Beyond Scandal and Desire(14)

By: Lorraine Heath

Closing the door, the servant looked rather guilty doing it. Then she approached cautiously. “I have something for you, m’lady,” she whispered, as though the walls had ears. “A gentleman knocked on the servants’ entrance near the crack of dawn. He told the lad who answered he needed to speak with Lady Aslyn’s maid. So I was fetched. He gave me this, said it was for you and I was to tell no one about it.”

In her palm rested a small leather box. Aslyn couldn’t quite bring herself to reach for it. “What did he look like?”

“Like the sort who should come in through the front door. Finely tailored clothing. Boots polished to a shine. Well groomed. Dark hair. A full beard. It was too dark for me to get a good look at his eyes, and his hat shadowed them anyway. He held himself with confidence, but I had the fleeting thought if I were someone up to no good I’d never want to run across him in a darkened alley.”

Even though she’d already deduced who he was, she asked, “He didn’t give his name?”

“No, m’lady. I asked for it, but he merely smiled—and it was a rather wolfish one at that if I’m to be honest, set my heart to fluttering it did—and went on his merry way. I don’t think he wanted it known.”

Aslyn was surprised to find her fingers trembling slightly when she took the box. Although she kept no secrets from her maid, she still turned away and walked over to the sitting area to give herself a modicum of privacy. When she opened the box, she was greeted with a folded bit of foolscap. Lifting it out, she gasped at what lay beneath: the most beautiful cameo she’d ever seen. The background was a pale blue that matched the shade of her eyes almost perfectly. She unfolded the note and read the words scrawled with a masculine hand: In appreciation for your kindness to my sister.

No name, no initials, no verification as to the identity of the person who’d written it, but then she didn’t need verification. The hints abounded. She wondered how he’d acquired a gift so quickly. Was it something he’d had on hand for someone else? A treasured family heirloom? Had he located a jeweler who would open his shop in the wee hours?

Her curiosity regarding Mick Trewlove only increased with the arrival of his gift. She had no idea how to locate him, to rebuff the inappropriate gesture—or how to send him an appropriate letter expressing her appreciation should she decide to keep it. He’d taken the choice out of her hands. She didn’t know whether to be irritated or grateful.

She slipped the note back into the box and closed it. Clutching it close to her breast, she strolled over to her vanity. “You’re to say nothing of this, Nan.”

“I never would, miss. Think the gent would find me in my sleep and strangle me.”

Opening a small drawer, Aslyn carefully placed the gift inside. “I don’t think he’d do any such thing, but I don’t want to cause the duchess any distress. She certainly wouldn’t approve of any gifts being delivered to me by a gentleman who hasn’t made his intentions clear.” Not that making his intentions clear would get him anywhere. Her guardians would never allow her to be associated with a commoner, much less marry one. Although she absolutely wasn’t considering marrying him. Her life had been planned out, and she’d been groomed to one day take on the mantle of duchess. Kip was her destiny. He had been since she was a young girl. Even her parents had agreed he was the one she’d marry. They’d named the Duke and Duchess of Hedley as her guardians to ensure their desires for her came to fruition.

An hour later, Aslyn entered the breakfast dining room to find the duke still at the table, enjoying his creamed eggs, ham and other assorted offerings while reading his newspaper. The duchess took her first meal of the day in her bed, encouraged Aslyn to do the same, but she found it too quiet and lonely.

The duke stood. “Ah, what lovely company I have joining me this morning.” He’d said the same thing the first time she’d snuck out of the nursery at the age of nine and insisted on having breakfast at the big table. He’d indulged her that day, and every one since, creating a little ritual between them that she would miss when she moved into her own residence.