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"Nicholas! When did you get back?"
"Last night." Nicholas Barrington, ninth Marquess of Woodvale, smiled as Lord Justin Landess joined his stroll down New Bond Street.
"Rather late this Season. We expected you weeks ago."
"Why? You know I've been in mourning."
"Not since Christmas," Justin pointed out, donning his customary mask of ennui now that his surprise had faded.
"Perhaps not, but I could hardly return when my status was so uncertain."
"How is the child?"
"Healthy. I cannot say as much for my aunt, though." He shrugged.
Justin fell into a companionable silence, accepting that the subject was now closed.
Nicholas let his eyes roam the street, reacquainting himself with London after his two-year absence. Fashion was the most obvious change. Though fops still dressed in a dazzling array of colors, most gentlemen's jackets were darker. Ladies, on the other hand, were wearing fussier gowns, bedecked with ruffles, ribbons, and furbelows.
He grimaced as a small boy tumbled out of the confectioner's shop, nearly knocking him down. A scolding nurse followed, her shrill tones blending with the city's cacophony. After two years of country silence, he could no longer ignore the noise. Wheels and hooves clattered across the cobblestones. Drivers cursed. Whips cracked. Horses snorted and screamed. People thronged the sidewalks, talking, laughing, and arguing over the sound of venders shouting their wares.
Shelford had a new pair of matched bays, Nicholas noted as the Corinthian threaded his curricle through the usual jam of carriages and drays. And Hartford was riding an unfamiliar stallion--had something happened toGreatheart?
His nose twitched, reminding him of another London reality--the overpowering smell. Smoke from thousands of fires blended with sweaty horses, unwashed bodies, animal droppings, perfumes from scent shops and flower vendors, aromas from the confectioner's, pungent herbs from the apothecary...
And here was another change, he realized as he turned into Piccadilly past the familiar flower cart on the corner. The old crone was gone, replaced by a young girl.
His own life had changed far more than London, though. Four deaths in sixteen months had handed him his grandmother's wealth and estate, his father's mountain of debts, and finally his uncle's title, which included a fortune, vast properties, and uncounted dependents. The transition had been anything but smooth.
He bit back a sigh. His grandmother's unexpected legacy had turned a longstanding dispute with his father into a serious breach that hadn't begun to heal before the man's own death saddled Nicholas with his demanding mother. He'd hardly begun dealing with that mess when his uncle, the eighth Marquess of Woodvale, had died. Two weeks later, the widowed marchioness announced that she was again with child--which suspended the transition and left him hanging in uncertainty. And not just him. Stewards, solicitors, secretaries, servants, his aunt, and a host of other relatives were left without leadership.
For seven and a half months everyone had tiptoed about, staring at the walls while waiting to learn the outcome. But while the birth of a fifth daughter had settled the succession, it had handed Nicholas even more problems.
As the ninth marquess, he was now guardian to all five of the girls, and his aunt's failing health might yet force him to raise them. He shuddered. And they weren't his only responsibilities. Relatives he had never heard of were crawling out of the woodwork; his mother's demands grew harsher every day; untangling his new affairs promised to tie him up for months--
"Thornhill got himself into a bit of a scrape," announced Justin, thankfully diverting his attention.
He nodded. "It seems he forgot how to use a key. Dobson slipped away from Cavendish's masquerade to entertain his ladybird in what he thought was an empty room, only to find Thornhill and a pair of opera dancers rolling about on the floor."
"Cawker." Nicholas suppressed a laugh. Cavendish might host the loosest gatherings outside of the courtesan balls, but Thornhill should have known better. "Discretion still counts."
"As you learned from experience?"
"That was eight years ago. I've mellowed since then." In fact, he had more than mellowed. The incident had put an end to his most flamboyant affairs. Six years later, he had given up raking entirely. His only surprise was discovering that he didn't miss it. Occasional visits to a discreet widow were all he really needed.
