The next day dawned fair and warm, and the duchess's suggestion of a drive to Stow-on-the-Wold garnered great enthusiasm from everyone but Kit, who pleaded a megrim and asked to remain behind.
"Are you certain, child?" asked the dowager, peering intently at her.
"I shall be fine, ma'am," Kit hastened to assure her. "It will pass. I just need to rest for a while."
"You do look a trifle fagged. Perhaps Lady Elizabeth should stay behind and sit with you," the dowager suggested.
The thought of spending time alone with the duchess's spiteful sister made Kit's abused temples throb all the more. And judging from the distasteful expression on her face, Lady Elizabeth welcomed the proposal no more than she did.
" 'Tis only a megrim," she replied before the elderly woman could become too fond of the idea. "Lakshmi can look after me. I would not wish to deprive any of you of this lovely weather."
"Well, all right," the dowager agreed, obviously reluctant. "We shall not be gone long, and I shall check on you when we return."
Kit watched from the doorway as the ladies climbed into the open carriage and the gentlemen mounted their horses.
Lord Bainbridge nudged his steel gray gelding close to her; he tipped his hat and favored her with a slight smile. "I do hope you will be well enough to join us for dinner. I am counting on you to rescue me from another of Caro's attempts on the pianoforte."
In his forest green jacket and buckskin breeches that hugged every curve of his muscular legs, the sight of him robbed Kit of breath. "I shall try, my lord," she managed at length, "but I make no guarantees."
He threw a brief glance over his shoulder at the duchess, who was holding down her fancy plumed bonnet against the assault of the mischievous breeze. "Then I shall pray for your immediate recovery," he drawled, and winked at her.
Kit gaped at him, but before she could form a reply the marquess replaced his curly-brimmed beaver atop his head and took up the reins. Then, in a clatter of hooves and crunch of gravel, the group was off down the driveway, trailing dust in their wake.
She watched them depart, one hand lifted in farewell, before pulling her paisley wool shawl closer about her shoulders and going back into the house.
The young woman wandered down the main hallway, absorbed in thought. Her headache was real enough, but more than anything she wanted solitude. A walk out-of-doors would give her an opportunity to make some sense of her disordered thoughts. She headed toward the back of the house.
Her temples continued to throb with a dull, steady ache, as they had ever since she'd awakened. What a wretched night-nothing but hours spent lying awake staring at the pleated damask canopy above her bed, interspersed with short bouts of uneasy sleep. Even though she had drifted off eventually, she had not been asleep for very long before Lakshmi came to wake her.
She glimpsed her reflection as she passed by a wall-mounted mirror. Her dark blond brows formed a forbidding line across her furrowed forehead, and lines of anger and annoyance pulled at her mouth. Add to that the dark smudges under her eyes from lack of sleep, and she looked as awful as she felt. She made a face at her mirror self, then continued on, her arms wrapped around her body, her fingers clenched in her shawl.
The duke had refused to see her this morning. She had tried to speak to him before breakfast, but he had only glared down his aquiline nose and declared himself too busy at the moment to deal with her. When Kit persisted, His Grace snidely suggested that she make an appointment with his secretary, then turned on his heel and walked away.
She ground her teeth together. Some of the English nobles in Calcutta had condescended to her-and she had expected as much from them, given her husband's situation-but never had she been treated in such a rude and demeaning manner as she had this morning. Kit thrust open the French doors in the drawing room and crossed the slate-tiled patio in determined strides. She marched down the steps, through the garden, and past the manicured boxwood hedge before she realized that she had no idea where she was going.
Summer sunlight fell on her face and shoulders, and she tilted her head to meet its welcome warmth. Shielding her eyes against the brightness, she paused to survey her surroundings. She stood at the top of a gentle hill; below her, separated by a broad expanse of lawn, lay a man-made lake, sun-scattered diamonds winking on its rippled surface. A Grecian-style folly, complete with Ionic columns and a domed rotunda, presided over the shore on the far side. Beyond the lake, acres of field and forest flourished with verdant growth. Clouds of wooly sheep drifted through the rolling meadows. The brisk breeze, redolent with the odors of manure and freshly turned earth, blew a lock of loosened hair into her eyes.
