The Husband Hunt
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The slamming of her bedroom door stirred Lisa from sleep and had her blinking her eyes open to see Bet rushing excitedly toward her.
"You'll never believe it," Bet said excitedly, rushing around the bed to her side, her face flushed with excitement. "Lord Langley is here. Cook says he spent the night and is going to stay for days.
That he is having some painting done at his townhouse and Lord Radnor invited him to reside here to avoid the smell and noise." Lisa groaned and pulled her pillow to cover her head with disgust, only to have Bet pull it away.
"Didn't you hear me? Lord Langley is here," she said slowly and loudly as if Lisa may have misheard her.
"I heard," she said with a grimace. "And I already knew. The painting is just an excuse. He's staying here to keep an eye on me until they find out who the suitor was. The men seem to think the fellow might make another attempt to take me."
Bet's eyes had grown wider and larger as Lisa spoke, and now concern covered her face. "Really? I hadn't thought of that. I thought that business was done once he got ye safely away." She bit her lip worriedly. "Ye shall have to be careful then."
Lisa sighed and took her pillow from Bet's hands to put it back under her head. "I shall be. But right now I am going back to sleep."
"Wouldn't ye rather get up and go down to breakfast?" Bet asked with a frown. "Lord Radnor and Lord Langley just went down. Ye can still join them if we hurry."
"Why on earth would I trouble myself to dine with a man who isn't the least bit interested in me?" Lisa asked grimly and turned on her side, eyes closing.
"Are ye sure that's all he feels?" Bet asked with a frown. "His wanting to look out for ye shows he cares. You always said he did and - "
"I was wrong," she interrupted with annoyance. "He made it abundantly clear that he thinks of me as nothing more than a little sister, Bet."
"Oh," she said sadly. "Well . . . what are you going to do then?"
"Find a husband among the available bachelors this season and forget about him," she said firmly. "But to do that I need my rest."
"Right," Bet murmured, getting the point. "I shall let ye sleep then."
"Thank you," Lisa whispered, and listened as the maid left the room. She lay still and tried to relax into sleep, but it wasn't as easy as she'd hoped. She was awake now, and not likely to find sleep again.
Lisa shifted from one side to the other, and then rolled onto her back and stared up at the ceiling, grimacing when her stomach growled. Sighing, she finally just gave up and got out of bed. She was hungry. She may as well get up and go below. The problem was she had sent Bet away.
Lisa shrugged. She could dress herself, and she'd just leave her hair down. It wasn't like she cared to look attractive for Richard or Robert anyway.
Decision made, she walked over to kneel in front of her chest and began to sort through her gowns. After a moment, she sat back on her heels with disgust. Every single gown she owned was awash in frills and ruffles, and for some reason, she was repulsed by the overly feminine creations now. She'd always thought them pretty before, but last night at the ball she'd noticed that they seemed to make the other women look young and sweet. It was no wonder Robert had seen her that way for so long, she'd thought, and now found herself preferring a more simple arrangement with less of the ruffling.
Lisa hesitated for a moment and then lifted out a pale pink gown and eyed the ruffles narrowly. They just had to go, she decided, and grabbing a handful of the material, began to rip.
"Do you plan to go out to see the runner, or is he coming here?" Robert chewed and swallowed the blood pudding he had just taken a bite of. "I sent my valet with a message for him to come here before I came in to breakfast. I didn't know what your plans were for the day and thought it best not to leave the house in case you had appointments and couldn't be here to watch Lisa."
Richard nodded. "As it happens I do have appointments today, so that's for the best. I - Oh good morning, Lisa."
