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By Hoyt, Elizabeth
Vision Copyright © 2011 Hoyt, Elizabeth
All right reserved.
Once upon a time, in a land quite on the other side of the world, there lived a queen both beautiful and wise. She was called Ravenhair….
—from Queen Ravenhair
The daughter of a duke learns early in life the proper etiquette for nearly everything. What dish to serve roasted larks in. When to acknowledge a rather risqué dowager countess and when to give her the cut direct. What to wear while boating down the Thames, and how to fend off the tipsy advances of an earl with very little income at the picnic afterward.
Everything, in fact, Lady Hero Batten reflected wryly, but how to address a gentleman coupling vigorously with a married lady not his own.
“Ahem,” she tried while gazing fixedly at the molded plaster pears on the ceiling overhead.
The two people on the settee appeared not to hear her. Indeed, the lady gave a series of loud animal squeals from under the skirts of her atrocious puce-and-brown-striped gown, which had been flipped up to cover her face.
Hero sighed. They were in a dim little sitting room off the library of Mandeville House, and she was regretting choosing this particular room in which to fix her stocking. Had she picked the blue Oriental room, her stocking would be straight by now and she’d already be back in the ballroom—far away from this embarrassing predicament.
She lowered her eyes cautiously. The gentleman, wearing an anonymous white wig, had discarded his embroidered satin coat and was laboring atop the lady in his shirtsleeves and a brilliant emerald waistcoat. His breeches and smallclothes were loosened to facilitate his endeavors, and every now and again a flash of muscled buttock was visible.
Sadly, she found the sight mesmerizing. Whomever the gentleman was, his physical attributes were quite… astonishing.
Hero tore her gaze away to look longingly at the door. Really, few would find fault with her should she turn and tiptoe from the room. That was exactly what she would’ve done when she’d first entered had she not passed Lord Pimbroke not two minutes before in the hallway. For, as it happened, Hero had noted the atrocious puce-and-brown-striped gown earlier in the evening—on Lady Pimbroke. Much as Hero was loath to embarrass herself, her own feelings were not, in the end, as important as the possibility of a duel and subsequent injury or death to two gentlemen.
Having come to this conclusion, Hero nodded once, took off one diamond earbob, and lobbed it at the gentleman’s backside. She’d always quietly prided herself on her aim—not that she used it much in everyday life—and she was rather gratified to hear a yelp from the male.
He swore and turned, looking at her over his shoulder with the most glorious pale green eyes she’d ever seen. He wasn’t a handsome man—his face was too broad across the cheekbones, his nose too crooked, and his mouth too thin and cynical for true masculine beauty—but his eyes would draw any female, young or old, from across a room. And once drawn, their gaze would linger on the look of arrogant male virility he wore as naturally as he breathed.
Or perhaps it was merely the, er, circumstances that gave him the look.
“D’you mind, love?” he drawled, the anger in his expression having changed to faint amusement when he’d caught sight of her. His voice was gravelly and completely unhurried. “I’m busy here.”
She could feel heat suffusing her cheeks—really, this was an impossible situation—but she met his gaze, making quite sure hers did not wander lower. “Indeed. I had noticed, but I thought you should know—”
“Unless you’re the type who likes to watch?”
Now her face was aflame, but she wasn’t about to let this… this wretch get the better of her verbally. She allowed her gaze to drop swiftly and scornfully down over his rumpled waistcoat and shirt—fortunately the tail hid his open breeches—and back up. She smiled sweetly. “I prefer entertainments in which I’m not in danger of falling asleep.”
She expected her insult to anger him, but instead the rogue tutted.
“Happens a lot to you, does it, sweetheart?” His voice was solicitous, but a sly dimple appeared beside his wide lips. “Falling asleep just as the fun’s about to begin? Well, don’t blame yourself. Like as not, it’s the gentleman’s fault, not yours.”
Good God, no one ever spoke to her like this!
Slowly, awfully, Hero arched her left brow. She knew it was slow and awful because she’d practiced the movement in front of a mirror for hours on end at the age of twelve. The result made seasoned matrons tremble in their heeled slippers.
The devilish man didn’t turn a hair.
“Now, as it happens,” he drawled obnoxiously, “my ladies don’t have that problem. Stay and watch—it’ll prove instructive, I guarantee. And if I have any strength left over after, maybe I’ll demonstrate—”
“Lord Pimbroke is in the hallway!” she blurted before he could finish his dastardly thought.
The mound of puce-and-brown-striped skirts quaked. “Eustace is here?”
