“That’s surely a private matter, isn’t it?” Stuart leaned against the table beside her, not wanting to discuss his marriage plans. Her pose emphasized her bosom, and Stuart couldn’t stop himself from admiring it.
She tilted her head toward him, with another coquettish smile. “I just wondered. She seems to think you do, although I admire your forbearance in refusing to run off with her.”
He smiled, no longer caring what they talked about. He wasn’t accustomed to flirting so aggressively with someone he didn’t know at all, but if she was willing, so was he. Being seduced by a mysterious beauty would do a great deal to restore his humor this evening. His country exile looked suddenly brighter; even wooing old Madame Dragon wouldn’t be half as dreadful with this lovely piece on the side. He wondered if she was widow or matron, and why the hell he hadn’t met her before. “What is your name?”
Her smile faded. “Does it really matter?”
He met her smoldering glance with one of his own. “I would like to know it.”
“Sometimes, don’t you think things like names and station are irrelevant? Sometimes, isn’t it only important what we desire deep in our hearts?” she whispered, her dark eyes glowing with intensity.
For a moment neither moved; Stuart could not recall when he had been so aware of a woman, so hot with desire for someone he hadn’t even met ten minutes ago. He wanted her, as much as he had ever wanted any woman, and unless he read every sign wrong, she wanted him, too. “No,” he whispered back, leaning closer. “Sometimes it really doesn’t matter at all.”
Just before his lips met hers, she turned away, trailing her fingers along the polished surface of the table as she walked. “I find myself wondering what you see in the girl. She seems far too ... innocent?” Her shawl slipped from one shoulder, artlessly. Entranced, Stuart followed, toward the darker end of the library. “I never understand what men see in children. I find it quite off-putting.”
He stopped her by catching the edge of the shawl, his fingers brushing her bare shoulder. She smelled of something foreign and exotic, not the usual rosewater English girls drenched themselves in. Did she taste as warm and spicy as she smelled? He was suddenly wild to find out. “You are not a child.”
She laughed softly. “Certainly not.” She took another step forward without turning around. Stuart kept his hold on the shawl, and it slid over her shoulder with a whisper.
“What a lovely gown.” She took another step. The shawl tightened across her body, leading his eyes over very pleasing contours. Stuart let it drop to the floor as the end slid free. She glanced over her shoulder, her eyes gleaming.
“Thank you. You didn’t like my shawl, I take it.”
“Indeed,” he murmured. He touched one finger to the nape of her neck and let it drift down the furrow of her spine, bumping over the buttons he was already thinking of unfastening. “I could hardly bear the sight of it.” A slight tremor shook her shoulders, and white-hot desire roared through his veins. He slid his palms up her arms, easing her back until she was almost against his chest.
With one movement, she ducked her shoulder out from under his hand and stepped away, taking three short steps to the sofa. “Isn’t your fiancée waiting for you?” she asked teasingly.
Stuart shrugged, not at all upset by the progress she was leading him on. “We are not formally betrothed.”
She studied him, an odd little smile playing around her lips. “You’ll break her heart.”
He stopped, took a deep breath. “Not by design.”
“Ah.” She nodded sagely, and sank down on the sofa in a flowing motion, reclining against the side and casting one arm above her head to toy with the dark curls. “But you don’t love her. Is it only desire that drives you into her arms, then?”
It was desire hammering away at his gut right now, screaming inside his head to spread himself on top of her and accept the invitation in her eyes. “No, not at all.”
She crossed her legs with a flick of one ankle that belled out her skirt for a moment. That foot continued to swing, drawing his attention to her legs. Legs explicitly outlined by thin silk. Was this woman wearing any undergarments at all? Stuart lowered himself to the sofa beside her. “What did you intend, when you spoke to me a moment ago?”
Her smile was arch. “To meet you.”
Better and better. He braced one hand beside her head, and when his face was merely an inch from hers, whispered, “Let us become acquainted, then.”
