Too Wicked to Tame

Page 26


Right you did.”
Horrified, Portia shook her head, opening her mouth to deny she had ever purported to do such a thing. Those were his words. Not hers. Yet she knew with a deep pang in her heart that Heath would take this as the final, irrefutable proof that she was a liar, a heartless manipulator.
Even as he turned on her, eyes full of disgust, she knew nothing she said would ever convince him otherwise. Still, she had to try. “Heath—”
“Don’t,” he cut in, the single word a knife to her heart. As if in reflex, she pressed a hand against her chest, looking away from his scornful gaze, unable to bear it. “I’m weary of your lies.”
“I told you we should have sent her back,” a cheerless voice rang out.
Portia followed the sound, her eyes landing on Constance, grim and unsmiling at the top of the stairs.
Chest tight as a drum, she looked back to Heath, braced to hear him second his sister’s opinion.
He said nothing. His eyes remained locked with hers, chips of ice that nothing could thaw. His stare imprisoned her; she wished she could look away, escape the intensity of cold gray eyes that chilled her very heart and froze her blood.
“Leave us, Constance,” Heath said. “We’ve audience enough.”
“But Heath—”
“Leave us!”
From the corner of her eye, she noted Constance’s departure, relieved for that at least. Yet she had eyes only for Heath. She stared at him, praying that he would see the truth in her gaze, that he would see her.
“I’m aware of your reservations, my lord,” Mr. Hatley inserted, heedless of the damage his thoughtless words had wrought. “I’ve counseled your grandmother on the matter for quite some time. Your concerns for spreading your family’s disease are commendable.”
Portia tore her gaze from Heath to watch the vicar’s fat lips smile in a denigrating manner. He continued, “But such things are in God’s hands, my lord. Not yours.”
She glanced back at Heath to see how he took this pronouncement.
“God’s hands?” Heath ground out, the muscles along his jaw knotting dangerously. “I’ll not leave it to God’s hands, sir.” Each word fell hard and swift from his mouth, cracking on the air like a volley of gunfire. “As I recall, God did not intervene when my brother screamed from his crib. For nigh on two years, he suffered—his screams filling this house.”
Her hands twitched at her sides, the urge to reach out, lay a hand on his tense shoulder and offer comfort, burning her palm. Yet she knew he would reject the gesture. Reject her.
In a voice still hard and unrelenting, he demanded, “Do you know what it’s like for the screams of a child to fill your head night after night? To watch blood and puss ooze from sores that you could not stop his little hands from clawing?”
Portia’s throat constricted, blocking the sob that welled up from her chest. Were such the side effects of porphyria? Is that what Heath had to look forward to? The thought made her heart clench in pain and bile rose up in her throat.
“I’ve seen God’s work, Mr. Hatley,” Heath went on in a low voice, subdued, a quiet thread of anguish on the air. “And I’ll not leave my fate or that of my family’s to His hands again. Not if I can help it.”
The vicar’s face swelled and reddened. “Very well. Might I suggest you consider of the young lady, then?”
Heath looked her way. She suffered his scrutiny, certain that he had no wish to consider of her just then. His cool gaze flicked over her as if she were a stranger and not the woman he had loved so thoroughly the night before.
“Heath,” she murmured, desperate to reach him, to gain a glimpse of the man she had seen last night. The man she had taken into her body and held against her heart. She didn’t want to part from him like this, with bitterness and misunderstanding between them. Didn’t want last night to become a blight in her memory.
“Heath,” she said again, her voice low with appeal. “Look at me. You can’t believe I would—”
She stopped and swallowed past the lump rising to choke her.
Something that looked damnably close to guilt flashed in his eyes, and she knew, like her, he was thinking of last night, remembering their less than innocent time together. He remembered and regretted. Damn him. No regrets, he had said. Liar, her heart cried as her hands knotted at her sides. He would not taint last night, would not sully the memory with regret. As if it were something he wished to take back and erase.
She shook her head swiftly, her heart beating like an angry drum against her chest.
Heath turned from her and addressed the vicar. “I am thinking of her. And I strongly suspect I’m the only one.”
“Oh, Heath, that’s absurd,” Lady Moreton cut in. “You’ve ruined her. Only one thing can protect her now.”
The vicar patted Lady Moreton’s arm. “Don’t overset yourself, dear lady.”
Seemingly mollified, the lady gave a delicate sniff and pressed her lips together, nodding for the vicar to continue.
“Am I correct in saying that you two stayed the night together?” Hatley inquired evenly.
“We were caught in the storm. I couldn’t very well have forced Lady Portia out into such inclement weather for the sake of propriety. She has only recently recovered from an ague.”
“Precisely,” Portia agreed, nodding, gladdened for the sound logic.
Mr. Hatley inclined his head. “Yet if you had no intention of marrying the lady, you should have braved the elements, my lord. Better to have risked her life than her soul.”
A small hiss of breath escaped her lips at this heartless comment. Yet should she feel such surprise? Mr. Hatley’s attitude was typical of Society. A lady’s virtue was of more value than the lady herself.
Heath, however, did not seem to value this attitude. His upper lip curled in a sneer as he said,
“I’ll pretend you did not say that, sir, and ask you to take your leave before I say or do something truly regrettable.”
