Read No Man's Mistress Online

Authors: Mary Balogh

No Man's Mistress (7 page)

Ferdinand had caught his friend by the arm just when the scene was threatening to turn ugly and was beginning to attract attention. He had offered to take Leavering's place and had tossed five hundred pounds onto the table.

A few minutes later he had been exclaiming in protest over the signed voucher Bamber had cast onto the table in place of money. It had represented the promise of property that no one in the card room had ever heard of—it was certainly not Bamber's principal seat or any of his better known secondary properties. Somewhere called Pinewood Manor in Somersetshire. Somewhere probably nowhere near as valuable as the five hundred pounds Ferdinand had thrown in, one of the players had warned.

Ferdinand would not have played any man for his home—no true gentleman would. But Pinewood was apparently some subsidiary, inferior property. And so he had played—and won. And discovered the next day from
both Bamber's solicitor and Tresham's that Pinewood really did exist and really was his. When in a pang of conscience, despite everything, he had called on Bamber the day after that to offer the return of the property in exchange for some monetary settlement of the gaming debt, the earl, nursing a colossal hangover from some orgy the previous night, had announced that talking made his head feel as if it were about to explode. Dudley would doubtless humor him by going away. And he was certainly welcome to Pinewood, which Bamber was unlikely to miss, having never set eyes on the place or seen a penny in rents to his knowledge.

And so Ferdinand had set out with a clear conscience to discover and inspect his new property. He had never owned, or expected to own, any land. He was the son of a duke, it was true, and enormously wealthy, to boot—his father had left him a generous portion, and both his mother and her sister had left him their not-insignificant fortunes on their deaths. But he was a younger son. Tresham had inherited Acton Park and all the other estates with the ducal titles.

Drat!
Ferdinand thought suddenly, lifting his head and listening. The knocker had rattled against the front door and it was being opened. There was the sound of voices in the hall. More than one. More than two. Either all the servants had come upstairs to greet her return, or else she had brought people back with her. At almost midnight?

His first impulse was to stay where he was until they were all gone. But that butler fellow knew he was in here, and a Dudley could not have it said that he had skulked out of sight rather than establish from the outset that he was master of his own domain. He trod purposefully across the library and opened the door.

There were five persons standing in the hall—Jarvey, a small, plumpish woman who looked like a maid, Viola Thornhill, and two strangers, a man and a woman. The man was not entirely a stranger, though. He was the dry stick who had given it as his opinion yesterday that wagering was inappropriate to a church fête.

They all looked his way. Viola Thornhill herself did so by glancing over her shoulder at him, her eyebrows raised, her lips slightly parted. She was wearing a green silk opera cloak, the wide hood spread becomingly over her shoulders, her head with its high coronet of dark red braids bare of any covering or adornment.

Damn! Where the devil had he seen her before this trip to the hinterlands?

“Good evening.” He stepped into the hall. “Will you present me, Miss Thornhill?”

The maid disappeared upstairs. The butler melted into the background. The three remaining people all gazed at him with undisguised hostility.

“This is Miss Claypole,” Viola Thornhill said, indicating the tall, thin woman of indeterminate age. “And her brother, Mr. Claypole.”

She did not introduce him to them. But then, it was probably unnecessary. He had doubtless formed the chief topic of conversation for the evening. Ferdinand bowed.

Neither visitor veered from the upright.

“This will not do, sir,” Claypole said with pompous severity. “It is extremely improper for you, a single gentleman, to be occupying the home of a single, virtuous lady.”

Ferdinand's right hand found the gilded handle of his quizzing glass and raised it to his eye. “I agree with you,” he said curtly after a significant pause. “Or would if
your facts were correct. But they are topsy-turvy, my good fellow. It is the single, virtuous female who is occupying
my
home.”

“Now, see here—” Claypole took one aggressive stride toward him.

Ferdinand dropped his glass on its ribbon and held up his hand. “Take a damper,” he advised. “You do not want to go that route, I do assure you. Certainly not in the presence of ladies.”

“You have no need to rush to my defense, Mr. Claypole,” Viola Thornhill said. “Thank you both for escorting me home in the carriage, but—”

“You will but me no buts, Viola,” Miss Claypole said in strident tones. “This scandalous situation calls for an act of demonstrable propriety. Since Lord Ferdinand Dudley has chosen to remain at Pinewood instead of removing decently to the inn, then I will remain here as your chaperon. Indefinitely. For as long as I am needed. Humphrey will have a trunk of my things sent over in the morning.”

Some of the tension had drained out of Claypole's body and flushed face. He had clearly realized how foolhardy it would be to come to blows. Ferdinand turned his attention to the sister.

“I thank you, ma'am,” he said, “but your presence here will be quite unnecessary. I cannot answer for Miss Thornhill's reputation, but I can answer for her virtue. I have no intention of having my wicked way with her as soon as we are alone together—alone except for a number of servants, that is.”

Miss Claypole appeared to add an extra couple of inches to her height as she inhaled audibly.

“Your vulgarity is boundless,” she said. “Well, sir, I am here to guard Miss Thornhill's reputation as well as her
virtue. I would not trust you one inch farther than I could see you. We have been informed today—my mother, my brother, and I—that you forced her to dance
about the maypole
with you last evening. Do not think to deny it. There were any number of witnesses.”

“Bertha—” Viola Thornhill began.

Ferdinand had his glass to his eye again. “In that case,” he said, “I will not perjure myself by denying it, ma'am. Now, I believe you and your brother are leaving?”

“I will not leave this house unless I am thrown bodily out,” the lady said.

