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Stebbings had been right, the crowd was thick around the stage door. Lysette drew up the hood close around her face, hunched her shoulders under the heavy folds of the cloak to disguise her height and slipped, almost unheeded, through the throng.
But one pair of eyes marked her progress, one pair of eyes saw through the disguise. The Earl of Ashby, seated comfortably in the vantage point of his carriage, watched the huddled figure reach the corner of Beaufort Square, glance back and straighten up to her full height before melting away into the darkness.
Little fool! What the devil was she doing walking alone at this time of night? He had intended following her carriage or chair in his own conveyance, but now he opened the door and jumped down. ‘Go home, William, I will walk.’
Lysette, too, was beginning to regret her decision to walk. Despite the lanterns and flambeaux outside each house the streets were haunted by pools of shadow and frequent alleyways loomed like black pits. More than once she shrank back as groups of men, some of them the worse for drink, passed her noisily, but most worrying was the feeling that she was being followed. Once or twice she stopped and drew into the side of the path, but she could see no-one behind her.
She told herself not to be such a ninny, but it was with relief that she reached Walcot Street. She still had to negotiate the area in front of the penitentiary for fallen women, which often attracted attention from undesirables, but once clear of that the street became increasingly respectable in a modest way.
Again she stopped, the hairs on the back of her neck prickling, but this time there was no mistaking the fact that she was being followed, and very closely. Two hulking figures in frieze coats quickened their pace and before she could cry out or run she found herself bundled roughly into a side alley.
Frightened though she was, Lysette was not going to give in easily. One man had a callused hand over her mouth and she bit down hard causing him to yelp and cuff her over the ear. Half stunned she staggered, but still swung the heavy basket at the other man, catching him on the corner of the head and knocking off his hat. The smell of sweat and drink was nauseating and Lysette’s stomach heaved as she struggled with the second man, trying to catch her breath enough to scream.
Increasingly terrified she reacted instinctively to his groping hands, raising her knee sharply into the man’s groin and being rewarded by his croak of pain. He staggered back swearing viciously and clutching himself. ‘Get the bitch, Clem,’ he snarled.
‘I think not,’ a cultured voice said with soft menace and the entrance to the alleyway was suddenly blocked by a tall figure silhouetted against the lamplight. Seconds later, after a brisk flurry of blows from a cane, both men were reeling off down Walcot Street.
A wave of nausea hit Lysette and her knees buckled. Before she could sink onto the muddy cobbles strong arms encircled her and she was lifted and held against a broad chest. A familiar voice said firmly, ‘Now, you are not going to faint until you tell me where you live.’
‘My lord...’ she gasped out, relief flooding through her weak limbs. ‘Oh, thank you.’
‘Do not thank me,’ he replied almost roughly. ‘You were a damn fool to be out here alone at this time of night. Now, tell me where to take you.’
‘Para...I mean, number eight. Just up the road here on the left.’
Nicholas Lovell did not appear to notice her hesitation, but put her on her feet, took her arm, picked up the basket, and set off slowly in the direction she indicated.
Lysette clutched gratefully at his strong arm, then staggered as the shock of what had so nearly happened hit her. Nausea hit her and she doubled up, dryly retching. The earl shifted his grip, lifted her firmly in his arms and carried her up the street.
‘Here we are, safe and sound,’ he said soothingly, his breath grazing her forehead. ‘Number eight... but there is no light. Surely your maid is waiting up for you?’
Her thoughts were almost too hazy to deal with this situation, but after a moment’s panic, she found that at least part of the truth would serve. ‘My companion had to go to her sister’s bedside, her husband is very ill.’
‘But where is your maid?’ He set her carefully on her feet while keeping a firm arm on her elbow. His eyes were shadowed under the brim of his hat, but Lysette was very conscious of his sharp regard.
‘I... er I sent her with Margaret, to carry things... er, calvesfoot jelly... and so on,’ she added rather wildly.
‘Hmm. Give me your key.’ Nicholas unlocked the panelled door, holding it open as she slipped past him into a front room which was dimly lit by a well-banked fire.
Lysette stooped to light a taper from the coals and touched it to a branch of candles on the mantelpiece where it reflected in the mirror, filling the little parlour with muted light. She turned, schooling her face into polite gratitude, ‘Thank you, my lord...’ but broke off as she realised that he was not only in the room, but that the front door was firmly closed.
Before she could protest he had walked past her, through into the kitchen behind and was trying the back door, satisfying himself that it was secure. He rejoined her, and seeing her pale face, sat her firmly in the fireside chair and stated, ‘Tea, I think.’
Weak-kneed as she still was Lysette struggled out of the chair, only to find herself pressed back into it again. ‘My lord, I am grateful to you, but this is entirely unnecessary - and you should not be here!’ In her alarm it came out sounding ungracious.
‘If you had slightly more regular domestic arrangements, ma’am, I would not need to be!’ he rejoined tartly and without as much as a by your leave, he disappeared into the kitchen.
