Heir to the Bellefonte earldom, Nick Haddonfield has made a promise to his dying father that he’ll marry before the Season’s over. When Nick meets Lady Leah Lindsey, he realizes he’s found not only a damsel lady in need of rescuing, but also a perfect countess of convenience. Then he spoils everything by falling in love with his wife…the one woman he can never, ever have.
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The English peerage had come to a sorry pass indeed 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 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 about having a conversation with a woman whose features he could not clearly see appealed.
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.”
“Who is this reprobate?” Nick inquired after a moment, stretching out his stocking 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 the 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 nine,” 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 weeks more 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 was 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 and not of correcting his mistake with the drinks. “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 disregard 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.
“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. He drinks to frequent excess, he duels. 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 and 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, and 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 a 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 conditionl” 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 their wares, according to the 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, 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.
Nick punched his pillow, the strains of Val's soft music drifting to him through the darkness. Val played like this only when he was alone with a good instrument, the music flowing up from his soul, out across the keys and off into the night air, never to be heard again. Nick was in awe of such a gift, such an endless flow of creativity and sheer beauty from inside one generally quiet man.
And if there was a price for such talent, Nick hadn't yet puzzled it out. Usually, when Val conjured lullabies, sleep came to heel like a biddable spaniel.
Tonight, though, Nick was preoccupied with a single kiss.
In his thirty-some years on earth, Nick had done more kissing than he could remember. Kissing was fun, sweet, and harmless. He enjoyed it; the ladies enjoyed it; he suspected even his horse enjoyed it.
But kissing was also meant to be forgettable. No more worthy of recall than a pleasant meal, a good book, an enjoyable walk in the garden. Nick kissed his lovers, his sisters, his friends, his grandmother. Lately, he'd kissed his father a time or two, hoping each one was not a kiss good-bye. Nick kissed babies—babies were particularly fun to nuzzle and kiss and tickle—he kissed his horses and his cats and his cousins.
So why should it matter that he'd stolen a kiss from this Leah person, who was bound for holy matrimony with the odious Hellerington? He'd meant it as a little gesture of encouragement to her and himself both, a kiss for luck, as he'd said.
Nonetheless, lying in the acreage of his bed, surrounded by mountains of silk-covered pillows and the softest of linen sheets, Nick felt a growing unwillingness to let a disgusting old man have a taste of the lady, much less a husband's claim on her. From the place inside Nick that would have killed to protect a sister or a friend, a place that had been tempted to violence on behalf of beaten animals, Nick felt a growing desire to spare the woman the fate that had moved her to tears.
His fate was sealed. He would marry a calculating little jade, and that was that.
Her fate, however, he could still influence.
Tossing aside the covers, Nick got up and found a dressing gown to cover his nakedness. The room was cold—Nick liked it cold. He lit some candles and found writing supplies in his escritoire. A note to his solicitors came first, asking them to attend him at their earliest convenience.
Then a note to Benjamin Hazlit, discreet investigator for the privileged few who could afford him. If anyone could bring Nick what he sought regarding old Hellerington, it would be Hazlit.
Those decisions made, Nick returned to his bed and let Valentine's music drift over him once more. Val was sad about something; that was as clear as the tones of the piano's lovely middle register.
Ah, well. Nick closed his eyes. What a gift it must be, to be able to turn sadness to beauty. He thumped his pillow one last time and let his imagination conjure up the memory of a sweet, soft, lingering kiss between strangers.
Nick thought of spring and autumn as feminine—changeable, unpredictable, lovely—and winter and summer as masculine—entrenched, reliably trying, challenging, not for the faint of heart. April qualified as spring, and this morning, she was wearing all her glory. The sun shone in beneficent abundance, a hint of softness graced the air, and in the park, daffodils bloomed in profusion along with the occasional precocious tulip. The distance to his grandmother's house might have encouraged another man to ride, but Nick had already taken Buttercup out for her morning hack, and he liked to move about whenever possible.
Then too, he needed time to think, to consider Valentine's question from the previous night: Were there any young ladies available this Season to whom he might offer marriage? Unpleasant topic to contemplate, but—
"I beg your pardon!"
Instinctively, Nick reached out to steady the lady into whom he had very nearly ploughed.
"My apologies," he murmured, catching a hint of lily of the valley fragrance, though it wasn't coming from the petite blond squirming to retrieve her balance.
"I'm sorry, sir." The little blond peeked up at him with a tentative smile from under her bonnet brim. "I was intent on getting to the ducks. I should have been watching where I was going."
Nick stepped back and tipped his hat with a little bow.
"I am at fault." He smiled down at her, then included the lady's maid in his smile. "I was lost in thought and cannot even claim the topic as interesting as hungry ducks."
Not a lady's maid, but rather, a youthful maiden aunt who could indulge in an alluring perfume but no longer needed—or afforded?—a fashionable wardrobe. Still, there was something about the other woman that drew Nick's interest, and not simply because she had lovely brown eyes, a bit of height, and lustrous dark hair framing a serious, pretty face.
Nick marshaled his manners. "If I may be so bold: Nicholas Haddonfield, Viscount Reston at your service, ladies, and again my apologies." The blond glanced askance at the taller woman, obviously uncertain of the proprieties.
"Pleased to make your acquaintance," the taller woman said, her tone cultured, a little husky, and liltingly soft.
Five innocuous words, but it was enough. That soft, almost amused voice, the poise of it, and charm… Nick knew immediately who she was, and drew in a slow, steadying breath. The lily of the valley scent connected with memories of their previous meeting and made the pretty day shade closer to glorious.
"Whom was it my pleasure to nearly knock insensate?" Nick kept his smile in place, though it was arguably rude of him to ask when they hadn't been introduced. Still, he could not abide to tip his hat and saunter away.
"Ladies Leah and Emily Lindsey," the taller woman replied. She bobbed a curtsy, and her companion did likewise. Lady Leah gave not a hint of familiarity in her tone, gesture, or expression.
Not a hint of rejection, either.
"Might I impose my escort on you as far as the duck pond?" Nick offered. For good measure, he smiled disarmingly at the footman who hovered a dozen feet away, looking uneasy. "It's a lovely day, and I would rather spend it in the presence of pulchritudinous ladies such as Mother Nature and yourselves than hurry to my destination."
"You flatter prettily," Lady Leah said, clearly more amused than impressed. "We will take pity on you." She glanced over her shoulder at the footman. "John, Lord Reston will escort us to the pond."
John nodded, apparently relieved that Lord Reston—all seventeen damned stone of him—presented no threat to his charges.
"I am on my way to see my grandmother," Nick volunteered, winging an arm at each lady. "This puts me in line for a scolding, which is what grandmothers enjoy most with grandsons like me. I've been in Town almost ten days, you see, and I've yet to call on her. What shall I say was my excuse?"
