The Lady Confesses
Author:Carole Mortimer

The Lady Confesses By Carole Mortimer

 

 

 

 

Chapter One

 

May, 1817—Hepworth Manor, Devon

 

‘How dare you? Lord Thorne, I insist you release me at once!’

 

Lord Nathaniel Thorne, Earl of Osbourne, laughed huskily, his lips moving to the ebony-haired beauty’s throat. She avoided his kiss by struggling in the confines of his arms, the squirming of those slender curves as she lay across him only succeeding in increasing Nathaniel’s pleasure. ‘You know you do not mean that, my dear Betsy…’

 

‘I most certainly do mean it!’ She raised her head to glare down at him with eyes of an indignant and deep blue surrounded by long dark lashes, her dark curls smelling of lemon and jasmine.

 

Nathaniel smiled confidently. ‘A kiss, Betsy, that is all I ask.’

 

Her mouth tightened determinedly. ‘Very well—you asked for this!’

 

Nathaniel drew in a swift hissing breath as the woman in his arms deliberately pushed against his chest in an attempt to wrench herself free, a painful reminder that he had broken several of his ribs only nine days previously, which had resulted in his being confined to this bed or another ever since.

 

A fact this little minx was well aware of!

 

‘And you have been asking for this for days!’ Nathaniel’s arms tightened instead of releasing her as his teeth nibbled at one delicately scented earlobe.

 

Her struggles ceased, her expression one of blank bewilderment as she looked down at him. ‘I have?’

 

Well…perhaps he exaggerated the situation slightly. But after four days spent in London being confined to his bed and fussed over by his closest relative—his widowed and childless Aunt Gertrude—followed by another four days of discomfort inside his coach as they’d travelled to his aunt’s home on the rugged Devonshire coast, Nathaniel had felt in need of some feminine diversion.

 

Waking from an afternoon nap to find this delicious morsel tidying his bedchamber, also aware that no matter how painful his injuries were they had also allowed him to escape the tedium of a London Season and his aunt’s intention of finding him a wife, Nathaniel had decided to reward himself for that lucky escape by indulging in a little sport with his aunt’s young companion.

 

He grinned up at her unabashedly now. ‘You have been fussing about my bedchamber, and latterly myself, for this past half an hour: tidying the room, straightening my bedclothes, plumping my pillows.’ During which time he had been gifted with a tempting view of the fullness of her breasts as she leant across him and a tantalising glimpse of the plump, rosy-hued nipples that tipped those delicious breasts!

 

‘It was on your aunt’s instruction that I sat with you this afternoon.’ The ebony-haired beauty looked down the length of her little nose at him.

 

‘And where is my dear aunt this afternoon?’ he enquired.

 

‘She felt rested enough from the journey here to be able to go out in the carriage to reacquaint herself with friends in the area— You are deliberately changing the subject, my lord!’ She glared her indignation at him once again.

 

‘Am I?’ Nathaniel drawled in amusement.

 

‘Yes,’ she maintained firmly. ‘And I fail to see any encouragement on my part of this—this attack upon my person, in the mundane actions you have just described.’

 

Which was not to say that Elizabeth had found those attentions completely disagreeable, if she was being totally honest with herself.

 

Her last kiss—in fact, her only kiss—had been taken—stolen—from her several months ago by the local vicar’s precocious fifteen-year-old son, who unfortunately had a propensity for sweetmeats, cakes, spots and an unbecoming plumpness.

 

It had only been that expression of lazy satisfaction upon Lord Nathaniel Thorne’s handsome face, as he’d pulled her effortlessly into his arms, which had prevented Elizabeth from enjoying the sensation of allowing those sensually sculptured—and no doubt much more experienced—lips to possess her own.

 

The same satisfaction the earl displayed now as he looked down at the plump swell of her breasts made visible by the low neckline of her blue gown. ‘A man can only stand so much temptation, my dear Betsy.’

