When Lady Eleanor Gibbs cracked open a random bedchamber door at the mansion on Grosvenor Square and saw a tattoo on the partially exposed lower back of the man kissing her stepsister, her entire world tilted.
Heroes don’t exist, after all, was her first outrageous thought.
From out in the corridor, she shut the bedchamber door so softly, she was sure neither clandestine lover inside heard the muffled click. Everything in her wanted to lean on that door and slump down its polished mahogany surface until she was sitting on the floor. She wanted to brood. To cry. To raise her fist and shout at the universe which she so obviously didn’t comprehend.
Instead, she threw her shoulders back and had her second thought, this one even more outrageous: I’ve wasted the past five years pining after Lord Tumbridge?
The scoundrel earl?
She despised the man.
And look at what he was doing now. Ruining something yet again–a wedding, for goodness’ sake. A wedding that would solve everything she’d worried about for her stepsister Clare, who’d become as self-important and superior as her father, Lord Pritchard, and Eleanor’s own mother.
Once you make a decision, don’t be halfhearted about it, Papa–the late Lord Kersey–had told her long ago when she’d been afraid to cross the bubbling creek at their country property to meet him on the other side. She’d been eight, barefooted, nervous, and shy.
Now she remembered that creek when she watched her own hand grasp the doorknob and throw open the door. “Stop,” she ordered the kissing couple in a voice that even she thought carried some heft.
They pulled apart and stared at her, the Earl of Tumbridge lofting a brow in recognition.
Oh, yes, it is I, she told him with her eyes. Probably the only woman in the world who’s immune to your charms.
Or so she’d thought. Until now, she’d never made the connection between the wastrel lord and the mysterious tattooed man who’d held her in thrall all these years. But she saw in the glow of the candelabra that Lord Tumbridge had the same strong chin and bold gaze.
The same insouciance.
And then she registered the blue, narrowed eyes of her stepsister Lady Clare Donovan, the wretched bride-to-be.
“Go away, Eleanor,” Clare said with feeling.
Which was highly unusual. Eleanor didn’t think Clare had feelings anymore.
“Shut the door,” the earl said next, and removed his hands from Clare’s curvaceous backside.
“You two should be ashamed of yourselves.” Eleanor heard the tremble in her voice. She wasn’t used to standing up to genuine flesh-and-blood people. She preferred her characters do that for her in her stories.
“Shut the door, Lady Eleanor,” the earl said in weary tones, and stood back from Clare. “Please.”
Eleanor had assumed—wrongly–that her tattooed hero would show an alert interest in the world, not a jaded resignation.
“You always manage to look and sound bored,” she said thickly, recalling the one, painful waltz she’d shared with him in which she’d somehow found his arms around her exciting, despite their differences. “It’s vastly rude, especially when you’re here wreaking havoc with one of the guests of honor at the ball–who happens to be a member of my own family.” She turned to Clare. “What will Mama and Lord Pritchard think?”
“Please stop talking, Eleanor,” Clare said in warm, lush tones—
To the earl.
“Look at me, Clare.” Beneath her simple ivory tulle bodice, Eleanor’s heart pounded so hard, she almost couldn’t breathe.
Reluctantly, her stepsister’s head swiveled to meet her gaze. “What is it?”
“You shouldn’t kiss a man who’s clearly not your fiancé.” Stating the obvious brought Eleanor no satisfaction.
Nor did it Clare. She wore a gorgeous pout.
“Fine.” Lord Tumbridge left Clare and strode past Eleanor, leaving heat in his wake. “I’ll shut the door.”
When he pulled the massive wooden barrier closed, at once the strains of the waltz in the ballroom became distant and the room, cozy. Too cozy. Eleanor blushed to think what she’d interrupted.
“It’s none of your business what we’re doing in here.” Clare apparently read her mind. “Now leave.”
Eleanor pointed to the closed door. “You leave, both of you. Separately, of course, before Viscount Henly sees you.” The thought of Clare’s fiancé almost brought tears to her eyes. “How could you, Clare? He’s so sweet. He loves you.”