"You could have made a tidy profit had you been here," said Justin. "Bets were running three to one that he would leave town to avoid the scandal."
Nicholas snorted. "Waite's heir run from a minor embarrassment? Fustian! Waite stirred up bigger scandals each and every Season before he wed. As did his sister. It's in their blood. Can you name one member of that family who hasn't caused talk?"
"Like I said, you could have made a tidy profit. You always know how people will react."
"Unless I lose the skill now that I no longer need it." He had supported himself for years by wagering on human behavior, but his various legacies now made it unnecessary.
Justin opened the door to Hatchard's book store, waited while Lady Cunningham exited, then followed Nicholas inside. "Will you be taking your seat in Lords?"
He nodded, smiling in anticipation. "Can you imagine Porter's face when I deliver my first speech?" The sanctimonious baron detested Nicholas--he'd lost an embarrassing number of wagers to him over the years, which pricked his considerable vanity.
"Sending him into an apoplexy won't help your reputation--unless you turn over a new leaf, of course. You need an heir now."
"You sound like my mother." Nicholas sighed. "She can't go two minutes without urging me to set up my nursery." The last thing he wanted was yet another dependent who would occupy his time and dip into his purse.
"What mother can?" asked Justin. "Mine is becoming positively loquacious on the subject. But if you don't want a leg-shackle, you'd best watch your step. The tabbies are already buzzing over your accession. Now that you've returned, every matchmaking mama in town will pounce. A wealthy marquess is much different from a charming rake with an empty purse and no prospects."
"But do you understand? You've never been seriously pursued--not by the mothers." He caught Nicholas's eye and grinned. "I know the daughters have always loved you. Between that handsome face and your naughty reputation, they can't help themselves."
"It doesn't mean anything," he protested.
"It didn't," Justin corrected. "No father would have approved of you. But it's different now. A title and fortune outweigh far greater sins than yours. Those women are greedy. And they'll pursue you harder than they do me--I might have money and connections, but I'll never sport a title, thank God. Have you any idea how unscrupulous they can be? They will stage accidents in front of your house, fall into your arms in swoons, trap you in empty rooms..."
"I get the picture." He had learned that lesson ten years ago--which was why he'd avoided well-born innocents ever since. But no one knew that tale, not even Justin.
"Good." His warning delivered, Justin lightened his voice. "Harrison's heir finally produced a son."
"Which explains why I hadn't heard. Is the child well?" The younger Harrison had been married for five years with nothing to show for it but half a dozen miscarriages.
"Strong as an ox. They are planning a house party for the christening next month."
"Give him my regards." He'd had enough of the country for now, he admitted, pausing at a table to pick up Thornton's latest collection of poems.
Justin nodded. "Good choice. It's even better than his last one."
"I thought you disliked poetry." He thumbed through the volume.
"I do as a rule, but Merriweather's illustrations bring his verse to life."
"Is Merriweather one of your artist friends?"
"No, devil take it. Both he and Thornton are obsessively reclusive."
"Still? I've always wondered why they bother. Such talent should be out in the open."
Nicholas had long admired Justin's collection of Merriweather prints. One of his first actions after his grandmother had died was to buy a set for himself. He was also enchanted by Merriweather's oils, finding a pair of stupendous landscapes just that morning. But he didn't mention his interest. He was too accustomed to hiding his financial affairs. And a year of sharing a house with his mother had intensified his secrecy. What she knew, everyone knew, usually in so exaggerated and sensationalized a form that he hardly recognized the tales.
He added a volume of war memoirs to his stack.
Justin eyed the eclectic collection and grinned. "If you wish to rehash the late war, you should attend Lady Bounty's soiree. Several officers will be there tonight, including that captain."
Nicholas raised a brow. "I understood that she ran a literary soiree."
"You know her?"
"No, she arrived in town after my grandmother died. But Fortrier sometimes mentions her."
