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Izzy laid her palm against the door to the yellow parlor, her fingers tracing the carved wood grain. She took no notice of the pie-faced cherubs ogling her from the ornamentation.
All she saw was the candlelight gleaming on the broad, muscled, unconscious form in her memory. He was in there, waiting for her. Lord Blackworth.
In the two days since that bizarre night, she had thought of him constantly. Not with terror. It had been a simple mistake—a drunken right instead of left. She had recalled the taste of him and the breadth of his shoulders. She found herself reliving the slide of hot hands on her skin.
She had worried if she had hurt him very much. She had wondered how he had fared with his father, who'd had him dragged from her room, all the while spitting with fury.
She smiled a little in memory. Really, that man's temper was vile. Her smile faded as she recalled the reactions of the room's other occupants.
Lady Cherrymore had leapt away from her as if frightened by a snake. After the first moment of stunned silence, mutters and gasps had swelled within the room. Whispering madly, the onlookers had fled to the hall to gather and gossip, leaving her standing like a stone left by the tide.
She had not seen Lady Celia Bottomly go, but had found herself alone with her outraged cousin Hildegard, whom she had not even realized was present.
Izzy repressed the memory of what followed. Having endured Hildegard's scandalized tirade several times since their hurried return home, she had no desire to relive it, even in memory. She turned her thoughts back to Lord Blackworth.
To be more specific, his hands. Oh yes, his hot, urgent hands had pulled her thoughts many times in the last two days. And nights.
Her dreams, sleeping and waking, now had the fodder of experience to feed them. She had been touched, stroked, fondled, and awakened to something she had barely imagined existed. The memory of how warm and large his hands were, how powerful he was, was etched into her body now as permanently as a signet upon sealing wax.
She could not help but wonder how it would have been if he had come to her. What would it be like to match him, passion for passion? To feel those hands upon her again, to touch him with her own, to slide them over his hard shoulders and down that muscled back …
Izzy shook away those pointless thoughts. You'll never know. She straightened her shoulders, pushed open the door, and entered with her head high.
* * *
Eppingham Rowley, Lord Blackworth, stood with his hands clasped behind his back, gazing at the Marchwells' garden outside the parlor window. The hopeful view of emerging greenery and delicate blooms fighting back the gloom of winter had no effect on him.
He was only aware of his own grim fate. The trapped sensation he had been feeling for the last few days had intensified until he felt he might like to destroy something—preferably with his bare hands. The worst of it was, there was no one to blame but himself.
The wrong room, he moaned to himself for the thousandth time. The wrong bloody room. One stupid, drunken mistake, one erring turn in a darkened hallway. The shy invitation from an unhappily married beauty had lured him, the spinster's ambitions had trapped him, but in the end it was his own fault.
Now the unbreakable shackles of matrimony clanked incessantly just over his shoulder. The sound could not be drowned out by any amount of alcohol. He'd tried. He winced against the rising memory of his father's rage.
"You'll marry her, by God, you'll marry her at once! You'll beg for her hand on your knees if you have to! You'll not ruin this family with your wickedness. I shall not have the Dearingham name dragged down by a despoiler of virgins!"
His father's voice rang through his mind again and again, making his fists clench. All his efforts to please the man in the last thirteen years, come to naught in one simple, disastrous mistake.
If he gave his father and ailing grandfather cause, they would use the sword they had wielded over his head for years. He would wed the Temple woman, or risk losing it all.
For the thousandth time, he cursed the bad fortune that had determined the rewriting of the entail fell to his grandfather's judgment. Every five generations, one man had the ability to rewrite the fates of the future Dukes of Dearingham. No guaranteed inheritance for him, not until his grandfather signed the document of settlement.
And who was he to marry? A woman he had never seen. Not by the light of day, nor any other light, for that matter. He barely recalled that night. Resentment flared against this faceless woman. Whyever had she made such a claim?
Lovers. Her declaration had ruined her. The only reason for such had to be a desperate gamble for a husband. It was a fact of life that women wanted to marry and men did not. He grimaced. A gentleman would, of course, wed the woman whose reputation he had destroyed. It was a matter of honor. A matter of honor Blackworth would have evaded, if he could have.
