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Ophelia Fullerton, Viscountess Havenstock studied the tall man on the opposite side of the ballroom and wrinkled her brow in puzzlement. He was much younger than she expected, and he looked nothing like the debauched brute she’d imagined. Where was the monster her father had described? The reply in the back of her head wasn’t one she wanted to hear. Attempting to cool her skin in the stifling heat of the room, she waved the peacock-feathered fan she’d bought less than a week ago. It was the type of luxury that would no longer be affordable unless she was able to secure the return of Marymount. Ophelia tipped her head in her sister’s direction.
“Lizzie, are you certain this is the man? He looks nothing like the disreputable scoundrel Father described.” The dubious note in her voice prompted Ophelia’s sister to bristle like a hen ruffling her feathers.
“Of course, I’m certain. Everyone knows who the Earl of Thornbury is.”
“And exactly when were you introduced to the earl?”
Ophelia arched an eyebrow at her much younger sister, Lizzie, who had made her debut last year under Ophelia’s watchful eye. The one thing Ophelia was meticulous about when it came to her sister was to ensure Lizzie never received an introduction to men of the earl’s ilk.
Lizzie was good-hearted, but far too trusting when it came to people. She always thought the best of everyone with the exception of individuals Lizzie thought had harmed her family. Then Lizzie became a tigress intent on protecting her cubs.
Ever since Lizzie’s debut, Ophelia had hoped her sister would find a nice young man to marry and enjoy the happiness denied Ophelia. That hope had become even more fervent than ever before given their current change in finances.
“Well…we’ve not actually been introduced.” Elizabeth Sheffield tilted her head haughtily clearly affronted that her identification of the earl had been called into question. “Lady Alice pointed him out to me the other day during our walk near the Serpentine. But he’s definitely the man who stole Marymont from Papa, and if we don’t do something soon, we’ll have nowhere to go.”
There was the touch of the dramatic in her sister’s words. It was a trait she’d inherited from their father who had a flair for exaggeration. Unfortunately, this was one instance where her sister’s woeful tone was more than appropriate. They were most certainly in dire straits thanks to their father’s love of wine and cards. A familiar bitterness rolled through her.
“Naturally, Father is completely blameless in this entire debacle,” Ophelia bit out as she sent her sister a scathing look. “Perhaps you’ve forgotten he’s the one who wagered our home and lost.”
“No, I’ve not forgotten, but you know Papa is far too polite to refuse someone’s offer of hospitality. Papa said the earl kept plying him with wine. It’s obvious the man took advantage of him.”
“Oh, of course, Father would never turn down a drink.” Her caustic remark emphasized her belief that the baron’s lack of judgement carried the largest burden of guilt. Even if she were wrong in her assumption as to their father’s behavior, the baron still held some responsibility for their current situation.
“You are too hard on him, Ophelia. He’s been desolate since Mama’s death.” The note of sorrow in her sister’s voice tugged at her heart. Almost eight years younger than her, Lizzie had been happily planning her debut with their mother when the baroness had become ill, never to recover.
“It has been three years since her death, Lizzie. We miss her as much as Father does, but look where his folly has taken us,” Ophelia said quietly. “Where Mama always found a way to keep him from indulging in his vices, I have failed.”
“You’ve done your best, Ophelia. We both have.” Lizzie’s voice held a forlorn note, and Ophelia quickly squeezed her sister’s hand.
“We shall find a way out of this quandary, dearest. I promise you that. At least we have the annual stipend George left me. It might not be much, but we will not starve.”
Despite Ophelia’s lack of confidence in her statement, Lizzie’s expression brightened as she nodded her belief in her older sister’s ability to save them from destitution. A polite cough made her turn around to see Paul Nickens standing behind them. Tall and dark-haired, the young man was of modest means, but was good-natured and had a promising future as a solicitor.
Ophelia had liked him from the moment she and Lizzie had been introduced to him. Deep inside she’d found herself hoping the young man would offer for her sister and that Lizzie would accept. Under the current circumstances, she was all the more eager to encourage the man’s attentions to Lizzie.
“Good evening, Mr. Nickens,” she said with a welcoming smile.
“Lady Havenstock. Miss Sheffield.” Paul Nickens bowed his greeting with a smile at both of them before his gaze quickly fixated on Lizzie. “I was hoping I might persuade you to let me claim several dances on your card, Miss Sheffield.”
