Rycliff was clearly skeptical. “A fisherman from Brittany, blown all the way off course to Sussex and washed up in our cove. ” He shook his head. “Impossible. ”
“Not impossible,” Susanna said. “But I’ll admit, it seems rather unlikely. ”
“He’s a smuggler, I’ll warrant. ” This declaration came from Finn. “Separated from his mates when the Excise come calling. My father consorted with enough of the rogues. I should know. ”
“A smuggler. Now that I’d believe,” Rycliff said. “Good thinking, Finn. ”
“Glad I’m still good for something. ” Finn crutched his way over from the corner. He gave the intruder an assessing look. “Take care with him, my lady. You’d wake tomorrow to find him gone, and all Summerfield’s silver with him. ”
Rycliff said, “I’ll send for a magistrate in the morning. But in the meantime, we can’t rule out other possibilities. ”
“What other possibilities?” Violet asked.
“He’s from France,” Rycliff explained, as if it should be obvious. “He could be a soldier or a spy, scouting possible invasion sites. ” He lowered his voice. “He could be listening to us right now. ”
Was he listening? Violet looked down at the man in her lap, wondering if he truly were insensible. To test, she gave his earlobe a surreptitious pinch.
Well, that was reassuring.
Or was it suspicious?
Violet couldn’t honestly say. She’d never pinched an unconscious man’s earlobe, and she had no idea what reaction to expect. Neither did she know the expected reaction of a man who was merely pretending to be unconscious. And if he were any good at pretending, he would do the exact opposite of the expected reaction. Whatever that was.
Lord, she was a ninny. An earlobe-pinching ninny. So much for her deductive powers on that score.
“Bram, you’re overreacting. ” Susanna shook her head. “Napoleon’s certainly not invading here, if even one rowboat cannot land without splintering on our rocks. ”
“Nevertheless, we must be prepared. ” Lord Rycliff turned to Rufus Bright and Aaron Dawes. “The two of you will escort the ladies back to the rooming house. Then you’ll patrol the village the rest of the night. ”
Once the two left, Rycliff addressed the remaining militiamen. “The rest of us will march to the castle. There’s a reason the Normans set the heap up on those cliffs. They’re the best place to be in case of attack. ”
“I’m going with you,” Finn said.
Rycliff put a hand to the lad’s shoulder. “Not so fast. You’re staying here. ”
“Staying here?” Finn’s voice was edged with frustration. “I’m a militia volunteer. You can’t just leave me behind, my lord. ”
“I’m assigning you to Summerfield. Fosbury will stay too. Next to Dawes, he’s biggest, and a tavern-keeper’s handy with unconscious men. This is an important duty, Finn. The two of you must guard the captive and—”
“The captive?” Susanna laughed a little. “You make this all sound so melodramatic. Don’t you mean the patient?”
Her husband gave her a dark look.
Susanna threw up her hands. “Far be it from me to ruin your excitement. ”
“As I was saying, Finn. You’re to guard the captive and protect Miss Winterbottom. ”
“Protect me?” Violet asked. “I’m to stay too?”
Lord Rycliff turned to her. “I must ask it of you. Chances are, he’ll wake. We’ll need someone here who can talk to him. Try to ascertain who he is, where he came from. ”
“But how am I to—”
“Be creative. ” He cast a glance at the man slumped across her lap. “He likes you. Use that. ”
“Use that?” she asked. “What can you mean?”
“Surely you’re not suggesting Violet employ some sort of feminine wiles to earn his trust,” Susanna said.
Rycliff shrugged. A clear admission that yes, that was exactly his suggestion.
Everyone in the room turned to Violet. And stared. She could easily imagine the thoughts running through their minds. Could Violet Winterbottom possibly possess a single feminine wile to employ?
Even if she did possess wiles, she wouldn’t know how to use them. Her best stab at interrogation technique involved earlobe pinching, and look at how that had turned out.
“I’ll sit up with you, Violet,” Susanna said.
“No, you won’t,” Rycliff told his wife. “This day’s been too much exertion already, what with the ball and this excitement. You need to rest. ”
“But nothing. I’m not risking your health, much less…” The look on his face was stern but loving, and the protective touch he laid to his wife’s belly made his argument perfectly clear. Susanna needed to rest because…
“She’s with child,” Violet whispered to herself.
As the couple shared a tender, knowing look, Violet swelled with happiness for her friend. She felt a touch of envy too. Susanna and Lord Rycliff had, in her observation, the ideal marriage. They understood one another, completely and implicitly. They disagreed and argued openly, demanded a great deal of each other and themselves, and they loved one another through it all. They were partners. Not just in love, but in life.
Violet’s chances of finding that deep affinity looked slimmer than onionskin. There was only one man she’d ever dreamed could know her so well, and respect her as his equal. But she’d been so wrong about him. And ever since The Disappointment, she hadn’t—
The man in her lap stirred, mumbling and latching one arm about her waist.
Violet froze, stunned immobile by the wash of long-forgotten sensations. The sensation of being touched. Of being needed.
Don’t be made a fool again.
“Well, Violet?” Susanna looked at her expectantly.
She shook herself. “I’m sorry, what?”
“Will you feel safe with him?” Susanna indicated the sleeping man in her lap.
