Lady Victoria Fontaine threw back her head and
laughed. "Faster, Marley!"
Below her John Madsen, Viscount Marley, tightened his grip
around her legs and increased his rate of spinning. The
other dancers began fleeing to the edges of the ballroom
despite the beckoning notes of the quadrille, but she
noticed them only in blurred fits and starts of glaring
eyes and envious whispers. This would be the last time her
parents attempted to keep her housebound for three days.
Teach her restraint -- ha. Chuckling breathlessly, she
flung out her arms.
"Iâ€™m getting dizzy, Vixen," Marley panted, his words
muffled in her gownâ€™s rumpled green silk. He hefted her
higher in the air.
"Then spin the other way!"
To punctuate the curse, Marley lurched sideways, tottered,
and dumped them both to the polished ballroom floor.
"Oops." Vixen laughed again as her herd of male admirers
swooped forward to assist her to her feet. Poor Marley had
to scramble out of the way to avoid being
trampled. "Gadzooks, that was fun." She staggered sideways,
blinking as the room continued to whirl and dip.
"Whoa, Vixen," Lionel Parrish crooned, catching her up
against him. "You nearly showed off your unmentionables to
the Duke of Hawling. We canâ€™t have you falling again and
giving him an apoplexy."
"I feel like a whirligig, Lionel. Please help me to a seat."
With her back on her feet, several of her herd took pity on
Marley and pulled him upright, as well. He joined them,
dropping into the chair beside her, as they found seats at
one side of the room. "Dash it, Vixen, now youâ€™ve made me
"You need a steadier constitution," she said, laughing and
out of breath. "Someone fetch me a punch, if you please."
Immediately half the herd scattered for the refreshment
table, while the other half moved in to take their vacated
places. The musicians rallied to begin a country dance. As
the ballroom floor refilled, Lucy Havers escaped from her
motherâ€™s view and hurried over to sit on Victoriaâ€™s other
"My goodness! Are you unhurt?" she exclaimed, grabbing
Victoria squeezed her fingers. "Quite. Marley broke my
He sent her a glare. "If you were a large woman, Vix, Iâ€™d
be dead right now."
"If Iâ€™d been a large woman, you wouldnâ€™t have lifted me
into the air like a victory flag." Grinning, she returned
her attention to Lucy. "Is my hair at all salvageable?"
"Mostly. Youâ€™ve lost a comb."
"I have it, Vixen," Lord William Landry announced, holding
up the delicate ivory piece. "Iâ€™ll return it to you . . .
in exchange for a kiss."
My, that was a surprise. Trying to straighten her midnight
ringlets, which did have a definite droop on one side,
Victoria favored the Duke of Fenshireâ€™s third son with a
speculative smile. "Only a kiss? That is my favorite comb,
"Perhaps we might negotiate for more later, but for the
moment a kiss will suffice."
"Very well. Lionel, kiss Lord William for me."
"Not for five hundred quid."
Everyone laughed, while inwardly Victoria sighed. She
hadnâ€™t thought it would work, though it had certainly been
worth a try. The longer she put it off, the more he would
gloat about it and insinuate she owed him -- and dash it
all, that was her favorite comb. She stood, straightening
her skirt, and stepped up to William Landry. Tiptoeing, she
brushed her lips against his cheek before he could
intercept her for a sounder kiss. He reeked of brandy, but
that was no great surprise.
"My comb, please," she said, holding out her hand and
unable to keep the smug look off her face. He should have
known by now; no one bested the Vixen.
"That hardly counts," William protested, scowling, while
the rest of the herd guffawed at him.
"It looked like a kiss to me," Marley said helpfully.
"Hush," Lucy said, and tugged Victoria back to her
seat. "Lady Frantonâ€™s glaring at us again."
"The old witch," William muttered, and handed over the
comb. "If she were any more stiff, sheâ€™d be six feet under."
"Perhaps she needs to be spun," Lucy suggested, giggling.
"I could suggest several things she needs," Marley added
darkly. "Though Iâ€™d have to be six feet under before Iâ€™d
give any of it to her."
Lucy turned crimson. Victoria didnâ€™t mind frank speech in
her presence, but neither did she want her few civilized
friends driven away. She rapped Marley across the knuckles
with her fan. "Stop that."
