London, May 1817
The last time she visited Brandon Deverill in his hotel rooms, she had climbed into his bed naked—a foolhardy scheme that ended in utter disaster.
Wincing at the scalding memory, Lady Katharine Wilde raised her hand to knock on the door to Number 7, then promptly lowered it again as the swarm of butterflies resumed dancing in her stomach. Gaining access to the second floor of Fenton’s Hotel this afternoon was the easiest phase of her clandestine mission. Disguised as a nobleman’s liveried male servant, she didn’t fear recognition. No, her anxiety stemmed from having to face Deverill again after six long years.
She fervently hoped that history wouldn’t repeat itself today. Before, when she’d brazenly thrown herself at his head, he had rebuffed her offer, gently but firmly.
“That is far enough, Kate.”
She froze in confusion, wishing she could express all the yearning she was feeling. All the chaotic mix of uncertainty, desire, and hope. “But I thought…”
His jaw flexed with determination or regret, she wasn’t sure. “You were mistaken.”
Remembering her abject humiliation that night, Kate bit her lower lip and stepped back from his door. How she had longed to crawl into a hole and die! Maddeningly, her wounded pride still stung all these years later, as did her foolish heart.
Turning, she paced the corridor in an effort to drum up her courage. Unmarried young ladies simply did not visit gentlemen’s hotel rooms unaccompanied—although at four-and-twenty, she was hardly young. And Brandon Deverill—a rich American merchant and former privateer whose fleet of ships had battled the British Navy—was barely considered a gentleman, even if he had recently inherited the title to an ancient English barony.
Yet she had numerous reasons for risking scandal today: To prove she had recovered from her hurt and show him she was not still nursing a broken heart. To test her fortitude and confirm that she could handle meeting him alone. To deal with her certain embarrassment out of the public eye. And to make her unusual proposition in private.
She’d vowed to have nothing more to do with Deverill, but her aunt by marriage, Lady Isabella Wilde, had asked for her help in turning him into a proper English lord. Since Aunt Bella was her dear confidante and the prime mother figure in her life, Kate felt she could not possibly refuse. Not at least without good reason.
Which would mean confessing the mortifying details of the most lowering experience of her life, when she’d pursued Deverill like the lovesick, starry-eyed, half-witted females she deplored.
Scolding herself for her cravenness, Kate returned to his door and managed to subdue the violent flutters raging in her stomach long enough to rap lightly. Last time, Deverill had unequivocally rejected her amorous advances. This time, however, she had something he wanted.
When eventually the door swung open, the first thing that struck her was his bold, dark eyes. They were much as she remembered—deep, penetrating, black-fringed. His arresting eyes had always matched his daring demeanor and actions, she thought in bemusement.
In their dark depths she saw his instant recognition of her, even though she was garbed in her noble family’s livery, complete with silvery powdered wig covering her auburn hair.
She had clearly taken him by surprise. Kate herself was startled by the sight of Deverill wearing only breeches. He was bare-chested and barefoot, while his overly long raven hair was damp and curling. Apparently he had just bathed and was about to shave, for he held a razor in one hand.
A stubble of beard shadowed his strong jaw, a raffish look that only accentuated his appeal, much to her vexation. A ruffian—a pirate, at that—should not look so blasted appealing. He smelled delicious as well, deuce take him.
Confounded by his unwanted impact on her senses, Kate stood staring back at him speechlessly.
When his gaze drifted down over her attire, one eyebrow lifted and she could see amusement spark in his eyes.
“I should have expected you to act unconventionally,” he remarked in that rough-velvet voice that never failed to rake her feminine nerve endings.
She could say the same of him. He didn’t seem at all nonplussed to be caught in a state of near undress. But then Brandon Deverill was the most infamous man of her acquaintance, which was saying a great deal, considering that she hailed from the scandalous Wilde family, who could boast centuries of notorious ancestors.
There were lines on Deverill’s face now that made his striking features more mature. But shirtless, with his sun-bronzed, muscular torso exposed, he was even more devastatingly handsome than she recalled. His masculine beauty put classical statues to shame—
Oh, merciful heavens, gain hold of yourself, you moonling.
