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A Regency romp in which a war hero must save his family fortune and rescue Florentina Grantley from a perilous situation.
When a beautiful woman bursts into Lord Adam Fitzroy's room at an inn seeking refuge, he assists her. His curiosity is piqued when he alter spots her entering the local house of ill repute. The next day he is shocked when his mother introduces the woman as her new paid companion. His mother adores Florentina, so Adam agrees to keep her nightly activities a secret...on one condition: she must spend one wicked night with him.
Florentina Grantley is both scandalized and intrigued at the prospect, but she worries that the dashing war hero will quickly discern her lack of experience. True, she's no innocent-but she's a widow, not a whore. Yet she can't explain the true reason behind her alliance with the brothel's madam, or the danger she faces if exposed.
As their initial tryst grows into something deeper, the stakes become higher. W~hat will Adam do when he discovers Florentina's deception?
Southern England, 1809
Major Lord Adam Fitzroy closed the door to the private parlour he’d taken at the Three Feathers, obliterating the curious glances directed his way by the occupants of the tap room. With a weary sigh, he unfastened the tattered green tunic that identified him as a serving officer with the 95th Rifles and sank into a chair next to the fire. He rested his dusty boots on the table in front of it, unsure whether he was annoyed or relieved at the disruption to his plans. Eyes closed, he pinched the bridge of his nose in a futile attempt to relieve the tension that had been steadily building as he got closer to home.
His first action upon opening them again was to take a long swallow from the tankard resting at his elbow. He felt the warm ale trickle slowly down his insides and waited for it to soothe away his recurring memories of Corunna and the privations suffered by his men in the ensuing retreat. It would require something a deal stronger than the local ale to achieve that ambition. But he took another draught anyway, forcing himself to relax.
He listened with a half an ear to the bustle outside as the stage prepared to leave. The coachman’s voice was discernible above the hubbub, exhorting his passengers to take their seats quickly because he had a schedule to keep. He displayed scant sympathy for the plight of an elderly lady who’d misplaced her reticule.
The door opened and the landlord appeared with a fresh jug of foaming ale.
“Thought you might be in need of a refill, Major.” Without waiting for a reply he topped up Adam’s tankard. “I dare say you saw action at Corunna.” Adam inclined his head. “I knew it! I said to my wife, there’s a gent wot’s seen a thing or two in the services of his country. You’re a hero, that’s wot you are, sir.”
Adam’s lips twisted into a mirthless parody of a smile. The only heroes associated with the entire fiasco had been the ones who’d made the ultimate sacrifice. Before he could think of a suitable response, the door opened again and the landlord’s wife bustled in with a laden tray.
“Here we are, Major.” He helped his wife to unload copious amounts of food onto the table that had recently acted as Adam’s footrest. “My wife’s mutton stew, fresh bread and boiled potatoes. You won’t find an establishment wot keeps a better table hereabouts, even as I do say so myself.” He beamed and refilled Adam’s tankard for a third time.
“Thank you.” Adam eyed the mountain of food with apprehension. There was enough there to feed four men and he had no appetite to speak of.
“I dare say it’s been a while since you sampled honest English fare, but nothing’s too good for our heroes, that’s wot I say. And I won’t be taking a penny from you for all this, sir, so there’s no good your thinking as I will.”
“No, really, I’m well able to pay for my supper.” The landlord looked shocked, and rather affronted, to have his hospitality thrown back in his face. “But if you insist then I thank you.” Feeling as though he were back in the schoolroom, Adam picked up his knife and fork and reluctantly took a bite of mutton. “Delicious!”
The landlord exchanged a satisfied smile with his wife. “Wot did I tell you?” He threw another log on the fire, sending a shower of sparks flying up the chimney and smoke billowing into the room.
“We’ll leave you to it then, sir, if there’s nothing else you’ll be wanting. You won’t be disturbed in here, so you don’t need to be worrying about that. I can tell you need some privacy and no one’ll bother you or they’ll have me to answer to.”
“Will you be needing a room for the night, sir?”
Adam would welcome an excuse to delay his return to the Court, as the ducal seat of Southsea Court was universally known, but suspected that any more of the landlord’s hero worship would drive him demented.
What to do? Fortunately there was an establishment close to the Court where a bed and congenial company were always in plentiful supply.
“I thank you, no. I shall be on my way as soon as my horse has been shod.”
