Dangerous Deceptions Book 3. A lady in hiding, a rake reforming – and a traitor at large.
Theo Quenten, the new Viscount Northam, should be happy. He’s wealthy, privileged and newly betrothed – even if it is to a lady he hardly knows. Staying with his friend Perry, Lord Manners on the North Norfolk coast will blow away his discontent and restore his sense of proportion, he thinks.
But Theo walks into a tangle of danger and deceit. He has his dates wrong, Perry isn’t home and there’s a young lady on the run hiding there instead. As Theo becomes enmeshed with smugglers, murderous attacks on the curate, mysterious tombs and French gold he realises he is falling for fugitive Laura Darke. And that’s impossible – a gentleman does not jilt a lady he had only just proposed to.
Somehow Theo, aided by old friends and new, is going to have to identify a traitor and salvage his own honour while convincing the rebellious Miss Darke that he really is the man for her.
2 May 1813. London
Theo Quenten, Viscount Northam, opened one eye, closed it again and contemplated death, either his own or that of the person currently working on his brain with a pickaxe.
Someone was moving stealthily about his bedchamber. He hoped it was his own chamber, because the way he felt, if it belonged to a lady, he could not have put up much of a performance the night before, let alone recall her name now. Then he recalled with a mental jolt that deliciously wicked ladies and their more professional sisters, were out of bounds now.
His birthday. That was what had caused the torture that was resolving itself into an almighty hangover. He was twenty six, he’d been Lord Northam for thirteen months, and had celebrated last night with the determination to put a year of sober, responsible living, and what it had just led to, behind him. For a few hours he’d wanted the old hedonistic, spendthrift existence he had enjoyed before, when the title had been a distant prospect and he had floated through life, borne aloft by his own optimistic nature and his indulgent uncle’s money, with his father’s poor health the only blight.
Then his uncle was murdered, his father survived just a month as Viscount Northam, and Theo had been catapulted into what should have been wealth and responsibility and was in fact the horror of being a prime suspect for homicide.
He shuddered at the memory and opened both eyes with a wince and an oath, muffled by a mouthful of bedclothes. Some idiot had drawn the drapes back.
‘My lord?’ That was Pitkin, his exceedingly nervous valet, which meant he was, at least, in his own bed.
‘Devil of a hangover,’ Theo muttered.
‘I thought… that is, I asked Cook for a remedy. If you would like that, my lord? Or – ’
‘Give it here.’ Theo lurched up from the pillows, took the glass held out to him and gulped the contents, eyes closed, trying not to breathe. Only the Devil knew what Cook put in her corpse revivers, but they worked after a few moments of anguish.
‘Breakfast, my lord?’
‘Coffee. Black. Hot. Now. Do not mention food.’
Pitkin tiptoed out so softly that it was as distracting as a troop of cavalry passing through – a considerable achievement for someone so slight and short.
Theo opened both eyes and wondered whether today was the day when he finally lost patience and gave the man his notice, even though he was competent, hard-working, had good taste and was discreet.
All these things had been promised by Michael Flynn that Machiavelli of valets, the Duke of Calderbrook’s red-haired henchman, when he had recommended Pitkin to Theo. ‘He’s perfect, except that he can’t say boo to a goose, is a terrible worrier and may drive you to drink,’ Flynn had warned. ‘But he deserves a chance. His first two employers sacked him within weeks because he’s so nervous, although why he is, I have no idea.’
Flynn had found him Pitkin as a favour to Jared, Viscount Ravenlaw, best friend of Calderbrook and the third husband of Theo’s aunt-by-marriage, Guin. Viscounts needed proper valets, Jared had said. Firmly. Theo decided to restrain his impatience for another day. He owed them all for exposing the true murderer of his uncle and besides, it didn’t do to upset Flynn. Or Jared, come to that.
