Pocket Star Books, February 2012
|Excerpt from the novella Hunting Season|
In which Tea is Served at Gotherington Abbey
Elise returned to the window, watching as her brother-in-law’s footmen swarmed about Lord Grayston’s carriage, unstrapping a huge traveling trunk and an exquisite, brassbound dressing case. A gun-case, a small rosewood chest, several hatboxes and two glossy leather valises followed, their unloading directed by a stately, silver-haired man whom Elise took to be Grayston’s valet. How odd. At the inn, she’d had the clear impression that Grayston was traveling alone.
His valet must have been quite skilled, for the marquis looked little like the brooding ne’er-do-well he’d seemed two nights ago. Today, he oozed Continental sophistication. The merest glance left Elise feeling tongue-tied and out of place. But Pratt was going down the steps into the bright sunshine to greet him, and bowing more subserviently than Elise had ever seen. Then together, they turned, and the marquis came swiftly up the sweeping turn of the steps, disappearing from view as he entered the house.
Running her damp palms down her skirts, Elise turned to face the inevitable. Soon the door to the parlor was swinging open. As if her feet were frozen to the floor, Elise could only stare. "His lordship, the Marquis of Grayston," intoned Pratt very solemnly.
But if Elise’s feet were frozen, his lordship appeared to have suddenly altered into a solid block of ice. He jerked to a halt just inside the room, barely leaving Pratt room to pull shut the door as he departed. The marquis did not look the sort of man who was easily taken aback by anything, and yet he was. Oh, he most definitely was.
His astonishment gave her courage. Swiftly, she closed the distance between them and swept into her deepest curtsey. "Welcome to Gotherington Abbey, my lord." The words came out deeper and more throaty than she had intended. "I am Elise, Lady Mid—"
Almost rudely, Grayston cut her off. "Good God!" he choked. "You are . . . you are Lady Middleton?"
At first, his use of her full title did not strike her as odd. Elise rose, and placed her hand on his arm to lead him into the room. "I’m Mrs. Onslow’s sister, by marriage."
"Yes, yes, I did know that much." His expression shifted to one of impatience.
Elise laid her embroidery on the tea-table and settled back into her chair, motioning him to sit opposite. "I am often at Gotherington," she said stiffly. "I was on my way here, you see, when we . . . when our paths crossed."
He recovered his composure quickly, Elise would grant him that. All semblance of surprise had vanished, and in its place was the usual cool expression on his long, thin-lipped face and in his calm, ice-gray eyes. Grayston folded his lean form gracefully into the chair, then let his gaze drift indolently over her. "I was disappointed to find you gone this morning." His voice was soft but his eyes were not. "And since you’d never signed the register, the innkeeper could not be bribed to help me."
Elise was taken aback. "Why, after that thunderstorm, I can scarce imagine you thought ever to see me again."
Some strange, nameless emotion flitted across his face. "But what if I’d wished to, my lady?" he answered suggestively as he fiddled with his watch-fob. "You are very lovely—especially when . . . a little wet."
Elise felt her heart leap into her throat. "Really, Lord Grayston, it is hardly appropriate to-to—"
"To flirt with you?" he supplied thoughtfully, his silvery gaze capturing hers, then trailing quite boldly downward. "But it heightens your color so charmingly. Indeed, ma’am, you look quite warm and pink . . . all over. It is a lovely sight."
"You may save your breath, sir."
Grayston smiled his lazy half-smile. His teeth were very large and very white. "I collect you are still angry over my invitation?"
She was, rather. But Elise was not perfectly sure how to answer him. Worse, she had the deeply disturbing feeling that his words were laced with nuances she did not understand. She wished she did not owe it to her brother-in-law to be civil. "I was not angry, my lord," she finally answered. "Just taken aback. As you’ve discovered, I am encumbered by what some might consider dreadfully old-fashioned morals."
"Ah!" he said softly. "So you are not that kind of woman? You regret having kissed me with such passion?"
She felt heat flood her cheeks. "I’m glad you understand."
But to her undying frustration, Lord Grayston threw back his head and laughed. "My dear Lady Middleton!" His eyes glittered wolfishly. "We are all of us just a shade immoral when it suits us to be so. And all I regret is that you did not think having me in your bed would be worth singeing your soul on a little brimstone."
"Really, Lord Grayston!"
But he just laughed again. "Oh, do not scold, ma’am. I felt the stab of your old-fashioned morals most keenly. I persuaded one of the serving maids to share her attic bed with me, only to find I wasn’t quite up to snuff, if you take my meaning. She was not amused, and my masculinity has not yet recovered."
Elise went rigid in her chair. "How sorry I am to have disappointed you both."
"Ah, disappointment!" Grayston leaned forward in his chair, and seized her hand as if he meant to lift it to his lips. "But satisfy my curiosity, Lady Middleton, if you’ll satisfy nothing else," he whispered, staring at her across her knuckles. "Did I not tempt you, even just a little bit?"
Those eyes. Good God, those sinful, silvery eyes! Were they the reason she wasn’t slapping him across the face? "You did not tempt me," she lied, jerking her hand from his long, warm fingers.
Elise could not hold his gaze. Good Lord, he really was quite wicked. Grayston wore his sensuality as openly as other men wore clothing. Desperate for some distance, she sprang to her feet and paced back to the window. "Lord Grayston," she said, her back to him. "I cannot think a civilized man would keep revisiting this topic."
To her shock, she heard him leave his chair. But of course he would rise. He was a gentleman—in that way, at least. "My dear, have you not heard the gossip? I am hopelessly uncivilized." His voice was teasing as he approached her. "Come, may I not even kiss your hand? My masculine pride is mortally wounded now. Does that please you?"
