Too Tempting to Resist
By Elliott, Cara
Forever Copyright © 2012 Elliott, Cara
All right reserved. ISBN: 9780446584562
Oh, I’m so glad ye stopped by for a visit, sir. The Wolfhound has always said ye have a discerning eye fer art, so I’m anxious to get yer opinion on this.” Sara Hawkins stripped the last of the wrappings from around a gilt-framed watercolor painting and let out an admiring whistle. “Don’t ye think it will look lovely hanging in the Eros Bedchamber?”
Gryffin Owain Dwight, the Marquess of Haddan, shrugged out of his overcoat and came over to take a look. “You intend to hang that in there?” A dark brow shot up. “I wouldn’t advise it.”
“Why not?” Sara sounded a little crestfallen. “Roses are my favorite flower and this one is awfully pretty.”
“Indeed it is. But in the secret language of flowers, red roses symbolize love—a sentiment that would likely make a number of your patrons rather nervous,” said Gryff dryly. “Patrons” was putting it politely, seeing as Sara’s establishment was one of the most notorious gambling hells and brothels in London. “If you must pick a rose for a decorative touch, make it an orange one.”
“And what does that mean?”
“Fascination.” He curled a wicked smile. “Better yet, find a print of a yellow iris, which means ‘passion.’ Or sweet pea, which means ‘blissful pleasure.’”
She let out a snort of laughter.
“Or a peach blossom, which means ‘I am your captive.’”
“Fancy that.” Setting aside the painting, Sara perched a shapely hip on the sideboard and gave the marquess her full attention. “Now who would have ever guessed that flowers could talk.”
Gryff nodded gravely. “And then there is the grapevine…”
“Which means?” Sara leaned forward, her eyes widening in anticipation.
“Which means, ‘I am very thirsty so do you have any more of that expensive Scottish malt stashed away in your private cupboard?’”
A crumpled kidskin glove hit him square in the chest. “Oh, ye horrid man! Here I thought I was learning some fancy bit of knowledge. But ye was just pulling my corset strings.” She gave an aggrieved sniff. “Now that I own this establishment, I can make my own rules. So I don’t know why I let ye through the doors.”
“Because of my beaux yeux, of course,” quipped Gryff.
“That’s French for ‘lovely eyes,’” he explained, batting his raven-dark lashes. With all due modesty, the marquess knew that he was a great favorite with females, aristocratic or otherwise. And not only for his beaux yeux—though the unusual shade of green-flecked hazel did seem to have a mesmerizing effect on the opposite sex.
However, that fact was proving far less satisfying of late…
“Hmmph.” Sara tossed her head, interrupting his private musings. “So Frogs have a language of their own, too, eh?”
Gryff gave a bark of laughter. “Touché.” Seating himself on the edge of her desk, he loosened his starched cravat, and expelled a long breath. “Now about that malt, Sara.”
The door of the Chinoise curio cabinet opened and shut. Glasses clinked as she passed him a silver tray. “Ye may pour me a taste as well.”
“I take it that business has been good.”
“Aye, very profitable,” she replied. “Especially as I’m putting this bottle on your monthly bill.”
Gryff splashed a measure of the dark amber spirits into two glasses. “I’d gladly pay double for the pleasure of conversing with you,” he murmured, passing one to her.
She exaggerated a leer. “Pay triple and I’ll pleasure ye with far more than words, sweetheart.”
“Tempting.” He eyed her over the rim of his drink. “But I thought you were too busy running the Lair to have private patrons anymore.”
Until recently, The Wolf’s Lair had been owned by Gryff’s good friend Connor Linsley, the Earl of Killingworth. However, Connor had turned over a new leaf in life and had embarked on a new career as a goat farmer after gifting the Lair to his former employee.
Gryff swirled his whisky. His friend had also embarked on a new life as a happily married man, a fact which no doubt had much to do with his own current unsettled mood.
“Lud, I am busy,” responded Sara. “You have no idea how much work it is to run a business.” Despite the bantering tone, Sara was watching him carefully, a shade of concern clouding her gaze. “But fer you, I might make an exception.”
A smile played on his lips. “Tempting,” he repeated. “However, I value the relationship we have now far more than a fleeting tumble in bed.” He turned away, his expression blurred by the soft shadows of the private parlor as he stared at the pale painted wall above the bookcase. “Next time I stop by, I shall bring you a picture of ivy to hang here.”
“Oh? Does ivy have a special meaning, too?” she asked somewhat warily.
“It signifies friendship. Affection.”
Sara slid over and planted a light kiss on his cheek. “That’s sweet, no matter that you’re teasing me with all this talk about roses and such having a language of their own.”
“Actually, I’m not. The bit about the grapevine was a jest, but the rest is all true,” he assured her. “Indeed, the concept has been around for centuries. Lady Mary Wortley Montague, wife of the British ambassador to Constantinople during the early 1700s, brought a Turkish book back to England entitled The Secret Language of Flowers. It’s quite fascinating. If you like, I’ll bring you a copy.”
“Thank you.” Sara twined a lock of his long black hair around her forefinger. “How is it that a rakehell rogue like you knows so much about flowers?”
Gryff felt himself stiffen. Pulling away, he stalked to the hearth and picked up the poker. Coals crackled as he stirred up a flame. “You know better than to ask your patrons about their private lives. And like them, I don’t come here to answer personal questions,” he snapped.
“Ye don’t come here to dip yer wick or to drink yerself senseless anymore either,” retorted Sara, eyeing the very modest amount of whisky he had poured for himself. “Is something wrong? Ye look a little niffy-tiffy. Is something eating at yer insides?”
He stared at the embers, the bits of glowing orange a stark contrast to the surrounding bed of gray-black ashes. Dark and Light. “Oh, I don’t know. Perhaps I’m sick of…”
Sick of what? Seductions and sousing himself in brandy? Of late, neither swiving nor guzzling a barrel of brandy had held much allure. In fact, he had given up drinking heavily several months ago after his fuzz-witted carelessness had almost cost Connor his livelihood. As for women, strangely enough, these days, he was finding far more satisfaction in dedicating his energy to…other pursuits.
