Chapter 4

Amanda slipped through the side gate of her parents’ house into a narrow lane. Closing the gate, wrapping her cloak about her, she walked quickly to the end of the lane and peeped out.

A black carriage stood waiting at the corner of North Audley Street.

He was watching for her; the carriage door swung open as she neared.

“Come. Quickly.”

His hand appeared; large, long-fingered, it beckoned imperiously. Hiding a smile, she placed her fingers in his and let him help her in. She sat and he leaned past her, closing the door, then he tapped on the carriage ceiling; the carriage lurched and rumbled off.

Only then did his fingers slide slowly from hers. In the light from a street flare, she saw him looking down at her. She smiled delightedly, then glanced at the passing streets.

Excitement skittered along her veins, flickered over her skin. The sensation owed more to his presence, his nearness in the dark, than to their intended destination. She felt his gaze leave her face, sweep down; she was acutely aware of him, of his heat, his sheer maleness, aware she was confined in the cocoon of the carriage with all that, and the consequent possibilities.

“At least you had the sense to wear a pelisse.”

She glanced at him. “I doubt I would enjoy the drive while shivering with cold.” She was prepared to shiver from another cause, but not cold.

The carriage slowed, then turned in through tall gateposts topped with… were they eagles? They’d driven around a large block and down Park Lane. A mansion appeared; the drive wended past it and on.

“My curricle’s waiting.”

The carriage rocked to a stop on the words. Dexter opened his door and alighted, then helped her down.

The yard was heavily shadowed. Dexter led her to a curricle and handed her up to the seat. Two grooms were leading the coach horses away; another held the prancing pair harnessed to the curricle. Taking the reins, Dexter sat beside her. He glanced at her, then reached around and rummaged. “Here.” He dropped a thick, soft wrap on her lap. “It’ll be colder driving.” Looking forward, he nodded to the groom. “Let them go.”

Releasing the horses, the boy dashed for the back of the curricle as Dexter flicked the reins. Amanda grabbed the rail as gravel crunched and the curricle rocketed forward. As they rounded the house, she scanned the massive edifice but it was shrouded in darkness and shadows. They swept on and the gates loomed ahead. Once Dexter took the turn and the wheels were rolling evenly, she released the rail and settled back.

Shaking out the wrap, she found it beyond luxurious-silk with a sumptuous weight. And the colors-deep, rich, even in the weak light. It had long fringes at both ends. She swung it over her shoulders, then tucked it about her. Dexter glanced at her, confirmed she was suitably swathed, then looked to his horses.

His house stood near the south end of Park Lane, the southeast corner of the fashionable area. Safe enough for her to ride openly beside him through the night as he steered the curricle further south and onto the Kings Road.

The horses were fresh, other carriages few and far between. Amanda sat back and enjoyed the cool air, the quiet of the night. They made good time, crossing the river at Putney, then rolling on through villages and hamlets. During the journey, the clouds dispersed, leaving the moon to shine freely. Eventually, they came to the village of Richmond, sleeping beneath a star-spangled, black-velvet sky. Beyond the last house, running from the village to the river, lay the dark expanse of the Deer Park.

She straightened as the first huge tree, bare branches spread wide, drew near. She’d been here often over the years, recognized the area, yet all seemed different in the dark. More evocative, the promise of excitement infinitely more acute. Cool tingles prickled over her skin and she shivered.

Instantly she felt Dexter’s gaze, but made no move to meet it. He was forced to look to his horses as they rolled deeper into the shadowy park.

Silence engulfed them, pervasive and profound, disturbed only by the hoot of an owl, the scurrying of some nocturnal creature and the dull clop of the horses’ hooves. The moonlight was faint, enough to see shapes but not colors. The breeze was faint, too, wafting the scent of trees, grass and leaf mold. The deer were asleep, round lumps beneath the trees. Some were standing, but evinced no interest in the interlopers into their moonlit world.

They were deep in the park, out of sight of all things human, when Dexter drew the horses to a halt. The silence, the eerie quality of the night, intensified and closed about them. He tied off the reins and turned to her. Eyes wide, she drank in the sight of the parkland rolling away from the carriage drive, edged by trees and copses, empty of all save the moonlight.

“Exciting enough?”

The words reached her on a whisper; no cynicism came with them-he seemed as appreciative as she.

