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Lord Ledbury glared up at the ruched silk canopy of the bed he'd inherited from his brother, wide awake now, when not an hour since he'd felt so drained he was sure he could have slept for a week.
He hated this bed. He hated its soft feather mattress and the mounds of bedding that felt as though they were suffocating him. He hated the valet whom no, that was going too far. He could not hate Jenkins for doing a job to the best of his limited ability. It was just that he was not Fred.
He could have talked to Fred as he'd undressed and prepared to go to bed. Probably managed to laugh off the more ludicrous aspects of the evening's sortie behind what felt like enemy linesas they'd done time without number during the preceding six years of active service. No matter what deprivations they'd had to endure because of the damn fool orders some pompous ass higher up the chain of command had issued.
But he'd been obliged to leave Fred behind when he'd taken up residence in Lavenham House. And though he'd never experienced such luxury, never had so many servants in his life since coming to live here, he'd never felt so alone or so ill at ease. A spy must feel like this, he reflected bitterly, kicking off his covers and turning onto his side to glare at the fire glowing smugly in its ornate marble fireplace. Without benefit of his uniform to vouch for his identity. Cut off from his regiment, his comrades. Entrusted with orders that he alone could carry out.
Dammit, he was more likely to get some sleep outside on a park bench wrapped up in his old army greatcoat than he was in here, suffocated by all the trappings deemed necessary to coddle a lord. When he thought of all the times he'd slept out of doors, with conditions so harsh he would wake in the morning with his blanket frozen to the ground
He sat bolt upright. At the end of this street there was a small park, with benches dotted about in it. And in spite of Jenkins' ill-concealed disgust, his army greatcoat still hung in the armoire..
He just had to get out of Mortimer's house for a while, and away from Mortimer's servants, even if there was no escaping the obligations Mortimer's sudden and unexpected death had foisted upon him.
Muttering imprecations under his breath, he got out of bed and pulled on a random selection of clothing by guesswork in the flickering shadows cast by the fire, making sure only of his army greatcoat. He sighed as he shrugged himself into it, feeling as though he was being taken into the arms of a friend. As though there was a part of him that was still Major Cathcart, even though everyone was suddenly calling him Lord Ledbury now.
He rubbed his hand briskly over the crown of his head to tidy his bed-rumpled light brown hair in the way that had become second nature to him on campaign as he left the bedroom, wishing it was as easy to smooth down his ragged temper.
His mouth flattened into a grim line as he limped down the stairs. He had not quite recovered from the interview with the Earl of Lavenham, that was half the trouble. He'd been braced to hear something unpleasant. Nothing less than a dire emergency would have induced his grandfather to summon him to Courtlands. And what he'd learned about his younger brother during that interview had certainly been a shock. But what still left him with a nasty taste in his mouth had been the confirmation that if only Charlie had been the sort who could have concealed his preference for men he might have returned to his regiment, been killed or maimed, and nobody would have given a damn.
The night porter leaped to his feet as he saw his master approach. He opened his mouth, as though about to say something, but one look was all it took to have the man hand him his cane, open the door for him and scuttle back to his chair without uttering whatever objection he had been about to raise.
Lord Ledbury heaved a sigh of relief as he stepped outside. He'd done all his grandfather had asked of him. Made all the sacrifices demanded. He'd resigned his commission, moved out of his lodgings and into Laven-ham House. Bought the clothes, and begun to play the part, but.
He breathed in deeply as he made for the square. The night air was redolent of soot, actually. And damp. With a hint of something indefinably green about it that could not be mistaken for anything other than the smell of springtime in England. It took him less time than he would have thought before he was pushing open the gate, considering the state of his leg. For which small mercy he was truly thankful. He might be able to find a measure of peace if he could only stretch out on one of the benches and look up at the night sky through a tracery of leaves.
Thanks to Mortimer's ignominious demise, he'd become a lord. And, as the last hope of the Cathcarts, he was going to have to find a bride. A bride worthy of becoming the next Countess of Lavenham. To that end, tonight he'd attended his first ball since he'd become Lord Ledbury.
He gave an involuntary shudder as his mind flashed back to the glittering ballroom, the eager faces of the matchmaking mamas who'd clustered round him, the horrible feeling of being under siege.
And, goddammitbut wouldn't you know it with the way his evening had been goingwhen he finally reached the bench on which he'd set his heart he found it already occupied.
By a strapping redcoat and a somewhat-reluctant female, to judge by the way she was beating at his broad shoulders with her clenched fists while he carried on kissing her.
He acted without thinking.
'Take your hands off her!' His voice, honed through years of bellowing orders across parade grounds, made them both jump.
The soldier turned to scowl at Lord Ledbury over his shoulder.
'This is none of your business,' he snarled.
'I am making it my business,' he retorted. 'This sort of behaviour is completely unacc'
He broke off, stunned to silence when he caught sight of the female who was still struggling to disentangle herself from the redcoat's determined grasp. It was Lady Jayne Chilcott. He'd seen her earlier, at the ball he'd attended, and immediately asked his host who she was. For she was, without a doubt, the prettiest creature he'd ever clapped eyes on.
Berry, the former schoolfriend whose sister's come-out ball it was, had pulled a face.
'That,' he'd said scathingly, 'is Lady Jayne Chil-cottotherwise known as Chilblain Jayne. Lucy is in raptures to have her attend tonight, since she normally only goes to the most select gatherings. Her grandfather is the Earl of Caxton. Pretty high in the instep him-selfand you will only have to observe her behaviour for half an hour to see why she's earned the soubriquet.'
