Nick scowled at the short sword Blake held out to him and stepped away from the blade as if it were an anaconda. “Are you expecting pirates at the duke’s dinner?”
Blake impatiently shook the scabbard at him. “You’ve been a sailor. We fenced together at school. I know you know how to use one. You’re our first line of defense around the princess.”
Gritting his teeth, telling himself he could behave while wearing a weapon through one miserable dinner party, Nick reluctantly strapped it on. He tugged his formal, forest green cutaway into a smooth line over his gold satin waistcoat and knee breeches, but judging by his reflection in the cheval glass, he couldn’t hide the damned sword.
“One more embroidered flower and I could be planted in a field,” he grumbled. “It is time the court entered the nineteenth century. Silk knee breeches are damned embarrassing.”
Blake Montague’s wife, the formidable Jocelyn of golden hair, curvaceous form, and devious mind, laughed in a throaty voice that could shiver timbers. “How do you say very elegant in Italian? The princess will be honored that you have gone to such trouble.”
Leaning his black-clad, unembroidered shoulders against a doorjamb in the upper salon of the Duke of Fortham’s London manor, Blake snorted. “From what I hear, once she arrives, the lady is likely to drag Nick off the parlor floor to test his manliness. I suspect her family merely wants a bodyguard to prevent her from getting into trouble. It’s not as if a deposed princess is of any value to anyone but Bonaparte.”
“Royalty is always trouble,” Nick said with scorn. “If it was not for my father bursting his buttons with pride at my serving his majesty, and my damnable sisters near to fainting with joy at being invited to this crush, I’d tell you what you could do with king and country.”
Jocelyn rapped Nick’s arm with her fan. A duke’s financial and political advisor did not earn enough to buy diamonds. Nick assumed Blake’s wife had dressed her champagne-blond tresses in her mentor’s, Lady Isabell Belden’s, jewelry.
“You look dashing in frills, and you know it, you peacock,” Jocelyn declared. “You must test your grandeur on Lady Bell’s latest protégée. Mrs. Adams is apparently some distant relation of the late marquess and another recipient of his largesse. I have left the widow listening to the duke in awe and wonder. Quit admiring your pretty legs and let us make haste so we will be downstairs when the princess arrives.”
Nick swallowed his discomfort with wearing a sword again—not a blunt decorative court point but a blade of finest Spanish steel, meant to be used. They actually expected him to guard the princess with steel and his life?
Setting him loose with a sword in a room full of feathered exquisites was not quite the same as setting a fox among the chickens, but he seriously resented the reminder.
Nick loosened his neckcloth and swirled from the mirror, resting his hand on the sword hilt to hold it in position with a practiced ease he had yet to unlearn.
If he must marry, he had to live with passive solutions to stressful situations. He squelched a shudder. “Lead me to Lady Bell’s peahen, then, before His Grace puts her to sleep.”
“You are not to remark on Mrs. Adam’s resemblance to the princess,” Blake admonished, holding the door so his wife might precede them. “We don’t know why the princess is in London or why Mrs. Adams has just recently made her existence known. If there is a conspiracy, we must root it out.”
Jocelyn shot her husband a look of wifely exasperation. “If there is any conspiracy, it is between Lady Bell and Lord Quentin. Poor Mrs. Adams is so grateful to be here that she would walk on water if asked. As a previous beneficiary of Lady Bell’s generosity, I remember that feeling well.”
“If Quent is leading me into a matrimonial trap with another of Lady Bell’s heiresses, he is all about in his head.” Nick snorted at the very idea of marrying a peahen. “He’ll have to find someone more desperate for blunt than I. Better that they find husbands for Quent’s cousins and my sisters.”
Quent, the current Marquess of Belden’s youngest son, was an interfering rogue who thought all his friends should be wealthy and married. So far, he and the dowager marchioness had possessed the sense to leave irredeemable Nick alone.
Nick was enjoying the new notion of marrying off his sisters so they needn’t worry about Thurlow.
They proceeded downstairs just as the orchestra began setting up on the balcony overlooking the Duke of Fortham’s grand salon. The pocket doors had been opened between parlors to receive the hundreds of guests on the exclusive list to be introduced later in the evening to the princess.
“Does one call a deposed princess Your Highness?” Nick asked idly, just to annoy his tightly wound friend—and possibly to remind himself that guarding an impoverished princess merely required diplomatic skills he used regularly on his sisters.
Montague was studying the salon as if Napoleon’s spies might be hiding behind the potted palms. “Royal blood is royal whether or not it sits a throne,” Blake said implacably, offering his arm to his wife so they might cross the salon together.
“Not if Napoleon has his way,” Jocelyn protested. “He would marry all of Europe’s nobles to his upstart family and make us all equal.”
“Napoleon’s an ass if he thinks marrying royalty will equalize the masses,” Nick countered. “The aristocracy is bloated with incompetent idiots, present company excluded.”
