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Authors: Stephanie Laurens

Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical

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BOOK: Fair Juno
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‘Martin, remember?’ Martin grinned at her. ‘You didn’t really believe I’d let you go into supper with anyone else, did you?’

Staring into teasing grey eyes, Helen felt totally befuddled. Should she answer yes or no? If she said yes, he would only take the opportunity to tell her she should have known better—which was true. And saying no was out of the question. In the end, she glared. ‘You’re impossible.’

Martin smiled. ‘Have a lobster patty.’

Helen gave up. It was simply too easy for him to pull the rug from beneath her feet in private. She had yet, she reflected, to learn how to keep him at a proper distance. If she did not master the art soon, it would be entirely too late. Already, she had noticed a few curious looks cast their way. Still, as far as the
knew, he could merely be looking her over, seeking congenial company until the Little Season got into full swing and he set about the serious task of finding a suitable wife.

Pleased by her capitulation, Martin devoted his considerable talents to distracting her, in which endeavour he was so successful that, by the time he returned her to the
ballroom, she was thoroughly flustered. In the circumstances, he forbore to claim another dance, contenting himself with placing a most improper kiss in her palm before leaving her to less threatening cavaliers.


The Burlington ball marked the beginning of Martin’s campaign. He was assiduous in attending whatever ball or party Helen Walford graced, paying her such marked attention as could not be misconstrued. He took great delight in teasing her, knowing that she, of all who watched him, was the furtherest from divining his purpose. Many had marked his predilection for her company; he did not, in truth, give a damn. He fully intended to go a great deal further than mere predilection.

Everything he learned of her confirmed his certainty that she was the one woman he wanted before his fireplace. She was accepted and respected, unquestionably good
. Her maturity was transparent, but, while she clearly understood the rules of the game, she had never, to anyone’s knowledge, played. Not the closest scrutiny uncovered any degree of partiality for the numerous gentlemen who claimed her as friend. She was much admired, by the women as well as the men—no mean feat in these days of cut-throat beauty.

It was a week into the Little Season when his pursuit of her took him to the dim portals of Almack’s. The Marriage Mart had never been one of his favourite venues. As a
youth, he had labelled it the Temple of Doom—forswear happiness, all ye who enter here. With a grimace, he gathered his resolution and trod up the steps. Helen was within and he had determined to conquer not only her, but this last bastion of the

The porter admitted him to the hall, but, not being a regular, there he had to wait for one or other of the patronesses to grant him permission to enter the rooms. As luck would have it, it was Sally Jersey who swept out in response to the porter’s summons, her large eyes wide and incredulous.

‘Good God! It

Martin grinned wryly and bowed. ‘Me, myself and I, alone.’ He smiled winningly. ‘Will you allow me to enter, dear Sally?’

Lady Jersey was no more immune to rakish charm than the next woman. But she knew Martin Willesden, and knew of the scandal in his past. She was also one of those who had never believed it. She eyed the tower of potent masculinity before her and frowned. ‘Will you promise not to cause any undue flutter?’

Martin put back his head and laughed. ‘Sally, oh, Sally. What an impossible stipulation.’

When he eyed her wickedly, Lady Jersey was forced to acknowledge the truth of his words. ‘Oh—very well! I never believed that Monckton chit anyway,’ she muttered.

Martin captured her hand and bowed low. ‘My thanks, Sally.’

‘Oh, go on with you!’ said Lady Jersey. ‘You make me feel old.’

, Sally.’ With one last wicked grin, Martin headed for the ballroom.

He had hoped to slip unnoticed to the side of the room, from which vantage point, being so tall, he would have been able to locate Helen. Instead, to his horror, he was mobbed but feet from the door. While he had been speaking to Sally, word of his arrival had gone the rounds. To his incredulous gaze, it appeared that every fond mama with an insipid daughter in tow had gathered near the entrance for the express purpose of accosting him.

‘My dear Lord Merton—I’m Lady Dalgleish—a very old friend of your mama’s. Pray allow me to present…’

‘Such an exciting career as you’ve had, my lord. You must take the time to tell my dear Annabelle all about it— she just
tales of foreign places.’

