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April 1816 Penleven Castle, Cornwall
'She said what ?' The Duke of Penborne's shout echoed around the antechamber and Leonard Lindsay stepped back.
'Caroline Anstretton said that she had once been intimate with you. She did qualify that it was no longer the case, but her tone of voice was such that most people present guessed that she still harbored at least some affection.'
Hearing the words a second time made little difference to the scale of Thornton's anger and, making an effort to temper it, he tried again. This was hardly his cousin's fault, after all, and he was long past the stage of caring enough to shoot the messenger when the news was bad.
'You are telling me this woman said that I was her lover?'
'Is she simple?'
'She definitely does not give that impression.'
'Ugly, then?' He hated to even utter the question given the state of his own face, but he had to know what he was up against.
'She is one of the most beautiful women to have ever graced London. I have heard that said time and time again since she arrived here and I would guess that, even given the enormity of her confession, she would have a hundred takers for her favors were they given half the chance.'
'The chance to get close to her. Whether anyone is enjoying her favors already is anyone's guess, for she is somewhat experienced in her pursuit of men.' His voice lowered as he continued in the fashion of one who would hate to be thought of as a gossip, but who, in fact, relished the scandal and prattle of society. 'It is said that she was married briefly to a French general.'
'A busy woman, then.' Thornton's irony waslost on his cousin and, smiling, he brought one hand up across his cheek, the scarred ridge of raised flesh rough against his fingers. Cannon fire had a way of making certain that you never forgot its power, and even two years after the church had been blown up in his face he could still smell the singe of burning flesh, still feel the agony of his melting skin and the blackened weeks of delirium that had followed.
Five months of fighting his way back out of hell. And then a further seven months of seeing that hell reflected in the mirror every time he looked at himself while convalescing in L'Hôpital des Anges in the south-west of France.
He grimaced. He had never been a vain man, but he was not ready to return to society and to all that it entailed.
Closing his eyes against the thought, he moved towards the window, liking the sound of the wild sea echoing beneath the ramparts of Penleven Castle.
A place where he could hide and lick his wounds and regroup. He had not left it for close on twelve months now, ignoring the whispered rumors that swirled around his name.
Reclusive. Damaged. Solitary.
And now to be thrust back into society because some feather-brained woman had decided to lie about her sexual favors and others had decided to listen ?
Caroline Anstretton. Her face was not difficult for him to imagine. She would have alabaster pale skin and eyes that were threaded in pity.
He had come home for peace and quiet and solitude. And to hide.
There. He admitted it to himself as the fragile first beams of spring sunshine slanted across the skin on his left hand. Spring. A new beginning, and all he could feel was the bone-cold chill of winter and the stripped bareness of scars opaque against the slight warmth of sun.
Leonard moved uneasily behind him. Reaching out for the brandy, Thornton imagined, and topping up on courage. His cousin's complexion looked more sallow each time he had seen him of late and he wondered if he was ailing. Perhaps Penleven brought out the worst in him with the lost possibility of any inheritance. He had, after all, been the custodian of the castle for five years when military duty had kept him in Europe. Thorn wondered how he would have felt had the situation been reversed and decided that Leonard's melancholy was probably wholly understandable, for a family stipend of limited means and the necessity to be beholden to the wealthier members of the family could hardly be easy.
With measured care he stood, a cane taking the weight from his left leg.
'I am certain that this whole ridiculous accusation will blow over before the week's end and those who have deigned to take notice of such nonsense will have moved on to the next scandal.' He heard the irritation in his voice and tried to temper it as his cousin looked up.
'If it were not for Excelsior Beaufort-Hughes, indeed it might well do so.'
'It seems that he almost won the girl's hand in a game of whist and has been complaining loudly about the fact that a duke of the realm should be openly consorting with a young lady of such dubiousness in the first place.'
'A young lady?'
'I would put her at no more than twenty.'
'And her family? Where are they?'
'She has a brother. And his reputation is as disrepu-table as hers. He's a card player.'
A gambler and a liar!
For just a moment he was curious, an emotion that he had not felt in years, and he savored the tiny echo of it. Anything was better than the dulling ennui he had been plagued with of late.
But why would the girl lie?
Because she did not expect him to come and refute any untruth. The answer came easily.
'You could return with me, Thornton, to sort the whole thing out. Not good for the Lindsay name, you understand, just to leave it as it is.'
Thornton forced back mirth. The Lindsay name? Lord, if Leonard knew even a half of the things he had done on the continent under the sanctity of country and crown
He flexed the fingers on his right hand and then drew them back into a fist as he mulled over his cousin's ludicrous notions of manners and protocol. Vague social niceties defining lives lost in far-off lands.
His life. By degrees.
Of a sudden he was unreasonably tired by the Anstretton girl's nonsense and by his cousin's interpretation of a stain on the name of Lindsay. And to be dragged up to London for such a flimsy reason made everything doubly worse.
And yet, running his fingers across the ache in his thigh, there was something about this whole débâcle that he found stimulating. A beautiful woman who would lie in front of an assembly of people and expect no redress? A woman with a penchant for theatrics and a family more unusual than his own? Interest blossomed. What possible circumstances could have brought her to this pass?
The spy in him was not so easily dismissed, after all, and the puzzle of Caroline Anstretton beckoned with a jarring unrightness.
No more than twenty and ruined.
