Nicholas: Lord of Secrets (Lonely Lords Series #2)

Nicholas: Lord of Secrets (Lonely Lords Series #2)

by Grace Burrowes

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Overview

New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Grace Burrowes writes The Lonely Lords with passion and heart

"Nicholas is a Regency romance lover's dream come true." -Long and Short Reviews

Nicholas Haddonfield has something to hide...
After a wild youth, Nicholas Haddonfield, Viscount Reston, has promised his ailing father he'll finally take a bride, though doing so will force Nick to make impossible choices and face old, painful wounds.

Leah Lindsey is glad to find refuge from her own desperate situation in a marriage of convenience with the gallant viscount. But soon convenience is not enough, and Leah can't understand why Nick remains so distant. What is he hiding, and will he never allow her into his heart?

An extraordinary and passionate tale of courage tested and fears overcome. Once you enter the lush Regency world of award-winning New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Grace Burrowes, you'll never want to leave.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781492638650
Publisher: Sourcebooks
Publication date: 05/02/2017
Series: Lonely Lords Series , #2
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 259,493
Product dimensions: 4.20(w) x 6.90(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Grace Burrowes' bestsellers include The Heir, The Soldier, Lady Maggie's Secret Scandal, Lady Sophie's Christmas Wish and Lady Eve's Indiscretion. Her Regency romances and Scotland-set Victorian romances have received extensive praise, including starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Booklist. The Heir was a Publishers Weekly Best Book of 2010, The Soldier was a PW Best Spring Romance of 2011, Lady Sophie's Christmas Wish and Once Upon a Tartan have both won RT Reviewers' Choice Awards, Lady Louisa's Christmas Knight was a Library Journal Best Book of 2012, The Bridegroom Wore Plaid was a PW Best Book of 2012. Two of her MacGregor heroes have won KISS awards. Grace is a practicing family law attorney and lives in rural Maryland.

Read an Excerpt

One

The English peerage had come to a sorry pass when the heir to an earldom had to duck up the footmen's stairway to hide from the lovely young women seeking to become his countess.

Nicholas Haddonfield, Viscount Reston, took those steps two at a time.

He emerged on the first floor of the Winterthur mansion, the corridor lit by wall sconces and blessedly devoid of footmen, debutantes, mamas, or other aggravations.

Nick hurried to the first door and found it locked, suggesting the evening's hosts, Lord and Lady Winterthur, were not entirely foolish. Well, no matter, the corridor was long, and there had to be an unlocked sitting room or parlor where a man could hide himself away for a few minutes of peace, quiet, and solitude.

He approached an intersection and froze as he heard a twittering female voice.

"He must have gone this way, Eulie." The tone was indignant. "The gentlemen's retiring room is on this floor, and he's too big to go missing for long."

"Really, Pamela..." The second woman's voice floated around the corner. "I know he'll be an earl, but you can't seriously be thinking of marriage to Reston? I heard him tell Lady Lavinia Gregson he killed his mother."

The voices were coming closer. Nick spotted a door on the left slightly ajar and sent up a prayer of thanks to whatever saint looked after beleaguered bachelors. He slipped inside, finding the room dark, save for weak illumination from a fire in the hearth.

"He's likely hiding," the first woman decided. "Playing hard to get. You know when he said he killed his mother, it was almost as if he were serious."

Nick plastered himself against the wall behind the door while the ladies in the corridor continued their pursuit.

"Pamela, you cannot have thought what the wedding night with such a brute would involve." Just outside the door, the lady's voice dripped with distaste. "Earl or not, he's simply... well, I would fear for you, my dear."

"My mother says they all look the same in the dark."

The door swung open. One of the various ladies who'd been watching Nick ever more closely as the supper waltz approached peered into the gloom, then pulled the door shut again. "Nothing in here. Perhaps he's in the gentlemen's retiring room."

As her voice trailed off down the corridor, Nick considered the intensity of his relief.

