They were staring at her.
Every time Kit raised her head from her book she fancied that she saw one of the others look quickly away. Or was she imagining things? The Marquess of Bainbridge, at least, made no attempt to conceal his scrutiny. The first time their eyes met across the drawing room, his lips curved in a slight, intimate smile that sent gooseflesh racing over her skin. A bright display of color rose in her cheeks, and Kit wrenched her attention back to her reading, though the words on the page made little sense to her restless mind.
She had expected some condescension from the relations of the dowager duchess, but not such veiled hostility. During dinner, the duke and duchess asked her a number of pointed questions about her experiences in India, but their inquiry seemed to focus more on her late husband's dealings in trade than on anything to do with Calcutta or its many wonders. Lady Elizabeth Peverell, the duchess's sister, had sat next to her, and although on the surface her conversation sounded quite congenial, the lady made several insulting comments sotto voce to her, well out of the dowager's hearing. Kit frowned. And this was but the first battle.
She shifted on the Chippendale chair and tried to concentrate on her book, but Mr. Coleridge's sonnets had lost their appeal. She had never traveled in such exalted social circles, even when she made her debut; the penniless daughter of a reprobate baron received few invitations, never mind vouchers for Almack's. Perhaps that was why she felt so out of place.
It had started the moment she and the dowager had arrived. Although Kit had worn her best gown to dinner, the sight of the lovely raven-haired duchess in her dress of celestial blue silk and Lady Elizabeth in a creation of silver net over sea green satin was enough to make her compare herself to a crow that had inadvertently landed in a flock of graceful swans. Her navy blue gown, though well made, looked woefully plain by comparison. Now she knew why the dowager duchess had gone on about new dresses. Kit pursed her lips and turned another page.
Since they dined en famille, the gentlemen did not go to a separate room to enjoy their port after dinner, but rather the entire group had adjourned to the drawing room. At present, the duke and duchess sat on either side of the dowager on the long striped divan by the hearth. The marquess lounged against the ornate stone mantelpiece, a glass of sherry dangling from his strong fingers. Lady Elizabeth sat nearby and attempted to engage the marquess in conversation. Lord Bainbridge, however, did not appear to be drawn in by her sallies; he made but brief replies, his gaze never straying far from Kit's.
What part did this fellow play in the duke's scheme? Whatever it was, she was determined not to let him unnerve her. With a huff, Kit turned a deliberate shoulder to him.
There, that was better. She tried to find her place in her book.
Was he still…
Temptation got the better of her. She glanced over her shoulder.
Yes, he was.
Heat flooded her features for the umpteenth time that evening. Why did the man stare at her so, and why did it seem to affect her pulse so strangely? He was handsome, very handsome, but something about his demeanor disturbed her, and it was not just the fact that he felt inclined to stare at complete strangers. He had-there was no other way to put it-an almost deliberate charm about him, as though he went out of his way to bring himself to the attention of the fairer sex. And he paid almost no attention to Lady Elizabeth, the lovely unmarried daughter of an earl, in favor of her, a plain-featured widow.
As if her experience on the Marriage Mart had not been education enough, Kit's experiences in India had honed her ability to identify dangerous predators, and this man was definitely dangerous. She could see it in the confident set of his broad shoulders, in the calculated smile that curved his mobile mouth. He continued to regard her from beneath seductively half-lowered lids; she dared not look into those compelling sable brown eyes, or imagine brushing that lock of ebony hair away from his forehead…
She started. Gracious-what made her think such a thing? She had dealt with over a dozen such men in India, acquaintances of her husband who had not scrupled to solicit her affections, so why did this one have her behaving like a complete widgeon?
"Mrs. Mallory," called the duchess, "perhaps you would favor us with a piece on the pianoforte. I think you will find our Broadwood grand to be a superior instrument."
Kit now raised her head to find herself the focus of everyone's gaze. Again. She forced a polite smile to her lips. "I regret to say, ma'am, that my musical talents are indifferent, at best."
"Well then, I will play, and you can sing for us."
