Too Wicked to Tame

Page 29


“And what is it to you?” Her nostrils quivered. “Why am I even explaining any of this to you?
As I recall, you’ve bigger plans. Shouldn’t you be off arranging a grand reunion with your mother?” she mocked. “Oh, that’s right. You haven’t heard from her in what? Two years?”
“Twenty months,” Portia automatically corrected.
“Yes, well. Perhaps you’ll run across your brother in your travels. Send him my regards, would you?”
“No,” Astrid broke in. “You care only for yourself. Selfish. Like your brother. What a pair you are.”
Portia winced. No one had ever laid that particular accusation at her feet. She had never thought it possible. Yet to be compared to her brother…Her stomach rolled, rebelling at the thought.
Portia had long grown accustomed to her family’s rebukes and criticisms. She could have expected Astrid to hurl almost anything upon her head. Yet not this.
“I am selfish?” she demanded, her temper taking over whether she willed it or not. And along with her temper came weariness. Weariness of the expectations, of being relied upon to save the family from the mess her brother had created.
“Yes, selfish,” Astrid continued. “You might have gulled your grandmother, but not me. I know you’ve deliberately sabotaged every chance for a match.”
Portia gasped. “I wouldn’t say I deliberately—”
“Well, you hardly went out of your way to be appealing.” Astrid nodded briskly, decisively. “If you possessed one shred of responsibility, you would have made a match that benefited the family. Do you think I had a choice? No. Father bade me wed Bertram and I did.” Derision laced this last bit. “And I shall continue to do what duty requires, even if it means tolerating that jackanape’s hands all over my person.”
“You would permit Simon Oliver liberties?” Portia demanded in horror, watching Astrid raise her forgotten teacup to her lips, noticing the slight shake of her hand. She took a sip, blinking her eyes fiercely, as if tears threatened.
The realization dawned, gradual and unwanted—Astrid was more affected than she would have Portia know. Not such an ice queen, perhaps. For the first time, she truly saw Bertram’s wife.
Saw her as woman trying to survive forces beyond her control and cling to what dignity she could. A heart beat beyond that icy exterior, bleeding from wounds of its own. Had Portia never bothered to take a hard look before? To see beyond the outer shell?
Astrid set her cup back down with a clack. Her chest lifted with a sharp breath and her eyes, glittering with resolve, met Portia’s. “Simon Oliver has made his desires clear. Along with gaining entrance into Society, he desires my…company. And I find I’m in no position to refuse.”
She spoke so coldly one would think her impervious, un-bothered to offer up her body as ser vices rendered. Yet Portia had seen the way that hand trembled and knew differently. “I know my duty,” Astrid repeated. “I’ll take care of everything.”
Portia lowered his gaze. Duty. Duty drove her to make such a sacrifice. Could Portia permit her?
Could she stand aside and let Astrid whore herself so that she could enjoy her independence? So she could cling to a dream, a fantasy that her mother would one day return for her?
“Someone has to,” Astrid added. “Especially now that your grandmother is ill.”
Her head snapped up. “Ill?”
“Yes, ill,” Astrid replied, her voice sharp, clipped. “She’s an old woman, Portia. Old women fall ill. Unfortunately, we haven’t the funds to pay for a proper physician. We must appease ourselves with Cook’s home remedies.”
“Where is she now?” Portia demanded, surging to her feet.
Portia swallowed and blinked back the burn of tears. Tears of shame and self-loathing. Astrid had it about right when she called her selfish. She felt every bit that. And more. A mirror had been held up to her face, and she didn’t like what she saw—a selfish, immature girl who clung to impossible, romantic ideals.
“I’ll do it,” Portia announced with far more bravado than she felt. Her heart fluttered like a wild bird in her chest, panicked at her words, at their significance.
Astrid frowned, her expression dubious. “I don’t understand—”
“I shall wed.”
Astrid stared. It took a full moment for her to respond, and when she did it was in a voice full of mockery and scorn, its sting wholly felt. “Of course you will.”
“I will. You have my word.”
Astrid studied her, from the hem of her gown up to her unblinking gaze. “You’re serious. Now.
After all this time, you’re agreeing to marry. Why?”
Portia looked away and fought to swallow the painful lump that rose to choke her. Her thoughts drifted to Heath. She closed her eyes and the delicious memory of his body pressing into hers surged forth. A memory so achingly real that a burning sob scalded the back of her throat, threatening to spill.
Sighing, she shoved him from her head, her heart, watching yet another dream—the dream of him—spread its wings and take flight. Even during her journey home, she had clung to the thin hope that she would see him again, that he would follow her, begging forgiveness, taking back all the terrible words he had flung at her and mend her bruised heart with sweet words.
Dangerous thinking. The man had brought her nothing but grief.
She had refused his proposal—if what transpired between them in the library could even be deemed a proposal of marriage. That ugly scene still made her face heat. You lifted your skirts for me most willingly—no different than any other prostitute selling herself for the right price. A part of her hoped that he would somehow appear and erase those cruel words. Foolish, she knew.
Words could never be erased. Nor would he ever try to do so. The hard, unforgiving glint in his eyes had attested to that.
Did her pride simply no longer exist?