Lysette could hear the fire being riddled and the clang of the kettle being held under the pump and suppressed a half-hysterical giggle at the thought of his elegant lordship involved in domestic chores. She supposed he must know how to make a cup of tea, although it seemed unlikely that he ever penetrated to the kitchen regions in his own elegant home. Goodness knows what he was making of the cottage which was doubtless far from what he expected of a leading actress’s abode.
He re-emerged from the back room carrying two bone china cups and placed one of them on the table beside her. Lysette took a grateful sip from hers, watching the earl cautiously over the rim. He stood by the fireside, one foot on the fender, looking as incongruous in the cottage as a big cat in a dog kennel. He drank his tea with a grimace and she pulled herself together with an effort and a passable imitation of her Green Room manner.
‘I thank you, my lord, for saving me this evening and for your kind attention. But I must not keep you - I am sure you would far rather be drinking brandy with your friends than sipping Bohea with me!’
‘Not at all, ma’am - a refreshing change. And my sister would doubtless tell me it is better for me. Now, how many bedrooms have you?’
‘Two...I mean, how dare you, my lord! That is a most unseemly question!’
‘Is it?’ he asked maddeningly. ‘It seems entirely practical to me. I can hardly leave you alone, and I am sure your companion would not wish me to invade her bedchamber. However, doubtless I can make myself comfortable on that couch.’
Lysette jumped to her feet, deeply discommoded. ‘Sir, what you suggest is outrageous! My reputation will be in tatters!’
One dark brow rose mockingly. ‘But, my dear Miss Davide, forgive me for stating what may be a truism, but you are - or were - an actress.’
‘Oh!’ Lysette stamped her foot in sheer frustrated fury. Nothing seemed to dent his assurance and he said the most outrageous things, in such a way as to make them sound commonsense. ‘I have already told you this evening, I am not that sort of actress!’
Nicholas sketched her a bow, ‘Oh yes, you did hint at that earlier. Well, in that case I will be quite safe on the couch will I not?’
‘You...you… you are totally impossible!’
‘So I have been told. By the way, Miss Davide, did you realise that when you are angry that slight French nuance in your speech quite disappears?’ The dark head bent over the tea cup and he appeared quite impervious to her simmering fury.
Lysette glowered at the rangy figure, so very much at home on the hearthrug, the elegant cut of the dark blue superfine cloth moulding athletic shoulders, the long legs more than capable of standing the fashion for a tight cut. ‘As I am not French, it is not surprising that the accent is not permanent,’ she snapped. ‘Now, my lord, grateful as I am - will you please go!’ Although what exactly she was going to do if he chose not to was hard to say.
‘My dear Miss Davide - or whatever your real name is - has it not occurred to you that those ruffians may well be hanging around out there, waiting for me to leave? It is highly likely they followed us here: that type tends to be fairly persistent in my experience, and I have no intention of leaving you to their tender mercies.’
The irony was that this was not her home, and if only Lord Lovell would leave, she could make her escape with safety. But she was in a total dilemma: she could not tell him that this cottage belonged to Margaret, her old nurse, who was indeed away with her sister, but if she did not, he would stay. But at least, thank goodness, Mama would not be fretting. Over the last three years she had grown used to her elder daughter’s unpredictably late hours and would have long since retired to bed.
Nicholas Lovell watched the play of emotions suddenly transform the previously well-controlled face of the beautiful young woman before him. He was puzzled, not a state he often found himself in.
She was not French, that much had quickly been established. Nor was Lysette Davide her name, but again, that was normal practice for the stage. Nor, he very strongly suspected, seeing her complexion close up, was she a brunette. But she was a genuine actress of talent, and something more...He stroked his chin, contemplating the enigma as she took an impatient few steps around the room. She genuinely wanted him gone, despite her fear of the footpads - and that was a real mystery if she was what she purported to be. And Nicholas Lovell did not like a mystery he could not solve.
Lysette stopped pacing and stood before him, looking up at him with greenish hazel eyes that were becoming shadowed with tiredness and reaction. ‘My lord, please...’ It was irresistible, even if it was not what he had intended - yet. Her face was tipped up to his, her lips soft and full, her eyes imploring. The subtle scent she wore, like honeysuckle on a warm summer night, had fretted at his senses since he had first come close to her in the Green Room. Now, so near, it filled his nostrils.
Before he could stop himself Nicholas reached out and stroked one finger gently along the fine line of her jaw. She started, her lips parting unconsciously in an invitation he could not resist. He bent and kissed her, catching her in his arms and drawing her into his warmth, his strength. For a moment the slender, supple figure was pliant in his arms, the lips returned the pressure of his, hesitatingly, with a naiveté that was the last thing he expected. Then she jerked back, abruptly freeing herself, anger turning her eyes a pure, hard green. Instinctively her hand came up to strike him and Nicholas parried the blow with the palm of his hand. The sound of the slap rang through the small room, then she was gone, in a flurry of skirts.
Nicholas listened to her footsteps as she ran upstairs, the slam of a door, the unmistakable click of a key turning in a lock. He stood absently rubbing his tingling palm, a look of rueful surprise on his face. Of all the things he had expected to discover this evening it was not that Miss Davide was not only Untouchable, but quite literally, untouched.