Read No Man's Mistress Online

Authors: Mary Balogh

No Man's Mistress (9 page)

Viola's eyes were watering and aching quite abominably. He was going to be a worthy foe, she realized with a sinking heart. Well, they would see who would win the final victory. He was grossly outnumbered. And she was no mean foe herself. She had far more to lose than he, after all—a thought that conspired to make her egg sit quite uncomfortably in her stomach.

“You will fall and kill yourself,” she predicted before indulging in a prolonged coughing fit into her napkin. What on earth had Eli stuffed up the chimney? And why should she care if Lord Ferdinand came to grief?

“You must not fear for my safety, ma'am,” he said as the butler slipped from the room. “One of my more notable escapades, though admittedly it was back in my salad days, was in response to a wager that I could not move from one end of a long London street to the other without once touching the ground. The dare was made more interesting by the fact that it was a wet, windy, moonless night, and there was a time limit of one hour. I did it in forty-three minutes.”

“I suppose,” she said more tartly than she intended, “you rode your horse.”

“And took forty-three minutes?” He chuckled. “Alas, the men who issued the dare considered that possibility in advance. No form of conveyance was allowed except my feet. I did it over the rooftops.”

“You have won my warmest admiration, my lord,” she said, getting to her feet and doing nothing to hide her scorn.

“Where are you going?” he asked.

She raised her eyebrows and looked coolly at him through the gradually dispersing smoke haze. “My movements are none of your affair, my lord,” she said—and then wished she had chosen different words. His eyes moved down her body, stripping her of clothes as they proceeded—or so it seemed. She clamped her teeth together and glared.

“Perhaps after I have dealt with the chimney,” he said, “you will take a walk with me, Miss Thornhill.”

“To show you the park?” she asked incredulously. “It is my private domain and is shown only to privileged visitors.”

“Of which number I am not one,” he said.

“Right.”

“But I am not a visitor, am I?” he asked in that soft voice that insisted on curling itself about her spine despite all her determination not to be cowed by him.

“If you wish to find your way around the park, ask someone else to show you,” she said, turning to the door.

“And find myself abandoned in a field with an ill-tempered bull?” he said. “Or in quicksand beside the river? I was not asking for a guided tour. I wish to talk with you, and the outdoors seems like the best venue. We need to forget the fun and games, Miss Thornhill, and come to some decision about your future—which will not be spent at Pinewood, by the way. There is no point in postponing the inevitable. Even if you insist upon staying here until a copy of the old earl's will arrives, you are going to have to deal with reality after that event. It would be best for you to be prepared. Walk with me.”

She looked back at him over her shoulder. He had begun with a request but had ended with an order. He was so typical of his type. Lesser mortals existed merely to perform his will.

“I have household duties to perform,” she said. “After that I will stroll down on the river walk. If you care to join me there, Lord Ferdinand, I will not turn you away. But you will be my guest. You will not issue commands to me—not now or ever. Is that understood?”

He folded his arms and reclined back against the windowsill, looking both relaxed and elegant as he did so. His lips were pursed and there was something that might have been amusement—or was it merely contempt?—lurking in his eyes.

“English has always been my first language,” he said.

It was clear he did not intend to say anything else. She left the room, realizing as she did so that all the tricks she and the servants had dreamed up so far had only challenged him and caused him to dig in his heels, more determined than ever to stay. It had been perfectly predictable, of course. Games and tricks must be the breath of life to a bored London beau.

Well, they would see what he would do about everything else that was in store for him today.

What would she dream up next? Ferdinand wondered as he leaned back against the windowsill without making any attempt to put out the fire. It would burn itself down soon and he was well enough removed from the worst effects of the smoke. After last night's dinner offering, he should have been more alert to the significance of a cockerel apparently gone astray from the home farm and of a cold, undercooked breakfast. But it had taken the smoking chimney to open his eyes—or rather, to make them smart and water.

She actually thought she could drive him away.

