If the Viscount Falls Excerpt
Dom stood dumbfounded, as Jane disappeared into the street. Then he hurried to catch up to her, to get some answers.
She knew. How the devil did she know?
The answer to that was obvious. “So, Nancy told you, did she?” he snapped as he fell into step beside her.
Jane didn’t reply, just kept marching toward the inn like a Hussar bent on battle.
“When?” he demanded. “How long have you known?”
“For ten years, you . . . you conniving . . . lying—”
“Ten years? You knew all this time, and you didn’t say anything?”
“Say anything!” She halted just short of the inn yard entrance to glare at him. “How the blazes was I to do that? It’s not as if I encountered you anywhere. You disappeared into the streets of London as surely as if you were a footpad or a pickpocket.”
She planted her hands on her hips. “Oh, I read about your heroic exploits from time to time, but other than that, I neither heard nor saw anything of you until last year when you showed up at George’s town house to get Tristan freed from gaol. It was only pure chance that I happened to be at dinner with Nancy that day. As you’ll recall, you didn’t stay long. Nor did you behave as if you would welcome any confidences.”
Remembering the cool reception he’d given her, he glanced away, unable to bear the accusation in her eyes. “No, I suppose I didn’t.”
“Besides,” she said, “it hardly mattered that I knew the truth. I assumed that if you ever changed your mind about making a life with me, you would seek me out. Since you never did, you were clearly determined to remain a bachelor.”
His gaze shot back to her. “It was more complicated than that.”
She snorted. “It always is with you. Which is precisely why I’m happy I’m engaged to someone else.”
That sent jealousy roaring through him, predictably enough. “Yet you let me kiss you.”
A pretty blush stained her cheeks. “You . . . you took me by surprise, that’s all. But it was a mistake. It won’t happen again.”
The hell it wouldn’t. He intended to find out if the past was as firmly in the past as she claimed. But obviously he couldn’t do it here in the street. He glanced up at the darkening sky. Or right now.
She followed the direction of his gaze. “Yes,” she said in a dull voice. “Looks like we will have a rainy trip back.” She headed into the inn yard. “Perhaps if we hurry, we can reach Winborough before it starts. Besides, we’ve got only three hours until sunset, and it’s not safe to ride in an open phaeton after dark.”
She was right, but he didn’t mean to drop this discussion. He needed answers, and once they were on the road, he meant to get them.
He strode into the inn yard, his mind awhirl. He’d never been one for snap judgments, which was precisely what made him a good investigator. He liked to be sure he had all the facts before he sorted them by their implications and importance so he could come to some conclusions.
With Jane, though, getting all the facts was proving difficult. She was obviously too angry to tell him rationally what he needed to know. And he was too unsettled to make sense of what little she’d said.
Fortunately, calling for his phaeton, putting the top up, and getting them on the road gave him time to settle his thoughts. Certain things seeped into his memory. Like how Jane had called him “Saint Dominick” three months ago, which he’d thought odd at the time for a woman who should have believed him a fortune-hunter. Or how she’d spoken of being tired of “waiting” for her “life to begin.”
Good God. She really might have been talking about him then. About waiting for him to come after her. All this time . . .
No, he couldn’t believe that. She’d only been seventeen when they’d ended things, and women that age were still feeling their way in life. She couldn’t possibly have been carrying a torch for him all these years.
Why not? You’ve been carrying one for her.
He stifled a curse. Nonsense. He’d cut her out of his heart.
God, he was such a liar.
They were now well out of the city. She sat quietly beside him, obviously uncomfortable after what had happened between them.
She couldn’t be any more uncomfortable than he was. He could still taste her mouth, still feel the moment when she’d turned to putty in his arms. He was aware of every inch of her that touched him. Her hand lay in her lap, so close he could reach over and take it.
Or perhaps not. The last thing he needed was her shoving him off the phaeton, which she was liable to do right now if she took a mind to it. She was damned angry.
Though he wasn’t entirely sure why. She was now engaged to a very rich, very well-connected earl, all because Dom had set her free. So why did she look as if she wanted to throttle him?
Nancy. The chit must have made everything sound worse than it was. “Tell me how much your cousin told you about our . . . supposed dalliance.”
