Nicholas: Lord of Secrets
Lonely Lords - 2
This book is for everybody who knows how much love and wisdom reside in people whom the ignorant dismiss as “limited.” One child’s silent smile can illuminate universes, and love has a genius that soars above the pedestrian comprehension of the intellect.
The English peerage had come to a sorry pass when the heir to an earldom had to duck up the footmen’s stairway to hide from the lovely young women seeking to become his countess.
Nicholas Haddonfield, Viscount Reston, took those steps two at a time.
He emerged on the first floor of the Winterthur mansion, the corridor lit by wall sconces and blessedly devoid of footmen, debutantes, mamas, or other aggravations.
Nick hurried to the first door and found it locked, suggesting the evening’s hosts, Lord and Lady Winterthur, were not entirely foolish. Well, no matter, the corridor was long, and there had to be an unlocked sitting room or parlor where a man could hide himself away for a few minutes of peace, quiet, and solitude.
He approached an intersection and froze as he heard a twittering female voice.
“He must have gone this way, Eulie.” The tone was indignant. “The gentlemen’s retiring room is on this floor, and he’s too big to go missing for long.”
“Really, Pamela…” The second woman’s voice floated around the corner. “I know he’ll be an earl, but you can’t seriously be thinking of marriage to Reston? I heard him tell Lady Lavinia Gregson he killed his mother.”
The voices were coming closer. Nick spotted a door on the left slightly ajar and sent up a prayer of thanks to whatever saint looked after beleaguered bachelors. He slipped inside, finding the room dark, save for weak illumination from a fire in the hearth.
“He’s likely hiding,” the first woman decided. “Playing hard to get. You know when he said he killed his mother, it was almost as if he were serious.”
Nick plastered himself against the wall behind the door while the ladies in the corridor continued their pursuit.
“Pamela, you cannot have thought what the wedding night with such a brute would involve.” Just outside the door, the lady’s voice dripped with distaste. “Earl or not, he’s simply… well, I would fear for you, my dear.”
“My mother says they all look the same in the dark.”
The door swung open. One of the various ladies who’d been watching Nick ever more closely as the supper waltz approached peered into the gloom, then pulled the door shut again. “Nothing in here. Perhaps he’s in the gentlemen’s retiring room.”
As her voice trailed off down the corridor, Nick considered the intensity of his relief.
Safe—for another hour he was safe, and so damned tired that a cozy, private parlor was inordinately appealing. He moved across the room, intent on stoking up the fire, when his peripheral vision caught a pale shadow to the right of the hearth.
“I beg your pardon,” he said. “I did not know the room was occupied.”
As his vision adjusted, Nick could make out the soft, billowy shape of a ball gown on a woman seated on a chest or bench along the wall.
“What if we each agree to be alone in here?” the apparition suggested in a voice that carried the slightest rasp.
“Suits me,” Nick said, going to the fireplace. “Are you hiding or merely enjoying a quiet respite?”
“Both, I think. And you?”
“Most definitely hiding.” Nick’s smile was rueful. “Lady Whoever and her faithful dog Lady Simper have that let-me-be-your-countess gleam in their eyes.”
“One of them sounded less than enthralled.” There was a touch of humor in her voice, though nothing mean.
“I’d wish I were a foot taller, if it would scare away more of the debutantes and their mamas. Do you mind if I sit, as we’re each so plainly alone?”
“Please.” The lady shifted slightly in her corner. “You are Reston?”
“At your service.” Nick bowed toward the shadowy corner. “And apparently tall enough to have no anonymity left whatsoever.”
“Or handsome enough. Maybe single enough?”
Nick scrubbed a hand over his face. “That too, for my sins.”
He satisfied himself the fire was going to throw off a little more heat, but resisted the urge to build it up to the point where the shadows were illuminated. Without knowing why, he didn’t want to intrude on his companion’s privacy. Something appealed about having a conversation with a woman whose features he could not clearly see.
He settled back on a sofa facing the hearth, crossed one foot over his knee, pulled off his gloves, and slipped off his dancing pump. His companion was no heavily chaperoned schoolgirl if she could find her way to this little oasis of solitude, and he doubted she’d take offense.
