Chapter l6

The arrival of three white orchids every morning had become a regular feature in her life. When they didn’t appear the next day, Amanda felt it like a blow. Yet, after their discussion the previous night, shouldn’t she have expected something of the sort? He’d told her it was her call, up to her to accept or reject what he offered. The halting of the orchids presumably meant he’d stopped arguing, stopped trying to seduce her.

Then again, perhaps he’d run out of orchids.

Through the long day filled with social engagements-a morning tea, a luncheon, a drive in the park, an at-home-she vacillated between the two explanations. Her mood swung like a pendulum, even-tempered one moment, deadeningly depressed the next.

When she arrived at Lady Arbuthnot’s ball and Martin failed to appear, she plastered on a bright smile while her heart sank to her slippers.

Then she got the note. A footman delivered it-an ivory square inscribed in Martin’s strong hand.

Look on the terrace.

That was all it said.

Tucking the note into her pocket, she excused herself from the group with whom she’d been conversing and crossed the crowded ballroom. That took time; when she finally gained the long windows giving onto the terrace, the room behind her was full. The night was mild; the terrace doors stood ajar, but no one was presently availing himself of the moonlight.

The moonlight that glowed on the petals of a white flower lying at the top of the steps leading to the gardens. Amanda picked up the blossom, a single white orchid. If he was adhering to his usual practice, there should be two more. She looked but could see no other white splashes on the terrace. Then she looked down the steps, wondered…

She glanced back at the ballroom, then quickly descended. The gravel path bordering the lawn led away to left and right. Glancing left, she saw the second bloom lying in a shaft of moonlight at the intersection of two paths.

Her slippers scrunched on the gravel, then she added the second bloom to the first, and looked around for the third. The path leading further away from the house lay empty and dark, but the path following a hedge angling around the side of the house… along that gleamed another splash of white.

The third orchid lay just before an archway in the hedge, the opening to a courtyard. Adding that bloom to the others, Amanda stepped into the archway; pausing, she looked around.

It was a magical scene. The courtyard was filled with box-hedged beds of summer plants and roses, weeping cherries and iris, separated by paved paths all ultimately converging on a semicircular area before the steps of a white summer-house. The summerhouse acted as a gatehouse linking the courtyard with the shrubbery beyond. It was set into and through the first high hedge of the shrubbery which formed the back wall of the courtyard.

Moonlight shimmered on the summerhouse, the only white object in a sea of black-greens and faded red paving. From where she stood, she couldn’t see if there was anyone inside; the shadows within were impenetrable.

Drawing in a breath, grateful for the mild evening that made it possible to wander outside without a shawl, she lifted her head and walked boldly forward. The three orchids bobbed in her hand.

He was there, waiting for her, a denser shadow in the dark, lounging on one of the wide benches that lined the interior walls, interrupted by the twin arches, one looking out on the courtyard, the other into the shrubbery.

She halted at the bottom of the four steps leading up; he rose, but then remained, silent and still in the night.

A predator-that her senses acknowledged, yet they leapt in giddy delight. He said nothing; neither did she. For a long moment, she stood looking up at him-she in the moonlight, he in deep shadow. Then, gathering her skirts, she went up the steps.

To him.

He took her hands, removed the orchids from her fingers, laid them aside. He turned to her, studied her face in the dimness, then reached for her. Drew her into his arms, slowly. Bent his head-gave her plenty of time to draw away if she would.

She lifted her face, invited the kiss, sensed the growl of satisfaction that rumbled through him as he covered her lips with his. Took her mouth as she gave it, pressed on her the promise of joy in return.

I want you.

Whether the words whispered in her head or fell from his lips, she couldn’t tell. She flexed her fingers against his chest, then eased her hands up until she could twine her arms about his neck and arch against him. Glory in the shift and lock of his arms about her, hands spreading on her back, across her hips, holding her to him while their mouths feasted, eager and greedy for the taste they’d come to crave, for the passion, the heady rush of desire so potent they reeled. They let it well and flood through them, let it sweep them away on its well-remembered tide.

The kiss ended only when they were both gasping, burning with need, with one simple desire. Without thought, without deliberation, they fell on the padded cushions in a tangle of clothes, a tangle of hands grasping, wanting, a tangle of limbs, some hard and hot, others soft and yielding.

Their clothing was an obstacle; fingers flying, they fought to overcome it. Then her bodice was open and his lips were on her breast.

She cried out, rocked by the sheer intensity of sensation, by the streak of sensual lightning that forked from her breast to her loins. She panted, gasped, tried to stifle her reaction.

“Ssshh,” he warned.

She hauled in a breath, managed to whisper, “Here?”

