Chapter 2

Almacks, London, 1816

Lady Victoria Eden sat with the other debutantes and only a strong sense of propriety kept her from yawning. The only reason, in fact, that she was among the tittering ladies was her need to avoid Dixon. All through yesterday, he had attempted to see her but she had always been either indisposed or resting her exhausted self. She held an untouched glass of lemonade at the stem and listened passively to the conversation going on around her. It was mostly nonsense about some lord who, rumor had it, was in search of a wife or something along those lines. Talk of scandal, never actually far from the ears of the debutantes, was left to the mamas of the ton. It was perhaps the sudden silence that brought Victoria back to the room. The silence was followed by shocked whispers which all defeated their purpose. Following the gaze of a dazed debutante beside her, Victoria found herself looking at the man who had been occupying her thoughts since the day before last. She felt a jolt of something unfamiliar run through her when she took in the handsomely urbane image he presented in his black evening dress. His ruffled shirt and cravat were pristine against the black and even from the distance she spied the twinkling of what was unmistakably a diamond in the white folds at his neck. Hoping he had not noticed her as he scanned the hall from the wide staircase, she let herself be led by the throng of young ladies who were headed for the powder rooms.

Talk in the powder room was all of Lord James Ardsley, Earl of Thornton, Viscount Berkley, Viscount Scarborough and Baron Oakridge who for unknown reasons was suddenly in Almacks.

"Do you think he's looking for a wife?" cried one eager debutante.

"I think he's an irrepressible rake."

"Then why are you here primping yourself."

"I'm only here because my mother would have been sure to try to introduce me to him and I couldn't have been able to resist throwing a glass of wine in his face."

"You wouldn't! You'd be more likely to swoon at his feet."

"I would not!"

"He's probably gone. With all of you in here." These last words were Victoria's and the response was instantaneous as all the debutantes tried to leave at the same time. Only Victoria and Ellen Birmingham the one debutante who had spoken against the Earl were left in the room.

"I simply can not stand him." She said vehemently. "What do they see in the arrogant cad?"

He's outrageously handsome, wealthy and titled. Victoria thought but did not voice her opinion as she herself wondered how Lord Ardsley had suddenly become synonymous with handsome in her mind.

"Please don't tell me you too are affected by him."

Victoria looked at the girl for a moment then stood up. "Of course not; I'm engaged."

With that she left the powder room but avoided the ball room and opted for the garden instead.

The cool evening air was exhilarating and she stood unmoving for a while to enjoy the sheer beauty of it. Unbeknownst to her, she was being observed by a dark clad, gray eyed earl.

James Ardsley watched Victoria and battled the desire to reveal himself. She was exquisite and in the light from the house, surrounded by flowers, she looked like a goddess. Her ebony hair floated down her back in curling rivulets and in the night, her skin was like porcelain. Her gown, a midnight blue that accentuated her eyes, hugged her voluptuous curves and turned her from angel to sprite and back again. His body responded and he struggled to control himself as he stood.

"Good Evening."

She jerked back as though stung then gasped as she realized who her watcher was.

"Good evening, Lord Ardsley. I trust you suffered no side effects from our last encounter."

She was glad her dry humor had remained and was effective in hiding the teeming emotions within her. A slow, breathtaking smile crept across his face as he acknowledged the joke.

"I shall live. I still wonder, though, what a lady should be doing on my ship."

His words and close proximity reminded her that this man was dangerous. Not only to her senses but truly dangerous to her person.

"I really should return to the ballroom…my father might be wondering where I am."

"Not," he said taking her arm, even as she protested, and leading her into the depths of the garden. "Until you tell me why you were on my ship. I'm not a fool, despite what you might think and you'd be sorely mistaken if you think for a second I intend to let you go before I get answers."

"Let go of me!" She whispered angrily, trying to tug herself free of his grip. She looked around anxiously, hoping no one would think to enjoy the night air as she had. "Do you realize my reputation would be damaged if anyone were to see us here?"

He didn't stop walking though and threw his answer over his shoulder. "I have serious doubts as to whether a lady such as yourself would have much of a reputation to be damaged."

"How dare you! You of all people have no right to question my character."

He spun around then and Victoria almost wished he had kept walking.

"And why, pray tell, is that? In case you've forgotten, I am the wronged person here. I could always take this up with your father if you refuse to give me the answers I want."

"He would never believe you."

"Are you so sure of that?"

The implication of his words hit her; he would turn this into a scandal that would touch not only her but her father. Her father…why had he put such emphasis on the word? She dismissed it in lieu of her predicament.

