Lady Rosabella's Ruse
Author:Ann Lethbridge

Chapter Two




Heavy steps coming downstairs emanated from within. And then the echo of a chest-rattling cough. ‘Who is it?’ a voice wheezed.

‘Mr Inchbold,’ Rosa said. ‘It is Rosa Cavendish. Do you remember me?’ She held her breath, fearful and excited all at once. When she’d heard in the village of the guardian left here to mind the place, the familiar name had given her hope.

A bolt rasped in its hasp and the heavy oak door swung creaking back. ‘Lady Rosabella?’ the white-haired and bent old man said querulously. ‘Is it really you?’

Relief rushed through her in a warm flood of memories. ‘Yes. It is me. It was more than I dared hope to find our dear old Inchbold still here after all this time.’

Dim muddy eyes peered at her. The wrinkled face cracked a smile. ‘Welcome home, my lady. Welcome.’

It seemed so odd to be called my lady after weeks of being plain Mrs Travenor. ‘Thank you. I’m so happy you are here. Are you well?’

The gnarled hand holding the lantern on high trembled weakly. Not surprisingly. Inchbold had been ancient the last time she saw him, eight years before. ‘Well enough, my lady. Am I to open the gate? If you’ve a carriage, there are no grooms, no servants. Best if ye go to the inn in the village. Come back in the morning. Is your grandfather with you?’

She swallowed. ‘No carriage. Only me. I wondered if you might let me in the house?’

A gust of wind whipped around the corner of the cottage, bringing another smattering of rain. The lantern flickered and died to no more than a glow, then flared up.

‘Come in, child, come in. No sense in standing out in the rain.’ He turned and led the way down a short passage past the stairs into a small square parlour stuffed full of old furniture. He brushed half-heartedly at a chair, sending a cloud of dust upwards. ‘Sit down, dear girl.’

She perched on the chair edge just as she had as a small child, while he set the lamp on the table. He peered down at her, his bushy white brows drawing together over his hooked nose. The lines on his face had deepened and spread out over his face. Shiny pink scalp covered his head, apart from the odd tuft of thin white hair. ‘What brings you to Gorham Place at this time of night after all these years, my lady?’

Even bent as he was, and trembling, shades of the man he’d been clung to his shoulders. As steward and trusted retainer, he’d been kindly but firm to his master’s daughters.

‘I really did not expect to find you here after all this time,’ she said. ‘When they mentioned your name in the village, I had to see for myself.’

He gave a gusty sigh. ‘When your grandfather closed up the house and took the knocker off the door last year, I thought of applying for a new position elsewhere, but he needed someone to keep an eye on the place, maintain the grounds, like, so I offered. Too old to start again. But why are you here?’

She clenched her hands in her lap. ‘My father’s will was never found. This is the only place I can think to look.’

Inchbold frowned, his lined face a map of crevasses. ‘Your grandfather searched, my lady. He went through everything in the house.’

Disappointment, sorrow, bitter defeat tangled in her chest, leaving her breathless from the pain. She stared at her twisting fingers, blinking away a hot rush of moisture. Finally, she drew a breath around the lump in her throat. ‘I see.’

When she could bring herself to raise her gaze, Inchbold’s brown eyes regarded her sadly. ‘There is one thing I recall. I didn’t mention it to your grandfather. It didn’t seem important at the time.’

She forced herself not to hope. ‘What is it?’

‘Not long after your ma died, I had occasion to visit your father in his study. He had me and the footman, William, that was here then, sign a paper. Witness to his signature.’

Hope unfurled a tentative shoot. ‘You think it was a will?’

He shook his head. ‘It could have been anything. Not my business to ask.’

‘Then I must search for myself.’

At his expression of shock, she clenched her hands together. ‘It is too important to trust anyone else. I can’t believe Father did not make provision for me and my sisters.’

‘How are Lady Meg and Lady Sam?’

