Lady Rosabella's Ruse
Author:Ann Lethbridge

Chapter Ten




‘Mrs Mallow lured her here,’ Garth said. ‘Your wife never let me or anyone else near her.’

Penelope’s innocent green eyes widened. Her rosebud lips formed a small O of surprise. No doubt she thought he was going to tell tales on her for flirting with Bannerby. Well, she’d have to own up for herself.

And if Mark wanted a brawl, he would give a good accounting of himself, because he wasn’t the guilty party.

Mark raked his fingers through his normally neat fair locks. ‘Why the hell didn’t you just put her on a coach and send her home?’

He shook his head. ‘If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, old chap, it’s never get between a man and his wife.’

Mark leaned close. ‘You really are a bastard sometimes.’

‘All the time,’ he said coolly.

‘Dammit, Garth. You know I didn’t mean it that way. I’m just too angry to choose my words carefully.’

Mark was one of two people who knew his secret. Him and Kit, his brother, apart from his dear mother, of course. ‘I’m glad you finally arrived.’

‘I found Penelope’s note.’

Penelope stared at him. ‘I thought you would be home days ago.’

Mark’s face turned grim. ‘I was delayed.’

Penelope froze, then shrugged. ‘I had decided to leave anyway. It’s all been perfectly horrid.’

He smiled down at his wife. ‘Then I am glad I am in time to escort you.’ He pulled her close. ‘We’ll talk more when we get home.’

Nauseated by the expression on his friend’s face, Garth turned away. Heaven forefend he would ever look so besotted. ‘Well, this is all very nice, but if you will excuse me, I am meeting Mrs Travenor in an hour or so. I just came in here for a newspaper to pass the time while I wait.’

Penelope gasped, then tried to cover it up with a cough.

‘What?’ Garth asked.

She shook her head, her cheeks flaming red, guilt writ large on her face.

‘Blast it, Penelope, tell me.’

‘Steady,’ Mark said, moving to shield his wife with his body.

‘Tell her to tell me, Mark,’ Garth said, clenching his fists.

Mark stared at him, then a grin broke out on his face. ‘Oh, not you, too.’

‘What on earth are you talking about? I just want to hear what she has to say about Mrs Travenor.’

‘Tell him, Penelope. He won’t let it go until you do.’

‘She left,’ Penelope said.

‘Left?’ Garth felt as if he’d been kicked in the gut by a horse. A bloody big one. ‘Left when?’

‘I mean, I think she left. She was carrying a valise. She said she was going to London.’

‘How long ago?’

‘If she was the dark beauty I met in the corridor when I arrived, it was not more than a few minutes ago,’ Mark said.

Penelope looked at him. ‘Beauty?’

He shrugged.

‘That was her, all right,’ Garth said, his stomach tightening, quickly followed by a hot buzz of anger. So Rose had lied to him again. What else had she lied about? Was there no end to her deceit? Perhaps she really had found what she was looking for in that house while he was sleeping.

It seemed where Miss Travenor was concerned he was a fool, but if she thought to escape him, she was in for a surprise. He wasn’t going to take the chance of her carrying his child, though God help him, if it was a boy, it meant he would never be able to put things right for his brother.

Well, he had one advantage on his side. He knew she was headed for London and the only way to get there from here was by stagecoach. And even if he missed her in the village, he’d soon catch up to her on the road.

He bowed. ‘If you will excuse me. You two have lots to discuss.’

‘Your absence will not be remarked upon,’ Mark said.

Garth wanted to knock the smile off his friend’s face. Being caught in the parson’s mousetrap was a fate worse than death, at least to him. His friend had seemed very happy about being leg-shackled. He hoped, for both their sakes, the events of the past few days wouldn’t change his mind.

Right now he had a more important matter on his mind. Rose.





‘Let’s hear you, then.’

Rosa stared out into the theatre, at the fussy little assistant manager’s assistant, with his springy blond hair and Lady Keswick’s letter in his hand. He squinted at Rosa over his spectacles from the front of the pit.

Nerves always tied her stomach in knots when she began to sing, but it was far worse this time. The theatre was cavernous. Unfriendly. It was so important that she do well and the aria he’d given her was pitched far too high for her voice.

She took a deep breath.

‘I haven’t got all day,’ the little man said. He pointed to the sheet of music in her hand. ‘Sing.’

