Authors: Sabrina Jeffries
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #General, #Historical
“The sister to the Dragon Viscount, whose mother was as notorious in her day as Delilah was in hers?” He leaned against a nearby bookshelf. “When I sent Louisa out into society, I hoped she might find some handsome young baron or kindly merchant who might overlook her country manners and her connection to me, who could marry her for her own sweet self. Then lo and behold, she snags the interest of a wealthy duke with a brilliant future ahead of him. Can you blame me for being suspicious?”
“I assure you, my brother is only one of her admirers.”
The observation rubbed him raw. He hated that this confounded society chit knew more about his sister’s prospects than he did. “Then let one of
court her. Because I’ll never approve a courtship between your manipulative brother and my sister. I know that the prince is mixed up in this somehow, and I won’t have it.”
“If you ever met my brother, I know you would reverse your bad opinion—”
He laughed harshly. “Not damned likely. Unlike those idiots in Parliament, I’m not swayed by ‘gifted oratory’ from an insolent, lying pup.”
She bristled, her cheeks awash with scarlet and her bosom quivering. God help him, but Lady Regina with her dander up was an awe-inspiring sight. What he wouldn’t give to have her beneath him unleashing all that fire and passion—
“You will drive them to elope with your bullheaded refusal,” she snapped.
He tamped down his wayward thoughts. “I doubt he means to elope. But now that I know what he’s up to, I’ll bring her back here out of his reach.”
“You would ruin her chances to make any match, simply to keep her away from my brother?”
He shrugged. “She can always have another season next year. By then, she’ll see the situation more rationally.”
“By then, she’ll resent you even more for your stubbornness, which will give her justification for deceiving you at every turn.” She shot him a withering glance. “Unless you intend to lock her in the dungeon you supposedly have downstairs?”
“Don’t be absurd. Once she’s at home, I’ll make her see I’m right—”
“Or your draconian measures will drive her into running away. And I tell you now, if she ever seeks refuge in
home, she will have it.”
“Confound it all! If you help her, I will…I will—”
“What? Slander me in society? Do you think anyone would listen to you over me and my brother?”
He clenched his fists. The duke had friends in high places. Marcus had only his money and his gruff temper.
And his half brothers. “All right, I’ll let her remain in society. But you and your brother will both be banned from seeing her.”
“Then Simon will find some other woman to help him sneak her off, some woman you don’t know. And Louisa will gladly go along.”
“A pox on you,” he roared. “What do you want from me? You give me no recourse. I don’t want them sneaking about, but I refuse to let your brother court her if he only does it to get her into Prinny’s clutches!”
“Then you should determine for yourself his motives.”
That brought him up short. “What do you mean?”
“Let them court…but oversee the courtship yourself. Why not go into society and see how matters really stand with your sister and my brother? Once you see them together, you can’t possibly continue in your ridiculous suspicions. And if by some small chance you are still convinced of his duplicity, you’ll have better control over the situation if you’re out in society yourself.”
Among the rumormongers and the scornful
Marcus shuddered. “You don’t know what you’re asking. I loathe society. And it loathes me, I assure you.”
“Over some old gossip? I doubt that. There will be grumblings at first, but that will die soon enough when they witness your concern for your sister.”
Lady Lofty was insane if she thought it would be that simple. Still, he
watch out for Louisa so much better than heretofore. “There would be no sneaking around behind my back? No secret meetings?”
“You have my word on it.
you give them a month to court properly, so my brother can prove that his intentions are honorable.”
Honorable, hah! Foxmoor didn’t know the meaning of the word. If Marcus could show that the man’s motives for courting Louisa were suspect, wouldn’t Lady Regina leap to condemn Foxmoor’s behavior?
Not if she was part of his plot. But if she
she ought to realize that Marcus’s interference would be detrimental to her brother’s plans. Out in society, he might even keep Foxmoor from doing what he planned.
He glowered at her. “You hope I’ll refuse your little proposition, don’t you? Then you and your brother can tell Louisa how unreasonable I am and give her an excuse for disobeying me.”
She rolled her eyes. “Don’t be absurd.”
“Come to think of it, it’s a clever plan. Did you dream it up yourself, or did your brother help you concoct it?”
Her silver-grey eyes impaled him. “Is that what you do out here in the country all day—imagine intrigues and plots against you? I hate to disappoint you, sir, but I want only the happiness of my brother and Louisa.”
He didn’t believe that for a minute, and he would prove she was lying if it killed him. “Very well, I accept your challenge. I’ll go into society and observe my sister and your brother together. I’ll endure the gossip and the speculation if that’s what it takes to make her see sense.”
