(From an interior chapter)
Hadley Green, 1808
He’d truly expected a plain woman with a plain physical need.
He had not expected an imposter.
It wasn’t patently obvious, for the lady behaved in a manner that a countess ought to behave. She didn’t do anything to openly spark suspicion, such as neglect to lift her little finger when sipping tea, or curtsy properly. No, Declan knew she was an imposter because he’d known Keira Hannigan all her life, and Keira Hannigan was no countess.
But she seemed perfectly at ease pretending to be one.
He had no idea what she was doing in England, much less a small village like Hadley Green. The last he’d seen her—months now, if memory served—she’d been in County Galway (from which they both hailed), and Loman Maloney, whose affluence was matched only by his ambition, was expertly courting her. Keira was a Hannigan, a daughter of an influential, powerful Irish Catholic family known for their horses and their outspoken politics. She was pretty in a way that Declan believed only Irish women were pretty, with black hair, fair skin and flashing green eyes. She was spirited in the way of the Irish, too, which to Declan meant she was possessed of a good sense of adventure and a clever, if not occasionally sharp, tongue.
What Declan found particularly galling was that Keira did not seem the least bit appalled that he’d discovered her deception in this sleepy little village in England. Quite the contrary. She looked at him daringly, as if she believed he might openly challenge her.
“Lady Ashwood, may I present Lord Donnelly,” Mr. Fish said.
After his moment of shock, Declan debated calling her out, but he supposed she would be discovered soon and would suffer accordingly. In the meantime, he had no intention of being drawn into her little game. He’d been drawn into a game of hers years ago, with disastrous consequences. He was here to buy a horse. Nothing more.
“Good afternoon, my lord,” she said. Her voice filtered into his consciousness, lodging in that place of the familiar. She moved forward, her dark green riding skirt flaring out around her boots as she moved. She tossed a ridiculously jaunty hat with a gold tassel at the crown onto the settee as she moved past it. She walked in that way beautiful women had of walking: light-footed, with a certain sway in her hip, a pert tilt of her head, a shine in her eyes.
“Lord Donnelly, the Lady Ashwood,” Mr. Fish said.
“Lady Ashwood, is it?” He might have laughed had he not been so appalled. She smiled pertly.
“Lord Donnelly has bid twenty five pounds for the filly, madam,” Mr. Fish informed her.
“A respectable sum,” she said pleasantly. “Although I admit I had hoped she would earn a wee bit more. She’s a fine horse. Tea, my lord?”
“Twenty five pounds is far more than she is worth. And I prefer Irish whiskey,” Declan said dryly.
“What luck! We happen to have some on hand. Mr. Fish?”
Mr. Fish instantly moved to the sidecart. Declan noticed the room. The salon was as impressive as the sandstone Georgian mansion itself. The walls were covered in green and crème silk that matched the heavy draperies. The furnishings were lushly upholstered, the carpet thick, and sunlight streamed in through three pairs of windows that soared all the way to the sculpted crown molding. The ceiling had been painted to resemble a blue summer sky, complete with clouds and sun and fat little redbirds flitting across.
Declan shifted his gaze to Keira, who smiled a bit nervously, a bit brazenly, as Mr. Fish poured three whiskeys. Mr. Fish handed one to Keira, whose upbringing as a good Irish girl made her unafraid of whiskey, unlike the genteel ladies in London’s salons.
“Lord Donnelly,” Mr. Fish asked amicably as he handed him a whiskey. “Your reputation quite precedes you, sir.”
“Apparently, my reputation is alone in that regard,” he said, looking pointedly at Keira.
She smiled serenely, pretty as a portrait, completely unruffled. A long curl lay across her décolletage, starkly black against her creamy skin.
Mr. Fish seemed a little confused by Declan’s remark, but being a gentleman, continued on. “We are quite honored that a man of your aptitude in horse breeding is interested in our stock.”
“In whose stock?” Declan asked.
Mr. Fish’s brows dipped deeper into confusion. “The Lady Ashwood’s, of course.”
“And does the Lady Ashwood intend to join us?” Declan asked, his gaze still on Keira.
