February 28, 2012
Let the hunt begin…
Lisa Madison wants a husband, and she has just the candidate in mind: Robert Langley. Trouble is, the infuriating man insists on seeing her as the impish girl she once was—even as every other gentleman in London has taken notice of her womanly…charms. When her beauty lands her in danger, it’s Robert who comes to the rescue…only to announce his affections are not of the romantic variety!
Robert saw enough sorrow in his parents’ union to know he wants nothing to do with marriage, which is exactly what he’ll be trapped into if he acts on his desire for the irksome siren. And then Lisa does what Robert least expects: gives up on him! As feigned indifference gives way, blistering passion burns at last. But just before the pair can give in to hard-won bliss, an enemy with unfinished business lurks threatening to destroy them both.
“How long do you think you will be?” Lisa asked, watching her older sister carefully set a small pillbox hat on the complicated hairstyle in which her maid had arranged her tresses.
“We could be out all afternoon, Lisa. I’m afraid Lady Witherly’s teas tend to drag on a bit. She will insist on every one of her grandchildren entertaining us with a musical performance.” Christiana scowled and then added dryly, “Whether they have any talent for it or not.”
Lisa bit back her amusement at the vexation in her sister’s words. “Perhaps they will have improved since you were last there.”
“Hmm,” Christiana muttered dubiously as she finished with her hat. Then frowning, she turned to peer at her. “I feel awful leaving you here by yourself when you don’t feel well. Maybe we should send our apologies and—”
“Don’t be silly. Suzette is probably already dressed and waiting for you to collect her,” she protested at once. The mention of their sister, the middle of the three Madison girls, made Christiana’s frown deepen, and Lisa continued, “Canceling at this late hour would be terribly rude. Besides, it’s not like I’m deathly ill. I just have a bit of a headache and a stomach complaint. A little rest and I am sure I’ll be fine for this evening’s season-opening ball at the Landons’.”
“Well, if you’re sure,” Christiana said uncertainly.
“Very sure,” Lisa said, trying not to fidget impatiently or seem too eager to have her gone.
“Very well then.” Christiana heaved out a little sigh, gave her a quick hug, admonishing her to rest and feel better, and then headed for the door.
Lisa held on to her smile until the door closed, and then rushed to the window to watch her older sister traverse the front walk to the Radnor carriage. The moment the slender blonde climbed inside and the carriage pulled away, Lisa immediately rushed out into the hall and upstairs.
As expected, she found her maid, Bet, preparing the gown Lisa would wear that night to the Landons’ ball.
Forcing a grimace, Lisa placed a hand to her forehead and moved toward the bed with a little sigh. “You can finish that later, Bet. I have a bit of a headache and should like to rest awhile. Please be sure no one disturbs me.”
Bet paused and stared at Lisa blankly. When her eyes narrowed suspiciously, Lisa feared she’d overplayed it, but much to her relief the maid merely nodded, laid out the gown to prevent wrinkling and headed for the door, saying, “I’ll be downstairs if you need me.”
Nodding, Lisa settled on the side of the bed to remove her slippers … only to quickly slide them back on the moment the door close behind Bet. She then leapt up, suddenly all excited motion and activity. Bustling to her chest, she dug out the bag she’d hidden at the bottom, checked to ensure that the gift she’d so carefully wrapped for Mrs. Morgan was still inside, and then hurried to the door. She listened briefly and, hearing nothing, opened it to peer up the hall. Finding it empty, she immediately slid out of her room to scurry to the stairs.
Lisa held her breath until she got to the landing. She paused and exhaled slowly, ears straining. But when a steady silence was all that came from below, she took another deep breath and crept quickly down the steps. She was halfway to the parlor when the kitchen door at the end of the hall began to open. Panic rising in her, Lisa quickly ducked into the office to avoid discovery, praying no one saw her as she eased the door closed.
She listened at the door in hopes of hearing when it would be safe to continue on her way, but frowned when silence met her ear. Either whoever had opened the kitchen door had changed their mind and not come out after all, or someone was even now traversing the hall but the door she stood behind muffled the sound. The problem was, Lisa didn’t know which would be the case.
Sighing, she shifted on her feet, impatient to be on her way, and then dropped to her knees and pressed her eye to the keyhole. Sadly, she couldn’t see much of the hall through the little opening, certainly not enough to assure herself it was empty. But she knelt there long enough that she was sure anyone coming from the kitchens would have passed by now.
Getting back to her feet, she took a breath, crossed her fingers for good luck and eased the door open.
A little sigh of relief slipped from her lips when she found the hall empty. Lisa listened for a moment just to be sure no one was on the stairs and then scampered quickly up the hall to the parlor door and slid inside.