“I would be honored for you to do so, sir,” her sister said in a breathless voice as her cheek grew pink with pleasure. She handed the young man a stiff rectangular piece of paper, and he proceeded to draw a line down more than half of Lizzie’s card and dashed off his name in bold fashion.
“There, now. I believe this will ensure that several of my rivals will find themselves suitably disappointed this evening,” Mr. Nickens said with a grin. “Perhaps you will allow me to claim my first dance now.”
“I would find that most enjoyable.” Lizzie accepted his outstretched hand and allowed the young man to lead her out onto the dance floor.
Satisfied her sister was in good company, Ophelia resumed her assessment of the earl. Despite the loathing she felt for him, the man’s appearance underscored one of the reasons he’d earned his reputation as a master of seduction. He was a picture of masculine strength and beauty. It was impossible not to think of the powerful tigers she’d seen pacing in their cages at the Regents Zoo. The earl displayed the same relaxed, yet powerful, sinewy strength in his movements. It epitomized an image of raw power.
With dark blond hair, he’d chosen to eschew the large mutton chops she’d found so distasteful on her husband. Clean-shaven, his profile was sharply defined, and his jaw was square and strong-looking. It surprised her that she found him so fascinating when she was incapable of passion. A fact, her husband had repeated every time he’d left her bed chamber in the short time they’d been married.
George’s death less than two years after their wedding had been a relief from the constant bombardment of his criticism. But their brief marriage had convinced her of one thing. She’d failed in her duties as a wife, and she would never possess the ability to seduce a man or find pleasure in the bedroom. It was a conviction that was at distinct odds with her reaction to the earl, and it confused her.
Despite his reputation, there was an almost angelic look about him, which masked the dangerous predator she knew lay beneath the surface. The woman at his side said something that made him laugh, and he bowed slightly as she departed. Enthralled, Ophelia watched the earl take a glass of champagne off the tray one of the footmen carried. Before she could turn her head away, the man looked directly at her and lifted the flute of sparkling liquid in her direction. She couldn’t discern the color of his eyes, but the sensual curve of his lips made her mouth go dry.
Dear God, how long had he been aware she was watching him. The air in Ophelia’s lungs disappeared, and her chest tightened until she could barely breathe. Frozen in place, she remained pinned beneath his gaze as a small frisson skimmed its way across her skin. Mesmerized, she watched him drink from the crystal glass his gaze still locked with hers.
As he lowered the flute, long fingers stroked the fragile neck of the glass, invoking the strong image of his hand trailing down the side of her throat. A raw sensation spiraled through her. It was unlike anything she’d experienced before. Butterflies swirled in her stomach as his tongue flicked out to erase a droplet of wine from his lips. She had no doubt it was a deliberate act on his part, and it sent a shiver skimming down the back of her spine.
In a split second, her nipples grew stiff beneath her corset until they pressed against her chemise. The soft linen roughened the hard peaks until a pleasure that was almost painful in its intensity assaulted her senses. It aroused something unfamiliar inside her that was as startling as it was unexpected.
Another tiny shudder sped through her. It traveled downward to settle between her legs and made her sex ache. It created a need for his hand to caress her as intimately as he did his glass. Confused by the sensations flowing through her, Ophelia jerked her gaze away. What in heavens name was wrong with her? As she fought to regain her faculties, a light touch on her arm made her jump.
“Ophelia, how lovely to see you this evening.”
Louisa Rockwood’s quiet greeting was a welcome distraction, and she quickly turned to face her childhood friend. It had been almost a year since they’d last seen each other, and she greeted Louisa with an affectionate kiss on the cheek.
“Louisa, oh it’s wonderful to see you. Our paths never seem to cross anymore.”
“If it weren’t for Percy badgering me, I wouldn’t be here tonight. The season holds little interest for me anymore, and I seldom come to London. Aunt Matilda and I brought the children from Scotland last month for Sebastian’s and Helen’s tenth anniversary celebration. Everyone pressed me to stay for a bit longer, although I confess I’m eager to return to the solitude of the countryside.” A sorrowful look darkened her friend’s hazel eyes as her mouth curved in a small smile. “I find Callendar Abbey suits me far better. The boys do well in the fresh air, and Aunt Matilda loves having company.”
“How is your aunt?”
“She’s quite well, and she has a suitor. Although, I don’t think she’s willing to admit it. She grumbles about his arrogance.”
