Books > The Bastion Club Novels > The Lady Chosen

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The Lady Chosen

The 1st Bastion Club Novel
First published 2003
Avon Books
ISBN 978-0-06-000206-9

 
 

There is more than a touch of the wild adventurer in each of them, and they are loyal to the bone. Seven of London's most eligible bachelors band together to form The Bastion Club, an elite society of gentlemen dedicated to determining their own futures when it comes to that most important step of all - marriage.

Tristan Wemyss, Earl of Trentham, never expected he'd need to wed within a year or forfeit his inheritance. But he is not one to bow to the matchmaking mamas of the ton. No, he will marry a lady of his own choosing. And the lady he choses is the enchanting neighbor living with her family next door. Miss Leonora Carling has beauty, spirit and passion; unfortunately, matrimony is the last thing on her mind.

To Leonora, Tristan's kisses are oh-so-tempting, but once bitten, forever shy, she has determinedly turned her back on marriage. But Tristan is a seasoned campaigner who will not accept defeat. And when a mysterious man attempts to scare Leonora and her family from their home, Tristan realizes he's been given the perfect excuse to offer his services--as protector, seducer, and ultimately, husband.

 
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CHAPTER ONE

Lust and a virtuous woman - only a fool combined the two.

Tristan Wemyss, fourth Earl of Trentham, reflected that he'd rarely been called a fool, yet here he stood, gazing out of a window at an undoubtedly virtuous lady, and indulging in all manner of lustful thoughts.

Understandable, perhaps; the lady was tall, dark-haired and possessed a willowy, subtly curvaceous figure displayed to advantage as, strolling the back garden of the neighboring house, she paused here and there, bending to examine some foliage or flower in the lush and strangely riotous garden beds.

It was February, the weather as bleak and chill as in that month it was wont to be, yet the garden next door displayed abundant growth, thick leaves in dark greens and bronzes from unusual plants that seemed to thrive despite the frosts. Admittedly, there were trees and shrubs leaveless and lifelorn scattered throughout the deep beds, yet the garden exuded an air of winter life quite absent from most London gardens in that season.

Not that he possessed any interest in horticulture; it was the lady who held his interest, with her gliding, graceful walk, with the tilt of her head as she examined a bloom. Her hair, the color of rich mahogany, was coiled in a coronet about her head; he couldn't from this distance divine her expression, yet her face was a pale oval, features delicate and pure.

A wolfhound, shaggy and brindle-coated, snuffled idly at her heels; it usually accompanied her whenever she wandered outside.

His instincts, well-honed and reliable, informed him that today the lady's attention was perfunctory, in abeyance, that she was killing time while she waited for something. Or someone.

"M'lord?"

Tristan turned. He was standing in the bay window of the library on the first floor in the rear corner of the terrace house at Number 12 Montrose Place. He and his six co-conspirators, the members of the Bastion Club, had bought the house three weeks ago; they were in the process of equipping it to serve as their private stronghold, their last bastion against the matchmakers of the ton. Situated in this quiet area of Belgravia mere blocks from the southeast corner of the park, beyond which lay Mayfair where they all possessed houses, the house was perfect for their needs.

The library window overlooked the back garden, and also the back garden of the larger house next door, Number 14, in which the lady lived.

Billings, the carpenter in charge of the renovations, stood in the doorway studying a battered list.

"I think as we've about done all the new work, 'cepting for this set of cupboards in the office." Billings looked up. "If you could take a look and see if we've got the idea right, we'll get it done, then we'll start the painting, polishing and cleaning up, so's your people can settle in."

"Very good." Tristan stirred. "I'll come now." He cast a last glance at the garden next door, and saw a tow-headed boy racing across the lawn toward the lady. Saw her turn, see, wait expectantly...clearly the news she'd been anticipating.

Quite why he found her fascinating he had no idea; he preferred blonds of more buxom charms and despite his desperate need of a wife, the lady was too old to be still on the marriage mart; she would certainly already be wed.