"You could tell her you're getting over a spring ague," the blonde said. Lady—Nick floundered for a moment mentally—Lady Emily. "It was nasty damp until last week."
"That would serve, except she knows I'm seldom ill."
"You could tell her you dreaded the scolding and waited for a suitably cheering day to make your bow," the older sister said.
"The truth?" Nick affected a puzzled frown at Lady Leah. "With my grandmother? I will consider it as a novel approach. Do you ladies often come feed the ducks?"
He kept up a pleasant, easygoing patter of nonsense talk, something he could do without thinking. As they chatted and strolled slowly toward the water, Nick studied his companions.
In the bright light of day, Leah Lindsey was revealed to be no longer in the first blush of youth, consistent with her disclosures the previous night. There was knowledge in her eyes, of things unpleasant and unavoidable. She carried herself with a well-concealed hint of caution, her grip on his arm cosmetic, unlike her sister's.
The younger sister was innocent, Nick concluded. Probably not yet out, and happy to lark around in the park on a pretty day. This was the one for whom Leah was being sacrificed, and yet there was no enmity between the sisters. If anything, Leah was protective of her younger sibling.
Nick approved of that, though it wasn't his place to make such a judgment.
Lady Emily held out a gloved hand. "I'll take those bread crumbs now, John."
"Shall we sit?" Nick suggested to the sister still loosely on his arm. Lady Emily became engrossed in feeding the ducks over by the water, John withdrew to a discreet distance, and Nick found himself relatively alone with the lady who'd kept him up half the night.
"Let's take the bench," Lady Leah said. "This is a day so lovely one wants simply to be still and drink it in, to save it up."
"Such wistfulness," Nick said as he lowered himself beside her. "Do you fear we'll have no more of such days?"
"The future is at best unpredictable," Lady Leah said quietly. "For example, who could have predicted we'd cross paths twice in twenty-four hours?"
Pleasure—and relief—welled. "I wasn't sure I was supposed to acknowledge that other, equally delightful meeting."
"I hadn't thought to ever see you again." She was smiling as she said it, a soft, inwardly pleased curving of full lips.
Nick let himself bask in that smile and in the memory of those soft, delectable lips, until his blood began to stir in unmentionable places. "Everybody sees me. I am too big to sneak anywhere. What you hadn't thought was to kiss me again."
"My lord." The frown was back in force. "We are in public."
"Private enough." Nick knew exactly where the footman stood, and the younger sister, and that the breeze put both upwind of this surprising conversation. "If the weather allows it tomorrow, may I meet you here again?"
"Whyever would you want to do that?" Leah's voice was even, but a slight shift in her expression suggested Nick's request did not meet with her approval.
Nor his own, exactly, but he'd puzzle that out later. "I have put a few things in train you need to know about," Nick said, purposely keeping his gaze on Emily and the honking, quacking gaggle paddling about before her.
"What could you possibly be up to that would affect me, my lord?"
Nick grinned, despite his attempt to emulate a fellow just enjoying the weather. "You sound like my grandmother, all starch and vinegar. I'm going to relieve you of your intended's offer."
Beside him, Leah went still in the way she had the previous night. Not just still physically, but mentally.
"Has it occurred to you," she said, her voice very low, "Hellerington may be replaced by something worse?"
"What could be worse than being wife to a disgusting old man who will likely give you diseases you cannot recover from?" Nick's own tone had become the least bit clipped, and he was rewarded with a sharp intake of Leah's breath.
"Being his mistress," she said, so quietly Nick had to lean toward her to hear her.
Silence, while Nick considered the horror she'd just admitted. Her father wasn't content to marry her off; he must end his daughter's life in illness and disgrace as well. No man who called himself father should be free to perpetrate such misery on his daughter.
"That would be evil," Nick said. "And I shall not allow it."
From the window of his first-floor suite, Gerald Lindsey, ninth Earl of Wilton, had watched his two daughters link arms and stroll off toward the park. Well, his daughter and that creature his wife had presented to him. He wasn't pleased with the amount of time Emily spent with Leah, but Emily liked her older sister, and as long as they both dwelled under his roof, it was an association the earl could closely monitor. Soon enough, he'd see Leah taken off his hands, and if he played his cards right, Leah's marriage would foot the cost of Emily's come out and wedding.
A scratching at the door interrupted his plans for Emily.
The upstairs chambermaid bobbed a deep curtsy. "My lord."
"She danced with a Lord Valentine Windham," the maid said, careful to keep her gaze on the floor. "And described him to her sister as tall, green-eyed, and very much a gentleman."
"He's also very much Moreland's only unwed surviving son and legendarily besotted with his music. Leah will never get an offer from that one. What other confidences did the ladies exchange over their morning tea?"
"In the course of the evening, Lady Leah was introduced to a Lord Reston, my lord. She described him as grand, tall and fit, like an old-style Viking, and well mannered. His father is the Earl of Bellefonte, and I gather from the conversation, Reston is the heir."
"Nothing, my lord. The ladies were anxious to enjoy the sunny weather."
He waited until the door closed before he let his features compose themselves into a frown. Reston? Bellefonte's heir? But nothing of old Hellerington, who was desperate enough to pay handsomely for a titled bride of childbearing age?
Wilton lowered himself into the chair behind his estate desk and tried to dredge up details on the Bellefonte title. All he could recall was that the present holder of the title had been a younger son, serving in the military or diplomatic corps, and not particularly concerned with the earldom. There were a fair number of offspring, like a bunch of bloody farming Hanoverians. He scrawled a note to his man of business and rang for a footman.
Hellerington was welcome to Leah as far as Wilton was concerned. Yes, the man was a dissolute, sick scoundrel, but that only made it easier to toss the ungrateful bitch into his arms. Hellerington had been nothing if not patient, and in his own devious way, trustworthy. Still, business was business, and if this Reston fellow were interested, then it was simply prudent to entertain an offer from him.
Hellerington was desperate, but he wasn't particularly wealthy, and wealth was one thing Wilton respected more than he wanted free of his late wife's bastard.
"You have no say in the matter of my betrothal."
Leah ground her words out, while the great length of Lord Reston to all appearances lounged beside her on the park bench, and Emily cavorted with the ducks like the schoolgirl she was. "And while you are no doubt well intended, my lord, I must ask you to turn your attention to some other matter. My father will do as he sees fit. He is a peer of the realm, as he frequently reminds all and sundry. You cannot gainsay him. My brothers have tried to thwart him, and it has gone hard for them as a result."
Reston shrugged broad, heavily muscled shoulders clad in excellent tailoring. "Your brothers have to live with him. I can have you spirited off to family holdings in Ireland, and your father won't find you. How old are you?"
Damn him for the casual rescue he offered. "Five-and-twenty years."
"So your father cannot tell you where to go, or with whom. If you consented to some travel, it would not be kidnapping."
