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Authors: Sara Bennett

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BOOK: Sin With a Scoundrel: The Husband Hunters Club
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Chapter 27

R
ichard hastily washed and changed. He couldn’t remember ever being caught out like this and felt slightly ridiculous, but he only had to remember Tina in his arms, and he knew being with her was worth any small embarrassment he might be experiencing right now.

Did he really mean to make his future with her?

When the words had come spilling from his mouth he’d wondered whether he was losing his mind, but they had seemed so right. His life had been full of nothing but his work with the Guardians and the search for Anthony’s killer—he’d been driven and hadn’t had time for anything else—but now suddenly he was imagining what it would be like to have more. A woman and one day children—most men his age were already burdened by several of the little blighters. He could call his first son Anthony, after his brother.

Recently he’d realized how rarely he had a conversation that wasn’t related to his job. Now he imagined discussing the mundane with Tina, lounging by the fire with her sitting on his lap while they dreamed of their future. Sharing things that might seem boring to others but were intimate and special to them.

Blast it, he wanted to marry her!

All this time he’d been looking around—not very hard he had to admit—for the perfect partner for Tina, and no one had come up to the mark. Well, of course not. Obviously, in his heart, he’d meant her for himself all along, and it’d just taken some time for his intellect to catch up.

“Brown jacket, sir? Or the gray?”

Archie was being very disapproving. He’d probably been talking with Maria, and they’d decided he was a wicked seducer.

Richard pointed to the brown jacket. Archie held it out and silently assisted him into it. As Archie turned to put away the other jacket Richard noticed a mark on his valet’s neck, just above his collar. To one of Richard’s experience it was unmistakable.

He smiled.

“Seen Maria, Archie?”

His manservant raised a supercilious eyebrow. “I beg your pardon, sir?”

“Not my business, eh?” Richard guessed, straightening his sleeves with sharp tugs. “If you don’t want people to know you are seeing Maria, you might want to wear a higher collar,” he said with a grin, and strode to the door, leaving Archie fumbling at his clothing and peering at his reflection in the mirror.

Feeling more like his old self, Richard made his way to Sir Henry’s rooms to make sure all had gone to plan. Will Jackson was outside the door, awaiting Lord Horace Gilfoyle, who was the last of the shooters to be questioned and had inexplicably gone off somewhere.

“Any possibilities yet?”

“Not really. There was one thing. Mr. Branson said something odd, about Sir Henry’s deserving to be brought down a peg or two. If I didn’t know better, I’d almost believe he was glad Sir Henry was shot.”

Richard nodded, thoughtful. “He’s an odd chap. Seems to resent Sir Henry’s occupying the house that used to belong to him. Well, I suppose we can understand it, but why accept an invitation from a man he hates?”

“Unless he wanted to see him ‘brought down a peg or two,’ ” Will quoted.

“Yes, good point. You’d better go find Lord Horace and see what he has to say,” said Richard. “Then we can begin to put it all together.”

“A
nd who did you see nearby when Sir Henry was shot?”

Horace held up his hands and counted on his fingers. “I saw Charles Smythe, John Little, Richard Eversham, Sir Henry of course, and a couple of local chaps he was employing as gamekeepers, whose names escape me. I didn’t see you.” He looked smug.

Will was writing down the names. So far no two witnesses remembered the scene in the same way although there were some consistencies. He sighed and put down his pen. “Thank you, Lord Horace. I think we’re finished here for now.”

After Horace had left, Will looked over the list in front of him. There was one man whose name had been missing from all of the accounts, and now here it was again. Mr. Branson. Lord Horace hadn’t mentioned seeing him, but then he’d made a point of saying Will himself wasn’t there, and Will definitely had been.

Will shuffled back through the statements, looking for Branson’s. Yes, here it was. He glanced over it. Branson claimed to have seen everyone else in the shooting party and, according to him, he’d never been apart from them at any stage.

So why hadn’t they seen him?

T
he sun was streaming in the window when Tina woke again, to the smell of tea and toast as Maria put a tray down on the side table.

“Oh, Maria, what time is it?”

