If it weren’t for Lady Charlotte Hastings’s troublesome tortoiseshell cat, Olivia de Vere would not be in such a mortifying predicament right now. Of course, if Charlie were actually here at this very moment (as opposed to being miles away at her father’s country estate in Gloucestershire), she would surely tell Olivia that her current situation—straddling the six-foot-high, ivy-clad wall adjoining the Marquess of Sleat’s back garden as she made a futile attempt to coax said cat from the branches of a towering beech tree—was an “opportunity,” not a disaster waiting to happen. Olivia shot a quick glance at the back of her guardians’ rather grand town house. Or, to be more precise, her town house, considering the rent was drawn from her very own inheritance money, currently held “in trust.” When she ascertained no one was watching her, she permitted herself a tiny sigh of relief. If Uncle Reginald or Aunt Edith caught her committing such an indecorous act, or her cousins Prudence and Patience, or, even worse, her warden-cum-lady’s-maid, Bagshaw . Olivia shuddered. There would be the devil to pay, that much was certain. Ever since she’d been expelled from Mrs. Rathbone’s Academy for Young Ladies of Good Character three years ago for decidedly unladylike conduct—along with the other three members of the Society for Enlightened Young Women, Sophie, Arabella, and Charlie—she’d been mired in disgrace and labeled a social pariah. A “disreputable debutante,” according to scurrilous gossip rags like the Beau Monde Mirror. She really couldn’t afford to court disaster again. But it seemed that was exactly what she was doing.
Her gaze flitted to Lord Sleat’s town house. Now, if the forbidding yet altogether fascinating marquess happened to discover what she was up to . Olivia shivered again. While she longed to make the man’s acquaintance, this was not a prudent way to go about it by any means. As Lord Sleat was a good friend of Lord Malverne—Sophie’s husband and Charlie’s older brother—Olivia had it on good authority that the Scottish marquess was considered to be a very eligible bachelor indeed. Of course, Lord Sleat also had a well-earned reputation for being one of London’s worst rakehells. A serial seducer of women. However, Olivia was certain the marquess wouldn’t even spare her a passing glance at this particular moment in time. With her skirts and petticoats rucked up about her knees, her silk stockings torn and smeared with something mucky and green—moss, perhaps— she looked an absolute fright. Not only that, but what she was doing certainly bordered on trespassing. If Lord Sleat did see her, he’d be well within his rights to summon the Bow Street Runners. But what could she do? She absolutely had to rescue her dear friend’s beloved pet.
If Peridot fell or escaped into the mews . Visions of the cat darting between carriages and horses’ hooves or being stalked by a lascivious tomcat filled Olivia’s mind’s eye, and her whole body trembled like the dark green leaves above her head. Despite Olivia’s edict to the servants that Peridot should not be let out unless accompanied, the cat had somehow slipped into the garden on her own. When Olivia looked up from the pages of Northanger Abbey—she’d been reading in her bedchamber after dinner—and spied Peridot leaping from the wall into the tree, her heart had taken flight like a panicked bird. And now here she was, her heart fluttering wildly, her belly tumbling with fear, and her head spinning with dizziness whenever she looked down. How inconvenient that she’d belatedly discovered she was terrified of heights. Olivia huffed out a breath to blow a stray lock of hair away from her face. She daren’t let go of the brick wall lest she fall. She’d already lost one of her shoes; in the process of clambering onto her precarious perch, her pink silk slipper slid off her foot and landed in a dense, rather prickly looking bank of rosebushes guarding the perimeter of Lord Sleat’s garden. On her side of the wall, the stone bench she’d climbed upon looked far away indeed.
And part of the ivy-choked latticework she’d used as a makeshift ladder had already cracked ominously beneath her weight. But she really couldn’t afford to panic about how she’d get down. First of all, she had to reach that blasted cat, and quickly. The light was fading fast, and it wouldn’t be long before her presence was missed. Olivia drew a bracing breath. “P-P-Peridot.” Her stammer was little more than a ragged whisper. “Here, p-puss, puss. There’s a good k-kitty now.” Knees trembling, heart pounding, she forced herself to inch forward along the wall so she could peer up into the beech canopy.