"I will not consent," Leah said. "He has already threatened to cut off my brother without a penny and has reduced Darius's quarterly funds to a pittance, as it is."
"Let me help you," his lordship rumbled. He shifted his tone, imbued it with a lazy sensuality that sent tremors of memory through low places in Leah's body. "I ask nothing of you, only that you let me help you, and you might as well." He stood and tipped his hat. "I'm going to whether you like it or not. A pleasure, Lady Leah."
He ambled over to the water to take his leave of Emily, showing her the same courtesy he would an older lady. She blushed and smiled, flattered, no doubt, that a titled lord would pass the time of day with her. Watching the tableau, Leah had an astonishing thought:
If Reston married Emily, then Leah could dwell in safety with her sister. As a member of the family, Reston would be able to provide a home for Leah, and the earl would have to allow it.
And so what if the most memorable kiss Leah had experienced had been with her sister's prospective spouse?
Leah rose. "Lord Reston!"
"My lady?" He was at her side in a few long-legged strides.
Leah glanced at the footman, who was respectfully keeping his distance. "If the weather is fair, I can chance to meet you again at this hour in three or four days' time. I am watched, though, so it had better not appear contrived."
"Watched by the help," Reston concluded easily. "Friday then, weather permitting, or Monday. Until then." He tipped his hat again and left with a final, thoroughly friendly smile at the footman.
"So that was your Viscount Reston?" Emily gushed as she and Leah sauntered toward home. "Grand, indeed, Leah. And so very well mannered. Is he the kind of gentleman you meet at these balls and breakfasts?"
Leah smiled at her sister's enthusiasm and chose her truths, as usual. "He's larger than most and probably more charming than most. Did you like him?"
"Of course I liked him, though he is quite a specimen."
"Quite," Emily was just a shade over five feet in her stockings, while Leah was eight inches taller. If Nicholas Haddonfield was imposing to Leah in terms of both his charm and his physique, what must Emily make of him? "He's a mild-mannered man as well, though. I shouldn't think his size would matter a great deal to his friends and family."
"Perhaps not," Emily replied, then she gave a little shudder. "But to his wife?"
"He would be a gentleman, Em," Leah said. "In every regard."
Emily cast her a curious glance, then shook her head. "He can be your gentleman, never mine."
Bless Emily's loyalty, and drat her stubbornness. "Don't be too sure about that. He's rumored to be in the market for a wife, and he's an earl's heir, Em. You could do worse. He'd be kind. I know he would." And his kisses would be lovely. Drat that too.
"Kind or not," Emily said, "I've no wish to bear him his heirs. I'm sure I can find a suitable man among the fifty-one remaining candidates I've listed from Debrett's, though perhaps I'd best start making inquiries regarding height, hadn't I?"
Leah did not respond to that pragmatic observation, letting the subject drop. Emily had been ten years old when Leah had been whisked off to Italy, and the version of events passed along to Emily was no doubt the one that would put a girl in fear of the slightest misstep, particularly in her search for a husband.
She and Emily had never openly discussed the past, a small, curious sadness amid a sororal landscape full of them. A landscape that now included one very tall, well-mannered viscount with kind blue eyes.
And a devastating way with a kiss.
The young lady for whom Nick would cheerfully have given his last farthing and his last breath was strolling in her gardens, unaware that he watched her from the back of his mare on the grassy hill high above. Blossom Court and Clover Down were not two miles distant by the road, but the properties backed up to each other, and riding from one to the other cross-country was the work of a few minutes.
Every afternoon, weather permitting, the young lady walked outside with her companion. If the companion saw Nick up on the hill, she knew better than to wave. He paid her salary, after all, and kept the entire little jewel of a property simply so the young lady could have her peace and quiet in the pretty countryside.
Then too, if Nick's presence were discovered, he'd be compelled to join the ladies, and there would be tears and apologies and more tears. He'd already tried to explain why he could not visit as often, and why he must marry and spend more time at Belle Maison.
Explanations that had fallen on deaf, heartbroken ears.
The companion took out a book, while the object of Nick's devotion chose the location for the afternoon's picnic. She and Nick had consulted endlessly over the flowers for each bed, most of which would not bloom for weeks yet. Forget-me-nots for true love, coreopsis for cheer, a border of mint for virtue. She chose to spread her blanket near a patch of daffodils—daffodils for chivalry—that Nick had planted for her the previous autumn.
The ladies settled in for a lazy afternoon, while Nick felt his chest constricting with frustrated need. He'd give anything to be the one reading that book to her, to be the one sharing the hours with her.
He sat there for a minute, savoring the simple sight of her. Sunshine beat down with springtime benevolence, while the scent of a field recently treated with the cow byre's winter leavings lent a pungent, fertile undertone to the air. The mare swished her tail at some bold insect and stomped a hoof while Nick felt a yearning so old and futile it had long since eclipsed tears.
What she needed from him was the self-discipline to turn the horse back down the hill and resume the search for that bride he'd promised his father. Life, Nick reflected as he trotted his horse through the glorious spring day, could be so damned brutally hard.
"What has put you in the dismals?" Val asked Nick at breakfast the following Friday. "The sun is finally out, and the weekend is at hand."
"Buttercup and I ran into Ethan in the park this morning," Nick replied. "He is enough to put anybody in the dismals. Pass the damned teapot."
Val slid the teapot—a pretty porcelain thing with blue and pink flowers glazed all over it—down to his host.
"I do not know your elder brother well," Val said, "but mention of him does not seem to cheer you."
"Nobody knows him well," Nick opined, stirring a prodigious amount of sugar into his tea, then a fat dollop of cream. "We used to be close."
Valentine made no reply, and Nick resented both the silence and his companion's perspicacity.
"As boys," Nick went on, "we were inseparable. I was his shadow, and we were of a size then, though he's more than a year my elder. For several years, we rode one pony, then had to have matched ponies. Ethan is brilliant—quick and smart, not just one or the other. He could devise more ways to have fun and not get caught than you can imagine. Beckman used to trail us around like a puppy, and Ethan could lose him without him figuring out he'd been lost."
"You loved your older brother."
Nick scowled mightily. "Still do." And nearly hated him too, sometimes.
"So what happened?" Val prodded, reaching for the teapot.
"An accident." Nick tossed his tea back and appropriated the teapot before Val could pour himself a cup. "Bellefonte was in the habit of branding his saddles and harness and such with an H—for Haddonfield—and we thought we'd do the same with our boots, clever lads that we were. The brand landed on my backside by inadvertence, and Bellefonte decided Ethan had done it apurpose. Before that…"
Nick poured a second cup, stirred in more sugar, then more cream.
