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“I have arranged a marriage for you.”
The words thundered in Alexandra Dunforth’s head, echoing so loudly they made her teeth ache. Her uncle’s breath, smelling of port and ill humor wafted over her cheek. Try as she might, she could not stop cringing in disgust from the man. Oliver Burke squeezed her upper arm and shook it, as a cat would do to a mouse in its jaws.
“Stay here.” One fat, ham like hand pushed Alexandra against the wall. “Don’t try anything.” His moonlike visage resembling a wedge of cheese sweating in the sun, leered over her. “If you do not, your precious friends at Helmsby Abbey will all be out on the street with no references.”
Alexandra’s back bumped against the smooth paneling that covered the walls of Lady Dobson’s ballroom. She took a deep breath to calm herself and nodded mutely.
Lord Burke snorted, smiling in approval at her compliance. He waddled away towards the gaming tables.
Alexandra sighed in relief. She squeezed her eyes tight, wishing the noisy, crowded ballroom could be nothing more than the result of eating too much treacle the night before. Cautiously, she opened her eyes. Dozens of the titled ton swirled about Lady Dobson’s parquet ballroom. This was no dream.
“Bloody hell.” The words flew out in a whisper. She looked around to see if anyone noticed her language, but no one was paying the least attention to her.
Invisibility suited Alexandra well. Left alone in Hampshire since Aunt Eloise’s death, she ran the family estate, Helmsby Abbey, blissfully forgotten by Odious Oliver. Lord Oliver Burke steadfastly ignored his wife and niece, much too busy with spending the vast Dunforth fortune as fast as he could. She’d only actually seen her uncle a handful of times since her one and only Season several years ago. How she detested Odious Oliver.
“Miss Dunforth!” The shriek came from behind her left ear.
Alexandra turned to face her erstwhile chaperone, Lady Agnes Dobson.
“Stand up straight. Try to look attractive.”
Lady Dobson reminded Alexandra of a praying mantis. Tall and thin, her arms overlong, she looked about to pounce on unsuspecting prey. Namely Alexandra. For tonight’s festivities, Lady Dobson wore an enormous purple turban, a spray of feathers anchored to the center held firmly in the middle with a large ruby. She looked down her thin pointed nose at Alexandra and gave a sniff as if Alexandra were spoiled pudding.
“Stop slouching! Attempt to look demure.” A boney finger wagged at Alexandra. Lady Dobson’s lip curled. Her duty done, she dismissed Alexandra. Lady Dobson spun in a neat semi-circle, her purple skirts fluttering around her sticklike figure and faded back into the glittering crowd.
Alexandra clasped her hands in front of her and pressed herself deeper into an alcove, wishing fervently she could simply disappear. Dread, suffocating and thick, rose up in her breast. The insane notion to run as fast as she could for the front door and hail a passing hackney made her legs twitch. Lady Dobson’s home nearly burst with the glittering ton; surely no one would notice one slight spinster from Hampshire running for her life. She chuckled ruefully. I am very neatly trapped. Outsmarted and outmaneuvered by a man who has all the intelligence of a turnip.
“A green dragon tattoo? How positively scandalous!”
Alexandra looked to her left. A beautiful brunette, introduced to Alexandra earlier as Lady Martin, waved her fan and gestured towards the ballroom. Lady Martin licked her lips as if she had just eaten a sugar biscuit. She didn’t look the least scandalized. She looked…hungry.
“Richard has seen it at the club. Lord Cambourne took off his shirt after a fencing match. His opponent scratched him, accidentally.” The buxom blonde standing next to Lady Martin wiggled her eyebrows as she relayed the information. “Then his opponent had the unfortunate notion to make an observation about Lord Cambourne’s mother. His real mother.”
Lady Martin gave a small gasp. “What type of idiot would insult the Marquess of Cambourne? The very wealthy and powerful Marquess of Cambourne?”
The blonde shrugged. “Lord Cambourne nearly beat the man to death. Some baron’s son. He’s now recuperating at his father’s country estate.”
Intrigued, Alexandra took a step out of the alcove that sheltered her. She loved lurid gothic novels when not running Helmsby Abbey and avoiding her uncle. The hero of her favorite series, Lord Thurston, sported a tattoo and he often engaged in swordplay with unsavory characters. Listening to gossip was much better than worrying about when her uncle would arrive with her unwanted suitor.
“Richard says the tattoo is actually quite beautiful. The dragon’s head takes up the whole of Lord Cambourne’s back. The tail,” the blonde paused dramatically, “winds around his navel”, she whispered.
Lady Martin twittered behind her fan.
Alexandra stood on tiptoe. Her height kept her from all but a peek of a tall man with glossy blue-black hair making his way across the ballroom. The aristocrats parted as if they were the Red Sea and the dark-haired man were Moses. She doubted, though, that Moses had sported a tattoo.
“He’s this season’s biggest catch in spite of his rather dubious character. Do you remember that business with Lord Ranson’s wife? I’m told Cambourne did the honorable thing by firing into the air and allowing Ranson the opportunity for a clear shot. Ranson, the idiot, became so startled by Cambourne’s actions that he put his gun down and shot his own toe off.”
Alexandra rolled her eyes. Duels sounded very romantic, but they rarely turned out well. She found it a stupid way to settle an argument. Aunt Eloise instructed Alexandra that the honor of men, particularly a titled gentleman, was questionable at best. ‘Just look at the man I married with his immaculate pedigree,’ Aunt Eloise sighedas if in pain, ‘for an example of how perfect breeding can equal a foul nature.’ Alexandra agreed with Aunt Eloise on that point.
