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"Stay away from him, Reggie. He looks dangerous."
Lady Regina Wharton eyed her twin sister, Rebecca, Lady Penrith, from behind her fan, then shifted her glance back to the tall, dark-haired, dark-eyed lord who had recently arrived at Viscount Raleigh's ball. "I need something to relieve the boredom, Becky. Since no other gentleman here seems up to the task, I suppose I shall have to appeal to this newest addition to the ton. Whom do you know that might be willing to introduce us?"
"The Earl of Carlisle is not someone you should know," her sister admonished. "'Tis said he was a pirate!"
Reggie laughed. "Yes, the Sea Dragon. I heard that ridiculous rumor. Though he does look rather like a fire-breathing dragon with those dark eyes of his burning holes in everyone he spies."
"'Tis said he killed a man with his bare hands!" Becky hissed.
Reggie raised a finely arched brow. "I find that difficult to credit." She eyed the broad shoulders that strained beneath an exquisitely cut jacket by Weston, then perused the narrow waist and muscular thighs revealed by skintight breeches. "Not that I doubt he has the strength to accomplish such a feat, but most gentlemen vanquish their foes with sword or shot."
"'Tis said he dresses in black to mourn the death of his wife in childbirth, though his year of mourning ended some little while ago," Becky said. "I doubt he is desirous of innocent female company."
Reggie studied the hawkish features set off by snowy white linen and saw the ravages of grief reflected in the earl's stern mouth and brooding eyes. She knew from her father's grief over the past ten years for the babies her stepmother Kitt had miscarried how such a loss could hurt. She could not imagine the melancholy Carlisle must feel at having to bury his wife as well.
Suddenly, the dragon's fiery eyes were focused on her.
Reggie was shocked at the heat she felt, until she realized it was her own blush flooding her cheeks. She knew she had been staring, but now, so was he. She refused to be the first to look away. She lifted her chin and boldly met his gaze.
His lips lifted at the corners before he turned away in what, if she had been a less confident female, might have seemed like the cut direct.
"I am determined to meet him," Reggie said to her sister. "If you will not name someone to introduce us, I will manage an encounter myself."
Reggie had already snapped her ivory fan closed and was threading her way through the crush at the edge of the ballroom in the earl's direction, when Becky caught up to her.
"I will introduce you," Becky said breathlessly.
Reggie eyed her sister. "Why did you not tell me you had met the earl? It is not like you to keep secrets, Becky."
"Penrith introduced me to him at Lady Harmley's musicale," Becky said. "You had the headache and did not attend, as I recall."
"Lady Harmley's musicale would have given me the headache," Reggie said dismissively. "Which is the same thing. And what was Penrith thinking to introduce his own wife to such a havey-cavey character?"
Becky paled, and Reggie was immediately sorry. William Hastings, Viscount Penrith, whom Becky had met and married during her first Season, did not treat his wife nearly so well as Reggie would have liked. His insults extended further than the simple discourtesy of introducing Becky to the wrong sorts of people. He criticized her housekeeping and the tables she set for company. He denied her funds of her own and rarely permitted her to travel abroad without his escort, making her a veritable prisoner in her own home.
Reggie had watched helplessly as Penrith slowly but surely crushed her sister's spirit. Becky rarely painted or made up wonderful stories or played the pianoforte anymore. The sad thing was, Reggie had been as easily fooled by Lord Penrith as had her sister. She had actually liked the handsome young man, until greater acquaintance had revealed his true nature.
If it had not been for the birth of Lily within a year of the marriage, her sister might have become a wraith. But the mischievous sprite never gave Becky the opportunity to become blue-deviled. The result was, while Penrith's behavior had Reggie surveying her suitors with a jaundiced eye and all but abjuring marriage, Lily's cherubic smile and open arms made her wish for a child of her own. How to have the child without the irksome husband was a quandary she had not yet resolved.
"At least this once Penrith has done me a favor," Reggie said, biting her tongue on further criticism of her sister's husband. "What else can you tell me about Lord Carlisle?"
"Only that he is a rogue and a scoundrel and not at all the sort of person whose acquaintance you should seek."
"Which means, of course, that he will be a fascinating man to know," Reggie replied with a teasing smile.
"Please don't make me do this," Becky pleaded. "Why not discourse with Mr. Tumlinson?"
"He writes bad poetry and insists on reciting it."
"Lord Larkin," Becky offered.
"He cannot admire anyone so much as himself."
"Viscount Scarborough?" she said desperately.
"Rotten teeth," Reggie whispered. "We have arrived, my dear. Make the introduction, please. I will survive the encounter, I promise you."
"Why, good evening, Lord Carlisle," Becky said, a hesitant smile on her face. "What a surprise to see you here."
"Indeed," the earl said, his eyes moving from Becky to Reggie and back again. "I heard you had a twin, Lady Penrith. I see you are very much alike in looks, but not at all the same."
Reggie's nostrils flared with indignation as, with a brief, all-inclusive glance, Carlisle undressed her with his eyes—and apparently found her wanting.
She resisted the urge to whirl in a flurry of skirts and stalk away. The earl was not a nice man, and his behavior proved it. But she was no missish miss, no craven coward, to go running at the first sign of trouble.