He stared at his tea. "Before that we were brothers and best friends. After Bellefonte tore into Ethan in front of me that day, we became the bastard and the heir. He sent us to separate public schools. He no longer permitted Ethan to spend holidays and summers with us. He sent Ethan to Cambridge while I went to Oxford."
Valentine considered the teapot at Nick's elbow. "Over a stupid accident? That doesn't sound like your father."
Nick's smile was sad. "You know Bellefonte as a dear old fellow. Twenty years ago, he was up to his ears in children and responsibilities, and he was a regular Tartar. Grandmother sneaked a few letters for us, but Ethan and I could not sustain a bond. After a time, I told myself it was for the best. I imagine Ethan has done the same."
"How could losing a brother and a best friend be for the best?" Valentine had lost two brothers, one to war, one to consumption. Nick knew the question was sincere and… difficult.
"I have three other brothers, and four sisters, and until my father sent Ethan away, I could barely have told you their names. Ethan and I were that close. As the heir, I needed to know my entire family, not just my favorite brother. Then too, Ethan needed to make his way, not spend his entire life protecting me and being my… companion."
"I don't know, Nicholas." Val made another try for the teapot, and this time poured himself a cup immediately. "Devlin was raised with us, at least from the age of five on. Their Graces love him as if he were one of their legitimate sons. They saw to it he had the best of everything, and bought him his colors when Bart joined up, no questions asked. But he still felt second-rate, as if he were on probation…"
Val stopped and glared at his tea.
Rather than allow him to maunder on, Nick took pity on his friend. "Your point?"
"Your father isn't solely responsible for the fact that you and Ethan haven't made much progress recovering your friendship," Val said. "Devlin was stuck, thinking himself unnecessary to us, when he could not have been more wrong."
"But my family is not the Windhams," Nick said. "We have no duchess humanizing us, no matriarch to smooth over Bellefonte's many rough edges. Ethan is not necessary to us—he will not allow himself to be—and I'm not sure there is an us."
Val smiled, a sweet smile the ladies found irresistible. "You are ridiculous. The Haddonfields sport a great deal of 'us.' Beckman has followed you all over southern England. George and Dolph can't get a grade on an exam without you knowing about it. Your grandmother knows before your head hits the pillow exactly how many dances you stood up for and with whom. You remember every sister's birthday, and her favorite flowers and colors. What is Beckman up to, by the way?"
Nick scowled at his plate, from which a significant portion of eggs and toast had disappeared, Nick new not how. "Still rusticating. The earl sent him down to Portsmouth to look in on Three Springs for Grandmother. I don't think he's in any hurry to take up Town life, and I can give him one of my estates in Kent when I'm forced to reside at Belle Maison."
But not both estates. Beckman could have Clover Down. Title to Blossom Court would always remain in Nick's hands, no matter what.
"You're frowning again," Val said. "I hadn't taken you for such an introspective fellow."
"Must be the full moon. You up for a trip to Kent?"
"Of course, if there's a piano to be played along the way."
"I'll send the requisite notes to my staff." Nick felt a lift to his mood at the prospect of leaving London. "And ring for more tea, would you? Somebody drank the entire damned pot while you were picking my feeble brains."
Leah did not hurry toward the park, but oh, Lord, she wanted to. She'd tossed away half the night, thinking she should send Reston a note telling him to leave her in peace. Or a note telling him today did not suit, or a note telling him…
Sending notes safely was no more possible now in Wilton House than it had been eight years ago, so she was going to wave him off in person. Emily didn't want to marry the man, and Leah had to admit the girl had a point. Reston was the largest specimen of humanity Leah had ever seen; he had muscles on top of muscles, and such tremendous height. For the first time, it occurred to her that not just her father's servants, but anybody in the park, would know she'd met with Reston. Between his height, his golden hair, and his gentleman's manners, he was that distinctive.
Gads. What had she been thinking?
"Good morning." Reston's pleasant baritone sounded to her left when she'd been on the bench beside the pond for only a few minutes. "Lady Leah? Yes, it is you. We met earlier this week, I believe, along with your dear sister, Lady Emily. May I join you?"
Leah nodded and found herself once again sitting beside the compilation of muscle, charm, and masculine appeal that was Viscount Reston.
"I sent my footman off to purchase some bread for the ducks," Leah said, her tone clipped. "We haven't privacy for long."
"Then I will reserve the flirtation and flattery for later. Has Hellerington called upon Wilton yet?"
"He has an appointment Friday next," Leah said, hating the catch in her voice and the truth of her words.
Reston stretched out long, long legs, all nonchalance and polished riding boots. "Not until then? That is all the time in the world. I might be calling on your papa by then myself."
Leah closed her eyes, the lovely day and the handsome man at such variance with the topic under discussion as to make her queasy. "My lord, I am going to ask you again to desist from this course. Hellerington is devious and determined, as is the earl. They can lock me away without a word to anybody, and Wilton has threatened as much in the past."
"Was that before or after he killed your fiancé in cold blood?" Reston inquired, keeping his eyes trained on the ducks, his hands propped on the golden head of his walking stick.
The words, so casually uttered, sent a blast of winter through the spring day. "You know about that?"
"I know your brothers also got you to the Continent for a couple years while your father's ire cooled," he added. "From what I hear, the young man was of good family and had honorable intentions. There was no cause for a duel."
"There was not, but you may take from my experience that Wilton will stoop very nearly to murder to have his way. I do not think to thwart him with impunity."
"You've considered it, though." Reston slanted her another look. "You've considered running away, eloping with someone else, going into service. Why haven't you done it?"
That he'd reasoned this accurately on so little acquaintance should have made Leah uneasy. Instead, it provoked her to confidences she ought not to be sharing. "He's promised to take out any of my misdeeds on Darius," Leah said. "I don't know what hold he has over Darius, though much of it is financial, but I will not be the cause of my brother's ruination."
Reston rubbed his chin with a hand that should have been sporting gloves. Large hands but capable of a gentle touch. "I see."
"You'll leave me in peace, then?"
"My intention was never to disturb your peace, but rather, to preserve it."
"That is not an answer," Leah bit out. "My lord, you are meddling with my life and the lives of the people I care about. You have no right to do this."
"And your papa has no right to sell you to that lecher," Reston rejoined, his voice losing its polite veneer.
"I am his daughter," Leah reminded him. "He has every right."
"You have attained your majority."
"I am an unmarried female. I cannot make contracts, cannot buy land, cannot hire or fire my own employees, cannot own a business unless left to me by my family. I have no saleable skills save governessing, and any family that hired me would be subject to the earl's displeasure."
Blond brows twitched closer to a lordly nose. "You have thought this through."
"He watches my pin money," Leah went on, "so I cannot save but a few pennies on rare occasion. He keeps the jewelry given me by my mother or brothers locked away, so I cannot pawn it. My old dresses are taken from my wardrobe, and the same with my shoes, boots, and so forth."
