stormy persuasion Page 2
When asked why he would agree to something so out of character for him, James had said, “It kept me from having to kill them, which would have made George quite annoyed with me.”
True, they were George’s brothers, after all, and James hadn’t actually been joking, either, about killing them. George was Jacqueline’s mother, Georgina to be exact, but James insisted on calling his wife George because he knew her brothers would hate it, but truth be known, even her five older brothers called her that now on occasion. But that promise James had made had kept an unspoken truce in effect all these years with his five American brothers-in-law. Which had been needed, considering they’d once tried to hang James Malory.
“I’m not going to marry until you do,” Jacqueline assured her cousin, “so don’t you be in a hurry to either. We don’t need to be following the pack and getting married our first Season, even if our mothers are expecting us to. This year is for fun, next year can be for marriage.”
“That’s not going to stop you from sailing off without me,” Judith said forlornly.
“No, but we still have a couple of weeks to come up with a solution. We’ll talk to our parents as soon as we get back to London. It’s your parents that have to be convinced. My father would be glad to have you along, but when Uncle Tony said no, Father had to side with him. Brothers, you know, and those two in particular, always stick together. But if I tell them that I won’t go to America if you can’t come with me, they’ll see reason. And why did your father say no? It’s not as if he’s looking forward to your come-out. He’s been a veritable ogre with it approaching.”
Judith giggled. “My father is never an ogre. A bit terse and snappish lately, yes, but—you’re right, he’d be quite happy if I never marry.”
“Exactly, so he should have jumped at the chance to send you off with me, prolonging the inevitable.”
“But is marriage inevitable, with fathers like ours?”
Jacqueline laughed. “You’re thinking of Cousin Regina’s being raised by the four Malory elders after their sister Melissa died, and how none of them could agree on a man good enough for their niece, and she had to go through numerous Seasons because of it. Poor Reggie. But, remember, back then, the Malory brothers didn’t have wives who could put their feet down as they do now. D’you really think our mothers won’t do exactly that when love shows up for us? Wait a minute, that’s it, isn’t it? It was Aunt Roslynn who said you couldn’t go and Uncle Tony just agreed with her to keep the peace?”
Judith winced as she nodded. “She’s so been looking forward to my come-out here, much more’n I am. She’s even got her hopes set on one man in particular she thinks will be perfect for me.”
“Lord Cullen, the son of one of her Scottish friends,” Judith replied.
“Have you met him?”
“I haven’t seen him since we were children, but she has. She’s assured me he’s rich, handsome, a great catch by all accounts.”
“I suppose he lives in Scotland?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Then he won’t do! What’s your mother thinking, to pair you with a man who’ll take you away from us?”
Judith laughed. “Probably that she’ll buy us a house in London to live in.”
Jack snorted. “We don’t take chances like that, especially with Scots, who can be stubborn. Wait a minute, is he why she won’t bend?”
“She is worried he’ll get snatched up by someone else if I’m not here at the start of the Season. So, yes, I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s the real reason she’s refusing to let me delay my debut for a trip to America.”
Jacqueline rolled her eyes. “You silly. We just haven’t tackled this together yet. We’re much stronger when we do. Mark my words, you’ll be sailing with me. I never had the slightest doubt.”
Judith lay in bed with her eyes wide-open. Jacqueline had promptly fallen asleep, but Judith remained awake because she’d realized she might be married the next time she visited her cousins in Hampshire. Not to Ian Cullen, but to a man she simply couldn’t resist. Although she and Jacqueline didn’t want to fall in love right away, certainly not this year, Judith had seen what had happened to her older Malory cousins. Love had a way of interfering with the best-laid plans. And as soon as she married, she’d probably forget about her ghost.
That was a sad thought. Whimsically, she didn’t want to forget such an exciting encounter or never see her ghost again. Which was when she got it in her mind that the ghost might reveal himself to her if she entered his house alone, and that thought wouldn’t let her sleep.
She finally gave in to temptation, donned a hooded cloak and slippers, headed downstairs to find a lantern, then ran across the back lawn. But when she reached the dark, old house and tried to get in the front door as she’d done before, she found it locked. Not stuck, actually locked. Had Derek done that? But why, when many of the windows were missing their glass and were easy enough to slip through?
She set her lantern on the floor inside one window and climbed through. She’d seen no light from outside, but still headed straight for the room where she’d found the ghost before. Boards creaked under her feet. If he was in there, he’d hear her coming—and disappear again.
She thought to call out, “Don’t hide from me. I know you’re here. Reveal yourself.”
Of course he didn’t. She chided herself for thinking a ghost would do her bidding. She’d surprised him last time. And she’d foolishly lost the element of surprise this time. Nonetheless, she was determined to check that room again before she gave up and went back to bed.
She opened the door. It didn’t squeak this time. Had it been oiled? She held her lantern high to light the room. It looked different. A lot different. The cobwebs were gone. The old sofa was no longer dusty. And a cot was in the corner of the room with a pillow and a crumpled blanket. Was someone other than the ghost staying here? A real trespasser now? Even the windows in this room were covered with blankets, so the light of her lantern wouldn’t be seen from outside—and was why they hadn’t seen the ghost’s light in so long. He was probably furious that some vagrant had moved into his house and he’d been unable to scare him away.
But the vagrant wasn’t here now. Maybe the ghost still was. She was about to tell her invisible friend that she could help with his vagrant problem when a hand slipped over her mouth and an arm around her waist. She was surprised enough to drop her lantern. It didn’t break, but it did roll across the floor—and extinguish itself. No! Utter blackness and a very real man with his hands on her.
