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Adrian opened his eyes and stared groggily at the unfamiliar ceiling as he tried to figure out where he was. Certainly the rosy-cheeked cherubs who rioted above him had nothing in common with the severely classical frieze that graced his own bedchamber at his quarters in Mount Street. The bedclothes rustled beside him and, propping himself on one elbow, he turned to survey his still sleeping companion.
Her face, partially hidden by a mass of black hair, was pretty enough, but entirely unfamiliar. His eyes traveled down to the inviting curve of the hips and the long slim legs whose graceful proportions were obvious even under the sheet that covered them. Adrian grinned. Now he remembered. He was in Mrs. Lovington's Temple of Venus, a discreet but elegant establishment tucked among the clubs along St. James's and reputed to house the most beautiful bits of muslin in all of London. Definitely Kitty--at last he remembered her name--was no mean example of the delights the Temple of Venus had to offer.
The grin was quickly succeeded by a frown as Adrian recalled not only where he was but precisely why he was there. Tomorrow the announcement of the pending nuptials between Adrian Julius, Lord Chalfont, Marquess of Kidderham and the Honorable Alicia De Villiers was to appear in The Morning Post, and his evening at Mrs. Lovington's represented one last moment of freedom, one last expression of his former reckless way of living before selling his soul to that great god of the ton, and the object of his future wife's devotion, reputation.
Most men would have been overjoyed. The Honorable Miss De Villiers had been hailed as a diamond of the first water sincethe moment she had come out nearly two years ago. Tall and stately, she was fashionably dark, with deep blue eyes and she possessed the retroussé nose and rosebud mouth so necessary in an incomparable. In fact, she was so much the picture of feminine grace and loveliness that she might easily have stepped out from the pages of La Belle Assemblée. She also exhibited just about as much warmth and passion as those fashion plates, Adrian thought as the vision of his betrothed rose before him.
Other men might consider her a prize, but to Lord Chalfont she was, and always had been, his fate, just as his vast estates in Oxfordshire, his hunting box near Melton Mowbray, and the family town house in Grosvenor Square which was rented out while he enjoyed his simpler bachelor quarters in Mount Street. The De Villiers' land adjoined his in Oxfordshire, and for centuries there had been a tradition of alliances between the De Villiers and the Chalfonts. Adrian was no exception. Since he had been a boy, he had had the notion of Alicia as his future wife drummed into him by her father as well as his own ferociously respectable parents.
To a high-spirited lad, the prospect of a rigidly confining future had been daunting in the extreme and he had chafed mightily against such a dull and unadventurous existence. When his parents had died, both struck down by pneumonia within weeks of each other, he had seized the opportunity to purchase a commission in the Hussars and gone to the Peninsula in search of the excitement he craved.
Life in the cavalry had suited Adrian to perfection. Never one to revel in luxury, he had not minded the hard existence of campaigning. In fact, he had rather enjoyed the privation of long marches through a barren countryside, for it gave him a chance to prove himself in ways he never could back at home where his rank and possessions spoke so loudly to everyone he knew that the qualities of the man who possessed them were completely ignored.
His energy, fearlessness, and quick thinking soon earned him the respect of his superiors as well as his men so that by the time the great conflict of Waterloo was in the making he was a trusted member of Wellington's staff, his recklessness and daring remarkable even among men who were renowned for such things.
Waterloo was now over, however, the troops were home, and there was no more putting off of the inevitable. Alicia had been too young for betrothal when he had left to join the army and after that, what with the threatening political situation there had been no question of his resigning his commission despite her objections that he was devoting his time and energy to his country instead of his intended. Of course she had made the most of his status as one of the heroes of Waterloo, but the exhilaration over the glorious victory had soon died down, and being seen on the arm of a man in uniform lost the cachet it had previously conferred. Alicia had soon begun hinting--ever so delicately of course, for she never did anything that was not exquisitely conceived--that it was high time for the Marquess of Kidderham to settle down, take his proper place in the ton, and make her the most envied of women.
Being a man of honor, Lord Chalfont had kept his word, albeit reluctantly. As a dashing young-officer of considerable charm whose bold good looks had caused feminine hearts to flutter from Lisbon to Vienna, he had enjoyed numerous liaisons, some discreet, some not so discreet, with women of all ranks from princess to peasant, and he was not at all anxious to end this happy state of affairs, or even curtail it.
Though a supreme connoisseur of female charms, the Marquess of Kidderham had never been particularly attracted to those of his future wife. The Honorable Miss De Villiers's beauty, though undeniable and widely touted throughout the ton, was coldly exquisite. She exhibited the bloodless perfection of a marble statue--something to be admired from afar, but never touched. Adrian preferred his women to be real, passionate, and sensuous, women who enjoyed lovemaking as much as he did--women like Kitty here.
