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Catriona Grant hoped that the rumors of Viscount Rutleigh's reputation had not been exaggerated; only a man with a tarnished reputation could overlook the life she had led.
There was a ring around the moon on the night she finally reached Rutleigh Hall. She stopped at the edge of the woods and wondered whether this was a sign that she should turn back. For most of her life, she had been chased from fine houses such as this, or else smuggled up the backstairs to the curtained bed of a dying person while her mother worked her healing charms in the candlelight.
From what she had just learned, however, the English lord who owned this estate was not known for welcoming visitors, except for the London ladies who had shared his bed in the past. Apparently, the viscount had run a bit wild in his younger years, but war had tamed him somewhat, and whatever questionable behaviors he now indulged were done so in secret.
She liked the look of his estate, though, an elegant two-story, H-shaped house of sandstone set in its own parkland. The foundations of the ancestral manor had been laid in Elizabethan times of stone quarried from the nearby moor in the deepest roots of which lived His Satanic Majesty. A few local folk believed that the influence of these accursed stones had turned the Rutleigh men into something of demons themselves, dueling, womanizing, gambling, until holy wedlock had put a damper on their dark desires. But in Devon, the devil was thought to have a hand in many things.
All this helpful information about Lord Rutleigh had been imparted to Catriona less than an hour ago over a pint of inferior ale in a local inn by noless reliable a source than the village barmaid.
"He's kindly to his sister, though," the woman had been forced to admit. "Give the devil his due -- mercy, my dear, you're not hoping to ask charity of 'im?" she had asked in alarm. "If it's work you want, I say go elsewhere. Better to work in a textile factory than to fall prey to his charms."
Catriona had straightened her slender shoulders. "I am a relative, not a charity case." Actually, it was through his lordship's brother-in-law that she claimed a fragile thread of kinship.
"You -- related to that family? Do tell."
Catriona frowned now, recalling how the barmaid had scoffed at her claim of blood relationship to the house. And what was so amusing about herself? she wanted to know. True, she hadn't made a proper toilette in several days, and her cloak was snagged with burrs and briars. And while the gown beneath might not be the height of style, not anything a young lady might admire in good society, it was of quality wool and decently tailored.
"Sir Lionel Deering is my cousin," she had said in a dignified voice.
"Sir Lionel?" There had been an awful pause during which the woman's amusement evolved into an air of pitying astonishment. "But he's been dead for almost three years, dear. Didn't anyone tell you? Sir Lionel was killed in battle."
The floor had seemed to dissolve beneath Catriona's feet. She couldn't have come all this way for nothing; she couldn't have pinned all her hopes on the generosity of a cousin who had died without her ever knowing.
"His wife is still alive, though," the barmaid had added gently, distressed by the young woman's sudden pallor. "That's Lady Deering, the sister I told you about. She has a soft heart, that one, which makes it all the stranger that the viscount is such a difficult man."
Well, it was too late for her to return to Scotland now. She had shamed her brother by running out on the party celebrating her own engagement to a widowed laird in his sixties who had five unruly children. She had also run out of funds and had no means to make the journey back. Her future had hinged on the casual invitation of her late cousin, who had said, "If you should ever need anything, come to Devon."
Now she glanced at the short, raw-boned Scotsman standing beside her, his face as seasoned as a Celtic battle shield. "What do you think?"
"I dinna feel right about this. I think they've been expecting us."
"How could they know we had arrived when they are probably unaware that I even exist?"
"Someone could have warned them," he said mysteriously. "There are those who saw us leave the castle and might remember your connection to your cousin."
"We cannot cower here in the bushes all night."
"We canna walk into a trap," he said firmly, refusing to budge.
"I am not afraid of Lord Rutleigh, Thomas. I expect he isn't nearly as bad as that barmaid exaggerated. At any rate, I am obliged now to introduce myself."
His craggy face softened. "Aye, ye were always the brave one, even from the day we found ye alone on the moor, howling yer wee heart out with the indignity of it all. A lady rescued by ruffians, ye were. Aye, blood shows."
Catriona paused. Somehow, being reminded of that day, of her preadolescent self tumbling out of a tree into a dead bramble bush and having her rough-handed uncle pluck splinters from her bum, did not give her the composure she needed to face the notorious Lord Rutleigh.
"Thomas, I would prefer simply to knock at the door and introduce myself."
"Not until I'm sure there isna a trap about to spring. Fergan's lured the dogs away."
Catriona glanced uneasily around the darkened estate. Fergan was the castle deerhound and her companion on cold lonely nights since she had found him limping on the moor years ago, as lost as she. He was a tough old dog but perhaps not a match against the well-trained mastiffs that patrolled the viscount's grounds for intruders.
