Read The Bachelor Trap Online

Authors: Elizabeth Thornton

The Bachelor Trap

For my cousin, Lois Hobbs

A salute to all those memorable adventures we shared when we were children

L
ongbury, October 1815

Edwina Gunn pushed through the back door of her cottage and quickly turned the key. There was a bar on the door and she slammed it home as well. Her heart was racing. She was breathing hard. She'd been asking too many questions, poking her nose in where it wasn't wanted. All she'd achieved was to rouse a sleeping tiger.

“Get a hold of yourself, Edwina,” she told herself sternly. “You're sixty years old. At this rate, you'll give yourself an apoplexy! You're not a threat! You can't prove anything. And after all this time, he is bound to feel safe.”

When she had control of her breathing, she crossed to the window and, standing well back so as not to be seen, looked out. Her cottage was just outside the estate, and all she could see beyond her own small patch of gardens and the outhouses were stands of yew trees, hawthorns, and oaks, the remnants of their winter foliage now bedraggled with the sudden downpour. There was nothing else to see.

She, too, was soaked through. She unfastened her coat and hung it on a hook beside the door. The fire in the grate had been banked by Mrs. Ludlow, her daily help, but Mrs. Ludlow had her own family to tend and always left in time to prepare their dinner.

She wouldn't get into the house tomorrow with the door barred. That couldn't be helped. She'd get up early herself and unbar the door, or Mrs. Ludlow could use the door knocker. That would get her up.

She was alone in the house and her nearest neighbors were up at the Priory.

This last thought prompted her to make sure that the front door and all the downstairs windows were locked. It was something she was in the habit of doing every night, though like most country people, she left her doors unlocked during the daylight hours. From now on, she was going to lock her doors during the day as well.

“Silly old woman,” she chided herself. She'd probably run from a stray dog or one of the estate gamekeepers.

Feeling more like herself, she began to mount the stairs. It was a struggle and she had to use the handrail to haul herself up. She made up her mind, then, to move her bedchamber to the unused maid's room next to the kitchen. It was small but convenient for someone who couldn't manage the stairs. The very thought made her feel her age all the more keenly.

Once in her own room, she wrapped herself in a warm dressing robe, put on her wool slippers, then poked the fire to a cheery blaze. As she watched the flames licking around the small lumps of coal, she became lost in thought again.

She was thinking of Hannah, who would always remain young in her memory, Hannah who loved life and was fearless in how she lived it, Hannah who was the source of so much heartache.

Twenty years ago, she'd left this very house vowing never to return, and that was the last anyone had seen of her.

Where are you, Hannah? What happened all those years ago?

Had Edwina been a younger woman and in better health, she would have posted up to London and consulted with Brand. He was as close to her as any son, and what she had to say was better said face-to-face. But she hadn't been well enough to travel so she'd done the next best thing. She'd sent a letter to Brand's office in Frith Street, giving him a brief sketch of what she'd discovered. That was more than two weeks ago, but there had been no reply. She wasn't finding fault. All that meant was that Brand hadn't received her letter. He was a busy man and traveled around a great deal. The letter would catch up with him eventually.

There was another letter she had started many times, but had never sent to the one person who might well solve the mystery at one stroke: her niece, Marion. On that thought, she sat down at her escritoire and assembled her writing materials. After dipping her pen in the ink pot, she paused. This wasn't an easy letter to write. She hadn't seen Marion in nearly twenty years. Their correspondence had been sporadic, largely because she and her sister, Diana, who was Marion's mother, had had a falling out. Diana's tragic death from a tumor three years before, followed so closely by the death of Marion's father, had brought Edwina and her niece closer together.

She swallowed a lump in her throat. Not all her remorse and regret could make up for those wasted years. How could she and her sister have been so foolish?

She would not make the same mistake with Marion. But she hardly knew where to begin. After all, they did not know each other very well. If she started making unfounded accusations, Marion would think she was deranged.

She toyed with the idea of inviting Marion to come to Longbury for a visit, but soon discarded the notion. For one thing, Marion lived a good three days' journey from Longbury. For another, she had her hands full taking care of her two younger sisters. Nor did Edwina like the idea of bringing Marion into a situation that was fraught with danger.

