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Once the finest ornament of the beau monde, a beauty so astounding and sublime a man would kill to possess her hand in marriage, the notorious Lady W mourns her murderous husband in secret. How much knowledge did she possess of her husband's villainous acts?
The New Observer, November 12, 1818
"Leave me this instant!"
A woman's voice.
Adrian Pomroy, the new Viscount Cavanley, barely heard her as he rounded the corner into John Street. Not even halfway down the road he saw the woman stride away from a man. The man hurried after her. They were mere silhouettes in the waning light of this November evening and they took no heed of him.
Adrian paused to make sense of this little drama. It was most likely a lovers' quarrel, and, if so, he'd backtrack to avoid landing in the middle of it.
"One moment." The man kept his voice down, as if fearing to be overheard. "Please!" He seized her arm.
"Release me!" The woman struggled frantically to pull away.
Lovers' quarrel or not, Adrian could not allow a woman to be treated so roughly. He sprinted forwards. "Unhand her! What is this?"
The man released the woman so quickly she tripped on her long hooded cloak. Adrian clasped her arm before she fell, holding her until she regained her balance. From the mews nearby a horse whinnied, but otherwise it was quiet.
The man backed away. "This is not as it appears, sir. I intend no harm to the lady." He raised his hands as if to prove his words.
The lady? Adrian assumed he'd rescued some maid from a stableman's unwanted advances, but the woman's cloak was made of fine cloth, and the man was dressed more like a tradesman than a stableman.
Adrian turned to thelady. "Did he harm you, ma'am?"
"No." The hood of her cloak shrouded her face. "But I do not wish to speak to him."
The man stepped forwards again. "I merely asked the lady a few questions"
"I will not answer them," she cried from beneath her hood.
Adrian had the advantage of size on the man. He straightened his spine to make certain the man knew it. "If the lady does not wish to speak to you, that is the end of it."
"Let me explain, sir." The man stuck a hand in his pocket and pulled out a card. He handed it to Adrian. "I am Samuel Reed from The New Observer."
Adrian glanced at the card. "You are a newspaper reporter?" He had read the new London paper, quite recently, in fact.
The man nodded. "All England wishes to know Lady Wexin's reaction to the events surrounding her villainous husband. I am merely requesting the information from her."
Adrian regarded the cloaked figure with new interest. Adrian had just called upon his friend, the Marquess of Tannerton.
Tanner had shoved The New Observer article about Lady Wexin under Adrian's nose not more than half an hour ago.
His friend, Tanner, had recently returned from Scotland with a new wife and news about Lord Wexin that had consumed the newspapers ever since. Truth to tell, Tanner's marriage had shocked Adrian more than the tale of murder, betrayal and death that involved the Earl of Wexin.
Lady Wexin interrupted Adrian's thoughts. "Do I take it by your silence that you agree with this man, sir?" She stood with one hand braced against a garden wall. "Do perfect strangers have a right to know my private matters?"
Adrian still could not see her face, but he recalled the ton beauty very well. What gentleman would not? Adrian had never been formally presented to Lady Wexin, but they had occasionally attended the same society gatherings. Years ago Tanner and Adrian had briefly included Wexin among their set, but that had been before Wexin's marriage.
"You owe this man nothing, my lady." Adrian gave her a reassuring smile. "He will trouble you no further."
According to Tanner, Lady Wexin was an innocent party in the perfidy that had so titillated the gossip-lovers. The newspapers had indulged the public's seemingly insatiable appetite for the scandal by speculating about Lady Wexin's part in it. Wexin might be dead, but his wife was not.
Lady Wexin let go of the garden wall. "I shall be on my way, then." She turned, her cloak swirling around her. She took one step, paused, then resumed walking.
Adrian frowned. She was limping.
Mr Reed's gaze followed her as well. He appeared to be considering whether to pursue her with more questions.
Adrian clapped him on the shoulder. "Best you leave, Mr Reed."
Mr Reed's eyes flashed. "This is a public street, sir."
Adrian smiled, but without friendliness. "Nonetheless, you do not wish to be in my bad graces." He glanced at Lady Wexin, now fumbling with a key in the lock of a garden gate. "The lady looks as if she's had enough to deal with today. Leave, sir."
Reed hesitated, but eventually his gaze slid back to Adrian.