“Watch your tongue, Lady Norris!” Lady Martin looked around, saw Alexandra, and dismissed her. “It would not do well to run afoul of the Dowager Marchioness. She does not care for her grandson to be called Satan Reynolds or for the reputation he has garnered.”
What a ridiculous nickname! Alexandra gave a small snort. Oh, she supposed it sounded very deadly and all but really, she mused, Lord Cambourne likely came up with the moniker for its seductive quality on women. Lady Martin practically salivated as she studied the man.
Alexandra’s eyes flicked over the blonde. In addition to being stuffed into her dress, an annoying spray of ostrich feathers rose from the side of Lady Norris’s head. She resembled an overstuffed capon.
Lady Norris sniffed and lowered her voice. “Of course, you know all about him living in Macao with the heathen Chinese. He went native, smoking opium and keeping a harem like a Chinese warlord.” The words dangled in the air above Lady Martin, waiting for her to take the bait.
Macao? Chinese harems? Alexandra moved as close as she could to the two women. Having never really left the safety of Hampshire, and certainly having never been any farther than London, Alexandra adored tales of faraway places and exotic locales. Many nights she would sit in the Helmsby Abbey library with a cup of tea, brought by the aged butler Jameson, and read an entire book on geography in one sitting.
“Oh, my! He is something, isn’t he?” Lady Martin clutched one hand to her breast as if she were about to swoon.
Alexandra’s attention snapped back to Lady Martin. She tilted her head in an effort to hear. The women of the ton were incredibly silly. Alexandra never found any man to be worth swooning over—even if he did have a tattoo. She stood on her toes to try to catch a better look at the man who’d caused such dramatic behavior.
Satan Reynolds burst through the crowded mass of dandified gentlemen and preening ladies into Alexandra’s line of vision. She gaped, realized her mouth hung open, and quickly shut it. The man striding through the ballroom did indeed resemble the name he had been given, for after all, wasn’t Satan supposed to be the most beautiful angel of all?
Lord Cambourne was tall and lithe with broad shoulders that stretched the limits of his perfectly tailored coat. He walked slowly through the crowd, never acknowledging the stares of the men and women who stood aside to let him pass. Nervous whispers and gestures followed in his wake. The long, dark hair danced above the top of his expertly tied cravat, in defiance of the current fashion. He looked down his patrician nose and across his elegantly carved cheekbones to survey his surroundings with bored arrogance.
Alexandra thought him the most stunning creature she had ever seen. The lads in Hampshire weren’t even the same species as the man sauntering across the ballroom.
A tall voluptuous redhead in black silk pushed her way through the crowd, blocking his path. Satan Reynolds quirked his full mouth in amusement but gave the woman his attention.
The woman dipped into a curtsy so deep that even Alexandra could see directly down the woman’s bodice. No doubt Satan Reynolds could as well. He smiled and brushed a kiss across the redhead’s hand.
“Lucky Lady Fellowes.” Lady Martin opened her fan. “How convenient for her that Lord Fellowes’s heart finally gave out last year. The man was eighty if he was a day. She looks quite stunning in her black, doesn’t she?”
Alexandra had to agree. The black of Lady Fellowes’s dress set off her red hair and creamy skin to perfection.
Lord Cambourne leaned into the redhead, cocking his head to listen to something she said, while his fingers glided over her arm.
“Did I ever tell you that Richard attended Eton with Lord Cambourne and the other Wickeds?” Lady Norris said sotto voce to Lady Martin.
Lady Martin shook her head. “No.”
“Reynolds, that half-Irish earl, and Viscount Lindley were roommates. Teased by the other lads. Lord Cambourne for his possible illegitimacy, though it’s never been proven,” Lady Norris added carefully. “The earl’s Irish mother was quite mad and Viscount Lindley…” She snapped her fan shut. “Well, I think we all know about his family, don’t we? Even I am not bold enough to discuss him openly.”
Lord Cambourne nodded politely again to Lady Fellowes, brushing her knuckles against his lips before moving again through the mass of the ton. He likely knew he was the subject of much speculation by the number of whispers and hands over mouths, but he never slowed or even spoke to anyone else. Alexandra wondered if it bothered him—to be on display. He had to be. His looks alone, regardless of his reputation, would garner attention wherever he went.
Lady Norris nodded towards Lord Cambourne. “The three lads visited a gypsy in the woods—a woman who could see the future. The lads wished to learn their fates.”
Lady Martin gave her friend a skeptical look and pursed her plum colored lips into a perfect rosette.
“The old lady said they were cursed with wickedness and gave them each a terrible fate. Ever after, the three were always called The Wickeds. The other boys gave them a wide berth.”
“Really? What rubbish! Was the ‘curse’ of Satan Reynolds to be the most sought-after rake in London?” Lady Martin mocked her friend.
“All I know is that he lived up to his name. Richard’s sisters were never allowed to visit him at school when Satan Reynolds was in residence for fear they’d be ruined.” Lady Norris seemed quite sure of her story. “He even seduced the headmaster’s wife! The elder Lord Cambourne sent for his immoral son, dragging him back to London. A few years later, Satan Reynolds just disappeared into the jungles of Macao, which I’m told is much more primitive than India. We all thought he was dead. His grandmother, the Dowager, sent ten men—ten men—to fetch Lord Cambourne back to England. He didn’t wish to come back, you see. Ever.”
