No. 25 Upper Brook Street, London, October 1817
Grenville Foxman Talbot, Marquess of Fenris and eldest and only son of the Duke of Camber, always slept the sleep of the innocent.
As a child, he’d never had nightmares, because even then he’d possessed the power to stop any terrifying developments that appeared in his dreams. If there were dragons about to roast him in flames, he slew them. He vanquished monsters with one stony glare, sprouted wings and flew off high cliffs, and conjured swords or other weapons when faced with threat of attack. He transformed enemies into slugs or simply stopped an unpleasant dream entirely.
He was dreaming now, and it was one of those dreams in which he was both participant and observer. As was so often the nature of dreams, the subject was both fantastical and sexual. He was naked, and in front of him, her back to him, was Robert Bryant’s widow. The part of him that was observing his depravity commented that this was absurd. Eugenia Hampton Bryant would never consent to be alone with him and certainly never in his private quarters. This observation was followed by the suggestion that it would be a thunderingly good thing to discover where this dream would take him.
On no account would he wake up until he knew. He fell into his dream in a way that he had not before. Not in any dream. He was immersed. Submerged. Colors were more intense, his senses exquisitely acute. In the context of a dream that involved his most frequent sexual fantasies, this was an excellent development.
She wore blue and gray silk, sumptuous and cut like something from the previous century. The gown or robe or whatever it might be called was open at the back, all the way to the top of her derriere, and sliding off her shoulders. Because she wore no undergarments, which was not at all ludicrous to him, he feasted on the sight of her bare skin, the curve of her shoulders, back, and hips. Her hair was unpinned and swept over her right shoulder. Her head was turned to the left, as if she were about to look at him.
He walked to her, stopped behind her, and trailed a finger along the top of her deliciously bare shoulder and then the length of her spine. A sigh escaped from her lips. He slid his palm to her lower back, then underneath her gown and over the swell of her bottom. In his other hand, he gathered a handful of her bodice and watched while he pulled the fabric down to expose her breasts.
Beautiful. Luscious. Delectable. His body, already tense with desire, went taut. He released her gown so that it fell, with a rustle of lace and silk, to the floor. She leaned back, and he cupped one of her breasts in his hand. She sighed again and whispered something too low for him to hear.
What did it matter whose name she whispered so long as she was soft and willing in his arms? But it did matter. He wanted Eugenia to moan his name when he slid into her. He needed her to long for him, to cry out his name when he brought her to her crisis, which his irritating, observing self pointed out she never would do except in this dream. In which case, he had damn well better enjoy this, hadn’t he?
With her back pressed against his front, he caressed her, drew a fingertip along her hip to her rib cage, along the top of her shoulder, down her upper arm, and then slowly from the top of her thigh across her stomach. Such smooth, soft skin. He kissed the side of her throat, and she melted against him.
In his dream, she did not hate him.
“So beautiful,” he whispered. “My beautiful Ginny.”
She turned in his arms and clasped her hands behind his neck. Her eyes caressed him, and when he cupped her bottom and drew her closer, she let out a trembling sigh of desire.
He carried her to his bed, pushing aside the heavy red curtains around it, and placed her on the mattress. Eugenia wore nothing but a gold medallion on a ribbon the same shade of azure as her eyes. He joined her on the bed, touching, his fingers gliding over her, his mouth and lips tasting. Beneath his hands and fingers, her skin was soft, so soft. She lifted one knee, and his pelvis settled between her legs. He took her nipple in his mouth, swept his tongue over the peak, and she arched toward him on the end of a soft moan. He did the same to her other breast with a similar, satisfying result.
By the time he pulled himself over her, he was halfway to climax. She parted her thighs, and he slid inside her. Her body accepted him, soft and slick around him. Ready for him. Eager for him as she would never be in reality. Their eyes met, connected, knew each other. In his dream, she knew what he liked and wanted that from him. True, he could be tender and gentle. He often was. But there were times he wanted an edge, and right now he wanted that edge with her. Hadn’t he always?
