Lord Carlton’s Courtship

Ten

Aching from the unexpected impact of Lord Carlton’s attack, Roma glared furiously into the darkly grim features that hovered far too close for comfort.

“I hardly consider being thrown to the ground an attempt to save me,” she hissed, potently aware of the solid weight of the muscular frame pressed intimately against her lower body. “In fact, I was doing quite well until you decided to leap on me like a … a wild animal.”

“You’re lucky I didn’t put a bullet through your heart,” he growled with a flare of anger. “It is no less than you deserve, sneaking about in these bushes.”

Roma flinched, but as usual her strange antagonism toward this man refused to allow her to back away from her rigid stance.

“I have as much right to be here as you,” she argued. “More, in fact, considering that you came here to discuss my brother.”

His raven head shook back and forth, his expression one of exasperated disbelief. “I should have suspected you would attempt some crazy scheme,” he muttered, his gaze lowering to her tattered shirt and breeches. “The only way to ensure that you will behave is to lock you in a room and throw away the key.”

“What choice did you give me? If you had simply agreed to bring me along, then none of this would have been necessary.”

“You can not possibly mean to imply your absurd behavior is now my fault?”

She met his glare with staunch courage. “If you would avoid treating me like a bird-witted fool then we could have found a less … absurd method of my coming this evening.”

“And if you would act like a proper lady, then I wouldn’t have to worry about you harrying about London dressed like a chimney sweep.”

She curled her lips in a scornful motion. “I have no desire to act like a proper lady. All I want is to find my brother so that we can return to Greystead Manor and continue with our lives.”

He stiffened, almost as if her words had caught him off guard.

“And then what, Roma?” he asked, his eyes oddly watchful. “Do you intend to bury yourself in the country forever?”

It was a question that she hadn’t considered. She had been too consumed with the need to find William to even think of the future. And much to her surprise, she found herself hesitating. A month ago she would have easily accepted the idea of spending the rest of her life at Greystead Manor, content with her friends and her freedom. But now she wasn’t quite so confident that she could accept such an undemanding life. Her recent adventure had added an undeniable spice to her existence, and she knew that she would find her world rather dull after it had all been settled.

Perhaps she had inherited more of her father’s spirited nature than she had suspected, she thought with a quiver of alarm. Certainly there could be no other reason for her to regret the thought of leaving London.

She carefully eluded a direct answer. “I can give no thought to the future until my brother is safely home.”

His expression tightened with displeasure, although Roma had no notion what he found so annoying about her ambiguous statement.

“There will be no future for either one of us unless you put a halt to these dangerous antics,” he charged, his eyes abruptly narrowing. “And now perhaps you will explain just how you managed to discover my destination. I know for certain that I told no one where I was going.”

She attempted to shrug, then regretted the sudden movement as he shifted to press her more firmly against the hard ground.

“It wasn’t difficult,” she answered, desperately attempting to ignore the odd tremors racing through her taut form. “I simply waited outside your house, and when I saw you come from your stables, I followed a short distance behind.”

She didn’t mention the fact she had been forced to hide in the hedge outside his house for nearly three hours or that the horse she had hired had proven to be a stubborn nag that had forcibly reminded her of the man currently glaring at her with open disbelief. Both were obstinate, provoking and in dire need for a proper set-down.

“Truly? And you expect me to believe that Jameson never noticed we were being followed?” He gave a sharp shake of his head. “You are obviously unfamiliar with my groom, Roma, or you would never suggest such a thing. His ability to sense danger is uncanny. He has saved my life on more than one occasion.”

“And no mere woman could hope to outwit him?” She easily interpreted his blatant insinuation. “You obviously overestimate your groom’s skill. Of course, I suppose he can be forgiven. Like most men, he assumes that danger can only come in the form of another man. What interest would he have in a ragged child trailing behind him?”

The blue eyes flared as her smooth thrust slid home, and his lips thinned to an annoyed line.

“Very well, I take your point. Clearly Jameson is no more immune than myself to the treachery of a desperate woman.”

“And what would you do if a member of your family were missing, Lord Carlton?” she demanded. “Would you be content to remain at home and allow others to search? Or would you insist on being involved?”

“The situation would hardly be the same,” he retorted with a deep frown.

“Why?”

He heaved an irritated sigh. “Because, Roma, as difficult as it might be to accept, beneath those tattered clothes and that stubborn independence, you are a woman, while I am very much a man.”

A completely ridiculous heat rose to her cheeks. “I am well aware of the differences in our gender, Lord Carlton.”

