This is the companion prologue for the full-length novel, The Art of Ruining a Rake
A night she’ll never forget…
Miss Lucy Lancester has loved her brother’s best friend, Roman Alexander, for as long as she can remember. So devotedly, she’s vowed never to marry anyone else. But her beloved libertine is hardly aware of her existence, and not the least deserving of her affection. Deciding her cause is lost, she makes plans to open a girls’ school in Bath. There’s just one thing she needs to do before she confirms her spinsterhood forever: spend one blissful night in Roman’s arms. But her handsome rogue isn’t ready to have the tables turned. It will take more than a coquettish smile to turn his head. She must play a game…of persuasion.
Don’t miss the full-length follow up book, The Art of Ruining a Rake
He wants her…
Practiced rake Roman Alexander never meant to seduce his best friend’s sister. He certainly never intends to do it again. The handsome scoundrel has never felt more compelled to be a better man. But the damage has been done, for his buttoned-up spinster refuses to marry a bounder like him—and maddeningly, she doesn’t seem to like him. Nevertheless, he can’t seem to forget her, or her passionate response to his kisses. How much danger could there be in one more try?
She wants revenge
Practical headmistress Lucy Lancester naively believes her charming rogue has moved on to his next conquest, leaving her free to cherish their one night together for the rest of her bluestocking days. Until the afternoon he arrives at her school intent on proving their one night together wasn’t enough—and this time, the scandal can’t be contained. Well, two can play at that. How hard can it be to ruin a rake?
[* The Naughty Girls*]
[* Novella Three*]
Extended Prologue companion for
[* _The Art of Ruining a Rake_*]
[For my readers, who wanted all the sexy details about Lucy and Roman’s affair in _]The Trouble with Being Wicked[. You ladies are insatiable!_]
The Season, 1814
MISS LUCY LANCESTER was in love with a rake. It was a truth she had accepted long ago, leaving her no reason to question it. Roman Alexander, Lord Montborne, had been a twinkle-eyed lad. He was now a handsome, libidinous charmer. Lucy’s father had been exactly such a man, and if she knew nothing else, she knew she was exactly like her mother.
With a wistful sigh for what should never be—and a shudder for what she feared was very much out of her control—Lucy turned on her heel and marched across the small bedchamber she’d been assigned.
The town house that her brother Ashlin, Lord Trestin, had let for her and her sister’s come-out in London wasn’t quite wide enough to give her real satisfaction. She required at least twice as much space to pace properly, but seeing as Trestin was taking his lessons at Gentleman Jackson’s, there was nowhere else she could go. Without Trestin to escort her through the city—streets he termed dangerous and frightening—she could do nothing more than slowly go mad, trapped inside these Chinese-papered walls.
Trapped with her thoughts of Roman.
Which were sure to drive her mad.
As mad as her mother had been?
Lucy grimaced. No, she couldn’t think of that. She had plenty to worry about without wondering if her mother’s tainted blood lurked in her veins.
Lucy’s fingers grazed her stomach; a foreboding sense of futility had put her off her luncheon. Maintaining her optimism was always most difficult when she had recently seen Roman. Though the intervening hours since Lady Ainsworth’s dinner party should have afforded her plenty of time to come to terms with what had occurred there—or not occurred, as better described last evening—the distressing fact was, she could never forget the hopeless sensation of being entirely invisible to the man she adored.
Oh, he’d nodded politely [at _]her. For that heartbeat when his eyes had locked with hers, she’d been swept into a heady fantasy wherein Roman Alexander, the man she’d loved since she’d been a girl of fifteen, had actually _seen her.
But he hadn’t really looked at her. His attention had barely slid away from the pretty young thing at his side. With shaking hands, Lucy had gripped the ivory silk of her new ball gown and bobbed him a curtsey in return. That slight movement had been enough to break the moment. He’d turned to the comely miss at his side and that had been that. He hadn’t approached Lucy later, not even to remark on the fine crush of people, and she hadn’t gone to him. When it came to her brother’s best friend, short of lifting her skirt and offering Roman a peek up it, she couldn’t expect more than a passing acknowledgment of her presence.
As she crossed her bedchamber a third time, she reminded herself that she was [_relieved _]to know Roman had no interest in her. At least she needn’t worry she’d find herself leg-shackled to a man who would show more interest in other men’s wives than his own!
Not that she ought to so much as think of Roman as husband material. Hers or anyone’s. She couldn’t fool herself into believing that Roman Alexander had any interest in settling into marriage. For if she had one iota of hope, she might set her cap at him.
She might try to marry him.
No. Roman was like her father. A rakehell, in every sense of the word. Quick to smile, quick to tease, curving his lips with some amusing secret he couldn’t be trusted to keep. A man who could turn a woman’s head at twenty paces, then dash her hopes before he even reached her. That was the man she knew. A marquis without a useful thought in his head, without a coin in his pocket that wasn’t owed.
And yet, nothing could dissuade her from wanting Roman to take notice of her. Even the fact that he was nine years her senior, faithless as a scoundrel, foppish as a popinjay and hardly aware of her existence, didn’t deter her heart.
Love was problematic that way.
And yet, that didn’t mean she didn’t crave the feeling of being seen. To be gazed at the same way Roman looked at other women…
To feel that he saw her, inside and out…
If just once he would look at her that way…If she could believe for one precious second that he knew what agony was in her heart…If she could feel him brush his hand against her waist and see the proof in his pale blue eyes that he knew she was a woman, and not just Trestin’s baby sister…
To put it bluntly, she could accept being a spinster forever after that.
But such heavenly contact required him to look at her for more than an instant. For that, she needed an occasion to be near him. Those opportunities had been few and far between—much fewer and farther between than she’d expected when she’d grudgingly agreed to make her debut in Society.
Drawing Roman’s notice had been a foolish hope. She saw that now. But sheltered on her brother’s estate in Devon, she’d naïvely believed that simply being in London at the same time as Roman would present her with plenty of occasion to turn his head.
As she’d almost managed to do not long ago, on a windswept beach near their home in Brixcombe-on-the-Bay.
Lucy curled her fingers into fists. So close. She’d been so close to making him see her. Then they’d all tromped to London and scattered to the four winds. The occasional glance across the punch bowl wasn’t going to be enough to change Roman’s view of her as a fatuous little girl.
She needed to speak with him. Challenge his opinion of her. There was more to seduction than simply staring at him across the room and hoping he’d take notice of her new gown—there must be more. Roman had his choice of pretty girls, and while Lucy didn’t consider herself ugly, she was undeniably unremarkable. With her rail-thin frame, black hair, slanting eyes and sharp nose, she was realistic enough to know she would never be mistaken for an English rose.
To set herself apart, she must get under his skin. But she couldn’t needle him if she couldn’t come within arm’s length of him. She braced her hands on the window frame and stared down into the quiet street. If only her brother had shown any interest in escorting her and Delilah about! Trestin and Roman had been the closest of friends since boyhood. Roman would surely grace his old chum with his presence, should they find themselves trapped at the same entertainments. And though Lucy and Trestin were rarely in accord, she could hold her tongue while Roman was present, if it meant seeing the marquis.
If it meant him seeing her.
But Trestin almost never attended the balls and soirees her sponsor and second cousin, Lady Ditsworth, chose for her and Delilah. Lucy glared at the unknown couple walking arm in arm down the cobbled street below her. After all the years her brother had harped on the importance of marriage, she’d finally agreed to make her debut, solely because she’d come to realize if she didn’t at least pretend to search for a husband, Trestin would never search for a wife.
And he must marry, or she’d go mad. He needed someone to distract him from his perceived responsibility of caring for his two adult sisters. Yet since their arrival, he’d steadfastly declined to partake of the Season, and he wasn’t likely to find a fiancée at the bottom of a brandy snifter.
She eased her grip on the window ledge. She didn’t need to understand men to see her brother was miserable. But he was lonely, and he needed to marry. For seven years he’d dedicated his life to the two girls he’d inherited as wards after the sudden and horrific deaths of their mother and father. But as Lucy approached her twenty-fifth birthday and Delilah reached her majority, it was long past time for them to become their own women.
And for their overbearing brother to take a wife.
Trestin’s nuptials seemed unlikely to come about anytime soon. Not only did he secrete himself away, rather than escort Lucy and Delilah to the parties where eligible young ladies hung on the edges of the room in the hopes a man exactly like him would sweep them off their feet, he wasn’t in a mood to fall in love at all. For Trestin had recently had his hopes for matrimony dashed when the woman he had been courting in Brixcombe had turned out not to be the genteel spinster she’d presented herself as, but a prominent courtesan.
Lucy was still shocked by the revelation. Never in her life had she expected to come face-to-face with a lightskirt, especially not in sleepy Brixcombe. Truth to tell, she was more intrigued by Miss Smythe’s former occupation than appalled. But Trestin…
Trestin was furious. It was little wonder he’d taken up the sport of pugilism upon arriving in London. She’d never seen her brother so angry—or hurt—as he was at Miss Smythe’s deception.
A glance at the sun above her told Lucy it would be hours yet before he returned from his afternoon bout at Gentleman Jackson’s. She dug her nails deeper into the wooden ledge. It was all well and good for him to be—at last—developing pursuits that didn’t include her or Delilah. His obsession with protecting their reputations following their parents’ scandalous demise had nearly driven Lucy to fisticuffs, herself.
But why must his sudden decision to expand his interests coincide with his plan to launch his sisters into Society? Especially when neither girl had wanted to be paraded on the London Marriage Mart in the first place, seeing as both women were already in love with men from Devon.
Unsuitable men, perhaps. But then, love was problematic that way.
That didn’t mean Lucy didn’t want to see the city. They were here, they ought to be about! Taking in the Museum, the parks, Pall Mall, Westminster, Carlton House. Vauxhall, to be sure, though of course she’d rather see that spectacular sight at night.
Trestin would never let her go to such a scandalous place after dark.
She clenched her teeth at the notion. What was the point in him forcing her to London if she wasn’t to see more of it than certain approved matrons’ ballrooms? And what was the chance she’d capture Roman’s interest at any of those insipid and heavily chaperoned events?
None. None at all. And yet, Trestin didn’t concern himself with this fact, as he would never consider his best friend respectable, let alone a suitable prospect for one of his precious sisters.
Certainly the smarter route, she admonished herself. She wasn’t looking for a husband. Especially not one like her father, who would drive even a sane woman to lunacy. No, if she couldn’t have Roman without fearing for her heart and her mind, she’d remain unmarried forever.
A prospect she didn’t shy away from, not exactly, for if she succeeded in establishing a girls’ boarding school as she meant to do, she could happily preside over her own household for the rest of her bluestocking days.
What she wanted…what she needed…was for Roman to need her.
She ran her hands down the length of the white muslin dress marking her debutante status. Roman was drawn to the type of women who wore jewel-toned gowns: widows, wives, courtesans.
Those innocent misses who did manage to gain his attention often ended in ruin; Roman had caused enough scandal that he ought to have traveled the Continent no less than three times, leaving the gossip to cool behind him.
But Roman didn’t go to France when he caused a scandal. He ran to Devon. And so another girl’s misery had always meant Lucy’s joy—however unkind that sounded. For until now, Lucy had never come to London, and Roman rarely went home unless something untoward had occurred.
She stopped suddenly. Dear Zeus, she must cease dithering. This was her chance. If she didn’t succeed in capturing his attention this Season, she never would.
She crossed her arms beneath her breasts and resumed pacing. It must be now. The only way she could move forward with her plan to establish her girls’ school and begin her life as a bookish, respectable headmistress was to sate her illogical and ill-advised longing for Roman’s attentions.
Illogical, but also instructional. Wasn’t it? For how could she think to guide young ladies through womanhood if she’d never experienced it, herself?
Her entire life, she’d lived by Trestin’s rules. Abided by them as closely as she could stomach. How did she purport to teach her girls to think for themselves if she’d never done so? How could she advise her charges to evade the lure of the forbidden, if she didn’t know what was being prohibited?
She pressed her hand to her heart. That day on the beach she’d seen a flash of something lucid in Roman’s eyes. Awareness, she’d thought. It had come and gone quickly, as fleeting as the moment.
But it hadn’t been random. Miss Smythe, the retired courtesan who’d purchased the small cottage abutting Trestin’s estate, had given Lucy a word of advice just before the men had descended upon them. She’d said Lucy must allow Roman to play the gallant. An admonition against Lucy’s bullish assertion of independence, as she usually behaved in his presence.
That simple bit of instruction had caused Roman to treat Lucy as a lady for the first time since she’d come of age. He’d helped her into the rowboat chivalrously, gripping her hands firmly between his, inquiring after her comfort solicitously. He’d made her laugh in spite of her nervousness. Not once had he made a teasing remark about her coltishness, or chided her for her country naïveté.
Lucy leaned over the windowsill in her bedchamber, as if she could see all the way to St James. Miss Smythe, too, had come to the city.
She was just a few streets away.
Lucy gripped the wooden window box, considering. Miss Smythe knew Roman. Everyone, it seemed, knew the marquis. But as a lady of the night, Miss Smythe knew him well. They’d been friends. More importantly, she knew what tricks drew a man’s attention.
Specifically, she knew what drew Roman’s[_ _]attention.
A thrill bubbled through Lucy. Trestin would never approve of her speaking to Miss Smythe, let alone calling at her house in Town. He certainly wouldn’t approve of Lucy’s harebrained idea to seduce Roman into yearning, or perhaps more.
But then, Trestin wasn’t here to disapprove of it, was he?
Oh, Hades take his rules! After the Season ended, she intended to become her own woman, anyhow. If Trestin caught her plotting with a lightskirt, so be it. If he learned of her need for Roman to take notice of her, splendid. She could think of no worse punishment than never feeling the weight of Roman’s regard.
Perhaps Roman would even kiss her.
She let herself imagine pressing her lips to his perfect, masculine mouth for just a fraction too long. Then she straightened her shoulders and pushed the daydream away. Whatever the outcome, whatever the risks, they would be worth everything if afterward, her sanity returned and she could begin her life without the distraction of her bittersweet, unrequited, infuriating infatuation.
Lucy marched to her wardrobe where her carefully considered trousseau hung in neat, orderly lines. Trestin hadn’t been able to afford dozens of dresses for her like some debutantes received, but he’d provided Lucy credit enough to purchase two ball gowns, a walking dress, a carriage dress, and a new morning gown. As chatelaine of his household accounts, she understood what they had cost him, and she appreciated his sacrifice—even if she would have preferred to take the money in the form of an investment in her school, rather than an unnecessary trousseau.
But… She did adore London fashions.
She trailed her fingertips along the silk, muslin and wool dress sleeves and reached for her bonnet. Ringing for her maid was entirely out of the question. For her visit to Miss Smythe, she’d wear the prim morning dress she’d already donned, rather than change into a frock more befitting an audience with a notorious courtesan. After all, the last thing she needed was for her brother to learn she’d stepped out after he’d expressly forbidden her from leaving the house unchaperoned.
Especially considering all the other rules she meant to break.
After tying her freshly re-ribboned bonnet beneath her chin, Lucy tiptoed to peer inside her sister’s bedchamber door.
Delilah, a strikingly pretty miss of almost two and twenty, sat hunched over her writing desk. Her pen flew across the page, leaving crowded, inky lines in its wake. Another letter to Mr. Conley, no doubt. Lucy slipped past the open door, no longer fearing being caught by her sister. Once Delilah began composing a missive to the forbidden beau she’d left behind in Devon, she was lost to the rest of the world.
Without further ado and allowing herself no qualms, Lucy exited the town house and went down the steps to the walk. She turned in the direction of St James.
This wasn’t the first time she’d considered calling on Miss Smythe. Merely the first time she’d found the conviction to do so. After overhearing her brother and Roman discussing the woman’s scandalous origins, Lucy had sneaked into Trestin’s library and hunted for the documents of sale that had transferred ownership of the old dower house to Miss Smythe—Miss Celeste Gray in actuality, for the name she’d given them all was assumed.
Lucy had scribbled the St James address onto a scrap of paper and tucked it into her bodice just in time for Trestin’s return.
She didn’t need the foolscap today. She’d rehearsed the direction of Miss Gray’s house a dozen times in her mind. Just as she’d rehearsed what she meant to say to the famed courtesan once she was inside. She savored the burst of hope that swelled in her breast, for if anyone knew how to draw Roman’s attention, it was Celeste.
And if anyone could understand why Lucy must do it…
It was her brother’s spurned sweetheart.
After a quarter hour’s walk, Lucy reached the smart-looking terraced homes that housed London’s demimondaines. Lucy drew a deep breath and stepped up to rap on the door. Barely a moment passed before it was opened by the most frightening man she’d ever seen. He looked down on her critically, as though assessing the threat she might pose to the mistress of the house.
Lucy braced herself and raised her chin, refusing to be cowed before she’d even begun. The man settled his beefy arms across his chest and continued to regard her mutely. He was colossal even for a prizefighter—not that Lucy was accustomed to measuring up prizefighters, but the manservant blocking the doorway with his massive shoulders could easily have crushed a man’s skull in his fist.
When she opened her school, she must remember to hire a manservant who could scare away a villain with one curled lip.
“’Tis early yet,” he announced without preamble.
Was it? But then she remembered Miss Gray likely kept late hours.
“Please, sir,” she replied in a brisk, efficient tone, “I would like to be received as soon as can be managed. I haven’t the freedom to return at a later hour. Tell your mistress I’ve come, and let her decide whether she will see me or not.”
Without budging, the stone-faced sentry flicked his eyes over Lucy’s person. “Who are you?”
Lucy cleared her throat and stood taller. “Miss Lancester, sir.” She wasn’t entirely certain why she was “sir’ing” a servant, but it seemed appropriate.
Really, she must hire on a man like this for her school.
No sooner had she given her name than the servant pulled himself upright. His barrel-shaped chest puffed as the door opened wider. He stepped back and waved her in. “Miss Lancester! Come in.”
Lucy hid her surprise. Now this was intriguing. The man must be aware of Trestin, or else why would he have snapped to attention at the sound of her surname?
But she said nothing about it as she entered the foyer. It shouldn’t surprise her to learn he was familiar with her brother. Miss Gray’s domestics had returned with her from Devon, leaving her little stone cottage empty. Just because this man hadn’t been in the countryside didn’t mean he didn’t know what had transpired.
Faster than Lucy would have thought possible given his size, the burly man whisked in front of her. He led her into a sitting room done up in a bold saffron yellow, his expression guarded despite the speed with which he settled her on the crimson-colored couch in the center of the room.
He departed, presumably to notify his mistress, and Lucy kept her expression carefully composed as she took in a room that was anything but staid. Two additional red chairs splashed across the space, accenting the yellow walls and the Spanish landscape hanging over the mantel. Wrought iron frames accented the decor, giving the room a distinctly Italian feel.
A deliciously worldly feel. No wonder Trestin was in love with her. Miss Gray was vivid. Alive. Just like Lucy wanted to become.
Finally, the renowned courtesan peeked into the room, as though unsure whether she would really find Lucy sitting in her front parlor.
Lucy sat up straighter. Suddenly, she was nervous. If anyone learned of her call today, she would be ruined. And if Trestin learned of it, she’d be locked up.
What frightened her most, however, was the thought of Miss Gray rejecting her request for help.
Miss Gray stepped gracefully into the room, her poise almost regal. Lucy rose. She could do this. Asking a favor of another female shouldn’t give her heart palpitations.
Requesting that an illustrious consort advise her in the tricks of lovemaking might justify a small tremor, however.
“Miss Smythe!” Lucy said, bungling the woman’s name in her nervousness. “I mean, Miss Gray.”
Miss Gray faltered, flinching visibly. Lucy felt her cheeks heat. Miss Gray likely needed no additional reminders of the unpleasantness that had been her time in Devon. Foolish, foolish mistake.
“Miss Lancester.” Miss Gray enunciated the syllables slowly, seeming to choose her words with care. “I am pleasantly surprised to see you, but surely you shouldn’t be here.” A frown creased her brow.
The vast understatement gave Lucy hope. Miss Gray might be an Impolite, but she was still too polite to toss Lucy out on her ear.
Lucy walked forward and held out her hands. “He’ll never know,” she reassured Miss Gray, clasping the other woman’s hands. On impulse, she pulled the courtesan in for a quick hug. There had been a time when Lucy, too, had believed their neighbor to be simple Miss Smythe, and they’d become tentative friends of a sorts, until Trestin had learned the truth and separated them. “It’s so nice to see you again.”
Miss Gray didn’t return Lucy’s spontaneous embrace. Rather, she stepped back and pulled Lucy onto the red sofa.
“It’s wonderful to see you, too,” Miss Gray said uneasily, leaving no doubt she’d never expected to see Lucy again after Devon, let alone inside her house of ill repute. The tenuous friendship they’d formed had clearly been tainted by Trestin’s harsh treatment of her.
It might require time for her to warm to and trust Lucy again.
In a way, Lucy was glad of the hesitant, awkward greeting. Miss Gray wasn’t always confident and poised, then. She could be shaken. And if she was not a goddess, but a human woman, surely that meant Lucy, too, could learn the art of sensuality.
Miss Gray patted Lucy’s hand tentatively, visibly acclimating herself to the sudden surprise appearance of her former beau’s younger sister.
“How is your Season faring?” she asked after a time, seeming to decide she would visit with Lucy after all.
The perfect opening for the subject Lucy had come to discuss. “Not my Season, you know. Trestin is the one on the Marriage Mart, though he prefers to pretend it’s Delilah and me. Not that Delilah is husband-hunting, either. My dear sister cannot stop pining for Mr. Conley. She’s quite withdrawn.”
“Poor Trestin,” Miss Gray murmured, her skin turning almost translucent as the color left her cheeks.
Lucy instantly felt contrite, again. What was she blabbering on about? She ought not to have mentioned Trestin, when all she’d meant to explain was that she wasn’t looking for a husband, for she was quite in love with Roman.
She certainly hadn’t intended to cause the other woman misery.
She forced herself to laugh, though she felt gauche for putting her slipper in her mouth. “Poor me! Trestin is a hound with a bone. He has some misguided opinion I would make the perfect cleric’s wife. Where he got that notion, I have no idea. I detest the church. The more left unsaid on that the better, though I vow you will not judge me for it.”
Miss Gray’s brow crinkled. Once again, Lucy winced at her faux pas. Had she truly rehearsed this tête-à-tête before coming? It had all sounded much better in her head.
She leaned forward, squeezing Miss Gray’s frigid hands. She needed to say one right thing before she bungled her visit entirely. “There are only two things I want in this life and I know you can help me with one.”
Miss Gray’s fingers attempted to slip Lucy’s grip, but Lucy held tighter as her former co-conspirator looked at her with skepticism.
Lucy steeled herself, then said, “Teach me how to seduce Roman Alexander.”
Miss Gray’s green eyes went wide with shock. “Your brother would kill me!”
Lucy’s heart pounded in her throat. She wasn’t sure when her objective had changed from a few heated looks to full-on seduction, but now that she’d said the words, her entire being sprang to life. She wanted to feel Roman. To touch him, to taste him, and yes, to see him look at her with naked desire.
Please, Zeus, Miss Gray couldn’t refuse her. If she did, all hope was lost. Lucy would never have another chance to know what pleasures he could bring her.
“He’ll never know,” Lucy assured her coyly, with more confidence than she felt. “Why would I tell him?”
When Miss Gray continued to gawp at her in horror, Lucy smiled as if they shared a lovely secret—as they very much did, now. “I have a dream of starting a girls’ school, you know. All very proper. This shall be my last hurrah. I trust you can do this, Miss Gray.”
Miss Gray stared mutely, clearly dumbfounded by Lucy’s request.
Lucy tried to see herself from Miss Gray’s point of view. She was asking a woman with no reputation to risk one that was unblemished. She must think Lucy mad.
It didn’t hit far from the mark.
Lucy released Miss Gray’s hands and rose. Calmly, appearing far calmer than she felt, she took in the graceful ironwork decorating the room like an Italian palazzo. “You worked magic for me that day on the shore,” she said, referring to the outing that had ended—most unfortunately—in Trestin’s scathing rebuke of the woman he’d come to admire. “Roman had never spared me a glance before and hasn’t since.”
Miss Gray blinked once, as though taken aback.
Before she could cut in with an objection, Lucy continued, “Oh, I know I’m not the type to catch his eye, but that’s where you come in. You were friends once, weren’t you? Until he didn’t approve of your interest in my brother. Well, of course he didn’t.” Lucy decided not to mince words, for the reason that she’d come to Miss Gray rather than anyone else was contained inside one simple statement of fact. “You’re a courtesan.”
Miss Gray’s lips parted. “How old are you again?”
Lucy laughed, this time truthfully. There was indeed something liberating about being with Miss Gray. She possessed an aura of having seen and done everything, an atmosphere that tempted a person to speak openly, even about subjects that would otherwise be forbidden. As if, just because Miss Gray had given herself to licentiousness, Lucy had permission to do so, as well.
Miss Gray seemed to have gained control of her thoughts. She sat up straighter and frowned. “Absolutely not. You’re too young, too innocent, and you have far too bright of a future ahead of you. I won’t usher your ruination.”
“I’m four and twenty. Firmly on the shelf. Who will ever know I seduced my brother’s best friend?”
Miss Gray’s eyes widened. “Everyone!”
Lucy tsked, for while there were many risks to her plan, this was not one of them. “Come now, Roman isn’t going to shout it out for all and sundry. That’s the fastest way to the parson’s trap. He’s certainly not going to tell my brother. Trestin is a crack shot. It will be a secret only the three of us know.”
“A ridiculously innocent notion,” Miss Gray replied, rebuking her sharply. “Men talk. Especially him. Look how well he kept my secret.”
The volley hit its mark. Roman had been the only one in Devon who’d known of Miss Gray’s past, and he hadn’t been able to keep it to himself. Lucy had heard him tell Trestin the truth that day on the beach. It was one of the many conversations meant for gentlemen’s ears she’d eavesdropped on over the years, especially when those conversations involved Roman.
He’d meant well, she was sure. He’d had Trestin’s best interests at heart. But Miss Gray had lost the new life she’d begun building in Brixcombe-on-the-Bay, and Trestin had become a maudlin, withdrawn wreck. All because Roman hadn’t understood how easy it was to fall in love with someone unsuitable. A terrible complication Lucy knew only too well.
Yet she couldn’t let Miss Gray’s dashed hopes interfere with her own future. “I’m well aware Roman is a horrible gossip. But I promise you, he will not want to risk it.”
Miss Gray paused before she said, “Much can be deduced from very little.” Then she rose and approached Lucy. “How exactly did you find me?”