“Everything, as far as I know.” Jane smoothed her skirts with a nonchalance he might have believed if he hadn’t also noticed how her hands trembled. “That you coaxed her into making it look as if you were making advances to her. That she then convinced Samuel Barlow to help get me into the library without suspecting, so I could see your manufactured tableau.”
Nancy really had told her everything. “She promised she would never say a word.”
“I gave her no choice.” Her voice lowered to an aching murmur. “I’m not the fool you take me for, you know.”
“I have never taken you for a fool.”
“No? You didn’t think I’d notice when you made no further attempts to court Nancy? Or any other rich ladies? There was no gossip about you, no tales of your fortune-hunting. It wasn’t long before I smelled a rat.”
Blast it all. “So you went to Nancy and forced her to tell the truth.”
She got very quiet. He glanced over to find her looking chagrined.
“Actually, I sort of . . . tricked her into it. I claimed that I had encountered you in Bond Street, and you’d revealed the truth then. I told her I just wanted to hear her side of things.”
A groan escaped him. “In other words, you deceived her.”
“Pretty much.” She fiddled with her reticule. “It wasn’t difficult. Nancy isn’t, well . . .”
“The brightest star in the sky?”
Jane winced. “Exactly. She’s fairly easy to manipulate. Indeed, that was all it took to have her blurting out everything. That you told her a bunch of nonsense about how I would be better off without you—”
“It wasn’t nonsense,” he interrupted. “You were better off without me.”
“Was I? You don’t know that.”
“I do, actually.” He clicked his tongue at the horses to have them step up the pace. “Do you know where I lived for my first three years as a Bow Street Runner?”
“It doesn’t matter. I wouldn’t have cared.”
He uttered a harsh laugh. “Yes, I’m sure you would have been delighted to share a garret above a tavern in Spitalfields with me. To eat only bread and cheese four days a week in order to save money. To forego coal in the dead of winter so we’d have enough money to pay the rent.”
“That does sound dreadful.” Her voice held an edge. “But that was three years of the twelve we were apart. What about later? After you started to have some success?”
“I didn’t move out of the garret because of any great success,” he said. “I moved out because I . . . was traveling too much to sustain lodgings in London. That’s how I spent the rest of my time as a runner.”
In Manchester and wherever else the Spenceans and their ilk were fomenting rebellion. But he couldn’t talk about that, not to her. She would never understand those difficult years, what he’d done, what he’d been expected to do. How could she? She was a lady encased in a castle of privileged living. She didn’t know anything about the struggle between the poor and the rich. He wouldn’t want her to.
“That was your choice, though, wasn’t it?” she said softly. “Not all Bow Street Runners travel.”
He tensed. “No, but neither do they make much of a living. I was paid far more for . . . er . . . traveling than for catching criminals in London. I was able to save up enough to start my business concern precisely because of all those years when I was willing to go anywhere for my position.”
To take any risk. To spy on his fellow countrymen. It still left a bad taste in his mouth.
“And what about after you started Manton’s Investigations? That was four years ago, Dom. If you had wanted me, you could have approached me then.”
“Of course,” he said bitterly. “I could have marched up to your uncle’s house and begged you to marry me. To forgo your fortune, leave your comfortable position, risk being cut off by all your friends and relations so you could marry a man whom I was sure you considered a fortune-hunter.”
“Yes. You could have.”
“And you would have gladly accepted my suit. Even though you could have had your pick of the men. Even though you had an earl and a marquess sniffing at your skirts—”
“You knew about the marquess?”
He cursed his quick tongue. “The point is, you would have been a fool to choose me over one of them. And I was astute enough to realize it.”
“No, the point is that you’ll never know whether I would have accepted your suit or not. You didn’t offer it. You never took the chance, and that is your loss.”
The words stabbed a dagger through his chest. She spoke as if she’d given up on him. But of course she had, hadn’t she? She’d accepted Blakeborough’s marriage proposal. And given how hard she’d fought twelve years ago not to jilt Dom, she was certainly not going to jilt Blakeborough.
What if Dom had asked? What if he had blundered into her life again and wrenched her from everything she knew?
No, that couldn’t have ended anything but badly.
