A Loving Scoundrel Page 23

She gave a soft snort at his suggestion. The man was determined to be in a rotten mood and predict dire consequences for tonight’s agenda.

But reminded of what they’d done that night, she whispered back, “D’you think he’ll be there?”

Without having to ask whom she meant, he said with a shrug, “Wouldn’t matter if he is. It’s his servant that would recognize us, not him.”

Regina stopped Jeremy once more, just before they entered the Aitchison mansion. With a finger poked in his chest, she snarled, “If you don’t stop with the doom and gloom, I’ll never speak to you again.”

“Do you promise?” he asked.

She ignored that and added, “And if youare going in there with us, then do your part and act appropriately smitten, or this entire farce will be pointless. Now get hold of yourself, Jeremy. The performance is about to begin.”

The moment was at hand and Danny was finally hit with a large dose of apprehension. Regina had drilled her with a long list of dos and don’ts while they were working on her gown. She was afraid she was going to forget every one of them now. And then she was simply struck dumb by the sight of a high-fashion ball in full swing. The lights, the colors, the most exquisite ball gowns twirling about the huge room. She’d never seen anything like it in her life.

Her mouth must have dropped open, because Jeremy hissed in her ear, “Stop looking like you’ve never seen anything like this. You are supposedly gentry tonight and accustomed to such entertainments.”

“Yes, but I ’ave”—she paused to cough, then continued—

“havedone very little socializing,hav ing only just finished my schooling.”

“Reggie feed you that line?”

She blushed. “Yes, and a lot more.”

“Why?” he groaned. “You aren’t supposed to be talking at all.”

Danny shrugged. “I suppose she figured I’d make a mistake or two.”

“Or three or four. This wassuch a bad idea. I’ve simply lost my mind, no other answer for my agreeing to this. And it’s your fault, you know.”

She swung around, wondering how the devil he could blame any of this on her. “How’s that, mate?”

“I want you so much, I simply can’t think at all clearly anymore.”

Danny’s mouth dropped open again, to the accompaniment of a vivid blush. Her knees had gone weak, giddiness swirled in her stomach, and an image of them twirling about the dance floor without a stitch of clothing on popped into her mind….

Whydid he have to say things like that, that got her all mushy inside? And now, of all times, when she was on display to half the ton?

Regina moved closer to whisper, “Don’t upset her now, Jeremy. Let her have her moment of glory. She’s quite brought the house down.”

Danny swung back around. Sure enough, the music was still playing, but the dancers had all halted, every single one of them staring her way. Her blush deepened. So did Jeremy’s groan.

“I warned you she’d cause a sensation,” he told his cousin in disapproval.

“And I’m pleased you were right. If you haven’t noticed, Emilyis here, and at this precise moment she’s looking daggers at our Danny.”

“Our Danny? When did she get to beour Danny?”

“I take credit when it’s due.You might have found her, butI helped to make her shine, dear boy. Now stop looking like you’re annoyed with her. You’re supposed to be in love. Do your part. Or do I need to instruct you how it’s done?”

He rolled his eyes at her, but he did start grinning. And he warned Danny, “We’re about to be overwhelmed. Remember, no talking if you can help it. ‘Yes,’ ‘No,’ ‘Nice to meet you,’ ‘Goodbye.’ That should do you fine. Do a lot of head nodding, goes a long way in a conversation.”

He wasn’t joking about being overwhelmed. It had only taken two people whose curiosity simply wouldn’t allow them to wait before approaching them, then twenty more followed suit right behind them. Regina Eden proved once again how amazing she was. She fielded all the questions, made the statement about the lost voice and sore ankle as she’d planned to, and kept Danny from having to do any more than smile and extend her hand in greetings, at least for the most part. A few people were persistent and managed to get a word or two out of her, but it seemed more like a competition on their part, so they could tell their friends, “Well, she spoke tome!”

