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A woman emerged from the confectioner's shop. As a gust of wind ripped off her bonnet, Blake froze, one foot in the air. She had the most striking coloring he had ever seen. Glossy black hair. Creamy face. Rosy lips. Blue eyes rivaling the plumage of that parrot his cousin had brought back from the Caribbean.
Another gust tugged the dangling bonnet. "Good heavens!" she exclaimed, laughing as one hand jammed it back on her head. "We might blow away."
Dry leaves swirled across the cobbles.
She turned her face into the wind, exhilaration setting her apart from the women scurrying heads-down along the street. Such uninhibited joy was rare.
Blake resumed his walk, deciding that while she might be striking, she was not truly beautiful. Her slender neck lacked the curve that might draw comparisons to swans. Both height and shape seemed average beneath the plain cloak. Even her features were rather ordinary--straight nose, wide mouth, pointed chin--but they blended into a pleasing whole turned positively exotic by those eyes. Eyes that sparkled in the afternoon sun. Eyes that promised wit and humor. Eyes that could mesmerize a man as he drove into--
He cursed, cutting off the inappropriate thought.
"Definitely inappropriate," he muttered as a girl in a bright blue coat emerged from the shop to claim the woman's hand. Her blonde curls danced as she tilted her head to ask a question. The woman met her gaze with a smile so tender it made him want to weep. The girl was fortunate in her governess. Not many actually cared for their charges.
Slowing, he savored the sight--her protective gestures, the child's pleasure, the unusual rapportbetween them--then stifled a kick of desire. He would do nothing to jeopardize her position.
Yet the thought had hardly formed before a sense of wrongness overpowered it. The scene depicted the perfect governess taking her charge on an outing--except that she was too attractive. Hiring a comely governess always led to trouble--unless the household lacked men.
He frowned. The long war with France had produced many such homes, though he would never wish that fate on the charming sprite in the blue coat. Picturing her without father or brothers twisted his heart.
Maybe the woman is married.
"No!" A flash of pain sped his feet away. He did not want to imagine her married. A matron without even a maid to accompany her on errands would have a miserable life--long hours mired in menial chores, sleepless nights wondering where to find even the bare necessities, the constant temptation to try unacceptable occupations, the dark moments when despair made every effort seem useless. He had escaped that fate recently enough that he would wish it on no one else, particularly a vibrant woman and a cheerful child.
But he doubted she was married. The two looked nothing alike, and several ladies had hurried by without a word of greeting, firmly relegating his black-haired Circe to the ranks of the insignificant.
Oddly relieved by this conclusion, he entered the stationer's shop and switched his thoughts to business. He had extended his stay in Devonshire to stand up at his friend Max's wedding. Now headed home to Rockburn Abbey, he'd stopped in Exeter to look at a map.
Man's changing perceptions of the world had fascinated him for as long as he could remember, though he'd been unable to indulge his interest until his finances had improved. But at last his collection of ancient maps and charts was taking shape.
Mr. Cavendish, the stationer, claimed to have a fifteenth-century Italian map based on Ptolemy's Geographia. Blake hoped it was in good condition. Acquiring a Ptolemaic view of the world would compensate for his dreary room at the White Hart Inn.
"Can we feed the squirrels today?" Sarah asked, tugging on Catherine Parrish's hand.
"As soon as we finish our errands." Catherine shifted her grip on a length of wool and packet of paper, wishing she'd brought Annie along to carry parcels. But the maid had other chores today. Postponing this expedition had been impossible. Sarah needed a warmer gown for winter, and this might well be the last sunny day until spring.
"What else must we do?" asked Sarah.
She smiled down at her daughter. "Your Aunt Laura needs pins and some Milk of Roses."
"For her skin," murmured Sarah, nodding. "Did she give up on cucumber wash?"
"No, but last month's hothouse accident left us short of cucumbers."
Sarah giggled. "What else?"
"Aunt Mary's books should be in. Uncle William is out of tooth powder. And Mrs. Moulding wants Balm of Gilead for her rheumatism. We also need more wax candles."
She frowned. Candle consumption had risen alarmingly in recent months. Mrs. Moulding swore that none were wasted, yet not even the shortened days of November could explain why they were burning so many. Perhaps they should switch to tallow everywhere but the drawing room. They had to cut expenses if they hoped to take Laura to Bath.
She exhaled in a silent sigh. Laura was beautiful, accomplished, and very sweet. But no serious suitors remained near Exeter. A London Season was far too expensive, so Bath was her only hope. And it had to be soon. Laura was already twenty.
Yet Laura was not her only concern, she admitted as she responded to Sarah's chatter. Mary was also of an age to wed, though her shyness kept her from attracting gentlemen.
