Read The Earl's Secret Bargain Online

Authors: Ruth Ann Nordin

Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Romance, #Regency, #Historical Romance

The Earl's Secret Bargain (16 page)

The furniture in the entire
manor was in good condition, as he had said, and his bedchamber was no exception. In this room, he chose dark oak furnishings with deep brown bedding. He had an armoire for his things, just as she did in her bedchamber. Then there was a full-length mirror, a lounging chair by the window, a place for his grooming supplies, a bookcase lined with books ranging from poetry and plays to full-length novels to historical accounts.

he was pleased that his tastes varied. It was nice to see he was willing to expand his knowledge. She always thought people who focused on only one thing missed out on what life had to offer.

“The ledger’s in here,” he told her
as he headed for the small room.

She followed him and watched as he set the candelabra on the oak desk.

“I only have one chair in here,” he said and opened the top drawer. He set the ledger down and gestured for her to sit. When she did, he asked, “Would you like me to leave?”

“I don’t mind it if you’re here while I look through it.”

He nodded and remained in the room while she read through the accounts, mentally adding and subtracting the figures to make sure they all worked out as they should. He’d been careful to document everything he did for the past year, and she had no doubt he’d been just as meticulous with his money ever since he’d inherited the estate.

She glanced at him and saw he wa
s looking out the open window. In the moonlight, he was even more attractive. She didn’t know if that was because moonlight enhanced the way people looked or if it was the way her heartbeat picked up from simply being close to him. Regardless of the wager, she was still attracted to him. It wasn’t easy to keep her distance.

But s
he couldn’t afford to be vulnerable enough to get close to him. Not yet. But maybe soon, if he continued to be the gentleman he seemed to be.

Forcing her gaze off of him, she turned her attention back to the ledger. “You’ve been responsible with my father’s money.”

“I want to be. I know I have a long way to go, but I’m determined to do a better job than my father did.”

“That’s commendable.” She closed the ledger and stood up. “I appreciate you letting me have a look at it. I don’t think most gentlemen would be so obliging to the wishes of their wives.”

“There’s no reason why you shouldn’t know what is happening with the money you provided me.”

She stood at the desk for a long moment, not sure if she should say something or just go to her
bedchamber. She had no intention of spending the night in here. He knew it as much as she did, but she still hesitated to leave, and she couldn’t figure out why.

Finally, he ask
ed, “Was there something else you wanted to see?”

Her cheeks grew warm, and she quickly shook her head. Surely, he’d been talking about the things pertaining to the estate, but her mind unwittingly went to the bed and the memory of the heated kiss they’d shared at Lord Toplyn’s ball. He couldn’t have feigned that kind of passion. At least, she didn’t think he could. She knew she couldn’t. Even now, her gaze went to his lips, and she thought there might be nothing better than to share another kiss.

Thankful the room was too dark for him to detect the blush in her face, she forced out, “No. It’s been a long day. I should get to sleep. I’ll see you in the morning.”

Then, b
efore she could talk herself out of it, she strode out of his bedchamber, choosing to use the door connecting their rooms. It wasn’t until she closed the door softly behind her that she managed to breathe. Her back pressing against the door, she took a few moments to calm the beating of her heart. Once her swirling emotions settled, she walked further into her room and lit the candles so she could get ready for bed.

Chapter Twenty


The next morning as he finished breakfast, Toby ventured a look at
Regina. She had managed to eat more today, which was a good sign. Maybe she was starting to trust him again.

Toby folded the napkin and placed it on the plate
in front of him. The butler hurried to take the dishes out of his way, something that still seemed strange after all the years he’d carried his own dishes to the kitchen. Taking a deep breath, he looked at Regina again, noting the way she nibbled on a strawberry.

“I was thinking,” he began, waiting until she looked up at him to continue, “it’s a nice day out.” He gesture
d to the large window where sunlight was streaming through it. After a moment, he cleared his throat. “Do you ride horses?”

She hesitated but swallowed the strawberry. “From time to time.”

“Would you like to ride one today? I could show you the grounds.”

For a moment, he thought she was going to say no, but then she nodded and wiped her mouth with a napkin. “I’ll change and be down shortly.”

Relieved, he rose to his feet. He was tempted to follow her but figured it was best if he didn’t press his luck. Instead, he waited until she left the room before he proceeded to his bedchamber. Assuming this was going to be a pleasant ride, he decided to look forward to it. It was hard to be in constant dread that he’d do or say something to upset her. It was easier to focus on the fact that she was willing to spend the morning with him, and better yet, there’d be no servants around to overhear them. Sometimes he missed the privacy he’d enjoyed when he couldn’t afford more than the butler. But he’d much rather be married to Regina and have the loss of privacy around him.