She was badly mistaken about having conquered her vulnerability, though. She most certainly was not over him. Deverill still had the power to make her knees weak. And she was still swamped by the undeniable, unquenchable attraction that had hit her the first moment she met him so long ago.
Kate gave herself a violent mental shake. She would be in deep, deep trouble if she couldn’t contain her captivation.
Thankfully Deverill interrupted her muddled ruminations. “How did you find me?” he asked with a note of curiosity.
“At my request, the harbormaster was on the lookout for your ship and alerted me when you docked. I sent a servant to question him about where you were lodging.”
“I admire your resourcefulness, if not your prudence. What the devil are you doing here?”
“May I come in?” Kate pressed. “I wish to speak to you, and I would rather not hold our conversation out here in the corridor.”
After a moment’s hesitation, he stepped back to allow her entrance and closed the door behind her, although he didn’t appear elated by her presence. “Could you not have waited until I called on you tomorrow?”
“I felt sure there would be awkwardness between us, and thought it best to deal with it in private.”
“Will you be seated?”
Glancing around the small chamber, she saw a table and two chairs, a washstand, and a bed that reminded her uncomfortably of their last ignominious encounter. Kate smiled amiably to cover her discomfort. “I will stand, thank you. This should not take long.”
“Good. It would be best if you weren’t seen visiting my bedchamber. Does your brother know of your whereabouts?”
“No, and I don’t intend for him to find out.”
“Beaufort would have my head if he knew you were in my rooms.”
“You needn’t worry. Ash is in the country and is not expected to arrive in London until tomorrow.”
Deverill scrutinized her costume. “You aren’t concerned that someone might recognize the beautiful Lady Katharine Wilde?”
“No one looks twice at a footman.”
“Thus the disguise. You make a fetching lad.”
His compliment flustered her, but he followed it with a censorious remark. “Evidently you haven’t changed. You make a habit of frequenting gentlemen’s hotel rooms.”
“Not all gentlemen,” she returned archly. “Only yours.”
“Should I be flattered?”
She sent him her most charming smile. “Indeed, you should,” she quipped before catching herself. She had no business engaging in spirited repartee with Deverill as they’d enjoyed in the past.
Fortunately, he changed the subject by rubbing the stubble on his jaw. “Would you object if I continue shaving while we talk? My cousin Trey should arrive shortly to convey me about town. I have business with my solicitor regarding issues of the inheritance, and then plan to dine with Trey and his wife, Antonia, this evening.”
Kate had met Brandon’s distant English cousin Trey Deverill years ago, although she had not seen him recently and had not met his new wife. “No, I wouldn’t object.”
Deverill went to the washstand and picked up a cake of soap. “It has been a while since I last saw you,” he mused aloud as he began making a lather.
Six years, two months, and nine days. With another mental shake, Kate focused her thoughts on the future, not the past. “Aunt Bella has generally kept me abreast of your situation. I was sorry to hear of your uncle’s passing.”
Deverill nodded solemnly. “Reportedly Valmere was in a great deal of pain, so perhaps it was a blessing. I plan to travel to Kent this week to pay my respects to his remaining kin and make arrangements to provide for them.”
Kate was aware of Deverill’s lineage. His late grandfather, a younger son of a British baron, had immigrated to Virginia in America decades ago and married into a prominent merchant family that owned a fleet of sailing ships. This past January the current Baron Valmere—Augustus Deverill—had succumbed to a lingering illness, leaving behind a widowed daughter and two young granddaughters. The title and entailed properties had devolved to Brandon as the closest male relation.
For a moment, silence reigned as he lathered his face with soap. Watching, Kate found herself distracted by the sheer allure of his bare torso. Without volition her gaze skimmed over his wide shoulders and followed his tapered back to his lean waist, then lower to his tight buttocks and powerful thighs encased in buff knit breeches—
She looked away quickly so Deverill wouldn’t catch her admiring his lamentably impressive body. “Would you mind donning a dressing gown?”
“Regrettably, I don’t have one with me.”
“A shirt, then?”
He hesitated. “I will when I finish shaving.” Deverill glanced over his shoulder at her. “Have you turned missish all of a sudden?”
