That Scandalous Summer
Bosbrea, Cornwall, June 1885
A drunkard lay snoring in his rosebushes. She looked inexplicably familiar, though Michael did not think he would have forgotten such a face. She was one of the more beautiful women he’d ever seen, all creamy skin and long, spiraling, chestnut hair—and she was dressed as though for a ball.
He stood staring down at her for a long moment. How peculiar. She was unbearably lovely, and . . .
It’s a trap.
He took one step backward before catching himself. Christ, what a wild thought! A trap? His brother was not quite so Machiavellian as that.
Her diamond tiara, one hoped, was made of paste.
He cleared his throat. “Ho,” he said. “Wake up, there.”
He rubbed his eyes, feeling insufficiently awake to manage such novelties. The scent of bergamot still lingered on his palm from his morning tea. It was not yet seven o’clock—no time of day to be drunk. And she was
drunk, was she not? He did not think it was the flowers exuding the stench of whisky.
He cast a look around the garden, but no help was forthcoming. It being a Wednesday, the gardener and job-boy were both at their homes in the village for the morning. Meanwhile, all around him, the sun was splashing brightly across glossy green leaves, and birds sang in the flowering branches of the camellias. Not the season for drunkenness, really. Summer in Cornwall was better suited to lemonade.
The woman’s body jerked on a snore—not a small or kittenish sound, that, but a phlegm-filled snort, the more startling because her rib cage didn’t look large enough to produce a whisper. She was laced within an inch of her life.
Michael frowned. This fashion could go to the devil. Half of his female patients would have returned to instant health if only they were willing to cast off their corsets.
Sleeping Beauty snorted again. Her arm flopped out. The bloody scratch bisecting her inner elbow would need dressing.
Well, at least she passed out in advantageous spots. Better the bushes of a doctor than a baker. Or a candlestick maker, his tired mind helpfully nattered.
Dear God. Rustication was rotting his wits.
He stepped forward to grasp the woman’s wrists. She was wearing only one glove, long, elbow-length, delicate lace. The other was missing.
Foreboding crept over him, prickling along his scalp. But what an absurd instinct. She had drunk herself silly, and then she had stumbled down the hill from Havilland Hall in search of God knew what. A water closet, probably.
He lifted her into his arms, discovering with a grunt that she was not as light as she looked. “Mmm,” she said. Her head lolled into the cradle of his shoulder, and he felt the wetness of drool.
A laugh slipped from him. Such an effect he had on women! He kicked open the garden gate, then shouldered his way through the front door.
“Mercy me!” This shocked exclamation came from the depths of the hallway. Mrs. Brown hustled into view, visibly appalled by the bundle in his arms. “If it isn’t Mrs. Chudderley!”
The bundle in his arms was married? What kind of man would let his wife wander off in such a state? And such a woman, too—
He closed his brain to the path his mind had started down. He was doing a very good job (he congratulated himself) of avoiding particular notice of the woman herself. Missing glove, expensive gown, possibly real jewels, very tight lacing: these details would occupy his brain rather than the feel of her in his arms, the curve of her arse surprisingly substantial.
No women. Not until his brother recovered his wits. Michael would give him no inroads for trickery. Alastair would have to sire his heirs himself.
He cleared his throat. “Mrs. Chudderley, you say? Well, then—send for her husband.” He started down the hall, the rustle of starched skirts announcing his housekeeper’s pursuit.
“Oh, she’s got no husband,” said Mrs. Brown. She sounded as stern as those occasions when she discovered dust on the mantel. “Don’t you read the newspapers, sir? She’s a widow—and an infamous one at that!”
To his discredit, he recognized a stir of interest at
this announcement. Infamous. Widow. So many ways, so many words, by which to label a woman fair game. Widows had always been his favorite type . . .
Don’t be a bastard, Michael.
Granted, if Mrs. Chudderley was infamous, she herself probably had no small hand in it. A woman who passed the night in a stranger’s garden, drooling on her diamonds, clearly felt comfortable flirting with an ill fate.
As he mounted the stairs, the boards underfoot squeaked like small creatures being tortured. The thought crossed his mind: need to fix those.
Ludicrous. He would not be here long enough to make such improvements. And as Mrs. Brown constantly reminded him, the household budget could not accommodate such luxuries. He’d leased this house—five rooms and a garden, no land attached—for six months, all his small savings could afford. But surely that was all it would take. Michael’s continued absence would goad Alastair like a thorn in his side. He would bestir himself from that creaky mansion and come looking soon enough.