“It’s eleven o’clock, miss. Most of the ladies are having a late breakfast after the ball last night although Miss Allsop was asking for you.”

“Margaret? Oh Lord, now what? First it was Mr. Little, and now Mr. Freer. Perhaps she’s found a new man.”

Maria ignored her levity. “Lady Isabelle is celebrating Sir Henry’s recovery and is planning an afternoon tea on the terrace.”

“Will Signor Veruda be singing?” Tina asked, remembering the scene she’d been a witness to last night.

“I think Signor Veruda has gone. I saw him with all his bags on the carriageway this morning waiting for his coach.”

So Lady Isabelle had made her choice between love and duty. Duty, was that what marriage was all about?

Richard had spoken of the possibility of marriage last night although he hadn’t actually said the word “marriage.”
Secure your future,
he’d said, or some such thing.
If that is what you want
.

Well Tina wasn’t sure she wanted to marry anyone just now. The thought of being at someone else’s beck and call, being obliged to act in a manner that wasn’t to her liking, well, suddenly she didn’t want to do it. She’d escaped Horace—imagine being married to him with all those other women!—and she wasn’t keen to consider stepping up to the altar again. Did that make her improper?

Tina smiled to herself.

She was beginning to like being improper. What was the point in being a perfectly behaved lady when she was poor? Surely the best part of being poor was doing exactly as one pleased. She’d heard that the lower classes lived their lives to a different set of rules than everyone else, and Tina was beginning to think she might enjoy that.

She stretched and yawned. “I must get up and dress. Everyone will think I’m a slugabed.”

“I’m quite sure they all think you’re a well-brought-up young lady, miss, who behaves just as her parents would wish.”

The tone of disapproval was obvious.

“You won’t tell, will you, Maria?”

Maria lost her starchy attitude and sighed. “No, miss.”

“Then no one else will ever know.”

“Take care, Miss Tina. Mr. Eversham may not be quite as he seems.”

Tina sat up. “Of course he is as he seems. He’s perfect. I wonder if Charles has proposed to Anne yet. Wouldn’t that be wonderful! Unless her parents refuse the banns when they find out just how badly in debt we are.”

Maria gave her a doubtful look. “Are you in debt, miss?”

Tina grimaced. “Yes, we are. Surely you’ve noticed? You must have, all the darning and patching you’ve been doing lately. And all those pigs’ trotters for supper, ugh. Can you marry Archie immediately? At least then we won’t have to give you notice, Maria, when we get home. If we have a home.”

Maria had paled. “It is that bad, miss? I knew . . . that is, I was aware, of course, but not how serious it had become.”

“Now you see why I am a little reckless suddenly, Maria. I had hoped to marry Horace and save us all, but that has gone terribly wrong, so I have decided to enjoy myself as much as I can before I have to take some dreadful position as a companion or a governess. I suppose my education at Miss Debenham’s will help with that. Someone will snap me up, you wait and see.”

Even to herself, she sounded breathless and overwrought.

“If they find out about last night, miss, no one will snap you up.”

Tina waved a hand. “Nonsense. That will never come out. You wait and see, Maria, all will be well.”

Maria wished she shared her young mistress’s optimism. She’d been worried about Tina’s plans to marry Horace, knowing what sort of man he was, but now those worries seemed minor in comparison. Richard Eversham! According to Archie he was a dangerous man who led a dangerous life. She could not help but fret for any woman who fell under his spell. Perfect, indeed!

Miss Tina must be told, but telling her would mean breaking her promise to Archie. Maria was in a bind.

Archie would forgive her, of course he would, especially after last night. Wouldn’t he?

Miss Tina’s life was at stake here, and Maria had cared for the girl for too long to see her hurt because of something she failed to do. She could never live with herself if anything happened to her young mistress.

R
ichard had hoped to seek out Tina, but he found himself busy with the statements Will had taken from the shooters, as well as soothing Sir Henry’s frustration at their lack of progress.