 

Elizabeth gave an inner wince at Lord Thorne’s continued use of the name bestowed upon her by Mrs Wilson almost two weeks ago, after that lady had declared ‘Elizabeth’ was far too refined a name for the young lady she intended to employ as a companion.

 

Nor did Elizabeth appreciate the way in which Lord Thorne continued to ogle her breasts; she had no doubts Mrs Wilson would dismiss ‘Betsy’ without a single reference if she were to enter the bedchamber and witness this damning scene! ‘I am sure I offered you no such temptation, sir,’ Elizabeth argued.

 

He eyed her with amusement. ‘Then perhaps it was just wishful thinking on my part?’

 

‘And no doubt I should have expected such behaviour from someone who is obviously so well acquainted with a man such as Lord Gabriel Faulkner!’ she came back tartly.

 

The challenging insult had the desired effect of obtaining Elizabeth’s sudden release as she felt his lordship’s arms instantly fall back to his sides, which allowed her to struggle back onto her slippered feet. She pulled her crumpled gown into some semblance of order and tidied the disarray of her hair before venturing a glance at him once again.

 

The icy haughtiness of the earl’s expression and the dangerous glitter in the narrowed brown eyes that looked up at her so coldly warned her instantly that she had said something heinous. She sighed inwardly. Despite his suddenly cold demeanour, Lord Nathaniel Thorne, Earl of Osbourne, had to be one of the handsomest men in England—he was certainly one of the most handsome males Elizabeth had ever set eyes upon. His fashionably styled hair was the colour of ripe corn, those brown eyes a rich mahogany. His face was stunningly masculine, with high cheekbones, a long aristocratic nose and sculpted lips above a square and determined jaw.

 

As the earl had spent the majority of the last nine days wearing very little other than a shirt, and occasionally pantaloons, for the comfort of his injuries, Elizabeth could also vouch for the fact that he had very wide shoulders, a muscled chest and stomach sprinkled with a fine dusting of golden hair, lean and powerful hips, and long masculine legs perfectly suited to those thigh-hugging pantaloons and the highly polished Hessians he had worn for their journey into Devonshire.

 

Until this moment, from the occasions she had witnessed him in conversation with his overly affectionate aunt, she would also have said he was in possession of a tolerably pleasant, if slightly haughty, nature to go along with those rakish good looks.

 

The dangerous glitter that now lit those dark, almost black, eyes showed another side of him completely. No doubt it was that same ruthlessness of nature that had stood the earl in such good stead during his five years of fighting as an officer in Wellington’s army.

 

‘You will explain that last remark, if you please.’

 

The even pleasantness of Lord Thorne’s tone did nothing to soothe Elizabeth’s feelings of unease—the sort of unease one might feel, she imagined, as if the good-natured cat sleeping peacefully upon one’s hearth suddenly turned feral!

 

Her chin rose. ‘I noted Lord Faulkner’s visit to you five days ago.’

 

‘On the day of his return to England after an absence of eight years, yes.’ The earl’s manner remained frosty.

 

‘I—well—his scandalous past is well-known, surely, my lord?’

 

‘Is it?’

 

Elizabeth’s throat moved convulsively at the dangerous edge she now heard beneath the mildness of the earl’s tone. ‘The servants were all agog following his visit to you and I couldn’t help but overhear what they were saying about him, about the scandal that marred his past.’

 

‘Indeed?’ Those blond brows rose. ‘And am I to take it you are the type of young lady who enjoys listening to such malicious gossip?’

 

Elizabeth felt her cheeks flush at this deliberate set-down. ‘It can hardly be termed as malicious when it also happens to be the truth.’

 

Nathaniel’s previous arousal had completely dissipated during the latter part of this conversation. ‘How old would you have been eight years ago?’ he asked.

 

‘I do not see—’

 

‘I asked how old?’ he demanded harshly.

 

She blinked. ‘I believe I would have been but eleven years old, sir.’

 

Nathaniel nodded. ‘And no doubt you resided in Cambridgeshire at that time?’

 

A perplexed frown marred her creamy brow. ‘I have never resided in Cambridgeshire, my lord.’