Safe-for another hour he was safe, and so damned tired that a cozy, private parlor was inordinately appealing. He moved across the room, intent on stoking up the fire, when his peripheral vision caught a pale shadow to the right of the hearth.

"I beg your pardon," he said. "I did not know the room was occupied."

As his vision adjusted, Nick could make out the soft, billowy shape of a ball gown on a woman seated on a chest or bench along the wall.

"What if we each agree to be alone in here?" the apparition suggested in a voice that carried the slightest rasp.

"Suits me," Nick said, going to the fireplace. "Are you hiding or merely enjoying a quiet respite?"

"Both, I think. And you?"

"Most definitely hiding." Nick's smile was rueful. "Lady Whoever and her faithful dog Lady Simper have that let-me-be-your-countess gleam in their eyes."

"One of them sounded less than enthralled." There was a touch of humor in her voice, though nothing mean.

"I'd wish I were a foot taller, if it would scare away more of the debutantes and their mamas. Do you mind if I sit, as we're each so plainly alone?"

"Please." The lady shifted slightly in her corner. "You are Reston?"

"At your service." Nick bowed toward the shadowy corner. "And apparently tall enough to have no anonymity left whatsoever."

"Or handsome enough. Maybe single enough?"

Nick scrubbed a hand over his face. "That too, for my sins."

He satisfied himself the fire was going to throw off a little more heat, but resisted the urge to build it up to the point where the shadows were illuminated. Without knowing why, he didn't want to intrude on his companion's privacy. Something appealed about having a conversation with a woman whose features he could not clearly see.

He settled back on a sofa facing the hearth, crossed one foot over his knee, pulled off his gloves, and slipped off his dancing pump. His companion was no heavily chaperoned schoolgirl if she could find her way to this little oasis of solitude, and he doubted she'd take offense.

"My poor, lordly, single feet are expiring," Nick muttered, massaging his arch.

"Bride hunting is work," the lady said. "Almost as hard work as being hunted."

Nick's hands paused in their ministrations, and he cocked his head to peer into the dark corner. "So are you a staked goat as well?"

"I am on my way to slaughter, I fear." For the first time, her voice had a careful, controlled quality.

She'd been crying. Nick knew it like any man with four sisters knows such things, like any man who adored women-most women, most of the time-could sense female upset.

"Your intended is not to your liking?" Nick asked, trying not to let himself care. He couldn't even see the woman, for pity's sake, though Nick had the sense she was as weary of the ballroom battleground as he.

"My intended is more than twice my age, and while that alone would not matter, he's spent more years being dissolute than I have breathing."

"Gads." Nick switched feet. "At least I get to do the asking."

"At least."

"Who is this reprobate?" Nick inquired after a moment, stretching out his stockinged feet toward the fire. "Shall I call him out for you? Buy up his markers?"

"I really ought not to be so sensitive," the lady said with a touch of asperity, "but I do not appreciate the levity, my lord."

"Who's joking? Tell me who he is."

"Hellerington," the woman said, a wealth of resignation in her voice.

"And you've accepted him?" Nick asked, leaning back and closing his eyes.

"I have not, but he told me at supper he would be speaking to my father, and once they come to terms, my refusal or consent won't mean anything."

Nick opened his eyes and frowned. The man's name wasn't ringing any particular bells, but then, Nick had spent much of the past few years in the country, dodging his responsibilities and larking about with friends-to hear his father tell it.

He thought of his father, now growing increasingly frail, and wanted to howl at the moon with the weight of his grief and guilt. Rising, he crossed the room to a decanter on a sideboard and poured two glasses.

"Dutch courage." He passed one drink to the lady. "Sip it carefully, though Winterthur will have only decent libation on hand." A graceful bare hand emerged from the shadows and took the drink. No gloves. The lady was making herself quite at home here in the dark little parlor.

"Good lord," the woman gasped, "that is... potent."

"Warms the innards," Nick said, sipping his own drink. "Mind if I join you?"

"Of course not." She tucked her skirts closer to her side and scooted more deeply into her corner.

