The Husband Hunt
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"You are sure Robert is not up yet?" Lisa asked Bet for the third time as the maid finished with her hair.
"Aye. Handers said Lord Langley was up pacing in the office most of the night, and Lord Radnor said to let him sleep. He's sleeping."
Lisa nodded on a relieved sigh. "And Richard is gone already."
"Aye. He was up with the dawn and gone," Bet repeated, also for the third time.
Lisa nodded again, but this time with a grimace. She had hoped to talk to him about hiring a guard today so that Robert could leave. But there was nothing she could do about that now if Richard was gone. Still, she wasn't going to sit about here for Robert to lure her into bed again.
Perhaps she should go hire a bodyguard herself. The Bow Street runners did that kind of thing. Or at least she hoped they did. If not, surely they could tell her who would. She would have Handers hire a hack and take care of the matter herself, she decided.
"There you are," Bet murmured, stepping back as she finished with her hair. "Is there anything else?"
"Nay," Lisa murmured, standing to head for the door. "I have to go out for a bit. I shall - "
"Not by yerself," Bet said firmly. "That suitor fellow is still out there somewhere."
Lisa hesitated, recognizing the stubborn set to Bet's shoulders. "I was going to have Handers hire a hack. In fact, I am heading out to hire a bodyguard so that Lord Langley needn't bother with the task himself anymore."
Bet relaxed a bit and nodded with understanding. "Between me and the driver we should be able to keep ye safe. But we'll take one of the footmen just to be sure."
Lisa smiled wryly at the other woman as she moved to join her.
"I take it you are not going to let me go alone?"
"With yer tendency to land yerself in trouble?" Bet asked with a snort. "Not bloody likely, miss."
Shaking her head, Lisa didn't bother to argue, but simply turned and led the way out of her room. They were descending the stairs when a knock sounded at the front door. Lisa slowed, but continued forward, watching curiously as Handers appeared in the entry to answer it. Her eyes widened, however, when she saw a grim-faced Findlay on the doorstep, a bouquet of flowers in one hand, and books and a small bag in the other.
"I came to - " Charles started and then paused when he saw Lisa coming down the steps. His face brightened at once, a wide smile replacing the slight frown that had been there before. "Lisa. I mean Miss Madison," he corrected himself quickly, his glance sliding to Bet and Handers.
"It's all right, Handers. I shall see Lord Findlay," Lisa said after a hesitation.
"Very good, miss. Shall I show him to the parlor?"
She smiled wryly at the question, but shook her head. "I think I can manage to lead him there myself. But perhaps some tea could be sent to us?"
"Very good, miss." The butler gave a half bow and turned to head up the hall.
"Shall I talk to Harry in the stables about hiring a hack for us?"
Bet murmured behind her.
Lisa glanced over her shoulder and nodded. "Yes, please."
The maid nodded and slipped around her to follow the butler as Lisa stepped off the stairs and approached Charles.
"Please, come in," she said with a laugh, realizing the man was still standing on the front step.
Returning her smile, he stepped inside and pushed the door closed. "These are for you."
"Thank you," Lisa murmured, accepting the flowers he held out.
"Not as beautiful as you," he said solemnly, and then added, "I am glad to see you looking so well. I was worried when you didn't attend the Norstroms' ball last night. Your sister said you had a cough after getting caught in the rain. That's all my fault. I should have been paying better attention to the weather. I am sorry."
"Don't be. I am fine today," she murmured, trying to ignore the guilt his apology stirred in her. Sighing, she turned to lead him up the hall to the parlor, adding, "And it wasn't your fault, anyway."
"Still, I shall take more care in future," he assured her and then they both paused as a maid rushed out of the kitchens with a vase of water.
"Mr. Handers said ye'd be wanting this, Miss," the girl explained, holding up the vase.
