London, Late September 1816
Annie Andrews was halfway up the side of Arthur Eggleston's town house—scaling an oh-so-convenient and strong ivy vine—when the telltale clip-clop of a horse's hooves stopped her. She squeezed her eyes shut. Oh, this was not good.
Despite the fact that she was in the alley at the back of the house and it was dark as pitch, she'd just been discovered. She knew it.
Please let it be a servant.
But even as she wished it, she knew it couldn't be. A servant in the alley on horseback? No.
And the odds of it being Aunt Clarissa were decidedly low as well. Annie had ensured that lady had been well into her cups and asleep before she'd even attempted tonight's little escapade. Besides, Aunt Clarissa was horribly frightened of horses.
Annie bit her lip. Then she slowly turned her head.
It was worse than a servant. Much worse.
"Lost?" The arrogant male voice pierced the cool night air.
Jordan Holloway, the Earl of Ashbourne, swung his leg over his saddle and dismounted.
Oh, drat. There was absolutely no plausible way to explain this. Annie lifted her chin in an attempt to retain her dignity. As much as one could when one was clinging precariously to a vine.
The moon peeked from behind the clouds, casting a bit of its glow upon the scene as Lord Ashbourne strode up the steps and stood regarding her, his arms crossed over his chest. He leaned back against the stone balustrade, crossed his booted feet negligently at the ankles, and watched her with a mocking look on his oh-so-handsome—too handsome if you asked her—face. The man was easily two inches over six feet tall, possessed broad shoulders, narrow hips, a straight nose, dark slashes for brows, dark, ruffled hair, and the most unusual knowing gray eyes.
"If it isn't the runaway bride." He grinned. "What are you up to this time, Miss Andrews?"
Annie gritted her teeth. She hated it when Lord Ashbourne called her by that ridiculous name. The runaway bride. Hrmph. As the closest friend of her new brother-in-law, Lord Ashbourne had just so happened to have been involved in coming after her following an unfortunate incident in which she'd run away to Gretna Green with Arthur last spring. But that had been months ago and things were different now. Ahem, present circumstances notwithstanding. And it was so like Lord Ashbourne to mock her while she wasn't in a position to kick him or at the very least give him a condemning glare. It was exceedingly difficult to conjure condemnation while perched on a plant.
Her palms sweaty, Annie tightened her hold on the vine and summoned what indignation she could muster. "I don't see how it's any of your business." But even as she said the words she knew how ludicrous they were. "How did you even know I was here?"
"Let's say I made an educated guess. But, before I assist you in removing yourself from this ridiculous … situation," he drawled. "I insist you tell me why, exactly, you're doing this."
Annie blew an errant leaf away from her mouth. "I don't require your help, Lord Ashbourne. I'm quite capable—" She glanced down. It was at least a five-foot drop to the porch below. She'd just have to jump. She tugged away from the vine, but discovered, to her dismay, that the hem of her gown was snagged upon the brambles.
Lord Ashbourne shook his head. "Seriously, Miss Andrews, why?"
She expelled her breath, still trying to retain a modicum of dignity. Oh very well. Some explanation was obviously in order. "It's not as bad as it looks. I merely wanted to get Arthur's attention. I planned to toss a rock at his window and—"
"A note sent round to his door would not suffice?" Lord Ashbourne's mocking tone did not waver.
Annie clenched her jaw. Why, oh, why was she always at her very worst when Lord Ashbourne appeared? It was quite a phenomenon, actually.
"And Aunt Clarissa?" Lord Ashbourne continued. "She's asleep, is she not? After imbibing a good bit of port?"
Annie bit her lip. "Sherry." As companions went, Aunt Clarissa was a great deal of fun, but an apt chaperone she was not. The woman was overly fond of spirits, in a variety of forms.
"As I suspected. Very well, there's no help for it." Lord Ashbourne uncrossed his ankles and took a step toward her, lifting his arms to pluck her from the vine like a foolish little grape.
Just then, the back door opened. A ray of candlelight splashed across the porch. Annie's eyes flashed wide. Pure terror pounded in her chest.
