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Authors: Shannon Donnelly

Stolen away: a regency novella

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STOLEN AWAY

 

A Regency Novella

 

by

 

Shannon Donnelly

 CHAPTER ONE 

Was he never going to ask her the question?

Hands stilling on the arrangement of already perfect peach China roses, Audrey strained to hear Chloe’s delighted cry. That would, of course, be Chloe’s reaction to a declaration of marriage. Chloe never seemed to think of restraining any feeling, but perhaps this occasion merited such uninhibited enthusiasm. After all, why not be delighted about marriage to Lord Arncliffe?

Audrey let out a sigh. Frowning, she pulled her attention back to the moment.

Why no screech of delight, however muffled by the oak drawing room door? The hall clock ticked. A bird twittered in an empty-headed fashion in the back garden of the narrow London town house, and the faint rumble of carriage wheels echoed up from Half Moon Street.

Audrey edged closer to the drawing room. Were those Arncliffe’s deep tones she could almost hear? Was he asking the question even now? Or was that Chloe talking too much again when she ought to be listening?

With another guilty glance around her, Audrey gave up the pretense on the roses and stepped closer to the door.It is not really eavesdropping if I cannot hear anything, and if I do hear anything I shall move away at once as befits a lady.

“Has he asked her yet?”

The hissed question startled Audrey into spinning about, the embroidered hem of her dress twirling around her ankles. She glanced up to the curving staircase that led to the bedrooms on the next floor. Her mother leaned over the cherry-wood railing, blue eyes bright and questioning. Her white lace cap sat crooked as usual over her dark brown curls, and she looked as if she had thrown on a purple-toned Paisley shawl at random over her green-stripped muslin gown.

Face hot, Audrey stepped away from the drawing room and met her mother as the older woman finished limping down the stairs, one hand on the banister and the other clutching a cane with an ivory handle carved into the shape of a horse’s head.

Voice hushed, she said, “Really, Mama. We must not interrupt. And I wish you would allow Meg to aid you down the stairs in the mornings.”

Mrs. Colbert wrinkled her nose and waved her free hand before taking her daughter’s arm. “Meg fusses too much—more than you, even.” She glanced at the door to the drawing room. “Are you certain he intends to ask her today? Most gentlemen seem to have a habit of sucking back under the bit when it comes to getting over the gate of matrimony.”

Audrey had to smile. Hunting terms. Her mother’s lapse into old habits, learned from a husband who had never spoken of anything but horses, meant she must be as nervous about Lord Arncliffe as any of them.

And why not? A marquess in the family, after all. The Colberts—country squires all of them, including Chloe’s father—had never aspired so high. But for a younger son, Chloe’s father, who had wed well, marrying himself an heiress. And Chloe—beautiful, rich, orphaned Chloe—had captured Lord Arncliffe’s instant attention.

Audrey had seen it happen.

Her throat tightened at the memory of that night—and of how Arncliffe had never even notice her. But what gentleman had ever been able to look beyond Chloe’s blinding beauty?

Audrey wrinkled her nose. She sounded as if she begrudged Chloe her success. And she did not.

No, she was happy for her cousin. Delighted. Utterly. How could there be a more perfect match? Arncliffe would give Chloe sense and stability. She would give the rather serious marquess liveliness and no doubt children as golden as they were themselves. Everyone had remarked what a vision they made, with Arncliffe’s rugged masculine features, Chloe’s delicate feminine beauty, and both of them fair headed.

Yes, itwaswonderful. And did not Chloe, who had already had too much sadness in her life, what with her parents dying three years ago on one of their endless trips abroad, not deserve such a blessing?

But uncomfortable feelings still stirred inside her, like bees loose under her skin. Of course Chloe deserved this. She needed this. Marriage would keep her from becoming a vain creature too aware of her beauty, too flattered by her suitors, and too caught up in fashionable frivolity. Yes, it would. Particularly since Arncliffe was so obviously smitten with her. Chloe needed a loving husband. And did not all women dream of such a marriage to such a gentleman?

So why, Audrey wondered, was her stomach in knots this morning?

For fear Arncliffe would not ask Chloe to marry him? That must be it.

