Read No Man's Mistress Online

Authors: Mary Balogh

No Man's Mistress (43 page)

“It was just here,” she said, her voice suddenly dreamy, “that Oscar kissed me for the first time and asked me to marry him. So much water has passed beneath the bridge since that evening—in more ways than one.”

Wulfric did not comment. He hoped she was not about to pour out a lot of sentimental drivel about that romance and the gravity of her loss. But when she turned her head to look at him, she did so rather sharply, and she was blushing. He guessed that she had forgotten herself for a moment—and he was delighted that she had recollected herself so soon.

“Do you
love
Lindsey Hall and your other estates?” she asked him.

Only a woman—a sentimental woman—could ask such a question.

“Love
is perhaps an extravagant word to use of stone and mortar and the land, Mrs. Derrick,” he said. “I see that they are well administered. I attend to my responsibilities for all
who draw a living from my properties. I spend as much time as I can in the country.”

“And do you love your brothers and sisters?” she asked.

He raised his eyebrows.

“Love,”
he said. “It is a word used by women, Mrs. Derrick, and in my experience encompasses such a wide range of emotions that it is virtually useless in conveying meaning. Women love their husbands, their children, their lapdogs, and the newest gewgaw they have purchased. They love walks in the park and the newest novel borrowed from the subscription library and babies and sunshine and roses. I did my duty by my brothers and sisters and saw them all well and contentedly married. I write to each of them once a month. I would, I suppose, die for any one of them if such a noble and ostentatious sacrifice were ever called for. Is that love? I leave it to you to decide.”

She gazed at him for a while without speaking.

“You choose to speak of women's sensibilities with scorn,” she said then. “Yes, we feel love for all the things you mentioned and more. I would not want to live, I believe, if my life were not filled with love of almost everything and everyone that is involved in it. It is not an emotion to inspire contempt. It is an attitude to life directly opposed, perhaps, to that attitude which sees life only as a series of duties to be performed or burdens to be borne. And of course the word
love
has many shades of meaning, as do many, many of the words in our living, breathing language. But though we may speak of loving roses and of loving children, our minds and sensibilities clearly understand that the emotion is not the same at all. We feel a delighted stirring of the senses at the sight of a perfect rose. We feel a deep stirring of the heart at the sight of a child who is our own or closely connected to us by family ties. I will not be made ashamed of the tenderness I feel for my sisters and for my niece and nephews.”

He had the distinct feeling that he was being dealt a
sharp setdown. But as with many people who argued more from emotion rather than from reason, she had twisted his words. He directed one of his coolest looks at her.

“You will forgive me if I have forgotten,” he said, “but did I say or imply that you
ought
to be ashamed, Mrs. Derrick?”

Most ladies would have looked suitably chastised. Not Mrs. Derrick.

“Yes,” she said firmly. “You
did
imply it. You implied that women are shallow and pretend to love when they do not know the meaning of the word—when, indeed, there
is
no meaning to the word.”

“Ah,” he said softly, more annoyed than he normally allowed himself to be. “Then perhaps you
will
forgive me, ma'am.”

He moved back from the parapet, and they walked on, in silence now, back among trees, though there was a clear view of the lake, which they circled about in order to return to their starting point. She set a brisk pace back to the house from there.

“Well,” she said, smiling brightly at him when they stepped inside the hall, breaking the lengthy silence in which they had completed their walk, “I must hurry if I am not to be late for dinner.”

He bowed to her and let her run—yes,
run
—up the stairs and disappear from sight before making his way to his own room. He was surprised to discover when he arrived there that he had been out for well over an hour. It had not seemed so long. It
ought
to have done. He did not usually enjoy the company of anyone whom he had not chosen with care—and that included all strangers.

T
HE
D
UKE OF
B
EWCASTLE DID NOT,
C
HRISTINE WAS
relieved to find, feel obliged to escort her up to her box of
a room. Doubtless he was sagging with relief that he had survived such a tedious hour, she thought as she ran lightly up the stairs, forgetting all of Hermione's teaching about running being an ungenteel way of moving from one place to another.

