Jacquie D'Alessandro - [Regency Historical 04]

Jacquie D’Alessandro
Never A Lady

This book is dedicated with love to my son, Christopher. Thank you for filling my life with music, for making me laugh, and for making every day a Big Adventure—even those days that don’t include Zodiac rides or ATVs. Love you, honey. Best Friends. xox

And as always, to my wonderful, encouraging husband Joe. If there was an award for Most Patient Man Alive, you’d win it, hands down. Thank you for always being so supportive and kind. Have I told you today how much I love you? xox

Contents

One

Alexandra Larchmont pinned Lady Miranda with the intense stare she…

Two

Alex’s annoyance evaporated and alarm roared through her with such…

Three

Colin opened the wrought-iron gate leading to his town house.

Four

Colin stood in the shadows provided by a doorway across…

Five

Colin slid his chair closer to the table, then moved…

Six

The blood drained from Alex’s head. Her knees wobbled, and…

Seven

Alex briskly shuffled the cards. As if she weren’t already…

Eight

The walked slowly toward him, her footfalls silenced by the…

Nine

The instant Lord Sutton’s butler closed the door to his…

Ten

Colin stared into her chocolate brown eyes, and felt as…

Eleven

The first thing Colin saw when he entered his study…

Twelve

Alex looked at Colin from across the space of his…

Thirteen

Alex sat in Lord Wexhall’s elaborate dining room, beneath a…

Fourteen

Alex lay in the soft, comfortable, warm luxury of the…

Fifteen

Colin allowed himself a bit of smug satisfaction at her…

Sixteen

Alex came awake slowly, blinking against the shafts of bright…

Seventeen

Alex walked in Hyde Park, and as she had at…

Eighteen

Alex sat at her card-reading table, just below the balcony…

Nineteen

Alexandra looked out the window of her bedchamber in the…

Twenty

An hour after leaving Colin in the study, Alex paced…

Twenty-One

Colin’s fingers had just closed around the brandy snifter when…

Twenty-Two

Two nights after Lord Wexhall’s memorable party, Alex sat across…

 

FROM
THE LONDON TIMES
SOCIETY PAGE:

Lord and Lady Malloran’s annual soiree promises to be more exciting this year than ever as the entertaining services of the mysterious, much-sought-after fortune-teller Madame Larchmont have been secured. As Madame’s provocative predictions are uncannily accurate, her presence at any party guarantees its success. Also attending will be the very eligible Viscount Sutton, who recently returned to London after an extended stay at his Cornwall estate and is rumored to be looking for a wife. Wouldn’t it be delicious if Madame Larchmont told him whom it is in the cards for him to marry?

Alexandra Larchmont pinned Lady Miranda
with the intense stare she knew lent her predictions extra credence. As Lady Miranda was a distant cousin to Alex’s hostess, Lady Malloran, she wanted to make certain the young woman was pleased with her card reading.

“While I divine from your card reading and aura that you suffered pain in your past, your present is filled with bright promise—parties, jewels, fabulous gowns.”

Lady Miranda’s eyes glittered with delight. “Excellent.” She leaned closer to Alex. “What about my future?” she whispered.

She was about to look down to consult the cards when the crowd of milling party guests separated a bit and her attention was caught by the sight of a tall, dark-haired man.

Panic rippled along her nerve endings, and her muscles tensed, for in spite of the fact that four years had passed since she’d last seen him, she recognized him instantly. Under the best of circumstances, he wouldn’t be a man easily forgotten—and the circumstances of their last encounter could never be described as “best.” While she didn’t know his name, his image was permanently etched in her memory.

She dearly wished that’s where he’d remained—not standing a mere dozen feet away. Dear God, if he recognized
her
, everything she’d worked so long and hard for would be destroyed.

Her every instinct screamed at her to flee, but she remained frozen in place. As if trapped in a horrible, slow-moving nightmare, her gaze wandered down his form. Impeccably dressed in formal black attire, his dark hair gleamed under the glow of the dozens of candles flickering in the overhead chandelier. He held a crystal champagne glass, and she involuntarily shivered, rubbing her damp palms over her upper arms, recalling in vivid detail the strength in those large hands as they’d gripped her, preventing her escape. Out of necessity, she’d learned at a young age how to master her fears, but this man had alarmed and unnerved her as no one else ever had, before or since their single encounter.

The cards had repeatedly warned her about him—the
dark-haired stranger with the vivid green eyes who would wreak havoc with her existence—years before she’d ever seen him that first time. The cards had also predicted she’d someday see him again. Unfortunately, the cards hadn’t prepared her for someday being
now
.

Looking up, she noted with a sickening sense of alarm that his gaze moved slowly over the crowd. In a matter of seconds that gaze would fall upon her.

