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Chapter Twelve

The next few days were perhaps the strangest of Kit's life. Lord Bainbridge's marked interest in her brought all sorts of company to her door, mostly the local tabbies who could not wait to collect the latest tidbits of gossip. But these ladies got more than they bargained for; as Kit expected, those who managed to make it past their first encounter with Ramesh nearly fainted when they entered the pagan grandeur of her drawing room.

Kit would never forget the look on Lady Peterborough's face when she told the nasty, insulting woman that the tiger skin on the floor had come from the animal that had killed her husband! It was a complete fabrication, of course, and she had felt guilty for telling such a Banbury story, but it had been worth it to watch Lady Peterborough's eyes bulge as she inadvertently inhaled her tea.

The marquess's continued presence also triggered acts of sheer desperation in her throng of admirers. The sly, reptilian Sir Henry Castleton had take to writing very bad poetry; his latest attempt was an ode to her freckles, and she had tried very hard not to laugh when the man recited it aloud. Lord Edward Mitton had swept her aside at an evening concert and proclaimed his undying devotion to her. As for Viscount Langley She did not know what to do about the viscount. He was attractive, dashing, and witty, and constantly vying with Nicholas-with Lord Bainbridge-for her attention. Whenever the two men encountered each other, she fancied she was watching two tomcats growl and spit and hiss at each other. Oh, two very polite and well-bred cats, to be sure, but the underlying current of hostility made her skin prickle every time she ventured into their combined presence.

Then, on Thursday morning, she received no callers. A trifle odd, given the attention she had garnered of late, but she was glad for the reprieve. Lord Bainbridge had sent her a note saying that he had gone on an urgent errand, but that he should return in time for the ball at the Assembly Rooms. As she had no other obligations, and the morning was fair and sunny, Kit decided to peruse the shops along Milsom Street and perhaps pick up a new book at one of the circulating libraries.

When Lady Peterborough snubbed her in the milliner's shop, she thought nothing of it. After all, the lady held no love for her-or for her tiger-skin rug. But when two other ladies of her acquaintance cut her in the street while their gentlemen escorts ogled her in a blatantly speculative manner, Kit began to realize that something was very, very wrong. She returned home, her thoughts in turmoil, to find Viscount Langley pacing in front of her townhouse.

"Lord Langley!" Kit exclaimed as she approached. "I must say it is a relief to see a friendly face. This has been the most extraordinary morning-" She broke off when she noticed the grim lines on the viscount's face.

"May I speak with you, Mrs. Mallory?" he asked, his voice low and intent.

"Yes, of course. Won't you come in?"

As soon as they entered the drawing room, the viscount turned to her, his eyes clouded. "I take it you have heard," he said.

She frowned. "Heard what?"

"Ah." He pulled a face and shifted his booted feet.

Kit's frown increased. "Heard what, my lord?"

Lord Langley's jaw tightened. "Forgive me, Mrs. Mallory, for being the bearer of such unfortunate tidings, but a rumor of the most disconcerting nature is flying through Bath society."

"Rumor? What rumor?" But even as she asked, the hairs rose on the back of her neck. The absent callers, ladies giving her the cut direct on the street, the leering stares of the gentlemen. "What is this about?"

The viscount spread his hands. "Please do not shoot the messenger."

"Tell me, my lord, before I lose all patience!"

"Word is being bruited about that you are Lord Bainbridge's current mistress."

She gaped at him. "I beg your pardon?"

A deep flush stained his tanned face. "I did not believe it for a moment, of course, but I thought you should know before you were subjected to any impertinent remarks."

Kit blinked. "Who would say such a despicable thing?"

Lord Langley shrugged. "I do not know how it started, Mrs. Mallory, only that it has spread like the plague."

She lowered herself onto the lion-footed sofa, her eyes wide and unseeing. Her blood ran cold in her veins. Who? Who felt so much malice toward her as to fabricate such a horrible untruth? Aside from their first encounter in the Assembly Rooms, she had comported herself with nothing but the strictest propriety around the marquess. She could not remember anything she may have said or done to give anyone the impression that she had behaved improperly.

"This is unconscionable," she murmured. "I cannot imagine who would do such a terrible thing."