His vigorous ride had blown away his irritation at being
woken at such an ungodly hour. And toast—even cold, slightly burned toast—had always been sufficient to satisfy his hunger at breakfast. Smoking chimneys were simply a challenge. As for the threat of spoiled beef and flies' eggs last evening—well, he could take a joke as well as the next man. Indeed, he was tempted to join in the horseplay and dream up a few schemes of his own to convince Miss Viola Thornhill that it really was not a comfortable thing to be sharing a bachelor establishment with a man. He could easily tramp mud through the house, leave mess and mayhem behind him wherever he went, acquire a few unruly dogs, wander about the house only half dressed, forget to shave … well, he could be endlessly irritating if he chose.

But the trouble was, this was no game.

The devil of it was that he was feeling sorry for her this morning. And guilty, for God's sake, as if
he were
the villain of the piece. The very silliness of this morning's amateurish pranks—and yesterday's—was proof of how desperate she was.

She had shown no inclination to accept his offer to send her to Jane, Duchess of Tresham, his sister-in-law. She had not jumped for joy at the prospect of going to Bamber Court. She had not suggested any alternatives of her own. She seemed markedly unwilling to face up to reality. What else could he suggest? He was going to have to think of something. The only thing he was sure of was that he did not have the stomach to throw her out bodily or have her forcibly removed by a magistrate or constable. He had always been the weak member of the Dudley family in that respect, he thought uneasily. No backbone. But dammit, he felt
sorry
for her. She was a young innocent in the process of having all her comfort and security ripped away from her.

Ferdinand shook off his dilemma and pushed himself away from the windowsill. First things first. There being no hot coffee to tempt him to sit down at the table again—and he had to admit that the sight of that beefsteak made his stomach feel decidedly rebellious—it was time to go roof climbing.

After going belowstairs to discuss the day's menu with Mrs. Walsh, Viola went to the library, where she intended to spend time bringing the household books up to date. But there was a letter on the desk, one that must have arrived with the morning post. She snatched it up and looked eagerly at the handwriting.
Yes!
It was from Claire. She was tempted to break the seal and read the contents without further delay, but of course the house was no longer her own. He might walk in upon her at any moment and ask one of his impertinent questions, as he had after breakfast.
Where are you going?
It was demeaning, to say the least.

Viola slid the unopened letter into the side pocket of her morning dress. There would be more privacy outdoors.

But the outdoors did not look particularly private when she stepped out through the unattended front doors. In fact, the box garden below the terrace was dotted with people—the butler, the head groom, the head gardener and both his assistants, the footman, Rose, Hannah, two male strangers who must be Lord Ferdinand's servants—all standing stock-still facing the house and gazing skyward. Rose had one hand over her eyes, a pointless affectation, since her fingers were spread.

No, Viola thought, correcting her first impression as
she stood looking at them all for a moment, it was not skyward they were
gazing
, but
roofward
. Of course!

“It still don't make no sense why he didn't send for the sweep,” she heard one of the undergardeners say to the other. “It don't make no sense to clean a chimney from the top.”

“Eli'll fall right through and crack his skull in the hearth, you mark my words,” the other predicted with ghoulish relish.

“Aye.
And
burn all his hair off.”

Viola went down to join them at a run. He really had gone up there? He had not been bluffing? He and Eli, the groom's young apprentice? She did not want to look. She had no head for heights and could not imagine how anyone did.

“Hush your babbling!” the head gardener instructed his subordinates. “You'll distract their attention.”

Viola turned and looked upward—and her legs turned to jelly. The attic window was opened wide onto the small balcony beyond it. But none of the tall chimneys could be reached from there. The rest of the roof was steeply sloped and covered with gray slates, which looked as smooth as an egg and twice as slippery. Lord Ferdinand Dudley and Eli were standing on the balcony, the former with his hands on his hips and his head tipped back to survey the roof above him. He had shed both his riding coat and his waistcoat.

“Jeb,” Viola said in a loud whisper, “how did Eli plug the chimney? From below or from above?” She had assumed the former. She would never have consented to allowing him to clamber over the roof, putting his life at risk.

