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Authors: Rebecca Kelley

The Wedding Chase (7 page)

BOOK: The Wedding Chase
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A lively composition in free form

Zel eased into the Selbys’ cavernous mahogany-paneled library, hoping for a little time to herself before she faced Northcliffe. He must think her mad, furiously gambling one minute, then weeping in his arms the next. Throwing herself at him like a complete wanton. Mad or wanton, she grimaced, so much for her little flirtation. But she had known from the first she was out of her depth. What could she hope for but disaster with a man who ran in Robin’s circles?

She heard a low mumble and turned toward the fireplace, Northcliffe’s long, lean form was draped across an overstuffed chair, his dark head bent over a letter, reading in a very slow, deep tone. Zel cleared her throat and his head jerked up.

He crumpled the vellum in his fist, a flush creeping over the sculpted lines of his face. “Miss Fleetwood. I didn’t hear you come in.”

“Lord Northcliffe, forgive my trespass. I will leave …” She couldn’t pull her gaze from his high-boned, reddened cheeks.

“Stay. There’s nothing I desire more than your company,
except to have you call me by my given name, Wolfgang. As I will call you Zel.” His eyes gleamed the bright silver of her dream. His jacket and waistcoat lay open, the kerseymere of his trousers stretched taut over muscular thighs.

Zel swallowed hard, averting her eyes, but she knew he was aware of where her glance had fallen. She must learn to exercise more control over her wandering eyes. “I, ah, came for a book.”

“As good a reason as any to visit a library.” His grin had a feral curl to it, and a glow came from behind his eyes. This was no tame house pet, but a wolf as far removed in the animal kingdom from her well-trained dog as an Indian tiger was from a domesticated cat. It took all her meager willpower to stand in place when every nerve in her body screamed to turn and run from his potent presence. Only the lingering touch of pink clinging to his cheeks, that hint of vulnerability, kept her there.

She found her voice. “Please return to your letter.”

A scowl skimmed over his features. “You know, I hired a runner to find the footpads, but he’s turned up nothing.”

“The footpads?” Zel paused, then caught his chain of thought. “The attack was more than a simple robbery?”

His face hardened, his tone turned harsh. “Why would you say that?”

Surprised by the vehemence of his response, she stumbled over her words. “No reason, I meant … I am sorry. I only thought you would not bother with a runner for a simple robbery.”

“You think I wouldn’t seek justice after being stabbed?” Northcliffe stood and stared at the carved fireplace.

“Is there any hope of finding a few footpads among all the criminals in London?” Zel tucked a strand of hair into the knot at her neck. “You were hurt, but your own neglect made it worse. Did they take something of great value?”

“No, they took nothing. My men and I drove them off.” He turned, stalking slowly toward her.

“Did you describe them to the runner?” She held her ground.

“They wore masks and hooded cloaks.”

“Then how do you ever expect to find them?” Looking up at him, she paused before plunging in. “You must have some clues to warrant hiring a runner.”

Tempered steel eyes met hers. “Must I?”

“You are being evasive. There is more to this than you admit.” Certain he was not telling her the whole story, Zel felt equally uncertain as to whether she should seek more answers.

Northcliffe gripped her arm, the lines of his mouth tight. “This is not your concern.”

She glared back at him. “You brought it up.”

His frown softened to a crooked smile as his hand loosened on her arm. “Forgive me. Perhaps my years of military service have made me look for enemies under every bush and hedgerow.”

“You were in the military?” Zel tried to stifle the astonishment in her voice.

“That surprises you?” A grimace pinched his face. “I served as a captain under Wellington until an injury sent me home. I decided to sell out after I healed.”

“You must have stories to tell.”

“None worth the telling.” Northcliffe sat on a small sofa, patting the space beside him. “Come sit with me.”

Zel moved away, striding purposefully toward a book-lined wall. “I planned to read before the picnic.” Browsing through the volumes, she selected a book at random. Taking a seat across the room from Northcliffe, she opened the book. Sensing his movement, she looked unseeing at the words until he sat on the arm of the chair, taking the volume from her hands. He smelled of the outdoors, of horses, saddle leather and green things.

Northcliffe flipped back to the title page, then stared down at her. “Do you have any idea what you’re reading?”

“Of course I do.” She lifted her chin. “It is a collection of poetry.”

