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By Stephanie Laurens
Harlequin Enterprises Limited Copyright © 2003 Harlequin Enterprises Limited
All right reserved.
Chapter One "Georgie? Georgie! Open this door! Aw-c'mon, Georgie. Jus' a bit of a kiss an' cuddle. D'you hear me, Georgie? Lemme in!"
Georgiana Hartley sat cross-legged in the middle of her bed, fully clothed, a small, slight figure in the huge four-poster. The flickering light of a single candle gleamed on her guinea-gold curls, still dressed in an elegant knot. Her large hazel eyes, fixed on the door of her chamber, held an expression of annoyance; her soft lips were compressed into a disapproving line. Charles was becoming a definite boor.
It was her seventh night in England, her fourth at the Place, seat of her forefathers and home of her cousin Charles. And it was the third night she had had to seek the safety of her bedchamber at a ridiculously early hour, to avoid Charles's drink-driven importunities.
She had done it again.
Pulling a pillow across her lap, and wrinkling her nose at the musty smell that arose when she settled her elbows on it, Georgiana berated herself, for what was certainly not the first time and would undoutedly not be the last, for her apparently innate impulsiveness. It had been that alone which had driven her to leave the sunny climes of the Italian coast and return to the land of her birth. Still, on her father's death, it had seemed the most sensible course. With a deep sigh she dropped her chin on to her hands, keeping her eyes trained on the door. All was quiet, but she knew Charles was still there, just outside, hoping she might be silly enough to try to slip out.
James Hartley, painter and vivant, had left his only child to the guardianship of his only brother, her uncle Ernest. Uncle Ernest had lived at the Place. Unfortunately, he had died one month before his brother. Georgiana sniffed. Doubtless she should feel something for her uncle, but it was hard to feel grief on the death of someone you had never met-particularly when still coping with a far more shattering loss. And particularly when circumstances had conspired to land her in Charles's lap. For the news of her uncle's death had not reached James Hartley's Italian solicitors in time to stop her instinctive flight from the beauties of Ravello, her home for the last twelve years, now filled with too many painful memories. She had arrived at the Place to find Charles-Uncle Ernest's son, and a stranger to her-in possession.
The solid oak door rattled and jumped in its frame. Georgiana eyed it with increasing concern. The worn lock and the old iron hinges were all that stood between her and her drink-sodden cousin.
"Aw, Georgie, don' be a prude. You'll like't, I promise. Just a bit o' fun." A loud hiccup reached Georgiana's ears. "It's all right. You know I'll marry you. Lemme in and we'll be married tomorrow. You hear me, Georgie? C'mon, Georgie, open this door, I say!"
Georgiana sternly repressed a shiver of pure revulsion. Marry Charles? Feeling panic stir, she determinedly pushed the horrifying thought aside. Now was no time to go to pieces.
The door bounced, reverberating on its hinges as Charles made a determined assault on the thick panels. Georgiana's eyes grew round. As the thumping continued, she scanned the room for some implement, some weapon. But there was nothing, not even a candelabrum. With a grimace of resignation, she returned her gaze to the heavy oak door, philosophically waiting for whatever came next, confident that, one way or another, she would deal with it.
But the door stood firm. With one last defeated thump, Charles stopped his hammering.
"Damn you, Georgie! You won't get away! You can't escape me. You'll see-you'll have to give in, soon or late." A jeering, drunken laugh crept into the room. "You'll see."
Unsteady footsteps retreated down the passage as Charles took himself off to bed, giggling crazily.
Slowly Georgiana raised her brows. She remained perched on the bed, listening. When five minutes had passed with no sound from beyond her door, she hurled aside the pillow and slipped from the bed. A determined frown settled across her heart-shaped face. She fell to pacing the room. Can't escape?
For five minutes she walked the unpolished boards. The wind whistled and moaned, little blasts worming their way through the ill-fitting shutters to send the curtains skittering. Absent-mindedly Georgiana dragged the patched quilt from the bed and flung it about her shoulders. She reviewed her options. There weren't many. She knew no one in England, had no one to turn to. But one thing was certain-she could not stay here. If she did, Charles would force her to marry him-by hook or by crook. She couldn't hide behind locked doors forever.
With the dogged and purposeful air which had carried her across an unstable Continent unharmed, she threw off the quilt and crossed to the wardrobe. Setting the door wide, she struggled to pull her trunk free. Once she got it to the floor, she tugged the cumbersome corded box to the side of the bed. She opened the heavy lid and propped it against the bed.
A scratching at the door startled her.
Slowly Georgiana straightened and eyed the scarred oak panels with misgiving.
The noise came again.
"Miss Georgie? It's me, Cruickshank."
Georgiana let out the breath she had been holding and went to the door. It was a fight to turn the heavy key. After much tugging, the bolt fell back and she eased the heavy door open. "Cruckers! Thank goodness you've come. I was racking my brains to think of how to get hold of you."
Maria Cruickshank, a thin, weedy woman, tall and lanky, with iron-grey hair tightly confined, sniffed loudly. Originally maid to Georgiana's mother, she was the closest thing to a family retainer Georgiana had.
"As if I'd not come running with all that racket. He may be your cousin, but that Charles is no good. I told you so. Now do you believe me?"
Together they pushed the door shut. Cruickshank wrestled the lock home and turned to face the child-cum-lovely young woman she adored. She placed her hands on her hips and frowned grimly. "Now, Miss Georgie, I hope you're convinced. We've got to leave this house. It's no place for the likes of you, what with Master Charles as he is. It's not what your father intended, dear me, no!"
Georgiana smiled and turned back to the bed.
Cruickshank's eyes widened. She drew full breath, girding her loins for battle. Then she saw the trunk. Her breath came out with a soft whistle. "Ah."
Georgiana's smile grew. "Precisely. We're leaving. Come and help."
Cruickshank needed no further urging. Ten minutes later, all of Georgiana's possessions were back in her trunk. While Cruickshank tightened the straps, Georgiana sat on the lid, biting the tip of one rosy finger and plotting her escape.
"Now, Cruckers, there's no point in setting out before dawn, so we may as well get some sleep. I'll stay here, and you go back downstairs and warn Ben. Charles must be dead to the world by now. I'm sure I'll be safe enough."
Excerpted from Impetuous Innocent by Stephanie Laurens Copyright © 2003 by Harlequin Enterprises Limited
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.