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Authors: Holly Newman

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The Waylaid Heart

BOOK: The Waylaid Heart
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The Waylaid Heart
Copyright © 1990, 2012 by Holly Newman
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced by any means, graphic, electronic, or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, taping or by any information storage retrieval system without the written permission of the publisher except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, names, incidents, organizations, and dialogue in this novel are either the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Regency dress and bonnet for the cover by Elissa Wright of Hourglass Designs
Cover art and graphics by
ADKDesigns.biz

Snubbed!

Intrigued, Sir James Branstoke raised his gold-rimmed quizzing glass to observe the slender yet enticingly shaped form of Mrs. Cecilia Haukstrom Waddley. He mentally reviewed his brief encounter with the renowned ninny hammer.

If the woman had been any other than Mrs. Waddley, her actions would have fallen into the category of a snub, to the point of a direct cut. However, Mrs. Waddley's eccentric reputation preceded her, and he found he was loath to grant her the sophisticated subtlety of manner necessary for the proper delivery and timing of an effective snub. No, something sent her scurrying off, slipping through the crush by the music room door.

Branstoke rubbed the rim of the quizzing glass against his cheek. He'd greeted the infamous widow with comments designed to flatter and draw a blush, thereby avoiding a recital of her most recent afflictions. He swiftly perceived she was not attending him.

Her head tilted and her dark blue eyes sparkled. Suddenly, her eyes widened and she left, going off in a flurry of gossamer layers of pale gray muslin and trailing lavender ribbons, leaving him without a word. He doubted she was the slightest bit aware of her social gaff. Ruefully, he wondered whether it would have mattered to her. Her attitude was that of a hound flying to a scent and totally out of character for the woman all society considered a beautiful, yet charmingly featherbrained widow.

Despite a youthful marriage into trade, society eagerly welcomed Mrs. Waddley back into its august ranks upon her widowhood—as much for her now elevated purse as for the elevated positions of her grandfather, the notorious Duke of Houghton, and her uncle, the Marquis of Nye. At five and twenty, she was no longer in the first bloom of youth; yet with hair the color of moonlight and large, twilight-blue eyes, she possessed an ethereal beauty and fragility. It was her waif appearance that gave credence to the various illnesses afflicting her body.

Absently, Branstoke twirled the quizzing glass by its black riband. He'd endeavored to engage Mrs. Waddley in conversation as a refreshing diversion from his attentions to Miss Philomel Cresswell, the current London beauty and society darling. Though a diamond of the first water in appearance, Miss Cresswell lamentably possessed the hardness of that particular stone. Mrs. Waddley, with her childlike chatter, he deemed a pleasant counterpoint, and a subtle message to Miss Cresswell, that he was not a man to be manipulated, as she was wont to try.

He glanced at the circle of gentlemen surrounding the vibrant brunette beauty. He was in no hurry to rejoin their ranks. It might prove more entertaining to discover the true nature of Mrs. Waddley, if there was anything to discover.

Somehow, his intuition told him there was.

Branstoke stuck the end of the quizzing glass into his waistcoat pocket and sauntered off in the direction his new quarry had taken, his curiosity piqued.

Cecilia heard a chorus of raucous masculine laughter before she reached the arched entrance to the card room. She groaned softly. Fearing the worst, she peeked around the corner to look into the room. Her brother stood in boisterous conversation with eight to ten other gentlemen. She frowned and stepped back, out of sight of the open doorway, as she contemplated this turn of events.

She wondered which—if any—of those gentlemen had been the intended recipient of the words she'd heard her brother say not five minutes earlier. They were the precise words she'd been waiting and hoping to hear since she read them in her late husband's journal eight months ago. They were the words that had pitched her willy-nilly into the same society that nine years ago had closed ranks against her.

Cecilia gnawed on the soft inner tissue of her lower lip. Never would she have expected to hear those words coming from her brother. Randolph Haukstrom may be a ne'er-do-well gamester; nonetheless, he also stood as heir to his grandfather and uncle. He already lived comfortably off these expectations—not forgetting the allowance they granted him. What reason could there be for him to become involved in anything illegal? For thrills and adventure? That was hardly Randolph's style. He was too much the dandy. Worse. He was a veritable coxcomb! Hardly the sort of gentleman to go skulking about on a dirty, dank wharf at night—or any time. Besides, he was her brother. It was ridiculous to imagine him involved in George Waddley's death.