At one point he happened to glance out of the window and saw her in the garden. She was wearing a dark blue muslin dress and a straw hat with a matching ribbon. She also carried a parasol to protect her skin, although—and Richard smiled to himself—he’d detected a hint of gold to her complexion last night, so perhaps the parasol wasn’t working very well.

His smile faded.

She was walking with her brother and Anne Burgess, but Gilfoyle was lurking behind them.

He kept thinking it was madness to consider marrying her—even if she’d have him—not before he’d found Anthony’s killer and kept his promise to his dead brother. But he couldn’t let her go. What if Gilfoyle got hold of her, promised her his fortune to help her family? She’d feel obliged to agree. No, he mustn’t let that happen. And he might have the Captain in his grasp today. Tomorrow? But then again he’d been hoping that for two years now. How long would Tina wait for him? She was young, beautiful, and he couldn’t expect her to believe in him and be patient forever.

And speaking of being patient . . . Richard wondered how long he could hold back from the ultimate act of physical pleasure. Last night had been exceptional, even for a man as experienced as he, but because of that experience he knew his limitations. One night he would lose control, and then . . . For her sake, he couldn’t risk the scandal of a pregnancy. He would have to marry her and set aside his promise.

The promise that had meant so much to him, that had directed the course of his life for two years.

Anthony’s face rose before him as he’d last seen it, but Richard dismissed it with a shake of his head and turned back into the room, where Will and Sir Henry were frowning over a mass of papers spread across the latter’s desk.

“I can’t believe it,” Sir Henry growled. He’d thrown a brightly colored robe over his night attire, but his skin was yellowish, his cheeks appeared sunken from his brush with death, and his mustache was untrimmed. The wound on his head was covered by a thick bandage, which only added to his disreputable appearance.

“I know Branson is a miserable old bugger, but would he attempt to shoot me? I can’t believe it.”

“He’s the main suspect,” Will said stubbornly. “I think we need to talk to him again.”

Sir Henry continued to shake his head in disbelief.

“What about Little or Gilfoyle?” Richard interrupted. “Did you find anything in either of their stories to make you doubt their word?”

Will shook his head. “They were where they said they were. Too many people saw them, even allowing for confusion.”

“This Captain chap is clever,” Sir Henry mused, “too clever to fire off a shot. I just don’t believe he’d do something to draw attention to himself.”

It was what Richard had thought all along.

“Get Branson in,” Richard instructed Will. “If he’s the one who shot Sir Henry, we need to break him.”

And if they did it quickly enough, then perhaps Richard could spend some time with Tina.

Chapter 28

A
nne and Charles were strolling alongside the river, and Tina dropped behind to give them some privacy. The way Charles hardly took his eyes off Anne made her wonder if at last he was about to propose; she just wished he’d get on with it. At that point Horace, somewhat to her alarm, joined them.

“Not too warm for you, Tina?” he said, adjusting the tilt of her parasol with a frown. “This weather can’t last much longer.”

Tina hoped he was wrong. Her time at Arlington Hall had been something she would never forget, and when she let her memory wander back along these paths, it was to a backdrop of blue skies and sunshine. Perfect days without a hint of rain.

As they walked she found herself relaxing in his company, returning to the way she used to feel long ago, when they were friends, and before she made her husband-hunting plans. Perhaps it was her own fault everything had changed, and she couldn’t entirely blame Horace.

“Do you think we can be friends again, Tina?” he said, as if he’d read her mind. “I miss our friendship.”

Tina met his blue eyes. He was a handsome man, but his good looks left her unmoved. She knew now she’d never marry him, even if he asked, but that did not mean they could not still be friends.

“I hope we can,” she said.

“I haven’t been quite myself these past days. I don’t know what got into me, but I’m sorry if I’ve caused you any upset. We’ve been friends for so long, and I don’t want to lose you.”

He sounded sincere, and she was touched. She reached out to take his hand, squeezing it warmly. “I don’t want to lose you either, Horace. We are almost like brother and sister.”

Something in his eyes told her that wasn’t quite what he wanted to hear, but he smiled anyway and returned the pressure on her hand.

