Regency Era Historical Romance
Georgiana Appleby had the distinct impression she wasn’t wanted at Mr. Alexander Redcliff’s Mayfair townhouse. It wasn’t that anyone said as much to her. Indeed, there was no one around at all to voice an opinion one way or another. It was more the lack of people that gave it away. Not a single maid or footman had entered the elegant drawing room in which Georgiana had been waiting for over twenty minutes. Redcliff himself certainly hadn’t made an appearance and since he lived alone—servants notwithstanding—and was currently at home—she’d asked—it was clearly a snub.
Being unwanted wasn’t a new experience for Georgiana in her professional capacity as curer of opium addicts. Several of her patients reacted in a similar way to Mr. Redcliff when they learned she’d been commissioned by their loved ones. The difference with Mr. Redcliff was that it wasn’t one of his loved ones who’d commissioned her. It was a public servant—the man who’d coordinated his spying activities, and therefore arguably the person responsible for Mr. Redcliff’s current predicament.
Perhaps there was a simple explanation for her abandonment, but Georgiana didn’t think so. She was well aware of the tactics employed by recalcitrant patients and her employer had described Redcliff as the most stubborn man in his spy network. And the best.
She took a turn about the room, admiring the twin blue and white Oriental jars on the mantelpiece and the other exquisite curios. She was studying a Paul Sandby watercolor when the door finally opened and the butler entered. He reminded her of a dying patient she’d met years earlier when assisting her father. The sharp angles of his cheeks cast shadows across skin the shade of death. His eyes, however, sparkled, softening the cadaverous effect.
“My apologies for the delay, Miss Appleby,” he said, bowing.
“Is Mr. Redcliff available now?”
The butler, Worth, lowered his gaze. “Not at present. He apologizes profusely for his absence.”
She gave him a wry smile. “I’m sure he does. So when will he be available? The sooner I can see him, the better.”
“I understand, Miss Appleby,” Worth said with bland politeness. He did not suggest a meeting time. “I’ll have your belongings brought to your room immediately. If you require anything, please do not hesitate to ring. Milly will bring you tea shortly.”
“Tea will be lovely. Thank you, Worth.”
He bowed smoothly. “If you will follow me, miss, I will see you to your room personally.”
She followed him up the grand staircase, past a series of portraits hung on the walls, mostly of people long dead judging by their historic clothing. Below her, the glorious crystal chandelier with its hundred or more candles dangled on long chains to illuminate the entrance hall. It must be spectacular when ablaze at night.
The townhouse was magnificent, its situation on Mount Street highly prized. A most unlikely residence for the second son of an earl and a bachelor at that.
“Did the house belong to Mr. Redcliff’s late father?” she asked Worth.
“It did not, miss. Mr. Redcliff’s mother’s father, the last Duke of Moreland, bequeathed it to him.” He stopped at the end of a hall lined with more paintings, this time depicting the lush countryside, hounds and stiff-backed gentlemen.
He opened a door and Georgiana entered a bedroom little bigger than a cupboard. It wouldn’t be the house’s best guest chamber, or even its second best. Indeed, Worth’s own bedroom was likely to be bigger than the space allocated to her. The bed not only dominated the room, it filled it. Between the bed, wardrobe and dressing table there was little space to move about.
Clearly her host did not want Georgiana to make herself too comfortable.
“Mr. Redcliff regrets the…meagerness of the accommodation,” Worth said with a hint of an apology in his otherwise flat tone. “The main bedchambers are soon to be occupied.”
“They are?” Her irritation at this news forced her words out in a rush. She’d told her employer she didn’t want any obstacles during her stay. Guests were obstacles of the most inconvenient kind. She couldn’t cure her patients with anyone peering over her shoulder.
She eyed Worth who in turn watched her with guarded interest. Servants were different to guests. They were a necessity. The household couldn’t expect to run without them, and run the household must if appearances were to be maintained. Loyal and discreet servants could prove useful if they were aware of the nature of her employment.
“Do you know why I’m here, Worth?” she asked, removing her bonnet.
“Yes, Miss Appleby. Sir Oswyn Crisp, Permanent Under-Secretary to the Foreign Office, has commissioned your services to return Mr. Redcliff to his full health.” The way he said it left her in no doubt he knew she was there to do more than mend Mr. Redcliff’s external wounds. Wounds which should be almost healed. What he thought of that, however, he kept to himself. The perfect servant.
As Permanent Under-Secretary to the Foreign Office, Sir Oswyn Crisp reported to the Foreign Secretary, Lord Castlereagh. Although Castlereagh was the body of the Foreign Office, Crisp was its blood. It was he who managed the day-to-day operation of the department and as such it was he who’d posted Redcliff to Switzerland as a diplomat. The role had been a cover for his spying.