"Forgive my impertinence, Mrs. Mallory," ventured the viscount, "but have you heard from Lord Bainbridge lately? After all, this matter involves him, as well."

"He was called away on urgent business, but he should return this evening. Why do you ask?"

Langley's gaze did not waver. "The marquess has a certain reputation, of which you must be aware."

Kit scowled. "What are you implying, Lord Langley?"

"Only that his 'urgent business' seems to coincide very neatly with the onslaught of this rumor."

"Are you saying that Lord Bainbridge is responsible for this?" she inquired, her eyes narrowing.

"Well, perhaps I am being a trifle hasty in my judgment, but I would not put it past someone like the marquess to manipulate the circumstances to get what he wanted. If he destroyed your reputation, you might have no other recourse but to turn to him for assistance."

"You presume to know him quite well, Lord Langley," Kit noted with a distinct chill in her voice.

"I know only what I have observed, Mrs. Mallory. The marquess usually gets what he wants, by one method or another. How long have you known him?"

"Three weeks. A month, perhaps." Kit shook her head, her pulse drumming an urgent rhythm in her chest. Was Lord Bainbridge behind this? Impossible. He might try to seduce her into marrying him, but these cruel tactics were beyond the pale. He would never do such a thing.

Would he?

He has manipulated you before and lied to you. The last bargain you made with him was a sham. How can you be certain that he did not make this second pledge with you, then take steps to ensure that you had no choice but to marry him?

She put a hand to her forehead, squeezing her eyes shut to try to block out these awful thoughts. How well did she know the marquess? What was this mysterious errand that had so conveniently taken him away from Bath at this particular moment?

Could she trust him, after all?

"Mrs. Mallory, you seem unwell," said Lord Langley. "Would you like me to ring for something? Tea? Your vinaigrette, perhaps?"

A wan smile ghosted over Kit's lips. "I have never been the fainting type, my lord. But tea would be most welcome."

The viscount summoned Ramesh and ordered tea to be brought to them at once. Then he returned to Kit's side and perched on the edge of the chair next to her.

"Perhaps it would be better if you did not attend the ball at the Assembly Rooms this evening," he advised. Concern shone in his slate blue eyes. "I would not wish to see you subjected to any impertinent remarks."

Kit grimaced. If the Dowager Duchess of Wexcombe were here in Bath, she would have nipped such tawdry tales in the bud. But Her Grace was not here, and Kit would not disappoint her by showing cowardice.

She raised her chin at a mulish angle. "I refuse to submit to such a slanderous accusation, Lord Langley," she declared. "Whoever began this monstrous untruth would like nothing better than for me to hang my head in shame and never show my face in public again. I will not give him-or her-the satisfaction."

The viscount bowed slightly to her, his eyes twinkling. "I salute your courage, Mrs. Mallory. I would be pleased to storm the breach with you, if you wish it."

"Thank you, my lord. I only hope you do not regret having volunteered."

"I would not call it a Forlorn Hope yet, ma'am," he drawled. " 'Tis only a rumor, after all, and you have many friends in Bath."

"And tonight we shall see just how many," Kit murmured.

Like a medieval knight donning his armor, she dressed with greater care than usual that night, selecting a gown of deep yellow silk that had been made from one of her finest saris; the color seemed to make her freckles less conspicuous. Lakshmi threaded ribbons of gold tissue through her upswept curls. Rather than wear any of her heavy Indian necklaces, Kit chose instead to wear a single teardrop pearl on a filigreed chain.

But nothing could have prepared her for what happened when she arrived at the Assembly Rooms.

As she entered the vestibule with Lord Langley, heads started to turn in her direction. Then the whispers began, discreetly at first, but as they progressed into the ballroom people frowned at her, then murmured to their neighbors as she passed. A few dowagers, like Lady Peterborough and her gossipy set, turned their backs on her. Her cheeks scarlet, Kit allowed the viscount to lead her to her usual corner.

"This is worse than I feared," murmured Lord Langley. "Allow me to seek out reinforcements-Sir Percy, perhaps, and Lieutenant Oddingley-Smythe."

Kit nodded. "Yes, and Lady Arbogast and Mrs. Raebourne, if either of them are here. Both are acquaintances of the Dowager Duchess of Wexcombe, who is a very dear friend of mine."