Clare swished over to her in her elegant pink satin, her patrician nose an inch from Eleanor’s own snub one. “If you don’t leave right now,” she whispered in menacing tones, “I’m going to tell the Palmers to rescind your invitation to their house party.”
“So?” Eleanor tilted her chin up, but inside she was unnerved. The Palmers were like her—bookish, in love with writing, and perfectly content to let her sit by their fishing pond and scribble all day if she’d like, rather than flirt and ride and make small talk. She adored them, and seeing them would be the highlight of her summer. She shrugged. “I like London in early summer. I’ll be perfectly content here.”
“That’s so like you.” Her stepsister shook her head. “Why do you even care about the viscount? Do you love him? Perhaps you’re jealous.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.” Eleanor sighed. “He’s kind, and this is your first engagement ball. He’s out there right now, beaming, he’s so proud to become your husband. And you—”
She gulped, unable to finish the sentence.
Clare crossed her arms over her voluptuous bosom. “It’s your own fault for barging in.”
“I was only looking for a place to retreat for a moment.” She had a new story idea, and she wanted to find a quill and paper to write it down.
But the details of that story escaped her when she peeked at the earl and saw him sitting in an armchair facing their direction. While she and Clare had been talking, he’d lit a cheroot from a lamp and was puffing away, his smoky gray eyes on hers.
“How can you simply sit there and act so uncaring?” Eleanor demanded to know.
He shrugged. “If I’m going to be trapped in here—”
“No one trapped you,” she dared reply. “I seem to remember asking you both to leave separately.”
“I suppose you did.” He blew out a jet of smoke. “But the best idea is for you two to leave together. I’ll stay in here a few minutes more, and then I’ll slip out the front door. No one will be the wiser.”
“Please. You can’t leave the ball,” Clare begged him.
Eleanor couldn’t believe it.
“You’ve been in here too long already,” the earl told Clare. “You should go.”
“Not with her.” Clare lifted a disdainful shoulder at Eleanor.
Which hurt, of course. There’d been a time when they’d been friends. But Eleanor merely folded her arms. “I can’t go first. Because then you two would be in here together again. Alone.” She hoped she came across as stubborn as Clare could be.
“All right.” Clare rolled her eyes, and Eleanor couldn’t help but be elated at her surrender. “I’ll go first. And then, Eleanor”—she gazed at her with intense pique—“you follow one minute later. No more and no less. I don’t want you to catch up with me.”
“Very well.” Eleanor didn’t want to walk with her, either.
“And I also don’t want you to linger here,” Clare added.
“Why?” Eleanor was rapidly getting the headache.
Clare smoothed down her bodice. “I don’t trust you with the earl.”
“Me?” Eleanor heard a chuckle from the chair, and she turned to look at Lord Tumbridge, feeling absurdly insulted. “See?” She sent him a cool stare. “Even he thinks you’re mad.”
“You are being a tad possessive, Clare,” the earl murmured–as if he had any sort of permission to address her in a familiar fashion.
Eleanor bristled while her blonde beauty of a stepsister spun around to face Lord Tumbridge. “I don’t for a minute think you and she would suit that way—Elly’s as prudish as they come–but if anyone discovered you together alone, you’d have to marry her.”
“You’re right,” Eleanor said with a wince. “Hurry and leave, Clare. Exactly sixty seconds later, I’ll follow behind.” She paused. “Make that fifty seconds.”
“All right.” Clare sulked, but when she looked back at Lord Tumbridge from the door, her expression softened. “Soon,” she whispered. “I’ll look for a note from you.”
He stood. “Too busy for that, I’m afraid.”
The blackguard, Eleanor thought, and tried not to note how manly and handsome he appeared in his evening dress.
“Perhaps I’ll see you at the Morton masquerade,” he concluded.
Clare, the foolish child, giggled. “I’ll have to send you a note to let you know what costume I’m wearing.”
