Four in Handby Stephanie Laurens
She was unquestionably a lady. Still, that had never stopped him before. He could see that she was not, he thought, that young. Even better. Another twinge of pain from behind his eyes lent a harshness to his voice. "Who the devil are you?" In no way discomposed, she answered, "My name is Caroline Twinning. And if you really are the Duke of Twyford, then I'm
She was unquestionably a lady. Still, that had never stopped him before. He could see that she was not, he thought, that young. Even better. Another twinge of pain from behind his eyes lent a harshness to his voice. "Who the devil are you?" In no way discomposed, she answered, "My name is Caroline Twinning. And if you really are the Duke of Twyford, then I'm very much afraid I'm your ward. "
Max Rotherbridge couldn't believe it. Along with the dukedom of Twyford, heLondon's most notorious roguehad inherited wardship of four devilishly attractive sisters! Including the irresistible Caroline Twinning. The eldest Twinning was everything he had ever wanted in a woman, but even Max couldn't seduce his own ward or could he? After all, he did have a substantial reputation to protect. And what better challenge than the one woman capable of stealing his heart?
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The rattle of the curtain rings sounded like thunder. The head of the huge four-poster bed remained wreathed in shadow yet Max was aware that for some mysterious reason Masterton was trying to wake him. Surely it couldn't be noon already?
Lying prone amid his warm sheets, his stubbled cheek cushioned in softest down, Max contemplated faking slumber. But Masterton knew he was awake. And knew that he knew, so to speak. Sometimes, the damned man seemed to know his thoughts before he did. And he certainly wouldn't go away before Max capitulated and acknowledged him.
Raising his head, Max opened one very blue eye. His terrifyingly correct valet was standing, entirely immobile, plumb in his line of vision. Masterton's face was impassive. Max frowned.
In response to this sign of approaching wrath, Masterton made haste to state his business. Not that it was his business, exactly. Only the combined vote of the rest of the senior staff of Delmere House had induced him to disturb His Grace's rest at the unheard-of hour of nine o'clock. He had every reason to know just how dangerous such an undertaking could be. He had been in the service of Max Rotherbridge, Viscount Delmere, for nine years. It was highly unlikely his master's recent elevation to the estate of His Grace the Duke of Twyford had in any way altered his temper. In fact, from what Masterton had seen, his master had had more to try his temper in dealing with his unexpected inheritance than in all the rest of his thirty-four years.
"Hillshaw wished me to inform you that there's a young lady to see you, Your Grace."
It was still a surprise to Max to hear his new title on his servants' lips. He had to curb an automatic reaction to look about him for whomever they were addressing. A lady. His frown deepened. "No." He dropped his head back into the soft pillows and closed his eyes.
"No, Your Grace?" The bewilderment in his valet's voice was unmistakable. Max's head ached. He had been up until dawn. The evening had started badly, when he had felt constrained to attend a ball given by his maternal aunt, Lady Maxwell. He rarely attended such functions. They were too tame for his liking; the languishing sighs his appearance provoked among all the sweet young things were enough to throw even the most hardened reprobate entirely off his stride. And while he had every claim to that title, seducing debutantes was no longer his style. Not at thirty-four.
He had left the ball as soon as he could and repaired to the discreet villa wherein resided his latest mistress. But the beautiful Carmelita had been in a petulant mood. Why were such women invariably so grasping? And why did they imagine he was so besotted that he'd stand for it? They had had an almighty row, which had ended with him giving the luscious ladybird her conge in no uncertain terms.
From there, he had gone to White's, then Boodles. At that discreet establishment, he had found a group of his cronies and together they had managed to while the night away. And most of the morning, too. He had neither won nor lost. But his head reminded him that he had certainly drunk a lot.
He groaned and raised himself on his elbows, the better to fix Masterton with a gaze which, despite his condition, was remarkably lucid. Speaking in the voice of one instructing a dimwit, he explained. "If there's a woman to see me, she can't be a lady. No lady would call here."
Max thought he was stating the obvious but his henchman stared woodenly at the bedpost. The frown, which had temporarily left his master's handsome face, returned.
Max sighed and dropped his head on to his hands. "Have you seen her, Masterton?"
"I did manage to get a glimpse of the young lady when Hillshaw showed her into the library, Your Grace."
Max screwed his eyes tightly shut. Masterton's insistence on using the term "young lady" spoke volumes. All of Max's servants were experienced in telling the difference between ladies and the sort of female who might be expected to call at a bachelor's residence. And if both Masterton and Hillshaw insisted the woman downstairs was a young lady, then a young lady she must be. But it was inconceivable that any young lady would pay a nine o'clock call on the most notorious rake in London.
Taking his master's silence as a sign of commitment to the day, Masterton crossed the large chamber to the wardrobe. "Hillshaw mentioned that the young lady, a Miss Twinning, Your Grace, was under the impression she had an appointment with you."
Max had the sudden conviction that this was a nightmare. He rarely made appointments with anyone and certainly not with young ladies for nine o'clock in the morning. And particularly not with unmarried young ladies. "Miss Twinning?" The name rang no bells. Not even a rattle.
