The Danger of Desire
When Warren Corry, Marquess of Knightford, arrived at a Venetian breakfast thrown by the Duke and Duchess of Lyons, he regretted having stayed out until the wee hours of the morning. Last night he’d been so glad to be back among the distractions of town that he’d drunk enough brandy to pickle a barrel of herrings.
Bad idea, since the duke and duchess had decided to hold the damned party in the blazing sun on the lawn of their lavish London mansion. His mouth was dry, his stomach churned, and his head felt like a stampeding herd of elephants.
His best friend, Edwin, had better be grateful that Warren kept his promises.
“Warren!” cried a female voice painfully close. “What are you doing here?”
It was Clarissa, his cousin, who was also Edwin’s wife—and the reason Warren had dragged himself from bed at the ungodly hour of noon.
He shaded his eyes to peer at her. As usual, she had the look of a delicate fairy creature. But he knew better than to fall for that cat-in-the-cream smile. “Must you shout like that?”
“I’m not shouting.” She cocked her head. “And you look ill. So you must have had a grand time at St. George’s Club last night. Either that, or in the stews early this morning.”
“I always have a grand time.” Or at least he kept the night at bay, which was the purpose of staying out until all hours.
“Which is precisely why it’s unlike you to be here. Especially when Edwin isn’t.” She narrowed her eyes on him. “Wait a minute—Edwin sent you, didn’t he? Because he couldn’t be in town for it.”
“What? No.” He bent to kiss her cheek. “Can’t a fellow come to a breakfast to see his favorite cousin?”
“He can. But he generally doesn’t.”
Warren snagged a glass of champagne off a passing tray. “Well, he did today. Wait, who are we talking about, again?”
“Very amusing.” Taking the glass from him, she frowned. “You do not need this. You’re clearly cropsick.”
He snatched it back and downed it. “Which is precisely why I require some hair of the dog.”
“You’re avoiding the subject. Did Edwin send you here to spy on me?”
“Don’t be absurd. He merely wanted me to make sure you’re all right. You know your husband—he
hates having to be at the estate with your brother while you’re in town.” He glanced at her thickening waist. “Especially when you’re . . . well . . . like that.”
“Oh, Lord, not you, too. Bad enough to have him and Niall hovering over me all the time, worried about my getting hurt somehow, but if he’s sent you to start doing that—”
“No, I swear. He only asked that I come by if I were invited to this. I had to be in town anyway, so I figured why not pop in to Lyons’s affair?” He waved his empty glass. “The duke always orders excellent champagne. But now that I’ve had some, I’ll be on my way.”
She took him by the arm. “No, indeed. I so rarely get to see you anymore. Stay awhile. They’re about to start the dancing.”
Uh-oh. Clarissa had been trying to find him a wife for years, and lately both she and Edwin’s sister, Yvette Keane, had doubled their efforts. Probably because they were both now happily married and thought it just the thing for a bachelor.
He was in no mood for such machinations today. “Why would I dance with a lot of simpering misses who think a marquess the ideal prize? I’m too cropsick to deflect veiled questions about what I’m looking for in a wife.”
Her frown revealed her intentions as fully as if she’d spoken them. “Fine. Be an old grump, if you must. But you could dance with me. I can still dance, you know.”
No doubt. Except for during her disastrous debut, Clarissa had always been a lively sort, who wouldn’t be slowed by something as inconsequential as bearing the heir to the reserved and eccentric Earl of Blakeborough.
Clarissa and Edwin were so different that Warren occasionally wondered what the two of them saw in each other. But whenever he witnessed their obvious affection, he realized there must be something deeper than personalities cementing their marriage. It made him envious.
He scowled. That was absurd. He didn’t intend to marry for a very long while. At least not until he was much older. Even then, he would prefer a lusty widow who could endure his . . . idiosyncrasies. Certainly not some coy chit eager to use him as a ladder for climbing the ranks of high society.
Or worse yet, a sanctimonious female like his mother, chiding him for every attempt he made to enjoy himself. To forget.
Clarissa stared off into the crowd. “As long as you’re here, I . . . um . . . do need a favor.”
Damn. “What kind of favor?”
“Edwin would do it if he didn’t have to be in Hertfordshire helping my brother settle the family estate, you know,” she babbled. “And Niall—”
“What’s the favor?” he persisted.
“Do you know Miss Delia Trevor?”
Miss Delia Trevor? God, would Clarissa never
stop trying to match him up? “Fortunately, I do not. I assume she’s some young debutante you’ve taken under your wing.”
