“Griff? What the devil are you doing sprawled out over the ground back there?”
Squinting—was the morning sun always this bright?—he peered up at Althea. “To be honest, I’m not quite sure, but it does appear I got turned about returning home last night.” For some inexplicable reason he’d not used the front door. Perhaps he’d been unable, with clumsy fingers, to grasp the key nestled in his waistcoat pocket. Although, patting said pocket now, he found it empty. Had he misplaced the bit of brass?
“You were well in your cups again, weren’t you?”
“I do seem to recall some celebrating going on.” For a while the games had favored him . . . until they hadn’t. What was a man supposed to do when fortune slipped away except seek solace in drink?
“Well, stir yourself and come out of there,” she ordered briskly, as though she wasn’t three years his junior but was instead his elder.
With a great deal of effort, he shoved himself to his feet, pressed his back to the brick, and crept out through the narrow space between wall and foliage, trying to avoid getting snagged by the sharp-edged leaves of the hedges. When he reached his sister, she scrunched up her entire face. “You smell like a distillery.”
“How do you know how a distillery smells?” Looking past her to the two ladies sitting at the white linen-covered round table, he forced his most charming grin to form, a smile he didn’t feel like granting, not only because of the increased ache in his head but because of what he’d overheard.
“Ladies, how are you this fine morning?”
“I daresay better than you,” Lady Kathryn retorted, using the tone she seemed to reserve only for him.
“Here,” Althea said, reaching quickly for the teapot. “Have a spot of tea. You look as though you could use it.”
Tea was nowhere on the list of things he could use. A hot bath — he did indeed smell like a distillery, along with a cheroot factory — a shave, and the blackest coffee would serve him better. If the other ladies hadn’t been staring at him with twin expressions of disgust, he might have made his excuses and headed straight to his most urgent need: a soft bed. But knowing he’d take some perverse delight in irritating them by delaying his escape and joining them, he dragged back a chair, dropped into it, and took the offered cup and saucer. “You are indeed kind, dear sister.”
It was so like her, looking out for others. He really didn’t deserve to have a sister so generous of spirit. Peering through the steam rising from the brew, he took a long, slow swallow. She’d laced it with an abundance of sugar, and his body reacted with gratitude, the ache behind his eyes dissipating a fraction so the day seemed at least survivable.
Lady Kathryn looked on disapprovingly, a tightness to her mouth, and he wouldn’t have been surprised if she’d announced, “You’re better than this.”
Only he wasn’t. Precisely because of what she had voiced earlier. No one wanted the spare. Not the ladies of the ton. Not his father. Not his mother. Even the heir, two years older than he was, had little time for him. But scotch, cards, and actresses seldom turned him away.
“Perhaps your brother’s presence here is fortuitous,” Lady Jocelyn said. “You no doubt overheard what we were discussing.”
“I apologize, ladies, as it was not my intention to eavesdrop, but you did manage to garner my undivided attention with your dulcet tones.”
While Lady Kathryn fairly glowered, signaling she’d caught the sarcasm in his tone, Lady Jocelyn smiled as though he’d handed her one of the Crown Jewels. She’d never struck him as being particularly cognizant of subtleties. “Then perhaps you would be good enough to share with us how we might impress upon the duke that we are worth considering for courtship.”
“How would he know what a duke wants?” Lady Kathryn asked.
He allowed a corner of his mouth to ease up provocatively, sensually. “A duke wants what any man wants. A woman who is a saint in society and a wild wanton in the bedchamber.”
Her hazel eyes narrowed until they resembled the finely honed blade of a dagger. She riled so easily, and for some inexplicable reason, he’d always taken great delight in pricking her temper. “That is hardly helpful,” she snapped.
“But ’tis true.”
“We are genteel ladies of good breeding, and as such, we’ve hardly been bedded so can offer no insight into our capabilities beneath the sheets, as it were.” He imagined her beneath the sheets, with him stirring her until she fully comprehended her capacity for pleasure. As his body began to respond to the images, he shoved them back. Whatever was wrong with him to even contemplate an intimacy with her? “Besides, it is for our husband to tell us what he wants regarding that particular aspect of our marriage.”
