"Good evening, my lord. Your uncle has called. He's awaiting you in the library."
Gyles Frederick Rawlings, fifth Earl of Chillingworth, paused in the act of divesting himself of his greatcoat, then he shrugged and let the heavy coat fall into his butler's waiting hands. "Indeed?"
"I understand Lord Walpole will shortly return to Lambourn Castle. He wondered if you had any messages for the Dowager Countess."
"In other words," Gyles murmured, resettling his cuffs, "he wants the latest gossip and knows better than to return to Mama and my aunt without it."
"As you say, my lord. In addition, Mr. Waring called earlier. On ascertaining that you were returning this evening, he left word that he would hold himself ready to wait on your lordship at your earliest convenience."
"Thank you, Irving." Gyles strolled into his front hall. Behind him, the front door quietly shut, propelled by a silent footman. Pausing in the middle of the green and white tiles, Gyles glanced back at Irving, waiting, a picture of patience in his butler's black. "Summon Waring." Gyles turned down the hall. "Send a footman with the carriage, given it's so late."
"Immediately, my lord."
Another well-trained footman opened the library door; Gyles walked in; the door closed behind him.
His uncle, Horace Walpole, was sitting on the chaise, legs stretched out, a half-empty brandy balloon in one hand. He cracked open one eye, then opened both and sat up. "There you are, m'boy. I was wondering if I'd have to go back newsless, and considering what would be safe to concoct."
Gyles crossed to the tantalus. "I believe I can spare your imagination. I'm expecting Waring shortly."
"That new man-of-business of yours?"
Gyles nodded. Glass in hand, he crossed to his favorite armchair and sank into its leather-cushioned comfort. "He's been looking into a small matter for me."
"Oh? Which matter?"
"Who I should marry."
Horace stared, then straightened. "Hell's bells! You're serious."
"Marriage is not a subject on which I would jest."
"Glad to hear it." Horace took a large sip of his brandy. "Henni said you'd be making a move in that direction, but I really didn't think you would-well, not yet."
Gyles hid a wry smile. Horace had been his guardian since his father's death; he'd been seven at the time of his sire's demise, so it was Horace who'd guided him through adolesence and youth. Despite that, he could still surprise Horace. His aunt Henrietta, Henni to all, was another matter-she seemed to know instinctively what he was thinking on all major issues, even though he was here in London while she resided at his principal estate in Berkshire. As for his mother, also at Lambourn Castle, he'd long been grateful that she kept her perceptions to herself. "It's not as if marriage is something I can avoid."
"There is that," Horace conceded. "Osbert as the next earl is not something any of us could stomach. Least of all Osbert."
"So Great-aunt Millicent regularly informs me." Gyles nodded at the large desk further down the room. "That letter there-the thick one? That'll be another missive demanding I do my duty by the family, pick a suitable chit and marry with all speed. One arrives every week without fail."
Horace pulled a face.
"And, of course, every time I cross Osbert's path, he looks at me as if I'm his only possible salvation."
"Well, you are. If you don't marry and beget an heir, he'll be for it. And Osbert in charge of the earldom is entirely too depressing a thought to contemplate." Horace drained his glass. "Still, I wouldn't have thought you'd let old Millicent and Osbert jockey you into marrying to please them."
"Perish the thought. But if you must know, and I'm sure Henni will want to, I intend to marry entirely to suit myself. I'm thirty-five, after all. Further denying the inevitable will only make the adjustment more painful-I'm set in my ways as it is." He rose and held out his hand.
Horace grimaced and gave him his glass. "Devilish business, marriage-take my word for it. Sure it isn't all these Cynsters marrying that's niggled you into taking the plunge?"
"That's where I was today-Somersham. There was a family gathering to show off all the new wives and infants. If I'd needed any demonstration of the validity of your thesis, today would have provided it."
Refilling their glasses, Gyles pushed aside the prickling presentiment evoked by his old friend Devil Cynster's latest infernal machination. "Devil and the others elected me an honorary Cynster." Turning from the tantalus, he handed Horace his glass, then resumed his seat. "I pointed out that while we might share countless characteristics, I'm not, and never will be, a Cynster."
