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Portrait of a Forbidden Lady
A Those Magnificent Malverns Novel
By Kathleen Bittner Roth, Erin Molta
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2016 Kathleen Bittner Roth
All rights reserved.
Deep in the countryside of Kent, England, 1859
Rob shot a glance over his shoulder at his four male cousins leaning on their shovels and observing the flamboyant procession heading their way. "Bugger me if we aren't about to engage in high tea."
Sir Robert Garreck, knighted by Her Majesty for bravery during the Crimean War, figured he was about to relinquish command of his day to his pip of a grandmother. He grabbed his shirt off a fence post and used it to swipe perspiration off his brow and bare torso.
Mum may as well have been on her way to Buckingham Palace rather than heading for Rob's private drive. Decked out in blue from head to toe, she wore an oversized hat festooned with a large jewel flashing brilliantly in the afternoon sun. Furniture and baskets filled the back of the small wagon transporting her. Another cart carrying properly clad servants brought up the rear.
Lady Rose, another of Rob's eight Malvern cousins, circled Mum's wagon atop a thoroughbred even wilder than she — if a horse could be so wild. As usual, the seventeen-year-old wore male attire whenever she rode — which was inevitably astride.
Damn. Another hour and Rob would've been done with removing the enormous brass horses' arses flanking the entry to his drive. He'd erected the controversial statues a few years earlier as a denigrating salute to his neighboring cousin, Viscount Eastleigh, when the two were at odds. The so-called art mimicked the magnificent brass equines Eastleigh had fashioned for the entry to his drive. It was past time Rob destroyed his mocking beasts. Although he'd be damned if he'd admit it, he had been rather pleased this morning when his cousins had turned up unannounced and, with shovels in hand, pitched in.
Eastleigh snorted. "Mum and her rituals. She wouldn't think of conducting the blasted ceremony alone. Don your shirts, gentlemen."
"Ah, what strapping, hard-working grandsons," Mum called out as her driver halted the wagon in front of them. A footman dressed in full livery helped her from the cart while servants marched forward to lay a Persian carpet smack in the center of the pebbled drive. A wrought iron table and several fanciful chairs came next, followed by a pristine white linen cloth, and a silver candelabrum lacking candles. Fine china and an array of foodstuffs that would impress a monarch topped off the display.
"I thought you might enjoy our company," Mum said. "Especially since Thomas and Sebastian are set to leave for London in the morning." She shot the two men a wicked grin.
Rob hiked a brow. So the youngest of his male cousins — twenty-seven and twenty-five respectively — were off to Town, were they? And their flinty grandmother, with her scandalous past, knew full well what the two miscreants would be up to. He chuckled. "Did you bring along your gin, Mum? I could use a good swallow."
"Tsk, tsk, Robbie. Taking tea without my gin would be like having a bath without water."
He chuckled and headed for the footman who now stood beside a bucket of water with five crisp linen towels draped smartly over one arm. Hands and forearms scrubbed, Rob and his cousins joined Mum seated at the head of the table. One look at the banquet before him and his stomach growled.
Mum proceeded to pour from a tall and slender hammered silver carafe. "Gin or milk, gentlemen?"
"Gin," Rose said.
"Like hell," her brothers snapped in unison.
Rose shrugged and popped a biscuit into her mouth. "One can only hope. Two lumps of sugar, then, Mum."
Mum winked at Rose and dropped in the sugar. Rob would've wagered a few guineas that had Rose's brothers not been present, the girl would've snared herself a good swig.
The men dove into cold roasted chicken, cucumber sandwiches, and thick slices of cheese as if they'd not eaten in days. Rose filled her plate in equal measure.
"Her Majesty would be ashamed of your beastly manners," Mum said.
Rob fought a grin. Some years back, Mum had decided her daughter was the queen, which then made Mum the Queen Mother. No one had challenged her claim. Were they mollifying a woman who'd grown a bit addled in her old age? Was it the amount of spirits she tippled that had her thinking wrong? Or did she play the lot of them like a fine fiddle? Rob suspected a bit of both. At least life was never boring with her around.
Ever since Rob had returned to the fold, Mum had taken to spending nearly as much time in his home as at Eastleigh's and now had a suite of rooms in each place. Not that he minded. Mum roaming about his cavernous abode pricked the cloud of loneliness that hovered over him recently. But how else would he have his life go? After the raucous group he'd run with in London during his youth, and after those hellacious years at war, he had no desire to so much as pass through a crowded city.
Breathing in a lungful of fresh air, he focused on the green rolling hills dotted with sheep and fruit trees, on the colorful spring flowers banking the country lane. Except for those blasted bouts of lonesomeness that seemed to occur more frequently of late, country living as a confirmed bachelor suited him just fine.
