Something in the way the woman dipped her head and smiled stopped Evan MacLaren in his tracks. The breeze from the ballroom’s open terrace doors caught one dark ringlet and ruffled the lock against her long, elegant neck. From her pure Grecian profile to her lithe, narrow waist to the softly rounded flare of her hips, she embodied perfection. She turned in her chair to face the turbaned matron she addressed, and her eyes met his. He caught his breath. Clear pools of honey-brown fringed by gold lashes seared his very soul. She was a goddess. He grimaced inwardly at the turn of his thoughts and offered a rakish grin in hopes of hiding his attraction. The touch of a smile on her rose-hued lips betrayed only tolerant amusement in the instant before she returned her attention to the woman at her side. Thank you, but no. The swift dismissal heated his blood with challenge. A low laugh arose from that graceful flower, then she and her matronly companion rose and strolled toward the refreshments table. The rich, olive-green velvet of her skirt swayed with the subtle shift of her hips. He quashed the desire to chase her. She was just another woman, in a chamber filled with luscious beauties.
Evan wound through the crowd to the quiet cardroom, where a man might find a better suited drink than the sweet lemonade served in the ballroom. A sideboard laden with decanters and bottles sat against the left wall. He crossed the room and filled a tumbler with whisky. Glass in hand, Evan wandered past the table of card players. Sir Stirling James looked up from his cards and nodded. Evan nodded back and took the final three paces to the hearth, where sat half a dozen other gentlemen. He leaned one shoulder against the mantle and savored the liquor, waiting for its mellowing effect to take hold. “She is looking for a new interest, I hear,” Lord Smith said. The Duke of Holmes’ eyes lit with devilry. “Her interests have always been wide and varied.
” The portly gentleman leaned back in his chair and tapped his fingers against his vest, embroidered in bright jewel tones and gold lace. The style echoed the flamboyance of his youthful days, yet still suited his shoulder length, faded red-gold locks. Lord Smith nodded. “Aye, her interests have always been adventurous.” Evan wondered which woman present was the object of their discussion. Did he know her? Was she someone who would make this trip to the country brighter? “Ah.” Holmes gave an exaggerated sigh. “Were I only twenty years younger…” The younger man leaned over and slapped the elder’s shoulder. “What’s the matter, Your Grace? Afraid you’re not up to the—ride?” Holmes broke into loud guffaws. “Her first husband wasn’t up to the deed, and died in her bed.
” Had he heard correctly? The lady in question killed her first husband on their wedding night? Lord Bumbleberry clapped a hand to his chest. “Oh, to be clasped by those firm, ivory thighs.” Holmes shook his head. “Now, what would a scapegrace like you know about the lady’s thighs? I said she was adventurous, not lacking in taste.” Lord Bumbleberry’s reddish brows drew together sharply. “Keep your opinions to yourself, thank you very much.” The duke slapped the table. “Told you he had no idea of the lady’s secret charms.” His eyes sparkled with a wicked light. “Remember how she raced her phaeton?” “Such a daring girl.
” Lord Parker almost sighed the words. The duke grinned. “Carr came up from London like a fury. Her papa was helpless to do aught but agree to Carr’s demand that the wedding take place immediately.” He sobered. “She quieted for a time after that. Perhaps, if he had been able to sire a child on her, she would have remained quiet.” “She’s an excellent horsewoman,” said Lord Parker. “A reckless hoyden of a horsewoman, if you ask me,” said Lord Smith. “Of course, her thighs would be long and lean from all that wild riding.
” “Wild riding, ho!” Holmes said. “Tally-ho!” said Lord Parker. The chamber erupted into raucous laughter and the men lifted their glasses in a toast and drank. Lord Bumbleberry scowled. “I will win her over.” “I don’t know about that.” The duke regarded him doubtfully. “Oh, no?” “You actually think you can best the competition?” Holmes said. Lord Bumbleberry slammed his glass down on the table. “No man here can outride me—in bed or out.