Settle down. Just sing. She took another breath. Her heart was sitting too high in her throat. She swallowed it down. The first notes came out a croak.

‘Stop!’ the little man shrieked. He put his hands to his ears. ‘No more.’

‘No. I can do it. Just let me—’

‘I’m not looking for frogs. Can you dance? We need dancers.’

No. This was all going wrong. Why wouldn’t he listen? ‘If I could just try again? Please.’

‘Next,’ he yelled

Another girl, with carrot-red hair, stepped on stage from the wings.

She couldn’t let this happen. ‘I can dance,’ Rosa cried out to catch his attention. ‘I know all the country dances.’

He rolled his eyes. ‘Saints preserve me from bloody amateurs. I meant pas de chats and pirouettes, not the flippin’ Roger de Coverly. Next.’

The words pushed through her panic. Mama had shown her some of the dances required for performances. It had been so long ago, she’d all but forgotten. Rosa went up on her right toe and twirled, landing off centre. ‘You mean this?’

Another woman walked on stage from the opposite side, a large-bosomed woman in a sumptuous red silk gown and flashing jewels.

‘Gif her a chance, mein Herr.’ The woman gracefully twirled her wrist in the direction of the seats. ‘At least she appeals to the gentlemen more than the herd of cows you haf now. Look at that bosom, those legs.’ She grabbed Rosa’s skirt at the knee and hiked it up.

The harried little man stopped fussing with his papers and leaned forwards.

‘Hold up your skirts and tvirl once more,’ the woman said.

Blushing, Rosa did as she was bid. This time she landed on balance and placed her heels neatly together and turned out her toes.

The woman laughed, waved an airy hand. ‘See, she dances. But, Frederick, you must do vot you please. Just tell me my gown for tonight is ready.’

‘It’s ready,’ a woman sitting at the back of the theatre called out, holding up swaths of fabric.

‘Gut. Ver gut.’ The woman, who had to be Fräulein Helga Von Geldhardt, the soprano and leading lady, wandered back into the wings. ‘Take her, Freddy,’ she called over her shoulder. ‘She’s the best you’ve seen today.’

‘Which is not saying anything,’ the little man screeched, pulling at his frizzy blond curls.

‘Do you want me now?’ the girl halfway out of the wings said in the nasal tones of London.

‘You—’ the assistant pointed at Rosa ‘—go and find Señor Paloma and tell him you are in the chorus. Be ready for rehearsal at six tomorrow morning. You—’ He glared at the girl hovering half on and half off the stage. ‘Can you dance?’

‘I’m a singer.’

‘No,’ Frederick screamed.

Rosa fled before he changed his mind about her.

Walking around the back of the stage in search of the dancemaster, she decided the position of chorus dancer was better than nothing. She had a foot firmly over the threshold. All she had to do was let them hear her sing and they’d realise they’d made a mistake.

And if Fräulein Von Geldhardt was right and the gentlemen did love her, then she might find a rich protector, because a dancer in the chorus did not get paid nearly as well as a soloist. And a protector would have influence and be able to get her a starring role.

A flutter of disquiet ran through her stomach. Her mother would have been so disappointed to find she’d been forced to sink so low. If only they would give her a chance to sing. Let her nerves settle. But it was better than the loveless marriage proposed by Stanford where she had no guarantees he would help her sisters. This way, her earnings were her own to do with as she willed.

If he’d wanted to make her his mistress, it might have been easier to agree to stay. Her parents’ marriage had worked because they’d loved each other. Stanford didn’t love her any more than she loved him. That feeling she’d felt for him had been infatuation. It had to be. She could not fall in love with a rake who had no intention of changing his ways.

It wasn’t possible life would be so cruel.

Enough whining. She had a position in the opera. She would send the rest of her earnings from Lady Keswick’s to Meg for the moneylender and find a way to get another audition.

As soon as they heard her, they would give her a better role. She drew in a deep breath. She could do this.

In the green room she found a collection of young women standing around a rotund man with curling black moustaches and thinning black hair. ‘Is he Señor Paloma?’ she asked.

One of the girls nodded.

A pair of beady black eyes swivelled in Rosa’s direction. ‘Who are you, señorita?’

‘I’m to join the chorus,’ she said, feeling every eye in the room focusing on her.

The man waved his fat hands in the air. ‘Now he sends me a spilungona? First I get all these pale little English midgets, now I get a giant. Where I put you?’

‘At the back?’

