Kit glanced over the rim of her teacup down to the portion of Camden Place visible from the drawing room window. Compared to Calcutta, Bath was a placid, sedate sort of town. No garish colors, no horned cattle meandering down the middle of the road, no vendors hawking their wares with singsong cries, no street performers with cobras or trained monkeys. Here, on an ordinary day, one could see only carriages, pedestrians, and the occasional rider.
But today the streets were more quiet than usual, due to the steady curtain of rain that had fallen since early morning. Raindrops pattered in an even rhythm against the glass, forming a counterpoint to the ticking of the clock on the mantel. Kit sighed and took another sip of hot chai, allowing the familiar combination of cinnamon, cloves, and cardamom to dispel the damp chill that had taken hold of her.
After the debacle at Broadwell Manor, part of her had been tempted to bolt pell-mell back to India, but she knew the notion was pure fantasy. Besides, she did not want to give him the satisfaction of seeing her run. Moreover, in the past fortnight she had discovered that Bath had a quiet charm of its own, which at the moment she found particularly appealing. This was her home, and she refused to be driven away.
Fortunately, it had not come to that; the marquess had not followed her to Bath. Oh, not that she wanted him to, of course, or even expected it. In fact, she hoped never to see his roguish countenance ever again. Two weeks had blunted the worst of her pain, but every time she thought about it, she knew, despite her defiant words, that forgetting Lord Bainbridge would take much, much longer.
With a shake of her head, Kit set down her cup and picked up the latest letter from the dowager duchess. When the missive arrived this morning, just as she was preparing to go out, she had broken the seal and scanned the contents immediately. But once she had assured herself that the elderly woman's health had not taken a turn for the worse, she had set it aside so that she might savor it later. Now she unfolded the letter, smoothed the creased parchment sheets, and retraced the words written in the dowager's familiar, spiky lettering.
The dowager continued to recover well, it seemed, and was driving everyone at Broadwell Manor, especially the duke, to distraction with her demands. A smile quirked the corners of Kit's mouth. The dowager, as ever, was in fine form. Ah, but here was something-
tI have also heard reports from several of my acquaintances that you have been cutting quite a dash at the new Assembly Rooms. Good for you, child! 'Tis high time you put aside your nunnish ways. At any rate, I should hate to think my letters of introduction had gone to waste.
Kit grinned. She had only been to two balls, but apparently her appearance had caused enough of a stir for the dowager's friends to remark upon it. At this time of year, most of the ton were either at their country estates or in Brighton; the population of Bath, it seemed, was comprised mostly of dowagers, widows, half-pay officers, young girls wishing to live down a recent scandal, and fortune hunters down on their luck. In such company, Kit supposed, she could not help but stand out. But there was more…
Lady Arbogast went so far as to relate that a certain group of gentlemen-and she was not too particular about the term-have taken to calling you "The Maharani of Bath." You must write to me at once, child, and tell me what you have done to merit such a tantalizing epithet. Oh, how vexed I am to think that I am missing all of this!
Kit made a moue. "The Maharani of Bath," indeed. That made it sound like she was parading about the city on the back of an elephant, or in a palanquin at the very least, festooned with pearls and rubies and diamonds and accompanied by dozens of handmaidens wielding gigantic peacock-feather fans. She snorted. What a ridiculous notion!
In truth, all she had done was have her mantua-maker create a new wardrobe from several silk saris she had collected during her years in India. Well, come to think of it, she had also unpacked several pieces of elaborate, wrought-gold jewelry and her embroidered, curl-toed slippers. Hmm. She had worn these things without a second thought in India, but apparently such attire had made more of an impression on staid Bath than she had expected.
She was fairly certain she knew who had coined that ridiculous soubriquet: Viscount Langley, who during the last week had worked himself to the forefront of her admirers. Although she had met him but a few days ago, she had the impression that he was a handsome young rascal with a flair for the dramatic.
But you had best remain guarded, my dear, for such notoriety will garner you more than your share of attention, not all of it wanted.
Kit's smile began to fade. Wise advice, indeed. Most of the men who had flocked to her side over the past week were fortune hunters, drawn by her silk gowns and rich jewelry-signs that marked her as a wealthy widow. Her chin came up. She must remember to tell the dowager that her concern was appreciated but entirely unnecessary; she was no longer the na"ive, trusting little idiot she had been a month ago. Her mouth firmed, and she continued to read.
Once you decide what you want, child, there is no going back. There are plenty of fine young men to be had for the asking; all that remains is for you to find one-or for one to find you.
