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Oh, what a tangled web we weave,
When first we practice to deceive...
Sir Walter Scott, Lochinvar
Lady Melissa Stapleton slipped her needlework into its bag, finally admitting that tension made it impossible to set even the simplest stitches. She should have gone upstairs with Beatrice, for they were only safe together. But she hated to openly admit fear.
Laughter erupted from the billiard room.
Despite the hot summer evening, she shivered. Her brother and his friends were in high spirits tonight. Tobias Stapleton, seventh Earl of Drayton, ninth Viscount Kendall, fourteenth Baron Stapleton--would that he could live up to those exalted titles! If his illustrious ancestors knew who currently held them, they would turn in their graves.
A weak, dissipated wastrel, Toby had not been sober since their father's death just after Christmas. Toby had always called the sixth earl a miser for keeping him on the estate instead of letting him live in London. Furious to discover that the coffers really were empty, he had sulked for six months, finally pulling himself out of his stupor long enough to invite three former schoolmates to celebrate the end of deep mourning. There had not been a moment's peace in the fortnight since they'd arrived.
At least Melissa enjoyed the protection of Beatrice, a cousin on her father's side, who belonged to the American branch of the family. Bea's husband had met an untimely death two years earlier, precipitating a deep melancholy. Thinking a change of scenery might help, she had come to England to visit her unknown relatives.
But the trip had notgone as planned. Barely a fortnight after her arrival, the sixth earl had sickened and died, leaving his two children parentless. Bea had graciously offered to extend her visit until Melissa found her feet, but she could not postpone her departure much longer. Unwilling to again brave the Atlantic in winter, she was scheduled for passage six weeks hence.
In the meantime, she and Melissa must cope with Toby's friends.
Mr. Crawford was not too bad. Immaturity was his greatest failing, despite his five-and-twenty years. He alternated between supercilious condemnation for other people's lapses in rigid decorum and a youthful vulnerability when his own behavior fell short. The man would be happier if he focused on people's good qualities. But though Melissa found him annoying, he was harmless enough.
Lord Dobson was not so benign. Haughty and lecherous, he passed his days trying to seduce the servants. Even Rose, who was all of fifty, complained of his groping hands. Toby refused to chastise him despite Melissa's pleas. She'd managed to keep the maids out of his way for the past week. But that created other problems, for he was now pursuing Beatrice.
At five-and-thirty, Bea was still a good-looking woman, whose light brown eyes could sparkle with delight when she was in spirits. It was unconscionable that she must fear for her virtue under her cousin's roof. And Dobson was not the only threat.
Lord Heflin was worse. A scoundrel as well as a rake, his satanic visage increased his aura of menace. Even Toby admitted that Heflin had debauched innocents more than once. Toby had actually apologized for inviting the man into the house.
But he refused to end his party.
Heflin was stalking Beatrice--there was no other way to describe his conduct. Worse, he paid unwelcome attentions to Melissa, brushing against her arm as he moved past, standing closer than propriety allowed when they gathered in the drawing room before dinner, and once, actually allowing his hand to trail across her chest as she tried to push past him when he blocked the exit from a room. The touch had raised tingling pains that both terrified and fascinated her.
Melissa could barely describe her reaction, let alone explain it. But she knew she must. Lord Heflin would not be leaving any time soon. So she'd turned to Beatrice for advice. An American oddity was their willingness to answer questions, even about subjects society deemed improper. Melissa had taken advantage of that candor many times, especially over the question of Toby's drinking, which she suspected was dangerous, despite society's dismissal.
"Of course you were terrified," Bea agreed bluntly when Melissa had described Heflin's most recent indignity. "And who can blame you? The English delight in keeping girls ignorant about their bodies."
Melissa flushed scarlet from the top of her head to the tips of her toes. "Ladies never discuss such things," she reminded her cousin.
"Nonsense," snorted Beatrice. "Unless you understand yourself, you will never cope with the rogues your brother cultivates."
"They are no worse than other gentlemen."
"Wrong." Bea had glared at her. "Heflin is no gentleman. He is a first-class scoundrel who thrives on depravity. He would derive more pleasure from debauching the innocent daughter of a lord than a widow like me. Breaking conventions excites him. He loves force and would rather subdue an unwilling victim than seduce her into cooperating. That is why his attentions raise terror. He is a dangerous man, something you know in your heart."