The two women exchanged a look of confusion as if not understanding why anyone, let alone a man who had the title and wealth of Lord Cambourne, wouldn’t wish to be in England amongst the ton.
Alexandra felt a pang of sympathy for the handsome, tattooed Marquess. Of course, he hadn’t wished to come back. Who would want to be the object of so much scrutiny? Or to have your parentage questioned? She wondered why he chose Macao for his escape. How she would love to ask him. Now that would be a true scandal, having the biggest rake in London at her disposal to answer the questions of a bluestocking. He would make a most inspiring Lord Thurston.
Lord Cambourne reached the far end of the ballroom. He nodded in greeting to several gentlemen and their overly adorned wives. The women twittered, shooting him buttery glances from beneath their lashes while their husbands regarded Lord Cambourne with trepidation.
Alexandra thought it all quite amusing.
She turned back to Lady Norris and Lady Martin but the women were no longer beside her. The duo moved into the crowd, Lady Norris furiously waving her fan at another subject to gossip about.
Out of the corner of Alexandra’s eye, the purple turban reappeared. Lady Dobson made straight for Alexandra, her face wrinkling up like a prune.
“Your uncle has requested your presence,” Lady Dobson hissed. One claw-like hand caught Alexandra beneath her elbow. “Come. How fortunate you are that he cares enough to find you a suitor. He could have just put you out on the streets as soon as he sells the estate.”
Alexandra didn’t feel fortunate. She felt as if she would faint at any moment. She did not wish to marry and even if she did, it would not be to suit her uncle. Alexandra needed a moment to think.
“Lady Dobson, I wish to use the Ladies Necessary Room,” Alexandra said in as modest a tone as she could muster.
The purple turban shook. “Down the hall,” she said as she pointed a boney finger, “to the right, then a direct left. No wandering about. You are to return within a quarter hour. I shall inform Lord Burke.”
Alexandra nodded politely, lowering her eyes so that Lady Dobson couldn’t see the avid dislike in them. “Yes, my lady. I won’t be but a moment. I fear several of the pins in my hair are coming loose.”
Lady Dobson glanced at Alexandra’s hair. “I’m not sure all the pins in the world would help that.“ The purple turban tsked and walked away.
Alexandra clenched her teeth, willing herself to walk calmly towards the doorway Lady Dobson had indicated. She took a deep breath, trying to ignore the fact that she felt like a lamb being led to slaughter. She hated London and hated the overdressed collection of snobs that constituted the ton. Alexandra considered herself most firmly “on the shelf,” and planned on staying there. The notion of her uncle marrying her off was ridiculous and laughable. No man had ever looked at her twice.
Lost in her own thoughts, she didn’t immediately notice the quiet. The music from the ballroom sounded mute and distant. She had missed the turn for the Ladies Necessary Room and a dark hall, dimly lit with sconces, stretched before her. Alexandra turned, meaning to go back the way she had come when a small ping sounded on the marble beneath her feet. She sighed in frustration, knowing a pin restraining her hair had given out. An unruly curl, delighted with its freedom, spiraled down her back. Another ringlet sprang free, accompanied by another ping.
“Damnation!” She squinted in the dim light. One runaway pin twinkled on the floor and she grabbed it. Now where was the other? She looked up and spied a slice of light farther down the corridor with something glinting in it. She moved to collect her other pin and came to a dark paneled door, standing slightly ajar. The crackle of a warm fire greeted her ears. She rubbed her shoulders, chilled from the cooler air of the hallway. Alexandra looked down the hall. Surely no one would mind if she popped into the room and warmed up before returning to the ballroom. Curious, she snuck a peek into the room and gasped in pure pleasure. A library. A beautiful, lovely library!
She clasped her hands with joy, inhaling the musty smell of paper and ink mixed with leather. Books! Wonderful, wonderful books! Obviously, Lord Dobson had to be a great reader, for certainly it couldn’t be Lady Dobson. That earnest lady lectured Alexandra on the evils of young ladies being too well read from the moment Alexandra first met Lady Dobson. Alexandra moved forward, the hairpins clutched in her hand as she spied the large walnut bookcases lining the room.
Wandering over to the far wall, she ran her finger over the spines of fine Moroccan leather. Titles jumped out at her, books on history, geology, and science. Her hand hovered over a large book on farming. Fingers shaking, she pulled her hand down.
Two weeks ago the thought of her uncle even remembering she existed, let alone deciding to marry her off, would have been absurd. As she lay dying, Aunt Eloise assured Alexandra that Helmsby Abbey would belong to her when she reached her twenty-fifth birthday. Oliver Burke would have no claim to the estate or Alexandra’s small inheritance. Her birthday, two months away, would free her. She was positive Odious Oliver was oblivious to this fact. The family solicitor, Mr. Meechum, would assist her in getting away from her uncle. She sent a missive to Meechum & Sons just this morning urgently requesting the solicitor’s help.
“Bloody hell!” Alexandra whispered to the quiet room. It felt good to use such foul language. The current circumstances warranted it. Her much unloved uncle needed money and the only things left to sell were Helmsby Abbey and Alexandra.
