. . . I feel I should inform you that your mother is very ill. If you wish to see her before it is too late, you should come at once.
Mrs. Camilla Stuart
Pierce Waverly, the Earl of Devonmont, has led an unabashed rogue’s life, letting no woman near his heart. Inexplicably abandoned as a child to be raised by distant relatives, he never forgave his parents, refusing to read any of his mother’s letters after his father’s death. Then came a letter that shook his resolve. A Christmas visit to Montcliff might prove his last chance to discover the truth of his past, and come to terms with the stranger he calls “Mother.”
But two surprises await him at Montcliff. His mother is perfectly healthy, nowhere near a deathbed, as her meddling lady’s companion led him to believe. The second is Camilla Stuart herself, a lively vicar’s widow, too bright and beautiful not to arouse the scoundrel in Pierce. Though she alone is reason enough to prolong his stay, he is soon faced with other tantalizing riddles: What secrets lie in his mother’s past to explain his childhood abandonment? Why is the captivating Mrs. Stuart so determined to mend the breach between mother and son? Meanwhile,
Camilla herself is caught up in love’s complications since the arrival of the irresistible earl. As his bold flirtation and suggestive whispers draw her dangerously close, can anything protect her vulnerable heart? If they are destined to share real happiness, there must be honesty between them—yet telling him the truth about her own life may shatter that chance.
None of them can predict the startling revelations to come. Or the secrets, both heartening and shocking, divulged between a mother and son, and between two lovers haunted by their respective pasts, that will make Christmas night at Montcliff one to remember—and the glorious night after, one to treasure for a lifetime.
Pierce paced the bedchamber, badly shaken by the sight of his mother. Great God, but she’d aged. When had she gone gray? She hadn’t been that way at the funeral two years ago.
Actually, back then she’d worn a hat and veil that covered her hair and her face, and he’d barely spared her a glance anyway. If he’d stayed to see her without them, would he have noticed the gray? Or the crow’s-feet around her eyes and the thin lines around her lips? Because he’d noticed them today, and they’d unsettled him. She was getting older. He should have expected it, but he hadn’t.
And he certainly hadn’t expected her face to light up when she saw him. It brought the past sharply into his mind. All those years of nothing, no word, no hint that she cared . . . Why, he couldn’t even remember the last time she’d looked on him so kindly.
How dared she do it now?Where had she been all those damned years at Harrow, when Manton was knocking him around? When the boys had taunted him for his asthma, before he’d grown out of it and begun standing up for himself?
How many Christmases had he lain in bed praying that this would be the one when she came sweeping in to kiss him on the forehead and make it all better? As mothers ought to do. As the other boys’ mothers routinely did.
He loosened his cravat, trying to catch his breath. It wasn’t a return of his asthma that plagued him but the weight of the past on his chest. The literal smell of the past.
The dower house had actually been his first home. Father began building the grand mansion that was now Montcliff Manor when Pierce was fourteen, so Pierce hadn’t even been inside it until after his father’s death. This was his childhood home—that’s why he had put Mother here, so he would never have to stay in it himself and suffer reminders of all that he’d lost at age eight.
One of those reminders was the smell of Mother’s favorite plum pudding being steamed. She’d always specified that certain spices be used, and that’s why the house now reeked of cloves and lemon peel. It would choke him for certain. He should never have come.
He wouldn’t have come if not for the impudent Mrs. Stuart. The audacity of the woman to lie to him! And to Mother, too, apparently, since Mother had looked perplexed by his assumption that she was dying. Meanwhile, her companion, the conniving baggage, had looked guilty.
But even if Mother hadn’t known of Mrs. Stuart’s letter to him, she somehow had to be complicit. Probably she’d spun enough tales about her son’s poor treatment of her to make Mrs. Stuart take it upon herself to right the wrong. Clearly Mother had done an excellent job of hiding her true nature around Mrs. Stuart, who seemed willing to risk losing her livelihood just to make her scheming charge happy. And she ought to lose her livelihood—he should have her dismissed at once for her impertinence.
Yet in his mind he kept seeing the shock on her face when he’d entered. Apparently, he hadn’t done a very good job of hiding his panic over the idea of Mother dying. What had the damned woman thought—that he was some monster with no soul?
Probably. After he’d announced he was leaving, she’d certainly glared at him as if he were. Insolent chit! No telling what his mother had said to secure the young widow’s sympathies.
Whatever it was, it wouldn’t be the truth—that once he’d turned old enough to be passed off to some relative, Mother had deliberately cut him out of her life. And now that he had inherited everything, she was suddenly eager to pay attention to the son she’d ignored for years.
To hell with that! He was not going to yield, no matter how gray Mother looked, and no matter what some officious companion with a penchant for meddling—
A knock at the door interrupted his pacing. “What?” he barked.
