For most men, spinsters were a breed of female to be avoided at all costs, and under any other circumstances the Marquess of Fontaine would be in hearty agreement with that sentiment. But not in this circumstance. And not in regard to this particular spinster. “The years have been kind to her,” the Dowager Lady Fontaine said, peering out the window beside him. “She is more beautiful than before, despite all that she has suffered.” “It pleases me to hear that,” he murmured, his gaze locked on the willowy figure strolling through his rear garden. He wished he could see her face, but it was shielded from the sun by a wide brim hat and the distance from the second floor window to where she stood made the cataloging of finer details impossible. Lady Sophie Milton-Riley had been barely a woman the last time they met, soft and sweet with a penchant for mischief that had once goaded him to say, “Why can you never be serious?” To which she had replied, “Why can you never relax?” She seemed too serious now. She once traversed rooms with an elegant glide that forced him to stare and covet, but her present stride appeared to be confident, sure, and firmly grounded. “How long will they be visiting?” he asked. “Presently, a fortnight. But this is the first occasion Lady Sophie has ventured away from home since the scandal. I cannot be certain they will stay the duration.” Sophie had come with her grandmother, who was in collusion with his mother in this poorly veiled matchmaking scheme. The two women had been the best of friends for as long as he could remember.
He was certain that in their minds the joining of their progeny in marriage was absolute perfection. Once, he had thought so, too. Back when he was a young lad hopelessly infatuated with the vivacious Sophie. Her feelings for him had been nowhere near as amorous, however, and when she had come of age, it was Lord Langley who had won her favor and her promise to wed. “If you had not been so rude as to avoid their arrival,” his mother said with undisguised chastisement, “you might have made her feel more welcome.” “You told me of their arrival only moments before the fact. It would have been far more appalling for me to greet them when I was mud-stained.” His mother could say nothing to that without admitting more than she wished to. The truth was, she had feared his refusal and so had hidden her actions. He understood why she had resorted to subterfuge, but the precaution was unnecessary.
Sophie was welcome here. He held no ill will toward her and wished her nothing but happiness. The marquess turned away from the velvet-framed window. “My presence is required in London, so I will be departing tomorrow.” “You will not.” He arched a brow. His blond hair was a maternal trait, as were his blue eyes. His mother’s angelic features were hardly touched by time and she remained a lauded beauty, the liberal strands of gray in her tresses adding maturity to her youthful appearance. Today she had dressed in soft pink, and she looked not much older than his score and ten years. “Why must you be so difficult?” she lamented, shaking her head.
“You had a spouse and two sons. How can you not understand the duress placed upon a male alone in the company of three females?” The dowager mirrored his raised brow. “My dear boy, if you think I am unaware of how often you pay for the dubious privilege of spending time alone with multiple females, you are sadly mistaken.” “Lord save me,” he said dryly, moving to sit in the nearby gilded chair with its elaborately carved arms and curved legs. “The horror of discussing my carnal proclivities with you is upsetting my sensibilities. The urge to flee is now overwhelming.” She snorted. “Nonsense.” “I am departing tomorrow, Mother.” He lounged, stretching his long legs out and crossing one ankle over the other.
“This evening will be sufficient enough time to renew our acquaintance.” “And if it is not sufficient,” she asked with obvious hopefulness, “will you stay?” Justin sighed inwardly. “I am not inventing the affairs I am required to attend to. I was not expecting visitors, so I made no accommodations for any.” “But these affairs could be delayed, yes?” “I refuse to speak any further on the matter,” Fontaine muttered, “to avoid saying something I may later regret.” His mother joined him, sitting primly on the edge of the opposite cream and gold settee. Her gown was showcased to advantage in the setting of the family parlor, which had been spared the attentions of a decorator for many years. The baroque style of the room with its elegant moldings and lavish abundance of gilt soothed him. His lineage was old and a source of great pride. This room reminded him of those who had preceded him and strengthened his desire to do justice to those who would follow.
“I was so hopeful when you were courting Lady Julienne,” she said morosely. “A shame she is a bit touched.” “Oh?” Both brows rose. “Desiring a love match is a sign of insanity?” She lifted her chin. “Wedding for love is all well and good, but the girl hadn’t the sense to fall in love with you, instead of that Remington scoundrel. I still cannot collect it. What was she thinking?” The marquess looked away to hide his smile. “That is your maternal pride talking.” “It’s common sense,” she retorted, “which she is obviously lacking. It is in a female’s base nature to choose the strongest, handsomest, most established male in the herd.
” “Ah, my day improves,” he drawled. “What a relief it is to learn that I am the most impressive bovine in the marriageable lot.” He refrained from pointing out that Sophie hadn’t selected him either, choosing to betroth an earl of far lesser circumstance. “You are incorrigible.” His mother shook her head, setting the pale gold and silver curls at her nape to swaying. “And you wish to marry me off to your dearest friend’s granddaughter. What does that say about you?” “I never said anything about marriage,” she argued, but her blush betrayed her. Justin knew when it was best to let a matter rest, so he said nothing, choosing instead to think about Sophie and the scandal that ruined her. * * * “You have no cause to be nervous,” the Countess of Cardington reassured under her breath. “We are among friends.