She hurried along to her room. It would not take her long to dress for dinner, but she had left herself precious little time.

She could scarcely believe what she had just done. She had allowed herself to be goaded by a couple of silly girls, that was what. She had dashed out of the house after tea in order to steal some quiet time alone, she had run headlong into the Duke of Bewcastle—
ghastly
moment—and then, just when she had been about to scurry away from him, she had conceived the grand idea of winning the wager right there and then, almost before it had been made.
Just
to prove to herself that she could do it. Right from the first moment she had had no intention of dashing back to the house after the hour was over to claim her prize. She did not need the prize or the envy of her fellow-conspirators. It was just that she was at the nasty age of twenty-nine, and all the young ladies, almost without exception, had looked on her with pity and scorn as if she were positively
ancient
.

She still could not quite believe she had done it—and that he had agreed to accompany her.
And
that, even on the hill, when she had been assaulted by conscience and had given him a decent chance to escape, he had chosen to continue on the way with her.

She was enormously glad the hour was over. A more toplofty, chilling man she had never known. He had talked of Lindsey Hall and his other properties, and he had talked of his brothers and sisters and nephews and nieces without a single glimmer of emotion. And then he had spoken scathingly of love when she had asked him about it.

If the full truth were told, she would have to admit that
she did find him fascinating in a shivery sort of way. And he did have a splendid profile—and a physique that more than matched it. He ought to be cast in marble or bronze, she thought, and set atop a lofty column at the end of some avenue in the park at his principal seat so that future generations of Bedwyns could gaze at him in admiration and awe.

The Duke of Bewcastle was a handsome man and easy on the eyes.

She stopped suddenly in the middle of her small room and frowned. No, that was not his appeal. Oscar had been a handsome man—quite breathtakingly so, in fact. It was his looks that had bowled her right off her feet and right out of her senses. She had been a typically foolish girl nine years ago. Looks had been everything. One glance at him and she had been head over ears in love. Only his looks had mattered. She had been quite unawakened to any other appeal he might, or might not have had.

But she was older now. She was awakened, knowledgeable. She was a mature woman.

The Duke of Bewcastle was definitely handsome in his cold, austere way. But he had something else beyond that.

He was sexually appealing.

The very thought, verbalized in her mind, set her breasts to tightening uncomfortably and her inner passage and thighs to aching.

How very embarrassing.

And alarming.

He was a dangerous man indeed, though not perhaps in any obvious way. He had not exactly tried to have his wicked way with her out there in the woods, after all, had he? The very thought was ludicrous. He had not even tried to charm her—even more ridiculous. He had not even cracked a smile the whole time.

But even so, every cell in her body had pulsed with sexual awareness while she had walked with him.

She must have windmills in her head, she thought, giving herself a firm mental shake as she sat down before her dressing table mirror, to be feeling a sexual attraction to the Duke of Bewcastle, who could be placed bodily atop that lofty column at the end of that avenue in the park at Lind-sey Hall and passed off as a marble statue without anyone's ever knowing any different.

And then she slapped a hand over her mouth to muffle a shriek. Windmills
in
her head? She looked very much as if windmills had been busy
on
her head. Her hair was in a wild, tangled bush about her head. And her cheeks were like two shiny, rosy red apples after being exposed to the wind. Her nose was like a cherry.

Heavenly days! The man must be made of marble, all funning aside, if he had been able to look at her like this without breaking out into great guffaws of mirth.

While her cells had been merrily pulsing away with sexual attraction, his must have been cringing with distaste.

Mortified—and far too late—she grabbed her brush.

Published by
Bantam Dell
a division of
Random House, Inc.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Copyright © 2001 by Mary Balogh

Museum, Paris

Dell® is a registered trademark of Random House, Inc., and the colophon is a trademark of Random House, Inc.

Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 2001028313
eISBN: 978-0-307-48884-8

v3.0

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