"He only attends the literary sessions, but she holds gatherings on many topics--art, literature, politics, science. She always includes experts from the appropriate fields." He shrugged. "I attend all her art discussions and occasionally take in others. Anyone is welcome. Why don't I take you up tonight and introduce you?"
"Why not?" Stimulating discussion might divert the blue-devils that had plagued him for so long. And he was curious about Lady Bounty. Despite knowing the earl most of his life, he'd never met the man's second wife.
Bounty had been a cherished mentor in years past. Intelligent and highly educated, his love for debate had inspired Nicholas's own studies. Nicholas had often researched esoteric topics, hoping to best him. But not until his second year at Oxford had he actually done it. Bounty had rewarded him with a Shakespeare first edition that remained one of his most prized possessions.
So the fact that his widow now hosted an intellectual soiree was hardly surprising. Nicholas couldn't imagine the man wedding a brainless widgeon.
But he also could not ignore the charges hurled by Humphrey Reynolds, the current Lord Bounty. They painted a very different picture of the earl's second wife--not that he could fully trust Humphrey's word.
As Bounty's nephew, Humphrey had long hated his uncle for refusing to fish him out of the River Tick, so he'd openly gloated when Bounty's only son had died of consumption, making Humphrey the heir. Riding on new expectations, he had embarked on a year of gaming and debauchery that tripled his debts. Thus he had been appalled when Bounty took a young wife at the advanced age of sixty-eight.
Rumors soon circulated accusing the new Lady Bounty of being a rapacious fortune hunter, a heartless vixen, and a light-skirt who would never produce a son of unquestionable parentage. Few doubted the source of the stories, but repetition left many believing the substance. Humphrey dropped his campaign once it became clear that the lady was barren, but revived it after Bounty's death. Humphrey inherited naught but the entailment, which included only the title and an estate that had not turned a profit in nearly a century. The rest of Bounty's fortune, including his town house and other estates, went to his wife.
Furious, Humphrey had barred her from his doors and tried to recover his inheritance. But despite his legal maneuverings, the will had been proved valid.
Nicholas shook his head. He had trouble believing that his old friend could be taken in by a fortune hunter. The man's mind had still been sharp four years after his marriage. And it was Bounty who had taught him to read character, who had expounded on human nature, who had helped him hone the skill that had earned his keep for so long.
He sighed. He would meet the lady tonight and judge for himself. At least he was unlikely to run into matchmakers at an intellectual soiree. And conversation would chase away his persistent blue-devils. He hadn't conducted a good debate in years.
His mother's pressure was responsible for much of his melancholy. But marriage didn't appeal to him. Nor did his mother, he had to admit. Constant quarrels with his father had kept him away from home. Only lately had he realized that her demands had precipitated many of those quarrels. But her nagging was only part of the problem. She was sneaky and manipulative, employing even disreputable tactics to get her own way--which raised the question of whether he was safe from her pressure even now. Before he returned to Woodvale Abbey, he must decide what to do with her. Sharing a roof would never work.
In the meantime, he must figure out what to do with himself. His days of haunting the clubs in search of the perfect wager were long gone. As were the nights of entertaining his latest conquest. He had come to London to straighten out the Woodvale affairs, but that would hardly fill all the hours. Yet attending society gatherings was too dangerous.
"I wish I could come to your soiree tonight," exclaimed Chloe Parker as she watched her friend perform magic on a bowl of flowers. "How do you do that?"
"Practice." Diana Reynolds, Dowager Countess of Bounty, laughed at the expression on Chloe's face. The girl looked fragile and delicate, though Diana knew from four years of close acquaintance that she was not. "Don't turn that stony look on me. Your parents will not allow you near the soldiers and politicians who will be here tonight, just as they forbade you to meet the artists I entertained last week. You are only seventeen. They must protect you."
Chloe sighed. "This has nothing to do with protection. They despise anything intellectual and don't even want me reading poetry. If Lord Bounty had not been a neighbor, I doubt they would allow me to visit you."
