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Authors: C.J. Chase

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BOOK: The Reluctant Earl
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Which meant she’d have to search his bedchamber.

Did she dare?

Gentlemen usually lingered over their drinks and discussions. Long enough for Leah to make discreet...inquiries? She reached for the doorknob.

The click of passing heels set her pulse pounding until the sound faded away. Hurriedly Leah slipped into the hallway and crept up the steps to the floor above where family and guests slept. But not glorified servants such as herself.

Lady Sotherton might wish to consign her brother to the dungeons, but doubtless her husband would insist that so august a guest be situated in one of the best rooms. Had Lord Chambelston brought a valet? His greatcoat had hidden all but his boots, and yet, she couldn’t imagine him the foppish type. A former sea captain, so the rumors claimed and so the lines around his eyes confirmed.

Leah tiptoed past the dowager’s bedchamber—just in case the elderly lady had tired of dropping acerbic comments and retired early—to the premier guest chamber. She glanced over her shoulder, grateful to find the hallway empty. Grateful? To whom? She ignored the implications in her question as she pressed her ear against the door.

Silence.

She tapped against the oak.

Still nothing.

She twisted the knob and pushed. The door swung silently on its hinges. A fire burned in the grate but revealed no life within. Leah pulled the door shut behind her, the latch catching with a gentle click. She would have to hurry—but where to begin?

A massive bed in a blue coverlet—a shade lighter than Lord Chambelston’s eyes—dominated the room. Hardly a place for a gentleman to hide important papers. She crossed the plush Axminster carpet to a mahogany wardrobe and tugged open a drawer. Only clothes. Would he hide documents among them? She riffled through the lawn shirts and cravats, ignoring—or rather, trying to ignore—the uncomfortable sensation of touching a man’s clothes, of inhaling the subtle scents of horses and smoke. And a stranger’s at that.

How different from her clandestine forays into Lord Sotherton’s desk.

And with a different outcome. If Lord Chambelston’s business included documents, he hadn’t left them in the drawers. She’d learned nothing of interest other than that he liked well-made but unostentatious clothing.

She slid the last drawer shut and leaned back on her heels as she surveyed the room. His greatcoat hung on a peg, the sheer size of the garment covering a large portion of wall. She moved closer, catching the smells of still-damp wool and the outdoors. And that same elusive scent of...male? As she ran her hands along the fabric, she fought back the array of memories that assailed her mind and conscience—of assisting her father into his cloak, of threading her arm through her fainthearted suitor’s elbow.

Of struggling against another man’s smothering strength.

Just as the maudlin thoughts threatened to overwhelm her, the coat crackled beneath her fingers. She searched pockets and located her first success, a folded piece of foolscap. Her heart raced forward even as she warned herself it was probably nothing more exciting than an invitation from an actress or a bill from Chambelston’s tailor.

Leah edged closer to the low-burning fire, unfolded the parchment and scanned the contents to learn who had sent the missive. No signature at the bottom. What did that signify? She started at the top again, more slowly, her interest growing as she realized the note’s import.

Murder.

Her pulse pounded against her temples, shutting out the gentle snaps and sizzles of the fire.

Did her cousin Alec know the movement was accused of such a heinous crime against a peer of the realm? To judge by Chambelston’s words to his sister, he believed the allegations. Such a personal note, anonymous or not, would be missed should she confiscate it. Her cousin would have to be satisfied with her word on the matter. She read the letter again, determined to commit its contents to memory before—

“Learn anything interesting?”

Leah’s heart fell to her stomach and the note fluttered to the floor. She whirled to face the owner of that acerbic baritone as he latched the door shut behind him. Lord Chambelston blocked her only escape.

Chapter Two

T
rapped—again—in a gentleman’s bedchamber. Nausea churned in Leah’s stomach and hurtled to her throat, propelled by an onslaught of terrifying memories. Would Lord Chambelston take advantage of her person or see her dismissed? Or...worse? And what would happen to Phoebe? A frisson of fear shuddered along Leah’s spine as she stared into the deadly calm on the earl’s implacable face. As he folded his arms across his chest, the fabric of his fine blue sleeves bunched over a sinewy strength that alluded to his previous livelihood as a sea captain. He leaned against the door, feet braced apart as if still on his ship’s deck. “Dear me. Don’t say I’ve mistakenly entered the wrong chamber.”