He chuckled. “It is poetry. By the famous, or should I say infamous, Lord Rochester. A friend, I might add, of the first earl of Northcliffe.” He scanned slowly through the pages. “My ancestor was titled by Charles II for service to the crown against the Roundheads.” Smiling broadly, he pointed to a passage. “Read this. Aloud.”

Taking the leather volume, she found the requested lines.

“ ‘
O that I now cou’d, by some chymic art
.’ ” Zel gulped as her eyes caught the next words before her mouth could utter them. Did he know what he asked her to read? Looking through her lashes at the smug smile curling his lips, she knew he did. She lifted her chin higher.

“ ‘
To sperm convert my vitals and my heart
.’ ” She coughed, raised her voice and continued.

“ ‘
That at one thrust I might my soul translate,/ And in the womb myself regenerate
.’ ” Her face must be glowing scarlet, but Zel would not stop and give him the satisfaction of knowing the level of her chagrin.

“ ‘
There stee’p in lust, nine months I would remain;/ Then boldly dash my passage out again
.’ ”

“Dash? Where does it say dash?” Northcliffe leaned over, running a finger methodically along the page.

“Right here.” She traced the tiny line.

“Do you know the word that belongs at that dash?” Laughter danced in the eyes that held hers.

Zel fought to appear sophisticated but knew the battle was falling to her embarrassment. She bravely looked up into his eyes. “I am not sure.”

“You don’t know.” His grin showed miles of white teeth. “If you think about it, I’m sure you can guess its meaning.” He closed the book. “Thanks for the recitation. But I believe Rochester is a little fast for you.”

“I choose my own reading material.” Zel reached for the book.

Wolfgang slid off the arm of the chair, standing at his considerable height, Rochester’s poetry held high over his head. “How badly do you want it?”

Zel lurched out of the chair and jumped for the book, landing flush against his chest. His arm slipped around her, steadying her, holding her for one impossibly long moment.

“Oh, Lord!” She shoved him away, heart thudding in her throat, and flew from the room. His laughter followed her into the hall. Rushing up the stairs, to her little room, she slammed the door, bracing it with her back.

Whatever possessed her to leap at him like some crazed bedlamite—after stubbornly reading that lascivious poem? He had the strangest, most disconcerting effect on her. If she could not get a better hold on herself, she would have to abandon this absurd flirtation. But exchanging witty repartee without wishing to feel his lips pressed to hers and his arms about her should be easy.

Zel sighed noisily. The sensible thing would be to let it go now, stay away from him and look for suitable husband material. Robin needed her. A tiny smile crept over her lips. There were a few more days before she returned to London and to the usually sensible, calm Zel Fleetwood.

Zel watched from the shade of a topiary castle spire as the carriages lined up in the long drive tracing the front of Selby Hall. The guests were beginning to pair and saunter toward the phaetons and landaus. She spotted Northcliffe climbing down the entry steps just as she felt a hand at her elbow.

“Miss Fleetwood. I would be pleased to have you accompany me to the picnic site in my curricle.” Lord Newton’s thin-lipped half smile had the unerring ability to send a small unpleasant flutter down her spine. “My new cattle are a lively pair, I promise you an enjoyable ride.”

“I would be honored, my lord.” She forced herself to return his smile, allowing him to usher her to a brown-and-gold carriage. Much as she disliked Newton, she did not feel very brave, and it would be less dangerous spending the day with him. There was absolutely no possibility she would be tempted to throw herself into
his
arms. She caught sight of Lady Horeton attaching herself to Northcliffe and purposefully directed her attention back to Newton.

Newton handed her into the curricle, speaking softly in his bass voice with just the hint of a nasal twang. “They do make a striking couple. He so large and dark and she so petite and fair. Were you aware that most men favor only one type of woman?” He smoothed his mustache, seemingly oblivious to Zel’s lack of response. “I prefer variety, but Northcliffe is clearly partial to petite, blond voluptuaries like his wife.”

“Wife?” The word broke through her lips before Zel could stop it.

“Yes,” Newton’s tone lowered. “His lovely, faithless, dead wife.”

