August 1821 — Bath, England
“Lydia, is that your sister?”
Lydia’s friend Lysandra Russell pointed to a group of young men hovering around a delicate, petite figure in the middle of the crowded assembly room. Even at this distance, Lydia recognized her younger sister’s fine-boned face and far too pretty features: the flaxen hair, the cornflower-blue eyes, and the lovely rosebud mouth that left every man she met ready to come to blows over her attention and her honor.
“Oh heavens, what has Portia gone and done now?” Lydia muttered. She stepped closer to Lysandra, who chuckled and waved her dark-blue silk fan patterned with silver stars.
“I believe she’s convinced the men to wager for spots on her dance card. If anyone discovers that, she might be cast out of the assembly rooms by the master of ceremonies. You know that sort of behavior is strictly taboo.” Lysandra tucked a stray strand of her bright-red hair behind her ear and rolled her eyes. “Well, at least she’s having fun. You and I have been growing petals over here against this wall.”
Lydia giggled at Lysandra’s artful description of them as wallflowers. “Yes, Portia always seems to find friends and aspiring beaux wherever she goes. My father tells me our mother was much the same. A true beauty.”
Lydia’s heart sank a little as she said this. She wasn’t beautiful the way Portia was or their mother had been. She was only a few inches above five feet, and though she had the same flaxen hair as her sister, it lacked her sister’s elegant shine. Her blue eyes were not so bright a blue. Her features, while not unattractive, did not have the same irresistible beauty as Portia’s.
So it came as no surprise that Portia was their father’s favorite. But she could not complain. Her father did love her, and she was not treated as some princess of cinders by her family. She was simply not the favorite. It was no more complicated than that.
“I suppose I ought to free her of the horde she’s collected.” Lydia squared her shoulders, knowing how difficult it was going to be to get her sister away from her group of admirers. They had been in Bath only one week, yet the entire male population was already infatuated with Portia.
“I shall help you.” Lysandra joined her, chin set firmly, as though she was facing down the French army all alone. Lydia adored her friend’s loyalty. When things became serious, Lysandra could always be counted on to help.
They crossed the vast floor of the assembly room, careful to sidestep whenever twirling couples threatened to come into their path. They were also careful to dodge the numerous ostrich plumes that dipped low over the turbans of the older ladies. More than once they were nearly knocked over by an oblivious gentleman making an elegant bow.
Bath was ever a place to see and be seen by the fashionable set and the wealthy in England. Not that Lydia was much concerned with any of that. She had not much desire to marry. Not after her first serious suitor, a gentleman named Frank Ensley, had abandoned her to marry an heiress. The pangs of disappointment had been enough to set Lydia against marriage entirely.
“Look out!” Lysandra gripped her arm and pulled her out of the way of two handsome but clearly foxed gentlemen stumbling past them. They didn’t even stop to apologize.
“Lord, it’s a frightful exercise in patience and perseverance to cross a ballroom.” Lydia collapsed her fan and held it up like a fencer would his foil. It might prove necessary to wallop a few gentlemen in order to arrive at their intended destination.
“Blast. I lost sight of her,” Lysandra hissed. “The men have dispersed, but I cannot see her.”
Lydia swallowed back a lump of panic. She and Portia had both come here under the watchful eye of their great-aunt, Cornelia Wilcox. She would be blamed if Portia were to be compromised.
“Try the corridor just beyond!” Lydia nodded frantically toward a darkened corridor that led to the retiring rooms, a place where ladies and gentlemen could see to their needs.
“Excellent thinking.” Lysandra and Lydia parted around a pair of plump matronly ladies whose chins wobbled as they giggled over the latest on-dits.
“Ah-ha! She’s here!” Lydia gasped in relief as she found Portia alone at the entrance to the corridor. She hugged her younger sister.
Portia raised her chin almost haughtily as she pushed Lydia away. “Lydia, what’s come over you?”
Lydia reined in the frustrated response she wanted to give. It would do no good to snap at Portia, no matter how much she wished to. “You mustn’t go places unaccompanied, especially here at the assembly rooms.”
Portia’s eyes flashed with a rebellious fire befitting her teenage years. “I know all the rules, Lydia. You need not lecture me.”
“Oh? Because it appears that you enjoy breaking all the rules,” Lydia replied levelly.
“You need not worry, dear sister. I have matters well in hand.”
“Matters? What matters?” Lydia wanted to tell her sister that she was far too young to have matters, but she knew it would fall on deaf ears.
“I have made my decision as to whom I shall marry.”
“Oh? You’ve chosen, then? Which gentleman?” Lydia ran through the list in her head of all the men who had offered for Portia in the last few months. There were at least a dozen. Portia had kept all of their calling cards in her bedchamber and would riffle them in her hands and giggle while she prepared for bed. To her, marriage was a game she wanted to win. She was too young to realize that a handsome buck she would marry now might grow into a cantankerous old man. Marriage was no game. It was serious business.