Forcing a smile, Audrey took her mother’s arm to lead her to the small salon opposite the drawing room. She spoke as much to reassure herself as anyone. “Lord Arncliffe would hardly have made the effort to see Great-uncle Ivor if he did not have intentions. I cannot recall the last time Uncle Ivor thought to send us a note about anything, and he did write us to expect Arncliffe’s call this morning.”

Mrs. Colbert nodded. “Yes. And I suppose Arncliffe does have a good stride on him, so we ought to rely on him to get over this smoothly. But...well, is this the right match for Chloe? She is only nineteen, after all. Arncliffe has a decade more experience of life.”

“Exactly what Chloe needs—someone past his wild days.”

For Chloe certainly is not.

Audrey pressed her lips tight. She must not be so ill-natured. Any girl with such beauty as Chloe was bound to be a bit spoilt. Her parents, before they had expired, had provided their only child with schools, gowns, toys, and everything else. Everything but their time, it seemed. Audrey frowned. She would love to have given Uncle James and Aunt Lavina a piece of her mind about such an upbringing for a child—only they were far from this world’s care now.

And Chloe had become her mother’s concern, for Great-uncle Ivor, while he never questioned any of the cost to launch Chloe into society, took little notice of anything outside his club and the whist table. That reminded her that she would have to get him to the wedding somehow to give the bride to Arncliffe. Perhaps the lure of whist at the reception? She would have to make certain to invite some equally avid players.

She started to weave plans. A late June wedding. That would leave time for the banns to be called. Enough of society would still be in London to make it quite the event. Visions began to spin: vivid orange peonies and whiteBlanc Double de Coubertroses with their heavenly scent, ethereal bride clothes in pale yellow silk. And Arncliffe, handsome in a black coat and satin white breeches, sunlight glinting in his wheat-golden hair and the faintest smile lifting his wide mouth as he turns to his bride and...

Her mother’s worried voice interrupted the fantasy, “What if Arncliffe thinks her too young?”

Audrey stared at her mother. “Why ever would he? He thinks her perfect.”

The words slipped out with a bite of jealousy that even Audrey could hear, and she wished them back at once. Her mother, however, only smiled and squeezed Audrey’s hand. “My love, you are worth a dozen Chloes—and the gentlemen of London are blind not to notice.”

Audrey’s lips twisted as her sense of the absurd came to her rescue. “Darling, of course they have noticed me. How could they not when I stand five foot ten in stocking feet, and have a figure that would suit a maypole?”

Mrs. Colbert bristled. “You are tall and elegant!”

“Tall, certainly. With hair, indifferent brown, two eyes, quite ordinary...”

“You have beautiful eyes! A true, deep brown. Your father always said you had eyes as beautiful as his mother’s—and she was an accredited beauty!”

“But she did not have this nose, which looked far better on Father than ever it became me.”

Allowing her daughter to seat her on a sofa near the unlit fireplace, Mrs. Colbert stared at her child. She eased her gouty foot onto a footstool that Audrey had pulled forward. “There is nothing at fault with the Colbert nose—it is a nose given down from the Romans who settled Britain. And you’ve the bone structure to carry it off—you shall be a handsome woman into your forties and beyond, just as your father was. So I will not have you belittle such gifts.”

Audrey sat down next to her mother, back straight, hands folded in her lap, eyes twinkling. “Very well. Then I shall say that I have much to look forward to, and no fear for the loss of my youthful vanity.”

Mrs. Colbert gave a small huff. “Vanity! I wish you had half of Chole’s for the exchange would improve you both.”

Instantly, she put her fingers over her mouth, her eyes widening. She pulled her hand away again. “Oh, I ought not to say that about our Chloe. Not when the poor child has been through so much. I don’t know what James was thinking to go to Switzerland, just to be swept up in an avalanche.”

“He cannot have planned the snow to fall on him, Mama.”

“James never planned anything in his life, least of all that. And now I am being horrid about my brother-in-law. It is just this waiting. I do hate waiting. Do you think you might step back into the hall and see if you cannot get some small idea of what is toward with Arncliffe and Chloe? They’ve been in there for over a quarter hour now—it never took your father that long to propose.”

Audrey thought of her blunt, horse-mad father, with his rough manners and his jovial good nature. She could easily imagine him blurting out such a delicate question without the least qualm, not a care about a rebuff—or that he might be dragging a more sensitive soul into an awkward situation.

