In Love with the Viscount
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“You can always count on Julianne MacLean to deliver ravishing romance that will keep you turning pages until the wee hours of the morning.”—Teresa Medeiros
From USA Today bestselling author Julianne MacLean comes a breathtaking historical romance trilogy set during the Gilded Age, featuring three American sisters who set sail for London to capture aristocratic husbands.
Could this love nonsense really be worth the trouble?
To Adele Wilson the answer is clear: of course not. She has seen her two sisters dragged through scandal and heartbreak (not to mention every ballroom in London) to find the husbands of their dreams. And that’s why she said yes to the first amiable British lord who requested her hand. And why shouldn’t she marry him? He is kind, honest, and not sentimental in the least.
Unlike his wilder, more mysterious cousin Damien Renshaw, Viscount Alcester. Ignoring Damien altogether would be easy if he were the sort of dishonorable man intent on seducing his cousin’s betrothed. But he is clearly trying to resist her, and his suddenly proper behavior only makes him more tempting to the usually well-behaved Adele. Indeed, Damien seems to be bringing out another side of Adele, a heady, passionate, exhilarating side. It seems that fate is contriving to teach her — against her best intentions — exactly what this love nonsense is all about …
NOTE: This novel was originally published under the title MY OWN PRIVATE HERO in 2004.
Release date: August 20, 2020
Publisher: Julianne MacLean Publishing Inc.
Print pages: 344
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In Love with the Viscount
Inside the lavish interior of the SS Fortune, steaming smoothly across the deep, dark Atlantic at night, Adele Wilson stood in her first-class stateroom and gazed uncertainly at her reflection in the mirror.
A heavy lump formed in her belly. Why? Everything was as it should be. Her mother was in the adjoining cabin to her left, her sister Clara to her right. Adele had just eaten a delicious supper at the captain’s elaborate table and was about to undress for bed and read a most thought-provoking novel before turning down the lamp and going to sleep.
She removed a pearl and diamond drop earring and watched it sparkle in her hand. She closed her fist around it, then looked up at her reflection again.
She felt oddly disconnected from the floor, as if she were in someone else’s body. A stranger was staring back at her—an elegant, sophisticated heiress who wore a jewel-trimmed Worth gown from Paris made of the finest silk money could buy, and around her neck, an antique, pearl-and-diamond choker to match the earrings.
She turned away from the mirror and looked around. Suddenly, even the room seemed wrong. Wrong. There was no other word for it. Carved mahogany panels covered the walls, the ceiling was painted gold with extravagant ornamentation around a dazzling crystal chandelier. The sheets on her bed boasted the ship’s monogram, and all the fixtures, from the doorknobs to the lamps, right down to the nails in the bulkhead, were polished brass, pompously gleaming.
Sometimes it seemed as if she were living someone else’s life. She had not been born into this wealth. She didn’t even know how to feel comfortable with it. At the moment, she felt as if she shouldn’t touch anything.
Adele sighed. What she wouldn’t give to be riding bareback through the woods as she used to do when she was younger, before they’d moved to the city and ventured into high society. Oh, to smell the damp earth and the leaves on the ground, and the green moss around the lake....
She inhaled deeply, longingly, wanting to remember, but smelled only the expensive perfume she wore. Feeling absurdly deprived, she exhaled.
It’s nerves, she decided, crossing to her bed and removing the other earring and setting both of them on the night table. Tomorrow she would greet her future husband, Lord Osulton. An English earl. The newspapermen would probably be there to greet the ship and take her picture. No wonder she was nervous.
She would get through it, however.
Adele removed the combs from her honey-colored hair and shook out her long, curly locks until they fell loose upon her shoulders. That was better.
The door to the adjoining stateroom opened, and Adele’s sister Clara peered inside. Clara had married the handsome Marquess of Rawdon the year before and had left her London home a month ago with her new baby daughter, Anne, to visit her family in New York. “You’re still awake?”
Adele faced her sister. “Yes, come in.”
Clara, still in her glittering evening gown, her mahogany hair swept into a flattering knot, entered the room and sat down on the chintz sofa. “You barely touched your supper. Are you all right?”
“I’m fine.” But Adele knew she couldn’t fool Clara who always strove to see beneath the surface of things.
“Are you certain, Adele? You’re not having second thoughts, are you? Because it’s not too late to change your mind.”
“I’m not having second thoughts.”
