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Authors: Cecilia Grant

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BOOK: A Gentleman Undone
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“So did you, I fear.” She sounded shy. Like a bride who’d gone to her wedding bed a virgin, fumbling for things to say to her husband on the morning after. Not like herself.

“You’re wrong.” He might have been waking up after a wedding night himself, to judge by the warm satisfaction in his voice. “I didn’t sleep as long as I might like, nor as deeply. But I can’t remember when I slept so well.”

There was an erection. Ordinarily she would have noticed that first out of everything. Her whole body had been gathered in against his, with only the cotton of her nightgown and his nightshirt, two modest layers, between them. With his arousal between them as well. It pressed hard and redoubtable against her. She wouldn’t speak of it. “How long have you been awake?”

“A while. I don’t know. I’ve been thinking.”

Thinking. Why on earth would he want to do something like that? When he might have just lain here, balanced at some thin height from where he could tip either into sleep or to passion?

“There will be talk when we rejoin the company, I expect.” One of his feet stirred and the coarse hairs on his shin tickled over her calf. “There will be questions.”

Questions? But surely no one in the company would have any doubt as to what—Ah. “Impertinent questions, you mean, concerning particulars.”

“Perhaps not among the ladies. But I assure you the gentlemen will have questions for me.”

“Ladies ask those questions too. Some ladies. Not precisely the same questions, I suppose.” She held her body still, to avoid disturbing the erection. “I’ll tell them whatever you like.”

“That’s exactly the offer I’d thought to make you.” His words came out on the ghost of a laugh. “Left to my own devices I’d refuse to speak of it at all. But it occurs to me it may benefit you with Mr. Roanoke to have it known nothing happened.”

“I expect it would have benefited me more with Mr. Roanoke to spend the night in his room instead of yours. Did that not occur to you?”

“Of course.” Somewhere under the covers his right hand moved, lifting from the mattress as he stretched that arm. “But to let you go with him last night was beyond my power. To tell the company I slept on the floor is not.” The arm settled over her again.

Beyond his power, indeed. How was a lady to make sense of so many conflicting messages? The gentle patience with which he’d tended to her in the night. The lover-like clasp to which she’d awakened. His arousal, and his obstinate refusal to put it to use. “How do you propose to explain sleeping on the floor? It will sound a very odd thing to do with a woman for whom you gambled.”

“Easily enough. You made it clear you didn’t desire me, and I don’t force. Any man who objects to that explanation deserves a black eye.”

She closed her eyes. She’d been very rude to him last night.
Ought I to offer myself in gratitude?
And he’d only wished, as always, to be decent.

“Lydia.” This near, his breath and his body told her of his every small change in mood. He’d gone grave. “You’d tell me, wouldn’t you, if you believed yourself to be in any real danger from him?”

There he went, trying to rescue her again. “He doesn’t beat me. I told you that already. And he agreed to the wager. He can blame no one but himself for its outcome.” But of course that wasn’t true. If he preferred to blame her he would do so, unhindered by the claims of logic. Her stomach contracted, faintly. “I wonder if we oughtn’t to get up. The later we appear, the more time we give the others for scandalous conjecture.”

“Of course.” His arm tightened on her, infinitesimally. “I’ll go first, and send for a maid to help you.” He lay behind her a moment longer, arm over her middle, breath at the back of her head, erection still in force. Then he rolled away, taking all that and the bay-rum
scent with him, and forsook her company to go wash and dress.

in the breakfast-room doorway to gird himself. He would do this if it killed him. And if Square-jaw made any trouble for his mistress, he’d kill
. He crossed to the sideboard where Roanoke stood.

The man glanced up, perceived him, and, through an impulse he no doubt would have preferred to rein in, sent a quick, intent look about the room.

“She’s not here.” He took a plate. “When I left she hadn’t risen yet.”

“Quite worn out, is she?” There was something grotesque in the attempt at jocular indifference. For all his effort, he couldn’t hide the fact that he truly didn’t want his mistress enjoying herself with another man.

Will knew an instant of ferocious temptation.
Indeed I could only persuade her to let me leave the bed by promising to return with my stamina renewed
. But he’d been resisting temptation since the moment of waking, and he could resist this one too. For her sake. “Worn out?—not by me, more’s the pity. She wasn’t inclined to oblige me, and I wasn’t inclined to press the matter.” Plum cake. That was probably decent. He took a slice. “I prefer my women willing. I left her alone.”

“Really.” Lord, didn’t that pluck the blackguard right up. “Unfortunate it didn’t come out the way you imagined, but I did warn you there were no guarantees. I hope you don’t seek some sort of restitution from me.”

“Nothing of the kind. I did wish to ask you, though, whether she’s frequently troubled by nightmares.”

“Not at all, in my experience.” Roanoke applied himself to pouring a cup of chocolate. “Was she so troubled last night?”

Interesting. He’d never seen one of her nightmares.
I often sleep in daylight
, she’d said. Perhaps she left the bed after her protector had gone to sleep, and him none the wiser.

She hadn’t left
bed. She’d stayed even after he rose.

“Indeed she slept but little. I suppose she was distraught at being parted from you, or something of that nature.” Like casting up a stomachful of rocks, to say those words.

“Very likely.” Roanoke helped himself to rolls and butter with the cool satisfaction of a man who’d just thoroughly trounced a rival. If he had any curiosity on the subject of his mistress’s nightmares and her general well-being, he did not show it.

