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Rob Besford shot the sardonic devil looking back out of his mirror an impatient look. There was no trace of the eager fool who had gone off to fight the good fight in his hard gaze now. Perhaps he should thank his wife for destroying his remaining illusions. His dark brows drew together in a straight line and he shook his head in brisk denial, before impatiently reducing his wayward chestnut locks to stern military order.
During the last two months he had honed his muscular frame to the peak of fitness at Jackson's Boxing Saloon, and refined his wits by putting his brother James's venture into trade successfully back on course, yet his thoughts still dwelt upon his abandoned wife far too often.
If Gentleman Jackson had sometimes seen raw fury in his client's eyes that made him glad not to face him in a public ring, he had tactfully kept his feelings to himself. There was a new hardness in the Colonel's famous green gaze and his sensual mouth was often set in a stern line that warned friends and enemies alike not to trespass on forbidden ground.
He had managed to ignore the youthful widows and matrons of the ton who made it clear more than their sympathy was on offer so far, but he knew odds were being offered in the clubs as to which one would snag him first. How on earth could he conduct any liaison with discretion, when half of London was anticipating it with such unholy glee?
The answer was that good taste forbade it while Caroline was living under his father's roof, so somehow he must persuade her to set up her own establishment while they tried to dissolve their fiasco of a marriage. If only his bride had been different, he could have hoped that some besotted fool would run off with her, so that he could sue the idiot for criminal conversation with his wife and perhaps gain his freedom. Unfortunately, only a complete lunatic would cling to such a forlorn hope when he was married to the former Miss Warden.
Well, tonight he intended to forget he was for one glorious evening, and the devil could fly away with tomorrow. He took the starched neckcloth his batman was holding out and deftly folded it, then tied it in the style he had made his own. Carefully shrugging himself into the dark blue superfine coat newly arrived from Weston's masterly hand, he thought wryly of times in Spain when a clean shirt would have been considered the height of sartorial splendour. Accepting his immaculate top hat and cane from his batman, he finally sallied forth to celebrate his new prosperity, and hopefully forget Robert the married man for a few short hours.
One or two bottles of fine claret later and he was well on the way to that happy oblivion. He stopped to count the strikes of a nearby clock with the determination of a man who had drunk more than he decently ought to, but not enough to examine his gold half-hunter in the uncertain light under the nearest lamppost. Although a good turn up with an enterprising thief might relieve his pent-up feelings, even three-parts drunk he knew the news that he had been brawling in the street would distress his father, and the Earl of Foxwell had enough to bear.
Midnight tolled out, and the intermittent moonlight was tense with an unhealthy mix of frost, fog and danger. As oblivious to such hazards as Rob himself, Captain Charles Afforde, RN, known to his friends as Rowley, detached himself from the clutch of drunken beaux and fell back to eye Rob dubiously.
'Y'do know serenading La Watson with you glowering like a thundercloud will only get us sent away with a flea in our ear?' Rowley demanded owlishly.
'As you do that she's Will's woman until one of them decides otherwise, I suppose?' he replied.
'Might know La Watson chose Wrovillton,' Rowley finally admitted, 'but don't mean I want to know it, if ya see what I mean?'
'You have got it bad, old man. Never mind, you'll soon be off to sea again and you might manage to pull a mermaid out of the Atlantic this time.'
'Mermaid in the hand, worth two in the bush,' his old friend averred, mixing his metaphors with the conviction of the very drunk.
Then Rowley noticed the others had forged unsteadily on, and sped after them in case virtue was contagious. Rob removed his fashionable top hat, ran a hand through his hair and suddenly the frosty air felt glorious on his face after all.
Either dirty, indifferent London was suddenly wafted by the fragrant airs of Olympus, or that last bottle was taking effect at last. All he needed now was a charming and clever wench to make him forget his wife, and his evening would be perfect. He conducted a mental review of London's courtesans and drew a blank. None of the fashionable impures currently angling for a new protector had the bearing of a goddess and the looks of Helen of Troy-so Will had swept the board again with Aleysha, the lucky dog.
Rob was bidding a regretful goodbye to his paragon of very little virtue when an urchin girl shot round a corner as if the hounds of hell were on her tail, and flew straight at him. With so much momentum behind even so slender a form, there was no chance of avoiding a collision. She slammed into him with such force that they almost fell into a nearby hedge as he absorbed the full impact of her flying body.
Not so drunk that he was going to let some dip from the stews pick his pocket, Rob hung on to his captive as they lurched and nearly fell on to the pavement in a tangle of limbs. Somehow he contrived to keep them both upright and relatively unsullied, although his magnificent new hat would never be the same again, he decided ruefully, as he watched it roll into the gutter without much regret.
He was rich enough to buy them by the dozen now, he remembered hazily, more concerned with the female resting in his arms than the finest headgear Bond Street could offer him. If he had failed to keep his balance, and they had landed in a tangle on London's less than pristine streets, he might just have lain there as dazed as a callow youth in a twilit summer meadow upon being given a murmured 'yes,'instead of an indignant 'no!' by his sweetheart.
Soft and sweet against his powerful body, the wench was temptation incarnate and he could not have said why for half the new fortune he shared. They had the night and a grubby, intermittent sort of moonlight, and in her arms he might at least forget his wife for a while. 'Dashing about like one of Congreve's rockets could lead you to fall in with all sorts of rogues, sweetheart,' he murmured, and nearly fumbled his grip when she began to struggle as if she had just woken from some sort of swoon. 'Maybe you're not quite so sweet after all, then, my little dove,' he said cynically and saw her eyes flash fire even in the muted light of the street lamps.
