Read No Man's Mistress Online

Authors: Mary Balogh

No Man's Mistress (5 page)

His brows snapped together and she
realized
with some satisfaction that she had finally rattled him. “Yesterday?” he barked at her.
“Yesterday?
You accuse me of common assault when you
flirted
with me from the moment your eyes first alighted on me?”

“And how
dare
you have the audacity to come here today to invade my home and privacy, you…you Bond Street fop! You conscienceless rake! You callous, dissolute gamer!” She had lost control of both the situation and herself, she knew, but she did not care. “I know your sort, and I will
not
allow you to ignore my very existence. Get out of here!” She pointed toward the door. “Go back to London and your own kind, where you belong. We do not need you here.”

He raised his eyebrows haughtily—and then lifted one hand and ran his fingers through his hair. He sighed out loud.

“Perhaps, ma'am,” he suggested, “we should discuss this matter like civilized beings instead of scrapping like a couple of ill-bred children. Your presence here has taken me by surprise. You know, it was unpardonable of Bamber not to have informed you that the property is no longer his. You of all people should have been the first to know. But—I beg your pardon—does he
know
you are living here? I mean… well, he did not
say
anything about you.”

She regarded him scornfully. There was nothing to discuss, civilly or otherwise. “It is quite immaterial to me whether he knows or not,” she said.

“Well,” he said, “he should have informed both you and me, and so I shall tell him when I see him. It is a dashed awkward thing that I have descended on you like this without warning of any kind. Accept my apologies, ma'am. Is he a close relative of yours? Are you fond of him?”

“My affections would be sadly misplaced if I were,” Viola said. “A man of
honor
surely does not pledge at a card game what does not belong to him.”

He took one step closer to her. “Why do you claim that Pinewood is yours?” he asked. “You said it was willed to you?”

“When the Earl of Bamber died,” she said. “This man's father.”

“Were you there for the reading of the will?” he asked. “Or were you informed of the bequest by letter?”

“I had the earl's promise,” she said.

“The old earl?” He was frowning. “He promised to leave you Pinewood? But you have no proof that he kept his promise? You were not there for the reading? You received no letter from his solicitor?” He shook his head slowly. “You have been hoaxed, I am afraid, ma'am.”

Her clasped hands felt cold and clammy. Her heartbeat was thudding against her eardrums. “I was not there for the reading of the will,” she said, “but I trust the word of the late Earl of Bamber, my lord. He promised me when I came here two years ago that he would change his will. He lived for more than a month after that. He would neither have changed his mind nor procrastinated. No one belonging to the present earl has been here or communicated in any way with me. Is that not proof enough that he knew very well the property is mine?”

“Why do you not have the deed in your possession, then?” he asked. “Why did both Bamber's solicitor and my brother's assure me that the property was indeed his before he wagered it and lost it to me?”

Viola's stomach somersaulted queasily. But she dared not give in to terror. “I have never thought about it,” she said curtly. “The deed is merely a piece of paper. I trusted the word of the late Earl of Bamber. I still do. Pinewood is mine. I do not intend to discuss the matter further with you, Lord Ferdinand. I do not need to. You must leave.”

He stared at her, the long fingers of one hand drumming a tattoo against the outside of his thigh. He was not going to go away quietly. Had she expected that he would? She had known from her first sight of him yesterday that he was a dangerous man. He was one who was accustomed to having his own way, she guessed. And he was the Duke of Tresham's brother? The duke was a notoriously ruthless man, whose will no one dared cross.

“There is an easy way to settle the matter,” he said. “We can send for a copy of the old earl's will. But I would not hold out any hope of its saying what you wish it to say, if I were you, ma'am. If the old earl did indeed make you such a promise—”

“If?
If?”
Viola took an incautious step forward so that she was almost toe-to-toe with him.

He held up a staying hand. “Then I am afraid he did not keep it. There can be no doubt about it. I made very certain, before I left London to come down here, that Pinewood was Bamber's to lose. It is now mine.”

“He had no right to wager away the house,” she cried, “when it did not belong to him. It is
mine
. It was left to me.”

“I can understand your agitation,” he told her. “This was dashed irresponsible of Bamber—both Bambers: the father for making a promise he did not keep, the son for forgetting you were here. If I had only known of your existence, I could at least have given you ample notice before I came here in person. But I did not know, and so here I am, eager to acquaint myself with my new property. You really are going to have to leave, I'm afraid. There is no sensible alternative, is there? We cannot
both
live here. But I'll give you a week. Will that be long enough? I'll sleep at the inn in Trellick during that time. Do you have somewhere else to go?
Couldyou
go to Bamber Court?”

Viola clenched her hands even tighter. She could feel her fingernails digging into her palms. “I have no intention of going anywhere,” she told him. “Until I see that will and it is proved to me that I am not named in it, this is where I belong. This is my house. My home.”

He sighed, and she realized that he was too close for comfort. But she would not take a step back. She tilted her head and looked him straight in the eye—and had a flashing memory of standing even closer to him just the evening before. Could he possibly be the same man?

Beware of a tall, dark, handsome stranger. He can destroy you
.

“If there is nowhere,” he said with what she might
have interpreted as kindness had the words not been so brutal, “I'll send you to London in my own carriage. I'll send you to my sister, Lady Heyward. No, on second thought, Angie is too scatterbrained to offer any practical assistance. I'll send you to my sister-in-law, the Duchess of Tresham, then. She will gladly offer you shelter while she helps you find some suitable and respectable employment. Or a relative willing to take you in.”

