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Lady Victoria March stood at the parlor window overlooking the small inn yard, watching the misting rain with a frown. She was thoroughly disenchanted with the unceasing wet weather that had marked her journey through England. She had always heard that the peaks and dales of Derbyshire were beautiful, but she had been able to see little of the countryside these past days.
A private chaise-and-four swept into sight, mud spraying from its iron tires, and stopped beneath her window. The driver sprang down from the box to let down the step. From the door emerged a figure known to have turned the most absorbing thoughts from a feminine mind. Victoria was diverted, but it was not necessarily the handsome breadth of the gentleman's shoulders that first caught her attention. Drawing on a lifetime of experience as a soldier's daughter in Portugal, she immediately recognized a touch of the military in his bearing. As the British army hounding Napoleon's armies in Portugal were a close-knit group, Victoria wondered idly if she had ever met the gentleman. But she could not clearly make out his face because the tall beaver he wore was pulled low across his brow to protect him from rain.
The gentleman leisurely descended to the soggy ground and with a slight nod acknowledged the fawning innkeeper. Although a portly man, the master of the inn bobbed low at the waist, rubbing his hands together. Victoria smiled as she recalled her own cool reception when he realized that she was traveling alone and would not order more than tea.
Still bowing, the innkeeper ushered his distinguished guest ahead of him out of the weather. Then he bellowed toward the stables in a voice that Victoria couldhear even through the leaded glass window. "Hie there! See to his lordship's cattle!" Two ostlers slowly emerged from the stables, their shoulders hunched against the rain. Satisfied, the innkeeper disappeared into the inn.
Victoria's thoughts returned to the conclusion of her journey. The innkeeper had grudgingly admitted that her destination, Belingham Manor, lay within easy distance. If the weather did not worsen she could reach the estate before nightfall.
Victoria thought that was fortunate. Her good friend, Sir Harry Belingham, had pressed on her an extra sum when he saw her off on the packet from Portugal to England, and Victoria had thought she had more than ample funds for her journey and whatever miscellaneous expenses she might have while at Belingham Manor, but now she was not so certain. She had found it far more dear to travel in England than in Portugal. The tab was likely to be outrageous for the late afternoon tea she had ordered, but she had not wanted to impose on her hostess by arriving light-headed and in need of dinner. She decided she would write her banker in London for funds as soon as she was settled in at Belingham Manor. Then she would pay a visit to her father-in-law, who lived within a short distance of the Belingham estate.
There was a knock on the parlor door and she turned away from the window, anticipating the tea she had ordered. "Please enter, waiter." To her surprise, the innkeeper himself entered the parlor. His bow to her was barely civil. "Forgive this intrusion, madame," he said without visible penance. "There is a gentleman, wishing to be private as it were, and there being no other available parlors--" He paused, shrugging his shoulders.
With a flicker of outrage, Victoria realized the man meant to turn her out. She knew that he would not have dared to impose on her if she had arrived in proper style with a maid or companion. "I take it the gentleman is a singularly favored guest!"
"Mine host puts himself badly, ma'am. I fear my credit will be beyond repair if left in his clumsy hands."
The innkeeper started. His eyes rolled back in dismay, and past his shoulder Victoria saw the tall gentleman who had alighted from the maroon chaise. He was unknown to her after all, and in appearance quite different from the military set she was used to. His fashionable buff pantaloons were smoothed without a crease into topboots of a mirror finish, setting off muscular legs, and his broad shoulders were shown to advantage by the superb cut of his fawn coat. The gentleman's lean and somewhat browned countenance reminded her forcibly of a proud Spanish hawk, at once haughty and compelling.
Upon meeting the amusement in his cool gray eyes, Victoria realized that she was staring and a faint flush rose in her face. She said quietly, "I fear my company manners have grown sadly shabby. Pray will you not join me, sir?"
"It will be my pleasure, ma'am," said the gentleman gently. He turned to the discomfited innkeeper and his voice grew markedly hard. "I will have a cold collation with a bottle of your finest claret. I assume the lady has ordered tea. Oblige me by giving her your first consideration."
Victoria thought to herself that the gentleman's arrogance carried him too far. But the wooden-faced innkeeper merely bowed and retreated from the room.
The gentleman glanced across at her with an unreadable expression, then tossed the greatcoat that lay over his arm onto a rush-bottomed chair and sent his beaver spinning after it. "I apologize for any distress you may have suffered on my account, ma'am," he said softly, smoothing a wrinkle from his sleeve.