She sat down on the grass, her legs folded beneath her. In this bucolic setting, the smells and noise and riot of color that was Calcutta seemed particularly far away. Her heart twisted. If George had not gone and gotten himself killed on that tiger hunt, she would still be there. At home.
Home. The word evoked the rustle of the breeze through the coconut trees, the patter of the monsoon rains on the roof, and the heavy, intoxicating scent of cape jasmine, the white flower that the Hindus called " gandharaj." Happy memories, despite the farce that was her marriage. Her recollections of England were far less pleasant, but she would make new ones.
From across the lake drifted the sound of children's voices. Kit watched two figures, a girl and a small boy, come galloping out of the folly and along the shore of the lake on what looked like wooden stick horses. Behind them, a plump, soberly dressed woman followed at a more sedate pace.
Kit lifted a hand against the sun's glare as the two children approached, whooping and laughing. The girl appeared to be about five, with dusky curls drawn up in a blue ribbon that matched the sash of her muslin dress. The boy, whom Kit guessed to be a year or so younger than his sister, had tousled golden brown hair. His chubby features resembled the duke's, but there ended any similarity. Grass stains smudged the knees of his trousers, and somewhere along the line he had lost a button from his jacket.
The dowager had mentioned her great-grandchildren, but Kit had yet to meet them. She could not resist; she climbed to her feet. She made her way down the hill, waving to them as they approached.
"Hello!" she called. "What a fine day for a race! Won't you come and show me your ponies?"
The boy and girl saw her and slowed to a walk. The laughter left their faces; the little boy retreated behind his sister as Kit drew near.
"Hello," Kit repeated, giving them her best smile. She knelt down so her head was level with theirs. "What is your name?"
"I'm Emma," announced the girl, her gray eyes narrowed with suspicion. "Are you the bad lady?"
Kit blinked. "What do you mean?"
"Mama told Miss Pym to keep us away from the bad lady who was coming to visit. Well, are you?"
A chill coursed through Kit. Why would the duchess say such a thing? And what exactly did she mean by it?
"No," she replied, "I'm not a bad lady. My name is Kit, and I like children very much."
The boy peered out from behind his sister. "I'm Nathaniel," he murmured, his eyes huge.
"Hello, Nathaniel. I am very glad to meet you and your sister."
Emma did not appear convinced; she continued to regard Kit with belligerent wariness. "Did you come from Perdition?" she demanded. "Mama said she wished you were back there. Is that in France?"
"No," Kit replied, swallowing her shock, "I do not believe it is. But I am not from Perdition; I come from India."
"India!" Emma gasped, and at once her features transformed from distrustful to awestruck. "Great-Grandmama has been to India, too! She told us all sorts of stories about tigers, and elephants, and monkeys, and… and…"
"… and peacocks, and water buffalo, and sacred bulls with garlands of flowers on their horns?" Kit prompted.
The little girl beamed at her, eyes wide with wonder. "Yes!"
The governess caught up with them, blowing hard, her face red as though she'd been running. She cast a frantic look at Kit, then latched on to Nathaniel's hand. "Come, children. Time to go into the house." She reached out her other hand for Emma, but the girl pulled away.
"No! I want to hear a story about India. Kit has been there, too, just like Great-Grandmama."
Miss Pym's nostrils flared. "I will tell you a story when we return to the nursery."
Emma stamped her foot. "I want Kit to tell me a story about India!" she shrilled.
"I'm sure Mrs. Mallory is far too busy to tell you any stories today," insisted Miss Pym. She darted another nervous glance at Kit. "Now, come along."
Kit climbed slowly to her feet and brushed the grass from her skirt. Her shoulders drew taut. "It's all right, Emma. Perhaps I can tell you a story tomorrow."
"No, now!" the girl cried. "Please?"
"Emma, a young lady should never raise her voice," Kit instructed gently. "I'm sure there will be plenty of time for stories later."
"Well," began a flustered Miss Pym, "I'm not sure that-"
"Oh, come now, Miss Pym," came a roguish chuckle from behind them. "Surely you can manage to fit one story into the children's busy schedule."
Kit whirled. Lord Bainbridge strolled toward them, a jaunty grin on his face.
