By general consent determined that Gentlemen crowding before the Ladies at the Ball, show ill manners.
-- Beau Nash, Rules of Bath
Something wicked was afoot.
Struggling for composure, Lady Marjorie Entwhistie feigned an interest in the conversation between Frederick, the prince of Wales, and Beau Nash, the king of Bath. But her senses strayed from her companions and fixed on the unpleasantly familiar Welshman working his way across the crowded Pump Room.
Oh, sweet Jesus, was Papa up to his schemes again?
"Are you ill, my dear?" asked Beau.
His drooping jowls creased. Concern laced his words. The expression seemed out of place, for Beau Nash was a man suited to gaiety.
"Of course not," she lied, and her gaze slid to the doors. Had her father come at last?
"That looks like Magrath," said Beau, squinting into the crowd.
"Magrath?" asked the prince, his small head bobbing on his skinny neck, wig powder clouding around him. "I say, the chap's a bit late. Who is he?"
Through a haze of uneasy anticipation Marjorie said, "Milo Magrath is my father's herald."
"Was he invited?"
Assuming his role of local monarch, Beau Nash the drew himself up. "Hardly, sir." He tugged at sleeves of his lavishly embroidered coat. "Magrath's never invited to Bath. Always brings bad news."
"We'll have no ill tidings tonight," declared prince. "I command it." He nodded regally and drew murmurs of assent.
Marjorie chewed her lip. Even the interdict of heir to the throne of England could not forestall father's schemes. She gripped the crystal goblet un the hard edges of the cut glass bruised her palm. The familiar bubbling of the fountain echoed off the stone walls. The herald seemed to be traveling in circles around a sea of panniered skirts and padded shoulders. In his wake the noble occupants of the grew quiet.
His cheeks chapped raw by the wind, his chest heaving from exertion, Magrath stopped a few feet from her. With a grand flourish he doffed his feathered cap and bowed to Prince Frederick. "Your Royal Highness."
"No ill news on the celebration of our royal birthday, Magrath," he replied. "We've forbidden it."
Startled, Magrath jerked his head toward Marjorie. She noticed a faint blue tinge about his mouth and concluded that only the most pressing wickedness could have brought him across the Channel in the dead of winter.
He made a lesser obeisance to Beau Nash. "With your permission."
Beau grumbled, "If you must."
Milo knelt at her feet, a beribboned parchment in his chilblained hand. "Lady Marjorie," he said, his teeth rattling with cold. "I bring you warm and sincere greetings from your sire, who most humbly prays for your continued good health and fair fortune."
Her heart slammed against her ribs. All his vile missions had begun with false felicitations. If her suspicions proved true, the present tiding would end with shattering humiliation. But what if Magrath was here for innocent reasons? What if her father was merely announcing his imminent arrival in England?
In the midst of the worst winter even Beau Nash could remember? No. Her comfort-loving father wouldn't bestir himself to cross the Channel in this weather.
Magrath rose. His apologetic smile portended disaster. Marjorie longed to fling the goblet against the wall and storm from the assembly. But she was a veteran of humiliation. No matter what scheme her father had cooked up, she would not sacrifice her pride or her livelihood for his misguided sense of fatherly duty.
The herald turned to the prince. "With your permission, sir, I would read an announcement from Lady Marjorie's father."
Eager for a snippet of gossip, the crowd pressed closer.
"Your Grace," she began, striving to keep her voice even, "I dare not trouble you with trivialities from an expatriate who hasn't set foot in England in twenty years."
She prayed he would agree. To her dismay, he waved a royal hand and said, "I'm in an indulgent mood. But be quick about it. Whatever your name is."
Magrath cleared his throat and unfurled the parchment. "Hear ye, hear ye" -- he darted a worried glance at the door. Whom was he expecting? -- "citizens and visitors of His Royal Majesty's divine province of Bath. I, Sir George Entwhistle, sire of Lady Marjorie Elizabeth Entwhistle, do herewith proudly announce her immediate and irrevocable betrothal to his lordship, Commodore Lord Blake Chesterfield, most honorable marquess of Holcombe and rightful heir to His Grace, the duke of Enderley."
