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An Escapade and an Engagement

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Chapter Two

Lady Jayne gazed up at him, a perplexed frown creasing her brow.

‘Why did you let him go?’

He looked steadily back at her, wondering why she wasn’t asking a more pertinent question. Such as, how could Harry have just abandoned her without so much as asking his name? He could have been one of the most notorious seducers of womankind for all he knew.

‘I can always report him later, if you like,’ he replied scathingly. It was what he ought to do. He eyed the object of Lady Jayne’s affection with disdain as he scuttled away into the shadows. It was hard to believe a man could behave so dishonourably towards a woman with whom he was genuinely in love.

‘No, no! Please don’t!’ She seized his arm. ‘It is all my fault. I know it was very wrong of us to meet in secret, but he loves me so very much …’ Her little fingers kneaded at his sleeve as she plunged on. ‘And I know I should not have come here without bringing my maid. But you see the doors are all locked tight at night, and I could hardly expect Josie to climb out of a window, could I?’

‘You climbed out of a window?’ A sudden foreboding gripped him. ‘How do you plan to get back in?’ If he was going to have to knock upon her front door to return her to her guardians at this hour in the morning, the fat would be in the fire and no mistake.

‘Oh, the same way, of course. But never mind that. It is Josie that I am worried about. She did try to talk me out of coming. I promise you she did. But she is only a servant, after all. She has to do what I tell her.’

‘And you took ruthless advantage of the fact?’

‘I … I suppose I did, yes.’ She caught her lower lip between her teeth. ‘And now, if you tell anyone I was out here without her, when she is under such strict orders never to let me out of her sight, they will turn her off without a character. Which would be grossly unfair. Oh, no …’ Her eyes shimmered. ‘I could not bear it if she was to lose her job and Harry was to be cashiered out of the regiment just because I have not behaved as I ought.’

To his astonishment, one single, enormous tear rolled down her cheek. And it struck him that everything about her behaviour at the ball earlier had been an act. And that Berry would never have said what he had about her if he’d seen this side of her. She might have appeared cold and haughty on the outside but inside she must have been counting the minutes until she could escape. It put him in mind of the way he’d been at that age, at stuffy dinners put on by the regiment to persuade local dignitaries they had nothing to fear from having them quartered nearby. All the junior officers had been under strict orders to be on their best behaviour. And later they’d made up for it by running out into the backstreets and behaving completely disgracefully as an antidote to all those hours of hypocritical posturing.

Lady Jayne might have come out here without a thought for anyone but herself, but now that he’d made her see that her misdemeanour could wreak havoc on the lives of others she was genuinely contrite. Just as sorry as he’d been the day after that banquet when the locals hadn’t seen the funny side of finding that ugly statue in the middle of the river, bedecked in pondweed, but had regarded the desecration of their patron saint as an act of sacrilege.

‘Never mind all that for the moment,’ he said brusquely, to mask the fact that he was sorely tempted to promise her he would never breathe a word to anyone. And that wasn’t just because of her contrition. Even if she hadn’t cared a rap for the repercussions, he didn’t have any right to castigate anyone for climbing out of a window to escape the crushing sense of family expectation. Not when he had done more or less the same thing himself. The only difference between them was that he’d had the liberty to walk out of his own front door when he’d felt the walls of his own personal prison closing in on him.

‘What we have to do now is get you home without your escapade becoming common knowledge. Where do you live?’

‘Oh, then you mean to help us?’

Her whole face lit up. She gave him such a dazzling smile that, in spite of that tear on her cheek, or perhaps because of it, he suddenly saw why her Harry had been unable to resist her. Any man with red blood flowing through his veins would risk the wrath of his commanding officer for a chance to hold such a divine creature in his arms. And for a kiss … What would he not risk for one kiss? The mere thought of bending to sip at that little rosebud of a mouth sent blood flowing hotly through his veins.

He inhaled slowly, savouring the feeling of being a healthy male responding to the possibilities inherent in being alone in a dark, secluded place with a pretty female in an entirely natural way.

To say that it was a relief was putting it mildly. He had assured his grandfather that medically there was nothing to prevent him from siring the next generation of Cathcarts. But the truth was he had not felt any interest in sex since he’d had his leg smashed at Orthez. All his energy had been spent on surviving—first the field hospital and then the foul transport back to England. And then one fever after another.

And even though he’d been mobile enough to think about returning to active service some weeks ago, until his grandfather’s shocking revelation had put a stop to it, he’d had no inclination to resume any kind of sex life. No matter how temptingly the offers he’d received had been presented.

