With a flourish and a wide, wicked grin, Bainbridge presented the bowl to her.
The veiled suspicion vanished from her beautiful green eyes. "Strawberries? This is the surprise?"
"Why? What were you thinking of?" he asked with a chuckle, and popped a small, slightly overripe fruit into his mouth. Juice stained his fingers; he licked them off, his gaze never leaving hers.
She blushed a very becoming shade of pink. "I… I… Oh, never mind."
He selected another strawberry and presented it to her. "Have one. They're very good."
The lovely widow hesitated. Her fingers twitched. Then, with thumb and forefinger carefully aligned, she plucked the fruit from his grasp and ate it.
"You see?" he murmured, and set the china dish between them. "It's exactly what it seems to be."
"And are you, my lord?" she asked.
"Am I… what?"
"Are you exactly what you seem to be?"
He paused with a strawberry halfway to his mouth. "Why do you ask?"
Her nostrils flared. "You have a most annoying habit, sir, of answering a question with another question."
"Do I? I hadn't noticed." He chuckled.
She took another piece of fruit from the bowl and contemplated it. "I asked because I know so little about you."
Bainbridge felt his smile dwindle. "I am a rake and a scoundrel, my dear, albeit a very well-bred one. What more do you need to know?"
She glared at her berry, then at him, as if she were considering throwing it at him. Then she sighed and ate it. "I do not know how they do things in London, sir, but if I am to be your mistress, I would like to know a bit more about you than that."
"But you will not be if our gambit is not successful. That was our bargain."
"We will succeed," she said quietly. "We must. So I believe the two of us should become better acquainted with each other."
A strange sensation began deep in his stomach. For a moment she sounded as though she had resigned herself to success… and to becoming his mistress. What was she up to? Was she trying to throw him off his guard, or was her curiosity as innocent as it sounded? Most women seemed content with the knowledge of his name, title, and yearly income, with a few other obscure details thrown in as window dressing, but he was quickly coming to realize that Katherine Mallory was not like most women. He lounged back onto one elbow. "What do you want to know?"
She selected another berry. "I've told you something about what my life was like when I was young. What about you?"
Damn. With one swift thrust, she'd gotten down to things he would gladly forget, if given the chance. "My upbringing was rather ordinary," he hedged.
"What about your family? Do you have any brothers or sisters?"
"I had a brother. He died when I was ten." He bit into a large berry, and relished the sensation of his teeth ripping through the yielding fruit.
Her eyes rounded. "I'm sorry," she whispered.
The berry turned tasteless on his tongue. He gulped it down. "You're bound to hear the story eventually. Nothing titillates the ton so much as scandal, even twenty-year-old scandal."
"You do not have to tell me, my lord, if the memory pains you so."
"I am not such a coward as all that, ma'am," he said with a humorless smile. " 'Tis a simple tale, so I will be brief. My mother and father loved each other once, or so they claimed, but by the time I was five they hated each other with a passion. I suspect that was the one thing in their lives about which they felt anything at all. When I was ten, my mother left, and tried to make us leave with her. I refused to go, but she took Geoffrey."
"How old was he?" she asked quietly.
"Six." Bainbridge stared up into the patch of cloud-scattered sky visible through the branches of the tree. "My father rode off in pursuit, of course, but my mother, I learned later, went to great lengths to avoid him, including urging the coachman to breakneck speed. The wheels hit a hard rut in the road, the axle snapped, and the carriage crashed to flinders. My father found them moments later. No one survived."
Kit sat motionless, one hand raised to cover her mouth. Telltale moisture glistened at the corners of her eyes.
"No need to shed tears on my behalf," he said, his voice rough. "My mother never cared a whit for anyone but herself. We were well rid of her."
"I do not believe that for a moment," Kit murmured. "I'm sure she loved both you and your brother very much, and that is why she wanted to take you with her. If she hadn't loved you, she would have left you behind without a second thought."
"I suppose that is one theory." His lips curled in a sneer. "But I rather believe she wanted to torture my father by taking away his precious sons."
