Too Wicked to Tame

Page 9


Portia shook her head, a slow sense of dread tightening her chest.
He smiled cheerlessly. “Ah, the sacrificial lamb. Shall I explain exactly what your family has plotted for you?”
The dread in her chest grew, leaving no room for air. Unable to speak, she nodded jerkily for him to continue, to confess all.
“Your grandmother sent you into the lion’s den quite unprepared.” His humorless smile slipped and he turned to study the dancing flames in the fireplace. “But then perhaps that was her plan.
To have you blink those pretty eyes so guilelessly at me. Such charming naïveté,” he broke off with a snort.
Deliberately ignoring his backhanded compliment, she snapped, “You make no sense. What curse?”
“Madness, my dear. Porphyria. As ugly as it gets,” he declared, his voice hard as granite. “My father fell victim to it.” His expression grew shuttered. “As did my younger brother.”
Madness? He had not been jesting. Portia eyed his profile closely, as if she could discern the madness he spoke of lurking beneath his hard exterior, see it in the smoky depths of his gaze, in the unyielding line of his jaw, in the wide mouth and full lips.
He turned then and caught her staring at him. A knowing smile twisted his mouth. “Yes, it’s there, runs thick in my blood. Some say it has already surfaced.” He shrugged one broad shoulder as if it mattered little.
An image of the wicked man from the road, the one who had nearly run her over with his horse, who flirted outrageously, who played with knives for sport, flashed through her mind.
“Explains much, doesn’t it?” he asked, lips curving in a strange, humorless smile. As if he were determined to feel nothing, as if being mad cast no shadow over his life.
Yet his eyes betrayed him. Hot, determined, they glowed like polished jet, the gray nowhere in evidence. The sight made her heart beat harder against her breast. A purely feminine reaction—
one for which she sharply reprimanded herself.
“So you see,” he continued, “I won’t have children. Won’t risk future generations.”
She rubbed the base of her palm against her temple, struggling to understand why her grandmother would want her to wed a man burdened with such an affliction. “But my grandmother claimed you’re a catch—”
“Money, my dear,” he cut in sharply, his words echoing within the cavernous room, in the far corners of her heart—a death knell that marked an end to her clinging faith, to the belief that her family regarded her above that of money.
“Many families would gladly forget my tainted bloodlines for a piece of the Moreton fortune,”
he said, his voice rolling over her like a numbing fog—pervasive, consuming, obliterating.
Families like hers.
Shaming heat crawled up her neck and face.
He continued, “I’m guessing your family is in dire need of funds.”
She longed to deny it, to deny that she belonged to such a family—deny that her heart wasn’t breaking to think that her grandmother cared so little for her. She opened her mouth, but no sound emerged.
“We might be the Mad Moretons,” he went on, not bothering to wait for her reply, “But we’ve more money than we have use for.”
More money than we have use for. That would be her family’s sole requisite.
She sank down onto a chair, her shaking legs unable to support her weight. Bile rose in the back of her throat as cold comprehension settled over her. Her grandmother would surrender her to a madman all because his pockets ran deep? Portia had thought she loved her. At least as much as she could love anyone. True, Grandmother strove to see her wed, but Portia had not thought her so desperate, so uncaring. She wouldn’t put such a scheme past her brother and his wife. Bertram and Astrid would sell her to the Sultan of Turkey, if Grandmother let them.
He continued, the velvet timbre of his voice doing nothing to soothe her. “Now you know and you can depart and count yourself lucky to have escaped.”
Depart? Return to her family?
Lifting her gaze, she shook her head. “No.” Absolutely not. More than ever she was determined to remain here. To escape. At least for as long as she could. Grandmother had warned her that this Season would not be like the others—had vowed that Portia would be betrothed by the end of it.
“What do you mean ‘no’?” He rose, two long strides bringing him before her.
Evidently she had spoken aloud. Her head fell back to take in the great length of him towering over her. She wet her lips and told herself that he did not intimidate her.
“I have no wish to wed you,” she said coolly, striving to sound practical, matter-of-fact. “And you have no wish to wed me. What difference does it make if I remain here? I could use a little escape.”
“A little escape,” he echoed. “What is it you wish to escape?”
“When I return home, my family will begin where they left off, pelting me at gentlemen whose pockets run deep enough to cover my brother’s debts.” She lifted one shoulder in a carelessly affected shrug, as if that fact did not make her chest tight and her skin itchy. As if she did not feel like a commodity to be bought and sold.
“And money doesn’t interest you?” His skeptical gaze slid over her, stopping at her bare feet peeking beneath the hem of her nightgown. “You prefer owning tattered nightgowns with frayed hems?”
Air escaped her in a whoosh. So her wardrobe was a bit shabby. He was no model of fashion.
“The need for funds motivates my family. Not me.” She straightened her spine where she sat, resisting the urge to pull her legs beneath her and hide her unraveling hem. “Is it so hard to imagine that I wish to—”
“Remain a spinster?” he finished for her. “Yes.”
Her hands knotted into fists at her sides. “Like you, I have my reasons for eschewing matrimony.”
