Jasper Finley, Baron Montford, accepted a wager on his twenty-fifth birthday to seduce Katherine Huxtable within two weeks. A few days later he has maneuvered matters so that he is part of a party to Vauxhall Gardens that includes her. Katherine knows nothing about his motive or his plans for her, of course, but she has heard of the notorious Lord Montford. Her second cousin, Constantine Huxtable, has warned her to stay far away from him, though even Con does not know about this wager. Katherine is an intelligent young woman of firm principle. Nevertheless, she is young and new to life among the ton. Will she be able to withstand Lord Montford's skill at seduction? Here they are together at Vauxhall.
Lord Montford had seated himself beside Lady Beaton and had proceeded to make himself agreeable to her, and even charming--with noticeable success. The lady soon relaxed and was laughing and even flushing with pleasure and tapping him on the arm with her fan. Everyone else gradually relaxed too and chatted among themselves and looked about with interest at their surroundings. There could be no more magical setting on a warm summer's evening than Vauxhall on the southern bank of the River Thames, one of Europe's foremost pleasure gardens.
Lord Montford had a light, cultured voice. He had a soft, musical laugh. Katherine observed him surreptitiously from the opposite corner of the box until he caught her at it. He looked at her suddenly, while she was biting into a strawberry. It was a direct, unwavering gaze, as if he had deliberately picked her out--though his eyes did dip for a moment to watch the progress of the strawberry into her mouth and the nervous flick of her tongue across her lips lest she leave some juice behind to drip down her chin.
He watched as she lifted her napkin and dabbed her lips and then licked them because she had dried them too much and his scrutiny made her nervous.
Oh, goodness, she ought not to have looked at him at all, she thought, lowering her eyes at last, and she would not do so again. He would think she was smitten with him or flirting with him or something lowering like that. She wished Margaret were here with her.
"Would you not agree, Miss Huxtable?" he asked her just as she was lifting another strawberry to her mouth.
The fruit remained suspended from her raised hand.
It amazed her that he remembered her name, though his sister had introduced them less than an hour ago.
All she had to do was the sensible and truthful thing--to tell him that she had not been listening to his conversation with Lady Beaton. But her mind was flustered.
"Yes, indeed," she said and watched the smile deepen wickedly in his eyes while Lady Beaton looked at her in some surprise. She had made the wrong response. "Or, rather..."
And it struck her as if out of nowhere that it would be very easy indeed to fall head over ears in love with someone like Lord Montford. With someone forbidden, unsafe. Dangerous.
Or perhaps it was not someone like Lord Montford with whom she could fall desperately in love if she was foolish enough to allow herself to do it. Perhaps it was precisely him.
The thought caused a strange tightening in her breasts and an even stranger ache and throbbing that spiraled downward to rest between her inner thighs.
It was then that the thought occurred to her that perhaps love was not safe. That perhaps it was her very attempt to find it in safe places that had prevented her from finding it at all. That perhaps she would never find it if she did not...
If she did not what?
Take a leap in the dark? The very dangerous dark?
He held her eyes rather longer than was necessary before returning his attention to Lady Beaton, and the evening proceeded more safely and predictably and altogether more comfortably. Lord Beaton danced with Katherine in the space before the tiered boxes after they had all dined, and then, with another couple, they went for a short stroll along the grand avenue beneath the colored lamps that swayed magically in the tree branches overhead, dodging crowds of revelers as they did so.
After more dancing and feasting and conversing, they all went walking to fill in the time before the fireworks display. They proceeded again along the grand avenue, all talking amiably with one another, not in any particular pairings.
Until, that was, Katherine was jostled by a drunken reveler who could no longer walk a straight line, and found when she stepped smartly out of his way that Lord Montford was at her side, offering his arm.
"One needs a trusty navigator upon such a perilous voyage," he said.
"And you are such a navigator?" she asked him. It seemed far more likely that he was the perilous voyage. She did not know whether she should take his arm or not. She felt breathless for no discernible reason.
"Assuredly I am," he said. "I will steer you safely to harbor, Miss Huxtable. It is a solemn promise."
He smiled, and his eyes beamed good humor. He looked safe and reliable. He was behaving like a perfect gentleman, offering her protection from the reveling crowds. And she found that she wanted to take his arm.
"In that case," she said, smiling back at him, "I accept. Thank you, my lord."
And she slid one hand through his arm and felt--foolishly--as though she had never done anything nearly so daring and reckless and plain exciting in her whole life. It was a rock-solid arm. It was also warm. Well, of course it was warm. What had she expected? That he was the walking dead? She could smell his shaving soap or his cologne--a subtle, musky scent that was unfamiliar to her. It was very...masculine.
So was he. He was masculinity incarnate. She felt surrounded by it, enclosed in it.
Someone had robbed her of breathable air.