The laugh that parted Louisa’s lips reminded Ophelia of a time when her friend had been happy and carefree. The death of her husband and her brother in a tragic fire more than two years ago had changed her friend. The tragedy had changed all the Rockwoods. Dressed in a dark mauve-colored gown, the only other color Louisa wore was the Stewart plaid in a sash over her breast. Despite her somewhat austere appearance, Ophelia thought her friend was even more beautiful than she had been when they were younger.
“And the boys?”
“They are sprouting up like weeds. Charles is six now, and has become enamored with botany. I would not mind so if he didn’t bring in half the earth with him.” Louisa smiled with motherly exasperation, yet more than a hint of pride. “And Willie is becoming increasingly precocious. Just last week he demanded we begin addressing him as Wills since he is no longer a baby. He has taken an intense dislike to being called Willie.”
“It sounds as though he’s a great deal like his mother. I remember a time when you were equally determined to be taken seriously.”
“Good heavens,” Louisa gasped with surprised amusement. “Are you referring to the time I told Sebastian I would unscrew the wires in his piano if he didn’t stop calling me Weezie?”
“Yes,” Ophelia nodded with a laugh. “I have never forgotten the horror-stricken look on his face.”
“My threat worked though. He never called me Weezie again,” Louisa sighed softly. “We were so young back then.”
“I’m sorry life has been so terribly difficult for you, Louisa, I truly am,” Ophelia said as she touched her friend’s arm. A haunted look flitted across Louisa’s face before her mouth curved in a smile reminiscent of earlier days, and she patted Ophelia’s hand.
“Thank you, Ophelia. It’s kind of you—” Louisa suddenly gripped Ophelia’s hand tightly. “You’re in trouble.”
“What?” she choked out in a soft gasp staring at her friend in surprise.
“Do not deny it, Ophelia. The an dara sealladh doesn’t come to me as often as the rest of my siblings, but I do possess the family gift,” Louisa said in a stern voice as she squeezed Ophelia’s hand and shut her eyes. “There’s a man. He has something that belongs to you. Letters? No, there’s only one, but it’s very important to you. You know him, but…”
At her friend’s words, Ophelia grew chilled. Although the Marlborough Set knew of the Rockwoods’ gift of sight, it was always discussed with great discretion. As children, she’d been accustomed to Louisa’s ability to know things others didn’t. But this was the first time her friend had seen something about her. Louisa’s eyes flew open, and she stared at Ophelia with a worried frown furrowing her brow.
“You must tell me what’s wrong, Ophelia. I trust the an dara sealladh, even when the images are confusing and make little sense.”
“There’s nothing wrong,” she prevaricated with as much aplomb as she could muster. “Father lost an important paper the other day, and we’ve been trying to find it. Perhaps that’s what you’re seeing.”
“No, I don’t think so,” Louisa murmured as she studied Ophelia closely. “I couldn’t see the man’s face, but he was much younger than your father.”
“Then perhaps you’re seeing someone I’ve yet to meet.” Her lips curved in a placating smile, Ophelia struggled to hide how close to the truth Louisa’s words were.
“Perhaps…” Louisa said with a look of concentration before a smile of pleasure suddenly curved her lips. “Mathias, you came. Percy said you might be here tonight. Why haven’t you joined us for dinner? I know he’s invited you to several occasions, but you keep avoiding us.”
“I would never willingly avoid dinner with the Rockwoods,” a deep voice filtered its way past her shoulder as a tall figure stopped at Ophelia’s side and bent to kiss Louisa’s hand. “I’ve simply been extremely busy.”
As she turned her head, Ophelia immediately recognized the owner of the hypnotic voice, and her heart stopped beating for a full second before it resumed again at a faster pace. The most intense jade-colored eyes she’d ever seen locked with hers, and his penetrating gaze made her feel as if he could see the darkest secrets she possessed.
“Ophelia, are you acquainted with—”
“Viscountess Havenstock,” the earl said in a voice that was as silky and sinful as one of the rich chocolate truffles she indulged in far too frequently. “I had hoped you would be here this evening.”’
Speechless that he knew her name, she trembled and slowly extended her hand in a silent greeting. She’d forgone wearing gloves this evening, and his mouth singed her skin in a way that sent a shockwave through her. Dear Lord, what was wrong with her? She’d never experienced this type of reaction to a man before, and it left her feeling completely out of control. The earl raised his head with his gaze never leaving her face.