The chalybeate water she'd drunk just moments before turned to bile in Marjorie's stomach. Her father had staged this scenario for maximum effect. He'd backed her into a corner and blocked her escape.
Unable to drag her eyes from the door, she stiffened her spine and kept her expression bland. Blake Chesterfield! Sweet Saint Mary. The man was a master at avoiding the marriage trap. What had happened?
The crowd came to attention. Fans rattled open. Monocles and opera glasses framed curious eyes.
"It's about time he brought the chit to heel," crowed Dame Surleigh, her towering wig infested with paste fruit and faux birds, her words thick with too much brandy.
"Quite right, Dame Surleigh. Too bold by half, she is," said the widow Fontaine. A heart-shaped vanity patch dangled from her puffy cheek. "Our postmistress got herself quite a letter today."
Embarrassment chipped at Marjorie's dignity. How could you, Papa? the child in her cried. How could you do this to me again?
"Bravo, Lady Marjorie!" the prince said exuberantly. "This is jolly news indeed." A shower of wig pomatum drifted to the shoulders of his cut-velvet coat. "Your father's outdone himself. He's snared you a Chesterfield, he has." Addressing the assembly, he added, "Been at the side of the king of England since the Battle of Hastings, the Chesterfields have."
As if sensing her despair, Beau Nash moved closer. Unlike the prince, Beau could read her moods. He tilted his head back and smiled encouragingly. "I can't agree with his methods, but he's landed you the wealthiest and most sought-after bachelor in England."
Rebellion surged through her. "I will not accept his suit."
The Prince Regent's eyebrows touched his wig. Blinking, he said, "In the name of Saint George, why would you turn down Enderley's heir, Lady Marjorie?"
Dame Surleigh eased closer, anticipation glittering in her bleary eyes.
Let the gossip fly, decided Marjorie. She had survived it before. She would not demur now. "I've no wish to marry."
The prince gaped. "Never?"
Feminine whispers floated on the now-oppressive air. Marjorie drew in a labored breath; her ivory stays bit painfully into her breastbone. How could she explain to the Prince of Wales that she hoped to marry one day, but not at her father's command? "I have responsibilities, Sire."
"Responsibilities a man should shoulder," sneered Dame Surleigh. "The London mail's always late, and soggy as spoonbread."
Anger ripped through Marjorie. "You don't seem to mind so long as those wretched tabloids find their way to your door."
The older woman's mouth fell open. "Wretched?" she squealed. "I should have expected as much from you. You haven't changed in the least. You're still a -- "
"None of that!" commanded Beau. "We've heard enough from you tonight."
Frigid air blasted into the room. Printed broadsides fluttered against the stone walls. Bewigged and powdered heads turned toward the doors. Like the slashings of a rapier, a collective gasp sliced through the room.
"By Rotterdam," the prince exclaimed, "'tis Chesterfield himself."
"So it is," said Beau, nervously fishing his spectacles from a pocket of his brocaded coat. "At least he's tall. Not that that counts a pennyweight, of course." He glanced up at her over his spectacles. Softly he added, "Unless you will favor him -- "
"No." The word jumped from her lips. Seeing the curious stares, she knew she'd spoken too quickly. "We'll see," she amended.
"I met him in London once," crowed the widow Fontaine, plying her China fan. "A masterpiece of English breeding and continental style he is."
"Give me that betrothal." Beau snatched the document from a bewildered Milo Magrath and scanned the words. He smiled and winked at Marjorie. "It requires your signature."
Somewhat relieved, Marjorie clutched the bowl watch dangling from the fob at her waist. The tiny vibrations of the timepiece tickled her damp palm. The ominous whirl of spurs and the hollow tapping of boots sounded on the Bathstone flags. Slowly the crowd began to part. In tune with the ticks of the watch, the footsteps came closer.
The coward in Marjorie told her to ignore the approaching man, but strength, increased by a determination to rule her own life, tamped down the spiritless impulse. She had no reason to be afraid; her father could not force her to marry. He'd tried before. And failed.
