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LONDON?S ULTIMATE BAD BOY?
Physically reckless, irrepressibly roguish, and poised on the brink of ruin, Jonathon Westruther, Earl of Davenport, returns from the dead only to throw himself into dissipation. Until he meets his worst nightmare: a straitlaced former schoolteacher he can?t get out of his head. He resolves to seduce the delightful Miss Hilary deVere by fair means or foul. But when his past...
LONDON’S ULTIMATE BAD BOY…
Physically reckless, irrepressibly roguish, and poised on the brink of ruin, Jonathon Westruther, Earl of Davenport, returns from the dead only to throw himself into dissipation. Until he meets his worst nightmare: a straitlaced former schoolteacher he can’t get out of his head. He resolves to seduce the delightful Miss Hilary deVere by fair means or foul. But when his past returns to endanger Hilary, he must protect her at all costs…
MEETS ENGLAND’S MOST PROPER MISS
Dismissed from her post at a ladies’ academy because of prejudice against her uncouth family, Hilary will do anything to avoid going back to live with her loutish brothers. She longs for a London season to show the world a deVere can behave with utmost decorum and to find a respectable husband. Everything about Lord Davenport appalls her but desperation makes strange bedfellows. To get to London, Hilary strikes a bargain with the devilish Davenport, confident that she’s immune to his charm. But as she discovers surprising depths beneath his rakish surface, this infamous scoundrel becomes more temptation than even the most proper lady can withstand…in London's Last True Scoundrel by Christina Brooke.
Jonathon Westruther, Earl of Davenport, surveyed the three men standing over him with a jaundiced eye. They were an impressive lot, he supposed: large, well muscled, with that arrogant way of carrying themselves the Westruthers had perfected over centuries of uninterrupted rule.
“What a bunch of old sobersides you’ve become,” he said with a lazy grin. “What’ve I done this time?”
Lord Beckenham, the eldest of his cousins, looked severe. More severe than usual, which was saying a lot if you knew Beckenham. “The question is not what you have done this time, but what you have been doing ever since your return, what you continue to do. This reckless, profligate behavior—”
“Don’t read him a lecture, Becks,” said Viscount Lydgate, the tall, fair-haired exquisite gentleman, whose beautifully tailored clothes concealed the ability to fight like a street ruffian. “When does any man listen to such stuff?”
He turned frosted blue eyes on Davenport. “You’re the talk of London. Think of Cecily, if no one else.”
“Cecily?” repeated Davenport, nonplussed.
“Your sister, old fellow, in case that drink-addled brain of yours has forgotten,” snapped Lydgate. “Your behavior distresses her. That should be reason enough to mend your ways.”
Cecily, who had recently become Duchess of Ashburn, was disgustingly happy, as far as Davenport could tell. But then, he’d avoided Cecily whenever possible, so he could be wrong about that.
Hmm. Distressed, was she? Davenport felt a remote twinge of … something. He refused to let his three cousins see it, whatever it was.
With studied insolence, he took out his watch, checked it, and gave a jaw-breaking yawn. Then he cocked his head in Steyne’s direction and waited.
Steyne’s face held that toplofty, sneering expression it usually wore. Xavier, Marquis of Steyne, could be a mighty unpleasant fellow. But at least he was no stranger to vice.
“Yes, I am quite aware how it must seem to you,” agreed Steyne, his saturnine aspect emphasized by a deep frown. “I am scarcely one to preach propriety. But there is a difference. My sins, while legion, have never attracted vulgar scandal. You hover on the very brink.”
“And we’re going to haul you back from that brink,” Beckenham ground out, “if we need to bind and gag you to do it.”
Davenport’s brow lightened at the prospect of physical violence. “You’re welcome to try.”
Despite the prospect of a good fight in the offing, he felt a nagging sense of injustice. He’d been brought back from the dead with all the drama and fanfare of one of Prinny’s phantasmagoric fêtes. The irony was, Davenport no longer cared whether he lived or died. Too late, he’d discovered the price for his resurrection was too high.