"You mentioned something yesterday, that people who fall in love end up hating each other in the end. This is what you meant-it happened to your parents."
"My parents were not the only ones foolish enough to make a love match. Among the members of the ton you see dozens of lovestruck newlyweds mooning over their spouses one year, then taken up with paramours the next. Love is a pointless complication in one's life."
"Was your father bitter?"
Bainbridge turned away, lest Kit see in his face any shadows of the memories that haunted him. He felt her light touch on his shoulder.
"It's all right," she said.
His eyes narrowed to mere slits. "I do not want your pity, madam."
"No, my lord," she countered quietly. "Not pity. I would never condescend to offer you that. Understanding and sympathy, yes, but not pity."
A few brief moments ago he had advised her to stop running away from what she feared; could he do any less? He sighed. "I can only tell you what happened before I was packed back off to school. How he locked himself away in his study for days at a time, doing nothing but drinking and staring at a miniature of my mother. The countless bottles of claret and brandy he imbibed to drown his sorrows. The opium smoke that clung to his clothes when he finally stumbled home by the early light of day. I was not particularly surprised when they told me he died of an overdose."
She gave his shoulder a gentle squeeze. "Oh, Lord Bainbridge…"
"Nicholas," he said roughly. "My name is Nicholas. I have just revealed to you one of my most dark and painful secrets, so I suppose you are entitled to my name, as well."
He heard her exhale with a slow, deliberate breath. "Is your parents' tragedy the reason why you have never married, Nicholas?"
He clenched his teeth. "Perhaps it is. I shall have to marry eventually, but when I do I shall ensure that my impeccably pedigreed bride holds not one ounce of affection for me."
The marquess shrugged off her hand. "Enough, Kit. I do not wish to say anything more about my past, checkered as it is."
She withdrew her hand and rubbed at the palm. "All right."
He rolled onto his side to face her. "Now it is your turn."
"Mine?" Her gaze shuttered.
Bainbridge picked up a strawberry and rolled it between his fingers. They were like two duelists, exchanging shots with words instead of bullets. He had just withstood her barrage, and now he was not about to delope. "You told me you wished to become better acquainted, Kit. Soon we shall have no secrets between us-physically, at least. I have just answered your question; now you can answer one of mine."
She paled, then raised her determined chin. "Very well."
"Were you happy in your marriage?" His gaze fixed to hers, he ate his berry in one bite.
She managed to turn paler still, her deep golden freckles standing out in stark contrast to her ashen complexion. "My lord, I do not-"
"Nicholas," he amended. "You started this, my dear. No running away, remember?" He offered her another ruby red fruit.
This time she was not so careful in taking his offering; her fingers grazed his. Heat flooded through him right down to his toes. Lord, if he wasn't careful, he'd end up with two mistresses.
"Were you happy?" he prodded.
"I was comfortable." She looked away.
"That doesn't answer my question. Comfort does not equal happiness."
She ate her berry, then made a face. "I thought I was happy, at first. I was living in this beautiful, exotic place, far away from my avaricious father, and for the first time in my life I never had to worry about money."
"What made you change your mind?"
Kit sighed. "I soon realized that I had traded one selfish man for another. My father cared for nothing but money, and my husband cared for nothing but his collection."
"Collection?" Bainbridge frowned. "What sort of collection?"
"Over the years George had accumulated all sorts of trophies: tiger skins, elephant tusks, and the like. He delighted in them for a while, but over time he lost interest and went in pursuit of the next item. Soon after we reached India I realized that I was but another of his trophies-the aristocratic wife he'd brought back from England to grace his home." Her mouth twisted. "Or I should say, rather, the wife he'd bought in England. He'd given my father a handsome settlement in exchange for my hand."
Bainbridge muttered an oath under his breath.
She hadn't heard him; her eyes had glazed over. "He made a great fuss over me in the beginning, buying me silk saris, jewels, all sorts of trinkets. But after about three months, when the novelty had worn off, he went in search of other conquests and left me at home to wonder where he'd gotten himself off to this time."
"You must have been very lonely," Bainbridge said softly.
