Too Wicked to Tame

Page 30


Love brought out the worst in people, gave them free license to abuse each other. Yet Heath could never imagine hurting Portia—at least not as his father hurt his mother, not as they had hurt each other. Perhaps that wasn’t even love. He only knew that his parents had married for love, and then set about making each other miserable. Strife ruled their so-called love match, a hell on earth everyone, offspring included, inhabited. If he did love Portia, he had all the more reason to purge his life of her and save them both from the inevitable day when they turned on each other.
“You love her,” Della repeated, her voice quieter, a thread of resignation to it.
“No,” he answered forcefully, as if his denial would make it not so. Leaning down, he snatched his shirt off the floor. “I’ve no future to offer her. That much hasn’t changed.” He shrugged his arms back into his shirt with rough, angry jerks.
“Stuff and nonsense.”
He blinked. “What?”
“Your future is not as bleak as you think.” Her eyes clouded, avoiding his, looking somewhere beyond his shoulder.
“How so?”
She turned slowly, presenting him her back as she moved to the wingback chair near the hearth.
She lowered herself into its soft depths, her skirts a murmur on the air. Her fingers clutched the arm as if in need of support, the tips whitening around the healthy pink of her nails. “I suppose you’ll want to send me away.”
“What are you talking about?” he demanded.
She wet her lips and closed her eyes tightly. “There’s no risk of you becoming mad.”
“You’re not in danger—”
“I heard what you said. Yet I fail to grasp your meaning?”
“I found a letter from your mother.”
His gut tightened. “Where is it?” he growled.
She averted her gaze. “It was addressed to your father. I assume he received it; I remember you telling me that your father stayed here near the end. That he was too volatile—”
“Yes, yes,” he cut in, not wishing for the reminder that his father, so far gone to madness, had to be removed from his family.
“Your mother must have sent it here.” Her brown eyes gazed at him in silent plea. Heath stared, beyond speech, head spinning, trying to make sense of her words, trying to make sense of why she should gaze at him with such deep entreaty.
In a hushed voice, she continued, “She spoke of your brother’s death—”
He cut her off with a fierce swipe of his hand, his throat constricting. He shoved back the memories, attempting to block out the ugliness, the perpetual night that swirled around him.
His fists clenched at his sides and he had to remind himself to breathe. Despite his determination to keep the memories at bay, they surged forth anyway, a battering ram to the walls he had erected. Wound upon wound. Grief upon grief. The sight of his mother, facedown in a pool of her own blood rushed into his head, fresh as the day he had found her. The feel of his brother’s little body, soft and frail in his arms, the thin chest expanding, lifting, fighting for a breath that was not to come, joined the image of his mother, both eating at his heart—his sanity.
Della rose from the chair. She paced before the hearth, arms swinging. The light of the fire cast her in a soft glow, gilding her fair hair to flaming copper. How he had once prized that hair, spent many a night running his hands through it. Now his hands ached for another. For hair as dark as slate, thick as a horse’s mane, sleek as oriental silk. Even now, his treacherous palms itched for their fill of those silken strands.
“It was such a shock finding the letter. I—I did not stop to think. I worried about losing you and my position should you be free to marry. Selfish, I know. Especially since I suspected you had feelings for this girl.” She shook her head severely, closing her eyes briefly. “I’ve been in torment from the moment I did it.”
“The letter,” he demanded. “Where is it?”
A long moment passed before she answered, “I burned it. I know I had no right. Please forgive—

