Adrienne Basso's NOTORIOUS DECEPTION
Adrienne Basso's NOTORIOUS DECEPTION
Between danger and desire lay a passion they couldn't resist...
Publisher: Zebra Books
Publication Date: March 1, 2013 (ebook)
Publisher: Leisure Books
Publication Date: October 17, 1994 (mass market paperback)
From Adrienne Basso comes the intriguing tale of a young, beautiful, and tempestuous widow with an uncertain future—and a startling secret…
Diana Rutledge, Countess of Harrowby, was shocked by the unexpected death of her husband. But a trip to London to settle his affairs brings only more unpleasant surprises. For Derek, the new Earl of Harrowby, is arrogant, brooding—and far too handsome for Diana’s peace of mind. Worse, he insists that Diana is a bold impostor. Now, determined to stand her ground despite Derek’s rudeness—and her unsettling attraction to him—Diana will risk her reputation, her heart, and her very life to prove she is not part of a notorious deception…
London, England - 1818
"A toast to your health, milord," Lord Tristian Ashton called out jokingly as he raised his glass of French brandy high above his head.
"Stop it, Tristan," his companion admonished. "I swear, if I have to put up with any additional ribbing about this bloody title, I shall renounce it."
Tristan laughed at his friend's discomfort. "The boys still giving you a hard time, Derek?"
Derek merely snorted his response and picked up the half-empty brandy decanter. He refilled both his glass and Tristan's before answering.
"I'm surprised you haven't already heard. Pierrepoint, Coventry and Grantham fell all over each other at White's last evening, bowing and scraping. They put on quite a show."
Tristan smiled, despite his attempt not to. "They're probably a bit jealous. It will be a long time before Grantham comes into his title. After all, it isn't every day that a scoundrel such as you is raised to the rank of earl."
"It is still hard for me to believe I have been an earl for three months, Tris," Derek said. "While it is scarcely a secret I was not fond of my cousin, I never seriously contemplated inheriting his title. And as unscrupulous as Giles was, I never thought he would come to his end in such a brutal manner. Being left to die in a London alley with his throat slit is hardly a fitting ending to anyone's life."
"Just be glad you managed to keep all the sordid details out of the newspapers." Tristan grimaced. He had also held a low opinion of the former earl, but he had been suitably shocked at Giles's sudden and bloody demise. "It has been several months since the body was discovered. Is there any further information about Giles's death?"
"Not from the authorities," Derek replied. "Although I can hardly be surprised. They are an incompetent lot at best. I have hired a Bow Street runner to conduct an investigation."
Tristan nodded his head in approval. "He should have much better luck."
A thoughtful silence fell over the room as each man sat lost in his own thoughts. A sharp knock at the drawing room doors broke the companionable silence.
"Come," Derek barked loudly.
The butler, Dobbs, entered the room. "You have a visitor, your lordship," he said, wilting slightly under Derek's cold, hard stare. "May I show the lady in?"
"Lady?" Derek asked. "I was not expecting any visitors this afternoon."
"If you wish me to send her away, I shall," the butler replied smoothly, his eyes darting swiftly about the room. "I am sure the dowager countess can visit with you at a more convenient time."
At the butler's comment, Derek's expression changed to one of exasperation. "Henriette," he groaned. "She is not due to arrive until later this evening. Show her in at once Dobbs." With a casual wave of his hand, Derek dismissed the servant.
"Henriette is here?" Tristan inquired, rising to his feet. "Perhaps it is best if I take my leave."
"Don't even think about it Tristan," Derek warned, turning toward him. "'Tis punishment enough that I will have Henriette in residence here for several days. I have no intention of facing the grieving widow without reinforcements by my side."
"You're damned lucky I'm such a good friend," Tristan grumbled as he resumed his seat. "There aren't many who would stand by you at a time like this."
Tristan's quip helped to ease the tension in the room. Though meant as a joke, his comment was not far off the mark. Both men had little tolerance for Giles's widow, the overbearing and dramatic Henriette.
Dobbs opened the door without knocking, announcing with a sneer, "The Dowager Countess of Harrowby."
Diana heard a gasp of astonishment as she entered the room and hesitated near the doorway, her eyes moving nervously from one man to the other. She had expected the earl to be alone and was caught off guard by the appearance of a second person. She felt extremely self-conscious as the men continued to stare rather rudely at her. She was also at a decided disadvantage since she did not know which of the gentlemen was the earl. Her hands clutched the sides of her black gown and she unconsciously balled the material up in her fists, crushing it. Finally, one of the men spoke to her.
"I am sorry, but I did not catch your name," he said in a smooth voice.
"Diana, sir. I am Diana Rutledge, Dowager Countess of Harrowby," she stated in a clear voice, pleased that it sounded stead to her own ears. She expectantly held out her hand to the gentleman who had addressed her.
