One Winter's Night
Books by Adele Clee
Enjoy more books by Adele Clee
Books by Adele Clee
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A Curse of the Heart
What Every Lord Wants
The Secret To Your Surrender
A Simple Case of Seduction
Anything for Love Series
What You Desire
What You Propose
What You Deserve
What You Promised
Lost Ladies of London
The Mysterious Miss Flint
The Deceptive Lady Darby
The Scandalous Lady Sandford
The Daring Miss Darcy
At Last the Rogue Returns
A Wicked Wager
A Gentleman’s Curse
And the Widow Wore Scarlet
The Mark of a Rogue
When Scandal Came to Town
This is a work of fiction. All names, characters, places and incidents are products of the author’s imagination. All characters are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
No part of this book may be copied or reproduced in any manner without the author’s permission. Distributing electronic copies of this book constitutes copyright infringement.
One Winter’s Night
Copyright © 2019 Adele Clee
All rights reserved.
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Wollaston Hall, Wiltshire
Hugo de Wold, Earl of Denham, stared out into the darkness at the thick blanket of snow covering the lawn. White crystal flakes fell in abundance, tapping on the drawing room window like an unexpected visitor eager to gain entrance.
During Wollaston Hall’s three-hundr; ed-year history, he doubted anyone had seen such a heavy snowstorm. Roads were impassable. Howling winds pushed thick drifts up past the sills. The biting chill slipped in through every crack and crevice. One only needed to walk a few feet outdoors to find their toes numb and lips blue.
Behind him, his houseguests preferred exchanging the latest snippets of gossip to witnessing the power of nature at work.
“You’ll not find a bride out there, Hugo.” His mother’s shrill voice disturbed his inner peace. Penelope de Wold had a habit of forcing her opinion whether welcome or not.
“I am quite aware of that, Mother.” Hugo cast her a sidelong glance, but the harsh winter weather drew his gaze back to the window. “And I very much doubt I shall find one in here, either.”
The physical problems one encountered in such hazardous conditions mirrored his internal struggle. He felt trapped. Isolated. Hemmed in with no means of escape. The thought of hibernating for months on end had immense appeal. Indeed, he would happily curl up and sleep until the guests departed.
“If you would but tear your gaze away from the window for a moment, you might find the people here just as fascinating.” His mother snorted. “Must I remind you of your oath?”
Who wanted reminding that his thirtieth birthday loomed like the shadow of death?
“By oath, are you referring to the muttered words that left my lips when I agreed to your matchmaking plan?” Contempt infused his tone, and he was glad.
She batted his arm. “You know very well what I mean. You promised me, Hugo. You swore to do your duty. And a de Wold never breaks a promise.” She dabbed the corner of her eye with the lace handkerchief she’d plucked from her sleeve. The matron knew how to turn on the tears if it meant getting her own way. “Lord, I have given you almost thirty years to find a bride of your own choosing.”
The lady was prone to exaggeration. He’d hardly been vetting babes from his crib. Marriage was a word foreign to his vocabulary, a word that held a prestigious place in the dictionary of fools.
“Can I help it if I have particular tastes and needs?”
“Heavens, you make yourself sound like one of those perverted degenerates who scours brothels looking for a girl to whip his bare behind.”
Hugo bit back a chuckle. “I would lower your voice else people might think you have firsthand experience of such a fellow.”
“Stop this nonsense.” His mother’s cheeks ballooned. “You had until your thirtieth birthday to find a wife. As you’ve failed in your task, you must choose one of the beauties seated on the sofa. That is what we agreed.”
Hugo glanced over his shoulder.
All three ladies his mother had invited to the house for the festive season possessed a certain charm. But none of them were tempting enough to make him take the plunge. Miss Pardue’s golden hair lacked lustre. Miss Mason-Jones had an irritating habit of nodding whenever Hugo spoke. Miss Harper’s voice was an annoying chirp, as painful to the ears as a dawn chorus when one had only just tumbled into bed. In her company, he daren’t pause for breath lest she finish his sentence.
“You must give me more time, Mother.”
“Time!” The word was a whisper forced through gritted teeth. “Good heavens, Hugo, in two days you’ll be thirty.” Her voice brimmed with desperation. “How much more time do you need?”
“I’ll not take a bride unless I am sure we’re a good match.”
He would not live like his parents. What was the point of wedlock when both parties resided in different counties? Was it too much to ask that he might grow to love the lady he married?
His mother made an odd puffing sound. “You’re an earl not the son of a farmhand. A good match should be the least of your concerns.” She leaned closer and whispered, “Nothing is more important than money and good breeding. It was instilled into us as children.”
“Nothing is more important to you, Mother. I prefer to make my selection based on ridiculous things such as attraction and compatibility. But no doubt you consider that to be de rigueur.”
“Don’t be so pompous, Hugo. Choose a girl and be done with it so we can enjoy the weekend without upset.”
Hugo was about to argue when it suddenly occurred to him that there was a flaw in his mother’s plan. He’d promised to pick a bride from those in attendance. His choice was not limited to the ladies enjoying tea on the sofa.
“Why not expand my options?” To hide his smile, he stared at the flurry of snow pelting the window, at the thin trees dressed in white winter coats. “Miss Harper’s chaperone is rather fetching.” And much too young for spinsterhood.
The momentary silence was almost as deafening as a high-pitched wail. “Miss Venables is a paid companion. Is that to be your revenge? Will you taunt me with the hired help?” Her voice grew progressively louder. “Heavens, why not propose to Crudging? As your butler, there’s not a person more loyal.”
“Crudging lacks the requirements necessary to produce an heir. After all, that is what this debacle is about.”
Hugo glanced over his mother’s shoulder and locked eyes with Miss Harper. As a lady known for her brazen approach, she raised a brow and moistened her lips.
“People are staring,” he snapped.
“Yes, because you’ve had your nose pressed to the windowpane for the last half an hour. Anyone would think you’ve never seen snow.”
Hugo swallowed down his annoyance. “Have you not heard? The storm is so severe the guests will have to stay until the roads are clear.” He groaned inwardly at the thought of having to listen to Miss Harper’s shrill complaints for the next week.
“Good. Let us hope you are so thoroughly bored and frustrated that you hurry up and make a match. And the hired help is out of the question.”
He had no intention of offering for any of them. But to say so now would only make life impossible these next few days. His mother would ensure he spent more time entertaining the ladies. They would try their best to outdo one another as if he were the only marriageable gentleman in all of England.
Hugo glanced back at the breathtaking landscape. Just like the ladies seated in the drawing room, the snow appeared beautiful to the eye. Dazzling. Majestic. But only a fool would ignore the hidden dangers. One wrong move and he could fall head first into a rocky ravine, and that would be the end of the blissful life he once knew.
And so, for the next few days, he was trapped—locked in a nightmare of his own making. He should have been firm. Some men were unsuited to marriage. Else why would he be so particular, so damn fussy?
“Come.” His mother tugged his arm. “Let’s see what Miss Harper thinks of the appalling weather. I hear her brother has invested in a new shipping venture that will make him one of the richest men in the country.”
Viscount Northcott was a pretentious prig. His sister, Miss Harper, held the same air of self-importance. Oh, she gave the impression of being polite and amiable. But he refused to marry a woman who deceived others by feigning a kind and generous nature.
“Forgive me, but I must speak to Crudging about the placings for dinner.” Hugo hated lying. Thirty minutes of solitude would give him the strength needed to cope with his mother’s attempts at matchmaking. “I shall return momentarily.”
Hugo ignored his mother’s scowl and strode out into the hall. He found Crudging checking the lamps on the console tables.
“Any news on the state of the roads?” Hugo knew the answer, but he lived in hope of charging into the drawing room and informing the guests they should leave at once. “Lord Flanders will want to retrieve his carriage at the earliest convenience.”
“What with the hard frost last night and the five inches of snow today, I fear the guests will be confined to the house for some time, my lord.” Crudging’s grave expression mirrored Hugo’s sense of utter despair.
“Then we must pray for rain, Crudging.” Dance naked around a painted effigy if necessary. “A torrential downpour is exactly what’s needed to—”
The sudden thud of the heavy iron door knocker made them both jump. The sound echoed through the grand hall like a death knell.
Hugo frowned. “What fool is out walking in this weather?”
Crudging walked gracefully towards the door. “Perhaps someone has brought news of Lord Flanders’ carriage.”
Hugo followed the butler. The caller must surely have a tale to tell. One that would prove far more fascinating than the tired conversation in the drawing room.
Crudging opened the door, but the wind whipped his face bringing with it a swirling blizzard.
“What the devil?” Hugo rushed forward. “Quickly. Come inside.” He waved frantically at the figure hidden amidst the gust of icy dust. “Hurry. Before we all catch our deaths.”
The lady darted past them into the hall, huffing and panting and complaining about the cold. For fear they might never keep the storm out, he helped Crudging slam the door.
“Good Lord.” Hugo brushed the white flecks from his coat and ran his hand through his hair. “Forgive my rather abrupt greeting, but it’s far too cold to converse on the doorstep.”
“Not at all. I am grateful for an opportunity to warm my hands.” The woman’s seductive voice drifted over him like delicate fingers. She lowered the fur-trimmed hood of her red travelling cloak, exposing the mass of luxurious brown locks trailing down past her shoulders. “I must apologise for my dishevelled appearance, but I had not planned on leaving my coach.”
Hugo sucked in a breath as the muscles in his abdomen clenched. “Pay it no mind.”
The lady had no reason to apologise. Indeed, he was rather partial to the ravished-in-a-haystack look. Hugo scanned her from head to toe, looking for imperfections, something to remind him he was a man unsuited to romantic entanglements. Permanent ones at any rate. But he could find nothing displeasing about the lady’s countenance.
“From the size of the puddle at your feet, you must have walked far.” Other than the narrow lane running past his property, the nearest road was almost a mile away.
“I rode most of the way,” she said, offering an apologetic smile. “But the horse grew tired. The snow is so deep it slipped down the top of my boots.”
Hugo’s gaze dropped to her feet. “No doubt your toes are numb.” For some strange reason, his mind conjured an image of him rubbing the life back into the blue digits. “Are you travelling alone?”
She nodded. “I hope you don’t mind, but my coachman has taken my horse to your stables. He was in need of a drink and dry hay.” She gave a little chuckle. “Oh, I speak of my horse, not my coachman.”
During the last two hours he’d spent with his prospective brides, none of them had managed to raise a smirk to his lips. And yet he found this lady rather amusing.
“Then I pray a groom brushes him down and gives him a nip of brandy.” Hugo inclined his head. “I speak of your coachman, not your horse.”
She smiled, and the beauty of it hit him hard in the chest. “With any luck, they will both receive sufficient care and attention. The other horse refused to budge, and so the poor fellow must return to fetch him.”
Was the last comment her way of asking for shelter? Perhaps he should make the offer. In such treacherous conditions, one must be charitable.
The lady removed a glove and blew gently on the tips of her fingers. To most people, the innocent action would rouse pity; she must be frozen to her bones. The fact he saw it as a prelude to something far more sinful confirmed he was not ready to wed one of the dull ladies in the drawing room.
