"Good morning!" a woman called from the vestibule. "Halloo? Kit? Good heavens, child, will you tell this Hindu mountain of yours to grant me admittance, or must I languish on your doorstep?"
Kit raised her chin from the arm of the sofa and stared toward the drawing room door with weary eyes. "Ramesh, let Her Grace in."
The dowager bustled over the threshold, dressed in an eye-popping combination of yellow-and-green shot silk. The plumes on her turban bobbed with particular energy. "Eh, what is all this, my dear? I thought your butler was about to throw me bodily into the street."
Kit favored the lady with a tired smile. "I do apologize, Your Grace. I instructed Ramesh not to let anyone in, and I fear he took me at my word. But I failed to tell him that you were the exception."
"Well, I suppose I…" She halted midstride, retrieved her lorgnette, and peered through it. "Gracious, my dear, whatever has happened to you? You look as though you spent the night down a well."
Kit wiped the tears from her face with the crumpled cambric square she held in her hand, then rose shakily to her feet. "I am glad you are here, ma'am. I have desperate need of you."
"By Jove, child, I believe you do." The dowager put away her lorgnette, then turned to Ramesh and ordered tea for them both without so much as batting an eyelash. Then she took Kit's hands in hers and kissed her cheek. "What has happened, Kit? Here, sit down beside me."
Kit allowed the elderly woman to press her down onto the lion-footed sofa. She brushed a stray lock of hair from her eyes and took a deep, shuddering breath. How could she even begin to tell the dowager about this tangled mess? About the hurt and betrayal and confusion and longing and… And that she had lost the man she loved? She swallowed hard, then grimaced; her throat was raw from the copious tears she had shed over the past several hours.
"Kit… have you slept at all, child?" asked the dowager, peering at her with great concern.
"A little. You are in looks, Your Grace," she replied, a trifle absently.
"Oh, this." The dowager waved one hand in a dismissive gesture. "I thought it would be a lark to dress to match my more colorful contusions. I started off with black and blue, progressed through purple and red, and now I am as you see me. A trifle bilious, perhaps, but I think it suits."
Kit sat up, instantly more alert. "Are you well?"
"Of course, child," huffed the elderly woman. "A few bumps and bruises, nothing more. Had the most monstrous headache for days. That old wigsby of a physician says I have the hardest head of any patient he has ever known. Hmph. My grandson could have told him that."
"I am so glad you are here." The crushing weight on Kit's chest seemed to ease.
The dowager patted her cheek. "Tell me, child."
Kit bit her lip. "Oh, Your Grace, I am all at sixes and sevens. I have made a mull of everything."
The elderly woman regarded her intently for a moment. "I have never seen you so distressed, my dear. Does this have anything to do with my great-nephew?"
"Nicholas." Kit's throat convulsed around the name. "Yes, ma'am. It does."
The dowager's lips settled into grim lines. "What has he done now?"
Fighting against the tears that threatened her composure, Kit told her everything, from her first bargain with the marquess at Broadwell through all that followed, culminating with last night's debacle at the Assembly Rooms.
" 'Pon rep, how extraordinary. You should have known better than to bargain with a rake," declared the elderly woman.
Kit smiled through her tears. "Would you believe I did it for you?"
"Next time, my dear, let me fight my own battles; yours are too costly."
"Indeed, Your Grace."
"So where is that reprobate nephew of mine now?" the dowager demanded. "I vow I shall box his ears for this."
"He has returned to London," Kit replied in a dull voice.
"London?" she exploded. "Without so much as a by-your-leave? Bah! How dare he treat you so shabbily! You must go after him, child, and set him straight."
Kit made a moue. "I do not know if I should."
The dowager blinked. "Whatever do you mean by that?"
"I thought he cared for me, Your Grace, even loved me, but now I not so certain."
"Why, because you have quarreled? Egad, child, everyone has a tiff now and then." The elderly woman settled her skirts around her like a giant bird ruffling its feathers.
Kit shook her head. "No, it's not that. If you could have seen the anger on his face, the disgust…" She squeezed her eyes shut as another tear slipped out from beneath her lashes. "He is right. We both are. We may love each other, but without trust we have nothing. And the misunderstanding last night only made things worse between us."
"What do you think made him so angry?" the dowager inquired softly.
"I-I… Well… I am not sure," Kit stammered. She flung up her hands in exasperation. "No, that is not true."
Ramesh arrived with the tea tray; the dowager waved him away and poured tea for them both. She handed a cup to Kit.