Mr. Redcliff had directed much of the British government’s secret operations from his base in Berne, sometimes taking a more active role when required. It was while he was in Switzerland that he incurred his physical injuries after an evening attending a ball. But something else must have happened that night. He claimed he took opium to help him sleep but Georgiana and Sir Oswyn Crisp suspected he took it to suppress the nightmares that were the only link to what had really occurred. Under the influence of opium, dreams could be directed, altered, to become whatever the dreamer wanted. So any event that was only being remembered through dreams could be conveniently stifled and forgotten.
For some reason, Redcliff did not remember that night nor did he want anyone else to learn what had really transpired.
“I’ve been informed that you shall be with us for as long as necessary.” Worth looked about the cramped room again and cast her a sympathetic look. He must suspect her visit would not be a short one and he didn’t approve the allocation of the small bedroom to her.
A footman appeared at the door carrying Georgiana’s valise and medical bag.
“If there is nothing else, miss, I’ll leave you now,” Worth said as the footman deposited her luggage, bowed then left.
She thanked the butler. No sooner had he too left than a maid arrived with tea and a plate of butter biscuits. The sturdy, milky-faced girl set the tray down on the table and curtsied. She looked about her, taking in the small room, the battered leather valise with the scuffed edges and its owner in one heavy-lidded gaze that failed to hide her curiosity. No doubt she was wondering how to treat someone like Georgiana who was neither lady nor mistress, guest nor servant.
“Shall I unpack for you, miss?” she asked.
“Thank you, yes.” Georgiana sipped her tea as the maid placed her garments in the wardrobe. The girl worked in silence except for the occasional grunt. Of disapproval? She was probably more used to serving ladies with finer and more expensive tastes than Georgiana’s.
“Where would you like this box, miss?” the servant asked, holding up the small oak box Georgiana carried with her everywhere.
“On the dressing table please.”
When she left, Georgiana carefully removed her loaded muff pistol from her reticule and buried it beneath a chemise in the second drawer of the wardrobe. She took up the oak box and checked that powder flask, balls, flints, bullet mould and turnscrew were all in order inside then hid it with the pistol. A woman could never be too careful, especially when sleeping under the same roof as strangers.
With pistol and associated paraphernalia safely stowed, she squeezed between the mismatched pieces of furniture to get to the window. Her room looked out upon the roof of the neighboring house. Smoke billowed from a chimney and disappeared into the grey miasma that shrouded the city. She craned her neck to see if she could see anything else but the neighbor’s roof was too big and her own window too small. Mr. Redcliff really didn’t want her to grow too comfortable. She felt like the crazed relative from a Gothic novel, stashed in the attic and all but forgotten. All that was needed was a virginal girl dressed in a white nightgown to stumble upon her.
With a sigh, she picked up her copy of Medicine and the Mind but couldn’t concentrate so she put it down again. The portraits of her parents, carefully unpacked by the maid and placed on the dressing table, caught her eye. For a fleeting moment Georgiana thought she saw her physician father’s image winking at her. But she blinked and there was no smile on his handsome face, just a serious expression he’d adopted for the picture. Strange really, since he had rarely looked so serious in life. The only acknowledgement of his eccentricity was the waistcoat lavishly embroidered with a floral pattern, the bottom of which emerged from beneath his coat like an overgrown garden bed. Even his hair which had always jutted out from his head as if he’d tugged on it had been smoothed down by the artist’s brush.
“Do you think Mr. Redcliff will be as difficult as this unenthusiastic beginning implies?” she asked his image. “I hope not. I can’t afford to walk away from this one, Papa.”
He stared back at her, his dark eyes sparkling the way they always did when he was about to offer her advice. At a time like this, he would tell her to take charge of the situation.
“You wouldn’t hide away in this room and wait for your patient to be ready to be cured, would you?” she said to the portrait. “You would go and find him and make him see that we need to start immediately.”
Georgiana tenderly touched the picture, then opened the door and went in search of Mr. Redcliff. She hoped he wouldn’t throw her out immediately. Indeed, the future of her career depended upon it. The fact he’d not done so already boded well.
A maid directed her to his study in a part of the house that was as far away from Georgiana’s room as possible. She lifted a hand to knock when a deep, bland voice spoke from behind her, making her jump.
“Mr. Redcliff does not wish to be disturbed,” Worth said. She hadn’t seen the butler’s approach and for one irrational moment she wondered if he’d emerged through a wall like a spirit. He certainly looked the part. She caught her bottom lip between her teeth to stifle an unfortunate smile. She doubted Worth would see the humor.
“I’ll only be a moment,” she told him.