Lucy clasped her hands before her in a picture of gentility. “A lady never reveals her sources.” She glanced at her hands demurely, though she couldn’t contain a small, satisfied smile. If Miss Gray knew the extent to which she’d gone to investigate her brother’s would-be wife, she might think Lucy completely without scruples.[_ And she would be correct._]
“The answer is no.” Miss Gray’s tone was final.
Lucy relinquished her guiltless expression with a roll of her eyes. “Oh, very well.” Raising her linked hands to her bosom, she spun to face the window. She wouldn’t explain how she’d come to find Miss Gray’s direction, for her methods were devious, even for her. But she did wish to explain how she’d come to learn Miss Gray’s secret. “If you must know, I overheard Trestin and Roman arguing that day on the shore. The pieces came together. Our father was a profligate, as I’m sure you’re aware. Trestin loathes any reminder of Father, and that includes his feelings for you. I’m afraid he doesn’t understand love, Miss Gray, but he will.”
She sighed, feeling terribly sad for her misguided, moral compass of a brother. “For the last seven years, he’s kept the concept pure and perfect in his heart, believing that if my parents had loved each other with a pure, perfect innocence, Father would never have had mistresses and Mother would never have shot him for it. But they did love each other. I remember them clearly.”
A shiver passed through Lucy, unbidden.
She turned, drawing a breath. “I apologize for what I’m about to say, Miss Gray, but you need to understand why I came. After witnessing my brother’s melancholy, I’m even more adamant to have a night in Roman’s arms. I want to live. I fear I will never have another chance.”
Almost imperceptibly, Miss Gray leaned forward. Worry clouded her eyes. “Trestin is hurting?” Her voice sounded strained.
Lucy flinched inwardly. She ought not to have let that slip. What if she’d given Miss Gray hope, when he hadn’t changed his mind, not at all?
“Not anymore,” Lucy hedged. “I am sorry about that.”
Miss Gray glanced away, making Lucy feel terribly for lying. Lucy did wish she could improve her brother’s opinion of the beautiful, fun-loving woman. She’d love nothing more than to see Miss Gray and Trestin carefree and happy again, as they’d been in Brixcombe. But it wasn’t in her power to convince Trestin to return to Miss Gray, and she certainly couldn’t promise her brother was thinking about it. Only he could decide when and if he would admit he’d been a horse’s arse.
Lucy approached Miss Gray and gave her hand a squeeze, wanting to comfort her, yet reluctant to betray assumptions about her brother’s change of heart. “Won’t you help me?”
Miss Gray looked up with wide, sorrowful eyes. After a time, she seemed to set aside her raw emotions for Trestin. She swallowed thickly. “How can I? You wish to seduce my friend. I cannot be a part of that.”
Were she and Roman still friends? Lucy wanted to ask the question, but surely she’d probed enough. Perhaps Miss Gray did still feel some loyalty for the rogue who’d cost her everything. She seemed a kindhearted sort.
“It is nothing less than he deserves,” Lucy said, reminding Miss Gray of the pain he’d caused her and alluding to the many innocents he’d ruined and abandoned. Certainly, Roman had proven he could extricate himself from a sticky situation. He would escape unscathed from her seduction, as well.
Miss Gray rested a fist against her belly and walked to the window. After a moment, she asked, “What if the other young ladies were just as calculating as you’re being? Perhaps he hasn’t ruined anyone at all. Rumors are often unfounded.”
“I don’t know for sure that he’s deflowered any virgins,” Lucy admitted, though if just one third of the accusations were correct, he was guilty of at least one seduction. “But I’m certain he’s raised expectations only to dash them at the last minute. He falls in and out of love like he changes cravats.” She paused. “Roman has a bundle of cravats.”
It was her attempt to lighten the mood, but Miss Gray wasn’t swayed, not yet. She turned back to Lucy. “You’re sure you have no use for your maidenhead? An innocent like you, with a dowry and a brother determined to see you wed?”
And therein lay the problem. The only two people who cared about her maidenhead were her brother and his paramour. In the last few minutes, she’d concluded she was more than willing to trade it for a night in Roman’s arms.
“Trestin loves me, really, he does, but if he knew anything about me he’d help me charter a school instead of pressing me to marry.” Lucy shook her head, then set her shoulders back and looked at the one person who could help her achieve her every desire. “The trouble is, I’m in love with a man who would make a terrible husband, and yet I don’t want to marry anyone else. I will have him once, because I cannot bear not to have him at all.” Her voice wavered. “It shall have to be enough for a lifetime.”
Miss Gray’s lower lip trembled, mirroring Lucy’s sense of futility. Was she regretting not seducing Trestin, before he’d learned of her past?
Lucy waited, sensing her victory was close, yet too anxious to hope she would receive the answer she longed to hear.
Finally, Miss Gray shook her head. “I’ll teach you how to draw Roman’s interest if you’ll promise two things,” she said softly, her green gaze shuttering.
Lucy could barely hide her thrill of success. She’d done it! She could scarcely believe Miss Gray was capitulating. “Anything, Miss Gray. Name it and it’s done.”
Miss Gray raised her index finger to count off her stipulations. “You will seduce only Roman.”
Lucy nodded eagerly. That much she could easily promise. “I want no other man in my bed.”
Miss Gray smiled wanly. Then she seemed to straighten, as if the thought of her next request buoyed her. She held up a second finger. “Two: You must allow me to be your school’s anonymous benefactress. I want to sponsor ten charity girls each year in addition to shouldering the costs we cannot cover with the paying girls’ tuition.”
Oh! Miss Gray wanted to help with the school? After months of failing to gain support from Trestin, this was more than Lucy had ever dreamed—Miss Gray was one of the wealthiest women in London.
When Lucy’s mouth opened to exclaim over the offer, Miss Gray pressed, “I insist.”
“I’D LIKE THE school to be established by the end of the Season,” Lucy said as they entered Miss Gray’s study. “That way, Trestin cannot twist my arm and wrangle another Season out of me.”
“It will require time to go through the details,” Miss Gray cautioned, causing Lucy to bristle behind her. But then, Miss Gray could have no idea that before Lucy had traveled from Devon she’d tucked two leather-bound volumes of carefully thought-out strategies for managing the school into her valise.
Miss Gray went to a wall of shelves crammed with books of all sizes. Lucy scanned the rows and quickly realized there were no sentimental novels or books of poetry here. Even the Classics were missing. Rather, ledgers and maps and travelogues were wedged together, many with silk strips of ribbon marking their pages.
“Have you been to all these places?” Lucy plucked a book of navigational maps from the shelf and let it fall open. An ocean dotted by softly curving islands caught her attention first. “Hmm, I think not, unless you were a pirate at one time.”
“I haven’t seen half the places I’d like, but yes, most of these I’ve collected along the way.” Miss Gray announced her world travels with the indifference of a woman to whom traveling was commonplace, rather than impossible.
Lucy reluctantly closed the map and pushed the book back into its place on the shelf, her gloved fingertips trailing the spine as she slowly turned to look at the small office with new eyes. Miss Gray wasn’t just a woman who understood the pain of unrequited affection. She was fully independent, a consummate businesswoman who had become outrageously wealthy selling a commodity she had cultivated and marketed herself.
Miss Gray pried a volume from between two larger books and took it to her desk. “The last time I counted, I’ve only been to six countries,” she said with a very Continental shrug.
Lucy suddenly felt as though she were in the presence of greatness. “My goodness! And you came to our little town, too. What could possibly have brought you there?”
Miss Gray slid into her chair and opened the map book across her desk. If she was aware of Lucy’s awe, she didn’t show it. “I’d rather not divulge the reason. Rarely do I act without gain in mind and that is all that needs to be said.” She looked hard at Lucy. “You should know what manner of woman you’ve aligned yourself with.”
Lucy couldn’t have been more pleased with Miss Gray’s direct, sensible response. “Someone exactly like myself?”
Miss Gray’s lips quirked, but to Lucy’s approval, she quickly recovered and righted the map spread open before her so that it lay crisp and straight. “Very well then, Miss Lancester—”
“Please, call me Lucy.” At Miss Gray’s sharp look, she hastened to add, “We are partners now, you and I.”
Miss Gray frowned. Lucy held herself still, refusing to betray her uncertainty. Perhaps she’d pushed too far. They had been acquaintances in Devon, two fiercely independent women who chafed at her brother’s stern sense of propriety. But Lucy couldn’t pretend they’d known each other well.
Finally, Miss Gray nodded. “Lucy, then.”
Miss Gray turned the page mechanically, as if not really seeing it. Not inviting Lucy to do the same and call her Celeste.
Lucy tried not to feel discouraged. In time, surely Miss Gray would realize she did not have the same prejudices as her brother.
Miss Gray set the book aside. “I have one more condition. I will handle the financial part of this arrangement, and you must have a care with your reputation. Your character is the critical element of this scheme and it is on tenterhooks as it is, given the scandal in your parents’ past. Without students we have no income.”
Lucy hadn’t expected that. Again, her estimation of Miss Gray rose. Mayhap Miss Gray did pine for Trestin, but she clearly wasn’t the sort to let her emotions distract her from business.
Fortunately, Lucy had no intention of making her seduction of Roman public. Especially if it would jeopardize her school, which, certainly, such a scandal would. She waved away Miss Gray’s concern. “Fair enough.”
Seemingly mollified, Miss Gray pulled the map book back to the center of the table. “Now, did you have a location in mind for the school?”
For the next hour they debated the merits of Bath over Brighton. Lucy regretted not coming armed with her notes, for Miss Gray was shrewd and asked questions Lucy had already carefully researched, but to which she couldn’t recall the answers. She didn’t like feeling disadvantaged, especially when she believed she was right.
When Miss Gray’s lumbering manservant, Mr. Gordo, summoned them to tea, Miss Gray pointed out the time. “Won’t Trestin be looking for you?”
“Not until it’s time to go calling.” Lucy was too busy trying to remember her notes from memory to worry about Trestin. She leaned over the list of expenses they needed to consider before approaching other investors. “Besides, he’s at Jackson’s now. He won’t notice my absence for another few hours.”
But he would notice, eventually. Which meant she did need to set aside the school for now, if she was to learn how to intrigue Roman before dinner.
The only subject she liked to meditate on more than her school was the marquis.
An hour later, after certain key decisions had been made, Lucy was eager to address the real reason she’d come. “Do you think we’ve done enough honest work for the day? I’d like to begin my introduction to the ways of the demimonde, if you please.”
Miss Gray blinked. “You needn’t be a courtesan to seduce Roman.” Her tone said she hadn’t agreed to that at all.
Well, perhaps that hadn’t been the initial plan, true enough. But now that Lucy had seen Miss Gray’s immense success for herself, she fancied knowing how Miss Gray had accomplished it. It seemed logical that poise, confidence and independence of thought would serve Lucy well as headmistress. Not to mention, she had nary a chance of succeeding with Roman if he didn’t see her as a desirable woman, rather than a child.
“Everyone knows he prefers the company of Cyprians.” Lucy set her quill down. “It’s where he goes after the proper balls have concluded.”
Miss Gray visibly hesitated. Lucy wished she hadn’t pressed. Miss Gray couldn’t renege. There was no one else who could possibly instruct her—certainly, no one else who would do so discreetly.
“I want to know everything!” Lucy burst out, unable to rein in her impatience.
A wry smile touched Miss Gray’s lips. “That’s what I’m afraid of.”
Lucy sat up straighter, bolstered. “Perhaps if we had wine…” Wine always seemed to loosen her tongue. It might do the same for Miss Gray.
Miss Gray glanced again at the clock. “At one o’clock?”
“Surely it can only help?”
Flashing Lucy an exasperated look, Miss Gray rose and went to the bellpull. Carefully, Lucy kept her feeling of victory to herself.
Miss Gray rang, then beckoned Lucy. Obediently, she stood and followed her teacher from the small office to a large, airy room at the front of the house.
A shocking room.
Floor-to-ceiling red satin covered three of the four walls. Afternoon sunlight caused it to shine, but at night the fabric would catch velvety shadows. The atrium ceiling soared above a second-floor gallery with a wrought iron railing. Chairs were pulled up to the balustrade, a bowl of opera glasses placed on a table, as if inviting onlookers.
“Oh, my,” Lucy said, twirling to take in the entire display. On the far wall, an explicit mural depicted a well-attended saturnalia. “Oh, my, oh, my. This is…” Feeling for a nearby chair with one hand, she sat. “Oh, my.”
Pillows were strewn about the carpets on the floor. Aside from the chair she occupied, there were just a few scattered seats, including a brown fainting couch Lucy could all too easily imagine had been put to carnal use.
It must have been Miss Gray’s intent to scandalize her with the implications of this room.
It had worked.
But she wouldn’t allow herself to be persuaded into thinking she’d fallen in over her head. Especially not when she was intrigued, just as much as her maidenly sensibilities were offended.
A marble statue caught her attention. “She’s beautiful,” Lucy breathed, rising to see the proud woman up close. Even without clothing, the lady’s power was evident. It was there in the brazen, inviting look she cast over her shoulder.
A silent, shadowy movement caused Lucy to turn just as Mr. Gordo set a silver tray on one of the mattress-like cushions covering the floor.
When they were alone again, Miss Gray curled a finger at Lucy. “Come.” The courtesan dropped onto the mattress. A pale hand slid over the fabric of her dress, outlining the shape of her knee as it glided toward her calf. The gown was made of cotton, not silk, yet Miss Gray’s caress made it seem otherwise.
Lucy’s breath caught. As Miss Gray’s fingertips reached her ankle, she very deliberately turned the hem of her gown to show a peek of the white lace lining her underskirt, then flashed a view of her stockinged ankle. Lucy gasped.
“Now you do it,” Miss Gray murmured in a voice that slid down the back of Lucy’s neck.
Instinctively, Lucy wanted to say she couldn’t. Admitting as much, however, would prove Miss Gray right. Instead, she drew a breath and sank to the cushion. Awkwardly, she trailed her hand across her knee and down her leg to the top of her walking boot. Unlike Miss Gray’s slippers, her sturdy boot encased her ankle, but she supposed it was the spirit that mattered. She gave a saucy flip of her skirt, then grinned at Miss Gray. “Next?”
Miss Gray raised a brow. Without a word, she turned and absorbed herself with pouring the wine.
Lucy reached for the block of cheese and a knife. As she jabbed into the cheese, she asked, “Do you really wish to leave all this behind?”
Miss Gray didn’t answer immediately. Again Lucy reminded herself that whatever friendship they’d formed in Devonshire had been tarnished by Trestin’s repudiation. She must be patient and allow Miss Gray to warm to her again.
“I’m not sure I can,” Miss Gray said at last. “I’m not sure I want to. I’m not sure of anything except that something must change.” Her gaze fell to the cup in her hands. Quickly, she raised it to her lips.
As if fortified, she raised one hand to indicate the room. “I’m old,” Miss Gray declared. “Too old for this.”
Lucy stopped sawing at the hard cheese block and looked up. The breathtaking enchantress seated across from her couldn’t have been much more than thirty years of age. “Please do not say such hideous things. If you’re old, then I’m very nearly old, and where does that leave us?”
Miss Gray frowned. She reached for one of the cheese wedges. “I’m not sure. Can a former courtesan become a spinster?”
“Is there a clause saying spinsters must be virgins?”
“Perhaps those are old maids,” Miss Gray said, a twinkle coming into her eye at last.
Lucy half-laughed, half-snorted. When Miss Gray smiled in return, Lucy’s breath caught. It felt like an achievement to have broken through the woman’s reticence. And what a lovely smile, too! This was the carefree, confident woman she remembered from the country.
Suddenly, Lucy had three goals in life: Seduce Roman, open her school, and bring Miss Gray and Trestin back together.
Lucy reached for the wine decanter. “I’m going to pretend you didn’t say that. Now, you’re too old to attract a man? Bosh. My brother fell head over heels for you the minute he saw you.”
Miss Gray allowed her wineglass to be refilled. “Rusticating in the country limited his options. He wouldn’t have looked twice at me in London.”
“Younger men enjoy older women,” Lucy reasoned, refusing to believe her brother would have been swept away as quickly by a proper, eligible miss as he’d been by Miss Gray. Helpfully, and because she couldn’t resist saying his name aloud, she added, “Roman kept a mistress twice his age when he was twenty.”
“Perhaps it’s me,” Miss Gray said, grimacing. “Perhaps I am simply not attracted to young men anymore.”
“Trestin is younger.”
Miss Gray gifted Lucy with another exasperated smile. “Your astuteness is wearing.” Then she placed her wineglass on the tray and brushed crumbs of cheese from her skirt. “If I don’t occupy you one way, you’ll think of other ways to entertain yourself. Why don’t we try something simple? Here, finish up, and we will use the mirror.”
“But I don’t see a mirror—Oh.”
Miss Gray inched over and tugged at a satin sheet covering a large mirror propped against the wall. As it was unveiled, it glinted in the sunlight. The entire room was visible in the reflection, though Lucy suspected it wasn’t placed there to make the room seem larger.
She let Miss Gray grab her hand and pull her onto her knees so that they knelt side-by-side. No two women could look more different: Miss Gray with her luminous, peach-colored complexion, burnished red hair, and generous bosom, looked radiant even with her hair pulled back into a simple knot. Lucy was merely ordinary beside her. Black hair, brown eyes, spindly arms and small breasts that could easily fit into her own palms. It wouldn’t matter if she wore bloodred silk; she would always be plain.
“Lesson one,” Miss Gray said in Lucy’s ear, “unless you have overly displayed your bosom, a man looks at your face first. Then his gaze travels. After he has perused you once, he does so again, this time in reverse. For this reason a woman must be sure her entire body is ready for a man at all times. If only one asset is to his liking, he will generally dismiss the woman. But a woman with many appealing characteristics will receive more notice. It is the sum, rather than the parts, which attracts him.”
Good advice for a woman with plentiful assets to display. Not terribly helpful to Lucy. “I have a plain face,” she pointed out, in case Miss Gray hadn’t realized it.
Miss Gray’s murmur tickled the outer edge of Lucy’s ear. “No woman is entirely plain or entirely beautiful. It is the confidence with which you hold yourself that affects how others see you.”
Intrigued, Lucy arched her back straighter. “You’re saying I have the ability to make myself beautiful?”
Miss Gray’s lips parted. In the reflection, she leaned in. Gently, her eyes heavy with promise, she asked Lucy, “Have you ever been kissed?”
Lucy’s heart skipped. Kit Whitechapel had stolen a kiss after church one Sunday. He wasn’t Roman, of course, but he was tall and had a ready smile. She’d been sixteen.
Her voice barely sounded above a whisper as she said, “Yes.”
Miss Gray cupped Lucy’s elbows and lowered her voice. “Did you enjoy it?”
“Was he gentle?”
Lucy half laughed, half sighed. “No.”
Miss Gray’s velvety chuckle sent gooseflesh down Lucy’s arms. “Thank goodness.” She tipped her head even closer to Lucy’s. “Did he make you feel wanted?”
“Look at yourself.”
The woman in the mirror watched Lucy through thick, dark lashes. Plump lips begged to be kissed. Her bosom heaved just enough to draw the eye. “I look drugged,” Lucy said, amazed.
“No, inviting.” Miss Gray placed her hand on Lucy’s shoulder. “See how your eyes are heavy? Your lips are full and slightly parted. You have a rosy glow.”
Lucy puckered her lips. Rather than silly, as she’d expected to look, she appeared coy. “Are you sure you didn’t apply cosmetics while my eyes were closed?”
Miss Gray chuckled and tugged at Lucy’s coiffure. Black curls fell to frame her face. “A man lives to see a woman’s pleasure,” Miss Gray explained, her voice lulling. “When he believes he can please her, he is attracted. When she laughs, he believes it is because he made her laugh. To attract Roman, you must be open to the pleasure he can bring you. Then you will be beautiful to him.”
Lucy frowned. “But I will not be beautiful.”
Miss Gray’s eyes snapped. “What is beauty? The arrangement of certain facial features in a particular order? No, it is a perception. When you feel beautiful, when you are open to beauty, others will find you beautiful.”
It sounded so obvious coming from Miss Gray, but could it be true? Surely, if it were that simple, others would be sashaying around with the sort of confidence that drew notice.
Others…like all the pretty girls drawing Roman’s attention.
It could be true, then. What a brilliant idea on her part, to seek the advice of an expert temptress! “And smart,” she quipped, pleased with herself.
Miss Gray smiled. “We should definitely add ‘humble’ to the list.”
Lucy turned and faced her mentor, coming eye to eye with the more experienced woman. “Is that it, then? All I must do is walk around pretending I’ve just been kissed and men will flock to me?”
“No,” Miss Gray replied, tugging another strand of Lucy’s hair to fall in a fat curl at her shoulder, “but it’s a good first step. Kissing can give a woman confidence, so long as she is the one in control. Later, I will teach you about that. For now, try this: As you go about your day, remember how it felt to be desired by your gentleman. Imagine all the men you meet today feel the same way about you. You need not say anything different. Simply pretend you are allowing each man the honor of a moment of your time, and they will treat you differently.”
Lucy turned back to the mirror. She squared her shoulders, enjoying the sensation of cloaking herself in secret, feminine power—and looking forward with delicious anticipation to wielding it. “I truly need not change?”
Miss Gray smiled. Her eyes seemed to light with pride. “No.”
Lucy’s lips curled up in a sly smile. “What is lesson two?”
SHE DIDN’T HAVE long to wait to apply her newfound knowledge. No sooner had Lucy returned to their London town house than did Trestin find her. He emerged from his library as she entered the foyer from the direction of the kitchens.
She stopped herself before her guilt wrote itself on her face. Instead she gave him a polite smile and moved toward the stair, as if she’d done nothing more than consult the cook on the night’s menu, instead of sneaking in through the servants’ door.
Trestin didn’t return her smile. He seemed distracted as he informed her, “There is to be a small dinner party at Lady Gladish’s residence tonight. I’ll have the carriage brought ’round at half eight.”
She paused with one toe on the bottommost step, her hand curved around the banister. As a matter of course, she found his pronouncement trying. Why did he assume she would readily jump at his command—even if she’d all but begged him to escort her about these last few weeks?
“Will Lord Montborne be in attendance?” She’d gladly attend whatever tame entertainment her brother deemed acceptable for a lady who was not yet fully out, if it meant she could practice being a flirt.
Trestin stiffened. Not because he could possibly know why she’d asked. More likely, he disapproved of her answering his edict with a question. “The marquis and I do not compare programmes.”
Lucy bit her tongue lest she form a retort designed to exasperate him. She loved her brother dearly, and when he was in good spirits, she even enjoyed his company.
Quite often, she thought that if their parents had lived, she and Trestin might have rubbed along better. But he’d been deemed her guardian just before she’d been scheduled to make her debut at eighteen. She’d been too close to her majority to have her independence snatched away and handed to her youthful older brother. Provoking him simply to ruffle his feathers was a childish habit she’d meant to cease years ago, yet it still galled her that he thought he had the right to dictate her every move.
He expected her to obey him. Even now, while he was battling blue devils, he had that look of command about him. His black hair swept to one side, not a strand amiss. His attire, simple and dated, was impeccably maintained. Since taking up sparring he’d begun to broaden through the shoulders, and in the inauspicious entryway of this small London town house, he was imposing.
The last thing Trestin needed was to look more imposing.
She smiled sweetly. “If you do not know if Lord Montborne will appear, then I shall just have to wait and see whether we are lucky enough to have earned his attention.” She began to ascend the stairs.
[_“Lucy.” _]Trestin stressed each syllable so there was no doubt he was reprimanding her for her impudence.
She turned slowly.
He caught her gaze, then looked away. “Inform Delilah.”
It was such an odd, un-Trestin-like thing to say that she blinked. He was more the sort to speak to Delilah himself. It was part of his charm, the way he personally dictated what was to be done or not done.
He must have other engagements. But before she could decide whether to ask him what could be more important than ordering Delilah about, he quit the room.
Lucy was increasingly sure life with him was becoming impossible.
A few hours later, she was even more convinced her brother was going slowly batty when she entered the drawing room just in time to see Trestin down one brandy and pour another. He was going to be foxed before they even arrived.
He glanced at the clock. “Where is Delilah?”
“She has a touch of the headache.”
Delilah had claimed as much. Though Lucy didn’t believe the flimsy excuse for a moment, she was happy to oblige her sister. Delilah preferred to carry out her mutiny quietly, rather than face their obstinate brother head-on. Lucy might have done the same, except every time she left the house, she had a small, infinitesimal chance of seeing Roman.
Trestin scowled and looked over his shoulder, as if envisioning the chit who was most likely curled beneath her blankets with a stack of love letters from her devoted suitor.
“I had hoped we would be a family tonight,” he grumbled, then downed his second brandy and returned the snifter to the sideboard.
Lucy moved to stand at his side, reaching to lightly touch his sleeve. It wasn’t his fault, really, that he couldn’t understand their sister’s infatuation with the apprentice blacksmith in Devon. To him, love was simply a matter of not giving one’s heart to someone inappropriate. He had yet to accept it wasn’t a feeling one could turn off simply because one deemed the recipient unworthy.
“Delilah will be there in spirit,” Lucy said, rubbing his arm as their mother used to do.
Grudgingly, he seemed to accept this.
Good. Not just because he was mollified, but because she would have turned ten shades of purple if he’d decided not to attend after all. She’d spent the evening practicing her sultriest look in the mirror.
They rode to the fete in silence. The carriage horses exercised a moderate pace through the city streets, as Trestin liked. Lucy mentally urged them faster. Finally, the step was let down and they descended before a striking house ablaze with light. Anticipation began to build in her breast as she approached the bustling façade. This was a party meant to stretch into the wee hours. The sounds of laughter and music strained to be heard over the stamping of horses and the clatter of wheels coming from carriages piling along the street.
“Lady Gladish will undoubtedly remember our family’s scandal,” he said as they waited their turn in the receiving line. “It’s not yet been ten years since Father and Mother’s falling out. Please don’t offer her any reason to think we have a shorter memory.” At his hip, his hand flexed open and closed. A telling habit he’d developed in the years since their parents had died their scandalous deaths.
Trestin did feel. He just didn’t know it.
A flare of resentment crackled through Lucy. She felt her emotions, and she couldn’t help but to show them.
“I have not forgotten,” she said tersely, ruffled by his attempt to quell her spirits before she’d had a chance to embarrass him. “If you fear we are such a laughingstock, with our peers examining our every move for some hint we are as mad as our parents, why force us to these engagements at all? We weren’t required to come to London.”
He peered down his nose at her. “No. But you wanted to come [_here, _]didn’t you?”
She hated that he was right. “I never said so.”
For the first time in weeks, he grinned at her. “But you did want to come. You would have climbed up into the seat and driven the horses yourself, if poor Mr. Diggs hadn’t picked up the pace. Perhaps I can marry you off, after all.”
