Too Wicked to Tame

Page 23


Like a moth to the flame, his gaze found her—asleep on the lambskin before the fire. He approached, blood rushing to his groin as he eyed br**sts so pert his hands itched to palm them, to take the tight, pebble-sized ni**les into his mouth.
If he had any doubts, they fled in an instant. Lady Portia Derring would do what ever it took to get him to the altar.
Portia whimpered at the sensation of cool air crawling over her br**sts, shriveling her ni**les and stroking her belly with icy hands. Her eyes fluttered open and she stared in confusion at the murky room. Firelight flickered over the walls like demons writhing and twisting in some kind of primeval dance. With a shiver, she closed her eyes again and pulled the blanket back over her nakedness, grasping at the fleeing scraps of her dream.
She had been standing beneath a warm Athens sun—the gleaming columns of the Parthenon stretching to a sky so blue her eyes ached to look at it. Her mother stood beside her, her face glowing as she talked. The sun beat down on Portia’s bare head until her scalp tingled. A breeze, fragrant and balmy, kissed her face. For a brief moment, in the sanctuary of her dream, Portia had everything she ever wanted.
Closing her eyes tightly, she breathed through her nostrils and concentrated, trying to recapture the scent of sweet, honeyed air, trying to glimpse marble columns gleaming in the afternoon sun.
All to no avail. It was gone. Lost. A frown tugged at her lips.
A drop of water fell on her forehead, cold and irritating. She brushed it away with the back of her hand. Another followed, as cold and irritating as the last, and she opened her eyes, hoping that the roof didn’t have a leak.
No leak, she registered with a strange sense of detachment as she gazed up at the shadowy figure of a man, immense and looming above her. A scream lodged in her throat. Clutching the blanket to her chin, she sank deeper into her bed of wool.
“Get up,” he growled.
“On your feet,” he demanded, the force behind each word a gouge to her heart.
Tucking the blanket beneath her armpits, she rose, bringing herself flush against him. She attempted to step back but his hand clamped down, quick and brutal on her arm.
Filling her lungs with a fortifying breath, she attempted to speak, “How did you—”
“Was this part of the plan?” His gaze scraped her like a freshly sharpened blade. Eyes she knew to be gray were now black as night. Deadly as a viper’s stare. “Waiting for me n**ed and sleep-warmed?”
She looked down at herself, at his hand on her arm, at her blanket-swathed body, and had a pretty good idea of how he saw her. A woman lying in wait, a predator primed to seduce.
The fire at her n**ed back felt almost too warm. No doubt her skin glowed pink, flushed. Her eyes sleep clouded. Her hair—she didn’t want to imagine its condition. It must look a mess. She dragged a hand through the snarled mass, tucking several loose strands behind both ears in a feeble effort to restore it to order.
“Oh, you’re good,” he sneered, dropping her arm as if burned. “I almost believed you. Believed that you were as much a victim as I to all of Grandmother’s machinations. But this has been your game from the start, hasn’t it?”
Portia shook her head fiercely. “No. You’re a fool if you believe that.” She lurched back, uncaring that her back grew uncomfortably warm. She would step into the flames of hell itself if it put distance between them. She waved an arm toward the door. “You think I had some part in arranging the storm that stranded me here?”
He ignored her and glanced about the cottage, his gaze stopping at the chair where her clothes draped. “Get dressed.”
She looked at her clothes. “They’re still wet.”
He thumbed behind him to the door. “Since we’re going to ride back out into the rain, wet clothes won’t matter much.”
Portia shivered. “Can we not wait until the weather clears?”
His lips curled back from his teeth. “Oh, you’d like that wouldn’t you? More time alone with me.” He advanced, stalking her like a jungle cat, his eyes gleaming wickedly. “And just how far would you go to trap me?” His eyes dropped and she felt them burn a trail over the tops of her bare shoulders. “Who’s to say I won’t take what you’re offering and still not wed you?” His hand rose, brushing the slope of one shoulder, sliding down until the backs of his fingers grazed the swell of one breast.
Her breath caught, and not entirely from fear. She should loathe him and the suggestive gleam in his eyes, the wicked bent of his thoughts. How could she feel anything but contempt for a man who thought so ill of her? Who thought her dishonest and conniving?
She watched his mouth as he continued to talk, hypnotized by the slow, seductive movement of his lips, the way they moved to form each and every word—regardless that his words were poison. “Are you prepared to wager all, Lady Portia, on the chance that I will come to scratch and wed you?” He angled his head. “It’s a wager you’ll lose, but I’ll accommodate you. I wouldn’t mind a taste of what you’re flaunting.”
With a snort of disgust, she twisted away from his roving fingers, suddenly feeling as though foul insects crawled across her flesh. “Get your hands off me. I’m offering you nothing.”
She blinked rapidly, wondering at the sting in her eyes, the awful thickness in her throat. He would not reduce her to tears. Swallowing, she lifted her chin. “I’m not about to be dragged across the countryside simply because of your deranged notion that I’ve designs on you. When will you get it through that thick skull of yours that I am not in pursuit of you?” She raked him with a withering glare.
His chest lifted on a great inhalation as if gathering strength and patience from some deep well within him. As if he were the one being tested and pushed beyond aggravation. “We are not about to stay here together. This rain could very well continue on through the night.”