“Louisa, I hope you don’t mind, but Lady Havenstock promised me a dance, and I am here to collect.”
“But of course, Mathias,” Louisa said with a surprised smile as she looked at Ophelia with avid curiosity.
Still unable to utter a word, Ophelia found her hand clasped in the earl’s firm hand as he guided her out onto the dance floor. Her brain sluggish, she didn’t even have the wherewithal to protest as he swung her into her arms. The soft, subtle scent of spice and pine swept across her senses, causing her heart to pound a fierce rhythm in her ears. It was a reaction that set her on edge.
She and Lizzie rarely moved in the same exalted circles as the Earl of Thornbury, but tonight had proven an exception. The moment Ophelia had learned the earl was in attendance, she’d braced herself to do whatever was necessary to capture the man’s attention. But her determination had not prepared her for the earl’s magnetic presence or the way it affected her equilibrium.
A pulse of energy threaded its way through her. She’d wanted to capture the man’s attention, but now that she had, every plea she’d rehearsed had fled her brain. Averting her gaze away from his face, Ophelia remained silent as the earl danced her around the floor.
A low laugh whispered its way past her ear. She immediately glanced up into his handsome face, and the wicked smile twisting his lips caused her to stumble slightly. The powerful strength she’d noted earlier allowed him to pull her tight against him. Heat suffused her skin the instant her body pressed even more intimately into his chest, and he skillfully whirled her around the dance floor as if she’d not faltered at all.
“Shall I confess something, my lady?” The deep melodious sound of his voice held her spellbound.
“Confess?” she replied breathlessly. Ophelia swallowed hard as she looked at him. Amusement mixed with something far more dangerous glittered in his green eyes.
“You intrigue me.”
“Yes,” he said with another soft laugh. “I think I surprised you when I asked you to dance with me.”
“Asked me?” she snapped as she remembered her inability to speak one word to the man. “You didn’t give me the opportunity to say no.”
“You object?” Curiosity echoed in his voice as he arrogantly arched his eyebrows. “From our silent exchange earlier, I was under the impression you wouldn’t reject my offer of attention.”
“I did not…I was…” Ophelia’s voice trailed off at the abrupt tension filling the air between them. Her disdain irritated him, which jeopardized the possibility of Marymont being returned. “Objecting isn’t an option for me where you’re concerned.”
“Once again, I’m intrigued,” he said as he whirled her around several quick turns to dodge another couple, and Ophelia experienced a pleasant, yet slightly dizzy sensation. “Explain.”
“I’m uncertain how to broach the subject.”
“Intrigued is becoming an overused word where you’re concerned, my lady, fascinated seems far more appropriate.”
The scintillating flash of humor in his eyes unnerved her. She hadn’t expected to find the man devastating to her senses. But then she’d not anticipated feeling anything at all. All she’d ever experienced where men were concerned was either antipathy or friendship. A knot formed in her throat. Perhaps the bargain she’d thought to strike with this man was a foolish one.
It unnerved her to think he might actually be able to awaken something inside her contrary to established fact. Ophelia quickly dismissed the thought. She was incapable of passion or stirring in a man. George had taught her that. The question was how far she was willing to go to save her childhood home. She’d never been able to bear George touching her, and she wasn’t sure whether she was capable of bartering herself. In the back of her head, a small voice taunted her with the fact that she’d chosen her path the moment her gaze had the earl’s across the ballroom floor. She drew in a shallow breath.
“You have something that belongs to me, or rather my family, Lord Thornbury.”
“Indeed,” he murmured as an odd look crossed his features. “What might that be?
“Your home,” he exclaimed softly as puzzlement crossed his face.
“Marymont. My father lost it in a wager to you several nights ago,” she said as her voice dropped slightly. “I would like it back, and I am willing…I think I have something to offer in exchange.”
“And the currency you’re referring to?” A glitter of cold calculation darkened his jade eyes as he narrowed his gaze at her.
“Ahh, a proposition of the intimate kind.” Boredom settled on his features, but his eyes had hardened with something approaching contempt or pity. She was unable to discern which, and it heightened her sense of desperation.
“I do not offer myself up lightly, my lord,” she choked out with great effort. “But I believe I am unique enough that I would be unlike other…other women with whom you enter liaisons.”
“And tell me, what is this unique quality you possess that makes you think I would be willing to trade a valuable piece of property for it,” he murmured with what she was certain was a sneer.
