Read The Wild Marquis Online

Authors: Miranda Neville

Tags: #English Light Romantic Fiction, #Romance - Historical, #Fiction, #Romance, #Romance: Historical, #English Historical Fiction, #Historical, #Romance & Sagas, #General, #Fiction - Romance

The Wild Marquis (6 page)

BOOK: The Wild Marquis
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“Do I shock you?”

“A little. But I find you amusing. And I think you do it deliberately, not because you mean what you say.”

“I behave the way people expect me to.” He spoke flippantly and continued to smile, but the light left his eyes to be replaced by a harder expression.

“So you do it to please?”

“I didn’t say that.” His voice, always low, dropped a notch in both volume and pitch.

“And why do people expect you to shock them?”

“Because, and you are likely the only person in London who doesn’t know it, my dear innocent bookworm, I am steeped in vice, a being so depraved that I was cast out of my ancestral home at the tender age of sixteen.”

“What could you possibly have done at that age that was so terrible?”

“Acts too depraved for your ears.”

“Really?” She was fascinated.

“My long slide into iniquity began at the tender age of twelve when I leered at one of the maids during evening prayers.”

“Surely your father didn’t send you away for that?”

“No, he merely beat me. The maid he sent away, without a reference. The first recorded instance of my getting a woman into trouble. The sin that caused my exile was far, far worse.” He continued to speak in a light, humorous tone but Juliana detected an underlying bitterness and defiance.

“What did you do?”

Cain misinterpreted her question, deliberately she was sure. “I left,” he said. “My father had me delivered to the nearest coaching stop with a hundred pounds in my pocket, and told me never to darken the doors of Markley Chase again.”

And she knew he wasn’t going to tell her why.

“What of your mother? Didn’t she object?”

“My father was a saint—”

“I don’t find it saintly to cast out a boy of sixteen,” she said indignantly.

“My father never did anything wrong in the eyes of his wife, or indeed of the world. So I found my way to London and proceeded to live up to his opinion of me.”

“So young to be alone! How did you manage?”

“I went to live in a brothel. I liked that.” The amused light was back in his eyes.

“Good Lord!”

“And then I developed a close relationship with the theater. Or rather a succession of ladies who adorned the stage.”

“You don’t make a secret of it, I notice.”

“What would be the point? I am, I believe, notori
ous. Five years later my father died. Sadly for him, it wasn’t in his power to disinherit me.”

“Did you return home?”

“Just for the funeral. A despicable act of hypocrisy on my part. My mother remains there. She is no more anxious for my company than my sire was. I live a life of blissful self-indulgence and ease in the family’s London mansion, and she keeps Markley Chase as her province.”

He didn’t ask for her compassion but he had it. Juliana knew the pain and loneliness of being exiled from the only home she’d ever known.

“So you haven’t been home in how many years?”

“Three.”

“You are only twenty-four years old then, just a year more than me. I thought you older.” Not that Cain’s dissipations had marred his looks, but there was a world-weariness, a certain cynicism in his face when in repose that communicated a wealth of hard experience.

“Thank you for the compliment. My debauchery must be affecting my features. I shall have to speak to my valet about a skin tonic.”

She suspected something in his tale affected him far more deeply than he liked to reveal, that his habitual glibness disguised a sorrow she felt the urge to comfort.

Then his expression shuttered for a brief but perceptible instant and he regarded her with a careless grin, the blue eyes as mocking and dangerously suggestive as ever. He’d erected a barrier against trespassers.

Cain had been enjoying himself, especially the early part of the conversation when he’d learned of Sir Thomas Tarleton’s propensity for extortion. That might explain why his father had relinquished the Burgundy Hours, though he couldn’t imagine what scandal threatened the Saintly Marquis.

Then he’d started talking about himself, far more than was his habit. Juliana’s indignation on his behalf would be more gratifying if she knew the whole truth. When he sensed her sympathy turn to pity his mood changed. He loathed pity, resented it.

“Enough of my wretched life. Let’s get back to books. If I’m going to collect plays, naturally I should buy Shakespeares.”

“Naturally.”

“Nothing but the best for me.”

“They’ll go high,” she said weakly.

