An Improper Encounter
Somewhere between Scotland and London
The amber liquid in the crystal glass granted her a little strength, but Lady Sarah Hartford, the widowed Marchioness of Radcliff, knew not to rely on the courage that came from alcohol. Sarah swirled her drink and took another sip, attempting to stave off the cold from the thunderous storm outside and the torrent of excitement of what she was about to do.
A proper lady from London’s haute ton and the daughter and sister of the Dukes of Bradstone, Sarah took pride in a proper, scandal-free existence. She thrived on decorum, relying on order and control. Though widowed and having recently passed her thirtieth birthday, her current intentions were not proper . . . per se. Seducing a random man in a country pub was not quite de rigueur, that is.
The object of her attentions seemed unaware of her observations, though he didn’t seem immune to the pretty face of the maid behind the bar. Sarah swallowed down a knot of irrational jealousy. She wasn’t old by any means, though her youthful years had been taken up by a childless marriage that ended in tragedy—a reflection of the entire marriage, really. While she publicly and appropriately mourned her dead husband, she didn’t necessarily miss him.
“Sometimes you still need a man, Sarah, even if it’s just to warm your bed,” said Lady Lydia Hartford, the other widowed Marchioness of Radcliff, as she toyed with her own glass of brandy. Sarah wasn’t convinced of the validity of the recommendation, but she was not one to back down from a challenge, even if the challenger was her slightly scandalous sister-in-law. Both women had met as girls during their debut season and eventually married brothers. When Lydia’s husband Walter died in a curricle accident, the title passed to Sarah’s husband Geoffrey, who died of a fever four years later. The title then passed to a third brother, Dalton, who was impaled by the rhino he was hunting in Africa, and now the title sat somewhat dormant as the fourth brother, Spencer, waited to reach his majority and enact it, along with a mountain load of problems he also inherited.
Unfortunately for Sarah and Lydia, their Radcliff difficulties were far from over, though each had a healthy income from the estate as well as from the estates of their respective late fathers. Independent wealth and prominent titles gave the two widows too much means with not enough to do.
Which is how they ended up in a pub two day’s drive from London, in a raging thunderstorm, betting on who would seduce a man from the taproom into their beds upstairs and stay together longest into the night.
Glancing at her sister-in-law, Sarah said, “Remind me of the reward bestowed on the winner of this ridiculousness.”
“The winner is free from anything Radcliff for six whole months,” Lydia responded. “The loser is thusly obligated to host Spencer and Mrs. Crabby Coltrane during Christmas, Twelfth Night, all the way through Easter.”
It wasn’t Spencer Lydia and Sarah were averse to—it was his guardian, his maternal grandmother Mrs. Della Coltrane. A prickly, crotchety woman who had been immune to Sarah’s kindness and Lydia’s charm and found enjoyment in the two Radcliff widows’ discomfort. Sarah avoided her at all costs.
Six months without Mrs. Coltrane was worth the scandalous behavior she was considering engaging in. But could it truly be scandalous if no one knew about it?
Sarah took another long sip of her brandy. The bottle was from Lydia’s traveling cases, as the coaching inns along their journey south could not be trusted to stock anything other than wine and ale, and if they did, they were unlikely to serve to two women.
Sarah shuddered to think if any member of her extensive family were to discover such behavior from her, even if this was the first time she had ever let Lydia talk her this far into something so absurd. But six months without anything Coltrane or Radcliff to deal with was tempting.
In six months she could become someone else. She merely needed time. And distance. Her life in society, her family obligations—they were all beginning to grate a bit. Everything seemed like effort, and not the relaxing sort, like working in the garden or taking provisions to the elderly, but the sort that tears at your soul a little bit each day, causing you to question the reason for continuing something that makes you miserable. Misery seemed to have followed Sarah around for over a decade.
“Have you made your selection yet?” Sarah asked Lydia, glancing at her.
Lydia’s brown eyes glistened with mirth in the candlelight. “I might have. Though if you have your eye on someone, do tell. It could make things more interesting should we compete for the same man.”
“Nonsense,” Sarah chided. “We already have the same title. We don’t need the same man.”
“It could be fun.” Lydia sang the taunt, taking another sip of her drink. Her eyebrow rose in challenge.
