Authors: Nicola Cornick
I am thrilled and honored to be a part of the launch of Harlequin’s exciting new e-book program UNDONE! In my Regency tale, The Unmasking of Lady Loveless, I have written a special short story for you that I hope you find fun and very, very sexy!
Welcome to Christmas in my favorite Yorkshire village of Peacock Oak, where a mysterious author is outraging the Ton with her wicked, erotic novels! Who is the shocking Lady Loveless? Her unmasking is going to be sensual, romantic and very scandalous…
For Sarah Morgan and Kate Hardy
with thanks for their advice on the many uses of the quill pen.
became fascinated by history when she was a child and spent hours poring over historical novels and watching costume drama. She still does! She has worked in a variety of jobs, from serving refreshments on a steam train to arranging university graduation ceremonies. When she is not writing she enjoys walking in the English countryside, taking her husband, dog and even her cats with her. Nicola loves to hear from readers and can be contacted via her Web site at www.nicolacornick.co.uk
London, December 1806—three weeks before Christmas
When Lord Alexander Beaumont entered Whites that night the entire room fell silent. No man would meet his eyes; their gazes slid away to study the pattern on the carpet or the brandy in their glasses. Throats were cleared, cuffs inspected with startling intensity.
“Gentlemen?” He raised one quizzical dark brow. “Would anyone care to enlighten me as to what is wrong?”
There was silence.
“Charles?” he prompted.
“Devil take it, Alex,” his friend Charles Wheeler complained, “I knew you would ask me.”
“That’s what friends are for, Charles,” Alex said smoothly. “Well?”
Charles stood up. He loosened his neck cloth, palpably ill at ease. “Don’t know where to start, old fellow.”
“Try the beginning,” Alex advised.
“Good luck, Charlie,” someone said sotto voce.
“It’s Lady Melicent,” Wheeler blurted out. “Your wife.”
spoke to Lord Alexander Robert Jon Beaumont about his wife.
“Thank you, Charles,” Alex said. “We may have been apart for a couple of years now, but I am still aware who Melicent is.”
Wheeler winced. Several men drew in their breath in sympathy.
“She’s…She’s written a book,” Wheeler said. “Several books. This is the most recent.” He grabbed a slim tome from the hands of a man at a nearby table and handed it to Alex.
“Steady on, Charlie,” the man protested. “I was enjoying that!”
“Bentley…” Wheeler said in a warning tone. The man’s eyes flickered to Alex’s hard face and he fell silent.
“‘The Adventures of a Woman of Pleasure by Lady Loveless.’” Alex read the gold lettering aloud. He flicked open the book.
“‘Being naked and laid open to him kindled so great a rapture in her that she lay in wanton pleasure waiting for him to plunge his huge—’”
A great harrumphing and clearing of throats followed. Alex closed the book softly and looked at his friend. “You are claiming that Melicent,
, is this Lady…Loveless?”
“Yes! Don’t call me out,” Wheeler added as Alex took a purposeful step toward him, murder in his eyes. “Bentley bribed the publisher and found out that the manuscripts are sent from someone called Mrs. Durham, from Peacock Oak in Yorkshire….” He made a pleading gesture. “You know that was Lady Melicent’s maiden name and that she resides there now.” He shook his head. “She has to be stopped, Alex. She bases the characters in her books on members of the
and they are too accurately portrayed for comfort.” He gestured to Bentley again. “Will’s betrothal to Miss Flynn was ruined because there is a scene in the book where a character called Bill Gentley ravishes an actress in a box at the theater during a performance!”
“We all know that happened,” Alex said dryly.
“That isn’t the point!” Bentley piped up.
“Bentley lost an heiress worth sixty thousand,” Wheeler said. “Lady Loveless’s sources are impeccable. Which is why she has to be stopped.”
Alex tapped the book thoughtfully against the palm of his hand. “She will be.”
“What are you going to do?” Wheeler asked.
“I am going to Yorkshire,” Alex said. He smiled at the look of horror on his friend’s face. “No need to fear, Charles—it is the north of England, not the North Pole.”
