Too Wicked to Tame

Page 15


“Perhaps,” Heath drawled, heedless of her outburst. His gaze drilled into Whitfield with unspoken challenge. “But that someone won’t be you.”
Whitfield smirked. Shaking his head, he puffed out his chest and faced Portia. “That’s the way of it, then? You choose him?”
Portia glared at them both, beyond words. Indignation burned a hot, bilious trail up her throat, coating her tongue. She chose nobody, yet nothing she said would convince either one of them of that.
“Very well, then.” Whitfield scanned her thoughtfully as he straightened his cuffs, clearly taking her silence as some sort of answer. Turning to Heath, he announced, “She’s no beauty, to be sure, but still too good for the likes of you, Moreton.”
Heath lunged forward, but Portia reacted quickly, jumping between the two men. She placed a hand on his chest, his muscles bunching beneath her palm.
“That’s enough,” she scolded. The lines bracketing Heath’s mouth remained tight and unforgiving. He made another lunge for Whitfield and she pressed both hands against his chest.
“I said enough!”
His gaze dropped to hers, glinting angrily.
Afraid to ease her hands off Heath’s chest for even a moment, she spoke over her shoulder, “I think it’s time you left.”
Giving them wide berth, Whitfield stepped around them.
Heath said nothing, simply held her gaze as the baron’s footsteps faded down the path.
His chest, tense with barely checked violence, rose and fell beneath her fingers.
The logical voice in her head commanded she remove her hands. Yet she couldn’t withdraw, couldn’t part from the tempting feel of his firm chest, warm and male beneath her fingers.
His voice rumbled from deep within that chest, vibrating against her palms. “You should have let me knock his teeth in.”
Smiling shakily, she attempted to slide her hands from his chest but he caught them, holding fast.
“He deserves no less.” His gaze devoured her, swallowing her whole. “It’s not true, you know?
You are a beauty, Portia.” His intense expression drew into a grimace and he looked away, as though he resented the fact.
She moistened her lips and tried to pretend that his words did not thrill her, did not melt her bones so that she could barely stand.
“That would have been brilliant,” she laughed weakly, giving her hands another tug. Still he clung, warm fingers pressed over hers, the thud of his heart steady and strong beneath her quivering palms.
Striving for a calm she did not feel, she continued, “Striking a guest in your own home…everyone would expect no less of Mad Moreton.”
“He was not my guest.” His eyes stared accusingly—as if she were somehow responsible for Baron Whitfield’s presence in his home. “The gathering in my drawing room wouldn’t be because of you, would it?”
Her face flushed and she dropped her gaze.
“I thought as much,” he growled, his thumb pressing harder upon the pulse point at her wrist.
Refusing to feel guilty because she helped arrange a simple tea—perhaps even put the notion in Lady Moreton’s head—she snapped her gaze back to his. “Your sister and grandmother deserve a taste of society, my lord. However small.”
“Don’t speak to me on the needs of my family.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t dream of it. You know best.”
“I do,” he said from lips so tight they barely moved. “If you won’t return home, then at least cease your interference when it comes to my family.”
“As you wish,” she mocked, “I’m merely a guest here, after all. I wouldn’t want to presume too much. Am I even allowed to converse with your sister?”
“A guest,” he growled, shaking his head in evident disgust. “You’re much more than that.” He scorched her with a blistering glare, leaving no doubt that he did not mean to compliment her.
His gaze shifted from her eyes, scanning her hair, her face, stopping at her mouth. Her tongue darted out to moisten her lips. His smoke eyes darkened, as fathomless as the sea at night, ready to drag her under, suck her down into the depths.
Her breath caught in her chest, fluttering there helplessly like a butterfly trapped beneath glass. It took every ounce of will to stop herself from leaning into him, toward the heat of his gaze, the beckoning wall of his chest.
The burn in her blood bewildered her. How could she hunger for a man who so clearly disliked her? How could she hunger for a man at all? Such a mind-set would get her trapped in marriage if she weren’t careful. Her plans for living a glorious life abroad would be lost. Places like the Parthenon would remain something read about, never visited, never seen with her own eyes.
Inhaling, she extricated her hands, tucking them behind her back. Lifting her chin, she stared at him and told herself that he was no mesmerist to enchant her. He was nothing more than a flesh and-blood man. A boorish brute. And one rumored to be unbalanced.
He considered her for several moments, his head angled to the side as if he studied a strange creature, a rare specimen that he had inadvertently stumbled upon. Then, with a small shake of his head, his voice broke the silence, almost startling her in its swiftness, “What were you doing out here with Whitfield?”
She gave her own head a shake, as if needing a moment to make sense of his words. “We didn’t set out alone. Your sister accompanied us.”
“She left you alone with Whitfield? Why?”
Portia swallowed uneasily. “I fear her feelings were hurt when the baron paid her little heed.”