Sarah considered it, though competing against Lydia didn’t hold much appeal. Sarah had always felt her beauty paled in comparison to Lydia’s vibrant red hair and lips that were always turned up in a smile. Not that Sarah was displeased with her appearance; she and her siblings resembled each other—dark brown hair, blue eyes, straight nose, and round jaw. She looked most like their mother, and Sarah didn’t find that a fault. Her mother had been magnificent. If only Sarah could live up to the standards of the late Duchess of Bradstone . . .
There was a new Duchess of Bradstone now, as her brother had married the previous June. The new duchess was lovely, truly; Sarah didn’t have any ill feelings towards her. The change in arrangements simply meant Sarah no longer belonged at Bradstone House. Sarah didn’t belong at Radcliff Manor either. Even her own estate, Allside Park, the property her father had willed to her, did not feel truly hers.
“We are trouble enough as it is without adding that silly raise to the wager,” Sarah decided. “Besides, I have had my eye on—”
The door to the pub burst open, the heavy wind sending sheets of rain blustering into the warm taproom. The cold wind howled like a wounded wolf, and lightning crashed against the black sky, silhouetting the lone figure standing in the doorway. After a shout from the barman, the stranger shook himself and turned to close the door. It took the help of two other men to latch it against the wind. He nodded his thanks to those who had offered him assistance, water pooling on the rough wooden floors in his wake as he made his way to the bar.
Her heart pounding in her ears, Sarah swallowed her rising interest. He was a bear of a man, tall and large and soaked through from the storm, a soggy cap atop his head, wet hair slick against his brow.
“Him,” Sarah said before she could stop herself. She’d definitely had too much liquor.
Lydia blinked at her. “Are you sure?” she asked incredulously. “I suppose, if you are prepared to concede to me . . .”
Sarah downed the rest of her drink, keeping an eye on the man at the counter and nodded. “Ready yourself to hold up your end of the bargain, Lyds.”
“We will see,” Lydia muttered with amusement. “Good luck, my darling!”
Sarah wasn’t sure what she was doing, but she wasn’t going to back down from this challenge, even if it meant embarrassing herself greatly. Lydia would eat her words before the night was over.
Pulling her knit wrap tighter around her shoulders, Sarah quickly made her way towards the counter where the newcomer was in a disagreement with the barman. She knew the problem before she could hear the conversation. The newcomer wanted a room, and there were none left in the inn, or even the town. County, perhaps.
“The stables have all been let,” the innkeeper was saying, but the man shook his head.
“You must have something,” he insisted. “I’ll sleep in the taproom if I must. I’ll pay you double the price of a room for a chair by the fire.” Sarah detected a hint of Scottish brogue in his words, as he dropped the “ing” sound and tapped his Rs.
“There you are!” Sarah said brightly, laying her hand on the man’s wet sleeve. “I’ve been worried!”
He turned to regard her, glancing briefly at her slim hand on his wet coat before his blue eyes trailed up to meet hers, confusion racing through them. Sarah continued before he bungled the whole thing, and before she lost her nerve.
“I have procured a room already, darling,” she said sweetly. “I cannot fathom how I arrived before you! You must have lost your way in the storm!”
His eyes narrowed, but she was persistent. Turning towards the innkeeper, she said, “Did I not mention my husband was on his way? Well, goodness, I am so glad he has arrived safely. Please have his things sent up to my room straight away.”
“You mean, our room, don’t you, love?” the stranger asked, quirking a wet eyebrow at her.
“That’s what I said, isn’t it?” she questioned, smiling sweetly at him. “You have rain water in your ears, Husband. Come now, let us get you warmed up. Don’t want you to catch a fever in this dreadful weather!” Sarah looked expectedly at the innkeeper, who was staring at her aghast. “And sir, could you send a dinner plate up for my husband? And a bottle of wine, if you please, and—” Sarah paused, spying a cake on the far counter. “—and a large slice of that chocolate cake concoction.”
“Best do as the wife says, or she’ll have my hide,” the stranger said to the innkeeper, nodding apparently in agreement, water droplets pooling to the wooden planked floor. Quite the puddle was forming around him.
“Right away, Mrs. Hartford,” the innkeeper said.
“Ah, my horse . . .” the stranger began, and Sarah nodded.
“Please, have my husband’s horse tucked in with mine,” Sarah said to the innkeeper, who nodded. “My coachman will assist—just inform him of my personal request.”
