Authors: Jaclyn Reding
Grace prudently chose the latter.
With one hand against the wall to guide
her, she made her way slowly in the darkness. But there didn’t seem to be any
openings at all, just smooth wall along a corridor that seemed only to grow
blacker with each step she took. She stumbled on some stairs and slowly she
made her way up. At the top of the steps, she flattened both hands against the
wall, moving along until, blessedly, her fingers found an opening in the wall.
It seemed to be some sort of panel. Grace felt around the edge of it, but could
find no mechanism, nothing that might release it.
She listened but didn’t
hear any sound coming from the other side. She tried to fit her fingers around
the outside edge, but the seal was too tight. So Grace placed her palm flat
against the panel and gave it a push. The upper corner seemed to give a bit, so
she slid her hands upward and gave it another try, and then another, this time
putting the weight of herself against it and—
The panel gave way and Grace tumbled
through headfirst, landing with a thud on her hands and knees. The fall set the
weight of her coiffure forward. She looked through the fallen mass of curls to
see the polished toes of a pair of boots standing directly in front of
her—boots that were most assuredly attached to a body.
drew her breath and held it as she looked up past long legs and a trim waist to
a chest that was both broad and—
—Bare. Surely this couldn’t be real.
couldn’t be real. Grace blinked, but he did not vanish. Good God, it
“This is certainly a first.”
His voice was deep and rich and he had the
most startling pair of eyes she’d ever before seen. They were silvery blue and
the way they were looking at her so candidly made her feel as if it was she who
was unclothed, not he. Grace had never before seen a man in any state of
undress and was appalled to find herself staring at the muscles that lined his
abdomen as he took up his shirt and slipped his arms inside.
“Oh my goodness!” was all she
could manage to say. Her next mistake was in wondering how the situation could
possibly get worse.
She soon had her answer.
“I suppose, given the circumstances,
I should introduce myself,” he said as he fastened the buttons on his
shirtfront. “I am Lord Knighton, your host this evening. And this”—he
smiled, a half-grin that was anything but warm—“is my dressing room. But
then you already knew that, didn’t you?”
Good God—of all the dressing rooms she
could have fallen into in this vast house, how had she managed to choose his?
With anyone else, she could quickly beg their pardon and leave, knowing she
would likely never see them again. But this was the man she was supposed to
marry, the man who didn’t yet realize that the woman
who had just come
tumbling through his dressing room wall was his intended bride. Could she dare
to hope he would forget this night and this meeting within the next fortnight?
The marquess turned and folded his
neckcloth with an ease Uncle Tedric would have applauded, all the while staring
at her as if it were perfectly reasonable for a woman to have come popping out
of the woodwork. Grace, on the other hand, felt utterly humiliated. It wasn’t
until Lord Knighton lowered before her, resting his forearm on his thigh while
he held out his other hand to her, that she even realized she was still
sprawled ignominiously upon his carpet.
“Unless you have acquired a sudden
fondness for my carpeting, might I suggest we find more equal footing?”
Cheeks burning, she placed her gloved hand
into his, coming as quickly as she could to her feet. She opened her mouth to
speak but no words would come out. She couldn’t quite decide if it would be
considered proper in such situations to thank a half-naked man for assisting a
lady to her feet. So Grace merely stood, her curls askew, silent as a
candlestick while Lord Knighton finished dressing. She was suddenly reminded of
Eleanor’s words earlier that evening, telling how the other ladies had been so
bold and relentless in their pursuit of her brother’s attention. She had just
fallen through the wall into Lord Knighton’s dressing room—where Lord Knighton
was presently dressing. Somehow she didn’t think there would be a more
undignified manner for one to “throw oneself” at a man.
There was one thing that was certain:
Seeing him now only brought Grace to understanding exactly why ladies were
blacking one another’s eyes to get near to him. Christian Wycliffe, Marquess
Knighton was, quite simply, the most beautiful man she’d ever seen. Hair that
was a deep chestnut brown swept back from his forehead to fall about the stark
white of his high collar. He had the sort of face that sculptors committed to
marble— clean, strong, inherently powerful. Tall and lean, he carried himself
with an air of noble distinction. One need not be told he was the heir to the
wealthiest dukedom in England. Everything about him declared it.
