Too Wicked to Tame

Page 12


Portia had glanced back and forth between the two ladies. “Who is Della?”
“The house keeper at the dower house,” Lady Moreton answered, her eyes not meeting Portia’s as she reached for her glass.
“Yes,” Constance had murmured, eyes glinting with amusement. “The house keeper.”
Portia had grasped her meaning perfectly.
Heath was staying at the dower house with a woman named Della.
His mistress.
Exhaling, she hugged herself against the chill, wondering why her sigh sounded so aggrieved.
Surely she didn’t care that the man kept a mistress. It certainly came as no surprise. A wicked man like him, who went about kissing serving girls in public, would have a score of mistresses.
She would not give him another thought.
“What are you doing out here?”
Portia jumped at the sound of the gravelly voice behind her. A shudder ripped through her, and she pulled her shawl tighter. Don’t turn around. Don’t turn around.
“I thought you would have given up by now,” he added.
Even loathing his words, his voice rolled through her like warm sherry.
“You expected me to be gone?” Portia asked, pleased at the steadiness of her voice. “Is that why you’ve stayed away? You thought I’d leave?”
“It occurred to me that a sense of pride might have come over you.”
At that, Portia sent him a blistering stare over her shoulder. One that would set him firmly in place.
Yet the sight of him—standing in the threshold of the open balcony doors, the light from the drawing room limning his large physique—snatched the breath from her throat. Attired again in unremitting black, he looked as he did that first night. And like that night, the plainness of his garments heightened his appeal, made him both attractive and dangerous. Irresistible. Not like the gentlemen back home. The ones she found wholly resistible.
“A sense of pride?” she echoed, thinking she had a good deal of pride. Perhaps too much.
If not for her pride, she would have permitted Bertram to bully her into marriage long ago, would have listened to Grandmother’s lectures on responsibility and duty and placed the Derring name above that of her own happiness and freedom. If not for her pride, she would have written a score of letters to her mother begging her to return home and fetch the daughter she had abandoned.
And perhaps without pride she would have tossed discretion to the wind and accepted the sinful invitation that one wicked man had recently issued to her in the taproom of a nearby inn.
“Yes,” he replied from unsmiling lips, studying her from beneath heavy lids. “To remain where you are clearly unwanted.”
“Back to that again, are we?” Portia snapped. “I told you, I have no designs on you. Merely wish for—”
“Escape,” he broke in, advancing toward her, his heavy steps thudding onto the stone balcony. “I remember.” The wind whipped his too long hair across the planes of his face. “And what does the daughter of a duke need to escape from?” he asked, the sneer in his voice unmistakable.
Being the daughter of a duke, her mind silently cried. A prize to be auctioned off with no thought to the soul sealed within the Derring packaging. To say nothing of the expectations, the unveiled pressure, the countless rules that governed her life, the tedium, the loneliness.
“Teas? Soirees? Rides in the park?” he scoffed.
Yes. And more. Much more. Yet one look at his cold face told her he wouldn’t see any of it as a trial. He couldn’t. Men never did. They merely expected ladies to do as they were told, to take plea sure in empty pursuits. That was all Bertram expected of her. All her father had expected of her mother. No doubt the Earl of Moreton was cut from the same cloth.
Shaking her head, she looked out at the moor again, at the silent night that asked nothing of her.
He was not a man to listen to heartfelt confessions or explanations as to why teas and soirees might be something she wished to escape. He saw nothing beyond himself and his troubles. And at the moment, she was one such trouble.
“You wouldn’t understand.”
“Try me.”
She slid her gaze back to him. Helpless against it, her eyes fastened on his mouth, on those sensual lips that made her insides melt.
Try me.
If he only knew how desperately she wanted to do that. And wouldn’t it tickle her grandmother to know she entertained such thoughts. Thankfully, there was no risk of him sharing her impulses. He might still be wicked incarnate, but she was no longer an anonymous lady ripe for seduction.
He stepped closer, crowding her, overwhelming her senses. She leaned back as far as she could, the stone railing stopping her from total retreat. Heart hammering wildly in her chest, she risked a glance up only to find his gaze fixed on her face, his eyes searching, scanning every nuance, missing nothing. He looked at her strangely, his eyes feverish, intense, consuming. As though he had never seen anything quite like her before.
Reaching out, he caught a strand of her hair. Studying the strands, he rubbed them experimentally between his fingers. Dropping the lock, he ran the back of his fingers down her cheek, leaving a trail of fire in their wake.
Her breath caught in her throat, trapped, frozen within her like a bird in the face of its predator.
And like prey, she looked away, dropped her gaze, wishing he would step away from her with the same desperate fervor that she prayed he would not.
He inhaled deeply next to her cheek. “You smell so sweet. Bergamot and lemons.”
Her gaze lifted, brushed his chin, mouth, nose, up to lock with his eyes. He watched her with fierce relentlessness. She felt as if his gaze alone could strip away everything, all her shields, reveal all her secrets, all that she hid from the world. Perhaps she wasn’t such a hard read. Of course, no one had bothered looking before.
“What are you?” he murmured, his voice a wisp of heat on the air, so close he singed her lips.