Pitkin sidled in with the coffee, put it down and then fled to the dressing room. Theo sipped and waited for his head to reconnect to his spine. Either he was out of practice at carousing, or he was getting old, because the evening had been nowhere near as enjoyable as those he nostalgically recalled.
The Season was in full swing, the weather was balmy and the Marriage Mart had opened its arms wide to a young viscount unencumbered by debt and with a reputation for wildness now, apparently, behind him. And he knew that what was expected of him was to make the appropriate marriage to a well-bred virgin with good child-bearing hips and a hefty dowry.
He was trying hard to do this viscount business right, so he had. Or, at least, he had identified the well-bred virgin – without, naturally, inspecting her hips too closely – and had put the question the day before. Her father, the Earl of Prestwich, had been delighted at the prospect of acquiring Theo as a son-in-law. The bride, Lady Penelope Haddon, had seemed less rapturous, but perhaps that was either her strict upbringing or a naturally bland personality. He did not know her well enough to tell.
She had regarded him solemnly with her serious hazel eyes, appeared to take a deep breath and then said, ‘I would be happy to accept, my lord, but with one condition. I would like to wait until October to be married and I would prefer to keep the matter private between us.’
The explanation for this seemed more than reasonable to a bridegroom who was not exactly desperate to get to the altar: she was assisting her sister with her own wedding preparations and then she had promised to visit her elderly grandmother in Somerset and then, of course, there was her trousseau to assemble. Her father had pulled a long face when informed of her wishes, but to Theo surprise, he had not pressed her, nor insisted when she said that she did not want the betrothal bruited abroad yet. He had just seemed relieved to have her future settled.
‘There is such a fuss when a betrothal is announced,’ Lady Penelope had murmured. ‘And I do not want attention taken away from dear Carola. She has not made such a good match,’ she added demurely.
Theo could only agree and accept what the lady wanted.
So had gone out and thrown himself into his birthday celebrations with the result that he now felt queasy from both drink and looming matrimony. Almost six months before it happens, he comforted himself. And his betrothed did not appear to expect him to dance attendance on her. Probably she was welcoming the last months of freedom as much as he was.
‘I need a holiday from London, Pitkin.’
The valet, sidling in with a pile of neck cloths, blinked and placed them precisely in the centre of the dresser. His glossy dark brown curls, surely the envy of every female who saw him, caught the sun from the window and Theo shut his eyes with a wince. ‘There is the invitation to Lord Manners’ Norfolk home, my lord. But that is not for – ’
Theo consulted his returning memory. ‘Six days. But Perry won’t mind if I go down a few days early. Excellent idea, Pitkin. Well done.’ Perhaps some positive encouragement would help the valet’s nerves.
‘But, my lord. It is not – ’
‘Stop fussing, man. When I’m dressed, pack for a month. Usual country gear, mostly sporting, but I expect there’ll be a few local assemblies, dinners. Possibly a ball and I’m not sure how long I’ll stay – What?’
‘But, my lord, you will be early.’
‘Yes, I know.’ Theo drained his cup and poured another. Humanity was beginning to return. ‘A few days. I have just said, Perry won’t mind.’
‘But – ’
‘Pitkin, if you do not stop dithering and if-ing and but-ing and get on with fetching my shaving water then I may well have to consider whether you are suited to be my valet.’ And be damned to what Flynn will say.
‘My lord – ’
‘You are an excellent valet, Pitkin, but I will not be dithered at, is that understood? Do not mention being early again. Is that clear?’
‘Yes, my lord. I am sorry, my lord.’
Theo made a Forget it gesture with one hand and got out of bed. The floor and ceiling remained in their correct alignment with each other: the day was improving.
4 May 1813. Mannerton Grange, the coast of Norfolk
‘Of course you can stay, Miss Laura. With Lord Manners away who’d think of looking for you here?’ Mrs Bishop flipped a sheet of pastry over her rolling pin and draped it across the empty pie dish in front of her. ‘Shocking, I call it. Shouldn’t be allowed.’ She banged the pin down on the table. Flour flew up and three eggs rolled towards the edge. ‘And don’t you worry about the rest of the staff, neither. They all know you of old, and how things are. They’ll keep their mouths shut.’