He looked down at the woman beside him and grinned as he recalled some of the more acrobatic moments of a few hours ago. No wonder she was sleeping so soundly now. Why even he, accustomed as he was to an active life of vigorous campaigning, was feeling pleasantly exhausted this morning and not a little dazed.
Adrian shook his head in an effort to clear the cobwebs from his brain. In addition to the rigors of passionate lovemaking, he had consumed quantities of port the previous evening, followed by equal measures of brandy and he was now finding it extremely difficult to marshal his faculties. However, he could tell by the sunlight filtering through the cracks in the curtain that it was high time he was up and on his way.
Little as he wished to face it all, he had things to do. Sliding from the bed he wavered unsteadily as he leaned over to gather the clothes scattered all over the room. His head swam unpleasantly as he bent to retrieve his breeches. This would never do. The sooner he got home to a pot of strong coffee, the better. Lord Chalfont hurried to tuck his shirt into his breeches, grabbed a fistful of coins from his pocket and poured them into a pile where Kitty would be sure to see them, pulled on his jacket, and made his way carefully to the door. In this state of mind he preferred to leave the Temple of Venus as quietly and unobtrusively as possible. In the future he was going to have to offer up explanations to Alicia for every single thing he did and he did not propose to begin by having to explain this particular episode.
Making his way down a hall inadequately lit by a window at the end over the stair, Adrian crept quietly past the tightly closed doors on either side, down what appeared to be the back stairs, and then made his way to what he remembered as the front of the house. It was not as easy as he had expected for his memory of the previous evening was vague, to say the least. He recalled entering and being ushered into a brightly lit anteroom where the beauteous Kitty had hastened to greet him. She had led him off so quickly that he had not really had the slightest notion of where he was going beyond following this tantalizingly seductive young woman.
At the foot of the stairs he turned and headed toward what he thought was the entrance hall and turned the knob to open what he thought was the front door. Too late he heard the sound of voices droning on in a strangely repetitive manner, but before he could listen further to figure out what was transpiring in the room, the voices stopped, alerted to his presence by the click of the latch and the creak of the door. The damage was done. He was discovered and now his curiosity threatened to overwhelm him.
Adrian pushed the door wide open and boldly entered the room. Six faces, all extraordinarily pretty, swiveled to face him and six pairs of eyes ranging from deep brown to brightest green fixed him with inquiring looks. He stared back. For a moment the marquess thought he had stumbled somehow into another building next door to the Temple of Venus, for the five demurely dressed young women, each holding a copybook, assembled in a row of chairs in front of another young woman who stood facing them, book in hand, looked like nothing so much as five schoolgirls and their instructress. However, a second glance at the ornate furnishings, the tasteful but seductive paintings and suggestive marble statues proved to Lord Chalfont that he was indeed still in the Temple of Venus.
"May I be of some assistance to you, sir?" A cool voice interrupted Lord Chalfont's befuddled thoughts. He turned to look at the speaker addressing him from her place in front of the class. She was a diminutive young woman of slender build, but her air of self-possession and an energy barely suppressed made up for her lack of stature. Striking rather than beautiful, she commanded attention. From the riot of red-gold curls that peeked out from underneath the bonnet that proclaimed her an adherent of the Quaker religion to the dark fringed sapphire eyes, the young lady was someone who would be noticed immediately in any situation and not soon forgotten. The straight nose and firm little chin only added to the impression that this formidable person knew precisely what she was about and would brook no interference from anyone.
Intrigued as much by her distaste for his presence as by her obvious physical attractions, Adrian smiled lazily at her, his eyes glinting with amusement as he ambled over to an empty chair. "Yes, you may assist me. You may teach me whatever you are teaching them." He allowed his gaze to travel over the bevy of faces that were still regarding him somewhat suspiciously.
The young woman's spine stiffened visibly and the sapphire eyes darkened with annoyance. "You wish me to teach you to read?" There was no mistaking the frosty note in her voice. "Surely you have known to read this age, sirrah."
Adrian's grin broadened. What a little spitfire! "Nevertheless, I find I stand in great need of instruction. It has been years since I have done anything but fight the French and I fear I have become a trifle rusty." He coiled his prodigious length into the delicate gilt chair. "Do not let my intrusion interrupt such a worthy goings-on. Please proceed." He nodded and motioned to the young woman to continue.
There was a most unladylike snort beside him and Lord Chalfont turned to see that several of the pupils were desperately struggling to stifle giggles that threatened to overcome them. He winked at them and then turned back to the teacher, assuming an expression of innocent earnestness that was bound to provoke his lovely instructress.