SHE WAS NOT going to go through with it. Huntingdon checked his pocket watch for at least the tenth time since his arrival, relief sliding through him. One quarter-hour late for the appointed assignation. Lady Helena must have seen the error of her reckless decision. Thank merciful heavens. His heart, which had been pounding with pained expectation ever since his arrival at the nondescript rooms where she had arranged to meet—and lose her virtue—to Lord Algernon Forsyte, eased to a normal rhythm at last. The notion of the innocent sister of his best friend so sullying herself had been appalling. Horrifying, in fact. He had scarcely been able to believe it when Lord Algernon had revealed the plan to him the night before. Over a game of cards. The swine had been laughing. And then he had dared to include Lady Helena’s maidenhead in his wager. As if she were a trollop so accustomed to being ill-used that anyone’s prick would do. Huntingdon had been disgusted and outraged. He had also made certain he had won the game and that Lord Algernon would never again bandy about Lady Helena’s name without fear of losing his teeth.
Huntingdon’s sense of honor had prevented him from going directly to Lady Helena’s father. The Marquess of Northampton was an unforgiving, draconian clod, and Gabe had no doubt that the repercussions for Lady Helena would have been drastic. It had been his cursed compassion, along with his decade-long friendship with Lady Helena’s brother Shelbourne, which had brought him here this morning to save her from ruin himself. Huntingdon paced the stained carpets, trying to tamp down his impatience. He would wait for a full half hour just to make certain she had not been somehow waylaid. As distasteful as he found it to be cloistered in Lord Algernon’s appallingly unkempt rooms, he had only—he checked his timepiece once more—ten minutes remaining until he could flee and forget all about this dreadful imposition upon his day. A sudden noise drew him to a halt. Surely it was not a knock? He listened, and there it was again. A hesitant report. Once, twice, thrice.
His heart began to pound once more and the heavy weight of dread sank in his gut. She had come. He stalked to the door and hauled it open. There, on the threshold, stood a lady, her face obscured by a veil. There could be no doubt as to her identity. Huntingdon grasped her forearm and pulled her into the room before anyone happened upon them. The fewer witnesses to her folly, the better. She gasped at the suddenness of his actions, stumbling forward and tripping over the hem of her skirts. There was nowhere for her to go but into his arms. Huntingdon was scarcely able to throw the door closed at her back before he had warm, feminine curves pressed against him.
The scent of bergamot and lemon oil, undeniably welcome in these shabby rooms badly in wont of cleaning and dusting, washed over him. Her hat fell from her head as she was jostled into him, revealing her face. He found himself looking down into the astonished emerald eyes of Lady Helena Davenport. He had a moment to note her breasts were ample and full, crushed again his chest, and her lips were wider than he remembered. She had the most entrancing dusting of freckles on the bridge of her nose, her pale-blonde hair coming free of her coiffure in silken wisps. She looked like a Renaissance Madonna. But she had come to this cesspit to be thoroughly ruined. The part of him which could never be entirely governed by reason and honor suddenly rose to rude prominence in his trousers. He was seized by a crushing urge to taste her lips. To slam his mouth on hers and give her a punishing kiss.
Would she kiss him back? Would she be scandalized? He inhaled sharply, shocked at himself, at the cursed weakness he could never seem to overcome no matter how hard he tried. This is wrong. He exhaled. Think of Lady Beatrice. Inhaled again. A mistake, as it turned out. All he could smell was Helena. She clutched at his shoulders as if he were a lifeline. “Huntingdon! What are you doing here?” He settled her on her feet and released her, stepping back, recalling his outrage. This was his friend’s sister.
Shelbourne would be devastated if he knew what she was about. And as Shelbourne’s friend, he was duty-bound to act as another brother to her. “I am saving you from the greatest mistake of your life, my lady,” he told her grimly, trying to forget the way her body had molded to his. “What in heaven’s name were you thinking, arranging an assignation with a disgusting scoundrel like Lord Algernon Forsyte?” “I was thinking my reputation would be destroyed,” she snapped, irritation edging her voice now that she had regained her balance. She was angry with him, he realized, astounded. She ought to have been awash in gratitude, thanking him for his generosity of spirit. Instead, her lips had thinned, and her jaw was clenched. Her brilliant green eyes glittered with irritation. He blinked. “You wanted to be ruined?” Surely he could not have heard her correctly.
He had expected her to say Lord Algernon had wooed her with pretty words of love and coerced her into meeting him here. He had imagined she would tearfully thank him and then promise to never again do anything so rash and dangerous. “Of course. Why else do you suppose I would have arranged to meet him at his private rooms?” she asked. What the devil? Huntingdon struggled to make sense of this bloody mire. “You do not fancy yourself in love with him, then.” “No.” “You know a man such as he will never marry you,” he pressed. “I would not marry him, either.” He frowned at her.