It was true. And if Lord and Lady Parker had known Bounty well, they would have cut the connection anyway. They distrusted book learning. Bounty had known that, restricting his conversation to topics of mutual interest. Since he divided his year among several properties, he had not seen them often.
But Diana had lived at the Haven since his death. Because she was a known intellectual, she had seen even less of the Parkers. Only the fact that few of their friends were visiting London at the moment made them welcome her here. But if they knew how much time Chloe spent at her house, they would have cut all connections. She rarely asked Chloe if she had permission to call, not wanting to know the answer. Anyone with Chloe's curiosity would suffocate without frequent access to new ideas.
Diana had been in a similar situation before her marriage--awash with curiosity but with no way of satisfying it. Bounty had taken her in hand, opening her mind, praising her mastery of any new subject, and rewarding her when she finally bested him in debate. It was a legacy she was passing on to Chloe.
"What is troubling you?" she asked now. "I doubt missing a discussion of the war put that line between your eyes."
"London is so dull!"
Diana's hands froze in the act of clipping a stem. "Dull?"
"I sound like a spoiled child, don't I?"
"Perhaps, though I know you are not. But few young ladies would describe a London Season as dull."
"True, yet I find it so. At home, it never bothered me that every day was the same, because I expected nothing else. But I thought London would be different. How could it not be? There are so many things to do and places to see--art exhibits, cathedrals, theaters, galleries. Museums, balloon ascensions, parties, shopping ... Yet Mama insists on following the same daily routine. We start with morning calls, where I must sit demurely while she and the other ladies exchange the same boring gossip day after day. Who is newly arrived? Today it was the Marquess of Woodvale. Who misbehaved last night? Lord Thornhill did something unmentionable--again. I wish just once they would describe his misdeeds. At least it would enliven the morning. Who is courting whom? Lord Rufton is the leading contender for Lady Melissa Stapleton's hand. He waltzed with her twice at two different balls last night." She sighed. "Then we drive in the park and eat dinner before attending one rout and one ball. Mama preaches endlessly about decorum. She nearly went into hysterics when I asked to visit the Egyptian Hall yesterday. If one can believe her, the exhibits would shock a proper lady into the vapors."
Diana nearly choked. "I wonder what she objects to. Napoleon's travel coach, perhaps?"
"Who knows? She would never sully my innocent ears with a description. She also refused to take me to the British Museum on grounds that the Elgin Marbles are lewd."
"Lewd? How odd. Everyone is clothed, and none are writhing with passion. Of course, many of the paintings cannot make that claim." She laughed at the expression on Chloe's face. "My apologies. I shouldn't tease you."
"She would be appalled that I understand the allusion. Or anything else. Papa was furious when I bought that book. Ladies should not read, it seems."
"Thus your comment on poetry. I had forgotten that you purchased Thornton's latest."
"He claims the poems are lewd. They describe wind and water, trees and mountains, power, grandeur, and the majesty of nature. What is lewd about that?"
"Nothing," Diana assured her. Some of Thornton's work did evoke an underlying sensuality, but an innocent like Chloe would not recognize it. "You know your parents have very rigid ideas."
"But I did not realize how rigid," she wailed, pacing the floor in agitation. "Why can I not choose my own friends? Why can I not see London? Why must I be shuffled into marriage before I have any chance to live? Could they not at least allow me a say in my own future?"
"Is that what is troubling you? Few girls see more than you have before marriage, Chloe. And you have known all your life that you would wed George. It never bothered you before. In fact, you were quite excited at the prospect only a fortnight ago. What happened?"
"He came to dinner last night."
"And?" she asked when the silence stretched.
"I haven't seen him since he signed the betrothal agreement six years ago. You know he stays on his own estate and never visits his parents."
No one had ever explained why, but Diana nodded. She had known both Chloe's family and George's since her own marriage ten years earlier, but she had met George only during his occasional breaks from Cambridge. She had paid him no heed.