Lovers. He shook his head, running his fingers through his hair. He had only a faint recollection of stripping off his clothes to climb into the bed of the delicious Celia, who had not been Celia at all.
His next memory was of waking with an immense lump on his head and a pounding headache made worse by his father's ceaseless ranting. When he had escaped and pulled his friend Lord Calwell aside, all his old schoolmate could relate was that the creature was small and plain.
"And decidedly on the shelf, old man, most decidedly" had been his friend's woeful opinion. Eric had then given him a sympathetic clout on the shoulder and the mournful good-bye of a man sending a friend off to a sure and certain doom.
Now Lord Blackworth closed his eyes against the cheerful scenery outside the window. His sole hope at this point was that she was not too elderly for childbearing, nor too ill-favored to procreate with. There was little likelihood of either, not with his luck of late. He shuddered thinking of the dismal future stretching out before him, so different from the exotic dreams of his youth. The world had seemed so very large once …
Hearing the door open and a soft voice address him, he took two deep breaths, opened his eyes, and turned.
Well. At least she was young, somewhere in her twenties he would venture to guess. He had feared she would exceed his own thirty-four years.
Other than that there was little to recommend her. She was quite small, almost child-sized. Slender, that was something. Cautious relief began to swell within him. Not repulsive, at any rate, although it was difficult to see past the atrocious gown enveloping her.
Taste in fashion was apparently too much to ask for.
One could not tell much about her coloring. The faded gown's gray-green shade would make anyone look pale, and her hair was scraped back and hidden beneath an enormous, ugly cap. It gave her a bizarre overbalanced look. At least, he hoped it was the cap's fault, and not in reality a huge and unwieldy head.
Blackworth became aware that she was studying him as well, matching his rude regard with pointed patience. He also became aware that they were entirely alone in the parlor.
"Where is your cousin? Or your maid?" he blurted.
"I have no maid." She tilted her head and gave him a wry smile. "If you fear for my reputation, my lord, I assure you there's no need. I haven't one, you know."
"Ahem. Yes. Quite." Oh, God, he sounded like his father. He began again. "I came here today, Miss Temple—"
"What?" Startled, he wondered if she was barmy as well, spouting out nonsense words at odd intervals. Young, slender, but mad—I knew there would be a catch.
"My name, Lord Blackworth, is Izzy."
Surely not. He blinked.
"Izzy," she said firmly. Then she chuckled at his baffled look. It was a marvelous sound. It was an absolute confection of a sound. He wanted to hear it again.
"Utterly," she replied, and laughed outright.
Quite disarmed, he smiled at her in wonderment.
Her eyes widened. "Oh, my. Oh, you are quite devastating when you smile." Her hands fluttered dramatically, fanning her face. "Do stop. I cannot think when you do that."
Now he laughed, shaking his head in amazement. How could such a wit be hiding in that gown? That cap? Intrigued, he gestured for her to sit, then took a seat beside her on the repulsively ornate, gilded settee.
"Well, Utterly Izzy, we must discuss our situation."
She regarded him pertly. "Our situation, my lord? What would that be?"
"Well, to begin, perhaps you could tell me why you…" Lied. "Ah, invented our relationship."
"Don't you know? Oh, I suppose you did more or less sleep through it all." Her eyes widened. "Oh, dear, how is your head, my lord? Pray forgive me. You must understand, I was quite frightened at the time." Leaning forward, she looked him over for obvious damage. "I'm stronger than I look. Have you consulted a physician?"
Forgive her? He had burst into her room in the dead of night and jumped into her bed in a drunken mistake, and she was asking for his forgiveness? What an extraordinary response.
But wait. He eyed her suspiciously.
"Miss Temple, I should like for you to tell me what happened. I don't really know, you see. That is, I know, yet…"
She waved a small hand in the air. "Do not worry, my lord. It was not as bad as you think. You were about to stop. When I struck you, I mean. You knew it was not who you expected the moment you, ah…" Gesturing bosom-ward, Izzy looked away for a moment. "So you were stopping, I am convinced of it. I needn't have struck you at all. But I was quite beside myself, for I was—well, my nightgown was tor—" She blushed and stopped.
He had torn her gown? Dear God, it was worse than he thought. He had well-nigh raped her.
Perhaps he did belong in jail.
