Propped upon a mountain of satin pillows amid rumpled bed linens, Helene Devernay surveyed his bronzed, muscular torso with an appreciative smile as Stephen David Elliott Westmoreland, Earl of Langford, Baron of Ellingwood, Fifth Viscount Hargrove, Viscount Ashbourne, shrugged into the frilled shirt he’d tossed over the foot of the bed last night. “Are we still attending the theatre next week?” she asked.
Stephen glanced at her in surprise as he picked up his neck cloth. “Of course.” Turning to the mirror above the fireplace, he met her gaze in it while he deftly wrapped the fine white silk into intricate folds around his neck. “Why did you need to ask?”
“Because the Season begins next week, and Monica Fitzwaring is coming to town. I heard it from my dressmaker, who is also hers.”
“And?” he said, looking steadily at her in the mirror, his expression betraying not even a flicker of reaction.
With a sigh, Helene rolled onto her side and leaned on an elbow, her tone regretful but frank. “And gossip has it that you’re finally going to make her the offer she and her father have been waiting for these three years past.”
“Is that what the gossips are saying?” he asked casually, but he lifted his brows slightly, in a gesture that silently, and very effectively, managed to convey his displeasure with Helene for introducing a topic that he clearly felt was none of her concern.
Helene noted the unspoken reprimand and the warning it carried, but she took advantage of what had been a remarkably open—and highly pleasurable—affair for both of them for several years. “In the past, there have been dozens of rumors that you were on the verge of offering for one aspiring female or another,” she pointed out quietly, “and, until now, I have never asked you to verify or deny any of them.”
Without answering, Stephen turned from the mirror and picked up his evening jacket from the flowered chaise longue. He shoved his arms into the sleeves, then he walked over to the side of the bed and finally directed all his attention to the woman in it. Standing there, looking down at her, he felt his annoyance diminish considerably. Propped up on her elbow, with her golden hair spilling over her naked back and breasts, Helene Devernay was a delectable sight. She was also intelligent, direct, and sophisticated, all of which made her a thoroughly delightful mistress both in and out of bed. He knew she was too practical to nurture any secret hopes of a marriage offer from him, which was absolutely out of the question for a woman in her circumstances, and she was too independent to have any real desire to tie herself to someone for life—traits that further solidified their relationship. Or so he had thought. “But now you are asking me to confirm or deny that I intend to offer for Monica Fitzwaring?” he asked quietly.
Helene gave him a warm, seductive smile that normally made his body respond. “I am.”
Brushing back the sides of his jacket, Stephen put his hands on his hips and regarded her coolly. “And if I said yes?”
“Then, my lord, I would say that you are making a great mistake. You have a fondness for her, but not a great love nor even a great passion. All she has to offer you is her beauty, her bloodlines, and the prospect of an heir. She hasn’t your strength of will, nor your intelligence, and although she may care for you, she will never understand you. She will bore you in bed and out of it, and you will intimidate, hurt, and anger her.”
“Thank you, Helene. I must count myself fortunate that you take such an interest in my personal life and that you are so willing to share your expertise on how I ought to live it.”
The stinging set down caused her smile to fade a little but not disappear. “There, you see?” she asked softly. “I am duly chastened and forewarned by that tone of yours, but Monica Fitzwaring would be either completely crushed or mortally offended.”
She watched his expression harden at the same time his voice became extremely polite, chillingly so. “My apologies, madame,” he said, inclining his head in a mockery of a bow, “if I have ever addressed you in a tone that is less than civil.”
Reaching up, Helene tugged on his jacket in an attempt to make him sit down on the bed beside her. When this failed, she dropped her hand, but not the issue, and widened her smile to soothe his temper. “You never speak to anyone in an uncivil tone, Stephen. In fact, the more annoyed you are, the more ‘civil’ you become—until you are so very civil, so very precise and correct, that the effect is actually quite alarming. One might even say . . . terrifying!”