“I…I am incapable of passion,” she finished her stumbling statement in a rush.
This time it was the earl’s chance to stumble slightly. The awkwardness of the moment was highlighted by his incredulous expression. As the dance music ended with a resounding flourish he quickly guided her off the dance floor. His sensual mouth a hard, thin line, he firmly, yet discreetly, maneuvered her through the crowd out into a long hallway that ran the length of the ballroom itself.
Although the corridor wasn’t empty, it was significantly less crowded. To anyone else in the hall, his grip on her elbow no doubt appeared solicitous, but his firm grasp indicated he had no intention of letting her escape. He seemed completely certain as to where he was going, and for the second time in the space of minutes, she was too startled by his behavior to protest. The earl stopped at a door and opened it at the same time he glanced back at a couple who had passed them seconds before.
Satisfied the pair had not turned their heads, he none too gently pulled Ophelia into a darkened room. Firelight created soft shadows against the walls, and as he closed the door behind them, she heard the key turn in the lock. Trepidation spiraled through her, and she quickly put several feet between them before facing him. As he turned to face her, his gaze narrowed as he held up the key.
“To ensure we’re not interrupted,” he said tersely.
For some reason, she had expected him to be surprised, but he actually appeared angry. Arms folded over his chest, he pinned her with his mesmerizing gaze.
“I said a moment ago I was intrigued and then fascinated, Lady Havenstock. However I am now attempting to determine precisely what you expect to achieve with your confession.” The contempt in his voice sent a chill sliding through her, and Ophelia shook her head.
“It was not a confession, my lord,” she bit out in a crisp tone as she met his gaze steadily. “It is a fact. I am incapable of inciting passion in a man or feeling it myself.”
“I see,” he said in a voice devoid of emotion. “Do you seriously expect me to believe not one of your lovers since Havenstock has failed to arouse you?”
“I’ve not shared a bed with any man other than my husband.”
“None?” The earl snorted with disbelief. “Forgive me, Lady Havenstock, but I find it difficult to believe you’ve not had at least one lover since you became a widow.”
“I am not a liar.” Ophelia tilted her chin upward. She resented the insinuation that she was lying. If either of them was deserving of contempt, his disreputable behavior had earned him that distinction.
“Very well, let us put aside the question of your experience,” he said as he pinned his gaze on her as a collector might when assessing the value of an antique. “Explain why you believe yourself incapable of arousing a man to passion or experiencing pleasure.”
“Because my husband repeatedly stated I was cold and unfeeling in the performance of my wifely duties,” she said in a tight voice remembering George’s angry denouncements of her inability to arouse a man.
It had been horrible enough knowing her father had insisted she marry George simply because the viscount had agreed to cover her father’s outstanding debts. But knowing she was incapable of inspiring passion in her husband had made her avoid any liaisons in the ten years since George’s death.
“Good god,” the earl muttered beneath his breath a frown creasing his forehead as he studied her. Ophelia looked down to fiddle with the ostrich feathers of her fan.
“I realize my proposition is unusual, but your reputation is such that I thought you might…might find me a challenge,” she choked out as humiliation swept through her. “I have nothing else with which to barter for the return of my home.”
“Havenstock was clearly a fool,” the earl bit out as he slowly closed the distance between them.
The earl’s gaze was hot as it swept over her in a leisurely fashion. It was as if he were disrobing her in his mind, and the effect it had on her made her senses reel. Her heart racing, she forced herself not to look away from him as approached her. With each step he took toward her, Ophelia experienced the urge to take two back, but she held her ground.
The man was doing things to her senses that didn’t just alarm her—they made her long to possess the ability to entice and seduce him. The moment the thought flitted through her head, she struggled not to race toward the door. Dear Lord, what was she thinking? The earl halted inches away from her then tipped her chin upward with his finger so she was forced to look at him.
“Let me be the first to assure you, Ophelia, that you are more than capable of enchanting a man,” he said softly. “I’ve been captivated from the first moment I saw you this evening.”
Her name rolled off his lips as if it were an invitation to join him in sin. The silky note of seduction in his voice made Ophelia’s heart slam into her breast as he lowered his head and brushed his mouth against hers. Fire singed her lips at the light caress, and the air left her lungs. A slight tremor shook through her as he lifted his head to study her face. Gold flecks glittered in his green eyes as the firelight cast half of his profile in relief, while shadows covered the opposite side of his features. The angelic impression she’d had of him earlier returned, but this time it was a dark angel she saw. Ophelia swallowed hard as she met his gaze.