“That is not a nice thing to say.” She batted his arm playfully, relieved to see him smiling. She’d missed his teasing, if that could be believed.
“Ah, but if I am nice to you, you won’t have any reason to marry,” Trestin replied, and though it was a gentle jab at her refusal to wed, she didn’t mind. Not when he was merely trying to goad her, as she liked to do to him.
She was still smiling when he remarked absently, “It appears Montborne did come. Doesn’t seem like his sort of rout to me.”
Trestin was staring at the entrance to the grand ballroom some distance away, presumably at Roman. Lucy stood on tiptoe to see past the heads in front of them in the receiving line.
There, at the doors. It was him. She’d recognize those blond curls anywhere.
With new impatience, she scrutinized the line ahead of her. Tapping her foot didn’t seem to help. Nor did staring at the back of the carefully coiffed heads in front of her and wishing them to perdition. She imagined thrusting her way through the throng of people—violently, perhaps—and pushing past the receiving line. But no, Trestin would certainly frown upon that.
Finally, finally, they were admitted. As it happened, Trestin’s irrational concern that their hostess would bring up some old unpleasantness wasn’t proven correct—though it could have been, had Lucy given into her urge to do bodily harm to her fellow guests.
Instead, Lady Gladish hastened through the introductions, perhaps as conscious of the long line as Lucy had been.
Lucy suffered the mundane chatter, but as soon as pleasantries were exchanged and she and Trestin had been supplied with glasses of wine, she darted past him and slipped through the crush. She breathed a sigh of relief when she reached the other side of the room. He wouldn’t be able to scold her across the ballroom.
She looked left and right. Now, where was Roman?
“Ho, there,” a deep and all-too-desirable a voice said behind her.
Lucy spun around. It couldn’t be Roman. Why, she’d just entered. She hadn’t even had time to try any of her newfound knowledge.
Yet it was him. The man for whom she’d hung her heart on her sleeve stood just out of arm’s reach, not nearly as close as she’d like. He was here. Speaking to her.
[_Pretend he’s about to kiss you, _]she reminded herself.
[No, _]she corrected herself as she instantly melted toward him,[ not yet._] She mustn’t seem too enamored.
He held a glass of wine in one hand. Steady. Unperturbed. In his other hand he held his open pocket watch, as if he’d just consulted it. His blue, crystalline eyes smiled down on her with the sort of pleasure one might feel upon encountering one’s favorite cousin at a ball.
With a flick of his wrist, he snapped the watch closed and tucked it into his waistcoat.
She indicated his pocket watch as it disappeared into the folds of his silk. “Somehow, I thought you were incapable of telling time,” she said, baiting him, referring to his well-known penchant for tardiness. The marquis appeared when he deigned to arrive, never before.
He blinked, then cocked his head. “But then how would I know when to appear for my assignations?”
A nervous guffaw escaped her. Hardly the coquettish titter she’d meant to release! “You shouldn’t say such things. I am a lady, my lord.”
“Nonsense. You’re Ashlin’s sister.” He stepped closer so they were almost shoulder to shoulder. It should have been exciting, but nothing about his sudden nearness felt threatening. He was far too at ease with her.
“Where is that faultfinding brother of yours, anyway?” he asked, providing the explanation for his unexpected presence. He wanted to speak to her brother, not her.
“If the two of you cannot be bothered to align your agendas, I am hardly the go-between,” Lucy replied flippantly, flashing her eyes at him before she turned away, as if in a pet. It wouldn’t do to fall all over him trying to answer his question; surely playing coy was one of the tactics Miss Gray would teach her later.
Oh, and very well, perhaps she was a tad put out that he was seeking Trestin.
He sipped his wine, then slanted a glance at her. “I don’t need a secretary to pencil me onto his schedule. Ashlin is like one of my own siblings, only better-mannered. I simply thought he wouldn’t appreciate the way Lord Dudley is staring at you right now.”
[_Dear Zeus. _]She almost spewed wine across the room.
“Who? Where?” Her heart hammered against her chest. Roman was noticing her. Rather, he was noticing another man notice her. Which meant he was watching her, didn’t it?
Oh, goodness. He was watching her.
“Over there,” Roman said, indicating a group of university-age lads. “In the puce waistcoat.”
For one blissful moment, she was giddy. Then Roman took another steady sip of wine, his eyes never straying from the men, and she touched the lace edge of her bodice against her breast as she held a sinking feeling at bay.
Roman didn’t seem jealous.
Roman wasn’t jealous.
She pretended to seek out her alleged admirer across the room, hoping it might spur Roman to action. She arched her spine and imagined she was as beautiful as Miss Gray, looking out among her throng of devotees. “Is Lord Dudley a very handsome fellow?”
Roman turned to look at her, causing her heart to leap. He struck a hand across his heart and affected disbelief. “Miss Lancester. You were worried about my lack of propriety.”
She raised a brow, savoring her small achievement. He still didn’t sound jealous, but at least they were bantering. “I merely asked if the man is fine-looking. I did not suggest you ought to arrange a clandestine meeting between us.”
Surprise rounded his lips. When he spoke, his voice was low, as if he was intrigued. “You shouldn’t even know what that means.”
She grinned and lifted one bare shoulder saucily. “Since you insist on quibbling points rather than answering my question, I shall have to see for myself whether Lord Dudley is handsome. Perhaps I will find you later in the evening and let you know what I’ve decided.”
Roman set his empty glass on a passing tray and selected another, bringing it to his lips before he shook his head. “Ashlin wouldn’t want me to send you out alone. Come, let’s see you married off, shall we?”
Her mouth almost fell open. She snapped it closed just in time. This was hardly the rejoinder she’d hoped for. Was he serious about introducing her to Lord Dudley, or had she misunderstood him?
Please, please let me have misunderstood.
“Come along,” he said, leading the way. “Don’t want Dudley to escape.”
She stared at his retreating back stupidly, unsure how their playful repartee had turned into this horror. But, he was speaking to her. That was an improvement, wasn’t it?
Dutifully and somewhat resentfully, she followed him.
He slowed until she caught up behind him. “We’re too slow,” Roman mused over his shoulder. “He’s already joined the dance. Never fear, for Lord Kinsey, Lord Alloway, and good old Maltby are standing by the punch bowl. Do you fancy one of them?”
“I-I don’t know, my lord,” she stammered, on the verge of losing her composure. It sounded as if he very much did intend to introduce her to every bachelor in the room. She doubted foisting her off on his friends was a cleverly concealed form of flirtation.
Quickly, she took to stock of the situation. Before she could draw his notice to her, it seemed he must cease perceiving her as something of a younger sister. But how to do that, if her bantering innuendo wasn’t enough?
He flashed a rakish smile over his shoulder, seeming not the least bit aware of her foot-dragging reluctance to be introduced to his friends. “No wonder Ashlin is having a devil of a time marrying you off,” he jested cheerfully. “Can you at least describe the sort of man you might want to marry?”
She stared at the back of his head as he led her between the clusters of chatting guests. She was completely agog at his lack of perception. “Seeing as how I don’t plan to wed, my lord, it is easier to list the masculine characteristics with which I find fault.”
There, that ought to find its way through his hard head.
He stopped tunneling through the crowd and turned to evaluate her. “Pray, my raven-haired virago, tell me what it is about all men you find abhorrent.”
Her lips parted as she flustered. There was so much to unravel in that statement. Did he think her raven-haired? Was she a virago in his eyes? Or was he concerned, believing she had no use for men?
Did he worry she had no use for him?
Lowering her lashes so he couldn’t see her hope, she counted off on her fingers, intending to shock him with her answer. “My reasons are simple: Men do not value a woman’s opinion. They do not consider her feelings. They cannot be trusted.” And, she added silently, I cannot be trusted with you.
He leaned closer. “Just how many men have you known, Miss Lancester?”
Gooseflesh pebbled along her arm. She glanced up at him. Blue eyes drove into hers like crystal shards.
Somehow, she found her tongue. “Just one.” She swallowed tightly as he continued to regard her intensely. “The only one who means anything to me.”
Intrigue flashed across his face. For half a breath, she thought he would respond in kind. Then he laughed and turned to lead the way again. “Ashlin is a right pain in the ass,” he said over his shoulder. “You can’t hold us all answerable for his churlishness.”
Lucy frowned at Roman’s back. She’d been as brazen as she could have been, leaving no room for doubt. Roman was the only man who mattered to her. Yet somehow, he thought she’d meant her brother?
No… She didn’t think he had. More likely, he was aware of her meaning, and was deflecting her calf love adeptly.
He stopped her in front of a young man about her age. Coolly, she regarded the foppish stranger as if she’d permitted the introduction, rather than been forced to it.
“My lord!” the lad exclaimed, upon realizing Roman had condescended to speak to him out of all the other young hopefuls in the room. “And this divine creature…Miss Lancester, how do you do?”
At his recognition of her, she gave him a second once-over, trying to place him in turn. Given his fashionable garments, pomaded hair, and worship of Roman, he must be one of the young dandies who aspired to imitate the marquis. He wasn’t truly a boy, but similar to her in age.
He grinned at her with crooked teeth. “Viscount Kinsey, at your service. We haven’t been formally introduced, but I’ve seen you about. Lord Trestin’s sister, correct?”
She offered her hand and he bowed over it eagerly. She tried to maintain her air of remote allure, but she feared the atmosphere was spoiled by her reluctance. Was Roman truly so oblivious to her feelings that he meant to pair her with this fresh-faced viscount? Or was he subtly telling her that he had indeed understood when she’d said he meant something to her, and was turning her toward a more likely prospect?
She desperately thought back to her lesson with Miss Gray, for if he was aware of her infatuation with him, then at least he was finally aware. She needed to show him she was aware of him, in return. Not as a silly schoolgirl, but as a woman.
A woman. Thinking about receiving Roman’s kiss was enough to send heat rushing to her face. Immediately, her tension eased as the familiar lust that always filled her when she thought about him coursed through her veins. There. That was the right emotion.
Languidly, she drew her gaze to Lord Kinsey’s. As if she had suffused him with air, he puffed up.
“You hail from Devon, if I recall correctly,” he said, his brow creasing thoughtfully. “How do you find London? I’ve always thought m’family ought to find a place in the country, but m’father says there’s not enough to occupy idle hands. Says that’s why they marry so young there. Do you like Devonshire cream?”
She blinked. Had she made him nervous, or did he always prattle on?
“I adore it,” she said, intrigued to hear her voice sounded as rich as the sweet concoction. “Why? Is Lady Gladish serving it?”
He cocked his head quizzically. “I don’t know. Do you think I should ask her? It is rather decadent, not quite a thing one serves at a dinner, but I imagine she has some somewhere.”
Lucy could almost taste the first bite of a pastry smothered in clotted cream. “That would be lovely. Do you think she has scones, too?”
He stood straighter. “I shall find out.”
She couldn’t help smiling as he went off to find Lady Gladish. She jumped when Roman reached for her hand and set it in the crook of his elbow.
Oh. Zeus. He was touching her. She’d done it! Her heart would surely gallop right out of her chest.
“If our poor hostess has made the grave mistake of forgetting to order a pot of Devonshire cream, she will never do so again,” Roman murmured, looking down at her. “I hope you are prepared to eat all of it, when it turns up at the table.”
Lucy grinned, pleased with herself. “That will give me no trouble, my lord.”
He laughed and patted her hand. “Good girl.”
Her heart raced even faster. Or perhaps instead of [_a _]galloping horse, it had become a herd. He’d sounded almost…appreciative.
She observed Lord Kinsey as he approached Lady Gladish across the room. Their hostess threw her hands up and immediately turned away, presumably to seek out her servants.
By degrees, Lucy calmed herself, willing the ringing in her ears to cease and her pulse to resume a more moderate pace.
Finally, she could hear her own thoughts again. Feeling rather smug, she turned back to Roman. “It seems Lord Kinsey has passed at least one test: he is eager to please me. What other paragon of masculinity have you in store?”
He rewarded her with a scowl quickly smoothed. “You need a man with more virility than Lord Kinsey.”
“Someone like…?” she prodded, enjoying herself now that they were alone, his entire attention focused on her.
He scowled again, sending a tremor through her belly. This time he didn’t try to mask his displeasure. “Someone like Lord de Winter. But he isn’t here, sadly.”
“Yes. Sadly.” Lucy could hardly contain her excitement at the frowns he’d just betrayed. Mayhap Roman did mean to introduce her to his friends. That didn’t mean he had to like it.
“I should see you back to Ashlin,” Roman said, spoiling her mood entirely. “He’ll wonder where you’ve been.”
Somehow, she didn’t think so. Trestin seemed preoccupied of late. “I’d rather see the terrace,” she replied, feeling bold.
Roman’s attention flicked to her, then away. His bearing became almost imperceptibly rigid. “The only guests out there are up to no good deeds, Miss Lancester.”
“You mean they are enjoying themselves?” Lucy turned toward the open French doors. Let Roman physically stop her.
He easily caught up to her. He didn’t, however, prevent her from moving in the direction of the pleasant breeze drifting through the doors. “You shouldn’t come out here. It’s inappropriate.”
“For whom? A girl of seventeen? Certainly not for a woman nearly five and twenty.”
As they stepped beyond the doors Roman glanced at her in surprise. “Are you that old?”
She laughed. Dear Zeus, her chuckle sounded velvety, almost inviting. Perhaps it was the alluring effect of the Chinese lanterns casting green and orange light across the gardens below. “I prefer to think of myself as experienced.”
It was his turn to laugh. “No, living to the ripe age of twenty-five is not experience. Otherwise, your brother would be a wiser man.”
She mentally sighed. They were back to speaking of Trestin, when she wanted only for Roman to think of her as a woman. “If I am naïve, I wish to remedy it. Furthermore, we have been out here a full minute and I’ve come to no harm.”
“There is danger out here,” he corrected her. He inclined his head in the direction of a darkened corner where two shadowy forms were entwined in an embrace. “See my friend Scotherby? He is married. He even has a mistress.” Roman leaned to whisper in Lucy’s ear. “Yet that woman he is with…is neither.”
Lucy’s eyebrows rose. Openly, she took in the balding man kissing the woman half-hidden behind a fern. “How can she be so brazen?”
Roman chuckled at her naïveté. “Every gathering, no matter how respectable, contains at least one woman who is willing to shirk propriety. It is a game men play: Find the woman most likely to let you into her bed…later.”
Lucy’s eyes widened. She wanted to be that woman—to him. “And you do this?”
He shrugged. “All men do.”
“All men,” she repeated, wondering if he was telling her this because he wanted her to know that he enjoyed it, or because he’d decided to take her under his wing. Like a younger brother, or an acolyte.
She turned to him, then impudently asked, “And what do the other women do while their immoral sisters play?”
He laughed. Then, to her great delight, he stepped closer to her, so that her arm brushed against his elbow. “Parade themselves on the Marriage Mart, I assume. I don’t know. I try to avoid moral women as much as is possible.”
Lucy could hardly think of anything but his nearness. His body seemed so…large. And warm. The faint trace of lemon soap wafted on the breeze, intimate and intoxicating.
She struggled to maintain her half of the conversation. “If what you say is true, then I think it sad. Girls of good breeding are raised with the solitary goal of enticing men into marriage. But these same men are being lured into vice. Indeed, many of them might not come at all to these insipid entertainments, if not for the hope of a clandestine meeting with a woman of less-than-pure intentions.” It truly was a depressing thought, especially when it came to Roman, who was a known libertine.
But that was where her plan came into play; she’d become one of those free-spirited women. And men did marry, eventually. Especially titled ones.
“I suppose when gentlemen are finally snared by the parson’s trap, they are usually forced into it by their responsibilities,” she mused.
Roman released her arm and rested his elbows against the balcony. The breeze tousled his golden curls, but he didn’t seem to notice. “Some of them want to wed. A few of them are forced.”
Lucy barely heard him. She was captivated by his handsome profile. His cheek was so close, she could kiss it. She curled her fingers into her palms lest she reach out and touch his sun-kissed skin. “It’s a miracle any proper lady ever marries, if men are always distracted by the improper ones,” she mused in a slightly shaky voice.
He looked at her. “You’re not concerned, are you? You would be married already, had you had your Season at eighteen, as planned.”
He was continually stealing her breath. It seemed he thought her winsome enough to attract a husband.
He was looking at her… As if he were seeing her.
Her tongue was entirely tied. If the moonlight had been brighter, he might have seen a blush across her cheeks. She didn’t know what to say or do, other than to cross her arms and lean over the balcony, herself.
It wasn’t romantic, but it seemed fitting, somehow. Their lips were certainly closer together. “Even at my advanced age?” she asked, breathless. “Am I not to lose hope?”
His eyes searched her face, the intensity of his gaze freezing her in place. “You may have any man you set your cap for, Lucy. It’s simply a matter of your brother agreeing to the match.”
Any man. Even him? She gulped.
Then she remembered to be aloof. She was desirable, and she desired him, but she mustn’t say anything gauche.
She trailed her shaking fingertip along the balustrade. “I do wish gentlemen wouldn’t be so…gentlemanly. Being forced to guess whether one’s affections are returned is ghastly.”
He shrugged away her attempt to draw his intentions into words. “They’ll like you. I introduced you to Kinsey already; after dinner, I’ll drag a few more up to snuff. Plenty of men are open to courting a pretty girl. They’ll thank me for the opportunity.”
Despite his calling her pretty—making her more than a touch weak in the knees—Lucy bristled. He might have finally realized she was a woman, but evidently, it was only because he’d been evaluating her for his friends.
There was only so much rejection one could withstand of an eve.
“I believe we’re being called in,” she said, frustrated by her complete lack of progress. With every step forward, it seemed she unearthed a new horror in her path.
With a swish of superfine he rose to standing, not the least ruffled by her abrupt end to the assignation—if that’s what it had ever been.
“Allow me to escort you in to dinner,” he said solicitously, offering the crook of his arm. The music had ended behind them.
She glanced at the men and women forming pairs inside the ballroom. “You’re a marquis, my lord, the highest-ranked guest here. It is your obligation to see our hostess in, not waste your efforts on a viscount’s sister.” In truth, she just wanted to be away from him and his matchmaking.
“Silly me,” he replied, unperturbed by her reproof. “Allowing beauty before duty. Accept my company only to the threshold, then.”
So silky smooth. But she was smarter now; she wasn’t as quick to interpret his escort as anything more than politeness.
Lucy barely touched her fingertips to the soft wool of his sleeve. His gait was easy as he led her inside. He nodded emphatically to acquaintances as they passed, without any indication he’d just been set down.
Almost as if… He didn’t care.
AFTER A SLEEPLESS night, Lucy bounded down the stairs the next morning, her wrap and bonnet in hand. Trestin was away at Gentleman Jackson’s, continuing his lessons. Lucy intended to do the same. Last night had ended a disaster, but it had started wonderfully. She must focus on what she had accomplished, and not allow her ultimate failure to get the best of her.
No sooner had she reached the carpeted landing, however, than did she hear Delilah call her name. “Lucy!”
She stopped at the base of the staircase and looked up. “Yes?”
Delilah hurried down the steps until they were eye to eye. “I’ve had a letter from Mr. Conley.”
Lucy smiled. “I thought you must have received a letter from him, when you pled off last eve. Trestin wasn’t pleased.”
Delilah rolled her eyes heavenward. “And if I had come, he’d have found fault at my refusal to dance with the men of his choosing. How many did he parade before you? Three? Six?”
Oddly, none at all. But she didn’t care about Trestin. Lucy pulled a distraught face. “It was ever so much worse than that! Roman thought to match me with his friends.”
Delilah gaped at her in horror. “No!”
Lucy shook her head in absolute dejection, a sad laugh escaping her. “I pretended not to care, though it ripped me apart every time he suggested one of his peers might make me a good husband. It would have been far worse to let him see my misery than it was to hide it.”
Delilah’s brow crinkled. “What will you do next?”
Lucy grinned suddenly and enjoyed the responding look of surprise on Delilah’s face. “Why, meet every one of them, of course. Perhaps if I have enough beaus, I can make Roman jealous.”
“SO YOU SEE,” Lucy said in summary, leaning against the plush squab of the wingback chair, “I did what you told me to do, and it worked. I am ready for lesson two.”
She fought the urge to fidget as Celeste regarded her from the other high-backed chair across the low table. The jutting wings framed Celeste’s red hair to great effect and lent her an air of authority. Or perhaps that was her reserved expression causing Lucy to squirm.
If she disapproved of Lucy’s daring behavior the night before, it defied their arrangement. Celeste had promised to teach her, Lucy had vowed to practice, and they had both agreed to contribute the remainder of their time to the fledgling school, at great risk, of course.
Lucy paused, nervously straightening the skirt of her gown. “If you prefer, we may discuss business first. I’ve done as you asked and found a building in Bath to let. Would you like to see the specifics?”
Celeste nodded slowly, as if decided this a much safer subject. “Does your brother know?”
It wasn’t a question Lucy had expected, nor wanted to answer. Going behind Trestin’s back wasn’t her first choice, but in her defense, she’d been clear from the start with him. She’d even asked him to surrender what monies he would have used for her dowry to her, so she might use it as seed money for her school.
Certainly, she didn’t intend to spend the pittance on a husband. Or any man, for that matter.
“Trestin is in denial, but no, he doesn’t know I’ve begun the official founding of the school.”
Celeste’s brow didn’t smooth. “When will we be able to take control of the property?”
“Not until June. I feel I should pay a visit earlier, to be sure everything is as described in the advertisement, but I fear Trestin would notice that.”
Celeste’s brow quirked. “Yet he doesn’t notice you calling on me? I’ve wondered.”
Lucy hesitated. There was a reason she’d been able to move about without his realizing it, but how much to tell Celeste? Her brother was in a wretched state, and yet, he was no closer to admitting he was wrong.
“He’s not quite himself,” Lucy said slowly. “I think… I think he’s not as recovered from your quarrel as I made it sound. But I do believe if he knew I was coming here, he’d certainly put an end to it.”
Celeste’s gaze fell to the carpet. She nodded, then twisted her hands together in her lap. “Then I’m glad he does not.”
LUCY WOULD HAVE preferred walking to Celeste’s house, but she was only willing to break one of Trestin’s rules at a time.
She gazed out the window as the horses pulled her carriage through the streets. The city flowed past the narrow rectangular windowpanes, each scene a fascinating peek into lives she would never have the chance to live, for St James was a tableau of men being men: The wealthy ones entering their clubs or leaving their paramour’s doors, the poor ones doing their best to imitate the rich ones. A few shopkeeps hoping anyone with spare coin would grace their establishment, and several gambling hells that had taken that coin for their own.
She was so occupied with woolgathering, she almost didn’t see Roman walking along the street as her equipage sailed past hm. She tumbled forward as she reached up to bang on the carriage roof. “Mr. Diggs! Mr. Diggs!” she called to the coachman.
When the horses stopped, she opened the door far enough to lean out. “Lord Montborne! I say, can my driver take you somewhere?”
Roman’s walking stick waved to and fro as he loped toward her door. “Why, Miss Lancester, it’s a lovely day indeed, when a damsel can rescue a man in distress.”
She laughed and held the door open farther. “I’ll even slay the dragon.”
He ducked his tall frame through the door and fell into the seat across from her, indolent as you please. His legs were so long, his boots encroached on her hem, but she didn’t mind. She’d gladly accept a bit of dirt on her new gown, if it meant being near him.
“What brings you to this part of town?” he asked as the carriage lurched forward. Sunlight streamed through the pane and danced through his tousled curls. Idly, he turned his hand so that his sapphire signet ring caught the rays.
Lucy pasted a look of utter innocence on her face. “What part of town, my lord?”
He grinned and flexed his hand so his signet cast fairies of light over the carriage walls. “The very naughty part, Miss Lancester. Or did you not know you’re in St James?”
She pretended to look through the window as if she hadn’t known, but might somehow recognize this area of Town she ought never to have seen before. Then she sat back again.
The man across from her managed to fill the entire seat even though he was, on the whole, a rather lean specimen. He watched her, amusement written on his face.
She folded her hands in her lap and reminded herself to breathe. This was why she’d agreed to come to London: chance meetings with Roman. She must make the best of this scandalous opportunity to spend time with him unchaperoned. “Where shall I instruct my driver to take us?” she asked, hopeful he’d know better what sorts of amusements were available.
“Take me? Why, to return you to Trestin, of course. I’d never abscond with a lady, especially not a dragon-slaying one.”
She frowned. “You can’t hand me off to my brother like some mislaid bauble you found in the street. I will arrive home when I arrive home, and Trestin must make do.”
Roman watched her with an unfathomable expression. “Do you always speak your mind?”
Her bravado faltered. Then she remembered—she was in control. “I say what is necessary. Being an unmarried woman, that means defending myself when warranted. I suppose you expected me to simper, to be grateful for the benefit of your protection as I make my way through the treacherous streets to the safety of my brother’s influence. But it was I who offered you protection. You’re the one who no longer need worry he will be accosted in an alley.”
He laughed at her brazen speech. “Danger lurks in these streets for both of us. This carriage, on the other hand”—he captured her gaze with his just long enough to cause her to shift in her seat—“is perfectly safe.”
Her heart skipped. Unbidden, a flush heated her face. “If you won’t tell me where you’re going, the least you can do is tell me where you were.”
He waggled his blond eyebrows at her. “You first.”
Oh, devil take the man. If Roman wanted to remain an enigma, so be it. She knew enough about him to crave his body wrapped around hers and his mouth slanted across her lips. That was all she needed, wasn’t it?
She met his gaze with a boldness she only halfway felt. “I am in the process of founding a girls’ school, if you must know. I was meeting with my adviser.”
She nodded, sitting straighter, her hands pressed to her knees. “I shall be its headmistress, once I am free of Trestin’s ridiculous plans for my marriage.”
Across the carriage width, one golden eyebrow rose with incredulousness. “Does he know?”
She turned her head toward the window. Oh, he knew; if only he would understand. But fighting with Trestin never seemed to accomplish anything. “He doesn’t accept it.”
From the corner of her eye, she saw Roman tilt his head as if weighing her answer. “He ought to have had brothers, rather than sisters. They’re much easier to manage.”
“Your brothers are hardly saints,” she replied, thinking of the four men she’d known from infancy.
“No, but I don’t concern myself with their troubles. They can get on without me. Ashlin is too engrossed in caring for you and your pretty twin to remember he has his own life to live.”
Lucy frowned as she looked at Roman. Trestin was hardly as obsessed with her daily activities as he’d been before Roman had stolen Miss Gray away with the shocking truth.
Lucy wanted to ask him why he’d ruined two people’s happiness when Trestin might have gone on obviously, but instead of bringing up what must surely be a sore subject, she corrected him on his second point. “Delilah and I are not twins.”
Roman grinned. “But she is pretty.”
