Read No Man's Mistress Online

Authors: Mary Balogh

No Man's Mistress (8 page)

Why was a cockerel allowed to run loose so close to the house? he wondered suddenly. Was he to be woken thus every night (one could hardly call it morning, after all)? He thumped his pillow, which was about the most lumpy, uncomfortable specimen of pillowhood he had ever encountered, and tried to burrow his head into such a position in it that instant sleep would be induced.

Five minutes later he was still very wide awake.

He was remembering how she had looked in that shimmering satin evening gown. He was remembering how her shapely body had felt pressed against his own body, behind the oak tree in the village. And he thought about the fact that she was sleeping in a room not far from his own.

Ferdinand made the sudden discovery that it was the heaviness of the bedcovers that was preventing him from falling back to sleep. He pushed them aside, turned his hot pillow and thumped it again, tried to find a soft, cool
nook for his head, failed miserably, and shivered in the chilly air, which was assaulting his naked body on three sides. The blankets were out of reach unless he sat up to grab them.

Devil take it, his sleep had been ruined. And she was entirely to blame. Why had she not taken herself off as any decent woman would, or at least taken the week he had offered before he lost his temper, so that he might now be sleeping the peaceful sleep of the just at the Boar's Head in Trellick? Bedamned to her, he thought unchivalrously. She was going to have to learn who was master at Pinewood, and the sooner the better. Today she would learn—when today came. He grimaced as he looked about his bedchamber, into which not even the suggestion of daylight had yet penetrated.

He sat up on the side of the bed and thrust both hands through his hair again. Dammit, in his more normal life he often had not even gone to bed at this hour. Yet here he was, getting up. To do what, for God's sake? Eat his breakfast? It would serve those servants right—they had
deliberately
sent him off to the village for his dinner last evening—if he went downstairs, loudly demanding food. But they would probably just slap that cold green beef on a plate for him. Read, then? He was not in the mood. Write some letters? But he had scribbled off notes to Tresham and Angie last evening to be sent this morning with the letter to Bamber.

Ferdinand got to his feet, stretched, yawned until his jaws cracked, and shivered. He would go out for a ride and blow away some cobwebs before coming back and laying down the law. He
enjoyed
early morning rides, after all, he told himself grimly and not altogether truthfully. Anyway, he thought as he strode off in the direction of his dressing room, this hardly qualified as
early morning. It was still the middle of the night, for God's sake.

He found his riding clothes in one of the wardrobes without ringing for his valet, dressed, and headed for the outdoors without stopping to shave. He had raced the sun, he saw grimly. Although it was no longer quite dark out, the world was lit only by a very gray twilight. It suited his mood to perfection.

He stalked off to the stables in the fervent hope that there would be a few sleepy grooms there to bark at.

The cockerel had awakened Viola even though her room was at the back of the house. But then, of course, she had been expecting it and had been sleeping lightly in anticipation of it. It seemed impossible to her that anyone in the house, especially someone whose room overlooked the terrace, could have slept through the alarum. She had chuckled with open malice when, ten or fifteen minutes later, she had heard a door open farther along the corridor and the sound of booted feet receding in the direction of the staircase.

And then she had dozed off again.

“His lordship was out the door, fit to be tied, not fifteen minutes after the first cock-crow,” Hannah reported later as she helped Viola dress and braided and coiled her hair. “In a proper rage he was, apparently, when he took his horse out. And then he went galloping off, cursing and scowling, the Lord knows where. You stay out of his way, Miss Vi. You let us servants handle everything this morning.”

“But I can hardly wait to witness his rage for myself, Hannah,” Viola assured her. “I would not miss this
morning for any consideration. Perhaps by noon he will be on his way back to London and we will be rid of him.”

Hannah sighed as she straightened the combs and brushes on the dressing table. “I wish it could be that easy, lovey,” she said.

So did Viola. There was a yawning empty feeling somewhere in the region of her stomach that she was trying hard to ignore. This was not a game she played with Lord Ferdinand Dudley, after all. Her home, her income, her hard-won peace, her very identity were severely at risk.