“You burned it?” Fury spiraled through him.
“I’m so sorry, Heath.”
He took a step toward her and jerked to a stop. In one blink, he forced the tension to ebb.
Shaking his head clear, he asked, “What did it say?”
She faced him. “Your mother was furious at your father, cursed him for his infidelities, blamed him for your brother’s death, for his own condition”—she squared her shoulders, adding—”and hers.”
“Hers?” He blinked, not understanding.
“The disease—” Della stopped abruptly and closed her eyes as if gathering courage. Her chest lifted with a deep inhalation. “Your mother was afflicted, too.”
“My mother had porphyria?”
“No, Heath.” Della’s eyes drilled into him. “The pox. Your father infected your mother with the pox.”
Heath stared.
Della angled her head, her eyes searching his face. “Did you hear me?”
Oh, he heard her. Simply could not quite wrap his head around it. Not when he had been told otherwise nearly all his life.
Syphilis. His father went mad from syphilis?
Heath finally broke the silence with a harsh laugh. “You’re mistaken.”
“No, Heath. Your father was quite indiscriminating in his liaisons. Your mother was clear on that point in her letter. She cursed him for bringing the disease home—”
“My brother—”
“Was infected through your mother,” she finished for him. “In the womb.”
He lunged forward and grasped Della by the arms, giving her a swift shake. “No,” he ground out, unwilling to believe that his whole world was built upon lies, upon the likelihood of a fate that was not his. If he wasn’t Mad Moreton, then who was he?
“Heath,” she said softly, reaching up to grip one of his hands, her slender fingers surprisingly strong upon his. “You know it makes sense. The symptoms of porphyria and the pox are similar.
The welts, erratic behavior…madness.”
“No,” he argued, a dangerous rage unfurling low in his gut. Rage at his father and mother for the lives lost and years stolen—for the brother born without a hope for life. Rage at his mother’s funeral, conducted in the dead of night with no rites spoken over the body.
Rage smoldered in his veins, so intense that he had none left for Della. He looked upon her numbly, muttering, “Grandmother said it was the king’s madness.” Dragging a hand over his jaw, he released a pent up breath.
Della’s lips twisted. “What would you rather have people believe? That the Earl of Moreton caught the pox and infected his family? Or he suffered a blood curse over which he had no control?”
Heath surged to his feet and donned the rest of his clothes, his movements violent, angry. Like the burning surge of blood to his head. His grandmother had known the truth. Of this he felt certain. She had harbored his father’s dirty secret and replaced it with another. One she deemed less scandalous.
“Where are you going?”
“To see my grandmother. I mean to have the truth from her lips.”
“What kind of satisfaction will confronting her grant you? Not the kind you crave, I warrant.”
“Oh, I’ll be satisfied,” he vowed.
“Go after her, Heath,” Della uttered, her voice matter of fact, no less certain for its quietness.
He stopped. He didn’t need to ask about whom she referred. One hand on the door, he faced her, his jaw loosening, preparing to speak—but he hadn’t a clue what to say. “Della—”
“Don’t. You don’t owe me an explanation, Heath. There were never promises between us. Never love. I’m happy that you’re free.” She tried for a smile, but her lips quavered, elusive as water.
“Even if being free means you’re free to be with someone else.”
He shook his head, a rush of emotion filling his chest. “She left of her own choosing. I gave her what she wanted. I agreed to marry her. I’m not about to chase after her. Nothing has changed—

“Quit lying to yourself and go.” A sad smile hugged her lips. “You’re not your parents. You’re stronger. You’ll respect the woman you love too much to hurt her. Go. Before it’s too late.”
Heath turned and escaped into the night, telling himself that free or not, he would not go traipsing to London in pursuit of Portia. Even if he felt the life-long noose about his neck loosen and the breath flow freely from his lungs, his heart was still tightly sealed. Nothing would ever change that.
Chapter 25
“Her Grace was absolutely right.” Simon Oliver’s moist breath fanned against her ear. “You are a marvelous dancer.”
Portia suppressed her shudder at the heavy hand digging into her waist, wondering what else Astrid had told him. Had she informed him his suit would be welcomed? That he need only ask and she would accept his proposal? They had discussed and decided as much. Regardless that he made her skin crawl, Simon Oliver was an ideal candidate. Especially for someone like her. The gentlemen of the ton had never pounded a path to her door, and Portia could afford no delay in acquiring a husband.
“Thank you, Mr. Oliver,” she murmured, the fine hairs at her nape prickling once again. She twisted her head and looked about the dance floor, searching among the dancers. The feeling that someone was watching—had been watching her for quite some time—beset her yet again.
“Please, call me Simon.”
“Simon,” she murmured, dragging her gaze back to his.
Astrid would see such an invitation as progress. Portia’s stomach tightened to know they had reached the point of familiarity.
“I must say you’re a fetching bit of baggage tonight.”
Portia winced at the artless sycophancy and followed his gaze down the front of her low-cut bodice—one of Astrid’s gowns that had been altered to fit her. “Again, my thanks.”
He grinned, his broad, square face the picture of delight. The waltz came to an end. Portia sighed with relief as he led her from the floor.
“Can I get you anything, my dear? A libation perhaps?”
“Yes, that would be lovely.”
Simon Oliver had shadowed her all evening. The chance for a respite beckoned. As soon as he turned, she fled through the mad crush of guests. Lady Hamilton’s soiree was a rousing success tonight, if the crowd full of flushed faces was any indication. Music, food and rum punch flowed freely. Hardly the kind of event her grandmother would have allowed her to attend—especially in a dress such as the one she wore. Portia had placed herself in Astrid’s hands, and her sister-in-law claimed this to be an excellent affair to launch the new Portia.
In moments, she was free from the press of bodies, stumbling onto the balcony, down the stone steps and deep into the gardens. She strolled until she located an iron bench situated beneath a large oak. Settling herself there, she lifted her face for the evening breeze to cool her overheated cheeks.
The slow drag of footsteps over the graveled path seized her attention. She watched as a shadow grew out of the dark, broad-shouldered and loosed limbed, drawing ever nearer with the firm fall of each step. Finally, an image materialized.
The dark fall of hair. The angular, hawklike features. The storm-cloud eyes.
“What are you doing here?” she whispered, her heart expanding inside her chest.
“I’m here for you.”
Shivering at his words, she demanded hotly, “How did you know I was here?”
He shrugged. “An easy matter. The right coin will earn you any information you want.”
Indignation smoldered inside her. “You bribed my servants?”