The governess swallowed hard, then bobbed a nervous curtsy to the marquess. "I will see what can be arranged," she replied, her lips flattened in a thin line. "Come inside Master Nathaniel, Lady Emma. Now."
Emma allowed Miss Pym to snatch up her small hand. She turned pleading eyes to Kit. "Promise you'll tell us a story?"
"Promise?" echoed Nathaniel. He stared beseechingly at her, his lower lip a-quiver.
"I promise," Kit murmured, putting on her bravest face.
She watched in silent anger as the dumpling governess dragged the two reluctant children and their toys up the hill and into the house.
"I take it your headache is better?" Bainbridge inquired in an innocent tone.
Kit flushed. Actually, the throbbing had progressed from her temples to the base of her skull, but she was determined to ignore it. "Well enough," she replied stiffly. "What are you doing here, my lord? Making sure I don't run off with the silver?" She bit her lip; she hadn't meant for that last part to slip out.
The marquess's grin widened. "Not at all. The dowager duchess was worried about you and asked me if I would return to the house to keep you company."
"Why did she send you?" Kit wondered aloud.
"She thought you might look more favorably on my company than that of Lady Elizabeth."
"You are correct, my lord. Five minutes in that lady's company and we are at daggers drawn."
"I am unarmed, I assure you," he said, amusement dancing in his dark eyes. "May I escort you back up to the house?"
She looked up at the Palladian grandeur of Broadwell Manor, at the path so recently taken by the duke's two children. Her smile faded. "Tell me something, my lord-why would the duchess ask Miss Pym to keep the children away from me?"
"What?" The marquess's brow puckered. "Whatever gave you that idea?"
"Not 'what,' my lord-'who.' Emma asked me very distinctly if I was the bad lady about whom her mama had warned Miss Pym."
"Out of the mouths of babes," murmured Lord Bainbridge.
Kit continued to regard him with a steady, searching gaze. "What is going on here, sir? I suppose that pride and protectiveness may account for a portion of the Their Graces' behavior, but to think I would be an immoral influence on their children without even knowing who I am-that is ridiculous."
Bainbridge silently berated his sudden predicament; young Emma's unfailing honesty had left him in a devil of a bind. He decided to change the subject.
"Come take a turn around the lake with me," he said, proffering his arm.
She hesitated. "I do not think it wise that I be alone with you, sir."
She was a cautious creature, but he enjoyed a challenge. "The garden, then." When she hesitated, he added, "I assure you that we shall be in full sight of the house at all times."
Mrs. Mallory stared at him for a moment, her lower lip caught between her teeth in a very appealing manner; then she laid her hand upon his arm. Her touch, though very light, sent a jolt of awareness through his body. Her tawny hair and unusual eyes gave her a striking appearance; she did not conform to the standards of English beauty, yet he found her damnably attractive. He couldn't put his finger on an exact reason why, but he did nonetheless. She seemed quite slender, but as she walked up the hill with him, he thought he detected the suggestion of curves beneath her shapeless brown sack of a dress. Interesting.
"Her Grace's tales of India are legendary in this house," he remarked. "She has made Caro faint on more than one occasion."
Mrs. Mallory laughed, a delightful, throaty ripple. "I will have to ask Her Grace what produced such a reaction; perhaps I might be so fortunate."
"I am sure you have quite a few stories of your own. Did you live in India long?" he asked.
"Seven years," she replied.
He detected a note of wistfulness in her words. "You miss it."
She turned away. "Yes."
"And do you miss your husband?"
A flush stained her cheekbones, highlighting the freckles scattered across them. Her brilliant green eyes narrowed in reproach. "That is an impertinent question, sir."
"I specialize in impertinence, as you may have noticed. Last night at dinner I detected a note of unhappiness in your voice when you spoke about him." Jade. That was the color. Her eyes reminded him of Chinese jade.
She pursed her lips. "My husband and I had a marriage of convenience, sir."
"Ah… so you mean you do not miss him." He smiled.
She gasped and blushed a deeper shade of pink. "It is none of your business."
"Not that I blame you," he interjected. "He sounded like a rather dull fellow, a poor match for someone of your obvious wit and intelligence."
"Come now, my lord, none of your flummery." She tilted her head to look him in the eye. "Her Grace warned me about you, you know."