“I...I...” Leah’s mind spun, but the pounding of blood in her temples drowned out even her nonsensical excuse.

“I believe at the very least, introductions are in order. Chambelston at your...service, Miss...”

She willed her dry mouth to speak. “Leah Vance.”

“Have you come to stoke the fire? You seem rather well spoken for a maid, Miss Vance.”

Surely even Leah was not so insignificant he’d forgotten the awkwardness of witnessing Lady Sotherton’s public censure of her only hours ago. Despite an urge to lie, she gathered what courage she could find. There was no point misrepresenting her position in the household. Not when he held her livelihood and her very life within his power. “I am Lady Teresa’s governess.”

He arched a patrician brow of the same tawny hue as his hair. “The education of young ladies must be quite changed from my sisters’ youth. I don’t recall their governess making any similar nighttime forays at our house. Have you long been Lady Teresa’s governess?”

“Eight years.”

“Long enough, then, to know my sister’s faults. Probably better than I, after all these years.”

Their gazes met, clashed—and Leah’s concentration sank into that deep blue stare. Oh, he remembered her, all right, but where pity had lingered this afternoon, anger now burned, scorching her cheeks with its heat.

His gaze traveled the length of her homely gown until it focused on the incriminating note at her feet. “However, I can’t imagine why my personal correspondence should be of such interest to a governess—unless you sought to escape certain spinsterhood by entrapping me in marriage.”

“Of course not!”

“Oh? You are in my bedchamber, Miss Vance.” Lord Chambelston studied her below eyelids that drifted down to a lazy, dangerous half-mast.

“Don’t be absurd. No one would force you into wedlock to defend the honor of a mere governess.”

“Then if it is not marriage you seek, perhaps another arrangement? It won’t work, you know. I am not so green as to be tricked into matrimony nor so desperate as to need a...provincial governess for feminine company.”

A plain governess, he meant. Too late, Leah realized she should have agreed to his first suggestion, no matter how preposterous and ridiculous. And obnoxious. Better to feed his conceit than let him guess the truth.

But he already had, were she to judge by the cold hard smile that twisted on his mouth below the proud edge of his aquiline nose. “Not an illicit affair, either? Then if you haven’t designs on my name or my person, I can only assume you want something else from me. Information, perhaps?”

“What information could you possibly have of interest to a provincial governess, my lord? A correct French conjugation? The proper stitch for an embroidery sampler? Beethoven’s latest piano sonata?”

“Or the details about the government’s response to the recent troubles sweeping across the country?” Despite the stillness on his jaw, his eyes blazed blue fury as he leaned forward.

She retreated an involuntary step before she realized what she was doing. She steeled her spine, but her heart yet pounded in her chest. Could he hear it? “What would a mere provincial governess know or care about world affairs?”

“Come now, Miss Vance. As I recall, you were present when I told Lizzie I’d come not to see her, but her husband. Surely you don’t expect me to believe one hired for her intelligence would miss the significance of that statement.”

Leah glanced over her shoulder, but the room revealed no hidden escape. No, she was trapped by his astute deduction as surely as by his stance in front of the doorway. Her anger melded with fear and yielded resignation. How ironic—she wouldn’t have to wait until spring to worry about her future after all. She focused on the portal’s carved trim above Chambelston’s gilded head. Was this how her brother David had felt as his ship sailed into Napoleon’s fleet at Trafalgar? The stomach-churning premonition of impending doom, of waiting for the coming collision. “What do you want from me?”

His mocking smile cut deeper into the lines around his mouth, below which the carelessly knotted cravat supported her conjectures about his lack of a valet. The snowy white linen contrasted intriguingly with the bronzed jaw that bespoke a life spent outdoors. “It seems I have you at my mercy. Do you fear for your virtue, Miss Vance?”