‘Well,’ she said, lying to save the old man’s feelings. Sam had never recovered from an ague caught out in the rain and Meg was losing hope. She leaned forwards, closing the distance between her and the old man, looking into his dull brown eyes. ‘Dear Inchbold, won’t you let me in the house for old times’ sake? I promise Grandfather will never know.’

He shook his head.

Rosa wanted to scream. To throw herself at his feet and beg. She straightened her spine. ‘Why not?’

‘The woman who comes to dust once a week has the key.’

She frowned. ‘But you can get it?’

Unwillingly, he nodded. ‘Tomorrow, I can. But last week Barrington, your grandfather’s solicitor, came down from London and showed a gentleman around. He’s leased the house starting the first of the month.’

Her stomach dropped. She’d wasted too much time, hesitating in fear of finding nothing, preferring to dream of a perfect answer to her problems. She shot up from the chair and paced to the window. ‘Then I must begin right away. Tomorrow night.’

All this time, she’d held on to the flicker of hope their father had kept his word, despite every derogatory thing her grandfather had said about his feckless fanciful heir and his dreadful foreign first wife. Rosa had clung to the belief that sooner or later the will would be found. She’d worked and schemed so she could search for herself and then she’d hesitated.

Such a coward.

She turned to face him, looking into his worried face. ‘Please, dear Mr Inchbold. It won’t take long. A few hours at most.’

‘All right. I’ll get the key, tomorrow. Where will I find you?’

‘At the Grange. I am employed as Lady Keswick’s companion.’

Horrified, he gaped at her. ‘You are staying at that den of iniquity? The parish is up in arms about her buying the place. The gentry won’t have nothing to do with her. Oh, my lady, how could you?’

Rosa drew herself up straight. ‘How could I what, Mr Inchbold?’

He stared at her, his eyes wide, his jaw slack. ‘Did anyone tell you, you are just like your mother?’

‘Frequently. But not as a compliment.’

He winced. ‘Well, you should be proud, you should. She was a fine woman, your mother. A proper lady, no matter what they said.’

‘She was an opera singer from Italy, Mr Inchbold. The reason my grandfather cut my father off without a penny until she died.’ And now he was doing the same to her daughters.

He looked sad. ‘His lordship would never leave you and your sisters with nothing. While ’tis more than my job is worth to help you search, I’ll turn a blind eye.’

Relief flooded through her. At last someone who cared. ‘Thank you, Inchbold.’ She rose to her feet and hesitated, pressing her lips together. ‘You won’t tell Grandfather you’ve seen me, will you?’

A wheezy cackle ended in a cough. ‘Lord, my lady, your grandpa don’t come nigh or near this place. He certainly doesn’t communicate with the likes of me. Nor I with him. Just with old Barrington.’

Naturally. Grandfather was far too high in the instep to have anything to do with servants or the children of an opera singer, even if they were his own flesh and blood.

She smiled and patted his hand. ‘Thank you, dear Mr Inchbold. I will return tomorrow evening. Oh, and by the way, I go by the name of Mrs Rose Travenor.’

His frown deepened. ‘Be careful, my lady. Your Grandpa is not a man to cross.’

As her parents had discovered.





Only the torches at the doors gave off any light as Rosa approached The Grange. As it should be. She slipped quietly around to the side door she’d left open. Her heart picked up speed. What if someone had come along and locked it? Slowly she lifted the latch and pushed. The door swung back on silent hinges.

She let go a sigh of relief and stepped over the threshold.

A large warm body smelling of cigars and sandalwood blocked her way. A man. She leapt back.

The man grabbed her arm and raised a lamp high. She blinked in the glare shining on her face, unable to see her assailant. ‘Back so soon, Mrs Travenor?’ he mocked. ‘Whoever you are meeting can’t be much good if he is finished already.’

Stanford. She recognised his voice. A flash of heat followed by the cold of dread left her breathless. She drew herself up to her full height. ‘Stand aside, Lord Stanford.’

He hung the lamp on a hook on the wall. It cast eerie shadows on his harsh features. She shivered. ‘Please, let me pass.’ She made to push by him.