He stepped closer, dwarfing her. His hollow face watched her grimly. “I will let Mr. Redcliff know you wish to speak to him.”
She paused. She didn’t want to begin on a sour note or place the butler in a difficult situation. “Thank you, Worth. I’ll wait here.”
He didn’t look altogether pleased that she wasn’t going away. Nevertheless he lifted a hand to knock but before he could put fist to wood the door was suddenly wrenched open from the other side.
A tall, broad shouldered and strikingly handsome gentleman filled the doorway. Striking in that his good looks hit her in the chest and stole her breath. Dark hair curling at the ends framed a strong, lean face. A wide mouth was saved from being overly generous by the sculptured, defined lips. The square jaw could have been hewn from marble and wouldn’t look out of place on a classical statue. He was perfection, or he would have been if it wasn’t for the slightly bent nose. It was as if someone’s fist had nudged it. Knowing Redcliff’s history the way she did, perhaps it had been damaged in a fight. But instead of marring his looks it made them more interesting and served to balance out the perfection which could be quite dull she’d always thought, particularly in a man.
He must be Mr. Redcliff, her patient.
“Worth, what the devil is—?” He never finished his sentence. Eyes the color of a wintry lake turned on Georgiana and a frown clouded his brow. The subtle shift of a few facial muscles stripped away his beauty. If a single look could kill, she’d have icicles as sharp as daggers protruding from her forehead. No, make that her entire body, for he swiftly took in every inch of her person from her brown hair to her best kid leather half-boots.
It gave her a moment to inspect him in return. And that’s when she saw the shadows dwelling beneath his eyes and cheeks, starkly offset against the grayish pallor of his skin. He also seemed to be holding himself still, to contain the nausea perhaps. Even with these tell-tale signs of an opium smoker, he was a breathtaking sight. Quite literally. Georgiana’s lungs constricted. She made a conscious effort to breathe, and smile.
“Miss Georgiana Appleby, sir,” Worth said with unflappable civility.
Mr. Redcliff raised one dark and imperious eyebrow at her. “You’re the nursemaid?” A deep rumbling began low in his broad chest and she realized he was laughing. But the twisted grin that accompanied it was more gruesome than joyful. “He sent a little chit like you?” His disbelief was a common reaction, however few of her patients had ever stated it quite so baldly.
“You were expecting someone else?” she asked.
He looked her over again but he kept his face shuttered, closed. She had no idea what he saw, but she was quite sure he would not see the real Georgiana. That woman was well hidden beneath the brown cotton dress re-made from one her mother had worn years ago. “I was expecting someone…matronly,” he said. His level gaze met hers once more. “You don’t quite measure up.”
She touched her waist then promptly dropped her hand. As long as he was referring to her smallish size and nothing else then there was no cause for alarm. There was certainly no hint of desire in his eyes, nothing to indicate he saw beyond the old-fashioned dress and her uncurled hairstyle. Indeed there was no hint of anything at all.
“I might not live up to your idea of a nursemaid,” she said, “but that could be because I am not one. Sir Oswyn Crisp sent me to help in any way I can. I have experience—.”
“I know all about your experience.” This last was said with a derisive lift of his top lip.
Georgiana bit her own lip and fought down panic. He’d investigated her? For a man who had worked as a spy it was to be expected but still it made her blood pound in her ears and her throat tighten. It was bad enough that Sir Oswyn knew her secret and was using it against her but to have her patient know too could prove devastating. He too could use it—to get rid of her—and then where would she be?
At Sir Oswyn’s mercy. And he was a man without that commodity.
Her reputation would be ruined, her career would perish and so would her livelihood. She could not afford to fail.
“My reputation has preceded me?” she prompted, attempting as light a tone as she could given she felt so heavy all of a sudden. “Please tell me more, I’m intrigued.” Intrigued to know how much he’d learned.
He studied her in that unnerving, expressionless way. Did the man ever show emotion? “Your father was a physician who specialized in curing opium addicts. You followed in his footsteps and have had many successes in the last few years. You reside in Oxfordshire with a maid and have become known in medical circles as tenacious.”
She waited but he said nothing more. She breathed again. It would seem he didn’t know anything further about her. Didn’t know about the patient she’d lost thanks to her inability to leave emotions out of her work.
She’d learned her lesson and hadn’t once re-crossed that line. Nor would she again. Not that Sir Oswyn cared about her resolution, nor would anyone else if that devious little weasel leaked the story. They’d not see past her indiscretion—it was a rather large one and did tend to block one’s view.
All she had to do to keep the secret buried was fulfill this one contract. Sir Oswyn had been crystal clear about that.
“May we speak, Mr. Redcliff?”
He crossed his arms and somehow filled the space within the door frame even more. “Not now. I’m leaving.”
