In the spare winter moonlight, she glowed with a beauty that lit up the corners of Royal Kendrick’s battered soul. He felt alive again.
Lady Ainsley Matthews also possessed a lethal wit, one famed for sending even the most arrogant popinjay slinking off to the nearest corner. But to Royal, she was perfect, like a challenging book or complex piece of music. So perfect he’d never dared hope. He’d only dreamed—and feared, believing her notice of him was rooted in pity.
Earlier tonight, fate had placed them next to each other at dinner, a crowded affair noisy enough to give the illusion of privacy. An elderly, deaf matron had been seated to Royal’s left, while Ainsley’s other dinner partner was a rotund gourmand who cared only for his food. Left to their own devices, Royal and Ainsley had talked of everything and nothing, able to focus—for once—on each other.
When he’d proposed an escape from the overheated ballroom for a stroll along this quiet, dimly lit corridor, she’d said yes. Now, without hesitation, her steadfast gaze was letting him know she wanted this moment, too.
Royal wanted more than a moment. He wanted the pale, smooth skin, the shining obsidian hair, and the dark dramatic brows that framed the most impossible gaze in the world. Her eyes were the color of violets, a rich velvet-blue and so vivid he wondered they didn’t cast a light of their own. Just gazing at her vibrant beauty made his heart ache even more than his leg. That was a bloody miracle, given that his damn leg had been trying to kill him ever since that appalling day at Waterloo.
Another body part ached too, and with unseemly intensity thankfully hidden by the drape of his kilt. Insanely, Royal desired the brightest diamond of the ton more than anything he’d ever wanted—more than a leg restored to health, more than a family resurrected from emotional ruin, more than a life untrammeled by war. His yearning for Ainsley made no damn sense, because they made no damn sense.
She studied him, her expression revealing an unspoken question.
“What?” he asked.
“Sir, we can sit down in that alcove if you’d like to rest your leg.”
Whenever he heard Ainsley’s voice, he imagined lying in a field thick with pansies that matched the color of her eyes. It muddled his brain, making it impossible to think.
Her frown deepened. “You look ready to topple over. That would be distressing for both of us, especially me if you fell in my direction.”
That was pure Ainsley. Why the hell was he so smitten with the bloody woman? Some might say it was his cock, but it was more than simple physical attraction and he knew it.
“There’s no need to coddle me like an infant, my lady.” Not that anyone could imagine Ainsley coddling babies.
“Then please cease acting like one. Your limp is worse today, and you’ve gone quite pale.”
He liked the fact that she paid attention to details about him. He didn’t like that those details made him appear like an invalid.
You are an invalid, you idiot.
She took matters into her own hands, steering him toward an alcove with an Italianate bench. “Sit before you fall down.”
Royal cast an eye down the long stretch of corridor. The hall was currently deserted, but servants or even guests could happen by at any time. Though he and Ainsley were still on the right side of propriety, sitting together in the secluded alcove, half-hidden by heavy brocaded drapes, might slide them over the line. His reputation didn’t matter a tinker’s damn, but hers certainly did.
When her pretty nose twitched, much like a rabbit’s, it made him want to laugh.
“Mr. Kendrick, do you wish to return to the ballroom?” she asked rather tartly.
“God, no. It’s mobbed with buffoons, as you pointed out a few minutes ago.”
“Well, your reluctance to sit suggests that you find my company less than scintillating.”
“An obviously impossible occurrence.”
“Obviously. So why are you still standing?”
“Because you’re still standing. I’m no pattern card of decorum, but I do know that ladies are supposed to sit first.”
She scoffed. “You’re from Scotland. You haven’t the faintest idea how to behave with decorum.”
“You wrong us, Sassenach,” he said, placing a dramatic hand to his heart. “No man on earth is more courtly than a Highlander in the throes of romance.”
She paused for a moment before answering. “Mr. Kendrick, are you flirting with me?”
Of course he was. Rather badly, if she needed clarification.
“If I say yes, will it get you to sit down on that confounded bench?” His leg was killing him, blast it.
Ainsley floated onto the seat in a graceful flutter of skirts. “You only had to ask.”
“I thought I did.”
“You most certainly did not.”
He shook his head. “Never mind. I was somewhat confused.”
“You are overcome by my presence, no doubt. Men always are, so there’s no call to feel embarrassed about it.”
Ainsley shifted to make room for him as he carefully sat. The bench was small, crowding them close.
“No, it’s because I can’t follow your convoluted mental processes,” he said.
She whacked him on the arm with her fan. “Can you not even pretend to be charming? My other suitors at least have a go at it.”
