Authors: Sabrina Jeffries
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #General, #Historical
Let your charge have her head from time to time. It will teach her to value your judgment all the more.
—Miss Cicely Tremaine,
The Ideal Chaperone
arcus fought to restrain his temper as he strode down the hall after Katherine. The strains of Lady Regina’s sweet soprano followed him, a siren’s voice to match her siren’s cold heart.
Damn her. “So where’s this messenger?” he bit out.
Katherine stopped short to face him. “You know perfectly well there’s no messenger. I had to remove you before you embarrassed dear Louisa any further.”
“Me?” He snorted. “Louisa’s harpy of a female friend is the one embarrassing her.”
“Because she didn’t want to sing with you? Can you blame her? You’ve been a perfect monster all evening. Lady Regina has done nothing but—”
“Scheme with her brother to ruin Louisa.”
Katherine blinked. “What?”
“You don’t know the situation, so stay out of it.” He turned back toward the drawing room. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must return—”
“Oh, no, you don’t.” Katherine moved to block his path. “You are not going back in there.”
It was like a mouse facing down a bear. He ought to laugh. But having his brother’s wife angry at him was unsettling. “Are you trying to send me off to bed without my supper, Mother Katherine?” he tried to joke.
She colored. “Don’t be silly. I merely want you to stay out of the drawing room until the concert is over. Then you can come insult people at dinner if you please. At least there you’ll be limited to the people sitting on either side of you.”
“Fine.” He couldn’t believe sweet little Katherine was taking Lady Regina’s side. “I’ll sit in Iversley’s study until dinner. Assuming he has something decent to drink in there.” He headed off that way.
She followed him. “Getting foxed will only make everything worse, you know. Lady Regina already thinks you’re a rude lout—do you want to make her think you’re a drunk as well?”
He shot her a cold glance. “I don’t give a farthing what Lady Lofty thinks. I will damned well get as foxed as I damned well please. So trot on back to your guests before I change my mind and decide to embarrass those harpies after all.”
She looked as if she might retort. Then, pursing her lips into a line, she pivoted and marched back to the drawing room.
He strode into Iversley’s study and headed straight for the whisky decanter. After pouring himself a generous splash, he drank it, savoring the hot burn.
Lady Regina’s voice wafted to him from the drawing room, as pure and high as his sister’s was throaty and low. A pox on that confounded female. The night wasn’t half-over, and she was already balking at their agreement.
He ought to be ecstatic. His plan was working beautifully; Lady Regina wanted nothing to do with him already. She’d actually snubbed him in front of Louisa, which would surely anger his sister. It was exactly what he wanted. So why was he annoyed?
Because he’d seen the look on her face when Louisa had suggested she sing a duet with him. A love song, of all things—what delusion had possessed his sister? Lady Regina’s horror had been unmistakable. She’d quickly tried to hide it, but it had been too late. He could only imagine what she was thinking: Sing a love song with the oafish Dragon Viscount? What will people say? It might lead people to think they were courting, and she would never allow that.
Why did he even care? This wasn’t a real courtship. It was a bargain, pure and simple. And the more his presence mortified her, the better it was for his plan.
Behind him the door to the library opened, and he scowled. No doubt his sister-in-law had returned to make sure he didn’t drink too much.
“You already said your piece when you banished me from the drawing room, Katherine.” Defiantly, he poured himself more whisky. “You’re wasting your time continuing the lecture.”
“Yes, you don’t take lectures from anyone, do you?” answered a soft female voice from the doorway.
A knot twisted in his gut. Damn, damn, damn.
He faced Lady Regina with a scowl. “I certainly won’t take them from you. So if you thought to teach me a lesson with your little display in the drawing room—”
Her chin quivered. “I wasn’t trying to teach you anything.” With a glance down the hall, she entered and closed the door.
“Are you sure it’s wise to be alone with me with the door closed, madam?” He tried not to notice how prettily her cheeks flushed and her eyes sparkled when she was upset. “What would people think?”
“I don’t care. And anyway, no one saw me come in here.”
He gave a harsh laugh. “Of course not. You’re no fool when it comes to preserving your image as society’s reigning queen.” But she wouldn’t be so cavalier about it if she knew that just the sight of her looking like a goddess in that gossamer silk gown made him want to grab her by the throat and shake her.