Neither his cousins’ threats nor Cecily’s dogged expressions of love seemed capable of shaking the hold of doom upon him.
He’d lost his life’s work and, with it, his purpose. Now he hunted trouble to the four corners of hell.
“No woman is safe from you,” said Lydgate, his usually easygoing countenance hardened with contempt. “This business with Lady Maria must stop.”
Ah. Lady Maria Shand. Davenport fingered his chin. Her duality had intrigued him. In a ballroom, she was a prim, proper miss. Get her alone in the moonlight and she lost no time shoving her delicate little hands down one’s trousers.
But then, females—particularly females of his class—were so hidebound by ridiculous rules and restrictions. Forced to deny perfectly natural, biological urges and desires. The scientist in him cried out against this repression of instinctual behavior. It was his duty to liberate as many of them as possible.
However, before he’d accepted the blatant invitation to satisfy both their natural urges between the lady’s elegant thighs, he’d made a shocking discovery. While he had the laudable objective of freeing Lady Maria from the chains of propriety, Lady Maria aimed to shackle him into holy matrimony.
It wasn’t the fear of scandal that stopped him but the sudden insight that Lady Maria’s enthusiastic kisses bore the sour tang of deceit.
His cousins’ warning was thus belated and unnecessary. He’d kissed Lady Maria farewell the previous evening without rancor or regret—on his part, at least.
It was an entanglement that could prove uncomfortable on more than one level. Lady Maria’s father, Lord Yarmouth, had been something of a mentor to Davenport at one time.
“As you said, Lydgate, lecturing will not do the job.” Deliberately, Steyne placed a hand on each armrest of Davenport’s chair and leaned in, his expression full of menace.
“Ruralize,” he said. “Leave London and do not come back.”
“What, not ever?” said Davenport, trying to be amused. What could Steyne do to him, after all? “I don’t think so.”
He downed the brandy he’d left untouched on the table by his elbow. The hit of alcohol seemed to sober him, rather than the reverse. What was he doing, sitting here in Steyne’s library, submitting to a lecture? He wasn’t a schoolboy anymore.
Ruralize. The Devil! He might as well hang himself from the nearest tree.
In the country, he’d have too much time to reflect on the wasteland his life had become. If he kept himself moving, busy, occupied, he might outrun that demon, at least for a while. He needed London, the busy stench of it, the roistering, the wenching, the endless, pointless amusements afforded to a gentleman of wealth and status.
He’d hoped his behavior would convince the doubters he had nothing more to offer the world of science he’d left behind. Yet, after all he’d done to throw dust in their eyes, someone still watched him.
Another reason to stay in London. Better to be shadowed in a busy metropolis where he might evade pursuit without appearing conscious of the mysterious figure who dogged his footsteps. In the country, there was little prospect of that.
He didn’t know why he hadn’t put a stop to the business. One more product of the general malaise he’d felt since returning to his old life, he supposed.
Davenport got to his feet, but the effort seemed to cost him. All those sleepless, reckless nights …
Tiredness swept over him, a dragging sense of fatigue. Beckenham had predicted it would all catch up with him one day, and suddenly he feared he was right.
He swayed, stretched out a hand, heard the brandy glass topple and fall to the carpet with a soft thud.
His vision slid and slipped. He narrowed his eyes, trying to bring Xavier’s face into focus.
Through a woolly haze, he heard Lydgate exclaim, “Drugged? Was that really necessary?”
“I think so,” came Xavier’s cool reply. His hands gripped beneath Davenport’s arms and lowered him back into the chair.
But Davenport didn’t stop when his back hit the cushion. He was falling, falling, and try as he might, he couldn’t grab hold of anything, couldn’t do a damned thing to save himself.
The darkness rushed up to swamp him.
* * *
TWO WEEKS EARLIER
“Dismissed?” said Miss Hilary deVere, staring at the thin, tall woman behind the elegant little desk in mounting horror. “But—but you have always been happy with my work, Miss Tollington. I don’t understand.”
