Too Wicked to Tame

Page 13


Della circled the desk to retrieve them, hoping she hadn’t damaged the books. They had belonged to Heath’s father and had occupied that corner of the desk ever since her arrival at the dower house.
Bending, she gathered the heavy bookends and set them back on the desk. Then she collected the first two volumes. The final volume lay several feet away. It appeared some of the paper had stripped from its binding.
“Blast,” she muttered, crawling nearer.
Upon closer inspection, she could see that the pages had not come loose at all, but rather a note had been tucked within. She pulled the piece of folded parchment free. It crinkled crisply in her fingers, the page yellow from age. She unfolded the sheet and eyed the elegant, feminine scrawl.
Her gaze flicked to the bottom of the missive. The signature leapt off the paper. Her heart jumped in her chest and her gaze jerked to the top of the letter, to the beginning. A heaviness settled in her chest, expanding as she devoured each and every word, their significance penetrating her reeling thoughts.
She rose on legs as unsteady as her trembling hand that clutched the letter. The parchment wrinkled hopelessly, brittle as a fall leaf in her white-knuckled grip.
She paced the length of the library and back, her teeth worrying her bottom lip. At last she stopped before the fireplace, staring at the dancing flames for a long moment, considering the twenty-year-old missive gripped tightly in her hand—and all it would signify for Heath. All it would signify for her.
Shaking her head fiercely, she tossed the letter into the fire with a turn of her wrist.
“Forgive me, Heath,” she murmured, watching as the paper ignited, curled and vanished into a writhing nest of flames.
“You’re brilliant, simply brilliant,” Mina gushed, practically dragging Portia down the corridor.
Portia quickened her pace, trying to keep up.
“However did you manage it?” Mina demanded. “I usually only see eligible gentlemen at church, and Constance whisks me away before I can speak with them.”
Portia shrugged. “It wasn’t so difficult to persuade your grandmother. She hardly strikes me as someone to be denied her social amusements. Not in her own home and not by her grandson. No matter how he tosses his weight about. Lady Moreton is intimidating in her own right.”
“True, but Heath’s wrath is something to be avoided,” Mina explained. “Last time proved that,”
she added with a shudder.
“Last time?”
Mina’s eyes widened. “Oh, it was a fright. Grandmother arranged a luncheon with Mr.
Humphrey, the goal being to foist his daughter on Heath.”
“What happened?”
“Heath was his usual boorish self, drove off Mr. Humphrey—he was our vicar, you know.”
Portia didn’t know, but she nodded, prompting Mina to continue.
“The vicar and his daughter stormed out before dessert was even served. The following day they left Yorkshire altogether.”
Portia shook her head, shocked. Though she shouldn’t be. Heath had proven himself nothing but a blackguard. “I find it surprising that there are even families willing to wed their daughters to him.” She cringed, instantly regretting the comment. Of course, there were such families.
Families like hers.
As if reading her thoughts, Mina replied, “Of course. Isn’t yours?”
Portia nodded morosely.
Mina slid her a sideways glance.
Portia swallowed past the lump in her throat, careful to keep her expression neutral. Unwilling to discuss her family’s desperate need to be rid of her, she forced a cheeriness she did not feel and returned to Mina’s earlier question. “Convincing your grandmother to arrange today’s little gathering was not so remarkable. I merely expressed an interest in meeting some of your neighbors.”
Mina grinned. “Well, it was no coincidence that Grandmother chose Tuesday afternoon. Clever bird. Constance always calls on the orphanage in Locksley. She won’t be back until early evening.”
Clever bird, indeed. Lady Moreton had shrewdly organized the tea, keeping both her grandson and Constance in the dark. Portia didn’t know whether to admire the lady or hold her in greater fear than she already did.
Not that this tea was so grand an event. The only nearby neighbors of suitable rank to attend numbered a paltry three. Upon entering the drawing room, the auspicious trio rose to their feet: Vicar Hatley, round and jovial; Squire Milton, a middle-aged widower who blinked about him owlishly, almost as if he were unsure of his presence in the Moreton drawing room; and Baron Whitfield. Portia looked him over appraisingly, thinking Mina’s best hope rested here. Flaxen hair framed his youthful face, curling against sideburns a deeper shade of blond. His expression reflected polite interest. Interest, she soon realized, that was reserved for her alone.
“Would you like another cake, Lady Portia?” he asked, proffering a plate of assorted teacakes.
Portia glanced down at the three filling her plate. “No, thank you.”
Mina reached for one, a ready smile on her face. “I’d love—” Her voice faded as Whitfield placed the plate back on the tea ser vice, not sparing her a glance. Her hand wavered in the air, an embarrassed flush flooding her face.
Portia glared. Courtesy to a Moreton clearly eluded him. And Milton’s manners were little better.
When he ceased his incessant blinking, it was merely to engage her or the countess in conversation. Mina he ignored altogether.
Portia strove to discourage their attentions, drawing on her reserve of vapid discussion topics.
Nothing, however, deterred the baron. He actually appeared interested in early Celtic horticulture—a topic that had always sent prospective suitors diving for the shrubbery.
“I can’t say how delighted I am that you chose our little backwater to visit, my lady,” Baron Whitfield interjected when she paused amid her diatribe, the only sign that he might prefer a change of topic. “You must be bored senseless here.”
