Read Once an Innocent Online

Authors: Elizabeth Boyce

Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #Regency

Once an Innocent (5 page)

Mr. Hayward decided the issue by breaking away. He sucked spittle and air between his teeth, a sound that made Naomi cringe inwardly. “My dear Lady Naomi, I have long admired you but thought myself beneath your notice.” His mouth turned up in a half smile. Naomi thought his lips rather too full, now that she had the opportunity to examine them at close proximity. “How can it be that you have singled me out?” he marveled.

She frowned. She couldn’t very well tell him he’d come to her notice because she’d eavesdropped and now believed him to be the only man left in the
who truly wanted her. “Well, sir … ” she started.

His finger covered her lips. “No, don’t.” He chuckled low in his throat, allowing more of his liquor-tinged breath to roll into her nostrils. “One doesn’t look a gift horse in the mouth — one
the gift horse’s mouth.”

Oh my, he’s drunk.
The realization struck her even as he took her mouth again, more urgently this time. He groaned and slanted his mouth over hers. Naomi felt his tongue probing against the crease of her lips. She recoiled at the sensation and pulled her head back, gasping for air.

“You move me deeply, my beautiful little filly.” Mr. Hayward kept one arm tight around her waist while the other hand moved up her side and then between them to cover her breast.

“No!” Naomi gasped. She wriggled her hips, ineffectually trying to pry herself loose of his grasp. Panic clawed at her throat as his smile deepened into something dark and predatory. “Stop this immediately, sir!” She balled her hand into a fist and struck his shoulder with all her might.

Amazingly, he spun as she hit him, as though torn away by a great force. Then there was a sickening crack, and Mr. Hayward crumpled to the floor with a groan, revealing a grim-faced Lord Freese. He released his right hand from its tight fist, then flicked his wrist, as though shaking off a bit of dust.

With his opponent on the floor, Jordan turned his sharp gaze on Naomi. “Are you all right?” he asked. “Did he hurt you?”

Naomi blinked and realized her mouth hung agape. She shut it with a snap of her teeth. “No,” she said, shaking her head, “he didn’t hurt me.” A deep breath left her in a whoosh and she smiled weakly. “Thank you, my lord. I had no idea he would try anything like — ”

A tug at her skirt caused her to gasp. Mr. Hayward moaned and flailed blindly. Both his eyes were swelling shut and blackening, and his nose was bulbously enlarged and skewed at an unnatural angle.

“Pardon me,” Lord Freese said with a polite nod. He hauled the younger man to his feet and led him toward the library door. “Off you go, Hayward. And should you ever be so foolish as to breathe a word of this business to a living soul, I shall be forced to offer my eyewitness account of how Lady Naomi felled you with one strike of her mighty hand. Iron fist in a velvet glove, indeed. Am I right?”

He called to a passing footman and handed the groaning gentleman over to the servant. “Poor Mr. Hayward’s face made the unfortunate acquaintance of His Grace’s floor. The rugs in this house are downright perilous, bringing down the high and low alike. Do assist our young man to his conveyance. Thank you.”

When Jordan swiveled back to her, his charming smile fell away. He stalked forward, lips pulled in a tight line. His unsettling eyes drove right into her.

Butterflies buffeted Naomi’s stomach. “Thank you once again for your assistance, my lord,” she said in a rush. “I am most obliged, but should be getting back now — ”

Jordan snatched her upper arm in a tight grip. His blue irises flashed dangerously. “What the devil possessed you to behave so stupidly? You never should have left the party,” he scolded. “Do you know what that boy could have done to you?”

Naomi flushed at his rebuke. “I believed he would act as a gentleman!” Tears threatened as the shock of Mr. Hayward’s assault gave way to shame, but she blinked them back. “Can’t a lady trust — ”

“No,” Jordan snapped. “You can’t trust a man to keep his hands to himself, Naomi. Not when he’s freely offered a sumptuous delight.” His lips quirked, and she couldn’t tell whether or not he mocked her.

Something stirring in his eyes made her breath catch in her throat. Heat flowed over her breasts and chest, all the way from her neck to her face. “I didn’t offer him anything improper,” she whispered.

“I saw you stop him.” Amusement tinged his words. He smiled like the cat who’d caught the canary. “Moreover, I arrived here in time to watch you participate quite willingly in a round of rather amateurish kisses. My first hint that I’d have to step in, in fact, was when I began to fear Mr. Hayward might eat you.”