He would not marry for love. That fate, as he'd assured Devil for years, would never be his.
Every Cynster male seemed to unavoidably succumb, jettisoning rakish careers of legendary proportions for love and the arms of one special lady. There'd been six in the group popularly known as the Bar Cynster, and now all were wed, all exclusively and unswervingly focused on their wives and growing families. If there was, within him, a spark of envy, he made sure it was buried deep. The price they'd paid was not one he could afford.
Horace snorted. "Love matches are the Cynsters' forte. Seem to be all the rage these days, but take my word for it-an arranged marriage has a lot to recommend it."
"My thoughts exactly. Earlier this summer I set Waring the task of investigating all the likely candidates to see which, if any, had dower properties that would materially add to the earldom."
"If one is not marrying for love, one may as well marry for something else." And he'd wanted a reason for his choice, so whichever lady he ultimately offered for would entertain no illusions over what had made him drop his handkerchief in her lap. "My instructions were that my future countess had to be sufficiently well-bred, docile and endowed with at least passable grace of form, deportment and address." A lady who could stand by his side and impinge on his consciousness not at all; a well-bred cypher who would bear his children and disrupt his lifestyle minimally.
Gyles sipped. "As it happened, I had also asked Waring to trace the current ownership of the Gatting property."
Horace nodded his understanding. The Gatting property had at one time been part of the Lambourn estate. Without it, the earldom's principal estate was like a pie with a slice missing; regaining the Gatting lands had been an ambition of Gyles's father, and his father before him.
"In pursuing the owner, Waring discovered that the deed had passed to some distant Rawlings, then, on his demise, into the dowry of his daughter, presently of marriageable age. The information Waring is apparently anxious to impart concerns the daughter."
"She of marriageable age?"
Gyles inclined his head as the chime of the front door bell pealed through the house. A moment later, the library door opened.
"Mr. Waring, my lord."
"Thank you, Irving."
Waring, a heavy-set man in his early thirties with a round face and close-cropped hair, entered. Gyles waved him to the armchair opposite. "You've met Lord Walpole. Can I offer you a drink?"
"Thank you, my lord, but no." Waring nodded to Horace, then sat, laying a leather satchel across his knees. "I knew how keen you were to pursue this matter, so I took the liberty of leaving a message..."
"Indeed. I take it you have news?"
"I have." Settling a pair of spectacles on his nose, Waring withdrew a sheaf of papers from his satchel. "As we'd heard, the gentleman and his household resided permanently in Italy. Apparently both parents, Gerrard Rawlings and his wife Katrina, perished together. Subsequently, the daughter, Francesca Hermione Rawlings, returned to England and joined the household of her uncle and guardian, Sir Charles Rawlings, in Hampshire."
"I've been trying to recall..." Gyles swirled his glass. "Were they-Charles and Gerrard-the sons of Francis Rawlings?"
Waring shuffled his papers, then nodded. "Indeed. Francis Rawlings was the grandfather of the lady in question."
"Francesca Hermione Rawlings." Gyles considered the name. "And the lady herself?"
"That proved easier than I'd expected. The family entertained extensively-any member of the ton passing through northern Italy would have met them. I've descriptions from Lady Kenilworth, Mrs. Foxmartin, Lady Lucas, and the Countess of Morpleth."
"What's the verdict?"
"A delightful young lady. Pleasant. Well-favored. A most amusing creature-that was old Lady Kenilworth. A young gentlewoman of excellent breeding-so said the countess."
"Who said 'well-favored?'" Horace asked.
"Actually, all of them said that, or words to the effect." Waring glanced at the written accounts, then offered them to Gyles.
Gyles took them, perused them. "If you put them together, they spell 'paragon.'" He raised his brows. "You know what they say about gift horses." He handed the reports to Horace. "What of the rest?"
