Too Wicked to Tame

Page 20


Hiding the sting her words inflicted, he shook his head fiercely, his words biting as he spit out,
“Dear lady, I’m doing my duty, whether you see it that way or not. I’ll make certain that I am the last Mad Moreton to ever live.”
“Mina,” Portia bit out, her voice swift and sharp as she entered the dining room.
Her face still burned from the liberties she had allowed Heath. She doubted she would ever forget. Doubted she could ever close her eyes and not recall the teasing brush of his fingers at the backs of her knees, the burn of his hands on her thighs.
A quick survey of the dining room revealed that Lady Moreton had departed. Wise woman. No doubt she would reappear once the smoke cleared…ready to mount another campaign in the war to see her grandson wed. Yet this time Portia would not be so unsuspecting. The old lady would not get the upper hand again.
Only Mina remained, face flushed with guilt as she fiddled with the handle of her teacup.
“Portia,” she greeted. “Where have you been?”
Inhaling deeply, Portia asked as calmly as she could, “Why did you not tell me your brother had already gone to the cellar?”
“Grandmother wouldn’t permit me to speak.” Mina shrugged, smiling weakly.
Portia pursed her lips, refraining from pointing out that Mina was not the most obedient of souls.
“You are aware that she locked me down there with your brother?”
Mina gave a guilty nod.
Betrayal stung Portia’s heart. Absurd, she knew. Mina owed her no loyalty. Still, she thought they had forged a friendship, thought them kindred souls, two spirits searching for their own sense of freedom and happiness.
Portia shook her head, struggling over Mina’s role in the scheme to rob her of that freedom.
“Why would you—”
“Would it be such a terrible thing for you to marry my brother?” Mina blurted, her eyes bright and alive as she set her teacup down.
Portia blinked, a resounding yes reverberating through her head. Terrible to marry a man who made her feel totally powerless, who turned her blood to molten lava, who reduced her to an incoherent, quivering mass?
He would run over her with frightening ease, trample her will until nothing but ashes of her old self remained. Her dream of standing free and independent before the Parthenon would be forever lost. She would exist as a ghost, like her mother when Portia’s father had lived, drifting through life more dead than alive.
But his hands on your body night after night would make you feel alive. Portia shook her head, driving out the insidious voice that would have her seeking out the wicked earl and casting aside her inhibitions…and her dreams for freedom.
“Do you not find him attractive?” Mina asked, her gaze searching Portia’s face.
Portia opened her mouth to reply, but Mina rushed ahead, her voice insistent, “Do not deny it. I have seen the way you look at him, and he does his share of watching you, too. Perhaps Grandmother is right and Heath simply needs his hand forced.”
Portia snapped her mouth shut, recognizing the fervent gleam in the young woman’s eyes. Portia knew that look. Had seen it countless times on the faces of those who presumed to know what was best for her.
Mina had clearly joined ranks with Lady Moreton to see that Portia and Heath wed. Contrary to their wishes. Like everyone else, Mina had become someone to guard against. Weariness settled in, a weight on her heart.
“A terrible thing?” she asked in a paper-thin voice. “No, to you I suppose it wouldn’t be.”
Turning, she walked from the room.
“Portia! Portia, wait!”
Ignoring Mina, she continued walking, wondering if the day would come when someone took her wishes into account.
Chapter 16
Portia stepped into the stables, grateful to leave the biting wind behind. Her gaze swept the rows of gleaming wood stalls as she loosened her shawl around her shoulders. Not a soul in sight. Yet she had seen Mina enter the stables from her upstairs window.
After two days of avoiding her, Portia decided it was time to face her. Surely Mina now realized how misguided her efforts? Besides, Portia couldn’t very well ignore every Moreton family member. Not while she resided under their roof. If that were the case, she might as well go home.
And despite everything, Portia wanted to remain. She loved looking out her window each morning to the windswept moors. She loved losing herself for hours in the Moreton’s inexhaustible library. She felt more alive here than anywhere else. And not, she told herself, because her blood burned in the presence of a certain man.
“Hello?” she called out, her voice tinny and small in the cavernous heart of the stables. No groom rushed forth, so she walked deeper into the shadowed interior, thinking perhaps they couldn’t hear her if they worked somewhere toward the back of the enormous building. Perhaps Mina was fetching her mount in one of the stalls. Heath’s sister didn’t strike her as the sort to wait for her horse to be fetched for her.
A horse stuck his head over a nearby stall door, whinnying for her attention.
“Hello, lovely,” she greeted, stroking her gloved hand over his velvety nose.
The beast snorted his warm breath into her palm.
“Looking for a treat, are you?” she crooned. “Perhaps next time, hmm?”
A whimper—or rather, a moan—diverted her attention. Angling her head, she listened. And heard it again. Definitely a moan. Dropping her hand, she walked ahead, peering over each stall door.
Finally, she arrived at the last stall. Rising on her tiptoes, she peered over the door.
Her gaze fell on Mina. Atop a pile of hay and buried beneath a young, virile-looking groom. The strapping fellow had wedged his body between her legs and was fondling her br**sts through her bodice with the industriousness of a cook kneading dough.
