A Less Than Perfect Lady Elizabeth Beacon At seventeen, Miranda Braxton shocked the world by eloping with her brother's tutor. Now a wiser and widowed lady, she returns to Carnwood—and finds herself engaged in a battle of wits with the new earl. Kit Alstone, Earl of Carnwood, grew up on the streets. His gentlemanly demeanor conceals an adventurer's heart. Miranda's bravery and beauty would tempt a saint—and Kit is far from that.Soon Kit begins to wonder if a scandalous lord might ask for nothing better than a less than perfect countess! He looked like every girl’s dream and their chaperons’ worst nightmare. Even the blue coat, fawn breeches and top boots of a country gentleman did nothing to detract from the danger signaled by his sardonic mouth and fathomless dark eyes. Add in curling dark hair as black as a raven’s wing, and it was little wonder she had been momentarily dazed, she told herself. She could envisage him on the quarterdeck of a privateer, or grimly determined as he charged into battle like a latter-day Achilles—but tamed by velvet and ermine and sitting in the House of Lords? Something told her he would hate such ceremonial splendor. The very thought of it made her smile as she came out of her reverie to greet the latest Earl of Carnwood. “So the prodigal returns,” he remarked, with a smile that did little to soften his stern expression. A Less Than Perfect Lady Harlequin Historical Author Note I can’t resist spending time with stubborn, irresistible heroes and feisty, intelligent heroines who are just made for each other, if only they would realize it. No wonder I have loved losing myself in Harlequin’s compelling romances ever since I discovered them through reading the wonderful Sophie Weston’s first book, and loving it so much I just had to find more. Then Harlequin began publishing historical novels, and I was well and truly hooked. Since then I have always known I can enjoy the luxury of forgetting my worries for a while as their romances take me into a different world, and somehow things never seem quite so bad when I come back to earth! I finally found the confidence to write the stories that had been whizzing around in my head for years, and distracting me at all the wrong times—and somehow there was never any risk of them being other than historical romances. Today I still love reading other authors’ books, and the more I learn about writing, the more I marvel at their skill and ability in transporting us readers to exotic locations on deeply emotional journeys. Beginning a very different journey as an author has made me realize how much expertise goes into producing books that seem effortless, so I would like to dedicate this book to those wonderful Harlequin writers, past and present, and to the unsung editors who patiently hone their work so we can all dream a little when we need to. A Less Than Perfect Lady ELIZABETH BEACON Available from Harlequin Historical and ELIZABETH BEACON An Innocent Courtesan #221 Housemaid Heiress #230 A Less Than Perfect Lady #247 DON’T MISS THESE OTHER NOVELS AVAILABLE NOW: #919 ONE CANDLELIT CHRISTMAS Julia Justiss, Annie Burrows and Terri Brisbin Have yourself a Regency Christmas! Celebrate the season with three heartwarming stories of reconciliation, surprises and secret wishes fulfilled…. #920 THE BORROWED BRIDE—Elizabeth Lane Preparing to marry her childhood sweetheart, Hannah Gustavson is torn by his sudden disappearance. Judd Seavers cannot just watch his brother’s woman struggle alone. So begins their marriage of convenience…. Can he give up the woman he has come to love? #921 UNTOUCHED MISTRESS—Margaret McPhee Rakish Guy Tregellas, Viscount Varington, is more than intrigued on discovering a beautiful woman washed up on a beach. Helena McGregor seeks anonymity in London from a dark past—but she needs the help of her disturbingly handsome rescuer…. A Regency rake finds himself a mistress in name only! #922 HER WARRIOR SLAVE—Michelle Willingham Kieran Ó Brannon sold himself into slavery for his family, but despite steadfast loyalty, he cannot deny the intensity of his feelings for his master’s betrothed—Iseult. She, too, must decide if succumbing to her fierce desire for the captured warrior is worth losing what she prizes most…. A dramatic medieval tale of untamed passion… #248 A SCOUNDREL OF CONSEQUENCE—Helen Dickson Against his better judgment, William Lampard made a wager to seduce Miss Cassandra Greenwood. But despite her provocative ways and the impudent sway of her skirts, he quickly realized that her innocence and goodness put her above a mere dalliance. He’s an infamous captain—both exciting and dangerous to know! ELIZABETH BEACON lives in the beautiful English west country, and is finally putting her insatiable curiosity about the past and her love of words to good use. After leaving school at sixteen, Elizabeth was sure she had blown her academic career by not paying much heed to lessons other than English and history, because she was reading historical novels under her desk! Imagine her surprise (and that of her long-suffering former teachers) when she graduated with an honors degree in English literature as a fairly mature student twelve years later. While she was an undergraduate, a course in creative writing made her think she might one day put her fertile imagination to good use, as well. After many stalled attempts to be sensible, Elizabeth has realized her ambition to write historical romances at last, and hopes anyone else who nurses an unlikely dream will take encouragement from her story and pursue it. Over the years Elizabeth has worked in her family’s horticultural business, become a teacher who sympathized too much with students who didn’t want to concentrate either, 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. Contents Chapter One Chapter Two Chapter Three Chapter Four Chapter Five Chapter Six Chapter Seven Chapter Eight Chapter Nine Chapter Ten Chapter Eleven Chapter Twelve Chapter Thirteen Chapter Fourteen Chapter Fifteen Chapter Sixteen Chapter Seventeen Chapter Eighteen Chapter Nineteen Chapter One The Honourable Mrs Miranda Braxton considered the visitor’s view of Wychwood Court, and found it even more imposing than she remembered. Through a veil of drizzle, the golden stones of the great Tudor mansion looked warm and welcoming after her five-year exile and she shifted in her seat to peer at it even more intently. It was impossible not to think of the folly of youth as she recalled how blithely she had left all this for the mirage Nevin Braxton had proved to be. All she needed to do this time was hold on to her composure and keep out of the way of Aunt Clarissa and her Cousin Celia for the week she would be permitted to stay. Why Grandfather had decreed her attendance at the final reading of his will was beyond her, considering he had made it very clear that she would never be allowed to darken his doors again. It wasn’t his door any more, so he had cunningly kept to the letter of his decree, she supposed. Yet, considering that his heir was the son of a man Grandfather hated, he must be spinning in his grave at the arrival of so many cuckoos in his precious nest! Even in north Wales she had heard whispers that the Carnwood heir was doing well for himself in the City. She had permitted herself a secret smile at how poorly that news would go down at Wychwood. Aunt Clarissa would hate the fact that he was tainting the noble Alstone name with so strong a whiff of trade, even if he was rumoured to have grown very rich doing so. Miranda wondered what her aunt thought the family fortunes were founded on, and spared a moment to consider the ridiculous hypocrisy of the higher echelons of polite society. ‘Just like his lordship to have his will read all these months after he died. He always was a contrary old curmudgeon,’ Leah, Miranda’s maid and companion, remarked as the coach began to slow. ‘Looks just the same as ever though, doesn’t it?’ she ended gruffly, and Miranda could see now that Leah had missed this lovely place as much as she had herself. ‘Yes, it does.’ ‘It’ll be different inside, I dare say, what with there being a new earl and everything. Lady Clarissa will be in a right tweak about that, just when she’d finally got your grandfather trained, so to speak.’ ‘I really hope you won’t, Leah.’ ‘Won’t what?’ her friend asked innocently, for friend she had been since they were children. Never mind the supposed gulf between mistress and maid—if not for Leah, where would Miranda be now? ‘Speak your mind.’ ‘And why shouldn’t I?’ Leah had long ago decided not to be the sort of maid who was seen and not heard. Miranda reflected that their five years of living in such an unusual household was unlikely to convince her friend to change. ‘Because it might help keep the peace,’ she replied wearily. ‘Hah! Some things aren’t worth keeping.’ ‘Whether or not that’s true, this household has naught to do with me nowadays and I’ll thank you to remember it,’ she insisted. ‘It’s your home, Miss Miranda.’ ‘No, it was my home,’ she replied calmly enough. She might have yearned desperately for Wychwood when she found it closed to her for good, but her darling godmother had given her a new home, and one she loved and appreciated. At Nightingale House she had learnt much she would never have found out as the pampered granddaughter of an earl, yet she had to admit to herself that Wychwood Court would always be something more to her than a grand manor. If she was given to extravagant flights of fancy, she would call it the home of her heart, and it was as closed to her now as it had been five years ago. ‘His lordship should never have sent you away,’ Leah grumbled on. ‘No, he was quite right to do so. He had more important things to consider than a wayward young idiot with more hair than sense.’ ‘Nothing should have been more important to him than his own flesh and blood.’ ‘Precisely,’ Miranda returned smartly, as the hired carriage drew up at the front door of her old home. As the steps were lowered and she stepped down on to the gravel, she hoped the two very good reasons for her five-year exile were safely ensconced at their select seminary in Bath and that nobody had insisted on them being present at such a sad and solemn occasion. ‘It would not have been suitable for me to come home, Leah,’ she said quietly. ‘I have two little sisters who would have been tainted by association, and you know very well I am happy with Lady Rhys.’ ‘You haven’t been that since the day you left,’ Leah replied with a mulish expression that warned Miranda there was very little point arguing. But Miranda was more convinced than ever that Grandfather had been right to make her stay away, lest her example continuously remind everyone just what Alstone girls were capable of. Even so, she felt the tears she had promised herself not to shed threaten as she looked up to survey her old home, and met the coldest and most cynical pair of brown eyes she had ever had the misfortune to encounter instead. Her latest detractor had been standing so still she had not noticed him, until his stony gaze fell on her and revealed his contempt. She didn’t know what she had done to offend him. Still, he looked like just the sort of enemy she would have travelled far to avoid, she decided, with a shudder that she sincerely hoped he was too far away to notice. Far too optimistic a notion! His sharp stare seemed to bore through her across the famous entrance to her one-time home. Yet even knowing that she was staring could not make her remember she was a lady and look away. No need to worry about that anyway, when the wretched man’s hostile gaze met hers with no concession to good manners. She contrarily felt as if a series of little fires had spontaneously taken hold at every nerve end. He looked like every girl’s dream and their chaperons’ worst nightmare. Even the blue coat, fawn breeches and top-boots of a country gentleman did nothing to detract from the danger signalled by his sardonic mouth and fathomless dark eyes. Add in curling dark hair as black as a raven’s wing and it was little wonder she had been momentarily dazed, she told herself. She could envision him on the quarterdeck of a privateer, or grimly determined as he charged into battle like a latter-day Achilles, but tamed by velvet and ermine and sitting in the House of Lords? Something told her he would hate such ceremonial splendour. The very thought of it made her smile as she came out of her reverie to greet the latest Earl of Carnwood. ‘So the prodigal returns,’ he remarked with an smile that did little to soften his stern expression. He descended the steps with a grace that reminded Miranda of a self-assured predator and one with every confidence in his power over his prey, she decided as she forced herself to stand her ground. The new earl had long legs and a leanly muscular build that would no doubt be a match for any athlete. There was something wholly untamed about him. Once upon a time his feral assurance and hunter’s eyes would have drawn her to him like a moth to a flame. Every inch of him was a challenge to any female in possession of her senses, and the rebellious, headstrong Miranda Alstone she had thought long dead was urgently reminding her she still had a full set of those. ‘Sir?’ she said stiffly, cross with him for scouting her delusion that she was in full control of both mind and body nowadays. ‘Madam?’ he replied blandly, offering no excuse for his intent summary of her face and person, just as if she was the next item on his bill of fare and he wasn’t quite sure if he was too fastidious to gobble her up or not. Suppressing a shiver that should have been one of revulsion, but fell loweringly short, she assured herself that she had the right to expect better from the man who was now head of her family. Eyeing him warily as he stepped down to her, she concluded there was very little point in trying to shame him into politeness. If the mix of hunger and fury in his dark eyes was anything to go by, he certainly hadn’t much intention of acting the gracious host towards his latest guest and she might as well resign herself to a very uncomfortable week. ‘We have not been introduced,’ she said, unusually flustered as she took an involuntary step backwards. He frowned impatiently at such an irrelevance. As the new earl and therefore her little sisters’ guardian, he had good reason to be wary of her. In fact, rumour must have told him far too much about the stormy petrel come to pollute the family nest for her to feel at all comfortable in his company. She supposed he almost had a duty to dislike her visit. After all, Grandfather had refused to receive her and, once upon a time, he had loved her. ‘Since you show no signs of remedying the situation, I take it you must be the Seventh Earl of Carnwood?’ Miranda said quietly as they stood and sized each other up like adversaries before a battle. ‘Indeed, and it’s always a pleasure to acquire such a beautiful relative, Mrs Braxton,’ he replied with a wolfish smile. ‘Is it, indeed? What a delight to welcome such a flatterer to the family, my lord,’ she replied, having no intention of being ‘acquired’ whatsoever. She ought to be used to the scurrilous opinion so-called gentlemen seemed to have of her morals and instincts by now, but somehow his failure to see past the obvious was more of a betrayal than all the others put together. Which really was quite ridiculous; she had only just met him and after this week they would never meet again, with any luck at all. Straightening her spine and raising her chin in defiance of him, and her shady reputation, she stood back a little to look directly into those impudent, angry eyes and defy his ridiculous prejudices. ‘I make a point of telling the truth when circumstances allow, madam,’ he informed her smoothly enough, the sardonic glint in his dark eyes informing her that he considered she wouldn’t recognise honesty if it slapped her. Blazing defiance of whatever judgements he had formed out of gossip and misanthropy back at him, she let her generous mouth curl in a very slight sneer and gave him one of her best downing looks. She had learnt a battery of them over the years. Malicious tongues hounded her even in the remote Welsh valley where her godmother lived. Relentless gossip had led far too many apparent gentlemen to try their luck with a female with such a shady past, but rebuffing them in no uncertain terms had been child’s play compared to outfacing this wolf in wolf’s clothing. ‘You must have a goodly supply of enemies, Lord Carnwood,’ she parried calmly enough. ‘Few people relish hearing the unvarnished facts about themselves, being such erring creatures as we are. Pray, how do you tell truth from lies?’ she went on with spurious innocence. ‘By uncovering more accurate information,’ he returned without a blink and she frowned at the implication that he knew more about her than the malice and rumour that usually passed as knowledge. Unease gnawed at her hard-won assurance as she considered parts of her past even she could not fully recall. Nobody but Nevin Braxton had known all the sordid details of their life together, and at least he was beyond telling anyone of them now. No, his lordship had better look elsewhere for his sport; she had no intention of escaping one petty tyrant to replace him with a worse one. Even the fact that he had provoked memories of that time in her life was quite sufficient to make her hate him, thank you very much! ‘That is sometimes a next-door-to-impossible task,’ she challenged his boast confidently enough. ‘I usually find a way,’ he told her, and it sounded halfway between a threat and a promise. ‘Then the moment I feel the need to have my prejudices confirmed, I shall come to you for advice, my lord. For now, though, the wind is getting up and we have had a long journey. I fear that Leah and I will catch an ague if we stand here for much longer like exhibits at a fair.’ ‘How remiss of me, you must make allowances for my ignorance of polite society.’ ‘To do that I would have to believe it ignorance and not disregard, my lord.’ ‘Would you, Mrs Braxton? How singular of you,’ he parried swiftly, and if she had been in the slightest bit inclined to underestimate her foe she would have considered herself fairly warned by such an effortless counter-attack. Trying to find a bright side to a very large thundercloud, she decided that, while she might deplore his manners and despise his prejudice, he would make a fierce protector to any lucky soul he considered worth protecting. Hopefully her little sisters would be among that number and nobody would ever have the chance to lure them into the sort of ridiculous follies she had so unthinkingly committed herself. Something young and silly in her yearned to be one of the select band Lord Carnwood cared about, until she looked up and met his flinty scrutiny once more as he marched up the wide steps at her side. Trust him to manage to watch her every step into his lair without tripping over his own feet, she mused with savagely controlled composure. Stiffening her backbone, she forced herself to casually glance away as if his fierce gaze meant nothing to her. Getting to the top of the steps without falling flat on her face would be defence enough for now and, once she had rested and washed off the travel stains, she would counter-attack so strongly he would leave her be for the rest of her stay. Well, she silently amended as they at last reached the wide front door, since she was to be a guest under his roof she could hope he could tell from her chilly manner that she was not interested in rogues of any variety. She had taken her fill of them at a very early age and, be they weak and bullying like Nevin, or strong and arrogant as the new Earl of Carnwood, she wanted no more of them. ‘Miranda! You have grown so thin and drawn I hardly recognised you.’ A light soprano voice cut through the tense silence between the master of the house and his reluctant guest. Miranda was shocked to find she was rather disappointed to have their hostile tête-à-tête cut short. His lordship was even more dangerous than she had thought, she decided, and resolved to become as close to invisible as made no difference for the next few days. Fighting with him had made her feel more alive than she had been in five years, and some things were better left dormant. For now she dare not take her eyes off her old enemy to consider her new one, for she knew of old how sharp-eyed Mrs Cecilia Grant was. Her cousin even managed to add to the grace and elegance of Wychwood’s famous Marble Hall, making even the exquisite sculpture of the goddess Diana posed behind her look clumsy, but Miranda shivered at the coldness in her eyes. Celia was six years older than her, of course, and might be considered almost at her last prayers by a blind idiot. No doubt it would take a duke, or some well-placed dynamite, to shift her from Wychwood now. Already there was a possessive glint in her grey eyes as they dwelt significantly on his lordship’s broad-shouldered figure and then swung back to Miranda. Point taken, Miranda privately conceded with a bland smile. She knew perfectly well that any warmth in her cousin’s smile was there for the Earl’s benefit. She and Celia were hardly likely to pretend affection for each other at this late stage. Anyway, from what she had seen so far, Celia and the new master of Wychwood would suit each other very well indeed. At least if they were safely wed to each other they wouldn’t make two more deserving people miserable for the rest of their lives. ‘Good day, Cousin Cecilia,’ Miranda greeted her relative cautiously, wondering if Bonaparte himself might not receive a warmer welcome here than she had thus far. ‘Miranda,’ the lady replied coolly, as if they had seen each other but yesterday and not much enjoyed the experience. ‘How do you go on?’ ‘Much as I ever did,’ Celia replied, looking pardonably pleased. ‘So I see,’ Miranda acknowledged, not at all surprised when the courtesy was not returned. ‘I trust my aunt enjoys her usual excellent health?’ ‘Mama seems to have recovered from her loss at last, and the new earl has relieved us of a multitude of cares.’ She sent a melting look in his direction as Miranda watched cynically. Since Celia seemed to be looking for a second husband the wonder must be that she hadn’t yet found one, and the arrival of his lordship must have been a gift from the gods. ‘Managing the household alone has put great strain on us both,’ Celia went on in the die-away voice that had always made Miranda long to box her ears. ‘I’m quite sure it has,’ she replied blandly, impressed with her own restraint even if nobody else was. She even managed not to smile when she heard Leah’s loudly expressive sniff at such a shameless lie. Anyone who knew them would realise Celia and her mother enjoyed holding sway at the Court, while doing very little actual work. Maybe something of her thoughts showed in her face despite such self-restraint, though, for Celia’s gaze grew even stonier as she let it dwell on Miranda’s apparently insignificant form. Luckily she was too ladylike to sniff and just let her expression tell Lord Carnwood of her gallantly suppressed outrage. No doubt he shared it and when they were alone they could commiserate with each other on having to own to such a disreputable connection. ‘Mama is taking tea in the state drawing room,’ Celia prompted, a steely glint in her grey eyes. From her satisfied expression Celia knew she was calling up a formidable reserve force, and Miranda had to admit it was a masterstroke. A summons to Lady Clarissa’s favourite haunt had struck terror into her youthful heart once upon a time. Yet if Aunt Clarissa and Celia thought she was still the insecure girl who had left Wychwood five years ago they were in for a shock. She would not have survived marriage to Nevin Braxton with her sanity intact if she had remained so dependent on the approval of others for her peace of mind. Miranda met her cousin’s cool gaze and gave her a slight nod of acknowledgement and, as Celia’s lips tightened as far as she ever allowed them to in mixed company, she knew her message had been received. ‘Some refreshment would be most welcome after such a protracted journey,’ she coolly informed the space between her reluctant reception committee. ‘How remiss of us not to offer it sooner,’ the Earl remarked with an irony that would have done Beau Brummell himself proud, then he stood aside to let the ladies precede him with all the tonnish elegance he had previously disclaimed. She spared them an openly considering look as they closed ranks behind her, then swept across the expanse of polished marble with a deliberately exaggerated grace. She could almost feel his arrogant lordship’s gaze lingering on her swaying hips and the supple flow of her long legs. Let him think what he pleased. The rest of the world seemed determined to do so anyway, and she refused to allow him to be any different. To distract herself from those two sets of condemning eyes fixed on her unsatisfactory person, she let herself consider them as cousins and found them as dissimilar to each other as they were to her. Celia hated the fact that she had not inherited the famous dark blue Alstone eyes, but the new Earl didn’t have them either. He took after the founders of the family fortune in looks and doubtless in ruthless ambition as well. Miranda recalled the legend that every time a dark-haired, dark-eyed Alstone became head of the family, he either brought disaster or extraordinary blessings to Wychwood in his wake. Whichever it was to be, nobody should expect a peaceful time of it, but, for the new earl’s advent to be a personal disaster, he would first have to acquire an importance in her life she refused to grant him. ‘I must bid my aunt a good day before I get rid of my dirt,’ she said cheerfully enough. Celia looked as if she would have been quite happy to sacrifice her company and his lordship frowned and veered off towards the library, ordering Coppice the butler to deny him to callers, before he went into that vast room and closed the door emphatically behind him. Miranda somehow managed not to laugh at her cousin’s shocked expression. His blatant refusal of a tête-à-tête with Celia, while the inconvenient new arrival was shuffled off on to Lady Clarissa, almost put the two cousins on a level footing for once. Chapter Two ‘Cousin Christopher is always busy when he’s been to London on business,’ Celia remarked distantly. Where once the very mention of the word ‘business’ would have had Celia raising her aristocratic nose with distaste, it seemed that a belted earl and head of the Alstone clan could soil his hands with work and still gain her blessing. ‘How long are you intending to stay?’ Celia went on, getting down to business now there was no need to pretend even the slightest welcome. ‘Not long, springtime is busy in Snowdonia.’ ‘I hope Lady Rhys doesn’t expect you to help her shepherds?’ Luckily Miranda had learnt the value of self-restraint, and knew nothing would infuriate Celia more than seeing her barbs go astray. ‘My godmother would have me be a lady of such leisure I would be bored to the edge of reason if I listened to her,’ she said with a fond smile. ‘Then she cannot know you.’ ‘Five years is quite long enough a time to know a person when you live with them day after day,’ Miranda replied, hanging on to her temper with something of an effort. ‘Perhaps not long enough,’ Celia insisted maliciously. ‘We knew one another very well before I went to reside with her, thanks to my holidays at Nightingale House,’ Miranda argued serenely. ‘She always was foolishly indulgent with her charity cases,’ Celia said, hoping to spark Miranda’s temper as she had so skilfully in the old days. Luckily, Miranda thought with a coolly ironic smile, she had learnt a great deal of self-control since then. ‘That’s why none of us takes advantage of her generosity, or likes to hear her traduced,’ she countered instead. ‘The opinion of jailbirds, street urchins and fallen women is unlikely to influence persons of quality. Nor is a shabby widow hidden away on a remote estate without the blessings of civilisation of much interest to her peers,’ Celia went on undaunted. ‘My godmama will doubtless be delighted to hear it,’ Miranda returned blandly and was delighted to see a flush of temper tint her cousin’s cheeks. ‘Of course, if you stay away from her isolated little valley for long, you will not remain similarly uninteresting,’ she snapped. ‘How unfortunate for me,’ Miranda replied smoothly, deciding not to tell Celia she intended returning to her new life as soon as possible just now. ‘Yes, it would be.’ ‘That sounded almost like a threat, Cousin Cecilia, how very clumsy of you,’ she murmured as they entered the grand saloon together. ‘Ah, Aunt Clarissa, I can see that you are enjoying your usual good health.’ ‘Niece,’ her least favourite relative greeted her with no obvious enthusiasm, as if she was acknowledging some unpleasant condition she was justly ashamed of. ‘You’re sadly worn looking and far too thin.’ ‘Then I shall eat well and take more rest while I am here,’ she returned blandly, and welcomed the look of fury building in the stony gaze. Fury was a far better reaction than the gloating look they had shared whenever they succeeded in pointing up her faults in the old days. Yet despite it, they managed to exchange a few stiff courtesies with their unwelcome visitor. Miranda knew it wasn’t fondness that had prompted their reluctant politeness, but the entrance of Coppice and his minions with the tea tray. Casting her old friend a grateful look for his strategy, Miranda left them to their tea with no regrets on either side. With that duty done, at least she could relax until dinner and her next skirmish with her less-than-loving relatives. ‘A word with you, if you please, Mrs Braxton,’ a deep voice demanded as she hurried toward the staircase. Miranda bade a silent farewell to the interlude of peace and quiet she had been promising herself and spun on her heel with a social smile she hoped would confound him. It made no impression on him whatsoever. The Earl of Carnwood was already marching toward the library without even looking behind to see if she was following. Arrogant boor, she categorised crossly, even as she obediently trailed in his wake. A warning shiver ran down her spine as soon as she found herself alone with the new earl for the first time. For some reason she felt as breathless and shaken as if she had suddenly run full tilt into a stone wall someone had thrown up without telling her, and it didn’t chime well with her picture of herself nowadays as self-contained and even a little cold. Trying to control her peculiar reaction to a stranger who seemed oddly familiar, she drew heavily on the lessons the last five years had taught her. Maybe he was even more intimidating now than he had seemed outside, but hard looks and accusations could only hurt if she let them. Yet he managed to exude an air of power, just held in check by the demands of civilisation. It must prove an enormous asset to him in his business dealings she decided, and the fine hairs on the back of her neck stood up in some sort of warning. But no, she was immune to adventurers, she reiterated fiercely to herself, and hoped her lips hadn’t moved in time with her thoughts. A shudder shook her as she met his dark eyes again and decided a wise woman would walk away right now, before anything irrevocable could happen. Once upon a time she had run headlong towards damnation with a confident smile on her silly young face, but she had acquired a little wisdom from her youthful follies. In which case, why was she having such trouble controlling this urge to tremble at the very sight of the new Earl of Carnwood? Somewhere in her most feverish dreams she had met the dark eyes of a fallen angel somewhat akin to him, and that was what was doing the damage to her defences now. Her dream hero had been all power and intensity too, but she had fantasised him as her other half. Unfortunately he had been an illusion, produced by a sick mind and suffering body at her darkest hour, and my Lord Carnwood was much too real for comfort. Miranda watched warily as he let the silence stretch and her nerves along with it. He took her mind off his piratical looks when he seemed to consider what he had to say to her before turning about and shutting the door behind them. Despite its lofty proportions, the new earl dominated the huge room effortlessly and she felt as if she had unwarily entered a trap. She stiffened her backbone and told herself he would not intimidate her so easily, but she wasn’t entirely convinced she was right. Reminding herself of her godmother’s motto that knowing your enemy took you halfway to taming them, she wondered if anyone could know this one. He let silence echo around the large room with the slow tick of the elaborate French clock on the mantelpiece and she made a cautious survey of him, looking for any weakness to exploit when battle finally commenced. He had high cheekbones and a Roman nose, but a surprisingly sensitive mouth offset the haughty cast of his features, and surely it was made for better things than clamping into the hard line it took on now? She shivered and resisted the temptation to cross her arms over her body in self-defence. Her predominant sensation was one of cold isolation, as if he had deliberately excluded her from the generosity of that firm mouth and whatever gentleness he might be capable of. ‘We have not met before, have we?’ she asked, puzzled by a feeling of familiarity with this stranger. ‘I should recall it, even if you did not, ma’am,’ he replied with apparent uninterest. ‘Being admitted to the charmed circle of the Earl of Carnwood’s close family would have been memorable for such a rough creature as I was in my youth. Perhaps we should cite an elusive family resemblance in support of your obvious bewilderment?’ Despite the sickening lurch of her heartbeat when she recalled where certain gaps in her memory fitted, Miranda held his gaze and pretended her knees were not threatening to wobble like a jelly. No, she would not forget the new Earl of Carnwood. She doubted anyone could, however hard they tried. ‘You do look a little like Wicked Rupert Alstone,’ she agreed lightly. ‘Should I be flattered by the likeness?’ ‘Not unless you have a taste for ruthless piracy and riotous living, in which case you would probably consider him a prince among men. If not, we must hope I’m mistaken. Sir Rupert was a very bad apple.’ ‘I dare say you must be, then,’ he said with a cynical smile that told her he was unsure of her soundness. ‘But you must not keep my lord-ing me, Mrs Braxton. I would prefer being simply your Cousin Christopher, if you will be my Cousin Miranda in return?’ ‘Then of course we must be cousins, my lord.’ She doubted he had ever been simply anything, but it sounded such a comfortable notion. Not kissing cousins, but distant ones in every way? Oh, yes, that would do very well. ‘That’s settled then, Cousin, and I bid you welcome to your old home and my new one,’ he said with an elegant bow. ‘Thank you, I look forward to reacquainting myself with it.’ ‘I’m quite sure that you do,’ he replied and this time there was no mistaking the cynicism in his smile. Did he think she was planning to run off with the family silver, for heaven’s sake? A picture of herself staggering out of the house weighed down with clanking booty at the end of her stay almost made her smile. ‘I do not intend to stay any longer than necessary,’ she sought to reassure him, but if his formidable frown was anything to go by, she didn’t succeed. ‘I believe my predecessor ordered that you remain a week,’ he argued. ‘I am of age and a widow, and thus in command of my own destiny.’ ‘Yes, and just look what you have done with it,’ he snapped. ‘Which has nothing whatsoever to do with you,’ she said with apparent calmness; it was that or throw the nearest ledger at his ridiculously handsome head. ‘I am head of the family now.’ ‘Congratulations, no doubt you will enjoy wielding your authority over them, but luckily you have none over me.’ ‘Your annuity comes from the family trusts, I believe?’ he asked in a voice that was suddenly silky with unspoken threat. ‘And I hope you are not thinking of using that fact against me like the villain in a poorly contrived melodrama?’ she returned scornfully. ‘Anything to put a brake on your folly,’ he ground out as if tried to the very edge of his meagre stock of patience. If Miranda had not known better, she might have considered him a man driven to extremis by some deeply hidden passion, but surely an hour’s acquaintance wasn’t enough to raise his hackles so thoroughly? ‘My conduct is none of your business, my lord,’ she objected and suddenly she wanted to commit every sin in the calendar just to spite him. ‘Of course it is,’ he replied, more formidable than ever as he stepped closer and seemed to tower over her like a Titan. ‘If I choose to dance naked on every gaming table in Mayfair, you could do nothing about it and you know it.’ ‘Try it and you’ll very rapidly discover your mistake,’ he gritted through clenched teeth, and she actually heard herself squeak with surprise when he clipped her into his furious embrace, as she discovered too late that she had goaded the predator in him just a little too far. Possession, fury and sheer need blazed back at her as she stared up at him in wonder, waiting for her own rage to catch up with shock. It was shock that held her immobile, of course it was. To be helpless in the arms of a man whose strength and power far outran her own was a nightmare. Or at least it would be as soon as her mind took over from her senses. Then she would turn stiff and outraged in his arms, instead of lying passive and even a little intrigued against his muscular torso like some swooning idiot. ‘I won’t allow it,’ he informed her tersely, just before he did just what her silly senses wanted and bowed his dark head to take her mouth with his. And take he did. She stood bewildered in his arms and gave right back with a generosity part of her screamed was the biggest mistake of a long line of them. Nothing that had gone before had armoured her against this, she realised, even as her mouth softened and then yielded to his and she let her senses drown in him. His kiss felt almost desperate; hungry with more than mere lust, as if he had been starving for this for a long time. Ignoring the cynical inner voice that whispered she was living in cloud cuckoo land, she felt his tongue circle her suddenly pouting lips and then effortlessly persuade them to part and let him inside. Right in the heart of her something softened and glowed into dangerous life. The essence of her femininity was still there after all, she discovered, unsure whether to be shocked or fascinated as her body revelled in his touch as it never had before. Not even Nevin Braxton had managed to destroy her, she suddenly knew, as another man’s mouth melted the ice her husband had put about her deepest desires. Christopher Alstone groaned at her passionate response while she exulted in it; knowing he had freed something locked down and lost at the heart of her. Yet if she was not to regret it, the annoying voice of returning common sense informed her, she must stop him before this went much too far for both of them. Then he plundered even deeper and his tongue danced with hers and her curiosity sparked dangerously to life as well. What would it be like to know the extremities of passion with such a man? Every instinct told her there would be nothing of compulsion or horror in such mutual need. From what seemed like a long distance she heard herself groan, not in disgust, but because she wanted more, closer, deeper. A hand she did not even know was free until then wandered round to the nape of his neck and rubbed at his silky curls, left just a little too long for the strict dictates of fashion. The scent of him, fresh air, good soap and aroused male, filled her lungs and she felt almost as if she was becoming part of him, as if fate had a hand in a joining far more intimate and just as inevitable. ‘No!’ she gasped as the prospect shook every resolution she had formed the day she finally got free of her husband. Their gazes clashed as they took in what had happened, and what might have, if she hadn’t awoken to the possibility she was about to be made the Earl of Carnwood’s mistress. Oh, the humiliation that would have been, when passion was spent and both parties realised what they had done to satisfy it. All she had learnt from Nevin was that humiliation and much worse, not the jag and drag of frustration and regret not making love with Christopher Alstone had left her with. ‘No,’ he confirmed. ‘Then release me?’ she asked and let her eyes drift to where his long-fingered brown hand rested on the curve of her slender waist. He dropped his hand as if she had burnt him, and hectic colour burnt along his high cheekbones as he stepped away. His dark gaze became guarded even as hers sought the reassurance that she rarely asked for nowadays. If she hadn’t seen those long, strong fingers shake just once before he clenched them into fists at his sides, she might have thought him as unaffected as he was suddenly trying to appear. ‘Please accept my apologies,’ he finally managed, although his voice sounded gruff and somewhat rusty. Eyeing him as dubiously as he was watching her, Miranda dipped him a perfunctory curtsy and forced herself not to make an undignified bolt for freedom. Then she cursed herself for not escaping as his grip on her wrist stopped her in her tracks. ‘Have a care, Cousin Miranda,’ he warned in a deadly undertone, ‘if I hear gossip of this I’ll have you put out of the park gates, will or no will.’ ‘How dare you?’ she whispered back fiercely, heartbeat racing at the angry mixture of excitement and fury his touch and those contrary words aroused. ‘I dare what I must to protect my own,’ he rasped. ‘Your sisters are in my care now, and you will behave yourself for their sake.’ She gave him a haughty glare and thought dark thoughts about his future well-being. Yet for some silly reason her mind kept presenting her with an image of him, eyes warm and hungry for her and everything about her, and she didn’t even like him, for heaven’s sake! ‘You don’t know me, sir, and you never will.’ ‘Don’t underestimate me, Mrs Braxton. Force me to hold up your life to public scrutiny and you’ll very soon regret it.’ The unease that constantly stalked her pooled in her stomach and threatened to turn her physically sick, but she braved his flinty gaze again despite it, if only because she would not be stared at as if she was something unsavoury on his boots. ‘Do you make a habit of relying on second-hand judgements, my lord?’ ‘No, I rely on experience,’ he told her with an impassive stare she flinched away from understanding. Yet even while he was condemning her, his long fingers soothed her tense wrist and she was shaken by a tremor of forbidden excitement very different from the effect he was striving for. The memory of that kiss was not just in her reeling mind, it was imprinted on her body, spinning between one drunken sense and the next. ‘Behave yourself and you can have your week, my dear,’ he went on, ‘you can hardly wreak your usual havoc in so short a time.’ ‘As Grandfather’s will insisted I was to be given houseroom before his estate was finally distributed, you must offer me welcome, my lord, and I am certainly not your dear.’ ‘I always have a choice, madam.’ ‘Choose to let me go and you might get your dinner on time, then.’ He dropped her hand with unflattering haste and thrust his own into his coat pocket as if she had scalded him, and she saw some of the vulnerability and driven passion he had shown in that kiss. ‘Go on, then,’ he rasped, almost as if he was in pain. ‘I dare say you plan your every entrance you make for maximum effect.’ ‘I long ago made it a rule never to be predictable. A trait you might do well to mimic, my lord, if you plan to make a success of your new life.’ ‘Nothing you do could surprise me, madam,’ he warned with a smile that did not reach his eyes. Then he bowed a brief and not particularly polite farewell, before picking up one of the ledgers stacked on the nearby desk as if he had dismissed her from his thoughts. Telling herself she was glad to forsake the company of so boorish and prejudiced a man, Miranda left the room without another word. If so small a piece of self-restraint was all it took to assure him of his own omnipotence, he was a man of straw after all. Outside the fine mahogany doors she blinked determinedly a few times, telling herself that the threat of tears stinging her eyes was purely the product of tiredness and ill temper. She would not let him spoil this brief homecoming, and even Christopher Alstone could not police her thoughts. Chapter Three Kit waited a few moments to make sure she had really gone before he threw down the ledger he had been staring at as if it was written in hieroglyphs and poured himself a brandy to brood over. He might have given vent to a grim laugh if he could indeed read Miranda’s mind. After all, he couldn’t govern his own dreams, let alone her thoughts. The last half-hour had proved that, when it came to Miranda Alstone, he had no sense at all. Restless night-visions of her had haunted him for five long years, even when he managed to dismiss her from his waking thoughts. Indeed, they had an annoying habit of plaguing him with ridiculous fantasies about a woman he had encountered once and never managed to forget, try as he might. Well, now he had made bad worse, and how could he finally persuade her to take him to her bed and slake this ridiculous, ill-begotten, urgent need of her when she was a guest under his new roof? The knowledge that she was totally oblivious to their one fateful meeting all those years ago made him want to throw something to vent his volcanic fury, lest it boil out at the most inappropriate moment and scald those who didn’t deserve it. He made himself lean back in his chair and reassemble the cool self-command he had learnt so painfully. Let one passion in and another might ruin all, he assured himself, and that kiss had nearly changed everything. Yet he couldn’t help wondering how the Honourable Mrs Braxton would react if he stormed up to her room right now and took what should have been his five years ago. He smiled wryly as he anticipated the spirited refusal such tactics would meet with. A base part of him might be in thrall to the lovely witch, but wasn’t that very spirit the reason he wanted her so stubbornly? He had never forced a woman in his life and didn’t intend to start now, so he sat in the chair by the fire to remember her, standing proud and defiant in that stinking tavern on Bristol docks as if it was yesterday. Five years ago Kit Stone had let his hair grow and forgot to shave now and again as he adopted the language and habits of the street. A man of his upbringing developed many unfair advantages over his competitors. Maybe he should be thankful for the years when he had to scavenge, beg and steal to feed and clothe himself and his sisters. Or maybe he should just carry on hating his noble relatives for leaving them all to go to the devil, along with the drunken gambler who had fathered them. Thanks to Bevis Alstone’s decline and fall, it didn’t take long for his son to establish himself as a shady dealer in whatever came his way, once he had traced the two rogues who had corrupted or murdered his crew and stolen his cargo. After a day spent finagling customers and suppliers out of as much as he could get, he usually spent the evening drinking and dicing in one of the lowest dives on the docks while watching and waiting. At least the man he had drunk with that night had almost played fair, which was all a half-honest man could ask after all. ‘Gen’lmen…’ a voice rose over the hubbub in the stinking tavern ‘…got a proposition for you.’ Seeing who was making it, the customers went back to gaming, drinking and whoring with a contemptuous shrug and a snarled curse or two. Kit’s gaze lingered thoughtfully on the ravaged figure at the door that must lead upstairs. The man’s face, under that unkempt golden beard, must have been handsome before drink and dissipation put their stamp on him, and his voice had the polished edge of a gentleman, even if the rest of him fell well short of the mark. A man with nothing to lose, he deduced, and wondered if he was on to a lead after all. ‘Last time ’e wanted to ’awk a goldmine,’ his fellow gambler told Kit with a dismissive shrug. ‘Told ’im to take it up to Clifton where there’s flats a-plenty to catch.’ Kit’s well-honed instincts told him there was something odd about that particular drunkard. Business and pleasure carried on around him, but when the sot reappeared, the woman at his side took Kit’s breath away, and stopped the clamour in the tavern between one second and the next. Smoky lamplight highlighted a heavy mass of silky hair that was neither gold, brown nor red, but a rich mix of all three as it lay loose on her shoulders and framed a face made for a far better setting—Olympus, perhaps? Kit blinked and tried to believe rum and lust were riding him, but when he opened his eyes the goddess was still there, looking back at him as eagerly as he was staring at her. He might have been flattered, if not for something strange in that lapis-lazuli gaze of hers that part of him wanted to lose himself in and not count the cost. They would be bewitching he decided, even if the rest of her didn’t match their vivid glory. Yet half-closed eyelids and velvety black pupils woke him from a daydream, and told him she didn’t see him for the narcotic ruling her. Apparently his Venus of the dockyards was far from untouched by the corruption around her after all. ‘Drugged to stop ’er runnin’, poor soul,’ the barmaid murmured, as she placed another glass of rum on the table beside him. Did she think he’d pay well for a harlot fresh to her trade and thus keep the irascible landlady happy for once? Or was that simple pity for whatever indignity his goddess was about to suffer? He’d been a cynic practically since he learned to talk, but something in Venus’s demeanour told him not so long ago she had been more innocent than he had ever been in his life. ‘Tol’ you I had a prop’sition,’ the man slurred out with unstoppable determination. ‘Wife sale,’ he concluded triumphantly. ‘That’s how you peasants do it, don’ see why it won’ work for me.’ Luckily for him, too much attention was on the woman at his side for him to suffer for those reckless words, at least for now. ‘C’mon, gen’lmen, what am I bid? Ah,’ he said owlishly, his finger just hitting the side of his nose, ‘need to see more of the goods, eh?’ The girl stared serenely at Kit as if the sight of him negated the avid eyes and eagerly licked lips around her. Then her husband tore her high-necked gown from neck to navel, revealing her snowy breasts, rising proud above her chemise, and she looked for a moment as if reality was about to descend. Kit’s hands tightened involuntarily into fists even now as he thought of the casual way that miserable drunkard had torn even that fragile protection aside to expose more than any woman should have to in company. Yet at the time Kit’s gaze had clung hungrily to her coral-peaked nipples despite his fury, and his loins had tightened viciously. He might have been filled with revulsion by the whole sordid business, but he had still been racked with such lust he became almost a stranger to himself. Unsure if he was more furious with himself for behaving like an over-excited lout, or her for being the siren he wanted above all others, he was still in thrall to Venus. He had reminded himself that he was a successful man now, and when he wanted a woman he kept a willing one in luxury. Yet he met the densely blue eyes of his goddess and nearly fell headlong into her blurred reality. When her gaze faltered she had looked very young all of a sudden. He watched her sway and correct herself to stand as far away from the sot at her side as she could with his cruel fingers biting into her arm like fetters. When Kit looked again, he decided he must have been wrong about her age after all, for her fathomless eyes were full of dazed sensuality as they met his. He felt heat shoot through him. The bidding was up to ten pounds when his brain finally persuaded his senses to pay attention and he knew that, whatever she was, he was going to have her tonight and that was that. No other man deserved her, and certainly none present tonight were capable of seeing she had a seduction fit for a goddess. ‘That’s giving her away. Fine-looking woman, even if has go’ tongue like an asp,’ the vendor claimed rather foolishly, but his audience scarcely heard him. ‘Twelve,’ an eager young tar shouted. ‘Twenty!’ the ship’s master Kit had been pursuing all week offered, and greedily feasted his eyes on mysteries only Kit should be allowed to see. The rating fell back, disappointment written all over his tanned young face. ‘Thirty!’ Kit heard himself shout above the din. The room went silent as a new tension filled the air. Kit knew he had been right in thinking this was the hideaway of at least one of the rogues he was after. It obviously took a brave man, or a fool, to challenge him here. He was certainly the latter, he decided wryly, as weeks of careful work went begging for the sake of a bought woman he intended having in his bed for many nights to come. ‘Any more f’r any more,’ her contemptible keeper bawled cheerfully. ‘Fifty,’ the master snapped, and Kit guessed he had already spent most of his ill-gotten gains after murdering half Kit’s crew and suborning the rest. ‘Sixty guineas,’ he countered quietly and his rival’s shoulders slumped, until he remembered how to lie again. ‘Seventy!’ ‘If you got that much gelt you’ll pay yer shot fust, Toby Rigg,’ the landlady bawled from her vast chair by the fire. ‘Pay me what’s owed afore you bids for my drabs, or don’t expect me to ’ide you next time Lloyds men come arter you.’ ‘Shut your loose mouth, you’ll be paid when I’m good and ready.’ ‘You’ll’ and over me money now or soon wish as you ’ad,’ the woman rapped out implacably and her three burly sons gathered around her to discourage any counter-threats he might care to make. ‘You’ll ’ave it ten times over, when I gets my proper share.’ ‘That fine gentleman you sets such store by is long gone, my lad, or I’m a Chinese; which I ain’t nor never will be. So we’ll take them seventy yellow boys on account, eh, m’lads?’ ‘He’s coming back, I tell thee, and I’ll be a rich man when ’e does.’ ‘You’m a damn fool, and I wants me money,’ the lady of the house informed him implacably. ‘Sold to the pirate captain!’ the goddess husked. Taking advantage of the startled silence, his friend the barmaid pushed the goddess toward him. ‘Got it on you, Captain?’ she asked saucily. Trying to resist the sensuous appeal of warm and curvaceous woman as the goddess snuggled into his arms and instinctively hid her nakedness against his broad chest, Kit decided it was time they got out fast. Sooner or later the inevitable brawl would break out, and even a man of his background would be helpless to protect her from random violence. ‘I’ll split the twenty I have got with you if you get us out of here with a whole skin. The rest when we get back to my ship.’ ‘Ten guineas now?’ she bargained, and casually clouted an over-eager customer with a pewter plate. Kit handed her his purse, certain he would shortly regret it. Of course he had wriggled out of far tighter spots, but not encumbered by a half-conscious goddess. ‘Here’s for you, lads,’ the wench shouted and threw a couple of gold pieces and all the silver high in the air so that it scattered round the room. As fighting broke out, she grabbed the swaying Venus by her other arm and towed her away from the wife-seller who was now striving vainly against the surging crowd. Shouldering open the one stout door in the place, Kit gasped in air that might have seemed rank if he hadn’t just spent hours in a stinking tavern. The cooler air felled his goddess like a hammer blow. Cursing bitterly, and not sure if he was more furious with her or himself, he swung her over his shoulder and started to run. He stood little chance of avoiding pursuit, so he had no choice but to run for his ship when the door behind them opened so abruptly Kit was surprised the bang didn’t shake the wretched place apart. ‘Run to the Ellen May,’ he gasped to the tavern wench. The so-called husband was straw in the wind, but Kit’s rival in the bidding was a hardy rogue. Burdened with a drugged woman, Kit knew he would need a wonder to avoid a fearsome beating, especially when his tavern wench melted into the night. Nobody was more shocked than Kit when a rich contralto voice bellowed out, ‘Ahoy there, Ellen May!’ at the top of a very healthy pair of lungs. ‘Help us, oh, God help us!’ she managed in an ever-weakening voice. ‘Well done, Venus,’ he gasped At the very least she had won them a few seconds’ grace as his pursuers tried to remember where and what the Ellen May might be. Kit took advantage of everyone to spurt towards the sturdy sloop, but he knew he wouldn’t do it when taverns along the dock emptied and their patrons joined in for the thrill of the chase. He had betrayed his lost crew and now would very likely be torn to shreds while his dockside Venus fell victim to the mob. Then came the relentless beat of a drum and regular treads on the cobbles, a disciplined body of men approaching at a sort of running march and the warning cry, ‘The Press! The stinking Press!’ spread along the waterfront. The dock emptied even faster than it had filled and Kit was left panting and spent, helpless to defend himself or the beauty in his arms. Years at sea loomed ahead of him, and heaven knew what fate his Venus would meet at the press gangs’ brutal hands. It wasn’t the hard work and indignity, he decided, but the loss of all he had fought so hard to make from nothing that galled him. His blue-blooded relatives would be proved right and Christopher Alstone would come to nothing, just like his father and grandfather before him. ‘Damned high-nosed Alstones,’ he rasped as he sank to his knees on the cobbles, and his fair burden stirred across his broad shoulders and moaned in what sounded like despair, ‘whole pack of them can rot in hell!’ ‘Already there,’ he thought he heard her murmur. Then Venus had somehow found the strength to stand and was swaying uncertainly on her own two feet when the tavern wench appeared out of the shadows and tugged at her hand again. For a moment they sketched a pantomime of urgency and reluctance as the half-naked beauty clung to his shoulder, and then she let go and was gone just as if she had never been. Winded and shocked as any silly beau out on the strut in the wrong place at the wrong time, Kit glared into the darkness and saw nothing but inky shadows and silent menace. She had left him to the mercies of the press-gang! The memory stung anew as he came back to the present. She couldn’t have known his ship’s master had made as much noise and commotion as he could and fooled the crowd into fleeing from him and his crew. Somehow it still stung that he had rescued his Venus from an appalling fate and then she had blithely left him to his fate without a backward look. Then there was the fact that it had taken him so long to forget the wretched female the first time round, and now he would have to set himself to doing it all over again. When he had steeled himself to do his duty as host and welcome his latest cousin back to the fold, he had been in danger of letting Venus fell him twice as he was transported back to that filthy dock, on his knees and almost in despair. Instead of the hoyden he had expected Mrs Miranda Braxton to be, given her fabled elopement and disgrace, he had looked down and seen his tavern goddess instead. He had even managed to convince himself he must be mistaken, until the sight of the so-called tavern wench standing bold as brass beside her, daring him to say he knew her, scotched that hope for ever. The open and friendly smile that had curved Mrs Miranda Braxton’s lush mouth upward had almost charmed him all over again, until fury roared through him like a tornado. Then an image of the composed and lovely widow superimposed itself over that of his wild young Venus, with her heavy eyes and sensual smile, and desire had torn through him in a merciless fever. How he got through the next few minutes without either strangling the wretched female, or throwing her over his shoulder and carrying her off to the lofty luxury of his bedchamber, he couldn’t say even now. Staring grimly into the glowing fire, Kit unconsciously tightened his grip on the brandy glass until the fine glass snapped and blood and spirit mingled when he opened his hand at last. So much for the fine control he had once prided himself on. Now all he had to do was to overcome this need to seize the witch and carry her off to some isolated lair where no one else would find them and he might be free of her spell at long last. Even as he considered forgetting her, his lips curled into a sensual smile as he fantasised about Mrs Miranda Braxton, lying sated and sleepy-eyed in his bed. If he couldn’t force oblivion on his raging desire for her, he would see her so, he vowed to himself. Then he rang the bell to confess at least some of his folly and have his wound fussed over with due ceremony before the blood ruined the carpet. Oh, yes, he decided while he was waiting for the inevitable fuss to die down, before she left Wychwood the incomparable Miranda would be emphatically his and then he could set about learning to forget her once and for all. Only denial had made her memory so potent that every woman he bedded was measured against an impossible standard of beauty. Well, this time his revenge would be sweet and very complete and Miranda Alstone would be his mistress before she left Wychwood. He had seen something of his own driven desire in her blue gaze before she veiled it and left the room with such offended dignity that he could not but admire her anew. The lovely Miranda did not want to want him, but she couldn’t quite help herself and eventually that desire would seal her fate. That kiss should be a warning to him to let her go, for it had rocked his certainties and demolished all his defences. He should leave her strictly alone, but the yearning to feel her writhe in ecstasy beneath him all night long was powerful, and how the devil could he let her go back to her isolated Welsh valley once he had experienced such a luxury of the senses? He decided Kit Stone was as big an idiot now as he had been that night he first cursed her loss so harshly. Then he had been one huge ache of frustrated passion, but this time he wouldn’t burn alone. Their first kiss had told him it wouldn’t take much persuasion to tip Mrs Miranda Braxton from cool sceptic into warm and very willing lover and he longed for that abandoned little sensualist as if he had only lost her yesterday, instead of five years ago. There was a bright fire burning in the grate of Miranda’s old room and Leah was waiting with the promised tea. For one dangerous moment Miranda felt as if she was truly home. Then, remembering how effectively his new lordship dealt with such unworthy souls as herself, she shivered and wondered for a wistful, wasted moment what it might be like inside the magic circle she knew by instinct he would cast about those he loved. ‘I thought you were in a great hurry to put off your travelling attire,’ her maid chided, before falling significantly silent. Surely Leah didn’t think she had lingered below out of some insane desire to cultivate the new earl’s interest? ‘I am,’ she insisted calmly and eased off her half-boots with a sigh of relief to prove it. Rubbing her feet to get some warmth back into them, she sank down in front of the fire and wriggled her cold toes in the welcome heat. ‘Ladies don’t sit on the floor,’ Leah rebuked mildly, before saying with apparent carelessness, ‘His new lordship’s a very handsome gentleman, don’t you think?’ ‘If you admire that kind of dark, damn-your-eyes looks.’ ‘As any sane female would.’ ‘Then you’d better write me off as insane,’ Miranda told her firmly, recognising the calculation in her friend’s eyes, ‘his lordship will need to work a little harder to win my appreciation.’ ‘Maybe,’ murmured Leah in an infuriatingly smug undertone and Miranda only just suppressed the urge to throw something at her. ‘Having behaved madly once over a handsome face, I have no plans to repeat the mistake,’ she said lightly instead, ‘and if I ever take another husband, I intend to make a dear friend of him first.’ ‘That sounds a shrewd enough notion.’ ‘Well, so it is.’ ‘And awful dull, Miss Miranda.’ Part of her wanted to agree, but the Miranda of recent years overrode it, and wondered if there was a man alive who could persuade her to take another tilt at matrimony. Of course his lordship had no such honourable intent, or he wouldn’t have fallen on her like a hungry wolf. Even the thought of being more than friends with Christopher Alstone sent such a shudder down her spine that it convulsed her whole being and left her fighting a heady sense of promise. Experience told her it was a mirage, yet still her lips throbbed at the memory of his wicked mouth teasing and demanding there. She moved a little closer to the fire and rubbed her feet in the hope that the movement would disguise her reaction to the very thought of being intimate with so much untamed masculinity from her shrewd maid. ‘Much depends on one’s expectations, I suppose, but have you found out all that’s happened since we left yet?’ she asked. ‘Even I need more than half an hour for that, Miss Miranda.’ ‘You must be more tired than I thought,’ she said lightly, then insisted Leah went downstairs and took tea with the other upper servants in the housekeeper’s room. ‘For you’ll be busy enough later on and might as well indulge in a good gossip while you can.’ Protesting that she never gossiped, Leah went all the same and Miranda settled in the armchair by the fire with a sigh of relief. Obviously she was deeply attracted to the new earl, whether she liked it or not, and she was fairly sure that she didn’t. All hope of finding happiness with a man like him had died the night she eloped with Nevin, for she would never be his mistress and he would never ask her to be anything more. Heaven knew she had received enough dishonourable offers over the last few years to steel herself against another one, but this time, unfortunately, she would be fighting herself as well as the importunate gentleman in question. Chapter Four At least Miranda had had no illusions that there would be a true welcome awaiting her in the home of her ancestors when she set out on the long journey from Nightingale House, so she really shouldn’t be disappointed. Yet nothing could have prepared her for meeting the new Lord Carnwood, and suddenly she longed for her little sisters with a familiar pain she knew could never be soothed. Although she knew in her heart they were better off away from her, and from Wychwood at such a time, they were the only living Alstones she cared a snap of her fingers for. Trying to think of them instead of a certain darkly handsome nobleman, she attempted to rest after that tedious journey in preparation for the ordeal dinner would certainly be. Every time she closed her eyes, images of a certain arrogantly handsome nobleman imprinted itself on her mind. All in all, it was a relief when Leah came back to begin the tedious task of dressing her mistress for a formal dinner. ‘His lordship’s expecting the lawyer at any minute and Mr Coppice was instructed to tell everyone not to stand on ceremony. Her ladyship will have something to say about that, I dare say,’ Leah observed as she set about the task of subduing Miranda’s hair to some sort of order. ‘The sky will fall before my aunt allows her standards to drop,’ Miranda replied wry as the fiery mass stubbornly crackled and curled even under Leah’s skilled fingers. ‘Good, I’m not having that high-nosed maid of Miss Celia’s looking down her nose as if I’m incapable of turning you out properly.’ With a militant expression Leah finally wound her mistress’s hair into a neat chignon and secured it firmly, allowing only one or two curls to escape and kiss her brow. Then she triumphantly produced the beautifully pressed lilac silk gown that Miranda’s godmother had insisted on having made up by her London dressmaker when Miranda put off her blacks and went into half-mourning for a man who had ignored her for the last five years of his life. After Leah had gone to so much trouble to iron it, she could hardly refuse to wear the cunningly cut gown, but once it was on Miranda was beset by doubts. For some reason Lady Rhys would never be persuaded it was better for her goddaughter to dress quietly and do nothing to attract undue attention to herself, and this time she had clearly been determined on the opposite effect. ‘Nonsense,’ Lady Rhys had said brusquely when Miranda protested the gown clung a little too lovingly to her curves. ‘Hiding a fine figure and a lovely face like yours behind black crepe and that wretched cap is nigh on criminal. Kindly consider us poor souls who have to look at you for a change.’ Miranda cautiously surveyed the end result in the full-length pier glass she had once vainly insisted on owning, so she could survey her younger self with misplaced complacency. She froze as she recalled what a vain fool she had once been. Reminding herself stalwartly that a great deal of water had flowed under the bridge since then, she turned away to pick up the dark shawl she would surely need in Wychwood’s lofty hallways. ‘I look very fine,’ she admitted flatly. Leah just sighed and stood back to critically survey her mistress. ‘That you do. Time you put some flesh on your bones, though. The gowns you left behind here would go round you twice.’ ‘You don’t mean they’re still here?’ ‘In the clothes press, just as if you left yesterday. I don’t know how I am supposed to fit all your current ones in. Not that you have half enough of them to clothe a lady of fashion.’ ‘Just as well I am not such a delicately useless article, then,’ Miranda replied stalwartly, but she found the notion that her grandfather had ordered her room kept as she left it less comforting than she would have expected. So much love had been wasted in stubborn pride on both sides that she felt tears threaten, before she reminded herself she could not afford to indulge in sentiment. She had her aunt and cousin and a far more significant foe to outface in his new lordship before she could even think of doing that. ‘Do with my old gowns as you think best, Leah,’ she ordered. ‘I’m a different person from the one I was then, as well as a thinner one.’ ‘I could take them in for you—fashions haven’t changed that much,’ Leah offered, in the teeth of her own interests. After all, discarded gowns were usually regarded as ladies’ maids’ perks. ‘No, I don’t care to be reminded of the past,’ Miranda refused with a shudder. ‘Mumchance in this place.’ ‘True enough, but I want no extra reminders of my past folly and they are a young girl’s gowns, so get rid of them for me, would you, please?’ ‘Of course, Miss Miranda.’ ‘Thank you. You have always been a better friend to me than I deserve,’ Miranda admitted ruefully. ‘Nonsense, now get along out of my way, do. If I’m ever to get your things unpacked and stowed away, I need to clear the shelves straight away.’ Miranda thought of the quantities of over-trimmed gowns she had once thought essential for her comfort, and marvelled at such vanity. ‘Thank you,’ she said sincerely, mighty relieved to be spared the task herself, ‘and don’t wait up. We’ve both travelled interminably these last few days, so just this once pray don’t argue with me.’ ‘If you promise to ring if you need me,’ Leah cautioned. ‘I will,’ she lied serenely. ‘Now go and charm Reuben out of his wits again and forget about your duty for once.’ ‘A breath of fresh air before supper might just do me good, after being cooped up like a broody hen for days.’ ‘I dare say it might, but don’t break his heart.’ From what she had seen earlier, the youthful head groom had matured into a very well-looking man during the years she and Leah had been away from Wychwood. Miranda knew her maid too well to mistake the gleam of interest in her eyes when they dwelt upon the suitably dazzled Reuben. ‘Just so long as you take care not to get yours broke either,’ Leah cautioned shrewdly. ‘I’ll guard it like the crown jewels,’ Miranda said with heartfelt ardour. Not that Nevin had exactly broken hers; more trampled on her pride and then smashed any remains to dust. Kit allowed himself the luxury of lurking in the shadows for a moment as he watched the former darling of Wychwood descend the stairs like a fallen queen. The multicoloured mane he remembered so well was subdued and pulled back from a heart-shaped face that was now a little too calm and controlled, as if she had been chastened by life into hiding whatever emotions animated her. Those blue, blue eyes would still steal a man’s soul away if he only let it slip, but look closer and you could see a deep wariness. Impatient of just looking after so many years of not being able to touch, he emerged from the darkness and stood in the open space at the foot of the stairs, waiting for the beautiful Mrs Braxton to step into his web. As Miranda descended the last few steps her heart thumped a tattoo she was thankful only she could hear at the sight of him waiting for her. She was conscious that the cunningly cut lilac gown emphasised the sway of her hips, the swish of silk against her long legs seemed very loud in the stillness and she felt that her figure was outlined rather too emphatically by the soft fabric that clung lovingly to every movement. For some reason she longed for him to see beyond the gifts nature had lavished on her, but knew it was too much to ask. Miranda tried to hide whatever regrets she felt from his sharp eyes. In evening dress he looked even more magnificent. An immaculate black coat fit his broad-shouldered figure superbly, knee breeches and stockings only emphasised his leanly muscled legs. His snowy linen made his dark eyes and hawkish features more arresting than ever. She stepped down beside him at last, just in time to see a flare of heat flash through his dark brown eyes before he ruthlessly controlled it. It was just as well that she was a woman of the world, she told herself, for no unfledged girl could have stood her ground in the face of such an untamed rake. ‘We are both very fine tonight, are we not?’ she asked calmly enough. ‘As fivepence,’ the earl replied blandly and offered her his hand. Stiffening her backbone yet again, she laid her gloved hand in his. Through the soft kid she felt his strength and sensuality threaten her self-imposed isolation. She stamped hard on the promise that threatened to surge into life between them once more. She could do this, Miranda assured herself, and raised her chin to challenge any resolution he might have to the contrary. ‘You’re even lovelier than rumour reported you,’ Lord Carnwood informed her and raised her hand to his lips with apparent sincerity, drat him. The depth and range of his quiet voice reflected the mighty physique that produced it, but somehow she managed to blame the frosty night for a shiver that ran through her like quicksilver. She couldn’t possibly be feeling the warmth and threat his mouth promised through her supple glove. ‘Am I? Reputations often lie, don’t you think?’ she challenged him. ‘I always form my own opinions, Mrs Braxton, and once they are made I rarely find need to change them.’ ‘Then I must argue for more flexibility of mind. It is the gift of great men, and should be cultivated by the mightiest of us. After all, Rumour seldom deals well with her victims, does she, Lord Carnwood?’ ‘You may argue for whatever you please of course, ma’am, but we’re all at the mercy of our reputations, I fear, although I suppose we can prove whether or not they are deserved by our actions.’ ‘Excellent, so pray let us join my aunt and set about witnessing that theory in practice, Cousin Christopher.’ With the very tips of her fingers brushing his offered arm, she let him lead her down the lofty hall to the state drawing room Lady Clarissa insisted on using, however few of them were assembled for dinner. Knocked off balance by the ridiculous urge to tremble at the contact of his firm flesh under her over-sensitive fingers, Miranda felt her composure waver for a perilous moment. She slanted a furtive look at the new earl’s impassive face and almost succumbed to an urgent desire to turn tail and bolt back to her room, declaring herself too tired to face this ordeal so soon after her journey. ‘Do the Reverend and Mrs Townley join us tonight?’ she asked more or less at random. ‘Not unless they have abandoned their new living.’ ‘I suppose it’s foolish of me to think all will be as it was after so long.’ ‘Not so very long, surely, Cousin?’ he replied with a quirk of his eyebrows that told her he thought she had been angling for that very compliment. ‘When a lady has as many years in her dish as I have, she eschews exact calculation, my lord.’ ‘Nonsense, my dear. You can’t be much more than seven and twenty,’ he baited her with a touch of his initial hostility, as if he found her assumption of the air of a bored society beauty distinctly irritating. While he was cross with her, at least he would not be slanting her any more of those disturbingly perceptive glances from his sharp dark eyes. ‘I could even be a little bit less,’ she said with a bland smile and hoped he had waited in vain for an indignant glare when he set her age five years beyond reality. ‘Age is largely irrelevant when experience is added into the equation,’ he replied cynically. ‘Now there, my lord, you are quite wrong. Age is never irrelevant and you may ask any woman between eight and eighty for corroboration of that particular truth.’ ‘Thank you, I’ll take your word for it.’ ‘My, that will be a novelty,’ she returned smartly and thought she had won that round, until she saw his mouth lift in a sardonic smile and knew it had just been a skirmish he thought too unimportant to contest. By the end of it, though, they had reached the drawing-room doors and the butler nodded regally to the head footman, who solemnly opened the double doors as if admitting supplicants to the royal presence. ‘The Honourable Mrs Braxton and his lordship, the Earl of Carnwood, your ladyship,’ the butler announced, and Miranda wondered how long the man of power beside her would tolerate being announced as if he were a guest in his own home. Lady Clarissa waved a regal acknowledgement from the largest and most comfortable chair in the room, staring at the newcomers in a fashion that would have been considered distinctly ill bred in a lesser aristocrat. Then a frown twitched her brows together, probably in vexation at the sight of her scapegrace niece dressed so finely and standing at the side of the heir as if she belonged there, so Miranda just smiled blandly under her basilisk glare. Celia adhered determinedly to her sofa, while somehow finding the energy to smile a languid greeting at the new Lord Carnwood. She ignored Miranda regally, obviously satisfied that her warning needed no repetition despite Miranda’s position at his new lordship’s side. ‘Niece,’ Lady Clarissa acknowledged flatly, ‘you may kiss me now you are not travel-stained.’ ‘Why, thank you, Aunt Clarissa.’ Miranda placed a peck on the cold cheek offered to her like a royal favour. ‘As I remarked earlier, you look well.’ ‘I cannot return the compliment, but I suppose it is not possible to live the sort of life you do and not have it show in one’s face.’ ‘What a fast existence you do credit me with, Aunt Clarissa,’ Miranda replied lightly. ‘You know perfectly well what I mean,’ Lady Clarissa barked. ‘I will not put up with your impudence now, my girl, any more than I did six years ago. If I hear any more of it, I shall pack you off back to Nightingale House, and good riddance.’ ‘I believe it is five years since I lived here, not six, and I am not here now by your invitation, but my grandfather’s, so you will just have to ignore me for the next few hours, will you not? After so many years of practice, I dare say it will come easily enough.’ ‘Impudent hussy! If I had my way, you would never have darkened these doors again. I cannot imagine what Papa was thinking of, ordering you must be here before a word of that section of his will could be read.’ ‘Neither can I, but I plan to restrain my curiosity until a more appropriate time.’ Miranda couldn’t be sorry for answering back, even when her ladyship was powered by fury to actually rise and ring the bell herself. ‘Mrs Braxton will be taking dinner in her bedchamber,’ she announced as the doors opened too rapidly for anyone to doubt the butler had been well within earshot. ‘Don’t trouble yourself, Coppice,’ Lord Carnwood intervened coolly. ‘Mrs Braxton is far too conscious of the extra work it would cause the staff to put them to so much trouble. Lady Clarissa overestimates the tiring effects of her long journey on her niece’s excellent constitution, do you not, ma’am?’ Lady Clarissa’s chilly grey eyes locked with the Earl’s fathomless dark ones, then fell before a more implacable will than even her stubborn one. ‘Apparently,’ she conceded as if it might choke her. ‘You may go, Coppice, unless dinner is ready?’ ‘Not quite, my lady.’ ‘Then you had better find out what is delaying both Cook and our guests, had you not?’ Lord Carnwood let that ungracious order pass. From the look Coppice sent him and the faint shake of his dark head, Miranda doubted it would be carried out anyway. As the doors shut behind Coppice, Lady Clarissa glared at her erring niece with a venom that would have set the gauche Miranda of five years ago trembling in her satin evening shoes. Now she returned her aunt’s hard look with an insincere smile, before subsiding on to a gilt chair at a healthy distance from the roaring fire. Celia continued to stare into the fire as if she was lost in a world of her own. Miranda draped herself across the chair in imitation of a notorious beauty she had met scandalising a neighbour’s party she once attended with her grandfather, before she became notorious herself, of course. Having been given a bad name, she might as well hang herself in style. Ignoring both Celia and the artistically draped Miranda, Lord Carnwood engaged Lady Clarissa in stilted conversation. Miranda was annoyed to find that she was so attuned to the dark timbres of his voice, even across the formality of this great room, that she missed not a single word he said. It was a relief to hear voices in the hall just before the doors opened to admit her grandfather’s middle-aged lawyer, along with a handsome couple possibly ten years older than she was herself. When she was introduced to the Reverend Draycott and his lively wife, Miranda soon decided she preferred them to the stuffy couple who had inhabited Wychwood Rectory when she was a girl. She detected none of the sour disapproval she would have met from the Reverend and Mrs Townley for her sins, so she sincerely hoped they were not ignorant of them. The Earl of Carnwood greeted his guests genially, but Lady Clarissa managed only a stiff nod in the lawyer’s direction as Celia pretended to be lost in a world of her own. Unable to watch another greeted as uncivilly as she had been herself, Miranda gave him a warm smile. ‘Mr Poulson, I hope you are recovered from your journey?’ ‘As much as can be expected at my age,’ the rotund little man replied with a self-deprecating smile. ‘Fancy you remembering my name after all these years, Mrs Braxton.’ ‘Since you used to give us children peppermint drops whenever you came to visit Grandpapa, I was very unlikely to forget it, sir.’ ‘So I did! Those were happier times for us all, were they not?’ ‘Indeed they were—would that we had them back again.’ For a brief minute Miranda allowed herself the indulgence of the might have been. If only her brother had not caught an epidemic fever at school, and come home so weakened he had to be accompanied by a tutor. If only she had listened to Grandfather’s fierce pronouncements on her infatuation with Nevin Braxton, said tutor, and, above all, if only Jack had not died weeks after her defection. Of all her regrets, that was the heaviest of all, she realised now—it far outran the thought that, if Jack had been here, she would not have to steel herself to avoid Christopher Alstone’s eye whenever possible. ‘Regrets, Mrs Braxton?’ he questioned her softly now, his deep voice hard with distrust again for some odd reason. ‘Memories, my lord,’ she replied briefly, determined not to let his suspicion incise Jack’s wicked smile from her mind. ‘A commodity I patently cannot share. How are you, sir? It was an ill day for travelling today, was it not?’ ‘That it was, my lord. I freely admit that these days I much prefer my chambers to the open road.’ ‘Maybe one day we will be able to travel like birds instead of it taking us days to get from one side of the country to the other,’ Miranda mused. ‘Like flying pigs, Cousin?’ Kit asked impatiently. ‘Not quite, but equally unlikely, I am afraid.’ ‘A pleasant idea though, my dear madam,’ Mr Poulson put in with a fatherly smile of encouragement, seemingly oblivious to the suppressed tension between his companions. ‘It would certainly save a good deal of time on dirty roads.’ ‘If only we could invent machines to direct all those balloons people spend so much time watching launched, maybe your idea would be possible, Cousin Miranda,’ his lordship admitted. ‘Until that happy day, I suppose we will just have to make do with mud and inconvenience like everyone else, my lord.’ ‘Indeed, and you have had a longer and harder trek than the rest of us, if I am not mistaken.’ ‘And I doubt that you often are, my lord,’ she replied rather waspishly and felt the lawyer’s shrewd gaze on them both this time. He seemed to gauge the undercurrent of awareness that ran between the new earl and his scapegrace cousin and momentarily looked puzzled and then oddly pleased. Miranda ordered herself to be more circumspect in future, but something kept her standing at his lordship’s side, pretending to be sociable all the same. ‘I thought we had agreed to be cousins,’ he chided when Mr Poulson’s attention was diverted by the new vicar of Wychwood. ‘Do you mean to acknowledge me as such in public then, my lord?’ she asked mockingly. ‘I’m probably beneath your touch, as well as us being connected to you only in the third or fourth degree.’ ‘And it would make such a change for your branch of the family to note the existence of mine, would it not?’ She covered her bemusement at his peculiar statement with a social smile, for Grandfather had been rebuffed in the harshest of terms when he tried to send his cousin Bevis Alstone’s son and daughters to school instead of settling Bevis’s vintner’s bill as demanded. ‘Are we to celebrate our newly established kinship, or mourn it, do you think?’ she asked lightly. ‘I shall withhold judgement.’ ‘Shall you indeed, cousin? How very refreshing to meet a gentleman who refuses to rely on the prejudices of others to form his opinions.’ ‘You can be certain of one thing, Cousin Miranda, I long ago made it a rule to trust my own prejudices ahead of any others.’ There was no mistaking the heat in his dark gaze as he let it dwell on her discreetly displayed curves for a little too long, but she chose to pretend ignorance and gave him a sweetly insincere smile. ‘How unenlightened of you,’ she said lightly, ‘so pray excuse me while I look up prejudice in my grandfather’s copy of Dr Johnson’s famous dictionary, Cousin. Does it come before or after proof, I wonder?’ ‘Oh, dear, that tutor of yours really wasn’t very good, was he? Before, of course.’ ‘Then should I not appeal to Mr Poulson? I believe it is customary to present all the evidence before the court forms a judgement?’ ‘Or so we are told,’ he replied sardonically. ‘Then I rest my case, my lord,’ she told him. ‘Cousin,’ he corrected abruptly. ‘Very well, but Cousin what, pray? ‘I suspect you know very well my name is Christopher,’ he said and silently dared her to remark on the fact that it was a very common Alstone forename, and probably given to him in defiance of his father’s family rather than to please them. She felt a sneaking compassion for the little boy he must once have been, forced to live with the consequences of Bevis Alstone’s drinking, gambling and whoring. Cut off by his family, Bevis must have been an appalling parent. Miranda forced herself not to look for the vulnerable boy in the hard man his son had become. It was far simpler to think of him as just another man of the world, not the complex creature he really was. Chapter Five Coppice opened the doors and warily informed the company that dinner was served. As the senior and most socially distinguished woman present, Lady Clarissa went in on Lord Carnwood’s arm. Miranda told herself she was well pleased to be next to Mr Poulson and opposite the new vicar. Lady Clarissa took the foot of the table and had to content herself with insisting Celia took precedence over the vicar’s wife and had the other seat by the new Earl. ‘Surely we don’t need to stand on ceremony?’ Miranda asked rashly, used to informality presiding over state at her godmother’s table. ‘Indeed not,’ Lord Carnwood agreed. ‘Coppice? See that a round dining table is installed in the Blue Parlour by tomorrow night,’ he ordered with the air of easy command that Miranda had already noted the servants obeyed without a second thought. ‘We shall take our meals there whenever there are less than a dozen of us to dinner in future, and meet beforehand in the Countess’s Sitting Room, not the State Drawing Room.’ ‘Very good, my lord,’ Coppice replied, a faint smile lifting his thin lips. ‘I do not approve of such shabby-genteel arrangements!’ Lady Clarissa announced regally. ‘Very well. Coppice, will you see that Lady Clarissa is served in here every evening? I doubt the rest of us will disturb her at such a distance.’ Coppice wisely said nothing, but Miranda thought she caught a twinkle in his eye as he waited impassively on events. ‘Well, I shall enjoy the novelty,’ Celia said, with a hard look for her bridling parent. Ambition for her daughter narrowly beat Lady Clarissa’s pride. ‘Very well, let it be so,’ she said grandly and nobody bothered to point out that it would be so, whether she liked it or not. After that Miranda was not the only one to concentrate on her excellent dinner and her thoughts. Deciding that her aunt would always be a mystery to her, she turned to her dinner companion in the hope of setting an innocuous hum of conversation going. ‘How did your journey really go, Mr Poulson?’ ‘In truth, I would rather not travel at this time of year, Mrs Braxton. The roads are naught but a sea of mud and the beds at the inn I stayed in last night were decidedly damp,’ the little lawyer told her indignantly. ‘How very distressing for you,’ she said soothingly, thinking ruefully of her desperate journey to Lady Rhys’s remote home five years ago, when she and Leah slept fitfully on top of a swaying accommodation coach to stretch their small store of money. ‘Still, we must all suffer in the line of duty now and again,’ the little lawyer said piously, ‘but how was your own journey, ma’am?’ ‘Uneventful,’ she said cheerfully, ‘and worth it to experience the benefits of Cook’s skills again. Have you tried her baked trout, sir?’ ‘It almost blots out the memory of those sheets,’ he replied with a self-deprecating smile. While he set to with a will, Miranda surreptitiously watched their dining companions. Mr Draycott was being condescended to by her aunt while she regally ignored his wife, presumably because Mrs Draycott was very pretty and must not interfere with Celia’s fascination of the Earl. She saw Mrs Draycott meet her husband’s gaze with rueful amusement and wondered how it felt to love like that after years of marriage. Her own delusions of love had barely outlasted the ceremony over the anvil, and how she wished she had possessed a little more patience and discernment. Ironic, was it not, that a woman supposedly experienced in the arts of love knew virtually nothing about that tender passion? Luckily Celia’s polite titter distracted her just then and reminded her of another conundrum. Considering her cousin rarely did anything on impulse, her hasty wedding to a mere lieutenant of Foot Guards was a puzzle in itself. Surely Celia hadn’t married for true love? Miranda frowned and wondered why she thought her cousin incapable of such untidy emotions. She had never met the gallant lieutenant, of course, and the poor man had been dead within weeks of their hasty London wedding. There had been no seven-month pregnancy to tell of illicit passion, unlikely as such weakness seemed on the part of her icily lovely cousin. Yet Grandfather must have disapproved, or Celia would have been married from Wychwood with as much splendour as Lady Clarissa could contrive. ‘This beef is as good as any I ever tasted, Mrs Braxton,’ Mr Poulson said with a hint of reproach as he eyed her untasted portion. ‘My appetite seems to have deserted me,’ she admitted. ‘Indeed, this must be an ordeal,’ he said with quiet sympathy. Touched by such understanding, she sought to reassure him. ‘I have grown a very thick skin of late years,’ she assured him with a mischievous smile. ‘And my old friends below stairs seem pleased to see me.’ At last it was time for the ladies to retire to the barn-like State Drawing Room while the gentlemen enjoyed their port in peace. It wouldn’t be a riotous interlude, Miranda decided, considering the company. Yet she would rather have endured the earl’s jibes than join her aunt, Celia and a vicar’s wife who must disapprove of her on principle. She bore it stoically for a while, then excused herself, fearing that if she stayed she might say something scandalous just to live down to their expectations. Opening the door of the library cautiously, in case his lordship had sneaked back into it when her back was turned, she sniffed the familiar scents of books and lavender polish. Closing her eyes, she could almost fool herself that Grandfather would be sitting in his favourite chair by the fire, absorbed in his beloved Homer and a glass of fine cognac. Of course the chair was empty when she opened them and she allowed herself a sigh of regret at not seeing him so one last time. ‘Don’t tell me you’re looking for a book, Mrs Braxton?’ the new Earl asked disbelievingly and Miranda cursed herself for leaving the door open—although she supposed she could hardly shut him out of his own library. ‘Then I won’t, my lord,’ she told him equably and tried to move round him; the dull safety of the State Drawing Room suddenly seeming appealing after all. ‘Off to charm the little lawyer out of his wits again?’ he asked sardonically as she turned to leave. ‘Don’t be ridiculous, Mr Poulson was a friend of my grandfather’s.’ ‘You’re right and I’m sorry.’ ‘I beg your pardon, my lord, I think my ears must be deceiving me,’ she said, genuinely shocked to hear his admission. ‘We have got off on the wrong foot, Cousin Miranda. I apologise for my harsh words and inexcusable actions.’ ‘Thank you,’ she replied, too dazed by this turnabout to say anything clever. ‘Which doesn’t mean we have to become bosom bows, or suddenly trust one another with our deepest secrets,’ he replied with a lopsided smile that nearly made her knees melt. ‘I think that most unlikely, but I can assure you that I am nowhere near as bad as rumour accounts me, my lord.’ ‘Cousin,’ he corrected and his eyes were sceptical again and his smile a matter of form. Thus far and no further, his expression seemed to say, and she told herself to be glad of it. He was nothing like the gentle picture she had built up over the years of a man she could slowly trust with her secrets and her heart, after knowing him for many months, if not years. ‘We should not be alone in here,’ she said defensively. ‘I know, I was about to go outside and blow a cloud when I heard you. Perhaps I had better do so, before your aunt finds us absent without leave.’ ‘Which would never do,’ she replied with a cool smile. After their earlier scene in this room, she didn’t altogether trust his mellow mood. ‘Indeed not,’ he said with a rigidly correct bow, and let himself out of one of the long windows to indulge in his occasional penchant for cigarillos. Kit had reconsidered his impulse to do anything in his power to bed Miranda Braxton at last. During dinner he had secretly watched her try to mitigate the failings in her aunt and cousins’ hospitality, and finally acknowledged to himself that she possessed the instincts of a true lady. Having reached that disappointing conclusion, he had then forced himself to consider her past like a rational human being instead of a lust-ridden fool. In truth, Braxton had subjected her to such degradation and horror that it revolted every instinct Kit possessed. He had spent most of his early years somehow scratching together the means to keep his little sisters out of the very trap Braxton had knowingly, even gleefully, sprung on his own wife. For five years he had thought her a fallen beauty, cunning enough to work the age-old trick of selling herself to the highest bidder then letting her pimp in to rob and attack their victim, before or after the fool had taken his pleasure. It had been obvious, until he had looked down at his Venus and seen her pretend to be a virtuous widow more sinned against than sinning. Only tonight had the heat of betrayal finally faded and cold reality taken its place. Braxton had tried to sell his wife into a life Kit wouldn’t wish on his worst enemy. The wanton cruelty of that action could overcome Kit’s wish to see Miranda as a noble houri, flitting from conquest to conquest with no thought for her victims. Then he could have taken his pleasure of her and moved on as thoughtlessly as the harlot he suddenly imagined her would have done. Given that he had finally worked out the truth, that lusty scenario must be forgotten. Remembering their passionate kiss now he was acutely uncomfortable. There had been a peculiar innocence to her lips, as if she was surprised to be wooed rather than forced. No, there could be no more of that, for it would lead to places he refused to go. A mistress could arouse his passion and even affection—as such he could have kept her and not cared if he liked her a little too well. Unfortunately, ladies expected marriage instead of a carte blanche, even ladies like Mrs Miranda Braxton. He couldn’t wed a headstrong beauty whose wildly rebellious nature had already precipitated her into one hasty marriage. After all, he had long ago decided to wed for reason and not emotion. An excess of that had led his mother to marry a man who cared for the green baize tables and the wine bottle more than he ever did about her or her children, and he had no intention of following her down that particular road to damnation. So Kit strode about the shadowed terrace and thought about the excuse for a man Miranda Alstone had married and, if his fists tightened until his slender cigarillo was in danger of ending up mangled and burning him in the process, that was because he loathed cruelty and injustice. He forced himself to relax his tensed muscles and tried to ignore his sudden suspicion that Miranda Braxton would always rouse strong feelings in him. Emotion fogged judgement and he had no use for such folly. No, a lifetime of suspiciously watching every man who so much as looked at his wife held no attraction for him. All he had to do was endure the next week without disaster and then he could avoid her until one of them was safely wed and out of reach. Something told him that if they ever spent too long together the consequences would be inevitable, and catastrophic. Having settled that conundrum in his mind, he returned to the over-gilded barn Lady Clarissa had best enjoy presiding over one last time, and made himself endure the rest of a dull evening just to prove himself right. Resisting the extraordinary beauty of his newest relative would get easier, he told himself stubbornly, as the evening at last wound to a weary end at long last and the Draycotts went home. He took his candle and headed off to his bedchamber, after assuring himself Lady Clarissa had not lodged either of his guests in the lumber room. Kit threw himself into the chair by the fire in the master bedroom and sighed heavily. He would do it, he reassured himself. After all, he and his childhood friend Ben Shaw had risen from the worst slums in London and wrought a fortune out of nothing but will power, so he had a goodly stock of that commodity. Overcoming a craving for a lady of dubious reputation and spectacular beauty should be easy enough after that Herculean task, so long as he avoided her more steadfastly in future. As he tossed and turned through a very uncomfortable night with only half a dozen doors between him and temptation, he kept repeating that assertion in the hope it might one day be true. Yet when he eventually slept uneasily, his dreams were haunted by a dockside Venus who watched him with reproachful eyes as if he had disappointed her hopes and dreams all over again. After marrying Nevin Braxton, Miranda had thought herself immune to the baser passions, like a person who had survived a life-threatening disease and was protected against it for life. Therefore she was shocked to spend a restless night, thinking far too often of renegade earls too handsome and dangerous for her peace of mind. Конец ознакомительного фрагмента. Текст предоставлен ООО «ЛитРес». 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