She wore a wedding band, but it wasn’t the one Robert had given her. No, this ring was one he’d put on her finger himself. They were married, he realized. She was his wife now. Not Robert’s.
Eugenia, God, so willing and passionate, put her arms around his shoulders, holding him close, moving with him exactly as he needed. Hard. Fast. Pushing them both to surrender. Her breath came in short bursts, and he was both masterfully making love to her and aroused almost beyond his endurance.
“I love you.” She gazed into his face, besotted, trusting, while he thrust into her. Her fingertips slid over his skin. “Fox. Oh, Fox, I love you more than life.”
“I love you, too,” he said, and his heart dissolved into her. “Forever.”
His observing self remarked, ‘You are deluding yourself.” To which his dreaming self replied, ‘Sod off.”
Eugenia wrapped her legs around him, and his body wound up tighter than ever. She whispered his name and then encouragement. More. More, Fox. Please. His climax shattered him to pieces.
Immediately, even before his orgasm had faded, she was asleep beside him, sated, and there was Robert at the foot of the bed where he and Ginny lay tangled in each other’s arms. Had he been there the entire time? Fox slid out of her embrace and gazed at his best friend. Robert stood unevenly, as he always did, one hand on one of the bedposts so he would not lose his balance. His hair was shorn close to his head. He’d never been a handsome man, but no one who met him cared. Intellect, that beady-eyed genius, burned in him fever-bright.
“Robert.” The apology he’d owed Robert from nearly the day Ginny had entered their lives paralyzed him. The words were too big, yet they must be said even though it was too late. He wanted to apologize, to confess what a damned fool he’d been to allow their friendship to founder, but the words remained jammed up in his throat. In any event, Robert lifted a hand to stop him from saying something else he could never take back. Eugenia’s medallion, or one very much like it, dangled from his fingers.
“You’re to take care of her, Fox.”
He sat up, naked, one arm wrapped around his upraised knee. His other hand held a lock of Ginny’s hair. “You know I will.”
Robert leaned forward with that crooked grin of his. “I miss you, you old fool.”
“There’s nothing you could have said that would have stopped me from marrying her. You understand that, don’t you?”
From the moment Eugenia met Robert, she’d not cared about anyone else. Robert, whom Fox had always assumed would never marry, had fallen just as fast and just as hard. The connection between Eugenia and Robert took root so quickly there hadn’t been a damn thing he could do to stop it. Not that he hadn’t tried.
“Good.” The medallion slowly turned in Robert’s upraised hand.
“That’s no excuse for the things I said to you.”
Robert glanced at Eugenia. “She is the love of my life, Fox.”
“Keep her safe.” Robert let go of the bedpost and took an uneven step back. The shape of his body wavered. “Make her happy. If it takes your last breath, see that she’s safe and happy. Swear it.”
He swallowed hard before he could manage words. “I swear it, Robert.”
Robert’s body wavered, thinned, then vanished as if he’d never been there. Which, seeing as this was a dream, he had surely never been.
Fox came awake, momentarily unsure of where he was. Wherever he was, he had no company. A chill permeated the air. A damn arctic wind.
He was at home. Not at Bouverie, but at his private residence. The one his father had never been in and never would be in. He pulled the linens and covers over his chest. London in October could be bitterly cold. His bedroom was silent, but his heart raced, and Robert’s voice echoed in his head as if he’d really been here, speaking to him.
Make her happy.
He’d made Robert a promise.
Oddly enough, even though he had sworn to do so in a dream, he intended to keep that promise.
The next day. London.
Just when Eugenia thought things couldn’t get any worse, they did.
He was here. That awful man, the Marquess of Fenris. Awareness of his arrival jumped through the room like a pestilence picking off the weak and unwary. The orchestra played a few more notes then petered out, bringing a lively country reel to a halt. No one, Eugenia included, could believe the Marquess of Fenris was here at a ball given by Mrs. Wilson. Plain Mrs. Wilson, who was merely gentry, who had no connections one might research in the peerage. The man did not attend any parties but those given by the very upper reaches of the British aristocracy, yet here he was.