"Ouch! Defending the downtrodden again, are you?" He rubbed
his knuckles. "Lady Frantonâ€™s more elevated than your usual
"Youâ€™re a bad influence, Marley," she said, beginning to
become annoyed. She was used to the flirtations and the
insults to her civic-mindedness, but they never seemed to
come up with anything new to discuss. "I donâ€™t think Iâ€™m
going to speak to you any longer."
"Hm. Bad luck for you, Marley," Lionel Parrish said. "Make
way for the next fellow."
Immediately the herd began jostling for position, and
Victoria wasnâ€™t quite certain whether they thought they
were joking, or were utterly serious. They expected her to
like it, and to be flattered by the attention, but in
truth, it was becoming very, very old. Being behind locked
doors at Fontaine House almost seemed attractive in
comparison. Almost. "Iâ€™ve decided to make a vow," she
"Not of chastity, I hope," Lord William returned with a
Lionel Parrish frowned through the laughter, taking a step
closer to Lucy. "This is hardly the place for that sort of
talk," he muttered.
"Watch your knuckles, William," Marley agreed, removing his
own hands from her reach.
"My vow is just as bad for you, Lord William," Victoria
retorted. Thank goodness her parents were in Lord Frantonâ€™s
portrait gallery admiring his new acquisitions. Williamâ€™s
was only one of several remarks this evening that would
help convince them to send her to a convent. "From now on,
I intend to converse only with nice men."
Shocked looks greeted her pronouncement, until Stewart
Haddington began laughing. "But who else do you know
besides us scoundrels, Vixen?"
"Hmm," she mused, trying to regain her equilibrium and her
sense of humor. Perhaps Marley had spun her right out of
her usual self. "That is a problem. Marley, you must be
acquainted with a few nice gentlemen. You know -- the ones
youâ€™re always avoiding."
"Certainly I know a moldering corpse or two. But theyâ€™d
bore you to tears in an instant."
He moved closer, obviously trying to retake his usual place
at her side, but she made a show of looking for Lucy and
stepped aside. She didnâ€™t know why, but tonight she
couldnâ€™t seem to shake the feeling that sheâ€™d done all of
this before, and that it hadnâ€™t been very amusing,
then. "How do you know Iâ€™d be bored?"
"Nice men are dull, my dear. Thatâ€™s why youâ€™re here with
"With us," Lord William corrected.
Victoria scowled at the lot of them. Unfortunately, Marley
was correct. Nice men were dull -- and stuffy, constrained,
and narrow-minded. And their repertoire of compliments to
her looks and insults to her thoughts was just about the
same as anyone elseâ€™s. At least rogues agreed to spin
her. "I only tolerate you gentlemen because you obviously
have nowhere else to go," she said haughtily.
"Sad, but true." Lionel nodded, unrepentant. "Weâ€™re to be
"I know I pity you," Lucy said with a giggle, blushing
He kissed her knuckles. "Ah. Thank you, my dear."
"We . . . Good God," Marley hissed, his gaze on something
at the far end of the ballroom. "I donâ€™t bloody believe it."
Victoria started to censure him on his language again,
until she spied what -- or rather, who -- had caught his
attention. "Who is that?" she breathed, suddenly conscious
of her heart beating fast and hard against her ribs.
Lucy turned to look, as well. "Who is . . . Oh, my. Vixen,
heâ€™s looking right at you, isnâ€™t he?"
"I donâ€™t think so." Her pulse thudded. "Do you?"
"The bastard," Marley growled under his breath.
He seemed familiar, and yet she knew sheâ€™d never set eyes
on him before. She had the forceful sensation that a Greek
god had strolled all unawares into Lady Frantonâ€™s stuffy
old ballroom. His elegant dark gray clothing and confident
gait as he made his way through the crowd of guests
proclaimed him a noble; the way he kept his attention on
her while greeting those with whom he seemed acquainted
proclaimed him a rake. But she knew every rake in London --
and none of them had ever made her nerves hum with restless
anticipation or made her feel the blood rushing through her
"Sin personified," Lord William grumbled.
"Althorpe," Lionel echoed.
Surprise jolted through her. "Althorpe? Thomasâ€™s brother?"
"I'd heard the prodigal son had returned," Marley added,
intercepting a footman and a glass of Madeira. "He must
have run out of blunt."
"Or they ran him out of Italy." Lord William watched Lord
Althorpe darkly as he made his way unwaveringly toward them.