There. Directly above her on a sturdy branch, but just out of reach, sat Peridot, her black, white, and tan fur barely visible in the shadows. The cat’s fluffy tail twitched when Olivia called her again. A disdainful gesture if she’d ever seen one. Little minx. If Olivia survived this foolhardy escapade, she was going to pack Peridot into her basket and send her back to Berkeley Square posthaste. Let the Hastings House staff deal with their young mistress’s cat. Charlie meant well when she’d suggested in her last letter that Olivia might like to look after Peridot for a few weeks until Charlie returned to London in the first week of October. On the surface, her friend’s reasoning was sound: a pet would provide Olivia with congenial company, affection, and a source of amusement—three things that were sorely lacking in her life. Ignoring the scrape of the brickwork along the tender flesh of her inner thighs, Olivia crept forward again.
And then the hem of her muslin gown snagged on something, and she winced at the sound of fabric tearing. Damn, damn, and double damn again. How on earth was she going to explain the damage to Bagshaw? She’d be sure to tattle to Aunt Edith, who’d tell Uncle Reginald. And then she’d be punished. But at least Peridot will be safe— “Ahem.” The low, unmistakable sound of an adult male clearing his throat made Olivia simultaneously jump and squeak with fright. Oh, no. No, no, no. Her heart plummeting like a dislodged stone, Olivia’s gaze whipped down to collide with that of a man’s. But not just any man.
It was the Marquess of Sleat. The very object of her girlish infatuation. The subject of all her silly, romantical dreams. In the flesh. And what flesh it was. Well over six feet of muscular, broad-shouldered, square-jawed man glowered up at her. Her grip tightened on the wall. Her pulse stuttered, and heat flared in her cheeks. Mortified didn’t even begin to describe how she felt. Horrified would be closer to the mark.
Definitely shaken and utterly speechless. She’d never seen Lord Sleat this close up before. Indeed, she’d only ever glimpsed him at a distance as he quit his town house before striding off down Grosvenor Square or climbing into his coach. And there’d been that one occasion when he lounged on the stone-flagged terrace overlooking this very garden. In the summer gloaming, she’d spied the glowing tip of his cheroot cigar and the flash of amber liquid—perhaps whisky—as the light of the setting sun glanced off his raised glass. Charlie had once described him as being the epitome of a Highland warrior crossed with a pirate. As Olivia continued to gawp in awkward dismay at the marquess, she decided her friend’s assessment was quite accurate. A thick sweep of sable hair falling across his brow partially obscured a jagged scar and the black leather patch covering his left eye socket. His other eye, the iris a dark storm-cloud gray, pinned her with a hard, distinctly sardonic stare. “Two thoughts spring to mind.
” Lord Sleat’s baritone voice and Scots burr coalesced into a rich, deep rumble, which Olivia swore she could feel vibrate through her body like a roll of distant thunder. “First of all, what the devil are you doing? And secondly, how the hell did a wee lassie like you get up there?” One dark eyebrow arched as he waited for Olivia to respond, and for a moment, she wondered if she’d misjudged the marquess’s mood; she swore she glimpsed a quicksilver flash of humor in his gaze. Amused or not, he still expected her to answer. She swallowed to moisten her dry-asa-desert mouth. To undo the knots from her perpetually tangled tongue. “I . I . ” She screwed her eyes shut as she attempted to wrest a coherent sentence loose. “I . my ff-friend’s c-cat is .
” Lifting a trembling hand, she pointed at the branches overhead. “Peri . P-Peridot . ” Her mouth twisted with frustration. “Sh-sh-she’s s-s-stuck . She’s stuck up there.” As Lord Sleat crossed his arms over his wide chest, the fabric of his navy blue jacket pulled tight across the impressive swell of bunched biceps muscles beneath. “You’re trying to rescue your friend’s cat.” Judging by his flat tone and skeptical frown, the marquess clearly doubted the veracity of her statement. Nevertheless, Olivia nodded.
“Y-yes.” He took several steps closer to the wall, and his gaze shifted to the beech tree. “Are you sure she’s stuck?” He squinted up into the gently waving branches. “It’s been my experience that cats can generally look after them—” At that precise moment, Peridot elegantly sprang from her leafy hidey-hole and landed on the wall. With another contemptuous flick of her tail, she then leapt to the ground, alighting right beside Lord Sleat’s shiny black Hessians. Olivia’s jaw dropped. She’d never seen a cat perform such a daring feat with such alacrity. She suddenly felt like the biggest fool in Christendom. To make matters worse, Peridot began to purr and blatantly rub her body all over the marquess’s boots. Her tail twined between his legs, as though she were claiming possession of this man.
