When Kit entered the yellow drawing room, she discovered that she was the last to arrive for dinner. The moment she stepped across the threshold, five pairs of eyes pinned her where she stood. Once again, everyone was staring at her. At least this time she knew why.
She dipped a brief curtsy. "Good evening."
"Why, Mrs. Mallory, I do believe you have done something different with your hair this evening," said the duchess, her cool blue gaze roaming over Kit with thinly disguised antipathy.
Kit started to raise a self-conscious hand to her head, stopped herself, then laced her fingers together so they would stay still. "Indeed, Your Grace," she replied. "With the weather growing so warm, I thought a shorter style would be more comfortable. I wonder that I didn't think of it sooner."
"So do we all," muttered Lady Elizabeth, her hands contracting like claws around the arms of her chair.
The dowager peered at Kit through her lorgnette. "It becomes you, child, I must say. And not before time."
The duke said nothing, but he shot a significant glance at Lord Bainbridge, who stood by the sideboard.
The marquess ignored him. "Indeed. Most fetching." He gestured to a half-full decanter on the sideboard's polished mahogany surface. "May I offer you some ratafia before dinner, Mrs. Mallory?"
"Yes, thank you, my lord," Kit replied, in danger of having her breath leave her body altogether. His dark, velvety gaze hardly left her for a moment, even when he poured the liquid into a glass for her.
"Charming," he murmured as he handed it to her. "You are full of surprises today, Kit."
Her fingers brushed his; a slight flush rose to her cheeks. The way he was looking at her was enough to turn her limbs to jelly. Good heavens, if she had known that a simple change of hairstyle would affect such a change in her appearance, she would have done it long ago.
Epping, the dowager's abigail, had worked wonders with her heavy mane. She had not allowed Kit to look in the mirror while she snipped ever closer to the young woman's neck. Instead, Kit had focused, with increasing trepidation, on the growing pile of tawny locks accumulating on the carpet around her chair. But the results were worth every moment of doubt.
Free from their bonds, her newly shorn locks had sprung into attractive waves that took a curl with ease. Under Lakshmi's scrutiny, Epping then pinned most of the curls up into a loose knot at the crown of Kit's head, but left a soft collection to frame her face. This new coiffure emphasized the graceful line of her neck and the slightly tip-tilted set of her eyes. While hardly a bird of paradise, at least she no longer looked like a drab little wren. And from the way the marquess was staring at her, like a hungry man outside a sweetshop window, she could tell that she was not the only one pleased by her alteration in style.
"And I must say your timing is impeccable, Mrs. Mallory," commented the duchess.
Kit took a sip of her ratafia and tried to appear unaffected by Her Grace's cutting tone. "And why is that, ma'am?"
"Oh, did I not mention it to you? A few days ago His Grace and I received an invitation from our neighbors, Lord and Lady Sherbourne, for a ball at Shering Park tomorrow evening. Everyone is welcome, of course."
"How… ah… delightful," Kit managed to reply. The ratafia had turned to dishwater on her tongue. Tomorrow evening? She knew full well why the duchess had not said anything to her, but it hardly mattered. She had not been to a society party in eight years, and never hoped to go to one again, truth be told. Her heart slid upward into the back of her throat at the very thought.
The duchess must have seen Kit's hesitance; a satisfied smile curved the lady's thin lips. "We will understand if you choose not to attend, considering the recent death of your husband."
"What poppycock," blustered the dowager. "Of course she will go. 'Tis high time she was out in society again. Do you not agree, child?"
Kit did, indeed. The marquess had been right all along; it was time for her to stop running. Ignoring the fluttering sensation below her breastbone, she raised her head. "If Your Grace wishes it."
"Well, I do wish it," blustered the dowager. "What say you to that?"
"Then I would be pleased to accompany you," Kit declared.
"Good." The dowager sat back in her chair with a gusty sigh. "Then it's settled."
"I do hope you will save a dance for me," Lord Bainbridge said softly.
"Only one, my lord?" she teased, and the marquess rewarded her with another of the slow, seductive smiles that set her blood on fire.
The butler then arrived, and announced that dinner was served. The duke offered his arm to his grandmother and the marquess escorted the duchess, leaving Kit and Lady Elizabeth to walk behind.