Whatever the reason for his appearance, his timing was impeccable. The room fell silent as guests realized he was here, and that meant everyone in the room heard the tail end of Mr. Dinwitty Lane’s comment, uttered in horrified tones as Lane stood not five feet from Eugenia.
“Another country chit? My God they’re coming out of the woodwork this season.”
The remark, though not intended as a direct insult to Eugenia, nevertheless hit a glancing blow on its way to its intended target, which was the young woman standing beside her. If Mr. Lane had been within arm’s reach, Eugenia would have slapped him, she was that angry. It was fitting, horribly, awfully fitting, that Lane’s barb was universally heard because of that man.
One of the members of Dinwitty’s band of supporters laughed, and that, too, carried through the nearly silent room. That man, Fenris, remained near the door, expression cool because there was nothing but ice in his veins. Eugenia was unnaturally aware of him even as she turned her attention to the odious Mr. Dinwitty Lane.
A great deal depended on her reaction to Lane, and she fought her temper. No good would come of anything she said in anger. She could not afford to give Lane or the Marquess of Fenris ammunition against her.
Fenris’s social standing went without saying. Only son of a duke, after all. The Lane family had a page in Debrett’s, and this particular Lane was not without influence. He fancied himself the Beau Brummell of the sporting world, and Eugenia had hoped to avoid meeting him until Hester had made a few friends. He had questionable taste in clothes but was held in awe by many for his ability to ride, race a phaeton, and shoot the dots from a playing card. As far as Eugenia was concerned, he’d wasted his time at public school and at Oxford. An intellectual giant, he was not. He was, however, one of the Essex Lanes. More, he was wealthy and generous with a loan. Friends and debtors of Dinwitty Lane were legion.
Miss Hester Rendell, whom Eugenia had agreed to guide through her first London season, gazed at Mr. Lane with placid calm. She was not a beauty by any stretch. In terms of her looks, she did not impress upon first glance and possibly not even upon the second. She was quiet and slow to warm to people she did not know, a reserve too easily mistaken for a lack of spirit. Anyone who troubled to know her soon learned she was kind, generous, sensitive, and shockingly intelligent.
Lane was a good-looking man, not as tall as Lord Fenris, but heavier through the shoulders, with legs like tree trunks. His waistcoat was mauve with embroidered pink dots, his trousers the absolute crack of fashion, his coat dark green. Half a dozen fobs dangled from his watch chain, which, in Eugenia’s opinion, was five fobs too many. His cravat was a confection of linen so thoroughly starched he could not move his chin without danger of slitting his throat.
Hester turned to Eugenia, completely poised as Eugenia had discovered was her nature. Very little upset or perturbed her. “I believe I should very much like some lemonade. Shall we?”
“Observe,” Mr. Lane said. He lifted a hand so as to alert his companions. “It speaks.”
One of his friends barked. Deliberately. The room was still silent, and this little scene, this deliberate and cruel destruction of Hester’s social hopes, was center stage.
Eugenia’s head snapped toward Lane. She wanted to eviscerate the man. She wished him a hundred, no, a thousand painful deaths. If Lord Fenris followed Lane to his doom, all the better.
“Observe,” Hester said with perfect serenity as she put her arm through Eugenia’s. “It’s forgotten its species.”
And that was the beauty of Hester Rendell. Eugenia did not expect Hester to make a splash in the Ton, but Eugenia had, until now, been confident that by the end of the season, short as it was, some discerning gentleman would have fallen in love with her. That Eugenia managed to keep her temper in the face of Dinwitty’s insult was nothing short of a miracle. “Yes. Something to drink would be delightful.”
Arm in arm, they walked away from Lane, who had only begun to suspect one of his friends had been insulted and that, perhaps, he himself had just been summarily dismissed as unimportant. Perhaps, just perhaps, this encounter might not mean the utter ruin of Hester’s social hopes.
“I believe,” Hester said when she and Eugenia stood with glasses of what might more properly be called lemon water, “I do not like that man.”
“He’s not kind.”
Eugenia nodded her agreement.
