After Ginny Blanchard’s abusive husband died, she looked forward to a more independent life where she could raise her young son as she pleased. But when Simon Webber is assigned as trustee to her estate and her son’s fortune, she feels she must come up with a plan to force him from her life.
But she doesn’t count on sensual Simon’s insistence that he not only take a role in her son’s life but in her own. But Ginny has dark and terrible secrets that she must hide. Even from the man she loves. And even if it puts her own life in terrible danger.
“If he comes here, I’ll run him out myself!”
“Calm down, Ginny.”
Virginia Blanchard turned on her heel to stare at her best friend. Harriet Percy smiled back with a serene expression. Ginny frowned. How could her friend not see the problem?
“Did you just tell me to calm down?” She motioned wildly to the letter Harriet held in her hand. “After this?”
Her friend nodded. “You have no idea what this-this-” She glanced back down at the missive. “Simon Webber is like. He may not be the ogre you believe he is.”
“He’s a Blanchard!” Ginny snapped as if that explained everything. In her mind it did.
Her friend rose to her feet and returned the letter with a wry smile. “Actually, he’s a Webber.”
Ginny paused to shake her head, but most of the heat was gone from her voice and from her emotions. The fear was taking over, and that was much worse. She was so tired of being afraid. In the last few months, she’d thought her fears were gone for good, but now they returned with vengeance.
“Simon Webber’s mother was raised a Blanchard,” she whispered. “Which makes him my husband’s cousin. If I’ve learned anything from the past four years in this family, it’s that all those people are fiends.”
Harriet’s face softened with pity and Ginny winced. She didn’t want that. Not even from her best friend.
“Jack is one of ‘those people.'”
Ginny sank into a chair by the fire. Was it too early for a drink? Rubbing a hand across her throbbing temple, she struggled for calm and control.
“My husband is dead. Henry won’t be raising Jack, I will. And I’d never raise him to behave like one of that family.” Ginny tossed the envelope on the table with a disgusted sigh. “Or a Webber.”
Harriet sat in the chair next to hers to place a warm hand on her own. “Don’t assume the worst.”
“I have no choice, don’t you see? This man has been named trustee of Jack’s inheritance. He’ll have the power on a whim and at will to give or take my son’s future until he comes of age and is given the title.” She took in a shallow breath and somehow managed to keep weak, useless tears from filling her eyes. “After Henry’s death, I swore no one would ever have the authority to do that again.” She swallowed and found a bit of strength somewhere inside of her. “Unless I get rid of this man, I’ll have failed my child one more time.”
Harriet shook her blonde head. “Don’t talk like that! No one could do more for a child than you have done for Jack.”
Ginny pursed her lips as she dismissed all she’d gone through in the past. She had more pressing problems in the present. “I can only hope all I’ve done won’t be for nothing.” She ran a hand over her eyes. “It doesn’t bode well, though.”
She motioned to the dreaded message with one slender finger. “First, the man didn’t even bother to write himself. He let Henry’s loathsome solicitor do the deed. Mr. Randall probably took enormous pleasure in removing my purse.” She grimaced as she thought of thin weasel of a lawyer. “And the letter clearly states that this Webber isn’t only the trustee of the estate until Jack comes of age, but he’s to have some part in overseeing my son’s upbringing, as well.”
She jumped back up to pace the room. “Oh, this is so frustrating. At least when Henry was alive, I knew what I was dealing with.”
“A bastard,” Harriet interjected with heat.
Ginny smiled at her friend’s loyalty. “But this Webber could be far worse. He’s an unknown enemy.”
“Or so you believe.”
Ginny couldn’t fathom her friend’s naivety. Of course, Harriet had never had to reckon with a husband or in-laws like hers. No, Harriet’s late husband had been the love of her life.
“Knowing that family as I do, I feel I must assume the worst. And so I’ll have to do my best to get rid of this man.” Ginny glanced up at her best friend. “Will you help me force his retreat to London?”
With a nod, Harriet brushed her hand again. “You know I’d do anything for you. I only wish I could give you back some of the happiness you deserve.”