His eyes widened. Then he laughed, and every part of him jiggled: his cheeks, his belly, even his thighs in their tight-fitting buff pantaloons.

He stopped as suddenly as he’d started. ‘No amusing.’

The little redhead who’d been waiting while Rosa was on stage crept in. He glared at her. ‘You are the last?’

She nodded.

‘Bellissimo.’ He clapped his hands. ‘All of you. Be here at six in the morning.’

Rosa followed the rest of the girls along a passage and out of the back door of the theatre into the depths of Covent Garden.

‘Where do you live?’ the little redhead asked.

‘I have yet to find a room.’

‘You can stay with me,’ the girl offered with a hesitant smile. ‘I’m Bess. The room ain’t much, but I’ve a bed big enough for two and I need help with the rent.’

Rosa stuck out her hand. ‘Rosa. Rosabella di Camisa.’ She decided to use one of her mother’s names. It sounded more operatic and Grandfather would never recognise it. ‘I would love to help with the rent.’

Bess grinned. ‘What about a kipper at the chop shop, then, afore we go home?’

‘Sounds wonderful.’ Rosa’s stomach growled agreement. It would be the first food she’d eaten since yesterday. She’d stayed at a nearby inn and hadn’t dared pay for a meal, too.

Finally, she thought, things seemed to be going as planned. Well, almost. Everything would be perfect when they let her audition for a singing role.





The next few days had flashed by in a blur of long rehearsals and short nights spent in exhausted sleep. Today was dress rehearsal.

‘Oh, no.’ Rosa regarded her costume with dismay. It was even worse than she’d imagined, when her brain had any energy left for such pursuits. ‘I can’t wear these.’

She held up the breeches and stockings. She didn’t need to try them on to know they would hug her legs.

Señor Paloma had solved his problem of what to do with his giant after an hour of their first rehearsal. She would play a trouser role. A silent trouser role. While the girls occasionally sang, all she got to do was lift them and carry them about the stage. They might just as well have employed a horse.

‘Never mind,’ Bess said, twirling around in a bit of gauze that barely covered her knees. ‘Remember Mrs Robinson.’

Mrs Robinson had snared the Prince of Wales in seventy-two. Since then every actress had hoped for the same.

‘It didn’t do her a bit of good,’ Rosa grumbled. ‘And besides, in these, who is even going to know I’m a girl?’

Was that really so bad? Even though she slept the sleep of the dead every night, she kept having the same dream. Stanford arriving to cart her back to Grandfather’s house. Not that he had a clue she even had a grandfather. He knew nothing about her and would never find her here. Not that he’d want to, she assured herself, remembering the look on his face when he’d realised she’d never been married. The hunted look. It still made her feel hot and cold by turns.

But she couldn’t stop thinking about him.

She slipped on the breeches and shirt. ‘What do you think?’

Bess laughed. ‘With that bum and that bosom, they’ll have no trouble guessing you’re a girl.’

Should she try to be more realistic? She frowned. ‘Perhaps I should try to disguise them.’

‘Don’t you want to be whisked off to the prince’s bed?’

There was only one bed she wanted to be whisked into, but she’d had the strong sense that once the passion was over, his bed would grow cold. And that she could not bear. He’d certainly acted with chilly reserve after only one night. ‘You heard Señor Paloma. I’m a giant. What man would want me anyway?’

Bess tilted her head full of red curls and pursed her lips. ‘You could bind your jugs. And perhaps if you gave yourself a nice little package in front, no one would notice the hips.’

‘Package?’

‘You know, sausage and spuds—in the front of your breeches.’ She pointed at Rosa’s smooth placket.

‘Oh. I see what you mean. And if I put padding around my waist, my bum won’t look so out of proportion.’

‘That’s the ticket.’

And thinking about it, she wouldn’t garner any more unwanted male attention.

Unwanted? If she didn’t garner male attention, how would she possibly gain a rich protector?

If only they would let her sing. She could make a lot more money as a solo performer, and have the pick of the gentlemen. The men who came around the stage door for the members of the chorus didn’t look at all rich or in the least bit gentlemanly.

It might be better pretending to be a boy for a while, until she had a better role.

‘Do we have any bindings or padding?’

‘Mrs Ellis is sure to have something, if that’s what you want.’

‘It will make me true to my character.’ Something Mama once said was the secret to her long-ago success.