Robert returned his attention to his plate and raised his toast for a bite, but lifted his head sharply at Richard's greeting . . . and nearly choked on his toast at the sight of Lisa. She was wearing a pale pink gown that suited her coloring beautifully. In fact, at first glance he'd almost been tricked into thinking she wasn't wearing a gown at all, it matched her skin so well. It was also extremely low cut, revealing a good deal of cleavage he just wasn't used to seeing on her. The gown was also plainer than he was used to her wearing, without the usual ruffles, and she had also left her hair down in a mass of tousled, loose curls that fell around her shoulders and trailed down her back. It was the hair that had him nearly choking; it reminded him of how she'd looked yesterday when he'd found her at Mrs. Morgan's, and his body responded much as it had then, snapping to attention.
"Good morning, Richard. I hope you slept well," Lisa said pleasantly as she moved to the sideboard to collect a plate and begin piling food on it.
"Very well, thank you," Richard said easily. "And you?"
"Yes, thank you," Lisa said cheerfully, her concentration on the food she was selecting from the offerings. "But then I was nicely worn out after the ball. Slept like a dream."
"Yes. I'm surprised you're up so early after the late night we had," Richard commented.
"Well, I didn't plan to be," Lisa said with a laugh, turning to head to the table. "But Bet came in and woke me early. She had found out Robert was here and was under the mistaken impression that I would want to breakfast with him. I didn't," she added with amusement, "But once I was awake, I couldn't get back to sleep, so . . ." She shrugged and settled in the seat on Richard's left, directly across from Robert.
"Ah," Richard murmured and Robert was aware he was glancing at him to see how he was taking this news, but Robert simply continued to stare at Lisa. She hadn't even glanced his way to acknowledge him since entering, and continued to ignore him now. It left him free to ogle her in her new incarnation, or at least one he'd never seen before. Until yesterday, he'd never seen her with her hair down. She'd always worn it in pigtails, then a ponytail and then in those fussy, upswept dos the women all graduated to for the balls. He liked her better this way. She looked soft and luscious, like she'd just rolled out of bed.
"So what are your plans for the day?" Richard asked after several moments of silence had passed.
"Well, I hadn't had any really," Lisa admitted, glancing to her brother-in-law with a wry smile. "However, I noticed there were a bunch of calling cards in the salver in the entry on my way downstairs and stopped to see what that was all about. It appears I have several requests for calls today."
Robert frowned at this news. He'd noticed the cards in the silver salver by the door on his way by, but hadn't stopped to look at them.
"Yes, I noticed them myself," Richard murmured with amusement. "It appears you were quite a hit last night. There are at least six cards from men hoping for permission to call today."
"Hmm." Lisa nodded, and then swallowed the bit of egg she'd taken a bite of. "It was fun, and fortunately all the cards are from men I wouldn't mind seeing again. I suppose I shall send replies agreeing to see them."
"Is there something wrong, Robert?" Richard asked, startling him out of the scowl he was giving Lisa.
"She shouldn't be agreeing to visits until we find out who the suitor was," he growled, more irritated than he should have been at this news.
"Well, they will hardly drag her from the house," Richard said reasonably. "I'm sure it will be fine. Although, I don't suggest you have all six come today," he added, glancing back to Lisa. "It might cause a brawl in the parlor."
She laughed gaily at the suggestion. "Oh, surely not, Richard. They are all gentlemen."
"All but the one who paid Mrs. Morgan to drug and strip you naked for his pleasure," Robert snapped, finally garnering her attention.
Lisa turned a scalding look his way. In contrast, her voice was dead cold when she spoke. "I was not naked, Robert. You were not looking very carefully if you thought I was. I was wearing a very lovely gown. In fact, it's so lovely I think I shall keep it to wear on my wedding night for my husband."
"For your husband?" he asked with disbelief.
"Yes, my husband," she said with a shrug, turning her attention back to her plate. "I plan to marry this year. I just haven't decided which lucky man shall get me."
Robert stared at the top of her head blankly, his whole world shaken for some reason. He supposed it was because he was used to having her silent adoration and had never considered the possibility of losing it. Really, it was rather good for a man's ego to have a pretty girl's cherishing eyes following him about, and every word from her mouth sweet and complimentary. However, it seemed Richard and Daniel were right. She had given up on him and was actively seeking a husband. Someone who would replace him in her affections.