“You won’t ever be pretty, but by gads, I love you the same!”

Jaw tightening, she pushed away the memory of his words to her—spoken so often, with such careless affection. Rising, she smoothed her skirts. At least he had loved her. Even if he had wanted a plump and pretty child—a child like Chloe. Audrey had never been that. But she had also never been so willful and difficult. Perhaps the world was better for that. One Chloe seemed quite sufficient at times.

She smiled at her mother. “I’ll just rearrange the roses again, shall I?”

“Oh, please do.”

With her conscience eased, Audrey stepped into the hall. She had no need to move a single rose, however, for as she stepped from the salon, the door to the drawing room opened and Lord Arncliffe stepped out.

Audrey drew a breath and held it.

Did he look a man in love—a man made happy? Her mouth dried. Had she meddled in things she ought to have left alone? Or had she at least been able to bring him the joy he courted?

For a moment, he seemed not to notice her, but stood in the hall, turned slightly to shut the door behind him, giving her an attractive view of wide shoulders and his strong profile.

Sunlight slanted down from the upper windows, catching edges of silver in his wheat-gold hair. He was not a tall man—she could look him in the eye if he turned—but he carried himself with the aristocratic grace that spoke of early lessons in deportment and dance. His straight nose and deep set eyes gave him an aloof air, but she had often seen warm humor light his eyes—deep green eyes, she knew, edged with flecks of brown. As he turned, she noticed a dazed look in those eyes, as if he could not quite understand how he came to be where he was.

Audrey clenched her hand. Chloe could not have been so foolish as to reject him could she? Not a marquess? Not Arncliffe? Nothim? Worry pushed her thoughts into words and she blurted out, “She cannot have turned you away?”

CHAPTER TWO 

Arncliffe stared at the elegant face and figure before him, his thoughts elsewhere so that he hardly recognizing the lady. However, the polite habits drilled into him since birth took over. He gave a short bow.

“Not in the least—Miss Chloe has done me the great honor of accepting my offer.”And I sound a pompous oaf putting it that way, he thought, hearing far too much of his stuffy father in the words.

Thrusting his hands behind his back, he clasped one in the other. He glanced at Miss Colbert again.

Audrey—yes, that was it. Chloe’s cousin. They had met numerous times, but he had never noticed until this moment—with her standing in a slant of sunlight—that she had lovely skin. Pale, translucent skin without any flaw. Very pale, just now, he realized. And large dark eyes. Those he had noticed before. And had admired. He had never thought her a pretty woman, but she carried herself with an attractive ease, and those eyes seemed to hint at warmth and humor and...

And what was he doing admiring one woman when he had proposed marriage to another?

The collar of his shirt tightened to the point of strangulation as his face warmed. He let go his hands to tug at his cravat, stopped the action, and glanced again at Miss Colbert. She stared back at him, looking as uncomfortable about this as he felt. Lord, she must be thinking her poor cousin had just committed herself to a dolt of a fellow. The other Miss Colbert—Chloe, that is—had certainly given him the impression he had gone about it all wrong.

“Do you not want to go down on one knee?” she had asked, just as he began to get the words out.

He had stopped his speech—the one he had so carefully rehearsed. The one in which he admitted his secret envy for the joy his brother had found with a love-match that seemed far more valuable than any title or trappings.

He had stopped and stared at her. “One knee?”

She had smiled, soft dimples appearing beside the cherry-red bow of her mouth, and for an instant he had not been able to think of anything else other than that mouth.

 “Well, it is not very romantic with you just sitting next to me, now is it?,” she said. “Of course, a garden would be a better setting.”

“Setting?” he repeated, his brow tightening.

“Far more romantic. With music in the background—that would be lovely. And a moon—moons are ever so romantic. And some divine intoxicating scent. I am not quite certain I like this rose water I bought—what do you think?”

She held up a slim, white wrist, waving it next to his face, the tapering fingers as delicate as fine porcelain. His mouth dried and he caught her hand. He just about went down on one knee for her, but it struck him how ridiculous a grown man would look in such a position. He also might knock one of the fragile side tables over with his boots, and how romantic would that be?