Kit recognized the gleam in the duchess's cool eyes. A prickling sensation spread across the back of her neck. "I fear my singing is little better, Your Grace."
"Oh, leave the girl alone, Caroline," reproached the dowager. "She is here as my guest and should not feel obliged to entertain you."
The duchess lifted a languid hand to her throat. "I was merely being polite, Grandmama. After all, we do want Mrs. Mallory to feel at home here." She turned to her husband. "Do we not, my dear?"
"Yes. Of course," agreed the duke, his mouth set in hard lines.
Kit's fingers tightened around her book. Did the dowager not notice the treacherous undercurrents of these words? Apparently not. That, or she was going to pick her battles. Kit hoped it was the latter.
"I confess I am astonished, Mrs. Mallory," added Lady Elizabeth. She shared a knowing look with her sister. "I thought every well-brought-up young lady knew how to play the pianoforte and sing. Your talents must lie in… other areas."
Kit's smiled turned brittle. "Quite so. I speak French and Italian tolerably well, although my German is only adequate. During my years in India I learned to speak fluent Hindi, along with a smattering of Bengali and a bit of Persian."
Lady Elizabeth appeared taken aback. "I… see. And your other accomplishments? Do you embroider or paint watercolors?"
"I have always wondered why society insists on measuring a lady by her accomplishments. If playing and singing and painting insipid watercolors are the sum of our potential, then we are dull creatures, indeed."
"I must protest, Mrs. Mallory," said the duchess airily. "Such refined skills are what separate genteel ladies from women of the lower classes."
"One might also claim that the ability to read serves the same purpose." Kit gestured to her book.
"Oho-a palpable hit. Good for you, child," cackled the dowager.
Kit smiled. The lady was indeed picking her battles.
The duke scowled.
The marquess cleared his throat, and Kit would swear that he was trying to hide a grin of amusement.
"Do you mean to tell us that you would prefer to be a bluestocking, rather than a proper lady?" Lady Elizabeth twittered.
"I do not understand why the two need be mutually exclusive," Kit responded. "And I have never considered myself as anything but proper."
Her Grace made a dismissive gesture. "I fail to see what use a lady has for the scholarly skills you espouse, Mrs. Mallory."
"Just as I fail to see why intelligence is deemed of lesser value than musical skill. Why may a woman be considered clever or witty, but no more than that? God, in His infinite wisdom, gave us each certain talents. Some of us were meant to play the piano, just as others were meant to study poetry and philosophy."
The duchess rose from the divan, her mouth pinched. "Well, if you ask me, all of that sounds rather… revolutionary. I declare, Mrs. Mallory, next you'll be telling us that you sympathize with the French! Come, Lizzie. I wish to play, and I will need you to turn the pages for me."
The two women crossed the room to the Broadwood grand, then sat down together on the bench in front of the keyboard and put their heads together in conversation. Pointedly ignoring Kit, the duke turned to the dowager with a question about her plans for the upcoming Season. And the marquess… The marquess detached himself from the mantel, crossed the Aubusson carpet, and sat down on the chair next to Kit.
He leaned toward her, his eyes on the book in her hands. Kit detected a faint hint of his cologne, musk with a trace of citrus, mingled with cheroot smoke and the smell of warm skin. George had always applied Imperial water with a rather heavy hand, claiming that it drove away the mosquitoes, and as a result the scent had never much appealed to her. The marquess's particular combination, however, was completely and utterly masculine. She swallowed hard.
"And which one are you studying now, ma'am-poetry or philosophy?" he inquired.
"Ah… poetry, sir," she replied when she found her voice. "By Mr. Hartley Coleridge."
"Coleridge? I do not believe I have heard his work. Would you consent to read some to me?"
His eyes were the color of chocolate, rich and dark. Strange, but never before had she found dark eyes so attractive.
"I would not think you a lover of poetry, my lord," she said, surreptitiously rubbing one damp palm against her skirts.
"You would be surprised at the things I find appealing," he murmured.