"Aye," Thomas said in a low voice, "there's someone watching from the house. I tell ye, they're lying in wait. I feel it in these weary old bones. My blood is all a-tingle with anxiety."
"Not to mention several pints of ale," she said wryly. "Besides, who would have written to warn him we were coming?"
"Yer half-brother, mayhap. The one whose castle ye ran away from. The one who had arranged yer marriage to one ancient laird who is probably having heart seizure at the altar as we speak."
She bit her lip. "Aye, so. But would James be angry enough to have me shot on sight, I ask you?"
"The English do things in queer ways, lassie. Mark my words. We're in hostile territory now."
A flicker of light from the house interrupted their whispered conversation. She looked up at the long gallery windows of the ivy-draped manor house. A man in elegant evening attire had paused to look outside, candlelight emphasizing his powerful frame. She stared up at him in wonder, at his fine muscular figure. Surely his silhouette was deceiving, as exaggerated as the talk of him. Surely he would not appear so arresting on closer inspection.
She brushed a red-gold curl from her face, squinting to see better. "That must be Lady Deering's brother, the viscount."
"How can ye tell?"
"It's a man I saw in the vision." Besides, she added silently, he certainly looked like a man who had seen the more interesting side of life.
"Aye? Well, yer visions I willna argue with. Here." He placed a heavy pistol in her hand. The tips of her fingers went numb with cold fear.
"What is this for?" she whispered in alarm. "I've come here to ask his mercy, not to murder him."
"He's an Englishman, lass. They're unpredictable."
"Be that as it may, I am not going to kill the man."
She glanced up again at the house, disappointed to see that the intriguing male figure had disappeared. She had been fascinated by her glimpse into the world she imagined he inhabited, of duels fought at dawn and glittering ballrooms, of late-night parties and self-indulgent pursuits. It was certainly a contrast to the inelegant life she had led, being shuffled from relatives to boarding schools back to relatives again.
"Oh," she said softly. "He's gone. I thought he sensed we were here."
"Aye, 'tis why I'm worried. I swear to ye, he's watchin' fer someone. Now, I'm headin' around the house to the stables. When I give the signal -- "
He wheeled spryly toward the path as the baying of dogs resounded in the oak woods that surrounded the estate. Sometimes Catriona thought that he lived for blood-stirring moments such as this. She, on the other hand, would be very happy to settle down to a more sedate existence.
As she waited for him to return, she closed her eyes, an unspoken plea forming in her heart. Please, please, just for once, let me find a place to belong.
The tallest man at the table threw down his hand of cards as unearthly howling rose from the woods that encircled his estate. His lean face registered more annoyance than alarm at the commotion.
"What poor creature have those damn dogs cornered now?" he wondered aloud, lounging back in his chair.
"Not one of our guests on the way home,I hope," the man beside him said. Lanky, fair-haired, light-hearted, he was the antithesis in temperament and appearance of his host, Knight Dennison, Viscount Rutleigh as of last year when his older brother had passed away after a brief illness in India. Having also recently inherited, Wendell Grenville, the Duke of Meacham, was a darling of the ton to Knight's devil, an elusive favorite among the marriage-minded mamas and debutante daughters the members of this private house party sought to escape.
"You've wrecked the game now, Knight," grumbled another guest. "I was winning, too." The third man at the table, a portly local squire who dealt in lace, gave a good-natured sigh, folded his hands over his paunch, and promptly fell asleep.
The man he had addressed only grinned boyishly at the complaint and rose to stare out into the night. A cluster of pedunculate oaks enclosed the well-tended grounds, giving way to an overgrown tangle of woods. Beyond the borders of his estate stretched the moor, a misty realm pitted with tors and megalithic boulders.
"The dogs have stopped their infernal barking," he said in relief. "With luck, it was only a badger and not Lord Jennings's carriage they were chasing."
"I hope the badger wasn't hurt," a woman said from the corner.
He glanced down with affection at the brunette sitting below him on a chaise, his younger sister Olivia, who seemed impossibly fragile in her pearl-gray dress of watered silk. The cashmere shawl he'd given her for Christmas did not conceal the prominent bones of her collarbone any better than her skillful application of rice powder hid the hollows of bereavement below her cheekbones. His beloved sibling was wasting away to a wraith before his eyes.
"Did you eat anything for supper, Olivia?" he asked quietly.
"My goodness, yes."
"Two bites of pudding," Wendell said disapprovingly from the card table. "Two tiny bites that would not have nourished a fly."
"I ate the entire bowl," Olivia protested.
She was lying. She glanced away to avoid Knight's perceptive gaze, and he felt a familiar surge of panic and guilt. Almost three years ago, he had watched her husband die on the battlefield, and now he feared he was losing her, too.
