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The Lady Forfeits

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«The Lady Forfeits» - Кэрол Мортимер

COUNTESS UNDER DURESS! Lady Diana Copeland has hot-footed it to London to tell her new guardian, Lord Faulkner, exactly what she thinks of his outrageous marriage demands! Well, with her two flighty sisters having run off, no one else is going to do it… Surely this magnificent man with a naughty glint in his eye can’t be the pompous old fool she was expecting?Inhaling deeply, Diana fights not to get lost in the depths of Lord Faulkner’s intoxicating gaze… Or to make the worst forfeit – by agreeing to be the Lord’s new Countess! The Copeland Sisters Flouting convention, flirting with danger…
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Chapter One

Diana sipped her tea delicately before answering. ‘Surely the reason for my being here is obvious, my lord?’

‘Perhaps to make enquiries about your two sisters?’

‘That was my first concern, yes.’

‘And your second?’ That nerve was once again pulsing in Gabriel’s jaw, and if he was not mistaken he was developing a twitch in his left eyelid too!

Diana sat forward to carefully place her empty teacup down upon the silver tray, that slight adjustment in her pose revealing more of the deep swell of her creamy breasts. Full and plump breasts, Gabriel noted admiringly, and slightly at odds with the slenderness of the rest of her, revealed by the cut of her gown. Born and raised in the country or not, Diana Copeland was every inch a lady, he noted as his gaze trailed down her graceful slim arms and her elegant hands in their white lace gloves. A self-confident and outspoken young lady who—

‘My second reason for awaiting your arrival here is, of course, that I have decided to accept your offer of marriage.’

AUTHOR NOTE

I’ve always delighted in reading stories of love and adventure set in the Regency period, and it really is a dream come true for me to now be able to write these stories myself. To be able to indulge that love to the full, to live in that period for months at a time, if only in my imagination. In fact, it’s sometimes been a shock to come back to the reality of modern times and realise that, yes, I do have washing to put on, food shopping to do, and dinner to cook for my husband and all those sons!

I really hope that you enjoy reading Diana’s story, and about the unlikely Earl who falls in love with her, as much as I have enjoyed being a part of their lives.

Look for

The Lady Confesses Coming soon in

The Copeland Sisters

CAROLE MORTIMER was born in England, the youngest of three children. She began writing in 1978, and has now written over one hundred and fifty books for Harlequin Mills & Boon®. Carole has six sons: Matthew, Joshua, Timothy, Michael, David and Peter. She says, ‘I’m happily married to Peter senior; we’re best friends as well as lovers, which is probably the best recipe for a successful relationship. We live in a lovely part of England.’

Previous novels by the same author:

In Mills & Boon® Historical Romance:

THE DUKE’S CINDERELLA BRIDE*

THE RAKE’S INDECENT PROPOSAL*

THE ROGUE’S DISGRACED LADY*

LADY ARABELLA’S SCANDALOUS MARRIAGE*

THE LADY GAMBLES**

*The Notorious St Claires **The Copeland Sisters

You’ve read about The Notorious St Claires in Regency times. Now you can read about the new generation in Mills & Boon® Modern Romance:

The Scandalous St Claires Three arrogant aristocrats—ready to be tamed! JORDAN ST CLAIRE: DARK AND DANGEROUS THE RELUCTANT DUKE TAMING THE LAST ST CLAIRE

Carole Mortimer has written a further 150 novels for Modern Romance.

And in Mills & Boon® Historical Undone! eBooks:

AT THE DUKE’S SERVICE

CONVENIENT WIFE, PLEASURED LADY

Did you know that some of these novels are also available as eBooks?

Visit www.millsandboon.co.uk







The Lady

Forfeits

Carole Mortimer



www.millsandboon.co.uk









With thanks to all at HMB for helping to make my dream a reality.

Chapter One

‘Good God, Nathaniel, what have you done to yourself?’ Lord Gabriel Faulkner, Earl of Westbourne, exclaimed with less than his usual haughty aplomb.