Miss Tollington’s Academy for Young Ladies had been Hilary’s life since she was fifteen years old. First as a student, now as a teacher of dancing and deportment. No girl left Miss Tollington’s without a thorough, merciless grounding in courtly behavior, etiquette, and dancing from Miss Hilary deVere.
Hilary was twenty years old, an orphan under the guardianship of a man who had so many wards, he’d forgotten she existed. Which suited her very well indeed, since the last match Lord deVere had tried to make for her was with a toothless old lecher of eighty.
She’d given her all to this school. And now they no longer wanted her.
To her credit, Miss Tollington’s thin, plain face worked with distress. She whisked out a flimsy lace handkerchief and pressed it to her mouth. “Lady Endicott called on me, you see.”
Hilary bit her lip. Lady Endicott was a member of the Black family and very high in the instep. Relations between the deVeres and the Blacks had never been what might be called amicable.
“And what has Lady Endicott to say to anything?” Hilary knew whatever Lady Endicott had to say could not possibly be good.
“Unfortunately, Her Ladyship has a great deal to say to the running of this school.” Miss Tollington blinked rapidly. The lines that pinched her mouth deepened.
She drew a long breath. “You see, Miss deVere, Lady Endicott has become our new patroness.”
“Oh.” Hilary clenched her hands so tightly, her fingernails dug into her palms. “Yes. Yes, I see.”
No matter what she did or who she was inside, people like Lady Endicott never took the trouble to notice. In Her Ladyship’s eyes, Hilary was a dastardly deVere. Someone from her family could not be trusted to instruct young soon-to-be debutantes in proper behavior.
And that was that.
A sense of helpless frustration threatened to choke her. She’d tried so hard to prove herself here. She didn’t know how she could have done more to show that she was not one of those deVeres but a properly behaved, virtuous lady who didn’t deserve to be judged on the sins of her forebears.
Hilary would never go so far as to slump her shoulders—good posture must always be maintained, no matter how one cringed inside—but the utter defeat she felt must have shown on her face.
Miss Tollington dabbed at the corners of her eyes with her handkerchief. In a constricted voice, she said, “I am sorry, Miss deVere. So very, very sorry. If I could find a way around it I would, but…”
The smile Hilary gave her mentor felt like it would crack her face. “Please, do not distress yourself, Miss Tollington. I know you would keep me if you could.”
An idea occurred to her. “Perhaps there is some other task I might perform here besides teaching. I could … I could…”
How might she tell Miss Tollington she’d work as a scullery maid if only the headmistress would let her stay? The thought of returning to her tumbledown home in Lincolnshire and her horrid brothers made her give an inward shudder.
The headmistress was shaking her head. “I’m afraid that’s impossible, my dear.”
Hilary wondered if Lady Endicott had demanded she remove her contaminating presence from the school altogether and on the instant. The deVere men were renowned as uncouth brutes; the women, hard-riding hoydens who were loose in their morals and undiscriminating in their choices of bedmates.
A deVere female would, by her mere presence, taint the purity of the pupils at this fine establishment.
With suppressed violence, she said, “Prejudice. This is sheer prejudice.”
Her emotions needed physical outlet. Hilary jumped up from her chair to pace, casting about for a solution to save her from going back to Wrotham Grange. “If Lady Endicott would only grant me an audience, I could convince her to let me stay. I know I could.”
“I’m afraid not, Miss deVere,” said Miss Tollington gently.
The headmistress rose, too, and came around the desk to put her hands on Hilary’s shoulders. She had never touched Hilary before, and the gesture moved Hilary more than words ever could.
“My dear girl,” murmured Miss Tollington, “I am terribly sad to see you go. But Lady Endicott’s command made me see that I have been selfish in allowing you to remain here so long.”
“Selfish?” Hilary was incredulous. “These past five years have been the happiest of my life.”
Compassion shone from the headmistress’s pale blue eyes. “I know that. And that is why I have been selfish. You need to live, Miss deVere.”
She gestured around her, at the chintzy, homey office that had always seemed so welcoming to Hilary. “I am obliged to make my living this way, and I am dedicated to the school because whenever I do something, I resolve to do it well. But do not fool yourself for a moment. If I had your connections, your fortune and advantages, I should not remain here a second longer than I had to.”