“That’s all I want,” she said primly. “For you to give them a chance.”
“Then you won’t mind agreeing to one small condition.”
She grew wary. “Oh?”
The more he thought about it, the more he liked this idea. He smiled down at her. “It seems to me that I’m taking all the risks in this arrangement. You want me to go into society, where I’ll endure old gossip and social affairs I detest, and all I might get for it is the removal of your brother from my sister’s affections. Fine. I’ll brave the gossipmongers, but only if you brave them with me. I’ll let Foxmoor court Louisa…if you let me court
She stared at him, mouth agape.
I’ve got you now, Lady Lofty,
he thought smugly.
La Belle Dame Sans Merci let herself be seen welcoming the attentions of the disgusting Dragon Viscount? Never. She wouldn’t risk the damage that would do to her reputation as the darling of society. And then he could show Louisa once and for all how shallow her new friends were.
As a smile tugged at his lips, her eyes hardened. “Now
“Of course not,” he said mockingly. “You have only my sister’s best interests at heart. So you’ll happily endure my company just to unite two lovers.”
“I might. If I knew
you want to court someone of my ‘sort.’ ”
He shrugged. “If I must go out into society, why not do it with a beautiful woman on my arm?” He let his gaze trail insolently over her, waiting until the color rose in her cheeks before adding, “In the right place, even the company of a woman like you can be enjoyable.”
Her eyes narrowed on him. “Are you sure you’re not wanting to court me just to annoy my brother?”
“I’ll admit that adds to the attraction, but no.” He threw out the first reason that came to him, knowing she would refuse his terms anyway. “It’s time I acquired a wife. Why not start my search at the top of the social ladder?”
“How very flattering,” she remarked coldly.
“I’m not asking you to marry me. I merely want you to give me your company exclusively, the way I’m letting your brother have my sister’s. If a woman of your station champions me, it will ease my way in society.”
She regarded him intently for a long moment, then tipped up her chin. “Very well, I accept your proposal, sir.”
His smile faltered. She couldn’t be serious. “Perhaps I didn’t make myself clear. I don’t mean a private courtship where I take you riding in the country or accompany you to a play in a darkened theater. You must dance with me publicly and ride in my carriage on Rotten Row. To truly soften the blow of my return to society, you must attend at least two or three public events on my arm.”
Her eyes twinkled. “Is that all? I say we make it an even month of events. You’re allowing Simon and Louisa a month to court, so we should have the same.”
“You think I’m joking—”
“No, indeed. You don’t strike me as the sort to joke.”
“Damned right, I’m not.” But could he really mean to go through with this?
Oh yes. When it came to Louisa, he would brave anything. While it might hurt his sister’s standing to have him appear in public, her being found in a compromising position with the duke would destroy it. And having Prinny wheedle his way into her affections would be disastrous. Marcus knew firsthand how easily his manipulative father could ruin a life. Well, the man wouldn’t ruin Louisa’s.
And if Foxmoor could use Marcus’s sister, then Marcus could certainly use Foxmoor’s. He’d make sure Lady Regina’s outings in society with him gave her a good taste of what being related to him would be like. Then Lady Lofty would beg her brother to stop courting Louisa. “So we’re agreed,” he said. “Simon courts Louisa; I court you.”
She didn’t even flinch. “Fine by me.”
“Very well. The Iversleys are having a soiree tomorrow evening to exhibit Louisa’s musical talents. I’ll be at your town house at seven to fetch you.”
He thought she might balk, but she merely set her shoulders. “And Simon, too. I was invited, but he was not, since the Iversleys apparently share your disapproval of his interest in Louisa. But I’m not going anywhere unless he—”
“I’ll take care of that right now.” He strode over to a writing table to scribble a note. “Since you’re so fond of paying calls, you can call on Lady Iversley this afternoon to give her this.” He handed the note to her. “Go ahead and read it if you don’t trust me to word it properly.”
A strange panic filled her features before she masked it. “I’m sure it’s fine.”
“Then I’ll see you tomorrow.”
He headed back toward the gallery stairs, hoping she would understand she was being dismissed. She’d found her own way in, so she could damned well find her own way out.
“One more thing before I go, Lord Draker,” she said. “You should shave off your beard before tomorrow. Beards aren’t considered fashionable these days.”
He turned a cold gaze to her. “Neither are impertinent women, but that doesn’t seem to stop you. Good day, madam.”