She held her breath. Who had discovered her? Please don't let it be—
Lord Ashbourne didn't wait. He quickly grabbed her by the waist and pulled. She gave a small yelp before tumbling into his arms and sliding down the front of him, her body pressed to his.
And that's how Annie came to be completely tangled in Lord Ashbourne's arms when Arthur Eggleston, the man Annie loved, the man Annie intended to marry, strode onto his back stoop.
* * *
Jordan's first instinct was to set Miss Andrews's delicate form on the porch and break their contact.
She was a nineteen-year-old troublemaker with a penchant for putting her reputation at risk. The little baggage had proven to be nothing but trouble since her sister, Lily, and his closest friend, Devon, had left for the Continent on their honeymoon trip. They'd both begged Jordan to keep an eye on the chit. Miss Andrews, it seemed, required more than one chaperone, especially since their closest female relative and only suitable companion, Devon's eccentric aunt Clarissa, was overly fond of the bottle.
Jordan had spent the past sennight following Miss Andrews around and ensuring she was not making a fool of herself in her dogged pursuit of that sop Arthur Eggleston. But it seemed the closer Jordan watched her, the more outrageous her antics became, culminating in this particularly egregious bit of madness here this evening.
She was about five feet four, with a mass of wide brown curls, an impertinent nose, warm dark eyes, and a penchant for trouble. "Spitfire" was the word that readily came to mind. And while Jordan was mentally counting the days until Lily and Devon returned to properly see to the girl themselves, he had to admit to a sort of reluctant admiration for Annie. Things were never dull when Miss Andrews was involved. That much he would allow.
At the moment, her lithe body pressed against his was making him feel things he shouldn't, however. He needed to disentangle her from his arms. Immediately.
Eggleston cleared his throat and sanity returned to Jordan's mind with a vengeance. He quickly plucked Miss Andrews's arms from around his neck and let her slide down the length of him until she was standing on the porch next to him, a chagrined look on her pretty face.
Arms crossed over his chest, Eggleston glanced between them, a mildly perturbed expression on his face. "Miss Andrews, Lord Ashbourne. What is the meaning of this?"
Annie backed away from Jordan quickly, her breath coming in short pants. She snatched her arms behind her back and didn't meet his eyes. "Arthur. We were just…" Annie bit her lip. That was her tell. Jordan had played enough hands of cards to learn a person's giveaway and the past week spent in Miss Andrews's company had informed him that when she was up to no good, she nibbled her pink lips with her perfect white teeth. It was a bit endearing, actually. And extremely convenient for him.
She glanced away. Her other tell. "That is to say … I'd come over to…" She stopped, words obviously failing her.
"Anne," Eggleston said, giving her a stern stare. "For your sake and the sake of your reputation, I shall pretend I didn't see this."
Jordan fought the urge to roll his eyes. First of all, this was the same man who'd nearly destroyed Annie's reputation last spring. His concern now was a bit too little too late for Jordan's taste. Secondly, if Annie had been Jordan's potential fiancée and he'd just caught her in the arms of another man, he'd be pounding the bloke into a pulp about now. But this dolt obviously wasn't jealous enough even to take a swing at him. Probably better for Eggleston's sake, of course, but leave it to Arthur Eggleston to be little more than inquisitive.
Annie swallowed. "Yes, Arthur. Quite right. It won't happen again."
"I'm glad to hear it. Now, may I escort you home?" Eggleston asked Annie, giving Jordan a once-over.
"No need. I was just about to escort her myself, Eggleston," Jordan replied with a smirk.
Annie nodded. "Yes, I'll be quite fine."
"Very well," Eggleston continued, looking down his nose at the both of them. "Then I shall call upon you tomorrow, Anne, for our usual afternoon ride in the park."
Annie bit her lip. "Yes. I should like that very much."
"Good evening." Arthur turned on his heel, reentered the house, and shut the door with a resounding crack.
The whoosh of air from the door tousled Annie's curls. She plunked her hands on her hips and glared at the door, completely ignoring Jordan. "He didn't seem a bit jealous, did he? Next time I shall just have to kiss you."
Copyright © 2013 by Valerie Bowman