“On the contrary. The Moretons are brilliant hosts.” Portia smiled at Mina, who returned a wan smile of her own. “Lady Mina is especially delightful, such animated company I’ve yet to come across in Town.”
Whitfield speared Mina a doubtful glance, his nostrils flaring slightly. “I’m sure,” he murmured, lips twitching as if she had uttered some joke. Portia’s indignation burned even brighter.
Mina averted her face, stirring the contents of her teacup swiftly with a spoon. Despite her brave front, Portia did not miss the rapid blinking of her eyes, as if she fought back tears.
“So you’ve come to capture our elusive earl,” Mr. Hatley boomed in ringing tones, seizing Portia’s attention. She nearly dropped her teacup. It clattered noisily on its saucer as she cleared her throat, trying to arrive at a suitable reply to the vicar’s tactless remark.
“She’s the one, Mr. Hatley,” Lady Moreton proclaimed, nodding sagely, a smile of approval gracing her lips. “The one we’ve been waiting for.” She leaned forward and whispered in loud tones, “I can feel it.”
“That so?” The vicar replied, looking Portia over with renewed interest. “So, you think you’ll bring him to heel, eh, my lady?”
“Er…” Portia smiled uneasily, knowing to deny him would sound foolish, crazed even. Why else was she here if not to snare the Earl of Moreton? Mr. Hatley watched her, waiting. Moistening her lips, she managed not to choke as she murmured, “I shall do my best in bringing him to heel, Mr. Hatley.”
“Good, good,” he chortled, holding a sausage-like finger aloft as he quoted, ” ‘But because of immoralities, let each man have his own wife and let each woman have her own husband.’”
Immoralities? Portia smiled weakly, unsure how to respond. Did the vicar see through her, deep to the core where sinful thoughts of the earl lurked, a liquid swirl of heat fomenting in her belly at the mere thought of him?
“Well put,” Lady Moreton chimed, raising her cup in salute. “Here is to bringing Heathston to heel.”
Portia clenched her saucer in her hand, heedless of the delicate china that threatened to snap from the pressure as everyone dutifully echoed Lady Moreton. She stood abruptly, needing escape just as her body craved air.
“It’s such a lovely day. Mina, won’t you join me for a stroll outside?”
With a relieved expression, Mina rose to her feet.
“Won’t you permit me to join you?” Quick as a fox, Whitfield darted ahead and pushed open the balcony doors.
Seeing no way in which to politely object, Portia looped her arm through Mina’s and stepped out into the mild sunshine. Whitfield fell in step beside Portia and they descended the stone steps.
She shot him a wary glance, vowing he would not slight Mina again. She would not let one overblown gentleman look down his nose at Mina.
“There’s nothing quite like spring in Yorkshire,” he commented as they strolled along the path, deeper into the vast, mazelike spiny shrubs of gorse. He gestured widely. “Soon all of this will be covered in yellow buds.”
“Lovely,” Portia murmured, casting a glance at the silent Mina beside her, wondering how to draw her into the conversation. “I can well understand why one would choose country living.”
“Do you visit the country often, Lady Portia?”
“Unfortunately, no. It has been quite awhile,” she answered.
“Is your family seat not in Nottinghamshire?”
Portia nodded, her gaze narrowing. It appeared he had come prepared. She wondered what else he knew about her.
“It must be lovely. Tell me of it,” he coaxed with a toss of feathery curls.
Portia stifled a humorless laugh, wondering how he would react to the truth—that the Derring family seat had been closed tight as a drum for the last two years. That Bertram had released nearly all the staff. That every unentailed item had been sold off. Her mother’s rare book collection—long since sold—elicited the greatest pang in her chest. The property, like the house, had fallen to such a sorry state of disrepair, it would take a fortune to return it to its former glory.
A fortune they clearly lacked.
“They say Nottinghamshire is beautiful,” Whitfield added, pressing closer to her side. “I confess a strong yearning to see if the rumors are true.”
Portia swallowed back an unladylike snort at his unqualified gall. Did he actually think such obvious angling would earn himself an invitation to her family estate?
Mina pulled up suddenly, freeing her arm from Portia’s. Her gray eyes, so like Heath’s, glowed with unshed tears. “F-Forgive me, but I’ve a vile headache.” Her fingers brushed her temple. “I need to retire.”
Portia opened her mouth to offer her company, but Mina spun around in a flurry of skirts and sped down the path. She gazed after her friend for a long moment, an invisible band squeezing her heart. Mina had not concealed her high expectations for the day. Apparently her siblings weren’t all that prevented her from enjoying Society. Society itself presented its own barriers.
Indifferent to Mina’s departure, Whitfield secured Portia’s hand more firmly in the nook of his arm and led them deeper down the winding path. Over the many hedges of hawthorn, a fountain could be heard in the distance, its merry gurgling a direct contrast to her somber mood.
“Splendid,” he murmured, his low voice conspiratorial as he patted the back of her hand. “Now I have you all to myself.”
She averted her face and rolled her eyes, wondering how she might excuse herself from this idiot and return to the house.
“How fortunate am I?” he queried, his thumb moving in small circles on the inside of her wrist.
She shivered as if an insect skittered across her skin.
Tugging her hand free, she announced, “I should like to check on Mina.”