Gabriel had come to an abrupt halt in the doorway of the bedchamber on first sighting his friend as he lay prostrate upon the bed. Lord Nathaniel Thorne’s, Earl of Osbourne’s, face was an array of cuts and rainbow-coloured bruises; a wide bandage about the bareness of his muscled chest attested to the possibility of several ribs also being broken.

‘Begging your pardon, ma’am.’ Gabriel recovered himself enough to turn and give an apologetic bow to the lady standing in the hallway beside him.

‘Not at all, my lord,’ Mrs Gertrude Wilson, Osbourne’s aunt, dismissed briskly. ‘I suffered the same feelings of shock upon first seeing the extent of my nephew’s injuries four days ago.’

‘Would the two of you stop discussing me as if I were not here?’ The patient was obviously less than pleased with this development.

‘The physician said you are to rest, Nathaniel,’ his aunt instructed sternly before turning that same steely-eyed attention on Gabriel. ‘I will leave the two of you to talk now, my lord. But for no longer than ten minutes,’ she warned. ‘As you see, Nathaniel is more in need of peace and quiet than conversation.’ She turned back into the hallway. ‘Come along, Betsy,’ she added. ‘It is time for Hector’s walk.’

Gabriel was rendered completely mystified by this last comment until another figure stepped out from the shadows of the hallway: a young, slender girl, with ebony curls surrounding the pale oval of a face made beautiful by huge blue eyes, clutching a small white dog in her arms.

‘If I have to suffer much more of this mollycoddling I will very likely resort to wringing someone’s neck,’ Nathaniel grumbled as soon as his aunt and her companion had departed and the two gentlemen were at last left alone in the bedchamber. ‘It is so good to see you, Gabe,’ he added more warmly as he struggled to sit up, the grimace on his face evidence, despite his denials, that it was a painful business.

‘Stay where you are, man.’ Gabriel crossed to his friend’s bedside, the usual look of determination now back upon a haughtily handsome face dominated by shrewd midnight-blue eyes. Tall and dark, and dressed in a perfectly tailored black superfine, silver waistcoat and grey pantaloons above black Hessians, the Earl of Westbourne gave every appearance of being the fashionable English gentleman, despite having spent the last eight years roaming the Continent.

Osbourne relaxed back against the many pillows behind him. ‘I had thought it was your intention to go straight to Shoreley Park when you arrived from Venice, rather than come up to London, Gabe? Which begs the question—?’

‘I believe your aunt has advised that you rest, Nate,’ Gabriel murmured, arching one arrogant brow.

Osbourne scowled.

‘Having summarily removed me from my own home and into her own cloying care, I believe if my Aunt Gertrude were to have her way she would now have me tied to the bed and all visitors refused entry.’

Despite his friend’s grumbling, Gabriel realised Nate’s aunt had done the correct thing as Nate so obviously found any movement extremely painful and couldn’t fend for himself. ‘What happened to you, Nate?’ he asked as he folded his elegant length on to the chair placed beside the bed.

The other man grimaced. ‘Well, despite what you said when you first saw me, I certainly did not do this to myself.’

But having served with Osbourne in the King’s army for five years, Gabriel knew better than most how proficient Osbourne was with both sword and pistol. ‘So how did it happen then?’

‘A little … disagreement outside Dominic’s new club, with four pairs of fists and the same amount of hobnailed boots.’

‘Ah.’ Gabriel nodded. ‘And would these four sets of fists and hobnailed boots have any connection to the gossip now circulating about town concerning the sudden demise of a certain Mr Nicholas Brown?’

The other man gave him an appreciative grin. ‘You have seen Dominic, then?’ He referred to their mutual friend, Dominic Vaughn, Earl of Blackstone, who had won a gambling club called Nick’s off a rogue named Nicholas Brown, who had then tried to sabotage and threaten Dominic any way he could until Dominic had had to deal with him in no uncertain terms.

‘Unfortunately not. I called at Blackstone House on my arrival in town earlier this morning and was informed that Dominic was not at home. That he has, in fact, gone into the country for several days.’ Gabriel looked thoughtful.