“Perhaps I’m sick of youthful folly,” said Gryff slowly, thinking of the books on landscape design stacked up by his bedside and the unfinished essay on his library desk. “With age comes wisdom…or so one hopes.” He made a wry face. “My birthday was last week, and when a man turns thirty, he is forced to take stock of his life.”
Folding her arms across her chest, Sara subjected him to a searching stare.
Her eyes slowly ran the length of the marquess’s lanky form, moving from the crown of his silky, shoulder-length hair, down over the broad slope of muscled shoulders and lean, tapered waist. She let her gaze linger for a moment on the distinctly masculine contours of his thighs before running it down the long stretch of legs.
“Yes,” she repeated, raising a mocking brow. “I can see that teetering on the brink of senility can make a man repent of his past sins.”
“Of which there are too many to name,” he murmured.
“Ain’t that the truth,” drawled Sara. “You and your fellow Hellhounds have a terrible reputation for wildness.” Society viewed Gryff and his two friends Connor Linsley and Cameron Daggett as dangerous because of their utter disregard for all the rules and regulations governing Polite Behavior.
“But you, of all people, know our deep, dark secret—we are harmless little lapdogs,” replied Gryff. “Our bark is far worse than our bite.”
“Ha!” Sara gave a snort. “The Wolfhound may have been domesticated…” Connor’s nickname was the Irish Wolfhound, as his mother had hailed from the Emerald Isle. “But you and Mr. Daggett are still devilishly dangerous. And speaking of that devil, how is his leg mending from the bullet—”
A sudden urgent thumping on the door interrupted the question. It was punctuated by a gruff shout. “Oh, no—ye can’t go in there, madam!”
“Oh, yes—” The latch sprang open. “—I can.”
Gryff saw a willowy figure evade the porter’s meaty hand and slip inside the private parlor. Prim bonnet, dowdy gown, sturdy half boots, stern scowl. An expert in assessing females, he need only an instant to recognize the type. She was not a lightskirt, but a respectable lady.
Definitely a harbinger of trouble.
But thankfully not his trouble. Taking a sidelong step out of the ring of firelight, Gryff slouched a shoulder to the storage cabinet, curious as to what sort of sparks were about to fly.
“Am I to understand that you are the proprietor here?” The intruder pointed an indigo-gloved finger at Sara.
“Yes.” Sara extended a ladylike hand in greeting. “I’m Sara Hawkins. And you are?”
The intruder eyed it uncertainly, but after a moment, innate good manners prevailed. “Lady Brentford,” she said reluctantly.
In contrast to her straitlaced appearance, her voice was low and lush, the sound sending an inexplicable shiver prickling down Gryff’s spine. It was soft as silk, yet had a slight nub to its texture.
The effect was unexpected. Erotic.
Gryff gave an inward wince. Erotic? Good God, what momentary madness had stirred such a strange thought? The lady did not look as if the word “erotic” had ever entered her vocabulary.
And yet, despite the severe chignon and the subdued, sober hues of her clothes, there was something sensual about Lady Brentford.
“Might I offer you some refreshment, Lady Brentford?” asked Sara politely. “If brandy is not to your taste, I can ring for some tea.”
“Thank you.” Her tone turned cooler—indeed, it could have chilled all the oolong in India. “But this is not a social call.”
Gryff tried to shake off the odd current of attraction that kept his gaze held in thrall.
“Ah. Then I assume you are looking for Lord Brentford,” said Sara.
“Good God, no.” The lady grimaced. “Lord Brentford has been two years in the grave, and I devoutly pray that he remains there.”
A small furrow formed between Sara’s brows. “Then forgive me, but…”
“It is my brother I seek—Lord Leete.”
A delicate cough sounded. “We have a full house tonight, and I do not know every patron by name. Perhaps you could describe him to me?”
Leete. The name stirred a vague flicker somewhere on the edges of Gryff’s memory. He closed his eyes for a moment, trying to bring the fellow into sharper focus. Yes, yes, it had been just last week—an obnoxious puppy, yapping some impertinent question about what type of tassel looked best on a Hessian boot.
“Average height and reedy,” he answered for her. “Blond hair brushed in an elaborate array of over-oiled curls.” A tiny pause. “And sidewhiskers that make him look like a poodle.”
“That’s the one.” Lady Brentford turned slowly to face him. “A friend of yours?”
“Not in the least,” replied Gryff. “Actually, he was making a nuisance of himself. I was forced to be rather rude.”
“He has a habit of doing that,” she said. Her voice remained calm, but her eyes betrayed the depth of her emotion. Beneath the surface hue of azure blue rippled a darker current of stormy slate. “Is he here?”
Sara shot Gryff a questioning look.
“The gaming rooms,” murmured he. “Try the vingt-et-un tables in the West Parlor. Word around my club is that Lord Leete plays for high stakes.” A pause. “Though only the Devil knows why, as he seems incapable of counting to ten when he’s in his cups.”
Looking a trifle uncomfortable, Sara cleared her throat. “Lady Brentford, there are, how shall I say it, some unwritten rules regarding establishments such as these. Gentlemen expect discretion from the management, especially concerning interruptions.”
“I’ve come all the way from Oxfordshire to see him.” Her tone had turned taut. “It’s a matter of pressing importance.”
Anger. Though she was trying hard to hide it, Lady Brentford was extremely angry, decided Gryff. But was there also a touch of fear? Repressing a frown, he angled a step to the side, trying to get a better read on her face.
“Yes, I can see that it is,” said Sara quietly. “So in this case, I shall make an exception.”
“Thank you,” came the whispered reply.
“If you will excuse me for a few moments, I will go have a look.”
Lady Brentford appeared reluctant to be left alone with an unknown gentleman. Slanting a sidelong look at him, she hesitated, and then seemed to decide that he was the lesser of two evils.