The swollen feeling in Hilary’s throat grew. “Forgive me, but you know very little of my situation if you think I have advantages,” she forced out. “Why, my brothers would never agree to give me a London season. Even if they did, there is no respectable matron I can think of who would take me under her wing. My guardian doesn’t know or care whether I live or die. My fortune is not large enough to interest him in making me an eligible match. And I don’t come into my money until I am one-and-twenty, so that can’t help me, either.”
With a fond smile, Miss Tollington said, “And yet, these obstacles are not insurmountable. I have written to an old acquaintance of mine, Mrs. Farrington. Her two daughters are married and off her hands now. Only last month, I heard from her that she is pining for some new diversion now that her birds have all flown the nest. I cannot promise, of course, but I think she might be willing to sponsor such a decorous, genteel young lady for the coming season.”
Hilary’s heart gave a huge bound in her chest. An emotion between elation and panic coursed through her. She could only blink and stammer her thanks, as was proper.
A London season. Balls and routs, picnics and musicales.
“Almack’s,” she breathed.
But she had not a stitch to wear that would be suitable in London or at an Almack’s subscription ball, for that matter. She could not possibly …
A litany of objections raised their heads, but she squared her shoulders, dismissing them. She’d grab this opportunity with both hands and refuse to let it go.
Her trustees must advance her some money from her inheritance. They’d refused her requests in the past. If she had Mrs. Farrington to help her, perhaps she might shame Lord deVere and his oily solicitor into providing for her wardrobe, at least.
She would get to London for the season or die trying.
Once she was there, she would behave with such elegance and decorum that everyone would see she did not belong with the deVere family. She was a rose among thorns, waiting to be plucked.
If she was very, very lucky, she might even find a husband. She squeezed her eyes shut at the thought. A quiet man, good and kind, refined, well educated. A scholar, perhaps. Nice gentry stock, comfortably situated … She wanted the exact opposite of her selfish, hard-drinking, womanizing brothers and that’s what she would find.
She had a respectable dowry, if not a spectacular one. She might not be a beauty, but she was no antidote, either. Or, at least, she hoped not. And she knew to a nicety how to hold a household, if only she was given the chance.
The more Hilary thought about this scheme, the better she liked it. And she had Miss Tollington to thank.
Hilary threw caution to the winds. Putting her arms about the older woman, she hugged the headmistress tight.
“Thank you. Oh, thank you. I won’t disappoint you, Miss Tollington.”
Miss Tollington smiled down at her. “You never have, my dear Miss deVere.”
There and then, Hilary made a vow. She would charm Mrs. Farrington so much, the lady would be delighted to take her to London and sponsor her debut. There she would show Lady Endicott and the rest of the ton how unfair their prejudice against her was.
She would find a husband who embodied all of the qualities she most admired.
After this season, she would never go back home to Wrotham Grange again.
* * *
“Damnation! Bloody, bloody hell!” A string of even fouler curses issued from Davenport’s lips as the pain in his head pounded into acute agony.
The torture wasn’t just in his head, as he discovered from a mental scan of his body. He ached all over, too.
He lay on some kind of straw pallet in some kind of barn. He had no earthly idea where he was. For several fraught seconds in which his heart stopped and his breath suspended in his lungs he thought they’d got him. Caught up with him at last.
The mysterious, nameless they who had been following him for some time now.
He was unbound, at least. There was no one standing guard, ready to restrain him if he tried to escape. The door to the barn lay wide open, letting in a pale, watery light.
When his breathing calmed and his mind cleared a little, he let his head fall back against the straw and blew out a breath of relief. He remembered now. Xavier and the drugged brandy, Lydgate and Beckenham smuggling him out of London.
He’d woken, taken one look at his captors, and laid into them, fists flying.
There’d been nothing stylish or controlled about that particular fight. Wouldn’t do at all in Jackson’s Boxing Saloon. He grinned as he remembered a particularly nasty uppercut to Beckenham’s jaw.
