Authors: Christi Caldwell
Copyright © 2016 by Christi Caldwell
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form by any electronic or mechanical means—except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews—without written permission.
The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.
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For more information about the author:
So much goes into the creation of a book. I often say, it takes a village. From beginning to the literal and figurative end, there is plotting and writing and revising and editing.
To my editorial team, Sandra Sookoo and Scott Moreland.
Thank you for your brilliance. Be it phone calls or emails or late night Facebook messages, when I absolutely must talk to someone about my story, you’re always there. Cedric and Genevieve’s story is for you.Table of Contents
Other Books by Christi Caldwell
Mayhap they won’t find me here.
Lady Genevieve Farendale sat in the corner of the schoolroom with her knees drawn to her chest. The hum of quiet in the darkened room was faintly calming.
She laid her tear-dampened cheek upon the soft satin fabric of her ivory wedding dress. Mayhap, they’d know the last place to look for an eighteen-year-old young lady on her should-have-been-wedding-night would be in a child’s schoolroom.
The door opened. “Genny?” Her just fourteen-year-old sister, Gillian, stuck her head inside the room and scanned the darkened space. The girl hesitated and Genevieve held her breath, hoping her sister would turn on her heel and leave. “Are you in here?” Gillian called out again and stepped inside. The door closed with a decisive click.
She should have known better. Especially given the rotted turn of events that day where invariably, nothing went right—at least for her, anyway. For one moment born of cowardice, she contemplated saying nothing. But this was Gillian; devoted, loving, and all things kind in a world that had proven how elusive those sentiments were. “I’m here,” she said quietly, discreetly brushing her hands over her tear-stained cheeks.
Squinting in the dark, Gillian located Genevieve with her stare. Then, with an uncharacteristic guardedness, she wandered closer. She came to a stop, hovering beside her older sister. “Are you all right?” There was a singsong, almost haunting quality to her words.
For her sister’s benefit, Genevieve mustered a smile. Or she tried. She really did.
Gillian’s eyes formed round moons. “Oh, dear,” she whispered, sailing to the floor in a noisy ruffle of skirts.
With the hell of the day whirring around her mind, Genevieve wanted to yell for her to leave. She wanted to snap and snarl and hiss and demand Gillian allow her to her misery. “What is it?” Alas, she’d never been able to yell at her loving sibling.
“You are crying.”
“No, I am not.” Shehadbeen crying. Well, sobbing, really. The noisy, ugly kind of sobs producing tears that left a lady with a hopelessly red nose and bloodshot eyes. Nothing really pretty about those tears. Now, she’d not a single drop left to shed.
Gillian leaned forward and peered at her. “But you were,” she insisted, worry filled her usually hopeful, cheerful tone.
With a sigh, Genevieve stroked the top of her sister’s head. “But I was.”
Capturing her lower lip between her teeth, Gillian troubled the flesh. “Is it because of your wedding?” The inquiry emerged hesitant.
It was because her heart had been ripped from her chest in the most public of ways. Her honor and virtue had all been thrown into question by the very same man she’d loved. Alas, one couldn’t say all of that to a young girl still untainted by life. Genevieve searched for words.
“I overheard Mother and Father,” the girl supplied.
“Ah.” For really, what else was there to say? What, when she didn’t truly wish to know what, was being discussed between her previously proud mama and papa? Her mother was a leading Society matron, who prided that position above all else. Her Papa loved…wellnothing, except his title and power.
“You are not getting married then?” Her sister’s question pulled her back from her useless musings. For even a girl of fourteen, who could not know the precise details, at least registered the ramifications and knew—Genevieve was ruined.
Tears welled once more. Unable to form a reply, Genevieve opened her arms and Gillian threw herself into them. Closing her eyes, Genevieve took comfort in the slight, reassuring weight of her sister’s small form. She dropped her chin atop her sister’s head and blinked back tears.
“I do not understand why he would not marry you,” Gillian whispered.
“Because…” Because he was a cad. A liar. A blackheart.
But the truth was, she didn’t knowwhythe Duke of Aumere had jilted her. With a missive delivered by his closest friend, no less. That note that had been turned over to her parents.
Her stomach churned. Words that threw aspersions upon her character and marked her a whore. Lies. All of the words, lies. But it mattered not. When a duke whispered, everyone listened, and ladies were ruined.
And Genevieve was well and truly ruined.
Footsteps sounded in the hall and both girls looked up. The door opened and their mother stepped inside. In her fingers, she carried the same damning piece of vellum she’d raged over in the return carriage ride from the church. With sure, determined footsteps, she entered deeper into the room and Gillian hopped quickly to her feet. Genevieve, however, moved with a greater reluctance. “Moth—”
“Gillian,” their mother snapped.
The girl looked back and forth between mother and daughter, indecision in her eyes. Genevieve mustered a smile, gave her sister’s fingers a slight squeeze and said, “Go.”
Eyes lowered, Gillian skirted the seething marchioness and took her leave, shutting mother and daughter alone.
She tried again. “Moth—”
“What have you done?” her mother’s clipped words shook with fury.
What had she done? The more apropos question would have been; what hadhedone? Or why? How? Anything was surely more appropriate than “what have you done?” Squaring her shoulders, she held her mother’s furious stare. “I did nothing.”
Her mother brandished the page. “You’ve done nothing?” she squeaked. “You lay with the duke—”
“I did not lie with anyone,” she bit out. She’d had but two kisses from the man who’d been her betrothed and those were brief, chaste ones upon her lips. Never anything more.
Her mother scoffed. “Are you calling the duke a liar?”
She stiffened. Is that the way of this coldly reserved world they lived in? A mother would believe lies upon a page over her own daughter’s words? “I am.”
Her mother’s broad nose flared and she studied Genevieve. Fury burned from within her eyes. Then, she quickly smoothed her features. Of course, one must never show emotion. How shameful for her mother to drop that mask for even a sliver of a moment. “You are ruined.”
Yes, she was quite ruined. Beyond marriageable. What happened to women such as that? Rumored virtue-less, may as well, in fact, be truly without virtue. What happened to those ladies? A panicky laugh built in her chest.
“You cannot stay here.”
That decisive, emotionless statement snapped her back from the precipice of her silent ramblings. “No,” she agreed. There had, however, been something oddly comforting in the schoolroom. A peace. A quiet. The schoolroom had been the one place she’d felt accomplished. She’d earned the praise and pride of her nursemaids and governesses. Of course, on the day of her greatest failure, this place harkened to the time in her life when she’d done right. Genevieve made to step around her mother, when the woman shot a hand out, and wrapped it around her forearm. “I am leaving,” she said with a frown, wincing at her mother’s painful grip.
“Not this room, Genevieve.”
A pebble of dread knotted in her belly. Perhaps it was the events of the morn. Perhaps it was the shock of betrayal. And yet, she could not make sense of those decisive four words. “I don’t understand.”
“Surely you see that you cannot remain here. You will be a visible blight upon your sister’s future. As long as you are here, people will talk and whisper. But your sister is young enough that she might make a respectable match in four years.”
Did her mother truly believe her absence would make all of that go away? It was madness. Her mother spoke as though, in leaving, Genevieve’s very existence would be forgotten. By the firm set to her mother’s mouth, she knew. She’d be banished to the country. She smoothed her shaking palms over the front of her rumpled wedding dress. “Very well,” she said, proud of the steady quality of those words. But inside, she was shaking with equal parts rage and hurt betrayal—first her betrothed and now her mother. Was there loyalty, anywhere? “We will return to the country and when we return—”
“Not us,” her mother put in impatiently. “Youneed to leave.”
A dull humming filled her ears. She shook her head.No.
“Yes.” The marchioness took a step closer.
She imagined living in a world away from Gillian and tears flooded her eyes. Even though she’d so often deliberately needled her sister through the years, those bothersome sibling behaviors were now gifts she’d not give up. Ice traveled along her spine. Her teeth clattered noisily and she hugged her arms close. “Wh-where would you send me?” she croaked as the reality of her mother’s cold disdain stole the last of her logic. Her mother sought to snip her from the fabric of the family as though she was nothing more than a bothersome thread dangling from an embroidery frame.
“Your grandfather’s property in Kent.” Her mother pursed her lips. Rumored to be as frigid and unyielding as a winter freeze, her parents would send her there. “I do not hold you entirely to blame. I attended Mrs. Belden’s when I was young.” She peeled her lip back in a disappointed sneer. “Perhaps you would have been best served by attending that institution. Instead, we indulged you with lax governesses and nursemaids.” She gave a flick of her hand. “Regardless, the mistake was mine for allowing you to remain here with those who encouraged your flights of fancy. Now we are to live with those circumstances.”
We.A familial equation Genevieve no longer fit within. She turned her hands up and managed but one word. “Please.” The entreaty emerged garbled and hoarse.
Her mother scowled and ignored the outstretched offering. “Would you be so selfish as to steal your sister’s right to a respectable marriage?”
Guilt sliced at her heart. Even though it wasn’t her fault. Even though the duke’s words were all lies. They belonged to a Society where women had no voice and certainly one that would never be believed against a duke. And yet, for that, she would be sent away and never again see Gillian. She let her arm fall to her side. “I cannot leave,” she whispered.
“Of course you will,” her mother said with a matter-of-factness that froze her on the inside. “For Gillian, you will.” Then, turning on her heel, she started for the door.
A burgeoning panic clogged Genevieve’s throat. “Wait,” she managed to cry out, as her mother gripped the door handle. “When can I return?” Her body trembled with the force of terror spreading through her.
Her mother cast a look over her shoulder. “Why, when your sister makes a respectable match.” On that sure pronouncement, the marchioness left, closing the door behind her.
And just like that, the thread was cut.Chapter 1
As Lady Genevieve Farendale stepped through the front doors of the lavish London townhouse, she wondered just exactly how parents decided going about ending an imposed exile on one’s daughter.
Was it a certain number of days or hours? Or was it something more arbitrary? As simple as waking up one day and realizing that there was, indeed, a fabric of the family missing that needed to be restored. Given their remarkable absence from her life all these years, she’d venture it certainly wasn’t the latter.
Whatever precipitated the reinstatement into one’s family, however it had come about, five years had been the amount of time. Five years of remaining in the country while her family spent the Seasons in London. Five years of no letters or words. And five years marked the end of her penance. Penance for an imagined crime.
Genevieve blinked at the butler, Dunwithy. Time had left wrinkles at the corners of his rheumy eyes and upon his cheeks. And yet the spectacles perched on his slightly crooked nose were the same. Odd, a servant should be more a member of the household than the marquess’ oldest daughter. The man stared expectantly at her, startling her into movement.
Wordlessly, she shrugged out of her modest cloak and turned it over to his waiting hands. Other servants, unfamiliar, young footmen rushed forward to collect the trunks and valise. Of course, they would not have been in her father’s employ all those years ago. As such, they’d not remember the shame of that long ago day.
“May I show you to your chambers, my lady?” the butler offered.
With the servant’s question echoing through the soaring foyer done in Italian marble, she looked about. What had she expected? A warm, familial greeting from an abjectly broken mother and father who pleaded her forgiveness? An exuberant reunion from the younger sister, whom she’d not spoken to in years?
“My lady?” the butler urged again.
How long had she remained silent with no one but her ancient grandfather? He was now given to sleeping his days away and leaving her to her own thoughts for company. And so, she lifted her head and followed behind the butler. As she began the long walk to her once familiar rooms, one of the liveried footmen stole a sideways glance at her and then quickly looked away. A dull flush marred his cheeks.
Her lips twisted in a bitter, humorless smile. So they’d heard the whispers, too. What had they heard exactly? Tales of the shamelessly wanton lady who’d spread her legs for her betrothed and the gentleman’s friends? That had been a popular one bandied about. In fact, it had been the one that had found her standing alone at the altar with a collection of intimate guests looking on. Or mayhap it had been the rumor spread that she’d slept with her betrothed’s younger brother. That had caused quite the stir among the gossips…and even the non-gossips.
The thick carpets muffled the sound of her footfalls. As she walked, Genevieve passed her gaze over the familiar in some ways, altogether different in other aspects of herhome. The gilt frames bearing the proud Farendale ancestors remained fixed in the very spots they’d always been. Those pompous bewigged lords stared down their long Roman noses. However, the wallpaper was different. Pale satin, that harkened to the country skies of Kent, and as much as she’d thought she despised her banishment and abhorred the country, she’d been wrong. So wrong. A hungering gripped her to go back to that remote estate where she could paint and write and sing and simplybe—without any of the whispers and only the servants for company.
But alas, it was not to be. Because as time had proven once before, the dream of simplicity was all imagined. Proper betrothals; broken and shattered. The allure of anonymity, ended in one six-hour carriage ride.
“Here we are, my lady,” the butler murmured and opened the door.
Genevieve tugged off her gloves. She lingered in the doorway. “Thank you. That will be all,” she said dismissively, her voice hoarse from ill use.
Relief flared in the servant’s eyes. He backed away and rushed down the hall with a speed reserved for a man twenty years his junior. She hovered in the doorway. Passing her soft leather gloves into one hand, she brushed the other over the doorjamb.
Five years. It had been five years since she’d last stepped foot out of these chamber doors. One thousand, eight hundred and twenty-five days to be precise. Her throat worked and she damned the weakness that came rushing back from simply being in this godawful place. But she’d braved isolation from her family and Society. Endured cruel whispers and lewd offers. Given all that, stepping inside her bedchambers really was rather insignificant. Willing her legs into movement, Genevieve forced her feet over the threshold. Her breath caught and she looked around.
From the pale pink of the wallpaper to the floral Aubusson carpet, in this room, time stood still. She wandered over to the canopied bed and trailed her fingertips along the ivory coverlet. Why, even the upholsteries were the same. The only thing that had been missing from this nauseatingly cheerful room—had been the girl who’d slept within these walls. Setting her gloves on the rose-inlaid side table, she perched on the edge of the mattress and passed her gaze about. It collided with the only splash of green in this pink and white space.
Shoving to her feet, her legs carried her unbidden over to that rounded, porcelain perfume bottle. With numb fingers, she picked up the piece, a gift given long ago, and liquid sloshed around inside. She fixed on the bucolic couple painted within the center of the bottle; a loyal love knelt at the feet of his sweetheart—their happiness forever suspended in time. How singularly wrong that any piece ofhimshould remain in this room when she’d been sent away. Genevieve tightened her grip about the fragile piece; her knuckles whitening.
A tentative rap sounded at the door and she yanked her head up. “Enter,” she called out, quickly setting the bottle down.
The door opened revealing her maid, Delores—the one loyal figure she’d known these years. “Hullo, Lady Genevieve.”
She mustered a smile. “Delores.” The foolish part of her soul where hope still dwelt had believed Gillian or her mother would be there. Yet, why should they? For the time that had gone, Genevieve may as well have been a stranger. Time had marched on. They’d lived their lives, and she…well, she had lived hers.
Delores gave her a small, encouraging nod. “His Lordship has summoned you.”
Genevieve’s weak attempt at a grin faded.Already?
“Yes, Lady Genny.”
She gave her head a shake, not realizing she’d spoken aloud. Genevieve nodded. “I’ll be but a moment,” she assured the young woman who nodded and then backed out of the room, closing the door behind her.
Genevieve stood there a long moment with the porcelain clock atop the mantel marking the passing seconds. Nothing her parents had ever done had ever been without purpose. The lavish wedding celebration they’d planned for their eldest daughter to the sought after Duke of Aumere. The abrupt and lengthy exile of that same daughter. Of course, her return would have been driven by some motives which could only be a product of her father’s wealth, power, or title. Nervousness twisted in her belly and she fixed on the passing ticks of the clock.
With the powerlessness in her existence these years, and even in this impending meeting with her father, there was something so wholly empowering in keeping that same faithless, shameful parent waiting. She sighed. Alas, all good moments came to an end. Time had taught her that in spades. Squaring her shoulders, Genevieve stalked over to the front of the room and, unhesitant, opened the door. Silence reigned in the corridors.
But she’d wager the remainder of her sanity that servants laid in wait, holding their breath and listening for that long-overdue meeting between father and daughter. Stepping outside, she picked her way along the carpeted halls, onward to an office she’d been summoned too many times to remember. She’d been summoned there as a girl who’d earned his displeasure for her scandalous sketches and paintings. And again as a young woman who’d secured the match of the Season and, for a fleeting moment, earned his pride and approval.
Then there had been the last meeting in that dreaded office. The meeting when her father, the person who’d helped give her life, had spat at her and pledged to never let her set foot in these halls again. Genevieve reached his office and came to a stop. She stared at the silver handle.
When she pulled that door open, she would reenter a world she’d never again wanted to be in. It would be like ripping open the bandage on the darkest mistakes of her foolish youth, and the resentments and pain she’d managed to bury these past five years.
She firmed her jaw. She’d been called whore, liar, and wanton these many years. But no one would ever dare call her coward. Genevieve knocked once.
Even as she’d been expecting it, she jumped. That thunderous boom had not been diminished by time. It still carried the weight of power and strength it always had. Genevieve pushed the door open and stepped inside.
He didn’t even deign to look at her.
She stood there, much like the recalcitrant child summoned to these rooms years and years earlier, awaiting the scolding to be laid out. Those were times when governesses and nursemaids had failed to tame her. She stood there…as though she’d never been gone.Look at me. Look at me and acknowledge me after five years. Tell me you were wrong.
Her father tossed down his pen and picked his head up. But for the faint dusting of gray at his temples and several wrinkles on his high, noble brow, there was no hint of aging. He was the same man who’d so easily shipped her away. “Genevieve,” he called out and, jolted into movement, she pulled the door closed.
No need to give the servants easy access to the gossip about the Farendale whore. “Father,” she said and came forward. She did a quick look about for her mother. Of course, she’d not bother to be here. Why should she? She’d had her other perfectly unscandalous daughter to worry after. The muscles of her stomach tightened and she hated that she should care still about their disregard. Without awaiting permission, Genevieve moved to the leather winged back chair in front of his desk and sat. “I trust you are well?”
Her father’s mouth tightened. “The scandal has not gone away,” he said without preamble.
“I am also well. Thank you for asking,” she said deliberately needling. By the vein bulging at the corner of his eye, she was one wrong utterance away from one of his notorious diatribes. “The scandal? Which scandal do you refer to?” And yet she’d always been hopelessly troublesome.
He opened and closed his mouth several times. “Thescandal,” he bit out.
Genevieve inclined her head. “Ah, yes. Of course.” She paused and gave a solemn nod. “Myscandal.” She drummed her fingertips on the arm of her chair until he pointedly glared at her hand and she stopped mid-movement.
“You would be so flippant,” he said in frosty tones. “You speak so very casually without a regard for the fact that Gillian is gossiped about.” The marquess banged his fist on his desk. “Not a single suitor.”
A frisson of guilt unfurled inside for the sister who’d be so marked as an immoral creature, all because of Society’s opinion of her. “I am sorry,” she said softly and folded her hands on her lap. She studied the interlocked digits. With but four years separating them, Gillian had been her loyal friend; albeit a young one. She’d lain upon Genevieve’s coverlet and pleaded for tales of the balls and soirees she’d attended and the suitors who’d earned a dance.
And now, by her father’s account, Gillian had never known those perceived thrilling moments herself because of Genevieve’s scandal. That hungering to return to the obscurity of the countryside filled her and she launched her appeal. “I do not see how my being in London will serve to benefit Gillian. I can only serve as a reminder. Would it not be best if you allow me to return?”Please. Please let me go.Was there really much life for her in Kent, though? A voice needled at the back of her mind. Was that the future she dreamed of? One in which she was the detested, shameful child without any control of her future and fate?
Her father folded his arms at his chest and eyed her contemplatively. “We have tried purging your memory from Society. The whispers have only persisted because of your stay in the country. Speculation of a…” His cheeks turned a mottled red. “Child.”
“Ah, of course,” she said dryly, while inside she seethed with a gnawing fury. Her stay in the country? That was what they should call it? Not, the banishment forced upon her, but rather, a stay? She remained silent, wishing him to state his piece so she could be gone.
“No,” her father said at last. “We’ve tried hiding our dirty secret.” Which would be her. She was that dirty secret. “To no avail. The only thing we did not do…” She went still. Oh, good God, no. “Is face it head on.” No. No. The litany ran around her mind.
Genevieve gave her head a slow shake. “I do not understand,” she said with a calmness she did not feel. All the while praying that the long travel and fatigue muddled what he truly meant.
“You need to be reintroduced into Society.” That handful of words conjured a foreign beast removed from its natural habitat and reinserted into its proper home.Then, is that not how my own parents see me?“Society needs to see you are a proper lady now. Once Society’s fascination with you has died, then your sister can resume a normal life and find a suitable husband. It worked for the Moore chit aftershewas jilted and it will work for you.”
The least of import to that speech pertained to a young lady she did not know. For with the long-case ticking loudly, she stared unblinking at her father. That was his plan? Thrusting her back into the scornful world which had sharpened their claws on her once hopeful, whimsical self? She gave her head a shake. “No. That will not work.” For so many reasons. Too many to even enumerate. “Furthermore, who would marry me?” she blurted, interrupting him, just as he made to speak. No one. No one unless he was truly—
“A desperate gentleman,” her father supplied. “One who requires a wife.” With cool, methodical movements, he pulled open his desk drawer and withdrew a note from inside. He laid it on the table.
Even as she did not want to know what was contained on those pages, Genevieve craned her head and quickly skimmed the page.
She knew that name. Her mind muddled through. How did she know that name? Genevieve froze. Lord Tremaine, one of Father’s friends from his Oxford days. Widowed twice, with a bevy of daughters. She shook her head. Surely he was not suggesting…? Surely…?
“Tremaine’s wives never birthed him an heir.” The muscles of her stomach tightened reflexively. “He will be arriving in London within a fortnight to assess your suitability.”
“My suitability?” she choked out. As though she was a bloody broodmare.
He continued as though she’d not spoken in horrified shock. “He is not opposed to marrying a girl with a scandal, as long as she can be a proper wife and bear him an heir,” he said, tapping the page. “He’ll overlook your sins and restore this family to respectability.”
As the shock of his words abated, a healthy, seething rage built within her. “Mysins?” She shook from the force of her fury. Layering her hands to the side of the chair, she gripped it to maintain calm. Yes, she had been a flirt. A shameful, wicked flirt. If she could go back and not be the coquette who’d seduced with her eyes, then she would have happiness, a family, and stability. But that had been the extent of her crime. She’d never been the whore thetonwhispered of. Nor the liar her betrothed and his bastard of a brother had proven themselves to be.
“You are to conduct yourself with dignity and honor and proper decorum,” her father went on. He peeled his lip in a sneer and raked a hard stare over her, and she sank back under the force of the revulsion there.
As much as she despised herself for caring, how could a daughter not feel shame at such open loathing?
“You will wear colorless skirts.”
Did he truly believe she gave a jot about the fabric of her gown? “Would you have me don white or ivory?” she asked in a smoothly emotionless tone as she angled her chin up.
Either he failed to note or care about her mocking response, for he continued as though she’d not even spoken. “I’ll not have you batting your lashes at rakes and rogues. When you go out, you are to take your maid and a footman. When you attendtonfunctions, you are to sit primly on the sidelines with the matrons.” He ran through his perfunctory list with such precision her head spun. “You are not to attract any notice, whatsoever.”
Why, he thought her incapable of proper behavior? Despite his ill-opinion and her own flirtatious ways years earlier, Genevieve, in five years, had buried that spirited part of her soul. She had carefully crafted a reserved, proper figure in her stead. Then, her father would have had to speak to her through the years to know as much. “Am I permitted to take meals with the family? Or am I to be confined to my room, then?” There was, however, still the matter of her loose tongue.
The marquess pounded his fist hard the desk, rattling the crystal inkwells and she jumped. “By God, this is not a matter of jest,” he thundered. “You have forever marked this family. The least of what you can do is make this right, as much as you are able, for your sister.” And the fight was sucked out of her. “Is that understood?”
She sat there trembling; not unlike the same girl she’d been five years earlier.Do not be that girl. Not anymore.Except, for the pleasure Genevieve found in exerting herself over her father, she loved her sister more. “Abundantly, my lord,” she bit out. Her father would order her return to London, with neat plans to order her life and bind her forever to a gentleman. Given the oppressiveness she’d known at her own father’s hands, did he truly believe she’d marry one of his aged friends?
“You are dismissed.”
Genevieve came to her feet. The click-clack of her father’s pen indicated he’d returned his attentions to matters which were of import to him.
And just like that, she was dismissed once more.Chapter 2
“By God, where is he?”
Lying on the leather button sofa of the library in his bachelor’s residence, Cedric Falcot, the Marquess of St. Albans, turned his head and looked to the entrance. A small grin hovered on his lips as he rescued the bottle of brandy from the foot of his seat. Turning on his side, he filled his empty snifter and then set the crystal decanter back on the floor.
“Y-Your Grace, His Lordship is otherwise busy.” The thick walls muffled the stammering of his inexplicably loyal butler. He really deserved an increase in wages.
“…busy.” The Duke of Ravenscourt’s snort penetrated the wood.
The door flew open, with such force it bounced off the back wall. His father stuck his leg out to keep it from slamming in his face. The Duke of Ravenscourt took in the jacket hung haphazardly over the back of the sofa, the nearly empty bottle, the full glass, and then he settled his icy blue stare on Cedric. “Get out.”
It spoke volumes to Avis’ foolish devotion that the hard, unyielding command of the duke did not send him immediately fleeing. Instead, he gulped, looking hopelessly to Cedric.
Taking mercy on the young servant, he swung his legs and settled them on the floor. “That will be all,” he assured the man.
Avis dropped a respectful bow and then backed quickly from the room but not before Cedric detected the flash of relief in his eyes. Yes, that was long the effect the ruthless Duke of Ravenscourt had on all. Reviled, feared, and hated by even his own children, there was not a sliver of warmth in the bastard’s hardened heart. Only, over the years, Cedric found that his father was just a man…a man with the same weaknesses and vices as him. That realization had broken down the myth of invincibility around the old duke.
“Father,” Cedric drawled. Taking a sip of his brandy, he shoved lazily to his feet. “To what do I owe the honor of—?”
“Shut your goddamn mouth, Cedric.” The duke shoved the door hard and it slammed closed with such force it rattled the doorjamb. He stalked over and skimmed his stare over the bottles littering the floor. “I don’t give a damn if you drink yourself to death—”
“How heartwarming,” Cedric murmured, touching a hand to his chest.
“—but not before you do right by the Falcot line.”
Ah, yes, because nothing had ever mattered more than that distinguished title that went back to the time of great conquerors. Not even the man’s children, certainly not his bastards, and never the long-dead wife who’d dutifully given him two legitimate issues before conveniently leaving the duke a young widower.
Cedric took a sip of his drink. “Isn’t it rather early in the day to have this conversation?”
His father snapped his blond eyebrows into a single line. “It is four o’clock in the goddamn afternoon.”
Cedric glanced over to the tightly-pulled curtains. “Is it?” God, how he’d delighted in taunting the old bastard. It was one of the true enjoyments he found in life.
In a not uncommon show of temper, the duke swiped his hand over the long table positioned at the back of the sofa. He sent the bottles and snifters tumbling to the floor in an explosion of glass. “I have been tolerant of your carousing and womanizing. I’ve indulged your excess wagering.” A vein throbbed at the corner of his eye. “But if you think you’ll shirk these responsibilities, I’ll see you cut off without a goddamn pence.”
He grinned wryly and propped his hip on the arm of the sofa. Ah, the cut-you-off-without-a-pence threat. Cedric made a tsking sound. “Come, Father, I’ve merely sought to live to your esteemed reputation. Everything I learned about being a future duke, I learned from you.” Placing his own desires and interests before all else, living for his own pleasures, drinking, wagering. All of it had been learned at the foot of this bastard. The most important lesson inadvertently handed down, however, was the selfishness in saddling oneself with a wife and children—either legitimate or illegitimate. And in that, Cedric would have the ultimate triumph over the driven duke.
“And you’ll not have to abandon those pleasures.” His father tightened his mouth and moved on to his pragmatic explanation. “I understand your aversion to saddling yourself with one woman, but you can take a proper bride, do right by the line, and still warm every whore’s bed you so wish.”
Cedric tightened his fingers on his snifter. “How very practical,” he drawled, earning another frown. Yes, that was what the miserable bugger had done with Cedric’s own mother. He’d wed a flawless English lady, given her two legitimate babes, the requisite heir, and then she’d even done him the service of dying in short order. Why, it was everything a heartless, miserable letch like his father could have hoped for in a ducal union. Unfortunately for the old Duke of Ravenscourt, there was one slight, but very important, difference between them. Cedric didn’t give a bloody jot about the ancient title. It could go to the grave with his father and Cedric would quite gleefully kick dirt upon both as they were lowered into the ground.
“I expect you at my goddamn ball.” The duke jabbed a finger at him. “The bloody affair is for you.” It had never been about Cedric. None of it. It had only and ever been about the dukedom. “Find a sweet, biddable bride, or—”
“You’ll cut me off,” Cedric put in with a half-grin. “Of course. How can I forget?”
His father sputtered and flared his eyes. After all, no one taunted, baited, or denied this man—except Cedric. Then as quick as the flare of emotion had come, it was gone, and the duke smoothed his unwrinkled features into an un-moveable mask. “You’ve gone through a good deal of the funds left you by your mother.”
He stilled. Yes, with the recklessness of youth, he’d wagered too many of those funds, lavished expensive mistresses with jewels befitting a queen.
A slow, triumphant smile devoid of all amusement turned his father’s hard lips. “I can see every creditor called in. One word, and not a single credit will be extended you. This residence,” he waved his hand. “Gone. Then where will you be?”
Forced back into that long-despised townhouse where he’d endured relentless training and schooling on all things pertaining to the dukedom as a boy. To the place where he’d received such caring tutelage under his father. That house of ugliness and learned depravity. “Go to hell,” he said at last.
His father stuck a finger out once more. “Be at the ball this evening. My threats aren’t idle. Surely you know that, by now?”
…I told you. One mistake, and you’ll not see light outside this office…
The old memory slapped at the corners of his mind and he fisted his hands. He’d not let the duke know the influence he’d once yielded and that the memories sometimes crept in. No, Cedric had buried those oldest hurts and pains long ago and shaped himself into a man incapable of feeling anything.
The duke peered at him a long while and then gave a slow, pleased nod. “I see you understand.” Without giving Cedric another moment to reply, he spun on his heel and stalked over to the door. He yanked it open. “Be there.”
“A pleasure, as always,” Cedric called after him.
His only living parent slammed the door behind him.
Cedric stood, unmoving, and stared at the mahogany panel the duke had left through. With tension thrumming inside him, he looked to the broken bottles littering the floor from his father’s outburst. He scrubbed a hand over his beard-stubbled face. Glass in hand, he went over to the window. Drawing back the crimson brocade curtain, he peered down into the street.
His father exited the townhouse and paused outside to adjust his elegant Long Eaton top hat. The late morning sun glinted off the blond and silver strands of his hair. With his expensive cloak whipping about his tall, commanding frame, he evinced power and control. Odd, how one could look at a person and see regality and, yet, that was just a fine veneer of a black, ugly soul and depravity that ran in his veins. A depravity he’d passed easily to the son he’d taken under his wing as a boy of five and schooled on everything from future ducal responsibilities to the immoral pleasures granted men of their stations.
As the duke climbed into his carriage, Cedric released the fabric and let it flutter into place. He carried his drink over to a leather winged back chair and sank onto the edge. He stared over the rim to the mess left in his father’s violent fit.
For years, he’d thrilled at taunting his father. He’d lived for his own pleasures, and with the debauched clubs he attended, and parties he hosted, had earned a reputation of rake. When other respectable noblemen would disapprove of those ignoble escapades, Cedric’s had been accepted, even applauded, by his father. His lips pulled in an involuntary sneer. Then, would one expect anything else from the man who’d sent a whore to the schoolrooms to administer Cedric’slessonswhen he’d been a boy of thirteen?
Regardless of fatherly approval or disapproval, he’d lived for himself. All the while he found a secret relish in knowing that the one task his bastard father expected of him was one he’d never grant. For the control he’d exerted over Cedric through the years, this had been the secret, but ultimate, show of power and triumph. Yet, ironically, as a young man out of university and now nearly in his thirtieth year, in his base living, he’d run through funds that had once seemed limitless. A gift given him by the mother who’d correctly seen little worth in her only son.
Now, his father dangled a not unfamiliar threat over Cedric’s proverbial head. He swirled the contents of his glass and stared into the burgundy depths. The rub of it was…he’d no doubt his father would ultimately make good on his promise and cut him off if he were to fail the Falcot line.
His lips hardened into a tight line. Yet, Cedric would sooner lob off his right arm and left hand than enter into a union for the purpose of propagating the world with legitimate issue bearing his tainted blood. For all the ways in which he had been a selfish bastard through the years, he was not the complete one Society believed him to be. He’d not destroy a wife and ruin a child the way he had been at his parents’ hands. For ultimately, blood let, and blood will tell, and every other cliché statement made about the power of blood.
Cedric, however, did not require those cleverly written words to indicate what he’d learned long, long ago. He was his father’s son. And as such, he would never fill the world with miserable bastards like himself.
A knock sounded and he looked up blankly. Thrusting aside the memories of long ago, he called out, “Enter.”
Avis opened the door and the introduction died on his lips as he took in the crystal mess littering the floor. “The Earl of Montfort to see you, my lord.”
Daniel Winterbourne, the Earl of Montfort, his only friend, another miserable blighter who possessed a dark soul, scowled. From the hard glint in his brown eyes to the notoriously shocking reputation, the earl matched Cedric in his world of wariness and cynicism. “Montfort,” he greeted as the other man entered the room.