"You are a prisoner," Reston concluded, temper evident in his tone.
"I am a daughter," Leah retorted, "who has earned her father's disfavor."
"I am holding in my left hand two gold sovereigns," Reston said, his tone of voice reverting to deceptive evenness. "When I assist you to rise, you will slip them into your glove."
Leah felt tears threaten. "My lord, don't do this. I cannot start a life on two gold sovereigns."
"You cannot," he agreed, shifting his walking stick to the side. "But you can hire a cabbie to get you to your brother's, or to my townhouse." He relayed his exact address to her, all the while appearing to be studying the ducks and making small talk, even as he also told her how to reach his grandmother, Lady Warne, and that he'd monitor the park Monday and Tuesday mornings.
"Now, I find the day has turned a trifle brisk," he said. "I will escort you home once we dump the bread yon footman brings."
Their time was over. Leah hadn't seen the footman coming across the park, bag of bread crumbs in hand, but in just moments, he'd be within earshot.
"You cannot escort me home."
"Can too," Reston replied pleasantly. He rose to his great height and turned to offer her assistance. By putting his body between Leah and the approaching footman, he gave himself the space to grasp her wrist and arm in such a way that two gold sovereigns were deftly slipped into her glove.
And there was nothing Leah could do about it.
Worse, the cool weight of the golden coins felt good, solid, and encouraging. She closed her fist around them and let Reston raise her to her feet.
"I'll take those." Reston stretched his hand out to the footman. "And I'll assist her ladyship down to the water."
The footman bowed and surrendered the bread crumbs, retreating to a distance that might have been respectful, though the man's expression remained watchful.
"So when might Lady Emily join you for another outing?" Reston asked, and Leah took the cue to limit herself to topics the footman could overhear. When the bread crumbs were gone, Reston offered his arm and sauntered along beside her placidly all the way home. At the foot of the steps, he bowed over her hand, giving it a surreptitious squeeze before taking a leisurely departure.
Leah made it a point to frown after him, knowing the footman would report this reaction as well.
"In future, William," she said, "I will not be sending you to purchase bread crumbs for me. There are too many curious gentlemen in the park, and I do not like being subject to their interrogation regarding my sister."
"Just so, milady. Curious, very large gentlemen." He bowed and took his leave, no doubt going to report every word and impression to the earl.
Leah repaired directly to the library, hid her coins behind a ragged volume of Fordyce's Sermons, then took up her embroidery hoop and awaited her own summons from the earl.
Nick's grandmother, Della, Dowager Marchioness of Warne, had known to expect him and was thus armed with tea, scones, clotted cream, and jam when he showed up on her doorstep en route to another visit to the park.
"I ran into Ethan," Nick said as they were sitting down in her family parlor. "He looks thinner to me."
"You look thinner," his grandmother said. "You great strapping lads need to mind your victuals. You lose your bloom so quickly, otherwise. Have a scone—or two."
"I love you, Nana," Nick said as he accepted a plate of the warm, flaky biscuits. "Ethan was his usual unforthcoming self. How does he fare?"
"As if I'd know." Della was the picture of prim disapproval, snow-white braids in a tidy coronet, blue eyes snapping with frustration. "He keeps no mistress that I know of, he does not gamble, he does not attend services, he pores over his investments and accounts, and he seldom strays from his seat in Surrey."
Nick paused in the demolition of his scones. "When did he start tending his home fires?"
"He purchased the place six or seven years back," Della replied. "Though he's really been in residence only for the past three years or so. I haven't seen the place, but I don't think it's far from those friends of yours. At this minute, however, he isn't in Surrey but on his way to Belle Maison."
Nick set the remains of his scones down. "He hasn't been home since he was fourteen."
"You lectured him into it when last you bumped into him in the park, for which I can only be grateful, truth be told, though I doubt he considers Belle Maison home in any regard."
"I didn't lecture him. I offered to go with him, and he declined." Offered to accompany him so he might make his peace with their dying father.
"Well, he's going. I cannot help but think it's a good thing. Your father was at best misguided in his handling of you two, and I've let him know it a time or two."
Or ten, Nick suspected. "Your efforts are, as always, appreciated, Nana."
"Good." Della smiled at him, a particularly feline, feminine smile that hinted at the stunning beauty of her past.
Nick's brows crashed down. "Nana, what have you done?"
"Nothing of any import, but when I found myself at yet another boring musicale on Saturday afternoon, I did contrive to sit next to Lady Leah Lindsey and her handsome older brother. That one is sadly lacking in flirtation, I can tell you."
"You flirted with Wilton's heir?" Nick didn't know whether to groan or smile.
"I did not disgrace myself, Nicholas, but I did strike up a pleasant association with the young lady and invited her to call upon me at her convenience. I am so old and lonely, and have so much time on my hands, you see."
Guilt spiked upward. Nick shrugged it aside from long practice because Nana was a shameless manipulator who delighted in her machinations. "You are dangerous, but I was going to ask it of you anyway."
"I know." Della took a dainty bite of a tea cake with yellow frosting. "You were trying to work up your courage, my boy, and I don't think the situation will admit of such leisure. The girl looks haunted."
"She is," Nick said, leaving it at that. "I appreciate the overture, though, and she will likely need a friend. How did the brother react?"
"He's quiet. Lost a wife a year or two ago, another match that benefited the Wilton finances, but one gets the impression he misses the lady. She gave him several children in very short order, as I recall, so they must have gotten along to some degree."
Or had a great deal of making up to do when they hadn't gotten along. "I am to meet Lady Leah in the park in thirty minutes or so. I'd best be on my way." Nick rose and drew his grandmother to her feet, then wrapped her in a hug. "You must promise me to be careful, Nana. If you get to asking questions, it could raise some eyebrows."
"Oh, my stars." Della drew back in mock horror. "And what will Wilton do? Call me out? I command more connections in this silly little town than he can imagine, Nicholas. Do not fear for me, and do not hesitate to ask if there's more I can do."
"I love you," Nick said again, meaning it with all his heart.
"And I love you. Away with you now. You've a lady to meet, and I have to change into more splendid attire if I'm to go calling on my cronies and friends before the rain comes back in."
Nick eyed the sky as he made his way to the park, willing the rain to hold off, though clouds were gathering. The bench by the duck pond was dry, thank the gods, so Nick strolled off to another bench and waited for his quarry. In the twenty minutes he was forced to wait, he tried to review what he knew of Leah's situation and found he couldn't keep his attention on the task.
He was too busy scanning the park, anticipating her arrival and fretting about what her absence could mean.
Which was odd, when he had no particular personal investment in the woman but intended simply to see her safe from her father's mischief… Even if she did kiss with a memorable combination of innocence and passion.
And carry a lovely scent.
And haunt his dreams.
Nick was thus scowling mightily when he heard a soft voice at his elbow.
