Too Wicked to Tame

Page 11


Donning his shirt, he assured her, “Nothing.”
“Heath,” she said, drawing out his name.
Running a hand through his hair, he sighed. “My bloody grandmother has taken it upon herself to invite the Dowager Duchess of Derring’s granddaughter for an extended visit.”
Della watched him closely as he slid on his boots. “I don’t understand—”
“She wants me to marry the girl,” he bit out with a grunt as his foot slid home.
She gave a slight shrug. “So? You’ve avoided the parson’s trap this long. Why is this time any different?”
Heath straightened slowly, gaze fixing unseeingly ahead. Portia, his mind immediately answered.
Portia was different.
His grandmother had paraded a slew of girls before him over the years. He couldn’t recall a single face or name. Yet they had all been the same—well-bred girls whose families didn’t care about the curse, about sentencing themselves or their progeny to violent insanity. His dark scowls eventually conveyed his disinterest and sent them scurrying home.
But not Portia. No, the stubborn chit had planted herself at Moreton Hall. And she affected him, tormented him with her eyes, her hair, her scent—bergamot and lemons. The bloody female was dangerous to his senses. Since that first night on the road she had stirred him, roused his desires for a woman beyond his reach. Beyond safe.
“Nothing,” he lied, searching for a stronger denial. “Nothing is different except that the girl intends to sit out the Season here.”
The smooth skin of Della’s brow wrinkled. “No one can make you marry her. Sooner or later she will sense your disinterest and return home. Like all the others.”
He laughed dryly. Portia was nothing like all the others. “I’ve already made known my disinterest and she’s not budging.”
Della stood and moved to her dressing table. “Interesting.” Sitting down, she began brushing her hair in long, quick strokes. “I’ve never seen you so bothered. Perhaps she’s the one.”
“The one?” Heath asked, unease skating his spine, warning him that he wasn’t going to care for her meaning. “What one?”
“The one to make you rethink this whole curse business. A woman you can marry, someone capable of giving you children.” Her eyes lifted to meet his in the mirror’s reflection. She set the brush down and added in a subdued voice, “Someone you can love.”
Heath stared at her for a long moment before he found his voice. “Come, Della. Love is for the self-absorbed. Fools like my parents.”
His lips twisted as old, familiar bitterness swelled in his chest. The memory of his parents, so in love one moment and at each other’s throats the next, reared its ugly head. Yes, he’d seen what love could do. Seen the actions of those under its spell, seen it destroy and consume all in its path—his parents included.
Shaking his head, he motioned at Della and himself. “What we have is better than love.” He nodded resolutely. An arrangement of the head, not the heart.
Even if the curse didn’t hang over him, a black pall over his life, he wouldn’t marry. At least not for love—never for such a destructive emotion as that. His parents’ “love” brought nothing but grief and misery to everyone in their sphere: each other, their children, the house hold staff. No one had been spared the shouting matches, his father’s cruel words, his mother’s hysterical tears.
Love—he would have nothing to do with it.
Della laughed mirthlessly. “Spoken by a man never in love.”
Heath studied her through the mirror, surprised to hear such a sentimental remark from Della. He had thought her like him.
“I’ve been married before,” she reminded, her light shrug belying the sad light shading her eyes.
Setting the brush aside, her manner turned brusque as she asked in clipped tones, “Is she pretty?”
Snatching his coat off the chair, he shrugged into it, muttering, “Her looks are of no consequence to me.”
“Where are you going?”
“Home.” He had no intention of discussing Portia with his mistress. That would require digging into feelings best left alone.
“To her.”
“Don’t be absurd. Lady Portia means nothing to me. Someone to be avoided. Sooner or later she’ll become bored.” He nodded, as though convinced. “She’ll tire of what ever game she’s at and head for home.”
“Sooner or later,” Della echoed in a small voice. “Meanwhile you’ll torment yourself, wanting her and denying yourself because—”
Heath sliced the air with his hand. “Enough. Speak no more of it.” He pressed a chaste kiss to her forehead. “I’m sorry I woke you.”
“Me, too,” she replied, watching him with an odd look in her eyes.
As he shut the door behind him, he couldn’t help feeling as though he closed more than a door.
The prospect of returning to Della’s bed any time soon left him cold. A real dilemma since he couldn’t turn to the one woman whose mere presence ignited a fire in his blood.
Chapter 10
Heath pulled up short upon entering the dining room the following evening. He hovered in the threshold, shifting on the balls of his feet, debating walking back out of the room as he surveyed the room’s occupants. Grandmother, Constance, and Mina occupied their usual seats. Only she sat there as well. An unusual presence in every way.
The tempting smell of fried sole and melted butter, combined with the enter-if-you-dare arch of her brow, sealed his fate. He met the challenge of her gaze and took his seat.
She had sauce, he’d grant her that. He would warrant a lady like her did not exist in all of England. One who would look down her nose at him and declare her intention to stay beneath his roof—whether he wished her to or not.
“Still here, are you?” he asked baldly, snapping his napkin into his lap. With a brisk nod, he indicated for the footmen to begin serving.
That dark brow of hers arched even higher, making her look arrogant and affronted all at once.