“Thank you,” she repeated, signaling her consent with a curt nod.
As the door clicked shut, she expelled a pent-up breath and turned her back to him. Swoosh, swoosh. Her heavy skirts skirled around her ankles as she moved away to study the etching hanging above the bookcase.
Trouble, Gryff reminded himself. He had survived the brutal Peninsular War by listening to the warning voice in his head. And right now it was drumming a martial tattoo against his skull.
Trouble, trouble, trouble.
The wise strategy would be to finish his drink and quietly take his leave. Whatever her reason for being here, it did not involve him.
Instead, he set his glass down and walked across the carpet.
“I apologize for the artwork, Lady Brentford.” A whisper of warm breath somehow found its way through the knot of hair at her nape and tickled against her bare skin. “It isn’t often that The Wolf’s Lair entertains respectable ladies.”
“No apology necessary,” replied the Right Honorable Eliza, Lady Brentford, trying to ignore the lick of heat that was slowly sliding down between her shoulder blades. “I’m not about to swoon from shock. I have seen a penis before, sir.”
The gentleman laughed. The sound was soft as a summer zephyr and yet it blew her skittering pulse up another notch.
Tracking Harry to a notorious brothel and gaming hell in the slums of Southwark was embarrassing enough, but why, oh, why did she have to find herself in a dimly-lit private parlor, ogling obscene art with the most sinfully attractive man she had ever laid eyes on?
It didn’t seem quite fair.
“Yes,” said the gentleman, once his low, lazy chuckle had died away. “But perhaps not quite so many of the offending organs at one time.” As he shifted to stand beside her, she caught the twinkle of humor in his eyes.
His eyes. Eliza blinked. How unfair of the Almighty to bless a rogue with such arrestingly attractive eyes.
“Or in quite so many athletic positions of amour,” he added.
Eliza inched away, finding that his closeness was having an unsettling effect on her insides. The prospect of confronting her brother already had her stomach tied in knots. “Rakes and rogues seem to devote all their waking hours to naught but gambling and bedsport,” she answered rather tartly. “So, given your presence in this place, I imagine that you are familiar with all of them.”
Rather than take offense at her deliberate rudeness, the gentleman laughed again. “No, not all.” He made a show of studying the risqué etching for a moment or two longer. “And thank heaven for that. Some of them look deucedly uncomfortable.”
She bit back a smile, unwilling to encourage any further flirtations.
He was flirting with her, wasn’t he? Or was it merely wishful thinking?
“By the by, I don’t believe we have been properly introduced,” he murmured. He had come close again. Close enough that she could breathe in the faint spicy scent of his cologne. “I am Haddan.”
Lord Haddan. Harry’s hero.
Oh, of all damnable, despicable coincidences, thought Eliza wryly. He was handsome, he was humorous—and for a moment, she had actually been enjoying his company.
“The Haddan?” she inquired, shaking off her unreasonable disappointment. After all, what did it matter who he was? “One of the infamous Hellhounds, who takes such gleeful delight in breaking every rule of Polite Society?”
“I see that my reputation has preceded me,” he said quietly.
Eliza answered by crossing over to the sideboard.
After a moment of uncomfortable silence, he followed. “Speaking of rules, you ought to counsel your brother to moderate his gambling. He’s a callow country lamb compared to the wolves who play here at the Lair. He’ll soon find himself fleeced to the bone.”
With her nerves already rubbed raw from worry, his words were like a needle pricking against a tender spot.
“Why on earth would you imagine that I have any influence over my brother, sir?” she challenged. “He holds the purse strings and the power to make every decision concerning money and the managing of the family estate. Do you really think he cares a whit for how his sister would like for him to behave?”
She had snapped out in anger and frustration, but the marquess seemed to be giving her question serious consideration. His brow pinched in thought and his gaze dropped to the Turkey carpet, as if seeking an answer in the dusky swirls of color.
Not that she expected one. In her experience, gentlemen simply ignored any problem that was too difficult to deal with.
But again he surprised her.
“It seems that I owe you yet another apology, Lady Brentford. You are right—in retrospect, my question was asinine and absurd.”
“A gentleman admitting to a fault? On second thought, I just might fall into a dead faint after all,” murmured Eliza.
“I have far too many of them to deny,” replied Gryff.
Damn the man for having such a sinfully attractive smile. And those eyes. Eliza had never seen such an intriguing hue of green—it was as if sunlight had melted forest leaves to a molten swirl of emerald and gold.
She quickly looked away. “Actually, it’s ironic. Whatever your faults—and I’m sure they are legion—you are the only one whose words might penetrate Harry’s thick skull.”
“Yes, you. The Hero Hellhound. The manly paragon of Devil-May-Care Debauchery.”
Gryff frowned. “I don’t even know the pup.”
“Well, he most certainly knows you.”
“Which in your books is apparently not a mark in my favor.”
“I am sure that the opinion of a country widow is not of paramount importance to you either,” she replied evasively. A plain, impoverished widow, she added to herself.
“I can see that I have sunk beneath reproach,” he said lightly. “Is there nothing I can do to lift myself up into your good graces?”
The question was, she knew, merely rhetorical—a bit of banter meant to evoke a smile, not a real response. Yet, his words seemed to stir to life a strange flutter deep, deep within, and then suddenly a wild, wanton thought seemed to swirl up from nowhere.
In all her life, Eliza had never experienced a real kiss—that sizzle of wild, wondrous heat described in novels. She had been married off by her father to an older, irascible baron—not for her looks but for her bloodlines—in return for money to fill the family coffers. It had been a cold, loveless match. And now Harry was wheedling to make it happen again.
Sensible, solid, serious—oh, how she was tired of living for everyone else’s expectations. For once—just once—she wanted to do something different.
“Kiss me.” Oh, dear God, had she really whispered the words aloud?
“I beg your pardon?” Gryff cocked his head. “I didn’t quite catch that.”
