Miss Lillian Wardley’s bed was empty.
Isabel Halloran, her governess, greeted the sight with a combination of frustration and panic. Lillian had a reputation for being promiscuous. Curbing her ways was one of the things Isabel had been hired to do three months ago.
Nor did Isabel need a clash of wills with Lillian tonight. She was fighting her own demons. Lord Riggs, Richard, a man she had once believed she’d loved until he had attempted to take her by force, was a guest under this roof and she was determined to avoid him. She didn’t want him to know she was here. His betrayal of her trust was still too fresh.
Isabel had no desire to be out wandering the halls to look for her errant charge.
She should have known Lillian was up to something. The seventeen-year-old had been too quiet, too accommodating, and had excused herself far too early for bed this evening. Her unquestioning obedience was out of character and had disturbed Isabel enough for her to rise from her own bed, throw her brown day dress over her night gown, and check on Lillian.
It was now half past midnight . . . and she had a sinking suspicion where Lillian might be.
Holding a protective hand around the candle flame, Isabel hurried across the hall to knock on Nanny’s door. It took more than one knock to disturb the older woman’s sleep.
The door opened. “Miss Halloran, is there something with the children?” Nanny rasped, squinting at the candle flame. She had the care of Mr. Wardley’s three younger children by his second wife, a very buxom former tavern girl with ambition to match her husband’s.
“Lillian is missing.”
“Missing?” Nanny repeated without comprehension.
“She’s not in her bed. I need your help finding her.”
Nanny came awake. “Oh, dear.” She opened the door while she reached for her dressing gown hanging on a nearby nail. “The last time she did this we found her with the stable lad. ‘Twas before your time. I know you’ve heard about it.”
“I thought I was making progress with her.”
“I thought so, too.” Nanny slipped her arms into her gown, leaving her night cap on her head. “The Master had the boy transported to Australia.” Isabel had heard this story but Nanny never tired from repeating it. “He begged for mercy, he did, but the Master would hear none of it. Them with the money makes the rules. That’s what my mother used to say. Let’s pray Miss Lillian’s not got another young laddie in trouble.”
“No, I think she has her sights set higher.” Isabel started for the stairs as the end of the hall. Her nightly braid had come loose but she wasn’t going to waste time rebraiding it.
Nanny moved with surprising speed and caught Isabel’s arm. “One of the guests? Why, the Master’s friends are all rakes and scoundrels even if they do have titles to their names. They’d gobble up a young girl like her and spit out the bones and the Master wouldn’t be able to do a thing about it.”
“I know,” Isabel answered. She couldn’t answer for all of Mr. Wardley’s guests but Richard certainly fit that description.
“We could lose our positions.”
“Yes.” Isabel was relieved Nanny now grasped exactly what was at stake.
“We’d best hurry,” the older woman said. She picked up a candle stub from the hallway table where they were kept, and lighting it off of Isabel’s. The two women hurried toward the stairs. “I wish the Master would marry Miss Lillian off as soon as possible. Yes, she’s young but she is going to come to grief with her wild ways.”
Their Master was Mr. Thomas Wardley, a merchant who had made fortune brokering wool to the army and now fancied his money could buy his way into Society. He was fond of waxing on about how he was part of the “new social order” where a man didn’t need a title to be accepted—but all the servants knew he desperately wanted one. They often called him “Sir” Thomas behind his back to mock his obsequious ways around nobility.
And Isabel knew he was wrong about a new social order. The divide between the Aristocracy and the rest of them was deeper than the ocean. Richard had taught her that, just as he’d taught her that a title didn’t make a man a gentleman. The five lords visiting this week were supposedly here for hunting—although no one had gone hunting once. Instead, the downstairs reeked of port and brandy and Nanny and Isabel had their hands full keeping the children away from influences.
The two women reached the floor where the guest bedrooms were. Candles in wall sconces had the area ablaze with light. Mr. Wardley might be stingy with his servants but no expense was spared for guests.
Isabel paused. The footman who usually sat in a chair at the top of the stairs leading down to the main floor was missing from his post. She felt a cold suspicion.