“And my dog . . .” the stranger added, glancing down purposefully, and Sarah followed his gaze to the rain-soaked black creature sitting at his feet. How had she not noticed it before?
Meeting his gaze, Sarah nodded. “And his dog.”
“Abe,” the stranger corrected. “Wife, you know the dog’s name is Abe.”
Sarah bit back a retort and managed to plaster a bright smile onto her face, even if it was quite false. Her eyes bore into his, willing him to comply. “Yes, Abe may sleep—”
“At the foot of our bed,” the man said before she could banish the pet to the stables with the horses. “Where he always sleeps.” The man grinned at her. Sarah did her best not to glower.
“If you will follow me, Husband, I can show you to our room.” She glanced at the dog; the beast looked between her and his master, his mouth open with what looked like a smile on his face. “And Abe, of course.” She led him out of the taproom, glancing at Lydia before they passed out of sight. Lydia gave her a sly little wave and a playful wink.
Once in her room—now their room—Sarah walked the length of the chamber, which took her all of fifteen steps, before turning to face her “husband.” Abe promptly deposited his waterlogged body by the fire, stretching out by the warmth of the embers behind the grate.
“Well,” she began, though she didn’t necessarily have anything to say just yet.
“Well,” he repeated, watching her. Sarah was beginning to rethink this outrageous plot. Why had she let Lydia goad her into taking such a stupid wager? And why had she chosen this man?
He removed the satchel from around his shoulders and set it gingerly by the door. He began to work on the buttons on his large overcoat, water dripping at his feet, and set it beside the fire crackling in the hearth.
No longer encumbered by soaking garments, the man looked normal enough, Sarah mused, less like a drowned bear. He was tall—a whole head taller than her. His shoulders and chest were broad and fit, swathed in a decently well fitted though simple jacket. He removed his jacket and Sarah had a better view of his form, how his broad shoulders melted into narrow hips that gave way to strong legs. She was beginning to see the wisdom in Lydia’s frequent taking of gentlemen friends.
He popped open his satchel, pulling out a dry set of clothing and then stepping behind the partition to change.
“I owe you a bit of debt, Miss—” came his voice from behind the divider.
“Ah, missus, actually,” Sarah replied.
“Is there a mister I should be concerned about?”
She shook her head, though he couldn’t see her response. “Not presently.”
“All right, then, Mrs.—Hartford, was it?” he asked, poking his head around the partition. She nodded. “Why do I think that is not your real name?”
“It is real enough,” she replied. Technically, she had been Mrs. Hartford, if one ignored her husband’s titles—first, as a lord when they wed; and later, a marquess.
He nodded and disappeared again. “Just as well. I suspect after tonight, we won’t see each other again?”
“As long as this storm lets up while we sleep,” she replied, her betraying eyes falling to the bed. “Heaven forbid we are trapped together in this inn for longer than one evening.”
“Aye, that sounds miserable.”
“What shall I call you?” she asked.
“Will,” he replied.
“What will I call you?”
“No, you may call me Will,” he corrected with a smirk, stepping out from behind the partition, changed into dry clothing. “Or William.”
“It hardly seems proper for me to call you by your Christian name…if that even is your real name?”
He shrugged. “It’s real enough,” he echoed.
Touché, she thought. Well, she had him here, now what was she to do with him?
A knock on the door brought a maid with a dinner tray—a welcome distraction.
Turning towards the tray, Sarah quickly busied herself with moving the food to the table, the plates and bowls filled with roast, potatoes, and vegetable stew, her mind calming with the busying of her hands. Sarah always felt better when she was busy, when she had purpose, something to do with her life. Purpose was lacking lately, which was probably why she floated from visit to visit; house party to extended stay in the country; how she ended up at an inn, goaded by Lydia into taking a random stranger into her room.
“I thank you for the dinner,” he said politely, offering Abe a bowl of stew. The dog looked ruefully at the offering but didn’t disparage the sustenance.
Taking a seat opposite her at the small table, Will took a sip of his wine, setting his napkin across his lap. “Are you going to join me, Mrs. Hartford?” The scene was entirely too intimate; in her five-year-long marriage, Sarah had never dined with her husband in this way.
“I dined earlier,” she replied, pouring her own glass of wine. “But I will have a glass of wine while you eat.”
She glanced at the slice of cake she had taken from the overlarge piece that had accompanied the tray of food.
