Read an Excerpt
Desiring Lady Caro
By Ella Quinn
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2014 Ella Quinn
All rights reserved.
End of June 1816, on the road back to London from Yorkshire
Gervais, Earl of Huntley, heir to the Marquis of Huntingdon, leaned back against the soft leather squabs of his traveling coach as it made its way along the Great North Road toward London. The previous day, he'd attended the wedding of his friend, Robert Beaumont. Huntley couldn't believe that Beaumont, one of London's foremost rakes, had fallen in love. If it could happen to him, no one was safe. In fact, Huntley's friends were being caught in the parson's mousetrap much too frequently for comfort.
Evesham, Rutherford, Marsh, and Worthington? All married. There must be some way to avoid their fate. Marriage meant dancing attendance on one's wife, children demanding one's attention, and getting into all sorts of trouble, not to mention the estate, a great rambling place, his father would foist on him, in Suffolk of all places. He shuddered.
No, marriage was not to be thought of, not until it was necessary for him to produce an heir. His stomach tightened at the thought of being caught in the quagmire of so-called "wedded bliss." What was worse, married men thought others should join their club. He needed to get away from his friends and their influence immediately.
Tapping on the roof of the coach, he called to the coachman. "Spring 'em."
The carriage moved faster, and the scene outside his window passed by swiftly but didn't change over-much. Hedgerows and fields led to more hedgerows and fields.
He turned his attention to his friend William, Viscount Wivenly. "I'll tell you, Will, my mother and older sister, Maud, are going to be impossible to live with now that Beaumont's been riveted."
Wivenly heaved a sigh and slouched down in the seat as if to hide. "I know what you mean. Mine won't be any better. I think I'll leave for a while."
Huntley raised a brow. "Where? It's too early for hunting."
His friend's lips pursed in concentration. "No, I mean, leave England. I've always wanted to travel, and now that the war's over, that's just what I'll do."
Travel was a good idea. He nodded. "Europe?"
Wivenly's brow creased, and he got a faraway look in his eyes. "I think I'll go to the West Indies. After listening to Marcus's and Lady Marsh's stories, I've a hankering to see turquoise water and half-dressed native women."
Huntley straightened and uncrossed his legs. "The West Indies?"
If he mentioned going to the West Indies to his father, the old man would re-open the dungeon and have him chained there. That was a damnable part about being the heir; even at three and thirty, the old gentleman still had too much control over him. "Will your father let you?"
Rubbing his chin, Wivenly replied hopefully, "I think he might. We have some family there, and he's still young enough not to worry about dying while I'm away. Always going on about me not having a Grand Tour."
Huntley leaned back against the dark brown squabs. "I think I'll go to the Continent. Germany, Austria, Italy. Practice some of the languages I learned. Italy's got to be a damned sight warmer than it's been here this year." The thought percolated in his mind. "Got an aunt in Venice I haven't seen for years. I hear Italian women are passionate."
Will, who'd been looking out the window as if he could already see the ocean, turned back around. "Isn't that Lady Horatia?"
Huntley glanced at his friend and frowned. "How the devil do you know that?"
Wivenly shrugged. "M'mother's bosom friend. Heard your aunt caused your grandfather to have apoplexy."
"Something was bound to, the way he went on about everything." Huntley lapsed into silence, until Wivenly took out a deck of cards.
"Penny a suit?" Wivenly asked. "Don't care to be fleeced by you before quarter day."
Smiling, Huntley put down the folding table and picked up the cards Wivenly dealt. "I'd let you win some of it back."
End of July 1816. Huntingdon Abbey.
As the last trunk was strapped to Huntley's coach, his twelve-year-old sister, Ophelia, clasped her hands together.
"Oh, Huntley!" she cried. "Bandits will attack you, and you will be lost to us forever."
"Good Lord, Lia, this isn't Drury Lane."
She dropped her arms. "I'd make a wonderful actress, just like Mrs. Siddons."
"Huntley"—his mother's mouth was set in a line, but her eyes danced—"watch your language. Lia, young ladies do not become actresses."
Not willing to surrender, Lia retorted, "But I'd make our fortune."
"Then marry a wealthy man," Huntley retorted drily, then added before that idea could take root, "We are sufficiently well off that you have no need to worry."
He had no idea from whom his sister inherited her excess of emotion. His mother was steady as a rock. This needed to be nipped in the bud. The actresses he was acquainted with might earn a great deal, but not on the stage.
Mama embraced him, kissed him lightly on the cheek, and smiled. "Have a good trip. I suppose we will not see you until spring."
He jumped up into the coach. "Probably not. I'll send word when I start my way back."
Several days later he and Will had met up in London to make the trip to Dover together. Now, after a neat dinner, they sat in a private parlor with a decanter of brandy. Though he'd never admit it, he hadn't been so excited about anything since he'd gone to Oxford. He'd finally get to see all the places he'd only read and heard about.
Wivenly dealt the cards. "What did your father say?"
Huntley grinned. "Made me promise not to bring back a wife."