And desperate. He wondered where that thought had come from even as he imagined the personal effort required for a stay in London. Lord, the memory of the last time he had ventured up to the city was still raw in his mind. The stares and the sympathy, the artfully disguised condolences of those who had known him before his accident and the hypocrisy of whispered truths as he passed them by. 'He used to be He once was I remember when '
One week, he told himself even against his better judgement.
One week in the city and then he would return home.
She should not have said it.
Should not have dragged the name of a man lauded for his very solitude into the sticky equation of survival.
But she had had no option.
The Earl of Marling, Excelsior Beaufort-Hughes, was as old as he was obnoxious, and, as she had held the lace hanky to her nose, she had said it. To everyone at the house party of Lady Belinda Forsythe.
'Thornton Lindsay, the Duke of Penborne, was my lover once and after him there is no way on earth that I could ever deign to sleep with you.'
Caroline still remembered the silence after her utterance, the shocked gasp of her audience and the hatred of her aged would-be suitor as he thrust her brother's gambling chit forward and again demanded redress.
Redress in the form of Caroline's body.
It was the lateness of the hour that had saved them as those full in their cups had drifted off to the next social engagement, leaving Thomas and her to sort out the whole sorry affair.
Sorted! Lord. That had been over a week ago and now the Duke of Penborne was due at the Wilfreds' ball at any moment. Her heart began to hammer. As the most famous recluse of his time he could hardly be overjoyed by her false proclamation. Lady Dorothy Hayes, an elderly woman of some notoriety, was standing next to her and spoke the words she was sure everyone else in the room was thinking.
'Lindsay has barely left Cornwall since returning wounded from the Continent. He was a captain in the army under Wellington, you understand.'She paused for effect before continuing. 'An intelligence officer, if the rumors are to be believed, and there are many who say he lost his heart in the role. The Heartless Duke: a man with neither the inclination nor the desire to keep company with others.'
Sweat pooled in the hollow between Caroline's breasts as the buzz of conversation became louder. She had never enjoyed the good will of the society doyennes since arriving in London; solid women with the weight of manners and propriety on their shoulders and with husbands who wielded influence in court. And yet, conversely, she had never been quite as isolated as she found herself now. A self-confessed harlot and one abided only because of the intrigue of scandal. She stood now in the shadows of a netherworld, a darker corner of society where card sharks and pimps lingered around the bright glitter of respectability, garnering the crumbs of small outcries and using them to their own advantage.
A fallen woman.
Shoved away from properness by circumstance. She shook away introspection and thought she might be ill as the line of people parted and a tall figure with his cloak collar raised high around his face limped forward. It should take Lindsay about six seconds to name her a liar for the gathering silence all around was more telling than any whispered gossip.
She could barely see his face between the folds of material and his arm weighed heavily on an ebony cane as he came to her side. Pushing back the cloth, he ignored the collective gasp of shock, indifference in his gait as he made an easy bow in front of her. His left cheek was crossed with raised scars and he wore a leather patch on the eye above. The buttons on his jacket caught the light from the candelabra above and sent a blade of lustre across the floor, its edges stained in rainbow.
'I have it on good authority that you are Caroline Anstretton?' A sharp hint of question filled his words and when she met his glance she almost recoiled, one dark gold eye imprinted with such startling and brittle indifference. 'And I understand that you and I share a history.'
His gaze moved across her in a desultory fashion, taking in the over-made face, she guessed, before his glance fell to her hands. She stopped wringing her kerchief immediately and tried to salvage the situation.
'You may not remember me?' The sound of pleading made her voice high and wobbly so she tried again, taking no notice of the titter of the women around her. 'Of course you must be extremely busy '
'I doubt, madam, that I would ever forget you.' With his glance running suggestively over her body, Caroline batted her eyelashes and dredged up the last of her acting skills. 'I can see that you fun with me, Your Grace.'
Her teeth worried her upper lip now in sheer desperation and she was pleased for the length of the wig she wore, its bundling red curls hiding a growing shame.
Anything to shelter behind. This whole charade was a lot harder to perform in front of a man whose face espoused a keen intelligence and a hint of some other emotion she could not quite fathom. Her heart began to pound as the voices around her became louder and people moved back. Please help me, God, she thought to herself and took a deep breath of air. Help me, help me, help me.
Unexpectedly his one visible eye caught hers, sharp irritation overlaid by perplexity.
'Was I a good lover?'
The question was said in the tone of one who did not give a damn for the reply and in that second Caroline understood two things: he had absolutely no care for what society thought of him and he was far more dangerous than any man she had ever met.
Her bravado faltered, Excelsior Beaufort-Hughes's toothless grin suddenly less frightening than the steely stare of the man opposite her.
She felt strange, dislocated and uncertain. What manner of man would leave himself so open to insult and be amused by it?
Slowly she rallied. All of London knew her to be the fallen and discarded mistress of the Duke of Penborne. And worse. But this war-weary soldier-Duke had a home here. A place. And with the scars of battle drawn upon him, she knew without a doubt that he must have suffered.
'You were the most competent lover I have ever had the pleasure of being with.'She said the words carefully, so that even those far from them could, in the silence, hear the statement.
And for the first time she saw a glimmer of amusement. 'How old are you?'
The question was unexpected.
'Old enough to know, then, that she who plays carelessly with fire must expect to be burned by it.'