Radford, the fourth Viscount Evers, dismissed Bannor, his irritatingly efficient man-of-affairs, and eased his aching foot onto his study’s massive tiger maple desktop. The wretched appendage throbbed like the devil all the way to the tips of his toes whenever the weather turned soggy. Which meant in dreary, sodden England his foot pained him nearly all the time. And the unrelenting patter of rain against the windowpane promised nothing but misery for the next several hours.
A year, three months, and twenty-five days had passed since his foot, his leg, and part of his chest had been crushed under the weight of his horse on the Peninsula. The days ticked by like the second hand on his father’s weighty pocket watch he’d begun to twirl between his fingers.
“Taking this man-of-leisure lifestyle a little far, eh, Evers?” Lord Nathan Wynter intruded on Radford’s self-loathing without the decency of an invitation. In fact, Wynter, Radford’s fair-haired boyhood friend and the second son of the esteemed Marquess of Portfry, had burst into the study without even giving the Longbranch House’s stoic butler the opportunity to deny him entrance.
Having awakened in a particularly aggravated mood, Radford had given his butler very specific instructions to turn all visitors away . . . especially Wynter.
For the past several days he’d shied away from prolonged visits with his friends. Wynter’s presence served as an agonizing reminder of the healthy man he was before that cursed Frog murdered his horse out from under him in the middle of that miserable Battle of Salamanca. Not a day passed when he didn’t long to turn back time and live as he once had—to savor the kind of reckless living Wynter freely enjoyed.
Days like today he felt as if he was nothing more than his injuries. Trapped.
His friend laughed, his ruddy cheeks brightening as he turned a deaf ear to Radford’s vile curses and most ungrateful attempts to turn him away. There was no hope for it. Radford’s foul mood only evoked a cheerier Wynter.
“Missed you at the Pump Room this morning.” Wynter dropped into a heavily cushioned chair near the fireplace and plucked at the finely laced doilies covering the seat’s wide arms.
A flare of anger surged in Radford’s chest. “I’ve no interest in parading my lame leg around in public anymore. And those foul waters aren’t doing a bloody thing.” He folded his arms like a disobedient child and lifted his gaze to the ceiling. The blasted plaster needed repair.
“That tedious ritual of taking the waters is supposed to speed your recovery, Evers. But I had thought there might be another allure. A certain Lady Lillian Newbury noticed your absence. Her sunny smile faded to a petulant pout when she saw I was making the rounds alone.” Wynter shivered dramatically. “Damaged my fragile male pride, she did.”
Radford grimaced. Lady Lillian paid far too much interest in his recovery. Lovely as a spring flower, she followed him around the Bath events with the most piteous look clouding her crystal blue eyes.
He had no use for pity, especially not from a mere slip of a woman. Of course he’d no option in light of his recent revelation but play the grateful courtier to her demure interests. He’d do well to remember that damaged specimens such as himself weren’t the choicest morsels on the marriage block.
Wynter didn’t seem to mind Radford’s brooding silence. His lips twitched while a wry look of amusement danced in his eyes. An outsider might say Wynter was on the verge of laughing at his friend. If he dared, Radford would boot him out on his ear. But he knew Wynter well enough to banish the thought. He trusted his friend as fiercely as Wynter trusted him.
“Since you seem to have planted yourself in my study, you might as well make yourself useful.” Radford dashed a glance toward the liquor cabinet.
That was all the encouragement Wynter needed. He wasted no time in pouring two glasses of Radford’s finest claret.
“Now tell me, Evers. What the devil has gotten into you today? You’re a hundred score ruder than usual.” Wynter sipped his claret and that look of amusement spread from his eyes to fill a good-natured grin. Only a long time friend would know Wynter planned to stand his ground and twist a confession from Radford’s lips.
Radford steepled his fingers and frowned. He’d learned on the Peninsula the hard way that some battles were not worth fighting.
“Mother arrived last night.”
“Ah.” Wynter leaned back in his chair and lazily propped one leg over the other.
“She’s reminded me how close I came to facing my own mortality. Reminded me how I was carried home on a litter, insensible, and how the local vicar had been called upon to perform last rites no less than three times.” He loathed the note of bitterness in his voice. Bitterness was below him, below the proud line of heroes he’d been born into.
