The house lay drowsing in the afternoon heat. Mellow with age, its sturdy black and white timbers gave it the appearance of a queerly-striped fantastic beast bred from and nourished by the rich soil in which it stood.
Peaceful silence reigned. A flock of geese, preening in the sunlight, paraded solemnly across the sweep of greensward which fronted its ancient walls. They paused for an instant by the massive oaken door before disappearing in the direction of the ornamental lake, but nothing stirred behind the diamond-leaded window panes.
Suddenly, the dream-like silence was shattered by the sound of approaching carriage wheels. Moments later a chaise rounded the final curve of the driveway and slowed to a halt before the main entrance.
The steps were let down and a fashionably-clad young woman descended. She surveyed the rambling structure of Crawford Hall for a long moment and then, lifting her chin, trod purposefully forward.
'A visitor for you, my lord.'
Randal Crawford suppressed a groan. Who the devil wanted to disturb his peace? It was too damned hot to be paying social calls.
'Tell 'em, I'm not at home!'
'I'm afraid the young woman was most insistent, sir,' his butler murmured apologetically.
Scenting a mystery, Randal carefully closed the volume of Baron Denon's Voyages dans la Basse et la Haute Egypte he been studying. Egyptian antiquities could wait!
'Who is she, Blake?'
The butler sniffed. 'She would not give her name. However, I would judge her to be a lady.'
Knowing that his efficient retainer had a keen eye for the niceties of speech and dress, Randal dismissed the fleeting notion that his unknown visitor might be one of the Cyprians who had accompanied Nick and Harry north to Chester for the recent Spring Meeting.
A shudder of distaste ran through him.
His horse, Golden Boy, had won the City Plate and his former comrades-at-arms had invited him to dine with them to celebrate. Flown with champagne, Harry's little blonde piece had sat upon his knee and plied him with amorous kisses!
Luckily, Harry, full of good food and wine, his pockets well-lined from backing Golden Boy, had merely laughed. Randal's own amusement had rapidly dissipated when the girl continued to throw out lures in his direction. In the end, he had been almost glad to see Race Week draw to a close.
The friendship formed with Harry when they had both served in the 12th Light Dragoons was too strong to be damaged, but an unwelcome note of constraint had been introduced, not helped by the wench's brazen hints on their last evening that she would like to remain in Chester when the rest of fashionable world deserted the ancient city and returned to their usual haunts.
Randal frowned at the memory. He had ignored her, of course, but early the next morning a scented billet-doux repeating her offer to become his mistress had been delivered to the Hall. Throwing it away, the cynical thought had occurred to him that Harry must have let slip the extent of his fortune.
'Shall I send the young person away, my lord?'
Recalled to the present, Randal considered the matter. It was unlikely that this present weather would last much longer, which, since he enjoyed the heat, was one reason for not going back on his decision to spend a well-earned, idle afternoon in the shade of the great oak that overlooked the Knot Garden. On the other hand, he was aware of a niggle of curiosity.
Situated in the depths of the Cheshire countryside, Crawford Hall rarely received unexpected visitors. Even patrons of the arts desirous of admiring its well-known Tudor architecture usually had the forethought to ensure that they would be welcome before venturing so far.
'Did she say why she wished to see me?'
Blake shook his head, his disapproval plain.
Randal handed him the book he had been reading and came lithely to his feet.
'Show her into the library. I'll see her in ten minutes,' he announced briskly, his irritation at being disturbed vanishing at the prospect of action.
'Very good, my lord,' Blake replied woodenly.
Randal laughed and strode away into the house, where, true to his word, he swiftly exchanged his informal shirt-sleeves for more decorous attire.
With a minute to spare, he headed for the library, a handsome double cube room which lay beyond the oak-beamed front entrance hall.
'Good afternoon.' Randal paused on finding a stout middle-aged dame seated upon the old carved wooden settle by the main door.
She rose swiftly to her feet in response to his greeting and bobbed a silent curtsy.
'I take it you are waiting for your mistress?' A lady's maid, if he was any judge. Clad in black bombazine, she was the image of respectability.
She nodded, but vouchsafed no further answer.
A fleeting smile touched Randal's well-cut mouth. 'Then I shall endeavour not to keep you waiting too long,' he said pleasantly.
Hearing the note of steel underlying this remark, a look of alarm flashed over the woman's somewhat heavy features. It was swiftly veiled, but Randal realised she was extremely nervous.