She drew in a breath-the air was cooler, sweeter than any she’d ever tasted. “It’s… strange.” She glanced at him. “Come-let’s walk a little way.”

His brows rose but he stood, stepped past her and jumped down. He gave her his hands, helped her down the steps, then, enclosing one of her hands in a firm grasp, he surveyed the silvered sward. “Which way?”

“There.” She pointed across the expanse before them to a pinetum.

Dexter called a command to the groom, then, her hand still locked in his, they set out.

It had been years since she’d walked hand-in-hand. She found it unexpectedly enjoyable, leaving her freer than if she’d taken his arm. Yet when her boot slipped in a dip, he pulled her up, steadied her easily. She laughed and smiled her thanks, resettled the luxurious wrap, then let him take her hand and they walked on.

Behind them, the carriage drive dwindled. The sense of being alone, the sole living beings in the quiet landscape, grew with every step. The consciousness of being isolated, one male, one female, burgeoned; there was no other living creature to distract or deflect their senses.

The magic that hung in the moonlit air was a drug. Amanda felt giddy by the time they were nearing the pines. She was aware Dexter was watching her; his thoughts were impossible to guess.

How did he see her? As an obligation, a young lady he felt honor-bound to protect? Or as a lady with whom he was happy to be walking handfasted through the moonlight?

She didn’t know which, but she was determined to find out.

The pines were grouped to create a grove with a path winding through it; she glanced at Dexter. “Can we go in?”

His eyes met hers. “If you wish.”

She led the way, gazing about her as they moved into the trees’ shadows. The path led to a clearing where the interested could pause and admire the individual trees. She did so. The trees hid the moon; the clearing was lit only by diffused light, even softer, less substantial, than moonlight.

Sliding her fingers from Dexter’s, she adjusted the silken wrap. She paused, eyes on the trees, senses alive to the subtle promise, the elusive whisper on the night air. She turned to him. His gaze shifted from the trees to her. She hesitated for only a heartbeat, then stepped closer. Lifted one hand to his shoulder, stretched up and set her lips to his.

He didn’t immediately react, then he stirred; his hands locked about her waist and anchored her in the same instant his lips firmed. He returned her caress, then his tongue touched her lips and she parted them. He surged in.

Their lips clung, their tongues twined, caressed, made artful promises. His fingers flexed against her spine, sinking deeper, as if to hold her where she was, her feet firmly on the ground. Preserving the small but definite distance between their bodies, when all she wanted was to close it.

He drew back from the kiss, lifted his head, but seemed incapable of lifting it far. His eyes searched hers. “What are you seeking?”

She slid her fingers to his nape. “I told you-excitement. You told me I could find it here.” In your arms. With her eyes, she dared him to misunderstand as, ignoring the pressure of his hands at her waist, she stepped closer. Her pelisse brushed his coat. She held his gaze, darkly shadowed, and prayed she struck the right note-one of blatant challenge. “Show me, then.” Her gaze fell to his lips. “I want to know-I want to feel it.”

Stretching up, she kissed him again; this time he met her from the start. Their lips melded, tongues tangled… then, as if she’d succeeded in getting him to open some door, the muscles of his arms unlocked. His fingers eased from her waist; his hands slid over, then under the slipping silk wrap. Slowly, deliberately, he drew her to him.

The contact, body to body, was a shock-a delicious one. The sheer strength now caging her would have had her resisting had it been any other man. Instead, she sank against him, inwardly smiled as his arms tightened and his hands shifted over her back. Gloried in the contrasts-her slender-ness against his large body, the fineness of her bones against the heaviness of his. Her body reacted; she felt his react to her-felt her pulses leap. Sensed his need to seize. Was grateful that he didn’t.

He felt like iron beneath his clothes-hot, resilient-male. Her breasts, flush against his coat, started to ache; her palms itched. Sliding her hand into his hair, she tumbled the thick locks, as heavy and silken as the wrap, over and through her fingers. Her other hand rested on his chest; she would have sent it wandering but he distracted her.

Drew her deep into the kiss, caught her wits, captured her senses with a sudden flare of sensual heat. With the sudden unmasking of desire, his and hers, the temptation of an unfamiliar need.

