Chapter Nine

It was a night of pure enchantment, and over too soon. In the dawn of early morning, he escorted her back through the secret passage to her own chamber.

Impossibly, the kiss Damien gave her upon leaving roused her as much as the first touch of his mouth had, even though Vanessa thought herself so sensually drained, she couldn’t conceivably feel any more desire or pleasure.

She slept deeply, replete and exhausted, and woke far later than usual. For a moment she lay there, remembering the night. She could still feel Damien’s warm, elegant hands on her flesh, his sleek, lithe body pleasuring her, his soft, murmured words of praise and satisfaction as he brought her to ecstasy again and again.

He had swept her away with his consuming passion, into a world of rapture, and, in so doing, had banished her feelings of dread, her memories of pain. More remarkably, his exquisite lovemaking had left her shaken with the realization of her own passion.

Properly she should feel shame for acting like such a wanton, yet she couldn’t bring herself to wallow in self-reproach. She had dutifully endured a joyless marriage and the misery of carnal relations with her husband, never knowing what it meant to be fully a woman, to feel cherished, desired, wanted. Damien had given her a taste of real passion-perhaps the only one she might ever know-and she wouldn’t disavow this fantasy, however fleeting.

She closed her eyes, savoring the memories of his worshiping caresses. His male scent still lingered on her skin, and she felt an absurd reluctance to wash it off…

The thought of washing was an intrusion, although a pleasant one, for it reminded her of the plans for the day. This afternoon Damien intended to introduce Olivia to the bath he had built for her in the conservatory.

Rising with an elated feeling of anticipation, Vanessa rang for her own bath.

She saw no sign of Damien that morning, however, or later at luncheon, since reportedly he was overseeing the finishing touches on his creation. Then she became busy helping Olivia prepare for the momentous event, helping her into her new bathing costume. When finally he arrived at his sister’s rooms, Vanessa still had no opportunity for a private word.

It was just as well, she reflected, that they weren’t alone, for she could scarcely meet his gaze. She suddenly felt keenly shy, while her heart fluttered in her chest in a rhythm akin to panic. Then he looked at her and smiled, a soft, quiet smile with the warmth of morning sunshine, and her pulse rate soared. Other than that brief gesture, however, he acted as if nothing unusual had occurred between them.

But, of course, Vanessa reminded herself, he wouldn’t wish to advertise their newfound intimacy with a public display of passion, most especially in front of his sister.

Damien himself accompanied Olivia into the conservatory, along with Vanessa and two maidservants. Olivia’s expression showed genuine delight at the healing bath among the roses.

“Oh, Damien, thank you,” she declared sincerely as he pushed her chair right up to the edge of the tiled pool. “You’ve gone to such trouble for me.”

“It was no trouble. Why don’t you try it and see if the design is adequate?”

He showed her how to access the bath, and with help she managed to shift herself onto the low ledge. Vanessa held the skirts of her bathing costume to one side so that she could turn and gently slide down the ramp.

With a sigh, Olivia settled into the warm, swirling water. “This is heavenly. I am in raptures.”

Vanessa scarcely heard her praise, for as Damien straightened, his shoulder briefly brushed hers. She glanced up at him sharply, deeply affected by this casual contact. For a moment, as she met the silver smoke of his eyes, she was assailed by memories of what had taken place between them last night. Her whole being throbbed with awareness of him.

She was relieved when Olivia blithely demanded that he vacate the conservatory and leave her to her bath. “Vanessa will care for me, I’m certain. I will send for you if I need you.”

Damien winced in mock offense. “I believe I have been dismissed.” But his mouth was smiling as he bowed to both ladies and turned to go.

Vanessa followed him with her eyes. She wondered how their relationship would change now that she had spent the night in his bed. It would be no hardship being his mistress, she suspected, but rather a delight and an enchantment.