He moved forward quickly and clasped it in greeting. "Charmed to make your acquaintance, madam," he said. "I am Tristan Ashton. And this is Derek Rutledge, current Earl of Harrowby. But of course, you must already know that."
Well, actually, no, I didn't know that. I am not acquainted with the current earl." Diana looked in confusion at Tristan and then at the earl. Tristan was smiling pleasantly at her; the early was glowering. "I am pleased to finally make your acquaintance, my lord." Diana dipped a small, graceful curtsy toward the silent man.
The earl regarded her with a cool glance, his handsome sculptured features set in a firm line. Then he faced the other man, his lips curling up in the mere hint of a smile.
"Is this some sort of game, Tris?" he inquired dryly.
"If it is, I can assure you it is not my doing, Derek," Tristan insisted.
The earl advanced and Diana stood utterly still, holding her body rigid. He circled her slowly, assessing every nuance of her soggy, travel-stained appearance. By sheer strength of will Diana subdued the tremor of panic invading her boy as she met the predatory speculation in the earl's intense blue eyes.
"Will you kindly explain, madam, he finally said, unable to keep his fury from his voice, "exactly how you happen to have acquired the title Dowager Countess of Harrowby?"
Diana wrinkled her brow in confusion. She had thought very little about the kind of reception she would receive when she first encountered the new earl. She had been too busy concentrating all her efforts upon reaching London safely. His open display of hostility toward her was both unwarranted and unwelcome.
"I was married to the former earl," she said in response to his question. "Giles Rutledge."
Her announcement brought a darker scowl from the earl and a hoot of laughter from Tristan. The earl turned away from Diana and walked toward the fire. Despite Diana's puzzlement at his rude and hostile behavior, she could not help but admire his ruggedly handsome features and his lean frame, which was displayed by his perfectly tailored clothes.
"Pierrepoint," Tristan announced with authority in his voice. "Or perhaps Coventry. But I would put my money on Pierrepoint."
"Another prank?" Derek inquired, his tone conveying his annoyance as he picked up his brandy glass and took a long swallow.
"What else," the other man replied, shrugging his shoulders. "I suppose we might as well see it through. Come over by the fire and sit down, madam. You must be chilled to the bone. And please, do tell us your tale."
"For heaven's sake, Tris," Derek said, "don't encourage her."
Ignoring Derek, Tristan escorted Diana to a chair near the fire. He strode over to the sideboard and poured her a glass of sherry. Returning to her side, he handed her the glass and waited while she took a tentative sip.
Lifting her eyes, Diana studied the two exceedingly handsome men staring down at her while she slowly sipped the wine. Both men were tall and well proportioned, with fit athletic builds. Tristan was slightly taller than Derek, but Derek was broader of shoulder. Their coloring was similar, but Tristan's hair was a darker shade of brown and his eyes a deep warm sapphire blue. The earl had blond stands in his close-cropped hair, which as in disarray because of its natural curl and his eyes were icy blue. Even though it was early April, both men sported golden tans, attesting to their preference for the outdoors.
Tristan had a boyish smile and an easy charm. Diana could not be certain about the earl's smile. He had not ceased scowling since she entered the room. As Diana continued her covert study of the two men, they, in turn, took in every aspect of her appearance, from her moist walking boots to her hair, which was simply braided down her back and fastened with a black velvet ribbon.
"You were going to tell us about yourself," Tristan said after he had given Diana sufficient time to compose herself.
"I am not sure exactly what you want to know," Diana replied hesitantly. She twirled the sherry glass nervously in her hands, absently noting that Tristan wore a wedding band. A quick glance at the earl's strong hands verified he did not.
"Surely you have more to say than that," Derek said flatly, looking pointedly down his nose at her with very cold, arresting eyes. "Were you not sufficiently coached?"
Diana blinked at his obscure remark. She could his feel his animosity. Yet his arrogant stare gave her just the courage she needed and she indignantly straightened her back. Diana did not have a clue as to why they were treating her in such a strange manner but she decided it was time to assert herself.
"I have come a great distance, sir, in order to settle the affairs of my late husband," she said in a strong voice. Diana faltered a bit as the men exchanged glances. Tristan's face was alight with amusement; the earl glowered with annoyance.
"He has been dead for over three month," Derek stated flatly. "What has taken you so long?"
Diana looked up unflinchingly into the man's cold blue eyes before she said, "new of Giles's death has only recently reached me. I have been traveling for nearly two weeks now."
"Exactly where have you come from, madam?" Derek asked mockingly.
"Cornwall," Diana responded calmly, determined not to lose her temper no matter how cruelly provoked.
"Cornwall? Near Truro?" Tristan asked.