” The duke turned to Evan. “What of young Mr. MacLaren?” The older man made a dramatic show of appraising Evan. “He’s certainly a handsome young swain and I think our Lady Hoyden will be most impressed by his horsemanship skills.” Lord Bumbleberry’s scowl deepened. “I have never been impressed by the horsemanship skills of a common privateer. Much less one without two pence to rub together.” A sudden fury seized Evan. What in hell’s name could this spoiled, soft bellied noble know of the sacrifices he had made for his family’s honor? He studied the amber liquid in his glass for two heartbeats, forced calm, then said, “You may have a point about the horsemanship of privateers, compared to the nobleman who rides in leisure with hounds.” He raised his gaze and held Lord Bumbleberry’s.
“But marksmanship skills are another matter, entirely.” The other man paled. Evan offered a cold smile. “I would be pleased to make a demonstration at dawn.” Lord Bumbleberry snapped his spineless form against the polished mahogany chair back, then sought quick refuge in his drink. Quiet settled over the group. The scrape of shifting boots and the clink of decanters against glasses wafted from other parts of the room. Someone began shuffling cards. Gradually, the gentlemen departed. Only the Duke of Holmes remained.
“Well, young Mr. MacLaren, the question remains,” he said. Evan raised a hard stare to the older man. “What question?” He bristled, ready to challenge even this powerful duke if he dared insult his situation or family. Yet, he had no idea why his pride was so easily pricked tonight. It was a shameful loss of selfcontrol. He might have a taste for danger and risk, but he was no hot-headed fool. Holmes stared back warmly, seemingly unaware of any contention. “Are you going to ask the adventurous lady to dance?” “Who?” “Lady Carr.” “I do not know her,” Evan replied.
The duke snorted. “Surely you could not have missed that lithesome beauty gowned in green velvet? The one with the deep brown hair and the—” He made quick motions with his hands, approximating a woman’s lush form. Ah, so it was the female who had given him the polite—but firm—rebuff. She was the lady whose husband had died in an effort to claim his husbandly rights? Like simmering rum on a cold Atlantic morn, his blood began to warm. “I see you know her.” Holmes chuckled, then rose. Holmes canted his head, then strolled away. Evan watched his retreat. This gathering had become too stale to bear. A spoiled, wealthy hellion, and the gentlemen who so lacked zest in their luxurious lives that they found her a novelty.
Evan tossed back the last of his whisky, set the glass on the mantle and started toward the door. “She’s not really the wild adventuress that they have painted her.” Evan stopped and turned. Sir Stirling James stood near the chair Holmes had vacated, his dark eyes alive with excitement. Or was it expectation? It rankled Evan’s growing sense of impending… what? Trap? Evan kept his expression impassive. “Pardon me?” Sir Stirling smiled with warmth. “Lady Carr is not some silly minded, wild girl. She is a sophisticated woman who lives life to the fullest. Though she still retains a sort of naivety…no, it is more a freshness.” Sadness flickered in his expressive eyes.
“It is unfair that some malign her.” In this, Evan agreed. His earlier disgust for those gentlemen returned—parlor tigers—who lacked backbone. They bolstered their flagging manhood by making a conquest of a woman they neither understood, nor fully appreciated. “Would you care to meet the lady?” Sir Stirling asked. The man’s expression was pleasant. The sense of a trap returned. Nevertheless, Evan found himself following Sir Stirling James back to the ballroom. Chapter Two Leslie sighed and shifted in her seat. “The party has grown dull.
” Alice Langley, her friend of fifteen years, gave a low laugh. “I imagine that means you haven’t found a suitable gentleman with whom to while away the night.” Leslie cast Alice a sideways look. With not a single gray hair on her fair head, Alice was still magnificent at the mature age of forty-five. “You know full well I don’t live up to that ridiculous reputation,” Leslie said. “I also know you often come closer than you let on.” “Not so,” Leslie said with a laugh, though she knew it was true. “I would say your evening is about to get much more interesting,” Alice said. “What—” Leslie began, then caught sight of the two men who sidestepped a group of ladies. Sir Stirling James and— Piercing blue eyes met hers.