“Quite. And heading this way,” Hero informed Lady Pimbroke with only a touch of satisfaction.
The gentleman exploded into action. He was up and off the lady and throwing down her skirts to hide her pale, soft thighs before Hero could even blink. He caught up his coat, made one swift, appraising glance about the room, and turned to Hero, his voice still unhurried. “Lady Pimbroke has torn a ribbon or lace or some such thing, and you’ve kindly consented to help her.”
He placed his forefinger against her lips—warm, large, and quite shockingly inappropriate. At the same time, a male voice called from the hallway.
Lady Pimbroke—or Bella—squeaked in fear.
“There’s a good girl,” the rogue whispered to Hero. He turned to Lady Pimbroke, bussed her on the cheek, and murmured, “Steady on, darling,” before disappearing under the settee.
Hero had only a moment to watch Lady Pimbroke’s pretty, insipid face go ashen as she realized fully the peril she was in, and then the door to the sitting room crashed open.
“Bella!” Lord Pimbroke was big, reddened, and quite obviously intoxicated. He glanced belligerently around the room, his hand on his sword, but froze in consternation when he saw Hero. “My lady, what—?”
“Lord Pimbroke.” Hero casually stepped in front of the settee, obscuring a large masculine heel with her wide skirts.
She employed her left eyebrow.
Lord Pimbroke actually backed up a step—quite gratifying after the reception her eyebrow had received from the rogue—and stammered. “I… I…”
Hero turned to Lady Pimbroke, touching lightly the horrid yellow braiding on the elbow of her gown. “That’s fixed, I think, don’t you?”
Lady Pimbroke started. “Oh! Oh, yes, thank you, my lady.”
“Not at all,” Hero murmured.
“If you’re done here, m’dear,” Lord Pimbroke said, “then perhaps you’re ready to return to the ball?”
His words may have been a question, but his tone of voice most certainly was not.
Lady Pimbroke took his arm rather sulkily. “Yes, Eustace.”
And with a perfunctory good-bye, the two left the room.
Almost immediately, Hero felt a tug upon her skirts. “Hist! I can hardly breathe under here.”
“They may return,” she said serenely.
“I think I can see up your skirt.”
She moved back hastily.
The rogue rolled out from under the settee and stood, towering over her.
Nonetheless, she glared down her nose at him. “You weren’t—”
“Now, now. If I was, do you really think I’d tell you?”
She sniffed, sounding rather like Cousin Bathilda at her most priggish. “No doubt you’d boast of it.”
He leaned over her, grinning. “Does the thought have you all hot and bothered?”
“Is your wig growing tight?” she asked politely.
“Because I would think your swelled head would make it quite uncomfortable.”
His smile became a trifle grim. “My head isn’t the only thing out of proportion, I assure you. Maybe that’s why you came in here? To sneak a peek?”
She rolled her eyes. “You have no trace of shame, do you? Most men at least pretend to be abashed when caught in wrongdoing, but you—you strut about like a feckless cockerel.”
He paused in the act of donning his coat, one arm thrust out, the sleeve half on, and widened his beautiful green eyes at her. “Oh, of course. Moralizing. Naturally you must hold yourself superior to me when—”
“I saw you engaging in adultery!”
“You saw me engaging in a pleasant fuck,” he said with slow emphasis.
She flinched at the crudity but stood her ground. She was the daughter of a duke, and she would not flee from a man such as he. “Lady Pimbroke is married.”
“Lady Pimbroke has had numerous lovers before me and will have numerous lovers after me.”
“That does not forgive your sin.”
He looked at her and laughed—actually laughed—slow and deep. “And you are a woman without sin, is that it?”
She didn’t even have to consider the matter. “Naturally.”
His mouth twisted cruelly. “Such certainty.”
She stared, affronted. “Do you doubt me?”
“Oh, no, far from it. I believe absolutely that the thought of sin has never once crossed your perfect little mind.”
She tilted her chin, feeling a thrill of excitement—she’d never before argued with a gentleman, let alone a strange one. “And I begin to wonder if any thought of righteousness has ever crossed your shameless little mind.”
He watched her a moment, a muscle twitching in his jaw. Then he bowed abruptly. “I thank you for going against your own inclinations and saving me from having to kill Lord Pimbroke.”
She nodded stiffly.
“And I hope most fervently that our paths never cross again, my Lady Perfect.”
