Too Wicked to Tame

Page 27


“I won’t marry you,” she whispered, her voice a croak caught somewhere in her throat. Never would she bind herself to this stranger—a man who stomped on her heart as if it were nothing more than a rug beneath his boot.
“It’s done. We’ve no choice. Even I underestimated my grandmother. I did not think she would send for the vicar. Even now, word of your ruin flies on the wind.” He released her arms and resumed his pacing, moving with the fury of a storm sweeping across the moors.
She watched him in silence. Too numb. Too shocked to speak. Dully, she registered that he had continued with his tirade.
“It won’t be a real marriage.” He sliced her with a glance. “Last night was a mistake we won’t repeat. The risk is too great.”
Mistake. The word gouged her low in the belly like the swipe of a claw. So much for no regrets.
Hot tears burned the backs of her eyes. She quickly spun around and walked to the window, staring out at wind-rippled heather as she fought to gain control of her emotions.
“I won’t marry you,” she repeated, more for herself than him.
And still he talked, as if she hadn’t spoken, as if she were of no account at all. “I can’t disregard that we spent the night alone together. I deluded myself to think I could. I know my duty.” He snorted at this last bit.
“Duty?” She whirled around, too angry to hide the tears spilling hot, silent trails down her cheeks. “Don’t tell me you actually believe that overboiled sausage? So what if he wags his tongue? No one will hear of last night. Gossip in the wilds of Yorkshire is of no consequence in Town.”
“I’ll not risk it—as you undoubtedly suspected when you situated yourself so appealingly at the lodge.”
She swiped the air with her hand. “You’re the most vexing man I’ve ever met. Do you think yourself such a prize that I would stoop to such lengths to trap you in marriage?”
“No, I merely think you desperate and unscrupulous.” He gave her a puzzled look. “Why must you continue this pretense? This is what you’ve wanted. Now you’re getting it. Your family will get their money.”
Her clenched hands shook in front of her. “I am tired unto death of defending myself.”
“Very well.” He gave a stiff nod. “Then cease your playacting.”
Portia stomped her foot, the sound muffled on the thick carpet.
Heath turned for the door.
“Where are you going?” she demanded, uncaring if he wished to hear her or not. This was her life, her fate hung in the balance, and he would listen.
“I have arrangements to make,” he replied in an annoyingly tired voice.
Arrangements. Portia didn’t need him to clarify his meaning. He thought he alone decided whether they would wed. That she had been brought here to garner his approval and she need not be asked or consulted. As if he could simply announce his intention and she would follow along meekly. It made her ill. It made her furious. It made her feel suddenly very…drained.
“I’ve not agreed to anything,” she said in a weak voice.
He tossed a disgusted look over his shoulder. “No? What was last night, then?”
Cheeks afire, she tossed one last question at his retreating back, the one question she wagered could halt him in his tracks. “What of the curse?” Perhaps he need only be reminded of the reason he had no wish to wed. “You can’t have forgotten that.” Not when it has guided his life.
Every action, every decision.
He stopped and turned. Something flickered in his eyes. The pain that always lurked there, the knowledge of the bleak future waiting for him. “It will be an in-name-only marriage, naturally.
We’ll never repeat last night. The risk of getting you with child is too great.”
An in-name-only marriage. As she had suggested to him days ago. Except then she had not considered herself in the hapless role of wife. She had thought some poor creature that did not want much from life would accept such a marriage—and be glad for it.
“As flattering as your proposal is, I must decline.”
“Wake up, Portia. You haven’t the luxury to refuse. Not after last night.”
“I can, and I do,” she replied, loathing his superior attitude, loathing that he could refer to last night as if it were a horrible incident he wished to undo.
“I’m sure your family will disagree.”
Her family? Portia gave herself a hard mental shake. No. She felt certain Grandmother would never force her. Threaten, bully, cajole, and make life in general miserable, yes. But never force.
Bertram, however, was another matter. He saw her as a means to an end—little more than a prized ewe to be sold to the highest bidder. He would have forced her to marry long ago had Grandmother allowed him. If word reached him of this, Portia would have a battle on her hands.
“My family doesn’t decide my fate. This is between you and me,” she said tightly, looking him steadily in the eyes.
He shook his head, that mirthless smile fixed to his face again. Her fingers itched to wipe it clean. “There is no you and me, Portia. Never will be. We’ll simply wed and spend the rest of our lives learning to abide each other.”
With a heavy heart, she watched him open the door and stride from the room. Not once did he look back.
His words whirled in her head until her stomach grew queasy. No you and me.
Foolish perhaps, but she thought there had been.
Chapter 22
Heath poured himself a glass of brandy and downed it in one swallow. Never had he needed a drink more. He hadn’t made it as far as the stairs before he detoured to his office. The special license could wait until later. There were times when a man not only deserved a drink, but he needed one. Or in his case, a few.
“I thought you’d turn up here.”
Heath swung around and eyed his sister sitting primly on the sofa near the fire.
“Been waiting long?” he asked.
She raised one shoulder in a half-shrug. “Ever since you slammed into the library.” She nodded to the drink in his hand. “The kind of day you’ve had would drive anyone to drink.”