Witness the suffering in his right hand. He might well have broken it.
Experimentally, he flexed his fingers and swore again. Perhaps not quite broken.
Well, that was a blessing.
Of course they’d overpowered him. He wasn’t a match for two of his cousins, though he’d given a damned good account of himself for someone who’d been drugged and tossed in the back of a farmer’s cart and driven out of town.
His brow creased. Steyne hadn’t been there. Left the others to do his dirty work. Typical.
And a great pity. Davenport would have taken immense pleasure in kicking the supercilious marquis in the bollocks.
Drugged. He hadn’t seen that coming. But he should have known that when Westruthers make up their mind to do something, it gets done. More fool he, to let down his guard. He should have told them all to go to hell when they’d cornered him at Steyne’s house that night.
What time was it, anyway? It wasn’t exactly sunny, but what light there was told him it was daytime. He took out his timepiece, to discover the face had a crack in it. No doubt one more result of his set-to with Lydgate and Beckenham.
He hoped they’d suffered a fraction of his wounds. He hoped they were sore today.
He put the timepiece to his ear and heard the steady tick. Still working, then, despite the damage to the casing. He stared at the hands of the clock face. They blurred, then resolved again into a position that told him it was two o’clock. Afternoon, then.
He needed to get up, but he was reluctant to leave the dubious comfort of the sweet-smelling straw to test his body’s capabilities. He ought to be thankful, he supposed, that they had not dumped him in a pigsty or a horse trough.
Too much to hope they’d be somewhere nearby, waiting for him, ready to convey him somewhere more civilized, like Cribb’s Parlour, perhaps, or his town house in Mayfair.
He wondered where the hell he was.
In a moment, he’d get up and find out.
Just give him a moment.…
The moment in question passed all too quickly for his liking.
He closed his eyes, clenched his teeth, and defied every screaming part of his body to get to his feet.
* * *
A half hour later, Davenport rode through a light drizzle toward Stamford.
He’d borrowed a stocky big gelding from the farmer in whose barn he’d been dumped and requested directions to the nearest posting inn.
They’d left him in the middle of Lincolnshire, miles from his estate, with no funds and no means of transport. In the condition he was in, battered, bruised, and covered in bits of straw, it had taken a hell of a lot of toploftiness, charm, and persuasion to make that farmer part with his nag.
Davenport would be true to his word, however. He had a few coins in his pockets, and he’d pay some ostler or other to ride the horse back to the farm.
A cursory scan of the surrounding countryside didn’t yield any glimpse of the man who had followed him in London. Maybe the fellow had been caught napping by the Westruther cousins’ sudden kidnapping of his quarry. Wouldn’t that be the ultimate irony?
He couldn’t shake a nagging sense of unease, however. In the years since he’d disappeared from society, he’d learned to trust his instincts.
Davenport urged his horse into a canter. He’d be damned if he’d return meekly to Davenport, whether someone followed him or not. If he let his cousins interfere in his pleasures now, there’d be no getting rid of them. They’d have him sober as a judge and married to some straitlaced heiress as quick as he could stare. The mere thought of marriage to a proper English miss made him shudder.
He hadn’t reached the village before he noted a figure coming toward him. Little and bedraggled, it was, on foot and lugging a pair of bandboxes.
And female. Yes, most definitely female. Slender, but rounded in all the places where a female should be round.
With a click of his tongue, he slowed his mount to a walk.
“Ho, there!” he called. “Might I be of assistance, miss?”
The rain had thickened; it dotted her face as she lifted it to peer up at him.
Woebegone little features showed beneath the soggy straw bonnet. They were finely wrought features, delicate in a way that reminded one of storybook pictures of woodland fairies. A plush, full-lipped mouth made her face oddly unbalanced, as if the mouth had come from another place entirely. That feature made him think of bordellos and sin.
She gave a start when she took in his face. Inwardly, he grimaced. No doubt the bruising made him look ghastly.
“No, I thank you, sir.” Her voice was crisp, cultured. One of those prim females he so disliked.