He drew his gaze from her. "How long do you think it will be before the house is habitable?"

"Few more days, p'raps a week. Belowstairs is close to done."

Waving Billings ahead, Tristan followed him out of the door.

* * *

"Miss, miss! The gentl'man's here!"

At last! Leonora Carling drew in a breath. She straightened, spine stiffening in anticipation, then unbent to smile at the bootboy. "Thank you, Toby. Is it the same gentleman as before?"

Toby nodded. "The one as Quiggs said is one of the owners."

Quiggs was a journeyman-carpenter working on the house next door; Toby, always curious, had befriended him. Through that route Leonora had learned enough of the gentlemen-owners' plans for next door to decide she needed to learn more. A lot more.

Toby, tousle-haired, bright color in his cheeks where the wind had nipped, jigged from foot to foot. "You'll need to look sharpish if'n you want to catch 'im though - Quiggs said as Billings was having a last word and then the gentl'man'd likely leave."

"Thank you." Leonora patted Toby's shoulder, drawing him with her as she walked quickly toward the back door. Henrietta, her wolfhound, loped at their heels. "I'll go around right now. You've been most helpful - let's see if we can persuade Cook that you deserve a jam tart."

"Cor!" Toby's eyes grew round; Cook's jam tarts were legendary.

Harriet, Leonora's maid who'd been with the household for many years, a comfortable but shrewd female with a mass of curling red hair, was waiting in the hall just inside the back door. Leonora sent Toby to request his reward; Harriet waited only until the boy was out of earshot before demanding, "You're not going to do anything rash, are you?"

"Of course not." Leonora glanced down at her gown; she tweaked the bodice. "But I must learn whether the gentlemen next door were those who previously wanted this house."

"And if they are?"

"If they are, then either they were behind the incidents, in which case the incidents will cease, or alternatively they know nothing of our attempted burglaries, or the other happenings, in which case..." She frowned, then pushed past Harriet. "I must go. Toby said the man would be leaving soon."

Ignoring Harriet's worried look, Leonora hurried through the kitchen. Waving aside the usual household queries from Cook, Mrs. Wantage, their housekeeper, and Castor, her uncle's ancient butler, promising to return shortly and deal with everything, she pushed through the swinging baise-covered door into the front hall.

Castor followed. "Shall I summon a hackney, miss? Or do you wish for a footman...?"

"No, no." Grabbing her cloak, she swung it about her shoulders and quickly tied the strings. "I'm just stepping into the street for a minute - I'll be back directly."

Snatching her bonnet from the hall stand, she plonked it on her head; looking into the hall mirror, she swiftly tied the ribbons. She spared a glance for her appearance. Not perfect, but it would do. Interrogating unknown gentlemen was not something she often did; regardless, she wasn't about to quail or quake. The situation was all too serious.

She turned to the door.

Castor stood before it, a vague frown creasing his brow. "Where shall I say you've gone if Sir Humphrey or Mr. Jeremy should ask?"

"They won't. If they do, just tell them I've gone to call next door." They'd think she'd gone to visit at Number 16, not Number 12.

Henrietta sat beside the door, bright eyes locked on her, canine jaws parted, tongue lolling, hoping against hope...

"Stay here."

With a whine, the hound flopped to the flags and, in patent disgust, laid her huge head on her paws.

Leonora ignored her. She gestured impatiently at the door; as soon as Castor opened it, she hurried out onto the tiled front porch. At the top of the steps, she paused to scan the street; it was, as she'd hoped, deserted. Relieved, she rapidly descended into the fantasy of the front garden.

Normally, the garden would have distracted her, at least made her look and take note. Today, hurrying down the main path, she barely saw the bushes, the bright berries bobbing on the naked branches, the strange lacy leaves growing in profusion. Today, the fantasical creation of her distant cousin Cedric Carling failed to slow her precipitate rush for the front gate.