“You must tell me your story sometime, Mr. Atherton,” the normally gracious Jocelyn said with asperity. “You are an aristocrat granted looks, family, and a reasonable income, yet you speak as if these gifts are insults.”
“This time, your clever observations are wrong, my dear.” Blake led them toward an anteroom curtained off from the servants scurrying about lighting candles and arranging flowers. “Nick worships his family. And probably his looks,” he added, with sardonic humor. “But after his experience with the Navy, he lacks any regard for authority, which apparently includes all royalty and most of parliament.”
“Which is why I should be the last man you want guarding a princess whose family can lay claim to Bonnie Charlie’s throne,” Nick reminded them.
“Really?” Jocelyn asked, wide-eyed. “An Italian princess is related to the Stuarts?”
“All European royalty is related in some manner or another,” Blake said. “That’s why Boney is spreading his family around. And the princess is Mirenzian, not Italian. The various states of Italy have no central government. Yet,” he added ominously.
“The professor speaks,” Nick taunted. “Regardless of her legal status, Princess Elena is female. She’s royal. She can get me hanged. It’s that last part that concerns me most. My neckcloth will not wrap properly if my neck is askew.”
Jocelyn’s delicious laughter turned heads as they entered the anteroom, reassuring Nick that this was a farce and his neck was in no danger.
He located Lady Bell’s protégée with ease. He’d been told she was a timid brown wren, and he’d been expecting plump, dowdy, and nondescript. It took a moment to realize the strikingly poised young woman at Lady Bell’s elbow could be in any way named a wren. Compared to pale, skinny, English misses, perhaps, but her golden honey coloring was so rich he wanted to lick her all over. Beneath curling chestnut tresses, warm chocolate eyes watched him enter with such astonishment that he wanted to strut like the peacock Blake’s annoying wife called him. The newcomer had abundant curves in all the right places.
And she was a widow, unlike the virginal princess. Finally pleased with the evening’s entertainment, Nick advanced on the confection garbed modestly in brown and gold and watched her dark lashes lower to sweep her creamy cheeks.
He would buy her gold and pearls as a parting gift.
* * *
By all the saints and heavens, the man was beyond delicious into the realm of godliness!
Fearing her thunderstruck wonder was obvious, Nora attempted to look away from the golden-haired aristocrat strutting across the room in Lady Belden’s direction, but moths fluttered in her midsection, and her gaze was drawn to him no matter where he stood. His form-fitting cutaway revealed excessively wide shoulders and a narrow waist. His breeches… Oh my, she didn’t think she’d ever seen a man in court breeches. She could see the curve of his legs!
Well, yes, she supposed now that she looked, many of the older gentleman wore baggy breeches and stockings and buckles. It was a quaint custom of respect for royalty, she supposed. But the golden god was strikingly… She cleared her throat. Robbie had been only twenty-two when he’d left for war. The sophisticated noble approaching was not a slender lad, nor a stocky grocer.
The scent of the lovely lilies on the table, the lavishly gleaming silk she wore, the powerful duke and his guests—all faded into wallpaper once the golden icon stopped before them.
“Lady Belden, bellissima,” he murmured, bowing over the petite dowager’s hand.
Nora swallowed hard and tried not to admire the muscled posterior revealed by the fall-away tails of his coat.
“Mrs. Adams, I would like you to meet…”
Nora scarcely heard Lady Belden’s introductions. She had always felt dowdy and chunky next to her delicate mother, but this man made her feel feminine. He took her hand when she did not extend it, squeezing her gloved fingers in a reassuring manner guaranteed to melt her bones. He did not give her time to be embarrassed by the gaffe of not extending her hand first.
“Mrs. Adams, a pleasure to meet you,” he said with such seductive smoothness that she nearly fainted at the image that the word pleasure produced.
Did men speak like that outside of bed? Not to boring schoolteachers. Flushed, Nora remembered to dip a slight curtsy.
“Mr. Atherton will be escorting the princess,” Lady Belden was saying, jarring Nora from her stunned reverie. “He can help you speak with her about your mother.”
“Yes, of course, Mr. Atherton! Lady Belden has mentioned you.” The marchioness had warned that the gentleman was a notorious rake, as well as the master of numerous languages.
Nora could speak a rudimentary form of the Mirenzian dialect. Viviana had helped her brush up on it so she could pass the invitation to the princess in her mother tongue. She had not realized her performance might be critiqued by someone else. She hid a wince of dismay.
Her mother hadn’t wanted anyone to know of her invitation for the princess to visit her. That wasn’t difficult when Nora would prefer that no one knew of her presumptuous quest.
“I trust Lady Bell spoke favorably,” Mr. Atherton said with a blinding smile meant to deceive and overpower.
