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The scene seemed unreal, as though she existed in a netherworld--no end, no beginning, no form, no reality. She had never seen such unending or blinding rain. For hours she had listened to rain drum on the roof of the coach, the splash of the wheels in the deep puddles, as they jounced and bounced on the road. How dreadfully dull--and how very like her life at the moment. Perhaps she might find a bit of excitement with her cousin.
What had at first seemed to be a light rain had begun that morning as they had set out from the excellent inn where they had spent a comfortable night. Would that they had stayed beneath that pleasant roof rather than venture forth in such a deluge.
Another look out of the window revealed that if anything the rain was harder. A curtain of water fell beyond her window, so impenetrable it seemed almost solid. She could see nothing of the Derbyshire terrain, scenery she had been promised was most breathtaking.
"I wonder," Lady Jocelyn said to her quiet maid, "should we build an ark?"
The maid gave her a look of long suffering and a wan smile. "Aye, it would seem most practical. I shall be thankful when we reach our destination. If we reach it," she added gloomily.
"Poor Mercy, to be so put upon." Lady Jocelyn smiled, albeit a trifle concerned. "We are almost there, I should think. I vow I have never seen such weather." Her comment was punctuated with the drop of a wheel, followed by a rear one, into a pothole of some dimension, tilting the carriage at a dangerous angle.
"Nor such a road, my lady," responded the increasingly ashen maid.
"We cannot make much speed at all at this rate, although it would seem to me that we must benear the castle by now," Jocelyn fumed. As sorry as she was to be leaving her brother's house, she could not wait to assume a place in her cousin's home. It was to be a temporary abode, offering Jocelyn a chance to plan for her future--as though she had not mulled over this bleak prospect for hours and days. Her smile grew even more joyless when she considered how ironic it all was. Her engagement had been terminated by the death of her fiancé: she was presumed desolate and unapproachable as a result. If they only knew.
The rude jolting of the carriage grew worse, if possible, and Jocelyn wondered how long the carriage could withstand such punishment.
Mercy sneezed, daintily as she did all things--not that her delicacy prevented volume.
"Do not say you have caught a cold!" Jocelyn said with sympathy. Mercy's colds were legendary, with streaming nose and sneezes to wake the dead.
"I fear that may be so, my lady." This cautious statement was followed by another sneeze of ear-shattering proportion that drowned out even the sound of the rain and the road.
That was all that was needed to make the trip a total disaster. Poor Mercy could not help that she was so afflicted, but it would make life awkward for a week or so while they settled in at Castle Valletort. Her cousin Lora had married extremely well; however, Jocelyn wondered just how comfortable that castle perched on a Derbyshire hill would be. Adrian Valletort might be a handsome creature; it did not necessarily follow that he was practical as well.
"It is a great pity that the baby chose such an inclement season in which to be born," Mercy ventured to offer in the following silence.
"True," Jocelyn absently agreed. "But then, babies are ever independent of wishes in that regards, I believe."
And what would she, Lady Jocelyn Robards, daughter of the Marquis of Torrington and spinster par excellence, know of that? She was obviously destined to remain unwed, for at the age of three and twenty she had refused all offers for her hand following Simon's death. Thus had grown the myth that she mourned Simon Oliver, younger son of the Marquis of Gifford, to the point where she could bear no other. Fools. Or was she the fool? Wanting romance and love? Her heart to be engaged and not merely a ring on her finger and a cold marriage lacking in passion?
"Do you recall Lord Izard, Mercy?" Jocelyn asked, her thoughts turning to the men who had sought her hand.
"Indeed, ma'am," the maid replied with a sniff. She searched for another handkerchief while Jocelyn continued.
"Yes, he of the fleet of foot who would have removed me from my lonely bed so I might share him with a dozen other women. He ran quickly enough when I informed him I had no wish to share his affections merely for the sake of his name and roof. What a blessing it is that I have a comfortable competence. I need no man to provide me shelter or pay my bills."
"Perhaps..." the maid began, then sneezed.
"Perhaps that is my trouble?" Jocelyn concluded for her. "True, were I in dire straits I might grasp at any offer so to have a roof over my head. My brother has been more than generous in his arrangements for me."
"He said you might remain at your home, my lady," Mercy reminded.
"Not with the newly married couple. I do not approve of relatives intruding upon a pair trying to adjust to a life together. I would not countenance such behavior, you may be sure," Jocelyn said with a snap.
'"How...?" Mercy began only to be taken with another of her magnificent sneezes.