His lips quirked in a scornful smile. He looked down at her in that mocking, skeptical way of his that set her teeth to gnashing. “Madness runs in your family, too?”
It would seem strange to him—to anyone—that she wished to live her life unwed, pitied and reviled by Society. But there was freedom in it. No ties. The freedom in never answering to a husband, in being bent to his iron will. Freedom to pick up and leave when her mother came for her. Perhaps it was foolish to cling to that particular dream. Especially now, eight years later. Yet Portia remembered the mother who had read to her, talked to her for long hours, dismissed the governess so that she herself could teach her daughter her favorite Greek myths. That mother had promised to come for her, promised that they would live a grand life of travel and leisure together. Without husbands.
She raised her eyes to his waiting stare. He would never understand. And she had no intention of revealing so much of herself in order to explain.
“My reasons are my own and none of your concern.”
“Convenient,” he mocked. “However, if this is some trick or device to stay here in an attempt to persuade me to marry—”
“Don’t,” she snapped, outrage consuming her, burning low in her belly. “You give yourself too much credit.” Was there no end to his arrogance? “Even if I were interested in finding a husband, I certainly wouldn’t look to you.”
“Not rich enough?” He lifted an eyebrow. “Or you require wealth and a family tree with no threat of insanity?”
No. Those reasons paled in the face of her real fear. Even if it came down to her marrying, nothing would motivate her to choose him, a man who could reduce her to a quivering mass of nerves.
She swallowed and strove for a show of courage. “You needn’t be afraid.” She flicked her eyes over him, conveying her disdain. “You’re safe from me.”
“I’m not afraid,” he gritted, his chest expanding.
With an audacity that even surprised her, she retorted, “Good. Because I’ve been invited here, and I have no intention of leaving Moreton Hall until I’m well and ready.”
His nostrils flared in challenge.
Unable to stop herself, she leaned back in her chair. Tapping her fingers on the cushioned arms, she baited him further, “Best grow accustomed to the sight of me.”
“Careful, Miss Mud Pie,” he growled. “You may come to regret your decision.”
Bristling at the reference to their less than dignified first meeting, she flung out, “Only people who don’t know themselves have regrets. I know myself exceptionally well.” Pushing to her feet, she thought to depart with that final, ringing announcement.
Yet her breath quickened at finding herself chest to chest with him. Their gazes locked. His gray eyes deepened, blue-black, reminding her of the first time she saw him cursing and spitting mad in the midst of a storm, his eyes identical to the coal gray skies.
He leaned in, crowding her further with the wall of his chest, his primal presence. Her senses filled with him. His musky smell. His towering height. The incredible breadth of chest that seemed to stretch on forever. His intense gaze burned deep into her, searing her soul. Panicked, she jerked back a step. The chair bumped her thighs, preventing her retreat.
“Be warned,” he breathed against her ear. “If you stay, expect no quarter from me. You’re not wanted here.”
She shook her head, bewildered at why he simply couldn’t believe her—why he refused to see her as anything but a scheming gold digger. Did she really pose such a threat?
She lifted her hands to shove at his chest, then thought better of it. She all too well recalled how the mere feel of him undid her.
Curling her fingers into her palms, she dropped her hands at her sides. Seeing no other choice, she stepped closer in order to squeeze past. Her br**sts grazed the rock wall of his chest. Her ni**les sprang to attention, hardened peaks that chafed against the thin cotton of her nightgown.
Her stomach plummeted and her gaze flew to his face, to eyes no longer gray but a dark, blistering blue.
Heat suffused her and she crossed her arms tightly over her br**sts. With all the grace of a bolting hare, she fled, eyes fixed straight ahead, afraid to look back, afraid that she wouldn’t see the earl at all—merely the wicked temptation of one stormy night when she had lost herself in a pair of shifting gray eyes.
Chapter 8
Portia’s heart skipped at the swift knock. Pressing the open book to her chest, she stared unblinkingly at the thick oak-paneled door.
For one fleeting moment, she wondered whether the earl had decided to follow her up to her room. Her heart did a full somersault at the possibility.
Then reason asserted itself. A gentleman dead set against matrimony would not risk visiting a lady’s room in the middle of the night. Not with his grandmother lurking about, determined to see them wed.
“Come in,” she called, closing the book and setting it beside her.
Lady Mina entered the room. “I saw the light beneath your door. Are you feeling well?”
“I’m fine. Merely reading.”
Without waiting for an invitation, Mina bounded forward, her single dark plait bouncing over her shoulder as she hopped onto the bed. More bouncing and jiggling followed until she settled across from Portia.
“Then you won’t mind me staying for a bit. We haven’t had much time to talk. Perhaps you could tell me about life in Town. Especially the Season.”
Portia stifled a sigh. The abysmal go-rounds of the Season were not something she relished recounting. “One Season begins to resemble another after a time. There’s nothing extraordinary about Town life. I find country living far preferable.”
“You would not say that if you’d never been more than ten miles from here.” Mina brought her knees up to her chest. “Perhaps I would not mind so much if Heath would let me attend some of the local gatherings.” She lowered her chin to her knees and stared at her toes peaking beneath the hem. “I could have at least a small taste of Society, even if not the glitter and bustle of Town.”