“Are you all right, Madame Larchmont? You’ve gone completely pale.”

Lady Miranda’s voice jerked Alex’s attention away from the man, and she found herself the subject of the young woman’s narrow-eyed scrutiny.

Digging deep to locate the well-practiced inscrutable mien that had always served her well, Alex said, “I’m a bit overheated, which sadly disrupts my psychic energies.” The well-modulated, even-toned voice she’d perfected long ago gave no indication of her inner turmoil. “A bit of air will set me to rights and allow me once again to commune with the spirits. If you’ll excuse me…”

Her gaze flicked back to the man. A stunning young woman she recognized as Lord Ralstrom’s daughter Lady Margaret approached him, smiling in unmistakable greeting. Surely a beauty like that would keep his interest engaged long enough for her to escape.

She quickly wrapped up her cards in a square of bronze silk, slipped the deck into the deep pocket of her gown, and hastily rose. Apprehension shivered down her spine, and she felt the weight of someone’s stare upon her. Her gaze snapped up, and her breath stalled.

Vivid green eyes assessed her with a piercing intensity that simultaneously chilled and heated her. And rendered her as immobile as his hands had four years ago. Her heart seemed to stutter and it flashed through her mind that there were undoubtedly dozens of women
who would go to great lengths to be on the receiving end of this man’s attention. She, however, was not one of them.

Did he recognize her? She couldn’t tell, as his expression gave nothing away. But she did not intend to wait to find out. “The spirits are calling, I must go,” she said to Lady Miranda, then executed a quick turn and melted into the crowd with an expertise born of years of practice.

Unfortunately, she didn’t know where she was going, her entire being consumed with only one thought: escape. The very same thought the stranger had implanted in her the last time they’d met.

After navigating her way to the edge of the room, she halted, and frustrated dismay filled her. Damnation, in her panic, she’d fled the wrong way. Her fortune-telling table had been set up near the French windows leading outside and was, therefore, now on the opposite side of the large, crowded room. And dozens of party guests stood between her and the corridor leading to the front door—a situation made all the more vexing, as succumbing to panic was simply not like her. Yet she couldn’t deny the agitation gripping her.

She quickly scanned the crowd. Her heart stuttered when her gaze settled on the green-eyed man. His features were set in a dark scowl as he, too, scanned the crowd. Looking for her?

Spurred by the desperation she couldn’t control, she slipped into the nearest corridor. Heart pounding, she forced herself not to run, not to show any outward signs of alarm in case she met someone. An open door on the left offered the hope of sanctuary, but as she drew closer, she heard masculine voices coming from within and moved on. She passed other doorways, but didn’t pause, determined to put as much distance between herself and
the man as possible. Surely he wouldn’t search the house for her, if indeed he looked for her at all.

Her mind raced. All she needed to do was find a room…preferably one at the back of the house. She’d slip out the window into the garden, then disappear into the mews. Lady Malloran would most assuredly be annoyed, and Alex would no doubt lose the entire evening’s wages, a troubling prospect as she badly needed the money. She’d have to plead her case, claiming a loss of the spirits or deep psychic fatigue or some such so her reputation wasn’t damaged. Of course, her efforts might well be for naught, thanks to the stranger. The ramifications of what running into her past might mean for her future—

She sliced off the disturbing thought. The future she needed to worry about right now encompassed the next few minutes. Once she escaped here, she’d worry about tomorrow.

The corridor made a series of turns, and the light dimmed to near darkness. The sounds of the party—laughter, chatter, the tinkling of crystal—faded to a dim, indistinguishable murmur. After rounding another corner, she noted a closed door. Excellent. Based on what she knew of Mayfair town houses, the room was most likely a library or study, and clearly wasn’t being used for the party. Moving swiftly, she pressed her ear against the wood door panel, then dropped to her knees and peered through the keyhole. Satisfied the room was empty, she turned the brass knob, eased the door open just enough to slip through, then closed the door behind her.

Leaning back against the polished oak panel, she sucked in a deep, calming breath and conducted a quick survey of the room, which was, as she’d suspected, a study. Based on the dark, wood paneling, and masculine maroon leather sofa and chairs, clearly Lord Mallor
an’s domain. Her gaze riveted on the window on the opposite side of the room through which silvery moonlight glowed—the room’s only illumination, and she allowed herself to relish an instant of relief. Escape beckoned, no more than twenty feet away.

Just as she was about to push off from the door, however, a noise stilled her. Relief vanished, and tension gripped her anew, and she pressed her ear to the crack between the door and the jamb.

“The study is just ahead,” came a low, deep voice. “We can talk there without interruption.”