"Leave, Mr Reed." Adrian repeated, quietly but firmly.
Reed bowed his head and nodded. He cast another look at Lady Wexin before strolling to the corner and disappearing from sight.
Adrian walked quickly over to where Lady Wexin still worked the lock. "Let me assist you."
She waved him away. "I can manage."
He gestured to her legs. "You are standing on one foot."
She averted her face. "Mymy ankle pains me a little. I believe I twisted it, but I assure you I can manage." The lock turned and she opened the gate. When she stepped into the garden she nearly toppled to the ground.
Adrian hurried through the gate and wrapped an arm around her. "You cannot walk."
The hood of her cloak fell away, fully revealing her face, only inches from his own.
Her skin was as smooth and flawless as the Roman sculpture of Clytie that had once captivated him in the British Museum. Unlike cold white stone, however, Lady Wexin's cheeks were warm with colour. Her lips, shaped like a perfect bow, were as pink as a dew-kissed rose. Adrian had often appreciated her beauty from across a ballroom, or from a box away at Covent Garden, but, this close, she robbed him of breath.
"Is this your house?" he finally managed.
She edged out of his embrace, but continued to clutch his arm. "Of course it is."
He smiled. "Forgive me. Yes, it must be."
She looked over her shoulder. "I must close the gate. Before they see."
"Before they see?" He followed her glance.
"More newspaper people. They loiter around the house, looking for me."
Ah, now it made sense why the lady entered her house through the garden gate. It did not explain why she had been out alone. Ladies did not venture out unless accompanied by a companion or a servant.
Adrian closed the gate with his free hand.
"I need to lock it." She let go of him and tried to step away, again nearly falling.
Adrian reached for her again and helped her to the gate. "I'll walk you to your door as well."
"I am so sorry to trouble you." She turned the key and left it in the lock.
Adrian kept his arm around her as they started for the house. When she put the slightest weight on her ankle, he felt her tense with pain.
"This will not do." Adrian scooped her up into his arms.
"No, put me down," she begged. "You must not carry me."
"Nonsense. Of course I must." Her face was even closer now and her scent, like spring lilacs, filled his nostrils. She draped her arms around his neck, and he inhaled deeply.
"See? I am too heavy," she protested.
Too heavy? She felt as if she belonged in his arms.
He smiled at her. "Do not insult my strength, Lady Wexin. You will wound my male vanity." He made the mistake of staring into her deep blue eyes, now glittering with unspent tears, and his heart wrenched for her. "You must be in great pain," he murmured.
She held his gaze. "It hurts not at all now."
He could not look away.
Somewhere on the street a door slammed and Lady Wexin blinked.
Adrian regained his senses and carried her the short distance to the rear door of the townhouse. Voices sounded nearby, riding on the evening breeze.
"The door will be unlocked," she murmured, her hair brushing his cheek.
He opened the door and brought her inside. To the left he glimpsed the kitchen, though there were no sounds of a cook at work there. He carried her down the passageway and brought her above stairs to the main hall of the house.
It was elegantly appointed with a gilded hall table upon which sat a pair of Chinese vases, devoid of flowers. Matching gilded chairs were upholstered in bright turquoise. The floor was a chequerboard of black-and-white marble, but no footman stood in attendance. In fact, the house was very quiet and a bit chilly.
"Shall I summon one of your servants?" he asked.
"Theythey are all out at the moment, but you may put me down. I shall manage from here."
He looked at her in surprise. "All out?" It was odd for a house to be completely empty of servants.
She averted her gaze. "They have the day off." She squirmed in his arms. "You may put me down."
He shook his head. "Your ankle needs tending." He started up the marble staircase, smiling at her again to ease her discomfort. "By the way, I ought to present myself. I am"
She interrupted him. "I know who you are."
Adrian's smile deepened, flattered that she'd noticed him.
He reached the second floor where he guessed the bedchambers would be. "Direct me to your room."
"The second door," she replied. "But, really, you mustn't"
It was his turn to interrupt. "Someone must."
Her bedchamber was adorned with hand-painted wallpaper, bright exotic birds frolicking amidst colourful flowers. A dressing table with a large mirror held sparkling glass bottles, porcelain pots and a brush and comb with polished silver handles. Her bed was neatly made, its white coverlet gleaming and its many pillows plumped with what he guessed was the finest down. The room was chilly, though, as if someone had allowed the fire in the fireplace to go out.
