Authors: Sabrina Jeffries
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #General, #Historical
Or catch her. She hadn’t decided which yet.
As they climbed the stairs, he murmured, “We can attend the opera another night if you prefer.”
“No, indeed,” she said lightly. “Then you’d accuse me of not holding up my end of our bargain.”
He shrugged. “If your brother isn’t going, then by the terms we set, you don’t have to go.”
Hearing it stated so baldly made her flinch. “So you don’t want me to go?”
“I didn’t say that.”
She hid her smile. “So you
me to go.”
His arm stiffened beneath her hand. “I didn’t say that, either. Stay home if you please. I don’t give a damn whether you go with me or not.”
“Then why did you offer to take me on a different night?” she teased. When he didn’t immediately answer, she risked a glance at him.
The gas lamps at the top of the steps illuminated his annoyed expression. “You’re a plague upon men, do you know that?”
“Why? Because I dare to expect reasonable answers from the Dragon Viscount instead of a lot of smoke and fire-breathing?”
His gaze met hers, and a reluctant admiration showed in his eyes. “Because you have a strong right arm.” He lowered his voice. “And know how to use it.”
Coloring, she jerked her gaze up to where her brother and Cicely were disappearing into the house. “I won’t hesitate to use it again if you insult me.”
They’d reached the top now, but he took her by surprise and tugged her behind the columns on the far end of the wide marble steps. By the time she realized what he was about, his mouth was on hers, hot…possessive…greedy. He took his time, kissing her so thoroughly and scandalously that her toes curled inside her satin slippers.
When he drew back, she could barely breathe, and his eyes gleamed at her in the darkness. “Do you consider
an insult?” he said in a seductive rumble.
She should. But she didn’t. “Do you intend to follow it with some nasty comment about my preference for private duets?”
A muscle ticked in his jaw. “At the moment, I can’t think of any.”
“What a shame,” she said lightly, struggling to conceal her reaction to his kisses. “I find them so entertaining.”
Cicely appeared in the doorway and scowled when she spotted the two of them lurking behind the column. “Lord Draker, what are you doing? Regina, you must come inside.”
With a taunt of a smile, Marcus caught Regina’s gloved hand and lifted it to his lips. The lingering kiss he pressed to it made her body hum like a harp string freshly plucked.
“Good evening, madam,” he said. “I’d better go before your duenna tosses me down the steps for my impertinence.” Then he added in a tantalizing whisper, “Tomorrow night I’ll make my impertinences more discreet.”
She was still reeling from his presumptuous remark when he sauntered down the steps to where his carriage awaited him. Then she noticed his coachman and all his footmen looking up at her with knowing smiles. Sweet heaven, they’d probably guessed what she and Marcus had been doing behind the column.
Her face flamed as she hurried into the house behind Cicely. Why did the man always manage to slip under her guard? He seemed determined to make a public wanton out of her. If she weren’t careful, he’d ruin her.
A pity he kissed so very well.
The minute she was inside, Cicely murmured, “Forgive me for not realizing what that beast was about. If I’d had any idea that the man was trying to…to…”
“It’s all right, Cicely. He didn’t do anything.” Thanks to Marcus, she’d told more lies to Cicely in the past two days than she’d told in her entire life.
Cicely coughed. “I don’t understand why you persist in this mad courtship.”
“To help Louisa and Simon, of course.” Turning away to hide her blush, Regina gave the footman her pelisse. “Surely you cannot think I have a romantic interest in Lord Draker.”
“I should hope not! He isn’t a suitable prospect for you.”
Regina tensed and faced her cousin again. “If you refer to his behavior—”
“I refer to his fondness for books.” Casting the footman a glance, she added discreetly, “A fondness you do not share.”
Since you can’t read.
A leaden lump settled in Regina’s chest. Cicely was right, of course. “Then it’s a good thing I’m going about town with him merely to help my brother, isn’t it?” When Cicely frowned and opened her mouth to answer, Regina changed the subject. “And speaking of that, where
my brother? I thought surely Simon would be waiting in here to tease me.”
“Begging your pardon, my lady,” their butler put in, “but His Grace is with a special guest in his private drawing room.”