Her heart pounded as it had upon seeing him earlier. What thick, dark brows he had. They lent his elegant, handsome face a fierceness that made her breath quicken. But it wasn’t simply the dark brows that saved him from appearing too boyish, too pretty. His eyes bore a worldly shrewdness. What could have caused that look in such a young man? Leslie lowered her eyelids a fraction. Those eyes were too intense…too knowing. She cast a furtive glance at his well-cut, dark blue suit. Not an inch of softness in that tall, powerfully muscled body. His carriage was that of a warrior, confident and comfortable in his masculine power.
Had he learned that deportment in military service? “Who is he?” she whispered to Alice. “Everyone knows Sir Stirling.” Leslie scowled. “You know full well I’m not speaking of Sir Stirling.” “Ah,” Alice intoned, all innocence, but Leslie knew her friend too well to be fooled. “That is Evan MacLaren,” Alice said. Leslie stopped herself just in time from yanking her gaze onto the man. “Not that young privateer who captured the Zeus three months ago?” “One and the same,” Alice replied. “That was an eighty-gun ship,” Leslie said. “I heard he lost not a single man on his ship,” Alice said.
Leslie gave a slow nod. “Perhaps not. But the French have a bounty on his head. He’s caused them no end of annoyance.” “I think he’s about to cause you no end of annoyance.” Alice broke off and Leslie looked up as the two men halted before them. “Ladies.” Sir Stirling bowed. “May I introduce Mr. Evan MacLaren.
Evan, this is Lady Hilton.” Mr. MacLaren grasped the hand Alice extended toward him and bowed. “My lady.” Alice’s eyes gleamed with amusement. “A pleasure to make your acquaintance, Mr. MacLaren.” Sir Stirling turned to Leslie and smiled. Leslie kept a neutral expression. The man was a charmer.
It was a shame he was married. She felt certain he would be a great deal of fun. “Lady Carr, may I introduce Mr. Evan MacLaren.” Sir Stirling sidestepped. Mr. MacLaren turned to Leslie. She extended her hand. He grasped her gloved fingers. His warmth penetrated the fabric and a frisson of awareness raced up her arm.
Those intense eyes locked with hers as he lifted her hand and pressed his mouth against her fingers. An all-too-familiar tingle radiated through her stomach. This young man was another charmer, and probably quite dangerous. But it would take a dangerous man to be a sailor these days—particularly a British privateer in Napoleon’s war. Desire to learn more about Evan MacLaren flared to life. Leslie started. Such a compelling need was dangerous, for this younger son of a viscount was not wealthy. A handsome youth with no title and no money—the Zeus was a war ship filled with soldiers, not treasure, which meant Mr. MacLaren received a paltry sum from His Majesty in thanks for risking his life. He had no prospects besides improving his lot through marriage.
He released her hand and she was startled to realized she missed his warmth. Nae. She didn’t need complications. She enjoyed affairs with peers. Gentlemen who enjoyed their freedom as much as they enjoyed pleasure and luxury. The memory of a Season spent fending off ardent, false avowals of love, and promises of matrimonial bliss, made her tired. Even as a virgin, she hadn’t relished hurting a man. She would say her goodnights, go straight to her bedchambers and, in the morning, she would leave this party. Those blue eyes still stared. She opened her mouth to make her excuses.
“A waltz.” Sir Stirling’s remark caught her off guard. “Might I have this dance?” asked Mr. MacLaren. Leslie started to say nae, you may not have this dance, and you know perfectly well why, but Alice cut in, and said, “The waltz is your favorite of all dances, Leslie. You need a partner worthy of you. Give this young man a whirl.” She grinned. Leslie angled her head in Mr. MacLaren’s direction.