And here she was, behaving like a very green girl indeed just because a handsome, charming gentleman with a shady reputation had paid her some attention and offered his arm to steer her past the crowds. She was being ridiculous. Silly might be a better word.
"You must be missing young Merton and your sisters and Lyngate now that they have gone into the country," he said pleasantly, drawing her a little closer to his side. But she took no alarm from that fact. The crowds were very dense, and he was protecting her from them with some success. Indeed, she felt very safe indeed.
With a little thread of danger that caused her heart to thump away in her chest.
But--he knew her? He knew who she was, who her family members were? He knew that Meg and Stephen had returned to Warren Hall, that Vanessa and Lord Lyngate had gone with them to spend a few days at Finchley Park? She turned her head to look into his face. It was startlingly close to hers.
"But is it with sadness that you miss them?" he asked her. "Or is it with relief at being free to kick up your heels in their absence?"
That very safe smile in his eyes had developed an edge of wickedness.
This presumably was kicking up her heels. He must know that her family would not knowingly allow her within fifty yards of him unescorted. Not that she needed their escort. Good heavens, the very idea! She was twenty years old.
"I hope I do not need my brother and sisters to ensure that I behave as I ought, my lord," she said, hearing the primness in her voice.
He laughed softly. It was enough to send shivers up her spine.
"Or Con either?" he said. "I have teased him so mercilessly about turning himself into a prim nursemaid since your advent in town and Miss Wallace's that he has turned tail and fled into the country to hide his mortification."
"He has not fled anywhere. He has gone into the country to see his new estate," Katherine told him. "It is in Gloucestershire."
"However it is," he said, moving his head a little closer to hers, "he is gone, and so are your brother and sisters and your brother-in-law."
He made it sound as if she had plotted long and hard to be rid of them in order to be free to allow this forbidden tryst. It was not a tryst. She had not even known he was going to be here. She had not--
But suddenly it felt like a tryst.
"I am staying at Moreland House," she explained to him, "with the dowager Lady Lyngate as my chaperone."
"Ah," he said. "The lady who is conspicuous in her absence this evening?"
"I am here--" she began indignantly, but she stopped when he laughed softly again.
"--under the chaperonage of Lady Beaton," he said, "who does not even appear to have noticed that we have fallenbehind the group."
And so they had. Several people had passed them and were between them and their own party. She could see Lady Beaton's royal blue hair plumes nodding above other heads in the middle distance.
"Miss Huxtable," he said, moving his head even closer to hers and turning it so that he could look into her face, "do you never feel even the smallest urge to live adventurously? Even dangerously?"
She licked her lips and found that even her tongue was rather dry. Had he been reading her mind this evening?
"No, of course not," she said. "Never."
"Liar." His eyes laughed.
"What?" She felt the beginnings of outrage.
"Everyone wants some adventure in life," he said. "Everyone wants to flirt with danger on occasion. Even ladies who have had a sheltered, very proper upbringing."
"That is outrageous," she said--but without conviction. She could not look away from his eyes, which gazed keenly back into hers as if he could read every thought, every yearning, every desire she had ever had.
He laughed again and lifted his head a little away from hers.
"Yes, of course it is outrageous," he agreed. "I exaggerated. I can think of any number of people, both men and women, who are staid by nature and would sooner die than risk stubbing a toe against even the smallest of adventures. You are not, however, one of those people."
"How do you know?" she asked him, and wondered why she was arguing with him.
"Because you have asked the question," he said, "instead of pokering up and staring at me in blank incomprehension. You have become defensive. You know that I speak the truth but are afraid to admit it."
"Really?" she said, injecting as much frost into the one word as she could muster. "And what adventure is it that I crave, pray? And with what danger is it that I wish to flirt?"
Too late she wished she had used a different word.
His head dipped closer to hers again.
"Me," he said softly. "In answer to both questions."
A shiver of horrified excitement convulsed her whole body, though she hoped it was not visible. Everyone, she realized, had been perfectly right about him. Constantine had been right. Her own instincts had been right.
He was a very dangerous man indeed. She ought to pull her arm free of his right this moment and go dashing after the others as fast as her legs and the crowds would allow.
"That is...preposterous," she said, staying instead to argue.
Because danger really was enticing. And not so very dangerous in reality. They were on the grand avenue at Vauxhall, surrounded by people even if their own party was proceeding farther ahead with every passing minute. Danger was only an illusion.
"I speak of your deepest, darkest desires, Miss Huxtable," he continued when she did not reply. "No true lady, of course, ever acts upon those, more is the pity. I believe any number of ladies would be far more interesting--and interested--if they did."
She stared at him. She glared at him--at least, she hoped she did. Her cheeks were uncomfortably hot. So was all the rest of her. Her heart was pounding so hard she could almost hear it.