She squared her shoulders and turned to meet her adversary head on. A shiver of foreboding prickled the hair on her neck. Like her, the man marching across the room stood head and shoulders above the throng.
Glossy black hair, fashionably clubbed at his nape, bore the imprint of a recently removed hat. A black mustache confirmed his rakehell reputation. The aristocratic planes of his high-bridged nose and the stark lines of his slashing cheekbones were devilishly enhanced by forest-green eyes alight with purpose. That noble chin, typical of seven hundred years of Englishborn Chesterfields, displayed the same cleft as that of his famous ancestor who had fought alongside William the Conqueror.
Thigh-high jack boots bore a coating of lime dust. Like a second skin, chamois knee pants hugged his lean hips and muscular flanks. He shed his cloak to reveal a stark white shirt with billowing sleeves. An open waistcoat of forest-green satin, embroidered with the chevrons of Chesterfield, hugged his broad torso. On powerful legs, more befitting a horseman than a naval officer, he strode across the Pump Room.
He might be the scion of one of England's oldest families, and the amorous object of women from Boston to Barcelona, but to Marjorie this Blake Chesterfield was merely the newest trump card in Papa's humiliating game of matchmaking. Why, then, did she feel intimidated?
As he approached she searched his handsome face for some sign of his mood, for some hint as to the personality of the man who was not only heir to a dukedom, but the most decorated sailor in the king's navy. Her answer came when his gaze locked with hers. Malice, blatant and venomous, glimmered in his eyes.
A cold wave of fear trickled down her spine. In his obsession to choose her a husband her father had anted up a peer of the realm. A very angry peer of the realm. The stakes were high this time. High indeed.
Compassion assaulted her, for this Chesterfield had not come to Bath of his own free will. What had he done to fall into her cunning father's trap?
Compassion fled; every man had a weakness. At the first opportunity she'd let this "masterpiece" know that his mission was doomed. Stepping to Beau's side, she confidently prepared to assume her role as honorary hostess for the evening.
Beau Nash nodded regally. "Good evening, Lord Blake. Welcome to Bath."
"Yes, yes, Chesterfield. Always room for a defender of the realm," the prince said. Grinning and wagging a finger, he added, "Although you'll have to dispense with those boots, or Nash'll sentence you to the stocks. Our king of Bath is persnickety about his dress code, he is."
In a bold move Lord Blake stepped to Marjorie's side. The rowels on his spurs ceased to spin.
"Thank you, Your Grace, for the warning. I shan't be long." His rich baritone voice stirred the hair at her temple. Why did he have to stand so blessedly close? "Pardon my ill manners, Mr. Nash, but I confess to being anxious to meet my betrothed."
She felt trapped and realized this handsome scoundrel intended to put her at maximum disadvantage. Instinctively she leaned away from him.
A cold hand touched her bare shoulder. "Good evening, Lady Marjorie."
Though she knew him only by reputation, she had not expected him to be so brazen. His long fingers, resting casually on her shoulder, felt relaxed, but his thumb pressed insistently into her back. She would gladly give up the Bristol package route to know what he truly thought.
Turning slightly, she put on her most dazzling smile and found herself nose to nose with the most handsome man in England. The determination in his eyes said he wasn't moved by her in the least. She chastised herself for not expecting that reaction. Blake Chesterfield didn't want her; he wanted to finagle himself out of an imbroglio her father had staged.
Deciding to match his polite performance, she said, "Will you share a glass of champagne, Lord Blake? Although belatedly, we're celebrating the birthday of His Highness, the Prince of Wales."
"I'd have..." He stopped. His fierce expression changed to one of repressed merriment. No wonder women flocked to him like children to Bartholomew Fair. His gaze dropped to her breasts. "Aye, Lady Marjorie, a drink from your hand would be delightful, or a sip from your dainty slipper would be divine. And I'd have you explain how George Entwhistle managed to sire a creature as lovely as yourself."