Ginny dipped her head to shield Harriet from seeing the effect of her words. Happiness was a luxury she could ill afford. “Getting rid of this man will be the closest I can come to happiness.”
Her friend’s grip on her hand tightened. “Well, perhaps once you’ve done that, we can concentrate on finding you a new love. A new husband, even. Or at least someone to take away the loneliness that has haunted you for so long.”
With her friend’s words, every nerve in Ginny’s body crackled. Just the thought of another husband made her sick with anxiety. Another man’s hands on her, not with tenderness, but violence. The clumsy taking in the bedroom. The tears.
No. Those were things she’d left behind when Henry had mercifully departed the earth. She never intended to revisit them again.
“Let’s just concentrate on one thing at a time, shall we?” she asked with a shiver. “And right now all my attention has to be on Simon Webber. If he thinks he can waltz in here and take what rightfully belongs to my son, he’s in for a nasty surprise.”
Simon strummed his fingers along the tabletop as he glanced at his pocket watch for the third time. “Who the hell does the woman think she is?”
He rose to his feet and strode over to the window. Rain pelted the glass and the damp air chilled the room. With a frown, Simon looked at the fire. Only a few embers remained and barely heated the room at all, but there was no kindling in the wood box to stoke the flames.
With a purse of his lips, he returned to his seat to wait. It was clear Virginia Blanchard didn’t want him in her home. Between the chilly welcome by the house staff, to this…he checked his watch again…hour-long wait in the drafty sitting room, every action seemed designed to make him want to leave. But why? He was here to help the woman, not harm her.
Could his aunt’s accusations have been correct? Normally he didn’t put much stock in what Cordelia or her malicious daughters said, but perhaps Lady Westdale really was crazy. If that was true, he was going to have to remain at Westdale to ascertain if she was also unfit to raise James Blanchard. The heir to the title couldn’t be brought up in an unhealthy environment.
“An hour and a bloody quarter!” Simon grunted as he strode over to the door and yanked it open. A startled footman stood watch outside.
He used the no-nonsense tone he generally reserved for lazy galley hands. “Tell Lady Westdale that if she cannot see me now, I shall retire to Lord Westdale’s office and begin my study of the books. Now point me in the direction of his private rooms.”
“But Mr. Webber, I was told-”
“Well, I just told you differently.” Simon glared at the boy with what he knew was a hard, undeniable look. He hated to intimidate, but he’d do it if his hand were forced. As it was being forced at present. “Where is my cousin’s office?”
The boy paled as he motioned down the hallway. “Down the hall, two doors on your left, sir.”
As Simon took the few long steps to his cousin’s business quarters, he stifled a smile. If that didn’t rouse the reluctant Countess of Westdale, he didn’t know what would. He wasn’t a man accustomed to waiting. Especially when he didn’t want to be in York in the first place. His ship waited. Port waited. His life waited.
And he was here. Doing his family duty.
With a wry smile, he sat down at his cousin’s desk and smoothed his hands over the oak surface. Nothing but the best for Cousin Henry. Always. Some things never changed.
Before he could contemplate his family any further, the study door flew open. Simon looked up to lock gazes with one of the most beautiful women he’d ever seen. Her blue eyes flashed fire and her cheeks were flushed with anger.
She couldn’t be anyone else but Henry’s wife. Nothing but the best.
“Mr. Webber, is it?”
Simon was surprised by the icy disdain in her voice as she took a purposeful step into the room and shoved a few wayward auburn curls behind her ears.
Simon managed to snap out of his haze enough to remember his manners. He stood up with a curt nod. “Yes, and I must assume you are the Countess. I’m here to-”
She held up her hand for silence like he was some footman at her command. “I am well aware of exactly why you’re here. But that gives you no right to barge into private, family quarters and rifle through my late husband’s papers.”
Simon arched an eyebrow. He was in no mood for her disrespect, not after the miserable, wet ride from London in the confined carriage and then the endless moments he’d been banished to the sitting room. His patience was far past its end.