He put a hand against the wall, blocking her way.

She could feel the heat of his body only inches from hers, his dark insolent gaze raking her face. ‘Where have you been?’

Her heart rattled. Her breath quickened. ‘Out for a walk.’

‘At this time of night?’ He made no attempt to hide his disbelief.

‘Where I go is none of your business.’

‘Perhaps not,’ he mused, not moving an inch. ‘But Lady Keswick might be interested to hear about her little companion’s forays into the night. Or does she already know?’ The amused smile on his lips made her want to hit him.

He lifted a hand and brushed back the hood of her cloak, trailed a finger down the side of her face. ‘Who are you meeting, hmm? A lover? Or some man you must meet in secret because…he has mischief on his mind?’

Inwardly, she trembled. She hated how weak he made her feel, as if her knees had no more substance than overcooked asparagus. She straightened her shoulders and forced herself to meet his dark gaze and saw more than she expected. Heat.

She drew in a shaky breath. ‘Lady Keswick has no interest in what I do in my free time.’

He laughed. A cruel low chuckle, full of arrogance. ‘And if I tell her I suspect you are up to no good, if I tell her I suspect you have some criminal intent sneaking out at night? What then, do you think?’

She edged back, away from the heat of his body, free of his overbearing presence that seemed to scramble every thought in her head. ‘Why are you wandering the halls at night?’ she asked haughtily.

His smile broadened. ‘Waiting for you.’ His low murmur was a silky stroke to her ear. ‘I saw you leave.’

A shiver slid down her spine, far too pleasant to be entirely fear driven. The thought of such a man waiting for her was far too distracting. Her brain seemed full of him, instead of coming up with a reasonable explanation.

‘Well, here I am,’ she said, lifting her chin and meeting that penetrating gaze full on. Pride that her voice held steady, despite the trembles rushing through her body, gave her courage. ‘And you can tell Lady Keswick whatever you wish. Now if you would excuse me, I would like to retire.’

His eyes widened a fraction. He turned sideways and leaned against the wall, tipping his dark head back. ‘Not until you tell me where you were.’

‘Why?’

‘Let us say I am curious.’

She swallowed. ‘I told you, I went for a walk.’

He turned to face her, his eyes gleaming. ‘In the woods, in the pouring rain?’

‘I couldn’t sleep. I find the fresh air helps.’

‘I know an excellent cure for insomnia I’d be willing to share.’

The salacious undertone in his voice sent shivers across her shoulders. ‘No,’ she whispered. ‘Thank you.’

He chuckled softly. ‘Such a polite little nun. And yet I do think you are tempted.’ He leaned closer.

Tempted? She stared up at him, staring at the smile on his sensual mouth a mere whisper away, the scent of brandy and cigars filling her nostrils. If she leaned forwards just a fraction, she had the feeling he would kiss her.

Her lips tingled at the thought of how his mouth might feel on her lips. Her body ached to be held close to that magnificent breadth of chest. A moan of longing rose in her throat and only by dint of will did she stop from giving it voice.

Heaven help her, he was tempting. The man was a rake and a libertine and he thought her a widow. An experienced woman.

Her heart banged a fearful tattoo against her ribs. Her blood ran in rivers of molten lava. Did he know the effect he was having? A swift glance into his eyes told her he had no doubt about what he was doing. He was playing with her. Tormenting her the way a cat toyed with a mouse.

‘Let me pass,’ she said, knowing she was begging for release, not from physical restraint, but from the spell holding her enthralled.

‘Tell me where you went and I will let you pass. If you are sure you really want to go.’

She swallowed. ‘How many times must I repeat myself before you believe me?’

His smile turned hard. He stepped back and bowed. He gestured for her to continue on. ‘Then I must bid you goodnight and hope you find sleep.’

A breath she didn’t know she’d been holding rushed from her parted lips. Ignominiously, she ducked her head and scuttled past him. For some reason, she felt curiously disappointed.

Oh, dear. It seemed she really had wanted that kiss.