The new owners of Number 12 were a group of lords - so Toby had heard, but who knew? At the very least they were tonnish gentlemen. Apparently they were refurbishing the house, but none of them planned to live in it - an unquestionably odd, distinctly suspicious circumstance. Combined with all else that had been going on...she was determined to discover if there was any connection.

For the past three months, she and her family had been subjected to determined harrassment aimed at persuading them to sell their house. First had come an approach through a local agent. From dogged persuasion, the agent's arguments had degenerated into belligerence and pugnacity. Nevertheless, she'd eventually convinced the man, and presumably his clients, that her uncle would not sell.

Her relief had been shortlived.

Within weeks, there'd been two attempts to break into their house. Both had been foiled, one by the staff, the other by Henrietta. She might have dismissed the occurences as coincidence if it hadn't been for the subsequent attacks on her.

Those had been much more frightening.

She'd told no one bar Harriet of those incidents, not her uncle Humphrey or her brother Jeremy or any other of the staff. There was no point rattling the servants, and as for her uncle and brother, if she managed to make them believe that the incidents had actually happened and weren't a figment of her untrustworthy female imagination, they would only restrict her movements, further compromising her ability to deal with the problem. To identify those responsible and their reasons, and ensure no further incidents occurred.

That was her goal; the gentleman from next door would, she hoped, get her one step further along her road.

Reaching the tall wrought iron gate set into the high stone wall, she hauled it open and whisked through, turning to her right, toward Number 12-

And crashed into a walking monument.

"Oh!"

She cannoned off a body like stone.

It gave not an inch, but it moved like lightning.

Hard hands gripped her arms above the elbows.

Sparks flared and sizzled, struck by the collision. Sensation flashed from where his fingers grasped.

He held her steady, stopping her from falling.

Also trapping her.

Her lungs seized. Her eyes, widening, clashed, then locked with a hard hazel gaze, one surprisingly sharp. Even as she noticed, he blinked; his heavy lids descended, screening his eyes. The planes of his face, until then chiseled granite, softened into an expression of easy charm.

His lips changed the most - from a rigid, determined line into curving, beguiling mobility.

He smiled.

She hauled her gaze back up to his eyes. Blushed.

"I'm so sorry. Pray excuse me." Flustered, she stepped back, disengaged. His fingers eased; his hands slid from her. Was it her imagination that labelled the move reluctant? Her skin prickled; her nerves skittered. Oddly breathless, she hurried on, "I didn't see you coming..."

Her gaze flicked beyond him - to the house at Number 12. She registered the direction from which he'd been walking, and the trees along the boundary wall between Number 12 and Number 14, the only ones that could have hidden him during her earlier survey of the street.

Her fluster abruptly evaporated; she looked at him. "Are you the gentleman from Number 12?"

He didn't blink; not a flicker of surprise at such a strange greeting - almost an accusation given her tone - showed in that charmingly mobile face. He had sable brown hair, worn slightly longer than was fashionable; his features possessed a distinctly autocratic cast. An instant, brief but discernible, passed, then he inclined his head. "Tristan Wemyss. Trentham, for my sins." His gaze moved past her to the open gate. "I take it you live here?"

"Indeed. With my uncle and brother." Lifting her chin, she drew a tight breath, fixed her eyes on his, glinting green and gold beneath his dark lashes. "I'm glad I caught you. I wished to ask if you and your friends were the purchaser who attempted to buy my uncle's house last November, through the agent Stolemore."

His gaze returned to her face, studying it as if he could read far more than she would like therein. He was tall, broad-shouldered; his scrutiny gave her no opportunity to assess further, but the impression she'd gleaned was one of quiet elegance, a fashionable facade behind which unexpected strength lurked. Her senses had registered the contradiction between how he looked and how he felt in the instant she'd run into him.