She felt her face heat. It was the second time he’d called her pretty, even if the compliment was a little convoluted. “Trestin is distracted of late,” she mumbled, redirecting the conversation to her brother, without intending to do so.
It was just that Roman made her feel so…flustered.
Roman shrugged, a charismatic insouciance that made him seem worldly. “We can’t every one of us set our best foot forward all the time.”
Yet he couldn’t be entirely ignorant of the reason why Trestin was maudlin. “Will he be more attentive at my come-out, do you think?” Lucy asked. “It’s only three days away.”
Roman shrugged again. “Who can say?”
She shook her head slightly, so that it was clear his answer didn’t satisfy her.
“Oh, come now, I won’t have you put out on your special day,” he said with a handsome smile, swinging his legs so that he sat upright. “I’ll be there, if you must have someone doting on you.”
Dear Zeus, if Roman deigned to dote on her at her come-out, she’d swoon!
She might swoon just looking into his eyes. He seemed utterly serious.
Her pulse began to pound.
He grinned. “I’ve always said Trestin should treat my brothers as his own. It stands to reason his sister is my sister, then.”
Her face fell before she could stop it. Damn him three ways to the Underworld. That was hardly the sort of attention she craved from him.
She mustered an indifferent smile that didn’t begin to reflect the frustration rebuilding in her breast. “In that case, be prepared to be ignored at every turn. And I will dance with Kinsey twice. You can’t stop me.”
Roman’s head tilted almost imperceptibly, as if he were considering something altogether new. “Will you be at Lady Melbourne’s ball tonight?” he asked, holding her gaze.
She couldn’t quiet the flutter in her breast. This was more like it.
“Yes,” she replied, crooking her smile at the corners mischievously, thankful her voice didn’t shake.
“Good,” Roman said, raising his arm to rap on the carriage roof. “I need to speak to Ashlin.”
Before she could howl with frustration—for surely she couldn’t be expected to withstand such exasperating behavior without some sort of vehement objection—he opened the door. “It appears my destination was on your way, after all. Good day, Miss Lancester. I hope we may continue our informative little tête-à-tête…tonight.”
SHE RODE THE the rest of the way home in a state of bemusement. What had he meant by that? She couldn’t decide.
It wasn’t a good time to encounter her brother in the foyer, so naturally, they crossed paths almost the moment she set her foot in the house. Just hearing his boot steps as he rounded the corner was enough to make her spine rigid.
An excuse formed on her lips—something about seeing to the less fortunate. He always liked to think she was altruistic.
Yet oddly, he almost passed her by before he jerked to attention, as if suddenly seeing her. “I was just about to—”
She peered at him queerly. Was he making an excuse to her? What madness was this?
His eyes skirted across the floor. Then, as if he hadn’t been caught at whatever peculiarity he’d been about to engage in, he drew himself into the fusspot she knew him to be. “Mr. Harbottle will be in attendance tonight. I hope you’ll partner him for at least one dance.”
Lucy scowled, even though she’d just been offered an unprecedented opportunity to agree and sail blithely past Trestin’s watch. “I won’t have an aspiring clergyman for a husband.”
It was Trestin’s turn to scowl. Whatever he’d been about, he was focused on her matrimonial prospects now. “Harbottle has two thousand a year and a living within a stone’s throw of Brixcombe. As for his suitability, you can’t possibly find fault in the character of a vicar.”
She wanted so much for her brother to understand her, yet it always came to this. If a man met the bare minimum for eligibility—requirements determined by Trestin, naturally—he deserved at least a quadrille. Never mind her longing for an unfitting man, or her protestations against marrying at all. “I don’t have to find fault with him,” she replied, drawing her bonnet off so that she might quit her brother’s company before they came to shouting, “he simply doesn’t suit me. I wish you’d come to terms with my plans. My School for Accomplished Young Ladies requires a generous amount of seed money. I’d like my dowry, if you please.”
Trestin’s lips turned in a tight smile. “Then we are at an impasse, as I’ve told you more than once that you won’t have a penny from me until you’re wed.”
Lucy bit back yet another unbecoming retort. For the first time, she needn’t argue with him. Twenty-five hundred pounds was a fraction of the money she required. With Celeste’s contribution and a few donations from other like-minded benefactresses, she might not need her dowry at all.
Her mood improved as she realized she had positioned herself to circumvent her brother entirely. “Lord Montborne is looking forward to seeing you tonight,” she said sweetly, knowing it would get under his skin—as it had done hers.
“What makes you say that?”
Lucy smirked and tossed her bonnet onto the entryway table. “He told me so. It appears he, too, looks forward to being told he has the wrong ideas entirely.”
TO SAY SHE spent the first half of Lady Melbourne’s ball waiting for Roman’s arrival was to waste one’s breath. Especially when she usually spent the majority of any entertainment watching for him to make an appearance.
The wine had already been replaced with lemonade by the time Roman troubled himself enough to arrive at the door. To be fair, she had been surprised earlier when he’d implied he’d even come. This rout was hardly up to his usual standards, populated as it was by wallflowers like herself trying to make a good marriage with men who would rather be anywhere else.
Still, when he made a beeline for Trestin—just as he’d promised to do—Lucy felt her frustration soar to an irrational level. Was she just supposed to stand here and hope he condescended to talk to her?
Unlikely, that. Where was that Mr. Harbottle? Perhaps she would like to dance. She craned her neck to look over her shoulder, searching for the pasty-faced man her brother had pushed in her direction earlier.
“Miss Lancester.” Roman caught her hand before she could use it to cover her gasp of surprise.
Her gaze darted to her brother, but he wasn’t watching her. It seemed Roman might have had a change of mind, and not spoken to Trestin after all.
Her heart leapt. Had he come to speak to her?
She gripped Roman’s hand harder than she meant to do. Realizing it, she tried to release him, but he covered her knuckles with his left hand. “And so we meet again, just as I predicted. It would serve me right if your dance card is already full.”
A nervous laugh escaped her. “You’re in luck. It seems I have no partner for this waltz.”
He tucked her hand into the crook of his arm and pulled her around so she could see the dancers forming a line. “Then, like a couple of wallflowers, we shall both be able to watch.”
Hope died in her breast. It was not what she’d expected him to say at all. Not that she’d been saving the waltz for him, mind. In perfect truth, no one had asked. But he was here and unpartnered—and so was she. Shouldn’t he suggest they dance?
He calmly watched the men bow politely to the women. Every so often, he sipped from a wineglass that must have been procured just for him. Very well. She, too, could be unmoved.
Outwardly, at least. Inside, her foot itched to prod him onto the parquet floor with a solid kick to the back of his breeches.
It was more difficult to stand beside him than it would have been to waltz. The dance would have distracted from her sizzling awareness of his lean form beside her, as would have the firm pressure of his hand on the small of her back—no, upon further thought, that wasn’t likely to calm her. But certainly, standing here breathing in the tantalizing lemon fragrance of his soap wasn’t helping settle the matter of her frazzled nerves.
Idly, Roman swirled the wine in his glass. If only—if only he’d give any indication he was even the slightest bit unnerved by her nearness. But his attention traveled smoothly over the room.
From the corner of her eye, she saw his brow crease in consternation. She followed the direction of his gaze.
“Have you and my brother had a falling out?” she asked, thinking it best to address it directly. It was becoming tiresome to pretend she didn’t know he and Trestin were at odds.
A footman brought a freshly filled wineglass and Roman traded his empty goblet without remarking on the special favor he was receiving. “As it happens,” he answered her, “I didn’t like the cut of his coat. He insists it is his favorite, however, and refuses to stop wearing it. In turn, I refuse to be seen with him.”
Roman’s now-full wineglass was lifted in the direction of her brother’s sullen form. “What do you think, Lucy-love? Does the old coat flatter him?”
Heat flushed across her cheeks. What a flirt he was! He’d called her Lucy-love. In public.
She forced herself not to grin.
Then she realized what he’d asked. Indeed, Trestin’s coat wasn’t cut in the latest style, but her brother’s outdated attire certainly wasn’t the cause of Roman’s irritation. She knew better. The “coat” Trestin refused to stop “wearing” was Celeste Gray.
“Trestin has always been too buttoned-up for my taste,” Lucy replied, thinking herself clever. “I like his more modern dress of late, if you must know. But if I may be so bold, my lord, I think it’s not the cut of his coat you object to, but the number of times it has been worn. Funny, as the issue never seems to present itself in reverse. The question is never the number of coats a man has worn.”
Roman turned to regard her profile. It was all she could do to keep from grinning at her marvelous innuendo. Was he shocked? Let him be! He’d shocked her enough times.
A light sparked in his eyes, as if he’d seen her again. “And what would you know of coat-wearing?”
She let her smile form on her lips. Just the barest, mind, only a hint of the naughtiness she felt for being so forward. “Very little, sadly.”
Smoothly, he pivoted back to face the dancers gliding across the parquet floor. “As it should be. Coats are pesky things. Once a coat has been worn, the wearer is stuck with the memory of its fit. Years later, he pushes to the back of his wardrobe and sees the coat is still there. He remembers and is ashamed he ever wore it. I wouldn’t wish that on your brother, especially given how seldom a man like him updates his sense of fashion.”
She drew up, quick to defend her friend Miss Gray. “What if Trestin would be satisfied with his coat, so long as he never wore it in public? Perhaps it is the ridicule of his friends, rather than anything lacking with the garment itself, that dampens his enthusiasm.”
Roman swiveled slowly in her direction. Much to her surprise, his face was cold and dark. He wasn’t bantering on idle topics. This was a subject he cared deeply about.
“You seem rather opinionated on the subject of your brother’s coat-wearing. Even I, with my dearth of sisters, recognize the unusualness of that.”
He let the observation hang. Not specifically a question, though he clearly intended for her to respond.
She bristled. She wouldn’t tell him Celeste was a personal acquaintance. He might tell Trestin, who might investigate. But it did annoy her that after years of her wishing Trestin would fall in love or, at the very least, take a mistress, Roman would actively try to dissuade his friend from either.
“Look at him,” she said, pointing to her brother. “My first concern is to see him satisfied in life. Does he look happy to you?”
To her surprise, Roman scowled. “He’s obviously lost his head if he’s allowing me to spend so much time with you.”
That stopped her. “What do you mean?” It was all she could do to keep from sounding breathless.
Roman drew his gaze back to hers, the black look still darkening his face. “Ashlin is well aware of my reputation. As carefully as he’s managed yours until recently, I’d say he’s distraught. Or did you not notice that the waltz has slipped into a country dance? We’ve whispered together for much longer than is proper. And yet, he doesn’t notice.”
How she wished Roman presented as much danger to her as he made their situation sound! Instead, he looked daggers at Trestin again. His concern was for his friend, not her reputation. Not for what liberties he might take with her while Trestin was plagued by despondency.
“Ho, there, Montborne. Keeping our Miss Lancester for yourself, are you?”
Lucy turned to see the speaker. Two young bucks, each holding two cups of lemonade, did their best to look bored as they hovered at her elbow. The fair-haired one was Lord Kinsey. The other she didn’t recognize.
The one she didn’t know grinned and held out a glass of lemonade for her to take. “You must be parched after listening to this windbag all night. Lord Felton to rescue you, my lady.”
She ignored the proffered cup of lemonade in favor of looking at Roman. Surely he’d cut these pups to the ground for their presumptuous interruption.
But Roman merely frowned over his shoulder, not bothering to look at the men, let alone warn them off. “Lord Felton, do you by chance know this dance?”
The young man blinked and then bowed halfway, recovering. “I’m the fleetest foot in Shropshire, my lord.”
Roman continued his assiduous study of Trestin. “Good. Take Miss Lancester for a turn. I’ve some business to attend.”
Before she could protest, Roman handed her off and cut the company.
She glared daggers at his retreating form. How dare he slip away and leave her with these—with these infants!
“That’s a quid for me,” Felton said to Kinsey, elbowing the latter. “Easier than I expected, what.”
Lucy turned to glower at the two men who’d interjected themselves into what had been until then a good show. “You wagered on me?”
Lord Felton laughed. “Suppose you could see it that way. Really, the bet was on Montborne. The way he’s monopolized you these last few nights, I expected him to put up more of a fight.”
She scowled as she found Roman with her eyes. He was at her brother’s side now. As irritated as she was, she had to admit this was where the evening had been headed. He’d been only moments from abandoning her for Trestin; Lord Felton and Lord Kinsey had only spurred him along.
She stood straighter and tried to school her expression into something more grateful-looking. Even if they’d come only to rile Roman, it was preferable to flirt with Lord Felton than no one at all.
“Shall we dance, then?” she asked, careful to keep from sounding too eager.
Lord Felton shrugged. “We could stroll in the garden until the next set forms. Whatever the lady prefers.”
Oh, that was most assuredly forward of him. And yet, what was more likely to make Roman jealous? A well-chaperoned dance or a private turn through the courtyard?
She glanced at her brother again. Trestin was glaring at Roman. Roman was scowling back. Good. Neither would remark on her absence until it was too late—if they noticed at all.
Mustering her brightest smile, she turned back to Lord Felton. “I’d be delighted to see the gardens, my lord.”
“Very good, Miss Lancester.” This time when he passed one of the glasses of lemonade to her, she took it. Next he offered his arm. As they made their way to the open doors, she caught a glimpse of her brother through the dancers.
She craned her neck to see better, looking over her shoulder to find Roman as Lord Felton escorted her to the terrace. There. Roman was fair and dashing beside her darker-featured, more somber brother. The two men were walking not toward her, but toward a dark-haired woman in a low-cut gown.
Lucy placed her hand on the doorframe and arched backward to see them as Lord Felton attempted to pull her through the double doors.
Trestin was smiling at the enticing woman, though his eyes betrayed his misery. He bent over her hand. The lady smiled, then trailed her other hand along Roman’s sleeve.
To Lucy’s relief, Roman turned and walked away.
LUCY MADE SURE to call on Celeste for another lesson on the day of her and Delilah’s come-out. After all, Roman had promised to pay court to her tonight. Too, Lord Felton had held her hand rather earnestly as he’d led her through Lady Melbourne’s moonlit garden, and Lord Kinsey had also asked for a dance after her stroll.
She’d returned home at the end of the night feeling quite successful, even if Roman hadn’t erupted in a fit of jealousy, much to her disappointment.
Celeste met Lucy in the drawing room. As usual, she wore a simple yet expensive frock, and her thick, auburn hair was pulled back into a loose chignon. Her tired smile matched the dullness of her eyes.
No matter how she pretended, she still missed Trestin. Lucy clenched her fists. Roman! He ought not have introduced Trestin to that—that woman. Lucy didn’t doubt for a moment the raven-haired sophisticate dripping with jewels was exactly the sort to kiss a married man behind a potted plant.
“How are you faring today, my dear?” Celeste asked, grasping Lucy’s hands and squeezing tightly. As if Lucy were the one who needed comforting.
Lucy forced her glower away and replaced it with a bright smile instead. It wouldn’t help matters to describe what she’d witnessed the night prior. Better to focus on that which was within her control.
“Most wonderfully, actually. Lady Melbourne’s ball was marvelous.” Lucy’s lips curved into a satisfied little smile as she recalled how wonderful she’d felt basking in the attention. “I’ve never experienced the like of it.”
Celeste raised one elegant eyebrow, seeming genuinely interested to hear Lucy’s tale. “Oh? Did something interesting occur?”
Lucy sank onto the sofa as her hostess turned and went to the bellpull. To Celeste’s back, she said, “Well, Roman spoke to me, for one. I did enjoy that, even if he isn’t prepared to declare his undying devotion to me. But it was Lord Felton and Lord Kinsey who made the night one I’ll never forget. I think Lord Felton was particularly charmed.”
Celeste returned and seated herself on the sofa beside Lucy. “Oh? Did you fancy him in return?”
What she seemed to be asking was, “Is your little obsession with Roman in the past?”
Lucy shook her head vehemently, for no man could ever replace Roman in her heart. “But being courted was delightful! I’ve never had a beau before. Just the one kiss behind the church gate, which was really rather silly. I suspect Kit’s friends dared him to do it. This was much, much better. Lord Felton was attentive, and ever so kind. We even strolled in the gardens.”
Celeste’s eyes widened. “Lucy! Lord Felton might have tried for more than a kiss!”
“Do you know him?” Lucy was intrigued by the idea that Celeste would know a fledgling like Lord Felton by name. More to the point, how well did she know him?
Celeste waved away the question. “I know of him. And I know men. He could have taken advantage of the privacy. Then where would you be? A woman has very little, without her reputation.”
Lucy’s face grew hot. Partly because she wouldn’t have minded kissing Lord Felton, if only for the slim chance that Roman would see her doing so. Partly because Celeste was right to be concerned, drat her. Even if Lucy didn’t want to admit it, she’d been in a precarious situation. Kissing Lord Felton was one thing. Being caught by anyone but Roman was an entirely different matter.
“We were safe enough,” Lucy mumbled. “It’s all beside the point, anyway. What matters is that he approached me. I didn’t think my efforts to engage Roman’s attention would be appreciated by anyone else, but Lord Felton took it upon himself to make an introduction. Eligible bachelors don’t usually strut out of the woodwork and attempt to charm me.”
Celeste nodded, as if this wasn’t surprising at all. “Men are always watching. If Roman has been speaking to you, then they’ve seen it.” She leaned forward, her expression one of concern. “But they are more interested in you, and how you comport yourself with him. They must think you receptive to certain advances, when before, you seemed shuttered.”
“I am not flirting with them—”
“You don’t need to, not if you are playing coy with Roman. Any number of silent messages may be communicated via your posture and expression, even if you are not aware of them. I beg you will have a care.”
Lucy considered this, intrigued to think her body could move in a language men understood. “Roman says men are always on the lookout for a woman who is free with her favors.”
Celeste’s ivory skin blanched. “I’d ask what sorts of conversations you’re having, but I don’t want to know. He’s correct, to a point. It would be more accurate to say men are always searching for a woman who piques their interest. Easy conquests are just that. Men are often more intrigued by a woman who holds herself apart, as a prize to be won.”
Lucy considered this. “What about a woman who is both?”
Celeste shook her head slowly. “A woman either is or isn’t obtainable before marriage. Oh, Lucy, I do wish you’d reconsider. This life… It’s not worth it.”
“But I shall never marry, and I’m not looking to become a…” Lucy didn’t mean to offend Celeste. It was an odd relationship they had—not quite friends, not quite equals. Celeste was older and wiser, yet Lucy was the one Society stamped with approval. “I don’t mean to be too free with my favors. I simply want to experience living, before I’m old and gray.”
Celeste’s laugh was hollow. “One is never too old to enjoy pleasure. But age can indeed be very lonely, once the vigor of youth has passed. Dearest”—she clasped her hand over Lucy’s—“I don’t want to see you turned out of Society. Roman isn’t worth it.”
Lucy looked levelly at her. “What about Trestin? He’s not the only man in the world—a fact you know well—yet you pine for him, knowing he is unable or unwilling to fulfill your heart’s desire. He is not without choices, himself; he is here in London to seek out a wife from the hundreds of young ladies brought to show. Yet all he thinks about is you, though your reputation makes you entirely unsuitable for his purposes. I believe,” Lucy turned her entire body to face Celeste, “there can be such a person as you describe. One who is worth giving up every scruple, every moral in the book. You want it to be true just as much as I do.”
“The difference is,” Celeste said slowly, “I would marry your brother. If Roman were your one true love, rather than a passing itch, you’d do anything to be his wife.”
The truth cut straight into Lucy’s heart. Not because Celeste was right. But because Lucy knew loving a person and being able to live with them were two very different things.
“He’s not matrimonial material,” Lucy said, knowing she wasn’t, either. “There are reasons I can’t be shackled to him, not the way he is now. It would be detrimental for both of us. But I will not give up on him entirely. I must have my night with him.”
Celeste patted her hand, her entire being seeming to wilt, as though she deeply regretted her role in Lucy’s plan. “Making love to him won’t change him.”
“I know,” Lucy said, grateful for Celeste’s support, however reticently it was offered. “But it will almost certainly make me feel better.”
LATER THAT EVENING, Lucy waited impatiently on the edge of Delilah’s bed for her sister’s maid to finish outfitting Delilah for their come-out. Butterflies had kept Lucy from napping that afternoon. They just as furiously kept her from waiting calmly in the moments before she, Trestin and Delilah departed for the ball their mother’s cousin, Lady Ditsworth, was hosting in their honor.
As Delilah checked her sleek coiffure yet one more time for errant strands, Lucy tapped her slippered foot against the carpet. “You look stunning, goose. What would it matter if you didn’t? You can tell Mr. Conley you appeared flawless all night and he’ll never know.”
Delilah caught Lucy’s eye in the mirror. “Why must you remind me of horrid things?”
Lucy felt instantly contrite. It seemed she was always saying the wrong things—she must learn not to blurt out the first words that came to mind. “I do wish your Mr. Conley could attend. It would mean so much to you.” She knew how desperately she longed to have Roman dancing attendance on her on her special night.
Delilah flashed her a look of utter misery.
“You really do look like an angel,” Lucy said quickly, wishing to distract her sister from the unfortunate circumstance of being unable to share her life with the man who loved her. “We have the same coloring, yet you look breathtaking in white and I look…” She held up her arms as explanation. “Somehow, I fail to resemble an utter goddess.”
Delilah sent her maid away, then twisted on her stool to face Lucy. “If I look more angelic than you, it’s because I am. Sneaking off with Lord Felton! And Roman has been your shadow all week. What game are you playing? I have to think you’re up to something untoward.”
Were it not for Roman’s vow to dote on her tonight, Lucy might not have felt as gleeful as she did. Celeste’s sobering lecture had cast a pall on her afternoon. But now, just minutes before she was to see the man who’d finally, finally begun to take notice of her, she couldn’t keep from grinning like a loon. “It is something of a game, though I see it more as a strategy. If I tell you, though, you must promise not to breathe a word of it to anyone. Not even Mr. Conley.”
Delilah crossed her heart with one finger. “I won’t put anything into writing that Trestin might read.”
Close enough. Lucy had to—needed to—tell her sister everything. “I’ve been to see Celeste. You do recall Miss Gray? She returned to London after Trestin chased her out of Devon.”
“No!” Delilah’s expression was comically aghast.
Lucy nodded, smiling wider. “When Trestin is at his lessons, I slip away and meet with her for lessons of my own. She’s been teaching me how to be more…intriguing to the male half of our species.”
“You mean Roman.” Delilah ran her fingertips over the worn marble handle of her hairbrush. She seemed to choose her words carefully. “I know how you feel about him, dearest. But catching his eye—what on earth shall you do if you succeed? He isn’t a man to be trifled with, and there’s your reputation to consider. Trestin—”
“Would have my head if he knew. You cannot tell him!”
“I wouldn’t!” Delilah gripped the brush’s handle until her knuckles turned white. “That doesn’t mean I’m not concerned. Please, tell me she isn’t teaching you anything untoward.”
Lucy shook her head. “She’s quite vehemently against outrageous flirting. She prefers a more understated, poised style.”
Delilah glanced up. “Oh?”
“She doesn’t approve of giggling and wide-eyed flattery. Women are more interesting when they are unattainable, she says. Holding one’s self at arm’s length is more likely to capture his permanent regard, much the way Mr. Conley pursues yourself. He values you, for he cannot have you, and every iota of effort he expends to win your affection is a deposit on your worth.” As soon as she said it, Lucy realized it was true, and her appreciation for Celeste’s advice grew. “Miss Gray is impressively well-versed in the ways of men.”
“But not surprisingly,” Delilah drawled.
Lucy chuckled, once again pleased with herself for seeking out her brother’s spurned sweetheart in the first place. “It was her livelihood. I find it very informational. I’d say she’s instructing me in a sort of feminine self-possession, much like how men have their posturing and pontificating, but more subtle. According to Celeste, seduction is nine parts how I view myself and one part how Roman sees me. Fascinating, really.”
Delilah’s brown eyes widened with curiosity. “And Roman is taking note?”
“Oh, yes. Others, too.” Lucy couldn’t help feeling proud. For so many years, she’d been invisible. Just a handful of flirtatious exchanges later, she felt as though she could conquer the world.
Delilah shook her head primly. “Trestin wouldn’t like it.”
“Well, no. I didn’t set out to hurt him, of course. The awful thing is, I suspect he’d almost hate more the fact that my teacher is Miss Gray than the actual lessons themselves.” She smoothed the flounce on her skirt. “Fortunately, he hasn’t noticed my absence, or my success with several gentlemen, the poor soul.”
Her sister ceased fidgeting with the brush in her lap. “Poor soul? What do you mean?”
Lucy sighed. “As little as I liked our brother’s overbearingness, this aching, apathetic Trestin breaks my heart.”
Delilah’s lips formed a moue of sympathy. “To be honest, I’ve hardly realized he is in a brown study, I’ve been so engrossed in my own. But, maudlin or not, he’s bound to notice our tardiness tonight. This is one outing he won’t miss.”
Delilah rose and went to her wardrobe, then selected a silk shawl matched perfectly to the snow white color of her new ball gown. Both items had been purchased specially for her come-out, with precious coin Trestin didn’t have. All because he wanted to see his sisters settled.
Truly, for all his misguided efforts to marry her off to the wrong men, Lucy could never repay her brother for his kindness. He did love them, even if he failed to say it.
“I’ve been so wretched,” Delilah said, drawing the silk wrap around her shoulders. “I didn’t realize he’s still despairing. Do you think he loves her?”
Lucy reached for her own shawl tossed in a heap on the bed behind her. “Who can say? I believe he intended to court her. You know how he is; I imagine he wrote a perfect story for them in his mind, complete with names for their unborn children.”
Trestin had fallen for her quickly, and hard. He valued perfection, and he’d believed he’d found it in Miss Smythe.
Lucy’s thoughts trailed as she remembered Celeste’s advice to be singular and confident, rather than alluring. In Devon, Trestin had been transfixed by the headstrong bluestocking next door. Miss Smythe had been beautiful, yes, but that wasn’t what had made her appealing. It was her poise. She’d held herself proudly, refused to be coerced, and made one feel they were favored to have her attention.
Was it possible to feign twenty years of experience, a depth of wisdom and a shuttered heart? Was it even necessary, if all Lucy intended was to capture Roman’s interest long enough to taste the delight of being in his arms?
She blinked out of her reverie. Delilah was already at the door. Lucy slid off the edge of the bed and smoothed her bodice. It wasn’t cut as low as she would have liked—not that she had an expanse of bosom to show, anyway—but it fit her well. She could stand proud in it.
But could she glide, as Celeste seemed to do?
Lucy looped her arm through Delilah’s as they made their way to the drawing room where Trestin waited. Before they entered, Lucy nudged her sister. “See him brood?”
“Why, he looks awful!” Delilah whispered back. “How does Miss Gray fare?”