Reggie nudged Becky with her fan, and her sister made the introduction. "Lady Regina Wharton, may I present Clay Bannister, Earl of Carlisle."
"Enchanté, mademoiselle," the earl said, bowing slightly.
He made no move to reach for her gloved hand, and Reggie barely stopped herself in time from offering it. How had he managed to be both charming and insulting in the same breath? She unclamped her teeth and smiled. Brilliantly. With all the seductiveness she had learned in four Seasons of enslaving prospective suitors.
The earl's lip curled. In scorn.
"Oh, the music is starting," Becky said. "Will you excuse us please, my lord? I am promised for this dance."
"I am not," Reggie said, focusing her gaze on Carlisle, daring him to ask.
It was well known that Lady Regina Wharton did not dance. At least, not with anyone who might be considered a suitor. A gentleman might ask on his peril but was bound to be refused. She willed Carlisle to speak. Ask me to dance, and see what answer you get.
"It is a waltz," Carlisle noted. "Do you know how to waltz, Lady Regina?"
"Yes," Reggie said through tight, smiling lips. But that is the only yes you will ever hear from me!
"Very well then," he said. "We will dance."
Reggie felt herself being swept onto the dance floor by a strong arm around her waist. She stumbled, and the earl's grasp tightened, pulling her even closer.
"You promised you could dance, my dear. Do try to keep up."
So many sensations assaulted her at once—the feel of her breasts crushed against the strength of his chest, the heat of his thigh pressing against her own—that Reggie could not catch her breath. There was simply no air with which to utter the scathing setdown on the tip of her tongue. They were whirling in the center of the ballroom by the time she could speak.
"What do you think you're doing?" she gasped.
"Dancing. Waltzing, to be more precise," Carlisle said as he twirled her in another circle.
"Stop that! You're making me dizzy."
He responded by whirling her faster, making the room spin. Reggie was no match for Lord Carlisle physically, but over the past four years she had learned the use of other weapons to bring a man to his knees.
"Is it true, my lord, that my father had you stripped of your title? That he had you bound in chains and transported to Australia?"
His grip tightened painfully at her waist. "Is that what he told you?"
She forced herself to meet Carlisle's gaze and flinched at the contempt she saw. "Papa has never mentioned your name to me," she admitted, lifting her chin. "But in the year since you returned to London, I have heard tales—"
He made a disdainful, dismissive sound deep in his throat. "Banbury tales," he muttered.
"Then you were not a pirate?" she asked.
He lifted a dark brow in mocking amusement. "I was. But, as you can see, the ton has forgiven that indiscretion."
"That seems a great deal to dismiss," she said bluntly.
He shrugged. "'Twas your own father made me respectable again."
"He advised the House of Lords he was mistaken in his accusations against me. Within the past year my title and estates have been restored. All is as it was before."
Carlisle said the words, but it was clear from the turmoil in his fierce gaze, from the way his gloved hand crushed her own, that nothing was as it had been twelve years ago. How could it be? He had become a pirate. His wife and child were dead. And there was that other shocking rumor to be confronted.
"There is one thing more I would like to know," she said.
"You have asked enough," he replied curtly. "And been answered."
But Reggie would not be denied. "Did you kill a man with your bare hands?"
His eyes narrowed. The creases around his mouth deepened in displeasure.
An instant later Reggie found herself being waltzed through the open French doors and out onto the balcony. There was no time to gather her wits before she was being ushered down the steps and hurried along one of the moonlit pathways in Viscount Raleigh's rose garden.
Reggie tried digging in her heels, but they skidded on the gravel path. She wished she had not asked that last question. It seemed to have spurred the earl to some dire action. "Stop. Stop this instant, or I shall scream!"
The rogue dragged her inexorably into the dark.
Reggie realized Carlisle had deduced she could not very well scream without bringing ruin on herself. If she had been a true lady, that is to say, if she had been genuinely helpless and demure, there was no telling how Carlisle's kidnapping might have ended. But Reggie's docile outward manner was a thin facade, which Carlisle's boorish—and frightening—behavior tore asunder.
Kicking him would have been satisfying, but dancing slippers would not have caused much damage. She waited for him to stop and turn to her before she acted.
"Now, my lady, we will—"
She hit him in the stomach as hard as she could with her balled fist. An instant later, she grabbed her hand and bit back a yell, as agonizing pain shot all the way to her elbow. Hitting his belly was like hitting one of the gray stone walls at Blackthorne Abbey.
Carlisle shook his head, his lips tilted in what was undeniably a smile. "You're a feisty little thing."
It was humiliating to be reduced to an object of amusement. She struck back with words, since her fist had done little good. "You scoundrel! Libertine! Turk! You—"
"That is quite enough, Lady Regina," he said in a cutting voice. "I have taken your point."
She drew herself up, shoulders back, chin high. But her chin began to quiver, and tears welled in her eyes. She blinked hard, determined he should not see her routed. Lady Regina Wharton never cried!
"I do not know what it is you hope to gain by humbling me," she said. "I concede your superior strength. Where do we go from here? Will you ravish me? My father will kill you for it. Or would, if I were to tell him of your incivility."
"And you would not?"
She shook her head. "The battle is between us, my lord. I will win or lose on my own."
He nodded. "Very well, my dear. I accept your terms."