His devilish grin made Kit's heart give a strange, sideways leap. She glanced toward the pianoforte; the duchess had just launched into a spirited rendition of Mozart's "Rondo Alla Turca."
"I do not think it would be polite to ignore Her Grace's performance," she replied a trifle breathlessly.
A pained expression crossed the marquess's face. "I have always thought Caroline's technique to be somewhat… ah… energetic. She doesn't play the pianoforte so much as bang on it."
Kit bit her lip to stifle a sudden surge of laughter. "I am certain she would not appreciate your rather candid criticism, my lord."
He chuckled. "Then we shall have to keep it a secret, shan't we?"
That throaty laugh sent a shiver of pleasure down Kit's spine. She tried to ignore it. "I have never been one for secrets, sir."
"Oh, you are a cruel creature, Mrs. Mallory. I will be undone, and Caro will have my head!"
"I doubt that very much, for I will not be the one to tell her."
Lord Bainbridge raised a speculative eyebrow. "Will you give me your word on that?"
The corners of her mouth twitched. "You sound as though you do not trust me, Lord Bainbridge."
He extended a hand. "Here-let us shake on the matter. You agree to keep my secrets, and I shall keep yours. Oh, come now, ma'am. My reputation with my cousin is in jeopardy. I must know that you will keep my confidence."
She stared at his hand, at the broad palm and long fingers. "But I have no secrets, sir."
"No secrets?" He gazed back in mock disbelief. "Remarkable. Well, if you ever do, I promise that I shall keep them as close as a miser keeps his purse."
The teasing twinkle in his dark eyes proved too much; she smiled and took his hand. "Done."
His fingers closed over hers. The sensation of his warm, calloused skin around hers robbed her of breath. Effervescent fire raced through her veins. Her skin tingled. God in heaven-what was the matter with her?
The marquess held her hand for several heartbeats and showed no sign of wanting to release it. Then he turned her hand over, and his thumb caressed her palm.
Kit pulled her hand away. "You are too forward, sir."
"I am, aren't I?" Again, the roguish smile. "I have been told that it is one of my most endearing qualities."
Kit's smile dwindled as her conscience pricked her. The marquess was flirting with her, and making a concentrated effort to do so. Oh, the banter between them seemed natural enough, but he assumed a familiarity with her that set off warning bells in her head.
"Not to me, my lord," she reproached him. "If this is some sort of lark…"
Bainbridge smothered a sigh. This might be more difficult than he had anticipated. She was a cautious creature; his overt physical lures had not produced the results for which he'd hoped. This was the first widow he'd ever encountered who had not been eager for his touch. Time to adjust his strategy.
"Forgive me," he said with all the contrition at his command. "I did not mean to offend you. If I agree to behave myself, would you still consent to read aloud?"
"Behave yourself?" she asked archly. "Pray excuse my blunt speech, my lord, but I am beginning to doubt if you are interested in poetry at all."
He shrugged and spread his hands. "Ah… You have found me out, Mrs. Mallory. I do have an ulterior motive."
Her green eyes narrowed. "And what would that be?"
Bainbridge shot a quick glance in the duke's direction. "My family, unfortunately, possesses much of the arrogance that often accompanies great rank," he murmured. "Truth be told, I think Wexcombe was born looking down that patrician nose of his."
She ducked her head, but not before Bainbridge spied her grin of amusement. "He is a duke, after all. I suppose he is entitled to a certain amount of pride."
"Entitled or not, I am rather ashamed of the way they have treated you this evening. I simply hoped to put you at ease and prove that not all of us have forgotten how to be civil."
"Oh," she replied, her fingers laced in her lap. Clearly, she had not expected him to say that. "And why have you taken this upon yourself, my lord? You do not share their estimate of my character?"
"The duke may be my cousin," he said with a lopsided grin, "but he does not make up my mind for me. My Great-Aunt Josephine-the dowager duchess-obviously holds you in great regard."
"Thank you." The tense set of her shoulders eased. "Might I ask you one other question?"
"As long as it does not involve poetry or philosophy," he chuckled, "for I was an indifferent student at best."
