Lady Rosabella's Ruse
Author:Ann Lethbridge

Chapter One

The weight of tedium hung heavy in the air. After only one hour at Lady Keswick’s Sussex mansion, Garth Evernden, eighth Baron Stanford, was bored. Summer house parties were all the same, deadly dull or wildly hedonistic and utterly predictable.

As he prowled in the wake of his hostess’s butler along a corridor lined with every Greek god known to man, he wondered why he hadn’t gone to Brighton. A fleeting thought of Prinny and his cronies produced a yawn.

Why had he accepted Lady Keswick’s invitation? Ah, yes, now he remembered his purpose. Having delivered Clarissa her congé last month, he needed an occupant for his discreet town house in Blackheath. A woman who would entertain his nights and stay out of his days. This gathering of philanderers and fast widows might provide such a woman, but now he was here, hope seemed elusive.

The butler threw back a pair of French doors. ‘The terrace, my lord, where you will find everyone gathered.’

‘No need to announce me.’

The butler grinned. ‘Hadn’t planned to, my lord. No standing on ceremony at The Grange.’

He’d forgotten Lady Keswick’s refreshing informality. Perhaps his stay wouldn’t be so bad.

A group of five or six men in dark coats and women in pastels hung over the terrace’s grey-stone parapet gazing at the lawn.

‘Look at Fitz go!’ one of the men hooted. Hapton. A slender brown-haired dandy of about forty summers, with a penchant for fast women and outrageous wagers. ‘I’ll wager a pony on him.’

The woman in yellow at his right turned her back on the view and laughed up at Hapton. Mrs Mallow made an enchanting picture with her lovely, if somewhat hard, face framed by luxurious chestnut curls and a lavender parasol. ‘My money is on the gardeners. Fitz is all go at the start, but in my experience, he has no stamina.’

General laughter along the rail met the sally.

Seeing Garth, Mrs Mallow waved. Hapton turned to look, grimaced, then swung back to whatever had their attention on the lawn. Taller than most, Garth peered over Hapton’s shoulder. It was a human wheelbarrow race. Two gentlemen against two brawny young men in homespun. Garth sighed. God, they were childish. He hoped this wasn’t the pinnacle of the entertainment to come.

Having not yet greeted his hostess, he turned away from the view and spotted her seated in a chair on wheels in the shade of a cluster of potted yews. A monstrous red wig battled with the purple of a sarcenet gown cut low enough to reveal an expanse of enormous breasts. Struggling to keep his gaze on her face and not the jiggling mass of flesh, he made his bow. ‘Lady Keswick, your servant.’

‘Lord Stanford. Welcome.’ She offered him a lazy smile, her puffy cheeks swelling to melon-sized proportions and practically obliterating her twinkling faded blue eyes. ‘I hope my staff took proper care of you?’

One hand to his heart, he offered his most charming smile. ‘The accommodations are excellent. I congratulate you on your new home.’

‘Good. Very good.’ She eyed him a little askance. ‘I expected you yesterday.’

‘I had trouble tearing myself away from a prior engagement.’

‘I never heard you had trouble bidding a woman farewell. Who was it this time?’

He raised a brow, let the mockery show on his face. ‘I don’t remember.’

A rich chuckle set her bosom trembling like a blancmange carried by a nervous footman. ‘Cheeky rogue. Now I recall why I invited you. You make me laugh.’

She made him laugh, too. Most of the time. He grinned at her. ‘Is everyone here?’

‘All that’s condescended to come.’

He eyed the women speculatively. From this angle, their pink, yellow and blue-clad bottoms were presented in a row like choice desserts on a plate—they looked delicious. Choosing was always interesting.

Tasting could be a disappointment.

A dog, an overweight pug, waddled from beneath the elderly lady’s skirts and growled at his reflection in Garth’s boots.

‘Hello, old chap.’ Garth bent down and scratched behind the dog’s ears. ‘Who are you?’ The dog stared up at him with bulbous eyes.

‘Digger,’ Lady Keswick said. ‘Come, sir. Lie down.’

The dog swaggered back into hiding.

A movement deeper in the shadows of the potted trees brought Garth to his feet. Another woman was seated behind his hostess, her black attire making her almost invisible.