“Not exactly. Although Delia was just brought out this past Season, she’s nearly my age . . . and a friend. Her brother died last year in a horrible accident, and she and his wife, Brilliana Trevor, have been left without anything but a debt-ridden estate to support. So Delia’s aunt, Lady Pensworth, brought the two of them to London for the Season.”
“Agatha Pensworth, wife of the late Baron Pensworth? The woman who used to be great friends with my mother?”
“That’s her. I suppose you’ve met?”
“Years ago, before Mother died. As I recall, she rarely minced words.”
“She doesn’t suffer fools easily. And she has a fondness for her niece, which is why they’re all in town.”
“So her ladyship can find husbands for the two young ladies.”
“Yes, although I think Lady Pensworth is more concerned about Delia, since the late Mr. Trevor’s wife has already borne him a child who will inherit the estate, such as it is. To make Delia more eligible, Lady Pensworth has bestowed a thousand-pound dowry on her, which ought to tempt some eligible gentlemen.”
That put him on his guard. “Not me.”
She rolled her eyes. “Of course not you. Things do not always concern you, for heaven’s sake. She needs someone decidedly younger. She’s only twenty-three, after all.”
Decidedly younger? “Here now, I’m not that old. I’m the same age as your husband.”
“True.” Her eyes twinkled at him. “And given your nightly habits, you apparently possess the stamina of a much younger man. No one seeing you in dim light would ever guess you’re thirty-three.”
He eyed her askance. “I seem to recall your asking me for a favor, dear girl. You’re not going about getting it very wisely.”
“The thing is, I’m worried about Delia, who seems rather distracted these days. She keeps receiving notes that she slips furtively off to read, and she falls asleep in the middle of balls. Worst of all, she says she can’t attend our house party, which I’d partly planned in hopes of introducing her to eligible gentlemen.” She cast him a pointed look. “Eligible young gentlemen.”
Thirty-three wasn’t old, no matter what his sharp-tongued cousin thought. “Perhaps your friend had another engagement.”
Clarissa lifted an eyebrow at him.
“Right. She needs a husband, and you’re nicely trying to provide her with a selection of potential ones.” He smirked at her. “How ungrateful of her not to fall in with your plans.”
“Do be serious. When was the last time you
saw any unmarried woman with limited prospects refuse a chance to attend a house party at the home of an earl and a countess with our connections?”
He hated to admit it, but she had a point. “So what do you want me to do about it?”
“Ask around at St. George’s. See if the gentlemen have heard any gossip about her. Find out if anyone knows some scoundrel who’s been . . . well . . . sniffing around her for her dowry.”
The light dawned. Perhaps this really wasn’t about matching him up with her friend.
During her debut years ago, Clarissa had been the object of a scoundrel’s attentions, and it had nearly destroyed the lives of her and her brother. So she tended to be sensitive about women who might fall prey to fortune hunters.
Indeed, having learned this summer what she’d gone through—and before that, what Edwin’s sister had gone through to a lesser extent—he’d become far more aware of how easily men preyed on even the most respectable women. That was why Edwin had begun St. George’s and Warren had joined—to make sure that men who cared about the women in their lives could look out for them more effectively in a society where fortune hunters and scoundrels abounded.
But it was still problematic for him to do what Clarissa asked. “You realize that if I start asking at the club about an eligible young lady’s situation,
our members will assume I’m interested in courting her.”
“Nonsense. Everyone knows you prefer soiled doves to society loves.”
“I like society women perfectly well . . . as long as they have inattentive or dead husbands. It makes matters infinitely less complicated.” And there were plenty of those women about, which was one reason he wasn’t keen to marry. He had a ready supply of bedmates without having to leg-shackle himself.
“My point is,” she said testily, “everyone knows your preferences. And asking questions is the purpose of St. George’s, is it not? To provide a place where gentlemen can determine the character of various suitors?”
“For their female relations,” he said tersely. “Not for the friends of their female relations.”
Clarissa stared up at him. “She has no man to protect her. And I very much fear all the signs lead to her having found someone unsuitable, which is why she’s behaving oddly. I don’t want to see her end up trapped in a disastrous marriage. Or worse.”
They both knew what the “worse” was, since Clarissa had gone through it herself. Damn. He might not have been Clarissa’s guardian for some time, but she still knew how to tug at his conscience. And it gnawed at him that he’d been unaware of what had been done to her before he’d
become her guardian, that it had taken his best friend’s perception to parse it out.
“It would be a very great favor to me,” Clarissa went on. “I tell you what—she’s here, so let me introduce you. You can spend a few moments talking to her and see if I’m right to be alarmed. If you think I’m overly concerned, you may leave here with my blessing and never bother with it again. But if you think I might be right . . .”