“I just thought you’d wish to know—”
“Good day, madam,” he repeated firmly.
She looked as if she might retort, then sniffed and turned toward the door.
As she swept from the room in a swirl of white muslin, he snorted. Shave off his beard indeed. Was that why she’d agreed to his proposal? Because she thought she could turn him into a suitable gentleman?
If so, she was in for a surprise. He wasn’t one of her fawning suitors to be wound about her little finger for her own amusement. No sharp-tongued duchess’s daughter would tell
how to groom himself.
Let her flash her winsome smile and flaunt those glorious breasts that begged to be kissed and fondled and—
A sweat broke over his brow, making him curse. He could handle this damned attraction. He
He just had to keep his mind focused on his goal. Besides, even if he wanted to turn his life upside down for the haughty chit—and he didn’t—it wouldn’t suit his purpose. The more he offended Lady Lofty’s sensibilities, the sooner she would beg her brother to end his association with Louisa.
That couldn’t be too soon for Marcus.
Your duty is to your employer, not to your charge, for if she falls, they will blame
you, not her.
—Miss Cicely Tremaine,
The Ideal Chaperone
re you all right?” Cicely asked Regina as they settled back into the carriage. “You look flushed.”
“I’m fine,” Regina lied. Who wouldn’t look flushed after half an hour of the Dragon Viscount’s scorching insinuations and fiery glances? It was no wonder the brazen scoundrel had no friends.
Cicely looked unconvinced. “He didn’t shout at you? Or…or touch you?”
Regina stared out the window, trying not to remember his powerful arm around her waist, holding her suspended in space. “We had a perfectly reasonable conversation. He
a gentleman, you know.” With a hard head, a million thorny prejudices…
And a clever mind, drat him. She should never have agreed to his bargain. Let the Dragon Viscount—a man as unpredictable as a typhoon—court her? She must be daft.
But what else could she do after all the nasty and ridiculous claims he’d made about Simon? He’d cast a slur on the family honor. If she’d refused his bargain, the arrogant lout would have considered that proof of her family’s lack of character. He would have used her refusal against her brother.
And the blackguard had the audacity to call
calculating! At least her brother knew how to act like a gentleman. Simon didn’t growl at a lady or give her his back. Simon didn’t make outrageous proposals that any lady with an ounce of sense would reject.
If I must go out into society, why not do it with a beautiful woman on my arm?
Her breath quickened involuntarily. More men than she could count had called her beautiful. But few had dared to couple it with a hot, avaricious stare that played over her so insolently…so boldly—
“Are you sure you’re all right?” Cicely asked. “You look rather pink-cheeked.”
“It’s this heat, that’s all.” Regina opened her reticule to find her fan. It was
the viscount’s burning stares. Decidedly not.
When she drew out her fan, a note fell into her lap. Drat it, she’d forgotten about that. With a glance at Cicely, who was now pulling down the shade to block the afternoon sun’s unrelenting rays, Regina unfolded the paper. She stared hard at it, praying that this time she’d magically be able to make sense of the letters that other people claimed formed words.
But as usual, the magic eluded her, and no words that she could understand would form. A d, then a p, then an l…or perhaps an e. What sort of word was that? She turned the note sideways—or at least she thought it was sideways. But she couldn’t even make printed letters form words properly—how in God’s name was she supposed to make sense of this scrawl?
When her head began to throb, she tossed the note aside with a curse. Lifting her gaze, she found Cicely watching her with concern.
“What’s that?” her cousin asked.
Regina shrugged. “A note I’m supposed to take to Lady Iversley. His lordship didn’t even seal it—he showed it to me for my approval.”
Cicely’s eyes went wide. “Oh, dear, what did you do?”
“I pretended to read it, and that seemed to satisfy him.”
Cicely donned her spectacles. “Shall I read it to you then?”
Gritting her teeth, Regina handed it over. “If you don’t mind.”
“Of course I don’t mind, dear.”
As Cicely scanned the note, Regina suddenly felt six again, watching her cousin and childhood tutor read easily what she couldn’t read even with a struggle. “I did try, you know,” she said.
“Uh-huh,” Cicely murmured, absorbed in the note. Then Regina’s words sank in, and she lifted her gaze. “You don’t have to try. I’m always happy to read for you.”
“I know, but I fear I don’t try hard enough. If I really worked at it—”
“Oh, but you mustn’t!” Cicely’s face showed clear alarm. “Didn’t it give you the headache?”