Zel sat, quiet, stiff. Dead wife! Curiosity and propriety warred in her. Propriety, augmented by apprehension, won, and she did not ask the questions burning in her throat. She did watch Northcliffe toss Lady Horeton onto the seat of a shiny black-and-silver high-perch phaeton and take the ribbons to the perfectly matched grays. She unclenched her fists, staring straight ahead. How like him to have such a flashy and bold conveyence.

Wolfgang barely suppressed a groan as he settled on the seat beside Isadora, Lady Horeton, her childishly small hand at his arm. He would tolerate her company for the ride to the picnic, as Zel sat ready to depart in Newton’s carriage. Once there he would quickly abandon this plaguesome piece of female flesh.

“Your little pet seems to have deserted you for Newton.” Isadora studied his face, clearly waiting for a reaction.

“My little pet? I’d hardly call Miss Fleetwood little, a pet, or mine.” Wolfgang shifted his weight on the plush silver squabs, disengaging her hand. “I find it fascinating you watch her with such interest, Isadora.”

“I have no interest in her,” she replied too quickly. “I only wonder about your interest. She’s not your type.”

“You have no claims on me. Our liaison, such as it was, ended months ago.” He slid over the last few inches to put as much distance between them as the narrow seat allowed.

She started to reach for his arm again, then seemed to think better of it. “You know, your little innocent may not be as innocent as she appears.”

“Oh? And what makes you believe I give a damn if she is an innocent or not?” He gripped the ribbons and pulled the phaeton out to join the line of carriages wheeling down the drive, alarmed by the mixed feelings Isadora’s words stirred in him.

“She may have an innocent air but I’d wager she’s as experienced as any streetwalker. And you were never one to seek the company of whores.”

“You’re sadly mistaken. I fear I’m well known to associate with whores.” Wolfgang’s voice came out little more than a growl as he directed his attention to keeping his spirited horses within the confines of the plodding caravan.

“Why do you treat me so badly?” He could hear the phony tears in her voice and twisted to see her bat damp eyelashes at him. “I only want to be your friend.”

“We both know bloody well what you want from me.”

“Whatever do you mean?” She dabbed at her eyes with her lacy handkerchief, the picture of injured innocence.

His eyes veered back to the road. “We have been over this ground before.”

“Yes, you are willing to use my body but not offer your name or protection.”

“Blessed flames of hell! You entered into our agreement with eyes open and hands out. I made it clear what I offered and what I demanded in return. You were only too eager to comply.” He stared at the tears glistening in her reptilian eyes before turning his attention back to the pair of grays. “You seem to have forgotten your husband is still alive.”

“Not for long. He’s old and sickly.” Her voice softened to a breathy whisper. “I never expected to fall in love with you.”

“Beelzebub’s bootblack!” Wolfgang laughed harshly. “Do you think I’m a babe in the nursery? You love only yourself.” He glared at her. She wasn’t worth losing his temper.

“Wolf?” Isadora inhaled till her breasts nearly popped the seams of her dress. “Do you forget how our bodies fit together?”

“You bore me,
Lady
Horeton. You no longer have permission to use my Christian name. This conversation is over.” She pouted but to his relief made no further attempt to engage him in conversation. But he knew she hadn’t given up yet.

The mismatched bevy of conveyences clambered along beside the stream that cut gently into the curving hillside. They soon reached a grassy, tree-laden spot halfway to the summit.

As vehicles emptied, the revelers scattered, exclaiming over abundant rhododendrons and fragrant wild lilacs. Wolfgang watched, amused, as Zel made an escape.

Following silently, he slipped behind her and laid a hand lightly on her shoulder. As Zel whirled about, his hand played along her back, coming to rest on the opposite shoulder, and Wolfgang slid his other hand around her slender waist. “Bored of Newton so soon? I would never bore you.”

“I prefer to be alone.” She removed both hands, placing them back at his sides.

His lips twitched as he watched her walk rigidly toward
a meadow sprinkled with buttercups and daisies. He would enjoy taking some of the stiffness out of that straight spine.

He caught up to her, matching his stride to hers. “You never wear a corset.”

“And you, sir, are forever saying the most improper things.” Zel’s voice rang out a little higher than its usual throaty tone.

“I haven’t felt one when I’ve touched you.” He scanned her as they walked, sure he’d raised a blush, if only he could see her elfish face beneath the faded chip-straw bonnet. “And there’s no telltale line beneath your gowns, loose as they are.”

BOOK: The Wedding Chase
2.71Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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