"I thought it was Spain he was ravaging."
"I heard Prussia."
"Can one be asked to leave an entire continent?" William
All around them, Victoria heard similar speculation, tense
and breathless murmurings that mingled with the strains of
the country dance. She only half listened; she felt poised
on the brink of something, though of course that was
ridiculous. Rakes stared at her all the time. "He looks
very like his brother," she said in a low voice, trying to
regain her uncertain balance. "Thomas's coloring was
"Thomas's soul was lighter," Lord William countered, and
stepped forward as the dark male disruption reached
them. "Althorpe. Surprised to see you in London."
The Marquis of Althorpe inclined his head. "I like
Victoria kept her attention on him; she couldn't help it.
No doubt every female in the room had their eyes glued
helplessly to his lean, rangy form. With all the rakes
she'd encountered, she'd never seen one who seemed quite
as . . . dangerous. His superfine gray coat hugged his
broad shoulders and emphasized his narrow hips. Black
breeches clung to his muscular thighs. Used as she was to
the attentions of attractive men, the new marquis projected
a strength and power that were almost animally attractive.
His eyes were the golden amber of fine whiskey, and they
didn't smile at all as he gazed at her herd of male
admirers. She'd half-thought he meant to stride right up to
her, heft her over his shoulder, and make away with her,
but he stopped in a civil-enough manner to greet the
gentlemen surrounding Lucy and her.
The low drawl of his voice resonated down her spine, and
she tried to ignore the sensation -- without much success.
A lock of black hair had strayed across his brow, and her
fingers itched with the abrupt desire to brush it back from
his tanned face. The sensuous lips curved in a slight,
jaded smile, and she didn't think it was her earlier
spinning that made her feel lightheaded.
"Vixen, Lucy, allow me to introduce Sinclair Grafton, the
Marquis of Althorpe," William was saying. "Althorpe, Lady
Victoria Fontaine and Miss Lucy Havers."
The amber gaze returned to her face, studying and
assessing. He took her gloved hand and bowed over it. "Lady
Althorpe turned away, greeting Lucy in the same manner, and
abrupt, unexpected and unaccustomed jealousy stabbed
through Victoria. It was ridiculous, but she didn't want to
share her new discovery. With anyone. "Lord Althorpe. My
condolences about your brother," she said, deliberately
He returned his attention to her. "My thanks, Lady
Victoria. Had you heard, Marley, that--"
"Youâ€™re welcome." She nodded. "I would have expressed my
condolences earlier, of course, but you weren't available."
Althorpeâ€™s gaze traveled the length of her. "If I'd known
you waited in London to comfort me, I would have returned
much sooner," he murmured.
"What does bring you to London?" Marley asked.
The viscountâ€™s tone didn't seem particularly friendly, but
no doubt he didn't appreciate the additional competition.
Her herd had developed an internal hierarchy over the
course of the last Season or two; one that left Marley with
the greatest privileges toward her. She didn't particularly
appreciate that, but as none of the others held any more
interest for her than he did and it kept the arguing to a
minimum, she'd let it go.
The marquis shrugged dismissively. "It's been awhile since
I've visited, and now that I'm titled, my position has
improved. So, tell me, Marl--"
"You've been titled for two years, as I recall," Victoria
interrupted again, ignoring Lucy's surprised look. Damn it
all, she didn't want him wandering off with Marley to drink
and talk about women and wagering.
Again he looked at her. This was another instance where she
wished she werenâ€™t so petite, so that she didn't have to
look up at the towering nobleman standing before her. The
top of her head barely came to his shoulder.
"So I have." For the first time, something touched his
amber gaze, though it was gone so swiftly she couldn't be
certain she'd seen anything at all. "Do you have a personal
interest in the Althorpe title and its whereabouts, my
lady?" he continued in his low drawl.
"The former marquis, your brother, was a friend of mine."
This time she was certain something sharpened his
expression. "How unique. I didn't think my stuffy old
brother knew anyone who walked without the assistance of a
That seemed callous in the extreme, and she abruptly
wondered whether he was baiting her intentionally. Why, she
had no idea, but she wouldn't stand for such nonsense --
not even from the late marquis' own brother. "Thomas was
"Perhaps we might discuss this phenomenon during the
waltz," he said, glancing across the room as the orchestra
began playing one.
