Read No Man's Mistress Online

Authors: Mary Balogh

No Man's Mistress (6 page)

Pinewood was hers. No one else had even been interested in it until it had become the subject of a card game. Lord Ferdinand Dudley would not be interested either once he recovered from the novelty of having won it. He was a city man, a dandy, a fop, a gamer, a rake—and probably many more nasty things. Once he went back to London, he would forget all about Pinewood again.

Once he went back to London…

Viola got to her feet, smoothed out her dress,
straightened her shoulders, and left her room, bound for the kitchen.

“Yes, it is true,” she said in answer to all the anxious, inquiring looks turned her way as soon as she walked in. They were all there—Mr. Jarvey; Mr. Paxton, the steward; Jeb Hardinge, the head groom; Samuel Dey, the footman; Hannah; Mrs. Walsh, the cook; Rose, the parlormaid; Tom Abbott, the head gardener. They must have been holding a meeting. “Though I do not believe it for a minute. Lord Ferdinand Dudley claims to be the new owner of Pinewood. But I have no intention of leaving. Indeed, I have every intention of persuading Lord Ferdinand to go away again.”

“What do you have in mind, Miss Vi?” Hannah asked. “Oh, I
knew
that man was trouble the minute I set eyes on him. Too handsome for his own good, he is.”

“How difficult can it be,” Viola asked, “to convince a town tulip that the life of a country squire is not for him?”

“I can think of a few ways without even taxing my brains, Miss Thornhill,” Jeb Hardinge said.

“So can I,” Mrs. Walsh agreed grimly.

“Let's hear some of these ideas, then,” Mr. Paxton suggested, “and see if we can come up with a plan.”

Viola sat down at the kitchen table and invited everyone to join her.

A short while later, Viola was walking into the village. She was far too restless to sit still in any vehicle when she might be striding along, trying to keep up with the pace of her teeming thoughts.

How very different two days could be. Yesterday's dream had been very pleasant while it had lasted—more than pleasant. She had lain awake half the night reliving the dance about the maypole, when she had felt more
vigorously alive than she had since she did not know when. And reliving his kiss and the feel of his lean man's body against her own.

More fool her, for allowing herself to indulge in dreams, she thought, lengthening her stride. Maybe that gypsy fortune-teller had not been so far off the mark, after all. She should have taken more heed. She should have been more wary.

She stopped first at the vicarage and found both the Reverend and Mrs. Prewitt at home.

“My dear Miss Thornhill,” Mrs. Prewitt said when her housekeeper had ushered Viola into the parlor, “what a delightful surprise. I fully expected that you would remain at home, exhausted, today.”

The vicar beamed at her. “Miss Thornhill,” he said. “I have just now finished adding the proceeds from the fête. You will be delighted to know that we surpassed last year's total by almost exactly twenty pounds. Is that not significant? So you see, my dear, your daisies were sacrificed to a good cause.”

He and his wife laughed over his joke as Viola took her seat.

“It was an extremely generous donation,” Mrs. Prewitt said, “especially when one remembers that the gentleman was a stranger.”

“He called on me this morning,” Viola told them.

“Ah.” The vicar rubbed his hands together. “Did he indeed?”

“He claims to be the rightful owner of Pinewood.” Viola clasped her hands tightly in her lap. “Most provoking, is it not?”

Both her listeners stared blankly at her for a moment.

“But I was under the impression that Pinewood was yours,” Mrs. Prewitt said.

“It
is,”
Viola assured them both. “When the late Earl of Bamber sent me here almost two years ago, he changed his will so that it would be mine for the rest of my life. However, the present earl had the deed and chose to wager away the property in a
card
game at
a
.
gaming hell
a short while ago, and lost it.” She did not know where the card game had been played, but she chose to assume it had been at the shabbiest, most notorious hell.

“Oh, dear me,” the vicar commented, looking down in some concern at his visitor. “But his lordship could not wager away property that does not belong to him, Miss Thornhill. I hope the gentleman was not too disappointed to learn how he had been deceived. He seemed pleasant enough.”

