It likely signified nothing especially portentous, but when Miss Phoebe Millbury, proper vicar’s daughter, met the man of her dreams the first part of him she fell in love with was his arse.
Up until that moment, the lush ballroom full of brightly clad dancers was like a dream—but not a good one. Phoebe moved through the strange landscape of her first Society ball seemingly without touching foot to the ground, as insubstantial as a ghost and just as unnoticed. What was she doing in this glittering world of the haute ton?
Go to London and land yourself a duke, the vicar had told her. Fulfill your mother’s dying wish.
As if it were that easy.
And don’t let it happen again. Oh, the vicar hadn’t said that bit out loud, but the message had been perfectly clear. She must maintain propriety at all times, be demure and sensible and modest, as she had been for many years now, and never, ever slip down that unfortunate path again.
Which left her little in the way of means to win the attention of the aforementioned duke. Her gowns were all right for a country girl making the rounds of the village sick and infirm, or even for a dance at the local assembly rooms—not that she’d ever dared dance under the vicar’s watchful eye—but they were hardly up to the rich London fashions worn by nearly every other lady in the room.
Nor was she a slender beauty like her cousin Deirdre, or even her widowed Aunt Tessa. She’d never had cause to mind her looks before now, she reminded herself, and she was far more fortunate than some. She slid a glance to one side of the ballroom to spy her other cousin, plain Miss Sophie Blake, as she took a seat in the row of chairs unofficially reserved for girls who would never dance.
Land yourself a duke. That would be a dream come true—which was ironic since it was largely the vicar’s doing that Phoebe no longer dreamed such unlikely dreams.
Oh, she’d been a believer once upon a time. Once upon a time she’d been fifteen and a true romantic—a dreamer of the highest order.
One handsome dancing master later, she’d been cured forever. Since she apparently had no ability to discern dream from reality—nor even right from wrong !—the only way to be truly safe was to follow the rules very carefully. One could count on the rules, in a way that one could not count on what people said.
Or the way that one felt.
Phoebe sighed. It didn’t seem to bother Sophie to sit out the music, but Phoebe would rather like to eventually dance with someone. He didn’t have to be handsome, or even titled, as long as he had bathed semi-recently and didn’t step on her feet …
That’s when she spotted the hard, masculine buttocks that punctured her dreariness like a pin to a bubble.
The rest of him wasn’t bad, either. Looking at the broad shoulders and dark waving hair of the man dancing with his back—and his heavenly posterior—toward her, Phoebe licked her lips and reminded herself that she was not that sort of woman any longer. She was never going to sin again.
Oh yes, please.
No. Never again.
Pretty please with a chocolate drop on top?
It was without a doubt the finest arse she had ever seen, clad in snug black breeches, with the tails of his evening coat falling just so over the well-developed …
The gentleman shifted his weight from one side to the other and Phoebe’s eyes nearly crossed.
She let her gaze travel all the way down and then slowly back up, inch by inch. He was beautifully made, as if someone had taken every woman’s ideal of broad shoulders and long muscular legs and ordered just the right man to fill the bill.
He turned his head.
His snowy cravat emphasized a truly admirable jawline, which in turn set off the high cheekbones and forehead that Adonis would not have been ashamed to sport. Dark hair curled over his forehead and collar, a bit too long and a bit too wild, as if even in his fine clothes he was not quite completely tamed.
I like him not quite tamed …
He finally turned bodily in the dance. His smile flashed white. His crisp bow at the end of the steps revealed to Phoebe that his belly was as flat as her cousin Sophie’s bosom and that his chest was broad and deep.
Furthermore, his trousers fit even more beautifully in the front.
A rush of heat flooded Phoebe’s veins. She glanced warily about her, for she would not want her cousins or her chaperone to catch her being so bold. She’d only been in London for a week and so far she’d managed to fool them all, even during her nerve-racking presentation at court.
No. Deirdre, the elegant and fashionable cousin, was surrounded by her usual coterie of admirers and didn’t seem to have any attention to spare. Sophie, the unfortunately tall and awkward cousin, was across the ballroom, doing her best to hide in the crowd and was much too involved in the impossible process to so much as glance Phoebe’s way.
Aunt Tessa, who was not much interested in chaperoning any of them, not even her own stepdaughter Deirdre, was busy exchanging gossip and barbed commentary with her equally fashionable clique of ennui-afflicted Society wives. Phoebe was safe.
Then the man before her laughed, a deep chuckle that rumbled through her body, causing a shiver in parts best left unmentioned and setting off alarms of all sorts within her. She knew what that feeling signified!
Oh, heavens. Not so safe, after all.
She was interested in a man—interested in that way—for the first time since she’d become infatuated with her dancing master, nearly ten years ago.
And that hadn’t ended well at all.