” Lady Sophie Milton-Riley managed a shaky smile against the lip of her sherry glass. “Nervous, grand-mère? Never.” She was very nearly terrified, but refused to say so aloud. Her memories of Lord Fontaine were clouded by years and the distorted memories of a child. What she had were mostly impressions, those of a tall youth whom she’d fancied as a golden prince, albeit a rather stern one. The countess shook her head and shot her “the eye,” the look filled with love that said she did not believe a word she was saying. Sophie leaned over and pressed her lips to a wrinkled cheek. “I intend to enjoy myself. I promise.” “Good.
Oh!” The countess straightened and her voice lowered. “Here he comes.” Sophie glanced up as the Marquess of Fontaine entered the lower parlor. Her breath caught, and when his gaze sought her out, she reached quickly for the pianoforte behind her for balance. Dear God, had he always been so handsome? He smiled, and she set her glass down before she spilled its contents. How the devil could she have thought he was a prince? Princes were mortal. Fontaine was a golden god, with a body built for carnal sin, wrapped in the chilly infamous English hauteur she had never forgotten. How he used to intimidate her with that steely-eyed stare! And how very different was her reaction to that same stare now. Who knew aloofness and aristocratic arrogance could be such a potent lure when mixed with the body and face of Apollo? There was a very substantial reason why the Marquess of Fontaine was not suitable husband material for her. Sophie was willing, however, to set aside such vital concerns for a moment so that she could admire him properly.
It was one of the few benefits to being a woman with a scandalous reputation. She did not have to lower her eyes and pretend that she wasn’t struck nearly witless by his appeal. She could, instead, openly appreciate the male form approaching her with thoroughly masculine feline grace. Sophie blew out her breath. Her childhood friend had grown into a man well worthy of the many hours Society dedicated to discussing him. He had always been an avid sportsman and his physique proved that he still was. His dark blue velvet jacket required no padding to enhance his broad shoulders, and his breeches were just tight enough to reveal powerful thighs, muscular calves, and . She blinked. Good heavens! She should not be staring there, scandalous past or not. Jerking her gaze upward, Sophie focused on his lips instead.
They were somewhat thin and given his inclination for . imperiousness. she had remembered them being rather stern. But they were nothing of the sort. Instead they were shamelessly sensual, curved in a way that teased a woman to make him smile. Or whisper shocking things. Sophie’s problem was that she enjoyed shocking things. They were much more fun than nonshocking things, hence the present state of her existence. The moment he came to a halt before her it became extremely difficult to breathe properly. She bowed her head as she curtsied, hiding her confused frown.
After all these years, he still unnerved her. With a furtive gaze, Sophie watched as the marquess charmed her grand-mère into blushing, then he returned his attention to her. She hoped that she managed a semblance of a smile, but with her heart racing, she could not be sure. “Lady Sophie,” Fontaine murmured, lifting her gloved hand to his lips. “A pleasure to see you again.” She took note of his voice, which was deeper now and warm, so at odds with his rather formidable, icy exterior. How like him to be so starch-stiff and formal. And how like her to be so irritated by it. His composure had always goaded her to do rash things to break through it, and tonight was no exception. She set her hands on his chest for balance, lifted to her tiptoes, and pressed a quick kiss to his cheek.
“You look well, my lord,” she returned, meeting his shocked gaze directly. Her lips tingled, forcing her to wrinkle her nose. She recalled suffering similar reactions to him when she was younger, which had prompted her to tell him that she was allergic to his arrogance. His reply, if she remembered correctly, had been a snort. “Shall we?” the dowager marchioness asked, gesturing across the hall to the dining room. For a moment longer, Fontaine stared at Sophie with a narrowed gaze, then he gave a curt nod and offered his arm to the countess. The rest of the evening passed in a blur of casual discourse and more serious discussion regarding Lord Hastings and India. The meal was impressive and served over many courses. From the marquess’s jest comparing the meal to the prince regent’s now legendary banquet at the Brighton Pavilion back in January, Sophie collected that his lordship recognized the aim to keep them seated and talking as long as possible. She wondered how he felt about her visit and if he realized, as she did, that they were being paired.
She needed to speak with him privately to know, and also to enlist his help. The dissuading of the countess and dowager was too great a task for one individual. And so it was that Sophie found herself pacing outside Fontaine’s private rooms after everyone retired. As apprehensive as she was about meeting with him alone, she forged ahead out of necessity. There was no other solution. She required his assistance in extricating them from this shameless matchmaking. They could not marry—a man of the marquess’s station would never accept a woman in her circumstances, regardless of their past friendship—but neither could they simply point that out and be done with the business. The dowager and the countess knew everything, and it apparently had not swayed them. But if Fontaine was willing to work with her to prove her point, they could prevail. She sighed and came to an abrupt halt before the door.
Fontaine was known for his impeccable deportment and faultless manners. She could not predict how he would respond to the gross deviation of propriety she had committed so many years ago. He had been polite and dryly charming at dinner, but they had witnesses then. Now they would be alone and perhaps his true feelings would be aired. She had suffered and survived malicious gossip and been ostracized. But Justin . Sophie swallowed hard. Dear God, how would she bear it if he was cruel? Of course, there was only one way to find out. Sophie lifted her chin, squared her shoulders, and knocked on the paneled door.