Martin angled his head and took the kiss still further, drawing her with him, holding her captive-where he needed to keep her. Where his brain had been when he’d followed her into the grove, heaven only knew. He hadn’t been thinking clearly since they’d entered the deserted landscape. Which was how she’d trapped him, how she’d been able to draw him into this exchange, one he knew very well was unwise. Yet how to refuse, how to deny her… an impossible task in his present frame of mind.

Her lips were luscious, her mouth pure temptation, the soft, supple body trapped against his quintessentially feminine. He focused on the kiss, on exploring further, on extracting every last ounce of pleasure from the next caress, and the next…

Better that than allow his rakish senses time to evaluate, to consider the possibilities inherent in the lissome body filling his arms.

She murmured and pressed nearer, delicately shivered; his arms tightened reflexively, molding her to him, seeking her pleasure, and his. He took her mouth in a searing kiss, let her feel, sense, more of the fire with which she seemed so keen to play.

That lick of heat enthralled her-he sensed it in the faint tensing of her spine, the focusing of her attention, of her desire. That last was elusive, sweet when he could evoke it but veiled, cautious…

The welling need to lure her desire into the open shook him. An unfamiliar wish-he’d never coveted a woman’s wanting before. All his life, the shoe had been on the other foot; they had always wanted him to want them. Yet now…

He tried to rein back-found he couldn’t. The temptation was simply too great.

She met his next, more demanding kiss readily, but he still sensed a barrier, insubstantial but real, limiting how much she would show him, reveal to him-how much of herself she was prepared to give him.

Even as he took her mouth again, felt her cling, sensed her gasp, even as desire insidiously infused his frame, the realization that he couldn’t press for more, not yet-if he was wise, not ever-rang through his brain.

He broke the kiss, tipped her head back, set his lips to skate her jaw, then dip lower. The slender column of her throat lured him, the skin covering it like peach-satin. His fingers drifted, senses caught, mesmerized; his lips explored, tasted, found her heartbeat thudding wildly at the base of her throat.

Her fingers were in his hair, tangling, trailing. When he finally found the strength to lift his head, she brushed back the fall of hair across his brow and looked into his face, studied his eyes. Then her fingers touched his cheek, traced down, fleetingly brushed his lips.

She smiled-pleased, satisfied. Just a little rattled-the breath she drew was shaky. It shook even more as her breasts pressed against his chest.

“Thank you.” Her eyes shone brilliantly even in the weak light. She eased back-he had to order his muscles to unlock, force his arms to loosen.

She tilted her head, her eyes still on his. “We’d better get back to the carriage. It’ll be late by the time we return to town.”

That should have been his line, not hers. He resisted the urge to shake his head-shake his laggard wits into place. His expression was set, impassive; impossible to project any thought through the etched mask of desire.

She stepped back and he let her, but felt his reluctance to his bones.

Her hand slid down his arm-he caught it, held it. Eyes on hers, he raised it to his lips, pressed a kiss to her trapped fingers.

“Come.” He kept hold of her hand. “The carriage awaits.”

The return journey was as uneventful as their outward leg, but differed in one notable respect. Amanda prattled. All but continually; despite the fact she constantly made sense-a feat, considering the distance-Martin was not deceived.

She’d gained more than she’d expected; the degree of excitement she’d experienced had shaken her.

Leaving his carriage and horses to his grooms, he strode into his house. Serve her right if she was shaken-just look what she’d done to him.

Carrying the silk wrap, still warm from her body, he entered the house and headed for his library. Only when he was ensconced in its luxurious embrace, slumped on the daybed, the silk wrap flung beside him, a glass of brandy in his hand, did he allow his thoughts to drift back over the night.

The embers glowing in the grate slowly died as he revisited their earlier meetings, comparing, analyzing. Two things seemed certain: she was following some plan. And that plan now involved him.

Two aspects remained hidden, unknown. Had she from the first intended him to be the one to assist her in her quest for excitement, or did she only settle on him later as the best choice available? A supremely pertinent point, given the other aspect of her plan of which he remained in ignorance.

Where was she heading? What was her ultimate goal?

Was she simply pursuing a final fling before settling to marriage with some socially acceptable peer? Her citing of the start of the Season proper as the limit for her adventures suggested that might be the case.

But what if it wasn’t? What if, behind her artlessness, which he accepted not at all, she was focused on achieving rather more?

What if her goal was marriage… to him?

