Authors: Colleen Shannon
Tags: #Historical Romance, #Love Story, #Regency Romance, #Hellfire Club, #Bodice Ripper, #Romance
“There, you’re decent.”
She winced, her pleasure in his company spoiled at the unpleasant reminder. “No, I’m not. Not any longer.” She pulled away, but he caught her from behind and sheltered her under his arm.
“Yes, you are,” he insisted. “This guilt of yours is silly.” He hesitated, then murmured, “I’ve thought a great deal about you of late. I’ve come to the conclusion that God was feeling beneficent when he created you. Once your heart was fash
ioned so true, what could he do but match it with mind and body?”
Katrina’s eyes stung with tears. The stifling guilt that was never far away began to lift again at his words. Usually men saw only her body. She’d not thought Devon any different. She glanced up at him, but his head was turned as he looked before leading her across the street.
As soon as they reached the house, he briskly dried her off with the linen square Martha brought, then escorted her up the stairs. “Change so we can order dinner. I’m starved.” He disappeared into another chamber.
Katrina was left wondering then, as she changed, if he’d meant the compliment, or if his words had been an empty
attempt to win her contentment. As usual she found no easy answers. Her only consolation was that Devon understood her no better.
When she arrived downstairs, Billy nodded from his place beside the door. Katrina began to walk past him to wait in the salon, but she hesitated. If anyone could help her understand Devon, surely Billy could. She glanced up the stairs, but heard no movement.
“Billy,” she said in a rush, “tell me why Devon has such a poor opinion of women.”
Billy tilted his head back against the wall and eyed her thoughtfully. “Ye should ask such a question of him, not me.”
“I know, but . . . emotion always gets in the way of our personal discussions.” She blushed under his thoughtful look.
“Ye might ask yerself why that be, as a start.” Evidently taking pity on her, Billy, rose and escorted her into the salon. When she was comfortable on the settee, he sat down across from her, propped an ankle on his opposite knee, and began, “Devvie is a fine lad, with one o’ the strongest senses o’ loyalty I’ve e’er seen. Why, he still supports his old nanny in a style that’s the talk o’ the village. When he’s at his estate, he goes to see her once a week for tea despite the fact that she drives him loony. She’s deaf, and the poor old dear never did have a peck o’ sense. Devon would probably be a different man today if she’d been a stronger woman. She had more o’ his raisin’ than anyone else, ye see, after his parents died.”
No, she didn’t see, but she looked at Billy attentively.
He sighed. “I can’t draw ye a picture, lass. Devon would not be happy to know I’m talkin’ to ye.” He began to rise, but she leaned over and caught his arm.
Her voice shook, and her eyes sparkled with unashamed tears. “Please tell me, Billy. If not for my sake, then for his. For I can’t stay with him as things are between us.” After another penetrating look, Billy relaxed back in his seat. Katrina’s arm dropped.
“Very well, lass, but ye may not like what ye learn. His nanny were an old-fashioned woman who believed the gentry had special rights. After Devon kissed his first gal, an upstairs maid, I was teasin’ him about it when his nanny come upon us. I still remember what she told him. ‘She’s a fine girl to teach ye the way o’ life, me lad. But just remember, there’s only two kinds o’ women in this world: them of good blood ye marry and them of common stock ye don’t.’ ,I was a few years older, and I admit I knew the maid were a pleasin’ armful, so I didn’t quibble with her then. Since I’ve grown in the ways o’ the world. I’ve learned different
. But Devon has never forgotten her words. He’s reminded me o’ them more than once. ’Twas not the first o’ many such talks she give him o’er the years.”
Katrina shifted impatiently. “I can understand why an impressionable boy would believe such rubbish, but a mature man should know better. This is the modem age, and feudal
ism, thank God, died long ago.”