"Yes, thank you, Joan," Lisa murmured, setting the flowers in the vase and then taking it from the girl to carry into the parlor. She set it on the table in front of the sofa as she settled on it and immediately began to fuss with the flowers, arranging them more attractively as Lord Findlay settled on the chair across from her. "These are for you too," Charles murmured, leaning forward to offer her the books and the bag he carried once she was satisfied with the flowers.
"Thank you," Lisa said, accepting the offerings. Peering quickly over the titles, she smiled wryly, "You have discovered my weakness, my lord. I do love to read. Though I haven't had much chance to enjoy books since coming to London."
"It is always busy in town," Charles said, waving that away, and then added, "There is much more time to read in the country. I actually prefer life in the country for just that reason."
"So do I," she admitted. While this was her first trip to town, Lisa found the constant round of balls and teas a bit taxing. Of course, the rest of her time was not exactly relaxing, what with the kidnapping attempts, and with Robert's constant attentions.
"There is something else we have in common then," Charles said with a smile.
"Yes," she agreed with a smile, setting the books aside and turning her attention to the bag he'd handed her. Opening it, she peered inside, her eyes widening as she spotted the hard candies inside. The sight startled a "My favorite!" from her, and Charles grinned.
"Really? They are mine too."
"Something else we have in common," Lisa said with a laugh, and then glanced past him to the door as Bet appeared with a tea tray in hand. The maid set the tray on the table beside the flowers, and then bent to whisper by her ear, "Harry is arranging for the hack, and Handers has selected one of the largest footmen to accompany us."
"Thank you," Lisa murmured.
Nodding, the maid straightened and left the room, leaving them alone.
Once she was gone, Lisa hesitated and then busied herself pouring the tea.
"Thank you," Charles said as he accepted the cup she then offered him.
"Shall we have a candy too?" Lisa asked picking up the bag. "Yes, that would be nice," Charles said, reaching in to take one when she held out the bag. Smiling faintly, he sat back and contemplated the little candy with a shake of the head. "I cannot believe we like so many of the same things. It's rather nice."
"Yes," Lisa agreed, popping one of the candies into her own mouth and considering him as she moved it around with her tongue. They did appear to have a lot in common. That had to be a good thing. Now if he could just manage to stir some passion in her . . . "What are you thinking?" Charles asked suddenly, a curious smile curving his lips. "You have a very odd look on your face."
Lisa hesitated, and picked up her tea. She took a sip, and then rather than answer, asked, "My lord, what were you asking me when Robert interrupted us the other day?"
When he hesitated, she said, "I thought perhaps you were in the middle of asking me to be your wife."
Charles glanced down to his teacup, and then set it down with a sigh and nodded. "In truth, I was."
Lisa relaxed a bit and nodded. "I thought so."
They were both silent for a moment and then he raised his eyebrows. "And will you?"
Lisa bit her lip and dropped her eyes. She should have realized this would follow the question, but she didn't appear to be thinking terribly clearly at the moment. Which was a good deal of the problem. If she could just get some time without Robert hovering nearby, or seducing her, or even just sleeping across the hall from her, she was sure she could figure out what was best to do in this situation. But to get that time she needed to hire a guard and remove any reason for Robert to be at the house. Until she did that, she wouldn't be able to think and wouldn't trust any decisions she came to not to be simply knee-jerk reactions to Robert's effect on her.
"Lisa?" he prodded.
Sighing, she raised her eyes and asked, "Would you mind
terribly if I asked for time to consider before answering?"
"Time to consider," Charles echoed quietly, sitting back.
"It is a very big decision," she said apologetically. "It decides the course of the rest of my life. And yours."
"Yes, it does," he agreed solemnly.
"And while I do enjoy your company and we do seem to like the same things, I - " She hesitated and then blurted, "Do you think you could kiss me again, my lord?"
Charles rocked back in his seat with surprise, his tea sloshing in his cup and slipping over the side to fill the matching saucer it sat on. "I realize it is bold of me to ask," she rushed on, aware that she was blushing. "But it does occur to me that before deciding something so important, it might be good to learn if we could . . . I mean, if we suited each other in . . . er . . . less intellectual ways."
