Never Lie to a Lady
Pocket Star Books, June 2007
|Excerpt from the novel Never Lie to a Lady|
A Grave Misunderstanding in Mayfair
Baron Rothewell was savoring a brandy and a black, nasty humor when he heard the knocker drop upon his elegant front door in Berkeley Square. He had been savoring his brandy since tea-time, actually, and was not now disposed to break what had thus far been a solitary interlude.
Rothewell was the sort of man who believed very firmly the old adage that silence was the true friend that never betrayed. He made few acquaintances, and kept far fewer. Nor was he a man with any fondness for idle conversation—and it was all idle, so far as Rothewell could see.
But he likely needn’t be concerned, the baron consoled himself, going to the small sideboard in his study to pour himself another tot. He knew almost no one in London, and certainly had invited no one to call upon him. He was surprised, therefore, when one of his newly-employed footmen came in bearing the card of a gentleman whose name he had never before heard.
“I am not at home,” he growled.
But the servant looked ill-at-ease. “I think he means to wait, my lord,” said the footman. “After all, it is Lord Nash.”
Rothewell scowled. “Who the devil is Lord Nash?” grumbled the baron. “And why should I give a damn?”
“Well, he is the sort of fellow who generally gets what he wants,” said the footman.
This was enough to pique Rothewell’s curiosity. “Oh, very well,” he said. “Show the fellow in.”
Naturalists say that when certain carnivores meet in the wild, they circle and scent one another, each assessing the other’s willingness to back away. Rothewell never backed away from anyone, and his hackles went up the moment the man crossed his threshold.
The man called Nash was whipcord-lean, and moved with a controlled strength which was rather more formidable than outright brawn might have been. His hair was black as a raven’s wing, with perhaps a suggestion of silver at the temples. He carried an expensive-looking driving cape over one arm, and his gloves in one hand, as if his stay was to be brief.
“Good evening, Lord Rothewell.” The man had eyes like obsidian ice. “How kind of you to receive me.”
Glittering eyes. Expensive clothes. A voice too soft—and not quite English, either, he thought. This, at least, should be interesting.
Rothewell waved a hand toward a chair. “Do sit down,” he said. “How may I assist you?”
As if to make a point, Nash repositioned the chair nearer the desk. “I am here on a matter which is of a personal nature.”
“I can’t think what the devil that might be,” said Rothewell, “since I never before laid eyes on you.”
The man smiled faintly, as if he did not believe him. “No, I have not the pleasure of a formal acquaintance,” he answered coolly. “But I believe I had the honor of meeting your sister last night at Lord Sharpe’s ball. Miss Xanthia Neville—she is your sister, is she not?”
The man, Rothewell, decided looked like a wolf; a wolf with a lean and hungry look about him. “I do not remember you from Sharpe’s ball,” he said, holding the man’s gaze. “But yes, Miss Neville is my sister. What of it?”
“I collect you are her guardian,” said Lord Nash in his too-quiet voice. “I should like your permission to pay court to her.”
“You should what—?”
“I should like to court Miss Neville.” If anything, his voice was even quieter, and more ominous. “I somehow feel certain that my suit will be acceptable to you.”
Rothewell was not remotely intimidated. “It certainly is not,” he barked. “Why should it be? My sister is a an exceptional woman. And she is not in need of—nor, so far as I know, even in want of—a husband. Moreover, it is Xanthia’s permission you’ll need—and if you knew a bloody thing about her, you would already know that.”
“Ah, an independent-minded young lady,” remarked Nash. “How charming.”
“She is not independent-minded,” said Rothewell. “She is independent. And stubborn. And imperious, when she’s in the right—which she is, more often than one wishes to admit. Good God, Nash, she’s nearly thirty years old. Moreover, she . . . she is not like other women. Have you any notion what you are asking?”
“I am asking if I may court your sister.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Why Xanthia?” he demanded. “If you want a wife, why not chose some young, biddable miss, Nash? Life will go a damned sight easier for you, trust me.”
Lord Nash was looking faintly uncomfortable now. “Miss Neville is the managing sort, is she?”
“Yes, and quite good at it,” said Rothewell. “Indeed, I believe I would back her ten-to-one against any man I know—but press your attentions where they are not wanted, Lord Nash, and you will answer to me.”
Nash looked truly puzzled. This meeting obviously was not going as he had planned. But what the devil had he expected? Suddenly, an unpleasant thought struck Rothewell. He let his eyes drift over Lord Nash’s expensive attire, and pondered it. “Frankly, Nash,” he finally said, “now that I think on it, I know of but one reason why you might have an interest in my sister—and it is not flattering.”
Nash’s eyes glittered. “Pray speak plainly, Rothewell.”
“I am referring to her fortune,” Rothewell answered. “As you doubtless know, my sister is quite a wealthy woman. But she will not give it up, Nash—and a marriage would require her to do just that.”
The marquess drew back an inch, his confusion replaced by outright hauteur. “You dare to suggest I am a fortune hunter?” he snapped. “Good God. Certainly not.”
Rothewell steepled his fingers thoughtfully together. “Then I beg your pardon, of course,” he said curtly. “I suppose Xanthia is not precisely what one would consider parson’s bait, however lovely she may be. And her strong personality . . . well, I daresay I have made my point in that regard.”
Nash’s posture was so rigid now, he looked as if he’d swallowed a poker. “Perhaps there has been some mistake,” he finally acknowledged. “I begin to collect that your Miss Neville would not make an ideal wife after all.”