"Did she?" He quirked an eyebrow. "And just what did my great-aunt tell you?"
"That you were a rake and a scoundrel who left a trail of broken hearts in his wake."
His smile turned suggestive. "I do have that reputation."
"You sound rather proud of it."
"Why should I not be?"
"So you enjoy breaking hearts?" Her amazing eyes regarded him with undisguised interest.
"Do I?" The back of his neck grew hot. "That is a rather singular question, Mrs. Mallory."
"I do not see why you alone have license to be impertinent," she declared. "Well, do you?"
How quickly she had put him on the defensive. Thrust, parry, and riposte, indeed! "I don't think I've broken too many," he replied. "And certainly not on purpose."
"But if you know you might break your mistress's heart eventually, why do you do it?"
He blinked. "I beg your pardon?"
Her gaze did not waver. "Why do you do it?"
"You mean… why am I a rake?" he asked, incredulous. Ye Gods. No other Lady of Quality would dare ask him such a thing. "Do you always speak your mind, Mrs. Mallory?"
"I do when I think someone is evading my questions."
Touch'e! Bainbridge threw back his head and laughed. Lord, she intrigued him more with each passing moment! "Then I shall have to be honest with you, ma'am, or you will never let me hear the end of it. The truth of the matter is that I enjoy women-and sampling the different pleasures they have to offer."
The blush in her cheeks spread over her entire face. "I see."
"Most of the attraction is physical; surely you can understand that, having been married."
She ducked her head, and did not reply.
Ah… the demure little widow had gotten herself in over her head. He chuckled. "I admire long legs, a lovely neck, and a slender figure with a high, rounded bosom. Nothing too overblown. A figure, in fact, rather like yours."
Her eyes rounded in surprise. Then her lips flattened, and she started to pull away from him. "Really, my lord. You are doing it again."
"Never say I didn't warn you. But I'm not finished."
"That's quite all right. You have satisfied my curiosity."
"Oh, come now, Mrs. Mallory," he reproached her. "You wanted an honest answer, and I am attempting to give you one. Or are you afraid to hear it?"
She straightened, a rebellious set to her chin. "I am not. Pray continue."
He slowed to a halt and leaned closer to her, close enough to smell her perfume, an exotic blend of sandalwood and gardenia. "I was saying," he murmured, "that most of the attraction is physical, but not the entire focus of my interest."
"Is it not?" Her tongue darted out to moisten her lips.
"No." He brushed a stray lock of hair away from her eyes. She shivered at his touch. His groin tightened. "I also favor a woman with a ready wit and more than a modicum of intelligence. A woman who has seen something of life and knows what she wants. What do you want, Mrs. Mallory?"
She gave a visible swallow and looked up at him. "Then why not marry, my lord? Why not find a woman who attracts you on both points?"
He leaned closer still, until his mouth was inches from hers. "Now you are evading my question, so I'll ask you again: what do you want out of life? Really want?"
Her rosy lips parted. That was all the invitation he needed.
He kissed her. Not a forceful kiss, for that would frighten her, but a gentle, teasing kiss designed to test her response, to draw her out. Or at least that was what he intended. She tipped her head back, her warm lips parted beneath his. Lord, she tasted good, like exotic spices and sunshine. Her sandalwood perfume enveloped him. Every nerve in his body flickered to life.
He shifted an arm around her waist; she trembled but did not resist. He pulled her to him, inordinately pleased to discover the narrow span that lurked beneath the acres of fabric she wore. A narrow waist, flaring hips, and more bosom than he would have imagined. Intoxicating. With a groan, he cupped her rounded bottom, pulling her hips against his.
She stiffened, gasped, then wrenched herself away from him, her cheeks scarlet, her eyes ablaze with green fire. Her fingers shook as she touched her swollen lips. "What I want, my lord," she spat, "is to live without fear of being seduced by an unprincipled rogue!" With that, she clutched her shawl around her shoulders and fled through the opening in the boxwood hedge.
The marquess stared after her, breathing hard, his erection pressing against the tight confines of his breeches. His blood sang through his veins. God, he wanted her. One kiss, and he wanted nothing more than to sheath himself within her, to claim her completely.
Madness! He was getting caught up in his own trap.
