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"In all these things connected with love, everybody
should act according to his own inclination."
—The Kama Sutra of Vatsyayana
Linlithgow, Scotland, December 1891
"I leave for London on the morrow." The announcement made, Lady Beatrice Lindsey turned her attention to the carrot in her gloved hand and Princess, her sister's grizzled pony, gobbling it as she spoke.
Ralph stole a glance at the blond beauty standing at the paddock fence beside him, her downcast gaze veiling her cornflower-blue eyes. For the first time since she'd arrived a week ago, Beatrice was avoiding looking at him. Rourke's lovely sister-in-law had beguiled him since they'd first met in London the month before on Rourke and Lady Katherine's wedding day. That he was a former felon turned semirespectable secretary and she the daughter of an earl placed his romantic hopes somewhere between dashed and doomed.
He dipped into the burlap bag of carrots he'd brought along and handed her another. "This is…news."
Propping one foot upon the fence rail, he plucked at his corduroy-clad knee, privately considering why he should feel so very stunned. He'd known she must leave eventually—very well, imminently—but need it be so very soon? The Christmas week they'd spent together had been the happiest he'd known in some time, a long time—very well, ever. Growing up, Christmas had been just another day for him, another day for doing without. Whether holed up in the East End lodging house with his mum or the thieves' den run by Johnnie Black, he'd never known what it was to have a tree or presents or a bed of his own from where those ubiquitous sugar plums might dance about in his dreams. Having survived for thirty years without such sentiment, really, why take up the burden of keeping Christmas now?
Beatrice Lindsey was why. Even with her lithe, long-limbed body swathed in the belted greatcoat she'd borrowed from her brother-in-law and her feet shod in a pair of leather riding boots that had seen better days, she was more beautiful than most women who'd spent hours preparing for a ball. Beyond her looks, there was a good deal more to her than the spoiled miss she still sometimes pretended to be. Her thoughtful demeanor, steady gaze and subtle but inherent femininity held his fancy where the more obvious charms of bolder, brasher women had worn thin. She was, he admitted, the woman with whom he'd become swiftly smitten and for the first time in his life, not in an exclusively sexual way. He'd hoped her Scottish sojourn would extend through the New Year at least—very well, indefinitely—so that he might discover where, if indeed anywhere, these fine new feelings might lead. Now, it seemed, that was not to be.
"Can you not delay until after the New Year? Twelfth Night in Scotland is something to be experienced," he ventured, not because he truly thought he could alter the outcome, but because he'd never forgive himself if he failed to try.
She shook her head, the waning winter sun lighting her loosely braided hair like a halo. "I'm afraid not." Brushing her gloved hands off on her coat, she turned to him and shook her head, the gesture slight but resolute. "I received a telegram from my father summoning me home. It seems my departure from Aunt Lavinia's in the midst of the holidays has created quite a scandal."
He bit the inside of his cheek to keep from replying that her father, the Earl of Romney, had created scandal aplenty with his whoring and his drinking and his gaming, the latter most especially. That he hadn't managed to muster enough fatherly feeling to protect his not-yet-twenty-year-old daughter from the lecherous advances of his crony, Lord Haversham, obliging her to seek refuge in Scotland with her newlywed sister attested to a character every bit as black as that of any criminal of the East London underworld. Haversham—the very name was poison on his tongue. Ralph had never met the blackguard who'd dare lay lecherous hands upon his secret darling, but he'd never wanted anyone dead half so much.
Even though he sensed his was a lost cause, he wasn't prepared to give up quite yet. "Give me leave to speak to Rourke on your behalf. I believe he may have some sway with your father."
"Sway" was a discreet way of saying blackmail. To Ralph's best knowledge, the Scot still held her father's gambling marker, the very marker he'd put into play as a gambit to force Romney to give him the hand in marriage of his elder daughter, Katherine—Kate.
