Gulls shrieked, their voices fierce and mournful in the distance. Sheep bleated, closer by. The morning mist curled around Penelope Talcott as she carefully picked her way along the rough, sloping lane that wound its way up the Downs from the sea. She pulled her cloak around her against the damp, then turned and looked back down the way she had come.
Yesterday, this vantage point had afforded a fine view of Brighton, with its elegant terraces and the outlandish domes of the Royal Pavilion, all backed by a sea sparkling in the July sun. Today, the prospect was wreathed in an unseasonable fog.
Pen sighed. It seemed she had brought her sketchbook in vain. Moreover, coming here alone was likely to bring Aunt Mary’s recriminations down on her head. But she could not have dragged her maid along with her, not when poor Susan was suffering from a cold, and to miss her morning walk was to miss the best part of the day. Well, if she couldn’t draw, she could still relish the solitude, the sea-breezes, the smell of the damp earth and the grass on the open, treeless hillside.
She walked on, then paused, feeling a sudden sense of foreboding. Above her, a large figure loomed in the mist, still at some distance. She could faintly hear the clomping of boots. Most likely it was some farm laborer or shepherd. So why did she feel ready to jump out of her skin, like a nervous hare?
On impulse, she turned and scrambled over the low stone wall that separated the track from a broad sheep-pasture, hoping she hadn’t been seen. She crouched, setting the basket that held her blanket, sketchbook and chalks down beside her. Now she could hear the man’s footsteps more clearly. She kept very quiet, watching through a chink in the wall as the man’s outline slowly became more distinct. A big man, dressed in a laborer’s smock, a rough sack slung over his shoulder. His eyes, small and pale-blue in a broad and weather-beaten face, framed with pale dirty hair. Just a farm laborer, she told herself. Yet her sense of dread increased as he approached. Her heart continued to hammer in her chest as he passed her hiding place and continued out of sight down the track, into the mist.
She stood and brushed grass off her dress with trembling fingers. Aunt Mary often chided her for her active imagination, but Pen could not rid herself of the feeling that the man presented some sort of threat. She took a deep breath, telling herself not to be such a nervous ninny. After she waited a few minutes, the sense of evil, if evil it was, decreased. Limbs still trembling slightly, she started to make her way down the hillside, avoiding sheep- droppings and the occasional gorse bush as best she could, making for the gate at the bottom of the field. Best not to climb over the wall again and risk tearing her dress, even if it was her oldest and shabbiest. The breeze picked up as she walked, and the mists parted slightly.
Then she became aware of the sound of hoof beats somewhere to her left. She turned her gaze in their direction to see a tall gentleman approaching, riding a dark horse. Was he the source of her unease? She didn’t think so; in fact, something seemed familiar about the pair.
Could it be Lord Verwood? One of Aunt Mary’s gossiping bosom-bows had said he’d come to Brighton, and that he was currently paying court to a virtuous married lady. So like him to be meddling where he was not wanted! She hoped they would not meet again, for he never failed to disturb her tranquility.
Distracted, Pen allowed her foot to slip. She went down, tumbling a half-dozen yards and coming to a stop at the bottom of the pasture, a short distance from the gate. Right in the path of the horse and rider, approaching at a brisk canter. She lay stunned, unable to breathe, unable to will her limbs to move in the few precious seconds before she was trampled.
The horseman must have seen her in time, for he reined in his mount a few yards away. He glanced down at her with familiar, penetrating eyes of a brown so dark they were almost black, and her earlier suspicion was confirmed.
“My dear Miss Talcott!” exclaimed Lord Verwood, dismounting from the same beautiful bay she’d seen him ride before. “Have you injured yourself?”
He came forward, his horse’s reins looped around one arm, and knelt down beside her. She sat up, trying to catch her breath, and shook her head.
“You know, you really must rid yourself of this distressing habit you have of tumbling down in front of me,” he said, the amusement in his voice thinly veiled.
“I . . . could not . . . help it,” she said, between breaths. Heat flooded her face as she looked up into his. At least this time he did not look as angry as on that occasion in Hyde Park when she had first met him.
“Of course not,” he replied, in a soothing tone. “I am certain you could not help flinging yourself at my feet in Hyde Park, either. On that occasion, if I recall correctly, you were there to berate me for making off with your friend. I cannot imagine your purpose now.”