“Can I confide in you, Tina? I want you to understand the reason I haven’t been quite myself. I met a woman, a married woman.” He grimaced at her shocked expression. “I suppose this isn’t the sort of thing I should be telling you, but I want you to understand. I visited her several times while her husband was away, and then she came to see me. Do you remember the night of my soiree?”

Tina remembered only too well. That was the night she tried to make Horace notice her by behaving rather recklessly, and the same night she had drunk too much champagne and met Mr. Little. There had been a moment when Horace
had
seemed uncharacteristically upset, now she came to think of it.

“She came to tell me that she was having a child. My child. She had barely left my house when I had to go and play host and pretend nothing was wrong.”

Tina’s eyes grew big. “You have a child, Horace?”

“Yes.” He sighed. “But I will never see him—I think of it as a son. She’s made that plain.”

“Do you want to see him?” Tina said curiously. Horace a father? Well, stranger things had happened.

“At first I didn’t but now . . . Well, it is my own fault, I suppose, that I have been separated from him. I’ve learned my lesson.”

Had he? Somehow Tina doubted that Horace would ever change. Her temptation to tell him all about her own problems faded. What was the point in sharing disasters? Horace must sort out his own life, and so must she, and besides, she didn’t want to dwell on that today. She wanted to enjoy herself before it was time to leave tomorrow.

One more day of freedom. One more day of Richard.

Before she faced the bleak reality of her situation.

Charles and Anne had stopped and were watching as Lady Isabelle directed some servants to wheel the bathing machine out into the river. She noticed them, and called, “If anyone wants to bathe, there are costumes in the pavilion. Do give it a try, it is very invigorating.”

Horace shuddered, but Margaret Allsop and her American beau had paused to watch, too, and he was encouraging her to join him in the water. In no time they were splashing about, teeth gritted, and when Margaret climbed out she looked blue. The ever-attentive Joseph Freer bundled her up in a blanket.

“You aren’t bathing, Miss Smythe?” It was Mr. Little, who had been standing behind her, also observing the happy couple. His smile appeared genuine enough, as if Margaret’s fickle heart did not bother him one bit, but Tina could not help but wonder if it was a veneer. Surely any man would be wounded to see the woman he’d begun to think was his own enjoying herself with another.

“No, Mr. Little, but what of you? Do you like to bathe?”

He shook his head, his gaze drifting back to Margaret and Mr. Freer, as if he couldn’t help himself. “I knew a fellow once, went bathing when the water was too cold and became cramped. He drowned.”

He said it with such relish, as if he was wishing the same fate upon the American. Tina was glad when Horace offered her his arm again, and they began the slow stroll up through the garden toward the terrace, where afternoon tea was awaiting them.

L
ady Isabelle had excelled herself, and if her color was a little high and her eyes a little bright, Tina felt she could be forgiven her show of emotion. Sir Henry was there, too, as the guest of honor, seated in a large, comfortable chair that had been carried out of his library for the occasion. Although he looked drawn, and his head was still bandaged, he was chatting freely with his guests and accepting their congratulations on his recovery.

“Marvelous to see him up and about,” Lady Isabelle declared, reaching for his hand and lifting it to her lips. Tears sparkled in her eyes. “I don’t know what I would have done if he’d . . . Well, I shall not go there.”

Sir Henry gave her an adoring smile. “I hope I may be around for a good many years yet, my dear. Perhaps we can go on that trip to the Continent you’re always banging on about. Our very own Grand Tour.”

“To Italy to see Signor Veruda,” Horace whispered in Tina’s ear.

She gave him a warning glance and moved away from him, only to find herself within range of Mr. Little. Not wanting to speak with him either she slipped through the guests toward the steps that led down from the terrace into the garden.

A warm breeze had sprung up, and with it a few clouds to cover the sun. If anyone asked her where she was going, she could say she’d forgotten her shawl and was going to fetch it. With a smile she reached up and removed the scrap of paper from inside her bodice. The note had been delivered to her by Archie a moment ago, and now she read it with a thrill of excitement.