For the first time it occurred to him to wonder how it had been for her to wake under such a terrifying assault. Alone, small and weak, no matter her claims—helpless against his strength and arousal. He felt his stomach shrivel at the thought. Although he had meant no harm, and she was not frightened of him now, guilt twisted within him. She must have been so frightened, so helpless.
Well, not entirely helpless, his sometimes still-throbbing head told him. She had thwarted his misdirected lust quite neatly, thank God. He smiled at her now in relief.
"Miss Temple, you amaze me. Perhaps this marriage will do after all."
"Marriage?" she asked faintly. She leaned away, gazing at him with wide, shocked eyes.
"Miss Temple? You must see that we … That is, my father insists … Miss Temple?"
When she erupted into rippling peals of laughter, he was offended. True, it had not been much of a proposal, but it was the first of his life, and meant a great deal to him. Then her infectious laugh grabbed him and pulled him in to laugh along with her.
What was it about her?
"Oh, dear. I am sorry." She shook her head, trying to repress her laughter with a hand over her throat. "I had this picture in my mind. I do that, you see. And, well, I can just see your face … when he told you that you were getting married!"
Shoulders shaking, she collapsed back on the settee. "Did he … did he do that … that fish thing? What did he call you, a mad despoiler … of innocence?"
She grinned up at him, stunning him with the sweetness of her smile. Small, white, even teeth gleamed and the tiny suggestion of a dimple appeared in one cheek, giving her a charming off-center look.
Then her words sank in and he stared.
"What fish thing?"
Sobering, she sat up.
"I am sorry, my lord. I have overstepped, of course."
"Explain yourself." He narrowed his eyes at her.
Oh, bother, she had done it now. Averting her gaze, Izzy searched for a way out. The ugly, overdecorated parlor simply looked back at her, giving no clues for escape. Warm fingers grasped her chin, and she was forced to look into the hooded eyes of a suddenly dangerous man.
"What. Fish. Thing?"
She fought the urge to writhe in embarrassment. There was no help for it. "Ah, that night, you see, when everyone found you in my bed, and they assumed you had—Anyway, he burst in and sort of, well, gaped, you understand, like a fish. Open, shut. Open, shut. Open…" She faded, sure that the heavy hand of the nobility was about to fell her. She watched him the way a rabbit watches a hawk, with doomed fascination.
His grip on her chin tightened, and his lips compressed to a narrow, whitened line. The tendons in his neck flexed and he began to tremble in … rage?
A great shout of laughter dispelled her fears. He not only laughed, he roared. Dizzy with relief, Izzy smiled along. She decided she liked this man, liked him very much. Perhaps a bit too much.
Her eyes ran over him with hunger she did not want to admit to herself. What a man he was. Tall, yes definitely, with broad shoulders, a wealth of unruly dark hair, and a sensual twist to his lips that made her fight back a responsive shiver.
Heavy, hard body covering mine.
Hot, demanding hands, slipping up under my nightdress.
Warm sensuous lips and questing tongue.
But not for me.
"A fish?" Blackworth sputtered out. "Oh, God. Wonderful. Fits like a glove." He smiled at her. "That sounds just like something my brother would have said."
A brother? The mind boggled, that there might be two such beautiful men upon the earth. But no, he had spoken of his brother in the past tense. He was no longer of this world, it appeared.
Izzy stopped smiling. How sad. She knew about the pain, the hollow feeling of loss. She felt it every day. Impulsively, she put her hand over his.
"I am sorry. You must miss him."
Blackworth's smile faded, and he gave her a long look. "Yes, I still do. Always will, I suppose. He was my best friend." He looked surprised at his spontaneous confession.
Izzy hesitated. "What … what happened to him? Or do you not care to speak of it?"
"There is little to tell. He died while hunting at Dearingham. No one really knows quite how it happened." His expression was closed and cool once more.
His voice was dispassionate, yet Izzy could see the sudden tension in his shoulders and the pain in his eyes. She tightened her hand on his. "Do you have any others? Siblings, I mean."
"No, just Manny and me. An heir and a spare." His lips took a cynical twist.
Izzy frowned. "Your father did not truly call him that, did he? A spare. How cruel."
"No, of course not. I," he said with that same dry smile, "was the spare. I recall that he did say it, rather often."
