Authors: Kathryn Smith
“I dare you.”
Just one kiss. That was all Wynthrope wanted. Just one…
Those two words cracked the façade of composure Wynthrope tried…
Moira had no time to react, no time even to…
This was a jest—a cruel jest that normally Wynthrope would…
At exactly one minute past seven the following evening, Wynthrope…
Christmas Eve came as crisp and perfect as it ought.
The following morning, Nathaniel swept into Moira’s breakfast room in…
Moira was as nervous as a new bride when Wynthrope…
Twelfth Night came as surely and unwelcome to Wynthrope as…
Frozen in the heated water of her bath, her body…
He could not be stealing from her. He couldn’t. Clutching…
The gray light of morning came as surely as an…
Rain came upon London with a vengeance, turning the snow…
Nathaniel lay on her bed, in exactly the same position…
The next morning Moira and Minnie sat in the library…
Wynthrope did not return to Moira’s house after the night…
When the summons came early the next morning for her…
Wynthrope allowed another two days to pass with no word…
On the day of Minnie’s betrothal party, Moira hid in…
About the Author
About the Publisher
She did, did she? What did she think he was, a boy unable to resist any gauntlet thrown down before him?
Probably. And she would be right—to an extent. Her words needled him, but it would take more than a taunt to spur him to action. Wynthrope Ryland turned to his companion with a cool but charming smile. “I am afraid that is a challenge I cannot take.”
The buxom woman waved her fan before her cleavage in a slow, seductive manner. Her surprise at his refusal was evident on her fair features. “Why on earth not?”
Returning his attention to the dancers twirling and prancing before them, Wynthrope allowed his smile to cool even further. This was why he despised winter parties—conversation
was unavoidable. “Because I already know what would happen should I ask the lady in question to dance.”
Lady Dumont was not satisfied with so cryptic a reply. “And what is that, dear sir?”
He polished off the rest of his champagne before replying, gesturing with the empty flute as he did so. “Her sister would no doubt pitch a fit of hysterical proportions.”
Melodramatic delivery to be sure, but that did not take away the truth of the words. Most women seemed intimidated by him, and that suited him just fine. Those who did end up presented to him like so much Christmas goose were generally those in need of finances, or simply trolling for connections. Obviously,
connections were not a consideration, not when they involved his family. The Rylands—even the more distant branches—were not exactly known as “good”
Still, that part of him that could not back down from a dare of any kind forced him to cast his gaze in the direction of the very pretty and popular Minerva Banning and her watchful elder sister Moira, Viscountess Aubourn.
Personally, he thought prettiness was a much overrated quality. And popularity among this bunch simply meant one knew the right things to say. How utterly boring. Still, his gaze had been straying to the sisters all evening. He must have been totally obvious for his companion to notice. Usually he was much more careful than that.
Now, if Lady Dumont had challenged him to steal a kiss instead of begging a dance,
might be a dare worth accepting. Begging was not something he did—ever. Stealing, on the other hand, was something he was quite adept at.
Apparently Lady Dumont had no interest in extending such a challenge. More’s the pity. “Do you plan to attend your sister-in-law’s soiree tomorrow evening, Wynthrope my dear?”
Setting his empty glass on the tray of a passing footman, Wynthrope turned once more to face his companion. Ten years his senior, Lady Dumont was an attractive woman with silvery blond hair and a lush figure. Calling him by his Christian name was not a forced attempt at intimacy—that had taken place years ago. He had shared her bed for a good many months, before and after relieving her of some of her late husband’s artwork.
Of course, back then he had thought his criminal activity was all for the good of England. Shagging had been a lovely perk. How young and stupid he had been.
“Of course I plan to attend Octavia’s party,” he replied, putting thoughts of the past out of his mind. “She has given me no other choice.” And even if she hadn’t, he wouldn’t dream of letting her down. Octavia had earned his loyalty the moment she became his brother North’s wife. North was his confidant, his conscience. If Octavia was good enough for North, she was good enough for him.
Lady Dumont flashed a coy smile as she continued the lazy flourish of her fan. “Ladies. The sole weakness of the Ryland men.”
Wynthrope made a scoffing noise low in his throat—better that than the expletive he first thought of. “Hardly the sole, rather one of many.”
“That is rather harsh, is it not?”