The showers of last evening had turned into a steady drizzling rain overnight. Most of the company gathered in the library around two in the afternoon. Tucked in a quiet corner at her employer’s elbow with her needlework, Rosa forced herself to hide her impatience for the day to be over and her night of searching to begin.

Her only fear was Stanford saying something to Lady Keswick and preventing her from going back to Gorham Place tonight. He couldn’t.

Digger snuffled and snorted through his dreams, using her feet as his own special pillow.

While the men conversed about the sports news in desultory tones, the elegant ladies compared notes on various creams and potions designed to improve their complexions. Lady Smythe and Lord Stanford had yet to put in an appearance.

Every so often, Lord Bannerby kept looking at the door with a frown. Poor man. He was clearly suffering.

The door opened and Lady Smythe sauntered in dressed in a morning gown of blue muslin with rows and rows of diamond-pointed lace at the hem and cuff. Her copper-coloured curls created a halo around her head. She looked like a fairy queen. ‘It is still raining,’ she announced.

Observant as well as beautiful. Oh, dear. Was the acerbic wit of these ladies rubbing off? It wasn’t Lady Smythe’s fault her petite beauty made Rosa feel ungainly.

The various groups scattered around the room looked up and offered greetings.

‘What on earth will we do now?’ Lady Smythe said. Her rosy lips formed tragic lines. ‘We were to go riding. I had my outfit all picked out. It took me ages to find something else.’

An excuse for her tardiness? And still no sign of Lord Stanford.

Bannerby leapt to his feet to kiss her hand and lead her to his recently occupied chair. ‘My dear Lady Smythe, we were only waiting for you before we decided on the entertainment for the day.’

Clever Lord Bannerby elicited a brilliant, if brittle, smile. ‘What did you have in mind?’

As if there had been some unseen signal, the company slowly gathered around her.

Lady Keswick cast her newspaper aside. She’d chosen a blond wig today, with ringlets above the ears and tiny curls across her forehead. ‘Now we will see some liveliness.’ Her smile turned her cheeks into rouge-painted apples. ‘I like to see young people enjoying themselves.’

‘Why don’t we put on a play? Daniel has several he is working on.’ Mrs Phillips, a buxom brunette just past her first bloom, looked adoringly at her aesthetic playwright husband. For all his severe appearance, he was a nice man, if rather led around by the nose by his wife. He was always courteous to Rosa, who would have liked to have talked to him more about the theatre. His wife’s glares kept her at bay.

‘Charades is better,’ Fitzwilliam said. ‘A play requires the learning of lines and will take more than a week of hard work.’ He smothered a yawn behind his hand. ‘Who knows, it might be fine tomorrow and then all the work will be for naught.’

Several of the men muttered agreement with the sentiment and voices were raised on each side of the question.

‘Good day, Lady Keswick, Mrs Travenor.’ Rosa jumped, instantly recognising Stanford’s deep rich voice. Heat rushed through her body. She closed her eyes against the invading warmth as the image of his mouth close to hers danced in her vision. She took a deep calming breath and attempted a serene smile.

Lady Keswick gave him her hand. ‘Stanford. I see you are not among the early risers.’ Her gaze darted to Lady Smythe. ‘Made a late night of it, I suppose.’

Stanford grinned good-naturedly, his eyes finding Rosa with a gleam of wickedness. ‘I like to walk before retiring as an aid to sleep, though the rain last night was not conducive to long ramblings.’ His gaze rested upon Rosa’s face. ‘How about you, Mrs Travenor? Did you sleep well?’

A breath caught in Rosa’s throat. There was no doubt in her mind he was threatening exposure as he looked at her, his eyes issuing a challenge.

She raised her chin. ‘I always take a short walk every evening, rain or no, Lord Stanford.’

He blinked at her intimation that only a weakling would let rain keep him indoors. With a triumphant smile at his obvious surprise, she gestured to the dog at her feet. ‘I usually take Digger for his nightly perambulation. But, like you, he preferred to remain indoors last evening.’