His interest quickened. Now, why should she be scared of him?
With a nod of dismissal, he turned away towards the library, a sense of anticipation filling him.
She was standing over by the one of the long sash windows, which had been inserted some twenty years ago on his father's orders. Apparently intent upon the view, she did not turn round.
However, Randal thought he saw her shoulders tense and certain she had heard him enter, he experienced a flicker of affronted surprise. It was not the usual habit of young ladies to ignore him!
Coxcomb! Recovering his sense of humour, his mouth twisted in a wry grin. Instead of reacting like a puffed up popinjay, he ought to take advantage of the situation.
The lady's excellent figure was certainly worth studying. She wasn't very tall but, clad in a dashing travelling costume of pomona green, she possessed enticing curves. He preferred brunettes too and the ringlets escaping from the confines of that frivolous little bonnet were very dark.
'I see you admire our view, ma'am,' Electing to make the first move, Randal strolled across the thick Turkey carpet towards her. 'It is generally regarded as one of Repton's finer prospects.'
Slowly, with a panache Randal found himself admiring, she turned to face him and made a graceful curtsy. The lace veil on her hat was down, obscuring her features, but as she straightened she lifted up her hands and flung it back.
Randal caught his breath in an involuntary gasp of surprise. She was a regular little beauty!
Framed by the bonnet, her face was a pure oval with a straight little nose and a softly rounded chin, but her mouth was no pink rosebud. Randal stared at her soft full lips. Could that rich inviting colour be as natural as it seemed?
Her eyes were even more striking. Long, slanting and as black as midnight, they held a faintly mocking smile as they met his gaze.
'Lord Redesmere, I presume?'
Her voice was low and sweet...and faintly amused.
Recalled abruptly to his senses, Randal bowed. The movement lacked his usual grace, but his voice was perfectly steady when he answered.
'You have the advantage of me, ma'am.'
She smiled. 'Don't you recognise me, sir?'
Randal shook his head, trying to ignore the sudden fierce surge of attraction that twisted through him at her smile.
'Should I?' he enquired, concealing his perturbation and gesturing politely towards one of a pair of comfortable leather-padded armchairs that stood before the richly carved Tudor mantelpiece.
'No. I suppose not. After all, I dare say you couldn't have been more than fourteen when we last met.' She moved towards the chair. 'And I was still in swaddling clothes,' she added, glancing back over her shoulder, her expression provocative.
Randal's brows shot up, but he waited until she was comfortably settled before seating himself and taking up the challenge.
'May I ask the circumstances surrounding this momentous occasion?'
There was a note of amusement in his attractively deep-toned voice that told her he was enjoying their banter and his visitor experienced a flutter of satisfaction. No matter how Mary protested, she knew this roundabout approach was exactly what was needed!
It was essential to engage Lord Redesmere's interest and support if their plan was to succeed, but it wasn't going to be easy. Gossip painted him a strong-minded and intelligent man who went his own way careless of public opinion. Since he was as rich as he was well-connected, this eccentricity was forgiven him, particularly by matchmaking mamas who eagerly sought him as a husband for their daughters.
He was also said to be a dangerous man to cross!
'Actually, sir, it was my christening,' she answered, still managing to keep her tone light in spite of the sudden chill which feathered down her spine.
'I attended your christening?' A puzzled frown banished the admiration in his eyes.
They were very blue eyes. Set in a strong-boned face, they justified all the flattery she had heard. He was handsome, although she didn't care for the way he wore his wheat-blond hair in a Brutus crop.
She could imagine how devastatingly attractive he would be if he ever bothered to smile with genuine warmth.
'I'm told you declined the honour of becoming my godparent, but I understand we were formally introduced.' She allowed a hint of mischief to creep into her tone. 'To be honest, I believe I possetted all down the front of your best coat.'
'Good God! Are you saying that you are Kitty Nixon?' Randal ejaculated the name in astonishment.
Gratified by his thunderstruck expression, his visitor nodded, setting her luxuriant sable ringlets dancing.
'Indeed, sir. I am your long-lost cousin. And you must know why I am here.'
A moment ago, he had fallen for that dramatic trick she'd played with her veil, but it seemed he was not quite as bedazzled as she had hoped!
'Oh come, my lord!' She gave him a roguish smile. 'It is not kind of you to tease me when I have travelled all the way from America to see you.'
'To see me or lay claim to John Nixon's fortune?'