Then there was Sarah. Her daughter was growing fast. What would become of her? Harold's death had left them penniless, without even a modest widow's portion. While her brother had welcomed them into his home, his own finances were strained. How would Sarah find a suitor without a dowry? They could hardly ask William to provide one. He could not even scrape up enough to take Laura and Mary to Bath, let alone fire off a niece. Even if he attached a wealthy wife, her dowry would provide for his own children.
She shivered at the image of William married, though she had always known that running his household was a temporary duty. She could only hope that he would choose a wife she could befriend.
Suppressing her blue-devils, she headed for the apothecary shop. This was neither the place nor the time to contemplate the future. Today might be Sarah's last visit to Exeter until spring. The sooner they finished their errands, the sooner they could enjoy it.
Half an hour later, Catherine again spotted the stranger--hardly a surprise, for Exeter was not large. So why did the sight of him pool warmth in her womb?
She rarely noticed appearance, though his was certainly striking--tall, with tawny hair, amber eyes, and well-tailored clothes that emphasized broad shoulders and shapely legs. He radiated the power and confidence typical of high-ranking gentlemen, yet she detected none of the arrogance usually found in such men.
His eyes locked with hers across the width of High Street, sending a jolt clear to her toes. Then he looked at Sarah and smiled.
Her heart melted on the spot. Pride stirred. Few men tolerated children, especially girls, but this one clearly saw the beauty of Sarah's soul. That explained the excitement tumbling through her system. Her instincts had known that he was an unusual gentleman and had recognized the opportunity his visit to Exeter offered.
Dreams closed her eyes to her surroundings: Laura meeting the handsome stranger--who would be titled and wealthy--falling in love, and marrying. He would take Laura's family under his wing, resolving their most pressing problems. Mary would get a London Season, William would receive the funds he needed to update the estate, Andrew could purchase that promotion to captain, Thomas could attend Oxford when he left Eton, and Sarah--
"Kate, my love. You look stunning today, as always."
Jasper Rankin. She crashed back to High Street with shattering speed. Pulling Sarah closer, she glared at her nemesis before turning away.
"Now what manners are these?" he asked teasingly. "You weren't so cold last night."
"As if you know." Again she sought to leave, but he grabbed the back of her neck, sliding his fingers beneath her bonnet to squeeze behind her ears. Pain exploded.
"Do not let guilt cloud your reason," he warned. "I've no objection to keeping secrets, but if you cut me, others will guess the truth."
"What truth?" she hissed. "Leave me alone. How dare you accost me on a public street!" As her mind searched for an escape, her hand warned Sarah to remain silent. Struggling was futile, for he was dangerous when riled and would enjoy subduing her. She cursed herself for bringing Sarah today, though he had never before been this bold.
"If you cared about appearances, you would never have started this, sweetings." His malicious smile increased her terror, but screaming would do no good. He would take advantage of the confusion to do something worse. Yet submissiveness was not her nature.
"I started nothing," she protested, thankful that only the stranger was near enough to hear.
"No?" His grin stretched. "A look. A gesture. A meeting alone. But it matters not. You are no innocent, Kate." He casually turned his back to the street, then twisted his face into disapproval so severe that for a moment she was sure he would strike her. "This is your last warning, Mrs. Parrish," he snarled in a much softer voice. "Either mend your ways or be ostracized from polite society."
His sudden change from pretend lover to stern judge confused her. What new game was this? "You can't--"
"Silence," murmured Jasper, tightening his grip to inflict new pain. "If you say a word, I'll wring your neck."
Stunned, she could only comply.
Mrs. Hawkins flounced past, sweeping her with a contemptuous stare before disappearing into a shop.
The moment she was gone, Jasper shifted to face her, reverting to false intimacy. "Do you wish everyone in town to know about our little affair?" he asked, again raising his voice.
In a flash of insight, she realized that he was playing out this farce for the stranger's benefit.
"What would they think?" he demanded, smirking. "How long would they let you look after Sarah if the truth came out?"
She gasped. "But William would never believe--"
"No one attacks me with impunity," he whispered, his lips grazing her ear. "Harold's relatives would be shocked to learn of your exploits. They would remove Sarah from your care in a trice." He scowled and again raised his voice. "I am jealous, love. You called on Albert Smith and Ben Higgins last week. I don't share."
"That had nothing to do with--" She chopped off the protest, cursing herself. Every exchange made her appear guilty of impropriety--as he must know. He was manipulating her reactions just as relentlessly as he was controlling the pain that kept her at his side. Her temper snapped. "Spread your lies if you must. I can't stop you. But in the end, others will see you for what you are."
