How to Woo a Widow
He's got a crush
Anthony Ogilvy, Earl of Leighton fell in love with his best friend's elder sister years ago--but she'd only had eyes for the dashing cavalry officer she'd later eloped with. Now, years later, and facing his mother's insistence that it's past time he married, Tony is wandering the notorious dark walk at Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens when he stumbles upon none other than the now widowed Mrs. Portia Daventry, looking more delectable than ever and with a speculative gleam in her eyes. Can he convince the reluctant widow that he's no longer the callow youth she remembers but a hardened former soldier with a need for her gentle touch? And if he can manage to woo her, will she promise him forever now that she's just regained her precious freedom?
Does she feel the same?
Portia Bascombe Daventry had always known Tony Ogilvy had a crush on her. But it had been impossible to see him as anything more than a boy like her darling brother. And she'd been young and foolish herself, giving her heart and hand instead to a man who'd broken faith with her at every turn. Now, however, the Earl of Leighton is all grown up with a man's wants and desires. And what he wants is her. Portia is tempted--how could she not be when the handsome young earl claims to want nothing but her--but she's been married to a soldier once already, and look how that had turned out. It will take a lot of wooing on Tony's part to convince her to love again, but when danger appears on the horizon, will it be too late for her to give him her heart?
Anthony Ogilvy, the Earl of Leighton, strode blindly down the dark walk, neither knowing nor caring where he was bound so long as it took him from the teeming crowd. It had been a mistake to venture out to Vauxhall on tonight of all nights. The organizers had oversold the tickets to the celebration of the Allied victory at Vittoria and as result the grounds of the pleasure garden were filled to bursting with revelers.
Ever since his return from the Peninsula, crowds unnerved him. Though objectively he knew there was nothing to fear, his reactions were nigh impossible to control. His heart raced, his senses went on alert—it was as if he were in the midst of a great battle instead of a busy London street, or in this case wandering the fairy-lit splendor of the capitol’s premiere pleasure gardens.
He had known tonight would be a trial, of course. Indeed, most events of the ton had proven to be more unsettling than entertaining. A hostess liked nothing better than to boast to all her friends that her rout had been a terrible crush. For, Leighton, however, it was damned nuisance.
As he made his way farther into the winding network of paths, the crowds began to thin, and his breathing slowed. With the exception of an occasional couple partaking of the privacy afforded them by the shadowed recesses, at this point people were scarce and Anthony was pleased at the blessed solitude.
He had left his mother and two sisters in the capable hands of his brother-in-law, who had been more than happy for Leighton to take himself off.
“I hate to bring it up, old man,” the portly Baron Fullerton had begun earlier that evening, not hating to bring it up at all, “but since your return from the war you’ve been a dashed uncomfortable fellow to be around. Always frowning. Not a word to say to anyone. My brother Harold was invalided out like you were but he’s always got a jest at the ready.”
His brother Harold had also been invalided out the day after his arrival in Portugal by a stray shot to the buttocks from a green soldier cleaning his weapon. He had seen nothing approaching the horrors Anthony had witnessed as an officer in the Allied fight against Napoleon. But, knowing the futility of pointing out the differences between Harold’s service and his own, he controlled his temper and changed the subject.
“Perhaps if I accompany you and the ladies to Vauxhall this evening,” he told Fullerton, “it might placate Katherine somewhat.” It was his elder sister, after all who had been the one to suggest Fullerton broach the subject. Fullerton himself could barely string two thoughts together to form an idea, much less did he have the bollocks to come up with the notion of confronting his brother in law about his dark moods. No, Anthony was convinced that Katherine was the one pulling Fullerton’s strings. And despite his annoyance at having such a bacon-brain call him to account he did appreciate their concern.
Aside from the slight limp he’d taken as a souvenir from a Frenchman’s bayonet at Salamanca, physically he appeared unchanged. His dark hair still curled slightly if he did not keep it trimmed ruthlessly short a la Brutus. His face might sport more lines, but his eyes were still the clear green they had always been. Even the single dimple still dented his left cheek when he smiled, though admittedly that was a rare sight indeed these days. On the outside he was much the same he had always been. It was his soul that had changed.
“Very well,” Fullerton nodded. “Mind you, you’ll be expected to do the pretty, Leighton. None of that skulking about like Hamlet’s ghost you normally do. Besides, it’s high time you started thinking about finding your own bride to warm your bed. Marriage has much to recommend it.”