Neither name nor title meant anything to her yet; she would check in Debrett's later. The only thing that struck her as out of place was the light tan that colored his skin...an idea stirred, but, held by his gaze, she couldn't pin down the impression. His hair fell in gentle waves about his head, framing a broad forehead above arched dark brows that now drew into a frown.

"No." He hesitated, then added, "We heard of the proposed sale of Number 12 in mid-January, through an acquaintance. Stolemore handled the sale, true enough, but we dealt directly with the owners."

"Oh." Her certainty dissipated; her belligerence deflated. Nevertheless, she felt forced to ask, "So you weren't behind the earlier offers? Or the other incidents?"

"Earlier offers? I take it someone was keen to buy your uncle's house?"

"Indeed. Very keen." They'd well-nigh driven her demented. "However, if it wasn't you or your friends...." She paused. "Are you sure none of your friends...?"

"Quite sure. We were in this together from the first."

"I see." Determined, she drew breath, lifted her chin even higher. He was a full head taller than she; it was difficult to adopt a censorious stance. "In that case, I feel I must ask what you intend to do with Number 12, now you have bought it. I understand neither you nor your friends will be taking up residence."

Her thoughts - her suspicions - were there to be read, clear in her lovely blue eyes. Their shade was arresting, neither violet nor plain blue; they reminded Tristan of periwinkles at twilight. Her sudden appearance, the brief - all too brief - moment of collision when, against all odds, she'd run into his arms...in light of his earlier thoughts of her, in light of the obsession that had been building over the past weeks while, from the library of Number 12, he'd watched her walk her garden, the abrupt introduction had left him adrift.

The obvious direction of her thoughts rapidly hauled him back to earth.

He raised a brow, faintly haughty. "My friends and I merely wish for a quiet place in which to meet. I assure you our interests are in no way nefarious, illicit or..." He'd been going to say "socially unacceptable"; the matrons of the ton would probably not agree. Holding her gaze, he glibly substituted, "Such as to cause any raised eyebrows even among the most prudish."

Far from being put in her place, she narrowed her eyes. "I thought that's what gentlemen's clubs were for. There are any number of such establishments only blocks away in Mayfair."

"Indeed. We, however, value our privacy." He wasn't going to explain the reasons for their club. Before she could think of some way to probe further, he seized the initiative. "These people who tried to buy your uncle's house. How insistent were they?"

Remembered aggravation flared in her eyes. "Too insistent. They made themselves - or rather the agent - into a definite pest.""

"They never approached your uncle directly?"

She frowned. "No. Stolemore handled all their offers, but that was quite bad enough."

"How so?"

When she hesitated, he offered, "Stolemore was the agent for the sale of Number 12. I'm on my way to speak with him. Was it he who was obnoxious, or...?"

She grimaced. "I really can't say that it was he. Indeed, I suspect it was the party he was acting for - no agent could remain in business if he habitually behaved in such a manner, and at times Stolemore seemed embarrassed."

"I see." He caught her gaze. "And what were the other 'incidents' that occurred?"

She didn't want to tell him, was wishing she'd never mentioned them; that was clear in her eyes, in the way her lips set.

Unperturbed, he simply waited; his gaze locked with hers, he let the silence stretch, his stance unthreatening, but immovable. As many had before, she read his message arright. Somewhat waspishly replied, "There have been two attempts to break into our house."

He frowned. "Both attempts after you'd refused to sell?"

"The first was a week after Stolemore finally accepted defeat and went away."

He hesitated, but it was she who put his thoughts into words.

"Of course, there's nothing to connect the attempted burglaries with the offer to buy the house."

Except that she believed the connection was there.

"I thought," she continued, "that if you and your friends had been the mystery purchasers interested in our house, then that would mean that the attempted burglaries and" - she caught herself, hauled in a breath - "were not connected but to do with something else."

