As he sat up in bed to survey the flustered, willowy blonde, Gabriel’s first thought was that Neville was right—the imposter was not his middle-aged Russian princess. This fair vixen was delightfully young and English.
“You’re not Lord Ellsworth!” she burst out.
“I’m not?” Gabriel feigned astonishment. “Then pray, who do you think I am?”
“Certainly not Lord Ellsworth.” She flew back into the other bedchamber, muttering something about how she thought she should know Lord Ellsworth when she saw him. So much for pretending to be the earl. Gabriel heard the slamming of several drawers in the other room before she reappeared with a pistol clutched in both white-knuckled hands, fumbling with it as if trying to determine from which end it was supposed to discharge.
His last thought before she finally realized the end with the hole should, at the very least, be facing away from her, was that this confrontation was not going at all as he’d planned. He swiftly rolled off the other side of the bed, hitting the floor with a bone-jarring thunk as the pistol went off with a blast, a shriek, and a crumbling of plaster from…the ceiling? Either that was a jagged hole just inside the edge of the circle of light cast by the candle, or the biggest spider he’d ever seen.
He should have known these devious women wouldn’t take over his family’s London house without weapons to defend themselves against other, albeit more legitimate, intruders, even if they didn’t know how to use those weapons properly. His own pistol was across the room, hidden in the top drawer of the bureau.
He hadn’t thought he’d need it to defend himself against this woman.
“Oh my God! Aurora! I think I shot him!” Horror choked her voice. That, along with her bewildered bumbling, thankfully poor aim, and frightened shriek at the pistol report, told Gabriel that she had about as much familiarity with firing guns as he did with embroidering linens—and ergo, she had no experience with unlawful activity. Whatever she was doing, posing as Neville’s wife, was apparently her pathetic first attempt at committing a crime.
After this, it would bloody well also be her last.
He slowly sat up again, as she rushed around to the other side of the bed and stopped short with another shriek. “Oh my God! Are you all right?”
“Do you ask that of every stranger you try to shoot?”
“As a matter of fact, yes. You’re the first.”
“I thought as much.” He sprang to his feet, and to his surprise he realized she was almost as tall as he was. Standing only inches away from her, he noted the faint smattering of freckles across her nose and the color of her wide, frightened eyes, the green of English meadows that had made him so homesick while on the Peninsula.
And pinned to the very middle of her low bodice, nestled between the swells of her breasts, was a diamond brooch he’d last seen on—
“That belongs to my grandmother,” he said. “You’re wearing my grandmother’s jewelry.”
She stepped back and gasped, slapping her left hand against her bosom.
“And her ring,” he added in disbelief, as he glimpsed the diamond-wreathed ruby slyly winking at him from the longest third finger he’d ever seen. Good God. His uncle had always been absentminded, but could it be Neville had truly forgotten he’d married this young woman?
“Lord have mercy.” She lurched back in shock. “You must be—Lord Ellsworth’s nephew?”
He bowed. “You have the right of it. Gabriel Burton, at your service.”
Her voice rose. “I nearly killed you just now!”
“Yes, but fortunately, you only succeeded in putting a hole in the ceiling while scaring yourself out of your wits.”
“I beg your pardon, sir, but we weren’t exactly expecting any visitors this eve, let alone in His Lordship’s bed.”
“So you’re Lady Ellsworth?”
She averted her gaze, as if uncomfortable with such a lofty title. Or even the whole charade. “You may call me Samantha if you like. And I suppose—that is, if you are indeed His Lordship’s nephew, then that would make me—well, your aunt.” To his amusement, she looked as if she might choke on that last word.She looked too young for Neville. She appeared to be closer to Gabriel’s twenty-nine years. Yet her name, not a very common one, struck him as strangely familiar.
“I suppose my uncle never mentioned me?”
She shook her head. “He doesn’t talk much, you know, and he tends to be quite absentminded because of his accident.”
Such an accurate but intimate detail about his uncle nearly gave him pause. “Yes, I know. Apparently so absentminded that he’s forgotten he has a nephew and a wife.”
“But you do look a great deal like your grandfather. I’ve seen his portrait on the landing of the grand staircase at Ellsworth Hall.”
Gabriel’s jaw nearly dropped. As a matter of fact, that was his grandfather’s portrait mounted on the landing of the grand staircase at Ellsworth Hall, painted when he was about the same age Gabriel was now.
“And your grandmother, may she rest in peace, spoke of you quite frequently,” she added. “But she never said anything about you being married. Why did you think I was your wife, Mr. Burton?”
Bloody hell. This was getting worse by the moment. Either this woman had conducted some very thorough research into his family, to include that of Neville’s faulty memory—or she really did know his family—in which case, she could very well be telling the truth.
And already she’d turned the tables and put him on the defensive. Now Gabriel was the one having to explain himself and his suspicious actions. Flummoxed, all he could do was laugh.