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London, May 1816
The flash of amber silk intrigued him, although not as much as the lovely woman wearing it.
Lounging negligently against a column in his crowded ballroom, Ashton Wilde, eighth Marquis of Beaufort, narrowed his gaze in speculation. The blond beauty had followed one of his noble male guests through the French doors onto the terrace beyond.
Maura Collyer, his sister’s bosom friend. What the devil was she up to?
Curiosity warred with odd disappointment as Ash considered her intent. It appeared that Miss Collyer was trysting with Viscount Deering.
For all her beauty, he would never have taken Maura for the scarlet woman sort. As far as he knew, she didn’t even like most men, and at four-and-twenty she was long on the shelf. And yet she had accompanied Lord Deering onto a moonlit terrace in the middle of a grand ball for what looked like an assignation.
His boredom suddenly evaporating, Ash pushed away from the column and forged a path through the glittering, bejeweled sea of company. He had expected better of Miss Collyer—
Wry amusement twisted his mouth at the quaint thought. That the leading member of the passionate Wilde clan could condemn a lady for flouting propriety with a lovers’ tryst was the height of irony. The Wildes had long been legendary for their scandalous exploits, their surname synonymous with a blatant disregard for the rules governing the Beau Monde, and Ash himself was currently his family’s worst offender.
Still, he couldn’t banish his contrary stab of displeasure at the notion of Katharine’s closest friend taking Deering as a lover.
The terrace doors had been flung open to alleviate the heat from the chandeliers and the crush of perfumed bodies. Upon reaching the threshold, Ash paused to let his eyes adjust to the dimmer light on the terrace and focus on the couple near the stone balustrade.
Although not embracing, they were standing close together— or rather the lady was standing before the gentleman. Her position offered Ash a view of her profile, so he could see that her delicate jaw was set while her hands were tightly clenched.
It did not appear to be a romantic tryst but a confrontation, he decided. He could overhear her low, impassioned voice imploring the viscount, although the noise from the chattering, dancing throng behind him drowned out most of her words.
Ash moved a step closer just as a momentary lull in the music brought Miss Collyer’s urgent declaration to him.
“Emperor did not belong to her, I tell you! She had no right to sell him to you.”
“I have a legal deed of sale that says otherwise,” Deering responded in an arrogant drawl that evidently grated on the beauty’s nerves.
She inhaled a deep breath, as if striving to maintain control of her emotions. “Then allow me to buy him back . . . Please.”
“You cannot afford my price, Miss Collyer.”
“I can raise the funds somehow. I will sell the entire stables if I must.”
When Deering laughed in that supercilious way of his, Ash felt the same grating irritation.
He knew Rupert Firth, Viscount Deering, fairly well. Of similar age—a year past thirty—they had attended Cambridge at the same time. Like Ash, Deering had dark curling hair, a noble title, and a significant fortune. But there the similarities ended. Most notably, the viscount was a head shorter, with a body that was turning to flab from an overindulgence of fine port wine.
Ash had never liked Deering, mainly because of his attitude of snide superiority. That dislike only increased as the discussion continued:
“I might be persuaded . . . for a price,” Deering said with a smirk that made Ash itch to intervene.
“What price?” Miss Collyer asked warily.
In answer, the nobleman reached out and trailed a languid finger along her bare throat to the low neckline of her gown.
When she visibly gritted her teeth, Ash felt some satisfaction that she wasn’t soliciting the viscount’s advances, far from it. Yet he was surprised by his own violent reaction: The urge to wrap his hands around the lecher’s throat speared through him.
Then Deering gave a low, seductive laugh that raised his ire even further.
“I see you take my meaning, Miss Collyer. If you are truly interested in regaining your property, you will accommodate my wishes. You are quite lovely. I find I want you almost as much as I coveted your magnificent stallion.”
Flinching, she took a step backward, out of reach, distaste written in every line of her face. “I regret I must decline your proposition, Lord Deering.”
“You should realize that beggars cannot be choosers.”
“I am not a beggar quite yet.”
The viscount moved closer, but she stood her ground. When his fingers covered her breast and squeezed, Ash took a reflexive step toward them.
But Maura Collyer evidently did not need defending, for she brought her heel down hard on the viscount’s instep, forcing him to release her. Even with her soft evening slippers, the impact must have hurt.
It did, if the viscount’s pained growl was any indication.
“Your stubbornness reminds me of your damned father!” Deering ground out through his teeth. “I could not persuade him to sell, but I found a way to win in the end. Your stepmother was far more accommodating.”
For a moment Miss Collyer froze, her expression one of devastation. Only then did Ash recall the bad blood between her family and the viscount. Deering had accused her father of cheating at cards two years ago, but Noah Collyer had died before the matter could be resolved.
When Deering reached for her breast again, she broke out of her paralysis with ferocity. Uttering an audible curse, she brought her knee up to contact with the viscount’s satin breeches at an especially vulnerable point.
Deering gave a harsh groan and doubled over, clutching his bollocks. Then Maura stamped down on his other instep for good measure.
Ash didn’t know which of his emotions was strongest just then—amusement, admiration, or anger.
Amusement because he’d wanted to do the same thing to Deering for years.
Admiration because very few females outside those in his own family had the spirit or courage to engage in a physical brawl with a significantly larger man.
And anger because a genteel young lady had been accosted in his own home. Specifically this young lady, who was Katharine’s friend and therefore deserved his protection.
Deering was clearly angry also; in fact, he was in a fury. “You . . . will regret this . . . you damned vixen!” he panted, still bent over.
“The only thing I regret,” retorted Miss Collyer, “is thinking you were honorable enough to let me plead my case! I was fully prepared to purchase my horse back, not sell myself to you!”
She was panting as much as her suffering adversary, but her breathlessness stemmed from outrage instead of pain. Even at a distance, Ash could practically see sparks flashing from her eyes. When she balled her fists as if she might strike a blow at the viscount’s sneering face, Ash decided it was time to intervene.
“It is time you took your leave, Deering,” he declared, striding across the terrace toward them.
At his sudden appearance, Miss Collyer gave a start, while the viscount straightened painfully.
“This is none of your affair, Beaufort!” Deering snapped.
“It is very much my affair. You assaulted one of my guests.”
“I assaulted her?” he sputtered. “That she-devil is the one who assaulted me!”
Ash bit back a smile. “I would not advertise that fact if I were you, Rupert. You will only invite scorn and make yourself a target for the cartoonists. Do you need assistance calling for your carriage?”
“Bloody hell . . . no, I can summon my own infernal carriage.”
“Then pray do so. You are no longer welcome here.”
The viscount shot Ash a look of extreme dislike. “This is no way to treat a peer, Beaufort, ordering me to leave while taking that witch’s side.”
“Spare me your protests. You got exactly what you deserved. I would have hurt you myself if she had not.”
Deering’s expression only darkened. After another fierce glare at Miss Collyer, though, he limped off in the direction of the ballroom.
Alone on the terrace with her, Ash turned and found his gaze arrested by the enchanting picture she made. Maura stood with her fists still clenched, her cheeks flushed with anger, her bosom heaving softly. In the candle glow spilling from the ballroom windows, she looked fiery and beautiful, her honey-colored hair only a few shades lighter than the gold-embroidered amber silk gracing her tall, lithe figure.