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A lady should never make promises to a gentleman without the consent of a guardian. It will only lead to a most compromising situation.
How To Avoid a Scandal, Author Unknown
The Linford country estate, after midnight
The sharp crack of thunder startled Lady Victoria Jane Emerson from slumber. Her eyes fluttered open. Rain drummed against the large, latticed windows, echoing in the quiet darkness of a room she did not recognize.
She groaned. She was at the estate.
Oh, how she wished her father would let them stay in London. Although she had a genuine fondness for Bath itself, she loathed every inch of their one-hundred-and-thirty-year-old estate. It was a breathing cemeteryand more than enough Linfords had died in it throughout the decades to warrant that thought. In fact, the neighboring hillside beyond the main road was littered with gravestones and crypts of both the esteemed and the blackest of black Linfords. That same hill also harbored her mother, dead now four years past, and her twin brother, dead now almost two years past.
Lightning streaked the night sky, illuminating the massive hearth opposite her bed in a momentary flash of brilliant white. Victoria sank deeper into the warmth of the coverlet and scooted closer toward her dog, formerly her brother's. But instead of her fingers grazing soft, warm fur, there was nothing but cool linen.
She patted the empty space beside her.
"Flint?" She sat up and threw aside the coverlet. Thunder rumbled, punctuating the horrible realization that he was not amongst the linens.
"Flint?" She scrambled off the bed, noticing the door was slightly ajar. Faint candlelight peeked through the open crevice.
Not again. Whoever would have thought a short-legged terrier could get around so much? She hurried across the room, her nightdress flapping around her, and pulled the door farther open. She edged out into the passageway. The candles in the nearby candelabra were waning, spreading marred shadows across hanging portraits of relatives long gone.
Dread crept up her spine. It was so late, she doubted if any of the servants would be up to assist. Of course, if Flint started barking, everyone, including all twenty of their house guests, would be up in a blink. Then her father would deliver yet another stern lecture about the annoyance of keeping a mongrel who couldn't even be used for a fox hunt.
"Flint," she hissed out into the darkness. "Flint!"
There was no answer. Which meant he wasn't within hearing distance.
Drat him. She huffed out a breath, not wanting to leave her bedchamber, but knew a promise to her brother was a promise. During his last days, Victor had repeatedly insisted she watch over Flint and keep the blighter from harm. Mostly because Flint was a very stupid dog, notorious for chewing everything, and if not properly supervised, he would most likely die. The dim-witted creature was probably ripping something apart at this very moment. Perhaps even her great-grandmama's tablecloth in the blue drawing room. The one he'd been clamoring to
She paused, her eyes widening. Oh, no. Her father would have him sent to the taxidermist within the week!
Victoria sprinted to her right and down the corridor, her wool stockings sliding several times against the smooth marble beneath her feet. Skidding, she caught herself against the nearest wall, rounded the dark corner and smacked straight into a massive body.
She screeched as large, bare hands steadied her by grabbing hold of her shoulders. The earthy scent of allspice lulled her senses. She blinked and gawked straight at the expanse of a linen shirt hanging open, revealing a lean, muscled chest with curling black hairs. She scrambled out of his grasp, well aware who she'd find towering before her: Viscount Remington.
"Either I'm too tall for you, Victoria dearest, or you're too short for me. Which do you suppose it is?" He braced an arm against the wall beside them, preventing her passage, and leaned toward her, the tips of his slightly overgrown black hair sweeping into enchanting blue eyes.
The casual repositioning of his body caused his already unfastened shirt to gape open further, revealing not only his muscled chest, but also a portion of his lean stomach.
Victoria pressed her lips together, knowing she shouldn't judge him, considering she herself was in a state of undress, coiffed in a single braid and garbed in a ruffled nightdress without a robe. It wasn't the least bit respectable to remain in his presence, but the sparse light from the candles shifting across those handsome features whispered for her to stay.
She had always liked Remington. More than liked him, actually. He knew how to make her feel happy. Even when she wasn't feeling particularly so.
He grinned, a dimple appearing on his shaven left cheek. "I must still be sleeping. I was just thinking about you. And now here you are."
She refrained from snorting. "Considering how many female guests have been shamelessly fawning over you ever since you stepped into this house, I doubt you've really had time to think at all."
He chuckled. "Jealous, I see."
"Jealous? Oh, no. I was only jealous of the Parisian fashions they all wore."
He feigned a wince. "You belong in a garden with the rest of the statues made of stone."
She grinned. "Maybe I do. So. Did you enjoy your stay here with me and Papa?"
He sighed and eyed her. "No. Not really. I kept hoping for more time with you, but that annoying governess of yours was forever getting in the way. Do you know that I gave that woman a respectable missive to pass along to you this morn, and she up and ripped it in half, claiming you were already spoken for by some Lord Moreland? Grayson denies it, but I won't know peace until I hear it from you. Who is this Moreland and how long have you known him?"
She cringed and shook her head. "Lord Moreland is a family friend. Nothing more. Mrs. Lambert was merely being protective, as always. She has very lofty expectations for me. So lofty, in fact, that she claims I have no reason to settle for anything less than a duke.
Since every duke I've ever met is over fifty, I dare say I may never marry at all."
Amused blue eyes searched her face. "We most certainly cannot have that. Would you be willing to settle for a mere viscount instead? I am worth two thousand a year, have an estate in West Sussex and am available for matrimony whenever you are."