“Then perhaps we can discuss our…business on your way out. I’ll be brief and I’m sure the servants will enjoy the entertainment.”
Redcliff’s eyes narrowed and his shoulders squared but otherwise there was no sign that her words had disturbed him. She was beginning to think he would be perfectly content to have the entire household hear what she had to say.
But then he nodded, so slightly she almost missed it. “Thank you, Worth, that will be all.” The butler bowed and Redcliff moved aside.
Georgiana stepped into his study. A mahogany desk stood near one of the large arched windows, its polished surface reigned over by a bronze bust of a Roman emperor wearing a crown of leaves. A gilt and bronze candlestick and writing implements surrounded sheets of paper that seemed to be organized into a disorderly mess from what she could see.
The dark grain of the desk was in stark contrast to the white marble of the fireplace and the gilded circle of interlocked leaves painted on the ceiling. It was these feminine touches and the fact that the room was located on the second floor that led her to believe it had once been the bedchamber of the lady of the house. It overlooked Mount Street and the grand colonnaded residences opposite. The sunny spring afternoon had drawn elegantly dressed ladies and gentlemen out of their houses and they strolled arm in arm or rode high on springy phaetons. How soothing it must be to see such splendid sights every day.
“Don’t concern yourself,” he said, following her gaze. ”No one out there will be able to see your face clearly enough to identify you.”
She frowned at him. “I’m not concerned for my reputation, Mr. Redcliff.” Which of course was a lie. Her reputation was everything. Once that was lost, no one would trust her and without that trust, she had no career. It would not do to let Mr. Redcliff sense her fear, however. If he saw a single chink in her armor he would take the upper hand and render her impotent. To cure him she needed to be the stronger of the two, virtually indestructible.
Ordinarily she would have brought her maid to London with her but Esme had come down with a rattling cough and was in no fit state to travel. Her illness had been a blow and Georgiana had tried to cancel her contract. That’s when Sir Oswyn Crisp had informed her he would savage her reputation by leaking her secret—her terrible, fatal secret—to those who might wish to employ her in the future.
She couldn’t refuse.
But now that she stood in the presence of her disarmingly handsome patient, she wished she could walk away. The last time Esme stayed home, Georgiana had made the mistake that had resulted in her current precarious situation.
“You may not be concerned for your reputation but I am concerned for mine,” he said without a hint of humor. “Please sit, Miss Appleby, and let me explain the situation to you.”
The situation was as clear as crystal to Georgiana but she obliged him anyway and sat in one of the deep leather armchairs bracketing the fireplace. She had the disturbing feeling of being swallowed by the large piece of furniture. Redcliff sat on the stiff-backed chair at his desk, stretched out his long, elegant legs and crossed his ankles, looking every bit as if he was in charge of the situation.
So she prodded the conversation into a different direction from the one he no doubt intended. ”Your arm appears to move easily enough,” she said, focusing on her work rather than the narrowed eyes that watched her every move. “Does it still hurt?”
He rolled his right shoulder. “Not much.”
“And the gash at the back of your head?”
“Good. So your memory has improved?”
A conversation with a stone would have been less one-sided. She preferred to ease them both into the new situation and get to know her patient a little first but Redcliff left her with no option but to confront him in the most direct way. “Since you are no longer in any great pain, there is no reason to continue to smoke opium is there?”
He went very still again, as if bracing himself. Only a small muscle pulsed high in his cheek. The room suddenly felt cooler beneath that glacial stare. “I need it to help me sleep. I suffer from headaches and insomnia.” His tone was as hard and flat as flint.
“The headaches could be from the opium.” Sir Oswyn had already informed her that Redcliff smoked the powder to help him sleep. A deep slumber meant no nightmares. Unlike most of her patients, Redcliff wasn’t taking the opium to ease the pain of his injuries. Sir Oswyn had made that point clear. However, Redcliff was smoking it to ease another sort of pain. A pain that was far deeper, and far more difficult to heal than a physical one. Discovering and treating the source of it would hopefully cure his need for opium.
If only he would let her.
“You only take it at night?” she asked.
He sat back and regarded her through lazy, heavy-lidded eyes. “This conversation is unnecessary. My usage is limited and hardly a problem. I’m a picture of health, wouldn’t you say?”
She most certainly would say. He looked strong and fit, his athletic legs displayed in all their perfection beneath tight, buff-colored breeches. And then there were those wide, wide shoulders. He was all long, lean lines with a hint of power in the parts of him that were exposed to her scrutiny—the strong fingers, the firm jaw and the determined brow. Indeed he looked extraordinarily…healthy.
Except for the shadows in the hollows of his face and the pallor marring his smooth skin.