She still had no chance to be alone with him, however, until that evening after dinner, when Olivia retired for the night. Damien carried his sister upstairs and returned to the drawing room, where he found Vanessa barely able to hold her eyes open.

“Forgive me, angel. I kept you awake much too long last night.”

She smiled sleepily up at him. “I don’t remember objecting very strenuously.”

He bent to kiss her forehead, the sort of chaste kiss he might give a sister. “Why don’t you retire and get some sleep?”

She gazed at him uncertainly. “Will you…”

His eyebrows rose. “Will I what?”

“Come to my room tonight?”

His beguiling smile made her heart flutter. “I was waiting with bated breath for an invitation. If you are certain you desire my company.”

“I do,” she answered boldly.

“In that case…” He settled himself beside her on the brocade settee. “Forgive me for bringing up a delicate matter, but I think it wise, under the circumstances, to take certain precautions.”

He withdrew a small scarlet silk bag from his jacket pocket. “Are you familiar with these?” he asked, letting her peer inside.

“They look like… sponges.”

“They are. When soaked in vinegar or brandy and placed in a woman’s love passage, they can prevent a man’s seed from taking root, thus avoiding impregnation.”

There were perhaps a dozen little squares of sea sponge, Vanessa saw, each with a thin string sewn onto one end.

“I should have thought of it before last night,” Damien observed. “I will be happy to show you how to use them.”

She could well imagine how they were used. The thought of Damien giving her such intimate instruction brought a flush of color to her cheeks, and forcibly reminded her of her role as Lord Sin’s mistress, as well as his desire for vengeance.

He was right, however. The scandal of a pregnancy out of wedlock would be devastating to her family.

It was possible, of course, that she was barren. She had never conceived when she was wed to Roger. But precautions were indeed wise. Her subterfuge of an innocent relationship with Damien would prove impossible to maintain were he to get her with child.

Yet the unsettled issues between them didn’t seem to matter later when Damien came to her bedchamber. She was waiting for him, curled up in a wing chair before the hearth, when the panel slid open with a whisper.

He wore a midnight blue dressing gown, which fell open as he stepped silently into the room. He was naked beneath, giving her a full frontal view of his nudity.

Nerves thrumming, she watched his lithe, graceful motion as he crossed the floor to her. His magnificent body was already aroused, his phallus huge and straining.

He took her breath away.

For a long moment their eyes held. In the candlelight his eyes were luminous, his gaze hot and burning with a passion he made no effort to disguise.

“I thought the day would never end,” he murmured hoarsely.

“I know,” she whispered as he bent to draw her to her feet.

He touched her face, his fingers long and smooth and delicious against her skin, making her shiver under his light caress. “I want you.”

Vanessa trembled, thrilled to be wanted by this magnificent, sinfully beautiful man.

Silently, then, he worked loose the tiny buttons of her night rail and pushed the garment down over her shoulders, letting it fall to the floor.

When his hand curved to the heavy ache of her breast, Vanessa shut her eyes, feeling a sweeping pleasure beneath the erotic gentleness of his touch. She quivered as he traced a finger between her breasts and downward to her narrow waist, then slowly back up again.

When his thumb brushed against the rigid peak of her nipple, a melting glow began deep inside her, along with a fierce, tender craving.

She needed no other urging. With a pleasured sigh, Vanessa lifted her arms to entwine them about his neck. Damien’s hot, sensual mouth came down to meet hers, while the night rose up and wrapped them in all its vibrant, sweet magic…

He visited her room nightly after that. Damien proved an exquisite tutor, exploring the sensual side of her nature and confronting her inhibitions. Vanessa felt as if she were living in an enchanted dream.

By tacit agreement they never spoke about their relationship, not wanting reality to intrude. She refused to contemplate the future, or dwell on the fact that by sharing her bed, Damien was only satisfying his desire for vengeance. She’d been compelled to accept his infamous bargain to ensure her family’s survival after her brother had recklessly gambled away their very livelihood. Yet it grew harder each day to remember her purpose for being here.