He frowned, waited, took a long sip of brandy, savored it-and still his expected reaction didn’t show. The determination to cut her off, keep her at a distance… where was his instinctive, never-before-in-abeyance response?

“Good God!” He took another swig of brandy. That’s what she’d done to him-tempted that part of him he’d thought buried long ago.

He shied from thinking too far along that line, but the sensation of his mind clearing, thoughts settling, told him he was right. He waited, sipping, eyes on the nearly dead embers, until he could, with some degree of impassivity, view the question of where he-they-now were.

They were playing some game, one of her choosing, in which, despite all, he was now a committed player. Stepping back, quitting the game, was not an option he wished to pursue. So much for that. As for where they were headed, he didn’t know, couldn’t see-he would have to follow her lead. That was part of the game. She’d managed to take the reins into her small hands, and he could see no way of getting them back just yet.

Which meant he was being driven, managed, manipulated by a woman.

Again he waited for his inevitable reaction; again, it didn’t materialize. For the first time in his life, he wasn’t totally averse to running in a woman’s harness. At least, for a time.

With a self-deprecatory grimace, he drained his glass.

Given the field on which their game was to be played, given his expertise in that sphere, ultimate control-the ability to stop, redirect the play, even rescript the rules-lay in his hands. And always would.

He wondered if she’d realized that.

After strolling in Richmond Park by moonlight, Amanda found it hard to pretend to any great interest in such a mundane event as a ball.

“I wish I could escape,” she whispered to Amelia as they promenaded down Lady Carmichael’s ballroom in their mother’s wake.

Amelia shot her a worried glance. “You can’t have another headache. I only just stopped Mama from sending for Doctor Graham last time.”

Amanda eyed the flower of the ton with a jaundiced eye. “It’ll have to be another party, then. Aren’t the Farthingales entertaining tonight?”

“Yes, but you’ll have to do the pretty for another hour before you can leave. And you’ll have to find Reggie.”

“True.” Amanda scanned the crowd in earnest. “Have you seen him?”

Amelia shook her head. Louise settled on a chaise with Lady Osbaldestone and their aunt, the Dowager Duchess of St. Ives. After curtsying and exchanging greetings, the twins strolled on through the gathering crowd.

“There’s Emily and Anne.”

Amanda followed Amelia’s gaze to where two girls, patently nervous, stood by one wall. Emily and Anne Ashford were to make their come-outs that Season. The twins had known the Ashfords all their lives. With identical, reassuring smiles, they made their way to the younger girls’ sides.

Emily’s and Anne’s faces lit.

“This is your first ball, isn’t it?” Amelia asked as they joined them.

The girls nodded, brown ringlets dancing.

“Don’t worry,” Amanda said. “I know it’s hard to believe, but you will survive the night without doing anything to sink yourselves.”

Emily smiled, nervous but grateful. “It’s just so… overwhelming.” She gestured at the throng filling the room.

“At first,” Amelia said. “But after a few weeks, you’ll be as used to it as we are.”

Together with Amelia, Amanda chatted of inconsequential matters, skillfully encouraging the younger girls to relax.

She was looking about for some suitable young gentlemen to snare for Emily and Anne when Edward Ashford, one of their brothers, emerged from the crowd. Tall, well built, soberly dressed, Edward bowed to the twins, then, taking up a stance beside his sisters, considered the crowd. “A relatively small gathering. Once the Season proper starts, it’ll be much worse than this.”

Emily shot Amanda a startled glance.

She suppressed an urge to kick Edward. “One hundred or five hundred, there’s not much difference. You can only ever see twenty bodies at a time.”

“And by the time the larger balls start, you’ll be feeling much more at home,” Amelia put in.

Edward glanced at his sisters assessingly, censoriously. “This Season is your chance to make a good match. It might be wise to make a greater effort to attract the right notice Hiding by the wall-“

“Edward.” Amanda smiled daggers at him when he looked at her. “Can you see Reggie Carmarthen?”

“Carmarthen?” Edward lifted his head, looked about.” I wouldn’t have thought he’d be much use.”

More use than Edward. At twenty-seven, he was a certified bore, pompous and prideful. Amelia seized the moment to draw the girls’ attention; Amanda shifted to keep edward’s gaze from his sisters.

“I can’t see… oh.”