"It's foolhardy to have those men here when one of them could have dishonorable intentions. I forbid it," Robert said grimly and knew that was the wrong thing to say at once. The way she stiffened and the icy expression on her face when she lifted it to peer at him made him wish he'd thought more carefully before speaking.
"You forbid it?" she asked silkily. "I'm sorry, Robert, but despite your thinking of me as a little sister, you are not my big brother and don't have the right to forbid me anything. Besides," she added dryly, "no one would be stupid enough to call and then try to snatch me away so openly."
"I may not have the right to forbid you seeing any of these men, but Richard does," Robert said quietly and glanced to him, fully expecting the man to back him up on this.
Instead, Richard hesitated, then said apologetically, "I'm sorry, but she is right, Robert. If the suitor is among her callers today, he is hardly likely to try to take her away from here under the noses of the whole household. He's more likely to try another sneak attack as he did using Mrs. Morgan. It should be safe enough for her to have gentleman callers here. Besides, you'll be here to keep an eye on things."
Robert frowned, but couldn't argue with the logic of that. He wanted to, though. The idea of a passel of men trailing through the house to see Lisa bothered him a great deal. And not just because he was worried one of them might have arranged for her to be kidnapped with the intent to ravish her. If he hadn't gotten there in time . . . The image of some faceless man pawing at Lisa in the seethrough gown rose up in his mind. It then turned into Robert himself, caressing and kissing her, suckling at her breasts through the gauzy cloth, licking his way down over her belly as he urged her back onto the bed -
"Then I should go send replies before I bathe and let Bet fix my hair," Lisa announced, pushing her plate away and standing.
An empty plate, Robert saw and wondered how long he'd been sitting there imagining ravishing her. Little Lisa Madison. The girl he'd looked on as a sister for nearly two decades. Christ, he was losing his mind, he realized watching Lisa leave the room, his eyes dropping over her body as she went.
"Are you all right?"
Robert gave a start at Richard's question and glanced to him blankly.
"You're looking a bit flushed," Richard said gently. "I hope you aren't angry that I sided with her rather than you. I simply don't see any reason not to let the men visit. I really don't think if her suitor is among them, that he'll try anything here, Robert. It would be incredibly foolish."
"No. Of course, you're right. I'm not angry about that," Robert said quickly, and then added, "And I'm fine. Just a little worried is all."
"Of course," Richard murmured, but Robert could have sworn there was amusement twinkling in the man's eyes and suspected he had some idea of exactly where Robert's thoughts had gone. "All of yer gowns?" Bet asked with amazement.
"Yes," Lisa said firmly, stripping off the pale pink dress she'd worn to breakfast and stepping into the tub. "Every single one." "But . . . the ruffles are lovely. They look - "
"Young and sweet," Lisa said grimly. "And I am done with that. I am here to find a husband, Bet. I have to look like a woman, not a child."
Bet was silent for a moment, and then held up two dresses and pointed out, "But all the unmarried ladies wear gowns like these." "Then I shall stand out among them," Lisa said with a shrug as she sank into the water. She released a little sigh as the warm, soft water enveloped her, and then picked up the soap as she added, "And I think we should try a simpler hairstyle as well. Something more like what Christiana wears."
Bet was silent for a moment and then shook her head, "All right then. I shall start on the dresses while you bathe. Tell me when you're ready for me to help wash your hair."
Lisa nodded and began to work the soap into a lather, a small smile playing about her lips. She hadn't missed Robert's reaction to her on entering the breakfast room that morning. The man's eyes had practically been on fire as they'd scraped over her. Until that moment she truly had given up on him, but after that reaction . . . well, it just seemed to her that perhaps he wasn't as immune as he pretended. So, she was redoubling her efforts, only she was changing tactics. By the time she was done with making herself over, there would be no way the man would be able to see her as anything like a child again.