The three men had been friends since their schooldays together, that friendship continuing despite Gabriel’s sudden banishment to the Continent eight years ago. He dearly hoped that Dominic’s sudden departure from town did not mean his friend was about to face the same fate after being forced to shoot dead that scoundrel Nicholas Brown …

‘It is not at all what you think, Gabe.’ Nathaniel’s grin had widened as he reached for the letter on the bedside table and handed it to the other man. ‘The authorities have accepted Dominic’s account of what took place between himself and Brown; it would appear that Dominic is even now travelling into Hampshire with the intention of visiting the family of the woman he has every intention of making his wife. Look, see what he wrote to me before he left.’

Gabriel quickly scanned the contents of the missive from their friend. A brief, unhelpful letter, obviously written in a hurry, with little real information—apart from the news that Dominic had indeed gone into Hampshire with the intention of asking permission from this woman’s guardian for the two of them to marry. ‘And who, pray, is Miss Morton?’ He placed Dominic’s letter lightly back on the bedside table.

‘An absolute beauty.’ Osbourne’s eyes lit up appreciatively. ‘Not that it was apparent immediately, of course, because of the jewelled mask and ebony wig she wore when I first saw her. But once they had been removed—’

‘She was wearing a mask and wig?’ Gabriel repeated in astonishment.

Osbourne looked less sure of himself in the face of that Gabriel’s utter incredulity. ‘She was singing at Nick’s the evening the fight broke out, and so Dom and I had no choice but to step in and—’ He broke off as Gabriel raised a silencing hand.

‘Let me see if I have understood you correctly,’ Gabriel said grimly. ‘Are you really telling me that Blackstone is about to ask for the hand in marriage of a woman who, until a short time ago, sang in a gentlemen’s gambling club disguised in a jewelled mask and ebony wig?’ His tone had gone positively icy with disapproval.

‘I—well—yes, I suppose I am …’ Osbourne confirmed uneasily.

‘Has Dominic completely taken leave of his senses? Or perhaps he also received a blow to the head from one of those fists or hobnailed boots?’ Gabriel exploded. He could envisage no other explanation for his incredibly eligible friend even contemplating proposing marriage to a singer in a gambling club—no matter how beautiful she was!

Nathaniel gave a shrug. ‘His letter says he will explain all upon his return to town.’

‘By which time it will no doubt be too late to save him from this reckless venture; no guardian of such a woman would even consider turning down an offer of marriage from an earl. In fact, I would not be at all surprised if Dominic does not return to town already married to the chit.’ Gabriel scowled his displeasure at the thought of his friend’s obvious entrapment by this “absolute beauty”.

‘I had not thought of it in quite that way.’ Nathaniel frowned his own concern. ‘She seemed very much the lady of quality when I spoke with her.’

‘My dear Nate, I may have been absent from London society for some years,’ Gabriel drawled drily, ‘but I do not believe it has changed so much that ladies of quality now seek employment in gentlemen’s gambling clubs.’

‘Hmm.’ Nathaniel considered the matter further.

‘Perhaps, as you are travelling into Hampshire yourself, you might seek Dominic out and—’

‘My original plan to go to Shoreley Park no longer stands.’ Gabriel’s mouth tightened at the thought of the conversation that had taken place earlier that morning in the offices of his lawyer, that had succeeded in altering all his plans. ‘I arrived back in England only hours ago, to find an envoy from my lawyer awaiting me upon the quayside in possession of a letter requesting that I come to town immediately and meet with him. It would appear that the three Lady Copelands—having, as you are well aware, all decided to refuse my offer of marriage—have now chosen to absent themselves from Shoreley Park completely. No doubt in anticipation of my arrival there.’

It was an occurrence that did not please Gabriel in the slightest.

Insult enough that his offer of marriage to one of his wards had been refused, sight unseen, without his now being put to the trouble of having to seek out all three of the rebellious chits!

The previous two Westbourne heirs having died at Waterloo, Gabriel had surprisingly come into the title of the Earl of Westbourne six months ago, along with guardianship of the previous earl’s three unmarried daughters. In the circumstances, and as he had a complete lack of interest in taking any other woman as his wife, Gabriel had deemed it appropriate to offer marriage to one of those daughters. Not only had they all refused him, but, to add insult to injury, they had now all taken it into their heads to defy even his guardianship. A defiance Gabriel had no intention of tolerating!