A chilling embrace wrapped around the smooth bare flesh of her arms. The possibility of what would happen to the people of Helmsby Abbey, should Oliver sell it, filled Alexandra with dread. Too elderly to find other positions, Mrs. Cowries, Jameson and Cook would have no where to go should Oliver turn them out. They depended on Alexandra. Uncle Oliver dangled the fates of all she loved in this world over her head. She felt very much like a rabbit caught in a hunter’s snare. How in the world would she escape without chewing a limb off?
Footsteps, firm and measured, sounded in the hallway. She heard the sound of a man’s laughing baritone as a dark shape hovered outside the library door.
Alexandra frantically searched for a place to hide herself. Large damask curtains hung from the windows and she slid behind the dense folds. She shook the curtain, making sure her slippers were covered and pressed herself against the wall. Alexandra held her breath, afraid to stir the curtain as the man moved into the room.
“Are you hiding from me, Lord
Cambourne?” A woman’s husky voice sounded in the hallway. “Making me give
chase, you wicked, wicked man.”
Alexandra stood very still behind the curtain. Lord Cambourne? Satan Reynolds?
She heard the click of the library door as it shut.
“Hello, darling! What a boring party! Lady Halston nearly put me to sleep with her gossip. She finds you quite depraved by the way.”
“Lady Halston should be more concerned about Lord Halston’s wickedness than mine.” The deep baritone vibrated down Alexandra’s spine. An image of Lord Cambourne as he appeared in the ballroom leapt in front of her. His voice sounded as beautiful as he was.
The woman laughed lightly. “I adore your depravity. Besides, it certainly hasn’t stopped every mama in London from pushing their simpering daughters at you.”
“Mmmm. I’m not interested in virgins, simpering or not. I find them tiresome.”
“Your grandmother does not. I’m told she interviews young girls by the dozens. Her specifications are quite exacting. She wants you married with an heir.”
Alexandra peered through a small crack in the curtain and snuck a look at the couple. Lord Cambourne had his back to her. Her eyes traveled down to the spill of inky black hair over his shoulders. She looked lower. His trousers were indecently tight. She looked away. Ladies did not notice such things.
Lady Fellowes moved to stand in front of Lord Cambourne, pushing her breasts forward suggestively.
Lord Cambourne lifted a hand. His fingers drummed against the redhead’s bodice. “Caro. You should go back to the ballroom instead of tempting me.” The dark head pressed a kiss against the white flesh mounded over Lady Fellowes’s bodice.
“Do I tempt you, Cam?” Lady Fellowes purred.
Alexandra nearly had a fit. She quivered in a mixture of excitement and embarrassment as she shrank back into the curtains. Could she sneak out while Lord Cambourne occupied himself with Lady Fellowes? What if they saw her as she tiptoed to the door? She could just imagine waving nonchalantly to Lord Cambourne, telling him to ‘carry on’ as she waltzed out.
A muted sigh of satisfaction reached Alexandra’s ears. Lady Fellowes clearly relished whatever Lord Cambourne was doing to her. Alexandra tried to summon up disgust and revulsion, but instead her own traitorous breasts began to ache in response to the sounds she heard. She forced herself to stay still even as every nerve in her body tingled. Think of something else, Alexandra! Like cleaning out the stables!
The thump of a body landing on the couch, accompanied by a rustle of clothing piqued her curiosity. I shall only peek. She popped one eye around the edge of damask. Good Lord! Lady Fellowes had wrapped her legs around Satan Reynolds’s torso and she was attempting to wrestle him to the couch. Lady Fellowes’s bright green garters were in shocking contrast to her pale thighs and stark black gown. She tried to pull Lord Cambourne’s hand inside her skirts.
“Come be naughty with me.” Lady Fellowes pouted her red lips and swiveled her hips.
Lord Cambourne smiled indulgently. Long elegant fingers ran down Lady Fellowes’s legs in appreciation. “I don’t think this is an especially good time for this, Caro.”
Lady Fellowes hugged him with her legs. She took one of Lord Cambourne’s hands and placed it on her breast. The redhead sighed dramatically.
Alexandra stood frozen.
“Cam, Cam, I want you so badly.”
The broad shoulders shifted as Lord Cambourne shrugged his dark hair back. A piece of green glinted amidst the inky strands, dangling and beckoning to Alexandra.
He has an earring? Pirates and all sorts of other disreputable characters wore earrings. Something dark swirled down Alexandra’s stomach and between her thighs when she watched Lord Cambourne. As he had in the ballroom, he sufficiently squashed all thoughts of her dire circumstances with his presence. Alexandra sniffed the air. The library smelled of cinnamon.
Lady Fellowes thrust herself against Lord Cambourne and tried to pull him closer. The gloved hands ran through the long locks of his hair.
Alexandra stood transfixed, knowing she should look away, close her eyes, and possibly put her hands over her ears. She clasped one hand to her stomach. A flutter danced its way back and forth, twirling across her body. She wondered if the champagne she drank earlier caused her discomfort. Her drawers felt damp. One gloved hand wandered down to lay between her legs. Shocked at herself, Alexandra snatched her hand away.
Lord Cambourne kissed Lady Fellowes, pushing her down into the sofa cushions. The redhead, pinned in place against the couch, moved suggestively under Lord Cambourne as he kissed her. Alexandra saw the flick of his tongue against the woman’s lips before he broke away from her.
Lady Fellowes narrowed her eyes as she regarded the man in front of her.
