“He did not write that!” Daisy exclaimed, leaping over an ottoman and making a grab for the letter, while Lillian defended herself with a shriek of laughter. Annabelle, who sat in a nearby chair, smiled over the rim of her teacup as she sipped the brew in hopes of settling her stomach. She had already confided her intention to tell her husband about her pregnancy that evening, as it was becoming more and more difficult to conceal her condition.

The three of them sat in the parlor of Marsden Terrace. A few days earlier, Lillian and Marcus had returned to Hampshire from their “blacksmith’s marriage,” as such affairs were called in Gretna Green. She had been silently gratified to find that the countess had indeed been spirited off the estate, with all traces of her presence removed. Dowager countess, Lillian corrected herself, rather unnerved every time she realized that she was now the Countess of Westcliff. Now Marcus had taken her to London, where he was visiting the locomotive works with Mr. Hunt and attending to other necessary business. In a matter of days the Westcliffs would leave for a hastily arranged honeymoon in Italy …and as far away as possible from Mercedes Bowman, who had not yet ceased complaining about having been robbed of the large society wedding she had intended for her daughter.

“Oh, do get off me, Daisy,” Lillian cried good-naturedly, shoving at her younger sister. “I admit it, I made up that last part. Stop it, you’ll rip the thing to shreds. Now where was I?” Assuming an expression of dignity befitting an earl’s wife, Lillian held up the letter and continued importantly. “Mr. Nettle went on to deliver a number of lovely compliments, and wished me well with the Marsden family—”

“Did you tell him that your mother-in-law tried to dispose of you?” Daisy asked.

“And then,” Lillian continued, ignoring her, “he answered my question about the perfume.”

Both young women glanced at her in surprise. Annabelle’s blue eyes turned round with curiosity. “You asked him about the secret ingredient?”

“For God’s sake, what is it?” Daisy demanded. “Tell! Tell!”

“You might be a bit disappointed in the answer,” Lillian said, turning sheepish. “According to Mr. Nettle, the secret ingredient is …nothing.”

Daisy looked outraged. “There is no secret ingredient? It isn’t a real love potion? I’ve been marinating myself in it for no reason?”

“Here, I’ll read his explanation. ‘Your success in capturing the heart of Lord Westcliff was purely the result of your own magic, and the essential addition to the fragrance was, in fact, yourself.’ ” Laying the letter in her lap, Lillian grinned at her sister’s annoyed expression. “Poor Daisy. I’m sorry that it wasn’t real magic.”

“Drat,” Daisy grumbled. “I should have known.”

“The odd thing is,” Lillian continued thoughtfully, “Westcliff did know. The night I told him about the perfume, he said he knew conclusively what the secret ingredient was. And this morning, before I showed him the letter from Mr. Nettle, he told me his answer—which turned out to be correct.” A slow smile crossed her face. “The arrogant know-all,” she muttered lovingly.

“Wait until I tell Evie,” Daisy said. “She will be as disappointed as I am.”

Annabelle glanced at her with a pucker marring her pretty forehead. “Has she replied to your letter yet, Daisy?”

“No. Evie’s family has her under lock and key again. I doubt they’ll let her send or receive letters. And what worries me is that before they left Stony Cross Park, her aunt Florence was giving out very forceful hints that a betrothal to cousin Eustace is in the works.”

The other two groaned. “Over my dead body,” Lillian said grimly. “You realize we’ll have to resort to creative measures if we’re to pry Evie out of her family’s clutches and find a good match for her.”

“We will,” came Daisy’s confident reply. “Believe me, dear, if we can find a husband for you, we can do anything.”

“That does it,” Lillian said, and sprang from the settee to advance menacingly toward her with an upraised cushion.

Giggling, Daisy scrambled behind the nearest piece of furniture and cried, “Remember, you’re a countess! Where’s your dignity?”

“I’ve misplaced it,” Lillian informed her, and chased after her with glee.

