Exclusive FREE READ
You read it here first! Our FREE READ for August is from PHS columnist and author Virginia Heath, who brings us an exclusive scene from her historical romance,
The Mysterious Lord Millcroft .
In the first chapter, my painfully shy spy is convalescing after a near-fatal gunshot wound...
And now without further ado, the exclusive extract from Virginia's book,
Five minutes later and the same maid who had brought him tea came in with another tray. This one contained some delicate sandwiches and cakes and, to his abject horror, the dreaded invalid cup he had come to despise. He eyed it with distaste. ‘Please tell me that’s not more of your insipid broth!’
‘It most certainly is and if you refuse to drink it again I shall tell Joe that I don’t think you are quite ready to be out of bed. That broth is a carefully balanced recipe designed to restore your strength and vitality. You do want to get better, don’t you?’
‘Can you at least stop serving it to me through a spout like an infant? I am sat upright in a chair. I could take it just as easily in a teacup as in that monstrosity.’
‘A fair point and one I shall certainly take on board at dinnertime—if you drink that one without…’ The rattling of carriage wheels on the gravel outside made her pause and frown. ‘I’m not expecting anyone… I wonder who that can be?’ She placed her forgotten tea on the table and disappeared to investigate, leaving Seb alone with his dented masculinity, the foul restorative broth and the invalid’s sipping cup. When she failed to materialise after five minutes, he snatched it up and searched for something close by to pour it into. He soon realised that was a forlorn hope and began to pour the tasteless, lukewarm contents quickly down his throat to get it over with.
‘I shall order more tea.’ At the sudden sound of Bella’s voice so close he nearly choked and spilled the last drops over his chin, just in time for the most beautiful woman he had ever seen to appear at her elbow. Bella grimaced apologetically as he swiped the mess away with the back of one hand while trying to hide the awful cup with the other. ‘We have a surprise visitor, Seb. My sister has abandoned the excitement of society to come to stay for a few days… Mr Sebastian Leatham—Lady Clarissa Beaumont.’
The vision, because there was no other word to describe the angelic perfection which had just walked in the room, momentarily appeared as surprised to see him as he was her. Her step faltered and he swore he saw a note of panic in her widened blue eyes before she caught herself. In fascination he watched her transform from startled and almost afraid to supremely confident. She tilted her golden head in acknowledgement, those beautiful eyes now amused at either his clumsiness or the freshly glowing red tips of his ears.
The voice matched the face. Lovely. Lingering over the vowels just enough to sound subtly seductive, although Seb hadn’t needed to hear it to be totally seduced—and mortified to be so. He was a clumsy oaf around most women, but in front of this goddess of perfection he stood no chance of behaving nonchalantly.
To compound his embarrassment, his errant tongue managed to completely slur the words, making him sound every inch the subservient farm labourer from rural Norfolk he truly was. Good manners dictated he stand, because that is what a real gentleman did in the presence of a real lady, and so Seb tried, winced and promptly collapsed back into the chair, winded.
‘No, please. Don’t get up on my account, you poor thing.’
‘I didn’t realise you had company, Bella.’ She turned to her sister and he saw it again. That crack in her composure. ‘Perhaps I picked a bad time to turn up unannounced?’
Bella threaded her arm through her sister’s and grinned. ‘Not at all. There’s room enough for both of you. Don’t you remember? I wrote to you about Seb.’
‘Yes… Yes, you did. How silly of me to have forgotten.’ The vision turned her perfect head and scrutinised him as if properly noticing him for the first time. No doubt she saw the same things he had in the mirror. The gaunt face. The ratty beard. The lack of both a coat and waistcoat because he didn’t have the strength to shrug them on. The distinct lack of good breeding which he always tried to deny to the world. The ugly, jagged scar he wore like a badge. ‘You must be the brave hero who threw himself in front of a scoundrel’s bullet to save the schoolmistress?’
To nod seemed arrogant, but he allowed his unsightly head to bob once rather than attempt to speak again, not that he had considered his actions particularly brave at the time. He was simply doing his job. Breaking cover and charging towards the gun had given his friend a chance at killing the aforementioned scoundrel and saving the girl. The selfless act had been instinctual. Necessary. To complete their mission and because his friend and an innocent woman had needed him. Only now, with the benefit of hindsight and in view of the fact he had very nearly died as a result, was he privately prepared to acknowledge it had been a ridiculously courageous thing to do. Stupid, too. After weeks to ponder his rash response Seb realised he could have simply shifted his camouflaged position in the bushes and shot the scoundrel himself instead. But then sometimes he did tend to over-complicate things when the simplest solution was staring him right in the face.
‘Bella said you are lucky to be alive, Mr Leatham.’
‘So they tell me.’ Now he sounded typically clipped and unfriendly, his eyebrows already aching with the force of his scowl while the weight of her expectant stare was making his toes curl inside his boots. At a loss as to how to salvage the situation, he stared down at his hands and willed the floor to open up and swallow him.
‘I see you are reticent to talk about it.’