He couldn’t resist reaching out and gently, with one thumb, wiping away the tear that had reached the point of her chin. And as he felt the warmth of her skin against his own his body reacted as if he’d received a jolt of electricity.

Her own breath hitched, as though the current of lust that had seared through him had arced across to her, too.

It had been so long since he’d held a woman in his arms, so long since he’d wanted to, that for a moment he was tempted to tell her that if he might only kiss her …

He cleared his throat and forced his eyes away from her mouth. What he ought to do was act the gentleman and take her straight home.

At once.

But the temptation to prolong this unexpectedly erotic encounter was too great to resist. He found himself saying the first thing—well, the first polite thing—that came into his head.

‘Perhaps if you could explain exactly how such a great heiress comes to be tangled up with a man of his station …’

‘You sound just like my grandfather!’

Her scorn doused his ardour as effectively as a bucket of cold water. Did he really look so much older than her that she bracketed him with her grandfather? No wonder she’d flinched when he touched her. It was just as well he had not voiced his crazy idea that she could purchase his silence on the whole matter with a kiss. She probably already thought he was a brute for merely breaking up her tête-à-tête.

‘That is all he can think about,’ she grumbled, impervious to the errant thoughts skirmishing through his brain. ‘Rank and fortune. He never lets me meet anyone interesting or new! He was furious when he found out I had formed an attachment to Harry. As soon as he got wind of our friendship and learned that he has no title, no prospects at all, he forbade me to so much as speak to him. And banished me to London.’

‘That sounds like an eminently sensible measure,’ he said, loath though he was to take the side of anyone’s grandfather in the suppression of youthful desires. ‘You are far too trusting for your own good. A girl with more sense would know it really is not safe to meet men in the park, on her own, at daybreak.’

Particularly not when that lush mouth of hers could have such a startling effect on a man’s libido.

‘It certainly is not!’ She looked furious. ‘Because who knows what kind of person one might come across … prowling around the place, spying on people …?’

‘I was not spying!’

‘Then what were you doing? Something underhanded, I have no doubt.’

‘Not a bit of it. I simply could not sleep, that’s all.’ At her look of scorn, he added, ‘My leg hurt like the very devil, and the damn London servants will insist on banking up the fire and keeping all the windows shut. I had to get outside and get some fresh air. Though why the d … deuce I’m telling you all this I cannot think.’

She’d slipped under his guard, somehow. Taken him by surprise with her line of questioning.

Nettled, he snapped, ‘That is all beside the point. I have no need to justify my actions …’

‘No. You are a man,’ she said bitterly. ‘Men can do whatever they want, no matter who they hurt in the process, and nobody ever calls them to account.’

‘You could not be more wrong. A man with any pride at all puts duty before his natural inclination. Duty to the Crown. Duty to his family …’ He pulled himself up.

She’d done it again. Got him speaking his mind instead of saying what was appropriate to the occasion. Though God only knew what was appropriate to say on an occasion such as this. He would swear no etiquette book contained a chapter upon proper conversation in which to engage whilst escorting a woman home from a clandestine meeting with an ineligible suitor.

He eyed her with misgiving.

She clearly thought she was in love with her handsome young officer. But she could not really know much about him if they had only managed snatched moments together, like this. He wouldn’t be a bit surprised to find her feelings had more to do with the uniform than the man inside it. He’d learned from experience that a scarlet jacket could have a powerful effect upon a susceptible female.

‘And speaking of family,’ he said, ruthlessly returning to the most pressing issue, ‘your grandfather probably thought you would get over what he hoped was just a girlish infatuation if he offered you other distractions.

Lady Jayne glowered at him before tossing her head and setting off briskly along a path that led in the opposite direction from the one he had used to enter the square. As he caught up with her, she said, ‘It was more than that. I overheard him giving Lady Penrose strict instructions to get me safely married off before the end of the Season.’ She laughed bitterly. ‘Though how he expects her to accomplish that when he won’t allow her to take me anywhere but ton parties, where I mix with people I have known all my life, I have no idea. Ooh.’ She clenched her fists. ‘You cannot begin to imagine what my time in Town has been like. Boring, boring, boring! I was beginning to think I knew just what a canary bird feels like, shut up in a gilded cage, by the time Harry arrived in Town. That first note he sent me, begging me to meet him …’ Her fists uncurled as she trailed off.

‘He kept on sending notes to me through Josie. To let me know which events he could gain entry to. And we began to meet in the gardens, or in a quiet room of the house, while the balls were going on downstairs, with Lady Penrose never suspecting a thing!’