“I… uh…” Grace faltered,
somehow suddenly unable to speak. How in heaven’s name was she going to explain
her appearance there? “I was looking for my uncle…”
He quirked a brow. “Your uncle, is
it? Well that’s as good a tale as any. It happens all the time, although I
would say you are certainly more inventive than the others. This is the first
time I’ve ever had anyone come through my dressing room wall.”
Grace watched then as he took up his
coat—elegant black—and put it on, taking his time in adjusting his cuffs.
is angry. He thinks I have come here in hopes of catching him as a husband,
like one of the “helpless hopefuls,”
she thought to herself.
only he knew the truth.
But it was too ridiculous a notion to even laugh
He was watching her, quite obviously
awaiting her name, a thing she wasn’t about to give. Instead she intended to
get out of there as quickly as she could manage.
Grace started for the door. “Truly, I
was looking for my uncle and I got lost…” The thought of sharing a dance
with him now was beyond comprehension. “I’m sorry for the intrusion. I
shouldn’t have come here.”
As she made for the door, the marquess
stepped directly in her path, effectively preventing her from leaving. Grace’s
heart was pounding as she stared up at him. His eyes, she noticed, had changed
from silver blue to smoky, dangerous slate.
“Surely you don’t expect to leave so
soon after you went through such effort to get here.”
His smile had changed, too, into something
infinitely more predatory. Grace swallowed against a sudden nervous tightening
in her throat. “I’m afraid I do not understand, my lord.”
“That, Miss Whoever-You-Are, is
precisely my point. Didn’t your mother ever warn you against the dangers of
entering a man’s bedchamber?”
Grace frowned at his sarcasm, a small part
of her pulling deep inside. “My mother died when I was a child.”
For a moment, she thought she saw a
softening in his expression, but it didn’t remain that way long. “Allow me
to instruct you on the finer points of propriety.” He
took a step toward her.
He was standing so near, Grace had to cock her head back to look at him, for he
was at least six inches taller than she.
“There is a reason ladies of good
breeding do not sneak their way into the bedchambers of men. A very good
reason.” He took her by the arms. She suddenly found it difficult to
breathe. She wondered fleetingly if her feet still met the floor. She couldn’t
feel them. “A lady can never know for certain if the man in question is a
gentleman or a blackguard who would seize the opportunity to ravish her.”
“But you are a gentleman, sir. Your
grandfather is the Duke of Westover.”
His hands tightened on her arms and any
light to his expression was instantly gone. “A fact, my lady, that should
have been warning enough.”
Before Grace realized what was happening,
the marquess lowered his head, taking her mouth completely with his as he drew
her hard against the length of his body.
Christian felt the girl stiffen against
him and he tilted her head back to deepen the kiss, tasting her with his
tongue, running a finger along the slender column of her throat until he felt
her begin to tremble against him. He had had enough of female wiles and
machinations to last a lifetime. These antics had been amusing at first, but
this latest invasion of his privacy had gone far beyond the bounds. Had she
arrived but five minutes earlier, she would have discovered him at his bath and
he would now be embroiled in a mess he would have no hope of extricating
himself from. He intended to teach the lady a lesson she would not soon forget.
Only there was one problem. She didn’t seem to realize he was punishing her.
She wasn’t resisting him. Instead she melted against him, taking his kiss and
releasing a soft pleasing moan into his mouth.
Punishment be damned.
Christian kissed her back, forgetting for
the moment who he was, where they were, how she’d come to be there. He indulged
in the moment and in her—the softness of her skin, the faint herbal scent of
her pale hair, the total innocence of a gesture she so obviously knew
nothing about. A heat
begin to kindle within him—more precisely within his groin—something he hadn’t
felt in a very long time. Even as he tightened his arms around her, Christian
wondered that he should feel this way, with this woman, when no other had been
able to stir him in quite some time. Perhaps it was the fact that in less than
a fortnight, he was going to be marrying a woman he’d never even set eyes upon.
