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Authors: The Last Time We Met

Lily Lang

Dedication

To Ellen M. and Doug R., for the good times in Tall Pines and the good times to come.
 

Chapter One

London, 1832

For three days and three nights, Miranda Thornwood had sat curled beneath a broken crate in a St. James mews, waiting for Jason Blakewell to emerge from the club that bore his name.

She had had little to drink and less to eat. Sleep had come only in brief snatches. The freezing rain had begun two nights ago and had not ceased since, but the broken crate in which she sat failed to actually shelter her from either the cold or the damp. Rats scurried through the narrow alley, often close enough to touch, and the air stank of horse droppings and rotting food.

But after the desperate thirty-five mile journey without food or shelter from Middlesex to London, Miranda was accustomed to physical discomfort. She kept her weary attention focused on the door of the club, and when a pair of beautiful black geldings drawing a gleaming black closed carriage clambered to a halt, she lifted her head.

The great front doors opened. A man in sleek, dark evening clothes stepped out into the night and down the shallow flight of stairs. A short, muscular bullfrog of a footman followed, holding up a large black umbrella.

Miranda leaned forward. The gaslight wavered through the shimmering rain. Despite the chill of the evening, the man wore no cloak, but his evening clothes, though plain, were perfectly cut and fitted, his white cravat tied in a simple knot. Carelessly cut dark hair curled over his high forehead and the nape of his neck.

Miranda’s heart pounded. Stretching out her aching, weary muscles, she scrambled out from the crate.

Despite the rain and the lateness of the hour, carriages and people still crowded St. James. Miranda drew her heavy cloak more securely around her mud-splattered dress and darted across the street, ducking past horses and drunken dandies. As she drew closer, the man’s face became clearer: dark eyes set against harsh features, and a strong, powerful jaw line.

Her breath caught.

It was Jason Blakewell.

She came to a sudden halt on the edge of the street, overcome by a nameless emotion so powerful, so agonizing, it stole her breath.

She had not seen Jason in ten long years. For six of them she had believed him dead, and even when she’d learned he had not perished, as she had feared, on the prison hulk to which her father had consigned him, she had known he was lost to her forever. Surely he still hated her for what he believed she had done to him, but nothing could stop the sudden shock of joy that coursed through her as she gazed upon him for the first time in over a decade.

“Eh, lady, get out of the way!”

A pair of monstrous gray stallions drawing a huge carriage came thundering directly toward her. Miranda, still dazed, could not move quickly enough, but Jason had looked up and seen her. He reacted instantly. In a second he reached her and drew her aside to the safety of the paved footpath. His hands on her were gentle and impersonal.

“Are you unwell, madam?” he asked in the deep voice she remembered so perfectly.

The folds of her heavy cloak hid her face. He had not yet recognized her.

She couldn’t answer. She managed a quick shake of the head, and he said, “You had better be careful. The streets can be dangerous if you don’t watch where you’re going.”

He gave her a courteous bow, as though beneath her heavy mud-splattered winter cloak she might be a duchess, and turned back to the waiting carriage. With a tremendous effort of will, Miranda found her voice.

“Jason,” she said.

He stilled. For a moment he stood without moving. The rain dampened his hair and jacket. The dull thud of her heart drowned out even the clamor of the streets.

At last, very slowly, Jason turned. She pushed back the hood of her cloak so the gaslight shone full on her face and her matted hair. But before she could speak again, the footman came around the side of the carriage to see what had delayed his master.

When he saw Miranda, his face crumpled in annoyance.

“Stand back now,” he said. “Mr. Blakewell don’t want no one bothering ’im for no money.”

Miranda ignored him, her attention focused solely on the expressionless man who stood before her, gazing at her with a stranger’s eyes out of a heartbreakingly familiar face. The rain fell in silver sheets around them.

“Please, Jason,” she said, her voice faint. “I need to speak with you.”

The footman scowled, reaching for her arm, but this time, Miranda reacted. She might be starving, penniless and filthy, her gown might be more ragged than any she would have permitted her lowliest scullery maid to wear, but no mere footman could intimidate her.

“Remove your hands from me at once, sir,” she said, and the footman, reacting instinctively to the practiced authority in her voice, fell back in confusion.

For the first time since he had recognized her, Jason spoke. “Send the carriage back, Briggs,” he said quietly, without looking away from Miranda. “I won’t need it tonight.”

Briggs, still gaping at Miranda, snapped immediately to attention and signaled to the coachman. “Yes, sir. Of course. At once.”

The carriage drew away. She continued to stare mutely at Jason, but after a moment he turned abruptly away and started down the street.

“Come along,” he said brusquely. “We’ll go back in through the side entrance.”

He led her around the great Palladian structure of Blakewell’s. In the pallid light of the gas lamps lining St. James Street, the pale stone of the club gleamed like moonlight. Pillars and porticoes ran around a large central block; wide, shallow steps led up to the front door; and Venetian windows stamped the lovely façade in long rectangles of gold.

Jason Blakewell had come a long way from his days as a stable boy, Miranda thought, following him numbly into an alley. He knocked briskly on one of the back doors, and it opened immediately, producing a rosy-cheeked kitchen maid who beamed with pleasure at the sight of Jason.

“Well now, if it isn’t Mr. Blakewell,” she said, smiling broadly and stepping back to admit him into a bustling kitchen. “Decided to visit us downstairs today, sir?”

“Just passing through, Polly,” he said.

