Two days later,
Newcomb Manor, Worcestershire
“Whom did you say you had invited to join you here for the week of grouse shooting?” Alys stared at her older brother as if he had sprouted horns upon his head and developed cloven feet.
“Calm down, Alys,” Teddy drawled. He was slumped down in one of the chairs in her private parlor at the family home in Worcestershire. They had recently returned there after a busy London Season. “Deveril ain’t as bad as you make him out to be.”
“He is worse!” Alys stood up to begin pacing the room, shaking her head each time she glared across at her brother. “Have you forgotten he was implicated in the death of our father?”
“You will not speak to me in that tone.”
“I apologize.” Alys looked down at her feet to hide the rebellion that must surely be in her eyes. She knew from experience it was a mistake to annoy her brother, and that she would be made to pay for it at some later date. As her legal guardian until Alys was one and twenty in one month’s time, she had no choice but to accept her brother’s often precarious temperament. With no money of her own, even once she had come of age, she must rely upon Teddy’s generosity to provide so much as a roof over her head.
Teddy nodded acknowledgment of that apology. “As I am not in my dotage, of course I have not forgotten,” he snapped as he straightened in the chair. “But as that implication was made by you— The authorities investigated the matter and could find no evidence to back up your claim,” he spoke firmly as she would have interrupted. “The marquis flatly denied your accusation. In the end it came down to your word against his.”
She gave a pained frown. “And we all know a marquis’s word, most especially the powerful Marquis of Deveril’s, is so much more believable than plain Miss Alys Newcomb’s will ever be.”
“This attitude ill becomes you,” Teddy rebuked.
“You have never believed me either.”
“It has been three years, and it is time the incident was forgot—”
“How can we possibly forget he murdered Papa in cold blood?”
“To that end,” Teddy continued determinedly, “I have invited Deveril to my weeklong shoot, along with several of my other friends. He will be arriving late tomorrow afternoon.”
Alys was now far too agitated to heed the warning in her brother’s tone. “The only reason the marquis was not arrested for shooting Papa was because he has friends in very high places who obviously interceded on his behalf.” Deveril’s friendship with the Prince Regent, along with his close acquaintances known as The Sinners, was well known.
“The reason he was not arrested was because he was not guilty.”
“I saw him with a gun in his hand!”
“But you did not see him shoot it.”
“Who else could have done so?”
“What reason could Deveril possibly have had for killing Father?” Her brother’s impatience was barely contained. “Deveril is as rich as Croesus, has a far greater social standing than we do, and, as you have already pointed out, he has very influential friends.”
All true. “I do not know why he did it, only that he did,” she insisted stubbornly.
“This vendetta you have against the marquis has to stop,” Teddy stated firmly as he rose to his feet. “He has been investigated and cleared of the crime, and that is the end of the matter. You will now welcome Deveril into our home as politely as you do my other male friends when they arrive later today.” That edge of warning had deepened.
Alys was very aware that she should already have been married and be mistress of a home of her own, possibly with a child or two in the nursery. But the murder of their father three years ago, and the scandal which had ensued when Alys accused the Marquis of Deveril of the wicked deed had seriously limited her choice of a husband. The title, inherited by Teddy upon the death of their father, provided no dowry for Alys, further narrowing her marriage prospects. So far, no gentleman had been enamored of her enough to make an offer for her.
At six and twenty, Teddy was not yet married either, but once he was, Alys knew that his wife might demand his unmarried sister vacate their home.
Alys would then be forced into the role of paid companion to one of the elderly ladies in Society, or become governess to several unruly children in one of Society’s wealthier households.
The third option, to become the mistress of some wealthy gentleman, held even less appeal.
Her eyes narrowed. “I cannot imagine the marquis is any more eager to accept your invitation than I am to have him here.”
“He has already accepted,” her brother stated with satisfaction.
Why had he, was Alys’s immediate thought. The marquis must know how much she despised him. Alys had certainly made no secret of it whenever she cut him at any of the Society functions they had both attended these past three years.