Blocking out the vision of his sister and her husband in the marriage bed, Anthony pulled a face. “Fullerton, you sound suspiciously like my sister. Was it she who put you up to this?”
“Not at all! I am merely thinking of the good of this family, something that you have been too little inclined to consider since your return from playing at war.”
Before Leighton could argue, Fullerton continued, “Now, I know being wounded has perhaps dented your confidence a bit. But you was always in the petticoat line. Indeed that crumpet you kept in Half Moon Street before you went haring off to Portugal was a sweet piece of…”
“Unless you care to feel the sensation of my fist against your nose, Fullerton,” Anthony’s tone was pleasant but deadly serious, “I would suggest you stop talking now.”
Fullerton blanched, but nodded. “Quite so, quite so.” He cleared his throat before continuing. “What I meant to say, dear boy, was that it might do you a bit of good to find your bride. Set up your nursery. Perhaps Katherine was the one who suggested I mention it to you, but I think it’s a fine idea myself. All you need is to make yourself agreeable this evening and you’ll have the ladies fawning all over you. So, come along with us tonight and give it a go.”
Anthony had agreed and swiftly took his leave lest Fullerton decide to suggest what attire might be appropriate for the evening. How Katherine could stand to live with the fellow was beyond his comprehension. And yet, she had always been a bit of a flibbertigibbet herself so perhaps they had quite a lot in common.
But as soon as they arrived Anthony knew that blithely chatting with the other guests in their party would be impossible. He might wear the same evening rig as the other gentlemen: dark blue cutaway coat with a snowy white cravat and buff breeches. He might carry the same fashionable accoutrements as the other gentlemen: a fine walking stick in his hand and a lacquered snuffbox in his pocket. But inside, he was not like the other gentlemen. Not at all.
No, he was nothing like these fribbles gathered here tonight to celebrate a victory, the sacrifices and losses of which they could have no conception. Indeed, he wondered if they could even tell Vittoria from Vincennes on a map. He doubted it.
War, and all its horrors had changed him. But if he were truly honest with himself, he would admit that the actual transformation had not begun when he set foot on the Peninsula. His world had shifted before then.
On the day he’d killed his best friend, James Bascombe.
As more and more people wended their way into the already crowded gardens, he sat within his family’s box and listened without hearing as his mother and sisters chattered on about the beauty of the lights and the tenderness of the ham. Smiled politely at Lady Dalrymple on his left, who kept up enough conversation for the both of them and wondered with a growing sense of alarm when he might abandon his party and stalk away into the blessed darkness of the walks beyond.
At last, when he could endure it no more, he had made his apologies in the middle of Lady Dalrymple’s monologue, nodded politely to everyone at his table, ignored his mother and sisters’ faint protests and fled.
Now, having reached a deserted alcove amongst the trees, he allowed himself to stop, dropping in relief to the bench inside. He allowed his public mask to slip, leaned over with his forearms on his knees and concentrated on his own breathing. Slowly, slowly, his heartbeat calmed, his tension faded and the panic eased away.
“Does it happen very often?” a feminine voice murmured from behind him. “It plagued my husband like the very de…deuce when he returned from Talavera. He could not bear a night at the theatre. After a few weeks in town we retired to the country where he might be spared the noise and the unwashed masses. Of course, there were other ghosts to plague him in the country. There always are with war, one finds.”
He had raised his head at her first words, and now struggled to make her out in the dim light of the shadowy alcove. There was something strangely familiar about her voice. It tickled in the back of his mind for a moment, disrupting the panic that had been holding reign there. She was a tiny thing; he could see that well enough. Barely above five feet he should think, though from his sitting position it was difficult to say. Then realizing he was still seated in the presence of a lady, he stood.
“Oh, do not get up,” she continued, moving closer, waving him back to his seat as she lowered herself to the bench beside him. Her gown, he noted, was several years out of fashion, though it fit her lush curves quite nicely. Her dark tresses had been gathered up in the back, in a lovely cascade of curls. He could not see her eyes, but he knew instinctively that they were smiling.
“I have always thought it a silly custom for gentlemen to be forced to their feet whenever a lady drew near. It can hardly be good for them to spring up and down like a grasshopper all day long.”