He managed not to grin at the notion that she considered him one of her suitors. “We both know I never pretend to be charming.”
“It’s rather a nice change,” she said with a rueful smile. “Being surrounded by men desperate to flatter does get a bit cloying, especially since I can never tell whether it’s me or my fortune they’re principally after.”
Her damn, great fortune stood between them like Hadrian’s Wall.
Don’t think about it.
“Poor Lady Ainsley,” he said, returning her smile. “I shall make a point of being rude to you at least once a day, just to lighten your cruel burden.”
“I don’t think you need to make a point of it. You come to it quite naturally.”
“And I consider it one of my best assets.”
“The hostesses of London might not agree. Just ask Lady Bassett. You managed to insult her before we even sat down to dinner.”
Royal hadn’t meant to offend their hostess, who seemed like a perfectly decent woman. He’d been looking around for Ainsley, and hadn’t noticed that her ladyship was speaking to him.
“I did apologize,” he said. “That has to count for something.”
When she shrugged, a few tendrils of hair drifted down from her coiffure in silky wisps. Royal had to repress the impulse to brush them aside and set his lips to her smooth, graceful neck.
“It doesn’t really matter how rude you are,” she said. “Your brother is a wealthy, unmarried earl, even if he is a Scotsman. So if the ladies of the ton wish Lord Arnprior to put in an appearance, they have to put up with you, too. His lordship never goes anywhere without you, it seems.”
That was true. Nick was an absolute tyrant when it came to forcing him back into society. Royal would have been happy to spend his nights at their rented town house in Mayfair, alone with a good book, but big brother had decided it was time for him to start living again. Royal had vociferously disagreed, since attending dreary parties and fending off impertinent questions about the war hardly counted as living. He didn’t even have the consolation of being able to twirl a pretty girl around the dance floor.
It felt like he’d escaped the killing fields of Waterloo only to die of utter boredom at the hands of the beau monde.
Ainsley poked him again with her dratted fan. “You’ve gone back to scowling, and since we know you couldn’t possibly be scowling about me, there’s something else bothering you.”
Her imperious attitude made him smile. “You can be incredibly annoying sometimes, my lady.”
“You’re describing yourself. Everything about me is perfect. If you weren’t such a thickhead, you’d realize that.”
Oh, how he realized it. If there was a more beautiful, self-assured girl in London, he had yet to meet her. Ainsley’s family pampered her like a princess, and her suitors slavered over her like witless fools. Thankfully, she rarely took herself seriously, and took her legion of beaus even less so. Her odd combination of arrogance and wry self-awareness gave her a confidence he found enormously appealing.
“I have no doubt you could wave your hand and split the Thames, like Moses parted the Red Sea,” he said.
She wrinkled her nose. “Thank you, but I’d rather walk on top of it. Then I won’t have to see all the nasty things lying at the bottom.”
He started to laugh but ended up biting off a curse when a muscle in his thigh picked that moment to spasm painfully.
“Your leg is bothering you,” she said with a concerned frown. “We should go back to the ballroom. I’m sure this corridor is too cold for you.”
Royal forced a smile past his gritted teeth. “Are you cold? Because you’re the one who should be shivering in that silly gown.”
She was wearing an absolute frippery of a dress, with tiny cap sleeves ready to slip from her shoulders with the slightest encouragement. Her gauzy skirts were the height of fashion, but it was an insane outfit for the dead of winter.
“I never get cold. You, however, are still recovering your health and should not be loitering in drafty hallways. I don’t know why I let you talk me into coming out here in the first place.”
When she started to stand, Royal wrapped a hand around her wrist and gently pulled her back down. “As I recall, you were the one who talked me into leaving the ballroom.”
“Nonsense. And there’s no call to manhandle me, sir,” she said, sounding a trifle breathless.
“You call that manhandling?” he said, surprised.
“I do. Clearly, you do not know your own strength.”
Actually, he did, though most days he felt like a pale reflection of his former self. If he turned sideways he feared he might even disappear.
“Then I sincerely beg your apology,” he said.
“Fiddlesticks. You’re not sorry at all.”
“When you grow up with six brothers, you tend to skip over the social niceties and the apologies.”
“Especially when you’re Highlanders, I imagine. My maternal grandmother was born in Inveraray, and she was forever talking about the wild men of her clan.”
Royal perked up. “No wonder I’m smitten with you. You’re part Scot, and from my part of Scotland, too.”