After the valet helped him into his riding outfit, he waited by the front door for her to come down the stairs. He wasn’
t sure what he was going to talk to her about. Maybe he’d tell her about the improvements being done to the place. But would something like that interest a lady? Would she rather he ask her what she’d like him to do to make the place more appealing to her? If she wanted a gazebo, he’d have it built. If she wanted a fountain, he’d get that done as well.

He heard her footsteps and turned in her direction. She wore the most attract
ive shade of green that accentuated her eyes. Her blonde hair was tucked under her hat. But more than that, her outfit brought out the curves he so desperately wanted to touch. He didn’t know how it was possible, but she grew more and more beautiful every time he saw her. Could he tell her that, or would she assume he had ulterior motives? Perhaps she’d assume he was merely being polite.

he’d take the chance, he said, “You’re beautiful.”

didn’t answer right away, but when she reached him, she stood before him and thanked him.

All right, so she didn’t peer up adoringly at him, but she did make
eye contact with him and express her thanks. She didn’t smile when she said it, but there was a softness in her voice that indicated she was making an effort. That was a step in the right direction, and right now, he’d take any break he could get.

The footman opened the door, and Toby led her outside. He wanted to keep his hand on the small of her back but quickly let go once they
were already down the steps.

As they crossed the lawn to the stables, he asked, “Is there anything in particular you want to see?”

She glanced around the estate and shrugged. “Just show me the areas that most interest you.”

He could do that. Maybe she’d like the stream that curved around the property. On some days, he’d even taken his boots off an
d dipped his feet in the water.

“All right,” he finally said, deciding he’d start off
by showing her the stream and let her take the lead from there. “But if you like a little mystery, I can always blindfold you and show you my favorite spot.”

As he hoped, her lips curled up into a smile
at his joke. “I didn’t realize you carried a blindfold with you.”

“Well, I have been known to wear one while riding a horse.”

Her steps slowed and she stared at him, that familiar cynical look on her face, but this time, there was a hint of mischief in her eyes. “You blindfold yourself when you ride a horse?”

“Only three times
, and it was a challenge.”

“Was it?”

“Oh yes. Orlando didn’t believe I could ride a horse with one on. But I’ve learned that by using a blindfold, I can judge where I’m at by the sounds around me, and the horse is never stupid enough to lead me right into a wall or off a cliff.”

“You make it a habit of riding near walls and cliffs?”

Chuckling, he shook his head. “No, I don’t. I was merely saying that my horse has too much sense to do something that foolish. The steed wants to live.”

“I should hope so.”

“So, if you want to, you can ride blindfolded, too. It’s a good way to learn to trust your other senses. You’d be surprised at how much you can pick up when you’re not relying on your eyes to tell you what’s going on.”

She shook h
er head. “You’re probably right, but I’m not so…” She bit her lower lip and placed her hands behind her back.

“Foolish?” he filled in for her.

“I was thinking brave, but when I think of it, foolish works. Only a gentleman would wear a blindfold because he was dared to by a friend.”

“It was all in good fun. Orlando was with me, and I knew he wouldn’t let any harm come to me.”

“In that case, it seems more of a testament to your friendship than an actual challenge.”

“Gentlemen don’t concern themselves with matters like friendship.”

“They don’t?” Her eyebrow rose in a way that indicated she didn’t believe him.

“No. We’re much too masculine for that kind of thing.”

At that, she smirked. “Sure.”

“How about you?” he asked as they walked into the stable. “You must have friends.”

“Not anyone I would call a friend, but I’ve had plenty of acquaintances.”

“No close friends?” he asked, unable to believe it.

She shrugged but smiled. “I had a childhood friend, but she got sick and died two years ago.”

His smile falter
ed. “I’m sorry.”

“I was, too, at first. But then I realized it was better to have been her friend and lost her than to have never been her friend at all.”

The stable boy came over to them. “My lord and lady,” he bowed, “should I get the horses ready?”

ctually, I’ll do it,” Toby told him, encouraged that Regina was opening up to him. If he was able to keep speaking with her alone, maybe she would keep going. “Please leave us?”

He nodded and hurried out of the barn.

“You were telling me about your friend,” Toby said. “Who was she?”

Regina turned to the horse and stroked its nose. “I don’t want to bore you.”

“You aren’t boring me. I want to know.”

After a long moment of silence, she said, “Her name was Judith, and we grew up together.”

“Sounds like she was a good friend.”

“She was. I don’t endear many people to me. I’ve never cared much for large gatherings
, and it’s hard for me to open myself up to people.”

