Darcy Burke

Excerpt: The Runaway Viscount

Book 3: Matchmaking Chronicles

Chapter One

Steeton, Yorkshire, January 1802

The innkeeper’s wife ushered Juliana Sheldon into the Pack Horse. “Come in and get warm, dear. You arrived just in time. I’ve one last room.” She smiled brightly, her cheeks rosy and her blue eyes sparkling with cheer.

Juliana exhaled in relief. This was the third inn she’d tried in the past hour as the snow had coated the ground in ever-increasing thickness. Turning her head, she nodded toward her coachman, who hurried to take the coach and horses to the stable.

“Thank you so much,” Juliana said as she pushed the hood of her cloak back, scattering wet droplets from the snow that had gathered on the wool. There were several tables in the common room with guests filling many of the chairs. A crackling fire burned within the large hearth at the back of the room.

“I’m pleased you found us. I’m Mrs. Lilley. It’s chaotic at the moment, as I’m helping to prepare dinner.” She brushed her hand against her apron and slid an errant brown strand of hair beneath her mobcap. “Your room is upstairs on the right at the end of the corridor. You’re welcome to go up and remove your cloak and warm yourself. Dinner will be ready shortly.”

“I’ll do that, thank you, Mrs. Lilley.” Juliana went to the stairs in the corner and climbed to the first floor, weary after her long day of travel in the snowstorm. She should have arrived home in Skipton by now, but the turnpike had become impassable. She was glad they’d found lodging at last.

She ought to have listened to her mother, who’d suggested she stay another day or two since it looked as if it might snow. However, after more than a fortnight visiting her parents, Juliana was eager to return to her small cottage at Foxland, the estate where she’d lived with her husband. When he’d died three years ago, his younger brother had inherited the estate, but her husband’s will had provided her with a settlement and a place for her to call home.

Though the corridor was dim, Juliana found the door to her chamber and pushed inside. To her delight, a fire crackled in the hearth. The fireplace, like the rest of the room, was small, but more than adequate. Warming herself, she took in the bed and the small table with two spindly chairs. A worn, squashy, cushioned bench sat near the fire. Juliana went to hang her damp cloak on a hook near the door, then divested herself of her gloves and bonnet. She then scooted the bench closer to the hearth so she could sit and restore herself before going down for dinner.

“Is someone there?”

A masculine voice from the doorway drew Juliana to turn her head. A tall, athletic gentleman stood at the threshold. The door was half-open.

“Did I leave the door like that?” she asked, thinking she’d closed it and not at all certain what to make of this stranger barging in. Granted, he was a very well-dressed and tidy stranger, but he was still imposing on her space.

“Not quite this open, but it wasn’t closed,” he said. “I just thought I’d be friendly.”

“It seems you’re being intrusive. Shall I inform my husband of your presumption?”

“Er, no. I didn’t mean to intrude. As I said, I was being friendly. Where is your husband? I should like to apologize.”

She narrowed her eyes at him. “You should apologize to me.”

“You’re correct. My deepest apologies.”

Juliana wondered if she was being uncharitable. She was exhausted and hungry, and just starting to feel warmth in her extremities. “It’s all right. I’m irritable after the long day of travel, and this is the third inn I tried before finding a room.”

“That’s awful. I’m sorry to hear of your troubles.” He smiled, his gaze darting about the room. “I’ll leave you to it, then.” He started to turn and to pull the door shut.

“Wait. I don’t have a husband. I didn’t mean to snap at you.” Heat flushed her neck. “I’m not usually like that.”

“It’s understandable when you’re tired and cold. And hungry perhaps?”

“Famished.”

“If you’re alone, I should be delighted to escort you downstairs.”

Juliana stood and brushed her hands down her skirts. Her thick petticoat settled about her calves. Yes, she was much warmer and felt better overall. “Thank you.”

She went to the door and saw he was quite handsome. His elegantly sculpted features possessed a mischievous charm. Perhaps that was due to the slight smile that teased his full lips. His brows were thick and medium brown, a shade darker than his hair. Beneath them, his gray eyes sparked with interest as he regarded her. Did he realize she was studying him?

He pushed the door open more and held it while she stepped into the corridor.

Glancing back at him, she said, “Make sure you close it since I apparently did a poor job.”

Pulling it closed, he frowned slightly. “It doesn’t latch easily. I don’t think it was your fault. And I am sorry for invading your space.”