He uncrossed his ankles, leaned forward and gave her a twisted grin. “Or would you like to give me a thoroughinspection to satisfy yourself?”
To her utter dismay, her face heated. But from fury not embarrassment. Redcliff was doing everything in his power to unnerve her, undermine her confidence…and she would not allow it.
But before she could think of a suitably cutting retort, he spoke. “Why, Miss Appleby, you blush! I hope I haven’t offended your sensibilities with my coarseness.”
She smiled thinly. “Since your coarseness is simply a weapon of self-defense, Mr. Redcliff, I am not offended. I know you don’t mean to be vulgar. In fact, I’m told you’re quite pleasant when you want to be. At least you used to be.”
That wiped the mocking smile from his eyes. Unfortunately what replaced it was pure ice. “Sir Oswyn said that did he? And is that why he sent you? To return me to the pleasantly amenable diplomat I once was?” When she merely shrugged he went on. “Well, Miss Appleby, is that why he employed a mere slip of a woman like you?”
It was a common enough question—most of her patients expected a man, and a qualified physician at that. On the other hand, few qualified physicians saw the use of opium as a problem. Many prescribed it for pain relief. Only Georgiana’s father and a handful of others understood the long-term damage it did to mind and body. She’d continued his work after his death because, quite simply, what else could a woman in her late twenties with no allowance and no one to support her do to keep poverty at bay? Besides, she liked being useful and she liked helping people, even those who weren’t always aware they needed help.
“He commissioned me because he believes I can cure you of your addiction,” she said. “It’s as simple as that.”
“Is it? The opium helps me sleep and sleep helps me to function, not the opposite. Have you asked yourself why Sir Oswyn would want me working at less than my best?” His blue eyes drilled into her. Challenging. Testing? “I’ve also given my resignation. Did he tell you that?”
He had not. It would seem Sir Oswyn hadn’t been entirely honest about everything. She was not surprised.
“So why send you at all?” Mr. Redcliff’s question echoed her own thoughts. “That, Miss Appleby, is what you should be asking.”
“Perhaps he is concerned for your welfare,” she said. Redcliff snorted. “As your employer he is, after all, responsible for your addiction.”
“He is not.”
“Oh?” She raised an eyebrow but he offered no more on the matter. “Let me tell you some things you may not know about opium, Mr. Redcliff, and then you can tell me if Sir Oswyn doesn’t have your best interests at heart. Because he knows as well as I do that there are severe side-effects of smoking or eating the powder. It can cause breathing difficulties. It numbs the mind. You might be simply taking it to help you sleep now but soon you’ll find you need to smoke more and more to help you fall asleep, and that’s when the problems will really start.”
He blinked slowly, deliberately. “Are you telling me the entire medical profession is wrong?”
“Perhaps they have not seen opium kill a man.”
“And you have?”
“Yes.” Her mouth dried. Tears pricked her eyes. If she thought too much about that day, that patient, then cracks would open up and a flood of painful memories would swamp her. She could not allow that. “He took too much and stopped breathing.” She shrugged in an attempt to hide the overwhelming sadness she always felt when she let herself remember Lawrence. “He simply never woke up.”
There was a slight hesitation before he said, “I will not take too much.”
“Even so, I am here to help you stop.”
His hands balled into fists on his thighs then slowly uncurled and he stretched out his fingers. His sharp gaze drilled into her. “Let’s make something clear, Miss Appleby. I don’t want you here.”
“I believe you have already made that point clear.”
“Then why aren’t you leaving? Surely you have other employment waiting for you.”
Therein lay the problem. “Sir Oswyn has…insisted. He can be quite persuasive when he wants to be.”
Mr. Redcliff leaned back and breathed deeply. “Quite.”
Something in his voice gave her pause. “If you don’t want me here then why not throw me out?”
That produced another one of those grim, twisted smiles. “Because I’m too much of a gentleman.”
She had the sudden desire to laugh out loud. Fortunately she kept it in check and only a small strangled sound escaped from her throat. “Of course you are,” was all she said. But it most certainly was not the reason for his grudging acceptance of her presence in his home. That, she guessed, could be firmly laid at Sir Oswyn’s crippled feet too. He’d forced Georgiana’s hand on the matter and it would seem he had forced Mr. Redcliff’s too. She wondered what secret the Permanent Under-Secretary to the Foreign Office knew about his favorite diplomat and spy.
“I’ll double what he’s paying you,” he said.
“No, thank you.”
“It’s not about the money.” Well, in a way it was—it came down to the future earnings she would lose as a result of Sir Oswyn making good on his threat to expose her.
“Well then,” he said, “we are at a stalemate.”
“Unless you decide to give up opium.”