"A pity about the Sherbournes' ball," commented Lady Elizabeth, her tone sugary sweet, her gaze poisonous. "You won't have time to acquire a new dress to match your new coiffure. I would loan you one, of course, but I fear it would be much too small."
Kit's smile grew frost at the edges. "Thank you for the offer, Lady Elizabeth, but I shall manage."
Lady Elizabeth stared suspiciously at her, as if wondering what sort of barb lay beneath the cordial words, but Kit paid little attention to her and went in to dinner. It would take more than a spiteful cat like Lady Elizabeth Peverell to overset her any more than today's events already had.
After supper, the family returned to the drawing room to play cards. Instead of seeking her out, as he had before, the marquess sat down with the duke, duchess, and Lady Elizabeth for a hand or two of whist. Kit stood in the doorway, torn between disappointment and relief. Gracious, whatever was the matter with her? One moment she was swooning over the marquess like a starry-eyed chit just out of the schoolroom, the next she felt like a fox cornered by a particularly determined hound. Before the end of the week she would have to decide which role she wanted; there would be no turning back.
"Come and play piquet with me, my dear," called the dowager.
The elderly lady regarded her with unabashed curiosity, and the tips of Kit's ears grew warm. She crossed to the dowager's table and lowered herself into the lyre-backed chair opposite Her Grace.
The elderly lady shuffled the cards. "You look lovely tonight, child."
Kit responded with a slight smile. "Thank you, Your Grace. I hope you do not think me too impertinent to make free with Epping's services, but you had not yet returned to the house, and I knew I had to send for her before I lost my nerve."
The dowager chuckled. "In this case, I do not mind at all. In fact, I am pleased to see you've come to your senses," she declared, and began to deal.
"Come to my senses?" Oh, Lud. Not again. Had they been in private, Kit would have smacked her forehead with the heel of her palm. If she parroted one more phrase this week, she would lose patience with herself completely.
"Yes. That is, I am assuming this change in style means you have decided not to become a nun, after all." The dowager slid a sly glance at Kit from behind her cards.
"No, indeed, Your Grace. I have concluded that the life of an ascetic would not agree with me." Kit's gaze strayed over to the marquess before she forced it back to her cards.
"Well, I could have told you that," chuckled the dowager. "Now look to your discard, child."
Kit surveyed her hand, but her mind was not on the game. She glanced again at the marquess. No, not on the game at all. She decided to change the subject; with any luck, she could distract the dowager as well as herself.
"Did you enjoy the picnic this afternoon, Your Grace?" she asked, sorting through her cards.
The dowager beamed. "Oh, indeed I did. Emma and Nathaniel are an absolute delight. A bit rambunctious, but that is to be expected at their age. Every time I see them, they have grown so much that I vow I hardly recognize them." A hint of sadness colored her words.
"Do you not see them very often?"
Her Grace shook her head, the lappets of her lace cap swaying. "Not as often as I would like."
"There is a remedy for that situation," Kit offered. "If Your Grace will consider it."
The dowager's dark eyes narrowed. "What are you getting at, child? I recognize that look on your face, like butter wouldn't melt in your mouth. You are up to something."
"You asked me to Broadwell Manor to help you, Your Grace, and that is exactly what I am attempting to do."
"Yes, but I did not ask you to side with my jailers." She set her discard down with a snap, her mouth compressed in a narrow line.
"Your Grace," Kit chided, "you know me better than that."
The dowager frowned at her cards. "Well, then, what would you call it?"
"I care very much for your happiness, ma'am, just as you care for mine. And the last thing I want is to see you shut up in some cold stone box of a house for the rest of your life," Kit insisted. "You would do no better there than I would in a nunnery."
One of the dowager's artificially darkened brows twitched a bit. "I cannot deny you that point, child. Go on."
"Lord Bainbridge and I believe we may have found a solution that will allow you to retain much of your independence, placate the duke, and let you see your great-grandchildren in the process." Kit gazed at the elderly woman over the edge of her cards. "Would you like to hear it?"
"I am listening."
Kit lowered her voice. "The compromise would work thus: from Lady Day to Michaelmas you reside at the dower house in Wiltshire. That way you will be able to see the children whenever you please, and especially when they are home from school for the summer."
"And the rest of the year?" queried the duchess archly.