Montfort stalked over to the sideboard and then paused. He eyed Cedric’s jacket and gaping shirt, and then the mess left in the duke’s wake. “I see you’ve had company.” A sardonic smile formed on the man’s lips. “Next time you’re with an inventive whore, tell the lady to spare the brandy. Not even a whore should come between a man and his good spirits.” With a chuckle, the earl swiped a bottle of whiskey. He poured two glasses and then with one outstretched, made his way over to the seat opposite Cedric.
Cedric waved off the offering and set down his still full drink. The lure of spirits had, of late, lost their potent dulling of thought and emotion.
His friend waggled his eyebrows. “More for me then,” he lifted both in salute and with a grip on both glasses, proceeded to drink.
“Well?” Cedric drawled, sitting back in his seat.
Montfort froze, the glass midway to his mouth. “Well?”
Cedric lifted an eyebrow. “So what is the reason for your visit?” After all, life and time had long proven that no one did anything without specific reason or personal benefit; and that included those one considered friends.
The earl flashed him a hurt stare. “I am offended, chap. Can’t a friend simply pay a visit to…” At the pointed look shot his way, a chuckle rumbled past the other man’s lips. “There is wagering going on at Forbidden Pleasures.”
The more scandalous of the gaming hells, it was a place frequented by lechers, scoundrels, and rakes. All were men bent on their personal gratifications in a place devoid of even the façade of politeness or decency. As such, it had proven the perfect place for a man of Cedric’s ilk.
When he remained silent, a sound of annoyance escaped Montfort and he put one snifter down. “Bloody hell, man, would you have me say it? The wagering is about you and your intentions for this evening.”
“Oh?” Cedric hooked his ankle across the opposite knee. Having known the other man since they’d been boys at Eton, he well knew Montfort was not beyond coming here to influence the wagering he no doubt had steep funds in. The earl was also desperate. He’d inherited a mountainous debt from the previous earl. His circumstances had not been improved by Montfort’s own excessive wagering and, even more, excessive losing.
“Your clubs or the duke’s ball.” The earl took a long swallow of his drink. “I, of course, wagered on the former.”
They’d be wrong on both scores. Cedric didn’t have a bloody intention of attending either this evening. “I haven’t decided,” he said noncommittally.
The other man choked on his drink. “Yes, no doubt,” he said with droll humor after he’d finished his sip. “I am certain the first place you’ll care to be is at that miserable bastard’s polite affair.” He spoke as one who knew Cedric; who knew the lifelong loathing he’d carried for his sire. He knew the only places Cedric had ever truly been comfortable were those dens of sin, where he felt less alone in the evil in his blood.
Finishing off his first whiskey, Montfort promptly consumed the other in a long, slow swallow. He grimaced and then set his empty glass aside. “Shall we?” he asked, climbing to his feet.
Neither was the earl above trying to influence the wager, it would seem. Then, Cedric had long ago ceased being shocked by a person’s depravity and weakness. “Perhaps, I will join you later,” he said.
Despite the low he’d sunk to in life, he’d not enter the living looking like he’d been roused from the streets of London.
A grin formed on the other man’s lips, which Cedric wagered had not a jot to do with his actual promise of company. “Splendid,” Montfort said and thumped him on the back as he passed.
After he’d gone and Cedric was, at last, alone, he gathered his black jacket and shrugged into it. When had joining his clubs bore the same appeal as spending an evening amidst polite Society? Forbidden Pleasures and the other hells he’d frequented over the years had been the few places he’d felt he belonged, with other like people—equally emotionless and jaded. He’d studiously avoided those polite balls and soirees. Somewhere along the way, there’d become a tedium to both.
Attending tonight would serve to, no doubt, silence his father’s pressuring—even if temporarily. However, he’d never lived to placate the Duke of Ravenscourt. Nor would he ever live for that man. His father could go to the devil and someday when Cedric drew his last breath, he’d, no doubt, join his miserable sire in those fiery depths.
With a hard grin, he started from the room.Chapter 3
She hated gray.
It was a horrid color that conjured overcast skies and dreary rain. It was miserable and depressing. And it was the color her parents would insist she don. She stared at her reflection in the bevel mirror. Her pale skin, devoid of even the hint of rouges her mother had once insisted on. The painfully tight chignon at the base of her skull accentuated her cheeks in an unflatteringly gaunt way. The high-necked, modest, gray gown concealed all hint of feminine curve.
Odd, she’d spent so many years missing this place and now what she wouldn’t give to return to her grandfather’s property in Kent.
From within the glass panel, her maid’s sad visage reflected back. “You look lovely, miss.”
“You are a dreadful liar, Delores.” She gentled that with a wan smile. “But thank you.”
Perhaps had they been any other maid and lady, there would have been further protestations. The close relationship formed by them through the years, however, kept Delores silent and Genevieve appreciated that. She did. For she didn’t need lies and platitudes to tell her anything different than what she felt in her heart and saw in this very mirror. She was bloody miserable.
It had been a fortnight since she’d returned and, in that time, she’d gone through the motions of proper daughter. She’d gone to dreadful fitting after fitting for equally dreadful gowns. She’d been schooled on the lords she might speak to during dinner parties.
The Earl of Primly. Polite, proper, and safe.
The Marquess of Guilford. Respectable, loyal brother and son, and also safe.
The Earl of Montfort. Rake, nearly impoverished, and dangerous.
And she’d been instructed to not dance.
Her toes curled reflexively within the soles of her too-tight slippers. Of everything she’d missed of London, the strains of the orchestra and exuberantly moving through the intricate steps of the waltz and quadrille had been some of them. But then, that thrill had come from a long ago time when she’d carried a foolish girl’s dream of a love that conquered all.
The door opened and she looked to the front of the room.
Her sister, Gillian, hovered in the entrance. With her pale lavender satin and artfully arranged whitish blonde curls, she could rival the angels in one of da Vinci’s murals. Then Gillian gave her a hesitant smile that transformed her from magnificent to otherworldly in her beauty. “May I come in?” she asked tentatively. But that was just Gillian’s beauty; it transcended mere physical looks and delved deep to a purity and goodness that Genevieve had forgotten existed.
“Of course.” Genevieve motioned her forward and, with a curtsy, Delores ducked out of the room, closing the door behind her.
Her sister glided over and her satin skirts swirled about her satin slipper-clad feet. She stopped before Genevieve and shifted on her feet.
Strangers. That was what time had turned them into. Two girls who’d once giggled under the covers after Genevieve had returned from balls and put on pretend performances where they’d taken on the role of their proper marquess and marchioness.
Gillian cleared her throat. “You look…” Her expression grew strained. The youngest Farendale sibling had always been incapable of artifice.
“Horrid?” Genevieve supplied, in a bid to break the stilted awkwardness that had existed since she’d returned.
“Never.” Her sister gave her head an emphatic shake. “It does not matter what color skirts you wear or your hairstyle, it is whoyouare,” she said with the most meaningful of words to pass between them in two weeks. Gillian captured her hands and gave them a slight squeeze. “And I’ve missed you so, so much.”
Her throat worked. This had been the one person who had missed her. Just as Genevieve, tending the gardens in Kent with the sun as her daytime companion and her gruff grandfather in the evening, had missed the friendship of her sister. A sister who now, for Genevieve’s shameless flirting and subsequent scandal, found herself uncourted and unwanted. “I am sorry,” she managed on a soft whisper.
Her sister made a sound of protest. “Oh, do not do that.” She squeezed Genevieve’s hands again. “Do not. I would never, ever want a gentleman who’d so judge you and, through you, me.” Gillian gave her a wider smile. “I will find a gentleman who loves me regardless of anything and everything. And you will, too.”
Find love? The best she could hope for in this old world she’d been dragged back into was a quiet existence devoid of whispers and gossip. There would be no champions or heroes because…they didn’t exist. She shook her head sadly. “Oh, Gillian.” Had she ever been so hopelessly optimistic in love and the belief in a good, honorable gentleman?
Her sister’s smile dipped. “You don’t believe,” she observed.
Not anymore and not because she’d been in love with the Duke of Aumere. She hadn’t. She’d been charmed, and in love with their forbidden flirtation and, even just a little bit, the promise of pleasing her parents and securing thatcovetedtitle. She was saved from replying and offering any darkly realistic truths to her still-innocent sister by a soft rapping at the door.
They looked as one.
“The Marquess and Marchioness have asked you join them in the foyer.”
It was time. The inevitable reentry. Withdrawing her hand from Gillian’s, Genevieve smoothed her damp palms over her muslin skirts.
As they walked, her loquacious sister filled the tense silence. “The Duke of Ravenscourt will be our host. Mama believes that means he is trying to arrange a match for his son, the Marquess of St. Albans.”
Ahh, the wicked, dangerous one to avoid. Neither was the irony lost on her; another future duke, those gentlemen who believed the world was their due and were forgiven for jilting their betrotheds at the altar.
Her sister dropped her voice to a conspiratorial whisper, stealing a peek about as they walked. “I heard Mother and Lady Erroll say he is something of a rake.”
Of course he was.
“But even rakes can be reformed,” Gillian said with a girlish innocence that caused Genevieve to miss a step. She stumbled, and quickly righted herself.
With her beauty, and because of Genevieve’s scandalous roots, a naïve miss like Gillian would be easy prey for those treacherous gentlemen. “No,” she said, the denial ripped harshly from her lungs. “I don’t believe they can.”
A flash of pity danced in her sister’s green eyes.
Tension knotted Genevieve’s belly. God, how she despised those sympathetic stares. They were even worse than the sneering, disgusted ones.
Her sister proved the tenacious spirit she’d always possessed as a small child. “My friend, Phoebe is recently married to Lord Rutland. He was rumored to be the darkest of all the scoundrels and, yet, they are hopelessly in love.”
They arrived at the foyer and Genevieve promptly closed her mouth. The last debates she cared to have in the presence of their parents were matters pertaining to the heart and rakes.
The marquess consulted his timepiece.
In an unspoken cue that came from years of devoted service, footmen rushed forward with the ladies’ cloaks. Meanwhile, Dunwithy pulled the door open. Genevieve followed silently behind her parents with her usually talkative sister, quieted.
How had her spirits not been completely crushed living in this place? As miserable as Genevieve’s banishment had been for what it represented, she’d spent her days in the gardens with the sun on her face; acrimeher mother had lambasted her for since her return with tanned cheeks. The family filed into the carriage.
Moments later, a servant closed the door, shutting the Farendale family away in the large, opulent carriage.
Clasping her hands on her lap, Genevieve stared out the window at the passing darkened London streets. “I do not expect one misstep from you this night,” her father’s rumbling voice filled the confines of the black barouche.
“Sit with the matrons and wallflowers,” she delivered emotionlessly. “I know.” And there was no dancing or smiling or conversing with gentleman.
Her sister shot her another look—the pitying kind.
And while her father launched into another lecture before the evening’s festivities, she stared out the window and dreamed of being any place but where she was.
Genevieve’s feet ached.
She had stood alongside the proper matrons and mamas for the past three hours, nodding at the proper moments and primly holding her hands clasped at her waist. That had wrought havoc on her miserable feet.
To be specific, her biggest toe and the one next to it throbbed with a pounding intensity to match the steady pressure building at the back of her head. A pounding that was a product of the noisy whispers and laughter filling the Duke of Ravenscourt’s ballroom. Though at this moment, she was particularly grateful for the distraction as it afforded the opportunity to rub those miserable digits. She discreetly drew her foot up and—
“Genevieve, do put your foot down,” her mother, the Marchioness of Ellsworth, said from the corner of her mouth, not taking her eyes off the crowded ballroom.
With a sigh, Genevieve lowered her heel to the floor and winced. Blasted slippers.
Did her mother truly think anyone was giving Genevieve any attention—a young lady long in the tooth in dull gray skirts, deemed unmarriageable because of a scandal from long ago? If she did, well, then she’d a good deal less sense than Genevieve had credited over the years. She trailed her bored gaze over the ballroom and she’d not given her much.
The perverse fascination upon the first event Genevieve attended had dimmed when it became rather clear that the whore from long ago wouldn’t don crimson skirts. Nor would she flutter her lashes at wed and unwed gentleman—something she’d never been guilty of, but the myth had been created all those years ago.
Absently, she did a search forhim. Surely, it was inevitable their paths would cross and when they did, how could she bury the long-burning hatred she carried for the lying cad? She’d been so very enamored of the Duke of Aumere and his effusive charm, she’d failed to note the lies in his eyes and heart. Her gaze collided with a garish fop in yellow satin pants.
The gentleman studied her under hot lids and, cheeks burning, she quickly looked away. Perhaps they’d not forgotten, after all. Her father was a bloody, witless fool. The only stares that would ever be fixed on her were by gentlemen with dishonorable intentions. Something deep inside, something that felt very much like…regret, pulled at her. Regret for the dream that had never been, nor would ever be.
Restless, she leaned up on tiptoes and ignoring the pain presented by her too-tight slippers, she searched for her sister. Gillian remained ensconced in conversation with her friend, a Miss Honoria Fairfax. From the sidelines, Genevieve felt very much the younger sister; uncertain, while the cheerful Gillian spoke easily to her friend. Another pang of sadness struck as she looked about her own bright-eyed excitement of years ago. There had once been a magical thrill at these lavish, glittering affairs. How odd to return to these ballrooms years later, at such a very different place in life, while her sister evinced that long-ago excitement.
Her mother shoved her elbow into Genevieve’s side and brought her back down hard on her heels. “Do stop frowning,” her mother hissed. “Pretty faces…”
Catch pretty titles.
Yes, that had long been mother’s silly words for her daughters. And yet, there’d been no more beautiful face than that of Gillian, and what had that gotten her? Not even a single offer or suitor because of a sin committed in her elder sister’s past.
Did her mother truly believe she would find a husband? Nor would Genevieve bother to correct her mother of the erroneous assumption that she would one, do something as foolish as to wed a rake who studiously avoided polite affairs, or two, that she’d wed a gentleman who saw nothing more than a pretty face in her. The only gentleman worth wedding was the good and honorable and hopelessly in love one. In short, a man who did not exist.
A tall figure appeared at the front of the room, momentarily distracting the guests, but alas, the sought-after host remained elusive. Genevieve yawned into her glove, earning another sharp glower from her mother. “The marquess might see,” she whispered.
“The marquess would have to attend,” she returned.
Another tall figure appeared at the threshold of the ballroom and the guests, her mother included, leaned forward. Alas, given the collective groan, the dark-haired gentleman at the front of the room was, in fact, not the future duke.
She cringed at the crowd’s tangible desire for that missing gentleman. What bad form. “Why throw a blasted ball?” she muttered. Why, if one had no plans on attending, and worse, forcing others to endure the tediousness of the affair?
“What was that, Genevieve?” her mother asked, returning her attention to her daughter, which was the last thing she cared for—attention from her mother, a mother who’d not given up hope of her only daughter of marriageable age making a match.
“I said, what a splendid ball,” she replied, with a smile.
The narrowing of her mother’s eyes indicated she knew the lie there and Genevieve gave thanks as her mother’s friend, the Countess of Erroll, approached.
The two women greeted each other eagerly as young ladies might. Their friendship went back to their days at Mrs. Belden’s Finishing School and, as such, when together, they tended to forget everyone else around. Genevieve cast a special thanks skyward for that blessed diversion.
“…Why else would he host a formal ball, and make an appearance except to find a wife…” the other woman said excitedly.
Genevieve rolled her eyes. She had to tamp down the pointed reminder that the rake’s father was responsible for hosting said event, and that the Marquess of St. Albans still couldn’t be bothered to attend. Those were hardly indications of a marriage-minded lord. Nor would any sensible person ever mistake that elusive lord as marriage minded. The man had earned a reputation as one of Society’s most scandalous rakes and took care to avoid polite affairs.
“Well, I heard from Lady Delenworth who heard from Lady Fitzhugh, that he’s going to at last see to his responsibilities and wed.” Mother concluded that admission with a decisive nod, as though it declared her words fact.
Every scandalous widow and marriage-minded miss, however, seemed to be of like opinion to Mother. They all eyed the door with a breathless anticipation for the rakish Marquess of St. Albans to make his appearance—to his own ball.
Except, Genevieve. She wanted nothing to do with those rakish sorts. Especially one who couldn’t bother with punctuality. She didn’t care if the person was a prince or a pauper. In being late, it signified another’s belief in their own self-importance and devalued those individuals kept waiting.
She sighed. Yes, she’d be quite contented with a perfectly charming, romantic fellow who read her sonnets and snipped tresses of her hair to hold close. Forcibly thrusting back the painful musings, she looked about the room for a glimpse of a friendly, familiar face. Alas, she knew but one. Gillian, now otherwise occupied with her friend, chatted at the opposite end of the room. Envy pulled at her and she hated the niggling green monster that needled at her for Gillian having friends when Genevieve remained—alone.
“Mother,” she said, taking advantage of the other woman’s diversion. Genevieve shifted and then swallowed down a curse at the throbbing of her toes. “I am going to see Gillian,” she lied, crossing her fingers behind her back. “She is speaking with Miss Fairfax.”
“Very well,” her mother said, momentarily turning her attention from the next guest to arrive, who was decidedly not a future duke. Fortunately, Lady Erroll otherwise occupied the marchioness.
Genevieve slipped off and promptly winced. Well,slippedoff, as much as one was able with too-tight slippers and throbbing toes. She limped along the ballroom floor. Couples twirled in a kaleidoscope of colorful satin fabrics that created a whir of movement and distraction, which she welcomed.
Smiling past her pain, Genevieve sneaked from the ballroom and closed her eyes a moment. She relished the dull hum of quiet that melded with the distant strands of the orchestra’s waltz. Then, as quickly as her miserable slippers would allow, she rushed down the hall and paused beside a paneled door. She cast a quick glance about. Alas, everyone was no doubt too enrapt with the possibility of first glimpsing the future duke to escape.
She pressed the door handle and stepped inside the darkened room. Closing the door behind her, she quickly turned the lock and paused, giving her eyes a moment to adjust to the darkened space. Then, the tension left her shoulders.
She was blessedly alone. Not that she was one of those solitary creatures who hated company. She didn’t. She did, however, have miserably sore toes. Lifting her right leg at an awkward angle, she yanked off the offending article. Of their own volition, her eyes slid closed and she wiggled her toes, driving blood back to the digits. Genevieve settled her foot on the floor and bent down, reaching for her other slipper.
A little sigh escaped her lips.Bliss. Utter bliss.At her too-tight slippers being off. And being free of her mother’s determined matchmaking. How she envied gentlemen. They were all spared from watchful eyes and free to pursue their own amusements without recrimination or scrutiny.
Shoes in hand, Genevieve looked about the expansive library. With the floor-length shelves lined with leather volumes and the sweeping ceilings, the room contained more tomes than the whole of the collection at The Temple of the Muses. “So this is what a duke’s library looks like,” she murmured to herself, wandering over to the wall. Odd, she’d very nearly been married to a duke and had entered nothing more than his ballroom and dining room for their betrothal ball. With her spare hand, she trailed her fingertips along the gold-emblazoned spines and did a slow walk down the length of the room.
Absently, Genevieve rested her slippers on a nearby mahogany side table and propping her hands on her hips. She did a small circle fully evaluating the duke’s library. She creased her brow. Yes, there were entirely too many tomes. How could one truly know which books one had? One should have far more discriminating taste in literature: the romantic poets, gothic novels. Not… She paused and skimmed her fingertips along one title. “Elements Of Agricultural Chemistry In A Course Of Lectures”she mouthed, as she tugged it free. Genevieve fanned the pages and then froze.
Her gaze collided with a tall figure, comfortably seated on the duke’s leather winged back chair. With a bottle of brandy at his feet and a crystal snifter in his hand, he sat with the ease of one who may as well have owned the space. Her stomach flipped over.
Mayhap it was her eyes playing tricks of the light. After all, it was dark. Genevieve blinked several times in rapid succession and closed her eyes. Yes, it was rather dark, with the moon casting ominous shadows about the room. Mayhap she’d merely imagined him. Except, a shadow that drank brandy and held snifters? She popped one eye open and found the silent gentleman’s cerulean blue eyes fixed on her.
She sighed. For shadows assuredly did not speak in that low, husky baritone. Nor did they possess broad shoulders and powerfully muscled arms that for propriety’s sake really required the benefit of the black jacket now haphazardly swung over the back of his chair. Of all the blasted rooms she could have selected, she’d chosen one occupied by this man. The cold floor penetrating the silk fabric of her stockings, Genevieve shifted on her feet and then froze. She jerked her gaze downward to her very bare feet, where the stranger’s attention also rested. Well, notentirelybare as she did have stockings.
Exile for life. If her parents discovered this scandalous exchange, she’d be banished forever. At the stranger’s continued scrutiny of her nearly naked toes, Genevieve gasped and slipped behind a side table, borrowing some shelter from the Chippendale piece.Ruined. I will be utterly ruined and sent off again.
The ghost of a smile played on the stranger’s firm lips. He then lifted blue eyes that glinted with curiosity.
Her breath caught.The sky. His eyes harkened to the soft blue of the pure Kent countryside skies, when the sun beat on her neck, and the breeze—
At her silence, he winged a golden eyebrow upward.
“Uh, I suppose I might say hullo,” she said quickly. It wouldn’t do to be rude to the gentleman. After all, she’d invadedhissanctuary. Nor would it do to be discovered with him, given her circumstances. “Not that I should say more,” she said when he opened his mouth to speak. “It wouldn’t do to be discovered alone in the duke’s library.” Had she imagined his earlier greeting? Now, he gave not even a hint of movement. A sigh escaped her. “Though you were fortunate to find the library first,” she said when he continued to stare at her in that piercing manner. She looked about the room. Her gaze caught the massive painting in an ornate gold frame.
The lush woman in dishabille reclining on her stomach would have scandalized most proper ladies. Drawn over to the Francois Boucher erotic work, she admired the manner in which the curves and creases of the bedding molded to the voluptuous woman’s rounded form. “It is beautiful,” she murmured to herself.
“Lovely room, isn’t it?”
Engrossed in the duke’s scandalous piece, Genevieve whipped her attention back to the stranger.I should leave. I should grab my slippers and run tearing from this room.But what was there to return to? A sea of unfriendly faces, and forever-disappointed parents. “I do favor libraries,” she confessed, wandering away from the painting. Particularly those stocked with volumes about art and artistry. That intimate detail she’d keep close. For it belied the logic and reason she’d prided herself on building these past years.
“This is rumored to be the largest in all of London.”
“Oh, I have no doubt,” she murmured and drifted over to the bookshelf. The Duke of Ravenscourt was in possession of one of the oldest titles in the realm. She ran her palm along the spines. “This, however, is too much; don’t you agree?” Genevieve looked over her shoulder.
He did a quick survey of the space, as though seeing it for the first time.
“I would prefer something smaller, more intimate,” she supplied when he remained silent. Which only conjured the bucolic dream she’d long carried of curling up at the side of her husband while they read and laughed and did whatever it was hopelessly in love couples did. Given her parents’ own aloof union, she was remarkably short of what those things might be.
Instead, her family would see her wed off to anyone willing to overlook her shameful past. She curled her hands tight. God, how she wished to remain shut away here. She cast a regretful look back at the door, dreading reentering polite Society and her mother’s angry stares, and the rakish gentlemen with their lust-filled, improper eyes.I should go…
“Yet you stay.”
She’d spoken aloud? Genevieve whipped her head forward. “Yet I stay,” she said softly. For in this moment, there was a safeness that seemed so elusive among the lords who ogled and whispered about her. There were all manner of things indecorous in being here; things which would only fuel the whispers about her virtue, or rather, lack of. Being in this moment, however, with the world carrying on behind that door, where no one knew where she was or whom she was with, was heady stuff, indeed.
The gentleman took a long swallow of his drink and the muscles of his throat moved.
Alas, there was nothing truly safe in being here, alone with this man. Most assuredly not her reputation. Genevieve fiddled with her gray skirts. “I’ve intruded enough on your company.” How very fortunate gentlemen were, not bound to the same constraints and conventions. “Have a good evening, sir.” She turned to go.
“You will probably require your slippers before you return,” he called out, staying her retreat.
Genevieve wheeled back. “Er, yes.” So why did she not rush over and collect the satin pair? Why did she, instead, stand rooted to the hardwood floor, staring—at him?
He swirled the contents of his drink and then took a sip. “Are they uncomfortable?”
“Dreadfully so,” she said automatically. She cast a hateful look over at the shoes. With another sigh, she hurried over to the side table and collected them. Except, she chewed her lower lip. The gentleman still studied her intently; unrepentantly bold in his regard. There was still the matter of putting her slippers on, an act she’d completed thousands upon thousands of time in the course of her life. How had she failed to realize how terribly intimate it was until now? “You should look away,” she said with a quiet insistence, as she slid into a nearby shell-back chair.
“Yes, I should,” he agreed, but he only took another drink from his pilfered spirits and continued to watch.
Her fingers trembled and she turned her attention to the gray satin slippers. She must lift her gown ever so slightly if she were to put them on. Or she could simply leave. Yes, that was, by far, the wisest course. On the heel of that was an image of her exiting the room barefoot and being discovered. A shudder wracked her frame. No, that wouldn’t do. That was the manner of scandal that would result in a return carriage ride to the countryside. She chewed her lip. Which in thinking, wouldn’t be altogether bad. Quite the opp—
The floorboards groaned and she lifted her head. A gasp exploded from her lips as the stranger sank to a knee. How could a gentleman of his magnificent size and power move with such a stealthy grace? “Wh-what…?”
“Here,” he murmured, easily seizing one slipper from her trembling hand. She stared at his bent head. Her fingers twitched with the urge to run her fingers through the unfashionably long blond hair with its faint curl. She wanted to determine if the strands were as lusciously thick as they looked. In a fluid movement, he lifted her skirts, ever so slightly, and captured her heel in his palm. The touch of his hand burned through the fabric of her stockings and roused a wild fluttering in her belly. Her mouth went dry and she struggled with a coherent thought as he slid the shoe on. “There,” he said quietly and then slipped the other shoe from her weak fingers.
It was the singularly most erotic, most romantic, moment in her life. Far greater than anything she’d ever experienced with her former betrothed. And it was here in the duke’s library, in the midst of the ball, with a man whose name she did not even know. Perhaps that merely added to the forbidden allure of this exchange.
The gentleman sank back on his heels, his meaning clear. She was free to leave. He’d not stop her. And yet, she lingered, not wanting this moment to end. For when it did, she’d be unsought-after-for-anything-but-scandal Genevieve with her throbbing toes and her miserable mother. Then, she couldn’t really leave, not without first knowing the name of the gentleman who’d helped her into her slippers. “I am Genevieve,” she said, opting to omit the most distinguishing part of her name which would reveal her past.
There was no effusive, overdone greeting. No title. Nothing but his Christian name that only deepened the intimacy between them. “Cedric,” she repeated, testing it. It was strong, harshly beautiful, powerful. A perfect name for the tall, thickly muscled stranger.
“You are reluctant to return.” His husky inquiry washed over her. “Why?”
I am reluctant to leave.Two very different matters, altogether. When she left, she’d be thrust back into the ballroom, with the side looks, whispers, and aching toes. In this moment, there was just her and this man who knew nothing of her, and did not treat her with disdain. “I am no doubt here for the same reason you are,” she ventured, instead.
And as she did not know what to make of that vague, noncommittal utterance she stole a look about. “All rather tedious, isn’t it?”
He furrowed his brow.
“The ball,” she said with a wave of her hand.
“Ah.” The gentleman said so little and yet so much with that telling concurrence. “Yes, there is something tedious about the whole affair,” he said, his tone gruff.
She nodded. “Precisely. A sea of guests collected on the possibility that a future duke is ready to take a wife.” The last thing she desired was another would-be duke in her life.
Another smile pulled at his lips, highlighting the faint dimple in his right cheek. She tipped her head. Odd, that such a harshly angular face should be gentled in that way. Fearing she’d drown herself in the study of him, Genevieve forced her gaze away. Faces of chiseled perfection posed nothing but danger. Time and her own folly had proven that.
Even so, as Cedric shoved to his feet, she mourned that parting. He wandered back to his stolen snifter, rescued his glass, and then with a panther-like grace, stalked over to her. “Never tell me you are one of the ladies in attendance not desiring that coveted title.” He took another sip of his drink.
Climbing to her feet, Genevieve studied her fingers. She’d never wanted the title duchess. She’d simply craved the romanticism that came with being in love. “I have no interest at all in the title of marchioness, duchess, or anything else,” she said with quiet honesty. Never again.
With those long, sleek steps, he continued coming and she really should be afraid. She was alone with a gentleman, in her host’s library, behind a locked door. It was the height of folly and possible danger, and yet there was this inexplicable ease around him. An inherent knowledge that no harm would come to her at his hands. Not a man who could have so gently slid her slippers on her feet. A delicious shiver ran through her and her mouth went dry at the memory.I am the wicked, wanton they all accused me of being.
“Not even the Marquess of St. Albans?”
Was there a wry humor to that query? She could not make source of his peculiar tone past the rapid whirring of her thoughts. She struggled to force out a coherent reply. She recalled her sister’s earlier words about the man. “Particularly the marquess.” She’d little desire for the notoriety that came with such a gentleman. Rakes, rogues, and scoundrels, they were to be avoided, all of them.
“Here I was believing every lady coveted the role of future duchess,” he said dryly. A cynical glint lit his eye and she frowned, preferring him as he’d been a moment prior—affable and slightly mysterious.
“I do not,” she persisted, taking a step toward him. She never had. Genevieve looked beyond his shoulder. Her parents had craved nothing less than a duke for their daughter who’d been the toast of the London Season. She’d been so caught up with the glittering opulence and excitement of London, she’d been too naïve to realize…she would have been quite contented with a second son of a lord, in a modest cottage, as long as she knew love. “One would be under constant study and scrutiny,” she said at last. Having been so examined after The Scandal, she’d do quite well without the grandiose attention that would come with a title that was very nearly royalty. “That, I could do without,” she said softly. Pinpricks of awareness dotted her skin and she looked at Cedric. Her breath caught hard at the hot intensity of his stare.
What was he thinking, this stranger she’d only just met?Chapter 4
Cedric,theMarquess of St. Albans, hadn’t had a single intention of attending the lavish ball thrown by his father. Through the years, his sire had commanded and Cedric had quite delighted in turning a proverbial finger up at those orders.
He would have been very contented sipping his brandy while the event carried on in the ballroom. He would revel in the duke’s fury and then seek out his clubs when the last of the guests had departed.
Now, staring at the spirited woman casting aspersions upon his future title, there was no place he’d rather be than this very library. His lips twitched. His too-large library.
Over the years, he’d grown accustomed to the false friendships and respect granted him for nothing more than his birthright. He’d come to believe that future title was the single most important thing to every last lord and lady in London. It would appear he’d found the single lady in the whole of the kingdom who didn’t give a jot. Curiously, he wanted to know just what else Miss Genevieve With-No-Surname thought of his worthless self.
Cedric studied her from over the rim of his glass. With her hair pulled back with such severity and her dreary, modest skirts, she had the look of a companion and would never be the manner of woman to command his notice. The ladies who’d earned his favor through the years had been the improper ones with plunging décolletages and dampened satin skirts. What was it about this one, then, that earned his note? “You are candid,” he said with a small grin. Nothing else explained it.
She lifted her shoulders in a shrug. “I’ve come to appreciate honesty.”
How intriguing. She hinted at lessons learned and he, who didn’t give a jot about anyone, wondered about the story there…
It still begged the question as to whether the lady would be so forthright if she discovered the man whose future title she disparaged stood even now before her. He gave a casual swirl of his glass. “I take it you know the marquess, then?” It really was in bad form to wheedle information from the lady in such a manner. Especially as he already knew the answer. A lady with strawberry blonde tresses and full lips made for more than kissing, he’d well remember her. But then, Cedric had never been accused of anything gentlemanly or honorable. Including attending any polite events where this one might have been.
“I know enough,” she murmured, more to herself as she skimmed her palm over a nearby rose-inlaid table.
“Oh?” he drawled.
The lady froze mid-movement, glanced about, and then dropped her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “He’s something of a rake, you know.”
He’d spent years reveling in that very role. If this lady knew the extent of the wickedness he’d been rightfully accused of through the years, she’d have torn out of the room, sore feet be damned. “Actually I do know,” he said dryly.
“Not that I know personally,” she spoke quickly, a red blush staining her enchanting, heart-shaped face.
“Ah,” he said stretching out that single syllable. “The gossip columns.” His name had been quite bandied about those rubbish pages. Where most information contained on those sheets was, no doubt, at worst, lies, and, at best, exaggerations, every scandalous tidbit printed about him had been shockingly accurate.
Genevieve With-No-Surname picked up a nearby porcelain shepherdess. She turned the piece over in her hands, eying it contemplatively. “I have it on the words of someone I trust greatly.” She set the piece down and quickly lifted her head. “Not that I would form judgments on a person based on another’s opinions.”
She should. To not do so would be folly that saw her prey to an even more caddish lord than himself. If such a man existed. Although he’d made it a habit of avoiding those pinch-mouthed, proper companions over the years, something about this rigid lady in her gray muslin skirts and her tendency to ramble held him enthralled. Cedric inclined his head. “What else do you know of our distinguished host?” He was suddenly eager to know just what this innocent slip had uncovered.
She opened her mouth and then closed it. She opened it again. “It is in bad form to speak ill of one’s host.”
Speak ill of? “Now you have me intrigued.” He favored her with a wink and dropped his voice in a like whisper. “Then, it is his father who is the host.”