 

‘Then how can you, a mere child of eleven years, who did not even reside in Cambridgeshire at the time of this supposed scandal, possibly speak with any authority as to what is or is not true with regard to Lord Faulkner’s past?’ Nathaniel looked at her implacably as he sat up against the pillows she had recently plumped.

 

A delicate blush darkened her creamy cheeks, although that stubborn little chin remained high. ‘It appears to be public knowledge that Lord Faulkner was once involved in the seduction of an innocent young girl.’

 

Nathaniel was well aware of the gossip that had circulated amongst the ton eight years ago with regard to Gabriel Faulkner, one of his two closest friends. He had not, however, been aware that very same gossip was once again in circulation upon Gabriel’s return from the Continent to take up his duties as the new Earl of Westbourne. Duties which Gabriel had calmly stated would include making an offer of marriage to one or other of his wards, the three young Lady Copelands, who were the previous earl’s daughters. Never having met any of the sisters, Gabriel had apparently not stated a preference as to which of them it should be.

 

 

Damn it, Nathaniel should have been in London to at least stand at his friend’s side when Gabriel announced his presence back in society, and not languishing in Devon nursing broken ribs. Not that Nathaniel believed Gabriel would need, or indeed appreciate, anyone’s support, tacit or otherwise; during his eight long years of exile Gabriel Faulkner had become one of the proudest and most arrogant men the English ton was ever likely to meet!

 

Still, if nothing else, he would have liked to have been present to see some of those well-bred faces when Gabriel took up his rightful place in society. Instead of which Nathaniel had left London for Devon almost immediately upon Gabriel’s arrival back in town, his only means of entertainment being this outspoken young lady who was his aunt’s companion.

 

‘Indeed?’ he drawled icily.

 

Elizabeth pursed her delectable mouth. ‘You are aware of a different version of events, perhaps?’

 

Nathaniel’s gaze swept over her contemptuously before he replied in a disdainful voice. ‘If I am, then I assure you I am not inclined to share it with you.’

 

He meant to be insulting, and he had succeeded, causing the colour to drain from her cheeks as she felt herself suitably chastened for having seriously overstepped the bounds of her current role of companion.

 

For it was a role. And one which did not sit altogether comfortably upon the slender shoulders of a young woman who, until two and a half weeks ago, had enjoyed the title of Lady Elizabeth Copeland, the youngest daughter of the previous, and now deceased, Earl of Westbourne.

 

It was the very reason Elizabeth had taken such an interest in acquainting herself with the gossip concerning Lord Gabriel Faulkner, the man who had not only become the new Earl of Westbourne on the death of Elizabeth’s own father almost seven months ago, but also guardian to Elizabeth and her two sisters.

 

All three of the Copeland sisters had been badly shaken by their father’s sudden demise and equally alarmed on learning that, their two cousins having died at the Battle of Waterloo, the title of earl had now passed to a man who was a second or third cousin of their father’s. That man was Gabriel Faulkner. A man none of the sisters had ever met. A man, moreover, who was rumoured to have behaved so disgracefully eight years ago that society had chosen to banish him, and his own family had disowned him.

 

Having lived all of their lives at their father’s country estate, Diana, Caroline and Elizabeth had never been made privy to the details of that scandal and, despite having made discreet enquiries upon learning he was now their guardian, none of them had been able to ascertain the exact nature of that disgrace. The only information any of them had been able to garner on the man at the time—it had been left to the recent gossip below stairs at Mrs Wilson’s home to fill in the exact nature of that scandal—was his banishment to the Continent eight years ago, and that he had been an officer in Wellington’s army for five years, before residing in Venice these past two years.

 

Lord Faulkner, it seemed, had not been in any hurry to return to England and take up his duties as the Earl of Westbourne, or his guardianship of the Copeland sisters, none of them having so much as set eyes upon him when they had received a letter from that so-called gentleman some months after their father’s death, in which he had made an offer of marriage to whichever of the three Copeland sisters would have him!

