know there is no such thing right now.’ ‘Indeed not, my lord,’ the elderly manservant replied with a sad shake of his head that said more than words. Even over the mild stir of activity Luke caught the sound of Mrs Wheaton’s inky skirts and disapproving petticoats as she descended the grand staircase and tried to pretend neither of them were really here. So, she steeled herself to meet the new master of the house, did she? Luke admired her courage even as he wished it would fail her and his senses sprang to attention. Even in buttoned-up mourning array she was hauntingly lovely, but close to she looked even more drawn and weary. Feelings that seemed far more dangerous than simple desire kicked him in the gut and he wished her a hundred miles away more fervently than ever. ‘Good day, Mrs Wheaton,’ he greeted her woodenly. ‘Please show my daughter and her maid to their rooms, then see their luggage is sent up.’ ‘Good afternoon, my lord; Miss Winterley,’ she replied with an almost respectful curtsey in his direction. ‘Good afternoon, Mrs Wheaton,’ Eve said with a smile that seemed to relax the stubborn woman’s air of tightly wound tension. ‘I’ve heard so much about you. Great-Aunt Virginia was always full of your daughter’s quaint sayings and doings when she was a babe and she sounds a bright and lively girl now she’s at school.’ ‘By “bright and lively” folks usually mean a limb of Satan, into every piece of mischief she can find. If the girl is anything like you were at that age, Miss Eve, Mrs Wheaton has my sympathy. I could fill a book with the things you got up to when you were a child,’ Bran said dourly. Luke concluded Bran liked Mrs Wheaton for some reason and, whatever the facts of Eve’s birth, Mrs Brandy Brown was the closest thing to a mother his Eve had. He was grateful to the diminutive dragon for loving his daughter fiercely after losing her husband, then her own babe soon after birth, but he wished Bran would show her usual distrust of any servant likely to look down their noses at such a unique ex-nurse and ladies’ maid. The last thing he needed was closer contacts between his family and the Wheatons, but, if she diverted Eve from her grief, he supposed he would have to endure it. ‘My Verity is on pins to meet you, Miss Winterley, and Lady Virginia told her lots of exotic tales about the castle you live in and the wild Border Reivers who once fought over it. As my daughter persuaded her teachers I need her to come home, she will be here as soon as a carriage can be spared to fetch her,’ Chloe said ruefully. A smile softened her generous mouth and lit her violet-blue eyes to depths of enchantment that would make a poet quiver with excitement when she talked of her only child. Even Luke’s workaday imagination wanted to go on the rampage when a red-gold curl escaped her black-trimmed housekeeper’s lace bonnet and threatened to curl about her heart-shaped face. Given freedom, her rebellious auburn locks would kiss her forehead with escaped fronds of red-gold fire. Or maybe they would lie in loose ringlets down the refined line of her long neck and on to white shoulders revealed by a gown cut to show off her womanly charms... Poetry be damned, the woman was a temptation to pure sin and never mind the romantic sighing of buffle-headed dreamers who ought to wake up to the realities of life. ‘She’s probably right,’ Eve was insisting softly and Luke had to rack his brains to recall who she was and what she was right about. ‘Papa would have it I should stay in Northumberland and sit out Aunt Virginia’s funeral, but that would only make me miss her more. Your daughter has lost a good friend, Mrs Wheaton.’ ‘And you are a wise young lady, Miss Winterley.’ ‘Oh, I doubt that, but you must call me Eve, ma’am.’ ‘I can hardly do that if you insist on calling me so and it would be considered sadly coming in a housekeeper to address you by your given name.’ ‘Then will you do so when we are private together? And I think we could resort to my rooms and send for tea now, don’t you? We must discuss how best to go on over the next few days and I’d rather not be Miss Winterley-ed all the time we’re doing it.’ Listening to his remarkable daughter do what he couldn’t and coax Chloe Wheaton upstairs to join her for tea and some gentle gossip, Luke sighed and met Oakham’s eyes in a manly admission: they didn’t understand the restorative power of tea or small talk and probably never would. ‘I have refilled the decanters in the library, my lord, or I could bring some of his late lordship’s best Canary wine to your room. I believe Mr Sleeford and his father-in-law are currently occupying the billiard room.’ Taking the warning in that impassive observation, Luke murmured his thanks and made his way up the nearest branch of the elegant double stairway. He entered the suite of rooms Virginia had insisted he took over as the one-day master of the house a year after Great-Uncle Virgil died and was glad Mrs Wheaton had ordered fires lit in all three rooms against his eventual arrival. He was grateful for the warmth and sanctuary the suite promised him tonight, despite his reluctance to use it at first. With so many people gathering for his great-aunt’s funeral he must savour any peace he could get over the next few days. * * * As they sipped tea and discussed arrangements for the household over the next few days, Chloe wondered why Miss Evelina Winterley hadn’t been permitted to stay here during the decade Chloe had lived here. Lord Farenze and his daughter always joined Lady Virginia in Brighton or Ramsgate for several weeks every summer, but his visits to Farenze Lodge were so fleeting he rarely stayed so much as a night, let alone long enough to uproot his daughter and bring her with him. Fury flashed through her as the familiar notion she was the reason he had kept Eve away until now fitted neatly into her mind. It was true that scandalised whispers spread through the neighbourhood when she first came here as Virginia’s companion-housekeeper, with a baby daughter and no visible husband all those years ago. If only they knew, she decided bleakly, weariness threatening to overcome her once more. She fought it off by using her anger with the new master of the house to stiffen her backbone, for she might be about to leave this place, but she intended to do it with dignity intact. ‘Lady Virginia told me I would like you if I ever had the chance, Mrs Wheaton, and I feel I know you already,’ Eve Winterley said as she refilled a teacup and passed it to her maid without even needing to ask if she would like seconds after their long journey. Such closeness between mistress and maid should not surprise her, she supposed, but Chloe recalled Lord Farenze’s attitude to those he considered beneath him and contrasted it with his daughter’s more liberal one. Reluctantly she decided it spoke well of him that he was so relaxed about Mrs Brown’s role in his daughter’s life, then did her best to forget him for a few blissful moments. ‘And I’m very glad to meet you, Miss Winterley, even at this sad time.’ ‘You will miss Lady Virginia as badly as any of us after being her friend and companion for so long,’ Eve said sincerely and for a long moment all three women sat thinking about how odd their lives felt without that vivid presence. ‘Although this is a beautiful house, Papa has never coveted it. He always said the Lodge was Aunt Virginia’s home and wouldn’t hear of her moving out of it when Uncle Virgil died. It’s quite lovely, don’t you think?’ Eve asked with a guileless look Chloe didn’t quite trust. ‘Exquisite,’ she said carefully. ‘No wonder Aunt Virginia couldn’t bear to leave when Uncle Virgil died, although I believe Papa was very worried about her when rumours went about she had run mad with grief, wasn’t he, Bran?’ ‘Indeed he was, the poor lady.’ ‘Papa says he wondered if she should still live here for her own sake then, but she couldn’t abide Darkmere and refused to set foot in our house in Kent. Papa could hardly evict Mrs Winterley from the Dower House there, so he let the subject drop when Virginia bought the house in Hill Street and we all went on very much as we were, or so I’m told, since I was but a babe in arms at the time and don’t remember.’ ‘Her ladyship thought the Kentish house old and dreary and she said most of the chimneys smoked, so I doubt she would have wanted to live there, even if the Dower House was vacant,’ Chloe said, hoping her dislike of Mrs Oswald Winterley didn’t show. She wouldn’t want to live within a day’s drive of the lady herself, given the choice, and, as Mrs Winterley reluctantly resided in the Haslett Hall dower house, instead of the fashionable London town house she thought Luke Winterley owed her, for some reason nobody else could fathom, Virginia had avoided Haslett Hall like the plague. ‘Papa had several chimney stacks rebuilt when he took over the Farenze estates, so I doubt any smoke now. He won’t have climbing boys used in any of our houses and if the sweep says they’re too small or crooked to use brushes on, he has the stacks rebuilt until they can be done that way without sending those poor little boys up into the dark to choke or get stuck.’ ‘My little brother was put up chimneys when hardly old enough to walk and he didn’t live to see his tenth birthday. His lordship’s a good man,’ Mrs Brandy Brown insisted and Eve Winterley agreed then watched Chloe with expectant eyes. ‘To oppose such a practice he must be,’ she said as tactfully as she could and tried to pretend he meant no more to her than any good man would. Liar, a more truthful inner Chloe prodded her uncomfortably, but somehow she would make it true. Ten years ago she had longed for gruff and embittered Luke, Lord Farenze, with every fibre of her being. At seventeen she’d been little more than a wilful, embittered child though; it took her daughter’s dependence on her to force her to grow up and realise she couldn’t have what she wanted and keep her self-respect. Chloe sighed at the familiar tug of hot warmth she’d felt at first sight of the viscount in possession even today. No, it didn’t matter. Whatever she felt changed nothing. She only had to keep out of his way and stamp on any wayward desires left over from that heady time for a few more days then she would be free of him. Yet this infernal tiredness was dragging at her like a pall and threatened to spin her back into dreams of forbidden things if she let her control slip. First there would be the old fantasy of the Chloe she should be—if life was fair. A charming, alluring lady who could win, and hold, the passionate devotion of gruff Lord Farenze as they danced off into a rosy future. An image of him; his expression impossibly tender as he made it clear how desperately he longed for her with every fibre of his cynical being, shimmered like a mirage. Horrified, she snapped her nodding head upright and righted her empty teacup before it slipped from her slack grip and shattered. Oh, heavens, had she muttered any of that out loud? She met compassion instead of horror when she plucked up the courage to meet her new friend’s eyes, so perhaps not. ‘I hope you don’t mind me saying so, Mrs Wheaton, but you need a nap,’ Mrs Brandy Brown told her. Chloe shivered at the thought of nightmare-haunted snatches of sleep she’d had since her beloved mistress died. ‘You must know how long a woman can go without sleep from your experience when Miss Evelina was a baby, Mrs Brown,’ she forced herself to say instead of admitting the turmoil had awoken old memories that haunted her dreams until she avoided her bed as if it was stuffed with thistles. ‘Aye, some nights the poor little mite cried as if her heart was broken and it was all I could do not to join her,’ the tiny, forceful little woman agreed with a rueful, loving look for the girl who seemed so equable nowadays it seemed hard to believe. ‘I know exactly what you mean,’ Chloe said with a picture of her own struggles to calm a restless and furious baby when Verity was teething, or ill, or just plain fretful and she felt about as useful as a tailor’s dummy, making her very glad those times were over for both their sakes. ‘His lordship used to put his little miss into a pack on his shoulders and carry her for miles over the moors until she slept at long last. I’d stay behind, telling myself they were quite safe and he could see like a cat in the dark and knows the paths across his land like the back of his hand until I fell asleep too, whether I wanted to or not. You had to cope with all that on your own and run this great house at the same time. It sounds as if you got through it stoutly enough all these years, but we’re here now, so at least you can have a rest when you need one,’ Bran told her with an earnest nod that disarmed Chloe and made her wonder if it might be bliss to lay her burdens down and do as she was bid after all. ‘Indeed you must, Mrs Wheaton,’ Eve told her with some of her father’s authority sitting quaintly on her slender shoulders. ‘Sleep is the last thing on my mind after hours shut up in that stuffy carriage dozing because there was nothing else to do—how about you, Bran?’ She gave the comfortable bed in the slip of a room the other side of the dressing room, reserved for a maid if her mistress wanted one close, a significant look and her maid nodded her approval of the unspoken idea. It looked just right for an afternoon nap if Chloe did happen to be as bone weary as she obviously looked. ‘I had a nice doze on the way to Bath this morning, as you know very well, Miss Eve, since you’ve been twitting me about it ever since.’ ‘How disrespectful of me, but I think we should wrap ourselves up in cloaks and shawls to walk in that pretty Winter Garden I saw from the window on the half-landing. I’d like to stretch my legs and it would do us good to air our wits before it gets dark. Nobody will disturb you if I order them to leave our unpacking until we return, Mrs Wheaton, and Bran and I will soon have everything arranged when we get back. I can be very finicky about the disposal of my things when occasion demands and nobody will interfere.’ ‘She can indeed, Mrs Wheaton,’ Bran agreed smugly and Chloe felt weariness weigh down as she wondered if she dare risk her dreams for once. ‘You would wake me the moment you came back in?’ she asked and heard her own words slur with tiredness, as if she’d been fighting it so long it now had to win. Lord Farenze was here to shoulder the responsibility of the estate and the ageing staff and she would rather sleep than think about him. ‘If you can sleep through madam here ordering me about, you’re a better woman than I am,’ Bran said, then followed her young mistress from the room. Chloe barely managed to slip off her shoes, unhook her gown and slip out of it before falling fast asleep the moment her head hit the pillow. ‘Lasted as best she could until help came, if you ask me,’ Bran observed softly as soon as she and her young mistress were finally clear of the house unseen and able to speak freely. ‘Poor lady,’ Eve replied carefully. ‘Aye, she seems like one to me as well,’ Bran mused and met Eve’s speculative gaze with a thoughtful frown. Bran did not believe a fairytale lay behind whatever made a lady become a housekeeper. Even if a story started out with garlands of roses and fairy dust, it rarely ended so in the stark light of day in Brandy Brown’s experience. Chapter Three (#u6f8342fc-d01f-5b15-a7d4-df133dc7c5f4) Luke waited until his valet accompanied a footman upstairs, his luggage borne along as carefully as the crown jewels, before quitting his private sitting room with an exasperated sigh. He wondered why he’d employed such an exacting valet; he was old enough to dress himself and could tie a necktie that wouldn’t scare the horses. In a year or so he’d have to present a neat appearance for Eve’s début and his wife-hunting campaign, though, and it had seemed a sensible enough idea at the time. Right now he’d welcome a tramp across the countryside, or a long ride on a swift horse to banish his blue devils, but wealth, power and a title came at a cost so he ignored the urge to escape. Hearing his stepmother’s sharp voice in the drawing room and the rumble of male ones from the billiard room, Luke tried to find some peace in the library. Virginia’s godson, the Marquis of Mantaigne, was ensconced in a comfortable chair by the fire, but Luke gave a sigh of relief. The air of world-weary cynicism Tom wore like a suit of armour drove women wild with desire for some odd reason, but he was good company and a loyal friend. ‘Tom, you rascal,’ he said, managing a genuine smile and a sincere manly handshake even on this sad day. ‘When did you get here?’ ‘This morning—you must have travelled in my dust.’ ‘You only had to come from Derbyshire and there was more mud than dust.’ ‘How unobservant of me,’ Tom drawled. ‘Don’t try to hoodwink me that you’re too idle to take an interest in what’s about you, Tom. I know you too well to be taken in by the air of cynicism you use to keep the world at bay. Just tell me who has come here to gladden our heavy hearts and your estimate of how long I’ll be forced to house them for, there’s a good fellow.’ ‘Whoever told you I’m a good fellow clearly needs disillusioning.’ ‘I don’t pay much heed to the opinions of others when it comes to my real friends, my lord Marquis,’ Luke said and accepted the glass of fine burgundy his friend poured out of the decanter at his side with an almost smile. Feeling more relaxed after the mellowing effect of the very finest wine and a shrewd and succinct summary of his assembled guests from Tom Banburgh, Luke left him to his solitude and the burgundy and avoided the groups in the billiard room and drawing room to go up and reassure himself Eve and Bran were settling in after the trials and discomfort of their long journey. * * * Chloe felt weighed down by sleep when she managed to blink her heavy eyes open and tried to gauge how long she’d been lost to the world. For a moment she had no idea where she was and had to force her eyes open to stop herself sinking under the weight of sleep beckoning her back like a siren. Virginia would probably be the first to order her to get up and face the world, so she blinked several times and did her best to banish the huge waves of sleep trying to drag her under again. Even an upper servant could enjoy the luxury of a long stretch, so she yawned and extended her legs fully against the fine cotton sheets of Brandy Brown’s narrow bed, then reached her hands high above her head so her arms could feel the pull and strength of youth in them. She shook her head so the auburn locks tumbled down in a tangle it would take far too long to tease out when she’d already wasted goodness knew how long asleep when she should be up and doing. ‘Bran?’ a deep masculine voice questioned from the other side of the slightly open door and Chloe felt her heartbeat speed up like a greyhound after a rabbit. ‘You can’t be asleep because I saw you in the garden not five minutes ago. Where’s Eve and why is her luggage still cluttering up her bedroom?’ If she wasn’t in her shift with her hair falling down her back, she could call out a brusque answer and he would go away. Would that serve anyway? If she sounded assured and awake enough, he might go away rather than risk being discovered here with a female servant in the middle of a winter afternoon? ‘Mrs Brown is taking the air with your daughter, Lord Farenze,’ she managed to call out as if she was busy and didn’t have time for answering questions. A stiff moment of shocked silence and she could almost feel him flinch at the sound of her voice a room and a half away. Unfortunately, she didn’t hear him walking away though. Yet did she really want him to? As usual her inner Chloe chose the worst moment to stage a revolution. She told her to be quiet and get back in her cage and stop there. She did want him to leave and sat up in the neat little tent bed, holding every muscle and sinew tense and still in the hope he would go. Something about the silence on the other side of the door told her he was still there, but a woman could always hope. ‘Why the devil are you unpacking Eve’s things when one of the maids could do it if Bran is busy?’ ‘I...’ She ground to a halt and told herself if she hadn’t slept so deeply and so stupidly in the middle of a working day she might be able to find an answer that would satisfy him somewhere in her befuddled brain. ‘Cat got your tongue?’ he growled and was that really a thread of laughter in his deep voice? Impossible—Lord Farenze and Mrs Wheaton had nothing to laugh about. There was no level of intimacy to put a hint of smoky amusement in his voice. She’d imagined it and now her inner Chloe was busy imagining more than she ought to all over again. Such as how it might feel to wake up in his bed with her mind misted with sleep and loving, then share the closeness of lovers with him as he teased her back to full awareness of where she was, and who she was with, in his own unique fashion. ‘No, it’s still in perfect working order,’ she managed to reply as if she was merely too busy to argue with him. ‘Then come out here and talk to me face to face; I refuse to hold a conversation through inches of fine mahogany.’ ‘I can’t, I’m far too busy today, my lord,’ she managed and heard the note of panic in her voice as she sensed him stepping closer to the door in question and about to discover her sitting here in a state of scandalous disarray. ‘No doubt but, since I’m master here now, you must deal with me sooner or later. Far better to get the plans we must make for the next few days out of the way as soon as possible and rub along as best we can, rather than skirt round the subject all week and send the staff spinning about in opposite directions between us.’ He sounded as reluctant to have that discussion as she was, so why couldn’t he put it off until he was rested from his journey and she was back in her buttoned-up gown with her wretched hair wound safely under a neat cap and hidden away with feral Chloe, who so badly wanted to respond to him in every way a woman could? ‘Very well, my lord, I will meet you downstairs as soon as I have finished here,’ she said and heard the waver of uncertainty in her own voice. Her reluctance to confront him with the memory of sitting here half-naked and all he could have been to her, if everything was different, wobbled in her too breathy voice. She didn’t dare stir in case he heard the rustle of crisply laundered sheets and realised she was in bed. Sitting frozen and speechless, she gasped in horror when he finally lost patience and thrust the door open. Time seemed to stretch and waver as he strode into the little room then stopped dead, as if a wicked witch’s spell had frozen him in his tracks. He stood staring hungrily back at her and how could she fool herself everything that could have been between them was dead now? He should turn and walk away of course; leave her to blush and squirm and be furious with herself for giving in to exhaustion and his daughter’s urgings to rest. He didn’t, though, and it was there in his eyes, the might be. Not a never, but a might be; a dangerous chance of more between master and servant than there ought to be. A detached part of her seemed to be looking down on them; speculating how two rational human beings could look so much like codfish and still stare rapt into each other’s eyes as if they’d longed for the sight of the other all unguarded for the years they’d been apart. The rest couldn’t even find the presence of mind to squirm down in her bed and hide her disarray. Now he looked like all the robber barons who founded his mighty dynasty rolled into one as he stood stock still, so vividly present he seemed to suck the air out of the room along with her common sense. Like a very well-dressed statue of a warrior prince, that annoying wanton Chloe remarked, would he was a little less still and a lot less well dressed. ‘Be quiet!’ she whispered, then covered her mouth. She couldn’t believe she was arguing with her wicked inner self with him in the room. Perhaps she really was going mad? A wistful hope she might wake up and find she’d dreamt him made the tension drain out of her muscles for all of half a minute. Nobody could dream muscular, powerful, intimidating Lord Farenze when he was all too present. He was a living, breathing human being, staring at her as if being torn by a raging tumult of contrary emotions as well. There just wasn’t enough dreaming in the world to conjure up a man like him, here, locked in this particular moment with her. ‘I didn’t say a word,’ he managed in a rusty voice that sounded forced out. ‘Not you.’ ‘You have a lover hidden under the bed?’ he barked as if he thought her everything a woman shouldn’t be if she wanted to retain her self-respect. His hot eyes dwelt on her wildly flushed cheeks, shocked and hazy eyes and the tumble of hot gold curls she knew were in nearly as big a tangle as her tongue. ‘No room,’ he mused more softly and let his gaze explore the little room as if he’d never seen one like it before and saw the exposed space under the high little bed with what looked suspiciously like satisfaction, ‘nor a second door for a coward to escape through if he was in danger of being found and the closet’s not big enough.’ ‘I don’t have a lover.’ Now she sounded like an outraged stage heroine and Chloe thought it as well he couldn’t see her toes curling under the bedclothes. His black brows rose and a smile of cynical appreciation she assured herself she would like to slap off his face kicked up his mouth and made him look nigh irresistible for a breathless moment. ‘Any man who saw you thus would be your slave as soon as he could persuade you into his eager arms. Say the word and we’ll adjourn to my own lonely and echoing suite along the hallway,’ he offered half-seriously. ‘Never, never, never,’ she shot back at him, spine rigid and chin high. He couldn’t know she burned for his touch. Even the tips of her toes seared her with a need to be kissed and seduced that made a lie of her conviction there could never be anything between them, after she’d angrily informed him she would rather die than become his mistress ten years ago. And he just stood there; let his complex grey gaze play over her as if she had been arranged here especially for his pleasure. He wanted her, the need in his complicated eyes was as real as the hot rush of heat between her legs. She clamped them together under the sheets then instantly regretted it as the movement drew his attention to the fact her breasts had rounded and peaked under the inadequate fine lawn chemise. ‘Oh, come now, ma’am,’ he gritted, as if her denial made him angry as finding her half-naked in Bran’s bed when she should be working had not. ‘We have a decade worth of wanting on the slate between us. Sooner or later we’ll have an accounting.’ ‘No, there isn’t and, no, we won’t,’ she informed him as furiously as she could when sitting here nearly naked. She could hardly thrust the bedclothes aside and run away when her legs would refuse to carry her and where would she run to without scandalising half the household and any guests who happened to be standing about with their mouths open? ‘I may be a fool, Mrs Wheaton, but not such a one I’m prepared to pretend to you that passion couldn’t break us, if we let it. It might do us both less harm if we admit its existence,’ he said sombrely and their eyes met. Chloe almost said the words in her head—Why not try it and see? There it was again, her wicked inner self, whispering sinfully in her ears and offering lures she thought she’d cut off in their heady prime a decade ago. She squirmed and made herself be glad even the sleep still clouding her brain hadn’t let her speak that impossible invitation aloud. Wasn’t it exactly the sort of rash remark that landed her and her twin sister Daphne in the suds in their younger days? Chloe clamped cold fetters on her wilder self at the reminder how it came about she was sitting here glaring at her new employer like a hungry she-wolf. If she was careful enough, they could go back to stiffly avoiding each other until she left. ‘It might not do that much harm to you,’ she muttered crossly and folded her bare arms across her chest; because she couldn’t endure him standing there knowing how much she wanted him. ‘I shouldn’t be too sure about that,’ he rasped as his hot gaze now dwelt on the exposed upper slopes of her breasts, Chloe looked down to see she’d only made them look fuller and even more rounded by seeking to hide her tight, need-peaked nipples from his fascinated gaze. ‘I’ve always known you could be my ruin,’ he murmured, looking ready to resign himself to it if he could climb into this narrow bed and make use of every tight inch of space it would leave him to seduce her until she screamed for him with a sombre house party of guests a mere misplaced call away. ‘No, never!’ she croaked and almost gave in to the urge to scissor her legs together to deny the hot need and frustration grinding at the heart of her. He was here; not some fevered fantasy she had woken up with, as she so often had in the first days, weeks and years after he left Farenze Lodge as if the devil himself was riding on his shoulders. Until today she thought she’d banished that folly to outer darkness along with him and now she knew better. ‘If things were different, I could make you eat those words with one kiss and you know it,’ he said grimly. ‘They’re not though, are they?’ she whispered and almost sobbed at the years of regret she’d betrayed with those stark words. ‘Please leave me be, my lord. I should never have slept when there is so much to do and it won’t happen again, I assure you.’ ‘Nonsense,’ he said gruffly. ‘When I first laid eyes on you today I thought you looked as if you might break if you didn’t bend soon. You’re too thin and look as if you haven’t slept or eaten properly in weeks.’ ‘I can’t sleep and food seems to choke me at times,’ she admitted reluctantly. ‘Go on like this and you’ll make yourself ill. Do that to yourself if you must, but how can you risk shocking your daughter with your wan appearance when she sees you? She must be struggling to come to terms with losing Virginia, close as I know they had become to each other while she was growing up.’ ‘Yes, she was heartbroken,’ Chloe said heavily, remembering how it felt to hold her sobbing daughter whilst she cried as if her poor heart might break the day Chloe had Lady Virginia’s coachman drive her to Bath so she could tell Verity Lady Virginia was dead. ‘So eat something,’ he demanded. ‘I have, at regular intervals.’ ‘Then eat more and go to bed and sleep properly tonight, instead of pacing the corridors like a ghost and making the night watchman think he’s being haunted.’ His voice was brusque, but there was what looked like genuine concern in his eyes as he inspected her face. His well-hidden kindness touched her as she couldn’t let herself be touched by her employer. She rubbed her eyes self-consciously, pushed an annoying curl behind her ear and tried not to gaze back at him as if she might adore him, if things were different. ‘I must look like something the cat brought in,’ she muttered unwarily. The wretched man stared at her with a glint of humour and something they’d both declared forbidden in the depths of those grey-, gold-and green-rayed eyes of his. She wanted to fall into them and never land on solid ground again for a long moment. ‘You must know you’re beautiful,’ he said wryly, almost as if talking to himself and being overheard by the wide-eyed sceptic in front of him. She shook her head in hasty denial and tried not to love the fact he thought so. ‘But you’re still too thin,’ he insisted, ‘and you have shadows under your eyes a Gothic heroine would envy.’ ‘Well, she’d be welcome to them,’ she said unwarily and the quirk of humour kicking up his fascinating mouth became a true smile. There was all the warmth and hope and unwary fellow feeling in them that had nearly carried them over the precipice a decade ago. Chloe felt them both balance on the edge of the inevitable again. It felt terrible and utterly desirable, as if even their thoughts were cursed to curl up together and purr with delight at being reunited. He reached out a long finger, as if he wanted to physically brush the shadows away from her eyes. She felt the whisper of his almost touch on her skin and gasped with hope and fear at how much she wanted it. She slicked parched lips with her tongue and watched him hesitate, had the sense of a strong man fighting what he knew was wrong, yet he was still drawn on by what felt so strong between them it could overrule everything, if they let it. There was curiosity and impatience in his eyes, before he blanked them and my Lord Farenze was himself again; remote, self-assured and cynical and as distant from the housekeeper of Farenze Lodge as ever. ‘Eve and Bran are coming,’ he warned her huskily. Chloe strained her senses to catch a hint of whatever sound or instinct told him they were about to be rescued from folly, whether they wanted to be or not. ‘Pretend I never came in here. Act as if you woke up the moment they asked what I’m doing here,’ he whispered. Chapter Four (#u6f8342fc-d01f-5b15-a7d4-df133dc7c5f4) Lost for words again, Chloe nodded, then burrowed her face into the pillows and drew the bedclothes over her chilled shoulders. At least pretending to be fuzzy with sleep would give her time to pull wanton Chloe into line and forget he’d been here as best she could. If she proved as obedient to the curb as his rampant side, she had nothing to worry about. ‘Bah!’ she muttered crossly into the pillow, ‘just bah, my Lord Farenze!’ No danger he might hear her. He was back through the door and nearly closing it again before she could slide down the bed and cover her now-shivering body. Nobody else would ever know he’d found her here, heavy-eyed with sleep and wanton desire. She heard Miss Winterley express surprise at her father’s presence in an over-loud voice meant to warn Chloe not to start awake and betray herself and felt a hard flush of shame burn her cheeks at the thought she knew of Luke Winterley’s presence all too well. She felt it in every fibre of her being and the man was Miss Winterley’s father, for goodness’ sake. ‘You took my book,’ he replied and if his excuse sounded lame and defensive, it might explain what he was doing here better than a smoother lie, designed to cover something clandestine and shocking. ‘And there are none downstairs in the famously well-stocked library Aunt Virginia and Uncle Virgil amassed between them?’ Eve asked, as if she knew very well her father had really stumbled on the housekeeper enjoying a nap in the wrong place at entirely the wrong time, but how could she? ‘Not the one I was reading before you stole it,’ he said grumpily. ‘And now I am reading it, so you would be stealing it from me. I can’t believe you to need distraction so badly, especially in the midst of a house party you must play host to, that you need to barge into my bedchamber when I am not there and try to repossess part of your library, Papa. I’m not even going to think about the list of tasks awaiting you here that you reeled off as an excuse for not being able to spend much time greeting neighbours who call to express their condolences.’ ‘I didn’t know then how much distraction I’d need,’ he muttered darkly. Chloe’s eyes stung at the sound of him so gruffly sheepish it opened up a host of new temptations inside her. She didn’t want to love him and screwed her eyes shut in denial of any tears tempted to come further. ‘Don’t be such a cross old bear, Papa,’ Eve told him and Chloe could hear the rustle of her skirts as she marched up and hugged her father. Wrong to envy Eve such ease with her father, that ability to breach the chilly touch-me-not air he normally carried about with him like a shield. ‘I’ll try not to be, my she-cub, but there will be reasons aplenty for me to growl over the next few days.’ ‘Aye,’ Brandy Brown added from what sounded like a position just inside the room, ‘you’ll need the patience of a saint before the vultures fly off at last.’ ‘They’re not all vultures, Bran,’ Eve chided. ‘We don’t know them well enough to judge what they are yet, my lamb,’ her maid said cynically and Chloe decided there was no need to worry about Eve Winterley with such a formidable protector at her side, as well as a father who would clearly walk through fire to keep his beloved daughter safe. ‘I know Lord Mantaigne and Great-Uncle Giles perfectly well and even Uncle James isn’t as savage and sarcastic as he used to be. Aunt Virginia was always trying to persuade him to live a steadier life, so perhaps he will turn over a new leaf in her honour.’ ‘And I’m a Dutchman,’ Chloe thought she heard Lord Farenze mutter darkly and wondered what divided the half-brothers so deeply, so alike in colouring and stature as they were, yet as sharply distant with each other as two siblings could be without openly declaring war. ‘No, what you are is a curmudgeon, Papa, so I can’t imagine why you’re worrying about reading a book you seem very familiar with when you have your brother nearby to argue with once more. I dare say if you start now you could have Uncle James simmering nicely by dinner and ready to call you out the moment Aunt Virginia’s funeral is over.’ ‘Thank you, minx, the gossips have plenty to say already, without a brotherly feud or a family riot breaking out. I’m not sure I should have let you read Tom Jones after all, it seems to have given you some odd ideas.’ ‘There’s a copy in the study, if you truly want to take up where you left off,’ Eve called after the sound of her father’s retreating footsteps and surely it was wrong of Chloe to wish he wouldn’t go at the same time as she longed to be up and away and pretend he hardly impinged on her thoughts, let alone her wildest dreams? ‘Virginia told me where all her warm novels were in the event of my ever having to be bored here in her absence. It’s all right, Papa, she told me anything she and Uncle Virgil locked away was far too warm for a young lady to read and I really can’t think why the tabbies make such a fuss about Mr Fielding’s splendid book.’ ‘Don’t get caught with it, then, and it’s probably best if you don’t admit to reading it in polite company. I won’t have you labelled fast before you’re even out.’ ‘Of course not and stop being such a worrywart, I’ll be so painfully good over the next few weeks you will hardly recognise me.’ The only reply Chloe heard was a distant masculine humph then Eve ordered her maid to shut the outer door before hastily pushing open the one to the bedroom where Chloe was sitting up in bed, feeling flustered and confused. ‘That was close,’ Eve confided with an impish smile. ‘We should have locked the door,’ Bran told them. ‘Imagine if his lordship had opened it and found you lying here asleep, Mrs Wheaton.’ ‘Yes, only imagine,’ Chloe echoed hollowly and used her artistic shudder as an excuse to spring out of bed and start setting herself to rights. ‘I’ll help,’ Bran said as Chloe then tried to struggle into her gown and wrestle with her rebellious curls at the same time. ‘Button yourself up and I’ll comb out your hair and dress it for you, although it seems a crying shame to screw it into a knot and hide it under that thing when it’s so beautiful. There’s many a fine lady as would give her eye teeth for hair half as thick and full of life.’ ‘It’s wild and unruly and people get entirely the wrong impression of me if I allow it to show. Anyway, I’m nearly thirty years of age and a respectable widow, not a dewy-eyed débutante.’ ‘You don’t look much older than one right now,’ Bran observed as her eyes met Chloe’s in the square of mirror above the diminutive washstand. ‘I can’t afford dreams,’ Chloe murmured. ‘Neither of us can, but it don’t stop us ’avin’ ’em, do it?’ ‘What do you dream of, Mrs Brown?’ ‘A fine man for my girl; one who’ll love her as she is and not try to make her into a society missus without a good word to say to anyone but a lord.’ ‘I can’t see him doing that, whoever he might be.’ ‘Can’t you, ma’am? Then you’ve been a lucky woman up to now.’ ‘Maybe I have at that,’ Chloe admitted and suppressed a shudder at the thought of all the ways in which a man might mould his wife. ‘His lordship now, he’s a man as would let a woman be herself and love her all the more for it, if you know what I mean?’ Bran said as she finished pinning Chloe’s wild mane back in place, then eyed the cap with disfavour before fitting it over her handiwork with a sigh. ‘He doesn’t strike me as a man on the lookout for love,’ Chloe argued. ‘Ah, well, there’s what a man says he wants then there’s what he really does want. They don’t always meet in the middle, until the right woman comes along and changes his mind.’ ‘If I understood all that I might argue, but since I don’t and dinner will be served in a little over an hour, neither of us has enough time for riddles,’ Chloe said with a last glance in the mirror to make sure she was correct and subdued again. ‘Just as well, since we’ll never agree about his lordship.’ ‘Maybe not,’ Chloe said distractedly and, picking up her keys, clipped them back on her belt and with a word of breathless thanks fled the room. * * * Luke stumped back downstairs to the study and cursed as rampant need roiled inside him. This wasn’t some unique enchantment; he was tired and it was too long since he’d visited his mistress. Forcing the pace on a long journey had left him weary and less in control of himself and his masculine appetites than usual. Combine tiredness and grief with Mrs Wheaton’s exhaustion and Eve’s kind heart and trouble looked inevitable with hindsight, but at least it hadn’t led to catastrophe. He bit out another fearsome curse at his painful arousal over the mere thought of Chloe Wheaton sitting up in that neat little bed, looking at him as if every fantasy he’d ever had of her as his lover was about to come true, before she awoke fully and recalled who they were. Of course he’d wanted her since she was painfully young and hauntingly beautiful, with a tiny dependent child. He felt the familiar dragging heat of frustrated desire, as if his senses were soaked in need of the woman and refused to give her up, however hard he told them they must. On some level he’d known she was there even when he saw the inner door slightly ajar and Eve’s baggage piled on the Aubusson carpet, as if the footmen had been told to leave it there and depart in order not to disturb Chloe Wheaton while Bran and Eve took a stroll about the Winter Garden. He wished they hadn’t done what he couldn’t and ordered the woman to bed for an hour or so. Eve had a heart big enough to sacrifice her comfort for a woman she barely knew, because the housekeeper looked so breakable. How could he be anything but proud of such a daughter, even if he wished she’d left well alone? Eve had done the right thing, but now he wanted to run upstairs and throw the pig-headed Mrs Wheaton over his shoulders and tell the world to go hang and do the wrong one. If he was not to avoid Farenze Lodge as if he hated it for another decade she had to leave , but he must find a place where her skills were valued and her fine figure and spellbinding violet eyes ignored. Did convents have housekeepers? Luke forced his hands to unclench at the idea of her being leered at by her employer’s husband, or some gangling oaf of a son, and decided to keep a stern eye on Mrs Wheaton’s next household from afar. Yes, he should have trusted his instincts, but curiosity, or something even more dangerous, led him to open that door. Once he had, he could no more bow coolly and leave than stop breathing. Even now the scent of her seemed to linger in the air. It was only the lavender in the big bowls Virginia always insisted on having about to sweeten the air in winter-closed rooms. He suspected Chloe had lavender water used on the last rinse of her linen and that was why he couldn’t seem to get her out of his head. The rest of that exotic scent he associated with her was probably lingering aroma of a spicy moth bag or two, deployed to stop the industrious creatures chewing through her mourning attire. So it was a mix of simple strewing herbs, cinnamon, orris and perhaps cloves, but the memory fogged his senses, reminding him how tempted he’d been to kiss the fine creamy skin at the base of her elegant throat and find out if she tasted as exotically artless as she smelt. Confound it, he hadn’t kissed her and could still savour the taste of her on his tongue. He ran it over his lips and the memory of her doing the same took fire and wrenched a tortured groan from him. After a decade of avoidance and abstinence he still wanted her, wanted her more than at first sight and now they were both mature adults and better designed for mischief. The waif was a woman and he’d been wrong about the figure under that deplorable gown—Chloe the woman was nothing like the skinny girl she’d once been. She was slender, yes, probably too much so after forgetting to eat for grief and worry. What there was of her was sweetly curved, though, and her skin looked so silken and perfect he could imagine the feel of those full high breasts of hers against his palms. He held up his hands as if convicting them of a heinous crime for flexing on thin air as if they knew what they wanted better than the rest of him did. His other senses were betraying him, so why shouldn’t touch join the turncoat army? Because somehow he had to resist what he and Chloe Wheaton might be to each other, he supposed with a heavy sigh. For a decade he’d done his best to stay away; he’d seen the desperation in her eyes; the hunger for the love Virginia had to offer a pair of homeless waifs. So he’d taken her rebuff to heart. Easy enough to make a holiday of visits to Brighton so Virginia and Eve could enjoy one another’s company. He had even endured a few weeks in London each spring so they could eat ices at Gunter’s and visit Astley’s Amphitheatre and there was no more noble fatherly sacrifice when Darkmere was the finest place to be in the spring. He suspected Virginia knew why he avoided the Lodge, but she didn’t say a word because she knew as well as he did that it was as impossible for Lord Farenze to do aught but ruin a housekeeper. The polite world would laugh at him and sneer at her if he tried to make anything of Chloe Wheaton but his mistress. ‘There you are,’ Tom Banburgh remarked from the doorway and he welcomed the interruption, didn’t he? ‘There’s no fooling you, is there?’ ‘I can go away again until you’re in a better humour if you like, but I thought misery might like some company.’ ‘Devil take it, I’m not miserable.’ ‘Face like thunder.’ Luke stopped himself pacing up and down like a general before a crucial battle and took the filled glass Tom was holding out to him for the second time today. He took a sip of the finest cognac Virginia always kept for a favoured few and felt a little better after all. ‘I miss her so much, Tom,’ he finally admitted the lesser of two evils. ‘How could you not? I expect Virginia saved you from the tender mercies of your family when she could. She certainly rescued me from my unloving guardian when I was a scrubby boy nobody else cared enough to worry about.’ ‘True, and she was always taking in waifs and strays. Seems a shame she couldn’t give Virgil children when she was born to be a mother.’ ‘And this remark is coming from a man who would be a mere mister today if she had? You’re either a saint or a liar, my friend.’ ‘I’m neither and you know as well as I do a title can’t change the beat of a man’s heart or make him any happier.’ ‘I really wouldn’t know,’ Tom said indifferently and Luke reminded himself his friend had been a marquis since he was five years old. ‘Well, I do,’ he argued, ‘and mine hasn’t bought me any great joy.’ ‘That’s because you hadn’t much left in you when you acquired it, Luke,’ Tom said sagely. Luke wondered if anyone else would get away with saying some of the things Mantaigne came out with so blithely without being called out. ‘And you have no memory of being without one, so are necessarily full of fun and laughter, I suppose?’ ‘Going a bit far, but I never saw the point in being gloomy. I’ll go on trying to laugh at the world even now, because Virginia wouldn’t want long faces and a grand carry on over her departure from this vale of tears.’ ‘True, and we both know she missed my great-uncle as if someone had lopped off an arm or a leg after Virgil died.’ ‘Aye, and if there is a heaven at least they’re in it together again.’ ‘Since it clearly wouldn’t be so for one without the other, you must be right.’ ‘Makes you wonder though, don’t it?’ Tom said. ‘No, love is still a myth for the rest of us.’ Luke gave his friend a long hard look before deciding he was the one obsessed with love and lovers and in danger of tripping over his own tongue. Not that he felt anything like love for Chloe Wheaton. ‘Thing about myths is a lot of people believe them,’ Tom said with a long look at Luke that left him puzzled and fidgety. Was he being warned not to lightly charm the object of his desires? He could imagine nobody less likely to fall in love with him than aloof and sceptical Mrs Chloe Wheaton. Then he recalled the sight of her disarmed by sleep and a hundred times more vulnerable and wondered all over again. ‘I don’t,’ he muttered half to himself. ‘You could have been cut straight out of the pages of a Gothic tale and pasted into a young girl’s scrapbook of fantasies you look so close to the little darlings’ ideal of a heroic villain.’ ‘What nonsense have you been feeding yourself this afternoon, man—a three-decker novel from the yellow press, perhaps? Or are you already three parts cast away?’ Luke asked incredulously. ‘Neither, but you don’t have the faintest idea, do you?’ ‘Faintest idea of what?’ ‘That your long and dusky locks, brooding frowns and touch-me-not air are sure to drive the débutantes insane with longing at their first sight of you across a crowded ballroom. The moment you stand among a London rout glaring at any boy brave enough to dance with your Eve, the little darlings will start swooning by rote for the lack of space to do it all at once in comfort.’ Luke felt himself pale at the very idea, so no wonder Tom laughed. ‘Why?’ he asked hollowly. ‘I’ll be old enough to be their father.’ ‘As are all those dark and brooding villains out of the Gothic novels they devour by the yard, I suppose. Who knows what flights of the imagination such silly chits are capable of dreaming up between them, but you’ll be a prime target for them and their ambitious mamas if you set foot in London without a viscountess at your side.’ ‘I wasn’t going to worry about one of those until Eve is safely wed.’ ‘Leave Eve to find her husband when she’s ready, man; you owe her that for enduring life with a hermit like you all these years.’ Luke shook his head, but was Mantaigne right? He couldn’t see much attraction in a beetle-browed countenance and raven’s wing black hair he only kept overlong because he had no patience with constant visits from a barber or his new valet’s fussing and primping. When it came to his features, he’d just been relieved Eve had escaped the Winterley Roman nose and put down the occasional appreciative feminine stare as a penchant for his acres and title. Marriage to Pamela Verdoyne had cured him of vanity and he wondered if she’d done him such a great favour if he was about to blunder into the ballrooms of the ton unprepared. ‘I won’t have Eve endure a stepmother like mine,’ he said with a shudder. ‘That’s in your hands,’ Tom said with a shrug. ‘What is this, some sort of conspiracy to marry me off?’ ‘That takes more than one person, my lord, and I’m not a matchmaker.’ ‘So Virginia, you and my own dear, sweet scheming Eve don’t make a set?’ ‘Not through prior agreement, but all three of us can’t be wrong.’ ‘Yes, you can—by Heaven you’re more wrong in triplicate than alone.’ Tom merely raised his eyebrows and looked sceptical before calmly helping himself to another glass of cognac. ‘Did Virginia put you up to this?’ Luke asked suspiciously. ‘Don’t you think I’ve a mind of my own and the sense to see what you won’t yourself? If she wasn’t dead, I could strangle that spoilt witch you wed so hastily, Luke; she married you for your expectations, then rejected you for so-called love, as if it was your fault she was born vain, empty-headed and contrary.’ ‘I should never have agreed to marry her,’ Luke said with a shrug, recalling the long and bitter rows of his marriage with a shudder that sent him back to the brandy decanter for a second glass before he’d quite taken in the fact he’d drunk the first. ‘Your father and wicked stepmother should take the blame for pushing such a paltry marriage on an infatuated lad. You’re not a boy now, though, and you badly need a wife, my friend, at least you do if you’re to avoid being ruthlessly pursued through every ballroom in London by a pack of ninnies when Eve makes her début.’ ‘Shouldn’t you be more concerned with securing your own succession, since you’re the last of the Banburghs and I have a younger brother?’ ‘The Banburghs can go hang as far as I’m concerned, but it’s not good for James to be in limbo, never sure if he’s to be your heir or only the “what if tragedy struck?” spare Winterley male. He’s bored and restless and probably lonely and who knows what he gets up to when our backs are turned?’ ‘You know very well he’d never confide in me,’ Luke said and let himself feel how much it hurt that his brother hated him, even if he had cause to hate him back. ‘Left to himself, he would have followed you about like a stray puppy when you were younger.’ Luke gave a snort of derision at the idea of elegant and sophisticated James Winterley following anyone slavishly, let alone his despised elder brother. ‘That particular apple never fell far from the tree,’ he said darkly, even as the laziness of the cliché made him wonder if he wasn’t guilty of prejudice himself. ‘And you think his lot so much better than your own?’ Tom persisted impatiently. ‘Whatever I think, let’s postpone feeling sorry for James because his mother loved him and hated me for another day, shall we?’ ‘Don’t leave it too late to remedy,’ Tom warned with a steady look that made Luke wonder if he didn’t know more about James’s dark and tangled affairs than he was letting on. ‘I’m going off to bother my valet and idle away an hour until dinner. Who knows, maybe we’ll have a pleasant and peaceful evening against all the odds,’ his friend said before he sauntered from the room. ‘Slim enough chance of anything of the kind under this roof,’ Luke muttered grumpily and finished his brandy before going upstairs. Chapter Five (#u6f8342fc-d01f-5b15-a7d4-df133dc7c5f4) The January twilight was already all but over when Luke stumped up the elegant staircase. He rang for the bath he needed as soon as he reached his bedchamber and heard hot water carried in within minutes, so there was no excuse to sack the housekeeper on the spot and end this torture. As he relaxed into the tub images of the dratted woman slid slyly into his head. Why her? Why was it Chloe Wheaton he seemed doomed to want every time he set eyes on her? She was a fine-looking woman, despite the deplorable gowns and concealing cap, but he’d met other fine-looking women and some of them diamonds of the first water. No other woman on this fair earth could get him in a stew of frustrated yearning with one distrustful glance and how he wished it otherwise. If only it was merely the thought of a fine female body in his bed that made him want her so badly. He ached with the frustration of not having her as his lover. There was something unique about her that even ten years of trying couldn’t expunge from his senses. He recalled a fateful day that summer when they first met; he’d come upon her playing with her little girl in the woods above the house and just stood and watched where neither could see him. At last the heat of the day drained the child’s energy and Chloe had sung softly to calm her, then rocked little Verity to sleep in her arms. Luke recalled envy eating at him like acid as he wanted such love and tenderness for the babes they could bring into the world together, if only everything was different. Instead it had been Wheaton who recklessly married a schoolgirl and got a baby on her, or so she had once told him. Luke felt his fists tighten at the thought of Wheaton exposing the woman he was supposed to love to such a hard, narrow life as she’d had to lead since. He had been about to turn away when the June sunlight picked out the trail of tears on Chloe’s face as she gazed down at her sleeping babe. Even now he felt the jar of it as his heart thudded at the memory. Back then he had had to clamp down on the need to stride over to her and take her in his arms so hard he discovered afterwards he’d clenched his fists until the blood flowed. He left the next day, all his wild schemes for somehow making it easier for her to be his mistress by getting her to act the quietly respectable wife, whose reclusive husband sailed the seven seas, then wanted no company but hers whenever he was home, shattered. He couldn’t do that to her, or little Verity or any other babies they might make between them. It was a half-life and he couldn’t offer her so little. Curse it; he wouldn’t let passion waft him along as if he had no free will now either. Yet when he conjured a picture of his late wife ranting at him that he was a stern, unlovable stick to correct his obsession, the fantasy of his great-aunt’s housekeeper naked and eager in the great bed next door blotted her out. Luke felt heat roar through him at the very idea and the physical evidence of his arousal with nothing between him and civilisation made him a fool. Chloe only had to be in the same county for him to want her and from the moment he saw her at Virginia’s window today he’d barely been able to conceal his ridiculous state from the world. Idiot body! Hadn’t marriage taught it anything at all? His response to Pamela’s challenge to his manhood when she refused to let him bed her again after they returned from their bride trip slotted into his memory and reminded him how easy it was to need a woman without liking her. He relived his distaste at himself and his wife when she enjoyed his furious promise to seduce her into taking him until she screamed for more as she never had during his gentle lovemaking. The fulfilment of that vow excited her and left him at odds with himself. Their marriage limped on for six months, Pamela blowing hot and cold as Luke grew sick of her and himself. How typical that she announced her pregnancy the day she finally left him. Her letter from her sister’s London address saying she’d been brought to bed of a daughter and he’d better come and get her arrived on his twentieth birthday. To this day Luke couldn’t recall the journey and it took Eve to blast through his rage as the real innocent in the whole wretched business. ‘You’re welcome to the squalling brat,’ his wife had shouted when he dodged past her to reach the attic where, the butler informed him, his daughter had been banished for crying a little too loudly. Pamela scurried after him; ‘Pushing it out nigh killed me and I never want to see it again.’ ‘Don’t you feel the need to raise a heroine in your own tawdry image?’ ‘Not one of your get, not that I’m sure she is yours. You’re not the only Winterley ready to rut like a hog,’ she said smugly. His bellow of fury woke the baby and made her furious nurse run out of the bare attic bedroom he wouldn’t wish on a foundling to upbraid them. ‘If you two ’ave a mite of pity in your black hearts, you’ll be quiet,’ she barked in a hoarse voice that sounded as if its skinny owner spent most of her years on this earth bellowing to be heard and had worn it out in the process. A smile replaced Luke’s frown as he recalled his shock at being addressed so sharply by a tiny female who looked as if she’d dashed in off the street to feed his child out of the kindness of her weary heart. She hardly reached his elbow and her face had the wizened yet somehow ageless look of one used to hardship since birth. ‘Whose get is she then?’ he’d asked his wife more quietly, as the furious girl-woman was still barring his way like a flea-bitten terrier confronting an angry bear. ‘Oh, she’s a Winterley all right; which is probably why I can’t endure to have her near me.’ ‘Then she’s mine.’ ‘There are other vultures crouched in the branches of your family tree, hoping their seed will carry off the family honours under your long nose, Luke Winterley.’ It wasn’t the unlikely idea of his already ailing father laying hands on his wife that made Luke feel as if the finest Toledo blade had sliced into his heart. A terrible possibility dawned as he stood there and mentally crossed all his male relatives off the list but one. His stepmother resented the fact he was heir to the Farenze titles and always had done her best to make the half-brothers hate each other. Luke thought a gruff affection bound him and James even so, until that moment. Would even Pamela stoop to seduce a seventeen-year-old boy? Yes, he’d decided with bitter sickness threatening to choke him. To take a twisted revenge on Luke for marrying her without adoring her slavishly she would, and enjoy every moment of her betrayal. Young enough to hurt to his very soul, he felt as if sharing a city with her a moment longer would surely suffocate him. ‘Bring the child, we’re leaving,’ he’d snapped at the street urchin wet-nurse. ‘Not ’til I’m sure she’s better off with you than the ragman,’ she said, appearing at the nursery door with Eve wrapped in a worn shawl that had to be her own since Pamela wouldn’t even give it to her maid. ‘Why didn’t I think of that?’ Pamela said spitefully. ‘How can you say such terrible things, dearest?’ her sister, Alexandra, Lady Derneley, protested faintly from behind her. ‘She’s your own dear baby.’ ‘I’d prefer to house a ferret or a weasel than that squalling brat. Has James visited me once while I was fat and lumbering like a cow because of a girl they got on me between them? You know he hasn’t, Lexie; he promised undying devotion when he seduced me behind his brother’s back and look how long it lasted. I’d hate her for ruining my figure, then chasing dear Blasedon away with her wailing and whining, even if she wasn’t a Winterley. I’ll be happy never to set eyes on the whelp again as long as I live, she can go to hell along with him and the sooner the better.’ Lady Derneley turned chalk white as her little sister’s true nature hit home and fainted to avoid it. ‘To hell with you, you unnatural bitch,’ Luke roared. ‘To ’ell with both of you,’ the street urchin’s voice somehow rose above the uproar. ‘This poor babe ain’t ’ad time to do wrong, whatever the rest of you ’ave been up to and you be quiet,’ she ordered Pamela, who gaped at her open-mouthed. ‘If you’ve a spot of pity use it on an ’elpless mite who din’t ask to come into this world instead of yourself for once. Mister, you can take us both away from ’ere afore the poor little thing dies of cold and ’unger, or missus ’ere murders ’er while I’m asleep, never mind if you’re ’er pa or no.’ It was then Luke made the life-transforming error of looking at the tiny little being in the girl’s bony arms and realised she was right. Almost as frightened by the quiet as by the shouting, the baby screwed her tiny face up to wail her woes to the world. He put out a finger, more by instinct than in hope his touch would soothe her. Eve paused, opened her eyes wide and seemed to focus on him as if she’d been waiting for him to come since the day she was born. She made him her father, whatever the facts, by latching on to his finger and refusing to let go. Somehow he managed to hide that fact while convincing Pamela he would stop her allowance and sue for divorce, instead of legal separation, if word got out Eve might not be his. The journey to Darkmere with Eve and Brandy Brown in tow was a nightmare he shuddered to think of now, but they all survived it somehow and Eve grew up free of a mother who hated her for being a Winterley. Luke made himself ignore news of Pamela cavorting round any bits of the Continent free of revolutionary wars with a succession of lovers. He didn’t care if the generous allowance he paid her kept her and her latest love in luxury and when news of his wife’s death reached Darkmere three years later he hadn’t enough hypocrisy left to mourn. Now Lord Farenze might seem harsh and indifferent as the moors in sight of his castle towards the wider world, but he truly loved his daughter. A sneaky voice whispered it was safe to love Eve. If remembering his wife kept Chloe Wheaton and the danger of feeling more than he ought to for her at arm’s length, then he would dwell on the last time he let a woman walk into his life and rearrange it for however long it took to put him off the idea. Resolved to do so often over the next few days, he was dressed before he found out dinner had been put back an hour. Eve had been informed, however, and was discussing which black gown was better suited to the occasion with Chloe and Bran. He could see little difference and left the room as if the devil was on his tail as soon as he saw the housekeeper lurking in the darkest corner of the room. Feeling thoroughly out of sorts with the world, Luke went downstairs like a guest arriving too early for a party. * * * Chloe was consulting Cook about the number of entrées Mrs Winterley thought fashionable to serve at dinner and agreeing this wasn’t the time for excess, even if they could find half-a-dozen more dishes at the drop of a hat, when the sound of a late arrival surprised them all. The terse announcement she was needed outside made her scurry in the head groom’s wake to the stable yard. ‘Verity, oh, my love!’ she cried as she saw her daughter blink against the flare of the stable lads’ lanterns when she stepped down from the coach. ‘Oh, Mama, I’m so glad to see you,’ Verity said with a wobbly smile that made Chloe want to cry, instead she hugged her as if they’d been parted for months. ‘But how did this come about?’ Chloe asked as Lord Farenze’s coachman nodded tersely at her and she could only marvel at his endurance. ‘His lordship ordered it soon as he heard little miss here was waiting to come home,’ Birtkin said as if he drove all the way to Bath and back after enduring the long drive here from Northumberland at least once a week. ‘I’m very grateful to you,’ she replied with a warm smile of gratitude. ‘Not my doing, ma’am, you should thank his lordship,’ Birtkin mumbled as if trying to reclaim his dour reputation. ‘You and your men were the ones who drove through twilight, then darkness, on Verity’s behalf, so I’m grateful to you, whether you like it or not.’ ‘We was doing our duty, ma’am.’ ‘I will stop saying thank you, since it seems to trouble you, but I’ll ask Cook to send plenty of the food left from feeding his lordship’s guests to the servants’ hall for dinner. You and your men need good food and some cheer on such a night.’ ‘My thanks, ma’am, we’ll settle the beasts and see we’re clean and tidy before we comes in.’ ‘See that you do,’ Chloe said and led Verity into the house. She could afford time away from her duties; Oakham would supervise the dining room while Cook organised the footmen behind the scenes with dire threats of retribution if they dropped even a teaspoon of her food. ‘I should scold you for telling your teachers I need you here when I wanted to spare you this, my love, but I’m far too pleased to see you for that,’ she said as she urged Verity upstairs, guessing she’d slept very little since the day Chloe made that sad trip to Bath to tell her daughter Lady Virginia was dead. ‘But now you are here you must go straight to bed,’ ‘Oh, Mama, why? I’m not in the least bit tired.’ ‘I can see that, but I suppose you will just have to humour me, now you have got your way in everything else,’ Chloe said with a wry smile. How hard it was not to spoil this wilful, clever little conundrum of hers and how right Virginia had been to insist Verity went to Miss Thibett’s very good school. Her daughter needed to learn the self-discipline and all the other disciplines that Miss Thibett considered made up a well-rounded human being who happened to have been born female. Chloe and her sister had never had a governess, let alone gone to school, and look where that lack of any learning but what they happened to light on in their maternal grandfather’s long-neglected library landed them. Verity’s room was in the nursery wing the late Lord and Lady Farenze had built in hope of a family of their own, then used for other people’s children, such as Verity and Lord Mantaigne and the current master of the house and his half-brother when they were boys. Chloe had been sleeping within call of Lady Virginia’s room and she didn’t want to move back and risk Verity hearing the terrifying nightmares that were plaguing her again. When Verity was a baby her night terrors had returned again and again and Chloe had been glad to be up here where nobody else could hear. Her daughter would no longer sleep through any screams and shouts Chloe let out though and she wished there was a way of stopping them. She suppressed a weary sigh at the very thought of trying to relax and pretend all was well on the eve of Virginia’s funeral with Viscount Farenze sleeping under the same roof. ‘I’m still in the Triangle room; you will remember where I am if you wake up and want me, won’t you, love?’ she asked as she helped Verity undress. ‘Very well, Mama, but I won’t,’ her child said as she held up her arms to accept her nightgown being slipped over her head as if she was much younger than the self-sufficient young lady she was now. ‘I’m so glad to be home I know I shall sleep well tonight. Can I really eat supper in bed?’ ‘I’ll be hurt if you don’t, I had to coax the cook to make it for you and she is very busy,’ Chloe said. She undid the plaits constraining Verity’s unruly golden hair and brushed it as gently as she could while her daughter tried to do justice to the chicken soup, dainty sandwich and apple flummery brought up by the shy little scullery maid. ‘There, I think that’s all the knots out at last,’ Chloe murmured as she began to re-plait it into a thick tail in a ritual that reminded her poignantly of doing so for her sister at Verity’s age. ‘I do love you, Mama,’ Verity assured her with sleepy seriousness. ‘I shall always miss Lady Virginia, but you’re my mother and I won’t let you leave me,’ she said so seriously Chloe knew she was feeling the loss of her best and oldest friend in this world even more deeply than a mother had to hope she would. ‘I can’t imagine anything nicer than being with you as long as you need me and becoming a sad charge on you when I am old and grey and a little bit disgraceful, love,’ she said with a deliberately comical grimace. ‘For now it’s time you went to sleep and I made sure all is ready when the family and guests retire as well.’ ‘Goodnight then, Mama,’ Verity murmured sleepily as Chloe pulled the covers up and checked the nightlight was safe. ‘Goodnight, my darling,’ Chloe said softly and Verity fell fast asleep as soon as her head hit the pillow. Taking the tray and her own candle, Chloe allowed herself a long look at her sleeping child before returning to her duties. This was what her life was truly about. Verity’s arrival was a timely reminder why she was housekeeper at Farenze Lodge and would be one somewhere else for as long as Verity needed her to be. She refused to consider the day her daughter left school to a world where a young lady with a mother who worked for a living might find her a liability. By then she might be able to afford the cottage by the sea she’d promised herself when even housekeepers with daughters to raise alone needed dreams to distract them from harsh reality. * * * ‘I wished to thank you, Lord Farenze,’ the cool voice he’d been doing his best not to hear in his head all evening informed Luke when he sought a few moments’ peace and quiet in the library after dinner. ‘Did you? I doubt it,’ he replied dourly. ‘You believe me so ill mannered I wouldn’t say a simple “thank you” that you ordered my daughter to be fetched from school tonight?’ Chloe Wheaton asked and surely that wasn’t hurt in her necessarily soft tones as they murmured in the corridor where anyone might overhear them? ‘I wasn’t casting aspersions on your manners, but on your pride, madam,’ he said shortly, secretly shocked he was being so disagreeable yet not quite able to stop himself being so somehow. ‘You believe housekeepers are not entitled to that commodity, my lord?’ ‘I believe you have a superfluity of it, entitled or not.’ ‘How revolutionary of me,’ she said blandly and turned to go, presumably before she said something she regretted. ‘Stop, I’m sorry. That was ill-mannered of me and now I owe you another apology,’ he said and grasped her hand to stop her leaving then felt as if he’d been struck down by lightning from the mere feel of her bare wrist under his hand. ‘You owe me nothing,’ she said stiffly and glared at him before wrenching her hand away then stalking off as if she could imagine nothing more repulsive. He entered the study he still considered the domain of his predecessor and glared moodily into the fire. Just when he had been feeling calmer and altogether more able to resist the charms of women who clearly didn’t like him, she loomed out of the semi-darkness to throw him into turmoil. It wasn’t as if it cost him anything to order Virginia’s coachman to fetch the housekeeper’s daughter. Her manners were better than his today and he only just muffled an impatient groan when someone else loomed out of the shadows to disturb his evening. ‘What is it, man?’ he demanded as he met his own coachman’s sharp gaze. ‘Just thought you ought to know, m’lord,’ the man said stoically. ‘Know what?’ ‘I drove the carriage to Bath and back.’ Luke cursed as he would never dream of doing in front of a lady and felt no better. ‘What the devil for? I ordered Binns out, as you drove here from Northumberland.’ ‘He don’t see well in the dark,’ Josiah admitted uncomfortably and Luke wondered if the old coachman could see much at all. Josiah wasn’t a man to betray any man’s secrets lightly, though, and Luke sensed there was more to come. ‘It’s high time I pensioned him off, he must be nigh seventy,’ he said anyway. ‘Likely a bit more if you ask me, but that ain’t what I came to tell you.’ ‘What was it then? That you’re a disobedient ruffian who should be abed rather than dashing about the countryside? The head groom could have gone, man, he’s no top sawyer, but even he could keep Lady Virginia’s ancient team up to their bridles.’ ‘I knew it would be black dark long before they could stumble home, so I ordered the bays harnessed instead. I couldn’t have Miss Verity careering about the country with a whipster holding the reins.’ Luke struggled to be fair. Chloe would hate him if her precious child was involved in a carriage accident because he had an urge to please her and he deserved censure for not thinking his impulsive scheme out better, not Josiah. ‘You did the right thing,’ he conceded reluctantly. ‘I should have told you to wait until morning for all the difference it will make.’ ‘The little wench was that happy to know she wasn’t forgotten I’d go twice as far in the dark to see her face light up when she realised I was there to fetch her home.’ Since he was about to evict her from that home, Luke felt the goad of his own weakness bite. ‘Then what did you want to say?’ he asked brusquely. ‘That we was followed back,’ Josiah told him with a straight look that told his master there was no point saying he might have imagined it. ‘Who by and why the devil would anyone trail you home?’ ‘Don’t know, m’lord, all I cared about was if he had a gun and if we was about to be held up.’ ‘Why didn’t you inform the authorities in Bath?’ ‘Because he wasn’t nowhere in sight when I got there. Nearly caught us up about a mile this side of Bath, then stayed on our tail all the way back.’ ‘Why didn’t you challenge him then?’ ‘Because he never got close enough to answer me, nor take a clean shot. I drove as fast as I dared and Miss Verity thought it was a great lark to go like the devil was on our tail.’ ‘She’s well plucked?’ ‘Game for any lark going if you ask me,’ Josiah agreed with a grin that told Luke to be glad Eve was five or six years older than Verity Wheaton, or they might set the countryside by the ears with misdeeds. ‘Do your best to keep an eye on her over the next few days for me then, Josh. I don’t like the idea of anyone wasting time in such a fashion and he’s more likely to have a grudge against me than a child from a Bath seminary, but it won’t hurt to make sure the girl’s kept safe. We’ve trouble enough without the girl tumbling into more.’ ‘You think she’s like Miss Eve was at her age, m’lord?’ ‘Very like from the sound of things. You know as well as I do what mischief a reckless girl can find if left to her own devices too often.’ ‘Aye, well, girls will be girls,’ the coachman said with a reminiscent grin. ‘I’ll keep an eye on her when she’s out, or get young Seth to if I’m busy. When she’s in the house you’re far better placed to keep watch over her than me, my lord.’ Josiah’s tone was so bland Luke wondered if the old villain knew how much he needed to avoid the girl’s mother over the next few days. He truly hoped not. ‘Oakham will tell me if anyone breathes on her the wrong way,’ Luke informed his childhood ally in the hope he’d stop making bricks without straw. ‘Then we don’t need to worry ourselves, do we?’ ‘I’d still like to know who our curious stranger is, though,’ Luke mused and at least it gave him a problem to consider for the rest of the evening, instead of wondering how he’d get through the next days and weeks without disaster befalling himself and Mrs Chloe Wheaton. Chapter Six (#u6f8342fc-d01f-5b15-a7d4-df133dc7c5f4) When the household was settled at last, Chloe made her weary way to Lady Farenze’s bedchamber ready to take over the night vigil from Culdrose. She braced herself to try to appear as awake and cheerful as any of them could be tonight. She couldn’t let the elderly maid know she felt tired to the bone, even after her ill-advised nap this afternoon. Especially not after that; she shuddered at the very idea of what she might have given away in those unguarded moments while she gazed into Lord Farenze’s hot grey eyes like a besotted schoolgirl. At the time a strange sort of exhilaration had buoyed her up, as if a wicked part of her was whispering she should stop fighting and give in to fiery attraction. Except he was a lord and she an upper servant and in a few weeks they would part, never to meet again. The notion of such heady freedom stretching ahead of her made it an effort to set one foot in front of the other. The notion of all those empty years to come without even the occasional sight of him pressed down on her like a ton weight. She stopped outside the door to put on a suitably serene expression before she met Cully’s shrewd gaze, then walked in. ‘Oh, there you are, my dear. There’s no need for you to stay with her ladyship tonight,’ the elderly maid said with a nod to the other side of the bed where the new master of the house sat. ‘Master Luke won’t hear of anyone else keeping vigil.’ ‘No, I won’t,’ he said in a flatly emotionless voice that told her there was no point arguing. ‘Quite right too,’ Cully said with an approving nod. ‘You need a good night’s sleep and no argument, Mrs Wheaton. If you spend one more day trying to fit a month’s worth of work into twenty-four hours, you’ll collapse. Your little miss is home now and we don’t want her more upset than she is already.’ ‘Aye, go to bed,’ Lord Farenze barked from the most heavily shadowed corner of the room. ‘Very well,’ she said, knowing she couldn’t argue in front of Culdrose and turned to go before the temptation to do it anyway overtook her. ‘See she drinks one of your noxious potions and really does sleep, Cully,’ she heard Lord Farenze say when she’d almost shut the door behind her. ‘I wouldn’t put it past the confounded woman to steal in here if I fall asleep to take your place, so she can boast she sat by her employer day and night when she applies for her next post.’ As if she would be so mercenary. Arrogant, unfeeling wretch—he would never believe she had loved wonderful, complicated Lady Virginia Winterley very deeply. He was always on the lookout for a base motive, a different sin to visit on her, as if she might have sprouted horns and a tail when he wasn’t looking. ‘Now then, Master Luke, you’re being unjust. That girl loved her ladyship and would have done almost anything for her.’ ‘Except go away,’ he raised his voice just enough to grumble so she couldn’t fail to hear him. Chloe flinched and wondered how he knew she couldn’t bring herself to leave when Lady Virginia breathed her last, before he got here. Bracing herself against the fact he wanted her gone, she made herself walk away noisily enough to let him know he could say whatever he liked and she didn’t care. Back in her room, she wished it as many rooms as possible from where Lord Farenze was taking the last vigil at his great-aunt’s side. To be within call if her mistress needed her, Chloe was using an odd little bedchamber over the grand gallery that only unimportant guests were ever given, because the high ceiling of the room below meant the floor of this one was raised on a minor staircase with three other cramped chambers. It had been convenient to stay close to Lady Virginia’s lofty suite, until now. So why hadn’t she moved back to her modest room a floor up and at the back of the house as soon as Lord Farenze had set foot in Farenze Lodge? She hadn’t known Verity would be home then and marvelled at herself for being so foolish as to stay within shouting distance of the state rooms now. It was too late to change even if Verity hadn’t arrived so much in need of a good night’s sleep, so she yawned and hoped for a dreamless sleep against the odds. She had more to disturb her than ever, but after a soft tap came on the door, Cully opened it a half-inch on her invitation to enter. ‘Are you decent, dear?’ she whispered. ‘Aye,’ Chloe admitted with a half-smile at herself in the dimly visible mirror that said it was as well nobody could see into her head. ‘Come in, Cully.’ ‘His lordship says you’re to drink this down and I’m to stay until you do,’ her old friend told her sternly. Chloe sniffed the fumes coming from the steaming mug she held out and caught a hint of camomile, a waft of cinnamon and some honey to sweeten it all and decided there was nothing in it to worry her, even if such a mild concoction was unlikely to make her sleep soundly tonight. ‘Very well,’ she said with a resigned shrug. She knew that resolute expression of Cully’s of old and didn’t feel like a battle to resist her at the moment. ‘I’ll sit here until you’re finished then go to bed myself. My lady is in safe hands and would be the first to tell us to get to bed and show some sense.’ ‘I know, but you’re the last person I need to tell how hard it is to be sensible at a time like this,’ Chloe said with a sigh as she paused her drinking and earned a frown. ‘If I drink any faster, I’ll choke,’ she excused herself. ‘I suppose so, but his lordship is right. You look as if a strong gust of wind could blow you into next week.’ ‘Kind of him,’ Chloe retorted ruefully. ‘He is a kind man, child, if only you would see it. You two bring out the worst in each another, but Master Luke was a good-hearted, gallant lad before that silly girl nagged and flouted him until he hardly knew which way was up any more.’ ‘He’s hardly a lad now, or very gallant.’ ‘No, he’s a man nowadays and a fine-looking one at that.’ Chloe distrusted the sly glance her old friend was shooting her. Cully knew her a little too well, after ten years of service in the same house. So, if the elderly ladies’ maid knew she was deeply attracted to her gallant lad, who else might have their suspicions she wouldn’t leave Farenze Lodge as heart-whole as a sober and respectable housekeeper should? Chloe shook her head and carefully ignored that truth as she swallowed the last of Cully’s brew. She felt as if she was back in the nursery herself when Cully unpinned her tightly bound locks and gently combed them out, but the deft touch soothed her as the potion hadn’t yet managed to. ‘There, is that better?’ Cully asked as she brushed Chloe’s heavy locks into a burnished red-gold mass. ‘Aye,’ Chloe admitted with a long sigh. ‘You’re very good at your job, Cully,’ she murmured when she felt the silken thickness gathered into the elderly maid’s hand and separated into three as Cully began a loose plait. ‘And you have beautiful hair, Mrs Chloe,’ the maid told her with a hint of sternness in her voice. ‘A good many ladies would give their eye-teeth for such a colour and it’s so fine and thick they would be green with envy if they ever saw it. You shouldn’t screw it into such a tight knot. It’s not good for it and small wonder if you have the headache after going about with all those pins skewered into it all day.’ ‘If I don’t, it keeps trying to escape.’ ‘And a very good thing if it succeeded, if you ask me,’ she thought she heard Cully mumble under her breath, but looking up she found the older woman was looking back at her in the mirror with such a look of bland innocence she told herself she must have been mistaken. ‘There you are, you’re all ready for bed and make sure you stay there till you’re rested in the morning. Martha Lange’s quite capable of getting breakfast cooked without you there to tell her how to coddle an egg and that head housemaid you set such store by can set the maids to work for once.’ ‘Yes, Miss Culdrose, ma’am,’ Chloe said with a mock salute and was brusquely told not to be impudent before Cully wished her a dignified goodnight and went off to spend a full night in her own bed for the first time in weeks as well. * * * At first it was the most wonderful dream. Chloe shifted under the smooth linen sheets to murmur approval in her sleep. Luke was here, kissing her and doing all the things she had longed for him to do all these years. She had sent him away and told him she could imagine nothing more humiliating than being his mistress all those years ago, but she’d lied. In her unchecked fantasy he was indeed Luke and not Lord Farenze and he kissed her as if the next beat of his heart depended on her kissing him back. She writhed against her hot pillow and keened a protest as a dash of reality beat in and she knew the hands running over her excited curves in the heat of the night were her own and not the firm, male touch her body truly longed for, as if it had found its ideal long ago and had no intention of letting the idea of him go, ever. She wanted him, wanted him here and now and in her bed, in her. Even in her deepest sleep, her cheeks flushed with even more heat at the very thought of such emphatic possession as she knew his would be. Then the part of her that longed for him all the time she was trying to forget took over and wrenched that spectre lover back into her bed. He followed her impatient hands with kisses, tracked merciless trails of slick heat over her sensitised skin, pressed questing fingertips into the places she most wanted them to explore and she gasped in pleasure, at last. In her dreams he was hers as surely as she was his, so why wake up to cold reality? Her unconscious self conspired with her inner wanton to revel in their heat and closeness and her body tingled and writhed and strove for something more against the heavy bedclothes and the depths of the long night. He’s here! The words seemed to have been whispered, as if he truly was with her in every way there was between lovers. Doubt invaded even her imaginary idyll as soon as she felt they were not alone in this dream of fulfilment she had given herself, though. Even as her phantom lover reared over her to feast his hungry mouth on her waiting lips and sink his mighty, roused body blissfully into her longing depths to complete them as lovers, she heard a voice from beyond the grave whisper, ‘No, no, don’t let him love you like that. Never love a man, Chloe. Look where love got me. Push him out of your heart, keep him out of your body and never, ever let yourself love him,’ it ended on a wail, as pain took a deeper hold and the pale ghost sliced a dead and icy hand down on dream Luke’s warm neck and he vanished like smoke on the wind. Chloe’s dreams landed her back into a cold, windswept wreck of a house high on the moors where nobody went unless they had to and even then they came away crossing themselves as if they’d met the devil at the back door. She writhed against the cooling sheets in terrified protest as images flashed through her sleep like the torn black of mourning weeds, weathered to faded shreds of their midnight prime. There was blood, so much blood, and Chloe began to whimper in her sleep. The unending awfulness of the time and tragedy of that forsaken place bit into her. However hard she tried to clean the gore up she couldn’t wash it away and into her terrifying dream flashed images of a fragile young woman laid out pale and cold on the narrow, mean bed as love leeched out of that wretched house and grief rolled in to replace it like the dense cloud hanging over the wintry moor. Then she was back to the following December day, winds beating savage and remorseless on the tiny windows until even the stout shutters shivered and shifted against the threat of it as if they might break open. The younger Chloe wept and over the roar of the wind came the relentless slash of rain, beating on the narrow windows as if it wanted to drown every last breath of life in this place where only wind and rain should rule and people didn’t belong. Now she desperately needed Luke and he wasn’t there. He faded and forsook her when she drifted back to a time when there was no Luke to tempt and tantalise her, only a howling and an empty stretch of pain inside that seemed to go on for ever. Then the storm softened and grew less with every breath and instead of tempest outside there was one within determined to give her no peace. A howl rose high and demanding as the child she’d done her best to forget refused to be comforted, or to sleep when there was no solace to be had here. The baby’s enraged cries beat louder and louder on her poor ears until they filled her whole world. Young Chloe wanted it to die, too, if that would make it stop. The woman she became wanted to shake the girl so she forgot her selfish woe and got on with the life that came out of all that pain. ‘No, don’t take her with you!’ she woke screaming and shot upright in the bed, trembling and sobbing. The coils of that terrible dream still wrapped round her, she began to rock as she tried to fight her way back to now and tell herself it wasn’t true. ‘Whatever is it? Who frightened you?’ a gruff demand came out of the night as the door creaked open and she hadn’t breath enough to reassure anyone she was perfectly all right, let alone him. ‘What the devil is it?’ Lord Farenze barked. He pushed the door to behind himself and set his candle in the nightstick to peer more closely at the tousled wreckage of her once neat bed and the shivering wild woman staring back at him with all the terrors of the night in her eyes. Some detached part of her knew she was behaving like a ninny, but she couldn’t wave away the terror that still made her heartbeat race and her breath gasp between parched lips as if she had just finished running a mile in her dreams. * * * Luke was glad he had sense left to listen for the sound of anyone else stirring, not sure if he was glad or sorry when he didn’t hear it. His daughter and Bran were too weary from their journey to wake easily and nobody else was within earshot. ‘A dream,’ she finally managed to gasp as if even that cost her dear. ‘I never heard one like it then, even in Eve’s wildest nightmares,’ he said and did what he’d wanted the moment she looked up at him with terror in her eyes; took her in his arms and dared the devil to do his worst. ‘Cry it out,’ he encouraged, feeling helpless against the fear still ruling her. Eve was about six years old when some fool told her the truth about her mother’s death, dashed to oblivion at the bottom of a mountain road after a wild race to some would-be poet’s latest party only a fool would embark on in winter. He spared a moment from the feel of Chloe shivering in his arms to be glad Eve was over her night horrors and now slept soundly of a night. For a long moment Chloe felt stiff and resistant in his arms then, with a great heartfelt sigh, she squirmed closer with a ragged sob she tried to stifle against his shoulder, as if she wasn’t allowed the luxury of tears. No storm of feminine hysterics could disarm him more. He could feel the shudders that still racked her body and the hand he rubbed across her slender back was meant to comfort. She stilled as if remembering who he was, then seemed unable to fight the security of another being close enough to push away her nightmares. Giving in to her need for human contact for once, she moulded herself against him so intimately her head rested on his shoulder and he felt the impact of her closeness through several layers of fine tailoring. Feminine heat cindered all the distance he’d tried to put between them. The scent of warm, frightened woman teased his nose along with stray wisps of fiery gold hair that escaped the heavy plait down her back. She shivered and he reassembled the sense to recall it was January. Wrapping her in the bedcover, he murmured a promise not to leave her as he crossed to the fireplace and set his candle to the fire laid there. He must have words with her in the morning about why, when every other chamber on this floor had a fire to warm it, hers was as cold as charity. Once flames were licking about the pine cones and sea coal, he went to the bed and picked her up, bedcover and all. It said much for her emotional state that she let him and still seemed to be staring sightlessly into some dire fate with horror in her wide eyes. He carried her to an old-fashioned chair banished from a more important bedchamber. You might as well sleep in a lumber room, Luke silently chided the shivering woman, then sat down with her in his arms, covering and all. Despite a half-hearted shake of her head she clearly didn’t want him to go. She tucked a slender foot into his side to warm it when the bedcover slipped and it felt more intimate than a week of passionate lovemaking in another woman’s bed. Steady, he ordered his inner fool; she doesn’t see you as a rampant male, but a source of comfort. You could be anyone. ‘If you refuse to cry it out, at least tell me what frightened you,’ he urged and felt her squirm in protest at the thought of giving so much of her inner life away. He fought his predictable male response to the slide of supple feminine curves against his over-eager body and hoped she was too deep in shock to notice. ‘No? Then I’ll puzzle it out for myself, shall I?’ he suggested softly against the ear she hadn’t snuggled into his shoulder and felt her flinch. She shook her head a fraction in denial and he heard her breath hitch, as if she wanted to scold him for bad-mannered prying into her private life, but couldn’t quite manage it, so she wriggled even closer instead. ‘I presume my arrival roused a fine nest of vipers in your clever, contrary head to upset you so deeply,’ he murmured into that tempting ear and thought she managed a muffled ‘no’ to deny it. ‘I don’t think I’m unduly vain to suspect I’m the reason you dreamt so vividly,’ he persisted. ‘No,’ she protested more distinctly, so he knew he was right. Although they had sworn never to kiss or long for each other again on a night of almost love they had shared a decade ago, this unwanted; ill-starred connection between them refused to die. ‘Yes, madam, you did,’ he persisted, ‘you very likely cause yourself to dream even more vividly by denying this feeling between us so fervently when you’re awake. So that explains why you dreamt, but not what. Not even the way we don’t want to feel about each other explains why you scream out in your sleep, then look as if all the devils of hell are on your heels the moment you wake.’ Chapter Seven (#u6f8342fc-d01f-5b15-a7d4-df133dc7c5f4) That was it then; the frustrated desire of ten years finally said and in the open. Luke waited for Chloe’s reply, resigned to the fact she mattered to him more than either of them wanted to admit—except he just had. ‘I’ve had nightmares night after night since Virginia died,’ she admitted as if living with them was better than feeling something unique for him. ‘Why?’ The story behind her arrival must be even more painful than he’d thought. Luke willed his hands not to fist when he thought of the rogue who got a child on her, then left her to cope alone. Back then he’d told himself it was best not to know her story when he felt so damned guilty she was trying to build a respectable life and he wanted to ruin her more thoroughly than the rake who found her first. ‘Do you think you’re the only one to see love as a disaster?’ she demanded, but he knew a diversionary tactic when he heard one. ‘I thought you adored your reckless, headlong husband and regretted every minute of your life you must live without him? That’s what you told me when you whistled my dishonourable proposals down the wind.’ ‘And you believed me?’ ‘You were very convincing.’ ‘Of course I was; it was a dishonourable proposal.’ ‘Surely you didn’t expect me to offer marriage?’ he demanded unwarily. She stiffened as if about to jump up and glare at him with her usual armed disapproval. ‘No,’ she admitted with a sigh instead. She must be too comfortable or too much in need of human comfort to push him away, but she sat up in his arms and stared into the fire instead. ‘I learnt not to expect much of anyone the day Verity was born. There was nobody left to care what became of us.’ ‘Then she was truly a posthumous child?’ he asked gently, wanting to know about the man who left her with child, but feeling he was intruding on girlish dreams that might feel very private even if they’d rapidly turned into nightmares. ‘Yes, Verity only had me.’ The admission was bleak and he bit back his frustration at having to prise information out of her like a miner hewing coal. ‘Could neither family help you?’ ‘No,’ she denied as if it hurt even now. Luke felt she had a storm of emotions behind the calm she was forcing herself to hold as if her life depended on it. They seemed so much nearer the surface now he wanted to take the heavy weight off her shoulders, then put her world right. He wanted to protect her so badly, yet she insisted on shutting him out. This contrary, complicated woman was making him a stranger to himself. ‘Did you ask them?’ ‘Not then,’ she bit out and somehow he managed to stifle a curse that she still wouldn’t let him into her true past or trust him with her real self. ‘Had they refused earlier?’ ‘It was a runaway match,’ she said so blankly he suspected she was telling him a well-rehearsed version of what might be the truth, but didn’t feel like it. ‘They might be glad to meet their grandchild now.’ ‘I’d walk barefoot across Britain or beg in the streets before I let them near her.’ It sounded as if unforgivable things had been said or done when she was so painfully young, alone and vulnerable. Fury burnt in his gut that anyone could treat a young girl so harshly that she never wanted to see them again. Conscience whispered he’d treated her pretty appallingly himself by offering carte blanche to such a youthful widow with a tiny child to consider. Shame joined fury then; it wasn’t Chloe’s fault his wife smashed a young man’s dreams to powder, or that he was too wrapped up in not hurting to risk having any more. The revelation that he truly cared for this woman as he never had for Pamela, even before they married and hurt each other so much, overtook him with the force of a natural disaster. It felt as if the real Luke Winterley had woken from hibernation. He flexed powerful muscles against an almost physical ache and wished he’d go back to sleep. ‘I’m not saying you should,’ he managed to say as he gathered up the threads of their not-quite conversation and reminded himself he was rated a very fine whip by the sporting set and ought to be able to do this a lot better. ‘I wouldn’t do it if you did,’ she said scornfully. ‘And I couldn’t ask you to do something that went so strongly against the grain. We mean too much to each other for that; like it or not.’ ‘I’m sure you underestimate our will-power, Lord Farenze,’ she said icily, as if not ready to make a similar leap into the dark. ‘Maybe I do. I still intend to find out why you were driven to take this job to keep yourself and your daughter out of the poor house.’ ‘Then how dared you use me as entertainment for an idle moment?’ Luke felt oddly wounded she thought so little of him, but he couldn’t leave her to lie sleepless or tumble back into night terrors. ‘I would not dream of it and we’re talking about you and your daughter, not my many and varied shortcomings.’ ‘No, we’re not. Please go to bed and leave me to watch by Virginia one last time, my lord. You must sleep if you’re going to be chief mourner at your great-aunt’s funeral. I have had my fill of sleeping for now and really don’t want to experience that nightmare again tonight.’ Luke opened his mouth to deny he felt the least need to rest, but a huge yawn stopped him. ‘I’m not a nodding infant,’ he insisted brusquely afterwards. ‘No, you’re a stubborn man who rode here as fast as coach and horses could go in order to be in time for your great-aunt’s funeral. What good you will be for that if you’re nodding over your duties is beyond me, but I’m only the housekeeper, so who am I to tell you not to be a fool?’ ‘It never stopped you in the past,’ he muttered crossly. ‘Oh, just go to bed, my lord. As a mere woman, I’m not required to put in an appearance until after you return from church tomorrow, so I can sleep in the morning. You owe it to Lady Virginia to be properly awake and aware for her last rites.’ Luke saw the logic of her words, but couldn’t let go his duty to care for all those who lived under one of his roofs. His housekeeper would be heavy eyed and weary tomorrow if he did as she suggested. The idea of her keeping watch when he should be the one to hold his loved ones safe also made him feel as if he was less of a man, foolish though that might be. Still, it seemed as if she preferred waking to sleeping and didn’t that betray how haunted and disturbing her nightmares truly were? He longed to offer her simple comfort and scout her demons, so she might sleep sweetly and wake without the shadows under her remarkable eyes. Folly to find it touching that she appeared to care he was tired, despite the dagger-look she shot him, as if he’d made her another dishonourable offer. ‘How can I let you take on a duty rightly belonging to me?’ he said clumsily. ‘Mere servant as I am?’ she bit out furiously. Luke wondered if he’d imagined her burrowing so desperately into his arms when he came to this room to find out why she was shouting in her sleep and why his tongue always tied itself in knots when he was with her. ‘No, because you have done more for my great-aunt than anyone had a right to ask you; not that I’m suggesting you can’t withstand every tempest life throws at you, so don’t bite my nose off,’ he argued and wondered why his temper wasn’t rising to her barbed comments this time. He was weary to his very bones, but he knew she was trying to get him out of here before heat and awareness flared back to life. In some ways he knew her so well it hurt, in others she felt as much of a mystery to him as she was the first day he laid eyes on his great-aunt’s new companion–housekeeper and felt his world tilt on its axis for a terrifying moment. ‘If you watch for an hour or so, I will lie on the bed in the Lord’s Chamber with the connecting door open. It’s been locked since Virgil died and nobody will recall it’s there at a time like this. That way you won’t be alone and I’ll feel more of a man.’ She looked unconvinced, but eventually nodded and seemed prepared to accept a compromise to end this uncomfortable intimacy. ‘I loved Lady Virginia too much in life to be frightened now she’s with her Virgil again at last. I’ll miss her all my days, but she wouldn’t want to live without him any longer than she had to. So please take yourself off whilst I dress, my lord.’ ‘Very well, my lady,’ he said with a bow he might give to the equal in rank she suddenly sounded. ‘Exasperating man,’ she muttered as he left the room to wait in the cramped little corridor over the nobly proportioned room below. Out in the dark, Luke fought a battle between physical tiredness and feelings he didn’t want to examine. He’d wanted to stay in that neglected room and feel her sleep in his arms. It shocked him to feel so much for the contrary mixture of a woman Chloe had grown into. He’d tried to convince himself for years only his daughter was allowed under his guard and into his heart, but right now it looked like a battle lost. ‘What are you doing here?’ she demanded in a fierce whisper as she came out of her room and nearly cannoned into him in the gloom. ‘Waiting for you,’ he managed suavely. He saw something in the depths of her dark eyes when her candle wavered in her shaking hands that said he wasn’t the only one fighting his feelings tonight. He forced himself not to grin like a triumphant boy. ‘Well, don’t,’ she said crossly. He raised his eyebrows and let some of the passion he felt for her show as their eyes met. ‘Verity is ten years old, my lord, and has a right to all I am. I won’t accept a lover when my daughter would be harmed by association, so waiting for me to do so will only waste your time and energy you need for the obligations ahead of you.’ ‘I’m here to escort you to Virginia’s bedchamber.’ ‘Where I don’t belong,’ she said to herself as much as him. ‘Where you will be doing me a favour I should not permit, considering you’re so tired yourself,’ he corrected. ‘I didn’t ride all the way from Northumberland in the depths of winter.’ ‘And I wasn’t here to nurse Virginia through her last illness, but if we’re not to be caught in a tryst and forced into wedlock, Mrs Wheaton, it’s about time we quit this draughty corridor and got on with all that needs doing.’ Chloe sniffed a very expressive sniff of reproach, yet something else lurked behind her coolly composed look. The thought of what Virginia would make of them standing here like a pair of star-crossed lovers unwilling to say goodnight hung unspoken in the air between them and made him flinch. His beloved but infuriating great-aunt would be planning their wedding before one more late and reluctant January dawn had passed. Virginia usually opposed misalliances and a viscount and a housekeeper were one of those many times over, but something told him she would have been delighted if they ever found the courage to defy convention and wed. So what did Virginia know about the woman he didn’t? ‘I am going to sit with my beloved late employer and friend and you are going to sleep, my lord, and that is all,’ Chloe said sternly and he let her lead the way while he struggled with puzzlement and weariness and did as he was bid for once in his life. * * * The next morning was bright and frosty with a sky as clear and delicate a blue as the flower of a mountain harebell. Chloe finished drying her hair by the fire Lord Farenze had ordered to be lit in her room and told herself she hadn’t really needed the bath he ordered after she spent half the night nodding in a comfortable chair in the late viscountess’s bedchamber. Even so, it felt good to be clean and new vitality sparked through her along with the crackle of electricity in her heavy auburn hair. She really ought to have it cut, but it had been easier and cheaper to let it grow so ridiculously long she could sit on it when it hung down her back. It seemed wrong she should feel vital and alive, today of all days, and she looked at the frosty scene outside the window and let herself be sad Virginia wasn’t here to see the rolling hillsides wrapped in sparkling crystal, or the dark bare branches of the trees in the wood that couldn’t quite hide the brave snowdrops flowering in the sheltered hollows. She almost heard the words as if Virginia put them straight in her heart. Don’t mourn me, Chloe; after sixteen years without my love we’ll never be apart again. If she took that last piece of advice she could glory in the morning and forget the future until the funeral was over and the will read. Impatient of the last damp strand of hair, she wound it into the heavy knot she usually confined it to, but left out some of the pins that would have screwed it back from her face and made it possible to wear the all-enveloping housekeeper’s bonnet she’d bought herself behind Virginia’s back. Today she’d restricted herself to the frivolous piece of lawn and lace her late mistress had reluctantly allowed became a companion and let herself be the girl who shared Virginia’s lonelier years again. She recalled her employer saying she wanted bright faces about her, not a death’s head got up to fright babies when Verity took one look at her mama in her first all-enveloping cap and burst into tears. Mrs Winterley would send her a hard-eyed glare for being a housekeeper got up as a lady today, but Chloe owed Virginia one last glimpse of the light-hearted girl she would have had her be, if she could spoil her and Verity as she wanted. There would be little enough cause to be anyone but her mature and sensible self once she took a post in another household. She tiptoed down the secondary staircase the architect ordered for less important visitors lodged in her corridor of this grand house and wondered who she was being quiet for. Lord Farenze was up and being his usual lordly self, Miss Eve Winterley was downstairs and Verity had begged to be allowed an early morning ride with the grooms, before anyone else was awake to forbid it on this solemn day. ‘Mr Filkin says horses need exercise whatever the day brings and I might as well help with the ponies as lie a-bed fretting,’ she reported when she came in to ask if she could go and change into her habit. ‘Be sure to come back by the nursery stairs though, love. I doubt his lordship’s stepmama would approve of you careering about the countryside today.’ ‘She’s an old misery and his lordship won’t listen to her,’ Verity claimed confidently and Chloe wondered how Luke Winterley had made such a favourable impression on her daughter in such a short time. She felt beleaguered; the indoor staff adored him; the stable boys and grooms were always full of tales about his horsemanship and now Verity appeared very ready to admire him as well. He sounded as if he’d been reckless and outrageously lucky to live through most of the incidents she’d heard related and she frowned and wondered what manner of man he’d be now if he hadn’t made such a disastrous early marriage. A happy one, she decided gloomily. She snatched up the old cloak she kept in the flower room and stepped out into the winter sunshine to escape the house and her duties for a few precious moments. How unworthy of her to find the idea of Lord Farenze happily wed and content with his wife depressing, rather than wishing him better luck next time. ‘Dratted man,’ she muttered under her breath as she marched towards the Winter Garden. ‘Why does he have to disturb me so deeply?’ she asked the statue of some god among the frost-rimed box and the few brave winter flowers hiding their heads under frozen leaves this morning. ‘For years he pretends I don’t exist, now he’s back and I’m wasting time dreaming about him all over again.’ The statue stared into the parkland as if silently slumbering winter trees made more sense than she did and Chloe suppressed a childish urge to kick him. ‘Men!’ she informed it, glad nobody could hear her. ‘You vex women with your ridiculous arguments, pretend logic and stupid longings, then you swat us aside like annoying insects and walk away. How the devil does the contrary great idiot expect me to carry on as if nothing happened now? Does he think we can act as if he never saw me sitting in that bed staring at him like a besotted schoolgirl or came to rescue me from my nightmares? Oh, I’m sorry, you’re a man, aren’t you? Or at least you would be if you were real. Then you’d huff and puff like the rest of them and drive us all mad before you stamped off to roam about the country shooting innocent animals or riding your poor horses into the ground until you felt better.’ ‘He might do, if he wasn’t made of stone,’ Luke Winterley’s deep voice said from far too close for comfort and Chloe refused to turn round and blush at being caught talking to a piece of stone. ‘Otherwise you would probably be quite right, of course.’ ‘You should still be asleep,’ she told him crossly. ‘Lucky I’m not then, for this would be the oddest dream I’ve ever had,’ he told her with a lazy grin. She wanted to walk into his arms and kiss him good morning so badly she had to swing away and march down the nearest path away from him to stop herself doing exactly that. ‘What are you doing?’ he asked, following and putting out a hand to prevent her walking straight into a sacking-shrouded potted plant the gardeners had wrapped up for winter. ‘I’m counting to a hundred,’ she told him between clenched teeth. ‘Isn’t it supposed to be ten?’ ‘With you ten is never enough.’ ‘Oh dear, that bad, am I?’ ‘Worse,’ she bit out. She would not turn round at the warm rumble of his laughter; refused to feel warmed and soothed into good humour because she’d amused him at this saddest of times. Half of her might want to be in his arms so badly she could almost feel his warmth and strength wrapping her up again; more than half if she was honest, but dishonesty was safer. ‘Leave me be, my lord.’ ‘No, you spend far too much time alone already,’ he said impatiently, as if it was her fault her role in his household demanded a certain aloofness of her. ‘And you shut yourself up in that northern fortress of yours years ago and did your best to pretend the rest of the world doesn’t exist, so you have no room to talk.’ ‘We’re lone souls with much in common then, but I didn’t walk away from the danger we posed each other then in order to take advantage of you today.’ ‘I’m sure you’re a man of infinite honour, my lord.’ ‘No, but I fight my demons as best I can; something you should consider before you provoke me again, madam.’ ‘I provoke you?’ ‘Yes, you should have the sense to realise you’re always in acute danger when I’m about, Mrs Wheaton, yet you seem determined to court it.’ ‘You’re the one with a large house, acres of garden and an entire estate to avoid me in. I don’t see how you can berate me for taking a brief walk within hailing distance of the house? In your shoes I could use my freedom to simply walk away.’ ‘Marching about in front of the windows of a room you know I always work in when I’m at Farenze Lodge is not disturbing me then? Did I not give you fair warning this could happen if you teased me instead of avoiding me like the plague?,’ he rasped and tugged her into his arms as if she’d driven him to it. ‘Let me go, you barbarian,’ she snapped, but he lowered his head and met her eyes with a storm of fury and need in his that mirrored the argument raging between her heart and head and making her feel recklessly susceptible to his nearness. ‘Stop me,’ he demanded gruffly, so close she felt a warm whisper on her skin. Chapter Eight (#u6f8342fc-d01f-5b15-a7d4-df133dc7c5f4) Chloe knew Lord Farenze would leave her alone if she breathed no or flinched away. Yet she couldn’t say it, or take that step back. His mouth on hers was gentle as a plea and she waited for him to remember he was kissing the housekeeper and retreat in horror. She had to breathe at last and he followed the winter air into her mouth as if he was starving for her. Heat flooded every inch of her body and mind as his lips and tongue explored her mouth in sensual wonder. Needs she had fought for so long clamoured and fidgeted to let a decade of frustration and loneliness go. She swayed into his arms and opened her mouth even as sensible Chloe whispered she was a fool. Somehow the slight shake in his touch freed some last curb on her conscience and she felt him test her narrow waist, banding her closer to the difference and heat of him, narrow flanked and broad shouldered as he was against her curves and unable to conceal how badly he wanted, no, needed her. Intrigued by such wild heat, despite the frigid January air and this saddest of days, she felt every pore and whisper come uniquely alive to him. Senses sharpened as if they’d slept since that last kiss so long ago. She wanted to strip off her tight tan gloves and feel this exceptional man under her naked touch. Doing her best to add the soft covering to her senses instead, she brushed a finger along his high cheekbone and wherever he felt the butterfly touch of fine leather on taut skin a flush of hard colour tracked her fingers. Shocked by her own boldness, she rose on tiptoe and rested her hands on his broad shoulders so she could watch him more closely, more intimately. For these few seconds outside time he was hers and she was his. His coat was frost chilly where they’d had no contact, yet where their bodies strove to meld no cold could reach them. They had an antidote to winter and who would guess so much heat was pent up between gruff Lord Farenze and his coolly composed housekeeper? He moved his hands up from her waist to cup a shamefully hot and responsive breast under her layers of winter disguise and the sweet novelty of his long-remembered touch, real again on her eager body, made her heart leap and her stomach fall into that familiar burning longing only he could stir in her. She gave a low moan as need ground at her insides like hot knives and heated her inner core with impossible promises. Shocked by her own need of him, she pulled back far enough to watch him and hotly unanswerable questions flashed into his grey gaze and echoed her own. He’d focused too much formidable attention on her at last, given too much away to snatch it back and pretend they were nothing to each other, hadn’t he? This was the real Luke Winterley, the passionate man behind Lord Farenze’s cold exterior and reclusive reputation. She felt too much for that man and she was opening her mouth to ask questions neither of them wanted to know when the return of the riding party sounded on the clear air and let Chloe’s real life back in with a sickening thump and a deep breath of icy January air. She tugged free of Lord Farenze’s arms and faced him with all she shouldn’t feel in her eyes. ‘I can’t,’ she gasped. ‘Neither of us can,’ she told him sadly, then hurried off towards the stable yard and her beloved daughter before Luke could argue. ‘I quite agree, Mrs Wheaton,’ Luke muttered to the January air. ‘So what the devil have you done to me this time, my conundrum-in-petticoats?’ No point trying to sit and work on the letters of sympathy and solutions to estate matters now. All he’d see out of the window now was an image of himself, tangled so tight in kissing Virginia’s protégé he’d forgotten where, when and what they were. He couldn’t settle for the ordeal ahead and hardly knew how to live in his own skin without Chloe to remake him every time he set eyes on her. The very thought of her as she was just now set his pulses jumping and his manhood rigid with need. Yet she was Virginia’s housekeeper-cum-companion; a lady already burned by the chilling harshness the world showed those who fell from grace; a woman who’d wed recklessly, then found herself alone with a babe to support when she should have been in the schoolroom herself. Recalling her list of activities for crass males, Luke wished he could ask for a hack to be saddled and ride for hours to avoid longing for more unsuitable meetings with the Farenze Lodge housekeeper. No, there could be no more of those and it was high time he turned his mind to the sad and solemn occasion ahead of him. If he’d had his way they would celebrate Virginia’s long life and the fact she was reunited with her beloved Virgil, instead of mourning the passing she had begun to long for of late. Instead, he was chief mourner at a solemn funeral and must hide his grief as best he could for the sake of those who looked to him as head of the family and master of the house and estate. His great-uncle’s will left his wife only a lifetime tenure on the house they had built so lovingly between them with ultimate ownership going to Luke. He’d been too wound up in baby Eve and playing down the chaos Pamela had raised on the Continent when Virgil died to take much notice, but lately he’d tried to discuss the future of Farenze Lodge with Virginia and got nowhere even faster than usual. ‘Virgil left you this house and estate to save me having people constantly badgering me to leave it elsewhere,’ Virginia told him. ‘But why me?’ he asked. ‘James might change if he had an estate of his own. You have told me he needs to be his own man.’ ‘Let me worry about James,’ she said mysteriously, ‘you’re the only man we wanted living here after us, Luke. You love and understand it as we did, so enjoy it as a holiday from that grim barrack you live in most of the year. You can retreat here when the rigours of Darkmere become too great for your wife.’ ‘I don’t have a wife, nor shall I until Eve is wed,’ he replied, meeting her level gaze steadily to show her he meant it and there was no point scheming to pair him off with some hopeful young lady she might have handy before then. ‘One day you’ll have to take that armour off and learn to be happy,’ she had replied with a knowing smile he didn’t want to question, so he shrugged and accepted their decision, since he could hardly do otherwise now the deed was done. And now the whole world seemed to be conspiring against his long-held plan to find a convenient wife once Eve was old enough to marry. Virginia, Eve and even Tom Banburgh seemed to think he ought to wed for something warmer than mere convenience and surely they were all wrong? ‘There you are, m’lord,’ Josiah Birtkin’s bass voice rumbled at him from the doorway leading from the gardens to the stableyard and Luke swore at himself for getting distracted from all he had to cope with today. ‘So it would seem,’ he replied mildly enough. ‘Thought you should know,’ Josiah went on as if words had a tax on them. ‘Know what?’ ‘Cross said they was followed back from the gallops just now.’ ‘Why on earth would anyone follow a schoolgirl?’ Luke mused. ‘Don’t know, m’lord.’ ‘Have you any idea who it was?’ ‘No, he stayed well back. Cross thought it was his fancy to start with.’ Luke frowned even more darkly at the thought of Chloe’s daughter as quarry. ‘It makes no sense,’ he muttered and Josiah shrugged as if nothing his fellow humans did made much of that. ‘Where is he now?’ Luke asked, resolving to confront the rogue and demand what he was about. ‘Rode off when they got back to the paddocks, and, since he managed to look as if he was on his way somewhere else, nobody thought to challenge him.’ ‘And you saw him close up, I hope?’ ‘No, he was some way off by the time Cross mentioned him and had his hat pulled down over his eyes and a scarf over his mouth.’ ‘It’s a cold day and a traveller might cover up against it, I suppose.’ And why trail a schoolgirl back to Farenze Lodge when a few casual questions would reveal her mother was only housekeeper here? And why would Verity Wheaton’s location matter to anyone but her mother, after all the years when nobody outside the household took any notice of either of them? ‘His beast had some Arab in him though, m’lord, and if the man wasn’t dressed like a farmer I’d have to call him a gentleman.’ ‘Keep a lookout for him and I’ll have the watch doubled at night. If Miss Wheaton or my daughter ride out again, please make sure you or Seth stay with them and go armed, Josh, just in case,’ Luke ordered with a frown. ‘Be discreet about it; the fewer people who know the better since I don’t want panic breaking out, or the man scared off before we find out what he’s up to.’ ‘Trust me not to blab,’ Josiah said, looking offended anyone might think he could, let alone Luke who’d known him since he was set on his first pony at Darkmere while still in short coats. ‘Aye, of course I do,’ Luke said with a wry grin and sent him back to the stables with orders to keep an eye on those who came and went on what would be a busy day for them all. Luke intended to catch the man haunting Verity Wheaton and challenge him, so why was a prickle of apprehension sliding down his spine like ice water? He didn’t know the girl, had only set eyes on her a few times since she was a baby. Yet Eve had taken to her instantly and Chloe adored her, so how could he not be furious at any man who might try to harm or bother the child? He would feel so about any girl, he reassured himself, and it was probably true, given the appalling hazards that could stalk a child as distinctive as Verity Wheaton. She had her own version of the striking colouring he found so irresistible in her mother. Her hair was closer to blonde and her eyes a paler blue than her mother’s stormy ones, but they shared the same fine-boned build and heart-shaped faces; the same fierce intelligence as well, he suspected, and some of the mother’s stubborn will and pride had been passed on to her child, if Verity’s determination to be with her mother at this sad time was any indication. Luke frowned and decided he must make time to ask Chloe about Verity’s father sooner than he wanted to. Until then he’d trust Josiah’s sharp eyes and Eve’s company as well as his own vigilance to keep the child safe while her mother was managing his house and seemed barely to have time to eat, let alone sleep soundly. * * * A few hours later Chloe and the maids stopped work and wrapped themselves up in shawls and mittens before going out on the balustrade roof to watch the funeral cortège wind its way towards the church where the fifth Viscount Farenze was buried. The sombre procession went in and out of sight as it crossed the park and Chloe wished she could attend the service. As she was a female and a housekeeper with a house to prepare for cold and sorry mourners to return to, she bowed her head and recited the Twenty-Third Psalm and the Lord’s Prayer in memory of their beloved mistress and silently wished her ladyship Godspeed with all her heart. When that was done they watched with tears in their eyes when the horses were taken out of their harness so the male servants and estate workers could drag the sombre rig the last stretch to the church instead. Chloe nearly sobbed as unguardedly as the maids at the sight of such love and devotion to a wonderful woman. She took a deep breath instead and handed out snowy squares of soft cotton and salvaged linen to those who had forgotten their handkerchiefs and hugged Verity close as they said a private goodbye to Lady Virginia. They stayed in the chilly winter sunshine until a crush of nobility and gentry left the tiny church while the tomb was opened inside and Virginia’s closest family and friends saw her laid beside her beloved Virgil. Only then did Chloe order the staff downstairs to get Farenze Lodge ready for the mourners’ return and all the rituals of this solemn winter day. Bran’s militant look at her former charge told Chloe she wanted her ewe lamb out of the frigid January air as urgently as she did Verity, but at that moment a robin began to sing as if its life depended on it from the top of an old holly tree nearby. Neither of them could bring themselves to scold the girls for avoiding the ladies who were gathered about the fire in the grand drawing room sighing and reading their prayerbooks after that. They went downstairs with the echo of that joyful song in their ears, a last serenade to a woman who had always lived life so richly and loved so well. * * * ‘I’m glad Lady Virginia made it clear she didn’t want a grand formal fuss when she died. Miss Eve will miss her too much to want to play hostess to half the county as if she’d only lost her pet canary, with her being as close to her ladyship as she always was,’ Bran observed to Chloe over tea in the housekeeper’s room several hours later. ‘She did it very well, but she’s too young to endure much more formality today and Lady Virginia’s real friends know it. By leaving as soon as they decently could they took the rest with them by sheer force of will, which is why they were Lady Virginia’s friends in the first place, I suppose,’ Chloe replied as she eased her aching feet on to the footstool and blessed the comfort of a fire of her own. The demands of the last few hours seemed to crowd in all over again and she wondered if she’d forgotten some small but vital detail. ‘I thought Lady Bunting and the Squire and his wife would never leave, though.’ ‘And I wondered if that dratted Mrs Winterley would ever stop eating,’ Bran said with a grimace. ‘But, Bran, “in a well-regulated household there would be more sugar in the plum cake and less salt in the cheese scones”,’ Chloe parodied the lady wickedly. ‘That didn’t prevent Mrs Winterley eating vast quantities of both while telling anyone who would listen how prostrated she was by grief.’ ‘Fat old hypocrite,’ Bran said as she lay back in her chair and closed her eyes. ‘I can’t argue, although I know I should,’ Chloe replied as the warmth of the room and her own deep weariness tugged at her conviction she still had a deal to do before she dared try to sleep again. ‘You’re a bad influence on me, Bran,’ she said drowsily. ‘Someone needed to be,’ her new friend declared and opened her shrewd eyes as if she’d only been pretending to be half-asleep. ‘It’s high time you learnt to live again, young woman,’ she said, as if she could see into Chloe’s heart and all the bitter memories she didn’t want to face. ‘I could say the same about you.’ ‘I did all the living and loving I ever shall with a man before Miss Eve was born. My Joe is buried at sea on the other side of the world and I’ll have no other, but you deserve better than life seems to have handed you so far.’ ‘No, I don’t,’ Chloe said shortly, even as a picture of Luke Winterley flitted into her mind, laughing and at ease as nature intended him to be and murmured, But aren’t I better than you imagined in your wildest dreams before you met me? ‘Then perhaps he does,’ Bran said. Chloe’s heartbeat had accelerated at the thought of him and the way all the longings she wished she could kill shivered through her body whenever the wretched man was in the same room. It must have shown in her eyes. ‘He needs more than I can give,’ Chloe said and closed her eyes again in the hope it might put paid to such a painful topic of conversation. All her normal defences felt so weak it was as if her emotions were about to spill over in a disastrous flood. ‘More tea?’ she asked with a brightness they both knew was false and Bran nodded obligingly and let the painful topic of Mrs Wheaton’s feelings for her noble master drop, with a look that said this wasn’t the time for an argument, but her new friend would have to confront those feelings sooner or later. * * * Chloe was glad Mrs Winterley and the other ladies favoured the state rooms as the early January dusk began to darken the skies outside and most of the gentlemen congregated in the billiard room. They couldn’t divert themselves with a game on such a day ,but seemed comforted by the idea that Virginia would have told them to forget such flummery and get on with it and most of them were avoiding the drawing room and the low-voiced gossip that was all the ladies could indulge in as dusk came down on this solemn day. It seemed a good time to place the little vase of snowdrops someone had snatched a moment to gather earlier and she had only now found time to arrange with a few sprigs of wintersweet. The gardeners always forced as many spring flowers as they could to bloom early, since Virginia delighted in the bravest of the spring ones to remind them winter wouldn’t last for ever. Sooner or later she would have to stop behaving as if Virginia might walk into a room and exclaim at such a simple luxury and ask about a gardener’s elderly mother, or perhaps his wife being close to her time, when one of them came to hand the flowers over. Chloe thought it a shame to kill off Virginia’s routine and make her loss even harder to bear. She did her best not to make things worse than they must already feel when the speechless, grief-stricken head gardener came to the door with this tribute to his employer and old friend and simply nodded her sincere thanks and told him how beautiful and hopeful they seemed in the depths of winter. ‘Oh, heavens! I didn’t see you there, my lord, but why on earth are you sitting in the dark?’ she gasped now, shocked when he rose from the chair by the window where Virginia often sat to catch the best light for her book. ‘Because I enjoy sitting in the dark?’ he replied wryly, but she heard the flat weariness in his voice and somehow couldn’t make herself walk away. ‘I doubt it,’ she said as her eyes grew accustomed to the gloom and instinct warned her to plunk the vase down and leave. ‘You’re right,’ he said gruffly and she wondered if he didn’t want her to see tears in his supposedly steely gaze when he turned his head away. ‘How gratifying for me; good evening, my lord.’ ‘No, stay,’ he asked, again in that rough voice as if he couldn’t find the energy to smooth it into any sort of gentlemanly restraint right now. ‘You know I can’t,’ she murmured as she sank on to the chair closest to his and folded her hands to stop them reaching to him as if by right. ‘Don’t speak of “can’t” today.’ ‘I have to,’ she argued, gripping her fingers more tightly together to stop them soothing his lean cheek, or ruffling the stern discipline he’d imposed on his unruly raven locks in his great-aunt’s honour. ‘Virginia wasn’t a great one for rules and conventions,’ he replied with tension in his voice that said he wanted human contact, too, even if he hadn’t moved since she sat down. ‘I imagine she was as determined not to be confined by them as a young woman as she was when I knew her.’ ‘She was a rogue, or so her sisters said before she outlived them all,’ he said with such pride and love for his late great-aunt by marriage in his voice Chloe felt herself melting from the inside out. ‘So many people loved her for it that it makes you wonder if being correct and ever ready to criticise, as I remember her sisters being when I first came here, is the way to live a good life after all. They used to visit and sniff and carp at her for simply having me and Verity in the house, let alone employing me as her companion-housekeeper.’ Chloe shifted uncomfortably in her seat as she recalled he’d been almost as critical once he found out about that act of kindness himself, but perhaps he’d decided this wasn’t the day to have too good a memory. ‘I think when she and Virgil wed, Virginia gave up scandalising society one way, so she was determined to find as many ways of confounding its prejudices in other ones as she could.’ ‘You think of me as one of her rebellions, then?’ ‘Perhaps at first—later even I could see that you and your daughter were more to her than a whim to infuriate her sisters and any stuffy neighbours she wanted to annoy. She needed you almost as much as you did her. She would have been an excellent mother and would have doted on any grandchildren who followed in her children’s footsteps.’ ‘Instead she was a wonderful friend and mentor to me and so many others society would like to turn its collective nose up at and ignore.’ ‘You were not a charity cases, but a good and dear friend to her; allow me that much insight today, even if we must pretend to be enemies again tomorrow.’ ‘I know, I am sorry,’ she said softly. He smiled at her unguarded apology and they sat in companionable silence for a few wonderful moments, as if they understood each other too well to need words. ‘Virginia was the product of another age,’ he finally said with a sigh, ‘but even she wouldn’t have been quite so eager to break the rules if she knew it would reflect back on her progeny.’ ‘No, I suppose she didn’t have a daughter of her own to make those rules real for her. It colours everything when your own reputation affects another’s whole life so drastically,’ Chloe agreed with a hearty sigh of her own. ‘As those girls of ours both changed our lives?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Sooner or later we must talk about it,’ he warned. ‘No, your daughter is your business; mine is hers and mine alone. We have nothing to discuss, my lord.’ ‘Yet we must talk about it all the same,’ he said as implacably as he could, when he sounded as if grief and weariness were weighing him down too heavily to face a confrontation now. ‘Not if I can help it we won’t,’ she muttered under her breath, but he heard her in the intimate gloom of the dark room. Only a glow from the banked-down fire was left to show them their thoughts and feelings now the light had faded, but when he wanted to he could read her like a book. ‘Do you remember the day we first met?’ he asked sneakily. All of a sudden the gloom of a January dusk was gone and they were bathed in summer heat again, her most disreputable bonnet was hanging down her back and his bright, curious gaze sharpened on this new phenomenon tramping her way up his great-aunt’s drive. She had just paid a visit to her little daughter at the wet-nurse’s neat cottage on the Farenze Lodge Estate and she was buoyed up by the hope Verity was finally going to be big enough to come home with her next week. The world seemed a light and happy place that fateful summer day, then she had looked up and met a pair of complicated masculine grey eyes and a fluttery feeling of excitement joined the hope that was rekindling in her after a long winter. ‘Where are you going to, my pretty maid?’ he’d asked as lightly as if he hadn’t a care in the world, for once in his too-responsible life, either. ‘I’m off to London to see the Queen,’ she’d said, suddenly as giddy as a girl as she tossed her fiery gold curls out of her eyes and refused to regret they were wild and tumbling down her back for once. ‘Can I come?’ he’d said and that was it, her heart had opened to him. Dark-haired, smiling Viscount Farenze’s eyes promised her impossible things as they met as the equals they should have been and were no more. ‘Too well,’ she admitted sombrely now, the memory of all they should have been to each other in her eyes as she stared into the fire to avoid his. There were no pictures of unattainable castles in Spain hidden in the complex depths of it. She’d spent ten years convincing that hopeful girl there could be nothing between Viscount Farenze and Verity Wheaton’s mother, so how could there be? ‘If only things had been different for us, then and now,’ she added regretfully and thought she heard a gruff groan, hastily suppressed, at the thought of what could have been, without their daughters and their duty to make it impossible. ‘It’s time we stopped pretending we’re nothing to each other, Mrs Wheaton.’ ‘No, it’s our best protection. My Verity and your Eve will always make it impossible for us to be other than master and servant and you know it. Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s been a long day and you must be weary and eager to have it over and done with,’ she said with a would-be humble nod. She could only just see his shadowed face and his white shirt and collar and stark black necktie through the deepening darkness. A lot of her longed for the right to move closer; feel cool linen and hot man under her spread palms; offer him comfort nobody else could give on this sorry day and take some in return. It was a right she’d relinquished the day Verity was born, so she hid her hands in her midnight skirts and waited for the words of dismissal that would set them free of this fiery frustration, for now. Chapter Nine (#u6f8342fc-d01f-5b15-a7d4-df133dc7c5f4) ‘I am tired,’ Luke Winterley admitted with a sigh, as if it was a weakness he was rightly ashamed of, and tenderness for his manly conviction she had no right to feel threatened to undermine her aloofness. ‘Despite your attempts to prove otherwise, you are only human, my lord. You need a proper night’s sleep after your hard and hasty journey, last night’s vigil and all you have had to endure today,’ Chloe replied. ‘I haven’t enjoyed one of those under this roof from the first day I set eyes on you,’ he snapped, as if she was an idiot to suggest he might now. She’d offered him the only warmth and understanding she decently could and he’d thrown it back at her as if it revolted him, drat the man, but he could stand apart from the rest of humanity with her blessing. ‘I will get back to my duties,’ she said, snatching back the hand she hadn’t known she’d stretched out as if he’d scalded it. ‘Before God, woman, I could shake you until your teeth rattle,’ he gritted between what sounded like clenched teeth. ‘Because I speak sense and keep a cool head? If so, you’re a fool.’ ‘Then let’s see how idiotic I can be, shall we? Then maybe next time you will take a warning in the spirit it is meant,’ he said in a husky voice and sounded so brusque her mouth twisted in a wobbly smile. He was my Lord Farenze at his most bearlike and made her feel emotions no other man had ever stirred. Her fingers itched to test his athlete’s body and fallen-angel features; to curl themselves into that overlong raven mane of his and tug him down to meet her mouth with his kiss; to discover anew he was as addictive to the touch as to the rest of her senses. Temptation made her senses flex, stretch and luxuriate in the promise of him. How familiar and seductive and dangerous it was. To be part of something with him was almost as irresistible as the physical fact of him and his ill humour at not being able to freeze her out of his life as he clearly wanted to. Heat flashed through her like sheet lightning; her breathing went shallow as her heartbeat raced and she leaned towards him to... No! Her body was as wrong now as it was ten years ago. She’d felt such yearning need to be passionately loved back then it was little wonder bitter, guarded, dashingly handsome Lord Farenze unleashed wild dreams in her that ought to be dead and done with. He still could, simply by being here, but her world could never be well lost for love. She had a daughter who must come before him, and her, and everything else in Chloe’s life. Anything that smirched Chloe’s reputation would make Verity less in the eyes of the world. Yet every time she fought this battle it was harder, as if this darling bear of a man was wound so tight into her senses she would never be free of the feel and look and touch of him, that faint scent of masculine cologne and Luke Winterley. All of him, gruff and smooth, tender and sharp, was caught into her heart so securely that she only had to scent that cologne to be aware of him as a lover until her dying day. No, she must win her battle one last time and then she would be free of temptation for ever. The thought of never seeing him again made tears sting her eyes. How could she not pity herself all the long years with not even the sight of him ahead? A voice whispered, Giving in to what you both need won’t hurt this once, but it lied. Never to see him again, never to feel him and his mighty body respond to her after they threw caution to the four winds and indulged in the unimaginable luxury of loving for one short night? Verity had been enough to make her step back and say no before and must keep being so, because one night would never be enough. ‘No, my lord, we could make a fine pair of fools of each other together, but I’ve worked hard to be the respectable woman I am now, despite the gossip and doubts you and so many others had when I came here with a babe in my arms. I can’t give in to improper advances from so-called gentlemen like you and waste all that effort now,’ she said with a careless smile meant to lessen the tension. ‘Do you think me such a rake I might take what isn’t freely given?’ he demanded, refusing to let her joke them out of something that really wasn’t funny. ‘I have never chased the maids or tried to sneak kisses from a poor governess who can’t fight back and I never will,’ he snapped and marched over to glare at the glowing fire as if he couldn’t endure being so close any longer. ‘I’m sure you’re all that’s noble, but you’re the one who has always insisted I’m in danger of causing gossip and scandal by staying here.’ ‘You’re not a servant,’ he snapped. ‘Try telling that to your guests, or indeed to the other servants.’ ‘We both know you’ve been masquerading as a companion, or a housekeeper, or whatever act you and Virginia settled on to fool the world with. If you were truly born to be even an upper servant, I wouldn’t have come near you other than as your employer, but you make it open season for me to hunt down the truth and force you to face it. No, wait and hear me out, woman, I must know who you truly are, before someone else finds you out and we must marry to right your good name.’ ‘I’d never ask such a sacrifice and stop sorting through my life to divert yourself from your grief. Or is that too much for a housekeeper to ask of a lord?’ Despising herself for the wobble in her voice, Chloe felt a terrible weariness weigh her down. Resolving to resist him until she rode down the drive for the last time on the carrier’s cart with all her luggage was sapping her strength, as even the disturbed nights and dark days they’d suffered here of late had not been able to do. It felt as if a cloud of feathers were falling on her as his concerned voice came and went over the beat of her suddenly thundering heart. ‘I’m not sure, but sit down before you fall over,’ he barked as he dashed over to scoop her up before she could do exactly that. After last night she knew how seductive it felt to let someone care for her, to feel his gentle touch on her forehead and lean into his powerful masculine body while she regained her own strength after the weary days while Virginia lay dying. She was tempted to let go and simply allow him to hold the world at bay for her for once. ‘I’m quite all right,’ she murmured, willing away the faint that would make her weak with the very last man in the world she should be weak with. ‘Of course, you’re so well you snatch sleep in half-hour parcels and nearly faint from grief and whatever else you’re worrying about rather than confide in me. I can see how robust you are, Mrs Wheaton. Rude health is written all over your ashen face and painted under your shadowed eyes.’ ‘Why not make me feel worse and tell me how haggish I look?’ she asked, as if her appearance mattered when her whole world was falling apart once more. Somehow it did though, when he was the one looking at her. Chloe enjoyed the luxury of meeting his gaze, once he was satisfied she could sit up without his help and he crouched down in front of her so she didn’t have to crane her neck. It felt as intimate as when he held her in his arms and did his best to scout her demons last night. ‘Can’t you see that I need to help you?’ he ground out as if it hurt to admit it. ‘Whatever we can or can’t be to one another, I can’t let you wander off into the wide world alone, as if it doesn’t matter a jot to me what happens after you leave here.’ ‘I won’t be alone,’ she protested, his gruff sincerity tugging at her resolution. ‘Virginia told me she has set aside a sum to cover your daughter’s education and a small income to fall back on if she ever needs it. She wouldn’t leave you to worry yourself to flinders by keeping that secret, so will you be returning to your family now you don’t need to support your daughter?’ ‘There’s nobody to go back to,’ she admitted. ‘Then you have no family?’ ‘None who cares what becomes of me or Verity,’ she said wearily. ‘Someone is damnably curious about your daughter then. Birtkin thought the coach was followed back from Bath,’ he said. Chloe frowned at the idea, then dismissed it as foolish. Her father was dead and her brothers wouldn’t bother to track her down, let alone Verity. ‘My family would take no interest in us, even if they knew where we were,’ she said. ‘Tell me who they are and I’ll make them take one,’ he said with such arrogant determination she only just managed to stop herself reaching up to kiss him. ‘They are as dead to me as I am to them,’ she said, finding she couldn’t sit and let him confuse her secrets out of her any longer. Her turn to march up and down the room now, her faintness forgotten. ‘And I will never go where my daughter is not welcome,’ she told him when her circuit brought them close again. ‘Then she is a love child?’ he asked with surprising gentleness, and no judgement in his voice, as he stopped her by standing in front of her and making it impossible to go on without brushing against his muscular strength in the shadows. Chloe ached to avoid his question by taking that step, but Verity and all the reasons why not forbade it. She hugged herself defensively instead, not sure if she was keeping hurt out or the pain of denying them in. ‘I don’t know,’ she said unwarily, so agitated by the hurt of forever denying them each other that the truth slipped out unguarded. ‘No, that’s wrong, of course I know. I know only too well,’ she said too loudly. ‘She’s not yours, is she?’ he said with all the implications of that fact dawning in his now furious gaze. ‘Is she?’ he demanded harshly, as if lying to him was a bigger sin than bearing Verity out of wedlock, as he’d always half-suspected she had done, would have been. ‘Yes,’ she insisted and it was true. ‘Verity is my daughter.’ ‘And I’m the Archbishop of Canterbury,’ he scoffed. She shrugged and turned to stare sightlessly out of the window, looking from almost darkness into even more of it, as she tried to ignore the furious male presence at her back. Instead of all-too-real Lucius Winterley, she saw a dark mirror image of him in the shining panes in front of her. Even the small amount of light in the room made a sharp contrast to the darkness outside and their reflection showed her a plain and pale female of very little account and the mighty man she could have had in her life, if she didn’t have a child to put before everyone else. He was brooding and intense and utterly unforgettable; the shadow image of the man she didn’t want to love. Nobody would ever need to search their memory to remind themselves if Lord Farenze was at a certain event; he was someone you couldn’t ignore even when you wanted to. ‘I don’t care who you are, Verity’s my daughter,’ she lied. ‘As Eve is Bran’s daughter in every way but fact, I know Verity is yours,’ he said with that new gentleness in his voice. ‘You took on even more than Bran when you accepted Verity as your own, for whatever reason you felt you must.’ ‘There was no choice. She is my child.’ ‘Don’t take me for a flat any longer. I’ve been one for the ten years I stayed away from you for her benefit as well as your own. Now I see why there was such fury in your eyes when you first told me to take my dishonourable intentions straight to hell all those years ago, such a steely need in you to keep you and your child safe at whatever cost. I suppose going back home would mean admitting you’d failed.’ ‘No, there is no going back. Verity would have been left on the doorstep of the nearest foundling hospital on a bitter night like this one if I let them get their hands on her. If I even wanted to go back now, they would find a way to rid themselves of her the moment I took my eyes off them,’ she told him, the defiance, hurt and grief she’d felt after their reception of the fact Verity had survived her rough birth sounding harsh in her voice at that terrible truth. ‘I doubt they would have brought themselves to carry out such an inhuman scheme, whatever threats were made in the heat of the moment,’ he said as if she had taken Verity and stolen away on some childish whim. ‘Exposing unwanted babies to the elements, given even the slim chance they might be found and raised to some sort of life by the parish, is an everyday sin in a world that despises tiny children for the mistakes of their parents,’ she said bitterly. ‘So, yes, they refuted her as coldly as an unwanted kitten and would have dealt with her as lightly if I had let them,’ she said, refusing to spare him when she had all the details of Verity’s terrible beginning etched on her memory, to live with for the rest of her life as best she could. ‘Why did her mother sit by and let you take her babe?’ he prompted so gently she let the information past her numb lips before her mind could leap in and argue he should not know so much about them. ‘Her mother was my twin sister and she died in childbed,’ she told him, the sorrow of it heavy in her heart, memory so vivid it could have happened yesterday. He knew so much she hadn’t wanted anyone to know now, at least until Verity was old enough to hear the truth. She wondered if that day would ever come when all it could bring her was sadness at the fact Daphne refused to name the father of her child, even as she lay dying. ‘The other half of you,’ Luke said, as if he knew the bond of twins was tighter than that between ordinary siblings. ‘We weren’t identical,’ she said with a wobbly smile as she recalled the many differences between herself and Daphne, despite that shared birthday. ‘I can’t tell you how shocked everyone was when it was the quiet and angelic twin who threatened to disgrace the family name, not the one they always predicted would come to a bad end. From the day we were born Daphne was the sweet little angel to my devil, although she was as capable of mischief as I was. We argued and fought like cat and dog at times in private and she sometimes let me take the blame for our sins because I looked as if I deserved it. I supposed one of us might as well be punished as both.’ ‘And yet you truly shared your sins about equally?’ ‘More or less,’ she admitted cautiously. ‘You were the dog with the bad name being hanged for it, were you not?’ he asked as if he already knew she’d taken curses and blows for her sister more often than for herself, because somehow she needed the good opinion of others far less than her sister had done. ‘What if I was? We had each other and precious little attention from anyone but our nurse after our mother died. Daphne made it up to me by bringing food and books when they were forbidden me, or thinking up a new adventure to distract us from my latest punishment. I wasn’t a saint and we were both heedless and unruly. I expect the aunts were right to say we were a sad burden to them and our brothers are much older than us. They blamed us for our mother’s death, although Mama didn’t die until we were five, so that’s about as logical as blaming Verity for whatever sins Daphne committed. Oh, don’t look at me like that, I’m not so innocent I don’t know she had a lover, but I never caught her out in an assignation, saw a love note passed to her, or overheard a furtive greeting to give me a clue who he was.’ Hearing herself saying far too much again, Chloe forced her mind back into the present and glared at him for luring her into a past she still found it hard to revisit. ‘What of your father?’ he asked blandly, as if they were engaged in polite conversation instead of talking about the upending of her young life. ‘What of him?’ she said, wondering how different hers and Daphne’s lives might have been if their father loved them half as much as Luke did his daughter. ‘Where was he in all this?’ ‘Away. He used to claim he couldn’t abide the sight of us because we were such a painful reminder of our mother, but I found out later he’d installed a mistress in his town house before she was even cold in her grave. Whatever the truth, he spent his time in London or Brighton, or at his main seat in Northamptonshire where his daughters were not permitted to join him. Until we threatened to bring such disgrace on him even he couldn’t ignore us, we rarely saw him from one year to the next.’ ‘What did he do when he recalled the twin daughters he’d left to raise themselves as best they could?’ Oh, but he was good at this, Chloe decided, even as she heard herself answer as if nothing stood between her ears and her tongue. ‘He came back,’ she said with a shudder. She hugged herself even tighter to ward off the terrible day of his return. ‘I suppose he would have to, once your sister was with child.’ She rounded on him to rage at his insensitivity, but he bewildered her before the words could leave her mouth by stripping off his viscount-warmed superfine coat and wrapping her in the heat of his body by proxy. ‘You’ll be cold,’ she protested even as she snuggled into the seductive smoothness of the silk lining and warmth of him and breathed in the unique scent of clean man and lemon water and sandalwood. ‘I’m a tough northerner, don’t forget,’ he argued with a wry smile. How could she not want him when he stood there, so completely masculine and would-be cynical, and made her heart turn over with wanting this unique man in her life? In his shirtsleeves it was impossible to ignore the width of his shoulders and the lean strength of his mature body. She could imagine him at twenty, the young husband of a silly little débutante without the sense to see what a fine man she’d wed, and wondered how they would have gone on if they had met when she was young and impulsive and silly and married each other instead. Impossible, Chloe; he’s almost nine years older than you are and was a father and a widower before you left the schoolroom, she chided herself, yet she couldn’t get the idea out of her head that, if he’d only waited for her to grow up, everything could be so different for them now. At six and twenty to her seventeen and steady as the rock his northern eyrie stood upon, he would have been steadfast as granite when Daphne’s loneliness and need for love and approval brought the world tumbling down on the Thessaly twins. A pipe dream, she dismissed that fantasy of love and marriage with him, and did her best to see them as others would. She shivered again at the thought of the sneers and jeers that would greet the revelation they’d been closeted in this room so long and only talked of past sins, not committed a whole pack of new ones. ‘Come closer to the fire,’ he urged gently at the sight of her apparently still feeling as cold as charity. He couldn’t know it was the temptation of him that made her seek occupation for her hands, lest they reached for him. In his pristine white linen shirt, with that simply elegant black-silk waistcoat outlining his narrow waist so emphatically by the glow of the fire he had stirred into stronger life for her, he was temptation incarnate. How she longed to wrap her arms about him and be held until the pain and grief abated. She told herself it was nothing more than the concern he would feel for any girl left so alone that was softening his hawk-like features. He had a young daughter and felt for her plight when she faced such a stark choice between her old life and Verity’s death. More than likely he would have opted to rescue Daphne if he’d met them in their hour of need. She was appalled by the jealousy that blazed through her at the idea of him in thrall to her sister’s angelic blonde looks and easy smiles. Apparently there was something that could make her hate her sister for being so lovely and needy after all, or rather someone. Chloe felt ashamed that Luke Winterley meant more to her than her twin had done. Until she met Verity’s furious gaze the first time and became a mother, despite the facts, this man could have meant more to her than any man should to a girl of such notoriously rackety lineage as hers. Chapter Ten (#u6f8342fc-d01f-5b15-a7d4-df133dc7c5f4) ‘Do you think that just once during our acquaintance you could be sensible and come here to get yourself properly warm, Mrs Wheaton?’ he barked in fine Lord Farenze style and set her rocking world back on an even keel. It felt so familiar, his lord-of-all-I-survey guise, that she came back to the present and found she liked it a lot better than the past that had haunted her for so long, despite not being able to be more to him in it than she already was. ‘I should give your coat back and leave,’ she managed with a weak smile for the man now glowering at her with such impatient concern he could break her heart. ‘Flim-flam,’ he asserted with a wave of his hand that dismissed convention and the rules of master and servant as if they didn’t exist. ‘The important thing is for me to know who you really are, so I can make your idiot of a father realise what he’s done and put it right. He should at least grant you an income so you may bring up your niece as the lady you truly are, instead of standing by with his hands in his pockets. Virginia may have relieved him of the need to provide for his grandchild, but he has a duty to his remaining daughter, whether he likes it or not.’ Конец ознакомительного фрагмента. Текст предоставлен ООО «ЛитРес». Прочитайте эту книгу целиком, купив полную легальную версию (https://www.litres.ru/elizabeth-beacon/the-regency-season-scandalous-awakening-the-viscount-s-fr/?lfrom=334617187) на ЛитРес. Безопасно оплатить книгу можно банковской картой Visa, MasterCard, Maestro, со счета мобильного телефона, с платежного терминала, в салоне МТС или Связной, через PayPal, WebMoney, Яндекс.Деньги, QIWI Кошелек, бонусными картами или другим удобным Вам способом.
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