"Pray do not apologize," said Victoria, thinking that he must be of a singularly quixotic nature to have mixed himself in her business so thoroughly. "Indeed, it was not necessary--"
"On the contrary, it was most necessary," he interrupted. "The man is rag-mannered and a rascal." His voice was polite but it brooked no argument. "It was mere whimsy that I took a dislike to the tap room and followed after our fine host. Consider yourself fortunate that you are not now ensconced in the public coffee room, madame."
Disconcerted by the force of his opinion, Victoria thought it prudent to say nothing. The gentleman obviously possessed a quick temper.
A striped sofa was conveniently at hand and she seated herself with the unconscious grace natural to her.
In silence the gentleman strolled across the room, bowing slightly as he passed her, and went to the darkening window. Resting one hand on the sill, he stared out at the lingering shadows. Victoria was thus afforded the opportunity to study his sharp profile unobtrusively. She was again struck by something soldierly in his bearing. He spoke and carried himself as though accustomed to command, she thought.
Glimpsing his frown, Victoria could not imagine him joining in the easy camaraderie that was habitual among the younger men of her acquaintance. Indeed, her late husband Charles and his friend Harry would no doubt have pronounced him a dull dog.
Her companion remarked casually, "It appears that we will have a thunderstorm by nightfall."
"Oh, do not say sol" exclaimed Victoria.
He turned, astonished by her vehemence, and raised a thin brow. Victoria colored faintly under his stare, but her eyes gleamed with rueful humor. "Pray do not heed me, sir. Simply put, my journey has been plagued by rain. I had hoped for a clearing sky this evening to mark its end."
"I, too, find it unappealing weather," said the stranger. He gestured at her lavender pelisse. "You are in mourning. Pray accept my condolences." Silently Victoria inclined her head. "I am somewhat acquainted with the neighborhood," he said. "Do you visit relations?"
Victoria hesitated to reply. She was uncertain why she should feel reluctant to divulge her destination, but experience had taught her to trust her instincts. Quietly she sidestepped his curiosity. "I am staying with friends," she said briefly. He looked mildly surprised by her evasion but made no comment.
After a quick knock a waiter entered the parlor with a tea tray. The innkeeper followed, bearing a dusty bottle of wine cradled in his arm. While the waiter set out Victoria's tea and a plate of thinly sliced cold beef sandwiches, the innkeeper carefully uncorked the bottle. "A sample from my best private stock, m'lord," he said, pouring out a glass. With a deferential bow he offered the stemmed glass to the gentleman.
Victoria watched with quiet amusement as her companion tasted the red wine with exaggerated care. The innkeeper watched him with an anxious air. "Excellent, mine host," said the gentleman gravely "Your palate astonishes me."
The innkeeper's expression eased into a jovial smile. He returned the glass to the table. "Will there be aught else, m'lord?"
"For the moment, no," the gentleman said crushingly. "However, after I have supped 1 will require my carriage. I will not be spending the night."
The innkeeper bowed with obvious disappointment. "Very good, m'lord." He muttered sharply at the lingering waiter and hurried the man out of the room.
"We are served, ma'am," said the gentleman as he offered his arm to Victoria. She rose gracefully to her feet and discovered that the gentleman was a good head taller than herself. After the slightest hesitation she placed her fingers lightly on his elbow. It had been a long time since she had been so formally escorted to dinner. Raising her eyes, she again encountered cool amusement in the gentleman's gaze.
He seated her at the table, murmuring, "Our host has a remarkably loose tongue." He took a chair across from her, his expression sardonic. Victoria found the careless glint in his eyes disturbingly familiar. "Permit me to make known to you Lord Damion St. Claire," he said softly.
The silence was expectant. Victoria realized that he awaited her reaction to his name. "Forgive me, my lord. I am not familiar with your reputation. I have but recently come to England."
Lord Damion stared at her in astonishment. His mouth slowly curled in a grin of startling charm. "My arrogance is well served! Allow me to inform you, madame, that you dine with the Demon, a most notorious rake."
Victoria threw him an interested glance as she picked up the china teapot and poured the steaming tea. "I am certain you exaggerate, my lord. To my mind a rake is hardly a gentleman, which you have certainly proven yourself to be."
Cynicism chilled his expression, turning his eyes to hard agate. "Do not be so certain, madame. A gentleman born may play the rake better than any." He leaned back in his chair and idly swirled the claret in his glass. "But I do not know your story. I believe you mentioned having but just come to England?"
