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Chapter Four

Kit set down her pen with an aggravated sigh and massaged her cramped fingers. So much for trying to distract herself. At this rate, she would never finish translating Tulss's Ramayana. She stared at her handwriting, which was uncharacteristically halting and uneven and almost illegible, then at the smudges of ink on her fingertips. What a mess she'd made. Of everything.

Propping her chin on the heel of one hand, Kit stared morosely out the windows at the clouds gathering on the horizon until her vision blurred at the edges. Why had she goaded the marquess like that? How foolish of her to think that she could give a rake a disgust of her through plain speaking. She'd been playing with fire; she should not have been surprised when the marquess gave her that scorching kiss.

Her lips still tingled. She rubbed her mouth to dispel the sensation. Why her? Because she was a widow, a woman of experience? Kit snorted. That was a misnomer. George had been an indifferent husband; he had wanted a high-born wife who would lend credibility and panache to his business, and who would ornament his home. Ornament, indeed. She might as well have been one of the trophies mounted on the wall. When she protested, he had not cared a whit for her feelings. And he had been indifferent to her in their marital bed, as well. It was just as well that they'd never had children. Kit rubbed at the gooseflesh on her arms. For seven years she had convinced herself that she was undesirable, and now

The marquess had to be trifling with her. A family house party must seem quite dull to a Corinthian such as he, so he must be looking for a diversion. That was the only way she could explain that amazing kiss. She could still feel the insistent pressure of his mouth against hers, still smell his lingering scent on her skin

She shook herself. No. She must not be tempted by this forbidden fruit. She would not subject herself to another man's whims. First her father, then her husband-twice was quite enough, thank you very much.

Kit returned her pen to its stand, closed the cap on the inkwell, and rose from the escritoire. Conversation with the dowager would ease her mind. She gave her hair a quick pat, then left her bedchamber and made her way to Her Grace's rooms.

As she approached, the marquess emerged from the dowager's rooms and closed the door behind him. She came to an abrupt halt, turned, and was about to retreat back the way she'd come when his voice stopped her.

"Mrs. Mallory. I had not thought to see you again so soon."

Kit scowled at the teasing challenge in his voice. She swiveled to face him. "Good afternoon, my lord," she replied in clipped tones. "I shall not trouble you; I am on my way to see the dowager duchess."

"You are too late, I fear," he replied with a slight smile. "She has just retired for a brief rest."

"Oh." Kit tried not to let her disappointment show on her face. "Then I shall not disturb her. If you will excuse me-"

"A moment." He drew near with long-legged strides. "I wish to speak with you."

Kit's shoulders stiffened. "If you wish to apologize, my lord, I am willing to listen. Otherwise, I must bid you good day."

"Apologize?" His smile broadened. "Why would I do that, when I am not sorry for a moment about what passed between us?"

She stared at him, her mouth rounded in a perfect O. "Why do you persist in mocking me?"

"I am not mocking you."

"Then why did you kiss me?"

"Because, my dear Mrs. Mallory, you need kissing. Passionately, thoroughly, and as often as possible."

"Of all the-!" she sputtered. "Impudent-"

"-insolent, impertinent, impolite Rest assured, ma'am, I have heard the entire litany." An impatient expression erased his smile. "Now, will you kindly forgo your maidenly protestations and listen to me for a moment?"

Kit closed her mouth with a snap. If the marquess continued to bait her like this, she would sound like a Billingsgate fishwife before the end of the week. "Very well, my lord."

"Thank you." Raised voices rang from the vestibule: the duke and duchess. Lord Bainbridge gestured toward the other end of the hall. "Let us walk a while together; the gallery might afford us more privacy."

Kit's heart did a strange flip at the thought of being alone with him, but her head did not forget so easily. "No more of your games, my lord."

He spread his hands. "No games; you have my word. I only wish to discuss the welfare of the dowager duchess."

Every instinct told her not to go, but the quiet concern in his voice overrode her better judgment. She flicked an alarmed glance to the dowager's door. "Is anything wrong?"

He shook his head. "Not at the moment, no. She is merely a trifle fatigued. That is, however, what I wish to discuss with you."

"Then you have my complete attention, sir."

The marquess clasped his hands behind his back and began to wander down the hall toward the gallery. Kit fell into step a few paces to one side.

"Apparently," began Lord Bainbridge, "the duke used today's outing as an opportunity to ask his grandmother to retire from society and move into the dower house at Wexcombe Hall. No, not ask. Demand. Such an approach did not sit well with Her Grace."

"No, I imagine not," Kit replied tightly. Her hands balled into fists at her sides. "She suspected that the duke might try something like this; she told me he has been after her for months. Did he upset her very much?"