This time she responded to his jest with a genuine smile. "No, it involves neither. I merely wished to know you why you were staring at me."
"Was I staring?" he asked, feigning innocence. He had not put her off her guard, after all. Blast.
"You were," she countered. "And I cannot imagine why."
"Can you not?" Bainbridge willed her to meet his gaze, but she did not oblige him. He had to content himself with the study of her profile. "Surely you realize that you are a very attractive woman, Mrs. Mallory."
She blushed a vivid pink, and he spied the rapid flutter of her pulse at the base of her throat, in the soft hollow barely visible above the collar of her dark blue gown. He had told her the truth; she was attractive, in a very out-of-the-ordinary sort of way, and would be even more so if she wore more flattering colors.
No English rose, this woman. Her thick hair, scraped into a ruthlessly tight bun at the back of her head, gleamed a rich tawny gold in the candlelight. A few cinnamon-colored freckles dusted the bridge of her nose and the high-arched planes of her cheekbones. Her jaw was too square and determined for his taste, but her rosy mouth would tempt even a monk to madness. He might actually enjoy this.
"I think, my lord, that it might be more prudent to limit our discussion to poetry." Blushing, her eyes downcast, Mrs. Mallory ran a finger down the cover of the slender volume.
His lips quirked. "Indeed. For, despite my best intentions, I am still a scoundrel."
The duchess finished her performance with a flourish and a final chord, which was greeted with polite applause. She lanced a triumphant smile in Mrs. Mallory's direction, then started to select another piece from her sheaf of music. Bainbridge gripped the arm of his chair. So much for subtlety! If Caro continued in this provoking manner, the dowager duchess would demand to know the reason for their rudeness. And she would not like the answer.
But the dowager had paid no attention; she stifled yawn. "If everyone will excuse me, I will take this opportunity to retire. Good evening."
"Good evening, my lord." Mrs. Mallory rose from her chair in one graceful movement.
Bainbridge climbed to his feet. "You're not retiring as well, are you?" he protested. "It is early yet."
"I think it best," she murmured. Then, to the dowager, she declared, "I will accompany you upstairs, Your Grace. I find I am rather fatigued from our journey and also wish to retire."
The dowager nodded. "Come then, child, and let me lean on you. The evening chill makes my joints ache."
The duke sprang to assist her. "Let me help you, Grandmama."
"Nonsense," snorted the dowager as she levered herself from her seat. "Kit is perfectly capable of assisting me." The elderly woman held out her arm.
Mrs. Mallory dipped a curtsy to the room, then went to the dowager and allowed the older lady to lean on her as they proceeded into the hall.
"And to think we have to spend a full week in the company of that outrageous creature," huffed the duchess from the pianoforte. " 'Tis monstrous intolerable. And did you see that… that Hindu creature she brought with her? I tell you, Wexcombe, I do not want that heathen under my roof for any longer than is absolutely necessary."
"Rest assured, Caroline: we shall deal with Mrs. Mallory," the duke grumbled. "But in the meantime, you must restrain your displays of temper. Grandmama will suspect something is amiss if you are constantly baiting her guest."
"If you say so, my dear. But after tonight you cannot expect me to tip over the butter boat on her behalf," the duchess replied, wrinkling her retrouss'e nose.
"You will be polite," Wexcombe insisted. "We must not lower ourselves to her level."
"Very well. If I must," Her Grace muttered, then turned to the keyboard and attacked the opening measures of a Bach prelude.
The marquess ambled back to the mantel and retrieved his glass of sherry.
"Well?" His Grace queried. "How did you fare?"
"I thought I made some progress," the marquess replied, "but this widow is quite a slyboots. I'm not exactly sure what she's about. It may take some time to find out."
"We have only a week," the duke said with an exasperated sigh. "After that, we might never be able to pry her loose. Did you see how Grandmama has already come to depend upon her? Damnation-it curls my liver."
"Patience," counseled the marquess. "I will pierce her defenses soon enough. You may depend upon it."