“Had I known you would ride here this morning,” she said, straightening her bonnet, “I should not have come this way.”
“A pity,” he said, with a smile. “Perhaps you will tell me what you are doing here all by yourself?”
“I merely wished to go for a walk, and my maid is unwell,” she said, accepting his arm as he helped her to her feet and trying to ignore the strength in his clasp. “Who are you to lecture me on propriety?”
“I am the last man in the world to lecture any female on propriety. I am merely curious.”
She picked up her basket and turned to walk toward the gate. He chose to lead his horse beside her, making her uncomfortably conscious of his broad shoulders and muscular limbs, which a perfectly tailored blue coat and creaseless breeches did nothing to disguise.
“So tell me. Are you enjoying Brighton, Miss Talcott?”
“Not at all.”
“I suppose, unlike your relations, you have no taste for expensive frivolity.”
“I suppose you have come to Brighton for your health,” she said, making no attempt to veil her sarcasm.
“Then you must take the waters of St. Anne’s Well. According to Dr. Relhan, they are most beneficial to bodies ‘laboring under the consequences of irregular living and illicit pleasures.’”
He laughed aloud. “Touché, Miss Talcott. You are no doubt correct, and I shall seek out St. Anne’s Well instantly. I only trust the waters are not too vile for my palate.”
She remained silent. A minute or two and they would reach the gate. She would be rid of him.
“How are your friends, Lady Catherine and Miss Hutton - er, Lady Amberley, I should say?”
A lump came to Pen’s throat at the thought of Catherine, so happy with her Mr. Woodmere up in the Lakes, and Juliana, who had last written to her from Venice where she and her new husband, the Earl of Amberley, were taking their honeymoon. They had become fast friends while at Miss Stratton’s select school for young ladies, where they’d been dubbed the “Three Disgraces”. Pen would never forget how Cat and Jule had defended her against the catty set on her arrival at the school, or the madcap escapades they’d drawn her into, like the time they had run away to a local fair disguised as boys.
“My friends are very well,” she replied simply.
“I am glad to hear it.”
There was an odd tone in Verwood’s silky voice, sincere but also somehow regretful. Each time he had become involved in her friends’ affairs, he’d claimed to have good intentions. Pen still did not know whether to believe him. Did he cherish a tendre for one of them? Or was it merely his pride that smarted after he’d twice been foiled in his mysterious schemes?
“I trust your nose has completely healed?” she asked, determined to keep the conversation to prosaic matters.
“Thank you, yes.”
She glanced over and noted that his handsome profile showed no sign now of the punishment it had received a few months earlier at the hands of a rival for Juliana’s favors. It was a mistake to look. Her eyes were irresistibly drawn to his high forehead, dramatically arched brows, his rather long nose and chin and wide sensual lips, features that all seemed too strong individually but made for a masculine, beautiful whole.
Drat! Now he was smiling at her wickedly, as if he found her attractive as well. Why did he make the effort? She was no acclaimed Beauty, like Catherine or Juliana, or the most recent object of his desires, Lady Everton. Small, red- haired and freckled, Pen could have no power to attract such a connoisseur of the female sex, even if she wished to do so.
Verwood was dangerous; it was even said that he’d seduced and abandoned a young lady of quality. Pen was not the sort of fool who thought it romantic to reform a rake; she had set her heart on quite a different sort of man. Cyril Welling had all the qualities she desired in a husband; he was honest, trustworthy and kind. What did it matter that Verwood was so darkly beautiful, his tall person so well-formed that she ached to sketch him, to capture every expression, the curve and shading of every muscle?
She increased her pace, desperately summoning up the image of Cyril to her mind in an effort to banish her consciousness of Lord Verwood. She did not go more than a few steps before tumbling face-first onto the muddy ground once more.
“What the devil-” Verwood cursed behind her. She rolled over, and saw him release his horse and come to her once more.
“Are you all right?” he asked, kneeling beside her.
She nodded, having had the wind knocked out of her again. He put one arm around her shoulder and helped her to sit up. She gasped, and inhaled the mingled scent of cloves, lavender and horses.
“I cannot . . . imagine how I could have been so . . . clumsy . . . again,” she said.