He shrugged. This conversation was quickly becoming tiresome. It was boredom that made him want to turn his back on his former lover and walk away, not a perverse need to keep silent about his family, even though he had been the one to remark against them. He had never spoken of his past to this woman when he shared her bed; what made her think he would do so now?
“I think I may take you up on that challenge after all. Please excuse me, my lady.” Out of habit, he bowed, but his
attention was already diverted. Focusing on his quarry alleviated the restlessness gnawing at Wynthrope’s mind. He would never admit, not even to his brothers, that he felt as though something was missing from his life. If only one of his brothers were close at hand, he might use him to ease the feeling. Even Brahm quieted his spirit, damn him.
But his brothers weren’t there. North was at home with Octavia. His younger brother, Devlin, was currently traveling up from Devonshire with his wife for Christmas, and Brahm wasn’t generally welcome in society, although the general opinion of him had improved somewhat since the season. Perhaps that was why he was so intrigued by this woman—she had her sister at her side almost constantly. Realistically he knew that would become bothersome after a while, but for now he envied it.
Winding through the crowd, Wynthrope worked his way toward the two sisters. Aside from their hair color and strong jawlines, there was very little resemblance between them at all. Minerva was shorter and rounder, her hair spirals of sable curls, her skin a shade darker, her cleavage far deeper. She looked like a delectable little confection in her pale yellow evening gown. The viscountess was a tall, almost waifish bit of work. Her skin was pale; her expression as aloof as her sister’s was open. How odd that she wore the stronger color of the two of them. Her gown was a rich forest green—a color that brought out the gold in her hair.
She seemed a humorless woman, but he knew that to be untrue. Everyone he had ever heard speak of her remarked on her easy nature and quick wit. Perhaps the loss of her husband two years ago had robbed her of her joy as well. Or maybe it was the stress of trying to marry off a younger sister outside of the London season. There weren’t many eligible young men in town at this time of year, although one
would never know it from the number of male admirers flocking around Miss Banning.
It was no secret that the viscountess was terribly protective of her dear sibling—and terribly picky about whom she allowed the chit to stand up with. More than once since her arrival in London, Miss Banning had been known to vocally protest her sister’s tight rein. Minnie, as she had come to be called by the
, liked attention, and didn’t appreciate her sister taking any chance she had of being noticed away from her.
Which was exactly why he should stop right there, turn around, go find himself another drink, and not put himself between two such obviously high-strung females. A solid idea.
He turned on his heel only to find Lady Dumont watching him from across the floor. Damn London society for being so thin that one could actually see from one end of the ballroom to the other. His former lover raised an inquisitive brow. He could almost hear the question her expression asked. Had he lost his nerve?
Nerve had nothing to do with it. He had plenty of nerve—Lady Dumont had no idea of the depth of his nerve. She would if she ever figured out who stole those four paintings right out from underneath her nose, he thought with dry amusement.
Not that it mattered what Lady Dumont thought. Let her think him a coward. There was nothing wrong with wanting to avoid being at the center of a sisterly conflict.
And yet, despite that threat, he continued toward the two women. He was going to follow this through, and not because of anything Lady Dumont might say to or about him, but because he wanted to. Despite the potential danger with his quarry’s sister, he wanted to ask her to dance, wanted to hear her say yes.
And of course he wanted to hold her in his arms, discover if her skin was really as clear as it looked from a distance. Why? Because just a few days ago he had seen her outside a shop in Bond Street—with her sister, of course. Her cheeks had been flushed from the cold, her eyes bright with laughter. He hadn’t been the only man to notice her—others had as well, but it had been he who had captured her attention.
For one second she had looked at him as though she could see right to the very heart of him—and understood what she saw there. It shook him right to the very source of his being, leaving him more than a little raw and vulnerable. Even now, the thought of meeting her gaze again agitated the beating of his heart.
No one had ever made him feel vulnerable before, not even that son of a bitch who had deceived and made a fool of him. Not even Brahm or his father had ever made him feel quite so open, so
, as this female had. Such a strange person to elicit such a reaction from him. Self-preservation told him to turn around now while he still could. No matter what happened, he would not emerge unscathed from this encounter. If he was rejected, his pride would suffer, but if he was accepted, more than just his pride could be at risk.
What the hell was he thinking? More than his pride could be at risk? What else did he have? Certainly not his heart. That piece of shriveled-up meat wouldn’t know real attachment if he glued it on his sleeve. Any connection he had ever made that mattered was made through blood. Nothing else had lasted. Nothing else had been real.