"Not at first. I was too busy adjusting to this new life of mine. I'd gone from being a rather sheltered young girl to the wife of a prominent merchant, in a place that teemed with color and noise and stench. George would go off on tiger hunts and other such excursions, which would take him away for weeks at a time. I used that time to explore my surroundings and to learn more about this strange new world.
"Of course, when George discovered I'd been acting with what he called too much independence for a simple-minded female, he quickly curtailed my activities 'for my own good,' as he put it. I was not on a Grand Tour, he told me, but his wife, and I should begin to act like it." She laughed, a high, brittle sound. "Thankfully, he was never at home for long."
"Is that why you never had children?"
He expected her to take umbrage at that highly impertinent question, but instead she blushed, and a fresh barrage of tears threatened her composure. He offered her his handkerchief, but she waved it away.
"I miscarried a child about a year into our marriage," she whispered. "There, Nicholas. There is my dark and painful secret. George said it was probably for the best, but that I would have to try harder next time. The next morning he went off on another hunt."
"That bastard," Bainbridge growled through his clenched teeth.
With a listless hand she picked up another berry, then returned it to the bowl. "Looking back, I suppose I should have been relieved."
This time it was his turn. "I'm sorry," he said. "That must have caused you a great deal of pain."
She nodded. "Yes… So much that I thought I would run mad. Once I recovered, I found I desperately needed a diversion, something to occupy my mind. Since I shared very few interests with the other English ladies in Calcutta, I had to look elsewhere. Then one morning I heard my maid, Lakshmi, talking to her husband in their native tongue, and I decided I wanted to learn. We had so many Hindu servants, and I thought it could only be beneficial that I learn to speak their language.
"George never knew what I was doing; as long as I kept house for him and presided over his endless balls and dinner parties, that kept him happy. Over the next several years I learned to read Hindi as well as speak it; then I discovered the Ramayana, written by the poet Tulss in the sixteenth century. I'd seen parts of it performed in puppet plays, and that made me want to read the entire epic. Once I had read it, I was determined to translate it into English, and that has sustained me until now."
"Is that what the dowager meant when she said you had been working on it long enough?"
She nodded. "Books were my most constant companions as a child; in India, they were my salvation."
"Salvation through literature," Bainbridge mused. "I know a few Oxford dons who would go into spasms of rapture at the very concept."
She ducked her head, her face hidden by the brim of her drab bonnet. "I have relied upon my books ever since. You will think me craven for it, but I do not know how else I would have survived."
He shook his head. "I do not think you craven, but you must know when to set your shield aside."
"I beg your pardon?"
"You cannot hide behind your books forever, Kit. Is that your idea of freedom?"
She blinked. "Well, no… I suppose not. But I haven't been hiding."
"Have you not?" he countered. "Going around in those dowdy gowns, not wanting anyone to notice you?"
Her eyes sparked with anger. "W-what? How dare you!"
"I dare, my dear, because I should hate to see such loveliness and spirit go to waste. What do you want from your life?"
She laughed, but there was no mirth in it. "The dowager has asked me the very same thing."
Kit glared at him, then took a strawberry from the bowl and bit into it. "What does it matter to you, my lord? Once our bargain is complete, you shall have what you want."
"But after you and I part company, Kit-what then? Will you go back to your cave and cover yourself once more in sackcloth and ashes?"
"Enough!" she cried. "Why do you insist on provoking me?"
"Why do you insist on denying yourself any true contentment?"
"I am content. And you're doing it again, my lord."
"Nicholas," he reminded her with a grin.
"Nicholas," she agreed with impatience. "Now please stop asking me these insufferable questions. You are not entitled to know what is in my heart."
"I think I already know," he murmured. He ignored her startled expression, and continued. "You've been hurt, Kit, hurt and disappointed by the very men who were supposed to protect and care for you. Now that you are on your own, you have chosen to insulate yourself behind a wall of books and call it freedom."
She paled. "No," she whispered.
"Then what would you call it?"
"I… I don't know." She seized her lower lip between her teeth.
He leaned in closer to her. "Kit, all your life you have run away from the things that made you unhappy. No more of that, remember? It's time you faced your fears."