She didn’t try to keep track of any of the names she was hearing in the introductions, didn’t expect to see any of these people ever again. She was playing the part of a young miss fresh out of the schoolroom who just happened to have caught Jeremy Malory’s eye and was making him seriously consider giving up his bachelorhood. She was Danielle Langton, with repeated mentions that she was distantly related to Kelsey’s family.

Of coursethat became a source of conversation as it was remembered that Kelsey came from The Tragedy. Apparently her mother had shot her father over his gambling debts, then killed herself, both being an accident. She hadn’t meant to shoot him or fall out the window afterward, but then that’s why it had been termed The Tragedy.

Nothing was stated as fact, but the ton ended up assuming Danny was a Langton from Kelsey’s side of the family, assuming she was engaged to Jeremy already, assuming she belonged among them. That several older gentlemen swore she looked familiar to them, Regina explained as a phenomena known as “if they hear it enough times, they believe it and begin to think they always knew it.”

Jeremy had also relaxed and stopped complaining, after watching how smoothly Regina handled all the questions. One handsome young man came back though and must have missed the part about the sore ankle. Danny had been introduced to him she was sure, but she couldn’t remember his name.

He flashed her an engaging grin. “I intend to shoot m’self if you won’t allow me the first dance, Lady Danielle.”

Jeremy didn’t give her a chance to reply to such an outlandish statement. “You won’t have to do that, Fawler,” he told the fellow. “I’ll be happy to oblige in that regard. She won’t be dancing with anyone but me. Now move along.”

The expression on Jeremy’s face was so unnerving, the fellow didn’t say another word; he simply backed off rather quickly.

Even after the last person moved on and she was finally standing there alone with Jeremy, the room was still buzzing about her. She’d played her part well, though, and was feeling mighty triumphant about it.

“Would you like to try dancing?” he asked her when they had a few minutes with no one else nearby.

“And muck up a good performance?”

“I didn’t spend an hour twirling you about Reggie’s parlor for you not to at least try it while you’re here. If you trip a time or two, your sore ankle will be blamed. You know there’s not much to it. You just need to follow my lead again.”

She did want to try. It looked like such fun. So she nodded and let him lead her out to the dance floor. And for a short while, she forgot about where she was and all the people watching her.

His grip was firm, his palm against hers warm, the skin slightly rough. Was the rest of his skin like that, too? she wondered. Her hands almost itched to find out. And that image was back in her mind, of the two of them twirling around the dance floor, her legs wrapped tightly around him, both of them na**d, the music filling her, him filling her, oh, God…

“What’s wrong?” Jeremy questioned, hearing her gasp.

“Nothing,” Danny lied, and desperate to get her mind off lovemaking, she asked, “That chap wasn’t serious, was he, about shooting himself?”

“Course not. I’m sure he tells all the young misses that. Flattery of that degree is bound to work for him occasionally. I prefer to stick to the truth, so what I would have said would have been, if you don’t make love with me soon, I’m going to shoot m’self.”

She blinked at him, then burst out laughing. “You call that the truth?”

“Well, stretched a little, but the sentiment was apt. Iam getting desperate, dear girl.”

She caught her breath. It was there in his eyes, not so much desperation, but passion hot enough to burn. She glanced away, was desperate herself to bank those fires of his before she succumbed to them.

To get him thinking along other lines she asked, “Who taught you to dance?”

“My father’s first mate.”

She looked back at him in amazement. “He had a woman for a first mate?”

“No, his nickname might have been Connie, but Conrad Sharpe is a six-foot-tall, red-haired Scot, and if you could have seen him pretending to be a female for an hour to teach me how to lead in a dance, you would have laughed your arse off.”

She chuckled. “I can imagine.”

“But I know he didn’t have as much fun teaching me as I had teaching you.”

She blushed. “Behave, Jeremy.”

“Never!” he whispered in her ear.