He set her down on the bed, very aware of her hands slipping away from his neck. "I'll tend the fire."
"Really, sir. You need not trouble yourself." Her voice reached a high, nervous pitch.
"It is no trouble."
He removed his hat, gloves and topcoat and crossed the room to the small fireplace, its mantel of carved marble holding another empty vase. To his surprise, the fire had not died out at all. It was all set to be lit. He found the tinderbox and soon had a flame licking across the lumps of coal.
He returned to her. She had removed her cloak and clutched it in front of her. Adrian took it from her hands and draped it over a nearby chair. It contained something in its pocket. Adrian felt a purse, heavy with coin.
He turned back to her and their eyes met, hers still shimmering with tears.
He touched her arm. "Are you certain you are not in pain? You look near to weeping."
She averted her gaze. "I'm not in pain."
He knelt in front of her. "Then let me have a look at that ankle. If it is broken, we will need to summon a surgeon."
She drew up her leg. "A surgeon!"
"A surgeon would merely set the bone," he said, puzzled at her alarm.
Her hand fluttered. "I was thinking of the cost."
"The cost?" Concern over the cost was even more puzzling. Adrian gave her a reassuring smile. "Let us not fret over what is not yet a problem. Let me examine it first."
She extended her leg again and Adrian untied her half-boot. He slipped off the shoe, made of buttery soft white kid, and held her foot in his hand, enjoying too much its graceful shape.
He glanced up at her. "Am I hurting you?"
"No," she rasped. "Not hurting."
He grinned. "Tickling, then. I'll be more careful." He forced himself to his task, feeling her ankle, now swollen. His hand slipped up to her calf, but he quickly moved it down to her ankle again, gently moving her foot in all directions.
"Does that hurt?" he asked her.
"A little," she whispered. "II should not be allowing you to do this."
Indeed. He was enjoying it far too much, and desiring far more.
He cleared his throat. "I believe your ankle is sprained, not broken. I predict you will do nicely in a day or two." He did not release it. "I should wrap it, though, to give you some support. Do you have bandages, or a strip of cloth?"
Her eyes were half-closed. She blinked and pointed to a chest of drawers. "Look in the bottom drawer."
Adrian reluctantly let go of her leg and walked over to the chest. The bottom drawer contained neatly folded underclothing made of soft muslin and satiny silk as soft and smooth as her skin.
His thoughts, as if having a will of their own, turned carnal, and he imagined crossing the room and taking her in his arms, tasting her lips, peeling off her clothing, sliding his hands over her skin.
He gave himself an inwards shake. He would not take advantage of this lady. Her peace was disturbed by reporters hounding her for a story, and her whole world had been turned head over ears with news of her husband's crimes. And his death.
He frowned as he groped through her underclothing, finally coming up with a long thin piece of muslin.
He returned to her and knelt again. "I must remove your stocking."
She extended her leg.
He slipped his hands up her calf, past her knee, until he found the top of her stocking and the ribbon that held it in place. He untied the ribbon and rolled the stocking down and off her foot. Her skin was smooth and warm and pliant beneath his fingers.
Adrian quickly took the strip of cloth and began to wind it around her ankle.
"Did you study surgery?" she asked, her voice cracking.
He looked up and grinned at her. "I fear it is horses I know, not surgery."
She laughed, and the sound, like the joyful tinkling of a pianoforte, echoed in his mind.
He tried to force his attention back to the bandage, but she leaned forwards and gave him a good glimpse of her décol-letage. "Are you so gentle with horses?"
He glanced back to the bandage and continued wrapping, smoothing the fabric with his other hand.
"What is your name?" Her tone turned low and soft.
He glanced up. "I thought you said you knew me."
"I do not know your given name," she said.
"Adrian." He tied off her bandage and reluctantly released her.
"Adrian." She extended her hand. "I am Lydia."
He grasped her hand. "Lydia."
Lydia's heart raced at the feel of his large masculine hand enveloping hers. His grip was strong, the sort of grip that assured he was a man who could handle any trial. She now knew better than to make judgements based on such trivialities as a touch, but she could not deny he had been gentle with her. And kind.
It seemed so long since she'd felt kindness from anyone but her servants.