Females were nothing but trouble.
Handing the reins of his mount to a groom, Thane Pallister, the Earl of Mansfield, braced himself for the inevitable scene to come. He’d had plenty of time on the long ride from London to Oxfordshire to contrive an explanation for his uncle about his current predicament with the fairer sex.
Twelve years had passed since Thane had returned to the manor house where he had spent his youth. When he’d left here for good at the age of eighteen, he had come to despise this old pile with every fiber of his being. It had been more a prison than a home to him.
Yet, as he peeled off his riding gloves, he was surprised by a pang of nostalgia. On this unseasonably sunny March day, the place looked so … ordinary.
Neatly manicured boxwoods framed the front of the Elizabethan house. The tall edifice was fashioned of brick and timbers with mullioned windows that reflected the blue sky. As his gaze traveled upward, the steep roof with its myriad chimneys sparked a flash of memory.
A long time ago, he had clambered over those slate tiles while his cousin Edward had cowered by the stairs leading down to the servants’ attic. On a whim, Thane had lowered himself feet-first into one of the chimneys. He must have had some vague notion of bracing himself on the sides and then popping back out to frighten his cousin. Instead, Thane had lost his traction, plunged down the dark shaft, and landed in the library, covered from head to toe in soot.
Luckily, it had been summer and no fire had blazed in the grate. But he had startled Uncle Hugo at his reading, and the prank had earned Thane a thrashing with the dreaded willow switch.
Back then, he’d had a knack for getting into trouble. He had been too fidgety to focus on his schoolwork, too keen on escaping the confines of four walls, too ready to commit any act of willfulness in order to break the boredom of routine. Thank God, maturity and military discipline had granted him the ability to control his impulses.
At least most of the time.
Stuffing his leather gloves into the pockets of his great-coat, he headed up the granite steps. The double oak doors, carved with matching crosses, had once graced the chapel of a monastery. It felt odd to approach the house as a visitor when, as a lad, he had been forbidden use of the front entrance.
A footman in dark green livery answered Thane’s knock. He didn’t recognize the smooth, impassive features beneath the formal white wig and wondered what had happened to Sewell, the old butler with the hatchet face, who had borne Thane’s tomfoolery with stoic fortitude.
The footman took in his fine garb at a glance and stepped back to allow him entry. “Welcome to Waverly Park.”
“Is my uncle at home?” Thane asked, stepping into the dim-lit great hall. “Tell him Mansfield has come to call.”
The footman’s blue eyes bugged slightly in recognition, for he would have heard of the master’s renegade nephew. “Yes, my lord. If you’ll be so good as to wait in the antechamber.”
The servant indicated a room to the right, then hastened down the long corridor that led to the back of the house. Apparently, Uncle Hugo still spent his days ensconced in the library. Old habits died hard.
Thane stripped off his greatcoat and tossed it over a chair. After being confined to the saddle since the crack of dawn, he had no intention of sitting like a stodgy squire in a room that had last been decorated during the reign of Queen Anne. He had too much on his mind, and a pressing need to return to London as soon as he was done here.
A feeling of restiveness crept over him. He had sworn never to return to this house. Only a sense of obligation and a summons from his uncle had lured him back. Whatever their differences in the past, he owed Uncle Hugo the courtesy of an explanation. It would have been the act of a coward to do so by letter.
Thane took a measured stroll around the entrance hall. Little had changed here. The oak-paneled walls still displayed medieval shields and paintings so darkened with soot and age, it was difficult to discern the subject matter. A suit of armor stood on a dais beneath the curve of the staircase.
He walked closer to the display. There was a dent in the breastplate exactly where he remembered it. A long time ago, he had stood on a stool, plucked off the helmet and stuck it on his head, and then chased Edward around the hall. Unfortunately, the narrow eye slits had impaired Thane’s vision, and he’d crashed into the suit of armor, knocking it down. The deafening clatter had brought the entire household at a run.
A flicker of humor quirked Thane’s mouth. How well he recalled tearing around here like a demon on the rare occasions when his uncle was away from home. It had been sheer joy to slide in his stockinged feet on the marble floor. He had thrived on the danger of being caught. To sit placidly reading had never held any interest to him.
At last the servant returned with the news that the master would see him in the library. Thane headed down the long passageway, his footsteps sharp and decisive. He wanted this interview over with and done, like a dose of bitter medicine that must be swallowed.