Stanford hunkered down at her feet and scratched behind the pug’s ear. The dog opened one eye and wriggled with pleasure as the strong long fingers moved with assurance over its flanks. The dog grunted its bliss and rolled on its back.

Stanford tickled the dog’s underside and tipped his face up to meet her gaze. The individual lashes around his eyes were long and thick and veiled his thoughts, but not his mocking smile. ‘He’s a lucky fellow to have such a considerate attendant, but you really should not wander the grounds alone at night, Mrs Travenor. Anything might happen. I beg you allow me to accompany you in future.’

A warning. He was not going to say anything this time. A spurt of relief left her feeling weak. She really didn’t want to make up any more lies. Nor did she want to have to explain to her employer.

Lady Keswick’s plucked eyebrows drew sharply together. ‘Are you implying Mrs Travenor is not safe in my grounds, Stanford?’

His smile turned cynical. He straightened to his full height and once more she was aware of just how large he was, despite his sparseness of frame. ‘I am sure she is as safe here as anywhere, Lady Keswick.’

Not safe at all with men like Stanford on the prowl.

‘Hmmph,’ the old lady said, eyeing her guests, who had devolved into a heated discussion about the relative merits of a play or charades. She picked up the cane beside her chair and rapped it sharply on the floor. Silence descended as all eyes turned on their hostess. Rosa shrank into the shadows of her corner.

Not that she need have bothered. None of them were looking at her. They were all looking at Lady Keswick.

A wicked grin spread over Stanford’s face. He kept his eyes fixed on Rosa’s face as he spoke, though he raised his voice to include the whole company. ‘I suggest a game of hide and go seek. The gentlemen will find, while the ladies hide. Ladies, if you are caught, you will forfeit a kiss.’

One of the women squealed her excitement. Mrs Mallow, Rosa thought.

‘Stanford,’ Lady Smythe said in objecting tones. ‘How can we hide if we do not know our way around the house?’

‘Don’t worry, Lady Smythe,’ Mrs Mallow said. ‘Stay with me. I am good at this.’

A flicker of something passed across Stanford’s face. Dismay? How could that be? This was all his idea. He turned to Mrs Mallow, his smile turning wolfish. ‘Have no doubt, I will find you.’

And he would. His kind knew such things by instinct.

Lady Smythe cast him an anxious glance, which seemed a little odd. Unless she worried that Stanford might not find her.

Rosa bit her lip until it hurt. Better that than feel envy for Lady Smythe. Envy? Surely not? What had got into her head? The kind of fun proposed by Lord Stanford would keep the guests busy for the rest of the afternoon. A good thing, from her perspective.

Stanford glanced down at her. ‘Would you care to join us, Mrs Travenor?’

Dear Lord, had he read her thoughts? She really must be more careful around him. He was far too observant for a man so apparently indolent.

‘Certainly not,’ Lady Keswick put in. ‘Mrs Travenor has other duties.’

Rescued. She lifted her chin, shooting Stanford a look of triumph.

He shrugged. His dark eyes gleamed wicked encouragement. ‘Too bad.’

Lady Keswick’s eyes lit up. ‘And before you ask me, I am far too old, but it sounds like just the right sort of thing for a rainy day. Feel free to use the whole of this floor, but do not go upsetting my servants.’ She reached out a hand. ‘Come, Rose, you shall help me to my chamber. I have correspondence to write.’

Lady Keswick heaved herself to her feet with Rosa’s help. Digger, tongue lolling, got his short legs beneath him. ‘Dinner will be served at six in the dining room,’ the countess announced and headed for the door.

Hapton strolled to her side and offered his arm. ‘May I escort you, Lady Keswick?’

She beamed. ‘Now you are what in my day we called a cavalier.’ She took his arm. ‘You can see me as far as the stairs. Clarence will take me the rest of the way.’

Rosa trailed in their wake, oddly aware of Stanford’s gaze on her back. The very thought of it made her legs feel wooden and her movements stiff. It was only by practising a great feat of will that she did not turn around to ask him to stop.

