As Edward, the Earl of Warwick, lay
soundly sleeping in his dark bedchamber his subconscious
awakened to the sound of chattering females. But that same
subconscious assured him of the improbability of such an
occurrence. After all, he had no wife, no sisters, not even a
mother to intrude on his gentleman’s domain. He therefore rolled
over with the firm intention of going back to sleep.
Then he heard a shrieking female voice,
and this time--no matter what his subconscious told him--he
realized she was inside Warwick House.
He jerked up and listened. Though the
words he heard were indistinguishable, they were definitely
uttered by one or more females who must have stormed into his
home. He flung himself from the bed and jammed his legs into a
pair of breeches, flying from the room and along the hallway to
the stairwell. What the devil was going on down there? A blazing
glow illuminated the great entry hall, where the candles had
been extinguished when Edward had gone to bed not so very long
From the top of the stairs he surveyed
the ruckus below. And froze. What was likely the most beautiful
female he had ever seen stood spitting out orders to his
servants as if she were the mistress here. His mouth
opened in dismay when he realized one of those orders was a
demand to carry trunks to the “countess’s” chambers. His glance
scanned the disarray in his heretofore well-ordered townhouse.
He counted no less than fourteen trunks. In addition to the
arrogant Incomparable, there was a slightly more youthful
version of her with spectacles propped on the bridge of her
nose, a skinny hag dressed in servant’s clothing, and the
fattest cat he had ever seen--all of them talking and shrieking
Edward cleared his throat. No one seemed
to take notice of him. He began to move down the stairs and
cleared his throat again. This time all the intruders glanced up
and stared at him.
Completely incognizant that he stood
there shirtless, he asked, “What is the meaning of this?”
The Incomparable stepped forward and he
was powerless to keep his gaze on her incredible chocolaty eyes
when every part of her was a feast for any man's eyes. His
glance dipped along her creamy skin over her pink hued cheeks
and along her graceful neck and bare shoulders to settle on a
remarkably lovely pair of breasts that were only partially
covered by the bodice of her elegant gown. The rose-colored
dress draped over the smooth curves of a body as perfect as her
stunning face. She absently stroked the enormous cat as she
looked up at Edward. “Who is this handsome creature?” she asked,
then quickly cupped a hand to her mouth in embarrassment.
“I might ask the same of you?” he said.
“This is Warwick House, is it not?” she
asked, a hitch of uncertainty in her rich voice.
“It is,” he said, moving down the
Her chin lifted. “I, sir, am Lady
Warwick, and this is my house.”
“I, madam, am Lord Warwick and I’d sure
as hell know it if you were my wife!” For a fraction of a second
he wondered if the old earl might have secretly married The
Incomparable, but Edward’s predecessor’s movements--including
his abhorrence of females--were well known to Edward.
He watched the beauty for signs of
capitulation, but the proud woman gave none. “How long, my lord,
since you succeeded?” she challenged.
What gave her the right to question him?
Now her shoulders slumped and her
composure dissolved. Right before his very eyes, she slid into a
graceful heap on his marble floor, her skirts fanned out beside
her, that damned squealing cat arched on her lap.
And she proceeded to cry. Not that it
was like any female hysterics he had ever witnessed before. For
one thing, she kept shaking her dainty fists and saying the most
vile things, and her curses seemed to be directed at a man she
most UNaffectionately referred to as The Scoundrel.
Even if she was behaving in a most
undignified fashion, the sight of a female (especially a
beautiful female) weeping, softened Edward. “Now, now,” Edward
soothed, stepping toward her but not really knowing what to do.
He could hardly hug a strange woman, nor could he give her any
hope that this was her house.
“Why did I ever believe him?” she cried.
“I knew he was a wicked, scheming, lying, perfectly o-o-o-d-i-ous
Her shoulders heaved with each wrenching
sob. He felt deuced awkward just standing there when the woman
was so obviously distressed.
“Hell’s too good for the vile, lying,
despicable scoundrel,” she continued.
It was a given the man she abhorred was
“To whom are you referring, madam?”
Edward asked, setting a gentle hand on her trembling shoulder.
That damned cat of hers--claws extended--slapped at Edward’s
Sucking a bloody finger into his mouth,
Edward realized he knew who The Scoundrel was. Hadn’t
Lawrence Henshaw been passing himself off as Lord Warwick when
he fled England just ahead of the hangman’s noose?