Juliana hated that she’d said anything. She had a bad habit of speaking without always considering how it might come out, especially when it involved her space. She valued her privacy and independence, two things her brother-in-law couldn’t seem to respect. He visited her cottage without notice, sometimes coming inside after only a brief knock, and it greatly pricked her ire.

“There, now it’s closed properly,” he said. “Shall we go down?”

“Thank you. I’m Mrs. Sheldon.”

“I thought you said you didn’t have a husband.”

“He died three years ago.” She cocked her head. “Did you think I’d travel alone as an unwed young lady?” Not that she was young—she was twenty-nine.

“Good point. I’m afraid I was far too fixed on your marital state to consider propriety.” He laughed. “Bad habit when I meet an attractive woman.”

Her pulse picked up speed at his compliment. “Are you a rake, then?” She’d heard about men like him and suspected she’d met one or two, but her experience was limited.

He laughed again. “Some would say so, though I prefer not to characterize myself in that manner.”

“Yet you meet a woman and immediately try to determine whether—” She stopped as she discovered she wasn’t sure what he was doing. “Are you hoping I am wed or not?” Perhaps he preferred to pursue a woman he wouldn’t be forced to wed. That matched what she knew about rakish behavior.

He grimaced faintly. “Now you’ve backed me into a corner. Unwed young ladies are trouble since I am not yet in the market for a wife.”

“So you would prefer I were wed.” She frowned. “Or widowed.”

“As I said, you’ve neatly cornered me. Now I can’t deny rakish tendencies when I admit that I enjoy meeting attractive widows, particularly so far from London where one can find a modicum of discretion.”

Juliana couldn’t help smiling. “At least you’re honest about it. Now I know what you’re about and why you were poking yourself into my chamber.”

He held up his hand, a look of distress flitting across his features. “That was not my intent, I assure you. I really was just trying to be friendly.” He ran his hands through his hair, tousling it in a thoroughly rakish way. Or what she imagined a rake might do.

“I see,” she murmured, amused by his discomfort.

“Let me start again.” He presented an elegant leg and bowed extravagantly. “Allow me to introduce myself. I am Lucas Trask, the Viscount Audlington.”

A viscount! She’d met an earl and a baron. The Earl of Cosford was a friend of her husband’s, and he was actually heir to a dukedom. He and Vincent had gone to school together. Juliana had visited Blickton, Cosford’s estate, on a handful of occasions during her marriage. Lady Cosford was delightful and had invited Juliana to visit a few times since Vincent’s death, but the timing hadn’t been convenient.

And the baron lived near Skipton. He was ninety and in possession of a foul sense of humor. Juliana liked him immensely.

She curtsied. “I’m pleased to make your acquaintance. I’m Mrs. Juliana Sheldon.”

“Lovely.” He offered his arm. “May I escort you to dinner?”

“Certainly.” She put her hand on his sleeve, and he guided her down the stairs. “Where are you on your way to?”

“Northwich—my family seat southwest of Manchester. You?”

“I’m on my way home to Skipton after visiting my parents in Leeds for Yuletide.”

He glanced in her direction as they reached the common room. “You’re eager to be home?”

She took her hand from his arm and turned to look at him. “How did you know?”

“Epiphany was just yesterday, and I might have thought the weather would have prevented you from leaving today. But it did not.” He lifted a shoulder. “Consequently, I gathered you wanted to return home.”

“Excellent deduction. Yes, I like my house and my horse.”

“And your parents…less so?”

“I adore them actually, but nearly three weeks with them is plenty.”

He grinned. “I feel the same about my parents. They are wonderful people, but as I am now thirty-one and unwed, there is a nearly constant expectation from them. It can grow tiresome, even though I know they mean well.”

Juliana nodded in agreement. “I can relate to that quite fervently. My mother especially hopes I will wed again despite my telling her that I am quite happy at present. But you are right—they do mean well.”

He sent her an understanding glance. “This year, I spent Yuletide with other relatives and am now going to see my parents before I continue on to London for the Season.”

Of course, he would spend the Season in London. He was a viscount and a rake. If he was a viscount and still had a father, that meant he was in line for an even greater title, probably an earldom. Juliana lived comfortably and couldn’t imagine such a sophisticated life.

“Are there great demands on you in London?” she asked.

“Ah, I wouldn’t say they are great.” He looked about the common room, which was quite full and hummed with noise. “The inn is full, it seems.”

“Yes, I was given the last room. I suppose we should find a table.” She started to turn, then stopped, facing him once more. “I shouldn’t assume you wanted to sit together.”