A thrill ran along her nerves again, and she began to have
a serious suspicion that she'd become demented. "This dance
belongs to Mr. Parrish," she said, telling herself that
devilish handsome or not, Sinclair Grafton was obviously
just another self-centered rake -- and she had enough of
those in her herd already.
Althorpe didn't bother looking at Lionel. "You don't mind,
do you, Parrish?"
"Ahem. Not if Vixen doesn't," Lionel answered
"I mind," Marley broke in.
"It's not your waltz." Althorpe held out his hand. The
gesture wasnâ€™t a suggestion, but a command. "Lady Victoria?"
His looks were turning out to be more promising than his
manners. But since she'd already made one spinning scene
that evening, Victoria settled for clenching her jaw as he
took her around the waist and swept her into the dance.
Touching him, the magnetic sensation was even more
powerful. She wondered if he felt it as well. "That was
rude, to cut Lionel like that," she ventured, to have
something to do besides stare up into his enigmatic eyes.
"Was it?" The hand around her waist pulled her slowly
closer to him. "I prefer to think of it as simply taking
"To what purpose?"
"You," he answered without hesitation. "Do I need another
She sighed, disappointed. Another rake who wanted to
flatter her -- as if he could say something she'd never
heard before. "So out of all the ladies present," she
returned, half wondering why she bothered, "you decided to
waltz with me."
"I have impeccable taste."
"Or everyone else present knows your reputation and turned
you down," she countered.
The fleeting something touched his gaze again. "And you
know my reputation and are dancing with me."
"You didn't give me any choice."
"That would have been unproductive," he mused. "As you see,
I am a successful rake."
She pursed her lips. "How productive is a waltz?"
A considering look touched his face. "For me, the waltz is
only the beginning."
Her body swayed against his, their hips brushing, and the
heady, dizzy sensation sheâ€™d experienced on first seeing
him returned, even stronger. He danced at least as smoothly
as he conversed. Or perhaps Marley had twirled her too
vigorously, after all. Something had rattled her insides.
It would take all of her fingers and toes to tally the
number of times an experienced rake had attempted to seduce
her, though, and the number of times one had failed -- or
at least had progressed only as far as she wanted him to.
She knew all the lines of that play, and yet with Lord
Althorpe she hadnâ€™t the least desire to exeunt. "You have
further plans for me, my lord?"
"Iâ€™d be a fool or three monthâ€™s dead if I didnâ€™t have
further plans for you, Lady Victoria." His voice was almost
a growl, low and sensuous and very sure of itself.
Despite herself, a small shiver of anticipation ran down
her spine. "You canâ€™t shock me, you know."
For the first time, humor touched his amber gaze. "Iâ€™d
wager that I probably could. Twirling is hardly the height
of scandalous behavior. And not to boast, but they donâ€™t
call me Sin for nothing."
Heâ€™d seen her and Marley -- she hadnâ€™t been aware that heâ€™d
been present at the Franton ball for so long, though she
felt like she should have known. She should have sensed his
heady, dangerous presence the moment he entered the
room. "Then shock me, Lord Althorpe."
His gaze lowered to her mouth. "We start with kisses, then.
Deep, slow ones, that last forever."
Being used to rakesâ€™ forward ways was the only thing that
kept her from blushing, but not by much. Heavens, he was
good -- but he wasnâ€™t the only one here this evening who
had wits. "Perhaps you should begin with why you want to
kiss me, Lord Althorpe, considering that five minutes ago
you were more interested in speaking with Marley than in
dancing with me."
Abruptly she sensed that she had his full attention.
Nothing changed; not his expression nor his hold on her nor
his graceful steps, but she suddenly knew why he had caught
her notice from all the way across Lady Frantonâ€™s ballroom.
And she knew why she hadnâ€™t felt it before. He hadnâ€™t
wanted her to.
"You must allow me to make amends for giving you the
impression that I overlooked you, then," he said in a low,
intimate tone, and glanced around the crowded room. "Do you
know of anywhere more . . . private where I might apologize
That surprised her, but it certainly didnâ€™t render her
senseless, if that was what he expected. Besides, she
wasnâ€™t ready to allow him to escape just yet. Nor was she
about to flee and let him think heâ€™d cowed Vixen Fontaine.