Kit's hands trembled. The cup rattled on its saucer. Alarmed, she set down her tea before she dropped it entirely.
"Take your time, my dear," advised the dowager.
Kit nodded. "At first I thought it was jealousy, because he rang the most dreadful peal over my head for allowing Lord Langley to propose to me in the middle of the street. And I suppose I deserved that. But it goes deeper than jealousy; I know that now. I hurt him, Your Grace. I was wrong to have suspected that he started that awful rumor. I knew, truly knew, that he was never involved, but I think part of me wanted him to be."
"Why?" The dowager duchess was nothing if not blunt.
"Because…" Kit worried her lower lip between her teeth. "Because it was safer."
"Safer? Come now, child-you're talking nonsense."
Kit flushed to the tips of her ears. "What I mean is… If I had some excuse to break it off with him, I would never risk being hurt again."
The dowager smiled, and a suspicious glint of moisture shone in her dark eyes. "My darling girl, that is what love is all about. If you risk nothing, you gain nothing. But if you risk your heart, you have everything to gain in return."
A fresh wave of tears spilled down Kit's cheeks. "Or everything to lose."
The dowager pried the kerchief from Kit's fingers and presented it to her anew. "This will do you no good clutched in your hand like a rag." She lifted one corner and examined the embroidered "B" sewn there. "Do you believe he still loves you?"
"I… I don't know."
"He gave you this."
Kit shrugged. "That is of no consequence. I am certain he has dozens of them."
"What gammon!" exclaimed the dowager. Then, more gently, she added, "Do you love him, Kit?"
"Yes, Your Grace," she whispered. "More than I ever thought possible."
"And would being with him make you happy?"
"Then why are you sitting here and moping?"
Kit blinked more tears away. "He does not want me."
The elderly woman sighed. "Oh, enough of this missish dibble dabble. Do you love him, or do you not?"
"And are you willing to fight for that love? Or are you just going to fritter it away so you can hie yourself off to a convent?"
Kit straightened. "No! I mean, yes. That is-"
The dowager set down her cup with a clatter, then rose and assumed a businesslike air. "Good! That is something, at least. Come now, my dear, we must move quickly."
The elderly woman looked down at Kit, one cosmetically darkened brow raised in an arrogant arch. "God has given you a chance at happiness, child, and He has put me here to see that you do not bungle it. Now, here. Dry your eyes, and go upstairs and change into traveling clothes. I shall help your maid pack your things."
"Where are we going, Your Grace?"
The dowager rolled her eyes. "Oh, how love can addle the wits of even the most rational female," she muttered. "We are going to London, my dear. And we have no time to waste."
Lord Bainbridge stalked to the sideboard, sloshed the last of the very excellent, very smuggled French brandy from the decanter into his glass, and bellowed for his butler to bring him another bottle. Then, with a snort of disgust, he folded himself once more into the plush wing chair by the hearth and propped one booted foot atop the nearby table. He swirled the liquid around in the glass, watching the play of the candlelight in its amber depths.
He would forget her. He must. Or he would run mad. Run mad, and bankrupt himself on smuggled French brandy in the process. Three, five, ten bottles-what did it matter? He sighed and slouched farther into the chair's thick padding.
How had it come to this? He had finally found a woman he loved-loved and wanted to marry, no less-and he had walked away from her. Walked away and not looked back. Had he made the right decision? Or should he have brushed aside her protests and used all the seductive skills at his command to overpower the last of her resistance?
No. He knew that was not the answer; she would never have forgiven him if he had done that. Bloody hell, she had barely forgiven him for the first fateful bargain.
Now Kit was in Bath, and he in London. Was she as miserable as he was? He grimaced and downed a mouthful of the fiery liquor. No doubt Lord Langley had shown up to comfort her. Would that rogue try to kiss her? Whisper in her ear that she was well rid of the reprobate marquess? Would he propose to her again? A red haze misted his vision at the thought. He banged one fist against the arm of the chair. God's teeth, he wasn't supposed to care about what happened to her!
He leaned forward and set aside his glass, then shoved both hands through his already rumpled hair. Lud, he was a mess. No waistcoat, no cravat, his shirt open at the throat. He fingered his stubbled chin. Ah, and unshaven, to boot. How his acquaintances at White's would laugh-the infamous Marquess of Bainbridge, rake and Corinthian sans pareil, brought low by a woman.