Reaching the end of the corridor, he turned left and entered a spacious chamber with orderly rows of leather-bound books filling the floor-to-ceiling shelves. A fire hissed on the hearth. Beside it, his uncle sat in a nut-brown wing chair, his feet propped on a fringed stool and crossed at the ankles.
The shrunken quality to him caught Thane by surprise. The years had not been kind to the Honorable Hugo Pallister, younger twin brother of Thane’s late father. The familiar gray wig sat on Hugo’s head, for he held stubbornly to the fashion of his youth. Deep grooves flanked his down turned mouth, giving him a perpetual sour frown.
He looked up from the book in his lap as Thane approached. No smile of greeting graced his uncle’s thin lips, nor had Thane expected one. Those pale blue eyes, underscored by baggy skin, had a sunken look, although they were as sharply observant as ever.
If Hugo noticed the disfiguring scar from the saber cut on Thane’s cheek, he gave no indication. Thane didn’t doubt his uncle still harbored resentment at being foisted with the care of his young nephew upon the death of Thane’s parents all those years ago.
Some things never changed.
Thane inclined his head in a slight bow. “Hello, Uncle. It’s been quite a long while since last we met.”
“Indeed.” Hugo clapped the book shut and set it aside. “And whose fault is that? I should not have been obliged to summon you here. You have been back in England for a month now, yet you did not deign to call upon me at once.”
“Five weeks,” Thane corrected. “I returned from Belgium in the middle of February.” And a bitterly cold and uncomfortable journey it had been, burdened as he was with a petulant female in tow.
His uncle waved a gnarled hand. “All the more reason to chastise you. Now, fetch me a whiskey. And I suppose you’ll want refreshment yourself.”
Clenching his jaw, Thane went to the side table and poured two glasses from the decanter. There was a grudging tone to his uncle’s voice, but that was only to be expected. Hugo was a pinchpenny who didn’t part easily with his favorite Scotch malt.
Thane delivered the drink, then took up a stance by the fire, resting his forearm on the oak mantelpiece. He had no wish to turn this into a social visit, yet the politeness drilled into him by a long-ago governess induced him to say, “You’re looking well, Uncle. How have you been?”
“I suffer from gout and rheumatism, as you’d know if ever you’d bothered to send me a note of inquiry. All these years, and nary a word from you. Why, I never had even a notion of where you were garrisoned.”
Surely, Hugo hadn’t expected him to write as if they were loving relatives. The thought startled Thane for a moment before he rejected it as ludicrous.
He took a sip, letting the whiskey burn down his throat. His uncle still wielded complaints like a broadsword. He’d had no real interest in hearing from the nephew who had been a thorn in his side. If Hugo truly had wanted to keep in touch, he could have tracked Thane down through the Home Office.
He’d certainly had no trouble nosing out the news of Thane’s return—and the circumstances surrounding it.
“Do forgive me,” Thane said with a touch of irony. “But I was busy serving the king.”
“It is not the role of a peer to fight wars. You shirked your duties by running off to follow the drum. The proper place for a man of your rank is here in this country, watching over your estates and taking your rightful seat in Parliament.”
The military had been a hard life, surviving cold and mud and limited supplies, enduring the fall of comrades on the battlefield, yet Thane had no regrets. To have chosen the safe, boring existence would have been anathema to his temperament. “I didn’t come today to quarrel about the past. Rather, I felt you deserved an explanation in regard to my ward.”
“Indeed I do. Your behavior has been a disgrace.” Hugo slapped his palm on the arm of the chair. “As head of this family, I must chastise you for harboring an innocent young lady in your house hold. Have you no sense of decency at all?”
In spite of his resolve to stay calm, Thane felt a hot jab of anger. Since reaching his majority, he was now the head of the family, not his uncle. And after years abroad as the commander of a cavalry brigade, Thane didn’t appreciate being dressed down like a lowly recruit. “I can assure you, there’s been no hint of impropriety. Miss Jocelyn Nevingford does not reside in my town house, but rather, in the one beside mine.”
“But there is a connecting door.” Malice in his rheumy gaze, Hugo shook a knobby finger at Thane. “You needn’t try to pull the wool over my eyes. I wrote to Fisk, and she has sent me a full report.”
