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London: June 1817 Sotheby’s Auction House
There he was. Penelope’s mind raced at the audacity of her plan.
Stephen Hornsby, the Marquess of Clevedon, looked as handsome as the devil. Her information source had not exaggerated.
The words of Lady Diana, Clevedon’s latest mistress, echoed in her head. He is a sin to be indulged but a man never to bestow your heart upon.
Well, she wasn’t looking to bestow her heart on any man ever again. She just needed him to help her defeat Lord Rotham.
He was not wearing a hat. Apparently, he never did, and even as he moved into the auction gallery, his dark hair looked as if it was tousled from the wind outside, immediately making her think that perhaps he’d only recently gotten out of bed.
Bed. She clapped gloved hands to her warm cheeks. “Bed” was most likely something a woman automatically associated with such a devastatingly handsome man. Or at least how to get him into one.
His midnight blue jacket, and high boots polished so they gleamed, screamed wealth. He sauntered, yes, sauntered, toward his seat near the middle of the room. A seat only a few rows behind hers. Every move he made was calculated to show the type of man he was, rich, powerful, handsome, and self-assured. Even the sunlight from the main window at the front of the gallery, playing over his godlike features, seemed to want to be his lover, and the other women present were staring at him and drooling like teething babies.
He was the most beautiful man she had ever seen. And to her dismay her body stirred. Stirred with feelings she thought she’d long killed beneath her self-disgust.
For the past two months she’d been learning all she could about this man, but seeing him in person was infinitely different than she imagined. Penelope imagined that she would be immune to his physical attributes because he was a known rake. But even she was not unmoved. Just looking at him sent waves of heat along every nerve ending. Perhaps this was not such a good idea.
Penelope turned back to face the front of the auction room using the auction list to fan her face. She let past memories of the havoc a rake had created feed her resolve. Clevedon was merely a means to an end. A way to protect those she cared about.
She heard Mr. Sotheby greet him, and Lord Clevedon’s reply. The sound of his deep, gravelly voice sent a shiver of foreboding over her skin. It lured her to the point where she almost turned around to stare at him again.
This was not her plan.
It was not her plan to fall under his spell.
A bilious sensation churned in Penelope’s stomach. She’d learned his lordship wanted a painting coming up for sale in this auction. She had to buy the painting he wanted or else she would have nothing to barter with.
Unfortunately, Lord Clevedon was extremely wealthy. He was a man who would not need money, so why else would he help her? The painting was the key.
She would win it.
She’d brought six hundred pounds with her. More than enough for a painting valued at only one hundred pounds. She hugged her reticule tightly. Being the Duke of Sandringham’s sister would help if she needed credit, but paying too much for a landscape from a relatively unknown painter would arouse curiosity. As would buying a painting Lord Clevedon wanted. The last thing she needed right now was the gossips announcing to everyone that she was in town and engaging in a bidding war with the Marquess of Clevedon.
Just then Lady Charlotte retook her seat. Her friend was there for moral support. It was Charlotte who, because she always came to town for the season when Penelope didn’t, had ascertained the identity of Clevedon’s current mistress and allowed them to learn as much as possible about the rake. Luckily for them Lord Clevedon had recently ended his liaison with Lady Diana, and she was so heartbroken that she simply wanted to talk about the man all day. That is how Penelope learned about his obsession with the Wilson landscape.
“I see Clevedon’s here. I perfectly understand how Lady Diana ended up in the man’s bed. I must admit I’m very tempted myself.” At Penelope’s alarmed look at her widowed friend, Charlotte added, “Of course not until he has helped you.”
“You may play with him all you like as soon as I’m finished with him.”
Penelope saw Charlotte take a second look. “I shall certainly look forward to that.” She giggled. “And not simply because with his help you’ll be safe. By the way, no woman is safe with that man. He’d tempt a nun.”
“Stop looking at him. I don’t want to be noticed.”
“When will you learn, darling, that a little flirtation gets women like us almost anything we want. You could have him twisted around your little finger with a smile.”
Penelope pinched the bridge of her nose and wished she were at home as a headache began to pound behind her eyes.
“If this plan doesn’t work,” her friend continued, “then you could always offer yourself.”