“Am I to understand that you have decided to accept my proposition, my lord?”
“Perhaps,” he murmured. “I wonder if you’ve considered the ramifications of your decision.”
“If you’re suggesting I mean to trick you into returning Marymont to me, I have only my word that I shall honor our bargain.”
“It’s not a question as to whether you’ll honor any agreement between us. The question is how quickly you learn.”
“I don’t understand,” she said as she eyed him warily. “It sounds as though you are proposing an extended arrangement.”
“Do you think one night is sufficient payment for what must be a valuable piece of property given your willingness to offer yourself up to me so blatantly?”
The harsh note in his voice made Ophelia drag in a sharp breath. It was precisely what she’d thought. She shook her head as trepidation slid through her followed by a throb of excitement that made her blood race.
“I did not consider the details of any arrangement we might make.”
“Then I suggest we come to an agreement on terms that are agreeable to both of us.”
His voice echoed with a hint of satisfaction that set off an alarm in Ophelia’s mind. The man was clever, and she would need to be equally so if she was to emerge from this bargain with Marymont in her possession.
“Name your terms,” she said quietly as she met his gaze with a steadiness that made him narrow his eyes at her.
“In exchange for your home, you will give me one month,” he said as he folded his arms over his chest. “At the end of our month together, your home will be returned to you.”
“And how do I know you’ll return Marymont to me after I surrender myself to your instruction?” At her question, he grew rigid.
“Are you suggesting I won’t honor our agreement, my lady?”
The sharp note in his voice indicated she’d angered him by implying he might fail to respect the bargain they were negotiating. Whether he did or didn’t was of no consequence. If she wanted Marymont returned to her, she had little choice but to trust he would uphold his end of the bargain. With a sharp nod, she agreed to his terms.
“One month.” The moment she replied, the earl’s mouth curled in a wicked smile.
“Then let us begin,” the earl said smoothly.
“Here? Now?” she gasped as the distance between them became almost non-existent.
“I think you will find the threat of discovery heightens the senses and the pleasure.”
“You cannot possibly be serious.” With a vehement shake of her head, Ophelia took a quick step backward to open up the space between them. He closed it just as quickly.
“Pleasure always involves the senses, my lady, but there are many forms of pleasure,” he laughed softly. It was a warm whisper across her mouth as he leaned into her. “Anticipation itself can be quite pleasurable.”
“I don’t understand,” she choked out as his head dipped toward her. Her heart skipped a beat as his mouth bypassed her lips to brush his mouth across her cheek.
“Tonight, when you’re alone in your bedroom, Ophelia, you’re to undress slowly,” he murmured as his teeth lightly nipped at her ear lobe. “I want you to imagine I’m there watching you. When you’re wearing only your chemise, I want you touch your nipples.”
“Oh dear lord,” she choked out as her gaze locked with his. In a lazy stroke, his finger traced a path along the edge of her bodice. The light touch made Ophelia tremble, and a small smile curved his mouth.
“When you touch your nipples, I want you to imagine I’m there sucking on them. My tongue swirling on your stiff, rigid peaks.” Barely able to breathe, it was impossible to look away from him. His smile became even more wicked.
“You’re experiencing pleasure right now, aren’t you, Ophelia.” The laughter in his voice was mixed with something sinful and tantalizing, and she flicked her tongue out to lick her dry lips.
“Yes,” she barely breathed the word.
“Good,” he said softly as he brushed his mouth over hers. “I want you to experience the ache, the need, the desire for my touch. I want you to imagine my mouth on your skin, licking and sucking on you until you shatter in my arms.”
“Oh, God.” It was little more than a breath of sound as fire spread its way through her body. She swayed slightly, and his hands gripped her waist to steady her.
“I think you are more than capable of passion, Ophelia,” he murmured in a slightly thick voice.
There was a fire burning in his eyes that warmed her from the inside out as he stepped back from her. A shiver of excitement streaked down her back as her gaze remained locked with hers. She should have been appalled she’d even suggested their bargain to him. But it was the fact he excited her that alarmed her the most.