Rosa huddled in her usual dark corner of the green room after the performance. The final performance of the week. And tomorrow the company left for Birmingham.

Fräulein Von Geldhardt had been a huge success and the chorus had come in for its share of praise and attendant gentlemen, all of whom were milling about with their dancer of choice, including little Bess, who sat on the lap of her special gentleman with tears in her eyes and a guinea or two in her pocket.

Bess had tried to convince her to drop her costume at the end of the performance and take part in the fun. The gentlemen, she said, loved a woman who played breeches parts, because they loved to look at their legs. Rosa had been tempted. Some of the young men who came back after each performance were lots of fun, but most of them had wandering hands and no money.

She glared at Freddy. Every time she asked him for an audition, he said ‘later’ and dashed off on some errand for the prima donna. She couldn’t blame him. The fräulein was a star, the one the audience came to see.

A stir at the green-room door caught her attention. Several gentlemen she hadn’t seen before entered. Rich men from their clothing. Excitement rippled through the girls.

‘It’s Forever,’ Annie squealed. She’d been dancing for one company or another for years. She wouldn’t be joining them on the tour of the north. She’d been hired on at the Haymarket Theatre.

She flung herself at the man who entered last.

Rosa almost swallowed her tongue.

Stanford. He sauntered in, looking around with slitted eyes, his sensual mouth sullen, his eyes mocking. He looked darker and more dangerous than ever.

Surely he wasn’t seeking her. She wasn’t quite sure how she felt about that. Or her head wasn’t. Her heart seemed to be doing something like pirouettes in her chest. Painful prickles ran across her shoulders.

Shocked at the power of her reaction, she drew deeper into her corner.

He tucked Annie under his arm, opened his other arm and two more girls rushed to join him, petting the front of his coat as he kissed each one on the cheek, while all the time he managed to keep the cigar held loosely in his fingers from setting fire to their hair or their clothing.

‘Trust Stanford to bag the best of the bunch,’ Fitzwilliam, who accompanied him, complained, but he grinned as another member of the chorus sidled up to him.

Hiding deep in the shadows, Rosa couldn’t take her gaze from Garth. He looked nothing like the man she’d played cricket with on the beach, or the seductive nobleman who had made love to her one night in an empty house. His cravat dangled about his neck. His coat hung open, revealing a crumpled waistcoat. And he didn’t look happy. The devilish sparkle in his eye was missing. The sullen cast to his beautiful mouth and his dark expression made him look thoroughly jaded. And lonely.

As if… Oh, how could she even think he might be missing her? Loaded down with three girls, he staggered to an armchair in the middle of the room. He clamped the lit cigar between his teeth and scanned the room from beneath lowered brows.

An air of dissipation hung around him. A wild young buck for whom the world held no surprises. A wickedly handsome rake. Even dissipated and probably inebriated, his knee looked inviting.

He whispered something in Annie’s ear. Making love to her, no doubt. Rosa clenched her fists on her thighs, longing to push the girls off his lap. She looked away, trying not to notice. He wasn’t her concern. She’d rejected him roundly.

‘Did you bring presents?’ one of the girls squealed, searching his pockets in a way that said she’d done it before.

His lip curled sardonically as he blew a stream of smoke at the ceiling. He would set fire to the place if he wasn’t careful. But no one said a word. He was nobility. They were a rule unto themselves as long as they had money to spend.

He grabbed the guinea from the girl’s hand and held it up, saying something to which all three of them shook their heads and pouted.

What on earth could he be asking them to do?

Bess joined her on the bench. ‘We’ll be lucky if those girls are ready to set out in the morning after a night with Forever.’

‘Forever?’

‘Stanford. Before he came into the title he was Evernden. One of the girls said he could make a quickie behind the stage last forever. The nickname stuck.’

Rosa went hot, then cold, knowing exactly what the words meant. Remembering his touch. The wild sensations. The way she’d thought she’d lost her heart. She couldn’t stop herself from looking his way again, torturing herself with the thought of him making love to those other girls.

Except he wasn’t making love to them. He was sprawled in the chair as they petted and pawed him, while he looked thoroughly bored. His weary gaze swept the room as if he half hoped to find something better, someone more interesting.

Her mouth dried. He couldn’t be looking for her. She touched the straggling beard on her chin, the bit of moustache on her upper lip. Not even her sisters would recognise her, especially in the short blond wig.