“My . . . late husband,” she answered.
Henshaw was dead? England should
be so lucky. “I beg that you quit crying, my lady.” (He used the
title to appease her, though he knew she was no
countess.) “Let us go into the saloon where we can discuss your
situation.” Damn that Henshaw! He’d always had an eye for
the ladies and had obviously tricked this woman into marrying
him under the false impression she was marrying an earl.
The young woman he took to be The
Incomparable’s younger sister retrieved a handkerchief from her
reticule and handed it to the weeping beauty, who promptly dried
her eyes, then looked up at Edward and offered her hand. He was
deuced happy to help her up, especially since she gave all
appearances that her crying was ended. But when he reached for
her, that damned gray cat slapped at him again. This time he
snatched back his hand ahead of the fat feline’s attack.
“Stop that, Tubby!” she said to the huge
cat as she cradled the overfed ball of gray fur to her breast.
“I’m sorry, my lord,” she said, peering up at Edward. “Tubby’s
wary of strangers.” Then she contrived to get up without his
Tubby? Edward had to admit the
name suited the animal. As did Killer, Tiger, and Out-You-Go.
They walked to the saloon which Wiggins,
ever the pragmatic butler, had anticipated would need candles
and had accordingly brightened the celery green room.
“Here, here, my lady,” Edward said,
tentatively putting an arm around the distressed widow, his eye
peeled for a reaction from Tubby. “Come sit down.” Edward cursed
to himself. Damn that Henshaw!
As soon as she was settled upon the gold
and green striped brocade settee, he came to sit next to her. He
had to know if Henshaw was really dead. He wouldn’t put anything
past the blighter. “About your late husband,” he began, “Would
he have been a black-haired man some four or five inches shorter
than myself? Probably the same age as I?”
Her gaze swept over him, pausing
discernibly at his bare chest.
That was when Edward realized the
impropriety of his sitting there bare-chested with a woman who
was an obvious lady. He moved to get up, to go fetch a shirt and
coat when the always-competent Wiggins strolled into the room
with a freshly ironed shirt and navy blue frock coat.
The widow and her female entourage had
the decency to turn their heads while he dressed.
When he finished, Wiggins asked, “Should
your lordship desire a fire?”
“Don’t bother,” Edward said. “We shan’t
be here long.” Then Edward returned to the settee. “Now where
“I believe you had just described my
late husband,” she said. “You knew him?”
Edward’s lashes lowered. “I believe so.”
Since Henshaw was last seen boarding a ship bound for the
colonies, that probably meant The Incomparable was an American.
“You are an American?” he asked.
She shrugged. “I’m from Virginia, but my
parents were English. Royalists. So it’s difficult to call
myself an American, though I suppose that’s what I am.” Her
voice was upper-class British.
From the corner of his eye Edward saw
that the younger woman whom he presumed to be The Incomparable’s
sister had plopped onto a Louis XIV chair and proceeded to lose
herself in the pages of a book.
His attention returned to the beauty. It
sickened him to think Henshaw had abused so lovely a creature.
He hoped to God the man truly was rotting in hell. But he
wouldn’t trust the scoundrel not to have faked his own death.
“When did your husband die?”
“Four months ago.”
“A natural death?”
She stiffened. “I’d rather not say.”
She was hiding something, and he
wouldn’t put it past that damned Henshaw to be forcing this
beautiful woman in on his vile schemes. “What I need to know,
madam, is if you actually saw his dead body.”
She nodded solemnly. “Fortunately, they
had put his clothing back on before they brought him to me.”
What in the deuce was she talking about?
The younger girl looked up from her book
and spoke. “What my sister is reluctant to tell you, my lord, is
that her late husband met his end at a brothel.”
Now Edward was convinced the dead
husband was indeed Lawrence Henshaw.
The Incomparable flicked an impatient
glance at her sister. “I didn’t want you to ever know that!”
The girl had returned her attention to
“Foul play?” he asked the widow.
“Not at all,” she said. “Lawrence--in
his cups and feeling rather invincible after a triangular
tryst--leaped naked from a third-floor balcony. It’s just the
sort of thing The Scoundrel would have done.”
Yes, it was. “And you’re sure the
body was his? Could his fatal injuries have obscured his
She smiled. The most radiant smile he
had ever seen. Her teeth were even and a stunning white. He felt
as if he were in a sunny spring meadow. “I wondered the very
same thing myself,” she said, “for by then I knew how his wicked
mind worked. So I bared his chest for proof.”