He frowned down at her as they crossed the road and set off down Mount Street. He wished he had not already given his word not to tell anyone about this night’s assignation. The more he learned about Harry, the more untrustworthy he sounded. And if anything happened to Lady Jayne because he’d kept quiet about this night’s work he would feel responsible.

Although warning her guardians of what was going on would probably not do much good anyway. From what Lady Jayne had just said, her chaperone was clearly not up to the task of guarding such a highly spirited charge.

He rubbed his hand over the crown of his head. He couldn’t report her to those who ought to protect her. Should he just warn her, then, of his mounting suspicions regarding Harry’s motives? No. Given her reactions to him so far, she would probably assume he was yet another overbearing male attempting to oppress her. And he rather thought she would derive as much pleasure from flouting him as she did from outwitting her grandfather and chaperone.

But she really needed somebody who knew about Harry, and the lengths she would go to in order to get her own way, to watch over her. Somebody who wouldn’t be fooled by the haughty, unapproachable facade she’d employed at the ball.

‘Lady Jayne, I have given my word I will not say anything about tonight. And I would never go back on my word. But you must see that I cannot just let the matter rest. You have said yourself you are not behaving as you ought.’

She looked mutinous as she said, ‘And just what do you mean to do about it?’

He only wished he knew. For now, the best thing would be to make a strategic withdrawal so that he could regroup.

‘I shall call upon you this afternoon, to take you for a drive in Hyde Park. That is when I shall tell you what action I plan to take.’ Once he’d decided what it would be.

‘I shall be ready,’ she said, lifting her chin in a fashion that told him she was preparing to fight him every inch of the way. ‘This is it,’ she said, waving her hand at the frontage of an imposing mansion.

Having shown him where she lived, she ducked down a passage that led to the mews at the back.

Then she turned round and stood quite still, staring up at him for a minute, with her head on one side as though trying to work him out.

‘You have surprised me,’ she said at last. ‘I would never have imagined you could be so … decent,’ she finished on a shrug.

‘What did you think I would be like, then?’ It shouldn’t have made such an impact to hear that she’d had any expectations of him at all, considering they had only glanced at each other across a ballroom.

‘Oh, I don’t know … At the ball you looked so … hard. All those women who threw themselves at your feet had about as much impact on you as waves dashing themselves up against a cliff. And then, when you spoke of flogging Harry, I really thought for a minute that …’

She looked abashed. ‘But you are really not cruel at all, are you?’

‘I have sent men to their death without giving it a second thought,’ he retaliated, lest she think his leniency with her on this one occasion meant he was a soft touch.

‘Ah, but you don’t take delight in it. That makes all the difference.’

He was about to defend himself from the charge of not being cruel when she stole all the breath from his lungs by hitching up her skirts and tucking them into a belt at her waist.

He knew he ought not to look. But how could he do her the disservice of not appreciating such a shapely pair of legs, covered in what looked like a junior footman’s breeches, especially when not a day ago the sight would not have interested him in the slightest?

He was still swallowing too hard to ask if she needed any assistance in getting back into the house undetected when she scampered over to the horse trough and clambered up onto its rim. From there she swung herself up onto the stable roof.

Darting him an impish grin as she reached for the lower branches of a gnarled old apple tree, she said, ‘I don’t think you are such a cross old stick as you look.’

Having fired that Parthian shot, she clambered from one bough to another with the agility of a monkey, giving him one tantalizing glimpse of a perfectly formed bottom as she leaned over to push up a sash window which had been left open an inch, before vanishing into the house.

For some minutes all he could do was stand there, rock hard and breathing heavily, feeling as though he’d been hit by some kind of energising force.

He’d begun the night seething with resentment and frustration. But now he was savouring the delicious sensation of knowing everything was in working order. And it had not been achieved through the determined wiles of some doxy. No, in spite of everything, it had been a natural response to a society female. He chuckled. It was good to know that there was one, at least, amongst them that it would be no hardship to take to bed. He eyed the window, half wondering what would happen if he were to climb up after her and …

The window slammed shut. He took a step back into the deeper shadows close to the stable. He’d come to London to contract a respectable alliance, not get embroiled in a scandal. It was no use standing here gazing up at the window through which she’d disappeared, wondering if the branches of that apple tree would bear his weight.

But the fact that he was thinking along those lines at all was immensely cheering.

He turned and walked away with a grin on his face. Lady Jayne was what was termed a handful. Continuing an association with her was going to bring him no end of trouble. He could feel it. And yet he was not dreading their next encounter. Not by a long shot.

In fact, he couldn’t remember when he’d last felt so alive.