Freddy rushed past, stopped and glared at her feet. ‘Shoes, missy.’ He held out his wicker basket.

While they allowed her to take her costume home every night, shoes were expensive and players were not permitted to wear them home. In case they sold them for gin, Bess said, or the price of a night’s lodging.

Rosa unlaced the soft-soled boots and held them towards the waiting basket. ‘I’ll give you the shoes, if you’ll let me audition to sing when we get to Birmingham.’

His yellow curls seemed to spring higher off his head. ‘No. Shoes. Now.’

Rosa sighed and tossed them in. One of these days he was going to say yes. She rubbed at the sore spot on her foot from the ill-fitting footwear.

The back of her neck prickled oddly. She looked up to find Stanford staring at her feet. He’d paid attention to her feet before, but surely he wouldn’t recognise her by her toes.

He stood up, the two girls on his lap sliding off his knee. Startled, as if he’d forgotten their presence, he grabbed them before they hit the floor, soothing their ruffled feathers with a quick stroke.

Sure he was coming her way, Rosa slipped her feet in her slippers. ‘I’ll see you there, Bess.’ She ignored the sounds of a commotion behind her and fled. She’d meet the players at the chop house where they always went for a meal after the performance. Tonight would be a farewell to those who were remaining in London, a celebration of their success and a toast to the future.

Best of all would be the payment of her wages. Money she could send to her sisters.

The last letter from Meg had been terrifying. Yes, the moneylender would wait, but the money they owed was growing by leaps and bounds. There was nothing left over to pay more school fees. The girls were already looking for work, so she did not have to bear the burden alone. Sam was coughing and Meg feared she might have to call for the doctor again.

It didn’t seem to matter what Rosa did, things just kept getting worse.

She ran down the alley.





Garth gazed over the heads of the girls hanging around his neck. They’d denied any knowledge of a girl called Rose. He stared into the dark corner beside the exit. Only one girl there now. A redhead. There had been two people there a moment ago, the redheaded girl tying her shoe and a…a blond-haired boy. It was a pair of feet he’d noticed. The redhead wriggled the toes of her bare foot. Hers were definitely not the feet that had caught his attention. Or perhaps he’d imagined them.

He squeezed his eyes shut and opened them again. Why would he imagine Rose’s feet on a boy? Lady Keswick’s assertion of Rose’s ambition to join an opera company had made him wonder if the old girl was losing her faculties. On the other hand, she had no reason to lie. Rosa hadn’t been singing here tonight, or at any of the other places he had visited this past week. He would know her voice anywhere.

Why wasn’t he just letting this go? She clearly didn’t fancy him. He would have, he assured himself, if there wasn’t a chance of her carrying his bastard. But for that he’d have abandoned the quest days ago.

The twisting in his gut was simply concern about an unwanted child. He would act the same with any woman. Wouldn’t he?

Of course he would. He didn’t want a wife. He didn’t want a child. But he’d be damned if he’d let any child of his bear such a stigma. The thought of it made him feel ill.

All these years, he’d been so damned careful, so sure he could present his brother with what was rightfully his. The title. It would atone for the guilt he’d felt when he’d realised he wasn’t Evernden’s son.

It would make it all up to the man who’d given him a name and place in society because he’d been given no choice by the woman he’d married.

The cold place in his chest seemed to grow. He’d messed his chance of redemption up royally, especially if Rose was brought to bed with a son. Damnation.

The redhead worked on the second slipper. Acting on instinct, he turned to the girl hanging on his arm. ‘Let go.’

She swore and flounced off. For some reason none of the ladybirds he’d tried to sample these past two weeks had aroused his interest. None of them looked like a seductive nun, not even when they dressed up for him.

He thought about asking about the…the boy? Good God, had he grown so dissipated?

He headed for the girl still sitting on the bench beside the door.

‘Where did she go?’

She popped to her feet with a cheerful grin. ‘Who?’

‘The girl sitting beside you.’

She eyed him warily. ‘Why do you want to know?’

‘So it was a girl.’

She shrugged. He caught her arm. ‘Where did she go?’

‘Get off me.’

Fitzwilliam caught him around the shoulders. ‘Great news. We’ve been invited to the party at the chop house. I promised we’d give some of the girls a ride in your carriage.’

Garth shook him off. The redhead was gone.

‘Come on, we will miss the champagne.’ Fitz slapped him on the back.