Laura caught the eggs and sat cradling them in her hands. When she had been a child the kitchen at Mannerton had been a favourite place until the widowed Lady Manners had died and Peregrine Wilshire, the very youthful Baron Manners, had been packed off to live with his maternal grandparents. When he had returned she would visit whenever she could find an excuse to come westwards along the coast from Sedgley Manor, the home of her guardian and uncle, Sir Walter Sedgley, his wife and two unmarried sons. And then, a year ago, the visits had been forbidden. It was unsuitable for Laura to visit her friend Perry, it was deemed.
It had not been long before she had realised what lay behind that prohibition. ‘I am not marrying my cousin Charles,’ she said flatly now. ‘They seem to think that discouraging me from meeting any unmarried men would make me accept him without argument. I can only assume they do not know me at all.’
From the scullery Polly, the undersized maid of all work, made a noise somewhere between a snort and a laugh and carried on scouring pans.
‘I always wondered why they didn’t want you visiting here. Did they think you’d go and fall for Master Perry, then? But he’s a good match.’
Laura shrugged. ‘It didn’t matter who it was. I have a lot of money, they want it and they’ve got control of it until I am twenty four or marry with my uncle’s consent.’
‘Give us those eggs, ducky.’ Cook put the pastry case in the oven and began to whisk up a custard. ‘That Charles is a strange lad, not quite twelve eggs to the dozen, if you ask me. But that brother of his… Expensive young man, Master Giles, by all accounts.’
‘Indeed he is – yet somehow Uncle Walter keeps finding the money to pay off his debts time and again. And I can guess where it is coming from,’ Laura said grimly. ‘He can’t get away with it forever, so they need to push me into marrying Charles as soon as possible and certainly before my birthday when I get control of my inheritance.’
‘Huh. I don’t hold with wilful girls, but neither do I hold with shutting them up until they marry foolish young men with less wit than chin.’ Mrs Bishop pounded peppercorns in a mortar with considerable emphasis. ‘And threatening you with bread and water! Medieval, I call it.’
‘A good thing the lock on my chamber door was so cheap. I never really believed that a bent hairpin would work, but Gothick novels are right after all.’ Laura felt cheered by the success of her escape. Her relatives clearly had no idea that she had the resolution or the competence to plan and carry out such a scheme – and all without having to involve any of the servants at the Manor.
‘When is Perry expected home, Mrs Bishop?’
‘A month, near enough, although he’s up to his usual tricks of gadding about and driving his man of business mad trying to keep track of him. No point in writing to him, I’d say. Do you think he’ll be able to help you?’
‘I hope so. I daren’t trust any local lawyer not to tell uncle and even if I did, I can’t lay my hands on my own money to pay fees. But Perry can lend me some and act for me. He is sure to know how to find a good London man who’ll be able to deal with my uncle’s lawyer. My birthday is in three months time, so there’s not long to hide.’
‘He’ll stand by you. A good man, the master. Chop that ham for me, there’s a love. We’ll have a nice savoury pie for our supper and – Sir?’
‘I beg your pardon. I did ring the front door bell, to no effect, then I saw the smoke from the kitchen chimney.’ The man stood at the open door to the yard, blond hair bright in the morning sunshine, and smiled. ‘Mrs Bishop, is it not? I recall your game pie with much affection. Is Manners at home?’
Mrs Bishop wiped her hands on her apron, moving in front of Laura as she did so. ‘His lordship’s not here, sir. That’s why there was no-one to answer the door. Both the footmen have gone into Holt to pick up the beer because Mr Hempstead’s wagon’s broken an axle, and the girls are at market… Why, it’s Mr Quenten, isn’t it? We weren’t expecting you for a while.’