Charlie’s cat wasn’t a little minx at all. She was a brazen minx. Lord Sleat bent low and scooped Peridot into his arms. The cat’s purring grew louder, and when the marquess stroked her beneath the chin with one long finger, she closed her bright green eyes and rubbed her fluffy cheek against his paisley satin waistcoat as if she were in the throes of ecstasy. Good Lord, what a hussy of a cat. As Olivia scowled down at Peridot, Lord Sleat spoke. “Well, all’s well that ends well, it would seem . except for the fact you are still stuck on my wall, Miss . ” He cocked an eyebrow again. Olivia drew a steadying breath in order to control her stammer.
It wasn’t usually this pronounced. However, the stress of trying to retrieve Peridot, combined with her newly discovered fear of heights and coming face-to-face with an overwhelmingly masculine marquess whom she’d been secretly daydreaming about for several months—all of these things were wreaking havoc on her equilibrium. Not to mention the fact that Lord Sleat’s attention had drifted to her bared lower leg and slipperless foot. It seemed Peridot wasn’t the only one being brazen. But Lord Sleat was a rake after all. Her face aflame, Olivia at last summoned her voice. “Oh . Oliv . liv . ” “Lavinia?” supplied Lord Sleat as his gaze met hers again.
Olivia only just suppressed a sigh. She supposed the marquess was only trying to be helpful by supplying the rest of her name . even if he’d got it wrong. But what was the point in trying to correct him or additionally provide her surname so he could address her as Miss de Vere, as decorum dictated? Despite the fact that they were neighbors, it was highly unlikely that she’d ever have such a close and personal encounter with this man again. Not unless her martinet of an uncle and equally exacting aunt could be persuaded to let her attend any ton social events. Charlie, Sophie, and Arabella might try to matchmake when they all returned to town next month, but Olivia suspected it would all come to naught. So she simply smiled and nodded her agreement. Lavinia would do. “Well, Miss Lavinia,” continued the marquess. A crooked smile tugged at the corner of his wide mouth.
“Would you like me to help you down?” This time, Olivia did manage to find her voice. “Oh, yes, p-please, Lord Sleat. I’d be mmost grateful.” He promptly deposited Peridot on the lawn. “You know who I am?” he said as he straightened and pushed his way into the evil-looking rosebushes bordering the wall. His snug-fitting buckskin breeches and Hessians clearly provided his legs with adequate protection, as he seemed oblivious to the thorns. Olivia nodded. “Of course, my lord. D-doesn’t everyone in London know you?” He flashed a wolfish grin as he reached toward her. His large hands settled about her waist, holding her steady.
“It seems my reputation precedes me, Miss Lavinia. Now, if you’d be so kind as to swing your other leg over to this side. That’s it. And hold on to my shoulders. Ready? Because here we go.” Before Olivia could even draw another breath, the marquess’s grip tightened on her middle, and she suddenly found herself suspended in the air. In the next instant, he made a deft turn and lowered her to the ground in a long, slow, effortless slide, her body grazing the length of his. She was acutely aware of his body’s heat. Its granitelike hardness. The power of his arms and the shifting contours of his mountainous shoulders beneath her hands.
By the time her feet touched the grass, she was more than a little breathless and her pulse was racing so fast, she felt giddy. To combat the wave of dizziness, she closed her eyes, her hands lingering about the marquess’s neck. Given that his hands remained about her waist, he didn’t seem in any hurry to relinquish his hold either. Thick silky hair brushed the backs of her fingers. His distinctive masculine scent—a potent mix of leather, musk, and exotic spices—teased her senses, and for one mad moment, she contemplated pressing her face against his shirtfront, just so she could get closer to him. No wonder Peridot had looked so beatific in his arms. He smelled divine. “Are you all right, Miss Lavinia?” Lord Sleat’s voice was no longer a gruff rumble, but low and soft, like a lion’s gentle purr. Olivia forced herself to open her eyes and take a step back. How fanciful she was becoming.
Not to mention shameless. She might already have a sullied reputation in the eyes of her family and polite society, but she really shouldn’t risk making it worse. “Y-yes. I’m quite f-fine,” she stammered. Her cheeks bloomed with heat at the thought that the marquess might think she’d actually swooned in his arms. Lord Sleat frowned down at her. “Not quite, lass,” he said, plucking her pink slipper from a nearby rosebush. Then, before she knew what he was about, he knelt on the grass, and like the prince in a fairy tale, he slid her slipper onto her foot. His touch seemed to sear through the silk of her stocking to the flesh beneath, making her shiver with awareness. He looked up at her, his mouth curving in a decidedly rakish smile as he relinquished her ankle.