Mr. Fish blinked; Keira laughed and swept forward, smoothing away that errant curl with an anxious flutter of her fingers. “Lord Donnelly is displaying his fine Irish humor, Mr. Fish. Would you be so kind as to excuse us for a moment?”
Startled, Mr. Fish looked at Keira. She smiled a little and lifted her tot of whiskey. “If you’d be so kind,” she said again.
“Of course, madam.” But he looked entirely perplexed as he put down his tot and strode from the room.
When the door had shut behind him, Keira tossed her whiskey back, then announced breathlessly, “This is not what you think.”
“Not what I think? I think you are impersonating an English countess, unless you have made a rather fortuitous match,” Declan scoffed.
“No, Declan. This is Ashwood.”
“And it is Lily’s! Haven’t you heard?”
He had no earthly idea what she was talking about. “What is Lily’s?”
“She inherited Ashwood,” Keira said. “Free and clear. Don’t tease me, you know that she has.”
He had heard the old earl of Ashwood’s estate had passed to a surviving female heir, but certainly Lily Boudine had not once crossed his mind. He didn’t know she was associated with Ashwood in any way. “Why in heaven would I know such a thing?” he demanded irritably.
“Honestly,” Keira said, just as irritably. “She came from Ashwood. Everyone knows that she did.”
“I beg your pardon, I did not. I have not made it my habit to study the family history of Lily Boudine! But what I find remarkable in this very interesting conversation is that you have made no mention of the fact that you are impersonating your very own cousin.”
“No!” she cried with a nervous glance at the door. “You are entirely mistaken!”
“Where is Lily?” he demanded incredulously.
Keira sighed. “Italy,” she said.
“Do you mean to tell me that your cousin is in Italy and you are parading about as her?”
“I am not parading,” she snapped. “I certainly didn’t come here with the intent of being the countess, obviously,” she said, but Declan saw nothing obvious about that. “She asked me to come and mind things for her, for she is now the countess. Aye, aye, I see your look of amazement, and believe me when I tell you it was a surprise to us all, but it is quite true. Whilst Lily is in Italy with Mrs. Canavan, I came here on her behalf. Imagine my great surprise when I arrived and they all believed me to be Lily, for apparently, our resemblance is much greater than certainly I had ever realized, and really, Declan, it was their suggestion.”
“Oh, I can imagine,” Declan said skeptically. “The devil has a face of an angel, Keira Hannigan.”
She frowned darkly. “You have said that before.”
“And I will say it again.” He couldn’t imagine what Keira and Lily were about. He had never thought Keira particularly sensible, but he couldn’t believe for a moment Lily would agree to such a ridiculous bit of fraud. “What scheme have the two of you concocted?”
“Must you use the word scheme?” she protested. “It is all very simple. Lily had committed her companionship to Mrs. Canavan.”
Declan cocked a skeptical brow.
“I came here to mind things until she returns from Italy. But Declan, I never imagined to find things in such disarray! That old earl died and left a financial ruin of Ashwood. You can’t imagine the urgency—there was poor old Hannah Hough, for example. Some awful monster of a man was attempting to take her lease and enclose it with his property, and the dear was in danger of being evicted from the only home she’s ever known, the very house where she herself was born and raised her three children. Naturally, I had to act.”
“By pretending to be your cousin?” Declan asked incredulously.
Keira blinked. “Well I didn’t mean, to, obviously,” she said with great exasperation. “But it was imperative that a document be signed by the rightful property owner—the countess—that prohibited the sale or alteration of the lease of that the land, or Hannah Hough would lose it all. I had no choice.”
He knew Keira was bold, but this was astounding. “Do you not understand that what you have done is unlawful?”
“But it’s not,” she argued. “When Lily comes to Ashwood, she will set it all to rights. She asked me to mind the place after all. I have the letter that says she is countess as proof.”
“Set it all to rights? People do not appreciate being duped, no matter what Lily asked you to do, no matter what piece of paper you believe you have,” he said sternly, and gestured for her to refill his glass. “This is so like you, Keira,” he said angrily. “You act first and think afterward. You don’t care who you harm.”