Miranda followed him inside. Heated air washed over her immediately, making her shudder. She’d been cold for so long she’d nearly forgotten what it was like to be warm.

Watching them, the maid’s eyes turned round with surprise, but Miranda ignored the girl. Nor did she look at Jason again. What she had felt when she had seen him had frightened her so terribly she forced herself to focus on her surroundings instead. They walked through a high, vaulted room full of scurrying footmen and maids, who whisked away laden dishes of le coq de bruyere, brioche au fromage, massive tureens of soups, whole pheasants and fishes, and a host of other dishes she could not even name. Gleaming pewter and copper filled a gigantic dresser covering an entire wall, and more than a dozen pots sat simmering on the massive range. A small, bewhiskered Frenchman, nearly as wide as he was long, presided over the chaos, cursing and snarling in his native tongue and occasionally shaking his spoon at a trembling underling.

“Monsieur Leblanc,” murmured Jason, as he led Miranda past a kitchen table the size of a small tennis court.

The little Frenchman paused mid-tirade and scowled at them, saying reproachfully, “What are you doing here, sir? You are in the way.”

“We’re only passing through, Antoine,” said Jason easily.

Miranda cast a brief glance at the temperamental little Frenchman. She knew from reading the London papers they still received at Thornwood Hall that Antoine Leblanc was one of the reasons Blakewell’s had gained such enormous success. Leblanc had apprenticed in the kitchens of Letitia Bonaparte, the mother of Napoleon himself, and the quality of the fare he served purportedly exceeded even the famous suppers at Watier’s and Crockford’s.

Jason held the kitchen door for her, and they exited into a long corridor. For the first time, genuine curiosity pierced the haze of her anxiety and anguish. She was inside a gentleman’s club, something most ladies of her station would never have an opportunity to experience. Of course, Jason would keep her below stairs; he would not allow the club members to suffer the indignity of seeing a woman in this purely masculine domain.

But she still caught glimpses of the interior of the club as a footman or maid hurried past them and exited the hall with a tray of food, or re-entered with empty dishes of Sevres porcelain. The sumptuousness of the furnishings astounded her—the columns of Siennese marble, the rooms decorated in the style of Louis XIV, the Buhl furniture, heavy upholstery, gilded-looking glasses. Though Thornwood Hall had once been the greatest house in Hertfordshire, in its heyday during her father’s time and before her Uncle Clarence had begun to sell off its best treasures, it had never been so luxuriously appointed.

Miranda knew from her obsessive reading of the papers that in previous centuries, the club had been a chocolate house. When its popularity had waned, its owners had hastened to convert it into a private club like White’s and the Cocoa Tree. But the original club had been failing badly when Jason Blakewell purchased it for fifty thousand pounds. He had closed the building down for a year, refurbished and refurnished both the interior and exterior, and reopened it as Blakewell’s to instantaneous success.

The club soon attracted an exclusive clientele of the wildest and most extravagant members of the
beau monde
. In addition to offering Monsieur Leblanc’s incomparable suppers, the club also provided every variety of gambling—macao and hazard, faro and whist, piquet and backgammon. Nor did Jason discourage high stakes. At Blakewell’s, whole estates could change hands in a single evening. Certain snide society papers had speculated that the mysterious Mr. Blakewell, in his four years operating the club, had won as much as a million pounds off of the current generation of young aristocrats.

Miranda could well believe it. In her three days spent observing the comings and goings of its members, she had counted ministers and marquesses, poets and painters. Once, a coachman waiting for his master to emerge from the club had even pointed out a tall, haughty-looking man as the Duke of Wellington himself.

The corridor ended in a long flight of stairs. Once or twice, Miranda, dizzy from exhaustion and starvation, stumbled, but Jason never slowed or look back. Finally they came to the top floor and another long corridor lined with identical wooden doors. Jason pushed open the third door, admitting them into a small, tidy office.

The only occupant was a small, balding, owl-like man with a pair of round glasses perched on his enormous beaky nose. He looked up, then shot to his feet, his mouth set in lines of surprise.

“Jason! I wasn’t expecting you. I thought you had gone for the night.”

“I intended to leave,” said Jason. “But a complication arose.” He indicated Miranda with a slight inclination of his head. “Miss Thornwood, this is my steward, Mr. Oliver Harvey. Olly, this is Miss Miranda Thornwood, daughter of the late Lord Thornwood, and sister to the current viscount. Please show Miss Thornwood to my suite and have the kitchen send up a supper for two.”

Miranda turned away from the steward’s expression of complete bewilderment.

“I don’t need supper, sir,” she said. Unable to meet Jason’s sardonic gaze, she fixed her eyes on a point just above his left shoulder. “I need to speak with you. Immediately.”

Jason ignored her, raking her sodden cloak and hair with a single passionless glance.

“Also have some of the maids bring up hot water. Miss Thornwood needs…” his lip curled, “…a bath.”

Mr. Harvey, probably shocked at having a gently bred female presented to him in his office, managed to recover.

“Of course,” he said. “Immediately.”

Miranda made an impatient gesture. “My business with you is urgent, Jason.”

He did not look at her again. “So is your need of a bath,” he said. “And I’m hungry. You interrupted my original plans. The least you can do is dine with me. We can talk over supper.” He turned back to his owlish-looking steward. “Thank you, Olly. I know I can depend upon you.”

“Of course.”

Jason nodded, and without gazing back at Miranda, exited the room through a different door than the one through which they had entered. She was now alone with Mr. Harvey, who continued to stare at her in fascination.

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