"Shall I interpret that look to be a comment on my presence, Lord Reston?"
Nick rose and offered his arm, hoping his smile was merely friendly and not vastly relieved. "You should interpret it as a comment on my solitudinous state. Good day, Lady Leah. May I escort you to the ducks?"
"You may." Leah tucked her hand around his arm, her footman falling in behind them several paces back. Nick paused and turned.
He speared the footman with a look that was mostly fatuous suitor leavened with spoiled aristocrat spiced with a sprinkling of man-to-man. "My good fellow, unless you think to insult a peer's heir, I must ask you to keep a discreet distance so I might encourage the young lady to offer me the occasional flirtatious aside. A man needs every advantage when paying his proper addresses, hmm?"
The footman—the same beetle-browed fellow as last time—blushed, stammered his apologies, and retreated a good distance. Nick nodded his thanks and tucked his hand over Leah's.
"He'll not bother us, provided we look to be flirting." Nick patted her hand as he spoke. "I understand you met my grandmother."
Leah frowned at the fingers he laid over her knuckles. "Your grandmother?"
"Della, Lady Warne," Nick said. "I am her only grandson, and we dote on each other ceaselessly. You can trust her." And what a solid satisfaction it gave Nick to mean that.
"You cannot think to engage that dear, elderly lady in my father's schemes, Lord Reston."
"I cannot think to keep her out of them. How are you?"
He asked the question because Leah looked to him, if anything, pale and tired.
"Hellerington calls upon my father in several days," she said, not exactly answering Nick's question. "I cannot be sanguine about that."
"I call upon Hellerington this afternoon," Nick informed her, "and I will soon hold the bulk of his markers and will use them to your advantage."
"You're buying up his debts?" Leah paused to peer up at him. "Why?"
Nick resumed their progress rather than bear her scrutiny, tugging on her hand to encourage her to move with him. "It's no great effort. He generally does pay his debts, if slowly, and I can afford it." He decided not to tell her that with the aid of a discreet investigator, he was also buying up Wilton's debts, not wanting to unnerve her further.
"I dislike like that you would risk coin on me. I gather I cannot stop you."
"You cannot." Nothing could stop him—Nick had made up his mind on that. "When I assist you down to the water, I will slip another two sovereigns into your glove."
"My father may be on to you," Leah said as they left the path. Nick angled his body around hers, as if they were promenading, his right hand at her waist, his left gripping her left hand. On the damp grass, Leah's foot slipped.
"Oh, well done," Nick murmured near her ear. She was cast against him, momentarily leaning on his greater strength to get her footing. Nick slipped coins into her glove, even as he took a shameless whiff of her fragrance.
"Gads, you're strong," Leah said when he'd righted her.
"Very, and you need to explain yourself." He stepped way, finding much to his surprise he needed the distance. Her flowery scent had teased his nostrils, her lithe shape had felt too right against his chest, and her worry was stirring his protective urges.
Well, his urges, at any rate.
"The earl is aware we've met here twice," Leah said, her voice carefully even. "I am to be pleasant to you at all times and keep him informed of further encounters."
Nick glanced over at her, resenting the need to use his brain, resenting the way the muddy scent of the pond eclipsed the fragrance Leah wore. "Am I courting you or your sister?"
Leah tossed a handful of bread crumbs onto the surface of the water, provoking a honking, quacking stampede on the part of the waterfowl.
"If you court my sister," Leah said when the ruckus died down, "the earl will reason you can offer for her now and save him the expense of her come out."
Nick reached over and appropriated the bag of crumbs. "Leaving you at Hellerington's mercy and enriching your father to the extent of your bride price. So I had best court you, hadn't I?"
"I don't want you to," Leah said, her expression damnably serene. "You can't keep up such a farce, and sooner or later, there will be another Hellerington, or worse."
Nick tossed the bread much farther out over the water than Leah could have. "What would make you happy, Leah Lindsey?"
"Happy is not a useful concept," she muttered in reply. "Happy would mean I did not dwell with the death of a decent young man on my conscience. Happy would mean my brothers were not saddened daily by my circumstances. Happy would mean I could be completely indifferent to those who still comment on the years I spent in Italy."
Nick handed the remains of the bread crumbs back to her but let his hand cup hers briefly in the process. There was more misery and heartache here than he'd first surmised, and it bothered him.
"Your past is not happy," he said, watching the ducks, "but your future can be more enjoyable. I like that little fellow on the end there, with the yellowish wings. He's a scrapper."
Leah smiled at the little duck, who was paddling furiously after his share of the crumbs. "He's dirty."
"Scrappers are willing to get dirty in pursuit of their ends," Nick remarked, making his point, he hoped. "Which one catches your fancy?"
"That one." Leah nodded at a swan gliding along across the pond. "She could not care less for what troubles her inferiors."
"Above it all," Nick agreed. "But probably hanging about over there so nobody will hear her stomach complaining. Too proud, that one."
"I am not too proud," Leah said, keeping her voice down. "My father is not to be underestimated, and you will make matters worse with your meddling. When you tire of playing the gallant, I will be left to suffer his displeasure."
"Hush," Nick soothed, seeing she was near tears and hating the sight. "Yon stalwart footman will suspect we are not in charity. Toss some more bread, Leah, and listen to me."
She obeyed, to his relief—and did not take umbrage at his appropriation of her name.
"I am not going to meddle and then lose interest in your situation." Nick kept his voice low, as it had been in the darkness of the Winterthurs' parlor. "I will see to your welfare, and without bringing you further misery. You are out of the habit of hoping and trusting, and you grow frantic at the thought of the fate pressing upon you. Trust me, and I will win you free of it."
"You must not do this." She swiped at her eyes with her glove. "You must not."
"Ah, now." Nick's tone became wistful. "I might have been talked out of it before, but I've made you cry. Shame on me, and there's no help for it now. Compose yourself." He shifted to stand behind her, not quite touching but shielding her from the gaze of the nosy footman, literally guarding her back while she gathered her wits.
"I hate to cry."
"I'm none too fond of it myself. Are we out of bread crumbs?"
"Not quite." She passed the bag back to him, and he sidled around beside her. "Aim for your friend."
"But of course." Nick spied the little duck paddling near the bank and tossed the last handful in its direction. "I'm off to Kent for the next couple of days, but I'd like you to call on my grandmother on Friday morning, and I do mean morning, not a morning call."
"I can do that," Leah said, surprising him. "She invited me in my brother's hearing, and I'm not sure my father comprehends the connection. He doesn't socialize a great deal, though he is received."
"Then don't tell him, unless Lady Warne tells you to." As Nick stood close to her,, Leah's fragrance enveloped him again. Lily of the valley had never struck Nick as an erotic scent, but it was winding through his senses and stirring all manner of feelings.