Nick lowered himself beside her, making the padded bench creak. "Have you no other prospects?"

He leaned back against the wall, savoring the moment. The fire hissed and popped softly beside them, and the lady herself gave off a subtle fragrant heat, such that even sitting beside her was an odd comfort.

"I am barely received," she said. "My debut was eight years ago. I should feel lucky to have any offer at all."

"A fossil then, though not as prehistoric as my handsome self." And no wonder she didn't quail at sharing the parlor with him for a few moments.

Or a drink.

Or a bench in a quiet corner.

"Men do not become fossils. They become distinguished."

Nick sipped his drink. "Good to know."

"How is your father?"

The question surprised him, but if she knew who he was and that he was hunting a bride, she'd likely know why as well.

"Failing," Nick said, surprising himself with his honesty. "He's a tough old boot but hasn't lived an easy life, and seeing me married is all he's asked of me." And Nick had given his promise that before the Season was out, he'd have not just a fiancée, but a bride. The already depressing evening threatened to become downright morose.

"Parents. They excel at the gentle art of unspoken guilt."

Understanding like that was balm to a tired bachelor's soul. "Is that why you're on your way to slaughter?"

"Not parental guilt. Sororal guilt."

"I am one of eight," Nick said, citing the legitimate total because he was in polite company. "Sibling guilt can be powerful."

The guilt of a grown, unmarried son and heir more powerful yet.

"My younger sister will make her come out next year, and I must be safely away from the social scene. One wouldn't want to queer her chances by association with me."

"You are truly so wicked?" He couldn't credit that, because he knew-in every sense-the truly wicked and fast ladies of the polite world, and he did not know this shadowy creature beside him. He could not place her slightly husky voice or her lily of the valley scent.

"I was wicked," she said. "I caused quite a scandal once upon a time."

"All of my dearest friends have at least one scandal to their names." As did he, though he'd endure death by torture before he'd let Society catch a hint of it. Nick put his drink to his lips again, only to find he'd drained his glass. "More brandy?"

"Maybe just a drop. It grows on one."

He brought the decanter to her and poured them each another two fingers.

"You have no brothers or aunties or grandmother who can stay your father's hand?" Nick asked as he settled back down beside her. He wanted to stay close to her scent and to the pleasing melody of her voice in the dark. On a night otherwise devoid of comforts, the impulse was not to be questioned.

"No aunties or grandmother." The lady did not sound forlorn so much as stoic. "Two brothers, and they have done what they could to spare me these past few years. Papa is determined to be rid of me though, so a-marrying I will go."

A-marrying, an ironic reference to a-Maying. Nick appreciated the bravado.

"It's cheering, in a bleak sort of way, to commiserate with somebody else who has so little enthusiasm for wedded bliss."

"Did you really tell that poor woman you killed your mother?" The amusement was there again.

Nick peered at his drink, watching as it caught and reflected the firelight. "I did kill my mother, in a manner of speaking. She did not survive long after my appearance in the world, which I attribute to the rigors of birthing a child who was half the size of a bull calf. Informing my various countesses-in-waiting of this fact cools their heels a bit."

"Naughty of you but not unsporting. Childbed is a dangerous place, irrespective of a lady's wealth or position."

"So I tell myself. How would your papa react were I to pay you my addresses?"

The lady beside him went still in some considering way.

"You're serious. That is very kind of you, my lord."

"Not kind-it's self-serving. If I am seen to choose a prospective fiancée, then at least half of the gaggle following me from ball to soiree to Venetian breakfast will lose heart, and I'll have a little more peace for the next few weeks."

"My lord"-the lady's voice indicated she was looking at him while she spoke-"you don't even know who I am, what I look like, what scandal lies in my past."

Nick shrugged his shoulders, their width causing his arm to brush inadvertently against his companion. "Nor do I care. You are an eligible female, which makes you credible for my purposes, and you are a damsel in distress." She also had a pretty voice, wasn't the least missish, and her scent was luscious and soothing.

