Rogue's Lady

By: Julia Justiss

CHAPTER ONE




STANDING AT THE LIBRARY window, staring numbly at the bare late-winter garden below, Allegra Antinori scarcely registered the footsteps approaching from behind her.

“So this is where you’ve been hiding.”

Wincing at the breathy, little-girl voice—so at odds with the venomous tone in which the words had been uttered—Allegra reluctantly turned to gaze into the hard blue eyes of Uncle Robert’s wife.

Twitching her expensive, jet-trimmed black shawl into place, the young woman continued, “Poor Robert might have been too ill these last few months to prevent your lounging about, but it’s more than time you made yourself useful. Cease your sniveling and go help Hobbs bring the trays of meat and cheese up to the dining room. The mourners will be arriving shortly.”

After weeks spent at her uncle’s bedside as he slowly slipped toward death, Allegra was too drained and forlorn to challenge, as she would have otherwise, the woman’s petty tyranny. “Very well, Aunt Sapphira.”

Those gentlemen-bewitching blue eyes shot her a look that would have frozen the Thames. “It’s Lady Lynton to you now, wench. I may have been forced to humor Robert and take you in after your parents died last fall, but you’ll stay on my terms now. Regardless of the airs you like to give yourself, you’re not really a member of the family and I will not tolerate your pretending otherwise.”

Devastated as she was by the loss in quick succession of the three people dearest to her, Allegra could not allow that claim to go uncontested. “Uncle Robert may not have been my uncle, but he was my mother’s dearest cousin—no matter how much you’d like to deny it,” she said.

“Perhaps by birth, but everyone knows Lady Grace’s whole family disowned her when she married your father. An itinerant musician—and a foreigner, no less! I suppose she learned some grasping Italian ways from her husband, for she certainly managed somehow to keep a hold over Robert. Letting her family run tame in his house whenever they came to London! But he can intervene for you no longer. If you wish to keep a roof over your head, you’ll abandon those pretensions or I’ll send you packing, see if I won’t! Now, go about your work.”

Smoldering fury momentarily overwhelming her grief, Allegra vowed she would be thrown out on the street tonight before she would curtsey to this female barely older than herself or call her “Lady Lynton.”

“I should be happy to help provide for the guests…Aunt Sapphira,” she replied, holding her ground and staring directly into the eyes of the woman who had beguiled her uncle into marriage a mere six months after the death of his beloved first wife.

Apparently realizing she could push Allegra only so far—or not wishing to lose a free extra servant when she expected a houseful of guests—Sapphira looked away first.

“Make sure you do whatever else Hobbs needs,” she said, turning to inspect herself in the library mirror. “And I’d better not see your dark face in the parlor while the guests are here. Why Robert acknowledged any connection to a chit who looks more like a Gypsy than a proper English girl, I’ll never understand.”

With that parting shot, Sapphira smoothed her guinea-gold curls off the porcelain perfection of her brow and walked out.

Her meager strength drained by the confrontation, Allegra sank down on the sofa. She’d rest for a few moments and then go help Hobbs.

For the hundredth time she deplored the susceptibility of the male species to rosebud-pink lips, gentian-blue eyes and blond curls above a well-curved figure. She only hoped that in the year her uncle had been married to Sapphira, he’d never learned how selfish and ruthless was the heart under that outwardly perfect form.

Suddenly released by her uncle’s death yesterday from the sickroom that had been her focus for weeks, Allegra had been drifting in a fog of lassitude and despair. Better to have something, anything, to fill the empty time now heavy on her hands, since she was still too weary and heartsick to decide what she should do next.

For a moment, the sense of being utterly alone in the world overwhelmed her. How she wished Uncle Robert’s son Rob had made it home to see his father one more time before his death! To share with her the agony of his loss, as with elder-brother affection he had befriended her during her childhood visits.

But the cousin Rob she had always—and secretly still—idolized was Captain Robert Lynton now, gone these three years with Wellington’s army. Having survived the slaughter of Waterloo, he was presently on staff duty in Paris.

Surely when the news of Uncle Robert’s death reached him, Wellington would let him come home, she thought, her spirits brightening.