"Then why does his touch intrigue me?" dared Melissa, mortified to admit that she would have liked it to continue.
"That is a normal reaction, Missy," stated Beatrice matter-of-factly. "Your body enjoys caresses. And don't tell me again that ladies do not," she added as Melissa opened her mouth in protest. "I don't care what society deems proper. All women are built alike, regardless of class. Some touches are physically exciting. Brushing across your breasts is one of them. If you do not understand that, a man can easily seduce you. If you expect it, you can control your reaction, for the effect wanes quickly. The danger lies in repeated touch, for the sensations can overwhelm reason. Never confuse physical pleasure with love."
"Do you mean someone as repugnant as Heflin can excite my body?" squeaked Melissa, appalled at the thought.
"If he takes you by surprise," agreed Beatrice. "If you know what he is trying to do, anger and distaste will cancel any pleasure. That is why information is vital. Of course, in Heflin's case, only avoidance will keep you safe. He won't try to make the encounter pleasant, and you haven't the strength to counteract force. But you must take care around any gentleman. Society protects you by demanding that you be chaperoned at all times. But Toby cares little for the proprieties, so you will have to protect yourself. Stay away from Heflin. Don't allow anyone to touch you. And if you do find yourself in trouble, two ways to disable a man are cracking him in the temple with an elbow or fist, and slamming a knee into his groin."
"What did you mean about confusing pleasure with love?" Melissa ostentatiously examined a hideous portrait of her great-grandfather to hide her flaming face.
"Physical pleasure clouds your thinking and can make you believe that love exists when it does not." Bea shrugged. "That is why touching is a bad idea. Even an innocuous caress can rapidly lead to shocking misbehavior."
"How does one know if love is real, then?"
"That is always difficult. One clue is whether you put his interests and welfare ahead of your own. Another is whether you feel as strongly about the non-physical aspects of the relationship. Kissing is fun, but most of life is spent doing other things. The best proof of love is available only in retrospect. If you truly love someone, intimacy with another is unthinkable. Once your emotions are engaged, you will no longer feel delight from another man's touch."
"Is that how it was with you and Mr. Stokes?" she asked, turning back to her cousin.
Beatrice nodded. "Dear Lord, I miss him," she whispered so softly that Melissa was not sure she had heard the words.
"You loved him." It was not a question.
"I only pray you can find someone to love even half as much, Missy. Intimacy can be enjoyable with many men, but ecstasy is possible only with one you love." She paused, frowning a moment before continuing. "One more warning before we abandon this subject. You are young and have not yet discovered that there are few absolutes in the world. No one is perfect, not even the man you will eventually love."
Melissa nearly snorted, for how could Bea claim to love a man with faults? But she was in no mood for an argument, so they turned their conversation back to Heflin and how to avoid him. As long as he remained at Drayton, Melissa was in deadly danger.
His attentions were not the least bit flattering. Only her innocence appealed to the rogue, for though she was eighteen, her body remained undeveloped, with only the faintest hint of curves. She did not look a day over fourteen. And a recent bout of influenza had worsened her appearance, leaving her pitifully thin and sallow, her face dominated by dark circles under her eyes.
Another round of laughter sounded, pulling her from her thoughts. Bea should have returned by now. Melissa bit a fingernail as she strained to identify the distant voices to make sure all four men were there.
Talking to Toby was hopeless. He loved the unceasing gaming and drinking, though she suspected he was losing more than he won.
It was all of a piece. Their father had had no head for either agriculture or investment. He'd inherited a purse-pinched estate, then left it in worse shape on his own death. Toby demonstrated even less ability. Melissa's last slim hope of entering society had died with her father. There were few men living nearby who needed a spouse, and none whom she would consider. It was probable that she would spend the rest of her life caring for her irresponsible brother and dodging his dissolute friends.
The laughter was growing louder, the party turning raucous as more bottles were broached.
She thankfully reached for her needlework when the sound of footsteps announced Beatrice's return. Staying together was their only defense against lechery.
But it was Mr. Crawford who staggered through the door. He was halfway across the room before he spied Melissa sitting on the couch. A slack smile did nothing to hide his disapproval.
"Well, if it isn't Toby's baby sister, sitting here alone," he managed to slur between hiccups. His face twisted into a sneer. "No chaperon? How vulgar."