“Then I fail to understand the meaning of this horrible folly, Lady Helena.” “The meaning is freedom.” Lady Helena’s chin tipped up in defiance. “Mine.” Freedom. The word was strangely alluring, the notion foreign. Huntingdon had been trapped by duty from the time he had been a lad in leading strings. “Freedom,” he repeated, as if the word tasted bitter on his tongue. Because it did. He had been born into an acrimonious union marked by selfishness and mutual enmity.
What had once begun as a love match had deteriorated into a state of perpetual hatred and misery for everyone involved, including Huntingdon and his sister, who had paid the ultimate price for their parents’ many sins. His grandfather had impressed upon him at an early age the need to uphold his honor and duty. Grandfather was gone, but the heavy weights of obligation which the former earl had set, rather like tombstones, had not left this earth with his mortal soul. “Freedom, yes,” said those full, wicked lips. Lips he had previously had occasion to notice were quite inviting. Lips he had promptly forced himself to forget. Lady Beatrice was the bride Grandfather had settled upon, the betrothal contract struck just before his death. Huntingdon had promised he would follow through, and his strict code of honor forbade him from courting his friend’s sister. “You do not know what you are saying,” he said, as much to himself as to Lady Helena. Curse it, even the small gap between her front teeth was entrancing.
Her scent curled about him like some witch’s spell. He had to force her to see reason. To send her on her way. Only sternness would do. Huntingdon braced himself for a battle. HELENA MADE A habit of offering prayers each evening before bed and every morning when she rose. As she faced the man she had always loved—the man who would forever be lost to her—she said her prayers again. Thank you, Lord, for sending me Hungtingdon in place of the odious Lord Algernon. Hmm. That was rather poorly done of her, was it not? One ought not to cast aspersions upon the characters of others in prayer.
She hastily amended. Thank you, Lord, for sending me Hungtingdon in place of Lord Algernon. Even if his presence boded ill for her plan—which it decidedly did, since paragons did not ruin ladies for sport—she could not help but to be filled with a giddy sense of relief that Lord Algernon had failed to arrive. And that, instead, Huntingdon was here. Where she was meant to have been all along. Where she had planned to be. In the precise spot she had chosen—albeit in desperation—to escape the loathsome marriage her father was intent upon forcing her into. A woman without means had precious few choices, and Helena had settled upon ruination to procure her liberty since Father refused to see reason. She could do anything, commit any sin, if only it meant she could escape a grim future as the wife of Lord Hamish White. She was running out of time.
Father had informed her the betrothal’s formal announcement would come within the next fortnight. Desperation edged her every action. “You do not know what you are saying,” Huntingdon was telling her, breaking through her tumultuous thoughts. Drat him for his handsome face. For his debonair, gentlemanly air. For his dark hair and sparkling blue eyes. Drat him for refusing to see her as anything more than his friend’s sister. For never showing a hint of interest in her—because surely her father would have settled upon an earl before he would have decided she must wed his political crony, Lord Hamish. Drat him, drat him, drat him. “I know what I am saying,” she corrected the arrogant, beautiful earl who owned her heart.
And who was betrothed to the irritatingly perfect Lady Beatrice Knightbridge. Drat Lady Beatrice, too. “No,” Huntingdon countered. “You cannot. This is madness, Lady Helena. Sheer and utter lunacy. The risks you have taken with your reputation…freedom is not what will come of such a foolish action. Of that, I can assure you.” How certain he was. How sure he knew better than she.
Resentment stung her. “How do you suppose you know better than I do, my lord? Do you think me an imbecile?” She loved him, but Huntingdon was Huntingdon. Proper and frigid and exuding an overall aura of untouchability that both attracted and repelled her. She longed to kiss his jaw and muss up his hair every time she saw him. To undo his necktie and slide her hands inside his coat. To break down his icy walls. But in this moment, Helena could not resist the urge to challenge him in a different manner. Part of her was currently rejoicing he had saved her from an untenable fate. But the other part of her railed against his highhandedness. Moreover, he had just dashed her plans.
How dare he? His countenance—almost too pretty to belong to a man, it was true—reflected his shock at her outrage. “I have always prized your intellect, Lady Helena. However, there is only one deduction I can make from the lack of sound reasoning and logic you exhibit in this disastrous attempt at being the architect of your own ruin.” Huntingdon could have been an orator. His voice was deep and smooth and melodious, rather like silk to the senses. And even his speech was impeccable, his words eloquent without being flowery, his charismatic charm ineffably persuasive. Too bad it was all wasted upon her at the moment. “Are you being forced into an untenable marriage?” she demanded. His lips parted. With surprise at her rancor, no doubt.