"You most of all," he said. "I wonder if it has ever occurred to you, Miss Huxtable, that you are a woman of great passion. But probably not--it would not be a genteel admission to make, and I daresay you have not met anyone before now who was capable of challenging you to admit the truth. I assure you that you are."
"I am not," she whispered indignantly.
He did not answer. His eyelids drooped farther over his eyes instead, and those eyes laughed. The devil's eyes. Sin incarnate.
Suddenly and so unexpectedly that she almost jumped with alarm, she laughed. Out loud.
And she realized with astonishment and no uncertain degree of unease that she was actually almost enjoying herself. She knew that she would relive this part of the evening in memory for several days to come, perhaps weeks. Probably forever. She was actually talking with and touching the notorious Lord Montford. And he was actually flirting with her in an utterly outrageous way. And instead of being paralyzed with horror and tongue-tied with enraged virtue, and she was actually laughing and arguing back.
They had stopped walking. Although her arm was still drawn through his, they were standing almost face to face--and therefore very close together. The crowds of revelers flowed around them.
"Oh, how very wicked of you," she was bold enough to say. "You have quite deliberately discomfited me, have you not? You have deliberately maneuvered me into hotly denying a quality of which we all wish to think ourselves capable."
"Passion?" he said. "You are capable of it, then, Miss Huxtable? You admit it? How sad it is that a gentle upbringing must stamp all outer sign of it from a lady."
"But it is something she must display only for her husband," she said and felt instantly embarrassed by the ghastly primness of the words.
"Let me guess." He was more than ever amused, she could see. "Your father was a clergyman and you were brought up listening to and reading sermons."
She opened her mouth to protest and shut it again. There was no smart answer to that, was there? He was quite right.
"Why are we having this conversation?" she asked him, about five minutes too late. "It is very improper, as you know very well. And we have not even set eyes upon each other until tonight."
"Now that, Miss Huxtable," he said, "is a blatant bouncer for which you will be fortunate indeed not to fry in hell. Not only have you set eyes upon me before tonight, but you have done so quite deliberately and with full awareness on more than one occasion. My guess is that Con's warnings against me--I do not doubt he did warn you--have had the opposite effect from what he intended, as a man of his experience ought to have known. But before you swell with indignation and perjure your soul with more lies, let me admit that since I am aware of your observing me before tonight, then of course I must have been observing you. Unlike you, though, I have no wish to deny the fact. I have seen you with increasing pleasure. You must realize how extraordinarily lovely you are, and so I will not bore you by going into raptures over your beauty. Though I will if you wish."
He raised both eyebrows and gazed very directly into her eyes, awaiting her answer.
Katherine was fully aware that she had waded into deep waters and was by now quite out of her depth. But oddly she had no wish to return to safe waters just yet. He really was flirting with her. And he had noticed her before tonight just as she had noticed him.
How very foolish to feel flattered. As if she did not know better.
"I see, my lord," she said, "that you do not observe the rules of polite conversation."
"Meaning," he said, "that I do not endorse lies and other hypocrisies in the name of politeness? You are quite right. When I see a spade, I see no conversational advantage in calling it something else. Perhaps this is one reason many people of good ton avoid my company."
"One reason, perhaps," she said. "There are others."
He smiled fully at her and regarded her in silence for a few moments. For which she was very thankful. The smile transformed him into... Oh, where were there adequate words? A handsome man? She had already thought of him as being handsome. Irresistible, then?
"That was a very sharp and nasty retort, Miss Huxtable," he said. "And not at all polite."
She bit her lower lip and smiled.
"We are being a severe annoyance to all who are proceeding along this avenue," he said. "Shall we move on?"
"Of course." She looked ahead. Their party was right out of sight. They were going to have to walk quickly to catch up. This brief, strange interlude was at an end, then? And so it ought to be. She should be feeling far gladder about it than she actually was.
But he did not lead her in their direction. Neither did he turn back toward their private box. He turned her instead onto a narrower path that branched off the grand avenue.
"A shortcut," he murmured.
Within moments they were enclosed by trees and darkness and solitude. There were no lamps swaying from the branches here. There was an almost instant feeling of seclusion.
This encounter, Katherine thought, was taking a very dangerous turn indeed. She did not for a moment believe that this was a short route back to the others. She ought to take a firm stand right now, insist upon being taken without delay back to the main avenue and on to Lady Beaton and safety. Indeed, she did not even have to be taken. She could go on her own. He surely would not stop her by force.
Why did she not do it, then?
Instead of taking any stand at all, she walked onward with him, deeper into a darkness that was only faintly illumined by the moon and stars far above the treetops.
She had never really known adventure--or danger. Or the thrill of the unknown.
Or the pull of attraction to a man who was forbidden.
And definitely dangerous.
And, for the moment at least, quite irresistible.
© Mary Balogh