"Yes, Your Grace." Masterton returned to the bed, various garments draped on his arm, a deep blue coat lovingly displayed for approval. "The Bath superfine would, I think, be most appropriate?"
Yielding to the inevitable with a groan, Max sat up.
One floor below, Caroline Twinning sat calmly reading His Grace of Twyford's morning paper in an armchair by his library hearth. If she felt any qualms over the propriety of her present position, she hid them well. Her charmingly candid countenance was free of all nervousness and, as she scanned a frankly libellous account of a garden party enlivened by the scandalous propensities of the ageing Duke of Cumberland, an engaging smile curved her generous lips. In truth, she was looking forward to her meeting with the Duke. She and her sisters had spent a most enjoyable eighteen months, the wine of freedom a heady tonic after their previously monastic existence. But it was time and more for them to embark on the serious business of securing their futures. To do that, they needs must enter the ton, that glittering arena thus far denied them. And, for them, the Duke of Twyford undeniably held the key to that particular door.
Hearing the tread of a masculine stride approach the library door, Caroline raised her head, then smiled confidently. Thank heavens the Duke was so easy to manage.
By the time he reached the ground floor, Max had exhausted every possible excuse for the existence of the mysterious Miss Twinning. He had taken little time to dress, having no need to employ extravagant embellishments to distract attention from his long and powerful frame. His broad shoulders and muscular thighs perfectly suited the prevailing fashion. His superbly cut coats looked as though they had been moulded on to him and his buckskin breeches showed not a crease. The understated waistcoat, perfectly tied cravat and shining top-boots which completed the picture were the envy of many an aspiring exquisite. His hair, black as night, was neatly cropped to frame a dark face on which the years had left nothing more than a trace of worldly cynicism. Disdaining the ornamentation common to the times, His Grace of Twyford wore no ring other than a gold signet on his left hand and displayed no fobs or seals. In spite of this, no one setting eyes on him could imagine he was other than he was one of the most fashionable and wealthy men in the ton.
He entered his library, a slight frown in the depths of his midnight-blue eyes. His attention was drawn by a flash of movement as the young lady who had been calmly reading his copy of the morning Gazette in his favourite armchair by the hearth folded the paper and laid it aside, before rising to face him. Max halted, blue eyes suddenly intent, all trace of displeasure vanishing as he surveyed his unexpected visitor. His nightmare had transmogrified into a dream. The vision before him was unquestionably a houri. For a number of moments he remained frozen in rapturous contemplation. Then, his rational mind reasserted itself. Not a houri. Houris did not read the Gazette. At least, not in his library at nine o'clock in the morning. From the unruly copper curls clustering around her face to the tips of her tiny slippers, showing tantalisingly from under the simply cut and outrageously fashionable gown, there was nothing with which he could find fault. She was built on generous lines, a tall Junoesque figure, deep-bosomed and wide-hipped, but all in the most perfect proportions. Her apricot silk gown did justice to her ample charms, clinging suggestively to a figure of Grecian delight. When his eyes returned to her face, he had time to take in the straight nose and full lips and the dimple that peeked irrepressibly from one cheek before his gaze was drawn to the finely arched brows and long lashes which framed her large eyes. It was only when he looked into the cool greygreen orbs that he saw the twinkle of amusement lurking there. Unused to provoking such a response, he frowned.
"Who, exactly, are you?" His voice, he was pleased to find, was even and his diction clear.
The smile which had been hovering at the corners of those inviting lips finally came into being, disclosing a row of small pearly teeth. But instead of answering his question, the vision replied, "I was waiting for the Duke of Twyford."
Her voice was low and musical. Mentally engaged in considering how to most rapidly dispense with the formalities, Max answered automatically. "I am the Duke."
"You?" For one long moment, utter bewilderment was writ large across her delightful countenance.
For the life of her, Caroline could not hide her surprise. How could this man, of all men, be the Duke? Aside from the fact he was far too young to have been a crony of her father's, the gentleman before her was unquestionably a rake. And a rake of the first order, to boot. Whether the dark-browed, harsh-featured face with its aquiline nose and firm mouth and chin or the lazy assurance with which he had entered the room had contributed to her reading of his character, she could not have said. But the calmly arrogant way his intensely blue eyes had roved from the top of her curls all the way down to her feet, and then just as calmly returned by the same route, as if to make sure he had missed nothing, left her in little doubt of what sort of man she now faced. Secure in the knowledge of being under her guardian's roof, she had allowed the amusement she felt on seeing such decided appreciation glow in the deep blue eyes to show. Now, with those same blue eyes still on her, piercingly perceptive, she felt as if the rug had been pulled from beneath her feet.
Max could hardly miss her stunned look. "For my sins," he added in confirmation.
With a growing sense of unease, he waved his visitor to a seat opposite the huge mahogany desk while he moved to take the chair behind it. As he did so, he mentally shook his head to try to clear it of the thoroughly unhelpful thoughts that kept crowding in. Damn Carmelita!
