Some hours earlier that day, shortly after supper
“Well, Taran, you found me a perfect woman, I’ll grant you that.” Robert, Comte de Rocheforte, better known as “Robin” amongst his intimates, lifted his glass in a mock salute before tossing back the contents.
He’d absented himself from yet another dinner. Absented? Fled, pure and simple. Not that anyone cared except Oakley, and that only because it reflected poorly on the family. She certainly wouldn’t object to the absence of a known libertine. He narrowed his eyes against the embers glowing in the library hearth. “Damn you to hell, Taran,” he muttered.
“Oh! That’s a very, very bad word, isn’t it?”
Robin swung around. Marilla Chisholm stood artfully arranged in the doorway, leaning against the jamb in such a way that her breasts jutted out like the prow of a ship. Three of her little fingers covered the “o” formed by her lips.
“My pardon, Miss Chisholm,” Robin said. “I did not realize I had company.”
“Oh!” Marilla repeated, shoving off the doorjamb and mincing toward him. “You mean...we are alone?”
She stopped within easy hand’s reach and tipped her head up, blinking rapidly. She put him in mind of a myopic spaniel, making up in eagerness what she lacked in discernment.
“Hardly alone,” Robin assured her. “Not what with all of Taran’s retainers lurking about, eavesdropping. Shouldn’t be surprised to find some old man huddled under the cushions over there.” He pointed at the library’s lumpy old sofa standing before the hearth, its back turned toward them.
Marilla gave the sofa a suspicious glance before smiling uncertainly.
“Besides,” Robin went on, “the library door is wide open. I daresay your reputation is safe. I’m sure your sister is looking for you.”
“Oh, no, she took off in a snit. You aren’t offended by my concern, are you?” Marilla asked, sidling closer. “A lady is nothing without her reputation. Take my sister...” She stopped suddenly, her hand once more flying to cover her mouth, feigning shock at her near indiscretion.
“Alas, tempting as that is, I must decline,” Robin said, thinking of how his cousin had spent the morning wolfishly eying Marilla’s sister over the breakfast table.
“Oh.” Marilla frowned, her hand falling away. “Oh! That was a very naughty thing to say, wasn’t it?”
“Again, my pardon.”
Marilla tapped his chest playfully, then let the tap become a caress, pleating his shirt’s placket between her fingers. “But then, you are a very, very naughty man, aren’t you?” Her fingers snuck beneath his buttons to find bare flesh beneath.
The poor thing was so obvious it was almost endearing. Almost. Clearly Marilla must be doubting her ability to Byron to the altar. And she was hedging her bets. He supposed he ought to be flattered she even considered him a possible matrimonial candidate.
“My dear Miss Chisholm,” he said, clasping her busy hand and pulling it away from his person, “ ‘naughty’ though I undoubtedly am, I am not so far gone to propriety that I would take advantage of you or in any manner whatsoever importune you.” He smiled to take the sting out of his next words. “Let alone compromise you.”
She had been in the process of working her free hand back beneath his shirt but now she froze, pouting. “You wouldn’t?”
Trying to maintain a grave countenance, he shook his head.
“Why not?” she burst out, her expression clouding with vexation.
“Because then I would be obliged to wed you.”
“Well, yes. Of course,” she said, rolling her eyes. “That’s how this sort of thing works. What of it?”
Good God, had she an ounce of intelligence the girl would be terrifying. “You don’t want to marry me.”
“Well, not initially,” she admitted. “You weren’t my first choice. You haven’t any money and you aren’t even a real count, being only a French comte - and I must say I think it most shoddy that you go about letting decent people labor under the assumption that you are a real count, but I shall let that pass.”
“I appreciate your forbearance.”
She sniffed. “What I was going to say was, how could you be anyone’s first choice, with a real duke and a real earl in residence?”
“But of course, I couldn’t be.”
A sly look came into her round blue eyes. “But then I realized how much I would like being chatelaine of my very own castle, especially one I could redecorate to my very own liking. So...I have the money; you have the castle. And we are in Scotland. All we are in want of is a pair of witnesses.”
He took it back. Even without intelligence, she was terrifying.
“What can I possibly say? You honor me unduly.” And in truth, she did. He really ought to consider what was being offered. She was a better match than any to which he had the right to aspire. But then, he remembered with heartfelt relief, he had no aspirations. “Am I to take it neither Bretton nor Byron have come up to scratch?”