"Your rescue could misfire," the lady pointed out. "If Hellerington thinks you're considering me as a potential wife, he might negotiate with my father that much more quickly."

"Suppose he could." Nick felt a passing relief his impulsive offer was not going to be accepted, though it meant more weeks of Lady Simper and her ilk. "It's still a thought."

"Generous of you." The lady touched her glass to his. "To a knight errant of the ballroom. May you find happiness, despite your apparent fate."

Nick saluted with his glass. "And you as well, my lady."

They drank in companionable, thoughtful silence until Nick spoke again.

"What's going to be the worst part? The worst part of being married to this Lord Hellerington?" He occupied himself with such dolorous musings when he contemplated his own impending marriage.

"Besides the loss of hope?" She was silent a long moment, while Nick tried not to let that term-loss of hope-settle too hard in his mind. "It should not bother me, for a wife must do her duty, but the thought of that man kissing me... His teeth-what teeth he has-are not attractive, and he takes snuff... And this is really more than you wanted to know. I am being ridiculous. The man can't have that many years to live, after all."

Nick patted her hand. Kissing, done properly, could be more intimate than coitus.

"I understand. What years you have left, you shouldn't have to spend trying not to gag in the dark as your privacy is violated in the name of marital duty." She went still again, shocked maybe, but Nick wasn't sorry he'd spoken.

"Blunt," she muttered on a soft exhalation, "and bloody accurate."

Bloody. He liked her more and more.

"Shall I kiss you, my lady? I have all my teeth, and I am accounted somewhat skilled in the art. I think I shall. You may consider it a kiss for luck." He set his drink aside and took hers from her hand as well. He kept his movements deliberate, giving her every chance to demur, turn his threat into a joke, or slap him. Nick was no stranger to a woman's palm walloped across his cheek, though it had been awhile.

But she kept her silence-his liking for this woman was becoming considerable-so Nick followed her arm up with his hand until he could anchor both hands on her neck and cradle her jaw. He could find her lips in the dark easily enough, but he wanted to know the feel of her cheekbones under his thumbs, wanted to experience the exact warmth of that special, feminine place where neck and shoulder met.

"You can stop me," he assured her on a whisper. "You need only tell me."

Her breathing had accelerated slightly, though she held still and waited.

Patience in a female is a wonderful quality. Nick let his fingers tunnel carefully into the silky warmth of her hair and his thumbs slide first over her lips. Gads, she was soft, smooth, and warm. A pleasure to stroke, to inhale.

He brushed his lips gently over hers and felt her breath feather over his mouth. When he repeated the caress, her lips closed but stayed unresisting under his.

"Kiss me back, lamb," Nick whispered. "Give me something to dream about too."

She made a little sound in her throat, a groan, and she swayed toward him, but still Nick merely sipped at her mouth, wanting to go slowly, to savor and pleasure and share with her just a few moments against all the years they would both be married to other strangers.

Gently, he eased his tongue over the seam of her lips and tasted the surprise his boldness gave her. He persisted, but at an undemanding pace, one that reassured as it teased. Her lips parted, and Nick felt a lick of desire course down past his gut.

Ah, women... He sampled the plush heat of her mouth and felt a tentative caress of her tongue against his. The sweetness of the brandy lingered, blending with her fragrance and the taste of wonder. Slowly, Nick eased back, lightening the kiss gradually, reluctant to end it but knowing arousal wouldn't serve either of them when the likes of Miss Eulie and Lady What's-Her-Title were patrolling the corridors.

He kissed her eyes and her cheek, then tucked an arm around her back, drawing her to lean against him.

"If that is somewhat skilled," the lady whispered against his side, "then your version of an expert kiss would surely inspire me to swoon." She eased away. Nick dropped his arm and passed her a drink.

His drink, if he weren't mistaken.

"My thanks, my lady." He cradled her brandy in his hands, thinking of the taste of that kiss. "Won't you tell me your name?"