A frown tipped her lips down in the corners. That subtle movement plumped the flesh of her lower lip. He narrowed his eyes. Well, for her rigid, unassuming appearance, there was nothing proper about that pouty mouth. A surge of lust ran through him as he imagined the wicked delights and pleasures to be found with—
“It is in bad form to speak ill of anyone,” she said chidingly, dousing his ardor with the solemnity there.
He blinked. “Oh, I am sure the marquess is not a man who’d much care.”
The lady drifted closer and stopped before him. “I’m sure, despite the rumors, even he cares, Cedric. Even those that Society believes incapable of feeling anything, care.”
He studied her, momentarily sucked in a spell cast by the light quality of her whispered words. When they at last registered, he gave his head a shake. The lady in her innocent-spoken words revealed her naïveté and also revealed why he’d avoided those naïve ladies. Despite her whimsical belief, hedidn’tcare. He’d spent the better part of his nearly thirty years not caring: about Society’s opinion, about his father’s ducal expectations and disdain, about the mother who’d forsaken him even before her death. None of it. He’d come to live for his own pleasures and take material and physical gratification as he would.
She again captured that porcelain shepherdess and ran her fingertip over the frilled porcelain skirt. “Regardless, I do not pass judgment on the marquess on mere gossip alone,” she added.Why did he suspect it was important that he knew she was not one of those ladies to judge a person by those words printed on a page?
He perched his hip on the back of a leather button sofa. “What else have you formed your judgment on?” What, if not the gossip that she spoke of with such disdain? Did that mean the lady herself had been the victim of those scandal sheets? He scoffed. Thetonwould never cut their teeth on an innocent such as her.
“Well, as you’re probably aware by your attendance this evening, the gentleman cannot be bothered to be timely to his own ball.”
He finished his drink and lowered the empty glass to the floor at his feet. “That is an unforgiveable crime?” If that was the manner of offenses this one would take exception to, then what would she say of the outrageous parties he’d delighted in throwing over the years at his bachelor’s townhouse? Except that only conjured an image of her in a silk, dampened gold gown, as the feast at those forbidden parties, while he very deliberately removed every inch of that stiff, ugly dress, revealing her flushed, naked skin to the candle’s glow. Cedric groaned.
“Are you all right?” she asked, concern lacing that question.
“Fine,” he managed, his voice garbled. “You were speaking of our distinguished host.”
“Well, not our host,” she reminded him of his earlier correction. “Rather, his son.”
“The gentleman who can’t be bothered with punctuality.” Another thing he’d never given a jot about through the years. He arrived when he wished and departed on his own terms, and not really given a thought as to how others might feel about it.
Genevieve turned her palms up. “It indicates much about his character, does it not?” No, he rather thought it said nothing of importance.
He swung his leg back and forth in a lazy manner. “Explain it to me in a way I might understand, love.”
Her mouth parted, even as her eyes formed round, moss green saucers that conjured country fields and summers days. He stilled. God, how he’d always loved the long, summer days in Leeds. He’d been so immersed in the debauchery in London that all those memories had faded to the distant chambers of his mind. Only to be brought forward by the green of her eyes. He choked again. What manner of madness was this, lusting after a barely pretty companion who’d snuck off to remove her slippers?
“You were saying?” he managed, his words garbled.
She shook her head. “Yes,” she said matter-of-factly. “Well, if the marquess cannot bother to honor the time of others, it merely means he sees his time as more important.”
There was merit to her unwitting accusations. He’d been schooled from the cradle to expect the world was his due and to move as he pleased, when he pleased.
Genevieve flared her eyes, horror filling their expressive depths. “You are not friends with the marquess, are you?”
A wry grin twisted his lips. “I am not.”
She breathed an audible sigh. “Oh, thank goodness. What a disaster that would be.” The lady might have muttered something under her breath about disapproving parents…
Cedric stared at her with the long-case clock ticking away the moments. There was nothing disastrous about this meeting. Rather, this frank Genevieve With-No-Surname made joining an infernal affair he’d had no intention of visiting something he was suddenly eager to attend. And yet, not the festivities of the ball but rather this prolonged exchange with her here, now, away from prying eyes.
Genevieve wetted her lips and his gaze fell to her mouth. He swallowed a groan. No woman had a right to a mouth like that. It was a walking temptation that no man could resist. The kind of seductive offering that had led Adam down the path of ruin and men to wage wars. “Now, I really must go,” she said softly. “Before my absence is noted.”
He did not know the guest responsible for this woman’s presence this evening from Eve, but loved the bloody woman for her negligence. “Yes,” he whispered.
Except neither of them moved. They both remained locked in this charged moment that not even the earth being knocked off its axis could break. Cedric lifted his free hand and cupped the back of her neck. Soft as satin.
The muscles of her throat bobbed as he lowered his head with a deliberate slowness, allowing her to pull away and retreat. “I should not.” Her voice emerged on a hoarse croak that spoke to her inner battle.
For all the crimes he was guilty of as a rake, never had he bedded a virgin and never had he forced himself on an unwilling woman. He’d not begin now. The quick rise and fall of her chest and the little whispery spurts of air escaping her lips sent a thrill of masculine triumph through him. He touched his lips to hers and the intoxicating taste of strawberry and mint washed over him. “You taste of summer berries,” he breathed as he dragged his mouth down the length of her neck to the place where her pulse beat madly.
“Th-the duke had trays o-of strawberries,” she panted with an innocent sincerity that raised a soft smile. Her lashes fluttered as he molded his mouth to hers, exploring the contours of her lips.
“Your lips are made for kissing,” he said, between kisses.
“They a-are too big.” From any other woman those would have been words to elicit pretty compliments. Yet, with this young lady who spoke her mind freely, she was lacking in all artifice and there was something so potent in that honesty.
“They are perfection.” He slanted his lips over hers, first gently and then more incessantly. A little moan escaped her and Cedric slipped his tongue inside to stroke hers in a possessive manner that sent her arms twining about his neck. She pressed her chest against his and he cupped the generous curve of her buttocks dragging her against his throbbing shaft.
They knocked into the table and a porcelain urn tumbled over the edge. It exploded into a spray of splintered glass.
Genevieve cried out and stumbled out of his arms. She blinked and the haze of desire clouding her green irises lifted, leaving in its place a slow-growing horror. They stood unmoving, their chests rising in a matched rapid movement. As she pressed her fingertips against her swollen lips, he braced for her virginal protestations. “W-We’ve destroyed the duke’s piece.”
Through the pain of unfulfilled desire, he managed to speak. “I’m sure he won’t even notice.” And he wouldn’t indicate just how he knew that. The duke didn’t care about anything; his own children, included.
Oh, God. Standing here with her lips still burning from this stranger’s kiss, her body ached to know more of his touch. Genevieve acknowledged the truth she’d not known, the accusation leveled against her by thetonfor five years now—she was a wanton. How else to explain this powerful energy thrumming inside her and desire for more of this man’s tender ministrations. Nay, of a stranger.
If an imagined act had found her banished, what fate awaited her for this hungering to turn herself over to the power of his embrace? She dug deep for the proper shame and horror. She was the wanton Society believed her to be, for nothing other than her scandal. All she knew, however, was feeling. A desire to be close to him once more, in ways she didn’t fully understand. “I must go,” she whispered.
“Good evening,” he murmured.
Good evening. She wrinkled her brow, hating herself for being a contrary creature. She’d wanted him to protest her going. Alas, he’d offer nothing more than a parting greeting? How could he be so wholly unaffected when this had been the most magical, earth-shattering moment of her three and twenty years? Well, except for the moment he’d slipped her shoes back on her feet. That had been the second most singularly magic moment. Genevieve worried her lower lip and inadvertently drew his gaze back to that flesh. She stopped abruptly. “Cedric,” she said and then reluctantly turned to go.
“Wait,” he murmured and her heart leapt at his quiet command.
Genevieve looked questioningly up at him.
He stalked over and then stopped beside her. “Here,” he spoke in that husky baritone that washed over her. With swift, purposeful movements, he tucked several loose strands into the artful arrangement her maid had worked. She stood breathless, as he quickly put her hair to rights and then smoothed the fabric of her slight puffed sleeves.
She should be appalled; with him, with herself. The sureness of his actions bespoke a man far too familiar with these stolen trysts behind strange doors; the dishonorable, disloyal sorts. So why did she crave more of his embrace? She paused with her fingers on the handle and cast a look over her shoulder. Cedric remained fixed to the spot where she’d received the most passionate kiss of her life. She sought to commit him to memory as he was just then. For in the stilted misery she’d dwelled these two weeks in London, this man had reminded her that she was very, very much alive. And oh, how she loved being alive. “Will I see you again?” Even as the question slipped out, she recognized the foolishness in wanting to see him again.
Another half-grin tipped the left corner of his mouth. “Oh, I suspect you shall.”
With fingers that trembled, Genevieve, unlocked the door and hurried from the room. All along, she’d dreaded the Duke of Ravenscourt’s ball. Only to find herself looking forward to the remainder of the night. Excitement danced inside her belly and added a jaunt to her step as she fled down the halls. The din of the ballroom increased with each footfall that brought her closer and she forced herself to stop.
Sore toes forgotten, she closed her eyes, and drew in a steadying breath. She should be shamed by the wantonness of that stolen exchange with Cedric, who, with his chiseled perfection, could rival any one of da Vinci’s carved masterpieces. He was a man whose full name she still did not know, but whose kiss she’d shamelessly returned, and desperately craved even now. Genevieve touched tremulous fingers to her lips. The handful of words he’d murmured as she’d left, more promise than anything, danced around her mind.Oh, I suspect you shall…
And suddenly, she, who’d longed for a frisson of romance and wonder, knew it with a stranger, in the Duke of Ravenscourt’s home, no less.
“What are you doing?”
The shocked question brought Genevieve’s eyes flying open. Her heart dipped at the unexpected appearance of her sister. Concern radiated from her sister’s emerald green eyes. She mustered a smile. Mayhap if she feigned nonchalance her sister would abandon any questions she might have. “I just required a moment.” Drat for that slight tremor.
Her sister came to an abrupt stop before her. Gillian peered at her beneath appropriately suspicious eyes. “You required amoment?” Heavy skepticism underscored that question.
Genevieve’s mind raced. “My slippers.” She tugged up her skirts and revealed the miserable satin pair. Her sister looked down. “My toes ached and you do know how Mother is about properness, and I wanted to remove the slippers because they ached. Terribly,” she added.
Gillian continued to scrutinize her with regard better reserved for a Bow Street Runner. “Why were you leaning against the wall in that manner?”
Oh, blast, she’d always been relentless. “My toes,” she said with another forced smile. “They’re still deuced awful.”
Her sister said nothing for a long moment and then she nodded. “Mother is looking for you.”
Genevieve silently cursed. If Mother had seen Gillian, she’d well know there had never been a meeting between friends, and the last thing Genevieve cared to answer or could answer without thinking of Cedric, was where she’d been. She looped her arm through her sister’s and made their way to the ballroom. As they reached the end of the corridor, she cast one lingering glance back.
Was he waiting in the shadows even now? Would he seek her out and request a dance?
“What are you staring at?” Gillian asked, furrowing her brow.
Her cheeks warmed. “Nothing, I am merely reluctant to return to the ball.” Which was not altogether untrue. She’d greatly prefer the company of Cedric, alone in the duke’s too-large library.
“Well, I am of like opinion on that,” Gillian muttered as they stepped out into the crowded hall. Together, they skimmed their gaze over the crowd. “There is Mother.” She motioned to Mother’s position alongside Lady Erroll.
She sighed. She’d rather walk through burning coals on a hot summer’s day than spend any time with her always-miserable mother. By Papa’s absence at the same affairs, he was of like opinion. Alas, Genevieve was left alone to endure her mother’s machinations to wed her off to…well, anyone with a respective title. Given her betrayal, one would think Mother would seek out an honorable gentleman for her marriageable daughter. Alas…
Her mother looked to her and frowned.
No doubt, she wondered where her shameful daughter had been off to. With reluctant footsteps, she made her way through the throng of guests over to her mother.
“At last,” her mother said to Gillian through tight lips, ignoring Genevieve altogether. “You might have missed the marquess’ arrival.” Mother’s relentless dedication to see Gillian wed spoke volumes of her desperation. A loud buzz went up around the ballroom. “He is here,” Mother said with an uncharacteristic excitement in her usually bored tones.
As one, ladies throughout the ballroom looked to the entrance of the hall.
Genevieve gave her head a wry shake. How silly they all were, seeking a title and wealth, and not having the sense to crave so much more.And I had a very brief taste of it and now that will never be enough. A tiny fluttering danced in her belly as, unbidden, she sought Cedric amongst the crowd.
“…Oh, my goodness. The marquess is looking directly at you, Gillian.”
“No, he is not, Mother,” Gillian said with a roll of her eyes.
And then their mother blinked. “Why…why…no he’s not! He is looking at…Genevieve.” That furious whisper pulled her attention to her flighty parent.
Was it a wonder a woman with such flawed logic should imagine glances and interest from the rakish marquess? “He is not looking at me,” she said under her breath, resuming her search of the crowd for another. What if she did not see him again? Then, what good could come from seeing him again?
“No. I believe he is.” Her mother’s angry words interrupted her musings.
An exasperated sigh slipped from her lips. Could she not even just have the pleasure of her thoughts? “Why would the marquess be staring at…?” She followed her mother’s none-too-subtle point to the six-foot four-inch, very familiar gentleman at the top of the stairs, standing alongside the Duke of Ravenscourt. Over the heads of the other guests, their gazes locked, and the ghost of a smile hovered on his lips.
Her heart sank.Thatis why he would stare. And from across the ballroom, Cedric winked.
Well, drat.Chapter 5
“It is about bloody time you arrived.” The Duke of Ravenscourt glared at his son. “You missed the entire bloody receiving line.”
Cedric rescued a flute of champagne from a passing servant’s tray. He downed it in one long swallow to let his father know precisely what he thought of his grousing. “Splendid,” he said with a cheerful smile that deepened his miserable sire’s frown.
On any other day and at any other event, he would have taken a perverse pleasure in altogether missing the duke’s ball. As such, these proper balls were the last place he cared to be.
He stared boldly at the pale, tolerably pretty Genevieve With-a-Surname-He-Still-Did-Not-Know, relishing the way her lips parted and the round moons formed by her eyes. He would have expected with his deliberate wink she would have looked away and yet she continued to hold his gaze with a directness he admired—and he didn’t admire anyone. Largely because no one had given him reason to. How singularly odd that this slender slip of a lady should have earned his appreciation…for matters that had nothing to do with the weight of her breasts or the taste of her lips.
The lady closed her luscious mouth and he grinned. Well, perhaps it did have a bit to do with the taste of her.
“…You can have your pick of any lady here, Cedric.” His father waved a ruthless hand over the ballroom, momentarily commanding his attention.
Cedric did a quick sweep of the distinguished guests arranged. Eager, marriage-minded misses in their white satin gowns and scandalous widows eyed him with equal appreciation. His gaze wandered back to the companion in hideous gray skirts, pressed against the Doric column while other more colorfully clad guests chatted about her. Did the lady seek to blend with that towering pillar? Given the pale hue of her skin, and the fabric of her skirts, it would have been an easy feat. If he hadn’t already tasted her lips. Then he glanced down.
The lady tapped the tip of her slipper to the staccato beat of the orchestra’s song. There was so much revealing about that slight, but telling, tap. The discreet, though eager, movement belied a woman who’d don boring gray skirts and, instead, spoke to the spirited creature who’d steal off to her host’s library in the midst of the festivities.
Just then, the Earl of Hargrove stepped between Cedric and his unobstructed view of the companion in her horrid dress, who’d invaded his library.
“…Are you listening to me, Cedric?” his father snapped.
Cedric motioned a servant over and deposited his empty glass on the man’s silver tray. The servant rushed off. “No,” he said and with his father sputtering, he stormed off, cutting a deliberate path through the ballroom.
Familiar widows eyed him with a lascivious suggestion in their eyes and he ignored the heated offers there. Never before had he passed up the forbidden delights those women promised. On too many scores to remember, he’d taken several of them simultaneously up on their offers, behind parlor doors of their hosts’ homes. Now, an altogether different quarry called his notice.
A tall figure stepped into his path and with a curse, Cedric ground his feet to a sudden stop. “Goddamn it, St. Albans, what the hell are you doing here?”
“Montfort,” he greeted, looking over the other man’s shoulder.
From where she hovered on the fringe of the festivities Genevieve With-No-Surname shifted back and forth, eying the twirling dancers. He dipped his gaze to the floor. Between the kaleidoscopes of waltzing couples, he caught the rhythmic tap of her feet. A proper companion who longed to dance.
Montfort withdrew a silver flask from his front pocket and to the open-eyed censure of nearby matrons, uncorked it and took a long swallow. “I’d wagered you’d fail to appear at your father’s ball. Lost a goddamn fortune because of you.” The tight lines at the corner of his hard lips bespoke his frustration.
Friend or no, the man’s ill fortune was largely his own doing. As such, Cedric had no remorse for Montfort. Or really, anyone for that matter. He’d long ago ceased to care about anyone but himself. It was safer that way.…Everyone cares in some way…The lady’s words echoed around his mind.
It was a sure one; Montfort would have won at any other time.
“Well, then, which delicious widow has captured your attention?”
He blinked and shifted his attention to the earl. “What?”
“Nothing else would have you here but the promise of some inventive widow’s charms.” His friend laughed uproariously as though he’d uttered a hilarious jest.
The orchestra concluded the country reel and the ballroom erupted into polite applause. “I hope she was worth the amount I lost on you.”
He narrowed his eyes as the lady occupying Cedric’s attention caught his eye. “Who is the matron?” Cedric asked, gesturing vaguely to the woman between Montfort and his library nymph.
The gentleman, who’d long known everyone and everything about Society, followed his stare. “The matron?” he puzzled his brow. “The Marchioness of Ellsworth.” Then he widened his eyes. “Ah, I see.”
No, Cedric really didn’t think he did, as he didn’t see himself. Genevieve flared her eyes wide like a hare caught in the hunter’s snare and darted her gaze about. As one who’d made plenty of hasty escapes, he recognized one about to flee. “If you’ll excuse me,” he murmured and quickly stepped around Montfort. He ignored Montfort’s sputtering and lengthened his stride. With each step, Cedric kept his gaze trained on his tempting quarry.
And for the first time in the course of his corrupt life, a fleshy, proper matron proved his savior. The plump, expensively attired lady in burgundy skirts stepped into Genevieve’s path, effectively staying her retreat.
As the older woman spoke, Genevieve’s delicate shoulders went taut and she nodded periodically. He narrowed his eyes. Was his candid lady in the library a poor relation? His intrigue redoubled. She elongated her neck, drawing his gaze and remembrances to her erratic heartbeat a short while ago. She did a small search and then their stares connected once more. Panic flared in the lady’s eyes and she made another bid to escape. Cedric reached the trio.
“Lady Ellsworth, a pleasure,” he said smoothly, not taking his gaze from Genevieve. The young woman gave him a faintly pleading look. As much as he particularly enjoyed his ladies pleading, this was not the kind he happened to favor. Mixed with that silent entreaty was an unspoken recrimination from within her eyes.
The marchioness squeaked. “M-My lord.” She dropped a curtsy. “Wh-what an honor.” She tittered behind her hand. “Have you come to meet my Gillian?”
He slid his gaze over to the breathtaking beauty with her purple skirts beside the woman. He expected this lovely lady was, in fact, her Gillian. With her beauty, she befit the usual beauties he took to his bed. However, another had earned his attention.
“Mother,” Lady Gillian scolded, a blush on her cheeks.
He looked expectantly at the marchioness. The rotund marchioness emitted a squeak. “F-forgive me. May I introduce my daughter, Lady Gillian Farendale?”
Cedric made the appropriate greetings and looked expectantly to the pale Genevieve.
The marchioness opened and closed her mouth several times, sputtering as she followed his attention.
When no introduction was forthcoming, he lifted an eyebrow.
“And this is my other d-daughter,” she choked out. “Lady Genevieve.”
He lifted his eyebrows. The lady was a marchioness’ daughter? Attired in garments better suited a servant and on the fringe of the festivities, there was little hint of belonging to this family.
Her mother forced an elbow into her side and Genevieve grunted. “My lord,” she said with a grudging hesitancy. She offered a belated and, by his way of thinking, insolent curtsy.
Was the enticing pink of her neck and cheeks a product of embarrassment or desire from their earlier embrace? “A pleasure,” Cedric murmured, reaching for her hand. The lady hesitated and then placed her fingertips in his. He folded his hand about hers reflexively and marveled at the length of her fingers. He cursed her gloves, and cursed himself for having neglected that flesh when he’d had the opportunity presented to him. He pressed a kiss to her knuckles, relishing in the slight tremble of those long digits.
She made to draw them back, but he retained his grip. The orchestra struck up the strains of the waltz. With a fiery show of spirit, Genevieve gave another tug.
“May I have the honor of partnering you in the next set, my lady?”
Fire flashed in her expressive eyes. “I do n-not dance.” A woman who moved with such graceful elegance possessed a body made for dance, and far more.
“I insist,” he shot back with a practiced grin. God, with her fire and spirit, she could set the room ablaze.
“You insist,” she mouthed. Angling her jaw up, she gave an emphatic shake. “And I insist. I do not dance.”
And because he’d long proven himself a selfish bastard who claimed what he wanted, Cedric turned his assault on the marchioness.
The woman fluttered a hand about her neck and looked frantically around. “I…” She appeared one more word away from tears. “I-I am certain Genevieve might partner you in the one set,” the marchioness cut in, favoring her daughter with a glare. Mother and daughter locked in a silent, unspoken battle of the wills which was ultimately resolved by Cedric.
Elbow extended, he stepped aside and allowed her a path to the dance floor. The spirited young lady dug her heels in and, for an instant, he believed, in a world where lords and ladies sought to appease him for nothing more than his future title alone, that this slip of a woman would publically refuse his offer. Then she gave a slight nod and allowed him to escort her to the sea of already assembled dancers. “I thought you were going to refuse me,” he said, favoring her with one of his long-practiced smiles.
“I should have,” she bit out as he settled his hand at her waist. “You do not know what you’ve done.” The faint thread of panic underscored her words. With a deliberate slowness, he caressed his fingers over the soft satin fabric. A shuddery gasp escaped her plump lips and she quickly placed a hand on his shoulder. “That was poorly done of you.”
“Forcing my hand,” she said between tight lips.
Who was Lady Genevieve Farendale? This woman who spoke of honor and integrity and sought the anonymity of the sidelines? Or a lady who would steal away to her host’s library? The people Cedric kept company with were with men who’d bed another chap’s wife on a bet or out of boredom and women who’d take both the winner and loser of that wager to bed. In the course of his nearly thirty years, it had never been about honor.
To counter the unsettled sentiments swirling inside him, he made a tsking noise. “Never tell me you looked forward to partnering another.” His fingers tightened reflexively at her waist.
“It is not a matter of whether or not I looked forward to another gentleman. I politely refused your request, my lord, and you superseded my wishes because of your desire.”
If he wished to truly scandalize her, he’d speak to her about what he truly desired. “Come, Genevieve. Given ourmeetingwe’ve moved beyond those stiff forms of address.”
The lady’s cheeks blazed such a crimson red, it could have set her face afire but then she surprised him once more. “Yes, there is truth to that.” The lady directed her words at his cravat and he brushed his fingertips in a fleeting caress over her lower back until she picked her head up. “However, it was not well done of you.”
“What? Discussing the flaws in the duke’s home and the inherent wickedness of his son?” He lowered his head close and her breath caught. “Or do you refer to our kiss?”
Genevieve missed a step and the color seeped from her cheeks. He effortlessly righted her. “Someone might hear, my lord.” She stole a furtive look about.
“Cedric,” he pressed. He’d long been accustomed to having his wishes met. He wanted his name on her lips not simply because he desired her, but also because, for some inexplicable reason, he was drawn by the sincerity of her responses around him. She did not fawn or seek to earn his favor. Instead, she was candid in her every emotion; from the passion in their embrace, to her annoyance, and blushing embarrassment.
“I cannot call you Cedric,” she choked out so quietly he struggled to make out her words.
“Because I am a rake?” He waggled his eyebrows.
“Yes,” she hissed. Hurt outrage flashed in her eyes and an unexpected pang that felt very much like guilt needled at his conscience. A conscience he’d not known he’d possessed until this innocent minx trained hurt, accusatory eyes on him. “Furthermore, you knew I mistook your identity. I asked—”
“If I was a friend of the marquess’ which I assured you I was not,” he put in smoothly. “Because I am not.” He placed his lips close to her ear. “Iamthe marquess. Two entirely different things.” Cedric twirled her to the edge of the ballroom, away from the center of the activity. “Furthermore, if I had confided the truth, you would have run as far and as fast as your bare feet could have carried you.” Which begged the unanswerable question—why had it mattered if she had left?
Because I wanted to taste her lips. Because I wanted to ruck her gown up and lay between her legs…
Only, it hadn’t been just about this hungering for her.
“That isn’t altogether true.” She leaned close. “I would have collected my slippers.”
He laughed. Not the practiced, restrained chuckles he called forth at bawdy tales and boring jests, but rather one of sincerity and mirth that emerged rusty from deep in his chest.
“I was not speaking in jest.”
His laughter died. Good God, she was enchanting. The manner of interesting that made a man brave boring balls and soirees just for the unexpectedness of whatever words she’d utter next.Chapter 6
Why, with that handful of words, did Cedric, the mystery gentleman she’d met in the library, have to be correct?
For in the course of their exchange, she’d never pointedly asked if he was, in fact, the marquess. Which in retrospect, with her mistakes laid out clearly before her, she knew would have been an obvious assumption. He’d sat elegant in repose, as though he owned the massive room because…well, because he did own it. Or he would.
Yet, there was somethingdishonestin that lie of omission, a lie that muddied that magical first kiss he’d given her and the beauty of their exchange. A pang struck her heart, which was foolish that she would feel…anything. But it did. He was a whispered about rake and given that ignoble titling, a man who could only compound the gossip surrounding her name. Even now, her skin pricked with the crowd’s awareness trained on them.
Genevieve ran her gaze over his harshly beautiful face. With the room doused in candlelight, it illuminated the sharp angles in a way the shadows could have never done true justice to. She lingered on the tight lines drawn at the corners of his mouth. Things that had previously escaped her, now glared strong. For the cynical set to his lips hinted at a man who’d become an expert at manipulating words and people in a way that suited his desires and interests. And she hated the truth of that. Hated that his smile was false and his earlier words, even falser. Hated it because it only confirmed everything she’d come to expect of those lords who lived for their pleasures.
“You have gone silent now, Genevieve?” There was a silken thread underlining those words that sent a mad fluttering to her belly, even as logic lightened this man’s hold on her senses.
“You are one who is accustomed to ladies fawning and falling down for you,” she said quietly to herself. “You turn forth a grin and a laugh to ease the truth of your coldness.” His face froze in an unmoving mask. “Mayhap the world does not see past that. They see what you ask them to see.” Just as she naively had allowed herself to see in the library. Yet, that was not his fault. It was hers for wanting to see diamonds in the dust. “They see your smile. They hear your teasing words. They are so focused on those smiles that they do not realize…” At his narrowing eyes, she blinked and let her words die. She’d said too much, to a man who truly was nothing but a stranger.
A stranger whose kiss still burns on my lips.
“They see what?” he bit out. Gone was that smooth edge to his words.
“The façade.” She knew because she was a woman who’d donned the same, stifling mask these five years.
A harsh light glinted in his eyes. “You do not know anything of it.”
“Oh, I suspect I know more than you’d care to think.” Hot emotion flashed in the cerulean blue of his eyes. With his easy charm and the cynical smile that didn’t quite reach his gaze, she saw enough to know this man was one to avoid at all costs.
The orchestra concluded the waltz and they came to a stop. Other partners clapped politely and filed from the floor while Genevieve and Cedric remained stationary, locked in a silent battle. His chest moved forcibly like he’d run a great distance.
Belatedly, she curtsied. “My lord.”
Where any proper gentleman would have escorted her from the floor, Cedric, future Duke of Ravenscourt, sketched a bow and stalked off, master of this ballroom. Genevieve stood rooted to her spot, agonizingly exposed to the stares and whispers of his distinguished guests and, in that moment, she hated Cedric. Hated him for so effortlessly thrusting her back into Society’s focus.It was inevitable. Her feet twitched with the urge to flee.Move. Pick up one foot and place it before the other.Her breath came hard and fast and then a small arm slid into hers and she started, blinking wildly.
Her sister gave her a reassuring smile. “Come,” she said softly and Genevieve’s throat worked.
How many times as children had she come to Gillian’s aid during her madcap schemes? In an utter role reversal, rescue should now be conferred by her younger sister. “Thank you,” she managed.
“If you smile and hold your chin up, they stare less,” Gillian said, widening her smile. “And if you laugh, then it really confounds them.” With that, she tossed back her head and laughed.
A wave of gratitude filled her and a smile split her lips; real and wonderful for it. That not a single gentleman had seen Gillian’s worth and beauty proved them all a lot of fools.
“Mother is not happy,” her younger sister said from the corner of her mouth.
Genevieve easily found the scowling marchioness and did a quick search for her father.
“Father is in the gaming rooms.”
Some of the tension eased from her shoulders. Of course, he’d eventually emerge. When he did, there would be the discovery that Genevieve had done something as scandalous as publicly waltzing. She nibbled her lower lip. Then, it wasn’t so much the dance, but rather the gentleman who’d commandeered that set in a public way…and then in an equally public way had left her standing alone at the center of the dance floor. Which really was quite a cut-direct for any lady, even more damning for one whispered to be a whore who made scandalous offers and propositions to gentlemen.
They reached their mother’s side. “Mo—”
“Not a word,” the marchioness said, with a patently false smile plastered on her lips. “You are to sit with the other companions.” Is that what she was, then? A companion? A giggle bubbled up at the preposterousness of such an idea and she forcibly swallowed her amusement. “I do not want you near Gillian.”
Of course, her faithless parents had never seen anyone else to blame where she was concerned. They didn’t see or credit the treacherous acts of strangers, but rather condemned the daughter whose blood they shared. Head held high, she turned to go, when Gillian shot a staying hand about her arm. “Mother,” she scolded.
Genevieve delicately removed her arm from Gillian’s gentle grip. “I will be all right,” she reassured. After her public humiliation five years ago, she could certainly manage to hover for another handful of hours on the fringe of the duke’s ballroom. In fact, she far preferred it.Liar. You love dancing. You loved it even more in the marquess’ strong, powerful arms.
With a roomful of observers staring on, Genevieve made her way to the shell-backed chairs along the back wall. She slid into a seat between two other equally miserably dressed ladies. The lady at her right yanked her skirts out of the way and quickly came to her feet. Casting a scathing glance back, she rushed off.
Genevieve trained her gaze forward on the dancers, fisting her hands on her lap. It mattered not what the whispers were, or what people believed. She knew the truth. She knew the ugliest of rumors were, in fact, lies perpetuated by a cad and that knowing was power. Granted a weak, ineffectual power, but a power over her thoughts and sense of her own self-worth. Still, there was something so very lonely in having been cut from the fold of the family. She looked to where her wildly gesticulating sister now chatted with her friend, Honoria Fairfax.
As much as she loved Gillian and had no doubt she was genuinely happy to have her back with the family, so many years had passed that it was oftentimes as though they were old friends trying to return to the way it had once been…when they could never, ever truly go back.
She froze and looked about. Her gaze collided with the plump woman with a glass of punch in one hand who occupied the opposite chair. With pale, heavily freckled cheeks and too-tight ringlets, the young woman must be near an age of her own. Did the lady remember Genevieve’s scandal from long ago? Or mayhap she didn’t know it at all and was why she even now spoke to her. “Uh…”
“For sending that one rushing off,” she said on a less than discreet whisper. The woman leaned close. “Miserable creature. Hasn’t smiled once all night.” She stuck her gloved palm out. “My name is Miss Francesca Cornworthy.” She grimaced. “Horrid name. You might call me Francesca, which is equally horrid, but only slightly less than Franny, which is what my father calls me.”
Her mind spun under the happy chattering and, yet, at the unexpected kindness, emotion filled her throat. Though she caught the flesh on the inside of her cheek hard, it was hardly fair to drag this kind creature down the gossip trail with her. At the stretch of silence and inaction, the woman’s smiled dipped and her hand quavered. Lest she misunderstand the reason for her hesitation, Genevieve swiftly placed her fingers in Miss Francesca Cornworthy’s and shook. “I am Lady Genevieve Farendale.”
A look of relief flashed in her startling violet eyes. “I know who you are.” Her stomach dipped. “We made our Come Out the same year,” the lady explained.
She knew. Of course, she knew. Everyone knew. “Oh,” she said lamely and quickly withdrew her hand.
Francesca raised the glass in her opposite hand to her lips and took a sip of her drink. “Nasty stuff. Nasty stuff.”
Genevieve glanced about to the sea of lords and ladies, many of whom well-remembered the jilted-at-the-altar Farendale daughter. “Yes, it was.”
“I referred to the punch,” Francesca interrupted her maudlin thoughts. “Not your scandal.”
And after five years of being a morose, maudlin figure lamenting her past, a very real…lightness went through her. The woman spoke with more honesty and candid sincerity than anyone, including her own family. Everyone, including Genevieve herself, tiptoed around talk of that long ago day, as though that would make it all go away. But it wouldn’t. It would always and forever be… The Scandal. There was something freeing in that.