"The rest of the year you would be free to travel. To take the waters at Bath, or seek a warmer climate entirely, and escape England's beastly winters."
"I see." The dowager tapped one finger on the table. "But I need not remind you that six months is not nearly long enough to travel to certain places and back again."
Kit raised an eyebrow. "Oh, come now, ma'am. On the Daphne I recall you saying very clearly how much India, and especially Indian cuisine, disagreed with you."
"Hmph." The elderly woman made a great show of sorting her cards. "And you and Lord Bainbridge hatched this scheme together, did you?"
"As you are well aware, Your Grace."
"What does my grandson have to say about this?"
Kit glanced over at the marquess from beneath her lashes. "I do not know, ma'am. Lord Bainbridge volunteered to propose the matter to him, but I cannot say whether or not he has had the opportunity to do so. Please, Your Grace, I ask you to at least consider our proposal."
"Oh, very well. I shall consider it," huffed the dowager.
Kit's eyes widened, and her heart gave an excited little leap.
"But," the elderly woman added, "I will not agree to anything unless my grandson apologizes for his reprehensible behavior of late. He has no respect for his elders. To think he would hound and badger me-his own grandmother!-in such an appalling manner. The very idea!"
Kit sighed. Never had she dealt with two such difficult and willful people. "Then at the same time, Your Grace, you should consider apologizing to him for calling him a popinjay, a ninny, and an arrogant pup."
The dowager regarded her first with outrage, then with a touch of embarrassment. "Hmm. Well, I suppose you have a point, child."
"Yes, I do, ma'am," Kit maintained. If the dowager duchess was going to be difficult about this, then by Jove, so was she! "Both of you are equally to blame for inflaming the situation, and it is past time for you to set the situation to rights. No, do not bother to argue with me, Your Grace. If this is the only solution that will provide you a measure of satisfaction, then I will not allow you to throw it away for the sake of your dratted pride." She sat up in her chair, back ramrod straight, lips pinched.
The dowager raised her lorgnette and stared through it. "My goodness, child. I had not thought you capable of such fervor."
"I am resolute, Your Grace. More than I have ever been in my life."
The elderly woman set down her glasses. "So I see. Very well, my dear. I may be a trifle bullheaded, but I am not a complete fool. If my grandson will go along with this arrangement, then I shall agree to it, as well."
Kit let loose a sigh of relief. "Then I shall speak to Lord Bainbridge, and he will take up the issue with the duke. It is my fervent hope that we can settle this matter by the end of the week, before we return to Bath."
"Are you looking forward to it?" asked the dowager. "Returning to Bath, that is. I realize that this week has not been the most enjoyable of holidays, but somehow you do not seem at all anxious to leave."
Kit fixed her attention on her cards. "What makes you say that, Your Grace?"
"You and my great-nephew appear to have become quite cozy over the past few days," the dowager commented. Although her tone remained light and conversational, Kit knew better.
"Out of necessity, Your Grace, I assure you," she replied with a noncommittal shrug.
"Is that all?" The dowager lifted an artificially darkened brow.
Kit could not contain the sudden flush that spread over her neck and into her cheeks. "We share a concern for your happiness, ma'am, but nothing more than that."
"Hmm." The elderly woman paused a moment, and appeared to concentrate on her cards. "Pity."
Kit frowned. "I beg your pardon?"
The dowager waved her hand in dismissal. "Oh, never mind me, child. I am merely mumbling to myself. Let us continue with our game."
During the course of the evening, Kit found herself getting soundly trounced, which prompted Her Grace to make a few acerbic comments on Kit's lack of attention. But she could not help herself. Her wandering thoughts focused not on the cards, but on the dowager's perplexing comments.
Unthinking, she played the queen of hearts, only to have the dowager follow suit with the king and take the trick with a crow of triumph.
Kit ventured another glance at the marquess. Was she in danger of losing her own heart? She had asked her reflection that same question a few hours ago, and she was no closer to the truth now than she was then. Logic dictated that such a notion was pure rubbish. After all, how could she love a man she had not known any longer than a week, a man she barely knew? A man who did not condemn her for her background or her connections? A man who made her feel as she never had before? A man who was handsome, amiable, compassionate, intelligent, daring, and very, very wicked?
A man with whom she had bargained to become his mistress?
