He furiously charged through the nettles and brambles.
Was he too late to save her?
Her foolish, brazen behaviour and lack of prudence was unacceptable. No mate of his would be permitted to defy the boundaries he would put about her. He would keep her safe and protected. However, she couldn’t know that he’d already laid claim to her—how could she when she’d never seen him.
Damn the bastard—the so-called lord with a cavalier attitude—the wastrel would regret going near her.
He was close enough to hear their raised voices. While she pleaded, the ridiculous popinjay laced his vulgar tone with arrogance and hostility.
Flesh was struck—the sound of a firm slap raced towards him. He changed direction, swerved past a tree stump, and picking up his pace, forced his legs to work harder.
A masculine guffaw, somewhere to his left. He darted beneath a low branch and listened again. This time he heard the man threaten her.
He slowed, but not to catch his breath, he wasn’t panting; rather he needed to ensure he had control of his anger. There was no point in being armed, he needed no physical weapons. The last thing he wanted was a mob of vigilantes rampaging through the forest seeking revenge on behalf of a murdered lord.
He peered through the ferns. The bastard had brought her to a sacred place to violate her. She had tried to escape by crawling on her hands and knees, but her feet had become tangled in her skirts.
The hairs on the back of his neck stood up as he realised not only was she vulnerable and weak, but also how unaware she was of the bond he’d already forged between them. Hot blood coursed through his body. She was his and nobody else’s.
The beauty didn’t stand a chance if he didn’t reveal himself. It was a risk worth taking.
Launching himself off the ground, he crashed through the low branches and leaped onto her assailant.
“Mistress! Miss Ella!” Polly hollered from outside the door. “We’ve a caller. A gentleman.”
Ella emerged from the library and rubbed her eyes. She’d been reading for hours. “Who?”
Polly, Edgton Manor’s sole housemaid, bounced on her toes. “The carriage has a coat of arms and two footmen at the back and white horses—”
Ella laughed. “Calm down, Polly.” She went to the nearby window, which looked out over the driveway and peered at the heraldry on the elegant carriage’s door. Her laughter drained away, replaced by a state of disbelief. “Heavens above. It’s Viscount DeLancy. Quickly, fetch me a fan, and have Pritchard send him to the drawing room.”
Polly scooted out of the hallway, whooping as she ran.
Ella paced the cluttered drawing room, waiting for the long-suffering and rather slow Pritchard to complete his duties as butler and usher in her visitor.
Pritchard rapped on the door and entered. “Miss Ella. His lordship, Viscount DeLancy.”
Ella smoothed down her skirt and flicked open her fan, waving it briskly before her hot cheeks. It had been months since a lord of noble rank had called upon Edgton Manor. Many callers came to harangue her father, Sir William, about his debts, but not ones so titled or wealthy. She had to snatch every opportunity that came her way.
DeLancy had to be one of the most handsome men in the shire; wealthy, too. He lived at the northern end of the Long Mynd, near to her godparents’ estate at Standford. Edgton house stood a few miles to the south and the viscount couldn’t have happened on their manor house by accident.
She’d spied him at Sir Richard Crosby’s dinner party, to which she’d been stunned to receive an invitation. During that evening, she had little opportunity to socialise as her father had hastened their departure in his unimpressive style—he’d passed out. He would typically arrive drunk, so it didn’t take much to send him into the final stages of insobriety. She’d been terribly disappointed to miss out on the genteel conversations, the card games, and the singing around the pianoforte. Instead, she’d played the role of guardian, charged with curtailing the excesses of her incapable father. What little she knew of society and its fashions was entirely due to Sir William’s failings and his gradual decline in popularity.
Viscount DeLancy strode into the room, swept his hat off his head, and bowed quite low. With her legs shaking, she bobbed an equally low curtsy. From the top of his head with its sleek, coiffured hair, to his shiny boots, the viscount dressed like a stunning peacock. How could any woman not swoon at the sight of his refined clothes and elegant bearing? She took time to drink him in, every inch of his suave pose. Aware of her own dull attire, she fretted at the plainness of her dress. The hem of her skirt was slightly dirty, her shoes scuffed, and she’d no jewellery to adorn her neck—it had been sold off. To make matters worse her hair never seemed to stay in place. What would he think of her?
They exchanged the formal greetings, asking after each other’s health, then a brief meandering into the topic of weather and the approaching summer. Outside, the drizzle formed a grey cloak about the house.
“Your father, he’s well?” DeLancy enquired.