His eyes were wide now, his eyebrows halfway to his hairline and Lisa knew she was bright red with embarrassment.
Grimacing, she struggled on. "It is just that a lifetime is a very long time and while you have kissed me before, the first time I think you were being gentle with me and the second time was punishing at my own request, but I - " Lisa shook her head and then said, "I just thought if you kissed me passionately and . . ." She stared at him helplessly, and then stood abruptly, too embarrassed to continue. "I'm sorry. It was not well done of me to even suggest such a thing. I should probably - "
"No, no." Charles was on his feet at once and moving around the table to claim her hands. "You took me by surprise, but you are absolutely right."
"I am?" Lisa asked uncertainly.
"Yes, of course. Surely a proper kiss or two to ensure we . . .
er . . . suit each other in other ways would be a sensible idea," he said with a crooked smile.
Lisa felt herself relax at his words and nodded. "Yes. It does." "Very well." Charles hesitated briefly, and then released her hands to clasp her elbows and draw her into his arms. Lisa managed not to stiffen up. It was difficult though. This wasn't Robert and her body seemed very aware of that.
Charles smiled at her, and then lowered his head to press his lips to hers lightly, before beginning to nibble and nip.
Lisa waited for something to stir in her . . . and waited. Then his tongue brushed along her lips and she automatically opened to him, allowing his tongue to sweep in. Much to her relief, passion finally, slowly stirred to life within her. Sadly, it was only a weak echo of the passion Robert brought to life in her. On the other hand, Charles's hands were remaining chastely on her elbows, not traveling over her body as Robert's did when he kissed her, so perhaps that was the difference, she told herself.
A footfall at the door made them break apart then and Lisa glanced toward it, cursing herself for not closing the door when she saw Robert standing there.
"Langley," Charles said in greeting, releasing Lisa. He hesitated and then said, "You may be the first to congratulate us. I just asked Miss Madison to marry me."
Lisa bit her lip, but otherwise didn't react. He did ask her to be his wife. However, she had asked for time to think and the way he had phrased it made it sound as if she'd accepted. But then they had just been caught in something of a compromising position and she didn't doubt he was trying to protect her.
"Perhaps you should go for now," Lisa suggested when Robert didn't comment and simply continued to stand staring at them. "Of course," Charles murmured, but asked, "Will you be at the Brewsters' ball tonight?"
"Then I shall look for you there," he announced. He kissed her on the forehead and then moved across the room to leave.
Robert stepped out of the way at his approach, watched him exit and then pushed the door closed and turned on Lisa.
"I didn't agree to marry him," she said nervously when the silence drew out, and then could have kicked herself for it. Raising her chin, she added, "But I intend to if he still wants me after I tell him about . . . what we did."
"You cannot marry him," Robert said quietly.
Lisa scowled. "I can and I will, Robert."
"Marry me instead. Then you will not need to explain anything." Sighing wearily, she shook her head. "I will not spend a lifetime trying to prove I will not be unfaithful."
"You could be carrying my child," he pointed out. "Then I had best find a husband quickly," Lisa snapped impatiently and his head went back as if she'd slapped him. "Another man is not raising my child," he growled.
"And I am not marrying a man who thinks I will be unfaithful before we have even said I do," she shot back.
"I don't - " Robert broke off and glanced to the door impatiently when a knock sounded. Growling under his breath with frustration, he turned to open it. "What?"
"There is a Mr. Smithe here to see you, my lord," Handers announced. "I showed him to the office."
"Dammit," Robert muttered, and then hesitated a moment before turning to Lisa. "Wait here. I need to see him, but I won't be long. We need to talk about this."
He didn't wait for her agreement, but then turned and hurried out of the room.
Lisa heard him stride up the hall, but when she heard the office door open and close, she hurried out of the room, up the hall and straight out the front door. She couldn't talk to Robert. They would argue, he would kiss her, they would end up in a naked heap in the parlor, be discovered and the decision of who to spend the rest of her life with would be taken from her.