Death.

Disgust at her hesitation to name Mr. Waddley's demise for what it was swelled within Cecilia. It was murder. Premeditated, cold-blooded, murder. Not that anyone believed her; nonetheless, murder it was and murder she would prove.

But, could Randolph be involved?
she asked herself again.

Cecilia bit her lower lip harder. She conceded that just because Randolph was her brother, she mustn't dismiss him out of hand. After all, it had been his chicanery that had seen her married to George Waddley in the first place. Not that she regretted her marriage to Mr. Waddley—God bless his soul—for he had been the gentlest and sweetest man she'd ever met. She counted herself luckier than many young women married off to save their families' fortunes. A decent, hard-working man, George Waddley had not deserved to die.

Another burst of rowdy laughter drew her attention back to the card room, warning her of the tenuousness of her position. It would be difficult to explain her presence outside this exclusively male haunt. Besides, she wouldn't learn anything more from Randolph this evening, so involved was he with his cronies. If only she hadn't been delayed by Lady Amblethorp as she left the music room she could have noted her brother's companion.

She stopped chewing on her lip and sighed. It made no sense to ponder what might have been. At least now she had a possible lead, a glimmer of candle light to pierce the dark mystery of Mr. Waddley's death. The question was, how to use it?

Cecilia stepped back, to distance herself from the card room entrance, her attention on the doorway as she listened for signs of any gentleman leaving the room. Satisfied no one was leaving, and that she was far enough away from the door, she whirled about to make her escape back to the music room.

Her face met the snowy white folds of an intricately tied cravat.

Her breath went out in a
whoosh
, her eyes on a milky white pearl nestled in the folds. Part of her senses registered the broad, masculine chest beneath the cravat, her senses aroused by the smell of soap and clean linen mingled with the musky scent of the man. She jerked sideways, as if she'd been burned, and stumbled on the toes of highly polished shoes. Idiotically, a part of her wondered if he used champagne in his blacking.

Strong arms came around her waist to steady her.

"Oh! Oh my, I'm truly sorry," she babbled, her senses swirling. Of all the stupid mistakes, she chastised herself as she gathered her wits, preparing her excuses, and tilted her head up. "So clumsy, I'm—Sir Branstoke!"

Cecilia choked, blushed, and stumbled backward into his still supportive arms. Belatedly she realized it was this gentleman she had left in the music room without so much as a by-your-leave, the famously urbane Sir James Branstoke.

A bright wave of color swept up her face again. "Oh, I'm—I don't know what to say! Please forgive—"

"Are you all right?" he inquired calmly. Seeing that she had recovered her balance, he politely dropped his hold and stepped away, though his gaze remained on her flustered countenance.

Cecilia's slender fingers twisted a knot of ribbons trailing from a nosegay of violets pinned to her bodice. "What? Oh, yes," she said weakly. Her normally quick mind would not focus. Frantically she sought an explanation that would pacify this man. Sir Branstoke was an enigma in society. He was the image of a social gadder: handsome, frivolous, and lazy. Yet he also had the whispered reputation of being a canny gentleman.

"I mean, no!" she amended shrilly. She winced, beginning again breathily, falling back into her chosen role: "No, I feel a trifle dizzy and—and my heart is pounding," she continued, her fingers fluttering against her chest.. "Oh, you cannot know sir! I pray you will forgive my clumsiness. I am not well, you know. No, no, not at all. That is why I'm here. I came to find my brother to see if he might escort me home, but he is otherwise engaged."

She broke off and looked back toward the card room, letting a look of confusion cross her features.

"Jessamine. Yes, yes, I must find my Aunt Jessamine," she said vaguely. She turned to walk past Sir Branstoke as if she had already forgotten his existence.

Branstoke fell into step beside her. "If you are ill, perhaps you would like to sit out here while I send a servant for your aunt." He took her elbow and gently, but firmly, guided her to a secluded alcove in the hall.

A wave of unfamiliar panic swept over Cecilia, leaving her skin prickling, her senses heightened toward the man at her side. What was his purpose? They were scarcely acquainted, and he was known for being one of the entourage for whatever dewy fresh London belle was considered the catch of the season. She didn't trust him.

Truthfully, she didn't trust easily.

"You are all solicitation, sir. It is not necessary. La! I am better now already, I assure you. It is just my nerves, you know. I have terrible nerves. My physician tells me he never saw such terrible nerves!"