"The young lady's now twenty-three years old, but there's no record nor rumor of any marriage. Indeed, the ladies I spoke with had lost sight of Miss Rawlings. Although most were familiar with the tragedy of her parents' death and were aware of her return to England, none have seen her since. That seemed strange, so I followed it up. Miss Rawlings is residing with her uncle at Rawlings Hall, near Lyndhurst, but I haven't been able to locate anyone presently in the capital who has met the lady, her guardian, or any member of the household in the past few years."
Waring looked at Gyles. "If you wish, I could send a man down to assess the situation locally. Discreetly, of course."
Gyles considered. Impatience-to have the whole business of his marriage safely dealt with and behind him-flared. "No-I'll deal with it myself." He glanced at Horace and smiled cynically. "There are some benefits to being head of the family."
* * *
After commending Waring for his excellent work, Gyles saw him into the front hall. Horace followed; he left on Waring's heels, stating his intention to return to Lambourn Castle the next day. The front door closed. Gyles turned and climbed the wide stairs.
Discreet elegance and the unmistakeable grace of established wealth surrounded him, yet there was a coldness about his house, an emptiness that chilled. Solid and timelessly classical though it was, his home lacked human warmth. From the head of the stairs, he looked down the imposing sweep and concluded that it was, indeed, past time he found a lady to correct the fault.
Francesca Hermione Rawlings easily topped the list to be invited to undertake the task. Aside from anything else, he truly wanted the deed to the Gatting property. His list had other names on it, but no other lady matched Miss Rawlings' credentials. She might, of course, prove to be ineligible in some way; if so, he'd learn of it tomorrow.
No sense in dallying and allowing fate an opportunity to stick her finger in his pie.
* * *
He drove into Hampshire the next morning, reaching Lyndhurst in the early afternoon. He turned in under the sign of the Lyndhurst Arms. Bespeaking rooms there, he left his tiger, Maxwell, in charge of settling his grays. Hiring a good-looking chestnut hunter, he set off for Rawlings Hall.
According to the garrulous innkeeper, Gyles's distant kinsman, Sir Charles Rawlings, lived a reclusive life in the depths of the New Forest. Nevertheless, the road to the Hall was well-graded and the gates, when Gyles came to them, stood open. He rode in, the chestnut's hooves beating a regular tattoo along the gravelled drive. The trees thinned, then gave way to extensive lawns surrounding a house of faded red brick, some sections gabled, others battlemented with a lone tower at one end. None of the building was new, not even Georgian. Rawlings Hall was well-looked-after but unostentatious.
A parterre extended from the front courtyard, separating an old stone wall from the lawns surrounding an ornamental lake. Hidden behind the wall, a garden ran alongside the house; beyond it lay a formal shrubbery.
Gyles drew rein before the front steps. Footsteps pattered. Dismounting, he handed the reins to the stable lad who came pelting up, then strode up the steps to the door and knocked.
"Good afternoon, sir. May I help you?"
Gyles considered the large butler. "The Earl of Chillingworth. I wish to see Sir Charles Rawlings."
To give him credit, the butler blinked only once. "Indeed, sir-my lord. If you will step this way, I'll advise Sir Charles of your arrival immediately."
Shown into the drawing room, Gyles prowled, his impatience fueled by a inexplicable sense of being just one step ahead of fate. Devil's fault, of course. Even being an honorary Cynster was tempting fate too far.
The door opened. Gyles swung around as a gentlemen entered-an older, softer, more care-worn version of himself, with the same rangy build, the same chestnut-brown hair. Despite the fact he had not previously met Charles Rawlings, Gyles would have instantly recognized him as a relative.
"Chillingworth? Well!" Charles blinked, taking in the resemblance which rendered any answer to his question superfluous. He recovered quickly. "Welcome, my lord. To what do we owe this pleasure?"
Gyles smiled, and told him.
* * *
They'd repaired to the privacy of Charles's study. After seeing Gyles to a comfortable chair, Charles subsided into the one behind his desk. "I'm sorry-I don't see what interest you might have in Francesca."
"As to that, I'm not certain, but my...dilemma, shall we say? is common enough. As the head of the family, I'm expected to wed. In my case, it's something of a necessity, given it's most seriously necessary I beget myself an heir." Gyles paused, then asked, "Have you met Osbert Rawlings?"