Never in his life had Martin faced such a trial. It quickly transpired that, as virtually none could claim acquaintance due to his prolonged sojourn overseas, they had all decided to ignore such niceties and introduce themselves. The reason for his thirteen-year absence was entirely overlooked.

‘You must come to my soirée next week. Just a
select few. You’ll be able to converse with Julia so much more easily without such a horde about.’

Even Martin blinked at that. They were shameless, the lot of them. The temptation to tell them all to go to hell was strong, but Sally would never forgive him. And he wanted to see Helen, who was undoubtedly one of the many enjoying the unexpected entertainment.

In the end, Martin simply stood stock still and let them come at him, steadfastly refusing to ask any young lady to dance, nor to accept any invitation to look over a chit’s finer points during a stroll around the rooms. He knew that none of the hostesses would be so bold as to suggest he dance with any of the young things, regardless of their parents’ wishes. It was the first time he had ever had reason to be thankful for his past.

Finally, the attack faltered. In between deflecting the none too subtle invitations, he had managed to locate Helen in a small knot of ladies at the far end of the room. Sensing a hiatus, he made a bid for freedom before his besiegers had a chance to regroup.

Gracefully, Martin bowed to the stalwart matron planted plumb in front of him, her two freckle-faced daughters flanking her. ‘Your pardon, ma’am. I fear I must leave you. So pleasant to have met your daughters.’ With a vague smile, he beat a hasty retreat.

Helen had certainly noticed the crowd by the door and recognised the dark head at its centre. It was no more than she had expected—his due, nothing more. With an inward
sigh, she made an effort to immerse herself in her friends’ discussion. Lord Merton would have his hands full with the debs from now on.

‘My dear—my
dear Lady Walford.’ Martin did not try to keep the relief from his voice. ‘What a pleasure it is to see you—at last.’

Helen jumped and turned, knowing who she would see before she did. No one else had a voice that could frazzle her senses. ‘My lord.’ She curtsied. As usual, he raised her and appropriated her hand, as if she had made him a present of it. She had come to accept that particular trick as inevitable, knowing no way of stopping him. But she had yet to come to grips with the warmth in his eyes as they rested on her, and the promise that glowed in their depths.

Breathlessly, she introduced the three ladies in her circle. To her surprise, Martin did not try to remove her but stayed by her side, chatting politely, charming her friends utterly.

When Helen’s friends moved away, to talk to other acquaintances among the growing crowd, Martin dropped the reserve he employed in such social situations. He glanced down into Helen’s green eyes, his own entirely devoid of guile. ‘You’ll have to be my mentor in this particular theatre of war. Where else can we go to be safe?’

Helen looked her astonishment. ‘Safe?’

Martin smiled a little ruefully. ‘I’m claiming your protection.’
When she still looked bemused, he added, ‘In return for my earlier efforts on your behalf.’

A slight blush staining her cheeks, Helen let her eyes slide over his impressive length. ‘However could
? You’re bamming me.’

‘No such thing—rake’s honour.’ Hand over his heart, Martin grinned. ‘The matchmaking mamas are out to leg-shackle me, I do assure you. They’re hunting in packs, what’s more. If I’m to retain any degree of freedom, I’ll need all the help I can get.’

Helen smothered a giggle. ‘You can’t just not take any notice. You’ll have to choose a wife some time.’

The grey eyes holding hers suddenly became intent. But his voice was still even when he asked, ‘You don’t seriously suppose I’d marry any of the delicate debs?’

‘But…it’s what’s expected of men of your position.’ Helen coloured, then abruptly glanced away. Not only was this a most improper conversation, but she had nearly blurted out that hers had been such a conventional marriage. That, she was the first to admit, was hardly a recommendation.

To her unease, the grey eyes were still trained on her face. She could feel them, compelling her to return his regard. Unable to withstand the subtle pressure, she glanced up. Her eyes locked with his.

Martin smiled gently, and raised her hand to his lips, his
eyes holding hers steadily. ‘I’ll never marry one of the debs, my dear. My tastes run to women of more…voluptuous charms.’

If Helen had had any doubts over what he intended her to understand by that, the look in his eyes would have dispelled them. For good measure, when she blushed, his eyes dropped to caress the ripe swell of her breasts, more revealed than concealed by the current craze for low necklines. Helen felt her cheeks flame.