She looked slightly taken aback by his honesty but flashed a mocking smile. “I’m only one-quarter Scot, and I try to conceal the fact. Granny Baynes was wonderful, though. She told the most outrageously tall tales.”
“Scots are prone to dramatic license, especially when it comes to family history. But my brothers and I certainly had our share of adventures growing up.”
She shifted to face him more directly, brushing her delightfully plump thigh against his good leg. His leg, and other parts of him, approved.
“Did you often get into trouble, Mr. Kendrick?”
“On a regular basis. I remember an incident involving the local parish priest and the communion wine that probably earned us a decade in purgatory.” He let out a rueful laugh. “I don’t know how my mother put up with us. We were a great handful, to say the least.”
“It sounds like you had tremendous fun,” she said in a wistful tone.
Until their parents died, and everything went catastrophically wrong. He shifted on the hard bench, wincing at the ugly memories.
Ainsley cast him a worried glance. “Are you sure you’re not catching a chill?”
Bloody hell. Next, she’d be asking if he needed a flannel waistcoat and a hot toddy.
“Lass, I grew up in a drafty old castle in the Highlands. Trust me when I say you don’t know the meaning of cold.”
Her nose twitched again, a clear sign of irritation. “There’s no need for you to get snappish.”
“And there’s no need for you to pity me.”
They glowered at each other for a few moments before she jabbed a finger at his chest.
“One. I do not pity you.” She jabbed two fingers. “Two, you are obviously in pain, as any dimwit could tell, and I am far from being a dimwit. I suspect you could be suffering the torments of hell and you’d still insist you were fine.”
“I’ve already suffered the torments of hell. Once you’ve done it, everything else seems tame by comparison.”
“And three,” she added, “I have no wish to be held responsible for a relapse. Your brother would probably murder me with his dirk or some other equally horrifying Scottish weaponry.”
He mustered a smile that might look more like a grimace. “I’ll sign an ironclad waiver absolving you of responsibility if I do relapse.”
She eyed him in silence.
“Really, there’s nothing to worry about,” he said in a softer tone.
“It’s not that, precisely,” she said.
“Then what, precisely?”
“It does hurt a great deal, does it not? Even though you pretend the opposite.”
“Yes,” he said reluctantly.
“Worse than usual, too. I can tell.”
That startled him. “How?”
Even when the pain clawed at him like a thousand demons, he schooled his expression and forced a consistent gait. The new exercises were helping in that regard. Nick had finally found a doctor who seemed to know his business, unlike the other high-priced quacks they’d seen since their arrival in London. The first physician had morosely shaken his head and recommended a stout cane and a lifetime of laudanum. The second had actually had the nerve to suggest Royal’s leg be amputated.
That particular appointment had not ended well.
“Because when your pain is worse, you go white around the lips,” Ainsley said. “And your right eyelid often twitches.”
Royal gaped at her. He knew he often turned pale as a ghoul when his pain was particularly bad, so that was no surprise, but noticing the tic in his eyelid? No one had ever picked up on that except for his grandfather. Not even Nick, who watched him like a bloody hawk.
She shook her head. “The fact that you never complain is amazing to me.”
“There’s little point in complaining, since it won’t change anything,” he said gruffly.
Ainsley slowly unfurled her fan to study a painted scene of nymphs cavorting amongst a ruin. “You never boast about it, either,” she said in a thoughtful tone. “Most men would. After all, you’re a legitimate war hero.”
“Only a bloody coxcomb would boast about something that all but killed him.”
She shot him an irritated glance. “I’m not talking about your injury, you booby. I’m talking about the sacrifices you made for your country.”
He snorted. “Sacrifices that got me and all the other poor fools nothing but pain and suffering. When you’re bleeding out on the battlefield, it doesn’t matter one damn bit what you’re fighting for. English or French, the blood runs the same red.”
He’d seen rivers of the stuff, including his own, leaching into the dirt and mud. It had rained the night before that last battle, and Royal could still feel himself sinking into the horrendous, foul-smelling muck. Too weak to even turn himself over, he’d almost drowned in a shallow ditch before an infantryman had dragged him away to the temporary shelter of a British line.
Ainsley stared at the opposite wall. “This was a mistake,” she said in a flat tone.
His heart cramped, but he managed a sardonic smile. “I realize that penniless, crippled soldiers are not in your usual style.”
She shot him a resentful look. “You can be remarkably unpleasant at times, Mr. Kendrick.”
“So I’ve been told.” And he hated himself for it, hated that anger and sarcasm seemed the only defenses left to him, other than despair.
She clambered to her feet. “Do you need help getting up?” she asked, half turning away from him.