Chloe's eyes shimmered with tears. "He is the most boring man I have ever met," she said on a sob. "And tyrannical. Nothing pleases him. He has no sense of humor. And he is so proper that Papa seems dissolute in comparison."
"Good heavens!" Lord Parker was a staid gentleman who cared for little beyond his estate.
"How can I marry such a man? I will die!"
"Calm yourself, Chloe," she demanded. "You should know better than to judge people on one meeting. Initial impressions are often false."
"How can you say that?"
"Think! Have I taught you nothing? If a gentleman first met you at your parents' table, what would he think?"
Chloe blotted her eyes and sighed. "That I was a boring, conformable widgeon."
"Exactly. You rarely open your mouth. You never dispute a statement. You repeat only the most innocuous gossip and never venture an opinion. In fact, I only heard you make three statements during my entire visit to your mother's at-home last week."
"Sunshine is quite pleasant after a week of rain. Lady Brisbane was overset by encountering Lady Markleigh's poodles in the park. Papa quite properly does not approve the raucous atmosphere to be found at Astley's," she repeated in resignation.
"Exactly. And that impression would be reinforced when he saw you making calls with your mother."
"But if I don't remain quiet and demure, she punishes me."
"I know," said Diana soothingly. "I was not criticizing. It is often important to conform to people's expectations. But did you consider that George might also be wearing a social mask?"
"Why would he?"
"He was visiting your family for the first time in six years. He knows their characters, for he grew up on the next estate. He would conform merely to make a good impression."
"Perhaps, but I don't believe it. His eyes tell a different story--you are the one who claims that truth can be found in the eyes and hands."
She nodded. It was one of Bounty's first lessons, and had stood her in good stead many times since. A lady alone had to keep her wits about her, and that meant knowing what her companions really wanted.
"His eyes lit with fanaticism when he disparaged London frivolity--especially modern dancing--and his hands actually twisted his serviette into a noose."
"Was he speaking of the waltz?"
She nodded. "Then he decried the fact that we will not wed until after we return to Wiltshire in July. By holding the wedding here next month, he could remove me from this decadent society before it turns my silly head. He would do it tomorrow if a special license cost less." New tears rolled down her cheek. "I cannot believe he actually berated Papa for bringing me to town. And Papa let him!"
Diana spent several minutes calming her hysteria. Chloe had a history of emotional outbursts, so it was unlikely that George was quite that haughty, but he didn't sound very accommodating. Could his own nervousness have made him belligerent? She didn't like that bit about the noose.
Both the Parkers and the Weymouths were rigidly conventional and old-fashioned, proposing this betrothal just after Chloe was born. When George reached one-and-twenty, they asked him if he objected. He didn't, signing the betrothal contract the same day. Two weeks later, he had left home.
There had been no hint of a disagreement, but when years passed without another visit, Diana had concluded that an argument must be keeping him away. Or was it the betrothal? Perhaps George was less willing than anyone believed, not that it mattered. The settlements were signed, the announcement made public. Nothing could change things now, thoughut it did seem unfair that George had been given a chance to renege on the arrangement while Chloe had not.
Diana suppressed a sigh. Chloe's future was out of her hands. Despite their friendship, she was merely a neighbor. And she already walked a fine line with the Parkers. If she tried to meddle, they might cut the connection, leaving Chloe with no one she could talk to.
Chloe's betrothal chafed at Diana for the rest of the day, intruding into her thoughts even as she welcomed guests to her soiree. The girl was so young--and so innocent. Had introducing her to art, literature, and new ideas been wrong? Chloe's curiosity had always been insatiable, but neither of them had considered the consequences of feeding her imagination. Longing for the moon and the stars would bring nothing but pain if her husband did not share her dreams--or at least tolerate them.
Chloe couldn't afford to fight an inevitable future. Instead of throwing tantrums and making threats, she needed to look past the surface to discover George's worth. He might not be handsome or exciting, but he was solidly dependable and probably would be faithful. Chloe would never face unexpected poverty. Her children would not be stigmatized by their father's unethical behavior. The sooner she accepted her marriage, the sooner she would enjoy her new position.