As the viscount disappeared through the crowd, she retrieved her fan from her reticule to cool her heated skin. Everywhere she looked, people stared at her, then quickly averted their eyes when she sought to meet their gaze. What was going on? And where was Nicholas? Why was he not here?

"Ah, my dear Mrs. Mallory," said a familiar voice.

Kit stiffened. "Good evening, Sir Henry."

Sir Henry Castleton bowed to her, an oily smile creasing his fleshy face. His dark eyes glittered as they swept over her from head to toe, lingering on her bosom. "A pleasure to see you," he commented, with particular emphasis on the word pleasure. "Did Lord Bainbridge not accompany you this evening?"

"No," Kit replied through gritted teeth. "An unexpected errand called him away from town, but I expect him to return presently."

She instantly regretted those words when she saw the baronet's smile widen. "Not so high and mighty now, are you? Just another ladybird in fine feathers." He winked at her. "Do not worry, pet. When Bainbridge tires of you, I will still be here. You will be well worth the wait."

She shuddered as though a slug had just crawled over her skin, then collected herself and favored him with a cold stare. "You forget yourself, sirrah," she replied in clipped tones, then turned on her heel and marched blindly into the crowd.

Lord Langley had been right; she should never have come here tonight. Gripping her fan like the hilt of a dagger, she pressed on through the assembled throng, doing her best to ignore the stares and smirks and sympathetic glances as she searched for the viscount's familiar sun-lightened hair.

Then the crowd seemed to part for her; she darted into the opening-and met with the venomous blue stare of Lady Elizabeth Peverell.

"Well, Mrs. Mallory," said Lady Elizabeth in a high falsetto tone that carried well over the hum of conversation, "I would never have thought to see you here."

Kit's stomach clenched. "I might say the same for you, Lady Elizabeth." Gracious, what was this spiteful little cat doing in Bath? She thought the girl had been packed off back home.

"Why, I am in town visiting my aunt, Lady Peterborough. I find Bath society to be very improving," Lady Elizabeth explained with a false smile. She surveyed Kit's appearance with open contempt. "With certain exceptions, of course."

Kit's eyes narrowed. "And have you just arrived?"

"Why, yes. Only yesterday."

Yesterday Everything came together. The vicious rumor. Lady Elizabeth's smug smile and the glitter of triumph in her eyes. Lady Peterborough's insidious gossip. Yes, it all became clear as crystal.

"My, you have been busy, haven't you?" Kit murmured.

The girl smirked. "Surely you should realize by now, Mrs. Mallory, that there are no secrets in Bath."

"Even those that begin as outright lies," Kit shot back.

"Lies?" Lady Elizabeth arched a slim dark brow. "You forget, Mrs. Mallory, that I was also a guest at Broadwell Manor. I happen to be very, very observant."

"Observant or vengeful?" Kit snapped. The people directly around them had fallen silent, listening with unseemly anticipation, but that could not be helped.

"I saw you under the tree the day of the picnic," she hissed. "I saw the way you led him on."

She led Nicholas on? Visions of strawberries danced to the forefront of her memory, and Kit felt a familiar wave of heat wash over her cheeks. "You are mistaken."

Lady Elizabeth must have mistaken her flush for guilt; her eyes brightened with fury. "I think not. I did not return directly to the house but stayed near the garden. And I assure you, I could see everything."

Kit glared back at her. "If you had seen everything, as you claim, then you would know that nothing happened between us. Nothing except what you fabricated in your jealous imagination."

Lady Elizabeth scowled, then turned to her aunt and said in a very loud voice, "You were absolutely right, Aunt Peterborough. They will admit absolutely anyone to these affairs, even those ladies who are no better than they should be."

Kit stood still for a moment, her shaking hands rolled into fists at her sides. A sharp snap and a brief flash of pain in her palm told her that she'd gripped her sandalwood fan too tightly and broken one of the sticks. Although she longed to announce Lady Elizabeth's role in the dowager's fall to all and sundry, to do so would make her no less a viper than Lady Elizabeth herself. When the dowager duchess returned, she would take the girl down a peg or two. Until then, she must try to hold up her head. What else could she do?

Though she endeavored to maintain her composure, she could only keep her tears in check for so long. The evening was ruined. She struggled toward the vestibule, lost in a sea of censorious, hypocritical faces. A burst of Lady Elizabeth's shrill laughter knifed across her tattered nerves.