The marquess shook his head. "She will recover, but she remains stubbornly opposed to the idea of giving up her adventures."

"Of course she does. She is hardly in her dotage, after all."

"But she is not getting any younger, either. And I know my cousin-he will keep at her until she consents."

"Why do you tell me this?" She shot him a distrustful look.

"Because my great-aunt considers you a friend. A very great friend. And I know she will listen to your counsel."

Kit held up a warning hand. "If you are thinking of asking me to help you in this endeavor, I can tell you that I will have no part of it."

The marquess frowned. "I must beg you to reconsider. The dowager duchess is a formidable lady, but I worry for her. She seems determined to prove to everyone just how independent she is, and she will go to any length to do so."

"What makes you think that?" Kit demanded. They had reached the gallery, a long, wide hall that housed portraits of obscure ancestors dating back several centuries. Trying to ignore all the eyes that seemed to stare down at her from the walls, she halted, her hands on her hips. "If that is truly what you believe, then you are mistaken, my lord."

He cocked his head to one side. "Am I?"

She bit her lip. "I believe she behaves the way she does because she enjoys it. She wants to meet new people, travel to new places. Everything she was denied during her marriage to that stuffy old duke."

He folded his arms across his chest. "You appear to have learned a great deal about her during your lengthy acquaintance."

His sarcasm brought scalding heat to her cheeks. "On board ship, my lord, there is little to do but converse with one another and play chess to pass the time."

"For six months? A rather dull prospect."

"Not when one is speaking with the dowager duchess. She told me enough to know that we have much in common. Her only misfortune is that she was not widowed at an earlier age."

"You astound me, ma'am," he drawled, clearly amused. "No more of this roundaboutation; I pray you speak your mind."

She flushed. "What I am trying to say is that I have never known anyone else with such joie de vivre," she continued. "Her Grace delights in life, my lord, despite her advanced years. Every day is a new adventure."

"But what happens when she overestimates her capacity for such adventure?" he argued.

"What makes you think she will?" Kit shot back. "I believe that is what troubles her most: her own family does not trust her to know what is best. No one seems to bother to talk to her at all, save to criticize her. How would you like it if your family were to think you nothing but an inconvenience?"

Bainbridge sighed and thrust a hand through his hair, leaving it tousled as though he'd just risen from bed. Kit's blush deepened at the thought.

"What makes you so fond of my great-aunt? Aside from her sense of adventure, that is. Forgive me, Mrs. Mallory, but the difference in your ages does not exactly lend itself to a sharing of common interests."

Kit sidestepped him to stare up at a gilt-edged painting. "She is the closest friend I have ever had."

"What, had you had none before you met her?" he asked.

She shook her head. "Not really. Passing acquaintances, of course, but no bosom bows. My mother died when I was young, and afterward my father and I lived a rather insular existence in Hertfordshire. Several years later, when I made my debut, I discovered that his less-than-sterling reputation had tarnished me, as well; I received few invitations, and fewer offers. When I married George and went to India, the peers there looked down their noses at me because I'd married a Cit, and the Cits' wives did not like me because they believed I held myself above them, and that given the chance I would treat them as rudely as everyone else of my class did."

Kit heard Bainbridge's soft footsteps on the carpet, coming closer.

"What about your family? Did no one welcome you back home?" he murmured.

He sounded like he was standing right behind her. She shivered. "No one, my lord."

"Not even your father?"

"I heard through my husband's solicitor that my father fled the country last year to escape his creditors. He never bothered with me after my marriage, and I have not kept in close contact with anyone else."

His hands gently grasped her shoulders. "I am sorry," he said simply.

"You need not be, my lord. Ever since Her Grace and I befriended each other, I have not been lonely." She eased away from his touch, then turned to face him. "But you must not think me selfish; I do not want to see Her Grace keep her independence just so I am guaranteed companionship. I would never think of her so meanly. I have spoken in her defense because I agree with her, and I want her to be happy."

"So do I, but my cousin can be ruthless when he's crossed, Mrs. Mallory," he stated. "I suspect that he will even withhold the children from her if she does not consent. He may have already threatened to do so."

"Oh, I pray he does not," she murmured. "That will only serve to make everyone miserable, especially Her Grace. You must help me, my lord. Help me convince the duke that he cannot rob his grandmother of her freedom. If she is not allowed to make her own decisions and live her own life, she will wither away to nothing."

"But I also do not want to see my great-aunt throw caution to the wind with these 'round the world escapades of hers. She must start to show some restraint."