For answer, he shifted his lips, his hot mouth to her other breast; under her skirts, she felt his hands slide up her thighs.

“How?” She’d intended the word to be horrified, to illustrate the impossibility. Instead, it hovered in the air, a flagrant evocation, an acknowledgement of her need as her eyes closed tight, as his wicked fingers found her. Stroked, opened, pressed in.

“Easy.” She could hear the satisfaction, the anticipation in his gravelly growl. “You on top.”

It sounded intriguing. She knew he knew what he was doing. She reached for him; her questing fingers found and traced the rampant ridge of his erection, then she stroked, fondled… he tensed, then cursed and swung back to sprawl on the cushions, his shoulders against the summerhouse’s sill, simultaneously pulling her over him so she ended astride him, her knees on either side of his hips, her hands braced on his shoulders.

His fingers pressed deep and she gasped. His other hand gripping one globe of her bottom, he urged her forward so he could continue torturing her swollen breasts.

With wicked lips, wicked tongue-and even wickeder fingers-he seized and captured her senses, blocked out every other reality but the heat that beat in their blood, the urgent need to join, to be whole.

The hot tide welled, rose higher, higher; his hand, his fingers, rhythmically stoked it, ruthlessly drove her on. She gasped, writhed, panted, until she was sure she would melt with the next deliberate penetration, explode with the next excruciating tug at her nipple. Her breasts burned; her skin felt too tight. The flames inside raged, leaving her hot and wet and empty.

Aching. For him.

“Now-please.” She barely recognized her own voice, but he heard. His hand left her; she felt him wrestling with his waistband.

Then she felt the hot velvet skin, the heavy weight of his erection beneath her; she reached under her skirts, found him, stroked. Closed her hand about him as he groaned. Then he pushed her hand away-gripped her hips and guided her-

“Oh! Isn’t it beautiful!”

“Utterly magical!”

“That gentleman was right. It’s a jolly place, isn’t it?”

“And with such a pretty summerhouse.”

It was just as well she didn’t have breath left to groan-to rant, to order the gaggle of young ladies piling into the courtyard back to the ballroom where they belonged. They started up the path, then stopped to admire the flowers.

Martin was rigid beneath her. She looked down, helpless.

Even in the dim light, she could make out his grim expression. “Ssshh.”

The whisper barely reached her, then he closed his hands about her waist and lifted her, set her on her feet, grabbed her hand as he stood-and dragged her out of the summer-house, down the steps into the shrubbery.

“Ooooh! Look!”

Martin yanked her sideways, out of the archway; she landed against him as he paused, his back to the hedge. Shrill giggles followed them.

“I say! Who was it? Did you see?”

Luckily, they’d moved so fast, no one had seen enough to recognize-they would have been no more than two silhouettes briefly glimpsed in the frame of the summerhouse, protected by the darkness within, and the shadows of the shrubbery beyond.

Martin looked around, fiddling with the buttons at his waist, then he tugged her hand. “Come on-we’re not out of the woods yet.”

“I’m nearly out of my gown!” she hissed, struggling to hold the bodice closed with one hand.

He glanced back at her, but continued towing her behind him. He stopped when they gained the privacy of a more distant hedge-spun her around, backed her into it, bent his head and found her lips, raised his hands and filled them with her breasts.

The heat was still there, simmering, more potent for the wait, like a volcano dammed, pressure building to break free-

“Is it this way, do you think?”

Martin drew his lips from hers, cursed viciously. The sound of feet on the gravel at the end of the path reached them.

Affected them both like a dash of cold water, effectively dousing their fire. Their eyes met; she let her gaze drop to his lips.

He looked at hers, drew a shuddering breath, his chest crushing her breasts, then he straightened, stepped back. Steadied her. Then reached for her bodice, deftly closing it.

“I want you.” His hands dropped to his waistband, fully securing the buttons as she quickly tied her side laces. “But not like this. I want you in my house, in my bed. I want you mine.”

She met his dark gaze, sensed the frustration in his words, the longing, the yearning-the need. Felt uncertainty well, undermine her resolution… then she heard Lady Osbaldestone’s voice in her head. Dragging in a breath, she lifted her chin, held his gaze. “How much do you want me?”

Martin didn’t answer. The group approaching along the path, searching for some pond, cut short the moment-saved him from saying something he would later regret.

Amanda’s hand on his sleeve, they headed back to the house, exchanging nods with the group as they passed. He frowned; he hoped her years would preserve her from any whispers. At least they hadn’t been discovered…

That would have made life even more complicated than it already was. His understanding with the Bar Cynster would stretch only so far; they fully expected him to use his polished wiles to convince her to accept his suit. They likewise expected him to avoid any scandal.