No one had ever accomplished that. "Undoubtedly Lady
Franton has locked the doors to anywhere seclu--"
"Damnation," he interrupted, casting a scowling glance
toward her herd. "Weâ€™ll have to make do h--"
"Except for her famous garden," she finished. There. Sheâ€™d
called his bluff. Now he could be the one to back down from
Instead of conjuring an excuse to remain safely in public,
though, he smiled -- the least friendly, most dangerous
smile sheâ€™d ever seen. "The garden. Might I apologize to
you in the garden, then, Victoria?"
Uh, oh. Declining the invitation now was out of the
question, since sheâ€™d suggested it. "I donâ€™t require an
apology," she returned, hoping she didnâ€™t sound completely
demented, "but you may render me an explanation there, if
They had already neared that side of the ballroom, and it
was a simple matter to slip through one of the half-open
windows lining the length of the east wall. Lady Frantonâ€™s
exotic garden had won prize ribbons for years, and if not
for her familiarity with the grounds in daylight, Victoria
would have been hopelessly lost twenty feet from the main
A scattering of torches dimly lit the flagstone pathways
that separated and wound through the flora, rejoining into
a circular path around the small pond at the gardenâ€™s
center. Sheâ€™d always thought it a trifle overblown
considering the setting in the middle of intimate Mayfair,
but tonight all of her considerations were focused on the
rake strolling the path beside her.
Now that they had escaped the ballroom and its guests, she
expected Althorpe to conjure a distraction; in all
likelihood heâ€™d never expected her to join him, so whatever
seductions heâ€™d been teasing her with had to be just that --
teases. One did not publicly remove earlsâ€™ daughters from
a ballroom in order to seduce them.
Part of her, though, wished that werenâ€™t so. Her sense that
the evening was endlessly repeating itself had abruptly
vanished. She wanted to sink into him, to have his touch
envelope her as his words and his voice had enveloped her
senses already. "Your explanation, my lord?" she prompted
anyway. If he intended on retreating, she wished he wold
get on with it and quit tantalizing her with his presence.
"Itâ€™s not private enough, yet." The marquis slid his hand
beneath her elbow, keeping her close beside him, and guided
her along the path winding around to the pond.
An uncertain, agitated anticipation ran hot just beneath
her skin. Light as Lord Althorpeâ€™s touch was, she sensed
the strength underneath, a hint enough to know that she
couldnâ€™t have pulled free from his grip if she wanted to.
Far from frightening her, it aroused her in a way no man
had ever managed. She wondered what his lips would taste
like, how they would feel pressed against hers.
They stopped beneath the purple overhanging blossoms of a
wisteria, the scent of the flowers drifting about and
encircling them in heavy summer sweetness. "Now," he
murmured, facing her, her elbow still cupped in his
palm, "where were we? Ah, yes. I was rendering you . . . an
She met his gaze, golden and catlike in the torchlight.
Victoria was very aware of the steel beneath the velvet of
his grip; the isolated quiet broken only by the muted
chatter of voices and violins and the rustle of the wind;
even the way he had positioned her between the heavy
wisteria branches and his lean, hard body -- two equally
Whatever it was, he wanted something. Something from
her. "I was wrong," she said, trying to sound nonchalant.
Sin was a powerful temptation, indeed.
His gaze drifted down the length of her gown and returned
to her face. "Wrong about what?"
"When I first saw you . . . earlier, I thought you
resembled your brother. You donâ€™t."
With one long finger he reached out and brushed a straying
lock of hair from her eyes. "How well did you know old
A tremble ran down her spine at the feather-light touch.
Even for a rake, he was bold, and it affected her despite
her affront at his continued callousness. "The Marquis of
Althorpe was well respected."
The finger traced her cheekbone. "And Iâ€™m not well
respected? Thatâ€™s hardly a revelation."
Good God, he was making her shiver. "I donâ€™t comprehend why
you wish to speak so poorly of your own relation," she
countered, trying to keep her voice steady, "particularly
when everyone else found him exemplary."
He studied her face in the flickering torchlight, and for a
moment she had the sense that something in addition to
flirtation had his interest. "Apparently not everyone found
him exemplary," he countered. "Someone did put a ball
through his head."
Victoria didnâ€™t like the offhand way heâ€™d said that; she
didnâ€™t like the complete self-absorption his statement
implied. "Donâ€™t you care at all that heâ€™s dead?"