“I have your tray, my lord,” a muted voice said from beyond the door.
He’d forgotten entirely about that. “Set it down and go away!”
A moment of silence ensued. Then the same voice said, “I can’t.”
“Oh, for the love of God . . .” He strode to the door and swung it open, then halted.
There before him stood the very woman who’d brought him here under false pretenses. “It’s you,” he spat.
Though she blinked at the venom in his voice, she stood her ground. “May I please come in, my lord?”
He considered slamming the door in her face, but a deeply ingrained sense of gentlemanly behavior prevented him. Besides, he wanted to hear what she had to say for herself.
With a curt nod, he stood aside to let her pass, taking the opportunity to get a good look at her. He still couldn’t believe she was so young. She couldn’t be more than twenty-five, far too young to be a widow or a paid companion.
And far too attractive, though he hated that he noticed. Despite what everyone thought of him, he did not run after every creature in petticoats. He’d gained his reputation as a rogue in the years when he was determinedly embarrassing his family, and those days were waning.
But the rogue in him wasn’t dead, and it noticed that she had the sort of voluptuous figure he found attractive. She was a bit short for his taste but her evocative features and the red curls she wore scraped into a bun made up for that. Even with her spectacles on, she had the look of a fresh-faced country girl—eyes of a fathomless blue, a broad, sensual mouth, and a smattering of freckles across ivory skin. The odd mix of bluestocking and dairymaid appealed to him.
She dressed well, too. Her gown of green terry velvet was out of fashion and too sumptuous for her station, so since servants’ clothes generally were castoffs from their employers’ wardrobes, it must once have been Mother’s. Given that it fit her like a glove, she was obviously good with a needle.
That would serve her well in her next post, he thought sourly, though he still hadn’t decided if he would dismiss her.
As she set the tray down on a small table by the fire, he snapped, “I suppose you’ve come to beg my pardon.”
She faced him with a steady gaze. “Actually, no.”
“What?” he said, incredulous. “You brought me racing here from London by lying about my mother’s illness—”
“I did not lie,” she protested, though her cheeks grew ruddy. “Granted, she isn’t ill in the conventional sense—”
“Do enlighten me about the unconventional way to be ill. I must have missed that lesson in school.”
At his sarcasm, she tipped up her chin. “Anyone can see that she has been ill with missing you, her only family.”
He let out a harsh laugh. “Has she indeed? I suppose she’s been shedding crocodile tears and weaving a sad story about how I fail to do my duty by her.”
Mrs. Stuart’s pretty blue eyes snapped beneath her spectacles. “On the contrary, whenever we discuss you, she excuses your refusal to visit or answer her letters, not to mention your wanton disregard for—”
“Her well-being? Does she complain of how I treat her?”
The fractious female cast him a mutinous glare. “No.”
That surprised him, though he wasn’t about to let on. “Then there you have it.” He turned toward the writing desk, where sat a decanter of brandy and a glass.
“But I’m not blind,” the woman went on, to his astonishment. “I see how your lack of attention wounds her, and I hear her crying when she thinks no one is near. As your mother, she deserves at least a modicum of attention from you, yet you leave her to pine.”
“My mother doesn’t know the meaning of the word pine.” He fought to ignore the image of his mother crying all alone. “And if she has sent you—”
“She doesn’t know I’m here. She didn’t know I wrote that letter. Actually, she, too, says I should stay out of it.”
Despite his determination to hold firm against his mother’s tactics, that shook him. “You should listen to her.”
“I can’t.” The plaintive words tugged at something he’d buried for countless years. “I wouldn’t be doing my duty to her if I let her suffer pain, whether at the hands of a stranger or those of her own son.” She strode up behind him, her voice heavy with concern. “You can’t expect me to keep quiet when I should do right by her.”
He whirled to fix the woman with a cold glance, but he couldn’t escape her logic. Her loyalty was to his mother, and should be, even though he had hired her. After all, what good was hiring a companion his mother couldn’t trust?
Still, that didn’t mean he had to let her manipulate him. “Doing right by her doesn’t include lying to her family. You said she was dying.”
“No, I said you should come before it was too late.” She pushed her spectacles up. “I’m sorry if you interpreted the words as meaning she might die any moment—”
“Right,” he said dryly. “How could I have made such a leap?”
“But I meant them.” Concern furrowed her lightly freckled brow. “She needs you, and if you put off mending your relationship with her, you will eventually regret it.”
Bloody hell, the woman was stubborn. “That isn’t for you to decide, madam.” Crossing his arms over his chest, he stared her down. “Whatever you expected to accomplish with this stunt hasn’t come to pass, so you should quit trying while you still have a post. I can easily dismiss you for your presumption.”