Bea whipped about to face him. Pleading eyes, the very blue of cornflowers, fixed imploringly upon his face. "Please, promise you won't. After what I've just put Rourke and Kate through, I couldn't bare to cause them further trouble."
She was referring to her bringing Felicity Drum-mond along as her traveling companion. The cunning redhead was Rourke's long ago mistress, a bit of history Beatrice hadn't known. Once ensconced in the newly-weds' household, Felicity had set her cap for Rourke, contriving to make it seem to Kate as though they were still lovers. Just a few days ago, the ruse was revealed and Felicity dispatched back to London to everyone's collective relief.
He dropped the empty sack at his feet. "You had no way of knowing what Felicity had been to Rourke in the past, let alone what present mischief she meant your sister." Despite the sad little life she'd led so far, he doubted a heart as pure and tender as hers could begin to conceive of evil on such a scale.
She shrugged, biting her bottom lip in that effortlessly sensual way that never failed to find him hardening. Seconds later, she shook her head, looking so young and lost that he ached to take her in his arms if only to comfort her. "Still, in future I must know better. I must do better. It was a childish fantasy to think I might avoid my problems simply by running away. Even if Father had not summoned me back, I still must make my peace with my aunt. It was abominable of me to leave as I did. I can only imagine how worried she must have been."
Raised with no mother but her older sister, Kate, alternately neglected and bullied by her father, and most recently set upon sexually by his crony, Beatrice Lindsey still seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time fretting about the feelings of others. Swift as she was to forgive people their transgressions, she was far slower to forgive her own small sins. If he could have but one of his many wishes for her granted, it would be that she cease being so bloody hard on herself.
He stepped down from the fence and turned to her. "You are too hard on yourself, milady."
She sent him a tentative smile. "So formal you are, Ralph." Seeing the sparkle return to her eyes, knowing he was responsible for putting it there, felt both gratifying and thrilling. "Shall I go back to calling you Mr. Sylvester, then, or simply Sylvester?" The smile broadened, revealing the bedeviling dimple on the left side of her chin.
Captivated, he leaned closer, close enough that his shoulder brushed the side of her breast, a deliberate and dastardly liberty he refused to regret. Standing so close, quite alone as they were, he found it hard to care that she was an earl's daughter or that Rourke would have his manly parts on a platter if he dared defile her.
Ralph dared, oh, how he dared. "I'd rather you didn't. Mr. Sylvester makes me sound like a mad old uncle and Sylvester like a butler."
Not that his situation was much above that. His elevation from valet to private secretary was a recent affair, more the result of Lady Kate's household management skills rendering his old post obsolete than any refined ability on his part. No matter how finely cut his suits or highly polished his shoes, he was still a servant.
"Ralph it is then, for you don't seem a whit mad and certainly you're not old… Well, not terribly old," she added with a grin, the latter bringing the dimple into even greater prominence.
"Ah, how cruel is youth."
He pantomimed a knife thrust to the heart, the action not so very far from the mark. At times such as this, he was reminded of not only the more than decade difference in their ages, but also of how very much more he'd seen and done and lived.
"I will miss this and…you," she said suddenly, her eyes and smile dimming.
Ralph dropped any pretense of humor, as well. "Once in London, what will you do? Haversham—"
"Do not worry on that score." She cut him off with a brisk shake of her beautiful blond head. "Father may have called me back, but that does not mean I will return to his house. I will take myself to Aunt Lavinia, beg her forgiveness and confess everything as I should have done from the start. She is no great admirer of my father, even though she is his sister. Once she knows the truth, I've no doubt she will take my part."
That she would find sanctuary with her aunt brought him relief, but he would have liked to insist upon more. At the very least, he would have liked to insist she accept his escort back to London, with a female from the household staff as chaperone, of course. Above all, he would have liked to insist she stay, not only through the holiday but indefinitely, forever. Unfortunately he had no claim upon Beatrice Lindsey, no claim and therefore no right to insist upon anything at all. In his thirty years, Ralph had never felt the want of social standing and money more keenly.