The following week saw a change in Damien’s relationship with his sister as well. While Olivia still retreated into bouts of moodiness periodically, she seemed genuinely determined to shrug off her anger and despair and to accept his offer of a closer friendship. Moreover, for the first time she expressed a desire to leave her bed, not only for her daily baths and regular visits to the gardens, but to venture out onto the vast estate grounds.

Since the weather had turned cool and rainy, it took some persuading on Olivia’s part to convince Damien that the dampness wouldn’t harm her. But occasionally when there was a break in the clouds, he took her on short drives in the country, wrapping her in warm blankets to prevent her from taking a chill.

She had an easier time convincing him to expand one of their excursions into a picnic.

“Vanessa says she enjoys picnics prodigiously,” Olivia pressed one rainy afternoon as she and Damien played a game of chess in the drawing room. “Surely you would not wish to disappoint her.”

“No indeed.” His eyes met Vanessa’s across the room. “I will always do my utmost to please so lovely a guest.”

Vanessa felt herself blush, recalling precisely how he had endeavored to please her during the night.

She forced her attention back to her book, but as the afternoon progressed, she found herself watching the two of them, their dark heads bent over the chessboard. They were laughing and jesting so easily that she was almost envious.

She had never expected to see the decadent Lord Sin so carefree, so mellow, and more than once she had to drag her gaze away from his face.

Each time she looked at him, Vanessa was conscious of a fresh wave of disquietude. Impossibly, she was falling under Damien’s spell with very little effort on his part. He was as multifaceted as a hundred-carat diamond. And his affectionate warmth for his sister was even more devastating than his sensual, irresistible charm toward herself.

Later that same night, Damien became aware of a similar disquietude. He and Vanessa were sitting before the hearth, engaged in one of their more serious conversations, and he observed with surprise that this was his longest visit to Rosewood since his youth. “Usually after the first day I find myself bored to tears and eager to leave.”

“I’ve often thought boredom stems from a lack of occupation,” Vanessa murmured in reply. “Perhaps if you had a worthwhile endeavor to fill your idle hours, you wouldn’t be so restless.”

“I suppose you mean to suggest a remedy for me?”

“Do you have any particular interests that would require you to put your mind and talents to good use? Anything that stirs or excites you?”

“Other than my usual decadent pleasures, you mean?” Damien frowned thoughtfully. “It is hardly a gentleman’s occupation, but I’m quite good at making money.”

Vanessa smiled. “That is a valuable talent indeed. Surely you could find an unexceptional diversion along those lines?”

“Perhaps. What about you, my lovely dragon? Do you harbor any interests you’ve kept secret?”

She shrugged lightly. “I would have liked to have had children, like most women. But that is highly unlikely now.”

“Why so?”

“Because I don’t intend to marry again. My sole concern now is for my sisters and how to provide for them. I vowed they would never be sold into marriage as I was. If they marry, it will be for love.”

When the corner of Damien’s mouth twisted sardonically, Vanessa arched an eyebrow. “I suppose you don’t believe in love?”

“Oh, I believe in it. Particularly in its destructive powers. Love can too easily become obsession. My father was a prime example. My sister is another. Olivia fancied herself in love, and it nearly destroyed her life.”

In the silence that followed his cynical observation, Damien averted his gaze and stared down at the brandy in his glass. He’d never known love, nor had he wanted to, not after the abominable example his father had set.

Yet, for the first time, Damien became conscious of the risk he was taking with Vanessa. It alarmed him, the tenderness he was beginning to feel for her.

He’d had mistresses who could arouse his passion before, but softer emotions such as admiration and friendship and affection never invaded his affairs.

This warm, intimate sharing with a woman was new. And addictive. He found himself craving Vanessa’s company, devising excuses to be with her.

If their acquaintance continued this way, Damien realized, he could run a grave risk of emulating his father.