“I’m aware of that.”
Yet she held her chin firm and her shoulders squared. He’d been right to term her “indomitable” without even having met her. She was one determined woman.
“But some things are worth risking all for,” she added.
“My mother? A woman who didn’t even care that her son was alive until two years ago, when my father died and she could no longer depend on his largesse?”
That seemed to shake her. “You think that this is about money?”
“Of course! She married Father for money, and now that it’s all under my control, she suddenly ‘needs’ me desperately.”
Her gaze locked with his. “If her feelings are as false as you think, why does she have a chest full of your school drawings and papers? Why does she read to me your childhood letters, pointing out your witty turns of phrase and clever observations?” She stepped nearer. “Why does she keep a miniature of you by her bed?”
Her descriptions beat at the stone wall he’d built against his mother. But he couldn’t believe them. He wouldn’t believe them. He wouldn’t let Mother hurt him again.
Clearly Mother had fashioned Mrs. Stuart as a weapon to get what she wanted. The young widow might not even know she was being used, but that didn’t change a damned thing.
He moved close enough to intimidate. “She’s trying to enlist you as an ally in her scheme. And she knows it won’t work unless she can convince you that she is slighted and put upon.”
Mrs. Stuart blinked. Obviously, it was the first time she’d considered the possibility that she was being taken in. “You’re wrong,” she whispered, though she didn’t seem quite so certain. “She’s not like that.”
“You’ve known her for six months,” he ground out. “I’ve known her my entire life. Or at least the part of my life that she—”
He broke off before he could reveal the mortifying truth—that his parents thought so little of him they’d cut him out of their lives. It was none of her affair, no matter what she thought. He didn’t have to explain himself to some paid companion, damn it!
Besides, as meddlesome as Mrs. Stuart had proven to be, she clearly had Mother’s best interests at heart. He didn’t want to dismiss the woman, and he saw no reason to poison her against his mother. He just wanted her to stop making trouble.
He forced some calmness into his tone. “By now you’ve probably gathered that matters between me and my mother aren’t as clear as you think. So I will forget how far you’ve overstepped your bounds, if you’ll agree to keep your opinions to yourself and stay out of my relationship with her in future.”
Though she swallowed hard, she continued to meet his gaze. “I don’t know if I can do that, my lord.”
“Oh, for God’s sake . . .” He dragged his hand over his face. He was tired and hungry and annoyed. The bloody woman was a plague! “What do you want from me, damn it, short of attaching my mother to my side with a tether?”
The image made her start, then give a little smile. It took him by surprise. Until that moment, she’d lived up to his impression of a self-righteous bluestocking, but a sense of humor lurked inside the indomitable Mrs. Stuart. And somehow he’d tickled it.
“You needn’t go to such an extreme,” she said, her eyes twinkling beneath the spectacles. Then she turned earnest again. “But if you could stay here with your mother until Christmas—”
“No.” He remembered only too well his last Christmas at home. The one that he hadn’t realized was to be his last Christmas at home. “That’s impossible.”
He turned away. Perhaps he should dismiss the woman.
But she followed him as he headed for the brandy. “You wouldn’t have to spend much time with her, just have the occasional meal with her. The slightest attention from you would make her happy.”
“You think so, do you?” Pouring himself a healthy portion of brandy, he downed it in one swallow. If ever a woman could drive a man to drink, it was Mrs. Stuart.
“I am sure of it. You could stay at Montcliff Manor as you always do, but even if you merely came to dinner with us every night—”
“You’re not going to let this go, are you?” He set down the glass and faced her with a scowl. “You’ll keep plaguing me until I do as you ask or you force me to send you packing.”
That seemed to give her pause, but only for a moment. “I would of course prefer that you not send me packing. But I must speak what I know to be true, sir.” Her voice softened. “And now that I’ve met you, I believe that you have more of a heart than you let on.”
He snorted. “Do you, indeed?”
Then perhaps it was time he dispelled that ridiculous notion. And in doing so, perhaps he could dissuade her from meddling and tormenting him to death, without his having to dismiss her and go to the trouble of hiring another, who might not be as reliable.
He stalked forward, deliberately crowding her space, forcing her to either back up or stand her ground. Not surprisingly, she did the latter, which put him toe to toe with her, looming over her.
“I tell you what, Mrs. Stuart,” he drawled. “I’m already staying here at the dower house until tomorrow. So I’ll attend dinner tonight with you and my mother and try to be civil. But in exchange, I’ll expect some compensation after she retires.”
Her gaze turned wary. “What sort of compensation?”
“Entertainment. The kind I would normally receive in London.” He let his gaze trail leisurely down her body in a way that should illustrate exactly what he was pretending to demand of her. “And I will expect you to provide it.”
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