A hand touched her elbow, and she jumped.

"Forgive me if I startled you," said Lord Langley. Worry creased his tanned face. "I heard what just happened."

"There are no secrets in Bath, are there?" Kit asked, her voice tinged with a trace of hysteria.

"How may I help?" inquired the viscount.

"Take me home, my lord," Kit replied.

He nodded. "Allow me to get your wrap." He vanished from her side once more, leaving her alone to withstand the assault of prying eyes.

As grateful as she was for Viscount Langley's encouragement, he could not compare to Lord Bainbridge. She scanned the crowd, her arms wrapped around her body, but nowhere did she spy Nicholas's tall, broad-shouldered form. Where was he? Her own shoulders slumped. What was the use? Even if he were here, the whispered scandal would taint him, as well, no matter how vociferously he denied it.

Out of the midst of her upset and unhappiness, a phrase from Congreve hit her like a thunderbolt: Heaven hath no rage like love turned to hatred, nor Hell a fury like a woman scorned. Small wonder Lady Elizabeth felt driven by such passion; she had fallen desperately in love with Lord Bainbridge, who had not returned her affection, or even noticed it. For revenge, she had felt obliged to strike out at those she perceived had done her injury. Kit grimaced. "Hell hath no fury," indeed. Now both of them would suffer for her humiliation. It was not fair.

"Here." Lord Langley's gloved fingertips brushed across her neck as he settled her wrap over her shoulders.

Kit started. "Thank you, my lord." Her hands shook. She fought to still them.

"I have sent for the carriage, but it may take some time to reach the front door. Perhaps you would care to wait out in the fresh air," he suggested.

The atmosphere in the octagonal vestibule verged on claustrophobic; the air, redolent with an overabundance of perfume, threatened to choke her. Chills racked her body, alternating with uncomfortable waves of embarrassed heat. She nodded and allowed him to escort her outside. When they reached the street, Kit gasped with relief.

"I fear this evening's events too closely resembled a Forlorn Hope, my lord," she said, clutching her shawl closer about her shoulders. "The occupants of the Assembly Rooms repulsed me from the breach. As drubbings go, that was rather thorough."

The viscount pulled a face. "I regret you had to endure such an unpleasant experience. I only recently escaped similar censure in London."

"Yes, but a lady's reputation is a fragile thing." Tears pooled on her lashes. "Once broken, it cannot be repaired."

Lord Langley took her hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. "Mrs. Mallory, I must confess something to you I hold myself partially responsible for what happened here tonight."

Numbness gathered beneath Kit's breastbone. "Responsible? How so?"

"I warned you about Lord Bainbridge, but I should have been more diligent in your defense. I should have protected you."

Kit shook her head and tried to smile. "No, my lord. You should feel no such obligation."

"I disagree."

"Lord Langley-"

"Please hear me out." He enveloped her hand in both of his. "I should have thought of this earlier. I cannot flatter myself by imagining that you hold any affection for me, Mrs. Mallory, but I would be honored to offer you the protection of my name, if you wish it."

Kit's mind reeled. "W-what are you saying?"

"Eh I am making a muddle of this. Mrs. Mallory, I am asking you to be my wife."

She lowered her eyes. "My lord-"

"Sebastian," he interjected with a lopsided smile. "Sebastian Carr, Viscount Langley, who may not be a marquess, but hopes you will accept him as a poor substitute."

Kit opened her mouth, but another voice-deep, male, and angry-replied for her.

"Good evening. I do hope I am not interrupting anything important."

Kit jerked her hand from the viscount's grasp and whirled. "Nicholas!"

Lord Bainbridge balled his hands into fists as he surveyed the scene laid out before him. Langley, the insolent fop, was gazing lovingly at Kit, and if the marquess had overheard correctly, had just made Kit an offer of marriage. And Kit stood, blushing, eyes downcast, looking for all the world like a demure maid about to accept him. His heart gave a savage twist.

"Kit, I believe the gentleman is waiting for your answer, so please do not hesitate on my account." He bit off each word.

Kit pulled her hand again from her admirer's grasp; her cheeks glowed a brighter red. "Nicholas, this is not what you think."