He almost succeeded, but Nora had a better grasp of the dowager’s warning now. Atherton used his looks and charm like weapons, probably with more effect than the sword at his side, she thought with just a touch of spite.
Her father had expended his excess energies in the winters by teaching his only child to use both rapier and small sword. Her mother had taught her how to use charm. Living in her confined world, Nora had never required either. She might enjoy taking out her rusty skills and polishing them for society.
Except she was relishing the notion of engaging in combat with Atherton entirely too well. Better that she play country mouse and pretend to be prey.
“Of course, sir, I shall be most appreciative of your expertise.”
“How appreciative, bellisima?” the gentleman asked seductively, placing her hand on his arm as if to escort her from her chaperone’s company.
Nora removed her hand from his coat sleeve and managed a brief, frank glare. “The message is from my ailing mother, not me. She is Mirenzian and would convey her condolences over the loss of the princess’s mother. Not a message of overwhelming importance, I fear.”
Well, it was of importance to her mother. She’d had time to wonder why, but Vivi had never explained. Still, Nora knew better than to let any gentleman believe he had the upper hand.
“I’m most glad to hear that we will not be oversetting the Continental balance of power with your presence,” Mr. Atherton said smoothly. “Lady Belden, might I have the extreme honor of escorting your friend about the room while we await the arrival of our guests?”
“Mrs. Adams is a grown woman, sir. Ask her yourself,” Lady Bell retorted.
“Madam?” he inquired, taking Nora’s hand and placing it on his arm with a squeeze that was just shy of suggestive. “Might I have the pleasure?”
She had longed to better examine the beauties of the duke’s salon. Against her better judgment, she allowed him to lead her from safety.
“Is that a portrait of the king in his youth?” she asked, steering toward a soaring oil of a young man in full regalia on a white horse. She filled with patriotic fervor for this royal personage who represented the country for which both her husband and father had died. “He and his family have sacrificed so much for the kingdom.”
“And our country sacrifices much for their upkeep,” he added dryly.
Startled, she cast him a questioning look. “Such as?”
“Our leaders sacrifice all the eager young men who believe as you do and take to war thinking king and country care about their welfare,” he said, leading her away. “Let us speak of more pleasant things. The world is littered with Mrs. Adamses. May I have your full name?”
“I’m just called Nora,” she said absently, bewildered by his jaded response. This wealthy lord did not admire Great Britain? Or was it just the king he despised? She didn’t know how to take such treason.
“Nora, such an enchanting name, and not of the usual sort, I believe?” Atherton asked, maintaining the shallow conversation, letting his attentions speak for him.
He stopped before an enormous flower arrangement of lilies and roses so Nora might nearly expire in delight at the scent and color. His gallantry erased any confusion as to his true intent. He tucked a fallen bud behind her ear, and the brush of his fingers generated a heated rush she hadn’t experienced in years.
“It is short for Eleanora, my grandmother’s name,” she answered, wondering if she could remember how to return his flirtation.
Nora followed where Mr. Atherton led, keeping up a polite pretense that this was no more than a social stroll about the salon rather than a simmering tempest she did not have the experience to handle.
She understood that Mr. Atherton merely sought conquest with his smoldering glances and intimate touches. Just because she’d been widowed for entirely too long and felt the impact of his masculinity did not mean she had to be his victim. She hoped.
“How did you learn to speak Mirenzian?” she asked, hoping for more meaningful discussion.
“Family genius and all that,” he replied vaguely.
His evasion reminded her of Billy, the cobbler’s son, when he hadn’t wanted to tell her who had broken the slate. What wasn’t he telling her? “Family geniuses teach Mirenzian?” she asked a trifle caustically.
He shrugged. “Travels in my youth. My sisters are excessively verbal as well.”
He was definitely hiding something, but he would be no concern of hers once she met the princess. “Will your sisters attend this evening?” she asked, to avoid thinking of the way his hand stroked the gloved fingers she’d laid on his arm.
“Unfortunately, yes, so I must be on my best behavior. I was hoping to enlist you in their entertainment while I perform my duties with the princess. They have been practicing Mirenzian all week. My ears will fall off if I must hear more. I would be most appreciative.”
She glanced up into deep blue eyes laughing with the depths of an ocean. She had almost made a cake of herself, thinking his suggestive tone meant this elegant aristocrat was actually interested in a country mouse like her. Instead, he’d pegged her for the teacher she was and wished her to guide his young sisters.
How appallingly embarrassing.
“Of course, I would be delighted to make their acquaintance, sir,” she said primly, wishing the floor might rise up and swallow her whole. How would she ever survive an entire evening of London sophistication if she could not understand even one man?
“Eccellente, mia cara. And then later, you will allow me to show my appreciation?” He kissed her hand in a manner that suggested that wasn’t all he meant to kiss, then left her in the company of the charming Montagues.
Nora didn’t know whether to slap him or just melt into a puddle of sealing wax.