“People ought to be kind.”
The orchestra had begun playing again, and those who’d been dancing when Lord Fenris arrived and brought everything to a halt took up their pattern again. No one had yet asked Hester to dance.
Eugenia returned her attention to her nemesis, though at the moment she disliked Mr. Lane a good deal more than the marquess. Mrs. Wilson hurried to greet him, but she did so by walking the perimeter of the room as she must do now that the dancing had begun again.
Lord Fenris noticed Mrs. Wilson’s approach and waited by the door, looking extremely forbidding and completely at ease at the same time. Eugenia was quite sure Fenris had not been invited to the Wilsons’ ball. He kept to a very small and exclusive circle of friends. Mrs. Wilson would have been aware of the hubris of sending the Marquess of Fenris an invitation to any event she might sponsor. Yet here he was. Of all the bad luck to have.
The commotion occasioned by the marquess’s arrival continued, albeit in less public fashion. Ladies who did not stare outright did so surreptitiously. Some of the younger ladies were not as circumspect as they might have been. They giggled or fanned themselves with too much energy. The whispers started.
There he is.
Oh, lud, isn’t he handsome?
Now, I don’t like a dark man, but I like it in him.
Honestly, he was only a man, and not a very pleasant one at that.
Lord Aigen, one of Fenris’s few friends, slung an arm around his shoulder and spoke into his ear. Whatever Aigen said in such private tones, Lord Fenris’s expression did not change. He remained by the door, surveying the room with a condescending eye. The ballroom, which was really two salons that had been opened into one room, wasn’t large. Good. He’d need the space of twenty seconds to see he had no business here. He’d done quite enough damage already. Even from across the dance floor, she could see Fenris was exquisitely dressed. He always was. He was well made enough that anything he wore looked good on him. Nevertheless, unlike Lane, he dressed with a conservatism that prevented one from calling him a Corinthian or a dandy. His nose was a trifle large, but that was, alas, a part of his physical appeal. She wasn’t so petty as to deny him his due in terms of his appearance.
Mrs. Wilson arrived at his side and curtseyed to him. To his credit, he greeted her with cool respect.
Hester followed Eugenia’s gaze. “Ah. Lord Fenris.”
There was such a familiarity in Hester’s words that Eugenia said, “You know him?”
“He visited us once when I was a girl.” Hester continued in a low voice. “With your husband. They came to see Charles.” Charles was Hester’s brother, and a childhood friend of Robert’s. “Long before you and Robert met, of course.”
“Indeed?” Her heart dropped to her toes. Disaster. This could only mean disaster. Hester didn’t know what Fenris was like. Sweet, sensitive Hester didn’t know that one wellplaced word or contemptuous gaze from Fenris would prevent Hester from the sort of social acceptance she deserved.
She hated Fenris. She really did.
Hester put a hand to her heart, eyes open wide and fixed on Eugenia. “Have I given you a sad reminder of your loss? Oh, Lady Eugenia, I’m so very sorry if I have.”
“No, my dear.” She gave Hester’s hand a reassuring squeeze. “You have not.” Robert had been dead for nearly four years now. She would never recover from his loss, but, as she had discovered, time passed no matter what one did. She endured because there was nothing else she could do. “It’s just I had no idea you’d any acquaintance with Lord Fenris.”
“I was thirteen.” There was so much one noticed about Hester eventually. Her complexion, in just one example, was flawless. Another was her figure. Men eventually noticed her figure. Hester was not, however, particularly graceful. “Naturally, I fell desperately in love the moment I saw him.” “In love with Robert?” She maintained an innocent expression and in return earned a rare smile from Hester.
Her smiles never failed to improve Eugenia’s mood.
“We all loved Robert.” She took a drink of her watery lemonade, but Eugenia noted the way Hester’s eyes darted in the direction of Lord Fenris.
“Thank you for saying so.” Eugenia clutched her lemonade. Her sense of impending doom increased. Her skin crawled with the certainty that Fenris would find a way to cement the effect of Lane’s unpleasant remarks. Unfortunately, it seemed that would happen sooner rather than later, for Fenris had left Mrs. Wilson and, with Lord Aigen beside him, was now moving farther into the room.