Her fleeing was a purely panicked reaction with no real destination in mind. But when she spotted the hack in front of the house, she immediately rushed to it, pausing just long enough to tell the driver where she wanted to go before climbing inside and collapsing on the seat. The coach was already moving before it occurred to her that she'd forgot to bring Bet and the footman with her.
"Sorry it took so long, my lord," Smithe said as soon as the greetings were over and Robert had ushered him to a chair.
"That's all right," Robert muttered, settling in the chair behind the desk and eyeing Smithe expectantly. "I presume you found Mrs. Morgan?"
"Yes, but it took some fancy footwork. She'd gone to ground. Was lying low and just vacationing. It made it harder to find her than it would have if she'd set up shop right away. We had to talk to countless people, and search all the way to Paris before we found someone who recognized her, and then that was just happenstance. They'd traveled over on the same boat. She'd told them she was heading to Paris, but they saw her get in a carriage heading north."
"North?" Robert asked with a frown. Paris was south of Calais. Smithe nodded. "She traveled north along the coast to Amsterdam and then southwest to Dusseldorf, Weisbaden, Stuttgart, and then on to Milano and finally Firenze."
Robert scowled. It sounded as if she'd been on something of a rushed grand tour, a damned expensive venture. "How the devil did she afford that?"
"The suitor was apparently at the house when they discovered your Miss Madison had escaped," Smithe said dryly.
Robert's head went back at this news. He had apparently gotten Lisa out of there just in time. An hour hadn't passed between his getting her out of the room and returning to Morgan's brothel, but the woman had already packed and fled. It must have only been moments between his taking her from the room and the suitor's arrival to claim her.
"He has deep pockets," Smithe continued. "Told her where to leave from, where to go, and paid her well to keep her from setting up shop again until he sent her the all clear."
Robert nodded grimly.
"So the old hag wasn't out in the open to find, and she was traveling under several tales. In Dusseldorf she claimed to be a widow on her way to visit her daughter. In Weisbaden, she was gentry on the way to meet her husband. In Milano she was a lady seeking her son, who was on a grand tour, to give him the sad news that his sister had died." He shook his head. "And she changed her look with each stop like some master of disguise. It made it damned difficult to track her."
"I can imagine," Robert murmured and asked curiously, "How did you manage it?"
"To tell the truth, I don't think we would have managed it had there not been one thing that stayed the same no matter where she went," he said dryly.
"What was that?"
"She's a right old cow," Smithe said grimly. "Raised a fuss everyplace she stopped, demanding better service and complaining about this and that and whatnot. Made everyone who met her hate her with a passion. In the end, all we had to ask after was a 'difficult Englishwoman.' She made enemies everywhere she stopped," he said dryly.
"Hmm." Robert sat back, and then asked, "But you did catch up to her?"
Smithe nodded. "Always get my man, or in this case, nasty old harridan," he said with amusement.
Robert smiled faintly at the words, but asked, "Did she tell you who this suitor was?"
"It took some persuading. For all that she's a bitch, she was scared of the fellow," he said solemnly. "But when we shackled her to bring her back, she started singing. Your man is one Lord Charles Findlay."
Lisa shifted nervously on the carriage seat, trying to prepare in her head for what she would say to the Bow Street runner. She had no desire to tell him everything. How embarrassing would it be to explain about unknowingly taking tea with a brothel owner, and getting herself drugged, locked up, bathed and dressed for a man? Too humiliating. She had no desire to tell the tale. On the other hand she had to give some sort of explanation for her need of a bodyguard or guards to replace Robert.
Perhaps she could just leave out the bit about the brothel and tell him about the attack in her room and on Pembroke's excursion, she thought. Of course, any Bow Street runner worth his salt would wonder why she had come to see him on her own and why a man of the house wasn't hiring him.