He doesn’t beat me
. Was she telling the truth? Was the unease he’d felt in her, when he broached the subject, only to do with the prospect of losing her position? Will forked a slice of ham onto his plate while studying her protector sidelong.
my transactions with him
. No use dwelling on that. He pivoted away to find a place at the table.

“What in blazes was that all about?” said Lord Cathcart when he’d taken the empty seat beside him.

“Diplomacy. I didn’t tumble his woman last night and I wanted him to know, for her sake.” He cut a strip of the ham and speared it with his fork.

The viscount took a long swallow of coffee. “You confound me.” He set the cup firmly in its saucer. “You put yourself out some last night to get her into your bedroom. Why would you go so far only to pull up shy of the finish line?”

“It was she who pulled me up.” Might as well get used to telling the tale. “She didn’t like the arrangement, or perhaps she didn’t like me. At all events she wasn’t willing, and I don’t go in for force.” The words came more easily already than they’d done with Roanoke. “That
being the case, I took it upon myself to let her protector know she hadn’t been unfaithful.”

“Honor makes a fool of you, Blackshear.” He jerked his chin at where Square-jaw sat, feasting on his rolls and butter. “He’s been telling everyone who’ll listen about the piece he enjoyed last night. Do you really think he deserves to rest easy in the knowledge of his mistress’s constancy?”

“I did what I thought would serve her interest. What he deserves is beside the point.” He shrugged and took another bite of ham, the very picture of a man who heeded his own conscience with no regard to the individuals involved. Not at all the picture of a man who’d spent the morning battling his body’s demands because he dreaded to lose what he’d gained of a lady’s trust.

She hadn’t pulled away from him on waking, though she could not have failed to notice his arousal. She knew he desired her, and she trusted, yes,
, that he would not act upon that desire. How could he, when her nightmares, and the story of her fall, were so fresh with him? Bedraggled kitten or no, she deserved to know what it was to be delicately handled. She deserved a night, and a morning too, of respite from the demands of men.

He’d given her that. Square-jaw never could. And in return she’d given him the soul-deep satisfaction of calming her, soothing her terrors, putting himself between her and the harrowing dreams.

“Are you going to eat your cake, or have you resolved on wasting romantically away? I daresay the effort will be lost on her.” Cathcart’s voice brought back the immediate environs, the table, the plate, the fork arrested halfway down. Will shook off his reverie and ate his plum cake.

Chapter Fifteen

believe he has unnatural proclivities.” Halfway through this pronouncement Eliza swung her racket at the shuttlecock, freighting her words with an accidental emphasis quite apart from the louder tone she’d already adopted in order to be heard halfway down the gallery. “Who ever heard of a man installing a lady in his bed only so that he could sleep on the floor?”

“Lydia explained that already. She refused him, so he didn’t touch her.” Maria declined to swing, the trajectory passing too near a portrait of some Roanoke ancestor in a magnificent powdered wig. She stepped back, ceding her place in the game as the shuttlecock hit the floor. “Do we really think so little of our due as to be astonished that a man wouldn’t overpower and ravish her in that circumstance?”

“There’s a great swath of ground between ravishment, and giving up the hunt at the first refusal.” With her free hand Eliza clutched up a fistful of skirts, that she could run and lunge if need be without tripping on a hem. “If he truly hoped to have her, surely he would have made some attempt at persuasion. At seduction.” She shifted
her address to Lydia. “Are you absolutely sure he didn’t? Were there no efforts to change your mind, or at least to make himself more agreeable to you?”

“He was kind, I suppose.” Lydia scooped up the shuttlecock and served it with an underhand swing. “He was respectful. But he said nothing of changing my mind.”

“And surely
made him agreeable beyond anything else a man can do.” Maria stood with her back to one of the tall gallery windows, racket on her shoulder like an elegant parasol, watching the other ladies sustain their volley. “She said no, and he didn’t assume she only needed the right sort of persuasion. He credited her with knowing her own mind. I vow it’s a pity he hasn’t any money. A lady would be lucky to be kept by such a man.”

Luckier than you know
. Lydia lunged right to bat back a wide shot. She’d said nothing, naturally, of her nightmares and how he’d responded to them. Nothing of his presence in the bed. Not one word of the erection or the feel of his strong arm draped over her middle. But it was all nearly enough to make even a rational-minded lady believe in luck.

“I still suspect something irregular. We have his refusal of that Barbara the night before to consider as well, recall.” Finally Eliza missed a return and stopped, racket hanging idle, to finish her thought. “If he has deviant inclinations, then surely he’d hope to conceal the fact. What better way than by publicly making a bid for another man’s woman?” For the fourth or fifth time that afternoon she threw Lydia that glance that said
I won’t expose you, but I know you haven’t told us all
. Lydia looked away, busying herself with re-pinning a lock of hair that had come loose.

“Nonsense.” Maria came away from the window to take Eliza’s place in the game. “If he wanted to deceive the company, why would he admit to sleeping on the
floor? He told Mr. Roanoke directly he came to breakfast. So says Mr. Moss.” She caught up the bird and sent it sailing down the gallery. “The most reasonable explanation is that he’s developed a
for Lydia—that explains why he’d have nothing to do with that Barbara—and when he found she didn’t return the sentiment, he went out of his way to repair whatever damage he might have done to her standing with her protector. It’s a fine, courtly kind of devotion. Quite romantic. Some other gentlemen could take a lesson.”

BOOK: A Gentleman Undone
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