He watched Raven Deverell across his carriage and cautiously considered, once again, the dangerous extravagance of everything about her— from the rich darkness of her hair, to the blossoming shape of her lips, the thickness of her eyelashes, the fullness of her figure. Too much of everything, he mused. What was it that man at the ball had called her? A handful. No, she was more than a handful. She was an over-spilling, cartload of trouble, teetering along without a sober driver and about to lose its balance.He had given her fair warning about that young cad, Bourne, and that should be it. There was no need for him to follow her out of the ballroom and continue the conversation.
Yet here they were.
Usually his thoughts came in a sensible, reasoned flow, but tonight the cogwheels of his mind were frustratingly stuck upon the image of this woman in riding breeches.
"This is most kind, your lordship," said her mother, leaning forward as the amber tongue of a passing street lamp licked her face. "I'm sure it was a misunderstanding with the gentlemen from whom I borrowed the landau." Her gaze slid sideways to her daughter, who stared out of the carriage window as if the rain was the most enthralling sight she'd ever seen. "We must thank you for saving us so gallantly and going out of your way."
He bowed his head. "It is no trouble, madam."
Her smile widened, and she raised a white-gloved hand to her hair, patting the neat arrangement of auburn waves. "We must repay the favor."
Lady Charlotte was still a handsome woman. In the season of her 'coming out' she had been the most sought after debutante in Town. And then, when she could have had anyone, she eloped with the notorious True Deverell, turning society inside out. The marriage did not last long, and the couple lived separately for years before the costly and scandalous divorce was finally acquired. How must that have affected her daughter?
With a reputation in ruins, the divorcee might have slunk away into oblivion, but her former husband apparently kept her nest feathered and she still had a handful of acquaintances willing to help her. It seemed she also had little sense of shame and a powerful instinct for survival.
Her daughter was equally self-assured and unapologetic, he noted coolly.
In the darkness of the carriage interior, Miss Raven Deverell filled his senses, a pulsing, vibrant creature, a mischief maker who had broken a rule to interfere in his serious sport. Well, since she had laughed at the idea of an apology, he would show her how it felt to have one's day spoiled.
"Your daughter and I met earlier today, madam. At Bourne Lodge in Richmond."
Now the young woman tore her attention from the window and glowered at him. In the darkness of the carriage interior, her face was in shadow, but he saw the gleam of anger in her eyes. Eyes that he knew now were the richest shade of green one might find in the depths of a primeval forest.
"Oh?" said her mother. "I did not know this. Raven?"
"You knew I was with Matty Bourne today, mama," she replied, her gaze lowered as she smoothed her hands over her lap and studied her silk gloves.
"But I thought you were spending the day at a picnic in Hyde Park with a small group of friends. That's what you told me. You said your brother would be there."
"We changed our mind. The picnic was called off, because it looked like rain. So Matty took me to his father's house to show me a new horse. I knew we'd be back in time for the Winstanleys' ball, and I really didn't think it would signify where we spent the day."
There was a thick pause and then Hale muttered, "I must say, madam, I was rather surprised to see your daughter unchaperoned at Bourne Lodge." He was thinking again of a certain pair of riding breeches. Who had got her in and out of them?
That was more bothersome now, he realized, than the trick played against him.
Her mother chided the girl. "Really you should have told me, Raven. What must Bourne's father think of you running about, unchaperoned, with his son? Going to his house alone with him." But Hale saw at once that she only made this protest for his benefit. She looked across the carriage for his reaction rather than her daughter's.
He wondered if Lady Charlotte knew where her daughter was most of the time, let alone what she was getting up to. On the other hand, she could be complicit in her daughter's games. Hale had met many an ambitious mother and witnessed a variety of tricks used in hopes of an entrapment.
Hale cleared his throat and looked out at the rain. "I believe Lord Bourne is soon to be engaged, is he not?"
"I wouldn't care if he was," Miss Deverell replied. "He and I are merely friends." The next words burst out of her on an angry breath. "I do have some friends, surprising as it may seem to you, sir."
He frowned. What the devil was that supposed to mean? "I just wanted to be sure you knew. To save you any...distress. Should you have any expectations—"
"I never do. It is the safest way to protect against disappointment."
After a slight pause, he said, "They have yet to make an official announcement, but it is a settled matter, I understand. By this winter he will be married to Miss Louisa Winstanley."
"What business can it be of yours?"