Perhaps the woman was lonely and long in need of a friend, but she carried on her one-sided conversation. “I never did understand how a gentleman was so pardoned for the whole affair, while you were scuttled off. Uh…” She blushed. “You were scuttled off, I gather?”
Genevieve smiled. “I was.” Scuttled off. Like the refuse on a shopkeeper’s stoop.
“Well, I am glad you’ve returned.”
She was glad she returned. Those words, so sincerely spoken, when no one, not even Genevieve’s own parents, had uttered them. “You do not even know me.” The words slipped out before she could call them back.
The smile widened on Francesca’s face, rather transforming her from pretty into a lovely, glowing woman. “I know enough that it is the height of wrongness to have you hide away from the world.” She shook her head. “Not a nice way to live, at all. But you danced tonight, which I imagine was very exciting.” She gave her an envious look. “Not that I know anything really about dancing.”
With Francesca’s kindness and wonderful spirit, and her relegation to the back hall of the ballroom, proved once more—gentleman were bloody fools. All of them. “It was exciting,” she conceded, so very happy to be able to confide that in someone. Particularly when she well-knew the carriage ride home would contain a stinging diatribe of Genevieve’s wickedness.
It will be worth it…Unbidden, she did a sweep of the ballroom and several inches taller than even the tallest of guests, she easily found him. Cedric stood, with his back angled to her. He leaned an elbow against the Doric column and sipped from a champagne flute while speaking to a handsome, dark-haired gentleman. However, Cedric commanded her attention. How coolly elegant he was. Her heart skittered a dangerous beat.
“They are not all bad,” Francesca said and Genevieve looked over quickly. The woman nudged her chin slightly in the Marquess of St. Albans’ direction.
Her skin burned at the memory of his touch and kiss. No, the marquess was not bad. He was something far more dangerous—he was wicked.
“After all, he danced with you, which says a good deal about him.”
“Does it?” she drawled. It spoke to him being a rake who’d tease a woman in private and attempt to charm her in the midst of the ballroom floor.
“It means he doesn’t give a jot about gossip.” Francesca wrinkled her brow. “Which I don’t care about, either. And,” she added, as an afterthought, “he likely saw you tapping your feet.”
Genevieve started and glanced down at her miserably sore toes. She’d noticed her feet?
“There really isn’t much else to do but look,” she said, matter-of-factly.
She gave the woman a wry smile. “I expect sparing me from certain boredom was not at all the marquess’ intentions.” No doubt, he saw the same wanton everyone did. It was a belief she’d proven true earlier in his library and sought to coordinate an improper meeting. Or rather another improper meeting. Her skin warmed at the memory and, more, the craving to know his kiss, again.
“Why?” Francesca asked, jolting her back from those outrageous musings. “Because he’s a rake?” She furrowed her brow. “It hardly seems fair to condemn the gentleman for gossip attached tohisname.” The young woman took another sip and grimaced. “Awful stuff, indeed.”
At that telling emphasis, Genevieve stilled and looked out at Cedric once more. With Francesca’s innocent and, no doubt, unwitting accusation, she stirred guilt. The gossips reported him to be a rake, but those same scandal sheets reported her to be a wanton.
Then, a black-haired, willowy beauty in gold sidled up to the gentleman. The lady ran her fingertips down his sleeve and he shifted, presenting the couple in profile. With his golden good looks and her dark coloring, they struck quite the pair. That slight, practiced grin turned his lips and Genevieve looked away. There was no imagining a rake or rogue there. The worthless title fairly seeped from his well-muscled frame.
Awful stuff, indeed.From across the room, her mother caught her gaze and motioned to her. Like a blasted hound. “I am afraid I must go,” she said with a sigh.
Francesca’s face fell. “Oh, drat. Well, I did enjoy your company, Genevieve,” she said, easily dispensing with formalities. “Perhaps we will meet again?” she asked hopefully.
Genevieve smiled. “I would like that very much.” Reluctantly, she came to her feet and started the march back to her mother, feeling not unlike that fabled queen being marched before the gallows.
“Ah, so that is the way the wind blows, then?” From his position at the edge of the ballroom, Cedric stiffened and turned as Montfort sauntered up. “That makes sense and is vastly relieving.”
“What the hell are you on about?” he drawled, sipping his champagne.
Montfort stuck a leg out. “At first,” he shuddered. “Why, at first, I had an ugly worry that a respectable lady attracted your attention.” He tapped his chin. “But I quickly rid myself of such mad worries.” Yes, there were never any worries about anything respectable where Cedric was concerned. Even his only loyal friend knew as much. “Then, I suspected it was an eager widow, but I haven’t seen a single one to command your attention this evening.” Montfort grinned and then, as though he’d solved the riddle of life, he said, “It was the Farendale chit. Wanton little piece, isn’t she?”
Cedric froze, glass midway to his mouth. Of course, the guests present would note the single dance he’d indulged in this evening. He did not, nor had he ever, however, given a jot about Society’s whispers and speculations where he was concerned. So why did he want to slam his fist into Montfort’s mouth for speaking about her?
“You’ve never been one to pursue a respectable miss and you aren’t one to start now.”
It took a moment for the earl’s words to register and as the other man’s insinuation became clear, an inexplicable fury went through him. Aware of Montfort’s mocking gaze on him, he schooled his lips into an easy grin. “I think a lady in those modest skirts and her hair arranged so can hardly be called a wanton,” he said dryly. Even with that hideous chignon, the lady was more tempting than Eve in all her naked splendor.
A flare of amusement glinted in the earl’s jaded eyes. “Bah,” he scoffed. “I never thought I’d see the day when you dallied with her as she is now.”
As she is now.
Which implied… Montfort knew her…when? Montfort and Cedric had passed countless women between each other; from widows to actresses to skilled whores at their clubs and yet… An ugly, resentment twisted around his belly. “And how was she, then?” The lethal edged whisper slipped out.
Montfort downed his drink and motioned a servant over to claim the empty glass. “Ah, you were never one to gossip. How could I forget?”
And for reasons Cedric had never understood, the earl had long been a lover of Society’s juicy on-dits.
“Three, mayhap four years ago she was jilted at the altar.”
He frowned. “That hardly sounds like the manner of scandal to hold Society’s interest.” And certainly not for four years. Cedric took another sip of his champagne.
“It is when the groom’s brother bandies it about that she was warming his bed, as well as the groom’s closest friends. Some believe she was with child and sent away to birth the babe.”
Cedric choked on his swallow and his gaze flew to Genevieve. Like hell. The pinch-mouthed lady sat primly amongst the wallflowers and companions. Her sharp, pale cheeks and the tightness at the corner of her mouth hinted at the strain of emotion. He hooded his eyes and maintained his scrutiny. The lady was no whore. Her kiss, though eager, hinted at her inexperience. He’d not reveal as much to Montfort. For all his crimes, bandying the details about his lovers had never been one of them. “So she’s returned,” he said, pulling his gaze away. Where had the lady been all these years? “For what purpose?”
“Why I expect the same reasons all ladies come to London.” Montfort lifted his shoulders in a shrug. “The whispers are she’s here to find some unsuspecting or desperate nobleman. Others think it’s merely her parents’ attempt to prove she knows how to behave like a lady.” The smirk on the earl’s lips indicated just what he believed about that latter point and Cedric tightened his grip on his glass to keep from leveling the other man a facer.
…You do not know what you’ve done…
As his friend ran through the other gossip of the evening that Cedric didn’t give a damn about, he once more took Genevieve in. The drab skirts, the unwillingness to dance, even as her feet had tapped away at the marble floor. And then he recalled her standing there, as he’d stalked off like a petulant child and all because she’d seen too much. Spoken of him and about him in a way that had been not at all false, and all the more terrifying for it.
And for the first time, Cedric Falcot, the Marquess of St. Albans, who never felt anything, felt something, something he’d believed himself too jaded to feel or know—shame.
No doubt, Genevieve believed the deliberate omission of his name in the library and his maneuverings in the ballroom, nothing more than a product of who he was and more—whoshewas. What the lady could never realize is that Cedric did not bother to judge or condemn because, frankly, there wasn’t a more dissolute person than himself.
How ironic that she should be judged so. Even all these years later, when he had been a consummate rake, hosting outrageously wicked parties and partaking in dishonorable wagers. How ironic and… unfair. It was bloody unfair. Reprehensible behaviors were tolerated in those powerful lords, while even the hint of a rumor saw a lady ruined.
He looked at her, seated on the fringe talking to a plump wallflower and felt like the cad he’d relished in being these years. If the lady’s intentions had been to escape notice, then he’d quite robbed her of any potential anonymity with his dance and then abandonment at the end of the set. But it was, for reasons he could not understand and reasons he did not care to examine, important that she know he’d not been making light of her.
The earl tipped his chin. “Ah, now here comes an enticing creature.”
Drawn back, Cedric followed Montfort’s stare to Baroness Shelley. The midnight beauty was willowy and perfectly curved in the places he enjoyed his women curved. The hard, but enticing, smile on her lips promised endless delights and, yet, as she layered her palm to his forearm, he was…unmoved.
“Lord St. Albans, how,” she traced the tip of her tongue over her thin lips, “splendid you should at last arrive.”
…They are too big…Genevieve’s breathlessly innocent gasp rasped around his mind.
Montfort gave him a pointed frown and Cedric immediately thrust aside more pleasurable musings and attended the baroness.Chapter 7
Genevieve’s luck had never been good and that ill-luck went back long before being jilted at the altar.
But this time, it seemed she’d had a remarkable showing of good luck. They’d taken their leave of the duke’s ballroom last evening, without a single word, grumble, or grunt from Father about Genevieve’s scandalous dance with Cedric.
“You danced with St. Albans last night.”
Alas, she’d foolishly proven herself a remarkable optimist again.
The three ladies seated about the breakfast table froze under the rumble of the Marquess of Ellsworth’s words.
Genevieve picked her gaze up from the contents of her dish and looked to her balding, oft-scowling father. She finished her bite and then dabbed at her lips with her napkin. “Father?” Mayhap Gillian had also danced with that respective gentleman? She stole a sideways glance at her sister, who resumed her rapt study of the kippers on her plate.
The marquess narrowed his eyes and strode over to the head of the table. He motioned to a servant who rushed forward with his usual morning fare.
“St. Albans,” he repeated, his tone harsh. If he was livid about her waltz with Cedric, what would he say about their chance meeting and talks of friendship, no less? “You were instructed not to dance.”
“I had no choice,” she said through tight lips.
“She really didn’t, Father,” Gillian piped in. She gave her an encouraging smile. “He was quite adamant that she partner him.”
At her sister’s attempt at a helpful response, Genevieve winced. She knew Gillian meant to be helpful. She really did and she loved her for that…
“Of course he did,” he boomed.
Fury melded with shame and set her cheeks ablaze. “I could not very well say no,” she bit out. “What a scandal that would be.” Genevieve looked to her mother; her cheeks waxen, the marchioness wetted her lips. The woman, with her seeming inability to smile and her tendency to scowl at members she’d deemed beneath her notice, was undaunted by all—except her husband.
“S-St. Albans is in the market for a wife,” the marchioness put in.
A memory entered of Cedric kneeling at her feet while he slid on her slippers. Her toes curled at the still erotic moment. No, a man such as St. Albans would marry no time soon. Nor did a gentleman who spoke candidly of friendship demonstrate any real husband material.
“Quite a catch, quite a catch,” her mother rambled on. “He will be a future duke, you know.” Goodness, the things she’d said to the man last evening about his title, his library. Gillian cringed. “Wouldn’t that be wonderful to have a duke for our girl, Lord Ellsworth?”
Lord Ellsworth. At that stiff formality, the two sisters exchanged a look and Gillian gave a quick, discreet roll of her eyes. Even as Genevieve knew with her hope for love from a good, honorable gentleman that her requirements in a husband were going to be as difficult as finding the end of a proverbial rainbow, she’d at the very least hope for more than a union where one was so restricted by politeness that they couldn’t bear to use one another’s Christian names.
“I know St. Albans will be a duke.” Father leaned forward and thumped his hand on the table, rattling the glass of water at his side. A servant gulped audibly and set the marquess’ plate down before him. “But surely you do not believe he’d makeheran honorable offer.” That slight emphasis sent her shoulders back. “The man is a rake.”
Mother cleared her throat and then with a surprising courage, she met her husband’s gaze. “I know yousaidthe marquess was to be avoided, Lord Ellsworth… but even rakes must wed.”
Would a man such as Cedric take a wife and a respectable one at that? From their brief meeting and one waltz she took him as one who would do exactly as he pleased, societal expectations be damned. She curled her fingers hard around her fork.
Blatantly ignoring his wife’s opinion, the marquess looked to the servants and, interpreting that silent cue, they filed quickly out of the room.
Genevieve wouldneverbind herself to the manner of gentleman who stripped her of her voice. Ever.
“You had strict orders to attract no attention,” he barked, snapping that shaking digit at her. “Yet again you’ve proven your harlotry.”
Her gasp blended with Gillian’s.
“Lord Ellsworth,” their mother scolded, in an uncharacteristic show of defiance.
“It was merely one dance,” Genevieve bit out. Why would he force her back to this place? Why, if he could not accept her past was just that…her past?Because he doesn’t believe it. He thinks I’m irredeemable and a blight on the family.“You are making more of it than it is.”
Father flared his nostrils. “I do not want another scandal attached to this family,” he boomed and the three ladies again jumped.
No, he’d tolerate not a misstep. Not after Genevieve’s scandal. She gritted her teeth at what Cedric had wrought with his careless waltz. “There will be no scandal,” she said in more even tones. Not even as she craved more excitement from life than the staid, stilted existence.
A wide smile quivered in her mother’s fleshy cheeks. “See, my lord? There is nothing to worry after. Genevieve will be a good girl.” She whipped her head around so quickly, her jowls jiggled. “Isn’t that right, Genevieve?” Without allowing for a reply, the wife leaned over and patted her still scowling husband. “She’ll not encourage any gentleman.”
Nauseated by the mollifying exchange, Genevieve looked away. Unable to stomach any more, she shoved back her seat. It scraped noisily on the floor. “I am going to Hyde Park,” she seethed.
“You are to bring your maid,” her father thundered.
“Of course,” she said, pasting on a patently false smile. “I am nothing if not proper.” With that, she proceeded from the room with a decorum and grace both of her parents would have been hard-pressed to fault. When she’d put the breakfast room behind her, Genevieve lengthened her strides until she’d disappeared around the corridor where she broke into a sprint, wanting to keep running. Away from this place. Away from the weight of her parents’ unending fury. Her skirts snapped about her ankles as she took the stairs and made her way to her chambers. Within the sanctuary of her rooms, she closed the door and leaned against the panel. Her breath came hard and fast from her exertion. Panting, Genevieve slumped against the door.
She stared blankly about the room; a room that may as well have belonged to a stranger. Was this what her life was to be then? Was she to be relegated to the role of distantly removed member of the family, constantly being reminded of the mistakes of her past and never free to move beyond them? Her gaze snagged on the cheerful blue of the sky peeking through the gaping fabric of her curtains. Where was the joy in a life such as this? She wanted…more. Because to remain here, would crush her, destroying her in ways that her exile never could.
Shoving away from the door, Genevieve wandered over to the escritoire. The sketchpads, so precious these years, now forgotten in this fortnight. She pulled out the velvet-upholstered chair and slid into the seat. With numb fingers, she flipped the pages. She paused to steal a glance at the doorway. Should her father see…
Her grandfather’s visage. Delores. The maids and servants who’d been more family than her own parents. She turned to a blank sheet. Of their own volition, her fingers, long denied the pleasure she’d found these years at the encouragement of her grandfather, moved. She picked up the pastels and set her fingers to work upon the pages. She sat hunched over the book, chewing her lower lip, as she let her fingers fly frantically over the blank sheet. A strand broke free from the painfully tight chignon worked by her maid that morn and she blew at the errant curl. With each stroke of the pastel, an exhilarating calm stole through her. The beautiful peace that came in this wholly freeing experience was relaxing.
Minutes? Hours later she set the pastel down. Her chest heaved as she stared at the visage reflected back; the dangerously alluring half-grin, the chiseled cheeks befitting an expertly carved stone masterpiece.
A knock sounded at the door and she jumped. Heart pounding, Genevieve slammed the book closed and then cast a quick glance over her shoulder. “E-Enter,” she called and coming to her feet, she placed herself between that intimate part of her and the interloper.
The door opened and Gillian stuck her head inside. “You did not go to Hyde Park.”
Genevieve cocked her head.
Her sister pushed the door open and took a tentative step forward. “You said you were to Hyde Park and you’ve not gone.”
Her mind stalled. Yes, yes she had. Because ultimately, all she’d sought was escape. “I became distracted,” she admitted, fisting the fabric of her skirts.
Sisters stood there, forever friends and, yet, strangers all at the same time. “I am to go to the museum with Honoria and Phoebe. I thought you might join us?”
Except, Genevieve had been too long removed from the woman she’d been; easy to converse, eager for grand adventures alongside Gillian. “Go along without me,” she said. She’d become so accustomed to her solitary presence during the days, she no longer knew how to be the garrulous, effervescent young girl she’d been. “I am to Hyde Park.” Nor did she want to be that girl, ever again. “Thank you,” she added softly when Gillian made to leave.
Her sister opened her mouth and then with a slight nod, left.
When Gillian had gone, leaving Genevieve alone, she turned back to her collection of books. Gathering up the leather folio and her container of pastels, she started from the room.
The incessant knocking penetrated Cedric’s slumber. Through the thick haze of sleep, he forced his eyes open and turned to the window. The thick, gold brocade curtains blotted out all light, but a slight gap in the fabric revealed a crack of sunlight. With a low groan, he rolled onto his back and flung his arm across his eyes. By God, was his man, Avis, asking to be sacked? After ten years in his employ, the bugger surely knew Cedric did not wake before twelve o’clock.
“Get the hell away,” he called to his valet and drifted between sleep and wake, drawing forth the dreams of his slumber—a barefoot lady and her kiss-swollen lips. His shaft stirred at the welcome remembrance and he burrowed deeper into the smooth satin sheets.
Bloody hell. “You had better have a bloody good reason to—”
“I have the information you requested, my lord.”
Cedric lowered his arm to his side and stared up at the wicked mural painted above his bed. He furrowed his brow. “The information,” he mouthed trying to muddle through the fog of last night’s overindulgence in brandy and champagne, the haze of desire, and the godawful early hour.
The servant cleared his throat. “You indicated I bring you the information about a certain—”
With a curse, Cedric flung his legs over the side of the bed and stood. Naked, he stalked across the room and yanked the door open. His servant spilled into the room. He slammed the door behind them. “I said discreetly. I don’t need the whole of London knowing.” Following his exit from his father’s ball, Cedric had tasked his loyal servant with the charge of finding out where he might expect to see Lady Genevieve. It was not the first time he’d given Avis such an assignment. It was, however, of reasons different than all the other ones before it. Regardless, the last thing he needed were his servants bandying about gossip about the lady.
When had he ever cared about that, though?
“Uh, right. Yes, my lord.” The balding butler held out a folded sheet.
“Nor did I believe you’d bring the information at this ungodly hour.” No sane person who valued the need and benefit of a good sleep would rise before the noon hour.
“Forgive me, my lord. It seemed the kind of…er information you would care to be in possession of.”
Cedric accepted the page, unfolded it, and skimmed. “Indeed,” he said and a slow grin turned his lips up. Yes. His servant’s inquiries of a certain Lady Genevieve proved just the manner of information a man of Cedric’s reputation would want in his hands. Immediately. Even if it was at this sinful hour. He looked to the ormolu clock atop his fireplace mantel.
The tall, lanky man shifted on his feet. “I took the liberty of having your mount readied.”
By God, Avis was deserving of a raise. “Good work, man,” he said and with his spare hand, he slapped his servant on the back.
His face was always an unreadable mask devoid of emotion. Avis dropped a bow and proceeded over to the mahogany armoire to gather Cedric’s garments. A short while later, having completed his morning ablutions and with a small, but manageable, throb in his head from his overindulgence last evening, Cedric made his way from his townhouse. He accepted the reins of his mount from a waiting servant.
Adjusting his black hat, he climbed astride and nudged Wicked onward to Hyde Park. In the late morning quiet of the London streets, just before the rest of polite Society ventured into the world, he considered the information uncovered by his servant. What manner of lady paid daily visits to the mazes of Kensington Gardens before the fashionable hour? Montfort’s charges about the lady’s character slipped in, but he quickly thrust them aside. Genevieve. Her guarded eyes and innocent kiss were not belonging to the wanton described by the earl. Forcing the tension from his body, Cedric patted his horse on the withers and urged him onward, past haggard shopkeepers shoving their carts into position for a day of hawking their wares.
He guided Wicked through the entrance of Hyde Park and drew on the reins, slowing his mount. He did a small sweep of the grounds and then clicked his tongue, pushing the eager horse to stretch his legs along the riding trail. The gates of Kensington Gardens pulled into focus and he, again, drew on the reins, stopping Wicked.
Cedric dismounted, kicking gravel and dust about him as his boots settled on the earth. He searched the quiet, empty area, and frowned. If his bloody butler had proven wrong in his blasted information… As he tied Wicked under a nearby oak, he continued to search the grounds. From across the distance, he located a young maid, conversing with a strapping liveried servant. A wry smile formed on Cedric’s lips. Ah, how many ladies had been attended by lax servants, who’d turn their proverbial cheek while her mistress went about her scandalous pursuits so she might know pleasures of her own?
He captured his chin between his thumb and forefinger, surveying the lush, green gardens. The archway to the Rose Garden. Having partaken in too many trysts to count, where would he himself go for a late morning rendezvous? He paused, his gaze lingering upon the tall hedge maze. Of course. Cedric stole another look at the slipshod maid. The young woman remained engrossed in her conversation with her sweetheart.
Never one to neglect a useful distraction or silent footfall, Cedric swiftly made his way into the hedge maze. As he entered the gardens, he continued his search for his quarry while taking in the manicured grounds. The meticulously tended shrubs and bushes presented a woodland setting in the midst of the dirt and filth of London which created a falsified purity. The lush, emerald grass that blanketed the side of the graveled walking path was called to be a natural bedding between a man and woman bent on wicked deeds. Of all the inventive places he’d taken his lovers, how had he failed to appreciate the possibilities that existed in this private Eden?
A faint morning breeze stirred the brush and the crisp boxwoods crunched noisily. Tugging off his gloves, Cedric stuffed them inside his coat and continued his search. Another soft rustle split the morning quiet and he walked deliberately toward that sound. When reaching the back of the hedge maze, he abruptly stopped.
Comfortably settled on a wrought iron bench with her knees drawn to her chest, Genevieve may as well have been in any parlor or library. With her attention devoted to a small leather volume in her hands, the lady lingered over the words on the page. With the benefit of her distraction, Cedric studied her contemplatively. The women he favored did not enjoy books. That was, except those naughty volumes that harkened to sexual gratification. He didn’t know what to make of this young lady who stole into a hedge maze better for trysting, all toread.
He’d never known a woman to care about a tome before the garments or jewels he could shower her with. Or rather, he’d never taken a moment to learn of past lovers’ interests and this discovery, quite by chance, made Genevieve Farendale all the more real. This connection to her was intimate in ways that defied the sexual. He frowned. Another breeze rustled through the gardens and a strand popped free of that miserable chignon, softening her sharp features. The lock tumbled over her brow and she absently brushed the strand behind her ear. His chest tightened. How singularly odd that a single tress could so alter a person’s entire visage.
It promptly fell back. He ached with a physical need to yank free the combs holding those strawberry tresses in place and release them so they could cascade about her shoulders in a shimmery waterfall, as they were meant to. He’d wager those strands fell down the length of her back and, God, he would gladly trade his future dukedom to have them fanned out upon his pillow.
Like a doe that had caught scent of impending danger, Genevieve looked up and their gazes locked. Quickly, the lady swung her legs over the edge of her seat, giving a momentary flash of those trim, delicate ankles he’d had in his hands not even twelve hours earlier. The book tumbled to the ground, where it lay, forgotten. He briefly attended that volume, narrowing his gaze in a bid to make order of that image.
She was the first to break the quiet. “You,” she blurted. That shocked admission carried in the quiet of the gardens.
He inclined his head. “Me.” Had she been expecting another?
Drawn the way one of those hopeless sailors were to those sirens at sea, Cedric wandered closer. First the library, and now her stolen morning in Hyde Park. “You enjoy books, Genevieve.” His words were more statement than question.
“That is a bit broad.” A becoming crimson color blazed on her cheeks. “I enjoy some of them.”
He closed the distance between them and then dropped to a knee beside her. She followed his movements as he gathered her book.
“What are you doing here?” she asked, faintly breathless, as she all but tugged the leather volume from his hands. She drew it close to her chest, almost protectively, and that slight movement only plumped her already generous breasts so that they pressed hard against the fabric of her cloak.
Well, that was hardly the welcoming greeting he was accustomed to from ladies. Somehow that only further strengthened the peculiarity of this woman; set her apart from others. “I always come here in the morn.” The lie slipped out easily. Cedric came to his feet. “I enjoy riding with nothing but the privacy of my own thoughts.” Which was not altogether untrue. It was the whole matter of time he took liberties with. Then, time meant different things to different people. All relative.
The lady eyed him with a wary skepticism he’d come to expect of her. Montfort had spoken of her being jilted at the altar. Who had been the bloody fool to turn this woman over and put that guarded caution in her eyes? “You come here? I’ve come here nearly a fortnight now and not seen you once.”
“I am not usually this late in my morning ride,” he put in smoothly. He offered her a lopsided grin. “Alas, after an eventful evening in the library with delightful company, I’d found myself unable to sleep.”
She slapped her fingers to her gaping mouth. “My lord, I think even you would have the decency not to speak of your scandalous pursuits with another lady,” she said on a furious whisper.
He blinked several times. Then his lips pulled at the corners. The lady thought he spoke of another. Though he was rightfully accused of all manner of black-hearted acts through the years, he’d not bandied about those intimate acts. “I was speaking ofourmeeting.”
High color flooded her cheeks, giving her an innocent look he’d long despised in a woman and, yet, on this one…it perfectly suited her and only added to her allure. “You were?”
Cedric nodded once. “I was.”
She cleared her throat. “I thought you spoke of another.”
“Oh?” he asked softly closing the remaining distance between them. He brushed his fingers down the smooth expanse of her cheek. “Which lady did you suspect?” His gentle caress brought her lashes fluttering closed.
“Th-the woman in the golden gown,” her faintly whispered admission earned a grin.
Did the lady realize how much she revealed with that? Despite her studious attempts at avoiding him last evening, she’d noted him. He couldn’t even recall a lady in gold or any other gown for that matter. He dipped his head lower, so close their lips nearly brushed. “Was there another?” he whispered. “I saw no one but you last evening.” Any other time those words would have been carefully crafted with the sole purpose of luring a coy lady to his bed. Now, they were words uttered in truth. Unease rolled inside him and he thrust it aside. This unwitting fascination came from the newness in dallying with an innocent and nothing more. For he’d no doubt, even with Montfort’s allegations, that the lady was, in fact, innocent. For the passion in her kiss, there had been an unbridled, unrestrained enthusiasm that spoke to her virtuousness.
Her breath hitched and any other woman would have tipped her head back to receive his kiss. “You should not be here.” This lady again proved herself remarkably unlike any other before. She stepped back, retreating until her knees knocked against the wrought iron bench and peered at him through endless, golden lashes. “Nor do I believe you ride,” she challenged, a faintly accusatory thread to that charge.
He rocked on his heels. How easy it would be to feed her a distracting lie that would drive back her suspicions and arouse her desires, but something about this young woman drew him—her honesty, her directness. They were sentiments he’d thought fabrications on the pages of whimsical books he’d never bothered to read. “No,” he acknowledged at last. “Rather, Idoride daily but not at this hour.”
Her lips twitched. “It is just past ten o’clock, my lord.”
He grimaced. “Ungodly hour, you know.”
Her mouth parted. “I find it beautiful,” she countered. “It is evenmorebeautiful, when the orange and crimson horizon shove back the night sky.” She motioned to the distant sky. “It is like God has taken a paintbrush to a blank canvas and filled it with light. You should wake to see it before you so condemn it.” With those words, she spoke more volumes than all the works assembled in his father’s library. Yet, he stood transfixed by the wistful look on her face. Had he truly believed her ordinary? No splendorous work of art could dare compete with her plain-stated beauty. “And do you know the best part of it, my lord?”
Incapable of words, he managed to shake his head.
“There is no one here to intrude on the quiet splendor.”
Her gaze still fixed on the distance, he continued to worship her with his stare. Mayhap there was something to be said of this early time, after all. Mayhap the lady had the right of it. “I came to apologize,” he said quietly. It was hard to determine who was more stunned by that admission.
That snapped her attention back to him. Other ladies of his acquaintance would have tittered and offered veiled, and some not-so veiled, promises. “You came to see me in order to apologize?” She merely looked at him askance. “Why?”
Why? Why, indeed? Cedric tapped his hand against his thigh. What need or use had he of a desperately seeking proper miss, who snuck off to sketch in the gardens of Hyde Park? He could have, and frequently did have, naughty women who expected nothing and certainly didn’t ask questions. And yet, the only reason he could bloody well find was, “I like you,” he said honestly. She puzzled her brow. “And I don’t like anybody.”Most times not even myself.He thrust aside the maudlin thought. Rising early did nothing for his rational thinking. That thought, in and of itself, was proof enough.
“Youlikeme?” A healthy degree of skepticism coated those three words.
“Would you know the truth?” He continued before she could speak. “I know you despise my title.” They were of like opinions in that regard. “I know you’re refreshingly frank when everyone else stinks of lies and falsity.” He held her gaze squarely. “And I would not have you believe that my intentions last night were of the dishonorable sort.” He grimaced. When had his intentions ever been of the honorable kind? “There you have it,” he finished, lamely.
A sad smile curved her lips. “You did not know last evening that you waltzed with the Farendale doxy? This is the only reason you are here, now?” she asked softly, drifting closer.
Ah, so for the lady’s innocence she was not so naïve that she’d be wholly truthful of his motives. What gentleman was responsible for that cautiousness? Tension snapped through his frame. “I’ll not lie and say I don’t desire you, Genevieve, if that is what you’re expecting. For I do. Want you.” Her mouth parted on a moue of scandalized shock. He scoffed.A doxy. This one was as innocent as a debutante in white skirts with a shy eye. And even with that, he wanted to lay her down on the dew-covered earth, haul her gown about her waist, and bury himself in her honeyed warmth. “But I also like you.” How bloodypeculiar. An inexplicable need to drive back that sad glint in her eyes filled him and he took a step forward, closing the distance between them. “Furthermore, you’re no more a doxy than I am a respectable, noble hero.”
And what terrified the bloody hell out of him, was that he craved the company of this only faintly pretty, most suspicious, young lady.Chapter 8
By his very admission, Cedric, the Marquess of St. Albans, was a dishonorable sort whose motives in being here even now should be questioned. He was the manner of man who shamefully took what he wished and who kissed nameless strangers in his father’s library.
And yet, in this instance, with those self-deprecating words, his admission nobly raised Genevieve from the mire and gossip that had swirled around her for five years. Her heart caught in a way that belied the wary walls she’d constructed about her after Terrance’s betrayal.
On the heel of that, Genevieve thrust aside that foolish weakening. As he continued his forward approach, she held her book up staying him. “By your own accounts, being not at all respectable, you are here, anyway.” She hooded her lashes. “All to apologize?” Heavy skepticism coated her words. “Why would you do that?” Why, when the men of his lofty rank had proven themselves self-serving enough to destroy a lady’s reputation on nothing more than a whim and fancy? A morning breeze pulled at the fabric of their cloaks and the garments tangled in a noisy dance.
A muscle jumped at the corner of his eye. “You are, indeed, correct,” he said stiffly. “I should not be here. I came to make my apologies, which I have since done. Because, even as I don’t give a bloody damn on Sunday about anyone, I’d have you know that my intentions last evening were not to embarrass or draw attention to you.” Yet, that is what he’d done, whether inadvertent or intentional. The angular planes of his cheek went flush and he sketched a hasty bow. Neither reactions of a man who’d deliberately sought to make light of the Farendale lady. “If you’ll excuse me,” he said, his tone coolly detached. “I’ll allow you to return to your…” His gaze fell to the book gripped tight in her hands.
Following his stare, Genevieve furrowed her brow.
Wordlessly, he took a step forward and as though he’d forgotten her presence, slipped the book from her fingers and rustled through it. He paused on a page creased at the top. “You are an admirer of Turner’s work, madam?” he asked not picking his gaze up from the painting she’d previously studied.
Her heart stuttered. Gentlemen did not speak of art or artists and if they did, well, they certainly did not draw from memory J.M.W. Turner’s work. That this man did unsettled her already rather faulty, where he was concerned, world. He looked up questioningly and she quickly cleared her throat. “Yes. Are you familiar with his work?” she asked, turning his question on him, not knowing what to do with that discovery about this whispered about rake. Of course, he could have merely read the inscription at the top. Wasn’t that the way of rakes? To learn a lady’s interests and manipulate them to suit their desires.
“I am.” Returning his focus to that page, Cedric trailed a long finger over the dark clouds of night on the page. “I would take you for an admirer of Friedrich’sThe Watzmannand not the darkness of Turner.”
A thrill of a connectedness drove back all better reason in being alone with him still. “Do you believe because I am a woman, I should favor pastel, peaceful landscapes?” she countered. How long had she been alone, when these artists’ glorious masterpieces had been her company, and now there was another who knew those same wonders?