The landlord looked disappointed. “Well, sir, the farrier’s here right now and he’ll have your horse sorted in no time flat. But that don’t mean you have to go charging off, not now that you’ve made yourself all comfortable like. So if you change your mind about staying, you just say the word.”
As soon as they left the room, Adam put down his knife and fork and returned his attention to the jug of ale. He’d not taken two swallows before he heard a commotion in the passageway immediately outside his room. Thinking the landlord was returning, Adam guiltily picked up his cutlery. But when the door opened it wasn’t his host who confronted him but a woman, an overlarge cloak dwarfing her body, the hood covering her hair. She clearly thought the room was empty and started violently when her eyes fell upon Adam.
They regarded one another in silence for a protracted moment. As they did so, Adam felt something slowly unfurling inside him, a dormant feeling he’d never expected or wanted to experience ever again. He shook himself, wondering who the woman was and why she looked so terrified. More to the point, why was her appearance already inclining him toward chivalry and therefore involvement in her affairs when all he really wanted was to be left alone?
The shouting and heavy footsteps drew nearer and stopped outside his door. Adam could hear the landlord’s noisy protests.
“Here, you can’t go in there, disturbing a returning hero when he’s having his supper.” Adam couldn’t quite make out what the other man said but the landlord’s response reached him clearly enough. “It ain’t right. I won’t let you do it!”
The woman’s eyes darted to Adam’s face and he could see that she was actually trembling. Without quite knowing why he did it, he nodded toward the table upon which his uneaten supper lay and lifted the floor-length cloth that covered it. The woman didn’t hesitate. In two bounds she was across the room and had crawled beneath the cloth just seconds before the door flew open. Adam, a forkful of mutton halfway to his mouth, kicked the trailing end of her cloak beneath the table and glanced at the intruders.
“What’s the meaning of this, landlord? You assured me of privacy.”
“I’m sorry, sir, but this gent is looking for his sister and insisted upon checking the private rooms.”
“Your sister, you say.” Adam quirked a brow at the bull of a man who’d barrelled into the room behind the landlord. His fleshy, heavily whiskered face was scarlet but whether through anger or as a result of his exertions Adam was unable to decide. The veins in his bulbous nose were thick and prominent, and his chin was jutting forward in a pugnacious manner. Adam took him in immediate dislike and was glad he’d impulsively hidden the woman. He didn’t believe for a moment she was unfortunate enough to be related to this brute. “And why should I be hiding your sister?”
Adam’s authoritative tone clearly gave the man pause. “Beg pardon, sir, but she was seen in this passageway and I thought perhaps she might have―”
“Have you tried calling her name?”
“Well, no. That’s to say, I don’t think she’ll―”
“She wouldn’t respond because, presumably, she doesn’t wish to be found.” Adam lifted his shoulders and his fork simultaneously.
“We had a disagreement and she can be right wilful if she don’t get her way. She’s most likely sulking somewhere but I don’t have time for her histrionics.”
“What’s that to me? Search the room if you’re not prepared to take me at my word that I’ve never laid eyes on your sister.” Since Adam had already decided that the women crouching at his feet was no relation to this bombastic bully, he didn’t consider that he’d spoken untruthfully. “And when you’ve satisfied yourself that I haven’t abducted your rebellious relation perhaps you’ll have the goodness to leave me in peace. My supper’s getting cold.”
The man looked as though he would indeed like to conduct a search but something about Adam’s manner made him hesitate, just as Adam had known it would.
“Beg pardon, but this is the only room left wot I haven’t looked in and if she ain’t here then I don’t know what’s become of her. It’s most vexing.”
“Was that the stage I heard departing a short time ago?” Adam asked the landlord.
“Aye, sir, bound for Portsmouth.”
“Then perhaps she was on that?”
“No, I don’t think so cos I was watching it and she didn’t…”
The man left his sentence unfinished and barged out of the room, spluttering expletives and yelling for his horse. The landlord apologized several times more before withdrawing, and once again blessed silence reigned.
“You can come out now,” Adam said. “He’s gone.”
He lifted the tablecloth, stood and extended a hand to help the woman out of her cramped hiding place. She placed a small gloved hand in his and he felt a shock of awareness. God’s teeth, what was wrong with him? Then, still struggling to regain his composure, he caught his first proper sight of her face and cursed roundly beneath his breath.