She tugged on the cuff of his white cambric shirt. "Do you really think it was just a badger?"
He looked up again at the window. There had been a rash of housebreakings recently among the small circle of wealthy aristocrats who comprised the upper crust of West Briarcombe. The crimes had been executed with a clumsy daring that made Knight suspect at first that a gang of well-heeled youths were taking revenge on their indulgent families. He and Wendell had even laughed at their harmless mischief until a footman at Wendell's ducal estate had been brutally beaten and left for dead.
"Our house is the next logical one to be broken into," Olivia said worriedly.
"It's been three weeks now," he said, using a casual voice to calm her. "Duke got off a good shot at one of them, and his mama pitched a chamberpot on their heads as they escaped down the ladder."
"A full chamberpot, I might add," Wendell said with a grimace. "Quite nasty, that."
Olivia gave a faint shudder. "Your poor mother, Wendell. She says she is never going back to that house, and who can blame her? You mustn't return there, either. Knight and I absolutely forbid it."
"Olivia." Knight knelt down beside her, his dark gray eyes gentle. "We've never been able to get rid of Wendell, have we? He's like a piece of furniture, a portrait on the wall. Furthermore, Smythe and Howard are patrolling the grounds at this very moment, looking like utter fools with their ancient fowling pieces, and would I let anything happen to you?"
She pressed her forefinger against the hard contour of his chin. "And who is going to protect you, my brother who believes himself invincible?"
He smiled, thinking that her eyes looked like huge bruises in her too-thin face. Ever since the day he had returned from Albuera to tell her that Lionel, her husband and Knight's closest friend, was not coming home, she had begun to vanish on him, to disappear by subtle degrees. She pretended to eat to please him. She could not sleep. And he had not even revealed the horrible truth of how Lionel had died, not the swift storybook death of a hero that she believed. Oh, no. Not for nothing had their regiment been called the Die Hards.
"I am perfectly capable of protecting myself," he said in an amused voice. "And I am not going to expire for some time yet."
"We're all going to die sooner or later," the squire remarked cheerfully. He hoisted himself out of his chair, brushing biscuit crumbs from his waistcoat. "With God's grace, I shall not do so on the way home. Good night, all."
"Good night, Melvin," Olivia said, rising to kiss his whiskery cheek.
"Shall I see you in London this year, Knight?" he asked over Olivia's shoulder.
"London," Wendell said, "is losing its appeal by the day. M'friends and I are entirely too bad at remembering all them rules. Society doesn't like that."
"Society likes Knight well enough," Olivia said in defense of the older brother she adored. "At least, the debutantes seemed to, although he didn't like any of them enough to bring one home as a bride, I'm afraid. Like my older brother he seems destined for bachelorhood."
"I hope," Melvin said, shaking his head, "that Knight is not still in love with that awful Arabella."
Wendell rubbed his face to hide a smile. Arabella Minton was the local heiress to whom Knight had been unofficially betrothed since childhood. Everyone knew Knight could have done better in his choice of a bride, but he'd never seemed inclined to look. Arabella knew him in all his moods and did not appear to be the type of woman who, as a wife, would make excessive demands.
As it turned out, Arabella no longer appeared to be his type at all. While Knight was risking his life in the Peninsular campaigns, Arabella had shocked her friends and family by marrying a Devon baron and businessman named Anton Rathbone. No one was surprised at her lack of loyalty to her childhood sweetheart. Arabella was not exactly well liked in West Briarcombe. But Anton, in terms of height, was half the man Knight was and sported twice his girth, which left many people scratching their heads in surprise that she had chosen the rotund Rathbone as her husband.
Wendell pulled a straight face, winking at Olivia. "I know for a fact that Knight's feelings for her are dead. Burned to a crisp." He glanced at his friend, his wicked grin creeping back. "Ashes of Arabella."
Olivia hesitated before indulging in an uncharacteristic moment of spite. "The Annoying Arabella."
"Excuse me." His handsome face revealing no emotion whatsoever, Knight plucked the brandy decanter from Wendell's hands before his friend could pour another drink. "It is past midnight, time for all badly behaved dukes to be in bed, and my personal life is not open to discussion."
"It still grieves him to talk of her," Olivia said, giving her brother a sympathetic look.
Melvin grunted. "He's -- "
The sharp report of a pistol outside the house brought an abrupt end to the conversation. Olivia pulled away from the startled squire, her shawl fluttering to the carpet. Wendell rushed up to the window behind Knight and pushed her out of the way, shielding her with his body.
"Now, that," Knight said quietly, "is a very talented badger indeed."
Copyright © 2002 by Maria Hoag