"My cousin will be back in a moment, sir," stated Melissa coldly. "Please return to the billiard room. You would hardly wish to be caught alone with me."
"Never," he choked, seeming to gag at the idea. He whirled to leave, but one foot caught on the other, even as his brows raised in agonized surprise. Groaning, he fell, casting up his accounts across her feet.
Melissa scrambled out of the way too late. The stench of brandy, sour onions, and sickness wrapped her in a suffocating cloud. She had been intensely sensitive to odors since her illness. As Mr. Crawford continued to retch, she clamped a hand desperately over her mouth and fled, barely reaching her room before losing her dinner.
Beatrice heard the commotion and rushed in. "My poor Missy, what happened?" she exclaimed, noting the sopping skirts and spattered basin as she wiped the girl's face with a cool cloth.
"Mr. Crawford," gasped Melissa, swallowing another surge of nausea.
"Not again," muttered Beatrice. "That boy has the lowest tolerance for wine I've ever seen. Why will he not admit it and stop drinking?"
"What do you mean?"
"Two glasses of claret, and he is as deep in his cups as Toby after three bottles," explained Bea. "When he tries to match the others, he is invariably ill."
That explained those odd odors Melissa had noted lately. "How can he be so uncaring of the servants, if not of his host's furnishings?"
"He usually makes it to his room," explained Beatrice, frowning over the gown she had stripped from her cousin. "He must have left it too late this time. And to give him his due, his valet generally takes care of things. What happened?"
"He came into the drawing room, fell at my feet, and exploded." Melissa grimaced, again fighting down nausea.
Beatrice nodded. "The jolt would do it. He was probably heading for the coal scuttle. It wouldn't have been the first time. I think we should spend the evenings up here from now on. We can fix up the next room as a sitting room."
"Why must I skulk in my own house?" wailed Melissa, breaking into tears. "I feel like a prisoner!"
"There, there," Bea murmured soothingly, patting her back. "It is unfair, but there is no reasoning with Toby. If there were somewhere else to go, we would leave tomorrow. Heflin is becoming unspeakably aggressive. He accosted me in my room just now. I had to brain him with a pitcher before he would leave."
"He is dangerous, Bea. Terror chokes me every time he comes near," admitted Melissa. "And he knows Toby won't lift a finger to help us. I am surprised he has not yet resorted to force. Or does he get a thrill from stalking me and gloating over my fear?"
"That is a possibility," admitted Beatrice. "There are men who enjoy such things."
"I wish this party would end!"
"So do I, but think, Missy. Even if you escape his clutches now, he may visit again. Toby is worthless. You must find a refuge."
"But there is no place to go," she protested. "I will have to hire a companion."
"Use your head," Beatrice admonished her. "Companions are empty-headed ninnies who cannot take care of themselves, let alone protect you. And as servants, they cannot lift a finger against men like these. You must escape this house."
"How? I know no one but our few neighbors. I never attended school. And the chances of marrying are too remote to consider."
"Have you no other relatives?"
"None that acknowledge us. Both my grandmother and my uncle repudiated us after Mama died."
"I take it they were her relatives."
Melissa nodded. "Grandmama is the dowager Marchioness of Castleton. She last visited us when I was eight, a very imposing woman, though she seemed kind enough. But she blamed Papa for Mama's death."
"What happened? He wrote my father at the time, but divulged no details." She had finished helping Melissa into a nightrail and now tucked her firmly into bed.
"That is hardly surprising. Lady Castleton's charges increased his own guilt."
"You mean he really did kill her?"
"In a way. Finances have always been tight, especially the year I turned ten. As a result, the staff was cut to the bone. Our only groom was confined to bed after one of the horses kicked him, so Papa drove when he and Mama attended a midsummer's ball in Lincoln. Grandfather joined him on the box for the two-hour journey home. Both were somewhat the worse for wine, but they could not afford to stay over at an inn. I suspect Papa dozed off, though he never admitting doing so. When they came down Beecher's Hill, the carriage overturned on the corner. Grandfather was thrown into a boulder and killed instantly. Mama was badly injured and died in pain three days later. Papa was unscathed."
"And your grandmother blamed him?"