Kit did not wish to think about such questions too closely, for she feared she already knew the answer.
Yes, she was in very great danger. Very great danger, indeed.
Late the next morning, Lord Bainbridge reined his gray gelding, Achilles, to a halt a short distance behind the Temple of Virtues. His lips quirked. To think that he had asked Kit to meet him here, of all places, when virtue was the farthest thing from his mind. But the house had too many curious ears, the largest of which belonged to Lady Elizabeth.
Not that he had anything against the duchess's sister, mind you. She was quite appealing-if one happened to like clinging vines. Lud, the little vixen had all but thrown herself at him and professed her undying love when he had emerged from the duke's study this morning. He had eventually pried himself away from her, but Tolliver, his valet, had been most distressed by the sad creasing the young lady had given his lapels. Surely his light flirtations over the years had not given her any ideas; at twenty-two, Lady Elizabeth should know better. She'd had four Seasons, and turned down offers from any number of bucks more handsome and well heeled than he. He shrugged. Yes, he would have to marry eventually, but when he did he would not choose a woman who would choke the life out of him with her constant need for attention. He wanted someone who would not see him as merely a title, a yearly income, or a trophy. Someone who could see beyond his reputation to who he really was. Someone like Kit.
He blinked. Good God, where had that come from?
He slid from the saddle with unusual awkwardness and landed with a thump on the springy turf. Achilles turned his great head and whickered. The marquess gave the gray's neck an absent pat. "I'm all right, old fellow. I just find myself easily distracted these days."
He let the reins dangle, and Achilles immediately put his head down to graze. Bainbridge rubbed the back of his neck, perplexed by this strange notion. Marriage? To Kit? What had put that into his head? He did not have time for such flights of fancy; he had business to attend to.
He found Kit pacing inside the folly's domed rotunda, her hands clasped behind her back, staring fixedly at the inlaid patterns in the marble floor. Sunlight filtered through the stained-glass panels in the arched ceiling, creating a halo over her gold-crowned head. She had done her hair up again today, and he found his gaze drawn to the soft, diminutive curls at the nape of her neck. For a moment, a brief moment, he wanted nothing more than to run his lips over those downy swirls and feel her shiver with pleasure. Then he shook himself. Damn it, he promised himself that he would be more guarded, and these indulgent fantasies were anything but.
Fortunately, she had not heard him approach, and so did not notice him staring. He sent silent thanks heavenward, then leaned against one of the stone urns inside the entrance to the folly and forcefully cleared his throat.
Kit jumped. "Nicholas! You startled me."
God, how he liked the sound of his name on her lips. Those lush lips that all but begged to be kissed… Ah, no more of that, if he valued his sanity.
"Forgive me for interrupting you," he managed to say. "If you prefer, I can come back another time…"
"Stop teasing." Her face seemed to glow with anticipation as she hurried toward him. "What did the duke have to say?"
"What, not so much as a 'good afternoon'?" He grinned at her. "You wound me, madam."
She scowled back at him. "You are a wretch, my lord, and you delight in tormenting me."
"Only because I love to watch your eyes shoot those delightful green sparks."
"What nonsense," she blustered, but he could see a rosy pink flush steal across the high-arched planes of her cheekbones. She retreated a pace. "Please tell me what happened. Did you meet with the duke?"
Bainbridge held up his hands and relented. "All right-I shan't tease you any longer. Yes, I met with His Grace about an hour ago. Wexcombe was not exactly overjoyed at the idea of a compromise, but I think I managed to make him see the wisdom of it."
"And how did you do that?" she asked, skeptical.
"At first I pointed out that this arrangement would keep both of them content, but he was still determined to have his own way. Then I simply stated that I did not agree with his assessment of the dowager's limitations, that I did not appreciate his high-handed manner in dealing with her, and neither would the ton once I let slip what he had done to his own grandmother."
"Never say you resorted to such underhanded methods." The hint of a smile hovered at the corners of her mouth.
He shrugged. "I did. Wexcombe does not care a fig for what Society thinks of him-he is a duke, after all-but he will go to great lengths to avoid any hint of scandal. He is rather proud."
"So I had noticed," she replied with a trace of annoyance. "How should we proceed from here?"
