Matthew Chandler stared at the petite golden-haired lady standing in front of him. Her perfect bow-shaped lips formed a delightful pout. Her wide blue eyes gazed up as if he were a wise scholar with the answers to all life’s weird and wonderful mysteries.
He had seen desire flash in many a woman’s eye, but he had never seen hope. It was certainly a novelty.
“Do you want to marry Lord Morford?” Matthew gestured to his friend whose persistent shuffling showed a desperate need to find another solution to their impending problem.
Something had to be done.
In a matter of minutes, the matrons heading their way would enter the secluded corner of Lord Holbrook’s garden. One could only imagine the look of horror on the ladies faces upon discovering a dishevelled maiden hiding behind the shrubbery with two rogues.
“No.” Miss Smythe glanced at Tristan’s handsome countenance, her gaze passing over him as one would a faded bonnet in a shop window. “I do not want to marry Lord Morford. But what else can I do?”
Tristan rubbed the back of his neck. “My mother knows how to execute a cunning plan and lured us both out here. She insists I wed Miss Smythe. Thank you for alerting us to the danger, Chandler, but I see no other option.”
With a raised brow, Matthew considered the torn bodice of Miss Smythe’s gown. A frustrated groan left his lips. Regardless of the lady's wishes, Tristan would make her an offer of marriage. He would not let an innocent woman suffer the shame of a ruined reputation.
“May I offer another suggestion?” Matthew’s gaze fell to the soft curve of Miss Smythe’s breasts. “If you do not want to marry Lord Morford, then perhaps you might marry me.” The words tumbled from his mouth with surprising ease.
Tristan sucked in a sharp breath. “What the blazes? We are trying to salvage the lady’s reputation, not ruin it beyond redemption.”
Matthew smiled as Miss Smythe’s curious gaze drifted over the breadth of his chest. She bit down on her bottom lip, and devil take him, desire flashed in her eyes.
This timid little creature might prove far more entertaining than he’d suspected.
“Is … is that an offer, sir?” She batted her long lashes more times than he cared to count.
From her flirtatious tone, he knew he’d captured her interest. Perhaps the evening would not be a complete disaster. And if his information proved correct, the lady had a decent enough dowry to ease his financial burden.
“It is,” he replied with an air of confidence.
Tristan inhaled deeply. “I can’t let you do that.”
Matthew shrugged. “It is not your decision to make.” Indeed, he had a sudden desire to get rid of his friend, to be alone with the delightful Miss Smythe and to give the ravenous gossips something scandalous to devour.
The low hum of feminine chatter alerted him to the matrons’ approach. Tristan had less than a minute if he planned to make his escape through the shrubbery. The guests wandering about at the top of the garden would not suspect a solitary gentleman of any impropriety.
“What do you want to do, Miss Smythe?” Tristan said with some impatience.
Miss Smythe pursed her luscious lips and glanced down at her slippers. One could almost hear the cogs turning as she considered her options.
“Are you able to provide for me, sir?”
Matthew struggled to suppress an arrogant smirk. The lady would have no complaints. Of that he was certain. “Have no fear. I shall ensure all your needs are met.”
A pink blush touched Miss Smythe’s cheeks, and she inclined her head. “Then I accept.”
Tristan muttered a curse, turned and threw his hands in the air.
A pleasurable thrum of anticipation raced through Matthew’s veins at the prospect of bedding the beauty before him.
The sensation soothed his bruised pride. It made him forget that, a mere thirty minutes before, he had played in the most notorious card game of the Season, and lost far more than he had intended.
“You need to leave, Tristan.” A sudden urgency to claim Miss Smythe’s soft lips took hold. “You need to leave now.” He held Miss Smythe's gaze as he gestured to the topiary archway. “Call on me tomorrow. Go before it’s too late.”
Tristan crept towards the exit, hesitated every third step before disappearing into the shadows.
With no time to waste, Matthew pulled Miss Smythe into his arms. The gasp that left her lips contained a hint of excitement. Her dainty hand came to rest on his chest, her fingers fluttering over his heart. It felt oddly reassuring, though he resisted the urge to inform her that the organ was nothing but a cold, hard lump of stone.
“When people gossip about our tryst, what do you want them to say about us?” Matthew asked. She shivered as his words breezed across her cheek. Such sensitivity to his touch would bode well for their coupling. “Is this to be a ravishing? Do you wish to portray a naive woman lured into a trap by a rogue?”