His eyes returned to her face, gentle laughter in the grey depths. ‘Mmm?’

What could she say? She should talk to him of reality, of all the reasons she was ineligible. Now was the time. Determined to halt his mad schemes before they went any further, before her heart was totally torn in two, Helen raised her eyes to his. ‘My lord, you cannot marry me. My husband was Arthur Walford—you must have known him. He committed suicide, but only after being hounded from the
. He gambled away everything he owned, including my settlements. With such a background, I’m no suitable wife for you.’

All Martin’s levity had flown. The expression in his eyes, intent yet infinitely gentle, did not waver; his thumb moved caressingly over the back of her hand. ‘My dear, I know all this. Did you think I would care?’

The room was whirling. Helen could not breathe. ‘But…’

Martin’s smile grew. Confidently, he drew her to stroll beside him. If they remained stationary for much longer, someone would stop to talk. ‘My dear Helen, I’ve never been one to act in accordance with society’s dictates. I’ve been a rake and a gamester for as long as anyone here can recall. I assure you, none will think it the least odd that I, of all men, should choose to marry a more mature woman rather than saddle myself with some mindless flibbertigibbet.’

A nervous giggle assured him that she had accepted the truth of that. ‘Now enough of your quibbles. If this is merely a ploy to deny me your protection, I take leave to tell you ‘tis a shabby trick.’

‘As if you need my protection.’ Helen followed his lead in moving from the topic of marriage, trying to regain their usual, lightly bantering tone. Her mind was in a whirl. What he had suggested was beyond her wildest dreams; she would need time to consider the possibilities. Her brain was too overloaded to make much sense of it now, particularly not with him by her side. ‘I’m quite sure you could rout all the matchmaking mamas without difficulty.’

‘Unquestionably,’ agreed the rake by her side. ‘But, having done so, I’d be cast out from these hallowed halls, bidden never to return, and thus would be unable to see you
on Wednesday nights. Not a prospect I relish. So, in the interests of your Wednesday nights, madam, will you consent to act as my protector?’

Helen could only laugh. ‘Very well. But only within strict limits.’

Martin frowned. ‘What limits?’

‘You must not misbehave with me.’ She glanced up, trying for stern implacability. ‘No dancing more than two waltzes, and never two together. In fact,’ she added, recalling his ability to think up new and ever more disturbing ways of dealing with her, ‘no going beyond the line in any way whatever.’

‘Unfair! How do you imagine I’ll control my rakish tendencies? Have pity, fair Juno. I can’t reform in an instant.’

But Helen stood firm. ‘That’s my best offer, my lord.’ When his brows rose, she added, her own brows rising, ‘You’d hardly ask me to place my own position here in jeopardy?’

Martin sighed in mock-defeat. ‘You drive a hard bargain, sweetheart. I capitulate. In the interests of my own skin, I accept your conditions.’

It was a full minute before Helen registered the ineligible epithet and by then it was too late to gasp.

To her considerable relief, Martin did behave impeccably for the rest of the evening. She had no illusions as to how outrageous he could be if he put his mind to it. His ‘rakish
tendencies’, as he called them, were remarkably strong. But not even the highest stickler could have faulted his performance— beyond the fact that he remained anchored to her side.


After the excitement of Almack’s, Helen had expected to endure a sleepless night. Instead, drugged with unaccustomed happiness, she had slept the sleep of the innocent. Unheralded but sure of his welcome, Martin had called to take her driving at eleven. What with entertaining a small procession of afternoon visitors, all agog to hear anything she might have to say about the Earl of Merton, and then dressing for dinner at Hatcham House, Helen found herself once more in Martin Willesden’s arms, waltzing down a ballroom, without having had more than a moment to spend in consideration of his words of the previous night.

‘Tell me, fairest Juno, is it normal for such affairs as this to be so refreshingly free of the
jeunes filles

Martin’s voice in her ear summoned her wits from besotted contemplation of how very strong he was and how helpless he made her feel. Helen blinked. ‘Well,’ she temporised, glancing about at the crowd and noticing he was right, ‘I suppose it’s because the Hatchams are rather out of the deb set—their own children are all married. And Lord Pomeroy is giving a ball for his daughter tonight, too, so many of the younger folk will be there, I expect.’

BOOK: Fair Juno
10.09Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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