Nor, as far as she knew, were Deveril and her brother particular friends. The six of Teddy’s friends due to arrive later today were all single gentlemen in their early to midtwenties. Deveril might also be single, but he was aged in his midthirties. As her brother had already stated, Deveril also held a social standing far above them or any of the young bucks who would be arriving here later today.
So why had the marquis accepted Teddy’s invitation?
Because Alys refused to believe Deveril’s coming to the Newcomb estate was as innocent as her brother claimed it to be.
Newcomb Manor was much as Devil remembered it. Perhaps a little shabbier; several of the window frames at the front of the mellow stone four-story house were in need of being replaced. The garden had been allowed to grow wild in places too, speaking of a shortage of gardeners. Considering Teddy Newcomb’s lack of finances, it was a dearth of servants which would no doubt be reflected inside the house too. But otherwise it appeared as graciously charming in the early evening sunlight as the last time Devil had been here.
Unlike its mistress, he acknowledged dourly, as he stepped down from his coach and saw Teddy Newcomb and his stony-faced sister waiting at the top of the steps to greet him.
Alys was just as beautiful, if not more so, than Devil remembered. Almost a foot shorter than his own six feet two inches, her reddish-brown hair was fashionably styled upon her crown, with several enticing curls at her temples and nape. Her eyes were a clear sky-blue in her heart-shaped face, nose pert above full, bow-shaped lips. Her chin was currently perhaps a little too pointed and tilted at a challenging angle, but that might only be in a show of her disapproval of him. Voluptuous breasts were visible above the low neckline of her cream day dress, her waist and hips slender.
Alys was not only beautiful but wholly desirable, as the stirring of Devil’s cock attested. Something that, he acknowledged ruefully, would no doubt be yet another black mark against him in Alys’s eyes if she should become aware of it.
If it was possible for her to see him in any blacker light than she already did, of course. Which was doubtful.
It had not always been like this between them. In fact, once upon a time Devil had believed the two of them might become more than friends.
Never mind what he had believed. Alys Newcomb now despised him with a fierceness she made no effort to hide, from him or anyone else. A dislike Devil had no doubt she would have voiced when Newcomb informed her to expect him for a visit.
“You find something amusing, my lord?”
Devil arched an arrogant brow at the sharpness of Alys’s tone even as he murmured a few words of polite greeting to Teddy Newcomb as the two men shook hands. “I am merely happy to be at Newcomb Manor again, Miss Newcomb.”
Her gaze grew skeptical, but she answered him politely enough. “Your luggage and valet have already arrived, the former taken up to the bedchamber which has been prepared for your visit.”
He nodded. “Where is my valet now?”
“I believe he is in the kitchen, partaking of refreshment after his journey and unpacking. But if you would care to come inside, I will have one of the maids go and fetch him before showing you to your bedchamber so that you might freshen up before dinner.”
“Why put the maid and Riley to that trouble when you are already here to accompany me and it is several hours yet before dinner?”
A flush colored Alys’s cheeks, and it was clear she dearly wanted to refuse him. But a sideways glance at her brother caused her to bite back whatever caustic reply she would have liked to make. “Of course, my lord. If you would care to follow me?” She turned and entered the house with a decidedly disapproving swish of her skirts.
Devil gave his host a nod before following her inside, handing his hat and cane to the waiting butler before his much longer strides easily allowed him to reach Alys’s side as she began to ascend the wide staircase. “Are you going to keep up this shrewish behavior for the whole of my stay?” he murmured for her ears alone.
She did not so much as glance at him. “In all probability, yes.”
Devil gave a wry smile. “I always did like your spirit.”
“And I have always despised you,” she snapped back.
“We both know that is not true,” he drawled.
Alys gave the devil at her side—how aptly named he was!—a cold glare. “I was much younger and more easily impressed in those days.” She defied any young woman of seventeen not to be overwhelmed by this man’s taciturn good looks and arrogant bearing.
Three years ago, Alys had actually imagined herself in love with him, and at the time, she had seen no reason to hide those feelings. Until she had come upon him, standing over the dead body of her father, with a pistol in his hand.