“It would be perfectly normal if you were. You barely know the man. You’ve met him so few times, usually at dull assemblies with Mother breathing down your neck. You’ve danced with him only once, which is essentially the only time you’ve been alone with him. And what was that, three or four minutes?”
Adele sat down next to Clara. “I’m just a little nervous, that’s all. But I know in my heart that this is right. I’m sure of it. He’s a good man.”
“But you haven’t had a chance to know for sure if there is any true intimacy between you. Some form of attraction. A spark that leads to a flame. Maybe you should think about enjoying the London Season just once before you marry. Imagine who you might meet. A dashing white knight, perhaps.”
Adele shook her head. “I’m not like you, Clara. You and Sophia were the adventurous ones, while I’ve always been prudent and practical. Isn’t that what Mother and Father said every time you and Sophia got into trouble?”
Clara smirked. “I can hear Father now.” She put a finger under her nose like a mustache. “Why can’t you two girls be more like your younger sister? We can always depend on Adele to behave herself.”
Adele smiled and rolled her eyes. “The fact remains, I don’t wish to suffer through an entire London Season, being speculated about, forced to wear diamonds every night and flirt in crowded drawing rooms. The thought of it, quite frankly, makes me ill. I’d much rather be in the country—outdoors with the fresh air, which is exactly where my future husband is at this moment.”
“You might enjoy the excitement of a Season,” Clara said, sounding a little frustrated.
Adele shook her head again. “No, I would not. I am content with my decision to marry Lord Osulton. He is an agreeable gentleman and a very good match for me. From what I understand, he doesn’t enjoy the city, either. He prefers his country house.”
“But aren’t you afraid you might someday wonder what extraordinary adventures you might have missed?”
Adele squeezed her sister’s hand. “I don’t seek adventure, Clara. In fact, I loathe the idea of it. I prefer a carefully laid out plan, free of the unexpected. Besides that, I believe that sometimes, the best marriages are sensibly arranged. Love comes later, when it has time to grow and become something more substantial, based on admiration and respect rather than a spark and flame. Fire can be unpredictable, and it often burns.”
“It can also be wonderful, Adele.”
“Can it? Funny, I do recall when it was not so wonderful last year, when you thought your husband was going to leave you. You were miserable. I don’t want to be miserable like that. I prefer a sense of calm without any of those difficult emotional ups and downs.”
“But Seger did devote himself to me,” Clara said, “and we are very happy now. What we have today was worth every minute of misery, no matter how excruciating it was at the time. Some things are worth fighting for, no matter how unpleasant the task. Are you sure you don’t wish to postpone the wedding, and suffer through just one Season? You might discover the greatest romance of your life.”
Adele sighed and stood up. She crossed to the wardrobe and began to unbutton her bodice.
“You would think,” Clara continued, “being bookish, you might have read something about love.”
“I’ve read plenty about love,” Adele said with her back to her sister, “and I could never relate to those simpering, lovesick heroines stuck in towers, who stake their happiness on white knights. There are no towers or white knights in real life, Clara. There are only realistic men, and I am quite content to have found a most agreeable one for myself. Besides, it makes me happy to please Mother and Father. You should have seen Mother’s face when I told her I had accepted Lord Osulton’s proposal. I’d never seen her so proud.”
“You cannot live your life to please others, Adele. You must think of yourself and your future. After the wedding, Mother and Father will return to New York, and you will be left in England on your own—no longer a dutiful daughter, but a married woman. You will be responsible for your own happiness and be free to choose what you want to do with your life. You should marry whomever you wish to marry.”
“I wish to marry Lord Osulton. Harold,” she added, deciding she should probably start referring to him by his given name now that they were betrothed.
Clara smiled lovingly at Adele. “I daresay, you will do as you wish, won’t you?”
“As long as it is the right thing to do. I have chosen my path, and I have made a commitment. I will not veer from it.”
Clara raised an eyebrow, stood up, and walked to the connecting door to her own stateroom. “I suppose there is no arguing with you. You always were determined to do the right thing, even when Sophia and I tried to convince you to do otherwise. You missed some fun, you know.”
Adele tipped her head at her sister. “I also missed many hours standing in the corner.”
Clara shrugged. “Adventure has a price.”
“And you and Sophia were always willing to pay it.”
Adele’s maid entered and began preparing the bed.