He vaulted out of the chair. Damnation! How much more of this was he supposed to take? He began to pace the length of the Turkey carpet. And where the hell was Fulton with his brandy?
Then he heard the butler's voice from the hallway. He cocked his head. His butler's raised voice. He frowned. Fulton was as stuffily proper as anyone could ask, and he never raised his voice.
"But you cannot simply barge in there, Your Grace!" Fulton protested.
"If you do not get out of my way, you fribble, I shall not hesitate to take that bottle from your hands and smack you over the head with it. Go on, child. I can handle this upstart."
A lopsided grin slid over his face. Aunt Jo was in fine form this evening. But what was she doing here? His brow furrowed.
The study door creaked open. A familiar golden head appeared in the breach, followed by a heart-stopping pair of green eyes.
His grin faded. Was he dreaming?
"Kit?" The name came out as more of a croak.
"Nicholas?" The vision edged into the room until she stood in the middle of the carpet, her fingers laced tightly in front of her, her eyes huge. A bonnet dangled down her back. Tawny gold curls tumbled about her face.
A dream. That must be it. He must be dreaming. There could be no other explanation. "Are you real?"
The vision smiled. "Yes." She came toward him, and he caught the dizzying scent of her exotic perfume.
No vision, this. His pulse began to hammer in his chest.
"You came," he breathed. He extended a hand to her.
She gazed at him through lowered lashes. "I had to."
She hesitated, then reached out and took his hand. "Because I love you, Nicholas."
With a groan he pulled her to him and buried his face in her hair. God, she smelled so good. He enveloped her in a tight embrace. "I did not think you would come."
Her fingers flexed against his chest; he heard her indrawn hiss of breath. "I did not think you wanted me to."
"Want you?" Bainbridge pulled back a bit and stared down at her, incredulous, his throat raw with unspoken emotion. "Kit, how could I have ever given you the impression that I did not want you?"
She ducked her head. "In the carriage, coming home from the Assembly Rooms. It seems like a lifetime ago."
He nuzzled the curls at her temple. "Ah, Kit." His heart slid up into the back of his throat and stuck there. "I never said I didn't want you."
She gazed up at him through a haze of unshed tears. "I am so sorry. I have made such a muddle of this."
"Shhhh." He moved his lips across her forehead. "You don't need to explain. You are here, and that is all that matters."
Kit pulled back and shook her head. "But it does. It does matter. You taught me that."
He responded with a raised eyebrow.
She flushed; her freckles stood out like dusted cinnamon against her skin. "Weeks ago you asked me what I wanted. Now I know."
He brushed his thumb over the quivering softness of her lower lip. "Tell me."
He felt her shiver, felt his body spring to life in response.
She hesitated a moment, then leaned up and pressed a tiny kiss to the corner of his mouth. "I want you, Nicholas. I want to share picnics in the shade with you, and stories. And strawberries." A teasing smile pulled at her lips. "Lots of strawberries."
The marquess chuckled. "Minx. You forget that I am a rake."
Amusement glinted in her eyes. "A very dangerous and irrepressible rake, so I have been told," she replied.
"Then perhaps it is time I proved to you just how dangerous I am." Tightening his arms around her, he leaned down and claimed her mouth with his.
She pressed herself against him; his blood sang through his veins as her every curve melded with the planes of his body. His mind grew hazy, and all he could think about was how close she was to him and how her skin felt beneath her fingertips, beneath his lips. One hand traced the arc of her spine and came to rest on the upper swell of her hip. A moan escaped her.
He gazed down at her with heavy-lidded eyes. "I warn you, madam, I do not want you as a mistress. You must consent to be my wife. That is the bargain."
She smiled and brushed a heavy lock of hair away from his forehead. "And what do I get in return?"
He leaned down and traced his lips along the line of her jaw. "A lifetime of being cherished and adored. Children. Waking from sleep with the memory of my hands on your body…"
She sighed and pulled away as far as his arms would allow. "Behave yourself, sir, or I shall not consent to your terms."
He chuckled. "Yes, you will."
"You know me too well."
"Not nearly well enough. But I look forward to the exploration. Marry me, Kit."
An insouciant smile danced over her lips. "My answer is yes, my lord. Yes, I will marry you."
"Excellent. Now, where were we?" His hand slid down to cup the rounded swell of her breast.
Her mouth rounded in shock. "Nicholas, what are you doing? The dowager is just outside!"
"I know," he replied with a wicked grin. "But she will wait."