Virginia and the Wolf – Lynne Connolly

Virginia, Lady Dulverton, glanced up from her book and scowled. That cherub was definitely out of place. Rising, she went to the mantelpiece to straighten it. She’d never liked the thing. Somebody had exerted all their skill to make the outrageously expensive and ugly figurine. It scowled at her. She scowled back and laughed a little at her own foolishness. The doorbell clanged, and her mock scowl became a real one. She was not at home to visitors on Wednesdays. Everybody knew that. Perhaps a delivery had arrived, and they were using the wrong door. Her staff could take care of that. When the sound of raised voices drifted through the closed door, her hand stilled on the porcelain cupid. She knew that voice— Lord Wolverley. The only man who stirred her senses was standing in her hall.

Her pulse rate increased, but she had to face him. He wouldn’t leave until he’d seen her. Twitching the skirts of her apricot silk gown aside, she made for the hall at speed. And there he stood, his London finery barely making a dent in his rampant maleness. The Earl of Wolverley spun around, as if he sensed her standing there. “Good Lord, madam, who is this dolt?” he demanded. Virginia stayed in the doorway as he raked her with his gaze. Sparks lit his pearl-gray eyes, but she refused to acknowledge the effect he had on her. She took a couple of deep breaths. Only some quirk of nature, to be sure.

“It’s Butler.” “I can see what he is, but who is he?” “Butler, my new butler.” The provoking earl went off into gales of laughter. His cocked hat, which he’d been trying to hand to Butler the butler, fell to the floor. “Only you, Virginia, only you.” He bent and swept up his hat, tossing it on the hall table. The tiny diamond dangling from his left ear gleamed as he rose, a flash of defiance all on its own. What was he doing here? And what gave him the right to call her by her given name? What did he want? Virginia fought to keep her expression calm, to rise above his taunts. Francis, Lord Wolverley, known in certain circles as “The Wolf,” had never been particularly friendly with her late husband, but after Ralph’s death Wolverley had returned to haunt her. In fact, the sound of her name on his lips gave her a wholly unwelcome frisson.

Being a truthful woman, Virginia could not deny that he was a most attractive man. But that did not make her blind to his faults. She did not know who Wolverley conducted his affairs with. Neither did she care. She assumed her protective mantle of frozen hauteur. “Only me what? And I am not aware of us being related closely enough for you to make free with my given name.” In the ten years she had known the Earl of Wolverley, he had never ceased to provoke her. Wolverley found rare amusement in doing so, and every time he did, she rose to the bait. As, she ruefully admitted to herself, she was doing now. He grinned.

“Oh, I think we’ve known one another long enough to dispense with the formalities. And in answer to your question, only you could find a butler called Butler. Do you have a maid called Maid, too? A lady’s maid called Abigail?” “Not at all. And it is cruel of you to taunt him so. My maid is Winston, and the footman in the hall is Hurst.” She cast the man a wry look of apology, but Butler, who was very good at his job, remained stately and impassive. Of moderate height but considerable presence, Butler kept most of the undesirables from the door with consummate ease. Just not this one. Again, Wolverley defied convention and turned to the butler, meeting his gaze, which was not at all the thing, and nearly startled Butler into taking a step back. Virginia noted his hesitation but did not hold it against him.

Wolverley had a vitality that startled many people. “Indeed, I beg your pardon. But it is most unusual. I trust your feelings have not been utterly destroyed?” Butler swept a low bow. He didn’t have to refer to the piece of pasteboard in his hand when he said, “Absolutely not, Lord Wolverley.” “You can’t come in. My companion is away,” she told the earl. His raised brows told her what he thought of her response. “Don’t you trust me to keep my hands off you?” “You know it’s not that.” Wolverley could be so irritating.

“I’m as harmless as a mouse. Everybody knows that.” His attempt at a pout nearly made her laugh, but she refused to let him see her amusement. It might encourage him. While her companion, Mrs. Dauntry, was away, Virginia had plans for a quiet life. Paperwork with a little light shopping, because a person should take the air occasionally. Not entertaining the one man in London who was a danger to her peace of mind. If she wasn’t careful, gossip would spread, even at this late stage in the season. At the end of June, London was thin of company, the theaters were closing for their summer break, and the shops were letting their supplies of luxury goods run down.

Her companion’s absence gave Virginia the excuse to live quietly. She would attend the smaller gatherings that she preferred, and one ball she had already committed to. Virginia planned to leave London at the end of the month, after the last event of the season. After the Conyngham ball, she would kick the dust of the city off her heels and head for Devonshire and home. “Was there something in particular you wanted?” she asked in her best frosty tone, letting her words drip into the space with disdain. “Actually, yes.” He met her gaze, and his eyes were not sparkling with laughter anymore. “A business proposition.” She gave in. If she did not listen to him now, he would only dog her steps until she did.