With the boisterous high tea completed, the sated group grew quiet as the sun made its slow descent toward the horizon. The changing sky promised a brief but dazzling display of color at day's end. Here was a sight that could make a person more light-headed than any cup of Mum's special brews. The outdoors at dusk, when birds ceased their singing, when rabbits and deer scurried to their nighttime hiding places, seemed holier than the inside of a church to Rob. Even Rose, who usually chattered like a magpie, had mellowed.
A noise like a distant roll of thunder fractured the quietude. Rob cocked an ear. A moment longer and a rumbling of carriages announced their intrusion. Heads turned to the south. Like ants marching to a picnic, a line of black conveyances traveling the long ribbon of road slowly approached.
Foreboding snaked through Rob. "Are you expecting guests, Eastleigh?"
Eastleigh shook his head. "Are any of you?"
The others shook their heads, as well.
"Mother said nothing about expecting company," Eastleigh said. "Surely she would have mentioned guests, given Father's condition."
The group fell silent, waiting for the parade to pass. Rob didn't care much for unannounced visitors traveling the road, no matter that it was a public passageway. Not that they would be headed to his home, since he rarely entertained anyone other than family.
The elegant lead coach pulled by four magnificent black Friesians grew larger as it lumbered toward them. Noisy wheels and rattling tack fractured the quiet country air. Behind the head coach trailed three plain black carriages, most likely filled with servants and luggage. Five outriders brought up the rear.
The hair on the back of Rob's neck stood on end. He swiped at it, as if swatting a fly.
The lead carriage, curtains concealing the occupants, halted on the road in front of Rob's drive. A familiar crest shining red and blue against the glossy black door sent his heart stalling in his chest.
"Bloody hell," Eastleigh muttered.
A curtain covering the window parted, just barely.
His cousins sat in silence, unable or unwilling to speak. Something primordial stirred deep in Rob's belly. How bloody weak of him. Wrestling with an anger that threatened to explode, he stood. Without a word, he turned on his heel and started for his house.
Mum reached out and grabbed his hand, stopping him. He glanced down at her, his teeth grinding together. Her eyes, filled with a clarity and wisdom that told him she was no fool, gripped his soul. "She's come back, Robbie."
* * *
Georgiana Blakeslee, Lady Cressington, eased the curtain aside with her kid-gloved fingers just enough to catch a glimpse of the odd gathering. A picnic in the middle of a lane? Adjacent to a public road? And what were those odd statues on either side of the drive? If she weren't mistaken, they appeared to represent the back ends of horses. A buzz raced along her skin. Those had to be Malverns at play. Who else would conduct themselves so unconventionally? But what in heavens were they doing here when their family seat was still a good ways down the road?
A man abruptly stood, his back to her. She failed to catch a glimpse of his entire countenance, but his physique and bearing alone outlined a formidable presence. It appeared as though he'd meant to walk away but an elderly lady — could the Malverns' eccentric grandmother still be living? — grabbed his arm, halting him. His broad shoulders expanded, as if he'd taken a deep breath. Then he turned and shot a severe glance at the carriage, his full-faced features exposed.
He strode off, shoving his long fingers through his black, collar-length hair as he went. Georgiana knew that habit well — knew how capable those long, supple fingers were. A wild tangle of forbidden emotions closed in on her. Some things the body never forgot. Her heart shifted to her throat, obliterating her ability to breathe. Lord, he was even more magnificent than he'd been at eighteen, when she, at fifteen, had last set eyes on him. He must have recognized the coat of arms. They all had by the way they ogled the coach.
She didn't blame them for openly gawking.
Not after the scandal. Certainly not after what she'd done to Rob.
Her father's rheumy cough rumbled in his chest, interrupting her thoughts. Dropping the curtain, darkness flooded the carriage once again.
"What the blasted hell are you doing sitting in the middle of the road staring out at what — Lord Ardmore's estate?"
"We've still a bit to go before we reach that particular marker, Father."
"Then get on with you, for God's sake. I need to take to my bed."
"Indeed." She tapped the pointed end of her parasol against the carriage roof. The conveyance hitched, then lurched forward with a great rumble as it headed for Summerfield Hall.
And to her lonely existence.
* * *
By the time Rob reached the stables, sweat rolled off him like a hot summer rain. Mumbling another litany of curses, he relieved himself of boots and clothing and dove into the deep pool carved out of the riverbank. The icy water felt torturously rejuvenating. There he remained, floating on his back and watching the color of the sky deepen. One by one, the stars gave a twinkle and then burst to life, diamonds on black velvet. He didn't want to think. Christ, he didn't want to think of her.
Swathed in darkness now, with a chill that had set his bones to aching and his teeth to chattering, he exited the water. A shake of his head sent his hair flying about his shoulders like a wet dog. Using his shirt for a towel, he headed for the house — and to his best brandy.