“K-kick my buffle-headed brother in the bum,” she replied, this time putting some force to her feelings. “For a man who reportedly thrashed the stuffing out of Lord Fetters and Lord Bertram in the card room of White’s last month, that shouldn’t be a difficult task.” She brushed a wisp of hair off her cheek. “Perhaps that would knock some sense into him.”
“The newspapers tend to exaggerate these things,” he replied. “In any case, it sounds to me as if Lord Leete needs more than a boot to the bum to steer him off the path of folly.”
“I fear you are right.” Eliza hoped her face wasn’t flaming. Feeling horribly embarrassed at her moment of utter madness, she looked around desperately for some distraction—other than male and female privy parts.
“Oh.” Her eyes fell on a handsome gold frame lying face up on the sideboard. “Oh, my goodness, that looks to be a watercolor by Redouté.”
Gryff backed up a step, allowing her to brush past him.
She smiled as she touched the gilded wood, and he felt the breath catch in his throat.
It was as if the sun had scudded out from behind a scrim of clouds.
Her eyes warmed with a luminous light, and as her lashes lowered, he saw they were not mouse brown, but tipped with gold highlights. A glow seemed to suffuse her skin as well, brightening its lightly bronzed hue and accentuating the sculpted cheekbones that slanted slightly upward. On seeing a faint dappling of freckles on her nose, Gryff decided that she must spend a good deal of time outdoors.
It was a memorable face—not precisely pretty, but striking. Unique. Unlike so many of the London beauties, who all looked as though they had been cut from the same piece of pasteboard.
“D-do you think Miss Hawkins would mind if I shifted the glass just a touch? I should dearly like to see the texture of the paper he uses, and the detail of his brushwork.”
“Go right ahead.” A lady who recognized Redouté’s work? “I am quite sure Sara won’t have any objections.”
Eliza began fumbling with the fastenings of her gloves.
“Here, allow me.” Gryff took one of her hands and carefully worked the tiny buttons free. Turning back the hem, he peeled the soft kidskin from her fingers. They were slim and graceful, yet he sensed a certain strength to them.
“Now the other one,” he demanded, taking hold of it before she could demur. “These feminine items of dress can be cursedly complicated to remove. But as you see, I have some expertise in the matter.”
A deep blush colored her cheeks, turning her skin nearly as red as the painted rose.
This time, after folding back the leather, he stopped. Trouble—trouble in the form of a small peek of smooth bare flesh—was staring him in the face. He inhaled, savoring the sweet, subtle scent of lavender and honeysuckle. The perfume tickled his nostrils, drawing him down, down, down…
“S-sir!” She pulled her wrist away from his lips, but not before he had tasted the beguiling softness of her skin.
“My apologies. That was very ungentlemanly of me,” murmured Gryff, watching her yank off the half-peeled glove and begin fiddling with the frame. Had her whisper been naught but a figment of his fevered imagination? Strangely enough, he didn’t think so.
“Feel free to slap me silly if you—”
Sara’s return cut off the rest of his apology.
“Sorry it took me so long, Lady Brentford.” She hesitated for an instant, fixing them with a quizzical look before adding, “I’ve told yer brother to wait in one of the private chambers at the end of the corridor. My porter will take ye to him.”
“Forgive me, but I’ve shifted your painting’s glass just a little,” stammered Eliza. “I’ve never had the opportunity to see an original Redouté painting, so I wanted to examine his brushwork close up.”
“A what?” asked Sara, craning her neck to see what she was missing.
“The painter,” explained Eliza. “Pierre-Joseph Redouté. He served as court artist to Marie Antoinette.”
“And later worked under the patronage of Empress Josephine,” added Gryff.
Eliza looked at him in surprise. “You are familiar with his work?”
In fact, he was an ardent admirer of the Frenchman’s talents, but he took care to cover his enthusiasm with a casual shrug. Only his fellow Hellhounds Connor Linsley and Cameron Daggett knew of his private passion, and he intended to keep it that way.
“I may be a rake but I’m not a complete savage, Lady Brentford. I do know a little about art.” Returning his attention to Sara, Gryff added, “Redouté is renowned for his botanical drawings, especially roses and lilies.”
“And this is an exquisite example.” Eliza paused and exhaled a small, soulful sigh. “No offense, Miss Hawkins, but I cannot help wishing that it might grace the walls of a different sort of place.”
Sara nodded sagely. “Ye mean because of the secret language of flowers?”
“Yes. The red rose is symbolic of passionate love,” she murmured, tracing a finger along the ruffled lines of the petals. A cynical quirk tugged at her mouth. “I don’t imagine that sentiment would find much favor here.”
“I suppose I should sell it,” said Sara, sounding a little regretful. “And use the money to buy more pictures of naked ladies and gents.”
“I would buy it if I had the blunt,” said Eliza. She gave it one last, longing look, then turned away. “But I don’t.”
Gryff watched wordlessly as she drew on her gloves and flexed her hands, like a pugilist preparing to march into the boxing ring.
“I appreciate your kindness, Miss Hawkins,” went on Eliza. Her chin rose, her spine stiffened. “I hope that I shall never have to trespass on your hospitality again.” Without a glance his way, Eliza hurried through the pool of candlelight and into the shadowed corridor.
“She’s got spirit,” murmured Sara, as the door fell closed. “I wish her good luck with the men in her life—she’s going te need it.”
Gryff found his glass of whisky and swallowed a small sip. But to his dismay, the spirits burned unpleasantly against the memory of the fleeting kiss. Damnation, the night was not going as he had planned. Perhaps his books would be the best company after all.
“Thank you for the whisky, Sara,” he said abruptly, putting down the unfinished drink. “I think I shall be on my way.”
“Yes.” His gaze fell on the painting, and for a heartbeat it seemed as if the delicate petals and arched stamens fluttered a secret signal. “And I’m taking this with me. Add it to my bill, along with the bottle.”
“Yer going te run off with the Redoodie?” Sara gave a little laugh. “Have a care, milord. Aren’t ye afraid that its whispers about true love might plant some strange thoughts in yer head?”