SO FAR DURING the evening, Lord Raphael Marbrook, titled by courtesy if not by legitimate birthright, had managed to slip through the crowd at the ball without incident. He’d skillfully avoided some cuckolded husbands, thrice ducked encounters with card-playing lords intent on winning back what they’d lost in the past, and even managed to dance right past his predatory former—married—lover without her becoming aware that he was anywhere nearby.
Another hour and he could make his excuses. Even his half brother Calder could say naught about him evading family duty on that score. It was only the threat of being forced to attend the even more boring parade of virgins at the assembly rooms of Almack’s that compelled Rafe to be here at all.
“If I have to waste time going wife-hunting, you have to go with me,” Calder had vowed, his tone promising dire consequences indeed. This would be Calder’s second wife, for he’d lost his first wife, Melinda, only a few years into their marriage.
This was particularly unfair since there was no possibility of Rafe himself finding a first wife among such upright and respectable members of Society. Still, the Marquis of Brookhaven’s considerable black and brooding wrath was best avoided, if possible.
Not that Rafe was afraid of his brother—they were of a size and age and neither had ever come out the clear winner in any of many boyish brawls—but he had a particular agenda to put before Calder regarding some improvements on the Brookhaven estate and it wouldn’t do to unnecessarily provoke him beforehand. Only Calder could approve the changes, for Rafe had no power over their father’s legacy. He was not the real son.
Of course, the irony was that Calder didn’t give a damn about Brookhaven. Oh, he did his duty. No one starved and the production remained stable, but Brookhaven could be so much more!
Brookhaven didn’t stir Calder the way it did Rafe. The only things that stirred Calder’s icy blood were his factories. He remained fascinated by the machinery and the efficiency, while the ancient grandeur of Brookhaven was lost on his logical mind. He dismissed the magnificent hall as “that drafty pile of stone” and the loyal cottagers, the pumping heart of Brookhaven itself, as “those backward rustics.”
Being the acknowledged bastard of a marquis had its ups and downs. On one hand, having been raised at Brookhaven along with his half brother, he’d had all the advantages of privilege and education that Calder, the true heir, had enjoyed. On the other, he’d spent those years knowing that while Calder had the promise of a title and real power, all he himself would ever have was an allowance and a courtesy “Lord” before his name and the scandalous reputation he’d worked so hard for—but now repented.
After all, generous allowances were spent as easily as any other sort of money and he’d devoted years to enjoying his to the limit. Women, cards, spirits—all without any of the tedious responsibilities that came with legitimacy. Everyone expected the Bastard of Brookhaven to come to a bad end and Rafe had spent most of his youth proving them right to the best of his ability.
Yet, there was no point now in regretting his youthful indiscretions. Apologies would get him nowhere with Calder. Only time and effort could ever prove to his brother that he was ready for more solemn duty.
And the duty he wanted was Brookhaven.
Now, as he paused to speak to one of his more respectable acquaintances, Rafe absently twitched his shoulders. For the last several moments he’d had the eerie, neck-tingling sensation that he was being watched.
PHOEBE’S SINGLE GOVERNESS, who’d only lasted a few weeks, had once told Phoebe that if she hadn’t had bad luck, she’d have had no luck at all.
Her luck was in full force tonight, for just as she’d decided that that was indeed the manly and muscled arse with which she wanted to spend the rest of her life, everything went perfectly, horribly wrong.
He lifted his chin as his genial brown eyes scanned the room—and then his gaze was genial no longer, but was now intensely locked on hers.
Something struck Phoebe in the vicinity of her heart—and a bit lower—a powerful and startling attraction that far surpassed mere interest in his anatomy. The impact quite stole the breath from her lungs.
Then she realized the worst of it. She’d been caught looking.
Oh, bugger. Without thought, Phoebe ran for it. Right into a servant carrying a full tray of champagne flutes. The high-impact collision propelled the poor man, his tray, and all its contents directly into the spinning mass of dancers behind him.
Immediate uproar ensued. Horrified ladies screeched, angry lords cursed, amused musicians hid their smiles. And then everyone began to angrily look about for the culprit.
It was her most horrible nightmare come to vivid life. Phoebe braced herself for the worst.
Rafe couldn’t believe it. The poor servant hadn’t stood a chance against the shapely missile aimed his way. Glass and champagne sprayed far and wide, leaving a perfect half-circle of madness with the girl at the obvious apex.
He strode into the fray and, grasping the girl by the hand, danced her into the pattern as if the two of them were mere passers-by, continuing with their spirited country reel.
She gasped at his firm handling. “Sir, what are you doing?”
He gazed nonchalantly ahead, moving them in and out of the dance. “Oh, did you want to stay to see how things pan out?”
She glanced over her shoulder and then, paling at the chaos, resolutely looked away. “Well, but—we haven’t been properly introduced!”
