He let his head slump down toward the table. Ana's mother had been quite nervous, hadn't she? Her face, lined with worry and fear, floated through his mind. And Ana, poor child, she couldn't like having these men around. Especially one like Spencer.
He heard a thump come from the floor upstairs. Nothing out of the ordinary.
Spencer. Oh, yes, that's who he was thinking about.
Pain in the ass, he was. Always bothering the locals, caring for nothing but his own amusement.
What was that he'd said-he was going off in search of entertainment. That was rather like him.
Another odd noise-this one sounded like a woman's cry. John looked around. Didn't anyone else hear this? No one seemed to react. Maybe it was because he was closest to the stairs.
This place is ripe, I think.
John rubbed his eyes. Something wasn't right.
He stood, bracing himself against the table to ease the nausea rocking his body. Why did he have this odd sense that something was amiss?
Another thump. Another cry.
He walked slowly toward the stairs. What was wrong? The noise grew louder as he made his way along the second-floor hallway.
And then he heard it again. This time it was clear. "Noooooooooo!" Ana's voice.
John sobered in an instant. He burst through the door, knocking it off one of its hinges. "Oh, God, no," he cried. He could barely see Ana, her slight form completely beneath Spencer, who was pumping relentlessly into her.
But he could hear her weeping. "Noooo, noooo, please, noooo."
John didn't pause to think. Crazed, he pulled Spencer up off the girl and threw him against the wall.
"What the hell-Blackwood?" Spencer's face was as mottled and red as his member.
"You bastard," John breathed, his hand coming to rest on his gun.
"For God's sake, she's just some Spanish whore."
"She is a child, Spencer."
"She's a whore now." Spencer turned around to retrieve his breeches.
John's hand tightened on his gun.
"That's all she ever would have been."
John lifted his gun. "His majesty's soldiers do not rape." He shot Spencer in the ass.
Spencer howled and went down, letting loose a swift stream of expletives. John immediately went to Ana, as if there was something he could possibly do to erase her pain and humiliation.
Her face was blank. Completely devoid of expression…
Until she saw him.
She cringed. She turned away from John in horror. He staggered backward at the force of her terror. He hadn't… It hadn't been him…He'd meant to…
Ana's mother burst into the room. "Mother of God," she cried out. "What is-Oh, my Ana. My Ana." She ran to her daughter, who was now weeping uncontrollably.
John stood in the middle of the room, dazed, in shock, and still drunk with whiskey. "I didn't… " he whispered. "It wasn't me."
There was so much noise. Spencer was screaming and cursing in pain. Ana was crying. Her mother was railing at God. John couldn't seem to move.
Ana's mother turned around, her face full of more hatred than John had ever seen in a single person. "You did this," she hissed, and spit in his face.
"No. It wasn't me. I didn't…"
"You swore you'd protect her." The woman seemed to be trying to restrain herself from attacking him. "It might as well have been you."
John blinked. "No."
It might as well have been you.
It might as well have been you.
It might as well…
John sat up in bed, his body soaked with sweat. Had it really been five years? He laid back down, trying to forget that Ana had killed herself three days later.
"When Belle arrived at breakfast the next morning, she discovered that neither Emma nor Alex were up yet. This was rather surprising because Emma tended to be something of a morning person. Belle guessed that Alex was keeping her abed for his own purposes and wondered if a woman could get pregnant while she was already pregnant.
"For someone who is usually considered quite bright," she muttered to herself, "you know pathetically little about the important things."
"Did you say something, my lady?" a footman immediately inquired.
"No, no, I was just talking to myself," she replied, rolling her eyes at her behavior. If she kept this up, half of Westonbirt would think she was daft.
She helped herself to a bit of breakfast, glancing through the day-old newspaper that was sitting out on the table for Alex's perusal. The newlyweds still hadn't arrived by the time she finished her omelet. Belle sighed, trying to decide how to occupy herself.
She could raid Alex's library, she supposed, but for once she didn't feel like reading. The sun was shining brightly, a rare treat during this exceptionally rainy autumn, and she suddenly wished that she weren't alone, that Alex or Emma had decided not to sleep in that morning, that she had someone with whom to share the fine weather. But there was no one. Except-Belle shook her head. She couldn't just prance over to Lord Blackwood's house and say hello.
But then again, why couldn't she?
Well, for one thing, he didn't like her.