“I’m not helpless,” he gritted out as he pushed himself to stand. “You’ve done your duty by the poor invalid, my lady. You can return to your friends with a clear conscience, knowing you’ve accomplished one good deed for the evening.”
Ainsley flinched, looking set to flee to the refuge of the glittering lights and laughter of the ballroom. It was certainly what she should do, what part of him wanted her to do. Then the inevitable rejection would finally be over, and he could get on with the business of forgetting how much he adored her.
Instead, she squared her shoulders like a grenadier, and Royal braced for the cutting words that would surely flow from her beautiful lips. God knew he’d earned them.
But when he saw the tears in her eyes, glittering like star sapphires, his heart blackened with shame.
“You’ve got it so wrong,” she choked out. “I don’t pity you. I admire you.”
A startled laugh somehow escaped his tight throat. “Why, for God’s sake? I’m an ill-tempered fool without a shred of courtesy. You should find a vase and smash it over my thick skull.”
She shook her head so hard her curls bounced. “You don’t hide from your pain, but you don’t make a show of it, either. You just . . . live with it, as if it doesn’t matter. I don’t think I could ever be that brave.”
Oh, it mattered. Pain was now the cornerstone of his life. But as for living with it, what choice did he have? Nick had defied his superior officers and risked his own life and career to save Royal from certain death. Because his brother and the rest of the family needed him, Royal would bloody well keep on surviving for their sakes.
How could Ainsley ever understand that? And why did she even care?
“My lady, I don’t know what you want from me,” he said.
She swallowed before answering. “I . . . I like you, that’s all. If you can say that to me, why can’t I do the same?”
He shook his head, afraid to even think what she meant.
“Besides, I’m trying to be nice,” she added, sounding rather surly. Inexplicably, that tone eased the tightness in his chest. “I can be nice, you know, despite what people say about me. And I choose to be nice to you, specifically, you dreadful man.”
As he took a step closer, Ainsley held her ground, meeting his gaze with one both defiant and curiously vulnerable.
And Lady Ainsley Matthews was never vulnerable.
He gently rested a hand on her ridiculous poof of a sleeve. Royal longed to touch the smooth, bare skin just beyond the frill of lace and silk, but he didn’t yet dare. They barely knew each other, and yet the connection between them was battering through his rib cage, forging a path straight to his heart.
When she didn’t pull away from his touch, he found his voice. “I don’t need you to be nice to me, either.”
She stared up at him, her violet, wide-eyed gaze shimmering with vulnerability and longing. Longing for him? It seemed impossible.
“What does that mean?” she whispered.
He left the safety of her sleeve, brushing across her soft skin to cup the back of her neck.
“This,” he whispered as he lowered his head to her parted lips.
He sank into a cloud, into a soft whisper of passion with the promise of more to come. Though their lips barely touched, their breaths became one, a press of silken heat between one heartbeat and the next.
Those heartbeats were enough to know he was forever changed, no matter what happened next.
Drawing in a steadying breath, he reluctantly let his hand drop away, straightening to put some room between them. It was still much too close for propriety’s sake, since her breasts—God, those magnificent breasts—all but brushed the front of his coat.
Ainsley breathed out a little sigh that he swore was one of regret, then her eyelids fluttered open.
He waited for her to speak—or haul off and slap him—but she simply gave him a dreamy, sweet smile. It was so unlike her that he was tempted to laugh. Or collapse from the joy and astonishment flooding through him.
He was struggling to find a safe path through the emotional earthquake. “Lady Ainsley, shouldn’t you apologize for taking advantage of me? I am quite shocked, I must say.”
She blinked, the smile fading as her expression turned blank.
He was a moron of the first order to make a joke of their first kiss—a confounded, stupid joke.
Then she giggled, a charming ripple that drifted around him like butterflies on a summer breeze. Everything about her was magical. She transformed the air he breathed and made him dizzy.
She playfully tapped him on the shoulder. “Mr. Kendrick, if you think—”
“What the devil is going on here?” blared an aggrieved voice from behind them.
Ainsley jerked away, the backs of her knees connecting solidly with the bench. Royal shot out an arm to steady her, but his damn leg chose that exact moment to buckle and he staggered. She slapped her hands on his chest, bracing him against a humiliating tumble.
“Are you all right?” she gasped.
“Yes,” he ground out. He glanced at the tall man charging at them like a boar with a spear in its rump. “Who the hell is that?”
“The Marquess of Cringlewood,” she said in a tight voice.
“Never heard of him.”