Another breeze pulled at his cloak. Lowering the book to his side, he briefly cupped her cheek. “No, because I can imagine you alone on those steep, lonely hills. You are a solitary creature, on the side of ballrooms, and hidden in libraries, and in hedge mazes, and yet there is a brightness to you that commands notice.” Rakes and rogues were clever with their words and charm. They employed whispered endearments designed to break down a lady’s defenses and she was wise to not fall prey to such senseless drivel. Cedric’s words, however, had a weight and wealth and meaning to them that sucked at her breath.
Oh, God. As she leaned into his gentle caress, she tried to make sense of the warmth seeping into her heart. Men such as he did not see more than was there. They saw surface beauty and did not delve to the hidden, most important parts that made a person, them. That had been the case with her betrothed and even her parents. But this man saw…and it roused equal parts terror and wonder in her.
“There is beauty in it,” she managed, as his hand fell to his side. Her skin pricking with the heated intensity of his gaze, Genevieve slipped the book from his grasp.
Standing so close their shoulders brushed, she flicked through the pages of collected oil paintings and sketches. At the intimacy of this stolen exchange, her fingers trembled and she sought the specifically folded page. She stopped abruptly and ran her palm down theFishermen at Seamasterpiece that she’d studied well into the morning hours on countless lonely evenings in her exile.
“There seems such a loneliness to it,” she murmured, more to herself. “As you said, a darkness.” In those earliest days following the Duke of Aumere’s betrayal, she’d stared bleary eyed at that darkly ominous image, lost in the impending doom hinted at. “Until I came to realize the fisherman was not alone. For the threatening waves that loom, there is the calm of the moon’s presence and it lights the sky, showing that there are others there.” As much as she’d mourned being cut off from her family, she’d found a soothing balm in the quiet countryside; in the star-studded night skies and the snowy winters days. Through it, she’d let herself believe that there would one day be another. Aware of Cedric’s attention trained not on the page but on the top of her head, Genevieve stumbled back a step and knocked into the bench with such force she tumbled into a seated position.
“You were right to order me gone.” His cerulean gaze threatened to bore through her. “You are suitably wary, Genevieve.” Was his a warning? She’d be a fool to not heed it.
“I have reason to be,” she whispered. Not many had given her reason to trust.
“Ah,” he stretched out that syllable. “The former betrothed.”
Genevieve jolted as his words hit her like a jab to the solar plexus. People did not freely speak of the Duke of Aumere’s defection. Their whispers had somehow conveniently omitted that man’s identity, while heaping all senseless blame on her. She tried to dredge up a suitable reply, should again send Cedric on his way, but there was…an ease around him. A falseness and sincerity all at the same time. Having spent the better part of five years insulating herself from hurt, she recognized Cedric’s own artful attempts. With his effortless grin and guarded eyes, the Marquess of St. Albans may as well construct an entire fortress about him.
Another breeze filtered the air between them. It rustled his too-long, thick golden tresses, sending one tumbling over his brow, softening him, making him real—approachable, and not the sculpted model of masculine perfection able to command with a single look. He motioned to the wrought iron bench. “May I?”
She curled her fingers tight, hating this desire to run her hands through his tresses to explore their texture. “If I said no, would you leave?”
“Yes,” he said automatically. “But I’d attempt to convince you otherwise.”
Perhaps her soulwasas wicked and wanton as she’d been accused, for she wanted to know what that convincing would entail. He stared at her pointedly and with a hesitant nod, she slid over onto the corner of the bench.
The marquess settled his tall, heavily muscled frame beside her, shrinking the space between them so that their legs touched. His cloak gaped slightly open. She swallowed hard. Unbidden, she stole a sideways look at the muscles of his thighs straining the fawn fabric of his front-flap breeches. Cheeks afire, she swiftly lifted her gaze, praying he’d not noted her scrutiny, and promptly stilled.
Head tipped back, with his eyes closed, the morning’s rays bathed Cedric’s face in sunlight. “Who was he?” he asked, unmoving from his repose so much that she blinked several times believing she’d imagined his question.
“My lord?” she asked tentatively.
“The gentleman to account for your wariness.”
She drew her book closer. “It would hardly be appropriate to speak of such intimate matters.”
“Bah, mine is hardly an intimate question.” Opening his eyes, the marquess picked his head up and favored her with a slow, seductive grin. “Were I to ask you the scent of oil you place in your bathwater or the fragrance you dab behind your ears, now that, I would allow would be intimate…for some.”
Despite a suitable wariness where this man was concerned, a smile pulled at her lips. With his charm, he was a rogue who could coax the queen out of her chemise. “Tell me, my lord, do you work at shocking a lady?”
“Hardly.” He winked. “I assure you, it comes quite naturally.”
A laugh bubbled from her lips and it felt so wholly wonderful to be the laughing, bright-eyed young woman she’d been.That saw you nothing but ruin… She promptly slapped her hand over her mouth and stole a look about, as with that unexpected amusement logic was restored. He was a rake, a rogue, and all things forbidden. She’d not be so lax in her judgment again—not any more than she’d already been with this man. “You should not be here,” she said again. “You came to apologize.” When gentlemen made apologies for nothing. Not her father. Not the Duke of Aumere and his dastard brother. “Though I appreciate that gesture.” Even as it roused skepticism in her breast. “But for you to remain, only raises further risk of…” Additional censure. She’d already been ruined.
“Who was he?” he asked instead.
She trembled. How easily he followed her unspoken thoughts. What game did this rake play? “Why would you have me speak of it?” Genevieve braced for a charming smile and a lie.
Instead, he held his palms up. “I do not know.” They were words spoken with a quiet truth.
She narrowed her eyes suspiciously. Either she was the very greatest of fools or she’d been alone for so very long that she’d see friends in rakes. “Then you’ll leave?”
He inclined his head.
Eying him warily, Genevieve wetted her lips.
Cedric unflinchingly met her stare.
A long sigh escaped her. She’d no doubt he’d wait until the sun set for the night before leaving this spot without a name. “The Duke of Aumere.”
An inscrutable look flashed in his eyes and she wanted to know the meaning of it. Wanted to know what he thought about her being tossed over by a duke, on her wedding day no less. Instead of leaving, however, he stretched out and looped his ankles.
An exasperated sigh escaped her. “You promised to leave.”
“Ah, but I did no such thing, Genevieve.” He tugged the errant curl hanging over her brow. “I merely lifted my head in acknowledgement.”
How free he was with his movements and words without worry of recrimination. It was she, however, who would bear the lash of Society’s censure. Frustration stirred at a lot where women should be so judged, while men were free with their every movement and with that, reality intruded on this stolen interlude. “This is not a game, my lord,” she bit out. Her father’s earlier warnings that morning came rushing back, effectively dousing the haze cast by talks of artists and paintings.
He winged an eyebrow up. “Do youwantme gone?”
No. She leapt to her feet and retreated several steps, placing much needed distance between them. “It is improper for you to be here.”
Undeterred, he shoved lazily to his feet. “But doyouwant me gone?” he pressed with a dogged tenacity.
She should. She should want him on the opposite side of the world for the danger he presented and with the desire he roused. As his long-legged strides ate away the distance between them, her mouth went dry.
“Do you?” he prodded on a silken whisper that ran over her warmer than any summer sun.
With her pulse pounding madly, Genevieve forced words out. “Have I not said as much?”
“No,” he brushed his thumb over her lower lip. “In fact, I’ve asked you three times with no real answer.” The book tumbled once more to the earth, falling between them and her heart skipped a beat, then promptly tripled its rhythm. “You have spoken about propriety and decorum, but what do you want?”
I want your kiss. I want your kiss even as it goes against all judgment and fuels the sinful opinions about me…
He toyed with her lower lip. “What do you want?” he urged in seductive tones Satan himself would envy.
Cedric claimed her mouth in a hard, hungry kiss. This was not the hesitant, gentle questing of the evening prior but rather an explosion of want and desire. He folded his hand about her nape, angling her to receive him, and with a breathless moan, she returned his kiss. Genevieve twined her hands through his hair reveling in the silken thickness of those loose curls. He parted her lips and slid his tongue inside, and the hint of coffee and cinnamon invaded her senses like a potent aphrodisiac. Their tongues tangled in a wild dance as old as time and he drew back.
She bit her lip at the loss of him, but he merely dragged his mouth down her neck, where he nipped at the place where her pulse beat for him.
“Genevieve,” he whispered, nothing but her name, and her knees buckled.
He easily caught her and pulled her against the hard, muscled wall of his chest, anchoring her close. At the contact, her nipples pebbled hard against the fabric of her gown and desire; wicked and wanton, and all things wonderful flooded her senses, as she strained close, desperate for…she knew not what, only that she’d never known this explosive passion from any of her former betrothed’s chaste kisses.
She sought his lips again and he raised his obligingly, returning her kiss. With every slant of his mouth, he ran his hands searchingly over her; the curve of her hip, her lower back, her buttocks, and heat exploded inside her and threatened to consume her in a fiery conflagration of desire.
“Lady Genevieve?” The distant call of her maid brought them apart.
Genevieve stood cloaked in a thick haze of desire and a slow-dawning horror. She frantically searched about.
“Here,” he murmured, as with the same methodical precision of last evening, he put her hair to rights and then swiftly retrieved her book. His remarkable calm bespoke a gentleman accustomed to far too many close calls.
Her belly tightened as a green, vicious envy twisted inside.
“Lady Genevieve?” her maid’s voice grew stronger as she drew closer.
Genevieve snatched the volume from his hands. “I am h-here, Delores.” She flinched at the tremor to her words. Frantically, she whipped her head back. “Please,” she whispered. “Surely you understand, as my every action is under scrutiny, I cannot see you again.”
He put his lips close to her ear, and his breath fanned her skin, sending delicious shivers radiating out. “Do you truly want that?”
No. “It matters not what I want,” she said on a pleading whisper.
Cedric placed a hard, quick kiss on her lips. “What you want should always matter.” He took her by the shoulders and gave her a gentle nudge toward her maid’s approaching footsteps. “And Genevieve?” he said in hushed tones, as she turned to go. She looked questioningly back. “Primrose.” Her heart jumped. “By the scent upon your skin, I would wager it is primrose you place in your water.”Chapter 9
The empty sketchpad lay open, the blank pages both mocking and tempting. Cedric sat staring at them, as he had for the better part of the hour. How many pages had he secretly filled before his bastard of a sire had ultimately discovered, and ended, all such trivial pursuits?
…my heir will not do something as foolish as to waste his time with frivolous pastimes. Find yourself a whore, not a bloody sketchpad…
The fury of that diatribe rang around the chambers of his mind, all these years later.
He’d loved sketching. Loved it when he’d really loved nothing. On the pages of those books, he’d found a peace and calm, and a sense of freeness from the constrained world where he was nothing more than a future duke. More, he’d forgotten how much he loved it until a too-brief conversation in Kensington Gardens that morning with a lady who both knew art and was unashamed and unapologetic in discussing it. Where he’d buried that desire to create, tossed his charcoals into the rubbish bin, and yet…he’d retained this old book.
Of their own volition, his fingers found the pen and, dipping it into the inkwell, he proceeded to mark the page. With each slash and slant of the pen, an amorphous image took shape. His hand flew frantically over the previously blank sheet and a long forgotten exultation fanned out dulling the ennui he’d known of late; an ennui which had not been solved by gaming or whoring or spirits.
The door bounced open with such force it slammed against the wall. “By God, I said find a respectable wife. I should expect you’d show up at my bloody ball and dance only once and with the Farendale doxy.”
Cedric jerked his gaze up and cursed. His father stood framed in the doorway. The only hint of his barely concealed fury was the vein throbbing at the corner of his left eye. Quickly closing the book, Cedric dropped his pen. “Father.” He forced an indolent grin and propped his feet on the edge of his desk. “To what do I owe the honor of this visit?” There had never been any father-son warmth between them. Theirs had been a relationship built on nothing but the unfortunate circumstance of blood and the obligations that went with that same blood.
His father kicked the door closed with the heel of his boot. “Goddamn it, you know what has brought me here.” Yanking off his gloves the duke stomped across the room. He stopped at the edge of Cedric’s desk and slapped his gloves together. “Put your bloody feet on the floor,” he snapped, as though speaking to a recalcitrant child.
Alas, Cedric hadn’t been a boy for a long time now. Rather, he’d been shaped into a cold, unyielding figure, masterfully crafted in his father’s image. Lounging in his leather chair, Cedric folded his arms at his chest.
With a grunt, the duke slid into the opposite chair. “I could not have been clearer during my last visit.”
Visit. Is that what the old bastard would call these meetings? This man had never been driven by familial devotion or regard, but rather for discussions on wealth and power. “Ah, yes,” Cedric said, reveling in the way his father’s eyebrow dipped. “The very important business of my securing a wife.” Important business his father could hold his breath, all the way to hell, and wait for.
“I’ll see you in hell before I’ll see you wed the Farendale chit.” If anythingcouldentice him, well, it would be that small triumph over the duke’s wishes.
With the depravity of his existence, he’d see him in hell, regardless.
Regardless, his father’s worries over Cedric’s dance with Genevieve Farendale were irrelevant. Although strangely enchanted by the guarded lady’s peculiar interests, Cedric had as much intention of marrying as joining the bloody clergy. That truth, however, did not prevent him from some very deliberate needling “Come, Father, she is a marquess’ daughter. Even you cannot fault the lady’s birthright.”
“She is a whore,” his father said bluntly and all amusement left Cedric, replaced with a red haze of fury that sent his hands curling reflexively on the arms of his chair. What he wouldn’t give to bloody the old bastard’s face.
He swung his legs to the floor refusing to allow the duke to needle him. All the while, a seething fury ran through him. “Other than your dictatorial efforts for the selection of my future bride, is there anything else that has brought you here?” he asked, maintaining a thin grasp on his wavering control. When was the last time he’d been roused to this unholy rage at anything his father said or did? And because of Lady Genevieve Farendale. How in blazes could he account for that?
“A fortnight.” The duke’s terse utterance cut across his confounded thoughts.
“To select a bride,” his father said with a triumphant smile on his hard lips. “If you fail to do so, I’ll see you cut off from your creditors and funds, until you do decide to cooperate.”
When Cedric had been a young man, he’d journeyed by ship to the Continent. Two days into his travels, a violent storm had ravaged the sea. In his fine quarters, Cedric had clung to the high-quality mattress, while his stomach in revolt, dipped and lurched. How very much this moment was to that long ago day.
“Nothing to say now?” his father waggled his eyebrows. “Where is the mocking grin and stinging wit?”
Cedric curled his hands reflexively upon the arms of his chair, his nails leaving crescent marks in the Italian leather. “You will not cut me off,” he said at last. The only thing the duke cared about more than his title, was the way in which the world saw that title. Any hint of weakness or shame to that beloved status would shatter the bastard in ways that no emotion or feeling could.
The tightening of his father’s mouth hinted at the truth to Cedric’s supposition. “Perhaps,” he said. “Perhaps not. But is that something you care to wager your security on?”
Yes, Cedric rather believed it was. He’d no interest in spreading the poisonous Falcot seed to some innocent miss, even if that innocent miss was desiring of nothing more than the title of duchess.
…I have no interest at all in the title of marchioness, duchess, or anything else…
“Get out,” he said curtly.
And surprisingly, his father stood. “You do not wish to wed, Cedric, and I understand that more than most. The last thing I wanted was to marry your fool romantic of a mother.” At the detached emotionality of that admission, a chill iced his spine. How very cold and callous the man was about the wife who’d given him hispreciousheir. “But we are not unalike,” his father said pragmatically.
A thousand denials sprung to his lips and he wanted to snap and hiss at the other man for seeing any part of Cedric in him. Instead, he remained motionless, immobilized by the long-known truth. Hewashis father’s son. He’d never put anyone’s interests or pleasures before his own, and lived for his own physical gratification. The same ugly running through the duke’s veins ran hot through his own. After all, in his mother turning Cedric fully over to her husband’s control when he’d been a mere boy, she had seen that truth herself. And that had been his mother, who’d dedicated her last days on earth to her other child, Clarisse. What did that say when one’s own mother saw her child as irredeemable at just eight?
His father tugged on his gloves. “I am pleased that you see logic,” the duke said, misinterpreting the reason for Cedric’s quiet. Without any hint of even false pleasantries, he left, closing the door with a decisive click behind him.
Cedric clenched and unclenched his hands as he fought for the restoration of his ordered thoughts and calm, and then with a furious string of curses, he surged to his feet so quickly, the legs of his leather chair scraped noisily along the floor.
He began to pace, a seething tension thrumming inside; a restless energy that threatened to consume him. He’d never been viewed as a person by either of his parents. His father had seen him as a ducal extension and, well, his mother had seen Cedric as an easy thread to snip off and turn over to her husband’s care. Now, his father would seek to control him in this way. Never, more had he hated himself than he did in this instance. Hated himself for having lived an indolent life, dependent on all that came from the title he was born to.
His gaze locked on the closed leather book on his desk. With a black curse, Cedric came to a jerky stop. He swiped it off the otherwise smooth mahogany surface and opened it. The smudged rendering in ink, marred from when he’d hastily hid his work from his father’s eyes, did little to conceal the sharp features and expressively sad eyes of the very woman his father had warned him away from.
Unnerved by the directness of her silent stare, Cedric yanked open his desk drawer and tossed the book inside. He needed to get bloody soused, find a whore; a hot, eager body who’d serve as a receptacle for his lust and frustration. Not necessarily in that order.
And so taking leave of his office, a short while later, seated at his private table at the back of Forbidden Pleasures, Cedric sipped from his glass of brandy. He passed a bored gaze over the unsavory club. The clink of coins hitting coins on gaming tables blended with the boisterous laughter of gentlemen and the whores who courted their favors.
Only the most dissolute lords and notorious scoundrels frequented the club and, as such, Cedric was far more comfortable with the company here than the polite, dull members of the peerage.
A sensuous woman with red curls caught his eye from across the club. In her frothy crimson gown that displayed her generous curves, she was a veritable feast he would have taken on any occasion. Perhaps on this very table.Take her. She is what you’ve come for.But her hair was a crimson shade and not the strawberry blonde of another. Christ. For some inexplicable reason, however, on this night, there was an ennui; as though he sat on the outside looking in at the wicked deeds being happily carried out by the base lords.
Powerful noblemen with experienced courtesans on their laps, and their hands buried up the skirts of those women. Whores who moved from one lord to the next, without a hint of compunction in their jaded faces. Restlessness surged through him and he took another long swallow.
For the first time in the course of his life, it had happened. He who’d fashioned himself as a rake and thrilled in the debauched life he lived in London, was…bored. And all because he’d met a lady who didn’t give a jot about his title or his reputation as an expert lover.
He gave his head a frustrated shake. Of course it made sense. His life moved in a monotonous rhythm. Day in and day out he would visit his clubs. He would lose himself in the arms of widow after widow. He would place obscene wagers; wagers which he more often than not, won. Every day folded over into a remarkably similar day. That was the logical explanation for this bothersome fascination with Lady Genevieve and her moss green eyes filled with rebuke.
“Now you visit your clubs,” the droll voice of Montfort brought his head quickly up. Without seeking permission, his friend yanked a wide backed chair out and plunked himself into it.
“Montfort.” Cedric shoved his half-empty bottle across the table and the other man easily grabbed it.
“You know with your attendance at that goddamn ball last evening, I lost a bloody fortune.” He motioned over the red-haired buxom beauty who’d been previously making eyes at Cedric. She sauntered over with a glass, poured a snifter full, and then promptly climbed onto the earl’s lap.
“Yes, you said as much. You should wager less.” The wry note to his words earned a snort from Montfort.
“First attending your father’s dull affairs, then waltzing at the bloody event, and now talking of giving up wagering?” A chuckle spilled past the other man’s lips. “What is next? Attending Lady Erroll’s dull dining affair this evening and selecting a bride from those assembled chits?” he asked. Running a hand up the woman’s skirt he rubbed the expanse of her cream white thigh. He paused and wagged his eyebrows. “Mayhap the Farendale, chit? Hmm?”
With the memory of his father’s threat resonating in his mind, a dull flush heated Cedric’s neck. His fingers twitched with the need to yank at his suddenly too-tight cravat. He’d rather dance through the fires of hell than bind himself to a single woman. “There are no worries there,” he said with a forced grin. Having been friends since Eton, Montfort well knew the vow Cedric had taken to never wed and propagate the bloody Falcot line. He cared even less for that ducal title than he did for his bastard of a father.
While Montfort busied himself with the whore on his lap, Cedric took another swallow of his drink. Another wave of restiveness ran through him. He’d vowed to never wed. He’d vowed to never spill his seed inside a woman and litter the world with children, legitimate or illegitimate, the way his father had. He had ensured that never occurred by always using French letters when in the throes of passion. The corrupt blood in his veins was a mark the world was assuredly better without, and it would bring Cedric the ultimate triumph to steal that power from his father. No, he took his pleasures with guarded caution and lived for his own physical gratification. But when the thrill of that sinful living dulled and left nothing but numbness in its place, what was there?
“You are quiet,” his friend put in casually, as he released the woman’s breasts from the low décolletage. The mounds tumbled forth on lewd display and Montfort swiftly palmed the magnificent orbs, earning a small moan for his attentions.
Cedric squirmed. Once he wouldn’t have blinked at the other man’s casual display with a luscious courtesan. He was growing stodgy in his older years. There was no other explaining his distaste. “Am I?” He knew he was. Montfort knew it. But they did not probe on matters that moved beyond whores, wagers, and spirits.
The earl planted a kiss atop each of the whore’s breasts and then shoved her from his lap. A small moue of displeasure formed on her lips, as she landed on her feet. “Perhaps later, sweet.” Softening his rejection, he swatted her on the backside, and gave a wink.
With a promise in her eyes, the woman adjusted the bodice of her gown and sauntered off, leaving Cedric and Montfort alone.
Finishing his drink, Cedric reached for the bottle.
“Never tell me thisisabout the Farendale chit.”
His hand jerked and he knocked the bottle over. He shot a hand out to steady the decanter but it tumbled over the edge of the table and shattered. He ignored the faintly curious looks cast his way. And because his friend was shockingly, uncomfortably too close to the mark, he said in hushed tones, “My father would see me wed. I’ve a fortnight to select a bride.” The way a man might settle on a broodmare.
The usual mocking glint in Montfort’s eyes receded, as the veneer he’d long adopted now cracked revealing a flash of the man under the cold sheen of ice. “He would not dare.” For even Montfort knew the Duke of Ravenscourt cared for the appearances about the title above all else.
He shrugged and looked out at the gaming hell, once more. “Mayhap.” But mayhap not. There was no saying what the duke would dare or not dare in the name of his title. After all, how many bastards had he denied to protect the wealth of the Ravenscourt fortune?
The earl drummed his fingertips in a grating rhythm and Cedric favored him with a frown. “What?” he asked curtly.
Montfort continued that infuriating tapping. “Mayhap the Farendale chit could prove useful to you, after all.”
Shooting a frantic glance about at the lords seated nearby, he bit out on a furious whisper. “What are you on about?”
His friend took a long swallow of his drink. “Why, I merely mean no one will dare wed that one,” he said, as he set his glass down. “She doesn’t have a hope of asking for more than an ancient lord in need of an heir. Why, in wedding you, it would be the perfect marriage of convenience.” As soon as the words left Montfort, he erupted into a bellowing laugh.
Through the man’s loud mirth that attracted curious looks, Cedric sat frozen. What the earl proposed was madness. The lady certainly desired, undoubtedly deserved, more than London’s most infamous rake, who’d give her a name and nothing more. But a thought trickled in of her hidden away in the hedge maze and in the library.
“Forgive me,” the earl said wiping tears of hilarity from his cheeks. “It was not my intention to make light of your situation. A little levity was called for.”
He jolted. “Of course.” Of course it had been a jest. But as they sat sipping their brandy, the niggling seed planted by Montfort rooted around Cedric’s mind. Bloody mad thought. The height of preposterous. He downed his drink and came to his feet. “If you’ll excuse me.”
The earl looked at him with surprise. “Where are you off to, man?”
“I’ve remembered I’ve a previous engagement for the evening.” Not allowing Montfort to pose any questions, Cedric turned on his heel and stalked out of the club.
Mayhap he was more than a bit mad.Chapter 10
Genevieve sat stiffly on the carriage bench beside Gillian; her body taut with tension over of the Countess of Erroll’s impending formal dinner party.
“This will be good,” Father boomed. “The sooner thetonsees you and the duke are civil and there is no resentment, then the sooner this can be past us.”
Us. When had it ever been us? Not when she’d been scuttled away to her grandfather’s estate, while the rest of her loyal family remained in London and in their country seat during the summers.
She tightened her mouth. “Oh, yes,” she said dryly. “This will be splendid.” What good could there come in being in the same room as her former betrothed other than putting her on display like a circus oddity? Nor were hers the sentiments of a broken-hearted woman. Her feelings for that cad had died a quick death following his treachery. On the days she did not hate herself for having foolishly believed herself in love with the Duke of Aumere, she hated him and his lying tongue that had seen her ruined.
Gillian laid her hand over Genevieve’s and gave a slight squeeze. She took comfort in that unspoken reassurance. For she was no longer alone. There was Gillian. And for two brief, but meaningful exchanges, there had been Cedric.
Bah, you foolish woman, building castles out of clouds.Her romantic whimsy had led to her ruin the first time, and yet…in just a handful of exchanges with the Marquess of St. Albans she’d shared far more meaningful discourse than anything she’d uttered with and to the Duke of Aumere, all those years ago.
“Yes, yes, Lord Ellsworth is indeed correct,” Mother said pulling her to the moment. “And of course there is the Duchess of Aumere. Why, everyone is, no doubt, anticipating that exchange, as well.”
Her sister shot her a sideways look and Genevieve gave her a reassuring smile. Given her relationship with the duke, of course most would expect there to be resentment for the woman who’d secured that gentleman’s hand. Genevieve leaned close and whispered into her sister’s ear. “I consider myself fortunate that it was her, and not me, forever bound to that man.”
“Oh, undoubtedly,” Gillian returned on an equally hushed whisper. “She saved you from marrying where your heart is not engaged and now you are free to find your true love.”
At the hopeful naïveté, Genevieve’s chest tightened. How romantic Gillian was; believing in good, honorable gentleman and forever loves. And though those might, indeed, be realities for un-whispered about fey beauties like her sister, no good, honorable gentleman cared to have a wife whose name was muddied more than the London streets.
“What are you two whispering about?” their father barked.
Forever incapable of artifice, Gillian flushed, opening and closing her mouth several times.
“We are speaking about how lovely tonight will be,” Genevieve easily put in for them. “You are, indeed, correct. It will be wonderful to have this meeting concluded.”
She was saved from answering any further questions as the carriage rolled up to the Countess of Erroll’s white stucco townhouse, awash in candlelight. A driver pulled the door open and Father angled his sizeable frame through the entrance. The liveried driver handed the marchioness down and then held his gloved palm out to Gillian.
Her younger sister paused. “I would have you know that you are not alone,” she said fervently. “You have me tonight.”
Emotion wadded in her throat. “Thank you.”
Gillian looked affronted. “Why, do not thank me. We are sistersandfriends.” She waggled her eyebrows. “And if you need me to quite accidentally drop my white soup on him, then I am happy to oblige.”
A laugh spilled past Genevieve’s lips and the servant stuck his head inside the carriage. With a cheerful thanks, her younger sister accepted the young man’s assistance.
Drawing in a deep breath, with a fortitude that came from her sister’s pledge of support, Genevieve followed suit. As her gray skirts settled about her ankles, she looked up at the impressive Mayfair townhouse. Focusing on the soft tread of her footsteps, she fixed her gaze forward, thinking of Kent in the summer, thinking of Turner’s sailors at sea, thinking of Cedric and their talk at Hyde Park.
Would he be here? As a powerful future duke, even with his reputation as rake, his attendance would surely be sought at any event. As she stepped inside and turned her cloak over to a waiting footman, a breathless anticipation filled her. Not for the impending meeting with her former betrothed, but another; a stranger she’d freely spoken to on intimate matters she’d not shared with anyone before.
Following after the butler, they were led through the halls of the impressive labyrinth of a home belonging to her mother’s closest friend. As they approached the parlor, the noisy chatter of assembled guests filtered through the open door.
Her ears attuned for a low, smooth baritone of one, and that blessed distraction kept her from thinking of the fact that the moment she entered the room, she would be the center of scrutiny and discussion. Her palms grew moist, as her earlier resolve faltered.Coward.
“You are no coward,” Gillian said softly.
She started. Had she spoken aloud? It really was a bothersome tendency she’d adopted alone in the country, painting and gardening most of her days.
A twinkle lit her sister’s pretty green eyes. “You said nothing. But remember, I’m your sister. I’ve always known what you were thinking.”
As they made to enter the room, their mother looked back.Pretty faces,she mouthed. When she’d returned her attention forward, Genevieve touched the tip of her tongue to her nose, earning a laugh from her sister.
And a prompt scowl from their mother.
“The Marquess and Marchioness of Ellsworth, and Ladies Farendale.”
And even as she’d been expecting it, the jarring halt to the earlier revelry sent heat up her neck and burned her face. The moment ticked on with infinite slowness and angling her shoulders slightly, she kept her gaze at the tops of the guests who filled Lady Erroll’s parlor. A person needn’t be looking at people to feel their states and, in this case, the approximately twenty or so stares.
Genevieve’s skin pricked under their focus and she concentrated on drawing steady, even breaths. Her toes twitched with the urge to flee. To run from this room and continue running away from London to a place where happiness existed for those whispered about ladies, condemned by Society for crimes they’d not committed.
Then time resumed, in the form of whisperings and the intermittent laugh.
Her sister smiled brightly. “See, that was not so awful,” she said with her patent cheer. She slid her arm through Genevieve’s and patted her hand.
“Hardly,” she said with a wry grin. From across the room, her gaze caught Francesca Cornworthy. Seated on the pink upholstered sofa, the young woman peered around the room with bored eyes when their stares collided. Her face lit up and she gave an eager wave.
The sisters looked as one to their mother who stood a short distance away, conversing with Lady Erroll’s dandified son. Not Gillian and Genevieve. Rather, just Gillian. The only daughter their parents had hopes of making a respectable match.
Decision warred on her sister’s face. Genevieve had no doubt of her sister’s loyalty and friendship that Gillian would, in fact, do something as outrageous as ignore their mother’s public request. She, however, could not let Gillian brave the wrath of their parents’ for her. “Go,” Genevieve urged. “I see a friend.”
Her sister started. “A friend, you say?” Then she captured Genevieve’s hands. “Oh, truly?” She spoke with the same excited awe as if she’d declared she had a formal suitor.
“Miss Francesca Cornworthy,” she said, motioning faintly to the forgotten woman in the corner.
“I must meet her,” Gillian said excitedly.
“Gillian,” their mother said, her tone more insistent.
“Go,” Genevieve said again. “Mother has a suitor.”
Her sister followed her stare to the young Earl of Erroll. The candlelight shone on the thick wax in his Byronic curls. His interested and just a slightly inappropriate gaze remained on Gillian.
Her sister sighed. “Very well.” With slow steps, that only earned a deeper frown from their parents, Gillian made her way to the earl.
And as utterly miserable as it was being cast out by Society, there was an unexpected freeness that came in being spared from their parents’ scheming machinations to see her wed. They’d quite happily and eagerly orchestrated her meeting with the Duke of Aumere all those years ago and, as such, she could do without another carefully selected gentleman. She cast a quick look back to where her innocent sister now conversed with the leering gentleman. A frown turned Genevieve’s lips. Her parents would see their youngest daughter with another heartless, dishonorable cad, all to secure a title and respectability for her. Nay, it was about more than respectability for Gillian. It was about a restored sense of honor to the marquess and marchioness.
If she ever had children, which she assuredly would not because of the whole lack of suitor and husband business, then she would put that child first. She’d never impose her will or Society’s expectations, but rather love and nurture in ways her own parents had remarkably failed.
Genevieve came to a stop before Francesca, who hopped up from her seat.
“Oh, I am so happy to see you,” the woman exclaimed before she could say anything.
“And I you.” That warm greeting was really the greatest kindness Genevieve had known since she’d entered Lady Erroll’s.
An older, reed thin gentleman with a shock of white hair, climbed more slowly up, and Genevieve went still. The hazel eyes marked him as the Viscount Dailey. “Lady Genevieve,” he greeted, his voice booming. “A pleasure, indeed. Francesca has told me so very much about you.” He patted his daughter’s hand. “I will allow you ladies to speak. No need to have a bothersome papa underfoot.”
“You are never a bother,” Francesca said adamantly and leaning up on tiptoe, kissed his cheek in an affectionate display that only earned censorious stares.
She took in the kindness sparkling in his eyes and the sincere smile on his lips. How was it possible there was this warmth between a parent and child? Envy tugged at her heart, witnessing the devotion of a gentleman who’d indulge even a scandalous friendship for his daughter, if she so wished.
A young woman seated on the chair across from Francesca promptly stood and sailed off in a huff. At that cut-direct, Genevieve’s neck went hot. “I am so happy,” and relieved, “you are here,” she confided. For as miserable as London had been these now sixteen days, there had been kindness from the lovely woman…
And Cedric. There had also been an apology and a meaningful talk of art from that unlikeliest of figures.
Francesca slipped her arm through Genevieve’s. “Come, let us walk. You must tell me about that skill you possess.” Less than discreetly, she motioned to the departing wallflower. “For five years I’ve endured so much miserable company and, yet, you have this ease of just,” she snapped her fingers once, “ridding yourself of them.”
A startled laugh escaped Genevieve, earning reproachful stares from the surrounding guests.