The relief she felt as she closed the parlor door was rather extreme considering she was only halfway out of the house. She still had a long way to go to make a clean get away. Pushing that thought aside, Lisa hurried across the room and knelt to retrieve her cloak and pelisse from under the settee where she’d hidden it early that morning before the house was awake.
She quickly donned the heavy cape, pulled the hood over her head, and hooked her pelisse over her wrist. Then, clutching the gift to her chest, Lisa hurried to the French doors and peered out. The parlor overlooked the side yard of the house. As far as she could see, there was no one about.
She didn’t hesitate, but eased herself through the French doors and moved quickly toward the front, silently praying that no carriages would arrive with unexpected guests, or her brother-in-law, Richard, returning from his tailors. She was also hoping that there would be no reason for any of the servants to suddenly look out the front door or one of the front windows and spy her escape. Lisa didn’t look around to be sure she wasn’t seen, half suspicious that by doing so she would draw someone to a window, so hurried forward with her head firmly straight ahead.
When she reached the front gate and slipped out without anyone coming out of the house or arriving to stop her, Lisa thought she was home free. However, when she turned from pulling the front gate closed, and started to bustle up the walk, she came to an abrupt halt as her maid, Bet, suddenly stepped out of the bushes to confront her.
“I knew you were up to something when I saw you sneaking about the house this morning,” Bet said with satisfaction. Her freckled face and stance were triumphant, her legs slightly parted, arms crossed over her chest, and one eyebrow arched. “Now, what are you about, my lady?”
“Oh, Bet, you gave me quite a fright,” Lisa said placing a hand to her chest. “Whatever are you doing creeping about out here?”
“Never mind that. What are you doing creeping about out here?” Bet asked pointedly.
Lisa grimaced at the question and then straightened her shoulders and lifted her head to say sternly, or as sternly as she could ever be with Bet, who was as much a friend as a maid, “It really isn’t your place to ask things like that, Bet. I am your mistress.” Some of her bravado wilted under Bet’s narrowing eyes, but Lisa forced herself to continue firmly. “Now I suggest you return to the house and see to preparing my gown for tonight.”
“Certainly,” the maid said pertly. “And I’ll just mention to Handers that you left the house all by yourself without a maid to accompany you, shall I?”
Lisa’s eyes narrowed at the mention of Richard and Christiana’s new butler. Handers was a dear, but he would pass the information on to Richard the moment he returned. Scowling, she said, “You wouldn’t.”
“I would,” Bet assured her firmly, and then raised an eyebrow and added persuasively, “Unless of course you want me to accompany you. Then I couldn’t tell anyone. And it would be all well and proper.”
Lisa sighed with frustration and glanced back toward the gate. She had been almost relieved when Mrs. Morgan had suggested in her letter that she come alone. Christiana had been rather difficult about her friendship with the woman, asking if she was the one who had given her the banned book about Fanny, and suggesting she may not be the kind of friend Lisa should acquaint herself with. Going alone had seemed simpler than trying to convince Christiana to accompany her. But Lisa supposed she shouldn’t really go alone altogether. It was more proper to have her maid accompany her anyway. The only reason she hadn’t considered it to begin with was … well, she supposed she’d been caught up in the whole adventure and simply neglected to consider taking the girl. Now she decided it may be the best way to handle the matter all around. Gentle ladies simply did not travel unescorted in London.
Sighing, she finally nodded. “Very well, you may accompany me.”
“Thank you,” Bet said dryly and fell into step beside her as soon as Lisa began to move. “Now, where are we going?”
“To visit a friend,” Lisa answered, a smile slowly claiming her lips. Now that she was on her way, she was actually looking forward to the visit. She had found Mrs. Morgan’s company stimulating and entertaining in the country and expected it would be the same in the city.
“Is it far?” Bet asked with interest.
“No. Mrs. Morgan promised to have her carriage wait around the corner,” Lisa admitted, biting her lip.
“Mrs. Morgan?” the maid asked with a sudden frown. “Not that lady what had her carriage break down at Madison Manor back three years ago? The one the men were all goggling over until his lordship had them take her and her carriage into the village to be repaired?”
“Yes,” Lisa answered, her chin rising in response to the maid’s obvious disapproval.
“Are you sure we should be visiting her?” Bet asked with a frown. “Mrs. Simms said Mrs. Morgan wasn’t proper company for young ladies when she was at the house. She said—”
“I’m not interested in Mrs. Simm’s gossip,” Lisa said with a frown, wondering why the housekeeper would disapprove. She didn’t know the woman had given her the banned book. In fact, Mrs. Simms had barely met Mrs. Morgan in passing when her carriage had broken down on Madison land and been brought to the house.