Lisa wasn't naive enough to think that would be enough to move him to claim her though. She was going to take a page out of that story about Lady Silvia and Lord James and use other men to drive Robert wild with jealousy. If that didn't work . . . well, she would give up on him then. But she would try this first. Which probably meant she was an idiot. She should really give up on the man, if for pride's sake only. After all he'd been pretty insulting with that comment about being loose and he wasn't exactly being nice to her at the moment. However, it was the first time he'd ever been anything close to rude to her and she had known him her whole life. She was willing to put it down to his present confusion. At least she hoped it was.
"Right, so I'll get some men on this right away. Have them question everyone they can find at the docks here in London and then move further out to the coastal towns. We'll figure out where she sailed from and where the ship was headed to and then go after her."
"Good, good," Robert muttered, nodding at Mr. Smithe, the Bow Street runner he'd arranged to meet with today. He was supposed to be the best in the business and his price reflected that, but Robert felt it was worth it if it meant sorting this mess out and letting him get back to his own townhouse and his nice peaceful life. A life where Lisa Madison wasn't prancing around in low-cut gowns while flirting with every man who walked through the damned door of Radnor.
His eyes shifted to the office door as a burst of laughter came muffled from the hall. Another suitor arriving, he supposed with irritation. Five had already gotten here before Mr. Smithe arrived for his appointment. But they just kept coming . . . and none of them appeared to want to leave despite the arrival of the next. "Keep me posted," Robert growled, forcing his attention back to Smithe. "And try to track Mrs. Morgan down as quickly as you can."
"Of course." Mr. Smithe nodded his graying brown head and then tilted his head and asked, "Do you need a couple of men stationed here to help keep an eye on the gel until we sort this out?"
Robert sighed at the suggestion. It was what he would have liked, but with Christiana with child . . . "No," he said finally. "That's taken care of. Just find Morgan and sort out who the suitor is."
"Right." Smithe nodded and stood. "It's a bad business this. Keep an eye on the gel."
"I plan to," Robert assured him, moving around Richard's desk to walk the man to the door. "She will not be left on her own until this business is sorted."
"Good. I'll set things in motion then," Smithe said as they walked out into the hall.
Robert merely nodded, his gaze seeking the parlor door where Lisa and her callers were all having tea. It had gone quiet after that earlier burst of laughter, and he wondered with a frown what they were doing in there, but he turned his attention back to Smithe, murmuring a few more instructions as he led him to the door and saw him out.
He closed the door behind the man a moment later with a little sigh and took a minute to rub his face wearily. He didn't really want to go back into the parlor. Watching the other men compliment and court Lisa while she beamed smiles and fawned over them all was just . . . well, it was annoying as hell. Nauseating even. However, he was here to keep an eye on her and keep her safe, so he had no choice.
Straightening his shoulders, Robert forced a pleasant expression to his face and headed for the parlor. The expression froze, however, when he pushed the door open and found the room empty. For one moment, he simply stood there, and then he turned from the door with a bellow for Handers.
The butler appeared at once, pushing out of the kitchen door and heading up the hall toward him at the highest speed a good butler ever dared use, a dignified walk. Growling impatiently, Robert strode to meet him, asking, "Where are they?"
"If you are referring to Miss Lisa and her guests, I believe they have gone to the park so that Lord Findlay and Lord Pembroke could prove who had the faster phaeton," the man answered calmly. Robert stared at him silently for a moment with disbelief, and then whirled on his heel and headed for the front door. His mind wasn't silent however. It was having a good old rant. Here he was giving up his bed for a guest room in the Radnor townhouse to look after her, and what did she do? She rushed off to the park with a gaggle of lords, any one of whom could be the mysterious suitor who had planned to kidnap and have his way with her.
Had she gone mad? Because the Lisa Madison he knew and had grown up being chased about by would never be this stupid and reckless. Did she want to be kidnapped and ravished? Was she so devastated by his seeing her as only a little sister that she would risk herself this way? He would wring her beautiful little neck when he found her.
