Too Wicked to Tame

Page 21


Feminine laughter floated over the door, so incongruous to the dismay hammering in Portia’s heart.
“Mina?” he murmured, apparently recognizing the laughter. Laying a hand flat on the door, he gave it a push. It swung inward with a slight creak of iron hinges.
Wincing, Portia forgot to breathe as her gaze landed on Mina—with her hand in the groom’s trousers.
Heath charged into the stall, blocking her from seeing more. A relief, to be certain. Portia would likely be haunted by the unwanted image for years.
Heath yanked the groom to his feet. Mina bounced to her feet, pulling her bodice over jiggling br**sts as she babbled incoherent explanations.
The groom managed a few warbled words before Heath’s fist made contact with his face in a sickening smack of bone against bone. Portia jerked, startled at the unrestrained violence of the blow. The groom careened backward into the hay, limbs flailing, blood spurting from his nose like a fountain.
“Pack your things,” Heath snarled, fists flexing as he stood over the hapless young man. He kicked violently at one of his jutting boots. “I want you off my property. Never show yourself in the area again. If word should ever leak of you and my sister—”
The groom nodded his head vigorously. Blood, thick and crimson, seeped between the fingers of the hand he clutched over his nose. With eyes averted, he staggered to his feet again and fled the stall.
Mina, eyes round as saucers, looked from her fleeing would-be lover to Heath before uttering with quiet intensity, “I hate you.”
Portia grimaced, her hand fluttering to her heart, the stab of Mina’s words burying themselves there as effectively as a well-aimed arrow. Her gaze flew to Heath. A flash of raw emotion flickered in his eyes. A deep vulnerability that revealed itself for a mere instant before the familiar gray fog rolled back in, obscuring his exact thoughts.
Before he could respond, Mina tore out of the stall.
Heath bellowed like an outraged bull behind her. “Mina, get back here. I’m not finished with you!”
His sister ignored him, dashing for the house like a hare in flight.
Portia moistened her lips and inched her way out of the stall, not about to be left alone with Heath in his present state of ire. Her eyes fixed longingly at the leaves scuttling across the ground outside the stables.
Portia froze.
“Yes?” she asked in a small voice. Turning, she faced the full blast of Heath’s glare, as bitter cold as a glacier wind.
He advanced on her, face stark and jagged as the wind-carved countryside. “You knew she was in here.”
Nodding, she backed up until she collided with a stall door. Hard wood at her back, she trembled as if she stood outside the shelter of the stables.
“You knew and attempted to distract me,” he accused, closing in like a deadly jungle cat. “You tried to get me to go inside with you.”
She held up a hand as if she could ward off his blistering accusations. “I merely wanted to save her from getting into trouble with you. I would have come back for her and put a stop to it.”
“And in the time it took to get rid of me, my sister could very well have been ruined.”
Portia flinched. She was not responsible for Mina’s tryst, nor would she permit Heath to place the blame at her feet. Not when a good portion of the blame could be attributed to him. If he had allowed Mina some freedom, she wouldn’t have gone to such extremes.
“So your sister wants a little adventure.” She flicked her hand in a gesture of impatience. “Not so surprising. You’ve prohibited her from meeting and courting gentlemen of her station, prohibited her from marrying. How else is she to satisfy her desires?”
Heath shook his head. “You think her behavior acceptable then? Do you satisfy your desires with servants?” he pressed, stepping closer, his eyes intense, feral as a predator.
“Of course not,” Portia snapped, discomfited by his nearness, his encroaching heat, the way her skin warmed as if too near the hearth. “But I understand you do.” She slapped a hand over her mouth, wondering what had possessed her to say such a thing, true or not.
His jaw thrust forward. “That is neither here nor there. Gentlemen are held to different standards.”
She dropped her hand from her mouth. “Which is absolute nonsense. If gentlemen are free to sew their wild oats, then why not women?”
“Gently bred ladies do not have wild oats.”
He blinked. “Posh?”
“Posh!” she repeated, voice firm.
Heath frowned and cocked his head, a challenging glint entering his eyes. His gaze raked her as if seeing her for the first time, as if she were some strange creature, a species never before sighted by man. “I’m not so certain I should permit you to associate with Mina. Your notions are nothing short of scandalous.” His voice dipped dangerously low. “Have you sewn your wild oats yet, Portia?”
She swallowed nervously. The memory of his kiss surged forward and made her lips burn. She sucked in a fast breath and pushed the memory out of her head.
“No. But that’s not to say I wouldn’t do so. I’ve simply not been tempted yet.” She grimaced, praying he would not call her out on the lie. He need merely fling her wanton behavior in the cellar to remind her that he tempted her. Shaking her head, she added, “It’s not my place to judge Mina’s behavior—although had it been a brother in the stall with a kitchen maid, I doubt we would be having this conversation.”
Heath opened his mouth to protest, but she held up a hand, stalling him. “Your sister is bored, lonely.” Her mind searched for the apt word. Arriving at it, she exclaimed with relish,
“Oppressed?” His eyes flared wide, an unholy light gleaming at the center of his pupils.