"They already do." He flicked one of Sarah's curls. "Everyone knows I am the soul of honor and the most benevolent protector this area has ever had."
He'd won. Sagging, she hugged Sarah closer, praying the girl would remain silent. He was as irrational today as she'd ever seen him. The way he'd touched Sarah raised her terror to heights she hadn't known existed, but she dared make no protest. She could not even curse him in her mind. He would know, and he would strike.
"Exactly," he murmured in satisfaction. "Everything has consequences. It is not just yourself you risk when you defy me."
Tears pricked the backs of her eyes, but she refused to let them show. Silence was her only weapon now. She could never win a war of words with him. His threat against Sarah changed everything, just as he'd known it would. Who knew better than she how far he would go?
With a final squeeze, he sauntered away, but the damage had been done. The stranger's eyes blazed with disdain. Miss Ander stood in the stationer's doorway behind him, her disapproval clear--not of Jasper's seeming caress, but of her own apparent acceptance of it.
Catherine clenched her fist. This was the second time she had threatened to expose Jasper, though they both knew it was impossible. How could she have been so stupid? His position in society was invulnerable, but her feeble threat gave him yet another grievance. Even worse, her instinctive protection of Sarah provided a new target.
"What did he mean?" asked Sarah, tugging her hand with trembling fingers.
This time Catherine let the curses parade through her mind, but she could not tell Sarah the truth. Even a precocious seven-year-old would not understand the threat. "He was trying to be funny, sweetheart, but he's not very good at it," she said lightly. "That was our last stop. Are you ready to feed the squirrels?"
Sarah nodded, but the sparkle had vanished from her eyes. "He wasn't joking, Mama," she whispered. "He's a bad man. Papa said he never learned to turn the other cheek, so he hurts people."
"Oh, sweetheart." Sarah's perspicacity often startled her, but this was a dangerous conclusion. "Papa was right, but never mention that to others." She turned toward the cathedral grounds, where a dozen squirrels played in the oak trees. "Mr. Rankin is more powerful than we are. Don't give him a chance to prove it."
That had been her mistake, she admitted ruefully as she handed Sarah a chunk of bread before settling under a tree. His one true charge had been that she'd brought this on herself. If only she had stopped to think that day. But she had been too furious to remember how dangerous he was. So she'd insulted him.
She shook her head. How could she have revealed her contempt? He had been persecuting her ever since, spreading rumors that she was a light-skirt. There wasn't a gossip in the area who believed her virtuous. Some looked askance at her sisters, distrusting the notorious widow's influence. And now he was turning on Sarah.
Her hand shook. She couldn't let him hurt Sarah, yet the only way to guarantee her safety was to leave--an impossibility. Without funds, she could not even afford a remote cottage.
Again she cursed herself for exposing Sarah, though this attack made little sense. He could have threatened Sarah without staging a scene in the middle of High Street. By confronting her in such an intimate fashion, he'd risked exposing his part in the rumor campaign. And all to convince the stranger that she was his mistress. But why?
She bit her lip to keep from crying. The stranger must be every bit the powerful lord her imagination had conjured. Perhaps he was pompous enough to complain to William about her presumed misdeeds, in which case her situation would soon worsen. But that seemed unlikely. Few gentlemen would intrude on total strangers.
Maybe Jasper had seen the man's interest in Sarah and thought he might form an alliance with them. Yet that worked only if Jasper recognized the stranger and feared his power, something she could not envision. Jasper feared no one.
Did he hope to spread news of her downfall beyond Devonshire? It would be pointless. She rarely traveled beyond Exeter, so disapproval in distant places could not harm her.
It didn't matter. This incident exposed her dreaming as the fantasy it was. Her family was doomed. No prince would appear to raise them from impoverished obscurity. Visiting Bath would do no good. Jasper would never allow an alliance with anyone desirable. Her flash of temper had condemned her sisters to spinsterhood.
Fighting back tears, she watched Sarah coax a squirrel to her hand. Sunlight glinted on the cathedral's rose window, reminding her that at least one power knew the truth. But it was unlikely that she would find vindication before Judgment Day.
"No," she swore, spurning despair.
She unclenched her fists, drawing peace from the scene. And strength. Somehow, she must fight back, expose Jasper as the source of these spurious rumors, and discredit his word. It was the only way to salvage Sarah's future.
Fury dimmed Blake's vision as the dandy bade farewell to his paramour with yet another blatant caress. If they were so lost to propriety as to make public spectacles of themselves, that was their business. But exposing an innocent child to their sordid behavior made it everyone's business.
