She could not be that naive …

  “I fear you have sadly overestimated my noble virtues, Miss Faringdon,” Simon said bluntly. “I did not come down here to Hampshire to foster a shadowy metaphysical connection with you.”

  The glow went out of her eyes in an instant. “I beg your pardon, My Lord?”

  Simon gritted his teeth and retrieved her hand. “I came down here with a far more mundane goal, Miss Faringdon.”

  “What would that be, sir?”

  “I am here to ask your father for your hand in marriage.”

  The reaction was not at all what he had expected from a spinster with a clouded past who should have been thrilled to hear an earl was going to speak to her father on the subject of marriage.

  “Bloody hell,” Emily squeaked.

  Simon lost his patience with the strange female sitting beside him. “That tears it,” he announced. “I think what is needed here, Miss Faringdon, is a means of cutting through all that romantical claptrap about love on a higher plane that you have been feeding yourself all these months.”

  “My Lord, what are you talking about?”

  “Why, the darker passions, of course, Miss Faringdon.” He reached out and jerked her into his arms. “I am suddenly consumed with curiosity to see if you really do enjoy them….”

  Bantam Books by Amanda Quick

  Ask your bookseller for the books you have missed




















  This one is for some very good friends:

  Suzanne Simmons Guntrum

  Stella Cameron

  Ann Maxwell

  Linda Barlow

  My thanks.

  The daughter was the key to his vengeance. He had understood that for months now. Through her he would have his revenge on the entire Faringdon clan, for of the four men who owed him for what had happened twenty-three years ago, Broderick Faringdon owed him the most of all.

  She was the means by which he would regain his birthright and punish the one who had stolen it from him.

  Simon Augustus Traherne, Earl of Blade, brought the big chestnut stallion to a halt amid a stand of bare elm trees and sat silently staring at the great house. He had not seen St. Clair Hall in twenty-three years but to his brooding eyes it looked much the same as it had the day he had left.

  The gray light of a late winter sun caused the stone walls of the hall to gleam with the cold sheen of gray marble. The country house was starkly graceful, not a sprawling architectural jumble as so many similar residences were. It had been built in the Palladian style that had been popular in the last century and it had an air of grave and remote dignity.

  The house was not as massive as some, but there was an unshakable, if chilly, elegance in every line, from the tall, stately windows to the wide staircase that led to the front While the house had not changed, the landscape in which it stood definitely had, Simon noted. Gone were the austere, aloof vistas of endless green lawn punctuated with the occasional classical fountain. In their place were flower gardens.

  A great many flower gardens.

  Somebody had obviously run amok putting in flower gardens.

  Even in the middle of winter the softening effect on the house was obvious. In the spring and summer St. Clair Hall’s cold gray walls would rise from amid a warm welter of brilliant flowers, cascading vines, and fancifully trimmed hedges.

  It was ludicrous. The hall had never been a warm, inviting sort of house. It should not be surrounded by bright, cheerful gardens and hedges cut in silly shapes. Simon had a hunch he knew who was to blame for the outrageous landscaping.

  The chestnut pranced restlessly. The earl absently patted the stallion’s neck with a leather-gloved hand. “Not long now, Lap Seng,” he muttered to the horse as he tightened the reins. “I’ll have that lot of Faringdon bastards out soon enough. After twenty-three years, I will finally have my revenge.”

  And the daughter was the key.

  It was not as if Miss Emily Faringdon was an innocent young chit fresh out of the schoolroom. She was four and twenty years old and, according to his hostess, Lady Gillingham, the young woman was well aware she had precious little chance of contracting a good marriage. There had been veiled references to some sort of scandal in the lady’s past, a scandal that had blighted any hope of a respectable alliance.

  That fact made Emily Faringdon extremely useful.

  It occurred to Simon that he had spent so many years living amid the strange cultures of the East Indies that he no longer thought quite like an Englishman. Indeed, his friends and acquaintances often accused him of being enigmatic and mysterious.

  Perhaps it was true. Revenge, for example, was no longer a simple, straightforward concept for him, but rather one involving exquisite care and planning. In the Eastern manner, it required the destruction of an entire family, not just one member of it.

  A decent English gentleman of noble birth would never have dreamed of using an innocent young woman in his quest for vengeance. But Simon found he had no problem with the notion. None at all.

  In any event, if the rumors were true, the lady was not all that innocent.

  Icy satisfaction settled deep inside Simon as he rode swiftly back toward the country house of his hosts. After twenty-three years of waiting, St. Clair Hall and vengeance were at last within his grasp.

  Emily Faringdon knew she was in love. She had never met the object of her affections but that did not lessen her certainty in the least. She knew from his letters that Mr. S. A. Traherne was a man with whom her soul communicated on a higher plane. He was a paragon among males, an insightful man of refined sensibilities, a man of vision and intelligence, a man of strong character.

  He was, in short, quite perfect.

  It was unfortunate that the odds against her ever meeting him, let alone of developing a romantic liaison with him, were infinitely worse than the odds in a game of hazard.