A companionable silence fell between them, as they walked slowly along the perimeter of the room. Unbidden, she sought a taller, golden-haired gentleman who knew of Friedrich and Turner out amidst the guests.
“He does not come to these affairs.”
She cast a startled glance at her partner in misery.
Francesca leaned close and dropped her voice to a faint whisper. “Your waltzing partner.”
Genevieve shot her gaze about to determine whether anyone had overheard. Alas, who would have attention for two wallflowers; even the scandalous Farendale one. “I don’t—”
The young woman snorted. “I saw tapping toes, Genevieve,” she reminded her.
Promptly closing her mouth, Genevieve let her false protest wither.
They looked to the front of the room as a servant came to announce dinner. “I do hope you at least have a pleasant guest who doesn’t slurp his soup and chat about his hounds,” Francesca whispered. She sighed. With the station difference between them, she’d never be graced with the young woman as a dining partner. Which begged the question—
“Lady Genevieve, I have learned I have the honor of partnering you for dinner.”
A chill ran along her spine as that smooth, polished voice sounded beyond her shoulder. No. Surely her mother’s friend would at the very least spare her this humiliation and not use her as an oddity on display. Then what was the basis of those two matrons’ friendship? She stiffened and on numb legs, turned.
He was softer around the middle, with slightly fuller cheeks, but the chestnut hair that hung to his shoulders marked him the same. The same man who’d betrayed her and ruined her, and who even now stood smiling before her. As though they were friends. As though he’d not shattered her world with the lies on his lips.
Aware of Francesca staring between them and the flash of concern that lit her eyes, Genevieve’s fingers curled into reflexive balls. For an instant, she thought to flee. This was a world she wanted no part of, so why subject herself to this public humiliation? But she would be damned if she slunk off like a coward in the night for his treachery. “Y-Your Grace,” she greeted and sank into a curtsy. God, how she despised the faint tremor to that word.
“May I present my wife, Her Grace, Duchess of Aumere?”
Was he mad?
An icy revulsion seeped from the flawless golden beauty’s blue eyes. “How do you do, Lady Genevieve?” By the loathing that coated her words, she’d gladly see Genevieve in hell.
Francesca gave her a slight nudge, startling her into movement. She dropped a curtsy. “Your Grace, the pleasure is mine,” she lied.
The duke proffered his arm and, for a sliver of a moment, Genevieve considered leaving him as he was and curtly rejecting that offering. Theton, however, would erroneously view that as testament for resentment and envy. She slid her fingertips onto his elbow and allowed him to escort her to the dining room, in absolute stoic silence.
Her sister on the arm of Lord Erroll, shot a quick, concerned look over her shoulder.
“You look as beautiful as you always did, Genevieve,” His Grace said, the words so faintly spoken, she strained to hear.
She flexed her jaw. Did the man truly speak of her beauty with all of London’s most respectable guests watching on?
“Nothing to say, sweetheart?”
“I am not your sweetheart,” she bit out tightly.
They filed into the dining room and as they found their respective seats, their chairs were pulled out. With thanks to the young servant, Genevieve slid into the chair and promptly ignored the duke. Society, her parents, the duke, they could all go hang. She’d not be baited and taunted by this man.
The first course of the customary white soup was set before the assembled guests. Even as her stomach churned from being thrust beside the duke, as long as she was eating, she’d be spared from speaking. Picking up her spoon, Genevieve raised a spoonful to her mouth.
“I never believed you would be so ruined, Genevieve. You must believe that.”
She choked on her bite and setting the silverware down with a noisy clatter, she grabbed her water and took a swallow. “Are you mad?” she seethed. With those words, he revealed himself to be either a demmed fool or a bloody arrogant bastard. Then, he was no doubt both. “Did you think I would just be a little ruined?” All ruin was the same. In a Society where a lady’s virtue and familial connections mattered above all else, there was no recovering from a blight upon, either.
From across the table, her sister caught her eye and gave her a look of support, and pleading which served to ground her.
“This is hardly the place to discuss such a matter, Your Grace,” she said, priding herself on the smooth, even deliverance of those words, when she wanted nothing more than to hurl the contents of her glass in his arrogant face.
“Then where can we speak?” he asked with an urgency in his question.
“In hell on a Sunday,” she said with a forced smile, grateful when the gentleman on her opposite side paid her an obligatory remark that required answering.
As she sat through the infernal affair, she counted the passing seconds, as they rolled into minutes. Each moment signaled a point closer to the end of this display and through it, resentment built inside. Not for this heartless cad beside her, but for the parents who’d subject her to this gross humiliation. All to what end? To appease the gossips?
A slight clamor at the front of the room provided a brief diversion and she looked absently as the butler appeared with an unpunctual guest, who no doubt thought the world was his…
Her breath caught. Attired in immaculate black breeches and an equally midnight coat, the snowy white cravat, loosely folded, hinted at a gentleman who didn’t give a jot about time or whether that measurement stopped altogether. Cedric did a quick sweep of the room, before his gaze ultimately landed on her. The heat of his eyes threatened to bore through her. Why was he here? Why, when by Francesca’s own admission he was a man to studiously avoid polite affairs?
“Lord St. Albans,” Lady Erroll called out eagerly. “You are late, my boy.”
“Forgive me, madam,” he returned with his usual charming half-grin. “I was recently given a valuable lesson on punctuality, so you must forgive me.” He directed those words to Genevieve.
“It seems you might benefit from another,” she said, chortling at her own jest, while the other guests laughed about her.
“Indeed, madam.” He slid his gaze briefly to Genevieve once more. “It is a lesson I’d very much welcome, too.”
Her skin burned hot and not at his slight teasing but rather the remembered feel of his hands on her person, the masculine scent of him.
Their hostess thumped the table. “Prepare a spot at the head for Lord St. Albans,” she instructed a footman. “Not every day I have a dukeanda future duke at my table.” She chortled. Within moments, a setting had been laid, and a servant showed him to his respective seat, on a slight diagonal from where Genevieve sat…beside, Gillian and an unfamiliar lady.
Ever charming as only a rake could be, he politely engaged the young woman beside him. An unwelcome, unwanted, and decidedly unpleasant sentiment ripped through Genevieve. Something that felt very nearly like jealousy, and…an unfair anger that he should be so casual and calm while she’d been plopped alongside her bloody former betrothed.
Cedric looked her way and her cheeks warmed at being caught studying him. As indecent as it was to hold his eyes from across the table, his powerful stare locked with hers. Did he remember their kiss even now? Was he thinking of their talks of art and…? He inclined his head in a polite, perfunctory manner and then with an infuriating calm, turned his attention to the guest at his opposite side. Gillian.
An ugly jealousy unfurled within her. It tightened the muscles of her stomach and curled her toes until her feet ached, as the pair so easily conversed. For gentlemen like the Marquess of St. Albans assuredly did not wed…until they had to and when they did, they invariably married those bright-eyed, optimistic ladies like her ethereal sister and not said lady’s long in the tooth, too pale sister with a fiery scandal to match her strawberry tresses.
Genevieve had convinced herself all these years that she was content with the practical life devoid of emotional connections. She’d convinced herself that she’d become a practical, logical, sensible woman; a woman well past the bloom of her first blush, content to sketch and pour over her books of art. Only to be proven a liar before the same Society who’d cast her out.
She wanted so much more.
Things she would never have. A family, an art room of her own, a garden with which to tend…
“I want you still.”
A dull humming filled her ears and she slowly turned her head. “I beg your pardon.” Surely she’d imagined the duke’s words. Surely he was not so very brazen, so bloody arrogant that he’d—
“My circumstances were dire and your finances were not enough.” The duke spoke with the same boredom he might in discussing the weather. She sat numb. That is why he’d jilted her? For a fatter purse? Not for anything beyond the material. He’d ruined her life because of his craving andneedfor wealth. She curled her fingers tight about her spoon to still their tremble, all the while wanting to rake her nails over his face.
“I never stopped wanting you, Genevieve.” He spoke the way he might praise a worthy mount and she gritted her teeth. The duke leaned close. “And there is no reason we cannot still be together,” he whispered and slid his hand under the table.
She froze as with his large, gloved hand he squeezed her thigh ringing an outraged gasp from her lips. The spoon slipped from her fingers, clattering noisily upon the rim of the porcelain bowl. At the peculiar looks thrown her way, she swiftly smoothed her features. It wouldn’t do to be discovered with the venerable Duke of Aumere with his hand caressing her leg. Of course, she’d be the one to blame for encouraging him so. Fighting to quell the fury sucking at her rational thoughts, she discreetly placed her hand on her lap and made to move His Grace’s fingers, but he retained his hold.
“It could be so wonderful between us, sweetheart.” His stale, wine-scented breath slapped her cheek.
“I’ve instructed you once. Do not call me sweetheart” With unsteady fingers, she grabbed her glass. Water droplets splashed over the crystal rim. “Remove your hand, Your Grace,” she said using her goblet to shield her lips.
He responded by moving his hand higher, sliding his fingers between the juncture of her thighs, bunching the fabric in a noisy manner. She froze as a thick curtain of rage descended over her vision, momentary blinding. How dare he disparage her name with his lies and now sully her with his indecent touch? Suddenly, the hatred she’d carried for him and the cold world in which they dwelled snapped. With a hiss, Genevieve hurled the contents of her glass in his face, gleefully relishing the way he choked and sputtered.
Gasps went up about the table. The sound faintly dulled by the rasp of her own frantic breathing.
Those loose chestnut strands, hung limp over the duke’s brow, as His Grace sat immobile, water dripping from his face.
Reality pulled back the earlier rage and hatred, leaving in its place, a slow-building horror. The collection of guests, Genevieve included, watched in stupefied shock as the duke dabbed at his face with the crisp fabric of his dining napkin and then as one, the entire table looked to her.
Francesca with pride and encouragement.
Gillian with her usual gentle concern.
Her gaze collided briefly with Cedric’s thickly hooded lashes and unable to meet his stare, she fixed on but two pairs of enraged eyes. A mottled flush marred her parents’ equally fleshy cheeks. Wordlessly, she shoved back her chair, rose to her feet, and then walked from the room with her head held high.
Her father’s warning to “Attract No Notice” blared in her mind as she made her undignified march away.Chapter 11
Not for the first time, in the course of the same week Cedric found himself remarkably…awake before the noon hour. And more remarkably—alert.
Seated at the breakfast table with his steaming black coffee at hand and his plate untouched, Cedric scanned the front ofThe Times.
In another shameful scandal, Lady GF, the elder amidst Lady Erroll’s esteemed guests gathered to dine, dumped her bowl of white soup on the Duke of A’s lap. The lady’s actions speak to her fury at having been denied the distinguished title of Duchess.
It is also said…
Cedric tossed the paper down beside him, where it landed with a fluttery thump. The whole of thetonhad even less sense than he’d credited them over the years, which was saying a good deal. The closest to truth that had existed on the page was that white soup had, in fact, been served. Beyond that, however, the sheets contained nothing more than fabricated truths, manipulated by the lords and ladies who’d been in attendance, and churned out by a paper to spread through respectable households.
He grabbed his coffee and blew on the steaming brew. Though, in his estimation, the lady’s magnificent show with her glass of water had been too splendid for the papers to fail to properly report the detail. Before humiliation had burned her cheeks, there had been fire. It had lit her eyes ablaze and spoke of the passion he’d already tasted in her kiss.
What had precipitated that display? Did Genevieve, in fact, harbor sentiments for that fop, Aumere? He frowned over the top of his glass. Surely the thoughtful, spirited creature he’d met in the park had more sense to have any affection for one such as Aumere?
His mouth tightened reflexively and he forced his lips to relax. It hardly mattered whether the lady wanted to tup Aumere or Prinny himself, oranygentleman. Whatdid,however, matter was that very public display and her rushed departure…and his own father’s recent threats.
For with the sole reason he’d accepted an invitation to Erroll’s deucedly dull affair gone, and a scandal left in her wake, Cedric had sat, grinning at the appropriate moments and adding a charming repartee as needed. All the while, his mind had worked through the implications of Genevieve’s actions…and what that could, nay, would mean for him. After years of swearing to never wed and propagate the Falcot line, his hand had been suitably forced. Really, forced through his own recklessness these years with funds left him by his mother. Where the prospect of wedding a proper, demure lady caused his palms to dampen and his gut to churn, following Genevieve’s breathtaking display, the earlier seed planted by Montfort had grown. And following his departure of that infernal-after-she’d-left affair, the seed had continued to grow.
He required a wife. However, he’d little interest in a proper miss who was expecting babes and a bucolic tableau of marital affection and pretend bliss. What Cedric required was…a wife. Nothing more. Nothing less. What woman, however, would give up the dream of a family and be content with a rake for a husband, living a life where they each carried on their own, very separate existences. Until just this week, he’d have said such a paragon did not exist.
Then Lady Genevieve had stolen into his father’s library.
Now he knew that paragon was, indeed, real. A slow grin formed on his lips and he took a long swallow of his drink. Setting his glass down hard beside him, he grabbed the scandal sheet once more. Working his gaze over the page, he quickly found her name; bold and dark and so very damning.
With two scandals now tied to the lady’s name, not a single, respectable gentleman would offer Genevieve Farendale his name. Fortunately for the lady, the last thing he wanted, desired, or needed was respectability.
But what about what Genevieve desires?
A frown drove away his smile. Beyond the physical gratification he was sure each woman who warmed his bed knew in his arms, he’d never been one to think of a lady’s desires beyond that. Those creatures had all been the same. They craved wealth and title and expensive baubles.
His gaze remained trained on Genevieve’s name. For in just a handful of meetings, the lady had proven herself remarkably unlike all others. From the skirts she wore, to her loathing for those lofty titles, and her desire for solitary time in the garden of Hyde Park, she did not fit with what he knew of ladies of theton. Yet, everyone wanted something. What did she want? And more, how difficult would it be to convince the lady who’d been shunned and shamed by Society that she could find freedom from all that censure?
Loathe the title as she might for the perceived attention it would bring, as a future duchess, she could move freely, just for the rank afforded her.
Footsteps sounded in the hall and he looked up expectantly at his butler in the entrance.
“Your mount has been readied, my lord.”
He inclined his head in acknowledgement and as the other man turned on his heel, Cedric remained rooted to his chair. For despite his efforts to convince himself of the logic in offering for a lady who had very few options in the marriage market, and his own need of a bride, his insides twisted in vicious knots at the prospect of forever binding himself to a single person. His parents’ union had been a publically miserable one and, given his own similarities to his sire, he could never be a devoted, respectable husband.
But mayhap, given Genevieve’s circumstances, that would not matter to the lady. Mayhap, if they both entered into the match with reason and logic, recognizing it as a business arrangement and nothing more, then the misery he’d witnessed in his own mother before she’d left him to her husband’s efforts would be avoided altogether.
Cedric tapped the rim of his nearly empty glass, distractedly. If he went into the union with the terms clearly laid out, spelled in such a way that the match was mutually beneficial to the both of them, then there would be no worry over entangled hearts or future babes or…well, anything that surely mattered to most women. All matters he wanted no part of. His lips pulled in a grimace.
Except, laying it out in a cold, perfunctory manner, he was forced to recognize that what he would offer to Genevieve Farendale was hardly the romantic match craved by whimsical chits. And make no doubt, for the lady’s clearheaded words and logic in his presence, one who stole into the gardens of Hyde Park and sketched in the privacy of her own company was possessed of a whimsical fancy.
Even with that, she was still the logical choice. They got on well in one another’s company; like friends, if there was ever such a thing as a gentleman forming a friendship with a young lady. She had her heart broken before and no doubt wished to avoid that likelihood again, at all costs. And, of course, the very obvious fact being they both required a spouse.
Fueled by that, Cedric finished his nearly cool coffee and set the glass down hard. He shoved back his chair and before he proceeded to create a list of all the folly in his intentions for the day, he started for the door. As he strode through the crimson-carpeted halls, he took in the scandalous portraits hanging on the walls and the dark, heavy furniture best suiting a bachelor’s residence. The possibility of sharing these rooms with a young lady sent terror churning in his belly.
It will be nothing more than a business arrangement…a convenient arrangement made only sweeter by the desire raging between them.
And that was, of course, assuming the lady said yes. Given Genevieve’s wariness around him and her own past, she was wiser than most women and knew better than to wed a rake. Of course, the lady surely knew by now he could show her more pleasure than she’d ever known her body capable of.
Cedric reached the foyer and accepted the cloak from his waiting butler and then his hat. As Avis hurried over and pulled the door open, Cedric stalled. The moment he stepped through that front door and inside the Marquess of Ellsworth’s townhouse, he’d be abandoning a lifelong pledge he’d taken to thwart his father’s wishes for him.Not truly, a voice reassured at the back of his head. There would still never be that coveted heir and a spare to secure the line. Instead, it would carry on through a distant relative his father disapproved of. Fueled by that assurance, Cedric jammed his black Oxonian on his head, and before his courage deserted him, strode over to the front door and stepped outside.
Having convinced himself of this madness, all that remained was bringing Genevieve Farendale around to his way of thinking.Chapter 12
Seated on the floor of the nursery room with her sketchpad on her lap Genevieve let her fingers fly over the page. With each slash and stroke of the charcoal, the frustration and rage and restlessness rose to the surface.
Her frantic movements sent a curl tumbling over her brow and she blew it back, not pausing to brush it back. All of them. Her loathsome, former betrothed, who’d so disrespect her. Her father who would hold her to blame. Her mother who would let him hold her to blame. Every last one of them, along with Lady Erroll and her guests could go to the devil.
The charcoal scratched noisily upon the page, as the half-grinning gentleman’s face materialized upon the sheet, revealing the charming, roguish, and, importantly, distracting Cedric Falcot, Marquess of St. Albans.
She bent her head, concentrating on the thick strands of his tousled hair. She had always loved charcoal and, in this moment, hated it for its failure to capture the thickened golden hue of sunshine and barley fields. At last, Genevieve paused and assessed the partially completed sketch of the gentleman as he’d been last evening. Seated beside her sister. He’d been the only guest at Lady Erroll’s who’d not had horror or glee stamped on his face. Instead, there had been that inscrutable expression; an almost nonchalant air of a person so thoroughly bored by it all. Society. The gossip. The falsities. And there was something so very riveting, so captivating, in that. For in a moment of another public shame, there had been someone who’d not looked at her with pity or scorn.
A faint click cut into her musings and she glanced up suddenly.
Gillian closed the door. Unlike all the previous times since Genevieve’s return when she hovered uncertainly, this time she closed the door without request. “I thought I might find you here.”
Yes, because even for the four years of age separation between them, they’d once been the best of friends. Hadn’t her younger sister found her here before all others on the night of her wedding? With an absolute want for words, she said, “Hello, Gillian.” For what else was there to talk about?
Her sister strolled forward and in one effortless move, sank to the floor in a flurry of white skirts. They settled about her, as she dragged her legs close to her chest in a way that would have sent their mother into a fit of vapors. “Father has…” Her words trailed off and, belatedly, Genevieve followed her gaze downward.
Heat streaked across her cheeks as she quickly snapped the damning sketchpad closed. As much as she loved Gillian and had only called her friend, there was something too intimate, too personal, in sharing her unwitting fascination with the Marquess of St. Albans.
Thankfully, her sister continued and let the matter go unsaid. “Father sent your maid looking for you.”
She sighed. “Of course he did.” Just as she’d been unable to hide forever all those years ago, now was no exception. Ultimately she was located, summoned, and brought before her father—the arbiter and executioner of her fate.
Gillian rubbed her chin back and forth over her ruffled skirts. “Do you care to talk about it?” she asked tentatively.
Genevieve stilled, horribly motionless. Exposed by her sister’s discovery and then…
“I’ve no doubt he deserved it,” her sister continued. “You’d never have thrown your water in his face unless he’d gravely insulted you.”
As the meaning of her words sank in, she blinked. Of course with the flurry of whispers following her ignominious departure and her family’s slightly delayed retreat from Lady Erroll’s, the real matter thatshouldcommand Genevieve’s attention were the implications of her behavior last evening. And yet, it wasn’t. Instead, she was distracted by a rake who’d witnessed that humiliation. What had Cedric, a man so coolly elegant and in possession of his every emotion, thought of such a display? She gave her head a disgusted shake.
“Did he?” her sister asked, pulling her back to the moment. “Deserve it, that is.”
She tightened her mouth. “He most assuredly did.” Genevieve curled her fingers hard about the leather book in her hands. Her nails left crescent marks on the soft leather. “Father will never see it that way.” She was unable to keep the bitterness from tingeing her words. Her parents had as much faith in her virtue and honor as the rest of Society.
“No he won’t,” her sister said quietly. “He wants us to make a match.”
Both their parents did. Perhaps with an equal intensity.
She furrowed her brow, staring with concern at Gillian. Would her younger sister, with her desire to please all, compromise her own happiness? Surely with her romantic spirit, she’d not allow their father to so influence her. “Youwill make a match,” Genevieve said and claiming her sister’s hand, she gave her fingers a slight squeeze. She, on the other hand, would not. Ever. One scandal could mayhap be forgiven by an old reprobate in desperate need of a bride…such as Father’s friend, Lord Tremaine, but never two scandals. She steeled her jaw. She’d see her father in hell before she allowed him to bind her to that ancient lord.
Her sister’s face pulled. “I do not want just any gentleman.” Which their parents had, by the few events Genevieve attended the past fortnight, diligently thrust in their youngest daughter’s way. “Nor am I concerned about my marital state.” A slight, reproachful frown formed on Gillian’s usually smiling lips. “I am here because…” She darted her gaze about and then scooted closer. “I overheard Father whispering to Mother.”
Genevieve’s heart skipped a beat. “They are sending me away,” she breathed. Where that thought had once roused terror and agony, now a giddy lightness filled her chest; a desperate hungering to put this place behind her and carve out a quiet, albeit lonely, existence for herself in the country. There would be no caring husband and no loving, chubby-cheeked babes. A vise squeezed about her heart.
“Sending you away?” Her sister cocked her head as though that very thing hadn’t been done five years earlier. “No. They are talking about you marrying.”
She fanned the pages of her sketchpad. “Do you mean they are talking about me not ever marrying?” What gentleman would want a perfectly scandalous lady, nearly on the shelf, for his wife? Feeling Gillian’s gaze trained on her face, she made herself go still. And her uncooperative heart again faltered. “What is it?”
“Father wishes you to wed Lord Tremaine.”
Some of the tension eased from Genevieve’s shoulders and she leaned over to pat her sister’s fingers. “I know.”
The other-worldly, beautiful young woman opposite her shot her eyebrows to her hairline. “You know?” Incredulity underscored those two words. “And you are not horrified.”
“Father shared his intentions when I arrived in London.” She’d allowed herself to forget the old widower would be coming to town to size her up; had allowed herself to be distracted from the possibility of even seeing him. Now it all mattered not. For the horror to dog her since she’d fled Lady Erroll’s, a little thrill of triumph increased her heart’s beating.
Gillian searched Genevieve’s face. “And you did not tell me?”
At the wounded glimmer in Gillian’s expressive eyes, guilt swiftly doused all that previous, unholy enjoyment. “Oh, Gillian,” she said softly.
“I am your sister and you act as though I am a stranger,” she said faintly, accusatory. “And I know it is wrong and petty of me to speak of our relationship even now, but I wish to be your friend. I hate seeing you alone and you are so determined to be alone.”
She started. Since her return, she’d mourned the loss of her friendship with Gillian and lamented the loss of her brighter, more cheerful, self. Was her solitary state something she’d imposed upon herself as a means of protection? “You are right,” she said quietly and surprise lit her sister’s face. She hugged her sketchpad close, finding comfort in its solid, reassuring presence. It had been there when not even her family had. “I have spent so many years alone, Gillian,” she said, needing her sister to understand. “Grandfather—”
“Was cold and miserable?”
“No,” she said with an automaticity born of truth. That was how Society saw the old Earl of Hawkridge. That was how even Genevieve herself had. Those opinions had been fabricated by a girl’s fears of the austere, stately earl. “Grandfather has a clever wit and a dry humor,” she said, defending the man because it was important Gillian knew that, of their miserable family, Grandfather never was, nor ever had been, the problem member. “He is old, though.” She could not keep the sadness from creeping in. “He spends much of his days resting or sleeping. But when I was there, he was more a friend to me.” Unable to meet the other woman’s probing stare, Genevieve dropped her gaze to her knees. “But I no longer know how to be around company.”
“Bah, you were always cheerful and witty.”
Her sister’s unintended slight, earned a sharp bark of laughter. Goodness how she’d missed her raw honesty and innocent sincerity. But then her mirth died. “I will try to be more a friend to you.” To go back to the way they’d been when they were sisters, crafting ways to drive their parents mad.
Gillian narrowed her eyes. “And you’ll not keep secrets from me?”
She opened her mouth, but then followed the pointed stare to the book clenched in her fingers. Cedric. “There are no secrets.”I am a liar. There was a kiss that seared my soul and burns on my mouth even still.But there would never be anything more. Rakes did not rush to take brides and certainly not ruined ones. Not that Genevieve wished to be his bride. Except…what would it be like wed to a man such as Cedric? Her parents’ union had been coolly formal, with barely a smile between the couple and certainly never laughter. Marriage to Cedric would, no doubt, be thrilling and filled with passion. Butterflies danced wildly in her belly at the forbidden prospect.
“I daresay I would rather see you wed to a charming gentleman like the Marquess of St. Albans than Lord Tremaine,” her sister said jerking her back from such fanciful and, more, dangerous musings.
If Genevieve was of the marrying sort, she would most assuredly choose Cedric over an old widower, trying to beget heirs on her like a broodmare. With a man such as Cedric as her husband, there would at least exist laughter and desire in a marriage. A thrill fluttered in her belly. “Yes, well, neither is truly an option.” There were none.
A knock sounded at the door and, as one, they looked to the front.
Delores peeked her head inside. Light streamed into the nursery. “Lady Genny?” Her gaze landed on the sisters stuck in the corner. “Oh, there you are, miss.” A look of pity flashed on her face.
The time had come.
“His Lordship has requested your presence in his office.”
Even as she’d been expecting it, her stomach dipped. Mustering a smile for her sister’s benefit, she shoved to her feet. “Delores,” she said as she walked over and gave her sketchpad to the young maid. “Will you deliver this to my rooms?” The young maid nodded and then rushed off.
Genevieve stared after her a moment. It had been inevitable. Of course, all great shows of disobedience were met with a stern lecture. This, however, was no mere disobedience. This was another great scandal when she’d been so thoroughly warned. The floorboards groaned, indicating her sister had moved, and she cast a look sideways to Gillian.
“Perhaps if you speak to him,” Gillian said hopefully, with every word demonstrating the extent of her innocence. “If you explain how His Grace offended you, then he’ll be understanding.”
Many words had been leveled at the Marquess of Ellsworth: pompous, arrogant, respectable. Among them, however, understanding had never been one of them.
“I will speak to him,” she promised.
Her younger sister held out her elbow. “Would you like me to accompany you?”
“No,” she said, gentling that refusal with another smile. “I’ll visit after my meeting. I promise,” she added, when Gillian still hesitated. The last place she’d have the innocent, still-hopeful young woman was outside Father’s office while he delivered a dressing down like she was a recalcitrant child. She sank her teeth into her lower lip…or worse, a harlot who’d visited shame upon the family once more.
Without the benefit of her sister’s unwavering support, Genevieve made her way through the corridors. This moment was remarkably like another. And mayhap, if she were fortunate, like that long ago night, she’d be sent away.
But then what?a silent voice needled. Did she truly wish to be a relative forever dependent upon the charity of her family?
A short while later, she found herself seated at the foot of her father’s desk while he scribbled away at those very important ledgers that commanded more attention than his daughter ever had.Scratch. Scratch. Scratch. No, the only notice he’d paid her had been when she’d brought shame to his name and title.Scratch. Scratch. Scratch.And who she might wed. Why, when the then recent Duke of Aumere had set his cap upon her for that too-brief a time, she’d brought pride. That fleeting emotion had been quickly replaced with his furious disdain. All the old annoyances boiled to the surface and threatened to spill over. She fisted her hands on her lap. “You wished to see me,” she said tightly.
His hand slid and left a sloppy, inky trail from the jerkiness of that movement. She took a perverse delight in unsettling him. Prepared for his blustery show of disapproval, she was taken aback as he dropped his pen and reclined in his seat. He wiped a tired hand over his face; defeated, when he was usually only condemning. “My hopes for you were great, Genevieve,” he said quietly, as though he spoke to himself. “Your entry into Society was a wondrous one.” He shook his head sadly.
Perhaps she should feelsomethingat that parental disappointment, but how could she feel anything but this frustration running through her at the blame forever heaped on her shoulders? Filled with a restive energy, Genevieve leaned forward. “What Aumere did five years ago, the lies he spread, marks him as a cad. And you, as myfather,should see that,” she said quietly.
The marquess wrinkled his nose. Was it the sincerity of the words on her lips that earned his distaste? Or her blatant challenging of him? When he still said nothing, she settled her palms on his desk. “Just as what happened last evening was not my fault,” she said calmly. Surely he saw that?
He held her gaze. “It is never your fault,” he said tiredly.
In her defense, it hadn’t been. Either time, where Aumere was concerned. He was a gentleman who’d seen her as less than a person; a material object there to suit his whims and fancies. For the shock and scandal she’d caused, she would never make apologies for last night. Not to that man.
“Tremaine will marry you.”
Lost in her own musings, it took a moment for Father’s words to penetrate. She frowned. “Father?” she asked, incredulity lacing her question. What gentleman would marry a notoriously whispered about lady?A desperate one. An ancient one without heirs. Disgust scraped along her spine. At her father for dare suggesting it and the old lord willing to do it.
Her father gestured to the pages in front of him and, wordlessly, she followed his motioning to those pages he’d been so enrapt in. “Following our return last evening, I met with the earl.” His lips pulled. “He was not at all pleased about another scandal being attached to your name, but for our friendship, he will overlook it.”
Sothatwas why Father had not summoned her posthaste for his verbal dressing down. He’d had matters of business to attend with his ancient friend. “Are you mad?” The question tumbled from her lips, before she could call it back.
Not that she wished to. For even with the narrowing of her father’s eyes and the rage flashing in their depths, an unholy fury licked away at her senses. “He is seventy if he is a day, and you’d marry me off to mitigate a scandal?” She continued, not allowing him the opportunity to speak. “I am no longer the scared child you sent away, blindly obedient.” She jutted her chin. “I did nothing wrong and will not rush off and marry an old lord to appease you.” Or anyone. The decisions she made would be strictly with her own happiness and future in mind. No one else’s.
The leather groaned in protest as her father leaned forward. “You would reject his offer?” Shock coated his words. “When I’ve already assured him you would be agreeable to the match?” His mottled cheeks and furious eyes hinted at the thin thread of control he possessed.
Genevieve drew in a steadying breath and swallowed down a string of curses. Neither of her parents had appreciated or welcomed shows of spirit or temper. It was one of the reasons they’d so favored Gillian. Mayhap her father could be reasoned with. “I am…” Nauseous. “Gratefulfor the earl’s offer, however, we would not suit.” The least reason of which had to do with the fact that he was the same age as her own father and more to do with the domineering tendencies he’d exhibited with his daughters at their family’s picnics over the years. Those young women, nearly her age, were shadows of people and that is what she would become if she bound herself to that old lord.
“You would not suit?” Her father slashed the air with his hand. “You’ll have a title and respectability. What more do you require than that?”
There was a finality there that fanned her annoyance. Happiness be damned, he’d base his assurances on nothing more than his expectations that his daughters were both broodmares there to be auctioned off to the most respectable and highest bidder. She narrowed her eyes. “You did not even speak to me about what I wished—?”
His patience snapped in the form of a furious fist pounding the surface. “What you wish?” The papers leapt with the force of his movements and she jumped in time to them. “What you wish was forfeited five years ago, Genevieve.”
She continued, tenacious. “Allow me the funds you’ve settled on me when I reach my majority. I will leave you and Mother and you’ll not have to be constantly reminded of me.” And more, she could be free of him.
“The whispers will remain,” he shot back. “Nor would I be so imprudent as to give a young chit who has demonstrated such ill-judgment time and time again access to a single farthing.” The finality in his words reached up to his eyes and spoke of a man who’d run out of patience. Whether she was truly to blame or not, mattered not at all. It only mattered how it affected his name.
She set her jaw. “I am not marrying him.”
Her quiet pronouncement echoed around the office with the same force as if she’d screamed it from her lungs.
“Very well,” her father said, sitting back in his chair. He picked up his pen and proceeded to scribble onto the pages of his ledger.
Befuddlement creased her brow. “Very well?” Surely he’d not capitulate so easily? As long as she remembered, the Marquess of Ellsworth had been wholly unyielding and certainly never one to show weakness before his daughters.
“I cannot allow two of my daughters to remain without a single prospect.” Her father didn’t deign to pick his head up, but devoted his attention to the book before him. “I expect Tremaine will prefer your sister, anyway.”
A loud buzzing filled her ears. “What?” her question came as though down a long hall. Surely he’d not said… Surely she’d imagined…?
The marquess briefly glanced up. “The truth is, Tremaine never truly wanted you,” he said, raking an icy stare over her. Did he believe to hurt her with that admission? “He asked for your sister, but I expected she could make an advantageous match of her own. Where you…?” He gave his head a shake and diverted his attention to that page.
She shot to her feet. “No,” she gasped and again planted her hands on his desk. “What manner of father are you?” She’d sooner see her father dead than allow him to marry off her sister to that doddering lord.
He scoffed and at last looked up. “I’m not in a mood for your displays of emotion. One of you will marry.”