‘Lor, miss, I been that worried about you,’ exclaimed Josie, leaping to her feet, dashing across the room and hauling Lady Jayne in over the windowsill. ‘Thank heavens you’re back safe and sound and no harm done.’

‘I am sorry you have been so worried,’ said Lady Jayne. ‘And I promise you,’ she said vehemently, turning to shut the sash firmly behind her, ‘that I shall never do anything so thoughtless and reckless and selfish ever again.’

Josie, who had been with her since she was twelve years old, and therefore knew her moods well, looked at her sharply.

‘What happened? Something, I can tell. Have you fallen out with your young man?’

Lady Jayne shook her head. ‘No, nothing like that.’

Although, in a way, she supposed she had. Even before Lord Ledbury had come along and put an end to their encounter she had wondered if it had been a mistake to leave the house to meet Harry. The darkened windows of the houses she’d snuck past had seemed to glare at her menacingly, so that she had already been feeling uneasy by the time she’d entered the square. It was not like sneaking out at dawn for an unsupervised ride or walk around Darvill Park, her grandfather’s estate in Kent. She might run into anyone in a public park.

‘We’d best get you into your night rail and into bed before that maid of Lady Penrose’s comes in with your breakfast,’ said Josie, turning her round and briskly unhooking the back of her gown while she undid her breeches.

She’d already been feeling distinctly uneasy when she’d found Harry. And then, instead of just taking her hand and murmuring the sort of endearments he generally employed during their snatched meetings, he had pulled her down onto the bench next to him and hauled her into his arms.

‘I cannot bear to go on like this, my darling,’ he’d said in accents of despair. ‘There is nothing for it. We shall have to elope.’

Before she’d had a chance to say she would never do anything of the sort, he had kissed her full on the mouth. His moustache had scoured her upper lip in a most unpleasant way, and some of the bristles had gone up her nostrils. And what with his arms crushing her ribcage, half his moustache up her nose, and his mouth clamped over hers, she had felt as though she was suffocating. It had all been a far cry from what she had expected her first kiss to be like. When eventually she permitted some man to kiss her … And that was another thing, she reflected with resentment as she stepped out of her gown and breeches. She had not given him permission. He had just pounced. And he had been so very strong and unyielding that for a moment or two she had panicked.

It was not easy, even now, to keep perfectly still while Josie untied her stay laces and she relived those horrible moments in Harry’s determined embrace. How relieved she had been when Lord Ledbury had come upon the scene, looking so ferocious. Not that she would ever admit that to a living soul. She ducked her head guiltily so that Josie could throw her night rail over her head.

She had not felt grateful for long, though. The way he’d looked at Harry, as though he wanted to tear him limb from limb, had caused her fear to come rushing back—although its focus had no longer been upon herself.

But then he’d dismissed Harry, wiped away the one tear she had not been able to hold back, and taken her home as though there was nothing the least bit untoward about walking through the streets at daybreak with a person he’d just caught in a compromising position.

She went to the dressing-table stool and sat down heavily.

Until the viscount had talked about getting Harry brought up on a charge it had never occurred to her that others might have to pay any penalty for her misdemeanours. She had cheerfully flouted the rules, safe in the knowledge that any punishment meted out to her would be relatively mild. Lady Penrose might have forbidden her to attend any balls for a few nights, or curtailed her shopping expeditions. Which would have been no punishment at all.

At the very worst she had thought she might get sent home to Kent. Which would have felt like a victory, of sorts.

It had taken the grim-faced viscount to make her see that there would inevitably be repercussions for others tangled up in her affairs, too. To wake her up to the fact that she would never have forgiven herself if Josie had lost her job, or Harry had been cashiered out of his regiment, on her account. Thankfully he had listened to her pleas for leniency for Harry and Josie, and had given his word not to speak of what he knew about her activities tonight.

She reached up and patted Josie on the hand as her faithful maid began to brush out her hair, separating it into strands so that she could put it in the plaits she always wore to bed. How could she not have considered that others might have to pay for her misdemeanours? How could she have been so selfish?

She raised her head and regarded her reflection in the mirror with distaste.

People were always telling her how very much she resembled her father. They were beginning to whisper that she was as cold and heartless as him, too, because of the wooden expression she had taken so many years to perfect.

But you couldn’t tell what a person was really like from just looking at their face. Only think of how wrong she’d been about Lord Ledbury. Earlier tonight, when she’d noticed him at Lucy Beresford’s come-out ball, she’d thought him one of the most disagreeable men she’d ever seen. He had not smiled once, though people had been falling over themselves to try and amuse him.