Even allowing for the fact that he’d been deprived of feminine company these several months, she was still a diamond of the first water. Enormous green eyes dominated a heart-shaped face that was sufficiently tanned to indicate a preference for the outdoors. She possessed high cheekbones, a delicate, turned-up nose and temptingly plump lips. A dark spiral curl had escaped from beneath her hood and she impatiently pushed it behind her ear as she emerged from beneath the table. As she did so her cloak fell away and Adam was rewarded with his first sight of a body that was at least as spectacular as her face.
He sighed, cursing the circumstances that had brought them together. She was in a highly agitated state and scared half out of her wits. He had more than enough problems of his own to be going on with but he already knew that he wouldn’t be able to turn his back on her. At the very least he would do everything in his power to protect her from the vulgar mushroom who appeared intent upon spiriting her away.
“Thank you, Major.” She spoke in a well-modulated but slightly accented voice. “I’m indebted to you for your assistance.”
“You’re welcome.” Adam bowed. “Mrs., er…?”
“Oh, Smith. Mrs. Smith.”
“Smith?” Adam quirked a brow.
“Yes.” She inverted her chin. “Mrs. Simon Smith. What do you find so diverting about my name?”
“Nothing whatsoever.” Adam attempted to smother his mirth. “And Mr. Smith is…”
“No longer of this world.”
She spoke with genuine-seeming regret, causing Adam to accept that that part of her account, at least, wasn’t a poorly constructed work of fiction. She’d lost someone close to her quite recently but he doubted whether that unfortunate person’s name had been Smith. “You have my sympathies, ma’am.”
She briefly bowed her head and then seated herself in the chair Adam was holding out for her, removing her hood as she did so. At liberty to observe her features more closely he realised her face was not tanned, as he’d first thought, but her complexion was naturally dark. From the slight accent he’d discerned, her raven-black hair, and the fiery passion flashing in her eyes when he smiled at her name, he suspected she was of Spanish origin. But it was evident she didn’t wish to reveal her true identity, and his inherent good manners prevented him from questioning her on the subject.
He was watching her quite closely but she didn’t appear to be the least little bit curious about him. Instead her eyes were focused upon the food on the table. When her pink tongue spontaneously forced its way between her lips he realised she was having a difficult time concealing the fact that she was exceedingly hungry.
“Can I persuade you to share my supper, Mrs. Smith? The landlord has furnished me with enough food for a small army. I was just now wondering what to do with it all without offending his wife’s sensibilities.”
He expected her to demure but she picked up his fork and set to with alacrity. For such a slight creature her appetite was legion and she demolished half the plate’s contents in record time.
“Oh, forgive me, Major.” She coloured as she dabbed her lips with his napkin. “I appear to have commandeered your supper.” She spread her hands. “It’s just that―”
“You’ve not eaten for some time, I collect.” Adam smiled at her and she blushed more deeply still. “Pray, don’t apologise, ma’am. I have no appetite and so you’ve done me a service.” He picked up his tankard and watched her over its rim for a moment or two in silence. “But have you considered what action you’ll now take in order to avoid your…er, brother?”
“Oh, I…well, that is, I―”
“How did you arrive at this inn, Mrs. Smith?”
“On the stagecoach. And most uncomfortable it was too. An odious little man insisted upon carrying a cage full of pigeons inside the conveyance, regaling us at nauseating length about the amount of money he’d get for them at market. The wretched creatures didn’t stop squawking the entire time.”
“I beg your pardon.”
“Pigeons coo, Mrs. Smith. They don’t squawk.”
“I beg to differ. I was subjected to their squawking for an interminable time and so know what I’m talking about.”
Adam tried not to laugh. “Then I bow to your superior knowledge.”
“Not that I blame them, mind. The pigeons, that is. They obviously knew they were destined for some gentleman’s table. I felt like squawking protests of my own on their behalf.”
Adam smiled. “The man would have paid the driver a few extra pence to keep the birds from being strapped to the roof, from which they might easily have fallen.”
“Well, I would have paid him more still to persuade him to release them.” She tossed her head. “Wild creatures ought not to be caged.”
Adam wondered about her passionate defence of a few insignificant birds, suspecting there was a great deal more behind her protestations than mere sympathy. “You travelled from London, presumably.” She nodded. “And your brother, did he accompany you?”
“No, indeed not.” She shuddered. “I believe he followed me on horseback.”
“And now he’s ridden off in pursuit of the stagecoach in the expectation of finding you aboard it.”
“Yes.” She spoke the one word with considerable satisfaction. “And, if there’s any justice in this world, the heavens will open and he’ll be drenched to the skin.”