“Well, yes, but—”
“What if it hurts your brain permanently? Who knows what could happen? Remember what the doctor said—it’s not worth trying to read if you tax your brain so much that you injure it. Do you really want to risk losing your facility for speech or thought, too?”
Regina gazed out the window. “Of course not.”
Despite the claims of the private doctor Cicely had secretly consulted when Regina was young, neither of them had any idea what might happen if she braved the headaches. No one else seemed to suffer pain merely from staring at a few words. No one else looked at letters and saw them backwards or upside down.
Why was her brain so different? She generally understood spoken words, and whenever someone read to her—and she’d grown very clever at convincing them to do so—she understood what they read. She enjoyed hearing a good story, and she absolutely delighted in attending the theater.
So why did her brain fail her when she opened a book or even tried to read music? Why must the letters and notes always look wrong?
Cicely believed it was because of the terrible fever that had struck Regina when she was two. Regina had been told that her nanny had nearly despaired of her living through it. And she had taken longer than most children to learn to speak.
“Well, what does it say?” she asked, as Cicely continued staring at the paper.
“His lordship doesn’t have the finest hand I’ve ever seen, but if I read this correctly”—she flashed Regina a smile—“then you succeeded in changing his mind about Miss North and your brother. He asks that Lady Iversley invite Simon to a soiree at her home tomorrow evening.” Cicely gazed at it more closely, a puzzled frown creasing her brow. “And he says that he’ll be attending as well. With you? Surely I can’t be reading that correctly.”
Regina drew herself up. “Yes, I agreed to let him…er…accompany me.” She didn’t dare tell Cicely the true nature of her arrangement with Lord Draker; Cicely would faint dead away.
As it was, Cicely’s head shot up so fast it nearly fell off. “My word, are you sure you should do that?”
“No,” Regina said wryly. “But I had little choice. It was the only way Lord Draker would agree to let Simon court his sister.”
Cicely sat back and fanned herself furiously with her reticule. “Oh dear, oh dear…the Dragon Viscount…and you…” She stopped fanning to remove her spectacles and hand the note back to Regina. “Are you sure Simon will allow it?”
Regina tucked the note back inside her reticule. “He will if he wants to see his sweetheart.” She smiled smugly. “Besides, he won’t find out until Lord Draker shows up at our town house, and by then it will be too late. Simon doesn’t even know I went out to Castlemaine to talk to the man.” When Cicely blanched, Regina’s eyes narrowed. “You didn’t tell him, did you?”
“No! I-I mean…well…I did leave a note for him. But I doubt he’ll get home before we do, and as soon as we’re back I’ll retrieve it from his desk.” When Regina began to scowl, Cicely added hastily, “I merely wanted to make sure someone knew where we were in case something happened to us out there.”
Regina rolled her eyes. “What did you think Lord Draker would do—lock us in his famous dungeon?”
Cicely leaned close, her eyes feverishly bright. “You jest, but I’ve heard that he chains women down there and does unspeakable things to them.”
She bit back a smile. “What sort of unspeakable things?”
“Regina!” Cicely said, clearly horrified.
“I’m only teasing, dear.” Or half-teasing anyway. Because the thought of Lord Draker “doing unspeakable things” to a woman chained in his dungeon provoked an odd fluttering in her chest.
She could picture the scene—a woman bound and helpless before him…subjected to his unsettling gaze greedily raking her scantily clad body. Then his hands would follow where his gaze had traveled, touching and stroking until the woman sighed with pleasure—
She snorted. Pleasure, hah! How could she even think that such a thing would be pleasurable? And from that arrogant scoundrel, too—how absurd. She was as bad as Cicely with her fertile imagination.
“You’ve really got to stop reading those gossip rags,” she grumbled to her cousin. “They give you the wildest ideas.”
And me, too, unfortunately.
Cicely flinched. “I only read them so I can keep you informed about what’s happening in society.”
Regina was instantly contrite. “I know, dear, I know. And I do appreciate the sacrifices you make for me. What would I do without you?”
That seemed to mollify Cicely, who drew out her netting with a hesitant smile.
Regina meant every word. If not for Cicely, all the world would know about the duke’s daughter whose brain was so damaged that she couldn’t read. People would pity her—and her brother. They would dredge up every inconsequential tale about her family and search for deficiencies in Simon and Cicely and—
No, it couldn’t be borne. No one must ever learn her secret.
Thank heaven for Cicely’s quick-wittedness. The minute she’d discovered Regina’s weakness, she’d scrambled to hide it, even from Regina’s parents. Cicely had known even then what Regina had taken years to learn—that the duchess demanded perfection from her children. The family honor must be upheld, after all.