“But—” the maid said with a frown.
“Hush. There is the carriage,” Lisa murmured as they reached the corner and she spotted the black carriage with the dark drapes at the windows. “Come.”
Leaving the maid to hurry behind her, Lisa rushed to the carriage.
“Lady Madison?” The driver asked, moving to open the door even as he asked the question.
Lisa smiled and nodded, then quickly climbed into the carriage.
“Say, I was, only told to expect just the one lady today,” the driver said, blocking the way when Bet made to follow her in.
“She is with me,” Lisa said with a frown, half rising from the bench seat she’d just settled on. “It isn’t proper for a lady to travel without her maid.”
The man hesitated, but then moved out of the way with a sigh, and muttered, “All right, but Mrs. Morgan isn’t going to like it.”
Lisa frowned at the claim, then smiled encouragingly at her maid as she climbed in to claim the bench seat opposite her, “I’m sure she wouldn’t expect me to come completely alone.”
The man merely shook his head and closed the door.
Lisa and Bet exchanged an uncertain glance at that reaction and then the coach rocked as the driver reclaimed his perch. When the carriage began to move, they could do little but settle back in their seats. However, Lisa was suddenly a tad nervous, worried that Mrs. Morgan would be annoyed with her for bringing Bet along on this visit. Though, she couldn’t imagine why.
While Lisa had often left Bet to shop in the village while she’d visited Mrs. Morgan at the inn during the five days the woman had been stranded there waiting for her carriage to be repaired, she had taken her with her a time or two as well. And what was proper, or at least ignored, in the country was different than what was allowed in London. Surely her friend wouldn’t expect her to come alone in the city? While it had been her original intention, now that Bet had made her comments about what was proper here, Lisa had to agree her first plan of going alone had been rather foolish and thoughtless. That sort of thing could ruin a girl’s reputation, and really, the family had narrowly escaped several scandals now as it was.
The ride to Mrs. Morgan’s took a surprisingly long time. At least it seemed a long time to Lisa who sat fretting in the back of the carriage with an obviously worried Bet. It didn’t help that the drapes were closed and they had nothing to look at to pass the time. But they didn’t dare pull them open and look out for fear of being recognized and the news of this excursion somehow making it’s way back to her sister and brother-in-law.
Lisa grimaced at the very idea, her hands tightening around the gift she’d brought for Mrs. Morgan. It was a small thing really, a book she thought the woman might enjoy. Nothing as risqué as the volumes Mrs. Morgan had given her during their visits in the country inn. Those had been…well, frankly, they had been rather shocking…and titillating all at the same time. Lisa had found herself fascinated by the tale of the prostitute Fanny and her adventures. The descriptions of what had occurred had quite taken her breath away and left her imagining what it would be like if Robert were to do some of the things to her that Fanny’s lover had done to her.
Lisa scowled unhappily at the thought of Robert. Their nearest neighbor at Madison and Lord of Langley. He was also a dear family friend as well. And Lisa had been in love with the man since she was knee high. He was beautiful and strong and smart and…thought of her as nothing more than a little sister. Seeing Christiana and Richard so happy, and Daniel and Suzette so happy had made Lisa long for a husband and happy home too and it had galvanized her to make Robert realize she was not a child and was perfect for him. She’d done everything she could think of the last two years to achieve that end, but the idiot man appeared to be blind and stupid and still persisted in treating her like an annoying, if adorable, little sister. And frankly, she was quite sick of it. Lisa had determined that she wouldn’t love him anymore and intended to find someone else to be interested in tonight’s ball. Or at least try. Surely there would be someone there she would find attractive and could distract her from her interest in Robert?
Perhaps Lord Findlay, she thought, recalling the one man she had danced with when she’d come to London for the first time two years ago. She and Suzette had come in search of their father who hadn’t yet returned home from a business trip. They had attended a ball with their sister, Christiana, the night they had arrived. It had been in the hopes of finding Suzette a husband. To achieve that end, Suzette had danced nearly every dance with nearly every single male in attendance. With all but one, actually, Charles Findlay. He had not asked Suzette to dance, instead he had asked Lisa.
Lisa smiled at the memory of the man. Tall, with aquiline features and ice blond hair, Findlay had been very attractive. Unfortunately, Lisa had been so busy trying to watch Robert at the ball that she’d hardly paid any attention to the man other than to take note at the fine figure he cut. But perhaps he would be there again tonight and again ask her to dance. If so, she would pay more attention. She would force herself to if she had to, Lisa thought grimly.
