Fleeing arrest by a spurned suitor, Lady Riana Travistock heads for London where she is knifed in a street brawl when she helps a man attacked by footpads. Luckily for Lady Riana, the victim of the attack is army surgeon Captain Devlin Carrington who takes her home to tend her injury.
When Dev cuts off her blood-soaked chemise to suture the wound, a fortune in jewels spill onto the blood soaked sheet. Has he saved a lovely jewel thief only to watch her hang?
Riana claims the jewels as her own. Worried about the consequences of their situation–she is a lady and he is the son of a baron–she tells Dev she ran away from her abusive husband who is a jewel merchant. Although captivated by his lovely patient, Dev investigates her story.
Can these two go against society’s conventions to grab the lives they desire?
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Dorking, England 1811
The heavy brass door knocker banged against the front door, startling Lady Riana Travistock into dropping the two portmanteaus. They thumped to the bare wood floor at her feet while she frowned at the door. Since the last of the household servants had left yesterday, she would have to answer the summons. Stalking across the foyer, she paused long enough to curve her mouth into a polite smile before opening the door.
“My dear Lady Riana!”
The smile froze on her face. Sir Hector Stalkings was supposed to be in London, not Dorking. An unladylike expletive exploded in her brain. She tried to soften her smile, but her mouth felt as starched as the cravat around Sir Hector’s thick neck. “Sir Hector, what a…pleasant surprise.”
Peering beyond her into the shadowed hallway, his brown gaze swept the room, stopping at the bags bunched on the inlaid oak floor. “What I hear is true? You’re leaving us?”
Gossamer wings of panic unfurled in her breast. She had hoped to escape Dorking without seeing her father’s friend. “You heard correctly. Pennywise and I are booked on this afternoon’s stagecoach.”
“Thank goodness I returned from London before you left,” he said.
Good manners forced her backward when he started through the door. The scent of the late June roses blooming along the front portico wafted into the hall behind cloying waves of his Canterbury violet perfume.
“Stricken,” he said, “absolutely stricken to hear you and Mrs. Pennywise have been forced to leave your home.”
The wings of distress flapped against her ribs with the power of a kestrel fighting to be airborne as Sir Hector stepped into the foyer. Only years of deportment lessons kept its drumming beat out of her voice.
“Thank you for your sentiments, but Mrs. Pennywise and I quite look forward to this change in our lives.”
“Look forward to the change! How can you? I hear Pennywise is to retire to her sister’s home in Woking. And you have secured a teaching position in London. What a brave face you have put on this disaster.” Sir Hector shook his head as he closed the front door. “‘Tis a sad day when Lady Riana Travistock is reduced to teaching someone else's brats.”
He hadn’t heard the complete truth, but no one in Dorking knew about the jewels except her and Pennywise. Once Riana reached London and converted them to cash, Pennywise would have a pension and Riana was off to Canada and the Wentworth Academy for Young Ladies. Her own school! Her head swam at the idea of such independence.
Sir Hector took her arm while she woolgathered, his touch slamming her back to reality. “Please, Lady Riana, there is no reason for you to leave Thistledowns,” he said, guiding her toward the drawing room. “We must talk.”
She dug her heels into the worn wood floor.
His pudgy fingers tightened their grip, but he paused.
“We cannot go into the drawing room,” she said. “It isn’t proper for me to be alone with you.” Rule Number One, the single most important rule branded into every young woman’s brain from birth. She may detest the rules, but she knew them all.
“Come now, Lady Riana.” He patted her arm with his free hand while his tone dripped with paternal condescension. “Some rules are made to be broken.”
She wanted to swat away his hand as she had wanted for years to swat him out of her life. His presence made her as uncomfortable now as it had since she was a child. She had never liked the way he watched her when he thought no one was looking.
The jewels hidden in her shift kept her quiet.
“An ardent suitor,” he continued, “cannot be denied time alone with the object of his desire.”
Ardent suitor? The strong sweep of panic’s wings started their flight anew in her chest. “
Alone?” She resisted when Sir Hector pulled on her upper arm. “But we cannot…” Her small frame had no hope of stopping his heftier body.
“Now, now, there is no reason to play the coy young miss with me. You know as well as I that my suit was postponed out of courtesy for your period of mourning. I’m sure you had quite given up on me or you would never have taken a teaching position.”
“I did not know.” She disliked the frightened tremor in her voice.
None too gently, he pulled her into the drawing room and pushed her into the nearest chair. “There is no need for you to worry about your future any longer.”
The words trailed in his wake as he recrossed the room and closed the double doors. When she heard a faint click, every cell in her body sounded an alarm. Had he locked the doors? Apprehension prickled through the hairs on her neck. She perched on the edge of the chair, folding her hands primly in her lap. He left her little choice but to hear him out. A marriage proposal, a refusal, and he would leave.