Her head jerked up and her jaw tightened. “No. I will have to find another way. I will never allow a man power over me again.”
“Oh, darling.” Charlotte turned to stare at Lord Clevedon once more. “I suspect you’ll actually enjoy his bed. But if you’re that certain then there is always your brother. He would help, surely?”
She shook her head until her bonnet almost dislodged. She had her reasons for wanting Lord Clevedon. To pacify her friend she uttered, “If my brother gets involved . . . Sandringham would think he could control me too. I want to live my life my way. No men commanding me.”
Charlotte sighed. “Then you best hope this man can save you, painting or no painting. With his reluctance for anything more permanent than a couple of nights of pleasure from his lovers, even if he does request you in his bed, it won’t likely be for long.”
That did not make the idea of intimacies with the Marquess of Clevedon any more appealing.
“The Richard Wilson landscape is up next, my lord.”
Stephen Hornsby, the Marquess of Clevedon, did not move a muscle, not a twitch of his face, nor a curve of his lips, nor a jerk of his hand. No one must guess his interest in the Wilson landscape. Besides, he was too busy smiling at the woman who kept turning around and smiling at him. Her friend beside her had not looked his way since he’d walked in and that roused his curiosity while the smiling redhead with her aroused something else.
The auctioneer announced the next piece, a landscape sunrise that could blind a sightless man. Lord Donning’s loss would be Stephen’s gain. The date of the auction had burned in his brain the minute he’d learned Donning had no choice but to sell. Stephen’s arm itched with the need to raise it and name the price he knew would secure him the exquisite sunrise, but good things came to those who planned.
He would win it.
Soon the painting would hang in his bedchamber. He yearned to wake up every morning, and go to bed every night, to the sunrise over the Denbighshire countryside, until the gloriousness of God’s fiery nature was burned into his memory. By seeing it every day, he hoped that even when the encroaching darkness came, the image would stay bright in his mind’s eye.
Sotheby’s auction house was busier than usual, mostly because of a sculpture by Michelangelo that was in the catalog. Lord Donning’s gambling debts saw him having to part with some of his fine art. The Wilson landscape was one of them, along with the Italian statue.
To Stephen’s consternation, he wasn’t the only one who was interested in the Wilson landscape. The murmurs in the crowd grew as the auctioneer’s helper lifted the piece onto the easel. He turned his attention to the auctioneer, the women forgotten.
The Sotheby’s staff was watching him closely to see which item he was interested in purchasing. That would only push the price up. He knew how the auction house worked. They had spotters in the crowd making bogus bids to ensure the best price for the buyer and a bigger commission for them.
Stephen smiled to himself. He had a strategy. He would make one bid and his bid would be the last.
The bids began to fly thick and fast. He let the bids pass by like dust in the wind. As long as his was the final bid, that was all that mattered. He didn’t care how much the artwork cost him. He was going to have this painting. Finally, the flurry of bids slowed until there were only two other bidders left.
Stephen took his time to assess his two opponents. One was a foreign gentleman most likely bidding on behalf of someone else. The other bidder, who persistently raised her auction paddle, was his redhead’s friend, a woman he was not familiar with. He could only see her side profile with the odd fair curl poking out from under her bonnet, but he swore he’d never seen her before. He couldn’t really tell how old she was, but the way she held herself, the way she confidently bid, and the fine midnight velvet she wore, proclaimed a society upbringing and likely wealth.
It did not take him long to realize that of the two bidders, she was the one he would have to worry about because she, too, seemed totally unconcerned as the price rose.
Ten minutes later the price was way above what the painting was actually worth, and the fair-haired woman thought she had succeeded because the foreign gentleman ceased bidding. The auctioneer began the final countdown, going once, going twice . . . And then Stephen raised his paddle. “Five hundred pounds.”
It was a significant jump in the bidding war and he hoped it signaled he would bid at any price. Before this bid, the auction had stalled at three hundred and twenty-one pounds, and now he waited to see what the woman would do.
A hush fell over the room. He watched as the woman’s shoulders tensed, but she did not look back at him—interesting. “Five hundred and five pounds.”
