One Touch of Scandal
Avon Books, September 2010
|Excerpt from the novel One Touch of Scandal|
“Just come with me,” said Lord Ruthveyn in a voice that brooked no opposition.
She would have to be a fool to go with him anywhere, this man of whom she knew nothing, and who already frightened her. The words dark and dangerous seem to have been minted just for him. But inexplicably, Grace found herself following him up the steps and down a short passageway. Perhaps because she had no better option. Or because he professed to be Rance’s friend. Scant hope indeed, but it was all she had.
A few steps further on, Lord Ruthveyn pushed open a door. After a deep breath, Grace stepped inside, and found herself in what appeared to be a small library or study, the walls of which were packed carpet to crown with massive, gilt-titled books, many cracked with age. The room smelled pleasantly of old leather, beeswax, and men.
“The club’s private study,” said Ruthveyn, motioning toward a pair of sofas which faced one another before the hearth. “Pray take a seat whilst I send for refreshments.”
Grace did not bother to protest. “Are not all the rooms at a gentlemen’s club private?” she asked when he returned. “Mightn’t your members take exception to my being here?”
Lord Ruthveyn settled himself on one of the leather sofas, keeping the light of the window to his back—deliberately, she thought. He stretched a taut, well-muscled arm across the ridge of the of the sofa, then crossed one knee languidly over the other in a posture that with any other man might have looked effeminate, but on him looked faintly intimidating.
Ruthveyn’s dark gaze again caught hers and Grace felt suddenly as if he were trying to see straight to the depths of her soul. It was a chilling thought. And a fanciful one, too. What was it she’d said to set him on guard so?
“What, precisely, do you know of this house, ma’am?” he finally asked.
Grace shrugged. “Nothing save the address, to be honest.”
“It is not, strictly speaking, a club,” he said. “It is a sort of society.”
“An organization of men who share similar . . . well, let us call them intellectual pursuits.”
“What sort of men?” she asked warily.
“People who have traveled the world, primarily,” he said, waving a languid hand. “Adventurers. Diplomats. And yes, mercenaries, like Rance Welham.”
“When my father’s end drew near, Rance wrote to us in France,” said Grace. “How he got a letter out of prison, I cannot say. But it was almost as if . . . well, as if he somehow sensed Papa was failing. And he suggested that should ever I need his help, I might call here. And that is all I know.”
“So you have not seen him?” Ruthveyn snapped out the question like a whip.
Grace drew back. “Not since he was captured in Algiers,” she said.
“Yes,” said Ruthveyn tightly. “I was with him in Algiers. I followed him back here.”
“Oh,” said Grace softly. “We were frightfully worried for him. But Papa soon fell ill and I took him to Paris. I have been in London less than a year myself.”
“Why?” he asked. “If not to see Rance, why did you come?”
“To take employment.” She was growing weary of his highhanded questions and hard, glittering eyes. “Really, my lord, what did you imagine? That I followed him? That there was something between us?”
It was his turn to look away. “You are a beautiful woman, Mademoiselle Gauthier,” said Ruthveyn. “And Rance was never able to resist . . . well, much of anything he desired.”
“But I have always been able to resist a rogue,” she said waspishly. “And that’s precisely what Rance is—a fine soldier and a good friend, yes—but a rogue all the same.”
“I merely wished to be certain,” said Ruthveyn, leaning forward to set down his teacup.
“Why?” she demanded.
He looked at her and crooked one impossibly black eyebrow. “Let it go, Mademoiselle Gauthier.” Again, he waved a languid, graceful hand. “Querulousness becomes neither of us. Now, what sort of employment, ma’am? Did Gauthier not provide for you?”
Grace drew herself up an inch. “That’s hardly your business, either,” she said testily. “But yes, my father did provide for me. I am not wealthy—barely comfortable, I daresay, by your standards—but nor do I believe in idleness. It pleases me to work, and I have been the last several months in the employ of Mr. Ethan Holding of Crane and Holding Shipbuilders.”
Ruthveyn seemed to stiffen. “Crane and Holding,” he murmured. “The largest shipbuilder to the British Navy. They’ve yards in Liverpool and Rotherhithe.”
“And Chatham,” Grace added. “Ethan—Mr. Holding—recently forced out a competitor.” She dropped her chin and stared at the floor. “I am—or was—governess to his stepdaughters, Eliza and Anne. Their mother died in a tragic accident last year.”
A long silence held sway over the room, and through the row of open windows, Grace could hear the clatter of carriages and carts in distant St. James’s Street. In the lane below, someone was sweeping a doorstep, and further along, a doorman was calling out to a passing hansom. And all the while, Ruthveyn was looking at her with his cold black gaze.
“The Morning Chronicle reported Holding’s death this morning,” he finally said. “It was suggested someone slit his throat.”