“We can but hope.” Adam contemplated her for a moment before speaking again. “And when your brother discovers that you’re not a passenger on that conveyance, what do you imagine he’ll do then?” He observed the fear creeping back into her expression when the answer struck home. “I don’t anticipate it will take him long to overtake the public coach if he’s equipped with a fast horse.”
“No, probably not.” Her lovely eyes were once again full of apprehension. “And then, I suppose, he’ll realise he’s been misled and immediately return here to seek me out.”
“Then we’d best ensure that you’re not here for him to find. Where were you intending to go, once you reached Portsmouth?”
“To Oakley Common.”
The bustling market town on the outskirts of Portsmouth, not three miles from Southsea Court, was the very town where Adam intended to spend the night.
“Then if you don’t mind riding behind me, I’ll be glad to take you there myself.”
Adam expected her to put up objections to such an unorthodox suggestion but once again she surprised him. With a riotous smile that caused havoc with his equilibrium, she thanked him and immediately agreed.
“I’ve caused you a vast amount of trouble, Major,” she said, enchanting him with her lilting accent. “I’m indebted to you for your kindness.”
“Not at all.” Adam, still unbalanced by his reaction to her lovely smile, waved her thanks aside. “But, in all this confusion, my manners have been amiss and I’ve forgotten to introduce myself. Allow me to put that matter right.” He sketched an elegant bow. “Major Adam Fitzroy at your service, ma’am.”
“Fitzroy?” She started violently, as though the name meant something to her, even though he hadn’t added the title that would be familiar to any native of these parts.
“Now, if you’re ready to leave, it remains only for us to devise a means of getting you out of here undetected.”
Florentina Grantley clung tightly to Adam Fitzroy’s waist as his stallion covered the ground at breakneck speed, aware that she’d merely replaced one awkward situation with another. Major Fitzroy had rescued her from Reynolds’s ubiquitous clutches, that was undeniable, but what was she now supposed to do about the major? If she’d known who he was from the outset, it would have been a different matter and she wouldn’t have hesitated to give him her real name. But by the time she found out who he actually was, he was intent upon spiriting her away from the inn and there was no time for her to think the matter through. Or to hit upon a plausible reason for giving a false name in the first place.
Damnation, this was the sort of complication she could well do without.
She knew Fitzroy’s stallion well and had only just stopped herself from blurting out his name when the major collected her from the thicket where she’d concealed herself. The stallion was often turned out to pasture on his own, and she was touched by the way he seemed to look off into the distance, as though waiting for someone. The grooms deemed Rochester an irascible beast whom only his master could handle, but she’d built up quite a rapport with him over the months. She often visited him in his paddock, taking him apples and sharing her innermost thoughts with him in one-sided conversations the horse appeared to understand.
She clung a little more tightly, daring to rest her head against the major’s broad back to protect her face from the sharp wind that assailed it. Briefly she wondered how it would feel to have such a man permanently acting as her champion. She’d not felt safe since coming to this country, and the burden of responsibility she bore for the welfare of others frequently wore her down. Major Fitzroy would be able to assuage her fears, of that she felt assured. He was the sort of gentleman who could achieve anything he set his mind to. She wasn’t sure how she could be so certain.
Somehow she just was.
Florentina sternly adjured herself to stop daydreaming and face up to reality. No one could help her. She’d trusted a gentleman once before and look where that had landed her.
“Oh, Rochester, why did you have to let me down now, of all times?” The words were whipped away by the wind the moment they left her lips. The major couldn’t possibly overhear them. “I thought I was your friend. If you hadn’t cast a shoe then Major Fitzroy wouldn’t have stopped at the Feathers and I wouldn’t be in this mess.”
But then again, if he hadn’t been there, how would she have evaded Reynolds? What to do? Dare she trust Major Fitzroy with her secret? He had a reputation locally for integrity and a deep sense of honour. She’d made such a mull of things, and the temptation to lean upon him was compelling. Just for a moment, she gave way to it.
But then the consequences of such a foolhardy course of action struck home. She was riding astride, despite wearing a lady’s travelling attire. She lifted one hand from Major Fitzroy’s waist to cover her mouth, horrified at her momentary weakness. Her balance wasn’t all that it could be, what with the slippery mass of petticoats bunched beneath her derričre and her unfamiliarity with riding astride. Just as she felt herself slipping, a strong arm reached back and pulled her to safety before she got anywhere near Rochester’s flying hooves.
“Hold on with both hands.” He called the words over his shoulder, not slowing Rochester from a flat-out gallop. “Then you’ll be perfectly safe.”