That consideration brought a scowl to her face and Lisa began to wring her hands fretfully. He would wonder why a supposed lady did not have even a maid with her for this journey too, she realized and thought perhaps she should tell the driver to turn back. Once back at Radnor, she could send him to the door to ask for Bet rather than risk getting caught and cornered by Robert. Or maybe she should call this off altogether and ask Richard to handle it. But that would mean probably waiting until the next day . . . another day and night with Robert there, kissing and caressing her, tempting her to do things she really shouldn't.
No, she wanted a guard now. She wanted Robert gone now. Lisa wasn't even sure Richard would be willing to hire a guard for her that would remove the necessity of Robert's staying at Radnor. Richard might not agree that he should leave. After all, he knew she'd slept with Robert.
Her eyes widened. Richard knew she'd slept with Robert. They all did. Why the devil was no one insisting that they had to marry?
Every single one of them should be screaming for that, but especially Richard. She was an unmarried young woman, a member of nobility and his sister-in-law, and had been ruined in his care under his own roof. He should be squawking and roaring and demanding Robert make things right.
The fact that he wasn't was rather shocking now that she thought on it. It also made her suspect that there was something afoot here that she didn't understand. Was he in cahoots with Robert? And hoping the man would talk her into marriage so he didn't have to demand it?
Lisa's thoughts died as the carriage slowed to a halt. She sat forward in her seat and peered out the window, grimacing when she saw the dilapidated area they were in. She hadn't recognized the address for the runner when Tibald had mentioned it during one of the afternoon teas. He'd hired the fellow to track down a thief who had stolen some jewels from his country estate. Fascinated, Lisa had asked several questions about the runner, and, eager to entertain her, Tibald had told her everything there was to tell, including the man's address. He had also mentioned what a rundown area it was in, but she'd got the sense of just a poorer section of town, not this distressing, dingy street with buildings that looked ready to fall down and groups of men standing in shadows and on corners looking menacing and dangerous.
Lisa bit her lip, suddenly thinking that returning home might be for the best. But then her worries about what Richard might be up to made her rethink. It was not as if she would be on the street long. She just had to walk from the carriage to the building they had stopped in front of, Lisa encouraged herself and then wondered why the driver wasn't getting down to open the door.
Probably afraid to leave his seat and risk someone jumping into it and taking off with his hack, she thought on a sigh and opened the door herself. Really, Bet was right, she did have a tendency to get herself into some sticky situations, Lisa thought as she descended to the ground. Once there, she pushed the door closed, glanced nervously about and then hurried forward to the door ahead of her. She had nearly reached the building when the sound of the carriage hurrying off made her halt and whirl round in time to see the hack reach the corner and start around it.
Lisa gaped after it with amazement, hardly believing the man had just left her there. She hadn't even paid him yet, she thought and then wondered if the stable master had. If so, she would send him to get the money back. But -
Lisa drew her thoughts to a halt as she became aware that she was beginning to draw the attention of the groups of men on the street. Noting the looks she was getting, she whirled back to the door a bit desperately. Surely, the runner would find her a hack to take her back home after they'd finished their transaction, she assured herself. And he'd send a guard with her too. That was what she was here for.
Lisa reached the door and then hesitated, unsure whether she was expected to just walk in or knock. If it were a store she would have just walked in, but perhaps its being an office meant knocking. Biting her lip, she shifted from one foot to the other and then tapped at the door before glancing nervously over her shoulder. The moment she did, she wished she hadn't. Three men were now walking in her direction, eyes fixed on her like she was a mince pie and they were hungry.
She turned quickly back to the door, beginning a prayer under her breath. It was the hallowed old "Please hurry, please hurry" mantra. But when the door didn't open after repeating that three times, she knocked again, more firmly.
Lisa kept her gaze locked firmly on the panel of wood before her as she waited, almost terrified to look around, half afraid that if she did she would find the men on top of her. But the door wasn't opening and there wasn't a sound coming from inside.
Swallowing, she reached desperately for the doorknob, but paused at the sound of a carriage approaching. Her hired hack was returning, she thought hopefully. Or perhaps it was the runner returning home and that was why he wasn't answering. She risked a glance over her shoulder.