Portia moved to the window that Astrid had looked out moments ago. There she gathered her resolve, wrapping it tightly about her heart as she stared unseeingly ahead. In time she would forget, her body would eventually cease to yearn for a man who had ravaged her heart and soul.
She touched the glass, cold and lifeless beneath her palm, and willed her heart to grow equally cold, numb. Dead. Lifeless in its own right. Then it could go forth and wed someone for which she felt nothing.
With that sole conviction, she willed Heath from her head…and let go of her other impossible, unattainable dream. Her dream for autonomy, freedom—for a mother’s promise.
Astrid shamed her, made her realize she had no desire to follow Bertram’s example and—if she were honest with herself—her mother’s example, too. Like them, she had fled duty, responsibility, never once giving thought to the effect it had on others. Astrid. Her grandmother.
The tenants in Nottinghamshire.
“Duty,” she whispered, blinking rapidly against the sting in her eyes. Lifting her gaze, she turned and met Astrid’s wide-eyed stare head on. “Tell me what I need to do.”
A thick gloom permeated her grandmother’s chamber. The drapes were drawn tight, only the barest thread of afternoon light creeping from beneath the worn damask. Portia hovered in the threshold, eyeing the figure beneath the counterpane, still as stone—death—atop the bed.
Her grandmother’s cane was propped nearby, within arm’s reach, as if she might wake at any moment and reach for it, rise to her feet and heap the familiar, long-standing rebukes upon Portia’s head: Feckless female. Over-the-hill spinster. Incorrigible bluestocking.
Sadly, Portia wished she would. She would savor the sound of those denouncements if it meant her grandmother was whole again.
Portia approached cautiously, her feet shuffling slowly over the worn, threadbare carpet. A tight wheezing sound carried from the bed, rhythmic and repetitive as a metronome. Her grandmother’s chest rose and fell deeply, as if each breath were pulled—heaved—from some place deep within her chest, from a chasm where life clung by a fragile fist.
Portia stopped at the side of her bed, a sharp gasp tearing from her lips, harsh and ugly in the still of the room. She had not steeled herself for the sight. Her grandmother did not rest there. No.
That imposing lady had disappeared. Only a shell of her former self remained. Loose skin hung off the bones of her face, sagging lifelessly.
Portia sucked in a lungful of the room’s stale air and rubbed her arms briskly, turning away, unable to look at the inert form on the bed and reconcile her to the vital woman who had bullied her…and loved her—at least as much as the crusty old Dowager Duchess of Derring could.
Portia glanced about the silent room. She could not remember the last occasion she had entered these rooms. As a child, she had not been allowed. And later, as an adult, she had taken pains to avoid the old termagant, feeling nothing save keen disappointment in her presence.
“Grandmother?” she whispered, reaching for the hand limp at her side, the skin thin as parchment. Portia handled it carefully, treating it like fine crystal.
“Grandmother,” she repeated, her throat suddenly thick. “Don’t worry. I’ll handle everything.
You’ll see.”
For a moment, those lids flickered, as though struggling to open. Portia’s heart leapt and she squeezed the lifeless fingers. “Grandmother? Can you hear me?”
For the barest second those lids cracked to reveal a pair of pale blue eyes. They stared at Portia with familiar intensity. Yet unfamiliar was the satisfaction, the approval, glimmering there.
Grandmother had heard her vow. Heard and understood.
Any lingering doubts vanished. Her course was charted. She would join the Season and do what her family had desired of her five years ago. Her own desires no longer signified.
Chapter 24
Heath yanked off his jacket. His vest and shirt quickly followed.
“What are you doing?” Della asked, rising from her desk, a curious smile playing about her lips.
“What does it look like?” he asked.
Ridding a certain female from my system.
Proving, once and for all, that Portia has no hold on me.
So what if she left, returned to Town and her life, to the plethora of suitors waiting for her. He would not suffer, would not expire like a tree lacking water or sunlight. Her removal from his life brought nothing save a keen sense of relief.
A mirthless grin curved Della’s lips and he had the oddest sense that she read his thoughts.
“Looks like you’re undressing.”
“Precisely,” he said, his fingers pausing at his trousers as he raked her a glance. “And why are you not?”
“Because of the look on your face.” She flicked a hand in his direction. “You should see your expression.”
“What are you talking about?” he snapped, touching his jaw.
“You look as if you’re girding yourself for battle rather than making love.”
Heath stared, unable to refute the accusation. He didn’t want to make love to Della. He hadn’t wanted to do that since Portia entered his life.
Groaning, he dropped onto the sofa and rubbed his face with both hands. He had come here in an attempt to exorcise Portia from his mind and body. Damn fool. Nothing could ever do that. The girl was in his blood.
“Heath, talk to me.”
He muttered into his hands, “I’m in trouble, Della.”
“The duke’s daughter?” she asked flatly.
He nodded, glad she didn’t say Portia’s name aloud. Bad enough that it whirled around his head, a steady, ceaseless mantra to which his heart kept beat.
“You love her.”
He opened his mouth to deny it, but found that he could not. You love her.
Did he? Had he fallen victim to the one emotion he had vowed to deny himself? God knew he wanted her. Could it be a simple case of desire? He had wanted other women and withheld himself. All but Portia. She had been the one he couldn’t resist. When it came to her, something greater than lust drove him. But love? Had he learned nothing from his parents?