“I believe I’ve made clear that my fortune is adequate.”

“You should buy the folios,” she said firmly.

He let her wax lyrical for a few minutes about the beauty, condition, and brilliant provenance of the four volumes.

“I rather fancy those neat little quartos,” he cut in abruptly.

Juliana dropped her knife with a clatter. She stood up. “Please excuse me for a few minutes.”

Cain had intended to rattle her, not drive her from the room. But he took advantage of her absence to check a hunch. He’d already spotted a plain-looking Bible on one of the shelves; not, he thought, a collec
tor’s item. He snatched it up and checked the signature on the flyleaf before replacing it.
Juliana Cassandra Wayborn.

 

She stumbled into the tiny water closet in something of a panic. Wine had dulled her brain. How could she stop him from buying
her
books without revealing the truth about herself?

The thought of simply asking him not to bid on the quartos occurred to her, only to be dismissed. In her experience men didn’t respond well to straightforward expressions of either her desires or her opinions. Her guardian had never welcomed her assessment of a book when it conflicted with his own, preferring to willfully ignore the occasions when she had been proven right and he wrong. Her respect for all he had taught her let her accept his attitude, but when Joseph displayed the same outlook she’d resented it. And developed tactics for making him accede to her judgment. The male animal had to be made to think it was
his
idea.

She hadn’t taken the Marquis of Chase’s measure enough to know how to manipulate him to her will. Never mind the uneasy thought that she might never be able to outwit his quicksilver personality. For the moment she would return to her previous strategy of distraction. An idea buzzed into her head to join the second glass of claret. Did she dare? Last time she’d offered him an erotic book. And he’d made it quite clear he preferred the real thing.

Not that she had any intention of actually seducing him. A small flirtation should be enough. There was
an attractive man in the next room, and the prospect of engaging him—just a little—on those terms appealed to her.

There was, of course, the problem that she had little experience in flirtation. But the man was a rake. How hard could it be? There was nothing she could do about her unappealing garb, but she had one asset men had always admired. She’d start with that, then improvise. Her heart racing, unsteady fingers untied the strings of her cap.

When Juliana returned, Cain was sitting innocently at his place, toying with his wineglass. He guessed she had withdrawn to think up a new ploy to distract him from the vexed subject of Shakespeare quartos, and looked forward to discovering it. And then he’d find out her connection to the lovely Cassandra Fitterbourne. His earlier irritation had melted away. He found the diminutive bookseller and her secrets entertaining.

Well, this was a surprise.

Right from the beginning he’d known Mrs. Merton was pretty under those gruesome widow’s weeds. He hadn’t suspected she had the most magnificent hair he’d ever seen. Tumbling from her head scarcely restrained by pins, shining curls caught the flickering candlelight in shades of honey, caramel, and pure gold. She was beautiful, a perfect pocket Venus. For the first time he felt a genuine urge to delve into more than the mystery of her background.

She swayed a little as she approached the table. “I decided to remove my cap. I hope you don’t object to the informality.”

She patted at her head with a self-conscious air, and a shower of hairpins tinkled on the floorboards. The shining masses flopped over her shoulders to her breasts.

“Not in the least,” he said, eyes riveted.

Her brow, milky white beneath the gold, creased in annoyance. “I’m not very good at hairdressing.”

“Dear me, Juliana. There seem to be a number of things you aren’t very good at. Cooking, hairdressing. What else, I wonder.” He leaned back in his chair and folded his arms, awaiting her response.

“I’d rather talk about the things I am good at,” she said softly.

By God, he did believe she was flirting with him.

“I am all ears.”

She struck a pose and her figure curved nicely, despite its unpromising casing of bombazine, then her eyes met his with an expression both come-hither and uncertain.

Definitely flirting, but not very good at it. Did she know what she was starting? He couldn’t believe her goal was to bed him, but she played a dangerous game with a master of the sport. He could have her naked beneath him in minutes, and there’d be no turning back. She wouldn’t
want
to turn back.

She cleared her throat. “I can enter a library and pick out the best books within five minutes.”

That was an unusual beginning to a seduction scene. Resisting the urge to laugh, he merely cocked an inquisitive eyebrow.