Kit rolled her eyes. After what had happened at Broadwell Manor, the dowager had somehow gotten the idea into her head that Kit needed to remarry. The elderly woman would not take kindly to being contradicted, but Kit suspected she would have to do it sooner, rather than later. She shrugged and kept reading.
I hope to be able to join you in Bath very soon. Wexcombe's physician-who is not the quack for which I first mistook him-has pronounced me in excellent health, and said that I will be fit for travel in a few days. And not before time, I shouldn't wonder. Although the children have been absolute angels, I believe everyone else here at Broadwell shall be delighted to see me leave, and I, for one, cannot wait to oblige them.
Kit read down to the signature, then set the letter aside and smiled. The duke would be more than happy to see his grandmother leave, and it served him right.
She poured herself another cup of chai and returned to the window, watching individual rivulets of water glide downward and merge with others on the pane. Since the dowager would not be able to return to Bath for a while, Kit determined to send the elderly woman another letter to tide her over. She glanced toward her rosewood escritoire, then to the mantel clock. No, she had better wait until tomorrow morning. Her smile melded with the rim of her cup as she sipped the spicy, steaming chai. She had promised Viscount Langley a dance at this evening's ball, and she was certain the dowager would not forgive her if she failed to describe, in very thorough detail, what was sure to be another very interesting evening.
Lord Bainbridge tamped down a surge of irritation as his carriage inched through traffic along Alfred Street. This was Bath, by Lucifer's beard, not Pall Mall! What the devil were all these people doing out and about at six o'clock in the evening? It had taken him most of the afternoon to learn that Kit would be at the Upper Assembly Rooms tonight-but so, apparently, was everyone else in Bath.
The carriage ground to a halt once more; the marquess heard muffled shouts of anger and the whinnying of horses from up the street. More delays. Blast it! Two weeks he'd waited. Two long weeks. He would see her. Tonight.
With a muttered oath, the marquess threw open the door, called a few instructions to his bewildered coachman, then loped off down the street, shoulders hunched against the steady rain, pulling his curly brimmed beaver farther down onto his brow.
He should not have waited so long. When Kit had left Broadwell Manor, his first instinct had been to run after her, to kiss her senseless… or at least until she agreed to listen to reason. Then he had determined that it was better to let her anger cool a bit before he approached her again, so he had traveled posthaste back to London and tied up his affairs there.
Or, he should say rather, affaires. Angelique had sobbed in the most brokenhearted manner when he'd given her her cong'e, but the diamond bracelet he had purchased for her at Rundell and Bridge had dammed the flow in a remarkably short time.
Then his most irrational move: he had ridden to Bainbridge Hall in Yorkshire. After all, if he was going to marry, he wanted to bring his bride… he wanted to bring Kit home.
That had proved to be his undoing.
His years as an absentee landlord had caught up with him; the house in which he had grown up showed obvious signs of neglect. Even now, pangs of guilt jabbed him just thinking about it. Some things remained untouched, like the carved stone staircase that arched up to the first floor and the ornate plasterwork on the walls, but half the chimneys now leaned at dangerous angles, window frames showed signs of rot, and the rose garden had become a veritable jungle of weeds. His mother's garden. He and Geoffrey had pretended to be King Arthur and Lancelot along those intertwined paths and around the hedges while his mother smiled and worked among the roses. Such memories…
In trying to run away from all the nightmares he associated with the house, he had forgotten almost everything pleasant. Despite all that had happened, this was still home. Bainbridge cursed himself for a fool. All these years spent in pursuit of pleasure had blinded him to the needs of the house and his tenants. Wexcombe was right-he was a selfish bastard, but not, he hoped, an irredeemable one.
One look at the accounts told him all he needed to know; he summarily sacked Dunning, the shifty-eyed troll who had also served as his father's estate manager, and hired a local man, Cavendish, in his place. Before he realized it he had stayed another week, working with the new steward to oversee the start of renovations. He directed Cavendish to begin with the restoration of the Queen's Chamber. After all, he couldn't ask Kit to stay in rooms with moth-eaten bed hangings and peeling wallpaper.
So much was left to be done, but his instincts clamored at him to return; he had let too much time elapse already. Once he was assured that everything was properly underway at the Hall, he had returned to London, and from there to Bath.