The quiet of the hallway was broken by a burst o f boisterous male laughter drifted up the stairs from the dining room where the gentlemen liked to play cards. “They are having a rowdy good time tonight,” Nanny muttered.
“I don’t know why Mrs. Wardley tolerates it,” Isabel said.
“The mistress is usually down there with them.”
Isabel frowned but feared she’d already said too much. A governess walked a fine line. She was a servant and yet had a higher standing than the others. It didn’t help the situation that Isabel was not good at being subservient. Pride was her besetting sin and she didn’t like it when her employers pretended she was invisible.
“You don’t think Miss Lillian is down there with them?” Nanny wondered in round tones.
“No.” Isabel studied the closed doors lining the hall. “Which room do you believe is Mr. Severson’s?”
The mention of the man’s name brought forth a gasp of horror from Nanny. “You can’t be serious.”
“He’s all she could talk about from the moment she saw him arrive this morning.”
“He’s all any of the maids can talk about, too. I went down to the kitchen after the children were in bed and even the Cook was sighing over his looks. Have you seen him?”
“No, and Miss Lillian shouldn’t have either. Her mother took her downstairs for introductions. I don’t know what Mrs. Wardley was thinking introducing her daughter to any of those men.” Especially Richard.
“He’s rumored to be very wealthy.”
“Who?” Isabel asked, confused, her mind on Richard. In spite of his title, Richard was a fervent gambler who rarely had a penny to name.
“Mr. Severson,” Nanny answered.
That was even worse. “I don’t care how much money he has. He’s also been accused of murder,” Isabel stated.
Nanny’s jaw dropped. For the first time since Isabel had met her, the older woman was speechless.
“It happened years ago,” Isabel explained. “He killed a woman in a jealous fit. The judge claimed there wasn’t enough evidence to convict him.”
“How do you know this?”
“I just do,” Isabel said with a shrug, realizing that she’d been so upset by Richard’s appearance at Wardley Manor, she’d barely given a thought to a man who had once been of great interest to her.
Isabel knew of Mr. Severson’s murder trial because she had her own secret–she was the bastard daughter of the marquis of Elswick, a piece of information she kept to herself. She was the by-blow of an affair between the marquis and her mother who had loved him madly. That love had not been returned. Indeed, Isabel doubted if the marquis ever gave a thought to her existence.
On the other hand, Isabel had grown up aware of anything that had to do with the marquis. From the moment she could read, she had collected London papers to scan for mention of his name.
The windfall had been Severson’s trial for the murder of an opera dancer. From the stand, Severson had accused her half-brother, Henry, Lord Tainter of being the murderer. It had made for sensational reading. The murdered dancer had been popular in London and even in a parish as small as hers, people wanted details. She’d even been inspired to write the marquis a letter telling him she didn’t believe anyone in their family could commit such a foul deed.
She had never received a response.
And now, the murderous Severson was a guest under the same roof where she was living and she was more concerned with avoiding Richard.
Life took strange turns.
“That is the best bedroom, right?” Isabel nodded to the one at the end of the hall.
“It’s the biggest,” Nanny agreed.
There was another burst of crowing male laughter and then the crash of glass. Isabel drew a deep breath. “We start there. Keep guard while I talk to his valet.”
“He doesn’t have one,” Nanny said and added, “Servants’ gossip. Only one of the lot to not bring a man with him.”
Isabel nodded. Sometimes gossip was good. She walked to the door, placed her hand on the door handle, and drew a fortifying breath. Who knew what sight would greet her on the other side of this door? Her mind flashed the memory of Richard trapping her, attempting to force her to his will–
She pushed the shame aside and opened the door.
The room was in blackness. There was not even a fire in the grate. Isabel held her candle high. Its light shone on the huge, four-poster bed covered in blue silk that dominated the space in the room. In the middle of the bed, Lillian glared at her with open defiance.
To Isabel’s eternal relief, Mr. Severson was no place in sight.
“Go away,” Lillian ordered. “I’m not going upstairs with you. ”
“Yes, you are,” Isabel said. She set her candle on the bedside table. “Now, we can do this with rational intelligence and you can get out of that bed and come with us or you can be carried upstairs. The choice is yours.”
“I’m not going,” Lillian announced.
