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Randall Cheltenham, Marquess of Falconbridge, looked down the length of the salon, his chest tightening as if hit by a low branch while riding.
Cecelia Thompson stood in the doorway, just as she had so many times in his dreams.
When was the last time he'd seen her? Ten years ago? For ever?
Her eyes met his and the image of her standing in a field, the acrid smell of cut grass and damp earth blending with the warmth of the late afternoon sun, overwhelmed him. He was eighteen again and she was here.
Once, he would have sold his soul for this moment. Now, he waited for the tenuous connection to snap and for her soft look to turn hard with disdain. In his experience, it was a rare woman who forgot past slights. He'd played no small part in her decision to leave England; driving people away was a talent he'd possessed in spades back then.
He stood rock-still, anticipating the sneer, but it never came. Instead her face remained soft, her smile easy and genuine. Her brown hair was a shade darker and her hazel eyes, flecked with green, held something of the girl he'd once known, but with an unmistakable maturity. In other women it made them seem hardened by life, but in Cecelia it increased her beauty, surrounding her with an air of mystery more fascinating than the innocence he remembered so well.
Then old Lord Weatherly shuffled between them to greet her and she looked away.
'You already know the young woman?' Madame de Badeau gasped, her thick voice pulling his thoughts back to the room. He looked down at the mature French woman standing beside him in her lavender dress, her dark eyes dancing with the thrill of having discovered something new about him after all their years of acquaintance.
'If you call conversing with her at my uncle's estate knowing her,' he said abruptly, uneasy at the obviousness of his reaction and eager to distract his former lover from it. 'What's she doing here? I thought she lived in America?'
'She's here to find a husband for the cousin.'
Randall finally noticed the young woman standing beside Cecelia. 'And her husband is with her?'
'No. He's dead.'
Randall's muscles tightened more at the news than the callous way Madame de Badeau delivered it. Cecelia was here and a widow. He swallowed hard, remembering the night Aunt Ella had told him of Cecelia's marriage to the colonial landowner, his aunt's soft words raining down on him like the blows from his father's belt. The wrenching pain of having lost Cecelia so completely was almost the only thing he remembered from that night. The rest was blurred by the haze of alcohol. It was the last time he'd allowed himself to drink.
'How do you know Mrs Thompson?' he asked, looking around the room and accidentally catching the demure Miss Thornton's eye. Lady Thornton, her dragon of a mother, shifted between them to block his view and he met her warning glare with a mocking grin. He wasn't about to trouble with a green girl. They weren't worth the effort, not with so many willing widows aching to catch his notice.
'Cecelia's mother and I attended the same ladies' school in France, the one your aunt attended when your grandfather was ambassador there. Cecelia's family was in the silk trade, quite wealthy at the time. They did a great deal of business with my father, back when the country was civilised. Dreadful revolutionaries.'
He clasped his hands behind his back, uneasy at the idea of Madame de Badeau having any connection with Cecelia, no matter how tenuous. 'It's difficult to imagine you in a ladies' school.'
'I had my pleasures there, too. Ah, the curiosities of young girls. Most delightful.' She swept her fingers over the swell of breasts pressing against her bodice, adjusting the diamond necklace resting in the crevice of flesh. Though old enough to be Cecelia's mother, Madame de Badeau was still a stunning woman with a smooth face and lithe body. Young lords new to London often fell prey to her beauty and other, more carnal talents.
He glanced at the full bosom, then met her eyes. His passion for her had faded long ago, but he maintained the friendship because she amused him. 'And now?'
She snapped open her fan and waved it over her chest in short flicks. 'I'm helping her launch her cousin in society.'
'Why? You never help anyone.'
Madame de Badeau's smile drew tight at the corners before she covered her irritation with a light laugh. 'Lord Falconbridge, how serious you are tonight.' Her hand slid around his arm, coiling in the crook of his elbow like a snake. 'Now, let me reacquaint you with the little widow.'
They strode across the room, past the pianoforte where Miss Marianne Domville, Madame de Badeau's much younger sister, played, her head bent over the keys, indifferent to the crowd of young bucks surrounding her. The room hummed with the usual assortment of intellectuals and friends Lady Weatherly regularly gathered for her salons. Randall cared as much for them as the poet in the corner sighing out his latest drivel. Only Cecelia mattered and he focused on her, wondering what she would think of him after all these years. Madame de Badeau must have told her of his reputation and all the scandals surrounding him. The woman took pride in spreading the stories.