Meanwhile…

“Lord St. Vincent, there is a visitor at the door. I informed her that you were not at home, but she is most insistent that she be allowed to see you.”

The library was dark, and cold, except for a small spill of feeble light that came from the hearth. The fire would soon burn out …yet Sebastian could not seem to rouse himself sufficiently to add another log, no matter that there was a small stack of wood within each reach. A blazing conflagration fit to burn the house down would still not have been enough to warm him. He was empty and numb, a body without a soul, and he prided himself on it. It took rare talent for a man to sink to his current level of depravity.

“At this hour?” Sebastian murmured without interest, staring not at his butler, but at the cut-crystal brandy snifter in his hand. He rolled the stem idly in his long fingers. There was no question as to what the unidentified woman wanted. But though he was otherwise without prospects for the evening, Sebastian realized that for once he was not in the mood for a tumble.

“Send her away,” he said coolly. “Tell her my bed is already occupied.”

“Yes, milord.” The butler left, and Sebastian settled into his chair once more, stretching his long legs before him.

He finished the brandy in his snifter with an efficient swallow as he contemplated his most immediate problem…money, or the lack thereof. His creditors were becoming aggressive in their demands, and a wide array of debts could not be ignored much longer. Now that his efforts to gain a badly needed fortune from Lillian Bowman had failed, he would need to get the money from someone else. He knew some wealthy women who might be induced to loan him some capital in return for the personal favors he could deliver so well. Or another option was to—

“Milord?”

Sebastian looked up with a scowl. “For God’s sake, what is it?”

“The woman will not leave, milord. She is intent on seeing you.”

An exasperated sigh left him. “If she’s that bloody desperate, send her in. Though she had best be warned that a quick f*ck and an even quicker good-bye are all I’m game for tonight.”

A young, nervous voice came from behind the butler, betraying the fact that the persistent visitor had followed him inside. “That is not quite what I had in mind.” She slipped around the servant and came into the room, her form wrapped in a heavy hooded cloak.

Obeying the flicker of Sebastian’s eyes, the butler vanished, leaving them alone.

Sebastian rested his head on the back of his chair, regarding the mysterious figure with an emotionless gaze. The idle thought crossed his brain that she could be holding a pistol beneath the cloak. Perhaps she was one of the many women who had threatened to kill him in the past…one who had finally screwed up the courage to make good on her promise. He bloody well didn’t give a damn. She could shoot him with his blessing, as long as she did it properly and didn’t botch the job. Remaining relaxed in his seat, he murmured, “Take down your hood.”

A slender white hand reached up, and she complied. The hood slipped away from hair so vividly red that it eclipsed the embers in the fireplace.

Sebastian shook his head in bemusement as he recognized the young woman. The ridiculous creature from the house party at Stony Cross Park. A shy, stammering twit, whose red hair and voluptuous figure might make her tolerable company as long as she kept her mouth shut. They had never actually spoken. Miss Evangeline Jenner, he recalled. She had the largest, roundest eyes he had ever seen, rather like the eyes of a wax doll …or a young child. Her gaze touched gently on his face, not missing the shadows of bruises that had resulted from the fight with Westcliff.

Feather wit, Sebastian thought contemptuously, wondering if she had come to rail at him for abducting her friend. No. Even she couldn’t be that stupid, risking her virtue, or for all she knew, her life, appearing unaccompanied at his house.

“Come to see the devil in his lair, have you?” he asked.

She came closer, her expression intent and oddly fearless. “You’re not the devil. You’re only a man. A very fl-flawed one.”

For the first time in days Sebastian felt a faint urge to smile. A flicker of reluctant interest stirred in him. “Just because the tail and horns aren’t visible, child, doesn’t mean you should discount the possibility. The devil comes in many guises.”

“Then I’m here to make a Faustian bargain.” Her speech was very slow, as if she had to think over every word before she spoke. “I have a proposition for you, my lord.”

And she drew closer to the hearth, emerging from the darkness that surrounded them both.

END


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