“I like cake,” she said with a shrug, taking a bite of the chocolate dessert. He didn’t comment and dug into his meal.
He truly was quite handsome. His hair was a dark golden blond, though since it was still wet from the rain, she suspected it was actually a lighter shade of blond. He had a handsome face, strong brow and jaw. He didn’t seem to be a stern man, not with the way he was smirking at her, though Sarah could hardly be certain as she had only known him all of twenty minutes. He had the most remarkable blue eyes: a dark, almost black halo filled with a vibrant blue that melted into a ring of brown around his pupil.
“What sends you to London?” he inquired.
“What makes you think I’m going to London?”
He took a forkful of food and chewed a moment before swallowing. “If you’d started in London you wouldn’t have left in this storm. It is more likely you set out for London and stopped to weather the storm.”
“True,” she admitted. “The roads were not safe, so I stopped.”
“Traveling alone?” he asked, taking another bite of stew. Sarah took a sip of wine.
“I have a traveling companion,” Sarah answered, pulling her wrap up and over her shoulders for warmth.
“So, I ask again, what is your reason for your journey?”
“A ball,” she replied with a shrug. “Nothing too exciting.”
“It must the quite the event if you are traveling all the way down to London for it,” he acknowledged before taking a bit of bread, dipping it into the broth of the stew, and plopping it into his mouth in a rather unmannerly way.
Sarah watched him in fascination. “It is truly not,” she admitted. “But my brother’s new wife sent word that all my siblings were returning for it. She explicitly stated she wished to have a dinner with everyone in the immediate family who is currently in England, and I got the impression they have some blessed news to share. But I cannot know for certain.”
“Well then, congratulations to them, and you,” he said, raising his glass of wine. She clinked her glass to his, and smiled, though she wasn’t particularly excited. She would be happy for her brother and his new wife, but each time a new babe was born it was a harsh reminder she was not counted amongst those so blessed.
“You look troubled beneath your pretty smile,” he commented, watching her. “Care to share your woes? I’ve been told I am an excellent listener.”
Sarah took another sip of wine, momentarily distracted by the fuzziness in her head and the delectable shape of his lips, curved into a half grin. “I have no troubles,” she said sweetly, certain from many years of practice that all emotion had been removed from her face aside from polite amusement.
“You are quite pretty when you lie through your teeth, Mrs. Hartford,” he replied.
“I am not about to divulge my entire life story to some stranger I met scarcely half an hour ago,” she replied stiffly.
“Why not?” he asked. “Who am I to tell?”
She eyed him warily, assessing his character as best she could after a few moments alone with him, and she found herself sharing things with him she had barely admitted to herself.
“I find that I am a tad jealous of my brother’s happy marriage. My husband and I were not blessed with children, and with each pregnancy announcement, I find myself joyful for the couple, yet sad for myself.”
“You’re young yet,” William replied, sipping his wine. “You could still have a family.”
Sarah shook her head. “I was married for five years before my husband died, and in those years, we were never able to conceive. I am afraid I simply cannot bear children.”
“It takes two people to make a child, you know,” he reminded her. “Perhaps the fault lay with him and not you?”
“If only that were the case.”
“But how can you know for certain?” he probed. “Have you ever tried with someone else?”
Despite the inappropriateness of the conversation, Sarah managed to laugh. “No, I have not,” she admitted. “But by husband did—with success nine months later.”
William frowned. “Your husband produced a child with another woman while still married to you?”
Sarah nodded, taking a long sip of wine.
“It is fortunate he died then,” William continued and took another spoonful of stew. At her confused look, he explained, “Because I would have killed him for you were he still alive.”
Sarah laughed again, the combination of wine and brandy making her giddy. “What a violently inappropriate thing to say!” And yet, she was oddly warmed by the thought. Lord Geoffrey Hartford, as he had been when Sarah had first laid eyes on him, years before he inherited, had turned from the love of her life to the bane of her existence, and while she knew her brothers would have stood up for her honor, she doubted any of them would have threatened her husband. At least, not to her face.
William shrugged. “I’m not the type to overlook infidelity.”
“Nor I,” she agreed. “But I couldn’t do much about it.”
“You could have not let him back into your bed,” he suggested.
“I tried,” she replied. “Once he confirmed my childlessness was not from any fault of his, he became more . . . determined to produce a legitimate heir.”