Despite the pressing need to get to London, he could not leave a lady alone in this predicament.
“Let me take you where you need to go.” He gestured down at his horse. “He is big enough for two, you must agree. You will still be drenched, I’m afraid, but at least you will be home in less time.”
He smiled at her, wondering precisely how horrible he looked. “Don’t be afraid. I met with an, er, accident, but I wouldn’t harm you.”
She looked at him straightly. “I know precisely what those bruises on your face mean. You were drunk and fell into a bout of fisticuffs. By the looks of you, you got the worst of it.”
“Well, there were two of them,” he murmured, after a moment of stunned surprise. What did this delicate chit know of drunken brawls?
She set her luscious little mouth in a stubborn line. “Now, if you don’t mind, I’d like to get home before the storm breaks.”
She stepped around him and continued trudging.
He saw no alternative but to turn his horse and follow.
He called after her, “How far is your home?”
She ignored him. Trudge, trudge, trudge.
The wind had picked up, making the rain slant into their faces. Davenport shivered. He still wore his evening kit and his bloody cousins hadn’t done him the courtesy of leaving him with so much as a driving coat to shield him from the elements. It was spring, but you wouldn’t know it, the way the rain had turned to icy needles.
The girl’s slim shoulders remained erect as a sergeant major’s as she battled into the gale. Her hat drooped about her ears; her drab pelisse was dark with damp. Rats’ tails of honey blond hair snaked down her back, whipped free from her tight, proper bun by the wind.
Lightning streaked across the horizon. Thunder cracked, making her halt in her tracks.
But she didn’t look back. She lifted her chin, squared her shoulders, and marched on.
“This is madness,” he said, pulling alongside her. “Don’t be such a little fool.”
He reached down to her, even though she still did not look at him. “Give me the bandboxes.”
Her straight white teeth sank into the cushion of her lower lip. He became acutely conscious of a desire to soothe that beleaguered feature. Preferably with his tongue.
He blinked, cleared his throat. “Come, ma’am. Surely a short ride with me is preferable to getting caught in this storm.”
She sighed. “Very well. Thank you.” Reluctance showing in every line of her body, she handed the bandboxes up.
He tied them securely, then reached down a hand to her. “Put your right foot on mine,” he instructed her.
She did. Her grip tightened on his hand and he hauled her up. She might be a dab of a female, but the rain weighted her skirts. The pain in his shoulder flared, but his smile didn’t waver.
She didn’t smile back. Her eyes flickered as she looked into his face properly for the first time, but the expression of disdain did not alter.
“Thank you,” she said frigidly.
He gripped her around the waist and settled the wet, bedraggled bundle more comfortably across the saddle before him.
“You are freezing,” he said.
She sat as straight as she could under the circumstances, as if she had a poker rammed down the back of her gown.
He chuckled. Really, she was absurd. “Relax. I won’t bite.”
Much as he’d like to.
“I am perfectly relaxed,” she said stiffly.
“If you lean against me, you will be more comfortable,” he murmured provocatively, his breath warming her ear. “Shared body heat does wonders against the chill.”
She glanced at him suspiciously.
“I assure you, it’s true. It’s all to do with thermal conduction.”
He went on to explain the principles of heat transference, but despite all of the obscure, multisyllabic words he threw in to impress her, she refused to participate in his proposed experiment.
“Thank you. I do not regard the cold.”
She didn’t regard him, either, but stared ahead. Clearly, the affront to her dignity of allowing some nameless ruffian to escort her home—and at such scandalous proximity—was insurmountable.
With a mental shrug, he set the horse into a brisk walk, enjoying the way she was forced to move against him in rhythm with the motion of their mount. Despite the icy damp of her, despite his own aches and ails, his body went on full alert for action.
At close quarters, he noticed the warm, creamy perfection of her skin. That her irises were not blue, as he’d expected from her fair coloring, but light brown, flecked with hints of gold.
She had a lovely, queenly neck, he discovered, sadly shadowed by the high collar of her pelisse. She dressed like a spinster aunt, but she couldn’t have long left her teens.