“Now everything’s just right.” Olivia swallowed, and her blush deepened. “Th-thank you.” Was the marquess deliberately trying to make her swoon again? Because if he was, he was very close to succeeding. She really should go. Something tugged the back of her muslin gown, and when she glanced down, it was to discover Peridot had pounced on the torn flounce trailing from her hem. Naughty puss. She picked up the cat and bobbed a quick curtsy. “My lord, I thank you again for your . for your assistance.
But it’s time P-Peridot and I bid you adieu.” He inclined his head. “Of course.” He gestured toward the terrace and the open French doors. The shadows had lengthened, and candles and lamps glowed warmly in the elegant drawing room beyond. “Let me escort you out.” Olivia froze. “Oh.” She shook her head. “I d-don’t think .
Is there by any ch-chance another way? A gate leading to the m-mews? I don’t mean to cause offense, but as you are a b-bachelor, and I am . ” She lifted her chin. “And I am unchaperoned, it m-might invite unwanted attention if I leave via your front door.” Good Lord, if her aunt and uncle’s priggish butler, Mr. Finch, caught sight of her leaving Sleat House, she’d be done for. Lord Sleat nodded. “Ah yes, you are absolutely right. A discreet exit would be wise. Come.” He began walking with long, sure strides toward the end of the garden, and Olivia had to rush to keep up.
“Let me show you something.” He stopped before a narrow gap in a waist-high boxwood hedge. Ivy cascaded over the top of the wall like a tumbling, verdant waterfall. “See here.” With a sweep of his arm, Lord Sleat roughly pushed aside the heavy green curtain. “There’s actually a secret gate connecting these two gardens, but it hasn’t been used in years.” Peering into the shadowed recess, Olivia blinked in surprise. “My goodness.” Sure enough, a small door of weathered gray wood had been neatly concealed in the brickwork. Ivy, moss, and lichen had crept their way over the paneling, and the ornate, wrought iron hinges were rusted with age.
Lord Sleat tugged at some of the ivy tendrils curling around the bolt. “I believe one of my wicked forebears had it installed so that he and his mistress—who resided next door— could conduct their clandestine affair more easily.” Lord Sleat flashed a grin over his shoulder. “Shocking, I know. Especially considering the lady in question was married.” Oh. The marquess jostled the bolt, and with a begrudging, wince-inducing grate, it slid back. Then, after delivering a small kick with his booted foot, he pushed the gate open on protesting hinges. “There we are,” Lord Sleat said with a gentlemanly bow. “I trust this serves your needs.
” “Yes, it d-does. Most adequately.” Transferring Peridot to one arm, Olivia held her torn skirt with her other hand and dipped into another small curtsy. “Thank you again, my lord. For everything.” “The pleasure has been all mine, I assure you.” He caught her hand and brushed a kiss over the back of her fingers, making Olivia blush to the roots of her hair. “And just in case you ever need to rescue Peridot again”—he winked—“I’ll leave the gate unlocked.” Olivia inclined her head. “You’re too kind.
” He laughed, and mischief glinted in his eye. “You wouldn’t say that if you really knew me, lass.” Leaning closer, he added in a seductive, velvet-soft voice, “I’m afraid wickedness runs in the family, so you’d best leave before a sinful scoundrel like me is tempted to ruin more than your reputation. Farewell, my lovely Lavinia.” Goodness. She couldn’t quite believe a man like Lord Sleat was flirting with tangletongued, quiet-as-a-church-mouse Olivia de Vere. She muttered a stammered farewell in return, then ducked through the small gateway and the curtain of ivy on the other side. When she emerged into the garden, she heard the door scrape shut. And her heart fell at the thought that she might never see her mysterious marquess again. With a heavy sigh, she rounded a small knot of rosebushes and made her way back to the house with Peridot in her arms.
No, she wouldn’t let disappointment weigh her down. Because even if Bagshaw tore strips off her, and her aunt and uncle locked her away in her room for the next week, she would not regret a single thing. She’d finally met Lord Sleat, and he was everything she’d imagined him to be— ruggedly handsome and roguish, yet essentially a gentleman. A small smile played at the corners of her mouth. The memory of their fleeting yet thoroughly stimulating encounter would sustain her for many a long, lonely night to come, of that she was certain. However, all her pleasant musings about Lord Sleat fled when she gained the upper gallery leading to the bedchambers. To avoid her aunt, uncle, and cousins, she’d given the drawing room and library a wide berth. Indeed, she didn’t encounter anyone besides a pair of housemaids lighting the last of the upstairs lamps . until she reached her room.