  Emily sighed, put on her silver-framed spectacles, and pulled S. A. Traherne’s letter from the stack of letters, newspapers, and journals that had arrived with the morning post. She had gotten very adept at spotting Traherne’s bold, graceful handwriting and his unusual dragon’s head seal during the past few months. Her extensive correspondence and wide variety of subscriptions always resulted in a great deal of mail stacked on the huge mahogany desk but she could always spot an S. A. Traherne letter.

  She used the letter opener with great care so as not to damage the precious seal. Every part of an S. A. Traherne missive was very important and worthy of being stored forever in a special box Emily had bought for the purpose.

  She was gently breaking the red wax seal when the library door opened and her brother sauntered into the room.

  “Good morning, Em. I see you’re hard at work, as usual. Don’t know how you do it, sister dear.”

  “Hello, Charles.”

  Charles Faringdon gave his sister a brief peck on the cheek and then sank gracefully into the chair across from the wide desk. He gave her the careless, engaging smile that was a hallmark of the Faringdon men as he crossed his elegantly clad legs. “’Course, I don’t know what we’d all do if you did not enjoy burying yourself in here and poring over all that nasty, boring correspondence.”

  Emily reluctantly put S. A. Traherne’s letter down on her desk and unobtrusively placed the
latest copy of the The Gentleman’s Magazine over it. Traherne letters were private and personal items, not to be left lying out in the open where they might draw the casual interest of some other member of the family.

  “You appear to be in excellent spirits,” she said lightly. “I assume you have recovered from the discouragement of your recent gaming losses and plan to return to town soon?” She peered at her handsome brother through the round lenses of her spectacles, aware of a familiar mixture of irritation and affection.

  Emily loved Charles, just as she loved his twin, Devlin, and her easygoing, gregarious father. But there was no getting around the fact that there was a certain strain of irresponsible, devil-may-care casualness in the attitudes of the Faringdon men which could be extremely trying at times. Even her beautiful mother, who had died six years ago, had frequently complained of it.

  Still, Emily had to admit that, with the rather glaring exception of herself, the Faringdons were a handsome bunch.

  This morning Charles was magnificent as always in his riding clothes. His coat had been cut by Weston. Emily knew that because she had just paid the bill for it. His breeches were perfectly tailored to show off his excellent build and his boots were polished to a high gloss. Emily could almost see her reflection in them.

  Tall, with hair so fair it looked like gilt in the sun and with eyes as blue as a summer sky, Charles was a typical Faringdon. In addition to the features of a young Adonis, he also had the Faringdon charm.

  “As it happens, I am quite recovered,” Charles assured her cheerfully. “I leave for London in a few minutes. Fine day for riding. If you have any instructions for Davenport, I’ll be happy to convey them. I’m bound to beat the post back to town. Got a wager with Pearson on the matter, in fact.”

  Emily shook her head. “No. Nothing for Mr. Davenport today. Perhaps next week when I get the news of the plans for the summer bean crop from my correspondents in Essex and Kent I will make some decisions.”

  Charles wrinkled his handsome nose. “Beans. How can you possibly concern yourself with such things as bean production, Emily? So bloody boring.”

  “No more boring than the details of iron manufacture, coal production, and wheat harvests,” she retorted. “I am surprised you do not exhibit a bit more interest in such matters yourself. Everything you enjoy in life, from your beautiful boots to that fine hunter you bought last month, is a direct result of paying attention to the details of such things as bean production.”

  Charles grinned, held up his hands, palms out, and got to his feet. “No more lectures, Em. They’re even more boring than beans. In any event, the hunter is a spectacular animal. Father helped me choose him at Tattersall’s and you know father’s excellent eye for bloodstock.”

  “Yes, but it was an awfully expensive hunter, Charles.”

  “Think of the horse as an investment.” Charles gave her another quick kiss on the cheek. “Well, if there’s no news for Davenport, I’m off. See you again when I need a rest from the tables.”

  Emily smiled wistfully up at him. “Give my regards to Papa and Devlin. I almost wish I were going up to London with you.”

  “Nonsense. You always say you’re happiest here in the country where you’ve got plenty to do all day.” Charles strode toward the door. “In any event, it’s Thursday. You have a meeting of your literary society this afternoon, don’t you? You would not want to miss that.”

  “No, I suppose not. Goodbye, Charles.”

  “Goodbye, Em.”

  Emily waited until the library door had closed behind her brother before she lifted the The Gentleman’s Magazine off of S. A. Traherne’s letter. She smiled with secret pleasure as she began to read the elegant scrawl that covered the foolscap.

  My Dear Miss Faringdon:

  I fear this note will be quite short but I pray you will forgive my haste when I tell you why that is the case. The reason is that I will very soon be arriving in your vicinity. I am to be a houseguest at the country home of Lord Gillingham, whom I understand to be a neighbor of yours. I trust I am not being overbold when I tell you that I am hopeful you will be so kind as to afford me the opportunity of making your acquaintance in person while I am there.

  Emily froze in shock. S. A. Traherne was coming to Little Dippington.