Mrs. Fisk had once been a nursemaid in this house. When Thane had come here as an orphaned boy of five, the widow had taken him under her wing, crooning him to sleep at bedtime and providing comfort in times of distress. She was one of the few people he trusted, which was why he’d asked her to come out of retirement and take on the role of companion to Jocelyn.
Thane couldn’t blame Fisk for supplying information; she was a kindly old soul who saw only the best in people. And she could scarcely have written of anything indecorous when nothing had occurred. The nasty details had been supplied solely by his uncle’s caustic imagination.
Gripping his glass, Thane stared down at Hugo. “A full report, do you say?” he said coolly. “Then I’m sure you’ll know Jocelyn is fifteen years of age. That her parents died last autumn when their carriage overturned during a rainstorm near Brussels. That she was riding with them and only by a miracle of God survived the accident herself. I hardly think those facts are the fodder of scandal.”
“It most certainly is a scandal for a bachelor to adopt a girl not of his own family,” his uncle stated. “There must be someone else who can take her in. It’s more fitting she go to a blood relative.”
Jocelyn had one elderly great-aunt in Lancashire who had exhibited such horror at the prospect of taking in a crippled girl that Thane had invented another relative so he wouldn’t be forced to abandon Jocelyn with the inhospitable old woman. Besides, there was the vow he’d made to her father, James, Thane’s best friend. Before the battle of Waterloo, James had wrested Thane’s promise to watch over Jocelyn in the event of his death. Ironically, James had survived a hail of bullets that day, only to lose his life a few months later in a carriage mishap.
His throat thick, Thane finished off his whiskey and set down the glass on a table. “There’s no one,” he said flatly. “Believe me, I’ve searched.”
“Then send her away to a cottage in the country. You’ve the means to hire all manner of servants to watch over the chit. That’s what any decent gentleman would have done.” Hugo’s suspicious gaze raked him up and down. “But since your return, you’ve no doubt become one of the fast crowd, the gamblers and the rakes. It would not surprise me to learn you have wicked designs on her person.”
Thane’s irritation took a sharp upward spike. “For God’s sake, she’s suffered a traumatic injury. Do you think so little of me that I would force myself on a mere girl, let alone a crippled one?”
Uncle Hugo looked unmoved. He nursed his whiskey and glowered over the rim of the glass. “I do indeed. You were always the wild one, a ne’er-do-well devil just like your father.”
Thane could see the tentacles of envy that had squeezed any benevolence out his uncle’s nature. Nevertheless, those words stirred an echo of the inadequacy Thane had fought against as a youth.
Abandoning his cool, he snapped, “So you still resent my father for being born three minutes ahead of you. If not for a quirk of fate, you would be the Earl of Mans-field.”
An angry flush darkened Hugo’s face. His fingers tightened around the glass in his hand. “By gad, you’re as disrespectful as ever. I don’t know why you can’t be more like Edward. He’s been married these past eight years. And he has sired two sons.”
Thane hadn’t known. But the news came as no great revelation. His cousin had always been a dull dog who followed convention. “Then you should rejoice,” Thane said. “If I die without issue, the title will go to you and then to Edward and his eldest. In truth, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that you’d prayed for my demise on the battlefield.”
Something flickered in Uncle Hugo’s eyes, something like shock. One of the logs popped, then fell in a shower of sparks. Thane had the discomfitting sense that he’d stepped over a line.
Hugo gave a disgusted shake of his head. “Think what you will. I summoned you here to warn you not to ruin that girl’s reputation. If you insist upon this foolish course, at least find yourself a wife, someone of suitably high birth who will lend you respectability. For once in your life, boy, do your duty.”
The disappointment in his uncle’s tone stung Thane worse than the blow of a willow switch. It was ridiculous to care what the man thought of him. This conversation had gone on long enough.
He made a stiff bow. “I’ll take your advice under consideration. Good day, Uncle.”
Pivoting, he strode out of the library. Find a wife? He’d sooner roast in Hell than conform to his uncle’s demands. He had far more important tasks to accomplish than to make idle chitchat with giggly debutantes in the ballrooms of London. Most pressing of all was his appointment with the chief magistrate at Bow Street.
Thane turned his mind to his secret mission. If all went as expected, in the coming weeks he would be very busy indeed.
Excerpted from Never Trust a Rogue by Olivia Drake.
Copyright © 2010 by Olivia Drake.
Published in September 2010 by St. Martin’s Paperbacks.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.