Meet me at the folly,

R

The folly was an Italianate building on a man-made hill, designed by Lady Isabelle. Tina had not visited it before, and Lady Isabelle had not encouraged her guests to do so, saying it was being repaired. Now she quickened her step, wending her way through the shrub borders and flower gardens, toward the white columns she could see through the trees on the rise above her.

Eventually she was able to see the folly in its entirety; the circular building with its outer shell of columns seemed to float above her like an ancient temple. There were several low steps, also constructed in a circle, leading up to it. When she reached the top she saw that it was actually like a large open room, with bright cushions and furnishings. A place to relax and contemplate the garden, perhaps.

Or a place to make love.

Was that why Lady Isabelle had discouraged them from coming here? Was it her own personal hideaway?

Someone had left a sketch pad and pencil upon a table, and Tina flipped through the drawings, recognizing Vincenzo Veruda in varying stages of undress. She dropped the pages, and they scattered onto the floor.

“What is it?”

Richard had come up behind her without her hearing him—he was good at that—but she was so glad to see him that she didn’t mind. For a moment she simply smiled at him, enjoying the moment, but as she moved toward him, her foot sent one of the pages sailing across the marble floor.

Richard bent to retrieve it.

“Good God,” he muttered, when he saw what it was.

“This must have been their special place,” Tina said, glancing about, feeling a hint of sadness. “Where they had their trysts.”

“At least the signor has gone, and for now Sir Henry can have his wife back.”

Tina gave him a curious look. “You make it sound as if it is a story you have heard before.”

“I have. I’m afraid Lady Isabelle is not a faithful wife, Tina. Signor Veruda was just one in a long line of lovers she has chosen to bestow her favors upon.”

Tina put a hand to her heart. “But that is awful! Does Sir Henry know?”

“Of course he does.”

“And yet he condones it?”

“He loves her, so he puts up with it.”

Tina shook her head. “I can’t imagine it, Richard. I would not put up with it. Marriage . . . love . . . they are forever. That is one thing your lessons have taught me. While I was learning how to pretend to love, I discovered I would never be very good at pretending, not for long. One should choose a partner carefully, and if one is not sure, then one should say no.”

He touched her cheek gently, and smiled. “That is good. Do not lose that, my dearest.”

But his reaction wasn’t what she wanted. He was treating her like a silly innocent, and Tina was neither. She might be young, but she had grown up a great deal lately, and now that she’d formed her opinion she didn’t believe she would change it.

The heart, once given, would be given forever.

Behind her Richard was still speaking. “My brother was married to a woman who was unfaithful to him.” She heard him crumpling up Lady Isabelle’s sketches, one by one. “He never knew, but others did. They looked upon him like a fool, a dupe. I cannot forgive that. He did not deserve that.”

“I’m sorry.”

Richard threw the crumpled pages into a pile on the floor and wiped his hands on his trousers, as if he felt soiled. Tina realized that it mattered to him, too, that loving someone, marrying someone, was a serious business to Richard Eversham. Not something he would take on lightly.

Remembering his words from last night, she wondered if that was how he felt about her. Did he really want to spend the rest of his life with her? But surely, if he did, he wouldn’t let this promise, whatever it was, get in the way.
Men,
she thought with a touch of scorn.
Why did they have to complicate everything?

“I’ll be leaving in the morning,” she told him, watching him carefully, but he didn’t react. “Charles and I will be going back to Mallory Street . . . or wherever we are to live. I’m sorry I won’t be able to pay you for your lessons, Richard.”

“I didn’t want to be paid; well, only if you succeeded in capturing Gilfoyle. Remember? That was our bargain. And frankly I was hoping you would fail.”

Tina smiled—that was better. “The strange thing is that now I don’t want him, Horace suddenly seems to be finding me fascinating. But I know I would be miserable with him. I’m sorry to disappoint my parents, but actually in an odd sort of way I’m looking forward to being poor.”

He laughed. “Tina, do you have any idea what being poor means?”

She pursed her lips, pretending to be serious. “I will have to dress myself and fetch my own breakfast, I suppose.”

“Minx,” he growled, and came toward her.

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