When she sighed, she let him see it. “Come this way.” She led the way into the parlor, despite her butler’s disapproving tongue-click. Ah botheration, he was beginning to care. That was a shame. All her servants took her wellbeing seriously, so much that sometimes she felt as if she was living in a house of parents. Although she changed her London servants more frequently than the ones at home, they had that distressing habit she could not break. Other servants were openly disloyal, but hers—never. She’d hoped the appropriately named Butler would be more indifferent, but apparently not. He was falling into the guardianship the rest of her servants assumed.

“Your companion has a convenient way of disappearing. What happened to her this time?” Wolverley asked her. “Have you been watching us, waiting for your moment?” she demanded of him. And why should that notion shorten her breath and make her heart beat faster? The very idea of anyone watching her should appall her, but in Wolverley’s case, it did not. He shrugged, but a wary look entered his eyes. Wolverley’s gray eyes were strangely expressive, changing color with the light and his mood. Most disconcerting. “And why would I watch you, Virginia?” She ignored his impertinent question. “Mrs. Dauntry is attending a family wedding in the country,” she informed him.

She gestured to a chair. “Do sit down.” Virginia chose a dark green velvet chair, putting distance between them. She liked the relative somberness of the furniture in this room. It had a cozy air she enjoyed when the weather was chilly, as it was today. Unseasonably so. The flowers in the garden dripped tears of rain. Flipping up the heavy skirts of his slate-blue town coat, Wolverley accepted her invitation. “I thought Mrs. Dauntry attended a family wedding earlier in the season.

” “She did.” Annoyance touched her, but she let it go. Or did her best to. Trust Wolverley to notice. “She has a large family.” “She must have.” “Her absence gives me time for myself,” she added. “Which means I would rather you kept your visit brief.” Wolverley did nothing but laugh. “If you were not so beautiful, you would not attract so much attention.

” She did not give that any credence, and from Wolverley, who knew her as well as anyone, it came as a tease rather than a compliment. She knew the truth. She had something that drew suitors far more than her looks ever did. “Or as rich.” Wolverley, who could easily double her worth, shrugged. “Most of them don’t need money. What they want is a lovely wife, someone to care for them and make them feel important.” “And take care of their estates, and while they’re at it, give them an heir or two.” Unfortunately word had spread that Virginia inherited the bulk of her husband’s fortune. Only the entailed property had gone to the cousin who inherited the title.

That had made her cousin-in-law as mad as fire, but there was little either of them could do about it. Even if she wanted to, which she didn’t. She had a purpose and independence she’d never dreamed of having when her parents told her they’d found a husband for her. There was no love lost between her late husband and his cousins, so how Jamie could have expected more than the bare minimum, she would never know. Her husband’s legacy had bestowed precious independence on Virginia. She had vowed never, ever to be at the mercy of any man again. And the only way to do that was to remain unmarried. However, the inheritance made her an enticing prospect for remarriage. Suitors had flocked to her until she’d managed to persuade all of them that she was not in need of another husband. Or a lover, come to that.

Her marriage had produced no offspring, and as a result, most of society considered her barren, an opinion she had subtly fostered. That had deterred a few more suitors, but not this one. “You should marry your cousin.” Wolverley drawled the words. He knew perfectly well that she wouldn’t do that. “Dulverton isn’t my cousin. He is my late husband’s cousin and none of my concern.” “Marrying him would save you from the incessant courting.” Trust Wolverley to point that out. Her constant put-downs did not deter him from taking an interest in her business.

The maid came in with a tray of tea and, Virginia was interested to notice, freshly baked scones. The tray was placed on the side table at Virginia’s elbow, and the maid disappeared after stealing a quick glance at Wolverley. The tray held treats galore. Most visitors got bread and butter if they were lucky. Even the most fashionable hostesses rarely served anything else, in deference to the refined taste of their guests. Virginia wasn’t ashamed of enjoying a scone or two. She waited until the maid left before answering her guest. “I am fortunate, or so my mother informs me. She would like me to marry Jamie, too. To listen to my parents, it’s my duty.

” Finally, they had no jurisdiction over her. She could make her own decisions. That felt so good, she didn’t want to give it up. Ever. Her parents did not come to town, but her mother’s frequent letters meant Virginia knew what she thought about every topic imaginable. Her father, too, subscribed to the missives. She did not lack for advice, none of which she paid any heed to. Sometimes she didn’t read them at all. Although her marriage had been the choice of her parents rather than herself, she had welcomed it. She never regretted marrying Ralph.