He stayed on the sofa and pulled her closer. “Chloe, since the day I first saw you, I was struck by your beauty.”

Smiling, she nodded. “Yes—most gentlemen are.”

Distracted again, he frowned. He realized that it must be that dry wit of hers—the one so apparent in her letters, and the one she concealed so well under the guise of blandness required by society in unmarried ladies.

“But it is not your beauty that caught my heart—it’s your goodness, the sweetness that shines from within.”

Chloe tilted her head, and her golden curls swayed to one side. “Really? You think me sweet? How charming.” She leaned closer, and her voice dropped to a husky tone. “Is this where you crush me to your manly bosom because you cannot control your passion for me?”

He pulled back. “My manly what?”

She frowned. “You do have a passion for me, do you not?”

He let go her hand and dragged his fingers through his hair. None of this was going as he had thought it would. “Are you mocking me?” he demanded.

“Am I what?”

“I want to marry you.”

Those cherry-pink lips pulled into a pout. “Yes, I know. They all do. And it seems I am not going to get a garden from you. Or moonlight.”

 “I didn’t know you wanted them until just now.”

“Well, you ought to have, my lord. Honestly, you gentlemen! You have no romance in you!”

“So, it’s not romantic to lay my heart at your feet?”

Her smile softened. “Well, I suppose that is a little romantic.”

Setting his jaw, he pulled out the ring he had bought for her—his mother had informed him years ago that she planned to be buried with the one his father had given her. He thrust the diamonds at her. “And choosing you a ring that’s no match for your beauty is not romantic?”

Chloe’s breath caught on a hitch. The trio of diamonds glinted, casting shimmering rainbows of colors into the room. “Oh...it’s beautiful. And it’s no match for me?”

Pleased he had at last done something right, he took her hand. Her fingers quivered as he slipped the ring on the third finger of her left hand. Ah, so she did feel something. His shoulders eased. This had been her way of teasing him—of puncturing the pretension given him by the weight of his titles and his wealth.

Relaxing now, he smiled at her. “You are such a torment.”

She glanced at him, eyes wide. A small furrow drew together dark golden eyebrows. “Am I?”

“Yes, you are, a fair torment. And I deserve it, for taking it for granted that you would accept me. I ought to have known better.”

The frown deepened. “Really? Why?”

“Because of who you are. Because...what, have you forgotten already that first note you sent me?”

Chloe smiled. “Oh, but I so love it when you tell me what you think of my letters.”

“You wrote that if we could see hearts instead of faces, we would judge this world differently.”

“That’s rather clever, isn’t it?”

“You’re clever. And when I read your note, that was the moment I started to fall in love with you.” His let his smile fade. “What’s in your heart, Chloe? Would you love me if I had no titles—no fortune? Nothing more to offer you than my honest love?”

She had been wiggling her fingers, watching the diamonds glint. Now she glanced at him. “But you do have all those things. You cannot help having them. And I think I shall very much like being Lady Arncliffe.” She giggled and lowered her chin to look at from under her lashes. “Well, are you not going to kiss me? With violent passion?”

He had kissed her. He had pulled her into his arms and kissed her. He’d done his best to be gentle, trying to express tender, sweet affection with the touch of his lips to hers.

Only somehow, when he pressed his lips to hers—why had it felt like kissing a statue?

Because she had stiffened? Because he had been a touch intimidated by her perfection—that perfect mouth, perfect nose, those perfect eye, and the perfect curves that previously his hands had ached to hold? He certainly had held himself back, despite her quips about violent passion. She was, after all, a delicate young lady who had been sheltered from life. He had no wish to frighten her. When he pulled away, she had stared at him, eyes wide and that perfect mouth pulling down at the corners.

He had not been able to bear the look in her eyes—the disappointment.

But it was only an awkward first kiss, he told himself. He had done as poorly with his first mistress, had he not? And he had promised himself to move slowly. To take his time with this. Real love deserved such consideration.

But the moment left him confused, and rather put out about the whole thing. Just as he had felt at fourteen when he accidentally knocked over his mother’s favorite Grecian statue, causing poor Athena to lose the only hand she had had left and getting him another of those agonizing sermons from his father on what he owned his name, his titles, and his position. As if any of that had to do with knocking over a statue.