Her green eyes widened. Ah, those eyes. They were a man’s curse, those eyes. They had lived on in his mind’s eye, long past the point of usefulness.
Keira snatched up the decanter of whiskey and refilled his tot. “You’re obviously not listening,” she said as she refilled his glass. “There was quite a lot to be taken care of, and I have very diligently done that for Lily. Furthermore, I have discovered something so astounding that someone of even your incurious nature would want to discover the truth behind it.”
“I assure you, I do not,” he said, watching her eyes glitter as he drank the whiskey. “By the bye, does the venerable Mr. Brian Hannigan know his daughter is masquerading as an English countess? And where is your chaperone? Surely he wouldn’t allow you to cavort about England without chaperone.”
“That is none of your concern.”
“Meaning no,” he said easily.
“Why in God’s name did I ask you here?” she complained, and moved to turn away from him, but Declan caught her wrist of the hand that held the decanter.
“What of Mr. Loman Maloney? Is he aware that the object of his great esteem and blissful future is perpetrating an entirely indefensible deception?”
Keira turned a very appealing shade of red. “Mr. Maloney is very busy with his own affairs,” she said primly.
“Meaning, I take it, that he believes you to be in Italy as well.”
Keira gave him a small shrug.
Declan shook his head. “Foolish girl,” he said, his gaze wandering her face. “I will give you twenty pounds for the filly.”
He brows dipped into a frown. “Mr. Fish said you bid twenty five.”
“He is correct,” Declan said as he took in her oval face. “But that was before I knew what you were about. Twenty pounds.”
She tilted her head back, knowing full well she was being admired. “Don’t be absurd.”
“Fifteen,” he said, and touched the curl at her décolletage with his free hand.
Keira gave him a sly smile. “It was an act of great fortune that I came when I did, Declan. Who was looking after Lily’s affairs, I ask you? No one, that’s who, until I came along.”
He moved his hand, to the side of her neck. “You must be filled with glee to think that as Maloney and your father believe you to be in Italy, and your companion in Dublin, there is no one to keep a proper eye on you, aye?” He smiled at the thought. “It is wedded bliss without the wedding.”
Keira’s creamy cheeks pinkened even more. “I would never, sir.”
Declan’s smile faded. He lowered his head, so that his lips were only a moment away from hers. “Never,Keira?” he asked low.
Her eyes glittered angrily. “Stand back, sir.”
Declan did no such thing. “There is an old Irish saying. One should never kindle a fire if one is afraid of being burned.”
Her lips parted slightly and her gaze fell to his mouth. Something stirred inside Declan. “I don’t want your advice, my lord,” she said silkily. “I want your help.”
He looked at her mouth, imagined touching those full lips with his. “You are mad,” he said low. “I don’t want to help you. I want to turn you over to the English authorities.”
“But you won’t,” she said. “Because that would ruin everything for Lily. Whatever you may think of me, I know you care about Lily.”
He couldn’t argue that. Lily was the one person to speak up for him at particularly difficult time in his life, and it galled him that Keira would use that time in his life to buy his silence. She was too bold, too provocative. He splayed his fingers against her jaw and forced her head back. “How is it that you always manage to exasperate me?”
“It is you who are exasperating me at present.” Her mouth was now directly under his. She expected him to kiss her; he could see it in her half-closed eyes.
“Fifteen pounds,” he said.
“I am hardly inclined to sell you the horse now that you have behaved so wretchedly,” she said, and her lips curved into a sultry smile.
“Have you considered that you don’t sell me the filly at a fair price, I shall tell the world who you are? Or more aptly, who you are not?”
“Not for sale,” she said again.
That was Keira Hannigan for you, far too confident for her own good. Her beauty notwithstanding, her impudence in the face of her deceit annoyed Declan to the point he feared what he might do. But he thought of Lily, now the Countess of Ashwood, apparently, and at low point in his life, his only friend. “Don’t toy with me, Keira,” he said low. “Don’t attempt to include me in any of your schemes. And don’t expect me to keep your secrets this time,” he said.
He turned away from her and walked out of her purloined salon.