“Forgive me, I stand here dripping water onto your floor and have not even told you my name.” Her words dragged him from his fanciful musings. “I am Miss Lara Bennett. Granddaughter of Lord Montague Forsyth.”
How convenient that a lady of aristocratic breeding should arrive at his door on a cold winter’s night.
Was this all part of his mother’s wicked plan?
Did she hope to attack from the rear and catch him unawares?
“Lord Forsyth permitted you to travel alone?” Mistrust rang in his tone. He caught himself, unsure what shocked him the most. That such a prestigious gentleman had little regard for his granddaughter’s welfare. Or that in asking so abruptly, he sounded like a jealous husband.
“My companion took ill in London and was not well enough to make such an arduous journey. I promised my grandfather I would return home to spend Christmas with him.” She sighed deeply. “I should have stayed behind, too, but I refuse to break an oath once it is made.”
Guilt pricked Hugo’s chest, stabbed and prodded with its sharp blade. For the last two hours, he’d fought with his conscience, desperate to break the promise he’d made to his mother.
“But tomorrow is Christmas Eve. How far must you travel?” Hugo knew that she had no hope of venturing more than a few hundred yards by carriage.
“Chippenham? But that’s twenty miles away.”
Miss Bennett shrugged. “A man in Netheravon said we might expect rain.”
Only if they sacrificed the firstborn child in every family. “Then I shall pray for a miracle.”
“As will I.”
A brief silence ensued.
Hugo stared at her. Miss Bennett was of average height, not too short, not too tall. Perfect for him really. In terms of figure, he preferred a lady to have soft curves, not look as though she’d not eaten a meal for a week. Unable to determine what lay beneath her thick cloak, he had faith she was perfect for him in that regard, too.
“Welcome to Wollaston Hall, Miss Bennett. I am Hugo de Wold, Earl of Denham.” Hugo bowed. “You are more than welcome to rest here until the snow clears.”
In truth, the lady had little choice.
Miss Bennett appeared perturbed. He doubted it had anything to do with his title. As the granddaughter of a peer, she must be comfortable around members of the aristocracy. Even so, she had not been presented at court. He would have remembered her cheerful countenance, and those plump lips made for kissing.
“Thank you, my lord,” she began. From the break in her voice, he knew she was about to decline the offer. “That’s most kind, most gracious. But I cannot stay here without a chaperone. My grandfather would call you out when all you have done is extend your hospitality. I merely ask that you direct me to the nearest village.”
Disappointment flared at the prospect of her leaving.
How odd. He hardly knew the woman.
“Your grandfather would call me out?” he said merely to distract his mind from the thought that Miss Bennett might join the list of eligible ladies eager to be his bride. “Remind me of his age.”
“Sixty-four, though is still one of the best shots in all of England. He can hit a target from a hundred yards while wearing a blindfold.”
Hugo swallowed deeply. “Then how fortunate my mother is in residence. Indeed, there are other guests here to celebrate the festive season.” And to watch a self-proclaimed bachelor bow down to his mother’s constant demands.
Miss Bennett pursed her lips. “And what if your mother objects to playing chaperone when there are guests in need of her attention?”
“It will be no hardship.”
Hugo imagined Miss Bennett was a lady brimming with grace and decorum. Perhaps in that regard they were unsuited. Then again, he was like a hawk assessing its prey when it came to looking for a reason not to wed.
“The fact my mother is in residence should suffice,” he continued. “You’ve no need to be shackled at the wrists. And I can arrange for a maid to share your bedchamber.”
Good Lord. It sounded as if he were desperate for her company. Next, he’d offer to wrap her in furs from the far reaches of Prussia. To pour her a milk bath infused with cloves and honey.
“Even so,” she said with a sigh. “I would rather you spoke to your mother.”
As if summoned by thought alone, the Countess of Denham came gliding out into the hall.
“There you are, Hugo. I thought I heard voices.” His mother took one look at Miss Bennett’s tousled locks and scowled. “The servants’ entrance is to the rear, girl.” She pointed to the growing puddle. “And look at the mess you’ve made on the parquet.”
“Miss Bennett is not a servant, Mother.”
Rather than appear offended, Miss Bennett smiled. She offered his mother a demure curtsey. “Good evening, my lady. I am Miss Lara Bennett. Granddaughter of Lord Forsyth. My carriage is stuck in the snow, and I made my way here hoping to find direction.”
“Forsyth?” His mother’s face turned ashen. She stood staring as uncomfortable seconds ticked by. “Did you say Lord Forsyth?”
“I did. Are you acquainted with my grandfather?”
“Good heavens.” Penelope put her hand to her heart and gawped at Miss Bennett. “Your grandfather is Montague Forsyth? The Montague Forsyth?”
And with that, the Countess of Denham swooned.
While Lara considered herself a worldly woman of three-and-twenty, she had never seen a person faint. It happened so quickly. In a matter of seconds, the countess’ scowl slipped from her face as fast as she fell to the floor. The poor woman would have hit the deck like a cannonball slithering through greasy fingers had the earl not rushed forward to catch her.
“Good Lord, Mother!” The earl crouched at the lady’s side, one muscular arm supporting her head.
Lara dropped to her knees and pressed the back of her hand to Lady Denham’s brow. “She feels rather hot. But then I don’t suppose you’ve been able to open a window.” Judging by the heavy smell of smoke in the air, Lara would lay odds that every fire in the house blazed.
“Fetch some water, Crudging,” the earl barked.
Lara glanced up at the butler. “And a square of linen.”
“Mother, can you hear me?”
“Perhaps we should move her somewhere more comfortable,” Lara said upon hearing the lively hum of chatter coming from the room to their right. “I doubt she would want her guests to see her in such a fragile state.”
The earl looked at Lara directly. He had the most remarkable blue eyes, so remarkable one could not help but stop and stare. She imagined that when he laughed, they were like the bright hue of cornflowers in the height of summer. But winter was here, and there was no mistaking the icy chill of despair.
“You’re right. How perceptive of you, Miss Bennett. When it comes to my mother, opinion is everything.” The earl glanced back over his shoulder. “Where on earth is Crudging?”
“I can help you carry her.”
Lady Denham was of slender frame. The earl looked strong enough to carry two grown men, and Lara had lost count of the times she’d helped her grandfather to bed after a heavy night drinking port.
Lord Denham nodded. “If you could take her legs, we’ll move her to my study. Perhaps a nip of brandy will bring her round.”
Together they carried Lady Denham into the room across the hall and lowered her gently down onto the chaise. Fearing it was too hot near the fire, they dragged the sofa closer to the window.
“In all my twenty-nine years, that’s the first time I have seen her swoon.” Lord Denham poured brandy into a glass, swallowed the contents in one large gulp and then refilled the tumbler. “Of course, she’ll deny the fact and find a way to explain why she collapsed in a heap.”
The earl moved to kneel at his mother’s side. He cradled her head and brought the glass to her mouth to wet her lips.
“Perhaps she’s acquainted with my grandfather. The blood drained from her face as soon as I mentioned his name.” Of course Lady Denham knew Montague Forsyth. Else, regardless of the weather, Lara would never have been so presumptuous as to call at a house uninvited.
“I can think of no other explanation.” The earl jerked his head towards the drinks table. “It wouldn’t hurt for you to take a nip yourself. I’m sure your lips should be as pink as a rose, not as blue as a berry.”
Lara noted the playfulness in his tone. “Perhaps I will take a sip.” She rose, crossed the room and poured no more than a mouthful of brandy into a crystal glass. “Once a chill sets in, it can be a devil to sleep at night.”
“Yes, during moments of weakness, restlessness plagues more than the mind.”
“Moments of weakness?” Lara’s heart skipped a beat. Surely he had not noticed her hidden anxiety, anxiety that stemmed from her reluctance to play a part in her grandfather’s plan. Heavens, the sooner Montague arrived, the sooner she could tell some semblance of the truth.
“When the cold hinders one’s circulation,” he explained, “it’s impossible to settle.”
“Indeed.” Relief calmed her panicked mind. The amber liquid slipped down her throat, scorching her windpipe. “Gracious.” She panted a few breaths. “The heat can come as quite a shock when one is used to nothing but ratafia.”
“Did the fire reach your toes?” the earl said with some amusement.
Lara shook her head. “It warmed my stomach. I fear I may have to down a quart to warm my digits.” She plastered her hand to her mouth as a chuckle escaped. “Forgive me. I should not laugh when Lady Denham is ill.”
The earl turned back to his mother. “I imagine she will wake in a moment. Perhaps her condition has nothing to do with your grandfather and the pressure of hosting this gathering has taken its toll.”
Lara placed her glass on the drinks table and returned to stand at the matron’s side. “I must confess, the thought of having a house full of guests during the festive season fills me with dread.”
The earl stood, too. “I share your loathing of such tiresome events.”
“Then why agree to play host?” The question fell from Lara’s lips without thought. She always spoke her mind. Another trait inherited from Montague Forsyth. “Forgive me. It is not my place to pry.”
A smile touched the earl’s lips. “Ask for my forgiveness again, and I shall put you in the bedchamber next to my mother’s.”
“On a winter’s night such as this, I shall be grateful for a bed in the barn. But you should know, I make a habit of expressing my views.”
“You should know I would rather hear honesty than stomach falsehoods, even if one might consider the comments impertinent. And so, in answer to your question, I promised my mother I would choose a bride before my thirtieth birthday. And so I must make my choice from those ladies in attendance.”
A frisson of guilt sent heat creeping up to her cheeks. Oh, she despised falsehoods, too, but how did one refuse the request of a man in his twilight years? How did one say no to a grandfather seeking a second chance at love? While the earl’s masterful countenance suggested a defiance of society’s rules, Lara understood his need to please his family.
That said, her grandfather would never tell her who to marry.
“And your thirtieth birthday is when exactly?”
“In two days.”
“Two days!” Lara glanced at the matron and lowered her voice, though she swore she saw the lady’s eyes flicker open. “Then your birthday is on Christmas Day.”
“Yes. The day my mother expects me to make the ultimate sacrifice.” The earl arched a brow. “The Lord may have fulfilled his promise to his people, but I doubt I shall keep mine.”
“Is it that you don’t wish to marry, or that you are averse to those ladies present?”
The gentleman pondered the question.
Eventually, he glanced at his mother and shook his head. “Let’s say that one’s experiences of marriage as a child informs one’s desires as an adult. I’ll be damned if I’ll marry to secure a bloodline.” He inhaled a breath and in a calmer tone said, “Look out of the window, Miss Bennett, and tell me what you see. Describe the scene in two words if you can.”
Lara thought it an odd request, but having lied to the gentleman, the least she could do was appear accommodating.
She crossed the room and drew back the thick red curtain. Outside, a crisp white blanket covered everything as far as the eye could see. The world beyond the house looked peaceful. Perfect. Romantic notions filled her head. A stroll with a lover whilst wrapped in warm furs. Sharing a drink of chocolate by a roaring fire. Exchanging passionate kisses to heat their blood.