"Wexcombe has planned a meeting with his bailiff this afternoon, and with the ball at Shering Park this evening, perhaps we had best wait until tomorrow morning. Everyone should be in an amiable mood, and we can settle this issue once and for all. And then…"
"And then-what?" Her gaze slid away from his face. The tip of her pink tongue darted out to moisten her lips.
Bainbridge's mouth went dry.
Tell her the truth, you great oaf. Tell her and regain your sanity!
"Do not tell me, Kit, that you still cringe at the thought of being my mistress," he heard himself say. "Is the prospect so unpleasant?" So much for honesty.
Her incredible jade eyes widened. "N-no," she stammered. "Not unpleasant. Merely… unnerving."
"As I told you yesterday, my lord, I hardly know you."
"Oh, please, my dear Kit, not another of your virginal protests," drawled the marquess. "I thought we were past those."
"Hardly, sir," she reproached him. "I told you I have every intention of fulfilling my portion of our bargain. Indeed, I am resigned to it."
"Resigned?" He raised an eyebrow. "How lowering. You do my reputation as a rake no credit, sweet Katherine."
"I should hope not, my lord. But I am curious… Any number of London beauties must be eager for your company. Is that not so?"
"True," he admitted. His brow inched upward another notch. What was she getting at?
"Then why me?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"I am no Toast, sir, nor a diamond of the first water. My looks are too… unusual to conform to the standard of English beauty celebrated by society. So what is it about me that prompted you to propose this arrangement, rather than simply agreeing to assist me?"
What could he tell her? My deepest apologies, Mrs. Mallory, but I only pretended to seduce you in order to discover the true nature of your character? God, that disgusted even him, the rake who had never claimed to possess an ounce of principle when it came to the fairer sex. Until now. But he had not pretended his attraction to her, which even now was enough to drive him mad.
Kit waited, gazing at him expectantly.
"You seem to labor under the misconception that you are undesirable," he replied, choosing his words with care. "But I fail to see why."
Her gaze did not waver. "That does not answer my question, my lord. Is it simply because I am a widow, and therefore fair game?"
"No, although it does add spice to the equation."
"Ah." Disappointment clouded her eyes.
"And as for your perceived lack of beauty, Kit, I disagree with you. True, you will never be an English rose, but I think of you more like some exotic flower transplanted from a faraway garden."
She started. "I was not fishing for compliments, my lord, I assure you," she said with an embarrassed laugh.
Bainbridge grinned. "I am not offering you Spanish coin, Kit. I happen to find the combination of beauty and a strong will infinitely appealing."
Her laughter faded. "You do?"
The scent of her perfume drifted past, tantalizing him. He closed the distance between them.
"Let me show you," he breathed. He tilted her chin up, then leaned down and kissed her.
Everything about her aroused him-the scent of her skin, the soft curls that framed her face, the taste of her lips, the slender span of her waist beneath his hands. God, he didn't want to kiss her so much as devour her. Her mouth parted beneath his assault; her arms wrapped around him, and her body relaxed into his embrace. Every curve and swell seemed to fit so perfectly against him.
She tipped her head back; his lips strayed down her neck until he found the soft hollow at the base of her throat, where her pulse throbbed at a wild, almost frantic tempo. He cupped her breast, and a ragged moan escaped her.
The sound brought Bainbridge back to his senses, however temporarily. Like a man in a dream, he drew back and looked down at her. Kit remained motionless in his arms, her eyes closed, her cheeks flushed, her lips swollen from his kisses, her breath coming in shallow gasps. She was his for the taking. Dear God. If he didn't stop himself now, he'd have her propped up against one of the stone urns, her skirts rucked up about her thighs. The very thought sent another dangerous jolt of desire through him. With deliberate care, he released her. She wobbled a bit, then opened her eyes and stared at him.
"Now-never again doubt that I desire you," he said, his voice rough.
Achilles's nervous whinny distracted them. Kit sprang back, a guilty look on her face, as a harried footman came pelting across the folly's stone portico.
"Lord Bainbridge?" The man halted in the doorway, gasping for air. "My lord?"
With a frown, the marquess stepped forward. "Yes, what is it, man?"
"His Grace begs you… to come… to the house… at once," the footman panted.
"What is it?" Kit asked, her eyes huge. "What is wrong?"
"The dowager duchess," gulped the footman. "She has taken a terrible fall down the stairs."