"Are you sure you want to know?" The question was devoid of her characteristic lilt.

"I have been advised one shouldn't go around kissing strangers." Though he'd disregarded the warning often and enthusiastically. "Based on the past few minutes, I must eschew this guidance altogether."

"You are kind, Lord Reston. There is kindness even in your kisses."

He wanted to touch her again, almost as badly as he'd wanted to escape the ballroom.

"Kindness? I can't say that particular descriptor has been applied to me or my kisses." Though there were far worse things a lady could say about a fellow's attentions.

His companion rose, keeping her back to him, a long, graceful back full of resolution and sorrow. He wanted to touch her back too, to learn the contour of those shoulder blades and the curve of her nape. "I am going to leave you here, my lord. You will wait a few minutes before you leave?"

"Of course, but I will miss your company."

He meant it, too, as their odd, partly anonymous interlude had pleasantly surprised him and put warmth into an otherwise bleak and boring night.

"Our paths might one day cross again," the lady said, "but if they don't, I will always be grateful for these few minutes with you."

Nick kept his seat and let her move away without showing him her face in any measurable light. She paused at the door, and just before she opened it and slipped through, she went still again.

"It's Leah," she said softly. "My name is Leah."

Then she was gone, her name reverberating in the room silently, like the aural equivalent of a glass slipper.

***

A man of Nick's proportions did not fit easily into life in many ways, not the least of which was the physical. His horse, Buttercup, was a golden behemoth, her gender overlooked in favor of her ability to carry such a large rider with ease. Nick's beds were built to his measurements, and when he was forced to spend a night between residences, he often chose to sleep on the ground rather than in beds made for much smaller people.

He ate prodigious quantities of food, and could drink more spirits than most mere mortals could safely consume. All of his appetites, in fact, were in proportion to his size. But so too were his conveyances, and thus he frequently took up his friends and acquaintances when they were in need of transportation.

Nick was in the card room, where he'd be safe from all but the oldest females, when Lord Valentine Windham found him lurking in the shadows near a game of whist.

"I am free," Val informed him with a grin. "What say we take ourselves off?"

"None too soon for me," Nick replied, shoving away from the mantel he'd propped his elbow on. "What are you in the mood for?"

They ambled off amid cheery, drunken good-byes, and Nick knew a gut-deep sense of relief to be leaving.

"In truth?"

"No, Valentine. You are my friend, it's well past midnight, and we are both only more or less sober. Why don't you take up lying to me?"

"I'm in the mood to spend some time with that Broadwood of yours," Val said. "Not well done of me, I know, but as the weather moderates, your pianoforte is developing the most gorgeous middle register."

"You are incorrigible, Valentine."

"I am besotted, is what I am. A good instrument is a precious find."

They fell silent as they gained the drive, the April air nippy. Nick's town coach rolled up, to Nick's eye resembling Cinderella's pumpkin carriage. The thing was huge, opulently appointed, and pulled by a foursome of equally gargantuan bay horses. It fit him wonderfully, but rendered any hope of discretion laughable.

"How many women have you seduced in this rolling seraglio?" Val asked, settling onto the well-padded seat.

Nick felt a twinge of irritation that his grand conveyance raised questions only about his equally grand reputation with the demimonde. "Enough. Would you like to borrow it?"

Val glanced around as Nick lowered himself beside him. "I could fit a tidy little cottage piano in here."

"You are not right in the head, Valentine. Or in some other parts."

"I am right enough. When I first came south from wintering with my brother in Yorkshire, I tended to the obvious priorities, and now it's my music that calls to me. What about your other parts? Did you find a prospective bride tonight?"

"What do you know of Lord Hellerington?" Nick ignored Val's question. On first mention, such an inquiry deserved no consideration whatsoever.

Val grimaced. "Unappetizing shift of topics. He is often referred to as Lord Hell-raiser, an epithet he takes pride in. Old as dirt, rackety as hell, and forever trying to knock up his mistresses and trollops. Word is that various social diseases have rendered him incapable of impregnating a female, if not half mad."