"Absolutely. She refused to attend the funeral, sending a blistering letter that accused Papa of murdering his wife and announced that she would never speak with him again. She is not a person to change her mind."
"Yet she is the closest relative you have, Missy. Eight years have passed, and your father is now dead. She might be willing to accept you. I have been worrying about how you might fare once I return home. Leaving you in the clutches of so weak a brother does not bear thinking about, especially when his friends are less than honorable."
"I suppose I can write to her."
"Explain your situation. She cannot like leaving her flesh and blood in such danger. With luck, she will ask you live with her."
"Acting as companion to my grandmother would be preferable to staying here," agreed Melissa. "She might even enjoy the company, provided she can afford to support me. Papa often complained that her finances were little better than ours, making it impossible for her to help him come about. I have given up all hope of marriage--my looks are against me, and I have no dowry--but putting up with an old lady's crotchets is preferable to fighting off Toby's lecherous friends."
"Write the letter. I will get Toby to frank it in the morning. He will have such a bad head that he will not note its direction."
"In the meantime, we must stay together at all times, Bea. For both our sakes."
A fortnight later, Charles Montrose, Viscount Rathbone, wiped the water from his eyes and frowned. Rain poured down harder than ever. His sodden cloak no longer protected him, leaving him chilled to the bone. His grays were slipping often enough that his heart was in his throat lest they injure themselves. He would have to stop at the next inn, no matter what its condition.
What was he doing in this godforsaken place anyway? Dorset was not his favorite county. He ought to be heading for Brighton. All his friends were gathered there, and the luscious Lady Runyon had signaled that she was ready to welcome him into her bed. There was no way to recover the funds he'd already laid out to secure rooms at the popular resort.
But he couldn't ignore his grandmother's summons.
He had received the letter from his uncle two days earlier. His grandmother had taken ill and was not expected to live. At nine-and-seventy, she could no longer shrug off even simple chills, and this one had settled in her chest. Bad news indeed, he'd agreed, already rearranging his plans so he could leave immediately.
But the next paragraph had frozen him in his tracks. She had summoned her solicitor to make revisions to her will.
He had been cursing for two days.
What was he to do? She'd made it clear from his earliest childhood that he was her heir. Thus he'd ignored her growing criticism of his activities. Staying at Swansea served no purpose when he lacked the means to address its problems--if she wanted them addressed before her death, she could do so herself. Besides, he was entitled to sow a few oats before he settled down. How he lived was none of her concern.
To his credit, and despite his seeming indolence, he had never wasted a shilling. He drank in such moderation that people noticed, and he eschewed gaming, even for pennies. Fearful of falling prey to his father's failings, he refused even promising investments. He had become adept at maintaining his appearance as a modestly well-to-do peer without resorting to debt. His grandmother must know that.
A run-down inn appeared through the driving rainstorm, letting him turn his weary horses off the road.
An hour later he was ensconced in a shabby room that the innkeeper claimed contained the last bed in the house. Huddled near the inadequate fireplace, he succumbed to anger and fear. Devil take his grandmother! And devil take his father for leaving him to the whims of a capricious woman! He hoped the man was burning. It would be a change from the icy aloofness he had always employed.
But cursing the past was a waste. He must decide how to recoup the future.
Again he perused the letter, praying he had somehow misinterpreted its message. But the words were was crystal clear.
Pouring a glass from the second bottle of foul-tasting brandy, he scowled. Heat had replaced his earlier chills. His head swirled. The wine might be nearly undrinkable, but it was potent, especially on an empty stomach. He had been unable to choke down the unidentified glop on his dinner tray.
He must take his grandmother's words seriously. She had never joked about money.
He downed another brandy. And another. What did it matter if he drank himself insensible? He stood helpless, on the brink of ruin, with not a thing he could do to avert disaster. If only there were some way to fight back!
He paced, easily ignoring the murmur of voices from the next room--until they suddenly rose in argument.
"Of course we cannot go back!" shouted a female. "Oh, why did Grandmama choose this, of all times, to go to Bath?"
"We could hardly have anticipated that." The second voice was also female, though its tone belonged to someone older. "But what else are we to do? We haven't enough money to cover this room for a fortnight. Nor can we beg admittance to an empty house."
"I won't return," swore the girl. "I will sleep in a ditch first. And our funds won't stretch to another coach journey, either. We've no hope of more. There's nothing else to sell. Can we not approach her in Bath?"