Oh my indeed! Alexandra panted a bit. She told herself it was only the thickness of the curtain and the dust in the air. Aunt Eloise said kissing was disgusting, particularly if one kissed in the ‘French’ way. Alexandra looked at Lady Fellowes. The woman did not appear disgusted. Her face bore a silly, blissful expression. Alexandra thought perhaps her aunt’s opinion of relations between a man and a woman had been colored by marriage to Odious Oliver.
Lord Cambourne gently disengaged Lady Fellowes’s legs and took a step back from the couch. He watched the redhead with amusement. “Caro, go back to the ballroom. Even though this has been a vastly amusing discussion.”
Lady Fellowes giggled. Her gloved fingers wiggled at him, curling and begging him to come closer. “Have you lost your sense of adventure, Lord Cambourne?” She plucked at his trousers.
“No, but I have better sense than to tumble you in my host’s library during a ball.” Besides, didn’t you ask Danvers to escort you tonight?”
Lady Fellowes frowned a bit. She put her hand between Lord Cambourne’s legs as if she were massaging something.
Oh, Good Lord! Intrigued, Alexandra continued to watch. Lady Fellowes was touching his… She covered her mouth as a small squeak emerged. She knew exactly what Lady Fellowes was touching.
Lord Cambourne pushed the grasping hand away from his pants and chuckled softly. “Go back to the ball, Caro, before you are missed.”
Lord Cambourne stepped away from Lady Fellowes’s grasping fingers and faced the curtain. His beautiful features looked thoughtful and a bit melancholy.
Alexandra’s heart gave a small, odd lurch. Something about his countenance made her want to comfort him. Ridiculous as that sounded.
Lord Cambourne walked over to the fireplace and poured himself a glass of Lord Dobson’s brandy. “You should not have followed me, Caro. An association with me would likely end any future match with Danvers.”
Lady Fellowes smiled. “I don’t give a fig for what Danvers thinks. He’s only a baron. You are a Marquess. A gorgeous, lovely Marquess.”
“Why how very mercenary of you, Caro. And you hardly out of mourning for your dear husband. No doubt you would mourn me just as fiercely. You do make a lovely widow. Black becomes you. I suppose you were hoping someone would see us?”
The sarcasm of his words sliced across the room into the empty air, hanging above Lady Fellowes like swords.
The redhead frowned. She flounced about the couch pretending to straighten her clothing with an aggrieved air. A calculating look came over her lovely face.
“Lord Danvers is quite taken with me.”
“I’m sure he is. Don’t let me keep you.” Lord Cambourne waved his hand at the door.
Lady Fellowes did not care for his reply. The redhead postured, thrust out her chest, and gave him a petulant look.
Lord Cambourne ignored her.
She flipped her head and allowed a bright red curl to dangle down her shoulder in a fetching manner. “Fine. But should you come looking for me later, you shall have to fight Danvers for my attention.”
“I stand duly informed, Lady Fellowes.” Lord Cambourne downed the brandy.
Lady Fellowes glared fiercely and waited for Lord Cambourne to say more. At his silence, she stood in a huff and flounced to the door in a swirl of black silks. The library walls shook as she slammed the door.
Lord Cambourne shrugged and moved closer to the fireplace. His brow furrowed in contemplation as he reached into his pocket to produce a cheroot. A brief flare of light lit the beautiful planes of his face. He touched the flame to the end of the cheroot with a sensuous flick of his wrist and took several deep drags.
Alexandra scratched her nose, careful not to disturb the curtain. The dust really was deplorable. She watched Lord Cambourne with her left eye. His hair glimmered like a bolt of black silk, the strands curling just a bit on the ends. The man should consult another tailor, possibly one who knew how to fit a gentleman. She could see the muscles of his thighs outlined by his breeches.
The smell of tobacco reached her nostrils making them twitch. Terrified of sneezing, she scratched her nose and prayed he would leave. Lord Cambourne blew smoke rings into the air as if he had all the time in the world. How long had she been gone? Her uncle would bring the house down around her ears if he discovered her missing. Damnation! Why doesn’t the blasted man adjourn to the conservatory? I’m sure there’s a tasty countess or two waiting for him there.
The dark head swiveled in her direction as if hearing her thoughts.
Alexandra’s heart hammered in her chest. Carefully, she stepped deeper into the folds of the heavy gold damask. Her nose twitched again. Damn dusty curtains! She heard him approach her hiding place, the steps leisurely, as if he were merely taking a stroll in the park. The smell of the cheroot mingled with the cinnamon hanging in the air. Her hands began to sweat inside her gloves. Dust tickled the back of her throat.
The footsteps stopped. What was he doing? She took a shallow breath, beginning to feel slightly claustrophobic behind the curtain. Could one suffocate in a curtain? She closed her eyes. A dust mote danced on her nose. If she gave a fig for Lady Dobson, she would tell her the deplorable state of her maid’s housekeeping.
Suddenly a hand shot through the heavy fabric, reaching towards Alexandra and startling her so that the edge of her slipper caught on the bottom of the curtain. She tripped and grabbed at the material, inadvertently twisting it around herself as she tried to flee. The curtain pulled free from the rod as she tipped forward. Swaddled in the folds of the heavy curtains, she landed at Lord Cambourne’s feet like a tiny gold damask-wrapped mummy.
Lord Cambourne cursed and dropped his cheroot.
Which is how the curtain caught on
Good Lord! Sutton Reynolds watched as his cheroot burned a hole in the writhing curtain. A small feminine chin came to rest on the toe of his boots. As jaded as he was, even Sutton could appreciate the irony of yet another woman literally falling at his feet.