Surprised by her forwardness, Tony tried not to notice the warmth of her arm against his, the place where their thighs touched.
“Perhaps, ma’am, you would prefer that gentlemen lounged about like wastrels and refused to acknowledge your presence at all.” He sounded priggish, even to his own mind, though he made no effort to take back the words.
Instead of being affronted, however, the lady merely laughed. It was a deep, sensual sound. One that Anthony felt tickle down his spine even as he concentrated on suppressing his reaction.
“You always were a stickler, were you not, Tony?”
He stared at her in amazement, trying to make out her features in the darkness. “Do I know you, madam?”
She chuckled again. “I suppose I have grown a bit since last we met. Though really, Tony, it is too tiresome of you to mention it.
Especially since I outnumber you in years a bit. It is never the thing to force a lady to admit her true age.”
Good lord, he thought. It cannot be!
Her voice took him back thirteen years, to that long ago summer when he’d first met her. He’d spent the summer as a guest of her younger brother, James, at the Bascombe’s country estate, where Anthony had developed a schoolboy crush that had been as exhilarating as it was hopeless.
“How does Captain Daventry?” he asked, though he didn’t really care to hear the answer.
Knowing the blame for both James’ death and Portia’s grief rested on his shoulders had been more than Tony could bear. He had thought perhaps he could do something to ease the Bascombe family’s suffering, to atone for his part in the tragedy. But his own injury in the crash had kept him in London and had left the door open for Daventry. Shortly after learning of Portia’s betrothal to the dashing officer, Tony had bought his own commission and left for the Peninsula.
“He died last year,” Portia said quietly, then quickly pressed on. “He was shot through the heart by a Portuguese farmer who found him in bed with his lady wife. William was never one to think too carefully about the consequences of his actions, so I suppose it was bound to happen sooner or later.” Her tone was matter of fact, as if she were speaking of what color ladies favored for hat trimmings this season.
Tony uttered a choice imprecation.
“Quite,” she agreed. “Though technically he was quite legitimate. He had his father’s nose to an inch.”
Tony felt his lips twitch. Portia had ever been one to make light of a dark situation.
It must have been awful for her, he thought. Daventry had never been on his list of favorite people even before he’d bedazzled Portia. To the ladies he was everything charming. In the company of men, however, William Daventry let his mask slip. Anthony had tried to warn Portia but to no avail. That day beside the lake she had called him a boy and it had wounded his heart just as brutally as the Frenchman’s spear had wounded his thigh.
Aloud, now, he said, “I am sorry for your loss.”
This provoked another laugh. “Please, Tony, do not try to cozen me. I know full well that you are glad the devil is gone. Indeed,
though I am indelicate to suggest it, I am too. William was a dreadful husband.” Her voice broke as she continued. “I know you tried to warn me all those years ago. And I was too pig headed to listen. If you must know my foolish head was turned by the sight of the bounder in his scarlet regimentals. It is lowering to admit it, but there it is.”
“He was handsome, I suppose,” Tony admitted with a frown. “It is grossly unfair. The good-looking ones are forever beguiling the cleverest ladies.”
“Which you should know from personal experience,” she quipped, nudging his shoulder with her own. “You have grown up splendidly, you know. I am not sure how I recognized you with those sensible shirt points. Are they not supposed to restrict all movement of your neck?”
Remembering how proud he’d been of the ridiculously high collars he’d worn in his youth, Tony threw back his head and laughed. “They were abominable, were they not?”
“There.” Portia had turned to look fully at him. “I had thought perhaps your smile had been wounded in the war as well. It was merely hiding, I think.”
“Which is precisely what you must be doing here, in the shadows of Vauxhall’s dark walk.”
“How do you know I am not keeping an assignation?” Her voice was low, sending a frisson of lust down his spine even as he felt a jolt of anger at the thought of her with another man.
“Have I kept you from meeting some secret lover?” Tony kept his tone cool, though he waited with his heart in his throat for the answer. If she were trysting with someone else he would have to leave her to it. No matter how possessive he felt about her. All these years apart and it had only taken a few minutes to fall back into his old patterns.
Instead of answering, however, Portia merely smiled. “If I were you’d surely have frightened him off by now. How fierce you look, Tony. If I didn’t know better I’d think you still wanted me for yourself.”