Until then, Bosbrea made an ideal place to hide. The only other medical man in the vicinity was over seventy and glad for the help. Furthermore, Michael had no connections in this area of Cornwall. It would take time for Alastair to find him here—enough time to properly prick his temper, and, so Michael hoped, goad him out of that house.
I give you four weeks, Alastair had predicted. Pompous bastard. Michael hoped he was enjoying his feast of crow.
He deposited Mrs. Chudderley on the bed in the front room. The depth of her sleep concerned him
somewhat. He laid two fingers to her pulse. Her skin felt clammy from the alcohol poisoning her system, but her heartbeat was steady and strong.
Her upper lip looked to have been drawn by an artist’s hand, so precise were its peaks on either side of her philtrum. Her lower lip was . . . lush. What color were her eyes?
Brown like her hair, he supposed. A rich, dark shade, like Parisian chocolate. Bittersweet.
But highly edible.
Christ almighty. He stepped back, both amused and appalled. In London, he’d always known a woman willing to entertain him. But here, in the chaste countryside, he was learning ever so many things about himself. For instance: abstinence made him a very bad poet.
“Too pretty for her own good,” Mrs. Brown muttered. Michael glanced over in time to catch the edge of his housekeeper’s uneasy look, just as she flicked it away. He supposed he’d been staring. That would be typical behavior around the widow.
His housekeeper’s next remark confirmed it. “Photographs of her, sold for money.” Mrs. Brown’s tight jaw telegraphed her opinion of this industry. “You see them in all the city shops. She’s a, what do you say? A professional beauty, they call it.”
“Ah,” he said. This was that Mrs. Chudderley. He knew of her. She ran with Viscount Sanburne’s circle, a very fast crowd. He’d been to school with Sanburne, but in the years since, their circles had rarely overlapped: even with a generous allowance, he’d lacked the funds to keep up with that sort. Also, the interest. Wild parties did not appeal to him.
For this one, though, he might have made an exception.
Unconscious, she looked like a figure from a fairy tale, her long chestnut hair suitable for wrapping around a man’s wrist, her pink lips slightly parted in invitation of a kiss. Something far more touchable than classical beauty, here.
He made himself look away again. “Her color seems healthy.” Poor form to ogle a woman who was not even awake.
Out the open window, over the trees, loomed the turrets of the estate from which she had tumbled. Sleeping Beauty’s abode. It looked less a mansion than a miniature castle, with banners streaming from the towers and a widow’s walk encircling the roof. Gaudy, confused architecture—not an old home, or an established one.
He smiled at himself mockingly. What a very grand judgment for a country doctor to issue.
“Shall I fetch your kit?” asked Mrs. Brown.
“Please do. I expect she’s scratched all over.”
Good God. That his mouth went dry appalled him.
“Scratched all over her arms,” he said grimly, by way of clarification. Any other scratches, he would let Mr. Morris tend. Morris was the doctor preferred by the denizens of Havilland Hall. Michael was glad to let him have them. He must keep as far from his brother’s world as possible, for now.
• • •
Her head hurt.
Liza kept her eyes closed, though consciousness stole in with unmerciful speed, scraping like a knife over the wooden lump of her wits.
Recollection was slower to come. Breath held, body tense, she waited for the memory of whatever had happened to give her such a terrible headache. It would be very mortifying, she felt sure; this felt like a two-bottle headache, and one did not drink two bottles unless the need was great. Already she felt humiliation crawling under her skin, anticipatory, ready to sink in claws.
“Good morning,” said a voice. A pleasant voice, not loud enough to antagonize her aching head; a smoky, low, male voice . . . which she did not recognize.
She opened her eyes and her breath caught in her throat. The man standing over her looked like a wolf in the lean season: hollow cheeks, dark hair, burning eyes. His carnivorous mouth offered her a slow, unsettling smile.
Fear flashed through her. The man was in his shirtsleeves. She had no idea who he was.
“Sleeping Beauty awakes,” he murmured, and then his smile disappeared, as though his own words displeased him. Without the smile, his angular face became severe. He had tremendously bold cheekbones, and a nose like the prow of a ship.
Swallowing nervously, she became aware of a tremendous thirst. Her mouth felt like a desert. Who was he? “Have you any water?” she whispered.