He stood so close to her; her eyes were on a level with the sparkling diamond pin in his cravat. But strangely enough, she did not feel threatened. Rather, she found in his solid presence a source of strength. She stared up at him with beseeching eyes. "There must be some sort of middle ground, a compromise that will satisfy both the duke and his grandmother. His Grace will not listen to me, but he will listen to you. Lord Bainbridge, if you care for your aunt's welfare, then I beg you-for her sake-help me."

He regarded her intently for a moment, his dark eyes mere slits. A tic jumped at the corner of his jaw. "I will make you a bargain, then, madam," he replied, his voice rough and throaty. "If I help you to forge a compromise with the duke, then you must agree to become my mistress."

She stared back at him with enormous green eyes. "You cannot be serious."

"I am completely in earnest," he replied. His plan had been to gauge her sincerity and thereby learn more about her, but the more he thought about the premise, the more it excited him. Lord, standing this close and not touching her was sweet torture. All he had to do was reach out and pull her into his arms He gave himself a swift mental slap. None of that. He needed to focus on acting like a complete and utter scoundrel.

"You are despicable, sir," she breathed, a slight quaver in her voice.

"You knew what I was when you asked for my help," he pointed out.

Her agitated gaze flicked wildly around the room. "Why?" she demanded. "Why would you put such a condition on something so important?"

Bainbridge shrugged. "Your idea has merit, but you will need my help. And my help comes at a price." Now he would see if she wanted what was best for the dowager, or if she had other motives.

Trembling, she retreated until she bumped into the wall. "How could you do this to me? To your aunt?"

The evident pain on her face gave him a twinge. "Do you find the idea of being my mistress so reprehensible?"

She swallowed. "I value my freedom, my lord, and my dignity. I am not a a thing, to be used and discarded at your whim."

"I never said you were. This relationship would be mutually rewarding, Mrs. Mallory-Kit." A smile quirked the corner of his mouth. "How did you come by that pet name? I find it delightful."

"My mother," she said. "My given is Katherine, and when I was a little girl, I would curl up next to her on the sofa when she sewed, just like a kitten." Her gaze metamorphosed from frightened to wary. "Do not try to distract me, my lord. It won't work."

He resisted the impulse to chuckle. Time to up the ante. "Just so. Then as I was saying, such a relationship would be gratifying for both of us. You would still have your freedom; this agreement would simply allow us to enjoy each other's company, physically as well as intellectually. I can use my influence to open doors for you, to further your own interests."

Her nostrils flared. "What about my self-respect?"

"What about pleasure?" he countered in low, rippling tones.

She responded with another shiver.

He pressed his advantage. "Why do you continue to deny that you are a sensual creature? Pleasure itself is not wrong, nor is it wrong to want it."

"It is outside of marriage." She wrapped her arms around herself.

"And is marriage any guarantee? Did your husband know how to satisfy you, Kit? When he rose from your bed, did he leave you still aching for his touch?"

"Stop it," she moaned.

"Did he worship your body with his? Treat you as a cherished lover?"

"Stop! Please." She closed her eyes, and her breath came in shallow gasps.

He edged toward her. "I am merely trying to open your eyes to the possibilities that life has to offer."

Her eyes flew open. "Possibilities? How can you say that when physical gratification is all you want?"

He allowed himself a sardonic smile. "What else is there?"

"Your view of the world is rather limited, my lord. What about love? Or has such a concept never entered the scope of your philosophy?"

He raised an eyebrow at her. "I fail to see why we need to complicate things unnecessarily."

"Then you have never been in love?"

"I never said that." He shifted uncomfortably in his top boots. "But love tends to make matters worse between a man and a woman. People who fall in love almost invariably end up hating one another. Why bring such emotional rubbish into what is otherwise an amicable arrangement?"

"Have your mistresses never fallen in love with you?"

"Some have."

"Then they must be the owners of the broken hearts Her Grace mentioned."

"Perhaps, but most of them knew better, as I hope you will. Kit, what I'm offering is not wicked or immoral, and not as prison-like as marriage."

"Not immoral?" she echoed, clearly outraged. "How can you say that? You flit from one woman to the next without care or cause!"

"Most married women do the same thing. As long as they are discreet, their affaires are their own business."

"Just because most married women do it doesn't make it right. In all the years I was married, I never even considered such a thing."

"Never?" He quirked a sardonic brow.

A bright flush stained her cheeks. "Never."

"But would you have, if the right opportunity had presented itself?"

"No!"

"But you are no longer married, are you? You're free to make your own happiness, and I'm offering you just that-the chance to enjoy yourself with no unreasonable expectations attached. You will still have your freedom, Kit; I would never infringe upon that. We shall go to the opera, the theater, Vauxhall Gardens. Attend poetry readings and philosophical discussions. We could even travel back to India, if you wished. I would make you happy, Kit, more than you have ever been before."