‘I called upon Dominic earlier with the intention of taking him up on his offer that I stay at Blackstone House with him when I returned to town.’ Gabriel shrugged. ‘It appears, in light of his disappearance into the country, that I shall have to make Westbourne House my home, after all.’

‘It’s been closed up these past ten years,’ Nathaniel grimaced. ‘It’s nothing but a mausoleum and it’s probably full of mice and other rodents, too.’

Gabriel was well aware of the dereliction of Westbourne House. It was the very reason he had been putting off his arrival there all morning. Once he had finished talking to his lawyer he had first called upon Dominic at Blackstone House, only to learn of the other man’s disappearance into the country. A similar visit to Nathaniel’s residence had garnered the information that he was currently residing at the home of his aunt, Mrs Gertrude Wilson, meaning he couldn’t stay with him either.

‘There’s absolutely no reason why you cannot stay at Osbourne House in my absence,’ the earl assured him, as if suddenly aware of his thoughts. ‘We could have both moved back there if my aunt had not taken it into her head to remove me to the country later this afternoon.’ He looked less than happy with the arrangements. ‘Take my advice, Gabe—never let a woman get the upper hand; she’s apt to take advantage while a man’s down.’

Gabriel had no intention of allowing a woman, any woman, to take advantage of him ever again, having learnt that hard lesson only too well eight years ago …

‘Oh, I say!’ Osbourne instantly looked contrite. ‘I did not mean to imply—’

‘No implication taken, Nate, I assure you. And kind as your offer is, I fear, as I must take up residence at Westbourne House at some time, it may as well be now.’ Gabriel rose languidly to his feet. ‘I will see if I can find someone suitable to go into Hampshire and locate Dominic, and hopefully return him to his senses before it is too late,’ he added darkly.

Society, as Gabriel knew only too well, did not, and would not, ever forgive such a social indiscretion as an earl aligning himself in marriage to a woman who had previously been a singer in a gentlemen’s gambling club.

‘Now I believe it is time I took my leave—before Mrs Wilson returns and has me forcibly ejected from the premises!’ He fastidiously straightened the lace cuff of his shirt beneath his superfine.

‘Can’t see it m’self,’ his friend snorted as he rang the bell for one of the servants to escort Gabriel down the stairs. ‘My Aunt Gertrude may have me at a disadvantage for the moment, but I very much doubt she would ever have the same effect on you.’

In truth, Gabriel had found Mrs Wilson’s polite if cool attitude towards him something of a relief after the years of being shunned by society. Obviously coming into the title of earl did make a difference! ‘Think it lucky that you have a relative who feels enough affection for you to bother herself about you,’ he said drily. His own family, such as it was, had not troubled themselves to even learn of Gabriel’s whereabouts this past eight years, let alone enquire about his health.

As Gabriel travelled in his coach to Westbourne House he considered the possibility, now he was in possession of the old and much respected title of the Earl of Westbourne, with all the wealth, estates and power that title engendered, as to whether there might be a sea change in the attitude of the family that had chosen to banish him from their sight all those years ago. Even if there was, Gabriel thought coldly, he was indifferent to becoming reacquainted with any of them.

Gabriel’s air of studied indifference suffered a severe blow, however, when he arrived at Westbourne House some minutes later.

The front door was opened by a perfectly liveried butler who, upon enquiry, informed Gabriel, “Lady Diana is not at home at the moment, my lord, but is expected back very shortly.”

Lady Diana Copeland? One of the previous Earl of Westbourne’s rebellious daughters who was supposedly missing from home? And, if so, exactly how long had she been in residence at Westbourne House?

‘The earl requests that you join him in the library immediately upon your return, my lady,’ Soames stiffly informed Lady Diana Copeland as he opened the front door to admit her. Instead the butler succeeded in bringing her to an abrupt halt so that she now stood poised upon the threshold.

‘The Earl of …?’

‘Westbourne, my lady.’