“Him!” Portia pointed an elegant hand toward a pair of men who were leaning against a column about twenty feet away. One was fair-haired, and one was dark. Both were tall, at least a few inches over six feet. She recognized only one of the gentleman, as Lysandra did, by the way she gasped. Portia did not however, since she did not spend much time in the company of Lydia’s friends or their family.
“Rafe Lennox?” Lysandra shook her head. “Oh, Portia, you mustn’t.”
“No, not him, the dark-haired man next to him.” Portia sighed dreamily as she gazed in his direction.
“I am not acquainted with that gentleman,” Lydia said. “Who is he?”
“Haven’t the faintest idea. I only know he shall be mine.” Portia giggled and twirled where she stood, almost humming to herself. “Won’t we make the most beautiful babies together?”
“Portia, that is ridiculous. You don’t even know the gentleman’s name,” Lydia said.
Her sister laughed. “Oh, he’s no gentleman. Lord, Lydia, look at how he holds himself, powerful, with little care to his clothes, his hair ruffled by the wind, and a hungry look in those gray eyes . . .”
“Those sound like fine qualities in a heartless seducer, not a husband,” Lydia responded primly. But the more she dared to look at the gentleman in question, the more she saw exactly what her sister had described. He had a wild, barely restrained look that gave him an unmistakable air of danger. A flush rolled through her, and she had to spread her fan and whip it rapidly to dispel the sudden heat in her body. Her breath quickened as she saw the man break into a smile as a lovely woman walked past him.
Lord, that smile. It was the sort to break a woman’s heart before she’d even been introduced to him.
“Maybe I want him to seduce me,” Portia declared, a little too loudly, given the sudden stares of a few nearby ladies. Portia’s words set their fans fluttering wildly, no doubt to cover the gossip the women would soon be spreading.
“Portia, please do not say such things.”
“It’s not my fault you aren’t married, Lydia.” Portia’s unexpected insult stung more than Lydia wished it to. She loved her sister, but sometimes Portia was very difficult to like.
“Portia, that wasn’t very nice,” Lysandra said sternly.
“Well, it’s true.” Portia shoved between Lydia and Lysandra and started straight toward the pair of young men, who may well have been man-eating tigers as far as innocent young women were concerned.
“What on earth is she doing?” Lysandra asked. “Is she mad?”
Lydia sighed and rubbed her eyes. “Mad? No. Acting foolishly? Most certainly.” Lydia rushed after her sister, but was too late. Portia was already talking to the dark-haired stranger. Lydia knew she should rush over and stop her, but she was frozen in place. The gentleman was one of the most handsome men she had ever seen. She had spent four seasons in London and had seen the best men in England, and none of them compared to him. Portia, for once, was right. He was a man a woman would be irresistibly drawn to, even at the cost of her innocence.
“Excuse me.” Portia smiled as she stopped before Rafe Lennox and his dark-haired companion.
“Well, hello, my dear.” Rafe grinned down at Portia, a wolfish glint to his smile that would have sent a more intelligent woman sprinting toward the nearest chaperone.
“I know this is terribly forward, but I’m afraid I am not acquainted with either of you, and I should very much like to be.” Portia’s musical voice carried across the room. She sounded so sweetly innocent, but Lydia knew better.
“You hear that, Brodie? She would like to be better acquainted with us,” Rafe said. The silent, dark-haired man next to Rafe grinned as well, and when he spoke, his Scottish accent was unmistakable. It was as though God had designed this man to make Lydia fall hopelessly in love with him.
The man named Brodie smiled at Portia in clear amusement. “Does she now? I believe we would as well, lass. What’s your name?”
“I am Portia Hunt.”
“Portia.” Brodie rolled her name off his tongue, and Lydia could see her sister almost swoon. Lydia couldn’t blame her—she was equally as affected. “My name is Brodie Kincade, and my companion here is Mr. Rafe Lennox.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you both, Mr. Lennox and Mr. Kincade.”
“How well acquainted do you wish to be, Miss Hunt?” Rafe inquired with a smile that spoke of dangerous intimacy.
Whatever Portia had planned to say was stopped when Great-Aunt Cornelia materialized next to her, snatching her away from the two gentlemen. She dragged Portia nearly a dozen feet away, creating a minor spectacle, which soon grew into a major one the moment she spoke.
“Portia Elizabeth Hunt, what on earth are you thinking?” Cornelia demanded sharply. “Eh, girl?”
Cornelia was a formidable creature, and despite her plumpness, she was a strong woman and not to be trifled with.
“I was thinking I was meeting my future bridegroom,” Portia shot back as she pulled her hand free of Cornelia’s grasp.
“You were doing no such thing!”