He turned, tugging at his cravat with his right hand. An expensive but gaudy ruby and gold ring glittered with the motion. She consoled herself with the knowledge that his impeccable manners made him quite the local favorite. Why, if he asked for the hand of one of Lady Blythington’s numerous daughters, he’d be wed before the words were out of his mouth.
With a tiny creak of stays, he walked toward her. When he dropped ponderously to one knee a scant foot away, she edged back in the chair.
“Indeed, Sir Hector, you must not.”
“Oh, but I must.” He untangled her right hand, tugging it free of its death grip on her left hand.
The warmth of his touch seeped through the thin leather of her glove, distracting her from embarrassment at their shabby appearance.
Drawing a deep breath, he addressed her hand. “My dear Lady Riana, you must be aware of my admiration. I have known your family for many years and have watched you mature into a gentle lady of quality. Last year, I wanted to tell you how I felt, but your father’s illness stilled my tongue. Then, God rest his soul, he died. I remained silent out of respect for your period of mourning.”
Sir Hector’s position revealed the efforts of his valet, who had tried to cover a balding patch on the crown of his employer’s head by combing long strands of dyed hair across it. The youthful sheen of black hair contrasted sharply with the puffy creases age had etched into the jowly face he now turned up to her.
“I can no longer be quiet,” he said as he took her hand and placed it over his heart. “Not when my beloved faces being thrown penniless out of her very home. Not when she is forced to toil for the food she eats. Please, Lady Riana, let me restore you to your rightful place in society. Say you will marry me.”
“Oh, Sir Hector.” Lowering her gaze, she pulled her hand free. The scent of violets shrouded the air between them. “Please rise. I do not know what to think. To do.”
“Do what is best for you. Marriage to me will ensure your least desire is met. After all, I am a wealthy man.”
Befuddled female didn’t come easy, but she gave it her valiant best. “You do me such honor. But really, a marriage proposal, I truly did not expect it.”
He patted her knee. Her heart slammed into a higher pace. The cologne and his proximity crowded her. She wanted to push him over backward so she could breathe.
“Your father approved my suit. In fact, he told me it pleased him greatly to know his daughter would be cared for after he died.”
What a plumper! Her father had ceased caring for her after his sole male heir died in that ridiculous gun accident.
“I could not speak my heart while you were in mourning,” Sir Hector said, “but your father promised me your hand in marriage.”
The words hung in the air, their graveyard stench overlain with the sickly sweet scent of the oppressive Canterbury violet perfume. Her father’s animosity reached out from the grave to clamp a cold hand around her heart. He never forgave her for living while his heir died. Not content to ruin the estate, now he had found a way to ruin her life. A molten flare of anger devoured the pain of betrayal and rejection. Her father was dead. No laws of obedience bound her now.
“My father had no right.”
He waved away the faint words as if they lacked consequence. “It was a gentleman’s agreement. In return for certain financial transactions.”
His statement stole the air from her lungs. Despair overrode anger, welling up to melt her bones and slump her back into the chair. Her father had sold her to Sir Hector!
The implications scattered her thoughts like dandelion fluff on a breeze. No. No. No! Her father was dead. He could not reach from the grave and ruin her life. She wasn’t a piece of chattel he could sell as he had everything else of value at Thistledowns. She was an independent woman of means. The concept, though new, intoxicated her with a sense of power, adding steel to her spine.
“Sir. I need a moment to think.”
Her cool words sliced between them, rocking Sir Hector back on his heels. Pushing herself from the chair, she prayed her trembling legs would carry her to the fireplace. She turned so the portrait of the second Lord Travistock glared over her shoulder at Sir Hector. Years of training kept her true feelings where they belonged, buried deep inside her.
“Dear Sir Hector.” She followed the endearment with a brilliant smile. “Doubtless you can see your proposal has taken me by surprise. I am afraid I will need time to think about it.”
What she needed was time to run. She would not ask how much money Sir Hector had loaned her father. She didn’t want to know what price he set on his remaining child.
“There is no time for a woman’s foolishness.” Sir Hector lumbered to his feet and headed toward her. “You must answer me now.” He went too quickly from flowery phrases to commands.
She thrust her chin in the air. “I said I need some time.”
“And I said you must answer me now. We can sign the papers this afternoon. There will be no need for you to go to London.”
As he advanced, a glint hardened his eyes. The expression matched his voice, warning her he was a man accustomed to obedience. She was but a female, conditioned to obey.
“I leave for London momentarily,” she said. “This is not the proper time to discuss an engagement much less sign settlement papers.”
He stalked closer. “I cannot help but wonder about this sudden trip.”
She reached for the truth. “Sudden? I have been searching for acceptable employment since Father’s death.” “Why? Has the new earl told you to leave Thistledowns?”
Sir Hector pressed the bounds of civility, but Riana answered. “The new earl has offered no opinion on the matter. You must know he is a distant cousin who did not expect to inherit. He planned to live out his life in India, but now he must return to England. I would not want you to view your new neighbor with dislike. It is my wish that I leave Thistledowns and seek employment, not his.”