Lust, unlike anything he’d ever felt before, slammed into Mathias’s chest as he struggled not to pull Ophelia into his arms. Brown eyes, large in her face, shimmered with gold flecks in the firelight. Desire had softened her features, and her full mouth was parted slightly. The tip of her tongue flicked out to wet her lips, and Mathias swallowed the dark groan rumbling up in his throat.
The woman had no idea how tempting she looked at this precise moment. A small shudder rippled through her as he gripped her waist to steady her. He would enjoy making Ophelia see herself as the sensual creature she was. A vivid image of her lying beneath him with her lustrous chestnut hair spilling across her bare shoulders made his cock stir in his trousers.
In a split instant, his lust vanished as if he’d been doused in icy water. He stiffened and took a quick step back from her. What the hell was wrong with him? He’d just said he wasn’t a liar, and yet here he was pretending to be Charles. Worse, he’d even gone so far as to negotiate terms for her audacious proposition without divulging who he really was.
Self-loathing twisted his gut into a vicious knot. What in God’s name was he thinking to let this farce continue. The immediate answer that came to mind was a perfunctory one. He was doing what he’d done for years. He was protecting his brother from scandal. Mathias almost snorted with disgust. As the Earl of Thornbury, his brother was a scoundrel when it came to his dalliances, but even Charles would have arched his eyebrows at Mathias’s behavior.
He cleared his throat as he studied the expression of desire on Ophelia’s face. Christ Jesus, he wanted to explore every inch of her right here and now. The images flying through his head made his muscles harden with a tension he’d not experienced in a long time. It was a tension that would remain unassuaged because the minute he told her the truth she’d flee. For the first time in his life he found himself wishing he really was the Earl of Thornbury.
“I’m afraid, my lady, we’ve both made a grievous error.” Mathias deliberately kept his voice devoid of emotion as he steadily met her gaze. Confusion swept across her face as she shook her head slightly.
“Regrettably, I am not the Earl of Thornbury.” The words hung in the air for a long moment as she stared at him in bewilderment.
“I don’t understand.”
“My brother holds the Thornbury title,” he said tightly as she stared at him in a dazed fashion.
“You’re not…but you said—”
“No. You assumed I was the earl,” he grounded out between clenched teeth. Furious with himself for allowing things to go so far, his tone was harsher than he meant it to be.
Slowly, Ophelia’s look of confusion became one of mortified shock and horror. The fact he was responsible for her humiliation was not lost on him. His jaw tightened with self-loathing. It wasn’t unusual for Charles and him to be mistaken for each other. They could have been twins, despite Mathias being almost four years younger. But he’d known Ophelia had mistaken him for Charles when she’d addressed him so formally on the dance floor.
He could have clarified who he was the moment they’d entered this room. The fact he’d not done so angered him. The idea that he’d been looking out for Charles’ interests didn’t excuse his demeaning the woman. The silence stretched out between them as he waited for the storm he knew would fall on his head. When she didn’t speak, he clasped his hands behind his back.
“Naturally, I will understand if you prefer not to go forward our agreement.”
“Not go—you bastard.” Her voice was sharp and brittle. “You allowed me to humiliate myself—offer my body in exchange for something you cannot give.”
“No, I didn’t promise something I couldn’t give,” he replied with a shake of his head. “As my brother’s business and estate manager. I have complete autonomy in managing his affairs and properties.”
“Do you honestly expect me to believe you would have returned Marymont to me?”
“I do not expect you to do so, but it is the truth.”
“The truth?” she exclaimed with bitterness. “The truth is that your brother displayed no moral compass when he stole Marymont from a drunken, old fool. But you sir, are worse. You are beyond contempt.”
Mathias went rigid. He was clearly worthy of her insult, but his brother was not. While Charles had many flaws, he was a good man at heart. It was one of the reasons Mathias quietly investigated every new paramour his brother became involved with. Despite Ophelia’s brutal condemnation, he knew his original intent had been to protect his brother. He’d meant to determine exactly what she wanted from Charles before sending her on her way with a warning. But somewhere in the middle of that he’d lost sight of everything except Ophelia.
“I will not quarrel with your judgement of me, even though it wasn’t my intent to humiliate you. That said, I’m the wall that stands between my brother and any woman who seeks to become the next Countess of Thornbury through less than honorable means.” At his cold reply, Ophelia’s head jerked backward as if he’d slapped her. Regret crashed through him. He was adding insult to injury. Intense dislike darkened her features as she glared at him.
