No True Gentleman
Pocket Star Books, July 2002
|Excerpt from the novel No True Gentleman|
A Most Regrettable Incident in Hyde Park
De Rohan could hear the two men murmuring behind the shrubbery. With a calm sense of certainty, he circled around so that he might approach at a point rather less obvious. By God, he’d nearly sell his soul to the devil if he could just get a good look at the both of them. Better still would be an opportunity to watch money change hands. It would be proof of his suspicions.
The exhilaration thrummed through his blood. But halfway through the knot of high shrubs, he realized he was not alone. Further along the path was a bench, tucked neatly into a roughly sculpted niche. On it sat a woman—damn it, the woman. This time, she was reading a bloody book! De Rohan felt a moment of alarm. It worsened when the voices suddenly rose. Through thinning veil of greenery, he saw the woman jerk to her feet. Had she heard him? Or the bribery which was occurring not a stone’s throw past her shoulder?
His greater fear was confirmed when he rounded the corner near elbow. She was not looking at him. Instead, her head was cocked to one side, and she was staring in the direction of the murmurs. Murmurs which now seemed to be moving nearer . . .
Disconcerted, de Rohan set a foot wrong and the gravel shifted noisily beneath his shoe.
With a soft, startled cry, the woman dropped her book and spun toward him, her dark red skirts whirling about her ankles. A broad-brimmed hat with a long red plume helped obscure her identity—but not from him.
"Wot the ’ell—?" came the Cockney voice from the other side of the bushes.
A gloved hand flew to her lips, and she opened her mouth as if to speak. But heavy footsteps were striding toward them. So de Rohan did the quickest—and the stupidest—thing he could think of. What he’d burned to do for the last seven days. In one swift motion, he dragged the woman hard against his chest, spun toward the shadows, and covered her mouth with his.
Catherine had meant to scream. She really had. Right up until the instant that the square yard of rock-solid chest thudded against hers, sending her bonnet askew and melting her knees to jelly. But instead, she hesitated. This, despite the fact that the dark stranger had jerked her into his arms and was forcing deeper her into the shrubbery. In that moment’s hesitation, his mouth came down hard over hers, hot and demanding, urging her lips apart. With one arm banded tight about her waist and his fingers curled into her hair, the man drew her to him in a crush of red merino and cascading brown hair.
"For God’s sake, kiss me," he hissed, barely lifting his mouth from hers.
Catherine gave a small, indignant gasp, but her good intentions exploded into flame when he seized the moment, sliding inside her, his tongue insistent. Desperate, it seemed. Quite inexplicably, she answered. He kissed her more deeply, with the expertise of a man who knew women well. Though his touch was gentle, he held her with a violent intensity. As if he were truly afraid to let her go. His male heat and extraordinary scent filled her nostrils. Her heart pounded in her ears. The men arguing in the bushes were but a vague memory. Dizzy with confusion, Catherine barely heard their footsteps on the graveled path behind her.
"Christ!" murmured a disgusted male voice. "A friggin’ lovers’ tryst!"
Catherine should have screamed for help—struggled harder in his arms—exploded with rage. Oh, yes—should have. But the man jerked his head up like a startled animal. His dark gaze held hers, commanding her silence. Over his shoulder, he spoke, his words harsh, angry barks. "Go. Away. Now."
The warning was meant, Catherine knew, for the men on the path. Clearly, he’d not realized that their footsteps were already retreating. For a long moment, the stranger’s hard mouth lingered over hers, his eyes still black, but no longer cold. He dipped his head again, an awkward, uncertain motion, and Catherine didn’t make a sound. But slowly—quite reluctantly, it seemed—he stopped and stepped away, his gaze falling to a spot somewhere near her boots.
Absent the strength of his arms, Catherine’s knees began to buckle. Unsteadily, she thrust out her hand to touch the edge of the bench, and his gaze flicked up in mild alarm. At once, a strong, steadying hand slid beneath her elbow.
"I daresay you’d like to backhand me for that," he said, his voice low and thick, his unusual accent more pronounced.
"S-should I?" she managed to ask as he drew her just a little nearer.
"Slap me?" His mouth quirked into an uncertain smile. "Yes, soundly." But he was as shaken as she. Catherine could hear the merest hint of it in his deep, raspy voice. But his eyes were as steady as his grip.
Strangely, she had no wish to strike out at him. Instead, she forced a smile. "Did you enjoy it enough to make it worth a good wallop, then?" she asked, tilting her head to one side to study him. "I’ve a rather strong right arm, you know."
The man cut a quick glance away. "Oh, I enjoyed it," he admitted, his voice rueful. "Enough to be drawn and quartered, instead of merely knocked senseless."
Catherine started to laugh, but it faltered. Good heavens. This wasn’t funny. It was . . . she didn’t know what it was. But she knew his hand beneath her elbow was warm and strong.
"Tell me your name," she softly commanded, stepping slightly away from him. "Don’t just tip your hat and walk off again."
As his fingers slid away, his expression seemed to harden, and he said nothing.
"You’ve taken some rather blatant liberties with me," she reminded him, thrusting out her right hand. "So perhaps we should be introduced? I’m Lady Catherine Wodeway."
Reluctantly, he took the proffered hand and instead of shaking it, bowed elegantly over it. "De Rohan," he responded, his tone quite formal. "Maximilian de Rohan."
Catherine did not immediately draw her hand from his. "You were trying to hide me from those men, were you not?"
Surprise lit his eyes, then vanished so quickly she might have imagined it. He was, she thought, a man who was rarely surprised by anything. "They did sound as if they might be unsavory characters, didn’t they?" he lightly agreed, bending down to pick up her book and his walking-stick.