Unaccountably, Hero felt a pang of hurt at his dismissive words, but she made sure not to let the weak emotion show. “I will certainly pray that I never have to suffer your presence again, my Lord Shameless.”
“Then we are in agreement.”
For a moment she stared at him, her breasts pressing against her stays with each too-fast breath, her cheeks hot with emotion. They’d drawn closer in the heat of their argument, and his chest nearly brushed the lace of her bodice. He stared back, his eyes very green in his loathsome face.
His gaze dropped to her mouth.
Her lips parted and for an endless second, she forgot to breathe.
He turned and strode to the door, disappearing into the dim hallway beyond.
Hero blinked and inhaled with a shudder as she looked dazedly around the room. There was a mirror hanging on the wall, and she crossed to it to peer at her reflection in the glass. Her red hair was still elegantly coiffed, her lovely silvery-green dress properly in place. Her cheeks were a little pinkened, but the color was becoming. Strangely, she didn’t appear all that changed.
Well. That was good.
She threw back her shoulders and swept from the room, her step graceful but quick. Tonight of all nights, it was important she present a serene, lovely, and perfect aspect, for tonight her engagement to the Marquess of Mandeville was to be announced.
Hero tilted her chin at the remembered sneer of the stranger as he’d mouthed the word perfect. What could he possibly have against perfection anyway?
GODDAMN ALL SELF-SATISFIED, perfect women—and that red-haired wench in the sitting room in particular!
Lord Griffin Reading, strode toward his brother’s ballroom in a foul mood. Damnable chit! She’d stood there disapproving and priggish and dared to look down her narrow nose at him. She’d probably never felt an honest human urge in her entire, too-sheltered life. The only sign of her embarrassment had been the pink blotches climbing her delicately pale throat as she stared at him. Griffin grunted. That censorious face should have caused any man’s pride to wilt.
Except, as it happened, he’d had just the opposite reaction—and it wasn’t because he’d not reached completion with Bella, either. No, the prospect of being discovered by an irate husband, followed speedily by a bloody duel at dawn had cooled his ardor quite thoroughly, thank you. By the time he’d rolled out from under the settee, he’d been calm in both body and mind. Until, that is, he’d exchanged heated words with that holier-than-thou madam. His cock had seemed to look upon the argument as some kind of bizarre preamble to bedsport, despite the lady’s obvious respectability, her hostility to him, and his own instant dislike of her.
Griffin paused in a shadowed corner, trying to calm himself as he fingered the diamond earring in his pocket. He’d found the thing under the settee and had meant to give it back to Lady Perfect before her tart tongue had made him forget the trinket altogether. Well, served her right to lose her pretty earring if that was how she talked to gentlemen.
He rolled a shoulder. When he’d entered the ballroom half an hour ago, he’d not even had time to greet his mother and sisters before Bella had waylaid him with her naughty suggestion. Had he known her husband was attending the ball as well, he’d never have let himself be drawn into such a dangerous tryst.
Griffin sighed. But it was too late now for self-recriminations. Better to simply file the embarrassing episode under Things Best Forgotten as Soon as Possible and move on. Megs and Caroline probably didn’t care one way or the other that he’d disappeared, but Mater would no doubt be keeping an eagle eye out for him. No use in putting it off. With a last tug at his neckcloth to make sure it was straight, Griffin entered the ballroom.
Lights blazed from crystal chandeliers high overhead, illuminating a veritable crush. This would be the event of the season, and no member of London society wanted to miss it. Griffin began to weave his way through the mass of colorfully dressed bodies, his progress made slower by the frequent need to greet old friends and curious acquaintances.
“How kind of you to attend, darling,” a dry voice said at his elbow.
Griffin turned from a duet of simpering young matrons blocking his way and leaned down to kiss his mother on the cheek. “Ma’am. It’s good to see you.”
The words were rote, but not the sudden emotion behind them. He hadn’t been to London in almost a year, and it had been over eight months since his mother had visited him at the family estate in Lancashire. He tilted his head, studying her. Her fine hair, knotted elegantly under a lace cap, might have a few more gray threads, but otherwise her dear face was unchanged. Her brown eyes, bracketed with crinkled laugh lines, were far too intelligent, the soft-bowed mouth pursed to hide a fond smile, and the straight eyebrows were faintly arched in a perpetual amusement that matched his own.
“You’re as brown as a nut,” she murmured, reaching up to touch one finger to his cheek. “I suppose you’ve been out riding the lands.”
“Perceptive as always, my dear mater,” he said, offering his arm.