"Stop trying to tell me how to live my life," she snapped.
He shrugged. "Then stop hiding and live it."
Her mouth opened, closed, and opened again, like that of a fish caught out of water. He stared at those berry-stained lips, lush and red and ripe, and another wave of awareness swept through him. The breeze blew tawny wisps of her hair onto her forehead; he resisted the urge to reach out and brush them back. A hint of her perfume grazed his senses. Lord, how had he let this woman affect him so? He had not thought that the strange paradox of worldliness and sheltered inexperience would make for such a powerful aphrodisiac.
"Do you want that last strawberry?" he asked, all innocence.
She flicked a glance down at the bowl. "No, you may have it."
He gave her his most charming smile. "Would you hand it to me? Please?"
Kit hesitated, then held it out to him. He gently grasped her wrist, then leaned down and enveloped the berry, and her fingertips, with his lips. His tongue brushed warm and wet against her fingers, licking the juice from them before she yelped and yanked away her hand.
He savored the fruit, its flavor mingled with the taste of her skin. "Think about what you want," he repeated, his voice low and intent. "And if that happens to be me, then I will be happy to oblige you."
Kit gaped, then pulled away and struggled to her feet. She looked down at him, her face filled with indignation. "If you put as much energy into convincing the duke as you do into seducing me, my lord, then we are certain to meet with success. At this moment, however, I cannot help but wonder where your priorities lie."
He relaxed back onto his elbows. "I shall keep my part of the bargain," he assured her.
"See that you do." She turned and gathered her skirts. "Now if you will excuse me, I must return to the house."
"All right, Kit. I will let you go, for now. But remember… you cannot run away forever."
She straightened, glared at him, then marched up the hill without so much as a backward glance.
The marquess stared after her; a thoughtful frown pulled at his brow. Wexcombe was wrong about this woman; he was sure of that now. No one could pretend the pain he had seen on her face just moments before. She was no adventuress, nor did she have any designs on the dowager's fortune. She did not even know what she wanted from herself.
So now what was he going to do? He didn't know how long he could keep this up; it would take all his self-control to sustain this pretense and still keep his hands off her. God, the more he touched her, the more of her he wanted. He should stop this charade right now and tell her the truth-any honorable man would-
He grimaced. If he told her why he'd really proposed this bargain, that the whole thing had been a test, a ruse, how she would react? Well, at this point he could make a fairly good guess: she would be furious to find out what he'd done-lied to her, manipulated her, trifled with her, and generally acted like a complete cad, good intentions be damned. And after what she had revealed to him, his conscience would not let him sleep at night knowing he'd just added to her list of betrayals and disappointments.
His conscience? Hell, a rake wasn't supposed to have a conscience. What was the matter with him?
Bainbridge groaned and flopped onto his back. This situation had become much more complicated than he'd intended. He'd gotten himself into this mess, and he would have to get himself out. The sooner he convinced the duke to compromise about his grandmother, the sooner this would all be over. He would just tell Kit that she'd convinced him of the value of her freedom, and that they should go their separate ways, with no regrets or obligation. Or would she take that as yet another rejection, and retreat further into her shell?
And why did he care so much for what happened to her?
He shoved a hand through his hair. He would become a monk. Yes, that was it. As soon as this was over, he would take holy orders, seal himself up in a spartan cell in a monastery somewhere, and never so much as look at another woman again. Never mind that he would likely go mad within a month; it would prevent him from getting himself into any more of these damnable scrapes.
In the meantime, he'd better be on his best behavior-even if it meant putting an end to the seductive teasing that came so naturally to him. He would just have to be careful around her. Very, very careful. Of course, as with all his good intentions, he would have to see just how long it lasted.
Kit sat at her dressing table, staring at her reflection in the mirror. She didn't look any different. But as for how she felt, she might as well be another person entirely.
She gazed down at her fingertips, rubbed them against her lips. The touch of Lord Bainbridge's-Nicholas's-mouth on her skin had made her whole body thrum with awareness, and with-yes, she would admit it-desire.