"Of course not! Do you expect your grandmother to welcome you when she is staying with a friend you have never seen? Be reasonable, Missy. Toby must stand up for you after this."
"I am being reasonable. You know how ruthless he can be. And you know what he wants. Toby bends with every breeze. Even if he promises, he will be powerless against his friends."
Charles shook his head, hiccupping loudly into the sudden silence. It sounded like someone was running away from home. Who was her companion? Hardly a maid, for she seemed to be giving the orders. The accents were genteel. How far had they already traveled? What would two ladies do for the fortnight before the grandmother returned?
An insidious idea suddenly popped into his reeling head. Without giving himself time to think, he staggered to the door.
Melissa grimaced as she sipped the worst cup of tea she had ever tasted and tried to identify the food on her dinner tray. Nothing had gone right in days.
She and Beatrice had avoided trouble for nearly two weeks. Arranging a private sitting room meant they saw the gentlemen only at dinner. Lord Heflin had continued his warm remarks, but Bea's presence discouraged any touches. The judicious use of locks and keys also helped.
But the atmosphere at the Manor grew tenser every day. Toby carried an ever-deepening frown on his face--as did Mr. Crawford. Melissa assumed that both were losing badly at the incessant gaming. Daily she prayed that Toby would dismiss his friends, but he refused to do so.
She finally recognized that he could not. When the house party ended, debts of honor must be settled, and he lacked the means.
The ladies retired to the rose arbor after breakfast one morning. It was their favorite place to do needlework, offering escape from the gloomy house. It was also the most relaxing time of day. The men rarely left their rooms before noon, as their nightly carouses usually lasted until dawn. Thus Melissa was unconcerned when a maid summoned Bea to arbitrate a crisis in the kitchen.
Five minutes later Lord Heflin slipped into the arbor, his eyes alight with lust.
"My dear Lady Melissa, you make so charming a picture," he murmured.
"Hardly," she scoffed, clipping her thread and thrusting the needle into her work.
"So humble." He sat next to her on the bench.
She immediately crossed to the other side of the arbor.
"Avoiding me, my dear?" he asked softly, following behind her.
"I am not your dear," she snapped.
"Of course you are." He jerked her against him.
She tried to push him away, but his grip was too strong. "Let go!" she demanded fiercely.
"I always knew that demure exterior hid a heart of fire," he gloated, holding her head so she could not escape his wet lips. His mouth was suffocating. But even worse was her own treacherous body. Her budding breast tautened under his stroking hand.
"See?" he boasted, grinding her lips into her teeth and pulling her closer. "You want me as much as I want you. Enough of your coy teasing. I can't wait another minute."
She squirmed, trying to escape, but the movement only quickened his breathing. Beatrice had spoken truly. He reveled in using his strength against her. She tried to relax, but her body continued to fight.
"Mine at last," he rasped hoarsely.
Screaming, she clawed at his face, but could not break free. At least she no longer enjoyed his touch, a corner of her mind noted. Fury and terror overwhelmed all else. As he dragged her toward the bench, she recalled Bea's words and twisted, slamming her knee into his swollen manhood and stabbing with the scissors that remained in her hand. A second stab sliced deeply into the back of his thigh.
He doubled over, swearing.
She ran for the house.
Beatrice followed Melissa upstairs, cradling her until the nausea abated and her stormy tears had run their course. Bea wanted to leave immediately, but Melissa refused. She could do nothing until she received a reply from her grandmother. Instead, she decided on one last attempt to force Toby into protecting her. It was his job, both as her guardian and as a lord.
But she never made her plea. She had been raising her hand to knock on the study door when she'd heard voices inside.
"I haven't the ready at the moment," admitted Toby. "You must wait until the harvest."
"Really?" drawled Heflin. "Judging from your fields, ten harvests will not cover what you owe me, Drayton. But I am a reasonable man. Give me your sister, and we'll call it even. I've a bone to pick with the lady."
"Are you offering for her?" asked Toby in surprise.
"I may as well. She's plain enough that she'll cause no trouble. I need an heir. Once that is settled, she can stay in the country and out of my hair."
Melissa did not wait to hear more. She should have known that lords cared for nothing by themselves.