Althorpe shrugged again. "Dead is dead." His fingers traced
the curve of her ear. "Did I hear Marley call you the
Abruptly things made sense. "Was this entire conversation
an attempt to get Vixen Fontaine into the garden, so you
could brag about it to all your friends?"
The marquis froze for a heartbeat, then softly caressed the
corner of her mouth with his thumb. "What if it was?" His
sensuous mouth curved into a slow smile that stopped her
breath. "But I donâ€™t have any friends. Only rivals."
"So you want to kiss me."
"Surely that doesnâ€™t surprise you." He tilted his head, his
gaze lowering to her lips. "Youâ€™ve been kissed before, no
doubt. By Marley, perhaps?"
Her lips felt dry, and she resisted the impulse to lick
them. "Innumerable times. And not just by Marley."
"But not by me."
His mouth closed over hers.
Pulsing heat coursed through her. She was used to being in
control -- both of her emotions and of her encounters with
men. As his lips molded to hers, teasing and pulling and
consuming, she felt anything but in control. Her mind, her
heart, all her senses were spinning -- more wildly than
they ever had in Marleyâ€™s arms.
Althorpeâ€™s hands cupped her face as he tasted her. With a
breathless sigh that didnâ€™t sound at all like her, Victoria
slid her arms up around his shoulders, pulling herself
closer against him. Pretending aloofness or cynicism was
simply not possible. He kissed far too well, and her
response was far too heated. If all rakes possessed the
ability to kiss like Sin Grafton, she would have been in
trouble a long time ago.
Slowly he bent her back, until she leaned against the
gnarled trunk of the tree. Warm, sure fingers slid down her
shoulders, pausing for a moment to caress her waist and her
hips, and then drifting lower. She tangled her fingers into
his hair, trying to guide the heated pressure of his mouth
against hers. All she could hear was their ragged
breathing, and the flying roar of blood through her veins.
It might have been a dream, but no dream of hers had ever
made her feel so warm and dazed and wanton.
A distant, dreamy part of her became aware of the rustling
of her skirt and the cool breeze that brushed across her
legs, hardly enough to cool the heat between them. She was
glad for the tree; without it, he would have known just how
unsteady sheâ€™d become.
From the fury in his tone, that might have been the first
or the fifth time the Earl of Stiveton shouted her name;
certainly it was the first time she heard it. Tearing her
mouth from Althorpeâ€™s, she drew in a gasping breath. "Yes,
Basil Fontaine stood at the edge of the fish pond and
glared at her. His fist clenched a glass of Madeira so
tightly that Victoria was surprised he hadnâ€™t shattered
it. "What in Godâ€™s name are you doing? And get your hands
off her, Althorpe!"
Sometime during their kiss, the marquis had gathered her
skirt past her knees and her thighs, exposing her stockings
and her silk unmentionables to the moonlight. His kneading,
caressing hands had pulled her nearly naked form close
along the lean, hard length of his body, while she clung to
him helplessly. Slowly, as though he hadnâ€™t a care or
concern in the world other than kissing her, he lowered his
hands from her. Where he had been touching her felt hot.
She wanted to look up at him, to see his expression, but
resisted the temptation as she straightened. Flustered and
discomposed as she was, she couldnâ€™t bear to read on
Sinclair Graftonâ€™s face that their kiss hadnâ€™t affected him
as it had affected her. She was the one who made men swoon
at will; it wasnâ€™t supposed to be the other way around.
"You must be Lord Stiveton," the marquis said in his low
"I donâ€™t intend to introduce myself to you under these
circumstances, you blackguard! Move away from my daughter!"
Victoria frowned, sense beginning to penetrate the warm,
rosy cloud of her thoughts. Her father hated scenes;
particularly the ones that involved her. He certainly
wouldnâ€™t shout and stomp and draw attention to one --
unless it was too late for that, and he was trying to
salvage what he could of his own good name. She glanced
beyond the fish pond, and her heart missed a beat. "Fiend
Her voice was barely a whisper, but she sensed rather than
saw Althorpe stir beside her. "Not quite the terminus to
this encounter I had in mind," he murmured, apparently
She would have been better off spinning with Marley.
Victoria didnâ€™t know why the musicians inside were
bothering to play, because obviously no one was in there to
listen. Lady Frantonâ€™s entire guest list stood on the far
side of the fish pond, tittering and whispering and
pointing. At least it seemed like the entire multitude had
appeared to witness her latest and worst scandal. And the
objective part of her brain noted that it was also the most
interesting one, because for once she hadnâ€™t meant to do
anything to cause a disruption.
