Authors: Julie Johnstone
Tags: #historical romance, #love, #regency romance
He sought Audrey out and immediately found her. He loved that she had worn her hair down, though it was uncommon. She was not common. And he liked that more than he cared to admit. Thortonberry handed Audrey a plate, and when she took it, the man’s hands lingered too long on hers and he tilted his head slightly down as if he were staring at her breasts.
The muscles along the backs of Trent’s shoulders throbbed. Thortonberry needed to understand Trent was watching him. As he was about to stride across the room, Audrey’s brother stumbled into his view, took her by the elbow and whispered something in her ear.
Her brows came together in a pucker and she handed Thortonberry her plate before following her brother out of the supper room. This would be the perfect time to warn Thortonberry to behave or else. Trent stepped out from the space between the curtains and the painting and started to weave through the crowd toward the marquess. Halfway across the room, his cousin Whitney moved into his line of sight with a smirk on her face and her gaze trained on him.
He did not bother trying to avoid her. One of many reasons Whitney was one of his favorite people was her tenaciousness. She never gave up on what she wanted. He hoped to hell what she wanted at this moment had nothing to do with him. He had enough to think about right now.
Within a moment, Whitney stood in front of him, a mischievous twinkle in her eyes. “I have been watching you.”
Have you?” He made sure to infuse his tone with amusement, though wariness surged through him.
I have,” she chirped. “You would not have noticed, because you were busy watching Lady Audrey.”
The best way to confuse a suspicious person was to give them what they wanted. Trent shrugged. “Of course I was.”
Whitney’s eyes widened. “I must say this is easier than I expected. I did not think you would admit it.”
Why would I not? She is my friend, and I am concerned about her and the current company she is keeping with Thortonberry.”
She is your
He chuckled at the way his cousin’s mouth was hanging open. “My friend. It’s a new view I’ve developed.”
Whitney set her hands on her hips. “It is an excuse, that is what it is. A rather ingenious one, but no matter how you cloak it, it is still an excuse for not wanting to admit how you really feel about her. I have not wanted to push you, because honestly ever since you returned from your trip to France you have not been the same.”
She held up her palm. “Let me finish, please. I know you feel guilty over that Frenchwoman.” Whitney stopped speaking, glanced around the room and gripped his elbow. “Follow me.”
Within moments, they stood back by the window with the billowing curtains. Whitney leaned close. “You cannot punish yourself forever because that woman―what was her name?”
Gwyneth,” he choked out.
. He tugged a hand through his hair. Fabricating a story that Gwyneth had killed herself because he had pushed her away had been foolish. At the time, it had seemed a good way to accomplish his goal of getting Whitney to admit the truth to Sutherland of why she had left him, so she would not lose him. And it had worked. When she heard how not telling the truth about himself had cost him the woman he loved, Whitney had immediately opened up to Sutherland.
Whitney nodded. “Yes, of course. Gwyneth. I know you loved her and her killing herself wounded you desperately, but Audrey is not Gwyneth. Audrey is strong and truthful. I have seen the way you have looked at her these last two months, and it is not a look of friendship.”
Knots pulsed in his shoulders and neck. Reaching around, he rubbed the back of his neck and considered what to say. Whitney trying to match him with Audrey had to end now and the only way he knew to ensure that happened was to be shockingly, bluntly honest. “You are working under a disillusion about me, Whitney, and I adore you for it. You think I’m better than I am, but I’m not. I am a man with baser needs who has no desire ever to marry but still wishes to fulfill those needs. I did start to pursue Lady Audrey, but only because I mistakenly thought she never wanted to marry either and that―”
Damn, this talk was deuced uncomfortable. “Well, to be perfectly honest, I thought she wished for an affair and had the experience with men to know what she wanted.”
Whitney clamped her jaw shut with a snap. She stared at him in silence for a second, then raised her hand and toyed with the plume in her hair before finally speaking. “I see. Well, clearly you were wrong about her and yourself.”
You do not wish for an affair with her, Sin. That is another lie you tell yourself because, well, I think you are afraid to fall in love. It is too late, though. She is under your cravat. You just have not accepted it yet. Friends, you say?” Whitney shook her head. “I think not. You could have spoken with her about this nonsense regarding Thortonberry and then been off to a din of ill repute to fulfill those
needs you mentioned. Instead, you lurked behind a curtain and watched her every move with an intensity that left me breathless.”
Was that true? Was Audrey somehow becoming more to him? His mind flatly rejected the notion. He desired her, plain and simple. Well, not so simple. He liked her as well. In fact, he liked many things about her, except the fact that she was an innocent seeking a husband. “I never said I did not desire her still, but I will not act on it. Whether you believe me or not, all I wanted to do tonight was watch out for her, since it seems her brother is too drunk to fulfill his duties and I have yet to see her father here.”