A familiar blankness infused Edward’s features. Following his gaze, Amanda was unsurprised to see his older brother Lucien Ashford, Viscount Calverton, step from the crowd, his customary taunting, oddly crooked smile lifting his long lips,

“There you are.”

Amanda knew Luc was perfectly aware of Amelia and herself, yet his hooded gaze was all for his sisters. They blossomed-unfurled like buds in the sun-under its impact. Rakishly elegant, he bowed, then raised them from their answering curtsies, twirling first Emily, then Anne, his razor-sharp gaze taking stock of their new dresses, approval writ large in his face.

“I suspect you’ll do very well, mes enfants, so I’d better get in quick. I’ll dance the first dance with you”-he solemnly inclined his dark head to Emily-“and the second dance with you.” He smiled at Anne.

Both girls were delighted; their glowing expression transformed them from pretty to bewitching. Amanda bit back the caustic observation that Luc would now have to remain in a ballroom for at least two dances, something he rarely did. The fact he’d committed to do so contrasted strongly with Edward’s contribution to his sisters’ success.

Although the brothers were similar in height and build, Luc was blessed with a frankly sensual beauty, and the character and aptitude to match. That fact had for years place the brothers at odds, forming the touchstone of Edward’s frequent carping over his older brother’s rakehell ways.

Glancing at Edward, Amanda noted the ill-concealed sullenness in his eyes as they rested on Luc. There was anger there, too, as if Edward resented the affection that flowed so easily Luc’s way. Amanda suppressed a humph; there was an easy solution if only Edward would take a page from Luc’s book. Luc could be supercilious and odiously patronizing and he had a fiendishly sharp tongue, but he never pontificated, sermonized or lectured-Edward’s favorite pastimes. Moreover, Luc also possessed a genuine kindliness any female worthy of the name recognized, appreciated and responded to.

Amanda watched as Amelia joined forces with Luc, bantering, bolstering the younger girls’ confidence. Her twin was a good foil for Luc’s dark, Byronic beauty. Her gaze lingered on his profile. It was familiar; she’d known Luc for years… she blinked, glanced at Edward, also presently presenting her with his profile. Both were exceedingly like one even more familiar.

She swung her gaze back to Luc. Are you related to Dexter? She only just bit back the words. The certain response had she been fool enough to utter them flashed across her brain; Luc would slowly turn, an intense, unnervingly acute look in his eye, and softly ask, How do you know Dexter?

She couldn’t ask, but now she thought of it, she’d heard of a connection between the Ashfords and the Fulbridges. She studied Luc afresh, then looked again at Edward; compared to Luc, he cut a less visually compelling figure. Luc was a fraction more lean, more rangy, and had black hair and dark blue eyes. Brown haired, hazel eyed, Edward more closely resembled Dexter, yet with his disdainful, pompous hauteur and that underlying sullenness, he seemed somehow less than-less than either Dexter or Luc. In features and form, they’d all been struck from the same mold, but in Edward’s case, something had gone awry and flaws had crept in, rendering him less attractive, physically and otherwise.

“And now, my dears, I must leave you.” Luc’s voice cut across her thoughts. “Nevertheless, at the first screech, I’ll be back.”

He tugged one of Emily’s ringlets, bent a fond smile on

Anne, then bowed to Amelia, and with an inclination of his head extended the courtesy to Amanda. Then he straightened and looked at his brother. “Edward, if I might have a word…” With a crooking of one long finger, Luc strolled away, forcing Edward to stalk after him.

Leaving his sisters in peace. Amanda inwardly nodded approvingly, and saw her approbation mirrored in Amelia’s eyes. She looked around. “Now…”

Five minutes later, she viewed the circle of admirers she and Amelia had gathered about Emily and Anne. Most gratifying. In its own way, satisfying. She caught Amelia’s eye. “I’m going to look for Reggie. If I’m not here when you leave, will you tell Mama?”

Smiling, Amelia nodded; her gaze was more somber. ‘Take care.”

Amanda smiled reassuringly. “I always do.”

She slipped into the crowd. The first dance could not be far off. Reggie would be somewhere in the room; her mother had been expecting to meet his here, and Reggie would attend in her train given they’d made no other arrangements.