He could have sworn she was about to rant and rage at him and even heard the shush of breath she gathered in for the purpose, but instead she let it out on a long sigh and went on wriggling silently in his arms. Their sensuous combat set his pulse racing and, even as desire raged through him in a hot tide, he retained just enough sense to wonder why. What light there was showed him her clear profile and finely cut features, but finding a sane reason why he was potently attracted to this woman rather than all those others who had thrown themselves at him since his marriage was beyond his current capacity for thought.
Giving up on such insoluble problems for now, he decided to enjoy the assault on his senses without questioning his instant arousal. She smelled wonderful, of course-as if she had doused herself in wine and roses just so a man could get drunk on the scent of her. Far better than civet or ambergris he decided dazedly, and wondered if his gift from the gods had been a lady before she took to whoring.
There was something vaguely familiar about her fragrance and, sober, he might have questioned his odd notion of knowing his delightful captive almost by instinct. Drunk, he concluded that wine and propinquity were to blame for her potent effect on his senses and gently but ruthlessly subdued her struggles. Whether she had started life in a hovel or a palace, no lady ran the streets at midnight.
Realising that she was not going to free herself easily, the wench finally went still, but even in this fitful light he could see a flush of anger on her high cheekbones that warned him she was just regrouping. Muttering some far from ladylike curses under her breath, she tried a sharp twist to break his grip, but he countered by pulling her even closer. She held herself stiffly unmoving in his arms, and he would be a fool to think he had won the bout when he could almost feel the resistance coursing through her veins. She was very good at this game, he decided, almost too good, if that was possible.
'Let me go, you great dolt,' she demanded in a throaty undertone that completed his enchantment.
'When the stars fall out of the sky,' he muttered into the absurd topknot she presented him with, apparently in the hope of avoiding more intimate contact.
For some reason Rob found the wild mass of curls tickling his chin unexpectedly erotic, and wondered dazedly what he would find irresistible about a woman of the night next.
'Wrong answer,' she muttered darkly and he came sharply back to earth when she kicked him on the shin with as much force as she could muster, considering he had her clasped so close to his hard body.
'Wrong weapon,' he countered.
He had been running an exploring hand further down her delightfully formed spine and hid a wolfish grin in the darkness. Shod in slippers as she was, her foot had bounced ineffectually off his muscular legs and she had very likely hurt herself more than she had him.
Enjoying his exploration enormously, he heard a gasp that was not quite shock and not altogether encouragement, and moved that hand a little lower to encounter a delightfully pert derri re under the rather flimsy cloak and clinging dark gown.
Added to the sensation of her ragged breathing against his powerful chest, her responsiveness turned him eager as a boy.
'You could easily turn into an icicle, dressed for high summer as you seem to be, sweetness.'
'Keep your opinions and your hands to yourself, you great poltroon,' she said between her teeth and he had to move quickly to make sure her slender fingers were trapped between their bodies as he felt her ball them into fists.
The gesture would have been much more convincing if he had not felt the fine tremors that were running through her, and he would have applauded, if he could spare his hands for the task.
She was playing him so skilfully-giving just the right amount of opposition to make him more eager for her eventual capitulation, but not too much to make him think the game was not worth the candle. And yet there was an element of enchantment to this odd encounter that told him she was more than just a lightskirt luring in a rich quarry. She had a unique quality about her he could not pin down, a peculiar sort of innocence that told him she had not done this very often. There was the dark promise of unruly passion running under every move they made together.
Used to keeping all his senses on the alert in the Peninsula, when lives depended on him staying one step ahead of the enemy, Rob had always prided himself on keeping a strict curb on his more unruly emotions, as befitted a good officer. He remembered the scene in his father-in-law's bookroom on his wedding day with bitter chagrin, and now his passions were threatening to spiral out of control once again. Hastily he buried the memory of his wife's fiery and untutored responses as his chance-met ladybird wriggled restively against him, and demolished the last of his scruples without trying.
Something about this frosty March night felt different, and not even a poet could claim the smell of a few thousand fires, too many human beings and their chattels crammed into vast, smelly London, were likely to carry a man away with enchantment. Yet if the others were still laughing and joking he had stopped listening. If they had abandoned him to his fate, he was simply grateful.
'Little wildcat!' he chided unsteadily, and the catch in his breath had little to do with alcohol and a great deal to do with his burning need for a wench he had never even seen properly. 'Give me one good reason why I should let you go.'
He felt her gather breath to storm at him, to pretend black was white, but instead she let it go in a long hiss and glared furiously at him.
'A gentleman does not need a reason to obey a lady,' she finally spat the words at him and he couldn't help but chuckle at her ridiculous assumption of gentility.
'A lady would never run the streets at this hour of the night.' Her burning glare intrigued him, because he could feel the response of her body and the catch in her breath, and both belied the militant set of her luscious mouth.
'Silence is golden,' he murmured, then bent his head to persuade her to drop her nonsensical pose of outraged virtue, before both he and the night faded away.
He brushed his mouth across her full top lip and back along the generous softness of her lower one. He adored her mouth as his tongue darted out to run along the gap and linger there like a bee drunk on nectar. He coaxed at that tantalising pout, even as he found himself guilty of treating a light-skirt as if she was the most precious and innocent creature he had ever kissed. Then his hand came up to explore what he could not distinctly see in the murky light, and this time she didn't even wriggle, let alone kick him.