“Why?” he asked, truly befuddled. “Why should he be the only one to have a say? Surely, Freckles, you’ve given some thought to what you might enjoy.”
“I have not,” she countered testily.
“ ‘The lady doth protest too much, methinks.’ ”
“Don’t be absurd. Ladies do not sully their minds by thinking carnal thoughts.”
“If you’ve never thought them, how do you know they’d sully your mind?”
“You’re being preposterously difficult.”
“No, I’m actually curious as to what you envision happens between a man and a woman that would be so lurid as to tarnish an otherwise pristine brain if pondered or mulled over.”
She looked as though she’d like to toss her tea on him. “You know well enough.”
Her voice had gone lower, more gravelly, causing his belly to tighten. “Caresses along bare skin, the nip of a collarbone, a squeeze here, a rub there? Kisses along curves, hollows, and dips? How is any of that sordid?”
Her lips had slowly parted, and her cheeks had deepened from an enticing rose into a lovely crimson. He wondered if, like him, she was now imagining his bare hand, fingers splayed, on her bare thigh, slipping up toward that heavenly apex where paradise waited, previously untouched and unexplored. Christ. What the devil was wrong with him? She was the very last woman he had any interest in bedding. It didn’t matter that her coppery hair turned the shade of fire when lit by the sun, and that he had, on occasion and much to his chagrin, wondered if it would be as hot to the touch, if it would spark pleasure. It didn’t matter that her fragrance was more spicy than sweet, and he’d always enjoyed foods with a great deal of seasoning. It didn’t matter that her lips were more pink than red, and on the rare occasion he painted, he preferred the subtle allure of pastels.
“Griff, I’m not quite certain this is an appropriate topic of discussion considering the company,” Althea remarked hesitantly.
“But that is my point.” He did hope they’d attribute the croak of his voice to his having recently been pulled from slumber and not the fact that his mouth had suddenly gone as arid as a desert. “It shouldn’t be taboo. Men are allowed to think about it, discuss it, experience it—without benefit of marriage. Why shouldn’t women?”
A series of gasps met that pronouncement. He shook his head. “Even if a woman is not to experience it without marriage” — although he didn’t agree with that belief — “she should at least be able to think about it and discuss it without shame, without fearing she has mired her mind.” He gave his attention back to Lady Kathryn. “You never think about it?”
“I do not.”
“Then, how can you know what you want, what you might enjoy?”
“As I stated earlier, it is for my husband to show me.”
“You have never struck me as a woman without an opinion on any matter.” He leaned forward. “I would wager a month’s allowance that you have thought about it, and quite thoroughly.”
That her nostrils flared and her breaths seemed to slow only served to tighten his belly more. What images did she conjure in that mind of hers?
“Griff, I do believe you have just called our guest a liar,” Althea said, her upset evident in her tone.
Because she was. Not that he was going to call her on it again, but damned if he didn’t want to uncover her fantasies. “My apologies. It seems I am not yet fit for company as my indulgences from last night are still having their way with me.” He shoved back his chair and stood. Then he turned his attention to Lady Jocelyn, who had first posed the question, because studying Lady Kathryn was beginning to make him feel light-headed as blood wanted to rush where it shouldn’t. “Write to the duke of your comely features, mastery of etiquette, interests, and accomplishments.”
“Thank you, my lord.”
He offered her a small smile. “And may the best lady win.”
With that, he left them and strode into the residence, knowing the hot bath he’d craved earlier would have to wait. Lady Kathryn might not allow thoughts to sully her mind, but now his was filled with a sordid display of her body writhing against his that required he plunge into a bitingly cold tub of water first.
From Scoundrel of My Heart by Lorraine Heath, published by Avon Books. Copyright © 2021 by Jan Nowasky. Reprinted courtesy of Harper Collins Publishers.