"Heflin is demanding my hand," she sobbed as she burst into Bea's room. "And Toby will agree. I cannot live with him! I'll kill myself first."
"Calm down, Missy!" ordered Beatrice. "What happened?"
Melissa took a moment to pull herself together. "Toby admitted that he can't cover his vowels. Heflin offered to take me instead. Toby's only condition is that he marry me."
Bea frowned. "Can he force you?"
"He's my guardian, and no one ever refuses lords. No vicar will listen to my protests." She broke into renewed sobs. "What can I do?"
"Stop this! I cannot think if you are in hysterics."
By the time Melissa had regained her composure, Bea was pacing the room, muttering about aristocratic stupidity.
"Do you think he has settled anything?" she asked at last.
Melissa frowned. "That depends on Heflin. Toby will do nothing on his own, but will agree if pushed."
"Then we may have time. Heflin will toy with you, the way a cat teases a mouse before the final feast. Can't you see his black eyes gleam while he throws out comments about your future life together?"
"Dear Lord, yes," said Melissa, mopping at her tears. "And every glance will raise the horror of it all."
"Steady, Missy," murmured Bea again. "Nothing is settled. And Toby will likely postpone any agreement if he cannot produce the goods."
"What is that supposed to mean?"
"We must leave tonight."
"And go where?" Melissa scoffed.
"Your grandmother's house." A hand stayed the inevitable protest. "After this she can hardly refuse you, but if she does, you can come home with me."
"It will never work, Bea. It's at least a four day trip. They will follow and catch us, and I will be worse off than I am now."
Bea joined her on the couch. "Then we must cover our trail. We cannot travel as Lady Melissa and Mrs. Stokes. Nor can we go as gentility. 'Ow's this, me pet?" she cackled suddenly in broad cockney.
Melissa choked. "Where did you learn that?"
"Off'n a maggoty scapegallows who worked for me 'usband." She changed back to her normal voice. "We'll book as Mrs. Sharpe and her niece Harriet, then remain aloof and quiet--I can only carry it off for brief stretches. And if we change your appearance..."
With renewed hope, Melissa threw herself into the game. "Betsy will know how. She once mentioned a concoction that darkens hair but washes out within weeks."
"Good. And we'll resume full mourning. Wear that horrid gown, the one that looks like a housekeeper's dress."
"It is the housekeeper's dress."
She laughed. "I'll use that monstrosity I wear for gardening. And I spotted a hideous bag bonnet in the attic that will hide my hair."
They continued planning, even while Betsy smeared a dreadful vegetable paste on Melissa's light brown locks. The girl would accompany them. Even had she been unwilling, they could not have left her behind to bear Toby's rage.
That evening, they dined upstairs as they honed their plans. The groom--who was utterly trustworthy, for he'd hated Toby since an unjust beating several years earlier--had agreed to drive them to Lincoln. The guests' grooms slept at the village inn, for the stables were too derelict to house them. Thus no one locally would see their disguises or suspect how they'd left.
As soon as the men were engrossed in their evening card game, the ladies slipped away. Melissa left a note condemning Toby's choice of friends, repudiating any betrothal, and announcing that she was going home with Beatrice.
They had to travel by stage, for their resources were unable to stretch even to a mail coach. The second day of the trip had been more uncomfortable than the first, with rutted roads and sullen passengers. The third was worse, as the weather turned vilely wet and blustery. The driver finally had to stop at an undistinguished country inn when the road became too mired to proceed. But that wasn't their worst problem.
A passenger who had boarded in Bath turned out to be a garrulous groom. Within minutes everyone on the coach knew that he worked for Lady Castleton, who had sent him ahead to inform her staff that she would stop in Bath for a fortnight instead of returning directly home.
Melissa was horrified. She and Beatrice could not afford two weeks at an inn, even one so unprepossessing as this one. It had occurred to neither of them that a lady of five-and-seventy might amuse herself by visiting friends.
Their argument on the subject halted only when someone knocked on the door. Beatrice answered.
A well-dressed gentleman stood in the hall, the cocky smile of advanced inebriation decorating his handsome face, a card clutched in his outstretched hand. "Lord Rathbone at your shervice." He bowed, then grabbed the doorjamb to keep from falling. "I could not help overhearing your dishcussion. May I offer you housing for a fortnight in return for a shlight favor?"