“I figured as much.”

She glanced at him then turned her attention back to the horse. “Anyway, she was the only one who continued to come by and visit with me. I still can’t figure out why. There wasn’t much I’d say when she was around. It wasn’t that I didn’t think of things to say. I was just afraid she’d think whatever I said was silly and not want to come around anymore.”

“So you wanted her to visit?”

“I did, but I didn’t want to tell her. I ended up telling her years later after I was comfortable enough to know she wouldn’t run off and find someone else to spend time with. We were supposed to go through our Season together, have our weddings together, and raise our children together.”

Her voice broke
, and she edged away from him and stroked the horse’s neck.

“I haven’t known that kind of l
oss,” he said, his voice soft.

He stepped closer to her, and though she tried to step away from him, the stall door
prevented her from doing so. Realizing he’d made her uncomfortable, he eased back a bit to give her more space, and she relaxed.

sounds like she was a good friend, and it sounds like you closed yourself off from the rest of the world after she died.” It made sense, and it probably explained her skepticism when it came to new people. “You don’t make friends easily, do you?”

“I don’t need the kind of friends who end up having fun at my expense behind my back.”

At first he thought she meant him, but then it dawned on him that she was thinking of her past, specifically to a time in her childhood when she thought those other girls were her friends but had overheard them making fun of her. And if he guessed right, Judith hadn’t done that to her.

“I’m glad you had someone like Judith in your life,” he finally said, knowing that she wouldn’t believe him if he told her he never wanted to hurt her by agreeing to the stupid wager. It’d never been his intent to make her the object of a joke, but he could see how she’d think that and couldn’t fault her for reacting the way she did. “Thank you for telling me about her.”

Her gaze met his, and he saw the unshed tears in her eyes as she blinked them away. “I always thought if I had a girl, I’d name her after her.”

“We can do that,” he whispered.

Noting the spark of hope in her eyes, he gently brought his finger under her chin and tilted her head back so he could get a better look at her. She wasn’t trying to get away from him. In fact, she was still looking at him, and better yet, the wall she’d erected to keep him out had faded. She had finally let him in.

Sensing the moment was right,
he brought his lips to hers. How he missed the softness of her lips and the way she sighed in pleasure when he traced his tongue along the seam of her lower lip.

But just as soon as she seemed to be opening up to him, she pulled away. She didn’t say anyt
hing for a long time as she ran her hand down the horse’s neck, and he wasn’t sure if he should apologize or act like the kiss never happened.

“I’m sorry,” she finally said, startling him.

“What do you have to be sorry for?” She wasn’t the one who stepped out of line and kissed him.

“I’m trying to forgive you for the wager, but it’s hard.”

“I know. If the situation was reversed, I’d have a hard time of it, too.”

After a moment, she turned back to him. “I do believe you about the missive
Lord Pennella sent you on our wedding day.”

“You do?” he asked, afraid he hadn’t heard her right. She had no reason to believe him, none that he could see anyway.

“I do. I may not know much about Lord Pennella, but he is the type of gentleman who’d do something like that. I get the impression he doesn’t want others to be happy.”

ybe. Maybe not. All he knew about Pennella was that he liked to boast about how wonderful he was, and that often included putting others down. “I try to avoid him whenever I can. It’s just that White’s isn’t that big. You can’t help but run into someone if they want to find you.”

“It seems to me all of London is that way. No matter where I went, I used to end up seeing the same group of people after awhile.”

He nodded, and she backed away from the horse.

“I’ll let you saddle the horses.”

He quietly worked through the process, and as he was finishing up with the second horse, she cleared her throat. Glancing over at her, he asked, “Have you changed your mind about riding?”

“No, I…” With a shy smile, she shook her head
. “Never mind.”

“What is it?”

She bit her lower lip as she wrapped the reins of her horse around her hand. “I couldn’t help but notice that you’re adept at this thing. With the saddle and all. I don’t know the first thing about it.”

“Do you want me to show you?”

“No. I have no interest in learning how to do it. I just wondered how you got to be so good at it.”

“Remember what I told you about doing as much as servants do?” When she nodded, he added, “This was one o
f the things I learned. Riding this horse was one of the few enjoyable things I had to do out here.” He patted its neck affectionately.

Her smile widened
. “That’s nice.”

“For what it’s worth, I like spending time with you more than I do riding a horse.”

His horse snorted in protest.

Laughing, he stroked its neck again. “I’m sorry, but it’s true.”

“Then it’s good that we’ll go horseback riding together. You can have two things you enjoy,” she replied.

Pleased, he
grinned. “It’ll make for a most enjoyable morning.”

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