“Not you, Con,” Heath replied. “Nothing ruffles you. You’re the perfect little package of starch.”
Pain, raw and shining, flashed in his sister’s eyes and Heath felt a stab of guilt. It couldn’t be easy for her either. Thirty-one years old and no husband. No children. No life to speak of save visits to the orphanage and afternoons embroidering with their grandmother.
“Sorry,” he muttered beneath his breath, turning for a refill.
“I warned you, Heath.”
“Come to give an accounting of all my mistakes, Constance?”
“Unnecessary. You know where you erred.”
His lips hugged the edge of his glass as he racked his brain, trying to recall the precise moment he first erred in regard to Lady Portia. He laughed once, a short bark. It seemed he had misstepped from the start. He shook his head, marveling at his stupidity. He should have sent her packing the moment he learned her name.
“What are you going to do about her?”
Heath shrugged, downed his glass, and answered in matter-of-fact tones, “Marry her.”
Constance’s jaw dropped. “You jest.” Her eyes widened as she eyed Heath’s grim expression.
“You cannot mean to risk—”
“I’ll marry her, but I’ll not risk anything.” Heath’s voice vibrated with anger. The same anger he had felt upon discovering Portia, n**ed and ripe for him at the lodge. Never again would he take such a risk. Never again would he be that weak to succumb to the heaven he found in her arms.
To do that was a straight path to hell.
Constance gaped, the dark slashes of her brows raised high. “Oh, you’ve got to be the biggest fool I’ve ever met. You think you can marry her and not once touch her? I’ve seen the way you look at her. Even I recognize you have feelings for the girl.”
He shook his head fiercely. “On the contrary. I’m feeling quite indisposed to the chit. She’s a heartless, greedy little witch who has done nothing but lie to me since she arrived here. I’ll have no difficulty avoiding her bed. You’ll see. The curse will not carry on. Not through me at any rate.”
“Careful you don’t underestimate her. She’ll likely not accept the type of marriage you’re offering. Most women wouldn’t.”
“She’ll have no choice.”
Just then the door burst open and Mina rushed into the room, face flushed and eyes shooting sparks as she demanded, “What have you done to Portia?”
Ignoring that Mina had finally deigned to speak to him, he replied wryly, “Come crying to you, did she?”
“Of course not. She’s in her room packing.” Mina paused, as if to see if this statement impacted him in the least.
“Indeed?” he asked, wondering what game Portia was about now. Did she want a pretty proposal? Words of enduring love? Him on bended knee? Well, she would not have it. He would not be as big a fool as either one of his parents who cared only for each other—of loving and hurting each other.
“Her driver has already brought their coach around to the front.”
Heath poured himself another glass, doing his best to not let that bit of information rattle him.
She couldn’t mean to leave. Not when she had succeeded in getting the proposal she had set out to win.
“No doubt she expects me to stop her.” He waved his glass in a small circle, indifferent to the sloshing fluid that dribbled over his fingers. “Expects that I shall fling my body in front of the coach if need be.”
“No! I do!” Mina slapped a palm against her chest. “She expects nothing from you. From the moment she arrived, she never has, you bloody ass.”
“Mina!” Constance rebuked.
He scowled at his younger sister, unaccustomed to hearing such rough language from her.
Usually she wouldn’t dare. No doubt more evidence of Portia’s influence.
“You cannot really mean to let her go, Heath,” Mina insisted, voice full of entreaty.
“Good riddance,” Constance grumbled. “Let her leave.”
“Shut up!” Mina cried, voice shrill, hands shaking at her sides. She swung her gaze back on Heath. “You can’t let her leave. You can’t.” Her small fists knotted and Heath suspected she might take a swing at him. “She’s the only friend I’ve got.”
Heath turned, suddenly unable to bear the torment in his sister’s face. Another sin to lay at Portia’s door. Not only had she tied him in knots, she had quite thoroughly, completely, captured the heart of his sister. She had managed to leave her mark on all of them in a short time, and it annoyed the hell out of him.
As his sisters erupted into argument, he inched toward the window. The curtains were pulled back, permitting the faint morning light to trickle inside. His eyes landed on the waiting coach, Portia’s ill-kempt driver leaning against its side, a bored expression on his face.
What manner of ploy was this? She would not leave. Not after accomplishing what she set out to win. Him. Or rather his wealth.
Then he spotted her, watched the straight line of her back as she descended the stone steps. She stopped at the bottom, rigid as a tin soldier while she pulled on her gloves in quick, efficient movements. He stared overly long at those pale hands, remembering their elegance, their petal softness.
The driver pulled the door open. Her maid clambered in first. Portia moved to follow, then stopped. Slowly, she turned. Their gazes collided. She lifted her chin as if daring him to stop her.
He held his ground, careful not to reveal his bewilderment, careful to mask the silent question burning through his head.
Why are you leaving? What do you want from me?
He had agreed to wed her. Something he never imagined possible. And why did she wear that bloody wounded expression on her face? He inhaled deeply through his nose, but the air felt too thin, not nearly enough for his suddenly too tight lungs.