“The rags would have caught on fire if they were too low, Miss Thornhill,” the groom explained to her. “He
went up after he fetched the cockerel. Swore afterward that he didn't have the head to do it again, mind. But his lordship made him go.”

Well, they had not stepped away from the relative safety of the flat balcony yet. The whispering and shushing were unnecessary.

“Eli!” Viola called, bracketing her mouth with her hands so that the sound of her voice would carry better. “Come down from there immediately before you break your neck. I do not care what Lord Ferdinand says to the contrary.”

They both looked down. Viola could just imagine how precarious their safety looked from up there. It was bad enough from below.

“Come down!” she called again. “Both of you.”

Even across the distance Viola could see Lord Ferdinand's grin as he set a hand on the boy's shoulder and said something that could not be heard from below. And then he swung first one long leg and then the other over the low rail that separated the balcony from the slate roof. He began the climb upward, using both his hands and his feet. Eli stayed where he was.

Rose stifled a shriek, and Mr. Jarvey admonished her sotto voce.

Viola would have sat down on the bench that circled the fountain if she could have moved the necessary six feet to reach it. As it was, she had to stand still, both hands pressed over her mouth. The fool! The imbecile! He would fall and break every bone in his body, and she would have his death on her conscience forevermore. That was probably what he wanted.

But he reached the peak of the roof without mishap. He pulled himself up beside the chimney that connected
with the dining room fireplace among others and peered over the top of it—it reached up to his chest.

Foolish man.
Idiot
man!

“It won't do no good,” Jeb Hardinge muttered. “He won't be able to reach down far enough.”

Then Rose shrieked, the butler scolded, and Lord Ferdinand Dudley braced his hands on top of the chimney, pulled himself up until he could sit on the edge of it, and swung his legs to the inside.

“He won't be happy till he's killed himself,” Hannah said.

“He's a jolly good sport, I must say,” the footman observed, but Viola only half heard him. Lord Ferdinand Dudley was disappearing—had disappeared—inside the chimney.

He would fall through and kill himself. He would get stuck and die a slow and horrible death. If he survived, she would kill him with her bare hands.

It was probably two minutes, but felt more like two hours, before he reappeared—or at least a blackened version of him did. His face looked as black as his hair. His shirt was gray. He held aloft a fistful of blackened rags with a black hand and grinned down at his audience, his teeth startlingly white even from such a distance.

“Not a bird's nest after all,” he called out, “but some mysterious flying object, doubtless from the moon.” He dropped the rags, which tumbled in slow disorder down over the roof and drifted off its edge to litter the terrace below.

How was he going to get down?

He did it in a matter of moments, loping carelessly, for all the world as if he were descending a grassy slope to a soft lawn below. When he reached the railing and the balcony where Eli still stood, he vaulted over the railing
and turned to wave one hand. The boy was laughing and applauding.

“He has pluck. One must grant him that,” Jeb Hardinge said.

“A jolly good sport,” the footman agreed.

“He might have made Eli do it, like he threatened,” the head gardener added, “but he did it himself. You won't find too many gents what would be as sporting as that.”

“The thing of it is, you see,” one of the strangers said, watching his master and Eli disappear through the attic window, “his lordship can't bear to stand by watching while someone else has all the fun. This was
nothing
. I could tell you—”

But Viola had heard enough. “Mr. Jarvey,” she said coldly before setting off with purposeful strides for the terrace. “Perhaps it is time everyone got back to work?”

They were all admiring that act of utter foolhardi-ness. He was winning them over. Jolly good sport, indeed!

She marched into the house and up the stairs to the bedroom floor. She would have continued on up to the attic, but he was down already, standing with Eli on the clean, costly carpet of the corridor. If there was any soot left in the chimney, she would be surprised to hear it. It was surely all adorning his person.

“That was a reckless and disgusting display!” she cried, not reducing her pace until she was three feet in front of him. “You might have
killed
yourself !”

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