"How would I prevent such a thing?" Jocelyn wrinkled her brow, then gave her maid a sly smile. "Toads in the bed, cold coffee and lumpy porridge at breakfast, lack of a nice fire in the bedroom--there are a great many ways to rid one of unwanted guests."
What Mercy might have had to say to this heresy was never to be known, for at that moment the fine traveling coach came to an abrupt halt. Within minutes the door flew open to reveal the coachman, water streaming in cascades from his many-caped coat, the turned-down brim of his hat doing little to protect his face from a wetting.
"What is it?" Jocelyn demanded, pulling her warm pelisse more closely about her. The wind gusted around the door, hitting Mercy where she huddled in the opposite corner.
"We must lighten the load some to make it up this hill, my lady. The men will all walk. Your maid must get out as well. It's to be hoped you can remain inside," he concluded dubiously.
"Mercy is ill. I'll not think of her leaving the protection, such as it is, of the coach. I shall come instead," Jocelyn said with a forced bravado. She didn't mind getting wet so much as the cold. That, and arriving at Castle Valletort looking like a drowned rat.
The driver was clearly upset at this idea, but assisted Jocelyn as she left the coach, tsking at the very thought of her ladyship doing such a thing. Mercy sat timidly making ineffectual noises of demurral, which Jocelyn rightly ignored.
"I am not made of such delicate stuff. I will not melt. Smith." The coachman didn't look convinced, but offered an umbrella, which she accepted.
When Jocelyn reached the ground, she felt as though she had plunged into a tub of cold water, so drenching was the rain and wind, not to mention the height of water swirling about on the road. At least six inches of her skirt hem was immediately soaked with muddy water. The umbrella had been a kindly thought, not a practical one. The wind laughed at such a puny guard against its powers and turned the umbrella inside out in a trice.
Determined to show her fortitude to the driver and guards, all of whom walked before the carriage as the poor horses attempted to slog up the muddy, rutted road, Jocelyn struck out. She ignored the cold cling of her gown as it flapped against her legs. She ignored the wilting bonnet that drooped about her head or the feather that found its way to her cheek, sticking to her skin like a plaster. At least the bonnet gave her a modicum of protection. She was able to see a foot or two before her. The umbrella would have been welcome, she thought wistfully. She tossed it aside after a vain attempt to right it.
The road rose steadily before her, seeming to climb forever. She turned a foot on a stone, pausing to test the afflicted member before resolutely continuing. Right foot, left foot. Where was her hero? That champion of fair damsels in distress, the rescuer she needed? Not even a bitter laugh could escape her lips. They had to be clamped shut as she forged ahead, her head bent to somewhat shield her from the power of the rain and wind.
A trickle of water made its way beneath her pelisse and down her back, an icy snail trail. Her once elegant half boots squelched in the mud as she continued to slog her way. Anything would be better than this. Anything!
All this probably explained why she failed to see the man on horseback approaching ventre à terre. She was never certain what alerted her, some sound, perhaps a sloshing of the animal's hooves? She peered through the curtain of rain at the figure that now became visible in the gloom. He rode up to her side with a flourish.
"My lady, I am at your service!" he shouted to make himself heard above the rain.
Jocelyn did not question how he knew who she was. Half frozen, chilled to her very bones, all she could think of at the moment was: horse, rider, getting to the castle as quickly as possible. "Thank God!" she cried. He slid from his unsaddled horse, tossed her up, then within minutes was seated behind her. Her legs were scandalously placed across his left thigh, and she was wrapped inside his greatcoat, shivering with the encounter of his body heat and thankful her rescuer appeared not likely to quibble about a nicety of manners.
He wheeled about and commenced a return journey.
Jocelyn sank against him, comforted by the strength of his arms about her, his heat that he so generously offered.
Then her brain began to function again. She sniffed, absorbing the scent of his linen. Even in the rain she recognized that fragrance. How could she ever forget it? It had been unique, a part of only one man she had ever met. That he was also a man she had striven to forget made it now doubly potent.
She shifted within the confines of his arms, uneasy with the direction of her thoughts. She must be wrong in her judgment.
He would never come after her in a rainstorm. He had damned her to the netherworld when they last met. How foretelling he had been. Life had been rather grim for her since then. It had to be someone else.
"Sit still," he commanded.
That voice--she would know it anywhere, even after five years. It was rough, as rough as he, and it had a richness in it that had sent tingles to her toes when she heard him speak. Yet she obeyed him ... this time.
"Well, well, is there hope for you yet?" The rough intensity of his voice lashed at her, bringing remembered pain.