Portia nodded. Who better than she understood such feelings, after all? She had felt oppressed ever since her grandmother pushed her through her first Season at the tender age of seventeen.
“I’m the great oppressor, I take it?” he demanded.
“Who else?”
“So you’re saying my sister will likely continue on this ruinous path until I give in and grant her a Season?” His jaw tensed, muscles knotting beneath the taut skin.
Her fingers twitched, itching at her sides to reach out and smooth the flesh into evenness. She laced her fingers together in front of her, locking her hands lest they betray her.
“All I’m saying is that you need to talk to your sister. Don’t bark commands. Don’t issue edicts.
Come to an understanding. She has to be allowed to pursue her desires to some degree or else her life is no better than a slave’s.”
“And what of you, Portia?”
She looked at him, feeling the skin of her brow knit in confusion.
“Come now, Portia,” he chided, his mocking voice grating. “Your family doesn’t permit you to pursue your desires, do they?”
She frowned, wondering if any member of her family even knew what it was that she desired.
Certainly no one had thought to ask.
His eyes drilled into hers, relentless, probing. Knowing. He already knew the answer to his infernal question. Still, he demanded to hear her response, demanded to hear her say that what she expected of him, her own family could not deliver.
Thrusting back her shoulders, she answered him. “No. My family has never taken my wishes into account.”
“Precisely,” he said in that exasperating, smug voice of his. “Most fathers and brothers do not.
Our world doesn’t work that way. Fathers and brothers make the decisions, and daughters dutifully obey.”
Obey. Never following her heart’s yearnings, never following her heart. Bearing no more freedom than a slave. Releasing her hands, she pressed her fingers to her temples, suddenly feeling a headache threaten.
Heath’s voice continued, a cold douse of reason. “Yet you expect me to be different.”
“Yes,” she shot back, a fire sparking deep in her chest, rising its way up her throat to inflame her tongue, “Because you are—you love your sister.”
His eyes softened for the barest moment before hard resolve filled them. “Love or not, if Mina desires a tumble in the hay, she’s not getting her way. In fact, she may find herself cloistered in a convent.”
“Then you’ll lose her,” she pronounced, saddened for Mina, for him, for herself who felt every bit as trapped as Heath’s foolish young sister.
Something that looked alarmingly close to pain flickered in his eyes. “I can live with her hatred if it means protecting her.” With that said, he turned and walked away.
She stared after him, feeling bewildered but mostly sad that no one could ever claim to love her that much.
Chapter 17
“Did I ever tell you about the time my brother forced me to ride through the park with Lord Melton?” Portia pulled a face. “Eighty-eight years old. Creaky joints. Wooden teeth. Smelled of mold.” She glanced at Mina, hoping to see some reaction in her implacable expression.
Mina did not so much as blink. The tight set of her mouth brought Heath to mind. Did they even know how alike they were? Stubborn fools.
Their mounts ambled along side by side at an easy gait. Clouds hung low overhead, large puffs of dirty wool. Portia tightened her fingers around her reins and tried again. “Or the time he forced me to dance with Lord Houghton, renowned for his lead feet? My toes still bear the scars.”
Mina stared ahead, her expression unaltered.
“And then there was Sir Lionel—”
“Enough. Point taken,” Mina finally burst out. “I appreciate what you’re trying to do, but nothing you say will make me forgive my brother. I shall never speak to him again.”
Portia nodded slowly. “Very well. You’re entitled to your anger…but, then, perhaps so is he.”
Mina shot her a mutinous look, her lips twisting.
“Do you love him?” Portia asked gently.
“Your young groom, of course.”
“Edgar?” Mina laughed awkwardly. “No. I mean, I find him attractive, but…” Her voice slid into a sigh. “No, I don’t love him. I hardly know him. Is that so horrible? I suppose I should have at least believed myself in love to permit such liberties.” Mina’s lips trembled. “I simply tire of no gentleman considering me good enough.”
“You’re not horrible, Mina. And you’re good enough for any man.” Moistening her lips, she couldn’t resist imparting one final bit of advice. “You’re luckier than you realize. Your brother cares for you. He merely seeks to protect you from the Whitfields of this world.”
“Why are you defending him?” Mina demanded, her gaze searching Portia’s face. “You don’t even like him.”
“Regardless of how I feel about your brother, he’s good to you.”
And when he kisses me, he makes the world disappear. I become as wicked as he—as yielding as a serving girl in his arms.
Heat suffused her face and she pressed the back of her gloved hand to one overly warm cheek, then the other. Drawing in a ragged breath, she stared ahead, feigning interest in the rocky terrain closing in around them.
Praying Heath’s sister would not wonder at her flushed face, she suggested, “Perhaps we should head back? I smell rain.”
“It always smells of rain.”
“Well, it looks ready to rain.”
“It always looks ready to rain. Don’t be such a city girl,” Mina taunted. “I had hoped we might do some serious riding today.”
Portia quirked a brow. “Serious riding?”
A devious light twinkled in Mina’s eyes. “Yes. Up for a little race?”
Portia appraised Mina for a moment, then shrugged. Why not? It had been years since she could ride anywhere other than the boundaries of Hyde Park. A slow grin curved her lips. “You’ve no idea who you’re challenging.”