“Then leave.” She flung a hand in the direction of the door. “Feel no obligation to remain.
Heaven knows you’re not safe with me. Why, I might ravish you.” Rolling her eyes, she stomped toward the table and pulled out a chair. Securing her blanket more tightly about her, she planted herself in the seat. Lifting an eyebrow, she dared him to force her to move from her spot.
He could leave. She was staying put.
He took his time replying, looking from her to the door as if he debated hefting her bodily from the chair. She held her breath, willing him to leave—willing him to quit this absurdity and believe her. At last, he sighed and muttered, “I can’t leave you here by yourself.”
“Pesky gentlemanly honor,” she mocked. “Picks the most inopportune times to surface.”
He cocked his head and studied her through narrowed eyes. “Sarcasm doesn’t suit you, Portia.”
“No, my lord, you don’t suit me,” she countered.
One corner of his mouth lifted. “Ah, but we know that to be untrue.”
Memories intruded. The taste of his kiss, the velvet slide of his tongue in her mouth. She pushed aside the unwanted memories and reminded herself of his total misjudgment of her. How could she crave a man who thought so little of her? Where was her pride?
She stifled the urge to howl in frustration. “What you know couldn’t fill the inside of my boot.”
“God’s teeth, you’ve a viper’s tongue. No wonder you can’t find a gentleman to wed in Town.”
The barb stung and she stiffened, fighting for composure.
He looked away, too—to the single window, where wind and rain rattled noisily against the shutters. He sighed, and the sound resounded through her.
Swallowing, she strove to appear poised, unaffected—the precise way she didn’t feel at the prospect of a night alone with him.
“I’ll sleep on the rug,” he finally said. “But don’t think my staying changes anything. You’re not so tempting I can’t resist you for a single night.”
Heat scalded her cheeks. She surged to her feet, every inch of her quivering with fury. He had delivered his final insult. Her hands clenched about her blanket, her fingers stiff and bloodless.
“I’ll sleep on the rug. I found it quite comfortable before you woke me.”
With stiff movements, she marched back to the lambskin rug.
“Portia,” he began, his hand falling on her arm. “I’ll sleep—”
“Unhand me,” she snarled, wrenching free. “I’ll sleep on the rug. You take the bed. No need to make a pretense of good manners now. Your true colors have been revealed. You’re no gentleman.” Clutching the blanket about her as if it were a shield, she looked him over as if he were some bug lying very small and insignificant at her feet. Holding herself stiff with dignity, she tossed down, “You’re nothing. Nothing at all.”
She whirled around, choking down the sob rising from her chest, desperate that he not suspect how that single lie shattered her. Sinking onto the soft pelt, she wished her words were true, wished it didn’t matter what he thought.
Chapter 19
Heath surged upright in bed, blinking against cold blackness. He gazed blindly into the dark, still caught within the tight fist of a nightmare that never fully left him—even when awake. The dream had burrowed itself into his soul with relentless tenacity, surfacing off and on throughout his life, reminding him that he was never in full possession of himself.
Absurd as it was, when the nightmare beset him, he turned into the boy he had been—the impulse to call out for his mother burning on his tongue. Ironic considering she had never responded to his calls when he’d been a boy.
From the moment of his brother’s birth, the curse already had him in its terrible hold. Everyone knew William’s fate—the fate of another Moreton lost to madness. It broke his mother, thrusting her into some dark place from which she never returned.
He dragged a shaking hand through his hair. His heart lodged somewhere in his throat. He fought to swallow it back down. Nothing save the occasional crumble of burnt wood in the hearth could be heard. A faint light glowed there, not enough to suffuse the room, but enough to remind him instantly of where he was. The lodge. His refuge of late when he craved escape. Except his refuge had now become the site of his torment.
He released a shuddering breath, unaware until that moment that he had been holding it deep in his lungs. Almost as if he feared the nightmare real and not a thing of the past. As if he had awakened, twelve years old again, the tormented screams of his baby brother engulfing him and his own fragile sanity. Every keening wail a knife thrust into his heart, driving Heath closer and closer to a madness that lurked like a beast in the dark, waiting to strike and drag him into the abyss.
He rose, dropping his feet on the cold, bare wood floor. Taking care not to glance at the figure asleep on the large rug, he made his way to the hearth. Stubborn female. He would have given her the bed.
Giving the rug a wide berth, he knelt and added some logs to the fire, then stoked it until it crackled and emitted a steady glow of light throughout the room. His downfall—for when he turned around, his gaze sought her, feasting on the sight of her like a man starved.
His feet moved, advancing on her where she slept, curled on her side like an innocent babe asleep. Yet she was no innocent. He could no longer believe her blameless, that she had fallen in so unwittingly with all his grandmother’s schemes. That her sole purpose in remaining at Moreton Hall could possibly be to escape the Season. What a fool he’d been to ever consider it.
He hovered over her sleeping form, hands flexing at his sides. Tension thrummed through his muscles. Anger coursed his blood—anger at himself for being drawn to her despite all he knew her to be.
He didn’t know which urge the strongest: to pull her in his arms or shake her until her teeth rattled in that stubborn head of hers. She thought him nothing? Damned if that didn’t wound him to the core, didn’t leave him staring at the rafters long after her breathing had grown slow and even in sleep. And what was she, the one that had duped him with her pretty denials. He had even begun to feel empathy for her.