"Osbert? Is he Henry's son?" When Gyles nodded, Charles's expression blanked. "Isn't he the one who wants to be a poet?"
"He did want to be a poet, yes. Now he is a poet and that's infinitely worse."
"Good lord! Vague, gangly, never knows what to do with his hands?"
"That's Osbert. You can see why the family are counting on me to do my duty. To do him justice, Osbert himself is terrified I won't, and he'll have to step into my shoes."
"I can imagine. Even as a lad he had limp wool for a backbone."
"Therefore, having reached the age of thirty-five, I'm engaged in looking about for a wife."
"And you thought of Francesca?"
"Before we discuss particulars, I wish to make one point clear. I'm looking for an amenable bride willing to engage in an arranged marriage."
"An arranged..." Charles frowned. "You mean a marriage of convenience?"
Gyles raised his brows. "That always struck me as an oxymoron. How could marriage ever be convenient?"
Charles didn't smile. "Perhaps you'd better explain what you're seeking."
"I wish to contract an arranged marriage with a lady of suitable birth, breeding and comportment to fill the role of my countess and provide me and the family with the heirs we require. Beyond that, and the household and formal duties pertaining to the role of Countess of Chillingworth, I would make no further demands of the lady. In return, in addition to the position itself and all things reasonably accruing to it, such as her wardrobe, her own carriage and servants, I will settle on her an allowance that will enable her to live in luxury for the rest of her days. I'm hardly a pauper after all."
"With due respect, neither is Francesca."
"So I understand. However, with the exception of the deed to the Gatting property which I wish to return to the Lambourn estate, her various inheritances will remain hers to do with as she pleases."
Charles's brows rose. "That is indeed generous." His gaze grew distant. "I have to admit that my marriage was arranged..." After a moment, he refocused on Gyles. "I fear I must ask, cousin-is there any particular reason you're so insistent your marriage be an arranged one?"
"If you mean do I have a mistress of long-standing who I don't wish to set aside, or something of that nature, the answer is no." Gyles considered Charles, considered his open and honest brown eyes. "The reason I wish to keep my marriage-every aspect of it-on a businesslike footing is because I have absolutely no patience with the concept of love in marriage. It's a highly overrated circumstance, one, moreover, with which I desire no closer acquaintance. I do not wish my prospective wife to entertain any notion that I offer love, either now or in some rosy-hued future. From the first, I want her to know that love is not part of our equation. I see no benefit in raising the prospect, and will and do insist that my intent is made clear from the outset."
Charles regarded him for some time, then nodded. "It could be said that you're only being more honest than others who think the same."
Gyles made no answer.
"Very well-I now understand what you're seeking, but why consider Francesca?"
"Because of the Gatting property. It was, centuries ago, a dower property. Indeed, it was probably the reason for an arranged marriage back then-the property completes the circle of my Lambourn lands. It should never have been separated, but because it wasn't part of the entail, some misguided ancestor bequeathed it to a younger son, and that became something of a tradition..." Gyles frowned. "Gerrard was the elder, wasn't he? How is it you inherited this place and he inherited Gatting?"
"My father." Charles grimaced. "He fell out with Gerrard, as it happens because Gerrard refused to marry as he'd arranged. Gerrard married for love and went to Italy, while I..."
"Made the arranged marriage your brother refused?"
Charles nodded. "So Papa reorganized his will. Gerrard got the Gatting property, which I should have received, and I got the Hall." He smiled. "Gerrard didn't give a damn. Even after Papa died, he remained in Italy."
"Until he died. How did that happen?"
"A boating accident on Lake Lugano one night. No one knew until the next day. Both Gerrard and Katrina drowned."
"And so Francesca came to you."
"Yes. She's been with us for nearly two years."
"How would you describe her?"
"Francesca?" Charles's expression softened. "She's a wonderful girl! A breath of fresh air and a beam of sunshine in one. It's odd, but although she's quite lively, she's also restful-a contradiction, I know, but..." Charles looked at Gyles.