“I won’t tell if you won’t.” They reached the end of the pattern, now far across the ballroom from the spill. A waltz began. He grinned down at her, for she was dancing in earnest now, moving him along as quickly as possible. “Are we late for something?”
She sent him a piteous glance. “My aunt Tessa!”
Rafe looked over his shoulder to see an extremely elegant lady with an extremely plagued-off expression upon her face, casting about the ballroom with snapping eyes. Oh, dread. Not the infamous Lady Tessa. “Care for some air?” he offered casually.
Phoebe nearly melted in gratitude. He was a god and a hero. “Don’t mind if I do,” she said with all the nonchalance of a woman who had just escaped the firing squad.
He danced her to the terrace door, whisking two full glasses from a footman’s tray with the fingers of one hand as they passed. The man only bowed with a wry grin on his face. Points for style, his expression said.
Points for flat-out male perfection, Phoebe’s heart said.
She put out one hand to hit the latch and they danced outside with nary a pause in their waltz. Three stone steps led down to the terrace from the door. He wrapped one arm firmly about her waist and whirled her right off her feet, dancing her down the steps without spilling a drop of champagne.
It was a bold, dashing move. Phoebe laughed aloud, startled out of her worry about the chaos behind them.
He smiled down at her as he set her back on her feet. “That’s better. What has that awful mess back there to do with us? We were dancing.”
She caught her breath and stepped back slightly, still feeling the solidity of his broad chest against hers. “I get the feeling that you dance your way out of trouble often, Mr.—”
He bowed deeply, still balancing the glasses in one hand. “Marbrook, at your service, milady.”
Phoebe laughed again and curtsied. “My thanks, sir knight. I am no lady, however. My name is Phoebe Millbury, of Thornton.”
He straightened with a grin. “Might I offer you a glass, Phoebe Millbury of Thornton?”
She eyed the glass dubiously. “Proper young ladies do not drink champagne.”
“Proper young ladies don’t douse the ballroom in it, either.”
She shuddered. “Don’t remind me.” She took the glass. “I suppose I’m already in enough trouble this evening.” She sipped it. “Oh, that’s rather nice!” She took another, larger sip.
“Whoa, there.” He took the glass from her. “You might want to wait a moment, since you’ve never had it before.”
It fizzled delightfully going down and warmed her stomach. Suddenly the incident in the ballroom seemed less deadly and more amusing. She giggled. “Did you see their faces?”
He shook his head. “Two sips and she’s gone.” He tossed the rest of her glass over the railing. “You, Miss Millbury, are what we gentlemen would call a ‘lightweight.’”
She curtsied. “My thanks for your timely rescue, Mr. Marbrook. It was very nice to meet you, but I ought not to be out here alone with you.”
“You’re not going back in there, are you? Lady Tessa looked thoroughly frightening.”
She hesitated. “You know my aunt?”
He grimaced. “Everyone knows Lady Tessa. I only wonder what Lady Rochester might have done to be blackmailed into inviting Lady Tessa this evening.”
She gazed at him with one brow raised. “I ought to defend my aunt. She has taken a great deal of trouble to launch me in Society.”
He smiled, the corners of his mouth crinkling. “Launch? Like a rocket, to rain destruction on innocent ballrooms everywhere?”
She shook her head, a rueful grin slipping through her arch pose. “No, I fear I did that all by myself.”
“I am partly to blame. I startled you—though not half as much as your … examination startled me.”
She went very still, her gaze frozen on his face. “I’m sure I don’t know what you mean,” she said testily.
“Yes, you do. It is only fair that I have my turn.”
Her brows crinkled slightly. “You’re an odd man, Mr. Marbrook.”
He smiled. “Hold still.”
She did so obediently, but he could sense her fingers twining nervously behind her back. She wasn’t as cool as she’d like to pretend.
She was a pretty girl … but not an exceptionally beautiful one. Her fair hair shimmered in the moonlight, the many different colors combining to defy categorization. Was she blond or brunette? It was a mess, part falling down, part twisted up high to show off her neck and rounded shoulders. It was mutinous hair, as if her inner rebellion could not be truly contained.
In the ballroom, he’d been struck by the blue of her wide, vulnerable eyes—like a hazy summer’s day—but in the moonlight they washed almost clear to sparkle like diamonds as she gazed up at him.
He tipped a finger to her chin, absorbing the delicacy of her features one by one. Her lips were sweet and curved rather than his usual preference for full and sensual and her chin tended toward pointed. She was stubborn, he’d wager.
She reminded Rafe of a porcelain doll—if porcelain dolls came outfitted with stunning bosoms. If they had, he might have been inclined to play with them a bit more in his curious boyhood.
“Well, do I pass inspection, sir?”
Don’t kiss the pretty girl. The pretty girl likely has friends in high places and a papa with a pistol.