It had begun to drizzle. Since the phaeton top only extended so far, he pulled out a blanket to put over their laps to keep some of the damp off. When he took the reins in one hand so he could reach over to tuck the blanket about her, she froze.
So did he, painfully aware of his hand lingering on her thigh. He had half a mind to stop the phaeton, drag her into his arms, and kiss her until she softened and remembered what they had been to each other.
But she did remember. She’d made that clear earlier. She just no longer cared.
He drew his hand back and the moment blew away on the breeze.
A stilted silence fell over them. Mile after mile of dreary gray seeped into his blood, weighing him down. He didn’t know which was worse. Being without her entirely all these years or being so close and not having her.
After a long while, she released a sigh. “Do you even regret what you did to end our engagement?”
“No,” he said tersely.
He could feel her gaze on him.
“After all this time,” she said tartly, “you still think you and Nancy did the right thing.”
“Absolutely.” It was the truth. Wasn’t it?
Another uncomfortable silence stretched between them.
“Nancy regrets it,” Jane said at last. “She says she regretted it from the moment she agreed to go along with it.”
He was tempted to point out that Nancy had certainly hidden her regret well behind her triumphant marriage to George. But pointing that out would merely put Jane on the defensive again regarding her cousin. Jane seemed determined to believe Nancy some sort of saint, and until he had more facts, he couldn’t dispute her view. Which was precisely why he had to investigate further.
“So, are you going to get to the bottom of Nancy’s disappearance?” she asked.
Good God, did the woman read minds? “I think I must. You made a valid point earlier. If Nancy has been duped by some fortune-hunting scoundrel, it would be unwise to let the matter lie.”
“You mean, because he might hurt her,” she said, her tone anxious.
“Because he could hurt Rathmoor Park and Nancy’s future along with it. Her dower portion comes out of the estate’s income. Any husband she takes on will want to look after her interests and won’t care what strain that puts on Rathmoor Park.” Or how much trouble it caused Dom.
Shock emanated from her side of the phaeton. “You know, Dom, whether or not I was better off without you, it’s clear that you were not better off without me.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You used to have a heart, to care about people.” She uttered a ragged oath. “Or perhaps I just thought you did. Perhaps you were always this cold-blooded, and I merely missed it.”
He bristled at the accusation. “And what is it that makes you think me cold-blooded? The fact that I questioned the need to rush off after Nancy?”
“The fact that you only seem to see the financial aspects of this. She’s a woman alone. That should secure your concern.”
“I lost my concern for Nancy the day she married George,” he snapped.
“So that’s what this is about. She married your enemy, and that made her your enemy as well.”
He tightened his grip on the reins, not sure what to say. “I suppose you could see it that way.”
“Well, she’s still my cousin and my friend, so I hope you have enough . . . softness left in your heart toward me that you would search for her on my behalf if not on hers.”
“Don’t worry, I’m not so ‘cold-blooded’ as all that,” he said irritably. “Tristan and I will return to York tonight to speak with the ostlers at Ringrose Inn who weren’t there today. Then we’ll comb the town, see what more we can learn.” He shot her a hard glance. “You’ll only get in our way, so you should stay with Lady Zoe at Winborough.”
“That’s probably best,” she shocked him by saying.
So she was agreeing with him now? Was that because she feared he would attempt to kiss her again? Or because she’d learned what she wanted to know from him, and now only needed him to find Nancy?
Either possibility chafed him.
They traveled farther without speaking, but when he caught himself humming some doleful notes from Mozart’s Requiem Mass, he winced. Damn it, there were things he wanted—he needed—to know from her. “Jane, have you been happy all these years?” Was my sacrifice worth it?
When she didn’t speak, he looked over to find her regarding him with a stark gaze that chilled him. “You don’t have the right to ask. You didn’t attempt to find out or ensure that I was, so think whatever makes you sleep better at night.”
And she called him cold-blooded?
She squared her shoulders. “But I do intend to be quite deliriously happy from now on. I intend to marry Edwin and have his children and live to a ripe old age surrounded by people I care about. I assume that sets your mind at ease.”
It should. But it damned well didn’t. Because for the first time, he saw his life laid out before him, devoid of Jane in a different way from before. And it made him want to howl and gnash his teeth.