Portia’s mouth dropped. The impulse to flee and pretend she never saw anything—never saw Heath’s sister rolling in the hay like a common crofter’s daughter—battled her urge to march into the stall, yank the groom off Mina, and give both a stern lecture. She shifted her weight back and forth between her feet, indecision twisting her stomach into knots.
The image of herself with Heath in the library—in the cellar—flashed through her mind and her own hypocrisy made her cheeks catch fire. Who was she to lecture on propriety?
With a curse under her breath no lady should know, she whirled around and headed back down the narrow alley lining the stalls. Her feet beat the ground in hard, agitated steps. It was none of her business with whom Mina cavorted. Goodness, it was none of her business whether Mina cavorted. Still…
Portia jerked to a halt and looked back toward the stall. Mina could very well be losing her virtue. In a stable. Did not her own recent carnal activities grant her some authority on this matter? Grant her the firsthand knowledge that decisions should never be made under the influence of passion?
Portia bit her lip until she tasted the coppery tang of her own blood. Indecision warred inside her.
She had never stood by the notion that young ladies should be coddled and prohibited from enjoying all the freedoms and pursuits that young gentlemen were allowed. But did Mina truly want this? Or was this an act of defiance, a rebellion against the strictures imposed upon her.
Would she one day regret tossing up her skirts and losing her virtue in a pile of hay?
With a deep sigh, Portia lifted her skirts and marched back toward the stall with fierce steps. As embarrassing as it would be, she had to save Mina from herself.
The sound of hooves pounding on earth reached her ears, growing steadily louder, freezing her in her tracks. Turning, dread filled her heart as she watched Heath, riding at his usual breakneck speed into the yard, pull his mount to a stop before the stable. He dismounted in one fluid movement. The moment he spotted her, his lips compressed in a hard line.
“Portia,” he greeted, standing several feet from her, legs braced wide. He made no effort to close the distance. His mouth was drawn firmly, resolutely. He clenched his reins in one fist as he stared at her, his eyes unreadable. Sunlight glinted off his dark head and her eyes squinted against its glossy brilliance.
“Lord Moreton,” she returned, clinging to the formality of his title, a much needed barrier.
One corner of his mouth lifted, her formality clearly amusing him. “What are you doing here?”
“I…” her voice faded, dying on her lips. She shot a quick glance over her shoulder to where Mina conducted her tryst, wondering what to tell him.
With a gulp of air, she strode forward and looped her arm through his. Laying her hand on that hard, muscled arm, she said, “I thought I saw Mina step outside. Apparently, I was mistaken.”
He looked down at her arm looped through his, at her pale fingers resting on the dark fabric of his jacket, and arched a brow.
She flushed, realizing how forward he must perceive her. No doubt he thought she welcomed his attentions. Perhaps even craved more of the type he had lavished on her in the cellar. Swallowing her pride—and her own instinct to flee him and the fascination he stirred within her—she batted her eyelashes in the manner she had observed from countless coquettes. “Won’t you join me inside?”
His brows drew together and he looked at her strangely, as if she had sprouted a second head. “I don’t think so.”
“You must be parched from your ride,” she needled, suppressing the pride that demanded she cease such shameful cajoling. “I can send for a tray of tea. Or perhaps you would care for something a little more fortifying?” She wet her lips, slowly, deliberately.
His eyes darkened as he stared at her mouth and she felt a stab of satisfaction.
Giving his head a hard shake, he muttered, “I need to tend to Iago.” He tried to shrug free of her arm and advance into the stable, but her fingers clung harder, panic seizing her.
“Oh, pooh.” She thrust out her bottom lip and lightly slapped his chest, fluttering her lashes.
He scowled down at her with narrowed eyes. “What the hell’s gotten into you?” he demanded, clearly past patience. “And what’s wrong with your eyes?”
Portia ceased batting her lashes and fought back a scowl of her own. Deciding another tactic in order, she leaned heavily against him, complaining, “I’m not feeling quite well.” Her fingers dug into his muscled arm, clinging for support. “I must not be fully recovered. Would you escort me to the house, my lord?”
His piercing gaze drilled into her and she held her breath, waiting for him to either accept or reject her little charade.
At last, he nodded slowly and she remembered to breathe.
“Certainly. Perhaps you’ve overtaxed yourself these last few—”
A sudden giggle tinkled over the air, twisting into a sharp, feminine gasp of plea sure.
“What was that?” he asked, craning his head to peer into the stable.
“I didn’t hear anything,” she replied, her hands fastening tighter on his arm as she attempted to pull him along with her. He plucked her hand from his arm and started down the wide aisle.
She rushed to keep up, still bent on distracting him. Pressing her hand to her forehead, she tried again. “You know, I’m suddenly feeling very feverish, my lord.”
He didn’t so much as look her way. A quiet rumble of voices drifted from the end stall. Why were they talking? Couldn’t two people caught in the throes of passion put their mouths to better use? Heat flooded her face and she suddenly did feel feverish. She briefly considered dropping in a swoon at his feet. Yet with her luck, he would fail to catch her.
Heath advanced on the stall, Portia fast on his heels.
“That’s it, love,” a deep voice encouraged. “There you go, that’s it.”
Portia closed her eyes, afraid to know what Mina did to elicit such ardent approval. Opening her eyes, her stomach dropped to her feet as Heath stopped before the last stall door, his dark head cocked at a dangerous angle.