Damien had promised his sister a picnic on the first clear day, which had Olivia eagerly searching the skies the moment she arose each morning. The rain ended at last one Monday, leaving a pristine morning. Damien ordered an alfresco luncheon packed, and by noon, the three of them were seated in the landau, with only a coachman and one footman in attendance.

When they stopped on a hilltop, Vanessa found herself enchanted by the picturesque view of the emerald-green, undulating countryside. The low hills seemed to roll on forever, forming an endless quilt of fields and pastures embroidered by hedgerows and patches of woodland. Damien handed her down from the carriage and then lifted his sister in his arms, as any burly footman might.

He had forsworn his usual elegant, impeccable tailoring for this occasion in favor of leather breeches, top boots, and a plain waistcoat, and Vanessa thought he looked more like a country gentleman than a dissipated nobleman, as at ease in this domain as he would be at the gaming tables or the opera.

They settled Olivia in the shade of a chestnut tree with a half-dozen pillows, and then enjoyed a delicious repast of cold chicken, cheese, fresh fruit, and wine, while the servants kept a respectful distance.

By the time the last crumb had been devoured, the day had turned lazy and warm. Olivia lay back on her pillows with a sigh, watching the fleecy clouds float across the sky.

“This,” she murmured, “is quite lovely. I wish every day could be this beautiful. Don’t you, Vanessa?”

Vanessa couldn’t help but meet Damien’s eyes in a conspiratorial glance. Their efforts to cheer the girl, to banish her loneliness and melancholia, seemed to be having an effect at last.

“Oh, I don’t know,” Vanessa answered lightly. “If every day were just like this, then today would no longer be special. Which reminds me…” She asked Damien to pass her the painted tin box that had been packed with the lunch. “I took the liberty of having your cook make these,” she said to his sister.

Olivia opened the tin and smiled to see the baked meringues in the shape of swans. “How did you know these are my favorite?”

“I seem to remember your mentioning it a time or two.”

“I can recall at least a dozen,” Damien interjected wryly.

Olivia took a delicate bite of a swan and shut her eyes, savoring the sweetness. “I never can get Cook to make them for me. She says she doesn’t want to spoil me.”

Vanessa smiled. “Everyone can do with a little spoiling now and then.”

“You are so wise.”

“I’m glad you think so. My sisters consider me an over-managing tyrant at times.”

Olivia laughed, a happy, musical sound. “I’m sure you are not!”

“Well, their complaints do usually come after I’ve refused them a new gown they’ve set their hearts on.”

“I should like to meet Fanny and Charlotte someday.”

At the innocent comment, Vanessa stole another swift glance at Damien. His face had hardened momentarily, while his gray eyes had turned cold.

She had no doubt he was recalling the conflict between them. He wanted his sister to have nothing to do with any of Vanessa’s relations. She was here only because she was his mistress, Vanessa remembered.

Of late she’d been too eager to deny that bald truth. In recent days Damien had treated her as much like a member of the family as a lover, showing her warmth and affection as well as passion-almost as if he were coming to care for her. Clearly she’d allowed herself to be seduced by wishful thinking.

“Someday perhaps you shall meet them,” Vanessa prevaricated, hiding the sudden, sharp pang of regret she felt. “Now what shall we read?” she asked, determinedly changing the subject.

They had brought several of Olivia’s poetry books, and after a brief discussion, Vanessa began to recite aloud from Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads, her voice quiet and low.

Damien sipped his wine and listened, fighting his own darkening mood. The reminder of her family members had banished the intimate, convivial atmosphere and made him recall the circumstances that had led to Vanessa’s presence at Rosewood.

It was good for him to remember, though, for it forced him to contemplate the dilemma he now faced: what to do about his growing need for her. Disturbingly, Vanessa was beginning to affect his judgment.

He could not regret bringing her here. He was consummately grateful to see her patiently coaxing his sister out of her wounded shell. Olivia had changed in the few short weeks since Vanessa’s arrival. Her spirits had slowly begun to rebound, due in large part to Vanessa’s warmth and wit and infinite patience.