"That's Chesterfield for you," laughed the prince. "A cavalier of the first order."
Marjorie blushed to her waist. She hadn't counted on flattery from Blake Chesterfield. Other men had gone to despicable lengths to win her hand; their praise had fallen on deaf ears. Why, then, did this man's compliment ignite blushes?
He chuckled and reached for her hand. A disquieting shiver crept down her back.
"I'll take that flute of wine now, Lady Marjorie." He lowered his voice. "And later, I'd like a quiet place to talk to you."
She owed him that at least. "Very well, Lord Blake."
Beau Nash put away his spectacles and held out the proclamation. "Would you care to read this?"
In profile, Lord Blake called to mind a dozen coins minted in honor of his forebears. He emanated nobility, yet the hand holding Marjorie's grew tense.
"That's not necessary, for I was instrumental in creation."
"I'd like to see it," said Marjorie. Now he'd be forced to release her hand. To her dismay, his fingers tightened around hers. She grasped the parchment in her free hand.
"So you've been wife hunting at last," said the prince. "You've picked a fine one in Lady Marjorie. She's related to us, you know -- by her grandmother's second marriage, of course."
Blake's vivid green eyes made a slow and meticulous inspection of Marjorie, but beneath his regal countenance he looked surprised, she was certain.
Coolly he said, "How delightful."
"I say, Blake," said the prince, "how fares that coachman of yours? My offer to him is still open -- and he can even wear those ghastly hats."
"Peddicord fares quite well," he murmured. "And I'm flattered by your interest. But the Chesterfields won't part with him."
How typical, thought Marjorie. The noble and spoiled Chesterfield thought of his servants as possessions. If he thought to own her, he'd be sorely disappointed.
Tobias Ponds stepped forward. A scoundrel, he was, from the strands of his golden wig to the diamond-encrusted buckles on his shoes. He stood to gain considerably if Marjorie married, for he wanted her job.
"If I may, Your Grace," he said, "let me remind you that George Entwhistle is not Lady Marjorie's guardian. He has not the wherewithal to pledge her troth."
"A formality. Chesterfields have a way 'round rules, Mister..."
Tobias bowed from the waist. "Ponds, Sire. Tobias Ponds at your service."
What trick was this? Ponds acting her champion?
Preposterous. But she might as well take advantage of it. "Mr. Ponds has the right of it." She turned to Chesterfield and sank into a deep curtsy. "Still, it's pleasant to meet you, my lord."
He did not release her hand but pulled her up again. "When my illustrious forebear wooed and won Alexis Stewart the bards said no Chesterfield hence would bring a more beautiful woman into the bower of our family." Deviltry smoldered in his eyes. He turned her hand over. "'Twould seem" -- he boldly kissed her palm -- "the songsters didn't realize a treasure like you would come along."
Feminine sighs spread like a blanket of calm over the room. Marjorie's hand itched unbearably. She wondered if Blake Chesterfield was hard of hearing.
"I say, Lord Blake," Beau sputtered in outrage, "we'll have no wanton seduction in the Pump Room."
Turning a bland, handsome stare on the king of Bath, Chesterfield said, "By the way, George Entwhistle sends you his regards."
Marjorie's heart sank to her knees. Had Beau played a part in this wicked farce?
Spots of color flashed on Beau's face. "He can keep his regards."
"How can Entwhistle make her marry?" Tobias squealed, staring at Blake Chesterfield as if he were dim-witted.
Sparing Tobias a disdainful glance, Chesterfield called for more champagne. When glasses were refilled he released her hand and raised his goblet high. Locking his gaze with Marjorie's, he said, "I should like to propose a toast."
Resentment flooded her, for she knew she would be the object of his insincere salute.
He smiled, looking inordinately pleased. "A toast, ladies and gentlemen of Bath, to -- "
"To the Prince of Wales!" she broke in.
Someone shouted, "Long live the prince!" A chorus of cheers rang through the crowd.
Relief surged through her until Lord Blake touched his glass to hers. "You're either very clever murmured, "or very reckless."
