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The Honourable Mrs Miranda Braxton considered the visitor's view of Wychwood Court, and found it even more imposing than she remembered. Through a veil of drizzle, the golden stones of the great Tudor mansion looked warm and welcoming after her five-year exile and she shifted in her seat to peer at it even more intently. It was impossible not to think of the folly of youth as she recalled how blithely she had left all this for the mirage Nevin Braxton had proved to be.
All she needed to do this time was hold on to her composure and keep out of the way of Aunt Clarissa and her Cousin Celia for the week she would be permitted to stay. Why Grandfather had decreed her attendance at the final reading of his will was beyond her, considering he had made it very clear that she would never be allowed to darken his doors again. It wasn't his door any more, so he had cunningly kept to the letter of his decree, she supposed. Yet, considering that his heir was the son of a man Grandfather hated, he must be spinning in his grave at the arrival of so many cuckoos in his precious nest!
Even in north Wales she had heard whispers that the Carnwood heir was doing well for himself in the City. She had permitted herself a secret smile at how poorly that news would go down at Wychwood. Aunt Clarissa would hate the fact that he was tainting the noble Alstone name with so strong a whiff of trade, even if he was rumoured to have grown very rich doing so. Miranda wondered what her aunt thought the family fortunes were founded on, and spared a moment to consider the ridiculous hypocrisy of the higher echelons of polite society.
'Just like his lordship to have his will read all these months after he died. He always was a contrary old curmudgeon,' Leah, Miranda's maid and companion, remarked as the coach began to slow. 'Looks just the same as ever though, doesn't it?' she ended gruffly, and Miranda could see now that Leah had missed this lovely place as much as she had herself.
'Yes, it does.'
'It'll be different inside, I dare say, what with there being a new earl and everything. Lady Clarissa will be in a right tweak about that, just when she'd finally got your grandfather trained, so to speak.'
'I really hope you won't, Leah.'
'Won't what?' her friend asked innocently, for friend she had been since they were children. Never mind the supposed gulf between mistress and maidif not for Leah, where would Miranda be now?
'Speak your mind.'
'And why shouldn't I?'
Leah had long ago decided not to be the sort of maid who was seen and not heard. Miranda reflected that their five years of living in such an unusual household was unlikely to convince her friend to change. 'Because it might help keep the peace,' she replied wearily.
'Hah! Some things aren't worth keeping.'
'Whether or not that's true, this household has naught to do with me nowadays and I'll thank you to remember it,' she insisted.
'It's your home, Miss Miranda.'
'No, it was my home,' she replied calmly enough.
She might have yearned desperately for Wychwood when she found it closed to her for good, but her darling godmother had given her a new home, and one she loved and appreciated. At Nightingale House she had learnt much she would never have found out as the pampered granddaughter of an earl, yet she had to admit to herself that Wychwood Court would always be something more to her than a grand manor. If she was given to extravagant flights of fancy, she would call it the home of her heart, and it was as closed to her now as it had been five years ago.
'His lordship should never have sent you away,' Leah grumbled on.
'No, he was quite right to do so. He had more important things to consider than a wayward young idiot with more hair than sense.'
'Nothing should have been more important to him than his own flesh and blood.'
'Precisely,' Miranda returned smartly, as the hired carriage drew up at the front door of her old home.
As the steps were lowered and she stepped down on to the gravel, she hoped the two very good reasons for her five-year exile were safely ensconced at their select seminary in Bath and that nobody had insisted on them being present at such a sad and solemn occasion.
'It would not have been suitable for me to come home, Leah,' she said quietly. 'I have two little sisters who would have been tainted by association, and you know very well I am happy with Lady Rhys.'
'You haven't been that since the day you left,' Leah replied with a mulish expression that warned Miranda there was very little point arguing. But Miranda was more convinced than ever that Grandfather had been right to make her stay away, lest her example continuously remind everyone just what Alstone girls were capable of.
Even so, she felt the tears she had promised herself not to shed threaten as she looked up to survey her old home, and met the coldest and most cynical pair of brown eyes she had ever had the misfortune to encounter instead. Her latest detractor had been standing so still she had not noticed him, until his stony gaze fell on her and revealed his contempt. She didn't know what she had done to offend him. Still, he looked like just the sort of enemy she would have travelled far to avoid, she decided, with a shudder that she sincerely hoped he was too far away to notice.
Far too optimistic a notion! His sharp stare seemed to bore through her across the famous entrance to her one-time home. Yet even knowing that she was staring could not make her remember she was a lady and look away. No need to worry about that anyway, when the wretched man's hostile gaze met hers with no concession to good manners. She contrarily felt as if a series of little fires had spontaneously taken hold at every nerve end.
He looked like every girl's dream and their chaperons' worst nightmare. Even the blue coat, fawn breeches and top-boots of a country gentleman did nothing to detract from the danger signalled by his sardonic mouth and fathomless dark eyes. Add in curling dark hair as black as a raven's wing and it was little wonder she had been momentarily dazed, she told herself.
She could envision him on the quarterdeck of a privateer, or grimly determined as he charged into battle like a latter-day Achilles, but tamed by velvet and ermine and sitting in the House of Lords? Something told her he would hate such ceremonial splendour. The very thought of it made her smile as she came out of her reverie to greet the latest Earl of Carnwood.
'So the prodigal returns,' he remarked with an smile that did little to soften his stern expression.
He descended the steps with a grace that reminded Miranda of a self-assured predator and one with every confidence in his power over his prey, she decided as she forced herself to stand her ground. The new earl had long legs and a leanly muscular build that would no doubt be a match for any athlete. There was something wholly untamed about him. Once upon a time his feral assurance and hunter's eyes would have drawn her to him like a moth to a flame. Every inch of him was a challenge to any female in possession of her senses, and the rebellious, headstrong Miranda Alstone she had thought long dead was urgently reminding her she still had a full set of those.