A fresh surge of fury on Viscount Henly’s behalf made Eleanor bold. “You two are shameless.”
“And you’re not?” Clare said. “I heard about what you did with Baron Easley.”
Eleanor let out a soft gasp. “Did with him? But I don’t even know Baron Easley.”
She dreaded to think that Lord Tumbridge might be imagining her and the baron together in a wild seduction scene similar to his and Clare’s. She tossed him a glance. Heavens, he was imagining her and the baron—either that, or enjoying her discomfiture. One side of his mouth was tipped up, and there was an enigmatic gleam in his eye that sent her heart racing–with indignation, of course.
“Clare, you wouldn’t go that far,” Eleanor persuaded her. “Surely not.”
For a split second, her stepsister’s eyes clouded, but then she tapped Eleanor’s chest with a sharp-nailed finger. “I’ve already got all sorts of deliciously bawdy stories invented in my head about you and the baron. I suggest you not say a word about what you saw today if you don’t want rumors about you two lovebirds spread about. Lord Andrew definitely won’t come up to scratch then.”
Oh, dear. Clare was full of herself–possibly too far gone—and her kissing session with the earl hadn’t helped matters.
Eleanor opened her mouth to tell her stepsister that she wasn’t sure she even wanted to marry Lord Andrew–he was scholarly, yes, but he had a rude habit of finishing her sentences for her and acting like a big baby when he didn’t get his tea served with exactly two scant spoons of sugar–but Clare shut the door before she could speak, leaving Eleanor and the earl alone.
“Forty-eight seconds.” He appeared far less bored with Clare gone.
Eleanor’s heart gave a lurch of recognition: she could see the merest glimpse of the hero in his eyes, sense the supple energy of the hero in the way he flung out his arm to tap the cheroot into a small porcelain dish on a nearby shelf.
But, no, she reminded herself. A hero he was not. Here he’d been ravishing her stepsister not five minutes before.
“I can’t believe you are he.” She began to pace.
She stopped. “The masked man who saved Clare and me and the Sherwood siblings five years ago from a pack of robbers.”
He rubbed his jaw. “What makes you think that?”
“Please. There’s a distinctive tattoo on the small of your back.” Your very tanned, lean back, she couldn’t help thinking. “Clare had her fingers caught up in your shirt, and I saw, sirrah. I saw. So don’t try to pretend you’re not he.” She stared at him, still incredulous. “I had thought him an angel rescuer. But you, my lord, are the devil incarnate. I feel tricked on a cosmic scale.”
“Twenty-five seconds,” he said.
She gave an exasperated sigh. “Is that all you have to say for yourself after what you’ve done today? Which is really only the culmination of several grievances I’ve catalogued against you, the primary one being your supreme arrogance.”
He rose quickly and silently to his feet and placed his hands on her shoulders.
At his touch, Eleanor’s heart began to thump even harder.
His gaze was on the door. “Get behind the drapes.” His tone was soft, commanding. “Someone’s coming.”
“No, you.” She backed away from him. “I’ll pretend I’m here alone if someone comes in.”
“Too late.” He angled his head at the smoking stick in the dish.
“Dash it all.” She scurried behind the royal blue velvet curtain and held her breath.
The door swung open a second later. She bit her lip and prayed no one could see her slippers or the outline of her form.
“Oh, hello, Tumbridge.” It was Lord Andrew. “Have you seen Lady Eleanor Gibbs? Someone said she was walking down this corridor some minutes ago. I wanted to escort her into supper.”
“No, I’m afraid not,” said the earl. She could tell he’d seated himself in the same armchair again. “Perhaps she’s gone back already.”
“All right, then.” Lord Andrew didn’t sound a bit frustrated. He never exhibited any unpleasant feelings–unless his tea was all wrong, of course. But other than that, he never did.
Eleanor was anxious to hear the closing of the door next. But instead, she heard the sound of a body plopping into a chair.
“So what brings you here alone?” Andrew asked the earl in a friendly manner.