“As can be expected. He keeps to his study and his ledgers.” Her voice shook with nerves, still shocked by the viscount’s visitation. She had to be the last eligible young woman he’d call upon, because surely, there had to be plenty of others in the neighbourhood. The nobleman could take his pick from anyone he pleased and the recipient of his attention would lap him up without questioning his motives. Just like she was doing.
DeLancy nodded. “Good, good.”
Ella offered him a seat and he took one next to her own choice of armchair. “Can I offer you tea?”
“Another time, maybe. I was passing this way and it would be remiss of me not to call upon you and re-acquaint myself with your charming beauty.”
Ella whipped her fan out and flapped it beneath her nose. “Really? I mean, how delightful of you to think of little me.”
“Your beauty shone the other evening at Sir Richard’s house. I found myself entrapped by your divine features.” DeLancy leaned forward and patted her knee with his fingers. Ella shifted her legs to one side and out of his reach—the effrontery of the man. He continued as if she’d not moved. “Might I just say how sorry I was that your father took ill and we were denied your company so abruptly. It is a measure of your devotion to your poor father that you sacrifice your precious time to him and his needs. I would that I could offer you… some alternative.”
Her toes curled up at the insinuation. Did he mean marriage? Was he courting her? Her prospects remained so diminished, she had come to believe her life would be that of a spinster and social outcast. When she had received the invite for Sir Richard’s gathering, she’d prayed it would open doors for her, but her father’s insistence on chaperoning her had ruined the opportunity. He had cared little for her honour when he drank glass after glass of free port.
“Alternative?” she squeaked.
“Indeed, my dear Ella. Please let me meet with your father to discuss terms for furthering our… friendship.” DeLancy smiled, his eyes glinting as the corners of his lips spread into his cheeks.
Ella hid her dropping jaw behind her fan. Her father was probably passed out at his desk, his drool coating some newspaper or page of his accounts. “My father… remains unwell,” she said feebly.
“Such a pity,” he drawled, seemingly unsurprised by Sir William’s sudden return to poor health, contrary to her earlier comment. He shrugged the lack of protocol off with barely a pause. “Then might I take the liberty of suggesting the next time I call upon you, I take you in my trap for a short ride through the countryside. I’m sure your father would have no issue with such a harmless arrangement.”
“No, of course not,” blustered Ella. A sober father would not tolerate that proposal, but a drunken one? Did it matter if he knew or not? She had to further her own cause even if it meant breaching the etiquette of courtship. “What a wonderful idea,” she chirped, fluttering her eyelashes.
The time was set for the next afternoon and she summoned Pritchard to escort DeLancy to his carriage. Standing on the steps of the small porch, she waved at the fine young man and counted her blessings. At last, she had captured the attention of a suitor.
In the evening, Sir William appeared at dinner and poured a large measure of wine into his glass, then blinked at the restless Ella several times. “Are you ill, child?”
“No, no.” She shook her head. “I shall retire to the library, if you don’t mind, papa, and read a little.”
He snorted and swigged back a mouthful. “Always books. They’ll not get you a husband.”
“No,” she snapped. “But neither have you.”
He shrank in his seat. She hated attacking him, but sometimes the anger inside her bubbled to the surface. Why could he not be like other fathers and take an interest in her affairs? Alcohol had twisted his mind, destroyed the once loving papa who sat her upon his knee and read her the wondrous stories of Welsh myths and legends. In his place, a different man had taken up residence—bitter at his lack of good fortune, lonely after the death of his beloved wife and abandoned by his shamefully selfish daughters, who’d rushed into marriage and moved as far away as they could—London. Only Ella remained behind to keep him from total despair.
“I’m sorry,” she said softly as he fiddled with his napkin. Without his ancient wig to hide his baldness, he had the appearance of an older man, not one of middling years. Wrinkles mapped out the contours of his chubby face, while his nose was crowned by reddened skin, which blistered in the sunshine. Some days he forgot to shave and grey whiskers grew in clusters about his chin and lips. She pitied him, and that emotion brought her great discomfort—a daughter should not pity her father. She should be proud of him.
She said nothing of her planned assignation to her father.
Polly fretted as she pulled the pins out of Ella’s hair and began the laborious task of brushing out the knots before Ella retired to bed.
“Ow,” Ella scowled. Seated before her dressing table with the maid digging the bristles of the brush into her scalp, Ella conjured up a romantic afternoon’s drive through the English countryside.
“I hope,” said Polly, “you do not forget good manners come before romantic overtures. It is not appropriate to be out with a gentleman alone.”
She closed her eyes and shut out the incessant sound of the maid’s voice, which threatened to ruin her dreams.