'Sir?' she said stiffly, cross with him for scouting her delusion that she was in full control of both mind and body nowadays.
'Madam?' he replied blandly, offering no excuse for his intent summary of her face and person, just as if she was the next item on his bill of fare and he wasn't quite sure if he was too fastidious to gobble her up or not.
Suppressing a shiver that should have been one of revulsion, but fell loweringly short, she assured herself that she had the right to expect better from the man who was now head of her family. Eyeing him warily as he stepped down to her, she concluded there was very little point in trying to shame him into politeness. If the mix of hunger and fury in his dark eyes was anything to go by, he certainly hadn't much intention of acting the gracious host towards his latest guest and she might as well resign herself to a very uncomfortable week.
'We have not been introduced,' she said, unusually flustered as she took an involuntary step backwards.
He frowned impatiently at such an irrelevance. As the new earl and therefore her little sisters' guardian, he had good reason to be wary of her. In fact, rumour must have told him far too much about the stormy petrel come to pollute the family nest for her to feel at all comfortable in his company. She supposed he almost had a duty to dislike her visit. After all, Grandfather had refused to receive her and, once upon a time, he had loved her.
'Since you show no signs of remedying the situation, I take it you must be the Seventh Earl of Carnwood?' Miranda said quietly as they stood and sized each other up like adversaries before a battle.
'Indeed, and it's always a pleasure to acquire such a beautiful relative, Mrs Braxton,' he replied with a wolfish smile.
'Is it, indeed? What a delight to welcome such a flatterer to the family, my lord,' she replied, having no intention of being 'acquired' whatsoever.
She ought to be used to the scurrilous opinion so-called gentlemen seemed to have of her morals and instincts by now, but somehow his failure to see past the obvious was more of a betrayal than all the others put together. Which really was quite ridiculous; she had only just met him and after this week they would never meet again, with any luck at all. Straightening her spine and raising her chin in defiance of him, and her shady reputation, she stood back a little to look directly into those impudent, angry eyes and defy his ridiculous prejudices.
'I make a point of telling the truth when circumstances allow, madam,' he informed her smoothly enough, the sardonic glint in his dark eyes informing her that he considered she wouldn't recognise honesty if it slapped her.
Blazing defiance of whatever judgements he had formed out of gossip and misanthropy back at him, she let her generous mouth curl in a very slight sneer and gave him one of her best downing looks. She had learnt a battery of them over the years. Malicious tongues hounded her even in the remote Welsh valley where her godmother lived. Relentless gossip had led far too many apparent gentlemen to try their luck with a female with such a shady past, but rebuffing them in no uncertain terms had been child's play compared to outfacing this wolf in wolf's clothing.
'You must have a goodly supply of enemies, Lord Carnwood,' she parried calmly enough. 'Few people relish hearing the unvarnished facts about themselves, being such erring creatures as we are. Pray, how do you tell truth from lies?' she went on with spurious innocence.
'By uncovering more accurate information,' he returned without a blink and she frowned at the implication that he knew more about her than the malice and rumour that usually passed as knowledge.
Unease gnawed at her hard-won assurance as she considered parts of her past even she could not fully recall. Nobody but Nevin Braxton had known all the sordid details of their life together, and at least he was beyond telling anyone of them now. No, his lordship had better look elsewhere for his sport; she had no intention of escaping one petty tyrant to replace him with a worse one. Even the fact that he had provoked memories of that time in her life was quite sufficient to make her hate him, thank you very much!
'That is sometimes a next-door-to-impossible task,' she challenged his boast confidently enough.
'I usually find a way,' he told her, and it sounded halfway between a threat and a promise.
'Then the moment I feel the need to have my prejudices confirmed, I shall come to you for advice, my lord. For now, though, the wind is getting up and we have had a long journey. I fear that Leah and I will catch an ague if we stand here for much longer like exhibits at a fair.'
'How remiss of me, you must make allowances for my ignorance of polite society.'
'To do that I would have to believe it ignorance and not disregard, my lord.'
'Would you, Mrs Braxton? How singular of you,' he parried swiftly, and if she had been in the slightest bit inclined to underestimate her foe she would have considered herself fairly warned by such an effortless counter-attack.
Trying to find a bright side to a very large thundercloud, she decided that, while she might deplore his manners and despise his prejudice, he would make a fierce protector to any lucky soul he considered worth protecting. Hopefully her little sisters would be among that number and nobody would ever have the chance to lure them into the sort of ridiculous follies she had so unthinkingly committed herself.
Something young and silly in her yearned to be one of the select band Lord Carnwood cared about, until she looked up and met his flinty scrutiny once more as he marched up the wide steps at her side. Trust him to manage to watch her every step into his lair without tripping over his own feet, she mused with savagely controlled composure. Stiffening her backbone, she forced herself to casually glance away as if his fierce gaze meant nothing to her.
Getting to the top of the steps without falling flat on her face would be defence enough for now and, once she had rested and washed off the travel stains, she would counterattack so strongly he would leave her be for the rest of her stay. Well, she silently amended as they at last reached the wide front door, since she was to be a guest under his roof she could hope he could tell from her chilly manner that she was not interested in rogues of any variety. She had taken her fill of them at a very early age and, be they weak and bullying like Nevin, or strong and arrogant as the new Earl of Carnwood, she wanted no more of them.
'Miranda! You have grown so thin and drawn I hardly recognised you.' A light soprano voice cut through the tense silence between the master of the house and his reluctant guest. Miranda was shocked to find she was rather disappointed to have their hostile téte-à-téte cut short.