Bainbridge paced the length of his room, turned, and paced back.
He'd rushed his fences last night, and his rashness may have set him back even further. Instead of paying respectful and serious attention to Kit, he had behaved as he always did around members of the fairer sex. Just as at Broadwell Manor, he had found himself flirting with her, teasing her.
Was that the only way he knew how to relate to a woman?
For God's sake, stop being provoking and just tell her!
Weariness weighted his eyelids, but he had no time to heed the siren song of sleep. He thrust a hand through his hair. Think. He had to think. He had tried to follow Kit last night to explain, but Langley, that insolent pup, had intercepted Kit and spirited her away. Bad enough that he'd put his foot in it, but if he wasn't careful, Langley would take advantage of the situation more than he already had; the thought of playing into a rival's hands galled him to no end.
Perhaps he had been mistaken in seeking her out at the Assembly Rooms, after all. But would she receive him if he called upon her? Pulling a face, he bellowed first for his valet, then for coffee. He would have to risk it. So much for foolproof plans!
Bainbridge dressed with painstaking care, then left the White Hart for Camden Place. The rain had ceased overnight, and bright late-morning sunshine glinted off the numerous puddles in the cobbled streets. He winced and lowered the shade over the carriage window.
Lud, he had never worked himself into such a state before. No sleep, and less appetite. All this over a woman. His lips stretched in a gesture that was more grimace than grin. If anyone had told him that love for a lady would bring him to such a state, he would have laughed outright. As it was, every single nerve in his body seemed to be stretched to the limit, like a drawn bowstring. A knot of tension had gathered across his shoulders and showed no signs of lessening.
She would see him. She must.
The carriage brought him to Camden Place in short order, only to have Kit's tall, rather imposing Hindu butler inform him that the memsahib was not in, but due to return at any moment. His heart leaped; dare he hope? Assuming a businesslike air, Bainbridge presented his card and asked to wait for her. The servant eyed him with undisguised suspicion, weighing his merits, then bowed and admitted him to the drawing room.
The marquess's eyes widened as he surveyed his surroundings. Incense scented the air. Stone statues of what appeared to be half-naked dancing goddesses graced either side of the fireplace. Leering masks, some human, some distinctly animal, regarded him from above the mantelpiece. And then there was the large bronze fellow in the vestibule…
This was Kit's world. Her home. Bainbridge crossed the room to admire a carved stone statue, this one of an elephant-headed god with four arms. Despite her unhappiness with her marriage, she had loved India. Loved it so much that she had brought these pieces of it home with her. He caressed the elephant's cool stone trunk. How it must have pained her to leave.
How much did he really know about her? Not enough… not nearly enough. He wanted to know everything, wanted to hear her stories. Perhaps, like Scheherazade, she would tell him one story night after night, so that he might forever discover something new about her. He smiled to himself.
But his smile faded as the minutes ticked by. Where could she be? He shot an impatient glance at the mantel clock, then began to pace back and forth over the tiger-skin rug. The Hindu butler offered him tea, but he declined. At this rate, brandy or blue ruin were the only things that would settle him, and he didn't want to declare himself to Kit when he was half disguised. His reputation with her was besmirched enough already.
Twenty minutes later, Bainbridge heard the front door open, heard her voice. He stopped midpace and clasped his hands behind his back, his jaw tight. Lud, it would not do for her to see him behaving like some impatient, lovestruck schoolboy.
The butler must have informed her of his presence; Bainbridge heard a sharp "What?", followed by a rapid flurry of words in a foreign language. He grimaced. No, she was not pleased to see him. He should have expected as much.
Kit appeared in the drawing room doorway, her green eyes ablaze with fury, her cheeks flushed. His throat tightened. God, she was magnificent.
"What are you doing here?" she demanded. "I thought I asked you to leave me alone."
"Forgive me," he hastened to say. "I made a mull of things last night. Ordinarily I would never think to invade your privacy like this, but I had to see you-to apologize, and to explain."
From the thunderous expression on her face, Bainbridge feared for a moment that she was about to order her servants to throw him out. "There is nothing to explain, my lord," she snapped. "Your actions last evening made your intentions perfectly clear. I will thank you to leave my house at once!"
He held up a hand. "If you send me away, Kit, you will never know the truth."
"The truth?" Her golden brows arched skyward. "The truth is that you take nearly every opportunity to seduce me, sir, and I refuse to expose myself to such low and callous behavior."
"I do get rather carried away when I am with you," he confessed. "But in doing so I caused you undue distress, and for that I apologize."
She hesitated. "You have become quite proficient at apologies, my lord."
"So it would seem." He shifted uneasily on the tiger-skin rug.
"Neither of us would be in this situation if you had respected my wishes in the first place and simply left me alone."
"You tempt me to madness, Kit."