His sister was not the only one who had succumbed to her subtle influence, however. The household staff willingly looked to her guidance, as if she were lady of the manor, and she had charmed the groundskeepers and undergardners so that they vied to show her the latest blooms and to provide her with the most beautiful bouquets for her rooms.

She had charmed him as well-and intrigued him more than he’d thought possible. He’d never known a woman with her tantalizing combination of innocence and sophistication, of warmth and intelligence, of vulnerability and strength. Certainly he’d never known a beauty with so little notion of her own power.

She was the reason his time here had passed so rapidly. The challenge of pursuing Vanessa had prevented him from experiencing his usual restlessness.

It had not been an easy task, overcoming her vulnerability, but she was no longer cool and guarded in his presence. Instead, she responded to him with a passion that still startled him.

“ “In hours of weariness, sensations sweet, felt in the blood, and felt along the heart,”” her musical voice intoned softly.

Damien’s brows drew together as he watched her. The blood and the heart, indeed. He’d gotten more than he had bargained for when he demanded she become his mistress to satisfy her brother’s debt. He had intended for her to assuage his physical needs, of course, but he’d never expected her to arouse such fiery hunger in him… or such inexplicable feelings of tenderness.

Damien frowned darkly. No courtesan, however skilled or beautiful, had succeeded in holding his interest as long as Vanessa had, certainly not with such intensity. She was sensual enough to enflame his senses, yet spirited and clever enough to prove a match for him outside the bedroom. Remarkably, he wanted her more each time he was with her.

A dangerous sentiment, he warned himself. If he didn’t take care, he could become ensnared by passion, just like his father before him.

It would be madness, Damien knew, to allow one woman to dominate his life, to become so important to him that he allowed his heart to rule his head. He had vowed he would never succumb to that fatal affliction- yet he feared that’s what was happening with Vanessa.

He was becoming too deeply involved. His attraction for her had grown much too forceful for his peace of mind, while their closeness was getting out of hand.

His gaze traveled over her elegant figure as she read. The graceful curve of her neck beckoned him to draw her against him and sample a taste of her…

Devil take it, man, get your lust under control. His jaw clenched. He badly needed to put some distance between them, Damien reflected. She was too great a temptation while she was so near.

He couldn’t send her away, of course. Not when she was doing his sister so much good. He would have to be the one to leave, then. There was to be a gathering of his Hellfire colleagues at week’s end in Berkshire. Clune was holding a house party for gentlemen only, the sort of raucous affair that often degenerated into wild orgies. Damien had already sent his regrets, yet, if he attended, it might help to take his mind off a certain temptress who was occupying his thoughts far more than was comfortable, or prudent.

At the same time he could look at some nearby property his man of business had recommended buying. And he could use the occasion to travel farther north, to investigate a factory he had won at the gaming tables this past winter. The press of business would provide a valid excuse to be gone for a time…

He had no desire to spoil the idyllic summer’s day, however, or depress his sister’s rare happiness. He would wait until this evening to break the news to her. And to Vanessa as well.

Damien took a long swallow of his wine and forced himself to look away from her.

Meanwhile he would have to rein in his fierce craving before it threatened to become a full-fledged obsession.

Olivia seemed reluctant for the magical afternoon to end, but when she visibly began to tire, Damien insisted on taking her home.

“I promise there will be more picnics in the future,” he assured her.

As he carried her into the house, she recalled leaving her favorite shawl in the conservatory when she’d visited the bath that morning. Vanessa volunteered to fetch it, and found the shawl draped over the bench beside the pool.

She had just turned to retrace her steps through the conservatory when a hushed voice called her name. She looked up in startlement.

A man blocked her path, attired in a slouch hat and frayed frock coat, with a short growth of beard darkening his jaw.