Viola was seated at the breakfast table later, still eating, when he strode into the dining room. Even though she had been expecting him and had steeled herself to having her privacy invaded, her heart felt as if it were hammering against her ribs. If this had to be happening at all, why could he not be an old man or an ugly man or in some way an unappealing man? Why should she be made to feel as if the very essence of maleness had just filled the room to suffocate her?

He had obviously come straight from his ride. His buff riding breeches hugged his long, well-muscled legs like a second skin. His boots must have been freshly polished last night and still shone. He was wearing a well-tailored brown riding coat with a white shirt beneath. She had spent enough years in London to recognize in him a regular top sawyer, an out-and-outer, as other gentlemen would call him. His dark hair was tousled from his hat and the outdoors. His face glowed with healthy color.

He was also smiling and looking annoyingly goodhumored.

“Good morning, Miss Thornhill.” He sketched her a bow. “And what a beautiful morning it is. I was awoken by a cockerel crowing beneath my window and so was out riding in time to watch the sun rise. I had forgotten how exhilarating life in the country can be.”

He rubbed his hands together and looked about the room, hunger written all over his face. The sideboard was empty. So was the table, except for Viola's plate and cup and saucer. There were no servants present. He looked a little less cheerful.

“Good morning, my lord.” Viola smiled placidly. “And to think that I tiptoed past your room a short while ago, believing that you must be sleeping on late in the country air. It
is
chilly in here, is it not? I'll have the fire lit and your breakfast brought up. I took the liberty of ordering what I thought you might like.” She got to her feet and pulled on the bell rope beside the sideboard.

“Thank you.” He took the chair at the head of the table, which she had left vacant for him, as she did not want the morning cluttered with unnecessary wrangling over precedence.

She still had eggs and sausage and toast on her plate—a far larger breakfast than her usual fare of toast and coffee. She picked up her knife and fork and continued eating, chewing each mouthful with slow relish, even though everything suddenly tasted like straw.

“The avenue behind the house must be delightful for walking as well as riding,” he said. “The grass is well kept, and the trees on either side are as straight as two lines of soldiers on parade. It is a marvel of nature how they can hide an army of birds, is it not, so that one hears a thousand voices and yet is unable to see a single chorister until one of them decides to fly from one branch to another?”

“I have always enjoyed strolling there,” she said.

“One can see for miles around from the top of the hill,” he said. “I would have loved it as a boy. It reminds me a little of the hills at Acton Park, where I grew up. I would have been king of the castle and held it against all comers. Correction.” He grinned, and Viola was unwillingly reminded of the dashing stranger at the fête. “I daresay my brother would have been king and I would have been his loyal henchman. But henchmen have the more exciting life, you know. They fight dragons and assorted other villains, while the king merely sits on his throne looking bored and supercilious and issuing orders and cursing foully.”

“Gracious! Is that what your brother used to do?” She almost laughed.

“Elder brothers can be an abomination.”

But Viola had no wish to hear about his childhood or his family. She did not want to see his boyish grin. She wanted him in a towering rage. She wanted
him
cursing foully. He was rather more frightening this way. Did he know it? Was this behavior deliberate? A cat toying with a mouse? He was drumming his fingertips on the table, though, and glancing at the door, sure signs that he did not feel as relaxed or as cheerful as he looked.

Viola popped a forkful of egg into her mouth.

“They are certainly taking their time in the kitchen,” he said after a short silence. “I must have a word with Jarvey.”

How dare he! Mr. Jarvey was
her
butler. The old Earl of Bamber had employed him specifically to serve her. But it was not part of her plan to quarrel with this man just yet.

“Does it seem a long wait to you?” She looked at him in cheerful surprise. “I am so sorry. The kitchen is at an
inconvenient distance and the stairs are steep. Mr. Jarvey is not as young as he used to be and sometimes has trouble with his legs. The cook is a little slow too—and absent-minded. But good servants are not easily come by in the country, you know, and one is wise to keep what one has even if it does not quite measure up to town standards.”