Whatever Alys might have imagined she felt for this man had also died that night.
Deveril had become more rather than less handsome in those intervening years. His dark hair was shorter than was fashionable, but the more severe style suited him. It also framed the harsh contours of his face: a wide brow, devil-dark eyes, a long and aquiline nose, sculptured mouth, and a square and chiseled jaw. Tall and muscular, he was dressed in the height of elegant fashion in a dark blue superfine, silver waistcoat, dark gray pantaloons, and highly polished black Hessians.
“And now you have become sharp of tongue and character,” he answered her with his own brand of cruel honesty.
“Whose fault is that?” she challenged as they entered the hallway leading to his bedchamber.
“Mine,” he drawled. “I am presuming, from the accusation of your words and in your tone.”
Alys gave an unladylike snort. “How can it be otherwise when I believe you responsible for killing my father?”
A nerve pulsed in the tightness of his jaw. “You believe wrongly.”
Alys knew what she had seen, even if no one else believed her.
Her father and Deveril had become friends during the last months of Sir Peter Newcomb’s life. A mismatched friendship to be sure, but the two men shared an interest in horse racing and breeding, and there had been talk of her father taking over the training of several of the pedigree mounts the marquis kept in his stables. Her father had already trained and entered several mildly successful horses for Royal Ascot. He had believed that with the right financial backing, which Deveril was apparently willing to provide, he might be even more successful.
Unfortunately there appeared to have been some sort of falling out before any of this could take place. Resulting in her father lying dead from a bullet fired from one of the two dueling pistols he kept loaded in his study, with Deveril the one holding the pistol that had killed him.
Nor could the marquis have been too upset by the death of his erstwhile business partner, because he had since hired another trainer for his stables, and been a very successful race horse owner these past two years.
Alys came to a halt in the hallway and opened the door into the bedchamber Teddy had instructed she have prepared for Deveril’s use. Her father’s bedchamber, and now Teddy’s, as it happened. Once again Alys had questioned Teddy’s decision, this time to move himself to another suite of rooms in deference to the marquis. But her brother had insisted Deveril, as their most prestigious guest, must be given the best bedchamber.
Having no choice but to acquiesce to her brother’s wishes, Alys could only hope her father’s ghost would appear and haunt Deveril the moment he closed his eyes later tonight and tried to sleep.
She remained in the hallway as the marquis entered the bedchamber. “Why have you come here?”
“I was invited.”
“Not by me.”
“No, not by you,” he conceded tautly.
There seemed nothing else to say. “If you require anything that will make your stay here more comfortable, then your valet may call upon one of the servants— What are you doing?” Alys demanded as her wrist was taken into Deveril’s grasp and he pulled her inside the bedchamber with him before closing the door behind them.
The marquis pushed her up against the door, holding both her hands captive above her head with one of his, before bending enough that his face was only inches away from her own startled one. “I am not in the habit of repeating myself, but I will say this just once more: I did not shoot and kill your father.”
“I did not believe you three years ago, and I do not believe you now.” It was totally unnerving to have Deveril holding her captive in this way.
For him to be so close to her she could smell the citrus and sandalwood of his cologne, and be made aware of the warmth of his body through the thin material of her gown.
Her own body was wholly aware of his close proximity. Her breasts suddenly felt uncomfortably confined in a gown that had fitted her perfectly well a half hour ago, the dampening of her drawers an irritating chaff between her legs. As for the firm grasp he had of her… Her skin literally felt on fire where his fingers were curled about the slenderness of her wrists.
“You may believe whatever the hell you wish,” the marquis answered her coldly. “But what you will not do is continue to treat me with the same lack of respect you have shown toward me since my arrival here. Is that understood?”
“Is that understood?” His other hand took a firm grasp of her chin and tilted her face up so that she had no choice but to look at his harshly etched features.
Alys glared her dislike of him and his dictatorial behavior. “It is.”
“Good.” His head swooped down, and his mouth took possession of hers.