Clara opened the door. “We’ll be docking overnight to pick up some extra passengers, then it won’t be long before we reach Liverpool. The captain says we should be disembarking by mid-morning. It sounds to me like you’re sure.”
“Then I am satisfied. I must go and check on little Anne. I’ll see you in the morning.” She walked out and closed the door behind her.
Adele smiled at her maid and reached for her nightgown.
London’s Savoy Theatre
Shortly after four a.m. the same night
It was a well-known fact among certain circles in London that Frances Fairbanks—celebrated actress and hailed by some as one of the most beautiful women alive—enjoyed lying about naked. Especially on the soft, bearskin rug on the floor of her dressing room, when the room smelled of wine and French perfume, and she was gazing at a lover.
Or rather, one lover in particular. Damien Renshaw, Viscount Alcester.
He was by far the most fascinating man she’d ever met—tall and darkly handsome with broad, muscled shoulders and facial features that could have been sculpted by an artist. He was rugged and wild and unpredictable, and what’s more, he was the most ingenious, instinctive of lovers. He knew just how to move to give her the most intense intimate experiences she’d ever known.
Yet there was tenderness in his lovemaking.
Frances stretched out like a cat and rolled over onto her stomach, resting her elbows on the fur. Swinging her bare feet back and forth behind her, she watched Damien sit down on the deeply buttoned settee by the door and pull on a boot.
He glanced up at her briefly with dark eyes that usually promised pleasure and seduction, but at the moment revealed only impatience.
He was in a hurry to leave, Frances realized suddenly with a frown, which was extremely out of character for him. Because Damien Renshaw—the irresistible black lion—never hurried anything in the bedroom.
Frances stopped swinging her feet. “You left your shirt on when you made love to me tonight.”
She had to work hard to sound confident. It was not something she was accustomed to—working hard at it, that is. She was always absolutely sure of herself where her lovers were concerned. They were the ones who did the scrambling.
She swallowed uncomfortably and made a conscious effort to swing her legs again. “You’re not angry about the bracelet, are you?”
Pulling on his other boot, Damien didn’t look up. “Of course not. As you said, you fell in love with it.”
Indeed, she had. So much so, she’d purchased it herself and had the bill sent to Damien.
She sat up on her heels and spoke with pouty lips, hoping to kindle his flirtatious nature. “It was only a small bracelet. I didn’t think it would matter in the larger scheme of things.”
He rose to his feet, tall and beautiful as a Greek god in the flickering shadows of the candlelight. He searched the shambles of the room for his waistcoat. He spotted it in a heap on the floor—on top of some purple feathers and Frances’s colorful costume from her performance that evening.
He picked up the waistcoat, slipped it on, then reached down to cradle Frances’s chin in his hand. He grinned, his eyes sparkling instantly with the allure that reassured Frances that she was still the envy of every hot-blooded woman in London. His voice was husky and sensual when he spoke, but at the same time commanding.
“Next time try to resist the urge. You know my situation.”
She did, of course, know. Everyone knew. Lord Alcester was in debt up to his ears and had been forced to lease out his London house to a German family and take up residence with his eccentric cousin.
It didn’t bother Frances, however. She didn’t want Damien for his money. There were others who served that purpose. Damien’s talents lay elsewhere.
He dropped his hand to his side and pulled on his overcoat. “My apologies for leaving my shirt on.”
“You’re not yourself these days, Damien,” she said. “I hope it’s not me.”
“It’s not you.” He kissed Frances good-bye, leaving her ever so slightly distressed by this unexplained change in him.
It was still dark when Adele woke to the sound of a thump in her cabin. She remembered they were stopping briefly on the coast of England to pick up a few new passengers. She rolled onto her back, wondering how long they would be docked.
She stared up at the ceiling in the darkness and thought about the conversation she’d had earlier with her sister. Clara had suggested that Adele should be reckless for once in her life. This was not a new conversation. They’d had it countless times before as children and young women. Clara and Adele’s oldest sister, Sophia, often tried to lure Adele into their mischief.
Adele rested the back of her hand on her forehead and recalled a summer afternoon when they were girls, not long after they’d moved to New York. Clara had gathered them together in the attic of their new house and said, “If we want to grow up, we must have an adventure. And everyone knows that an adventure must always start with running away from home.”
Sophia’s eyes sparkled, while Adele had been horrified. She had refused, of course, and argued the point of such foolish horseplay, and threatened to tell their parents.