He disguised a sharp intake of breath as he took in the woman’s face. Pale olive skin and dark, almond-shaped eyes gave her perfectly oval face an exotic mysterious look. The raven-black hair swept back and tightly constrained at her nape only added to the impression of reserve. His fingers tingled with the urge to see it fall in luxurious lengths to her shoulders. Her mouth tightened as he continued his perusal and he let his gaze linger on her lips. Set in her Madonna-like face, that mouth was a wonder. Full and lush, it spoke of carnal delights while it pretended disapproval.

A woman garbed like a nun with the face of a temptress.

He bowed. ‘I beg your pardon, madam. I did not see you.’

He glanced at Lady Keswick for an introduction and was surprised to see an odd expression flicker across the normally placid face. Concern? The look disappeared too fast for him to be sure. She waved an indolent pudgy hand. ‘Mrs Travenor.’

Married. Garth didn’t quite believe his instant flash of disappointment.

‘My dear, meet the worst scapegrace in London,’ the old lady continued. ‘Mrs Travenor is my companion.’

A widow, then. He cheered instantly. Illogically.

Mrs Travenor rose to greet him. Taller than he’d guessed, her eyes were on a level with his chin. Tall and willowy. She made a stiff curtsy, her head dipping briefly. Jasmine wafted up from her skin. A sensual fragrance for a woman who dressed like a crow. A pair of velvety brown eyes dusted with gold at their centres steadily returned his gaze. ‘My lord.’ The soft husky voice raised the hairs on his arms. The jolt of unwanted lust annoyed him. There was nothing about this woman to suggest she would welcome a discreet liason. Then why was he interested?

He inclined his head. ‘A pleasure to meet you, Mrs Travenor.’

A shaft of sunlight released by a passing cloud gilded the young woman’s warm-coloured skin, illuminating the quiet purity of her expression. A virginal widow? Hardly likely. But a woman best avoided.

She was the kind of female who expected the parson’s mousetrap at the end of the day. Had walked that path once already. He didn’t want a wife. The thought made him shudder. He had an heir. His brother. A man who deserved the title of Stanford, and Garth would make sure he got it.

‘Enough, Stanford.’

Garth realised he was still staring at the widow and dragged his gaze back to Lady Keswick. The elderly woman smiled at her companion fondly. ‘Rose doesn’t deserve your kind of trouble.’

Rose. The name seemed too trite for such exotic loveliness.

Lady Keswick waved a beringed hand. ‘Go join your fellow reprobates.’

Summarily dismissed, he joined the party watching the sport on the grass. He didn’t mind being warned off. Indeed, this was where he would find his next source of amusement, not with a woman who eyed him with disapproval even if he had seen a flicker of interest in those extraordinary brown eyes.

‘Stanford,’ Hapton said. ‘I thought you’d gone elsewhere?’ The man sounded less than pleased. He must have his eye on a morsel he feared Garth would steal. Well, that might make things a bit more interesting.

Garth greeted the languid dandy with a handshake and a raised eyebrow. ‘Tracking my movements, old boy?’

‘Hardly,’ the other man said with a glower.

Further along the wall, a woman’s head turned swiftly, her jaw dropping in dismay.

Penelope? His best friend’s wife? His stomach fell away. Disappointment, disgust, anger, followed each other in swift succession. He closed the distance between them with one long stride. ‘Lady Smythe. What are you doing here?’

Her green gaze beseeched him. ‘I—’

Mrs Mallow, her dark eyes gleaming with malicious delight, looped an arm through Penelope’s. ‘She came with me.’

And that was supposed to make it better? Maria Mallow was the female equivalent of a rake and not above leading a new bride astray. Anger curled tight fingers in his gut, despite his calm expression, as he bowed to the ladies.

Mark would be devastated when he learned of her treachery. And to think, he’d actually felt a twinge of envy for his friend’s obvious happiness when he’d attended their wedding a scant two months before.

Or did he have this all wrong? ‘Is Mark with you?’

Auburn-haired and freckle-faced, her flush was painful to watch. ‘My husband is away on business.’ Anger coloured her tone. It sounded like jealousy to his practised ear.