"She was a reckless youth," sneered Dame Surleigh.
"Silence your tongue, madam," commanded Beau.
Marjorie's confidence swelled. "I am merely anxious to end this farce, Lord Blake."
"Hum." With a dry look of disbelief he stared her. "I assume, then, that you wish to be alone with me. Very well." Turning to the prince, he clicked heels and said, "Sire, with your permission, I should like to see my fiancée home."
Through gritted teeth she hissed, "Your assumption, is preposterous. I wish nothing of the sort."
"Of course, of course, Blake." The prince fumbled with the latch on his snuffbox. "Nash'll be closing at eleven sharp anyway. Another of his rules, you know.", He slapped Beau on the back. Champagne splattered Beau's cravat. "I say, ol' Beau, be a sport and send out them off in your chariot. 'Tis blessedly cold tonight."
Beau's long face pulled into a troubled frown. He glanced from Lord Blake to Marjorie. She expected treachery from her father, but the idea that Beau Nash, her friend and her champion, would betray her devastated Marjorie.
"I can't refuse the prince," Beau said, his eyes gleaming with regret.
Marjorie touched his hand. "I understand."
"Send along our best wishes to the dowager duchess of Loxburg," the prince said. "We wanted so to see Rowena this evening."
"I'll do that straightaway, Sire," Marjorie said. "My grandmother doesn't get out much these days. Your concern always does wonders for her health."
After bowing to the prince, Blake Chesterfield guided Marjorie through the well-dressed and curious crowd. That loose-tongued Mrs. Fieldmouth studied them through her lorgnette. Lady Cuperton-Mills took notes on a linen napkin. By tomorrow the baths, the coffeehouses, and the jelly shops would be humming with gossip. The devil take tomorrow and the gossips as well!
Given time to think, she would devise a plan of her own. With skillful maneuvering she would soon tear the betrothal contract to shreds and joyfully bid Blake Chesterfield bon voyage.
Feeling benevolent, she smiled graciously as he draped her cloak about her shoulders. "You've forgotten your cloak," she said.
Her fake sweetness needled Blake. "I'll manage," he replied, the heat of anger warming him to his toes. With a hand firmly on her waist he ushered her out the door.
A bitter, howling wind greeted them, but Blake didn't care; he welcomed the bite of the cold. The stately woman at his side seemed unaware of his volatile mood. She was George Entwhistle's get all right. Beneath that generous bosom lurked a heart as cold and clever as her father's. She could pretend innocence and play the defiant daughter until the wind ceased to blow, but nothing would change the outcome. They would be married. Blake would sacrifice his bachelorhood. Marriage was a small price to pay to avoid a humiliation that would rip his life apart.
Now that he'd met the postmistress of Bath, the rest of his mission would be as easy as riding the Gulf Stream on a summer day.
Yet sitting across from him in the close confines of the carriage, with the amber glow of the lantern illuminating her flushed face, Marjorie Entwhistle didn't seem formidable or corrupt. He had been told of her stubborn pride; her own father had warned that she would be irascible. A ploy, Blake thought, a cruel game between sire and daughter.
But why, by Saint Elmo, had George neglected to mention her beauty or her intelligence? Behind her enchanting blue eyes worked a quick mind he intended to probe without mercy. Beneath those frothy silks lay a body he intended to enjoy. The fashionable powdered wig had been styled to enhance her features rather than detract from the country-fresh beauty of her skin. Done up in sweeping waves, the white wig accentuated the alluring arch of her auburn brows and the slight upturn of her thickly lashed eyes. He liked the mystery of wigs, enjoyed the game of guessing the true color of a woman's hair. But with her the exercise was unnecessary.
Marjorie Entwhistle's hair was red; he'd stake his royal commission on that. But to what degree? Would her hair be a deep honey-gold like that of Adelle, his former mistress? Or would it match the fiery red of Caroline, his current paramour? If that was the case, he hoped Marjorie's disposition matched her hair, for he anticipated a heated nose-to-nose confrontation with George Entwhistle's wily daughter.