"Are you so certain you can succeed?"
"Yes," Bainbridge murmured into his glass. "Just leave everything to me."
"So, what do you think of my family, child?" asked the dowager as they slowly ascended the sweeping marble staircase.
Kit pulled a face. What could she say that was not insulting? "I do not think they approve of me very much, ma'am."
"Do you require their approval?"
"No. You know I do not. "
The dowager chuckled. "Good. I thought as much. I tend to pay no attention to their hoity-toity ways. That, or I am so used to it after all these years."
"I wonder that you are able to tolerate it at all, Your Grace."
"Tolerate what? My dear girl, tonight they were on their best behavior," the dowager chortled.
Despite her best efforts, Kit could not restrain her sudden fit of giggles.
"I must say you held your own well enough against those fribbles," the elderly woman continued. "And speaking of which-what is your opinion of my great-nephew, Lord Bainbridge?"
Kit avoided the dowager's forthright stare. "Why do you ask, Your Grace?"
"Well, the two of you seemed to be having quite a coze just now."
"We… we were discussing poetry," Kit replied, hoping the shadows in the hallway would prevent the dowager from noticing the wave of embarrassed color that swept her face from jaw to hairline.
"Poetry?" Surprise tinged the dowager's tone. "I would never have thought a man like that would claim an interest in poetry. Racing and gambling, yes, but never poetry."
"A man like what?"
"Do not let his easy manner fool you, my dear. The marquess is a rake, a scoundrel who leaves nothing but broken hearts in his wake. He has quite a reputation in London, you know. You would do well to be on your guard around him."
A rake? The word reverberated in Kit's ears. Well, that would explain his calculated flirtation. Or would it? Why would such a man even bother with her? She was a drab little wren when compared with the ethereal Lady Elizabeth, and yet he had called her attractive. Was his kindness to her an act? A prelude to seduction? Perhaps, yet his concern had seemed so sincere. Kit worried her lower lip between her teeth. What was she supposed to believe?
The rational side of her intellect warned her to avoid him. The irrational side was attracted to him, and infinitely intrigued. The marquess was amiable, handsome, and witty-everything George was not. Forbidden fruit, indeed.
The dowager patted Kit's arm with one wrinkled, blue-veined hand. "My great-nephew can be quite charming, but rakes never make good husbands."
"Good husbands?" Kit echoed. Then she sighed. She really must put a stop to that.
"No, not at all. Until they've been properly tamed, that is."
Kit's brows knit together. "What are you up to, Your Grace?"
"Why, nothing, child. I only thought to give you some good advice."
"Well, you need not concern yourself overmuch, ma'am, for I have no intention of marrying the marquess, or anyone else, for that matter!"
"I am glad to hear it. Perhaps now you can tell me about what else has been troubling you."
"Troubling-?" Kit caught herself just in time.
The dowager nodded, and the ever-present ostrich plumes in her headdress nodded with her. "Quite. You've been cross as crabs ever since we left Bath."
Kit swallowed. "I have not," she lied.
"Really?" drawled the dowager duchess. "You forget how well I know you, my dear."
"It is a matter of little consequence," the young woman insisted. Her argument was with the duke, and the duke alone. Although she loved the older woman dearly, she did not want the dowager to fight her battles for her.
The duchess was not convinced. "Oh?"
Coldness washed over Kit. The dowager's perceptiveness threatened her resolve; the more she had to deceive the duchess, the less she liked it. "Nothing I cannot deal with upon our return, I assure you. And I apologize for being so out of temper."
The dowager peered intently at Kit. "I am willing to listen, child, if you wish to talk about it."
"Thank you, Your Grace," Kit replied with a wan smile, "but it's really not necessary."
When they arrived at the dowager's bedchamber, the elderly woman hesitated in the open doorway. She gave Kit's fingers a gentle squeeze. "If you need help, my dear, or assistance of any kind, you know you can always come to me."
"I appreciate your generosity, ma'am, but everything will turn up trumps," Kit answered. Then, in a whisper, she added, "I hope."