He inclined his head; her logic, as far as it went, was sound, yet it was plain she hadn't told him all. He debated whether to press her, to ask outright if the burglaries were the sum total of the reasons why she'd come barreling out to do battle with him, deliberately disregarding the social niceties. She cast a quick glance toward her uncle's gate. Questioning her could wait; at this juncture, Stolemore might be more forthcoming. When she glanced back at him, he smiled. Charmingly. "I believe you now have the better of me."

When she blinked at him, he went on, "Given we're to be neighbors of sorts, I think it would be acceptable for you to tell me your name."

She eyed him, not warily but assessingly. Then she inclined her head, held out her hand. "Miss Leonora Carling."

His smile broadening, he grasped her fingers briefly, was visited by an urge to hold on to them for longer. She wasn't married after all. "Good afternoon, Miss Carling. And your uncle is?"

"Sir Humphrey Carling."

"And your brother?"

A frown started to grow in her eyes. "Jeremy Carling."

His smile remained, all reassurance. "And have you lived here long? Is it as peaceful a neighborhood as it seems at first glance?"

Her narrowing eyes told him she hadn't been deceived; she answered only his second question. "Entirely peaceful."

Until recently. Leonora held his disturbingly sharp gaze and added, as repressively as she could, "One hopes it will remain so."

She saw his lips twitch before he glanced down.

"Indeed." With a wave, he invited her to walk with him the few steps back to the gate.

She turned, only then realized her acquiesence was a tacit acknowledgement that she'd come racing out purely to meet him. She glanced up, caught his gaze - knew he'd seen the action for the admission it was. Bad enough. The glint she glimpsed in his hazel eyes, a flash that made her senses seize, her breath catch, was infinitely more disturbing.

But then his lashes veiled his eyes and he smiled, as charmingly as before. She felt increasingly sure the expression was a mask.

He halted before the gate and held out his hand.

Courtesy forced her to surrender her fingers once more to his grasp.

His hand closed; his sharp, too-farseeing eyes trapped her gaze. "I'll look forward to extending our acquaintance, Miss Carling. Pray convey my greetings to your uncle; I will call to pay my respects shortly."

She inclined her head, consciously clinging to graciousness while she longed to pull her fingers free. It was an effort to keep them from fluttering in his; his touch, cool, firm, a fraction too strong, affected her equilibrium in a most peculiar way. "Good afternoon, Lord Trentham."

He released her and bowed elegantly.

She turned, went through the gate, then swung it shut. Her eyes touched his briefly before she faced the house.

That fleeting connection was enough to steal her breath once again.

Walking up the path, she tried to force her lungs to work, but could feel his gaze still on her. Then she heard the scrape of boots as he turned, the sound of firm footsteps as he headed down the pavement. She finally breathed in, then exhaled in relief. What was it about Trentham that so set her on edge?

And on the edge of what?

The feel of his hard fingers and faintly calloused palm about her hand lingered, a sensual memory imprinted on her mind. Recollection niggled, but as before proved elusive. She'd never met him before, of that she was sure, yet something about him was faintly familiar.

Inwardly shaking her head, she climbed the porch steps, and determinedly forced her mind to the duties she'd left waiting.

* * *

Tristan strolled down Motcomb Street toward the huddle of shops midway along that housed the office of Earnest Stolemore, House and Land Agent. His discussion with Leonora Carling had sharpened his senses, stirring instincts that, until recently, had been a critical element in his daily life. Until recently his life had depended on those instincts, in reading their messages accurately, and reacting correctly.

He wasn't sure what he made of Miss Carling - Leonora as he thought of her, only reasonable given he'd been silently watching her for three weeks. She'd been physically more attractive than he'd deduced from afar, her hair a rich mahogany in which veins of garnet glowed, those unusual blue eyes large and almond-shaped beneath finely drawn dark brows. Her nose was straight, her face finely boned, cheekbones high, her skin pale and flawless. But it was her lips that set the tone of her appearance; full, generously curved, a dusky rose, they tempted a man to take, to taste.

His instantaneous reaction, and hers, had not escaped him. Her response, however, intrigued him; it was almost as if she hadn't recognized that flash of sensual heat for what it was.