Diana had learned that lesson through experience. Her father had squandered his fortune, forcing her into an arranged marriage that had also seemed quite impossible on the surface.
Dear Harry. She still missed him, though he had been gone for four years. He had ignored her lack of dowry. When he learned that a callous libertine had shattered her heart, he had comforted her, healed her, then helped her to live again. He had honored her intelligence, expanded her education, taught her how to judge people, perfected her social skills, and welcomed her as an equal partner in their marriage. She had missed their frequent debates so much that she had started her weekly soirees as a way to recapture his spirit. Debate kept her mind sharp and her grief at bay, filling her need for stimulating conversation.
Grief had now mellowed into contentment. She had good friends and the respect of everyone whose opinion mattered. And even in death Harry made her feel cherished. His will had given her financial security and independence. She split her time between London and the Haven. Life couldn't get much better.
"Lord Justin," she said, offering her hand to the latest arrival. He was a regular attendee, though she hadn't expected him this evening. He usually skipped anything political. "I'm delighted that you could come."
"How could I bypass the most interesting gathering in London?" He openly ogled her, his eyes lingering on her bosom. "Or should I say the most interesting hostess?"
"You never change." She lightly rapped his arm with her fan. An incorrigible flirt, he always tried to fluster her, and she made sure he never succeeded.
"Nor do you. Delectable, as always, my dear. May I present the Marquess of Woodvale." He stepped aside, providing her first glimpse of his companion.
"My lord." Somehow she kept her voice even, though it felt like every drop of blood had instantly vacated her head. Spots swirled before her eyes. She fought them down, refusing to faint, refusing to give him that satisfaction.
"D-Diana Winslow!" His obvious shock helped preserve her own control. Never had she thought to see Nicholas Barrington nonplused.
"Lady Bounty," she said, correcting him firmly, then let a frown cross her face. "You look familiar ... Ah, you are Gerald's friend, aren't you? How is he? I've heard nothing of him since I left Warwickshire."
She could not have astonished him more if she had kicked him in the stomach. Or someplace lower. For one long moment he stared at her, then his eyes blazed in fury.
Lord Justin raised his brows, but prudently moved into the drawing room in response to an imperative thumb.
"Gerald's friend?" Nicholas snarled through gritted teeth. Grabbing her arm, he dragged her into the library and slammed the door. "Look familiar? I'm not stupid, Diana. You haven't forgotten me. And you cannot have forgotten our last meeting--you vowed to love me for all eternity."
She managed a light tinkle of laughter that drove new flashes of fury across his face. For once, her composure exceeded his, though curses screamed through her head and dizziness still threatened to overwhelm her. She had known from the moment she ventured into London that this day would arrive, so she had planned for it, rehearsing the words until they rose automatically to her lips--and that was a blessing, for she had not known that he was now Woodvale. Such ignorance was proof that he finally meant nothing. Thank you, God.
"Still as arrogant as ever, I see. Now that you mention it, I do remember you, my lord. But as you pointed out so eloquently at the time, I was suffering from a youthful infatuation that would quickly fade. In fact, my feelings were no more than a girlish fascination with your rakehell reputation. Love feels quite different, as I quickly learned. I married Harry a month later."
"It didn't take you long to find a well-heeled lord and wheedle him out of a fortune."
Pain sliced through her chest, but she hid it. "Does a man of your experience actually believe malicious goss--"
"Did you think I'd resume our liaison once you became a wealthy widow?" he demanded, cutting through her words as if she hadn't spoken.
Fury engulfed her, overwhelming the pain. He hadn't changed a bit. Money and sex were all he cared about, so he assumed that everyone was driven by the same needs.