“Thank you, I’ll do that.”
Florentina’s breathing gradually returned to a more normal rate. She disciplined herself to direct her thoughts away from the feel of the major’s hand on her thigh and the very strange way it had affected her. Instead she concentrated on the matter that had almost caused her to come to grief in the first place.
She bit her lip, no nearer to deciding what to do about her situation when she became aware of Rochester’s pace slowing. Major Fitzroy walked his mount sedately down the main street in Oakley Common. Florentina felt secure enough to remove her arms from around his waist and reached a hand back to run it gently across Rochester’s sweaty quarters.
“Well done, Rochester. You carried us both with ease.”
He glanced over his shoulder at her. “How did you know my horse’s name?”
“Oh, I must have heard you say it a while back.”
“Did you?” Florentina could hear the surprise in Major Fitzroy’s voice and knew he didn’t believe her. “I don’t recall doing so.”
“Nevertheless you must have, otherwise how would I know it?”
“Yes, you’re right.” He halted Rochester in the centre of town. “Now then, Mrs. Smith, where would you like me to take you?”
“To the vicarage, if it’s no trouble.”
“None whatsoever.” He encouraged Rochester forward with the gentle application of his legs on the stallion’s flanks.
Florentina’s destination actually lay in a very different direction but she didn’t intend to land herself in even more trouble by revealing her true port of call. She would attend to her business here as soon as she felt confident that Major Fitzroy was well clear of the town. She had a report to make. Then she’d worry about the major.
He brought Rochester to a halt at the gates to the vicarage. With athletic grace he swung his right leg forward over the horse’s neck and slid to the ground. He then reached up, placed both hands on Florentina’s waist and lifted her down. She was acutely aware of the searing warmth of his gloved hands through the fabric of her gown. Her face was briefly at the same level as his as he gently lowered her. She boldly met his gaze and held it, a strange sensation surging through her as he took far too long to place her on her feet and remove his hands from her waist.
It was twilight but she could see his features clearly enough to notice the intelligence in grey eyes that appeared to soften as he regarded her. There was a recent-looking scar above his left eyebrow but somehow it only added to his rugged allure. It filled Florentina with an impulsive desire to trace its length with her finger and make the hurt go away. She felt truly wretched for having lied to him, if only by omission. Her heart was fit to burst with the trouble she was causing.
“Thank you, Major.” She moved away when his hands finally released her. “I am much in your debt.”
“You owe me nothing, ma’am.” He raised the shako from his head. “It was a pleasure to be of service to you. I hope we shall meet again.”
Oh, Major Fitzroy, beware what you wish for. “I hope so, too, sir, but I think it unlikely.” She turned toward the vicarage as though she had every intention of entering that building. “I bid you good evening, sir.”
She concealed herself behind a stand of trees in the garden and waited. After five minutes, when the sound of Rochester’s hooves had long since faded, she swiftly headed back the way she’d just come. Her destination was Chamberleigh, a large establishment on the fringes of the town. Outwardly it appeared perfectly respectable but in actuality it was a bawdy house that catered for the needs of the well-heeled gentry in the area. The last place where one would expect to find a respectable widow of Florentina’s ilk.
She entered the house through a rear door and slipped unnoticed up the stairs. Mrs. Christine Seymour, keeper of this establishment, had her own suite of rooms on the top floor and would be anxious to know how things had gone in London.
“Ah, Christine,” she said, opening the door to her sitting room and being confronted by the back of her friend’s beautifully coiffured head. “I’m so glad you’re here. You’ve no idea how much trouble I―”
Only when it was too late did Florentina realise that Christine was holding a warning finger to her lips. Her gaze skimmed past her friend, and a small exclamation of terror escaped her as it came to rest upon the man seated in the chair opposite. His military tunic was half-unbuttoned, he had a large snifter of brandy in his hand, and his head was tilted to one side, as though he and Christine had just been laughing at some private joke.
Florentina felt the colour drain from her face and seriously doubted if her legs would be able to sustain her weight for very much longer. But she seemed incapable of doing anything other than stare at Major Fitzroy. A leaden weight kept her frozen to the spot, and all she could do was watch as his relaxed expression closed down and the amusement in his eyes was replaced by a cynical light.
“Well, well, Mrs. Smith.” He didn’t bother to stand up. “So you were wrong, it would appear. We were destined to meet again after all, but I hadn’t imagined that it would be under circumstances such as these.”