His prolonged travel had given him time to think, to form a plan to win Kit back. Now that she'd had ample time to cool her temper, he could apologize in earnest. Apologize, and assure her that his intentions had never been as black as Wexcombe painted them to be. Kit was one of the most rational females of his acquaintance; then again, he had hurt her deeply, and reason held little sway where wounded emotions were concerned. She might refuse him admittance to her house, but odds were she would not cut him in public. He would be better served to meet with her in the Assembly Rooms first.
He allowed himself a grin as he hastened down the darkened streets of Bath, even with rain dripping from the brim of his hat, down his cape, and into his evening pumps. She had not gone to ground, as he feared she might. Her presence at the new Assembly Rooms indicated that she had followed his counsel and had stopped hiding behind her books. Had she stopped hiding beneath those tentlike gowns, as well?
His grin broadened with anticipation. He had won her over once before, and he had not even used all his charm to do it. Surely he was more than ready for this second challenge.
When the marquess reached the octagonal vestibule of the Upper Rooms, he was amazed at the crowd gathered there. He managed to divest himself of his hat and cape, then used his height to advantage as he waded through the assembled throng. Lud, every single dowager and country squire in Bath must have taken up residence here tonight. Snippets of conversation reached his ears:
"… decked out like an Eastern princess. How vulgar."
"Hmph. Holding court like one, too, I daresay."
"… unusual-looking chit. Not exactly pretty, is she?"
"… admit anyone these days. A Cit's widow, 'pon rep!"
Bainbridge's ears pricked up. Kit. They had to be talking about Kit. His heart accelerated a bit as he came to the doorway of the ballroom.
He had no trouble spotting her amid the multitude. Bathed in light from the five chandeliers, she glowed like a sun-kissed pearl. He made his way toward her, his heart clenched in his chest. Dear God, she was beautiful. Rather than the drab frocks she'd worn before, she was now dressed in an exquisite creation of deep peach silk shot through with gold threads. Bands of intricate, raised-gold embroidery trimmed the sleeves, hem, waist, and the temptingly rounded neckline. The cut of the gown emphasized the length of her neck and the slender span of her waist. Strands of pearl-trimmed ribbon decorated her upswept hair, and an exotic necklace of gold and pearls adorned her throat. Gold bracelets jingled on her wrists as she cooled herself with a carved sandalwood fan. He swallowed hard as a wave of heat swept over him.
But as he drew nearer, he noticed a large number of men gathered around her, and that quickly cooled his blazing desire. He recognized a few, for their reputations preceded them: Sir Henry Castleton, a dissipated rou'e who had buried two wives already and was apparently in the market for a third. Lord Tarlton, who was at least fifty if he was day, and who had just last month lost a fortune at White's hazard table. Lord Edward Mitton, who had squandered his inheritance by the time he was twenty and had sponged off his dwindling circle of friends ever since. Viscount Langley, an inveterate gamester who had won and lost fortunes on the flip of a card.
Some of the others did not seem so objectionable, like Lieutenant the Honorable Wilfred Oddingley-Smythe, an infantry officer who had been wounded at Salamanca, and Sir Percival Debenham, whose only failing was his youth-the boy was barely old enough to shave, much less court a widow six years his senior.
None of them should prove to be much trouble… except Langley, perhaps. Kit had just turned her head and laughed at something the viscount had said. Hearing that throaty laugh and knowing it was meant for someone else made Bainbridge grit his teeth so hard that his jaw ached. Time to get her away from this gallery of rogues.
He elbowed his way into Kit's circle of admirers. She turned; their gazes met. Her green eyes widened.
"Hello, Kit," said Bainbridge.
Kit's breath froze in her lungs. Oh, sweet heaven-he was here.
Here, and more devastatingly handsome than ever in his elegant black and white evening dress. A diamond twinkled at her from the intricate folds of his snowy cravat, its hard glitter matching that of the marquess's eyes. A shiver cascaded down the length of her spine.
"Lord Bainbridge," she replied, her voice high and breathy. "What brings you to Bath?"
He inclined his head to her, a slight smile on his lips. "I think you know."
"Bainbridge!" exclaimed Lord Langley with a bit too much jovial enthusiasm. "How odd that we should see you here. I thought Bath would be too dull for your taste."
"That only proves how little you know me," Bainbridge murmured in reply.
From the alcove above, the musicians started up with an allemande. The marquess turned to her. "May I have this dance, Mrs. Mallory?"
Kit's heart leaped into her throat, but before she could reply Lord Langley reached out and took her gloved hand.
"You must get in line, Bainbridge," the viscount stated. "The lady has promised this dance to me."
Bainbridge looked to her. "Kit?"