He smiled to himself. Five pounds told him all he needed to know. She did not want to go much higher.
“Six hundred pounds.” He heard the collective gasp.
That made her turn around, and this time it was he who almost gasped. The fine features of her face were perfectly symmetrical; she was Venus personified. Her eyes were set beautifully under finely shaped eyebrows. The ocean blue color made him want to swim in them. The cute button nose made her face look younger than the mid- to late- twenties he suspected she was. Her lips . . . pouty, luscious, sweet, popped into his head, along with the thought that he’d like to plunder them.
His chest heaved and regret tore deep in his innards. Unfair. Life was so unfair . . .
Darkness would soon become his prison. Shortly, he’d never feel this heat that erupted when looking at a lovely woman. That visceral flare of attraction, that instant hit of lust rushing through his body, the tightening in his groin, would become a stranger. To be devoid of beauty was a punishment worse than death and he drank in the beautiful, luscious woman before him as if he were dying of thirst.
How would he experience lust in a world of darkness? Her soft scent drifted toward him and he closed his eyes. While the scent created images in his mind, there was no stirring in his groin. His eyes flew open. It wasn’t the same.
Would never be the same.
Stephen sucked in a breath, his teeth grinding, battling the roar he wished he could let escape.
Instead, he looked at the beautiful woman bidding against him and swore he would see every inch of her before blindness took him.
She stared at him, almost pleading with him not to keep bidding, before through gritted teeth she called, “Six hundred and one pounds.”
Interesting. He had thought she’d have given up immediately. Almost lazily he signaled another bid.
“Lord Clevedon bids another one hundred pounds. The bid is his at seven hundred and one pounds.”
He watched her shoulders slump and she shook her head. His stunning beauty did not place another bid and he almost regretted that fact.
Stephen sat up straight. Where was the normal euphoria of the win? Nothing surged through him. He almost hated to win. The painting was all but his, yet since spying the woman, the painting was now the second most beautiful object in the room.
And Stephen collected beauty like a squirrel collected walnuts.
As a young boy of four and ten, watching his father slowly go blind, and lately learning it was likely his fate too, seeing and experiencing beauty became his driving need. He viewed the world each day as if it was his last, drinking in the beauty around him, each experience creating a memory to cherish in the encroaching blindness.
If this were to be his last day of sight, he’d rather have the flesh and blood woman who’d bid against him than the sunrise on canvas.
Hell, it was only a painting, be it the best painting of a sunrise he had ever seen. He might even be tempted to gift it to her, and his imagination flew to what he might ask for in return.
No. He’d give her the painting. He’d seduce what he really wanted from her. He wanted her in his bed, her body freely given, her beauty open to his viewing, her naked softness beneath his fingers and mouth. To soak in her nakedness and imprint it to his memory would be a prize he’d cherish.
So lost in his fantasy of having her in his bed, he hardly noticed that the auctioneer’s gavel had sounded and he had won and the painting was now his.
He got to his feet and casually strolled toward where the aisle ran down the center of the room. He watched her walking toward him and she could not hide her disappointment. She stopped in front of him and his body stirred some more.
“Congratulations, my lord. I hope you can appreciate such workmanship.”
He looked her up and down slowly, and with a seductive smile uttered, “I appreciate all things of beauty.”
She did not react to his double entendre but stood silently staring at his face as if learning every feature by heart so as not to forget him. He hoped she would not forget him for he would not forget her.
“If you ever wish to sell the painting, please let me know.”
Before he could ask her name, she sighed, gathered her skirts in one hand and swept past him, while her redheaded friend winked as she followed her.
He turned to watch them depart. Why had she not told him her name? The woman intrigued him. There were not many women who resisted his charm, looks, or money. He wasn’t vain. He couldn’t take any credit for the attributes God had seen fit to bestow on him. He could, however, blame God. And he did every day. To the world it looked as if God had bestowed perfection upon him, but his outer shell hid the faults. The fact he had eyes that soon would not see was his own private hell. No one else knew, not even his mother.
Soon he wouldn’t care about his looks, because he would not be able to see himself.
Or see anything of beauty that the world offered.
But not yet, God damn it. Not yet.