“Yorkshire in winter,” Wheeler spluttered.
“Yes,” Alex said, “and I will take this with me.” He raised the book, and the candlelight gleamed on the gold-lettered name, Lady Loveless, on the cover. “It will prove useful…for research purposes.”
“Devil take it, Alex,” Bentley called, “I was reading that!” But he spoke to thin air.
Lady Loveless indeed.
How very apt for his estranged wife.
Out in the street it was snowing, tiny flakes on the edge of a cold east wind. Alex turned up the collar of his coat, refused the offer of either a hackney carriage or a sedan chair, and set off down the dark streets toward Cavendish Square. Almost he relished the idea of a run-in with a pickpocket or thief. It would at least relieve some of his anger and frustration.
The wind stung his face. He felt cold inside as well, his heart shriveled, encased in ice.
. He thought of his bride on their wedding day. They had met for the first time a mere week before. Melicent had been a gangly debutante in her first season, with long conker-brown hair and huge brown eyes. She had been impossibly shy and seductively innocent. Even though Alex had been furious to be forced into marriage by his father, the Duke of Beaumont, he had tried not to blame Melicent.
He had been attentive to her throughout the wedding breakfast, trying to draw her out, thwarted by her reserve. Later that night he had consummated his marriage, treating his young wife with gentleness and patience, but the encounter had not been a success, for she had lain as still and cold as a statue and he felt unfulfilled and empty afterward. A few more unsatisfactory couplings had followed, but after a fortnight or so he had not sought her bed or her company any longer. Running the Beaumont estates had kept him fully occupied; they were both wife and mistress to him. He needed nothing more.
Occasionally he would appear at balls to squire Melicent in a dance or two. His mother insisted on it and it silenced the gossips and his own guilty conscience. He and his wife had never spoken of their unsatisfactory marriage. It could not be said that the two of them had drifted apart, he thought now, for they had never come together in the first place.
He was sure that no one, least of all Melicent, had guessed at the fury that had burned him up inside. She would have had no notion of the frustration and rage engendered by the threats the Duke of Beaumont had used to force his younger son into marriage. Alex’s father had wanted to ensure the succession and he had known that his heir, Alex’s elder brother, Henry, with his preference for men, would never marry. The duke had therefore blackmailed Alex, threatening to deny him the right to run the Beaumont estates if he did not wed. Alex had loved Beaumont with a passion from the moment he was born. The lands and the people were his life. He was the only one in the family who cared a rush for them. His father could not have chosen a more effective weapon.
The weight of the book in Alex’s pocket brought his thoughts back to Melicent and reminded him that she might have been an untutored virgin when first they had married, but that she had certainly gained some experience from somewhere—
—in the meantime. The anger kindled in him once again. How could Melicent, with her sweet, honest eyes, her generous smile and her patent innocence, have become Lady Loveless, the shameless purveyor of erotic literature? It seemed impossible.
They had been married for two years and it was a month after the Duke of Beaumont’s death when Melicent had told him that she was going to Yorkshire to care for her mother and that she would be staying indefinitely. Her own father had died the previous year, her mother was an invalid and Melicent’s feckless young brother Aloysius was running wild.
They had quarreled for the first time in a married life previously marked by indifference. Alex had forbidden her to go. He could see now that he had been driven by pride; it was one thing for him to treat Melicent with careless unconcern, but quite another matter for her to defy him. And she
“You don’t want me!” she had said bitterly, her belongings scattered about her as she hastily packed a portmanteau. “You have never needed me. Mama does.”
He had not heard another word from her in two years.
would be hearing from
. He would go to Yorkshire and confront his errant wife. He paused. No. He would go to Yorkshire and
his errant wife according to the style laid down by Lady Loveless. He would expose her for the wanton she must surely be.
