“I don’t understand how I can help you with this matter, my friend.”
Ian Carmichael, the Earl of Westbrook, crossed his long legs and sat back in his chair. He’d visited Sir Peregrine Malting at the older man’s request, and after an excellent dinner, they had retired to the library to talk privately.
“I believe you are the only man who can, Westbrook.”
“I don’t even know the family you are talking about, let alone the gentleman himself.”
“You don’t need to have an acquaintance with him. Lord Pelly has a beautiful daughter.”
“You are a lodestone for beautiful women.”
Ian scowled. “I can’t help that. I hardly encourage them. They have some ridiculous notion that I am exotic and foreign, and therefore more exciting than the average English gentleman.”
“With just cause. You are exotic. I don’t believe there are any other peers whose father married an Indian princess.”
“Not legally. Plenty of them had wives out there. Apparently, my mother insisted on a proper marriage. She was an intelligent woman as well as a Christian convert. What do my looks, or lack of them, have to do with your little problem of leaked government secrets?”
“As I said, I have my suspicions that the Pelly family are up to their necks in debt, and that someone in their household is handing over information to a French contact in exchange for gold. Information that might affect the future outcome of this war with Napoleon.”
“Well, we can’t have that. Why can’t the government pay a visit to the Pellys and lock them up?”
“Because we don’t have enough evidence.” Sir Peregrine rubbed his forehead. “If we start imprisoning every aristocratic family on suspicion of aiding our enemies, half the ton would be in gaol. They all have French relatives, and we’d be halfway to the horrors of the guillotine. It would cause a panic, and the last thing we need amongst the leaders of this country at the moment is another panic.”
“So what exactly do you want me to do with this beautiful daughter?”
Sir Peregrine smiled. “Court her a little?”
“And how will that help your cause? Do you think the little darling will blurt out all her family secrets to me?”
“I’ve heard you can be most persuasive, Westbrook.”
“Only in bed, and I’ll be damned if I’ll take her there. I’d be expected to marry the chit.”
“I’m sure you can avoid that fate. All I need you to do is get an invitation to their country house. It is on the south coast.”
“And no doubt freezing cold and damp at this time of year.” Ian shuddered. Despite living in England for most of his life, he missed the blazing heat of his birthplace. He missed his mother as well, but that wasn’t something a gentleman could admit to, especially not an English aristocrat.
“The house is perched on a cliff above the beach and a natural cove, a perfect spot for smugglers and French ships to rendezvous. All I need you to do is spend some time with the family, observe their daily routines, and see if you can establish which of the men is behaving suspiciously.”
“And then what do you want me to do? Tell him politely to stop, or challenge him to a duel? That will go down splendidly with my prospective in-laws.”
“You don’t have to do anything. Just come back to London and report to me. Your evidence will allow me to approach the foreign office with my full report, and have the man apprehended.”
“It’s ridiculous that we have to sink to these depths. The government should have an official department that deals with intelligence gathering.”
“The British government’s official position is that we have no spies. It is considered ungentlemanly.”
“I’m aware of that.” Ian exhaled. “I have several friends who risk their lives in France on a daily basis knowing that if they are caught their own damned government will deny their existence. It’s not fair, Perry.”
“Since when has war been fair, my friend?” Sir Peregrine sat forward. “Will you help me, then? I believe the Pelly family is planning a house party in a week or so. If you act with your usual speed and charm, I’m sure you’ll be invited.”
“All right then. How can I ignore a plea from you?” Ian rose and shook Perry’s hand. “I’ll do my best to charm the Pelly beauty.”
“Thank you, my friend. You will not regret it. Your government and your king appreciate your efforts.”
“Even if they won’t save my neck.”
“Exactly. Although it will hardly come to that. We’re in England. What on earth could go wrong?”
Cornwall, Pelly Manor
From her seat against the wall, Miss Faith Pelly studied the imposing form of the Earl of Westbrook, the so-called Savage Rake, as he conversed with her father and younger sister. His dark head was bent attentively as if entranced by every word that sprang from Margaret’s perfect lips. Faith’s own mouth curved in disbelief. Margaret might be beautiful, but she hardly had much of an opinion about any- thing. But then why did she need one? Her prettiness was enough to draw men like Westbrook to her. She simply reflected back a man’s inflated opinions of himself.