Jordan’s hand slid down her arm, arousing all sorts of discomfort in Naomi. Surprisingly, though, she discovered there was discomfort that was also pleasurable. His fingers tangled lightly with hers. Jordan leaned in, bringing his face closer to Naomi’s than it had ever been. He was gorgeous, scarred cheek and all.

“If you wanted to indulge in some kissing lessons,” he murmured, his breath ghosting against her cheek, “you ought to have asked someone who could teach you better — and shares your unconventional opinions.”

“What unconventional opinions would those be, my lord?” she asked, bewildered.

Jordan tsked and shook his head. “Wayland Hayward is wife hunting, my sweet. You nearly fell into his trap.”

Naomi bit back a growl of frustration. She’d
to fall into Wayland Hayward’s marriage trap! She’d thought to be laying one of her own, in fact — until Lord Interfering here meddled. “What business is it of yours whom I choose to kiss?” she shot.

His eyes narrowed on hers. “I just paid fifteen hundred pounds for two pies,” he seethed.

She shook her head, utterly lost. “Are you also drunk, my lord?”

His large, heavy hands covered her shoulders, and he leaned forward to put their eyes on the same level. “I paid fifteen
pounds, Naomi, for two pies. I don’t even like blueberries! I’m going to give it to the first street sweep I see tonight. ‘Here you are, lad, a seven hundred fifty-pound pie to take home to Mother, all because I had to get out of that room and save Naomi from her own foolishness.’”

She lifted her chin. “You can hardly lay that at my feet. Furthermore, you treated Mr. Hayward far more viciously than the situation warranted.” Naomi paused to take a breath.

A thoughtful expression crossed Jordan’s face as his gaze drifted somewhere past her left ear. Naomi was vexed he seemed not to be paying any attention to her words. “What you need, my lord, is — ”

“Women.” His lips parted as he drew a quick breath, and his eyes roved hers. “I need women,” he whispered in amazement.

Naomi sputtered. “My lord! Pray do not include me in such lascivious confidence.”

He squeezed her shoulders and grinned. “I need women, Naomi!” He kissed her forehead and straightened. “You’re brilliant, sweeting.” He winked and pinched her chin.

Before Naomi could collect herself out of the utter confusion into which he had tossed her, Jordan hurried out of the library.

She followed him out, just in time to see the butler open the front door for him. “He needs women,” Naomi murmured, no less perplexed than she’d been a moment ago. Shaking her head, she turned in the opposite direction to rejoin the charity auction. She tried to put the upset of the last little while out of her mind. Her family needed her.

Chapter Three

Jordan turned his mount into Hyde Park and started toward Rotten Row. His eyes burned from lack of sleep. Despite the fact that the sun had just begun to blush the dew-kissed grass, he’d already been to see Lord Castlereagh, who approved his scheme. Notes had been hastily jotted off to his stepmother and the men on the list Jordan knew to have wives or other female relatives, but he still needed a few more ladies to round out his plan. He’d looked for Marshall at Monthwaite House, but the butler had informed him His Grace was out for a morning ride.

As he made his way through the park in search of his friend, Jordan’s tired mind drifted to Naomi. Last night had been … an aberration. Jordan had no idea why he’d fixated on the young lady. In the end, though, he was glad for it, as he’d found her in time to pull that sleazy Hayward off of her before the scoundrel had done worse than paw her.

When he thought about what might have happened, Jordan’s knuckles itched to plant another facer on the cur.

Naomi’s reaction to Jordan had been something of a puzzle. She’d been glad enough for his assistance with Hayward but had turned testy when he’d suggested they shared similar opinions on matrimony. Perhaps it was as simple as a young lady not wanting word of her unusual views to get around. But, he thought with a frown, if she was going to dabble in peccadilloes in lieu of marriage, she would have to be far more circumspect.

He heard his name and glanced up to find he’d arrived at his destination. Marshall rode toward him at a trot on his white stallion, Amadeus. He pulled alongside Jordan, and the two men shook hands.

“A happy coincidence,” Marshall said.

The easy smile on his face was a contrast to the brooding demeanor he’d worn during the years following his and Isabelle’s divorce. Jordan could only credit their remarriage with the change in his friend. He was especially glad of his good mood this morning.