The door opened as she spoke and the butler appeared, an uncovered plate in one hand, a vast tankard of ale in the other. Viola gazed at both with admiration. How had Mrs. Walsh been able to pile the plate so high without everything sliding off? And where had she found such an enormous and hideous tankard? As Mr. Jarvey set his load down on the table, she could see eggs, sausages, kidneys, and bacon as well as slices of toast balancing on one edge of the plate. But the pièce de résistance was a large, thick beefsteak, which must surely have been shown briefly on both sides to the fire and then slapped onto the plate. It was swimming in red juice.

She transferred her gaze to Lord Ferdinand's face, which looked somewhat astonished for a moment.

“I was sure you would enjoy a hearty country breakfast after a vigorous ride, my lord,” she said—and remembered too late that she was supposed to have thought him still fast asleep in his bed as a result of the country air.

“Yes, indeed.” He rubbed his hands together again, in apparent glee.

Was it possible that such a breakfast really did look appetizing to him? She waited with bated breath for him to taste it. But there was another detail to be taken care of without delay.

“Mr. Jarvey,” she directed, “would you light the fire? His lordship is chilly.”

The butler bent with agility to the task while Lord Ferdinand watched him. Viola hoped he was not noticing that there was no sign of creaky knees. And then she watched covertly as he speared a kidney with his fork and popped it in his mouth. She could have crowed with glee when he set his knife and fork down with a clatter.

“The food is cold,” he said in astonishment.

“Oh, dear.” She looked at him with apologetic concern. “I am so accustomed to it that I did not think to warn you. I daresay the cook prepared your food some time ago and forgot—again—to keep it warm in the oven until you came in. Is that what happened, Mr. Jarvey? Perhaps you would have it warmed up and brought back when it is ready. Will you wait for half an hour or so, my lord?”

The fire in the hearth crackled to life, and the butler straightened up and took one step forward.

“No, no.” Lord Ferdinand held up one staying hand. “Never mind. I really do not need such a large breakfast. The toast will do me well enough. Fortunately, toast is appetizing even when cold. Normally I would prefer coffee to ale—perhaps you will remember that tomorrow, Jarvey?” He picked up a slice of toast and bit into it. It made a loud, crunching noise, suggesting to Viola that it was stone cold and crisp enough to smash into smithereens if he accidentally dropped it.

Viola, glancing toward the fireplace, raised her napkin to her nose and controlled her own reactions until Lord Ferdinand began to cough.

“Oh, dear,” she said. The fireplace was belching smoke. “There must be a bird's nest in the chimney again. That is forever happening. And it always takes
days
to fetch a sweep to clean it out.” She coughed into her napkin and felt her eyes begin to sting. “There is no chimney sweep in the village, you see, and the nearest town is eight miles away.”

“One can only hope,” Lord Ferdinand said, jumping to his feet and hurrying across the room to throw first one and then the other window wide, “that the nest is empty at this particular moment. Otherwise I daresay we can enjoy roast bird for dinner.”

Something in his tone alerted Viola. He
knew
at last. He understood. But he was not going to lose his temper as she had hoped. He was going to play out the game, perhaps on the theory that good humor would annoy her far more than scowls and bellows. He was perfectly right too, of course. But it did not matter. At least he would understand now what he was facing—his lone person, and perhaps those of his handful of servants, pitted against a houseful of people bent on making his life as uncomfortable as they possibly could. She wondered how he had enjoyed his pillows last night.

“Sometimes,” she said, shivering despite herself as a fresh breeze from the outdoors fluttered the edges of her napkin and wrapped itself about her person like an icy cloak, “I believe that the few advantages of living in the country are far outweighed by the disadvantages. You may leave, thank you, Mr. Jarvey. We must simply hope that the day will be warm enough that we can live without fires in only a moderate degree of discomfort.”

The butler made for the door.

“Don't leave yet, Jarvey,” Lord Ferdinand instructed him, staying close to the window. “Find me a good stout groom or gardener, will you? One with a head for heights? Perhaps one who is familiar with the rooftop and the chimneys? I daresay there
is
such a person.
I would wager on it, in fact. I will go up there with him when I have finished my ale and see if we can rescue the poor homeless birds. Unless it is too late for them, of course, as undoubtedly it is for their nest.”

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