Moments ago, she’d lied to herself. There was someone whose happiness she’d put before her own—Gillian. His threat hung on the air between them. And she wanted to lash out at him. To spit in his face, and then send him and his prospective match to the devil where he could burn for being a faithless sire.
I cannot do this…Except, meeting her father’s ruthless stare confirmed his resolve—he’d see one of his daughters married. “Please do not do this.” She curled her toes into the soles of her slippers. “Send me back to Grandfather,” she beseeched, hating that she’d been reduced to a desperate, pleading girl, as much as she hated the world in which women’s happiness mattered not at all amidst their cruel, contrived Society. “Gillian will find a proper husband. A man worthy of her.”
Her father stared at her for a long while, saying nothing, and hope stirred in her breast; hope that he’d let her go and she could carry on sketching and gardening without fear of recrimination or worry over what anyone said. But then, he sank back in his seat once more. “You’ll not be able to remain hidden with your miserable grandfather forever.” Miserable. The earl, even with his gruff edge, was warmer and more of a father than this man had ever been.
“Tremaine will arrive later today to formally request your hand. Do I have your acceptance?”
Tell him no.Tell him he can go to the devil…She pressed her eyes closed. Ultimately, would Gillian have the same strength to reject their father’s efforts? A slow, painful acceptance settled around her belly.
When she’d been a small girl, she’d been tiptoeing back and forth over a fallen branch that extended out into her father’s lake. In one faulty misstep, she’d tumbled into the frigid water. Pulled down by her skirts, the water had muted her cries so all she heard was the panicky hum of silence and her own muffled screams. She’d fought her skirts, to scrabble her way back to the surface, choking and gasping until she’d grabbed that rough trunk and pulled herself back to safety. Her chest heaved in the same desperate rhythm of that long ago day.
“You may go,” Father said and dragged his ledgers forward.
There was a finality to his dismissal that numbed her. For if she wed Lord Tremaine, her spirit would die. She would become a lady to breed him babes and adorn his arm as a proper societal matron and the light would go out until all that remained was a shadow of a person…like her mother.
With stiff movements, Genevieve stood. “You may go to hell,” she seethed and took an unholy glee in the way he sputtered.
When she’d stepped out into the hall and had the safety of a closed door panel between them, Genevieve tore down the corridor. She raced so quickly through the halls, her lungs strained from the pace she’d set. Distance between herself and the future had laid before her, she collapsed against the wall. Her chest rose and fell and she borrowed support.
In all her reservations of returning to London, she’d been riddled with anxiety about being the focus of Society’s attentions. Never, had she anticipated…this. This absolute and total disregard for her wishes, and hopes, and dreams harkened to feudal times where daughters were chattel. A bitter-sounding laugh bubbled past her lips. But then, isn’t that what women ultimately were? Their interests and desires mattered not, but rather the wealth attached to their name. Gentlemen wanted docile, biddable wives to give them babes while they carried on as they pleased.
She pressed her eyes closed as her breathing settled into a calm, even rhythm. Given her father’s determination, nothing short of a miracle would prevent him from going forward with binding her to Lord Tremaine and Genevieve had long ago given up on—
“There you are, my lady.” The faintly out-of-breath tones of her father’s normally unflappable butler brought her eyes flying open. “You’ve a visitor.” She cocked her head. At this hour? No fashionable visits were made at this time. “Your maid has been searching for you. I’ve asked the gentleman to await you in the Blue Parlor—”
Her heart sank to her toes. “A visitor,” she repeated, her voice blank. As the butler spoke, her thoughts rolled together. The earl would come and put his formal offer to her and her father would expect nothing but her acceptance.I cannot do this. I cannot…
She blinked slowly. With the butler staring perplexedly at her, she turned and marched onward to the Blue Parlor. She reached the edge of the doorway and nausea roiled in her belly. To steady her trembling fingers, she smoothed them down the front of her gray skirts. Yes, nothing short of a miracle would save her now. Schooling her features, Genevieve stepped inside. “Lord Tr…” Her greeting trailed off, as her gaze landed on a tall, broadly powerful, well-muscled gentleman who was most assuredlynotthe aging earl. “You,” she blurted.
Standing at the empty hearth, with his hands clasped at his back, Cedric, the Marquess of St. Albans, turned slowly. The patently rakish, and more than slightly charming, grin on his lips kick-started her heart. “Me.” He winged up a golden eyebrow. “Were you expecting another?” All the trepidation and horror at her father’s goals for her momentarily lifted. And for whatever reason that Cedric found his way in her home now, she would be eternally grateful in ways he’d never know or understand for the distraction he presented from the hellish situation her father would impose.
Avoiding his question, she slipped further into the room. “I am sorry,” she murmured. “I did not expect…” She bit off those additionally revealing words. She’d been closeted away in the country for so long she’d ceased to be the young lady to masterfully handle exchanges. Drawing in a deep breath, she shoved aside apologies for who she was. “I am surprised to see you here,” she admitted with an honesty that deepened his grin and set off a dangerously familiar fluttering in her belly, momentarily obliterating the horrifying intentions her father had for her.
He took another step closer and waggled his eyebrows. “A good surprised, Genevieve?”
She’d wager there was no other kind where this dangerously skillful rake was concerned. “Indeed,” she conceded with a smile of her own.
For, when Cedric, the Marquess of St. Albans, was around, she ceased to be the sorrowful, lonely creature she’d been all these years. She recalled how to smile, laugh, and talk again. Genevieve knew not why or how he elicited those carefree feelings inside her, better suiting the naïve girl she’d once been.
She only knew—she enjoyed it.Chapter 13
Cedric really should be focused on the business that had forced him out of bed and into a respectable home at this ungodly hour. Yet, Genevieve Farendale had a smile to rival the song of a siren at sea, and as she settled her willowy frame into the King Louis XIV chair beside him, he froze, fixed on the sharp angles of her face, accentuated by the tightly drawn back strawberry blonde tresses. Desire ran through him. For with the passionate embraces they’d shared, he’d had a glimpse of those strands loose about her shoulders and was riveted with the possibility of seeing them fanned upon his pillow.
He took the seat nearest hers. And all of a sudden, a marriage of convenience presented more enticing for altogether different possibilities; ones that had nothing to do with the properties he’d acquire and freedom from his father’s machinations.
At his scrutiny, a pretty blush stained her cheeks. “What is it?” She patted that hideous chignon.
How very honest she was. That reminder drew him back to the reason for his visit. A woman who did not skirt or dance about words and inquiries was a perfectly practical creature who’d see the benefit of his offer.
Cedric stretched his legs out before him and hooked them at the ankles. “You were expecting another,” he observed, studying her through hooded lashes.
A sea of emotions paraded across her face; none of which he could sort out. She cast a hopeful look to the door. Alas, her maid, God love the woman, remained perfectly absent. When Genevieve returned her attention to him, she spoke hesitantly. “Yes.” She paused. “No.” Four endearing creases marred her brow. “Does it matter?” she turned a question, instead.
Carefully, Cedric tugged off one glove and then the other. He beat them together. “Yes, I rather believe it does.” It mattered for the plans he had for them together and not because of the pebble in his belly at the prospect of a suitor come to call. “Who is he?” he drawled, infusing a deliberate boredom into that inquiry, even as tension gripped him.
The lady’s smile slipped. Did she take umbrage with his bold questioning or that affected boredom? “I would rather not discuss him,” she said softly, glancing down at her folded hands.
The ladies he associated with, really no ladies at all, but bold, wicked creatures, would have, no doubt, taken his question as one borne of jealousy and delighted in goading him for it. With her truthful response, Genevieve was a manner of woman he did not have any experience in dealing with, and searching through his years of experience in enticing a lady, came up…empty.
Cedric dropped his half-grin, and uncrossed his ankles and sat upright. “Very well, then. Shall we discuss Aumere?” He asked the question that had dogged his thoughts from the moment she’d fled the countess’ dining table, until now.
Her lips twisted in a smile that was more a grimace than anything. “And I’d rather discuss him even less.”
This pressing need to know redoubled at her vague non-response. He folded his arms at his chest and continued to stare. “Did the gentleman offend you in some way?” Tension thrummed through his veins.
With a total lack of artifice, she dropped her chin into her hand. “Why should it matter to you?” she asked instead with a soft curiosity in her tone.
He shrugged. “It shouldn’t,” he said honestly and the lady stiffened. “Yet, it does.”
She met his gaze squarely. Then, she gave her head a befuddled shake. “I do not know what to make of you, my lord.”
“Cedric,” he gruffly insisted. He’d have his Christian name on her lips and his title, both present and future ones, could go hang. He lifted his shoulders again. “Nor is there anything to make of me.” He was, exactly as he was seen by Society. Unrepentant rake. Carefree rogue. Charmer.
An inelegant snort escaped her. “Come,” she scoffed. “Of course there is. You arrive here, unexpectedly and,” she waved a hand in his direction, “you wear that false grin.” He furrowed his brow. How did she see that? How, when no one else had ever delved underneath the surface of what he presented?
“Do you have a problem with my smile?” he asked, wholly unnerved by the depth of her awareness.
“Yes. No.” She threw her hands up and an exasperated sound escaped her. “I do not know. All I know, my…Cedric,” she amended when he gave her a pointed look. “Is I do not know what to make of you,” a rake, “showing up.” A panicky light lit her eyes as she darted her gaze to the door. When she returned her attention to him, she dropped her voice to a hushed whisper. “Showing up in places where I happen to be and asking questions about me.” With the rapidity of her gesticulating, the lady was going to do herself injury. “What should I matter to you that you’d wonder about my former betrothed or the gentleman I’m expecting to call?”
He started. For people did not matter to him. Did they? He’d seen to it that he needed no one—not his mother, his bastard of a father, even his sister. Yet…
…the gentleman I’m expecting to call…
Which indicated there was, indeed, a suitor coming by and it mattered very much. Surely it only mattered because of Cedric’s own intentions for the lady?
Unnerved by that staggering revelation he couldn’t sort through, he reached inside his jacket and removed a small silver flask. “It matters,” he said at last and his revelation brought her lips faintly apart in a slight moue of surprise. As she proved remarkably unforthcoming, he altered his questioning. The lady’s eyes followed his every moment. “What happened with Aumere last evening?” He removed the top and took a quick swallow.
She opened her mouth and closed it. Then tried again. “Are you drinking at this hour?” The delicate shock there froze his hand halfway to his mouth.
He followed her disappointed stare to the drink in his hand. “Er…” He’d never mingled with polite Society. Of the people he kept company with, the least offense of which they were guilty was indulging in a spot of brandy in the morning hour.
“Would you drink in front of any lady, no less?” she asked tartly.
Offending the lady one intended to offer for, hardly proved favorable for said woman’s respective capitulation. As such, he put the stopper on and returned the flask to the front of his jacket. “I generally avoid ladies all together.” As soon as the words slipped out, he cursed himself. How was he, a practiced rake with a smooth tongue, bungling this so badly?
She narrowed her eyes but not before he detected a glimmer of outrage.
Fortunately for Cedric, Genevieve’s maid appeared at the entrance of the room.
“Delores, will you have tea readied for His Lordship and me,” she said, not taking her gaze from his.
Unfortunately for him, her obedient maid looked between them, spun on her heel and quickly darted off.
He told himself it truly only mattered for his intentions toward her. He told himself, as much…even as it felt like a lie. With her maid gone and not allowing Genevieve an opportunity to order him gone as well, he spoke. “You wonder about my motives,” he said with more solemnity than any topic he’d ever spoken of in the past. “You wonder why I should come here and put questions to you.” He leaned close, shrinking the space between them. “Given my reputation, you are, of course, wise to question anything where I am concerned. I’ve told you before, Genevieve, I like you.” And friendship between them was convenient for the marriage he intended for them.
She trailed her tongue over the seam of her lips and he swallowed a groan as lust slammed into him. Mayhap, a good deal more than friends, then. “I daresay you could have found all manner of details on my exchange with the duke in any of the gossip sheets,” she said and he clung to what had brought him ’round this morning and not on his body’s maddening response to her.
“Bah, scandal sheets,” he said slashing the air with his hand. “Rubbish that is best burned for kindling.” Her eyes softened. He’d not mention that he’d thoroughly read each scandal sheet for information about the lady that morning. Having been present and witness to her magnificent showing last evening, he recognized the rot printed on those pages.
She glanced to the open door and then looked to him. “The gentleman…” Crimson fired her cheeks, stirring his intrigue, all the more, “was indecent with his words and actions.” And now he had his answer, which was really no answer at all. Instead of being satisfied with at last a vague knowing what had resulted in her magnificent display, it fueled a thousand questions and wonderings. He gritted his teeth so tightly, pain shot along his jaw. As she continued speaking, he struggled to attend her, while his thoughts meandered down a path that entailed him bloodying Aumere senseless.
“Who were you expecting a moment ago?” he asked, neatly returning them to the question she’d sidestepped.
The earlier glimmer in her green eyes dimmed and left in its place a stark emptiness that chilled.
Desperate to drive back that melancholy, he stuffed his gloves inside his jacket. “A game of short answers then? Single syllable word responses with no limit to the number of words in your sentence, as long as they are single syllable words.”
His words rang a startled laugh from her. “Surely you jest,” she said as her shoulders shook with mirth.
“Why must I be?” he countered, shifting forward in his seat.
She pointed her eyes to the ceiling. “Because rakes do not simply show up unexpectedly at a lady’s home and ask her to take part in parlor games.”
It was hardly in his favor if the lady saw him as nothing more than a rake. “Do you eagerly await a suitor?”
She snorted. “Hardly.”
He made a tsking noise. “That is two syllables, love.”
For a long moment, the lady said nothing and he expected her to abandon the game as foolhardy. Then, she wetted her lips. “No. Not at all.”
A lightness filled his chest as she, with her words confirmed that there was no eager suitor in the wings. He clapped his hands slowly. “Brava. A splendid four points.” Cedric captured his chin between his thumb and forefinger and rubbed. “For my next question, then.” Dropping his palms onto his legs, he leaned closer. “Who is the person you’re waiting for?”
Her mouth tightened so that the blood drained from the corners of her lips, but a spirited glimmer sparkled in her eyes. “He’s an old peer who wants a wife. A friend of my…” She paused, chewing at her lower lip as she searched for her next response. Then her eyes lit and she jabbed the air with her finger. “Da.” As soon as the word escaped her, it was as though reality sucked her back, draining the sparkle in her eyes.
Cedric ran his gaze over her face as his mind turned over her words. Then the slow, horrifying truth trickled in—the reason for the lady’s upset. “Your father intends to wed you to one of his friends.” No doubt, a faulty bid to bury the gossip and be rid of his daughter. Given his own grasping, emotionally deadened father, her words did not shock. He gripped the arms of the chair. Nay, rather they stirred fury inside.
Genevieve glanced down at the tips of her slippers. “Thank you for the diversion,” she said softly and then coughed into her hand. “Now, I would truly wish to speak of something else.”
Ignoring the lady’s faint pleading underscoring that request, he shoved to his feet and knelt at the foot of her chair. Her little shuddery gasp filtered the air between them. “Wh-what—?”
Uncaring if her maid or mother happened by, he brushed his bare knuckles over her cheek, savoring the satiny softness of her skin. “Who is he?” he asked quietly.
She pursed her lips and, for a moment, he expected she’d ignore this question, too. “The Earl of Tremaine.”
He choked. “Tremaine?” Cedric sank back on his haunches. The man was sixty-five if he was a day. It would be a sin before God if this vibrant, spirited woman was bound forever to that old, fat bastard. Furthermore, he’d little intention of losing his match of convenience with Genevieve to that lackwit.
“Those were my sentiments exactly,” she muttered, with a remarkable calm for a woman whose father sought to sell her on the Marriage Mart to a man old enough to be her grandfather.
Yes, the lady was remarkably low of options. With a furious father determined to marry her off to an ancient lord, her prospects were limited. The lady’s desperation worked only in his favor and, yet, even as he would have a marriage of convenience between them, he wanted her to come to the union not because he was her only choice.
He gave his head a hard shake. Bloody hell, why should he care if desperation fueled her acceptance? All that mattered was that she said yes and agreed to the terms he’d lay out before her. In a contract that would see him forever bound to one woman; a woman whose happiness he would be responsible for seeing to. His palms moistened and he brushed them on the sides of his breeches. What did he truly know of another person’s happiness?
Genevieve tipped her head. “Why are you staring at me like that?”
He furrowed his brow.
“Like you’ve swallowed a plate of rancid kippers.”
“Is there any good kipper, though?” he put in with an effortful grin that raised another laugh from Genevieve.
“Yes, well, there is truth to that.”
Absently, Cedric took her hand in his and worshipped the soft skin with his gaze and touch. He pressed his thumb against the inset where her hand met her wrist; to the spot where her pulse pounded wildly. “What do you enjoy, Genevieve?”
She moistened her lips once more. “Enjoy?” That one-word utterance emerged breathless.
He stroked his finger in a small circle over and over. Her skin was softer than the finest satins and silks. Gloriously smooth and perfect. “Ah, but that was two-syllables.”
Genevieve gulped and her lashes fluttered. “Art,” she whispered. “I love art.”
“What else?” he pressed, raising her wrist to his mouth and brushing his lips over the delicate skin.
Her thick, strawberry blonde lashes swept down, but did little to conceal the desire radiating from within her expressive eyes. “B-blooms and buds.”
Ah, the lady tended gardens. A wholly feminine pursuit, encouraged by thetonand, yet, those three words uttered in that breathy whisper conjured tempting images of the two of them in that famed Garden of Eden, together, tasting all that was forbidden.
“I’ve just one more question?”
She stared at him through heavy eyes. “What is that, my…Cedric?”My Cedric.Yes, he rather thought he preferred those two words together on her full, luscious lips.
“Marry me?”Chapter 14
Cedric Falcot, the Marquess of St. Albans, was a sorcerer. With his wicked touch and his teasing eyes and charming words, he could tempt a nun to forsake her vows or, at the very least, muddle a lady’s thoughts.
In Genevieve’s case, that was precisely what he’d done. His words brought her eyes open as she blinked away the thick haze he’d cast with his seductive touch. He stared at her with such casualness, he may as well have commented on the weather or a cup of tea. Surely she’d heard him wrong? Surely…?
“Marry me, Genevieve,” he repeated and reclaimed her hands.
No, she’d not heard him wrong. Her heart tripled its beat, pounding an eager rhythm. But for a handful of exchanges, she knew this man hardly at all and, yet, he’d come here and offer for her? She searched his face for some hint of teasing, an indication that he made light of her. Rakes did not wed and they decidedly did not wed ladies they’d met only a handful of times.No matter how passionate the kisses were between us.
She held her palms up. “I do not understand,” she spoke haltingly, trying to make sense of his request. “You do not know me.”
“I know you enjoy art.” And given his knowledge of the artists in her book, the gentleman shared that love. “I know you enjoy gardening.”
“Only because I just mentioned it,” she pointed out.
He leaned forward and her breath caught.He is going to kiss me. He is going to kiss me and my maid will arrive any moment, or my family might happen by, and I do not care.She leaned close to take his kiss. “I know there is passion between us.” His breath, a blend of coffee and brandy, tickled her lips and she fought back a tide of regret when he drew slightly back, ending the possibility of his kiss. “And I require a wife,” he said matter-of-factly, no hint of passion or desire in his husky baritone.
A slight frown marred her lips. How effortlessly he moved from seductive rake to coolly unaffected gentleman. Then his words registered. Her heart dipped. He required a wife. By his words, his offer was made for no other reason than necessity. Battling back irrational disappointment, she found her voice. “You require a—?”
“Wife,” he easily supplied. “I’ve need of a wife.”
Hearing him state that admission so plainly once more, tugged at the romantic hopes she’d thought dead and long buried. For the reality of being jilted at the altar and hidden away in the country, a part of her had hoped for…more. Mayhap not love, but…well, more. He stared patiently at her and she furrowed her brow. “And you believe I, a woman you’ve only really just met, will do?”
Cedric nodded automatically. “I do,” he spoke so matter-of-factly about their being joined together, forever, bound by vows, name.
Footsteps sounded in the hall and, dazed, she looked to the doorway as Delores reappeared with the tray of tea, thankfully interrupting her muddled thoughts. The maid’s gaze landed on an unrepentant Cedric kneeling at her mistress’ feet and then she quickly averted her stare. Of course, a rake such as he would have no compunctions about the whispers that could ensue if they were discovered so. Genevieve murmured her thanks as the young woman set refreshments down on the mahogany long table. “Will you fetch my sketchpad, Delores?” she asked as the maid started for the corner of the room. Then, the gentleman had offered marriage.
Delores hesitated and then dropped a curtsy, leaving them alone once more.
With the young woman gone, silence fell, punctuated by the ticking clock atop the mantel. “I…I…” Did not know what to say. Unnerved by Cedric’s cool in the face of his offer, Genevieve pushed to her feet and hurried over to the tray. Her gaze caught the couple painted upon the porcelain teapot. The suitor in knee breeches knelt beside his lady in ruffled skirts. She trailed her fingertip over the pair. Was that moment one where the couple had spoken of necessity and needs, or were there whispered words of love?
Cedric settled his hands on her shoulders and she started, shooting a startled glance back at him. How did one of his magnificent size and power move with such a stealthy grace? When he spoke, he revealed an unerringly accurate take on her silent musings. “What I propose is surely not the romantic hopes you once carried.” Once carried. He, too, erroneously assumed that the scandalous Farendale girl had safely buried her hope of love. He angled her around to face him. “You will have whatever your heart desires.” Everything, except love. “You may garden and sketch and paint until your fingers are no longer capable of movement,” he promised.
Unable to meet his piercing blue stare, she looked past his shoulder to the mantel. “Why do you require a wife?” She cocked her head. “Are you a fortune-hunter?” If so, with her modest dowry, there was any number of more suitable brides for him.
A bark of laughter burst from his firm lips. “God, no.” His broad shoulders shook with amusement, but then he grimaced. “Not necessarily.”
“So youarein need of a fortune?” she asked slowly, trying to untangle his conflicting words.
“May I be blunt?”
She inclined her head. “Please.” Given his offer, she rather thought there was only ground for bluntness.
“I am a rake.”Am. Not was. Genevieve curled her toes into the soles of her slippers so tightly, her arches ached. Of course she well knew his reputation, by the whispers and warnings from her sister and mother, and even from the gentleman’s admission, himself. Still, hearing it, she hated the truth, anyway, even more now. “I was…” He paused and tapped his fingertips along his thigh in an endearing way she’d come to know after their handful of meetings that bespoke his hesitancy. “Unwise with the funds left me by my mother,” he said at last.
Hearing him lay that particular piece before her, made him flawed in ways she did not wish him to be. A man who ran through his inheritance and carried a flask of brandy to drink at the early morning hour was not who she wanted Cedric Falcot, the Marquess of St. Albans, to be. She preferred the gentleman who spoke of art and drove back her sadness with his smile. “And are you still unwise with your funds?”
Cedric rested his hip on the edge of the sofa. “I still wager, but I am not the same reckless man I was in my youth who’d gamble away a fortune.”
In his youth. She studied the chiseled planes of his rugged cheeks. There was no hint of boy in the Marquess of St. Albans and, yet, with that statement, he just reminded her of how little she knew of him. “I do not even know your age.” And yet, he’d have her marry him. Then, would their auspicious beginning be really all that different than the formal arrangements entered into every day between other lords and ladies?
“I’m nearly thirty.” He smiled wryly. “What say you? Thirty years younger than Tremaine?”
She snorted. “At the very least.”
Silence fell between them once more. As the quiet stretched on, she reflected on Cedric’s glib way with words. He had an innate ability to muddle a lady’s senses so that she focused on his charming jests and not the reservations blaring around her mind. Then, wasn’t that the power of a rake?
Which only left her with the question…did she want to spend her days married to a man who, by his own admissions and actions, was one who wagered and drank spirits, and—
“You are quiet,” he observed, drumming those long digits still.
Genevieve turned her palms up. “I…do not know what to say,” she conceded, letting her hands fall to her side.
He flashed one of those wicked half-grins that wrought havoc on her senses. “Then say yes,” he encouraged, in a satiny smooth voice that so enticed, Satan himself would have envied the skill.
“In marrying, I will be turning my funds, my children, my very happiness over to a man.” Having witnessed the miserable state of her parents’ own union certainly gave one a suitable caution in entering into an equally failed match. Particularly after herself bearing the scars of a faithless bounder’s influence. Women were powerless. Wasn’t her father’s earlier threats proof of that? “How could I trust—?”
“I obtain unentailed lands left me with my mother’s passing. The estates are lucrative and come to me when I marry.” Ah, so the need for a wife. “Your dowry is yours,” he cut in, his earlier grin now gone, replaced by a solemnity she’d seen but on a handful of instances from him. “I’ve no need of your funds and will cede all of it over to you.”
Her mouth fell open. “What?” Gentlemen did not give control of any property or possessions to their wives. At least, that had been the worthless example set by her own father.
“Nor will you have to worry after children,” he pledged. “Or hosting balls or throwing soirees or dinner parties. Your life will be yours.” How very tempting the gift he dangled—freedom, control in a world where women were wholly lacking of such things.
Yet, she’d learned long ago to be wary of any gentleman’s intentions. “And what benefit would you gain in marrying me?” she asked, putting a question to him. A gentleman, who would one day possess the most distinguished, respected titles in the realm could have his choice of bride. Why should he choose a lady riddled with scandal, whispered about by all?
“Like me?” she interjected, lifting an eyebrow.
“Yes, well there is that,” he said with a wink.
Was this veneer of charm a means for him to keeping anyone from delving deep under the surface to see who he truly was? She’d wager for his reputation as rake, with his disdain for Society’s whispers and lies, that there was more good than he’d ever have the world know of, inside him.
He palmed her cheek and she leaned into his strong, powerful hand. Warmth radiated from the point of his touch and sent heat spiraling through her. “You require a husband,” he said softly and she stiffened, as the blunt fact of those words doused her with the reality of what his offer truly was. “But that is not why I’d have you marry me.”
Her heart thumped hard.He desires more than the marriage of convenience he presented…
“I would have you marry me because you should not be subjected to censure or stares.” A rush of disappointment killed that fleeting, foolish, romantic thought. “As my wife, you’ll wear whatever color gowns you wish and I’d wager it isn’t gray.” Seafoam green. “I’d wager you’d don satins in a seafoam.” She gasped. How did he know that? He continued over her shocked exclamation. “As my marchioness, you’ll be permitted to take your slippers off in the midst of Almack’s if you so wish it.” She wanted no part of that distinguished hall where ladies were subjected to the nasty sneers and whispers. “You should paint and garden and do whatever it is that brings you happiness.”
You bring me happiness. Since her miserable return to London, the only joy she’d found had been in his presence. The truth of that held her frozen, unmoving, with his words enticing her with the dream he presented. He would offer her all that. “Ours will be a marriage of convenience?” Disappointment tugged at her and she held her breath praying he did not hear the regret steeped in her words.
“Exactly,” he said with a nod, dislodging that errant, loose curl that she ached to brush back.
What did she expect of an offer that came after just a week knowing a gentleman? “There will be no… no…” A blush burned its way from her toes up to her hair.
He folded his arms. “No…?”
“We will not be intimate, then?” And if it was possible to blush to death, by the heat burning her skin, she was moments away from going up in a fiery conflagration.
Understanding glinted in his eyes. In one smooth movement, he lowered his hands to the table at her back, framing her in his arms. “You misunderstand,” he whispered, brushing his lips to her temple and then her closed eyes and finally her lips, in a too-fleeting kiss that had her swallowing back a cry, demanding more. “I will make you my wife in name and in body,” he pledged. “It will be a true marriage.”
She wanted to grasp on to what he held out and not solely because, in wedding him, she’d be free of her father’s hold and spared a match with Lord Tremaine, or any other desperate lord who wanted a broodmare and not a wife. Cedric spoke as one who knew her interests and celebrated them. An unrepentant rogue, he’d never stifle her spirit or crush that which brought her joy. Genevieve nodded slowly. “Yes,” she said softly.
His broad shoulders went taut and the muscles rippled the black fabric of his immaculately cut jacket. “Yes?” Surprise stamped his features.
How endearing to find one so unwavering in his confidence should know indecision because of her. “Should I say no?” she teased.
“Oh, undoubtedly.” A smile formed on his lips. This smile was not the mocking, rogue’s grin, but rather an endearingly warm one that glinted in his eyes. “I am, however, happy you have not.” He released her with an alacrity that left a void at the loss of his touch. “I will speak to your father.” Of course, as a future duke he’d command a meeting with nothing more than a single word uttered.
She called out, halting his retreat. “Lord Tremaine is to arrive today.” All the panic that had weighted her chest, the cloying desperation at having no choice lifted. For Cedric had presented her one. It was full of so much more promise and joy than anything her father would have insisted she agree to.
He wheeled around and stalked back toward her like a sleek panther, setting off the butterflies that only he’d ever stirred within her. “Then I shall speak to your father right now,” he pledged and lowered his brow to hers.
Tremaine and Father had been friends since Eton and an unofficial arrangement had been reached…even as neither gentleman had inquired about what Genevieve wanted. “My father might deny your request,” she warned.
“He will not deny me.” Cedric spoke with a confidence borne of a man who’d not been denied anything in the course of his life. What must it be like to have complete command of your life? Envy pulled at her. Then, with his pledge, he’d offered her that.
So why did she selfishly want so much more? “And if he does?”
Their breath danced and melded. “Then I’ll marry you anyway,” he pledged. The resolve in his tone spoke of a man who wouldn’t be denied. Surely that came of more than a marriage of convenience.
“But what if—”
Cedric took her lips under his. Heat spiraled, as it invariably did, from his embrace. She wound her arms about his neck, anchoring him close as she met his kiss, accepting his tongue as he plunged it in her mouth and stroked hers in a primitive dance that she returned.
A shocked gasp at the front of the room brought them apart.
Her maid stood, blushing like a beet caught in the summer sun. Mortification curled Genevieve’s toes and she studiously avoided the girl’s eyes. With the maid’s devotion, Genevieve had no doubt she could rely on the girl’s silence. And there was still the truth that Cedric would speak to her father.
With the ease that could only come from a gentleman who’d been discovered so scandalously too many times before, an unrepentant Cedric sketched a bow. “My lady. I bid you farewell.” Without another word he stalked over to the door and paused at the entrance to toss an all-knowing look over his shoulder. “For now,” he promised and winked.
Genevieve touched a hand to her racing heart and stared after him. He would marry her. He would offer her everything. Everything, that was,exceptlove.
And though there was no love, there would be friendship and passion. Which was a good deal more than existed within most marriages. So how, staring at the empty doorway, could she account for this knot of disappointment that pebbled in her belly?Chapter 15
“By God, never tell me the rumors are true and congratulations are in order?”
The next morning, seated at his table at the back of White’s, Cedric glanced up from his half-empty glass of brandy.
Montfort grinned and without awaiting permission, hooked his ankle around the chair opposite Cedric and pulled it out. He motioned over a servant and relieved the liveried footman of a glass. The earl cast a look about the famed, but respectable, club and grimaced. “Imagine my surprise when I received your note last evening to meet here, of all places.” He waggled his eyebrows. “Given the news on the front ofThe Timesregarding your foray into respectability, however, it does make sense.”
Cedric made a crude gesture that raised a laugh from the other man. “Go to hell, Montfort.” His being at White’s had nothing to do with his amusements once married. To visit one of his scandalous gaming hells or brothels when he’d only just become betrothed would earn unwanted and unneeded gossip. And though he didn’t give a jot about what Society said of him, it clearly mattered to the lady who’d agreed to marry him. The least he could give Genevieve was freedom from gossip—for now, at least.
“I never thought I’d see the day you’d abandon your gaming hells for this bloody oppressive place,” Montfort muttered as he poured himself a glass from Cedric’s bottle. He glanced up from his task. “What is next? Attending Sunday sermons with the soon to be Marchioness of St. Albans?”
Cedric offered a wry smile. “Hardly.” He swirled the contents of his glass. “The lady was quite practical in seeing our arrangement as nothing more than a matter of convenience for the both of us. As such, I’ve little intention of changing how I live.” After more than seventeen years of debauched existence, he didn’t know any other way and given his own father was really rather incapable of anything but sinning.
His friend choked on his swallow. “If you believethatthen you know a good deal less about ladies than has been credited. No lady happily tolerates her husband’s carousing.”
“The lady has little interest in my faithfulness or how I spend my days,” he argued with a frown. Didn’t she?“…In marrying, I will be turning my funds, my children, my very happiness over to a man. How could I trust…?”A frisson of unease ran through him. He’d been quite clear that they’d carry on their own existences. He shrugged, thrusting aside the doubt his friend had raised. “I was quite clear in my requirements and she was equally clear.”
Montfort kicked his chair back on the hind two legs. “Oh?” he drawled. “And just what requirements would a lady have to agree to marry one such as you?”
The insult easily rolled off Cedric. With their lifelong friendship, no one knew better than Montfort the dissolute bastard that Cedric was. “It matters not why she agreed.” Just that she had. She’d be taken care of and through that, they’d both be spared the wills their own sires would have imposed on them.
At the memory of meeting with her coldhearted bastard of a father, he gripped the crystal snifter. Cold. Condescending where his daughter was concerned, her father had proven himself remarkably like Cedric’s own ruthless parent.
“Yes, I suppose it doesn’t,” Montfort agreed, righting his chair. He took a swallow of his drink. “Then I suppose you’d meet little resistance from the desperate Farendale doxy.” With that dismissive statement, Montfort looked about the club. “Few options for that one.”