She shivered to illustrate, and Stephen grinned in spite of himself.
“That is what I meant,” she said, smiling back at him. “When you grow cold and angry, I know how—” Her breath caught as his large hand slipped down beneath the sheet and covered her breast, his fingers tantalizing her.
“I merely wish to warm you,” he said, as she reached her arms around his neck and drew him down on the bed.
“And distract me.”
“I think a fur would do a far better job of that.”
“Of warming me?”
“Of distracting you,” he said as his mouth covered hers, and then he went about the pleasurable business of warming, and distracting, both of them.
It was nearly five o’clock in the morning when he was dressed again.
“Stephen?” she whispered sleepily as he bent and pressed a farewell kiss upon her smooth brow.
“I have a confession.”
“No confessions,” he reminded her. “We agreed on that from the beginning. No confessions, no recriminations, no promises. That was the way we both wanted it.”
Helene didn’t deny it, but this morning she couldn’t make herself comply. “My confession is that I find myself rather annoyingly jealous of Monica Fitzwaring.”
Stephen straightened with an impatient sigh, and waited, knowing she was determined to have her say, but he did not help her do it. He simply regarded her with raised brows.
“I realize you need an heir,” she began, her full lips curving into an embarrassed smile, “but could you not wed a female whose looks pale a little in comparison with mine? Someone shrewish too. A shrew with a slightly crooked nose or small eyes would suit me very well.”
Stephen chuckled at her humor, but he wanted the subject closed permanently, and so he said, “Monica Fitzwaring is no threat to you, Helene. I’ve no doubt she knows of our relationship and she would not try to interfere, even if she thought she could.”
“What makes you so certain?”
“She volunteered the information,” he said flatly, and when Helene still looked unconvinced, he added, “In the interest of putting an end to your concern and to this entire topic, I’ll add that I already have a perfectly acceptable heir in my brother’s son. Furthermore, I have no intention of adhering to custom, now or in future, by shackling myself to a wife for the sole purpose of begetting a legal heir of my own body.”
As Stephen came to the end of that blunt speech, he watched her expression change from surprise to amused bafflement. Her next remark clarified the reason for her obvious quandary: “If not to beget an heir, what other possible reason could there be for a man such as you to wed at all?”
Stephen’s disinterested shrug and brief smile dismissed all the other usual reasons for marriage as trivial, absurd, or imaginary. “For a man such as I,” he replied with a mild amusement that failed to disguise his genuine contempt for the twin farces of wedded bliss and the sanctity of marriage—two illusions that flourished even in the brittle, sophisticated social world he inhabited, “there does not seem to be a single compelling reason to commit matrimony.”
Helene studied him intently, her face alight with curiosity, caution, and the dawning of understanding. “I always wondered why you didn’t marry Emily Lathrop. In addition to her acclaimed face and figure, she is also one of the few women in England who actually possesses the requirements of birth and breeding in enough abundance to make her worthy of marrying into the Westmoreland family and of producing your heir. Everyone knows you fought a duel with her husband because of her, yet you didn’t kill him, nor did you marry her a year later, after old Lord Lathrop finally keeled over and cocked up his toes.”
His brows rose in amusement at her use of irreverent slang for Lathrop’s death, but his attitude toward the duel was as casual and matter-of-fact as her own. “Lathrop got some maggot into his head about defending Emily’s honor and putting a stop to all the rumors about her, by challenging one of her alleged lovers to a duel. I will never understand why the poor old man chose me from amongst a legion of viable candidates.”
“Whatever method he used, it’s obvious age had addled his mind.”
Stephen eyed her curiously. “Why do you say that?”
“Because your skill with pistols, and your skill on the dueling field, are both rather legendary.”
“Any child of ten could have won a duel with Lathrop,” Stephen said, ignoring her praise of his abilities. “He was so old and frail he couldn’t steady his own pistol or hold it level. He had to use both hands.”