While they weren't on top of her, the three approaching men were much closer now and two other of the small groups of men were now moving in her direction as well. She felt like a small defenseless hare with a pack of wolves circling, and then her gaze slid to the carriage coming to a halt on the road.
Lisa recognized the crest on it just as the door opened and Lord Findlay stepped down. Spotting her, he paused abruptly, one hand still on the open door and his eyebrows flying up. "Lisa?"
With the first group of men perhaps six feet away now, Lisa gave up on the runner's door and rushed to Charles.
"Lisa, what ever are you doing here?" he asked, catching her arms and frowning as he peered past her to the men around them. "I was going to hire a runner, but he's not in," she mumbled, her gaze slipping past him to his carriage, and then over her shoulder to see that the men had stopped and were now waiting and watching. Turning back to Charles, she asked, "Do you think you could take me home, my lord? My hack left without me and I - "
"Of course." Stepping aside, he helped her in, then moved to speak to his driver before climbing in to join her.
The carriage set off at once then, and they peered out the window at the men they were leaving behind. Each and every one of them was staring after the carriage with narrowed eyes and hungry looks and she suspected Charles had just saved her from a most unpleasant experience. Sitting back in her seat, she smiled at him with gratitude. "I am very glad you arrived when you did, I was growing a bit nervous."
"A bit?" he asked dryly. "Lisa, those men would have . . ." He paused and shook his head. "It is fortunate I happened to choose today to try to see Tibald's runner."
"You were there to see him as well?" she asked with surprise, and then wondered why she even asked. What else would he have been there for?
"Yes, I've had a little problem with theft myself recently. A new maid, I suspect, and since Tibald spoke so highly of this fellow I thought I'd see what he could do for me." He peered at her curiously. "What were you hiring him for?"
"Oh. Well, I just . . . something similar," she finished vaguely, not wishing to open that kettle of fish at the moment.
"Hmm." Charles eyed her solemnly and then said, "I cannot believe that Radnor allowed you to come down here by yourself."
"Yes, well, Richard did not know I was coming," she admitted unhappily.
Charles nodded, but added, "Still, I cannot believe Langley allowed you out of his sight long enough for you to come down here by yourself either. The man seems ever to be shadowing you."
"Yes, he does," Lisa agreed with vexation. "The man is - " She cut herself off abruptly and glanced toward the window, irritation wiggling its way through her. Finally she simply said, "Robert did not know I was coming either. In fact, he had no idea I was leaving or surely would have followed."
Findlay hesitated and then leaned forward in his seat to clasp her hands in his. When she raised her head to peer at him, he said, "Lisa, is Langley the reason you wanted time to think about my proposal?"
Lisa avoided his eyes uncomfortably and tried to tug her hands free, but he held them tightly and said gently, "It has become obvious to me that there is something more than family friendship between the two of you. Your feelings, at least, are deeper than that, though I don't know about Langley. He's a cold bastard and hard to read at times."
Lisa lowered her eyes and shook her head helplessly.
Wondering if all of London could tell she had feelings for Robert. "Do you love him?"
Lisa swallowed, fighting not to speak, but then it just came pouring out. "I have loved him my whole life. No one but him. And I think he cares for me too, but he is afraid I would be unfaithful like his mother and grandmother and refuses to marry. Or did," she added with a frown. "Now he wants to marry me, but only because - " She cut herself off abruptly, flushing as she realized what she'd almost revealed and rushed on, "But I will not be married to a man who thinks I would be unfaithful to him."
"Ah." Charles said quietly and squeezed her hands. "Then might I suggest you accept my proposal instead?"
A sharp bark of laughter slipped from her lips, and then she waved one hand wearily and said, "My lord, you do not want me."
"On the contrary. I want you very much," he said wryly.
"You wouldn't if you knew - " Lisa cut herself off again abruptly, but Charles finished it for her.
"That Langley has bedded you?"