“I suppose your loving mamma had a reason for dredging up that unhappy time from this past year?”
Radford nodded and then drained his glass. “She’s reached the conclusion I myself have refused to face.”
“Good Lord.” Wynter took a deep sip of his own drink. “This sounds serious.”
“It is serious. I have a responsibility to my family and my title that has been long neglected. In short, it is past time I get myself a wife and start producing heirs.”
The very thought of tying himself to a flitting, muslin-draped, empty-headed lady for the rest of his days turned his stomach.
“In all my experience,” Radford said, “I’ve never known a woman to tax her silly mind long enough to think of anything beyond fashion, gossip, and the financial security only a man can provide.”
“Gad, Evers, marriage can’t be as bad as all that. We’re talking about finding you a gently trained lady, not some harridan.”
Radford sighed. Wynter was right. “I suppose it can’t be worse than picking through the nags at Tattersall’s to find a truly superior piece of horseflesh.”
A blond brow rose. “Finding a wife isn’t like purchasing a new mare for your breeding program.”
“And why not? It is simply a breeding program I am looking to begin, is it not? Besides, what in blazes makes you an expert? You’re blissfully unattached . . . with no plans to tie yourself up in the foreseeable future.”
“True, true, I do try to avoid the curse of such an attachment,” Wynter admitted with a lazy wave. “But a lady, Evers. Their natures are more sensitive than even your highest-strung Arabian. And ten times more unpredictable.”
“Bah! I wish to make a list of qualities I should consider—a marriage list, I suppose. Make yourself useful for a change. Play the part of secretary.”
“I don’t know about this—” Wynter muttered.
“Just fetch a pen and a scrap of foolscap. I feel a burst of inspiration emerging.”
* * * * *
“Oh please do stop fidgeting, Iona.” The generally fearless May Sheffers thought her rebuke rang hollow even to her own ears. Especially when her heart was thumping in her throat. It took all her resolve not to pull out her lace handkerchief and tug it to bits, her nerves were so overset.
This is truly the only way.
The writ of eviction had arrived in the morning post. Luckily, May had caught sight of the letter and whisked the offensive missive from her ailing Aunt Winnie’s frail fingers. The dear woman, who’d nurtured May from her fourth year forward, didn’t need to know of the heartless treatment that wiry Mr. Bannor sought to bear upon them. Imagine, being tossed out of their home of the past two years like an unwanted pair of worn boots. She’d do anything to protect Aunt Winnie from having to worry about something as horrid as that.
May had spent the past month trying to solve the problem. She’d petitioned Mr. Bannor on several occasions to plead her case, only to find her explanations and promises of payment falling on ears made of stone. And that, along with the finality the writ of eviction presented, had forced May to take this outrageous course of action.
She had no other choice but appeal to the man who paid Mr. Bannor’s salary, the owner of the small cottage she and Aunt Winnie currently rented. That was why she’d borrowed Iona’s family carriage and was presently on her way to pay a call on the baffling Viscount Evers.
May could only pray Evers would sympathize with her plight.
“It’s not as if we deliberately failed to pay the rent these past three months,” May said sharply as the carriage swayed up Sion Hill toward their destination. Working up her ire helped sooth her jumpy nerves. “I never asked for Papa’s money to be tied up by the courts. He’s not dead! Neither is Mamma! Uncle Sires has gone too far. Trying to declare them dead just because he hadn’t heard word from them for the past seven years, indeed. I remember a time when eight years passed between correspondences. They are busy with their investigations, Iona. Not dead.”
“Yes, May,” Iona said in her proper tone that always grew more subdued, more silent whenever May lapsed into one of her loud outbursts. “I am certain you are correct. But paying a visit on a gentleman and a bachelor? We don’t even have a male escort, May. I wish you had allowed me to let my father handle this matter for you. Surely this action steps far beyond the bounds of—”
“Lady Iona Newbury. Do you or do you not still subscribe to the Mary Wollstonecraft school of thought?”
“I do. But—”
“And where does the indomitable Miss Wollstonecraft endorse handing our problems over to a man simply because we were born women?”