She’d really disliked the way he’d behaved, as though he was doing Lucy’s brother an immense favour by making his first public appearance as Lord Ledbury in his home. She’d thought Lucy a complete ninny for going into raptures about him for being some kind of war hero. He looked just the sort of man to enjoy hacking people to bits, and there was nothing heroic about such behaviour.

But he wasn’t cruel at all. He could have ruined her reputation, and Harry’s career, and left Josie destitute if he was the kind of man who revelled in inflicting pain on others. But he had chosen not to.

She looked at her cool expression again and felt a little comforted. She might look like her father, but she wasn’t like him—not inside, where it mattered. Was she?

She gave an involuntary shiver.

‘Not long now, miss. Then we’ll get you all snug and warm in your bed,’ said Josie, misinterpreting the reaction.

Lady Jayne did not bother to correct her mistake. She had no intention of adding to her maid’s worries by telling her what had happened. Or confiding in anybody that Lord Ledbury’s very forbearance, when she knew she deserved his contempt, had made her feel as though she had behaved in as selfish a fashion as her father had ever done.

She couldn’t bear to look at herself any longer. Had she really encouraged Harry to fall so hopelessly in love with her that he’d acted recklessly enough to jeopardise his whole career? In just such a way had her womanising father destroyed the women who’d been foolish enough to fall for his handsome face and surface charm.

Not that Lord Ledbury would let that happen. Not now. He was bound to prevent her from seeing Harry again. He had made it clear he disapproved of a woman of her rank having a relationship with a man who had no fortune of his own. Or at the very least a title.

At last Josie had finished her hair, and she could get into bed and pull the coverlets up comfortingly to her chin as she wriggled down into the pillows.

Though she couldn’t get comfortable. How likely was it that Lord Ledbury would be able to deter Harry from contacting her again? Not even her grandfather had managed that.

She chewed on her thumbnail. She did like Harry. Quite a lot. And she had been quite cut up when her grandfather had sent her to London to put an end to the association that had started when his regiment was stationed in Kent for training. And she had been pleased to see him again.

Until he had told her that the separation had almost broken his heart.

Oh, how she hoped Lord Ledbury could persuade him to abandon his pursuit of her! Because if he couldn’t she was going to have to tell him herself that she had never really loved him. She had not seen it before tonight. But now that she was looking at her behaviour through Lord Ledbury’s censorious eyes she had to face the fact that a very large part of Harry’s attraction had derived from the satisfaction gained in knowing that to see him was to defy her grandfather.

Oh, heavens. Lord Ledbury would be quite entitled to write her off as a shallow, thoughtless, selfish creature.

She shut her eyes and turned onto her side as Josie slid from the room and shut the door softly behind her. Her stomach flipped over. She did not want to be the kind of girl who could casually break a man’s heart in a spirit of defiance. Though she had never dreamed Harry’s feelings were so deeply engaged. She tried to excuse herself. She had not done it deliberately! She had thought … She frowned, looking back on her behaviour with critical eyes. She had not thought at all, she realized on a spurt of shame that seared through her so sharply she had to draw up her legs to counteract it. Harry had just turned up when she was so frustrated with her life in Town that she’d been silently screaming at the weight of the restrictions imposed on her.

Though they were not all entirely the fault of her chaperone. She herself had made a stupid vow not to dance with anyone this Season, lest they take it as a sign she might welcome their suit.

Though, she comforted herself, even before Lord Ledbury had caught them she had begun to see that, in all conscience, she could not continue to encourage Harry. It had only been a moment before he’d come upon them. The moment when Harry had urged her to elope and she’d known she could never do anything of the sort. Even before he had kissed her, and it had become so very unpleasant, she had known she would have to break it off.

That was the moment when she’d known she was not in love with Harry. Not in that deep, all-consuming way which might induce a woman to give up everything—as her aunt Aurora, so her mother had told her, had done when she had eloped with an impecunious local boy.

‘Oh, Harry.’ She sighed. She hoped he would get over her quickly. He should, for she was not worth the risks he had taken. Anyway, he was certainly going to have more important things to think about than her in the near future. The newspapers were full of Bonaparte’s escape from Elba. Every available regiment was being posted overseas in an attempt to halt his triumphal progress through France. And what with all the excitement of travelling to foreign climes and engaging in battles, he would soon, she hoped, be able to put her out of his mind altogether.

Though she would feel guilty for toying with a man’s feelings for a considerable time to come.

Shutting her eyes, she uttered a swift prayer for him to meet a nice girl of his own class, who would love him back the way he deserved to be loved.


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