Whitney pursed her lips. “If you say so. I’m afraid I have to end this conversation now. I see Drake heading this way and I’m sure you want to depart and go fulfill your baser needs.” She quirked a haughty eyebrow at him and turned on her heel, so quick her gown smacked his leg as it swung around.
Damn his cousin. She had him questioning himself, and that was the last thing he cared to do. He would go to the Sainted Order and this time, by damned, he would bed a wench and quit fantasizing about Lady Audrey immediately.
Two hours later in the underground candlelit pleasure room of the Sainted Order, Trent downed his glass of whiskey, smacked it against the bar and motioned for the barkeep to pour him another. While he waited for his drink, another beautiful demirep sashayed up behind him. She leaned over him, her perfumed fiery hair swinging down the left side of her face into a long shimmering cascade that almost touched his crotch and trailed her hands over the back of his shoulders, then over them and down the front of his chest. He should have been aroused to a painful state. Yet he felt nothing.
Do you want to come with me?” the woman whispered in his ear. She took the tip of his lobe between her teeth and gave it a playful tug.
Before Audrey, that naughty little gesture would have brought him to arousal. Now his blood might as well have been ice in his veins.
Hell and damnation
. He wished he wanted to bed this woman. The sad fact was he did not, and despite thinking earlier he could make himself, imagining himself lying with this woman left a sour taste in his mouth.
He shook his head. “Not now. I have somewhere to be.” Like home. If he could not bring himself to bed another woman tonight and forget the green-eyed Siren consuming his thoughts, then he might as well go back to the comfort of his own home. He much preferred his cozy study to a damp room that reeked of too much perfume and smoke.
Plus, he needed to consider the very real fact that he might need to avoid Audrey until he had himself firmly in hand.
Maybe tomorrow night?” the demirep purred in his ear.
Yes, perhaps.” He took the last swig of his drink, put on his coat and made his way out of the room and down the dark, damp winding corridor toward the door that led up to the stone stairs that would take him to the main entrance of the club.
He paused when a shriek came from the corridor to his left. He eyed the shadows dancing on the stone walls. The oil lamps flickered because of the constant breeze. Another shriek rang out, but was it trouble or pleasure? The corridor did lead to the bedchambers and some women did shriek when they were enjoying themselves.
Undecided as to whether he needed to go investigate to make sure one of the hellfire members was not being too rough with a demirep, he stood there. A bursts of female laughter erupted from the same direction the shriek had come from, followed by a woman’s voice. “You are a very naughty boy, Lord Thortonberry.”
Trent froze. Thortonberry was here.
Come back to the bedroom with me,” Thortonberry coaxed.
This is your third night in a row here,” the woman replied. “Are you not tired of me?”
What would your wife say if she discovered you were coming to see me?”
Thortonberry chuckled. “I’m not married, but even if I was, I would still be here with you, whether my wife liked it or not. Not that I would tell my wife about this, at any rate.”
Probably wise.” The woman’s voice grew suddenly softer as if they were walking away or she was whispering.
Trent itched to move toward them but in this empty corridor, every sound echoed. A door creaked and light from a bedchamber spilled into the dark hall. Trent pressed himself against the wall and held his breath.
Some ladies are prickly about their husbands going to hellfire clubs,” the woman said, right before wood scraped brick and the door smacked shut.
Trent exhaled his breath in a whoosh, then slowly inhaled as he counted to twenty to cool his temper. Thortonberry was exactly the sort of man Trent had thought. There was no bloody way he would quit watching over Audrey now. She was in danger from the marquess whether he intended to seduce her or marry her. He was no good for a woman like her. She deserved―” He scrubbed a hand over his face. What did she deserve? Certainly more than having her reputation ruined or being duped into marrying a man who presented himself to her one way, then played her false and spent all his nights in the arms of other women.
He had to make sure Thortonberry did not ensnare her. For now, he would work from a distance until he developed an indifference to her laughter, wit and beauty.
Trent grunted. This should not present a problem. He would not let it. He could be around her and not flirt with her. He was a former spy trained to deflect, defeat and defend. Of course, that training had utterly failed him when he met Gwyneth, but he had learned from his colossal mistake with his former wife.
The next night Audrey’s nerves tingled as she took her seat beside Whitney in Mr. Sutherland’s theater box at Drury Lane. From below them, the pit hummed with the excited conversation between men and women who came to the theater to socialize. Audrey leaned over and grasped Whitney’s hand. “Thank you for inviting me.”
It is my pleasure. I’m glad, between the two of us, we were able to convince your father I would be an acceptable chaperone for tonight’s outing.”
Audrey snorted quietly. “I think the fact that you told him Trent was going to be attending the theater as well, and in the same box as us, is what convinced him. Now that Father has concluded Lord Clarington will not offer for me, I do believe he has pinned his hopes of getting rid of me on Trent.” Which suited her perfectly.