"Then you should be in Bedlam, sir."
"I shall be, if you do not hear me out."
She sighed, then glided slowly into the room. "Oh, very well." Beneath her breath, she added, "I do not know why on earth I am agreeing to this."
He attempted a smile. "Because you have soft spot for irrepressible rogues?"
"That, or I am the one who belongs in Bedlam."
"This is a madness that affects us both," he murmured.
She stared at him a moment, her eyes cool chips of jade. Only the rapid rise and fall of her breasts betrayed any hint of alarm. "I would not be so sure of that." She gestured to a chair. "Won't you sit down?"
He ran a hand through his hair, rumpling the waves his valet had so carefully arranged only a few hours before. "No, thank you." He did not trust himself to sit still.
"As you wish." Graceful as ever, she smoothed the skirts of her moss-colored morning gown and lowered herself into a claw-footed chair. She laced her fingers in her lap and gazed at him with wary eyes. "I am waiting, my lord."
Heat washed over the back of his neck, but he resisted the urge to rub at it. Good God, how could a man so glib with compliments and flattery be so suddenly tonguetied? He blew out his breath in a gusty sigh. "I did not come to Bath to ask you to be my mistress."
Her eyes widened, then narrowed. "Oh? Your behavior at the Assembly Rooms gave me quite the opposite impression." She rubbed her thumb across one wrist; Bainbridge realized that was where he had touched her last night.
"I meant to draw you aside and ask for permission to call on you, but, as has happened too often of late, my best intentions went awry."
Bainbridge paced over to the statue of the elephant god. "I saw all those reprobates flirting with you and…" He ran a hand down the stone trunk. "I did something I have never done in recent memory: I lost my head."
Kit pursed her lips. "Oh? I did not discern a noticeable difference in your conduct, my lord. Whether jealous, angry, or indifferent, you always seem to treat a woman as though you want to seduce her."
Touch'e. He grimaced. "I did not realize that until recently. Women have… responded to me ever since I was young, and it did not take me long to realize that I could, in turn, use my charm to get what I wanted from them."
A dull flush rose in her face. "Apparently that approach has proven quite effective."
"Yes. But I cannot use it to get what I truly want."
She straightened, her eyes round. "What do you mean?"
Bainbridge rubbed his chin, feeling the slight burn of razor-nicked skin. "I was wrong not to have broken off our rather imprudent relationship, Kit. I freely admit that. Part of me did not want to hurt you, but the other part wanted to continue in blissful ignorance, enjoying your companionship and your kisses."
Her flush deepened. She plucked at the fabric of her skirt.
"I craved your company," he continued, "but at the time I thought myself drawn to you because you were different from other women I had known. You possess this strange combination of exoticism and innocence, Kit, and I had never encountered that before. You intrigued me, and I found myself wanting to know more about you, to get past that drab shell you presented to the world and discover what was beneath. And the more I knew, the more attracted I became. My baser nature wanted nothing more than for you to be my mistress."
"Stop," she whispered.
"You need to hear everything, Kit, if you wish to understand."
She squeezed her eyes shut, bit her lip, then nodded. "All right. Go on."
"Only after you left Broadwell did I realize what I wanted-and it had nothing to do with mistresses."
Her eyes flew open. "What, then?"
Bainbridge paced across the tiger skin toward her, his shoulders taut. "I have been a selfish creature most of my life, Kit. Always remaining aloof, but still willing to take advantage of the pleasures women offered to me. But this time…" He turned to face her, pinning her with an intent stare. "I want something more. I want summer picnics beneath the trees. Stories replete with princes and demons. Bowlfuls of strawberries. Children."
She looked up at him with huge eyes. All traces of color drained from her complexion.
"Kit." The marquess took her hands and pulled her from her chair. "I want you to marry me. Be my wife."
Kit clutched Lord Bainbridge's strong hands as the room seemed to spin around her in a most disconcerting fashion. "Your… wife?" she echoed.
His mouth quirked in a half smile. "Do you find the concept so strange?"
"Only when it comes from you, my lord." Kit pulled back and tried to ignore the way the smile slid from Lord Bainbridge's face.
"That is why I followed you to Bath," he insisted. He held fast to her hands. "That is why I insisted on speaking with you. Marry me, Kit. Marry me, and make me the happiest man in England."
She disengaged herself from his grasp and sidled over to the window. Her stomach churned. "But would you be?"
He frowned. "What sort of a question is that?"
She licked her dry lips. "Would you be happy?"
"I just told you-"
"But you must admit this is a rather sudden change of heart…" Her voice trailed off in a whisper.
"Is it that I am a rake, and you think me unable to settle down?"
"That is part of it, my lord."
"Nicholas," he prompted in a soft voice.
She shook her head. "No, my lord, I think it more prudent if I maintain at least the illusion of formality between us."
