Thea’s head snapped up at the sound of wheels crunching across the gravel outside Stourwell Court.
Hope erupted through her…it had been five days since her brother had gone out one day and not returned. She leapt to her feet and hurried to the salon window. A glimpse of a curricle drawn by a pair of blacks set her heart racing, and she flung her embroidery aside, gathered her skirts and ran for the door. Across the hall and through the front door she sped.
Please. Let it be him.
Doubts nipped at her as she sprinted down the steps to the now stationary conveyance, but she ignored them. She could not bear to let that prayer of hope fizzle and die. She shut her mind against the evidence of her eyes as she reached the foot of the steps and hurried to the curricle.
Her eyes met those of the driver—a stranger—and she skidded to a halt, gravel spinning from beneath her feet.
‘Who are you? Where is Daniel?’ She raked the driver with her eyes and then switched her gaze to the horses. ‘Those are his—’
Her jaw snapped shut and her cheeks scorched. ‘Oh!’ Those doubts had caught up with her and knocked her flat. She bit her lip as sick disappointment flooded her, followed by the fear that had dogged her ever since her brother had failed to come home.
‘I beg your pardon, sir. I mistook your horses for those of my brother’s but I see, upon closer examination, they are not his.’
They were a pair of blacks, yes, but of far superior quality to Daniel’s, and a groom—another stranger—perched on the back of the curricle. And besides…
Fool! Daniel didn’t even take his curricle. He was on horseback.
And that had been her one ray of hope in this desperate mess, one that she clung to with all her heart: her brother had ridden away and not returned, but neither had Bullet, his grey gelding, whose homing instinct was powerful and who in the past had often carried his foxed rider safely home after a night spent drinking. Thankfully, though, Daniel had soon outgrown that wild behaviour.
And now Thea clung to her belief that whilst Bullet was missing, there was still hope.
The stranger appraised her with raised brows and she scowled back at him, irritated by the amused curl of his lips. She quashed the tug of attraction she recognised deep in her core. It was a very long time since she had allowed herself to be attracted to any man.
‘Your brother being Mr Daniel Markham?’
His voice was deep and cultured—that of a gentleman born. Thea had been subjected to enough elocution lessons to recognise that aristocratic drawl. She studied the driver, from the brim of his tall beaver hat to the toes of his shiny boots. What business could a man like this have with Daniel? Suspicions swirled. Did this stranger have something to do with Daniel’s disappearance? Daniel had been troubled before he disappeared, that much she did know. But, unusually, he had refused to confide in her.
‘He is,’ she said. ‘And you are?’
He frowned, clearly put out by such a brusque demand. Well, Thea had more pressing concerns than a strange gentleman’s sense of his own importance.
‘I am Lord Vernon Beauchamp, here to speak to your brother.’
‘A lord? What on earth do you want with Daniel?’
A muscle leapt at the side of his jaw. ‘Bickling, hold the horses.’
He tied off the reins and the groom jumped down and ran to the horses’ heads. Lord Vernon Beauchamp climbed in a leisurely fashion from his curricle and walked across the gravel to Thea, not stopping until he was so close he towered over her, radiating confidence and power. Thea set her jaw and stood her ground, refusing to be intimidated even though his commanding air and his raw masculinity rattled her from her head to her toes.
‘I suggest that is a matter between your brother and me, madam. Am I to understand he is not here?’
‘No, he is not.’
She glanced back at the house. No sign of her mother. Good…no doubt she was with Papa; she often read to him in the morning after he awoke. Heaven knew how much longer Thea could protect them from knowing the full truth of Daniel’s absence. She looked up at Lord Vernon.
‘If it concerns Stour Crystal, I assure you that I am perfectly able either to assist you myself, or to refer any query to the appropriate individual at the manufactory.’
‘Stour Crystal?’ Lord Vernon surveyed the frontage of Stourwell Court before looking back along the carriageway, to the wrought-iron entrance gates in the distance. Thea bridled as she fancied she detected a slight curl of his upper lip as he stripped off his driving gloves. ‘Your family manufacture lead-crystal glassware?’
And I am proud of it.
Her father had built the business from scratch, manufacturing some of the finest quality cut lead crystal in the land. His Lordship might have been born into the aristocracy but that did not give him the right to look down upon her. But with that defiant pride came the realisation that she had not offered her visitor the customary hospitality due a visitor. She had allowed her disappointment he was not Daniel to override her manners and that would surely only add to his lordship’s low impression of her and her family. She bit back any further comment and moved away from Lord Vernon to smooth her hand over the haunch of the nearest horse. She smiled at the groom.