He waited for her to elaborate, but she
didn’t. “What proof would that be?” he asked.
A slight blush rose to her cheeks.
“Lawrence was possessed of chest hair that formed a harlequin
“And the dead body was undoubtedly your
Her lovely lips thinned to a grim line.
“I see you’ve chosen not to wear
“To do so would be hypocritical, my
lord. I was living apart from The Scoundrel at the time of his
death with no intentions of ever going back to him.”
He wondered why she had married the man
in the first place since she found him so despicable, but Edward
knew how charming Lawrence Henshaw could be--until he got what
he wanted. He also knew how destructive Henshaw could be. His
hands fisted with anger toward the dead scoundrel.
“Then it seems, madam, you are possessed
of sound judgment. Your husband barely escaped England with his
Petting the contentedly purring cat, she
nodded thoughtfully. “I should have expected as much. When he
courted me he vowed to bring me to London and give my sister a
grand debut, but once we were married The Scoundrel changed his
tune. He offered one excuse after another why we couldn’t come
to England. Soon his own stories were conflicting with each
other, and I knew it was all just so much flim-flam. I even came
to wonder if he already had a wife in England.” Those huge brown
eyes of hers quizzed him.
“He had no wife,” Edward assured.
“So what was his real name?”
She sighed. “I much prefer being Lady
Warwick. Mrs. Henshaw sounds so . . . so mundane, and you must
admit Lawrence was anything but mundane. The Scoundrel.”
“No, I don’t suppose he was mundane.”
“I suppose he was a thief,” she said
matter-of-factly. “That would explain why he arrived in Virginia
with a great deal of money.”
“Worse than a thief.”
Her eyes widened. “Oh, dear, was he a
“He was a traitor. He used his position
at the Foreign Office to pass important information to the
French. That information contributed to the loss of life for
thousands of British soldiers.”
“For this, he was paid handsomely.”
“Oh, dear, I’m most happy, then, the
money is gone for I should hate to be living on blood money.”
All that money gone? Then how was
this woman to return to America? “Why, precisely, did you wish
to come to London?”
be perfectly honest with you, my lord, I planned a deceit of my
own. I thought I would come live at Warwick House and have a
grand season for my sister before I contacted what I thought was
Lord Warwick’s attorney to notify him of Lawrence’s death. I
knew once it was known Lord Warwick was dead, his heir would be
entitled to all of this. Being an optimist, I had hoped that by
the time we’d had our season, Rebecca would be betrothed to a
man of means.” She glanced at her girlish-looking sister.
“And,” Rebecca piped up, “Maggie knew
that by that time her beauty would have secured many hearts.”
Scarlet tinged The Incomparable’s
cheeks. “I thought no such thing!” she chided her sister.
Rebecca shrugged. “It’s just as well I
don’t have a season. I have no desire to be wed.”
After her sister’s disastrous marriage,
Edward could well understand Rebecca’s aversion to matrimony.
Besides, he peered at her youthful face, she hardly seemed old
enough. “How old is Miss . . .”
“Miss Peabody,” Rebecca answered. “I
shall be eighteen next month.”
He settled back against the settee,
eying the pair. He needed to get these females out of his house.
“Well, well. I’ll summon the carriage to convey you ladies to
This announcement succeeded in
refreshing The Incomparable’s tears. Dash it all! Made him feel
quite the brute. “Now see here, my lady, surely you realize this
is not your home.”
“Oh, I know that,” she said, sniffling.
“It’s just . . .” She let out a sob. “We have no money for a
Or for the passage back to America, he’d
guess. What was he to do? Anything to snuff those wretched
tears. “Then I suggest you ladies settle in for the night. I
know you’re whipped from the long journey. Tomorrow, when you’re
refreshed, we’ll see what we can do about your return to
America.” He was well satisfied with himself. Even if he was
stuck tonight with these females. And one very fat cat. It
wouldn’t do at all for Fiona to get wind of these
Between great sobs, the beauty favored
him with another of her shattering smiles. “You’re so very kind,
They all stood up, and he rang for the
housekeeper to prepare rooms for the visitors, but Wiggins had
anticipated that, too, and the rooms were in readiness for the
Edward walked with them to the iron-banistered
stairway, rather pleased with himself because the lovely one’s
tears had stopped.
