After five seasons…
She was still on the shelf!
Part of The Cinderella Spinsters. Miss Emma Henley knows she’s neither pretty nor rich enough to land a husband. Instead she’s thrown her passion into good causes. But this season she’s tempted by a flirtation with Lord Theo. The dashing rake is just as determined to stay unwed as she is. It’s scandalous…but if she’s never to marry, perhaps he can show her the pleasures of the marriage bed!
Running a hand over the stubble on his chin, Lord Theo Collington turned his horse down one of the pathways bordering Rotten Row. Despite not returning home until morning, he’d been too restless and out of sorts to seek his bed, deciding instead to order his gelding and head to Hyde Park for a ride while the park was still thin of company. He needed to think and he didn’t want to encounter anyone who would require him to play the increasingly wearying role of the devil-may-care man-about-town.
Not that he had any viable alternative to evenings of gaming with his friends or nights spent visiting the opera, the theatre, or whatever select society entertainment he expected to be amusing. But of late, a vague discomfort had begun to shadow his pleasure in those activities. A long-suppressed sense that there should have been something more to his life.
Not the ‘something more’ his mama continually urged on him—which was marriage and the setting up of his nursery. Though he very much enjoyed the female form and figure, he hadn’t yet encountered a woman out of bed who didn’t, after a time, grow tedious.
Well, perhaps one, he thought, smiling as he recalled the sharp verbal fencing that occurred whenever he encountered Miss Emma Henley. Fortunately, however, that lady was as little interested in marriage as he was, so he might indulge in the delight of her company without raising expectations in either her or society that he had matrimonial leanings in her direction.
When it came to ladies, though, one thing he did know for certain. After the contretemps at the opera last night, his liaison with Lady Belinda Ballister was definitely over.
That resolution was the easiest of the conclusions he’d needed the crisp morning air to clear his head enough to make. Still, forcing himself to give up the admittedly exceptional pleasure the skilfully inventive Belinda had given him the last few months was a sacrifice heroic enough to deserve a reward. He’d allow himself a gallop before returning home.
Gathering the reins back in both hands, he signalled his mount to start.
Ah, now this pleasure truly never would pale, he thought as the gelding reached full stride. His heart exulted with the rapid tattoo of the hoofbeats, the thrill of speeding over the ground, while the rush of wind blew the last of the brandy fumes out of his head.
This pleasure of another sort was, in its own way, nearly as satisfying as a rendezvous with the tireless Belinda. Maybe he ought to take up racing horses.
That nonsensical idea had him smiling as he rounded a corner—and almost collided with a rider galloping straight at him.
Both horses shied, fortunately to opposite sides of the path. It took him a moment to control his startled mount and bring him to a halt before he could turn to check on the other horseman.
Or rather, horsewoman, he corrected, noting the trailing riding habit. Noting also the expertise of the rider, who had quickly brought her own plunging, panicked horse back under control.
Straightening the shako on her head—the only damage she seemed to have suffered—the lady turned towards him. ‘Lord Theo,’ she said, the tone of her musical voice sardonic. ‘I should have known. Who else could I have expected to almost run me down in the park?’
His spirits immediately brightening, he felt his lips curving back into a smile. ‘Thank you, Miss Henley, for your solicitude in enquiring whether my mount and I sustained any harm in the shock of our near-collision. But then, what other lady might I expect to find galloping through the park like a steeplechaser?’
‘Temperance Lattimar,’ she tossed back. ‘Although now that she’s wed, she’s generally too occupied with the business of being an earl’s wife to have time to gallop in the park. One more good reason to remain single.’
‘I agree with you there. But isn’t it a bit late for your ride? You usually come earlier if you intend to race like a Newmarket jockey.’
He waited in anticipation, but she didn’t rise to the bait, merely replying, ‘True. Whereas you, Lord Theo—’ she gave him a quick inspection ‘—appear to have not yet found your bed. Carousing late again?’