Her heart sighed. “In answer to your question,” she began, letting the curtain fall and turning back to face him, “I find the view beautiful, rather enchanting.”
The earl jerked his head back. “Oh, like most ladies, I expected you to say cold and bleak for that is the perfect description of my parents’ marriage.” Sadness infused his tone. “Few people witness something magical.”
Then she was one of the lucky ones. Her parents’ marriage had been magical until the tragic end. “I imagine some people are as pessimistic about marriage as they are about winter. My grandfather taught me to see the beauty in everything. Perhaps if you do the same, my lord, you might find one lady here has hidden merits.”
“A man should not have to search for a reason to marry, Miss Bennett. When he finds the perfect life partner, does he not feel it in his soul?”
Lara had witnessed the power of true love firsthand. “One hopes, but it seems to happen to so few.” For someone she had met a mere twenty minutes earlier, the earl seemed most forthcoming with his opinions.
“I would rather partake in a discreet liaison than shackle myself to a spouse I despise.” The earl’s gaze turned penetrative. “Though I doubt one of your fair sex would agree.”
The depth of his stare sent heat creeping up her neck. “My views on marriage are of no consequence.” She glanced at Lady Denham and thought she saw the matron blink. “I am merely thankful for your hospitality.” That was the truth.
“What?” he mocked. “Like Miss Pardue, you have no wish to bemoan the sad fate of downtrodden women? Like Miss Harper, you do not wish to force your opinion? Or perhaps you are more like Miss Mason-Jones, and you would rather agree with everything I say.”
Was he trying to goad her, to rouse her ire?
Was he trying to find a flaw in her character, too?
“Perhaps you have suppressed your frustrations for so long, my lord, anger informs your opinions. Perhaps you think I might say something to convince you all women are an unsuitable match for you. Instead, might I suggest you have an honest discussion with your mother and tell her you lack the strength to make a lifelong commitment without love?”
She had gone too far.
Montague would say she had not gone far enough.
Indeed, that might be the reason she added, “Some ladies prefer a confident man with a compassionate character over money and a title. A man who can see beyond a lady’s minor failings.”
A deathly silence ensued.
The earl stared at her, blinking as if he still had snowflakes stuck to his lashes.
She couldn’t help but feel a little guilty. Who was she to preach about honesty when she had arrived at the house under false pretences?
Thankfully, the butler entered carrying a porcelain bowl. He placed it on a side table, and Lara wrung out the linen square and wiped Lady Denham’s brow. As soon as the cold water touched the matron’s face, her eyes flew open, and she scanned her surroundings.
“Hugo? Why am I lying on a chaise in your study?” Lady Denham brought a limp hand to her brow. “And why are you gaping as if I’m about to give up the ghost?”
“You swooned, Mother.” The earl glanced up from the woman—who had clearly been pretending to be incapacitated these last few minutes so she could listen to their conversation—and met Lara’s gaze.
“Poppycock! Young gels swoon. Respectable ladies take a slight turn.”
“Miss Bennett helped carry you into the study.”
“You hit the floor with remarkable speed,” Lara confirmed. “A mere second after I mentioned my grandfather is Lord Forsyth.”
Perhaps she should hint that the gentleman was in the area. It would certainly add credence to the tale. Lara mentally shook her head. She still couldn’t believe she’d agreed to such a foolhardy plan.
“Mention that man’s name in public, and most ladies swoon.” Lady Denham sat up. “Swoon with shock, my dear, not from some romantic interest. No, heaven forbid a lady should fall for that seducer’s smooth tongue. Heaven forbid.”
Lara pursed her lips. Montague Forsyth did not pander to society’s dictates. He said what he meant, and he meant what he said. “My grandfather had a reputation for being reckless in his youth. But when a man loses the love of his life, it affects him in strange ways.”
If Lady Denham had looked pale before, she looked positively ashen now.
“Your grandmother died young?” the earl asked.
Lara forced a smile. “Perhaps we should get Lady Denham to her feet. A stroll along the hall will soon have her right again, as will a glass of sherry.”
“Indeed,” he agreed. “Miss Harper won’t sit still for long and will soon be on the prowl, ready to sink her claws into her next unsuspecting victim.”
Lara sighed and arched an admonishing brow.
“What?” The earl shrugged. “It is merely an observation. One I’m sure you will agree with after spending an hour in her delightful company.”
“Looks fade, my lord. You will not be this handsome forever. Take heed. Else you might be a lonely man of sixty-plus years wishing you had tried harder.”
The earl gaped at her incredulously for the umpteenth time.
Lara’s comment saw Lady Denham bring a trembling hand to her cheek and mutter, “Oh, Lord.”
The time had come for action, not lolling about glaring. After Lara’s outspoken comments, it was a time for honesty, too. “If you would prefer to direct me to the nearest village, my lord, I will be happy to take shelter there.” She turned to Lady Denham. “I wouldn’t want my presence here to disrupt your party or cause more distress than it has already.”
Lady Denham studied her through narrowed eyes. She glanced at her son, and after a moment’s reflection said, “You may stay, Miss Bennett, unless my son has any objection.”
The earl considered her with a level of scrutiny that thawed her frozen toes. “As a compassionate man concerned for your plight, I must insist you stay, Miss Bennett. And as the granddaughter of a peer, it is only right we invite you to join us for the festivities.”
“A room and a hot meal are all I require.” Lara glanced at the sodden hem of her dress. “We were in such a hurry to find shelter I left my valise in the carriage. This dress is unsuitable to wear to dinner.”
“Then I shall arrange for someone to fetch your luggage.” He seemed most eager for her to join their gathering.
“In this weather? My lord, I cannot ask my poor coachman to brave such harsh conditions a third time.”
The earl shrugged. “As soon as I’ve settled you in the drawing room, Miss Bennett, I shall attend to the matter personally.”
“You, Hugo?” Lady Denham frowned. “You act the hired help? But it’s treacherous out there.”
“Indeed,” he said, his eyes brightening.
The gentleman seemed to be suffering from apathy. Clearly, he sought a means of escape. A ride or a long trudge in the snow seemed more appealing than the monotonous conversation of ladies looking to hook a titled husband.
Lara inclined her head by way of thanks. She doubted any of the ladies present would find her suitable company. When one lived with an eccentric, rakish sort of gentleman, one forgot how to pass pleasantries.
“Do you feel able to stand, Lady Denham?” Lara said, wondering why her grandfather liked a woman she considered haughty and overbearing? “Might I help you back to the drawing room?”
“Of course I can stand, gel,” the matron snapped. “I’m not an invalid.”
Lara pursed her lips. Some people were so angry with the world it infused every aspect of their being. “As you have no recollection of how you arrived at the chaise, I merely wondered if your faculties have returned.”
The earl cleared his throat to hide the obvious smirk. “Miss Bennett is simply concerned for your welfare.”
“And that of your appearance, Lady Denham. You might want to have your maid tidy your hair before you return to your guests.”
The comment saw the matron practically jump to her feet. “Crudging!” she called to the butler who had slipped out into the hall. The man returned with a bow and a pleasing smile. “Serve the guests some spiced punch and have Gabrielle come to my room.”
The earl offered the matron his hand. “Would you care for an escort upstairs, Mother?”
“I can mount a few stairs, Hugo. I’m not in my dotage yet.”
Lady Denham would turn sixty in the spring. Montague had mentioned that they shared a birthday, that he was five years her senior. When she wasn’t scowling at everyone who crossed her path, she had a beautiful face, a clear complexion, captivating blue eyes that her son had inherited. Lara tried to imagine the lady as her grandfather would, a vivacious woman with heart and spirit. Wasn’t that how he described seeing her the first time they met? Alas, Montague would be sorely disappointed. Life, it seems, had tainted the matron’s heart, dulled her spirit.
“If Miss Bennett means to remain here for the festivities,” Lady Denham continued, “you must introduce her to our guests.” She raised her chin. “Should anyone ask, I am away discussing seating arrangements, now we have an extra guest to contend with.”
Two extra guests, Lara thought, though she daren’t mention Lord Montague Forsyth would arrive at Wollaston Hall tomorrow. Based on her previous reaction, the matron would expire on the spot.
Lady Denham brushed her skirts and sauntered from the room, leaving Lara alone with the earl. Perhaps now he would reprimand her for her outspoken comments regarding his character.
“Allow me to play butler, Miss Bennett, and take your cloak.” Amused blue eyes scanned her face.
She tugged at the damp bow, permitted him to come behind her and ease the garment from her shoulders. A shiver of awareness coursed down to her cold toes. When Lara agreed to assist in Montague’s harebrained plan, he failed to mention the earl’s striking features or that the gathering was arranged purposely to find the gentleman a bride.
“May I commend you on your bravery?” he said, draping her cloak over his arm.
“Why? Because I managed to battle through the terrible storm?” Or because she was the first lady to dismiss his wealth and title in preference of character?
“No other lady alive would dare tell my mother to attend to her hair.” The earl seemed rather pleased, spoke as if he had finally found an ally. With a light touch to her back he guided her from the room, and again she experienced the comforting sense of fellowship. A warm glow swirled in her stomach that had nothing to do with the nip of brandy she’d taken earlier.
“So, Miss Bennett, are you ready to meet the vultures?”
Lara cast him a sidelong glance. “Cynicism is the devil’s friend, my lord. How might you notice a lady’s virtues if you’re constantly living in the dark?”
“You’re as free with your opinions as I am, Miss Bennett.”
“Perhaps, but I express them to those concerned, and only when prompted.” She hoped she was a little more tactful.
Mischief played in his bright blue eyes. “What are you saying? That I might always expect an honest answer from you?”
He paused, though his smug grin spoke of a wicked plan. “So, you meant what you said earlier? You think I’m handsome, Miss Bennett?”
Hell’s bells. The man was a tease and a cynic.
Lara looked him keenly in the eyes. “Dangerously so, my lord.”
As expected, Miss Bennett received a lukewarm reception from the ladies in the drawing room. While the chits’ mouths curled into half smiles, and they welcomed the new arrival with the politeness befitting their stations, fear and loathing flashed in their eyes whenever Miss Bennett shifted her attention.
The opposite might be said of Lord Flanders whose brown eyes glowed as hot as his fiery red hair. He looked upon the new guest as if she had descended in a shower of gold—a heavenly miracle delivered in celebration of the religious festival.
“How remarkable, Miss Bennett,” Lord Flanders said as they moved to the outskirts of the room. He brought the lady’s hand to his thin lips and pressed a kiss to her knuckles. “My carriage is also stuck north of West Chisenbury.”
Hugo suppressed a sigh. Hardly remarkable considering the weather. “I’m to fetch Miss Bennett’s valise if you wish to accompany me and assess the conditions.” Flanders’ love affair with his new carriage had seen him cursing the weather as one might a jealous rival with wicked intentions.
Flanders’ eyes grew wide. “Most certainly. But should you not simply send a groom?”
“Why trouble the staff when I have need to inspect the roads?” And any excuse to leave the house would have him in the saddle in seconds. “It’s a five-minute ride on horseback.”
Flanders glanced at the ladies seated on the sofas. “Ah, you find their company tedious and wish to escape. I cannot blame you. There is nothing more disconcerting than desperate gels.”