Dear God, could her luck this night get any worse? Spurred to action, Alex raced across the room. With no time to escape out the window, she dashed behind the heavy velvet drapes, simultaneously blessing the darkness of the room and cursing her foolishness for hesitating even a second to catch her breath. She pressed her back against the cool glass windowpanes. Her escape hatch.

For all the good it did her.

The soft
swish
of the door opening was followed seconds later by a
click
as it closed. Then a louder
click
, indicating the door was now locked. She went perfectly still and reminded herself that over the years she’d successfully escaped tougher spots than this. More times than she cared to recall.
Just remain calm, quiet, and patient
.

“The date and place are set.” She instantly recognized the rough, masculine voice as the same one she’d heard seconds ago through the door crack.

“When?” came another voice, this one a barely audible raspy whisper.

“Wexhall’s party. On the twentieth.”

“All the arrangements are in place?”

“Yes. No one will suspect it were more than a tragic accident.”

“Make certain of that,” came the soft, raspy whisper. The person’s real voice—or an attempt at a disguise? Most likely a disguise, she decided. One never knew when one might be inadvertently overheard in a house swarming with guests and servants.
Or fortune-tellers hiding behind draperies.
“No mistakes. His death will assuredly give rise to inquiries.”

“No need fer worry. Ye’ve hired the best.”

“You’ll be compensated as such. Provided all goes as planned.”

“It will. And speakin’ of compensation…I’ll be havin’ another bit of blunt now that the arrangements are made. As we agreed.”

“I’ll see that it’s delivered tomorrow. There’s to be no further contact between us after this.”

“Understood. Now I’ve got to get back to servin’ the fancy folks drinks ’fore I’m missed.”

“With the money I’m paying you, soon you’ll be the one throwing the fancy parties.”

A sound of disgust filled the air. “Bah, I won’t be wastin’ no blunt on parties. Soon as this is over, you’ll never see me in London again.”

“That is, undoubtedly, for the best,” came the silky, whispered reply.

“Gonna get my own place. By the sea. Hire myself a servant. Be the one gettin’ waited on fer once in my life.”

No reply other than the sound of muffled footfalls came, and Alex, scarcely daring to breathe, visualized the pair crossing the room. Seconds later the
click
of the door being unlocked sounded. Even while her strong sense of self-preservation screamed at her not to move, she peeked around the edge of the curtain and for an instant caught sight of the back of a tall, dark-haired man who was dressed in the unmistakable elaborately gold-trimmed Malloran livery. Obviously the rougher,
less-educated speaker. To whom had he been talking? She craned her neck, but the door shut, ensconcing her in tomblike silence.

She remained behind the curtain, pulling in slow, careful breaths in an effort to quell the sick dread snaking through her. Someone was going to be killed…on the twentieth. But who?

It’s not your problem
, the inner voice that had successfully helped her survive the mean streets of London warned.
You have your own problems to worry about
.

Yes, she did. And she well knew what happened to people who stuck their noses where they didn’t belong—they tended to lose their noses. Or worse.

She squeezed her eyes shut and cursed herself for wondering if this evening could get any worse, for clearly it could. Everything inside her screamed at her to forget what she’d overheard. Ignore it. Flee. Now. While she had the chance. Before the Malloran servant or the person who’d clearly hired him to kill discovered her absence from the party and wondered to where the entertainment had disappeared. Then looked for and found her. Hiding in this room. Where they’d just discussed their murderous plot.

But she knew that no matter how hard she tried, she’d never be able to forget what she’d heard. Her conscience, that inconvenient inner voice that plagued her when she most wished it not to, would eat at her.

Yet what to do with this information? Clearly the intended target was someone important.
His death will assuredly give rise to inquiries
. Someone had to be told. Someone who could stop this crime before it took place. Someone who wasn’t her.

But who? A magistrate? She swallowed the bitter sound that rose in her throat. She’d spent her life avoiding magistrates and Runners and anyone of that ilk, and given her past, she definitely preferred to keep it that
way. Besides, who would believe her? A woman who barely scraped together a living telling fortunes? The instant the murder of this important person was committed, they’d believe her guilty—of something. Didn’t matter what. They’d hunt her down like a fox. Toss her in a cell. Her stomach turned over.
Never again
.

Yet she’d be forced into her own private prison if she didn’t at least
try
to warn whoever was in danger. With a wistful glance at the window that beckoned with the sweet temptation of freedom, she moved from behind the curtain and walked swiftly to the elegant polished wood desk. Quickly extracting a piece of vellum, she dipped the quill into the inkpot and penned a swift note, then folded the vellum in quarters and wrote “Lord Malloran—urgent and private” on the outside. She set it on the desk, securing it by placing an egg-shaped crystal paperweight on the corner, then blew out a long breath and told her conscience to cease grumbling.

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