"Return of happiness," Nick murmured, earning him a sharp glance from the lady. "Your scent—lily of the valley?—it symbolizes the return of happiness."
"I'd forgotten that," Leah said, smiling at him slightly.
"I would not lie to a woman."
"You are not the typical titled heir," Leah said, her smile fading. "I could not abide you were you to lie to me, Lord Reston."
For a man to keep certain matters to himself for years on end was not lying. Nick tried to convince himself of this regularly.
"Call me Nick," he said softly as they regained the path. "And send a note around to Lady Warne. Be warned though, she'll stuff you like a goose if you let her."
Leah eyed Nick up and down. "I bid you good day, my lord."
For the benefit of the footman, Nick adopted the same polite tones.
"Good day to you as well, Lady Leah." He bowed correctly over her hand. "And my regards to your dear sister."
He appropriated the bench again and watched until she'd left the park, footman in tow. The ducks set up another squawking, and Nick glanced over to see his little scrapper swimming hell-bent for the next offering of crumbs tossed forth from the hand of another pretty young lady.
Scrappers, he reminded himself, were sometimes not fussy enough about how they gained their ends; and eating just any old handout could leave a fellow with a mighty sorry bellyache.
The solicitor's spectacled gaze put Wilton in mind of a rabbit tracking the location of a fox at the watering hole.
"We have yet to receive any indication Lord Hellerington's intentions are sincere, my lord. There's been no subtle inquiry, no overt interest, no draft documents sent over by mistake, if you take my meaning."
Wilton knew a spike of murderous frustration, because Hellerington's innuendo had become flagrant—and now this coy behavior. The man intended to offer for the trollop masquerading as Wilton's oldest daughter; he'd all but announced it at his club.
"You've canvassed his clerks?"
"We have, my lord. We were particularly encouraged when there was an indication of general interest in your situation, but it came from the wrong firm."
"Explain yourself." Wilton rose to pace, knowing that leaving the solicitor seated would irk the man no end. Petty, self-important little thieves they were, but necessary if business was to be done in a businesslike manner.
"A junior clerk in the firm is related to some fellow in the offices around the corner," the solicitor began, "and they occasionally share a pint and so forth."
Wilton glowered at the man, lest the roundaboutation go on all morning.
"A Lord Reston is sniffing about."
Wilton paused in his pacing. "Bellefonte's heir?"
"Nicholas Haddonfield." The solicitor shifted in his seat, keeping the earl in his line of sight. "The old earl is rumored to be in poor health."
"He is not expected to last out the year, my lord. Perhaps not even the month."
"Interesting." Wilton tried to keep his pleasure from showing on his face. This was the same callow swain who'd been sniffing around little Emily's skirts this past week. "You're dismissed."
The solicitor rose and bowed without comment. In the solitude of his study, Wilton sat back in his cushioned chair and considered Reston's inquiries. He'd have to see what this Reston fellow was made of. An earl's younger son was about as high as Emily could hope to reach, but for her to become a countess…
It was fitting, Wilton decided, a rare smile twisting his lips. Emily was the product of rape, though legally a man could not rape his wife. Still, Wilton had forced himself on his errant wife, as brutally and as often as it had taken to get the arrogant bitch pregnant—and it had taken years. He'd relished her resistance, and relished even more the measures taken to impose himself on her. Full of fight, she'd been, and then she'd been full of his child.
Having made his point, however, he'd turned from his countess, unwilling to risk the child in further displays of marital discipline.
If Emily could be married off this year, without the fuss and bother of a Season, it would be her husband's family who bore responsibility for presenting her at court and to Society as a whole.
And if Hellerington wiggled off the hook, then other arrangements could be made for Emily's older sibling. Leah was used goods, and oddly enough, the market for used goods was more brisk than the market for their virtuous sisters. On that thought, Wilton rang for his carriage to be brought around, as a celebratory visit to the fair—and routinely vicious—Monique was in order.
"Who in their right mind has a ball on a Wednesday night? I thought Wednesday was for suppers and theatre outings." Nick directed his grumbling at Valentine, with whom he was speeding through Town in the Bellefonte coach.
"Why exactly did we jaunt out to Kent yesterday?" Val asked.
Nick smiled at his friend. "To check on my holdings, to have dinner with David and Letty, and to admire their wee addition."
Val gave a shudder Nick thought only partly feigned. "To me, a child that young does look wee, but then I think a woman must actually birth that small person, and suddenly…"
"You wonder why we're not all only children," Nick concluded the thought. "One must attribute to fathers of multiple children a certain irresistible charm, I suppose."
"Or insatiability in their spouses. You're going to make a wonderful father."
Not this again. "On the contrary, I am not going to make any kind of father at all."
"You?" Val snorted. "If anybody enjoys the activities that lead to conception, it's you. And I've yet to see the child who doesn't love you on sight."
"And yet there are no baby Nicks underfoot, are there?"
"Don't suppose you had measles?"
"I have restraint," Nick shot back. "Not as contagious, but equally effective. So how many of your sisters are we meeting tonight?"
"Probably the three youngest." Val shifted into a more upright posture on his upholstered seat. "They are the most enthusiastic about this sort of thing."
"I like your sisters," Nick said, donning his hat as the coach slowed. "They are tall, but for Lady Eve, and smarter than they want you to think they are."
"You might consider wiping that look of martyred resignation off your face," Val suggested gently. "Rather defeats the purpose of coming."
"I wish there were another way to do this." Nick looked out at the street on a sigh. "Why can't a man simply take an ad in the newspaper: prospective earl looking for a duty-countess who will forget he ever married her?"
In the first hour of dancing, Nick stood up with three wallflowers, each chosen for her height and lack of partners, before he ducked out onto the well-lit terraces for a breath of fresh air. The weather was moderate, which meant the ballroom was quickly heating up, and the well-spaced urns of hothouse flowers were losing their battle with the scent of overheated, overperfumed, underwashed humans.
"We seem destined to hide in the same places." Leah's voice drifted out of the gloom to Nick's left, and he felt a lightening of both body and mood.
"My lady." He bowed over her hand, covertly assessing her appearance in the subdued light. "At least we both hide in pleasant, well-ventilated places. How fare you?"
"Honestly?" Leah peered up at him. "I was getting slightly nauseated in there. I lost Darius after the first set and thought perhaps to find him out here."
Darius, being one of her two brothers whom Nick was quietly having investigated. "Darius should not have lost you. Shall I search the gentlemen's rooms for you?"
"Not yet," she said as he led her to a bench several dark yards off the well-lit terrace. "Dare lets me slip the leash on purpose. I see no evidence of Hellerington tonight, so Darius has relaxed his guard. You should not have sent flowers, by the way."
"You must not say such things, for I will send twice as many tomorrow."
"What do they mean?" she asked after a time. "The flowers you sent?"