That tender, amused light that she’d loved so well had returned to fill his eyes. Seeing it, Kate remembered another provoking quality of his: No other man could make her blush as he could. She always felt as if he knew what she was thinking. And sometimes he seemed to be laughing at her—or at himself—inviting her to share a private jest.
It had been that way from the very first. He’d always taken vast liberties with her and never stood on formality. On the contrary, he’d teased her intimately, the way her brothers and cousins did. She could also count on Deverill to be candid, even brutally honest.
She had never minded his casual familiarity before, for it felt amiable, comfortable. Indeed, she had prized his frankness after all the sycophants who had toadied to her all her life as a wealthy, noble heiress.
They had met seven years ago when Deverill was visiting his uncle in Kent, the introduction made by Lady Isabella, who knew him from the days when he worked for the British Foreign Office. It was an unusual occupation for an American—a career that had originated because of his cousin Trey Deverill, and was cut short when war broke out between their countries.
“I have not been completely sheltered,” Kate answered lightly. “I grew up with male relatives, so I’ve seen partially unclothed men. But you and I are not at all related. Just because I dared call at your rooms twice does not mean I am unaware of the impropriety.”
“You forget I’ve seen your charms as well,” he murmured.
With her face flaming, she ducked her head. “You needn’t remind me,” she said in a low voice. “I once felt a foolish infatuation for you, but that is long over.”
Realizing how fainthearted she sounded, Kate raised her chin and met his gaze bravely. It was best to confront her embarrassment head-on.
Deverill was regarding her with that penetrating look, as if he knew all her secrets. Defensively, she flashed him her most winsome smile. “Never fear, Mr. Deverill. I am not here to throw myself at you again. I promise I won’t accost you or try to sneak into your bed.”
He looked as if he might reply, for his mouth curved for a moment, but he only shook his head and commenced shaving.
When he turned his back to her again, she noticed a wicked-looking scar beneath his right shoulder blade, perhaps three inches long, as if a knife or bayonet had speared his flesh. It must have hurt dreadfully, Kate thought, biting her lip in sympathy. She started to ask how he had come by the scar but stopped herself. The condition of his body was far too personal a matter for her to contemplate.
She changed her mind about taking a seat, however. Pointedly ignoring the bed, Kate crossed the small chamber to one of the chairs and sat down so she wouldn’t have to gawk at him directly. Deverill was pure physical temptation. More than that, he possessed the type of raw, vital presence that was supremely dangerous to any woman’s virtue. Any woman’s but mine, she amended. Her virtue had been perfectly safe in his hands, to her immense regret.
Kate cleared her throat. “Aunt Bella wishes she could be here to greet you, but she recently travelled to Cornwall to attend the lying-in of a friend’s daughter and needs to remain there a while longer. Meanwhile, she solicited my aid in her absence. I don’t know all the particulars of your correspondence with her, but I understand you intend to fully assume your role as Baron Valmere?”
“I would like to hear from you what your aim is.”
He complied as he scraped off his whiskers. “You know that when the conflict between our countries escalated, my father requested I come home to Virginia? When he died a year later, I assumed the reins of our shipping company. I’ve spent the past several years rebuilding, since commerce suffered significantly during your British blockades of our harbors, and a portion of our fleet was destroyed. Now we are finally on solid enough footing that I can turn the enterprise over to my younger brother and fulfill my duties here.”
Kate eyed him inquiringly. “You actually mean to settle here in England?”
“In all likelihood, although my mother is not happy about it,” Deverill said dryly.
“I find it surprising that you would even consider it, given where your loyalties lie.”
“To America. It is no secret that you were devotedly engaged in privateering.”
When his gaze sharpened at her disapproving tone, Kate pressed her lips together. There was no point in arguing the past with Deverill. The fact remained that he was the bold American seafarer who had stolen her heart and left her pining, which was his greatest offense.
She’d thought he could be her perfect mate, but he’d spurned her and then gone off to fight a war against her countrymen, and thus had become her enemy. Now, not only was he back in England but she had promised to consider helping him.
“What do you wish of me?” she finally said.