Lucy sighed. Fire danced across Trestin’s profile as he stared into the hearth. One hand held him upright against the mantel. He was too absorbed in his thoughts to realize they stood just outside the door.
She shook her head sadly. “The same, I fear.”
Delilah pursed her lips. “I don’t like seeing him like this. But what can be done? He was so angry when he learned of her soiled history. He’ll never forgive her for being unchaste.”
Lucy hesitated, unsure whether she ought to divulge any information about the shocking introduction she’d witnessed just before Lord Felton had whisked her into the gardens. “I believed so, too, but I’m no longer so certain. Trestin asked Roman to introduce him to a very beautiful, very mercenary-looking woman. A lady, but one whose interpretation of marriage seems fluid.”
Delilah’s brows rose. “Will he take a mistress?”
“It seems he might. I wish he would choose Miss Gray!”
Delilah slanted a wry look her way. “It really is none of our business.”
“Rubbish. Our brother is unhappy. We’ve everything to do with it.”
Delilah was quiet a moment. Then her pretty face split in a crafty smile. “Mayhap it is best Lord Montborne is willing to shepherd Trestin about. He ought to meet as many women as possible, until he is forced to admit none of them can compare to Miss Smythe.”
Lucy was impressed. “That is rather brilliant of you.”
Delilah grinned more widely. “It’s what he tried with us. Only, he meant for us to fall in love with one of his bachelors.”
Lucy hugged her sister’s arm closer. “I dread the day you leave me for Mr. Conley.”
As Delilah gazed into the drawing room, wonder shone in her eyes. She seemed not to see the flicker of firelight, but herself at Conley’s hearth. “Oh, Lucy. I long for it. No more squabbles, nor dashed hopes nor rules dictating who I may and may not see.”
Lucy tried not to feel slighted. She, too, looked forward to her new life in Bath; it didn’t mean she was anxious to leave Delilah, or even Trestin.
“We just need to survive the remainder of the Season,” Lucy said, tugging her sister inside the door. “Then we may all do precisely as we like.”
TRUE TO HIS word, Roman was waiting for Lucy at the end of Lady Ditsworth’s receiving line, though they were early to arrive.
Lucy was breathless before she was even standing in front of him. Roman never, ever troubled himself to be punctual, yet he’d come tonight, for her.
He beamed at her, then bowed low over his extended leg. “My lady. I am your servant tonight.”
“Heavens, that’s an outrageous gambit!” Lady Ditsworth exclaimed, one hand flattened against her expansive chest. “Do not fall for it, Miss Lancester. Our Lord Montborne is a shameless flirt.”
Delilah tittered and poked Lucy in the ribs. Lucy ignored her sister. She was far too absorbed by the way Roman seemed to be watching her, as if daring her to contradict her cousin—when they both must know she was exactly right!
“I’m in a mood to be humored tonight,” Lucy said a bit breathlessly, extending her hand for Roman to take.
As he bent and brushed his lips across the air over her knuckles, he didn’t remove those sparkling eyes from hers. “Then I am your jester.”
As he straightened, he tucked her fingers into the crook of his elbow, drawing her into line beside him, to her increasing delight. Then he turned to her sister. “Miss Delilah, had I a sister with your luster, I’d be hard-pressed to allow her a come-out at all.”
Delilah’s smile truly was radiant. “I would have stayed home happily, my lord.”
Trestin looked heavenward, aggrieved by her lack of appreciation for his attempts to see her properly introduced into Society.
Roman chuckled. “Try to enjoy the evening anyway. It was no mean task, rounding up all the unattached gentlemen in London. I should hate to think my efforts were wasted.”
Delilah’s laugh sputtered. Her eyes caught Lucy’s. Oh, she knew how deeply that hurt!
Lady Ditsworth beamed from ear to ear. “Did you put yourself out for me, Lord Montborne? How kind of you! I did worry we’d be thin on young men, as I haven’t held a good party here since my Eliza made her come-out ten years ago. Did you hear that, Trestin? Our ball will be a smashing success!”
But his attention had drifted. “Wonderful,” he replied, his lips forming a not-quite-smile as he stared blankly at a red-haired woman being escorted up the stairs to the receiving line.
She wasn’t Celeste.
Lucy forgave him his woolgathering. Trestin had spent years scrimping and saving for their come-out. For any other man, his lack of enthusiasm would have been expected, but was his insistence on a proper London Season that had brought them here at all. If he was inattentive, it was only because he was truly, deeply miserable.
That one dark spot was to be the only disappointing part of Lucy’s evening. Not only had Roman personally urged every handsome, eligible man to accept his invitation, he must have instructed them to treat her like a princess. If there was a downside to dancing every set with a different man, it was the constant frustration that the man wasn’t Roman. And yet, each time she found him across the room, he was watching her with an expression of bemusement that tugged her heart to her toes.
Sometimes he looked away first. Once, he acknowledged her with a two-finger salute. Usually, however, it was she who was forced to break the spell. There were simply too many others demanding her attention.
The candles were flickering near their bases when Lucy found herself alone for the first time in hours. Lord Kinsey had gone off to fetch another lemonade. She hummed along to the orchestra and tried to find her sister in the swirl of silk-clad dancers.
“You wanted this, I believe.” Roman startled her out of her girlish fancy and handed her a lemonade. Her insides fluttered as he murmured, “It seems Kinsey found better things to do.”
She took a delicate sip as her heart sped. Had he dispatched the poor viscount?
Roman moved into place beside her, closer than he ought to stand. Heat emanated through his sleeve. He smelled clean, like lemon peel and starch, as light and airy as his insouciant personality.
“There won’t be too many more sets left,” Roman said, indicating a dozen handsome couples spinning in time to the music.
“Are you asking me to dance?” Lucy asked. If she sounded bold, so be it, for it was the end of the night and she had nothing to lose by playing coy.
Perhaps not, but she could feel the scorching path of his gaze as it crept across her scalp. She’d given too much away.
She forced herself not to look up at him. Simpering was what other girls did; she was the wise old soul who had better things to fill her time than wondering what a marquis was thinking.
“We could have danced any number of sets before now,” he said quietly.
The hairs on the back of her neck prickled. She willed her cheeks not to flush. Oh, but his voice was so warm.
She lost her battle and turned toward him. “Why didn’t we?”
He seemed surprised. “You had a legion of men to fill your card.”
But you weren’t one of them! Had he no inkling at all how desperately she yearned to be held in his embrace?
He shrugged, as if his refusal to grant her this one boon on her special day meant nothing to him. “Upon my word, we shall dance…one day.”
When? she nearly shouted. If not at her come-out, when would he deign to dance with her?
“When you’re older,” he said, as if reading her frustration on her face. “Didn’t you say you’re going to be headmistress of a school? That ought to elevate you above idle speculation. Perhaps then.”
“You’re worried about my reputation?” Her voice was high-pitched, almost a squeak. London’s favorite rake was having a pang of conscience on her special night. How absolutely marvelous.
He laughed a low, promising laugh. “They’re already talking. No matter how many suitable men I allow your time, the chin-wagging persists. It’s simply too delicious a rumor and I refuse to make it any sweeter.”
The sound of the orchestra playing was impossible to hear over the pounding in her ears. “Wh-what is?”
“The idea that we might be forming a tendre.”
“O-oh,” she managed. Hearing those words straight from his lips was almost enough to cause her to moan with pleasure.
“Serves me right,” he said with another soft laugh, causing another flip of her belly. “I know better than to shower attention on one particular young lady.”
Oh, yes. Yes, she could die right now, and she wouldn’t complain a whit.
“I shan’t give them any reason to think you’ve made me a promise,” Lucy replied as calmly as she could. Never, never had she dreamed a conversation like this might actually occur between them. “I do appreciate your kindness in escorting me tonight.”
Another rumbling laugh. “I enjoyed myself, Miss Lancester. It was a breath of fresh air.”
“What do you mean?” she said too quickly, hoping he might finally admit he harbored a secret tendre for her. But it almost seemed he might not be rebuffing her in the way that she’d thought. As if—possibly—he was refusing her because he wanted to keep his distance.
She swallowed hard.
He looked at her with an amused expression, further confusing her and making her want to shake the answers out of him. “The events I usually attend exhaust me. Carousing has a way of sapping one’s energy. Or perhaps it’s the wine.”
She took a fortifying sip of lemonade. “Where would you be if you weren’t here, my lord?”
“Not a place for young ladies,” he warned her with a wicked smile.
She boldly returned his gaze. “Let it be a cautionary tale, then. Where shouldn’t I go?”
“Smart lass. I was to be at Madame Claremont’s weekly literary salon tonight. I attend most Thursdays, when I’m in Town.”
Did he? How intriguing and…tame. She couldn’t allow him to make a statement like that without remarking on its extraordinariness. “I expected somewhere more shocking than a drawing room.”
He peered down at her from his great height. Candlelight from the many wax tapers turned his tanned skin golden, so that his eyes sparkled like sapphire shards. “Have I disillusioned you? I assure you, the company is quite scandalous. You might have heard of Lord Byron.”
Considering her love of scandal sheets, she was more than passingly familiar with the popular poet’s outrageous antics. “Is he a friend of yours?”
Roman raised one shoulder in a shrug, as if their association was difficult to convey. “It’s impossible to be close with a man whose passions consume him. But he’s been known to attend our Bohemian little parties, yes.”
She was delighted by his description of Madame Claremont’s, Lord Byron, and his unexpected interest in a literary circle. “And when you are not at Madame Claremont’s, where might you be found?”
He slanted an amused glance at her, and she raised one eyebrow in return.
“Your club, perhaps?” she prodded.
Laughter lit his eyes as he feigned a long-suffering sigh. “Yes, my club. Or in the park, or taking a stroll along Bond. What you aren’t saying is that you imagine I steep myself in brothels when I’m not pretending to enjoy Almack’s.”
She laughed nervously, embarrassed to have been so transparent. “Do you?”
“No,” he said solemnly, so that she almost believed him. “Brothels are sad places, in my mind. Those who wish to share their favors ought to be allowed to do so when they wish, and only with the partner of their choosing.”
“As a courtesan does,” Lucy said.
She liked that he didn’t remind her of the impropriety of her questions. Never had she expected him to be so frank with his answers, and she was fascinated by this glimpse into his thoughts. “Where does a man meet a courtesan? Not here.”
He grinned at her. “What if I said otherwise?”
“No!” She was shocked. “Who?”
As she scanned the ladies in the room, he laughed and caught her arm. “You’re right, this isn’t their usual haunt. They have their own entertainments later in the night, after proper ones like these have run their course. Mrs. Galbraith’s masquerade ball, for example, will be packed wall to wall with Cyprians on Tuesday next. I expect half the men in this room will be there, too.”
“You’re serious this time?” She peered at him with a furrowed brow.
He chuckled as if he were genuinely entertained by telling her secrets no lady should know. “Here, I have my vouchers to prove it.”
She held his empty wineglass while he fished around in his coat pocket, then produced two vouchers printed with the date and direction of the Cyprian ball.
She looked over her shoulder, making sure no one was watching them closely, then seized them out of his hand to study them in detail. “Why do you have two?”
“Coupons are only distributed to those Mrs. Galbraith deems appropriate, but we are encouraged to bring a fresh face. Otherwise, we shall all tire of each other very quickly.”
Lucy held the vouchers close to her bodice. It felt very wicked to even know these existed, let alone hold them.
The she realized what he’d said. Jealousy surged through her. Roman couldn’t be explaining his plan for an assignation, right to her face! “Who will you take?” she gritted out.
His amused expression further impassioned her. He thought her reaction funny!
“No one,” he said smoothly, without addressing her obvious ire. “There will be more than enough new petticoats to investigate, without binding myself to a friend.”
She clutched the vouchers tighter as jealousy flared again. The man had no shame, none at all.
As it happened, neither did she.
He held out his hand. The manservant bearing the wineglasses returned, calling Roman’s attention. Deftly, with her heart beating a staccato, she used her middle finger to press one voucher against her palm, holding it in place as she pivoted her wrist dropped the other voucher across his open hand.
As he tucked away his coupon, he raised his wineglass to his lips. She held her stolen voucher behind her, then traded it into her left hand, where he would be less likely to notice it.
Not that she planned to attend. Dear Zeus, surely that was out of the question. But if he had no use for it, she might as well keep it as a trinket for herself, oughtn’t she? Something to remember her Season by.
As if she could forget.
When he looked up again, she quickly changed the subject. “Do you have a mistress?”
He choked. “That is not a question for a lady to ask.”
“Truly, my lord? That was the line in the sand?” She forced herself to grin at him, though she feared her guilt was written on her face.
He returned her smile, his eyes dancing. “It belatedly occurs to me this conversation isn’t at all proper.”
She worked the voucher deeper into the folds of her skirts and looked at him from beneath her lashes. “You haven’t answered.”
He nodded, as if she’d said something clever. “I have friends among the Corps, if that’s what you mean.”
Friends. He used the term so loosely, it might mean women he bedded, or women whose company he found amusing.
Neither choice fully satisfied her question. She knew he had lovers, and she knew he and Celeste were friends. What she wished to know was whether he claimed one woman as his own.
“You travel in their circles,” Lucy said, careful to keep her voice light. “It follows you have acquaintances among them—friends, if you like, and on occasion, perhaps more. But is there one woman you prefer above all others?”
He sipped his wine, seeming in the mood to humor her, and not the least annoyed by her persistence. “You could go mad trying to sort out every rumor you hear, Lucy.”
She turned away, deflated. She could think of only one reason he’d refuse to answer this question, when he’d been so forthcoming before.
For an entire turn of the dancers around the room, she did her best to manage her disappointment. But one full parade of those pastel-colored reminders of her failure to dance at her come-out with Roman was all she could withstand before she pivoted back toward him and said, “Tell me who it is who’s captured your heart.”
Misery flashed across his handsome face so quickly, she almost didn’t see it. Then he was sporting his rakish smile again. “Must I pick just one?”
Ohhhhh. A terrible feeling sank in her stomach.
He did harbor a tendre for someone.
His eyes dimmed, a frown wrinkled his brow, and inside, Lucy died. He didn’t fancy all the women in the world. Just one of them.
Someone who didn’t return his affection.
Suddenly, despite all her progress, her goal of having him as her own—even for just one night—seemed an impossible dream. Of course she hadn’t thought he would fall so deeply in love with her, he’d mend his rakish ways. But what woman wanted to dally with a man whose affections were already engaged?
Even if that man was Roman.
“I think my brother is looking for me,” she mumbled, turning away.
He caught her left wrist as she tried to leave. “Don’t.”
Her heart ceased crying. She didn’t turn toward him, but crumpled his paper voucher into her palm, lest he find it as his hand closed around her arm.
Roman tugged her wrist gently. Her feet stumbled backward, toward him. “I should not have teased. There is someone, but seeing as she doesn’t love me in return, it’s of no consequence.”
Lucy stiffened, shocked by the feel of his hand on her skin and confused by his attempt to console her with the worst words she could imagine. She doesn’t love me in return.
And yet, he’d asked her to stay. He must know she’d been eaten alive by envy. Did he care? Why else would he try to reassure her?
She stood awkwardly in front of him. He was touching her. Despite her roiling disillusionment, his grip on her wrist was all she could think about.
She wanted his touch. Everywhere.
He released her arm. When he didn’t say more, she turned to him, rubbing the place his soft glove had branded her. “Who is she?”
A bark of laughter erupted from him. “No one, Lucy. She’s gone.”
Lucy was oddly sympathetic toward his plight. Her beautiful Roman, in love with a woman who didn’t love him back. She completely understood. “But does she know how you feel?”
He turned away and stared out over the dancers. “That I admire her? That she is part of my soul? My best friend, my right arm, the pillow on which I sleep at night? Life without her is gray and misery. Yes, Lucy-love, she knows.”
Oh, the pain. Like a fist in her solar plexus.
And yet, it was her fault, all her own. She ought to have resisted the urge to press him. While she was aware of his involvement with immoral women, and she knew of the innocent young ladies he’d ruined, she hadn’t prepared herself for the blow of hearing his heart was taken. From his own lips, no less.
The way he spoke of someone who was half his soul… The way his heart hung on his sleeve when he thought of her… Oh, Lucy wanted to crawl into bed and hide.
But she couldn’t. This ball was in her honor. She must stay and see it through.
Oh, yes. She could be strong. Her voice didn’t even shake as she asked, “Why did you introduce my brother to that woman?”
“What woman?” Roman seemed genuinely puzzled.
“There was a woman at Lady Melbourne’s ball. She had dark hair. She was very beautiful. You introduced Trestin to her, then walked away.”
Roman frowned. “You shouldn’t have seen that.”
She continued to watch him levelly.
A muscle twitched at his jaw as he seemed to decide how much to reveal. Finally, he shrugged, a movement she was coming to think wasn’t as carefree as he wanted her to believe. “The fact of the matter is, your brother and I have unfinished business between us. I was not in a position to refuse his request, even if I didn’t agree.”
“Do you make a habit of dictating with whom he may be friends?” If they weren’t going to flirt, then she would protect her brother. It was the least she could do for Trestin.
Roman’s eyes narrowed. “You and Ashlin have spent far too much time in the country. If I am running hither and yon, drawing in the right sorts of people and frightening off the worst, it is because I see danger. The fact that he continues to court ruin even when I warn him against it is all the proof I need to reassure myself of the correctness of my actions. And you, Miss Lancester, would do very well to give me a wide berth.”
She immediately forgot how to speak.
His chest heaved, his cravat billowing just above eye level. A flush stained his cheeks. He was aroused to passion, though what she’d said to provoke him, she didn’t know.
If only she did understand him! For the barest second, she allowed her gaze to test his. Heat smoldered in his eyes and she gasped, a tiny little hitch that sounded louder than the stomp of the dancers’ feet on the parquet floor.
He looked away first. Visibly, he collected himself and smoothed away all traces of his outburst. “My apologies, Miss Lancester. I want only the best for your family.”
She nodded faintly, still speechless. As he eased his lean form back into the blithe stance of an unconcerned rake, then availed himself of yet another glass of wine, she felt bereft.
It had all happened so fast—there was simply too much to think about. She needed to leave. Without so much as a curtsey, she started for the doors.
He tried to catch her hand again, but she snatched it to her breast. He allowed her to leave without further incident.
In a crowded room like this, he couldn’t chase her, even if he wanted to do so. She walked as calmly as she could, knowing her confusion was on her face, until she reached the retiring room.
Hours later as she tossed and turned in fitful sleep, she heard the crash of glass breaking in the room below. She sat up straight, her heart pounding. Mother.
No, Mother was gone. Years had passed since Lucy had huddled beneath her blanket with her sister, listening to the terrifying sounds of their mother’s jealous fits.
Someone else had shattered the glass. Yet it took several moments for her grip on the coverlet to ease.
The clip-clop of hooves sounded outside her window. Chiding herself, Lucy tossed back the covers and went to draw the curtain back.
The carriage had been brought out. Misty moonlight shrouded it in shadow. Suddenly, the door opened below her and Trestin stumbled out of the house. He staggered to the carriage and climbed inside.
There was a moment’s delay before the carriage began to roll forward. She watched it rumble down the street until it turned. Though the direction told her nothing, there was only one explanation for his odd departure.
Trestin had an assignation.
EVEN THOUGH LUCY always imagined Roman in London, whisking young ladies off their feet and breaking promises at every turn, she must have always harbored a secret hope that when he finally knew her, he’d realize all those trysts had been nothing but a way to pass the time until she came into her own.
That was clearly a naïve dream.
Lucy pulled her coat tighter and stepped onto the stoop. As silly as she felt for not realizing Roman was already in love with someone else, she was glad to think she had her head about her on some things. The boarding school in Bath was a necessity. Thankfully, her prudence in planning for her future would be her comfort now.
She clutched a list of ladies’ names Celeste had provided to her. These women were potential benefactresses for their school. Lucy had the entire afternoon to call on these wealthy matrons, which she intended to do as soon as she prioritized them with Celeste. But this time, when Lucy asked Mr. Diggs to drive her to Celeste’s terraced house, he looked unsure.
Lucy frowned. She didn’t have time to spare if she was to make all of her planned rounds before tonight’s musicale.
“But you’ve driven me there before,” she persisted. “Most days, in fact. Why should today be any different?”
“It’s on account of the lord, you see. I don’t want there to be trouble.” The coachman ran his hand behind his head, looking miserable.
Lucy struggled to understand. “But you haven’t told him my comings and goings, have you? He would have said something to me.” A heap of it.
“No, my lady, and I hope he never asks. It’s more that Lord Trestin wanted to be out last night, and as I know you aren’t keen to have him know about your special outings, I think today isn’t a good day for that particular destination—”
“Oh?” Her brow creased in confusion. Then understanding dawned. “Ohhh! You took Trestin there!”
The coachman grimaced. “But it don’t seem like a thing he’d want you to know, and you don’t want him to know, and seeing as he hasn’t yet returned…”
Lucy couldn’t clamp her hand over her mouth quickly enough to contain her chortle of delight. Thank Olympus he’d gone to Celeste and not to that brown-haired woman!
Feeling euphoric, Lucy quickly gave Mr. Diggs the next direction on her list. Once she was alone in the carriage, she was free to grin widely. If she couldn’t seduce Roman into one night’s tryst—a fool’s errand if she ever heard one—at least Trestin and Celeste might reconcile.
Lucy smoothed the edges of her list as she rode to her first destination. Lady Baxter was the type to leap at the chance to sit on the board of directors, or so Celeste had told her. As soon as the carriage drew up to the impressive Mayfair house, Lucy seized her reticule, descended from the carriage and went to the front door.
Her hand shook as she lifted the knocker. If Lady Baxter rejected her proposal, it didn’t make Lucy’s idea a bad one. She must remember hers was a lofty goal; not everyone would understand it.
Lucy was shown to a rose-papered sitting room. The urge to fidget as she awaited Lady Baxter soon won out, and she reached for a freshly printed copy of The Ladies Companion lying on the table.
Flipping to the Society pages almost caused her to drop the magazine as if it were hot. The very first sentence of the gossip section read:
Our darling Lord M—, it is reported, has been observed in the company of a New Innocent.
Lucy’s heart leapt into her throat. Zeus! That was her!
This pretty fascination has taken the _]ton [_by storm, much to our surprise. For in spite of her limited dowry, despite her seasoned age, notwithstanding her average appearance, this New Arrival has captured the attention of several Sought After Gentlemen. Perhaps we are bored of the same lot of debutantes we are subjected to each spring. It certainly appears Lord M— is ready for a new challenge.
Lucy thrust aside the rag as Lady Baxter entered the room. It wouldn’t do for the woman to think Lucy was embroiled in a scandalous on dit.
“So inconsiderate of me to keep you waiting, child,” Lady Baxter said, running her hands over her coiffure and smoothing the wisps of gray against her ears. “There was a situation with my cook—has Thomas brought you refreshment? No? Thomas! Thomas, the tray. At once.” She approached Lucy without waiting for the servant to appear. “Now, what brings you here?”
Lucy smiled as best she could manage when her heart beat like a hummingbird’s. The notion that Roman was already half-enamored of her—at least enough to capture the notice of the gossip columnist—buoyed her considerably. There [_had _]been all the confounding utterances he’d made when she’d riled him to passion, just before she’d left on account of her spinning head. Perhaps she had a chance to win his heart, after all.
“My lady,” Lucy said, reaching into her reticule as she forced herself to think of her future, rather than her fancies. “I’ve come to you with a very exclusive proposal…”
LUCY MADE THREE stops by the end of the day. All three of the potential patronesses had agreed to donate money to her school. Two of them, including Lady Baxter, had agreed to sit on the board. Lucy was feeling pleased with herself as she dressed for the evening ahead. A good day’s venture always left her satisfied.
She had just arrived at the musicale with her sister and Trestin in tow when Roman stepped from behind a marble column and caught her hand, frightening her half to death. “Dear family! I’d hoped you’d be present. I would hate to spend the entirety of the evening with only my rambling thoughts for company.”
Trestin’s face broke into a smile. “Funny, I know precisely how you feel.”
Roman glanced twice at his friend, as if he couldn’t believe Trestin’s long-lost grin had returned. “I think I’ve just been offended. Lucy-love, did your brother just imply that I’m a natterbox?”
Lucy gave him a wry look. After an entire afternoon spent pondering the likelihood of winning his affection from the woman about whom he’d spoken so worshipfully, Lucy was quite inspired to play the flirt again, if only to see how he’d respond.
In this case, he’d held her hand long enough; time to leave him wanting more. She withdrew her hand from his. “A sentiment shared by all of your friends, my lord?”
Delilah laughed gaily, perhaps as happy as Lucy and Roman to see Trestin’s grin again. “There is nothing wrong with enjoying the sound of one’s own voice, so long as others are willing to listen, my lord.”
Trestin rolled his eyes. “Don’t encourage him.”
Roman tossed his head back, shaking out his guinea ringlets so that they cascaded like a handful of coins. “A pretty girl is always allowed to agree with me. And you are looking lovely tonight, Miss Delilah. How goes the husband-hunting? I’ve introduced at least a dozen men to Miss Lancester and she’s turned them down to a one. I should have thrown them your way, instead.”
Delilah’s brown eyes danced. “Another waste of your time, I’m afraid. I prefer a country sort to these silly Corinthians.”
Roman slapped his hand across his chest in playful affront. “Insulted again! I shan’t recover this time. What fault could you possibly find with men who enjoy shopping and conversation?”
“It’s not you she’s offending.” Trestin glanced at her with exasperation, though his lips twitched with humor. “It’s me. I’m the misguided brother who insists on a sophisticated husband for his sister. But they are not all milksops,” he said to Delilah. “There must be at least one suitable prospect who can provide you a more comfortable living than an penurious farmer.”
“A farrier,” Delilah corrected. “And Mr. Conley may be an apprentice now, but when he returns to Hempsted Heath in Gloucester, he will be the only smithy for miles and miles. He’ll do very well for himself. You’d know this if you’d had the least inclination to meet him.”
Lucy stepped forward before Trestin could argue that none of them ever should have been introduced to a commoner like Mr. Conley. “We’ll be back to Devon soon enough, Delilah. Until then, let’s enjoy what time we have left in London. Perhaps Trestin can escort us to the Museum tomorrow. There is no reason London must be reserved for husband-hunting.”
To Lucy’s surprise, Trestin looked regretful. “I’m otherwise engaged.”
Delilah’s face fell. Lucy was disappointed, too. This was their last opportunity to go about together as a family. Soon, Delilah would find the strength to defy Trestin and marry her farrier. Lucy would remove to Bath. And Trestin….
Well, the Trestin who sought solace in the arms of a lover was a man she hardly recognized. One she might get on with better, if she were given the chance to know him.