“Moi?” Gryff tucked the frame under his arm. “Sorry to disappoint you, my dear, but there’s a purely practical reason I want this. And it has absolutely nothing to do with love.”
Two months later
The devil take it, stop nattering at me, ’Liza.” His florid face screwing into a scowl, Harry, Lord Leete, slammed the bottle down on the polished table. “Leete Abbey is my estate and I shall run it as I please.”
“That is painfully clear,” said Eliza, trying to keep her temper in check. It was not easy. Four years her junior, Harry had been a thoughtful, sweet-tempered boy, but that had all changed when he had gone up to university. He had left an eager, engaging young man—and had come home an arrogant, selfish ass.
That he had no head for strong spirits only exacerbated the problem. As was amply evident now.
“Glad to see we understand each other.” His supercilious smile showed that the subtle sarcasm had sailed right over his head. “As I said, I’m having a few of my friends come to stay for a few weeks. I expect you to see that everything runs smoothly.” He gave a vague, fluttery wave of his hand. “You know, a fine array of courses at every meal, and all that. Plenty of beefsteaks. Legs of lamb. York ham. Oh, and Bushnell favors pheasant, so be sure the game room is well hung.”
She couldn’t quite believe her ears. Had he not heard a word she had said about the state of their finances? “Shall I have a wheel of green cheese flown down from the Moon as well? Or perhaps a fricassee of unicorn, spiced with silvery stardust.”
That barb finally penetrated the haze of brandy.
“Dash it all, ’Liza, a fellow can’t be a pinchpenny when it comes to entertaining,” Harry turned his head to glower at her, and nearly poked out an eye on the starched tip of his shirtpoint.
Unsure whether to laugh or weep, Eliza set her elbows on the table and took her head in her hands. Otherwise she might have been tempted to hurl the earthenware jug of flowers at his head. Was there a bloom that symbolized “bumbleheaded idiot”?
“Harry,” she said slowly. “Let me try to phrase this simply, so that even your fuzzed wits might understand. Our coffers are nigh on empty. The farmlands are in a state of shambles from neglect. The butcher is threatening to cut off credit, and…” She paused to pick up a stack of bills. “And your tailor and bootmaker are asking for a sum that would likely launch a four-deck ship of the line for His Majesty’s Navy.”
Her brother’s lower lip jutted out in a petulant pout. “A fellow has to cut a fine dash in Town.”
“Yes, well, your ‘dash’ is going to run us straight to the sponging house.”
“Can’t you do something?” he whined. “What about your paintings? I thought you made some blunt illustrating those silly little flower books.”
Eliza looked away. The silly little flower books were, in fact, an impressive set of beautiful quarto-sized books on English wildflowers, written by a noted authority from Merton College.
And yes, she had been paid—quite nicely in fact. But she would be damned if a penny more of her hard-earned savings went to fund Harry’s debaucheries. She was getting close—oh-so close—to saving enough to buy a snug little cottage of her own in the Lake District. A place where she could live independently at last, free from the grasping demands of the men in her life.
Another commission was pending, and if her work was chosen, the dream might actually be within her grasp.
“That money is long gone, Harry.” It wasn’t precisely a lie. She had given it over to the safekeeping of kindly Mr. Martin, a fellow member of the Horticulture Society who was a solicitor in the neighboring town of Harpden.
“What about doing more?” His tone had turned wheedling. “You’re jolly good at it.”
A sigh leaked from her lips. “What about spending less?” Eliza pointed to the shiny gold fobs hanging from his watch chain. “Look at you—you’re like a magpie, snatching at every shiny bauble you see without a care of the consequences.” Under her breath, she could not help but add, “Birdbrain.”
Harry sloshed more port into his glass, spilling half of it over the table.
The rich ruby-red wine formed a sticky pool on the pearwood and was in danger of trickling onto the carpet.
An apt metaphor, thought Eliza, seeing as her brother was bleeding the estate dry.
He guzzled a swallow and fixed her with a red-rimmed stare. “Y’know, our problems would be solved if you would stop being so deucedly stubborn and marry Squire Gates. He’s willing to make a very handsome settlement on me for the honor of having your hand.”
“Our problems?” repeated Eliza.
Harry had the grace to flush.
“Squire Gates is over sixty and confined to a Bath chair with gout,” pointed out Eliza. “If you are so keen on marriage, why don’t you find yourself an heiress?”
“I don’t want to don a legshackle,” he protested. “I want to sow my wild oats.” His fist tightened around his glass. “So this is how you pay me back for taking you in and seeing to all your comforts? Lud, I am ill-used for all my kindnesses. You are cruel and ungrateful.” A sniff. “And exceedingly selfish.”
Eliza drew in a deep breath.
Another gulp of wine and Harry began to wallow ever deeper in self-pity. “I’m going back to Town for several days, and when I return, my friends will be coming with me. How the devil are we going to get the blunt for my party?”
“Oh, for God’s sake, Harry.” Seeing as he was already well into his second bottle, she knew it was useless to keep arguing. She pushed back her chair and stood up. “Sell your hunter instead of your sister.”
Gryff looked up as a silver-tipped walking stick tapped, tapped against the newspaper he was perusing. “Well, well, the Prodigal Hound returns. When did you get back to Town?”
“Last night.” Cameron Daggett, the third member of the Hellhounds, took a seat on the arm of the neighboring reading chair and crossed his long legs. As always, he was a picture of well-tailored elegance—save for a few personal touches that were deliberately designed to tweak the noses of Society’s high sticklers. Today it was a lilac-colored cravat made of gauzy Indian silk, rather than a staid length of starched white linen.
“Where have you been?” asked Gryff.
“Oh, here and there.”
Of the three Hellhounds, Cameron Daggett was perhaps the most enigmatic. And dangerous. A man of razor-toothed wit and deliberately outrageous style, he gave the appearance of viewing life as nothing more than a scathing joke. Gryff was among the few people who could stand up to his bite. But Cameron did not allow anyone, even his two close comrades-in-arms, to know what secrets lay beneath his show of worldly cynicism.