Though her pulse pounded in her ears, she managed to lift her chin and stare haughtily back at him. How dare he march in here and expect her to jump at his command! She favored the viscount with a cool smile. "You are quite right, Lord Langley. This is indeed your dance."
The satisfaction of watching the marquess's face darken with anger dissipated as soon as the viscount guided her out onto the dance floor.
"Are you well, Mrs. Mallory?" Langley asked in low tones.
"Yes, my lord. Fit as a fiddle. Why do you ask?"
He raised one golden brown brow. "Because, dear lady, you have gone quite pale."
Kit raised a gloved hand to her cheek. "I have?"
"If you prefer to sit out this dance, I would gladly fetch you a glass of lemonade."
She flashed him a grateful look. "No, my lord, but I do appreciate your offer."
Langley glanced over his shoulder. "If I may hazard a guess without being thought impertinent, might I conclude that Lord Bainbridge is the source of your distress?"
Her jaw tightened. "You might."
"Should I call him out?"
Kit stared at him, only to notice the teasing glint in his slate blue eyes. "No violence on my behalf, my lord, I beg you."
"Ah." He gave her hand a gentle squeeze. "Very well, Mrs. Mallory. But I shall do my best to see that he does not distress you again this evening."
Kit did not have a chance to reply, for the dance had begun, and soon she and the viscount were too caught up in the figures to hold much of a conversation. Although Lord Langley proved to be a diverting dance partner, she could not shake the feeling that Bainbridge's eyes lingered on her wherever she went.
When the allemande ended, Sir Percy claimed her for a country dance, and Lord Tarlton for the reel after that. But when Sir Henry Castleton tried to solicit her hand, she pleaded fatigue and begged to sit out the dance. The baronet appeared displeased, but did not press the issue, for which Kit was infinitely grateful. She did not like the older man; he did not bother to disguise his leering glances, and his clammy, reptilian touch never failed to make her shudder.
It was rather like being part of a circus, only she was one of the performers; she wasn't sure if she liked the sensation. On one hand, being watched and admired was rather flattering, but as the dowager had said in her letter, not all the attention was entirely welcome.
Like that of Lord Bainbridge.
The crowd in the Assembly Rooms had noticed the marquess's presence by now; the air hummed with murmured speculation. Kit guessed that a man of Lord Bainbridge's stature-and rakish reputation-was rarely seen in Bath. He stood at the edge of the room, elegant as ever, seemingly oblivious to the whispered furor around him, and equally unaware of the longing looks sent his way by several young ladies.
As Kit returned to her chair, she saw his head swivel in her direction. Her lips thinned. So much for hoping to stay unnoticed.
Lord Langley appeared at her elbow. "May I be of some assistance, Mrs. Mallory?" he asked softly.
Kit tried to smile. "No, thank you, my lord. I have to face this sooner or later; I cannot run forever."
"I shall not be far, if you have need of me," he said, bowing over her hand.
"Will you excuse us a moment, Langley?" inquired the marquess. His words were polite, but Kit heard the quiet length of steel running through them.
"Of course, my lord," Langley drawled. "But I shall not let you monopolize her for long. Would you care for a glass of lemonade, Mrs. Mallory?"
The viscount was giving her an opportunity for a gracious exit, should she need it. She nodded. "Yes, thank you."
"Then I shall return shortly." Langley shot the marquess a warning look, then vanished into the crowd.
Kit snapped open her sandalwood fan and fanned herself at what she hoped was a leisurely pace. Her whole body felt as though it would shake apart at any moment. Fortunately, her long skirts hid her quaking limbs.
"What do you think you are doing, my lord?" she demanded.
A muscle twitched at his temple. "You know why I'm here, Kit."
"I do not," she countered. "Perhaps you should enlighten me."
He sighed. "Kit, I came here to apologize. I never meant to hurt you, and I think you know that."
Several people nearby turned their heads, their expressions full of unseemly curiosity. Kit felt her face redden. "This is neither the time nor the place for such a private discussion, sir."
The musicians launched into a stately minuet; Bainbridge seized her hand and began to lead her onto the dance floor. "Then this should allow us some privacy."
"What? How dare you!" Kit hissed, hoping no one would overhear.
The marquess gave her one of his roguish, heart-stopping smiles. "I dare, sweet Kit, because you leave me no other choice."
A formal court dance of the previous century, the minuet was excruciating under the best of circumstances. Tonight, Kit found it to be nothing less than torture. Though separated by layers of kidskin, she could still feel the warmth of his hand upon hers. And his eyes… Those dark, seductive orbs seemed to follow every move she made.