She linked her elbow with his. “And how is the harvest?”
A point of pain throbbed in his temple, but Griffin answered cheerfully, “Well enough.”
He felt her worried look. “Truly?”
“It was a dry summer, so the harvest was smaller than anticipated.” A pretty gloss on what in fact had been an abysmal harvest. Their land was not particularly fertile to begin with—something his mother already knew—but there was no point in making her fret. “We’ll do well with the grain, never fear.”
He was deliberately vague about what exactly he’d be doing with the grain. That was his burden to bear for his mother and the rest of the family.
His answer seemed to reassure her. “Good. Lord Bollinger is showing interest in Margaret, and she’ll need new gowns this season. I don’t want to overstretch our funds.”
“That’s not a problem,” he replied, even as he swiftly calculated in his head. It would be a near thing as always, but he should be able to get the monies—providing he suffered no further losses. The pain in his temple intensified. “Buy Megs all the fripperies she wants. The family purse can stand it.”
The line of worry between her brows eased. “And, of course, there’s Thomas.”
He was braced for the subject of his brother, but somehow he wasn’t able to prevent the slight stiffening of his muscles.
Naturally Mater sensed it. “I’m so glad you came, Griffin. Now is the time to put that little contretemps behind you two.”
Griffin snorted. He hardly thought his brother considered the matter a “little contretemps.” Thomas acted with propriety in all things, and he’d not have argued with Griffin over anything trivial. To have done so would be to let emotion rule him, which for someone as proper as Thomas was anathema. For a moment, Lady Perfect’s wide gray eyes came to mind. She, no doubt, would’ve gotten on famously with his priggishly correct brother.
Griffin made an attempt to appear pleased at the prospect of seeing Thomas again. “Of course. It’ll be wonderful to talk to Thomas.”
Mater frowned. Obviously he needed to work on his pleased expression. “He misses you, you know.”
He shot her an incredulous look.
“Truly, he does,” she insisted, though he noticed two spots of color had flown into her cheeks—even Mater had doubts about Thomas’s reception of him. “This estrangement must end. It’s not good for the family, it’s not good for you both, and it’s not good for me. Why it ever dragged on this long, I’ll never know.”
Griffin caught a flash of moss green out of the corner of his eye, and he turned, his pulse picking up. But the lady wearing the dress had already disappeared into the crowd.
“Griffin, pay attention,” his mother hissed.
He smiled down at her. “Sorry, thought I saw someone I wanted to avoid.”
She huffed. “I’m sure there are any number of disreputable ladies you wish to avoid.”
“Actually, this one is rather too reputable,” he said easily. His hand had drifted to his coat pocket, and he fingered the little diamond earring. He ought to return it to her, he supposed.
“Really?” For a moment, he thought his mother might be diverted from her harangue. Then she shook her head. “Don’t try to change the subject. It’s been three years since you and Thomas began this wretched argument, and my nerves are terribly frayed. I don’t think I can take one more freezing letter between the two of you or dinner watching my every word for fear I’ll raise the wrong topic of conversation.”
“Pax, Mater.” Griffin chuckled and bent to kiss her outraged cheek. “Thomas and I shall shake hands and make up like good little boys, and you shall dine with the both of us while I’m in London.”
“On my honor.” He held his palm to his chest. “I’m going to be so pleasant and thoroughly nice that Thomas won’t be able to stop himself from falling on me with protestations of fraternal love.”
“Humph,” she said. “Well, I certainly hope so.”
“Nothing in the world,” he assured her blithely, “can possibly stop me.”
Hero turned at the deep male voice and saw her dear elder brother, Maximus Batten, the Duke of Wakefield. For a moment, her mind blanked at the question. In the two months it had taken to arrange her engagement to the Marquess of Mandeville, Maximus had asked her several times if she was content with the match, but he had never asked her if she was happy.
“Hero?” Maximus’s straight dark brows drew together over his rather arrogant nose.
She’d often thought that Maximus’s looks suited his rank perfectly. If one closed one’s eyes and tried to paint the perfect duke in one’s mind, Maximus would appear. He was tall, his shoulders broad but not heavy, his face long and lean and just a tad too coldly commanding to be truly handsome. His hair was dark brown—though he cropped it close, as he habitually wore immaculate white wigs—and his eyes were brown as well. Brown eyes were often thought warm, but one impatient glance from Maximus was enough to disabuse anyone of that notion. Warmth was the last thing one would associate with the Duke of Wakefield. But despite all that, he was still her brother.
