Regency Christmas Pact 02 - A Gentlemen's Pact

BOOK: Regency Christmas Pact 02 - A Gentlemen's Pact
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The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the authors.

 

Gentlemen’s Pact

Copyright © 2013 by
Jerrica Knigh-Catania, Aileen Fish, Julie Johnstone

Cover Design by Lily Smith

 

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form by any electronic or mechanical means—except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews—without written permission.

 

The Falcon & the Philosopher Inn, Cambridgeshire – December 1814

 

Flickering light from the hearth at the far end of the taproom cast a warm glow across the floor, wooden beams, and six very serious gentlemen gathered in a circle around one of the tables. Only an occasional pop or crackle from the fire made any sound in the otherwise vacant tavern.

“Richard would want us to drink to his name,” Rowan Findley announced, lifting a glass of whiskey out before him.

Robert Hurst, the Earl of Northcotte, snorted. “Richard would want to be alive,” he grumbled under his breath, but the others heard him clearly. And on that point they were all in agreement.

Richard Hollace, the late Lord Arrington, had lived life to its fullest. He embodied the sentiment “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we may die.” And unfortunately, the latter was true in his case. It was the way Lord Arrington had passed that had caused such a pallor to be cast upon the taproom. No man liked to think about his own passing, and certainly not passing before one’s time, but to be killed so viciously, and by one’s own wife…

“Which is why we should drink to his name,” David Hounslow, the Marquess of Preston said softly, lifting his glass of whiskey as well.

“Here, here.” Sebastian Stanwick raised his glass.

The other three men followed suit as Findley said, “To Richard Hollace, a damn good friend.”

“With a generous heart,” Preston added.

“And a wicked sense of humor,” Nicholas Beckford, Lord Edgeworth tossed in.

“The life of every party,” agreed Everett Casemore, the Marquess of Berkswell.

“Knower of all things equine.” Northcotte smiled sadly.

“Knower of all things female.” Stanwick frowned.

That last bit swirled about the room, each man ruminating over the truth of it. Had Arrington known fewer females, he might very well be alive this night. He wouldn’t be lying six feet under with a hole in his head in the shape of a fire iron. The six of them wouldn’t have driven through the snow to Cambridgeshire on short notice. And they wouldn’t have sat through their old school chum’s funeral, wondering how such a tragedy could have befallen the man.

One by one, they swallowed the contents of their glasses, each wondering how the world had stopped making sense. Ladies didn’t murder their husbands. They just didn’t do such things, except… Well, except
one
did. Something the lot of them would have thought unfathomable a fortnight earlier had become a tragic and quite frightening truth.

“What’s going to happen to her?” Preston asked, his voice just loud enough to be heard over the crackling fire.

“She’s been taken to Newgate,” Edgeworth replied. “I expect they’ll hang her.”

“Richard should have been more careful of her sensibilities,” Stanwick said, raking a hand through his midnight black hair. “He should have taken care that she not find out about his paramours.”

“I doubt he thought his wife was capable of such a thing,” Berkswell returned.

“I doubt any man thinks so.” Findley sighed.

“And yet women are very clearly capable of such things,” Northcotte began, “One only has to look as far as Richard for proof.”

Again, silence befell the six men. One only did have to look as far as Richard to see that women were very clearly capable of murder. Northcotte had never spoken truer words.

“Well, that settles it then—” Findley broke the silence, slamming his glass on the table in front of him a little harder than was necessary “—I’m never getting married. That’s the best and only way I can think of to avoid Richard’s fate.”

It only took half a second for Preston to say, “I couldn’t agree with you more.”

“Well, then, what about you?” Findley glanced from Berkswell to Northcotte to Edgeworth to Stanwick.

Berkswell scrubbed a hand across his jaw and shook his head. “Certainly not worth the risk. My brother can inherit.”

“As can my cousin,” Northcotte added solemnly.

“Never planned on marrying anyway.” Edgeworth shrugged.

“Nor I,” Stanwick agreed.

“Then we’re agreed,” Findley announced, lifting his glass in the air once more. “I, Rowan Findley, hereby solemnly vow to never take a wife.”

The other five lifted their glasses and repeated the vow in unison.

Famous last words, most assuredly…

For Eric and Bella ~ The two greatest Christmas presents ever. ~ Jerrica

 

 

Hamlin Abbey

Eynsford, Kent

Rowan Findley settled into the high back velvet chair in the corner of the drawing room. He chose it specifically because it was the furthest from the fireplace. He wasn’t sure why he was so warm all of a sudden—God knew it was unbearably frigid outside—but he suspected it had something to do with the woman who had walked into the drawing room only moments before.

With her flaming red hair and bright blue eyes, she made quite an impression. Or was it her ample bosom—held aloft by a royal blue gown—that had his pulse pounding in his ears?

Rowan shook his head and took a hearty slug from his snifter. The fine brandy made a soothing path down his throat to his belly, reminding his Little General of the pact he’d recently made with his friends. The pact to never succumb to a woman’s charms. Certainly frivolous romps were all right, but a woman like
her
…no, she was meant for marriage. Rowan would sooner lick the bottom of Prinny’s shoe than put a ring on a woman’s finger. Even if she was one of the loveliest he’d ever laid eyes upon.