“I am not giving up.”
“Then we are indeed at a stalemate as you put it.” Stalemates always ended. Eventually. “It seems we shall have to get along as best we can.”
“We don’t have to get along at all. I accept your presence here but for the time being only.”
“So what shall we do? Be in each other’s way forever until one of us dies from sheer frustration?”
The corner of his mouth twitched in what she suspected was the beginning of a genuine smile. No sooner had it appeared than it just as quickly disappeared. “We do nothing,” he said.
“Nothing. This is a big house and we are both adults. I will avoid you and I expect you to avoid me, until you come to realize the futility of staying.”
It was her turn to smile. She couldn’t help it. What he was suggesting was ludicrous. And yet it was the only way. With a stubborn patient, time was her best weapon. Redcliff was a clever man and hopefully a sensible one. He would soon see that not only could he not win a stalemate against her, he was better off without opium. Once the symptoms grew worse, he would realize he needed to give it up or risk losing his life or his mind.
However the fact that he was giving into the situation remarkably easily gave her pause. Surely he didn’t believe they could live in the same house indefinitely? So what did he have planned?
He pulled a gold watch out of his fob pocket. “Now that we’ve established our positions, I must leave you to your own devices.”
“Of course. But before you go, there’s one more thing. Worth tells me you are expecting guests.”
“I am.” He pocketed his watch. “My sister and aunt are here for the Season. Is this about your room?”
“No. The room is adequate for my needs, thank you. My concern is about your guests’ presence. What are you going to tell them about me? Indeed, is it even necessary that they stay here? Perhaps it would be more convenient if they stayed at your brother’s house. Or does Lord Staunton not have any space?”
“Of course he does. He’s the Earl of bloody Staunton. He’s got more rooms than Carlton House. But Aunt Harry doesn’t like the noise generated by my hellion nephews, nor could I inflict her upon them. I’m not that cruel.” He moved past Georgiana to his desk and rearranged the scattered papers without making them any neater. “Since you insist upon staying here, perhaps Aunt Harry’s presence is more fortuitous than you think.”
“I see you haven’t brought your own maid. My aunt can act as your chaperone.”
“My maid was ill. I thought you might have a housekeeper or other female servant to take on the role.”
“This is not the country, Miss Appleby.” He looked at her as if she were a half-wit for even suggesting it. “A mere housekeeper cannot dispel the London gossips. My reputation is at stake and I’ll not have it ruined because you didn’t bring your maid.”
It was the second time he’d made a reference to his reputation and she still wasn’t sure if it was a joke. Going by the grim set of his mouth, it probably wasn’t. Perhaps females had used him before to try to ruin their reputations. Considering his wealth and looks, she wouldn’t be surprised if one or more had attempted to trap him into marriage using underhanded methods. But to think a mere aunt could stop a lady in pursuit of an eligible gentleman was naive. To his credit, a female servant had even less chance.
“So what will you tell them about my presence?” she prompted.
He shrugged and winced. His arm must be hurting more than he was letting on. “What I’ll tell everyone. That you are my nurse. You’re tending to my injuries.” He cocked his head to the side and regarded her as if he were seeing her for the first time. “Although some may not believe it.”
“You think they’ll assume I’m your mistress?” She stifled a laugh. “Now I shall always be wondering what your visitors are thinking when they meet me for the first time.”
“You won’t be meeting any of my visitors, Miss Appleby. You’ll be keeping out of my way, remember?”
He seemed so sure of himself, so confident that he could avoid her and even succeed in ridding himself of her presence that she almost felt sorry for him. Learning that he would not succeed—or more to the point, that she could not afford to fail—would come as quite a shock.
He rose and stood so close she could have touched him without leaning forward. He was a solid tower of strength, one that remained perfectly still except for the rapid rise and fall of his chest, the clenching and unclenching of his fists at his sides. It was as if the calm exterior contained a mass of raw, seething power that would burst out if he moved one muscle too many.
She rose too and gave him a small curtsy. “I think I’ll go for a walk. Good afternoon, Mr. Redcliff.”
He opened the door for her, watching her all the while beneath a frown. His gaze unnerved her yet she couldn’t pinpoint the reason why. It was direct certainly, but not sharp enough to tear through her. “Might I suggest Hyde Park,” he said, voice low and simmering across the gap between them. “That should keep you out of trouble.”
“And what makes you think I want to be kept out of trouble, Mr. Redcliff?”
His eyes widened ever so slightly, then his lips tilted into the shadow of a smile. It seemed she had surprised him with her answer, and amused him. At least he had a sense of humor buried somewhere beneath the hardened exterior.
“Forgive me. I assumed you would not approve of our looser city ways.”