"Bravo!" Lisa yelled, jumping up and clapping her hands as the phaeton she rode in left the open path and was first to the agreedupon finishing line. They had won the race. Well, Charles had, she acknowledged with a laugh. She had just been lucky enough to ride along for the race, Lisa supposed, and turned to grin down at the man at the reins.
Findlay chuckled at her enthusiasm, but switched the reins to one hand and raised his other to catch her arm and steady her. "While I am happy you are happy, Miss Madison, you should really sit down. I would not want you to catapult out of the carriage when we slow down."
"Call me Lisa," she said on a laugh, dropping back to sit beside him. She then hugged him excitedly. "You showed Pembroke, Lord Findlay. Beat him by at least three carriage lengths. Well done, my lord!"
"Call me Charles," he murmured by her ear, his arm slipping around her waist to prolong what she'd intended to be a quick congratulatory hug.
Lisa hesitated, very aware that they were now on a much more secluded path leading through the woods. She eased back and smiled up at him crookedly. "Charles, then. But we should turn back. The others will wonder where we have got to."
She glanced over his shoulder then, wondering where Pembroke's carriage was. He had been three lengths behind them when Charles had raced the phaeton into the trees, the end point for this race. But his phaeton was nowhere to be seen now. Actually, there was no one on the path. They were quite alone, she realized as he began to slow the phaeton.
"I will turn around at the first opportunity," Charles assured her, removing his arm as she eased from his embrace to sit beside him more properly. "There is a small turnaround ahead on the right that we can use."
Lisa nodded, trying not to look nervous. Surely Findlay wasn't the suitor. He was far too handsome and refined to need to kidnap young women. Besides, even if he was, he wouldn't be foolish enough to simply ride off with her now. Everyone would know he had taken her. Bet, Lord Pembroke, Lord Tibald and two other gentlemen all knew where she was, or at least who she was with.
"Here we are," Charles murmured, distracting her from her thoughts and she glanced around to see that he was turning them into a small roundabout in a clearing.
"Oh, it's lovely," Lisa cried, her gaze sliding over the small field of purple flowers bordering the roundabout.
"Yes, it is," he agreed, slowing to a halt halfway around. "What kind of flowers do you think they are?" she asked leaning to the side to get a better look.
"I have no idea. I'm afraid I have little to no knowledge of flowers," he said apologetically shifting behind her to look as well. He was close enough his breath brushed her cheek as he added, "But they are lovely. They match your gown. Would you like some?"
Lisa glanced down to the lavender gown she'd changed into after her bath and smiled as she said with surprise, "They are the same color, aren't they?"
"Yes, they are," he said simply, and then asked, "Shall I pick some for you as a remembrance of our win?"
She grinned at the suggestion and nodded. "Yes, please. That would be lovely. I shall put them in a vase in my room and think of you every time I look at them."
"Then you must have them," Charles said firmly, and set aside the reins to disembark. When Lisa stood up to follow, he waved her back. "You wait there. It's a bit muddy and you'll ruin your shoes. I won't be a minute."
Lisa sank back in the phaeton with a little sigh of pleasure. Really, this was very nice. It was a rare sunny day and she had enjoyed the race. She'd also enjoyed having men vying for her attention all afternoon, and watching Robert's irritation with it all until his appointment with the runner had intervened. At least she suspected that's who the man had been. She'd caught a glimpse of Handers leading a tall man with salt-and-pepper hair to the office and then Robert had disappeared in there with him. It wasn't long after that the men had begun to argue good-naturedly about who had the fastest phaeton and horse, and . . . well, some little devil in her had made her suggest a race to settle the matter. Everyone had been eager to agree and off they'd gone.