He thought about the beautiful woman who had bid against him. She could have tried to flirt with him like her friend had. Her beauty would see many men give her anything she asked for. He was no exception. Why hadn’t she?
He raised his hand and signaled his man of business. “Johnston, can you ascertain the name of the woman who bid against me?”
“Yes, my lord.” He paused before turning away. “The auction house is organizing the packing of the painting. I’ll see it is sent to your townhouse.”
“Very good, but I shall wait to leave until I have the lady’s name.”
Just then Mr. Sotheby approached. “Name, my lord?”
“The woman who also bid on the Wilson.”
Mr. Sotheby smiled. “Lady Penelope Fisherton.” At Stephen’s raised eyebrow Sotheby added, “I’m not surprised you have not heard of her ladyship. She’s a widow and lives near Land’s End in Essex. She very rarely comes to town.”
Stephen knew immediately who she was. Eight years ago there had been a huge scandal. He’d been traveling in the Mediterranean at the time, trying to find his friend Alexander Bracken, the Duke of Bedford, but arrived home to the malicious gossip of the disgraced Lady Penelope Fisherton, the Duke of Sandringham’s eighteen-year-old daughter, who had eloped with Mr. David Carmichael, the third son of the Earl of Rotham.
He also knew Carmichael had died just over a year ago under suspicious circumstances. Found at the bottom of a cliff in Southend, Essex.
No wonder Lady Penelope never came to town and had kept her maiden name.
She must have really wanted that painting.
He wondered why. He knew why he was prepared to pay way more than the painting was worth but why would Lady Penelope? Even more intrigued, he made an instant decision. He would gift her the painting—but only if she explained why she wanted it so badly.
Mr. Sotheby added, “I am of course not one to gossip, but if your lordship is interested I believe Lady Penelope is husband-hunting. The rumor is she would like children.”
Stephen thanked Mr. Sotheby for the information, but it did not change his desire to seduce her. However, he was not looking for a wife. Mainly because a wife, as Lady Penelope Fisherton’s reason for getting remarried confirmed, would want children. He refused to have children. No child of his would be faced with his fate. To lose the gift of sight when in your prime was too great a punishment for any human to have to bear.
Nor would he wish to burden a wife and family with his blindness. He began to understand why his father had blown his brains out.
Although, why his father had been selfish enough to do it in the study of Clevedon Manor he would never understand. Walking in on the mess was burned into his memory. No, when his time came, he would rather jump off a cliff and hope his body was washed out to sea and never found. Or better yet, he’d jump overboard from one of his ships.
“How interesting that her ladyship has a similar taste in art to you.”
Mr. Sotheby’s words penetrated his macabre thoughts. The feeling of fate fast approaching crawled over his skin. There was still time to enjoy a woman’s beauty. He looked down at the man. “I don’t suppose you know Lady Penelope’s address while she is in town?”
Penelope had almost given up hope that Lord Clevedon would call on her. She’d purposely not flirted with the man in the hope it stirred his interest.
So when her butler, Digby, handed her his calling card she sat tapping it against the arm of the chair, willing her racing heart to slow.
One week. She’d had to wait one whole week in London, a place filled with vipers and malicious supposed friends.
This was what she had wanted—Lord Clevedon at her door—and it was also the main reason she had bid on the silly painting. When the bidding first began and the Marquess had shown no interest, she’d thought for a moment that her information had been wrong. She’d been determined to win it in order to have some hold over Lord Clevedon. That had not worked out as planned. She had not expected him to pay so much for a painting by a relatively uncollected artist. Luckily, she’d seen the light of lust in his eyes when she’d stopped to talk to him, and a new plan formed.
One she should be repulsed by.
The test had been whether he’d be interested enough to ascertain her identity. She smiled to herself thinking back on the look on his face when she had not given him her name. Men were so predictable. A pretty face, an innate challenge, and men came running.
Over the past few months she’d learned everything she could about Lord Clevedon. He was the man the government sent to find things. He’d been a spy for them in the war with the Ottomans, so her brother let slip. Eighteen months ago he’d helped in the rescue of the Duke of Bedford’s wife.
