And it had been a flop. Again. She hadonlydanced, or talked even, with one man. Nonetheless, he nodded solemnly. "We leavethen."
"Nay. Not just yet, " Valoree said suddenly. She turned to Daniel, hermind racing with aplanthatwasforming even as she spoke. "Who is the biggestgossip of the ton? "
Daniel peered at her in surprise and confusion, then said slowly, "That would be Lady Denholme. Why? "
"Is she here tonight? "Valoree asked hurriedly.
Daniel hesitated before nodding. "I believe she is."
"Where is she? "
He peered at Valoree silently for a moment, then glanced around thehall, scouring thepeoplepresent until he spottedthe woman in question."She isover there, besidethe large womanin white and green."
Valoree followed hispointing finger, then glancedto her aunt.
"Aye? " The older woman moved to herside atonce, frowning in concern at her niece’s blistered red skin.
"Go and strike up aconversation with this Lady Denholme.
Tell her aboutthe codicilin my father’s will. Tell her how you must marry me off quicklyto claim it.Then tell herit shouldn’t be a problem, however, since I am exceedingly wealthy. Make sure you mention that I am desperate and not likely to be picky." She paused suddenly to glance toward Daniel. "Are thereanyother rather gossipy women here tonight? "
Daniel gaveher a look ofmixed admiration and annoyance, then straightened to glance around the room again. "Ah, well, Lady Smathers over there, and… er … Lady Wenback by the tall, skinnygentleman."
Nodding, Valoree turned toMeg again. "After you are finished with her, move on totheother twoand tell them the same things.
Then comejoin us. We shall be onthebalcony."
Nodding, Meg hurried off to do as she asked. As she did, Valoree began to fan her face with one hand, her gaze moving aroundtheroom.
"Damn me." Henry’s hissed words drew her gaze around questioningly, andhe muttered, "A passeloftroubleheaded our way." Henodded towarda herdof hopeful mamas dragging their chicks theirway.
"Damn."Valoree muttered as she spotted the group. This was the last group she wanted to see. Her gaze shot aroundto land on Daniel. "They are after you. Go away and they will leave me alone."
"Ihavea better idea, " he answered. Taking her arm, he hurried her through thecrowd toward thebalcony doors, Henry hot on their heels.
"See, this is what I mean about our not suiting, " Valoree snappedirritably ashe rushed herout onto the balcony. "You could not justgoawayas I asked; you had to take charge and drag me alongwithyou."
Daniel said nothing, simply led her down into the garden.
Finallyhe said, "Well, your aunt did say that you shouldget that stuff off directly, or else ruin your complexion."
"So? And so I shall. Assoon as Meg is finished with what I asked her todo, we shall returnhome and getthis goop offmy face."
"Why wait? " Daniel grinned anddrewhertoahalt, gesturing towarda fountain hehad brought her too. "Itworked wellenough last night."
Valoreestared. This fountainwas smaller than the mammoth one theBeechams had owned, but muchmore attractive for all that. Its musical trickle was like some tempting siren’s call, promisingrelief for her face.She couldwash off andsoothe her face in the cool water. Ease the itching and burning. Enjoy a momentof givingher facea good scratch, allunder the guise of cleaning it.
A moan slipping from herlips, she dropped to her knees beside thefountain and thrust her face into its cool, soothing water, her fingersscouring herskin with avengeance that made up forthe whole night of suffering. Lifting her face out of the water a moment later, shesighed in relief. She heard Henrysighas well.
"I don’t suppose ye’vegot an alley siding onyergarden here, do ye? "sheheard him ask as she impatiently tugged off thewig Meg had insisted upon her wearing.Tossingitto the ground, she rubbedather scalpvigorously asDaniel answered.
"Aye. Along the sidethere. ShallI help her over thestone wall whileyou fetch the carriage? "Sheducked her whole head into the water, then, thrashing it exuberantly about rather like a dog shaking itself off.Shepulled her head back out just in time to hear Henry answer.
"Aye. But give ita couple of minutes.I shallgo back inside and wait forMeg, thenleave with her, get into thecarriage, andhave it comearound."
"Make sure she talks to all three women, Henry, " Valoree called after him as he headed backtoward the balcony;then she collapsed back tositon her heels.She gavea sigh of purebliss.
"Better? "Daniel asked.
"Aye, " Valoree said. Though the itching and heat were still there, her face felt not nearly as bad as it had with all that makeup irritating it. When Daniel offered herhis hand to help her up, she hesitated, her gaze moving back toward the fountain.