"Kit, tell me what is wrong." His velvet brown eyes pleaded with her.
She clenched her fingers in the folds of her skirt to still their trembling. "I cannot marry you."
Shock drained all color from his handsome features. "Kit, I just told you that I want you above all other women to be my wife and the mother of my children. I want you."
Calm, she must be calm about this, even though her heart was beating like the wings of a caged bird. She swallowed hard. "I am very flattered, my lord, but I still cannot marry you."
His nostrils flared; his dark eyes turned from pleading to piercing. "You can at least tell me why."
Kit wrapped her arms around her body. "You once told me that, when you married, you would choose a wellbred lady who held not one ounce of affection for you."
His hands flexed into fists. "That was before I fell in love with you."
Sweet heaven! Tears formed a lump at the back of her throat. "I thought love was an unnecessary complication."
He strode over and seized her by the shoulders. "By all that's holy, Kit, stop throwing my words back in my face. Don't you understand? I love you."
I love you.
Oh, how she had longed to hear that phrase, first from her father, then from her husband. And now they had come from a man she was not sure she could trust.
He ran a gentle finger down the length of her jaw. She shivered.
"I love you," he repeated, "and I think you love me. You would not have run away from me so quickly if you did not. You loved me, and I hurt you, so you fled."
"I was very foolish to have gotten involved with you," she said, her voice wavering with emotion.
"Kit." He drew her closer to him. "Why do you torture me like this?"
She placed her hands on his chest and tried to push herself away. "This is a farce, my lord. Please let me go."
He did not release her. "No. Do you love me?"
She turned away. She could not escape. "Yes."
"Then marry me." The marquess turned her to face him, leaned down, and brushed his lips over hers. His hands slid down her back and over her waist. "You know how good it would be between us. I love you, Kit. I want you in my bed night after night."
Kit moaned. Oh, how she had longed for his touch, his kiss, the sensation of his body against hers. At this moment she wanted nothing more than to surrender, to give in to this passionate embrace…
A warning sounded at the back of her mind, faint but insistent.
How many other women had succumbed to his sweet words and tender caresses? Done whatever he wanted for the promise of pleasure? She had nearly fallen into this trap once; she would not do so again.
Anger flared hot within her; she shoved at his chest, then wrenched herself from his arms. "I cannot believe you would stoop to this! You simply march into my home, declare your undying love, ply me with a few kisses, and expect me to fall at your feet? You have not changed in the least, my lord; you still do not hesitate to employ seduction to bend a woman to your will."
Storm clouds gathered on Lord Bainbridge's brow. "Kit, what do you want from me?"
Her hands shook, but she no longer bothered to hide it. "I suppose I want something that you cannot give me."
"What-love?" he demanded. "I have already told you I love you, and that is something I have never said to another woman. What more do you want?"
"Trust," she said.
He stared at her, his forehead furrowed in confusion.
She stood in the middle of the drawing room, her body stiff, her hands balled into fists at her sides. A tear escaped her control and glided in a wet trail down her cheek; she brushed it away with impatient fingers. "You deceived me, Nicholas. And yes, you hurt me. Deeply. But even more than that, you destroyed the trust I had in you.
"And now you come here and ask me to marry you, and either you do not believe I know my own mind, or you fear I will refuse you, so you attempt to seduce me into accepting you." She shook her head. Another teardrop joined the first. "Love requires trust, my lord. And without it, there can be nothing between us."
He reached out a hand to her, then let it fall. "I love you, Kit," he said, his voice raw. "You love me. I thought that was all we needed to be happy."
"Happy?" She blinked furiously against the onslaught of her tears. "How could I be happy wondering if my husband just came from another woman's bed?"
"I have broken it off with my mistress," he replied with a growl. "I did that two weeks ago, directly after you left Broadwell. I do not want a paramour, Kit; I want you. How many times do I have to say it?"
"How can I be happy wondering if every kiss, every tender touch did not have some secret design behind it?"
His jaw tightened. "Is that all you think me capable of?"
"You came to Bath for the purpose of courting me, did you not?" she countered.
He blinked. "Well… yes."
"Ordinarily, my lord, when a gentleman courts a lady he sends her flowers or billets-doux. He does not hound her every step and seek to subvert her disdain for him with kisses and seductive banter."
The marquess scowled. "You used to find my kisses and seductive banter appealing."
"So would any woman, my lord. But the fact that you use them indiscriminately tells me that I am nothing special to you."
His shoulders slumped. "Where does that leave us?" he asked quietly.
How tired he looked. More than tired… exhausted. Lines of weariness pulled at his mouth; shadows smudged the skin beneath his dark eyes. Kit resisted the urge to reach up and smooth away the lock of black hair that had fallen over his forehead.
"I do not know." She turned away. "Go back to London, my lord. Find a lady who does not love you and marry her instead."
