Winner, Affaire de Coeur Magazine's Reader's Poll, Best Regency 1999
The death of Miss Diana Carlyle's beloved uncle, the Earl of Brisbane, turns her life upside down. No longer can she while away her time roaming the estate, free to do as she pleases, confident that she'd come to no harm. Her uncle's murderer is not yet caught, and would not hesitate to kill again.
The presence of the new Earl of Brisbane did nothing to calm her fears. Who was this clever but foppish Gavin Sinclair, this man who seemed to have no past, who avoided all her questions, but whom her uncle had selected as her husband? As the murderer moves to kill again, both Diana and Gavin must come to grips with their past--and their hearts.
Lord Brisbane ran his hand over a curve of the carriage in a contemplative manner. He glanced at her. “I understand this McKinney has been in your uncle’s employ for many years.” It was a statement, but with just a hint of a question in it.
Diana frowned. “If you are thinking of blaming McKinney for my uncle’s accident or of discharging him from his post, I would advise against it. The man has been employed here since my uncle was a very young man, and his service has been loyal and faultless. Indeed, he felt most deeply regarding the accident and proffered his resignation, which I refused to consider.”
Lord Brisbane glanced at her. “You?”
She blushed lightly; it was not her place to accept or decline a servant’s employment unless it was her own, personal, servant. “McKinney was distraught, and Uncle Charles had said more than a few times that my word was as good as his when it came to the stables,” she said stiffly. “If you must know, I directed him to Sir James, thinking he would be the heir.”
That was all he said, an unassuming sound, but it made her very conscious that she had presumed, and presumed wrongly. “Sir James will not have discharged him, I am sure,” she said.
“Mmm hmm,” he said, gazing at her thoughtfully.
Diana shifted her feet uncomfortably. “I am sure McKinney is about somewhere. You may speak to him yourself.”
“But of course. I saw him—” She stopped and realized she had not seen McKinney lately. “Surely Sir James did not....”
“There may be some other explanation for why McKinney is not here,” Lord Brisbane said.
Diana made herself look at him, but she could not hold his gaze long, for remorse hit her hard. “I have presumed a great deal,” she said. “And I was wrong to do so. I...I apologize.”
“Yes,” he replied, but there was no censure in his voice. She felt a finger under her chin and she stared at him. He smiled slightly. “Come, cousin, it is no tragedy. Let us be frank: I well know that your uncle’s wish that we wed was unexpected, and highly unusual. Would it be less awkward for you to know that I had no knowledge of it? I met your uncle only a year ago, when he first found me, and because of business our subsequent meetings were infrequent. Had I known of the conditions, I would have protested, of course. I am not certain why he decided we should suit, but he did, and made it nearly impossible for you not to comply.”
“Mama said it was perhaps the closest he could come to giving me the estate...he thought of me as a daughter, almost a son, I think.” His hand left her chin, and she looked down at her hands, then up at the earl again. “Then, too, perhaps he thought it the best way to take care of me and my mother.”
“I wonder, then, that he did not give you a larger annuity.”
She shook her head. “Uncle Charles was never one to reveal his reasons, and we had never real cause to ask, for our lives had always run smoothly while he was with us. I am sure everyone on the estate thought so.”
“Which makes me seem very much the interloper, I see,” Lord Brisbane said, smiling wryly. “Making it even more difficult to see me as a prospective husband and heir to the estate.”
Diana felt definitely guilty now, but made herself look directly at him. “Yes, that is true, and I am sorry for it. My uncle was held in highest esteem by everyone; it would be difficult to accept the presence of any heir, but to have a complete stranger makes it even more difficult.”
“Held in esteem by everyone? He had no enemies? No detractors?” Lord Brisbane shook his head and put on a morose expression. “I have a great deal to live up to, indeed. Most certainly I shall fail, and the estates will fall to ruin.”
Diana cast him a suspicious look, then laughed reluctantly. “You need not try to pull the wool over my eyes, my lord. I suspect you are quite capable of managing this estate, and it is no doubt one reason my uncle saw fit to want you to marry me.”
He raised his brows in question. “And how do you know?”
“I am honest enough to admit you are more perceptive than I had given you credit for. You talked of business—I suppose you were not precisely an idle man, for your hands are not as smooth as I suppose a dandy’s might be. Since your clothes are of a fine cut, I imagine your business endeavors were successful. I suspect you were in trade; you seem to be familiar with the making of carriages, or at least woodworking of some kind. Then you mention you were familiar with illnesses and healing.” She smiled slightly. “I imagine you must be engaged in some sort of merchant shipping. Such a business would at once give a man the opportunity for making a fortune”—she gestured at his Bath superfine coat—“thus enabling him to buy whatever he wishes in clothes, and give him the opportunities to learn of ships and their construction. The illnesses and healing—one would have to be more self-reliant regarding these things if one had to travel to foreign lands.”
“Well, well.” Lord Brisbane rocked back on his heels, then smiled widely. “I congratulate you, cousin; you are correct on all points. Very perceptive. I see it would not do to underestimate you.”