“I would enjoy that. Otherwise, we’ll both be dining alone, isn’t that right? Actually, I daresay the inn is crowded enough to necessitate our dining together. As it happens, I’d very much like to continue our conversation.”

Would he? She suppressed a smile. After three years alone—well, not completely alone, she had a lovely circle of friends in Skipton—she had to admit it was rather nice to speak with a gentleman. An attractive viscount, no less.

“Shall we sit over here?” She indicated an empty table somewhat near the fire.

“Splendid.”

As she turned, his hand grazed her lower back. It was the barest touch, but her breath stalled as tingles of awareness raced through her. She hadn’t been touched by a man in well more than three years.

He held her chair as she sat, and she was no longer annoyed by the exhausting day or the fact that her travel had been delayed. She could think of far worse things than being stranded at an inn with a charming viscount.

A serving maid brought a tray and asked if they preferred wine or ale. They both chose wine. “Dinner will be served shortly.” She bustled off, clearly busy with so many people there.

Juliana clasped her hands in her lap. “What is it you do in London, my lord?”

“The typical things one does in a Season.”

“And what things are those?”

“You didn’t have one?” He held up his hand. “That’s awfully presumptuous of me. My apologies. Not everyone has a Season.”

She appreciated his belated self-awareness. “Count me among those who did not. I grew up in Leeds. My father is a bookseller.”

“Again, I’m sorry. It’s just that you look as though you could have taken London by storm.” His eyes glinted with respect. “You’re certainly self-possessed enough to have been a great success.”

Juliana laughed softly. “You’ve only just met me.”

“You had no compunction about calling out my intrusive behavior. You don’t simper, and I am willing to wager you never have. Since your father is a bookseller, I assume you are well-read and highly intelligent.”

She couldn’t help but feel flattered that he saw her in such a way. “You’re more observant than most people.”

“I try to be. I find people interesting. That’s what I do in London—I watch people, and hopefully, I learn.”

“What do you learn?”

“Whom to avoid, mostly.” He smirked as he shook his head. “Some of London Society can be quite brutal.”

“In what way?”

“Mostly, they are self-serving. Trying to find ways to climb to greater heights. To deepen their pockets or improve their standing.”

“I can imagine you are a target for women seeking a brilliant match for their daughters. I assume your father is an earl or similar?”

“The Earl of Northwich. And yes, I’ve spent the last decade fending off marriage-minded mothers and their daughters.”

“A decade? That has to have taken a great deal of skill.” She cocked her head to the side. “But I thought you were a rake. Surely they wouldn’t want their daughters to wed someone with such a reputation.”

“With a title on offer, you’d be surprised,” he said sardonically. “Furthermore, as far as rakes go, there are others who are far worse—I don’t spend my nights in brothels or gaming hells.” He rushed to say, “Pardon me for mentioning such things in your presence. You’ve made me far too comfortable, Mrs. Sheldon.”

“Please don’t stop. I’ve only been to London once—for a week after I married Vincent. I was young and eager to visit Paternoster Row.”

“The bookselling street. Of course you were. Is that where you spent your time?”

“Not much of it, unfortunately. Vincent was more inclined to visit the museums, which I enjoyed.”

“What of evening entertainment? Did you visit the theater or a pleasure garden, perhaps?”

“No, Vincent didn’t want to spend the extra money. I was hoping we might go to Vauxhall.” She shrugged. “Still, it was a nice trip.”

“Much has changed in the last decade. You should visit again. If you come during the Season, send me word and I’ll squire you about town.”

“Wouldn’t that provoke gossip? The unknown widow from Yorkshire on the arm of the rakish viscount?”

“Well, now I’ll be disappointed if you don’t come.” He pressed his lips into a mock pout that drew her attention to his mouth. “I’ll make sure they call you mysterious.”

Juliana laughed. “Do you have so much power?”

“Probably not, but I do know an astounding number of people, and I think the vast majority of them like me. If I tell them you’re mysterious, they’ll likely repeat that.”

“All right, then. I’m the Mysterious Widow and you’re the Rakish Viscount. Sounds as though someone should write novels about us.”

“You’re the book expert. Have you thought about writing one?”

“Oh no, I couldn’t. I wouldn’t even know where to begin.”

“How about with ‘Once upon a time…’”

The serving maid returned with their wine, depositing the glasses on the table without a word.

“How original of you,” Juliana said. She picked up her glass and took a sip. “I might try something more exciting, such as ‘Long ago, in the days before stories were written down…’”

His gaze locked with hers. “Well, now I’m utterly captivated. I think you must pen a tale.”