"The snowdrop is for hope," Nick said, pleased she would ask. He'd chosen the bouquet carefully and visited more than one shop in the process. "The little sprig of wood sorrel is for joy, the wallflowers are for fidelity in adversity, and the lilies of the valley, as you know, are for a return to happiness."
"There was a very pretty blue flower as well." Beside him, she took a deep breath of the night air. "It reminded me of your eyes."
That was a compliment. He was sure of it, and equally sure his eyes had never received a lady's compliment before.
"Salvia," Nick said, finding himself fascinated by the rise and fall of her chest.
"It has no meaning?"
"I cannot recall at the moment." Nick shifted his gaze to the dark foliage around them. What on earth had he been thinking, sending blue salvia?
"You met with Hellerington earlier in the week?" Leah asked, leaning more closely against his side.
"I most assuredly did." Nick forced himself to attend the sense of her words rather than her scent, the pure pleasure of her voice in the darkness, or the warmth of her body next to his. "We had a delicate little exchange, with me giving him to understand I'd appreciate it if those fellows whose vowels I hold would behave in a gentlemanly fashion toward their creditors, particularly before they take on additional familial obligations."
"Did he respond to that?"
"I wish I could tell you he caught a packet for France, lovey," Nick said, "but I was firing an opening salvo, and he understood it as such. I'll next make a few pointed remarks at the club, maybe suggest something ought to be put in the betting book at your father's club, call upon the baron again, and loudly hope I need not reduce my demands to writing or perhaps seek satisfaction through other means."
Leah leaned closer still, maybe hunching in on herself but also dropping her voice to a near whisper. "What other means?"
"Typically, one offers a challenge in such a circumstance or simply beats the stuffing out of the party who's refusing to pay a debt of honor," Nick said, letting her scent come to him on the soft night air.
"Would you go that far?"
"If I say yes, you will think me a brute beast. If I say no, you will think me a bully who threatens those weaker but backs down at the first hint of risk."
She said nothing for a moment then surprised him.
"I wish I knew how to use a gun, or that I was as big and powerful as you are." Her voice was low and bitter, a tone no lady should ever have cause to adopt. Nick slipped an arm around her waist and pulled her gently against his side.
"You must allow me to be your champion. I would meet him over pistols," Nick said, nuzzling her temple, though only once and lightly. Very lightly. "I would not raise my hand to him."
"Why not?" She sank against him easily, as if she'd been waiting for him to make the first overture.
"Murder is frowned upon," Nick said, thinking it quite the pity in this case. "He's old and sick, and it wouldn't be sporting to beat the man with bare fists." Ladies needed comfort, he told himself, and Leah was very much a lady.
Before he nuzzled her again—or worse—Nick bestirred himself to pose a question to the woman tucked to his side. "What manner of brother is it who allows you to languish here in the dark with me? I want to like the man, but one does wonder."
"He's the best of brothers, but he has troubles of his own. He knows if I'm languishing, it's because I want to."
"Hmm." Nick's fingers insinuated themselves over Leah's hand. "And what if Hellerington were to appear here?"
"I'd not hesitate to scurry back to the ballroom. I know his coach. I know his scent. I know him. He's not here."
"So you can enjoy yourself with me. For this one night."
"For a single dance," Leah said. "More than that will call attention."
"I hear the musicians tuning up," Nick murmured, closing his eyes the better to feel her beside him. "I must ask for the pleasure. It's an English waltz, and they are not played often enough."
Other couples moved past them over on the path, returning to the dance floor.
"I don't want to go in."
And didn't that sentiment just flatter a fellow shamelessly?
"We'll dance out here," Nick said, rising and drawing her to her feet. "My lady." He offered her the required bow, she sank into a curtsy, and Nick led her to the wide terrace that wrapped around one side and the entire back of the ballroom. The area behind the ballroom, however, was only dimly lit and gratifyingly devoid of other people.
He drew her into waltz position then drew her just a hair closer; then, when she didn't protest or poker up, he drew her flush against his body. She melted against him, resting her cheek against his sternum, and Nick knew a sensation of gratitude so intense it physically warmed the center of his chest.
The music started, a stately triple meter that let them find each other's balance. Nick kept his steps simple and small, and then gradually relaxed as it became obvious she followed him with ease. On impulse, he folded their joined hands against his chest, and their fingers linked.
To dance with her this way was wicked, scandalous, naughty, and intoxicatingly lovely. When the music ended, Nick kept his arms around her.
"We should go in," Leah murmured.
"We should," Nick agreed, his chin resting on the top of her head. He was going to kiss her first though, even though he knew that was a bad idea and not gentlemanly of him. Dancing under the stars could qualify as a shared stolen pleasure; kissing a woman who needed his help…
Her lips brushed against his so lightly he went still, hoping she'd repeat the caress.
Bless you, Nick thought as Leah reached up to wrap a hand around the back of his neck, steadying herself for another sweet, slow sweep across his mouth.
"Lovey." Nick told himself to open his eyes, not close them. "Lamb, we shouldn't."
Another achingly gentle pressure against his lips, and Nick growled, settled his hands on her hips, and resigned himself to having one more thing to regret. For long minutes, he let her explore his features, then—bold wench—his mouth. She wasn't experienced, he could taste that easily, but she was avid, and increasingly uninhibited as Nick groaned and murmured encouragement when she came up for air.
Something else was coming up too, so Nick eased out of the kiss, resting his forehead on hers while they both caught their breath.
"You are taking advantage of me," Nick scolded. "I'm out here all unchaperoned and lonely, and you are turning my head." To his own ears, he sounded the tiniest bit sincere. "I don't want to let you go," Nick went on, his tone suggesting real regret, "but this can't serve either of us."
"It's just a kiss," Leah replied. She sounded as dazed and weak in the knees as Nick felt.
"You are stealing my lines as well as my breath," Nick muttered. He stepped back, softening the loss by smoothing a lock of her hair over her ear.
"You've used that line frequently?"
"Countless times," Nick said, hating himself but keeping his voice as light as he could. He really did not favor lying to women, no matter what that made him in their eyes.
"I wish you weren't so honest." Leah shifted back, and Nick feared she was regretting her advances.
"I wish you weren't so pretty," Nick rejoined. "I wish you had an honorable papa. Now, how about you introduce me to your negligent brother?"
He led her back around to the doors opening into the ballroom, and she even suffered his scrutiny when he made her tarry under a torch that he might inspect her presentation. Nick prided himself on being able to kiss a woman passionately without messing her hair, but had to ask her to smooth his back into place. She obliged by sifting her fingers repeatedly through his hair, until he had to straighten, clear his throat, and deliver a mental lecture to parts of him that were getting untoward ideas from even such a simple, casual caress.
End of Excerpt
This is book two of the Lonely Lords series.
Read an excerpt from book three, Ethan