The Earl of Westbourne!

Lord Gabriel Faulkner?

Here?

Now?

And apparently awaiting her in the library …

Well, who had more right than Lord Gabriel Faulkner, the newly titled Earl of Westbourne, to be awaiting Diana in what was, after all, now his library, she scolded herself. Besides, had she not been anticipating just such an opportunity in which to personally inform the new earl exactly what she thought of both him, his blanket offer of marriage to herself and her two sisters, and the serious repercussions of that preposterous offer?

Diana stiffened her spine in preparation for that conversation. ‘Thank you, Soames.’ She continued confidently into the entrance hall before removing her bonnet and handing it and her parasol to the maid who had accompanied her on her morning errands. ‘Is my Aunt Humphries still in her rooms?’

‘She is, my lady,’ the butler confirmed evenly, his expression as unemotionally non-committal as a good butler’s should be.

Nevertheless, Diana sensed the man’s disapproval that Mrs Humphries had taken to her bed shortly after they had arrived at Westbourne House three days earlier and that she had chosen to remain there during the uproar of Diana’s efforts to ensure that the house was cleaned and polished from attic to cellar.

Diana had been unsure as to what she would find when she reached Westbourne House. Neither she, nor her two sisters, had ever been to London before, let alone stayed in what was the family home there. Their father, the previous earl, had chosen not to go there either for all of ten years before his death six months ago.

The air of decay and neglect Diana had encountered when she’d first entered Westbourne House had been every bit as bad as she had feared it might be—as well as confirming that the new earl had not yet arrived from his home in Venice to take up residence here. The few servants who remained had fallen into almost as much decay and neglect as the house in the absence of a master or mistress to keep them about their duties. An occurrence that Diana had dealt with by immediately dispensing with the servants unwilling or unable to work and engaging new ones to take their place, their first task being to restore the house to some of its obvious former glory.

A task well done, Diana noted as she looked about her with an air of satisfaction. Wood now gleamed. Floors were polished. Doors and windows had been left open for many hours each day in order to dispel the last of the musty smell.

The new earl could certainly have no complaints as to the restored comfort of his London home!

And, Diana knew, she had delayed that first meeting with the new earl for quite long enough …

‘Bring tea into the library, would you, please, Soames,’ she instructed lightly, knowing that all the servants, old as well as new, now worked with a quiet and competent efficiency under the guidance of this newly appointed butler whom she has interviewed and appointed herself.

‘Yes, my lady.’ He gave a stiff bow. ‘Would that be tea for one or two, my lady? His Lordship instructed that a decanter of brandy be brought to him in the library almost an hour ago,’ he supplied as Diana looked at him questioningly.

Diana could not help a glance at the grandfather clock in the hallway, noting that the hour was only twelve o’clock—surely much too early in the day for the earl to be imbibing brandy?

But then what did she, who had lived all of her one-and-twenty years in the country, know of London ways? Or, the earl having lived in Venice for so many years, were they Italian ways, perhaps?

Whichever of those it was, a cup of tea would do Lord Gabriel Faulkner far more good at this time of day than a glass or two of brandy. ‘For two, thank you, Soames.’ She nodded dismissively before drawing in a deep and determined breath and walking in the direction of the library.

‘Enter,’ Gabriel instructed tersely as a knock sounded on the door of the library. He stood, a glass half-full of brandy in his hand, looking out at what was undoubtedly a garden when properly tended, but at the moment most resembled a riotous jungle. Whoever had seen to the cleaning and polishing of the house—the absent Lady Diana, presumably?—had not as yet had the chance to turn her hand to the ordering of the gardens!

He turned, the sunlight behind him throwing his face into shadow, as the door was opened with a decisive briskness totally in keeping with the fashionably elegant young lady who stepped determinedly into the library and closed the door behind her.

The colour of her hair was the first thing that Gabriel noticed. It was neither gold nor red, but somewhere in between the two, and arranged on her crown in soft, becoming curls, with several of those curls allowed to brush against the smooth whiteness of her nape and brow. A softness completely at odds with the proud angle of her chin. Her eyes, the same deep blue colour of her high-waisted gown, flickered disapprovingly over the glass of brandy he held in his hand before meeting Gabriel’s gaze with the same challenge with which she now lifted her pointed chin.