“Heathston,” Lady Moreton cried in shrill, affronted tones, her hands opening and closing in front of her as if she could grab a handhold of control, power. Something. “You dare address Mr.
Hatley in such a fashion.”
“Oh, I dare.” His eyes glittered a glacier gray and Portia felt their chill right to her core. “That and more if he doesn’t take his leave.”
Portia blinked, thinking she had misheard him. Surely he had not taken offense on her account.
He, who thought her the lowest sort of female?
Mr. Hatley made a small bleating sound and his face reddened even further. “Perhaps,” he started, addressing the countess even as his eyes narrowed on Portia, “Lady Portia’s brother should be notified of recent developments. I am certain he would like to weigh in on the discussion.”
Portia’s stomach rebelled at the obvious threat. If Bertram knew she spent the night unchaperoned with the earl, he would insist they wed.
“Get out,” Heath ordered, his voice lethally soft.
Almost as from nowhere, Mrs. Crosby appeared, the vicar’s hat and coat in her hands. Mr.
Hatley collected his things, his fat lips squashed tightly with censure.
Mr. Hatley shrugged into his too small coat with maddening slowness. His fat lips trembled from suppressed speech, and Portia could well imagine the tirade he fought to hold back. At the door he stopped. His voice rang out with high sanctimony, “I will pray for you, my lord.” His small, vapid eyes shifted to Portia. “And you, too, my lady. For what it’s worth.”
The moment he scurried out the door, Lady Moreton swung on Heath, her slender frame shaking like a reed in the wind, radiating a fury so thick, so palpable, it clogged the air. “What have you done? What have you done? You know he’ll tell everyone!”
Lips compressed in a flat, ominous line, Heath turned his back on Lady Moreton. He glared at Portia in a way that made the hairs on her nape tingle. She angled her head warily, eyeing him up and down as she slid back a step.
“Why are you—”
He snatched hold of her hand, cutting short her question.
“Come,” he ordered, pulling her along, her feet slipping along the damnably slick marble floor.
He thrust her into the library, slamming the door behind them.
Twisting free, she crossed her arms over her chest and watched him pace the vast room like a great caged cat. Her muscles tensed, wary that at any moment he would turn and pounce on her as if she were a sparrow to be devoured in one breath.
His feet burned a trail on the Persian carpet and she studied him as one might a spectacle at a traveling show. Finally, he stopped and faced her. The look in those smoke eyes of his sent a bolt of terror directly to her heart.
“Why are you looking at me that way?” she asked, inching back, stopping when she bumped into the large mahogany desk. Her hands grasped the hard edge behind her.
His broad chest rose on an inhalation. “You wanted this to happen. Did everything in your power to see it come about,” he accused, his words dropping like heavy stones in water, swift, resolute, intractable—sinking into far-off depths where they could never be retrieved. “Your reputation is in shreds now. The vicar will see to that. Your family will demand satisfaction.” He gave a stiff nod. “Very well. We shall wed.”
Her heart constricted in her chest. Earlier she had entertained the notion of him proposing, of him wanting to wed her. But this had nothing to do with wanting. Quite the contrary.
“What?” she asked, the word weak and pathetic to her ears—horribly inadequate for her spinning emotions.
He shook his head tiredly, as if beleaguered with a thousand demons instead of simply her. “You wanted this. From the moment you arrived you’ve been my torment.”
She pressed a hand to her breast, feeling the mad thumping of her heart against her palm. “Your torment?” Never had she thought to have that much power over anyone. Least of all him.
“Yes, you,” he growled.
She laughed a brittle, hollow sound. “You give me too much credit.”
“You won’t convince me this was not your purpose. I heard what the vicar said. You told him—”
“A twisting of my words! He is the one to suggest that ‘I bring you to heel.’ What else was I to tell him? That I wished to remain here to escape Town and enjoy your library? He would have thought me daft.”
Heath moved forward so quickly she hadn’t time to react. He grabbed her by the arms and gave her a small shake. “Enough. I’ve heard enough of your lies.” His features twisted into a tight grimace. “You’re a brilliant actress, I’ll give you that. I almost believe you. Very affecting really.
Yet you said it, didn’t you?” His eyes raked her. “Nor can you deny what you did—lifting your skirts for me most willingly, no different than any other prostitute selling herself for the right price.”
“Bastard,” she cried, certain she would strike him if he wasn’t restraining her.
He made a slight tsking sound. “Come now, you’ve won. We’ll wed. But know this. You’ll regret the day you ever trapped me.”
Portia froze, didn’t move, didn’t so much as flicker an eyelid. She simply stared at the man in front of her, realization rushing over her with a suddenness that robbed her of breath. She didn’t know him at all. Not in the least. She had thought she understood him, understood what drove him in life, but she hadn’t a clue.
His hands on her arms stirred up all sorts of feelings. Feelings she had no business experiencing.
Feelings she had reveled in a short time ago. Strange the changes a few hours could bring. Her body felt as confused as her mind. The tenderness he had shown her last night was nowhere in evidence, and she couldn’t help wondering what was real—the lover from the night before or the brutal, unfeeling man before her now. She could not reconcile the two.