He dragged his gaze away from the stunning redhead to find his cousin, Patience, the Duchess of Swaffham, staring at him from across the room. She gave him one of those looks that said she wasn’t pleased with his behavior thus far, to which Rowan rolled his eyes and swallowed down some more brandy.

Patience extricated herself a moment later from her guests and pranced over to where he sat. She was all smiles to everyone else, but scolding daggers to Rowan.

“You’re being a bore,” she whispered as she took a stance over his left shoulder. “I invited you here because you’re always the life of any party. What
is
the matter with you?”

“While I appreciate your praise of my party-going tactics, I ought to remind you that expectations are everything. It’s never good to get your hopes up, dear cousin, for you might be disappointed.”

Patience huffed, folded her arms over her chest, and then promptly unfolded them, placing them daintily at her sides once again. “Spare the lecture, won’t you? Either tell me what the matter is or suffer my wrath for the rest of the evening.”

Wrath.
What was it with women and their wrath? If Arrington hadn’t recently been bludgeoned in the name of
woman’s wrath,
Rowan might not take Patience’s threat too seriously. But as it was, her words terrified him to his core.

“You know what the matter is,” he said.

“Is this about your friend, again?” Patience moved around the chair and plopped onto the ottoman so they were face to face. Rowan had expected to see sympathy in her eyes, but all he saw was annoyance. “If you ask me, he had it coming to him.”

They’d been through this before, much to her husband’s chagrin. Swaffham had been the worst sort of rogue before he’d met Patience. Truly
the worst.
If Patience knew the half of it, Swaffham would surely suffer the same fate his friend had.

A shudder ran down Rowan’s spine. He’d take Swaffham’s secrets to the grave. And his own secrets, for that matter.

“No man deserves
that
,” Rowan defended.

“Perhaps not with such violence, but he ought to have kept his prick in his trousers in the first place.”

“Good God, Patience!” Rowan’s cheeks turned hot, and he scanned the area to make certain no one else had heard her. His cousin might be a duchess now, but she didn’t always act like one.

“Well, it’s true,” she retorted, making no apologies for her blunt language. “Now, stop sulking and start entertaining my guests.”

“Why don’t
you
tell bawdy jokes with your sailor’s mouth? That ought to keep them entertained.”

Patience sent him a pointed look that said she was not amused in the least, and then removed herself from his presence. Thank God.

A tinkling laugh drew his attention to the other side of the room. Douglas Ellison stood in the company of the stunning redhead, and he’d apparently just said something amusing. Rowan had never known Ellison to be even remotely witty, so it was likely the lady was simply trying to be polite.

Rowan drew in a long breath and let it out just as slowly. The poor woman needed him. And since it was apparently his
duty
to entertain his cousin’s guests, he supposed he ought to start with the desperate lady being held hostage by the humorless Ellison.

With one last swig of his brandy, Rowan pushed out of his chair and sauntered to the other side of the room. Ellison recognized him at once.

“Findley,” he said through crooked teeth. “Wondered when you’d join the party.”

“Yes, well…here I am,” Rowan replied. “And here
you
are.”

One awkward observation deserved another.

Ellison ignored him and pressed on. “Have you made the acquaintance of Mrs. Edwards?”

Rowan settled his eyes on the beautiful woman as if he’d only just realized she was standing there. “I don’t think I have,” he said at the same moment it occurred to him that he actually
had
met her before, now he saw her up close. He knew that face, but how? He furrowed his brow for nary an instant and then attempted to return to a pleasant look of impassivity. “Rowan Findley, at your service.”

Her pale pink lips opened and closed twice before she finally spat some words out. Unfortunately, the words weren’t at all intelligible. She clearly recognized him too, and it had her rattled. But why? And how did they know one another? Who the devil was this woman?

“Mrs. Edwards, you were saying you live nearby?” Ellison asked.

“I-I do,” she replied, seeming to come to. “And you, Mr. Findley? Did you come very far?”

“London, actually.” He smiled tightly. He didn’t want to indulge this mundane conversation—he wanted to get Mrs. Edwards alone and find out how they knew one another. “I’m staying through Christmas.”

“Oh. Lovely.” Was Mrs. Edwards breaking out into hives? The delicate skin of her décolletage was red and splotchy all of a sudden. “If you will excuse me, gentlemen.”

She retreated on swift feet through the drawing room doors and into the corridor. Rowan was about to chase after her, but Ellison trapped him.

“Swaffham’s done quite well by Hamlin Abbey,” the man said.

“Yes, yes, indeed.” Rowan couldn’t care less about Hamlin Abbey or its current state, which had apparently been repaired with the money Swaffham won in a bet against Rowan. Which was, subsequently, how he’d also won his wife. “Forgive me, Ellison, I’m afraid I must excuse myself as well.”