Of all the disapproving looks he'd ever caught in a room like this, Cecelia's would matter the most.
He ground his teeth, the failings he'd buried with his father threatening to seize him again. A footman carrying a tray of champagne flutes crossed their path, the amber liquid tempting Randall for the first time in ten years. He ran his thumb over the tips of his fingers, wanting to take one smooth stem in his hand and tip the sharp liquid over his tongue, again and again, until everything inside him faded.
Instead he continued forward, shoving down the old craving and all the emotions fuelling it.
They passed a clutch of whispering ladies, the women's fans unable to muffle their breathy exclamations as they watched him.
' he won a duel against Lord Calverston, drawing first blood '
' he and Lady Weatherly were lovers last Season '
He pinned them with a hard look and their voices wilted like their folding fans.
As he and Madame de Badeau approached Cecelia, Lord Weatherly took his leave and Cecelia's eyes found his again. An amused grin raised the corner of her lips, almost bringing him to a halt. It was the same smile she used to taunt him with across the card table at Falconbridge Manor. Back then, she could send him into stutters with a look, playing him like Miss Domville played the pianoforte, but not any more. No one could manipulate him now.
'My dear Mrs Thompson, I'm sure you remember Lord Falconbridge,' Madame de Badeau introduced, a strange note of collusion in her voice, as though she and Randall shared a secret of which Cecelia was not aware. Randall narrowed his eyes at the Frenchwoman, wondering what she was about, before Cecelia's soft voice captured his attention.
'Lord Falconbridge, it's been too long.' The hint of a colonial twang coloured the roll of his title across her tongue, conflicting with the tones he remembered so well.
'Much too long.' He bowed, taking in the length of her body draped in a deep red dress. Cut straight across the bodice, the gown was modestly high by London standards, but still displayed the white tops of her pert breasts. He longed to drop light kisses on the tempting mounds, to find a secluded bedroom where they might while away the evening in more pleasurable pursuits, finishing what they'd started so long ago.
He straightened, hating the vulnerability in this wanting. 'My condolences on the loss of your husband.'
'Thank you.' She fingered the gold bracelet on her wrist, her smile fading before she bolstered it and motioned to the young woman standing beside her. 'Allow me to introduce my cousin, Miss Theresa Fields.'
With reluctance, Randall tore his eyes away to take in the cousin. She was pretty, but not ravishing, and met his appraising look with an air of confidence most green girls lacked. Her dress was made of fine cotton, but simply cut and lacking the ruffles and ribbons preferred by the other young ladies this Season.
'It's a pleasure to meet you, Lord Falconbridge,' she replied, the Virginia twang strong in her speech.
'Miss Fields, I know my sister is dying to see you again.' Madame de Badeau took Miss Fields by the arm and drew her out from between Cecelia and Randall. Madame de Badeau threw him a conspiratorial look as she passed, as though leaving them alone together in a bedroom and expecting nature to take its course. He wondered what scheme she had in mind for him and Cecelia. Whatever it was, she was mistaken if she thought to manipulate him like one of her country lords new to London.
'You're the Marquess of Falconbridge now?' Cecelia asked, her voice flowing over him like the River Stour over the rocks at Falconbridge Manor and all thoughts of Madame de Badeau vanished.
'Yes, Uncle Edmund couldn't keep it for ever.'
'My condolences on your loss,' she offered with genuine concern. 'I remember him fondly.'
'You were one of the few people he truly liked.'
'Then I'm even sorrier to hear of his passing.'
'Don't be.' Randall smirked. 'He died as he lived, with a large appetite for the pleasures of life.'
'And no doubt still railing against society. What is it he used to say?'
'"Nothing to be gained by chasing society's good opinion",' Randall repeated Uncle Edmund's words, remembering the old man sitting at the head of the table thumping his large fingers against the lacquered top. '"All it does is make you a slave to their desires and whims"-'
'"Be your own man and you'll be the better for it",' she finished, her voice deepening to mimic Uncle Edmund's imperious tone.
Randall laughed at the accurate impression. 'I wanted to engrave it on his headstone, but Aunt Ella wouldn't allow it. She said it wasn't how she wanted to remember her brother.'
'How is Lady Ellington?' Cecelia accepted a glass of champagne from a footman.
'She's quite the mistress of Falconbridge Manor.' Randall waved away the offered drink, making Cecelia's eyebrows rise in surprise. 'She decided to live there after Uncle Edmund passed. It amuses her to manage the house.'