The woman behind him agreed. "Scandalous!" she snorted, adding pithier remarks as she stalked away.
Society should protect its children from scenes like this one. But Exeter society had clearly failed to do so. Why had no one protested when that girl's family had hired a courtesan as her governess? If her father stood before him right now, Blake would demand satisfaction. Such disregard for morality was unconscionable.
No wonder the woman had evoked such lurid images in his mind. His instincts had seen past the charming façade to the temptress beneath. She was no better than the whores who importuned him whenever he left a London theater. Had she earned this post by seducing the girl's father? Perhaps she hoped to extract an offer from the fellow, though entertaining others would jeopardize a more respectable future.
Cursing, he headed for the bookseller's.
The girl had seemed frightened and confused by the suggestive repartee, but it would not be long before she understood what her governess was doing. Intelligence had lurked in her eyes. Already she was asking questions. The answers would forever strip away that charming innocence, replacing it with harsh disillusionment. And he had no doubt she would find those answers. The dandy was the sort who would enjoy providing them.
Again he cursed, launching a mental diatribe against the girl's father that pointed out the importance of choosing good teachers, moral teachers, pillars of propriety. How would the girl find a husband after being raised by a wanton? He visualized the father's horror, his shock, his determination to rectify the mistake--
It was an exercise that had often relieved frustration after his own father had dissipated the family fortune. But this time, his mental curses had no effect. How dare she accept the care and teaching of an innocent, then slip away to consort with rakes? If she wanted to be a courtesan, why pretend propriety?
Imagining her black hair spread across a pillow, her witch's eyes laughing up at him, increased his fury. Circe, indeed. She certainly knew how to attract attention. So why saddle herself with a respectable position when she could do so much better on her own?
The questions filled his mind, as did the rage he could not explain. So he clung to the memory of the child--warm, intelligent, and oh so innocent. Her silver eyes and blonde curls stirred protective instincts he hadn't known he possessed--which was why his temper shattered when he left the bookshop an hour later and ran the woman down.
"You should be ashamed of yourself," he snapped.
Her blue eyes widened as she stepped in front of the girl in a mockery of protection. The wind billowed her cloak, molding her gown around delectable legs.
"How dare you flaunt your liaisons on a public street?" he continued, ignoring the rise in his temperature. "It is bad enough to espouse indecency, but you have no right to expose a child to such vice."
"You are mistaken, sir," she protested, but her cheeks darkened in shame.
"I am not mistaken. I saw that disgusting display. You and that popinjay may go to perdition however you choose, but I cannot let you harm others. Who is your employer? Does he know that he hired a wanton?"
Anger blazed in her eyes, increasing his own. "Do you always jump to ridiculous conclusions, sir?" she snapped. "Surely a gentleman would discover the facts before heaping insults on a stranger. You are as dishonorable as those you condemn."
"You overstep your place," he growled, fisting his hands to keep from shaking her.
"How would you know?" Her free hand poked him in the chest. "You must be one of those arrogant lords who never admit fault. Why else would you demand that I bow to your misguided wishes? Well, you can go to perdition, sir. I don't take orders from cads. And I never obey blithering idiots." She turned to leave.
"This isn't about me." He grabbed her arm, then cursed as heat sizzled into his hand. Wanton, indeed. Circe herself could not incite such yearning.
"Isn't it?" she demanded. "Look at yourself. You know nothing about me, yet you create a public spectacle by accusing me of fictitious crimes. You hold me captive while you abuse me, then blame me for your lack of control. I won't stand for it." She glared at his hand. "Release me or I will throw a fit guaranteed to mortify you for years. I've never encountered such a pompous fool."
"Who is your employer?" Rage burned red around the edges of his vision.
"None of your business!"
A whimper distracted him. The girl peered around the woman's side, tears shimmering in her eyes. His heart contracted. Circe was right. He was behaving as badly as she.
But he refused to abase himself to a wanton. Abandoning the argument, he stalked toward his hotel. He would discover her direction elsewhere. The situation must be rectified, but subjecting the child to a public brawl was unacceptable.
So is hurling insults into a stranger's face.
He frowned, cringing as he reviewed his behavior. He should not have lost his temper--would not have done so if he hadn't already been furious. The map had not been at all as advertised. In fact, it had been a complete fake. And discovering that the governess was wanton had done nothing to decrease his lust. He'd spent the last hour alternately cursing himself for wanting her and wondering whether the stationer was a forger or merely a fool. Now tomorrow would be worse. Instead of leaving for home, he must discover the girl's parents and see that this so-called governess was turned off.
And what then? taunted his conscience. Will you offer her your protection?