He frowned. ‘Does he know where you are?’

She stiffened and something like pain darkened her gaze. ‘Mark doesn’t care what I do.’

Had the blush of happiness faded so quickly? He found it hard to believe. Yet here she was, at a house renowned for high jinks among the guests.

Mrs Mallow patted Penelope’s hand. ‘What is sauce for the gander…’ She raised a brow. ‘Surely that is your motto, Forever?’

Forever was a nickname he’d earned years before. He ground his teeth. It was not his motto, though others here would claim it. Hapton, for example. Or Bannerby.

Damn Penelope. The girl was as bad as the rest of these women, but he couldn’t let it go. Pretend it was of no consequence. Damn it all.

In hindsight, his earlier boredom was a hell of a lot more inviting than the prospect of persuading a recalcitrant wife to go home.

Certainly not a role he’d ever played before.

He glanced back at the mysterious Mrs Travenor and caught her frowning gaze and his blood rose to the challenge.

Fiend seize it. Two women under one roof, likely to give him nothing but trouble.

Outwardly composed, inside, Rosabella Cavendish trembled like an aspen. For the first time in her life, she didn’t know what to think. One glance from those dark, coolly insolent eyes and her heart had drummed so hard and so loud her body shook. Why? He was no different from the rest of Lady Keswick’s male guests. Rakish. Confident. Handsome. All right, perhaps he was more handsome than the rest, with his lean athletic body and saturnine aristocratic features. His smile when he bent over the dog had been heart-stoppingly sweet.

None of that was what had sent her blood pounding in her veins, though. It was the way he had looked at her. Really looked at her. Most of them presumed her a poor widow forced to earn a living as a paid companion and their gazes moved on. He’d looked at her as if he saw her innermost secrets. She had the feeling that for the price of his smile, she’d tell him anything he wanted to know. Clearly the man was downright dangerous.

‘Striking-looking devil, ain’t he?’ Lady Keswick said, watching him shake hands with the men and greet the ladies to their obvious pleasure.

‘I hadn’t noticed,’ Rosa said, breathing deeply to settle her heart into its proper rhythm.

‘Don’t look at me with those innocent brown eyes, my dear. You’d have to be dead not to notice Stanford. Be warned, though, he’s an out-and-out rogue. Never settles on one woman when two will do.’

Facing Lady Smythe and Mrs Mallow, his spare elegant form in a dark coat and buff unmentionables a foil for their pastel gowns and fluttering ribbons, she sensed a wildness about him, a hard edge. Rosa’s insides fluttered with what could only be fear.

Sensible terror.

It certainly was not envy of the two beautiful ladies so obviously entranced by his company.

Beside the fashionable lush-figured Mrs Mallow in primrose, Lady Smythe looked ethereal in a gown of pale leaf green, the scalloped hem finely embroidered with flowering vines and her face framed within a leghorn bonnet adorned with a profusion of roses at the crown. The ruffled lace at her throat gave her an air of modesty out of place among Lady Keswick’s flashy company. A pearl among diamonds who, according to Lady Keswick, had been snapped up in her first Season by a man destined for political greatness. Every man at the house had been paying her attention from the moment she had arrived this morning. A woman who already had a husband, too.

A stab of something sharp in her chest stopped her breath. Surely she didn’t envy the young woman her attentive male court? A bunch of rakes and Stanford the worst of them?

The grande dame narrowed her eyes. ‘He seems to have got Lady Smythe all of a fluster. I won’t have him upsetting my guests.’

Lady Smythe did indeed look a little panicked, the colour in her cheeks a bright flag. Perhaps she wasn’t so charmed by the rake after all.

Despite the gossip, Lady Keswick ensured nothing happened under her roof that both parties didn’t want. It was a point of honour with the hostess to the wickeder element of the ton. As she’d earlier explained, a woman needed some freedom in her life. Freedom without consequences for widows and women who had married for convenience. Women like Lady Smythe, Rosa assumed.

Her heart ached for the delicate-looking lady. A marriage without love was no marriage at all, her mother had always said.

