My False Heartby Liz Carlyle
Elliot Armstrong, the dissolute marquis of Rannoch, is inexplicably drawn to a house along an isolated country lane. He dares not reveal his identity for fear of being tossed back out into the rain.See more details below
Elliot Armstrong, the dissolute marquis of Rannoch, is inexplicably drawn to a house along an isolated country lane. He dares not reveal his identity for fear of being tossed back out into the rain.
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My False Heart
By Liz Carlyle
All right reserved.
Chapter OneGive due light to the misled and lonely traveler ... - John Milton
London, May 1819
The splatter of ice-cold champagne hit the marquis of Rannoch full in the face like a blast of well-chilled reality. From his lap, a buxom brunette leapt to her feet with an annoying scream, brushing ineffectually at the rivulets of wine that now marred her pink silk evening dress.
In a dimly lit back room of the Theatre Royal, Antoinette Fontaine stood before the fashionable après-theatre crowd, weaving unsteadily as she raised her empty glass in mock salute to the dark, surly man sprawled with casual arrogance before her. Already, the actress's flaming red hair was tumbling from its elaborate coiffure, while kohl-tinged tears trailed hopelessly down her face.
"Reas - reason and love keep lit - little comp'ny together now'days," she quoted, hopelessly slurring the words as she staggered toward him. In the background, several people tittered discreetly. Heads craned, and quizzing glasses came up to survey the commotion.
"You spiteful bitch!" wailed the brunette, still dabbing at her ruined dress. "Look what you've done to my best gown!"
"Shut up, Lily," growled Rannoch, unfolding his huge body from the chair and rising smoothly to his feet. "I can easily buy you a dozen." Hecrooked his finger at the weaving woman who now stood, her lips a sulky pout, in the center of the room. "To your dressing room, Antoinette. Go! Now."
"Better, my lord, that I sh-should burn in hell," spat the drunken woman through her choking sobs. "I'm done wi'ch you, Elliot, you m-mean-spirited bash - bashtard." As if to make a point, she hurled the wine glass at his skull. Clearly, the alcohol had not greatly impaired the actress's aim. A spray of crystal bounced off the wall just above Rannoch's head.
The ruined dress now quickly forgotten, the brunette screamed again, bolting for cover in a streak of pink silk. Rannoch paid the fleeing woman no heed at all. Easy come, easy go; that was his motto. Another whore - or another mistress, for that matter - was a simple enough thing to find. Elliot Robert Armstrong, fifth marquis of Rannoch, seemed literally to trip over them everywhere he went. Sometimes it was almost tiresome.
With an indifferent shrug at the fleeing Lily, he returned his attentions to his current mistress. "You, Antoinette," he warned silkily, "are not finished with me until I am finished with you."
"Oh, bend over an' bugger yourself, you heartless pig," Antoinette snapped, her eyes narrowed into glittering slits. As if to yank it from her neck in disgust, she twisted one hand into the heavy, ornate necklace that trailed a dozen blood-red rubies around her stark white throat.
"Oh, I strongly recommend you keep that little trinket, my dear," whispered Rannoch. "You may soon have dire need of it."
Releasing the necklace, Antoinette raised a well-manicured finger and struggled mightily to point it in the marquis's direction. "Hah! I can do well enough w'out you, Elliot," she taunted, spitting out the words in a surly tone of drunken bravado tinged with pain. "Plenty of other men w'glad - gladly keep me. An'do a better job, too, if you take my meaning." She gave another little lurch and hitched up the bodice of her disheveled gown.
Rannoch heard soft laughter ripple through the crowd again and felt himself go wild with anger. Forcing his voice to be calm, he wrapped his massive hand hard around her wrist and jerked her roughly toward him. "Then, by all means, Antoinette, have them," he whispered in a menacing tone, "and all at once, if you wish. I hardly think I give a damn."
Suddenly, a muscular, well-dressed gentleman stepped from the shadows. Wondering who had the audacity to trespass in the middle of such personal indignation, Rannoch lifted his eyes to threaten the man back into the crowd.
Major Matthew Winthrop. There was no mistaking his dark hair and military bearing. Rannoch felt himself relax fractionally.
"Rannoch," said Winthrop in a soothing tone, "it would appear that Miss Fontaine is rather overset tonight. Will you give me leave to escort her home? I daresay it would be for the best."
Elliot nodded stiffly and stepped back from Antoinette. "You are very obliging, Winthrop. I should be most grateful. And as to you, Antoinette" - he lowered his voice - "I shall wait upon you tomorrow at five, and we shall resolve this unpleasantness once and for all. Make certain that you are in. Do I make myself plain, woman?"
Antoinette merely shot him a sidelong glower of drunken rage as Winthrop wheeled her about and urged her gently toward the door. With a bitter, gnawing sadness, which Elliot would rather die than confess, he coldly watched them go, listening as the titters and whispers slowly subsided. It was time, he realized as he picked up his glass of whisky from the side table. Time to make a drastic change in his life. A new mistress, certainly, for Antoinette had just become far more trouble than she was worth. Unfortunately, the thought of another Antoinette did little to lift his black mood.