He continued to tease her and make her laugh. He was such a good dancer, and he was so handsome tonight—cor, he was always handsome—but tonight in his black, fancy togs, exceptionally so. He made her feel special, dancing with him, made her feel as if she really did belong there. She couldn’t remember when she’d had such a good time. And she couldn’t deny it anymore. Jeremy might be pretending tonight to be in love with her, but she was beginning to suspect that she wasn’t pretending on her part at all.

Chapter 29

JEREMY MIGHT HAVE RELAXEDenough to do his part as the evening progressed, but he still wasn’t liking it. The only thing palatable about the evening was that Danny seemed to be having such a good time. He didn’t begrudge her that at all. He simply hated sharing her.

She was his was the way he saw it, and every time another man got near her he felt the most primitive urge to protect what belonged to him. Which was insane. She wasn’t his a’tall, she was his maid! He’dlike for her to be more than that, but she wasn’t cooperating in the least.

He went to fetch Regina and Danny some champagne. They’d had to twist his arm. He hadnot wanted to leave Danny alone for even a minute. Unfortunately, his glance passed over Emily on the way and he noticed her casting sad eyes at him. Good God, was she going to play the wounded lover now? And still insist he’d bedded her when he hadn’t?

“I do believe you are quite ready for bedlam,” a voice he knew all too well said behind him.

Jeremy cringed. His father. He hadn’t noticed James’s arrival, hadn’t noticed much of anything all evening other than Danny.

“I know.”

“What the devil could you have been thinking, to bring her here?”

“It wasn’t my idea. Think I wanted to share her with the ton and have every randy buck around ogling her? Not bloody likely.”

“Who then? Or do I even need to ask?”

“You don’t. Reggie, of course.”

“My dear niece has come up with some very odd manipulations during the course of her interfering-in-every-little-thing career, but I can’t fathom the reason for this one.”

“Pro’bly because only a woman would think of it. She figured the only way to get Emily to back off was to show her that I was interested in someone else, and she couldn’t think of anyone who could outshine Emily other than—”

“I get the idea, but wouldn’t a ‘Get lost, wench’ have sufficed for this troublesome young lady?”

“Reggie didn’t think so, didn’t think anything would make Emily find a new target. But this farce is more for the gossip mills, since Emily has been spreading the tale now that I’ve bedded her.”

“Bloody hell!”

“Exactly. But there will be an opposite view now. After all, why would I pursue a mere daisy when I’ve been courting a rare white rose.”

“Courting?” James choked.

“Just for effect,” Jeremy assured him. “And we won’t have to repeat this performance. Danny has made such a smashing impression, the ton will be talking about nothing else for weeks. Now what areyou doing here? I could have sworn you said you had your excuses already prepared to escape being dragged along to these things?”

“Changed my mind. Wanted to have a look at this conniving chit who is trying to maneuver you to the altar. By the by, which one is she?”

Jeremy looked to where he’d last seen Emily. She wasn’t there. He then glanced back to see that his stepmother, George, had Regina’s attention for the moment, which left Danny unobserved by either of them, and alarm bells went off when he saw who’d taken advantage of that.

“Good God, Emily is confronting Danny.”

James raised a brow as he looked in the same direction. “This should prove interesting. Don’t think I’ve ever watched two women throwing punches, and considering where your Danny comes from, that’s a distinct possibility.”

Danny’s hackles rose when the lady pinched her arm to gain her attention. She was beautiful. Blond hair arranged elaborately in a perfect coiffure, a stunning white ball gown, which seemed to be the favored color for young debutantes, this one trimmed in powder blue to match the lady’s azure eyes. Those eyes were narrowed in a baleful scowl though. In fact, so much hate was pouring out of them, Danny was stunned for a moment.

“I don’t know who you are, but if you think you’re going to steal him from me, you are sadly mistaken,” the young woman told her.

It clicked then, who the lady was. Regina should really have pointed her out to give Danny some warning. Not that she could have avoided this, when she hadn’t noticed the lady approaching her.

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