‘He is hot,’ she said, ‘and you must be tired and in need of refreshment.’ After the heavy rains of a week ago, the weather had turned unseasonably warm. ‘Take the horses around the back—you will see the way to the stable yard and you may care for them there. Come to the kitchen afterwards. Cook will give you some food and something to drink.’
The groom waited until his master gave him permission—granted by a flick of the head—to proceed before leading the horses away. Lord Vernon, a look of irritation on his face, swished his driving gloves against his palm. No doubt he was unhappy at his groom and horses’ needs being considered before his own: yet more evidence of his sense of entitlement. Mentally, Thea shrugged but she took care to conceal her scorn. She had neither the strength nor the heart to engage in a verbal sparring session.
‘You, too, must be weary, my lord. Shall we continue this discussion indoors?’
As the scrunch of hooves faded, his lordship inscribed an arc through the air with his arm and then bowed.
Thea marched to the front porch, feeling much like a cat whose fur had been rubbed the wrong way, but she vowed to remain polite; she had no wish to reinforce his prejudices. The man had been neither rude nor derogatory, but—she pictured again that subtle curl of his lip—she knew how his sort viewed ordinary business folk who must work for their living.
She led him across the hall and into the study.
‘Would you prefer ale or wine, sir?’
‘Tea,’ he said.
She was certain he was being deliberately awkward. Their aversion was mutual then. So be it. She had more pressing concerns than how some spoilt aristocrat viewed her and a handsome face and a manly physique meant nothing to a woman who had forsworn all men. She jerked at the bell and a footman soon attended.
‘Bring tea for the gentleman, please, George, and a glass of Madeira for me. And some of Cook’s fruit cake.’
As George turned to leave, Thea said, ‘Is Mama with Papa?’
‘She is, miss. Shall I inform her we have a visitor?’
Thea glanced at Lord Vernon, who had removed his hat to reveal a full head of auburn hair that curled around his ears. A little flutter deep in her stomach taunted her: perhaps she wasn’t as immune to an attractive man as she thought. She wrenched her attention away from her treacherous body.
‘No. That will not be necessary, George.’
‘Very well, miss.’
Thea then sat in a chair by the window and gestured to a nearby chair.
‘Please, take a seat, sir.’
She waited until he was settled, her thoughts whirling. She knew from past experience, through her dealings with other men, that he would be reluctant to discuss business with her simply because of her sex. If she were to learn the truth of his visit, she must try to annoy him into indiscretion and she knew the perfect way to aggravate him: men often found it hard to deal with females who were direct.
‘Is it money?’
His brows lowered into a thunderous frown. ‘Is what money?’ His question almost a growl.
‘Does Daniel owe you money? Are you here to collect on a debt?’
‘I do not—’ He snapped his jaw shut, abruptly cutting off his heated response. His eyes—an arresting shade of green that sparkled in the light of a stray sunbeam filtering through the window pane—narrowed. When he spoke again, his voice was level. ‘Why should you jump to such a conclusion? Is your Daniel a gambler?’
Thea frowned in her turn. This man was clearly not to be easily manipulated.
‘He is not.’
‘Then I ask again, why do you jump to the conclusion I am here to collect on a debt?’
Thea shrugged, stood up and paced to the fireplace. She swung around, to see that her visitor had risen to his feet. She huffed a silent laugh. A lord and a gentleman, trained from birth in correct etiquette. When a lady stands—even a lowly born lady such as she—a gentleman, too, must stand.
‘Please. Sit down.’ She crossed the room to sit in her own chair and his lordship—with a supercilious lift of one brow—followed suit.
He folded his arms. ‘I am waiting.’
His voice was soft. Almost menacing. Thea shivered at her sudden mental image of a wolf: crouching, watching, patient. She thrust aside that picture, silently castigating herself for such a fanciful thought. He was a man…a powerful lord, maybe, but a man none the less.
His question…what was it again? About debt. ‘We are in business, my lord. I wondered if Daniel had overlooked a bill.’
His lips twitched. Thea searched his expression and felt her tension ease and her sense of foreboding lift as she realised he was trying not to laugh. No sign of a menacing predator now. She really must try to curtail her imagination.
‘I cannot decide whether to be amused or offended that you could even suspect I am a debt collector,’ he said. His smile now surfaced fully, his lips parting to reveal white, even teeth.
Heavens, he is a handsome devil.
