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To all outward appearances, Lord Alton Fernshaw’s annual house party in the Essex countryside was a dignified affair. If one inquired of a random guest why he or she had trundled all the way from London to the castle estate, the most likely, and fictive, response would have been to enjoy the concerts, the extravagant raffles, the elaborate sporting events that brought back the glory of medieval days.
Few, in actual fact, attended Alton’s party for the cultural upliftment offered, or to compete in the vigorous athletic competitions. It was the pursuit of passion that beckoned the energetic youth of the beau monde.
By the dessert course of the Friday-evening supper that began the house party, most of the guests had singled out which gentleman or lady they wished to pursue.
By Saturday morning, Eros, son of Venus, had discharged nearly all of his golden arrows. Some hearts had already begun to bleed. Some had taken wing.
The well-experienced servants of the estate, from the elderly majordomo to the youthful maids, stood at the ready to accept bribes in the cause of amorous conquests. Chambers could be changed with complete discretion at a moment’s notice, doors unlocked at a whim. A footman would gladly serve as a loyal guard during a garden tryst for hours on end.
Lord Devon Boscastle and his acquaintances made no bones about why they’d accepted Fernshaw’s annual invitation. Devon planned to excel at a more provocative game than jousting at a mock tournament, chivalric pretensions be damned. He’d already selected his partner and, to judge by the come-hither looks she was casting him across the crowded salon, Mrs. Lily Cranleigh was as eager for a liaison as he was.
She lifted her glass of champagne at him as if in a toast, and smiled.
Before he could respond, she turned on her heel and walked to the door without a backward glance, her gray silk half-mourning dress clinging to her lush hips, her swansdown boa draped over one flawless white shoulder.
Well, that was an opening if ever he’d been issued one.
He waited several minutes before following. There was no advantage in appearing too eager even though both he and the licentious widow were unattached.
Let the lady smolder a little longer. He’d been quietly pursuing her for weeks.
It was now his turn to tease.
He turned, deep in pleasant thoughts, and found himself unexpectedly face to face with another, far less friendly, female guest. A young country miss with whom he shared a transient if embarrassing bit of history.
Once upon a time, before Devon had completely ruined his own reputation, Major-General Sir Gideon Lydbury, Jocelyn’s father, had cast his eye upon Devon as a potential husband for his only daughter.
Devon had been asked to the ancestral country pile for a lavish dinner. The problem was, he had completely forgotten to attend because he’d been carousing in the low dives of London. After all, he’d just enlisted in the cavalry and thought it quite possible that he’d be killed or injured his first year out. He’d seen no point in planning a future.
Sir Gideon, who did not share in this fatalistic view, immediately let the whole of London know that he had not appreciated the social insult, war or no war. The matter might have blown over had the man not taken a seat in Parliament and gained the political support of Devon’s eldest brother, Grayson, the Marquess of Sedgecroft. Even now, from time to time Sir Gideon reminded Grayson that he had not forgotten the slight.
And, of course, Grayson, in turn, reminded Devon.
Devon assessed the woman before him with an experienced glance. Her hair was not the ordinary brown he’d thought it was, but a deep burnished-gold becomingly swept back from her face in an elegant coil. Her face was one that the years had rendered more appealing than he remembered. Her dark eyes held his gaze.
“Jocelyn,” he said, a practiced smile in place, “what a nice surprise. I didn’t realize you were one of Fernshaw’s guests.” In his mind she was an unsophisticated debutante who should probably remain shielded from the risqué goings-on that one expected at a party like this.
“You aren’t here by yourself, are you?” he asked curiously. “I haven’t seen your brother anywhere. I seem to recall he used to follow you like a shadow.”
Her skeptical gaze swept past him to the door through which Lily Cranleigh had made her enticing exit. “He’s right there in the corner. You were too preoccupied watching the notorious widow, I expect.” She gave him a rueful look. “Some people never seem to change, and obviously you are one of them. Good evening, Devon, and good-bye.”
“Have you changed?” he asked, challenging her coolness.