“Is there a Lady Warwick?” she asked,
placing her hand on his proffered arm.
“Not as of yet,” he answered. “I’m
pledged to Lady Fiona Hollingsworth, but there’s nothing
official yet, owing to the sudden, unexpected death of her
mother, which has plunged the lady into mourning.”
“The poor dear,” Maggie sympathized.
“Our dear mama’s death was even more painful than Papa’s, was it
The very bookish Rebecca Peabody had
refined the art of walking upstairs and reading at the same
time. “What?” she asked, annoyed to have had her reading
“Oh, never mind!” Maggie said. “Mind
your step or you’ll fall down the stairs and break into a
The first rooms they came to on the
second floor were for Miss Peabody. She did not even look up
from her book as she bid them good night and wandered into the
Next they came to the countess’s
chambers. “Actually, a countess hasn’t occupied these chambers
in at least fifty years,” he said, “owing to the fact my
uncle--the late earl--never married. I plan to redecorate before
I wed Lady Fiona. The rooms are exceedingly outdated.”
He swept open the door as two maids were
putting fresh linens on the bed, and The Incomparable’s maid was
unpacking her mistress’s valise. It was as if he were seeing the
formerly scarlet room for the first time. It was not only
outdated, it was faded and some of the fabric had become so
fragile he could have read a newspaper through it.
“It looks clean, and that’s all that
matters, my lord,” the beauty said, giving him her hand. “My
sister and I are most indebted to you for your generosity.”
“It was nothing,” he mumbled as he
started for his own bedroom.
* * *
Maggie waited until she heard the earl’s
door close, then snatching up her cat, she hurried to her
sister’s chamber. Though smaller than the long-dead countess’s
chambers, this guest room was spectacularly furnished in elegant
ivory and gold with stunning gilt cornices and moldings. Still
reading her blasted book, Rebecca glared at her sister over the
rim of her spectacles. “You should be ashamed of yourself,
“Whatever for?” Maggie asked as she sank
onto the silken bed, her feet dangling far off the carpeted
floor, her hand absently stroking Tubby.
“For abusing your gift of being able to
cry at the drop of a hat.”
“Oh, that.” It was really the oddest
thing that she possessed the ability to cry on cue, but when she
was truly distressed, like when her late Papa died, nary a tear
could be summoned. She supposed her tears--like her beauty--were
gifts bestowed upon her for the purpose of making big, strapping
men putty in her delicate hands.
And Lord Warwick was most definitely a
big, strapping man. She had nearly lost her breath when she had
stood at the bottom of the stairs and looked up to glimpse the
tall, bare-chested god-like creature scowling down at her. Of
course she was completely humiliated that she’d blurted out her
admiration, a most vexing habit of hers, to be sure! Even now
the vision of that sleek, powerful body and the handsome dark,
brooding face that went with it made her throb in places she’d
as lief Rebecca knew nothing of. “Is not Lord Warwick a most
splendid looking man?” she asked casually.
Rebecca did not remove her eyes from her
book. “Pity he’s spoken for.”
“My dear sister, spoken for is
not the same thing as actually being married. It’s probably one
of those engagements arranged long ago by meddling family. I
daresay Lady Fiona’s some horse-faced peeress Lord Warwick can
Now Rebecca closed her book and gaped at
her elder sister.
“Dear God, you can’t mean to snare him!
How could you when your last marriage was so disastrous?”
“Now, now, pet. Don’t get so
overwrought. I have not decided to snare him. After the last
fiasco, you can be well assured I will never rush into a
marriage without knowing--really knowing--a man.” She shrugged.
“But you must admit the earl is decidedly promising.”
What she neglected to tell her sister
was that a hasty marriage (that wasn’t too hasty) would
keep them from the poor house. Maggie was getting desperate. By
the time he had met his untimely death, The Scoundrel had
managed to squander away most of his ill-gotten fortune.
She had racked her brains trying to come
up with some way to continue living in modest dignity with her
sister, but no viable possibilities presented themselves. Being
a governess was out of the question because she would have to
leave Rebecca behind, and her little sister was hardly equipped
for self-sufficiency. Being a seamstress was also out of the
question. Her needlework--as her own governess had been quick to
remind her--was most inferior, and why shouldn’t it be? Maggie
had been raised to expect fine modistes to make her clothing.