Alys was initially too surprised to even think of putting up a fight, and by the time it did occur to her to do so, it was already too late. Her body had betrayed her. Her lips had parted of their own volition to allow Deveril to deepen the kiss, at the same time as she pressed her aching breasts against the hardness of his chest. A soft mewling noise escaped her throat.
It was the sound of that needy mewl, and the realization she was the one making it, which finally brought Alys to her senses. Enough to realize the evidence of the marquis’s desire, his hard and engorged cock, was currently pressing against the softness of her abdomen.
Deveril’s grip had loosened about her wrists, however, making it easy for her to break his hold and bring her hands down and push against his chest. She wrenched her mouth from beneath his. “Get away from me,” she demanded furiously. To her surprise, he immediately stepped back.
Whether her own fury was directed at Deveril or herself, Alys was unsure. Probably both. Him for daring to kiss her. Herself for responding.
A kiss from this gentleman three years ago, along with that throbbing evidence of his arousal, would have thrilled Alys to her very core. But here and now? All she felt was utterly disgusted with herself for having responded like a filly in heat. No, more like a cat in heat, the way she had been almost purring and rubbing herself against him.
Was she so starved for a man’s attention and warmth she was desperate enough to respond to Deveril, of all men?
Devil studied Alys’s flushed and furious face through narrowed lids. “Go,” he rasped.
“Go, Alys, or I will not allow you to leave until after I have made you mine.”
“I will never be yours!”
A smile twisted his lips. “I warn you against challenging me into proving you wrong.”
She met his gaze defiantly. “Does your wickedness now include forcing unwilling women?”
He eyed her mockingly. “You are not unwilling.”
Her bosom quickly rose and fell in her agitation. “Bastard!”
“Possibly,” he drawled. “But at this point, I am offering you the choice of going or staying. Another second or two, and I will not give you that same choice.”
Devil waited until Alys had left the room, after casting one last disgusted glare in his direction, before allowing his guard to drop.
Kissing Alys had been a grave tactical error on his part. If she was Napoleon’s spy, then she might use that show of weakness against him at some later date. If she was not, then it had only succeeded in making Alys despise him all the more for having so openly revealed his desire for her.
To Devil’s surprise, he had desired Alys from the moment he first set eyes on her during her first Season. Her reddish-brown hair, creamy complexion, lively blue eyes, and vivacious nature had been like a beacon among all the fashionable blondes with their insipid and pale faces and simpering manners.
Not that Devil, aged two and thirty at the time, usually paid any attention to the new debutantes, but there had been something about Alys Newcomb which he, and his cock, had responded to on such a visceral level, he had been unable to ignore it.
Aware of the difference in their ages, he had set about making a closer acquaintance with her father in an effort to get to know Alys better. Singling her out at any of Society’s social events would have placed them both in the awkward position of the expectation of a betrothal announcement before the Season was over. Devil had considered himself well past the age of being trapped into marriage with a woman he would later discover he could not abide.
But Alys had proven to be as delightful on closer acquaintance as she had appeared from a distance. She had spirit and determination, a mischievous sense of humor, and a genuine affection for her father, who had obviously doted on her since the death of his wife ten years previously.
Goodness knows Deveril knew what it was like to be without a parent. His own had both perished when he was aged five, while making the sea journey from their estate in Ireland to their estate in England. He had been brought up by his paternal grandparents, who had probably spoiled him as much as Alys’s father had indulged her.
She had also been a little shy in Devil’s company, which he had found enchanting, and he had done all that he could to put her at her ease. To a degree he had believed there to be a genuine friendship developing between the two of them.
All that had disappeared the night her father was murdered.
To this day, Devil had no idea why he had picked up the pistol he found lying beside Peter Newcomb’s dead body. But he had, and Alys had chanced upon him immediately after he had done so. To his detriment.
Nothing he could say to her would convince Alys he had found her father that way.
Nor would Alys have anything more to do with him, and her public accusations toward him had affected her badly socially.
Alys was no doubt going to dislike him even more once she knew the real reason he was here was to discover whether or not she had committed treason against the English Crown.