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The Naked Gentleman
By Sally MacKenzie
Copyright © 2008 Sally MacKenzie
All right reserved.
Viscount Bennington was a terrible kisser.
Meg repressed a sigh. What a pity. She had been willing to overlook his receding hairline, large nose, and frequent petulance, but this was too much. How could she wed a man whose lips felt like two fat slugs? They were trailing wetly over her cheek toward her right ear at the moment.
She should strike him from her list of potential suitors.
Still, he did have one of the largest plant collections in England. She would dearly love to have daily access to all that botanical wealth.
The slugs had diverted to her jaw.
How important could kissing be? Only a small portion of one's married life was devoted to the amatory arts, after all. Chances were Viscount Bennington had a mistress or two. He'd only look to her for an heir. Once that task was accomplished, he would leave her alone.
She could do it. More than one woman had suffered through the activities of the marriage bed by lying still and thinking of England. She'd spend the time mentally cataloguing Bennington's vast gardens.
His lips wandered to a spot behind her ear. She would need a handkerchief to dry her face when he was finished slobbering over her.
She drew in a deep breath, but stopped when her lungs were only half full.
He smelled. The odor was quite pronounced at these close quarters. Thankfully he was only a few inches taller than she, so she did not have her nose squashed against his waistcoat.
And he should have a word with his valet about the state of his linen. There was a thin line of dirt on his collar and cravat.
Eww! He'd stuck his tongue in her ear.
That did it. He could own the Garden of Eden and she would still have to eliminate him from her list of possible husbands.
"My lord!" She shoved against his thin chest.
"Hmm?" His mouth moved down to the base of her neck and fastened there, just like a leech.
"Lord Bennington, please." She shoved again. None of the other men she'd taken into the shrubbery had been this bold. "You must stop ... eep!"
His hands had slid down to her hips. He pulled her tight against him. She felt an ominous bulge in his pantaloons.
She shoved harder. She might as well be pushing against a stone wall. Who would have guessed such a short, scraggy man would be so immoveable?
"My lord, you are making me uncomfortable."
He pressed his bulge more tightly against her. "And you are making me uncomfortable, sweetings." His voice was oddly thick. His mouth returned to her skin. He nipped her shoulder.
"Ouch! Stop that."
The man was a viscount. A gentleman. Surely he would not do anything untoward in Lord Palmerson's garden, just yards away from a crowded ballroom?
He was not stopping. Now he was licking the place he had bitten. Disgusting.
"My lord, return me to Lady Beatrice this instant!"
He grunted and returned his mouth to her throat.
Should she scream? Would anyone hear her over the music? If she waited for the quiet between sets ... Perhaps another couple had chosen to stroll in the cool night air and would come to her assistance.
Lord Bennington nuzzled her ear. "Don't be alarmed, Miss Peterson. My intentions are completely honorable."
"Honorable? I-" Meg paused. "Honorable as in marriage honorable?"
"Of course. What did you think?"
What did she think? Yes, he was somewhat revolting, but should a little dirt and slobber really eliminate him from matrimonial consideration? This was her goal, to be wed or engaged before the Season ended. The Season was barely a month under way and here she was already on the verge of a respectable-no, a brilliant-offer. A vicar's daughter nabbing a viscount? The society gossips would have their tongues working overtime to spread the news.
He did have all those lovely plants. A greenhouse and garden in London and acres of vegetation in Devon.
Really, how many times would she have to put up with his attentions if she married him? Papa and Harriet were extremely attached to each other, and her sister and her friend Lizzie spent a great deal of time with their husbands, but most married couples of the ton barely saw each other. If she were lucky, she would conceive quickly, maybe even on her wedding night. Then she and Bennington could go their separate ways.
She could endure a few moments of inconvenience to get the key to his greenhouse, couldn't she? There was no one else who had such a wealth of plants. Well, no one but Parks-Mr. Parker-Roth-and he clearly wasn't interested in marrying her.
She moistened her lips. Could she say yes? It was past time she wed. She wanted a home of her own. A garden. Children.
Children with Lord Bennington's overwhelming nose?
"My lord, I don't ..." "Come, Miss Peterson. You won't get another offer. Surely you know that."
"Lord Bennington!" He might be a viscount, but that did not give him license to be insulting.
"The other men haven't mentioned marriage, have they?"
"The other men?" Had he noticed her excursions into the shrubbery? Surely not. She'd been very discreet. "I'm not certain what you mean. I thought since we share an interest in horticulture, touring Lord Palmerson's garden with you would be stimulating."
He chuckled and flexed his hips. His annoying bulge dug into her. "Very stimulating."
Something was definitely stimulated. Who would have thought such a short man would have such a large, um ...
"My lord ..."
"At this rate, you are more apt to lose your reputation than win a husband, Miss Peterson. Men talk, you know."