He shook his head, as if he'd just emerged from a dream, and exhaled in a long sigh. Never had he lost control of himself like that, save when he was a callow youth. What was the matter with him? Something about her response to his kiss had tempted him past the point of reason-and all he wanted right now was to kiss her again. He hadn't felt this great an attraction to a woman since… well… his current mistress. He grinned. At least he knew he hadn't lost his charm.
The marquess pulled out his pocket timepiece. The others would be back soon. At least he'd had time to put the first portion of his plan in motion, if not the most critical part. Resolving to seek out Mrs. Mallory later, he tugged at his rumpled jacket and started off in the direction of the house.
When his relations returned from their outing, the marquess found the duke surly, the duchess near tears, Lady Elizabeth petulant, and the dowager up in the boughs. Without so much as a glance left or right, her face pinched in a terrible scowl, the dowager started up the stairs to her room. The duke offered to assist her, but she waved him away. The duchess and her sister retreated to the drawing room and closed the door.
Bainbridge turned to his cousin. "What happened?"
"We tried to talk with her," Wexcombe replied with a growl. "Asked her to come and live in the dower house. Demmed stubborn woman won't see reason."
The marquess folded his arms over his chest. "You mean she won't accede to your demands. Devil take it, I told you-"
The duke cut him off. "I've had enough of this, Bainbridge! She should be at home with her family, not gadding about like a giddy schoolgirl."
"Wexcombe, you're about as subtle as a hammer to the head," the marquess said with a sigh. "You cannot use your rank and position to bully your own grandmother. Let me talk to her."
"I doubt you'll be able to do any better," snapped the duke. "You know what she's like once she has set her mind to something."
"I just hope you haven't made a mull of it. After all, you want to persuade her to enjoy your company, not escape it."
Wexcombe scowled. "I tried, Cousin, but I've never known anyone to be so willful."
"You haven't been going about it the right way. Persuasion is the key, not force. I'll see what I can do." With a nod to the duke, Bainbridge started up the stairs.
He knocked at the door to her room. "Great-Aunt Josephine? Are you in? It's Bainbridge."
The door opened a crack; the dowager's maid regarded him with distrustful eyes. "Her Grace is resting, my lord."
The marquess presented her with his most dazzling smile. "Please tell Her Grace that I would like to see her."
"A moment, my lord." The abigail closed the door.
A few heartbeats later, Bainbridge was ushered into the dowager duchess's sitting room. The dowager reclined on the chaise before the fireplace, a blanket over her knees. The marquess's heart sank. Lord, she looked so drawn, so tired, so… old. She stared into the fire, her complexion ashen.
"Hello, Aunt," he said softly.
Her dark gaze swiveled to his face. A spark of interest glittered there for a moment, then disappeared. She turned back to the fire. "Hmph. Are you here to take a turn at me, as well?"
"Not at all. May I sit down?"
The dowager made a vague gesture toward the Chippendale chair across the hearth from her; Bainbridge lowered himself into it and leaned forward, his elbows resting on his knees.
"Well, what is it, then?" the dowager asked, her wrinkled lips still pursed in a frown.
"I'm sorry, Aunt Jo," he said. "I had no idea they planned to do this."
"I should hope not," she snapped. "I should hate to have to disinherit you, as well."
"You don't want to do that. They meant well; truly they did."
The duchess rose to a sitting position, her eyes flashing. "Oh, they did, did they? Cow-handed idiots, the lot of them! Think they can put me out to pasture like some broken-down nag. Balderdash. I won't stand for it. This is my life, and I'll be damned if I let that popinjay grandson of mine dictate to me!"
A smile curled at the corner of Bainbridge's mouth. "None of your die-away airs now, ma'am," he drawled.
The dowager squinted at him, then guffawed. "Oh, Nicholas, they have me in such a pet. Pour me a glass of brandy-for medicinal purposes, of course."
"Of course." With a grin, Bainbridge rose and crossed to the washstand, where the dowager kept a bottle of smuggled French brandy and a glass in the small cupboard beneath it. That he kept her provided with the contraband liquor was their secret; if smuggled brandy kept her happy, all the better. He poured a small amount into the glass, then handed it to her.
"You're a good lad, Nicholas," sighed the dowager. The rings on her fingers flashed in the firelight as she took a sip. "I am relieved to see that someone in the family inherited my intelligence."