Which raised certain fascinating questions he might well be tempted to pursue, later. At present, however, it was the pragmatic facts she'd revealed that exercised his mind.

Her fears about the attempted burglaries might be simply a figment of an overactive feminine imagination aroused by what he assumed had been Stolemore's intimidatory tactics in trying to gain the sale of the house.

She might even have imagined the incidents entirely.

His instincts whispered otherwise.

In his previous occupation, reading people, assessing them, had been crucial; he'd long ago mastered the knack. Leonora Carling was, he would swear, a strong-willed, practical female with a healthy vein of commonsense. Definitely not the sort to start at shadows, let alone imagine burglaries.

If her supposition was correct and the burglaries were connected with Stolemore's client's wish to buy her uncle's house...

His eyes narrowed. The full picture of why she'd come out to beard him formed in his mind. He didn't, definitely didn't, approve. Face set, he strolled on.

To the green painted frontage of Stolemore's enterprise. Tristan's lips curved; no one viewing the gesture would have labelled it a smile. He caught sight of his reflection in the glass of the door as he reached for the handle, as he turned it, substituted a more comforting face. Stolemore, no doubt, would satisfy his curiosity.

The bell over the door jangled.

Tristan entered. The rotund figure of Stolemore was not behind his desk. The small office was empty. A doorway opposite the front door was masked by a curtain; it led into the tiny house of which the office was the front room.

Shutting the door, Tristan waited, but there was no sound of shuffling feet, of the lumbering gait of the heavily-built agent.

"Stolemore?" Tristan's voice echoed, far stronger than the tinkling bell. Again he waited. A minute ticked by and still there was no sound.

None.

He had an appointment, one Stolemore would not have missed. He had the bank draft for the final payment for the house in his pocket; the way the sale had been arranged, Stolemore's commission came from this last payment.

Hands in his greatcoat pockets, Tristan stood perfectly still, his back to the door, his gaze fixed on the thin curtain before him.

Something was definitely not right.

He drew in his attention, focused it, then walked forward, slowly, absolutely silently, to the curtain. Reaching up, he abruptly drew the folds aside, simultaneously stepping to the side of the doorway.

The jingle of the curtain rings died.

A narrow, dimly lit corridor led on. He entered, keeping his shoulders angled, his back toward the wall. A few steps along he came to a stairway so narrow he wondered how Stolemore got up it; he debated but, hearing no sound from upstairs, sensing no presence, he continued along the corridor.

It ended in a tiny lean-to kitchen built on to the back of the house.

A figure lay slumped on the flags on the other side of the ricketty table that took up most of the space.

Otherwise the room was uninhabited.

The figure was Stolemore; he'd been savagely beaten.

There was no one else in the house; Tristan was certain enough to dispense with caution. From the look of the bruises on Stolemore's face, he'd been attacked some hours ago.

One chair had tipped over. Tristan righted it as he edged around the table, then went down on one knee by the agent's side. The briefest examination confirmed Stolemore was alive, but unconscious. It appeared he'd been staggering to reach the pump handle set in the bench at the end of the small kitchen. Rising, Tristan found a bowl, placed it under the spout and wielded the handle.

A large handkerchief was protruding from the nattily-dressed agent's coat pocket; Tristan took it and used it to bathe Stolemore's face.

The agent stirred, then opened his eyes.

Tension stabbed through the large frame. Panic flared in Stolemore's eyes, then he focused, and recognized Tristan.

"Oh. Argh..." Stolemore winced, then struggled to rise.

Tristan grabbed his arm and hauled him up. "Don't try to talk yet." He hoisted Stolemore onto the chair. "Do you have any brandy?"

Stolemore pointed to a cupboard. Tristan opened it, found the bottle and a glass, and poured a generous amount. He pushed the glass to Stolemore, recorked the bottle and placed it on the table before the agent.