“Ye don’t understand. It’s not that Devon thinks he’s better than ye and me; he just thinks he’s different. His estates and title give him more power, aye—but also more responsibility. And he takes that responsibility very seriously.’ ’ When she still looked unconvinced, Billy said dryly,, “Besides, the women Devon has known in maturity have been no different to that first maid. In a word, me gal, they was grasping bawds, one and all. Can ye blame him for believin’ his old nanny were right?’ ’ When she reluctantly shook her head, his tone softened, “And that, me dear, is why he don’t understand ye even a little bit. He’s ne’er known a good woman. Every gal he’s ever fancied has been his for the askin’—for a price. Until you.”
A flush of pleasure warmed Katrina. “Thank you. I only wish Devon understood that as well as you.”
“Ye must give him time, lassie. But I can tell ye this: He’s ne’er waited three years for a woman before. Nor went to such trouble to win her. Certainly he’s never kidnapped a wench before. That should tell ye a bit o’ how much he wants ye.”
“Thank you, Billy.” Katrina twisted at the tie on her dress, but she had to know. She lifted her head to look him straight in the eye. “Billy, if he came to love me, do you think he would ever wed me?”
After a long pause Billy said quietly, “I’d answer ye true, if I could, but I honestly don’t know. Ye see, even when Devon’s parents was alive, they learned him on his heritage before he could walk. And all the old earl’s servants knew how important his lineage were to him, so, when he passed on, they saw to it that it were important to his heir, too. Devon’s naturally a man o’ strong feelin’, and when his parents was lost, he turned all that passion toward makin’ them proud o’ their heir. I’ve ne’er known a man with better-attended estates, or happier tenants.”
Katrina was unable to speak for the lump in her throat, so she only nodded. Billy’s words confirmed her deepest fears. As she’d known from the beginning, they had no future together. Oh God, what was she doing here? She leaped to her feet, but Billy raised a hand.
“Whoa, lassie!”-When she paused, he finished gently, “I cannot say whether Devon would ever wed ye, but this I know: When Devon loves, he does so like few others. He would die for me, and did, once, take a bullet meant for me.” When she looked startled and opened her mouth, he waved her to silence. “But he would be angry if I told ye the tale. Just try to remember that, whether he shows it or not, he’s hungry for love. He just don’t know it yet. The woman who wins his stubborn heart will be lucky indeed. In wedlock, or out o’ it.”
Katrina choked out, “Th-thank you,” and fled up to her room. The tears fell in a cloudburst and were as quickly over. What choice did she have, now, but to try to win that stubborn heart? Conscience and practicality could not quiet the hope that she and Devon were meant for one another. So she bathed her eyes with a cool cloth, pinned on a smile, and went downstairs.
In the following days Katrina’s hope burned brighter. Devon seemed to genuinely enjoy her company. He laughed at her wit, and teased her out of her sullens. Whatever his feelings for her, somehow he always plumbed her deepest emotions, making the world a vital place she looked forward to each morning. They shared their thoughts on mundane things; their favorite flowers, colors, and foods. They shared their feelings on exalted things: their opinions on politics, religion, and Greek philosophy. And slowly, their topsy-turvy relationship began to right itself as physical enjoyment became enhanced by mental respect.
At her urging, a few days later, he taught her to play chess. Her brightness was abetted by intuition, and she soon became a formidable opponent. Within a week they were stalemated, or they usually played to a tie.
One night, after a delicious dinner of salmon in croute.
spring peas, carrots, and strawberry tarts, they decided to play a game of chess. Devon had teased Katrina of late by wagering small items on their games—his kerchief, her garter. Tonight, to judge by the glint in his eye, he had something more valuable in mind. Or, she thought to herself with a hidden smile, more scandalous. Why, she wondered, tom between pleasure and despair, was a vicar’s daughter so drawn to this libertine?
Whatever the answer, she found herself, yet again, subduing her conscience. She couldn’t leave him yet. This velvet night was not meant for thinking; it was meant for feeling. Thus, when he seated her and took his chair, his serious mien spoiled by a wicked twinkle, she lowered her gaze to the chessboard to hide her own mischief.
He’d set out all the pieces—he, black, she, white—as usual. “Appropriate, I agree, that I take the black,” he said, beating her to what had become their standard jest. ‘ ‘So I shall live up to my reputation and suggest stakes, er, higher than usual.” Katrina had a suspicion as to what he’d name, but she looked innocent. “Yes?”