Beelzebub's balls, no wonder the woman had been crying. "Wealth?"

"Enough for appearances. Nothing of great merit, or he'd have lured some sweet young thing to the altar by now."

"He's never married?"

"Three times, and wore them all out." Val paused to yawn broadly. "Why the sudden interest?"

"Somebody mentioned him in conversation this evening. Does he gamble?"

Val cocked his head and considered Nick by the passing light of streetlamps and porch lights. "He whores, duels, and drinks to frequent excess. He abuses opium, absinthe, and women, and one hears of children coming to harm in his care. His horses are invariably crazy, or they are when he's done with them. All in all, a stunning exponent of the titled set, and he's a mere baron."

"I want his vowels," Nick said, frowning out the window. The words were unplanned, but they emerged with conviction. "I want his secrets, but I'll start with his gambling markers."

"Has he crossed you?" From a friend, the question was reasonable, for Nick was generally known for a live-and-let-live approach to his fellow man. He'd learned long ago to cultivate such a reputation, lest his peace be constantly shredded by those seeking to challenge him physically. The biblical figure of Sampson had always struck Nick as an upstart pest.

But what should Nick say now, when he felt the stirrings of temper on the strength of a mere passing encounter with a woman named Leah?

Who had the softest skin and kisses that tasted of wonder-and courage.

"You describe Hellerington as an embarrassment to good society in general. Perhaps I'm embarking on a public service."

"Of course. You, who single-handedly-if that's the appropriate appendage-support at least three of the best brothels in London, have taken a notion to torment one old reprobate who wouldn't be allowed through the doors of any of them."

Nick smiled slightly at his companion. "Three brothels, Valentine?"

"For now-according to rumor. You'll not be frequenting the brothels once you're married," Val predicted, crossing his arms. "You won't disgrace your wife that way, and you know it."

"I would not disgrace a woman I loved that way, but I have no intention of acquiring a wife for any romantic purposes whatsoever."

"Then how are you going to get your heirs on the girl?" Val shot back. "Your temperament is such that you at least like the females you bed in such quantity, Nicholas. You aren't capable of treating a woman coldly, and wives, I am told, have a habit of entangling themselves in a man's life."

"I appreciate women, Val," Nick said, but he was fatigued of the topic, of the night, and of much else in life. "That is not the same thing at all as loving one woman."

"So refine your tastes," Val suggested gently. "I know the issue is a sore one, but to see you attempting a calculating approach to your bride search rankles exceedingly."

Rankle-such a delicate term for unbridled loathing. Rather than endure more interrogation, Nick remained silent until the coach rocked to a halt.

"After you." The fewer people in the coach when Nick rose, the more room he had to maneuver. Val obligingly hopped out of the coach and waited for Nick under the porte cochere.

"You were going to finish your thought, Nicholas."

"I am going to listen to you play me a lullaby," Nick informed him, "while we both get sentimental over some of my best brandy."

"Of course. My very thoughts, but, Nick?"

"Hmm?" Nick passed off hat, cape, gloves, and cane to a footman, and Val waited until they were again alone to continue.

"You should marry only for love," Val said, oddly serious. "Another man, even I, might be able to carry off the typical cordial war that passes for a Society marriage, but it will destroy you to make such a compromise."

Nick settled an arm around his friend's shoulders and steered him toward the cozy confines of the family parlor. "Valentine, you are a dear man, with artistic sensibilities and a paucity of single brothers. Spare me your pronouncements about matrimony until the reality looms a little closer to your own experience, hmm? There's a lad. Tell me, how many bottles will it take before you play me some of that stuff you make up on the spot but don't write down? You've a name for it."

"Improvisation," Val said, letting Nick lead him toward the Broadwood. "Because you're being contrary and stubborn, you'll get only Scarlatti from me tonight."

"Scarlatti it is." Nick signaled his butler for an extra bottle of the good stuff anyway.

***

"Darius?" Lady Leah Lindsey stifled a yawn as the horses swung into a trot.