"How dare you carry on with my daughter in that manner!"
Her mother emerged from the crowd to join her
father. "Victoria, how could you? Do as your father says,
and come away from that awful man!"
Victoria tried to force her brain to function again; she
felt sluggish, as though even now she would rather be
standing beneath the wisteria kissing the tall rake beside
her. "It was just a kiss, Mama," she said in as calm a tone
as she could muster.
"Just a kiss?" Lady Franton, their hostess, repeated in her
shrill voice. "He was practically inhaling you!"
Lord Franton stepped into the torchlight. "This is beyond
the pale," he announced, as half a dozen of his burliest
footmen pounded up behind him. "I let you join us tonight
out of respect for your late brother, Althorpe. Obviously,
though, you cannot be trusted to conduct yourself in a
manner befitting your st--"
"Might I make a suggestion?" the marquis said, his voice as
calm as if he were discussing the weather.
No doubt he faced disgruntled crowds all the time.
Victoria, though, felt mortified. Scenes and high spirits
were one thing; being caught kissing -- being inhaled by --
a notorious rake was something else entirely. And now
everyone had practically seen her bare bottom!
"â€˜A suggestion?â€™" Lord Franton echoed scornfully. "Thereâ€™s
only one thing that could put this right, you scalawag, and
itâ€™s not clever jests and making fun of--"
"Before you continue your tirade," Althorpe interrupted, "I
returned to England with the thought of assuming the duties
of my title."
Victoria risked a glance at him as the garden abruptly
quieted. Again without moving a muscle, heâ€™d caught the
undivided attention of the entire crowd.
"I have no wish to cause offense to either Lady Victoria or
you for our slight . . . indiscretion," he continued, his
tone dismissive. "I will therefore â€˜do the right thingâ€™ as
you so eloquently put it, Lord Franton. Lady Victoria and I
shall marry. Does that satisfy your requirements for
Victoria felt the ground drop out from beneath her
feet. "What?" she gasped, gaping at him.
He nodded, his eyes and expression unreadable as he glanced
down at her. "We both stepped too far. It is the only
She scowled. "The only â€˜logical solution, â€˜" she
snapped, "is to forget this entire incident. It was a kiss,
for heavenâ€™s sake! Itâ€™s not as though we set off for Gretna
"With his hand halfway up her . . . you know? That was no
first kiss," the Duke of Hawling blustered from the crowd
of onlookers, while dozens of others echoed the statement
in more graphic detail. "And with Althorpeâ€™s -- and the
Vixenâ€™s -- reputations, no doubt heâ€™s already well on his
way to an heir."
"You were practically . . . fornicating! And in my garden!"
Lady Franton screeched, then fainted artistically into her
The titters and mutterings of agreement that accompanied
that were simply too much to bear. "I have never set eyes
on him before tonight!" she yelled.
"Itâ€™s not where your eyes have been that weâ€™re concerned
about, daughter," her father growled, white-faced. "Youâ€™ll
call on me tomorrow, Althorpe, or Iâ€™ll see you jailed -- or
The marquis sketched a short bow. "Until tomorrow," he said
dismissively, and took her hand in his, bending over her
knuckles and brushing them softly with his lips. "My lady."
With that he turned on his heel and strolled back in the
direction of the house.
The rat. Victoria wanted to join him in fleeing, but her
father stalked forward to grab her by the arm. "Come along,
"I am not . . . marrying Sin Grafton," she spat out, barely
able to form the words.
"Yes, you are," he hissed. "Youâ€™ve gone too far this time,
Victoria. I kept warning you, and you couldnâ€™t be bothered
to listen. If you donâ€™t marry him, none of us will ever be
able to show our faces in London again. Half of your
fellows have seen your unmentionables, now -- and twice in
one night, from what Lady Frantonâ€™s told me!"
"Enough!" he roared. "We will make the arrangements
Victoria opened her mouth again, but at her fatherâ€™s
furious glare she humphed and subsided. Tomorrow was still
a good distance away. She would have ample time to explain
things when her parents had calmed down enough to listen.
One thing was certain, though. She was not going to marry
Sinclair Grafton, the Marquis of Althorpe, under any
circumstances. And certainly not just because he swooped in
like a dark, seductive demon and said so.