A blast of cold air filled the common room as the door opened. “Go on in,” the woman said to three children while holding a fourth. They moved inside, and the woman closed the door.

Mrs. Lilley met them, wiping her hands on her apron. Juliana and the viscount were close enough to hear what was said.

“I’m so sorry, but I don’t have any rooms,” Mrs. Lilley said, her brow creasing as her gaze fell on the children.

The poor woman, her face red from the cold, looked completely defeated. “I think we’ve been to every inn. My husband took our cart to the stable. The groom outside said there was room for it and our horses.”

“Yes, we do have more space in the stables.” Mrs. Lilley grimaced as she glanced toward the stairs. “The best I can offer is dinner and a space by the fire tonight. And some blankets.”

Lord Audlington suddenly stood. He went to Mrs. Lilley. “My room could certainly support this family. There’s a large bed and ample space to make more beds on the floor.”

Mrs. Lilley’s eyes rounded. “But where will you sleep, my lord?”

“I can make do down here. I insist.”

The mother sniffed. “Thank you, my lord.”

“It’s the least I can do.” He went to the table closest to the fire where a couple was sitting and gave them a smile that Juliana was sure charmed everyone he encountered. “I’m sure you don’t mind moving so this family can warm up after their travails.”

“Not at all,” the man responded. They relocated to another table.

Audlington ushered the cold woman and children to the fireside table. “Dinner will be here very soon. Then we’ll get you up to your chamber.”

The serving maid set down platters of food, startling Juliana. She’d been so focused on the viscount that she’d completely missed the young woman’s approach. The fragrant scent of stew filled Juliana’s nostrils, and her stomach rumbled. “Thank you.”

Looking back to the viscount, she saw that he’d returned to Mrs. Lilley. Now he made his way back to their table. “Ah, dinner,” he said pleasantly and nonchalantly, as if he hadn’t just behaved in a thoroughly heroic manner. “It smells divine.”

“That was incredibly kind of you,” Juliana said.

He’d picked up a thick slice of bread and was now slathering it with butter. “Anyone would have done it.”

“No one else did, though. Not even me.” She looked down at her food. “Perhaps we should give them our food.”

“I believe they are busy warming themselves at the moment,” he said after glancing toward their table. “And I’m confident their dinner will arrive with due haste. Do not fret over not offering your room. To be fair, it’s rather small. They’ll be more comfortable in my chamber. There’s a large four-poster bed that will likely fit the mother and two of the children plus the father. Then there is also a small bed for a maid or valet. A pair of the children can easily share that. It’s unlikely they even need to make additional beds on the floor now that I think about it.” He took a bite of bread.

“You are completely unaware of how wonderfully you’ve behaved.” It wasn’t just giving them his room; it was also making sure they’d be warm by the fire. She recalled that he’d gone back to speak with Mrs. Lilley. “You’re paying for their lodging, aren’t you?”

He only shrugged as he spooned his stew. He was not at all what she expected from a rakish viscount.

“Where will you sleep?” she asked.

“Mrs. Lilley will give me some blankets, and I’ll make a bed on the floor here.”

“Do you really think you’ll be able to sleep down here?” It was a rhetorical question. “Sleep on the floor in my chamber instead. It’s small, but at least you can have a modicum of privacy.”

“Not from you.” He waggled his brows, and she couldn’t help but smile.

“If we turn our backs to each other while we prepare for bed, it will be fine.”

He picked up his spoon. “I’m not sure what you mean by ‘fine,’ but I assure you that if we inhabit the same space, everything about it will be more than fine. And whether you turn your back to me while you disrobe or not, I will still be exceedingly aware of your presence and the fact that I find you more than passingly attractive.” His gaze had been fixed on her while he spoke, and now the gray seemed to glitter like silver. “Much more.”

Juliana shifted in her chair as a heat she hadn’t felt in a long time pervaded every part of her. It seemed she was going to spend at least the next two nights—there was no way the roads would be passable by tomorrow, even if it stopped snowing right this moment—with a flirtatious, rakish, and thoroughly arousing viscount.

“That means you’ll accept my invitation?” Her voice rasped, as if she’d inhaled cobwebs.

His lips curled into a beguiling smile. “How can I resist your kind hospitality?”

Another flash of heat passed through her. This could become dangerous. She lifted her wineglass and brought it to her lips, speaking over the rim. “What a diverting trip this has turned out to be.”

“I will certainly hope so.” His voice crackled with anticipation.

What scandalous mischief had Juliana got herself into?

Return to The Runaway Viscount

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