Miss Smythe swallowed deeply as her gaze lingered on his mouth. “Well, I do not want people to think me foolish.” She shook her head. “No,” she added with a hint of determination. “Given the choice, I would like them to say it is a love match. Everyone must think we were so consumed with passion we lost our heads.”
Convincing others he was in love was far beyond the realms of his capabilities. Love was a word foreign to him. The word made the muscles in his shoulders tight, tense. The mere thought left a bitter taste in his mouth, a foul flavour only superseded by the word ‘trust’.
Passion, on the other hand, came as easy as breathing air. If the lady wanted to experience pure carnal lust, he would gladly give it to her.
“That is what I hoped you would say.” The lascivious nature of his thoughts was evident in his tone. “From the moment we are discovered that is how we will play this game.” A frisson of excitement raced through him. He needed something to distract from the trauma of the night’s events, something sweet and untainted to cleanse his mind. “You have my word, as a gentleman, I will ask for your hand. But for now, I intend to kiss you with such ardent vigour I believe we will struggle to stand.”
Miss Smythe pursed her trembling lips. “You … you should know I have never kissed a gentleman.”
For some obscure reason he found her comment pleasing. “Then you must forgive my abrupt approach. I am afraid there is no time for gentle tutoring. Do I have your permission to continue?”
Never in his life had he asked such a question.
The lady nodded, raised her chin and closed her eyes. She looked serene, angelic, and he feared he was about to sample a little piece of heaven.
Matthew took her chin between his thumb and forefinger, lowered his head until their lips touched. The sweet scent of roses filled his nostrils, the smell pure, clean, surprisingly arousing. Her lips were warm, full and soft, but he did not have time to appreciate them further.
“The fountain must be through here.” A lofty feminine voice permeated the air. “Lady Morford assured me it was a sight not to be missed.”
His hands followed the shape of Miss Smythe’s hips, settled on her buttocks and pulled her against the evidence of his mild arousal. A tiny gasp left her lips, giving him the opportunity to delve deeper, to explore the unfathomable depths of innocence.
Matthew expected to encounter resistance, for her fear to taint the experience. He was not expecting her tongue to brush seductively against his. Nor was he expecting her to throw her arms around his neck, to press her breasts against his chest and moan into his mouth.
God help him.
All he wanted was to lower her to the ground and pleasure her until dawn. Many times, he had felt the powerful grip of desire commanding the most important part of his anatomy. Yet now, an undeniable need coursed through every part of his body.
Miss Smythe’s inexperienced fingers found their way into his hair, twirling, tickling, tugging at the roots. He broke for breath, his gaze falling to the swell of creamy flesh rising to greet him. A mumbled curse of appreciation left his lips and he captured her mouth with shocking desperation.
Engrossed in plundering the mouth of his maiden, he failed to respond to the series of high-pitched feminine shrieks and wails.
“Oh, cover my eyes, Felicity. I cannot look.”
“What is the meaning of this, sir?”
Despite the matrons’ comments, Matthew was not ready to let his delicate flower go. He held her close, his tongue engaged in an erotic dance that promised a wealth of pleasure.
“Put the lady down this instant, sir.”
Miss Smythe attempted to pull away. The action left him frustrated, ready to turn on the blood-thirsty pack of matrons and send them to the devil.
He dragged his mouth from hers though continued to rain kisses along the line of her jaw.
“Tell me you love me,” he whispered in her ear. Sensing her hesitation, he added, “This is supposed to be a love match, remember.”
Miss Smythe tilted her head, granting him easier access to the elegant column of her throat. “Oh, I love you.” The words breezed from her lips. “I love you so much it is killing me.”
Damn, she was good.
“Promise me you’ll marry me,” he said, calling on his rampant desire to infuse feeling into his words. “Promise me you’ll be mine.”
“I cannot live without you,” she muttered so sweetly he almost believed it was true. “I want to spend my life making you happy.”
Matthew fought the need to capture her mouth again.
A lady cleared her throat. “Will you let go of her and address us, sir!”
“I have no choice but to acknowledge them,” he whispered against Miss Smythe’s ear. “Do not say a word.”
He looked up at the three horrified faces, their hollow cheeks and pursed lips evidence of their disdain. It took a tremendous effort not to smirk at the ridiculous array of garish gowns. With plumes of feathers, jewels, and strange bows in their hair, they appeared more like the exotic birds in Lady Holbrook’s aviary.