Roman cleared his throat. “I’ll take you.”
Delilah looked surprised. “Do you enjoy visiting the Museum, my lord?”
He chuckled. “No, dearest Delilah. But I know where it is, and in such comely company as yourself, it’s sure to have its delights.”
Lucy tamped down a scorching pillar of burning hot jealousy. This was why her dalliance with Roman could never be more! With every woman—with her own sister!—she must always wonder whether he was inviting the lady to fall in love with him, or simply speaking in the way he conversed.
Heat radiated along the back of Lucy’s neck. At her sides, her fists pressed into her skirts. Likely, his manner of speaking was a bit of both invitation and nonsense. Flirting was ingrained in him: It opened doors for him, it excused his bad behavior, and it kept the unmarried young ladies vying for his hand, in spite of his penniless state. He wouldn’t change, and she would be a fool to think otherwise.
Her mother had been just such a fool.
Roman retrieved her hand and bowed over it, shaking her from her reverie. “Now, Lucy-love” —a thrill went through her—“it’s time we found our seats. May I escort you in?”
Her face heated as she slipped her arm through his. That was the problem with Roman. Even knowing he was a confirmed rake who could flirt with her as easily as her sister, she still wanted him. Standing next to him felt like a privilege, as though she’d been singled out for a special honor. And his light blue eyes did seem to heat when he looked down at her. Or was she imagining it?
He falls in and out of love like he changes cravats, she’d told Celeste.
He was fickle. She knew that. It had always seemed like a curse, but what if it could work in her favor? Perhaps he wasn’t as enamored of the woman whose soul he considered a pillow, after all.
Perhaps she could change him.
“Before we take our seats,” Roman murmured to her as he drew her away from Trestin, “there is a room I’d like you to see.”
Her heart sped. Yes, this was it, exactly proving her point. He’d made such a lovely speech about the young lady he’d claimed to admire, yet he made her feel like the only woman in the world. Clearly, his heart wasn’t as engaged as he seemed to think.
“Very well,” Lucy said, a bit breathlessly.
He turned into a large, open room. Paintings as tall as herself hung down one wall. He went directly to the third one and stopped them before it. “What do you think?”
A serene-looking woman sat beside a golden-haired little boy. Like Roman, the child’s ringlets fell in charming curls around his face. He was mid-play, climbing across the back of his mother’s chair, as if sitting for the portrait was a strain on his boundless energy.
The woman appeared slightly amused as she looked toward her errant son. Loose curls of her own rich brown hair cascaded across her arms and breasts, as if she’d been caught in a private moment between breakfast and dressing for the day.
Lucy glanced away from the oil, unsure what to think. She’d expected a scandalous painting of a half-dressed nymph, not this intimate intrusion into a maternal scene she never expected to experience, herself. “Do you want it?”
He laughed. “Oh, no. I couldn’t afford it. Even if I could, I’ve nowhere to put it. I just like to look at it when I come here.” He gazed at the painting as if they were the only ones in the room.
She looked again. Lamentably, even with a more thorough second look, her heart didn’t soar. If anything, she felt awkward. He’d offered to share this with her and she didn’t understand it. What was it about it that called to him? Did he see himself in the child? Or worse, was he implying he saw her in the dark-haired woman?
Oh, my. Was that what he meant for her to think?
“Do you see her?” Roman asked, pointing to the woman. “She reminds me of you.”
A little gasp escaped her. She moved closer to him without thinking. Almost reached for his hand—
Oh, for all the gods. This was dangerous.
“She has a streak of independence,” Roman continued, cocking his head to one side. “I like that about her. Her son is allowed to frolic and she doesn’t mind sitting for a portrait in dishabille. Things aren’t required to be perfect in her world.”
Lucy’s breaths came shallow. His description of her was eerily close to how she felt. She didn’t need perfection. She wanted him. “Why would that remind you of me?”
Though she couldn’t see him, she sensed him shrug. “I don’t know. It’s just a feeling I have.”
Her ears pounded with the beat of her heart. “Do you think of me often?”
His heel squeaked against the marble floor as he turned toward her. “It’s not my intention.”
His answer was better than a simple yes. He thought of her against his will! She was elated.
As difficult as it was not to spin into his arms, she remained where she was. Let him come to her, as Celeste had advised. Make him be the one to lose control.
Lucy waited. And waited. In the silent room, all she could hear were her own quick breaths. Then, finally, so quietly it seemed he feared frightening her away, he stepped toward her. He moved to stand in front of her until he was close enough that her arm brushed against the superfine of his coat.
Slowly, she turned toward him. He lifted one hand, and, with a crooked finger, brushed one a tendril of dark hair away from her face.
She caught his gaze. Crystalline intensity trapped her so that she couldn’t have broken the connection if she’d wanted to end it. He towered over her, yet she felt as though they were meeting eye to eye. He wanted her. And she desired him back.
Suddenly he blinked. Those azure eyes focused. The hand that had been inches from her face whipped behind him. He stepped backward and frowned, as if having a private argument with himself.
Her eyes were wide, but she didn’t try to hide her surprise. Let him think he’d shocked her. He didn’t know she’d yearned for this moment her entire life.
“I think of all the Lancesters fondly,” Roman said evenly, though a frown still marred his brow. Not even he believed that poppycock.
She smoothed her expression, as if his explanation made all the sense in the world and she no longer feared he’d suddenly blurt out he was in love with her. “We do adore your nonsense.”
He bowed succinctly. “I am your fool.”
But as she rested her fingertips on his sleeve and allowed him to guide her back to the main hall, she wondered which one of them was the fool.
AFTER MEETING WITH Lady Clifton and receiving a substantial amount of ready cash, Lucy took her precious banknotes directly to the solicitor Celeste had recommended. It was all beginning to seem frighteningly real. Not only had Lady Clifton been a generous donor, with many pretty words of encouragement for Lucy, but she’d also mentioned the name of a prominent family who might wish to send their daughter to the school. Her first pupil! Lucy could scarcely believe it.
She didn’t stay long at Mr. Cartwright’s office. She was glad to have made the trip, however, as he’d had some very exciting news to impart. They’d been given permission to let the little white cottage in Bath. In fact, they could occupy it now, if they so chose.
Lucy’s hands shook as she signed the contract. This was it. She had enough funds for the year and a place to call home. Trestin couldn’t stop her from leaving now.
Yet she wasn’t ready to leave London, not yet. Not after Roman had almost kissed her. She must spur things along with him. But how? He’d sent word over that morning, regretfully explaining he couldn’t escort them to the Museum after all. She had the sensation he was avoiding her.
Because of last night?
Lucy tortured herself with the question all day. When she went down later that evening to assemble for Lady Julson’s ball, Trestin wasn’t in the drawing room. Neither was Delilah. Lucy went to his sideboard and lifted the bottle of brandy up to a flickering candle. The liquid burned tawny gold, the same color as her brother’s eyes. But it was Roman’s eyes she saw in her mind. A pure, ice blue, yet hot enough to melt her resistance.
“Montborne tells me you’re quite the sensation,” Trestin said behind her, causing her to almost drop the decanter.
She quickly set the bottle back on the table and spun around. “If his introducing me to several eligible young men counts, then I suppose that’s true.” The thing she desired least was for her brother to feel he needed to watch her more closely.
“A different story than what I heard, but one that makes far more sense.” Trestin went to the brandy bottle and set it back into its proper place beside two empty snifters.
Before she could ask what he meant by that—or what, specifically, Roman had told him—Delilah entered the room. “I’m sorry to have kept you waiting,” she said breathlessly, as though she’d rushed down. “I see the carriage is already out.”
“No cause for running down the stairs,” he chided, much more the worried older brother who’d cautioned them against riding horses too fast and playing cricket behind the peach house than the man who’d brought them to London.
To Lucy’s surprise, he maintained idle conversation all the way to Lady Julson’s. He further surprised her when they entered the already-crowded ballroom and, rather than wandering away as he’d done so many times before, he stayed by her side.
The entire night.
No one approached. Roman didn’t come. She stood alongside her brother and spoke about inanities all night. It was the worst ball of her short season, and she couldn’t wait for it to close.
By the end of her tremendously tedious evening, Lucy was more than ready to retire to her bed and hope for a better day on the morrow. She had just crawled under her covers when there was a knock on her door.
“Lucy? May I come in?” Delilah kept her voice pitched at a whisper.
Lucy sat upright. Tonight was turning into a strange one, indeed. “Please.”
The door opened enough for her sister to slip through. Delilah shut it behind her, then trod lightly to Lucy’s bed.
Lucy shifted over and Delilah climbed in beside her.
“It’s so cold in the corridor,” Delilah said, tugging the blanket up to her chin. “I suppose I won’t be pitter-pattering around the house once I wed Mr. Conley.”
Lucy pulled the coverlet down so she could see her sister’s face. “What do you mean?”
Delilah rose up on her elbows. She didn’t need a candle, with that smile. “Mr. Conley is coming! He wrote to me again. He says he’s tired of waiting for Trestin’s approval. We’re to go to Gretna Green and handfast over the anvil!”
Lucy’s mouth dropped open. “You wouldn’t!”
Delilah’s smile stretched even wider. “That’s what Trestin thinks, which is why I’ll succeed. He’ll never expect me to elope, and you won’t tell him!”
“I won’t,” Lucy agreed, feeling far less excited for her sister than the look on her face implied. It was evidently perfectly acceptable for her to make secret plans to leave her sister, but she didn’t like it at all that Delilah had been behind her back, doing the same.
“When will he be here?” Lucy asked, trying to be supportive. “Oh, dearest, are you sure this is what you want?”
But she knew the answer to that even before Delilah scoffed. “It is all I’ve ever wanted. You must be happy for me.”
Lucy bit her lip. She was being a spoilsport.
Feeling chastened, she snuggled closer to Delilah and wrapped her arms around her dear little sister, who’d always managed to be the perfect combination of irritating and adoring. “I am,” Lucy assured her, “I promise. I’ll miss you, though. Gloucester is a long way from Bath.”
“It’s half the distance to Devon,” Delilah pointed out reasonably. “You can come for Christmastide.”
Lucy nodded slowly, considering. Visiting her sister on her holiday, two young women with their own independent lives, was all she’d ever dreamed, and it was just days away from becoming reality.
“Trestin will be very angry. Things have been so much pleasanter since he and Celeste…well. This will rile him up again.”
Delilah sighed. Then she turned to face Lucy and tucked her head against her elbow. “I know. But don’t you think he’ll be more understanding, now that he is in a like situation? Miss Smythe is even less suitable than Mr. Conley.”
“He’s not marrying her,” Lucy reminded her sister.
“Not yet, but I do hope he comes to his senses soon.” Delilah fluttered her lashes at Lucy. “Roman seems to be improving. He’s rather sweet on you.”
Lucy remembered the way he’d towered over her, and the longing in his eyes when he’d been—she’d been so sure he’d been about to kiss her. But she was still afraid to admit Roman might indeed be coming around. What would she do if such a virile, experienced, untrustworthy man declared himself in love with her?
“You’re the one he was flirting with,” Lucy said, a bit churlishly.
Delilah laughed. “It was you he pulled aside. What did he want, anyway? It was very bold of him to take you away right under Trestin’s nose.”
Lucy pushed the coverlet to her waist as the room suddenly seemed too warm. “I think he wanted to kiss me!”
Lucy crowed gaily. “It crossed his mind, I’m sure of it.”
Delilah’s eyes went wide. “What did you do?”
She sobered. “Nothing, unfortunately. He realized his mistake before anything exciting could happen. It was the most disappointing moment of my entire life.”
“He’ll try again.”
Delilah said it with such certainty, Lucy wanted to believe her. But she worried the edge of the coverlet and let her mind fill with doubt. “He didn’t come to Lady Julson’s tonight. I think he might be avoiding me.”
“Then you must go to him.”
Lucy shook her head, though she very much wanted to do just that. Wielding her feminine power meant waiting imperiously for him to come to her—a tactic sure to try her nerves. “Celeste was very specific. He must be the one who relents, not me. Look how long she waited for Trestin! Not once did she try to call on him. It took months, but finally, he broke.”
Delilah pursed her lips. “If you wait too long, you’ll be in Bath.”
Lucy was silent a moment. “I hadn’t finalized the date of my departure, but now that you’ll be leaving London and Trestin will throw himself into a fit of hysterics the moment he learns of it, I’ll need to go sooner than I anticipated.” She bit her lip. “Once Trestin and I part ways, I’m unlikely to see Roman for months, if not years. There must be a way to speed things along.”
Delilah gazed at her. “Have you any notion which routs he will attend? You could make an appearance at one of them. It wouldn’t be going to him, exactly. Just making it a little bit easier for him to come to you.”
Lucy did like the idea of looking in on him, for a change. “When it comes to ton events, I can only guess which ones he will grace with his presence. But he did tell me about a salon he frequents each Thursday.”
“Oh? That sounds promising.”
Lucy pressed her lips together. “Yes, well… I’d like to think I’m brave enough to set foot inside Madame Claremont’s salon, but I’m not naïve enough to believe I wouldn’t be recognized immediately. Perhaps your idea won’t work, and I must be patient, instead.”
Delilah pulled a face. “Patient! If you are any more patient, you’ll be dead.”
It was true. If Lucy didn’t complete this little game of cat and mouse with Roman, she’d die of anticipation.
She blinked as a brilliant idea came to her. If the problem was being seen, she could solve it by being unseen. “I have it! I’ll wear a mask. I can disguise my voice, too, and my mannerisms. He’ll never recognize me, because he won’t expect me.”
Delilah gaped at her. “Lucy! Are you mad?”
“I must be!” Lucy chortled and folded the coverlet neatly across her lap. “Never mind the poetry reading,” she murmured excitedly, knowing she’d never sleep now. “I’m going to attend a Cyprians’ ball.”
LUCY ADJUSTED HER demi-mask as it began to slip down the bridge of her nose. Lord de Winter, one of the men Roman had attempted to introduce her to at the start of her Season, caught her black silk-gloved hand. “You’re the only woman in this room I don’t recognize. Even one arching eyebrow might be enough to stimulate my memory. Let me see your face.”
She pulled him toward her and flipped her wrist so that she held his hand, instead. The demi-mask made her bold. So did this man’s dogged determination to flirt with her. A hundred beautiful women in the room, and he’d set her in his sights. “You don’t know me, my lord, and I prefer to keep it that way.”
He flattened his palm against hers and threaded their fingers together. Had it been Roman caressing her, she would have ached with longing. Instead she gave in to the power Lord de Winter’s attraction fed her.
She stepped backward slowly, so that they circled each other in an elegant little dance.
“I can be very persuasive,” he said.
“Luckily for me,” an unfamiliar voice drawled behind her, “there is no rule that a woman must accept the first offer that comes her way.”
Lucy turned to see the new man. She didn’t untangle her fingers from Lord de Winter’s.
Never had she felt such command; now she knew what Celeste had been trying to teach her all these weeks. But how could she ever have learned this under her usual circumstances? Even when Roman had skirted propriety, he’d always held her at a figurative arm’s length, never forgetting she was Trestin’s sister.
The man who had approached was another stranger. Tall, like Roman, and blond, but much younger, perhaps a few years older than herself. He bowed to her. “Lord Chelford, madam. I hope I am not too late to rescue you from this braggart.”
She released Lord de Winter’s hand so the earl had no choice but to let her go, then she dipped to Lord Chelford. “Rescue me, my lord? Are you brave enough to call for pistols? He told me he will fight to the death for my attentions.”
Lord Chelford cast a playfully disdainful look at the other man. “This dandy? I cut my teeth out-shooting him.”
Yet another hopeful approached. This one looked familiar. Ah, yes, she did remember him. The first time Roman had taken her for a turn, this man had been kissing a woman on the balcony.
One of the man’s arms was slung around a cat-eyed woman with flaming orange hair. Her lips pouted in a sultry moue while the man looked Lucy up and down as if she were a delectable morsel.
“What have you blocks-for-brains found?” He patted the auburn-haired woman on her backside. “Go on, now,” he said, sending her off.
She sauntered away, not the least bit put out. There were a hundred more men in the room.
Lucy had three admirers now—and not one sign of Roman. She searched for a glimpse of his golden halo, but none of the guinea-haired men she spotted were tall enough to be her quarry.
What if he didn’t come?
A fourth man some several meters distant caught her eye as her gazed passed over him. He raised his glass to her. She smiled coolly, then craned her neck to look about the rest of the soiree and almost had an apoplexy from fright.
Her brother had entered the room.
Celeste was on his arm. Her stunning gown proclaimed her queen; she could have worn rags, however, and Lucy would have known she was no common lightskirt. Men and women alike stepped away to make room for her and Trestin to pass. No one attempted to approach her. Yet the way they gawked at her, as if they’d just encountered royalty, reminded Lucy that Celeste had been a courtesan for many, many years.
Perhaps even as long as Lucy had been alive.
Lucy had just experienced an inkling of that power. Celeste owed no one, she bowed to no one, and yet she remained kind. Even Trestin, upright soul that he was, was under her spell. Why else would he have come to a place like this?
Lucy quickly faced her new admirers again. Neither Trestin nor Celeste seemed to have seen her. Thank Zeus for her demi-mask! Never in her life had she expected to encounter her brother here.
At least he was distracted. But his presence meant she must leave soon. Where was Roman?
A fifth man had joined their group when she wasn’t looking; she could hardly keep them straight now. She edged closer to Lord de Winter, whom she didn’t know, but who must be honorable, if Roman had considered them making a match.
Her stomach turned. It still troubled her that he’d tried to foist her off on his friends.
Suddenly, the entire room seemed to pulse with expectation. Lucy glanced toward the top of the staircase and her heart gave a little leap. Roman stood there, looking impeccably handsome in a black coat and ivory waistcoat. His square jaw was freshly shaved, and his hair curled in perfect, gilt ringlets.
He brandished his voucher for the majordomo, then frowned at the room. Lucy inhaled sharply as the ticket was presented. But no, he thrust it back into his pocket without examining it.
He didn’t seem to realize he was one coupon short.
Slowly, she released the breath she’d been holding. Bit by bit, she forced herself to stop staring at him and return to the conversation taking place around her. But her heart started racing again as, from the corner of her eye, she witnessed him cut a proud figure through the crowd. Straight toward her.
She turned abruptly. Great Zeus. He must have seen her.
“Gentlemen,” he said behind her head, “that will be all.”
Oh, no. Oh, no. This wouldn’t do at all. What in Hades was she going to do if he tried to make her leave? She couldn’t make a scene, not with Trestin near enough to witness it.
Chelford brought his glass to his lips. “You can’t have your cake and this one, too. It’s unfair to the rest of us.” He took a swig of wine.
“Agreed,” Lord de Winter said. “We gave you Miss Lancester. This one is ours.”
Lucy’s skin pebbled. That was quite the possessive statement. But it was the implication that exhilarated her. Had they maintained their distance because they’d observed some unintended signal from Roman, as Celeste had described, or had Roman frightened them away?
She’d give a half crown to know the answer. Yet she dared not turn and face Roman, let alone ask.
“If only I cared a fig about your opinion,” Roman drawled, “but it appears I don’t. Be off with you, and take Scotherby with you. This poor girl doesn’t deserve a lecher like him.”
Lucy forced herself not to turn around. Things were already progressing better than she’d imagined. Celeste had said Roman must be the one to approach her; by coming here, Lucy had gone against that advice. But Roman’s sweeping away her suitors like yesterday’s rubbish was surely the grand gesture Celeste had wanted him to make.
“Very well,” Chelford said, backing away. “But I’m only surrendering because she looks like she’d rather be with you. The life of a songbird, I suppose. All the ladies want to pet you.”
“Perhaps she’ll let him wash her dishes when she realizes he’s no money to pay her,” the balding man who must be Scotherby said with a smirk. Then he, too, took himself off.
The last two men made similar remarks before removing themselves so that only de Winter remained. “The wonderful thing about me,” he murmured to her, “is that I would fight for you, if you wanted it.”
Lucy shivered again. Not that she wished he had been in attendance that night Roman had tried to introduce them, but Lord de Winter was no milksop. The fact that he seemed intrigued by her delighted her.
“Thank you, my lord, but no.” That was all she trusted herself to say.
Lord de Winter arched a brow as if he didn’t quite believe her. “Your way, then. But should you have a change of heart, I shan’t be far.” He sketched her a perfect bow, then walked away.
She was alone with Roman. It had taken but a second, really, for him to make short work of her many admirers.
With deliberate steps, he circled around until they faced each other. Ever so slowly, he closed the remaining distance until they were toe to toe.
The top of her head scarcely met his cravat. She breathed in the scent of him, warm male and lemony soap, and promised herself she’d never forget this moment as long as she lived.
“You’re new,” he said. Without waiting for her to respond, he raised one hand and brushed the backs of his knuckles across her upper arm. Once again, gooseflesh pebbled across her skin. “What’s your name?”
Her hands shook so violently, she forced them into fists at her sides. “W-what’s yours?”
His thighs brushed her skirt as he encroached closer. “Ah, but I think you know.”
She glanced up at him. Cerulean eyes stared back. Just as inquisitive and teasing as he usually appeared, yet devoid of recognition.
An empty hollow formed in her belly. Her disguise was intentional. She’d meant to trick him into forgetting she was an innocent, into forgetting who she was. But she didn’t like the sensation that she was sharing Roman, even if it was with herself. Was this what he did at night, after he left her side? He waltzed away from their tepid entertainment and brought himself somewhere like this, into the arms of someone like her?
Of course it was. Why else would she have come? The only way to have him was on his terms. One passionate night without consequence. That was how he lived.
How he loved.
She glanced to the ballroom floor. Then, boldly, she drew one finger against the intricate gold button fitting his coat. She placed her hand flat on the superfine wool covering his chest and pitched her voice low, attempting to disguise it in velvety invitation. “One cannot help but hear gossip, my lord. Tell me, are you as talented as they claim?”
She half expected him to guffaw. Wasn’t that the most blatantly ridiculous thing she’d ever said?
But he didn’t snicker. He moved closer. Let her hand press into his chest. Beneath her palm, his heart beat steadily and his voice vibrated as he spoke.
“You could say I’m something of a professional. But what do they say about you?” He rubbed his knuckles against her arm again. Then he dipped his head and murmured in her ear. “Wait, don’t tell me. Allow me to guess. They say that you can seduce a man from twenty paces, with the back of your head, no less. That every man here wants to roll down these gloves and taste each one of your fingertips. That you make us hard with need. That we savor it.”
She inhaled sharply as lust shot through her. Dear Zeus, he was good. Her entire core melted into want at that statement.
She took a breath, then forced herself to look into his face. Again she was unprepared for the lack of recognition.
He smiled at her, yet his eyes were haunted. His jaw was set. As if he had single-mindedly decided he was going to have her—whoever she was—and he didn’t intend to wait.
She didn’t want to wait, either. “Unfortunately for them, I will only take one lover tonight,” she said coyly.
Appreciation for her cunny remark lit his eyes. “Tonight, tomorrow, next week, next month, next year. Men never cease hoping their turn will come.”
While she was still reeling from that statement, he took her upper arm in his hand. Claiming her.
Her, a stranger.
Once more, she felt that flare of red-hot jealousy. For all the flirting he’d done with her as Lucy Lancester, he was here tonight to bed a complete unknown. He had no obvious compunctions against it. He even laughed about it!
She was too angry with herself to form a retort. She’d known he was a rake. Feeling disgusted by it was senseless, and detrimental to her plan. What would she remember more, that she’d found ecstasy in his arms, or that he’d proved his capriciousness in no uncertain terms?
“Don’t,” he said, his grip on her arm tightening.
The singular, familiar word impaled her like a pike through the heart. Her hand curled into the expensive, soft fabric of his sleeve, remembering the feel of him. Wanting him to remember her, and yet, almost glad he didn’t know it was she, for what use did she have for a confirmed libertine, beyond the night’s dalliance?
Gently, he tugged her. Not hard enough to cause her to stumble, but asking her to stay. With him.
“Don’t choose someone else,” he said quietly.
She looked again into his countenance. She couldn’t leave, not when he was quite literally within her reach. He might not be thinking about her, but she would remember him, the man she’d yearned for and dreamt of forever. For just this night, he was hers alone. Even if he didn’t know who she was.
His grip eased. His thumb rubbed soothingly against her skin, calming her. “I need you,” he murmured, bending so his forehead touched hers.
Their noses bumped as she turned her head slightly. Her heart leapt into her throat as their lips brushed. This. Dear Zeus, this was happening. They were almost locked in a kiss, and yet, not quite. He wanted her, he was holding her, but he was giving her a choice.
“You don’t know who I am,” she whispered. Despite her protest, she relished the feel of his skin against hers. This was how it should be. She wanted him. Hers, forever; hers, alone. Always.
He feathered his lips across her cheek, then against the underside of her mask. Just out of reach of where she wanted, no, needed him to kiss her.
“Pretend I do,” he said gruffly.
Her resistance was melting. This was what it was like to be seduced by him. It was marvelous. Surely, she would live the rest of her life in regret if she didn’t discover what other pleasures he could give her.
She leaned into him. Her left hand came up and she flattened both against his lapels. “There are no other women,” she said firmly. “Just me.”
He held her arms tightly, drawing her breasts closer to his chest, making love to her through their clothes right there on the ballroom floor. “I am your virgin.”
“Don’t mock me,” she said archly, leaning back to challenge him face to face. “You don’t know what I’ll do.”
He laughed quietly. “I have hopes.”
Then he slipped his arm around her and pressed her toward the exit.
They walked nonchalantly, yet with purpose. She missed his body wrapped around hers. Without the dizzying effects of his nearness, she was too aware they were leaving. This was happening.
Moments later, they slipped through the side doors and into a darkened hallway. Roman seemed to know where he was going. He held her hand as he led her through the maze of rooms, not stopping to gather his bearings for so much as a second.
She pushed the unpleasant thought away. It didn’t matter if he’d done this before, just as it didn’t matter if he thought she was someone else. They were both wanted the same thing and they wanted it now.
He’d promised to be hers for the night. What more did she need?
Finally, they entered a bedchamber lit only by the silvery cast of a streetlamp through the window. Roman closed the door behind them.
He slid the bolt home. Click.
What was she doing? Good gods, what if she couldn’t lose herself in the moment, couldn’t forget she meant nothing to him?
What if there were consequences?
Certainly, she had concerns aplenty without adding fear of pregnancy to the list. There wouldn’t be unintended consequences and that was that. Celeste had prepared her for this; she must trust in the outcome of some things.
Lucy stood just inside the bedchamber door as he shrugged out of his tightfitting coat. Her pulse pounded in her ears. Desire warred with fear. She’d been so sure she was ready. But doubt had started to creep in with the first indisputable evidence he was truly, truly a rake. More so than she’d ever imagined.