“To start, I need an introduction to society. The enchanting Lady Katharine is the toast of the polite world. Who better than you to help pave my way? From what I hear, you rule the ton with your charm and wit.”
Kate laughed. “Hardly. But with Ash being a marquess and my cousin Quinn an earl, I do have noble family connections that might benefit you.” Her expression sobered. “Aunt Bella also mentioned that you are looking to wed.”
Deverill nodded. “I am three-and-thirty. It’s time I settled down and took a wife.”
Hearing him confirm what she already knew—that he wanted to marry—affected her oddly. But she had vowed to repress any rebellious pangs of jealousy and turn his need to her advantage. “Are you interested in making a marriage of convenience? Or something deeper?”
He cast her a swift glance, although his expression was inscrutable. “Nothing deeper. Isabella claims that you can find me a suitable bride. She says you are a matchmaker at heart, and that your past endeavors have been highly successful.”
“I have developed something of an expertise at matchmaking, true,” Kate admitted. “Not to boast, but I aided most of my family in finding their ideal mates. I am willing to advise you as a favor to Aunt Bella, but I would like to make a bargain with you in exchange.”
“What sort of bargain?”
She took a deep breath. “If I find you a bride, you must escort me to France at the end of the Season.”
Deverill rinsed his face with water from the washbasin and began drying it with a towel. “Why do you wish to go to France?”
“I believe you know how my parents were killed?”
“They perished at sea when their ship sank in a storm.”
“So we thought.” Kate frowned. “It is rather a long story, but to be brief…You may remember that my aunt Angelique was French—the daughter of the Duc and Duchesse de Chagny, who were guillotined during the Revolution.”
“Your cousins Quinn and Skye’s mother?”
“Yes. Angelique wed my uncle, Lionel Wilde, Earl of Traherne. Their branch of the Wilde family is somewhat distant from ours….In any event, the priceless de Chagny jewels were hidden while Britain was at war with Napoleon’s armies. Then during the Peace of Amiens, my parents travelled with Angelique and Lionel to southern France to recover the treasure, and on their return shortly before Christmas, their ship sank just off the coast. For years we believed everyone on board perished, but recently we learned that their ship was actually sabotaged and that my mother made it to shore and survived a short time before succumbing to her injuries.”
Falling silent, Kate stared down at her hands as she recalled the shock and pain of discovering the truth about the shipwreck two months ago. She’d been ten when she lost her mother and father to the tragedy, and with the new revelations, she had relived her grief all over again.
Moreover, imagining the suffering her mother had endured and picturing her father’s watery grave beneath the sea had only added to the persistent nightmares she’d had since childhood.
Kate twisted her fingers together as her voice dropped to a murmur. “Mama had a pauper’s burial, and Papa and my aunt and uncle had no burial at all. I would like to visit Mama’s resting place to put a headstone on her grave, and search for the shipwreck while I am there.” She gave a faint, apologetic smile. “I confess, it has become an obsession of mine. Perhaps I am foolish, but I want her to have a decent burial.”
“I would not call you foolish.”
She lifted her gaze to find Deverill watching her, a gentle look in his eyes, as if he understood her need. She was grateful that he wasn’t teasing her about an uncertain—perhaps perilous—undertaking that was so close to her heart.
“Anyway,” she went on, “the saboteur was brought to justice and most of the treasure recovered, although some of the jewels sank with the Zephyr.”
“And you wish to salvage the rest?”
Kate hesitated. “I doubt that is possible. It has been over a dozen years. But I hope at least to locate the ship’s remains. We can guess at the general site based on reports from that night and where pieces of wreckage washed ashore. The Zephyr was rocked by an explosion and caught fire. Although attempting to limp back to port, it only came close to shore but may have sunk in shallow water. Quinn has done actual calculations and drawn maps for a salvage effort. The problem is, there are pirates inhabiting the nearest villages along the coast.”
“You seem to know a great deal about the circumstances. How did you obtain your information?”
“I believe you know Beau Macklin? He was a colleague of yours in the Foreign Office, along with Skye’s new husband, the Earl of Hawkhurst.”
“I know Macky.”
“Well, some months ago, he went to France to investigate for my family.”