Forget about how delicious his mouth is, Helena. You will never have the opportunity to kiss it. Much to her everlasting disappointment. She rushed on without bothering to wait for his response. “Of course you are not. You are a man. How could you possibly understand what it is like to be pressured and coerced into accepting a marriage that will drain your soul? A union so despicable you would sooner give your innocence to the nearest available scoundrel than submit yourself to the yoke? And this, to say nothing of the laws which remain in his favor to keep me pinned beneath his hated thumb.” Although there had been laws introduced to aid the plight of women in marriage, they had not provided complete protection. In truth, there were not sufficient laws in existence to govern a marriage with Lord Hamish. “I did not come here to argue the laws of the land,” Huntingdon said, his tone taking on a curt note.
“Why did you come here then, Lord Huntingdon?” she asked him, begging the question that had been nagging at her from the moment she had crossed the threshold to find him here. There was something undeniably agreeable about the earl’s strength. He excelled at athleticism and it showed. He was an estimable rower and swimmer, with the broad shoulders and musculature of a man who did not dally on dance floors or aimlessly haunt his clubs. Of course he was the epitome of masculinity. The Earl of Huntingdon was perfection. Full stop. And that was the problem with him. Also, likely, the problem with Helena. She was far from perfection.
Unapologetically imperfect, that was what she was. Too loud, too bold, too opinionated. Hair too light, laughter too brash, teeth unevenly spaced. Her father had hoped for a dedicated daughter who would meekly cower to his whims and accept his matrimonial guidance. But she was doing everything in her power to thwart him. “Why did I come here?” he asked, repeating her query, a note of disbelief edging his baritone now. “By God, my lady, do you even dare to ask such a question of me? It is plain as the sun’s rays that men such as Lord Algernon Forsyte are not to be trusted. The scoundrel was letting it be known to everyone within earshot what he intended to do with the incomparable Lady Helena Davenport. What else was I to do, hmm? Find my oldest friend and inform him that his lady sister was about to forfeit her innocence to a villain like Forsyte?” Dismay washed over her. “Lord Algernon was obviously the wrong man for the task,” she said.
“Next time, I will choose better.” He caught her arm again—her elbow, to be precise, his touch like a brand—and pulled her nearer. Almost imperceptibly. A gentle tug, nothing more. The Earl of Huntingdon would never deign to importune a lady. No matter how vexed he was with her. And as she eyed his visage, Helena was willing to wager her entire dowry that Huntingdon was indeed quite vexed. Mayhap outraged would be a more effective descriptor… “What the…” Huntingdon paused and seemed to gather himself before continuing. “No, my lady. Whatever nonsense is rotting your mind, I implore you, steer yourself in a more beneficial direction.
” A more beneficial direction being marriage. To Lord Hamish. No cursed thank you, my lord. She pulled her elbow from the earl’s grasp. Reluctantly, of course, because she did so enjoy his touch, and she could not deny it. But he was acting the elder brother to her now. Pretending he knew better of her future than she could possibly comprehend. As if a man such as he—an earl who had possessed endless independence from the moment of his birth—could possibly understand. “I will steer myself in the course I choose,” she informed him coolly. “In the course that is the best for me.
Lord Hamish is not my future. I would sooner throw myself from a roof.” “Your melodrama is tiresome, my lady.” He offered her his arm. “Come. I will see you safely escorted home.” Of all the men her stupid heart could have chosen to love. Why this one? He was maddening. Helena ignored his arm, her frustration and desperation superseding all other feelings. “I will see myself home, Lord Huntingdon.
” He frowned. “Of course you will not. Shelbourne would have my hide if I allowed anything ill to befall you.” The mention of her brother had Helena’s back stiffening. It was like a dagger’s sharpened edge, the reminder that Huntingdon was only here out of a misplaced sense of duty to his friend. Not because he cared about Helena. He had Lady Beatrice. “If Shelbourne cared about me, he would stand up to my father and insist he cease pressuring me into an unwanted marriage,” she countered. Instead, her brother had attempted to dissuade Father before ultimately siding with him, telling her she must honor their father’s wishes. Her objections she wanted a love match had met with disapproval.
Love, he had told her cuttingly, had nothing to do with one’s happiness or one’s future. “Shelbourne is right in encouraging you to do your duty,” Huntingdon said then. Duty. A hated word, especially in connection to Lord Hamish. But Helena was tired of arguing. Now that Huntingdon had spoiled her chances of ruination, she needed to ponder her next move. She bent to retrieve her fallen hat, then placed it upon her head, rearranging her veil. “I have no wish to continue quarreling with you, my lord. I must go home before my absence is noted.” It was imperative that her father not discover what she had been about.
She could not take the risk he would hasten her marriage to Lord Hamish if he feared she would jeopardize the nuptials. She needed all the time she could get to arrange for a scandal. “Lady Helena,” he said, a warning in his voice. She ignored him and swept past. “Good day, my lord.” Out the door she went. She had arrived by hired hack, and she would leave the same way. Just let him try to stop her.