The amusement in his voice made her long to punch him in the ribs. Oh, how she hated this man. He had torn her life to shreds, decimated her composure, and haunted her dreams far too often. Did he guess? She doubted it. He had left her, stalking from the library with determined steps, shutting the door behind him with excruciating quiet. He had said he trusted they would not meet again, and they had not. Until now. "Peter?"
"So you still know me? I thought you would have forgotten my existence by now," he said, his mouth too close to her ear for her ease. He was amused at her.
"I am g-grateful you came to my rescue." How she hated her chattering teeth, a sign of fragility. She had learned she dare not reveal any weakness to this man. She sensed he would have taken advantage of any sign of disintegration on her part. And she had disintegrated--after he left her. She had crumbled into dull pieces, her outer defenses gone, her emotions shattered.
Her soaked garments or icy feet did not wholly cause her trembling. She had been held in his arms once before. Her reaction had terrified her, green girl that she had been. Surely such a sweep of sensation, of emotion, ought not be right? She had stiffened then, pulling away, and eventually lost everything through her own stupidity.
She knew shock at her thoughts. Her stupidity? Had she been a fool all those years ago? She had put him out of her mind, and no one had mentioned him in her presence. By design? Or accident? Her mind reeled with her muddled thoughts.
"I can hear you thinking, my lady."
He was still amused; she could hear it in his voice.
"It is not a moment for conversation, I think," she answered as well as clenched teeth permitted. She did not want to be a teeth-chattering imbecile while in his arms. She hadn't thought to ever be there again, for that matter. Not but what he couldn't reduce her to folly if he so chose.
"Indeed, we have much to discuss, but now is not the time," he said, his mouth again close to her ear. His breath warmed that appendage, and she just barely resisted burrowing further into his being. Never had she been so cold, not only outside, but inside. Alone, her mind shouted to her. She was alone, not only with him but without him. This shattering thought brought more tremors, whether from cold or emotions, she could not have said.
"We are here at last." Was that satisfaction in his voice?
"Relieved? Well, you have done penance for any sins you may have ever committed by coming to my rescue. I thank you," she managed to stammer as he slid from his steed, then plucked her from the horse with an ease she envied.
Expecting to be set on her feet by the man who had once made it quite clear he despised her, she was astonished to be swept into his arms. He strode into the castle, the door of which had mysteriously opened at their approach. "She needs a hot bath, dry clothes, and I daresay a hot cider," he barked at the butler.
This man hurried off, and she was alone with Sir Peter, again. She shivered. Or trembled. She scarcely knew if she was on her head or heels. She stared up at. his face, trying to understand what she felt. "You may put me down," she managed to say without teeth chattering.
She mistrusted the gleam in his silvery-blue eyes. She'd never seen that before.
"I have you just where I want you and will do as I please, Jocelyn." He said her name with deliberation, taking a familiarity she had never granted. And then he kissed her.
It was not a light touch, nor was it punishing as she might have expected. It was the sort of kiss that entranced, beguiled, turned a woman into soft mush. She felt as though a fire raged through her from her toes to her hair, every fiber of her being was aware of him, his power over her.
"I would wager that kiss warmed you as no amount of hot cider, but the drink will not come amiss." He looked so knowing, so sure of himself.
Once released from his spell, she reacted without thought, raising her hand to slap that confident face. Never mind that he had rescued her from possible illness and death. He took liberties denied to all. Her hand never connected with that handsome face, however. His expression stopped her in mid-swing. His eyes promised retribution. As to what form it might take, she dare not guess.
"Ah, Jocelyn, you could not treat an old lover so, could you?" he murmured, the seductiveness of his voice wrapping around her like a coating of warm chocolate.
It was humiliating how easily he intimidated her. "You, sirrah, are not a gentleman!"
"True," he admitted. "I am a lord now, and they get by with anything, or so I've been told."
"I did not know," she whispered, and would have asked him more had the housekeeper not arrived with Jocelyn's cousin trailing behind her.
"My lady! Oh, this dreadful weather! You poor thing, you must be half frozen. Lord Leigh, if you will follow me." It was apparent that Jocelyn was not to be turned over to some footman to transport. Well, she would get him soaked, and Lord Leigh was already wet. Lord Leigh?
"Jocelyn! We feared something had befell you when you were so late and this weather simply dreadful," Lora cried. "It was so kind of Peter to volunteer to hunt for you. How glad I am he found you. Was it so very bad?"
Jocelyn wondered how to best answer that. Evidently her cousin did not expect her to be coherent as she nattered on in a frantic manner.
. "Once you have a hot bath, warm clothing, and a nice hot drink, you will feel more the thing."
