Too Wicked to Tame

Page 6


For once, the two obeyed and fell in step behind her as she marched out of the inn. Clouds hung low in the sky, either remnants of yesterday’s storm or a hint of more rain to come. A cold mist clung to the air and she lifted her chin, glad for it, hoping that it might cool her flushed face.
Once settled in the carriage, she leaned back on the squabs and closed her eyes.
“You feeling all right?” Nettie asked.
“Fine,” Portia answered, eyes still closed. A shiver shook her, belying her words.
“You look awful.”
“Good.” God forbid she should appear attractive to the Earl of Moreton. He might propose.
“Welcome, Lady Portia. We’ve been expecting you.” The Dowager Countess of Moreton glided forward, her perfectly coiffed head held high, a fat, black Persian cat tucked in one arm.
Portia blinked, finding it difficult to reconcile the graceful creature in the elegantly appointed parlor as Grandmother’s girlhood friend. Both were of like age, both widows of lofty rank, both determined to see their grandchildren wed. But the similarity ended there. Lady Moreton was slim and elegant, a vision of loveliness in deep blue muslin. Portia’s grandmother stuck solely to her widow’s weeds, as she had for the past twenty-five years. Nothing save black bombazine hung in her wardrobe.
“Apparently you forgot to inform me we were to have company, Grandmother.” The statement came from a woman sitting rigidly on a velvet chaise. She and a younger woman occupied the chaise. The one who spoke nudged yet another Persian away from her skirts, her expression pinched as she surveyed Portia from head to toe.
Lady Moreton tossed the woman a quelling look. “Indeed, I must have forgotten to mention it, Constance.”
A serene smile in place again, the countess faced Portia, keen blue eyes examining her closely.
Portia recognized the inspection. Had suffered it time and time again. The critical assessment of her looks, her form, the attempt to determine whether she would satisfy as a bridal candidate.
Portia stifled a sigh, wishing she could put an end to the pretense, wishing she could open her mouth to proclaim that she would never meet the Earl of Moreton’s satisfaction. It would certainly spare all involved a great deal of time. But that would never do. She had to frighten him away as she had the others. Had to appear as if she tried to be suitable. Her family could never know, must never suspect that she deliberately chased away her suitors. After all, she had plans.
And they didn’t include matrimony.
“I feel that I already know you from Robbie’s letters.”
Portia started. Robbie? Some of her shock must have shown, for Lady Moreton laughed, a rich, throaty sound so at odds with the very proper picture she made in her high-necked gown. Not a single crease in the heavily starched fabric of her dress. Not a silver blond hair out of place. In her travel-wrinkled dress and mussed hair, Portia felt tattered and untidy in comparison.
“I see that you’ve never heard someone refer to your grandmother as Robbie.”
“No.” Portia had never even heard someone use her grandmother’s Christian name of Roberta.
“Forgive me. I suppose it is rather undignified.” Lady Moreton led her to a brocade-covered settee and gestured for her to sit. “A habit leftover from childhood.”
Portia sank down with a grateful sigh. For some reason, her legs felt weak and trembly. Lady Moreton sat beside her. The cat immediately curled up between them and set to kneading Portia’s thigh with its paws. Even through her skirts, she could feel the tiny daggerlike claws.
“These are my granddaughters.” Lady Moreton nodded to the two young women across from them. “Constance and Wilhelmina.”
“I’ve so been looking forward to meeting you, Lady Portia,” Wilhelmina trilled, fairly bouncing where she sat. “Please call me Mina.”
Lady Moreton stroked the ear of another cat that appeared as if by magic on the arm of the settee.
“Do sit still, child. We don’t want Portia to think you ill-mannered.”
“It would seem,” Constance began in a flat voice, still nudging the cat with the toe of her slipper as it wove in and out from under her skirts, “We aren’t all of us surprised by your arrival. That being the case, why not apprise me of a few items, Lady Portia? Where have you traveled from to treat us with this visit? And how long do you intend to stay?”
Treat was uttered with such derision that Portia immediately knew she had already won the disfavor of one Moreton. “From London…and please call me Portia.” Portia left the latter question unanswered.
Constance arched a brow. “But you’ll miss the Season. No doubt you wish to return soon.”
Portia frowned, unsure what she had done to earn such immediate dislike. Usually it required a little time and effort on her part.
Lady Moreton cleared her throat and pinned a hard stare on her granddaughter. In that instant, Portia recognized the similarity between the countess and her grandmother, could well understand how the two had formed a bond that lasted fifty-odd years. The two termagants ran roughshod over everyone in their sphere.
“She has just arrived, Constance. Don’t run our guest off so soon with your prying questions.”
Snapping her gaze away, she dismissed her granddaughter as she poured a cup of tea from the impeccably polished ser vice before them. “Come, Portia, this will fortify you. What a ghastly day for travel. You wouldn’t believe it’s spring.”
Lady Moreton’s words rang inside her head, reminding her of her exchange with a certain dark-haired stranger and his quick refutation that it was not yet spring. A small smile curved her lips.
She wondered if she lingered in his mind the way he lingered in hers, then gave her head a swift shake. Such thoughts were nonsense. Romantic claptrap that had no place in her life.