Four days later, the mid-morning sky was already gray and bleak when the marquis set out from London. A wiser man might have heeded the dark, scuttling clouds that were fast sailing in on the heels of a two-day rain. Indeed, Elliot did see them, but in his black, boiling anger he did not care. His disrespectful, ill-tempered, ungovernable mistress had deliberately ignored his orders, and he was nearly blind with unspent rage. Elliot flicked his whip hard against his topboot. A twenty-mile ride in pouring rain might, he wryly considered, cool his still-burning urge to choke every last gasp of breath out of Miss Antoinette Fontaine, who was, he had not been surprised to discover, nothing more than a jumped-up country girl. Annie Tanner, daughter of an innkeeper from Wrotham Ford, Essex.
In any event, the chestnut was a worthy mount, not the most spirited of horses but good and solid, perfect for a long, damp journey. Elliot had every confidence of making excellent time and being back in town before dusk. Shoving his hand deep into the pocket of his greatcoat, he assured himself that the ruby bracelet was still secure. But touching the velvet case reminded him of Antoinette's skin. That bitch! He ought not trouble himself to give her a damn thing after the way she had behaved. How dare the woman challenge him in such a public way! And now to refuse his letters! Indeed, to refuse to so much as open the door to admit his messengers! Why, technically speaking, it was his damn door. Rannoch money had paid for it, and very nearly everything inside as well. Elliot decided that he ought to have the bloody thing knocked in with a sledgehammer.
But Antoinette was not inside. He knew that now. She had not been seen in town for three days and had missed her last two rehearsals at the Theatre Royal. No doubt about it, the woman had turned tail and run home to wait out Elliot's temper. Well, this time the mercurial actress had pushed him too far. This time it was over, and he would find her and tell her so.
A proverbial ill wind was whipping up from the east by the time Elliot managed to locate the crossroads that led to Wrotham Ford. Unfortunately, the adjacent road marker had been the recent victim of what looked to be a nasty encounter with a hay-laden tumbril and now lay almost flat on the ground, protruding crookedly from the mound of loosened earth at its base. Scattered about in the muddy roadway lay the damning evidence. Tufts of hay had blown hither and yon, some to be ensnared in the adjacent hedgerow but most to be ground beneath hooves and wheels into the two days' accumulation of mud that seemed to constitute the only road to Wrotham Ford.
With a hiss of aggravation, Elliot dismounted from the chestnut. As he swung his right leg down, however, the old wound in his hip cramped violently, aggravated by the pervasive damp. Rubbing his buttock, Elliot hobbled to the signpost, which lay on the far side of a long, nasty puddle. Stepping impatiently across it, Elliot watched in increasing frustration as both his glossy topboots became splattered with mud and worse. Damn, Kemble would go off on a pout over this. But there was no help for it. In disgust, Elliot pinched one wing of the signpost between the thumb and forefinger of his snug calfskin glove and lifted it carefully from the mire.
London. No. He twisted the post. Wanstead. No. Tottenham. Hardly. With another hiss, Elliot scraped a dollop of mud from the wing that pointed in the direction opposite London. Wrotham something. Yes, that would be it. Due north of London. Good Lord, but his arse hurt, an eternal reminder of Jeanette, whose husband had had such poor aim. Oh, yes! There was yet another selfish bitch who had brought him more pain than pleasure. Elliot hurled the signpost back to the ground with such a force that the barely buried end popped up out of its loosened base, flicking him head to toe with chunks of moist, soft dirt. Elliot hissed for the third time in as many minutes, limped back to his mount, and threw himself wearily into the saddle.
And then the deluge of rain began.
Two hours later, the marquis of Rannoch was well and truly lost in the countryside of rural England, or someplace that certainly seemed to him like the wilds of a distant, godforsaken land. Elliot, who hated to venture beyond London, rarely even bothered to visit his Scottish earldom. He certainly had no further interest in plodding through the remaining hills and vales of lower Essex. Yet here he was, plodding indeed, for since leaving Wrotham crossroads, he'd had the misfortune of seeing only one wide spot in the road, and the crumbling church, narrow pub, and half-dozen ancient houses could hardly have been termed a village. Even that meager spot was now long gone in his wake. Certainly, it had contained nothing that might have been mistaken for the inn owned by Antoinette's family, where he strongly suspected she would be found.
Elliot was cold, wet, hungry, and splattered with mud. It was time, he realized with a resigned sigh, to ask for directions. But where? Should he turn back two miles to the tiny pub? Suddenly, as if conjured up by fate, a well-lit house appeared around the next bend, some fifty yards from the main road.
Elliot stared through the mist at the tempting sight. A neatly kept drive swept up through informal gardens filled with spring flowers, then made an elegant circle in front of the wide, welcoming entrance. The house was far larger than almost any he'd seen since leaving London. But it was not grand. No, not grand. Pretty. Peaceful. Even elegant, perhaps, despite its hodgepodge exterior of sandstone and brick. The oddly pitched roof lines lay at a variety of angles, as if the original manor house had been frequently expanded down through the ages. The obviously ancient north end, primarily stone, was little more than a squat, four-story tower snaked with ivy. The main house consisted of three stories with a sweep of windows, at least six on each level. Toward the rear, Elliot could barely see a row of half-timbered cottages and a moderate carriage house. Beyond that, he saw nothing, though his sense of direction told him that he must be near the River Lea.