"I understand she's twenty-three. Is there some reason she hasn't married?"
"Not specifically. Prior to their deaths, Gerrard and Katrina, and Francesca, too, had discussed addressing the question of a husband more seriously, but the accident intervened. Francesca was adamant on observing the full period of mourning-she was an only child and greatly attached to her parents. So it was only a year or so ago that she started going about." Charles grimaced lightly. "For reasons with which I won't burden you, we don't entertain. Francesca attends the assemblies and the local dances under the auspices of Lady Willingdon, one of our neighbors..."
Charles's recital died away. Gyles raised a brow. "What?"
Charles regarded him speculatively, then seemed to come to some decision. "For the past year, Francesca has been actively looking for a husband. It was at her request I solicited the help of Lady Willingdon."
"And has she met anyone she considers suitable?"
"No. Indeed, I believe she's quite despondent over finding any suitable prospect locally."
Gyles regarded Charles steadily. "Indelicate question though it is, do you think your niece might find me suitable?"
Charles's brief smile was wry. "From all I've ever heard, if you wished her to find you suitable, she would. You could sweep any naive young lady off her feet."
Gyles's smile mirrored Charles's. "Unfortunately, in this case, using those particular talents might prove counterproductive. I want an amenable bride, not a besotted one."
Gyles considered Charles, then stretched out his legs and crossed his booted ankles. "Charles, I'm going to place you in an invidious position and claim the right of help you owe me as head of the family. Do you know of any reason that would argue against making Francesca Rawlings the next Countess of Chillingworth?"
"None. Absolutely none." Charles returned his regard steadily. "Francesca would fill the position to the admiration of all the family."
Gyles held his gaze a moment longer, then nodded. "Very well." He felt as if a vice had released from about his chest. "In that case, I'd like to make a formal offer for your niece's hand."
Charles blinked. "Just like that?"
"Just like that."
"Well"-Charles started to rise-"I'll send for her-"
"No." Gyles waved him back. "You forget-I wish this entire matter to be treated with the utmost formality. I want it made clear, not only by word but also by deed, that this is an arranged marriage, nothing more. Your description of your niece confirms the opinions of others-grande-dames of the ton richly experienced in evaluating the worth of marriageable young ladies. Everyone declares Francesca Rawlings an unexceptionable parti-I need no further assurances. In the circumstances, I see no reason to meet Miss Rawlings socially. You are her guardian-it's through you I'll apply for her hand."
Charles considered arguing; Gyles knew precisely when the realization that it would be wasted effort, and rather impertinent at that, dawned. He, after all, was the head of the family.
"Very well. If that's your wish, if you'll give me the details, I'll speak with Francesca this evening...I'd better write it down." Charles searched for pen and paper.
When he was ready, Gyles dictated and Charles transcribed the formal offer of a contract of marriage between the Earl of Chillingworth and Francesca Hermione Rawlings. As Charles scribbled the last of the settlements, Gyles mused, "It might be as well not to mention the relationship, distant as it is. It's not of any practical relevance. I'd prefer that the offer was specifically made as coming from the Earl."
Charles shrugged. "It can't hurt. Women like titles."
"Good. If there's no further information you need from me, I'll leave you." Gyles stood.
Charles came to his feet. He opened his mouth, then hesitated. "I was going to insist you stay with us here, or at least dine..."
Gyles shook his head. "Another time, perhaps. I'm staying at the Lyndhurst Arms should you need to reach me." He turned to the door.
Charles yanked the bellpull, then followed. "I'll discuss this with Francesca this evening-"
"And I'll call tomorrow morning to hear her answer." Gyles paused as Charles joined him at the door. "One last impertinence. You mentioned your marriage was an arranged one-tell me, were you happy?"
Charles met his gaze. "Yes. We were."
Gyles hesitated, then inclined his head. "Then you know Francesca has nothing to fear in the arrangement I propose."
There'd been pain in Charles's eyes. Gyles knew Charles was a widower, but he hadn't anticipated that depth of feeling; Charles had clearly felt the loss of his wife keenly. A chill touched his nape. Gyles stepped into the hall. Charles followed. They shook hands, then the butler arrived. Gyles followed him back through the house.