Hero smiled up at him. “Yes, I’m quite happy.”
Was that relief she saw in those stern eyes? For a moment, she felt a traitorous flash of irritation. Maximus had shown no sign before this moment that her happiness might be a factor in the match. The consolidation of lands and interests, the strengthening of his parliamentary alliance with Mandeville, those were the important considerations. Her feelings, as she well knew, played no part at all in the negotiations. And that was fine with her. She was the daughter of a duke, and she’d known from the cradle what her purpose and place in life was.
Maximus compressed his lips, surveying the crowded ballroom. “I wanted you to know that there is yet time for you to change your mind.”
“Is there?” She glanced about the ballroom. Mandeville House was exquisitely decorated. Blue and silver swags—the Batten family colors—intertwined with Reading scarlet and black. Vases of flowers stood on every table, and the marquess had hired and outfitted a veritable platoon of footmen. Hero looked back at her brother. “The contracts are settled and signed already.”
Maximus frowned in ducal displeasure. “If you truly wished to escape this engagement, I could break it.”
“That’s very generous of you.” Hero was touched by Maximus’s gruff words. “But I am quite pleased with my engagement.”
He nodded. “Then I think it time we joined your intended.”
“Of course.” Her voice was steady, but her fingers trembled just a bit as she laid them on her brother’s deep blue sleeve.
Fortunately, Maximus didn’t seem to notice. He led her toward one side of the ballroom, moving unhurriedly but with his usual determination. Sometimes Hero wondered if her brother even realized that his way was made smoother because people were quick to step out of his path.
A man stood by the dance floor, his back to them. He wore somber black, his wig a snowy white. He turned as they approached, and for a moment Hero’s heart stuttered in disbelief. Something in the set of his shoulders and the jut of his chin in profile reminded her of the rogue she’d argued with just minutes before. Then he faced her, and she curtsied gravely to the Marquess of Mandeville, chiding herself for her silly imagination. It was hard to think of anyone less like Lord Shameless than her betrothed.
Mandeville was tall and appropriately handsome. If Mandeville smiled more often, his looks would come perilously close to beautiful. But one felt somehow that beauty in a marquess would be gauche, and gauche was the last thing one could call the Marquess of Mandeville.
“Your Grace. Lady Hero.” Mandeville executed an elegant bow. “You are even more lovely tonight than usual, my lady.”
“Thank you, my lord.” Hero smiled up at him and was pleased to see a faint softening of his usually somber lips.
Then his gaze moved to the side of her head. “My dear, you’re wearing only one earring.”
“Am I?” Hero automatically felt both earlobes, her face heating as she remembered what had happened to the missing earring. “Goodness, I must have lost one.”
Hastily she removed the lone diamond earring and gave it to her brother to place in his pocket.
“That’s better,” Mandeville said, nodding approvingly. “Shall we?” he asked the question of her but glanced at Maximus.
Mandeville signaled to his butler, but already the room was growing quiet as the guests turned toward them. Hero pasted a serene smile on her face, standing straight and still as she’d been taught from the nursery. A lady of her rank never fidgeted. She disliked being the center of attention, but it rather went with being the daughter of a duke. She glanced at Mandeville. And a marchioness would draw even more stares.
Hero suppressed a small sigh and inhaled and exhaled slowly, softly, and imagined she was a statue. It was an old trick to get through events such as these. She was a hollow, perfect facade of a duke’s daughter. Really she—the woman within—didn’t have to be here at all.
“My friends,” Mandeville boomed. He was well known for his oratory in parliament, his voice rich and deep. Hero rather thought there was a touch of the theatrical about it as well, but of course she’d never say so to his face. “I welcome you all here tonight for a very important celebration: the engagement of myself to Lady Hero Batten.”
He turned and took her hand, bending and kissing her knuckles very prettily. Hero smiled and curtsied to him as their guests applauded. They straightened and were immediately surrounded as the guests surged forward to offer their congratulations.
Hero was thanking a rather deaf elderly countess when Mandeville called behind her. “Ah, Wakefield, Lady Hero, I’d like to introduce you to someone.”
She turned and met wickedly amused light green eyes. Hero could only stare, speechless, as Lord Shameless bowed and took her hand, brushing smooth, warm lips over her skin.
Distantly she heard Mandeville say beside her, “My dear, this is my bother, Lord Griffin Reading.”
Excerpted from Notorious Pleasures by Hoyt, Elizabeth Copyright © 2011 by Hoyt, Elizabeth. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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