“My poor, lordly, single feet are expiring,” Nick muttered, massaging his arch.
“Bride hunting is work,” the lady said. “Almost as hard work as being hunted.”
Nick’s hands paused in their ministrations, and he cocked his head to peer into the dark corner. “So are you a staked goat as well?”
“I am on my way to slaughter, I fear.” For the first time, her voice had a careful, controlled quality.
She’d been crying. Nick knew it like any man with four sisters knows such things, like any man who adored women—most women, most of the time—could sense female upset.
“Your intended is not to your liking?” Nick asked, trying not to let himself care. He couldn’t even see the woman, for pity’s sake, though Nick had the sense she was as weary of the ballroom battleground as he.
“My intended is more than twice my age, and while that alone would not matter, he’s spent more years being dissolute than I have breathing.”
“Gads.” Nick switched feet. “At least I get to do the asking.”
“Who is this reprobate?” Nick inquired after a moment, stretching out his stockinged feet toward the fire. “Shall I call him out for you? Buy up his markers?”
“I really ought not to be so sensitive,” the lady said with a touch of asperity, “but I do not appreciate the levity, my lord.”
“Who’s joking? Tell me who he is.”
“Hellerington,” the woman said, a wealth of resignation in her voice.
“And you’ve accepted him?” Nick asked, leaning back and closing his eyes.
“I have not, but he told me at supper he would be speaking to my father, and once they come to terms, my refusal or consent won’t mean anything.”
Nick opened his eyes and frowned. The man’s name wasn’t ringing any particular bells, but then, Nick had spent much of the past few years in the country, dodging his responsibilities and larking about with friends—to hear his father tell it.
He thought of his father, now growing increasingly frail, and wanted to howl at the moon with the weight of his grief and guilt. Rising, he crossed the room to a decanter on a sideboard and poured two glasses.
“Dutch courage.” He passed one drink to the lady. “Sip it carefully, though Winterthur will have only decent libation on hand.” A graceful bare hand emerged from the shadows and took the drink. No gloves. The lady was making herself quite at home here in the dark little parlor.
“Good lord,” the woman gasped, “that is… potent.”
“Warms the innards,” Nick said, sipping his own drink. “Mind if I join you?”
“Of course not.” She tucked her skirts closer to her side and scooted more deeply into her corner.
Nick lowered himself beside her, making the padded bench creak. “Have you no other prospects?”
He leaned back against the wall, savoring the moment. The fire hissed and popped softly beside them, and the lady herself gave off a subtle fragrant heat, such that even sitting beside her was an odd comfort.
“I am barely received,” she said. “My debut was eight years ago. I should feel lucky to have any offer at all.”
“A fossil then, though not as prehistoric as my handsome self.” And no wonder she didn’t quail at sharing the parlor with him for a few moments.
Or a drink.
Or a bench in a quiet corner.
“Men do not become fossils. They become distinguished.”
Nick sipped his drink. “Good to know.”
“How is your father?”
The question surprised him, but if she knew who he was and that he was hunting a bride, she’d likely know why as well.
“Failing,” Nick said, surprising himself with his honesty. “He’s a tough old boot but hasn’t lived an easy life, and seeing me married is all he’s asked of me.” And Nick had given his promise that before the Season was out, he’d have not just a fiancée, but a bride. The already depressing evening threatened to become downright morose.
“Parents. They excel at the gentle art of unspoken guilt.”
Understanding like that was balm to a tired bachelor’s soul. “Is that why you’re on your way to slaughter?”
“Not parental guilt. Sororal guilt.”
“I am one of eight,” Nick said, citing the legitimate total because he was in polite company. “Sibling guilt can be powerful.”
The guilt of a grown, unmarried son and heir more powerful yet.
“My younger sister will make her come out next year, and I must be safely away from the social scene. One wouldn’t want to queer her chances by association with me.”
“You are truly so wicked?” He couldn’t credit that, because he knew—in every sense—the truly wicked and fast ladies of the polite world, and he did not know this shadowy creature beside him. He could not place her slightly husky voice or her lily of the valley scent.
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