She folded her gloveless hands atop the fence rail, the nails bitten to the quick, the delicate knuckles chapped to pinkness. "This may well be the last time we find ourselves alone. We should say our goodbyes now, as simply Ralph and Bea."
Ralph swallowed against the lump lodged in his throat. For a former con artist, mimic and master of disguise, he was having the very devil of a time hiding his feelings around her.
Too caught up to care, he reached across and covered her hands with his. "I don't fancy saying goodbye to you simply. I don't fancy saying goodbye to you at all."
She nearly matched his five foot ten inch stance. Accustomed as he was to women looking up at him, he found he quite liked having this one look him in the eye. Even with goodbye less than a day away and his heart aching in anticipation, the prospect of all the sexual positions their equal footing would allow had him swelling.
"I will return, I promise. Only not as Kate's little sister on the lam, but as a proper lady." She let out a laugh for all that her eyes were swimming. "Why, I shall be so self-possessed, you shan't recognize me, Ralph."
God, but he hoped that wouldn't be so. "I shouldn't like to think of you as changed. I shouldn't like to think of you as anything other than what you are at this very moment." He swallowed, throat aching.
"You always see the best in me, Ralph. You cannot know what your friendship this past week has meant to me."
He wouldn't have believed it possible that a heart as hardened as his could feel so raw. "I am glad I could bring you comfort." He reached for her hands, too caught up to care who might see.
Her gaze fastened on his eyes and slowly slid to his lips. "Oh, Ralph."
Ralph lifted his hand from hers and laid it atop her shoulder. His other arm encircled her waist. She angled her face ever so slightly to the side and without so much as touching her, he knew their mouths would match perfectly.
"Say goodbye to me," she said on a sigh. Reaching for his wrist, she drew his hand to her breast.
Furling his fingers over the sweet swell, Ralph doubted she knew what she was doing, how far afield she was allowing them to stray, but he did. How simple it would be to open their coats and shove up her skirts, to push her back against the fence rail and make her his. And yet he couldn't. He couldn't say goodbye to her any more than he could take advantage of her, not like this.
"Say goodbye to me." Pressing into his palm, she pushed his muffler aside and nuzzled his neck.
It took the strength of Hercules, but somehow he managed to hold himself back. "No, I won't. Not like this."
A throat being cleared had them pulling apart. They turned their heads toward the stable from where Kate, Beatrice's older sister, strode briskly down the bridle path toward them, her husband's brindled mastiff, Toby, trotting by her side.
Rourke's wife was a petite, pretty brunette with hourglass curves and sharp amber eyes that suggested she didn't suffer fools. Casting a sideways look to the adorably flustered blonde beside him, her hair coming undone from the loosely moored braid, Ralph still found it hard to believe the two were related.
Kate sidled up beside them, smile tight and gaze keen as an eagle's. "Bea-Bea, there you are," she announced as though she hadn't just seen them wrapped about each other like so much ivy. "And Princess, how fares my precious pony this fine day?" She pulled a carrot from her pocket and turned away to fuss over the horse. Mostly, Ralph suspected, she meant to grant them time to compose themselves.
The carrot devoured, Kate turned back to them.
Settling her gaze on her sister, she said, "You've an early train in the morning. Sad as I am to see you go, we should get you packed."
Flush-faced, Bea stepped away from him. "Of course."
Kate gave a satisfied nod and linked her arm through Bea's. "Once you're packed, we'll have Cook make us some tea and we'll settle in for a cozy chat before supper." She glanced Ralph's way. "Of course you are welcome to join us, Ralph."
Taking his cue, he backed away with a bow. "I shall leave you to make your preparations, Lady Beatrice, and to enjoy your final night with your family."
Beatrice hesitated, biting at her bottom lip. "I… We shall see you at supper, shall we not?"
The hope in her voice sent his heart sinking, but mindful of his place he shook his head. "I'm afraid my duties prevent me from joining you," he answered, the excuse not remotely true.