"Hmm?" Darius Lindsey was not so polite and exercised a brother's prerogative by yawning audibly and rolling his neck.

"What do you know of Viscount Reston?" Leah asked, glad for the lack of light in the coach and for a brother who would join her on the forward-facing seat.

"I know he's quite, quite tall, and in vulgarly good physical condition." Darius peered at her with a brother's inconvenient curiosity. "Built like a Viking, and blond like one."

"So you've seen him. But what do you know of him?"

"He's not married," Darius said musingly, "and a certain type of woman lines up to offer him her wares, according to gossip. Some say he was rusticating for the past few years. Others say he was taking the cure for years of mischief. He has friends in odd places, high and low, and he's rumored to be looking for a bride, because old Bellefonte is approaching his last prayers. He doesn't gamble to excess, and there's no mention of public displays of temper or inebriation. Lots of speculation about the man, but little real fact."

Leah said nothing, while she privately concluded Reston must be a decent enough fellow, because as she well knew, vices were pounced upon and dissected by the gossips without mercy.

"Finances?" Leah asked, thinking of Reston's casual offer to buy up Hellerington's markers.

"Finances..." Darius tipped back his head to rest on the squabs-he was in demand as dancing partner, and the night had no doubt been long for him. "Word when we left for Italy was that Bellefonte was all but rolled up, and with all those daughters to launch, the gossip was probably accurate. Reston is rumored to have taken over the reins and set things to rights rather quickly. He isn't seen to be in trade, so one wonders how he's done it."

"You could ask him," Leah said, sinking down a little more against the cushions.

"I could." Darius's tone was sardonic. "Just sidle up to a man who could snap my neck with his bare hands and ask how he's pulled his family out of dun territory with no one the wiser. Do you comprehend what that question implies?"

Smuggling, though an older brother would turn that admission into even more of a scold. "I do, though I would not for anything risk my brothers. Still, it would be nice to know." Nice, too, to have an excuse to converse with the man again-to kiss him again.

The thought was useless-also harmless, because there would be no opportunity to indulge it.

Darius propped a foot on the opposite seat. "So you ask him. He's looking for a bride, you're available, and an acquaintance between you would not be so unusual, at least in proper social settings. I've been introduced to him, so I can see to the proprieties."

"You said he's a womanizer. Is that whom you want me consorting with?"

Darius's tone became lazy. "My dear, I am a womanizer. Every man who can get away with it, practically, is a womanizer. You ladies inspire us to it."

"Blaming the women, Darius?" Leah's tone was cool.

"Oh, now." Darius looped an arm across her shoulders. "Hellerington has rattled you. He's rattled me, too. I cannot bear to think of you with that man, Leah."

"Then don't think of it," she said, letting her head rest on his shoulder. Of all the considerations her brothers showed her, this one-this casual affection-meant the most. She'd felt cast out, judged, unclean, and unforgivably stupid as a younger woman, and Society had done its cruel best to reinforce her opinion. Her brothers, though, had stood by her, and eventually the scandal had been faced down.

There were good men in the world, Leah reassured herself. Her brothers were good men.

Lord Reston... was a puzzle. His kiss lingered in Leah's memory like a bonfire on a hill, a bright, riveting, but isolated event that drew her attention even while she should be figuring out how to tolerate a life as Lady Hellerington.

Reston was kind. She'd felt it in his touch, heard it in his voice, tasted it in his kiss and in the way he'd assumed an unthreatening, companionable honesty with her from the first moment. He was also stunningly, spectacularly masculine in that kindness. He wore some kind of Eastern scent, sturdy like sandalwood but sweetened with an exotic note of spices. His hands had been gentle, for all their size, but they'd also been undeniably knowing.

So he was kind, handsome, and single, but he was also-and most especially-wrong for her.

He would never take from a woman by plunder. He'd seduce instead, and make a lady grateful for the privilege of giving to him what he had not earned and would not treasure past a fleeting moment.

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