Thenshedecided thatshe’dhad enough andplacedherwristin his hand, her own fingers closing aroundhis wrist so thatthey workedtogetherto gether back on herfeet. "Where doesthe alley side your garden? "
"Thisway." Daniel gestured, thentookherarm towalkwith her, following the moonlit path to the trees.There, he slid his fingersdown tograsp hers sothat hecould lead the way onthe uneven ground, tugging her behind him.At thewall, he paused andturnedto faceher. "Thisis becominga habit."
"Whatis? "she asked. "My leaving soireesover walls, ormy littleincidentsatballs? "
"Both of those two, "he admitted. "ButI was thinking more along the line ofour meetingindark, secluded spots."
"Oh, that."Tuggingher handfree ofhis, she stepped up tothe wall, checking its heightrelativeto her own. Of course it was a good foot higher than her head, she thought in annoyance. Who exactly werethesenoblestrying to keep outof their darngardens anyway? shewondered. "Well, never fear, it shall not happen again. Iam never wearing thatfoolish muck onmyface again."
"Good. You are far toolovely to bother with suchnonsense."
Valoree gave a doubtful snort. Lovely? Whatnonsense. She’d had an entire crew ofpirates convinced she wasaman forthe pastthirteenyears. That hardlyspoke of loveliness."Aye, well, if my plan works, I should havethis businessdone in no time. Then weshall headfor Ainsley and I shall notneedworry whatthe fashion is, orwhat people think."
"Ah, your plan, " Daniel murmured softly, suddenly standing directly behind her.He was uncomfortably close, she thought, feeling his heat through his clothes and her own. He wasn’t touching her anywhere, yet she was incredibly aware of his presence.She actually shudderedwhen hisbreath brushed her ear as hewhispered, "Do you really thinkthat simply spreading the word among the gossipmongers will work? You’ll just announce that you are looking for a husband, and they shall come? "
"Why not? Itworked for you, " shesaid, thenfrowned atthe husky quality of her voice. She had meant to sound slightly derisive. Insteadthe words had come out slightly breathy, asif she had just swuma longdistance.
"Aye, but whatsort ofman willit bring running, do you think? "
He breathed soclose toher ear that his lips actually brushed it.
She shivered uncontrollably, ripplesofsomething She hadnever experienced before shimmering through her body. Her mind unable to actually grasp whathehadsaid, she leaned back into him, herbreasts rising andfalling quickly now.
"I – Ohhh." Shegasped in surpriseas his lips closed onthe rim of her ear. His handsclasped her waist gently, fanning out where they rested as he did some dark and mysterious things to her earlobes that hadher turning into pudding inhis hands. Moaning mindlessly, shelet her headdrop limply back against his chest.
She wasn’tquite sure whathe was doing, and almostsuspected it was some witch’s trick, her reactionwassoviolent;but she didn’t seem to be able to find thepresence of mindtocare.Itfelt so damned good, shehardly noticed as his handsinched their way up over her ribs, to climb the mounds of her br**sts.
A secondmoan slipped from her.She archedinto histouch, her br**sts pushing against the cloth that bound them, her hands comingup to coverhis, cupping them closer against herflesh as she turned her head, her lipsunconsciously seeking his. When his mouth covered hers and histongue slid out totraceher lips, she opened instinctivelytohim, anda series of seizures seemed to ripplethroughher. Her ears were actually ringing as if inreaction totheshot ofa pistol nearby, and she jolted inhis arms, a hungry groan slipping fromhermouth intohis. She turned in his arms, mindlessly seekinga closerembrace.
Caught by her shoulders, Valoree let Daniel press her back against the wall, his kneeslidingbetween herlegs andpushing forward and upward.Hetuggedat the decolletage ofhergown, and shefelt thecool airon her n**ples like a caress before his hands coveredthem.His lips left hers to travel down herthroatin search of the booty he hadjust uncovered. Gaspingand moaning, Valoreepressed her bare shoulders back into the rough stone, archingher br**sts out as he pluckedat themwith his fingers and licked at the bare flesh hehad revealed.
It was like some sort of madness. Daniel wasn’t what she wanted or needed, and yet she wanted and needed him with a violence that would have terrified her had she seen it coming.
Clenching her fingers in his hair, she dragged his mouth away fromher breast, pulling it impatientlyback to herown with little care fortheslight pain shemight be causing.Daniel respondedin kind, catching her still-damp hairin his fingers and tugging her head backas far as itwouldgo. Thenhegave her the kiss she wanted, devouring hermouth with a passion that stole all her breath and left her panting and gasping and shuddering. He tugged herskirt impatientlyupward and foundher thigh, and she felt herselffurther inflamedby that touch. Then hewassuddenly gone. Valoreewasleftblinking in amazement, her chest heaving with hergasps asshe saw Daniel had backed awayto several feet in frontofher, hands clenched at hissides as he struggled for a return of control.