‘Bah!’ Lady Keswick pronounced. ‘Stanford’s trouble. Has been since he arrived on the town. No girl, decent or otherwise, is safe once he has her in his sights. Take my advice, Rose, keep well clear of him. You are far too innocent for a man of his ilk.’

Did innocence show on one’s face? She hoped not or her game would be up.

A cry went up from the watchers. The race must be over.

‘Who won?’ Lady Keswick asked. ‘I had five guineas on my gardeners.’

The men on the balcony doubled up with laughter. Jeers rang out across the lawn. ‘I think your money is safe,’ Rosa said.

‘Go and see, child.’

With a swift intake of breath, Rosa left her shadowy corner, edged around the laughing group, mentally shaking her head at her cowardice as she made for the stone railing far from Lord Stanford.

On the grass, Mr Fitzwilliam and Lord Bannerby were collapsed in a heap two-thirds of the way down the course, while the gardeners, at the finish line, toasted them with mugs of ale and huge grins.

‘Did you win?’ a low dark voice said in her ear.

She jumped, heat flashing through her, and turned to find Lord Stanford smiling down at her. His gaze flicked from her head to her feet the way it had when they were introduced. As she had then, she felt exposed, vulnerable.

Fortunately, her skin didn’t blush pink the way most pale English ladies did. He couldn’t possibly know of the quickening of her heart or the sudden clench in her belly. She backed up until the carved-stone rail pressed against the small of her back.

Dark as the devil, out here in the sun his eyes were obsidian, his cheekbones and jaw carved in hard angular lines, his hair a shade darker than chocolate. But darkest of all was his aura of danger.

No wonder Lady Smythe’s eyes turned his way the moment she thought he wasn’t watching.

‘I do not gamble,’ she said. How self-righteous she sounded. How priggish in this company that denied itself nothing. Yet it was the truth. She had no money for frivolities. ‘Lady Keswick has an interest in the outcome.’

He leaned one elbow on the rail, effectively cutting her off from the rest of the company. Deliberate? Naturally. He was a man who did nothing without a purpose. What purpose could he have with respect to her? A tremor ran through her frame. Fear. Excitement. She quelled the rush of sensation and presented a calm expression. ‘If you would excuse me?’ She moved to step around him.

He shifted and blocked her path. ‘I would excuse you anything at all,’ he said with a dark smile. ‘What is your offence?’

‘I say, Stanford,’ called Mr Phillips, a man so pale he looked as if he had never stepped in the sun, pale eyes, pale thinning hair, pale skin. ‘They are setting up the butts. Time to make good on your boast.’

The crowd on the balcony were drifting down the steps at the far end, heading for the lawn.

A flicker of emotion passed over his face. Annoyance at the interruption? Before he could say more, Rosa ducked around him and hurried to Lady Keswick’s side, her heart beating far faster than she wanted to admit. ‘You win, my lady.’ Her voice sounded breathless as if she’d run a mile. She drew in a steadying breath. ‘The gardeners were indeed too much of a match for the gentlemen.’

‘Fifty guineas isn’t a bad profit for indolence,’ Lady Keswick said with twinkling eyes. ‘Hapton is a fool with his money. Tell Jonas to see that the lads get a shilling each for their effort. Will you join the guests at the butts?’

‘I have no skill with a bow and prefer to watch from up here. Would you like to move closer to the balcony for a better view?’

Lady Keswick reached out and patted her hand. ‘You are a good girl, Rose. And you have talent. By summer’s end I am sure I can find you a place in the opera.’

The end of the summer might be too late. Triggs was beginning to press for his money.

Rosa pushed the old lady towards the terrace wall. ‘Has no one replied?’

‘Have patience. They are busy people. One of them will come through, I am sure.’

It was their agreement. Rosa would help entertain the guests over the next few weeks, and Lady Keswick would help her find a role in an opera company.

Only things were not going quite as she’d planned. The money she was earning as a companion was not enough for her urgent needs. It was beginning to look as if she might need to find something more lucrative. A role in an opera seemed as if it might be her best option.

To date, though, there had been no one interested in hiring an unknown singer, in spite of Lady Keswick’s unqualified praise.

Hopefully, Rosa wouldn’t need to fall back on her talent. Hopefully, she would find what she needed tonight and all her worries would be solved.