Do not kiss the pretty girl.
Unless perchance he could convince the pretty girl to kiss him …
He decided to chance it. He leaned close, putting his lips close to her ear. “You know, I’m told I’m quite good at making rockets explode.”
“Oomph.” A small fist made forceful contact with his waistcoat.
She tossed her head. “You’re not that handsome.”
He stepped back, grinning and rubbing at his stomach, his estimation of her moral fiber strengthened. Right, then. No jaded, innuendo-laden Society banter for this lady. “I suppose I deserved that.”
She was shaking her hand from the sting of the blow. “Indeed. That was beneath you. I have a very heroic view of you. Do not spoil it.”
Heroic? There was no reason for the spread of warmth in his belly. The opinion of a silly debutante mattered not at all.
Although she did look fine in the moonlight, bosom high and shoulders back, the light of battle in her eye. And that shot to the stomach—that had been no playful slap. She’d meant every bit of it. Apparently, country girls from Thornton struck hard.
He bowed deeply. “My apologies, Miss Millbury. I was much too bold.” When her defensive stance eased, he gave her his most charming smile. “Where is this Thornton, that it breeds such warrior damsels? It sounds a harsh place—Thorn Town.”
She smiled back, as if she could not resist. She would not be the first.
“On the contrary. It is said that it was named when a long-ago king rode by with his entourage of knights one winter’s day and called the valley ‘a worthless briar patch.’ As a jest, he gave it to his least valued knight on the spot.”
She smiled. “Ah, but that is not the entire story. When the poor knight returned to his valley in the spring, he was stunned by the beauty and scent of the landscape, perfumed by many thousands of roses left to grow wild by some chance of wind and storm. Since he did not wish his capricious king to take it back, he named his manor Thornhold and the village he built for his cottagers Thorn Town. The king and his court never deigned to visit, and so never knew that he had given his lowest knight one of the most beautiful portions of England.”
She was quite transformed as she spoke. Her voice took on a dreamy quality and her eyes grew soft. Rafe found himself utterly captivated.
“A fanciful tale.” He kept his voice low, so as not to break the spell.
She continued to gaze somewhere far away. “Indeed. I used to imagine that I was the lady of Thornhold, won by the clever knight from the king’s favorite, and brought to the manor in the dark of a midsummer night. When I awoke, I looked from my marriage bedchamber out to a sea of roses and swore to my love that I would keep the secret forever.”
He chuckled. “Put a lot of thought into that, did you?”
She pursed her lips slightly, but he thought he detected a twist of humor there.
“Well, there is a variation where the king’s favorite comes to steal me back and I am taken away from Thornhold in the dead of winter and the roses never bloom again.”
He laughed, delighted by the fancy. “And if you do not return to Thornhold now, will there be no more rosewater for the baths of Thornton?”
She laughed and a pleasant sensation warmed the pit of Rafe’s stomach. On impulse, he wrapped his hands about her waist and swept her up to stand upon the bench.
She gasped and teetered. “Mr. Marbrook!”
Once she steadied, he released her and made a flourishing bow. “O, Lady of the Roses, I am but a humble knight, scorned by my king. But I have a valley of exquisite beauty beknownst only to me. I shall bestow this valley, which fades next to your own beauteous glow, if you will only grant me your love!”
She gazed at him, wide-eyed, until he thought he must have mistaken her nature and shocked her too deeply with his actions. Then a smile teased her lips before she donned a haughty mien. “Who are you, lowly sir, to offer nothing but a tangled bramble patch and expect a wife?”
“It is not a bramble patch, lady fair, but the garden of Eden itself.”
She lifted her chin disdainfully. “And in this valley of roses, would you expect me to be your lady or your chattel? Would I be allowed a mind of my own, sir knight?” Her gaze became distant. He had the feeling she was somewhere else entirely for a moment. “Would I be chastised for being myself?” she said softly. “Must I keep hidden behind a mask of others’ making?”
Her words resonated against something old and raw within him. Hidden behind a mask of others’ making. Yes, he knew what that was like.
“No,” he whispered. “There, my lady is a queen in her own right. There, my lady can do no wrong.” He pretended to pull something from inside his coat and presented it with a bow. “I offer you a single rose from my valley—for one of my roses is worth a hundred of any other in everlasting splendor.”
A dreamy expression replaced the haughty one as if Miss Phoebe Millbury entirely forgot the role she played. “Everlasting splendor,” she repeated softly. She reached to take the flower, and in the moment when their fingertips touched, Rafe could have almost sworn that something did actually bloom between them.
Nonsense. He blinked, then stepped back, intentionally shattering the moment with a short laugh.
His abrupt motion caused Phoebe’s balance to shift. The sole of her soft dancing slipper skidded on the dew-dampened bench and she began to topple into his arms.