He shouldn’t be doing this, he knew, but in the very next moment, she pressed her
hips forward against him. Christian nearly lost his mind.
The thought to drag her to the carpet and
take what she was so obviously offering nearly overcame him. Every inch of him
begged to know her, to test the softness of the skin along her belly. Instead
he abruptly pulled away from her, even taking a step back. He watched her, her
eyes half-closed, her breathing coming quickly, her mouth so damned desirable.
One errant curl twisted over her forehead just above her brow, a twirl of amber
honey. Slowly her eyes drifted more fully open and he suddenly knew the color
of blue fire. She said nothing, just stood there, lips glossed from his kiss,
and the way she was looking at him could only be termed one thing—
Was she truly as innocent as her kiss
hinted? Or was she simply playing the part of the unschooled maiden? She had to
be a practiced seductress, he decided. What virgin would ever think to sneak
her way into a man’s bedchamber?
Christian stared at her hard. Who was this
mystifying creature? She was lovely, yes. Her nose was small and straight, her
lips a very becoming shade of pink—darker now that he’d kissed them. The silk
of her bodice strained against the fullness of her breasts, breasts that were
neither too small nor too large—but perfect. Honey-gold hair curled about her
head; her eyes, wide and staring, were the brightest blue he’d ever seen.
Still, any number of the other young women who had attempted to attract him
before could lay claim to similar loveliness. How had she been able to arouse
him so thoroughly when no other had?
He realized then there was something to
her—a difference, a uniqueness he could not quite define. How else could he
explain how he had gone from seeking to teach her a lesson in one moment to
being the one who was overcome in the next? How had she managed to defeat the
untouchable self-control he had spent most of his life perfecting?
He wondered who she was, but then told
himself it was better to keep her a stranger. Once he was wed, any assignation
between them would be impossible. He would not tolerate adultery in his
marriage. He would demand fidelity from his wife and would practice the same.
It could be no other way. So better to get her out of his dressing room as
quickly as possible.
Christian crossed the room in two strides
and opened the door. He stuck his head out and shouted “Jackson!” to
the empty corridor. He stood, watching her askance as if he didn’t quite trust
she would stay on the other side of the room. In truth, it was himself he couldn’t
trust; he didn’t think he would be able to restrain himself a second time from
When no response came to his summons,
Christian went out into the hall. He was readying to call out again when a
liveried footman appeared at the top of the stairs—a very large liveried
footman who had become quite adept at handling occasions such as these. Lord
knows he’d had plenty of experience.
“My apologies for not having come
sooner, my lord. There was a
belowstairs that required my
Christian frowned. “There is a
here that requires your attention as well.”
The footman exhaled loudly. “Another
Christian motioned toward his dressing
room door. “Please escort the young lady back to the fete. And then make
certain that all the doors on all the servants’ passageways are securely
“Aye, my lord.” Jackson headed
for the door. “Miss, if you’ll come with—”
But the footman turned back toward
Christian with a look of confusion. “My lord?”
Christian made for the door, knowing even
before he got there what he would find.
She had indeed gone, vanishing just as
quickly as she had come, leaving Christian to stare at the vacant wall panel
she’d fallen through moments earlier, far more befuddled than he cared to
Lord Cholmeley dozed in the coach after
they left the ball, leaving Grace to stare out the window at the rain-slick
London streets and the hazy glow of the lamplights through the swirling fog.
She was thankful for the solitude, for it allowed her to better come to terms
with the unbelievable events of that evening.
She still wondered how she had made it out
of that house after what had taken place in Lord Knighton’s dressing room. She
had taken the back stairs, slipping through the wall panel when Lord Knighton
had gone into the hall. This time, however, she had found the way straight to
the parlor as if her feet had always known the path. There she found her uncle
and quickly asked him to take her home, telling him she was unwell—“a
female ailment,” she’d added. A well-worn excuse, she knew, but it was the
only thing she could think of that wouldn’t have had him instantly
interrogating her. Instead he flushed pink and quickly set off to summon the
coach and retrieve their cloaks.