A more blatant display of flirtation she'd never endured. Whilst she secretly relished the banter they always shared, for he was dashing and divine, she knew the games men played. He wouldn't be the first man to flatter her for the sake of progressing his own interests. Nor the last.
She gestured toward his bared chest. "I confess I could never wed a man who wanders about my home with his shirt slung open like a pirate. I beg your forgiveness, Captain Blue Eyes, but we are not at sea, and I am not your mermaid."
He pushed away from the wall and straightened to his full height of six feet, towering impressively over her measly five. Pulling his shirt closed with one hand, he eyed her as if genuinely offended. "I happen to be the greatest gentleman you will ever have the pleasure of knowing."
Why did all men seem to think women were witless? She rolled her eyes. "If you will excuse me, I have far more important matters to tend to."
"Oh, is that so?" He scooted closer, the heat of his skin scandalously drifting toward her. "I hope you weren't heading into the kitchen to swipe any of Mrs. Davidson's Banbury cakes, because I just came from there and I've already finished every last crumb." She giggled. "What is it with you and Banbury cakes?"
He shrugged. "As you know, I leave for Venice on the morrow, and from what I am told, there won't be anything to eat but citrus, soup and macaroni. So I have been indulging more than usual." He quirked a dark brow. "Why are you wandering about? Hmm? Should I be concerned?"
Victoria stepped back and primly set her chin, trying to demonstrate that although she was in a nightdress, she was still very respectable. "I was merely looking for my dog. Flint."
"Ah. Your dog." His long fingers fastened the lone ivory button below his throat. "Well, Captain Blue Eyes is more than willing to assist in any manner you see fit."
"No, that won't be necessary. I" Another crack of thunder made Victoria jump, causing her to scramble toward him. She inhaled a deep, steadying breath, and eyed the darkness around them. "It is unnervingly dark, my lord. And with you being the graybeard, I humbly ask you to lead the way."
"Graybeard?" He chortled. "Since when? Now cease this my lord nonsense and call me Remington. We know each other well enough."
Mrs. Lambert had warned her about this. How men tried to lower all the barriers of civility before physically pouncing. Victoria shoved her blond braid over her shoulder, wishing she hadn't left her nightcap in the bedchamber. "I prefer to keep things civil and would appreciate it if you did, too."
"Civil?" He stared at her for a long, pulsing moment. "Are you informing me, Victoria, that there is absolutely nothing more between you and I aside from superficial civility?"
She was not going to play this game at the expense of her own reputation. Despite the fact that she liked him more than she'd ever liked any man, he was going to have to wait in line like the rest of them. "Nothing can exist between us, my lord, until my coming out. Surely, youbeing the greatest gentleman I will ever have the pleasure of knowingcan understand."
He shifted his jaw, still observing her intently, and half nodded. Stepping back and away, he smoothed the front of his shirt, ensuring the open slit was not visible. "I should probably go find that dog of yours," he muttered. "It's not as if I'm going to get any sleep tonight." He turned and strode down the length of the corridor toward the great stairwell leading to the ground level of the home.
Victoria blinked, then glanced down the large corridor. Lurking shadows shifted malevolently toward her, just beyond the reach of candlelight and tall, curtained windows. She swallowed, sensing something lingering, and refrained from shuddering.
She scrambled down the corridor toward the great stairwell, her breaths escaping in uneven pants. Her hand skimmed the length of the wood railing as she descended. She paused on the last stair. Upon hearing Remington's echoing steps, she rounded a darkened corner to her left and bustled after him.
Slowing, she shuffled closely behind his large frame, following him through the library, to the dome room, to the blue drawing room and then to the tapestry room. All the while, they repeatedly whistled and clapped, calling out Flint's name. For some reason, Flint still did not answer, which meant he couldn't be in the house. Stupid though he was, he always answered.
What if one of the servants had let him out and forgot to bring him back in? On a night such as this, he'd either drown or get eaten by a fox. A fox who hadn't feasted in days. Her stomach clenched. What a horrible guardian she was turning out to be. She couldn't even keep her own brother's dog out of harm's way.
Seized with worry, she rushed past Remington, stumbling around furniture, and dashed toward the north entrance hall. Unbolting the oversize oak doors, she flung them open and sprinted out into the night. She darted past the glass lanterns illuminating the vined entryway and past the limestone portico.
She stumbled on the gravel path and winced as rocks bit into her stockinged feet. The weather was unseasonably cold, and a lashing gust of freezing wind and heavy rain assaulted her as she squinted to see beyond the blinding darkness before her. She wandered farther out into the vast lawn beyond the carriage pathway, the rain drenching her nightdress, face and hair within moments.
"Flint!" she shouted above the whirling wind as a torrent of rain continued to whip at her, pricking her skin like the tips of needles. "Flint! Where"
She froze, sucking in an astonished breath as her feet sank deep into thick, icy mud, suctioning her to the ground. Her night simply couldn't get any worse, could it?
"Victoria!" A reprimanding male voice caused her to jump. "What the devil are you doing?"
Then again, maybe it could.
Victoria jerked toward Remington, the lanterns beyond dimly outlining his tall, lean frame in the descending torrent of rain. His dark, wet hair was plastered to his forehead and neck, whilst that billowy linen shirt of his was no longer billowy. It had turned sheer and clung to his lean, muscled arms and wide chest.