Peacock Oak, Yorkshire—two weeks before Christmas
Lady Melicent Beaumont put down her pen and rested her chin on the palm of her hand. It was impossible to concentrate when she could hear her mother’s querulous tones floating down from the room above:
“I want Melicent! Where is she? And where is the doctor? I told you to send for him hours ago! I feel as sick as a cushion, and if he does not come soon I am like to perish here and now in my bed! No, do not build the fire any higher, you foolish woman! It is far too hot in here and is positively smothering me—”
Melicent sighed. She could not have blamed Mrs. Lubbock very much if she was tempted to take the pillow and squash it firmly over her mother’s face. Mrs. Durham, a hypochondriac whose imaginary illnesses were always so much worse than anyone else’s, had taken to her bed when Melicent’s father had died and she had made everyone dance attendance on her ever since. It had taken Melicent only a few short weeks to realize that her mother was a tyrant. Unfortunately by then it was too late to turn back. After her last, dreadful quarrel with her husband she would not, could not, creep back to London with her tail between her legs. And so she was trapped here in Peacock Oak, in the little grace-and-favor house provided by a distant cousin, the Duchess of Cole; trapped in this drab existence with her ghastly mother and her idle brother and a very long-suffering servant.
“Miss Melicent is working, ma’am,” she heard Mrs. Lubbock say with stolid patience. The housekeeper was a treasure, unflappable and fortunately impervious to insult. “She has sent for the doctor—”
“I will not see him!” Mrs. Durham was becoming shrill. Melicent sighed.
She reread the lines she had just written.
“‘Borwick Hall is built in late seventeenth-century style with decorative plasterwork in the drawing-room….’”
She sighed again. The style was very dry. Mr. Foster, the antiquarian for whom she worked, disliked flowery language in his architectural guides, and so her prose was dull enough to send even the most devoted country house visitor to sleep.
Mrs. Lubbock’s heavy tread sounded on the stair and then the housekeeper knocked softly on the door of the study.
“Begging your pardon, Miss Melicent, but your mama is refusing to see the physician. I sent for Dr. Abbott, but he is out on a call and his wife said she would send his nephew, who is here to help him over Christmas, it being the time that many people fancy themselves ill, so Mrs. Abbott says…”
Mrs. Durham’s bell rang sharply, simultaneous with the heavy knocker sounding on the front door. A wail came from upstairs:
“Lubbock, where are you?”
Melicent rubbed her eyes. They felt tired and gritty from writing in the afternoon’s gray winter light. She really should have lit a candle, except that candles were expensive and she could not afford the luxury.
The knocker sounded again. Evidently the doctor’s nephew was an impatient man.
Mrs. Durham’s wailings intensified.
“Please go up to Mama, Mrs. Lubbock, and see if you may calm her,” Melicent said wearily. “I shall explain to the new doctor that Mama cannot see him at present. I expect that Dr. Abbott warned him of Mama’s caprices, but I do not doubt that he will still be annoyed, having come all this way for nothing.”
Mrs. Lubbock lumbered back up the stairs and Melicent stood a little stiffly, wiping her ink-stained fingers on her brown worsted skirts. There was no time to check her appearance in the mirror. The hallway was cold. In winter they kept a fire only in the drawing room for visitors and in Mrs. Durham’s bedroom, which was often unhealthily stuffy. The rest of the house felt like a cold larder in comparison. Mrs. Lubbock’s fingers turned red and chilblained in the kitchen. Melicent kept a hot brick at her feet when she was working, but even so her hands sometimes became too cold for her to write.
She opened the front door. A blast of cold air swirled into the hall, bringing with it a powdering of snow. The day was even more inclement than Melicent had imagined. Dark gray clouds lowered over the roofs of Peacock Oak.
She could barely see the gentleman standing in the shadow of the porch, other than to acknowledge that he was very tall and broad shouldered. The spiteful wind clipped her ankles and set her shivering, and she stood aside quickly to allow him entrance.
“Please come in, sir,” she said. “You must be Dr. Abbott’s nephew. Thank you for coming so promptly, although I fear you had a wasted journey. Mama will not see visitors today.” She could not quite keep the exasperation from her tone, no matter how she tried. “Indeed, it is very bad of her to put everyone to so much trouble, particularly when she knows we cannot afford to pay—” He stepped into the light and she turned to look at him properly for the first time. For one long, agonizing moment her mind refused to accept the evidence of her eyes.