His lips twisted in a sneer. "No? Did I not just hear Viscount Langley make you an offer of marriage? Really, my dear, it would be quite rude of you not to answer."

She swallowed, and Bainbridge could see the rapid flutter of her pulse in the base of her throat. She licked her dry lips, then turned to the viscount. "You do me a very great honor, my lord, but I cannot accept your proposal."

The viscount straightened his shoulders and bowed to her. "I understand, Mrs. Mallory, even though I am disappointed. I hope you will still consider me your very great friend." The man shot a fulminating glare in Bainbridge's direction.

Good God. Never before had the marquess felt such a strong urge to plant his fist in another man's face. He wanted nothing more than to eradicate Langley by any means necessary, to extinguish his presence from the face of the earth.

"Thank you, Lord Langley," Kit replied. A sad smile lifted the corners of her mouth. "If you will excuse me, I must speak with Lord Bainbridge."

"I shall be here if you need me," replied the viscount with an impassioned look.

"You had better go, Langley," Bainbridge heard himself growl. "The streets of Bath can be dangerous after dark."

Lord Langley stiffened, bowed to them both, then turned on his heel and strode down Alfred Street to his waiting carriage.

Kit turned to him with anguished eyes. "Oh, Nicholas, I feared you would not come."

"It did not appear so to me," he replied. A muscle twitched at his temple.

Laughter sounded from the vestibule of the Assembly Rooms, and she flinched. "Would you take me home?"

Without a word, he offered Kit his arm and walked with her to his own coach. He helped her into the carriage, gave her direction to the driver, then levered himself onto the bench opposite her.

She sat in silence, staring out the coach window, her eyes bright with unshed tears. Something had upset her-his untimely interruption, perhaps? He flexed his fingers until his gloves strained across his knuckles. He had no idea Langley meant so much to her. All this talk of trust, their bargain, meant nothing.

"I I must tell you something, my lord," she wavered. Still she could not look at him. A single tear tracked a silvery trail down her cheek.

He offered her his handkerchief, taking care that he did not touch her. If he touched her, he would be lost. "Is it about Langley? Do you love him?"

Her head snapped around; the softer curls at her temples swayed with the movement. "No!" she exclaimed. Her nostrils flared. "Why would you think that?"

Bainbridge quirked an eyebrow. "The man proposed marriage to you in the middle of the street. What else should I think?"

She lowered her head, but not before he noticed the way her lips trembled. "No. I do not love him."

"What, then?"

A second tear followed the first. "I discovered earlier today that a vicious rumor about the two of us has been circulating through society."

"A rumor? What sort of rumor?" Doubt tinged his voice.

Kit swiped at her tears. "That I am your mistress."

He leaned back against the squabs, his eyes narrowed. "Lucifer's beard. Kit, I had nothing to do with that."

She smiled, but the gesture held no mirth. "I know, my lord. I had my doubts at first, but tonight I discovered that Lady Elizabeth Peverell is behind it all."

"Lady Elizabeth," he echoed, lips curled in disgust. "I thought she was in London."

Kit shook her head. "No, her father sent her to Bath to stay with her aunt. As it happens, her aunt is Lady Peterborough, one of Bath's most renowned gossipmongers."

He winced. "And she was only too happy to besmirch our reputations."

She glared at him. "Your reputation may survive this, my lord, but mine will not. I have never had people give me the cut direct, even when I was married to a Cit. Tonight I have been the target of more cruel and unkind remarks than I wish to count, and I know enough about society to realize that this sort of thing does not diminish over time. I am ruined, my lord. Undone. Dished up."

"And Langley was comforting you." He made it a statement, not a question.

"He was one of the few who dared to stand by me!" she protested. "You were not here, Nicholas-what was I supposed to do?"

"You could have dissuaded him."

"He is my friend!"

Bainbridge's mouth tightened. "And might I also presume that this 'friend' was the one who first suggested I might be behind these rumors?"

"Well, yes, but-"

"I'm going to ask you again, Kit, and this time I want the truth. Are you in love with Viscount Langley?"

"Why do you keep asking me this?" she cried. "How many times must I tell you that no, I am not?"

"Until I believe you," he said flatly.

She paled.