At the thought of his enemy Blake felt a renewed surge of anger and loathing. His fists knotted, and he shifted in the velvet seat. His knees brushed hers. They were both too long-limbed for Beau's carriage.
Her head snapped around. "Pardon me," she murmured, rearranging the heavy brocade of her skirts, her eyes avoiding his.
She seemed embarrassed. Or had he imagined her discomfort? Bloody barnacles, he swore to himself, why the devil should he give a bosun's whistle about her mood? She was an integral part of this marriage trap, and since he had no way out, he would make the best of the situation. In payment for her scheme he'd get an heir on her, situate her at one of his country estates, and return to sea. He didn't have to like her, though.
Feeling mildly content, he cleared his throat. "Have you questions, Lady Marjorie, before we discuss the wedding date? You will, of course, immediately pen your resignation to the Postal Surveyor."
She leveled him a look so bland he thought she hadn't heard. At length she said, "'Twould seem that you and my father have come to an agreement without a thought to my feelings. Yours is not an original ploy, but I must admit to being curious. How, I wonder, did such a pact come about?"
He had no intention of admitting the answer to that.
"I assume you've been in France, and that is where you fell prey to my father."
She had a bloody wicked tongue. In a tone reserved for green seamen he said, "You've played a skillful hand up until now. Don't spoil it or insult my intelligence by being obtuse."
To his great surprise, she laughed. No missish giggler, the woman before him seemed honestly amused. "You've given yourself away, Lord Blake. I knew you would."
He grew still. Where had he gone wrong? What had he said to give himself away?
"Why else, save coercion by my father, would you wish to wed a woman you find both insulting and obtuse?"
Blake relaxed. She was speaking in generalities. Reminding himself to choose his words more carefully, he said, "An anxious groom can forgive his bride many things."
She looked him square in the eyes. "I had nothing to do with this ridiculous betrothal."
Her candor impressed him. "You expect that to make a difference?" he said.
"I'd hoped it would, for you can't force me."
"Yes I can."
"He's hooked you well," she said, a trace of sadness in her voice. "How embarrassing for you."
Embarrassing for him? Christ in heaven! Why should she pity him when he'd done his damnedest to humiliate her in front of the crown prince of England?
"Oh, enough of this senseless banter." She tossed her head.
"Excellent." At last she would get to the business at hand. "We must settle the arrangements."
"Perhaps," she said with unconcealed distaste, "when I know you better."
"Rest assured," he took great joy in declaring, "that night will come very soon."
"You'll have none of me."
He stared at the delectable fullness of her lips. "I'll have every blessed succulent morsel of you."
Defiance flashed in her eyes, and with a much-needed boost to his pride he decided her hair must be very red indeed.
Leaning back in the seat, he listened to the whir of carriage wheels and the howl of the wind. Bath might be renowned as the pleasure garden of the civilized, but the notorious city held no allure for him. He preferred a deck beneath his feet, the wind at his back. The woman sitting primly across from him deserved no better than the lusty needs of a sailor too long at sea. He'd see she got a full ration of his rampant ardor.
"You had a pleasant voyage?"
The sound of her voice brought him up short. Polite conversation was the last thing he expected or wanted. He said, "As pleasant as the Channel can be in winter."
"Then perhaps," she said, her chin tilting regally, "you should have waited till spring."
"Oh, but your father would have no procrastination."
Her lower lip drooped, lending a vulnerable quality to her face. "Are we to expect him, then?" she asked in a small voice.
Against his will Blake found himself softening to her. The chit wanted her papa. They deserved each other. "He didn't say precisely."
She nodded and swallowed visibly. "I didn't expect he would. Has he convinced you to resign your commission, Lord Blake?"
Had he detected a sheen of tears in her eyes? "I do not plan to resign."
"Good," she said on a sigh. "Neither do I."
Doubt crept into Blake's mind. If outward appearances could be credited, Marjorie Entwhistle was innocent in this scheme. Even so, it made no difference. "But it is inevitable, you know."
As if she hadn't caught his meaning, she asked, "Is your ship still in England?"