“But you are not the doctor!” she said foolishly. “You are…” Her voice dwindled to nothing.
The gentleman raised one dark brow in mockery, then bowed elegantly.
“Your husband,” he said. “Indeed I am.”
Melicent stared at him in wordless recognition. “Alex…”
Shock made her stomach turn over. It seemed impossible. She could not even begin to frame the questions that jostled in her mind.
“Why are you here?” she said. It seemed the best place to start.
Alex moved farther into the lamplit hall, and she could see what the shadows had previously hidden—the thick brown hair, the thoughtful dark eyes, the clean, hard lines of his face. He did not look a day older than when she had seen him last. He still showed the expensive tailoring, the air of unconscious authority and the town bronze that came from years of privilege. She had always felt like a country mouse beside his casual elegance. A hot wave of mortification swept over her as she looked down at her drab gown with its pulled threads.
“I came to find you.” His voice was deep and it struck a chord inside her that made her shiver a little. “I thought that we had been apart too long.” His gaze appraised her thoughtfully. “You look beautiful, Melicent.”
It took her breath away even as her mind protested that it could not be true. Heat swept through her as she stood beneath his disturbingly intimate and lazy gaze, heat that had nothing to do with the fire burning in the drawing room. He looked too masculine, too virile to be in the dull, dark atmosphere of the cottage. Melicent pressed her hands together nervously, and in doing so caught sight of her stained and frayed apron. A feeling of embarrassment replaced the sensation of sensual awareness. Whatever he said, she knew that she looked worn and old. Worse, she had inadvertently spilled to him various details such as her mother’s hypochondria, her own exasperation and their straitened financial circumstances. And that was before he was barely in the door.
“You should have told us that you were coming.” She resisted the urge to press her palms to her hot cheeks. “I hope you have not had too difficult a journey? The roads can be treacherous this time of year.” She looked about them at the painfully bleak and unwelcoming hallway. She had not even had the time to decorate it with wintergreen to celebrate Christmas. Not that she had felt like celebrating anything this year.
“We are ill equipped to offer you hospitality here, my lord,” She said. “If you would prefer to stay at the inn in the village…”
She knew she was rambling. Alex took her hands in his, silencing her. Regret and pain sliced through her.
I came to find you,
he had said. But he had left it so long. She had seen his absence as further proof that he did not care, had never cared. She had known from the very start that he had never wanted to marry her. She had buried her grief and regret and had tried to banish the foolish, childish infatuation she had felt for him. She had thought she had succeeded. But now, with one touch of his hand, he had shown that for the lie it was.
“Melicent,” he said softly. His lips brushed her cheek, sending quivers of sensation tingling through her. Her breath hitched in her throat. She reminded herself that she was angry and hurt at his neglect and his callous indifference. She could not feel that and yet still respond to his touch. But when she looked up into his eyes she almost gasped at the expression of intense, dark desire she saw there. Her hands trembled in his. He drew her closer.
The front door opened and a young man of about twenty years burst in, shattering the moment. His fair hair was disordered by the wind. His clothes stank of stale ale. He skidded to a halt and blinked at them, swaying slightly.
? What the hell—”
“Alex, you will remember my brother Aloysius?” Melicent said hastily.
Alex freed her gently. “Of course,” he said. “How are you, Durham?”
Aloysius Durham squared up to him pugnaciously. “I said what the hell are you doing here, Beaumont? How dare you just walk in? I’d like to rearrange your face—” He stumbled, almost falling, and knocked over the hat stand.
“He’s drunk,” Melicent said. “I do apologize.” It was not an uncommon occurrence with Aloysius, but she wished it had not happened now.
“No need for apologies,” Alex said. He gave her a lopsided smile that set her pulse awry. “He does have a point. However—” he grabbed Aloysius by the scruff of the neck “—I think he should sober up before he is permitted to upbraid me.”
