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"No need to fret, Zander," Elektra Worthington had assured her brother Lysander when he'd silently protested her strategy. "What could possibly go wrong?"
She ought to have known better than to jinx matters by saying such a thing. Worthington plans, no matter how well-laid, had a way of twisting ever so slightly sideways.
Now she sat in a dripping ruin at midnight, with her elderly but functional—mostly—pistol on her lap, staring at the suntanned and handsome—if a bit on the shaggy side—bound and furious fellow for whom she had risked her reputation, virtue, and any chance in hell of ever lifting her family from their penury, and found herself at a loss for the first time in her determined, single-minded existence.
Bloody hell. I've kidnapped the wrong man.
Twenty-four hours earlier …
Muddy water spattered high onto the chipped and scratched enamel of the carriage's exterior. Punishing rain immediately washed the majority of it right back down onto the sodden, rutted road. Though the sun stood only a few hours after noon, one could not tell time because there was almost no daylight at all piercing the heavy black clouds.
Lord Aaron Arbogast, grandson and heir of the Earl of Arbodean, drove the carriage through the storm with capable, callused hands. How strange to remember that when he'd left England nearly ten years previously, he'd never driven himself in anything but a sporting curricle. He certainly wouldn't have dreamed of exposing his lazy highborn hide to actual weather!
Now he thought nothing of the torrent beating down on his drooping hat, borrowed from his manservant Hastings, except to wistfully recall that the rainwater in the Bahamian Islands was never this cold.
His oilcloth driver's cape was borrowed from Hastings as well, for his own wool finery was wrapped around his shivering, feverish servant, who was tucked up safe and warm inside the once luxurious but now somewhat scruffy-looking carriage.
It had taken far too much of his savings to purchase the conveyance in London, but once his ship had reached port Lord Aaron had wished to escape the city of his youthful downfall as quickly and as surreptitiously as possible.
Everything had cost more than it ought to—the two passages on the not-terribly-comfortable freight ship for himself and Hastings, the posh togs that had ended up wrapping the wiry Hastings to keep him warm, the aged carriage and the not-quite-matched, not-quite-shiny pair of horses to pull it.
Behind the conveyance there even plodded a "gentleman's mount," a rangy bay gelding of dubious descent and sullen temperament, but with long legs and a surprisingly fine gait, who, because of his problematic outlook on his servitude to mankind, had cost Aaron little more than meat market coin. Literally. The beast had been on his way to the knackery when Aaron had noticed the aristocratic lilt to his equine step. Outbidding the butcher at that point had been a matter of a few farthings.
In the last ten years, Aaron had come to believe in the reformative power of the second chance.
All of this was purely intended to make a good impression on his grandfather, whom he'd not seen since the day "Black Aaron" was banished from England for his poor judgment years ago.
Is that what we're calling it now? Poor judgment? The girl died!
Aaron flinched at the accusing voice in his own mind. He had paid for that terrible mistake over the last decade, although even ten years in the sweltering tropics could not bring Amelia back to life.
Such enforced exile had been his grandfather's only recourse. Aaron knew that. The crime that had driven his only family to reject him across three continents had been so unforgivable that it had taken every day of those ten years to slowly and steadily rebuild his personal sense of honor.
His reputation, sadly, remained unsalvageable.
If the old earl were not so ill, Aaron might not have drummed up the courage to return even then.
However, if his grandfather was indeed as ill as Aaron's aunt's message stated, this would be Aaron's last opportunity to plead his case and claim his full heir status at last. For the title and estate were entailed, and none could take them from him, no matter his social odor—but try managing all those square miles without the wealth or standing that his grandfather's forgiveness would give him.
If he could get to Derbyshire in time, he might, just possibly, perhaps, prove to his grandfather that he was a changed man. He had brought letters of recommendation from respectable gentlemen, his grandfather's steward on the isles, and the local magistrate. Those missives, safely wrapped in oilcloth and tucked deep into Aaron's baggage, were his proof and his talisman. Perhaps all his hard work at redemption had not been in vain.
During a lull in the slashing rain and booming thunder, Aaron heard another explosive sneeze from his suffering servant. He flipped open the trap and gazed down into the carriage from his high seat. Hastings blinked miserably up at him, a pale face splotched with feverish cheeks and a spectacularly red nose visible in the wildly rocking light of the interior lantern, and sniffed pitiably.
"I need soup, ye rotten toff," Hastings informed Aaron in thick Cockney tones. "Soup and a bed, one wi' real blankets and all!"
Lord Aaron Arbogast, a man who in his decadent youth had once knocked a footman unconscious for a barely audible snicker, merely nodded in sympathy at his loyal, ex-thief servant. "You'll have it, my friend, as soon as we find that inn. Are you certain it is on this road somewhere?"
