CAPTAIN LORD HARTLEY Corry had come to his brother Warren’s Shropshire hunting lodge, Hatton Hall, to play cards, drink fine brandy, and do some shooting with his male friends. So when, upon his arrival, he was shown into a ballroom filled with dancing couples, Hart could only groan.
“You came!” a decidedly female voice exclaimed behind him.
Her eyes twinkled. “Ah, but that was before I reminded him that he’d chosen the week of St. Valentine’s Day and that his friends were all married. Once I did, he very sensibly altered his plans, changing this into—”
“A marriage mart?” he growled.
Uneasily, he glanced about. “Not just married couples. I see a few bachelors from St. George’s Club—not to mention a few unmarried friends of yours.” He narrowed his gaze on her. “All eyeing me as if I’m dinner. I know a matchmaking scheme when I see one, dear lady.”
“Well, aren’t you full of yourself?” she said archly. “I would never foist you on my friends. You’re a cantankerous second son with a penchant for trouble, a tendency to gamble, and no fortune to speak of. Why on earth would I want them to marry you?”
“Now see here, I’m still the son of a marquess.” He didn’t like being characterized as some wastrel, even if he understood why, given their history. “And I’ve paid back, with interest, every penny I owed your family.”
Her features softened. “Yes, you have, which is admirable. But honestly, matchmaking was the farthest thing from my mind when I invited you. Warren misses you. These days, you spend all your time doing heaven knows what for Lord Fulkham.”
That was precisely how Hart had gained the money to repay the funds he’d purposely cheated her brother out of to keep the man from hunting down his exiled cousin.
For the past few years, Hart had been spying, first abroad and more recently in England, for the undersecretary of the foreign office. Indeed, Fulkham was grooming him to step into the position of spymaster, something Hart was considering now that Fulkham had become foreign secretary.
So he ought to find a wife. Unfortunately, he’d only ever wanted to wed one woman, and he’d lost her long ago. She’d vanished during those years he was posted abroad, and his few brief leaves hadn’t enabled him to find her. He’d even considered searching for her now that he was permanently situated in England—now that his skills as a spy had been perfected.
But after eleven years, Miss Anne Barkley was probably the wife of some squire up in the north country, whom she was steadily providing with a string of progeny. It would explain why he hadn’t been able to locate her—her name had changed. And he simply couldn’t bear the thought of finding her happily married and thus out of his reach forever. So instead, he did nothing.
“You will stay, won’t you?” Delia asked, jerking him back to the present. “You don’t have to speak to a single young lady if you don’t want.”
“Wait a minute, who are they?”
“You know, wives of the members. We’ve formed a charitable group.”
A hen party, no doubt.
“How?” he asked, suspicious.
“Entertaining the ladies from town who will be coming to buy things, of course. Having a few gentlemen around to charm them will help them be more generous with their purses.” When he eyed her askance, she added, “Do stay, Hart. It would please Warren enormously.”
God, but the woman knew how to tug at a man’s guilt. “Will there still be cards? And shooting?”
She brightened. “Of course. And fishing, too. You’ll have fun, I promise.” She surveyed his slapdash traveling clothes—a frock coat of brown wool, buff trousers, and a waistcoat he generally only wore among other men bent on masculine endeavors. “Although not until you change into appropriate attire for dancing.”
“You’re incorrigible,” she said with a rueful shake of her head.
“That’s what all women say when a man won’t bend to their will.” He glanced about. “What room did you designate for cards?”
With a nod, he set off for the hall. Unfortunately, just at that moment the dance ended, so he was caught up in the swirl of ladies being led from the floor by their partners. In the confusion, he collided with a young miss.
Or rather, with the young miss’s hat. The bloody thing was huge—a purple turban that billowed out so far from her head that the gauze ribbon trailing from it caught in his watch fob.
“Good heavens!” she cried as she twisted around to face him.
Then three things happened at once. Her turban fell off to dangle briefly from his watch fob before its weight carried it to the floor. The lady’s flaming red hair tumbled down about her ears. And as she pushed back the gorgeous locks to get a good look at him, he came face-to-face with the woman he’d given up on ever seeing again.
“Anne!” he said hoarsely.
She started, recognition showing in her freckled features. Then she narrowed her amber eyes on him. “How dare you!” And, scooping her turban up off the floor, she shoved past him to head for the door.
“You’re in trouble now,” her dance partner said. “One thing you must never do to Lady Anne: come between her and her hats.”
Hart well remembered those hats, each of them carefully trimmed by her to fit her unique, intriguing taste.
He stalked out into the hall after her.
Anne fumed as she marched toward the retiring room with her embarrassing hair bouncing about her shoulders. Hart wasn’t supposed to be here. Delia had been sure he wouldn’t attend, which was the only reason Anne had dared to come. The last thing she’d wanted was to encounter the scoundrel who’d courted her years ago and then given her up when the going got tough.