"You are no gentleman."

"I never claimed to be one. I only want to know why you were on my ship." She sighed and looked down at the hand that enveloped hers.

"If you…if you let go of me, I'll tell you."

He looked at her for a long moment then slowly let her hand drop from his. Inwardly cursing herself she turned immediately and bolted, not bothering, once again, to see if he followed.

James watched her run, slender ankles flashing as she raised the hem of her gown, then walked away in the opposite direction. His chaise was waiting for him at the front of the building and he entered it, making some indistinct sound in reply to the driver's annoyingly cheery 'good evening, my lord'. The horses set off at a brisk trot and James listened to the sound not really hearing it. He looked at his hand that tingled slightly and wondered, vaguely, why he had let her go. He'd known she would run but it had been almost painful to hold her hand and do naught else. He shook himself mentally; he hadn't been with a woman for a while. That was the problem. The chit had nothing to do with it. He'd as soon strangle her than…no, that wasn't entirely true. She was beautiful; there was no doubt about that. Then again she could be a thief or else have some extremely odd habits. No lady he knew would do what she had. She was doubtless some lord's mistress. Her father indeed!

He leaned forward and told the driver to go to Ernsfield, the home of his current mistress, Louisa Marie Kolinsky. She was more than capable of satisfying his needs and now it seemed he had been neglecting her. It would be a going away present…for both of them. Now that he had left his investments in the capable hands of Edward Leicester, Viscount Fairfax, he could leave for the West Indies comfortable that he would not return bankrupt. He would tie up a few loose ends and cut some others off in the islands then he could return to England and…settle down? Perhaps he would find a wife and give his mother the grandchildren she craved. The thought of a wife forced a pair of aquamarine eyes in front of him and suddenly Louisa held little appeal. He wasn't about to turn around though and leaned back into the comfortable dark green squabs of the seat with a sigh.

xx

"You're distracted tonight. I can tell." Louisa murmured in his ear as she played carelessly with his hair. "What's wrong?"

He raised his head and a quizzical eyebrow at her question.

"Maybe you'd rather we talked?"

She said nothing for a while but moved her finger toward his brow and attempted to smoothen it out. He took her hand and kissed the inside of her wrist, sucking gently on her throbbing pulse. He let his tongue slide up her arm, over her shoulder. She leaned down into him as his mouth got closer to her breast. He was but an inch from that delectable endowment when he stopped and gently but firmly pushed her off him. He sat up and inwardly cursed. She was about to touch his back but he got up, walked over to a chair where his clothes were and began to throw them on jerkily.

"What's wrong, James?" She sighed with a practiced pout.

He didn't reply but walked up to the bed and placed a velvet box beside her foot.

"It's a going away present." The words mocked him now.

"Are you angry with me?"

"No Louisa. I am not angry with you. I merely have to leave now." His shirt buttoned, he grabbed his cravat, not bothering to tie it. He leaned over and kissed her on the forehead. "Goodbye love." Straightening, he turned and walked briskly out the door not looking back once. A lucky thing perhaps for he might have seen her golden eyes fill with tears then overflow onto the pearl necklace he had given her. He'd never before left a woman unhappy.

xx

James rummaged through the drawers in his study searching for the bottle of whiskey he kept solely for occasions such as these when he felt the need to imbibe. Self disgust and unsated desire urged him to drown out the world. Particularly if the world was populated by blue-eyed minxes with black hair that fell like waves…No! He needed to stop this madness. "Yes!" He found the bottle, covered by a document he had been perusing the night before. Not bothering with a glass, he threw himself into a chair and placed his legs on the table, one solid pillar on top of the other. He opened the bottle, downed a sizable amount then leaned his head back and closed his eyes. He had never before come back from a visit to Louisa like this. It had been like drinking water without actually quenching his thirst. The fact that Louisa no longer satisfied his needs was neither here nor there; he would settle her handsomely. The burning question was why. He pushed away the one thought that kept surfacing in his mind as an answer and took another swig.

Why did the brattling affect him so? And why, he thought angrily, wasn't he getting so drunk he wouldn't care either way? The fates were playing a cruel joke on him, surely. He wanted her. It was unadulterated lust. He could not have her. What the bloody hell was wrong with him?

He took a small sip of the drink and let it lie in his mouth for a second before swallowing. He was going to be three months at sea. This should be interesting, he thought, wryly, and then downed the rest of the bottle. His last conscious thought was of how much he would regret this night on the morrow.