The Secret Heart - Unmarriageable, Book 6
Light, fun Regency romance from Mary Lancaster.
Welcome to the Hart Inn, a lucky house where love always seems to blossom, whatever the obstacles...
Betrayal, temptation and an impossible love.
The final book in the Unmarriageable series…
Some suspect that Lily Villin is the true heart of the Hart Inn, a lucky house where love always seems to blossom, whatever the obstacles. But Lily has another secret. She is in love with an enigmatic nobleman, and no luck in the world can make such a marriage possible.
Randolph, Lord Torbridge, is a man of many secrets, in pursuit of a well-born traitor. But his visits to the Hart have increasingly less to do with his vital work than with the innkeeper’s beautiful daughter – until he discovers her gift for mimicry and enrols her in a dangerous masquerade to unmask the enemy.
Being with her brings temptations he struggles to resist, for he will not ruin her and he cannot marry so far beneath his rank. For once, it is not Lily’s talents but his own which are needed for this love to blossom – along with a little luck and ingenuity.
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As she gazed out of the landing window, Lily’s heart gave a little flutter of gladness. It was him.
He rode alone into the inn yard, as he sometimes did, without any servants or companions, and dismounted with an air of weariness she had never seen in him before. But he still had a smile—and a coin—for Jem, who led his horse away to the stables.
He began to walk to the front door, then paused, almost as if he sensed Lily’s observation. She had no time to draw back before his gaze found and trapped her.
Something is wrong, she thought in dismay.
And then his lips quirked and he touched his hat, just as if she were a great lady instead of the innkeeper’s daughter, and walked out of her line of vision and into the house.
Pulling herself together, Lily hurried along the passage with her tray for the grumpy merchant in the small bedchamber. Escaping swiftly—for he was not the sort of man to chat —she hastened downstairs, trying not to run, in time to see her mother show his lordship into the private parlor.
“What’s his pleasure?” she asked cheerfully as her mother closed the door.
“A bottle of claret. He claims he isn’t hungry, but I suppose it’s early still for an evening meal. We’ll talk him into it later. Make sure the best glasses are clean, and don’t give him that chipped one.”
“I won’t,” Lily assured her, and went to fetch a bottle of the best claret which she set on a tray beside one of the good glasses. As she crossed the hall to the parlor, her heart beat quickened.
He sat in the armchair by the fire, leaning forward to warm his hands. But when she entered, he stood and came to take the tray from her before she could lay it on the table. Their fingers touched and she treasured the thrill that sparked through her hand to her heart.
“You look well, Lily,” he remarked.
He was taller than she remembered. It made her somehow afraid to look up.
“Thank you, my lord, I am.” She picked up the bottle and poured the red liquid into the waiting glass before finally raising her gaze to his face. “Are you, sir?”
She had no idea why he should affect her this way. He must have been at least thirty-five years old, and he was not the handsomest man she had ever met. He was not even the most handsome lord she had ever served. A straight and well-built figure, in a lean kind of a way, he possessed unremarkable brown hair, cut in a fashionably short style, a thin, aristocratic nose and a wide mouth with a ready smile. Not everyone would have described him as distinguished, but something about his pleasant face always stayed with Lily. And left her wondering.
If Lily had a gift, she knew it was reading people’s characters. It was this that led her to nudge certain people gently toward certain other people, thus increasing the inn’s reputation as the “lucky house” her father always called it. But this man, Lord Torbridge, had always eluded her. He was kind, polite, amiable. He had been to the Hart several times, and yet she could not read him. His light eyes were secretive, as though they only cast back one’s own expressions, and yet below that was a world of intelligent thought she had never come near. Perhaps it was that which fascinated her so. Or perhaps it was the contrast between the mild-mannered, proper gentleman he had always appeared, and some of the things she knew he had done.
Like killing the traitor Pierre de Renarde. Like questioning her and everyone else at the inn after the French raid…
With something close to shock, she found weariness in his eyes, strain in the lines around them. Sadness.
He blinked. “Am I what?”
“Of course.” He picked up the glass from the table and walked back to the chair by the fire.
“You seem tired, my lord,” she said with a hint of desperation.
He rested his head against the back of the chair and smiled. “I was. I feel better for being here.”
“The Hart has that effect on people.”
“I wonder why that should be?”
“It’s a lucky house,” Lily said lightly. “Can I get you anything else, sir?”
“No, I believe I have all I need, Thank you.”
He had a particularly sweet smile that drove straight to Lily’s heart, depriving her of words and breath as she all but stumbled from the room. Pulling herself together, she went to help her mother prepare the evening meal.
“Ned said he would call this evening,” her mother remarked as she energetically rolled out pastry for the pigeon pie.
