Propped upon a mountain of satin pillows amid rumpled bed linens, Helene Devernay surveyed his bronzed, muscular torso with an appreciative smile as Stephen David Elliott Westmoreland, Earl of Langford, Baron of Ellingwood, Fifth Viscount Hargrove, Viscount Ashbourne, shrugged into the frilled shirt he'd tossed over the foot of the bed last night. "Are we still attending the theatre next week?" she asked.
Stephen glanced at her in surprise as he picked up his neckcloth. "Of course." Turning to the mirror above the fireplace, he met her gaze in it while he deftly wrapped the fine white silk into intricate folds around his neck. "Why did you need to ask?"
"Because the Season begins next week, and Monica Fitzwaring is coming to town. I heard it from my dressmaker, who is also hers."
"And?" he said, looking steadily at her in the mirror, his expression betraying not even a flicker of reaction.
With a sigh, Helene rolled onto her side and leaned on an elbow, her tone regretful but frank. "And gossip has it that you're finally going to make her the offer she and her father have been waiting for these three years past."
"Is that what the gossips are saying?" he asked casually, but he lifted his brows slightly, in a gesture that silently, and very effectively, managed to convey his displeasure with Helene for introducing a topic that he clearly felt was none of her concern.
Helene noted the unspoken reprimand and the warning it carried, but she took advantage of what had been a remarkably open—and highly pleasurable—affair for both of them for several years. "In the past, there have been dozens of rumors that you were on the verge of offering for one aspiring female or another," she pointed out quietly, "and, until now, I have never asked you to verify or deny any of them."
Without answering, Stephen turned from the mirror and picked up his evening jacket from the flowered chaise longue. He shoved his arms into the sleeves, then he walked over to the side of the bed and finally directed all his attention to the woman in it. Standing there, looking down at her, he felt his annoyance diminish considerably. Propped up on her elbow, with her golden hair spilling over her naked back and breasts, Helene Devernay was a delectable sight. She was also intelligent, direct, and sophisticated, all of which made her a thoroughly delightful mistress both in and out of bed. He knew she was too practical to nurture any secret hopes of a marriage offer from him, which was absolutely out of the question for a woman in her circumstances, and she was too independent to have any real desire to tie herself to someone for life—traits that further solidified their relationship. Or so he had thought. "But now you are asking me to confirm or deny that I intend to offer for Monica Fitzwaring?" he asked quietly.
Helene gave him a warm, seductive smile that normally made his body respond. "I am."
Brushing back the sides of his jacket, Stephen put his hands on his hips and regarded her coolly. "And if I said yes?"
"Then, my lord, I would say that you are making a great mistake. You have a fondness for her, but not a great love nor even a great passion. All she has to offer you is her beauty, her bloodlines, and the prospect of an heir. She hasn't your strength of will, nor your intelligence, and although she may care for you, she will never understand you. She will bore you in bed and out of it, and you will intimidate, hurt, and anger her."
"Thank you, Helene. I must count myself fortunate that you take such an interest in my personal life and that you are so willing to share your expertise on how I ought to live it."
The stinging setdown caused her smile to fade a little but not disappear. "There, you see?" she asked softly. "I am duly chastened and forewarned by that tone of yours, but Monica Fitzwaring would be either completely crushed or mortally offended."
She watched his expression harden at the same time his voice became extremely polite, chillingly so. "My apologies, madame," he said, inclining his head in a mockery of a bow, "if I have ever addressed you in a tone that is less than civil."
Reaching up, Helene tugged on his jacket in an attempt to make him sit down on the bed beside her. When this failed, she dropped her hand, but not the issue, and widened her smile to soothe his temper. "You never speak to anyone in an uncivil tone, Stephen. In fact, the more annoyed you are, the more 'civil' you become—until you are so very civil, so very precise and correct, that the effect is actually quite alarming. One might even say… terrifying!"
She shivered to illustrate, and Stephen grinned in spite of himself.
"That is what I meant," she said, smiling back at him. "When you grow cold and angry, I know how—" Her breath caught as his large hand slipped down beneath the sheet and covered her breast, his fingers tantalizing her.
"I merely wish to warm you," he said, as she reached her arms around his neck and drew him down on the bed.
"And distract me."
"I think a fur would do a far better job of that."
"Of warming me?"
"Of distracting you," he said as his mouth covered hers, and then he went about the pleasurable business of warming, and distracting, both of them.
It was nearly five o'clock in the morning when he was dressed again.
"Stephen?" she whispered sleepily as he bent and pressed a farewell kiss upon her smooth brow.
"I have a confession."
"No confessions," he reminded her. "We agreed on that from the beginning. No confessions, no recriminations, no promises. That was the way we both wanted it."
Helene didn't deny it, but this morning she couldn't make herself comply. "My confession is that I find myself rather annoyingly jealous of Monica Fitzwaring."
Stephen straightened with an impatient sigh, and waited, knowing she was determined to have her say, but he did not help her do it. He simply regarded her with raised brows.
"I realize you need an heir," she began, her full lips curving into an embarrassed smile, "but could you not wed a female whose looks pale a little in comparison with mine? Someone shrewish too. A shrew with a slightly crooked nose or small eyes would suit me very well."
Stephen chuckled at her humor, but he wanted the subject closed permanently, and so he said, "Monica Fitzwaring is no threat to you, Helene. I've no doubt she knows of our relationship and she would not try to interfere, even if she thought she could."
"What makes you so certain?"
"She volunteered the information," he said flatly, and when Helene still looked unconvinced, he added, "In the interest of putting an end to your concern and to this entire topic, I'll add that I already have a perfectly acceptable heir in my brother's son. Furthermore, I have no intention of adhering to custom, now or in future, by shackling myself to a wife for the sole purpose of begetting a legal heir of my own body."