“You tempt me, ma'am,” Ferdinand told her quietly. He turned his attention to Claypole. “Good night, sir. You
will
take Miss Claypole with you when you leave?”

“Miss Thornhill.” Claypole possessed himself of one of her hands. “Do you see now the foolishness of insisting upon returning here? Was not my mama right? Bertha is your friend. I flatter myself that I am more than just a friend. Come back with us to Crossings until this matter can be settled.”

“Thank you again, but I will not leave my own home, sir,” she said. “And you must not upset yourself on my behalf, Bertha. I have Hannah and the other servants. I do not need a female companion.”

“It is a good thing too,” Ferdinand said briskly. “Because you won't be having one. Not in this house.”

She looked at him with raised eyebrows and then turned away again to bid her companions good night.

“This is highly improper—” Claypole began.

“Good night.”
Ferdinand strode to the double doors, opened them with a flourish while Jarvey still hovered uncertainly in the background, and gestured toward the darkness outside.

They went unwillingly, but they did go. They had little
choice without risking violence. The woman might have been game, Ferdinand judged, but the man certainly would not have been.

“I suppose,” he said after he had closed the door behind them, turning on Viola Thornhill, who was removing her cloak and handing it to the butler, “he is your beau?”

“Do you?” she said. “Thank you, Mr. Jarvey, you will not be needed again tonight.”

Ferdinand could have argued, since Jarvey was now
his
servant, but he would not appear petty.

“Claypole is a craven jackass,” he said. “If the situation were reversed, I would have drawn the cork of any man who insisted on your being unchaperoned if you remained here. And then I would have dragged you out of here whether you wished to go or not.”

“How comforting,” she said, “to know that I am sharing a house with a caveman. I presume, my lord, that would have been by the hair, while you flourished a club in the other hand? Such a manly image.”

He wished she had not removed her cloak. The darker green evening gown she wore beneath it was not in any way indecent. It fell in soft, shimmering folds from beneath her bosom to her ankles, and the bodice, though low, would have looked almost conservative in a London ballroom. But the garment did nothing whatsoever to hide the alluring curves of the woman beneath it. And he knew just what those curves felt like pressed to his own body, dammit.

Lord! Perhaps he should have stayed at the Boar's Head after all, stubbornness notwithstanding.

“What you are doing,” he said, “is insisting upon sharing a house with a man who knows what is what.
And it is not at all the thing for you to be here with me. That idiot was right about that, at least.”

She had crossed the hall to the staircase. She turned with her foot on the bottom stair.

“What, Lord Ferdinand?” she said. “Are you considering ravishing me after all, then? Must I race for my room? At least I must be thankful that I have a head start on you.”

She had a saucy tongue. He had noticed it before.

“Believe me, ma'am,” he said, “if I wanted to catch you, you would not even make it to the top of the staircase.”

She smiled sweetly at him. “Did you enjoy your dinner?”

It was a strange question to ask at such a moment—until he understood the reason. They had both been out for the evening. She had had a dinner engagement, a fact he had learned with considerable relief, until the butler had informed him that since Miss Thornhill had not been expected to dine at home, all there was in the house to set on the dinner table for him was the leftover beef from two days ago, their having all dined in the village the evening before, his lordship would understand. But even though the beef still looked and smelled and even tasted unspoiled, the butler suggested that he should perhaps bear in mind that the weather
had
been unseasonably warm. And the pantry had never kept the food as cool as the cook would like, the butler had added as an aside. And no one could ever discover where the flies all managed to get in.

Ferdinand had announced his intention of dining at the Boar's Head. The food there had not been quite as appetizing as it had been yesterday, nor the service quite as prompt or friendly, but he had put those facts down
to tiredness on the part of the staff after a day of celebrating.

Now, with a simple question, Viola Thornhill had made all clear to him. He must be a fool not to have realized sooner. He was already—both at Pinewood and in the village—carrying around the label of local enemy number one, was he?

“Extremely well, thank you,” he said. “Did you?”

She smiled again and turned to climb the stairs without saying another word. In the light of the hall candles, the satin of her gown shimmered over the feminine sway of her hips.

Devil take it, but it was a hot night for May.

5

F
erdinand might have been convinced that he had not slept all night had he not been woken so rudely while it was still dark. He shot out of bed rather as if a spring had broken through the mattress, catapulted him in an upward arc, and brought him down flat on his feet beside the bed.

“The devil!” he exclaimed, running the fingers of one hand through his disheveled hair. “What in thunder?” He had no idea what had disturbed him. For the moment he could not even recall where he was.

And then the raucous noise was repeated. He strode across to the open window, flung back the curtains, and thrust out his head. Dawn was the merest smudge of gray on the eastern horizon. He shivered in the predawn chill and for once wished he wore a nightshirt to bed.
There
it was, he saw as he glared downward, strutting along the terrace before the house as if it owned the universe.

A cockerel!

“Go to the devil!” Ferdinand instructed it, and the
bird, startled out of its arrogant complacency, scuttled halfway along the terrace before recovering its dignity and crowing again.

Cock-a-doodle-doooo
.

Ferdinand in his turn scuttled back to bed after closing both the window and the curtains. He had been unable to fall asleep after coming to bed at midnight. Partly, of course, that had been due to his knowledge that he was sharing his house with an unmarried young lady—who also happened to be voluptuous beauty personified—and had refused to allow her a companion to lend a measure of respectability to the situation. Mainly, though, it was because of the silence. He had lived all his adult years in London, ever since coming down from Oxford seven years before, at the age of twenty. He was unaccustomed to silence. He found it unnerving.

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