“Very well,” Isabel answered. “Nanny, I’ll need your help.” The older woman left her guard post by the stairs to come to her aide. In a sweeping gesture, and before Lillian knew what to expect, Isabel threw back the covers, trying not to shocked that the girl was stark naked beneath them.
“Merciful heavens,” Nanny said under her breath. “The child knows no shame.”
“I’m not a child anymore,” Lillian declared and would have snatched the covers back but Isabel was quicker. She caught the girl by the ear, gave it a twist, and cupped a hand over her mouth before she could scream. Nanny removed her own dressing gown and threw it over Lillian’s nakedness. Together, the two of them herded the squirming, kicking girl out into the hall and up the stairs. It was a battle but one Isabel was angry to win. She didn’t breathe easy until they had Lillian locked in her room.
Isabel fell back against the door exhausted. Lillian let the world know what she thought by pounding her fists against the wood and screaming at the top of her lungs.
“You are stronger than you look,” Nanny said, gasping for breath. “I don’t know that I was that much help.”
“It took the both of us,” Isabel assured her.
“She’s going to wake the babies if she keeps that up,” Nanny worried and as if on cue, one of the little ones gave a call for her. “You are on your own now,” she whispered and hurried across the hall to see to her charges who shared the room next to her own.
“You think you are so clever,” Lillian shouted, the thick door muffling her voice. “My father will be furious with you!”
“Your father will thank me for saving your reputation,” Isabel corrected her, and was tempted to add, such as it is. But she didn’t. She knew how important it was for a young girl to have someone believe in the best of her. She was desperately attempting to do that for Lillian.
Lillian kicked the door and yelped upon hurting her toe.
“Go to bed,” Isabel instructed her. “And stay there. We shall discuss this in the morning.”
“We’ll discuss nothing!” Lillian sounded as if she spat at the door. “Father wants me to be in Severson’s bed. He wants me to have a rich husband.”
“Husband?” Isabel turned and stared at the door. “How? By entrapping him?”
“Everyone knows you aren’t the best governess. They know about you and Lord Riggs. They’ll blame you for my getting into trouble,” Lillian taunted.
Now, the child had gone too far. “Of all the infamous, deceitful, underhanded—”
She stopped. Why was she surprised? Mr. Wardley had never impressed her as an honorable man. And Nanny was right, he wanted his daughter married off.
Murderer or not, not even Mr. Severson deserved Lillian. And no man would compromise her while Isabel was in charge. “Let me tell you something, Lillian, and you’d be wise to listen well. Whatever you heard about Lord Riggs and I is not the truth. He attempted to compromise me but I fought him off. Do you understand? Just because I am a woman doesn’t mean I don’t believe in honor and integrity, two qualities I’ve been attempting to instill in you. As for this night, you and your father can give up your silly plan. Someday, you will thank me for it.”
Lillian’s voice sounded as if it were close to the edge of the door. “Silly, silly governess,” she said softly. “I left my bracelet in his bed. I am compromised. He must marry me. Father says he wants to be accepted in society and will have no choice but to do exactly that. I am going to be a rich man’s wife and you will be dismissed.”
Righteous anger welled up inside Isabel to the point she shook with it. There was a way of doing things in this life. An order. Principles meant something. And people, even women, were not to be used as pawns in a chess game. They were important. Her mother had been important, and so had she. The marquis should have done better for them.
“I’m going to fetch that bracelet.”
“No!” Lillian slammed the locked door with her body as if to run through it and stop her, but Isabel was already on her way.
She’d left her candle in Mr. Severson’s room. She didn’t bother to pick up another off the hallway table. She knew the way.
The guest hallway was still empty and laughter echoed through the halls from downstairs. She could imagine fresh bottles of port being opened. That didn’t mean she had no time to spare. Anyone could come upstairs at any moment.
The door to Mr. Severson’s room was open. Neither she or Nanny had taken the time to close it when they’d carried Lillian out of the room. Her candle burned on the night table.
Entering the room, Isabel quietly closed the door and began a frantic searching of the sheets.
She felt under the feather pillow, then ran her hand between the mattress and the headboard probing with her fingers for the delicate gold chain. She knew the bracelet. It had been a gift from Mr. Wardley to his daughter for her birthday last month. There was a small charm attached to it engraved with Lillian’s initials.