'Will she come to London for the Season?' There was no mistaking the eagerness in her voice and it grieved him to disappoint her.
'Aunt Ella is as likely to venture to town as Uncle Edmund was to live as a respectable country gentleman.'
'Nor are you likely to live so quiet a life. I hear enough stories about you to make your uncle proud.' She touched the glass to her full lips and tilted it, letting the shimmering liquid slide into her mouth.
He focused on her moist lips, almost jealous of the glass. 'As Uncle Edmund also used to say, a touch of scandal lends a man a little mystery.'
Cecelia laughed, wiping away a small drop of champagne from the corner of her mouth. 'From what Madame de Badeau tells me, you have more than a touch.'
He stiffened, struggling to hold his smile. 'You shouldn't believe everything you hear, especially from her.'
'Do my ears deceive me or is the notorious Marquess of Falconbridge embarrassed?' she gasped in mock surprise and Randall's jaw tightened. He couldn't remember the last time a woman had dared to tease him like this.
'Do you have a reputation, Mrs Thompson?' he asked, determined to take back the conversation, the old familiarity too easy between them.
Darkness flickered through her eyes and she fiddled with her gold bracelet, turning it on her wrist. Whatever suddenly troubled her, he thought it would bring the discussion to an end. Then she raised her face, bravely meeting his scrutiny, her smile alight with mischief. 'If I do, it is far behind me in Virginia and unlikely to be discovered until well after the Season.'
He stepped closer, inhaling her warm skin combined with a heady, floral scent he couldn't name. 'Perhaps I may discover it sooner?'
She met his low voice with a heated look from beneath dark lashes. 'Only if you have a very fast ship.'
'My ship is never fast, but lingers upon the salty water,' he murmured, his body tightening with desire. 'I'd be most happy to take you sailing.'
Her tongue slid over her parted lips, moistening the red bud, daring him to be bold and accept the invitation in her eyes. Then, like a wave rushing out to sea, the hungry look disappeared, replaced by her previous mirthful smile. 'A very tempting offer, but I fear being disappointed so early in the Season.'
Randall coughed to suppress a laugh and a bitter sense of loss. 'The Season will disappoint a spirited woman like you much quicker than I.'
'After enduring such a difficult crossing, I can only hope you're wrong.'
'I'm never wrong.'
'Then you're a very fortunate man.'
'Not entirely.' For a brief moment, the hard shell he'd cultivated since coming to Town dropped and he was simply Randall again, alone with her in the Falconbridge study, free of a title and all his London escapades. 'Even the life of a Marquess has its dark moments.'
Her teasing smile faded and a soft understanding filled her eyes. 'Everyone's life does.'
He'd watched stone-faced while mistresses wailed on their chaises and stepped casually to one side to avoid the errant porcelain figure lobbed at him. None of these overwrought reactions cut him to the core like her simple comment. For the second time in as many minutes, the shame of his past gnawed at him before he crushed it down.
'Good.' He smiled with more glib humour than he felt, clasping his hands behind his back. 'Because in London, I'm a very good acquaintance to have, especially for someone who's left her reputation across the Atlantic.'
'I shall keep it in mind. Good evening, Lord Fal-conbridge.'
She dipped a curtsy and walked off across the room to join a small circle of matrons standing near the window.
He watched her go, the boy in him desperate to call her back, the man he'd become keeping his shoes firmly rooted to the floor.
'Quite the morsel, isn't she?' a deep voice drawled from beside him, and Randall's lip curled in disgust. Christopher Crowdon, Earl of Strathmore, stood next to him, a glass of claret in his thick fingers.
'Careful how you speak of her, Strathmore,' Randall growled, hating the way Strathmore eyed her like a doxy in a bawdy house. 'She's an old acquaintance of mine.'
'My apologies,' Strathmore mumbled, trilling his fingers against the glass, a rare fire in his pale eyes as he studied Cecelia. 'Is it true she has extensive lands in the colonies?'
'Why? Are you in such dire straits as to chase after heiresses?'
'Of course not,' he sputtered, the claret sloshing perilously close to the side of the glass before he recovered himself. 'But there's something to be said for a widow. They know the way of things, especially when it comes to men. Best to leave such a prize to a more experienced gentleman.'
'Should I find one, I'll gladly step aside.' Randall turned on one heel and strode away.