Clara told Adele that if she breathed a word of their plan, they’d string her up by her heels, so Adele promised to keep it secret. Which she did. For about an hour. Then she told her father, who promptly marched out onto Fifth Avenue and brought the girls home and put them to bed with no supper. Adele, conversely, had been given an extra slice of blackberry pie.
Clara and Sophia didn’t speak to her for a week after that, but then they forgave her—as they always did—and told her they supposed it was her job to keep them out of trouble because she was the sensible one.
But even now, as women, Clara was still trying to talk Adele into misbehaving. Adele smiled and supposed it would never change. She’d be an old lady with a cane and spectacles, and Clara would try to convince her to dance in the rain. Adele smiled again and shook her head.
Just then, she heard another thump, almost as if there were a monster under her bed. Her heart leaped with panic, but she quenched the sensation because she’d stopped believing in monsters under beds many years ago.
Nevertheless, she tossed the covers aside to check. Her toes had just touched the floor when a man rose up in front of her. Adele gazed at the dark figure in terror and tried to cry out, but before she had a chance, a cloth soaked in a strong-smelling chemical covered her mouth.
Heart now blazing with terror, she struggled and tried to scream, but couldn’t make her voice work. Then she felt weak and dizzy, and lost all sensation in her body before she gave up the fight and remembered nothing more.
Somewhere in Northern England
Three days. It had been three long days, and now it was beginning to rain. A storm was brewing.
Adele rose from the hay-filled tick that served as her bed and walked across the creaky plank floor to the window. All she could see in every direction were endless, rolling hills of grass and rock beneath an angry gray sky, swirling with the oncoming threat of bad weather. Hard raindrops pelted against the glass.
It was barren and lonely, this part of the world, wherever it was. She hadn’t seen one person. Not even a lone goat or sheep. There were no trees, and the wind never stopped blowing. It pummeled the stone cottage on top of this sadly forsaken hill, rattled the windowpanes, and whistled eerily down the chimney. The door to the stable knocked and banged constantly. All day long. That—combined with the musty, damp smell of this room—was enough to drive a person to the brink of madness.
Adele made a fist and squeezed it. She had been steered off course into fierce, treacherous waters, and she wanted her calm life back.
If she still had a life to go to…. She wasn’t even sure Harold—or any man, for that matter—would want her after this, because she had no idea what her kidnapper had done to her. All she knew was that he had undressed her at some point, because when she woke up, she was wearing someone else’s shabby, homespun dress. Beneath it, she wore petticoats and a shift with ivory stockings, but no corset and no shoes. She had no idea what happened to her nightgown, nor did she know why her abductor had undressed her. To be less conspicuous, perhaps, in delivering her to this place of custody? She hoped that was the reason.
Adele breathed deeply in an effort to keep a cool head. She must not panic or lose control. That would do her no good. She had tried everything to escape this room in the past few days. She had pounded on and shaken the door, shouted for help, used all her strength at the window, but her efforts had been futile. All she could do now was wait for something to happen—something she could act upon. Or for someone to find her. Surely her mother was searching, and the police were investigating.
Just then, the front door of the cottage opened downstairs. Heavy footsteps entered the house and pounded across the hard floor. The door slammed shut and Adele’s heart quickened with fear. She stood quiet and still, listening.
Voices. It was more than one person, which wasn’t the usual routine. There had only ever been one captor here to bring her food and water. What was happening?
Suddenly, a commotion erupted. There was a frenzy of footsteps. A piece of furniture fell over. Or it was kicked over. Was someone here to rescue her? Harold? But Harold would never face a kidnapper on his own. Or would he?
Her father? If only it could be him! But no, he was at home in America. He wasn’t due to arrive in England until the wedding. Perhaps it was a constable. Or a neighbor who had discovered what was happening and had come to her rescue!
Footsteps pounded up the stairs and Adele’s breath caught in her throat. Every particle of her being froze with fear and dread. Was someone here to ravish her? Murder her? Her eyes searched for a weapon, but there was nothing. Nothing but a chair. She picked it up. It was heavy, but she would swing it if she had to.
The lock clicked and the door swung open. Two men walked in. One held a pistol to the other’s head. The one holding the gun was tall and dark and his eyes smoldered with fury. He wore a heavy, black greatcoat that matched his black hair. Adele feared him instantly.