“Shall we say, one item of clothing for every piece lost?” He studied his fmgemails as if he’d suggested a standard wager.
“Are you not at a disadvantage, sir?”
He cocked his head. “How so?”
“You’ve fewer garments to lose.”
“Then you’ve nothing to worry about, have pu?”
“Very well,” Katrina agreed after an appropriate hesitation. “On the condition that whoever loses gets to name the evening’s entertainment.”
His slow, wicked smile made her toes curl inside her slippers. “Agreed, my pretty.”
They began. Katrina made her first few moves deliberately clumsy, and she soon lost a pawn and a knight. She took off one garter, then the other. When she came out with her queen a move later, Devon sent her a curious look, but didn’t comment.
He’d taught her in their very first match that the best chess players tended to use the queen later in the game so as not to endanger her early on. What he did not know, however, was that she’d read one of his books on chess and had devised a daring strategy.
An hour later Devon was sitting in his shirt sleeves, shoes and socks off, and she was wearing her petticoats, and no stockings. He was hot in pursuit of her deliberately exposed queen and was only one move away from taking it when she made her maneuver.
She moved her insignificant little pawn, lifted her eyes, and smiled sweetly. “Checkmate.”
His mouth dropped open. He studied the board, then ruefully shook his head. “I’ll be damned.” He leaned back to cross his arms over his chest. “You do have a way of sneaking up on a fellow. What’s my forfeit?”
Katrina delicately patted a yawn. “I’m tired. The only entertainment I require is a good night’s sleep.”
Devon groaned, but he courteously assisted her in rising. “Very well, heartless victor, I shall toss and turn alone.” His smile scalded her as she dressed again, but somehow she made it safely to her room. She wondered, as she took an age to sleep, if he, too, were tossing and turning.
And thus the long, lazy days blended into a time of understanding, a time of waiting, for each of them. Escape became something she’d put her mind to the next day, or the day after that. Whether stolen, whether immoral, this was the first taste of happiness she’d had since her father died, and she couldn’t bear to end it yet.
She told herself Billy was too alert at his post beside the door, but in truth no prisoner had ever had a more indulgent jailer. He tipped his hat to her when she passed. His approving smile broadened with every laugh she and Devon shared. She could have easily skirted around him and escaped during one of his many naps, but she didn’t. Devon occasionally left her alone while he saw to his business affairs, but even then she found occupation. Soon she’d leave, she reassured herself. Soon.
The crisis of their relationship came the day Devon took her driving in Hyde Park. She’d complained about not being out in the increasingly sunny days.
To which he replied, “And here I thought we were sun.
moon, and stars to one another.” His eyes belied his teasing tone, but when she met that hungry look, he turned away.
She clenched her fists. Nothing had really changed between them. He was still an earl; she was still a baker’s granddaugh
ter. She didn’t know why he’d said that, but she dared not read a false meaning only because she desperately wanted to believe it. “For a man who denies love exists, that’s a maudlin remark.” She looked into the mirror and fussed with her neatly upswept hair. The next mov« was his.
He took it, coming up behind her to catch her shoulders in his hands. “And what if I told you that I’ve much to learn in life?” he whispered. “And so, perhaps, have you?”
“Why, I’d say that you need sunlight even more than I to clear the cobwebs from your brain. Demon Devon is not a changeable man.” She searched his mirrored features, longing for him to countermand her, but he stepped away.
“Very well, my dear, you’ll have your sunlight.” He exited, and she heard him ordering Peter to hook up his curricle.
Her steps dragging, she followed. If she’d expected a declaration, she hadn’t gotten it. Though what had he been hinting at, then?
She sent puzzled glances at his pure profile as he drove. Was he really so sure of her to take her out in public? By the time they reached Hyde Park, had she contemplated crying for help, the looks she received would have disabused her of the notion. The sea captain’s widow glared at her, then turned pointedly away. Three men riding prime bloods leered at her. Only when Devon narrowed menacing eyes upon them did they canter off.