“You might have informed your friends of your travels,” chided Gryff. “Connor and his bride were quite disappointed that you did not come to their estate while Sebastian was visiting from Yorkshire.”
“Woof, woof, woof.” With a silent snapping of his fingers, Cameron mimed a barking dog. “Don’t growl at me. You know I rarely pay attention to such formalities. I was otherwise engaged.”
“I shudder to think of the possibilities.”
“Never mind that,” murmured Cameron, who refused to join any of the fancy gentlemen’s clubs in London. “Good God, this place reminds me of a crypt,” he added, glancing around at the other occupants of the room. “Look at your fellow members—they all appear dead.”
“They are sleeping off their midday meal.” Yawning, Gryff turned the page. He, too, was feeling a little drowsy, having been up most of the night writing. “Feel free to leave anytime.”
“I plan to, but I was hoping that you might like to accompany me. I have a pretty little pistol that I acquired in Paris, and I thought you would enjoy helping me test its accuracy at Manton’s shooting range.”
“Unfortunately, I have another engagement,” answered Gryff.
“Ah.” Cameron’s mouth curled up at the corners. “With Linonia’s lovely wife?”
“No, that was over long ago. I—” Gryff frowned as a flicker of candlelight winked off something lustrous tangled in his friend’s sherry-colored hair. “Bloody hell, is that a pearl hanging from your earlobe?”
“Yes. And quite a nice one, don’t you think? It belonged to King James, or so the legend goes.” Brushing back a curling lock, Cameron fingered the filigree gold setting. “You should think of getting your ear pierced.”
“Ha!” Gryff gave a low snort. “I’m not about to let you stick another cursed needle into my flesh. I’m still angry at you for convincing me to get tattooed by that Jamaican sailor in Bristol when I was three sheets to the wind.”
“Why? Rufus is a very skilled artist.” Cameron flashed a grin. “And you have to admit, the ladies find it rather alluring.”
True. The fanciful dragon curling down from his navel seemed to fascinate the opposite sex. Indeed, Lady Chatwin had been so captivated that she had found an Indian artist to put a butterfly on her buttocks…
“So admit it, the pain was worth the pleasure.”
At that, Gryff had to laugh. “Perhaps. But no earrings.”
His friend smirked. “Jewels seem to drive the ladies wild. Just a small glimmer has them unlacing their corsets in a hot and lathered heartbeat.”
“I manage to loosen corset strings without the aid of flashy baubles,” said Gryff dryly. His gaze drifted to the tall case clock in the corner of the room. “Look, talk of sex is quite titillating. However, I have to be off.”
“Anywhere interesting?” asked Cameron, rising as well.
“As a matter of fact, yes. If you must know, I’m paying a visit to Watkins & Harold.”
Cameron lifted a brow. “The publishers?”
“Yes,” answered Gryff. “They want to print my essays on The Great Estate Gardens of England—in an illustrated folio edition, no less. I’ll need to add a few more new ones to finish the collection, but for the most part it is done. The most important thing is to pick an artist to do the paintings from which the engravings will be made. Watkins wants to show me a few examples this afternoon, so that we may make the final choice.”
“Congratulations.” For once, Cameron’s tone was entirely serious.
“Thank you,” he said, hoping the boyish excitement percolating inside him was not too obvious.
His friend spotted the wrapped package propped against the leather chair and picked it up before Gryff could stop him. “Is this one of them?” he asked, taking a peek beneath a corner of the brown paper.
“No, no, an artist of Redouté’s fame would be unlikely to take on such a commission, even if he were residing in England.” Gryff made a wry face. “Besides, his style is not exactly what I have in mind. I want something more…whimsical.”
“Whimsical.” Cameron looked a bit bemused. “Not normally a word I associate with you.”
It was said lightly, and yet his friend’s quick retort stung a little. “Just because I don’t walk around looking like a bloody pirate…” Gryff’s gaze flicked to Cameron’s cravat, which, though knotted in a flawless Mathematical style, flaunted its wearer’s highly irreverent attitude to the world. “That doesn’t mean I have no imagination,” he growled defensively.
“Having read your essays, I’m aware of that,” responded his friend with a small smile. He shifted slightly and took a long moment to polish the single dagger-shaped fob hanging from his watch chain. “I was referring to the fact that hiding your artistic talents under a bush, so to speak, seems to be making you more and more tense and unhappy. Why not allow your real self to bloom?” The walking stick tapped, tapped against the painting. “There is, you know, nothing unmanly about having a love for flowers. Stop keeping it a secret.”
“Ye gods, you are one to talk about keeping secrets.”
The light died in Cameron’s eyes as if a shutter of steel had slammed down over his gaze. “True,” he said, assuming his most irritating drawl. “It’s far easier to see faults in one’s friends than in oneself.”
“Since you are the one who brought up the subject of secrets, why the devil are you so close-mouthed about your background?” demanded Gryff. “Though we’ve known you for years, neither Connor nor I have a clue as to your family or where you were raised.”
“That’s because like the djinn in Scheherazade’s Arabian tales, I simply emerged from a magic brass lamp in a puff of smoke.” Then, with practiced ease, Cameron quickly deflected the talk to another subject. “Tell me more about the illustrations for your book. I am curious—if Redouté’s renderings are not to your liking, what sort of style do your seek?”
“It’s hard to explain.” Gryff abandoned his interrogation, knowing that it was pointless to press Cameron for personal revelations. “It may sound silly, but I’ll know it when I see it. There is a certain…Oh, merde.”
“What?” Cameron looked around.
“It’s Leete, that obnoxious pup from the country. And he appears to be headed our way.”
Sure enough, the viscount teetered in the doorway of the reading room for a moment before cutting a patter of quick, unsteady steps to intercept them.
“L’rd Haddan! Demmed fine show y’ make at Jackson’s yesterday. Lud, what I wouldn’t give f’ a right cross like yours.”