“So why do you need my escort? Why can’t you call on Macky?”
“He has done enough already. But mainly, I need an experienced sailor. Someone I can trust.”
Deverill’s mouth curved. “And you trust me?”
She suspected he was trying to lighten the moment by provoking her, so she answered in the same vein. “Amazingly enough, yes. You know more about the sea than anyone of my acquaintance. In fact, you own an entire fleet of ships, and now you have your own right here in London.”
“I had planned for my ship to return to America in a week or two.”
Kate felt her heart sink. “Oh. Well, perhaps I could make it worth your while. I can afford to pay a great deal.”
“You have your own extensive fortune, I know.”
She ignored his amused drawl. “I could hire a ship and captain, perhaps, but I would rather not depend on strangers in this endeavor. You see…I am not very fond of sailing.”
A vast understatement, Kate reflected. In fact she had a base fear of ships—not unreasonable considering how her parents had perished. “I can swim quite well,” she explained. “You will recall the lake at Beauvoir where I grew up? But I have a morbid fear of drowning at sea.”
“And you need someone to cosset your sensibilities.”
Certain now that he was ragging her, Kate smiled. “Alas, yes. I concede that I am craven. But there are other reasons you would be a better choice. Even if I could employ men to search for the wreck, I might have to deal with the pirates. I am English. After decades of war, the French are not exactly our bosom friends. I suspect pirates are much fonder of you Americans, since many of them aided you during the war.”
Deverill frowned as he pulled on a linen shirt and began tucking the hem into his breeches. A pity to cover all that bare flesh, Kate thought before scolding herself and concentrating on what he was saying.
“…it could be dangerous.”
“Perhaps, but pirates are unlikely to threaten you.”
He cast her a wry glance. “I am not concerned about my own skin, but yours. A young lady travelling along the coast needs protection.”
“Which is why I am asking you.”
“What about your family? Will they be accompanying you?”
“Although they would all very much like a resolution, they are not as adamant as I am. And they are all busy starting their own families.”
Kate watched as Deverill wrapped a length of cambric around his neck and began tying a cravat in a plain knot. The white fabric contrasted appealingly with his tanned skin. Indeed, clean-shaven, he was even more attractive— Stop that, you ninny.
She drew a steadying breath. “So you see, I want to lay to rest the memories of my loved ones with a proper burial of some sort. That is my one condition. I will help you find a bride if you will help me by taking me to France afterward.”
Deverill hesitated while he donned a coat of serviceable brown kerseymere. “Very well. I agree.”
Her eyebrow rose skeptically. “You do?”
“Why do you seem so surprised?”
“I thought it would require more effort to convince you.”
“But you are Princess Katharine. You have always been able to wrap men around your finger and persuade them to do your bidding.”
She gave him an arch look. “Some men, perhaps, but not you. And you oughtn’t call me princess since I am not of royal blood. Clearly you have more to learn about British customs in addition to your new responsibilities as a lord.” She paused as the urgency occurred to her. “We have very little time to secure you a bride—merely a month till the end of the Season. We should begin working on a plan at once.”
Fetching his stockings and boots, Deverill crossed the room and sat down in the adjacent chair to put them on.
Kate disliked his proximity but forced herself to remain seated as she studied his attire. With his superb physique—all broad-shouldered, rugged—he put her more effeminate, aristocratic beaux to shame. But his black mane made him look rather uncivilized, and although his coat fit well enough, the style screamed “provincial.”
“Our first order of business,” she said, “should be to find you a good tailor. You don’t want to look like a backwoods colonial, Mr. Deverill—Lord Valmere, I mean. I suppose I should address you by your new title.”
“Pray, don’t. I prefer you call me Deverill—or Brandon as you once did.”
“You must grow accustomed to it, my lord.”
He grimaced. “I will have a difficult time.”
“It will become easier with practice. I, however, will have my work cut out for me if I hope to turn a brash American merchant into an acceptable English nobleman.”
An amused gleam reentered his eyes. “I am part English. My paternal bloodline should count in my favor.”
“But you are a scandalous privateer,” she said sweetly.