‘Seb is a man of few words.’ He could hear the affectionate smile in Bella’s voice and risked glancing up, only to find his eyes immediately lock once again with Lady Clarissa’s. She must have seen the heat and longing hidden in their depths because the corners of her plump, pink mouth curved knowingly. He supposed a woman like her was used to being admired, but it still annoyed him to be so transparent, so he resolutely stared back at his coarse, callused hands with the most unfriendly expression he could muster. Why had he gazed winsomely at her? Society ladies weren’t for him any more than society was. What a fawning idiot.
‘Or Mr Leatham is merely being mysterious to pique my interest?’
Pique her interest! Now she was making fun of him. Seb lifted his eyes defiantly as he glared, his stubborn pride refusing to let him appear less than he wanted the world to see, or revealing his pitiful shyness. ‘There’s nothing much to tell, my lady. It all happened in a moment.’
‘A significant moment, though.’
‘Which rendered me blessedly unconscious.’ An outright lie as he had lain on the ground in agony in a pool of his own blood far too aware of his life ebbing away. ‘I have no memories of the event. Nothing to entertain you with.’ Splendid. He was barking again. Conscious of the vision’s eyes still on him, Seb sat silently and hoped she’d quickly lose interest, as ladies were often prone to do when confronted with his legendary charm and lack of real gentlemanly credentials.
A waft of something truly wonderful and feminine tickled his nose as she moved to sit on the sofa with her sister. Whatever it was, it altered the air in the room until everything was enlivened by her fragrance, heightening his remaining senses while he avoided directly looking at either of them in case he appeared smitten as well as struck dumb. He heard rather than saw the rattle of teacups. Mumbled thanks as his forgotten one was removed and replaced with a fresh one, then only risked picking it up when the two ladies were happily chatting about the state of the roads between Nottinghamshire and London. When the topic changed to society gossip, Seb allowed himself to relax while simultaneously trying to blend into the wallpaper. As there was nothing he could add to the conversation and nobody was likely to ask him anything, he took his first sip and covertly studied the vision as she talked.
Lady Clarissa was every inch a beautiful and sophisticated titled lady. Impeccably attired in what he assumed were the latest fashions, there wasn’t a single hair out of place on her pretty head despite the fact she had travelled two hundred miles in a carriage. The symmetrical and casually loose ringlets which framed her cheeks were too bouncy, the intoxicating perfume too vibrant. If he were a betting man, Seb would lay good money on the fact she had stopped at an inn close by so that she could repair any damage and arrive looking as fresh as a daisy, rather than as wilted as a wet lettuce leaf like all the mere mortals would after days on the road. Surely nobody was that perfect? Judging by the creaseless silk of her becoming travelling dress, she had changed, too. No fabric looked that good after a jaunt up the Great North Road, especially when it moulded to her upper body like a second skin.
And it wasn’t just the external façade which both bothered and intrigued him. Her voice was like warm honey, slow yet animated at the same time. Perfect for story-telling and he found his own ears hanging on her every word while his eyes kept being pulled by some invisible force to watch her. Whilst that was no hardship, the more he observed, the more he saw.
She had that practised way of moving he had noticed in others of her ilk, only magnified, which showed off her face and figure to perfection, yet the effortless grace didn’t quite ring true either. A tad too choreographed to be natural. Even the position of her fingers as she held her teacup smacked of previous rehearsal, as if she had spent hours sat in front of a mirror, trying to discern the very best position to show off the delicate bones and the slimness of her wrist beneath the gossamer lace at her cuffs. Too perfect once again. Everything about her was too perfect, from her ridiculously long and seductive lashes to the oh-so-casual flick of that precisely positioned wrist.
Seb spent most of his life pretending to be someone else, usually a better man than he was, so he recognised an act when he saw one. Lady Clarissa Beaumont was a good actress. So good that her own sister didn’t appear to notice the brittleness of some of her smiles or the flashes of sadness in her lovely cornflower eyes between blinks. The unconscious jerkiness of some of those movements that suggested she was nervous or uncomfortable.
While there was no doubting the instant and wholly male reaction he had experienced upon first meeting her, because she truly was the most exquisite woman he had ever seen, it was that hidden mystery which now piqued his interest. Those little clues to the real woman she might be beneath the carefully constructed mask she wore so well.
She must have sensed him watching her, because her eyes suddenly locked again with his. ‘Don’t think for a minute I have forgotten you, Mr Leatham.’ Hot tea sloshed out of his cup and on to his leg at his being so hideously caught out. Only sheer pride held back the yelp of pain as he forced himself to return her gaze. For several long moments she searched his almost snarling face, then she picked up her teacup again and slanted him a coquettish glance over the rim.
‘There is nothing I adore as much as a mysterious man. Is there a Mrs. Leatham I should know about?’
The sudden and unexpected flirting tied his damn tongue into gauche knots again, although while he faltered he also knew with certainty she had done it on purpose. Another layer of artful trickery to hide the real her.
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