"No," Diana answered, turning her attention to him. "Farther down the coast from Truro, nearer to St. Ives. The closes village to my home is called Zennor."
"This is really too much, Tristan," the earl interrupted with annoyance. "I am not about to sit through a long discourse on the geography of Cornwall." He shifted restlessly from foot to foot. "I do believe that I have had quite enough. I think it is time to summon Dobbs and have her ladyship escorted out of here at once."
Diana felt her anger ignite at both the earl's words and his sarcasm. She had been wrong to come here. She should have known better. It was only fitting that Giles's relations would treat her in such a disgraceful manner. Diana turned sharply to the earl, and with as much dignity as she could muster, she rose to her feet.
"It will not be necessary for you to call your servant, my lord," she stated. "I will take my leave of my own accord. And gladly. I can assure you, I have had quite enough of your rude and ill-bred behavior." Diana fumbled momentarily in her black reticule before pulling forth several crumpled sheets of paper. "Here is a list of the properties Giles managed while we were ed. I still own them, as the marriage contract clearly states. I am requesting your solicitor forward the deeds of ownership to my residence at once. The address is listed on the copy of the marriage contract."
Derek reluctantly took the papers she offered him, his eyes gleaming brightly with speculation. "Bravo, madam," he sneered. "You seem to have found both your spirit and your imagination." He turned to Tristan and remarked further, "She appears to be warming to the part, don't you think?"
But Tristan was no longer smiling. "Perhaps we have been a bit hasty, Derek. I think we should listen to what she has to say."
The earl lifted an eyebrow. "Not your too, Tristan?" he responded suspiciously. "Don't tell me that you are somehow tangled up in this ridiculous farce?"
While the two men argued the point, Diana decided to make her escape. She sped swiftly past them, determined to leave the room as quickly as possible. Now that she realized her mistake in coming, she wanted nothing more than to leave and forget the entire incident. She would not subject herself to any more rude and hostile behavior. Diana did not know precisely where she would go once she left, since she did not know a soul in London, but it didn't matter. Uppermost in her mind was the need to be free of the Earls of Harrowby, both former and present.
Diana had almost reached the drawing room doors when Tristan called to her to stop. The strength of command in his voice caused her to react automatically and she obeyed him.
It was a good thing too that she did, for a split second later the doors swung open, barely missing slamming into her head. A short, slender figure, clad entirely from head to toe in black, swept regally into the room.
"Derek," the woman called out in a throaty voice. "I have only just arrived, but I insisted to Dobbs that I see you immediately. The trip from Darford was positively draining, yet I felt I should greet you before I went to my rooms. Dobbs actually tried to dissuade me, and then he insisted on announcing me. Can you imagine - announcing me in my own home? The very idea. I told him I would not stand for it, of course."
While the woman paused for a brief moment the catch her breath, the earl said, "Henriette—" but was cut off as she began speaking again.
"Tristan," she exclaimed, seeming to recover instantly her exhaustion as she spotted the other man. "How very lovely to see you." She held out her hand dramatically for him to kiss and Tristan reluctantly complied. "And who is your friend?" Henriette inclined her head toward Diana.
Tristan didn't answer the woman, and she waited only a mere heartbeat before walking up to Diana and introducing herself. "I am Henriette Rutledge," she announced. "Countess of Harrowby."
For a brief moment Diana felt a flicker of sympathy for the earl. She couldn't image how he survived being married to such an overbearing woman. No wonder he scowled all the time. Diana turned her attention back to Henriette, who was talking about her difficult journey into town. She was pretty, Diana conceded, with her brilliant green eyes and dark hair, and probably near to Diana's age of twenty-two. And yet, Diana thought, Henriette resembled a black magpie, chattering away, her slim figure encase in a long pelisse of black silk with puffed sleeves and a half-dress cap of silk with its small back feature perches on top of her head.
Finally, Henriette ceased her tirade and looked expectantly at Diana. Since Diana did not have the faintest idea what had been said, she merely smiled. When Diana saw that Henriette had regained her breath and was about to being another soliloquy, she spoke quickly.
"I was just explaining to your husband," Diana said, but Henriette immediately interjected.
"My husband," Henriette shrieked. "You cannot possibly mean Derek?"
"You did introduce yourself as the countess of Harrowby, Henriette," Tristan said.
Henriette shot Tristan a positively chilling look and said, "'Tis a reasonable mistake. After all, it has only been a few short months since my dearest Giles was so cruelly taken from me."
"Your dearest Giles?" Diana said. She made a low, choked sound as she stared at Henriette."Yes," Henriette responded, enjoying the intense attention everyone was now affording her. "Tristan was right however. I did make a mistake. Although I am far too young for the title, I am actually the Dowager Countess of Harrowby. Giles's widow."