Regina tensed. “Thank you, John.”
was the servant’s code for His Highness. Why had the prince come here tonight, when he was going to see Simon tomorrow night at his dinner anyway? Could Marcus’s suspicions about the prince and her brother be valid?
No, of course not. She couldn’t believe it. On the other hand…
She glanced down the hall to the east wing. She
just go see what they were up to. After all, she needed to make her apologies to the prince for not being able to attend his dinner, and that would work much better in person.
Murmuring a good night to her cousin, she headed off into the east wing. It was silly even to think Marcus could be right about Simon. Her brother was ambitious, true, but he was not the sort to use a young woman so slyly.
Marcus only made such horrible claims because he believed the worst of everyone. Look at what he thought of
Though, to be honest, she was no longer certain
he thought of her. At first, she’d been sure he courted her merely to provoke her and Simon. And after he’d kissed her so passionately in Lord Iversley’s library, his insulting remarks had seemed to confirm that he had no genuine interest in her.
But then he’d defended her in the carriage. He’d praised her singing. He’d even called her “clever.” No one ever called her that. Beautiful, yes. Sophisticated, most assuredly. But clever? Not once.
She liked being called clever. Unfortunately, Marcus would not consider her clever at all if he knew the truth about her.
Cicely’s words preyed on her. If Marcus learned that she couldn’t read, he would think her stupid and even more shallow than he already thought her. Or he might think her damaged beyond repair. He certainly would not want her then.
No sensible man wanted a wife who might provide him with a damaged heir. It didn’t matter how rich or pretty or accomplished a woman was—she had to fulfill certain duties. What if she couldn’t?
That possibility depressed her.
Fortunately, she’d now reached Simon’s drawing room, where she could forget about the pesky viscount. Before knocking, she put her ear to the door to see what she might discover. But she heard only the low murmurs of two men engaged in a conversation they wanted to keep very private.
Drat it all. With a sigh, she knocked, and the conversation stopped at once. Simon growled an invitation to enter.
As soon as she breezed into the room, both men rose. His Highness was the first to greet her. As she dropped into a deep curtsy, he said, “No need to stand on ceremony with me, my dear.” He settled his large frame on the sturdy settee Simon had bought especially for such visits and patted the brocade. “Come sit beside me and tell me how you’re doing.”
Simon’s scowl was meant to discourage her from lingering, but she ignored it. “I am so glad you’re here, Your Highness,” she said as she went to sit beside the prince. “It appears that I will not be able to attend your dinner tomorrow night. I do hope you can forgive me.”
“It depends upon the reason.” The prince chucked her under the chin. “And since you don’t look ill—”
“Lord Draker asked Regina to join him at the opera tomorrow night,” Simon put in baldly before she could figure out how to explain.
The flicker of interest in His Highness’s face was unmistakable. “That’s quite another matter, isn’t it? I would not want to stand in the way of a courtship.”
At his choice of words, Regina flung her brother a questioning glance.
Simon propped one hip on a writing table. “I told His Highness about your new beau. I thought he’d find it amusing to hear how Lord Draker fared on his first foray into polite society.”
“Since when are
a gossip?” Regina snapped, too annoyed at the thought of the terrible picture her brother had probably painted to ask why they’d been discussing her and Marcus in the first place.
“Your brother knows I enjoy such chatter.” His Highness took her hand and chafed it between his two large ones. “But do not worry your pretty head over it. Foxmoor had nothing but good things to say about you.”
She didn’t care what Simon said about her. What had he said about Marcus? And why should that even worry her? The prince might be Marcus’s father, but Marcus hardly acted as if he wanted the man’s good opinion. So why should she want it for him?
She didn’t know why.
She just did.
“Did Simon mention what a fine singing voice Lord Draker has?” she asked.
The prince eyed her speculatively. “No, but I am not surprised.”
He’d probably heard his son sing when Marcus was younger. Oh, how she wished she could ask him about Marcus as a boy. But she didn’t dare.
“So what do you think of the viscount otherwise?” the prince asked. “Clearly you find him appealing, if you mean to forget my dinner to join him at the opera.”