Diana grinned. “You are correct, my lord, it would not. Be warned!”
“I am grateful for the warning. You are a formidable woman, to be sure. It is a good thing I had not the intention of asking you to marry me; I had a distinct feeling it would displease you.” His voice was solemn, but she thought she saw his lips turn up for a moment.
“Very wise of you not to wish to propose to me, for you would be living under the sign of the cat’s foot, and no man could wish a marriage like that.” She shrugged off the feeling of discontent—she had never had a proposal before, why should she have one now, even if it had been dictated by Uncle Charles?—and turned to leave the carriage house. Lord Brisbane moved in step with her.
“Now there, cousin, your perception has failed you.” He gave her a small, crooked smile. “I wanted to marry you the moment I saw you, and have no fear at all of being henpecked.”
Diana stumbled, and Lord Brisbane’s hand came up under her elbow to steady her. She stared at him. “You jest, surely.”
“No, alas, I do not.” His smile widened, and his normally sleepy look had fled, replaced by sparkling mischief instead.
“You are jesting, and trifling with me,” Diana said, and marched toward the house. “Do not, for I dislike it, and as you said, I am a formidable woman, and could make more trouble for you than you could like.” She could not believe him, of course, but she did not repel him with her words as she could have; an irresistable curiosity as to what he would say next stayed her.
“Behold me trembling,” Lord Brisbane said, his long legs easily keeping up with her.
“Oh, you are odious!” She eyed him sternly. “You cannot have fallen in love with me, not in such a short time.”
“Love at first sight.”
Diana blushed. “Nonsense! There is no such thing.”
Lord Brisbane sighed. “So I thought, myself. But there you were, rain-soaked and beautiful, and I was instantly lost.”
“Lost on the road, not in any other wise,” she retorted. “You are making fun of me, for none of that can be true.”
“Of course it is true. You were definitely rain-soaked.”
“Oh, and you are in the habit of falling in love with rain-soaked women, is that it?”
“Not at all,” Lord Brisbane said. “However, if a woman is beautiful, that would certainly be an incentive.”
She frowned. “Now I know you are hoaxing me. I am not at all beautiful. I am too tall for that.”
“Not for me.”
Diana looked up at him—obviously this was true. “Well. . . well, then, I am not fashionable.”
“Fashion does not make for beauty.”
“Quite the contrary,” she said. “I have had my Season in London, and know that it’s your fashionable sylph who is much feted. Fashion does indeed dictate what is beautiful.” She wrinkled her nose. “I am not sylph-like; therefore I am not beautiful.”
He cocked his head and looked at her. “No one has ever admitted admiring you?”
She rolled her eyes. “No, of course not.”
“More fool they.” He shot a quick, laughing glance at her. “No doubt they were intimidated by your formidableness.”
“I am not—” She stopped and closed her mouth, belatedly remembering that she had indeed agreed she was formidable. She gave him a sour look. “Believe me, I was as meek as my Aunt Matchett could make me.”
“Impossible,” he replied. “Nothing could subdue those magnificently flashing and scornful eyes—are they gray or blue? Blue, I believe.”
“They are pale blue,” Diana said firmly. “And they neither flash nor are they scornful.”
“No? They seem to be, now.”
She let out an exasperated breath. “Only because you are the most provoking man imaginable.”
Lord Brisbane shook his head mournfully. “Worse and worse. First I am odious and now I am provoking. A very good thing I decided not to propose to you; you would have refused me immediately and I would have been cast into abject despair.”
“I doubt it,” Diana replied, banishing a slight feeling of discontent. “Count yourself fortunate: I am persuaded you would not wish to marry a woman you hardly know, and I would much rather live on a pittance than marry a complete stranger.”
His lordship’s expression lightened. “How gratifying to find you are not mercenary and not looking to marry a fortune or a title. Should I ever take it in my head to propose to you, I shall do so in happy confidence that your acceptance would come from your heart.”
“And if I were to decline?”
“There would be nothing for it but I must put a period to my existence,” Lord Brisbane said cheerfully.
Diana stopped, then turned to stare at him, her hands on her hips. “My lord, I think you must be the strangest man I have ever met.”
He appeared to consider her words seriously, then shook his head. “Since your sojourn in London was so short and you have grown up in the country most of your life, I cannot think your experience of men to be very great at all.” He smiled. “I am quite normal, truly.”
He had an answer for everything it seemed, but Diana’s annoyance with him was weak at best. She smiled slightly. This conversation was indeed the most peculiar she had had with anyone, but somehow her irritation was mixed heavily with a certain exhilaration. She had never traded quick and spirited words with a man before; her conversations in London had always been awkwardly constrained or excruciatingly polite. Indeed, she noted in surprise, the awkwardness she had when she first met this new Lord Brisbane had disappeared.
“You are smiling, I see,” he said. “But I assure you, no one has ever accused me of being odd.”
“Really?” Diana could not help chuckling. “I am surprised, my lord.”