It was her turn to be surprised. “Oh? And pray, what is it about me that led you to that assumption?”
He crossed his arms then immediately uncrossed them as a whisper of pain passed over his face. His arm must hurt in that position, although he’d shown no hint of it when he crossed his arms earlier. It was perhaps a testimony to what he could endure when he wanted to.
“I’m not sure you really want to know,” he said.
She most certainly did now that he’d said that and with such smugness too. Particularly as it would give her some insight into what he saw when he looked at her. “Tell me anyway. If we’re to be thrown together we might as well be honest with one another.”
“Very well, if you insist. It’s your…tightness.”
The description caught her off guard. “My what?”
“Tightness.” He waved a hand at her dress, her face. “Everything about you is tight. Your hair is pulled back so severely that your eyes are pointed at the outer corners. Your lips are perennially pursed, except on the occasion you deign to smile, and that dress is a little too small for you. It is tight in all the…interesting places.” His blue eyes suddenly blazed with heat as his gaze shifted to her chest. Slowly, slowly he looked up at her face again. “Even your freckles are tightly packed across your nose.”
Georgiana controlled a blush but it took effort. Then she had to stop herself from laughing—he’d got her thoroughly wrong. Thank goodness. “And it’s because of this that you think I’d be shocked by what I see and hear in London? I may live in the country, Mr. Redcliff, but I have been to London many times and I can assure you I am quite aware of your city ways.”
“But are you comfortable with them?”
She was trying to think of a witty retort when he got in first. “Good afternoon, Miss Appleby. Please make use of the servants. The library is also at your disposal.”
She supposed it would be too much to expect an invitation to dine with him.
He bowed, not deeply, and opened the door wider, driving home the point. She curtsied and left. The door clicked softly shut behind her.
Georgiana expelled a long breath and wished she had someone to talk to about the strange encounter with Mr. Redcliff. Esme was a good listener and her father had always been an excellent adviser. But she was alone and in a large house with a man who didn’t want her there. She wasn’t entirely sure what to make of it, or him, or what to do next.
So she made her way to the library downstairs where she sat in one of the big armchairs situated beside the unlit hearth. Libraries always had a soothing effect on her. The smell of old leather buried deep within the fibers of the rug and shelf upon shelf of densely packed volumes reminded her of her father’s extensive library. She’d sold it off years ago to pay his debts but she would never lose the memory of how his books made her feel. Warm and safe yet courageous and free at the same time. Soaking up the atmosphere in Redcliff’s library was one way to bring back her parents and that sense of unconditional love they had showered upon her.
The library looked out upon the entrance hall and she soon heard steady, determined footsteps on the black and white marble squares. They were the confident strides of a man who owned his world, not a servant. They must belong to Redcliff.
She stood and made her way to one of the ceiling-high bookcases nearer the door to better see him. She picked a book at random but lifted her gaze to watch Redcliff accepting his hat from Worth in the hall. The butler bowed and Redcliff, who had not seen her, left through the front door.
As if the answer had been whispered in her ear, she now knew what her next step must be. She would not wait around for Redcliff to be ready to be cured.
When Worth slipped away, she replaced the book and climbed the stairs once more. She knocked softly on the door adjacent to Redcliff’s study which she guessed was the master bedroom. It was opened by a man of middling age with streaks of gray shooting through his red hair. He had a friendly, generous face with gentle creases around his mouth and owlish eyes.
“You must be Miss Appleby,” he said without a hint of surprise or wariness.
“I am. And you are Mr. Redcliff’s valet?”
“Stephen Trent, miss,” he said, bowing. “I’ve been expecting you.”
“You have? Did Mr. Redcliff say something?”
“No, miss.” He looked offended at her suggestion. “He told me why you are here and I assumed you would want to speak to me regarding…” His gaze dropped and he leaned closer. “…his headache tonic. That is what I would do in your position.”
A shrewd man. “Are you aware his tonic is opium, Trent?” He gulped and nodded. “Then you know about my commission?”
“I do, miss. You have been employed to cure Mr. Redcliff’s need for it.”
“Yes.” So far Trent had not told her anything of his opinion on the matter. A careful servant as well as a clever one. “To do that, I’ll need your help from time to time.”
“To find his cache of opium and give it to me.”
The open, friendly face suddenly closed. “He’s run out.”
“When he buys some more then.”
“I cannot do that, miss, unless the master wishes it.”
His response was to be expected but it was still disappointing to hear. She would need Trent as an ally if she was to succeed in her endeavor.
“Tell me, Trent, how long have you known Mr. Redcliff?”