He bent to swat at the ember that rapidly burned through the curtain. The bundle at his feet made a muffled sound of protest. The bundle deserved his abuse. She had been spying on him. He hoped it wasn’t Lady Halston’s daughter, Eunice. The girl had been stalking him for weeks now. He had last seen Eunice leaping at him from a topiary at the Earl of Trent’s a fortnight ago.
Yes, he definitely swatted her too hard. The pleasingly plump bottom below his palm was likely stinging from his ministrations. Couldn’t be Eunice, then. Eunice was much taller and so thin she looked as if she would snap. Lord Cambourne smacked the plump bottom again.
The bundle stiffened in indignation.
An eye peered at him through a gap in the fabric. The bundle twitched, struggling to roll over and free itself. After several minutes of twisting and turning like an earthworm, he heard a feminine sigh of frustration.
“Excuse me,” the bundle addressed him, “I realize we have not been properly introduced, but would you mind unwrapping me?”
“How incredibly provocative that sounds.” The bundle stiffened and gave a small snort of disgust.
Sutton grabbed the end of the curtain and gently unrolled. A profusion of chestnut curls spilled out, accompanied by an overabundance of bosom and snapping gray eyes. The girl struggled ungracefully into a sitting position. One dark curl fell over her brow. She pursed her lips and blew a puff of air to dislodge the curl. The spiral moved, and then snapped back over her eye.
He held out a hand and pulled her up to face him. Petite and curvy, she barely reached the middle of his chest. The oval of her face was pale, her skin a delicate porcelain, her features altogether ordinary. Except that they were surrounded by a magnificent, dark-brown mass of curling tendrils. She didn’t look frightened in the least, just irritated, and apparently with him. He found her demeanor quite interesting.
“Eavesdropping is a dreadful occupation. Do you see where it gets you? Nearly roasted to death like a tiny partridge.” His gaze ran over the ringlets threatening to escape what remained of her coiffure. He absolutely adored curls. One might even call it a fetish. Sutton toyed with running his fingers through the twisting mass when a better idea occurred to him. “I had a devil of a time making sure the fire was out. Perhaps I should just check again.” He leaned to examine her posterior.
She jumped out of his reach, the tendrils of her hair swaying across the ivory tops of her breasts. He tried not to stare. Her breasts were magnificent. Between the breasts and the hair, his interest was definitely piqued. The tightness in his breeches proved it.
“Are you all right?” he asked politely. She stared at him. Most women did when they first met him. Sutton knew of his effect on women. The female sex tended to look at him as if he were some sort of dessert. Although, this girl looked hostile. Perhaps she didn’t have a sweet tooth.
Shooting him a look of reproach, she rubbed her abused bottom.
It was only her quickened breathing that gave away her distress. Each breath tightened the silk fabric of her bodice against the ivory globes of her breasts. He hoped she would inhale deeply enough so that one of those magnificent mountains would pop out. Or at least a nipple. His left hand twitched with the urge to cup one of those perfect breasts in his hand. The thought made it difficult to remember that he needed to chastise her soundly for spying on him.
“I wasn’t,” she sputtered. Her brow wrinkled in consternation. Another curl sprang free.
Sutton watched in fascination as the curl unwound, spiraling down her shoulder to lie in the valley between her breasts. “Wasn’t what?” He forgot what they were discussing. Her lips were plump, like tiny pillows. Sutton forced his look from her lips back to her face and assumed a bland expression.
“I wasn’t eavesdropping,” she began to explain hastily. “I was looking for the Ladies Necessary Room. The pins….in my hair…you see they were falling out. My hair is quite unruly and the pins…” She spread her hands in front of her. “I got lost and then I saw the light and thought perhaps it was the Ladies Necessary Room. But it wasn’t. I saw books and I….” Two spots of red appeared on her cheeks.
A flair of annoyance washed through him at her words. Why didn’t she have the good sense to shut up? Women had been lying in wait for him since he was fifteen. The situation had only gotten worse since his return from Macao when his grandmother announced “open season” on his bachelorhood. Granted, wrapping oneself up in a curtain and being caught on fire was a bit drastic, but he knew many women who would do far more to snatch a title. Disappointment filled him. Just another dull virgin of the ton, out husband-hunting. Albeit one with magnificent hair and an overabundance of bosom.
“The books? Do you mean to tell me you traipsed in here purely to look at books? In Lord Dobson’s library? During a ball?” A dark brow lifted. “What an interesting excuse.”
The girl gulped in disbelief. Loudly. Small, gloved hands clenched tightly at her sides as if she were strangling something in her fists. The gunmetal gray eyes narrowed.
His already foul mood worsened. He wanted only a moment’s peace from the muttering gossips that graced the ballroom. He detested these affairs. Then Caro appeared, begging to be seduced. He should have ended things with her weeks ago. Could this girl be in league with Caro? Caro did so want to be a Marchioness. Or possibly this girl wanted to be a Marchioness.
Her nostrils flared. The bodice stretched, but held.
“Are you here at Lady Fellowes’s behest or are you a mercenary yourself? Perhaps you thought to jump out after she left?” He waved his hand, dismissing her. “Go back to the ball. You have been found out. I hate to dash whatever you hoped to achieve, but neither you nor Lady Fellowes are Marchioness material. Keep that in mind should you decide to call ruin. I would hate to kill an outraged father or brother for such ridiculous behavior.”