Looking up at Miss Audrey Colbert, he realized he was still standing in the hall. He had been staring into space. He had better manners than that.

He dredged up a smile. “It’s a rather daunting thing to have just proposed and been accepted—and it has left me unaccountably dumbfounded. Do forgive me.”

She came forward, her hand extended. “Oh, please. There is nothing to forgive. And, do...well, please allow me to be the first to wish you happy.”

Smiling, he took her hand. Such a sensible woman. If not for her encouragement, he would not have hoped to win his Chloe. His Chloe. He could not stop his chest from puffing out. His titles and wealth had drawn other females, but such things ought to be of little importance to a woman of deep feelings and sensitivity. A woman such as Chloe. She had her own wealth, and beauty enough to lure a duke to her. But she had accepted him.

He glanced back at the drawing room, frowning, hearing again Chloe’s voice as had she rehearsed the title she would soon wear. That had been a bit odd for a woman who set so little value on such a thing.

A soft voice pulled him from his thoughts again. “No wonder you looked dazed.”

Arncliffe glanced at Miss Colbert and smiled. “Would you—I told Chloe I would see myself out, but would you walk me to the door? I have a need for your council, if you will be so kind as to give it.”

Swallowing hard, Audrey nodded and started down the stairs. Lord Arncliffe kept pace with her, a solid, unsettlingly male presence. She ought to have found an excuse as to why she could not help him—she really had no business acting as his confidant. Not with him now engaged to her cousin. But she had not been able to resist that pleading look in his eyes.

“Miss Colbert—oh, confound it, if we are to be cousins, can it not be something simpler?”

Audrey smothered a smile. “Of course, my lord. As you wish, my lord.”

He glanced at her, frowning. But his expression relaxed. “You are teasing me, I hope. I do get fed up with all the pomp and privilege, however.”

“Until you need to use it?”

He grinned. “Yes, until I need to use it. I am caught out as a hypocrite—if I wanted to be judged solely for myself, I ought to have styled myself Mr. Connor Derwent and had done with all the rest of it.”

“But then you would have become the odd lord who won’t call himself what he is. You would still have had a label around your neck, a far harder one for others to get around than merely being another marquess.”

“Another marquess—I like the sound of that. As if we were as common as daisies on the road edge.”

“You are, I assure you. Particularly this season. It is just that you are marriageable, and marriageable marquesses are in short supply at the moment. Especially ones with a fortune and who are thought handsome.”

His mouth twisted. “I would be thought handsome if I were eighty and had only one eye, so long as I also had my titles and the money to support them.”

“True enough. But after you settle with Chloe...”

“I shall be envied then for my wife.”

Audrey’s smile froze. She forced a light tone into her voice.“Yes. Yes, you shall be. And a fine wife she will be for you.”

Arncliffe stopped on the landing and turned to her. “Will she? And will I make a good enough husband for her? I am afraid I did all the wrong things—no bent knee, no moonlight, no music, and the wrong scent even.”

“Chloe said all that to you, my lord?”

“Please spare me from more titles and call me Connor?”

“Very well—though I would rather not be Cousin Audrey. That has rather an old, grim sound to it.”

 He took her hand. “What if I call you Audrey—simply Audrey.”

She tried to make a joke of it. “Better than simple Audrey, I suppose.”

“I fear I am the simple one. What is it that women think romantic, Audrey? Can you help me with that? What would Chloe think romantic? I failed her on the proposal and I would rather get the rest of it right.”

She parted her lips to tell him to forget such nonsense as moonlight and scents. What Chloe needed was guidance and a strong hand. But she glanced at him and hesitated, doubt washing over her like a cold rain. She had been so certain of herself—so certain that she was doing good. Had she?

“Do you love her?” she asked.

For a moment, he stared at the dark blue runner on the stairs. At last he looked up at her. The mixed green and brown in his eyes made her think of deep forest glens, like those isolated enchanted ones from childhood tales. The faintest brush of gold flakes warmed the centers. “With all my heart, I love her.”

Something twisted in her chest.

Looking down, she saw that he still held her fingers. Slowly, reluctantly, she pulled her hand away. She had to wet her lips before she could find her voice. “Then she is very lucky, and I can hardly advise you more than to continue as you are.”

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