“In a
card ga
me?” Mrs. Prewitt was more satisfyingly shocked than her husband. “We were deceived in him yesterday, then. I did think it very forward of him, I must confess, Miss Thornhill, to make you dance with him about the maypole when he had not been formally presented to you. What a dreadful turn you must have had when he called on you with his claim this morning.”

“Oh, I have not allowed him to upset me greatly,” Viola assured them. “Indeed I have a plan to persuade him that he would find life at Pinewood vastly uncomfortable. You may both help me if you will…”

A short while later she was outdoors again and continuing the round of visits she had planned. Fortunately everyone was at home, perhaps understandably so after such a busy day yesterday.

Her final call was at the cottage of the Misses Merrywether, who listened to her story with growing amazement and indignation.
She
had disliked Lord Ferdinand Dudley from the moment she first set eyes on him, Miss Faith Merrywether declared. His manners had
been far too easy. And no true gentleman removed his coat in the presence of ladies, even when he was engaged in some sport on a hot day.

He was extremely handsome, Miss Prudence Merrywether conceded, blushing, and of course he had that charming smile, but one knew from experience that handsome, charming gentlemen were never up to any good. Lord Ferdinand Dudley was certainly not up to any if his intention was to drive their dear Miss Thornhill away destitute from Pinewood.

“Oh, he will not drive me away,” Viola assured both ladies. “It will be the other way around.
I
shall get rid of
him.”

“The vicar and Mr. Claypole will see what can be done on your behalf, I am sure,” Miss Merrywether said. “In the meantime, Miss Thornhill, you must come and live here. You will not be at all in the way.”

“That is extremely kind of you, ma'am, but I have no intention of leaving Pinewood,” Viola said. “Indeed, it is my plan to—”

But the description of her plan had to be deferred to a more convenient moment. Miss Prudence was so shocked at the mere idea of her returning to the house when there was a single gentleman in residence there that Miss Merrywether, made of sterner stuff herself, had to send in a hurry for their young maid to fetch burned feathers and hartshorn in order to prevent her sister from swooning dead away. Viola meanwhile chafed her wrists.

“There is no telling what such a libertine might attempt,” Miss Merrywether warned Viola after the crisis had passed and a still-pale Miss Prudence was propped against cushions sipping weak, sweet tea, “if he were to get you alone with no servants in attendance. He
might even attempt to
kiss
you. No, no, Prudence, you must not go off again; Miss Thornhill will not return to Pinewood. She will remain here. We will have her things sent for. And we will lock all our doors from now on, even during the daytime. And bolt them too.”

“I will be perfectly safe at Pinewood,” Viola assured both sisters. “You must not forget that I am surrounded there by my own loyal servants. Hannah has been with me all my life. Besides, Lord Ferdinand will be leaving soon. He is about to discover that life in the country is simply not for him. You can both help me if you will…”

On the whole, Viola thought as she made her way homeward, she was pleased with her afternoon's visits. At least all the villagers with whom she was closely acquainted had heard her side of the story before he had had a chance to tell his own. And those she had not told would soon find out for themselves. News and gossip traveled on the wind, she sometimes thought.

As far as those families who lived in the country were concerned, well, she would be able to talk to several of them this evening when she dined at Crossings with the Claypoles.

Lord Ferdinand Dudley would dine alone at Pinewood. Viola smiled with sheer malice. But thinking of the man only served to remind her that she could no longer approach her home with the usual glad lifting of her spirits. She looked ahead up the lawn toward the house and wondered if he was standing at one of the windows, watching her. She wondered if she would encounter him as soon as she entered the house—in the hall, on the stairs, in the upper corridor.

It was intolerable to know that a stranger had invaded her most private domain. But there was no help for it, for the moment at least. And she could not afford
to allow her footsteps to lag. She had an evening engagement to prepare for.

She was striding along the terrace from the stable side of the house several minutes later, determined not to tiptoe fearfully into her own home, when she was met by the sight of him striding onto it from the opposite direction. They both abruptly stopped walking.

He was still in his riding clothes. He was hatless. He looked disorientingly male in what she had made into her own essentially female preserve. And he was clearly making himself right at home. He must have been down by the river or out behind the house, inspecting the kitchen gardens and the greenhouses.