And just like that, Grace felt the loss well up anew, choking off her breath. Suggested? There had been nothing so vague about it. Ethan’s death had been swift and horrid and real, and his throat most definitely slit.
She fell forward a little, one arm wrapping round her abdomen. She felt suddenly clammy with nausea, the whole of that night rushing back to the forefront of her memory. Good God, had it only been little more than a day ago? She could still see Ethan there, gurgling upon the floor, his fingers clawing into the carpet as if he might drag himself away.
She needed to go. This man—this peer of the realm—could not help her find Rance. He was gone. There was no help for her here. Worse, she had not missed the uniformed policemen posted at either end of the square this morning, nor the fact that one of them had followed her all the way down to St. James. And suddenly it occurred to her—how ever was she to explain her presence here? And she would have to. It would not take the police long to retrace her connection to the notorious murderer, Rance Welham. That thought was becoming acutely clear to her now.
What a fool she was! Grace dug her fingers into the arms of her chair and attempted to rise, but even the ability to command her muscles had seemingly abandoned her.
“Mademoiselle Gauthier?” Lord Ruthveyn’s voice came as if from a distance.
“Mademoiselle?” The voice was sharper this time.
“Oui?” Grace managed to release her death-grip on the chair. “Yes, I beg your pardon.”
“What is your involvement in Mr. Holding’s death?”
Somehow she forced her gaze to his. “My . . . involvement?”
“Is Holding’s murder the reason for your visit here today?” His eyes flashed like black diamonds. “Were you there? Have you been questioned? Are you a suspect?”
“Yes,” she cried, finally jerking from her chair. “And yes, and yes, and yes to all your vile questions! I very much fear I am a suspect. I do not know. No one will tell me. I have been shut out of the house. Forbidden the children. A policeman is following me, for God’s sake. So yes, my lord. I think we can safely say I’m up to my neck in it.”
Panic surging, Grace lifted her skirts and rushed for the door. But Ruthveyn was so fast, she never saw him move. Grace slammed against him, chest to chest, and felt something inside her give way. He caught her shoulders surely in his elegant hands, and Grace sagged into him, all her strength and will dissolving on a single, choking sob.
Then Ruthveyn did the strangest thing. He enveloped her in his arms like a child—gingerly at first, as if he’d never held another human being. As if she were blown from spun glass, and might shatter at the merest touch. For an instant he held her thus, and then suddenly his arms came fully around her, warm and incredibly solid, holding her with all his strength.
“My dear girl,” he murmured, his breath warm against her temple. “All cannot quite be lost.”
Such tenderness—and from a man who looked anything but tender—was almost too much for Grace. She bit back another sob, knowing that the deluge was but barely subdued. “Oh, sir, you cannot know what I have lost,” she managed. “But you . . . you are kind. And I thank you for that.”
“Kind,” the marquess echoed, as if the word had never before been applied to him.
Somehow, Grace set the heels of her hands to his shoulders, and pushed herself away. He let her go, his face still unreadable. But the loss of his warmth was almost painful, like the stripping away of something as emotional as it was physical.
The timing, however, was fortuitous, for just then the door flew open and a manservant appeared, rolling in a mahogany cart which held a tea service and three small platters. She turned to face the window, blinking back tears as the tea was set out.
“You must stay, Mademoiselle Gauthier,” Ruthveyn ordered amidst the clacking of porcelain and silver. “I insist you eat, and tell me what, precisely, you wanted of Sergeant Welham—or Lord Lazonby, as he is properly called now.”
Five minutes later, Grace found herself urged back into her seat, her bloodless hands warmed by a cup of tea strong enough to peel paint. She lifted it, sipping almost gratefully as Lord Ruthveyn filled her plate with bits of food she would never eat. It was a ridiculously early hour for tea, but he did not look like a man who much cared about convention.
The china, Grace noticed dispassionately, was of the thinnest porcelain imaginable, while the tea service was of heavy chased silver which bore the same odd crest she’d seen etched into the house’s pediment. Indeed, the house and its every appointment spoke of quiet, well-heeled masculinity. Whatever the St. James Society was, its members apparently wanted for nothing. Grace found it hard to reconcile such opulence with the gruff, hard-bitten soldier she’d known as Rance Welham.
Lord Ruthveyn flicked an appraising gaze up at her, severing Grace’s musings.
“We have got off to a rather curious start, have we not, mademoiselle?” he murmured as he pushed a lemon biscuit onto her plate with a pair of elaborate silver tongs. “What with Lazonby away, and you stuck with me. And then there was my appalling loss of temper downstairs.”
“I’m not sure I blame you.” Grace took her plate, grateful for the mundane conversation which was designed, she knew, to put her at ease. “That frightful young man—what was his name?"