 

No doubt, with the scandal of their own mother having abandoned her husband and three young daughters ten years ago—Harriet Copeland had fled Shoreley Park for London and the arms of her young lover, then been shot by that young lover only months later before he had then turned the pistol upon himself—Lord Faulkner had perhaps believed that one of the Copeland sisters would be so desperate for marriage they would be happy to accept an offer from a man equally as shrouded in scandal.

 

He had been wrong.

 

Her sister Caroline’s answer to that offer had been to run away from her home and sisters three weeks ago. Equally as horrified at the prospect of such a marriage, Elizabeth had followed her sister’s example only days later.

 

Having made her escape from the possibility of that unwanted marriage, and subsequently managing to find employment in London with Mrs Wilson, Elizabeth had then been shocked to her core when Gabriel Faulkner had arrived at that lady’s house only days ago to visit Mrs Wilson’s injured nephew, Lord Nathaniel Thorne, the two men having apparently been best friends for some years!

 

Admittedly the new Earl of Westbourne had proved to be exceedingly handsome, more so than Elizabeth or her two sisters could ever have guessed. But those arrogantly dark and fashionable good looks did nothing to lessen the shock she had felt upon hearing the details of that gentleman’s past scandal as the servants gossiped below stairs whilst he visited with Lord Thorne upstairs…

 

Only the fact that the whole of Mrs Wilson’s household was to be immediately removed to Devonshire, well away from London—and Lord Faulkner!—had prevented Elizabeth from fleeing into the night for the second time in as many weeks.

 

‘It was not my intention to insult Lord Faulkner,’ she dismissed coolly now, knowing from Mrs Wilson that Lord Faulkner and that lady’s nephew had been friends from their school-days; a fact Elizabeth should perhaps have realised sooner, considering that Mrs Wilson had also informed her shortly after she had taken employment with that lady of her nephew’s recent return from visiting with a friend in Venice!

 

‘Then perhaps the insult was directed at me?’ Nathaniel drawled softly.

 

She had meant to insult him, Elizabeth acknowledged ruefully. She could not imagine why any gentleman of the ton would wish to remain friends with a man as dissolute and rakish as Gabriel Faulkner was reputed to be. Unless that gentleman was equally as disreputable himself?

 

A fact perhaps borne out by Lord Thorne having received his present injuries in what sounded distinctly like a drunken brawl, as well as his recent unwanted advances towards her? ‘I apologise if that was your impression, my lord,’ she said stiffly. ‘Although, in my defence, I do believe you offered me just provocation,’ she could not resist adding.

 

Nathaniel regarded her beneath hooded lids. At a little over five feet tall, her slender figure shown to advantage in the plain blue gown, with her ebony curls arranged in a simple if fashionable style, and her face one of delicate beauty—fine dark brows, deep blue eyes, a tiny nose above a perfect bow of a mouth—Miss Betsy Thompson somehow did not have the looks, or indeed the voice, of a paid companion to a lady of wealth and quality.

 

And how would he know what one of those should look like? Nathaniel mused self-derisively.

 

Yes, Miss Betsy Thompson was in possession of a rare and tempting beauty, and the refinement of her voice spoke of an education, but for all Nathaniel knew of such things that could merely be because she was the daughter of an impoverished gentleman or clergyman, in need of employment to support herself until some equally impoverished young gentleman took her as his wife, before then producing a houseful of even more impoverished children to continue the cycle!

 

Incarcerated in Devon, and so robbed of rakish entertainment as well as all news of London society—his aunt had refused to even allow Nathaniel to read the newspapers this past eight days in case he ‘became overset’ by anything printed in them!—Nathaniel had only thought to provide himself with a diversion from his increasing boredom when he’d attempted to kiss his aunt’s young companion. Certainly he had not intended engaging in a verbal exchange during which this outspoken young woman had dared to insult one of his closest and dearest friends.