‘Lady Diana Copeland, I presume?’ Gabriel bowed briefly, giving no indication, by tone or expression, of his surprise at finding her here at all when his last instruction to the three sisters was for them to remain in residence at Shoreley Park in Hampshire and await his arrival in England.

Her curtsy was just as brief. ‘My lord.’

Just the two words. And yet Gabriel was aware of a brief frisson of awareness down the length of his spine on hearing the husky tone of her voice. A voice surely not meant to belong to a young lady of society at all, but by a mistress as she whispered and cried out words of encouragement to her lover …

His gaze narrowed on the cause of these inappropriate imaginings. ‘And which of the three Lady Copelands might you be in regard to age?’ In truth, Gabriel had not been interested enough in the three wards that had been foisted on him to bother knowing anything about them apart from the fact they were all of marriageable age! Time enough for that, he had decided arrogantly, once one of them had agreed to become his wife. Except none of them had, he recalled grimly.

‘I am the eldest, my lord.’ Diana Copeland stepped further into the room, the sunlight immediately making her hair appear more gold than red. ‘And I wish to talk with you concerning my sisters.’

‘As your two sisters are not in this room at the moment I have absolutely no interest in discussing them.’ Gabriel frowned his irritation. ‘Whereas you—’

‘Then might I suggest you endeavour to make yourself interested in them?’ Diana advised coldly, the narrowness of her shoulders stiff with indignation.

‘My dear Diana—I trust, as your guardian, I may call you that?—I suggest that in future,’ he continued smoothly without bothering to wait for her answer, ‘you do not attempt to tell me what I should and should not interest myself in.’ A haughty young miss too used to having her own way presented no verbal or physical challenge for Gabriel after his years spent as an officer in the King’s army. ‘As such, I will be the one who decides what is or is not to be discussed between the two of us. The most immediate being—why it is you have chosen to come to London completely against my instructions?’ He stepped forwards into the room.

Whatever sharp reply Diana had been about to make, in answer to this reminder of the arrogance with which she viewed Lord Gabriel Faulkner’s “instructions”, remained unsaid as he stepped forwards out of the sunlight and she found herself able to see him clearly for the first time.

He was, quite simply … magnificent!

No other word could completely describe the harsh beauty of that arrogantly handsome face. He possessed a strong, square jaw, chiselled lips, high cheekbones either side of a long blade of a nose, and his eyes—oh, those eyes!—of so dark a blue that they were the blue-black of a clear winter’s night. His dark hair was fashionably styled so that it fell rakishly upon his brow and curled at his nape, his black jacket fitted smoothly across wide and muscled shoulders, the silver waistcoat beneath of a cut and style equally as fashionable, and his grey pantaloons clung to long, elegantly muscled legs, above black and perfectly polished Hessians.

Yes, Lord Gabriel Faulkner was without doubt the most fashionable and aristocratically handsome gentleman that Diana had ever beheld in all of her one-and-twenty years—

‘Diana, I am still waiting to hear your reasons for disobeying me and coming up to town.’

—as well as being the most arrogant!

Having been deprived of her mother when she was but eleven years old, and with two sisters younger than herself, it had fallen to Diana to take on the role of mother to her sisters and mistress at her father’s home; as such, she had become more inclined to give instructions than to receive them.

Her chin tilted. ‘Mr Johnston merely advised that you would call upon us at Shoreley Park as soon as was convenient after your arrival from Venice. As, at the time, he could not specify precisely when the date for that arrival might be, I took it upon myself to use my own initiative concerning how best to deal with this delicate situation.’

Haughty as well as proud, Gabriel acknowledged with some inner amusement at the return of that challenging tilt to Diana Copeland’s delicious chin. She had also, if he was not mistaken, already developed a dislike for him personally as well as for his role as guardian to herself and her sisters.