Fortunately, Mama’s expectations for Regina had focused on womanly accomplishments over scholarly ones. Since Regina had learned to play the harp by ear and could sing well, Mama had been content right up until her death shortly before Regina’s come-out.
Regina didn’t miss not being able to read. She could go to plays, and Cicely read the papers to her. And if sometimes she burned to know what people were talking about when they discussed some poem—Cicely hated poems, so they never read any—she soon got over it. It wasn’t as if she could do anything to change the situation.
an inconvenience, and it became more so every day. Not to mention the burden it put on her cousin. Cicely was twice Regina’s age, and her eyes were failing. She’d never been in the best of health, but now she was downright sickly. Soon, being Regina’s companion would be too much for her.
“What was the viscount like?” Cicely asked from across the carriage. “Was he as frightening in person as everyone says?”
“Not at all.” No reason to alarm Cicely any further.
“I heard that he was handsome before his riding accident.”
Regina’s curiosity was roused. “Is that how he got the scar on his face?”
“That’s what his mother told yours.”
“What kind of riding accident was it?”
Cicely’s nimble fingers continued netting at an even pace. “Lady Draker was vague on the details, but it happened around the time his father died, right after he reached his majority. The viscount was probably too grief-stricken to heed where he rode, so he took a fall. No one really knows for sure.”
The thought of Lord Draker grief-stricken and wounded muddied the image Regina had formed of him. She had assumed he’d received his scar from some fellow who didn’t appreciate his acting like his usual obnoxious self.
The carriage rumbled along for a few moments. “A pity about the scar,” Cicely finally said. “I suppose it makes him hideous now.”
“No, indeed,” Regina said quickly.
Curiosity shone in Cicely’s face. “Then he’s still handsome?”
“Not exactly.” He was arresting. Powerful. A most intriguing man.
But not handsome, not with that fur all over his face. Then again, if he were clean-shaven and dressed like a gentleman instead of a dusty hermit—
“It hardly matters what he looks like, does it?” she said peevishly. “I only have to endure the courtship while Simon courts Louisa.”
Cicely squeaked. “He’s
Drat it all, she hadn’t meant to say that. “Well, sort of—”
A shout sounded from the road ahead, and the carriage jerked suddenly to a halt, throwing her forward into Cicely.
“What the dickens—” Regina muttered as she scrambled off her cousin.
“Your Grace!” came the alarmed voice of the coachman from up on the perch. “Did you require—”
“I require my sister!” boomed a voice that made Regina groan. Then the carriage door swung open to reveal the one person she didn’t presently want to see.
Simon glared at her through the open door, his golden hair disheveled and his blue eyes glittering. “This time you’ve gone too far.” He flung himself into the carriage beside Cicely, then ordered the coachman to drive on.
As the carriage lurched forward, Regina glanced out to see Simon’s tiger wheel his phaeton around. Sweet heaven, Simon had come after her in his fastest phaeton, which he reserved only for dire emergencies or rides with His Highness.
That could only mean trouble, so Regina didn’t give him the chance to launch into a tirade. “How kind of you to come all this way to accompany us, Simon. But you needn’t have bothered.”
He scowled. “Don’t you try to turn me up sweet—you know very well you had no business going out to Castlemaine.”
“What’s wrong with paying a visit to my friend’s brother?”
“You risked your reputation by going to a bachelor’s home—”
“Cicely was with me. Besides, no one saw me out there. And since when do you care about my reputation? You wanted me to risk it by helping you sneak a young woman away from her guardians to meet you privately.”
Simon eyed her with suspicion. “You didn’t tell Draker that, did you?”
“What I did was convince him to let you court Louisa for a month.”
He blinked. “You must be joking.”
“No, indeed,” Cicely put in. “Regina’s got a note from him to take to Lady Iversley, asking her to invite you to the soiree at her house tomorrow night.”
Looking flummoxed, Simon fell back against the squabs. “How the devil did you manage that?”
When Cicely started to answer, Regina cast the older woman a warning glance before flashing a smile at her brother. “He’s a perfectly nice man once you make him listen to reason.”
“I doubt that seriously.” Simon gazed out the window with a speculative expression. “So what are the terms of this courtship? Can I call on Louisa at the Iversleys’? And accompany her to balls?”
“I assume I can take her riding in the phaeton.”
Regina swallowed. “His lordship would probably expect to…er…go along, and short of making him ride behind you, I don’t think—”