If all the players were going to the chop house, then so was he, and champagne sounded like a very good idea.





Jammed between Bess on one side and old Jack on the other, Rosa nursed her gin. After a week of being with the company, she’d learned to order herself a mug of the dreadful stuff and pretend to drink it. The alternative was for someone to see she wasn’t drinking, buy her one and then expect one in return. It didn’t take long to spend more than you had.

She raised the mug to her lips and tried not to inhale the fumes or get her moustache wet. It tended to fall off. Bess took a swig of hers.

‘Lawks,’ she said, looking over at the door. ‘They brought the gents with them.’

‘What? I thought only the cast were allowed.’

‘On closing night anything goes.’

Neither of the two men who entered were Garth. Rosa relaxed.

Bess gave her a saucy grin. ‘Once those girls have their hooks in a couple of rich nobs do you think they’ll let them loose? They’ll squeeze ’em dry.’

Blast. If she had known, she wouldn’t have come here. She could have got her pay the following day.

Except she’d wanted to write to her sisters and send some money off first thing in the morning. Before the moneylender pressured them again.

Bess groaned. ‘It’s Forever.’

Anger at the horrid nickname roared in her blood, not at the name itself, but what it meant, quickly followed by a shiver of fear. Back there in the green room, she’d half thought he’d recognised her, but he’d been too busy cuddling his girls.

‘He was asking after you, before I left,’ Bess said. ‘I told you the gents like a girl in a trouser role.’

Breath left Rosa’s body in a huge rush. ‘What?’

Bess nodded. ‘He came over to me after you went.’

Her heart drummed in her chest. Her throat dried. ‘Why on earth didn’t you tell me before?’

‘I forgot.’ Bess took another swig of her gin.

He couldn’t possibly have recognised her. ‘What did he say? Exactly what words?’

‘He asked after the girl sitting beside me.’

‘He can’t have meant me.’

Bess frowned. ‘No one else was sitting beside me.’ She shrugged. ‘Beats me, it do.’

Her hands started shaking. Even if he was asking about someone else, she didn’t want to have to face him. To watch him with the other girls. ‘I’m leaving.’ She pushed at old Jack’s arm.

The burly scene-changer gave her a toothless grin. ‘Leavin’ without yer pay?’

‘Bess will collect it.’

‘Be careful going home by yourself,’ Bess said.

‘Don’t worry about me. Everyone thinks I’m a boy.’

The old man grumbled to his bandy legs and she squeezed past him and out of the door into the courtyard, exchanging the smell of stale beer and gin mixed with pipe smoke for the scent of horse dung and rotting garbage.

A hand grabbed her arm.

‘One moment, if you don’t mind.’

The smooth richness of the voice sent a shiver down her back. She had no trouble recognising its owner.

‘Get off me,’ she said much as Bess would.

‘Not on you. Yet.’ He laughed darkly.

‘Filthy beast.’ She pulled at her arm, but his grip only tightened. ‘Let me go, or I’ll yell bloody murder.’

‘Do that. And when the watch or the constable comes to see what’s to do, I’ll tell him about your little trips into other people’s houses in the middle of the night.’

She stilled. It wasn’t other people’s houses. It was her grandfather’s house, the house she’d been sure her father would leave to her and her sisters. But he hadn’t. The pain of it struck her anew. Her shoulders sagged.

‘That’s better.’ He dragged her to a wooden bench against the courtyard wall beneath the lantern by the door. ‘Sit.’

She sat. The man was drunk. All she had to do was wait until his attention waned and run.

She snatched her arm clear of his grasp and folded her arms across her chest. ‘All right, so I’m sitting. What do you want?’

In the flickering light he gazed down at her. He didn’t look angry, he looked confused and something else. Hurt? Surely not?

‘Why did you run away?’

She stuck with her role. Perhaps she could confuse him into thinking he’d made a mistake. ‘I don’t know what you are talking about, mate.’

‘Rose,’ he breathed and shook his head. ‘You can’t fool me. I’d know you anywhere. Why did you run?’

Caressed by the gentleness in his voice, she wanted to weep. What did she do now? Talk about disappointed love to a man who had scoffed at the very notion? Never. ‘I thought you were going to hand me over to the magistrate.’

He stared down at her. ‘I half wish I bloody well had. I’ve been searching London for you.’

She shrugged. ‘What I do and where I go is none of your business. I never stole anything from that house.’

