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.
"I’m getting dizzy, Vixen," Marley panted, his words muffled in her gown’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 can’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 you’ve made me seasick."
"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 mother’s view and hurried over to sit on Victoria’s other side.
"My goodness! Are you unhurt?" she exclaimed, grabbing Victoria’s hand.
Victoria squeezed her fingers. "Quite. Marley broke my fall."
He sent her a glare. "If you were a large woman, Vix, I’d be dead right now."
"If I’d been a large woman, you wouldn’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. You’ve lost a comb."
"I have it, Vixen," Lord William Landry announced, holding up the delicate ivory piece. "I’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 Fenshire’s third son with a speculative smile. "Only a kiss? That is my favorite comb, you know."
"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 hadn’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 Franton’s glaring at us again."
"The old witch," William muttered, and handed over the comb. "If she were any more stiff, she’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 I’d have to be six feet under before I’d give any of it to her."
Lucy turned crimson. Victoria didn’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 Franton’s more elevated than your usual charity cases."
"You’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 don’t think I’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 wasn’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. "I’ve decided to make a vow," she stated.
"Not of chastity, I hope," Lord William returned with a guffaw.
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 Franton’s portrait gallery admiring his new acquisitions. William’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 you’re always avoiding."
"Certainly I know a moldering corpse or two. But they’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 didn’t know why, but tonight she couldn’t seem to shake the feeling that she’d done all of this before, and that it hadn’t been very amusing, then. "How do you know I’d be bored?"
"Nice men are dull, my dear. That’s why you’re here with me."
"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 else’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. "We’re to be pitied."
"I know I pity you," Lucy said with a giggle, blushing again.
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 don’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, he’s looking right at you, isn’t he?"
"I don’t think so." Her pulse thudded. "Do you?"
"The bastard," Marley growled under his breath.
He seemed familiar, and yet she knew she’d never set eyes on him before. She had the forceful sensation that a Greek god had strolled all unawares into Lady Franton’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 veins.
"Sin personified," Lord William grumbled.
"Althorpe," Lionel echoed.
Surprise jolted through her. "Althorpe? Thomas’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 mused.
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 lighter, though."
"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 surprises."
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 Victoria."
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 interrupting him.
He returned his attention to her. "My thanks, Lady Victoria. Had you heard, Marley, that--"
"You’re welcome." She nodded. "I would have expressed my condolences earlier, of course, but you weren't available."
Althorpe’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 viscount’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 weren’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 cane."
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 not--"
"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 diplomatically.
"I mind," Marley broke in.
"It's not your waltz." Althorpe held out his hand. The gesture wasn’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 advantage."
"To what purpose?"
"You," he answered without hesitation. "Do I need another purpose?"
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 she’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 hadn’t the least desire to exeunt. "You have further plans for me, my lord?"
"I’d be a fool or three month’s dead if I didn’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 can’t shock me, you know."
For the first time, humor touched his amber gaze. "I’d wager that I probably could. Twirling is hardly the height of scandalous behavior. And not to boast, but they don’t call me Sin for nothing."
He’d seen her and Marley -- she hadn’t been aware that he’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 rakes’ forward ways was the only thing that kept her from blushing, but not by much. Heavens, he was good -- but he wasn’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 Franton’s ballroom. And she knew why she hadn’t felt it before. He hadn’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 to you?"
That surprised her, but it certainly didn’t render her senseless, if that was what he expected. Besides, she wasn’t ready to allow him to escape just yet. Nor was she about to flee and let him think he’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. "We’ll have to make do h--"
"Except for her famous garden," she finished. There. She’d called his bluff. Now he could be the one to back down from the challenge.
Instead of conjuring an excuse to remain safely in public, though, he smiled -- the least friendly, most dangerous smile she’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 she’d suggested it. "I don’t require an apology," she returned, hoping she didn’t sound completely demented, "but you may render me an explanation there, if you wish."
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 Franton’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 house.
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 garden’s center. She’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 he’d never expected her to join him, so whatever seductions he’d been teasing her with had to be just that -- teases. One did not publicly remove earls’ daughters from a ballroom in order to seduce them.
Part of her, though, wished that weren’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.
"It’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 Althorpe’s touch was, she sensed the strength underneath, a hint enough to know that she couldn’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 explanation."
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 immovable objects.
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 don’t."
With one long finger he reached out and brushed a straying lock of hair from her eyes. "How well did you know old wooden head?"
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 I’m not well respected? That’s hardly a revelation."
Good God, he was making her shiver. "I don’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 didn’t like the offhand way he’d said that; she didn’t like the complete self-absorption his statement implied. "Don’t you care at all that he’s dead?"
Althorpe shrugged again. "Dead is dead." His fingers traced the curve of her ear. "Did I hear Marley call you the Vixen?"
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 don’t have any friends. Only rivals."
"So you want to kiss me."
"Surely that doesn’t surprise you." He tilted his head, his gaze lowering to her lips. "You’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 Marley’s arms.
Althorpe’s hands cupped her face as he tasted her. With a breathless sigh that didn’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 she’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 Althorpe’s, she drew in a gasping breath. "Yes, Father?"
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 hadn’t shattered it. "What in God’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 hadn’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 couldn’t bear to read on Sinclair Grafton’s face that their kiss hadn’t affected him as it had affected her. She was the one who made men swoon at will; it wasn’t supposed to be the other way around.
"You must be Lord Stiveton," the marquis said in his low drawl.
"I don’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 wouldn’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 seize it."
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 still unconcerned.
She would have been better off spinning with Marley. Victoria didn’t know why the musicians inside were bothering to play, because obviously no one was in there to listen. Lady Franton’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 hadn’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!
"‘A suggestion?’" Lord Franton echoed scornfully. "There’s only one thing that could put this right, you scalawag, and it’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, he’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 ‘do the right thing’ as you so eloquently put it, Lord Franton. Lady Victoria and I shall marry. Does that satisfy your requirements for propriety?"
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 logical solution."
She scowled. "The only ‘logical solution, ‘" she snapped, "is to forget this entire incident. It was a kiss, for heaven’s sake! It’s not as though we set off for Gretna Green!"
"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 Althorpe’s -- and the Vixen’s -- reputations, no doubt he’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 husband’s arms.
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.
"It’s not where your eyes have been that we’re concerned about, daughter," her father growled, white-faced. "You’ll call on me tomorrow, Althorpe, or I’ll see you jailed -- or hanged."
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, girl."
"I am not . . . marrying Sin Grafton," she spat out, barely able to form the words.
"Yes, you are," he hissed. "You’ve gone too far this time, Victoria. I kept warning you, and you couldn’t be bothered to listen. If you don’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 Franton’s told me!"
"Enough!" he roared. "We will make the arrangements tomorrow."
Victoria opened her mouth again, but at her father’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.
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