Was he her captor? She had never seen the man in daylight.
“Your name!” he barked.
“Adele Wilson.” It didn’t occur to her to ask why he wanted to know. Or to ask anything at all. All she could do was answer the question because he expected an answer.
In that instant, the other criminal—a short, stocky fellow with rotting teeth and thinning hair—whirled around and grabbed the pistol, lunged forward, and took hold of Adele around the waist. He pressed the cold, steel barrel to her temple. She dropped the chair as fear shot through her. She’d never faced a gun before.
“Now the ransom!” The man’s high-pitched voice revealed his desperation.
For the first time, Adele looked fixedly at the other man—the dark, wild one—and understood that he was her rescuer.
He held up his hands in a gesture that invited calm, but it wasn’t easy for Adele to relax because his dark eyes and windblown black hair gave him the look of the devil, or something worse. Masculine to the core, rough around the edges, he looked as if he’d been traveling for three days straight and hadn’t taken the time to shave or bathe or even sleep, because he’d been hell-bent on reaching this house.
Who was he? Where had he come from?
“Harm her and you will die,” he said.
His English accent caught her off guard, for he didn’t have the look of a polite English gentleman—at least not the type she’d ever met in New York. This man was pure, unleashed aggression.
“Or you can take the ransom and run,” he continued. “I recommend the latter.”
Adele felt the other man’s grip tighten about her waist. She sucked in a breath.
“You won’t let me leave,” her kidnapper said shakily.
Her rescuer stepped out of the way of the door. “I will let you leave when you let the lady go. But be quick about it because my patience is dwindling fast.”
The man pressed the pistol harder against the side of Adele’s head. “I don’t believe you will let me go.”
Paralyzing fear twisted around her heart. This man was not going to simply walk away. Why should he risk them following?
By the dark calculating look in her rescuer’s eyes, Adele sensed he was thinking the very same thing.
In an instant, survival instinct took over. Adele dropped to the floor and sank her teeth into the man’s thigh. While he screamed out in pain, her rescuer dashed forward and propelled the man to the wall, where they smacked into it, hard. They wrestled for a few seconds, both grunting as they tried to gain control of the pistol.
It would have been prudent for Adele to run for safety, but some other reflex took over. She darted at the pair of them and leaped onto the shorter man’s back. He swung around and threw her to the floor, then aimed the pistol at her heart.
“Damn you!” Her rescuer tackled the man just as he fired. The noise was deafening, the pain shocking. Adele grabbed hold of her thigh and curled forward.
The two men rolled around on the floor until her rescuer swung the handle of the gun and struck his foe on the head. The man’s body went still, while thunder rumbled in the distance.
Clutching her throbbing leg, Adele stared numbly at the two of them.
Her rescuer looked up. “You’re shot.”
“Yes,” she rasped.
He crawled across the floor and without so much as a second’s hesitation, tossed up her skirt.
Adele leaned back on her hands, trying not to show her sudden ridiculous sense of modesty in these circumstances. She had been shot. He—whoever he was—needed to examine the wound.
She looked down at her leg. Her ivory stocking was stained red on the inside of her thigh. The whole area burned like nothing she’d ever experienced before. It was as if someone were branding her with a red-hot poker.
Her rescuer wrapped his hand around her calf and moved her legs apart to get a closer look. Adele stiffened. She had to fight the urge to squeeze her legs back together again.
“I must remove your stocking,” he said, “to get a better look. May I have your permission?”
Her reply came intuitively, but after she’d said it, she felt her modesty return. She swept the petty notion aside, for now was not the time to worry about decorum. She squeezed her eyes shut and focused on overcoming the pain.
The man’s hands were swift as he rolled the stocking down her leg. He barely touched her skin. His touch was light as silk. He eased the stocking to her ankle with great care, as if he were handling something very precious. Adele held her breath the entire time.
“This looks painful,” he said.
It was. Her whole leg throbbed, and the pounding sensation reverberated all the way up to her shoulders.
Adele opened her eyes and watched the man’s face. His dark brows drew together with concern as he inspected the gash. He slid a hand over her bare thigh as he touched all around the wound.
“It’s just a graze, thank God,” he said, sitting back on his heels. “We’ll bandage it and you’ll live.” He stood up and glanced around the room.
Looking up at him, so tall and serious, Adele had to fight the sense of embarrassment and intimidation that made her almost afraid to speak. She had never let a man who was not a doctor touch her so intimately before.