“Even from among several thousand volumes. I have an unerring intuition for quality.”

“Intuition should always be followed,” he said encouragingly.

“I know a volume from the cradle of printing by its scent, as well as the incised impression of deep black ink on heavy paper, so crisp it might have been made yesterday.”

Better
. While he hadn’t yet found the smell of a book arousing, he was always ready for a new experience.

“Show me any book binding and even blindfolded I can tell you what it’s made of.”

“Tell me more.”

“Just a stroke of the fingertips is enough.” She moved over to the bookcase. “Close your eyes.”

In the dark he heard her make a selection of books and detected her faint clean scent, violet soap. Then she took his hand in her small one and brushed his fingers over the smooth cover of a volume.

“Feel this one. Glossy with a hint of roughness. Polished calf.”

She might not be an experienced flirt but her instincts were superior.

“The finest vellum,” she said, offering another. “Slippery as silk yet hard.”

The warmth of the room, her proximity, her soft hand manipulating his over the cool surface of the book affected him. The book wasn’t the only thing that was hard.

“And now for a more robust texture.” He sensed firmness with a slight grain. “The virile strength of morocco.”

She leaned over him, her breath caressing his cheek. With an effortless move he grasped the book, laid it on
the table, and snatched her by her slender waist. She landed on his lap, a snug armful of enticing heat.

Keeping his lids hooded, he settled her against his chest, and his hands set forth on a slow voyage of exploration of flesh and bones beneath stiff fabric: slender shoulders; the bumpy ridge of her back (a different, more practical part of his brain registered that her garments must fasten at the front); the pronounced curve from waist to hips; breasts well-rounded, firm, and begging to be freed from the confines of cloth and corset.

He sensed an acceleration in her breathing and opened his eyes. At close quarters, by lamplight, hers glowed a deeper green. They gazed at him soft and vulnerable. Notions of self-restraint trickled away as her lips parted in invitation.

He kissed her, and any doubts he might have had about the widow Merton’s limited sexual experience were put to rest. When he ran his tongue around the sensitive entrance to her mouth, then all the way in, there was an unquestionable frisson of shock, a stiffening of her muscles beneath his caress. But scarcely a second later she relaxed, sweet and receptive. Her hands, which had been trapped against his chest, fought free to cradle his jaw. The movement of her lips answered his own and her tongue emerged shyly, then with increasing boldness, to meet his.

He deepened the kiss, inhaling her breath. She was every bit as delicious as he’d suspected, tasting both honeyed and spicy.

And of his best Bordeaux.

He never seduced intoxicated women. It was one of his rules.

His mouth stilled, though his hands continued to caress her back and hips. Unwillingly he made his mind overcome his senses, engulfed by the warmth and fragrance of Juliana’s body. He recalled her second glass of wine, the sway of her body as she’d returned to the room with her hair a glorious golden cloud. And the fact that she was behaving in a manner surely foreign to her better judgment.

And his own too. This hadn’t been his plan for the evening. Avoiding middle-class women was another of his rules. They were too much trouble and tended to come with relatives. He’d once fallen afoul of a father with an evangelical bent and well-aged hams for fists. Only his skill for dodging trouble had kept him from serious injury.

Though he had to admit avoidance of the bourgeoisie was more of a recommendation than a rule. And Juliana appeared blessedly free of protectors. Perhaps…

But never drunk women. It was unsporting.

He lifted her off his lap and, with reluctant precision, set her on her feet.

Juliana tottered backward and somehow regained her own chair, her head in a daze. Cain’s kisses made her feel rather as though she’d landed in the middle of an explosion of fireworks. She regretted they had ended, and felt bereft.

Lingering bedazzlement gave way to a wave of humiliation. She’d thrown herself at him and he had
rejected her. She stared at the table, feeling small, powerless, and unattractive.

And drunk, but no longer in the light effervescing way that had melted her inhibitions. Her head felt fuzzy and slightly sick.

Cain broke an uneasy silence. “I apologize, Juliana.” He spoke gently in that foggy voice. “It’s probably better if we keep our acquaintance on a business footing.”

BOOK: The Wild Marquis
9.62Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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