"What would you have me think, Kit?" he demanded. He folded his arms across his chest. "The man flatters and pays court to you all week, while I struggle to keep you at arm's length in order to gain your trust. The moment I leave town this rumor pops up, and he very conveniently makes himself available to comfort you."

"I told you. He is a friend; nothing more."

"Stop being so naive. Men-gentlemen, at any rate-do not form friendships with ladies. The man is a gazetted fortune hunter, Kit. He wants your money."

"But I have no great fortune."

"You have more than he does."

"I do not love him," she insisted.

"Then why did it look like you were about to accept his proposal when I arrived?"

She glared at him, suppressed a sob, and turned away.

God's teeth, he'd made her cry. The marquess shoved a hand through his hair. All he wanted to do was reach out and pull her into his lap, to cradle her against his chest, to hold her and murmur that everything would be all right. But he couldn't. It was as if a cold fist gripped his heart and squeezed it.

She wiped her eyes again, then swallowed hard. "This has been a misunderstanding, Nicholas. Please, let us not quarrel like this."

The carriage came to a halt at Camden Place; the footman opened the door for them.

Trust. His quest to win her trust had sent him out of town at dawn this morning. It had kept him from touching her all week. But trust cut both ways; only now did he realize how much he had taken that for granted.

Kit had made it clear that she needed to trust him. He had every right to ask the same of her. But right now, he wasn't sure he could.

She had not made too great a point of it, but she had admitted that when the scandalous rumor first reached her ears, she had thought him capable of creating it for his own ends. Selfish he had been, yes, but never would he lower himself to do something so utterly ruthless. He preferred his women willing, not blackmailed. The fact that she had even considered such a thing cut him to the quick.

He levered himself through the carriage door, then without thinking offered his hand to her. She took it and descended gingerly from the coach.

He could feel her warmth through his gloves, smell her exotic sandalwood perfume as it rose from her skin. Her hair gleamed soft gold in the moonlight.

His fingers convulsed over hers.

"Kit." He held on to her hand to prevent her from climbing the townhouse stairs.

She turned, hesitant. "Nicholas?"

God help him, the way she said his name made his heart turn somersaults. If only he didn't have to do this-

"Kit, I am returning to London tonight."

"Tonight?" she echoed. Her eyes widened. "Why?"

He gritted his teeth and forced himself to say it: "Because we are finished here."

All traces of color fled her face. "Finished? What do you mean?"

He sighed. "You gave me a week to prove that you could trust me. I may or may not have been successful; you must make that decision."

"But the week is not over," she said. Her voice quavered.

"After what I witnessed tonight I realized that trust cannot reside with only one person. I have taken my own trust for granted, Kit. Until now, I assumed that you wanted me as much as I did you. Perhaps that is not the case, after all."

"No," she whispered. "Nicholas, don't-"

He placed two fingers over her lips, stopping the flow of anguished words. "You must decide what you want, Kit. What you want and whom to trust. My presence here will only muddy the waters, so I will give you some room to think. But once you decide, there will be no going back.

"Before I leave, though, I must mention two things. The dowager duchess has returned to Bath; that is the first of my gifts to you. I drove to Broadwell Manor this morning and brought her back. Once she is finished with Lady Elizabeth and the other tabbies, you will no longer have to worry about your reputation.

"The second item is this." He reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out two calling cards. "The first is the card of one Mr. Dalrymple, who owns a printing house in London. I wrote to him about your translation of the Ramayana, and he is most interested in publishing it when you are finished. In fact, he is willing to pay quite a sizeable sum for it. You may direct any inquiries through my man of affairs; I have given you his name, as well."

Kit held the cards with shaking hands, tears streaming down her bloodless cheeks. Nicholas reached out and gently wiped them away with his thumb.

"I know how much you value your freedom, Kit," he added, "and I would never dream of forcing you into anything. But I must demand the same thing of you as you have of me. Your love and your unwavering trust. Without those, we cannot be together."

She tried to say something, but the words stuck in her throat. She covered her hand with her mouth and just shook her head.

The marquess took a step back and inclined his head to her.

"Good-bye, Kit." Then, determined to leave before he lost his nerve completely, he climbed into the carriage and ordered his driver to head for London.

Chapter Eleven | A Reckless Bargain | Chapter Thirteen