Nettled by this reply, her thin black brows flew together. 'Surely you did not think to inherit everything?'
All trace of amusement fled Randal's face. 'I think, ma'am, that you are impertinent,' he countered icily.
'Then I pray you will excuse me.' Reining in her temper, she adopted a conciliatory expression. 'I didn't mean to impugn your honour. My grandfather would not have named you as his executor unless he trusted you.'
She dropped her gaze to her lap and let a convincing sigh escape her. 'Forgive me. It has been a long journey and I fear my wits are somewhat addled with fatigue.'
Ninnyhammer! Where was the sense in antagonising him? Even if he had hoped to inherit the old nabob's fabulous wealth he was hardly going to admit it!
To her relief, he acknowledged her apology, adding smoothly, 'May I offer you some refreshment? A glass of lemonade perhaps?'
She accepted with a pretty show of thanks, hiding her disappointment. Devil take the man, was that all the hospitality he was going to offer her? After such a heavy hint she was sure he would feel duty bound to proffer an invitation to stay to dinner at least. Where was his family feeling!
Swallowing her resentment at this setback to her plans, she watched him rise to summon one of his servants.
He moves very well for such a big man, she admitted grudgingly to herself. Although she had known he was once a major in an elite cavalry regiment, she hadn't expected him to be quite so tall and broad shouldered...or to exude such an aura of powerful virility!
It was rather disconcerting!
Randal pulled the bell, but did not immediately resume his seat. Instead, he took up a position standing by the wide stone hearth.
'When did you hear of John Nixon's death?' he asked, fixing his gaze attentively on her face.
'Last November,' was the prompt reply.
'He died in July.' Randal pointed out the fact gently.
'So we were informed, but the letter you instructed the lawyers to write took a long time to reach us.'
'May I ask why?'
She clenched her teeth. Until this moment, she wouldn't have thought it possible to dislike such a velvet-toned voice!
'It went astray, sir.' Realising she had fallen into the error of sounding sharp again, she produced a pretty smile. 'They sent it to our previous address.'
His expression remained polite, but she sensed he was sceptical.
It was very annoying! She hadn't expected to find him so difficult to convince.
'Did you know that my grandfather quarrelled with my mother when she wrote to inform him that she was to marry again?' she asked abruptly.
Realising she was endeavouring to explain, Lord Redesmere dipped his blond head in acknowledgement. 'That would be...what...three, four years past?'
''07. Four years ago. He had some fustian notion that she ought to remain true to Papa's memory and wear her blacks forever!'
'Very old fashioned,' Randal agreed smoothly. 'Whereas I imagine she wanted the protection of a husband?'
'America may be a young country, sir, but we are quite civilised. Mama didn't need a husband. She simply fell in love with a kind and honourable man.'
'I stand corrected, ma'am.' No trace of his amusement at being put so severely in his place appeared in Lord Redesmere's meek reply.
His visitor gave him a suspicious glance, but returned briskly to the point.
'Even though her marriage to Mr Ashe came a full two years after Papa's death the minute Grandfather heard of it he stopped the small allowance he had been making us and refused to answer any of our letters.'
An expressive shrug dismissed this act of petty spite. 'He and Mama had never been close, of course. He had disapproved of Papa marrying her and made things so very uncomfortable that she was glad to leave England.'
Randal nodded. If memory served him correctly, Charles Nixon had fled to America to escape his father's baleful influence. They had initially quarrelled over his refusal to become a merchant. John had made his spectacular fortune in India, but Charles was not interested in trade. He wished to become a scholar and, being as stubborn as his father, finally managed to persuade John to let him go up to Cambridge, where he had promptly fallen in love with the daughter of one of his tutors.
John, who had wanted a grand match for his only child, had been furious, but Charles had stuck to his guns and married his Lydia as soon as he turned twenty-one. Since John refused to receive his new daughter-in-law, Charles would not return home to the magnificent house in Chester but had sought employment.
He had obtained a position in the household of a rich London cit who aspired to become a gentleman. His secretarial duties were light but well-paid and the young couple's happiness was crowned when a daughter was born to them almost a year to the day after their wedding.
Randal reflected that a grandson might have inclined the old nabob to seek a reconciliation, but Kitty's birth did not soften him. Instead, hating to be crossed and too proud to consider he might be in the wrong, he had schemed to have Charles removed from his post. Unfortunately, his son discovered the real reason why his employer no longer required his services.