He'd promptly changed his mind about asking for an introduction, taken a seat and Berry's advice. He'd watched her. It had not taken quite half an hour to agree that she did look as though she was regretting coming to a place that was frequented by people so far beneath her in station.
At least that was what he had assumed then. But now, as he studied the insignia that proclaimed the lowly rank of the soldier who'd been kissing her so passionately, he revised his opinion. He had thought, from her refusal to dance with any of the men who'd been falling over themselves to break through her icy reserve, that she was as cold and proud as Berry had warned him she was.
But she did not look proud now. She looked like a rather young girl torn between fright and embarrassment at the compromising nature of the situation he'd just interrupted.
It was in stark contrast to the anger blazing from her would-be seducer's eyes.
'I repeat,' said Lord Ledbury firmly, 'take your hands off Lady Jayne this instant.'
It was more than just his innate sense of chivalry that made him so determined to rescue Lady Jayne. In spite of what Berry had said, and the derisive way he'd said it, he hadn't been able to prevent that initial interest steadily growing into a sense of something resembling comradeship as the awful evening had dragged on.
As she had doggedly rebuffed all overtures with chilling finality, he'd found some comfort in knowing he wasn't the only person there battling under siege conditions. After a while he'd even begun to derive a perverse sort of amusement from the way her courtiers grovelled at her feet on one side of the dance floor, while he sat in state on the other, repelling all invaders with equal determination. Though at least the men who flocked around her had some excuse. He knew the matchmaking mamas who clamoured round him were interested only in his newly acquired wealth and title.
'The state of your face won't matter,' his grandfather had predicted, running his eyes over the furrow on his forehad that a stray bullet had ploughed across when he'd been only a lieutenant. 'Not now that you are such a catch. Wealthy in your own right and heir to an earldom. All you will have to do is turn up and sit on the sidelines and they will come to you. You mark my words.'
The mere thought of having to fend off flocks of avaricious harpies had made entering that ballroom one of the hardest things he'd ever done. Particularly with his grandfather's words still ringing in his ears. Knowing that none of them would have given him a second glance before Mortimer had died and catapulted him into the peerage tied him up into knots inside. Yes, he'd gone there to start looking for a wife. But did they have to make it so obvious they all wanted his rank, his position? And not him?
But Lady Jayne would have attracted as many suitors were she a penniless nobody as she was so stunningly beautiful. He could not remember ever having seen a more perfect face. She had a flawless complexion, a little rosebud of a mouth and a profusion of golden ringlets that tumbled round her gently rounded shoulders. He had not been able to discern what colour her eyes were, but in a perfect world they would be cornflower-blue.
She'd shot him one cool, assessing look when he'd first come in and sat down. Later, when they'd both been surrounded by a crowd of toadeaters, their eyes had actually met, and for one instant he'd felt sure she was telling him she hated the attention, the flattery, the insincerity of it all, just as much as he did.
Not long after that, she'd risen to her feet and stalked from the room.
Once she'd gone, and he'd been the only prize catch left in the ballroom, he'd felt as though he had a target painted in the middle of his chest. Whilst she, too, had been repulsing unwelcome advances, he'd feltno matter how erroneouslyas if he had at least one ally in the place.
Once she'd gone, all the reasons why he didn't want to be there had become so overwhelming he had no longer been able to bear it. The heat of that stuffy room had made his head feel muzzy. The tension that hadn't left him since he'd taken the decision to do his duty by his family had become too great for a body so weakened by prolonged illness. He'd ached all over. He'd scarce known how to keep a civil tongue in his head. He'd had to leave, to get out of there and head home.
Only it hadn't been his home he had gone back to. It was still Mortimer's house. Another jarring reminder that he wasn't living his own life any more.
It would do him good, he suddenly realized, to knock somebody down. He had been spoiling for a fight ever since he'd walked away from his grandfather, bristling with the determination to prove once and for all that he was a better man than Mortimer and Charlie put together.
'Get up,' he snarled, advancing on the redcoat, who still had his arms round Lady Jayne. Mortimer and Charlie were both beyond his reach, one being dead and the other in Paris. And a man could not come to blows with his own grandfather, no matter what the provocation.
But this redcoat was just about his own height. And though he was younger, and probably fitter, the lad had not been tempered into fighting steel in the heat of battle.
The man got to his feet. Slowly.
'You are a disgrace to your uniform,' he said, angered still further by his slovenly posture when anyone under his command would have known to snap to full attention when he'd used that particular tone of voice. 'I would derive great personal satisfaction in seeing you brought up on a charge for this night's work. No officer should force his attentions upon an unwilling female.
If you were under my command you would be lucky to escape with a flogging.'
But before he had a chance to add that he would give the man a chance to settle the matter between them with their fists, Lady Jayne leaped to her feet and interposed her own body between him and the soldier, crying out, 'Oh, no! You could not be so cruel!'
'Cruel?' He was stunned by her reaction. 'You think it is cruel to rescue you from a situation that is plainly causing you distress?'
He steadfastly ignored the little voice that reminded him that he had been spoiling for a fight for ages. That this redcoat was just in the way when he happened to be in need of someone upon whom to vent his frustration. That if he had come across a young officer in the throes of a passionate clinch with a female as pretty as this one in Portugal he would have winked at the man, wished him luck and been on his way.
Ah, but this was no sloe-eyed senorita, nor the willing wife of a local grandee, he argued back. This was a young English lady, and she had not appeared willing. On the contrary, she'd been struggling with the lout. She'd looked frightened.