“You needn’t sound so surprised. You know he comes to see you.”
“I can’t imagine why,” Lily said ruefully. “I’ve never given him any encouragement.”
“Maybe you should.” Her mother glanced up with a scowl. “You could do worse, Lily. He’s a good man, young and strong, and it’s a tidy bit of land will come to you both.”
“I can’t marry for such reasons, Mother.”
“I think, if you spent time with him, those other reasons would come. Your father likes him.”
“My father wants me within walking distance of the inn!”
Her mother slapped the pastry into a dish and began pressing it into the edges. “Don’t you want that?”
“Yes,” she admitted. “But not if it means marrying Ned.”
“Don’t be so set against him! Just consider him while he’s here. You might find things change.”
“I might,” she allowed peaceably.
In fact, she knew she would not change her mind about Ned. Or her heart. Not that night. And definitely not while he was here.
Daylight was fading as she lightly knocked and entered the private parlor. His lordship appeared to have fallen asleep in his chair, the empty wine glass still in his hand. The bottle now stood on the hearth beside his chair, less than half-full.
Lily hesitated. She had come to persuade him to eat dinner, but perhaps she should leave him to sleep. Certainly, he seemed much more peaceful than when he’d first arrived. She walked quietly across the room.
It was odd, but in repose, his classic good looks were more obvious. Almost as if he deliberately changed his appearance when he was awake. Ignoring such fantasy, she closed her fingers around the wine glass, trying to ease it out of his grip.
His eyes opened at once. He smiled. “Lily.”
She jumped back. “I’m so sorry, my lord. I thought you were asleep.”
“You needn’t be sorry. I was just thinking.”
“You’re a gentleman who thinks very deeply,” she said, because it was in her head. She blushed, but he didn’t appear angry, just curious.
“Why do you say that?”
“I don’t know. You just give me that impression.”
“There aren’t many people who would agree with you.”
“More fool them.”
A smile curved his lips, lit his eyes. Perhaps it was the firelight, but he seemed warmer, less aloof than usual. And his gaze was fixed steadily on her face.
“Shall I light the lamps, sir?” she blurted.
He inclined his head. “If you please.”
She lit a spill from the fire and walked around the room lighting the lamps and the candles on the table. His eyes seemed to follow her, but he didn’t speak. In the silence, she heard only the beating of her own heart.
She turned to face him and he lifted the glass to his lips. “Would you like dinner, sir? There is an excellent ham soup and a fresh pigeon pie.”
His gaze dropped to the glass, almost as though he expected it to answer for him. Then he glanced back up to her. “Yes, if you please. But there is no rush.”
She curtseyed and left him. But someone was waiting for her in the hall.
“Ned,” she said, and closed the door. She didn’t know why she was surprised for her mother had told her he would come. Lord
Torbridge seemed to have the effect of knocking everyone else from her mind. Which was not only rude of her. It was stupid. “Did you smell my mother’s pie?”
Ned grinned. “That I did. Will you eat with me?”
“I can’t right now. We have guests to look after. But I’ll be popping in and out of the kitchen and of course there will be my mother and Bessie for chatter. Or Matt Barnes is in the taproom tonight if you prefer male company.”
He didn’t even glance toward the taproom, from where a convivial hum of conversation was already flowing. “Yours is the only company I want,” he said in a rush, and took a step nearer her.
She laughed as if he were joking. She wished he was. “Why, you will hurt Jack’s feelings! To say nothing of my mother’s and Bessie’s. Come to the kitchen and you can tell us about your day and—”
“Lily,” he broke in, with just the sort of desperation she had been trying to avoid. “Lily, I wish you wouldn’t dodge being alone with me. You must know how I feel!”
“How we both feel,” she said lightly. “We have always been very good friends and always will be. We’ve no need to be alone.”
She made to step around him, but he anticipated her and blocked her path.
“Yes, Lily, we have,” he argued, capturing her hand. “How else can I ask you to marry me? How else can I convince you it’s the right thing to do?” He glanced warily toward the open taproom door.
“You can’t,” she said bluntly, trying to draw her hand free. “Ned, I like you but I don’t love you in that way and I won’t marry you. Ever.”
“Don’t say that, Lily.” He held her hand tighter, desperately tugging her toward him.
“Let me go, Ned,” she warned, before an undignified tussle broke out.
“Never,” he said fervently.
She pushed him in the chest to show that she meant it, but it seemed only to inflame him. His arms went around her, and she had had enough. She raised her hand and dealt him a ringing slap across the cheek, just as the parlor door opened and Lord Torbridge stood there.
Ned dropped her like a hot cake.
Lord Torbridge said nothing but continued to stand in the doorway. Large, still, wordlessly commanding.