“Often it is not the ladies who are desperate but their controlling mamas,” Miss Bennett pointed out, not at all offended by Flanders’ outspoken manner. She turned to Hugo, and he found himself held captive by her big brown eyes. “There is no need to venture out on my account. I shan’t be here long. My grandfather will have the cavalry searching when I fail to arrive in Chippenham.”
And he would need help from the cavalry to make it this far. “I’m told the roads are impassable between Cherhill and Upavon. Carriage travel is out of the question. Only a fool would dare risk riding their mount further than a few miles.”
Miss Bennett’s bow-shaped lips curled into a coy smile. “You don’t know my grandfather. He would rather perish in the cold than sit at home worried and idle.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Hugo noticed Miss Harper slither towards them.
Every muscle in his body stiffened.
“Though you mentioned your grandfather, Miss Bennett, I have no recollection of ever meeting the gentleman,” Miss Harper said, depositing herself into the conversation. “Every notable member of the nobility attended Lady Monroe’s summer ball, though I recall no mention of a Lord Forsyth.”
“I doubt you would,” Miss Bennett replied, unfazed by the chit’s probing. “My grandfather finds town tiresome. The people dull and dreadful bores.” It was said as a statement of fact, not a set-down.
Hugo suppressed a grin and took a sidestep. Miss Harper had no concept of personal space, not when on a mission to seduce a man into marriage. He could not deny the lady had an enviable figure. And while considered beautiful by most men’s standards, her ugly arrogance distorted her fine features.
Miss Harper sucked in her cheeks. “When a gentleman prefers sitting alone by the fireside to waltzing in town, one must question who is the bore.” Her affected chuckle grated.
Miss Bennett simply smiled—a serene image of loveliness—though he suspected her reply would prove entertaining. “I did not say he prefers sitting alone. On the contrary, Montague Forsyth does not queue on the streets of Mayfair like a herd at a gate waiting to gain admission. He hosts his own select parties and receives many distinguished guests.”
Excitement fluttered in Hugo’s chest. Perhaps it stemmed from the sense of pleasure he gained from seeing Miss Harper struggle against her formidable foe. Perhaps he fancied himself a tiny bit in love with any woman who could command a conversation so eloquently.
“Distinguished guests whose names you have no doubt forgotten.” Miss Harper’s bitter counter made her look ridiculous and petty.
“Yes.” Miss Bennett pursed her lips in contemplation. “You might be right.”
Rather than ring with defeat, Miss Bennett’s reply defused any hostility. If anything, her honest response drew attention to Miss Harper’s spitefulness. Still, the latter had poison for blood, and the pernicious substance looked for any means to attack and denigrate.
“But you’re not a Forsyth,” Miss Harper clarified. “Bennett is a relatively common name.”
Miss Bennett laughed. “Common, yes, but that is the last word I would use to describe the gentleman whose name I bear. He was the most spirited, most inspiring person I have ever known.”
Love radiated from Miss Bennett. It glowed in her wide brown eyes, stirring envy in his chest. Any man would be lucky to be the subject of such esteem and admiration, which reinforced Hugo’s determination not to marry a lady of his mother’s choosing.
“A landowner?” Miss Harper persisted with her questions.
“An excellent painter and a hopeless romantic. Most famous for his works detailing notable places on the Grand Tour. His particular fondness for Italy is evident in his catalogue of works.”
Hugo snapped his head back. “Not Phineas Bennett?”
“Indeed.” Miss Bennett’s beaming smile played havoc with Hugo’s insides. “Did you know him?”
“I had the pleasure of meeting him once in Florence. He was painting a picture of the Basilica di San Lorenzo and explained most passionately why he thought it an architectural masterpiece.”
“Yes, that painting hangs in my grandfather’s study. The Bargello courtyard is a favourite of mine, though I believe Lord Gray owns it now.” She clutched her hands to her breast. “My father was granted a special dispensation to paint there. One can hardly believe such a beautiful place is used to house prisoners. Surely it must affect the rates of reform.”
While Miss Harper glared with her snake eyes, and Flanders looked on in wonder as the angel spread her wings, Hugo felt something he had never experienced before. Interest. Interest in a woman for more than her curvaceous body—interest in her mind.
“It must have been some time ago, my lord.” Miss Bennett’s captivating smile faded. “Both my parents perished in a boating accident off the coast of Italy eight years ago.”
Hugo inclined his head. “Please accept my condolences.”
During his tour, he’d been a young man of twenty with a feverish enthusiasm for adventure. Now, the weight of responsibility hung like a heavy chain around his neck. The duty to marry and sire an heir would add a few more links to his burden.
“My parents were very much in love, my lord. I take comfort knowing they’re together.”
“Ah, love, the elusive emotion that evades the best of men.”
The sadness in her eyes caused inner turmoil. The urge to see her smile again overpowered all other thoughts and feelings. So much so, he hardly noticed Miss Harper slithering away to join the other ladies on the sofa. Hardly cared that Flanders stood drooling on the Persian rug.
“Perhaps you might like to accompany me on the ride out to your carriage, Miss Bennett.” The words left his lips before his brain engaged. Why the hell would she? The bitter wind bit the cheeks. Three steps from the door and one would struggle to feel their toes. “The air in here can be somewhat cloying, and we’ve more than an hour until the dinner gong.”
No other woman of his acquaintance would accept. Most worried about their complexions, their new boots, the damp conditions ruining their hair. An hour was not long enough to preen themselves to perfection. Hope sprung to life in his chest. The daughter of such an eminent man as Phineas Bennett must surely be different.
Miss Bennett’s curious brown eyes studied him. “Is it wise to take the horses out in this weather?”
“Spurius is my preferred mount. Does that answer your question?”
“Spurius? As in the name once popular throughout the Roman Republic?”
Hmm. Her level of intelligence proved most impressive. “In Latin, does it not mean champion?”
“I have no notion but will trust your word.”
“You may ride with me.” Again, he spoke before logic intervened. “Purely out of concern for the horses, you understand. Besides, we will be there and back within twenty minutes.”
The corners of her mouth curled into a smile. She glanced at the closed curtains. “It’s dark out.”
“You may hold the lantern.”
She needed no further inducement. “Very well. I shall find your butler and fetch my cloak and gloves.”
Good Lord! An adventurous spirit proved highly attractive.
He thought to summon Crudging himself but did not wish to alert the other guests of their plans. He thought to retrieve her cloak but did not wish to leave her alone with Lord Flanders. Instead, Hugo stood and watched Miss Bennett leave the room.
“By Jove,” Flanders said, slapping him on the back. “Once you’ve made the obvious choice of taking Miss Harper for your bride, I was going to comfort Miss Mason-Jones and suggest a possible alliance. But the new arrival has blown everyone’s plans out of the water.” Flanders exhaled. “I mean, have you ever met a woman happy to converse about art and travel?”
“No. Such women are a rarity.”
Miss Bennett had swept into the house and turned everything upside down. Not since his youth had he felt the need to warn a man away from a woman he was pursuing. Jealousy roused the devil inside. Possessiveness flowed like blood in his veins.
He glanced at Miss Harper, whose beady gaze still lingered on the door. “Miss Bennett has certainly made an impression.”
The mile ride to West Chisenbury was not without its hardships. It had nothing to do with cold fingers or navigating the inches of snow covering the lane. It had nothing to do with the constant flurry of snowflakes sticking to one’s lips and lashes. Or the fact the sinking feeling in his stomach meant dinner was long overdue. Miss Bennett struggled to hold the lantern in the blustering wind. She swapped hands, shuffled her bottom against him in the seat. Being a man of experience, a man able to suppress the unexpected effects of desire and bouts of lust, he found himself in a quandary.
“I can hardly see more than a few feet ahead.” Miss Bennett held the lantern aloft although the blizzard threatened to extinguish the flame. She wriggled in the saddle. “It cannot be much further, my lord.”
Hugo suppressed a groan. “No, just around the next bend.” It didn’t help that she sat trapped between his arms, locked in a sort of embrace, or that sometimes the gusts forced her back against his chest. “Would you prefer I hold the lantern and you take the reins?”
“No. You know the road and the horse better than I do.”
Miss Pardue would have accepted the challenge, desperate to prove herself equal to a man. Miss Harper would have snatched the reins, eager to feed her voracious need to take charge. Miss Mason-Jones would have been so lost in a daydream she would not have replied. But Miss Bennett possessed the skill of speaking with authority without stripping a man of his masculinity.
Surely sometime soon the lady would make a ridiculous comment, display an ugly trait to dampen his ardour. At this rate, he’d end up with black toes, as the only warm blood in his body continued to pool in his loins.
“Perhaps Miss Bennett should ride back with me,” Flanders said, nudging his horse forward. “In these harsh conditions, it will be less strain on your mount.”
One wiggle of the lady’s soft buttocks and Flanders would be on his knees professing love.
“Spurius is an Arabian stallion and has carried saddlebags heavier than Miss Bennett.”
“Not in this weather, Denham.”
Hugo firmed his jaw. “I can tell by his gait that your horse will struggle with extra weight in the snow.” It wasn’t a complete lie. “The horse is used to pulling a carriage as part of a team.”
Flanders may well have protested, but they came upon a conveyance at the side of the road. Five inches of snow covered the roof, the box seat and footboard. Snow covered the wheels right up to the hubs. Poor Flanders practically sobbed when he realised it was his coach and not Miss Bennett’s.
“Oh, Lord!” Flanders dismounted. Snow crunched beneath his feet as he clambered towards the vehicle, his boots leaving an ankle-deep trail. “The damp will swell the doors and rot the sills. Help me clear the roof, Denham, before that blasted stuff trickles inside. Watermarks on leather seats are a devil to disguise.”
“Do you have the rope and canvas sheet Hodges gave you?”
“Yes, but I fear it’s too late for that.”
Hugo lowered his voice as he dismounted. “Wait here, Miss Bennett. Flanders will be a blubbering wreck if I do not help him protect his coach.”
“Then I shall help, too.” The lady thrust the lantern at him and had her foot in the stirrup before he could protest. She jumped to the ground and brushed flakes from her cheeks before surveying the scene. “There must be a shovel in the boot. Every coachman worth his weight has a means of freeing the wheels in these conditions.”
Hugo couldn’t help but smile. “No doubt there is.” He turned to Flanders and was about to chastise him for not dragging along his coachman when Miss Bennett marched over to the vehicle and dropped the boot hatch.
Flanders sidled up to him and whispered, “Hurry up and make your choice, Denham. I intend to offer for that girl before the weekend is out.”
Hugo inhaled deeply. It took effort to maintain his composure. “A lady like Miss Bennett does not marry out of duty or for convenience.” Did the man know nothing? Had Flanders not heard the passion in her voice when she spoke of her parents’ marriage? Miss Bennett would marry for love or not at all. More’s the pity.
“This should suffice.” The lady removed a short-handled drainage shovel and beckoned Flanders forward. “Start with the roof.”
“What the devil do I do with it?” Flanders looked upon the tool as if it were a medieval means of torture.
