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The Rake of Hollowhurst Castle Elizabeth Beacon Sir Charles Afforde: the infamous devilish rake has purchased Hollowhurst Castle lock, stock and barrel. All that is left to possess is the castle’s determined and beautiful chatelaine.Roxanne Courland: her youthful, romantic dreams of Charles were shattered long ago, and this unconventional country miss would rather stay a spinster than enter a loveless marriage… Only this rake’s devastatingly sensual onslaught is impossible to resist! ‘Something tells me you are truly wild at heart. Do you secretly prefer recklessly courting danger to pretending respectability, Miss Courland?’ ‘Don’t presume to know me,’ she snapped back, much tried and confused by her own reactions to the veiled threat in his husky voice. ‘Then discovering your secrets will add spice to the game, my dear,’ he mused. About the Author 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. Previous novels by the same author: AN INNOCENT COURTESAN HOUSEMAID HEIRESS A LESS THAN PERFECT LADY CAPTAIN LANGTHORNE’S PROPOSAL REBELLIOUS RAKE, INNOCENT GOVERNESS The Rake of Hollowhurst Castle Elizabeth Beacon www.millsandboon.co.uk (http://www.millsandboon.co.uk) To my cousin, Jude Taylor, with love and thanks for your encouragement and enthusiasm. This one’s for you so I hope you like it! Chapter One Roxanne Courland stood in the bay of delicately leaded windows that lit the drawing room of Hollowhurst Castle and watched darkness overtake the gloriously unimproved gardens. Soon the quaint old topiary would become a series of unearthly shapes and the holly grove the blackest of shadows. Rumours about the grove being planted by witches, whose terrible curses would fall on anyone unwary enough to visit it after dark, were rife in the surrounding villages. Roxanne thought such tall tales had been invented to frighten the maids away from temptation, though, and wondered if such cunning tactics still worked in the year of Our Lord eighteen hundred and eighteen. Not that it would make an ideal trysting place, of course, but once upon a time she’d have waited all night long for a lover among its spiky darkness, if he’d only asked her to. Silly, impressionable Rosie Courland and her elder sisters had hidden in its shelter to catch their first glimpse of the guests their brother had invited for Christmas ten years ago, because it was close on midnight and even her elder sister Joanna should have been in bed hours before. How different that joyful season had been at the giddy age of fourteen, she thought now, her heart sore at the likelihood of spending another festive season in splendid isolation. Then she’d been so excited she could barely stop herself squeaking with anticipation as she shifted from one foot to the other in the snow, her boots gradually getting wetter and her feet colder, despite her restlessness. ‘For pity’s sake keep still, Rosie,’ seventeen-year-old Joanna had hissed furiously at her. But keeping still was something elderly people like her sisters did, along with not running and never arguing with one’s elders, even if they were wrong and needed to know it. ‘It’s prickly and dark in here, as well as freezing cold. Why can’t we hide in the oaks by the Solar Tower, or up the Tower for that matter?’ she complained half-heartedly. ‘Because you can’t see the drive, of course, and there’s no leaves on the oak trees to hide us from anyone who heard a squeak from you and swung their lantern in our direction, you silly, infuriating child,’ Maria told her scornfully, ever ready to trumpet her two years’ superiority in age over her annoying little sister. ‘Silly child yourself, maybe you can’t see much from the ground over there, but we could have climbed the oaks, or even looked out from the roof with Grandpapa’s telescope. Nobody would see us up there in the dark at any rate and we’d be a lot more comfortable.’ ‘Someone would have caught us sneaking up the stairs the way you rattle on, even if we could see anything up there in the dark with one telescope between three of us. Anyway, I’m not climbing trees in the pitch darkness and Uncle Granger threatened to send you to school the last time you borrowed his spyglass and broke it, so have some sense, do. Either go inside and wait quietly in the warm like a good little girl, or stay here and stop moaning,’ Joanna had whispered impatiently, then gone back to staring fixedly at the avenue as if her life depended on seeing any sign of movement. ‘You’re both so stuffy since you started putting your hair up, I’m surprised you don’t petrify like that silly statue of Virtue in the library. All either of you ever do nowadays is talk about clothes and novels that make no sense at all and you strike the most ridiculous attitudes so the boys will admire you, when they’d like you a whole lot more if you stopped being so stupid.’ ‘She’s just a little girl who’s scared of the witches, Joanna, ignore her,’ Maria had urged. It would have felt better if she’d bothered to whisper a few witchy cackles and invented a bloodcurdling curse or two to frighten her away, but instead Maria had turned her back and taken Joanna’s arm, as if their annoying little sister was irrelevant. Roxanne had felt hurt and bewildered when her previously intrepid eldest sister became ever more remote and grown-up, then Joanna even began to agree with Maria’s constant criticisms rather than taking Roxanne’s part. If that was what growing up and falling in love did for you, she’d sworn to herself as she stood shivering in the shadows fighting off tears, she’d never commit such arrant folly. Coming back to the here and now, she recalled that resolution with a wry smile. It must have been the worst-kept vow in the long and eventful history of the Courlands of Hollowhurst, for just then Maria’s unusually sharp ears had detected the faintest jingle of a harness, and Roxanne had frozen into stillness as she heard how the sound of approaching voices carried uncannily across the deep snow. Not daring to move a muscle lest they be discovered and excluded from the Christmas feasts for standing in a snowdrift at twelve o’clock at night, all three sisters had stood like enchanted beings from some hoary legend and strained every sense toward the travellers. Their brother David, riding his prized grey gelding, had shown up first through the darkness and they had strained their eyes to see who was with him. Roxanne had heard her eldest sister’s involuntary gasp of pleasure and relief as she glimpsed Tom Varleigh’s chestnut hunter when the lodge-keeper Fulton’s lamp swung towards him; then Fulton turned back to guiding the young gentlemen up the drive, and Rosie had felt her heart thud in fear for the changes some instinct warned her were surely coming. Telling herself she was exasperated because Joanna had made far more noise than she, Rosie nudged her sister sharply to remind her where they were and what they were risking, and peered through the darkness to see if Davy had brought anyone else back from Cambridge with him. Then she forgot her apprehension, trying to make out the third rider when it became obvious not even two young gentlemen could make such a merry outcry on sighting journey’s end. Suddenly there was a blaze of light as the household within finally heard the sounds of horses’ hooves, and the ringing calls of young men at the end of a long and gruelling ride were carrying on the still air. Then a huge horse, as fell and powerful as the darkness itself, reared up at the unexpected bloom of lights and Rosie held her breath, expecting to see his rider plunge heavily into the nearest snowdrift. Instead, that remarkable young man controlled the great brute with an ease the fiery animal must have found near to insulting and only laughed at his antics. ‘Get down with you, Brutus, you confounded commoner,’ a voice as dark and distinctive as his mount rang out joyfully, as if his rider had enjoyed the tussle for supremacy that Brutus already seemed to know he’d lost from the half-hearted nature of his last trial of strength with his conqueror—until the next time. Rosie had watched with spellbound awe as the stranger mastered the curvetting horse with ease, then leapt out of the saddle as soon as the fiery beast was quiet and produced a carrot from the depths of his greatcoat pocket, which he bestowed on the huge black stallion with an affectionate pat. ‘He’s certainly not changed for the better since I was last in England,’ the young man had shouted cheerfully at Tom Varleigh, who was watching the show with an appreciative grin on his face. ‘Why d’you think I chose the chestnut when my father offered us the pick of his stable?’ Tom replied. ‘Because you have an unfriendly wish to see me summarily unshipped into the snow, dear cousin?’ the stranger said as part of his identity became clear to the girls, who strained to see and hear all. A cousin of well-connected Tom Varleigh, and he’d been overseas, probably with the military if the cut of that greatcoat was anything to go by. Rosie could practically hear Maria calculating his eligibility or otherwise to become her husband as soon as she could arrange it, and she had felt a primitive scream of denial rise just in time to hold it back and briefly wonder at herself, before her attention was once more fixed on the young man in front of them. ‘I’ve a far stronger one not to take a tumble myself,’ Tom had admitted. The tall stranger responded by laughing and picking up a handful of snow to throw at Tom. They had a fine snowball battle going and all three young men looked as if they really had fallen off their horses into the heavy drifts after all when Sir Granger Courland appeared in the wide doorway and laughed even more loudly than his youthful visitors at their boisterous antics. A smile lifted Roxanne’s wistfully curved lips now at that poignant memory of her great-uncle, enjoying his duties as master and host of Hollowhurst Castle to the full, even as she blinked back a tear that he was no longer here to do so. Uncle Granger had been born to welcome guests and throw open his generous hall to them, she decided, picturing his still tall figure that had grown a little stout over the years. Sir Granger’s hair had still been dark at sixty-five, even if his side-whiskers were grey, and his great voice could often be heard from one end of the hunting field to the other. He’d seemed so undimmed by the march of time while she was growing up that she’d made the mistake of thinking him indestructible. ‘Welcome, one and all, and the compliments of the season to you,’ he’d bellowed at the suddenly still group, she remembered, finding the past more attractive than the present again. ‘Whoever have you brought me, Davy? It’s not that Varleigh fellow we kept falling over at every turn last summer, is it?’ David had laughed and pulled Tom into the light, where he smiled sheepishly and earnestly said he hoped he hadn’t worn out his welcome. ‘Never, you’ll always find one by my fireside, lad—but who else do we have here? A circus rider, perhaps, or some damn-your-eyes cavalry officer?’ ‘Neither, sir, I’m Tom Varleigh’s cousin, and only a humble sailor. Your grand-nephew invited me here for the season out of the goodness of his heart.’ ‘Goodness of his heart? He hasn’t got any,’ Uncle Granger teased his heir, who was nearly as soft-hearted and hospitable as he was himself. ‘If he had, he’d have managed to get himself sent down weeks ago, for we all miss him sorely. Come on in, boy,’ he bellowed and the stranger obeyed, laughing at some unheard comment from his cousin Tom as he went. Once in front of the great doorway and almost within sight of a warm fire and a good meal after his long day, the stranger had taken off his sailor’s bi-corn and the flaring light lovingly picked up the brightness of his curly blond hair that reflected gold back at them. From her hiding place, Roxanne had strained to see every detail of his lithe figure; a totally novel admiration she didn’t truly understand making her drink in this splendid young man, from the wide grin on his tanned face to his travel-stained boots. He bowed elegantly to his host and presented himself to be duly inspected. The lamplight twinkled on the highly polished brass buttons and the single epaulette on his dark blue coat that indicated he was a lieutenant in his Majesty’s Navy, once he’d stripped off his wet greatcoat and presented it to the waiting footman. ‘Lieutenant Charles Afforde of the Trojan at your service, Sir Granger,’ he had said in that deep husky-toned voice that sent shivers down Rosie’s spine as she peered out of the darkness, as enthralled as if she truly was under the spell of some ancient sorceress. Little Rosie Courland had stood in her chilly hiding place and forgotten the cold and the spiny darkness, awed by every detail of this young demi-god as she fell youthfully and completely in love after all. She’d felt the deep, unknown thrill of it shiver right through her at the very thought of actually meeting such a splendid specimen of manhood instead of worshipping from afar. Miss Roxanne Courland recalled with a cynical grimace how underwhelmed he’d been by that meeting when it came and tried not to squirm for her youthful, deluded self, even as her memory insisted on drawing her back to that snowy night so long ago, as if intent on reminding her what folly extreme youth was capable of. ‘Didn’t know Samphire had a boy in the navy,’ her uncle had roared on, oblivious to the fact that his youngest great-niece had just had her world rebuilt by one careless smile into the snow-laden night from his unexpected guest. Roxanne remembered wondering how her great-uncle could be oblivious to such a momentous moment and smiled wryly at her childish self-importance. It had certainly felt unforgettable to the silly schoolroom miss who had stood and watched Lieutenant Charles Afforde hungrily that night, as if recalling every detail of his handsome face might one day save her life or change the orbit of the spheres. ‘He doesn’t, sir,’ the blond Adonis had admitted cheerfully. ‘The last earl was my grandfather and took me in as a scrubby brat, but I’m just a mere nephew to the new earl.’ ‘Well, any relative of old Pickle is welcome under my roof.’ ‘Thank you, sir, although my grandfather didn’t care to be reminded of that nickname in his latter years.’ ‘Grown too full of his own importance, had he?’ Sir Granger had roared gleefully. ‘I must tell you how richly he deserved it when you’re not frozen and tired half to death.’ ‘And I warrant that’s a tale that’ll make good listening,’ Charles Afforde had remarked laughingly. ‘That it will, m’boy,’ Uncle Granger had replied, ‘but come on inside, all three of you, so we can shut the doors. I prefer what warmth there is from the fires we light to try and keep this great barn warm kept inside instead of taking the chill off the park, my lads.’ With a quick glance of concern for his mount, Lieutenant Afforde had obviously decided he was as well, and as bad tempered, as ever, and left the animal to his host’s head groom so that he could enter the welcoming portals of Hollowhurst Castle with a light heart. For one moment he’d paused on the threshold and it seemed to Rosie Courland in her cold and prickly hiding place as if he had somehow seen all three of them, bunched together spellbound in the darkness as they watched the new arrivals play like boys, then be welcomed as men. That younger Roxanne had held her breath as if he might hear such a soft sound over the yards that separated them and decided that, one day, she was going to marry Charles Afforde, when she was properly grown up and beautiful and he’d become a great admiral, easily as famous as the great, much-mourned, Viscount Nelson. For that minute at least, she’d known that he had seen her and acknowledged their meeting was deeply significant to both of them. Even when he largely ignored her during that Christmas season in favour of Joanna, Maria and the vicar’s Junoesque eighteen-year-old daughter, she’d still been convinced he was amusing himself while he waited for her to be ready for marriage. She would wait for him, she’d decided with all the fervent passion of her headlong nature, but instead she’d grown up and discovered fairytales were just that. Roxanne’s lips twisted into a grimace of distaste and impatience at her young and over-romantic self. Sir Charles Afforde was indeed a lion nowadays; successful, courageous and independently wealthy from prize money and the family trust he’d finally taken control of, according to David’s sporadic letters. Then there was that baronetcy he’d won by his own efforts, bestowed on him by a grateful country for gallant service in the late wars. His elevated naval rank of commodore might revert to a mere captaincy when he was on land and no longer in command of his squadron, but no doubt at all he’d have been made admiral if he had stayed in the navy when Bonaparte was finally defeated, even if the Admiralty had had to promote a dozen senior officers to flag rank ashore on half-pay to give such a capable and proven captain his admiral’s flag. On the other hand, Miss Roxanne Courland had fulfilled her early promise by growing up to be as dark as the fashion was fair, and far too decided a character for the ridiculous mode that demanded a lady should pretend extreme sensibility and embrace idleness. Little wonder few gentlemen had the nerve to so much as dance with her, let alone lay their hands and hearts at her impatiently tapping feet. Just as well she’d long ago given up her secret dream of capturing Charles Afforde’s fickle heart then, for no doubt he’d choose a sophisticated beauty when he finally took a wife and not a countrified beanpole of four and twenty but, considering she doubted he possessed a heart to lose, wasn’t that just as well? She was happy enough as Aunt Roxanne now Joanna and her Tom Varleigh had made her so three times over; and she was just good old Rosie to her brother, the spinster sister who held the reins of Hollowhurst in her capable hands while he travelled to the furthest corners of the earth. So the real question was what on earth could that dashing hero Sir Charles Afforde want with her humble self? His letter lay on the delicate rosewood desk that she used for her correspondence and she cautiously considered it through the gathering darkness, as if to get closer might somehow conjure him up out of the dusky shadows. The wretched thing had done nothing but disturb her since it arrived two days ago, its terse content worrying away at her customary serenity until she was tempted to throw it in the fire and have done with him, even if she couldn’t bring herself to actually do it. Maybe something remained from the old days, then—not the illusion that she could tame the wild rover under all that rakish charm, but a dream dead and done with that was reminding her a much younger, ridiculously romantic Roxanne would probably hate the person she’d become. Chapter Two With an impatient sigh, Roxanne decided to put Sir Charles Afforde out of her mind until he called and told her what he actually wanted with her after so many years. There was plenty to divert her, after all, for times were hard since the end of the war and it was proving a struggle to keep Hollowhurst untouched by it all, and then there was Davy’s latest letter. She shivered, sensing something new and worrying behind her brother’s evasive reception of her ingenious solution to some vexing estate business. Instead of carelessly agreeing to anything she proposed as usual, Sir David Courland wrote instead of the many charms offered by his latest landfall. Despite the late war between Great Britain and the American States, he seemed very welcome in New England and wrote enthusiastically of its many beauties, particularly those of a certain Miss Philomena Harbury, whose virtues apparently knew no bounds. Her brother was obviously fathoms deep in love, and Roxanne hoped her family would not stand in their way. David might be a baronet and wealthy landowner, but his constant racketing about the world would make him a challenging husband, even without the fact of him owning Hollowhurst to ensure they would be parted from her kin by a vast ocean sooner or later, if he and his Philomena married. Given that the girl would have to give up so much to marry him, how could Roxanne expect the new Lady Courland to share her strange new home with a sister-in-law accustomed to ruling it unopposed? She’d learn to love Mulberry House, Roxanne reassured herself, picturing the neat and airy dwelling in Hollowhurst village that her uncle had purchased lest his nieces were unwed and now left to her because she was going to need it. The mistress of such a fine house would command respect in the area, as long as she learned to behave more like a lady and less like the lord of the manor. Yet she watched the quaint old gardens fade into darkness and sighed as she tried to visualise herself occupied with planning rosebeds, visiting her neighbours and good works. She’d have time to stay with her favourite aunts in Bath at last and at Varleigh with the ever-expanding Varleigh family, maybe even a duty visit at Balsover Granta with Maria, now Countess of Balsover, followed perhaps by the heady delights of London for the Season. Roxanne shook her head and wondered how she’d endure a life of idle uselessness. ‘You’re very lucky, my girl,’ she chided herself out loud. ‘You should be counting your blessings.’ ‘Should you indeed, Miss Courland?’ a deep voice spoke out of the darkness and nearly made her jump out of her skin. ‘I always considered that a sadly futile exercise when ordered to do so by my tutors.’ ‘Who the deuce are you?’ she snapped back, although she would have known his deep voice anywhere. ‘What a very good question,’ he replied, the devil-may-care grin she remembered so well becoming visible as well as audible when he stepped out of the shadows and into the dying light from the bay windows. ‘I remember you very well, ma’am, but no doubt I’ve faded into the mists of your memory by now. Charles Afforde, very much at your service, Miss Courland.’ ‘Sir Charles,’ she acknowledged absently, still struggling to settle the errant heartbeat the mere sound of his voice provoked. ‘Perhaps you remember me, after all, considering you take such a flattering interest in my humble career, Miss Courland?’ ‘My brother writes of you in his letters, and reports of your daring deeds reach us even in a backwater like Hollowhurst, Commodore Afforde.’ ‘The navy and I have parted company, so I don’t use my rank, and I was only ever a commodore when in command of my squadron, you know.’ ‘Do you miss it?’ she asked absently, then told herself crossly not to ask such personal questions on the strength of the merest acquaintance. ‘I beg your pardon, that was impertinent of me.’ ‘Not at all, our families have been friendly since before the Flood and your eldest sister is my cousin’s wife, so I think we may presume on both connections and friendship, don’t you? And the answer is, yes, I miss the limitless possibilities of the sea, but a battle is as grim a business at sea as on land and I’d been fighting them for far too long. They do say a true sailor only retires when he’s safely underground, or underwater, so life on shore might pall one day, I suppose.’ ‘So you’re giving shore life a try out, then?’ she replied sharply, for his easy assumption that he could spring up out of the shadows in her own home and be offered a warm welcome was annoying now the shock had abated. ‘You think me presumptuous perhaps, Miss Courland?’ he asked, apparently unmoved by her sarcasm. ‘I think you’re likely to be bored and disillusioned when the novelty wears off, Sir Charles.’ ‘You have become very frank in your opinions,’ he replied solemnly, but she could see enough of his expression through the gloom to know he was laughing at her. ‘And what a paltry fellow you do think me.’ ‘How could I when your deeds are trumpeted throughout the land? That would be presumptuous and ungracious, Captain.’ ‘Then why do I think you don’t care if I consider you a perfect lady or a hoyden, Miss Courland?’ ‘I really don’t know, why do you think so, sir? Could it be that you just walked into my home unannounced and strolled about as if you owned it? It would never do for me to be so lost to the claims of simple hospitality as to point out such a vast presumption on your part, now would it?’ ‘No, particularly now that I can’t stay here, as I planned, with you living alone in this scrambling fashion,’ he replied, the humour fading from his deep voice as he looked surprisingly stern in the shadowed light. ‘My mode of life is none of your concern.’ ‘Ah, but it is, Miss Courland. It’s of very material concern to me, since it currently stands between me and my new life.’ ‘Don’t be ridiculous. Nothing I do has an effect on the way you live your life, Sir Charles, and I think you’re fit for Bedlam if you believe it does.’ ‘Again, you are very frank,’ he said, such genial amusement in his deep voice that she wished she could forget she was a lady long enough to slap him. Then he sobered again and she saw he was eyeing her shadowy figure in the fading light. Her dark gown must be adding to the gathering gloom and her face probably appeared almost ghostly in the twilight, but that was no reason for him to stare at her as if trying to resolve a vexing riddle. ‘You haven’t heard from your brother lately, I take it?’ he asked softly at last and there was something in his voice that sounded almost like pity. She shivered in sudden fear as she tried to reassure herself all was well. ‘Not for several weeks,’ she finally admitted as if the words had been racked out of her. He was silent for a while as if pondering his next move and she refused to fill it with idle chatter when she hadn’t even invited him to walk into her brother’s drawing room and make himself at home. Anyway, she hated discussing her family with a man who was now a stranger, and the fact that she’d once heaped so many ridiculous hopes on his broad shoulders just made it worse. He was standing closer now and she’d be a fool not to notice he was more ridiculously handsome than ever. The careless glow of youth had left his face, along with any lingering innocence, and his features had hardened in maturity until he looked like a formidable Greek god—powerful Zeus instead of careless Apollo, perhaps. Yet he seemed almost impatient of his looks, although he probably made little enough effort to fight off the women who flirted with him whenever he ventured into society or the demi-monde, if rumour was true. No doubt the idiotic females lined up to be seduced by the smiling devil he was now, and they were welcome to him. Roxanne infinitely preferred the younger, less jaded Charles Afforde of a decade ago to this cynical rake. Colours were beginning to fade from the world along with the daylight, so she couldn’t tell if his eyes were as breathtakingly blue as ever, but they were certainly sharper and more disillusioned as he looked down at her as if trying to read her thoughts, which was one more good reason to keep him at arm’s length. The last thing she wanted was to become an open book to him, so he could amuse himself with a list of her peculiarities whenever he had an idle hour to spare. ‘I think you’ll find Davy’s life has changed more than usual during that time,’ he said carefully at last, as if he was weighing every word, then tempering them to avoid a hysterical feminine reaction. Luckily she’d given up the vapours at a very early age, as Maria was far too good at them to stand competition. ‘Tell me,’ she demanded flatly, suddenly knowing this was going to be one of those painful revelations no words could soften. ‘He’s wed, Miss Courland. In fact, I was his groomsman, so there can be no doubting the truth of it, and a very fine wife he’s won himself, as well.’ ‘I’m not in the least surprised,’ she returned calmly enough, for hadn’t she been thinking of that eventuality ever since that last letter from her brother was so full of his lovely Philomena? Even if she did feel shocked by the stark fact of David marrying without taking trouble to inform his family of it himself. ‘He also assured me he has no intention of returning to England for more than a visit. I’m sorry to break such news to you so abruptly, but either Davy couldn’t put his soul on paper, after all, or his letter has gone astray.’ Sir Charles Afforde looked distinctly uncomfortable about being the one to tell her. She could imagine him as sternly self-composed when having to go in front of his admiral with ill news, although Davy’s happiness wasn’t bad news, of course, yet she was torn between joy for him and terrible anxiety for all she held dear here. ‘Not coming back?’ she said at last and couldn’t hold back the most important question, ‘But what about Hollowhurst?’ Roxanne had no idea why she asked him the fate of her home with an absentee master committed to another country. Maybe her reign would continue, but apprehension set flocks of butterflies aflutter in her stomach and confirmed it was unlikely. At least she hoped it was apprehension, for Charles Afforde was very close now, and she was human, even if she was also a superannuated old maid. ‘That’s where I come in, I fear,’ he admitted gruffly. ‘You fear? When did you ever do that, Sir Charles?’ she asked stiffly, wondering just why he hadn’t said all this in a letter. ‘You’d probably be surprised, but my flawed personality isn’t pertinent to the facts. The truth with no frills and furbelows on it, Miss Courland, is that your brother has sold me the castle and estate so he can invest in his wife’s estates and other ventures in the country he’s adopted as his own.’ Roxanne gasped and let herself feel the momentous weight of change on her slim shoulders for a long, terrible moment. Then she braced them and forced her chaotic feelings to the back of her mind as she met his eyes steadily. The appalling reality of Davy’s betrayal could wait until she was alone; she refused to let her shock and grief show in front of Charles. ‘But what of legal formalities and viewing the farm accounts?’ she heard herself protest, feeling as if she was listening to a stranger producing caveats as to why the truth couldn’t be true. ‘No need of that between us, he named a fair price and I paid it. Your brother was ever an honest man.’ ‘You call him so, but took advantage of his honesty, I dare say. He’s newly in love and that’s never time to take a hard look at the future,’ she shot at him, fury surging through her in an invigorating tide as she looked for someone to blame and found him very handy indeed. ‘You know better, Miss Courland. I always took you for the most intelligent of your family, so you must know your brother found his inheritance a burden rather than a joy. Davy has no love of the land and takes little pleasure in being lord of the manor. It’s my belief that America will suit him very well, and he already insists on being known as plain Mr Courland and is impatient with the old order for holding back the new.’ ‘You don’t share his Jacobin notions, Sir Charles?’ she snapped scornfully, as lashing out at him staved off the painful thought that Charles Afforde knew her brother better than she did herself. ‘No, I’m quite content to command, but I was raised to it, Miss Courland, and learned early that it was my duty as an officer to lead. The life that never suited Davy will do me very well.’ Roxanne shivered again and hugged her arms about her body as if hoping to ward off the chill of the autumnal evening and this appalling news. She was having her childish dreams come true in the most twisted and cheerless fashion imaginable. Once she’d yearned for this man, striven to become a correct young lady in order to deserve him, until she finally realised he wasn’t worth it. She’d wasted the painful intensity of the very young on a handsome face and now felt betrayed again. Except he meant nothing to her, so retiring to Mulberry House sooner than she’d dreaded wasn’t the catastrophe it currently felt. What a relief to be spared the sight of him striding along in Uncle Granger’s shoes and lording it over her beloved home. ‘My brother was raised to take command here one day,’ she heard herself protest weakly and wondered why she bothered. ‘Of course he always knew he’d inherit,’ Sir Charles Afforde told her carefully and Roxanne wondered if shock made his voice echo in her ears like the voice of doom. He’d be horrified if she gave in to the painful thudding of her heartbeat in her ears and fainted, but at least the mere sound of his voice no longer made her tingle down to her toes and at too many points in between. ‘You must know he never really took to the life, though, Miss Courland,’ he continued. ‘Indeed, Davy always claimed you were more suited to the role of landowner than he, but Hollowhurst would be too great a burden for a woman to bear alone, given the nature of the society we live in.’ ‘Thank you for knowing my capabilities better than I do myself, Sir Charles, and on such a short acquaintance, as well.’ ‘Ten years is no trifling term, ma’am.’ ‘It is when we barely knew each other even then and have not seen each other to speak to since my eldest sister’s wedding to your cousin nine years ago.’ ‘Then we can look forward to improving our friendship, can we not? Especially as we’re to be such close neighbours.’ ‘I hope you don’t expect me to be overcome with delight at the prospect,’ she muttered just loudly enough for him to hear her, then fixed a false, social smile and hoped he knew how much she’d love to slap him. ‘So we are,’ she said aloud with a forced lightness he’d be a fool to mistake for cordiality. ‘Pray, how long do I have to remove myself from here, sir, or do you wish me to decamp tonight?’ ‘I would never be so hardhearted, Miss Courland, despite the fact you obviously think me capable of any crime short of murder.’ He gazed at her through the increasing gloom and she saw his eyebrows rise in apparent amusement, the infuriating devil! ‘Ah,’ he went on, the laughter she’d once listened for so eagerly running through his deep voice in a warm invitation to share his amusement, ‘so you don’t set even that limit on my villainy.’ ‘Of course I do,’ she spluttered as the good manners everyone had tried so hard to drum into her made a weak attempt to control her temper and, she had to admit it to herself, her pain. ‘I can tell you’re not a monster.’ ‘Can you, my dear Miss Courland? I doubt it, but take as long as you like to gather your new household about you, and take what you want with you, so long as you leave me some furniture and a bed to sleep in.’ ‘I’ll take no more than is mine,’ she informed him haughtily, seething at his apparent belief that she’d strip the house to its bare bones in some vulgar attempt at revenge. ‘And have the neighbourhood accuse me of turning you out with not much more than the clothes on your back? That really wouldn’t do my credit any good in the district, now would it? I claim the privilege of changing my mind and will return tomorrow to make sure you don’t distort my good intentions into infamy, Miss Courland, and leave with little more than the clothes you stand up in. I’d be a scandal and a hissing in the area if I turned you out with such apparent cruelty.’ ‘I doubt it,’ she said impatiently, imagining the effect his looks and wealth would have on the local ladies. ‘Do as you please, sir, and, as this is your house, I certainly can’t stop you coming and going as you please.’ ‘You can so long as you persist in not employing a chaperone.’ ‘Whatever follies I choose to commit are mine, Sir Charles, and have nothing to do with you.’ ‘They do when you make yourself extraordinary by them. You’re the sister of one of my oldest and dearest friends, Miss Courland, and while you might have run rings round him however early he got up in the morning, I’m no easygoing David Courland in search of a quiet life.’ ‘That’s self-evident,’ she told him darkly, those good manners she’d congratulated herself on threatening to slip away if she yielded to temptation and punched him on his patrician nose as she longed to do. ‘Good, then, as we’ve established I’m certainly not your brother, hadn’t we better consider how we’re to remedy your chaperone-less state?’ ‘No, we had not. If I’m to be saddled with one, I’ll select her myself. Indeed, it would be highly improper for a man like you to select a duenna for a single lady.’ ‘True,’ he said without noticeable shame, ‘but I do have the odd female relative, you know. And one or two respectable friends who’ve yet to cast me off, who have ladies to lend their aid if I explain your situation.’ ‘You do surprise me, sir.’ ‘I always endeavour to confound expectations, ma’am, especially when they’re so very low.’ ‘I’m quite sure you do, but pray don’t put yourself to the trouble of disproving mine. I look forward to us seeing very little of one another once I’ve packed up and left Hollowhurst for good. You’ll be far too busy managing such a large estate to worry about socialising with your neighbours for a while, and I intend to travel, so I dare say we’ll hardly ever meet. My brother isn’t the only member of our family possessed of itchy feet,’ she lied. Chapter Three In fact, Roxanne would have been content to continue at Hollowhurst for the rest of her life if fate had only allowed it, but she needed an excuse to avoid the new owner of her beloved home in the months to come. Travelling would do as well as any other plan, and was far better than staying and risking being charmed out of her fury by the very man who’d just deprived her of useful occupation. ‘But I hope you don’t plan to set out just yet, and certainly not alone?’ ‘That, sir, is my business.’ ‘In so far as you are of age I suppose that’s true, but David asked me to look to your welfare and happiness in his absence and I warn you that I fully intend to do so. I suspect we’re both about to discover that there’s no stricter mentor for a lady of quality than a reformed rake, Miss Courland.’ ‘Then you’re reformed, are you, Sir Charles? I can’t claim to have seen any indication of it so far.’ ‘You may not think so, ma’am, but you’ve enjoyed the fruits of my good intention ever since I walked in and found you communing with the twilight.’ ‘I have? How fortunate for me.’ ‘Fortunate indeed,’ he returned blandly and even through the gloom she’d be an idiot to mistake the wolfish glint in his eyes for anything but what it was and feel unease, despite her determination not to let him fluster or intimidate her. ‘Then perhaps you’d take yourself back to wherever you came from for the night, Sir Charles, since it would be such a shame to spoil it all now.’ ‘Yet something tells me you’re truly wild at heart. Do you secretly prefer recklessly courting danger to pretending respectability, Miss Courland?’ ‘Don’t presume to know me,’ she snapped back, much tried and confused by her own reactions to the veiled threat in his husky voice. She’d got over the idea that Charles Afforde was put on this earth to be her destined mate many years ago. He was a dangerous rake and, despite his undoubted heroism in battle, she doubted he made a single move on land without calculating its effect. Why, then, was her silly heart racing with excitement like some mad moth sighting a brilliant light and speeding towards it, eager for its own destruction? She was woman enough to know he’d just introduced his sensual appetites and experience into this shadowy encounter, but she was old and wise enough not to call his bluff now, wasn’t she? ‘Then discovering your secrets will add spice to the game, my dear,’ he mused, almost as if he was talking to himself; suddenly he was very close. It was so dark now she could only gauge his intentions by the tension in his silence and a hint of something new and unsettling in the outline of his powerful body. Then he lowered his head and captured her lips with his and only that contact sparked between them like lightning, but such a contact that she felt half-scorched and half-terrified. She was free, she told herself with little effect; she could disengage from the searing touch of mouth on mouth and be in sight of sanity in a mere breath. Yet the clamour of emotions and curiosity that took over her reeling senses wouldn’t let her move. His mouth was surprisingly soft on hers; deliberately unthreatening, a cynical voice informed her sternly, but she blocked her inner ear to it. The sensual reality of Charles Afforde’s kiss on her eager lips at last overcame her defences with no effort at all and she felt him deepen the pressure of his kiss with such a warm welcome, she bitterly decided when she reviewed events later, that she might as well have offered him everything he hadn’t already taken from her and let joy be totally unconfined. Not that joy made much of an effort to restrict itself as her mouth opened under his in a wanton response to his more insistent caress. She felt such a lift of her silly heart that he might be excused for thinking her an experienced flirt, if not a full-blown sensualist. But wouldn’t he know the feel of one of those abandoned women when he met one, for it would only be the sort of welcome he was used to? That hated, warning voice was at it again, even as the sound of his breath hitched just a second or two quicker than usual. She struggled between the heady notion that he wasn’t used to such fire flaring between him and his lovers and the cold voice of common sense. Then he opened his sinfully tempting mouth on hers and silently asked for something even more intimate. Gasping in breath they could only share, so close as they were, she succumbed to heat and pleasure and curiosity and opened for him as he silently demanded. Now she was done for, even at the moment when he’d proved himself a rake, after all. His tongue first probed the swollen wetness of lips that finally knew what they’d been made for, then delved within, as if exploring the most exquisitely delicious sensation he’d ever encountered. He gave an unconscious hum of satisfaction in his throat that woke her sensual self from its silly daydreams and showed her just how potent a kiss could be. A flush of heat threatened to melt her as he openly revelled in the chaos he’d wrought, the feel of him seducing and plundering with her absolute consent warming her primly covered bosom and suddenly rosy cheeks in a sharp flush of need that warned what untold, forbidden pleasures he still had left to teach her. Breathing fast and shallow, she forced herself to jump back from him as if he’d scalded her. He might well have done just that, she decided, and she wouldn’t know the full extent of the damage until she had privacy and calm enough to assess it. Yet her mouth felt bereft as his kiss cooled on the chill evening air, and suddenly she felt the cold of the October night and noted the diamond wink of stars emerging in an almost frosty sky. ‘Oh, what have you done now?’ she heard herself gasp out, as if protesting something crucially important, but also impossible. ‘I hardly know,’ he replied and his deep voice was hoarse with something that sounded like bemusement and regret, as if he had felt the wonder and novelty of that kiss as deeply as she. Which was a self-deceiving lie, of course; he’d kissed so many women he probably couldn’t provide a full list of them even under torture! ‘Liar,’ she accused softly and stepped back again so that the scent and heat and reality of him couldn’t trip her senses again. With distance came the full slap of sanity, and she was tempted to sink on to the cushioned window seat and cradle her silly head in her hands and weep. What had she done, for goodness’ sake? Only actively encouraged a rake to believe her a great deal more willing to be seduced than she was and rekindled all those silly girlish fantasies of being kissed by her pirate prince. No, she wouldn’t permit them to haunt her, and she resolved to avoid his company whenever possible, as they’d be living too close until she went on her travels. ‘I think you should leave now, Captain,’ she heard herself say in a stiff voice that should tell him what a proper and starchy spinster she really was. ‘I believe you’re right, Miss Courland,’ he replied softly and the thread of something she couldn’t quite read in his deep voice tantalised her with ifs and maybe’s, but she stalwartly shrugged them aside. ‘The Feathers does an excellent ordinary,’ she went on blithely, as if she had no idea he could make her forget her own name with an idle kiss. ‘My thanks, but I have good friends living not ten miles away.’ For some reason he sounded as if he didn’t relish being dismissed as a lightweight who’d forget what had just happened on the promise of a hot meal and a soft bed for the night. ‘Indeed?’ she replied with a haughty look that was probably wasted in the gloom. ‘Then I’ll call for a groom to light you to your destination.’ ‘No need, it’s a fine starlit night and I have my private servant and a groom with me. It’s more than time we were on the road if we’re to reach my friends’ house before they retire for the night, so I’ll wish you a good night, Miss Courland,’ he replied, and she could just discern his quick bow of farewell before she could ring for a lantern to guide his way. ‘Rushmore will have acquired a light by now,’ he assured her shortly. ‘Goodbye then, Sir Charles,’ she said, wishing there was the slightest hope he wouldn’t return to haunt her. ‘Until tomorrow,’ he confirmed, and she listened to his assured steps as he found his way down the hall and into the early darkness, seemingly without the slightest hesitation. She waited until she heard three sets of hoofbeats retreat down the drive before she rang the bell for candles and all the help she could muster. There was a great deal to do before she could sleep tonight if she was to be all but gone when Sir Charles arrived in the morning. Another encounter like that and she might do something even more ridiculous, and suddenly there were worse things than being evicted from her beloved home, after all. While Hollowhurst Castle was jolted out of its accustomed calm by a mistress who’d become a whirlwind of frenetic energy, a dozen or so miles away Westmeade Manor was serenely comfortable. Charles tried not to envy his old friend Rob Besford, the younger son of the Earl of Foxwell, his contented domesticity with his lovely wife and smiled as he contemplated what Miss Courland would think of such a disgrace to the rakehell fraternity as he was proving to be. Not a great deal, he suspected, and absently contemplated the intriguing task of changing her mind. ‘So will you do it, Charles?’ Caroline Besford asked him. Charles wondered cautiously what he was being asked to do, but luckily Rob took pity on him and explained. ‘My wife is asking you to be godparent to our next offspring in her own unique manner, Charles. On the principle that you’ve already committed most of the follies he or she will need to steer clear of if they’re to grow into an honest and sober citizen, I suppose,’ Rob Besford told him, looking lazily content as he lounged beside his very pregnant wife. ‘Couldn’t you ask Will Wrovillton instead? After all, you plan to give this one his name,’ Charles argued half-heartedly. ‘Only if it turns out to be a boy,’ Caro said with a wicked sparkle in her eyes as she encouraged him to imagine the fate of a girl called William. ‘If it does, we want to name him after Rob’s brother and James insists it must be a second name as it would cause too much confusion if there were two James Besfords, even though James is Viscount Littleworth as well, and I can’t see it myself. We thought Charles James unkind, since Charles James Fox has only been dead for a decade or so. So we couldn’t name this one after you and Rob’s brother, Charles. Maybe next time,’ she ended with a teasing look at Rob that he carefully ignored. ‘With Fox having been so fiery a Whig and notoriously profligate with it, it’d be a backhanded turn to serve any brat to name him so, I suppose, but did Will turn down your offer to make him the child’s godfather after landing him with William James as a name instead?’ Charles asked suspiciously. ‘He couldn’t turn us down because we can’t find him. No doubt he’s knee-deep in some daft venture,’ Rob replied with exasperated resignation. ‘With his wife at his side,’ Charles agreed with a reminiscent smile, for if ever he’d come across a fine pair of madcaps they were Lord Wrovillton and his highly unconventional lady. ‘That’s a certainty, I should say,’ Caro confirmed. ‘She’s as bad as he is,’ Charles pointed out. ‘Worse,’ she agreed placidly, considering Alice, Lady Wrovillton, was her best friend, ‘and it’s my belief you never forgave Alice for marrying Will instead of you, Charles.’ ‘No, it’s Rob I’m furious with for wedding the one woman I’d gladly sacrifice my single status for,’ he argued solemnly and for a moment Caroline looked horrified, until she noticed the wicked glint in his brilliantly blue eyes and threw a cushion at him. ‘Boy or girl, your coming child has no more chance of growing up a sober citizen with you two as parents than its big sister has, and she has my sympathy, by the way,’ Charles informed her with mock severity. ‘It’s clearly my duty to set a better example to your children and, as little Sophia is halfway to being as big a minx as her mama, I might as well start earlier with the next one.’ ‘More than halfway, if you ask me—so you’ll do it, Charles?’ Rob asked, as if the answer really mattered to him, despite Charles’s rakehell reputation and apparent unsuitability as a spiritual guide. ‘Gladly,’ Charles agreed at last, touched to be asked, watching the besotted look on Rob’s face as he smiled at his wife and feeling the lure of seeing a wife of his own great with his child. First of all he’d need to marry one, of course, and that might prove more of a challenge than he’d expected. Rosie Courland with her ardent dark eyes and wild midnight curls had become a strong woman with guarded dark eyes and tightly restrained midnight curls, so what of his promise to win and wed her that he’d made Davy Courland now? An idea born of guilty conscience on Davy’s side and convenience on his, perhaps, but he needed a capable wife to help him run his new house and estates, even if tonight it had all felt much less convenient and more urgent. Memory of their kiss in the twilight threatened to spin him into a world of his own again, so he forced himself to concentrate on the matter in hand. ‘If she’s a girl, you might run off with her yourself one day, of course, so we’d best find you a wife to save Rob killing you,’ Caro teased roguishly. ‘You, my girl, haven’t improved at all with marriage and motherhood,’ he replied sternly, hoping pregnancy would stop Caro from introducing him to half the neighbourhood when he’d just met the woman he was going to marry. ‘Never mind that,’ Rob told his wife impatiently, obviously sharing Charles’s fears. ‘Here’s your maid come to cluck over you and quite right for once. It’s high time you were in bed, Caro.’ ‘Only if you’ll take me there,’ she said with a wicked smile and a shameless lack of hospitality Charles could only applaud. To watch them now, who’d think the Besfords’ marriage had got off to an appalling start? Charles suppressed a shudder at the memory of that stiff and chilly ceremony, with bride and groom as loving towards each other as the Regent and his unfortunate princess must have been at theirs. Luckily they came to a better understanding once Caro had grown bored with being Rob’s despised and neglected wife and pretended to be Cleo Tournier, courtesan to one very particular, stubborn aristocrat, who looked as if he loved being stuck fast in his devious wife’s toils nowadays. ‘I’d like nothing better, my Cleo.’ Rob answered her brazen encouragement to take her to bed forthwith with a scorching look that made Caro blush like a peony, Charles was amused to see. All the same, he felt a sneaking envy of their delight in one another. He’d never love Miss Courland as Rob undoubtedly loved his Caroline and she loved him, yet he’d seen enough of the closeness and fire between them to wonder what such absolute intimacy would be like. He’d always taken life more lightly than Rob he mused as he accepted his candle and obligingly took himself off to his comfortable bed. A marriage of convenience would suit him, especially when it promised passionate nights of mutual satisfaction. He couldn’t embrace the married state with the enthusiasm Rob demonstrated, but he’d be an attentive and faithful husband to Miss Roxanne Courland until death did them part, whether she liked it or not! Roxanne had gone to bed very late after packing the first of her belongings and got up early to begin the task of despatching them to Mulberry House and starting on the rest. She supposed she should be grateful to Sir Charles for provoking her into moving house so quickly, for if she’d been left to linger over each old letter and beloved childhood book it might have taken weeks, if not months. As it was, she’d set herself a mere day of frantic activity to remove all she held most dear, and already the farm dray was setting off, laden with a quantity of trunks and boxes of books that astonished her. Her lips tightened as she contemplated what the arrogant baronet would say about the half-empty shelves in Uncle Granger’s personal library, but she wasn’t having a stranger selling or disregarding what it had taken him a lifetime to collect. Having seen the lord-of-the-feast side of her great-uncle, she wondered if Charles Afforde knew about Uncle Granger’s quieter interests: his love of fine music and his patronage of poets and artists once thought obscure and outlandish. She must make sure someone packed the fine collection of watercolours from her own room as she shuddered at the thought of coming back to beg for anything left behind. Among them was an exquisite painting of Hollowhurst Castle by Mr Turner that she’d no intention of leaving for the Castle’s new owner. Considering he was rich enough to buy Davy’s heritage, he’d just have to commission one for himself if he wanted one. Like an automaton that had wound down in mid-dance, she suddenly sank into a chair and let the truth sink in. Hollowhurst and all it meant to her had a new owner, and what had once seemed set in stone was now as fugitive as a house of cards. How could Davy do such a thing? she raged silently. Surely he trusted her to run the estate and keep the castle in good order? And one day his son might feel very different about the impressive heritage he should have had. She felt angry tears threaten the rigid composure she’d imposed on herself since she realised just why Charles Afforde had returned and barely managed to fight them back. ‘It was never meant to be like this, you know.’ Charles Afforde’s deep voice interrupted from the doorway, and she was so startled she looked up with fury and grief naked in her dark gaze. ‘I can’t see how you expected me to feel otherwise,’ she said and tried to freeze her sorrow until later, when he wasn’t by to watch. ‘I expected Davy to prepare you for this, if nothing else,’ he said rather cryptically, and she wondered what on earth he meant. What other disaster could there be, given her home was now his and her whole world was rocking on its axis? She shivered at the very thought of more unwelcome revelations and dismissed the idea; nothing could be worse than the bombshell he’d already dropped, after all. ‘Well, he didn’t,’ she replied flatly. Surely the end result was the same? Possession, she decided furiously and once more wished futilely that she’d been born a man. Not that it would have done her any good since Davy was older and the heir, but he might have reconsidered if he’d a brother devoted to the estate he found a burden. Yet a mere woman must stand by and watch the lords of the earth dispossess her of all she held dear, she railed silently. ‘Obviously not, and I suppose the mail boats between here and America are unreliable at this time of year,’ he replied with a hint of impatience at her truism, ‘but I never intended driving you from your home at a moment’s notice, Miss Courland. Take as long as you like over the business, I have time since I left the sea and can spare as long as you need and more.’ ‘I’ll be ready today; I always knew I’d have to leave when Davy married. I can’t see how two women could rule the same roost and stay friends.’ ‘Such is the unfairness of English law, is it not? The eldest male heir gets the best plums and the others scrabble for what’s left.’ Chapter Four Roxanne wondered fleetingly if Sir Charles resented not being Lord Samphire’s heir, then dismissed it as a silly idea. If ever she’d met a man capable of forging his own destiny, it was Sir Charles Afforde. No doubt he’d been able to buy Hollowhurst by his own efforts after such a successful career, even without that very substantial trust fund from his mother that Davy had told her of long ago, when she was still eager for every snippet of information she could garner about this stranger. Naval captains with a reputation like his must have been turning crew away instead of having to press-gang them, eager as they’d be for a share of his prizes. None of which meant she had to like him, she reassured herself stalwartly and managed to recover her barely suppressed fury at him. If she didn’t, she’d break down in front of him, and such weakness was intolerable. ‘I’ve no need to “scrabble”, sir,’ she assured him stiffly. ‘My uncle left me a fine house in Hollowhurst village and his personal property. Didn’t my brother inform you of the terms of his will when he sold you Hollowhurst?’ ‘He said there was a fine line to tread between his great-uncle’s personal property and the goods and chattels that came with the castle. One you must have expected to walk if he brought a bride home.’ ‘I might feel more generous towards my brother,’ she snapped, because she saw pity in his blue eyes and she’d prefer anything to that, even a cold fury she sensed would freeze her to the marrow if he ever unleashed it. ‘Yet I’ve no intention of arguing about a few court cupboards and worm-eaten refectory tables, Miss Courland, so pray take what you like,’ he countered coolly. ‘And I won’t ransack the place in search of my inheritance, Sir Charles. My house is already furnished and all I require will fit on the farm dray when it returns. You’ll find your bookshelves a little empty and one or two walls bare, but I’m no magpie to be going about the place gathering everything I can.’ ‘I suspect you’d rather leave much of what’s yours behind out of sheer pride, lest you be thought grasping. I give you fair warning I’ll send it after you if you’re foolish enough to do that.’ ‘Then I’ll send it back. I already told you I’ve no room.’ ‘Perhaps we should place the excess in a field halfway between our houses and fight a duel for it one morning?’ he said as if their argument was mildly amusing, but in danger of becoming tedious. Well, it didn’t amuse her; she set her teeth and wondered why she’d got into this unproductive dispute in the first place. Of course she’d intended to be gone before he arrived, but he’d outmanoeuvred her and she suddenly knew how all those French captains felt when the famous, or infamous, Condottiere’s sails appeared on the horizon. ‘Do you intend to fill the castle with daybeds in the Egyptian style and chairs and tables with alligator feet, then?’ she asked sweetly. ‘No,’ he replied shortly. ‘I prefer comfort to fashion.’ ‘Then you’ll just have to accept that most of the furniture was built to fit a castle and would look ridiculous in a house less than fifty years old.’ ‘And you’ll have to accept I’m here to stay and have no intention of being cut by half the neighbourhood for throwing you out of your home at half a day’s notice with little more than your clothes and a few trifles.’ ‘Even if you have,’ she replied with glee, feeling almost happy she was leaving for the first time since he announced his purchase last night. ‘Not a bit of it; I’ve just told your local vicar that I’m away to stay with my family for at least a sennight in order to give you time to find a suitable chaperone and remove from the Castle. He and his wife thought it a noble act of consideration on my part.’ ‘But they occupy a living bestowed at your discretion, do they not? And know you not at all, Sir Charles.’ ‘Only by repute,’ he said with a significant look she interpreted as a reproach to her for judging him on that basis herself. He’d no idea how bitterly he’d disappointed her young girl’s dreams in making that rakehell reputation, and it was up to her to make sure he never found out. ‘Then I’m sure you have nothing to worry about,’ she said stiffly. ‘A returning hero takes precedence over a wronged woman any day of the week. Witness Odysseus’s triumphant return from ten years of chasing about the Aegean after assorted goddesses and nymphs, in contrast to poor Penelope’s slaughtered maids and all that interminable weaving she had to do as well as fighting off her importunate suitors.’ ‘Oh, I hardly think you fall into that category, Miss Courland. Indeed, I doubt any man would be brave enough to try to make you do anything you didn’t wish to. Anyway, I can hardly throw you out into the snow with nothing but the clothes on your back when you’re known to be a considerable heiress, and one who’s very fastidious indeed about her suitors.’ She hadn’t thought local society took much notice of her or her potential marriage, except to criticise her for acting as her uncle’s steward and refusing to employ a duenna to look down her nose at such a poor example of a lady. She had much to learn about her new occupation of doing very little in a suitably ladylike fashion. ‘You’ll be much sought after now that you’re free to be entertained by your neighbours,’ he went on as if attempting to reassure her. Roxanne could tell from the glint in his apparently guileless blue eyes that he was secretly enjoying the notion of her struggling to adapt to her new role, and tried not to give him the satisfaction of glowering furiously back. ‘You’ll have time on your hands enough to visit all of them now, Miss Courland,’ he went on smoothly, as if he was trying to be gallant and not utterly infuriating, ‘and they certainly wish to visit you if the vicar, his wife and their promising son just down from Oxford are anything to do by.’ ‘I’m glad my uncle taught me to discern a false friend from a true one then,’ she replied stalwartly, trying not to let a shiver of apprehension slide down her spine at the very thought of such an existence. ‘I’ve no desire whatsoever to be wed for my money.’ ‘Nor I—perhaps we should wed one another to avert such a travesty,’ he joked, and she felt a dart of the old pain, more intense if anything, and cursed that old infatuation for haunting her still. ‘Since that’s about as likely as black becoming white, I suggest you look elsewhere for a bride, Sir Charles,’ she said scornfully. ‘I’ll settle into my new life before looking about me for a lady brave enough to take me on,’ he parried lightly. Roxanne tried not to be disappointed as he reverted to type and took on the shallow social manners common among the haut ton, at least if her memory of her one uncomfortable Season was anything to go by. She’d felt out of place and bored for most of her three months in the capital, and as glad to come home again as Uncle Granger was to see her. Her sister Maria had delighted in that milieu and had worked her way up the social ladder from noble young matron to society hostess, but Roxanne hadn’t felt the slightest urge to join her, let alone rival her in any way. ‘Indeed?’ she replied repressively. ‘I’ll need to feel my way among local society after usurping a long-established family,’ he replied with apparent sincerity, then looked spuriously anxious as he watched her struggle to remain distantly polite. ‘But first I insist you find a congenial companion, Miss Courland. No lady of your years and birth can live alone without being taken advantage of or bringing scandal on herself and her family. If you don’t look about you for a chaperone, I’ll do it for you. The local matrons will consider a respectable duenna essential now I’ve come amongst you, and no lone damsel can be considered beyond my villainy, and I’ve my own reputation to think about, after all.’ ‘You don’t have one, at least not one any lady dares discuss and be received in polite society. As for employing a duenna for me, I have already told you it would be highly improper. I’d be ostracised if I took one of your choosing,’ she said haughtily, her gaze clashing with his. ‘I promised your brother I’d look after you in his stead,’ he told her with a glint in his eyes that looked very unbrotherly indeed. ‘Exactly how old do you think I am, sir?’ she asked defensively. ‘Hardly out of the schoolroom,’ he replied, with a wolfish smile that gave his words the lie. ‘I’m four and twenty and on the shelf. I dare say I could take up residence at Mulberry House without any chaperone but my maid and nobody would raise an eyebrow except you.’ ‘There you’re very much mistaken, my dear, but if you choose not to be visited or invited out, I dare say you’ll grow used to the life of a recluse,’ he replied ruthlessly, but at least she’d wiped that annoying, indulgent-of-female-folly grin off his face. Impatient of the petty rules of society she might be, reclusive she wasn’t, and hated to admit he was right. She could live so, but it’d be a very limited existence and she was too young to embark on a hermit’s career. ‘I’m not your dear, Sir Charles, and will thank you to address me in proper form.’ ‘You have no idea what you are just yet, Miss Courland, and I suggest you take a few weeks to find out before you launch yourself into local society as their most scandalous exhibit,’ he retorted brusquely. ‘You could be right, but this subject is becoming tedious, or do you want me to put that admission in writing and have it published?’ ‘No, I want you to behave yourself,’ he informed her as sternly as if she was fourteen again and he her legal and moral guardian, not the biggest rogue to break a score of susceptible hearts every time he came ashore. ‘Really? And I just want you to go away so that I can start my new life,’ she snapped back, smarting at the idea of all those unfortunate, abandoned females and how nearly she’d become one of them. ‘Then want must be your master,’ he said laconically and lounged against the intricately carved fireplace, since she’d omitted to invite him to sit. She was about to spark back at him, regardless of the fact she must get on with her neighbours in future and he’d be the most important of them, but a rustle of silk petticoats announced a new arrival and stopped her. ‘Good morning. I believe you must be Miss Courland?’ a lady very obviously with child greeted her from the open doorway. Roxanne sprang to her feet and offered the stranger a seat, trying to feel as overjoyed at so timely an interruption as she ought to be. ‘I couldn’t make anyone hear so I’m afraid I invited myself in,’ her visitor told her with an engaging smile. Roxanne could see no resemblance whatsoever to Sir Charles Afforde about the lady’s warm golden eyes and heart-shaped face and searched her mind for any possible clues as to her identity. She doubted the lady was related to him and was obviously far too respectable to be a left-handed connection. Not that he’d sink so low as to install his pregnant mistress at the Castle before Roxanne had quit it, she decided with weary resignation. ‘Pray forgive me, Miss Courland, I’m Mrs Robert Besford of Westmeade Manor, but please call me Caro. My husband and Sir Charles have been friends since they were unappealing brats in short coats, so I barged in, since I couldn’t wait any longer to make your acquaintance.’ Roxanne could see no reason why a boyhood friendship between this lady’s husband and Charles Afforde should make her and Mrs Besford friends, too, but found it impossible to snub the vivacious young woman or refuse the warm understanding in Caro’s golden-brown gaze. ‘I’m very pleased to meet you, Mrs Besford,’ she said, holding out her hand in greeting and having it firmly shaken by one that looked too small and slender to contain such strength and resolution. ‘Caro,’ her new friend insisted and Roxanne smiled back. ‘Then I must be Roxanne, Caro, for I gave up being Rosie when my brother insisted on calling me Rosie-Posie long after I grew up.’ ‘Gentlemen can be so effortlessly maddening, can’t they?’ Caro replied. ‘My apologies, Caro,’ Sir Charles said, looking uncomfortable, ‘I’d no idea you’d arrive so close on my heels. I’ll make sure my groom has seen to your horses, as Miss Courland’s men are busy, if you’ll excuse me?’ ‘Gladly. Pray go and soothe Rob’s anxiety about me by discussing where you’re going to acquire the bloodstock you intend on breeding,’ Mrs Besford said with an airy wave and, to Roxanne’s surprise, he meekly did as he was bid. ‘He thinks he has to humour me,’ Caroline told her with a conspiratorial smile. ‘Especially since he woke my household last night by shouting something incomprehensible at the top of his voice in his sleep. According to my husband, many men have nightmares after taking part in battles or skirmishes, but goodness knows what set Charles off in the midst of the Kent countryside in peacetime. His manservant managed to calm him down without waking him and the rest of us went back to sleep, but Charles is mortified this morning and I’m taking shameless advantage. I’ll soon be kept busy at home with this new baby and my little daughter, so I exploited his guilty conscience when he tried to leave me behind this morning. I think Rob’s still fighting off the vapours after dreading every bump and bend we travelled over on my behalf,’ Caro confided. ‘I dare say he almost wishes himself back at Waterloo, the poor man, but I’m bored with being treated like spun glass and thought you might welcome some support, even if I’m of precious little use.’ ‘I was beginning to wonder if I’d get out of here without turning into a watering pot, or throwing something fragile and irreplaceable at Sir Charles, so you’re very welcome, I assure you.’ ‘You seem too strong to give way to your emotions like that, Roxanne, but I know how hard it is to stay serene in such trying circumstances,’ Caro said, and Roxanne saw a fleeting shadow of some remembered sadness cloud her guest’s unusual eyes. It was scouted the instant Robert Besford appeared, a worried look on his handsome face. Roxanne thought Caro was blooming, but since he evidently cared a great deal for his wife, Mr Besford’s anxiety was rather touching. ‘Good morning,’ he said with a graceful bow, while his startlingly green eyes ran over his wife as if taking an inventory. Caro rolled her eyes and tried to look stern, before laughing and shaking her head at him, ‘This is Miss Courland, Rob,’ she admonished. ‘I know. We’ve met before, haven’t we, Miss Courland?’ he replied with a rueful smile of apology for his distracted state. ‘Good morning, Colonel Besford,’ she replied with a smile, for who could resist the Besfords’ evident delight in each other? ‘I’m colonel no longer, not even in my brevet rank as staff officer, now I’ve sold out,’ he told her cheerfully enough. ‘Or so he says,’ Caro added darkly and Roxanne laughed at the look the Honourable Robert turned on his wife. ‘And no order of mine was ever knowingly obeyed by my wife,’ he told Roxanne ruefully and ducked dextrously as a cushion flew past his left ear and thudded harmlessly against the oak panelling. ‘Oh, I’m so sorry,’ Caro said, hand over her mouth and her eyes dancing. ‘It’s become a habit,’ she admitted, and Roxanne decided she’d enjoy local society if it offered such lively company, after all. ‘I’ll make sure I take a suit of armour with me to Mulberry House,’ she replied solemnly, and they were all laughing when Charles entered the room. He was enchanted by this light-hearted and laughing Roxanne Courland. He’d turned her world upside down and behaved like a bad-tempered bear this morning, so no wonder he’d not seen her so until now, but suddenly he knew she’d break his heart if he let her and felt the breath stall in his chest as he saw her as she ought to be, if her family had cherished and adored her, instead of leaving her alone to brave the world. He acquitted Sir Granger of deliberate cruelty, but to raise her as mistress here, when she could only be second-in-command at her brother’s whim, was unthinkingly callous. Roxanne must at least taste the life of a single young woman of birth and fortune before he wed her, but it’d have to be a mere bite, as this need dragging at him insistently wouldn’t be ignored for long. He imagined her beautifully gowned and coiffured and decided he was about to let himself in for the most tortuous few weeks of his life. Stepping forwards, he watched the mischief leave her darkest brown eyes and her merry smile die. There was time to alter that state of affairs, he reassured himself. Perhaps she’d look favourably on his suit if he made her mistress here again. Highly unlikely she’d wed ever him for himself, now, and wasn’t that just as well? ‘I asked for refreshments to be served here, if you don’t object, Miss Courland?’ he said. ‘I’ve no right to object, Sir Charles,’ she replied. ‘A lady always has rights,’ he argued. She had rights, and obligations—common politeness being one of them. ‘How nice for us,’ she replied stubbornly. ‘It must be,’ he replied, and she glared at him before embarking on a discussion about babies with Caro designed to exclude sane gentlemen, except that his friend Rob seemed to find it as fascinating as they did. He’d never be that much of a fool about his wife and children, Charles assured himself. He’d be an interested and even a fond father, especially as his own sire had consigned him to his formidable grandmother’s care without a backward look at an early age. Charles’s lips twisted in a sardonic smile as he recalled a day when the father he had yearned for came home at last. Louis Afforde had fainted at the sight of him, coming round to murmur artistically, ‘The boy is too like her—my one, my only, my dear departed love. He offends my eyes and grieves my suffering heart.’ Louis, an aspiring poet, promptly went straight back to London and his current ‘only’ love and left his son with an aversion to romantic love and a gap in his young life where his remaining parent should have been. Packed off to live with his grandparents at the age of six, Charles swore he’d never fall in love, whatever love might be. Eyeing Rob now doting over the wife he’d once professed to hate, he decided he still didn’t know what it was and was quite content with his ignorance. He’d respect and admire his wife—if he desired her as well that was a handsome bonus—but he’d never love her. Nor would he make a cake of himself over being a husband and father as Rob appeared happy to. His children would have fond but sensible parents, which was just as well considering his grandmother was too old to take on a pack of brats now. He thought the Dowager Countess of Samphire would like Miss Courland as a granddaughter-in-law and he doubted Roxanne would quail at meeting such a brusque and ruthless old lady, and then caught himself out in a dreamy smile with horrified shock. Roxanne would make a good wife and mother and he’d be faithful and respect her, but he’d not live in her pocket. Something told him it wouldn’t be that simple, but he ignored it because he’d promised her brother he’d marry her if she’d have him, and he wanted her. Having his child would settle her into her new role as his wife, and the thought of it made him march to the window and gaze out at the view while he got himself back under control. The idea of seeing Roxanne sensually awake and fully aware of herself as a woman for the first time sent him into such a stew of urgency that he was unfit for company. It boded ill for his detachment, he admitted to himself as he fought primitive passions, but very well for begetting his brats! ‘Fascinating view, is it?’ Rob asked with a satirical smile as he came to stand by his old friend, too much understanding of Charles’s response to Roxanne Courland in his steady green gaze for comfort. ‘All the more so for being mine,’ he replied softly. ‘Possessiveness, it’s the curse of our sex,’ Rob taunted, and Charles wondered if he wasn’t yet truly forgiven for trying to win Rob’s lady off him, although he’d been as blithely ignorant of who she really was as her husband had been at the time. He had admired Caro’s refusal to sit back and meekly accept that their arranged marriage was an abomination to her husband, and her ingenious campaign to win him to her bed by foul means when fair ones must fail, since Rob had vowed never to share any room with his wife after their wedding. Rob had danced to the seductive and scandalous new courtesan Cleo Tournier’s tune without a clue that she was his unwanted and despised wife, and Charles decided vengefully that he was glad he’d helped her tame the one-time rake now watching him as if he was a specimen on a pin. ‘You could be right,’ he replied calmly enough. ‘Be careful what you’re at,’ Rob warned him silkily. ‘Miss Courland isn’t up to the games you play and she’s far from unprotected.’ ‘She needs no protection from me,’ Charles replied shortly. ‘Have you undergone a sea change then, Charles?’ ‘A permanent one,’ he replied, gaze steady on Rob’s challenging one. ‘Good God, I think you really mean it.’ ‘I do.’ ‘It’ll provide me with an interesting diversion to watch you try to achieve that aim then,’ Rob said with a grin that almost made Charles wish them both twenty years younger, so he could treat him to the appropriate punch on the nose. ‘I don’t think Miss Courland will be easily persuaded you’re not a wild sea-rover any more,’ he warned with unholy delight. ‘I’m beginning to agree with you,’ Charles muttered darkly and stared broodingly at the quirky old garden he’d acquired with his new property. ‘Sometimes the chase is all the more worth winning when it seems nigh impossible,’ Rob said, softening his challenge as he sent a significant glance at his lady, who’d led him a fine dance before letting her husband catch her just as she’d planned all along. ‘I’m planning a change of lifestyle, not abject surrender,’ Charles protested uneasily. ‘And sometimes there’s victory in defeat, although that’s not a concept I expect a grizzled old sea dog to understand.’ ‘Since you talk in riddles, no wonder I can’t make head or tail of them.’ ‘You’ll see,’ Rob said with an irritatingly superior smile and turned back to the fascinating spectacle of his wife like a compass to the north. Chapter Five Taking tea and cake in a lady’s sitting room like some tame cicisbeo, Charles fought an unaccustomed urge to snap and snarl at all and sundry and reminded himself he had a reputation as a dangerous charmer to uphold. He didn’t feel very charming when Roxanne Courland refused to look at him and made certain their fingers didn’t touch when she passed him his teacup. If his one-time crew could see him now, they’d laugh themselves into a collective apoplexy and save the hangman a job, he reflected bitterly. Instead of dwelling on his current woes, he decided to set about solving one or two of them. First he must find a suitable lady to chaperone his prospective bride. Not easy when only he and Davy Courland knew he was to wed. He sipped his tea with a creditable attempt at looking as if he enjoyed it and took a mental inventory. His formidable grandmother would put in an appearance when Caro’s whelp was due since she doted on her, so he must have someone in place before she decided to take the role herself. There was Great-Aunt Laetetia Varleigh, his grandmother’s spinster sister. Yet Aunt Letty lacked the inner core of loving softness Lady Samphire hid behind a formidable manner. No, she wouldn’t do, even if she’d leave Varleigh village to lapse into the hotbed of scandal it might become without her constant vigilance. He was reluctantly contemplating advertising when his latest conversation with Tom Varleigh slotted into his mind and made the solution seem so obvious he felt a fool for missing it. ‘Stella refuses to come and live with myself and Joanna now poor Marcus Lavender’s dead,’ Tom had told him. ‘She claims Joanna doesn’t need another female cluttering up Varleigh Manor, so she’s living at the Dower House with Mama and Great-Aunt Letty. She’s stubborn and headstrong, but even my big sister doesn’t deserve that, Charles. Before six months are up, she’ll murder one of them or be fit for Bedlam herself.’ It would be ideal, he told himself, wondering fleetingly if he was as interfering and arrogant as Miss Courland believed him to be. Cousin Stella was in her early thirties and the respectable widow of a fine man who’d died at the ill-starred Battle of Toulouse when, if only they’d known it, the Great War was over and a peace treaty already signed. Stella would be glad of an alternative to living at Varleigh Dower House even if she was too stubborn to admit it, and her chaperonage would be more theory than fact if he knew Stella. Yes, that would suit all three of them very well. Now all he need do was get Stella here without Roxanne realising it was his doing. A carefully worded plea to Roxanne’s sister to send her word of any suitable duennas might serve, as long as Roxanne never discovered he’d sent it. Eyeing Caro speculatively, he wondered if she numbered the sociable younger Varleighs among her recent acquaintance. He shuddered at the thought of her entrée to the demi-monde, even if it was gained in pursuit of her renegade husband, and hoped it never became common knowledge. Such a scandal would certainly not enhance the standing of his bride-to-be, if her chaperone had come recommended by even a pretend courtesan and, unlike Rob Besford, he intended to make sure his wife never had the slightest excuse to cause a scandal in pursuit of his closest sensual attention. He reassured himself it was perfectly natural to want to watch his Roxanne blossom in her proper sphere and that he was in no danger of falling in love with her. His wife must be a socially assured and adept hostess and serenely self-possessed under pressure, and if she became his passionate lover in the bargain, that would just be a wonderful bonus. Yet did he want her to change? She was rather magnificent as she was, and he admired her stubborn determination to go her own way—except it would ultimately prove disastrous. If he let her, she’d dwindle into a maiden aunt, neither happy nor unhappy and criminally wasted. Or she’d marry some weak-kneed idiot who’d let her govern both their lives. The very idea of her chancing instead upon some tyrant who’d try to break her glorious spirit made him shudder and drink his tea after all, only realising he’d drained his cup when he looked into it with offended disdain. ‘It’s all right, Charles, some of us drink it all the time and so far have come to no harm at all,’ Caro teased. ‘But you don’t know what it might do to me if I drink enough of it.’ ‘I admit I’m not a man and have absolutely no desire to be one, but it’s a risk I’m quite prepared to take as a mere female, even if you’re too much of a coward to take it on,’ she parried effortlessly, and he saw Roxanne shoot her a doubtful look, as if Caro might not know she was supping with the devil and therefore needed a very long spoon. He smiled into his surprisingly empty teacup and wondered if he ought to inform her that his friend’s wife was perfectly safe from any wiles he had stored up for the unwary. Best not, perhaps, it might be useful to keep her in ignorance of the fact that, unlike Caro, she was very unsafe indeed. ‘You mustn’t do that, Miss Roxanne, it’s no job for a lady,’ Cobbins, formerly head gardener of Hollowhurst Castle, informed Roxanne a week after she moved into Mulberry House. Even Sir Charles hadn’t been able to protest her managing for the time being with the chaperonage of her personal maid, the Castle housekeeper and far too many members of her former household to fit comfortably into Mulberry House. ‘Why not?’ she challenged grumpily, since every time she found a promising occupation to while away the tedious hours, somebody would raise their head from doing nothing in particular and tell her it wasn’t ladylike. ‘’Cause you’ll get scratched,’ he explained with the patience of a responsible adult addressing a child who’d stolen her mama’s best scissors to deadhead the few late-blooming roses Mulberry House rejoiced in. ‘You could even get muddy,’ he added with every sign of horror. As if he hadn’t seen her muddy and exhausted many a time after a long day spent in the saddle going about Uncle Granger’s business, Roxanne thought with disgust. ‘Right, that’s it!’ she informed him sharply, reaching the end of a tether she’d clung to with exemplary patience. ‘I’ve had enough of this ridiculous situation. In a quarter of an hour I expect you and your many underlings to assemble in the kitchen, where Cook will undoubtedly curse you all for getting in her way, but I plan to address my household and it’s the only place you can all fit without being tight packed as sprats in a barrel. Pray inform Whistler that I expect the stablemen to attend as well, and woe betide them if their boots aren’t clean.’ ‘But why, Miss Roxanne?’ Cobbins protested with the familiarity of a man who’d known her since she was born. ‘Do as I say and you’ll find out soon enough,’ she informed him smartly and swept back into the house to issue an edict to the indoor staff. ‘Whatever’s going on, Miss Rosie?’ asked Tabby, her personal maid and suddenly the strictest chaperone the most finicky duchess could require for her precious offspring, whether Roxanne wanted her to be or not, which she definitely didn’t, she decided rebelliously. ‘In ten minutes you’ll find out along with everyone else, and you might as well occupy five of them by setting my hair to rights and give us both something to do.’ Tabby sniffed regally. ‘Some of us can work and talk at the same time, ma’am,’ she claimed but took down the rough chignon Roxanne had scrabbled together when she managed to rise, dress and steal out of the house without encountering any of her entourage for once, only because she did so before anyone but the boot boy and the scullery maid were stirring. Never mind their aghast expressions on discovering the lady of the house was stealing through the side door even before the sun reluctantly rose on a misty autumn morning, she’d managed her wild ride over the autumn landscape at last, and it’d been worth every exhilarating moment. ‘But we undoubtedly work faster in silence,’ Roxanne told her newly dragonlike maid in a tone she hoped was commanding enough to brook no argument and refused to elaborate, even in the face of extreme provocation. Despite her impatience with such finicky and ladylike occupations as fine grooming and pernickety dressing, Roxanne felt better once her hair was neat and she was dressed in a slightly more fashionable gown, so maybe Tabby was right about ordering some new ones next time she went to Rye. Such frippery notions went clean out of her head when she reached the kitchens and met the eyes of her assembled staff. Just as she’d predicted, Cook looked as if she’d like to beat the stable-boys with her formidable-looking ladle, and the gardeners’ feet were shuffling as if they had a mind of their own and might carry them back to their proper domain of their own accord if something wasn’t done or said very soon. ‘What’s afoot, Miss Rosie?’ Cook asked her with a terrifying frown that would reduce most ladies to a heap of fine clothes and incoherence. Luckily Roxanne knew a heart of gold beat under that formidable exterior, and it only needed the long line of giggling maids who lined up to be abused by the paper tiger as soon as they were old enough to work to confirm that Cook inspired love and loyalty in all those who served her, which brought Roxanne neatly back to her sheep. ‘I asked you all to assemble here this morning in order that I might tell you how deeply I’m honoured and moved by your steadfast loyalty to dear Uncle Granger and myself and to thank you for following me to Mulberry House in such large numbers. Which brings me neatly to the other reason I wanted to speak to you: by now I think we all realise this house is too small to accommodate a household large enough to run a castle, and I suggest … no,’ Roxanne corrected herself as she saw the stubborn set to Cook’s, Cobbins’s, Whistler’s and the butler’s collective mouths, ‘I insist that most of you return to Hollowhurst and take up your accustomed roles.’ An incoming wave of muttered protests threatened to become a tidal roar, but she held up her hand and it subsided to a few harrumphs of disagreement from the ringleaders. ‘I want you to consider how you all intend to occupy yourselves serving a mistress who doesn’t entertain or visit much and has no need of the exceptional skills required to run a castle or to progress in your chosen spheres.’ The maids and gardeners, grooms and stable boys eyed each other doubtfully, and Roxanne tried to tailor her speech to make the tougher part of her audience return to their proper domains and quit hers. ‘Sir Charles needs skilled staff to guide him in his new life. Command at sea must be very different to life as a country gentleman with a huge old house and a large estate to administer. I was wrong to encourage any of you to leave, but you know my hasty temper and no real damage has been done yet. Stay here much longer and Sir Charles will hire a pack of strangers to run Hollowhurst, and I doubt that’s what any of us want.’ ‘Maybe you’re correct, Miss Courland,’ Mereson, the stately butler, acknowledged with a bland look that led the assembled audience to doubt it, ‘but Sir Granger’s first concern was always for your welfare, so Cook, Cobbins, Whistler and myself will remain in your service.’ He eyed the other three sternly, but received only fervent nods and ayes and managed to look pleased with himself without spoiling the impassive façade of a superior butler, trained from birth to run Hollowhurst below-stairs as Sir Granger had been raised to rule above them. ‘I thank you, but my uncle would be the first to tell you not to be an awkward pack of idiots and get back to where you’re needed.’ Mulish expressions turned to doubtful frowns as they silently admitted she was right. Sensing victory, Roxanne pressed ruthlessly on. ‘You trained your deputies, so how can you doubt they’re capable of bothering me with unsolicited advice at all turns while running my house, stables and gardens almost as efficiently as you would? Meanwhile, you can help Sir Charles in his new life as the master of Hollowhurst Castle, knowing that I’m in safe hands.’ ‘Bravo, Miss Courland, I couldn’t have put it better myself, and I must add a personal plea for as many of you as Miss Courland can spare to take pity on me and come and help me run the castle before I’m properly in the basket for lack of your skills.’ Sir Charles Afforde then strolled further into the overcrowded room to stand by her side, and Roxanne wasn’t sure if she was more furious with him for looking as if they’d hatched this argument between them or with her staff for silently ghosting out of his way as if he’d every right to barge into her house and interfere without the least encouragement. Holding on to her temper while trying to look as if she concurred with his every word, although she’d like to kick him sharply in the shins, took every ounce of self-control Roxanne possessed. ‘Good morning, Sir Charles,’ she managed to greet him civilly. ‘Good morning, Miss Courland, and good morning to you all,’ he responded cheerfully, as if he was calling on her in her drawing room and not lounging about the commodious kitchen as if he owned that as well. A general murmur greeted him, ranging from stately politeness to a flutter of delight from the flightier maids, and again Roxanne had to choke back fury. Just because he was ridiculously handsome and a hero of the late wars, everyone forgot he was also a rake and a rogue. Wishing she hadn’t encouraged any of the female staff to return to the castle, she frowned repressively at them and won nervous, excited giggles for her pains. Hoping he was too gentlemanly to take advantage, Roxanne scowled fiercely at him, but he seemed unimpressed and just gave one of his piratical grins. ‘I suggest you take the rest of the day to consider what I’ve said,’ she suggested to her assembled staff, having little hope of the female section of it hearing her, as their attention was centred on Sir Charles lounging beside her as if he was as welcome as the flowers in spring. ‘Indeed we will, Miss Courland,’ Mereson intoned on behalf of all his minions. After giving the chief among them a few significant looks, he made sure they dispersed to their supposed places in her household, and Roxanne wondered, not for the first time, how on earth they managed to fit into it without constant collisions. At last only the kitchen staff were left, and the last giggling housemaid had been towed away by more sensible friends. Roxanne looked on Sir Charles with even less favour as he refused to notice she wanted him gone. ‘There’s scones and fresh blackberry jelly if you’d like me to send them through to the drawing room, Miss Rosie,’ Cook prompted, and Roxanne decided her light-as-air touch with such pastries was no compensation for an interfering nature, and Sir Charles was welcome to her. ‘Then will you join me, Sir Charles?’ she managed to say graciously enough. ‘Such a treat is not to be lightly missed, I can assure you.’ ‘My thanks, Miss Courland, but it defeats me how you managed to find room for so many in this rather compact house and still omitted to engage a companion to make my visit respectable,’ he carped as she led the way to her not-yet-formal drawing room. ‘If my companion and my reputation were any concern of yours, Sir Charles, I might explain myself. As they’re not, I feel no need to do so.’ ‘They soon will be if you get yourself ruined in the eyes of the world because you’re too stubborn to engage a duenna. I feel compelled to see you set right, Miss Courland, as I’m the most likely cause of our neighbours whispering scandal about you living alone so close to the Castle if you don’t see sense and employ a duenna.’ When she would have burst out into an indignant denial that he had any rights or obligations toward her, he held up his hand and Roxanne could see just how this supposedly light-hearted rogue had commanded his own ship and several others with ease. ‘It’s not because I possess a managing nature that I plague you about this, although I admit that’s part of it, but I promised your brother I’d make sure you were well settled and happy. Setting the gossips tattling about you before you’ve hardly got your boxes unpacked and your furniture arranged doesn’t augur well, Miss Courland. But if you cherish some bizarre plan to get yourself ostracised by polite society so you may become a recluse and ignore all your neighbours, then tell me now and I’ll leave you to get on with it.’ Oh, how she’d like to snap some smart retort back at him, to claim her position in local society was too secure to need his approval or interference. Inwardly seething, she managed to give him a sickly smile in recognition that he was a guest under her roof, and her uncle had taught her that obliged her to at least try to be hospitable. Somehow she managed to contain the flood of protest longing for release into what she hoped were a few pithy sentences he wouldn’t be able to argue with. ‘You’re not my brother and I’m not obliged to explain myself to you, Sir Charles. I absolve you from any promise you made him and beg you won’t give me another thought. I have many plans for the future, but none of them are any concern of yours. You’ll have most of your staff back by nightfall, so I suggest you put your own house in order and leave me to manage mine.’ ‘You’re the sister of a good friend as well as my cousin Tom Varleigh’s sister-in-law, so do you honestly think I’ll stand by and watch you ruin yourself in the eyes of your own kind when I’ve any power to stop you, ma’am?’ She’d been wavering until he added that ‘ma’am’—such a world of impatience and frustration as it contained, and such an awful promise of what she might become: a mere ma’am, a superannuated spinster with too much money and too little sense to find herself a husband. Now she was no longer the mistress of Hollowhurst, would she be seen by local society as another annoying female with no male to guide and centre her, a dangerous woman contained by their disapproval and then, when the years passed and she’d become a quiz, maybe their laughter? Roxanne shuddered and did her best to hide her misgivings from the abominable man. ‘I’m very pleased to say you possess no power over me, Sir Charles,’ she informed him haughtily and enjoyed the frustration in his eyes. ‘Mrs Lavender has arrived, Miss Roxanne,’ Mereson intoned from the doorway, which called an abrupt halt to their argument and made it annoyingly plain she’d already listened to him and found herself a chaperone. ‘Stella!’ Roxanne gasped and ran out into the hall to welcome her visitor, genuinely pleased to see her, but also glad Stella’s arrival gave her the excuse to ignore the wretched man for a few precious moments. Her letter asking Tom Varleigh’s sister to lend her countenance, if she could tolerate the task, had met with a very ready response, considering it must have got to Varleigh only hours before Stella set out. ‘Oh, Roxanne, how lovely to see you again, and if you’re quite sure I won’t be in the way, I’d really love to stay,’ Mrs Stella Lavender greeted her. Конец ознакомительного фрагмента. Текст предоставлен ООО «ЛитРес». Прочитайте эту книгу целиком, купив полную легальную версию (https://www.litres.ru/elizabeth-beacon/the-rake-of-hollowhurst-castle/?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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