She was about to faint when he whispered by her ear, “You picked a lousy place to do your trysting, wench. Is your lover in the house, too? Is that who you were talking to? Just shake or nod your head.”
She did both.
He made a sound of frustration. “If I let go of your mouth so you can answer, I don’t want to hear any screaming. Scream and I’ll gag you and tie you up and leave you to rot in the cellar. Do we have an understanding?”
Being bound and gagged didn’t frighten her so much and was even preferable to anything else he might do to her. Jack would find her in the morning because she would guess exactly where she’d disappeared to. So she nodded. He removed his hand from her mouth, but his arm still held her tightly to him so she couldn’t run. Screaming was still an option. . . .
“So how soon before the other half of this tryst shows up?”
“I wasn’t meeting anyone,” she assured him without thinking. Why hadn’t she said “Any minute now” instead?! Then he’d leave—or would he?
“Then why are you here and how did you get in? I locked the bleedin’ door.”
“You did? But what was the point of that when some of the windows are open?”
“Because a locked door makes a statement. It clearly says you aren’t welcome.”
She humphed. “Neither are you. Don’t you know this place is haunted?”
“Is it? I’m just passing by. If there are any ghosts here, they haven’t made an appearance yet.”
“Passing by when you keep a cot here?” she snorted. “You’re lying. And you weren’t here a moment ago. Did you come out of the wall? Is there a hidden room connected to this one?”
He laughed, but it sounded forced. She had a feeling she’d guessed accurately. And why hadn’t she and Jack thought of that before? Even the ducal mansion had hidden rooms and passageways.
But he placed his chin on her shoulder. “Quite the imagination you have, darlin’. How about you answer the questions instead? What are you doing here in the middle of the night if you’re not meeting a lover?”
“I came to visit the resident ghost.”
“That nonsense again?” he scoffed. “There are no such things.”
It would be so nice if her ghost would show up to prove him wrong right then. The vagrant would be distracted long enough for her to escape and bring Derek back to get rid of him. But then she realized the room was too dark for her to see the ghost even if he did show up. Frustrated that this trespasser was ruining her last chance to see the ghost again, she just wanted to go back to bed. She tried to pull away from him but he tightened his hold on her.
“Stop wiggling, or I’m going to think you want some attention of a different sort. Do you, darlin’? I’ll be happy to oblige.” She sucked in her breath and stood perfectly still. “Now that’s disappointing.” He actually did sound it. “You smell good. You feel good. I was hoping to find out if you taste good, too.”
She stiffened. “I’m ugly as sin, with boils and warts.”
He chuckled. “Now why don’t I believe that?”
“Relight the lantern and you’ll see.”
“No, the dark suits us. I’ll call your warts and boils and raise you a lusty appetite. I think I’m going to win this hand.”
Despite the warning, and warning it was, she still wasn’t expecting to be flipped around so fast and kissed before she could stop it from happening. She didn’t gag. His breath actually smelled of brandy. And for a first kiss it might not have been so bad if she’d wanted to explore it. But she didn’t. Her hand swung wildly in the dark but she got lucky with her aim. It cracked against his cheek and got her released.
He merely laughed. “What? It was just one quick kiss I stole. Nothing for you to get violent over.”
“I’m leaving now, and you will, too, if you know what’s good for you.”
A sigh. “Yes, I’ve already figured that out. But let me get you out of here safely. I don’t want it on my conscience if you fall through the floor and break your neck.”
“No! Wait!” she cried as he picked her up in his arms. “I know this house better than you do!”
“I doubt that,” he muttered, and carried her out of the room and across the main room to the nearest window, which he shoved her through. “Say nothing about seeing me here and I’ll be gone before morning.”
“I didn’t see you. You made sure of that.”
And she still couldn’t. A little moonlight was on the porch, but he stepped away from the window as soon as he released her, disappearing into the blackness inside the house. She didn’t wait for a response if he’d even heard her, just ran all the way back to the ducal mansion and up to her room.
She almost woke Jacqueline to tell her about her little misadventure but decided it could wait until morning. It still nagged at her, how a poor vagrant could afford French brandy. The tariff on it was so high, only the rich could afford it. That was why it was the prime cargo of smugglers. . . .
“Why do you look like I’m in trouble?” Boyd Anderson wondered aloud as he entered the dining room to join his sister, Georgina, for lunch.
His voice was teasing, his grin engaging, but he was quite serious given the frown he saw on her face. Brother and sister both had identical dark brown eyes, but his brown hair was shades lighter than hers. She was dressed today to receive company in a pretty coral gown, but she wore her hair down, as she often did when she only expected to entertain family.
Boyd was the youngest of Georgina’s five brothers, and the only one who lived permanently in London. It had been his decision, and a good one since he was the third Anderson to marry into the Malory clan. His wife, Katey, was Anthony Malory’s illegitimate daughter, a daughter that Anthony hadn’t even known he had until Boyd began to pursue her. Newly discovered as Katey was, the Malorys, and there were many of them, would have been quite up in arms if Boyd had tried to sail off to America with her despite her having been raised there.
Georgina tried to give Boyd a reassuring smile, but didn’t quite manage it. “Sit.” She pointed at the chair across from her. “I’ve asked the cook to prepare your favorite dish. It wasn’t easy to find white clams.”
“Bribery? Never mind, don’t answer that. It’s Jacqueline’s trip, isn’t it? What’s wrong? Did something happen with the boys?”
“No, they’re happy to stay at school. They’re not interested in their sister’s come-out.”
“I thought you were in agreement that she could go?”
“I am. I know you and our brothers only want the best for Jack. And this momentous trip has kept the peace in my family—even if it was forced down our throats.”