“The slim end is for digging trenches.” Hugo had never dug a trench in his life, but some things were common sense. “Use the handle to push the snow off the roof.” When Flanders stood with nothing but bewilderment swimming in his eyes, Hugo took control of matters. It was too damn cold to dally.
He cleared the coach in minutes.
Flanders unfastened his greatcoat and withdrew the thick canvas package. Together, they covered the carriage and secured the sheeting with ropes. They found Miss Bennett’s conveyance stuck two hundred yards along the road. Hugo retrieved her valise, forced Flanders to balance the luggage on his lap, leaving him one hand to grip the reins.
On the ride back to Wollaston Hall, the cold extremities did little to cool Hugo’s blood. He was rather partial to a woman who exuded confidence as opposed to arrogance. And few had a knack for remaining calm during trying situations.
Had Hugo known of the horrific sight waiting to greet them at the iron gates of his ancestral home, he would have escorted Miss Bennett through a different entrance. Had he known a party to appease his mother’s need for an heir would involve murder, he would have withdrawn the invitations.
The first sign something was dreadfully amiss occurred when Miss Bennett pointed to a black heap by the arched gateway, half-buried in the white snow, and said, “Lord, what on earth is that? Tell me some poor fellow hasn’t collapsed from the cold.”
Hugo drew Spurius to a halt at the gate. He dismounted and moved with caution towards the dark mass squirming and groaning amidst the drifts. Thieves and blackguards often preyed on charitable folk during wintertime when food was scarce and few ventured from their firesides.
“You there!” he called out and waited for a response. He hoped the man’s accomplice wasn’t hiding in the hedgerow, ready to mount a surprise attack. Miss Bennett would be more use in a fight than Flanders. “Are you hurt?”
Miss Bennett climbed down from Hugo’s mount and hurried to his side. “I have a terrible feeling about this. But we cannot stand here and do nothing. What if he’s injured?”
“Perhaps I should ride up to the house and fetch a few men from the stables?” Flanders’ suggestion rang of cowardice.
“Wait there!” Hugo snapped. “I am quite capable of dealing with a drunkard in the road.” The comment was to reassure Miss Bennett, not Flanders.
The lady gripped his arm. “Be careful.”
Hugo glanced at the dainty hand resting on his coat sleeve. He wasn’t sure whether his heart raced because of her caring comment, because the instant connection sent a rush of energy shooting up his arm, or because the vagabond’s groan grew louder.
His fingers slipped over Miss Bennett’s hand, but the action in no way calmed his rapid pulse. “If he attacks, you’re to mount Spurius and ride to the house. Is that understood?”
She nodded, though he suspected this lady did not run away from trouble.
Hugo crept closer.
Only when crouched at the fellow’s side did he notice the blood. The pool glared a shocking red against the pure white snow. There were spots of blood splattered about the blank canvas like flicks of paint from an artist’s brush. Hugo grabbed the man’s shoulder and rolled him onto his back.
“Good God!” Though he recognised the ashen face instantly, his brain struggled to accept the disturbing vision. “Bellham?” The word left Hugo’s lips on a gasp when his friend’s greatcoat gaped and he noticed the blade pushed deep between Bellham’s ribs. A smear of blood tainted the unusual mother-of-pearl handle. “Who did this? Footpads?”
Footpads did not work in these harsh conditions. Footpads did not leave a dying man without stealing his expensive coat and boots. Indeed, Bertie’s gold medallion was still attached to the silk ribbon poking out of his fob pocket.
Nausea rolled in Hugo’s stomach.
His heartbeat thundered in his ears.
“You know this gentleman?” Miss Bennett came and knelt beside him. She pressed her fingers to Bertie’s neck, remained still for a time before shaking her head and sighing. “There’s little hope of saving him, I’m afraid.”
“By Jove!” Flanders steadied his anxious mount. “I’ll fetch help from the house.”
This time Hugo did not protest.
“Were you expecting Mr Bellham?” Miss Bennett asked as Flanders rode off up the drive.
“He was to spend the festive season at Wollaston. When he failed to arrive with the other guests three days ago, I presumed he’d changed his mind.” He gripped Bellham’s outstretched hand though struggled to decipher his mumbled words. “Rest now.”
Miss Bennett was right. He’d lost too much blood. His face was grey, his lips blue. One could sense his life slowly ebbing away.
“I think he is trying to tell you something.” She leaned closer and whispered, “I doubt he has long left. Perhaps he knows who did this.”
Bertie responded with another groan. He reached for Hugo’s lapel and tugged with the strength of a newborn babe. The weak mutterings failed to penetrate his addled mind.
“Might I try?” Miss Bennett did not wait for his reply. She took Bertie’s hand and leaned over his blood-soaked body. “Sir, I promise you we will seek justice for this crime, but you must help us.”
Bertie murmured something about his boots.
Miss Bennett yanked down her hood, gathered her hair to one side and pressed her ear to Bertie’s mouth. His friend’s faint mutterings drifted through the frigid air like ghostly whispers.
A hundred questions flooded Hugo’s mind while he waited. How would they reach the coroner and magistrate? How the hell would he tell his guests? Terrified ladies were hard to console. More so when trapped in a house with no means of escape.
Miss Bennett raised her head. She cupped Bertie’s cheek and pressed a kiss to his forehead. “Rest now, sir.”
And with that, Bertie Bellham drew his last breath.
Should a man’s dying message not carry an air of finality? Should he not whisper words of love for a sister or mother? Should he not convey fear as darkness approached? So why did Mr Bellham’s offerings sound so utterly peculiar?
“I don’t suppose you heard what he said.” The earl drew a gloved hand over his friend’s eyes to close them, brushed snow off the rim of his hat, icy flakes off Mr Bellham’s cold cheeks. “We met at school,” he added. Loss hung heavily in his grave tone and slumped bearing. “Most men liked him unless they had a sister or daughter of marriageable age.”
Lara knew how grief ripped at the heart, tore it to shreds. She took the earl’s hand and drew him to his feet before their legs were too numb to stand. For some reason, she found herself brushing snow off the shoulders and arms of his greatcoat.
“I heard some of what Mr Bellham said, though it made little sense.”
Lord Denham looked to the mass of grey storm clouds and then at her. “We should take shelter, discuss this in the house. We’ve been outdoors for too long.” He reached out and raised the hood of her cloak, tucked a stray lock of hair inside. “You cannot risk catching a chill.” The intimate gesture did not shock or come as a surprise. When sadness lived in the heart, people looked for ways to ease the crippling ache.
She gripped the lord’s arm again. “Mr Bellham said the murderer came from the house.” Well, he hadn’t put it quite so succinctly.
“The house?” The earl jerked his head. “My house?”
“Yes, and he said something about protecting his boots.”
Lord Denham frowned. “Bellham believed a member of my household staff took his life so viciously? Who else would want to steal a dead man’s hessians?”
“I haven’t the faintest notion.” The gentleman had said a few other things, all too ridiculous to repeat. “Confusion blurs the mind as life slips away. But he kept repeating that the murderer is in the house.” She pointed to the multitude of footprints leading to Wollaston Hall. “Any number of people might have made those tracks.”
The earl fell silent.
The only signs of his inner turmoil were the puffs of white mist bursting from his lips whenever he exhaled a ragged breath. Oh, she wished her grandfather were here to assist in these alarming matters.
The earl glanced at the spattering of blood, closed his eyes and shook his head. After a moment, he looked towards the lane. “Bellham didn’t arrive via West Chisenbury else we’d have seen him. And from the prints in the snow, only one horse approached on the lane from Upavon. So where is Bellham’s mount?”
Lara shrugged. “Perhaps the murderer spooked the horse. With luck, the animal will find its way back.”
Muttering a curse, he turned to look at the grand house sitting amidst the snowy splendour. “Do you think Bellham spoke in earnest? I cannot conceive how any of the guests are capable of committing such a heinous crime.” He rubbed his jaw and sighed.
Lara’s attention moved to the blood he’d unwittingly smeared on his cheek and chin. Mr Bellham’s blood. Despite the extremities, she pulled off her glove. “My lord, allow me a certain liberty.”
He seemed confused, more so when she rubbed gently back and forth across his firm jaw. Suspicion flashed in his eyes. He captured her wrist and held it in a tight grip. “Tell me. Did my mother invite you here? Was your late arrival a ploy to gain my attention? Is this all some part of a devious plot to see me wed?”
“This?” She glanced at the lifeless body of poor Mr Bellham. “Please say you are not speaking of murder.” Good Lord! Did he think his mother would stoop so low? Did he think Mr Bellham would rise imminently from the dead and laugh at the joke?
“Of course I am not speaking of murder.” He waved his hand back and forth between them. “I speak of your womanly tactics to seduce me into marriage, Miss Bennett.”
Astounded that he had drawn such a ridiculous conclusion, all she could do was blink while she gathered her thoughts. “My lord, you’ve blood on your gloves. You wiped it onto your face. I was attempting to remove it for two reasons.” She snatched her hand from his grasp. “No doubt your mother would swoon again when faced with evidence of a murder. And I wished to spare you any further distress.”
Lord Denham cleared his throat. “So, you do not wish to marry me, Miss Bennett?”
“No, my lord.” A few times this evening, she had thought about kissing him, about pulling him into an embrace and assuring him all would be well. But certainly nothing more than that. No, nothing more than that. “I could never shackle myself to a man simply for convenience.” And she doubted he would want to marry a liar.
“Then it is my turn to beg for forgiveness for making the wrong assumption. This whole damn party reeks of dishonesty and distrust.”
Guilt flared for the untruths she had told. But surely the earl understood the sacrifices one made for the people they loved.
“I am at fault,” she confessed. “What else are you meant to think when a lady removes her glove and caresses your cheek? Having spent eight years living with Montague Forsyth, one learns to act on impulse.”
The earl inclined his head. “Having spent a lifetime with Penelope de Wold, one learns to be cautious of people’s motives.”
“Then I will forgive your suspicions.”
“And I shall forgive your impulsive displays of affection.”
They continued to stare at one another as the flurry of snow fell around them. In his company, it was easy to forget the outside world existed. Indeed, another pang of guilt forced her to shake her mind back to the recent and tragic event.
“My lord, might I be so bold as to say that while your birthday looms over your head like an executioner’s axe, Mr Bellham will never see another sunrise. Should we not move him? Find a quiet, restful place to lay his body while we wait for the magistrate and coroner?”
Exhaling a weary sigh, the earl moved to crouch next to his friend. Seconds passed while Lord Denham became lost in thoughtful contemplation.
“We cannot bring Bertie into the house,” he eventually said. “Not with every fire blazing. It might be days before the magistrate can make the journey by carriage. Sir Ellis is too frail to travel on horseback.”
“Then perhaps there’s an outbuilding we might use. Somewhere peaceful, away from the house.”
“Yes, I’m sure there’s a suitable place where—”
The thud of a horse’s hooves captured their attention. Lord Flanders cantered down the drive towards them, while grooms and stable hands hurried along behind. Two carried lanterns. Two pulled a hand cart.