“I had the most awful spots at the time of his visit.” Hester had no notion of what was about to happen and how badly an encounter with Fenris might turn out. Eugenia reached for calm. She must be calm if she was to have any hope of facing down that horrible man. “I was clumsy and already as tall as I am now.”
“Hester, dear. Let me fix this.” Eugenia put her lemonade on a nearby table and adjusted the bodice of Hester’s gown, not that any adjustment was necessary. Her bosom was more than up to the task of impressing a gentleman. Was not Lord Fenris a man? Perhaps he could be distracted by the perfection of Hester’s figure. Thank goodness he was a tall man, for Hester was taller than average.
Several times, Fenris was interrupted in his apparent intention of reaching the opposite side of the ballroom. Each time he was stopped, he was engaged in animated conversation. He did not appear to be in a hurry, and he had not, she realized, looked even once in their direction. His friend Lord Aigen wasn’t in any hurry, either. No, the two men weren’t going to reach this side of the room anytime soon. Thank goodness. Some of her tension bled away with what appeared to be the increasing likelihood that Fenris would ignore them entirely.
“He’s still very handsome.”
“I suppose.” If the worst happened, and he did acknowledge them, Hester’s reserve would serve her well. She hoped. She prayed. Fenris, as Eugenia well knew, wore his charm like a coat, to be removed when no longer needed. He’d been kind to a starry-eyed thirteen-year-old, and plainly, disastrously, Hester had not forgotten that kindness. The danger was that Hester would not, as she so often did, see through his pretense.
“I’d wondered if he might have gone to fat.”
Eugenia clenched her jaw. No. Lord Fenris had not gone to fat.
“My love for him was more serious than anything you can imagine. It always is at that age.” Hester, perfect skin and all, was one of those pale-complected brunettes who blushed easily. She blushed a little, now. “He was always polite to me. For which I was very grateful, I promise you.”
“Ah.” Her stomach hurt.
Hester looked in the man’s direction again. “He must have known how I felt, yet he was always unfailingly polite. Despite my clumsiness, my alarming height, and mooning glances.”
“You’re not thirteen any longer.”
“Thank heavens, no.” Hester laughed, and this was another of those things about her that took one aback. Eugenia wished Hester had laughed when Mr. Lane was there to see it. That might have changed his opinion of her. At the very least he might have been stupefied into silence.
The interrupted set ended and couples parted at the edges of the ballroom. The noise of conversation increased as new partners were found and previous ones discussed. No one approached Hester, and Eugenia momentarily forgot about Lord Fenris. Were there no well-mannered young gentlemen at this ball? Eugenia began to harbor some ill will toward Mrs. Wilson. She had a son who was, at this very moment, lounging against the far wall, hands in his coat pockets. Not seeking out a partner with whom to dance, when there was Hester, the only young lady who had not yet been invited to dance. And that was the case even though there were more gentlemen in attendance than ladies.
Men. They were dogs. Every one of them. Every blessed one. Especially Lord Fenris.
Hester tugged upward on the bodice of her ball gown. Eugenia frowned. She stepped in front of Hester and adjusted her bodice again. “You have a bosom, dear. You’ll simply have to accept that. Believe me when I tell you that trying to hide it only makes matters worse.”
“Yes, Lady Eugenia.” Hester looked away. “He’s coming our way.”
“Mr. Wilson?” She sincerely hoped someone would ask Hester to dance, even if it was the elder Mr. Wilson rather than their host’s son.
“No, Lady Eugenia. Lord Fenris.”
Hester was right. Fenris was mere yards distant. Eugenia stepped away from Hester, adjusted her shawl over her shoulders, and waited in silence. She had no desire to speak to the man. Ever. For any reason. Not even by an accidental meeting. Let him pretend he did not see them. Let him not recognize Hester. Let him, she prayed, simply leave them alone.