“Oh, I am already acquainted with you,” she purred. He tried to capture her lips, but got her cheek instead. “You have already proved yourself everything I thought you to be.”
He laughed against her hair, nuzzling her ear. “And the night is only beginning.” He brushed the loose curl back over her shoulder, letting his fingers linger on the slope of her shoulder, tracing the neckline of her gown. She stopped his hand there.
“And are the things you’ve heard about me true, Stuart?”
He paused. Her chest was rising and falling rapidly under his hand, but the teasing note was gone from her voice. “I do not know who you are,” he said in a cooler tone. “And I begin to wonder what you’ve heard of me.”
“You do not know my name, and yet I think you would make love to me if I released your hand. Am I right?” He said nothing, and she moved, rubbing her hip against his erection. “Your silence speaks louder than words.”
“Who are you?” he demanded, rolling completely on top of her. Her eyes widened for a fraction of a second, then became hard and opaque again. She didn’t move, and even though the feel of her body under his sharpened the desire coursing through him, he ignored it in a belated burst of suspicion. Who was this woman, and why was she here in the library, waiting to lead him on like this? “What exactly do you believe you know about me?”
“Why, Stuart,” she said softly, “I’ve heard as much about you as you’ve heard about me. Do you want to make love to me? Would you be curious to learn my name after? Or would you go back to the party in search of still another woman to seduce?”
“If anyone seduced, you did,” he growled. “What game are you playing?”
“I told you.” She smiled again, sly and triumphant. “I was curious about you. I came to the library to think, before meeting you. Because we were destined to meet this evening, you know; Susan told you so herself.”
He stared at her, unmoving. Her smile widened.
“I am Charlotte Griffolino,” she whispered. “Spiteful, withered, stone-hearted old witch. As well as Susan Tratter’s guardian.”
He released her hands. “You can’t be. Her aunt is old.”
She lifted one shoulder. “In Susan’s eyes, I am, having celebrated my thirtieth birthday this spring.” Stuart said nothing; she was only two years younger than he was. A terrible fury knotted in his chest. Susan had deceived him about her aunt—frightful old crone, indeed—and her aunt had deceived him about her true identity. And now he had lost all chance of Susan Tratter—and her fortune. He sprang to his feet.
“You must be quite pleased with yourself.”
“In what way? To have learned beyond a shadow of a doubt that my niece has fallen prey to an adventurer? That the man who nearly ruined two other young heiresses in London nearly ruined my own brother’s daughter, while she was in my care? No, I am far from pleased.”
“You deceived me!” He thrust his finger in her face.
She lifted one eyebrow. “Mr. Drake, I never said anything to encourage you.”
Stuart shook with the force of his anger. She damned well had led him on, knowing exactly who he was when she invited him to make an advance, deliberately entrapping him. “You knew who I was!”
She laughed at him. “And I told you so, didn’t I?” In a flash, he caught her arm. He wanted to shake her and punish her, and he still wanted to make love to her. He settled for the shake, but ended up dragging her against him.
Her eyes searched his, superior and disdainful. “Stooping to forcing yourself upon a woman?”
He released her in a heartbeat. “I have never forced myself on a woman. You invited me.”
Her eyebrow arched mockingly. “Did I? The way Miss Eliza Pennyworth invited you to take her driving from London to Dover? The way Miss Anne Hale invited you to molest her in her own grandmother’s garden?”
Stuart swore. “You know nothing about what happened to either of those two young ladies. I never ruined them.”
“No, not at all. Tales of their disgrace reached the wilds of Kent purely by chance.”
Stuart seethed.The gossips had seized hold of two incidents that were only unfortunate in their timing—mere days apart—and convicted Stuart of worse sins than he had ever committed. That gossip in turn had sent his father into a fury, and led to his banishment. But this woman made it sound as though he deliberately debauched innocent maidens for sport. “I have nothing more to say to you.” He turned toward the door.