The latter Gabriel could easily understand; as he understood it from his lawyer, William Johnston, Diana had been mistress of Shoreley Park since the death of her mother, Harriet Copeland, some ten years ago. As such, she would not be accustomed to doing as she was told, least of all by a guardian she had never met.

The former—a dislike of Gabriel personally—was not unprecedented, either, but it usually took a little longer than a few minutes’ acquaintance for that to happen. Unless, of course, Lady Diana had already taken that dislike to him before she had even met him?

He quirked one dark, mocking brow. ‘And what

“delicate situation” might that be?’

A becoming blush entered the pallor of her cheeks, those blue eyes glittering as she obviously heard the mockery in his tone. ‘The disappearance of my two sisters, of course.’

‘What?’ Gabriel gave a start. He had known the Copeland sisters had chosen to absent themselves from Shoreley Park, of course, but once he was informed of Diana’s presence at Westbourne House, he had assumed that her sisters would either be staying with her here, or that she would at least have some idea of their whereabouts. ‘Explain yourself—clearly and precisely, if you please.’ A nerve pulsed in his tightly clenched jaw.

Diana gave him a withering glance. ‘Caroline and Elizabeth, being so … alarmed by your offer of marriage, have both taken it into their heads to leave the only home they have ever known and run off to heaven knows where!’

Gabriel drew in a harsh breath as he carefully placed the glass of brandy down upon the table before turning his back to once again stare out of the window. While he’d known the three Copeland sisters had absented themselves from Shoreley Park, to now learn that his offer of marriage had actually caused the two younger sisters to run away, without so much as informing their older sister of where they were going, was not only insulting but, surprisingly, had also succeeded in affecting Gabriel when he had believed himself to be beyond reacting to such slights.

He had been forced to live in disgrace all these years, always knowing that of all the people Gabriel had previously loved or cared about, only his friends Blackstone and Osbourne believed in his innocence. It had meant he hadn’t particularly cared, during his five years in the army, as to whether he lived or died. Ironically, it had been that very recklessness and daring that had succeeded in making him appear the hero in the eyes of his fellow officers and men.

Realising that two young, delicately bred ladies had been so averse to even the suggestion of marriage to the infamous Lord Gabriel Faulkner that they had chosen to flee their home rather than contemplate such a fate had laid open a wound Gabriel had believed long since healed, if not forgotten …

‘My lord?’

Gabriel breathed in deeply through his nose, hands clenched at his sides as he fought back the demons from his past, knowing they had no place in the here and now.

‘My lord, what—?’ Diana recoiled from the icy fury she could see in Gabriel’s arrogantly handsome features as he turned to glare across the room at her with eyes so dark and glittering they appeared as black as she imagined the devil’s might be.

He arched a dark brow over those piercing blue-black eyes. ‘You did not feel the same desire to run away?’

In truth, it had not even entered Diana’s head to do so. It was not in her nature to run away from trouble and she had been too busy since discovering her sisters’ absence for there to be any time to think of anything else. But if she had thought of it, what would she have done?

Ten years of being the responsible daughter, the practical and sensible one, had taken their toll on the light-hearted and mischievous girl she had once been, until Diana could not recall what it was to behave impetuously or rashly, or to consider her own needs before those of her father and sisters. She would definitely not have left.

‘No, I did not,’ she stated bluntly.

‘And why was that?’ An almost predatory look had come over his face.

Diana straightened her shoulders. ‘I—’

Quite what she had been about to say to Gabriel she could not be sure as the butler chose that moment to enter with a tray of tea things and place them on the table beside the fireplace. A tray of tea things set for two, Gabriel noted with some amusement; obviously, from that flicker of disdain he had seen on the fair Diana’s face a few minutes ago, she did not approve of the imbibing of strong liquor before luncheon, if ever.

To hell with what the Lady Diana approved of!

Gabriel moved with deliberation as he picked up the glass of brandy he had been enjoying earlier and threw the contents to the back of his throat before replacing the empty glass down upon the table beside the tea tray, the smooth yet fiery liquid warming his insides, if not his mood.

He waited until the butler had left the room before speaking again. ‘I believe you were about to tell me why it is you did not choose to run away as your sisters have done?’ he asked.