Faith sighed and stared at the clock on the wall. If she was lucky, she could steal away to the library, and forget about comparing herself to her sister. She loved Margaret, but it sometimes seemed her family was so busy trying to catch a rich husband for their more beautiful daughter that they made no effort to find a suitable match for her.
Not that she needed a husband. From what she had observed in society, a husband merely constrained his wife to obey a set of antiquated rules, and merrily went his own way, ignoring them himself. How many men openly took mistresses? How many times had she seen her own mother crying when reading the gossip columns about her father’s latest trollop?
The clock struck ten, and she rose to her feet and slipped quietly toward the door. The only person who noticed her exit was the Earl of Westbrook, but he was hardly in a position to stop her from leaving. She realized she was disappointed in him for his interest in Margaret. At dinner he had revealed himself as something of an intellectual and a world traveler. When she’d attempted to draw him into conversation, either her mother or her sister had intervened to draw the discussion back to the superficial and trivial gossip they adored. It had been quite frustrating.
She hurried along the drafty corridors to the library, which was on the side of the house that faced the sea. Rain lashed at the ill-fitting windows, and the smell of seawater permeated the stone passages. Her parents hated the old house, but didn’t have the funds either to improve it, or knock it down. That was one of the reasons why they wanted Margaret to marry well, and why the Earl of Westbrook was being treated like minor royalty.
He was attractive in a very un-English way. His skin was tanned; his eyes even darker, and he had the most sensual mouth Faith had ever seen on a man outside her dreams. Although he smiled, it never reached his eyes. Despite his reputation as a notorious womanizer, up close Faith had detected a coldness and distance about him that confused her.
Her heart rate sped up as she opened the library door, lit a candle, and kindled the fire that lay ready in the grate. It would hardly heat the immense space, but she had her shawl and her book to read, and if that didn’t make her feel warm, some- thing was wrong.
She retrieved the small, leather-bound volume from its hiding place and settled down in the window seat. Opening the book at a random page, she studied the illustration with great interest. It appeared as if one woman was entwined with three men . . . how was that possible? She turned the book upside down and viewed the engraving from a different angle. It still made no sense. Heat coursed through her, warming her cheeks and the secret place between her thighs she’d learned could give such pleasure.
Giving up her attempt to understand the picture, she read the text, but that didn’t help much either. Turning the page, she studied the next erotic illustration and al- lowed her hand to settle between her legs. Time passed and she heard nothing but the crackle of the fire and the sound of the tide turning and crashing on the cliffs below.
A gentle cough made her jump, and she thrust the book into the folds of her skirt.
“I do apologize for disturbing you, Miss Pelly. I didn’t realize the library would be occupied at this time of night.”
“Lord Westbrook.” She shot to her feet, shoving the incriminating book down the side of the window seat beneath the cushions. “You startled me. May I help you with something?”
He leaned against the door frame and regarded her, his dark brown eyes considering. “At dinner your father mentioned that he had a collection of journals and art- work from an ancestor who traveled to India with Clive. He said he had put them out for me in the library.” His smile was self-deprecating. “I doubt he imagined I would seek them out so soon, but I didn’t feel sleepy, and thought to amuse my- self by looking through them.”
Faith approached the desk that sat at one end of the library. “Ah yes, I found those items for you yesterday. I placed them here on the desk.”
He sauntered toward her and she realized again how tall he was when she had to look up at him.
“Indeed, I act as the family librarian and historian. If there is anything you wish to know about the origins of the Pelly family, or this house, I am the one to ask. My father prefers to live in the present, and busies himself with the daily matters of running the estate.”
“As any proper English gentleman should.” He bowed and she caught a hint of warm spice and leather. “I’m sure I will have some questions for you, Miss Pelly.” He hesitated, one hand on top of the pile of books. “I’d prefer to read in here. My bedchamber is rather cold. Will I be disturbing you?”
“Not at all, my lord. I was just about to retire for the night.”
“You do look a little . . . heated, Miss Pelly.” He smiled down at her and she couldn’t look away. “Perhaps you do need your rest, or at least the comfort of your bed.”