The footman stationed at the foot of the stairs took over escort duties from Mr Hapton, whose granite-grey eyes ran over Rosa for a moment. ‘I keep thinking we have met before, Mrs Travenor,’ he said as she passed him to climb the stairs.

Rosa shook her head. ‘I don’t believe so.’

‘Then you remind me of someone.’

A cold feeling settled in the pit of her stomach. Everyone said she looked like her mother. An Italian opera singer famous in Rome and London before she married, she had been much admired for her voice and her opulent figure. Many painters had daubed her likeness, some showing her in the scandalous costumes of the opera house. One reason Grandfather had been so opposed to her parents’ marriage. The reason for their years of estrangement.

Hapton must have seen one of her mother’s likenesses somewhere. The thought he might put two and two together made her queasy. Not because she was ashamed of her mother, but because she did not want word of her presence in the area to reach her grandfather. Not yet. Not until she found the will. ‘I can’t think who it might be, Mr Hapton,’ she said coolly and followed Lady Keswick and Clarence up the stairs.

At the door to his mistress’s chamber, the footman waited while Rosa fetched the wheeled chair. Lady Keswick collapsed into it with a deep sigh as Rosa wheeled her inside.

Stone-faced, but with beads of sweat on his upper lip and forehead, Clarence closed the door from the other side.

‘You should really think about a bedroom on the ground floor,’ Rosa said gently.

‘Pshaw. I’m not dead yet, girl. Nor yet an invalid.’

‘Indeed no,’ Rosa said. ‘I was thinking more of your footman. Didn’t you see how red Clarence’s face was by the time he reached the top of the stairs?’

Lady Keswick grinned. ‘Naughty puss. Trying to appeal to my soft heart.’ She sighed. ‘Very well, I will consider it. But not until these guests of ours are gone. Time was when I would be playing hide and go seek with the best of them. Are you sure you don’t wish to join in the fun? An amorous adventure might be just the thing to cheer you up. You can’t remain in mourning forever. Fitz is a nice young man and without a brain in his handsome head. You’d twist him round your little finger in a trice. I’d be wary of the rest, though. Bad men, the lot of them.’

Despite the horrid feeling in the pit of her stomach each time Lady Keswick mentioned her widowhood, Rosa laughed at the old lady’s character assassination of her guests. ‘A man would interfere with my plans.’

Lady Keswick shook her head. ‘You gels today, so independent minded. Very well, I will write again to my friend with connections at the Haymarket. Meanwhile, you can practise on my guests tonight. It would be to your advantage to gain the Phillipses’ approval, if nothing else.’

Mr Phillips had lots of connections with the theatrical community in London. He would be useful, if she did not find the will. But she had so much hope in her heart, she really didn’t want to think about her option of last resort. Not today.

Yet, it was wise to be prepared. ‘I will look forward to singing tonight.’ She just hoped the nerves that always assailed her when singing to an audience would not change Lady Keswick’s view of her talent.

Rosa tied the length of cord attached to the bell pull around the arm of Lady Keswick’s chair. ‘Ring if you need anything.’

‘There is one thing. Tell Jonas I want the best burgundy served tonight. I can’t abide the dreadful stuff he served last evening.’

Rosa sighed. Lady Keswick’s servants could be a little slack sometimes and she had a feeling the butler watered the wine, but the old lady wouldn’t hear a word against him, so all she could do was pass along the message.

Leaving Lady Keswick scratching away with her pen, Rosa ran down the nearest servants’ staircase and along the corridor on the first floor, only to find the pantry empty. He must be below. She headed for the cellars.

An arm shot out from a cupboard, jerked her inside, up against a man’s body.

Rosa screamed.

A hand covered her mouth, the palm damp and smelling of snuff. ‘Hush, you little fool.’ Hapton.

He swung her around to face him, pushing her deeper into the small space lined with shelves full of table linen and lit by a small window high on one wall.

She pulled free and stared at his sly grin. ‘Mr Hapton, you know very well I am not playing your game.’

