Read No Man's Mistress Online

Authors: Mary Balogh

No Man's Mistress (10 page)

He grinned again. How could he possibly succeed in looking handsome and virile even at such a moment? The fact that he did merely fanned her ire.

“And
look
at the mess you are making on my carpet!”

“You may get back to the stables, lad,” he told Eli.
“And if you set so much as one toenail on that roof ever again, you will have a thrashing at my hands to look forward to when you come back down. Do you understand?”

“Yes, m'lord.” And while Viola watched, outraged, the boy grinned cheekily at Lord Ferdinand and cast him a look of pure hero worship before turning and running down the stairs.

“You may eat your dinner tonight in both comfort and warmth, ma'am,” Lord Ferdinand said, turning his attention back to Viola. “Now, if you will excuse me, I must go and face my valet's wrath. He will not be amused by the appearance of my boots.”

“You did it deliberately,” she said, her eyes narrowing, her hands closing into fists at her sides. “You made sure that everyone knew you were going up there before you went. You made sure you would be playing to an audience. You risked life and limb just so that everyone would gaze in admiration and call you
a
.
jolly good sport.”

“No!” His eyes danced with merriment. “Is that what they were saying?”

“Life is nothing but a game to you,” she cried. “You are probably
glad
you found me here and that I refused to leave. You are probably
glad
that everyone here is set on your discomfort.”

“You must understand,” he said, “that I have always been able to resist almost every temptation except a challenge. When you threw down the gauntlet, Miss Thornhill, I picked it up. What did you expect?”

“But this is not a game!” Her fingernails were digging painfully into her palms.

His almost-black eyes regarded her out of his blackened face. “No, it is not,” he agreed. “But then, I was not the one who planned or executed the pranks, was I,
ma'am? If there is a game afoot, you cannot expect me not to play it, you know. And I always play to win. You may wish to remember that. Give me half an hour or so. I am going to need a bath. Then we will take that walk you agreed to.”

He turned and strode away. Viola watched him until his bedchamber door closed behind him. There was a decidedly grubby spot on the carpet where he had stood, she could see.

I always play to win
.

He has pluck
.

A jolly good sport
.

She felt like throwing a major tantrum. Or weeping self-pityingly into her handkerchief. Or committing murder.

She did none of the three. Instead, she turned on her heel and made her way back downstairs. She was going outside to read her letter. She would go down onto the river walk. If he cared to, he could find her there. But she was not going to wait for him like an obedient scion.

6

S
he was reading when he found her. At least, she was folding up a letter, probably the one that had been on the library desk earlier. She was sitting on the grassy bank well north of the house, between the path and the river, her light muslin dress spread about her, her hair in its neat braided coronet. She was surrounded by daisies and buttercups and clover. She looked the perfect picture of beauty and innocence, at one with her surroundings.

Ferdinand felt wretched. He had heard that the late Earl of Bamber was a decent sort, though he had not known him personally. But obviously the man had been as much of a loose screw as his son.

She did not look up as he approached, though she surely must have heard him. She was slipping her letter into her pocket. Did she imagine he was going to snatch it away from her to read himself? His annoyance returned.

“Hiding from me, Miss Thornhill?”

She turned her head to look up at him. “With not a
single tree to duck behind for cover?” she said. “If I chose to hide from you, my lord, you would not find me.”

He stood on the grass beside her while she turned her gaze toward the river and beyond, her arms clasped about her updrawn knees. He would have preferred to walk with her, but she showed no inclination to get to her feet. He could hardly conduct a reasonable conversation with her, towering over her as he was. He sat down not far from her, one leg stretched out before him, an arm draped over the raised knee of the other.

“You have had a day and a night to think,” he said. “You have had a chance to consult with your friends and neighbors. Although I have sent a request for a copy of the will to be sent down here, I believe you must realize now that Pinewood never was yours. Have you come to any decision about your future?”

“I am staying here,” she said. “This is my home. This is where I belong.”

“Your friends were right last night,” he said. “Your reputation is severely at risk for as long as you stay here with me.”

She laughed softly and plucked a daisy. He watched her split its stem with her thumbnail and then pluck another daisy to thread through it.

“If you are worried about propriety,” she said, “perhaps you are the one who should go away. You have no right to Pinewood. You won its title in a
card game
at a gaming hell. Doubtless you were so drunk that you did not even know it until the next day.”

“The gaming hell was Brookes's,” he explained. “An eminently respectable gentlemen's club. And one would have to be a fool to gamble while foxed. I am no fool.”

She gave him that low laugh again for answer—he
recognized scorn in it—and her daisy chain acquired another link.

“The will may take a week to get here,” he said. “If Bamber decides to send it or a copy of it, that is. He may choose to ignore my request. I really cannot have you staying here indefinitely, you know.” Good Lord, her reputation would be in tatters, if it was not already. He would be expected to make reparation. And he knew what
that
meant. He was going to find himself leg-shackled to her if he was not very careful.

The very thought of a leg shackle was enough to make him break out in a cold sweat, warm May sunshine notwithstanding.

“Why are you so sure that the old earl meant to leave Pinewood to you?” he asked her. “Apart from the fact that he apparently promised to do so, that is.”

“That he
did
do so,” she corrected.

“That he did promise, then,” he said. “Why would he promise such a thing? Were you a favorite niece or cousin?”

“He
loved
me,” she said with quiet vehemence, plucking a number of daisies that were within her reach all at once and setting them down on the grass beside her before resuming her work.