"I would not willingly wound anyone, sir," she said, staring blindly down at the carriageway. "I simply don’t wish to flirt with you. Maynard—Major Onslow—wishes you warmly welcomed to Gotherington. You are his friend, his guest. Let us leave it at that."
She could sense that Lord Grayston stood behind her now. It was as if she could feel the heat radiate from his body, warming her back. "But what of you, Lady Middleton?" His soft words stirred the hair at her nape. "Do you not wish to warmly welcome me?"
Elise ignored his suggestive tone. Instead, she lifted her eyes from the green expanse of lawn, but as she did so, she caught his reflection in the window, looming impossibly large behind her. Her head did not reach his shoulder. Her breath was hard to catch. "I am pleased to abide by my brother-in-law’s wishes, my lord," she managed. "As long as you are courteous."
He held her gaze in the glass, a bitter smile twisting his mouth. "An obedient woman," he softly remarked. "I like that."
She whirled about at that, then wished she had not. He stood very close. Too close. But Elise sensed that she must not let him intimidate her with his physical presence. "I’m trying to be civil, Lord Grayston," she retorted. "But do not dare push your luck. You’ll find I’m not subservient."
His smile relaxed ever so slightly, and he lifted his hand as if to dust some imaginary bit of lint from his coat sleeve. But Elise mistook the motion, and jerked away.
His silvery eyes flicked up, capturing her gaze. "Do I make you nervous, Lady Middleton?" Grayston asked, the odd, emotionless smile tugging sideways again. "My nasty reputation has preceded me, perhaps? Do rest assured that I have not accepted Major Onslow’s hospitality simply to strip young men of their fortunes, or to ravish lovely young women. Well, not unless . . . " He shrugged.
Not unless they wish to be. The unspoken words fairly sizzled and snapped between them. Elise itched to box his ears.
Grayston had the good grace to look away. "You spoke of civility, ma’am," he said blandly, as if a jolt of electricity had not just passed between them. "I confess, I am parched. Might you find it in your heart to ring for tea?"
"Tea?" she said archly.
Grayston whirled back around, both his slashing black brows going up. "I believe the butler said you’d make me comfortable," he murmured. "Be glad, my lady, that at present, it is only tea which my comfort requires."
Elise went at once to the bell-pull, and yanked it far harder than was necessary. "You quite waste your time with me, Grayston." Her gaze held his firmly. "We have nothing whatsoever in common. You would find me very dull company."
"Oh, but I don’t." His voice was surprisingly soft. "That’s the bloody problem, isn’t it?"
"Lord Grayston, please!"
From his position by the window, Grayston watched his hostess. Unless he misjudged, which it was his business never to do, Lady Middleton burned to wrap that bell-pull firmly around his neck, or perhaps somewhere even more painful. "Oh, I should love to please you, Elise," he said softly. "I may call you Elise, may I not?"
"Certainly not!" She drew back as far as possible. "I am Elise only to those with whom I’m close."
"But we have been very close, Elise," he said, his face breaking into a sudden, and very real, grin. "Indeed, my dear, we have shared the sort of intimacies which I hope you don’t casually bestow on men whose names you don’t know. I am Christian, by the way."
"I recall it!" she snapped, returning to the settee. "May I gather, sir, that you mean to keep tormenting me?"
"Flirting, Elise." He relaxed lazily into his chair and let his silvery eyes drift over her. "One calls it flirting. Tormenting is something quite different. Would you like to be tormented? I would most cheerfully oblige."
Elise jerked to her feet. "I’ve never thought to say such a thing, sir, but I’m sorely tempted to slap your face!"
The grin deepened. "Might a good spanking do as well?" he asked, unfolding his height languidly from his chair. "No doubt my first governess shorted me a few, thus the scoundrel you see before you. Perhaps you could redeem me, Elise? I have no mistress, and a former governess would do admirably."
She drew herself up to her full height and pinned him with her best glare. "I do not know, my lord, what sort of witless females you are accustomed to tricking with that tripe of yours, but I shan’t fall for it. I don’t flirt. I won’t be your mistress. And I don’t believe in fairy tales, leprechauns, or fortune-tellers, either. You are arrogant and asinine and you-you—why, you are an arrant rake! And I’m certainly not fool enough to think arrant rakes can be redeemed."
Grayston grew very still, the glitter slowly leaving his gaze. "My dear Lady Middleton! You are about to run out of insults which begin with A," he said. "I shall relieve you of your burden before you proceed apace to the B’s. I can only guess which of those you’d hurl first." And to her shock, he spun on one heel and headed for the door.
Suddenly panicked, Elise recalled Maynard’s edict at breakfast. Was this man really her brother-in-law’s friend? Could she be naïvely overreacting to his flirtation? Somehow, she jerked into motion and followed his long, powerful strides toward the door.
She caught him by the shoulder as he crossed the threshold, and felt a coiled strength ripple through his arm. "I am sorry my lord," she said. "I did not mean to insult you."
His eyes were gray as a stormy sea. "Oh, Lady Middleton, I think you did."
Elise pursed her lips for a moment. "Perhaps," she admitted, and felt him relax ever so slightly. "But while we are both Maynard’s guests, can we not agree to be civil and keep our distance?"
"Be predictably English, do you mean?"
"I—good God! I’m so confused I don’t know what I mean." Elise let her shoulders fall. "But you did not finish your tea."
As it shafted through the window, the pale autumn light touched his face, softening his expression. "Do you wish me to finish?"
Elise cut her eyes away, then back again. "I would not wish Maynard to return and realized I had argued with you."
As Grayston let his hand fall from the door, something in his quicksilver gaze made her breath catch. "Ah, Elise, have we just had our first lover’s quarrel?" His voice sounded genuinely tender. "Perhaps I can manage another of those little sandwiches, then, if it will please you. I shall endeavor to mind my manners."