The rain still drizzled, bringing with it the warning of a premature dusk. In the house before him, Elliot could see that a soft, welcoming light already shone in almost every downstairs window. The warmth tugged at him, drew him nearer, and Elliot impulsively wanted to wade through the swirling mist, peer through the windows, and see what the people inside were doing. No, no. He wanted to hurry back to Richmond, light all his windows, and rush outside to see if the effort had any warming effect on his home.
But it would not. Elliot knew that much for certain. With a soft flick of his whip, Elliot urged the chestnut up the drive, dismounted, and bounded up the two steps to the threshold of the charming house. His fatigue lifting, Elliot no longer noticed that his boots made a moist, squishing sound when he walked, or that his coat was filthy, his gloves muddied.
Following his brisk knock, the door swung wide open into a warm, lavishly carpeted hallway filled with good smells and cheerful sounds. No less than three arrangements of fresh flowers sat stationed about the hall. Laughter and music rang through the corridors. A house party, perhaps? Elliot turned his attention to the plump, pleasant-looking woman whose black bombazine and starched linen made plain her status as housekeeper. A shiny ring of keys hung from her waist, jingling delightfully as she stood smiling on the threshold, anxiously beckoning him inside.
"Oh, bless me, sir! Here ye be at last, and what with Bolton already givin' up on your ever coming!" Elliot merely stared at the cheerful woman, who immediately seized his hat and whip. "Now, give me your gloves, sir. Ah, bad luck in the mud, I see." She dangled the thumb of his glove between two pudgy fingers. "Indeed, what a foul, foul day! I do declare, you've had a nasty trip up from London, have ye not? Let's fetch you a nice dish o' tea. Miss will insist upon it, to be sure."
From the far reaches of the hall, the smell of cooked apples and warm cinnamon wafted out. In the back of the house, a maid scurried across the corridor with a well-laden tray, two fat tabbies trotting expectantly behind. This house, tucked into the middle of nowhere, looked, felt, and even smelled like a home should. Someone else's home, of course, since Elliot had never known such a place in his life. But this house was nonetheless tempting, for it seemed at once vaguely familiar and oddly foreign.
"Coat!" demanded the plump woman with brisk cheer, and Elliot snapped to attention, looking at the housekeeper in mute amazement as he obediently handed her his greatcoat. Surely he was not invited to stay? Reluctant to say anything that might break the strange spell, Elliot looked anxiously about the inviting home, feeling as if he'd somehow been transported into a cozy fantasyland of warmth and laughter. From deep inside the house, a pianoforte tinkled, then burst into a strange, rousing tune which Elliot couldn't have named if someone had held a gun to his head. A fit of feminine giggles burst forth.
"A waltz! I want a waltz!" insisted a youthful male voice, and the laughter burst forth again. "Who shall be my partner?" The females merely tittered.
"Fritz!" cried a laughing girl. "What's become of Fritz? Surely he will give you a dance!"
At last, Elliot managed to stammer, "My good woman, who - whose house is this?"
The plump housekeeper paused, his sundry items of dripping apparel in hand, and blinked at him oddly for a long moment. "Hmm ... why, it queers me to guess, sir!"
"You - you do not know, either?" Elliot was feeling seriously confused. But in an exceedingly warm and pleasant way.
The housekeeper pursed her lips as if in deep thought. "Well, I should venture to say that, technically speaking, 'tis prob'ly Mr. Michael's house."
The housekeeper shot him a sideways glance laced with amiable warning. "Aye, but it's Miss Stone who be in charge here, and no mistake! Now, let's get you out o'those wet boots and into the studio before she has a fit. You know what artists are like! Though, in truth, Miss Stone's really as much an angel as her name implies."
"Stone?" asked Elliot, a quizzical smile beginning to tug at his lips. The name certainly did not sound celestial.
The housekeeper's brow furrowed. "Oh, no! No, indeed! Evangeline! But, no ... you probably came looking for someone else entirely, did ye not?" Her eyes narrowed shrewdly even as she beamed at him.
Elliot nodded, trying to hide his disappointment at being found out. "Yes, I did. I was wondering when you might realize it."
The housekeeper nodded sagely. "Aye, happens here often enough. Like as not, you expected to find some stuffy gentleman named Edmund or Edgar van Artevalde, did ye not? Well, you're in for a pleasant surprise, indeed."
Elliot was on the verge of admitting that he'd had nothing but a series of pleasant surprises these last two minutes and that he hadn't a clue as to who Mr. van Artevalde might be, but the housekeeper was motioning impatiently for his boots again. "Er - no, ma'am," Elliot averred. "I daresay I ought to keep my boots -"
Excerpted from My False Heart by Liz Carlyle Copyright © 1999 by S.T. Woodhouse. Excerpted by permission.
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