“That does not always mean—”

“And I loved
him,”
she added. “Perhaps you have never loved or been loved, Lord Ferdinand. Love encompasses trust. I trusted him. I still do. I always will. He said that Pinewood was to be mine, and I do not doubt for one moment that it is.”

“But the will?” He frowned and watched her hands. She had slim, delicate fingers. “If it gives proof that he did not keep his word, then you will have to accept the fact that he let you down.”

“Never!” Her hands paused and she turned her head to glare at him. “All that will have been proved is that someone has tampered with it. Destroyed it, perhaps. I will never lose my trust in him because I will never stop loving him or knowing beyond any doubt that he loved me.”

Ferdinand was silent, shaken by the passion with which she spoke of the love between herself and the old Earl of Bamber. What relationship had they had, for God's sake?

“That is a serious charge,” he said. “That someone changed the will, I mean.”

“Yes,” she agreed. “It is.” The daisy chain grew longer.

He did not really want to know more about her. He did not want her to become more of a person to him than she already was. He felt bad enough about her as it was. For a minute or two he fought his curiosity. A few stray curls of dark red hair lay enticingly against the back of her neck.

“Did you grow up in the country?” he asked despite himself.

“No.” He thought for a few relieved moments that she would not elaborate, but she did. “I grew up in London. I spent all my life there until I came here almost two years ago.”

“That must have been a shock to the system,” he said.

“It was.” She had denuded the grass within reach of daisies. She sat holding the two ends of the chain. “But I loved it from the first moment.”

“Are your parents still living?” But if they were, why the devil were they not here with her? Or why was she not with them?

“My mother is.”

“Were you very young when your father died?” he asked.

She spread the daisy chain across her lap, the ends trailing onto the grass on either side of her. Very deliberately she was arranging the daisies so that the blossoms all faced upward.

“My mother married my stepfather when I was nine,” she said. “He died when I was eighteen—in a gaming hell brawl. He had been accused of cheating, and I daresay there was justice in the charge.” Her voice was emotionless.

“Ah,” he said. What else was there to say? He had won the home she had thought was hers in a card game. What a cruel irony of fate that must seem to her.

“I hated him,” she said, meticulously continuing her task. “I could never understand why my mother doted on him.”

“Do you have any memories of your real father?” he asked, being drawn inexorably into an interest in her life.

“Oh, yes.” Her voice became more husky, as if she had forgotten his presence. Her hands fell still on the daisy chain. “I adored him. I used to watch for his coming home and run to meet him—sometimes right out onto the street even before he could come inside. My mother used to scold and remind me I must behave like a lady, but he used to snatch me up and twirl me about and tell me it was the loveliest welcome any man could wish for.”

She laughed softly at the memory. Ferdinand sat very still. He felt almost as if he held his breath, eager to hear more, but suspecting that she would stop if she recalled to whom she was speaking.

“He used to take me on his knee while he and Mama talked,” she said. “I would sit there patiently, because I knew that my turn would come. And even while he was
taking no particular notice of me, I could feel the solid safety of his presence and smell the snuff he always used. And he would play absently with my fingers, his own hands large and capable. When he
did
turn his attention to me, he used to listen to all my little, insignificant pieces of news as if there were nothing more interesting in the world, and often he would have me read to him from my books. Sometimes
he
would read to me, but after a while he would always change the words of my favorite stories until I got indignant and corrected him. Then I would catch him winking at Mama. He used to call me his princess.”

But he had died before she was even nine. The childhood idyll had ended. Ferdinand did not know why he should feel sad for her. It was a long time ago.

“It is important to be loved during one's childhood, is it not?” he said.

She turned her head to look at him then. “You must have been loved,” she said. “You had two parents, did you not? And a brother to play with. And a sister?”

“We fought as fiercely as only Dudleys know how,” he said with a grin. “But we were allies too whenever there was someone outside our threesome to terrorize. There was always someone—usually a tutor, sometimes a gamekeeper or a village notable—who had somehow incurred our wrath.”

“You had a country home in which to grow up,” she said, “and parents to love you and each other.”

What a naïve assumption, he thought.

“Oh, they loved each other, all right,” he said. “When one of them was at Acton Park, the other was in London. They alternated. They rarely spent more than a few hours in each other's company. Though I suppose I should be grateful that they did spend those few hours together at
least three times in their married life. My brother, my sister, and I might not exist otherwise.”

She was carefully joining together the ends of her chain.

“They had a perfectly civilized relationship,” he said. “Really quite typical of married couples of the
ton.”

“How cynical you sound,” she said. “Were you hurt by their near-estrangement?”

“Why should I have been?” He shrugged. “We were always quite happy when our father was away. He had been a hellion like us and so there was no deceiving him. And no escaping the birch cane he kept propped against the desk in his study. The one thing I was always grateful for was that my brother was his favorite and therefore was thrashed more often than I was.”

“Your mother was kinder?” she asked.

“Our mother was bored by us,” he said. “Or perhaps it was just the countryside that bored her. We did not see much of her—at least, my brother and sister did not. I was her favorite. She used to take me to London with her when I was old enough.”

“You must have enjoyed that,” she said.

He had hated it. It had brought about his early loss of innocence. It seemed to him that he had always known that his father kept mistresses. Somehow he had known—though he believed Tresham and Angie had not—that the poor relative living at Dove Cottage on the estate was no relative at all, but one of the mistresses. It was why they had not been allowed to visit her, of course, even though the cottage was below their beloved wooded hills and close to the pool where they bathed in summer despite the fact that they were strictly forbidden to do so.

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