“Then I am sure the new earl will not mind if you chose to remain here until our wedding.”
She fought the urge to step backward. “I said I would like some time to think about your proposal. I have taken a teaching position and I will not cancel my commitment without warning.”
She could tell Sir Hector disliked her obstinacy, but he didn’t say anything about it. Instead, his narrowed gaze swept the room, cataloging the few remaining paltry items. “A trip to London is expensive. And life in the city more costly than life in the country. Did you perhaps…sell something to obtain funds?”
His accusation stunned her. The jewels girdling the front of her shift burned into her skin. She folded her hands over her midriff, protecting them from his prying eyes. Only he couldn’t see them, hidden as they were in the small pockets she had sewn into her shift.
“Perhaps something belonging to the estate?” he prodded.
“You insinuate I am a thief!” Panic returned in a wing beat, slamming her heart against the palms still resting lightly on her midriff. Did he know about her mother’s jewels?
“Forgive me, dear Lady Riana. I did not mean to distress you. My familiarity with your father’s financial resources and my position as magistrate led me to make a rash observation.”
His smooth reassurance fanned the panic surging through her veins. He didn’t need to know about the jewels to threaten her. He had her father’s pledge. He could gaol her for breach of promise.
Reason wrestled her skittering speculations into silence, slowing her heart’s pace. No one knew about the jewels except her and Pennywise. She had taken nothing from the estate. As for the breach of promise, she doubted Sir Hector had come to Thistledowns prepared to haul her to gaol this afternoon. All that mattered was to get rid of him and leave with the jewels.
“Of course, I forgive you. As a magistrate you must deal with unsavory things.”
“Yes,” he agreed, “I often see the seamier side of life.” Once again, he had distracted her long enough to get closer. “The thought of an innocent such as yourself…alone in London…without protection.”
“Not alone.” She lied, again. “I will be at an academy for young females. And there is my cousin, Lieutenant Davidson. When he isn’t at sea, I shall be able to see him.”
She stepped backward, surrendering to the threat in his voice. For all practical purposes they were alone in the house. Renewed fear shimmied down her spine. She stepped back again. Her half boot hit the marble-tiled hearth while her skirt brushed the fire set, rattling the tools in their brass holder.
“Alone?” The word wavered on her tongue as fear spun up her spine right out her mouth.
Sir Hector loomed over her, his triumphant smile edging closer, while the scent of his cologne swamped her senses.
“One little kiss to seal our bargain.”
“But we have made no bargain…”
His mouth covered hers. He tasted of mutton and stale ale and she thought she would vomit when his tongue crudely plowed its way past her teeth and into her mouth. Like him, his tongue was bulky, filling her mouth with his disgusting taste.
She told herself she could endure one kiss to gain her freedom, but he didn’t stop at one. He showered small, sloppy kisses along her jaw line. For several awful moments she froze, too stunned to react. She knew if they were discovered, she would be blamed.
She had ignited his passions and filled his body with male arousal. She knew it was her fault because Pennywise had drilled that lesson into her head for years.
He pressed against her, his stomach pushing the jewels into her chest while he shoved his hand between them and squeezed her left breast. Useless tears trickled down her cheeks as she fought an immobilizing sense of hysteria. If she didn’t stop him, he would have a lifetime of such freedom with her body. The image chilled the terrified blood that rushed through her veins. Planting both hands on his chest, she pushed, but she may as well have been a gnat trying to stop a fire-breathing dragon.
His mouth slid off hers to slurp kisses along her neck. Turning away from his wet lips, she saw the fire set leaning precariously, poised to crash to the hearth. With a wild dive, she lunged for one of the handles. Her sudden, twisting movement broke his grasp. Her fingers clamped around a fire shovel, pulling it free of the holder. Swinging the shovel wildly, she connected with the back of Sir Hector’s leg. With a surprised grunt, he went down to his knees.
Triumph dashed through her veins, but having him on his knees wasn’t enough. Grasping the shovel with both hands, she lifted it into the air and brought it down on the best target–his shining bald spot.
“Take that, you lecherous old coxcomb! I will teach you to try and compromise a defenseless young woman.”
With a sickening thud, shovel connected with skull. His eyes stared at her for one unblinking second before rolling back into their sockets. Sinking to the floor, he puddled at her feet in an unconscious heap.
Deep in the recesses of her heart, she knew she had hit him for more than this afternoon. Her rage was triggered as much by the sly looks he had given her these past ten years as by the fact yet another male had broken her trust. Pride raced through her body like quicksilver, but horror galloped behind. She stared at Sir Hector. The fire shovel slid unnoticed to the Aubusson carpet. Outrage battled with remorse. Swiping a hand across her mouth, she tried to eradicate the damp memory of his kisses.
Then her shoulders sagged. She, who carried creatures to the window and set them free rather than harm them, had hit another human being. All her plans sprawled ruined at her feet in the overweight body of Sir Hector.
“Blast and damn!” she muttered. “What if I killed him?”