If only Brand were here, he could advise her.

There was no harm, however, in corresponding with her niece. They could reminisce about the one and only time Marion had come for a visit. She must know what happened that night. She was there. Someone had seen her. Perhaps the memories were locked away in her mind and a little prompting would set them free.

She began to write. Not long after, she heard a floorboard creak. Her mouth went dry and she slowly got up. When the floorboard creaked again, she went to the fireplace and lifted the poker from its stand. In the corridor, she paused. All she could hear was her own heart beating painfully against her ribs. Nothing seemed amiss, nothing was stirring.

She walked haltingly to the top of the stairs and looked down. Nothing. Lowering the poker, she half turned to go back to her room and saw the face of her assailant before she felt the first blow.

It's the wrong person
was her last terrified thought before the darkness engulfed her.

The following morning, Mrs. Ludlow arrived at her usual time and let herself into the cottage. She had a package under her arm, a nice shank of mutton that she'd picked up from the butcher that morning, enough to make a big pot of soup with meat to go with it, and perhaps a little left over for her own family. Miss Gunn was a generous soul.

After removing her coat and putting on her apron, she got the fire going. The kettle of water for Miss Gunn's morning cup of tea was soon whistling on the hob. When everything was ready, she set the tray and carried it into the front hall. A few steps in, she halted. Her employer was lying in a heap at the foot of the stairs, her sightless eyes staring up at the ceiling.

It was an hour before the constable got to the house. There was no doubt in his mind that the old lady had fallen down the stairs. Only one thing puzzled him. There were ink stains on her fingers, but no letter was found, nothing to show for those inky fingers.

In his view, it was a small thing and not worth bothering about.

L
ondon, May 1816

It was only a small thing, or so it seemed at the time, but in later years, Brand would laugh and say that from that moment on, his life changed irreversibly. That was the night Lady Marion Dane stubbed her toes.

She and her sister were his guests, making up a party in his box at the theater. They hadn't known each other long, only a month, but he knew far more about her than she realized. He and her late aunt, Edwina Gunn, had been friends, and from time to time Edwina had mentioned her sister's family who lived near Keswick in the Lake District. In the last few weeks, he'd made it his business to find out as much as he could about Lady Marion Dane.

She was the daughter of an earl, but she had never had a Season in London, had never been presented at Court or enjoyed the round of parties and outings that were taken for granted by other young women of her class. If her father had not died, she would still be in the Lake District, out of harm's way, and there would be no need for him to keep a watchful eye on her.

Though he'd taken a sketch of her background, he could not get her measure. She was an intensely private person and rarely showed emotion. But in the theater, when the lamps were dimmed and she thought herself safe from prying eyes, she gave herself up to every emotion that was portrayed on stage.

The play was
Much Ado About Nothing,
and he could tell from her face which characters appealed to her and which did not. She didn't waste much sympathy on Claudio, or his betrothed's father, and they were, one supposed, cast in the heroic mold. Benedick she tolerated, but the shrew, Beatrice, made her beam with admiration.

It was more entertaining to watch Marion's face than to watch the performance on stage.

The final curtain came down, the applause died away, and chairs were scraped back as people got up. Lady Marion was still sitting in her chair as though loath to leave. Her sister, Lady Emily—an indiscriminate flirt at eighteen—was making eyes at young Henry Cavendish; Brand's own good friend, Ash Denison, was stifling a yawn behind his hand. No affair such as this would be complete, for propriety's sake, without a chaperon or two, and doing the honors tonight were Ash's grandmother, the dowager countess, and her friend, Lady Bethune. The evening wasn't over yet. He had arranged for a late supper at the Clarendon Hotel where Marion's cousin, Fanny, and her husband, Reggie Wright, were due to join them.

Everyone was effusive in their praise of the performance, but it was Marion's words he wanted to hear. She looked up at him with unguarded eyes when he held her chair, her expression still alight with traces of amusement. Then she sighed and said, “Thank you for inviting us, Mr. Hamilton.” She was using her formal voice and he found it mildly irritating. She went on, “In future, when I think of this performance, I shall remember the actress who played Beatrice. She was truly memorable.”

