To Trust a Rogue (The Heart of a Duke Book 8)(5)

By: Christi Caldwell

Marcus turned the corridor and collided with a voluptuous figure. The young lady stumbled back on a gasp and that abrupt movement sent several midnight curls spilling over her shoulder. He shot his hands out and steadied her. “Lady Marianne,” he said politely. The lady whose Come Out had been delayed by the death of first her father and then her mother had taken Society by storm and for very obvious reasons. “Forgive me.” She possessed a dark, wickedly suggestive smile that set her apart from the other debutantes.

“Lord Wessex.” Lady Marianne spoke in beguiling tones better reserved for skilled courtesans and not just out on the market debutantes. She collected those two loose tresses and toyed with them. “I could forgive you anything.”

Unbidden, he dropped his gaze lower, lower to the generous cream white mounds spilling over the top of her dress. Marcus swallowed hard. No respectable miss had a place wearing such a gown. And no respectable gentleman had a place studying her so. Yet, this woman who exuded sexuality and tempted with her lips and eyes, bore no traces to the long-ago innocent who’d betrayed him.

He hardened his heart and appreciated Lady Marianne with renewed interest; for with her seductive offer and veiled words, she was still more sincere than the last lady he’d ever trusted. Marcus picked his gaze up.

By the narrowing of her cat-like eyes and her suggestive smile, Lady Marianne thrilled at his notice.

“If you’ll excuse me.” He dropped a bow and made to leave.

“Lord Wessex,” she called after him in sultry, inviting tones that brought him slowly around. The lady fingered the trim of her bodice. He gulped. “I have heard splendorous things of your secret garden and would very much welcome a tour about the grounds with you.”

He’d not met another lady in a garden after Eleanor. Nor did he intend to. The memories of her were too potent in those floral havens. “Perhaps another time,” he managed, his voice garbled. Spinning on his heel, he continued his retreat. As he entered the foyer, he shot a glance back to see if the determined seductress followed.

His butler, Williston, strode to meet him. “Your mount is readied.” The ghost of a smile played on his wrinkled cheeks, indicating that word had, no doubt, traveled about the viscountess’ impending visitors.

“I am doubling your wages, Williston,” he muttered.

A footman rushed over with Marcus’ hat and cloak. With murmured thanks, Marcus jammed the black Aylesbury hat atop his head. “Good man, Williston,” he said, shooting a glance over his shoulder as he shrugged into his cloak. No doubt, the ladies lined up by his determined mother would be arriving…

“Any moment, Lady Elliot is to arrive.” Williston paused and gave him a pointed look. “With her daughter, my lord.”

Marcus inclined his head. The man was worth more than all the king’s staff at the Home Office, in his ability to ferret out information. “Good day, Williston.”

A twinkle glinted in the older servant’s eyes. “The same to you, my lord.” He sketched a bow and then walked to the door with an ease possessed of a butler thirty years younger and pulled it open.

Hurrying outside, Marcus bound down the steps. When presented with one’s pestering mama, a gentleman had little choice but to retreat.

At one time, he’d been unable to glimpse the neighboring ridiculously pink façade of the townhouse adjoining his own. He accepted the reins from a waiting groom and then effortlessly mounted his horse. Somewhere along the way, on his path to becoming a rogue, that pink façade had tortured him less and less, so that all the old hurts and regrets and fury had faded enough that he could move through life with a practiced grin and not as the heartbroken, shattered fool he’d been in the immediate aftermath of Eleanor’s parting. Marcus nudged his mount, Honor, onward through the crowded cobbled streets of London.

How easy it would have been to let her betrayal destroy him. Though he would never again be the trusting man of his youth, he’d carved a new existence for himself without Eleanor in it. As Marcus rode, he lifted his head in greeting to passersby. Aside from his mother and sister, he took care to not love, to trust few, and to always be the blithe charmer Society saw him as. Life was safer that way.