Lane, blast the man, was now looping around to intercept Fenris, henchmen following him like a pack of starving dogs. Her bad luck continued. Fenris was now so close there was no point pretending she didn’t see him. She could cling to a hope that Fenris would ignore them, but Lane, she knew, would do no such thing.
No one else intercepted Fenris or otherwise diverted him from a trajectory that would bring him within feet of her and Hester. There were murmured greetings as he continued walking. Several mothers poked and prodded their daughters into better posture. Somewhere during his promenade, he’d lost Lord Aigen. A pity. Lord Aigen was quite handsome. And unmarried. Doubtless, Fenris would have poisoned Aigen against her, too.
Eugenia took Hester’s lemonade and set it next to hers. “Come along.”
Too late. She was too late. The marquess stopped. Directly in front of her and Hester. He smiled, but he didn’t mean it. Not really. She prepared herself for a cold acknowledgment. An icy dismissal.
Hester curtseyed to him, though not with much grace. In fact, Eugenia had to catch her elbow to steady her when the heel of her slipper caught in the hem of her gown. Fenris’s attention flicked to Hester’s bosom. She couldn’t blame him. She wanted to, but she couldn’t.
Eugenia curtseyed, too. She would be polite if it killed her. For Hester’s sake. “My lord.”
“Mrs. Bryant.” He took her hand even though she hadn’t offered it to him. “A pleasure to see you, as always.”
Liar. She drew her hand free of his. She was a liar, too. “Likewise.”
“How is Mountjoy?” Mountjoy was Eugenia’s eldest brother. He did not care for Fenris, either.
“In good health, thank you.”
His gaze flashed over her. “I hope Lord Nigel and his bride are well.” Lord Nigel was her youngest brother, and, like Mountjoy, recently married. As Fenris well knew.
“They are.” She plastered on what she hoped was a friendly smile that was not, actually, quite friendly enough. “Thank you for asking.”
“And Lily?” He meant his cousin Lily, Eugenia’s dearest friend in all the world, and now Mountjoy’s wife. “Have you had letters from her recently?”
Lord, would he stop this inquisition? He knew Eugenia did not like him, and he knew exactly why, too. He ought to want to let her alone, no matter their family connection. “Blazingly happy, my lord.”
“I have no doubt of that, Mrs. Bryant.” He pointedly glanced at Hester. Hester gazed back. So calm. As if one encountered a wealthy, handsome future duke every day of one’s life. Honestly, you’d think she was forty-two not twenty-two. With a sideways look at Eugenia, Fenris cleared his throat.
“You are already acquainted.” If he insulted Hester by not remembering her, she’d make it her mission in life to see him suffer.
“I don’t believe so.” Fenris looked only mildly interested, but that, Eugenia reflected, was better than outright disdain.
“Miss Rendell, may I introduce Lord Fenris?”
“Rendell?” Fenris titled his head an infinitesimal degree. She hated that habit of his. Behind him, she saw Lane working his way toward them, and her sense that only ill would come of this encounter increased. What if Fenris was one of Dinwitty Lane’s nasty pack of dogs? What if he made some hateful dig at her? Eugenia tensed, prepared to defend Hester to the very ends of the earth.
“It’s Hester, my lord.” Hester spoke just as naturally and easily as you may. She held out a gloved hand. Her smile appeared, warm and soothing. How could anyone not wish to know a woman of such poise? “Captain Charles Rendell’s sister.”
“Charles’s sister?” Fenris’s eyes opened wide. “Miss Rendell? Good Lord, it is you.” He took her hand and bowed over it. Eugenia remained tense, for she did not trust him. Not at all. “Well. You’ve certainly grown up.”
“It was inevitable, sir.”
On the ballroom floor, couples had begun to line up for the next dance. Mr. Wilson, the son, pushed off the wall he’d been holding up and made his way to a young woman with vapid good looks. The orchestra played some preliminary notes.
Lord Fenris grinned, a genuine smile, and he was quite unfairly more handsome than any man had a right to be. “Miss Rendell. I am both delighted and astonished to meet you again. Are your parents here?” He placed his other hand on top of hers so that he held her hand with both of his. “I know Charles isn’t, as I’ve just had a letter from him, but where are you staying? Why haven’t I heard you’re in Town? Why wasn’t I told?”