‘Why do I think you are lying?’ He frowned at her.

‘I’m not. Remember, you just think every woman lies.’

He curled his lip. ‘But not you?’

She winced. She’d done nothing but tell him lies. ‘I did not steal anything.’ At least that was the truth. ‘If I had found some sort of treasure, do you think I would be working as a boy in the chorus?’

‘A question answered with a question. It means you have something to hide. What is it, Rose? What are you afraid of? You knew I’d come after you. We have unfinished business. The small matter of a wedding.’

She leaned back against the wall, tried to appear relaxed, resigned to being caught. ‘How did you recognise me?’

‘Your feet.’ He grinned and her heart tumbled over at the sight of his smile. ‘Other people never forget a face. I never forget a pair of feet. At least,’ he mused, sounding irritatingly smug, ‘not a pair I like.’

‘How peculiar.’

‘Mmm. One could almost call it a fetish,’ he purred. He slouched back against the wall and stretched out his legs.

‘What now?’ she asked, measuring the distance to the archway that led out into the alley.

His hand moved to curl around her thigh. A thigh clad in cheap velveteen breeches. Her insides clenched in a most inappropriate way. ‘I think I will take you home and seduce the truth out of you.’

His eyelids drooped as if he was imagining what he would do to her. Her insides fluttered in anticipation. Yearning.

Damn him.

‘No doubt it will take forever.’ She knocked his hand away and winced when his eyes opened and observed her with a keenness she hadn’t expected.

‘Oh, so you have been asking about me, have you?’

She should have pretended to go along with his game, pretended she liked the idea of a seduction. Only she feared if his fingers had travelled one more inch up her leg she would have melted at his feet and given up all thoughts of running.

‘Why would I ask about you?’

He acknowledged the cut with a slight incline of his head. ‘Why indeed? But you see, I have been asking about you.’

She straightened.

‘I thought it wise, d’you see,’ he drawled, his voice lazy, his mouth hard. ‘In the wake of your deceit.’

‘You asked Lady Keswick?’ The old woman knew nothing except what was in her letter of application.

He shook his head. ‘I asked the owner of the neighbouring house. I asked him about previous tenants, about a man with three daughters.’ He smiled then, and it was hard and mean. ‘And he told me there was never any such tenant.’ He let his head fall back against the wall. ‘You are a thief.’

She leapt from the seat and ran.

She didn’t make it to the arch.

His arm snaked around her waist. She opened her mouth to yell. He clamped his hand over her mouth. ‘Scream and you’ll have the law upon us. When I told Pelham of the woman searching his house, he asked for your name so he could swear out a warrant for your arrest.’

Her grandfather was going to have her arrested. Her mind whirled with the pain of it. Her knees trembled. Nausea rose in her throat. The fight went out of her, leaving her limp.

‘It’s all right,’ he said, releasing his hand. ‘You are all right.’ His voice was surprisingly gentle. He carried her back to the bench and sat her down. ‘Put your head between your knees if you feel faint.’

She did as he bid. After a few moments of taking deep breaths, she was able to sit up. ‘He’s lying. We did live there.’

Garth shrugged.

‘Are you going to hand me over to the magistrate?’

‘I could.’

Her heart lifted. ‘But you won’t.’

His lips twisted in a bitter line. ‘Not unless you try to run off again.’

‘Pelham lied.’ For some reason she wanted him to believe her. Desperately.

‘Then you will come home with me and tell me the real story and everything will be fine.’

‘But…’

‘Hush.’ He pressed a finger against her lips, brushing them lightly, reminding her of the way his mouth felt against hers. ‘My carriage is waiting. I am waiting. For you.’ His voice purred deep and low. Utterly seductive.

Desire flooded through her. Longing. She glanced at the back door of the chop house in one last desperate attempt to break free of his sensual pull. ‘I can’t. Bess will wonder what has happened to me. I am supposed to go to Birmingham tomorrow with the company.’

A roguish smile lit his face and a shiver went down her spine. ‘Then we will send Bess a note in the morning and tell her you have changed your mind.’

He made everything sound so seductively easy. And perhaps it was. She could ask him to lend her the money to pay off the debts and find her a good singing role so she could pay him back. It was a fair bargain. Her stomach fluttered. He’d probably want more than his money back. Would it be so bad?

Unable to see a way to break free, she let him lead her to his carriage.





previous 1.. 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 ..16 next