Just as she pulled out the bed sheet, she caught a glimpse of her reflection in the looking glass over the chest of drawers across the room and was so startled she stopped. It was like staring at a stranger.
Her heavy dark hair had come loose from its braid and made her appear vulnerable. Her brown dress had ripped at the sleeves, probably during her battle with Lillian. She looked like a woman whose life had not played out the way she’d hoped.
And it was true. Regrets threatened to overwhelm her. She was tired. It had been a long day even without Lillian’s escapade. She worked so hard to be everything proper and right and this was where she found herself—searching a man’s bed clothes in the middle of the night and working for such crass people as the Wardleys.
Her mother’s death had changed her life. Isabel had never been a welcome addition to her stepfather’s family. She was a reminder of her mother’s past and that she had loved another. After her mother died, Isabel’s stepfather had wanted her gone, just like Mr. Wardley wanted to rid himself of his troublesome daughter.
Well, life was full of disappointments, Isabel reminded herself as she turned from the mirror. Nothing was everlasting, especially love, words her mother had repeatedly said to her–
She caught a glimpse of gold on the floor near the table. The bracelet. She practically leaped for it, scooping it up from the floor. The delicate charm reflected the candlelight and she released her breath with relief.
Isabel set to work remaking the bed. In minutes, it would be as if no one had been in the room.
She fluffed the pillows, threw them in place and yanked the silk spread up on her side. The bed was too wide to finish making by leaning across it. She had to walk around to the other side. Here, there was three feet of space between bed and wall, just enough room to allow it to be made with some ease. She pulled the other half of the spread up, soothed out any winkles, and had bent over to pick up a pillow that had been knocked to the floor when the bedroom door opened.
She hoped it was Nanny coming to help her.
It was Mr. Severson.
She caught a swift glance at his dark head and started to duck, but then stopped. She had nothing to hide. If anything, he should be grateful she had rescued him.
Isabel closed her fist around the bracelet and forced herself to straighten.
Mr. Severson slammed shut the door and walked directly to the dresser without seeing her standing in the far corner of the room. Isabel held her breath, uncertain of what to expect. He was taller than most men and, she sensed, stronger. His boots gleamed with champagne blacking. His neck cloth was crisp and snowy white. He wore the best. Nor did his tailored jacket of dark blue superfine did need padding to enhance the width of his shoulders. He was a Corinthian, a sportsman . . . a man in command of his world.
At the dresser, he placed a hand on each corner and braced his weight as he bowed his head. Isabel thought he was feeling the effects of drink. But then he faced the mirror, looking himself straight into the eye and said with stone, cold soberness, “Damn.”
The concise, angry word was laced with a wealth of frustration. “Go back down there,” he ordered himself. “Wait them out. One of them is the key.”
The key to what?
Isabel pulled back in the corner, her courage disappearing. It wasn’t just his size she found intimidating—it was his looks.
If the devil were to come to life to tempt women, this was the face he would chose. Black slashing brows, a lean jaw and brown eyes so penetrating they appeared as if they could look into another’s soul.
Her heart beat faster just looking at him . . . especially when she realized he was looking at her, too. He could see her reflection in the glass.
Panic paralyzed her, until pride took hold. Her motives were honorable. She refused to flinch from meeting his gaze.
It was an electrifying moment. The chain in the palm of her hand became an afterthought.
Isabel moved to the end of the bed, staying close to the wall, his gaze holding hers. Her heart beat so hard against her chest, she was certain he must hear it.
The light of the bedside candle didn’t reach this corner of the room and yet, she sensed, he missed no detail of her appearance. He was as aware of her bare toes peeking out from beneath her skirts as she. He knew she wore no undergarments, no small clothes or petticoats. His sharp gaze brushed over her hair, her eyes, her nose, her breasts.
And he liked what he saw.
Just as she liked him. The draw between them was indefinable and powerful. His lips curved into a lazy smile and she thought her legs would melt.
This man didn’t see her as a servant or a governess. He saw her as a woman. And when he said, “Come here,” she had no choice but to comply.