Victoria took time to sip her tea and choose her words carefully. She decided it would be best if she did not make herself known to Lord Damion. In this neighborhood even a chance acquaintance could know of the March family, and given her relationship with her late husband's family, Victoria infinitely preferred that they not know of her arrival until she was ready to announce herself. "Yes. I have been in Portugal. My husband was with the cavalry until he was killed." She considered the plate of sandwiches and took one.
Lord Damion frowned. "Forgive me. It was not my intention to touch upon a painful memory."
Victoria met his eyes. "My lord, I realized very early in my marriage that I might one day face his death. My husband's nature thrived on unpredictability and danger." She paused and a fleeting smile lighted her face. "Indeed, Charles was terribly rackety until he was assigned to detached duty for the cartographers. He sketched amazingly well, and very swiftly, so that he was often sent through the French lines to scout the country."
"Hardly what I would call an enviable task. The country is impossible," said Lord Damion, studying her with interest. The dove-gray bonnet she wore threw shadows under her long-lashed golden brown eyes and prominent cheekbones. Her face was too thin and unfashionably browned for his taste. Except for her grace of manner and obvious breeding, he thought her looks unremarkable until the quick smile flitted once more into her expressive eyes.
"You speak as though from firsthand experience," said Victoria, brushing crumbs from her slender fingers.
"I was with Sir John Moore in '09," said Lord Damion. His mouth thinned a moment, then he smiled. "I well remember the life. It could hardly have been a comfortable existence for you, ma'am."
"I have known little else. My father was a soldier, you see." She paused, then said softly, "It was a decent life, my lord. I shall miss it in many ways."
"I hope the future will prove as rewarding," said Lord Damion, his unreadable eyes on her face. An improbable thought struck him. But the lady had chosen not to honor him with her name and he could only speculate.
"And I also, my lord," said Victoria with a little laugh. An unlikely vision of her husband's family welcoming her with open arms caused her lips to curl upward in amusement. She had never met the Marches, and Charles had mentioned little enough about any member of his family except his stern father. But Victoria rather thought that the family would take their cue from Lord Robert, the Earl of March. And what she had heard of that gentleman led her to believe that he would find little to approve in her. After all, her upbringing had not been typically English. Her father had been a younger son of an impoverished country lord who had chosen to make his home and his fortune in a foreign land because his beloved Portuguese bride could not bear to be separated from her family.
But at least she need not make more than a token visit to the Crossing, her husband's ancestral home, before truly settling in at Belingham Manor, where she was certain of a cordial reception. Lady Belingham had sent a reply immediately upon receipt of Harry's letter that assured Victoria that she was welcome to stay as long as she cared to and certainly through Christmas. Remembering the warmth of Lady Belingham's invitation, Victoria smiled again. She did not notice the look of speculation in Lord Damion's eyes as he watched her expressive face.
A silence fell while Victoria finished her sandwiches and Lord Damion addressed his wine. Both were absorbed in their own thoughts.
There was a diffident knock on the parlor door. Lord Damion laid an arm over the chair back, half turning in his seat. "Enter."
The door creaked open and the innkeeper stepped in. His beady eyes shot to each of their faces before he made a low bow. "Begging your pardon, m'lord," he said, folding his hands over his stomach. "But I 'ave come to inform m'lady that her chaise is standing ready."
Lord Damion cocked his brow at her. Victoria placed her napkin beside her plate. "Your company has been most agreeable. Lord Damion. But I fear I must be on my way," she said.
Lord Damion rose from the table and accompanied Victoria across the room. "I find that a most regrettable circumstance. I should have liked to have deepened our acquaintance."
At the door Victoria turned to give her gloved hand to him. He held it a moment longer than necessary. His gray eyes glinted down at her and Victoria realized with surprise that he was deliberately trying to disconcert her. "I bid you fair weather, madame," said Lord Damion softly.
"Thank you, my lord, and good-bye," said Victoria, disengaging her fingers from his. She turned quickly and caught the innkeeper's knowing expression before he could smooth it away. She pretended not to notice. "I will wish to depart immediately."
The innkeeper bowed deeply. "This way, m'lady," he said respectfully, and led her down the dim narrow hall. Victoria was torn between annoyance and amusement by the man's changed attitude. Her consequence was obviously much heightened since she had shared a private parlor with Lord Damion St. Claire. She thought whimsically that she might make a practice of dining with rakes if it guaranteed her such exceptional service.