‘As would be expected of the ton’s leading bachelor,’ he replied, his smile deepening.
What a singular female she was, he thought, captured anew by the force of the intense hazel-eyed gaze she’d fixed on him. She was the only woman of his acquaintance who, rather than angling her face to give him a flirtatious look or a seductive batting of her eyes, looked straight at him, her fierce, no-nonsense gaze devoid of flattery.
‘If I rode close enough, I suppose I would catch the scent, not just of horse, but of your latest lover’s perfume.’
Grinning, he shook a reproving finger. ‘You know a gentleman never gossips.’
As she tilted her head, studying him, he felt it again—the primitive surge of attraction of a male for a desirable female. He’d been startled at first to have the plain woman society dismissively referred to as ‘the Homely Miss Henley’ evoke such a reaction. But though she possessed none of the dazzling beauty that had made her elder sister, ‘the Handsome Miss Henley’ a diamond of the ton, there was something about her—some restless, passionate, driving force he sensed just beneath her surface calm—that called out to him, as compelling as physical beauty.
Unfortunately, he reminded himself with a suppressed sigh, it was also an attraction quite impossible to pursue. A gentleman might dally with willing married ladies, but never with an innocent.
He’d have to content himself with indulging in intellectual intercourse. A delight in which Miss Henley was as skilled as his former lover was in dalliance.
‘Then I shall not press you for details, but send you off to your bed,’ she said after a moment, the trace of heat in her gaze sending another wave of awareness through him.
Did he only imagine it, or did that comment imply that she, too—virginal maiden though she was—envisaged beds and a pressing together of flesh when she focused so intently upon him?
‘I shall resume my interrupted gallop,’ she continued as he sat speechless, distracted by that titillating speculation.
‘This late in the morning?’ Dragging his mind from its lecherous thoughts, Theo turned his attention back to the lady—and frowned.
Miss Henley’s face, normally a long, pale, unremarkable blank, was flushed. Her jaw was set and those exceptional hazel eyes glittered with more than usual fire.
Even more unusually, he realised, she was completely alone. Though Miss Henley often scoffed at society, she usually followed its conventions, which forbade an unmarried lady of quality from going anywhere unaccompanied.
‘Something happened this morning, didn’t it?’
Though she shook her head in denial, her quick huff of frustration and a clenching of her teeth belied that response.
‘Come now, give, give! Your groom is nowhere in sight, which means you must have outridden him, and no one attends you—not even the very attentive Mr Null.’
Her flush heightened. ‘It wasn’t well done of me to have dubbed him that. And I should never have let you trick that name out of me!’
‘Ah, but the description is so apt, I would have tumbled to it myself, had you not beaten me to it.’
To his surprise, she lifted her chin and glared at him. ‘You shouldn’t mock him, just because he is not handsome and clever and irresistible to women, like you are,’ she cried, her tone as angry as her expression.
‘I don’t mean to mock,’ he protested, surprised by her vehemence. ‘But even you admit he has the personality of a rock.’
‘Even a dull, ordinary rock has feelings.’
‘I imagine it does—and has as much difficulty expressing them verbally as Mr Nu-Nullford. Why this sudden concern? I thought you’d been trying to avoid the man! Surely you haven’t suddenly conceived a tendre for him!’
‘No, of course not.’ The fire in her eyes died, leaving her expression bleak. Breaking their gaze, she turned her horse and set it to a walk—away from him.
‘You should know you can’t be rid of me that easily,’ Theo said, urging his mount to catch up with hers. ‘Come now, finish the conversation. If you haven’t inexplicably become enamoured of Mr Nullford, why this sudden concern for his feelings?’
As she remained silent, her face averted, an awful thought struck, sending a bolt of dismay to his belly.
‘Has your mama been after you again to marry? Surely you don’t intend to give in and encourage his suit!’ When she made no reply, he prodded again. ‘Do you?’
‘No, of course not,’ she snapped, looking goaded. ‘If you must know, he made me an offer this morning. I refused it.’