A squeak of outrage popped out of her luscious mouth. He had an urge to nibble on that plump lower lip.
Another thought occurred to him. “Maybe I who disturbed your assignation? Were you meeting a lover?” A bit of contempt bled into his words. He could not help it. The women of the ton tended to either be twittering virgins or bed-hopping matrons. “Please take a word of advice. You really need to work on your excuses. Bluestockings are a rarity at these gatherings. No one will ever listen to such nonsense as ‘I was looking at the books.’” The girl’s face reddened. She gritted her teeth and gave him a look full of daggers.
Sutton’s breeches twitched. The proper thing to do would be to allow her to run back to the ball, having sustained only minor emotional distress during her encounter with Satan Reynolds. But her reaction to him was so atypical. For some odd reason he was enjoying himself. A rarity.
“Well? What do you have to say for yourself?” The baiting of virgins should become a sport or a gentleman’s pursuit. Like fencing.
She muttered something; it sounded like ‘bloody arrogant bastard,’ and a small foot stamped in an effort to gain his attention. Gray eyes, gone the color of a winter storm, flashed at him. “I was not eavesdropping. I am not in league with your Lady Fellowes. I was not meeting a lover. I especially was not, heaven forbid, following you in a pathetic attempt to be ruined! You vainglorious, arrogant, depraved …peacock! Until tonight I had no idea you even existed. In addition, you have the most ridiculous nickname I have ever heard! I think it likely you made it up to entice shallow females who would fall for your dubious charms.” She pursed her lips and puffed away an errant curl.
Sutton’s breeches twitched again. The little bit of fluff in front of him had called him a peacock! Held him in contempt! Women simply did not talk to him this way. Actually no one did. He wanted to kiss her senseless.
“I pity the shallow women of the ton if indeed they are lining up for your favors.” The girl’s small shoulders squared as if she were preparing for a boxing match. “Your enormous ego and inflated sense of self-importance would make you a poor choice for a husband, for you are already in love with yourself! There wouldn’t be room in the marriage bed for both a wife and the large mirror in which you admire yourself.
Sutton opened his mouth to defend himself but thought it wiser not to interfere with the most fantastic set-down he ever received. And he found it enjoyable. His status as Satan Reynolds, evil despoiler of women, seemed to have no effect on this girl. The tiny tempest intrigued him.
“I am a guest of Lady Dobson’s. Had I known the sordid display that I would be forced to witness I would have stayed at home! Strange as it may seem to you, my lord, I was actually looking at the books. My toad of an uncle doesn’t have a library. I love books. In fact, I find I like them much more than people, especially the ones I have met so far! Books are not rude, they do not insult a person and accuse them,” she nearly yelled at him, “nor do they seduce dull-witted women on couches during balls! You likely wouldn’t know anything about books, my lord, since I am doubtful you have ever picked up anything to read except the racing papers or the betting sheets at White’s.”
Sutton actually read a great deal more than the racing papers, he was in fact finishing a book on philosophy, but he didn’t wish to interrupt her. Another curl sprung free and hung unnoticed by her ear. He resisted the urge to tweak it.
She continued in a shaky voice. “I just wanted to be somewhere peaceful—just for a moment. Away from all of you.” Her voice caught. “I just wanted to look at the books.” Her magnificent bosom heaved back and forth and her face flushed a becoming shade of rose as she finished her tirade. She looked away, and one small, gloved hand flew to her mouth in embarrassment.
Sutton watched her for a moment, wanting to be sure the eruption was over. Her reddened face and the clutching of her hands assured him it was. The gray eyes were watching him warily. She was adorable. Fierce. He wanted to put her in his pocket.
“What a ferocious little thing you are. Like a tiny badger. A bookish little badger.” He laughed softly. This was the most amusing thing that had happened to him since his return from Macao. Where had this girl been hiding?
She stomped her foot, indignant again. “You compare me to an ill-tempered rodent?” Her nose scrunched in the loveliest manner.
“Did you enjoy watching Caro and me?” How incredibly mean of him to continue to goad her, but he couldn’t help himself. Especially now that he knew she had not been spying on him intentionally. “Why did you not make your presence known? Or scream in offended outrage?”
Emotions played across her face. Her fingers plucked at her gown. She turned her face slightly and looked away. His question managed to stop her cold.
She didn’t raise her head. “I don’t know what you mean. I didn’t watch your sordid display. I covered my eyes. The shock of what I witnessed has put me in a state of shock. I am leaving now. I bid you a good evening, my lord.”
“Liar. Pretty little liar.”
“I find your accusations disgusting. I find you disgusting.”
And she did. He could tell by the look on her face. But something else shone in her features as well. Something he intended to draw out.
“Too bad.” He leaned in. “I find you utterly adorable. Not the least disgusting.”
The Badger was discomfited at his words. She backed away from him, not looking at him directly, but at the toes of his polished black boots. This was much more fun, Sutton thought, than all the jaded flirtations of the women that filled Lady Dobson’s ballroom. He took another step forward.
He heard her say it under her breath as she realized she was cornered against the library wall. Neatly trapped, the Badger stared at him in defiance. A tiny Amazon attempting to face down an ill-mannered giant. No doubt she expected him to ravish her. His reputation would suggest nothing less. He was sorely tempted. Lust for this temperamental girl struck him again, surprising him with the sharpness of it.
He winked and lifted his hands, palms up in supplication, before he clasped them behind his back.
Her eyes widened.