She cursed the blush that leaped to her cheeks, especially when His Highness tightened his grip on her hands. “He’s appealing enough, I suppose,” she said, trying to sound noncommittal.
“Regina means to transform him into a proper gentleman,” Simon drawled.
His Highness narrowed his gaze on her. “If anyone can do it, Lady Regina can.”
Thank heaven Simon hadn’t mentioned the wager. “I do not mean to transform him, but to ease his way in society. I hate to see a man with such fine qualities spend all his days out at his estate.”
“Draker has fine qualities?” Simon quipped. “I must have missed them.”
“Then you are not as observant as I took you for,” the prince snapped.
Judging from the look of chagrin on Simon’s face, he’d momentarily forgotten Marcus’s relationship to His Highness. “I’m observant enough to notice that the man has an interest in my sister that she does not reciprocate.”
His attempt to divert the prince’s displeasure worked, for His Highness’s baleful glance swung to her. “Is that true?”
“Simon misunderstands the nature of Lord Draker’s interest in me,” she hedged. “The man merely wants to prove to me that society is as corrupt as he believes it to be. We’re engaged in a kind of contest, if you will.”
“And he certainly isn’t the sort my sister finds attractive,” Simon added.
“That’s not true.” Regina colored when His Highness lifted an eyebrow. “But our interests are too different. He has little use for polite society. And I don’t think he likes me much. Sometimes he even seems to despise me.”
“Nonsense,” the prince said kindly. “Who could despise a lovely creature like you, my dear?”
“All the same, I doubt he has any interest in marrying me.”
Simon had apparently grown impatient with the conversation, for he left the writing table to approach the settee. “You can regale His Highness with tales of your courtship some other time, dear girl. I have several important matters of state to discuss with him privately right now, and the hour is getting late.”
Since when did His Highness discuss matters of state with her brother in Simon’s drawing room instead of at Carlton House?
Drawing her hand from the prince’s, she rose. “Very well, I shall leave you.”
His Highness rose, too. “Enjoy your evening at the opera, my dear.”
She left, still burning to know what they were talking about. Could Marcus be right about Simon’s intentions? Wasn’t it an odd coincidence that His Highness would come here on the very night Simon had first been allowed to court Louisa?
On the other hand, if His Highness really did want influence over Louisa’s future, then it made sense that he’d take an interest in Simon’s courtship of her. That did not mean they were plotting anything underhanded.
They might even truly be discussing affairs of state. Marcus’s ridiculous obsession with intrigue was simply making her imagine it herself. That was the trouble with letting the man kiss her—it made her think like him.
She certainly found Marcus attractive, and he’d made his physical attraction to her quite apparent. But that wasn’t enough for a true courtship between two people so different from each other.
When his mouth was ravaging hers, however, she tended to forget that. So she simply
keep him at arm’s length from now on. She mustn’t let him kiss her again, no matter how gloriously he did so.
She would continue trying to civilize the beast and promote the match between Louisa and Simon, but she would be cordial and no more. Because nothing good could come of letting Marcus—Lord Draker—too close.
As soon as Regina was gone, the prince turned to Simon. “Are you sure she doesn’t know what you mean to do? Your sister is more astute than she seems.”
“I’m well aware of that.” Simon only hoped that Draker, her new charitable project, would keep her too busy to examine his own activities. “Draker may have voiced his suspicions, but that doesn’t mean she believes them.”
“Then why did she agree to his mad bargain?”
“To prove him wrong in all his suppositions, just as she said.” No point in mentioning the wager. He doubted His Highness would approve of such a wager involving his by-blow. “As long as Regina weighs in on my side, we’re safe.”
His Highness heaved his bulky frame from the settee. “Not so safe, I should think, if my son means to spend every moment with you and Louisa. How am I supposed to see my daughter and discuss her future?”
“Perhaps you should just let me tell her who you are to her—”
“Certainly not. Draker’s secretive nature and his stubborn insistence that she’s not mine have worked in our favor heretofore, because they’ve kept him from revealing to her some rather sordid details about my affair with his mother. If you tell her the truth, she’ll run off to confirm it with him, and Draker will poison her against me before I even have the chance to tell my side.”