“Not a coincidence, Marsh. Might I have a word?” Jordan dug his heels into the sides of his own black beast, Phantom, and started off at a walk.

Marshall wheeled Amadeus about and caught up. “What is it, Freese?”

Jordan scowled beneath the brim of his tall hat before turning a smile on his friend. “I would like to host a party at Lintern Abbey — for grouse hunting. I have plenty of gentlemen guests but need some ladies to balance out the party. As you happen to have several delightful females in your household, I hoped you’d do me the very great favor of attending.”

“Absolutely not,” Marshall answered with a jerk of his chin. “It’s out of the question, Jordan. I should have had Isabelle home to Helmsdale a month ago, but we stayed on in Town so she could throw last night’s benefit. We leave tomorrow morning.”

Jordan sighed heavily and pressed his thumb and forefinger to his aching eyes, suddenly more weary than he could remember being in years. “Of course. I’m sorry. It was foolish of me to even consider … ”

His mind raced. This was the solution to his problem — he knew it was. He would not fail for lack of women at his party, even if he had to empty out a brothel and pay whores to act the part. But the ruse would be more convincing if there were known Society ladies in attendance. The fingers of his dangling left hand drummed against the smooth leather of his tall riding boot.

“I don’t suppose you know of any other ladies left in Town I might invite?” he ventured.

Marshall eyed him suspiciously. “Does this party have anything to do with Castlereagh commandeering my study last night?”

Jordan glanced up and down the Row. There were no other riders within earshot. “As a matter of fact, it does.”

Marshall’s lips pursed thoughtfully. “Let’s see, here. A hunting party that I must now assume is not, in fact, a hunting party. Castlereagh provided you with your gentlemen guests, then?”

Jordan nodded. “Yes, exactly. I need women there to give the appearance of an ordinary house party.”

“Why is the Foreign Office descending on Lintern Abbey? Why not the Home Office?”

“You know I can’t tell you that, my friend.”

For a while, they rode in silence. The rising sun began to burn away the cool mist hovering above the ground and dry the little droplets clinging to the dark green superfine of Jordan’s coat.

“You haven’t asked for my help in Foreign Office business since Spain,” Marshall said.

Jordan glanced sidelong at the other man and could almost picture him as he’d looked on the Peninsula. His intense dark eyes had been large in his boy-slim face; he’d been much younger then.
God, we both were
, he mused. They’d looked like lads playing in their fathers’ uniforms next to the seasoned officers, but they’d been called upon for some of the most important missions of the campaign. Marshall and Jordan were of an age, but sometimes Jordan felt as if he’d already lived enough for three lifetimes. He wondered if Marshall ever felt the same. “I never told you it was Foreign Office business.”

“No, but you’ve just confirmed it,” Marshall said wryly. “And we never spoke of it,” he added. “It was like it never happened.”

Jordan shrugged. “That’s the nature of my job, I’m afraid. I never meant for you to take a bullet for me.”

The duke grinned. “I never thought I’d be asked to stir up a peasant insurrection just to keep you, your man, and your Spanish informant safe in that village.” His smile faltered. “I’m sorry I let you down. When I heard you and Ditman had been captured … ”

Reaching the end of the Row, he pulled Amadeus to a halt. Gazing into the trees, he nodded slowly. “That was a low point, Jordan. I worried I’d let the government down, harmed the war effort — but worse, I failed you.”

Jordan clapped his friend on the shoulder. “You didn’t fail me, Marsh. You did a good thing, helping those people protect their village. The French would have plundered and raped their way through it, otherwise. Besides, we found our way home, only a little worse for wear.”

Marshall gave a half-smile. His eyes darted to the scar on Jordan’s cheek. “A miracle in and of itself. The missing young lord escapes his French captors and returns home. You should’ve had a hero’s welcome, but not a word was breathed publicly. That was how I knew I’d been tangled up in something of dire importance.”

They started their steeds back in the opposite direction. “So,” Marshall continued, “if you need ladies for your party, I assume you have good reason. Perhaps one of dire importance once again.”

Jordan raised his brows but gave no answer.

Marshall held his gaze for a long moment, then looked away. “Isabelle and I can’t come, but I might be persuaded to send Aunt Janine and Naomi.”

Jordan breathed a little sigh of relief. If Ladies Janine and Naomi were to come to the Abbey, he could stop fretting about recruiting women. “That would be fantastic, Marshall. I don’t know how to thank you.”

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