Read No Man's Mistress Online

Authors: Mary Balogh

No Man's Mistress (4 page)

“Pleased to make your acquaintance,” Ferdinand said, stepping inside and looking around with frank interest.

He found himself standing in a square, highceilinged
hall with a tiled floor. The walls were tastefully hung with landscape paintings in gilded frames, and a marble bust of stern Roman aspect stood on a marble stand in an alcove opposite the door. There was an oak staircase with an ornately carved banister to the right, doors leading into other apartments to the left. The appearance of the hall certainly boded well for the rest of the house. Not only was it light, pleasingly designed, and tastefully decorated, but it was also clean. Everything gleamed.

The butler coughed with polite inquiry as Ferdinand strode to the center of the hall, his boots clicking on the tiles, and turned slowly about, his head tipped slightly back. “How may I help you, sir?”

“You may have the master bedchamber prepared for my use tonight,” Ferdinand said, giving the man only half his attention, “and some luncheon conjured up an hour or so from now. Is that possible? Is there a cook here? Cold meat and bread will do if there is nothing else.”

The butler regarded him with unconcealed astonishment. “The master bedchamber, sir?” he said stiffly. “I beg your pardon, but I have not been informed that you are expected.”

Ferdinand chuckled good-naturedly and gave his full attention to the matter at hand. “I gather not,” he said. “But then I was not informed that I was to expect
you
. I suppose the Earl of Bamber has not written or got anyone else to write for him?”

“The earl?” The butler sounded even more astonished. “He has never had anything to do with Pinewood Manor, sir. He—”

That was just like Bamber. To have known nothing about the place, not even that there were servants here.
Not to have warned anyone that Lord Ferdinand Dudley was on his way here. But then, he had not appeared to know that there was anyone to warn. What a ramshackle fellow!

Ferdinand held up one hand. “You must be a devoted retainer indeed, then,” he said, “if you have kept the manor and grounds in such fine order when he never comes to call you to account. Has he always paid the bills without question? I daresay you have grown to think of the house almost as your own, in which case you will soon wish me to the devil. All that is to change, you see. Allow me to introduce myself. I am Lord Ferdinand Dudley, younger brother of the Duke of Tresham, and the new owner of Pinewood.”

Suddenly the truth of it took on a new reality to him. This was
his
. And it really did exist. In more than just name. There really was a manor and a park, and presumably farms as well. He was a member of the landed gentry.

The butler stared at him with stiff incomprehension. “The new owner, sir?” he said. “But—”

“Oh, I assure you the change of ownership is all legal,” Ferdinand said briskly, his eye taken by the chandelier overhead.
“Is
there a cook? If not, I had better take my meals at the Boar's Head until there is. In the meantime, you may give the order about the master bedchamber while I take a look around. How many indoor servants are there?”

The butler did not answer his question. Another voice spoke instead. A female voice. A low, husky voice, which immediately sent shivers of recognition up Ferdinand's spine.

“Who is it, Mr. Jarvey?” she asked.

Ferdinand turned his head sharply. She was standing
on the bottom stair, her left hand resting on the newel post. She looked altogether different today, dressed as she was in a dark green high-waisted walking dress, which hugged her magnificent figure in all the right places, her hair pulled back rather severely from her lovely face and braided into a coronet about her head. Today there was no mistaking the fact that she was no girl, but a woman. And no village wench, but a lady. For a moment she looked vaguely familiar, even apart from yesterday's acquaintance, but he was not at leisure to pursue that impression.

“Lord Ferdinand Dudley, ma'am.” The butler, stiff and correct, made his name sound as if he were close blood kin to Satan.

Oh, Lord! Bamber had not given any hint about people being in residence. Had
he forgotten?
All the signs had been punching Ferdinand in the nose like a giant fist for the past half hour, but idiot that he was, he had recognized not a one of them. The house was
occupied
. And of all people, by the woman he had kissed last night. Possibly by her husband too. He had a pained mental image of pistols at dawn, grass for breakfast.

She had stepped down onto the tiled floor and was hurrying toward him, her right arm extended in greeting. She was smiling. And devil take it, but she was beautiful. He licked lips suddenly turned dry. There was no sign of a husband thundering down the stairs behind her.

“You!” she exclaimed. Then she seemed to hear the echo of what her butler had said to her and her smile faltered.
“Lord
Ferdinand Dudley?”

He took her outstretched hand in his and bowed over it, clicking his heels as he did so. “Ma'am,” he murmured.
Bloody hell
, he added silently.

“I supposed that you had continued your journey this morning,” she said. “I expected never to see you again.
Do you have far to go? But how delightful that you have called on me first. Someone told you where I live? Do come up to the drawing room. Mr. Jarvey will have refreshments sent up. I was on my way out for a walk, but I am so glad you came before I left.”

Where I live
. His mind latched on to those three words. She
did
live here. She thought he had come to call on her on the strength of yesterday's acquaintance. Lord, what rotten bad luck. He dredged up a smile from somewhere deep inside himself, bowed again, and offered his arm.

“It would be my pleasure, ma'am,” he said, instead of simply telling her what was what and having done with it.

This would teach him to avoid village fêtes and pretty country lasses, Ferdinand thought as she took his arm and led him toward the staircase. He tried to stuff aside the memory of her dancing with gay animation about the maypole on the village green, her face vibrant and beautiful in the firelight, her thick hair bouncing and swaying against her back below its confining ribbon. And of the kiss he had incautiously maneuvered, during which he had held her very shapely body flush against his own.

Devil take it!

3

H
e had come! He was tall and lithe and elegant in crisply clean riding clothes different from yesterday's. He was smiling and handsome, and he was
Lord
Ferdinand Dudley. She remembered how the arm through which her own was now loosely linked had felt holding her close the night before. She remembered how his mouth had felt on her own.