“Says the lady shockingly dressed as a lad. You’ve never objected much to scandal before, if I recall. None of your family has. With you advising me, I should fit into the ton well.”
His retort was reminiscent of the sparring they’d done when they were both younger, but as pleasant as it was, Kate knew she would be unwise to encourage him. “I have had to curtail my scandalous inclinations of late, and I trust you will do the same if you wish to attract a genteel bride. We should begin as soon as possible. Are you free tomorrow morning?”
“As far as I know. I won’t be leaving for Kent for another day or two to see the Valmere estate and my relatives.”
“Could you call at my house at eleven tomorrow?”
“Why so late?”
“Usually I ride in the park in the mornings.”
“I could accompany you. I haven’t stretched my legs on a horse since leaving Virginia several weeks ago.”
Consorting with Deverill in their old haunts would definitely be unwise, Kate realized. At least until she had more control of her feelings. She would do better to face him on her own ground with her companion present to preclude any chance of intimacy. “No, you cannot be seen in public looking like a ruffian. And it will be more appropriate if we have a proper chaperone.”
Her comment made his brow rise. “You can’t be serious.”
“Indeed I am. When my brother married last year, I hired a companion…a middle-aged widow…although she will be marrying soon, so I must seek another. I recently found an ideal match for her also, by the way.”
“Do you truly need a chaperone at your advanced age?”
Deverill was roasting her again, but his teasing stung a bit, since he was chiefly the reason she was still unattached, drat him.
She forced herself to answer lightly. “Sadly, it is one of the frustrations of being a single lady living alone in London. Ash and his new wife, Maura, prefer the country, especially since they recently had a son. So, while I am old enough to wear caps, if I hoped to remain here to enjoy the Season, I was required to bow to propriety. I will ask Mrs. Cuthbert to join us tomorrow when you call.”
Deverill studied her thoughtfully. “If you are such an expert at matchmaking, why have you never made a match for yourself?”
Because no one lived up to my memories of you. “I never found the right match. I have no intention of marrying without true love.”
His dark gaze moved over her with more intensity. “By all reports you’ve rejected countless suitors. And I know for a fact you’ve always had a bevy of swains at your beck and call.”
It was true. As a wellborn heiress, she’d been sought by numerous men, from awkward lads to hardened rakes. Her appearance, too, tended to attract male attention. With her dark red hair, she stood out among the fair young ladies making their debuts.
At eighteen, however, she had been brought up short by Deverill. For the first time in her life, she’d felt vulnerable to a man and uncertain of her powers. She had learned a valuable lesson in humility then. As a result she’d resolved to be kinder to her lovelorn suitors and let them down gently, settling into an amiable friendship with most.
But this conversation was growing far too personal for her comfort. Striving for casualness, Kate rose to her feet. “If your cousin Trey is arriving shortly, I had best go. Tomorrow morning we can discuss our plan and review exactly what sort of bride you are seeking. Meanwhile, I will begin thinking of possible candidates. I have enlisted Ash’s aid as well—to advise you on government and legal matters and the like. In truth, that is primarily why he is coming to town tomorrow.”
Deverill’s eyes narrowed, but she could see amusement there. “You were certain of my agreement, weren’t you? But then you usually manage to get your way.”
She smiled ruefully. “I could never count on getting my way where you were concerned.” When Deverill stood as well, she gazed up at him. “I trust you won’t mention my visit here to your cousin Trey?”
“Your secret is safe with me.”
“It is your secret as well. I could be ruined, but if you are complicit in my downfall, your plans to take a genteel bride would surely suffer.”
His teeth flashed white in his tanned face. “I seem to recall you instigated both trysts.”
“This time is not a tryst. And neither was the last time, actually—or at least, not entirely. True, I was enamored of you. I have always been overly romantic. It is my worst failing—or among my worst. But my original purpose that night was not to seduce you. I had convinced myself that I could persuade you to stay in England.”
“I explained to you at the ball why I could not.”
“So you did.” Kate managed a careless laugh. “Forgive me, but I had some thought of trying to save your life.”
“My worthless hide, you mean?”
She dimpled. “I did not say that. I did not even think it.”
“I imagine you were angry with me.”