In the darkness, his tall, shadowy form approached. He’d removed his boots, and yet still he towered over her. He reached out and searched her cheekbone with his long fingers, probing the lace edge of her demi-mask.
She’d almost forgotten it.
“You seem nervous.” His voice was low and soothing. His fingertips traced the shape of the mask. Slowly, they grazed across her cheek, then tickled the whorl of her ear. She gasped.
He leaned in, closing the distance between their heights. His lips hovered over hers. “I can stop.”
She shook her head. In those few seconds, he’d brought all her tumultuous desire back to the surface. Waves of it, enough to send her gasping for air. “Don’t.”
“Good.” He slipped his hand around her head and brought his lips down on hers. No modest first kiss, but a soul-consuming inferno that set her body aflame.
She wanted to do the same to him, but there was no time for her to practice moving her lips against his. He wasn’t kissing a novice, but a woman he believed to be as experienced as himself.
He ran his hands down her body so quickly, she almost missed it. Even as his hands skimmed the sides of her breasts, it seemed he pressed those same hands against her backside. Then her spine. Then her hips. In one swift motion, it seemed he touched every arc and bend hidden beneath her gown. Then he pulled her against the solid length of him until she was scarcely standing on her own two feet.
His kiss changed, so that he seemed to be asking her to open her mouth. She did so and suddenly, their tongues met in an intimate dance as wonderful as it was unexpected.
He moaned and pressed her harder against him. Arousal shot through her. He kissed her faster, more insistently. She began to roam her hands over his chest, savoring the feel of him in return. The lean muscles of his abdomen were easily discernable through his shirtwaist. She ran her palms up his sides as he’d done to her and was delighted by the hard, masculine feel of him.
She threw herself more completely into the kiss. This was her only chance to memorize him. There was the heat of his mouth to explore, the soft, fullness of his lips against hers. The outline of his jaw. She slid her hands into his hair and thought she might die of pleasure. Roman. Her sweet, beautiful Roman.
He laughed against her lips, then nuzzled her nose playfully. They were kissing again, but now he felt like Roman, and she surrendered completely to the man she’d loved as long as she’d known the meaning of the word.
He laughed again at her exuberance, then wrapped his arms around her and lifted her up. He kissed her all the way to the bed before depositing her gently on the mattress.
“My lovely vixen, you must tell this poor virgin what comes next,” he said.
A bubble of horrified laughter escaped her. As if she could!
He waited patiently for her to guide him. She eyed him imperiously from behind her demi-mask, amused and nervous at the same time. There was one place she hadn’t touched him, one she desperately, desperately ached to trace. But should she?
“Go on,” he encouraged her. “I am your student.”
Seated, his buttoned fall stretched across his erection. Fortunately, the room was darkened and she was wearing her mask. He couldn’t see the blush that threatened to burn away her cheeks as she tentatively reached to stroke the distressed fabric where it bulged against him.
She snatched her hand back when he gasped. “I didn’t touch you yet,” she protested.
“You may as well have.” His voice sounded as strained as his breeches. Then he laughed. “Go on. I might die if you don’t.”
She grinned saucily at him and went back to her task. Slowly, torturously, she dragged her fingertips against the hard length of him. He moaned softly. His hands clenched at his sides. Again she caressed him.
She clamped her thighs together as her fingertips traced the warm curve of his member. Her nipples thrust against her chemise. Soon, she wouldn’t be able to pretend he didn’t move her. He’d recognize the evidence for himself.
“Remove your shirt.” She was surprised by the strength of her command.
He didn’t hesitate, but shed it immediately.
A haze of streetlight fell across his chest as she placed her hand where his lapel would have been. His bare skin, hot to the touch, was nothing like the layers of cloth he’d worn before.
He sucked in another breath. She was taking too long.
She didn’t want their time together to end, and so she was in no hurry. She didn’t know whether their lovemaking would last the night, or just a few moments. If it made him desire her more, then good. He deserved to wait, as she had done for years upon years.
In a slow pirouette, she turned around and presented him her laces. “Untie me.”
“Your wish,” he said, tugging at the strings obediently.
The dress fell away in rustling satin. His facility with her ties bespoke the many dresses he had undone, but she wouldn’t think of that now. She concentrated on the moment as he made short work of her petticoats and stays, stopping only when he came to her chemise.
It billowed around her in whispery creases, not the least bit suggestive, yet Roman’s breath hissed between his teeth.
“What is it?” she asked. No fire lit the room, but she wasn’t cold. She couldn’t be, not when Roman’s nearness seared her skin.
His voice sounded pained. “Your chemise is translucent.”
She frowned to herself. How unexpected. She was wraith-like, not softly rounded like her sister, or voluptuous like Celeste. Yet Roman’s lust was not feigned.
“You’ve the shape of an angel,” he murmured. One fingertip grazed the length of her spine.
She swayed her hips beneath her chemise and grinned when he seized her waist and pulled her onto his lap.
“You’re killing me,” he growled into her ear.
“I could never.” She turned her head so her neck was exposed to his lips. For years, she’d thought it impossible to have him like this—she hadn’t even known what this was. But as his hands roamed her sensitized body and her entire being commanded her to give herself to him, she knew differently.
She could have him, so long as it was on his terms.
He turned her around and yanked her close again. “This is torture.”
“It’s wonderful.” She gripped his shoulders and pushed him back against the bed, then climbed on top so that she looked down on him. “Touch me. Everywhere.”
He didn’t wait but grabbed the hem of her chemise. In one whoosh, it came off her. Her mask slipped against her nose. She righted it, then kneeled over him, naked except for her stockings. If she was only to have one go, she meant for both of them to remember it.
His face was nearly level with her breasts. Small though they were, they were plump and rounded with desire. Her nipples hardened, begging for his touch. He leaned forward and took one taut bud in his mouth. She gasped and dug her nails into his shoulders, giving into the sensation of his mouth on her breast, then both breasts.
He went back and forth, blowing cool air across her nipples, as one hand wrapped around her calf.
She’d half-forgotten her demand that he touch her all over until his palm inched up the back of her leg. One finger teased the back of her knee, stroking languidly, as his other hand began its ascent. Her thighs quivered as his long, graceful fingers slipped into the indent where her bottom met her legs.
Desire shot through her. He was so close to grazing against her most sensitive parts, she ached for it. [Please, _]she wanted to say, _stop tormenting me. But she wouldn’t beg.
He rubbed his face across her breasts. Scratchy prickles where his beard was growing in scraped across her skin. She imagined the red mark that would result and thrilled. No one had ever touched her there. Anywhere. But for the rest of her life she would remember: Roman had.
He balanced one hand on her hip and pulled away. He looked up at her when she gave a yip of protest. Her eyes had adjusted to the meager light so that she saw every perfect contour of his face.
He set his hand on her most sensitive place.
“Ohhh,” she moaned, closing her eyes. Her head lolled forward, but she didn’t care. Desire mounted as he stroked between her legs. She didn’t even care that he might encounter the bit of sponge that Celeste had given her. Falling forward, she reached for his shoulder again, then parted her thighs and supported herself against him.
Nuanced fingers played between her swollen bud and the wet opening that ached for his entry. She didn’t know what she wanted more: for him to enter her, or for her to force him to lie back against the coverlet so she might climb atop him and finish the job herself.
Fortunately, they seemed to be of the same opinion. He jerked away from her, his breaths ragged. “I can wait no longer.”
She climbed off of him as he kicked off his breeches, small clothes and stockings. Thank Zeus Roman was possessed of a silver tongue. Whatever reservations she might have felt at first, she was completely certain now that she would cherish this night forever.
He completed undressing himself, then turned and crawled naked onto the bed as she edged higher, against the headboard. The counterpane bunched beneath her, but she didn’t care. This was passion, not romance. Let the bedclothes tangle around their legs.
The bed sank against his weight, dipping her toward him. The coarse hairs on his legs, the scent of his desire and the sheer size of his body were all foreign to her. This was it. In just moments, she would be his, completely.
For the first time, she wished she could look forward to one more night. There was so much to remember, she was afraid she’d forget something important. The heaviness of his body crushed against hers as he lifted himself onto her. The curve of his shoulders as he held himself over her. The delicious pressure of his chest against her breasts, and the warmth in his eyes as he positioned himself to enter.
“My love,” he breathed, and in one fluid moment, he sheathed himself inside her. She cried out with pleasure, never having imagined it would feel so marvelous to feel him buried so deep within her.
“Yes, love, that’s it,” he encouraged her, thrusting again.
She wasn’t sure what she was supposed to do, and yet, a part of her knew innately, she couldn’t lie still. Her hips lifted up to meet his, guiding him deeper, completing her with his body. It was wondrous and new and she never wanted to stop feeling as though a part of him were entirely hers.
She dug her nails into his shoulders and hooked her ankles behind his thighs, pulling him closer, always closer.
He gasped against her hair. “Oh, God,” he cried again, his voice strained. His body grew damp with the effort of plunging into her.
She reveled in it, loving the sensation of his hot, naked body steaming against hers. She was so close, so very close—
“You’re too damned tight.” He sucked air through his teeth. “I have to stop.”
“What? No, no, don’t. Please.” She continued to work her hips against his. Something was there, just out of her reach. He couldn’t have second thoughts now.
“I have to.” He pulled out, leaving her aching.
She reached for him, bereft. “My lord,” she pleaded, “I beg you won’t end this now—”
“It’s too good,” he said, swearing under his breath. He swiped at his face, looking away. His skin was flushed with arousal and exertion. “God, it’s just so damned good with you.”
She half sat up, resting on her elbows, and glared at him through her mask. “Then don’t stop!”
He hissed through his teeth. She raised her hips toward his member, asking with her body for him to continue his sweet plundering of her. After a pause he moaned and capitulated, taking his length in his hand and rubbing himself against her aching folds.
Pleasure shot through her. “Yes, my lord, thank you.”
He laughed self-deprecatingly. “It’s been a long time since I’ve been this aroused. I’m afraid I won’t meet your expectations if I don’t slow down.” His velvety member continued to slide between her legs, betraying the truth in his claim.
Her body burned for release. Everywhere his skin touched hers, it wasn’t enough. She needed him inside her, filling her.
“If you don’t finish,” she rasped, “I will die.”
His eyes smoldered as he beheld her hedonistic delight in his body. Then, suddenly, he was kissing her again. His tongue searched her mouth, his sweet with wine. His length pressed into her belly and she arched her hips upward, trying to take him inside her. It was no use. He was too heavy. If he didn’t want to be buried in her, she couldn’t possibly make him.
He made love to her without entering her. It was bittersweet, and she savored each glorious second of him worshipping her body with his. But it wasn’t enough. She wanted him to continue where they’d left off. She wanted him to give her everything he had.
One hand inched up to cup her breast, just beneath her heart. Finally, he shifted his weight and edged between her legs. This time, she braced herself for the shockwave of his entry. She cried out again as he filled her. Completely.
His roughened voice chafed against the darkness. “Oh, my love. Sweet love. Dear God. Lucy.”
She went rigid. Absolutely stone still, but he didn’t seem to notice. He kissed her, touched her, claimed her for his own. She felt him begin to lose himself inside her again as he rasped, “My love, oh, God, my love.”
Lucy forced herself to move again, to meet his sweet, seductive thrusts. Little by little, she began to savor the perfection of making love to Roman as herself.
He groaned again and met her new openness with his own, seeming to hold nothing back as he pleasured her with his mouth and member and hands. With one final thrust of his hips, he buried himself deep inside her. She clenched against him as hard as she could, then she gasped as an eruption of pleasure sent stars careening against the silvery moonlit bedchamber ceiling.
He collapsed against her. It was over. Every beautiful, wonderful second of it was hers to keep for her own cherished memory.
She had just decided he’d fallen asleep when he murmured, “Whoever you are, my dear, I fear my friends were right. I cannot possibly pay you enough.”
LUCY LAY AWAKE, confused. Did he know who she was or not? If not, why on earth had he called her by name?
Did he realize he’d called her name?
She itched to ask him, but saw no way to do so without raising his suspicion. The deed was done. She had wanted to leave him in a state of confusion. Unmasking herself would certainly achieve that goal.
Twice she decided there was no reason to reveal her identity to him. Twice he awoke and made love to her again. Each time he touched her, she was tempted to show him just who had lured him into bed, but she didn’t. She was just too uncertain.
Morning was just filtering through the window when he began to stir. He traced the curve of her breast, then drew his fingers down her belly and across to her hip. Her breaths came faster. Whatever else was said about him, his prowess was not exaggerated.
One by one, he walked his fingertips toward the V between her legs. She watched his advance through the slits in her demi-mask. As he reached her sensitive apex she gladly opened for him, her flesh as hot and needy though he’d yet to touch her.
He groaned and pulled her onto her back. Without a single hesitation, he proceeded to make love to her again.
This time, she kept her eyes open. Sunlight painted a different picture of the man to whom she’d given herself. Tiny scratch marks marred his shoulders where her nails had dug into his skin. His halo of curls was unkempt. A reddish stubble glittered across his jaw—a look she’d tried to imagine for herself, but was far more handsome in the flesh.
His lips parted in a lazy, sleepy smile. “Good morning,” he said as he took her again.
She returned his smile just as languidly, pleased her demi-mask only covered her eyes. He deserved to see her cat-who’d-found-the-cream look.
“You’re handsome in the morning,” she said, her voice so husky, it almost sounded like a purr.
He grinned. “That’s not all I am in the morning.”
For the last time, she gave herself to him. Clung to him, caressed him, breathed in his now-familiar scent. She was agonizingly aware she could have made love to him forever, and yet, achingly conscious of the sun rising beyond their window. She’d been privileged to keep him to herself all night; there could be no more bouts of lovemaking after this.
She came hard and fast, clinging to him.
“I must see you again,” he said as he withdrew and turned onto his back, spent.
Her heart skipped, wishing he were asking the impossible. “No, my lord.”
He shifted onto one elbow. “Why?”
“I’m moving to Bath.” It was the truth, whether he knew she was Lucy Lancester or not.
His face contorted in exaggerated horror. “Dear God, why?”
She smiled and traced his stubble-covered jaw with her fingertip. “Because I want to. Why? Does it matter? Do you—do you love me?”
His expression turned grave, though to his credit, he didn’t flee the question. “You’ve touched me. I want to see you again. I beg you will not leave until we’ve settled this situation between us.”
Situation? she wanted to cry. What situation?
But she knew his interpretation of the evening must be very different from her own. Were they to compare situations, they’d find a large gap in their understanding.
If they even had an understanding.
From his bantering and the words he’d spoken just before he’d fallen asleep, she concluded he didn’t know it was her. Rather, in his mind, he had been seducing a new woman. A despicable turn of events she ought to have foreseen.
Yet there was one surprise she hadn’t expected. When he was with someone else, he was evidently thinking of her, Lucy. The woman whose name he’d called. That was better than him not remembering her at all.
But possibly confusing her with the woman beneath him wasn’t even the slightest bit comparable to the undying devotion she felt for him. Once again, jealousy welled inside of her so hotly, it was painful. If she’d somehow managed to marry him, and he’d done this exact thing, she might have had to stab him through the heart.
Her ears began to ring. Numbness tingled through her body. Time seemed to slow, as if the room itself moved in and out, her world truly turning upside down.
Dear Zeus. She was experiencing one of her mother’s spells.
“Are you unwell?” Roman’s voice sounded far away. “Madam?” he asked again, peering into her face.
She gulped in air. Her eyes were dry, almost painfully so. She stared at Roman as if trying to see him for the first time. What she saw, however, was her reflection in his crystalline eyes. And she was a monster.
She flinched away from him. It was all becoming real. She couldn’t be trusted with him, not even for a night. Not when she could very well put a bullet through his duplicitous heart, as her mother had done to her father.
Lucy tried to clear her head by shaking it. The tinny sound in her ears finally subsided, and her body eased a fraction. After a moment, she stopped seeing her mother’s face. “I’m fine,” she said, her voice weak to her ears. “Perfectly all right.”
He loomed over her, handsome visage creased with worry. “You had a spell.”
The word struck the fear back into her. A fit. Just as her mother had suffered.
Lucy scrambled out from under him. She didn’t leave the bed, stark naked as she was, but scuttled toward the headboard. “You should go.” For your own protection.
“But I’m worried now,” he reasoned politely, “and I want to know your name.” He grinned rakishly at her. “I hope we can do this again.”
Lucy was aghast. This man looked at a woman experiencing the worst fright of her life, and thought it a good idea to tease her about sex? Was nothing serious to him?
No, she answered, sensing it was the truth. Nothing was serious to him, nothing was sacred. And she was just now realizing…
She hated him for it.
“We can’t.” Her body still shook from her episode. How could he sit there and profess interest in furthering their consummated relationship, when he’d been lovesick over some young lady one week past, and spent an evening with her waxing poetic on wives and children just the other night?
He waved away her blunt rejection. “Yes, Bath, I know. But it’s a large city, and should I find myself thinking about you every day and night, I at least want to know who it is who stole my sanity.”
As he watched her with limpid, innocent eyes, she felt a rage build inside her. Roman, her fallen angel, felt no shame. Perhaps it was sanctimonious of her to think so, but it was true. He made promises he couldn’t possibly keep, such as this hope he was attempting to build in her when he didn’t even know her.
And the painting. She could never forgive him the painting.
Perhaps he did need to know who she was. Lucy drew her shoulders back, jutting her small breasts forward. With one smooth motion, she removed the demi-mask and stared defiantly at Roman, the man she’d loved from birth, it seemed, who didn’t have the slightest idea how to love her.
His mouth dropped open. “Lucy!” It was his turn to scrabble backward. He nearly tumbled onto the floor in his haste to leave the bed. “What the devil are you doing here?”
She was too filled with satisfaction to care much about the costs of revealing herself. She folded her hands under her breasts. “The same as you. Enjoying a good tumble.”
He gaped at her in horror. It would have been comical, her pretty Lothario naked and upended, except she was too vexed to laugh. So he had thought her someone else. It was written on his shocked, outraged face.
She didn’t know what to think. He hadn’t known it was her. The entire time, he’d been making love to someone[_ else_].
Jealousy consumed her until her vision clouded. Never mind it was her seduction of him that had provoked such a violent reaction. He hadn’t realized it was her. He might have, in fact, sated himself with anyone else.
And perhaps he had. Where had he been two nights ago? Three?
He was a scoundrel.
“B-but it can’t be you!” he stammered, running his hands through his hair. “You’re—you’re Ashlin’s sister!”
She shrugged, maintaining her poise. Cool. Calm. Collected. “That hardly makes me a saint.”
“I should say not,” he said, punctuating it with a horrified laugh. “Dear God, Lucy. We couldn’t have just—but for all that is holy, why did we?”
She toed the hem of the counterpane, the movement belying her raging emotions. “I wanted it.”
“Yes, well, I can’t argue that.”
Neither did she.
His face darkened as their situation seemed to sink in. “You were a virgin.”
She didn’t like the way he said it as an accusation. “There must be a first time for everyone.”
He didn’t laugh. “A first time, but no accident. Most young ladies’ introductions don’t include the expert use of a sponge. [_Don’t _]pretend you didn’t exercise caution. I know it was there.”
As awkward as it would have been to have had him point out out her contraception during their lovemaking, looking at him dead-on in the morning light didn’t make the topic easier. Heat seeped into her face. “I read about it.”
He glared at her. “There has never been and never will be an innocent in the history of time who properly inserts a sponge. I don’t care how many illustrations you’ve looked at.” Before she could go on the offensive about his experience with sponges, he continued, “You had help. Who was it?”
Before she could not answer, the color leached from his face. “Dear God. Celeste taught you.”
Her own face betrayed her. She couldn’t help the flow of her blood; it simply drained. Staunchly, however, she proclaimed, “You’d believe any bad thing about her—”
He sliced his hand through the air. “You don’t know what I think.”
The abrupt outburst silenced her. Mutely, she watched him begin to pace the sunlit bedchamber, his body on glorious display. “Ashlin will kill me.”
“I’m glad my brother’s opinion is heavy on your mind.” It bespoke his great experience that he could push aside their lovemaking and focus on anything else as more important.
Roman looked daggers at her. “You’re not the one he’s going to bludgeon to death.”
It was on the tip of her tongue to tell him Trestin wasn’t the Lancester most likely to mortally wound him, but she didn’t. She was still too shaken by her violent fantasy to make light of it. “Trestin won’t harm you because he won’t know.”
“Like hell he won’t. When we tell him we’re getting married—”
“We are not getting married.” She pushed onto her knees. “Don’t even think it.”
Roman stopped glaring so he could stare at her as if she had two heads. “That might not have been the most romantic way to state my intentions, but make no mistake, this little interlude will end in us locked in holy matrimony.”
“I’m moving to Bath,” she stated flatly. “Marriage to you has never been an option. But I do thank you for the enlightening evening.”
Roman continued to gawp at her. “You can’t be serious.”
She stared mutely at him.
“Dear God, you do mean it. But you must know you’ll be ruined.”
“Not,” she said firmly, “if you don’t tell anyone.”
Indecision warred on his face. He must know what this meant to her. She prepared a lengthy rebuttal, certain she’d need every argument in her arsenal to overcome his insistence they marry.
Never had she thought he’d insist on marriage.
In the end, he didn’t. He merely went to the chair where their clothes were strewn in a rumpled heap and fished out her chemise and his stockings.
They dressed in silence. The tension in the room almost crowded them out of it; Roman always seemed on the verge of saying something, but he didn’t.
Finally, Lucy went to the door and unlocked the latch. She turned her head partway to glance over her shoulder, but she didn’t look—couldn’t look. Not at him. “I did enjoy it.”
He sighed heavily. At the first sound that passed his lips, however, she closed the door behind her.
She didn’t intend to see him again.
LUCY DID, HOWEVER, need to see Celeste. While things hadn’t gone entirely to plan, she couldn’t leave Mrs. Galbraith’s house without feeling she’d triumphed in some way. Perhaps because the wool had been lifted: Roman was a wolf in wolf’s clothing, and she’d been the suicidal sheep who’d pranced under his nose.
She smiled to herself. In the end, she was the one who’d fooled him. He’d thought himself in control, and he’d been very, very wrong.
As she rapped on Celeste’s door, belatedly, Lucy remembered Trestin might be in residence here. She mustered up the courage to question Celeste’s impressive butler when he answered her knock. “Is Lord Trestin…eh…here?”
Mr. Gordo looked her up and down without comment. “No,” he said, giving her his back. “Come.”
After availing herself of the breakfast tray Mr. Gordo brought her, Lucy felt much more the thing. And just in time; Celeste materialized in the doorway not long after the tray was cleared.
“I knew you’d try to find me,” Lucy said when Celeste stared at her as if dumbstruck. “I thought I’d save you the trouble.”
Celeste’s blank expression didn’t reveal even a hint of her reaction. Nervously, Lucy forged ahead. Whether or not Celeste had seen her at the masked ball, she need to to share her victory with [_someone, _]and she couldn’t have succeeded without Celeste’s help.
“What an interesting turn of events last night, hmm?” Lucy asked. “Trestin and you, Montborne and me…” She raised her brows suggestively. “We’re taking the town.”
“You should not have been there!” Celeste’s usually placid expression was full of outrage.
And hurt. So she had been seen, though surely not by Trestin, or else her brother would have dragged her bodily from the room.
Lucy took stock of the situation. Celeste had seen her, yet she seemed to be keeping her secret, which was why Lucy was confused. She’d done nothing more than take the next step in the progression she and Celeste had worked out. Why was it cause for concern?
“No one knew it was me,” Lucy insisted. “Even Trestin looked right at me and didn’t recognize me.”
Celeste gave her a look of incredulity. Her red hair flamed about her shoulders and dark circles marred the skin beneath her eyes, bespeaking her own sleepless night. “How did you even get in? You didn’t have a voucher. You shouldn’t have even known about it—”
“Why,” Lucy began, brushing aside the fact she’d been caught in an act of petty theft, “everyone who is anyone knew about Mrs. Galbraith’s little party. It was to be quite the scandalous affair.”
Yet she couldn’t squelch the feeling Celeste was right about this, at least. She ought to have given Celeste a warning—if she’d told her friend in advance, perhaps her brother wouldn’t have been encouraged to attend, thereby allowing Lucy more time with Roman before they’d…
“But how did you get in?” Celeste appeared ready to strangle whomever had shared such sensitive information with an innocent like Lucy.
Lucy feigned innocence. She wouldn’t let Celeste coerce the information out of her the way she’d regrettably revealed Celeste’s role to Roman. “I’ve made friends,” she said evasively.
Celeste grasped the doorframe, as if a new thought had occurred to her. “Did you and Lord Montborne—?”
“Make love? Yes!” Lucy seized the chance to divert Celeste’s attention. Lucy leaned forward and gripped her own skirt, her fingers recalling the silkiness of Roman’s skin over his taut muscles. “I cannot even begin to describe it. Oh, Celeste. You never said.” She smiled rapturously. “You never said.”
Celeste crumpled against the doorframe. “Dear God.”
“God had nothing to do with it,” Lucy replied, motivated to continue explaining by Celeste’s near comical collapse. At least her friend wasn’t asking difficult questions. “Lord Montborne is an amazing lover. So tender, I thought I would expire. When he—”
“Stop, stop now. Please. We must think this through. Did he know it was you?”
This was one of the more difficult questions to field. “Of course. I was naked.”
“Oh!” Celeste beat her forehead against the door’s frame. She seemed genuinely dismayed. Yet why should she be? She’d known from the beginning Lucy intended to lie with Roman.
“I can see you’re wondering ‘how could he?’” Lucy wanted to completely reveal her position before Celeste had an apoplexy. She’d explain how well it had turned out, and her friend would cease hyperventilating.
Truly, she shouldn’t be having a fit of the vapors because Lucy had spent one splendid night with the man she’d believed to be her love. Celeste was a courtesan.
“Very well, I assure you,” Lucy continued without provocation, a pleased laugh escaping her. “A rogue needs only a little coercion. He practically had me against the garden wall, though I did insist on a bed, which he obligingly provided. It was the most romantic interlude you can imagine. And you made it possible.”
The story was better for its embellishment. Certainly, Celeste didn’t want to hear about Lucy’s disappointments, or her regrets.
“Did he offer for you?” Celeste’s voice came out in a frog’s croak.
Lucy’s heart constricted at the reminder she’d turned down the only proposal she’d ever wanted to hear. She feigned ignorance, however, for she couldn’t bear for anyone to know how much she wished she could marry him. “Offer what?”
Celeste might as well have whispered the word. “Marriage.”
“Oh, no,” Lucy said, as breezily as she could manage through the tightness in her throat. “I told him not to bother. I believe I thoroughly flummoxed him there.”