“Do you dance the waltz, Mr. MacLaren?” He lifted a brow. “Quite well, ma’am.” “There you have it,” Alice said. “Sir Stirling can sit and chat with me while you two dance.” She looked up at Sir Stirling expectantly. He gave a slight bow. “I would be honored, my lady.” Mr. MacLaren extended his hand toward her.
She placed her hand in his and he held her steady as she rose. The pressure of his fingers on hers in the instant before he released her made her wonder what it would be like to have those fingers grasping the back of her neck as he pulled her in for a kiss. She repressed a shiver. “Is anything wrong, my lady?” he asked. Leslie shook her head. “Not a thing.” He stared for a moment, and she thought she detected amusement in his eyes, but couldn’t be sure. He was a cool character. He extended his hand and she placed hers atop the back of his hand. He led her toward the dance floor.
By the time they reached the dancers, the waltz was in full swing. He surprised her by whirling her around to face him and stepping in between two couples, then twirling her so hard that her dress flared. The press of his leg against her inner thigh caused her mouth to go dry. Pure muscle. He dodged a couple while turning her in another tight circle. She couldn’t prevent a laugh. “I see you are, indeed, an excellent dancer.” “My mother insisted upon lessons from the time I was ten.” “Ten? You jest.” His mouth ticked up with the hint of a rueful smile.
“On my honor, I speak the truth. My mother believes that the making of a gentleman takes a lifetime of learning.” “What say you, Mr. MacLaren? Was your mother right?” He sidestepped a couple who came perilously close to them, then turned in time to the music, skirting the edge of the dance floor. “My mother is alive and well. I would never think to gainsay her. Mothers have a way of knowing such things even when very far away from their children.” Leslie laughed again, as much for the straight-faced way in which he delivered this information, as the fact that she thought he actually believed it. “Your mother sounds like an interesting woman.” His expression softened.
“She is.” He spoke the words with more fondness than was fashionable. That surprised her. This young man, so controlled, had a soft spot for his mama. “What of you, my lady?” he asked. “What do you believe makes a man a gentleman?” She narrowed her eyes. “Not being impertinent with a lady.” “I have a feeling that impertinence is something you know a great deal of.” She lifted a brow. “That is something a gentleman would never point out.
” The rueful smile returned. “I imagine my mother is right then. Becoming a gentleman takes a lifetime of work. I beg you, do not tell her that I have failed so miserably.” The man had a flare for drama. What an interesting contradiction. Leslie met the gaze of Lady Handley as her partner whirled her past. Married eight years, Lady Handley was a woman dissatisfied with her situation. The disapproving look she affected was undone by the jealousy reflected in her eyes. “I don’t think Lady Handley cares for you,” Mr.
MacLaren said. “A gentleman wouldn’t point that out, either,” she said. “Perhaps you ought to give me lessons on how to be a gentleman. No doubt, my poor mother would be grateful for the help.” Leslie tilted her head so that she was forced to look at him through her lashes. “I am not such a fool as to believe that is the lesson she would have me teach you, young sir.” He lifted a dark brow. “Are you implying that I need lessons in making love to a woman?” She misstepped. His arm tightened around her waist and he yanked her close, keeping time with the music. Her heart thundered.
His gaze darkened. “I see the idea has its appeal.” “You are rather abominable, you know.” She cursed the breathless note in her voice. She was no green girl. What was wrong with her? “My—” “Let me guess,” Leslie cut in. “Your mother has told you this often.” Genuine amusement lit his eyes this time. “She has, in fact.” The music crescendoed and she realized the dance would soon end.
Disappointment stabbed. She regarded him. “I imagine she has also told you that you are trouble.” His brows shot up. “She has warned me that I will find myself in trouble.” Leslie gave a slow nod. “Then I imagine she was sparing her feelings, for you are trouble.” His gaze bore into her. “I understand you, too, have a penchant for trouble.”