Gryff flexed a fist, sorely tempted to stop the young man’s tipsy yapping with a punch to the jaw.
“There’s a big mill taking place near my estate in Oxfordshire next week—y’ know, the Scottish Highland champion te fight the German Giant from Hamburg. A few of m’ friends coming t’ stay with me…don’t suppose y’ would care t’ join the party?”
Actually I would rather break my knuckles one by one with a smithy’s hammer than endure a fawning pack of puppies trying to win my regard.
“Thank you for the offer, Leete…” Gryff paused.
“Perchance would your estate be Leete Abbey?” he asked.
“Yes,” replied the baron eagerly. “Most of t’ grounds are covered with cursed gardens ’nd crumbling ruins, but the manor house is a proper place of masculine refuge.”
Cameron’s mouth curled in contempt. “I doubt—”
“The mill sounds like it might afford some amusement,” interrupted Gryff. “Thank you. You may count on my presence.”
Leete’s ruddy face split into a fuzzy grin. “Excellent, excellent! I promise y’ll have a good time, sir.”
“Have you taken momentary leave of your senses?” demanded Cameron as the viscount tottered away. “The fellow is an unmitigated ass. What in the name of Hades made you accept his offer?”
Gryff smiled. “I’m not going for the pleasure of the viscount’s company. Leete Abbey is the location of a very fine example of Capability Brown’s ‘grammatical’ landscapes.” And unless he was much mistaken, it was also the location of the viscount’s intriguing widowed sister. Both were worthy of a trip to the country.
“Grammatical landscape?” Cameron waggled a brow. “You are speaking a very odd sort of language.”
“Brown added a new vocabulary to gardening,” explained Gryff. “He spoke of adding a comma here, a colon there…What he meant was, he merely punctuated the natural landscape rather than force it into a formal layout.”
“Interesting,” murmured Cameron. As they reached the front portico, he gave a small salute with his walking stick. “I shall leave you to your commas and chrysanthemums. Enjoy your conversations with the local flora because you won’t be getting any sensible talk from Leete and his pack of drunken cronies.”
Eliza eyed the crates of wine that had come down from London and swore under her breath.
Their longtime butler coughed in commiseration. “It’s a pity His Lordship wasn’t born with your sense. Or rather, that you weren’t born with his…” Another cough.
“With his plumbing,” she muttered.
He bowed his head and remained tactfully silent.
“I suppose you and James had better carry these down to the cellars.” An exasperated sigh leaked from her lungs. “Do your best to moderate the flow of festivities this evening, Trevor.”
“Yes, milady. I shall.”
As the two men hefted a slatted box and staggered for the stairs, Eliza cast a critical eye around the entrance hall. The two overworked maids had done their best in making the place presentable, but cobwebs could still be seen clinging to the corner moldings, and a dull sheen of dust coated the gold-framed scowling faces of her forebearers. Considering the musty aura of neglect pervading the once-handsome woodwork around them, they ought to be raising the roof slates with their scolding shouts.
Assuming the last storm hadn’t blown most of them away.
“Don’t look at me,” she huffed, resisting the childish urge to stick out her tongue at the first Viscount Leete, whose weak chin and piggy little eyes had unfortunately been passed down to Harry. “It wasn’t me who created a…monster.”
A monster whose rapacious need for self-gratification was getting more and more out of control.
Turning away, she walked for the front door, her heels clicking over the stone tiles. At least they had been freshly swept—not that the expected guests would notice such niceties. Rich food and strong drink were all they cared about, along with enough vile-smelling tobacco to add another layer of grime to the plaster ceiling.
The echo of her steps reverberated off the paneling, urging her to hurry. The first of the revelers would be arriving at any moment, and the last thing she wanted was a face-to-face encounter.
Eliza was acquainted with most of the men on the guest list. Like Harry, they were crass, crude, spoiled young aristocrats, too old to be forgiven for their self-indulgent posturing, too young to have acquired any polish or charm. For the most part, they contented themselves with lascivious grins when she passed by, but several had been so rag-mannered as to attempt a few drunken gropes in the corridors. Impecunious widows were seen as fair game. Something to be used and tossed aside, like a soiled towel.
She kicked the door closed behind her, taking savage satisfaction in the loud thunk of the ancient oak slamming shut.
“Thank God I need not join them in the dining room,” she informed a twittering sparrow. “While they drink and smoke and tell their stupid, vulgar jokes, I shall enjoy the civilized peace and quiet of my own chambers, along with a book.” Perhaps one of Mrs. Radcliffe’s novels. A crumbling castle filled with debauched wastrels, dastardly villains, clanking chains, and eerie noises would certainly complement her current mood.
Ducking behind a hedge, Eliza crossed the lawns and followed a winding gravel path to a small stone cottage screened by a high-walled garden. Half a century ago it had been the bailiwick of the under gamekeeper, but now it was her own private place of refuge. A safe harbor in a sea of storms. A place where she could let down her guard and be herself.
Whoever that may be.
For longer than she could remember, she had dutifully done all the things asked of her, allowing her own dreams and desires to be bartered, piece by piece, to pay for the pleasure of others.
“Maybe there is no real me left,” she murmured, chilled by the depressing thought.
After fumbling for the key hidden under one of the flowerpots—filled with petunias, which meant “Your presence soothes me”—Eliza unlocked the door and stepped inside.
A warm, syrupy light spilled in through the west bank of windows, and as the first rays touched her shoulders, she felt the tension melt from her muscles. The sight of her worktable, a colorful confluence of paints, brushes, papers, and specimen clippings bunched in jars of water, was always a balm to her spirits. It was cheerful, a sentiment sadly lacking in the main house.
“To hell with Harry and his dissolute friends,” she murmured, determined to keep her brother’s follies from intruding on the rest of her day.
Hanging her shawl on a coat peg, she began to roll up the sleeves of her muslin dress. The garment was, she acknowledged, an unflattering cut and a bit worse for wear. The fabric had been worn by countless washings to a gossamer soft texture, and the sprigged roses had faded to pale pastels. But it was exceedingly comfortable—the paint spatters were like old friends, whose rowdy exuberance always made her smile.