She had grown accustomed to seeing strangers at Rosewood, since scholars and scientists and botanists regularly came to study the roses in the summer. But none had ever approached her or followed her. This man could be anything from a university student to a ruffian.

Her wariness seemed to amuse him, for his mouth curved in a slow grin as he drew off his hat to reveal a familiar and beloved face. “What, Van, can you not give your only brother a greeting of welcome?”

“Aubrey? What on earth…”

He came forward and embraced her, then stepped back to eye her fondly. “I didn’t mean to shock you, my dear.”

She stared at him blankly. “Whatever possessed you to grow a beard? I would never have recognized you if you hadn’t spoken.”

His mobile mouth twisted wryly. “That is precisely the idea, love. Sinclair would probably shoot me if he knew I had breached his premises.”

“Oh, my word…” Vanessa exclaimed, recalling the enmity between the two men. “Are you mad? He will see you-”

“With luck he will never know I’m here. My disguise was effective enough to fool you, wasn’t it? I bought this coat from a student at Oxford for a guinea.”

“Yes, but…” She lowered her voice and, with a quick glance around, drew him farther into the conservatory, behind the Chinese screen. “What are you doing here?”

“I came to see how you fared.”

“I’m well enough.”

Aubrey’s brow furrowed as he studied her intently. “Sinclair hasn’t mistreated you?”

Vanessa looked away from her brother’s penetrating gaze. “No, not at all. You shouldn’t be here,” she added.

“I couldn’t stay away,” he replied obliquely. “What of Olivia? I have no right to ask, perhaps, but I need to know. I saw her being carried out of the carriage a moment ago, but she was laughing. She looked… She didn’t seem to be suffering terribly.” His tone sounded hopeful. “At least not as much as I feared.”

Vanessa turned cool. “She hasn’t regained the use of her limbs, if that is what you are asking. She is still a cripple, and her physical state is wholly uncertain… although emotionally she has begun to recover a small measure.”

“I wish I could speak to her, just for a moment.”

“That is out of the question, Aubrey. It would only upset her to see you.”

“Does she hate me so very much, then?”

“What do you think?” Vanessa asked bluntly.

Aubrey winced, then looked away. “I want to tell her how deeply sorry I am.”

“I’m sure that would salve your conscience, but I cannot see how it would benefit her.”

“Will you at least take a letter to her for me? I cannot write to her. All my letters are returned.”

Vanessa shook her head. “No, Aubrey, I can’t. It would only remind her of how you ruined her life.”

His gaze grew bleak. “I can’t bear to think of what I’ve done.”

“Well, you will simply have to live with it,” Vanessa returned, giving him no quarter. “She has had to.”

To her surprise, she saw tears start to shimmer in her brother’s dark eyes. “Will you tell her of my regret?”

“I don’t dare, Aubrey,” Vanessa said more softly. “Olivia trusts me because she doesn’t know of my connection to you. It was bad enough that I had to deceive her, but if I were to reveal the truth after all this time, she would certainly feel as if I had betrayed her.”

“I wish… there were some way for me to make amends.”

“I know, but the best way for you to make amends is to go home and not show yourself here again.”

He clenched his teeth, and Vanessa recognized the stubborn set of his jaw. “I cannot leave just yet. There may be something I can do for her.”

“Are you certain it isn’t a cockfight or a boxing match that has drawn you here, and not your conscience?”

He glanced at her sadly. “I’m certain. I’m here out of concern for her… and for you.” His hurt seemed genuine. Evidently he had convinced himself that his motives were selfless.

Vanessa sighed. “Perhaps so, Aubrey. But you will only make matters worse by staying.”

Gazing into her eyes, he took her hands and gave them a gentle squeeze. “Vanessa… I want you to know how much I appreciate the sacrifice you’ve made for me. You should never have had to pay such a price for my sins. But I promise you it won’t be in vain.” His expression was as solemn as Vanessa had ever seen it. “I owe you more than I can say. You made me take a hard look at my life, made me realize how low I had sunk. And I swear I mean to change, to turn my life around. To become a different man.”