“I believe it is customary in such situations to make polite conversation with your rescuer,” he said, teasing her.
She turned her head to look at him. Who knew warm brown eyes could turn so cold?
“We have not been introduced,” she said. “Therefore, I cannot converse with you.”
He wanted to laugh. Her bottom was so near to his groin as to make them very close acquaintances indeed. Yet she would be a stickler for the proprieties.
“Allow me to rectify that error,” he said. “I am—”
“Pray, don’t trouble yourself.” She flicked a repelling glance at him. “I don’t expect we shall meet again after today.”
He did laugh then. “Oho! If you think that, you don’t know much about men, Miss…?” He ended on a note of inquiry.
“Persistent, aren’t you?” She cocked an eyebrow but did not turn her head. She seemed quite determined not to look at him any longer than necessary. Did he present that much of an ugly spectacle?
Persistent? He thought about that. “I can be.”
In the pursuit of science, he’d been dogged. Some might say obsessed. And yet, since his return, he’d found little worth his extended attention. However, he would persevere with this lady, if only to ruffle those dignified feathers of hers.
She ignored him.
“Very well, then,” he said. “If you will not give me your name, I shall be obliged to make one up.”
“Can your horse not go any faster?” she asked.
“Let’s see, shall we?” He nudged the gelding into an easy canter, taking the opportunity to hug her in tight against him, ostensibly to save her from falling.
She squawked a furious protest. He ignored her.
“I might call you Joan,” he decided. “You have a certain air of the burning martyr about you. But I daresay that is merely because you are obliged to ride in the embrace of a reprobate such as me. If you smiled, you would not look like a Joan at all. You do smile, on occasion, I trust?”
No answer. Silent outrage poured from her in waves.
“Not Joan, then. Hmm. Something from the Greek pantheon, perhaps. Aphrodite? Or is that wishful thinking on my part?”
“You are ridiculous!” she burst out. “Even if we were introduced, I should never give you leave to use my given name.”
She’d colored up quite nicely now, torturing that poor, pretty underlip with her teeth. A sudden yearning startled him in its sharp urgency. What the Devil was wrong with him? She was not the type of woman he usually favored. He couldn’t conceive of her ever sticking her hands down his trousers, moonlight or no.
The rain had eased a little, but lightning still frolicked about them. The storm was about to break around their ears and he didn’t give a damn. There was something about this young lady. He couldn’t put his finger on precisely what it was, but he wasn’t about to let her slip from his grasp too easily.
They’d covered two miles or so before it occurred to him he could use the storm to his advantage.
“I fear we might be obliged to take shelter nearby,” he commented. “It probably isn’t safe to be out.”
“I’d rather be struck by lightning than go anywhere private with you,” she declared in a stifled voice. “Ride on, if you please. My … destination is just down that lane, up ahead.”
He noticed the slight hesitation. Hadn’t she said she was going home before? Was she so prejudiced against him that she didn’t want him to know where she lived?
He hadn’t realized they were so close to the end of this delightful journey. He wanted to know more about her, to keep teasing her until he broke through all that dreadful propriety to the flesh-and-blood woman beneath.
He wondered who awaited this prickly little creature. Not a husband or a lover. For one thing, she didn’t have a ring on her finger. For another, he could see she was a virgin as clearly as if it had been stamped across her forehead.
Indeed, virtue never had such a staunch defender as this young lady. Despite the danger of falling from the saddle as their speed increased, she held doggedly to the pommel rather than lean back against him and accept his embrace.
Her profile was finely wrought. Enchanting. Perhaps it was just as well she did not smile. His heart might not have stood it.
Temptation gnawed at him. He’d had many women since his return from exile, but despite the intricate games aristocratic coquettes liked to indulge in, not one had left him in any doubt that those games would end in bed.
This lady gave him no quarter. The hunter in him found her complete disinterest—indeed, her antipathy—irresistible.
He glimpsed a sprawling manor house at the end of the lane. This was it. He halted his steed and stared down at his fair passenger.
Copyright © 2013 by Christina Brooke
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