She had been furious and heartbroken and afraid for him. Deverill had hurt her, although it was not wholly his fault. Apparently he had never harbored the same feelings for her that she had felt for him.
“I have forgotten all about that unfortunate incident,” she lied. “A true gentleman would endeavor to do the same.”
His smile was wry. “That is one event I could never forget.”
“Well, I distinctly recall my mortification.”
The laughter left his eyes. “I admit, I was greatly to blame. I led you on by kissing you the previous night. But refusing you was my only honorable course.”
She lowered her gaze to a button on Deverill’s coat. “You clearly didn’t want me.”
“Untrue. I simply had to discourage you from making an irreversible mistake.”
Even as a sop to her pride, his admission was not particularly heartening. “Your discouragement was highly effective,” she said softly.
“Kate—” He stopped and reconsidered whatever he had meant to say. “What kind of man would I be if I’d taken your innocence? My duty was to my country. I had to leave, and I didn’t know when or if I would ever return.”
She met his eyes again. “If you would be killed in battle, you mean.”
“Yes. If I had taken you, I would have been obliged to stay.”
That had been her goal, persuading him to stay instead of sailing off to fight a war against her own countrymen.
In her defense, she had thought she stood a chance. The night before at a ball, Deverill had given her a stunning farewell kiss, meant as goodbye. That thrilling, stolen embrace had shaken her down to her satin slippers and set her world askew. Worse, it had started her dreaming.
She’d wanted to tell him how she felt as well as beg him not to leave England. So she went to his hotel rooms and waited for him to return. Her scheme to seduce him truly was not premeditated, however. The longer she waited, the greater the temptation to use her budding feminine wiles, which had served her well in the past. Impulsively she’d undressed and climbed into his bed.
Memory descended in vivid detail: the flaming embarrassment flooding her body, the hurt stabbing her heart at his unceremonious rebuff. She had never behaved so wantonly—and had ardently vowed never to risk such painful rejection again.
Willing the memory away, Kate smiled brightly. “You will be pleased to know I have conquered my obsession with you. I will not make a fool of myself a second time.”
When he didn’t answer, she searched his face. “Surely you are relieved, my lord. You won’t have to send me packing as you did the last time. You needn’t fear my unwanted advances.”
“A pity,” he murmured.
His comment confused her. “What did you say?”
“Nothing of consequence.” Oddly, his gaze softened. “If it is any consolation, I was extremely flattered by your offer. I was wildly attracted to you. I simply couldn’t act on my desire.”
His concession captured her full attention. “You desired me?”
His faint chuckle was self-deprecating. “Of course I desired you, as did countless other hapless males.”
It was gratifying to think her own wild attraction then had not been wholly one-sided. As foolish as it was, beneath her surface confidence, self-doubt had been eating away at her all these years since.
Kate gave a slight shrug of her shoulders. “It doesn’t matter now. It happened a long time ago. I was a mere girl then. Girls are inclined to do idiotic things.”
“And now you are a beautiful woman.”
“Your flattery is unnecessary.”
“It is not mere flattery.” To her surprise, Deverill reached up to finger a stray tendril that had escaped her wig and brushed it back from her face. “I hope you have not taken to wearing caps. It would be a shame to cover your lovely hair.”
That brief gesture sparked a fiery awareness in Kate and caused her to take an involuntary step backward. If he was attempting to keep her off balance, he was succeeding. And strangely, his scrutiny only grew more intense.
“What if I wanted to claim another kiss?” he murmured.
His unexpected suggestion made her inhale sharply. “That would be entirely inappropriate.”
“Aren’t you curious?”
“Curious?” she repeated breathlessly.
“Wouldn’t you care to see if there is still any attraction between us?”
The notion was absurd. Of course there was still an attraction between them. A potent one. At least on her part.
“No, I don’t want to know. I mean…there is nothing on my side. I don’t need to kiss you to know how I feel.”
“Perhaps I do.”
When he stepped closer, Kate felt her heart leap, whether in alarm or anticipation, she wasn’t certain.
“What are you about, Deverill?”
“Answering a question.”
His gaze captured hers, making her heart pound. His mouth was close, his body closer….