"I can hear you thinking again," Peter Leigh murmured in Jocelyn's ear for a second time. "I promise you we shall talk later. And talk we will, you can be certain of that."
They traipsed up the wide staircase, its oak treads showing evidence of great antiquity. The magnificent portraits arranged on the walls did not even merit a glance from Jocelyn. All she could think about was a talk with Peter, now Lord Leigh. Later? What could they possibly have to say to one another? She wished no resumption of the hostility she had known in the library that day.
A brief distance along the hall brought them to the rooms assigned to Jocelyn. They entered the sitting room, but Peter did not pause here. Rather, he proceeded to the bedroom, that most intimate setting done in delicate rose and celadon green, all lace, ruffles, and rich damask.
"Where is Mercy?" Lora inquired. "She usually travels with you."
"She will be along soon, I trust. She has a streaming cold, and I feared her death on my conscience should she leave the coach," Jocelyn said carefully as Peter gently placed her on feet that were none too dependable.
"I am glad to know you possess a conscience, Jocelyn," Peter murmured while easing her soaked pelisse from her arms. "That ought to make our talk most interesting."
Was that a threat in his voice? Jocelyn shot him a questioning look but found no clue in his face. The chiseled perfection of that handsome visage revealed nothing of his inner thoughts.
"I suggest you remove your wet things as soon as possible. I intend to do the same," he said, gesturing to his own wet clothing. He turned to leave the bedroom and had reached the door before Jocelyn found her voice and manners.
"Peter ... I thank you for rescuing me from who knows what fate. I doubt if I could have endured that dreadful walk for much longer. I appreciate it very much. I, er, thank you," she repeated, unable to express her feelings as she might like. He in turn bestowed a mocking look on her as though he was recalling that devastating kiss as vividly as she did. She knew she blushed, she could feel it spread over her like a rash.
And then he was gone, out of the door, and she was alone with her cousin and the housekeeper and their comforting concern. In short order she found her cold, dripping garments removed and was wrapped in a soft robe before a series of footmen marched in with pails of steaming water.
The housekeeper poured a bit of lily of the valley essence into the water, then drew Jocelyn over to the copper tub.
"There, now, my lady, into the water and mind you soak until all the chill is gone. There will be more hot water should you have need of it." She assisted Jocelyn into the tub, then left with the promise to return later with the hot cider Lord Leigh had demanded.
"Ah, I confess I wondered if I would ever be warm again. Chilled to the bone is not a pleasant state of being," Jocelyn quipped as she eased back against the rim of the tub. A linen towel had been placed at her back, and she drew comfort from that softness and the heat that surrounded her, then grew warmer yet as her thoughts wandered. Did Peter enjoy the same warmth--and the luxury of soothing scent in a tub of hot water to heat his chilled body?
"You said Mercy has a cold?" Lora said with bright sympathy. "How dreadful. I do hope you will not catch one as well. I have need of you in the coming days." Lora seemed to realize then how that might sound and amended her remark, "That is, I would not want you to be ill regardless, but I especially desire your help. Adrian plans to have an enormous party to celebrate the birth of his heir apparent. Baby Charles will scarcely be aware of all the fuss, but it will make Adrian happy."
"I shall be pleased to help you and your husband. And I never am ill. Father always said I had the constitution of a horse. A bit of food and drink, some dry clothes, and I shall be my old self again." Or would she? Could she return to that semi-alive woman she had been before Lord Leigh kissed her? One thing she had to confess was that he had made her feel more full of life than she had in many years. And that knowledge frightened her. If he could accomplish that with one kiss what else might he do?
"Well, I shall leave you to soak. As soon as the coach arrives, I will have your trunks brought up. In the meantime, why do you not put on that robe and snuggle under the covers for a time after your bath? I daresay you must be worn to flinders." With that remark, Lora rose to her feet and slipped from the room more quietly than Jocelyn expected from the girl who had once been so bubbly. Motherhood had made her more mature, but had also given her a harried, almost worried expression. Was something amiss?
Once the water cooled, Jocelyn stepped from the tub and rubbed dry with the elegant Turkish toweling provided for her use. As fine as her own home had been, it had not stretched to anything quite so new or luxurious. Feeling pampered, she donned the robe and crawled beneath the covers, intending to rest a bit. She was tired from her trek, beset by the emotions Peter, Lord Leigh, had stirred in her. And how had he become Lord Leigh? That was a question she longed to have answered, among a dozen or two others.
She fell asleep while debating which relative might have died and left Peter a title and fortune. That he now had a fortune, she did not doubt. His clothes were finer, his poise was greater, and he was more devastating than she remembered. And, she admitted, he had never been very far from her memory.