Penelope needed a man with his reputation. A Marquess who, when he delivered his report, would be believed without question, or at least enough to cast doubt on Lord Rotham.
Originally, she’d thought to offer Lord Clevedon the painting if he helped her. He collected works of art as frequently as he collected women. For a hefty price Lord Denning had told her that the Marquess, on numerous occasions, had tried to buy the Wilson landscape from him privately, and was most annoyed when Denning would not sell.
She’d gone to the Sotheby auction knowing Lord Clevedon would bid on the painting.
Footsteps echoed on the stairs. Digby was escorting Lord Clevedon to her drawing room. For a big man the Marquess was light on his feet; she could only hear Digby’s heavy tread. She took a deep breath. She’d seen and dealt with handsome men before; hell, she’d been married to one. As a young girl she’d let handsome sweep her off her feet, freezing her intelligence, and she was not about to let that happen ever again. Once was more than enough.
“Lord Clevedon, my lady,” Digby announced before retiring and leaving the door open.
His lordship entered the room as if he was visiting a close relative and was assured of his welcome. He approached and bowed low over her hand, and the rioting in her stomach grew worse. It was not caused by the handsome face smiling down at her, but at the audacity of her plan.
Her back stiffened and she stayed seated. Her eyes traveled up the length of him, and like a mouse eyeing the cheese in the trap, she sighed, the conversation to come was not a good idea.
“Lady Penelope Fisherton, thank you for receiving me. I realize we have not been formally introduced but you left the auction so quickly the other day, proper introductions were not completed.”
How like a man to ignore society’s rules and make it sound as if it was her fault.
“I must admit, my lord, I’m surprised at your visit. You won the painting so it cannot be about that.”
“May I?” he asked, indicating a chair.
“Of course, please sit. Digby, some tea for his lordship or perhaps you’d prefer a glass of brandy?” Brandy for the dandy her mother always used to say. Lord Clevedon did not look like a dandy. She shivered. He looked—it did not matter how he looked, and she pulled the summoning bell harder than necessary.
He sat in one smooth, gliding motion, like a sleek black panther prowling the undergrowth. His long legs, showcased in tight trousers and polished Hessians, made the chair look tiny. He touched his perfectly starched white cravat. Was he nervous? Her confidence surged.
“I’d prefer tea, thank you, lemon no sugar.”
Her mother had also told her never to show surprise. “Should I be flattered that you have tracked me down? I wonder what brings you to my door. Let me just say up front that I’m not looking for any kind of dalliance if you have found out about my scandalous past. I assure you it will never be repeated.”
He laughed and it sent a shiver over her skin. The sound brushed the fine hairs on her arms like a whisper. “Scandalous past? Hardly.” He looked her right in the eyes, holding her gaze. “I’m sure compared to my reputation the Pope would confuse you with a nun.”
Why did he have to be honest? In her experience most men bent on seduction did not broadcast their sordid reputations. A thought stuck. Lord Clevedon had not been in England eight years ago when she’d made the biggest mistake of her life; perhaps he had not heard of her scandalous past.
She paused drinking her tea sure he would note her shaking hands. Eyes that were framed with thick, dark lashes making the brown look almost black in color studied her intently. She wanted to shake her head to clear the vision of male beauty before her, but didn’t dare show any weakness.
Surely, he must have heard about her past because she had heard all about his from her one true friend, Lady Charlotte. If he had learned where she stayed while in London, he would also have been told her sorry, scandal-ridden tale.
Charlotte had shared the scandalous tales of Lord Clevedon’s life with her when they were making a list of men Penelope could approach. Charlotte also knew he was one of only a handful of men who had the skills and affront to help her.
She picked up her teacup, her mind locked steady. “Then perhaps you could share the reason for your visit.”
He gave her a smile that would melt snow, and probably most women’s hearts. “I’m here to gift you the painting.”
Excitement burst deep within her. This was her chance. “There are only two problems with your kind offer.” She put her teacup down again and tried to steady her shaking hands. “One, men bearing gifts to a woman such as me are looking for something in return, usually me in their beds, and that will never happen. Two”—and she sat back in her chair for this—“I don’t want the painting. I never did. Why would I need a painting of a sunrise when I see the most glorious sunrise from my bedchamber window every morning?”