He bowed stiffly.

She curtsied stiffly—and then hurried on her way to the house without looking at him again. Whether he was coming in behind her or was still rooted to the spot or had gone to jump into the fountain, she neither knew nor cared.

“Mr. Jarvey,” she said, seeing him pacing about the hall looking unaccustomedly lost. “Have Hannah come up to me, please.”

She continued on her way upstairs, assuring herself with every step that she hurried only because there was little time left before she must leave for Crossings.

If only he were not so handsome, she thought. Or so young.

If only
she had not flirted with him yesterday. Not that she had
really flirted
, of course. It had been her duty as a member of the fête committee to be pleasant to everyone, villager and stranger alike. She had merely been amiable.

Viola sighed as she hurried along the upper corridor
in the direction of her bedchamber. A spade might as well be called a spade. She had flirted with him.

She
wished
she had not.

She would not allow her mind even to touch upon that kiss. But she could feel the hardness of his thighs against her own and the warm softness of his lips parted over her own, and she could smell his cologne all the time she kept her mind off that particular incident.

“ ‘Each with his bonny lass.'

Ferdinand determinedly clamped his teeth together after singing just the one phrase and drew a leather-bound book randomly off a library shelf. He had sung the song with cheerful gusto as he approached the house for the first time many hours before. But it had stuck in his unconscious mind, as songs sometimes do, so that he had caught himself singing or humming snatches of it ever since, until he was heartily sick of it. It was a ridiculous song, anyway, with all its interminable fa-la-las.

And he was definitely not in the mood for music. He was rattled. And annoyed too—with himself because he had allowed
her
to dampen his spirits, with
her
because she had done the dampening. And with Bamber—no, make that plural. He was furious with the Bambers, father and son. What the devil sort of responsible heads of the family had either of them been? The one had sent her here with promises he had forgotten to honor—or had had no intention of honoring in the first place—and the other seemed unaware of her very existence.

He himself had allowed her to dig in her heels and put him in the embarrassing situation of sharing a house with an unmarried young lady. And a damned gorgeous one too, though that had nothing to say to the matter.
He should have kicked her out. Or stayed at the Boar's Head himself until that infernal will could arrive and convince her that she had no claim to the property.

Ferdinand ran his fingers through his hair and glanced at the letters on the desk, sealed and ready to go in the morning. Perhaps he should simply go and get the will himself. Better yet, he should go and send it to her with a trusty messenger and a formal notice to quit. He would return after she had left.

But it would seem so damnably
weak
to turn tail and run and let someone else do his dirty business for him. It was just not the way he did things. It was not the Dudley way. If she could be stubborn, he could be ten times more so. If she was willing to risk her reputation by living here with him unchaperoned, on her own head be it. He was not going to
worry his
conscience over it.

He should go to bed before she returned from her dinner party, Ferdinand thought. He had no particular wish to encounter her again tonight—or ever again, if it came to that. But dash it all, it was not even midnight. He looked about him at the tastefully furnished library, with its cozy sitting area about the fireplace, its elegant desk, and its small but superior collection of books, which he had noticed were not even dusty. Did that mean she was a reader? He did not want to know. But he liked the library. He could feel right at home here.

Once she was gone.

He had not wanted to play for the wretched property in the first place, Ferdinand recalled, replacing the book on the shelf when it became obvious that his mind was too distracted to allow him to read tonight. He had never been much interested in card playing. He preferred physical sport. He liked the sort of extravagant dares with which the betting books at the various gentlemen's clubs
always abounded—particularly the ones that involved him in the performance of some dangerous or daring physical feat.

He had played that night at Brookes's up to the limit he always privately allowed himself, and then he had risen to leave. There was a party he had half promised to look in on. But Leavering, who had accompanied him to the club, was just then being called away by the news that his wife was in childbed and likely to deliver at any moment, and Bamber, loud and obnoxious in his cups—as he invariably was, damn him—was accusing the prospective papa of making a lame excuse to leave with his winnings before he, the drunken earl, had had a chance to win them back. His luck was changing, he had declared. He could feel it in his bones.

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