“May I ask who you are? And how you found me?”
He considered her question for a moment. “I apologize, Miss Wilson. I should have identified myself.”
Suddenly, he was transformed into a proper gentleman. At least his words were gentlemanly. His appearance was quite another matter altogether. He was unshaven, wild, and rough. His black wool coat looked shabby, dusty, and weathered, as if he’d rolled down a hill in it. There was intensity in everything about him, and it left her breathless and panicky.
Adele was nowhere near ready to relax. Especially when she found herself locked in his dark, gleaming stare.
“I am Damien Renshaw,” he explained. “Viscount Alcester. Harold’s cousin.”
Harold’s cousin? Yes…she knew of him. Her sister Sophia had met him in London and described him as the polar opposite of Harold. Lord Alcester had a terrible reputation with women, he was irresponsible with money and his mother had been a scandalous adulteress. He was following in his mother’s footsteps, it was said, and led a careless life with a string of mistresses of questionable repute. The current one was a famous and beautiful actress.
“The ship’s master at arms informed Harold of your kidnapping,” Lord Alcester said, “as there was a ransom note left in your stateroom. Harold informed me of the situation, and it was deemed that I should take care of things.”
Deemed? By whom?
“I assured Harold that I would bring you home quickly and quietly,” Lord Alcester added. “We will leave here in the morning, after the storm has passed, and travel under assumed names to meet your mother and sister in two days’ time, in a village between here and Osulton Manor. It has all been arranged. She will then escort you the rest of the way, as if nothing ever happened.”
Adele was in shock. She was to travel alone with this man?
Still fighting the excruciating pain in her thigh, she struggled to collect her thoughts and understand the situation. “No one knows about my kidnapping?”
“Besides the ship’s officer, no one except your family and Harold’s mother and sister. I suggested he not even tell them, but by the time he contacted me, he had already informed them. They have since been advised to keep quiet.”
“To avoid a scandal,” Adele said.
She glanced uneasily at her rescuer—a rake of the highest order—then at the unconscious man lying on the floor beside them, who had done God-only-knew-what to her while she was unconscious.
Adele felt sick and dizzy.
Lord Alcester followed her gaze, then crossed the creaky floor to where her kidnapper lay. Kneeling down, he pressed two fingers to the man’s neck. The wind from the storm outside moaned like a beast inside the stone chimney and the draft lifted the clinging cobwebs around the hearth.
When at last Lord Alcester spoke, his voice was low and subdued. “He’s dead.”
Adele swallowed hard as Alcester pinched the bridge of his nose. All the color left his face and he looked as if a severe headache had just taken root inside his skull.
“Are you all right?” she asked.
As soon as he met her gaze, his color returned. “Yes.”
He stood up and she found herself trying to read his thoughts but couldn’t.
“I’ll need to wrap your wound.” He was gone before she had a chance to utter a single word.
A moment later he returned with a cloth in a bowl of water and a bottle of whiskey. He shrugged out of his long black coat.
“This house was abandoned long ago. There’s nothing downstairs to use for bandages. My shirt will have to suffice.”
Adele sat forward to protest—partly because she couldn’t fathom the idea of this man walking around shirtless—but the movement caused a stabbing sensation in her leg.
“Sit still,” he said. “You’ll worsen the bleeding.” His voice seemed strained and impatient. Was he annoyed with her?
“I’m sorry,” she replied apprehensively. “I wanted to tell you that we could use my petticoat for bandages. It has a bullet hole in it anyway.”
He considered that for a moment and nodded.
Adele swallowed. “If you would be so kind as to avert your eyes while I remove it?”
“Do you need assistance?”
Assistance! Her pulse drummed at the suggestion. Based on his reputation, he was probably a master at removing women’s underclothes.
Adele was astonished by the sudden depraved direction of her thoughts. It was exhaustion, surely. She’d hardly slept in three days. Think clearly, Adele. He is merely offering to help in order to spare you pain.
“I can manage, thank you,” she replied.
He left the room but remained just outside the door while she struggled to reach up under her skirts and free the ribbons at her waist. With more than a little discomfort, she slid the garment down over her hips.
“You can come in now.” She held the petticoat out to him.
He took it and began to tear it into strips. “If you’re in pain, you’re welcome to take a few swigs of that whiskey.”