She shot him a grim look. “You’re about to hear quite a lot, I fear. And please, Mr. Kendrick, let me do the talking.”
Ainsley stepped forward, as if to protect him. While Royal would have liked nothing better than to pull her behind him for safekeeping, his energies were directed toward staying on his blasted feet.
“My lord, what a surprise,” she said as their intruder stalked up to them. “I didn’t expect to see you back in town so soon.”
Her cool, well-bred elegance acted like a shield. Still, Royal could read her tension by the hike of her shoulders. He could feel it, too. If he wasn’t mistaken, Ainsley was more than embarrassed. She was downright nervous.
“Lady Ainsley, what are you doing out here?” Cringlewood demanded, glowering like a stage villain. “And who the devil is this person?”
Royal finally took Ainsley by the arm as he moved up by her side. She all but jumped out of her shoes.
“Remove your hand, you cad,” Cringlewood hissed.
Royal repressed the impulse to roll his eyes at the man’s absurd theatrics.
“My lord, there is no cause for alarm,” Ainsley said, pulling her arm away. “Mr. Kendrick simply offered to escort me out to the hall for some cooler air. The atmosphere in the ballroom was stifling.”
The marquess still eyed her with heavy disapproval. “Without a chaperone? I cannot imagine your parents would be pleased to see you wandering about unprotected. Nor, might I add, am I.”
Royal gave him a smile that was mostly teeth. “Her ladyship is not unprotected. She’s with me.”
Cringlewood ignored him. “Your mamma is waiting for you, Ainsley. She’s grown concerned by your absence.”
So, the aristocratic blighter was on a first name basis with her. That was a painful revelation, especially since he was tall, handsome, and dressed with an expensive elegance that Royal could never hope to match. Even worse, he was evidently hale in all limbs.
When Ainsley sighed and gave a resigned nod, Royal frowned. She never catered to any man but her father, the Earl of Aldridge.
He laid a gentle hand on her arm. She glanced up at him, startled, but then gave a tiny shake of the head, as if to warn him.
But warn him of what?
“My lady, perhaps you might formally introduce me to your friend,” Royal said. “He seems such a charming gentleman.”
Consternation flashed across her features before her control reasserted itself.
“Of course. Mr. Kendrick, it is my pleasure to introduce you to the Marquess of Cringlewood.” She gave the marquess a bland smile. “Mr. Kendrick is the brother of the Earl of Arnprior.”
The man barely managed a nod before holding out an imperious arm to Ainsley.
Bloody ponce. Even his name was ridiculous.
“Delighted, I’m sure,” Royal said. “And now that we’ve got the niceties out of the way, I’m happy to return you to the ballroom, Lady Ainsley.” He lifted an eyebrow at the marquess. “Your assistance is no longer required, sir.”
Cringlewood’s nostrils actually flared. The man really did have a promising career on the stage if he ever decided to give up life as an aristocratic idiot.
“That won’t be necessary, Mr. Kendrick,” Ainsley quickly replied. “I’m more than happy to return to the ballroom with Lord Cringlewood.”
Despite the words, she looked anything but happy. In fact, she looked all but ready to break out in hives from a severe bout of nerves.
“Are you sure?” Royal asked quietly. “If you’re uncomfortable with him, I’ll escort you to your mother.”
Cringlewood immediately adopted another outraged expression. “Since Lady Ainsley is to be my wife, she obviously does not feel uncomfortable with me.”
The floor tilted under Royal’s feet. He must even have staggered a bit, because Ainsley put a hand under his elbow.
“Be careful,” she said.
“Is it true?” he asked.
“Of course it’s true,” the marquess snapped. “We’re to be married by the end of the Season, as anyone with a brain in this town surely knows.”
“You get ahead of yourself, my lord,” Ainsley said coldly. “There has been no formal announcement, as you are well aware.”
Something in Royal’s chest seemed to explode. He almost thought to look down and see a gaping hole where his heart had been.
He took a step away from her that felt like a retreat back into darkness.
“So, you are betrothed.” He forced a little bow. “Allow me to offer my congratulations.”
She shook her head. “It’s not what you think. I mean . . .” She cast the marquess a frustrated glance as her voice trailed into silence.
“I demand to know what’s going on here,” Cringlewood said angrily.
After Ainsley maintained a tense silence, Royal shrugged. “I’m sorry to say, my lord, that your fiancée is a determined flirt who enjoys leading unsuspecting fools to their doom. As anyone with a brain in this town surely knows.”
She gasped, but he refused to spare her a glance as he limped away as quickly as his blasted leg could carry him.