"Aye!" Seized by a fit of coughing brought on by his vehemence, Hastings dissolved into petulant mutters. "Good thing 'e's a toff, for he'd never last a moment as a workin' bloke!"
Aaron let the trap fall closed, for the rain had increased and he didn't want Hastings to get any wetter or any colder than the poor man already was. Gripping the reins more tightly in his hands, ignoring the gasping chill of the rain hitting his body, he gently urged the weary horses just a bit faster.
When the inn emerged from the gloom, its windows glowing yellow and welcoming through the blue English dusk, Aaron let out a yell of pleasure and gave the horses one last lick of the reins across their backs. The pair scarcely needed it, for they well knew where good grain and warm hay came from. The carriage rattled into the cobbled yard of the inn, and Aaron was grateful to see the groom's boy run into the rain to take the horses by the lead.
Gesturing to a stout fellow he took to be the innkeeper, Aaron drew in his assistance in getting Hastings from the carriage. The innkeeper shook his head at Hastings's illness.
"Oy, your poor master looks bad, lad! Want I ought to send for the village physic? He isn't much, just a tooth-puller, really, not near good enough for a fine lord, but he knows a fair bit about a fever."
Aaron hesitated at the innkeeper's mistake, then nodded, tugging the brim of his dripping hat in a respectful gesture. "Aye, sir. I'd be right grateful if ye did." In Aaron's coat of fine dark wool trimmed in gold braid, fit for the Prince Regent's Court, Hastings looked the very picture of an ill nobleman. Aaron's boots were finer, but both men were mud to the knees so it wasn't likely anyone would note it. Hastings would get the best of care if the inn staff thought him a wealthy gentleman.
Together the innkeeper and the boy began to carry the limp and shivering manservant indoors. Aaron let out a deep sigh as he gazed longingly up the muddy road.
So close. The Arbodean estate was a mere half day's journey north. There was no help for it. He could not abandon Hastings until he was sure his man was well set. Once he found them rooms, he would send a message to his aunt that he would be delayed.
Aaron went back to the carriage to retrieve their baggage, little though it was. Then, as he turned back toward the inn, he glanced upward into the most beautiful green-blue eyes he'd ever seen.
* * *
Elektra Worthington glanced up from her novel as her brother Lysander entered the private dining room they'd overtaken at the Green Donkey Inn. The innkeeper hadn't offered it for their use. He likely didn't even realize they were using it, but Ellie knew from long experience that a smile and an assumption were as good as permission. Especially out here, nearly to the wilds—relative to London—of Shropshire.
Now, after they'd finished their beef and greens, her brother Lysander had become restless as usual. Zander couldn't be still if he wasn't eating or sleeping—and even then the entire Worthington household was sometimes woken by his nightmares.
Not as often now, of course. He was much better than the mostly silent, sometimes howling, shell of a man who had returned from the war against Napoleon. He wasn't nearly so thin for one thing, though his restlessness did tend to keep him well honed. And he did speak now … at least, occasionally.
At the moment, however, he simply gazed at her meaningfully. Fortunately, as a Worthington, Elektra was a native speaker of the Cagey Clue. "Something I should know?" Saving her place, Ellie set aside her book and gave her beloved older brother her full attention, just as if he'd clamored for it, which he would never do.
Lysander's dark eyes shifted toward the casement window that looked out onto the inn-yard below. Ellie stood, crossed the room, and leaned one hand upon the window frame to look out. Through small, diamond-shaped panes separated by wooden muntins, she saw a rainy, muddy yard, the same one they'd driven into earlier that day on this ridiculous errand that she'd have given anything to skip—
"My goodness!" She leaned closer, peering down at a limp form even now being lifted from a dark, unmarked carriage. "Is that man dead?" She glanced back over her shoulder in time to catch Zander shaking his head. She rose to tiptoes and pressed her forehead to the chilly glass to watch as the burdened men passed directly below her on their way into the inn. When she noted the horizontal gentleman rolling his head in feverish protest, she let out a breath of relief.
Then she noticed the other man, still out in the rain, pulling two satchels from the carriage. She wasn't sure why her gaze was pulled to him.
The fellow turned at that moment and lifted his gaze to meet hers, almost as if he'd known she stood there, watching him. A jolt of something exhilarating shot through her and fixed low in her belly. Elektra caught her breath in surprise, then blinked at her own reaction.
Then the stranger lifted one hand to his dripping hat and tipped it, all the while gazing at her boldly. Cheeky fellow!
Her eyes narrowed as she cataloged the curious fellow's person. Years of practice taking note of appearances had bestowed a lightning ability to accurately sort and label everyone she met according to wealth and rank.