Catching a glimpse of her face in the mullioned glass, Eliza had to look twice. It wasn’t often that she saw her mouth curled upward in a smile. Spots of sunlight sparkled through the reflection of her cheeks.
“Why, I look halfway happy. Halfway carefree.”
She stared at the unfamiliar image for another flickering instant before forcing her eyes away. “Yes, but if I ever hope to achieve the other half, I had better get to work.”
Opening her paintbox, Eliza began to mix pigments on her palette. Perhaps on her next visit to the art emporium she would splurge on a few sheets of French laid paper. If Redouté favored the subtle texture for his watercolor washes then it must be—
Eliza looked up with a frown. “Elf?” she called.
Another aggrieved yowl, this one sounding fainter.
Oh dear. What mischief was her cat up to now? Last week he had been sneaking into one of the botanical bandboxes and shredding all of her carefully dried fern plants.
Setting down her brush, Eliza quickly checked the storage closet. “Elf?” she called again.
The feline answer seemed to be coming from outside.
She opened the back door and stepped into the small stone-walled garden. A quick search among the climbing roses yielded no cat. The pink gerberas showed no sign of damage, and the silvery sage was likewise undisturbed, its purple-tipped stalks swaying softly in the gentle breeze.
“Hmmph.” Mystified, Eliza unlatched the gate and walked a short way up the path.
She looked left, and then right. And then up.
“Oh, you silly, silly creature!”
Elf’s forlorn purr seemed to indicate his agreement.
“Can’t you come down on your own?” she demanded.
His tail twitched.
“Very well.” Rolling her eyes, Eliza edged around a patch of brambles and approached the stately oak overhanging the shaded gravel.
“Ye gods, why is it that I seem to be surrounded by bacon-brained males?” she muttered as she unlaced her half boots and tugged them off.
No answer floated down from above.
“I’m always expected to pull their fat out of the fire. You know, it would be nice if, for once in my life, some Paragon of Masculine Virtue would come to my rescue.”
“Yes, and if pigs could fly…” Heaving a wry sigh, Eliza reached up and grabbed hold of a branch.
Gryff ran a hand over the weathered granite, savoring the contrasting textures of sun-warmed moss and wind-carved stone against his palm. It was one thing to study a portfolio of printed engravings depicting a historic building or landscape. But no matter how detailed, they were no substitute for experiencing the actual site. Bees buzzed in lazy circles around the wildflowers growing amid the Abbey ruins, the low droning a gentle counterpoint to the breeze whispering through the ancient stones.
Taking a seat on the remains of a wall, he shaded his eyes and admired the view. Fields of green and gold surrounded the knoll, the hawthorn hedgerows and stiles giving way to rolling hills and a ruffling of forest that darkened the valley. Outcroppings of rock dotted the meadow grasses, and in the distance a river meandered through the valley, sunlight glinting off the slow-moving water. Gryff drew in a lungful of the sweet-scented air and leaned back against a slab of granite, letting the pleasant warmth radiate through his coat.
It was good to be out of London, away from the gritty coal smoke and crowded streets. The light lilt of songbirds was far more soothing to the ear than the guttural curses of costermongers. Country life. The peace and quiet was a reminder that he should be spending more time at his own estate.
Not, he thought wryly, that Haddan Hall needed him. The estate steward, a man who had been there since Gryff was in leading strings, ran things with the well-oiled precision of a naval chronometer. And yet, over the last year, as he had become more serious in his studies of landscape design, he had begun to visualize some changes to the grounds. The view from the west wing of the main house could be softened with a more natural arrangement of plantings instead of the stiff formality of…
But before he embarked on any actual shaping of the earth, he must finish writing the last essay for his book. Seeing the finished words—black ink on white paper—would be a symbolic statement of sorts.
Looking up at the clouds scudding across the sky, he let out a small sigh. Cameron would call it a commitment to his real self.
But that all depended on whether he decided to use his real name as the author rather than a pseudonym. Truth or…Distractions and deflections.
After another moment of musing, Gryff edged around to study the subtle design elements that Capability Brown had added to the manor house grounds. The gardens had been sadly neglected of late, but the plan was still visible.
“No wonder Brown is considered a genius,” murmured Gryff, as he pulled out his notebook and jotted down a few impressions, along with a rough sketch.
“Lud, I wish I possessed a talent for drawing,” he muttered, staring at the pencil strokes.
The words provoked a sudden smile. Withdrawing a small watercolor sketch that was tucked between the back pages, Gryff held it up and angled it into the sunlight. It was only a quick, loose study of camellias, but the delicate colors and forms radiated with life. It was…
“Perfection,” he said aloud, echoing the secret language of flowers depicted on the paper.
From the moment he had spied it peeking out from the portfolio of possible artists, he had known it was the perfect style for his book. He had gone through the motions of examining the other artwork, but the flower had already entwined him in its whisper-soft beauty.
Watkins had allowed him to keep it, and promised that working out a contract with the artist should be a mere formality.
A good thing, for Gryff had resolved that he wouldn’t take no for an answer, no matter the cost.
Tucking the sketch safely away, he rose and resumed his walk, choosing a roundabout path back to the manor house that wound down through a copse of tall trees. Sunlight filtered through the leafy canopy, painting hide-and-seek shadows over the ground. Gryff slowed his steps, in no hurry to return to his rooms. Leete and his friends were already half sunk in a sea of claret, so the prospect of a long and well-lubricated supper did not hold much allure. A bunch of young fribbles spouting slurred jests and inane boasts.
Good Lord, was I really so crass and callow at their age?
Quite likely, he admitted with a rueful grimace. He paused to breathe in the woodsy scent of the surrounding trees. Continues...
Excerpted from Too Tempting to Resist by Elliott, Cara Copyright © 2012 by Elliott, Cara. Excerpted by permission.
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