“Are you?” A sudden, thoroughly alarming flare of heat darkened his eyes. “There are times when I wonder, Roma.”

“And what do you mean by that?”

His unnerving gaze drifted over her pale features and the tangled cloud of auburn curls; then Roma felt her heart give a sharp jerk as it slowly lowered to the swells of her breasts clearly outlined by the thin shirt.

“Do you understand what it is to be a woman, Roma?” he asked, his voice thick with emotion. “Have you ever experienced the need to be loved by a man?”

“Please, Lord Carlton … ” Frightened as much by the sudden surge of heat that flickered through her racing blood as by the unfamiliar edge that had entered his voice, Roma lifted her hands to press them against his firm chest. “You must let me up.”

“Must I?” His eyes darkened. “Why?”

It seemed ridiculously difficult to think of a coherent reason. In fact, everything seemed difficult, from taking a normal breath to slowing the frantic beat of her heart.

“I … the meeting … ”

“Roma.” He sucked in a harsh breath, a slender hand raising to twine in the vibrant silk of her hair. “Do you know how many nights I have lain awake, torturing myself with the memory of your body? I remember every perfect detail.”

She shivered, too startled by the compelling sensations tingling through her to summon the outrage she knew she should feel.

“Please do not remind me of that night, Lord Carlton,” she pleaded.

“Why should I not?” he demanded, an odd fire burning deep in his eyes. “Once again we are alone. Only this time you are uninjured and I am free to do what I wanted to do that first evening.”

Her eyes widened at the determined note in his husky voice, and instinctively she pushed her hands against the firm muscles of his chest. But her feeble effort barely checked his slow, relentless downward movement and with a sense of suspended unreality she watched the raven head approach. A deep shudder ran through her, but surprisingly she found her muscles unwilling to fight against his overt physical dominance. It was almost as if she had been waiting for this moment since she had first caught sight of this impossibly handsome man.

Seeming to sense her peculiar lethargy, Lord Carlton paused to study the darkened confusion of her hazel eyes and the unconscious invitation of her parted lips. She felt his body stiffen and, for a brief moment, thought that common sense would prevail; then an unfamiliar expression of longing rippled across the lean features and the dark head swooped downward to claim her mouth in a kiss that sent her world spinning.

She had never actually considered what it might feel like to be held in a man’s arms. And she certainly hadn’t dreamed she would ever truly enjoy the feel of a man exploring her mouth with his lips and even the tip of his tongue. But contrary to all her long-held beliefs, Roma discovered that such intimate actions were far from repulsive. In fact, the tiny tremors that seemed to radiate from the very center of her being were startlingly pleasant, and unaware of the unconscious invitation in her compliant lips or the fingers that curled into the rough fabric of his shirt, Roma allowed the exquisite sensations to sweep away her rigid defenses. Somewhere at the back of her mind a tiny voice whispered that she should be terrified by the potent heat racing through her blood, but she felt no fear as he gently cupped her face to deepen the possessive kiss. No matter how tumultuous their strange relationship might be, she had always felt as if she could trust him with her very life.

With a leashed hunger, he drank of her innocent offering, plundering her willing lips before restlessly moving to trail a path of liquid heat over her cheeks, her temple, the vulnerable curve of her jaw and then, with a harsh groan, to bury his face in the soft cloud of her hair.

“Honeysuckle …” he rasped, his body tense with the effort to control his emotions.

Still caught in the new and wondrous sensations that rippled through her trembling limbs, Roma reluctantly lifted her heavy lids.

“What?”

“You smell of honeysuckle,” he explained, raising his head to meet her bemused gaze. “It is a scent that has haunted me for weeks.”

“Lord Carlton …”

“Giles,” he interrupted firmly.

“Giles,” she consented, more out of a sense of desperation than any desire to conform to his demands, “please let me go.”

“Am I frightening you?” he asked, his fingers tenderly stroking the tingling skin of her neck before moving to absently play with a stray auburn curl.

She trembled, but not from fear. It was absurd, she thought with a sudden flare of disbelief. She claimed to hate this man, but there was no way to deny that she had responded to his touch with a wanton eagerness that was frankly shocking. Too late she abruptly attempted to resurrect the barriers he had so easily swept aside.

“Of course I am not frightened,” she retorted, her voice sharp with the effort to control the emotions still thundering through her heart. “I am furious that you would … would take shameless advantage of a helpless woman.”

“A helpless woman? You?” His brooding sensuality swiftly changed to mocking amusement. “My dear Roma, you are about as helpless as a snake poised to strike.”

Ridiculously his words induced a twinge of pain. “There is no need to be insulting.”