He folded himself into his chair. "But I am only your great-nephew by marriage," he pointed out.
The dowager harrumphed. "Then that explains it. A pity one cannot choose one's blood relations." She peered at her glass, then at him. "And how is Kit?"
His pulse leaped at the mere mention of Mrs. Mallory's name. His pulse and… other portions of his anatomy. He shifted on his chair. "I believe she is much improved, ma'am."
"Good. What do you think of the girl?"
One corner of his mouth twitched. He was sure the dowager didn't want to hear his salacious thoughts. "Girl? She is a bit old to be called that, don't you think?"
"Oh, bosh. At my age, everyone younger than fifty is a mere babe. Besides, she's only five-and-twenty. Hardly long in the tooth."
He raised an eyebrow. "And why are you telling me this, ma'am?"
"Well, because I want your estimate of her character," she blustered.
"She seems a pleasant enough lady," he hedged. "Then again, I must admit that I hardly know her." Though I find myself particularly eager to make her most… intimate acquaintance.
She took another sip of brandy, coughed, and fanned her face with her kerchief. "No, no, stay there; I am quite all right. I met her onboard the Daphne, bound from Calcutta. She nursed me through that most dreadful passage; most of the time I was ill with horrible bouts of mal de mer. Eh… I do not wish to remember it too closely.
"Kit is a delight, Nicholas, and not only because she sees me as a person, not as a doddering eccentric whose presence is to be tolerated. She treats me with respect and genuine affection, which is more than what I've received from my own family of late. Now, what do you think of that?"
"Such a friendship is commendable, Your Grace."
The dowager fixed him with a pointed stare. "Then why does no one else in this house seem to agree with you?"
"Oh, come now, Bainbridge, it's as obvious as this beaky nose of mine. Do you think me blind as well as deaf?"
"Neither, ma'am," the marquess was quick to reply.
"Well, my grandson apparently does. And I think I know the reason."
"And what would that be?"
The dowager snorted. "They think she's after my money."
"And you do not?" he inquired with great caution.
"You must believe Wexcombe's absurd prating if you think me so dicked in the nob, Bainbridge. Kit is not after my money; her late husband left her flush in the pocket. Do you think I don't realize what all this is about? This sudden push to get me to give up my independence, and the reprehensible treatment of my young friend?"
"You cannot blame Their Graces for being concerned for your welfare," Bainbridge gently replied.
"Perhaps, but I will not let them ramrod me into giving up my independence. After forty years of marriage to a man I loathed, I am entitled to enjoy a measure of freedom, and I intend to do just that."
"But at what cost, ma'am? You will be seventy-four on your next birthday. You have to slow down eventually."
"Why? I feel right as rain. Oh, I get a little slower each year, I will agree, but other than that I am in prime twig." She set her glass on the end table and glowered at him. "Where do you stand in all this, Nicholas? No, do not bother to give me that innocent look. It won't fadge. You rarely come to these family house parties, and yet this year, here you are. Has my grandson enlisted you in this nefarious plot of his?"
"What plot is that?"
"Do not insult my intelligence, boy. He called you here to persuade me to retire to the dower house at Wexcombe Hall, and to stop embarrassing him."
He raised his hands in protest. "I do not ascribe to those motives, I assure you. But I do fear for your safety, ma'am. Despite your protests, you are not as spry as you used to be, yet you insist on racketing around the world without apparent care for your health or your welfare. At times I wonder if you are trying to prove something to us."
"I?" she blurted. "I am not trying to prove a thing. What an absurd notion."
"We only want what is best for you."
"What is best for me, Bainbridge," the dowager sniffed, "is for all of you to trust my judgment. I will decide when to settle down, and that is that."
"You are uncommonly stubborn, Your Grace."
She shrugged. "I do not wish to hear another word on the matter from you, Nicholas. Do you understand?"
Wexcombe was right about one thing: when the dowager duchess got a notion into her head, trying to reason with her was like arguing with the wind-it went its own direction, no matter what you said. "Very well, Aunt Jo."
The dowager nodded, satisfied. "Good. Now pour yourself a glass of brandy, Nicholas, and tell me what other nasty surprises are in store for me this week."