He did his best to keep his voice calm, but instead it came out as nearly a growl. “I beg your pardon, my lady, but if you’ll recall, I have been waiting for you for well over an hour. Perhaps you were raised to believe that an untitled person’s time isn’t as valuable as your own, but I assure you mine is. I have responsibilities here and I intend to address them, with or without your assistance.”
Virginia Blanchard’s eyes widened at his retort, then her face twisted into the brittle mask of a smile as she collected herself. “Ah, yes. Your duties.”
Where was this venom coming from? And how could it exist in the guise of such loveliness? He’d come to Westdale with an open mind, ready to do his duty and assist in any way he could. He’d expected a brokenhearted widow to greet him. Instead he found this…this…
With a frown, he decided to switch tactics. Obviously the woman felt threatened. Perhaps a gentler approach would sooth her.
He motioned to one of the armchairs in front of the desk. “Why don’t you sit down, Lady Westdale? I’m very tired from my travels and I believe I may have spoken too harshly. Perhaps we can begin this conversation again.”
To his surprise, Virginia didn’t react with pleasure to his attempt at charm. In fact, her face paled further and her hands began to shake with emotion.
“This is my home, Mr. Webber. You’d do well to remember that before you go offering me a seat as if I’m some visitor.”
He shut his eyes and counted to ten in his head. When he felt no better, he tried twenty. She seemed determined to quarrel with him, to read malice into his every action.
“I didn’t mean-” he began with an exasperated sigh.
“But you did.”
She frowned at him as she folded her arms. Simon did the same and the two stared at each other. How long would this little showdown last? Judging from the steel in her eyes, quite a while. His aunt’s warning that Virginia wasn’t well flickered into his mind again.
He covertly shifted his gaze from her auburn-highlighted hair over her softly rounded breasts, slender hips and the shapely legs he’d wager hid under her blue skirts. Virginia looked perfectly well to him.
He shook the thought from his head. Months at sea had obviously made him weak if he’d experience such a strong pang of desire for a lady who had just set him down with wild accusations. Since she didn’t seem capable, he had to be the calm one in the situation.
Start over. Just start over.
Clenching his teeth, Simon held out his hand to her. “Lady Westdale, I’m your late husband’s cousin, Simon Webber.”
She eyed his hand with distrust for a moment as if sizing him up, then cautiously extended her own. He took it for a brief squeeze then immediately released her hand. Her face relaxed a fraction and her stance became less like a fighter.
“I assure you I’m not here to do you any harm,” he continued. “In fact, I’m hoping my presence here will be of some help you through what must be a difficult time. And James, too.”
The wall flew in front of her narrowed eyes again. Apparently he’d made another blunder.
“We call him Jack.”
“Jack,” he corrected with a placating smile. “I’m very much looking forward to meeting Jack.”
“I’m sure you are.” She took a seat but continued to stare at him with obvious contempt. “Now I wonder if you could stop playing your little games for a moment and tell me what you really hope to accomplish while you’re here?”
Simon’s mouth fell open and it took a moment to compose himself enough to speak. “I beg your pardon?”
“You heard me quite well. Why are you here?”
He blinked. Twice. “Didn’t you receive the letter from your husband’s solicitor?”
She looked at him like he was some kind of idiot. “Yes. But I think we both know there’s more behind your arrival than just Henry’s will. Did his mother send you to check up on me? Or perhaps you’re hoping Jack’s inheritance will pad your own purse for the next twenty years?”
At that, Simon forgot about control. The idea that she would accuse him of stealing from a child threw his mind into a fury. He slammed his palm down on the desk, and she jumped at the harsh sound.
“Apparently you’ve done nothing to find out who I am, have you, my lady?” he asked with lethal calm as he circled around the desk closer to her.
Her shoulders stiffened, but she didn’t rise from her seat. “I don’t need to research you or your past to know that any man would be thrilled by the kind of money you now have access to,” she said, but her eyes dropped from his, as if the intensity of their stare frightened her.
He took the chair beside her and leaned closer. He was greeted by a soft whiff of flowers that radiated from her flushed skin. Despite his frustration, the feminine scent set his body on edge and cooled his anger, while it heated his blood in other ways.