Giving a bark of laughter, Wivenly picked up his cards. "No chance of that. But I suppose you didn't tell him."
Huntley picked out a card and discarded it. "No. I just said I'd not think of marriage until I returned home. Unfortunately, he's got it in his head I must marry then. I take it your father didn't raise a fuss?"
Wivenly grinned. "Winked at me and told me he had a spare." He scowled at his cards for a moment. "Appears we've got some problems concerning my great-uncle's family, therefore it's a good thing I'm going."
Early the next morning, Huntley clasped his friend's hand before Wivenly walked up the gangplank to the large merchant vessel bound for Jamaica. "Safe trip, Will. Don't forget to come back."
Wivenly laughed. "Good luck to you, my friend. Enjoy the Continent and all it has to offer. I hear the Italian ladies are particularly lovely."
Grinning, Huntley retorted, "I'll let you know."
He strode farther down the dock to his packet bound for Calais, looking forward to months of unfettered freedom.
Huntley knocked on the large, ornately carved door of his aunt's palazzo. At last, two months of travel through France, Germany, and Austria—some of it tedious, most luxurious—were over. He looked forward to staying in Venice for an extended visit, provided the women of Venice proved as warm and welcoming as the Italian weather. The door was answered by a tall, somber servant just past middle age.
A low, musical voice floated down. "La Valle, who is here?"
At the top of the marble stairs stood the most beautiful creature Huntley had ever beheld. At first, he thought she was a figment of his imagination. Shaking his head, he blinked before gazing at her again. No, he was right the first time. Fair, flaxen hair curled around her face. The eyes fixed on him were wide and set under perfectly arched brows. And, Lord, her lips. There was only one good use for them. Kissing. More specifically, kissing him.
His body hardened as if he hadn't had a woman in months, which was certainly not the case. She was so exquisite, even the heavy frown marring her countenance couldn't make her less than beautiful. Only his old nurse had frowned at him like that, but it hadn't made him want to ...
Pulling himself together, he bowed. "Lord Huntley, at your service."
"You are early." She pressed her lips together. "We did not expect you for another few days."
As the seraphic creature turned on her heel, the costly silk of her light turquoise gown swished around her. Who the deuce was she? He'd never heard of Horatia having any children. He grinned to himself. A widow perhaps?
She walked away, stopped and turned, brows furrowing. "Don't just stand there, follow me. Lady Horatia will want to see you."
Huntley checked to ensure his mouth wasn't hanging open and started up the stairs. "Yes, of course. I would like to refresh myself first. I'm in no fit condition to meet my aunt."
Though her frown deepened, it had no power to distract him from rosy lips. "You may bathe and change later."
"If you wish." He remembered his mother telling him that if he scowled, his lips would grow that way. "I'll wager you are much prettier when you don't glower."
She speared him with a glare. "Why, my lord, should I wish to be pretty for you?"
He could think of a number of reasons, but in her current mood, she'd probably not be receptive. "Very well then, take me to my aunt."
She glanced at the ceiling with a look of long suffering. "That is what I've been trying to do."
Hmm. Prickly. That wasn't an attitude that was generally directed toward him. Picking up his pace, he followed the mystery woman.
Turning once more, she led him into a large, magnificent, pale blue room trimmed with gilt. Brightly colored tiles paved the floor and louvered doors led to a balcony overlooking the Grand Canal.
"Godmamma," his nemesis said, "here is Lord Huntley. Early."
She infused the word with so much disapproval, he was again forcibly reminded of his old nurse.
His lips twitched, but he managed to keep his expression grave as he bowed. "Aunt Horatia, I am sorry to have inconvenienced you. It was not my intent."
A woman just a few years older than he, whom he recognized from her portrait in the gallery at his ancestral home, Huntingdon Abbey, sat at a table sipping white wine. Her bright green eyes peeked up through dark lashes. She was still a beauty. Her hair was dark brown, but her eyebrows and eyelashes were much darker, almost black.
His aunt's laugh reminded him of tinkling bells. "You silly boy, you've not put me out at all." She glanced at the younger woman. "Did Caro berate you?"
Ah, she had a name. A lovely one at that, but who was she?
Horatia turned to Caro. "You know you should not, my dear. A guest should always be made to feel welcome."
Caro's face turned a deep rose. "I am sorry, my lord."
Wanting to ease her discomfort, he gave a slight bow. "I did not feel unwelcomed. Merely that my aunt was anxious to see me." Huntley gave her his most charming smile. "I'm sure that was all you wished to convey, miss?"
She curtseyed and in a cool tone said, "Lady Caroline Martindale."
Martindale. She must be one of the Marquis of Broadhurst's daughters. The eldest. Huntley'd heard she'd married; apparently not. What was she doing here? "Lady Caroline, my pleasure."
His aunt waived her hand airily. "We are not at all formal at home. Call her Caro, and do not allow her to make you feel six again."
He hadn't thought it was possible, but her blush deepened.
At least one of his questions was answered.