She answered him with surprising honesty. “I hope so. For one thing, I should like to think I’m a better judge of character than I was a few years ago. I don’t invite just anyone to dinner these days, at least. I’m more discriminating in who I ask to slight me. Is that what you were wondering?”
“I suppose I deserve that,” he said with a rueful smile.
She laughed softly. “Well, let’s not hope you get everything you deserve.”
“Now that was cruel.”
“It was actually kind. I don’t imagine men like you deliberately go about doing hurtful things.”
He shook his head. Of course he hadn’t meant to hurt her, but it was obvious he had. God knew she’d have come out even worse if he had accepted her father’s invitation and actually courted her. He didn’t think he could ever be the sort of man who’d live up to a decent young woman’s idea of love.
Which didn’t mean he’d object to sharing his views on that subject with her. He was pleasantly surprised by the touch of cynicism that he sensed beneath her soft appeal. What had made her so? he wondered. Weren’t her father and brother the overprotective type?
“How long has it been since I offended you?” he asked in an undertone. “And is there nothing I can do to make amends?”
The last question escaped him unbidden. He’d felt no previous desire to atone for his past behavior. Why the devil bother now?
Too tempting up close for a country wallflower. Four years had certainly made a difference for the better in her, or perhaps it was only his perspective that had matured.
She wasn’t lushly attractive in the flagrant sense, as was his widow. But there was something about her, a subtle but intriguing quality that made him wonder what he’d missed.
An aloof, untouchable young lady. Virtue to his vice, demure to his decadence. Good breeding stock to put it crudely. He’d always thought of her as a one-day girl–the sort of girl a marriage-minded man would desire in the distant future when and if he ever had the urge for a stable association.
Which Devon didn’t.
Besides, she was far better off without a man like him, no matter what she or her father might have thought. She had clearly never recovered from his offense, and aside from apologizing, there wasn’t anything else to do for it.
Her next question, however, prompted him to wonder if he’d overappraised his place in her life.
“What makes you think you offended me?” she asked in mischievous amusement.
His dark eyebrows lifted in reaction. Perhaps he should have paid closer attention to her in the past. She had a long-limbed, slender body that curved softly in all the right places to whet a man’s appetite. He was sure she hadn’t shown this intriguing sense of self the few times they’d met.
“I know that to slight you was rude,” he said. “But the war was on, and–”
She glanced around his shoulder, apparently distracted by something across the room. “You slighted my father,” she said with a dismissive laugh. “And you don’t have to do anything to make amends except . . . ”
He felt a rather irritating sting of curiosity and wondered if he’d grown too accustomed to easy conquests. “Except what?”
She looked at him levelly, then whispered, “Except to let me go now. Devon, I do not wish to offend you, but you are really in my way. Please allow me to pass. I don’t want to be seen talking to you.”
“You did wound me before if that makes you feel better.”
“Why would it make me feel better?” he asked, mildly outraged. “I can’t believe–”
“Believe it,” she broke in. “I’m not angry anymore. I just wish to . . . to not talk to you. Honestly, everything is fine. It’s over, that’s all. I’ve forgiven you.”
He studied her with a reluctant smile. He knew he ought to let her go her innocent way, and he would, but it wasn’t in his Boscastle nature to allow an offense against a lady to remain unpaid. He’d hurt her, thoughtless bastard that he had been. He wasn’t sure he was any better now, but these days he tried to put more thought into his actions. It was true that he still indulged in sinful pleasures, but with a trifle more discretion, which was why he’d come to Alton’s party. . . .
The thought triggered another possibility.
“Do you have an assignation, Jocelyn?” he inquired in a low voice.
One delicate eyebrow rose. “Is that all you think about?”
“Well, what do you think about?” he asked, aware that she had evaded the question.
“About finer things. About integrity and literature, and– I don’t want to talk about it. Or to you. You’re going to get me in trouble, and you know it.”