"Raven! Moderate your voice, young lady!" her mother cried. "I'm sure I did not know that Lord Bourne is soon to be engaged! Now I do, you shall see no more of him." The lady squared her shoulders and exhaled an angry huff. "We've been wasting our time in that quarter, evidently."
"Matty Bourne is merely a very good friend, and I shall see him if I choose."
"Indeed you shall not! There are other men more worthy."
Fuming silence descended over the carriage interior, the two women making their chilly stance on opposite ends of the seat.
Hale, meanwhile, silently congratulated himself. Mere friends, indeed! Whatever had been between them, at least he had put a stop to that now.
He did it for her own good. Not that she would understand or be thankful.
Too soon they arrived at the door of Mivart's Hotel, and he stepped out to help both ladies alight from his carriage. A lamp outside the building cast a wide pool of shimmering, molten gold across the pavement and as Raven passed under it, she turned her head to look over her shoulder, those lively eyes defiant.
"Perhaps you would take tea with us here, your lordship?" her mother inquired as he opened his umbrella for shelter. "Sometime next week." The wide smile once again stretched across Lady Charlotte's face. It was a rather chilling expression, actually, now he saw it clearer. Her eyes were very dark and cold, not like her daughter's warmly inquisitive, teasing regard. Even when Raven's eyes were angry he would rather have their heat making him sweat, than suffer the frosty bite of her mother's hard gaze.
"Regretfully, madam, I am not staying in town."
"I thought, since you were at the ball tonight, you might stay for the rest of the Season."
"No, madam. I had some business to tend at the Winstanleys', but I go into the country again tomorrow. Back to my estate." Back to the familiar, he thought with relief, and away from quarrelsome young women with pert tongues and firm bottoms.
"What a pity," Lady Charlotte exclaimed. "But when you are next in town then."
Making no commitment, he looked beyond her to where Raven stood by the street lamp, that dark hair a gleaming, lush mane over one shoulder, her chin proudly raised. She chose to get wet in the rain, instead of stand under the protection of his umbrella. The dampness did nothing to dispel her terrible allure. Some men, he was quite sure, would be utterly undone by the sight. Weaker men than he, of course.
"Miss Deverell, you dropped this." One arm slowly outstretched, he offered her the small beaded reticule that had fallen from her wrist while she fidgeted irritably in his carriage.
Her lips parted, shining damp in the lamplight. "Oh." Finally she took it from his hand. "Thank you."
Hale almost smiled, but restrained himself from giving her any encouragement. Wouldn't want her to think he had any interest of that nature. She was a wicked brat looking for trouble, but at least he had served her a warning not to meddle in dangerous wagers ever again.
Hopefully, he had served her a warning. At least, he thought that was what he'd been doing with her.
* * * *
Alone in her bed chamber, Raven sat at her dresser, opened her reticule and found a bank cheque written for one thousand pounds. His handwriting was very neat, very orderly, and there was his signature.
The tall, sloping pillars of the "H" were grandly struck against the paper by a determined, confidently wielded pen.
So he had paid the wager, but left it in her hands. Why give it to her, instead of Matthew? She looked at her reflection in the mirror and shook her head. There was nothing to be gained by trying to understand that man's motives. She would likely never see him again.
Slowly she ran a fingertip over his signature.
What did Matty call him? A self-righteous prig. Exactly right!
Perhaps the Bourne family had asked Hale to intervene and separate her from their son?
Her shoulders slumped. She rested her elbows on the dresser, her head in her hands.
She was not in love with Matty, so she could not be genuinely angry about his potential engagement. But she could be exceedingly cross about an officious man she'd only just met trying to manage her life, spoil her fun, and tell her what to do. As if she was a child. Nobody else had ever got away with that, so why should he?
"It's a very good thing that you don't own me, your lordship, and I don't have to listen to you."
"Would you listen to me if I did own you?"
He was possibly the oddest, most vexing and interfering man she'd ever met in the entire course of her life.
When she buried her face in one puffed silk sleeve, she was surrounded by the richly spiced scent of a very distinctive cologne water.
He had marked her, she realized, appalled. He had marked her all over as if he did, in fact, own her. Or he planned to.
This is the latest installment in a Victorian family saga.
'Chasing Raven' and the two previous books, 'True Story' and 'Storm' can be purchased by clicking on the cover images shown on this blog.
Thank you for reading!