His coat stretched across broad shoulders and hugged the hard form of a man accustomed to action, to exercise, even to manual labor. Authority and strength radiated from him, held in check by a weariness—a vulnerability even—that he couldn’t quite hide behind his sardonic mask. She wasn’t a small, fragile woman like her younger sister, yet he could easily overpower her if he chose. Which he wouldn’t. “No, I think not. You are a hard man, but not an evil one, my lord.”

A fearsome stillness settled over his features. Shadows darkened the blue of his irises, concealing the emotion flickering therein. Sympathy? Bitterness? He held her stare several long moments more before he jerked his gaze away to stare at the fire. There was an uneasiness, a strain in his arrogant posture, as if he hadn’t yet accustomed himself to civilian life or his new station. “A rather rash assessment based on our, what, ten minutes acquaintance? What would a mere provincial governess know of evil?”

“Evil exists wherever one person uses a disparity of power to harm another. Unfortunately one can find it anywhere.”

A triumph born of knowledge flared in that intense gaze. Too late, she realized she’d said too much. “And is it this ‘disparity of power’ that prompts you to assist those creating unrest across the country?”

How many others would she bring down with her folly? Alec? Wetherel? Her sister? “Are we back to your wild accusations?”

“You haven’t yet answered my question.”

“I could say the same of you.”

“But surely as the aggrieved party—we are in my bedchamber, after all—I have the right to be satisfied first?”

Not that it much mattered what he believed. She was powerless to escape, to stop him, to change his mind. The mere accusation of treason by one of his rank would lead her to the same conclusion as a confession—a quick execution. And even if she found someone to believe her denials, what could she expect but a slower track to the same end? No respectable woman would hire her as a governess now. Without her position in Sotherton’s household, her usefulness to Alec’s...friends would come to an end along with her ability to sell information.

And as Lord Chambelston had so inelegantly reminded her, she didn’t possess the physical or financial attributes necessary to enter into a liaison—licit or illicit—with a man. “So then, my lord, it seems we are at an impasse.”

“Come, Miss Vance. Surely you don’t mean to keep us at this impasse, as you say, all night.”

Why not, when it was plain she would get no sleep anyway? Besides, here a fire danced merrily on the hearth. She doubted she’d feel so warm once he’d dumped her unceremoniously on the street on such a cold winter’s night.

* * *

Tense moments of interminable silence ticked by as Julian waited. And waited. Alas, wintertime travel, compounded with the stresses of the past month, had left him too exhausted to appreciate the intriguing notion of being stuck in his chamber with a woman—a woman whose life he now held in his hands.

And she knew it also, as evinced by her continuing silence.

He released a dramatic sigh. “Very well, then.” He reached behind him and wrapped his fingers around the doorknob.

“Wait!”

He paused, admiring her composure. Despite the tension coiling through the room like whorls of smoke, she maintained her regal carriage. No fidgeting or fluttering of hands marred her apparent serenity. Only the faintest tightening of her jaw suggested disquiet. “Yes?”

“Where are you going?”

“Why, Miss Vance, what choice have I but to confer with my esteemed brother-in-law, the undersecretary himself? Unless you can give me a reason why I shouldn’t.”

“What do you want from me?” Did desperation append a squeak to her otherwise unruffled alto?

He released the knob and folded his arms across his chest again. “Let’s start with a confession. Why are you in my chamber?”

Resignation softened her cheeks, and yet her gaze met his, direct and unashamed. “Very well. Yes, I entered your chamber seeking information.”

“Information about...?”

“The government’s response to the people’s complaints.”

Satisfaction whizzed through his veins. Here at last, someone who could get him the answers he sought—someone who
would.
Or else. “Tell me what you know about my father’s death.”

Brown brows arched softly over her wide hazel eyes. “Only what I read in your note.”

“Ah, yes. My note. I’ll take it, if you please.”

She crouched down to the floor, her skirts billowing out around her, retrieved the missive and rose gracefully to her feet.