Instantly Izzy was furious. "Lord Blackworth, I do not like your father. Not at all."
He shook his head in amazement. "So fierce for one so small." Then he sighed. "Miss Temple, when we are wed, you mustn't antagonize him. My father never forgets an insult. He could make things very difficult for you."
"Oh, dear. We are back to that, again, aren't we? I am sorry, Lord Blackworth. You seem like a very fine gentleman. But I have no wish to marry you."
He was free.
Yet after the first wash of relief, he realized he could not afford to let this unusual creature reject his proposal. His future, and hers, depended on this marriage.
"Miss Temple, you know we must marry." He used his deciding argument. "The restoration of your reputation requires it."
"Oh, but there is no need for that. I do not wish my reputation restored, my lord." She patted his hand and dropped it back in his lap. "But thank you for your very kind offer."
She rose, clasping her hands before her and giving him a polite smile. "Now, I expect you must be going. I shall see you out. You have been delightful to spend time with. I do hope you will call again someday."
Blackworth grabbed her hand once more and pulled her back down next to him on the settee.
Too surprised to resist, she sat. "You are a most physical person, aren't you, my lord?" she said, laughing breathlessly.
"I apologize, Miss Temple. I do not usually manhandle women."
She cocked an eyebrow at him, as if reminding him of their first unorthodox meeting. He flushed.
"My dear Lord Blackworth, there is no need for this, truly. Being a fallen woman quite agrees with me. I had no idea how unhappy I was, weighed down by Society's demands of virtue and propriety. An unmarried woman's lot is difficult.
"But"—she raised an imperious hand to halt him when he began to interrupt—"a married woman's lot is worse. I have no wish to become the property of any man. It wouldn't suit me, I'm afraid. I do not take well to authority," she confided serenely. "Nor do I require a man to support me, as I have a small independence left to me by my parents. And as a fallen woman, I may now live alone. I cannot wait to do so, you see. My relatives are parsimonious to extremes and … well, there is no need to go into detail."
She didn't see that she had given much away already. Blackworth pictured her life here with the grim, demanding Marchwells. He looked around the ugly parlor.
In quality, it was almost as fine as his own home. In taste, however, it was ostentatious to the point of ugliness. Tone upon tone of torrid yellow-gold was lavished upon every surface. Draperies, carpets, fabrics, all in a blinding, vile yellow. Textures vied with patterns to nauseate the eye.
Yet Izzy's gown was old and poor. Likely it had never been fine, even when new.
He surmised that the Marchwells belonged to the ranks of those who spent their money only where it showed.
"I have no desire to trade my newfound freedom for the shackles of marriage," Izzy went on. "Now, I am sure you shall make a fine husband for some other woman, but I have no need of one."
How could he convince her? He considered stealing her away, kidnapping her off to Gretna Green. A two-day journey by coach in fast weather …
He'd better hide all the candlesticks away. She wasn't the sort to submit easily.
His mind spun with wild plans, none of them viable. He felt his goal of the last thirteen years slipping from his grasp. He freed her hands, letting her go. No more would he force this woman. Tricking her, now; that was a different story.
He gave her a twisted crook of his lips. "No doubt I'll be disinherited by sunset tomorrow."
Izzy gasped. "No! He wouldn't, really? Would he? Oh, dear. He would. Bother that man!" She sprang from her seat and paced the room.
Idly, Blackworth watched her twitching bottom as she strode before him. What he could see of her figure was not so very objectionable. In truth, she had a rather attractive rear view. He felt a mild urge to discover what lay under the hideous dress.
"Come, my lord, we must think. Oh, drat him, anyway. I thought I had already dealt with that problem."
His attention focused. "What does that mean, you dealt with it?"
"Why, confessing to our torrid affair, of course. Something terrible might have happened to you if I had not. And I couldn't very well tell the truth and destroy poor Lady Bottomly." She flapped her hand dismissively. "How can we resolve this, my lord? He mustn't be allowed to get away with this."
He had stopped listening. The room spun around him as if the world had shifted on its axis.
She had sacrificed her good name to prevent his disinheritance? Why would she do that for a stranger, and after the way he had assaulted her? He had thought it all a ploy to gain a wealthy titled husband, yet he could not deny the sincerity of her rejection. She clearly had no intention of manipulating him to the altar. And she knew about Celia.