"You are to be consoled," Sir Branstoke murmured.

Cecilia shot him a sharp glance through the veil of her pale lashes, wondering if she'd overplayed her hand. She did not know if she was relieved or chagrined to see his urbane countenance remain unchanged. Furthermore, she wondered at the firm grasp he retained on her elbow.

"You are too kind. I'm sure I have quite recovered," she said with false brightness while gently attempting to free her arm. The feel of his fingers on her arm sent a tingling up it, a tingling that ended in the vicinity of her heart which in turn sent rippling shock waves throughout her body. This gentleman was dangerous in ways she hesitated to contemplate.

"But I insist," he persevered, steering her to an alcove settee. With his free hand he signaled a passing footman.

"Please find Viscountess Meriton in the main music room. She will be the woman madly wielding a pair of scissors and carelessly dropping snippets of paper on the floor. Tell her that her niece is feeling unwell and desires her presence here—discreetly, of course." He settled her down on the settee. "Mrs. Waddley does not need her unfortunate ill-health bandied about in company."

Cecilia lowered her head to hide the humor she felt at this last statement. Her health was a constant source of amusement to the ton, though they clucked and commiserated in her presence. She looked up in time to see Sir Branstoke slip a coin into the footman's palm. The man grinned cheekily and trotted off down the corridor.

Sir Branstoke reached into his pocket, drawing out a gold-enameled snuffbox. "The lack of proper decorum found in servants these days is appalling," he drawled. He opened the box with a deft, one-handed motion and took a small pinch of its contents. "Don't you agree?"

"Oh, well yes, I suppose," Cecilia answered meekly, carefully schooling her expression to childlike confusion. She looked up at him, her eyes wide, revealing purple rims around their royal blue color.

Sir James Branstoke paused and stared down at her upturned face, a speculative gleam lurking in his lazily hooded brown eyes.

Under his steady regard, tiny moths began to flutter in Cecilia's stomach. She found she could not turn her eyes from his intent gaze. He had a pleasant, good-looking face without being handsome in the current Adonis fashion. His features were regular, his hair a wavy thick pelt that echoed the rich, variegated brown of his eyes. Nonetheless, there was something about those world-weary eyes that caught her attention, something that made her breath come a little faster. A slow blush crept up her neck to her cheeks, staining them a rose color. She opened her mouth to speak, but no words came.

Suddenly, the lid of the snuffbox snapped shut, the small, sharp sound a pistol shot in the silence between them. Cecilia jumped. Sir Branstoke raised his eyes from hers. He looked in the direction of the card room where a renewed chorus of laughter could be heard. He looked back at her.

"Sir?" Cecilia ventured, uncertain as to the proper response. In all her playacting, never had she felt as uncomfortable as she did before this enigmatic gentleman. "Please don't feel you must wait upon me until my aunt's arrival. I assure you I am recovered from that dreadful pounding in my chest. It was the music and the crush of people, I dare say. I do suffer from an irritation of the nerves, you know, to say nothing of the spasms that sometimes grip me in a most terrifying fashion." She prattled on artlessly, hoping to rout the gentleman by her complaints.

"I imagine that opera sung by such incompetents as Signora Casteneletti might have that effect. I do not know whether to be grateful or not for possessing a stronger constitution," he observed drily.

Cecilia nodded vaguely while pondering the advisability of allowing a touch of a whine to color her voice. That would be too much, she concluded. She cast about in her mind for some other venue.

"Cecilia, my dear!" Lady Jessamine Meriton called as she entered the hallway.

Cecilia turned toward her aunt, masking her relief.

"I am sorry. I was so involved cutting a silhouette of Signora Casteneletti that I did not notice you leave," Lady Meriton said contritely. She gracefully sank onto the settee and raised a cool hand to Cecilia's brow.

"It was nothing, more my fears than actuality, as I've tried to convince Sir Branstoke," Cecilia said, indicating the gentleman with a small inclination of her head.

Lady Meriton turned to look up at Branstoke, one finely chiseled eyebrow arching quizzically above her dark blue eyes, so like her niece’s eyes.

Branstoke appeared mildly amused. "I assured Mrs. Waddley it was no bother to keep her company." He looked back toward Cecilia, tipping his head slightly in her direction. "I leave you now in good company. Ladies—" he said, bowing elegantly before turning to saunter down the hall in the direction of the card room.

BOOK: The Waylaid Heart
12.74Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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