The look of confusion that momentarily flashed across his handsome face was priceless. He sat up and uncrossed his long limbs. “Then why did you bid on it?”
She hesitated, her bravery vanishing like a fog as the sun rose. Finally, she gave herself a bit of a shake and uttered the words that would change everything. “Because I knew you wanted it.”
His mouth fell open before he quickly closed it. Eyes narrowing, he leaned forward, “And why was that important?”
She shrugged, trying to portray an air of nonchalance. “I needed something you wanted. Unfortunately, you seemed prepared to pay an exorbitant sum for the painting. I suspect you would have kept bidding regardless of the price. Why did you want the painting so badly?”
“It is beautiful, is it not? The way Wilson captured the sunrise.”
“I suppose, but it cannot compete with a real sunrise.”
“Can it not? Whoever owns the painting can view a spectacular sunrise every minute of the day. I can see it at night long after the real sunrise has died.”
How odd. “If one sees something on a continuous basis one often ends up taking it for granted. I love the idea that I have to take the time to admire the sunrise before it is gone.”
“Perhaps I’m greedy. I want to surround myself with beauty every minute of the day. Pulchritudo latet in omnibus.”
She had never learned Latin. “What does that mean?”
“Beauty lies in all things.”
She wanted to argue but understood it would be pointless. She suspected a young chimney sweep did not view the soot clinging to his clothes, hair, and skin as beauty. “Still, your pursuit of the painting means I have nothing I can use. I have nothing you want.”
He flopped back in his chair, the rakish smile back on his face. He gave a deep chuckle. “My lady, you most definitely have something I want.” His eyes indecently traveled over her as she sat in her chair pretending his presence did not fire up her body in ways she’d hoped would never be fired up again.
She rolled her eyes and said drily, “That is precisely why I needed the painting.”
His smile faded slightly, his bravado gone. “You want something from me? Marriage, perhaps? During the season, why else would you be here but to find a husband?”
This time it was she who laughed. He had been listening to the gossip. What other possible reason could a widowed woman have for coming to London? “Good God, no. I most definitely suit widowhood and have no plans to remarry—ever.”
“A child? You think because of my reputation I would happily impregnate you and walk away. Well, you’re wrong.”
So he did have some morals; a twisted compass, perhaps, but she admired him for it nevertheless. He was known for his indulgence in all things of vice—gambling, dueling, if rumors were to be believed, pirating, and of course, womanizing. There were stories abounding of his penchant for sexual relations with multiple women and for, of all things, watching.
He loved to watch women with women, other men with women; thank goodness he did not seem to be perverted toward children. He seemed similar in perversions to her dead husband, yet already, having spoken to him for less than ten minutes, she would wager her life that he was nothing like Carmichael.
Lord Clevedon did not strike her as a man who would lie, manipulate, or blackmail to get what he wanted.
No. She shivered. He’d openly seduce.
Her laughter faded. “No. I may be eccentric but I would never abuse a child by having one out of wedlock, so childless I must remain.” The pain struck deep in her chest as it always did. No children. It seemed far too high a price to pay for one silly mistake.
He spread his arms wide. “Then I am at a loss as to why you had to have something I want. Perhaps you should enlighten me.”
“It seems pointless explaining when I have nothing you want—that I’m willing to give, that is. You have no need of money, I’m sure.”
“Perhaps you should tell me why you needed something I wanted and we shall see.”
She slowly nodded and sat back in her chair. “I need you to prove that my husband’s death was an accident. His brother is trying to implicate me in his death and take everything my husband left me in his will, the majority of which was mine to begin with—my house, money, and lands.”
“Carmichael left everything to you?” he asked in surprise.
“You sounded just like his brother, Lord Rotham, as the will was read. It made me the prime suspect.”
“I thought it had been judged an accident.”
“It was until the will was read and then Rotham declared it was murder and insinuated I had something to do with it.”
Penelope steeled herself for her answer. “I did not personally push my husband off the cliff, although there were many times I wished I could.”
Lord Clevedon nodded. “I can understand that. From what I heard there was no love lost between you and Carmichael.”