As they neared the front hall, the butler murmured, "I'll just send the footman for your horse, my lord."
They stepped into the hall to find no footman in sight, but the green baize door at the hall's end was swinging wildly. A second later, a shrieking scullery maid raced out. She ignored Gyles and rushed for the butler.
"Oh, Mr. Bulwer, you got to come quick! There's a chook got loose in the kitchen! Cook's chasing it with a cleaver but it won't stand still!"
The butler looked offended and guilty simultaneously. He slid a helpless glance at Gyles as the maid dragged with all her might on his sleeve. "I do apologize, my lord-I'll get help-"
Gyles laughed. "Don't worry-I'll find my way. By the sound of it, you'd better settle things in the kitchen if you want any dinner tonight."
Relief washed over Bulwer's face. "Thank you, my lord. The stable lad will have your horse ready." Before he could say more, he was dragged away. Gyles heard him scolding the maid as they went through the swinging door.
Grinning, Gyles strolled to the front door. Letting himself out, he descended the steps, then, on impulse, turned left. He strolled the parterre, admiring the trimmed hedges and conifers. On his left, the stone wall bordered the path, then a yew hedge continued the line unbroken. He turned left again at the earliest opportunity-an archway in the hedge giving onto a path through the shrubbery. He looked ahead; the stable's roof rose beyond the hedges.
Stepping through the archway, he paused. An intersecting path ran both right and left. Glancing toward the house, he discovered he could see all the way to where the stone wall he'd earlier paced along joined the corner of the house. Close by the house, a stone seat was built out from the wall.
On the seat sat a young lady.
She was reading a book lying open in her lap. The late afternoon sun beamed down, bathing her in golden light. Fair hair the color of flax was drawn back from her face; fair skin glowed faintly pink. From this distance, he couldn't see her eyes yet the general set of her features appeared unremarkable, pleasant but not striking. Her pose, head tilted, shoulders low, suggested she was a woman easily dominated, naturally submissive.
She was not the sort of woman to stir him at all, not the sort of woman he would normally take the time to study.
She was precisely the sort of wife he was looking for. Could she be Francesca Rawlings?
As if some higher power had heard his thought, a woman's voice called, "Francesca?"
The girl looked up. She was shutting her book, gathering her shawl as the woman called again. "Francecsa? Franni?"
Rising, the girl called, "I'm here, Aunt Ester." Her voice was delicate and light.
Stepping out, she disappeared from Gyles's view.
Gyles smiled and resumed his stroll. He'd trusted Charles and Charles had not deceived him-Francesca Rawlings possessed precisely the right attributes to be his amenable bride.
The path opened onto a grassed courtyard. Gyles stepped into it-
A dervish in emerald green did her best to mow him down.
She landed against him like a force of nature-a small woman barely topping his shoulder. His first impression was of wild black hair curling riotously over her shoulders and back. The emerald green was a velvet riding habit; she was booted and carried a crop in one hand.
He caught her, steadied her-she would have fallen if he hadn't closed his arms about her.
Even before she'd caught her breath, his hands had gentled, his rakish senses avidly relaying the fact that she was abundantly curvaceous, her flesh firm yet yielding, quintessentially feminine-for him, elementally challenging. His hands spread over her back, then his arms locked, but lightly, trapping her against him. Full breasts warmed his chest, soft hips his thighs.
A strangled "Oh!" escaped her.
She looked up.
The green feather in the scrap of a cap perched atop her glossy curls brushed his cheek. Gyles barely noticed.
Her eyes were green-a green more intense than the emerald of her gown. Wide and wondering, they were darkly and thickly lashed. Her skin was flawless ivory tinged a faint gold, her lips a dusky rose, delicately curved, the lower sensuously full. Her hair was pulled back and anchored across her crown, revealing a wide forehead and the delicate arch of black brows. Curls large and small tumbled down, framing a heart-shaped face that was irresistibly piquant and utterly intriguing; Gyles was seized by a need to know what she was thinking.