"Very well, my lord, I accept your apology," she murmured as they passed through a set of figures. "Now you can return to London with a clear conscience, if you indeed possess such a thing."
The marquess's eyes narrowed. "I do not plan to return to London, Kit."
She feigned innocence. "Oh? Do you intend to stay and take the waters, then? I have heard they are quite beneficial to one's health."
Irritation flashed over his face. "I am not leaving here without you."
She uttered a rather unladylike snort. "Then I fear you will be in Bath a very long time, sir, because I have no intention of going anywhere, especially with you."
"Then I will wait."
She stumbled; he caught her against him. Her silk-clad thigh and hip made contact with his, and a jolt of electricity surged through her. Heat flooded her face. She drew back to keep a more decorous distance between them.
"You see?" he said with an infuriatingly smug smile. "You cannot deny the attraction between us."
"The only thing between us, my lord," she muttered under her breath, "is an abominable history of lies and deception."
"I was going to tell you the truth," he insisted, "but Wexcombe stole a march on me with his untimely revelation."
"You say that as if it excuses your conduct!" she snapped. The elderly couple dancing next to them glanced at her with patent disapproval, but she paid little heed. "What you and your cousin did was despicable, my lord. And if you think for one moment that flattery and insincere apologies will get you what you want, then you are greatly mistaken."
Putting his arm around her waist, the marquess guided her off the dance floor and around the edge of the room, where the crowd had thinned somewhat. "And what do you think I want?"
Her body reacted to the pure seductiveness in his voice and his touch; longing pooled deep within her. She tried to ignore it. "I… You know what I think."
"You did not answer my question." His dark eyes glinted. He was enjoying this!
She glared back. "Very well. I will make myself perfectly clear on this point, my lord, so there can be no further doubt. I will not be your mistress. Ever."
He quirked an eyebrow. "Do you think me such a villain?"
Bainbridge raised her fingers to his lips with a teasing smile. "And yet you cannot deny that you are fond of me."
Pain began to throb at Kit's temples. "If this is your idea of a joke, my lord-"
"Nicholas," he amended with a smile. "Remember?" He turned her hand over and stroked his thumb along her gloved wrist.
Kit shivered. The pain in her head increased to a pounding. "I am through playing these games with you, sirrah," she declared. She snatched back her hand and glared at him. "And I will thank you to leave me alone." Spinning on her heel, she gathered her skirts and stalked in the opposite direction.
"Kit, wait!" he called after her. "That's not what I-" The rest of his words were swallowed by the crowd.
Damn him. Damn him!
Tears misted Kit's vision as she fought her way toward the octagonal vestibule. Curious eyes probed at her from every direction; she raised her head, determined to maintain what remained of her composure.
After all that he had done, how could he simply walk back into her life and attempt to resume their relationship as though nothing had happened? For him to tantalize her in such an outrageous manner… and in public? The man had no moral character, no scruples at all, and she was well rid of him.
If only her body did not ache so very badly for his touch.
Viscount Langley intercepted her at the doorway, his handsome face distorted with worry. "Are you all right, Mrs. Mallory?"
Kit shook her head. "Would… would you be so good as to see me home, my lord? The heat… I feel a trifle faint."
Langley nodded and offered her his arm. "Of course; it would be my pleasure." Then, in a lower voice, he added, "If that bounder upset you, you have but to say the word, and I will call him out."
Her eyes widened with alarm. "No! Please, my lord, no more talk of dueling. As much as I appreciate your vehemence on my behalf, I assure you that all I need is to get well away from the Marquess of Bainbridge."
Lord Langley gave her a lopsided smile. "I may be only a viscount, Mrs. Mallory, and a rather impoverished one at that, but may I be so bold as to offer you my company as a potential diversion from his presence?"
Moisture gleamed on the edges of Kit's lashes. He was a handsome young man, though not as handsome as Nicholas-as Lord Bainbridge. His golden brown hair brightened toward blond at the crown, testament to a great deal of time spent out-of-doors. His tanned skin emphasized the blue of his eyes and his gleaming white teeth. He was not as tall as Ni-as Lord Bainbridge, nor were his shoulders quite as broad, but he was attractive, he was kind, and he was not a rake.
She swallowed her tears. "You may, my lord, but only if you promise never to lie to me."
The skin around Langley's eyes crinkled as his smile widened. He raised her fingers to his lips. "Dear lady, I would do anything you asked."