"You may address me as Horatia." She took another sip of wine. "Aunt Horatia is sure to make me feel much older than I am."
He tore his gaze from Lady Caro to his aunt. "We couldn't have that."
"Well then, Huntley." Horatia smiled slowly, and he got the distinct impression she'd noticed his interest in Lady Caro. "I'm sure you'd like to bathe and change. You're fortunate we are dining in this evening, for I shall tell you, we are a couple of gadabouts."
Lady Caro pulled a bell and a footman entered. "Please escort Lord Huntley to his room."
Huntley followed the man out of the parlor and up the wide marble stairs to another large room overlooking the canal. The chamber he was given was almost directly above the drawing room he'd been in. A shallow balcony drew his attention and he walked out on to it to watch the activity on the canal below.
"My lord," the footman said in Italian, "I shall have water sent to you directly."
Huntley turned. A metal tub stood before the unlit fireplace. "Grazie mille."
His valet, Maufe, poked his head in from what must be the dressing room. "I'll be with you in a moment, my lord. Just putting your kit away."
"No hurry." Huntley turned back to the balcony, taking in the view. Gondolas jockeyed for position in the canal, and people walked with an unhurried pace over the nearby bridge. His mind wandered away from the scene below and back to Lady Caro. He puzzled over what it was, beyond her beauty, that attracted him in spite of her obvious disinterest. It was almost as if she was being purposely rude. Perhaps it was a certain vulnerability that lurked beneath her prickly exterior. Much like a hedgehog, or the thorns on a rose. Yes, a rose was a much better analogy than a small, silly-looking animal.
Water being poured in the tub and his valet's voice intruded on Huntley's thoughts. "Yes, Maufe?"
"My lord, your bath is ready."
Huntley undressed and climbed into the tub. Leaning back, he soaked in the warm water, and closed his eyes, enjoying the various calls from the canal. A vision of kissing Caro's delightful lips floated in his mind. A pleasure he had every intention of enjoying. He jerked his thoughts away from his nether regions. That way led to marriage. A state he wanted to avoid. Yet Lady Caro was certainly a temptation.
Caro repaired to her chamber to change for dinner. They ate unfashionably early, but Godmamma claimed it was the only way for her to avoid becoming fat. Caro splashed her face with water and, after drying her hands, held her arms up as the pale green gown her dresser, Nugent, held slipped over her. After it was laced, she sat at the dressing table.
What was it about Huntley that disturbed her so? Though she'd been tempted, she'd never allowed herself to be intentionally rude to a gentleman before. What was worse, he was Horatia's nephew, and he'd be living with them. She gave herself a little shake. She would treat him like a brother. That would dampen any interest he might have in her.
"My lady, sit still," her dresser said. Nugent had been Caro's nursery maid and, before her come out, had trained as a lady's maid, though that didn't stop Nugent from chastising Caro as if she were still a child. "What's got you so fidgety?"
She was tempted to raise her chin, but that would only earn her another rebuke. "I am not fidgety."
Nugent twisted Caro's hair into a top-knot. "I hear Lord Huntley is a handsome young man."
"It doesn't matter if he is." Caro resisted huffing. "I'm not interested."
"Harrumph. Time you started."
A thought occurred to her, and she narrowed her eyes. "My mother hasn't written to you, has she?"
"No, my lady." Nugent concentrated on her work. "What business would her ladyship have writing me?"
"Well," she mumbled, "someone did."
"Did you say something, my lady?"
Nugent nodded, and Caro thought she heard her maid say, "Good."
She should let the whole topic drop. "I do not understand why you are suddenly so interested in men."
"I'm not, but you should be."
"Good heavens, why?" Before her maid could answer, the tines of a hair comb scraped her scalp. "Ow, that hurt."
"I told you to stay still."
Caro took a breath. She was going to end this conversation once and for all. "I'm perfectly happy as I am."
Why did she have to have a dresser who had been with her since the nursery? "What makes you say that?"
"You deserve the life you were born to lead," Nugent said in an uncompromising tone.
Caro ground her teeth. "You know very well all chances of that ended years ago."
"The right gentleman wouldn't think so."
She took the strand of pearls from her dresser, wrapping them around her neck twice and allowing one loop to hang down, then added the matching earbobs. "I'm not talking about this any more."
Nugent gave a wry look before busying herself picking up clothing. How maddening. Caro picked up her fan and reticule, and strode out the door. Running straight into the person in question.
His hands reached out to steady her.
"I'm sorry." She kept her gaze averted from him. "I should have watched where I was going."
He chuckled. A deep, soothing sound. Caro made the mistake of looking up. A smile lurked in his eyes, which hovered between green and blue. One dark brown lock of hair fell over his brow, and she itched to push it back into place.
Caro stepped sharply back. She wasn't interested in Lord Huntley, she wasn't. Men were not to be trusted. She had made that mistake before.
Excerpted from Desiring Lady Caro by Ella Quinn. Copyright © 2014 Ella Quinn. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.