“Fine. But you owe me for this. And I promise I will call in my debt down the road.” He forced a smile. “At the very least, you must introduce me to some buxom widow with loose morals and an eye for fun.”
“Hmm,” she said, rolling her eyes. “I’ll have to speak to my brother-in-law about that. He has more connections among that sort than I do.”
“No doubt.” Her brother-in-law used to use a number of “that sort” as models in his paintings. “But I can talk to Keane without your help. So I suppose I’ll settle for your promise not to be offended if I refuse your invitation to your house party.”
“There was a possibility of your accepting? Shocking. Still, I did hope—”
“So where is this woman you wish me to meet?”
Clarissa sighed. “Last time I saw her she was right over there by the fountain.” As she turned that direction she stiffened. “What on earth are those fellows doing with Delia?”
She stalked across the lawn and he followed, surveying the group she headed for: a woman surrounded by three young gentlemen who appeared to be fishing—fishing?—in the fountain.
He recognized the men. One was a drunk, one a well-known rakehell, and the third a notorious gambler by the name of Pitford. All three were fortune hunters.
No wonder Clarissa was worried about her friend.
He turned his attention to the chit, who had her back to him and was dressed in a blue-and-green plaid gown with a pink-and-yellow striped shawl and a multi-feathered coiffure that added at least a foot to her height.
For the first time, he wished their new king hadn’t recently lifted the requirement for the populace to wear mourning for the late George IV. Even the dullness of black and gray gowns as far as the eye could see would be preferable to that nightmare of colors.
What’s more, any woman who dressed that way was bound to be a heedless twit. He sighed. She would be a nuisance at best, a dead bore at worst. There was nothing he disliked more than a cork-brained female, unless she was sitting on his lap in a brothel, in which case intelligence hardly mattered.
As they approached, Clarissa asked, “What’s going on here?”
The jovial chap with cheeks already reddened
from too much champagne said, “The clasp broke on Miss Trevor’s bracelet and it dropped into the fountain, so we’re trying to get it out to keep her from ruining her sleeves.”
“I’d prefer to ruin my entire gown than see you further damage my bracelet with your poking about,” the chit said, her voice surprisingly low and throaty. “If you gentlemen would just let me pass, I’d fish it out myself.”
“Nonsense, we can do it,” the other two said as they fought over the stick wielded by the drunk. In the process, they managed to jab Miss Trevor in the arm.
“Ow!” She attempted to snatch the stick. “For pity’s sake, gentlemen . . .”
Warren had seen enough. “Stand aside, lads.” He pushed through the arses. Shoving his coat sleeve up as far as it would go, he thrust his hand into the fountain and grabbed the bracelet. Then he turned to offer it to the young lady. “I assume this is yours, miss.”
When her startled gaze shot to him, he froze. She had the loveliest blue eyes he’d ever seen.
Though her gown was even more outrageous from the front, the rest of her was unremarkable. Tall and slender, with no breasts to speak of, she had decent skin, a sharp nose, and a rather impudent-looking mouth. She was a pretty enough brunette, but by no means a beauty. And not his sort. At all.
Yet those eyes . . .
Fringed with long black lashes, they glittered like stars against an early-evening sky, making desire tighten low in his belly. Utterly absurd.
Until her lips curved into a sparkling smile that matched the incandescence of her eyes. “Thank you, sir. The bracelet was a gift from my late brother. Though I fear you may have ruined your shirt retrieving it.”
“Nonsense.” He held out the bracelet. “My valet is very good at his job.”
As she took the jewelry from him, an odd expression crossed her face. “You’re left-handed.”
He arched one brow. “How clever of you to notice.”
“How clever of you to be so. And it’s hard not to notice, since I’m left-handed, too. There aren’t that many of us around.”
“Or none that will lay claim to the affliction, anyway.” He’d never before met a lady who would.
“True.” She slipped the bracelet into her reticule with a twinkle in her eye. “I’ve always heard it’s gauche to be left-handed.”
Well, well, she was definitely not a twit, if she knew that gauche was the French word for left. “I’ve always heard it’s a sign of subservience to the devil.”
“That, too. Though the last time I paid a visit to Lucifer, he pretended not to know me. What about you?”
“I know him only to speak to at parties. He’s
quite busy these days. He has trouble fitting me into his schedule.”
“I can well imagine.” Pointedly ignoring the three men watching them in bewilderment, she added, “He has all those innocents to tempt and gamblers to ruin and drinkers to intoxicate. However would he find time to waste on a fellow like you, who comes to the aid of a lady so readily? You’re clearly not wicked enough to merit his interest.”
“You’d be surprised,” he said dryly. “Besides, Lucifer gains more pleasure from corrupting decent gentlemen than wicked ones.” This had to be the strangest conversation he’d ever had with a debutante.