Which, she countered, was precisely the reason she ought to pay him a visit. She wasn't going to be able to rectify the situation if they never saw each other again.
Belle raised her eyebrows as she pondered the thought. If she brought along a maid as a chaper-one, she wouldn't be so far outside the bounds of propriety. Well, actually she would, but no one was about, and Lord Blackwood didn't strike her as overly high in the instep. Making her decision, she wandered over to the kitchen to see if Mrs. Goode could spare some scones. They would make a lovely breakfast. Perhaps Lord Blackwood hadn't yet eaten.
She'd be fine. This wasn't London, after all. Forty gossips would not be wagging their tongues later that evening at her scandalous behavior. And she wasn't going to do anything dreadful. She just wanted to greet their new neighbor properly. Mostly she just wanted to see what his house looked like, she told herself. What was it called? Alex had told her the night before. Bletchwood Place? Blumley Manor? Blasphemous Burg? Belle laughed to herself. It was something hideous, that's all she remembered.
She wandered down to the kitchen, where Mrs. Goode was only too happy to arrange a basket. Belle soon departed, laden with fresh jams and homemade scones.
She strode purposefully to the stables where she mounted Amber, her mare. She wasn't quite certain where John's house was located, but she knew it was to the east. If she stuck to the roads and kept heading toward the sun, she'd be bound to run into it eventually.
She set off at an easy trot as she headed down the long drive that led from Westonbirt to the main road. Emma's lady's maid knew how to ride, and she kept pace alongside her. They turned east on the main road, and sure enough, after about a quarter of an hour, they happened upon a drive that looked as if it led to another house. After a few moments Belle found herself in a wide open clearing, at the center of which stood an elegant stone house.
It was small by the standards of aristocracy, but it was stylish and obviously well-built. It suited her. Belle smiled and urged her mare forward. She didn't see any stables, so she saw to her horse herself, tying it to a tree. Emma's maid did the same. "Sorry, Amber," Belle murmured and then took a deep breath and marched up the front steps.
She picked up the giant brass knocker and let it fall with a resounding thud. After a few moments, a white-haired, elderly man answered the door. Belle took him to be the butler. "Good morning," she said in cultured tones. "Is this the home of Lord Blackwood?"
The butler raised an eyebrow. "It is."
Belle offered him her brightest smile. "Excellent. Please inform him that Lady Arabella Blydon has come to call."
Buxton didn't doubt for a moment that she was a lady, not with her fine clothes and aristocratic accent. With a regal nod of his head, he showed her to an airy room decorated in shades of cream and blue.
Belle was silent as she watched the butler disappear up the stairs. Then she turned to Emma's maid and said, "Perhaps you should, ah, go to the kitchens and see if there are any, ah, other servants about."
The maid's eyes widened slightly at being dismissed, but she nodded and left the room.
John was still in bed when the butler arrived, having decided to treat himself to some much-needed rest. Buxton entered silently, then put his mouth very, very close to his master's ear. "You have a visitor, my lord," he said loudly.
John swatted the butler with a pillow and reluctantly came awake. "A what?" he asked groggily.
"Good Lord, what time is it?"
"Nine o'clock, my lord."
John staggered out of bed and grabbed a robe to cover his naked body. "Who the hell comes calling at nine in the morning?"
"Lady Arabella Blydon, my lord."
John whirled around in shock. "Who?"
"I believe I said Lady-"
"I know what you said," John snapped, his temper shortened by his rather unceremonious awakening. "What the hell is she doing here?"
"I am sure I do not know, my lord, but she did ask for you."
John sighed, wondering when Buxton would realize that every question did not require a response. He sighed again. He didn't doubt for a moment that the sly old butler knew very well that John's remarks had been hypothetical. "I suppose I have to get dressed," he finally said.
"I should think so, my lord. I took the liberty of informing Wheatley that you would require his services."
John turned around and headed to his dressing room. Like Buxton, the valet had also come with the house, and John had to admit that it was not difficult to get used to the luxury. In no time, he was dressed in form-fitting biscuit-colored breeches, a crisp white shirt, and navy blue coat. He deliberately ignored his cravat. If Lady Arabella required a cravat, she shouldn't have come calling at nine in the morning.
He splashed some water on his face then ran his wet hands through his unruly hair, trying to tame the sleep-tossed look. "Damn it all," he muttered. He still looked half-asleep. Hell, who cared? He went downstairs.