She might even let him take her out on the terrace for air and allow him to kiss her so that she could see if he could stir any of those warm feelings Fanny had written about in her book. If he did…well, then, Robert could go hang for all she cared. She was no longer interested in showering her love and adoration on someone who didn’t appreciate it.
The slowing of the carriage drew Lisa’s attention then. She glanced to Bet. The other girl was suddenly sitting a little straighter on her bench, her expression more alert as the coach came to a halt. Lisa managed a reassuring smile for the girl, despite her own uncertainty that the maid’s presence would be welcomed by their host, and moved quickly to disembark when the driver opened the door.
She glanced around nervously as she waited for Bet to join her. Lisa was anxious over the possibility of being spotted and recognized, but needn’t have worried. The carriage wasn’t stopped in front of a house with a long walk, but had pulled up mere feet from a door in what appeared to be a back alley behind a building.
“In ye get,” the driver ordered gruffly, slamming the carriage door behind Bet and gesturing to the house before them. “Mrs. Morgan won’t be pleased does someone see you entering.”
Lisa bit her lip, but led Bet to the door and then quickly knocked.
“Just go in,” the man ordered grimly. “You’re expected.”
Lisa hesitated, but then sighed and reached for the knob, relieved when the door suddenly opened before her. Some of that relief was replaced with surprise when she was suddenly caught by the arm and dragged inside.
“Get in here, girl. Mrs. Morgan wouldn’t want you seen,” a large, older woman in the uniform of a cook said breathlessly as she drew her into the hot, dim kitchen. She started to close the door then, but paused as Bet scurried inside. “Well, what have we here?”
“My maid,” Lisa said quietly, beginning to think perhaps this visit hadn’t been a good idea after all.
The cook eyed Bet up and down, but then seemed to recall herself and quickly closed the door, saying, “Well ye’d best both go on through. I sent Gilly up to fetch Mrs. Morgan. She’ll be down in a minute no doubt. Yer to wait in the…er…parlor.” Turning back, she eyed the pair of them briefly again, and then gestured across the steamy room. “Through there and up the hall, last door on the right.”
Lisa hesitated, a frown catching at her lips, but caught it back when she saw that Bet too was frowning. This wasn’t at all the way visits for tea generally went in her experience, but then Mrs. Morgan wasn’t a member of the gentry. No doubt it was hard to get good servants when you couldn’t pay as well as members of the nobility did, and all of this was probably a very kind attempt on Mrs. Morgan’s part to prevent her from getting in trouble for coming. The older woman had proven to be very intelligent during their previous encounters and might realize Lisa’s visiting might be frowned on by her family.
Forcing a serene expression to her face, Lisa caught Bet’s arm and urged her across the room to the door the cook had gestured to.
“This ain’t right,” Bet hissed the moment they were out of the kitchen and moving up a long, dimly lit hall. “Ladies don’t have to be snuck in the back door of the homes of respected people. And they aren’t greeted by a surly, fat old woman in dirty clothes either. And—”
“Hush,” Lisa warned, but otherwise could hardly argue the point. This was highly unusual … and really, the cook had been surly and her clothes were filthy. Unsanitary, Lisa thought, and decided she would avoid eating any pastries or such that might be served with tea. Catching the rebellion growing in Bet’s expression, she whispered, “I’m sure Mrs. Morgan is just trying to protect me by slipping me through the back door.”
“If she was a decent woman there’d be no need to protect you,” Bet growled sharply.
Lisa frowned at the truth behind those words and felt a niggle of concern, but then sighed and said, “Well, we are here now. One tea and we shall leave, I promise. But we can hardly—”
“Ah, there you are. Gilly said you’d arrived. I had intended to be in the kitchen to greet you, but got held up.”
Lisa paused in the hall and glanced to the curving stairway and the dark-haired woman descending it. Some of her worry and nervousness eased just at the sight of Mrs. Morgan as she recalled the lovely visits they’d enjoyed in the country. Lisa smiled widely as the older woman reached the bottom of the steps and moved up the hall toward them.
“I was worried you wouldn’t be able to get away,” Mrs. Morgan said with a smile that faded as she spotted Bet. Slowing, she raised an eyebrow. “You brought a friend.”
“You remember Bet, my maid,” Lisa said and grimaced at the apology in her voice. “It seemed best to bring her along. Ladies don’t travel alone or—”
“Yes, of course.” Mrs. Morgan’s smile reappeared, wide and unconcerned. “Well, come along, the two of you then. We shall have tea and a nice long chat. It’s been ages since we last met, my dear.”
“Yes, it has,” Lisa agreed with a smile. All would be well.
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