The change in her questions appeared to take him by surprise. “Well…I’ve been his valet for nearly ten years now, miss, but I knew him a few years before that when I was a footman in his father’s household.” She suspected he wanted to tell her more so she encouraged him with a nod. “Mr. Redcliff has been good to me. He was only a young man when I came into his service.” His mouth hooked into a wry smile. “Full of himself he was in the early days, setting quite the figure at all the clubs. He excelled at everything he put his hand to—fencing, boxing, languages, accounts. He’s turned his father’s allowance into a fortune in the time I’ve known him, and he’s had a string of young ladies and their mamas try to catch him.” The smile turned to a beaming grin. “He’s eluded them all so far.” Then all his good humor vanished without a trace as if it were sucked out of him.
“He’s not like that anymore, is he?”
He shook his head and glanced around as if he were set adrift in a vast sea with only a raft and no oar. “I shouldn’t be speaking to you like this.”
“It’s all right. We’re not discussing anything I couldn’t learn from other sources.”
“I suppose so.”
“Please, Trent, tell me what Mr. Redcliff is like now.”
He nodded as if coming to a conclusion. ”He’s changed. He’s…quiet. Too quiet. And not the kind of quiet of a man at peace but like there’s a silent rage inside him that he can’t let out. Or won’t.”
“Why do you think that is?”
“Why is he angry?” He shrugged. “I don’t know. I suppose he’s mad at someone or something. He’s been like this ever since his return from the Continent.” The sound of footsteps made him glance nervously down the hall. “Just a maid,” he said with relief.
Poor Trent. He seemed a kind soul and genuinely concerned for the master he admired, even loved. He was exactly the sort of valet she was hoping Redcliff would have.
“Thank you, Trent, you’ve been a great help already.” She smiled at him and his pale skin turned redder than a radish.
He stretched his neck, looking both pleased and uncomfortable. “Glad of it, miss.”
“But I’ll need more help from you.”
She lay a hand on his arm and he gulped. “Listen,” she said, steadily. “I’m assuming Mr. Redcliff is going to speak to Sir Oswyn now to see if he can convince him to sever my contract. It’s what I’d do in his situation. But he’ll fail.” Sir Oswyn must have something terrible on Redcliff or the situation wouldn’t have gone this far—Redcliff would have tossed her out as soon as she arrived. Sir Oswyn was an expert at discovering a person’s weakest point and pressing on it. “So, in order for this to go smoothly, I will need you to do some things against your nature, some things Mr. Redcliff may not like.”
“I will explain to him that I’ve forced you, that you are not to blame.”
“Please, miss, don’t ask me to do anything he’ll not like.”
She hadn’t wanted to explain the particulars—it wasn’t seemly to tell the valet all the awful things that might happen to his beloved master—but he’d given her no choice.
“Do you know what happens to opium eaters and smokers, Trent?” He shook his head but a hint of alarm settled into his eyes. “Have you seen them struggle for breath, desperate to get air into their bodies only to find they can’t? Have you seen the way it numbs the mind, makes them incapable of clear thought, turns them into a pathetic, empty shell? If you don’t help Mr. Redcliff, that is what will happen to him. He may only be taking it to ease his pain and help him sleep now but soon that will not be enough. He’ll need more and more of it and then he’ll become just like I’ve described. A witless, frail remnant of the great man he once was. He’s in the early stages still, he has minimal symptoms compared to a long-time user, but if he doesn’t stop, that’s what will happen. Do you want to see him like that, Trent?”
He stared unblinking at her. “No, miss,” he whispered.
“Then help me.” When he hesitated, she grabbed his shoulders and shook him. Someone in the house needed to understand the implications and since Redcliff was proving to be a stubborn nut to crack, she would have to work on Trent. “Help him.”
He nodded ever so slightly. “I’ll try.”
It was the best she could hope for and she wouldn’t push him further. Not yet. Let him see the outcome of his master’s discussion with Sir Oswyn. Tomorrow, she would begin the real work.
“One more thing,” she said. “Did you go with him to the Continent?”
“Were you with him when he acquired his injuries?”
“I see. Did he tell you how he got them?”
Trent swallowed, sending his Adam’s apple bobbing up and down like a buoy in a stormy sea.
“Is it a delicate matter?” she prompted.
“Yes, miss. He told me the brother of one of his…mistresses caught him unawares.”
Mistresses plural? Good lord. “Do you believe him?”
“Not really, miss. It’s more likely to be the husband.”
Husband? So his lovers were usually married?
“Thank you, Trent. If you learn anything more about that day could you be so good as to inform me. It might help.”
He said nothing and she suspected it was too great an ask for the loyal servant. She thanked him again then headed back to her room, contemplating that mysterious night in Berne. A night that something so important had happened to Redcliff that Sir Oswyn was prepared to blackmail him to discover what lay hidden in his memory.