Watch your tongue, warned a voice in her head. In addition to his lifelong quest for a fortune, he enjoyed a challenge, which explained his reaction just now. Pretending that she no longer recognized him had given her a great deal of satisfaction, but she must be careful not to push him too far.
"Actually, you never crossed my mind after I married Harry," she lied.
"Right!" he scoffed. "A passionate young girl takes one look at an old man and falls hopelessly in love. Do you know any other fairy tales?"
"I should call you out for that! Harry was the kindest, gentlest man I've ever known. You are not worthy to kiss his feet." Tears shimmered in her eyes, and she cursed. Damn Nicholas! He still had the power to destroy her control.
"Do you really expect me to believe that you loved him?" he demanded skeptically.
"I don't care what you believe, though it's true enough." Make him accept the lie. Please? She turned aside to hide her trembling lips. Why was he so angry? It couldn't be jealousy after all these years. He hadn't wanted her, so finding that she had married elsewhere could hardly prick his conceit. And his own dishonor was safely buried. Revealing it would expose her naïveté, tarnishing her reputation.
Nicholas stared. Her eyes had filled with tears before she'd turned away. Had she actually loved Bounty? He shuddered. He couldn't believe it--didn't want to believe it, despite his own fondness for the man. He did not want to picture Bounty bedding a seventeen-year-old--especially his seventeen-year-old. But if she lied, then he had forced her into a hideous union. Guilt stabbed his heart.
"Congratulations on your new title." Her voice deflected his thoughts. She again faced him, her face composed. "You must be delighted to have achieved the wealth and power you always craved without having to wed an heiress or abandon your raking."
He grimaced, appalled to find his youthful words tossed back at him. "Yes, it was quite convenient," he snapped, temper erasing his guilt.
"I must see to my other guests," she continued dispassionately. "I presume your purpose for dragging me in here was to demand silence about our previous acquaintance. I agree. As far as London is concerned, we first met tonight--though Lord Justin might need some convincing; you made quite a cake of yourself. You are welcome to stay, but I will understand if you prefer to leave."
She was gone by the time he formed a response. Clenching his fists, he stared out the window at her tiny garden. If nothing else, this encounter had disproved every word of Humphrey Reynolds's calumny. Despite his taunts, he knew Diana was no fortune hunter. So why had she married Bounty? Please let it be for love. He had too many regrets over that summer already.
He had left within hours of their last meeting, already wracked with guilt. And he had cut further contact with Gerald, so he would never see her again. Thus he had not heard of her marriage.
Perhaps he was conceited--just a little. He had never imagined her turning to another man, and certainly not to one like Bounty. It hurt. And that made him angrier. She was no more than a youthful acquaintance, of no importance to his life. Her opinion would never influence him. And it certainly should not affect his temper--which he had last lost ten years ago, damn her!
You must be delighted ... wealth and power ... Not once had he considered the Woodvale title as the fulfillment of his youthful dreams. Nor had he felt more than mild relief when he had inherited his grandmother's money. He would forgo the lot if only he could have her back. She had been his rock during childhood, far more of a mother than his own.
He hated the marquess's duties for which he had never been trained. But he would swallow live coals rather than admit that aloud, especially to Diana. She had lied about forgetting him, but this meeting proved that it was far from her first lie. He couldn't trust her. She had been sweet, loving, passionate, and very innocent that summer, but she had never revealed her intelligence or an education that would be considered extensive even for a man. He had heard too much about the breadth of Lady Bounty's knowledge to believe that she had been uneducated when he knew her. Bounty would hardly have chosen such a bride. So why had she never shared her interests with the man she claimed to love? And how had she put their affair behind her so quickly? Had all her claims been lies?
But this was not the place to contemplate the past. He could not leave without explaining to Justin, and that would never do. His shock had already raised enough questions for one night.
Turning his mind to his old mentor, he moved about the familiar library, noting how many books had been added since he had last studied the shelves. He had passed many an evening here, talking, debating, sharing his studies. Their meetings had continued long after Bounty's marriage to Diana. Why had Bounty never brought her to town with him? That was odd enough, but he had also never mentioned her to Nicholas. Had he known of the connection?