Slipping his hands into his greatcoat pockets, he leaned back against the narrow counter. Gave Stolemore a minute to regain his wits.

But only a minute.

"Who did it?"

Stolemore squinted up at him through one half-closed eye. The other remained completely closed. He took another sip of brandy, dropped his gaze to the glass, then murmured, "Fell down the stairs."

"Fell down the stairs, walked into a door, hit your head on the table...I see."

Stolemore glanced up at him fleetingly, then lowered his gaze to the glass and kept it there. "Was an accident."

Tristan let a moment slip by, then quietly said, "If you say so."

At the note in his voice, one of menace that chilled the spine, Stolemore looked up, lips parting. His eye now wide, he rushed into speech. "I can't tell you anything - bound by confidentiality, I am. And it don't affect you gentlemen, not at all. I swear."

Tristan read what he could from the agent's face, difficult given the swelling and bruising. "I see." Whoever had punished Stolemore had been an amateur; he or indeed any of his ex-colleagues could have inflicted much greater damage yet left far less evidence.

But there was no point, given Stolemore's present condition, in going further down that road. He would simply lose consciousness again.

Reaching into his pocket, Tristan withdrew the banker's draft. "I've brought the final payment as agreed." Stolemore's eyes fastened on the slip of paper as he drew it back and forth between his fingers. "You have the title deed, I take it?"

Stolemore grunted. "In a safe place." Slowly, he pushed up from the table. "If you'll stay here for a minute, I'll fetch it."

Tristan nodded. He watched Stolemore hobble to the door. "No need to rush."

A small part of his mind tracked the lumbering agent as he moved through the house, identified the location of his "safe place" as under the third stair. For the most part, however, he stayed leaning against the counter, quietly adding two and two.

And not liking the number he came up with.

When Stolemore limped back, a title deed tied with ribbon in one hand, Tristan straightened. He held out a commanding hand; Stolemore gave him the deed. Unraveling the ribbon, he unrolled the deed, swiftly checked it, then rerolled it and slipped it into his pocket.

Stolemore, wheezing, had slumped back into the chair.

Tristan met his eyes. Raised the draft, held between two fingers. "One question, and then I'll leave you."

Stolemore, his gaze all but blank, waited.

"If I was to guess that whoever did this to you was the same person or persons who late last year hired you to negotiate the purchase of Number 14 Montrose Place, would I be wrong?"

The agent didn't need to answer; the truth was there in his bloated face as he followed the carefully spaced words. Only when he had to decide how to reply did he stop to think.

He blinked, painfully, then met Tristan's gaze. His own remained dull. "I'm bound by confidentiality."

Tristan let a half minute slide by, then inclined his head. He flicked his fingers; the bank draft sailed down to the table, sliding toward Stolemore. He put out a large hand and trapped it.

Tristan pushed away from the counter. "I'll leave you to your business."

* * *

Half an hour after returning to the house, Leonora escaped the demands of the household and took refuge in the conservatory. The glass-walled and -roofed room was her own special place within the large house, her retreat.

Her heels clicked on the tiled floor as she walked to the wrought iron table and chairs set in the bow window. Henrietta's claws clicked in soft counterpoint as she followed.

Presently heated against the cold outside, the room was filled with rioting plants, with ferns, exotic creepers and strange-smelling herbs. Combining with the scents, the faint yet pervasive smell of earth and growing things soothed and reassured.

Sinking into one of the cushioned chairs, Leonora looked out over the winter garden. She should report meeting Trentham to her uncle and Jeremy; if he called later and mentioned it, it would appear odd if she hadn't. Both Humphrey and Jeremy would expect some description of Trentham, yet assembling a word picture of the man she'd met on the pavement less than an hour ago was not straightforward. Dark-haired, tall, broad-shouldered, handsome, dressed elegantly and patently of the first stare - the superficial characteristics were simple to define.

Less certain was the impression she'd gained of a man outwardly charming and inwardly quite different.