He could read the indecision in her face.

"If you think Her Grace is right," he murmured, "and that life is an adventure, then what are you so afraid of? We need each other, Kit, whether you know it or not."

She hesitated, holding her breath for a moment. Then she exhaled with a soft sigh. "All right," she breathed. "I accept. But we must first negotiate the compromise between the duke and the dowager. I will not I will not become your mistress until that part of the bargain is complete."

"That is fair," he replied. His smile turned suggestive. "Now, how shall we seal our agreement?"

She hesitated, then held out her hand.

The marquess took it, turned it over, and placed a gentle, feathery kiss on her exposed wrist. She gasped and snatched back her hand.

"Remember," he said, "no more running away. Know what you want, and do not be afraid to pursue it."

She glared at him. "You are the very devil, my lord."

He chuckled. "I know."

He let her go then, and she hurried past him down the hall, half walking, half running. He watched her, admiring the sway of her hips beneath the fabric of her dress, until she disappeared around the corner. Not once did she look back at him.

Who was this woman? Wexcombe held her in utter contempt. His great-aunt thought her nothing less than a saint. What was the truth? He had less than a week to find out and form his own judgment of her character. She had passed his first test. Now he would have to see how well she followed through.

Guilt nagged at him. He'd put her in an untenable position. If she proved not to be an adventuress, then he'd owe her one hell of an apology. If she was, and this bargain scared her off, then the dowager duchess was probably better off without her.

He supposed he could have done worse. A man of lesser morals would have seduced her outright, or made this bargain with her fully intending that she become his mistress. Unfortunately, he was not such a man. Wexcombe seemed to think he was, and there was no point in trying to convince him otherwise. His cousin rarely changed his mind once he'd formed an opinion, and he would never admit to being wrong. In that, he was as inflexible and unyielding as the dowager. Stubbornness was definitely hereditary.

He found himself wondering how she lived, what her life was like. All he knew at the moment was that she dressed like a drab little mouse, and that although she spoke with great passion about poetry and philosophy and India, she had no friends save the dowager. Her life seemed to revolve solely around the elderly woman, and that did not bode well.

If Mrs. Mallory was serious about this compromise and actively helped him to achieve it, then he would not, of course, expect her to fulfill her portion of this agreement. But he would still have to live up to his reputation and make the pretense of seduction until she proved herself as good as her word. A passionate woman lay buried beneath that severe hairstyle and those dowdy gowns; her response to his kiss had told him that. He just hoped he could keep his head on straight while playing this gambit through to the end. If not there was more at risk here than the dowager duchess's happiness. But it was only a week. Surely he could behave himself for that long. Couldn't he?


What had she done?

As she hurried back to her room Kit's slippered toe caught on the Persian carpet, and she stumbled a bit. She righted herself, mentally cursed herself for her clumsiness, and continued on at a more sedate pace, though her heart continued at a gallop within her chest. Her skin tingled as though she had stood too close to a fire, and a deep, aching warmth pooled low in her belly. She cursed herself again, this time for responding to the marquess's sensual persuasions.

Lunacy. Sheer and utter lunacy. That scoundrel had her cornered, and he knew it.

When he had started to speak to her about the dowager duchess, he had sounded so kind, so concerned. Her lips twisted in a sneer. An act, every word of it. He cared for no one but himself. Oh, he might regard Her Grace in a fond, patronizing sort of way, the way one might a favorite pet, but when it came down to issues of her welfare, he was content to let others take the responsibility.

To think she had turned to him for help. Foolish, naive girl! Trusting an opportunist was like trusting a cobra; it sat coiled, appearing inert, then would lash out without warning. And she'd certainly been bitten.

But they had made a bargain, and he was bound by honor to help her. She wouldn't think too closely about what she would have to do when the matter was finished. A shudder racked her. His comment that he would respect her freedom-gammon. What did he know about her freedom? He had never spent hours alone with only books for company, never been told to marry someone he hardly knew not only because the family needed the money but because he would likely never receive another offer. He never had to endure seven years of marriage to someone twice his age with little tact and less wit.

Kit slammed her chamber door behind her, then leaned her back against it. Always duty and honor. Duty, and honor, and obligation. She squeezed her eyes shut against the tears that even now gilded her lashes. She would do her duty to the duchess-she had to. She had always done what was expected of her, first to her family and later to her husband.

Yes, she would honor her bargain with this handsome, heartless devil. But for once in her life she wanted to follow the demands of her own heart.


Chapter Three | A Reckless Bargain | Chapter Five