She had even thought of taking up her pen in order to eke out a
modest living, but, alas, she was possessed of no talent in that
When it came right down to it, Maggie
had only one talent: the ability to attract men. Not just
attract them. Men had been known to make complete idiots of
themselves over her.
A pity she’d wasted her charms on The
Scoundrel. But then eligible men in the Virginia farming
community where she was raised were as scarce as English lords.
“One would think the association of the
name Warwick with The Scoundrel would be enough to warn you away
from the man, regardless of his handsome face. And body,”
“I should have known Lawrence wasn’t
Lord Warwick,” Maggie said. “I’m so vexed at myself! I knew he
was a lying, scheming, perfectly odious scoundrel.”
“The real Lord Warwick, you know, is
going to send you away tomorrow.”
Maggie, her fine brows lowered, bit at
her lip. “You must help me think of a way to stay here. Lord
Warwick’s bound to know hoards of eligible men--men whose
character he can vouch for. A month should be long enough for me
to find one.”
Rebecca rolled her eyes. “I suppose one
of us could feign an illness.”
“That’s it!” Maggie flopped onto her
stomach. “Of course, I can’t be the sick one. Then I wouldn’t be
able to be properly courted.”
“So what illness shall we say I have?” a
resigned Rebecca asked.
Maggie considered the matter. “Let me
hear you cough.”
Rebecca gave a fake cough.
“Can you not do better than that?"
Her sister gave it another try, this
time a deep, bellowing sound.
Maggie’s face screwed up, and she had a
strong desire to clamp her hands over her ears. “No, that won’t
do,” Maggie said, shaking her head. “Consumption’s out.” She bit
at her lip some more, then sighed. “You’ll just have to pretend
to be suffering with fever. Don’t worry, pet, I’ll smuggle you
all the books you could ever desire to read.”
Rebecca’s eyes brightened. “Did you see
his lordship’s library?”
“How could anyone possibly read all
“Yes, I suppose you could.”
“What if Lord Warwick sends for a
doctor? He’d know at once I have no fever.”
Maggie went back to chewing on her lip.
“Let me sleep on it.” She got up off the bed, cradled the cat to
her bosom, crossed the room to the chair where Rebecca sat, and
kissed the crown of her sister’s head. “Don’t read all night.
You’ll put undue strain on your already weakened eyes.”
When Maggie returned to her own chamber,
Sarah was laying out her night shift on the faded red
counterpane. Maggie’s heart caught as she watched her aging
maid. It seemed like only yesterday Sarah’s hair had been brown
and her step lively. When had her hair turned silver? How could
the once-strapping maid have become so frail of body? Maggie
wished to reverse their roles, to wait upon the woman who had
waited upon her since the day she was born, but Sarah’s whole
life had been spent serving the Peabody family, and the maid
bristled at the idea of relinquishing what she perceived as her
responsibility. Would that she could pension Sarah off, Maggie
thought bitterly. Nothing would make Maggie happier than seeing
Sarah relieved of all her burdens, ensconced comfortably near
Rebecca and her, the closest thing to family that Sarah had.
“You shouldn’t have waited up,” Maggie
said. “I know you’re exhausted from today’s long journey.”
“I’d rather be here than in my bed
tossin’ and turnin’,” Sarah said. “Sleep don’t come so easily
when one gets older.”
As much as Maggie wished it weren’t so,
Sarah was old. Maggie allowed Sarah to assist her into the
shift, then she placed firm hands on her maid’s fragile
shoulders and ordered her to bed. “And don’t you dare present
yourself in my room before ten of the clock.” Sarah did so need
a good night’s sleep after the grueling journey.
Maggie doused the candle and lay in the
aged bed. It felt so good to be in a real bed after so many
weeks sleeping on the ship’s narrow cot. It felt good to be on
solid land that didn’t pitch and sway. Never mind that the room
smelled musty from years of disuse. Never mind that her presence
was as welcome to her host as the pox. Just to be in a warm home
on a real mattress provided a comfort she had not known in a
very long time. For tonight, she would allow herself to be
lulled by the physical replenishing she had craved for so many
Tomorrow, she would face her demons.
As she lay there awash in contentment,
Tubby purring beside her, she pictured the restrained power in
Lord Warwick’s wondrous physique. “Please, God, don’t let him be