Celeste looked ready to lose her breakfast.
Lucy shrugged as if she didn’t mind in the least that the man she loved had been ready to marry her and she’d been forced to refuse due to his absolute degeneracy and her resulting fear she’d harm him for it. “He said he’s going to tell Trestin.”
Celeste swept the back of her hand against her brow and stumbled toward the couch. She collapsed onto it. “Dear me.”
“Yes! You are a dear!” Lucy rushed to reassure the one woman she’d thought had understood her. Because of Celeste, she’d lived. She could never repay her mentor.
“In fact,” Lucy continued, “I love you. You are the best friend in the whole world. Oh, Celeste, I couldn’t have done it without you. Montborne was so thoroughly besotted. Spouting love and nonsense and promising the moon just like I always imagined. Then I took off my mask and—”
“You took off your mask?” Celeste gaped at her.
“Yes, well,” Lucy said, defensive of her actions, “he had to know it was me or else what was the fun in it?”
Celeste’s lips formed an O. “Lucy! You could have come away freely!”
Lucy squirmed beneath Celeste’s disapproval. “As I said, that would have defeated the entire point. I set out to make love to him and I succeeded, barely lifting a finger in the effort. Truly, I’m beyond impressed. Your training is first-rate. We ought to offer classes to our girls, don’t you think? Teach them how to deal with men.”
Lucy blinked. “Why not?”
The couch shifted as Celeste leapt up from the couch and began to pace. “Because this is a respectable school for respectable females. Really, why must I explain it?”
“Or,” Lucy said as a new idea dawned on her, “it is a specialized education for young women who see themselves in, well, a slightly different light.” Just as she did.
Celeste stared at her in horror. “It’s a school for innocent girls who have nowhere else to go.”
“I imagine we all begin innocent,” Lucy said, warming to her idea. “Only the clever girl who knows what she’s doing reaches your level.”
Lucy saw the chance to press her case. “We’ll train the best of the best! Men will pay handsomely for a girl with excellent, learned conversation and a pretty smile, will they not? And we’ll have the satisfaction of making independent women of girls who would have gone on to be servants and seamstresses, if they’re even that lucky.”
The more Lucy thought about it, and the more she remembered how imperious she’d felt wielding her influence over the legion of men at Mrs. Galbraith’s ball, the surer she was about her idea. They could make women who’d otherwise suffer the indignities of inequality into royalty.
“I’m sorry, Lucy, but I cannot condone or support your idea. You’ve made love to the one man you’ve adored since girlhood. You don’t understand what it means to be a courtesan, to give yourself to the highest bidder and open your most private parts to men you don’t even know.”
The admonition hit Lucy like a slap in the face. She’d adored Roman, but even she hadn’t known what it meant to make love to him. “I suppose not,” she said softly.
“Absolutely you do not!”
Lucy knew she’d been beaten. Her idea was optimistic, tinged with practicality, but based on an assumption that women always wanted to give themselves to the men who desired them.
“I’ll never truly understand what your life has been like,” Lucy said, realizing how true that was. “But I am very glad you’ve shared a part of it with me, and I will always be grateful you gave me the opportunity to follow my heart. We’re friends, Celeste. Never think otherwise. And if ever I should be able to return the favor,” she looked at the woman she hoped would become her sister-by-law, “I will.”
LUCY RETURNED TO her house to find her sister gone. The note laid across her pillow said simply, “Gretna.”
Lucy clasped the folded paper to her breast. Should she be happy for Delilah, or worried?
Almost as soon as the thought crossed her mind, Lucy knew she didn’t question Mr. Conley’s intentions. Lucy had no doubt that the man meant to wed her sister. What concerned her was the future. May her sister never know the heartache of a man who couldn’t keep his vows.
By now, it no longer surprised Lucy to see Trestin fail to notice Delilah’s disappearance; he was too occupied with Celeste. Nevertheless, Lucy breathed a sigh of relief every time she slipped under his nose. Lying to the staff didn’t sit well with her, but she couldn’t have lied to her brother. Not to his face.
The next morning she didn’t rise as early as she’d meant to, as if she’d contracted Delilah’s supposed malady. She dressed with the help of her maid, then paused to decide what to do next. It was too early for luncheon, but the sideboard might still be laid with the remnants of breakfast—especially given the late hours Trestin now kept.
After considering the benefits and perils of seeing her brother over breakfast so soon, Lucy went down to see if she could find a spot of tea and some toast.
She was just finishing up when the ominous sound of boots stomping down the hallway grew more pronounced. A warning tremor sent the hairs on her neck standing.
Trestin was coming, and he was furious.
Quickly, she nudged the two pieces of toast on her plate off to the side. Blast, but he was too near to cut away without him noticing. She was trapped.
The closer his footfalls came, the more convinced she was that he’d learned the truth. But about whom? Delilah, or herself?
He entered the room and paused across the table from her. His hair was matted on one side of his head, although he’d likely run a hand through it already. The morning light filling the room seemed to be physically painful to him, if his narrowed, groggy eyes were an indication. He squinted at her.
Even from ten paces, she could smell the stench of stale brandy.
She concentrated on keeping her hands steady as she reached for the pot of sugar. Three clumps disintegrated into her steaming tea as she drew the spoon along the edge of the cup, and she sympathized with them. Under Trestin’s feverish glare, she, too, wanted to disappear.
Resting the spoon in the saucer, she raised her gaze to his. He knew about her night with Roman, she was convinced of it. The best way to address this was head-on, though that didn’t make it any easier.
“Good morning, Trestin,” she said calmly. Let him be the first to raise his voice.
He dismissed the footman with a pointed glance that sent chills down her spine. His fist curved around the upper rung of the chair’s ladder back. “What have you to say for yourself?”
He knew about Roman. There was no doubt he’d learned of her seduction—the only question was, from who?
Lucy bit into her toast, realizing her mistake too late. Stale to start, the toast was so dry now, it turned into gravel in her mouth. She barely managed to swallow it without a sip of tea.
“I trust Lord Montborne gave you a fair accounting and you’ve no need of more detail from me…” She arched her eyebrow in a silent threat to share far too much detail if Trestin pressed her further. Though she wasn’t sure which of them would be made more uncomfortable, should he force her hand.
He grimaced and she smiled inwardly. She’d won that one.
But his voice was steely as he said, “I’ve heard enough to know you’ve behaved shamefully. You’ve done everything, it seems, to make marrying you off as difficult as possible.”
She almost snickered with incredulity at his moralizing. As if her brother’s desires had been in her mind at all when she’d made her many—admittedly, sometimes poor—decisions!
“Very well,” he said as she schooled her face to reflect a proper level of solemnness, “you don’t wish to marry. What I can’t comprehend is why you behaved so abominably toward my friend. What did Montborne do to be drawn into your scheme?”
Yet another unexpected insight into the workings of his mind. Lucy didn’t expect him to question her choice of lover; to her, Roman was the obvious option, as he was the only rake she knew without needing to scrounge for an introduction, and she’d loved him all her life. “Would you prefer I’d given myself to a stranger?”
“Good God, Lucy. Are you trying to kill me?” The chair creaked as his knuckles whitened around the rung. He was angry. He was hurt. And he didn’t comprehend her at all.
When would he realize she’d made her bed for herself? Not for him. She stood so quickly, her chair slid backward. “It had nothing to do with you!”
To her astonishment, his brow smoothed a fraction, enough to give her hope she might continue and that for once, he might hear her.
“I thought you’d understand,” she said, belatedly realizing she was leaning over the table, hands braced on the linen like an impassioned rector addressing his congregation. She stood and dusted her hands against her skirt. “Not in Devon. Not even when we first arrived. But after you started sneaking out to see Celeste—”
Oh, ho, no, she wouldn’t let him feign innocence! Nor would she let him make this about him again.
She swiped her hand through the air. “I tried, Trestin. I truly tried to want the future you envision for me: A pious husband who would dote on our children and never ask too much of me in bed. But you couldn’t abide that for yourself, could you? Once you discovered what it feels like to love passionately, you could never marry a proper miss simply to conform to what is expected of you. Why, then, would you ask it of me?”
He looked appalled. “My situation with Miss Gray has nothing to do with your disgraceful behavior!”
As if her passion wasn’t the same as his, because she was a woman! “You would think that, wouldn’t you? You’re so accustomed to dismissing my feelings, it hasn’t even occurred to you that our situations might be similar!”
“No, it hasn’t.” He visibly recoiled from the idea she might feel desire. It certainly didn’t surprise her when he changed the subject. “Montborne is an upstanding man. One willing to tell the truth even when it might cost our friendship. If the situations are similar, it’s because what you did to him is little better than what Celeste did to me. Playing on his feelings, for what? To punish me for failing you?”
Great Zeus, Lucy suspected she would never make him understand. “I begged Celeste to teach me how to seduce him. I’m the one who entranced him. And I’m the one who rejected his suit. What has any of that to do with you?”
She fairly shook with frustration. How would he ever accept her choices, if he couldn’t admit she had the right to make them?
“If I’d have found a husband for you sooner, none of this would have happened.”
The confirmation she needed. He simply couldn’t accept she was her own person. It seemed her entire life was to be lived according to how her actions reflected on him.
She decided to take a different tack. “Haven’t you realized it yet? I’m in love with him. I always have been.”
Even now, when it cut like a knife to remember the demise of her girlish delusion, it only truly hurt because she’d wanted him for her own.
Trestin stared blankly at the tabletop. She let him absorb her announcement in silence. He shook his head slowly, then massaged his temples. “You’re in love with Montborne, so you invited him to seduce you and then threw his proposal of marriage in his face.”
She barely resisted the urge to clap. He’d heard her! Finally. Even if, embarrassingly, her behavior sounded foolish when phrased that way.
No matter, it fell to her to lead him through her logic. “Would you have accepted him?” she asked.
Trestin seemed to consider that. “The marquis is fickle and vain and absolutely penniless. Yet you leave me no choice but to allow him your hand.”
Well, that settled that. He heard the question only from his point of view, and when he thought of her future husband, he never counted Roman among her possible suitors. He didn’t understand her, not one bit.
“I meant,” she said, “if it was you who loved someone, and they finally proposed to you out of a sense of guilt, would you marry them?”
He looked at her as though she’d said the most incomprehensible thing, for there were no shades of gray in his world. “You’re well aware of the rules. You gave yourself to him. He’s yours.”
“Ha.” She glanced away. She would have thought that by now Trestin had realized lovemaking and falling in love were two very different beasts. If he couldn’t separate them, how did he hope to forgive Celeste her past?
“I see nothing funny about this,” Trestin said, as though her miserable laugh could have implied anything but wretchedness. “He is honorable enough to make an honest woman of you. He is kindhearted, and I believe he does feel some emotion for you. By your own admission, you’re in love with him. You will marry him.”
She should never have tried to explain. Trestin was incapable of comprehending how she could love someone and loathe him at the same time. “You cannot force me,” she warned.
“Not a penny from me,” Trestin said, as if he still believed he could force her hand by withholding her dowry.
She scoffed. As if that twenty-five hundred pounds would make the least dent in Roman’s obligations—even if she did marry the marquis, the money would disappear the instant it hit his coffers. He owed every shopkeep in London, or so it was said.
But it didn’t matter if Roman was indebted to his teeth, or wealthy beyond imagining. She didn’t need a single guinea from her brother, because he’d underestimated her yet again. As early as tomorrow, she would pack her trunks and leave London behind. All she needed was the impetus to actually do it.
He was certainly offering it to her.
“You’re not the type, Trestin,” she said, because she knew that no matter how dependent upon him he might believe her, he’d never carry through with his threat to turn her out, insolvent.
“Of course I would—”
She sighed. “I don’t credit for a minute that you would turn me out without a shilling.”
He stood straighter, indignant. “I made Delilah the same promise.”
“Did you?” She had to laugh at that. How poorly his threats worked.
Lucy shook her head, more at herself than him. He would never change. Not like she had. “I know you so well, but you continue to misjudge me. I will never be threatened. I have the means to support myself. My school in Bath will open next week, and I will no longer be here to make you miserable.”
He gaped at her, entirely agog to hear her plan explained aloud, and with commitments. “How?”
She folded her arms under her breasts. Not again. She would not, under any circumstances, intentionally reveal Celeste’s role. “Unimportant.”
He didn’t back down from wanting to know. “Did you draw credit? Good God, is it in my name?”
That was the last straw. Lucy looked daggers at him. “Of course not! Have you listened to anything I’ve said? I’m a woman, Trestin. Not helpless.”
“But how?” He continued to stare at her, though what he saw, she could only guess. He certainly didn’t see her.
She was weary of him thinking her incapable. “I found a benefactress. She’s provided everything.”
Whatever reaction she’d expected, his mottled face and fisted hands weren’t it. He seemed offended, as if he considered her finding some other way to subsist on her own terms an insult to his capacity to care for her. “Who is it?” he growled, stepping forward.
She wasn’t going to give Celeste’s name away. Not again. “None of your concern.”
A moment passed. Lucy could see his thoughts shifting and settling as he tried to work out the identity of her sponsor.
To her utter chagrin, she knew the instant he decided it was Celeste. His face shuttered with disappointment, the same sad disillusionment he’d bared to his sisters whenever they’d failed to follow one of his rules.
“She can’t do this,” he said flatly, but of course, it had already been done.
Lucy did pity him. It must seem his entire world was upending under him. First Lucy, then Celeste, then—
“Where’s Delilah?” he asked, his gaze slowly narrowing on the empty seat beside Lucy. “Where is she?” he repeated, louder. “Where is your sister?”
Lucy flinched as his growled demand nearly brought down the house. She’d expected him to be angry when he learned of Delilah’s elopement; it was the reason she’d wanted to be primed to leave as soon as their little family of three dwindled to two. But seeing the heartache on his face almost tore her apart. S
he turned away from his heartrending expression and checked the time on the clockwork behind her. “I imagine she’s married by now. Mr. Conley fetched her yesterday.”
Lucy risked a glance at him. His unkempt appearance only magnified his anguish. She searched for something positive she could say, a way to ease his pain. “He’s a good man. Dependable. Not at all like Lord Montborne.”
“You’re the one who chose Montborne!” Trestin braced himself against the chair. His light brown eyes stared blankly at the table. “How could she?” he asked, so quietly, Lucy almost didn’t hear him.
“She loves him,” Lucy tried cautiously, afraid to set him on a tear again. “You would not consent.”
Trestin turned his head away. “He’s not good enough.” His voice stressed against the words.
She sighed. If only making him listen like this didn’t require heating him to his boiling point. Still, she did want him to understand. “I thought you’d have it figured out by now. None of us are good enough. That’s what makes us human.”
“I only wanted the best for you,” Trestin said, without looking her way. “I did everything I could think of…”
She was momentarily confounded by the emotion in Trestin’s voice.
“Oh, Trestin,” she said, coming to stand behind him. She felt like the worst sort of person for pushing him to this breakpoint. Tentatively, she placed her hand on his shoulder. “I had to seduce him. I had to know.”
It wasn’t Trestin’s fault. Why did he insist on assuming the blame?
“He wants to marry you,” Trestin said.
She flinched. If Roman had said the same with even half as much emotion, she would have accepted him on the spot. But he hadn’t. He’d offered only because it was the right thing to do, the thing Trestin would have wanted him to do.
She expelled a beleaguered breath and patted her brother’s shoulder. “No, he doesn’t.”
“Where did Delilah go?” Trestin asked suddenly. He pushed himself upright and strode to the window near her chair, his ability to argue over Roman seemingly exhausted.
Lucy returned to her chair and collapsed onto it, weary, herself. “I don’t know. She means to settle in Gloucestershire, near his family. She said they were headed to Gretna Green first, but I’m not so sure. She’s above the age of consent.”
Her brother nodded. “She’s in Gloucester, then.”
He sounded flat, defeated. If only she could convince him there was no need for him to shoulder their decisions. “You should marry Celeste. Then you won’t even miss us.”
He didn’t reply promptly, but he did reply eventually. “That you would even suggest such a thing assures me you have no sense of what is right.” Again, his voice tightened, the sentiment at odds with what he desired.
Lucy plucked at the crumbs of toast on her plate. “Celeste is not a monster. She understood my desperation to be with Lord Montborne as no one ever has. Trestin, I wouldn’t mention the whole deal with Roman again, but I feel it’s relevant. She helped me because she’s in love with you.”
Please, Lucy wanted to add, love her back.
“If she loved me, she wouldn’t have let you ruin yourself.”
Lucy sighed. He was parroting sentiments he thought were correct but were very, very wrong. “She made me happy, Trestin. She makes you happy, too. Why won’t you admit it?”
“Montborne is not happy.”
“Well.” Lucy couldn’t even begin to imagine the disturbing dialogue they would need to have if she were to explain to her brother the many reasons she knew Roman couldn’t possibly be as disconsolate as Trestin seemed to believe. “He ought to know what it feels like when he disappoints others.”
Trestin raised his head, his expression still fatigued. “Except he’s done no wrong.”
“I’ll never believe he’s as guiltless as you say,” she said tersely, remembering how easily Roman had slipped from her near-kiss into the arms of a supposed lightskirt at Mrs. Galbraith’s ball.
To her relief, Trestin didn’t press.
She let the silence lapse, glad to be done with the worst of it.
“I can’t see the benefit in continuing this conversation,” he said at length. “Montborne is willing to marry you. It’s in everyone’s best interest that you accept. You’re young now, but one day you’ll wish you had married. I’m sure he can be brought around to the idea of your boarding school, if you are bent on having it. I don’t imagine he means to kick his heels in Devon year-round. You should have plenty of time to pursue your own interests.”
She leapt up from her seat and rounded on her brother, feeling like unleashing upon him all the valid reasons why his idea was utter nonsense. “You would have me at home while he chases skirts in London?”
Of all the inconsiderate, misogynistic things he could say!
Trestin seemed truly surprised by her outburst. “I didn’t mean that.”
“I would never allow it,” she fairly spat. “I would hunt him down and shoot him, like Mother did. And that is why I cannot marry him.”
Trestin’s color drained. She shouldn’t have admitted it. Not to him. He’d lived the last seven years in fear of his emotions, shirking the black shadow that haunted their past. But she hadn’t been able to hold it back. Roman’s potential blood on her hands was the only argument she had that was sure to end any insistence she marry him.
When Trestin was good and aghast, she drew a calming breath. Nothing could fully ease the tightness of her chest when she thought of that silver-tongued scoundrel, but it was enough to dull her fury. When she was able, she sealed her vow with a sentiment she was sure Trestin would understand. “I love him too much. I cannot let him hurt me.”
TWO WEEKS LATER, Lucy opened the weathered wooden door of her new School for Accomplished Young Ladies and peered inside. Blue paint splintered along the door’s beveled squares, but it could be restored easily enough with a fresh coat. Similarly, the musty smell inside the receiving room needed only to be aired out, and the moldy mattresses on the cots in the dormitories could be replaced with new ticking. Her assessment of the building after she’d arrived yesterday had resulted in a long list of tasks, but she didn’t mind. Founding her own school wasn’t an idea she’d dreamed up because she wanted to sit still.
No, she would be busy from now until eternity. She’d have help, of course. The plans were laid to hire four teachers, a man of all work, three maids, and a cook, all before the end of the month. The requisitions had already been placed with the local agencies. But for now, she was content to simply enjoy the freedom to throw her arms out, spin in delighted circles around the room, and laugh.
Everything was just as it should be.
Nothing—nothing—could ever change that.
Especially not Roman.
Thank you for reading
A Game of Persuasion
I hope you enjoyed this story!
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Did you know there are more Naughty Girls books?
This novel is the third story in a tightly connected series. The story continues in the next book, . To receive updates on future book releases, please sign up for my mailing list at .
In order, The Naughty Girls books are:
The Trouble with Being Wicked (available now!)
The Problem with Seduction (available now!)
A Game of Persuasion (this novella!)
The Art of Ruining a Rake (full length continuation for this book, available now!)
The Cheer in Charming an Earl (available now!)
Miss Conley’s book (untitled, TBD)
Miss Abigail’s book (untitled, TBD)
The Danger in Daring a Lady (coming next!)
The Importance of Being a Scoundrel (TBD)
The Hazards of Loving a Rogue (TBD)
Did you miss the novel that started it all?
He put her on a pedestal…
When Celeste Gray arrives in the sleepy village of Brixcombe-on-the-Bay, she thinks she’s one step closer to leaving her notorious past behind. She even suspects the deliciously handsome—if somewhat stuffy—viscount next door is developing a tendre for her. That is, until the day Ashlin Lancester learns she’s not the unassuming spinster she’s pretending to be.
Now she has farther to fall
After a decade of proving he is nothing like his profligate father, Ash is horrified to have given his heart to a Cyprian. He launches a campaign to prove his attraction is nothing more than a sordid reaction he can’t control. But he soon learns that unlike his father, he can’t find comfort in the arms of just any woman. He needs Celeste. When he takes her as his mistress, he’s still not satisfied, and the many late nights in her arms only make him want more…
Continue the series with
An outrageous proposition
Elizabeth Spencer needs a man. Preferably one who won’t be too picky about the morality of her proposition, or his reputation. Lord Constantine Alexander can’t afford another trip to debtors’ prison, which makes him the perfect candidate. She doesn’t expect him to have a heart of gold, or to hold up his end of the bargain—particularly when his high-in-the-instep family gets involved. Nor does she expect to find him irresistible, because while she needs a man, she doesn’t particularly want one.
A wicked bargain
When a beautiful courtesan offers to satisfy his creditors, Con leaps at the opportunity. Never mind his mother and brothers are suspicious of his newfound fortune—being with Elizabeth is intoxicating enough to wipe any thought of scruples away. He soon realizes it’s not just his future he’s been gambling, but his future family. How can he convince London’s premier courtesan he’s more than a callow rake?
Then make sure you read The Art of Ruining a Rake!
He wants her…
Practiced rake Roman Alexander never meant to seduce his best friend’s sister. He certainly never intends to do it again. The handsome scoundrel has never felt more compelled to be a better man. But the damage has been done, for his buttoned-up spinster refuses to marry a bounder like him—and maddeningly, she doesn’t seem to like him. Nevertheless, he can’t seem to forget her, or her passionate response to his kisses. How much danger could there be in one more try?
She wants revenge
Practical headmistress Lucy Lancester naively believes her charming rogue has moved on to his next conquest, leaving her free to cherish their one night together for the rest of her bluestocking days. Until the afternoon he arrives at her school intent on proving their one night together wasn’t enough—and this time, the scandal can’t be contained. Well, two can play at that. How hard can it be to ruin a rake?
Now you’re ready for
The second of five impoverished sisters, Miss Elinor Conley knows her dream of becoming a lady is farfetched. When an unmarried gentleman happens by her brother’s smithy, it is up to her to act quickly—and rashly—to secure his interest. But Grantham Wendell, Earl Chelford, isn’t in the market for anything more than a new horseshoe. What’s a bachelor to do when an innocent miss turns up at his Christmas Eve bacchanalia? He ought to make her leave, but his Twelfth Night party just became more entertaining…
And impatient for the release of
A wager he can’t afford to lose
Devil-may-care rogue Lord Darius Alexander can’t resist a wager. When a game of cards is suggested at the remote inn where he’s stopped for the night, he antes up his family’s savings, certain his Town bronze will give him the advantage. He never expects to lose his fortune to the irritatingly confident, uncommonly beautiful hoyden daring to play with the men. …Nor does he expect to lose his heart.
A woman he doesn’t deserve to win
Caitlin Hart is known for her good sense. When a ridiculous reprobate tosses his savings onto the gaming table, she doesn’t hesitate to divest him of it. But Lord Dare won’t accept defeat like a gentleman. He suggests a compromise, and before long the handsome scoundrel is working back his losses on her small farm. But her neatly plowed fields might be too close for her heart’s content, for soon she finds herself wondering if she can dare him to stay forever when the last of his coin is tucked safely into his pocket.
I wouldn’t have thought to write this novella if Erica Monroe hadn’t badgered me about Lucy and Roman’s early relationship while she was critiquing . She was really, really adamant that I understand what their rapport had been like before Lucy and Roman…er, you know.
(And if you know Erica Monroe, then you know her adamancy is enough to drive anyone to write 50,000 words they hadn’t intended to write.)
But as I tried to answer her questions, I realized I didn’t have the slightest idea what had happened between them during Lucy’s Season, and arrrrgh, I hate it when Erica is right, but I did need to know in order to finish Rake. Add to that multiple reviews of where readers like you said you wished you had seen Lucy’s pursuit of Roman, and then multiply it by all the email I received asking when Lucy and Roman’s book would finally be out… It was pretty clear, we had an opportunity here. I hope you enjoyed this bonus content!
Erica Monroe wasn’t the only one who harped on me. My appreciation grows for Erica Ridley, Janice Goodfellow and Morgan Edens, who provided feedback and ideas—but, as usual, I’m even more grateful for their love and support than their red pens.
Special thanks to the always-vigilant Martha Trachtenberg, who cross-referenced this story with and for, literally, eighty hours. Despite being an engineer, I am evidently very bad at math, and had my years and ages all mixed up. She saved me.
Lastly, to my husband, who makes sure I have clean clothes and coffee, even when I forget to care. I love you.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
A GAME OF PERSUASION
Copyright © 2015 by Emma Locke
Cover design © Emma Locke
Cover photo © @kirill_grekov
All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the author. Please do not support piracy. Obtain an electronic version of this book through an approved vendor.
ISBN 13: 978-1-939713-40-7
About the Author
Emma Locke is a writer and engineer living in the Pacific Northwest, where she loves hiking with her dog, hot yoga and every one of the annual 330 days of rain. Hiking and yoga give her time to plot, the lack of sun makes for perfect writing weather, and as for her day job, the dichotomy seems to work: her analytic side ensures her passionate, satisfying love stories don’t mulch under her bed, and her author side forces her to keep writing more.
You can Like Emma on Facebook at Facebook.com/AuthorEmmaLocke, follow her on Twitter @EmmaLocke_ or check out her books and appearances at www.emmalocke.com.
Publisher's Note: This story is continued in the full-length novel The Art of Ruining a Rake, and is intended as bonus content or as an introduction to The Naughty Girls Series. A NIGHT SHE'LL NEVER FORGET... Miss Lucy Lancester has loved her brother's best friend, Roman Alexander, for as long as she can remember. So devotedly, she's vowed never to marry anyone else. But her beloved libertine is hardly aware of her existence, and not the least deserving of her affection. Deciding her cause is lost, she makes plans to open a girls' school in Bath. There's just one thing she needs to do before she confirms her spinsterhood forever: spend one blissful night in Roman's arms. But her handsome rogue isn't ready to have the tables turned. It will take more than a coquettish smile to turn his head. She must play a game...of persuasion.