Lust and a virtuous woman -- only a fool combined the two.
Tristan Wemyss, fourth Earl of Trentham, reflected that he'd rarely been called a fool, yet here he stood, gazing out of a window at an undoubtedly virtuous lady and indulging in all manner of lustful thoughts.
Understandable, perhaps; the lady was tall, dark-haired, and possessed a willowy, subtly curvaceous figure displayed to advantage as, strolling the back garden of the neighboring house, she paused here and there, bending to examine some foliage or flower in the lush and strangely riotous garden beds.
It was February, the weather as bleak and chill as in that month it was wont to be, yet the garden next door displayed abundant growth, thick leaves in dark greens and bronzes from unusual plants that seemed to thrive despite the frosts. Admittedly, there were trees and shrubs leafless and lifelorn scattered throughout the deep beds, yet the garden exuded an air of winter life quite absent from most London gardens in that season.
Not that he possessed any interest in horticulture; it was the lady who held his interest, with her gliding, graceful walk, with the tilt of her head as she examined a bloom. Her hair, the color of rich mahogany, was coiled in a coronet about her head; he couldn't from this distance divine her expression, yet her face was a pale oval, features delicate and pure.
A wolfhound, shaggy and brindle-coated, snuffled idly at her heels; it usually accompanied her whenever she wandered outside.
His instincts, well honed and reliable, informed him that today the lady's attention was perfunctory, in abeyance, that she was killing time while she waited for something. Or someone.
Tristan turned. He was standing in the bay window of the library on the first floor in the rear corner of the terrace house at Number 12 Montrose Place. He and his six coconspirators, the members of the Bastion Club, had bought the house three weeks ago; they were in the process of equipping it to serve as their private stronghold, their last bastion against the matchmakers of the ton. Situated in this quiet area of Belgravia mere blocks from the southeast corner of the park, beyond which lay Mayfair, where they all possessed houses, the house was perfect for their needs.
The library window overlooked the back garden, and also the back garden of the larger house next door, Number 14, in which the lady lived.
Billings, the carpenter in charge of the renovations, stood in the doorway studying a battered list.
"I think as we've about done all the new work, 'cepting for this set of cupboards in the office." Billings looked up. "If you could take a look and see if we've got the idea right, we'll get it done, then we'll start the painting, polishing, and cleaning up, so's your people can settle in."
"Very good." Tristan stirred. "I'll come now." He cast a last glance at the garden next door, and saw a tow-headed boy racing across the lawn toward the lady. Saw her turn, see, wait expectantly ... clearly the news she'd been anticipating.
Quite why he found her fascinating he had no idea; he preferred blonds of more buxom charms and despite his desperate need of a wife, the lady was too old to be still on the marriage mart; she would certainly already be wed.
He drew his gaze from her. "How long do you think it will be before the house is habitable?"
"Fewmore days, p'raps a week. Belowstairs is close to done."
Waving Billings ahead, Tristan followed him out of the door.
"Miss, miss! The gentl'man's here!"
"At last! Leonora Carling drew in a breath. She straightened, spine stiffening in anticipation, then unbent to smile at the bootboy. "Thank you, Toby. Is it the same gentleman as before?"
Toby nodded. "The one as Quiggs said is one of the owners."
Quiggs was a journeyman-carpenter working on the house next door; Toby, always curious, had befriended him. Through that route Leonora had learned enough of the gentlemen-owners' plans for next door to decide she needed to learn more. A lot more.
Toby, tousle-haired, bright color in his cheeks where the wind had nipped, jigged from foot to foot. "You'll need to look sharpish if'n you want to catch 'im though -- Quiggs said as Billings was having a last word, and then the gentl'man'd likely leave."
"Thank you." Leonora patted Toby's shoulder, drawing him with her as she walked quickly toward the back door. Henrietta, her wolfhound, loped at their heels. "I'll go around right now. You've been most helpful -- let's see if we can persuade Cook that you deserve a jam tart."
""Cor!" Toby's eyes grew round; Cook's jam tarts were legendary.
Harriet, Leonora's maid, who'd been with the household for many years, a comfortable but shrewd female with a mass of curling red hair, was waiting in the hall just inside the back door. Leonora sent Toby to request his reward; Harriet waited only until the boy was out of earshot before demanding, "You're not going to do anything rash, are you?"
"Of course not." Leonora glanced down at her gown; she tweaked the bodice. "But I mustlearn whether the gentlemen next door were those who previously wanted this house."
"And if they are?"
"If they are, then either they were behind the incidents, in which case the incidents will cease, or alternatively they know nothing of our attempted burglaries, or the other happenings, in which case ... "She frowned, then pushed past Harriet. "I must go. Toby said the man would be leaving soon."
Ignoring Harriet's worried look, Leonora hurried through the kitchen ...