But that was another question for later.
He concentrated on recalling their last debate--on Wolf's contention that more than one hand had written the Iliad and the Odyssey. The logical flow of point and counterpoint finally allowed him to reassert control over his emotions. Only then did he join the other guests in the drawing room.
But he cursed when he awakened the next morning. He could remember nothing of the soiree after he had left the library. Why couldn't he have forgotten the earlier scene instead?
Diana gave up on sleep and stared out the window. Berkeley Square was quiet this time of night. Ladies had long since found their beds, but gentlemen were not yet stumbling home from clubs and boudoirs. Woodvale House loomed directly across the square. She had hardly noticed it before, but now she could not tear her eyes away. It threatened her as no building ever had.
Somehow she had made it through the evening without disgracing herself. Nicholas had stayed, moving from group to group, just as she was, chatting amiably with some guests, debating heatedly with others. His arguments had been clear and concise--and precisely the same ones she herself was making.
Not until she realized that he bypassed any group that included her did she finally relax. Thank heavens he was not interested in further discussion. Her inadvertent challenge had not prompted him to show her up in front of her guests by besting her in debate.
Nor would she challenge him again. She did not need him disrupting her well-ordered life. If he ever learned how badly he had hurt her, he would prod the wound, exploiting any lingering attraction to feed his own conceit. He never ignored a potential conquest. Why else had he pounced on her admiration in the first place?
He was still the unscrupulous scoundrel who had nearly destroyed her, still the answer to any maiden's prayer--at least on the surface. Her eyes had often drifted to him as the hours passed. He had been two-and-twenty in Warwickshire, still gangly with youth. Maturity had broadened his shoulders and developed muscles in all the right places. His face was as handsome as ever, but more rugged than pretty now, despite that same black curl draped negligently over his forehead. His green eyes were lighter than she remembered, or perhaps they only darkened with passion. But whatever his emotions, he exuded a presence that was difficult to ignore. No wonder he was so successful a rake.
She sighed, then reminded herself that she was no longer susceptible to his charms.
So why did her safe, cozy world feel like it was crashing around her shoulders? She knew him too well to fall for his blandishments. Thus he could no longer seduce her. And having her ten-year-old misdeeds turn up among the latest on-dits was unlikely. For all his faults, Nicholas had never been one to brag about his exploits.
So her discomfort must arise from shame. She should not have lied to him--Nicholas had always been able to see through the slightest prevarication. She had not loved Harry in the beginning, and lying about it revealed how devastating Nicholas's rejection had been. What would he do with that knowledge?
She had accepted Harry out of desperation, needing to escape from her father's estate. By the time he offered, she had no longer been able to leave the house, for Nicholas beckoned from behind every tree. His whispers drowned the gurgling of the stream; his spicy cologne floated on every breeze. But staying indoors did not help. He invaded dreams, his last taunting tirade echoing through myriad nightmares. So she had wed Lord Bounty. He was the antithesis of Nicholas--old, wrinkled, safe, and so very, very kind. And he promised to take her away where maybe, someday, she could forget.
Dear Harry. He had never blamed her for succumbing to Nicholas's wiles. Rakes were experienced at seduction. She had been a sheltered innocent looking for a romantic hero. The results were inevitable.
But she had never accepted Harry's absolution. Despite her innocence, she had known better. Ladies did not talk to gentlemen without a proper introduction. Ladies did not wander about the countryside unchaperoned. They did not make assignations. And they certainly did not allow scandalous liberties.
Her face heated at just how many liberties she had allowed. Fool! Many times a fool.
But it was over. Done. Finished. She could not remake the past. All she could do was learn from her mistakes.
And the lesson in this case was clear--avoid Nicholas.
Wresting her eyes from his house, she collected a book and forced her mind onto reading.
Posted October 8, 2010
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