"If I do, both of us will be miserable," he stated. "Kit, how can I prove that you can trust me?"
She nibbled at her lower lip. "I cannot say."
A strange expression crossed Lord Bainbridge's face. "Would you marry me if I could?"
She regarded him with open skepticism. "Yes, but how can one quantify such a thing as trust?"
He walked slowly over to her, took her hands in his, and held them. No teasing, no surreptitious brushing of his fingers over her wrist. Just his strong hands enveloping her smaller ones. "Let me make you a bargain, then."
Kit's eyes widened, and the floor seemed to drop away beneath her. "Oh, no." She tried to pull away. "Not another one. I am not as jingle-brained as all that!"
He did not release her. "Hear me out. Please."
Kit swallowed around her suddenly dry tongue. "What… what sort of bargain?"
"A very simple one, actually." He gazed down at her, his eyes like pools of chocolate. "Give me until the end of the week to prove myself worthy of your trust. If I succeed, you consent to be my wife. If not, I shall return to London and never darken your door again."
She stared at him. "Can you possibly be serious about this?"
"I assure you I am in earnest," he replied. "You will have nothing to lose except a week of your time. So… what say you?"
"Only that this is utterly ridiculous!" she exclaimed.
"Is it? Remember, you will be the final judge on the matter, since it is your trust I must win. We have a chance to be happy, Kit. Are you willing to take that risk?"
A large, heavy knot gathered in the depths of her stomach. So much of her wanted to hide away from the anguish, from the hurt this could bring. He said she had nothing to lose except her time, but potentially she could lose much, much more. Like her heart. Again.
Her lips compressed. No. She would not run from this. If she denied herself this chance, she may as well lock herself away in a cloister.
"One week?" she asked, hesitant.
He nodded. "One week."
She took a deep, shuddery breath. "Very well, my lord. I agree."
A tired smile crossed his features; he gave her hands a gentle squeeze. "Then I shall ensure that you do not regret it."
"When do we begin?" she asked.
"Seeing that I have only a week, I should make the most of my time." He pondered a moment. "Would you care to take a stroll with me this afternoon?"
Kit started. "A stroll?"
"That is an acceptable form of diversion, I hope?" he inquired, not entirely facetiously.
She blushed. "It is, my lord, but I am engaged to drive with Viscount Langley this afternoon."
"Langley." He frowned. "Be careful with that one, Kit. He is reputed to be an irredeemable gamester."
"Just as you are reputed to be an irredeemable rake?"
"Touch'e, madam," he replied with a growl.
Her blush felt like it extended all the way up to her hairline as she hastened to add, "There is, however, a concert of Italian music to be given this evening at the Assembly Rooms. If you would care to accompany me, of course."
He arched an elegant eyebrow. "I would indeed, Mrs. Mallory. I shall call for you at six."
"I shall be ready, sir," she replied somewhat breathlessly.
"Until tonight, then." The marquess took her hand and bowed over it. She halfway expected him to flout convention yet again and kiss her fingers, but he kept a very polite distance between her fingertips and his lips. In a way, she was almost disappointed.
He then took his leave; Kit watched from the drawing room window as he sauntered down the townhouse stairs, his hat perched atop his head at a jaunty angle. At the bottom of the stairs he turned, noticed her in the window, and tipped his hat to her. She backed away from the casement, her cheeks scarlet.
Knees shaking, she made her way back to the claw-footed chair and collapsed into it. She rubbed her temples. Good God, she had just done the unbelievable-made another very reckless bargain with the Marquess of Bainbridge. Last time, she had bargained her body. This time the stakes were much higher; this time she stood to lose her heart.
Could she trust him?
Bainbridge ordered his coachman to take the carriage back to the mews at the White Hart; he would walk back to the inn. The stroll would give him the opportunity to stretch his legs and think. Especially to think.
He knew how to charm women. How to sweep them off their feet and make them fall hopelessly in love with him. How to seduce them.
But to make them trust him?
A burgeoning ache throbbed at the base of his skull. How on earth was he going to do this? He supposed he could try to court Kit and maintain a chaste, respectable relationship with her, but that alone wasn't going to secure her trust. She loved him; she had admitted as much, and that would-
He stopped abruptly. A rotund squire plowed into him from behind. In a daze, Bainbridge tipped his hat to the blustering fellow, then continued down Milsom Street. The edges of his vision blurred.
She loved him.
Joy sent his heart into his throat.
Realization turned it around and sent it crashing into the pit of his stomach.
Yes, Kit loved him. But, as he had suspected, her reason held sway over her heart. He must win the trust of both if he was to succeed.
The front windows of a circulating library caught his eye, and suddenly he knew exactly where he needed to begin. He lengthened his stride. He must hurry back to the White Hart; he had letters to write.