Closing her eyes tightly, she shook her head, panicked that he should see anything at all when he looked at her.
“N-Nothing,” she choked.
“Oh, no,” he returned, his voice quiet and smug and much too close as he tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, his thumb caressing her lobe in a deft, sensual stroke. “You’re definitely…something.”
“Heath?” a voice called from behind. “Is that you? When did you return?”
Portia’s eyes flew open.
Constance walked out onto the balcony, scowling when she spotted Portia standing beyond her brother. “Lady Portia.” She folded her hands in front of her and inclined her head in the barest acknowledgment.
Heath dropped his hand and stepped back, staring at her in that unnerving way of his.
“I’ll retire now,” she murmured, careful not to touch him as she stepped around him. “Good night.”
With an awkward nod for Constance, she hurried from the balcony and headed for the safety of her room, telling herself Constance had not interrupted anything.
She and Heath had not experienced some connection that went beyond what was seemly for two persons avowed against matrimony. She most definitely did not want to experience more…did not wonder what could have happened had Constance not interrupted.
Heath stared at the balcony doors, wondering at the ache in his chest—almost as pronounced as the ache in his breeches.
“Heath,” Constance said, her voice heavy with warning. “What is it precisely you think you are about?”
“Nothing,” he replied, still staring after Portia.
His sister stepped closer. “Then what are you doing out here? With her? It’s not wise. Not wise at all. The last thing you want is to be caught in a compromising situation with the Dowager Duchess of Derring’s granddaughter. Grandmother would pounce on that. You’ll have no way out of marrying her then.”
“I know.” God, did he know. Yet he couldn’t seem to keep his distance. Not for any length of time at any rate. For two days he had stayed away, but his thoughts had been filled with her. “It’s only…” his voice faded, and he rubbed the back of his neck.
Dropping his hand, he went ahead and voiced his thoughts. “Incredible as it seems, she claims she doesn’t want to marry me. And I think I believe her.”
Constance laughed mirthlessly. “Of course, she wants to marry you. Why do you think she’s here? The Derrings are desperate for funds. Why else would they consider marriage to a Moreton?”
Heath nodded. Yet he wasn’t so certain. Portia didn’t behave like a marriage-minded lady. For one thing, she appeared too uncomfortable in his presence. She shrank from him. Not the behavior of a woman intent on catching him. Of course that could be her game.
Could she be such an accomplished tease? Could she actually be playing hard to get, hoping to whet his appetite? If that was her game, then, damn her, it worked. She had his undivided interest. All the more reason to avoid her. Yet here he was, gazing after her like some kind of lovesick puppy.
“Her family is desperate,” Constance reminded. “She’s here for one reason and that’s to make a match. Don’t fall for her trap.”
“I won’t.”
Constance studied him carefully. “Heath, I know you don’t want to hear this, but I see the way you look at her—”
“Constance,” he cut in, growing weary of the subject. “You needn’t worry. No woman is tempting enough to make me forget the poison that flows through our blood.” Not a day passed that he did not remember. The memory of his father in a mad fit was not to be forgotten. “Nor would I want to marry if I could.”
His sister nodded slowly. “Of course. You of all people understand that. I merely wish Mina could.”
“She’s too young to remember any of it.” Heath sighed, wondering if that was somehow a blessing. A blessing to live life with no memories of the bitter fights, of ugly words shouted throughout the house. No memory of his father’s slap ringing through the air and his mother’s quick cry. What sweet bliss. “Perhaps if she’d been older it would matter to her as it does to us.”
“I almost envy that she doesn’t remember any of it,” Constance murmured, echoing his thoughts.
Ignorance. Blissful ignorance. Yes, Heath envied his younger sister that. Envied the dreams she had that weren’t colored by the past and the horrifying knowledge of what waited, lurking to seize them. If only he could have the same peace of mind. Then perhaps he could taste the lips of the woman that kept him awake at nights.
Chapter 11
Della sighed and closed the ledger with a thud. She usually worked longer. Usually enjoyed the perfect, uniform rows of numbers and found peace in the chore. Hours could pass without her notice. Except today her attention wandered.
Closing her eyes, she rested her elbows on the desk and rubbed her forehead. In truth, her attention had been elsewhere for several days. Ever since Heath had walked away from her—and her bed.
In her experience, that meant simply one thing. Her first husband had been a chronic womanizer.
Disinterest had always signified one thing—a new woman. Men were slaves to the flesh. While Heath may not have taken this Lady Portia to bed yet, it was only a matter of time. No matter that his head demanded he resist, his body demanded he succumb. Perhaps even his heart demanded it.
She dropped her arms on the desk and stared around her at the elegantly appointed office. The dower house was the home of her heart, finer than anything a fisherman’s daughter from Scarborough ever hoped for. She had thought to spend the rest of her days here. She wasn’t interested in re-marrying and putting another husband in the ground. Not when she had this lovely home. And Heath in her bed.
She shuddered. Unwilling to consider losing Heath, Della pushed away from the desk. Her abrupt movement slid one of the account books forward, bumping it against the collection of books at the far edge of the great mahogany desk. Three leather bound volumes toppled to the floor, followed by the heavy thud of brass bookends.