He held out his hand, refusing to budge from his defense of the doorway and forcing her to sidle closer. The subtle scent of lavender pulled at his senses as his fist locked around the parchment. “Thank you. Now the rest, if you please.”

“My lord?”

“I want to know how—and especially to whom—you’ve been transferring your...discoveries.”

“I—I don’t know.” She retreated farther into the room—farther from him.

Warning bells clanged in his head. Despite the still-proud tilt of her chin, her gaze focused once again on a spot above his head. So, she would yet lie. Sympathy for the cause? Or did she protect someone, someone with a complaint about the government? She herself did not suffer unduly like most of the truly poor. “Oh, I think you know.”

Another pause, another hesitation. Then she said, “I leave notes in the stable.”

“And you haven’t so much as an idea who retrieves them?”

“Whenever I’ve returned the next day, I find my note gone and my fee in its place.”

“Your fee.” He lounged against the door, feigning a nonchalance he didn’t feel. He could ask who recruited her to spy on Sotherton, but no doubt she would lie again. Why would someone pay for details about the government’s responses? The truly desperate had no money for food, let alone espionage. Julian sensed a sinister hand behind her involvement. “So you would sell your country for a few pounds sterling?”

Stillness settled over her shoulders, like a shroud cast over the room. She stared into the flames of the fire, offering him a view of her face in profile. “A French shell destroyed my idealism a decade ago.”

Her father? Brother? Long-dead fiancé? Another burst of sympathy lanced through his lingering anger, but he thrust it away with reminders that no matter her reasons, she was a traitor to her country and the family who employed her. He shifted away from the door. “I ride at first light. Come to the stable at half past eight.”

“Ride?”

“We can’t continue to meet this way, Miss Vance.” He swept an arm toward the room in a grand gesture. “My sister won’t allow it, and you’ll be of no use to me unemployed.”

“My lord, as you yourself have remarked, I am a mere governess. I haven’t sat a horse since...”

“A decade ago?” He echoed her subdued words of a moment ago. “I’m sure the groom can find you a suitably passive mount.”

“Nor have I the proper attire.”

“This is not an occasion to display the latest fashions, Miss Vance—nor is this a request. Unless you wish to conduct further conversation in my bedchamber tonight or before Lord Sotherton on the morrow, I suggest you meet me at the stable. You seem the resourceful type. Use your ingenuity.”

“But what are you going to do about—”

“I’ll inform you of my decision then.” He yanked open the door and waved her into the hallway. “Good night, Miss Vance. And pleasant dreams.”

* * *

The next morning, Julian was stroking the nose of Sotherton’s favorite bay stallion when Miss Vance shuffled into the stable. He checked his watch—precisely twenty-six minutes past the hour. Punctual, as he would have expected. A dark velvet hat, its nap displaying its age, shadowed her face, and her drab coat hung loosely on her frame, as if this winter of scarcity affected even her.

In the dawn of a new day he pushed aside those feelings of connection and concentrated on his anger and indignation. “Good morning, Miss Vance. On time, I see.”

“As you commanded.” She nodded but refused to meet his gaze.

Bothered by a guilty conscience? He scoffed at the notion. In his experience, traitors didn’t feel such regrets, not even when they were a trusted friend and colleague. But this time would be different. This time he would not be the victim. This time he would use her as surely as she’d sought to use him.

“I trust you rested well, my lord?”

“Not particularly.”

She flinched, as if she interpreted his denial as being about her, her situation.

It wasn’t. He’d gone to sleep plotting ways to discover the truth from her and awoken in a cold sweat, dreaming of Trafalgar. He hadn’t relived that particular nightmare in many a year. Even now, a decade and more beyond that fateful day and in a very English stable, the memory, the very name—Trafalgar—brought back the horror. The stench of smoke. The screams of fallen men. The rivers of blood that slicked the deck and coated his breeches, his hands, even his tongue.

“I’m sorry you suffered such a restless night.” Miss Vance’s voice called him back to the present, from the embarrassing reactions that haunted him so many years later. “Perhaps your mind agrees with mine this outing is a mistake.”

BOOK: The Reluctant Earl
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