The wine was making this entire improper night seem normal, from the conversation to his mere presence in her room.
Tomorrow, she would swear off alcohol, Sarah vowed.
Maybe. Perhaps not.
“I don’t know why I am telling you any of this,” Sarah said, more to herself than to the man across the tiny table from her. She took another bite of the cake, escaping into its sweetness for a brief moment.
“Have you ever shared this with anyone?” he asked.
“My friend, whom I was with in the taproom, was married to my husband’s brother, and theirs was a childless marriage, as well,” Sarah admitted. “We’ve discussed some of the misfortunes of being married to brothers, but we have never discussed details in such a way. This conversation is quite out of character for me, I assure you.”
“Not for me,” William replied. “People always seem to tell me their problems. Apparently, I have a trustworthy face.”
Sarah studied him for a moment before nodding. “Yes, your face is unusually trustworthy, almost alarmingly so. Perhaps it is your eyes.”
He set his flatware on the table and pushed his empty plate away. “I say, Mrs. Hartford, are you flirting with me?” he asked.
Sarah laughed nervously. “Perhaps. Though I haven’t flirted in a good many years, so I’m probably rubbish at it.”
“Do you and your merry friend traverse the countryside taking unsuspecting men under your spell?”
“Well, no,” Sarah admitted. “Tonight we were sort of . . .” She trailed off, wondering how to explain what her intentions were. How does one say, Oh yes, if we could have a tumble in the sheets because I’m quite out of practice that would be splendid. And please don’t see it as my using you for your sexual prowess, of which I am certain you possess quite a good deal, even though I’ve paid for your dinner and your warm room for the night.
“You were bored,” he supplied. Sarah nodded slowly in spite of herself. “And you two, what? Devised a game to entice the first man to walk in the door?”
“Well, it wasn’t quite like that,” she began but stopped, narrowing her eyes at him.
He laughed. “Boredom and women do not mix well, especially widowed ones with money. Your friend seemed quite excited to see you off tonight.”
“I assure you this is not something I do often,” Sarah said. “Or ever.”
He leaned back in his chair, fingers laced behind his head. “How do I know you are not going to abscond with my valuables?”
Sarah laughed. “Have you anything valuable to abscond with?”
His eyebrows rose in unison. “You do not know anything about me.”
“And you do not know anything about me,” she replied. “How do I know you won’t abscond with my valuables?”
He eyed her, hungrily, though he had emptied his plate of stew. “You don’t,” he admitted. “You chose me, remember? I just played along.”
“Yes, because you desired a warm, dry place to sleep,” Sarah replied. “Do not suggest you are getting nothing out of this arrangement.”
“And what, pray tell, are you getting out of this arrangement?” he inquired, swatting at the lock of hair that had fallen in his face.
Sarah paused, not sure how to respond. She wasn’t even sure of the answer. What was she thinking? She was engaged in a ridiculous wager that could lead to incredible ruin. But he was right, she didn’t know who he was. He could be married, or worse, he could be unattached and a frequent customer of brothels and loose women.
Taking another sip of wine, she asked, “Why are you going to London?”
“I was summoned,” he responded.
“Seems ominous,” she replied.
“Could be,” he replied but didn’t comment further. “Have you any other questions?”
“How old are you?”
“I am three and thirty,” he replied. “If you are older than me, I would be surprised. You don’t look past five and twenty.”
“I turned thirty this past May,” she admitted. “It is my charm that keeps me young.”
“And all your time spent robbing unsuspecting men during torrential downpours.”
“Yes, I can control the weather too,” she added. “’Tis another of my charms.”
“I suspect you have many charms, and I look forward to experiencing more of them,” he replied, raising an eyebrow.
A moment passed, and Sarah was convinced the pounding of her heart could be heard echoing off the paneled walls.
She rose slowly, the wine and brandy giving her courage and not an ounce of sanity. What was she doing? This was so out of character for her! Damn Lydia and her damnable wagers. Sarah would never live this down.
Before she could overthink and talk herself out of it—before she could run screaming from the room, or before William could ask her what she was playing at—she sat down on his lap. Wrapping her arms around his neck, pulling herself closer to him, she angled her face to the side and did the one thing she had longed to do since he walked into the taproom, soaking wet and setting her aflame.
She kissed him firmly on the lips.