Rothewell flashed a faint smile. “For the right man, Xanthia would make an admirable wife indeed,” he said. “But I am relatively confident that you are not that man. I will not see such an intelligent and lovely woman wasted on someone who neither loves her, nor deserves her.”
Suddenly, the study burst open, and a whirlwind carrying a stuffed leather folio swept in. “Kieran, I have the most shocking news ever!” said his sister as both men rose. “And the Belle Weather is in six weeks early, so I thought that we might—” Her eyes had shied wild in the direction of Rothewell’s guest. “Oh. Good Lord. I . . . I do beg your pardon.”
She was halfway out the door when Rothewell caught her. “Not so fast, old thing,” he said. “I take it you know our new friend Lord Nash?”
“Lord Nash?” Xanthia had flushed three shades of pink. “I—no, I do not. That is to say . . . that is to say I did not perfectly understand who . . . or why . . . ”
Rothewell could not recall ever having seen his sister at a loss for words. He let his eyes drift over her face, to reassure himself that she did not fear this man.
No, there was nothing but grave embarrassment etched on her face. “Obviously, this unfortunate business does not concern me,” he said, releasing his sister’s arm. “I shall leave you to it.”
“Leave us to what, pray?” Xanthia was looking at Nash with a sideling suspicion now.
“I’m damned if I know.” Rothewell shrugged, and took up his brandy glass. Then, thinking better of it, he snared the bottle, too. It might be a long night.
“Good evening, Miss Neville,” said Nash when the door was closed. “We meet again.”
Nash watched Miss Neville’s suspicion shift to outrage. “Oh, Lord Nash, is it?”
“Please do not claim you did not know,” he said.
“I did not know.” Each word was crisply enunciated. “What are you doing here? How did you find me?”
“You have been much on my mind, my dear, since abandoning me last night,” he said. “So I asked a few discreetly placed questions, and was a little disturbed by what I discovered.”
Anger sketched across her face. “As I am a little disturbed to have been run to ground as if I were some sort of prey,” she returned. “I apologize, sir, as I hope you do, for what happened last night. However, when a lady abruptly leaves a gentleman under such circumstances, there are but a few conclusions one can draw.”
“Are there indeed?” he murmured. “I could think of only one.”
“And yet you followed me here?” she challenged, entirely missing his point. “Followed me into the privacy of my home? That, sir, is unacceptable.”
Nash watched her warily for a moment. Even amidst his confusion, he could not help but be aware of her proximity, and of her almost palpable allure. She was an unconventional beauty to be sure, with her dark chestnut hair, thin nose, and eyes too widely set—eyes which were focused on him unblinkingly, demanding an answer to her challenge.
“You must pardon me, Miss Neville,” he finally said. “I have misjudged the situation.”
“It would seem so,” she returned. “What on earth possessed you to call upon my brother?”
“I was entering the lion’s den, I thought,” he answered. “I am not the sort of man who waits for trouble to find me, and I wished to see which way the wind blew.”
“Oh, how ridiculous!” she answered. “What did you say?”
“Very little that made sense,” Nash confessed.
“I wish you to stay away from him,” she commanded. “Rothewell eats dandies like you for breakfast, Lord Nash. Trust me, you do not want to irritate him.”
Nash drew in his breath sharply. “I beg your pardon. Did you say dandy—?”
Miss Neville colored. “Well, a fashion plate, then. Or a tulip. Or an exquisite, perhaps?” She stopped, and pursed her lips. “I beg your pardon. I meant no insult, and I obviously don’t know the proper words. But whatever you are, just stop antagonizing my brother.”
Nash stepped closer, and grasped her arm. “And talking about what we were doing on Sharpe’s terrace might antagonize him?”
“Good God!” Her eyes sparked with blue fire. “Surely you did not?”
He set his head to one side and studied her, still gripping her arm quite firmly. “No, I did not,” he answered musingly. “Tell me, Miss Neville, what do you think his reaction would have been?”
She jerked her arm away, and stepped back. “I cannot say,” she confessed. “Nothing, perhaps. Or perhaps he would have shot you dead where you stood. That is the very trouble with Rothewell, don’t you see? One never knows. Kindly go away, Lord Nash. And stay away. I think you will be saving all of us from a vast amount of grief.”
He stepped closer, strangely unwilling to let her escape. “Tell me, Miss Neville, why did you kiss me last night?” he asked quietly. “Indeed, what in God’s name were you doing alone on that terrace in the first place?”
“England is a free country,” she responded. “I went out for air.”
“Miss Neville, you are an unmarried woman,” he protested. “Society generally expects—”
“Kindly save your breath,” she interjected. “I neither need nor want another lecture about what English society expects. I am unwed, sir, not witless. If I wish a breath of fresh air, I shall have it, and your beau monde will simply have to wrestle with their ridiculous notion of propriety.”
Against his will, Nash’s mouth began to tug into a grin. “Well, it would appear our discussion here is finished,” he said, taking up his cape and gloves. “You are, if I may say so, Miss Neville, a most fascinating woman. I wish to God you were a willing widow—or even some poor devil’s willing wife—but you aren’t, are you? And now I’m to suffer for it.”
“Oh, for pity’s sake, Lord Nash.” She looked at him uncertainly. “No one need suffer.”
“Alas, there is but one way to avoid that,” he murmured. “And it is quite out of the question. I give you good evening, Miss Neville. And I wish you joy of your unwedded state. Long may it continue.”