They spent the next twenty minutes moving Mr Bellham to the old bothy near the orchard. Lord Denham insisted on spending a few moments alone with his friend before locking the door and slipping the key into his coat pocket.
Before walking back to the main house, the earl informed his groom that, at first light, he was to attempt the four-mile ride to Pewsey and deliver a letter to Sir Ellis. The magistrate would need to alert the coroner, who lived three miles further on the road to Marlborough.
Having stabled his horse, Lord Flanders caught up with them as they mounted Wollaston’s stone steps. “What do you plan to do now, Denham?” Lord Flanders said, panting to catch his breath. “How the devil will you break the dreadful news to the guests?”
The earl cast Lara a sidelong glance before replying. “I shall inform them during dinner. That way, the ladies may comfort one another. We should discuss the incident openly, not whisper about it behind closed doors. Do you approve, Miss Bennett?”
“Indeed, my lord.” Questions needed asking. And his mother would have no option but to display the composure of a countess when amongst company. “As none of us have much hope of leaving, it is vital we discover some details concerning Mr Bellham’s demise.”
Once inside the house, Lord Denham took control of the situation, as one would expect from a man of his elevated position. So why did he not deal with his mother in the same confident manner? The earl instructed Lord Flanders not to mention a word about what had occurred this last hour. He spoke briefly to his butler. While Lara noticed the wariness in the earl’s eyes upon hearing news that Viscount Northcott had arrived at Wollaston Hall, he made no comment.
“Allow me to escort you to your room, Miss Bennett. Crudging assures me a maid has lit the fire and is currently unpacking your valise.”
“Thank you, my lord.”
They mounted the stairs in silence. Tension radiated from every firm muscle as he directed her along the landing towards the west wing. Perhaps it was the effects of the cold that made her fingers throb and tingle. Perhaps it was the sudden need to offer physical comfort to the man silently struggling with distress. A light touch on the arm might suffice. But no. She mustn’t. Not after the misunderstanding earlier.
They came to a halt outside a bedchamber door.
“I will need your help, Miss Bennett,” he whispered. He stood so close she could feel the essence of the man penetrate her clothes. “You’re the only other person here who possesses a logical brain.”
The compliment caused a strange fluttering in her heart. “What would you have me do?”
He bent his head, flooding her nostrils with the alluring scent of his cologne. “If we’re to believe Bellham’s parting words, someone in this house is capable of murder. We must be vigilant. Together, we must hunt for clues to assist the magistrate in bringing the culprit to justice.”
Feverish anticipation raced through her veins. “But the only other gentleman in attendance is Lord Flanders, and he was with us in West Chisenbury.”
Lord Denham looked her keenly in the eyes. Heaven help her, he was dreadfully handsome. “You forget that Lord Northcott arrived this evening. Perhaps he had a gripe with Bertie, and he’s to blame. Perhaps there’s a more terrifying explanation.”
“A lady committed this dreadful crime.”
“This is not the time for hysterics,” Lara said calmly to Miss Mason-Jones. With a flick of the eyes, she gestured for Lord Flanders to comfort the lady weeping in the dining chair on his left. She glanced at the other guests’ morbid faces as they stared aimlessly into their soup. “No doubt Mr Bellham came across footpads desperate to relieve him of his purse. Indeed, we have every reason to believe they stole his horse.”
Having made a pact with Lord Denham that neither would reveal Mr Bellham’s final mutterings, they had agreed upon expressing the opinion that thieves were to blame. Should the culprit learn of their suspicions, heaven knows what he or she might do. Besides, if the earl understood that lies were sometimes necessary, when Montague arrived, he might be more understanding of her plight.
“Are footpads common in these parts?” Miss Venables said, offering her companion, Miss Harper, use of her handkerchief. “Only a desperate man would attack a gentleman at the gates of such a grand house as this.”
Lara had learned from Lord Denham that Miss Venables was a gentleman’s daughter who had fallen on hard times after her father’s death. Paid companions were often middle-aged spinsters with wisdom and moral compass. Miss Venables was no older than five and twenty. Her vibrant red hair and coy smile marked her as a willing counterpart for a lady out to cause mischief.
“Unless Bertie was attacked further along the road and made an attempt to find help,” Viscount Northcott said, pushing a lock of black hair from his brow. The lord bore the same arrogant air as his sister. One look at the mischievous twinkle in the peer’s eye and Montague would label him a rake. “He might have crawled to the gate.”
“Oh, Lord!” Miss Mason-Jones continued to blubber.
Lara cast Lord Denham a sidelong glance as he sat quietly observing his guests’ reactions. Beyond his devilishly good looks, she found an intelligent man with an impressive ability to command a room. His broad shoulders conveyed a strength of character as well as a muscular physique. He looked masculine and masterful yet had a wicked glint in his eyes that hinted at a playful side, too.
“Bellham did not crawl anywhere. He was killed at the gate.” Lord Denham snatched his wine glass and sipped his claret while continuing to study the faces of those seated around the table. “The advantage of snow is that you can follow a blood trail.”
“Must we talk about the gruesome details during dinner?” Lady Denham complained. “The coroner and Sir Ellis will arrive at the earliest convenience, and then they may deal with the matter. The soup will be cold if we wait a moment longer.” She flicked her fingers at Miss Pardue. “Eat. Let us worry about this dreadful business later.”
“The guests should be aware that it’s not safe to leave the house, Mother. Not until the culprit is apprehended.” The earl’s signet ring clinked against the crystal glass causing everyone to look up, some with their soup spoons a mere inch from their mouths. “Indeed, it is better I take notes regarding our whereabouts at the time of the crime. Sir Ellis has a way of making the innocent appear guilty, and I would assure him no one in this room witnessed anything untoward.”
He spoke with such authority Lady Denham simply sighed in response. If the earl was able to overrule his mother’s opinion so easily, why had he not been honest about this organised marriage mart? Perhaps he’d been secretly hoping one of the ladies would impress him.
“Lord Denham is right,” Miss Pardue said. While petite in frame and stature, her rigid jaw conveyed a steely determination. “He must make no allowances for our sex. We must answer his questions openly and honestly for I doubt anyone will recall their mundane comings and goings once the magistrate arrives.” She turned her attention to Lord Denham. “In the interests of those ladies with weak constitutions, might I enquire what you did with poor Mr Bellham’s body?”
The comment tore another heart-wrenching sob from Miss Mason-Jones.
Miss Harper harrumphed. “I take umbrage at the suggestion I am somewhat lacking. In my opinion, anyone who dismisses the advantages of their sex is three pence short of a shilling.”
“Oh, please don’t argue,” Miss Mason-Jones blurted into her handkerchief. “Think of Mr Bellham outside in the cold.”
Lara glanced at the earl, whose curt nod, it was agreed, was a cue for her to reveal certain information. “Mr Bellham has been moved indoors and treated with the utmost respect, I can assure you.”
Miss Venables arched a brow at the news and whispered in Miss Harper’s ear.
“And how is it you know so much about this accursed murder, Miss Bennett?” Miss Harper said, extending her claws.
“The fact you have forgotten about my journey to West Chisenbury highlights Lord Denham’s need to account for everyone’s movements these last two hours.”
Lord Flanders raised his hand like a boy in the schoolroom. “I bear witness to the fact that Miss Bennett and Lord Denham rode to West Chisenbury. Had it not been for Miss Bennett locating a shovel, we might not have cleared the dreaded snow from my new carriage.”
Miss Pardue clapped her hands. “Bravo, Miss Bennett. It goes to prove that some ladies are just as resourceful as men.”
Viscount Northcott’s mocking snort echoed through the room. “Then why do we not see a chit commanding the cavalry? Indeed, what do you do, Miss Pardue, that might be scratched into the history books of men?”
Miss Pardue lifted her chin. “What I would do and what I am permitted to do are worlds apart, my lord.”
A smirk equal to her employer’s ugly grin played on Miss Venables’ lips. She whispered to Miss Harper again, and both ladies fought to suppress a chuckle.
Anger flared in Lara’s chest, but she maintained a calm composure. Those who lose their temper lose the battle, Montague always said. “Are you all so concerned with your petty squabbles that you have forgotten a man is dead?”
“Precisely,” Miss Pardue countered. “And where might we find Mr Bellham so we may pay our respects?”
“Are you at all related to the deceased, Miss Pardue?” Lara found it odd that someone would want to gaze upon the victim of a murder if they had no familial connection. That said, Miss Pardue seemed most eager to prove herself as worthy as any man.
“It seems the right thing to do under the circumstances,” the lady retorted.
“The right thing to do is eat our soup and discuss this in the drawing room after dinner.” Lady Denham swallowed a mouthful and then pushed the china away. “With such gruesome talk, one no longer has an appetite. I feel the need to rest upstairs. This whole business has shattered my nerves.”
Lord Denham arched a brow. “And where were you, Mother, after you left my study?”
The matron blanched. She clasped her strand of pearls as if her son might throttle her with the necklace. “Me, Hugo? Surely you don’t think I saw anything frightful outdoors?”
“Everyone must give an account of their whereabouts. You know what a devil Sir Ellis is for detail.” The earl cast the viscount a hard stare. “If anyone saw anything, I imagine it would be you, Northcott. Did you not arrive a few minutes before we stumbled upon the body?”
Evidently intrigued by this line of questioning, Lady Denham instructed the footmen to remove the soup plates and then fixed her attention on Lord Northcott.
The viscount relaxed back in the chair. “Had Bellham not been so impatient to get here, he would be dining with us now. We stayed together at the Swan in Amesbury last night. He wanted to reach Wollaston as a matter of urgency and complained endlessly about problems with the weather. He did everything possible to make journeying together difficult, and so I left him to go on ahead.”
“Then by your account, Bellham arrived later than expected,” the earl said as he motioned for a footman to carve and serve from the silver platters. Others followed his lead, hunger banishing all morbid thoughts.
“Much later,” Northcott eventually replied. “It’s but a ten-mile ride, and he left at three. Granted, the weather doubled the time it took to get here. Where he went or what he did during those remaining two hours is a mystery to me.”
Famished after the ride out in the cold, Lara tucked into roasted pheasant and raised game pie with cranberry confit. While she ate, she watched those seated around the table inform Lord Denham of their whereabouts. All the ladies insisted they were washing and dressing during the time Mr Bellham drew his last breath. Consequently, they had kept the bedchamber curtains closed and heard nothing of any significance outside.
The viscount was the only person with both the time and the opportunity to attack Mr Bellham. But a man capable of cold-blooded murder wasn’t likely to confess at the dinner table. No. They must make him feel comfortable, partake in a few games. Hope he contradicted some part of his story.
That said, Mr Bellham had muttered a few other words whilst he lay dying. Words Lara had dismissed as those of a man who’d lost control of his faculties. Now, she wondered if they might be clues.
The first had sounded very much like strawberry. And as she glanced around the table, it struck her that earlier Miss Harper had worn a pretty ruby brooch in the shape of the fruit to secure her fichu. Miss Pardue had a small red birthmark on her cheek. Might that be what Mr Bellham meant? Miss Venables’ dress had tiny red flowers that looked very much like strawberries from a distance.