She got up, a graceful woman in lavender silk with a cool smile that matched her cool stare, and fairish blond hair softly swept back from her face.

Some demon goaded him to say, “In future, when you think of this performance, I hope you will remember
me
.”

The flash of unease in her gray eyes pleased him enormously. Since they'd met, she'd treated him with all the respect she would show an octogenarian. He wasn't a vain man, but he was a man. The temptation to make her acknowledge it was becoming harder and harder to resist.

Recovered now, she smiled vaguely and went to join her sister. He had to admire Marion's tactics: She diverted young Cavendish's interest to someone in another box, linked her arm through Emily's, and purposely steered the girl through the door. It was seamlessly done, but very effective.

Emily was an attractive little thing with huge, dark eyes, a cap of silky curls, and a smile that was, in his opinion,
too
alluring for her tender years. There was always a stream of young bucks vying for her attention. And vice versa. Marion had checked her sister tonight, but that didn't happen very often.

There was another sister, Phoebe, a child of ten whom he liked immensely. Though she was lame, she was up for anything. She was also a fount of knowledge on Marion's comings and goings.

He was calling her Marion in the privacy of his own thoughts. If he wasn't careful, he'd be doing it in public, then what would Lady Marion Dane, cool and collected earl's daughter, make of that?

“She makes an excellent chaperon, doesn't she?” Ash Denison, Brand's friend since their school days at Eton, spoke in an undertone. “All she needs is one of those lace caps to complete the picture. Then every man will know that she's a confirmed spinster and he had better keep his distance.”

The thought of Marion in a lace cap such as dowagers wore soured Brand's mood. All the same, he could see that day coming. Though she was only seven and twenty, she seemed resigned to her single state. No. It was truer to say that she embraced it. All she wanted from a man, all she would allow, was a platonic friendship.

Did she know that she was setting herself up for a challenge? He let the thought turn in his mind.

“Careful, Brand,” said Ash. “You're smiling again. If you're not careful, you'll be making a habit of it.”

Brand turned to stare at his friend and made a face when he came under the scrutiny of Ash's quizzing glass. No one looking at Ash would have believed that he had spent the better part of his adult life fighting for king and country in the Spanish Campaign. Brand knew that those were brutal years, though Ash always made light of them. Now that the war was over, he seemed hell-bent on enjoying himself. He was a dandy and the darling of society.

Brand had neither the patience nor the inclination to make himself the darling of society. He knew how fickle society was. As the baseborn son of a duke, he'd met with prejudice in his time, but that was before he'd acquired a fleet of newspapers stretching from London to every major city in the south of England. Now he was respected and his friendship sought after—now that he could break the high and mighty with the stroke of his pen.

He knew what people said, that he was driven to prove himself. It was true. But he never forgot a friend or anyone who had been kind to him when he'd had nothing to offer in return. Edwina Gunn was one of those people. It was to repay his debt to her that he had taken Marion and her sisters under his wing.

Ash was waiting for him to say something. “The sight of a beautiful woman always makes me smile.”

“I presume we are talking about Lady Marion? You haven't taken your eyes from her all evening.”

This friendly taunt was met with silence.

“Is she beautiful?” Ash prodded.

“Not in the common way, but she has style.”

“Mmm,” Ash mused. “If she allowed me to have the dressing of her, I could make her the toast of the ton. I'd begin by cutting her hair to form a soft cap. We'd have to lower the bodices on her gowns, of course, and raise the hems. I think she would look her best in transparent gauzes. What do you think?”

Ash was known to have an eye for fashion, and many high-ranking ladies sought his advice. In Brand's view, their newfound glamour wasn't always an improvement.

“You know what they say.” Brand moved to catch up with the rest of his party, and Ash quickened his step to keep up with him.

“What do they say?”

There was a crush of people at the top of the stairs and Brand felt a moment's anxiety. He relaxed when he saw Marion's fair hair glistening with gold under the lights of the chandeliers. Emily's dark cap of curls shimmered like silk. Then he lost sight of them in the crush.