He had come!

It was absurd, as well as undesirable, to imagine that he had come courting. He was merely a stranger passing through, who had danced with her and kissed her, discovered her identity, and come to pay a courtesy call. No, more than that, surely. He must have felt the sheer romance of the maypole dance and its aftermath, as she had. He had come to see her once more before riding on.

He had come!

Viola led Lord Ferdinand Dudley into the drawing room and indicated a chair beside the marble fireplace. She took one opposite him and smiled at him again.

“How did you discover my identity?” she asked. It warmed her to know that he had made the effort.

He cleared his throat and looked uncomfortable. How gratifying that she could discompose a
lord
. Her eyes sparkled with amusement.

“I asked the landlord of the Boar's Head for the direction to Pinewood Manor,” he said.

Ah, so he had known yesterday who she was? She had not known his identity or sought to discover it. But she was glad he had come to introduce himself before riding on. She was glad their encounter yesterday had meant something to him, as it had to her.

“The fête was a great success,” she said. She wanted him to talk about it, to mention their lovely dance.

“Quite so.” He cleared his throat again and flushed. But before he could continue, the door opened and the parlormaid brought in a tray of coffee and set it down in front of Viola before bobbing a curtsy and leaving. Viola poured two cups and rose to set one down on the table beside Lord Ferdinand. He watched her in silence.

“Look here, ma'am,” he blurted as she resumed her seat. “Has Bamber not written to you either?”

“The Earl of Bamber?” She stared at him in surprise.

“I beg your pardon, ma'am,” he continued, “but Pinewood is no longer his, you see. It is mine. As of two weeks ago.”

“Yours?” What
was
this? “But that is impossible, my lord. Pinewood Manor is mine. It has been for almost two years.”

He reached into an inner pocket of his riding coat to draw out a folded sheet of paper, which he held out to her. “Here is the deed to the manor. It is now officially in my name. I am sorry.”

She looked at it blankly without reaching for it, and
foolishly all she could think of was that she had been mistaken. He had
not
come to call on her. At least, not because of yesterday. The contest for her daisies, the dance about the maypole, the kiss beneath the old oak had meant nothing whatsoever to him. Today he had come with the intention of ousting her from her home.

“It is a worthless piece of paper,” she told him through lips that felt suddenly stiff. “The Earl of Bamber has made off with the price you paid for it, Lord Ferdinand, and is laughing at you from some safe distance. I suggest you find him and take up the matter with him.” She felt the stirring of anger—and fright.

“There is nothing to take up,” Lord Ferdinand told her. “The legality of the document is not in question, ma'am. It has been attested to by both Bamber's solicitor and my brother's—he is the Duke of Tresham. I was careful to verify the authenticity of my winnings.”

“Winnings?”
Oh, yes, of course. She knew his type-yes, indeed she did. He was the brother of the Duke of Tresham, with all of a younger son's weaknesses and vices—boredom, shiftlessness, extravagance, insensitiv-ity, arrogance. He was probably impoverished too. But yesterday she had chosen to be beguiled by a handsome face and a virile male body, and to be flattered by his attentions. He was a gambler of the very worst kind, one who played deep without any concern for the human consequences of his addiction. He had won property that was not even his opponent's to lose.

“At cards,” he explained. “There are any number of witnesses to the fact that Pinewood was fairly won. And I
did
have the document checked very thoroughly. I am indeed sorry for this inconvenience to you. I had no idea there was someone living here.”

Inconvenience!

Viola leaped to her feet, her cheeks flooding with hot color, her eyes flashing. How dare he!

“You may take your
document
with you and toss it into the river as you leave,” she said. “It is worthless. Pinewood Manor was willed to me almost two years ago. The Earl of Bamber may not have liked it, but there was nothing he could do to prevent it. Good day to you, my lord.”

But Lord Ferdinand Dudley, although he too got to his feet, made no move to leave the room and her life, as any decent gentleman would have done. He stood before the fireplace looking large and unyielding and unsmiling. All his false geniality had been abandoned.

“On the contrary, ma'am,” he said, “it is you who are going to have to leave. I will, of course, grant you sufficient time to gather your belongings and arrange for a destination, since Bamber has not seen fit to give you decent notice. You are a relative of his, are you? I suppose you should go to Bamber Court, then, unless somewhere else leaps to mind. He will hardly refuse you admittance, will he, though I daresay he is still in London. His mother lives there all the time, though, I believe. She will doubtless welcome you.”

His words filled her with icy terror. Her nostrils flared. “Let me make one thing very clear to you, Lord Ferdinand,” she said. “This is my home. You are a trespasser here and an unwelcome one, despite… well, despite yesterday. I understand clearly now that you are a gamer and an opportunist. I had evidence of those weaknesses yesterday but did not realize they were habitual. I do not doubt that you are also any number of other unsavory things. You will leave immediately. I will be going nowhere. I am already at home. Good day to you.”

He gazed at her with those almost black eyes, which were quite unfathomable. “I will be taking up residence
as soon as you have had time to pack up your belongings and remove yourself, ma'am,” he said. “I would advise you not to delay too long. You would certainly not wish to be forced to spend any night beneath the roof of a single gentleman who is also a gamer and an opportunist, among other unsavory vices.”

And she had danced about the maypole with this cold, unfeeling, obstinate man the night before and thought it surely the most glorious experience of her life? She had kissed him and thought she would warm herself with the memory for the rest of her life?

“I will simply not allow you to do this,” she said. “How dare you expose me to public attention yesterday by wagering on my—my
daisies!
How dare you haul me onto the green to dance about the
maypole!
How dare you maul my person and
k-kiss
me as if I were a common milkmaid!”

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