“Coldwater,” said Ruthveyn. "He has become rather a thorn in our side, for he keeps dredging up Rance’s old murder case and airing it out again in the press. But I will deal with Coldwater. Now pray be so kind as to explain what you wished of Rance.”
Grace set her teacup down. “Why?”
He looked at her pointedly. “So that I might help you.”
“But why should you?” Grace felt her brows draw together. “You are under no obligation to me. You never met me before in your life.”
For a moment, he hesitated as if measuring his words. “Perhaps it is fated, Mademoiselle Gauthier,” he finally answered. “Fate, after all, has brought you here today.”
“I believe one makes one’s own fate, Lord Ruthveyn,” she returned. “You owe me nothing.”
“And Rance does?”
“He seemed to think so,” she returned.
“And is not my brother’s debt my own?” said Ruthveyn. “Rance would do the same for me, and has. So I ask you again, Mademoiselle Gauthier—what was it you wished him to do?”
Grace opened her mouth, but nothing came out. “I am not perfectly sure,” she finally confessed. “I just thought that . . . that he might advise me. After all, who better to do so? Rance was unjustly accused of murder. Indeed, he had to flee his own country because of it, and sell himself as a soldier of fortune. But at last he has prevailed. He has been cleared of all wrongdoing.”
“In Her Majesty’s courts, perhaps,” Lord Ruthveyn interjected. “But in the court of public opinion? That is less certain.”
“I don’t give a tuppence about the court of public opinion,” said Grace.
“Alas, my dear, this is England.” He cut her a strange glance. “I very much fear you should care.”
“Well, I don’t!” she said sharply. “Really, I cannot think why I ever came back here to begin with! My English relations are of no help, the police see only a suspicious Frenchwoman—the French are always suspicious, you know—and now my fiancé is dead. There is little else to care about, sir, save my father’s good name. And that is all I shall fight for.”
Lord Ruthveyn’s black eyes hardened. “Your fiancé?”
Grace looked down, and took up her teacup again, but her hand shook, and it chattered ominously on the saucer. “Yes, Mr. Holding and I . . . we were secretly betrothed.”
“Secretly?” Ruthveyn’s voice was sharp. “How secretly?”
“Not terribly.” Grace took a fortifying sip of the strong, black tea. “His sister Fenella knew. His late wife’s family had been told. Officially, however, we were waiting out his year of mourning—but we did tell the girls.” Suddenly, she felt her face crumple. “And they were so happy! I was so afraid they would not be. That it was too soon. But they—they were—so happy . . .”
She had not realized she was crying until Ruthveyn slid onto the sofa beside her and produced a handkerchief. “Oh!” she whispered, putting down the cup awkwardly. She dried her eyes and blew her nose. “Oh, you must think me a frightful watering pot!”
“What I think, Mademoiselle Gauthier,” he murmured, “is that you are a young lady who has seen much tragedy. And in too short a space of time.”
Embarrassed, Grace turned away. There was something about Lord Ruthveyn which was simply . . . too intimate to be borne. But to her shock, he set his hand to her face, cupped his long, incredibly warm fingers round her cheek and gently turned her face back to his.
And then the strangest thing happened. It was as if the heat of his touch seeped into her, through her jaw and up into the muscles of her face, until there was a flood of warmth through her body which felt something like the sizzle of nearby lightning, and yet nothing like that at all.
It felt as though Grace had turned her face to the brightest sun imaginable, and drawn from it not just warmth, but something which felt vaguely like peace. Grace held herself perfectly still to it, and let the hush fall all around them. The noise from the street below, the faint autumn breeze from the window, even the sound of her own breathing; all of it faded away, but for how long, she could not have said.
When she returned to herself, Grace heard a voice saying, “Open your eyes.”
She tried to remember whose voice it was.
“Look at me, Mademoiselle Gauthier.”
She had not realized her eyes were closed. “W-Why?”
“Because I wish to see your eyes,” Lord Ruthveyn murmured. “They are, after all, the window to one’s soul, are they not?”
At that, her gaze flew to his, almost against her will. But once their eyes met, Grace forced away the strange lethargy. She had nothing to hide. She would not be afraid of this man and his black, glittering gaze. And so she watched him as intently as he watched her. They sat so close, Ruthveyn had one hard thigh pressed to hers. His heat and scent swirled in the air; a mélange of exotic spices and smoke and raw, unadulterated male.
Grace drew it in, the strange sense of calm and the otherworldly silence still pervasive. A moment passed; a heartbeat in time in which she felt utterly alone with Ruthveyn, as though nothing beyond this room and this moment existed.
And then his hand fell from her face.
As if nothing unusual had occurred, he turned his attention to the tea table, plucked one of the lemon biscuits from her plate, then set it to her lips.