She hadn’t made any because she hadn’t been sure. Not over what she wanted; that was engraved on her heart. Her uncertainty stemmed from something more nebulous. Something about that kiss in the moonlight-perhaps the ease with which Dexter had drawn her into the heat, made her yearn for more. Or was it simply some lingering missish reaction? Whatever, caution had unexpectedly reared its head. A wary sort of caution she’d never felt before-a playing-with-fire, tempting-a-wild-beast-unwisely sort of edginess, purely instinctive.

But wariness, edginess and caution could not stand against that other emotion born in the moonlight.

Impatience.

It was an itch under her skin, a need insisting on fulfillment as its only cure. Every time she recalled the sensations she’d felt while locked in Dexter’s arms, feeling his strength surrounding her, his lips on hers, his tongue-

“Well, my dear Miss Cynster-well met, indeed!”

She blinked twice before she managed to focus on the gentleman bowing before her. Hiding her frown behind a weak smile, she bobbed a curtsy and gave him her hand. “Mr. Lytton-Smythe.”

Blond, brown eyed, Percival Lytton-Symthe clasped her fingers and smiled his usual superior smile. “Lady Carmichael assured me you’d be attending tonight. I had wondered whether I could be bothered with such gadding thus early in the Season, but the thought of you drifting alone through the crowd, starved of suitable companionship, stiffened my spine. So here I am, come once more to lend you my arm.”

He offered it with a flourish.

She resisted the urge to roll her eyes. Knowing there would be no easy escape, she laid her hand on the proffered sleeve. “I’ve just left some friends.”

“Indeed, indeed.”

He didn’t believe her. Amanda gritted her teeth, a frequent reaction in Percival’s presence. She scanned the crowd. Percival was a half-head taller but good manners forbade her asking him to find Reggie so she could escape him.

Good manners, let alone wisdom, did not raise their heads when Percival, considering her gown with a growing frown, cleared his throat. “Ahem! Miss Cynster-I fear I must comment, given the understanding between us, that your gown strikes me as somewhat… well, fast.”

Understanding? Fast?

Amanda halted. Taking her hand from Percival’s sleeve, she faced him. There was nothing wrong with her apricot silk gown with its heart-shaped neckline and tiny sleeves. Percival had been dropping hints ever since he’d stumbled on her during the last Season that he considered they would make a good match. From his perspective, maybe; not from hers. “Mr. Lytton-Smythe, I fear I must comment on your presumption. There is no understanding between us, no connection whatsoever that would excuse your making such unflattering and inaccurate statements regarding my appearance.” She looked down her nose at him, grabbed the opportunity he’d presented with both hands. “I am insulted, and would appreciate it if you refrained from approaching me in future.”

With a glacial nod, she swept around-

He grabbed her hand. “No, no, my dear. Forgive my foolishness, cowhanded as I am. I seek nothing more than your approbation. Indeed-“

He went on and on until she feared she’d scream. She tried to tug her fingers free, but he wouldn’t let go; there was nothing she could do but let him pour out his apologies. Grovel for her forgiveness.

Disgusted, she let him get on with it. Goodness only knew how she was going to disabuse his mind of the erroneous assumption now clearly fixed in it. She’d tried to ignore him in the hope he’d realize but the sensitivity required to recognize a subtle dismissal was clearly beyond him.

Which left the unsubtle, but she hadn’t reached that stage yet.

A violin screeched; Percival paused. She seized the moment. “Very well. You may stand up with me in the cotillion.”

The smug smile that creased his face made her want to scream again-the fool thought her irritation had been feigned! Perilously close to real fury, she blocked off all thought of him and concentrated on her real objective. Reggie. He loved to dance; if he was here, he’d take to the floor.

She scanned the dancers as the sets formed. Two sets away, Luc led Emily, proud as punch and totally at ease, into formation. And in the set beyond that, Reggie was partnering a large young lady, one Muriel Brownley.

Amanda grinned. As the music commenced, she looked at Percival; his expression stated he thought she was grinning at him. Erasing all bar the most distant hauteur from her face and eyes, she gave her attention to the dance.

The instant the last chord sounded, she bobbed a quick curtsy. “I fear you must excuse me-there’s someone I must catch.”

She left Percival standing staring after her. If her mother had witnessed such unladylike behavior, she’d have been called to account; luckily, her mother, her aunt and Lady Osbaldestone were at the other end of the room.

She reached Reggie and his partner before they quit the floor. She exchanged the usual greetings, noting the possessive hold Miss Brownley kept on Reggie’s sleeve, and the trapped-rabbit expression in his eyes.