She eyed it uneasily. “No, thank you.” She wanted to keep her wits about her in the coming hours, for she didn’t know what those hours might bring.
While Lord Alcester stood tall above her, ripping and tearing at the petticoat, he glanced around the bare room with assessing eyes. “You spent three days in here?”
He met her gaze. “After I clean and bandage your wound, we’ll move you downstairs where you’ll be more comfortable.”
“I’m perfectly fine here,” she replied.
The sound of fabric ripping filled a long, drawn-out silence between them. Adele felt a great need to add conversation to that silence, for she needed to distract herself from her anxiety.
“I don’t even know what it looks like downstairs,” she said. “I was unconscious when I arrived, and sick when I woke up.”
Lord Alcester stopped ripping. “Sick and unconscious?”
“Yes. I was drugged on the ship. He kept me drugged until I woke up here.”
“Were you hurt in any way?”
She understood his meaning. He was wondering if she had been violated. She was wondering that herself, with more than a little concern. She knew nothing about such things regarding the female body.
“I’m not certain,” she replied. “I didn’t feel....” How could she put it? “I felt no pain anywhere. Except for a headache. But I suppose a lady couldn’t be sure about a certain kind of pain. Or could she?”
What kind of question was that?
Alcester’s expression revealed no hint of awkwardness. He knelt beside her, dipped the cloth into the bowl of water and gently squeezed it out. His eyes lifted to meet hers and he responded with composure.
“It depends,” he said softly. “Pardon my candor, Miss Wilson, but did you notice any bleeding when you woke up?”
“No, but couldn’t he have...?” Lord, this was awkward. “He disposed of my nightgown. Couldn’t he have…tidied up afterwards?”
She’d never had a conversation quite like this before.
“I suppose, if he were an exceedingly neat person.” Lord Alcester smiled gently at her, and Adele knew he was trying to minimize her concerns.
Continuing to rinse the cloth in the bowl, he said, “My suspicion is that you are probably fine. I believe you would know if something was wrong. But if you wish to be certain, a physician can examine you.”
“He’d be able to tell?”
“Would he be able to tell if I was—” She stopped. She couldn’t go on.
“If you were what, Miss Wilson?”
“If I was with child?” The idea was unsettling, to say the least, but she had to ask.
“I believe it would be too soon to ascertain the answer to that particular question, but let us deal with one problem at a time, shall we?”
Grateful that Lord Alcester was direct and honest with her about this awkward topic, she considered what she knew about the English aristocratic code. A woman was expected to be a virgin upon marriage to ensure any child born of the union was the true heir to the man’s title. Perhaps Harold was worried. Perhaps Lord Alcester was worried, too. He was a member of that family, after all.
“I would like to be examined officially,” she said, remembering that she was to become an aristocratic lady herself. It would be her code, too. Best to follow the rules.
Lord Alcester held the cloth above her wound and squeezed water over it. “The Osulton family physician is a very good man,” he said. “I would trust him with my life, and you can rest assured that he will be discreet. I hope you are not unduly worried?” Alcester’s eyes met hers again. He often seemed to be assessing things.
“I am, but I will do my best to be patient.”
He nodded, appearing satisfied, then turned his attention back to the task of treating her wound. The droplets of water tickled her skin. A few times, her leg jerked upward from the intensity of the dribbling sensation—the odd combination of pain and tickling. She wished she could keep her leg still, but it was no use.
“Try to relax,” he whispered, glancing up at her again. “Breathe deep and count each breath.”
She did as he suggested, keeping her eyes locked on his. All the knots in her muscles began to untie themselves, while she stared at him.
Slowly, the blood washed away, along with the tension in her neck and shoulders. Her breathing slowed.
Lord Alcester bent to look more closely at the gash, then he reached for the bottle of whiskey. “This is going to hurt, but it must be done.”
“Squeeze my arm if you have to.”
She didn’t want to.
He paused to give her time to prepare herself, then poured the alcohol over the wound. He might as well have poured liquid fire on her. Adele clenched her teeth together to keep from crying out.
As soon as he tipped the bottle upright, she leaned forward and squeezed her thigh. “Sweet Mary!” she ground out.
“Apologies.” He set the bottle down and reached for the long bandage he’d fashioned from her petticoat. “I’m going to wrap the wound now.”
Adele nodded in agreement. He tried to press a smaller bandage to the gash, but she had unconsciously pressed her legs together at the knees. She was clenching her teeth together, too.