 

He had no doubts that Gabriel would have simply laughed off such an insult, used as he was to the sideways glances of the gentlemen of the ton and the gossip behind the raised fans of their wives and daughters—along with their surreptitious and hypocritical lust for his dark and dangerous good looks. Nathaniel had never been able to dismiss those slights to his friend so easily, and never ceased to feel enraged by them.

 

Especially as he knew that gossip to be wholly untrue.

 

His mouth thinned now as he looked at Betsy Thompson beneath hooded lids. ‘The apology alone would have sufficed,’ he rasped. ‘Now, is there not some other service which you need to be busy performing for my aunt? Surely you have completed this one to the best of your ability.’

 

And been found wanting, Elizabeth acknowledged irritably, very aware that the laughingly flirtatious man who had tried to kiss her a few minutes ago had completely disappeared to be replaced by a gentleman who was now every inch the wealthy and powerful Earl of Osbourne, with vast estates in Kent and Suffolk, as well as a beautiful town house in London.

 

She gave a brief inclination of her head. ‘I believe it is time for Hector’s afternoon walk.’

 

‘Ah, yes.’ The earl gave a hard, mocking smile. ‘I have noticed, with my aunt’s cousin Letitia already in residence, you are more companion to my aunt’s dog than to my aunt herself.’

 

Yet another insult, no matter how smoothly it was delivered, Elizabeth recognised with a frown. Unfortunately, experience had shown her that with no references it was almost impossible to find employment in London. Indeed, Elizabeth had only succeeded in securing her present position in Mrs Wilson’s household because of her heroic rescue of that lady’s pampered and much-loved Scottish Terrier, after he had slipped his lead in a London park one afternoon and run amok.

 

 

As such, Elizabeth needed to maintain her employment with Mrs Wilson if she did not wish to return to Shoreley Park and that dubious offer of marriage from Lord Faulkner. A fate Elizabeth still considered—despite now knowing of that gentleman’s roguish good looks—to be more painful than death itself.

 

Lord Faulkner could not know it, but Elizabeth was actually doing him a great service by not accepting his proposal; she was the daughter most likened to her mother in looks, and as such had always been viewed with suspicion by neighbouring matrons of sons of marriageable age, in the fear, no doubt, that she might be like her mother in other ways…

 

Her chin rose proudly. ‘I really do sincerely apologise for any offence I may have given, my lord.’

 

Somehow Nathaniel doubted that very much. He had easily seen the battle taking place within Miss Betsy Thompson’s beautiful head as she wrestled with the knowledge that she considered herself to be in the right of it, whilst at the same time totally aware that she was speaking to the favourite nephew—in fact, the only nephew—of her employer.

 

Indeed, that inner battle had been so transparent he might have laughed aloud if he were not still feeling so disgruntled with her on Gabriel’s behalf.

 

After all, he had earlier attempted to steal a kiss from this young woman for his own enjoyment. And the fact that Nathaniel had received his injuries from paid thugs as he’d left a gambling club owned by yet another of his disreputable friends was not in the least flattering to his own reputation…

 

He viewed Betsy Thompson through narrowed lids. ‘You have not been a paid employee for very long, have you?’

 

A delicate blush coloured those ivory cheeks. ‘What makes you say that, my lord?’

 

The mere fact that she was daring to question him like this, an earl and the nephew of her employer, was reason enough! ‘You do not appear to know your place.’

 

Those blue eyes sparkled with what he knew without doubt to be a fierce temper. ‘My place, my lord?’

 

Had he ever had another conversation like this one? Nathaniel mused ruefully. Somehow he doubted it. ‘I believe it is the usual practice to show a little more…respect, when addressing one’s elders and betters,’ he drawled with deliberate provocation; after all, the blue of this young lady’s eyes did look particularly fine when she was in a temper!

 

Considering Nathaniel Thorne was a mere eight, or possibly nine years, her senior, Elizabeth did not consider him in the least ‘her elder’. And as Lady Elizabeth Copeland, the daughter of an earl, neither was he ‘her better’.