Ned swallowed, then gave a jerky bow and dashed out of the inn by the front door.
“Thank you,” Lily whispered, in an agony of embarrassment and gratitude. She fled into the kitchen.
Randolph Merrick, Viscount Torbridge, closed the door of the parlor once more and dragged his hand through his hair with irritation. He had no business interfering with the private lives of the inn staff.
But this was Lily. The first time he had seen her, after he had brought the wounded Verne here last year, he hadn’t been able to look away. And God help him, the fascination had only grown worse. She was the secret of the Hart’s success, both commercial and otherwise. And yet she carried no airs, no ambitions. She was the heart of the Hart.
His smile twisted, he swiped up the bottle from the hearth and poured himself another glass. Of course he would have intervened to prevent any man importuning any woman of whatever class, but he should not have felt the despair he did when he overheard her conversation with her admirer. Nor such rage at the young man’s temerity in touching her. In all, there had been far too much relief at her rejection of her swain, far too much emotion altogether.
He should not have come here. And yet he could not stay away. He drank half the glassful in one swallow and walked to the window.
Well, he would accept the peace and comfort she gave without knowing, and remain the perfect gentleman. And tomorrow he would return to London and the task in hand.
He half expected one of the elder Villins to serve him, but it was again Lily who entered to set the table. And although he would have been happy never to mention the matter again, she brought it up almost immediately.
“I’m sorry you were disturbed by that…incident.”
He glanced at her. “I trust that will be the end of the matter?”
“I imagine so. At last.”
He frowned. “Then this has been going on for some time?” What the devil was her father about to permit it?
“Oh, no. Well, that is, I suppose I knew it was coming, but I’ve been avoiding it, avoiding him. Now, at least, it is in the open and I have made my position plain.”
“That you do not favor the young man? Is there someone else more to your liking?”
It was none of his business, of course, and she flushed as she shook her head. “I am in no rush to be married. I’m happy where I am. Would you like another bottle of wine, sir?”
With a relief he had no right to, he accepted the change of subject along with the bottle. The wine was, no doubt, a waste, because he probably wouldn’t drink it without company, and the company he wanted was hers.
But he hadn’t come here for her company, just her presence, and that was enough. So, he sat down at the table and let her serve him dinner. She drifted in and out of the room, helpful, friendly and infinitely soothing. When prompted, she told him the latest news about the inn and the surrounding countryside, including the new tutor at Audley Park since Miss Milsom had left and was now Lady Dain.
“And to think, sir, she first met Sir Marcus in this very room,” Lily said, “when I asked him to give up his bedchamber to her.”
He glanced up at her. “Why does that not surprise me?” He laid down his fork, regarding her. “What exactly is it you do, Lily?”
She laughed, a soft, infectious sound that made him smile. “I? Nothing! The Hart is simply a lucky house. Why, the Duke and Duchess of Alvan met here when none of us were present.”
“Hmm.” He reached for his wine glass, and discovered it was empty. Before he could remedy the matter himself, she hurried forward and refilled his glass. He inhaled her fresh, subtly feminine scent. How could anyone smell of happiness?
She straightened, and left him with a smile to finish his dinner.
Eventually, he sat back in his chair, replete. He half-expected Lily or Mrs. Villin to come and clear away the remains of the meal. But after a few moments, when no one did, he rose and took his wine to the hearth. For comfort, he removed his coat, loosened his waistcoat and cravat, and sank into the armchair.
After about ten minutes, a knock at the door interrupted his somber and difficult thoughts. It was Lily.
“Let me clear these things away for you, my lord.”
“Thank you. And my compliments to your mother. The meal was excellent, as always.”
“Thank you, sir, I’ll tell her.” She piled the plates and serving dishes on to a tray with quiet efficiency. He found himself watching her small, deft hands, hands used to work, not pampered every day in gloves and idleness.
They stilled and he glanced up, meeting her gaze.
“What is the matter?” she asked, almost like a plea.
His eyebrows few up involuntarily. “Nothing. I am very comfortable.”
She waved that away. He was rumbled. They both knew she referred to a deeper comfort, but he held her gaze without difficulty.
“A trouble shared is a trouble halved, my lord,” she murmured. “I am a good listener and if there is anything I can do to help, I will and gladly.”
He smiled, resigned to the gentle ache, which one day would become so severe that it would outweigh the comfort. He would have to stay away, then. “You are very kind and sweet, but what troubles could I possibly have? I assure you I am perfectly at ease.”
A moment longer she stared at him. He thought, ruefully, that he had disappointed her. In fact, as she picked up the tray and turned, he realized he had hurt her. From nowhere, emotion bombarded him. He didn’t want her to go.
For once in his life, he spoke without thinking first. “My father is dying.”