  She could not believe her eyes. Heart racing with excitement, she clutched the letter and reread the opening lines.

  It was true. He was going to be a guest of the Gillinghams, who had a country villa a short distance away from St. Clair Hall. With trembling fingers Emily carefully put down the letter and forced herself to take several deep breaths in order to control the flood of excitement that was washing over her.

  It was an excitement shot through with dread.

  The part of her that had longed to meet S. A. Traherne in the flesh was already at war with the part of her that had always feared the encounter. The resulting tension made her feel light-headed.

  With a desperate attempt to hold fast to her common sense, Emily forced herself to bear in mind that nothing of a romantic nature could possibly come of such a meeting. In fact, she stood to lose the treasured correspondence that had become so important to her these past few months.

  The terrible risk involved here was that while he was ruralizing in the neighborhood, S. A. Traherne might hear some awful hint about the Unfortunate Incident in her past. His hostess, Lady Gillingham, knew all about that dreadful stain on Emily’s reputation, of course. So did everyone else in the vicinity of Little Dippington. It had all happened five years ago and no one talked about it much now, but it was certainly no secret.

  Emily tried to be realistic. Sooner or later, if S. A. Traherne stayed in the area long enough, someone was bound to mention the Incident.

  “Bloody hell,” Emily said quite forcefully into the stillness of the library. She winced at the unfeminine words.

  One of the disadvantages of spending so much time alone here in the great house with only the servants for company was that she had picked up a few bad habits. She was, for example, quite free to curse like a man when she felt like it and she had gotten in the way of doing so. Emily told herself she would have to watch her tongue around S. A. Traherne. She was certain a man of his refined sensibilities would find cursing very objectionable in a female.

  Emily groaned. It was going to be very difficult to live up to S. A. Traherne’s high standards. With a guilty twinge she wondered if she might have misled him a bit about her own degree of refinement and intellect.

  She jumped to her feet and walked over to stand at the window overlooking the gardens. She honestly did not know whether to be overjoyed or cast into the depths of despair by Traherne’s letter. She felt as though she were teetering on a high precipice.

  S. A. Traherne was coming to Little Dippington. She could not take it in. The possibilities and risks staggered the imagination. He did not say when he would be arriving but it sounded as though he might be here within a short time. A few weeks, perhaps. Or next month.

  Perhaps she should invent a hasty visit to some distant relative.

  But Emily did not think she could bear to miss this opportunity, even if it ruined everything. How awful that it should be so terrifying to contemplate a meeting with the man she loved.

  “Bloody hell,” Emily said again. And then she realized she was grinning like an idiot even though she felt like crying. The tangle of emotions was almost more than she could stand. She went back to the big desk and looked down at the remainder of S. A. Traherne’s letter.

  Thank you for sending along the copy of your latest poem, Thoughts in the Dark Hours Before Dawn. I read it with great interest and I must tell you that I was particularly struck by the lines in which you explore the remarkable similarities between a cracked urn and a broken heart. Very affecting. I trust that you will have had a positive response from a publisher by the time you receive this letter.

  Yrs ever,

  S. A. Traherne

  Emily knew then she cou
ld not possibly rush off to visit a nonexistent relative. Come what may, she could not resist the opportunity of meeting the man who understood her poetry so well and who found her verses very affecting.

  She carefully refolded S. A. Traherne’s letter and slipped it into the bodice of her high-waisted, pale blue morning gown. A glance at the tall clock showed that it was time to get back to work. There was much to be done before she left to meet with the members of the Thursday Afternoon Literary Society.

  Emily did not find the latest rejection letter from the publisher until she was halfway through the stack of correspondence. She recognized it immediately because she had received a great many others just like it. Mr. Pound, a man of obviously limited intellect and blunted sensitivity, apparently did not find her poetry very affecting.

  But somehow the news that S. A. Traherne was soon to be in the vicinity softened the blow enormously.

  “Damn, don’t understand why you would want to attend a meeting of the local lit’ry society, Blade.” Lord Gillingham’s shaggy eyebrows rose as he regarded his houseguest.

  He and Simon were standing in the court in front of the Gillinghams’ villa waiting for the horses to be brought around.

  “I thought it might be amusing.” Simon gently slapped his riding crop against his boot. He was getting impatient now that he was within minutes of meeting Miss Emily Faringdon.

  “Amusing? You’re an odd one, ain’t you, Blade? Expect it’s all those years you spent in the East. Don’t do to spend too long living among foreigners, I say. Gives a man strange notions.”

  “It also provided me with my fortune,” Simon reminded him dryly.

  “Well, that’s true enough.” Gillingham cleared his throat and changed the subject. “Told the Misses Inglebright you’d be attending. You’ll be more than welcome, I imagine, but I should warn you, the society’s nothing but a pack of aging spinsters who get together once a week and rhapsodize over a bunch of damn poets. Women are very, very inclined toward that sort of romantic nonsense, y’know.”

  “So I’ve heard. Nevertheless, I find myself curious to see how country folk are entertaining themselves these days.”

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