If she hadn’t known he couldn’t possibly mean it, Eugenia would have thought he was serious. None of that charm was real, as she well knew. Not genuinely. All the same, she was glad, burningly glad, at his effusive and out-of-character greeting because it mattered. Fenris’s opinion mattered a great deal. Mr. Lane imagined he set fashion. Fenris actually did, and if he paid attention to Hester, well then, so would others.
“Mama and Papa are at home. I’m staying with Lady Eugenia while I’m in Town.”
“That’s splendid.” He continued to hold Hester’s hand but glanced at Eugenia. “May I say that you have a most amiable hostess?”
“You may, for it’s true.”
“Are you engaged for the next dance?” When Hester did not reply, he said, “Am I too late? Are you free for any?”
“I should hate to break my streak, my lord.”
He lifted his eyebrows in a query. “What would that be?” “The number of consecutive dances I’ve sat out.” She spoke with such serenity that Eugenia held her breath, expecting Fenris would misunderstand. “I’m at five right now, and my record is seven.” She leaned in and, in a confidential tone, said, “I’ve high hopes of reaching eight.”
Fenris said nothing.` Taken aback? Appalled by Hester’s dry wit? Eugenia swore she’d kick the man in the shins, but then he looked Hester in the eye and said, “Mr. Dinwitty Lane has wagered you won’t be asked to dance. I do not wish for him to win that wager.”
“You’ve asked. Ergo, Mr. Lane has lost.”
Fenris bowed, only slightly but enough for others to take note of his interest. “The proof would be in you actually dancing.”
“A fine point, if you ask me,” Hester said.
“Most wagers rest upon a finer point than that.” He looked over his shoulder at the couples lining up. “Will you?” He was fully capable of playing a deeper and more sinister game than Lane, and that possibility could not be discounted. While Eugenia debated the wisdom of encouraging Hester to dance with Fenris, Hester put her worries to rest.
“I think not.”
His austere expression lightened. “Why? If I might inquire.”
“I had rather not be danced with for a wager.” She was completely earnest, as if the decision to dance or not were for her nothing more than an intellectual consideration. A mere calculus with no emotion involved.
Eugenia tried not to beam her approval, but Hester turning down Fenris—really, could anything be more deliciously awful for him?
“No, my lord,” Hester said. “I had rather wait for someone to have a more usual reason for asking me to dance.”
Eugenia saw no sign, yet, that Fenris was angry or insulted. Indeed, he looked bemused.
“Your beauty? Your lovely smile?”
Eugenia narrowed her eyes at Fenris. She hadn’t imagined Fenris’s glance at Hester’s bosom. But was there a dig there, an insult implied about her looks? To her astonishment and consternation, she had to conclude that no, he had come about as close as any man to making Hester a compliment.
“Mm.” Hester tipped her head to one side. “Those would be a more usual reason; you’re correct in that. But I was thinking of my modest fortune.”
“Were you?” Fenris grinned, and while he did that, his gaze swept over Hester. “I assure you I would dance with you for reasons that have nothing to do with wagers or modest fortunes.”
Good God. The man was flirting. Flirting with Hester!
“Until then,” Hester went on, “I am happy to be here, watching the ladies in their beautiful gowns and jewels. And the gentlemen, too. So elegant. I do enjoy watching the gentlemen.”
Dinwitty Lane was now nearly upon them, his dogs in tow. “Please.” Fenris held out his hand again. “Dance with me? So that I may do all that I can to make you smile at me.”
“I don’t care, you know,” Hester said evenly. “What men like Mr. Lane say or do. ‘Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury…’”
“‘Signifying nothing.’” Fenris cocked his head. “You ought not care. I, however, do. It’s a fault of mine.”
Lane and the others stopped within arm’s reach of Fenris. He ignored them. Eugenia couldn’t decide where to look, at Lane and his hateful friends, for she quite hated them now, or at Fenris, who was giving the performance of his life. He could have made a living on the stage, he was that convincing in portraying himself as kind and thoughtful.