Or kiss her senseless.
When she neared him, he tensed. “If giving me the cut indirect did you no good,” he said, “what makes you think—”
“I was not giving you any sort of cut whatsoever,” she said stoutly.
“Right.” He took a deep swallow of whisky.
“I simply didn’t want to make a fool of myself by bumbling through a song I didn’t know.”
Damn her for thinking he cared. And damn him for caring. “Whatever you say, madam. I understand how these things work.”
“Drat it, I am trying to explain!”
“There’s nothing to explain. I’ve already forgotten it.”
“I haven’t,” she said in those dulcet tones that cast a spell on every man who heard them. “I didn’t intend to hurt your feelings.”
A red haze formed behind his eyes. “Don’t flatter yourself. I’m not one of your slobbering sycophants who might moan and threaten to do himself in when you give him one of your set-downs. I don’t give a damn what you think of me. Go on back to your friends. I’ve no interest in listening to you chastise me for exposing your true nature to the crowd.”
nature?” Her eyes narrowed. “Now see here, you thickheaded dolt, the only nature you exposed in that drawing room was yours. You merely proved that you have absolutely no sense of proper behavior or gentlemanly discretion. What you said about me wasn’t true in the least, and everyone knew it.”
“Really? So you acquired your nickname by accident, La Belle Dame Sans Merci?”
Her flinch told him he’d wounded her. It should have pleased him. It didn’t.
“Say what you wish about me,” she retorted, “but you ought to at least care how your reputation for churlishness affects Louisa. It’s the only thing marring her standing in society.”
“If this is society, she’s well out of it.”
“Oh? She’s better off stagnating in the country with no one but you for company?
who’d rather bury himself in a book than have a civil conversation with an actual person?”
“And what’s wrong with that?” With his whisky glass, he gestured to Iversley’s many books. “I’m not the only person who takes refuge in books. Just because
don’t like them—”
“I never said that.” She sounded surprisingly defensive. “I merely think there’s more to life. A person cannot find everything in a book.”
“Ah, but you’re wrong. I can find whatever I want in my library.”
“Music?” She strolled up to him. “You can’t find music.”
He set down his glass and turned to Iversley’s bookshelves. Searching until he found the right volume, he opened it and read aloud, “‘Golden slumbers kiss your eyes/ Smiles awake you when you rise.’ It’s a poem by Thomas Dekker, now used as a common lullaby. You probably heard the tune in your head as I read it.”
“That’s not the same as hearing it sung. Reading the words of my favorite opera, for example, certainly wouldn’t satisfy me.”
“But one can’t always attend the opera. One can always open a book.”
She uttered a frustrated sound. “What about physical things, like dancing? There’s no dancing in books.”
“No?” He drew down another book. “Here’s one that explains how to perform dances.” He flipped through it and showed her the diagrams. “You see? You
find dance in books.”
She shook her head. “Reading about dancing isn’t the same thing as performing a dance.”
“Actually, it’s better. If I read about it, I don’t have to deal with too-hot ballrooms or having my toes stepped on.” He cast her a cold glance. “Or superior females who think themselves too fine to dance with me.”
And sing with me.
She flushed, yet she wouldn’t let go of her argument. “You also don’t know the joy of touching another human being.” She approached him, and he sucked in a heavy breath. “Or the thrill of passion. Don’t you dare tell me you can get
from a book, because I know better.”
“Oh? I would have thought a well-bred lady like yourself hadn’t experienced ‘the thrill of passion.’ ”
A faint flush turned her cheeks rosier than before. “You know perfectly well that’s not what I meant.”
“Ah, yes.” He scoured her with a contemptuous look. “From what I’ve heard, you won’t even allow your sniveling admirers to kiss your hand.”
“At least I dance with them. The only females
allow near your estate are servants, for heaven’s sake. Unless there really
women in your dungeon.”
“What are you talking about?”
Her blush deepened. “The gossips say that…that you chain women up in your dungeon to…have your way with them.”
Oh, for God’s sake—“And you believe that?”