He cupped her other knee in his hand and gently pushed her legs apart, again keeping his eyes fixed on hers the entire time. “It’s important to do this properly,” he said. “Relax if you can.”
She struggled to still her racing heart—for no man had ever parted her legs before—and forced herself to surrender to the gentle pressure of his hand.
“Perhaps you could bend your knee slightly?” he politely asked, then he reached for the bandage and wrapped it around her thigh.
His movements were swift and efficient. Before she knew it, he was tying a knot and sitting back. “There. All done. You can breathe now.” He lowered her skirt to cover her leg.
She hadn’t even realized she was holding her breath until he mentioned it.
He helped her rise but as soon as she attempted to walk, pain flooded through her. She felt suddenly nauseated.
“Let me help you.” He wrapped his arm about her waist. “Lean into me. That’s it.”
She began to limp beside him, and felt the thick, firm muscles of his shoulder and the solid, steady support of his body. He did not waver or lose his balance.
“It will be difficult to walk for a few days,” he said.
“But how will we ever get me away from here? For one thing, I don’t have shoes. And it will be torture to ride.”
“No shoes?” He paused. “Leave that to me. I will ride out at first light and return with a coach and driver for the journey, and I will bring shoes for you.”
“What about him?” She gestured toward her kidnapper.
“I will alert the authorities in the morning and have someone come to collect him. Don’t worry about a thing. I’ll make sure our names are not connected. We’ll be long gone by the time they arrive.”
They hobbled together into the hall and reached the top of the staircase. Adele stopped and looked down. “This might be a challenge.”
“Allow me.” He held out his arms.
He meant to carry her? Her heart did a little nervous flip at the thought of it.
Before waiting for her reply, he scooped her into his strong, able arms and descended the narrow steps effortlessly. When he reached the bottom, he carried her to the kitchen, where a faded upholstered chair faced the fireplace. Other than that, the room was unfurnished. There was only a small pile of kindling, some cooking utensils, and provisions to prepare a few meager suppers.
Lord Alcester set her down on the chair. Lightning flashed outside the window. Thunder rumbled almost immediately afterward as darkness began to descend.
“If you will excuse me,” he said. “I must take my horse to the stable before the storm is fully upon us.”
“Of course.” Yet she did not want him to go. She had been trapped alone for three days, helpless and locked in a room. She had just been shot. She was an ocean away from her home, and he was all she had.
Lord Alcester raised his coat collar up around his neck and picked up the hat that lay on the floor. He must have torn it off quickly when he’d first arrived. She remembered the violent commotion that ensued when he’d entered and could only imagine what had occurred.
Settling the hat on his head, he faced her. “The worst is over now.”
It was exactly what she had needed to hear. Had he known? He seemed very intuitive.
He opened the door and let in a powerful gust of wind carrying a pattering of cold, hard rain. The gale swept into the cottage and whirled like a tempest, but the room calmed quickly when he slammed the door behind him.
Adele sat alone in the silent kitchen, staring at the door and trying to come to terms with her situation. She couldn’t believe that she had been kidnapped and shot. Bookish Adele Wilson, who avoided adventure at all costs....
Her sisters were sure to be shocked when she told them her tale of woe—how she’d been abducted, trapped and finally rescued by a proverbial white knight.
It was embarrassing, actually, to think of him that way. She had always considered those fairy tales to be silly and unrealistic and would have preferred to read about heroines who rescued themselves.
Either way, Lord Alcester was hardly a white knight. He was more of a dark knight. She remembered how intense and angry he had appeared when he burst into her room. Her knees had turned to jelly.
Then he’d killed a man. For her.
A cold shiver moved through her as she replayed that horrific moment when she’d gazed into that dark barrel of death. She had been impossibly lucky. If her kidnapper had fired a fraction of a second sooner....
She was immensely grateful to be alive.
And she owed a tremendous debt to Damien Renshaw—her future cousin. True, his reputation was concerning, and she would never get over the embarrassing fact that he had seen her naked thigh. But he had come to her rescue, galloping across England to what felt like the ends of the earth. He had been her champion, when despite her own efforts, she had been unable to rescue herself.
Adele inhaled deeply, glanced at the door and considered the night ahead, trapped in this isolated cottage with such a man.
All at once, she found herself wishing that the man who had come to her rescue had been Harold instead.
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