The voluptuous blond woman lifted up on an elbow and pulled a sheet to her breasts. Frowning slightly, she studied the darkly handsome youth of eighteen who was standing at the window of his bedchamber, his shoulder propped against the window frame, looking out across the back lawns, where a party in honor of his mother's birthday was in progress. "What do you see that interests you more than I?" Lady Catherine Harrington asked as she wrapped the sheet around herself and walked over to the window.
Jordan Addison Matthew Townsende, the future Duke of Hawthorne, seemed not to hear her as he looked out across the grounds of the palatial estate that would, upon his father's death, become his. As he gazed at the hedge maze below, he saw his mother emerge from the shrubbery. Casting a brief, furtive look about her, she straightened the bodice of her dress and smoothed her heavy dark hair into some semblance of order. A moment later Lord Harrington emerged, retying his neckcloth. Their laughter drifted up through Jordan's open window as they linked arms.
Mild cynicism marred the youthful handsomeness of his lean features as Jordan watched his mother and her newest lover cross the lawns and saunter into the arbor. A few moments later, his father emerged from the same hedge maze, looked about him, then retrieved Lady Milborne, his current paramour, from the bushes.
"Evidently my mother has acquired a new lover," Jordan drawled sarcastically.
"Really?" Lady Harrington asked, peering out the window. "Who?"
"Your husband." Turning fully toward her, Jordan studied her lovely face, searching for some sign of surprise. When he saw none, his own features hardened into an ironic mask. "You knew they were in the maze together, and that accounts for your sudden, unprecedented interest in my bed, is that it?"
She nodded, uneasy under the relentless gaze of those cool grey eyes. "I thought," she said, running her hand up his hard chest, "it would be amusing if we were also to… ah… get together. But my interest in your bed isn't sudden, Jordan, I've wanted you for a long time. Now that your mother and my husband are enjoying each other, I saw no reason not to take what I wanted. Where's the harm in that?"
He said nothing and her eyes searched his inscrutable features, her smile coy. "Are you shocked?"
"Hardly," he replied. "I've known about my mother's affairs since I was eight years old, and I doubt I could be shocked by what any woman does. If anything, I'm surprised you didn't contrive for all six of us to meet in the maze for a little 'family' get-together," he finished with deliberate insolence.
She made a muffled sound, part laughter, part horror. "Now you've shocked me. "
Lazily he reached out and tipped her chin up, studying her face with eyes too hard, too knowledgeable for his years. "Somehow I find that impossible to believe."
Suddenly embarrassed, Catherine pulled her hand from his chest and wrapped the sheet more securely around her nakedness. "Really, Jordan, I don't see why you're looking at me as if I'm beneath contempt," she said, her face reflecting honest bewilderment and a little pique. "You aren't married, so you don't realize how insufferably dull life is for all of us. Without dalliance to take one's mind off the tedium, we would all go quite mad."
At the tragic note in her voice, humor softened his features and his firm, sensual lips quirked in a derisive smile. "Poor little Catherine," he said dryly, reaching out and brushing his knuckles against her cheek. "What a miserable lot you women have. From the day you're born, anything you want is yours for the asking, and so you have nothing to work for—and even if you did, you'd never be permitted to work for it. We don't allow you to study and you're forbidden sports, so you cannot exercise your mind or your body. You don't even have honor to cling to, for although a man's honor is his for as long as he wishes, yours is between your legs, and you lose it to the first man who has you. How unjust life is to you!" he finished. "No wonder you're all so bored, amoral, and frivolous."
Catherine hesitated, struck by his words, not certain whether he was ridiculing her, then shrugged. "You're absolutely right."
He looked at her curiously. "Did it ever occur to you to try to change all that?"
"No," she admitted bluntly.
"I applaud your honesty. It's a rare virtue in your sex."
Although he was only eighteen, Jordan Townsende's potent attraction for women was already a topic of much scintillating feminine gossip, and as Catherine gazed into those cynical grey eyes, she suddenly felt herself drawn to him as if by some overwhelming magnetic force. Understanding was in his eyes, along with a touch of humor and hard knowledge far beyond his years. It was these things, even more than his dark good looks and blatant virility, that impelled women toward him. Jordan understood women; he understood her, and although it was obvious he didn't admire or approve of her, he accepted her for what she was, with all her weaknesses.
"Are you coming to bed, my lord?"
"No," he said mildly.
"Because I find I'm not quite bored enough to want to sleep with the wife of my mother's lover."
"You don't—you don't have a very high opinion of women, do you?" Catherine asked, because she couldn't stop herself.
"Is there any reason I should?"
"I—" She bit her lip and then reluctantly shook her head. "No. I suppose not. But someday you'll have to marry in order to have children."
His eyes suddenly glinted with amusement, and he leaned back against the window frame, crossing his arms over his chest. "Marry? Really? Is that how one gets children? And all this time, I thought—"
"Jordan, really!" she said, laughing, more than a little enthralled by this relaxed, teasing side of him. "You'll need a legitimate heir."
"When I'm forced to pledge my hand in order to produce an heir," he replied with grim humor, "I'll choose a naive chit right out of the schoolroom who'll leap to do my merest bidding."
"And when she becomes bored and seeks other diversion, what will you do?"
"Will she become bored?" he inquired in a steely voice.
Catherine studied his broad, muscular shoulders, deep chest, and narrow waist, then her gaze lifted to his ruggedly hewn features. In a linen shirt and tight-fitting riding breeches, every inch of Jordan Townsende's tall frame positively radiated raw power and leashed sensuality. Her brows lifted over knowing green eyes. "Perhaps not."