Well, only occasionally. Her marriage had not been a bed of roses, but it was infinitely better than what she had left behind. The discipline, the punishments, the little cruelties all aimed to make her cowed and obedient. They had the opposite effect. Now nobody had the right to tell her what to do. She would not marry again. She was done with that. “They’ll say you were here for hours, that you’re my lover. You know that, don’t you?” Her hand was steady as she poured the tea. She was just reminding him that he couldn’t stay long, exaggerating to make her point.

Before he could come to her, she rose and went to him with his tea. Wolverley placed the porcelain dish in its deep saucer on the table by his side. She also handed him the small silver tray with the scones and butter. He crossed his legs, unconsciously displaying his fine calves. Gentlemen prided themselves on possessing a shapely calf. Virginia was perfectly aware that Wolverley did not care. He was merely getting more comfortable. He gave an unconcerned shrug, the shoulders of his coat revealing very little padding. “I doubt it. Your reputation goes before you, Virginia.

Besides, everyone knows we are neighbors in the country. Your reputation will survive spending an hour with me.” He nodded to the open door. “That is more than enough. Any gossip will escape like smoke into the air above us when I leave.” He flittered his hand to illustrate his words. He was right. Virginia’s solid reputation for propriety and good behavior could easily survive a visit from a friend and neighbor. Even Wolverley. “Have you no other relatives who can act as chaperones?” he asked.

“Mrs. Dauntry has a habit of leaving you on your own.” Mrs. Dauntry’s absences gave Virginia a respite from society affairs. They suited one another well. But she wouldn’t tell that to Wolverley. “I have to shift for myself, since my parents do not come to town. Neither do my other relatives.” Exactly as she liked it. Virginia kept a careful distance from her parents.

“I have no relatives, or none who will acknowledge my mother. Therefore I do not acknowledge them.” Although he finished brightly, Virginia knew how much he cared. His lovely, clever mother had committed the worst sin of all; she was the daughter of a yeoman farmer, and therefore completely unacceptable to his relatives. Wolverley’s father had discovered her working in her father’s dairy. The scandal, though old, retained much of its power. Wolverley was grudgingly received at court, though to Virginia’s knowledge he had gone only once. His fortune went a long way toward canceling out gossip about his low-born mother. Wolverley was devoted to his mother. He would not go anywhere the countess was scorned, and he refused to keep her a secret.

Society would be happier if he did. Virginia liked Lady Wolverley and saw no reason to avoid her now that her own husband wasn’t here to reprove her. Ralph had disapproved of the upstart, as he’d put it. Virginia had no such scruples, so after her period of mourning, she’d made a point of visiting the lady. “People are leaving London for the country,” he said, reaching for another scone. “Town is almost empty.” The plate contained only one scone now, testament to Wolverley’s prodigious talent for making food disappear. If a person did not watch closely, it would appear that the offering melted away by magic. He put his plate down, then turned to meet her gaze, his own serious. Society would not recognize the amusing rogue in this grave man.

But she did. “To our business, if I may. I want to buy a house that is currently in your possession. Combe Manor.” She heard the words with a kind of dull inevitability, as if Wolverley could read her mind, which was far from the case. He couldn’t have Combe Manor, and Virginia could not tell him why. That put her in a devilish awkward position. “I have not visited it for years,” she said lightly, “but Ralph was fond of it. He used to go sea fishing there. It’s small but substantially built.

Ralph told me smugglers lived there, but I think he was teasing me.” Not that Ralph had done much teasing. An army general, already retired when she’d met him, her husband had a stern demeanor that descended into irritability with increasing frequency. “I plan to pay it a visit this summer.” “Why are you going there?” His expression had not changed, but his voice was tighter. “To assess its condition. I would have my man of business look it over, but I am heading that way soon, so I thought I would do it myself. If you must know, I plan to establish an orphanage there.” “An orphanage,” he said, so quietly she almost missed it. Since Ralph’s death, Virginia had made quite a name as a philanthropist.

She had opened ten orphanages in Devonshire and Cornwall, and planned to open ten more. In her late husband’s memory of course. “You have an objection?” she added frostily. What she did with her property was none of his business. This grave-eyed, serious man stared at her with none of his usual insouciant protection. His emotions were completely bare. Virginia swallowed. What had she provoked here? He was tight-lipped, angry, but a bleakness lay behind his eyes. He wanted this property badly, she guessed. It was as if a stranger had walked into her parlor, a handsome man she found irresistibly attractive, even more than the carefree Wolverley he showed to society.

This revealed his soul, his heart. But he was gone in a flash. If she had not seen that side of him before, she’d have thought it was her imagination, so quickly did his expression change to his usual mien. “What is it?” she said softly. “Why do you want that house so much?”

.

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