Valoree gapedathim in amazement for amoment; then the clip-clop of horses’hoovesand the jangleof a carriage came to herfromover the wall, and sherealized why he had stopped.
Henry and Meg must have finished and were coming in the carriage to fetch her. GoodLord, hadso much time passed? Shaking her headin an effort to try to clear it, she turned to face the wall. Leaning her forehead against it briefly, she was brought back to herself somewhat by the cool, rough stone pressing against her skin. Then she straightened, took a determined breath, and leapedupward, graspingat the topof the wall with her hands.
Danielwas behindherat once, his hands grasping her waist, then suddenly sliding upward again to her br**sts. Valoree gave a startledcry, herfingers releasing theirholdon the wallso that she dropped to the ground infront of him again.For a moment, her body seemed to singwith a sort of joyasit felt hisnearness and touch again, and really, at that point, he probably could have thrown her on theground and taken her rightthere, carriage on the other side of the wall or no. But then that joy dissipated as she glanced down to see that he was fumbling to put her decolletage back in place, to cover the br**sts hehad bared.
Beforeshe could move his handsout of the way and take over the taskherself, itwas doneand his handshad movedback to her waist once more.But ratherthanlift her upthen, he turned herin hisarmsand torturedthem both with another searingkiss that left them gasping andbreathless.
"Tillwe meet again, "he murmured near her ear; then heturned her and liftedher upward until she could graspthe wall and help to pullherself to rest across the top ofit on her stomach. Her gazefound the carriage a little down the lane.
"There sheis. Up alittle farther, "sheheard Henry calljust as shefelt a coolbreeze driftover her nak*d legs and behind – a nak*d legs and behind that would have been clad in breeches had Megnot dragged them from her handsand given them tothe men to hide. Jerking around in surprise, she saw Daniel’s head disappear beneath her skirt, thenfelthislips graze the inside of one thigh, then theother. A moment later, heducked back out from herskirts and smiled at her wickedly.
"Till we meet again, " he repeated silkily, clasping her bottom through herskirts. Then he levered her upwardonce more, and Valoree was distracted with the challengeofgaining the wall or findingherself tumbling off the other side of it. Once she was astride the stone, she glanced back down, but Daniel had disappeared, and she could hear the sound of his footsteps receding through the trees.
"Well, areyou comin’ down, or shall I comeup there and fetch ye? " A hand on her ankle drew Valoree’s head around.One-Eye gazed up at her inamusement.His hatwas pushed back on his head, hiscoatundone andpushed to either sideofhis waist, and he held a glaring lantern that stung hereyes with its light. She missed thesudden change of expression on his face as he caught aglimpse of her, but she didn’t miss his concerned comment.
"Lord love us. You did reactnasty tothatstuff, didn’t ye? " She could see him shake his head through her squintingeyes as he released a lowwhistle. "Your face is all red and flushed. .. and even your lipsareswollen. Damn, ye’re amess."
"Thank you, " Valoree saidsarcastically, slinging her other leg over the wall, but careful of her skirts in the process. Then, holding thehem down withone hand, shedroppedoff thewall, landing on her feet in front ofhim.
"Let’s get the hell out of here."
"Lord Thurborne is avery handsomeman."
Valoree quit shiftingimpatiently under Meg’sministrations and openedher eyesto peer atthe womanpresentlyslathering green muck over her face. It smelledlike some sort of garden mixture.
Mushed cucumbers or something. Whatever it was, Meg had assured her it would help with the burningand itching, which was the only reason that Valoree had agreed to her slathering yet another concoction onher face. And actually, despite making her smell likea salad, the mixture washaving a soothing effecton her skin. Exactlythe opposite effect thatMeg’s words were having on her mind.
Valoree needednohelp tosee Thurborne’s attractiveness. She had noticed that upon first meeting the man, but she wasn’t generally impressed with the prettiness of a man’s face.
Unfortunately, she wasseeingmore andmore about Daniel that was impressingher. He was a no-nonsense sort, who did not enslave himself to thepresent trend towardfrilly, fluffyfashions; his waistcoats hadalmost a militarycut to them, and there were noridiculous ribbons onhisknee breeches.She liked that. She thought the rest of the menlooked likesilly poodles.