She quashed that thought and dismissed the accompanying trip of her pulse.
‘Might we, do you think, start this conversation anew and dispense with the suspicion on both sides?’
Thea inclined her head by way of reply. A truce would speed this meeting along and give her the opportunity to discover if Lord Vernon Beauchamp knew anything that might shed light on Daniel’s disappearance.
George came in with the refreshments and Thea poured a cup of tea for her visitor before handing him the cup and saucer. He captured her gaze as he murmured his thanks, his deep voice vibrating through her. Then he brushed her fingers as she handed him a plate with a slice of cake. A whiff of cologne arose to tease at her senses: spicy, with notes of cinnamon. Musky and expensive. The resulting flicker of desire deep in her stomach exasperated Thea all over again.
She recognised his tactic. This was an attempt to use his charisma to wheedle information from her. He was a handsome aristocrat, experienced in the art of flirtation and accustomed to having his own way…well, he would soon find she was too shrewd to allow weasel words and admiring glances to fool her.
She had been burned before.
Besides, she had neither the time nor the inclination to engage with him in this particular game. There was far too much at stake.
‘I do not know your name.’
His statement startled her. ‘But…of course you know my name. Daniel is my brother. I, therefore, am Miss Markham.’
He cocked his head to one side. ‘But I did not know whether or not you were married, Miss Markham. For all I knew, you could be Mrs Wilful, or Lady Copper Curls.’
He smiled. Charmingly. A fan of crinkles formed at the outer corner of each eye. Thea raised her chin and directed a stern look at him.
‘You were about to tell me your business with my brother, sir.’
Lord Vernon set his teacup and saucer on to a side table and settled back into his chair, his elbows propped on the arms as he placed his hands fingertip to fingertip beneath his chin.
‘My business is with your brother. It is not proper that I should discuss it with you.’
‘Because I am a female?’ No matter how many times she was told she was unable to understand business matters, it became no easier hearing the same sentiment from yet another male. ‘As I said before—my brother and I collaborate in our father’s business. We do not have secrets.’
‘And yet you have no idea why I am here.’
Thea swallowed past the painful lump in her throat. ‘That is entirely different. I cannot be privy to your whims and fancies in deciding to call upon Daniel.’
‘Whims and fancies,’ he murmured. ‘I cannot say I am flattered at being thought a man subject to whims and fancies.’ His expression hardened and again she was reminded that, beneath his urbane exterior, there lurked an altogether different beast. ‘You boast there are no secrets between yourself and your brother and yet you are unaware it was your brother who wrote to me to request a meeting.’
‘For what purpose?’
He raised a brow. ‘Perhaps you can enlighten me?’
Thea shook her head and a lock of hair sprang loose to dangle in front of her eye. She clicked her tongue in irritation, swept the curl from her forehead and hooked it behind a hairpin, then sipped at her Madeira, her mind working furiously. This conversation was not going the way she intended. She was desperate to find out if this man had any information that might tell her where Daniel had gone.
‘I have not the first idea why Daniel wrote to you. Was it connected with the business?’
‘I can safely say he did not summon me to discuss a matter of business. The only knowledge I have of lead-crystal glassware is the quality of the liquid contained therein.’
‘That comes as no surprise.’
Heavens! When will I learn to curb my tongue?
A muscle bunched in his jaw. ‘And such a riposte is entirely predictable. You clearly suffer under the illusion that the idle aristocracy are fit for little other than frittering their fortunes away upon their own pleasures and depravities.’
She couldn’t decide if she felt shame at having insulted him, albeit indirectly, or pride that she could stand her own against such a man.
‘They are your words,’ she responded, raising her brows. ‘Your interpretation of my expressed belief that you would have no knowledge of the manufacture of lead crystal. And I was correct.’
His lips thinned. ‘Where is your brother, Miss Markham? When do you expect him home?’
She bit her lip.
‘I do not know.’
Her stomach clenched into a tight, hard ball of fear. Unable to sit still, she rose to her feet and crossed the room to the desk. Daniel’s desk. But there were no clues there. She had searched it thoroughly and there was no hint of where he had gone or what had happened to him. She fingered a contract that lay on the top of a pile of papers awaiting attention, that same all-pervading sense of dread crawling through her veins. This contract was important to Stour Crystal.
Would Daniel really just…go? Would he really be so negligent?
Of the business? Of her? Of their parents?
‘I do not know,’ she repeated.
Thea’s head snapped up at the sound of wheels crunching across the gravel outside Stourwell Court.