‘I am grateful for your help.’

‘Pshaw,’ the old lady said as she looked down at the company gathered on the lawn. ‘Did I tell you I was considered the best female archer in all of Sussex in my girlhood?’

Many times. ‘How did that come about?’ Rosa opened her parasol, shading them both from the afternoon sun.

‘It was in seventy-eight,’ Lady Keswick mused. Then scrunched up her face. ‘Or was it seventy-nine? No matter. Keswick was present, you know. He always said that was the day he learned about love…’

Love. Wasn’t it love that had brought Rosa to Sussex and to the house of a woman with a less-than-stellar reputation? An actress who had married an elderly nobleman. When Rosa saw Lady Keswick’s advertisement for a companion at this house, so close to where Rosa had grown up, the opportunity had seemed heaven-sent.

And if she was wrong about her father’s love? What then? Her hands clenched inside her gloves. She would not let such doubts enter her head. The idea was too painful to contemplate.

‘Oh, I say, nice shot!’ Lady Keswick cried, dragging Rosa’s attention back to the contest. Lady Smythe had hit the bull and was now laughing up at Lord Bannerby. It was the first time she’d seen the young woman look even moderately happy since she’d arrived. Bannerby tucked a loose strand of copper hair behind a shell-like ear with a grin that said his intentions were all bad, while Stanford glowered at the pair from the sidelines as if he wanted to challenge Bannerby to a duel for that touch.

Jealousy between rival males. Something in Rosa’s chest felt uncomfortable, the way a pebble in a shoe felt. A painful irritation.

She really didn’t belong in this house. The sooner she left the better. And tonight’s search would end all her difficulties. It must.

Garth stared up at the haloed moon and drew on his cigar. He sent a stream of smoke upwards to form a cloud above his head. A fluky gust of wind whipped it away. He enjoyed a smoke before bed, yet hated the smell of stale cigars first thing in the morning. So here he stood on the terrace to blow a cloud after the rest of the guests had retired. Some to their own rooms. Some to those of other guests.

He grinned as he recalled Bannerby’s obvious confusion when he’d chased him away from Penelope’s door. Hopefully that would be an end to the man’s ambition.

His lip curled. All he needed to do now was get the foolish wench to go home before a braver man than Bannerby tried his luck. Hapton, for example.

Garth turned the cigar in his fingers and observed the glowing tip through narrowed eyes. If he could get her out of here quickly, perhaps Mark need never know.

A scandal of that sort would make life for Mark unbearable. Unsupportable. The stupid wench.

He drew hard on his cheroot, fury at her deception a low fire in his stomach.

The sky turned dark. Rain spattered on his shoulders and in his hair, left dark spots on the terrace flags in a sudden rush of wind. The shower ceased. The cloud cleared, leaving the moonlit landscape grey and full of shadows. He gazed at that telltale ring of moisture around the moon and the increasing number of clouds floating by. More rain to come.

A door opened and closed somewhere around the corner. Someone coming in or going out? Mildly curious, he stubbed out his cigar and strolled down the steps. As he rounded the corner, he glimpsed the back of a figure enveloped in a black cloak. A woman, he thought from the slender shape and quick short steps. A chambermaid off to meet her beau in the village? He frowned. If he remembered correctly, the village lay in the other direction. There was something familiar about the hurrying figure. One of the guests?

A smile pulled at his lips. Intrigue was rife in this house, but why would one of the guests need to leave the comfort of a well-appointed bed in pursuit of bliss? Tantalised, he followed and caught another glimpse of the quick-paced shadow disappearing into the woodland to the east of the house, then a whiff of jasmine.

Mrs Travenor? Rose. Her height should have given her away, but she was the last female he would have expected to see scurrying off to an assignation. Was he, then, so naïve? Hardly.

She might have purity in her face, but beneath her still surface, she was as wicked as any woman. A pang of disappointment stilled him. No, he wasn’t disappointed. He was glad. It meant his instincts about her were right. He would only be disappointed if she’d proved to be virtuous.

Arriving at the entrance to the woods a few moments later, Garth saw no sign of the woman. Paths led in three directions and, with no sound to guide him, he halted.