“I am very glad to hear it,” she said behind him. “Do show some trace of decency and leave without speaking to Susan again.”
Stuart stopped, one hand on the doorknob. He should do it, turn the knob and leave without a word to anyone, especially Susan. But he had never been able to leave without the last word, had never had the discipline to keep his mouth shut when all reason dictated it was best, particularly when his temper was raised. There was nothing to be gained by taunting this woman ... and yet ... “She pleaded with me to run off with her.”
There was a rustle behind him, a shrug, no doubt. “You won’t agree.” Damn, but he hated that faintly patronizing tone, from his father and now from her. Especially from her, especially now.
Still holding the knob, he turned slowly. In the dim firelight, she looked warm and golden, just the slightest bit rumpled, as if recently from a lover’s embrace. Thwarted lust mixed with anger in a dangerous combination. “You’re very sure of yourself.”
She tilted her head, studying him thoughtfully. “Yes. Or rather, I am very sure of men like you.”
“Oh?” Stuart hated few things more than being taken lightly, dismissed out of hand and relegated to some category beginning with “men like you.”
“Why is that?” he asked.
She smiled, her full mouth pulled down in scorn. “Because you haven’t the slightest interest in Susan, even though you’ve seduced her into thinking she loves you. It’s all about her money, and if you run away with her, you’ll not have a single shilling. I can and will assure it.”
“You would deny your own niece the comforts she’s accustomed to, just to spite me? How loving, Aunt Charlotte.”
She shrugged at his sarcasm. “What would you have me do, admit to soft-heartedness when it will give you license to do as you wish? Do you think me simple? Don’t ever mistake me that way again, sir; my heart is as cold and as unmoving as marble. The day you take Susan for your wife, I’ll invest her every pound in long-term ventures in places you’ll never track down if you spend the rest of your days looking.”
“It is her inheritance,” he reminded her.
She collected her shawl from the floor and draped it lightly over one shoulder, catching the other end around her elbow. “Left in my care, by her father. George would agree wholeheartedly with my decision. He abhorred fortune hunters as the lowest creatures on earth. They care nothing for stealing a young girl’s hopes and dreams, crushing her heart and leaving her reputation in tatters. Her life means nothing to them. It’s all a grand illusion, and when it ends they are in possession of a fortune they did nothing to earn and a wife they cannot abide.”
Stuart closed his fists. “You judge me quite harshly. Is your niece allowed no say in the matter of her own heart?”
“If her heart has chosen you, it’s made a grave mistake, one she’ll thank me some day for preventing.” She picked up a fan from a nearby table and flicked it open, waving it once before closing it with a snap. “You were on your way, I believe.”
He let out his breath in a gust. She was right; he should be on his way. He had only come tonight to meet and woo Susan’s aunt, which was obviously out of the question now. The bitterness of how close he had come to his goal struck him then, and Stuart cursed himself for letting a woman cloud his mind. Whatever doubts he might have had about marrying Susan, she was by far the nicest, most suitable girl he had met so far.
“Yes, I am,” he said at last. “But don’t think our paths won’t cross again.”
Straightening her shawl, she barely glanced at him. “I hardly care whether they do or not, Mr. Drake.”
“But I do,” he murmured. “Very keenly.”
Charlotte ignored his last veiled threat. The door closed behind him, and she calmly finished untangling her shawl.
“That was not a nice trick to play on him,” said a voice from the shadows.
Charlotte shrugged. “It was no more than he deserved. A man of honor wouldn’t have rushed to the assumptions he did.”
“Cara, only a man with no blood in his veins would not have made his assumption.”
Charlotte fussed some more with her shawl, ignoring Lucia’s dry comment. It was not Lucia’s niece hovering on the brink of calamity, and therefore it was not Lucia’s place to criticize Charlotte’s actions. “Nevertheless, it only confirms my suspicions about him. He doesn’t care a fig for Susan or her feelings if he would make love to another woman the moment her back is turned.”