She eyed him, clearly considering whether or not to lie, but apparently decided that either he would not be gulled or it wasn’t worth the effort. “Yes. I mean no. Not yet.”
By God, he should marry her if only because such indiscriminate ambition surely deserved to be rewarded. Except... except... Cecily. What a fool he was. What a ridiculous, pathetic creature. He burst out laughing.
She scowled. “Are you laughing at me?”
“No. I am laughing at myself. Though I am flattered by your kind interest, I am afraid I cannot make you the sort of offer you want.”
At this, she drew back, and for a moment, Robin was afraid he was about to be slapped. It had happened a few times before under similar circumstances, so he recognized the signs: her beautiful face grew thunderous; her brows snapped together; her lower lip thrust out. But then, abruptly, the anger vanished and she shrugged. She edged closer, her hands once more dancing up his chest. “How do you know?” she purred. “I may be more open to suggestions than you expect.”
And with that, she lifted herself up on her tiptoes and planted a kiss full on his lips.
She took Robin so by surprise that for a moment he did not react. Part of him was appalled at her boldness, a greater part of him was amused at his being appalled by her boldness, but the greatest part of all felt only a sort of reluctant sympathy for her. And so, because at heart Robin had a kind nature, he carefully, with chastely closed lips, returned her kiss and then, before she could deepen it, set her gently aside. “And that, my dear, is that.”
“But ... but why?”
“Because I have never fancied myself a consolation prize,” he said, still gentle.
“Oh... ballocks!” Marilla said and with a huff of annoyance, turned and stomped angrily out of the library.
Casually, Robin retrieved the glass of port he’d set down when she’d entered. He refilled, saying as he did so, “You can get up off the floor now, uncle.”
“Nae, I canna,” came a querulous reply from the vicinity of the sofa. “I be felled by astonishment. Ye had an heiress right there in your arms and ye turned her aside. I may die of pure horror.”
“Don’t make promises you have no intention of keeping.”
Taran’s grizzled head popped up over the back of the sofa behind which he’d thrown himself when Marilla had appeared. “Are ye out of yer bleedin’ mind, lad? She’s got a fortune and she’s prettiest one amongst the lot of them and she’s hot-blooded. True, she’s a hellion but a strong man could tame her. And, most important of all, she wants you. Ye best take what’s freely offered.”
“She doesn’t want me; she wants a castle.”
“Same thing.” With a click and rattle of knee joints, Taran hauled himself upright. “Besides, ye got no choices left.”
“Really?” Robin drawled. “How is that?”
“Well, the duke is offered for Catriona Burns and Oakley has himself all in a lather over Fiona Chisholm, and I know you ain’t man enough to encroach on your cousin’s claim.”
“And here I’d thought of it as being honorable all these years,” Robin murmured.
“Da ye no have an ounce of Scottish blood in yer veins? A Ferguson takes what he wants no matter what the law says.”
“Ah,” Robin said, nodding sagely. “Suddenly all the abrupt termini on the family tree make sense. They were decorating another tree entirely. The Tyburn tree.”
“Ach,” Taran spat in disgust.
“But you said I have no other choice,” Robin said, returning to the prior subject. “What of Lady Cecily?” He was gratified by how indifferent he sounded.
“No hope there. Not any more,” Taran snapped.
“And why is that?”
“Because no woman with an ounce of pride would have ye after witnessing Marilla rubbing all over ye like a tabby in heat.”
Robin checked. “What do you mean?”
“Lady Cecily was out in the hall just now. She was aboot to come in but then she saw the two of ye locked together at the lips. Stopped her dead in her tracks, it did. Ah, well. No great loss if ye ask me. In spite of her great dower.”
“Taran-” Robin’s voice held a note of warning few had ever heard.
“Oh, she be pretty enough,” Taran admitted unfazed, “but prissy. She jerked back like the pair of you were naked and on the floor.”
Robin took a breath and squared his shoulders. What matter? As Marilla had so succinctly pointed out, he was a very, very bad man and if Lady Cecily hadn’t known it before, she did now.
Very calmly, very carefully, he lifted his drink and in one long, slow draught drained the glass.