“Ah, but in this case, Lady Westdale, you do. You have no idea what I do, do you? Who I am?”
Her nostrils flared and from the closer angle, Simon was surprised to see more fear than anger in her dark blue eyes. Between that and the intoxicating lilac scent of her skin, he was intrigued enough to tamp down his remaining fury.
“No.” she admitted through clenched teeth.
“Then allow me to fill you in on the details. I am involved in shipping, my lady. I have been for years. What I’ve earned from my own sweat and labor could buy what James has inherited three times over.”
He couldn’t hold back a smug smile of pride as her eyes widened, first with doubt and then with surprise.
Her husky voice was barely a whisper and the timber ignited sparks of awareness throughout his body. What in the world was wrong with him? He’d met the woman not fifteen minutes before!
“Perhaps four.” He cleared his throat as he forced his focus back to business. “So you don’t have to fear my sweeping in to take your son’s fortune. I have no need to do so.”
Now it was her turn to lean in closer. She searched his face, taking in every angle and curve. What she was looking for, he didn’t know, but he would have been lying if he’d said he didn’t enjoy the sweep of her gaze.
“I don’t understand.” Her voice was soft, as if she meant to speak her words only to herself. “If you aren’t here for Jack’s money, then why are you?”
His smile fell. That explanation would have taken far too long, and he doubted a woman like Virginia Blanchard would understand. Besides, he wasn’t sure he wanted to give her such a glimpse into his personal life.
Finally, he took the easy explanation. “Family duty, my lady. It’s all about family duty.”
There was a long pause. Without warning, the moment of openness she’d displayed vanished. “Ah, yes, the Blanchards. I’d almost forgotten who your family was.” She shook her head and he had the sneaking suspicion she wasn’t really directing that comment to him either.
“And your family,” he offered.
Her eyes lifted to his and there was no mistaking the fire of hatred that sparked within them. “What?”
“They’re your family, too. By law.”
“They are not my family,” she said with venom. Then the anger faded, though what replaced it seemed false. For the first time since she’d stormed into the office, Virginia smiled. “But now we must discuss where you’ll be staying during the short time you’ll be here to look over Henry’s books.”
Simon nodded. There was no use telling her that he had no idea how long or short his visit would be. Judging from her manner, his stay might involve more than a cursory look over the finances of the estate. It might include investigating her fitness. An exercise that suddenly didn’t seem so very unpleasant.
“Of course you cannot stay here in my home. That wouldn’t be proper.” Her smile fell. “So I’ve arranged for you to stay in the little cottage on our property. It isn’t large, but it will house you and your staff.”
Simon wrinkled his brow. This sudden sweetness and accommodating manner was as confusing as her earlier rage. But he had to admit, he was drawn to the act all the same. Even a false smile increased her beauty tenfold. He could only imagine what a genuine one would do.
“Of course I wouldn’t want to be a burden. And staying on the estate makes sense. The sooner I can be done with my business, the sooner I can leave you to your normal life. I appreciate your offer.”
She turned away, but not before Simon saw her smile had turned to a smirk. What in the world was he getting himself into?
“Very good. I assume you can take care of yourself for the most part. Since the household is still in mourning,” she paused with a grimace. “We don’t have formal suppers every night. I’ll have the cook bring down food for you and your men. How many are there?”
Simon glanced at her gown. The pale, spring blue was anything but mourning attire and he hadn’t missed how she’d accentuated the household was in mourning, but had said nothing about herself. He wondered why. Only a few short months had passed since Henry’s accident.
“I’m sorry.” He shook his head. Maintaining focus around this woman was a difficult order. “There will only be two of us. Just me and my valet.”
Her brow wrinkled and her eyes moved over him again. “I would have thought you’d need an army of men…” With a gasp, she shut her mouth and turned away. “If you need anything, please bring it up with my butler. Ingram will be happy to assist you. Good day.”
With that, she gathered up her skirt and all but fled the room. Simon watched her go with a shake of his head. In the span of twenty minutes Virginia Blanchard had confused, aroused, and infuriated him. He found himself wondering when they would meet again, and if he would ever find out who the real woman behind the mask was.