When the same thing happened again a few months later Charles's anger was so great he decided to remove himself and his family to a place where father's influence could not affect them. It was almost inevitable that he should choose America, a land which cherished freedom and the country which John Nixon, an ardent supporter of King George, disliked above all others.
Hearing that another Cambridge existed in Massachusetts he announced his plan to emigrate. Piqued that his meddling had achieved the exact opposite of what he had intended, John Nixon swore never to speak to his son again.
It was a vow he was to keep, but the price of his pride was high. With every year that passed he became more reclusive and eccentric, refusing to see all but a few favoured visitors. On his deathbed he had been a lonely and embittered man.
'My great-uncle was a difficult man,' Randal commented in a carefully neutral tone. 'He liked to get his own way.'
'It must be a family trait, sir.' A sugar-sweet smile accompanied this remark.
The blue eyes narrowed and, realising she was skating on dangerously thin ice, she hurried to conclude her explanations. 'The people who bought our bookshop kindly forwarded your letter on to us in Amherst as soon as they found someone willing to act as a carrier.' She paused to make sure he understood. 'It is a considerable journey. Amherst is in western Massachusetts.'
He ignored her helpful geography lesson. 'You owned a bookshop in Cambridge?'
She nodded. 'Papa used all his savings to open it soon after we settled there. He had worked very hard to make it a success. You may disapprove of trade, my lord, but the miserly allowance my grandfather made us after Papa's death was insufficient to keep us. Mama refused to beg for more so we had no choice but to continue with the business. We both worked long hours to keep it thriving and I am proud to say that we were successful.'
Admiring the way her eyes flashed, he said mildly, 'I meant no criticism. I see nothing demeaning in earning one's own living. Honest toil must be preferred to charity.'
Deciding he was sincere, her stern expression relented. 'I am pleased to hear you say so, sir. My step-papa warned me that I would encounter silly prejudice if I mentioned my background. Not that I care. I have no regard for the opinion of idle fops.'
Her disdainful tone amused him. Intrigued, he would have enjoyed hearing more, but a tap at the door announced the arrival of a footman and she fell silent.
Randal gave instructions concerning their refreshment and waved her to continue as the servant left the room.
'Pray do go on, ma'am.'
She shrugged lightly. 'I have no wish to bore you with my opinions on society, sir. Let it suffice to say that my recent mode of life was different to that enjoyed by the young ladies of your acquaintance, but I am not in the least ashamed of having to work for my living.'
Her attractive contralto voice held a note of utter conviction.
Randal owned himself puzzled. Every answer she had given accorded with the report Messrs. Hilton, Tyler and Dibbs had submitted for his scrutiny. His great-uncle's papers having revealed little--he must have destroyed Lydia's letters--Randal had ordered Hilton to write to America.
Many months later they had finally received a reply when Lydia wrote to explain that she and Kitty had moved to Amherst following her marriage to Henry Ashe, a widower with three sons. Her new husband was the owner of a successful boarding school and well able to provide for them. Kitty had no need of John Nixon's money. However, she would permit her daughter to accept the legacy if she wished to do so.
It all tied in. And yet...
'May I enquire why you waited so long to claim your inheritance?' Randal allowed no hint of his inner conflict to show in his expression. 'Surely my letter explained how awkwardly matters had been left?'
With one elbow resting on the mantelshelf, his pose was negligent, but she was uncomfortably aware that he was watching her very closely.
A mouse must feel like this waiting for the cat to pounce!
She lifted her chin and met his gaze without flinching.
'My mama and step-papa did not wish me to run the risk of encountering winter storms at sea.'
He nodded. It was a reasonable precaution.
'I assume from your attitude you think my Mama and Mr Ashe should have accompanied me to England.' She threw out the challenge boldly. She did not understand what had prompted him to question her in this suspicious manner, but it was imperative she still his doubts and gain his trust.
'The thought had crossed my mind.'
'Naturally, they wished to do so, but circumstances forbade it. Mr Ashe is the headmaster of a school and could not easily leave his post. Mama helps him teach and she looks after the boarders and my three young stepbrothers.'
She paused, willing a shy little blush into her cheeks as she smoothed her skirts in an embarrassed manner. 'And she has a new baby to tend.'
She looked so very lovely with that wild rose colour accentuating her high cheekbones that Randal had to force himself to concentrate. 'There was no mention of a baby in her letter of reply.'
'I dare say Mama didn't realise she had to relate every detail of her private life.'