At that very moment, Iona’s family carriage pulled to an abrupt stop, sending May’s heart into another flutter of nervous activity. She fiddled a moment with her russet curls made impossibly unruly by the drenching weather. Her peacock blue walking dress, last year’s muslin and design, was slightly faded, but neatly pressed. Her oilskin cape had a small rip in the shoulder.
May sighed. All and all, she looked her usual shabby self.
The carriage driver opened the door and held a large umbrella for the two women to huddle under as they walked along the flower-lined path up to the imposing Longbranch House entrance.
A pair of growling marble tigers stood guard on each side of the double doors. May swallowed a lump of anxiety before boldly knocking. When no one immediately opened the door, she was ready to breathe a sigh of relief and convince herself that the thoughtless Viscount Evers had fled to London or his country estate.
He hadn’t taken the waters that morning. Iona’s younger sister, Lady Lillian, had returned from the Pump Room in a sour mood after lingering far longer than either Iona or May in hopes he might appear.
He could have left Bath. Fashionable bachelors seldom lingered in a city that was turning into a haven for the elderly and the chronically dull.
The door opened a crack just as the women turned to leave.
“Yes?” A long-faced butler drawled. He frowned down his nose at the two ladies while they shivered in the damp air. Despite all that was courteous, he appeared dead-set against allowing either woman the opportunity to seek refuge inside.
His cold demeanor didn’t dissuade May from her set path. It wasn’t as if this was her first time facing down an uppity servant. Three weeks out of every year, May and Aunt Winnie visited her uncle Sires at his estate, Redfield Abbey in Wiltshire. And for those three dreadful weeks, the entire household of servants seemed to sneer down their noses and sniff in indignation whenever finding themselves in May’s service. And never once did their disapproval overset her nerves.
Neither would this impertinent butler blocking the entrance to Viscount Evers’ home. She narrowed her gaze and thrust Iona’s and her own card into the butler’s gloved hand. “I demand to see the viscount.” A cruel smile curled her lips when he refused to budge. “I will stand out on this stoop and make a nuisance of myself in front of his neighbors if you dare deny me.”
The butler grumbled something about having his head served on a platter before throwing open the doors. He took their cloaks, ushered the two women into a cozy parlor just off the grand pink marble entranceway, and then ambled off, still shaking his head and mumbling.
“The viscount won’t agree to see us,” Iona said as she flounced into a petite chair. “It wouldn’t be proper.”
“I believe you are correct.” May left the warmth of the dainty parlor and followed the path the butler had taken. Iona, not one to ever be left behind, raised her skirts and ran with a hoyden’s charm to catch up.
“Well, send them away,” an angry male voice carried through the empty hall.
May couldn’t make out the butler’s reply, but she could guess he was doing a valiant job pleading her case from the shouted exclamation that followed the short silence.
“Take up residence? That is ridiculous, Jeffers. I told you not to disturb me and here you are disturbing me yet again. Go away.”
“He sounds like he’s in a temper,” Iona whispered.
“Naught but male bluster,” May said, praying she was right. She held her breath and pushed open the closed door, having determined that the source of the angry voice resided within. Without waiting for a by your leave, she took Iona’s hand in her own and marched into the leather-appointed study with her head held high, a solid army front.
“Pardon me for intruding,” she said in the haughtiest tone she could muster, “but I must demand a word with you, my lord. It concerns a matter of importance that simply cannot be put off for another day.”
Her sharp gaze landed on the viscount, lounging like a man who hadn’t a care in the world with his booted foot propped on his lovely desk. He was a handsome devil.
Though they’d never been properly introduced, she’d seen him several times when she accompanied her aunt to the Pump Room. While Winnie leaned heavily on her arm as they took a turn around the room, nodding at familiar faces, May had caught her gaze straying more than once to the raven-haired gentleman with those arresting jade-colored eyes. He rarely stopped to converse with anyone.
She had watched as he’d stubbornly struggled to hide a severe limp and make his way around the Pump Room without the aid of a cane. Lord Nathan Wynter always accompanied the viscount, smiling and nodding to the young ladies while swinging the unused cane.