Sutton often thought that so much of seduction could be accomplished with only the mouth and tongue. Words, in particular, were incredibly seductive, although he had found few women who understood that. This girl in front of him had no idea how her tart tongue had incited him.
The gunmetal eyes followed his progress. She said nothing, but her face remained flushed. She didn’t order him to step aside. She didn’t scream. The tilt of her head told him she wanted him to kiss her. The white column of her neck turned, just so, inviting him to touch it. She may not be aware of her actions, but her body knew what it wanted. He heard her breathing, like a frightened animal.
I really am a vile man.
Her gaze fell to his chest, then, back to his face. Her breasts lifted towards him, her body making an unconscious appeal to his. He sensed deep passion in the prickly badger. Sutton leaned forward and caught her scent. Green apples on a spring day. How appropriate. He loved tart, green apples.
A tiny nest of curls, dainty and fine, hung underneath her ear. He blew softly towards the curls, watching them move as if they were caught in a gentle breeze.
She shivered. Deliciously. Her hands pressed against the back of the door as if to brace herself for his attentions.
He considered just reaching around her to open the door and waving her out. But she tempted him. Lured him.
Carefully, he nuzzled the nape of her neck with the tip of his nose, pushing aside the small tendrils to touch the skin underneath. Her skin was warm and soft. Delicate like fine satin. He couldn’t help himself. He nipped her.
“Oh!” Two hands flew up immediately, like trapped doves, to place themselves on his chest.
Heat jolted through his chest at her touch. He wanted nothing more than to wrap his arms around her, pressing her small form to his. But he didn’t. Instead he inhaled deeply and pressed his lips to the spot he nipped, savoring the Badger as if she were fine wine. He flicked out the tip of his tongue and traced a line from the spot to just below her earlobe. He took her lobe in his mouth and gently sucked on it.
“What are you, oh!” she said again, before she sagged towards him.
The magnificent breasts pushed against him. He imagined her nipples, the color of dusky ripe cherries, pushing through the lawn of his shirt. The beat of her heart could clearly be seen beneath the column of her throat.
She rubbed against him, like a cat wishing to be stroked.
He nearly came undone then but forced his hands to stay still. What started as virgin-baiting turned into something else entirely. Sutton pressed a gentle kiss to the side of her mouth. His tongue flicked out to run against the inside of her upper lip. Her head moved back an inch, unaccustomed to the sensation.
“No.” He whispered against the corner of her mouth. “Be still.”
Her eyes closed in surrender. Her touch ran up his chest, fingers tensing as she made her way slowly up to his neck. His lips brushed over hers, sucking on her bottom lip, pulling away gently from her.
Sutton’s heart hammered in his chest from their kiss, a rare and unnerving experience. What in God’s name was he doing?
Satan Reynolds kissed her. Erotically. Decadently. And he smelled of cinnamon. She wanted this moment to last forever. The most notorious rake in London looked at her with seduction. She should run as far from this man as possible. Something about him made her want to be wicked. Wanton.
A puzzled look crossed his angelic face as he watched her. His eyes were the most glorious color she had ever seen, green with flecks of gold. Only one other creature in her acquaintance also possessed eyes of that color, her calico tabby cat, Marmalade. Thinking of Marmalade, who was likely sitting by the fire in Helmsby Abbey’s kitchen, brought Alexandra back to reality. She was just a girl from Hampshire, who had never been kissed, desperate to outsmart her uncle to save her home. Were she not so muddled by the man standing before her, Alexandra would have laughed out loud. Her situation sounded very much like a plot of a Lord Thurston novel. The knob of the door ground into her back. She reached for it.
“What is your name?” The dark rasp ran over her like molten chocolate.
Her hand froze on the knob. “Alexandra Dunforth.” She looked into those catlike eyes, truly frightened for the first time. She wondered if this was what the gypsy cursed him with, a magical allure that women could not resist.
“I’ll be seeing you again, Alex.” He smiled wickedly at her.
Alexandra cautiously opened the door, never taking her eyes off Lord Cambourne. She nodded a polite goodbye to him, as if they merely met for tea. She tried to pivot gracefully but stumbled a bit in her haste to exit. She cursed her clumsiness and forced her shaky legs to take her back to the ballroom. The side of her mouth tingled from the imprint of his tongue on her lips.
Lord Cambourne, known to his friends as Cam and amongst the gossips of the ton as Satan Reynolds, felt his heart thump loudly in his chest as the delectable Miss Dunforth attempted a regal exit. She tripped over her gown, caught herself, and stumbled in a most ungraceful manner away from him. He thought to assist her but feared touching her would unleash all sorts of behavior best left for another time. Besides, her awkwardness charmed him. And he did desire her. That was quite apparent from the hardened arousal in his breeches, meaning he couldn’t follow her immediately. He lit another cheroot.
One of his mistresses in Macao had given Sutton a puzzle box as a gift. The box was intricately inlaid with two different types of wood in a delicate pattern made to look like fish in a sea. He couldn’t open it. He spent weeks looking at it, trying to discern where the secret latch could be hidden, how to push the button just so to reveal the mysteries hidden within,
Sutton flicked his wrist and the
remainder of the cheroot fell into the fireplace, sparking briefly. He adjusted
his breeches as he walked out of the library. Patience was one of Sutton’s
strong suits. After nearly a year, he had finally opened the box to his immense
satisfaction. He didn’t think it would
take quite that long with Miss Alexandra Dunforth.