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What Isabella Desires
She watched as he moved through the crowd, his tall, languid grace at odds with the look in his golden eyes, alert and predatory.
Women whispered that Marcus Stewart, Lord Roth, was a fallen angel. With his dark hair and whiskey eyes, his lush lips and artistic hands, she had never believed otherwise.
He nodded politely to one of the friendlier couples of the ton; the other man standing taller, the woman growing more animated as the conversation continued. Even from her vantage point across the room, she could see a small smile curve Marcus's beautiful mouth and a warmer light enter his usually cold and distant eyes.
She swallowed, her throat suddenly dry in the moist late spring air. She had been privy to his real smile, the one that reached all the way to his eyes and lit up his face, the one that caused her to forget her own name and her body to lean closer to his. Silk felt smoother and chocolate tasted better when he unleashed that smile. And she was selfish and wicked enough to want it all to herself, to taste him as his mouth curled, to feel his long, lean fingers curve around her waist and into her hair as he drew her forth.
She saw him moving on into the crush of people and watched full lips thin into a dangerous smirk as he said something cutting to a man she knew he disliked. That was the danger with fallen angels, she had always thought—they could show you all the delights of heaven or easily deliver you into the fires of hell. Most women found the dichotomy all the more exciting, and though she might scoff aloud, in the darkness of her bedroom, ensconced beneath hercovers, left to her dreams, her mind agreed.
He finally stopped his forward momentum at a foursome of the fashionable and notorious. As he joined their conversation, his shoulders relaxed infinitesimally; unnoticeable to anyone else, but she hadn't spent years observing him for naught. The Angelfords and Marstons were his closest friends. Friends with whom he could relax and dispense with the facade that society demanded; friends who generated more than their own share of gossip.
That his two best friends were now happily married had society poised for Marcus's capitulation as well. But he was not the least bit interested in marriage, and although the reasons for his feelings were secret, the actual matter of his opinion was not.
That had not stopped every matchmaking mama with daughters of a marriageable age from throwing their daughters in his path. Oh, no. The Roth title was distinguished and enduring, more so than many of the dukedoms. Marcus had power, lots of it.
That, coupled with his looks and brooding nature, made for no shortage of young misses, or married women, ready to fall at his feet. All of them wishing to be the one to tame him.
He carried a darkness that only dissolved when he unleashed one of "those" smiles. And perhaps, more desirous than the feeling of the smiles turning her to goo, she longed to see the shadows behind his eyes banished and his inner light relit.
She wanted to be more than just his chess partner and friend. She wanted—
Pain crashed through her foot, causing her to jerk upright and look to the side. Her mother, her handsome features highlighted by her upswept hair, continued to look straight ahead at the stuttering young man conversing with them, acting as if she hadn't just deliberately crushed her daughter's toes to dust.
Isabella, Lady Willoughby, quickly contained her mortification at being caught staring. Not that it mattered overly, since she wasn't one on whom the ton kept close tabs. She was just nice, plain Isabella Willoughby, widow of an equally nice and plain member of society. And like the pretty but unremarkable paper that covered the walls of the ballroom—she belonged in the scene but was eminently forgettable.
No one expected much from her besides pleasant conversation and a convenient way to introduce their daughters into society. Her spotless reputation and the fact that she genuinely liked to make outings easier for the young debutantes in their first seasons had ensured the ton matrons' continued benevolence in the ten years since Isabella's own debut.
Of course, a single whiff of scandal would grind all past benevolence to dust. Thus spoke society.
The man talking to her mother excused himself, allowing her mother to pin her with a knowing gaze. Isabella tried to look contrite, but her mother shook her head in exasperation. Polite exasperation, of course. After all, they were still in the public eye.
"Isabella, you need to stop woolgathering. One day someone other than your mother is going to catch you staring."
Isabella cringed. Sometimes her mother could still make her feel fourteen. "I know, I know. I'm sorry, Mama."
Charlotte Herringfield tapped her fan and sighed. "Don't apologize, dear. I still don't know if your father and I did the right thing by pushing you into marriage with a man that wasn't . . ." She waved her fan in Marcus's general direction.
Isabella swallowed. "You didn't force me to marry George. And it was the right decision. George was a . . . was a good friend," she finished softly.
"But you didn't love him." Her mother's shrewd eyes missed little.
"No, I loved him, you know I did." And she truly had, even though she had never been in love with him. He had been a good companion and friend. They had been comfortable. Her stomach had never clenched and the sheer thrill of life had never occurred in his presence, but then those were not necessarily the things on which to base a marriage. Still, she had never experienced that extra spark with George, and had always felt that she'd somehow slighted him. That she was the one who had denied him love. He had scoffed lightly at her confession on the day he had asked for her hand, instead joking and making her laugh.What Isabella Desires. Copyright © by Anne Mallory. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.