“And so you let him leave Rockham Green unscathed?”
Stephen nodded. “I felt it would be impolite of me to kill him, under the circumstances.”
“Considering that he forced the duel on you in the first place, by calling you out in front of witnesses, it was very kind of you to pretend to miss your shot, in order to spare his pride.”
“I did not pretend to miss my shot, Helene,” he informed her, and then he pointedly added, “I deloped.”
To delope constituted an apology and therefore implied an admission of guilt. Thinking he might have some other explanation for standing twenty paces from his opponent and deliberately firing high into the air instead of at Lord Lathrop, she said slowly, “Are you saying you really were Emily Lathrop’s lover? You were actually guilty?”
“As sin,” Stephen averred flatly.
“May I ask you one more question, my lord?”
“You can ask it,” he specified, struggling to hide his mounting impatience with her unprecedented and unwelcome preoccupation with his private life.
In a rare show of feminine uncertainty, she glanced away as if to gather her courage, then she looked up at him with an embarrassed, seductive smile that he might have found irresistible had it not been immediately followed by a line of questioning so outrageous that it violated even his own lax standards of acceptable decorum between the sexes. “What was it about Emily Lathrop that drew you to her bed?”
His instant aversion to that question was completely eclipsed by his negative reaction to her next. “I mean, was there anything she did with you—or for you—or to you, that I do not do when we’re in bed together?”
“As a matter of fact,” he replied in a lazy drawl, “there was one thing Emily did that I particularly liked.”
In her eagerness to discover another woman’s secret, Helene overlooked the sarcasm edging his voice. “What did she do that you particularly liked?”
His gaze dropped suggestively to her mouth. “Shall I show you?” he asked, and when she nodded, he bent over her, bracing his hands on either side of her pillow so that his waist and hips were only inches above her head. “You’re absolutely certain you wish to take part in a demonstration?” he asked in a deliberately seductive whisper.
Her emphatic nod was playful and inviting enough to take the edge off his annoyance, leaving him caught somewhere between amusement and exasperation. “Show me what she did that you particularly liked,” she whispered, sliding her hands up his forearms.
Stephen showed her by putting his right hand firmly over her mouth, startling her with a “demonstration” that matched his smiling explanation: “She refrained from asking me questions like yours about you or anyone else, and that is what I particularly liked.”
She gazed back at him, her blue eyes wide with frustrated chagrin, but this time she did not fail to notice the implacable warning in his deceptively mild voice.
“Do we have an understanding, my inquisitive beauty?”
She nodded, then boldly attempted to tip the balance of power into her favor by delicately running her tongue across his palm.
Stephen chuckled at her ploy and moved his hand, but he was no longer in the mood for sexual play or for conversation, and so he pressed a brief kiss on her forehead and left.
Outside, a wet gray fog blanketed the night, broken only by the faint eerie glow of lamplights along the street. Stephen took the reins from the relieved footman and spoke soothingly to the young pair of matched chestnuts who were stamping their hooves and tossing their manes. It was the first time they had been driven in the city, and as Stephen loosened the reins to let them move into a trot, he noted that the curb horse was extremely skittish in the fog. Everything unnerved the animal, from the sound of his own hooves clattering on the cobbled streets to the shadows beneath the streetlamps. When a door slammed off to the left, he shied, then tried to break into a run. Stephen automatically tightened the reins, and turned the carriage down Middleberry Street. The horses were moving at a fast trot and seemed to be settling down a bit. Suddenly an alley cat screamed and bolted off a fruit cart, sending an avalanche of apples rumbling into the street. At the same time the door of a pub was flung open, splashing light into the street. Pandemonium broke loose: dogs howled, the horses slipped and bolted frantically, and a dark figure staggered out of the pub, disappeared between two carriages drawn up at the curb . . . and then materialized directly in front of Stephen’s carriage.
Stephen’s warning shout came too late.