Miss Brownley was a relative newcomer to the ton, no match for her. Amanda chatted brightly, engaging both Reggie and Miss Brownley in an animated discussion of upcoming events.

Miss Brownley didn’t notice the time passing.

Not until the violins started up and she realized she couldn’t dance the next dance with Reggie. Two dances in a row would cause comment. Having established herself as an old family friend, Amanda suggested Reggie partner her in the dance. Reluctantly, Miss Brownley agreed, and let him go.

“Thank heavens! Thought I was going to be stuck for the rest of the night. Latched on to me the instant I set foot in the ballroom. Mama waltzed off with her mother-and there I was. Snared!”

“Yes, well-” Her arm through Reggie’s, Amanda hurried him down the line of dancers. “Let’s make sure we fetch up by the door at the end.” She bustled them into the position experience told her would achieve that aim.

Reggie stared at her. “Why?” The possibility he might have jumped from the frying pan into the fire was clearly rising in his mind.

“I want to visit Lady Hennessy’s.”

“Again?”

The dance commenced and they parted momentarily; when they came together, she hissed, “Given what I’ve just rescued you from, I would have thought you’d be grateful, and only too ready to play least-in-sight.”

She let Reggie ponder that for two movements, then added, “She’ll find you again if you don’t.”

Which was true. When they next met, Reggie nodded grimly. “You’re right-Lady Hennessy’s it is. Much safer, all things considered.”

They slipped out immediately the dance ended without encountering Miss Brownley or any other likely to impede their escape. They did, however, encounter another escapee; while waiting in the hall for Amanda’s cloak to be unearthed and a hackney to be summoned, they were joined by Luc

Ashford. Sauntering down the stairs, he nodded to Reggie; his gaze sharpened as he considered Amanda. “And where are you off to?”

Amanda smiled innocently, ruthlessly quashing a nearly overwhelming urge to tell him it was none of his business. This was Luc; any such response would have the worst possible effect-he’d become more intent, more determined to learn all. He was a rake with four sisters; she knew his type well. “We’re off to the Farthingales’.”

Reggie had, as usual, adopted his vaguest expression and left the answers to her; now he nodded. “Cavendish Square.”

Luc looked at him. Just looked.

“And where are you off to?” Amanda asked. She didn’t care what Luc suspected-he’d never suspect the truth-but she saw no reason to stand by and let him bolster Reggie’s resistance to her schemes.

Luc didn’t immediately turn her way, but when he did, his dark blue gaze was acute. “I plan to spend the rest of the evening in”-his long lashes veiled his eyes as he straightened a cuff-“rather more private surrounds.”

A footman approached. “Your carriage is waiting, my lord.”

“Thank you.” Luc turned to the door, glancing again at Amanda. “Can I offer you two a lift?”

Amanda smiled sweetly. “I doubt Cavendish Square is on your way.”

Luc held her gaze, then nodded. “As you say.” With a nod to Reggie, he strolled to the door.

Leaving Reggie looking uncomfortable; Amanda looped her arm in his and chatted to distract him.

She managed well enough; by the time they were admitted to Lady Hennessy’s, Reggie’s usual amenable temper was restored. After greeting their hostess, Amanda pressed his arm. “I want to check who’s here. Why don’t you fetch some champagne?”

“Right-o.”

Five minutes later, she’d verified that Dexter was not gracing any of her ladyship’s rooms-at least, not the public ones. She didn’t want to think that he might be gracing one of the private rooms. Determinedly, she envisioned him at Mellors, or one of the other exclusive hells.

Hiding in the shadows. Out of her reach.

Damn him-he was clearly not going to make his conquest easy.

She found Reggie loitering by a well-stocked table. Munching on a pastry, he handed her a glass of champagne. She took one sip, then set the glass aside. “There’s no one here I want to meet. We may as well go home.”

“Home?” Reggie stared. “But we’ve only just arrived.”

“Without the right company, any place is boring. And I’ve just remembered I have an appointment tomorrow morning at six o’clock.”

“Six? No one has appointments that early, not even with modistes.”

“I do.” She tugged at his sleeve. “Come on. I need to get home.” In time to send a footman with a note to Fulbridge House.

Looking over the table, Reggie sighed. “Dashed fine salmon patties.”

She let him take another, then dragged him away.

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