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Beauty And The Baron
By Deborah Hale
Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.Copyright © 2003 Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneNorthamptonshire, England, 1818
"Who shut the curtains on such a lovely day?" Angela Lacewood darted into the drawing room at Netherstowe, her bonnet pulled back off her head and a pair of thick gloves in one hand. "It's like a tomb in here!"
She'd been working out in the garden, basking in the lavish sunshine of late May when the butler had summoned her to receive an unexpected visitor. Why anyone would be paying a call at Netherstowe when the family was traveling abroad, Angela could not guess. Nor did she much care, to be truthful.
She would deal with them as quickly as possible, then reclaim her privacy.
As she crossed the darkened room to open the curtains, her eyes not yet accustomed to the dimness of indoors, a deep masculine voice reached out of the shadows, like a foot to trip her up.
"Leave the curtains be! I shut them and I wish them kept that way until I go."
Startled by the brusque order, Angela dropped her gloves and took a stumbling step too near her aunt's favorite footstool. Her foot caught on the low hurdle and she pitched to the floor.
Or would have done, had not a powerful pair of arms unfolded out of the darkness to catch her.
"I beg your pardon. I didn't mean to frighten you." The voice clearly belonged to the same person as the arms, for it wafted into her left ear from so intimate a distance it might almost have been a kiss. But could that voice-smooth, rich and beguiling-be the same gruff one that had frightened her into a humiliating stumble?
Perhaps they did have one thing in common, after all, she decided. Both made her heart flutter and her breath hasten ... for quite different reasons.
"W-who are you, sir, and why have you come to Netherstowe?" The questions had scarcely tumbled from her lips when Angela guessed the answer to the first. Her pulse raced faster still, though from fright ... or something else, she could not be certain.
The visitor set her on her feet again, but not before she felt the moist caress of his breath against her bare throat. For an instant she sensed a hint of reluctance to let her go. Or was it her own reluctance to break from her first time being held in a man's arms?
Even if that man were the devil himself.
"Lord Lucius Daventry, Miss Lacewood." He executed a stiff bow over her hand. "At your service."
Not the devil perhaps, but as close as she was likely to encounter deep in the sleepy countryside of Northamptonshire. Even so isolated from London society, Angela knew her guest had been dubbed "Lord Lucifer" by wags of the tongue. Lately, the village folk had begun to use that name-though never in his lordship's hearing.
"I beg pardon for startling you, and for taking liberties with your domestic arrangements." He gestured toward the window. "My eye is sensitive to bright light."
Could that be the reason he seldom ventured abroad by day? Gossip ascribed far more sinister motives to his lordship's nocturnal habits.
Her own vision had adjusted to the room's dimness enough for Angela to make out the sharp shadow of a curious demimask that gave Lucius Daventry a diabolical appearance to match his reputation. A large patch of black leather concealed half of his upper face, from cheekbone to temple, with a narrow slit to expose his left eye.
Was it only his eye that could no longer abide the light? she wondered. Or was it his pride as well? Before Waterloo, his lordship had been hailed as the handsomest beau in Britain. Though she'd had little experience on which to base a comparison, Angela had thought that reputation scarcely did him justice.
"To what do I owe the honor of your call, sir? Lord and Lady Bulwick and my cousins departed a fortnight ago for their tour of the Continent. I do not expect them back for some months."
Hard as she tried to purge the sweet ring of satisfaction from her voice, Angela could not. Weeks and weeks of lovely spring and summer with the whole house to herself and nobody to criticize or patronize her. That was as near heaven as she was apt to get for some years.
"And my brother is away at school," she added as a hasty afterthought.
Usually Miles was foremost in her mind, but today she'd consciously turned her thoughts in other directions. It did no good to fret about her brother's future when she had no means to help him.
Lord Daventry shook his head. "It is you I've come to see, Miss Lacewood."
"Me? Whatever for?" Too late Angela tried to bottle up her unmannerly question by pressing her fingers to her lips. Really, though, she'd asked the man his business twice, already. And twice he had failed to enlighten her.
Nor did he this time.
"May we sit?" he asked, instead.
"Of course." As Angela sank onto her aunt's favorite chair, her tardy manners caught up with her. "Would you care for some refreshment, my lord? You must excuse me for being such a poor hostess. I've never had company of my own to entertain before."
"Nothing, thank you." His lordship chose a seat some distance from her, and more deeply in shadow. "This is not exactly a social call."
The man was beginning to vex her. First interrupting her jolly afternoon in the garden, then giving her a fright, and finally stirring up all kinds of bewildering feelings she had no desire to experience.
"If not a social call, then, what exactly is it, sir?"
Aunt Hester would have had a fit of the vapors to hear her addressing a gentleman of wealth and title in such a tone, but Lord Daventry did not lose his cool aplomb.
Angela wondered if he ever did.
"All in good time, Miss Lacewood, if you will be so patient as to indulge me. For my grandfather's sake," he added, in a tone that betrayed more emotion than he had shown since ordering her to keep the curtains closed.
"Your grandfather?" Angela surged up from her seat.
"Is something the matter with the earl?"
Her guest motioned for her to resume her seat. "The two of you have become great friends these past few years, have you not?"
Did the man ever answer a direct question when one was put to him? Angela wondered. Perhaps she should demonstrate how to accomplish such a feat.
"I cannot answer for your grandfather, but I am fonder of him than of anyone...except my brother."
The dear Earl of Welland had a knack for making her feel clever and graceful and capable-all the things Angela had given up hoping she would ever be.
"Be assured, Miss Lacewood, my grandfather also holds you in the highest regard. It was good of you to visit him so often while I was ... absent."
On the Continent, serving under the revered Duke of Wellington. Was Lord Daventry aware how much she knew of his service in the cavalry? All his letters she'd read aloud to the earl, marveling at the adventures of which he'd made light with wry, self-deprecating wit.
"I did hate the thought of him over there in that big house," she said, "with no company but the servants."
"My grandfather is rather a pet project of yours, is he not? I gather you have a number of other such persons in the parish."
Excerpted from Beauty And The Baron by Deborah Hale Copyright © 2003 by Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.
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