Catherine did laugh then. "Oh, come now, Mr. de Rohan!" she said as he pressed the book back into her hands. "Do I look such a fool as that? Why don’t you tell me what you’re up to?"
De Rohan felt himself bristle at the woman’s persistence. She—Lady Catherine Wodeway—had no more business being involved in his affairs than he had in knowing her name. Still, he did know it. He’d learned a vast deal more than that, in fact. But she was right, damn it. He had taken liberties—abominable liberties—with her person. The fact that she had not strenuously objected did not obviate her right to an explanation.
"I am with the police," he finally answered. "And those were the sort of men who often discuss matters which they do not care to have overheard. By anyone."
"Oh." Lady Catherine’s color drained. "I begin to comprehend."
For a moment, she stared down at the book she now held. It was, he noticed, a rather tattered copy of The Female Speaker. Unable to resist, and very much wishing to change the subject, he reached out and lightly touched it. "You are an admirer of Barbauld?" he asked, intrigued.
She looked up at him uncertainly. "Yes. No. I . . . oh, I don’t know—! I took it from my brother’s library. I thought it might . . . oh, improve my mind—?"
"Why?" De Rohan lifted one brow and took her by the elbow again, as if to lead her from the shrubbery. "Does it need improving?"
Lady Catherine shook off his hand, her lips thinning in mild irritation. "Do not change the subject, sir. Tell me about those men. Do you know their names? You were waiting for them yesterday, were you not? That is why you warned me away. That is why you . . . you pulled me into the shadows and kissed me today, isn’t it?"
Uncharacteristically, de Rohan hesitated. The woman was even more beautiful up close than at a distance. Her coloring was far warmer than that of most Englishwomen; her heavy hair and intelligent eyes were a perfectly matched shade of deep, rich mahogany. High cheekbones set off a jaw which was firm and elegant. A stubborn woman, he thought. But her mouth was wide and good-humored, and far too voluptuous to be considered beautiful. But then, de Rohan had never favored the delicate, bow-shaped look effected by most ladies of fashion.
"Yes," he finally responded. "Yes, that’s why."
"The only reason—?"
De Rohan felt a spike of irritation. "The only reason what?"
"Why you kissed me," she persisted, her dark eyes relentless.
"I did not wish them to see your face," he gruffly explained. "Nor did I wish to be recognized, for that matter."
Lady Catherine cast him a skeptical glance. "Why do I wonder if you mightn’t have managed it some other way?"
At that, he took her a little roughly by the elbow and hauled her away from the bench. He did not like being seen through so easily. "I have already apologized, madam, for my gauche, unconscionable behavior, so—"
"Actually, you haven’t," she interjected, jerking to a halt again.
He released her arm, whirling about to stare at her incredulously.
"Apologized," she clarified, standing toe-to-toe to glare up at him. "You never did, you know."
"Then I apologize!" de Rohan growled. "Now where, madam, is your mount?"
"Perhaps I walked?"
"You always ride." He snapped out the words without thinking.
Lady Catherine ran a surprisingly steady gaze down his length, and de Rohan was shocked to realize that despite his irritation, he rather liked her. She was a strong, capable sort of woman. And sensible, too, he thought. He had kissed her, and yet instinctively, she’d known he meant her no harm. A more missish sort would have flown up into the bows just for the attention.
But now he had revealed a bit of his knowledge about her. What would she say if she knew how often he had waited for her? If she suspected for one moment the fanciful thoughts that went tripping through his head each time he watched her ride through the park? For a long moment, silence held sway in the shadows of the rhododendron.
Suddenly, she spoke, words tumbling from her mouth. "Mr. de Rohan, would you . . . or perhaps I should say that I . . . Yes, strange as it sounds, I think that I should like to know you better. Would you care to—to perhaps become better acquainted—? W-would you care to dine with me some evening?"
Dine with her?
De Rohan couldn’t believe his ears. Couldn’t believe his absurd reaction to her invitation. He would not allow himself to fall into that trap again. Of wanting what he was no longer destined to have. Of desiring, even briefly, someone who thought herself far above him. And whose values and motivations were undoubtedly quite different from his own. "I don’t think you understood," he said harshly. "I am with the police."
Apparently, Lady Catherine did not take his point. "But surely that fact does not preclude you from accepting dinner invitations? From women who are grateful for having been rescued from—er, unsavory characters?"
De Rohan stared at her open countenance and bottomless brown eyes, hating the surge of renewed hope which coursed through him. Hating her for making him feel a moment regret, an instant of doubt, about the choices he’d made. Perhaps, he abruptly decided, she was just a little too strong and capable. Most likely she was just another bored society wife looking for some sycophant to ease her ennui between the sheets. There was a quick way to find out. "And is dinner all you require, Lady Catherine?" he asked, his voice seductively soft. "Or is there some other, more intimate sort of companionship you seek?"
"I beg your pardon?" Color flooded her face.
Ruthlessly, he pressed on. "In my experience, when a highborn lady asks a man like me to dine, she usually intends to indulge in something a little more decadent than a good meal and a fine bottle of wine."
The woman hadn’t exaggerated about her strong right arm. But despite the warning, he failed to see it coming. The blow caught him square across the face, sending him reeling backward, one hand pressed to his mouth. Gracelessly, he stumbled, flailing backward with his walking-stick, and catching himself up against the edge of the bench. Good God, she hit like a man! More shoulder than wrist, more wrath than petulance. He looked down to see the smear of blood on the back of his hand, then he looked up to see the blazing visage of Lady Catherine Wodeway staring at him across the narrow clearing.
"Well, here’s some intimate companionship for you, Mr. de Rohan," she snapped, stalking off in a swish of red wool and hot temper. "Take that fancy stick of yours and go bugger yourself with it."