Was it just a case of Lara’s imagination running wild? Or was Lord Denham right? Had one of the prim ladies seated at the table taken a blade and thrust it into Mr Bellham’s chest?
The melancholic mood in the drawing room after dinner made it impossible for Hugo to probe the guests about their relationship with Bertie Bellham. Society knew the fellow as a charming cad who few took seriously. During their fifteen-year acquaintance, Bertie had been embroiled in various scrapes and scandals. So much so, the countess had insisted Hugo withdraw his invitation. But Hugo had needed an ally, someone to save him from making a disastrous mistake. And Bertie had no problem speaking the truth or causing offence.
Did that have something to do with why Bellham lay dead in the bothy? Surely not.
And so, when all hope of making further investigations proved fruitless, he sought out Miss Bennett’s company, eager to discuss art and her father’s love of Italy. But Miss Mason-Jones had not stopped crying since learning of poor Bertie’s fate, and so the only woman in the room with anything interesting to say escorted Miss Mason-Jones up to her bedchamber in the hope of settling the girl’s nerves.
Bored, Hugo made his excuses and retired early.
Christmas Eve morning brought another deluge of snow. The maids scurried about clearing and lighting fires. Most guests requested breakfast in their warm beds. Miss Harper had insisted on having another hot bath, and the footmen were forever back and forth with silver trays and steaming buckets.
Hugo found Miss Bennett alone in the library, curled up on the window seat with a book, though she seemed more taken with the topiary trees in the garden standing to attention like little white soldiers.
“Good morning, Miss Bennett. Do you know you’re the only person brave enough to slip out from under the bedsheets and venture downstairs?”
She turned to look at him, her keen gaze perusing the cut of his sombre black coat, worn out of respect for his friend. “Not the only person. You’re here. If last night proved anything, it’s that we both have hardy constitutions.”
“And both have a fondness for the winter weather.” He crossed the room. It was unlike him to look for things he had in common with a woman. “I’m glad I found you alone.”
“Oh?” She closed the book, placed it on the seat next to her and gave him her undivided attention. “Is there something you wish to discuss with me?”
Hugo drank in the sight of her eager brown eyes and pursed lips. Did she embrace every task with the same lively passion? Would she kiss him in the confident way she tackled every other task? Curiosity burned. He imagined a wild temptress beneath the composed exterior.
“I wish to invite your opinion of what we learned whilst dining last night.” He glanced briefly over his shoulder before lowering his voice. “Northcott had opportunity but no motive.”
She moved the book to the floor and patted the padded seat. “Sit down, my lord, else I shall have a terrible crick in my neck.” When Hugo obliged, she said, “From first glance, it is clear the viscount is used to dominating those around him. Not knowing the deceased, I am left pondering Mr Bellham’s character. Without knowing more about him, one cannot begin to understand the murderer’s motive.”
To say that her logical thought process impressed him was an understatement. “Would you prefer the vague version spoken while ladies sip tea in the drawing room? Or the version exchanged in a smoke-filled room while men down copious amounts of port and brandy?”
A smile played on her lips. “One imagines the latter is closer to the truth.”
“Indeed, though not necessarily commentary fit for a lady’s ears.”
She laughed, and he found the sound infectious. “My lord, having spent the last eight years spying on my grandfather’s friends while at their card games, I learned enough about ladies’ talents in the bedchamber to make you blush. I suspect Mr Bellham’s escapades are mild in comparison.”
“No wonder my mother swooned upon hearing Lord Forsyth’s name. She is quite narrow-minded in her views. Little amuses her, and she is rigid when it comes to following society’s dictates.”
“She was not always so stern.”
Hugo frowned. “How would you know?”
Surprisingly, Miss Bennett was a little lost for words. “What I mean is something must have happened in her life to make her that way. A great disappointment or a terrible sadness. Rules enforced by overbearing parents.”
Marriage proved a crippling disappointment. Hugo could not recall a single time he’d seen Penelope de Wold laugh. Could not recall ever seeing her truly happy. It was one of the reasons he’d gone along with this foolish charade, hoping she might wake from the solemn, subdued mood and see how impossible it was for two incompatible people to forge an alliance.
“I’m the youngest of three children. The only one who survived infancy,” he said. “And a loveless marriage would certainly taint the spirit, which is why her insistence that I wed is quite baffling.”
Indeed, had her own miserable marriage taught her nothing?
“Then my heart grieves for her loss.” Miss Bennett sighed. “Perhaps she has been conditioned to believe in a system where wealth and status are placed above love and happiness. Perhaps it is too painful for her to admit she is wrong and so she forces her opinion because denial makes it easier to live with a broken heart.”
The rush of warmth in his chest came not from a moment of enlightenment, but from the sudden realisation that he liked spending time with Miss Bennett. He liked hearing her insightful opinions. He liked the way her lips moved when she spoke, the way her eyes kept him enthralled.
“Do you think it is ever appropriate for two people who aren’t in love to marry?”
Her quizzical expression stirred his blood just as much as her smile. “Never.”
“But what if two people are compatible in almost every regard?” Hell, he usually avoided talk of wedlock. “What if physical attraction is enough to send mercury shooting from a glass tube and yet it’s too soon to know if they might fall in love?” She’d admitted to finding him handsome. And by God, he would capture her mouth in a heartbeat.
Miss Bennett glanced down at her hands resting in her lap. “You refer to yourself, of course.” It was the first time she had spoken without looking him in the eye. “I only hope you’re not speaking of Miss Harper. Though I hate to think ill of anyone, I conceive she hasn’t a good bone in her body.”
“No, I am most definitely not speaking of Miss Harper.”
She looked up at him. “I see. Then my advice would be to spend more time together. Determine if it is possible for anything to grow beyond esteem and a respectful regard.”
“And how might I achieve that in a house full of guests, Miss Bennett?”
The lady pursed her lips again. She seemed a little shy, which only added to his fascination. “Well, I have an idea that might help you on both scores.”
“To determine if you have the capacity to love, my lord, and to give you an opportunity to probe the guests for information about Mr Bellham.”
“I am all ears, Miss Bennett.”
She shuffled around to face him, and their knees almost touched. “You should call everyone to the drawing room, explain that we’re stuck in this house and that Mr Bellham would want everyone to embrace the festive season. We will partake in the usual games. Good old traditions set to restore everyone’s faith and equilibrium.”
Hugo hummed. “And with the guests occupied, it would give us an opportunity to snoop around the bedchambers.”
“And you an opportunity to spend more time partaking in enjoyable activities with your potential brides.”
Oh, he could think of a perfect activity he might enjoy with the only woman he would ever consider meeting at the altar.
“Though I should warn you.” Miss Bennett placed her hand on his sleeve, sending a delicious shiver up his arm and across his shoulders. “The mere mention of merriment will send Miss Mason-Jones into a fit of hysterics.” She glanced at the door. “Might I trust you to keep a secret?”
After all that had happened last night, he was surprised she asked. “As we already share many secrets, Miss Bennett, you must know you can tell me anything.”
The lady bit down on her bottom lip—an attractive action that tugged at the muscles in his abdomen. “Miss Mason-Jones is in love with Mr Bellham. I suppose I should say was, but his death doesn’t change how she feels.”
“In love with Bellham?” Hugo experienced not the slightest disappointment at the news. “Then why the devil did she come to Wollaston and partake in this debacle?”
“Her mother insisted, although was too ill to make the journey. As you already know, your mother agreed to act as her chaperone.” Miss Bennett leaned closer, and he caught a whiff of an exotic scent, unlike anything he had smelled before. “Indeed, Mr Bellham made it quite clear that he had no intention of marrying Miss Mason-Jones, or anyone else for that matter.”
Hugo inhaled again and noted a hint of jasmine.
“From your sharp intake of breath, it is clear you suspect the worst,” she continued.
“What is that intoxicating perfume, Miss Bennett? I smell jasmine but cannot distinguish the other notes.”
Miss Bennett blinked. “My perfume?” She sniffed her wrist as if she had forgotten she even wore a scent. “Oh, it is jasmine, with citrus and a hint of some spice. It’s from Atkinsons, a gift from my grandfather.”
“It’s unusual and highly intriguing.” The aroma made a man want to press his lips to the column of her throat and nip the delicate skin. “Unique.”
She nodded. “Montague finds it amusing to tease me. He said jasmine is the flower of love and passion.” She laughed. “It is supposed to render the wearer irresistible.”
And Lord Forsyth was not wrong.
“Indeed.” Hugo blinked himself out of another erotic daydream. “Do you often refer to your grandfather by his given name?”
“I’m afraid he is rather unconventional and insists upon it.” She stared at him, no doubt waiting for a response to her earlier remark.
“Forgive me, what did you say about expecting the worst?”
She shuffled forward, and this time their knees did touch. “Mr Bellham gave Miss Mason-Jones every reason to believe he would offer for her, if you take my meaning.”
Purely because he wished to prolong this intimate tête-à-tête, he said, “He made certain promises?” Bellham’s only promises were spoken in the bedchamber.
A blush stained Miss Bennett’s cheeks. “I suppose you want me to spell it out. You are just as provoking as my grandfather. Mr Bellham bedded her, and she came here hoping for more of the same.”
Her frankness made him want to kiss her. “With the intention of persuading him to marry?”
“Of course. While I’ve heard it said many times that a lady finds pleasure in a gentleman’s bed, Miss Mason-Jones doesn’t strike me as the rampant sort.”
“Rampant?” Hugo couldn’t help but laugh. No woman would dare speak so openly in his company. Indeed, a man might find himself a little in love with anyone who did.
“This conversation is highly inappropriate, I know.”
“Yes, but highly informative. You have discovered Miss Mason-Jones’ motive for murder.”
Miss Bennett’s eyes grew wide. “A murder of passion? No. I cannot believe it. Indeed, you must not repeat what I’ve told you to a single soul. Not even Sir Ellis.”
“You have my word.”
No doubt her mind conjured images of Miss Mason-Jones as a beast in the guise of a timid mouse. But he didn’t care. He could sit comfortably with Miss Bennett despite the lack of conversation.
“There is something else,” she eventually said. “It’s utterly ludicrous, but I cannot keep it to myself a moment longer.”
Intrigued, he straightened. “Then don’t.”
Did she feel the connection, too? Was she just as shocked that an attraction had formed so quickly?
“Mr Bellham muttered a few other words last night, but I thought they were naught but the ramblings of a dying man.”
Disappointment flared. What had he expected? That she would stare into his eyes and say she wanted to kiss him, too? That she might suggest they partake in enjoyable pursuits to become better acquainted?
“What sort of words?”
She shook her head. “You will laugh.”
“See, I knew you would find it ridiculous.”
Hugo shrugged. “I merely wished to clarify what I heard.” He paused. “Have you any thoughts on the matter?”
She explained her observations, explained that every lady had something on their person that might have prompted Mr Bellham to offer the clue. “I think we can discount your mother, but we must not assume the other ladies are too weak to drive a blade into a man’s chest.”
“No, and while Northcott had ample opportunity to commit the crime, he has no motive that we know about.” A peer would need a damn good reason to murder a man. “You said Bellham mumbled other words.”