Touche! A wry grin twisted his mouth as he absorbed the justice of this rebuke. It could be true of course. Lydia was barely forty, not too old to have given birth to another child.
'My half-sister was only a few days old when we first heard from your lawyers, sir,' his unusual visitor continued in a softer voice. 'Even if the weather had been better, I could not have left home then.' Her gaze dropped modestly. 'Mama needed my help.'
'I see.' Randal's tone was dry. 'You are to be congratulated on your sense of duty, particularly in view of the temptation on offer.'
The dark head came up sharply and she eyed him suspiciously for an instant before continuing. 'Mama arranged an escort for me, of course. I travelled in the company of a respectable married couple who wished to visit relatives here in England.'
'Perfectly proper, ma'am.'
Lord Redesmere noted that his visitor had stopped pleating her skirts. Had she been fidgeting merely to make him think she was a demure and retiring young miss? He wasn't certain, perhaps she was genuinely nervous, but he didn't believe she was shy. Her obvious enjoyment of their earlier banter suggested a more robust nature.
He was mocking her! Resisting the temptation to glare at him, she concluded her explanation. 'Mama allowed me to make up my own mind whether I wanted to fulfil my grandfather's last request. I must apologise if the delay while I made my decision caused any inconvenience, but, as you can see, I am here in good time.'
John Nixon's will had stated that unless his granddaughter came to England within a twelve-month of his death to claim her inheritance in person she would forfeit everything.
'There are almost two months still in hand,' Randal agreed, his deep voice as smoothly bland as cream.
Two months before all that fabled wealth would pass automatically to the man standing before her. With a sudden start of dismay, she wondered if the gossip was accurate. What if he were not as rich as she had been told? Perhaps he led an expensive life.
For the first time she truly understood that her arrival must change things for him too. The realisation made her uncomfortable. She didn't want to hurt anyone!
And how must he feel, seeing his chance of gaining a fortune shrivel into dust? Did he hate her?
A flash of amusement lit up Randal's face as he read the thoughts flickering in her wonderfully expressive eyes.
'Pray do not look so worried, ma'am! I have no intention of throwing you into the lake to drown.'
At his words she turned so white that he thought she would faint. Good God, surely she hadn't taken him seriously?
She jumped to her feet, looking as if she wanted to flee, and every last vestige of remaining colour faded from her creamy complexion.
'Sit down!' Biting back a worried imprecation, Randal swiftly crossed the room and pushing her into the chair, dropped onto one knee besides her.
'Permit me!' Without waiting for an answer, he took her by the shoulders and forced her head down into her lap.
'Keep still for a moment and the dizziness will pass.' Randal contained her brief struggle with ease and then to his relief she relaxed against him as the sense of what he was saying penetrated her distress.
At length, judging the danger to be over, he slowly drew her upright. 'There, that's better! You have a little more colour now.'
His hands were warm. He was holding her gently, but she could feel their heat penetrating her thin summer gown. Her dizziness had gone, banished by his efficient treatment, but a curious languor was stealing over her, replacing the momentary panic his ill-timed jest had induced.
With a little spurt of shock that set her heart racing anew, she realised what she was experiencing was the slow burgeoning of desire. Appalled, she tried to tell herself it wasn't true, that she was just imagining the sexual tension spiralling between them, but from the expression on his face she knew he felt it too.
She was so close Randal could see the pulse fluttering at the base of her slim throat. Her breathing was shallow and rapid, stirring her bosom. The slight movement drew his gaze like a magnet. Discreetly revealed by the fashionable neckline, her breasts were beautiful. High and firm, they were deliciously rounded.
Randal couldn't tear his eyes away. He felt his loins react as desire surged in him. Her skin was like satin with a creamy sheen that made his fingers itch to explore...
Involuntarily, his hands tightened their hold on her shoulders.
A tiny gasp reached his ears and he lifted his gaze to find her great dark eyes fixed on him. He stared into their mysterious depths and felt his heart begin to hammer.
'Thank you. You may let me go now, sir.'
Her voice was a breathless whisper, but it was enough to make Randal release her as if he had been struck.
What the devil had got into him! For one insane moment all he had wanted in the world was to rip that gown off her and carry her up to his bed!
He rose abruptly to his feet, glad that the physical evidence of his attraction had died an instant death with the return of common sense. 'Pray excuse my rough and ready treatment, ma'am,' he said, controlling his voice so it did not betray his disquiet. 'I thought you about to swoon.'