Buxton intercepted him on the landing. "Lady Arabella is waiting for you in the green salon, my lord."
John took a breath, trying not to let his exasperation show. "And which one is that, Buxton?"
The butler gave him an amused smile and pointed. "Right over there, my lord."
John followed Buxton's finger and entered the room, leaving the door respectably open. Belle was standing near a blue chair, idly examining a painted vase. She looked utterly charming and damnably awake in her rose-colored gown. "This is a surprise," he said.
Belle looked up at the deep sound of his voice. "Oh, hello, Lord Blackwood." She glanced lightly at his disheveled hair. "I hope I didn't wake you."
"Not at all," he lied.
"I thought that perhaps we didn't get off to a good start when we met."
He didn't say anything.
She took a breath and continued. "Right. Well, I thought I should greet you to the neighborhood. I brought you something to break your fast. I hope you like scones."
John flashed her a wide smile. "I adore scones. And they're just in time for breakfast."
Belle frowned at his overly amused tone. She had woken him up. "There is some jam to go with them." She sat down, wondering what on earth had possessed her to come over here so early.
John rang for some tea and coffee and then seated himself across from her. He glanced mildly around the room. "I see you have no escort."
"Oh, no, I did bring a maid, but she went off to visit your servants. I would have had Emma accompany me, but she wasn't yet up and about. It's early, you know."
Belle swallowed and continued. "It really isn't that important, I don't think. This isn't London, after all, where one's every movement is fair game for the gossips. And it's not as if I'm in any danger."
John's eyes raked appreciatively over her decidedly feminine form. "Aren't you?"
Belle flushed and stiffened in her seat. She looked him straight in the eye and saw honor lurking behind his sardonic facade. "No, I don't think I am," she replied resolutely.
"You shouldn't have come here alone."
"I told you, I didn't come here alone. My maid-"
"Your maid is in the kitchen. You are here in this room. Alone. With me."
Belle's mouth opened and closed several times before she managed to speak. "Well… yes, of course… but…"
John stared at her, thinking that he'd like nothing better than to lean over and kiss those soft lips which were opening and closing with such consternation. He shook his head slightly as if to banish the thought. Get a hold of yourself, John, his inner voice warned. "I apologize," he said abruptly. "I certainly did not mean to make you ill at ease. It is just rather uncommon for a young lady to call upon a bachelor unescorted."
Belle smiled archly, his apology somehow relieving her tension. "I am rather uncommon myself."
John didn't doubt it for an instant. He glanced over at her saucy expression and wondered if she had come calling deliberately to torture him.
"Besides," Belle continued, "I didn't think you would be such a stickler for etiquette."
"I am not," he pointed out. "Most young ladies, however, are."
A servant brought in tea and coffee, and Belle quickly offered to pour. She handed him a cup of coffee and set about fixing herself some tea, chattering all the while.
"Did you grow up in the area?"
"Well, then, where did you grow up?"
John made a noise that was perilously close to a grunt. Belle raised her eyebrows and continued. "I am from London."
Belle pursed her lips at his sarcastic comment. "We have a home in Sussex, of course, but I tend to think of London as home."
John picked up a scone and liberally spread some strawberry jam onto it. "How unfortunate for you."
"Don't you like London?"
"Oh." And what else was she supposed to say, Belle wondered. A full minute passed, and she was painfully aware of the speculative and amused glances that John was shooting her way. "Well," she said finally. "I see that you were not lying to me yesterday."
That comment caught John's attention and he looked up questioningly.
"You really are dreadful at making polite conversation."
He let out a bark of laughter. "No one could ever accuse you of being less than astute, my lady."
Belle let that comment pass, not entirely certain that it had been meant as a compliment. As she looked over at him she remembered yesterday's conversation. For a moment, at least, they had enjoyed each other's company. They had discussed Shakespeare, and yes, even teased each other a bit.
He'd been different then, almost boyish. That is, until he had put his guard back up. Belle had a feeling that someone had hurt this man very badly in the past. That didn't, however, mean that she would allow him to abuse her in turn.
She sensed something special in him, something fine and shining and very, very good. And perhaps all he needed was someone to remind him of that. She saw no reason not to throw caution to the wind and try to befriend him despite all of the obstacles he was throwing in her path. Crossing her arms, she said, "You can speak in that arrogant tone if you want, but it won't wash."