Authors: Aileen FIsh
THE VISCOUNT'S SWEET TEMPTATION
Copyright © 2011 Aileen Fish
All rights reserved.
Lady Harriet Thornhill stood at the window of her parents' sitting room in the Hart’s Head Inn, gazing at the gathering black clouds. The threatening storm echoed the swirling emotions in her mind. She must escape!
Her mother, Lady Alderford, sat quietly behind her sipping tea and nibbling the biscuits the proprietor's wife had provided upon their arrival. Her father dozed in the chair opposite her mother. How could they be so complacent when Harriet's very life was at stake?
Harriet wished she had read her grandfather's summons before her mother had seen it. Mayhap she could have burned the missive and pretended it had never arrived. How dare Grandpapa insist they alter their holiday plans to travel to Yorkshire in such inclement weather? How dare he insist he had important business with his entire family? Who did he think he was to command them all?
Well, of course, he was the Duke of Danby, so he most likely did have the right to make these demands. But her mother was the duke's youngest daughter. They did not pretend to think Harriet's brother Leander, Baron Penlow, stood to inherit much of anything from the duke. By the time her hordes of cousins had been given their share of his unentailed wealth, there would be little to distribute to the Thornhills.
That left only one reason for the duke's summons. He must have found someone for Harriet and her sister, Lady Miriam—possibly even Lee—to marry. Oh, this would never do! To be forced to marry a man not of her choosing, mayhap not of her acquaintance, and after she had only enjoyed two London Seasons!
It was not to be borne.
The slow drizzle all morning long and into the afternoon kept the roads filled with muck, just enough for her father to insist they stop early for the night. Papa was not a favorite son-in-law and displayed no urgency to arrive early at Danby Castle. Still, as much as Harriet might consider pleading her case to either of her parents, she knew it would be wasted breath.
No one crossed a direct command from the duke. No one.
Harriet sighed, her breath fogging the cold glass. Where once she might have scribbled a quick love missive in the mist to her dream beau in hopes he might appear and read it before the glass cleared, she suddenly felt too old for dreams.
Her mother spoke softly from the sitting area in front of the fire. "Come away from the window, dear. You mustn't catch a chill so soon before Christmas."
"In a moment, Mama." To turn away now would be to give in to defeat, and she was certain she could find a way to avoid seeing her grandpapa. She had no experience in these matters, always having been the agreeable daughter and granddaughter, but certainly she had inherited some of the scheming wit her siblings shared.
How unfair it was that Miriam had already left to visit their father's sister in Bath. She'd probably escape whatever fate awaited Harriet, at least temporarily, as their aunt was too ill to be left alone. And Lee was in London. While the duke had said he’d written him there, Lee always found a way to avoid doing what was expected of him.
Unwilling to let her thoughts continue into a diatribe on the unfairness of the inequality in the expectations placed upon young men and young women of Quality, Harriet reviewed the options before her. She could pretend to have caught a chill, thus being unable to present herself before the duke, but her mother was likely to see through her ruse. She could slip outside into the rain in hopes of actually becoming ill, but she really didn't want to spend her Christmas in a sickbed.
If she were a young man, she could hire a horse and ride off to somewhere no one would look for her. London, perhaps. There were so many places in London for a young man to hide away, at least according to Lee's tales.
Oh, dear, the diatribe was stronger than her efforts to keep it quiet. But it wasn't fair she could have the same number of coins in her reticule as Lee might have in his pocket, and she couldn't use a one to save herself.
The steady thunder of horse hooves drew her eye towards the road. A stately carriage came into view, pulled by four of the finest horses she'd seen. Beautiful matching black steeds trotted to a halt in front of the inn. The coach wasn't familiar, but the Wrenthorpe crest upon it was. Could her dear friend Lady Eleanor be stopping here?
In her excitement, Harriet missed what her mother said but went to sit with her. She sipped the now cool cup of tea her mother had prepared and quickly ate a few biscuits as her plan solidified in her head. All she needed was an excuse to slip downstairs so she might find Ellie and beg to be taken wherever Ellie’s family was headed.
She had no idea what excuse to give Ellie's mother as to why she couldn't continue to ride with her parents. Any legitimate request would come from Lady Alderford, not from Harriet. Should she forge a note? Or claim her mother was so ill she was unable to write? That was the option most likely to work.
The other worrisome problem was how to escape her parents. What if the Wrenthorpe coach had only stopped long enough to change horses and allow the family to take a meal? Harriet couldn't wait until her parents went to sleep; that could be hours too late. She needed to do something quickly.
She stretched and made a loud noise as she pretended to hide a yawn. "I am so tired, Mama. I think I shall retire early. The dreary weather and long ride have truly left me limp as an old rag. I shall see you at breakfast."
"I'll have Burney awaken you early. Your father wishes to leave at daybreak." Her mother lifted her arms for a hug before turning back to her writing. "Sleep well, my dear."
"Good night, Papa," Harriet called as she fought the urge to run to the adjoining door to her room. She must hurry and gather her pelisse and hat before going below and searching for Ellie. But first, she would use the old trick Lee had taught her years ago. She piled pillows under the bedding to make it appear as though she was asleep, should Burney peek in on her before morning.
By morning, hopefully she would be safely away in the Wrenthorpe coach, on her way to anywhere but Danby Castle.