"Aye. We docked in Bristol."
Her coy questions blotted out the sympathy he had felt a moment before. "Milo Magrath and my servant are with me."
"My father hasn't changed his methods or his messenger. Have you found lodgings in Bath?"
Blake shrugged. "I suppose I'll stay with the duke of Cleveland. I assumed Magrath would stay with you."
With an indignant glare she said, "Not for all the stone in Bath quarry."
"Surely your father made arrangements for his -- "
"Lackey," she spat, straightening her back. "You have been grossly misinformed." That vulnerability shone through again. "I haven't seen my father for fourteen years."
Blake didn't know whether to challenge sympathize with her. For a reason he did not ponder, he chose the latter. "You would have child of -- "
"Ten." Her dainty nostrils flared. "I'm not ashamed of my age. I am, however, disgusted by the scoundrel who sired me and the loathsome pawns he sends Bath."
Blake cursed himself for feeling pity for her. "Calling me names will not alter your future."
"Forgive me. You obviously think you have choice."
"Neither," he took great relish in saying, "do you."
"Lord Blake," she began hesitantly, her slender fingers absently toying with the braided frog of her ermine-lined cloak, "while finances are normally beyond the ..ah...prospective bride's control, and oftentimes, naturally, outside a woman's realm of understanding, such is not the case with me."
Amused by her prissy dissertation and intrigued as to the point she was attempting to make, he cocked an eyebrow and said, "You're wealthy?"
"Not fabulously so." Leaning forward in the seat, she continued, "I'm certain you think you are doing the proper thing, and your motives are without doubt as noble as your line, and I wouldn't presume to cast aspersions on your character or your intentions, but..." She stopped, her rich blue eyes searching his, probably looking for a weakness she could exploit. Pray God she didn't discover it, he thought.
"But -- " he prompted.
She pursed her lips. "But I'm certain if we try, we can reach a mutually agreeable...ah...retreat from my father's wishes."
"And why would you knowingly go against his...wishes?"
Only his mother had scrutinized him so closely. And like the duchess of Enderley, Marjorie Entwhistle possessed neither warmth nor generosity. Fury blossomed anew. As he had so often since George Entwhistle became aware of his dark secret, Blake felt like a hunter's quarry trapped in the deadly jaws of his own inability.
She turned her face away. "I want to choose my own husband."
"Then you'll choose me."
She turned back to him. Again he was disconcerted by her direct gaze. "Considering your social position and our audience back there, I hoped to spare your feelings. Cease bullying me, Lord Blake. As I told the Prince of Wales, I've no wish to marry at this time."
He'd do a hell of a lot more than bully her once she was his. "Oh, but I certainly will marry you. As a matter of fact, I'll do anything to get you into the marriage bed."
She gasped. "That's impossible."
Did she belong to another man? The notion did dangerous things to his disposition. Accustomed to a life of overindulgent and eager women, he recoiled at the prospect of marrying an unchaste bride, but he had no choice. "I suppose you needn't be a virgin."
"You wretched snake! I" -- she touched a tapered finger to her breast -- "I, who stand to lose as much as you in marriage, have gone far beyond the bounds of patience to save your exalted Chesterfield pride. But I see now that you're no better than my father."
A redhead indeed. His blood grew hot at the thought. He studied her neck, her mouth, looking for the brand left by her lover. Her cheeks flushed in response. "That may be true," he began, enjoying her temper. "I will, however, insist that you abandon your current liaison."
"You unmitigated boor."
Her anger salved his ragged pride. "I seem to have progressed from a pawn to a boor in a matter of moments. Predispose yourself, Postmistress," he said through clenched teeth. "You will become the marchioness of this unmitigated boor."
"Never." She turned away and stared out the window.
"Never?" He pondered, as if it were an important military decision. "No, I think perhaps a month away. A very telling month -- if you catch my meaning."
Her gaze slid back to his. "I should slap you."
"I wouldn't," he murmured slowly, "recommend it."
"And what would you recommend?" she challenged, her lips tilted up in a