‘Would you care for tea, my lord?’

His eyes narrowed at this further delay. ‘No, I would not.’

Blonde brows rose. ‘You do not care for tea?’

‘It is certainly not one of the things I have missed in all these years of living abroad,’ he said drily.

Diana continued to calmly pour a cup of tea for herself before straightening, her gaze very direct as she looked across at him. ‘I trust your journey from Venice was uneventful, my lord?’

He gave an impatient snort. ‘If you are intending to distract me with these inanities, Diana, then I believe I should warn you that I am not in the habit of allowing myself to be distracted.’

‘I have heard you were considered something of a war hero during your years in the army,’ she commented.

She had heard of his time in the army? Had she heard something of those other, much more damaging rumours of his behaviour eight years ago, too?

Gabriel’s expression became closed as he observed Diana through narrowed lids. ‘And what else have you heard about me?’

Guileless blue eyes met his unblinkingly. ‘In what context, my lord?’

Over the years Gabriel had faced down enemies and so-called friends alike, without so much as even the slightest possibility of any of them ever getting the better of him, but this young woman, who had lived all of her life in the country, nevertheless showed no hesitation in challenging him.

‘In any context, madam,’ he finally replied.

Slender shoulders lifted in a dismissive shrug. ‘I make a point of never listening to idle gossip, my lord. But even if I did,’ she continued, just as Gabriel felt himself starting to relax, ‘I fear I have not been in town long enough, nor is my acquaintance wide enough as yet, to have had the time or opportunity to be made privy to any … confidences.’

If Diana Copeland feared anything, then Gabriel would be interested to learn what that something was. She had certainly shown no hesitation as yet in speaking her mind, clearly and often! And if Gabriel had his way, this young lady would be returning to the country long before she had the opportunity to become “privy to any confidences” …

She raised one delicately arched brow. ‘Perhaps you would care to enlighten me?’

She was good, Gabriel recognised admiringly. Very good, in fact. She showed just the right amount of calm uninterest to indicate that the subject on which they spoke was of little or no relevance to her. If Gabriel had been less sensitive to the subject himself, he might even have been fooled by her …

‘Not at this moment, no.’ His jaw tightened. ‘Nor have I forgotten our original subject.’

‘Which was …?’

He drew in a deep and controlling breath, even as his hands flexed impatiently at his sides. ‘I wish to know why, instead of disappearing before my arrival in England as your sisters have obviously chosen to do, you have come to stay at Westbourne House instead?’

She straightened haughtily. ‘Are you, as the new owner of this property, expressing the sentiment that I no longer have that right?’

Gabriel made another attempt to regain control of the conversation. Something he was finding it harder and harder to do the longer it continued! ‘No, I am not saying that. As my ward you are, of course, perfectly at liberty to continue using any of the Westbourne homes or estates. It is only that, in this case, you must have been aware that once I had learnt you weren’t in Shoreley Park, Westbourne House was sure to be my first choice of residence?’

‘I was aware of that, yes.’

‘Well?’ Gabriel found himself becoming more and more frustrated with this conversation.

She sipped her tea delicately before answering. ‘Surely the reason for my being here is obvious, my lord?’

‘Perhaps to make enquiries about your two sisters?’

‘That was my first concern, yes.’

‘And your second?’ That nerve was once again pulsing in Gabriel’s jaw, and if he was not mistaken, he was developing a twitch in his left eyelid too!

Diana sat forwards to carefully place her empty teacup down upon the silver tray, that slight adjustment in her pose revealing more of the deep swell of her creamy breasts. Full and plump breasts, Gabriel noted admiringly, and slightly at odds with the slenderness of the rest of her revealed by the cut of her gown.. Born and raised in the country or not, Diana Copeland was every inch a lady, he noted as his gaze trailed down her graceful slim arms and her elegant hands in their white-lace gloves. A self-confident and outspoken young lady who—

‘My second reason for awaiting your arrival here is, of course, that I have decided to accept your offer of marriage.’

If Gabriel had still been enjoying his brandy at that moment, then he would surely have choked on it!

.

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