He wanted her. She had no idea why, but at this point it hardly mattered. He wanted her. Katherine Mallory. Widow, wren, and aspiring ascetic. She pulled a face. Put that way, she did not sound appealing in the least.
She stared harder at the looking glass. Unappealing, and yet Nicholas saw something in her that attracted him, something hidden beneath this wretchedly practical hairstyle and the tentlike gowns she'd grown accustomed to wearing. He wanted her, and made her feel wanted. Desired. Attractive in a way she'd never felt before.
Kit put a hand up to the thick, tight chignon coiled at the back of her head and slowly pulled out the pins that kept it restrained, until her tawny golden hair, like a lion's mane, came tumbling around her shoulders and down her back. She picked up a comb from the dressing table and began to run it through the heavy waves. But after the comb caught for the third time, she tossed it aside with a growl of frustration.
George had loved her hair; he had called it her crowning glory. Actually, the way he had said it made it sound as if her hair were her only glory. She lifted a heavy lock, twirled it between her fingers, then returned her gaze to the mirror.
Her own anguished green eyes regarded her from the glass. All this hair, so heavy and long and unmanageable, with not even so much as a few kissing curls at the temples to soften the strong line of her jaw, seemed to suffocate her. She was drowning, drowning in a mass of long, unfashionable hair, and in oversized drab gowns that didn't become her in the least-which, now that she thought about it, was why she had chosen them.
It couldn't be wrong to want to be pretty, could it? To be as pretty and desirable as Nicholas made her feel? The dowd in the mirror was not her. Not really. Neither was she the gaudily dressed parrot she had been when George was alive. Who was she, then?
The marquess had asked her what she wanted from her life. The dowager had told her that she must seize happiness for herself. Was a life alone, surrounded by her books, all she had to look forward to? Was that all she wanted? Her lips firmed.
Logic dictated that if she wanted to be happy, she had to do something about it. Nothing would happen if she sat here moping in front of her looking glass.
Kit clenched her hand around the lock she held and sighed. She would start here. George had loved her hair. All the more reason to cut it.
She summoned her maid.
"Lakshmi," she said, her eyes never leaving her reflection, "I want you to send for Epping, the dowager duchess's abigail. Ask her to come and cut my hair."
The sari-clad woman's dark eyes reflected the sheer horror on her face. "But, Memsahib!" she protested in melodically accented English. "All your beautiful long hair… Surely you cannot mean to do such a terrible thing!"
Kit flashed a nervous smile. In India, women did not cut their hair save as a sign of deepest mourning for a husband. "This has nothing to do with George's death, Lakshmi, nor does it reflect on your skills as my maid. I am tired of all this weight hanging from my head. Epping does Her Grace's hair, and she will know what is fashionable. Please ask her to come here at once. Quickly, before I am tempted to change my mind."
Lakshmi pressed her palms together in a reverent namaskar, then departed, but Kit thought she heard the woman muttering in Hindi about "mad Englishwomen."
First the hair, then… Kit fingered the plain material of her skirt and made a moue. A pity she could not do something immediately about the state of her wardrobe, but she would make it a priority when she returned to Bath. After all, Nicholas wouldn't want her to dress like a drab little wren when she was his-
She swallowed around the sudden lump at the back of her throat, then forced herself to acknowledge the word.
A shiver coursed through her slender frame. Nicholas's mistress. Every proper instinct in her body rebelled at the concept, but another part of her, a part of her she had not known existed before now, fairly quivered with excitement. To be desired by such a devilishly handsome man without the constraints of marriage… The idea gave her a wicked thrill.
But what about love?
Kit lowered her head, her hair forming a veil around her face. Yes, there would be a part of her that would want to be cherished and loved, but that was more than what Nicholas had to offer. Would being with him, and being desired by him, be enough?
It would have to be. For the dowager's sake, she had made a bargain with the devil himself, and after today she was certain he wanted to collect. Duty and honor demanded that she follow through.
Still, one question nagged at her: how on earth would she be able to surrender only her body to Lord Bainbridge without risking her heart, as well?