His build was tall and fit, at least as far as she could tell beneath his oilcloth cape. He moved like a man prepared for anything—a little like the Worthington siblings' old fencing master, combined with the determined intent of a pugilist and a dash of the head-up awareness of a … highwayman?
His clothing marked him as a servant or driver. She could not make out his face clearly through the wavy glass spattered with raindrops, but he looked road-worn and unshaven, and far too disreputable to be gazing boldly at a lady as if she were a barmaid.
Do I look like a barmaid?
Well, wavy glass twisted the light in both directions, didn't it? Likely he wasn't even looking at her.
The flutter in her belly told her a different story, but she ignored it.
Never mind the driver. What of the first man, the ill one? Tapping her fingertip on her bottom lip, Elektra drew his image from her memory.
"That was a fine coat," she mused aloud. "Though it is from several seasons ago … real gold thread, I'd say, from the shimmer … it fitted a bit loose, but if he's been ill…" She let her assessing gaze encompass the carriage as the horse boy led the team out of the rain. "The carriage is well made, though it is almost as old as the one in our mews. Could be he can't replace it, or could be the frugality of the wealthy, buying good and keeping it up." She squinted as she tried to peer between raindrops at the disappearing horses. "His team is matched, but they are too covered in mud to tell if they're fine."
She set back on her heels with a sigh, her curiosity wriggling like a hooked fish. "I would have liked to have seen his face, but it wouldn't look proper for me to run out and gawk." Though she had taken a good long look at the driver, hadn't she? She turned to Zander. "Go on, will you, and tell me if he's dying? And if he's young or old? Ask the innkeeper—well, try to catch his name, at any rate."
Zander nodded indifferently and left the room.
Elektra glanced back through the rain-streaked glass, but the yard had inconveniently been emptied of evidence. The impudent driver was gone as well.
With a huff of impatience, she stomped back to her chair and sat with a flounce. She was bored out of her mind, stuck in this room, waiting for a cousin she'd never seen—never even heard her parents speak of, for pity's sake!—the previously unknown Bliss Worthington. They were meeting her halfway from her home in Shropshire, the seat of the Worthington name, where apparently she had long been living with a foster family far from London. Their mission, in the end, was to bring Miss Bliss Worthington to London to share in Elektra's hard-won victorious first Season.
I, as one might imagine, am less than thrilled at the prospect.
Not that Elektra was looking forward to the journey back to London, particularly. It had been a slow, dreary ride—where she'd been mostly alone inside the coach. Lysander rode his horse alongside, since he was still quite unable to be confined in a small space. No one in the family knew what had happened to Lysander in those months when the world had thought him dead behind enemy lines, but the tense stranger who had come home was every bit as beloved as the laughing boy who had gone away soldiering.
He was simply not as well understood.
The assumption was that Bliss would join her in the coach home. Doubtless she would come supplied with luggage after all.
The foul weather that had made Elektra and Lysander's journey a slow and tedious one had apparently delayed Bliss's arrival as well. The only interesting thing to happen in the past tedious hours of waiting was the arrival of a dead man. Well, almost dead.
Elektra pondered the possibilities, uncomfortably aware that she was being quite heartless.
Well, a girl in her position couldn't afford a heart, could she?
Folding her arms, she allowed herself to slouch back into the seat and glare around at her private little domain. If the new gentleman were of any social quality at all, he would likely claim this room for himself, contingent on his survival, of course. The Worthington name was old and well connected, but not terribly high in rank—and the innkeeper would doubtless prefer to be paid in something more substantial than Elektra's radiant smile.
The only thing more boring than being stuck in this dingy sitting room would be to languish in her own tiny closet of a private room. Even her best smile and a demurely cleavage-focusing curtsy hadn't been able to upgrade her accommodations above what she and Zander could afford. At least they had separate rooms. She loved her brother with a deep and terrible pity, but she couldn't tolerate his wakeful restlessness for long.
If only her blasted cousin would hurry along!
Elektra snarled slightly as she recalled her parents' request three days before.
Papa had acted as if he were offering her a treat. "It will be lovely, dearest! She's a darling girl, just wonderful—at least, she was when we saw her last—"
"She rode on your shoulders, Archie, while you played the gallant steed!" Iris, as all the Worthington siblings called their mother, had fluttered her trailing handkerchief flirtatiously at her husband. "And she called you ‘Uncle Artsy'! It was adorable. Just wonderful."
Elektra had stared at her parents. "Let me understand fully. You wish for me to miss Lord Orwell's revel, for which I have been preparing for weeks, in order to tromp across the countryside to pick up a cousin I have never even heard of, so that I can bring her back to London to share in my Season?" Her Season, her first and probably only Season? The Season she had lied and scraped and sold her soul to have?