He had to smile; the set-down was duly deserved but unexpected. He wasn’t inclined to force a bud into bloom, no matter how promising, although he probably wouldn’t have minded being discharged half so much if he hadn’t felt he merited a scolding. And if he hadn’t realized that Jocelyn’s attention was focused on Lord Adam Chiswick, a good-looking blond cavalry officer who’d served in a different regiment than Devon’s, but who didn’t have a brain in his handsome head.
He grinned, murmuring, “There are more assignations in the air than dust motes in my grandmother’s drawing room.”
She gave him a knowing smile. “Speaking of which, your widow won’t wait for you forever. A number of your friends are seeking her companionship at the party. You’ve fierce competition for her favor. I think you should step up the hunt if you don’t want to lose her.”
He straightened. She had even white teeth, the faintest scar on the curve on her right cheekbone, and a forthright way of speaking that shouldn’t have appealed to him, but did. “You didn’t wait for me, did you, darling?”
“No,” she said softly, “as difficult as it may be for a Boscastle to believe. But let us not harbor ill feelings. I told you, I’ve forgiven you.”
“And forgotten me?”
“Yes.” She bit the edge of her lip. “Well, almost.”
He moved aside. She brushed around him, her slender body so visibly tense that naturally he wished to soothe her.
“Perhaps I don’t want to be forgotten,” he said in an undertone, catching her elbow in his hand.
She laughed in disbelief. “Perhaps you don’t have a choice.”
“Are you challenging me?” he asked, his heavy-lidded gaze holding hers.
“Only if the weapons are either pistols or swords.”
“Be careful with Chiswick, won’t you?” he murmured as he released her arm. “I think you may be a little too much for him to control.” He paused. “You might need a man with more practical experience.”
She stared back at him with a faintly patronizing look. “As if I would take the advice of a rogue like you.”
He laughed without the least offense. She might have convinced him of her disinterest had he not heard the faintest quaver in her voice. “Jocelyn, it is only because I’m a rogue that I am qualified to warn you.”
“Adam is a perfect gentleman.”
“That’s the worst kind.”
“What do you mean?” she asked guardedly.
“All the devilry builds up in that sort of man. Look at him. Right now I’ll warrant he’s seething inside like a volcano.”
“Is that right?” she said with a cynical smile.
He schooled himself to look completely serious. “Trust me, if a man does not let a little steam escape here and there, he’s liable to explode and give everyone around him a nasty burn.”
“I dislike challenging your profound theory on the building of . . . passion, Devon, but not all men are as full of steam as you and your brothers.”
“I could expound on the theory in private if you’re interested,” he said quietly.
“Before or after Lily Cranleigh?”
He hesitated, surprised but not about to admit that Lily had been the farthest thing from his mind. His unexpected encounter with Jocelyn had completely absorbed him.
“Consider my offer,” he murmered, not certain himself what he meant but leaving the door open.
And finding it closed firmly in his face. “I don’t wish to be hurt again,” she replied with a rueful smile.
“And I don’t wish to hurt you.”
He rested his elbow up against the wall. Where he stood, he could almost feel the warmth of her shoulder and soft, enticing breasts. He imagined he could see the rim of a pink half-moon nipple beneath her gown, and even if it was only his imagination it made his mouth water. Her lips parted slightly, but the pattern of her breathing did not change.
She turned, then paused, glancing back at him. Their gazes met, engaged, withdrew. How innocent was she? he wondered curiously. Had she and Chiswick been lovers for long, or was this her initiation night?
Fernshaw’s parties were famous for igniting torrid love affairs.
He shrugged off the thought. To whom she gave her virtue, or when, was certainly none of his affair. He had relinquished any claim he might have made on her four years ago.
“It was nice to see you again, Jocelyn. You really are more lovely than I remembered.”
“Thank you for saying that, Devon,” she retorted, her grin implying that they would at least part on amicable terms. “It’s reassuring to know that you’re a worse rogue than I remembered, too.”
And that she had escaped him.
She didn’t need to speak aloud the thought for him to guess that that was what she was telling herself. He smiled. She’d be right, too, God love her. He had not been a man for marriage four years ago, and he was less of one now.