Beware, her heart pounded. Beware, beware.
She nodded. “I have Finn and Mr. Fosbury to sit up with me. And the whole house of servants, should we need them. ”
And that was how Miss Violet Winterbottom, habitual wallflower, found herself in Sir Lewis Finch’s Egyptian-themed library, keeping vigil with a hobbled youth, a tavern keeper, and an unconscious man who just might be a spy.
A pair of footmen entered, bringing fresh blankets and dry garments. While they tended to the unconscious man, Violet busied herself studying the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. Sir Lewis Finch was a celebrated inventor of weaponry and a noted collector of antiquities. His library held all sorts of treasures.
In the end, she selected an illustrated compendium, Birds of England—for she reasoned that she wouldn’t be able to actually read. If she was to sit beside the mysterious, handsome intruder all night, her concentration was bound to be compromised.
Hopefully, it would be the only thing compromised.
By the time the footmen left, the great house had gone quiet. Finn paced back and forth before the window, half-patrolling, half-pouting. Fosbury deposited himself in an armchair near the fire and set about paring his fingernails.
Violet took the chair nearest the sleeping stranger and placed her book on a reading stand. But instead of looking at it, she stared at him. His face had been wiped clean of grime and blood. At last, she could take a good, long look at the man and put her absurd suspicions to rest.
The linen shirt the footmen had given him draped crisply over his shoulders. The collar gaped, revealing his upper chest. She couldn’t help but look. He was tanned and muscled there, as she supposed all farmhands must be. Violet had touched a man’s bare chest, once. But that had been a lean, aristocratic torso—not nearly so rugged and…firm.
Pity about the nose, Sally had opined earlier.
Pity indeed. The
man’s nose had clearly been broken, at least once. It had a rugged line to it, almost like a lightning bolt. A significant portion of his left temple and cheek were abraded and red.
Violet could not say that the scrapes and broken nose made him less handsome—and even if they did make him a fraction less handsome, they made him ten times more virile and attractive. What was it about a visible, flesh-and-bone record of violence that made a man so alluring? She couldn’t explain it, but she felt it.
Oh, she felt it.
She swallowed hard. No man had stirred her interest for quite some time. In fact, there was only one man who’d ever made her feel like this—and that man was half a world away.
Or was he?
Violet’s pulse drummed. She dragged her gaze over every strand of his thick, dark hair and every facet of his exquisitely cut cheekbones. She recalled the warm, spice-brown hue of his eyes and the instant affinity she’d felt when they’d locked gazes in the ballroom.
If she looked beyond the injuries and dark scruff of his unshaven jaw, imagined him dressed in finely tailored wool rather than coarse homespun… Dear Lord, the resemblance would be uncanny.
It’s him, her heart whispered.
But what did her heart know? It was a stupid thing, easily fooled.
Violet shook herself. She was imagining things, that was all. Yes, the two men shared dark hair, brown eyes, and fine cheekbones. But the similarities ended there. The differences were legion. One was Breton; the other, English. One was muscled and built for labor; the other, aristocratic and lean. One was sprawled unconscious on this divan, and the other was gallivanting about the West Indies, sparing nary a thought for her.
This man was not The Disappointment.
He was a mystery. And Violet had one night to solve him.
She cocked her head. Was that a scar, just under his jaw? Blade-thin and straight. As if someone had pressed a knife to his throat.
With a glance toward Finn and Fosbury, she moved her chair closer to the divan. Then she leaned in, angling her head for a better look.
“Where did you come from?” she whispered, mostly to herself. “What are you wanting here?”
One hand shot out, catching her by the hair. Violet gasped at the sharp yank on a thousand nerve endings.
His eyes flew open, clear and intense. She read his answer in them.
You. I’m wanting you.
They flew at him in moments, the two guards. Shouting, tugging. Almost before he understood what was happening.
He was horizontal. He was half-dressed. Her sweet face hovered above him, and he had one hand firmly tangled in the golden silk of her hair. If not for the pair of red-coated dullards raging at him, this could have been just another dream.
Let her go, they gestured.
Let her go, he told himself.
And yet, somehow he couldn’t. His fingers wouldn’t obey. They were heeding instinct, not reason. And his body’s every instinct was to hold her fast and tight.
“Tranquillez-vous,” she pleaded. “Calmez-vous. ”
Be still? Be calm? God above, he could not be calm. Not with her voice flowing over him like raw honey, her orange-blossom scent everywhere. His heart raced beneath the borrowed shirt he’d been given. Some few feet lower, his cock stirred under the woolen blanket.
Well. Good to know the thing hadn’t frozen off.
God’s truth, man. You are an undeserving beast.
Let her go.
At last, his fingers went slack in her hair.
In a heartbeat, she’d jumped back. Then the two redcoats jumped on him. They dealt him a few blows—nothing he didn’t deserve. When they wrestled him to the floor, he made only feeble resistance. If he fought them, he would have to leave them dead, and he didn’t want to do that.
The big one held him down, pressing a knee into his kidneys and wrenching his arms behind his back. The young one lashed his wrists together with cord. Then, after a bit of conferring, they picked him up and slammed him into a heavy, straight-backed chair. They wound a rope around his chest four times, binding him to it.