He leaned against the door frame, his arms crossed over his chest with a rather chilling smile. ‘You are now.’

‘Let me pass. I am on an errand for Lady Keswick.’ She stepped towards him, but he remained blocking the doorway.

‘The price of release is a kiss,’ he said.

Her heart thundered. She felt as if all the air had been squeezed from her lungs. Another man who wanted to kiss her. But unlike last night, she felt not the slightest bit tempted. What she felt was disgust. She backed away until a shelf prevented further retreat. ‘You should not be here. Her ladyship offered you the second floor for your game.’

‘I play to win,’ he murmured. ‘And today you are the prize.’

‘Is there something wrong with your intellect? I made it quite clear in the library that I did not intend to join your festivities this morning. Now, please excuse me.’

‘Not without my kiss.’ He lunged at her. She dodged his pursed lips and ended up jammed in the corner.

Now what was she to do? Men like Hapton saw anyone in the servant class as an easy target.

‘You will let me pass, sir,’ she said in a low voice. ‘Or Lady Keswick will hear about your ungentlemanly conduct.’

He crooked a finger beneath her chin. Forced to look up, she glared into his cold grey eyes and repressed a shudder. Showing fear would only make things worse.

‘Come now, Mrs Travenor, we both know her ladyship cares nothing for convention. And I’ve remembered where I’ve seen your face. On a theatrical broadsheet. Does Lady Keswick know your true calling?’

The idiot had mistaken her for her mother. Her chest tightened. If he thought her an actress, would he refuse to listen to her objections? ‘You are mistaken, sir. And you will unhand me.’

‘Now here’s a pretty picture,’ a darkly dangerous voice said from the doorway. ‘Plaguing the hired help now, Hapton? Not getting anywhere with Mrs Mallow?’

Hapton cursed softly and turned to greet the newcomer. ‘Am I treading on your turf, Stanford? Sorry, old chap, the last I saw you were hard on the heels of Lady Smythe. A little greedy, even for you.’

Stanford merely cocked a brow. ‘Lady Smythe is in the library along with Bannerby, Mrs Mallow and Mrs De Lacy. It appears you have wandered off course. Unless I am mistaken and Mrs Travenor has changed her mind about joining us?’ He cocked a questioning brow in her direction.

Rosa glared at him. ‘As I told Mr Hapton, I am not a participant, Lord Stanford.’

A cool smile curled his lips and made him look darker and less friendly than she could have imagined. ‘If that is the case, do feel free to be about your business, Mrs Travenor.’ His ice-cold stare moved to Hapton and he stepped back with a gesture inviting them both to depart.

She had never felt so mortified in her life as she followed Mr Hapton into the corridor. There was something in Stanford’s mocking gaze that made her feel like a scullery maid caught with her skirts over her head, instead of a victim of a man who ought to know better.

But then she could hardly expect him to fight a duel for her honour. He also saw her as ripe for amorous adventure.

Face scalding, she glared at both of them. ‘You were given the run of the second floor by your hostess. Please do not come down here again.’ Shoulders straight, she spun away and marched through the door leading to the basement, slamming it pointedly behind her.

Horrid men. Just because they had the morals of tomcats on the prowl, did they have to assume everyone else was the same?

And if Mr Hapton told his tales to Lady Keswick, he would catch a cold. While she hadn’t given the lady any names, the dowager countess knew about Rosa’s family connections to the opera. It was how she had secured this position. Lady Keswick liked to help those in the theatre down on their luck.

She took a deep breath and realised she was trembling from head to toe. Hapton had made her afraid. And Stanford’s considering gaze had made her angry. Both for the same reason. No matter how drably she dressed or how prim and properly she behaved, men took one look at her foreign appearance and decided the worst.

Luckily, her two younger sisters took after their father, neither of them having their Italian mother’s dark complexion or jet-black hair. Neither of them, as her grandfather was fond of saying, looked like dirty gypsies.

Heart still pounding, face still full of heat, she headed for the kitchen in search of Jonas.