‘Ah,’ he said, inexplicably relieved. ‘That’s the reason for the ride. Avoiding what will doubtless be your mama’s attack of the vapours once she learns you’ve turned down another offer. How many will that make?’
‘Far fewer than the number of women you have seduced,’ she retorted.
He laughed. ‘Probably. Although, I should point out, I’ve never seduced a lady who didn’t wish to be seduced.’
‘Why do I let you trick out of me things I should never admit? And cajole me into me saying things I shouldn’t?’
‘Probably because you know I will never reveal the truths you—and I—see about society to anyone else.’
She sighed. As if that exhale of breath took with it the last of her inner turmoil, she turned back to him with a saucy look. ‘You deserve the things I say that I shouldn’t, you know. Like the very first time you deigned to speak with me.’
He groaned, recalling it. ‘Very well, I admit, you showed me up on that occasion—which was most unkind of you!’
‘You shouldn’t have pretended to remember me when clearly you didn’t.’
‘One could hardly admit to a lady that one doesn’t remember her. I was trying to play the Polite Society Gentleman.’
‘No, you were playing Ardent Gentleman Trying to Impress a Dazzling Beauty by Pretending to Know her Plain Friend,’ Miss Henley shot back.
‘Well, even so, it wasn’t nice of you to embarrass me in front of the dazzling Miss Lattimar.’
She chuckled—a warm, intimate sound that always invited him to share in her amusement, even when it was at his expense. ‘It did serve you right.’
‘Perhaps. But it was a most unhandsome response to my attempt to be chivalrous.’
‘If I am so troublesome, I wonder that you continue to seek me out and harass me. Why not just cut the connection?’
‘Don’t tempt me! But every time I contemplate giving you the cut direct you so richly deserve, I recall how singular you are—the only woman in society who doesn’t try to attract my attention. Who says the most outrageous things, one never knows about what or whom, except that the remarks will not adhere to society’s polite conventions—and will be absolute truth. A lady who, most inexplicably, appears impervious to my famous charm. I’m always compelled to approach you again and see if you’ve yet come to your senses.’
‘Why, so you may add me to your harem of admirers?’ she scoffed. ‘I shall never be any man’s property. But all this begs the question of why, if you were merely returning from a night of pleasure, you felt the need for a gallop.’
He hesitated, knowing it would be better to say nothing. Yet he was drawn to reveal the whole to perhaps the one person with whom, over the last few months, he’d inexplicably come to feel he could forgo the façade and be honest.
‘Come, come, bashful silence isn’t in character! You bullied me into revealing my secret. You know I won’t stop until I bully you into revealing yours.’
‘You are a bully, you know.’
‘And now who is being unkind?’ she tossed back, grinning. ‘So, what is it? Have the Beauteous Belinda’s charms begun to fade?’
He gave her a severe look. ‘You know far too much about discreet society affairs about which an innocent maiden should be completely unaware.’
‘Oh, balderdash! Even innocents in their first Season gossip about your exploits. Besides, I’d hardly call the liaison “discreet”. The Beauteous Belinda was boasting at Lady Ingraham’s ball just two nights ago about what a skilled and devoted paramour you are.’
‘Was she now?’ he asked, feeling his jaw clench as fury smouldered hotter. He should have broken with the wretched woman weeks ago. ‘Then you haven’t yet heard about the most recent incident. Last night, at the opera.’
Her teasing expression fading, she looked at him with genuine concern. ‘That sounds ominous. Did she finally try to demonstrate her supposed control over you too outrageously?’
He envisaged the scene again, struck as much on the raw by the succession of disbelief, then discomfort and then rage as he’d been when the episode unfolded. ‘All right, I concede that I probably should have reined in Lady Belinda long ago. It…amused me when she boasted of having me “captivated”. I thought, apparently erroneously, it was a mutual jest, both of us knowing the connection was as convenient as it was pleasurable, with no serious commitment on either side. But for her, on one of Lord Ballister’s rare forays into society, to desert her husband, track me down in the box I was sharing with friends and remain there, hanging on my arm, trying to kiss and fondle me in full view of the audience—and her husband! It was outside of enough!’
