The Seduction of an English Lady
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April 5, 1816
The faint scratch at the front-door keyhole caught Lady Rosalyn's attention as she passed through the center hall on the way to her front parlor. She paused, listening.
There it was again ... as if someone were trying to unlock the door, which was not locked.
Rosalyn had just left her companion, Covey, as she was finishing her breakfast in the back morning room. Cook was in the kitchen and Bridget, the maid, was upstairs gathering the laundry. The other member of their small household, Old John, Cook's husband and the gardener, never used the front door, nor did any of them, Rosalyn herself included. The front door was for company, and she wasn't expecting any.
She put her hand around the brass candlestick sitting on a table by the door.
Whoever was there realized the door was unlocked. The handle turned.
She lifted the candlestick over her head. The stub of the candle in the stick fell out, bouncing off her shoulder and onto the floor. She would usually chase it down -- there wasn't enough money to waste anything, including candle stubs, in her household -- but this time, she had other concerns.
The door started to open. A swirl of damp, chilly air swept around her skirts. She mustered her courage, held her breath, ready to swing -- and stopped.
It was no disreputable rogue who stood in her doorway, rather a well-dressed gentleman. He had to remove his hat and duck to come in her narrow door without bumping his head. His shoulders were so broad that he temporarily blocked out the light of the first good sunny spring day they'd had in April.
The gentleman looked startled to see her. There was a day's growth of stubble on his jaw. Buff leather breeches hugged horseman's thighs, and his marine blue coat was cut to perfection. He was a Corinthian, a Fashionable.
What was he doing at Maiden Hill?
His gaze followed up her arms to the candlestick she wielded with wicked intent. He held up a hand, warding her off. "I'm sorry. I see I've startled you."
Rosalyn had two instantaneous thoughts: the first, that she'd never met this gentleman before, and the second, that in spite of a shadow of unshaven whiskers, he had to be the most undeniably handsome man she'd ever laid eyes on. The mud splattering his boots, the tangled curls of his dark hair, and the loose, devil-may-care knot in his neck cloth told her she was right in thinking he was not from the Valley. He'd apparently been riding hard and for some distance.
Suddenly self-conscious of her own country-made dress in a serviceable gray broadcloth, she demanded, "Who are you?"
"I'm the new owner of this house. I say, do you mind putting down that candlestick. You look ready to crack my skull with it."
"The new owner--?" Rosalyn started to lower the candlestick and then raised it back up again as her common sense rejected his claim. He couldn't be the ownershe was! "Leave now peacefully before I-I-" She hesitated, at a loss for words. Before she did what to such a giant?
Nor was he afraid. "Before you beat me around the ears until I'm bloody?" he suggested helpfully, his tone amused. "Or grab me by the scruff of the neck and toss me out?"
Rosalyn didn't answer. She couldn't. The rich, deep masculinity of his voice sparked something inside her she'd thought long dead or at least put in its proper place -- a very definite interest in the opposite sex.
He took the candlestick from her hands and smiled. She was blinded into dizziness. No man should have a smile so devastating.
Then he brought her to her senses by asking, "So, are you one of the servants?"
Rosalyn didn't know if she could believe her ears. Yes, she was wearing the dress she reserved for household tasks and one, like most of her wardrobe, that was long out of fashion. And, yes, this morning, she'd done little more than toss her hair up in a quick knot at the nape of her neck and fasten it in place with a pin or two. Still, his question was a douse of cold reality. His appeal evaporated.
"I beg your pardon," she countered with every ounce of aristocratic hauteur bred into her. "Who are you?"
His brows rose as he realized his mistake. He set the candlestick on the side table before saying, "Colin Mandland, Colonel Colin Mandland."
She knew the surname. Reverend Mandland was the vicar of St. Mary Magdalene's Church. "Have we met before?"
"I don't know. Are you going to tell me who you are?"
The abrupt response from someone who had just walked into her house set Rosalyn's back up. "I am the woman who owns this house. Not you. Now, sir, I will ask you to take yourself and your rude manners elsewhere. If you don't, I will take action." She reached out to close the door, irritated enough to push even a big ox like himself out of the way if necessary, but he blocked the door's closing with his arm, his next words stopping her cold.
"I bought this house from Lord Woodford. I even have a key." He held it up for her to see.
Rosalyn froze at the mention of her cousin George. She met Colonel Mandland's gaze, praying he was jesting. He wasn't. She took the key, wanting to touch it to prove it was real.
Alarm ripped through her. She dropped her hand from the door. "George wouldn't? ... At least, not without saying something--?"