“It is pure self-defense, I assure you,” he muttered; then with a jerky movement, he rolled away from her trembling body and pushed himself to his feet. With a guarded expression he gazed down at her pale features and at lips still reddened from his kisses. “I have never encountered a more dangerous woman, and if I had any sense I would flee from you with as much haste as possible.”

“You are free to leave if you wish.”

“Am I?” He gave a short laugh. “If you believe that, then you are even more innocent than I first suspected.”

Roma frowned. “Must you speak in riddles?”

He slowly shook his head, a resigned expression crossing his aquiline features. “Come, Roma, now is not the time for such a discussion. It will take more than a kiss to teach you the meaning of being a woman, and to be honest, I am not sure I possess the patience to be your tutor.”

Ignoring the hand that he stretched out, Roma hastily scrambled to her feet. She had no notion of what he was speaking, but she was quite certain it was far from flattering. Despite the fact that he had seemed to take considerable enjoyment in holding her in his arms, she had no doubt he maintained his previous opinion that her want of delicacy made her quite below reproach.

“I ache all over,” she complained, dusting off the clinging leaves and dust in an effort to hide her embarrassment. “Did you have to be so rough?”

“You are lucky to be alive,” he retorted, clearly unrepentant. “If you had listened to me and remained at your aunt’s home, then none of this would have occurred.”

“And if you had brought me along as I requested, then I wouldn’t have been forced to trail behind and hide in these bushes,” she pointed out, refusing to accept responsibility for his reprehensible behavior.

“Do you truly—” He abruptly cut off his angry words, clenching his fists as he battled to maintain control of his composure. “Not again. This is a futile argument. The question now is what to do with you.”

With an effort, Roma thrust aside the emotions that clouded her mind. Later she could regret the vulnerability that had been exposed by his disturbing kiss, but at the moment nothing mattered but that she meet with the man who might have some information concerning her brother.

“You will do nothing with me,” she informed him with a defiant toss of her head. “I came to attend this meeting, and that is exactly what I intend to do.”

“That is my decision to make.” His voice was filled with an arrogance that instantly set her teeth on edge. “And I am very tempted to bundle you into my carriage and have you returned to London where you belong.”

Her eyes flashed a warning. “I would only return as soon as I was able.”

“Then perhaps I should tie you to a tree until I am ready to leave. At least then I would know you were out of trouble.”

In spite of her best intentions, she took a backward step. “You wouldn’t dare.”

A raven brow flicked upward “Wouldn’t I?”

She eyed him warily. At the moment he looked every inch the aristocratic Lord Carlton, even with his rough clothes and tousled hair. The dark features were stamped with a masculine authority that warned her he was quite capable of doing what he deemed necessary to protect her from herself.

With a determined effort, she forced herself to swallow her pride. Surely she had learned by now that there was little use in meeting this man head-on? Perhaps it was time she attempted to use a more subtle approach.

Conjuring up what she hoped was an appealing glance, she met his glittering gaze.

“What harm can there be in my meeting with this man?” she asked, tempering her voice to a soft plea. “I promise not to interfere. I simply want to be here to answer any questions that might lead us to William.”

A sudden stillness settled over him as he slowly took in the unconscious enchantment of her softened expression. She felt her heart give an unnerving jerk as a tender smile drifted at the edges of his firm mouth, erasing his insolent expression.

“And you promise to sit meekly in the corner and allow me to handle the meeting without your meddling?”

She paused, biting the fullness of her lower lip. Could she make such a promise in good conscience? She, better than anyone, knew her impulsive tendency to speak and act without thinking. Could she curb her natural instincts for the good of her brother?

Straightening her shoulders, she gave a decisive nod of her head.

“If that is necessary, then yes, I promise.”

“Let us hope that this promise is worth more than your previous promise,” he muttered.

“That isn’t fair,” she cried. “You forced me into that promise.”

“Ah, Roma …” He heaved a small sigh. “What am I to do with you?”

The blue eyes probed deep into her wide gaze as she waited breathlessly for his answer. Strangely, it seemed vitally important that he understand her need to be a part of this search for her brother. It was almost as if his agreement would prove that he was one of the few men capable of appreciating her for her unique style.

Silence reigned for several long moments as he clearly battled his ingrained sense of chivalry and the reluctant acceptance that she was no normal woman who preferred to be coddled and protected.

At long last he breathed out an irritated sigh, his expression almost grim as he threw her a warning glance.

“Very well, Roma. Against my better judgment, I will take you along. Please do not make me regret this decision.”