‘Oh, dear,’ Miss Henley said, her gaze surprisingly sympathetic. ‘That was not at all well done of her.’
‘I can appreciate that she wasn’t enthused about wedding a man thirty years her senior. A discreet affair, quietly conducted, is understood by all concerned. But though he may be elderly and often ill, Lord Ballister is an honourable gentleman of excellent character. He didn’t deserve to be made to look the cuckolded fool so blatantly and in so public a forum.’
‘No, he did not. But honestly, I’m surprised it took you this long to notice how flagrant she has become. She’s been singing the aria of your enslavement at full voice for months now.’
‘Have I truly been that blind?’ At her roll of the eyes, he sighed. ‘I shall have to be much more observant in future.’
She gave him a thin smile. ‘In my experience, the acuteness of a gentleman’s observation varies in inverse proportion to the beauty of the lady.’
‘And a lady’s observation is so much more acute?’
‘It is—and it isn’t. A lady always, always has much more to lose than a gentleman. And having few options, with marriage normally the only way to secure her future, she may…overlook quite obvious deficiencies.’ She sighed. ‘I just don’t think that anyone should be judged solely on the basis of their looks—or lack of them. Character should count for something, shouldn’t it?’
Picturing Lady Belinda, he said acidly, ‘I’m afraid society is usually more impressed by flash and dash.’
‘Which is why I’d rather eschew marriage and devote my life to good works.’
‘What sort of good works? You’re not going to become one of those dreary Calvinists, warning sinners of fire, brimstone and destruction?’
‘No, I prefer building to destroying. I should like to do something useful. Unlike some I could mention, who seem to think all that’s necessary for a satisfying life is to seduce silly women, drink other men under the table and win at cards.’
‘I can’t imagine to whom you refer,’ he said with a grin. ‘I do ride horses rather well, though.’
‘Perhaps your only noteworthy skill.’
‘Oh, no! I drive quite well, too. You’ve seen me handle a high-perch phaeton.’
‘Excellent. You can look forward to life as a Royal Mail coachman when you run through all your money.’
Laughing, he said, ‘I’d still have my charm. Isn’t charm useful?’
‘For cozening the unwary, perhaps. I’m too downy to fall for that.’
Their teasing gazes collided—and once again held, something undeniable, and undeniably sensual, sparking between them.
‘Ah, that you were not,’ he murmured, regretting her innocent, unmarried state more keenly than ever.
Her pale face colouring, she looked away. ‘Well, enough banter. Thank you for helping me restore my equilibrium so I may return and face down Mama. I’ve half a mind to tell her I am done, absolutely done, with society. No more Season. I’ve had enough!’
He shook his head doubtfully. ‘A noble resolve! We’ll see how long it takes for your mama to squash it.’
‘Thank you so much for the encouragement,’ she said drily. ‘Good day to you, Lord Theo.’
‘And to you, Miss Henley,’ he said, watching her ride off to meet her belatedly approaching groom. Remembering the unwelcome proposal that had prompted the gallop that had left her servant eating dust, he had to smile again. Thank heavens Miss Henley was so resistant to being forced into the usual female role.
Thank heavens, too, that most men were too dull-witted and dazzled by bright and shiny society beauties to recognise the quiet gem among them. Meaning Miss Henley was unlikely to be pursued by a man she might actually want to accept.
Although…if she were married, especially to someone she couldn’t possibly admire, like Mr Null, he might actually be able to indulge this annoyingly strong urge to pursue her.
Damn, but she was unusual! The woman drew him far too strongly, on too many levels. More and more frequently, he found himself struggling between two polar opposite desires: to throw caution to the wind and see if she truly possessed the passion of which he caught tantalising glimpses. Or the much more prudent course of avoiding her completely.
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