She needed to retreat from him, that was certain. In her present aroused state, his manly presence was rather too intoxicating.
“Good night, my lord. I hope you enjoy the books. If you have any more requirements, please do not hesitate to ask me.”
“Thank you.” He bowed again. “Good night, Miss Pelly.”
After his companion had fled the library, Ian closed the door and stared thoughtfully at the window seat. He’d entered the room a few moments before he’d had the thought to announce his presence by coughing. He’d found himself en- thralled by the sight of the eldest Pelly daughter engrossed in reading something, her lips moving with the text and one hand cupping herself between her thighs.
Not quite what he’d expected to see at all, but most arousing.
What on earth had she been devouring so avidly?
He walked over to the window seat and spent a moment searching amongst the cushions, before pulling out a leather-bound book. He sat down and opened the pages, smiling as he saw exactly what the minx had been up to. The engravings were erotic, definitely not English, and entirely unsuitable for an unmarried lady—a lady who had been enjoying looking at them immensely.
He contemplated the book. Should he tuck it back into its hiding place and pre- tend he had no knowledge of it, or would the older Miss Faith Pelly offer him a dif- ferent and more exciting opportunity to become intimate with one of the family? He slipped the slim volume into his pocket and returned to the desk. He used the candle she’d left behind to light the candelabra on the desk and sat down.
The first book had a faded scarlet cover with gold lettering. He slowly opened it and inhaled the faint scent of spices, which set him straight back to his childhood. Sitting in the sun by the river, watching the elephants being bathed with his beautiful mother and his nurse . . . The memories made him miss his mother with an intensity that never seemed to lessen. She’d been his whole world until his father had returned to India, and taken him away to boarding school to become a proper English gentleman. He turned the page and and studied the illustration. It was a book of prayers and devotional scripts. Some of the pages had been marked with pressed leaves or flowers.
Presumably, the intrepid Pelly explorer either had a wife accompanying him or had acquired an Indian mistress. Ian set that book aside and moved on to the next, which was bigger, the covers tied together with a faded ribbon. He opened it and discovered a series of sketches and watercolors done by an amateur artist. He found himself smiling at the artist’s attempts to instill an English sensibility into a completely foreign culture.
The third book was obviously a journal, and had been conscientiously filled out by its owner, who, from the bold, slashing handwriting, was a man. Ian raised his head and studied the packed shelves of the library. Had Miss Pelly discovered her erotic treatise when she was looking for the books for him? If so, she owed him her gratitude. He settled back in the chair and, ignoring the rain, started to read the pompous utterings of Sir Rupert Pelly, explorer and exploiter.
Much later, when the candles had almost burned down, the creak of the door opening made him look up. Miss Pelly stood framed in the doorway; her light brown hair was braided in a single plait that hung well over her shoulder. Her startled expression had him rising to his feet and moving toward her.
“Lord Westbrook! I—thought you’d be in bed by now.”
He glanced at the clock on the desk and reached over her head to shut the door against the draughty corridor. “I was so busy reading your ancestor’s journal that I forgot the time. Did you want something in particular?”
He waited, his expression carefully polite to see what she would do next.
“I think I left my book on the window seat.”
She moved briskly past him toward the window. Should he pretend he had no knowledge of the book, or tell her he’d found it? His father had spent years trying to beat the morals of an English gentleman into him, but he hadn’t quite succeeded.
He was no gentleman.
He took the book out of his pocket. “Is this what you are looking for?”
She twirled around, her hand outstretched, and went completely still. He held the book up high so that she couldn’t quite reach it. “Don’t look so horrified. I’m not going to tell your father.”
“Tell my father what?”
He raised his eyebrows. “That you’ve been reading a highly salacious and inappropriate book for a young unmarried lady.”
She raised her chin. She had a pair of remarkably clear blue eyes. “I don’t intend to get married. How else am I to understand carnal matters if I don’t research them?”
“You consider this research?”
“Naturally. Now, may I have my book back, please?”
He stared down at her flushed cheeks. Despite not being the beauty her sister was, Miss Pelly displayed more animation and courage than most women he had ever met.