“Forgive us.” He held Miss Smythe tight against his chest. The need to protect her modesty proved to be the overriding factor. A man professing undying love did not tear his lady’s garments. And they were unlikely to believe Lady Morford’s accomplice had grabbed her from behind the bushes to ensure it looked like a ravaging. “The lady accepted a proposal of marriage, and we struggled to contain our excitement.”
Miss Smythe hid her face against his coat. He cupped her head in a comforting gesture.
“Where would we all be if we were free to express our emotions?” one snooty matron said, her tone brimming with reproof.
“Do you not remember what it was like to be in love?”
The lady with a large ostrich feather jutting out of her coiffure chuckled. “I wouldn’t know. I married for money.” She paused for a moment, squinted as she stared at them. “Ah, it is Mr Chandler, is it not? Are you certain it is marriage you seek?”
Matthew smiled. “Even the most hardened rogues are capable of reform.”
“And who is the unlucky lady?”
He kept a firm grip on Miss Smythe’s head. They would discover her identity in due course, but he would be damned before they would see shame swimming in her eyes.
“You will read the announcement soon enough,” he said.
The comment received a mocking snigger. “We shall believe it, sir, when we see you standing at the altar in St. George’s.”
Anger flared. He failed to repress his contempt for their hypocritical opinions.
“Then you should all hope the lady marries me.” His clipped tone conveyed a wealth of loathing. “A man suffering from a broken heart can be rather foolish and unpredictable. I know enough about the licentious habits of many gentlemen to see shame brought down on the most respectable families.” He considered the identities of the ladies before him. “I am certain you would not wish me to regale tales of your husband’s exploits, Lady Hadden.”
The ladies shocked gasps and sudden frantic hand gestures were evidence he had made his point.
“Then … then we wish you luck in your endeavour, Mr Chandler,” Lady Hadden said, ushering the women at her side like a hen gathering her chicks. “Remember, a good marriage requires nothing more than a good man.”
“I shall bear that in mind the next time I am in the company of your husband.”
Without another word, the matrons turned their backs and sauntered away from the secluded area.
Matthew waited for a moment. He ran his hand along Miss Smythe’s bare shoulder. “They've gone,” he whispered, pleased to witness her shiver at his touch.
She gazed up at him with a look of wonder. “You certainly put them in their place.”
“The only way to beat the gossips is to play them at their own game.”
She stepped away, stared at him for the longest time. “What do we do now?”
With a quick shake of the head, he dismissed all lustful thoughts. “I presume you are here with a relation.” He was aware her parents were dead.
“I was to attend with my aunt, but she is suffering from a fever. I came with my friend, Miss Hamilton, and my uncle is here, though someone persuaded him to play a hand of cards and I have not seen him since.”
A strange sense of foreboding took hold.
Matthew scoured his mind to recall her uncle’s name. “You live with your mother’s sister, I understand.” He made it his business to keep abreast of all the gossip.
“Yes, they treat me like the daughter they—” She broke off on a sob. “Oh, they will be so disappointed. How could I have been so foolish?”
He touched her upper arm. “Once Lady Morford puts her mind to something she does not care who she hurts.”
Miss Smythe shook her head and gave a weary sigh. “I am far from the catch of the Season. I know you only offered marriage to save Lord Morford. It was an honourable thing to do.”
Honourable? Damn! No one had ever associated the word with his name. “As your betrothed, may I give you some advice?”
Her eyes brightened. “Of course.”
“People can be cruel. They will spread vicious rumours about you.” No doubt she would hear some distressing things about him, too. “Rise above it. Do not intimate your looks or character are inadequate. Tell yourself any man would be privileged to call you his wife. Believe you are a diamond in a pond full of pebbles.”
Dainty fingers fluttered to her chest as her breathing quickened. A smile touched the corners of her mouth though he had no notion what she was thinking.
“Now,” he continued, desperate to fill the silence. “I shall find someone to bribe so we may leave here with minimal fuss. I shall inform your uncle of our intentions though I cannot recall his name.”
Mere hours ago, Miss Smythe’s future had appeared bright and full of promise. Now, he did not mind admitting she had no option but to marry a scoundrel. Now, she was to learn that the place she called home no longer belonged to her family. After such heavy losses at the card table, her aunt and uncle would surely struggle to keep themselves from the workhouse.