“The bastard wouldn’t,” he ground out, his fingers diving through his longish hair, dark as a raven’s wing. “She has stared calf-eyed after him for years. Why will she not listen? Does she think I’m a monster to forbid her to fraternize with lack-wits like Whitfield? I know what they see when they look at her. The same thing they see when they look at me. Another Mad Moreton. Today is a small taste of what she would face if I allowed her to enter Society. I don’t want her hurt. Only the most desperate of fortune hunters would pay her court. All else would spurn her.”
“You love her,” Portia mumbled, unable to hide her absolute surprise.
He swung her a sharp glance, a crease forming between his dark brows. “Of course I love her.
She’s my sister.”
She averted her face, feigning interest in the tall hedge of blackthorn to her right. He sounded so offended. As if she had questioned his very honor. Not at all like someone capable of murder.
Regret filled her for allowing Whitfield to place such a doubt in her head.
She snagged a branch and plucked a twig from it, dismissing her guilt as she rubbed a thumb over a loosening bud. So Heath wasn’t a murderer. He wasn’t even a depraved and selfish brother. Of course I love her. She’s my sister.
With a deep breath, she faced him again, trying to view him as the heartless brother she had thought him moments ago. Yet she no longer could. She attempted a smile but felt it falter and die on her lips. “Yes?”
He drilled her with his gaze, seeking answers, a truth that she was unwilling to reveal. “A brother’s love is so remarkable to you?”
She laughed, the sound strange and brittle to her own ears. “Indeed.”
“Your brother—”
“My brother,” she interrupted, “cares only for what I can bring him.” She gestured about her.
“Hence my presence here.”
The hard gleam in his eyes faded. “Perhaps your brother knew nothing of my family’s affliction.”
She lifted her shoulders in a careless shrug. “He wouldn’t have cared.” Portia paused to fill her lungs with steadying air. “And Grandmother had to know. She corresponds regularly with yours.
She knew and didn’t care. So, you see, my lord, I know nothing of a family’s love. At least,” she amended, “not the kind of love you share with yours.”
With a brisk nod, she flung the twig down and started down the path in swift, forceful strides, hating the thickness of her throat, the heaviness in her chest, the infernal burn at the backs of her eyes.
Heath fell into step alongside her. “What of your parents?”
Fighting back the lump in her throat, she rounded another hedge of blackthorn and stopped in the midst of a small courtyard, a burbling fountain at its center. “How the devil do you get out of this labyrinth?”
Smiling almost kindly, he pointed to another path that led from the courtyard. “That way.”
With a single nod, she started down the path. Heath’s solid tread followed, as did his prying questions. “Come, what of your parents, Portia?”
“My father died when I was fourteen,” she tossed over her shoulder.
“I’m sorry,” he murmured, the velvet glide of his voice sending a flutter through her heart.
“Don’t be. He never took any special note of me,” she replied, not daring to look at him, afraid that he should read more behind her casually uttered words.
“That must have hurt.”
“Not especially.” In truth, she felt spared. Her father spent most of his time subjugating her mother, examining her social calendar, approving her friends, her charities, everything to her wardrobe.
“And your mother?” he asked. “Did she neglect you as well?”
“No,” Portia answered quickly. “She was attentive.”
“Was. Is she gone too?”
Portia stopped abruptly and spun around. “My mother left for the Continent exactly one week after my father’s funeral. Just long enough for her to make the travel arrangements.”
“Eight years ago? Has she not returned for a visit?”
Portia bristled at his pitying look, feeling every inch the abandoned daughter, cast aside and forgotten.
“She writes.” So what if the letters grew less frequent with every passing year. Her mother loved her. Portia did not begrudge her for pursuing her own life. She lifted her chin a notch and strode ahead. “She promised to come back for me. We’re going to travel the world together. I’m going to see the Parthenon,” she declared, wondering why her voice sounded defensive. As if he had somehow told her she could not.
“I see,” he murmured.
She cut him a glance.
He continued to look at her in that irksome way—as if she were a deluded child who believed in fairies and magic.
Eager to shift the subject from her and rid the pitying look from his face, she said, “I understand you’re trying to do what’s best for Mina, but I don’t think you realize how determined she is to have what she considers a normal life.”
He grasped her arm and turned her to face him. She could see the house now, looming above the overgrown hedge at Heath’s back.
“Normal?” He lifted one dark brow as if he had never heard the word before.
“Yes. Beaus, courtship, marriage, children.”
Heath stared, his gaze scouring her face, before muttering, “Normal is not our lot in life. Mina must accept that.”
He nodded as if that put the matter to rest.
“Because you say so?”
“I know what’s best for my sister.”
“She’ll be miserable,” she warned, ignoring the muscle ticking dangerously in his jaw. “Do you want that on your head?”
“Life isn’t fair,” he snapped a mere moment before he captured her by the back of the neck.
She released a small squeak as he hauled her closer, thinking he meant to kiss her. His mouth descended, then stopped a disappointing hairsbreadth above her lips.
“We rarely get what we want,” he whispered, drawing his words out in agonizing slowness, his breath a warm puff against her trembling lips. “Or haven’t you learned that yet?”