Then to have him destroy her favorite turban, probably out of sheer spite, though she should be the one doing things out of spite, considering that—
“Anne!” he called from behind her.
Oh no. He didn’t even have the decency to leave her be. She quickened her pace, but the rascal caught up to her with deplorable ease, thanks to those long legs of his. Catching her by the arm, he pulled her around to face him. “Anne, stop and listen to me, for God’s sake.”
The words, spoken in that familiar husky voice, burrowed under her skin the way he had done years ago, with his eyes the color of a fir forest and his wavy, chocolaty locks so very tempting to touch—
The sharpness in her question made him pale. “To talk to you. You owe me that, at least.”
“Why would I owe you anything?”
The question seemed to genuinely surprise him. “Why do you think? You never answered my letters, for one thing.”
Letters? He’d written her letters? “They probably never reached me,” she said baldly. “Father always had the mail delivered to him first, and he wouldn’t have passed on any missives from you. He didn’t approve of you, which is why he refused to let me marry you, which I’m sure you know.”
Now he looked stunned. “I did not know. When I asked for your hand, he said he was refusing because you were only sixteen and too young to marry. I got the impression that once you were older, I might have a chance.”
That surprised her. For years after his proposal, Papa had waxed eloquent to her and Mama on the subject of Hart’s reputation. “My age was one reason, yes. But not the main one.”
“Then what was?” He crossed his arms over his chest, which had grown even more impressively broad in his years in the army. “I realize I’m merely a second son, but your father was merely a merchant in Stilford. How could he not have approved?”
“Quite frankly, Papa thought you a gambler and a wastrel.”
Hart winced. “I suppose the gambler part is fair.” He squared the massive shoulders that had always made her heart flip over, then got the stubborn look on his face that had always put her back up. “But I kept up with my pursuit of law at Cambridge. And if he didn’t approve of me, why didn’t he say so?”
“How should I know?”
A muffled whisper behind him caught her attention. They had an audience. It was only a few ladies, far enough down the hall to be unable to hear.
Still, it reminded her to be cautious. Hart was Delia’s brother-in-law, and the last thing she wanted was to risk Delia’s friendship by being seen in a public argument with him.
A stormy expression crossed Hart’s features. “Then he ignored how passionately I expressed my wish to marry you. Otherwise, he would at least have had the courtesy to demand that I cease writing to you. Rather than confiscate my letters and never make me—or you—aware that—”
“It was not—is not—proper for a gentleman to write a young lady without her parents’ permission.” Heat rose in her cheeks. “You know that.”
He stepped closer, his eyes the soft green of freshly sprouted grass. “That didn’t seem to matter so much to you when I sent them through your maid,” he said in a decidedly intimate voice.
He set his shoulders. “I don’t care. And the Anne I used to know wouldn’t have cared, either.”
Her temper flared, and she forgot all about the people behind him. Sarcasm dripped from her voice. “The Anne you used to know wasn’t worldly and didn’t realize that a young man might need money. That he might crave a young lady for her fortune. That he might go about with her, make her promises, and then merrily troop off to join the army without so much as a fare-thee-well once her fortune was denied to him.”
She stared him down. “Meanwhile, a lady is always left to pick up the pieces, no matter what the circumstances. Even when she’s done nothing wrong except believe those promises.”
“For pity’s sake, keep your voice down!” she whispered.
Glancing back at the crowd forming behind him, he grimaced. When he faced her again, he kept his tone low and even. “Only if you agree to meet me in the library in an hour’s time. Otherwise, I swear I will dog you everywhere until we can discuss this more thoroughly and I can get my answers. That ought to give the gossips something to talk about.”
“You . . . you . . . devil! I answered your questions!”
“Fine,” she said tightly.
That was the only reason she would meet him. Not because it was so very good to see him and talk to him again, and certainly not because she wanted to take up with him again after all these years.
Sadly, she could guess why he might renew his pursuit. But she would set him straight on that score, and then, when he abandoned his pursuit of her yet again, she would exorcise him from her heart forever.
“We’ll meet in the library in one hour,” she confirmed.
“Thank you,” he said.
His heated gaze alarmed her anew. “But only if you promise to behave.”
With the smile of a practiced seducer, he bowed. “Of course.”
“I will be a perfect gentleman,” he said blandly, though his eyes still held a certain wicked look she well remembered.
“Good.” She tossed her ruined coiffure over one shoulder. She had too many memories of furtive, heart-stopping kisses in country lanes when he would sneak away from Cambridge and ride down to Stilford to meet her. She was having no more of those. “Because the moment you misbehave, I will march out of the room and you will never get your answers.”
That wiped the wickedness from his face. “I only want the truth.”
With a nod, she turned and hurried to the retiring room. She wanted the truth as well, and she meant to get it. But not by letting him lure her into his snare once more. Oh no. She would never do that.