It was a very good thing the garden was dark. Meg felt her cheeks burning. Surely he didn't think ...?
"Lord Bennington, I assure you-"
"Oh, I know you haven't done anything but exchange a few kisses. Lord Farley said you were quite untutored. Thought he might have been your first. Was he?"
"Lord Bennington! Please. I would like to return to the ballroom now."
"I imagine at your advanced age you are a little curious." He laughed. "Probably a little desperate, too."
"My lord, I am only twenty-one."
"Right. Well past the age when you might expect to grab a husband, hmm?"
"Not at all."
"Come now, Margaret. I may call you Margaret, mayn't I? I believe we're sufficiently acquainted to dispense with the proprieties."
His left hand landed on her bodice.
She grabbed his wrist. Somehow he had managed to shed his gloves. "No, we are definitely not sufficiently acquainted."
"You are just suffering from maidenly fears, sweetings." His fingers brushed across the tops of her breasts.
"Call me 'Bennie.' All my intimates do."
"I couldn't possibly. Remove your hand this instant."
He moved it to her shoulder.
"I'm thirty-six. It's time I thought of getting an heir. Your family is respectable. Your father is connected to the Earl of Landsdowne, isn't he?"
"He is Lord Landsdowne's uncle, but the earl doesn't concern himself with us." She looked through the leaves toward the beckoning light. Did she see movement in the shadows? She hoped someone was nearby to assist her if necessary.
The viscount's fingers stroked her skin. She clenched her teeth.
"But your sister is the Marchioness of Knightsdale. I'm certain she concerns herself with you. Didn't she raise you after your mother died?"
"Yes. The ballroom, my lord. It is past time we returned." His palm was unpleasantly damp.
"And the Countess of Westbrooke is your good friend."
"Yes, yes." Had the man made a study of all her connections? "The ballroom, Lord Bennington. Please escort me back to the ballroom. If you wish to discuss my family further, we can do so there."
"And both the earl and the marquis are close friends of the Duke of Alvord-in fact, the earl is the duchess's cousin."
"Lord Bennington ..."
"I would like to be connected to all that power and wealth. Any one of those men could finance an expedition to the jungles of South America without a second thought."
"Jungles? South America?" Had the man lost his mind?
"I want to send my own men out to find exotic plants, Margaret."
"I see." She would like to do that, too, but it was clearly impossible. "An expedition such as you are describing is very expensive. Mr. Parker-Roth was telling me-"
Bennington's hand tightened on her shoulder.
"My lord, you are hurting me."
"You know Parker-Roth?"
"Slightly. I met him at a house party last year." Meg shifted position. "Please, Lord Bennington, you will leave a bruise."
He loosened his fingers. "My pardon. I just cannot abide the man. He's a neighbor of mine. Spends most of his time in the country."
"Ah." So that was why she hadn't seen him in Town-not that she'd been looking, of course.
"It's disgusting the way everyone fawns over him when he does attend a Horticultural Society meeting. He has plenty of money-he sends his brother all over the globe looking for plant specimens."
"I see." Lord Bennington's hold on her had slackened. Would he let her go now? "Shall we return to the ballroom, my lord?"
"But you haven't given me your answer."
"Yes. Will you marry me or not?"
Lord Bennington was frowning at her, all signs of passion gone. She found it quite easy to make up her mind.
"I am very sorry, my lord. I am fully aware of the great honor you do me, but I believe we would not suit."
The frown deepened.
"What do you mean, we would not suit?"
"We would not ... suit." What did the man want her to say? That she thought he was a hideous oaf and she had made a huge error in judgment even speaking to him?
"You brought me into this dark garden and yet you are turning down my offer?"
"I really did not expect an offer of marriage, my lord."
"What kind of an offer did you expect? Are you looking for a slip on the shoulder, then?"
"My lord! Of course not. I was not expecting an offer now. I mean, I was not expecting an offer of anything-any offer at all. I just wished to take a turn about the garden."
"Miss Peterson, I was not born yesterday. You lured me into this darkened corner for a reason. Was it just to steal a kiss? Are you that starved for amorous activity?"
"Lord Bennington!" Had the man actually said "amorous" with regard to her?
"You are not going to use me to satisfy your urges."
Urges! Her only urge was to get back to the light and sanity of the ballroom.
The viscount was becoming markedly agitated. She really had not anticipated such a reaction. The other men had been completely amiable when she'd suggested they go back inside. Lord Bennington was almost hissing.
"You chose to come into the garden with me, so now you'll pay the price. When I'm finished with you, your wealthy relatives and friends will beg me to wed you." "Lord Bennington, be reasonable. You are a gentleman."
"I am a man, Miss Peterson. Surely your sister has warned you it is highly unwise to be alone with a man in an isolated place."