That impression had owed more to his features, to the sharpness in his heavy-lidded eyes, not always concealed by his long lashes, the almost grimly determined set of mouth and chin before they'd softened, the harsh lines of his face before they'd eased, adopting a cloak of beguiling charm. It was an impression underscored by other physical attributes - like the fact he'd not even flinched when she'd run full - tilt into him. She was taller than the average; most men would at least have taken a step back.

Not Trentham.

There were other anomalies, too. His behavior on meeting a lady he'd never set eyes on before, and could not have known anything of, had been too dictatorial, too definite. He'd actually had the temerity to interrogate her, and he'd done it, even knowing she'd noticed, without a blink.

She was accustomed to running the house, indeed, to running all their lives; she'd performed in that role for the past twelve years. She was decisive, confident, assured, in no way intimidated by the male of the species, yet Trentham...what was it about him that had made her, not exactly wary but watchful, careful?

The remembered sensations their physical contact had evoked, not once but multiple times, rose in her mind; she frowned and buried them. Doubtless some disordered reaction on her part; she hadn't expected to collide with him - it was most likely some strange symptom of shock.

Moments passed; she sat staring through the windows, unseeing, then shifted, frowned, and focused her mind on defining where she and her problem now were.

Regardless of Trentham's disconcerting presence, she'd extracted all she'd needed from their meeting. She'd learned the answer to what had been her most pressing question - neither Trentham nor his friends were behind the offers to buy this house. She accepted his word unequivocally; there was that about him that left no room for doubt. Likewise, he and his friends were not responsible for the attempts to break in, nor the more disturbing, infinitely more unnerving attempts to scare her witless.

Which left her facing the question of who was.

The latch clicked; she turned as Castor walked in.

"The Earl of Trentham has called, miss. He's asked to speak with you."

A rush of thoughts tumbled through her mind; a flurry of unfamiliar feelings flitted in her stomach. Inwardly frowning, she quelled them and rose; Henrietta rose, too, and shook herself. "Thank you, Castor. Are my uncle and brother in the library?"

"Indeed, miss." Castor held the door for her, then followed. "I left his lordship in the morning room."

Head high, she glided into the front hall, then stopped. She eyed the closed door of the morning room.

And felt something inside her tighten.

She paused. At her age, she hardly needed to be missish over being alone for a short time in the morning room with a gentleman. She could go in, greet Trentham, learn why he'd asked to speak with her, all in private, yet she couldn't think of anything he might have to tell her that would require privacy.

Caution whispered. The skin above her elbows pricked.

"I'll go and prepare Sir Humphrey and Mr. Jeremy." She glanced at Castor. "Give me a moment, then show Lord Trentham into the library."

"Indeed, miss." Castor bowed.

Some lions were better left untempted; she had a strong suspicion Trentham was one. With a swish of her skirts, she head for the safety of the library. Henrietta padded behind.

 
 

REVIEWS & ACHIEVEMENTS

A USA Today, Publishers Weekly and New York Times BESTSELLER!

#1 Waldenbooks Best Romance of 2003!

The Lady Chosen sparkles with wit and excitement. From the first page to the last, I was swept away by the strong characters and plot. The glimpses of other "club" members was enough to whet my appetite for the rest of the series. Ms. Laurens had another bestseller to add to her list, and romance readers have another outstanding novel for their keeper shelves." Paula Klug, ARomanceReview.com

"Fans of Laurens's popular romances will expect the high adventure and steamy, sensual love scenes that are her signature and they won't be disappointed by this solid offering." Publisher's Weekly

"Brimming with intriguing characters, passion and suspense, with deft touches of humor to lighten and spice the mix, it's the story of two independent strong-willed people who must learn the fine art of compromise. For a glorious romantic adventure, I highly recommend THE LADY CHOSEN." America Online Romance Fiction Forum.

 
 

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#1 NEW YORK TIMES International Bestselling Australian Romance Author

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