“When I was all but a child of seventeen, he seduced me for my lands and money and title, then treated me no better than a common courtesan. As nothing we owned was entailed, I told him I would never give him an heir unless he made a will leaving everything to me. The good-for-nothing bastard agreed, vanity rolling the dice in my favor.”
“And yet you have no child.”
Pain engulfed her. “No. Perhaps it was God’s way of punishing me for my pact with the devil.” She’d had to put up with monthly beddings for seven long years and all she’d ever had was pain.
He briefly leaned forward again. “I’m sorry.”
She quickly wiped away a tear that threatened to run down her cheek. “The past is the past, but my brother-in-law won’t let it stay buried. He has men investigating and I would not put it past him to fake evidence against me. Rotham is in trouble financially and needs my assets.”
“You seem very well informed.”
“I make it my business to know my enemy.” She banged a fist on the arm of the chair. “After everything I endured because of Carmichael, I will not lose any more. Rotham will not take my home, money, or life from me.”
“Why choose me?”
She was expecting his question. What to tell him? Because of his reputation for investigating? He’d worked as a spy for the crown when a young man. She had learned from her brother that he had quite the reputation for uncovering secrets.
“Don’t be shy now, Lady Penelope. You’ve obviously learned enough about me to set up this plan. I’m not sure I like that, although I’ve never tried to hide anything about my life.”
She almost wished she’d poured the brandy for herself. “Secrets are too expensive. They provide too much leverage.”
“Very true. So why is it you think I can help you? I would have thought Bow Street Runners were called for.”
“Rotham has the Runners in his pocket. I need a man of high social standing who society, and the law, will listen to. I need a man who is honest, knows how to investigate, and is not afraid of a man like Lord Rotham.” She leaned forward. “Rotham is dangerous. People who oppose him often disappear.”
“What happens to your money if you were to disappear?”
She leaned back in her chair and a smile replaced her frown. “If something should happen to me, everything goes to the Duchess of Lyttleton for her orphanages.”
She watched as his knee jiggled. She wanted to assure him that no one wanted her dead.
He seemed impressed. “Clever. Rotham can’t kill you to get the money so he has to prove you guilty of murder.”
“If I’m found guilty the will would be voided, and Carmichael’s relatives would inherit. Hence why I am so worried. He’ll do anything to get his hands on what is mine.”
She sat sipping her tea thinking how surreal this conversation was. Here she was confiding in a stranger. A lord more powerful and just as ruthless as the Earl of Rotham, but who, given his lifestyle, still held to a certain code of honor. Her leg began to jiggle too. Would he help her?
“Why come to me?”
She should have expected the question. “A mutual friend suggested you. Her Grace, the Duchess of Bedford.”
“She is a good friend of a friend. Lady Charlotte, the lady with me at the auction. You must remember her? I think you both flirted with each other. I trusted her recommendation once we had completed a thorough investigation.” She gave a sly smile, not believing how easily flirtation came back to her, and she wished she had never been good at it in the first place. She also didn’t wish to dwell on why she suddenly wanted to flirt with this man. “All of us were quite fascinated by your . . . peculiarities.”
His eyes darkened. As if another log had been placed on the fire, the room erupted in heat. He leaned forward, his presence sucking the air from the room. The rake sitting under his skin appeared before her eyes; the purr of his words set her skin alight. “Did your friends never tell you that if you play with fire you will get burned? Don’t start something you have no hope of winning.”
They sat as if time stood still. Staring at each other, a hunger burned low in her gut, and for the first time since her marriage her body responded to the temptation of a man. She cursed under her breath and the moment was broken.
She wanted to fan herself but she wouldn’t give him the satisfaction. Instead, she cleared her throat and asked, “Will you help me?”
He sat silently watching her, his eyes never leaving hers as if he was trying to see into her soul. She wondered for a moment what he saw. A bitter widow, a damsel in distress, a beautiful woman, or a woman fighting for survival—or perhaps all those things, for that is what she saw every day in the mirror.
“What do I get in return? You have already pointed out I have no need of money and I already own the painting.”
Her heart closed the doors to the fortress around it. The doors his honesty had pried slightly ajar. Of course, no man does anything without payment. Her body tensed. “I told you. I will not prostitute myself.”