When he nodded and turned away, she pushed herself up by one elbow. Only then did she see the tall, well-padded woman hovering in the doorway—a housekeeper, judging by the key ring tied to her apron. The woman looked vaguely familiar—a face from the village, perhaps. The narrow look she cast Liza before leaving also felt familiar. It was filled with disapproval.
Well, then. Liza’s reputation had preceded her here—wherever here might be. Here also obviously was a place located firmly on the moral high ground—that look from the housekeeper proved it—so she needn’t fear her wolfish interlocutor, either. Men bent on rapine did not employ aged women with consciences.
Good God, her head hurt! Why couldn’t she remember—
The man turned back. She tried out a smile. He did not reenter the room, but took up his servant’s former place in the doorway. Some look on his face—a flash of wariness—gave her the odd impression that he did not wish to come too close.
Her intuition faded as she studied him. He did not look prone to intimidation by a woman. Lean through the hips, broad at the shoulders, he filled the doorway comprehensively. A touch underfed, perhaps—those hollowed cheeks suggested a recent illness. But it was nothing a month of Sunday roasts could not fix. She looked for such long, well-muscled lines in her public servants, and knew them very hard to find.
Alas, footmen must also have classical features and natural vanity. This one’s hair was a gorgeous shade of brown, dark and glossy, sure to be soft to the touch—but unkempt, as though he often ruffled it. His suit was not only incomplete—where was his jacket?—but pointedly plain. His waistcoat and trousers, both a muted gray, were slightly too large for him.
When her survey returned to his eyes, she discovered that he was watching her, his regard steady and unreadable. For some reason, her heart tripped pleasantly. Well, the wolfish smile, of course. And men who did not babble and fuss over her—men of athletic self-possession—were
rather her favorite type, though she knew they should not be. But who could resist a challenge?
How did she not know this man? He had a striking presence. Or perhaps that was only a trick of his nose.
“Where am I, sir?” It seemed more courteous than demanding his name.
“Outside Bosbrea, ma’am.”
His respectful address eased the last of her fears. “Then you must be a neighbor,” she said. The village of Bosbrea was only an hour’s walk from home.
“I suppose so.”
Taciturn, wasn’t he? And she’d thought she knew all her neighbors. She cast a curious glance over the room. The bedspread was stitched together in homely fashion from mismatched patches of cloth. No carpet softened the polished wood floorboards. A modest, unornamented suite of walnut furniture stood guard on the perimeters of the room: chest of drawers, trunk, and armoire. The walls bore an old-fashioned print, little bouquets of flowers that suddenly swam together.
She frowned and knuckled her eyes. Clearly she was not on either of the neighboring estates. How had she gotten here? Last night—last night—
Nello had left!
Of course. God in heaven, how had she forgotten? She’d told him the disastrous news, and he’d then shared his own. He’d been waiting to tell her—waiting all day and most of the night, while he consumed her food and abused her hospitality. The memory flooded her now like nausea.
Wait—the nausea was real.
She swung herself off the bed so quickly that her balance went. A hard grip closed on her arm and pushed
her back to a safer, sitting position. The man must have lunged across the room in a single pace. Very impressive, no doubt, but balance wasn’t of much value to her when her stomach was still protesting. Sharply she said, “I’m going to—”
The man dropped to his knees to rummage beneath the bed. He popped back up with a chamber pot—clean, thank God, smelling of vinegar. She grasped it to her belly, feeling its coolness even through her gown and corset and linens. And then she closed her eyes and fought to retain her dignity.
He left. It was final, this time. She’d thrown him out on his ear, for the very moment Nello had discovered her financial troubles, he’d decided to propose marriage to that—that child, that timorous miss who could not even pronounce her own name without stammering—
“Yes, Elizabeth, an innocent. What other kind of woman should I marry?”
How casually he’d said it, while examining his nails. By that point—shredded by his coldness, by his utter indifference to her tears—she had known better than to speak the reply that came to mind.
She took a deep, ragged breath now. You were meant to marry me.
“Are you in pain?”
The quiet voice was edged with concern. As she opened her eyes, she realized why. A tear was slipping down her cheek.
Good God, what drama! How mortifying. Wiping it away—feeling, to her regret, the warmth of a blush forming on her skin—she shook her head. “No,” she said, and then cleared her throat. Be cheerful, Liza. Nobody likes a bore.
She lifted her chin and smiled. In reply, the man frowned. It was not the first time she’d had cause to reflect that the onus of being charming generally was borne by women alone.
I grow bored with this, Nello had said. As though her distress were performed for his amusement! As though he had not been begging to marry her six months ago!