She managed a shaky smile. 'There is no need to apologise, sir. I did feel a little faint.'
That was true enough!
'Please accept my thanks for your prompt action,' she added, searching for an acceptable excuse. 'I think the heat must have overset me. I had not expected to find England so warm in May!'
He acknowledged her thanks with a punctilious bow and moved away to resume his previous seat.
An inaudible sigh of relief escaped her. She felt safer with him at a distance!
It had been stupid of her to panic. The situation was enough to strain the strongest of nerves, but she should have realised he was merely joking. Unfortunately, she found him too thoroughly unsettling to be able to think straight!
God knows, she hadn't expected it to happen; it had been a long time since a man had managed to affect her so! Yet a moment ago when his hands had tightened their hold, a frightening urge to respond to his touch had leapt within her. She had wanted to wind her arms round his neck and abandon herself to the desire she could see mirrored in his burning blue eyes.
Heaven help her, she must be going mad!
The arrival of the footman bearing a silver tray on which reposed a moisture-beaded jug of fresh lemonade broke the awkward silence.
The tension still lingering in the air was dispelled and Lord Redesmere became the perfect host, seeing to it that his guest's glass was filled and tempting her to try a sample of his cook's excellent baking.
Randal was glad of the diversion. He had been on the point of behaving like an absolute fool and he didn't care to think on it!
'If my clumsy attempt at humour upset you, I apologise,' he announced gruffly once the footman departed. 'I did not mean to alarm you with a threat of violence.'
She murmured a slightly incoherent denial, assuring him that she had known he was speaking in jest.
Randal set his empty glass down on a nearby kingwood tripod table and, determined not to relax his guard a second time, said, 'In that case, if you are feeling restored, may we return to the subject under discussion?'
A nod of her sable curls answered him.
Steepling his fingers together in a thoughtful gesture, Randal stared at the brass trellage bookcases lining the wall. 'My great-uncle had precise views concerning the disposal of his fortune. When he asked me to be his executor he stipulated that I must adhere strictly to his instructions. I was not entirely happy with all of his conditions, but I agreed and promised him I would do my best to see that his wishes were carried out.'
Abandoning his air of contemplation, he gave her a direct look. 'Naturally, I am prepared to relinquish my own claim to the rightful legatee, but honour demands I ensure the terms of the will are met before I hand over a single penny.'
Fright restored her wits. What did he mean by rightful?
'I commend your vigilance, my lord,' she said crisply. 'However, I will not deny it is a relief to hear that you do not intend to dispute my claim, for, frankly, I have no desire to stay in England. The sooner the details are settled and the money is mine, the sooner I shall be able to return home.'
'Don't you mean to visit your Irish connections first?' he asked softly.
She could feel the colour rushing into her cheeks and to give herself time to think she took a slow sip of lemonade.
'Or perhaps you have already been to Dublin, eh ma'am?'
His deep voice held a note of silken mockery that set her teeth on edge. Damn him, how much did he know or was he just guessing?
'What...what do you mean?' She strove for composure, but apprehension sent a chill shivering down her spine.
Randal did not immediately answer her, but instead rose to his feet and crossing to the handsome oak library table set in the centre of the room, picked up a letter which lay upon its polished surface.
'This came two days ago.' He leant back, propping his lean hips against the edge of the table. 'Shall I read it to you?'
'Your correspondence can be of no interest to me, sir,' she retorted with a frown of faintly irritated puzzlement, but her heart was thumping.
'Not even when it comes from Mr Gerald Sullivan and his wife?'
The blood drained from her face leaving her pale once more, but, rallying quickly, she gave a scornful laugh.
'If my uncle has written to you, then I'll wager it is to censure me and I most certainly have no wish to hear any more of his complaints!'
Thrown off balance, Randal frowned. 'Why didn't you tell me earlier that you had been to stay with the Sullivans?'
She raised her thin brows. 'I was not aware I needed to account to you for my every move.'
'Believe me, it is necessary,' he said grimly.
'Oh very well!' She gave an impatient shrug. 'If you must know, the ship on which I sailed was Irish-owned. The captain wished to make landfall in Dublin and it seemed logical to visit Papa's relatives before proceeding on to England.'
'There were no children from my great-uncle's second marriage,' Randal intervened. 'Ellie Sullivan was already a widow with a young son when they met. He agreed to treat Gerald as his own, but he never adopted him formally.'