Caroline, rapidly trying to gauge where this latest disconcerting news left her, came forward to sink into the chair indicated.
Outwardly calm, Max watched the unconsciously graceful glide of her walk, the seductive swing of her hips as she sat down. He would have to find a replacement for Carmelita. His gaze rested speculatively on the beauty before him. Hillshaw had been right. She was unquestionably a lady. Still, that had never stopped him before. And, now he came to look more closely, she was not, he thought, that young. Even better. No rings, which was odd. Another twinge of pain from behind his eyes lent a harshness to his voice. "Who the devil are you?"
The dimple peeped out again. In no way discomposed, she answered, "My name is Caroline Twinning. And, if you really are the Duke of Twyford, then I'm very much afraid I'm your ward."
Her announcement was received in perfect silence. A long pause ensued, during which Max sat unmoving, his sharp blue gaze fixed unwaveringly on his visitor. She bore this scrutiny for some minutes, before letting her brows rise in polite and still amused enquiry.
Max closed his eyes and groaned. "Oh, God."
It had only taken a moment to work it out. The only woman he could not seduce was his own ward. And he had already decided he very definitely wanted to seduce Caroline Twinning. With an effort, he dragged his mind back to the matter at hand. He opened his eyes. Hopefully, she would put his reaction down to natural disbelief. Encountering the grey-green eyes, now even more amused, he was not so sure. "Explain, if you please. Simple language only. I'm not up to unravelling mysteries at the moment."
Caroline could not help grinning. She had noticed twinges of what she guessed to be pain passing spasmodically through the blue eyes. "If your head hurts that much, why don't you try an ice-pack? I assure you I won't mind."
Max threw her a look of loathing. His head felt as if it was splitting, but how dared she be so lost to all propriety as to notice, let alone mention it? Still, she was perfectly right. An ice-pack was exactly what he needed. With a darkling look, he reached for the bell pull.
Hillshaw came in answer to his summons and received the order for an ice-pack without noticeable perturbation. "Now, Your Grace?"
"Of course now! What use will it be later?" Max winced at the sound of his own voice.
"As Your Grace wishes." The sepulchral tones left Max in no doubt of his butler's deep disapproval.
As the door closed behind Hillshaw, Max lay back in the chair, his fingers at his temples, and fixed Caroline with an unwavering stare. "You may commence."
She smiled, entirely at her ease once more. "My father was Sir Thomas Twinning. He was an old friend of the Duke of Twyford the previous Duke, I imagine."
Max nodded. "My uncle. I inherited the title from him. He was killed unexpectedly three months ago, together with his two sons. I never expected to inherit the estate, so am unfamiliar with whatever arrangements your parent may have made with the last Duke."
Caroline nodded and waited until Hillshaw, delivering the requested ice-pack on a silver salver to his master, withdrew. "I see. When my father died eighteen months ago, my sisters and I were informed that he had left us to the guardianship of the Duke of Twyford."
"Eighteen months ago? What have you been doing since then?"
"We stayed on the estate for a time. It passed to a distant cousin and he was prepared to let us remain. But it seemed senseless to stay buried there forever. The Duke wanted us to join his household immediately, but we were in mourning. I persuaded him to let us go to my late stepmother's family in New York. They'd always wanted us to visit and it seemed the perfect opportunity. I wrote to him when we were in New York, telling him we would call on him when we returned to England and giving him the date of our expected arrival. He replied and suggested I call on him today. And so, here I am."
Max saw it all now. Caroline Twinning was yet another part of his damnably awkward inheritance. Having led a life of unfettered hedonism from his earliest days, a rakehell ever since he came on the town, Max had soon understood that his lifestyle required capital to support it. So he had ensured his estates were all run efficiently and well. The Delmere estates he had inherited from his father were a model of modern estate management. But his uncle Henry had never had much real interest in his far larger holdings. After the tragic boating accident which had unexpectedly foisted on to him the responsibilities of the dukedom of Twyford, Max had found a complete overhaul of all his uncle's numerous estates was essential if they were not to sap the strength from his more prosperous Delmere holdings. The last three months had been spent in constant upheaval, with the old Twyford retainers trying to come to grips with the new Duke and his very different style. For Max, they had been three months of unending work. Only this week, he had finally thought that the end of the worst was in sight. He had packed his long-suffering secretary, Joshua Cummings, off home for a much needed rest. And now, quite clearly, the next chapter in the saga of his Twyford inheritance was about to start.
"You mentioned sisters. How many?"
"My half-sisters, really. There are four of us, altogether."
The lightness of the answer made Max instantly suspicious. "How old?"
There was a noticeable hesitation before Caroline answered, "Twenty, nineteen and eighteen."
Copyright (c) 2002 Stephanie Laurens
Meet the Author
New York Times bestselling author Stephanie Laurens originally began writing as an escape from the dry world of professional science. Her hobby quickly became a career; she has been writing historical romance novels for more than 20 years. Currently living outside Melbourne, Australia with her husband and two cats, she spends most of her days writing new stories in her signature 'Errol Flynn meets Jane Austen" style. Visit her online at www.stephanielaurens.com.
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