Vanessa searched her brother’s face. If Aubrey sincerely felt a measure of guilt, of remorse, perhaps he was beginning to grow up at least a little.

“It isn’t so bad, truly,” she replied quietly. “There are times when I quite enjoy myself. And I believe I am doing Olivia some good.”

“I… wondered. Your letters home are cheerful enough, but I know there’s much you leave out, for the sake of our sisters.”

The rest of the family still believed she was here as companion to Miss Sinclair rather than as Lord Sin’s mistress. Only Aubrey knew her true role.

“How are Charlotte and Fanny?” Vanessa asked.

“Well enough. Everyone misses you, Mama especially. You will never credit it, but the girls have been making a sincere attempt to cut down on expenses. Fanny has purchased only a single bonnet the entire time you’ve been gone.”

Vanessa felt herself smile. “Tell her I appreciate her efforts at economy.”

“You’ll have to tell her yourself, in a letter. I’m not returning home just yet. I’ve taken an attic room in the village. Penance for my sins, and all that,” he added wryly at her shocked look.

“Aubrey, you can’t stay. You can’t hurt Olivia Sinclair again…” she implored, but he held a finger to her lips to hush her.

“Please try to understand, Vanessa. The last thing I want to do is hurt her. I’ll keep away from her for now, but I can’t leave just yet. I can’t ignore what I did to her. I’ve tried everything in my power to forget it, believe me, but it hasn’t worked. I can’t leave her. I just can’t.”

After her brother’s unsettling visit, dinner was an unnerving event for Vanessa. As much as she wanted to believe Aubrey’s sincerity, she feared he was here for his own selfish reasons, that he was thinking only of himself, trying to ease his conscience. Haunted by feelings of remorse and guilt, he had convinced himself that apologizing to Olivia would make his pain go away. He didn’t seem to care that the girl would be shattered to have to face him again.

Vanessa also feared the consequences of having her connection to Aubrey become known. Olivia would, perhaps, hate her if the truth about her deception came out.

Damien, too, would likely be outraged to learn Aubrey was within a hundred miles of his cherished sister.

Uncertainly, Vanessa watched Damien during dinner. He seemed withdrawn, preoccupied, his eyes cool, with none of the sensual heat he’d shown her recently whenever he merely looked at her. Compared to the intimacy of the past week, his manner was almost frosty.

Vanessa wondered if she had done something to anger him. He could not have known about her brother’s visit… And yet, she sensed something was wrong between them.

It came as a surprise when, midway through the fish course, Damien casually mentioned his intention to travel at week’s end to settle some business matters in the north.

But his further revelation that he planned to attend this weekend’s gathering at the Earl of Chine’s frankly startled Vanessa.

Her gaze flew to Damien’s. Lord Clune was one of the infamous leaders of the Hellfire League, and his entertainments were notorious for their debauchery.

Damien appeared to ignore her searching look. “I should like to depart on Friday, Olivia, unless you have any objections to my leaving you alone here?”

“Not at all,” she answered lightly. “I’m sure I will fare well enough without you, since I won’t be alone. Vanessa will bear me excellent company.”

“I have no reservations about leaving you in her capable hands,” he replied, finally meeting Vanessa’s gaze.

His expression remained inscrutable, yet his cool detachment was significant in itself.

With a sudden hollowness in the pit of her stomach, Vanessa stared at him. Numbly, she wondered if he was giving her fair warning that the intimacy between them was coming to an end. That what for her had been a rapturous interlude was concluding because he had more novel pleasures to seek out.

She was sure of it later that night when, for the first time since beginning their torrid affair, Damien didn’t come to her room.

Her heart contracting painfully, she lay there in the dark, alone, aching for his touch and the ecstasy she had known in his arms, unfulfilled longing taut within her.