Rowan left the man and headed for the same doors Mrs. Edwards had just exited through. He was almost to the threshold when Swaffham’s butler blocked the doorway and rang the dinner bell.

Devil take it!

They settled in at the dinner table over the next few minutes. Patience placed Rowan directly in the middle of the long table, assumedly to entertain the masses through the meal. But if Rowan hadn’t been in the mood to entertain before, he certainly wasn’t now. Mrs. Edwards was a distracting creature, using up all the space in his head.

He watched her carefully through the meal, trying to find something that might trigger his memory. That vibrant hair and piercing blue eyes ought to have done it—they were quite memorable. Had he addled his brain with so much alcohol over the years? Why could he not remember her beyond a vague recognition?

She brought her wine glass to her lips and sipped daintily before placing it back on the table. One would think he would have remembered such remarkable beauty, but nothing about her demeanor sparked a memory. Though something deep down told him they’d shared more than just a passing nod on the street. He’d get to the bottom of it, if only this insufferable dinner would end.

Olivia Edwards prayed fervently for supper to never, ever end. If she could, she would sit in this seat for all eternity. Well, maybe not that long, but at least until Rowan Findley had gone off to bed, so she might make her escape without ever having to engage him.

Their brief interaction earlier had set her off kilter. She’d never been more flustered in her life. After all these years, there he was, standing before her, oblivious to the mess he’d made of her life.

Now, now, Olivia. It wasn’t entirely his fault.

That was true. One couldn’t fault the good Lord above for blessing him with devastating good looks and a shimmering personality. But she could fault herself for falling prey to him. For falling so readily into bed with him. For never telling him…

Olivia shook her head and closed her eyes briefly before taking another sip of her wine. Her nerves were on edge. She hadn’t felt this way in years. Not since the day she’d had to face her parents and tell them what she’d done.

Her stomach churned, thinking of her parents. She hadn’t seen or spoken to them in over seven years. It made her heart ache to think of all they were missing in her life—all they were missing in Marcus’s life.

“Mrs. Edwards, will you and Marcus join us for a sleigh ride on Thursday?” Lady Swaffham asked, drawing all eyes to Olivia.

Olivia cleared her throat and glanced for the briefest of moments toward Mr. Findley. “That sounds lovely,” she replied, heat rushing to her cheeks. She did hate to be the center of attention. “Marcus will certainly be thrilled.”

Lady Swaffham smiled kindly before turning to her cousin. “And you, Mr. Findley?”

At this, Mr. Findley looked directly at Olivia and grinned tightly. “I wouldn’t miss it, dear cousin. You may count me among your participants.”

Olivia’s nerves were choking her. She could barely hold her fork, her hands were trembling so badly. Did he recognize her? Her name was different, and she was much older now. No longer a green girl of seventeen, she was a mature twenty-four, worn down by life. She’d done her best to look presentable tonight, but without a lady’s maid and with a crack down the middle of her mirror, it had been a challenge.

“Wonderful!” Lady Swaffham stood from her chair and addressed the ladies at the table. “Shall we leave the men to their port?”

Olivia pushed her chair back and followed Lady Swaffham and the few other women from the dining room. Her heart slowed to an almost normal pace as soon as she left Rowan’s presence. But that didn’t solve her problem. She’d have to see him when he was finished with his port.

Oh, if only she could go home. Unfortunately, the Dawsons had brought her in their conveyance tonight, and unless she wanted to ruin her only pair of boots in the mud and snow, she’d have to wait until they were ready to leave. There was no other choice, blast it all.

Well, at least she could escape to the necessary for a bit, couldn’t she? She wouldn’t be missed—no one had paid her much attention this evening. She was the odd woman out, after all. Of course, she appreciated what Lady Swaffham was trying to do for her, attempting to elevate her position in Society, and all. But still, everyone knew she wasn’t really one of
them.

Her mind made up, Olivia slipped through the doors of the drawing room and started down the corridor. Hamlin Abbey had quite lovely architecture, with its high ceilings and elaborate moldings. Olivia often wondered what it was like to build such structures. Not that she’d want to do it herself, what with her fear of high places.

“Oof!”

Olivia had been so lost in her admiration of the architecture that she’d not seen the column rise up before her. Such irony was not lost on her as she stumbled back several paces. A pair of hands grabbed onto her arms and pulled her upright before she fell over.

“Oh, bugger,” she whispered when she realized she’d not run into a column at all, but rather, a person. The very person she’d been trying to avoid, in fact.

“Are you all right, Mrs. Edwards?” Rowan stared down at her, the hint of a smirk playing at the edges of his lips.

Olivia couldn’t move. Her limbs were frozen, despite the warmth emanating from the man who held her against him. All the memories of that one, fateful night came rushing back to her, and desire coiled itself through her belly. “I’m—um—” She shifted away, hoping to regain her senses by removing herself from his personage. “Yes. I’m fine. Thank you.”

“You seem flustered,” he pressed. “Are you sure I can’t be of service?”

BOOK: Regency Christmas Pact 02 - A Gentlemen's Pact
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