“Yes, my lord,” she replied in clipped tones, “your grandmother deemed me well enough to leave my sickbed.”
He opened his mouth, ready to remind her that she had already left her sickbed, then shut it with a snap. No sense revealing that they had been alone in the library last night. His grandmother would seize on that scandalous encounter and insist he marry the girl on the spot. Heath suppressed a shudder.
Leaning back in his chair, he said with more ruthlessness than even he was accustomed, “You don’t look well. I would have thought you still ill.”
A low blow, but he was a bit desperate. Truth be told, she looked better than fine. The sight of her wrought havoc to his senses. With her glossy dark hair swept up, she looked elegant, fresh as the gales blowing in from the mountains to the north. The graceful column of her throat, as slight as a dove’s breast, beckoned to be stroked.
Color spotted her cheeks and her gaze dropped. “I feel fine,” she insisted, plucking at the edge of the table with her fingers. “The rumblings in my stomach required more than broth.” Her gaze, sparkling chips of blue, flew back to his. “Or perhaps you wish to banish me to my room during my stay?”
Intrepid wench. Heath felt his lips twitch but suppressed the betraying smile. She did not amuse him. Attractive or not, he would not soften toward her, would not recall that she had beguiled him so utterly on that muddy road.
“The posting inn south of here at Ackersbury boasts a stuffed pheasant that our own cook cannot duplicate. I’m sure you would find it well worth an early departure.”
“Enough,” Grandmother snapped. “Lady Portia has just arrived. She is not yet ready to leave.”
Turning her gaze on Portia, she said soothingly, “Don’t let him provoke you. He doesn’t mean to be cross, my dear. You’re more than welcome here.”
“No,” Heath inserted, gritting his teeth and wondering when exactly he had lost control of the happenings in his own house.
Termagant she may be, Grandmother usually deferred to him. True, she had thrust eligible ladies in front of him over the years, but life had been relatively peaceful of late—the supply of eligible young ladies that he had not frightened away exhausted. His gaze fell on Portia. Evidently Grandmother had to send to the far reaches of England for fresh recruits.
“She is not welcome here,” he asserted, fisting his napkin beneath the table.
“Pay him no mind, Portia,” his grandmother flicked a wrist in his direction. “Like most men, he hasn’t any idea what’s in his best interest.”
“And Lady Portia is in Heath’s best interest?” Constance sneered over the rim of her glass. She paused and sipped delicately. “We all know that cannot possibly be the truth.”
“Oh, stay out of it, Constance,” Mina shot from across the table, rolling her eyes.
Constance’s eyes flashed. “I will do no such thing. This concerns all of us—”
“Enough!” Heath bellowed, surging to his feet.
All eyes swung to him.
Tossing his napkin down on the table, he leveled a stern glare on every member of his family before addressing Lady Portia, “You want to stay here? Very well. As long as you understand you’re wasting your time. You’ll be going home minus a proposal.”
Color rode high on her cheeks. Quivering with rage, she sputtered, “Y-you arrogant peacock!
You still believe I’m in pursuit of you? Were you to get down on bended knee and beg me, I would never marry you.”
“Good,” he snapped, lowering back into his chair.
“Good,” she shot back.
Grandmother studied the two of them for a long moment before a slow smile curved her lips.
“See, you’re agreeing already. I think the two of you shall get on splendidly.”
Heath closed his eyes, certain he now knew which side of his family carried the insanity trait.
Portia drew her shawl around her shoulders and gazed at the fountain. The moon’s pearl glow gilded the burbling water silver. Beyond the fountain, moorland lay, silent and wild in the twilight. Frost glinted off the heather and gorse, blinking like cut glass in the night. The air smelled fresher, cleaner, hinting at spring, at things to come. By comparison, London smelled stale, stagnant.
Logically, she knew she couldn’t hide here forever. Her family waited in the wings, a countless line of suitors on hand for when she returned without a groom. Yet for now, for a little while, she was safe. At peace with her books and a small taste of freedom the likes of which her mother enjoyed.
True, it wasn’t her dream of standing before the Parthenon, the Greek sun a warm caress on her face, but it was a small slice of freedom—hers to enjoy for as long as she could abide Constance’s dark glares, as long as she could abide one boorish earl.
An image of Heath flashed through her mind. Hawklike features and a storm-cloud gaze. Her skin hummed restlessly like the string of a violin, plucked, awakened, and buzzing with energy.
Well, perhaps not total peace, she amended.
She’d not seen him in two days, not since he’d treated her so abysmally at dinner. She is not welcome here. Heat burned her cheeks, singed her pride. The arrogant brute. He actually thought she wanted to marry him? The insufferable gall.
Two days and no sight of him. Two days of snapping to attention every time she heard the tread of footsteps. Almost as if she hoped to catch a glimpse of him.
Lady Moreton complained to no end, expounding at length on the irresponsibility of heirs to their families.
“He’s at the dower house,” Constance had gleefully volunteered over dinner when Lady Moreton paused amid her diatribe to sip turtle soup from her spoon. “With Della.”
“Constance,” Lady Moreton had hissed, her spoon clattering to her bowl, “that’s quite enough.”