Rafe and Brodie watched with amusement while Portia argued with her great-aunt. Finally, Lydia found herself able to move, and she joined her sister and aunt in order to calm things down.
“Did you see your sister walk up to those young bucks and introduce herself? Mercy, I shall faint.” Despite Cornelia’s insistence that she would faint, she looked entirely unlikely to. “And where were you in all this, Lydia?”
“I . . . I’m sorry, Aunt Cornelia.”
“Humph.” Cornelia pointed an accusing finger at Portia. “I believe you’ve had quite enough for one night, young lady. It’s time you went home for the evening.”
“You never let me do anything. Father will hear about this!” Portia stormed off toward the entrance of the assembly rooms.
Cornelia shared a look with Lydia. “I’m sorry, my dear, but I’m afraid you must come home as well.”
“Wait, Mrs. Wilcox,” Lysandra said. “Would it be possible for Lydia to stay with me? I am here escorted by my brother Lawrence Russell and his wife, Zehra. They would be happy to chaperone Lydia and escort her home.” Lysandra nodded toward her elder brother, another redheaded member of the infamous Russell family, who was currently dancing with his lovely new wife. “If you truly wish to punish Portia for her behavior, just imagine how she would feel knowing her sister is still here enjoying herself.”
“I suppose . . .” Cornelia fluttered her fan as she thought it over. “Yes, all right, but I shall have to speak to them myself.” She walked over to where Lawrence and Zehra had just finished the last dance.
Lydia sighed in relief. “Thank you, Lysandra, I should not wish to be in that coach tonight listening to Portia and Aunt Cornelia bicker.”
“I agree.” Lysandra put her arm in Lydia’s, and they both trailed after Cornelia to see what the woman’s decision would be. Lydia glanced over her shoulder at the two handsome men, who hadn’t left their post against the pillar. They were not looking in her direction, nor did she expect them to. After all, she was, in comparison to Portia, utterly unremarkable.
The thought left a deep well of sadness within her, but she buried it with a cheery smile and laughter. Lydia was determined to have an enjoyable evening, now that she no longer had to watch over Portia and keep her out of trouble.
Portia Hunt drifted back into the assembly room, a light cloak draped about her shoulders. She spied her dreaded great-aunt Cornelia talking to Lawrence Russell and his beautiful new wife, who rivaled her in looks. Seeing that her great-aunt was sufficiently distracted, she caught the eye of the handsome Scotsman when his gaze swept the room in her direction. Once his eyes settled on hers, she tilted her head to one side and smiled invitingly at him. With a coquettish wink, she twirled and walked away to a more secluded part of the assembly room.
The Scotsman would come to her. All men came when she gave them that look. Sure enough, he came into the alcove off the main ballroom.
“Well now, we meet again, lass.” He smiled down at her and stepped closer.
Portia was only too happy to lure him deeper into the private space. She wanted to kiss him, to see how he compared to the others. There hadn’t been many, admittedly, but enough that Portia felt she was a good judge of kisses by now.
“Mr. Kincade,” she said in a soft voice that held a hint of girlish innocence.
Brodie placed one large palm on the wall beside her head, effectively blocking her in. “So, are we to become . . . better acquainted?”
“I believe we are, but first . . .” She tiptoed her fingers up his chest to his cravat, toying with the perfectly folded fabric.
“Aye?” Brodie leaned down. Just a few more inches and his kissable lips would be against hers. Her pulse pounded with excitement.
“First, you must propose to me.”
Brodie lifted his other hand to grasp her hip, and delicious tingles of excitement shot through her.
“Propose what?” he asked.
“Marriage, of course.” She rolled her eyes, giggling at his silly teasing.
“Marriage?” He chuckled. “Oh, lass, I’ll not be doing any such thing.”
“What?” Her gaze sharpened on him.
“I’m of no mind to marry, but I willna say no to a kiss, if you wish to give me one.”
Portia was infuriated. She slapped his cheek hard enough that his eyes widened, and his lips parted in shock.
“Well, I never,” Portia growled. “Honestly. Without marriage.” She glared up at him. “You will marry me, Mr. Kincade. Then you will have as many kisses as you wish.”
Brodie stepped back, running a palm over his cheek. “Actually, lass, I think not. Good night to you.” He turned and walked away, disappearing back into the assembly room.
Portia blinked. No man had ever said no to her before, for anything. But Brodie Kincade just did. That intrigued her. No, it excited her. A man who was not so easily won over by her charm and beauty. That was a man worth catching. But how to do it?
I shall have him compromise me, she thought. There’s no other way to it. He won’t agree, otherwise, that much is quite clear.
With a devious giggle, she pulled her hood up and returned to the foyer to wait for her dreadful great-aunt to return. Her sour mood had dissipated in the wake of her new plans. Brodie Kincade would be her husband within a week—she would bet her life on it.