“What do they say?” repeated Ash.

“One man's meat—”

The sentence was left hanging. A woman screamed. Some patrons cried out. In the next instant, Brand was sprinting for the stairs.

He shoved people out of his way as he thundered down those marble steps. He found her at the bottom, sitting on the floor, her head resting on her knees. Emily was with her.

“Stand back!” he flung at the group of people who had crowded round her. They gave way without a protest.

He knelt down and touched her shoulder with a shaking hand. “Marion?” he said urgently. “What happened? Say something!”

She looked up at him with tears of pain in her eyes. “I stubbed my toes,” she said crossly. “There's no need to fuss.”

Then she fainted.

Marion swam out of the haze that enveloped her. “Someone elbowed me in the back,” she said plaintively.

A masculine voice asked, “Who would want to harm you, Marion?”

“David.”

Just saying the word cleared her head. She lifted her lashes and blinked to clear the mist in front of her eyes. Emily's anxious face looked down at her. Then she registered Hamilton's presence and, finally, the painful throb in her toes.

She struggled to a sitting position. They were in Hamilton's carriage turning into the street that gave onto Hanover Square, where Cousin Fanny's house was located.

“You're taking me home?”

Hamilton nodded. “Apart from anything else, you gave yourself a nasty knock on the head. When we get to the house, I'll send for the doctor. I've already sent word to your cousins at the Clarendon.”

“That isn't necessary! It will only worry Fanny and Reggie if I don't turn up. As I told you, all I did was stub my toes.”

“You said David pushed you.”

She felt a stab of alarm. “I said no such thing.” Then, with an agility of mind that surprised even her, she added, “Who is David?”

When Hamilton looked at Emily, she shook her head. The subject of David was dropped, much to Marion's relief, but Hamilton hadn't finished yet. “Did you get a good look at the person who pushed you?”

“No. Everything happened so quickly. And I wasn't pushed, I was elbowed.” Her toes were throbbing in earnest, so she managed no more than a weak smile. “That's the thing about London. It's a menace. People are always in a hurry. I'm forever dodging crowds of jostling shoppers, or carriages hurtling to unknown destinations as though it were a matter of life and death. The theater is no different. And do you know, old people are the worst? Lord Denison's grandmother uses her cane as though she is prodding cattle.”

Her attempt at humor won a chuckle from Emily, though Mr. Hamilton remained stony-faced.

“You're right about that,” said Emily. “I've seen her do it. But you're wrong about your fall. I'm not saying you were deliberately pushed, but someone fell heavily against you. Marion, our arms were linked and you were wrenched from my grasp. Luckily for you, there was a big man in front of you. He broke your fall.”

“I can't remember.” And that was the truth. At this point, all she wanted was to get home so that Fanny's housekeeper could give her one of her magic powders to dull the pain in her toes. “I can't understand,” she said, “how stubbed toes can hurt so much.”

“Be thankful you didn't break your neck.” That was Hamilton.

“Like poor Aunt Edwina.” That was Emily. Suddenly aware of what she'd said, she went on hurriedly, “I'm sorry. It was a thoughtless thing to say at a time like this.”

A pall of silence settled over them. Marion had to struggle to keep from showing how Emily's words had affected her. Guilt was a constant shadow on her mind. She'd hardly known this aunt who had left everything to her—Yew Cottage in Longbury, her goods and chattels, and the little money she had saved. All she had ever done for her aunt was write the occasional letter. It was the same with her mother, though she and Edwina were sisters. There had been a falling-out when Edwina and the youngest sister, Hannah, had come for a holiday to the Lake District, and the quarrel had never been mended, not properly. It was only glossed over.

Without Aunt Edwina's legacy, they would be in dire straits. When their father died, the title and estate passed to Cousin Morley, and she and her sisters had moved into the dower house. It wasn't long, however, before Cousin Morley took possession of that, too. He wanted it for his mother-in-law, who had outstayed her welcome at the Hall. They each had a small annuity from their father's estate, he pointed out. That should do them.

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