An unholy fury rolled through Cedric and the crystal snifter cracked under the pressure of his grip. “She is to be my wife,” he bit out.
His friend returned his attention to Cedric. “Beg pardon?” he blinked several times.
With a growl of annoyance Cedric swiped his free hand through his hair. “Nothing,” he snapped. He was not one of those respectable gents who was offended or bothered on anyone’s behalf—not even his own. So what accounted for this urge to drag his friend across the table and bury his fist in said friend’s nose?
Montfort swirled his drink. “Why the reason for meeting at this ungodly hour?” he asked, thankfully diverting Cedric’s attention from his confounding thoughts.
“Is it early?” His gaze found the long-case clock at the opposite wall. Ten o’clock. Yes, certainly not an hour he’d generally be awake, after late night carousing. Except he’d not partaken in those scandalous revelries into the early morn hours…for nearly a week. Peculiar stuff.
“Oh, undoubtedly.” Montfort followed that with a loud yawn.
“I had business to attend to.” An early morn visit to secure a special license from the archbishop. Said paper now burned inside the front of his jacket for what it portended. He waved over a servant and put in a request for an unbroken glass, which Cedric promptly filled.
A sharp bark of laughter split Montfort’s lips. “You had business to attend to that wasn’t wagering or whoring?”
“I’m to marry this morning. Eleven o’clock,” he added. In short time, he would break every silent vow he’d taken to thwart his father’s wishes and forever bind himself in marriage to one woman. Anxiety roiled in his gut. That ultimate sense of failure he’d bring to a woman, just as his father had brought countless women.Genevieve is different. She requires a husband. I require a wife. This is practical…Thrusting aside the whispering of misgivings churning in his mind, he spoke quietly. “I would ask you to stand up with me this morning.” Ultimately, he’d deny the bastard that which he desired above all else—that beloved heir and spare to carry out his polluted line. For what his father had never expected was for Cedric to find a bride content to settle for a practical arrangement where both benefited.
“Of course, I will be there,” Montfort spoke with a seriousness that Cedric had thought him incapable of. The earl’s amusement faded and his eyes reflected back the same horror and regret Cedric had felt one week earlier over the expectations his father would have thrust on him. He propped his elbows on the table. “I am sorry,” he spoke the way one would at the passing of a loved one. “I know you’d rather dance in the fires of hell than shackle yourself to one woman.”
Cedric remained silent. Yes, his friend was, indeed, correct. Yet, there were certainly worse things than wedding a lady unafraid to challenge him, one who kissed with a wild abandon that promised a spirited wife who delighted in the marital bed. Lest his friend note that grin and make more of it than was there, he took a long swallow to conceal it.
“No need to be so glum, old friend,” Montfort said misinterpreting the reason for his silence. “There is some good to come in marrying the lady,” he continued, following Cedric’s own thoughts. “The duke is no doubt enraged by your selection in a bride?”
“Undoubtedly,” he confirmed, lifting his nearly empty glass in salute. As elated as Genevieve’s own miserable father had been after they’d worked through the formal arrangements, was as livid as Cedric’s own father had been when he’d visited him yesterday afternoon. His mind still resonated with the furious bellowing his pronouncement had met. A surge of triumph gripped him.
“Which, in itself, makes her the perfect bride,” Montfort added.
Yes, at one point that would certainly have been true. And even as his friend’s words were steeped in logic…there was…more that made Genevieve perfect.
“…Do you believe because I am a woman, I should favor pastel, peaceful landscapes…?”
Unsettled by the irrational sentiment, he cleared his throat. “My family is assembling at eleven o’clock in Kensington Gardens.” That particular detail had not come only because of his father’s insistence that the hasty affair be conducted in his ducal office, but for the significance of that location for the meeting place it represented.
Montfort erupted into another bevy of laughter. “Kensington Gardens.” He leaned forward and slapped Cedric on the arm. “If you believe a romantic lady who insists on getting married outside in a garden is the logical sort who’ll allow you to carry on as you’ve done these years, then you’d be wise to turn tail and run as quick as Aumere did, years earlier.”
His jaw tightened reflexively with such intensity his teeth ground together at the mention of Aumere. The bloody fool. Regardless, Genevieve was better off without that one.And do I believe she is better off with me?“The place where the wedding takes place is neither here nor there,” he grumbled under his breath. He’d certainly not point out that he’d decided on said location.
His friend inclined his head. “Given the hour, we should be along, then? Wouldn’t do to be late to your own wedding.”
Cedric swung his attention to that clock once more, and squinted at the numbers. Fifty minutes past ten. He’d but ten minutes to find his way to Hyde Park.
Bloody hell.With a curse he shoved back his chair and sprinted through his club.
Never more had Genevieve been so grateful for the shelter afforded by the high hedge maze of Kensington Gardens.
Looking past the vicar, she trained her gaze on the green boxwood. Anything but the cold, unspeaking Duke of Ravenscourt, or on the concern radiating from her sister’s eyes, or her flushed and furious father. Or Cedric’s sister and brother-in-law, the Marquess and Marchioness of Grafton.
Especiallythat united pair.
Except… From the corner of her eye, she took in the flawlessly perfect golden-haired lady, and the chestnut haired stranger at her side, their hands twined together. She swallowed hard and redirected her attention forward.I did not even know he had a sister.He was a stranger in every sense of the word, this man she’d so quickly agreed to wed.I know nothing more than his love of art and the liquefying power of his kiss.Genevieve pressed her eyes closed a moment. And she knew his own self-profession of being a rake.
“He is not coming,” her father spat a third time.
Mother patted his hand and murmured placating words. “I am certain the marquess is just detained.” She looked to the duke as though hoping, expecting, he’d concur.
Genevieve’s stomach dipped. This moment was so eerily similar to another that a dull buzzing filled her ears, muffling her parents’ exchange. Not again. Surely, Cedric would not so humiliate her in this way. Surely, he’d not leave her standing at this altar of flowers and greenery.But what do I really know of the gentleman?He was a rake and risky and all things to be avoided and, yet, she’d been swayed by the promise he’d dangled before her. Freedom. Control. What happened to a lady twice jilted? A nervous laugh escaped her, capturing the attention of Cedric’s sister.
“He will come,” Gillian interrupted her fast careening thoughts.
Blankly, she looked as her sister wove her fingers through Genevieve’s. “I—” She struggled to drag forth suitable words, with her own self-assurance, but then her gaze landed on the duke as he yanked out his watch fob and consulted his timepiece. The austere lord gave his head a disgusted shake and stuffed the gold piece back inside his jacket.
Genevieve swallowed past a tight throat. “I know.” That faint whisper barely reached her own ears. Only, she knew nothing of the sort. She scanned the area for a hint of his tall, powerful frame.He is not coming.
“It is nearly thirty minutes past the hour,” her father snapped at the duke. “Your son is late. I expect him t-to…” The graying Duke of Ravenscourt leveled him with an icy stare and the remainder of those words went unspoken.
A pall of silence fell over the collection of gathered guests. The muffled whispers of Cedric’s sister and brother-in-law reached Genevieve’s ears and her gaze went to the young couple. The gentleman leaned down and whispered something close to the lady. Then, with a white-gloved finger, he tucked a pale, blonde strand behind his wife’s ear.
The tenderness of that act slammed into her like a gut-punch and she folded her arms at her waist. That beautiful display of warmth and love, all gifts she’d given up on… Or had she? Seeing that couple now, she realized the dream was just as alive and strong as it had ever been. For even with Aumere’s betrayal all those years ago and her subsequent exile, she’d lived with the secret hope that there would be a life of joy and laughter with another. The secret she’d kept so well, even from herself, that she’d not truly considered the implications of a marriage of convenience to Cedric. Genevieve’s belly churned with unease.
As though feeling her gaze, the young marchioness looked to Genevieve and she hastily averted her eyes, retraining them on the empty entrance of the gardens.
The vicar cleared his throat. “Perhaps the marquess is not coming?” he ventured, the first to vocalize the thoughts everyone had surely been thinking that morning.
The duke tapped his fingertips on the side of his leg; that movement so very much Cedric’s that emotion went rolling through her.
“He will be here.” She stilled, startled by the sound of her own voice.
“If you humiliate this family again, Genevieve Grace…” Her father let that threat trail off.
If I humiliate this family?A healthy dose of fury drove back the pained dread of waiting for one’s absent groom in the middle of Hyde Park. After all, what threat could her father make now? He’d already cut her out of the fold of the family five years earlier? What did one do with a daughter a second time?
“Mayhap he is lost?” Gillian put in helpfully.
She smiled at her sweetly innocent, hopelessly optimistic, sister. “Perhaps,” she agreed, unable to muster any real conviction. Genevieve looked to the wrought iron bench they’d occupied two days earlier.
…I’ll not lie and say I don’t desire you, Genevieve, if that is what you’re expecting. For I do—want you…
Was desire enough to bring Cedric ’round to do the honorable thing? Yes, by his admission, he stood to benefit from the funds and properties that came when he married, but as a marquess and future duke, he was in possession of some wealth. A confirmed rake who had no interest in marriage, he’d no doubt had compunctions about tying himself to one woman. And she was certainly not the manner of beauty to hold a gentleman such as him in thrall.
As though in agreement, the late spring breeze stirred the fabric of her very gray skirts. The one loose curl she’d insisted her maid drape over her shoulder played in the wind; that one fragile, but important, control on this, her wedding day.And now, just as before, I am powerless.Subject to the whim of a—
The heavy tread of footsteps drew her eyes to the front of the gardens. A sheen of perspiration on his olive-hued skin and his gloriously long, blond hair disheveled as though he’d run a distance and he’d never looked more magnificent. His gaze caught hers and at the small, repentant half-grin on his lips, emotion swelled in her throat. No man had a right to such golden perfection. Cedric bowed his head and then started forward.
Ignoring her family’s collectively relieved sighs and her father’s muttering thanking the gods above, Genevieve walked off and met him halfway. They stopped a hands-breadth apart. She opened her mouth, when a tall, dark-haired gentleman, far less rumpled and slightly bored, entered the gardens. She recognized him from the duke’s ball as the man who’d been conversing with Cedric. The more than slightly handsome gentleman sketched a bow. “Never mind me, love,” he said, and walked promptly past her. Bemused, Genevieve stared after him a moment as she was reminded once more of just how much she did not know about Cedric and, more, this desire to know everything of him.
“You look surprised to see me,” Cedric said quietly, bringing her focus back to him. He brushed his knuckles briefly along her jaw. “Did you believe I’d not come?”
“I-I thought it was possible you might not.” Uncaring of the witnesses at their back, she closed her eyes and leaned into his touch. “Youarelate,” she whispered. “And I thought you realized you’d made a mistake.”
He made a tsking sound. “I’m not so great a fool that I’d dare let you go, Genevieve.” Her heart beat an erratic rhythm, robbing her of words. How easily Terrance had let her go and in the most public, horrendous way, and for nothing more than a fatter purse. And this man before her spoke of her as though she was a cherished gift to be held close. “Though, I confess, I would certainly benefit from additional lessons on punctuality.” He lowered his lips close to her ear. “That is, if you would be willing to provide them.” Unrepentant rakes such as Cedric could never, would never, be schooled. They would march to the proverbial beat of their own drum.
A smile quivered on her lips. “Given your less than punctual arrival at Lady Erroll’s and your own wedding, I’d make you a rubbish instructor.”
Cedric tossed his head back and laughed and her breath hitched. With the early afternoon sun glinting off his honey-blond hair, he had the look of a fallen angel, banished forever for tempting the mere mortals around him. He proffered his elbow. “Shall we?”
Without hesitation, Genevieve placed her fingertips on his sleeve and, while they made their way over to the small collection of familial guests gathered for their hastily thrown together ceremony, a sense of absolute rightness filled her and, with it, went all the doubts about his suitability or the risks that went in wedding a rumored rake. For any gentleman who coordinated their wedding in this special spot, offered more than just a formal arrangement. She was going to be all right.
Nay, they were going to be all right.
They took their place before the vicar and the man of indiscriminate years opened his book. “Shall we begin?” The wind pulled at the pages of his leather tome. “Dearly beloved, we are gathered together here in the sight of God…”Chapter 16
Between the Duke of Ravenscourt’s scowl and Genevieve’s own parents’ tendency for stilted, always proper discourse, the wedding feast would have been a dismal affair. That is, if it weren’t for Gillian and Cedric’s friend, Lord Montfort.
Through the cheer of her ever joyous sister and the Earl of Montfort, the table was filled with chatter, laughter, and discourse, easily supplied by her garrulous sister.
She listened as Lord Montfort regaled the table with a tale of Cedric’s antics at Eton. At her side, Cedric’s unrestrained, unapologetic laughter filtered about her. How easy he was in all Social situations. At one time, she, too, had been that way. She’d delighted intonevents and been a hopeless flirt, which hadn’t worked in her favor when the gossip came to light years earlier. Instead, it had only fueled the whispers circulated. As such, and through the exile imposed by her parents, Genevieve had learned to say little. Instead, she’d become something of an observer. It was why she was now more comfortable observing her husband.
She fiddled with the handle of her fork.
She rolled those words through her mind, in very many variations; words she’d thought would never be linked with her name, for the scandal that had belonged to her. In the dreams she’d allowed herself of having a family, she’d not ever contemplated wedding a notorious rake. Though, in fairness, she’d never really considered marryinganyoneafter Terrance’s betrayal. Now, she would have so much of what she’d thought beyond her reach.
She’d just not have everything she’d always dreamed of.
Unbidden, her gaze went to Cedric’s brother-in-law seated across from his wife. As another silent, special exchange passed between that pair, Genevieve hated herself for envying them that unadulterated love. Using the tip of her fork, she shoved her largely untouched eggs about her plate and stole another look at her husband.
What would their marriage be like? He’d spoken to her of living a life of her pleasures; a life that included artwork and gardening, and no infernal balls or soirees, but she’d been so enrapt in his knowledge of her interests and the freedom he’d presented, that she’d not allowed her mind to consider whattheywould look like—together.
Mayhap I did not consider it because I didn’t truly wish to know…
Her throat constricted under the weighted truth—she wanted to matter to him. Surely, with his romantic gesture in selecting Kensington Gardens, surely there was more there. Even as he’d given no indication that he anything more thanlikedher. With trembling fingers, Genevieve set her fork down as terror stuck in her chest.
Cedric settled his larger hand over hers. She started. “You’ve not touched a bite,” he whispered close to her ear and delicious shivers fanned out at the point of contact. “Lady St. Albans.”
She started. Lady St. Albans. There was something foreign and at the same time…terrifyinglyrightin being linked to this man. “I find I am not hungry,” she conceded.
He tipped his head to where the duke sat, frowning at the head of the table. “Mayhap you’d care for the kippers, then?” he asked, just as the icy lord placed one of those oiled fish in his mouth.
Cedric rang a laugh from her lips and there was something so very freeing in being permitted that unrestrained expression without recrimination or chiding from her strait-laced parents.
From his seat opposite her, Lord Montfort called out, interrupting her teasing exchange with Cedric. “I confess,” he said loudly, as all the other guests fell quiet. “I am intrigued by the woman who has brought the notorious St. Albans up to scratch.”
Necessity. With the collection of stares trained on her, she could hardly provide that unromantic, if very true, reality. She gave him a wry smile. “There is hardly anything intriguing left about me, my lord. I daresay I’m well known by most.”
Her mother’s horrified gasp echoed from the room.
Cedric captured Genevieve’s fingers and twining them with his, he raised their joined hands to his mouth. “My wife is being modest.” Actually her words had been anything but modest. It was, however, nigh impossible to point out such a fact when he caressed the inseam of her wrist with his lips in that heady, distracting way. “It was our mutual love of grand libraries,” he said, directing his words at her.
Her throat worked as he took her down a not-too-distant path of his hand on her foot in the duke’s library.
The earl erupted into a fit of hilarity. His shoulders shook with the force of his laughter. “St. Albans and books,” he said during his bout of amusement. “Next, you’ll tell me the gentleman prefers art and poetry.”
How was it possible for a man who’d known Cedric since he’d been a boy to know even less than she did about the gentleman? She frowned and opened her mouth to disabuse him of his erroneous assumption about her husband, but Cedric lightly squeezed her fingers. Genevieve looked up questioningly, but he gave a slight shake. She frowned. “Do you find a problem with artwork and literature, my lord?” she put to the earl, refusing to let the matter rest.
The gentleman settled his elbows on the table and leaned forward. “Notallartwork and literature,” he said on a whisper infused with a wicked edge.
“Ah.” She continued, not missing a proverbial beat. “Then you must surely be a devotee ofI Modiby Raimondi?”
The rakish earl closed his mouth and opened it, and then promptly closed it. A slow, approving smile turned his lips.
“I do not understand,” her mother looked from her daughter to Lord Montfort. “What isI Modi?”
And apparently, even a sinner was capable of embarrassment for the earl flushed. “I am unfamiliar with that artist.” The roguish glimmer in his eyes bespoke the lie there as he promptly redirected the discourse. “I must know Lady St. Albans, what was it that had you select Kensington Gardens for your nuptials.”
Her selection? She furrowed her brow. “My lord, I don’t—?”
Cedric grabbed his glass of wine and held it aloft. “A toast,” he called out quickly. “To my wife, the devotee of art who, with her beauty, can rival any masterpiece.” His words were meant to distract. That much was clear by his hasty interruption and the mottled flush marring his cheeks. Yet, his toast combined with the heated look he trained on her, momentarily obliterated the confusion stirred by Lord Montfort’s incorrect assumption.
A brief moment later, he was drawn into a discussion with the earl. Genevieve sat there, studying her husband as he spoke: his practiced grin, his effortless words, and the ease with which he charmed a smile from even her mother. Compliments from him slid off his tongue with an ease a bard would have been hard-pressed to not admire. She picked up her drink and took a sip of water. But what was real where Cedric was concerned? Rather, what was real whereshewas concerned with her husband?
“I have not properly welcomed you to the family.” The blonde beauty at her side jerked her attention sideways. With the delicate planes of her face and piercing eyes, she possessed a regal beauty that painters would vie to capture on canvas. For that beauty, however, there was a wide smile that reached her eyes. “So please, allow me to rectify that.” She held out her fingers. “Welcome.”
Genevieve quickly took her hand. “Thank you, my lady.”
The marchioness gave her a gentle look. “Please, we are sisters, you must call me Cara.”
Sisters. Yet, she knew nothing of this woman who shared Cedric’s blood. Were they close? Had he been the protective sort of brother? With each piece she discovered about him, there was a need to know more about who he truly was. Unbidden, she again slid her gaze over to her husband who now conversed with Gillian. Whatever he’d said roused a snorting laugh that earned a frown from her mother; raising the gentleman a notch in Genevieve’s estimation.
“What was he like?” she asked quietly, looking to her new sister-in-law.
The young woman froze with her fork halfway to her mouth. She hesitated and then lowered the silver utensil to her plate. “What was he like?” she murmured. Except, the way she worried her lower lip and skirted Genevieve’s question spoke more than any word could.
“As a boy?” she prodded.
“I…” Lady Cara briefly settled her gaze on her brother. “I do not know. Cedric was taken under my father’s wing early on and schooled in the ways of a future duke.” The faintest smile; a sad smile hovered on her lips. “A duke does not have much need of a daughter.”
Genevieve cast a pointed look in her own father’s direction. “Neither does a marquess,” she said gently.
They shared a slight smile borne of understanding; a kindred connection that came from two women who’d really served no worthy purpose beyond the match they might make. As she took in the hard, emotionless set to the duke’s face, Genevieve’s heart tugged. Where her father’s disinterest had afforded her a world of make believe, pretend, and the friendship of her sister, what must it have been like for Cedric? What must it have been like for a boy to grow up under that coldness?
“There are…nostories you might share of him?” she asked tentatively, hating that she craved those pieces like cherished treasures.
“We are not close,” Lady Cara said with a directness she appreciated but that brought a frown to Genevieve’s lips.
Are. Not were. Having been best friends with Gillian until that relationship had been severed with her removal, it was anathema to all she knew about siblings to expect Lady Cara didn’t know something of her brother.
“You see, my brother has long lived for h-h…” she stumbled over her words and paused, appearing to search for appropriate words. “Himself,” she settled for.
The muscles of her belly clenched. Even as the charming rogue with an ever-present grin, the gentleman who’d met her in the gardens and spoken of art, or chased away her sadness with a game of short-answers, that was not a man who cared only for himself.
Lady Cara searched her face. “But,” she put forward tentatively. “I saw him in the gardens this morn and beside you even now,” she cast her gaze briefly in her brother’s direction. “And the way he is with you is not how he is or has been ever with anyone.”
Emotion swelled in her heart. The romantic Lady Cara who wore her love for the gentleman she was married to would see stars amidst dust. “Oh,” she said softly. “There is nothing there.” Not on Cedric’s part. At least nothing that moved beyond the practical. Genevieve fiddled with the stem of her crystal glass.
“You do not care for him, then?” Lady Cara asked, surprise flaring in her eyes.
Stealing a quick look to be sure Cedric remained engrossed in discussion with Gillian and Lord Montfort, Genevieve spoke in hushed tones. “You misunderstand me.” She cared for him. More than was practical or sensible and more than could ever make sense for their brief acquaintance. “I do care for him. He, however.” Her lips pulled involuntarily. It would be unfair to allow his sister to believe Cedric had given her anything different than what he’d pledged.
“However?” Lady Cara gently encouraged.
“Ours is a marriage of convenience,” she settled for lamely. Even as the words slipped from her, she winced. How mercenary that admission painted her.
The other young lady said nothing for a long moment. “Perhaps,” she said, a pensive glimmer in her cautious eyes. “But there is more. I see it in you and I see it in my brother.” She leaned close. “When I’ve never seenanyemotion from him, ever.”
The Marquess of Grafton called his wife’s attention and Genevieve was left with her thoughts and Lady Cara’s fanciful words.
Good God, he would have traded all the property coming to him with his marriage this day to be done with the infernal wedding feast.
And it was not because the polite event was hardly his usual pleasures or pursuits, because if he was being just a bit truthful with himself, even with his miserable father at the head of the table, there had been something…rather pleasant in the laughter of his wife and the handful of other assembled guests. And in Genevieve’s subtle challenge of Montfort’s words. Except with her mention ofI Modi, she’d only served to conjure all manner of wicked acts and positions marked in those wooden engravings and captured on forbidden pages.
Now he sat beside his very casual wife, conjuring an image of looking through that notoriously scandalous book and putting all sixteen deeds into practice with her. Ultimately, however, he wished to spirit his wife from this oppressive townhouse he’d called home for nearly twenty years, reserve her smile for himself this day, and make love to her at last.
As it was, she remained engrossed in a conversation with his sister.
His skin pricked with the sense of being watched and he pulled his gaze away from Genevieve. His father stared back, his ageless face a familiar, expressionless mask, but then he turned his lips up in a slight, mockingly triumphant grin that glinted in his hard eyes. Wordlessly, he lifted his glass in Cedric and Genevieve’s direction.
Cedric narrowed his eyes and tension rolled through him. But for the handful of curt words and furious eyes, the bastard had given little indication of his thoughts yesterday when Cedric expressed his intentions of wedding Genevieve. Sitting beside his bride, there was a perverse satisfaction in being married to one his father so disapproved of.
“Are you all right?”
His new wife’s quiet inquiry pulled his attention, jerking him back from thoughts of his coldhearted sire. Cedric transferred his glass to his other hand and claimed Genevieve’s fingers, raising them to his lips once more. “How can I not be all right when I’m wed to a minx who knows Raimondi’s work?”
A becoming blush stained her pale cheeks. “You are a shameless flirt who is a master at diverting questions, Cedric Andrew Josiah James.”
He grimaced. Did the lady miss nothing? “And you recalled that mouthful?”
She smiled. “Yes, well, it is a lot of name for any man. I’d imagine even more so for a boy.” Then, Genevieve favored him with a slow wink. “I daresay we must be more judicious for the sake of a child when selecting names for our own.”
Her words roused another flurry of wicked musings that involved guiding her naked form upon his massive four-poster bed, and laying between her legs… Until the reality of what she’d said trickled in. He yanked at his cravat. “Er…yes…” Because really, what did a gentleman who’d been clear that they’d never need worry after a child say to that?
Little silver sparkles danced in her expressive green eyes. “I am merely teasing, Cedric,” she assured patting his hand and his shoulders sagged with relief. “Your name is a splendid one, too.”
This was familiar. Pretty words and compliments he could handle. Not the serious talks of babes and anything that grounded them in the permanency he’d spent the better part of his life avoiding. “Thank you Genevieve Grace Falcot.” Their names went perfectly together; melded as though they’d been meant to be united. Inwardly cringing, he shoved aside such blasted romantic musings. What had she done to him that he didn’t even recognize himself in a mere week of knowing her?
She waggled her eyebrows. “Well, I do say my mastery of your list is more commendable than the mere two you had to recall.”
“You could have hundreds of them and I’d have recalled them all,” he said quietly, the words coming from a place of truth and sincerity that terrified the hell out of him.
Her lips parted as all her amusement faded, replaced with a shocked solemnity that only ratcheted up his level of panic. Then she quickly closed her mouth and gave him a slight smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes. “As I said, Cedric, you are a rake who possesses a skill with words The Bard himself would have envied you for.”
She believed his words spoken as nothing more than flirtatious repartee. She was right to that opinion and he’d not bother to correct her with the truth.
Sipping from his glass of wine, unnerved by his wife’s potent hold over him, Cedric fixed on the passing minutes, until the last bloody course was at last cleared away.
In short order, the assembled guests filed from the breakfast room. At his side, his wife stole intermittent glances up at him. Why could he not dredge forth the practiced charm? They reached the foyer and servants rushed over with their cloaks. A young footman helped Genevieve into her gray muslin garment and Cedric frowned at the gentle smile she favored the strapping man with that raised a blush on his cheeks. When had he ever cared about whom a lady reserved any or all of her attention for? Yet, the sight of his newly-minted bride charming a damned servant sent a spiral of red fury rolling inside.
“All the same, aren’t they,” his father bit out in hushed tones for Cedric’s ears. “Get me my heir before that one goes tupping your servants.”
Cedric jerked and, reflexively, he curled his hands into tight fists to keep from bloodying his sire senseless. He’d not show the bastard a hint of emotion. “Go to hell, Father,” he said cheerfully.
Genevieve threw her arms around her sister. Folding her in a tight embrace, she whispered something against the young woman’s temple. Tipping his head, he took in that exchange. The young ladies spoke in hushed whispers, exchanging the occasional, periodic nod. There was a familial affection he’d thought impossible. For the first five years of his life, he’d known that warmth from his mother, but those moments had been so very fleeting they may as well have been imagined. He looked to his own sister, smiling alongside his equally smiling brother-in-law, the Marquess of Grafton; two people who, even given their connection, may as well have been strangers.
He’d attended their own wedding as more a formal guest, who just by a matter of chance happened to share the blood of the bride. And he’d not imagined it could be any other way among family.
Catching his gaze, the Marquess of Grafton came forward with a hand outstretched. “St. Albans.” Gone was all hint of the earlier warmth the man had shown Clarisse. In its place was a frosty reserve.
Ah, so the man had, at some point, gleaned his wife’s brother was, in fact, a shameful rotter. “Grafton,” he returned, accepting the congratulatory handshake and then he let his arm fall to his side. Suddenly even more eager to be rid of the lot of them and the niggling of caring about their ill-opinion of him, he held his elbow out to Genevieve making her goodbyes to Clarisse. “My lady. Shall we?”
His wife said one more thing to Cedric’s sister and then came over, took his arm, and let him usher her outside the walls of the oppressive townhouse he’d spent the better part of his life trying to be free of.
He sucked in a clearing breath of the spring air.
“It is awful, is it not?” Genevieve murmured, as they made their way to his waiting carriage.
Cedric raised his brow. “Awful?”
“The air,” she said by way of explanation.
Motioning away the waiting servant, Cedric easily handed his wife inside the black barouche. “I rather fancy breathing. The whole allowing a person to live, business.”
She laughed. “Oh, hush.” His wife settled her lithe frame in the red upholstered squabs. “I referred to the staleness of it.”
He paused. “Is it stale?” Cedric cast a glance back out the open door at the hazy blue skies. He spent so little time in the country, but a handful of weeks each year in the hunting season, that he’d never really given it a note. His recent winnings last year of the country manor and properties had been in such rubbish shape, he’d been more fixed on the challenge of attempting to resurrect the basic heap of stone. The steward he’d selected oversaw the growing prosperity of that, allowing Cedric to return to London. He claimed the seat opposite his wife.
Genevieve widened her eyes to large green pools. “Never tell me you’ve never noticed the difference between country air and London air?” Shock underscored her words. “Cedric Andrew,” she said, when he remained silent.
The servant closed the door behind them. “Then I shan’t tell you.”
“It is impossible to not note it,” she said sounding both befuddled and beleaguered that her husband hadn’t noted the same drastic difference. “It smells…” She wrinkled her mouth in a preciously endearing manner. “Cleaner and pure. And the stars…”
His wife, the gardener and artist, preferred the country. That truth was reflected in the faraway distance of her gaze. Cedric reached over and scooped her up, startling a squeak from her as he settled her on his lap. “I will just have to teach you how splendid London is,” he whispered against her lips and then he took her mouth under his in a hard kiss.
A breathless sigh escaped her and he slipped his tongue inside swallowing that sound of her desire. She angled her neck, allowing him greater access to her mouth. The carriage lurched forward, jolting them apart. Her cheeks flushed and her chest rising and falling with the evidence of her breathless desire, Genevieve captured his face between her delicate palms. “And I intend to show you all you’ve missed these years, Cedric Andrew.”
And because he did not know what to do with the depth of emotion in her eyes and promise that belied the marriage of convenience they’d both agreed to, Cedric took her lips once more in a kiss, so that all he could focus on was this desperate hunger for Genevieve Grace and not the sea of meaningful questions he did not care to explore.Chapter 17
She’d not seen her husband since they’d entered his townhouse, nay,theirtownhouse. Genevieve found the gilt clock atop the fireplace mantel where a small fire burned, six hours ago.
It had been six hours since they’d arrived, greeted by the line of assembled servants.
The housekeeper Mrs. Fennyworth, had shown her abovestairs…where she had been waiting ever since. Surely, her husband had not left her on her wedding night. Surely, he’d not sought out his clubs or…a dark, ugly, niggling thought slid in…visited someone else.
…I am a rake…
“Are you sure you are not hungry, my lady?” Delores asked.
Looking up quickly from the sketchpad on her lap, Genevieve shook her head. “No, I am quite well. You may leave the tray.” With the knots churning her belly, the last thing she cared for was food. “That is all, Delores,” she said softly. “You may go.”
The young lady nodded and then quickly hurried across the room. She pulled the door open and gasped. “Oh, excuse me, my lord.”
Genevieve whipped her gaze to the entrance and her fingers curled tight on the book in her hands as Cedric stepped aside, allowing the maid to make a hasty retreat. Her heart tripped a beat at the sight of him. Absent of his jacket and attired in nothing but his white shirtsleeves, breeches and boots, he closed the door and leaned against it. With a cool elegance, he propped the sole of his boot against the wood panel. Her mouth went dry. No gentleman had a right to such sophisticated ease. She hopped up from the Louis XV red, giltwood Duchesse and her sketchpad tumbled forgotten to the floor.
By the ghost of a smile hovering about his lips, he’d noted her scrutiny. “Genevieve,” he greeted on a satiny whisper.
Nervousness tripped inside her belly. “C-Cedric,” she fiddled with the charcoal in her fingers, belatedly realizing the dark mess she’d made of her already slightly stained fingers.
“You did not take an evening meal,” he observed, his gaze going to the untouched silver tray that had arrived several hours ago.
She’d spent so much time worrying he’d not come, that she’d not given due attention to nervousness of what it would mean when hedidarrive. “No,” she conceded, unable to the keep the disappointment from her words. No bride cared to take her first meal as a wedded woman in her chambers, alone.
Cedric pushed away from the door and stalked over with long, sleek steps, then came to a stop. His gaze fell downward and she appreciated the thick luxuriance of his golden hair. Her fingers twitched. Surely a wife was permitted the luxury of running her fingers through those strands when she wished? And…
She registered his still otherwise diverted attention and she belatedly followed his stare.Drat. His partially completed likeness stared back at her. Embarrassment curled her toes into the thin Aubusson carpet.
Wordlessly, he sank to his haunches and scooped up the book. She dug her fingernails into her palm to keep from ripping that book from his hand. That book which had served as a window into her thoughts, dreams, and actions, for the past four, nearly five years. He remained crouched at her feet and she braced for that gentle teasing and mischievous smile on his perfect lips. Instead, he flipped through the pages. The crackle of the thick sheets turning loud as a shot in the quiet room. He lingered on the gardens she’d tended in her grandfather’s Kent property.
“They are my grandfather’s,” she said into the silence, needing to fill that thick void.
Cedric glanced up a moment. “You miss it.” There was faint surprise in those words which were more statement than anything else.
“I do,” she replied, anyway. She reclaimed her spot on the chaise. “I cried as though I might break when my parents sent me to him. I loved London.” Not unlike Cedric himself still did. “And I hated Kent from the moment I arrived at his country property.” The memory trickled in of those earliest days. The fear and anxiousness around the heavily wrinkled, gruff, ancient earl who growled more than he spoke. Until he’d ordered her outside and so desperate to be free of those growls, she’d looked at the world anew. “What I wouldn’t give to be back in the country,” she said softly. “While I was there,” she motioned to the butterflies etched in black. “I noticed all those things I previously missed in my family’s brief trips to Father’s country seat.”