This attraction he felt wasn’t real. The next few minutes would prove that. She would look at him, and her gaze would be the same as any woman’s. He would discover there was nothing special about her after all, and he would lose interest. And then he would no doubt end up drinking more than he wanted and going home with Lady Dumont after all.
A good, unpolished shag would clear his head and rid it of all this foolishness. In the future he would know better than to give credence to such notions.
The sisters glanced up as he neared. Each wore an expression of surprise, though the younger seemed slightly more pleased than the elder.
Luckily, it took more than a little displeasure to stop him once he’d set his mind to something.
He sketched a bow before them, flashing his most charming smile. “Lady Aubourn, Miss Banning, how lovely to see you again.”
The younger sister dimpled. “Good evening, Mr. Ryland.”
The older sister frowned. Was that disappointment in the depths of her clear hazel eyes? “Mr. Ryland.”
Undaunted, Wynthrope pressed on. “I was wondering if perhaps I might request the pleasure—”
The viscountess did not allow him to continue. “I am sorry, Mr. Ryland, but my sister’s dance card is completely full.”
Wynthrope deliberately raised his brows at her brusque tone, but before he could speak, the younger sister cut him off.
“My card is
full.” Minerva shot her sister a venomous look.
Lady Aubourn blushed. She was actually quite engaging with some color in her cheeks. “Minnie, do be quiet.”
The younger woman’s color was high as well, her eyes flashing with indignation. “I will not! I do not need you to speak for me.”
“Quite right, Miss Banning,” Wyn added, deliberately adding fuel to the fire. “You should never allow anyone to speak for you, sibling or not.” God knew he wouldn’t want one of his brothers speaking for him. He could only imagine the trouble it could lead to.
The viscountess shot him a look that was half shocked,
half furious. It was the fury that got his attention. He never would have pegged her for a woman of strong emotions. She always seemed so cool and poised.
“Mr. Ryland, while I appreciate your suit and support of my sister, I think you will have to agree with me that you and she would make an entirely unsuitable match.”
Disbelieving laughter caught in Wynthrope’s throat, choking him. He didn’t know whether to laugh at this woman or tell her exactly what he thought of her assumptions. “Is that so?” he asked with a chuckle.
For a moment, Lady Aubourn seemed confused, as though the mocking tone of his voice hadn’t been completely lost on her. This time when her gaze met his, questions glinted between her narrowed lashes. Wynthrope could almost feel her trying to pull the answers from him.
“Yes, Mr. Ryland. That is so.” Her tone was distracted, but firm.
Minerva stomped her foot, wincing as she did so. Wynthrope wasn’t surprised; those thin little slippers of hers wouldn’t provide much protection against the hard marble floor. “But Moira, I want to dance with him!”
“Why thank you, Miss Banning,” Wynthrope replied with a smile, tearing his attention away from the more compelling sister, “But it was not you whom I was asking.”
The admission was worth the expressions on their faces. Ah, here was the sisterly resemblance. It was amazing how much they looked alike when their mouths were gaping open.
“But perhaps your card is filled as well, Lady Aubourn?”
She was magnificent when she was embarrassed. Color bloomed high on her cheeks and throat, and there was a brightness to her green-gold eyes that hadn’t been there before. Suddenly Moira Tyndale didn’t seem quite so cool and aloof anymore. And suddenly it didn’t matter that she
couldn’t seem to see inside him at this moment. He could see inside
. It hadn’t occurred to her at all that he might want her over her fluffy little sister.
“I—” The words stopped before her mouth did. She stared at him helplessly. She didn’t know what to say, that was obvious. He wanted her to say yes. He wanted to discover if she smelled as good as he imagined she would. She would smell like winter—cool and crisp with a hint of something warmer lurking just underneath. Cocoa and cinnamon on a bitter wind.
“You are very kind, Mr. Ryland,” Minerva began, her face tight. “But I am afraid my sister is still in mourning for her dear husband and has given up dancing.”
A baldfaced lie if he ever heard one—and the chit knew it too, but that didn’t stop her from staring him straight in the eye as she said it. Spoiled or not, Wynthrope had to admire the girl for being so brazen.
He nodded in acquiescence, his gaze locked with Moira’s. “My apologies, my lady. I bid you a good evening.” Before leaving, he flashed the younger woman a slight grin with a click of his heels. “Enjoy the rest of the ball, Miss Banning.”