Seducing a Cynster female, persuading her to yield and accept his offer without the surrender she was determined to wring from him, under the full glare of the ton’s chandeliers, all without raising the slightest ripple of scandal… it was the definition of challenge.

One part of him relished the game; another part wished it was all over and she was his, declared and accepted as, in truth, he was hers.

As they went up the terrace steps, he glanced at her face. Her chin was high, her jaw stubbornly set in an expression that had fast become familiar. Yet beneath that facade, he sensed a more fragile, wistful state. Perhaps, with just a little more persuasion…

He stopped her before the door; fingers twining with hers, he raised her hand and pressed a kiss to her knuckles, his eyes steady on hers. “It’s your decision.”

She held his gaze, searched his eyes, then turned and entered the ballroom.

They remained together through supper and the last waltz, then Martin very correctly took his leave. Amanda watched him climb the ballroom stairs, watched his broad shoulders and burnished head disappear through the ballroom arch.

She wished she was leaving with him. Wished she dared.

Wished in her heart that she could simply give him what he wanted and end this emotional game. Knowing he loved her was important, yet she already knew he did. Was knowing he knew really so vital?

According to Lady Osbaldestone and all her wise mentors, with him, it was. She understood the reasons they’d advanced and accepted them, yet she was starting to suspect there might be even more to it than that. Some reason Lady Osbaldestone, old and shrewd, knew but wouldn’t say. No point trying to wheedle it from her; if she hadn’t said, she wouldn’t, and the Coldstream Guards wouldn’t shift her.

The notion that there was more idled through her mind as she waited for Louise and Amelia to make their adieus. Her absentminded gaze drifted around the room, then halted on Edward Ashford. He was waiting, rigidly correct, features pinched with supercilious disdain while his sisters exchanged directions with two other young ladies clearly up from the country.

As she approached, smiling easily, Amanda cast about for some opening gambit to swing the conversation in the direction she wished.

Edward greeted her with a curt nod and a frown. “I’m glad to have the chance to drop a warning in your ear.”

“A warning?” She opened her eyes encouragingly.

“About Dexter.” Facing the emptying ballroom, Edward raised his quizzing glass and affectedly peered through it. “Distasteful as it is to speak so of a connection, Dexter is a thoroughly untrustworthy individual.” Lowering his glass, Edward looked her in the eye. “He killed a man, you know. Pushed him over a cliff, then beat him to death with a rock. An old fellow unable to defend himself. Dexter has a temper and his reputation’s scandalous. Indeed, I’m surprised your family haven’t taken steps to end his squiring of you-now the Season’s at its peak and your cousins and uncles are about, no doubt they’ll see and step in.”

Amanda wondered what Martin had ever done to deserve such a worm as Edward for cousin. “Edward, St. Ives has given his formal permission for Martin to address me.”

Edward’s face blanked; the hand holding the quizzing glass fell. “Formal permission. You mean…”

Amanda smiled tightly. “I mean exactly what I said. Good evening, Edward.” With a cool nod, she left him, rather proud her temper-her instinct to protect Martin-had not got the better of her.

Luc was strolling toward his sisters and Edward; doubtless, he’d quit the ball after the second dance and was only now returning. Impulse prompted her to place herself in his path. He stopped, looked down at her. Raised a weary brow.

Brazen-determined-she locked her eyes on his. “Dexter has asked for and received permission to address me.”

“So I’d supposed.”

“What’s your opinion of his suit?”

Luc considered her for so long she started to suspect he might be drunk, then he raised both brows. “My opinion, for what it’s worth, is that he’s insane. I’ve told him as much.”

“Insane?” Amanda stared. “Why?”

Again Luc considered, his dark blue gaze unnervingly steady, then he lowered his voice. “I know about Mellors and Helen Hennessy’s. I know Martin hauled you out of danger not once but on numerous occasions. He’s come into the ton, an arena he doesn’t like, has no reason to like-indeed, has reasons to avoid-all in pursuit of you. He’s openly courted you, kept his temper on a leash and done the pretty, all as society dictates, a capitulation that must have cost him dearly. He’s called on your cousin and made God knows what arrangements-all to be allowed to aspire to your dainty hand.”

Luc paused, his gaze ruthlessly direct. “Tell me, what is it that makes you deserving of all that? What makes you worthy of the sacrifice? Even more to the point, what gives you the right to keep him dangling, like some minor fish you can’t bring yourself to cut free?”

She refused to look away, refused to lower her eyes. “That,” she quietly stated, “is between him and me.”

Luc inclined his head and stepped around her. “Just as long as you know the answer.”