She thrust her chin out at him. “I might. Especially given how much trouble you seem to have with pleasing women who
He stalked up to loom over her, but that proved a mistake, for now he could smell the seductive scent of honey-water wafting off her and could see the golden tendrils feathering her neck. Her aristocratic arch of a neck that he wanted to—
He dragged his gaze to her face. “I know how to please a woman well enough when I set my mind to it.”
“Do you?” She arched an eyebrow. “I’ve seen little evidence of that.”
“That doesn’t mean I can’t.”
“No? Then prove it. Prove that you can please a woman.”
Somewhere in the dim recesses of his fevered brain, he realized she meant a different sort of pleasing than he did—compliments and courtesies and gentlemanly behavior. But at the moment he didn’t care. He’d had enough of her lies and her condescending taunts. He’d show her once and for all what happened to any woman foolish enough to bait him.
“Fine. Since you insist…” And without giving her a chance to protest, he bent his head and kissed her right on the lush red mouth that had tortured his dreams last night.
She jerked back, her eyes wide. “What are you doing?”
“You told me to prove I can please a woman.”
“I didn’t mean
kind of pleasing.”
“But I did.” She hadn’t yet slapped him, which emboldened him enough to add, “Apparently I wasn’t convincing, however, so I’ll have to try again.” Reaching up, he caught her chin in one hand.
Alarm flickered in her eyes. “This is not acceptable. We are not in your dungeon here, I’ll have you know.”
“What a pity.” He snaked his free arm about her waist. “You could use some chaining up.”
She fisted her hands against his chest. “You’d never dare. And I’d never allow it.”
“Oh? What would you do to stop me? I hate to tell you, but your little ‘cuts direct’ won’t work in the dungeon.”
“I did not give you the cut di—”
He blotted out the words with a fiercer, bolder kiss. He didn’t want to hear her lies. He didn’t want to think about those bastards in the drawing room. He only wanted to kiss her again.
She made a token resistance, pushing feebly against his chest. But she didn’t pull her lips from his, and soon her hands flattened against him. That left him free to really kiss her, to linger over her mouth, driven by the impulse to prove her wrong about him, to make her acknowledge him as something more than a loutish beast.
But that wasn’t all he wanted. He wanted to eat her up, get inside of her, figure out why she drove him insane with just a look.
God help him. He’d expected kissing her to be like kissing a marble Venus, the lips cold and unyielding, her body stiff against his. Instead, her lips were warm and trembling, her body fluid in his arms and growing more so by the moment.
When she actually clutched at his coat lapels, triumph surged through him. He drew back to stare at her smugly. “Now, tell me again that I don’t know how to please a woman.”
Her closed eyelids drifted open to reveal dove gray eyes dazed with need. “You know how to be impertinent,” she said in a throaty voice. “I’ll give you that.”
“You haven’t begun to see me impertinent.” Cupping the back of her neck in his hand, he drew her close for another kiss. This time he dared to deepen it, thrusting his tongue against her parted lips until he gained entry to the heady warmth of her mouth.
Great God, what a seductress’s mouth she had, as sweet and bewitching as any siren’s. He wasn’t idiot enough to question why Lady Lofty was letting him kiss her so outrageously. He merely took advantage of the fact that she was, relishing the heartfelt moan she made in response to his bold forays.
She lifted her dainty arms to encircle his neck, and that emboldened him further, until he was plundering her soft lips over and over, drinking in every richly perfumed breath. How many chances did a man have to taste the elusive Belle Dame? To bury himself in the hot silk of her mouth and stroke the eloquent contours of her waist and hips with his greedy hands?
Not until he had her boneless and limp in his arms did he tear his mouth from hers. “Now
Her breath came in staccato bursts. “It certainly is,” she said, but without rancor.
“So is this.” He brushed a kiss to her blushing cheek. “And this.” He explored other parts of her with his mouth—her fragile eyelids, the throbbing pulse at her temple, the delicate curve of her ear.
But when he traced it with his tongue, she gasped. “Lord Draker—”
“Marcus,” he corrected. “If we’re courting, you should call me Marcus.”
She hesitated, then breathed, “Marcus,” in that seductive whisper that drove him insane. There was nothing for it but to kiss her again.