Dressed in clean clothing and bare of foot, Rob warmed his toes before a blazing fire in the cavernous living space. Ever so slowly, he sipped his drink while he stared at the unfinished portrait he'd begun some years ago. Only half of the woman's hauntingly beautiful face had been completed. Most of it remained a vague sketch. He'd dry-brushed a subtle haze over the entire canvas, giving it a mysterious appearance that mirrored the foggy image in his mind.
For the life of him, he couldn't conjure up what Georgiana's features might be like since sixteen years had passed. Had he captured anything of how she might appear as a woman? After all these years was his forbidden lady even real or only an illusion? He no longer knew.
And he didn't want to know.
That wasn't the whole truth, and he bloody well knew it. He hadn't made further attempts at completing the portrait because years ago, taking one more stroke of the brush had become too painful an ordeal.
Why hadn't he destroyed the blasted canvas instead of letting it haunt him for so long? Why had he spent nights in this vacuum of a house devoid of life — of even permanent servants — contemplating the unfinished painting until he'd drunk himself blind?
Old resentments boiled up in him until he felt as though the veins at his temples might burst. "God damn it!"
He rose on unsteady feet and made his way from the room, up the stairs, and into his sleeping quarters. The last servant to leave for the night had left a blaze in the fireplace, but the flames had since gone to embers. How the hell long had he been below stairs for that to have occurred? How much had he drunk? Shedding his clothing, he staggered to the bed and flopped on his back, naked as a newborn. He lay in the soft fur of the sable throw at the end of the mattress without moving and stared at the timbered ceiling until he drifted off.
He didn't know how long he'd slept — minutes or hours — but his first thought upon awakening was that he knew what he needed to do. He'd be damned if Lady Georgiana Cressington would haunt his mind a moment longer. He'd go downstairs, stoke the fire, and burn the bloody portrait. Afterward, he'd not give another thought as to who might have been inside that blasted carriage.
Leaving his room, he made his way along the dark corridor, well aware he was still foxed. He didn't need a sodding light to see. He could make his way blindfolded.
He reached out to take hold of the banister.
What the hell?
It wasn't there.
He took another step forward.
The floor disappeared beneath his feet.
The last thing his sotted mind grasped was that his naked body had taken flight and he'd gone tumbling down the stairs head over arse.CHAPTER 2
Georgiana drank the last of her tea and set the cup on its saucer. The slight chink of porcelain against delicate porcelain somehow created a discordant echo in the awful silence of the vast library. She paid no heed to the numerous books lining the walls. Instead, she rested her weary head against the chair's back and focused on the gray skies beyond the tall stack of windows flanking either side of the blazing fireplace. Lofty oaks swayed in a wind gathering more force by the hour. A fresh gust bent branches, and a few juicy leaves sacrificed themselves to the storm gods. She heaved a great sigh. Not another wretched night of rain.
Between the foul weather, Father's constant demands, and supervising the servants as they cleaned rooms that had been shuttered for years, she'd not stepped foot outside for a fortnight. Tomorrow, she'd explore the grounds. No matter the weather. No matter the consequences. Father could bleat like a bloody goat at her leaving him unattended for all she cared.
God above, would the man ever cease his incessant grumblings? Would he never cease demanding her presence at his bedside with his petty whims? Any one of the servants was capable of giving Georgiana a respite but, no, Father demanded she be at his beck and call lest he follow through with his threats to disinherit her and her son.
Blast it all, how had her life come to this? Widowed and, unless she wished to find herself homeless, forced to cater to a belligerent old man who despised life and most everyone in it, especially her. She had no doubt his intentions were to get back at her for what had occurred sixteen years ago.
Bang! Bang! Bang!
Georgiana jerked and jumped from her chair. That couldn't be Father summoning her with his cane — she'd given him a dose of laudanum to see him through his afternoon nap.
Bang! Bang! Bang!
Good heavens, was that someone pounding at the front door? There wasn't a neighbor in the vicinity Father wouldn't order off his property. She bolted from the library and hurried along the corridor, her footsteps muffled by the thick hall runner.
Bang! Bang! Bang!
The butler reached the door first.
Georgiana skidded to a stop and whispered, "Whoever it is, Jenkins, get rid of them."
"Indeed, milady." Nose in the air, the tall, lanky butler reached for the door's handle.
Georgiana scooted back down the hall and slipped into the drawing room. No movement from above stairs, no pounding of a cane or bellowing from Father. Thank heaven, he still slept.
Excerpted from Portrait of a Forbidden Lady by Kathleen Bittner Roth, Erin Molta. Copyright © 2016 Kathleen Bittner Roth. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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