A stir at the door woke her some time later. Mercy entered to be followed by footmen carrying her trunks that they put down in the adjacent sitting room.
"My lady, I am so glad to see you abed. I worried about you all the way here. Saxby--he's the butler, you know--said Lord Leigh found you staggering along the road and brought you back on his horse." There was more than a hint of question in her words, although Mercy would never do anything so vulgar as to ask what had happened. She merely waited to see if Jocelyn chose to satisfy her curiosity.
"Do you recall a Sir Peter Leigh, Mercy? Well, he has become Lord Leigh now and do not ask me how, for I have yet to learn of it. Serves me right for removing myself from the gossips of Society. Had I paid attention, likely I would have learned all about him." Since this was one of the reasons Jocelyn had carefully avoided the women and men to whom gossip was lifeblood, there was little answer to this remark.
"Well, now, is not that a lovely thing, his getting a title and likely a fortune to boot?"
"I could not say," Jocelyn said primly. "I know full well that merely because a man inherits a title, it does not follow that a fortune goes with that title."
Mercy nodded, sneezed violently, then begged pardon until Jocelyn felt the beginnings of a headache appear.
"I would have you find the room assigned you and crawl into bed. I shall instruct a maid to bring you some hot bricks for your poor feet and perhaps the housekeeper has a nostrum to help your cold. No arguing, now," Jocelyn added as Mercy opened her mouth likely to do just that.
With patience, Jocelyn saw her maid on her way, although not before a bit of argument. It took but a few minutes to make her requests. Then she settled in her sitting room to sip the hot cider that the housekeeper had sent to sooth her chill. The chaise longue had been placed near the bay window, and from this excellent spot Jocelyn had a view of the rain-soaked lawn and lake beyond.
She didn't turn when the door opened, expecting a maid to unpack her things for her. It was not the maid, however,
"I see you are doing precisely as I advised." Peter said as he strolled across the elegant Aubusson carpet to stand before her. He looked down at her from his great height and never in her life had Jocelyn felt so helpless--or so feminine! She set the cup down with care.
Jocelyn sat up a trifle, disconcerted he should find her, alone, vulnerable. "You ought not be in here. I doubt it is the least proper. My lord," she added with a touch of provocation.
"The door is ajar, and I casually mentioned my intention to check on your state of health. That is considered admirable, since I doubtless saved your life, or so my valet tells me. And Dickman is never wrong about these things." Without asking her permission, Peter dropped down on the end of the chaise, examining her all the while.
"I thank you for your concern," Jocelyn said, thinking she must sound like a brainless twit.
"You are welcome," he gravely replied, but with that curious gleam in his silvery eyes once again.
Jocelyn picked nervously at the light throw she had drawn across her lap and legs, darting glances at him while wondering as to the real reason for this visit. He could have asked a maid as to her condition and learned she was quite fine.
"So we meet again, and after all these years," he mused, tilting his head back until his eyes were mere slits while he gazed at her.
"True," she whispered in reply, swallowing hard as he continued to stare at her.
"I had thought you to be wed long before now. It ought to be you having a party for your firstborn boy. Have you no desire for children?"
"Of course," she answered hotly. "I adore children and would love nothing more than to have half a dozen around me. Alas, it requires a husband; at least for me it does." She gave him what she hoped was a defiant glare.
"Hmm. I expected you to marry Simon before he left for the Peninsula. Why didn't you?"
"That is none of your business, but I shall tell you anyway." Jocelyn suspected Peter would worm it out of her should she try to keep the truth from him. "Simon did not wish to leave me with child in the event he might not return. I thought it most noble of him," she lied. Even if she had not loved Simon, she had wanted a child, a barrier against the world.
"I would have done the opposite--just to have had you in my arms and my bed before I marched off to war."
Jocelyn wondered briefly if he deliberately sought to anger her. "I can well imagine what you would have done in like circumstances, Sir Peter!" Unheeding of how her words might have been taken, she forged on, "But I must know how you turned from being Sir Peter into Lord Leigh."
"That will wait, I think. I have enough to mull over for the present, and so do you, unless I miss my guess." Slowly, with great deliberation, he slid along the chaise to capture her in his arms. Again, his kiss was most thorough, intimate, compelling.
Jocelyn thought she would melt before he released her. She could not manage the anger to slap his face as she ought. She was utterly sunk.
He rose and sauntered to the door. "I hope to see you at dinner. I believe Lora has partnered you with me. That ought to make our stay here most, er, provocative, to say the least."