Viola laughed scornfully. “Perhaps the Duchess of Tresham could do that for
you
, m
y
lord,” she suggested. “Find you respectable employment, that is. Gamblers frequently find their pockets to let, I understand. And gamblers are invariably gentlemen who have nothing more meaningful to do with their lives.”

He raised his eyebrows and looked at her in some astonishment. “You
do
have a sharp tongue,” he said. “Who are you? Have I seen you somewhere before? Before yesterday, that is?”

It was entirely possible. Though no one else in the neighborhood of Pinewood had. That had always been a large part of its charm. The only twinge of alarm she had felt at first downstairs—it seemed laughable now—had come with Mr. Jarvey's introduction of yesterday's handsome stranger as Lord Ferdinand Dudley—a member of the
ton
, possibly someone who lived much of his life in London and had perhaps done so for several years. She guessed that he must be in his late twenties.

“Viola Thornhill,” she told him. “And I have never seen you before yesterday. I would have remembered.”

He nodded, but his brows were still knitted in thought. He was obviously trying to remember where it was he had seen her before, if anywhere. She could have offered a few suggestions, though it was true she had never seen him before yesterday.

“Well,” he said briskly, shaking his head, “I will take myself off back to Trellick, Miss Thornhill. It is Miss, not Mrs.?” She inclined her head. “For seven nights, though I must beg leave to intrude upon you here in the daytime. If you need my assistance in planning your journey, feel free to ask for it.”

He strode past her across the room, all masculine arrogance and energy and power. Yesterday's dream transformed into today's nightmare. She looked after him with intense hatred.

“Lord Ferdinand,” she said as his hand closed about the doorknob, “I do not believe you heard me a moment ago. Until I have seen that will, I am going nowhere. I will be remaining here in my own house and my own home. I will not give in to bluster and bullying. If you were a gentleman, you would not even ask it of me.”

When he turned, she could see that she had angered him. His eyes looked very black. His brows had drawn together. His nostrils were flared, making his nose look sharper, almost hooked, and his lips were set in a grim line. He looked altogether more formidable than he had a moment before. Viola glared defiantly at him.

“If I were a
gentleman?”
he said, so softly that despite herself she felt a shiver of apprehension curl about her spine. “If you were a
lady
, ma'am, you would accept with grace what has happened through no fault of mine. I am not answerable for the failure of the late earl to keep his promise to you, or for his son's choosing to bet an estate instead of money on the outcome of a card game. The simple fact is that Pinewood Manor is
mine
. It was my plan a moment ago to inconvenience myself out of deference to your sensibilities and the awkwardness of your situation. It is no longer my plan. I will be taking up residence here immediately. It is
you
who will stay at the
Boar's Head tonight. But as a
gentleman
, I will send a maid with you and have the bill sent to me.”

“I will be sleeping here, in my own house, in my own bed,” she told him, holding his gaze.

The air fairly crackled with the clashing of their wills.

His eyes narrowed. “Then you must share the house with me,” he told her. “With someone you have accused of being less than a gentleman. Perhaps, as well as being a dissolute gamer, I am also possessed of unbridled sexual appetites. Perhaps last evening gave you only the glimmering of a hint of what I am capable of when my passions are aroused. Are you sure you wish to put your person and your reputation at such risk?”

She might have laughed if she had not been so incensed.

She took long, angry strides toward him until she was close enough to point a finger at him and jab it against his chest, like a blunt dagger, as she spoke. Her voice shook with fury.

“If you so much as attempt to lay one lascivious finger on me,” she told him, “you may be surprised to discover that your sexual appetites will die an ignominious death and remain dead for all time. Be warned. I am no man's mistress. I am no man's abject victim, to be threatened and coerced into whimpering submission. I am my own mistress,
my lord
, and I am mistress of Pinewood. I will remain here tonight and every night for the rest of my life. If you truly believe you have a claim to the house, then I daresay you will stay here too. But I can guarantee that soon you will be glad enough to leave. You are a rake and a town fop and would be quite incapable of living more than a week in the country without expiring of boredom. I will endure you for that week. But I will not be bullied or threatened sexually without retaliating in ways you
would not enjoy. And I will not be removed from my rightful home.” She stabbed at his chest one more time-it was a remarkably solid chest. “And now, if you please, I wish to leave the room in order to resume my interrupted plan of walking out and taking the air.”

He stared at her with the same angry expression—with perhaps also a suggestion of shock?—for several moments before standing aside, whisking open the drawing room door, and gesturing with a flourish toward the landing beyond it, while sketching her a mocking bow.

“Far be it from me to hold you against your will,” he said. “But I in my turn can guarantee that within a week, or two at the most, you will be forced to abandon your rash determination to share a bachelor establishment with a rake. I will send for that damned will.”

Viola ignored the blasphemy with cold civility and swept from the room. He had the deed of Pinewood, she thought as she climbed the stairs to her room. Something was terribly wrong. She had no written proof, only the word of a man long dead. But strangely, foolishly, the thought that crowded all else from her mind was that he—Lord Ferdinand Dudley, that is—had not known she lived here. He had made no attempt to discover who she was. He had not cared enough. Yesterday had meant nothing to him.

Well, it had not meant anything to her either!

4

V
iola did not, after all, go out walking. She sat for a long time on the window seat in her bed-chamber. Hers was fortunately not the master bedchamber—at least they were not to fight over that and perhaps insist upon sharing the same bed. She had always preferred her present room, with its cheerful Chinese wallpaper and draperies and screens and its view over the back of the house rather than the front, over the kitchen garden and greenhouses, over the long avenue beyond them, culminating in the tree-dotted hill half a mile away.

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