Of course, Lisa knew Robert would be furious, but then that was half the fun. She'd decided that his anger with her last night had been mostly jealousy. The man might claim that he had only big brotherly feelings for her, but he had never in his life said anything unkind to her before last night. Even as a child. So, she had some hope that his anger at the ball had been because of jealousy. If it was and there was a chance for them still, fine. If not . . . well . . . there were half a dozen handsome, seemingly nice men paying her a great deal of attention right now. She felt good. She felt like she had choices for a change. And it was nice.
"Here you are."
Lisa turned to see Findlay approaching with a bouquet of the beautiful purple flowers in hand. Smiling, she leaned over the side to accept them and then paused to glance at him with surprise when he didn't release them at once. His expression was solemn, his eyes on her mouth, and she wasn't terribly surprised when he moved closer and raised his face toward hers. He was going to kiss her.
The thought went through her head, chased by the sound of a rhythmic pounding she recognized as hoofbeats. Charles's lips had just brushed against hers when the sound exploded into the clearing. Both of them immediately drew apart and turned to see who had arrived.
It was a very harried and irate-looking Robert on horseback and Lisa didn't know whether to laugh or cry. She was really becoming quite curious to enjoy her first kiss, but Robert did seem to keep interrupting Charles's attempts to give it to her. On the other hand, she might just want that first kiss to be with Robert anyway. She just wasn't sure yet.
"Lisa, you - I cannot believe - this is - " Apparently at a loss for words, Robert drew himself up short, and just glared at her. Lisa bit her lip to keep from laughing at his sour look. Glancing to Charles, she said apologetically, "Perhaps it's time we returned to the others."
"Home," Robert growled. "The townhouse."
"Oh, but - "
"It's growing late and you'll want to prepare for the Hammonds' ball," he said firmly.
"Ah, yes, the Hammonds' ball," Charles murmured, drawing her gaze to him again. "Don't forget you promised to save me a waltz, and a quadrille."
Lisa relaxed and smiled. "Yes, of course."
He smiled in return, pressed the flowers into her hand and then moved silently around the carriage to get back in. Lisa glanced over her shoulder as the phaeton moved forward again. Robert was directly behind them, his back straight, expression grim, and eyes burning.
"Langley appears to be quite concerned with your well-being."
Lisa glanced to Charles at that comment and grimaced slightly. "He's just protective. We grew up together and he thinks of me as a little sister."
"Little sister?" Findlay asked, glancing her way and allowing his eyes to slide over her in her newly de-ruffled lavender gown. "I find that hard to believe."
"Thank you," she said on a laugh.
Charles smiled slightly, but added, "Still, he seems . . . his interest appears almost overdone for just a family friend," he ended delicately.
Lisa glanced away. She would have to point out to Robert that he would give people ideas with his behavior were he not careful. Aloud she said, "Oh well, my brother-in-law, Lord Radnor, asked Robert to help keep an eye on me while I am in town. I fear they worry that having grown up in the country I may not be aware of all the dangers and pitfalls of the city."
"Hmm," Charles murmured, and then glanced to her, his eyes dropping to her decolletage and back. "Then I shall be happy to help keep an eye on you too."
"My lord, I suspect you are one of the possible pitfalls," Lisa said with a laugh, and he offered a sad moue.
"Oh, now you wound me, Miss Madison. I have been a complete gentleman."
"So far," she agreed with amusement.
"So far," he allowed. "And I promise I shall remain so in your presence . . . for the most part at least," he added wryly and then explained, "Eventually, I will manage that kiss I have been trying to claim."
Lisa merely smiled faintly, wondering if it would be too forward to admit she was looking forward to it. Her first kiss. She had always planned and hoped that Robert would be her first kiss.
However, it looked as if that wasn't going to happen. That being the case, she supposed she would just have to suffer and accept a kiss from the very handsome Lord Findlay instead. It didn't seem like much of a trial at that point. While her interest was primarily in Robert, he wasn't behaving very nicely, while Lord Findlay was being an absolute dear. Complimenting her, dancing with her, picking her flowers . . . And at least he wanted to kiss her. Which made a nice change from Robert's constant claims that he thought of her as nothing more than a sister.