Understandable, perhaps; the lady was tall, dark-haired and possessed a willowy, subtly curvaceous figure displayed to advantage as, strolling the back garden of the neighboring house, she paused here and there, bending to examine some foliage or flower in the lush and strangely riotous garden beds. It was February, the weather as bleak and chill as in that month it was wont to be, yet the garden next door displayed abundant growth, thick leaves in dark greens and bronzes from unusual plants that seemed to thrive despite the frosts.
Admittedly, there were trees and shrubs leaveless and lifelorn scattered throughout the deep beds, yet the garden exuded an air of winter life quite absent from most London gardens in that season. Not that he possessed any interest in horticulture; it was the lady who held his interest, with her gliding, graceful walk, with the tilt of her head as she examined a bloom.
Her hair, the color of rich mahogany, was coiled in a coronet about her head; he couldn't from this distance divine her expression, yet her face was a pale oval, features delicate and pure. A wolfhound, shaggy and brindle-coated, snuffled idly at her heels; it usually accompanied her whenever she wandered outside. His instincts, well-honed and reliable, informed him that today the lady's attention was perfunctory, in abeyance, that she was killing time while she waited for something. Or someone.
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Tristan turned. He was standing in the bay window of the library on the first floor in the rear corner of the terrace house at Number 12 Montrose Place. He and his six co-conspirators, the members of the Bastion Club, had bought the house three weeks ago; they were in the process of equipping it to serve as their private stronghold, their last bastion against the matchmakers of the ton. Situated in this quiet area of Belgravia mere blocks from the southeast corner of the park, beyond which lay Mayfair where they all possessed houses, the house was perfect for their needs.
The library window overlooked the back garden, and also the back garden of the larger house next door, Number 14, in which the lady lived. Billings, the carpenter in charge of the renovations, stood in the doorway studying a battered list. Saw her turn, see, wait expectantly Quite why he found her fascinating he had no idea; he preferred blonds of more buxom charms and despite his desperate need of a wife, the lady was too old to be still on the marriage mart; she would certainly already be wed. At last! Leonora Carling drew in a breath.
She straightened, spine stiffening in anticipation, then unbent to smile at the bootboy. Is it the same gentleman as before? Quiggs was a journeyman-carpenter working on the house next door; Toby, always curious, had befriended him. Through that route Leonora had learned enough of the gentlemen-owners' plans for next door to decide she needed to learn more. A lot more. Toby, tousle-haired, bright color in his cheeks where the wind had nipped, jigged from foot to foot. Henrietta, her wolfhound, loped at their heels. You've been most helpful - let's see if we can persuade Cook that you deserve a jam tart.
Harriet, Leonora's maid who'd been with the household for many years, a comfortable but shrewd female with a mass of curling red hair, was waiting in the hall just inside the back door. Leonora sent Toby to request his reward; Harriet waited only until the boy was out of earshot before demanding, "You're not going to do anything rash, are you?
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Toby said the man would be leaving soon. Ignoring Harriet's worried look, Leonora hurried through the kitchen. Waving aside the usual household queries from Cook, Mrs. Wantage, their housekeeper, and Castor, her uncle's ancient butler, promising to return shortly and deal with everything, she pushed through the swinging baise-covered door into the front hall.
A Lady of Expectations
Snatching her bonnet from the hall stand, she plonked it on her head; looking into the hall mirror, she swiftly tied the ribbons. She spared a glance for her appearance. Not perfect, but it would do. Interrogating unknown gentlemen was not something she often did; regardless, she wasn't about to quail or quake. The situation was all too serious. Castor stood before it, a vague frown creasing his brow. Jeremy should ask? If they do, just tell them I've gone to call next door. Henrietta sat beside the door, bright eyes locked on her, canine jaws parted, tongue lolling, hoping against hope With a whine, the hound flopped to the flags and, in patent disgust, laid her huge head on her paws.
The Lady Chosen
Leonora ignored her. She gestured impatiently at the door; as soon as Castor opened it, she hurried out onto the tiled front porch. At the top of the steps, she paused to scan the street; it was, as she'd hoped, deserted. Relieved, she rapidly descended into the fantasy of the front garden.
Normally, the garden would have distracted her, at least made her look and take note. Today, hurrying down the main path, she barely saw the bushes, the bright berries bobbing on the naked branches, the strange lacy leaves growing in profusion. Today, the fantasical creation of her distant cousin Cedric Carling failed to slow her precipitate rush for the front gate.
The new owners of Number 12 were a group of lords - so Toby had heard, but who knew? At the very least they were tonnish gentlemen. Apparently they were refurbishing the house, but none of them planned to live in it - an unquestionably odd, distinctly suspicious circumstance. Combined with all else that had been going on For the past three months, she and her family had been subjected to determined harrassment aimed at persuading them to sell their house.
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First had come an approach through a local agent. From dogged persuasion, the agent's arguments had degenerated into belligerence and pugnacity. Nevertheless, she'd eventually convinced the man, and presumably his clients, that her uncle would not sell.
Within weeks, there'd been two attempts to break into their house. Both had been foiled, one by the staff, the other by Henrietta.
She might have dismissed the occurences as coincidence if it hadn't been for the subsequent attacks on her. She'd told no one bar Harriet of those incidents, not her uncle Humphrey or her brother Jeremy or any other of the staff. There was no point rattling the servants, and as for her uncle and brother, if she managed to make them believe that the incidents had actually happened and weren't a figment of her untrustworthy female imagination, they would only restrict her movements, further compromising her ability to deal with the problem.
To identify those responsible and their reasons, and ensure no further incidents occurred.
That was her goal; the gentleman from next door would, she hoped, get her one step further along her road. Reaching the tall wrought iron gate set into the high stone wall, she hauled it open and whisked through, turning to her right, toward Number Sparks flared and sizzled, struck by the collision. Sensation flashed from where his fingers grasped. Her lungs seized.
The Lady Chosen (Bastion Club)
Her eyes, widening, clashed, then locked with a hard hazel gaze, one surprisingly sharp. Even as she noticed, he blinked; his heavy lids descended, screening his eyes. The planes of his face, until then chiseled granite, softened into an expression of easy charm. Pray excuse me. His fingers eased; his hands slid from her.
Was it her imagination that labelled the move reluctant? Her skin prickled; her nerves skittered. Oddly breathless, she hurried on, "I didn't see you coming Her gaze flicked beyond him - to the house at Number She registered the direction from which he'd been walking, and the trees along the boundary wall between Number 12 and Number 14, the only ones that could have hidden him during her earlier survey of the street.
He didn't blink; not a flicker of surprise at such a strange greeting - almost an accusation given her tone - showed in that charmingly mobile face. He had sable brown hair, worn slightly longer than was fashionable; his features possessed a distinctly autocratic cast. An instant, brief but discernible, passed, then he inclined his head. Trentham, for my sins. With my uncle and brother.
I wished to ask if you and your friends were the purchaser who attempted to buy my uncle's house last November, through the agent Stolemore. His gaze returned to her face, studying it as if he could read far more than she would like therein.