Before Melicent’s fascinated gaze he dragged her brother down the passage and out into the yard. She heard the sound of the water pump and then Aloysius howling. The noise was matched by a cantankerous wail from upstairs.
“Melicent!” Her mother was calling. “What is happening?”
Smothering a smile, Melicent ran upstairs. She was almost certain that her mother would have a miraculous recovery in order not to miss anything else. One way and another, Alex’s arrival in their household had set the cat amongst the pigeons.
Alex built up the fire in the drawing room and settled back in a comfortable but faded Chippendale chair to the side of the hearth. This seemed to be the only warm room in the house. The rest of the place was colder and less welcoming than the grave. He disliked the thought of Melicent almost literally freezing to death in here, shivering in her plain, worn worsteds. It puzzled him, too. He had been meticulous in making sure that his agent paid her a monthly allowance. Where had the money gone?
He thought of Melicent in her stained apron, her hair awry, the lines of worry and tiredness etched deep on her face. A wave of tenderness took him by surprise. She deserved better than to have to manage a young drunkard of a brother and a bully of a mother.
He had sobered Aloysius up somewhat abruptly and dispatched the youth upstairs to find a change of clothes. Aloysius had grumbled but had succumbed to Alex’s authority. The lad was clearly running wild and, if the large bag of money in his pocket was anything to go by, was a gambler as well as a drunk.
Alex looked about the room. It was as bare and unappealing as the rest of the house, the furniture battered and old. From the drawer in a side table a few sheets of foolscap poked out. Alex took them out and held them up to the faint light, perusing them with mild curiosity.
“The Further Adventures of a Woman of Pleasure by Lady Loveless
Lady Loveless, he thought, should be more careful in concealing her inflammatory manuscripts. Not that Melicent looked anything like a writer of erotic fiction. One would never guess. The thick, heavy material of her winter gown concealed all the delicious lines and curves of her body. Alex was surprised to discover that he was very anxious to reacquaint himself with those curves. And then there was her rich dark hair, scraped back into an unbecoming knot but that would spread out over his bare chest like a swatch of silk. The image of Melicent, naked in his arms, soft, sweet and yielding as he remembered, hardened his body into arousal. He turned to the manuscript again:
“The soft sheen of the pearls glowed in the half light. He drew them over the swell of her breasts and down to pool about her navel….”
He had brought pearls as a Christmas gift for Melicent. The image of her wearing them and nothing else fixed itself in his mind; the slide of the jewels against the translucent pallor of her skin, the quickness of her breathing as her sensual pleasure mounted, the desperate little sounds she would make in the extremes of her ecstasy…
“She made a soft noise of surrender and spread herself for him, and he eased her thighs farther apart and slid—”
There was a scraping at the drawing-room door and Alex jumped visibly, shoving the sheets into his pocket. He tried to rearrange himself so that his physical state would not be too obvious.
Melicent stood in the doorway, dressed in an unfashionable evening gown. He found that he wanted to rip it off her and make love to her on the carpet. Clearly Lady Loveless’s provocative prose was creating havoc within him. He struggled for some control.
Melicent looked at him, a slight frown on her brow. “It is very hot in here.”
“You look rather flushed, my lord. Are you developing a fever?”
He certainly was.
“I am well,” Alex said. His voice sounded strangely husky. He cleared his throat.
“Dinner is ready,” Melicent said, still looking concerned. “It is only mutton and vegetables. I am afraid that we do not keep a very elaborate table….”
She carried on talking about the food, but Alex could not concentrate. He was watching her lips move, plush and pink. He wanted to taste her. He could not help himself. He crossed the room in two strides, pulled her into his arms and kissed her.
It was heated, intimate and exactly like the fantasy he had imagined from the first moment he had read her writing. She made a very sweet sound of capitulation in the back of her throat and melted against him, eager and willing, her lips parting beneath the pressure of his, inviting him in. Her scent surrounded him, apples and honey; it was on her skin and in her hair, and suddenly his mind went blank of everything except desire and he was kissing her deeply, plundering her mouth, as his tongue moved against hers in demand and possession.