Lane put a hand over his heart and shook his head. “Is this possible?”
His query caused instant silence for a radius of some ten feet. Lane removed his gloves with an awful deliberation. He slapped them against his open palm to a collective intake of breath. The half of the room that could not see probably thought he’d slapped Fenris.
Fenris half turned. “What is that noise?”
Thwap, thwap, thwap, went the gloves against Lane’s palm. “Fox. Do mine eyes deceive? Gentlemen,” Lane addressed his companions, “did you not hear his lordship ask the girl to dance?”
To this there came a chorus of agreement. Eugenia tensed.
“To be sure,” Fenris said. “I’m begging for the honor.”
“The man who stole away the Incomparable is reduced to begging for dances?” Lane snorted. “I thought you were over your penchant for blowsy girls.”
Fenris went perfectly still. “I don’t know what you mean.”
But he did. Of course he did. Some years ago, Fenris had leveled just that insult at her. He’d called her blowsy, a remark that spread through the Ton like fire and refused to die out.
“If your sensibilities were nice in any respect,” Lane said, his hand still over his heart, “you would not be here pleading for yet another blowsy country girl to dance with you.” He winced, but whether his pain was metaphorical or physical, Eugenia could not say. “Where’s your pride? You’re to be a duke, one day, man.”
Fenris looked him up and down. “If you had the brains of a lobster, you would possess twice the intelligence you’ve displayed tonight.”
Lane frowned. “Brains?” He opened and closed his mouth several times and squinted as if thinking pained him. “Twice the intelligence?”
“I fear it’s not a compliment.” Hester shook her head sadly.
“Mr. Lane.” Eugenia felt sick to her stomach as she stepped off the cliff with no protection but the hope that she was right that Lord Fenris’s regard for Hester was sincere. “I believe Lord Fenris is suggesting that in a contest of mental acuity between you and a large crustacean, the crustacean would win.”
Dinwitty gaped. “Of a…lobster?”
“Yes,” Fenris said. “A lobster. As Mrs. Bryant so helpfully explicated, a large crustacean.”
Lane’s eyes widened. He tipped his chin downward until it collided with his cravat, which spoiled his attempt to look down his nose at Eugenia. She would gladly accept the man’s blistering scorn as long as he let Hester alone. His lip curled as he turned his attention from her to Fenris. “You go too far.”
“On the contrary, Mr. Lane.” Fenris sounded bored. Bored beyond anyone’s capacity to endure such tedium. “I did not go far enough. I cannot fathom why a gentleman would behave as you have this evening.”
One of Lane’s companions, Eugenia did not see who it was, barked again, to the general hilarity of the rest of Lane’s followers.
Lane gestured at the men behind them. “Give his lordship your condolences, men.” He spoke over several sotto voce mutterings behind him. “I believe his lordship has forgotten himself. My God.” Lane glanced toward the heavens. “Save us from watching him dash his reputation to shreds on such inferior shores as these. You should not, sir, seduce in so poor a country.”
“I beg your pardon,” Fenris said in sharp tones.
Lane slapped his gloves on his palm again. “None shall be given.”
“You would be wise to have a care what you imply about me,” Fenris said so coldly she could practically see snowflakes dancing in the air around him. If you don’t, it will be your mistake to rue. I shall not, however, permit you to imply anything untoward about me and any lady in this room.”
Hester, Eugenia was aware, watched Lord Fenris with a sharp gaze.
“I’m sure,” Lane said, “that I’ve heard more than enough insults for one night.”
The world was perverse. Eugenia had long dreamed about serving Lord Fenris the ice-cold revenge he so deserved. Since the day she’d learned of Fenris’s campaign against her she had imagined all manner of ways to make him pay. She had never, not once, imagined she would align herself with him or feel in any way compelled to defend him. “What insult do you imagine you’ve suffered, Mr. Lane, when, in fact, Lord Fenris has insulted not you but lobsters everywhere?’