Thinking of the endless work, the decade of preparing for this year, the dance lessons paid for with egg money from the garden hens, the begging of gowns from a family friend, the endless work trimming and retrimming said gowns so that she never looked the same yet always looked stunning, the forged correspondence from her "mother" begging invitations from everyone who was everyone, the outright theft of invitations from the overflowing side-tables of her own wealthier friends—
Her belly had gone cold at the loss. "I won't do it! I won't! If this Bliss creature thinks she can horn in on my Season, she can bloody well—"
She hadn't been able to continue when her dear, foolish parents had turned to her with hurt incomprehension in their eyes. Iris and Archie loved her, she knew that. They might be utterly useless in every other respect, but their love was unconditional and warm and true. Beneath her sarcasm, hidden under her pragmatism, down deep in her cynical heart Elektra violently adored them both. She couldn't bear to disappoint them.
Helpless to do anything but agree, she'd scowled darkly. "She'll not borrow any of my things. Ever." Only her Season. Only her one chance to fix everything that was broken in her family with a single brilliant match. Only her family's best and only hope for the future.
Damn you, Bliss.
Just Wonderful Miss Bliss Worthington. Ellie despised her already.
Ridiculous name, Bliss. Really, the things some people named their children! With a motion of her fingertips, she figuratively brushed aside her own family's tendency toward grandiose classical names: Daedalus, Calliope, Orion, Lysander, Castor, Pollux, Atalanta—and of course, Elektra. They had all at least managed to boil those extravagant monikers down to Dade, Callie, Rion, Zander, Cas, Poll, Attie, and Ellie.
Bliss? What was she supposed to do with a name like that? What in heaven's name was she supposed to call her cousin? Bly? Lissy? "Bliss, fix your bonnet," Ellie caroled facetiously to the silent room. "Bliss, your petticoat is showing!"
Bliss, give me back my bloody Season!
Idly, Elektra wondered if her cousin was pretty. Worthingtons generally were. Iris, though gone a bit plump and prone to wearing her long silver hair in outlandish, off-center knots, often shot through with paintbrushes, was still radiantly lovely. Elektra's married elder sister, Callie, was very attractive. Little Attie, while still a bit unbaked at thirteen, threatened to outshine them all—if anyone could ever get her to wear a bonnet or put a bit of lemon juice on her freckles.
Born with symmetry of facial features and a pleasing figure, Elektra worked a keen fashion sense and a bold confident flair for all she was worth, giving the impression that she was more beautiful than she truly was—but not, as most people thought, out of vanity. She viewed her looks the way some people viewed their bank accounts. Ruthlessly, with frank calculation. It was the only true currency she had, and she meant to make the most of it. A title, absolutely, and not an impoverished one, either! She meant to spend her single advantage wisely, and her final purchase would mean the restoration of the Worthington family to their former glory.
And with the widespread and quirky reputation of her peculiar, madcap clan, for that she'd need an insanely wealthy earl—a spotless earl, truly above reproach!—at the very least.
Of course, her virtue she guarded with zealous care, for it was value added, but she wasn't some ignorant schoolroom miss. She had seen clearly the mechanisms of the world since a tender age, and she meant to utilize those gears to save her family, by God!
She was, in her own opinion, the only Worthington who inhabited the tangible world. Her family cared nothing for the swirl of petty gossip and stabbing of backs in Society. Worthingtons walked blithely through it all, secure in their important friends and their ancient name. "Older than Stonehenge" was Archie's stout assertion.
Unfortunately, that mighty ring of stones remained stubbornly silent on the topic of who would pay the butcher's bill, or repair the ancestral manor, or provide a decent dowry for Attie. Those tiny little concerns were apparently left to Elektra.
Zander entered the room, interrupting her wandering thoughts. "Lord Aaron Arbogast," he told her shortly. "Fever. Not dying, not yet." Then he turned and left again without ceremony.
Elektra sat up straight, her quick mind flipping back through the gossip sheets stored in her memory. Lord Aaron Arbogast … wealth-building sojourn … assuming the title … and, saving the best for last, savoring the words on her tongue, she spoke aloud.
"… to find himself a proper English countess!"
Elektra's fingers twitched as if eager to get her hands on such a fellow. This was it. The intimate setting of the inn … the ill lord … Zander hadn't mentioned if he were old or young, not that it mattered, really …
And the best of it all was that he had just arrived from out of the country! Had she actually found a man who had never heard of the Worthingtons? A singular, elusive creature indeed—a veritable unicorn!
And she was just the virgin to snare him.
By her presence, in this place and in this moment, she had finally been handed an advantage in a game unjustly weighted to the wealthy and powerful.
Bless you, Bliss!
Copyright © 2014 by Celeste Bradley