Eleanor restrained a sigh.
“I needed to get away from the damned noise,” said Lord Tumbridge. “Care for a smoke?”
“Thanks, don’t mind if I do.”
In her head, Eleanor cursed a blue streak, almost all her annoyance directed at Lord Tumbridge for luring Lord Andrew to stay. A tad of it went to Lord Andrew, as well. He was all too easily abandoning his mission to find her.
A few moments of silence passed. Eleanor blinked into the fuzzy velvet.
“You’re looking less than your usual pristine self, Tumbridge,” said Lord Andrew. “Your cravat’s not in top form, and your hair—”
“Is always a bit of a mess,” the earl said in a testy manner. “Are you taking my mother’s place tonight?”
Lord Andrew gave a nervous chuckle. “Sorry. It’s just that I saw a comely maid down the corridor. I thought perhaps you and she had bumped into each other, if you comprehend my meaning.”
Ugh. Eleanor’s whole body began to sweat in her velvet cocoon. She’d long thought her studious beau craved being one of the lads, but she’d never had evidence of it until now.
“I’d like to bump into her myself,” Lord Andrew added hopefully.
Oh, you poor sod. It took everything in Eleanor not to throw off the curtain and tell him he’d never carry off the brute male act and to stop trying.
The earl responded to his unexpected smoking companion’s attempt at bonding with a beat of stony silence, then said, “Let’s discuss a more banal topic—marriage.” Eleanor seethed. Of course, Tumbridge would think marriage banal. He lived for trifling pursuits. “Are you to offer for Lady Eleanor? Rumor has it you might.”
She could barely restrain a yelp of outrage.
There was another pause.
“I think so,” Lord Andrew replied without a lot of conviction.
Hot, red humiliation filled Eleanor from head to toe.
“She’s a lovely girl,” he went on, “and she’ll make an excellent mother.”
“Admirable qualities in a future wife,” murmured Lord Tumbridge.
“Indeed,” replied Lord Andrew.
Eleanor decided in that moment that lukewarm was a most unpleasant temperature–in soup and in compliments.
“Of course,” Lord Andrew went on, “her stepfather is anxious to get her off his hands—now that he’s got his own daughter well-situated. Lady Clare’s welfare was his priority, as it should be.”
That addendum to his reasoning made Eleanor feel even more…beloved.
The smoking, apparently, went on unabated. And suddenly, she had the horrible feeling she was about to sneeze.
“I would’ve offered for her stepsister myself,” Lord Andrew said into the silence. “Her dowry’s bigger. And so is her bosom. But I was too late.”
Men, thought Eleanor, and closed her eyes tight. The urge to sneeze left her. All that was left in its place was weary disappointment.
She heard someone stand.
“Yes, it’s much too late to offer for the stepsister.” It was the earl, and he was moving now, toward the door. “But I believe you’ve made the better choice.”
Something in Eleanor brightened at that.
“Oh?” Andrew rose, as well, his shoes squeaking across the floor.
He was the squeaking sort.
“Yes, I think so,” said the earl, opening the door. “Although I somehow doubt she’ll have you.”
She felt a reluctant gratitude.
The squeaking paused. “Why do you say that?”
“Just a hunch. If you want her, you’d best step up your efforts. Perhaps a stolen kiss wouldn’t be untoward. Or romantic words. Quote from Shelley. Or even Shakespeare. One of his tragedies, so she recognizes your sensitivity.”
Eleanor’s hands slowly curled into fists.
“Right.” Andrew sounded unsure. “Thanks for the advice.”
“You’re welcome,” Lord Tumbridge said in a pleasant enough voice.
Damn him, thought Eleanor, and sucked in a shaky breath as best she could in the stifling curtain. She never in a million years thought she’d want to damn the man with the secret tattoo. Never. She’d only wanted to be in the same room with him. To thank him. To admire him. To bask in his bravery.
She spat a piece of velvety fuzz from her mouth. Yet here she was, wishing the man of her dreams to perdition.