“Excellent point. Well, then, next time you see him, give him my regards.” Her voice hardened as she cast a side glance at their companions. “He seems to have been overzealous in his activities of late.”
When the gentlemen looked offended, Clarissa put in hastily, “Don’t be silly. The devil is only as busy as people allow him to be, and we shall not allow him to loiter around here, shall we, Warren?” She slid her hand into the crook of his elbow.
“No, indeed. That would be a sin.”
“And so are my poor manners.” Clarissa smiled at her friend. “I’ve neglected to introduce you. Delia, may I present my cousin, the Marquess of Knightford and rescuer of bracelets. Warren, this
is my good friend, Miss Delia Trevor, the cleverest woman I know, despite her gauche left hand.”
Cynically, he waited for Miss Trevor’s smile to brighten as she realized what a prime catch he was. So he was surprised when it faded to politeness instead. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, sir. Clarissa has told me much about you.”
He narrowed his gaze on her. “I’m sure she has. My cousin loves gossip.”
“No more than you love to provide fodder for it, from what I’ve heard.”
“I do enjoy giving gossips something to talk about.”
“No doubt they appreciate it. Otherwise, they’d be limited to poking fun at spinsters and then I would never get any rest.”
He snorted. “I’d hardly consider you a spinster, madam. My cousin tells me this is your first Season.”
“And hopefully my last.” As the other fellows protested that, she said, “Now, now, gentlemen. You know I’m not the society sort.” She fixed Warren with a cool look. “I do better with less lofty companions. You, my lord, are far too worldly and sophisticated for me.”
“I somehow doubt that,” he said.
“I hear the dancing starting up,” Clarissa cut in. “Perhaps you two can puzzle it out if you stand up together for this set.”
He had to stifle his laugh. Clarissa wasn’t usually so clumsy in her social machinations. She
must really like this chit. He was beginning to understand why. Miss Trevor was rather entertaining. At least when she wasn’t looking down her nose at him for his moral lapses.
Which was odd for a woman sneaking around to meet with an unsuitable suitor, wasn’t it?
“Excellent idea.” He held out his hand to the young lady. “Shall we?”
“Now see here,” Pitford interrupted. “Miss Trevor has already promised the first dance to me.”
“It’s true,” she told Warren, a hint of challenge in her tone. “I’m promised for all the dances this afternoon.”
Hmm. Warren turned to Pitford. “Fulkham was looking for you earlier, old chap. He’s in the card room, I believe. I’ll just head there and tell him he can find you dancing with Miss Trevor.”
Pitford blanched. “I . . . er . . . cannot . . . that is . . .” He bowed to Miss Trevor. “Forgive me, madam, but I shall have to relinquish this dance to his lordship. I forgot a prior engagement.”
The fellow scurried off for the gates as fast as his tight pantaloons would carry him. Probably because he owed Fulkham a cartload of money.
And Pitford’s withdrawal was all it took for the other two gentlemen to excuse themselves, leaving Warren alone with his cousin and Miss Trevor.
Smiling, he offered his arm again to Clarissa’s friend. “It appears that you are now free to dance. Shall we?”
To his shock, the impudent female hesitated. But she obviously knew better than to refuse a marquess and took the arm he offered, though she wouldn’t look at him, staring grimly ahead.
As they headed toward the lawn where the dancing was taking place, she said in clipped tones, “Do you always get your way in everything, Lord Knightford?”
“I certainly try. What good is being a marquess if I can’t make use of the privilege from time to time?”
“Even if it means bullying some poor fellow into fleeing a perfectly good party?”
He shot her a long glance. “Pitford is deeply in debt and looking for a rich wife. You ought to thank me.”
“I know what Pitford is. I know what they all are. It matters naught to me. I have no romantic interest in any of them.”
Pulling her into the swirl of dancers, he said, “Because you prefer a fellow you left behind at home? Or because you’ve set your sights elsewhere in town?”
Her expression grew guarded. “For a man of such lofty consequence, you are surprisingly interested in my affairs. Why is that?”
“I’m merely dancing with the friend of my cousin,” he said smoothly. “And for a woman who has ‘no interest’ in the three fortune hunters you were just with, you certainly found a good way to get them vying for your attention.”
She stared at him. “I have no idea what you mean.”
“The clasp on that bracelet wasn’t broken, Miss Trevor.” When she blinked, he knew he’d hit his mark. “So I can only think that you had some other purpose for dropping it into the fountain.”
As they came together in the dance, he lowered his voice. “And if it wasn’t to engage those men’s interest in you personally, I have to wonder what other reason you might have to risk such a sentimental heirloom. Care to enlighten me?”