 

Except she was not Lady Elizabeth Copeland at this moment in time, was she? And she had no idea when she would become so again. Or, indeed, if she ever would…

 

Leaving her home had been a purely impulsive act on her part, a response to Caroline’s identical response to Lord Faulkner’s proposal two days earlier. Those two days had been spent in a fruitless search of the local area for the missing Caroline and had resulted in the other two sisters assuming that she had likely fled all the way to London.

 

London…

 

All three of the Copeland girls had always wished for, and repeatedly been denied by their father, so much as a single visit to England’s capital, let alone the Season that might have secured a marriage for any or all of them, on the basis, no doubt, that Marcus Copeland had considered the temptations to be found there to be responsible for his wife’s abandonment of her family.

 

Whatever his rationale for the decision, Caroline and Elizabeth especially had longed to experience some of those ‘temptations’ for themselves; Diana, the eldest sister at one and twenty, had always been the more reserved of the three, taking her responsibilities as mistress of Shoreley Park and surrogate mother to her two younger sisters very seriously indeed.

 

And so first Caroline, and then Elizabeth, had left the only home they had ever known for the excitement that London represented. Elizabeth could not speak for Caroline, of course, having had neither sight nor word of her sister’s whereabouts since reaching the city, but she had quickly realised that the excitements of town only applied to the wealthy and titled members of London society, and that the paid companion she had been forced by circumstances to become was merely a lowly employee at the mercy of the whims and fancies of her employer, with very few glimpses of the world she had so longed to inhabit.

 

Elizabeth had also had plenty of time in which to realise how much she missed her sisters, how alone she felt without the two of them to laugh and gossip with. To realise how, being the youngest sister, Caroline and Diana had been her companions for all of her nineteen years.

 

Indeed, Elizabeth had missed them so much that, on the day she had effected the recapture of Hector after he had made his escape from Mrs Wilson in the park, she had briefly, foolishly, thought she had seen Caroline seated as a passenger of the most fashionable coach travelling in the park that day.

 

It was nonsense, of course, a ridiculous notion only confirmed by Elizabeth’s glimpse of the gentleman easily controlling the pair of perfect but highly strung greys in front of that gleaming carriage. An aristocratic gentleman whose arrogant good looks were made to look dangerous by the scar that ran down the left side of his face. The rakish sort of gentleman none of the Copeland sisters had ever, or would ever, be acquainted with.

 

Nevertheless, that brief encounter had served to emphasise how deeply she wished to be with her sisters again. Unfortunately, Elizabeth—and no doubt Caroline, too—had realised since arriving in London that, when she’d left Hampshire so suddenly she had given no consideration as to how she was ever to learn when or if Lord Faulkner had quit Shoreley Park, thereby making it safe for her to return to her home.

 

Until a remedy to that situation occurred to her, it was very necessary that she retain her current position in Mrs Wilson’s household—something she would not be able to do if she ran foul of that lady’s much-loved nephew. ‘I apologise again, my lord, for any—any misunderstandings,’ she said stiffly, ‘but I am sure that your aunt will be pleased to hear how much better you are feeling this afternoon.’

 

‘Indeed?’ Nathaniel eyed her closely. ‘And what else do you intend telling my dear aunt about this afternoon?’

 

She looked pained at the accusation in his tone. ‘Why, nothing else, my lord.’

 

‘You do not consider I owe you an apology for my own behaviour just now?’ He looked across at her shrewdly.

 

Delicate colour warmed her cheeks as she avoided meeting his gaze. ‘I would much rather forget the incident ever happened, my lord.’ She looked slightly flustered. ‘Now, if you will excuse me, Hector will be waiting for his walk.’ She swept him a polite curtsy.

 

Nathaniel watched beneath hooded lids as Betsy left his bedchamber, knowing a slight disappointment in her response to his deliberate challenge; instead of a return of that temper he had been expecting—hoping for—the light of battle had seemed to fade from those clear blue eyes as she once again assumed the mantle of the young and demure companion of his aunt’s dog.

 

Assumed, because Nathaniel had serious doubts that Miss Betsy Thompson had ever been born to such a subservient role…