He inhaled. Was it imagination, or did a trace of her perfume linger on the rich damp air? Where was she going? It was not a good night to meet a man out of doors unless there was some handily placed folly somewhere in the grounds. A vision of the exotic Mrs Travenor in the arms of one of the burly gardeners filled his mind. Or might she prefer the cheeky butler? Neither image fit. Unease rolled through him.

A suspicion rose that the quiet widow might be up to something nefarious. If she was meeting a servant, or even one of the guests, she would not be heading into the woods. There were too many other convenient places, dry places, within doors or nearby. No, the lady had some other less straightforward purpose.

His jaw clenched. He lifted his face as rain pelted down. He felt the sting of it on his cheeks and eyelids and mentally shrugged. It was none of his business what Lady Keswick’s temptress-nun-come-companion did with her nights, no matter how much she aroused his curiosity.

Hell, she aroused more than that, he realized, as his blood thickened and an image rampaged through his mind of her dressed as a nun pressed up against a marble column with him filling her body. No wonder he was hard within the tight confines of his pantaloons.

Moonlight speared through a gap in the clouds, revealing nothing but trees and lawn.

A wry chuckle escaped his throat. Another lying little baggage keeping secrets. It would behove him, for the sake of his hostess, to find out what they were.

She’d gone out by the side door, and he did not doubt she would come back the same way.

Rosa stopped to listen. Had she heard footsteps on the flagstones behind her? A shiver ran down her back at the thought of one of Lady Keswick’s dissolute guests finding her out here alone in the dark. Whoever or whatever she’d heard, there was no sound of them now. Aside from the wind in the trees, the whole world seemed remarkably quiet. Any creature with any sense was huddled somewhere out of the wind and rain. She pulled her cloak tighter around her and continued on.

Since she arrived two weeks ago, she’d several times walked this way in daylight, familiarising herself with the paths meandering through the park, ostensibly exercising Lady Keswick’s pug, Digger. The fat little thing hated to walk and in the end he’d sat down and refused to budge beyond the edge of the lawn. Now she was resorting to night-time expeditions.

On one of her earlier rambles, she’d found the shortcut leading to the woods belonging to Gorham Place, the square red-bricked mansion where she’d lived out her childhood. She trudged on.

Deep in the forest, at the edge of Lady Keswick’s estate, the sharp sound of fast-flowing water cut through the muffling effect of her hood. A fence blocked her path. In one of the brief moments of moonlight, she found the stile, an ancient right of way, leading to the bridge across the stream meandering between the two estates.

While the bridge was in a poor state of repair, she’d crossed back and forth several times during one of her daytime forays and knew it would safely hold her weight. Darkness slowed her steps to a crawl. She looked up at the sky, waiting for the moon to reappear and light her way. Rain slapped her in the face and she turned away, holding the hood close while the wind tugged at her skirts. As the cloud drifted on, she could see where the muddy footpath changed to the slippery wooden slats of the bridge.

Carefully holding the rough wooden railing, she crossed the shaky structure, testing her weight on each rotting plank before stepping forwards. At this rate it would take her all night to reach the house. Perhaps she should turn back and try on another evening, one with better weather.

Gritting her teeth, she pressed on. She couldn’t bear the thought of going back without at least looking upon the house where she had spent the happiest years of her life. In those days, she’d been secure in the knowledge of her parents’ affections. Now, as she crossed six feet of rotting wood, the doubts crowded in. She forced them to the back of her mind and hurried on, emerging from the trees and crossing the expanse of ill-kept lawn until she reached the drive. Stray moonbeams bounced off darkened windows revealing the house. Gorham Place.

Dear old house. So full of happy memories. Idle enquiry in the village had revealed no one lived here. The house had been let for a while after her father remarried, but now it lay empty and abandoned, with only a gardener employed to see to its maintenance. A man who would know her. But would he let her inside to search?

Her wet hem clinging to her ankles, she strode quickly to the walled courtyard around the back. A light flickered in an upper window of a cottage adjoining the stables.

Taking courage from a swift deep breath, she lifted the cottage’s iron knocker and let it fall with a loud bang. The sound echoed through the night.