The man was waiting for her reply. She took a deep breath. “Forgive me, sir.” Her smile did not want to balance properly; it kept slipping off her lips. “It’s terribly awkward, seeing as we’re neighbors, but I’m afraid I don’t know your name.”
His eyes were striking, a smoky bluish gray, the pupils ringed by starbursts of gold. Their steadiness seemed increasingly judgmental. “I’m the new doctor,” he said.
“The new . . .” She hadn’t known there was a doctor in the area apart from Mr. Morris.
He saw her confusion. “Michael Grey, at your service.”
“Oh.” She wiped again at her eyes, still appalled by that brief moment of tears. Nello did not deserve them. What a fraud! He had not meant one word of his promises. And all the dreams she’d spun for their future . . . they were fraudulent, too. She should not mourn for them. It was clear now they had always been as hollow as spun glass. “Well, Mr. Grey.” She cleared her throat. “How do you do, then?”
“At the moment, I’m concerned,” he said evenly. “Does something hurt you in particular?”
“What?” She could not imagine how she hadn’t noticed his eyes instantly. Such unlikely beauty. His nose, she supposed, had overshadowed them. “No, I’m quite well indeed.” Nello’s nose was straight and narrow, but his eyes were a very plain brown. The color of pig muck.
The doctor’s dark brows arched, a message of skepticism. “Did you injure yourself in some way I cannot see? There’s no call for modesty.”
Evidently her reputation did not precede her, or he wouldn’t imagine she had any modesty. “No,” she said, “I’m quite fine.” But of course he did not look convinced, having seen her weep. “It’s only that the light is so bright in here.” As he cast a doubtful glance toward the window, she rushed onward. “And I do hope you won’t think too terribly of me, but I confess, I don’t recall precisely how I came to be”—in your bed sounded a bit indelicate—“here.”
His gaze returned to her. He really did put her in mind of a wolf, or some other predatory creature. It wasn’t owed so much to the sharpness of his bone structure or the darkness of his coloring—for he was quite tanned—as it was to his absolute and obvious ease with her discomfort. “I can’t say how you arrived here, ma’am. But I found you in my rosebushes.”
His . . . rosebushes? She sucked in a long breath, wrestling for composure. Good heavens, had she slept outside in the dew? This was . . . humbling, even by her own recent standards.
He was still watching her, the steadiness of his observation somehow clinical. She forced herself to meet his gaze. She could not control her color, but she certainly wouldn’t duck her head like a meek little girl. “The rosebushes,” she said brightly. “But how novel!”
He laughed, a low, slow, husky sound. “Indeed,” he said. “Novel was precisely the word that came to my mind.”
That laugh. And the smile that lingered on his mouth now! Slow to spread, it assumed a mocking edge that—to
her amazement—made her breath catch. She reared back a little, and his head tipped as though to see her better, and that smile . . . continued to spread.
Goodness. For some reason she suddenly felt certain that he knew precisely what effect his smile worked on her. Moreover, he was enjoying it.
She swallowed. How unexpected. “The new doctor, you say?”
“Here to tend to your scratches,” he confirmed with a bow so slight as to be insulting. His low, smooth voice made the task sound distinctly . . . unchaste.
Her bewilderment increased. Such a raw, animal presence did not generally belong to doctors. Now she was awake to it, she could feel its effect, thrumming through the air between them like curling tendrils of electricity, reaching for her.
This one . . . this one would say very nasty things in bed, and laugh at her when she protested, and make her like it anyway.
She pushed out a breath. Obviously her night in the bushes had scrambled her wits. “I hope the roses did not suffer overmuch for hosting me.” Pray God this doctor did not incline to gossip.
“I believe they will survive,” he said. When he reached out to take her hand, the contact of his bare skin on hers made her fingers twitch as though she’d been shocked.
His light eyes met hers. Perhaps this attraction was only in her imagination, for his expression remained bland. “If you would follow me downstairs, I’ll see to your scratches.”
She let him pull her to her feet. He was taller than Nello, his shoulders broader. And those long, long legs . . .
She eyed them as she followed him out, putting her hand once to the wall to catch her balance. His trousers might have been tighter, but as he walked, she could glimpse sufficient hints to form an ardent appreciation for his musculature. Nello looked very well with his clothes on, but this man would fare the better for losing them.
She bit her lip, amazed by herself. But . . . why hesitate? To the devil with Nello! What she required was a distraction from heartbreak, and this mysterious neighbor might keep her well entertained.