“Thank you, Lady Moreton.” She accepted the cup and took a long sip, telling herself that the warm liquid sliding down her scratchy throat made her feel better. Wrapping her chilled fingers around the warm teacup, she tried to ignore the cat sharpening its talons on her thigh.
A crackling fire burned nearby in a hearth so large Portia could stand in it. At home, they could afford to burn no more than coals. Just the same, the luxury of those fire-burning logs did little to warm her blood.
“You must tell me all about Town,” Mina encouraged, her blue eyes shining brightly.
Portia managed a weak smile. “What would you like to know?” she asked, pretending not to notice Constance’s glower.
“Everything. Leave nothing out.” Mina clapped her hands in delight. “Almack’s, Vauxhall, the theaters…are the balls really splendid? Have you met our young queen? What is she like?” She scowled. “My brother won’t so much as permit me to attend a local assembly. He’s an absolute tyrant.”
Portia raised a brow as she set her teacup down with a hand that annoyingly shook. The earl sounded like a stodgy old boor. She’d have to reevaluate her plan for chasing him off. Diatribes on the innovations of ancient Roman road construction may not bore such a profound prig. She may need to rattle on about fashion and the latest on dit. Or perhaps current philosophies on female empowerment. That ought to chase off any gentleman averse to society, tonnish ways and freethinking females.
“And don’t think I’ve had a come-out.” Mina went on to say, pressing a hand to her bosom. “Can you imagine? Twenty-one and never a Season. Why, it’s barbaric.”
Portia could think of countless things more barbaric than that—the poor sanitary conditions in London slums that bred cholera, yellow fever, influenza, and typhus epidemics; women selling their bodies in order to feed their starving families; children working long, exhaustive hours in unsafe foundries for miserly wages—but she held her tongue. This was neither the time nor place to air her many views on societal reform.
“That’s enough, Mina,” her sister said through tight lips, setting her cup down on its saucer with a sharp clink. Without looking down, Constance gave the cat at her ankles a swift kick. With a moaning meow, the ball of fur darted across the room in a streak of gray.
“Constance, stop tormenting Cleo,” Lady Moreton reprimanded, turning an aggrieved look on Portia. “That one is always antagonizing my poor pets.”
“My brother is a tyrant,” Mina repeated, her pretty face scrunched in a scowl.
“We may yet sway your brother into giving you a Season. Your youth has not completely passed.” Sighing, Lady Moreton looked to Portia in entreaty. “It’s tragic, but my grandson has…set notions that have prevented him from granting his sisters their come-outs. How old were you when you made your curtsey?”
Portia wet her lips, hating to be used as an example. “Seventeen.”
“And still unwed,” Constance leapt to point out, her voice ringing with smug satisfaction. “See, Grandmother, a Season does not guarantee matrimony.”
“I have no doubt that you are firmly on the shelf, Constance. But Mina?” Lady Moreton gave a swift shake of her head, her shiny sapphire-and-diamond earbobs swinging. “She still has prospects.”
Color flooded Constance’s face and Portia felt a stab of empathy. She had grown well accustomed to the veiled insult—and not so veiled. She knew firsthand how it felt to be scorned by one’s family.
Lady Moreton clucked her tongue. “Don’t scowl so, Constance. It ages you.”
With a rueful smile at Portia, Lady Moreton selected a biscuit from the ser vice, seemingly oblivious to having offended her granddaughter as she began tearing off pieces to feed the cat clawing Portia’s thigh. Instantly, cats of all colors and size descended upon the settee. Portia swallowed back her startled cry at the invasion. How many bloody cats did Lady Moreton possess?
“It’s all horribly unfair,” Mina complained, blithely unaware as Portia busily fended off an army of felines. “Before long I, too, shall be firmly on the shelf.”
Color spotting her cheeks, Constance muttered, “I’m sure Lady Portia has no wish to hear you prattle on about your life’s injustices.”
Mina’s bottom lip pushed out in a pout as Portia dropped one skinny tabby and then another that looked to be its twin onto the carpet. “I don’t mind—”
“Oh, but I do, Lady Portia.” The eldest Moreton sister fixed a chilly stare on her.
Portia blinked.
“Oh, cease being such a shrew, Constance,” Lady Moreton reprimanded over a cacophony of purring.
Portia set her cup down and pressed the back of her hand to her face, dismayed to feel sweat dotting her brow. Especially since she felt so wretchedly cold.
“Are you feeling well, Portia?” Mina leaned forward, her smooth brow wrinkling with concern.
“You look a bit…”
“Pasty,” Constance supplied.
Empathy for Constance rapidly fading, Portia confessed, “Actually, I am quite fatigued. It has been a long journey.”
Lady Moreton quickly stood, cats leaping to the floor in every direction. “Of course, how rude of me to subject you to so much excitement. Let me show you to your chamber, my dear.”
Portia stood, prepared to follow, when the parlor door flew open.
No. Her heart jumped to her throat and she grasped the back of a nearby chair for support at sight of him entering the room.
He paused a moment, eyeing the surprised tableau—most notably her—before his swift, long strides ate up the distance separating them, advancing on her like some kind of dark angel coming to wreak his vengeance.
For the briefest, bewildered moment, she wondered why he had come looking for her. Surely he did not intend to follow through on the wicked promise of his hot gaze. Of course not. His glittering eyes held no joy at the sight of her, only grim resolve.
“What in the bloody hell are you doing here?”