“Ladies.” Lord Nathan leapt to his feet, nearly knocking over the small writing desk beside which he was sitting. He sketched a bow, a deep blush rising to his cheeks. May watched with interest as he hastily pushed a piece of foolscap into his pocket.
She wasn’t surprised to find him here in the viscount’s study. Bath was awash with gossip and speculation centering on Viscount Evers and how he begrudgingly accepted the support of his loyal friend Lord Nathan. One couldn’t sit down in a tearoom without being bombarded with stories of how Evers received his injuries in the heat of a heroic battle and how he’d since become just a shadow of the bright, young rogue he used to be.
“Lady Iona Newbury and Miss Margaret Sheffers, my lord,” the butler announced in a loud voice, as if he’d orchestrated May’s and Iona’s surprise appearance.
“Indeed,” Viscount Evers drawled. His dark brows rose at least an inch. He studied the women several moments before lowering his foot from his desk. His jaw tightened as his foot dropped to the floor, the only hint his movement might have pained him.
May felt only the briefest frisson of guilt.
After all, he was responsible for his man-of-affairs, Mr. Bannor. And Bannor was the villain threatening to evict May and her dear Aunt Winnie from their home—no doubt with the viscount’s blessing.
Evers fastened a hardened gaze on May as he rose from his chair. The pressure of his scrutiny wrecked havoc on her confidence until she noticed the reason for his unbreakable concentration. His hand stayed in contact with the desktop while he walked stiffly out from behind his artificial throne.
This wasn’t a fearful force more powerful than the king. He was just a man fashioned, like her, from flesh and blood.
“Ladies.” He gave a shallow bow. With a languid sweep of his perfectly manicured hand, he motioned to a small sofa by the fire grate. “Please sit and share this matter of business so urgent it supercedes all rules of propriety.”
He smiled, flashing his teeth in a wholly unnecessarily aggressive move. The nerve of him, handing her not only a frosty set-down but also displaying a most egregious snarl. May sucked in a breath and opened her mouth to return sharp words of her own, only her words wouldn’t be couched in feigned politeness.
But alas, she needed to charm the man—not prick his nerves. With a sweet smile that was anything but real, May obediently perched on the edge of the sofa he’d indicated. Iona crowded next to her. Like a nervous bird, her friend shivered, which did nothing to bolster her own wearying nerves.
“Please fetch a pot of tea,” Viscount Evers said quietly to the butler. Curiously, Wynter responded to the request with a nod and a playful wink.
What in heavens was going on? Never had May felt more like she’d stumbled into a den of lions. Perhaps the rules of propriety, deeming it unseemly for a woman to visit a bachelor in his home, were based on some very real danger. She felt her smile strain.
“Gentlemen, I sincerely appreciate your taking the time to receive us after we’ve practically stormed the gates.”
“Practically?” The viscount’s raven eyebrows jutted up again. The one word nearly exploded with sarcasm.
“Well, yes. I do apologize for my behavior. Lady Iona is only here because I wouldn’t allow her to change my mind about seeing you, and she insisted I not make this visit alone.” May swallowed her pride and kept her painful grin firmly in place. “I wouldn’t have dreamed of disturbing you in this manner if there was any other way . . . ”
His expression glowed with interest. He leaned against his desk and cocked his head. The fabric of his buff-colored superfine suit coat strained across his chest’s wide expanse.
Oh my, she really shouldn’t notice such things. She could be certain he wasn’t noticing anything alluring about her person.
No man ever had.
She was worse than plain. Uncle Sires had judged her an ugly duckling with no hope of ever blooming into a swan. Aunt Winnie had protested the charge, but given May’s ruddy hair, olive-tinged complexion, and rather stout shape, the dear woman didn’t have much material to work with. She has a heart of gold, Winnie had finally concluded.
And no chance for attracting a husband. Uncle Sires’ biting words had been spoken six years ago when May was barely eighteen and had excitedly inquired about her come-out. They still held power over her today. A heated blush rose up her neck.
She’d no right to look longingly upon a man as handsome as the Viscount Evers. No right at all. For all she knew, his stomach was churning from being forced to gaze upon a full-grown duck as unappealing as her.
His lightly arched brows furrowed and his glare grew impossibly hard. “If there was any other way . . . ?” he asked.