“I have never had any designs on your brother or his title,” she bit out an in acerbic tone. “I would no more tie myself to a man of your brother’s ilk than I would a snake.”
“Perhaps not, but my brother is not always discreet in his liaisons. It is up to me to ensure the women he indulges himself with are not in pursuit of a title.”
“I want nothing more from your brother than for him to return my childhood home to me. And I was willing to pay in the only currency I possess. Unfortunately, I underestimated the depths of your family’s depravity.”
Her face pale, Ophelia’s brown eyes flashed with pale gold sparks of anger as she quickly stepped around him and headed for the door. He matched her pace and held up the key he’d pulled from his pocket.
“I will escort you back to the ballroom, my lady.”
“No. You will not,” she snapped as she tugged the key from his grasp and proceeded to unlock the door.
With a sharp movement she jerked open the door and allowed it to fly open. Caught off guard by her action, Mathias didn’t move fast enough to avoid the door hitting him. An oath escaped him as he released a low cry of pain. Preoccupied with his injury, he failed to halt Ophelia’s flight from the room. One hand pressed to his nose, he felt a warm trickle of blood touch his lips.
“Damn it to hell.”
Mathias pulled his handkerchief out of his pocket and pressed it against his nose to staunch the bleeding. After several moments he was able to straighten his head while gently wiping the last bit of blood from above his upper lip.
He deserved every bit of Ophelia’s anger. There was no doubt in his mind that her outrageous proposal had been born of desperation. He’d been so blinded by his preconceived notions as to her motives, he’d failed to see the humiliation layered beneath her initial proposal.
His failure was compounded by his inability to control the lust she’d aroused in him. Not only had he allowed her to believe he was his brother, he’d negotiated an agreement with her. Charles would no doubt find his behavior worthy of Ophelia’s contempt. He grimaced at the thought.
This was the first time since he was a boy that he’d done something less than circumspect, not to mention dishonorable. Generally it was Charles who chafed at constraints of society. Mathias’s bit down on the inside of his cheek. As much as he loved his brother, he knew Charles was far removed from a saint. Even when they were children Charles had always walked the fine line between acceptable behavior and outright defiance of social conventions.
Tonight Mathias had been the one to cross the line. The fact he’d not attempted to quickly correct Ophelia’s mistaken belief as to his identity was reprehensible. It illustrated how jaded he’d become since first taking on the task of guarding Charles’s reputation. Protecting his brother from scandal was a duty he’d performed ever since their father had died ten years ago.
From the moment Charles’s had inherited the Thornbury title, Mathias had served as his brother’s confidant and estate manager. More importantly, he was the wall between Charles and any woman intent on becoming the next Countess of Thornbury. But none of that excused his conduct in bartering with Ophelia and accepting what she’d offered in exchange for the return of her home. He deserved every bit of her contempt, particularly when he considered his base reaction to her.
Reluctantly he admitted it had been difficult not to be fascinated by her proposition. His admission that she intrigued him was true. When she’d shared Havenstock’s opinion of her wifely duties, he’d experienced outrage that the man had convinced Ophelia she was incapable of feeling or eliciting passion. The idea that she thought herself incapable of feeling passion or arousing a man’s passion would have been laughable if he’d not seen the look of humiliation in her brown eyes.
Everything about her reaction to him illustrated she was more than capable of great passion, but it was obvious she believed what Havenstock had told her. In all likelihood, the old bastard hadn’t been able to raise his cock and blamed his wife. Mathias had only met the old viscount a couple of times, but had never really cared for the man. Havenstock had been a bombastic, pompous ass. Ophelia was better off a widow.
With a grunt of frustration, Mathias strode out into the corridor and headed back to the ballroom. He was far too preoccupied with the woman. He’d done what he’d needed to do to—protect Charles. The logic didn’t make him feel any better when it came to his behavior this evening. As he entered the ballroom, he saw Louisa and Percy conversing with Ophelia.
Almost as if she sensed his presence, Ophelia turned her head and their gazes met. Revulsion flashed across her features before she quickly looked away. Mathias bit down on the inside of his cheek. She was right. He was a bastard. The question now was how to make amends. The instant the thought filled his head, Mathias went rigid. And he’d been worried about Charles becoming infatuated with Ophelia. He uttered an oath beneath his breath and quickly left the ballroom. Viscountess Havenstock had managed to get what she wanted tonight. She just didn’t realize it yet.