Emma had warned her of many things-perhaps she should have listened to this particular lecture. At least she would be spared Emma's jobation this time-her sister was safely ensconced in Kent with her children. If she could just get away from Bennington, all would be well. She had learned her lesson. She would not be visiting any shadowy shrubbery again.
The viscount stuck his hands into her coiffure, sending pins flying everywhere. Her hair cascaded over her shoulders.
"Lord Bennington, stop immediately!"
He grunted. He had his hands on her bodice again. She jerked her knee up, but she missed her target.
"Playing that game, are you?"
"My lord, I will scream."
"Please do. The scandal will be delightful. How much do you suppose the marquis will pay to keep it quiet?"
"Oh, Miss Peterson, you are naïve."
He mashed his mouth on hers, parting her lips. His tongue slithered between her teeth like a snake, threatening to choke her. She did the only thing she could think of.
She bit down hard.
John Parker-Roth-Parks to his friends and acquaintances-stepped out of the heat and noise of Lord Palmerson's ballroom into the cool quiet of the garden.
Thank God. He could still smell the stench of London, but at least he wasn't choking any longer on the foul mix of perfume, hair oil, stale breath, and sweat that permeated the air inside. Why his mother wanted to subject herself to that crush of humanity was beyond him.
He chose a path at random. Palmerson's garden was large for Town. If he could ignore the cacophony of music and conversation spilling out of the house and the general clamor from the street, he could almost imagine he was back in the country.
Almost. Damn. Had the plants Stephen sent arrived yet? He should be home to receive them. If they'd traveled all the way from South America to die waiting to be unpacked at the Priory ... It didn't bear thinking of.
Would MacGill follow his instructions exactly? He'd written them down in detail and gone over each point with the man, but the pigheaded Scot always thought he knew best. All right, usually he did. MacGill was a bloody fine head gardener, but still, these plants required careful handling.
He wanted to be there himself. Why had his mother insisted on dragging him to Town now?
He blew out a pent up breath. He knew why-the blasted Season. She said it was to get more painting supplies and to catch up with her artist friends, but she didn't fool him. She wanted him wed.
He'd heard Palmerson had a good specimen of Magnolia grandiflora. He'd see if he could find it. With luck it would be in the farthest, darkest corner of the garden. He wouldn't put it past his mother to come out here looking for him, dragging her latest candidate for his hand behind her.
Why the hell couldn't she accept the fact he did not want to marry? He'd told her time after time. Was it such a hard message to understand?
Apparently it was. He grimaced. Now she sighed and got that worried frown every time she looked at him.
He batted aside a drooping vine. The fact of the matter was there was no need for him to marry. He didn't have a title to pass on. The Priory could go to Stephen or Nicholas, if Father didn't outlive them all. He was very happy with his life. He had his work-his plants and his gardens. He had an accommodating widow in the village, not that he visited her much any more. Frankly, he'd rather be working in his rose beds than Cat's bed. The roses were less trouble.
No, a wife would just be an annoyance.
Damn it, was that rustling in the shrubbery? That would make this evening complete-stumbling over some amorous couple in the bushes. He veered away from the suspect vegetation.
The problem was Mother firmly believed marriage was necessary for male contentment. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. God give him patience. Didn't she ever open her eyes and look around the bloody ballrooms she'd been dragging him to? She might be happily married, and Father might be content, but most husbands and wives were not.
He had no interest in stepping into parson's mousetrap. Maybe if Grace had-
No. He would not entertain such a ridiculous notion. He'd decided that years ago. Grace had made her choice, and she was happy. Last he'd heard, she had two children. She'd been in the ballroom just now. He'd seen her laughing up at her husband at the end of the last set.
The noise from the bushes was getting louder. Wonderful. Were the lovers having a spat? That was the last thing he wanted to witness. He would just-
Good God, that was Bennington's voice. The man had the devil's own temper. Surely he wouldn't-
"My lord, please." The girl's voice held a thread of fear. "You are hurting me."
He strode forward without another thought.
She must not panic. Bennington was a gentleman.
He looked like a monster. He stared at her through narrowed eyes, nostrils flaring, jaw hardened. His hands gripped her upper arms. She was certain his fingers would leave bruises.
"My lord, please." She moistened her lips. Fear made it hard to get her breath. He was so much stronger than she, and the garden was so dark.
He was a viscount, a peer, a gentleman. He wouldn't really harm her, would he?
She had never seen a man so angry.
"You are hurting me."
"Hurting you? Ha! I'll show you hurting."
He shook her so her head flopped on her neck like a rag doll's, then he yanked her bodice down, tearing the fabric. He grabbed her breast and squeezed. The pain was excruciating.
"Bite me, will you? How would you like me to bite your-"
A well-tailored forearm appeared at his throat.
Excerpted from The Naked Gentleman by Sally MacKenzie Copyright © 2008 by Sally MacKenzie. Excerpted by permission.
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