Someone was stalking Amanda, someone other than him. Watching her, watching them. Who? And why?

Over breakfast the next morning, Martin examined those questions from every possible angle, the one topic that could distract him from the frustration simmering just beneath his skin.

While motive was unclear, the evidence was too compelling to ignore. That note that had summoned Amanda to a deserted terrace had been the start. He couldn’t remember any earlier suspicious incident, but later had come the unexpected arrival of Edward and company on the Fortescues’ terrace at a potentially revealing moment, then the mysterious note that had sent Sally Jersey to the Hamiltons’ library, and last night, the arrival of a bevy of young ladies intent on exploring the summerhouse at precisely the worst moment.

The young ladies had been sent by “that gentleman”-Martin remembered the comment.

Some gentleman was trying to bring Amanda undone.

A good scandal would do it, or so someone not in the know would reason. Those of their circle, aware of the caliber of those involved, aware that he’d formally sought permission to address her, would know better; in reality, a scandal involving her and him, while irritating everyone, would only see them married that much sooner.

Indeed, a potential scandal that did not become public-such as her falling pregnant-was still a wild card he might yet be dealt.

So… whoever the gentleman was, he had reason to wish Amanda ill, and wasn’t well connected with their circle.

The earl of Connor was the only name he had on his list.

An afternoon call on the earl reduced his list to zero. Connor was genuinely gratified to be suspected, but his explanation of his earlier, benignly avuncular interest in Amanda’s welfare rang too true to be doubted. He gave his word he harbored no ill-will toward her, and then seized the opportunity to lecture Martin against the evil fate of waiting too long to take a wife and raise a family, of becoming an old man with no real reason for existence.

Connor’s parting shot of “Don’t risk it” rang in Martin’s ears as he returned to his house, his library, to once more ponder what exactly was going on. And who was behind it.

“If not Connor, then who?” Amanda glanced back as Martin followed her into her Aunt Horatia’s conservatory. He shut the door, long fingers snibbing the lock apparently absent-mindedly; the sounds of the major ball in progress beyond the doors subsided.

A long-forgotten memory flashed across Amanda’s mind-of the time she’d dragged Vane in here to ask him about some gentleman’s suggestion. When they’d emerged, they’d surprised Patience at the door; from her expression, she’d been about to fling it open and storm in. Vane had smiled-untrustworthily-and invited Patience inside to admire his mother’s palm-filled oasis. As she’d walked off, she remembered hearing the door lock snib.

She could still recall the dreamy expression on Patience’s face when she and Vane had emerged, considerably later.

Shaking aside the memory, she refocused on the discussion in progress. “There’s no one else who I’ve crossed.”

“Before you appeared at Mellors, or even later, you didn’t encourage any gentleman?”

“I never encouraged, not in the way you mean.” She glanced up as he took her hand. “That wasn’t my aim.”

He raised his brows. Met her gaze.

The conservatory was illuminated only by weak moonlight drifting past the fronds of various exotic palms; he couldn’t see her blush. “I can’t think of any gentleman who would wish me ill, certainly not to the point of…”

When she said nothing more, Martin prompted, “Who?”

His tone left her no option but to admit, “Luc.” She met Martin’s gaze. “He doesn’t approve of me, let alone, as he put it, me leaving you dangling.”

“He spoke for me?”

“Most effectively.” Amanda wiggled her shoulders. “He’s always had a nasty tongue.”

Martin suppressed a smile. “Never mind-it won’t be him. Aside from anything else, it has to be someone who doesn’t know the ropes, and Luc knows every last one.”

“Indubitably,” she agreed. “And it wouldn’t be him, anyway-it’s not his style.”

Martin glanced at her face as she walked along the path just ahead of him. He couldn’t see her features, yet her tone had suggested she was no longer so sure of the wisdom of “keeping him dangling.” If Luc’s strait words had caused her to rethink her position, he was in his cousin’s debt.

Apropos of that, it was clearly time for more persuasion. And this time, they wouldn’t be interrupted; he’d taken steps to ensure their privacy, to give him time to reestablish the sensual connection between them, and urge her to yield, tonight and forever.

Vane had suggested his mother’s conservatory; as he glanced about assessingly, Martin approved. The air was warm, slightly humid; the light was dim but not gloomy. They came to a clearing where a fountain stood, a statue of a woman in roman halfdress endlessly pouring water from an urn. The fountain stood on a raised dais; Martin considered the possibilities, yet… fingers about her elbow, he guided Amanda, still sunk in thought, on.

The path wended down the long room; it ended in another clearing, an isolated and enclosed half-circle containing exactly what he sought.

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