“Good. That would be no fun.”
She slammed her empty cup on the side table and stood up. “This is not a game. My life is at stake.”
He slowly rose to his feet. She should have stayed seated as he towered over her, and any semblance of being the one in power faded. He brushed a finger down her cheek.
“So much passion. So much control. I’d love to see it all unleashed.”
Her mouth dropped open at the seductive velvet tones of his voice. She could not suppress a shiver when his finger continued to stroke her flushed cheek. “Don’t . . .”
“Don’t what? Help you? I want to help you, very much. All I ask in return is that you let me try to seduce you.”
Lord help her. Her body screamed to run. Yelled at her to say no. But she needed him. She took a step back and thank goodness his hand returned to his side.
“Try to seduce? That’s all? No tricks?”
His smile turned cocky. “That’s all. No tricks, but you must agree to let me try properly. That means outings, dinners, being in my presence when I wish—sometimes, or often, or alone.”
She wrapped her arms around her waist. “But I say when you must stop. I can say take me home at any time. If I don’t like where you take me I may leave. If I don’t like what you are doing you must stop.” They weren’t questions. They were her terms.
He bowed before saying, “Of course. I would not be an expert seducer if I held you captive.” He stepped closer and the smile was gone. The hard, panther-like features were back. “I want you to give all of yourself to me freely. That will be my reward, my prize, and I look forward to the day you honestly surrender.”
She drew herself up to her full height and gathered her rollicking emotions. “I agree but I warn you now. I’m a woman who lost everything because a cad seduced me. I may have been stupid as a young girl but I have learned my lessons well. I will not be easy to seduce.”
He had the audacity to laugh. “You have yet to learn about seduction and I am no cad.” His smile faded. He must have noticed her fear. “Besides, even if I win, you don’t lose. Your seduction will lead to nothing but pleasure. How does that make you a loser?”
She had no answer. When her legs began to shake she decided to retake her seat. She indicated with her hand for him to sit also. “Let me tell you what I know of the night Carmichael died.”
She proceeded to tell him of the witnesses who had been drinking with him until after midnight in the tavern. Of Squire Seaton, who had ridden part of the way home along the cliff tops with him, but had turned off toward his farm, and then his body had been found the next morning on the small beach with his head bashed in.
“And where were you, my lady?”
She had expected this question. “I was home all day and all night as my staff will attest to.”
“Then it would appear Rotham has no case.” His eyes narrowed. “You think he could bribe or fabricate a witness?”
“I don’t know. That is why I need you. Find out what Rotham is up to and ensure that my husband’s drunken accident does not get laid at my feet.”
He nodded his head slowly. “Is there anyone else who could have wanted him dead? That would help immensely.”
“You obviously did not know Carmichael. He was a charmer before he’d strike like a deadly snake. The list of men—people—who’d want to harm him is long.”
Lord Clevedon looked at the clock on her mantelpiece and rose to his feet. “Good. It helps to be able to cast suspicion elsewhere. Rotham has to prove you had a hand in it, not just surmise. That is harder to do when others may also have wanted him to fall off that cliff.”
She stood, too, hating how his lordship towered over her. But the years of her marriage had taught her that often her mind was as powerful a weapon as a man’s fist. “So you’ll help me?”
He stepped toward her and taking her hand raised it to his lips. But it was not her knuckles he kissed. He turned her hand over and pressed a soft kiss to her palm, causing her to snatch it back. “From what you have shared with me, casting doubt on any evidence Rotham finds should be easy. As for seducing you into my bed, now, there is the real challenge.”
Their eyes locked and heaven help her she could not tear her gaze away from the heat in his molten eyes.
It wasn’t until after Lord Clevedon had left, with his sandalwood-spiced scent still clinging to the air, that the answer to his earlier question of what did she have to lose, hit her.
She could lose her heart.
She’d lost her heart once to a man who didn’t deserve it, and she was still paying for that mistake. The idea of losing it a second time to a man who only valued the seduction, scared her almost as much as Rotham did.
Because Lord Clevedon could so easily win.Return to Drawn To The Marquess