'Nonetheless, Papa regarded Gerald as his brother!' She allowed her annoyance free rein for an instant. 'Mama wanted me to pay my respects. Unfortunately, my visit to Ballyhad House was not a success.'
The vivid blue eyes narrowed. 'Pray explain, ma'am.'
Deciding she did not dare risk taking affront at his brusque tone, she complied. 'It is simple, sir. My arrival came as an unpleasant surprise. Perhaps you can afford to be philosophical about losing a fortune, but it appears that my uncle Gerald is not a rich man. I had no idea his finances were in such a sorry state or I might have realised how much he would resent me.'
She sighed. 'I suppose things might have been easier if Grandfather had left him a more generous bequest instead of a mere hundred pounds.'
Randal silently agreed with her shrewd observation. He had tried to persuade his great-uncle to change his mind, but the old man had thought Gerald a frippery fellow.
'Nay, lad, I don't trust that rogue,' John Nixon had gasped, wheezing for breath as his last illness had tightened its hold. 'Many's the time I had to rescue him from his gambling debts to dry his mother's tears and I warned him he'd had the last penny off me when I packed him back to Ireland after her funeral. I paid him off handsomely to stay there and trouble me no longer. He's no cause to complain.'
All that he would agree to was Randal's insistent suggestion that a codicil be added to the will, stating that if Kitty Nixon failed to collect her legacy, then Gerald Sullivan was to be paid a further sum of GBP10,000 out of the estate before it passed to Randal.
'Call it a sop to my conscience, sir,' Randal had insisted with a wry smile. 'I don't want the fellow to think I abused my position to cheat him.'
A silvery laugh penetrated Lord Redesmere's recollection and he saw that his visitor's mood had lightened and her enchanting countenance now wore a rueful grin.
'It was an excessively uncomfortable situation, sir! I was made to feel my grandfather's peculiar will was all my fault! What with Aunt Moira lamenting that they would end in debtors' prison and my uncle's sulks I hardly knew where to look!'
She turned a limpidly innocent gaze on him. 'I couldn't wait to leave!'
In spite of himself, Lord Redesmere's finely moulded lips twitched. 'You paint a masterly picture, ma'am.'
She laughed, a low throaty chuckle of wicked amusement, and Randal had to steel himself against her charm.
Blister it, why did he have to find her so attractive!
'Well, sir, are you satisfied now?' She tilted her head at him enquiringly. 'I dare say Uncle Gerald is miffed about my sudden departure from his house. It was unforgivably rude of me to run off without so much as a goodbye, but he must take his share of the blame.'
The pure line of her jaw hardened. 'I never meant to raise false hopes in anyone, but I am here now and if you are finished with your questions, I should like to get on with the business. I assume the lawyers have papers for me to sign?'
He shook his fair head, the last traces of amusement fading from his expression. 'I'm afraid you go too fast, ma'am. There is something else we must discuss first.'
The grim note in his voice caused her heart to skip a beat, but she forced a smile. 'Heavens, not more questions, my lord! Haven't I explained everything already?'
'Not quite.' Randal straightened to his full height and walked back across the room. Halting before her chair he looked down at her. 'I do have one final question.'
Searching her lovely face, he looked deep into her dark eyes. 'Who are you?'
'My lord? I...I don't understand. Is this another of your strange jokes?' In spite of her best efforts, a little quaver shook her voice.
Hearing it, Randal knew his suspicions were correct.
'I do not find this funny, sir!' Worried by his silence, she broke into rapid speech. 'You know I am your second cousin. We share the same great-grandparents and--'
'Stop!' He made the demand with an abrupt authoritative gesture of his hand and she reluctantly obeyed.
'This game has gone on long enough. You have been well schooled, ma'am, but it is pointless to continue.'
'Game? I think you have run mad, sir!' Fighting off the terrifying nausea which threatened to overwhelm her, she struggled to marshal her wits.
Ignoring her protest, Randal tossed the letter he was still holding into her lap. 'Read it.'
Sheer willpower enabled her to break free from his authority and disobey this command. Flinging the letter down onto the rich carpet, she glared at him angrily. 'No! I've told you, I'm not interested in what he has to say.'
'You should be.' Randal's voice was grim. 'You see, Gerald Sullivan didn't write to complain of Kitty Nixon's behaviour. He wrote to inform me that she is dead. She drowned in River Liffey three weeks ago.'