Those startled green eyes met his, roved his face, then, widening even more, returned to his.
"I'm sorry. I didn't see you coming."
He felt her voice more than heard it-felt it like a caress inside, an invitation purely physical. The sound itself was...smoky-a sultry sound that somehow clouded his senses.
His very willing senses. Like recognized like in the blink of an eye. Oh, yes, the beast inside him purred. His lips curved subtly although his thoughts were anything but.
Her gaze lowered, fastened on his lips, then she swallowed. Light color rose in her cheeks. Her heavy lids lowered, hiding her eyes. She eased back in his arms. "If you would release me, sir..."
He didn't want to, but he did-slowly, with deliberately obvious reluctance. She'd felt more than good in his arms-she'd felt warm and intensely vital. Intensely alive.
She stepped back, color deepening as his hands brushed her hips as his arms fell from her. She shook out her skirts, refusing to meet his eyes.
"If you'll pardon me, I must go."
Without waiting for any answer, she slipped past him, then strode quickly down the path. Turning, he watched her retreat.
Her steps slowed. She stopped.
Then she whirled and looked back at him, meeting his gaze with neither consciousness nor guile. "Who are you?"
She was a gypsy in green framed by the hedges. The directness in her gaze, in her stance, was challenge incarnate.
"Chillingworth." Turning fully, he swept her a bow, his eyes never leaving hers. Straightening, he added, "And very definitely at your service."
She stared at him, then gestured vaguely. "I'm late..."
For all the world as if she hadn't been...
Their gazes held; something primitive arced between them-some promise that needed no words to be made.
Her gaze slid from his, travelling avidly, greedily over him as if she would commit him to memory; he did the same, no less hungry for the sight of her, poised to take flight.
Then she did. She whirled, snatched up her trailing habit and fled, ducking down a side path toward the house, disappearing from his view.
Gaze locked on the empty avenue, Gyles suppressed an urge to give chase. His arousal gradually faded; he turned. The smile curving his lips was not one of amusement. Sensual anticipation was a currency he dealt in regularly; the gypsy knew well how to bargain.
He reached the stable and sent the lad to fetch the chestnut; settling to wait, it occurred to him that, at this juncture, he might be expected to be thinking about his bride-to-be. He mentally focused on the pale young lady with her book; within seconds, the image was overlaid by the more vibrant, more sensually appealing picture of the gypsy as he'd last seen her, with that age-old consideration blazoned in her eyes. Switching his attention back to the former required real effort.
Gyles inwardly laughed. That was, after all, precisely the point in marrying such a cypher-her existence would not interfere with his more carnal pursuits. In that, Francesca Rawlings had indeed proved perfect-within minutes of seeing her, his mind had been full of lascivious thoughts involving another woman.
His gypsy. Who was she? Her voice came back to him, that husky, sultry sound. There was an accent there-just discernible-vowels richer, consonants more dramatic than the English were wont to make them. The accent lent further sensual flavor to that evocative voice. He recalled the olive tinge that had turned the gypsy's skin golden; he also recalled that Francesca Rawlings had lived most of her life in Italy.
The stable lad led the big chestnut out; Gyles thanked the boy and mounted, then cantered down the drive.
Accent and coloring-the gypsy could be Italian. As for behavior, no meek, mild-mannered English young lady would ever have boldly appraised him as she had. Italian, then, either friend or companion of his bride-to-be. She was certainly no maid-not dressed as she had been-and no maid would have dared behave so forwardly, not on first or even second sight.
Reining in where the drive wound into the trees, Gyles looked back at Rawlings Hall. How best to play the cards he'd just been dealt he wasn't yet sure. Securing his amenable bride remained his primary objective; despite the carnal need she evoked, seducing the gypsy had to take second place.
He narrowed his eyes, seeing, not faded bricks but a pair of emerald eyes bright with understanding, with knowledge and speculation beyond the ken of any modest young lady.
He would have her.
Once his amenable bride declared she was willing, he'd turn to a conquest more to his taste. Savoring the prospect, he wheeled the chestnut and galloped down the drive.