Poor Lady Bottomly, she'd said.
Lady Celia Bottomly had everything any woman could wish for: beauty, wealth, and high position. Blessings of which Miss Temple in particular had none.
Most women he knew were quite envious of the beauty, and would not hesitate to denigrate her. What no one knew—the lady's terrible secret—was how miserable she was inside that glittering life. Her husband was a brute, a vicious beast, her marriage a terrifying prison.
Miss Temple had instantly seen through to the heart of both their miseries, his and Celia's, and had averted a great disaster with one sweep of her dainty hand. And promptly ruined herself in the process.
Blackworth could not grasp such self-sacrifice. His existence was one of gratification and excess. He gave no promises, lived under no vows. With only pleasure to be gained and boredom to be lost, he had experimented widely, shamelessly, with never a care for another. If he admitted it to himself, even his sympathy for Celia was merely a product of his desire to bed her.
"Miss Temple, I—" he began, only to have her swing around to face him.
"Yes! Yes, of course. We must become betrothed!"
"Well, yes, that was my intention—"
"No, no, not wed. Definitely not. Betrothed!" She smiled at him with great satisfaction. "A nice long betrothal, to let all the furor die down, and then a nice quiet jilting. You see? I'll go about my life, and you'll go about yours, and at the end of, oh, say six months, we'll end it and go our separate merry ways."
Plopping herself down beside him on the settee, she heaved a great sigh. Blackworth wondered if she could possibly be as guileless as she seemed. He was accustomed to the skilled manipulation and calculated flirtation of the women in his set. Izzy Temple was as different from that as chalk to cheese.
A betrothal would suit him well enough. Of course, his father would not allow him to break it. But she needn't know that.
"Then it is agreed," he said. "We become betrothed immediately. However, my dear, our courtship cannot progress as you've described. Society would never credit it, and most important"—he raised his hand as she began to object—"my father would not believe it. No, appearances must be maintained, at least for the duration."
Oh, bother. Izzy knew he was right. They would have to present the illusion of courtship before the eyes of the aristocracy. She could not allow that horrid man to rob Lord Blackworth of his inheritance.
She understood how important an inheritance could be. Her own would someday mean the difference between a life full of options and a mere existence in chains, intangible but quite real.
The lure of freedom was all that had kept her sanity at times. Locked into the expectations of her family and community, Izzy had counted the months and years ahead until she should reach a sufficient spinster's age, when she could completely disappear from the vision of Society, too old to cause scandal, too invisible to judge.
Then she would take the income that had been accumulating since her twelfth birthday, and be gone. She knew just where she was going. To the place that was, to her, synonymous with freedom. America.
She smiled to herself. Now she needn't wait any longer. Perhaps next week she would find rooms somewhere, and she and Lord Blackworth could perpetrate their scheme. At the end of her "betrothal," she would be free and off to begin an independent life in America. She told Lord Blackworth as much.
He shook his head. "Surely you cannot think to live alone now? I have explained this. It would be scandalous if you were to take rooms alone. Appearances must be kept in all things. We must conduct a spotless courtship. I escort you about, and regularly call upon you here. I know you wish to be free of the Marchwells, but they are essential to our plan."
She gazed at him with unconcealed horror. "No, I cannot stay! You have no idea what the last week has been like. The censure, the stifling—I could not bear six months of it." She shook her head sadly. "I so wished to help you, but I cannot stay here long enough to follow through on our agreement." She shuddered. "I am not that brave."
He sobered, realizing the extent of her distress. Not that brave? Who were these people?
"You needn't worry, you know," he said. "After I finish with the Marchwells, they will think they are hosting royalty. And there is no need to wait six months. The four months until the end of the Season will suffice.
"So you see, my dear, we may go on with our plan. Perhaps you will even enjoy our time together." He tilted her a smile. "The fashionable world can be quite entertaining. The Waverlys' ball will open the Season in two weeks. We will begin then."
She drew back. "A ball?" She breathed the word as if she spoke of the seventh level of hell. "What in heaven's name would I be doing at a ball?"
Copyright © 2012 by Celeste Bradley