“Yes, but I cannot decide if he said jewels or Judas.”
“Judas would suggest a betrayal. Is there any better motive for murder?” Miss Mason-Jones had suffered for Bellham’s disloyalty, and there was nothing more dangerous than a woman scorned.
She glanced at the door once again. “Perhaps he meant jewels. Yesterday, Miss Harper wore a ruby brooch in the shape of a strawberry.”
Yes, he could imagine the spiteful wildcat exacting revenge on anyone who dared cross her path. “Though I loathe the fact we’re not observing a respectful day of mourning, we must do as you suggest and use the festive season as an excuse to probe further.” Bertie didn’t give a fig for propriety, but he would want his murderer brought to justice.
Hearing a whisper of conversation and the drum of footsteps descending the stairs, Hugo stood. “The other guests appear to have found the courage to venture from their bedchambers. I shall check on Bellham, and then we’re to distribute alms to the poor though I suggest only a few of us attempt the trek into the village.” He offered his hand and brought her to her feet. “Perhaps you’d like to ride out with me again.”
“I should like that very much, but one of us must remain here if we’ve any hope of learning anything from those who stay behind.”
An unexpected sense of desperation took hold. “There’ll be plenty of time to question them later this evening. After a few glasses of sherry, the ladies will be more forthcoming.” And over a bottle of port, Northcott’s opinions might flow a little more freely. “I expect Miss Harper will insist on coming into Upavon to demonstrate her skill in the saddle.”
“In that case, you should be firm in your decision regarding who should go. News of Mr Bellham’s murder might rouse fear amongst those in the village.”
“Sir Ellis will have alerted the coroner, and we should expect him at any time. News will spread quickly throughout the area then.”
“Hugo?” His mother’s voice captured his attention.
He stepped away from Miss Bennett just as his mother came gliding into the room.
Penelope de Wold looked different this morning. When it came to daywear, she preferred dull browns and muted purples. Yet today she wore turquoise sarcenet which greatly enhanced the hue of her vivid blue eyes. Gabrielle had fashioned the countess’ dark hair into an elegant coiffure that defined the jaw. The wisps of grey at her temples added an air of sophistication to the style.
“You look rather lively this morning, Mother.” Hugo may have been mistaken, but her spirits seemed lifted despite the tragic death of poor Bellham.
She patted her hair. “Oh, Gabrielle kept pestering about trying a new style from Paris. After the trauma of last night, I merely sought to appease the girl.”
“And you thought to apply rouge to your cheeks, too?”
His mother shook her head. “Give Gabrielle carte blanche with one’s appearance, and she takes liberties.”
“Turquoise suits you, Lady Denham,” Miss Bennett said. “Your complexion is positively glowing.”
“Such trifles are not the concern of mature ladies, Miss Bennett, but during trying times one must assume the appearance of cool equanimity.”
Miss Bennett smiled. “Well, I cannot sit here reading all day. If you will excuse me, I shall see if Miss Mason-Jones wishes to take tea in the drawing room.” She swept them a graceful curtsey and strolled from the room.
For some reason, Hugo mourned the loss of his companion. Life seemed less of a burden when conversing with Miss Bennett.
“What on earth are we to do, Hugo?” His mother drew him further into the library. “Everyone is so glum and morbid. I suppose we should lament the loss of Mr Bellham, though it hardly creates an atmosphere ripe for proposing marriage.”
“Good. As I have no intention of marrying any of the ladies you invited.”
Penelope de Wold huffed. “Must we go through this again? You should be grateful I’m offering you a choice. My father dragged me to church and forced me to marry your father without so much as a discussion. Of course, as a gentleman in possession of a vast fortune, it’s different for you. Still, you must take a wife, Hugo. Soon.”
“No one should have to suffer as you’ve done.” He suspected a part of her had died on that fateful day. A heavy sadness lay buried beneath her haughty facade. Even his father’s passing hadn’t lifted her from the doldrums. “Which is why I cannot abide by your request. I’m not remotely attracted to any of them.”
That wasn’t entirely true. He longed to kiss Miss Bennett.
His mother patted him on the arm. “Let’s see what tomorrow brings. Christmas is a time to assess what’s important, to prepare for new beginnings.”
“It’s a time to give thanks, Mother, not hurl oneself into the fiery pits of hell.” He straightened. “Now, due to the severe conditions outside, I suggest only a few of us distribute alms in the village. I shall take Flanders and Miss Bennett and head out after luncheon. Upon our return, we shall all gather in the drawing room and partake in amusements to lift our spirits.”
The countess blinked. “Why not take Miss Harper? She might welcome—”
“Because Miss Harper hasn’t a benevolent bone in her body.”
“Piffle. Take Miss Pardue, then.”
“She’s liable to rouse the women to riot.”
The matron frowned. “Must it be Miss Bennett? I might even prefer Miss Venables. Montague Forsyth is a most unreliable gentleman. Reckless and capricious. Surely some of that has been passed to his offspring.”
“I’ll take Miss Bennett, or I’ll take no one.”
There was a truth to his determined words that held him rigid. While they were discussing a simple trip to the village, he found the statement to be true in every regard. If there should be dancing, he would choose Miss Bennett as his partner. Miss Bennett could take his arm to dinner. Sod etiquette. If he were to kiss anyone under the mistletoe, he would kiss Miss Bennett, kiss her until all the berries were gone.
As soon as Lara entered the drawing room later that evening, all eyes were upon her. None more so than Lord Denham’s, who stared at her more frequently with each passing hour. The heat in those beguiling blue eyes sent her stomach flipping. Her insides turned to molten fire whenever their arms touched. Lord, she might combust the next time he placed a guiding hand on her back—and he seemed to do that rather often, too. The ache in her core was impossible to ignore. It was the reason she’d rode her own horse on the short journey to Upavon. The feel of his muscular thighs holding her captive was too much to bear.
The Earl of Denham was a most enthralling gentleman. Amusing, generous and respectful to those in the village who struggled more so at this time of year. The tenants had swarmed around him in a sea of untold gratitude. He rewarded their thanks by showing an interest in their families. Had Mr Hughes fixed the leak in his barn before the snowstorm struck? Was Mrs Parson’s mother still suffering from a fever? Lara understood why they gravitated towards the handsome lord. Indeed, his magnetism tugged at her insides as if she were attached to him by an invisible thread.
No wonder the ladies at Wollaston Hall had snapped at each other during afternoon tea. Miss Harper moved seats twice just to sit next to the earl. Numerous times, she patted his knee and laughed, although he had said nothing remotely amusing. Miss Pardue called the lady out for her ridiculous efforts at flirtation and bemoaned the weakness of women who manipulated men with their bodies, not their minds.
Lord Flanders had sidled next to Lara and informed her that he found her appealing on all counts. Much to the annoyance of Lord Denham, who cast his friend an irate glare.
But now, due to her grandfather’s sly intervention, the guests had every reason to gape. Who else would have stolen her beloved green gown from her valise and replaced it with a new one? Not just any gown, but one in sumptuous red silk with a scandalously fitted bodice that drew every man’s eye. It had to be Montague’s doing. No doubt he had made the switch before she’d left him in Netheravon.
The earl prowled towards her with sleek strides. Twice his gaze dropped to the swell of her breasts. Twice he inhaled deeply.
Drat! A fire in her stomach ignited. “My lord.”
“Miss Bennett.” His eyes burned hot. When he offered a bow, he stole another furtive glance at her décolletage. “Might I say how remarkable you look in red?” A wicked smile played on his lips. “So remarkable I can barely tear my gaze away.”
“Red is not my usual choice,” she said, that being the only truthful comment she could make on the matter. “Indeed, had I known the modiste had taken the neckline a little lower, I might have packed a fichu.”
“Then I am rather thankful for your lack of foresight.”
She found his honesty refreshing. “Are you always so free with your opinions?”
“Only with you.”
The implied intimacy of his words sent her pulse racing. They were on dangerous ground. The surrounding air vibrated with a passion she had sensed only once in her life. Whenever Phineas and Clara Bennett entered a room, the atmosphere thrummed intensely. Not that this was the same. How could it be?
“You mean I am not a vulture out to peck every last morsel of meat from your bones?” she said with a light laugh.
“I mean I feel connected to you in a way I have never felt with another.”
Heavens, he was as skilled at being direct as he was most things. Should she say she held him in the same high regard? “At present, you look as if you wish to ravish me, my lord. I imagine this is not the first time you’ve been possessed with lustful desires.” To preserve one’s heart, it was often better to tease than confess.
He bent his head, sending a waft of spicy cologne to her nostrils. “It’s the first time my mind is as aroused as my body, Miss Bennett.”
“This is hardly a conversation to have in the drawing room,” she said, fighting the urge to touch him. “Are we not here to solve a mystery just as puzzling as our unexpected attraction?”
“Perhaps we’re here to solve both conundrums.”
Lara glanced at the mantel clock—practically hidden behind the evergreen boughs—as it struck six. Soon, a third problem would present itself. One set to test the countess’ nerves as much as Mr Bellham’s murder.
Lady Denham had taken to ignoring the conversation of those ladies on the sofa and had fixed her curious gaze upon them.
“Then let us begin by trying to establish a motive for murder,” Lara whispered, “and leave any personal exploration for a more appropriate time.”
“This year the mistletoe has an abundance of berries.” The earl motioned to the large sprig of glossy green leaves fastened with a red ribbon and hanging near the doorway. “A man might claim a kiss for each one.”
Lara laughed. “Do you honestly think Miss Harper will let you escape without claiming a handful herself?”
The earl’s smile faded. “Then pray for rain, Miss Bennett, so they might all leave. I despise entertaining guests. Present company excepted.”
She didn’t have the heart to warn him he might expect another guest soon. And Miss Harper had taken to the pianoforte to display her only commendable skill as a woman. Indeed, she played extremely well and knew it. Whenever she looked up from her sheet music, her arrogant gaze grabbed the earl in a possessive clinch and didn’t let go.
When the lady finished her recital, everyone clapped. Miss Harper rose from the stool like a queen from her throne. After accepting a compliment from Lord Flanders, she sauntered over to the earl.
“You play well, Miss Harper,” the earl said with cool indifference.
The lady smiled in the inflated way of one obsessed with their own superiority. “I had the very best tutor, my lord, Augustine Mendoza. You must have heard of him. Of course, I have a natural ability to interpret music, one he’d rarely encountered in a student.”
“Augustine Mendoza,” the earl mused as Miss Pardue strolled over to join them. “No, I cannot say that I have. But then music is not considered a sensible pursuit for men who sit in the House of Lords.”
“And law is not considered a sensible pursuit for ladies whose responsibility it is to birth future generations,” Miss Pardue mocked.
“Your tutor is highly acclaimed across Europe, Miss Harper,” Lara said, aware of the maestro’s talent. “My parents once dined with the British ambassador to Naples, and Augustine Mendoza sat next to my mother. She loved music and spoke about it for months afterwards.”
The corners of Miss Harper’s mouth twitched. “Do you play, Miss Bennett?” The question carried a