The question caught May off guard. What was he asking? Any other way, what? A growing blush stung her cheeks as she realized her overlong stare had interrupted her own explanation, mid-thought. His question must have merely been an attempt to prod her into talking and to bring her to the point.
“My aunt and I rent number twelve Sydney Place,” she said.
His expression was as empty as a clear sky.
“You own the property,” she prompted.
For a moment May had a nervous feeling that she’d made a terrible mistake, that she’d intruded into the wrong man’s home. “Mr. Bannor is your man-of-affairs, is he not?” she asked with a crisp tone.
“He is. He handles my assortment of properties and investments.” Something dark and quite wicked crossed his brows. “Has Bannor offended you in some way, Miss Sheffers?”
May could not describe the relief that surged through her veins. “Indeed he has, my lord.”
She peeled the writ of eviction from the silk reticule that matched her gown and held it out for him to take. “He has sent this. Luckily, I opened the letter before my aunt Winnie had a chance to read it. She’s in poor health. Her heart. It was her ailing health that brought us to Bath from London, I’ll have you know. A shock such as this would only worsen her condition.”
“Indeed?” he drawled.
He took a moment then to read Bannor’s letter. May held her breath as she counted the slow passage of seconds.
“The writ claims you and your aunt have failed to pay rent for the past three months,” he said after more than two minutes of breathless silence. May was convinced she’d turned blue. “Is this true?”
Evers cut her off with a staying hand. “This is a matter for Bannor, miss. I have no interest in squabbles of this sort. I don’t interfere with my man-of-affair’s occupation.” His tone nearly coated the room with frost.
“Perhaps we could but listen to the women, Evers?” Wynter said, his gentle smile powerful enough to sway even the most stubborn of goats. “Surely, the task we were completing could only benefit from the experience?”
The viscount cast his friend a sidelong look. “No.” He took several stiff steps, closing the distance between him and May. “We shall change the subject.”
The long-nosed butler interrupted then with a tea tray. Steam rose from the finely hand-painted blue pot. An intricate scene depicting several maidens crossing an oriental bridge came to life on the porcelain. May couldn’t help but wonder at the small fortune the viscount must have paid for the tea service as she silently poured the tea into the cups.
She took a long sip, a bounty of flavors filling her mouth. Her aunt’s watery brew tasted like dirty hot water in comparison.
“A change of topics, then?” Wynter prompted after taking a sip of his tea as well. Mischief sparkled in his eyes.
May strangled the teacup’s handle with a small measure of alarm. Perhaps the men were planning to make sport of the two foolish maidens like a scene out of a children’s fable after all.
“I would rather—” she started.
At that very moment Viscount Evers blurted, “How old are you, Miss Sheffers?” He looked serious, too serious.
“Four-and-twenty. Now if you would please but listen.”
“Is that on the shelf?” Evers turned and asked Wynter.
At least Wynter had the honor to drop his mouth open with embarrassment. “I don’t believe so,” he said, wincing. “Not quite.”
“And horses, Miss Sheffers, what are your thoughts on them?”
The question was utter nonsense. Had the viscount’s war injuries addled his mind? “I-I don’t know, my lord. I’ve lived my entire life in London and don’t know much about the creatures. They are rather large . . . imposing, I suppose.”
He merely shrugged. “And you Lady Iona? How old are you?”
Iona, bless her, tilted her chin up like a true lady. “I am one-and-twenty, my lord, and by no means on the shelf. Neither is Miss Sheffers. My own mamma didn’t marry until she was five-and-twenty, having to wait for my papa to come to his good senses.”
Wynter tossed back his head and laughed boldly. “Very good, my lady.”
The behavior of the two men, as if they shared a private jest at hers and Iona’s expense, went beyond improper. Their idea of humor was just too much to bear. May felt at a loss. What should she do? Salvaging this confrontation with the viscount was clearly beyond hope. She sprang to her feet. Coming to his home was a mistake. A blot on her normally logical mind.
“My lords,”—she swept the room with her most menacing glare—“since you are unwilling to listen to my plight and help a gentlewoman in need, I believe I have no choice but to bring this farce to an end. Good day.”
She snatched up Iona by the wrist and bolted from the room.
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