Archibald Napier, Viscount Morley, climbed into his coach feeling warmer, his stomach full of pasties and ale. Now perhaps he could sleep through the jolting and rocking of his conveyance on the muddy highway. The latest letter from Gantry, his secretary, hinted at the urgency of Morley's return to London without giving details. The man did have a tendency towards the dramatic, but as Gantry was in the midst of investigating some ugly gossip involving Morley and the daughter of the Marquess of Boxworth, there was nothing to do but get to London as quickly as possible.
The clouds opened up as soon as the carriage began to roll. Rain pounded on the roof and windows, and the large coach rocked unsettlingly in a gust of wind. For a moment, Morley questioned the wisdom of pushing on in the inclement weather, but Gantry wouldn’t have suggested urgency without cause. Smithers knew how to handle the horses and would get them safely to their next stop.
Leaning back against the padded leather seat, Morley closed his eyes, blocked out the crack of thunder in the distance, and let the patter of rain lull him to sleep.
He could not say how long he’d slept when he suddenly sat upright. The carriage was still rocking, the night was still miserable, but he couldn’t find any cause for his disturbed sleep.
Then he heard it. A tiny mewling from the pile of blankets on the opposite bench. The squeak that followed had him fearing a rat had snuck into the carriage while he was inside the inn. He suppressed a shudder and wiped a hand down his face to clear away the dregs of slumber. How had the creature stolen aboard? He made a note to have Smithers examine the undercarriage for holes as soon as they arrived in Bath.
With one hand, he reached for his cane on the floor while leaning across the space between the benches towards the blankets. His free hand grasped a corner of the top blanket and yanked. As the wool puddled on the floor, all he saw was another blanket. When he pulled that one free, he discovered something much larger than a rat.
Much prettier, too.
A petite young lady lay curled in the corner of the seat, pale golden curls framing her exquisite face. She looked as peaceful as a cherub in a painting, but thankfully wore more clothing. The last thing he needed was more scandal. While it was too dark to see clearly, the fine cut of her fur-trimmed pelisse said plenty about her family.
Who was she, and why was she sleeping in his coach? Where were her maid and the rest of her party?
Morley pulled back the curtain on one window, letting in some light from the lamp. Glancing out, he peered at the blackness but through the rain he could see nothing of the landmarks around him, so he couldn’t determine how far they’d traveled. If they were close to the next stop, he could send someone to the last inn to notify the young woman’s companions. He doubted Smithers would appreciate being asked to turn around at this time of night.
As he pondered what to do with her, she stirred, a slight gasp escaping her lips. She shifted her position, practically falling from the seat before her arms flew out to catch her balance. Morley jumped to her rescue and caught her, holding her close for a moment before setting her on the cushioned seat.
She smelled heavenly, like a spring breeze through his mother’s garden, a subtle, scintillating blend of flowers and innocence.
He quickly backed away to his own side of the coach. “Who are you?”
The young lady tugged one of the blankets across her like a shield. “Who are
Stifling a groan, he grimaced. She was too much like his sisters, which meant it could be some time before he had the answers he sought. “As we are sitting in my carriage and not the post chaise, I believe this entitles me to ask who has stowed away on board.”
She smiled and her arms relaxed, letting the blanket drop to her lap. She straightened her position on the bench. “You must be Archie. Ellie has told me so much about you.”
He didn’t fight the groan this time. He rubbed the back of his neck beneath his loosened cravat. The chit was one of his sister’s playmates. The light falling on her delicate features and the rounded bosom encased so tightly in her pelisse, forced him to amend the thought. She was no child. When had his sisters grown old enough to become young ladies?
He cleared his throat and tried to take control of the situation before him. “I am Morley.”
The chit laughed lightly. “I beg your pardon, Lord Morley. It is only that I feel I know you as well as my own brother, Leander.”
He knew that name. Leander Thornhill, Lord Penlow, was the cousin of his good friend Nick, Baron Edgeworth. Now, which of Leander’s sisters was this? “Ah, then you are Lady…?”
“Harriet.” She laughed, but he failed to see what amused her.
“And did you mistake my carriage for that of your father?”
She shook her head, sending her curls fluttering about her face. “I hoped Ellie was at the inn, but this is much better. Much better!” She clapped her hands together.
“Grandpapa can never force me to marry a dullard now.”
Her words settled over him like a black hood. He fought the sensation of a noose that followed. He reached for his cane and thumped on the roof.
“What are you doing?” Lady Harriet clutched at the blankets and sat up straighter.
“I’m having Smithers turn around so we may take you back to the inn. You were traveling with your family, I presume?”
“Oh, no, please, my lord. We can’t go back there. That will ruin everything.”
“I’m afraid you are ruined no matter which way I resolve this. What were you thinking? Do I appear to be a sap who will sit by and let your father force me to marry you? There is a slight chance, if we return now, perhaps your absence will not have been noticed.”
Lady Harriet slumped against the back of the bench. “Oh, dear. I hadn’t thought of what Papa will say. I only meant Grandpapa would never want anyone to learn of this, given that I’ve spent the night alone with you. He wouldn’t push me into a marriage for fear his friends would discover the truth. I suppose I didn’t think that through.”
She sighed and looked out the window as Smithers opened the small door behind his seat and called down. “My lord?”
“How close are we to the next stop, Smithers?”