“Shh . . . Do not move,” he commanded softly. Obedient but puzzled, she watched as he sprang up and went toward the wall. Then she saw the strong, slender cord tangled around her ankle.
Tracing it with her eyes, she saw that it had been fastened between the stone wall and a gorse-bush, at just the proper height to trip up an unwary walker. Or a horse.
Heart thudding again, she watched Verwood pace along the wall, peering over it. Then Verwood turned and strode to the gate, turning his head to gaze up and down the lane. He returned to her, his expression grim.
“This,” she gestured toward the cord, “was not intended for me, was it?”
He shook his head, then knelt to remove the cord from her foot. A tingle rose from her ankle where his deft hands touched her stocking. She tried to ignore it, but her face warmed as he gently wiped the dirt from her cheek with his handkerchief, then helped her up once more.
Then an image assaulted her, of him and his horse lying broken and mangled on the cold ground, their grace and beauty destroyed forever. Her knees buckled, and Verwood held her close against him to keep her from falling. She took in a gulp of air, comforted by the feel of his warm, living, breathing body against hers. She stared up at him for a moment, then before she knew what was happening, he lowered his head and brushed her lips with his. For an instant, new and potent sensations surged through her. Then Verwood lifted his head and smiled, looking odiously self- satisfied.
After a dazed moment, she jerked out of his arms. “What do you take me for, some sort of - of trollop?” she demanded, voice shaking with embarrassment and fury. “Why did you do that?”
“The temptation was irresistible,” he said, grinning. “You must forgive me. I shan’t do it again - unless you desire it, of course.”
“Certainly not,” she said, shocked. “It is not the time for such nonsense. Have you forgotten that someone has just tried to do you a serious injury?”
“No. I must thank you,” he said, in a more sober tone. “Had I galloped into this, my horse and I would certainly have gone tail over top. You spared us a most embarrassing fall.”
She glanced over at his horse, calmly cropping grass nearby.
“I am not an idiot, my lord. It could have been far worse than a mere fall. You could have broken your neck.”
He said nothing, but the lines around his mouth tightened. Her mind raced. After her fall, he had carefully surveyed their surroundings. Why?
“You do not think . . . that someone could have been waiting behind the wall, to - to?”
To finish off the job.
It was too lurid to say, so far from anything she had ever experienced. He continued to look grave and did not deny it, as she half-hoped. She lifted a hand to her mouth as a faint sense of nausea stole over her.
“Do not look so distressed. There is no one nearby. If anyone was here, he was frightened off by the presence of a witness.”
“Who would wish to harm you?” she asked, her voice breaking. “Who would have known you would ride this way?”
He shrugged, from ignorance or a desire to keep his own counsel. Knowing his reputation, Pen felt certain he had his enemies. But what could he have done to merit an attempt on his life? How could he look so calm?
“Don’t you even care that someone tried to hurt you?” she demanded.
“Does the thought fill you with dismay, Miss Talcott? I confess, I’m delighted.” He even smiled.
“You are mad.”
“No, merely touched by your concern. I had no idea you had so much charity for me.”
“I should be so concerned for any fellow being in danger.”
“Of course.” His smile froze. “But your concern is misplaced. I assure you, I can take care of myself.”
“Even though it was my presence that saved you this time.”
“I am not so easily disposed of.”
Had there been previous attempts? “What will you do?”
“The less you know, the better. Your aunt will be looking for you. Is it not time you returned to town?”
It felt like a snub. She’d saved his life, he’d kissed her, and now she was being dismissed like a child. But how could she help, and did she even care what became of the rogue? She picked up her basket and walked on. A moment later, Verwood rejoined her, having caught his horse.
“I request that you keep this incident to yourself. In fact, it would be best if you forgot it entirely.”
“I do not think I will ever forget this,” she said, opening the gate for him as he mounted his horse. “I will remain silent, if that is your wish.”
“Good-day, Miss Talcott. And thank you again.”
He urged his horse into a trot, leaving her to marvel at his sang-froid. Her own heart continued to race with the memory of his kiss, and the thought that she might have witnessed his murder.
It was then that she recalled the man she’d seen in the lane and the menace she’d sensed in his presence.
“Wait! Stop!” she shouted.
But Lord Verwood was already too far to hear her.