Despite her father’s intention to buy her a husband, beautiful and headstrong American heiress Margaret Van Alden has no intention of chaining herself in matrimony to some impoverished, fortune-hunting peer. She longs for adventure and romance, not matrimony, and when stone-broke scoundrel Trevor St. James, Earl of Ashton, comes along, she’s less than impressed. To her surprise, however, Trevor doesn’t propose marriage. Instead, he offers her all the passion and adventure she longs for, and Margaret finds his wicked, delicious seduction impossible to refuse.
Trevor never wanted the Ashton title or the responsibilities that come with it, but when his brother died, he inherited those responsibilities, along with a pile of family debts. His only way out is to marry an heiress, and when he encounters Margaret and her matchmaking father in Italy, the enticing heiress and the enormous dowry offered by her father seem the perfect solution to his financial woes. Trevor sets a trap to win her, tempting her with bait he’s sure she can’t resist. But though his seduction might succeed in winning her hand, will he ever be able to win her heart?
Margaret hummed under her breath as she studied the couples waltzing across the parquet floor. She watched them from her hiding place behind the tall potted palms and ferns that screened a quiet alcove. From here, she hoped to watch the dancing and enjoy the music while avoiding all the men Cornelia insisted on introducing to her.
She took a sip from her fourth glass of champagne. A figure in black suddenly caught sight of her peeking between the palms. Margaret groaned in dismay and stepped back deeper into the alcove, but not before she saw Roger begin walking toward her. She gulped down two hasty swallows of champagne as he came around the palms.
"I thought I saw you hiding back here," he said. "Have I told you how lovely you look this evening?"
"Yes. At least twice."
She watched him struggle for something else to say. He finally managed it. "I'm sorry if I keep repeating myself. But it's true. You look quite beautiful."
"You give me many compliments, Lord Hymes." She took another swallow from her glass. Lovely stuff, champagne. She decided to find out how far Roger was prepared to carry on this courtship charade. "Answer a question for me. Just what exactly is it that you find so beautiful about me?"
He stared at her, taken aback by the bluntness of her question. "Well..." He paused, studying her. Then he rallied and said, "You have a lovely face."
"Really? What about my hair? Does it look as dark and rich as mahogany?"
A genuine smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. He was beginning to perceive her point. "I'd say that's an apt description."
"And do my eyes sparkle like fabulous jewels?"
His smile widened. "No. Your eyes are brown."
She laughed, and so did he. She looked up into his face and realized that when his smile was genuine, when he wasn't saying the things he thought she wanted to hear, he wasn't irritating at all. If only he weren't so perfectly proper.
Still, she studied him for a moment. He did have a nice mouth. She wondered how it would be to kiss a man. Not the tentative pecks on the cheek she had received from the boldest of her suitors, but a real kiss.
A wild, reckless feeling swept over her, along with an overwhelming curiosity. Marrying Roger was something she had no intention of doing, but kissing him, well, that was something else entirely. She drained her glass, then tossed it carelessly into a nearby fern. "The gardens of the villa are lovely by moonlight. Perhaps you would care to see them?"
He stared at her in astonishment. "Now?"
Margaret saw the eager hope in his face and felt a glimmer of doubt, but she pushed it aside. "Meet me in the center of the maze at midnight," she whispered, then left the alcove to rejoin the ball, leaving Roger gaping after her.
The sounds of the party floated toward Trevor as a door opened behind him. Several men wandered out onto the portico to smoke cigars, and he did not want company. He wanted quiet and time to think. He rose and went down the steps toward a maze of high boxwood hedges, finding his way by moonlight. He entered the maze and took the first path, racking his brain for a way, any way, to raise two hundred thousand pounds.
Damn Geoffrey for putting the family in this situation. But then, his brother had always been a fool. Geoffrey, who couldn't be bothered to care about the estates he had inherited or do the work required to maintain them. Geoffrey, whose main concerns had been the most fashionable knot for his cravat and whether or not the Prince of Wales would invite them to the Royal Enclosure at Ascot again this year. Geoffrey, who wouldn't have known a sensible investment if it bit him, who had always had the arrogant assumption that money just came to peers of the realm by divine right. And now that the family coffers were empty, Geoffrey lay in the family plot with a bullet through his brain.
Trevor wondered if Elizabeth would wear black for the full year and pretend to grieve for her dear departed husband. Probably not, he concluded with cynical detachment. She hated black.
He took a turn in the maze and found himself staring at a solid wall of boxwood hedge. A dead end. He turned around and retraced his steps for a bit, then took another path.
Elizabeth. The vain and frivolous wife of a vain and stupid man, who cared even less about the estate than her husband did.
In her letter to him, Trevor's mother had bemoaned the dreadful condition of Ashton Park. The roof over the west wing leaked, the carpets were threadbare, and the drains had ceased to work properly more than three years before. Jewels handed down through generations had been sold, family portraits pawned for their gilt frames, and the gold-plated dining service for two hundred, a gift from Queen Elizabeth to the first Earl of Ashton, had long since gone on the auction block.
None of that mattered to Trevor. Jewels and portraits and tradition be hanged. Ashton Park mattered for only one reason: it was his. Leaky roof, worn carpets, bad drains, and all, it now belonged to him.
Trevor took another turn and found himself in a plaza. A fountain, its water gleaming silver in the moonlight, stood in the center. In the shadowy corners were stone benches partially screened by rose arbors and clearly designed for lovers' meetings. He took a seat on the nearest bench and stared between the rose canes at the fountain beyond, turning his thoughts from the past to the future. For the first time in his life, he had something that was truly his own, and, by God, he was not going to lose it because his brother had been an idiot.
The sound of rustling skirts broke into his thoughts, and Trevor leaned forward, watching as a girl strolled into the plaza. Dressed in a ball gown, she was clearly a guest at the party and had come out here for a stroll. She paused quite close to where he sat.
"Why don't you kiss me?"
Her whispered suggestion startled him. He thought for a moment she was speaking to him, but he was deep in the shadows of the arbor and doubted she could see him. Besides, he'd never met her before, and she would hardly make such a charming invitation to a perfect stranger.
Puzzled, he watched as she again whispered to thin air. "Roger, I want you to kiss me."
Tilting her head to one side, she considered that for a moment, then shook her head as if dissatisfied. "No. Too forward. That will never work."
She began to pace back and forth in agitation, preoccupied with her own thoughts and completely unaware of the man less than ten feet away. She stopped and lifted her head to look up at an imaginary partner. "Don't you want to kiss me?"
She sighed. "No, that's not right either."
Trevor realized what she was on about and smiled in amusement. The girl was planning a midnight tryst—obviously her first—and this was a rehearsal of some sort. He studied her with an appreciative eye. He could have told her there was no need to worry. With a woman like this, a man would have to be both blind and stupid to need encouragement.
The moonlight revealed a deliciously generous figure in a velvet gown of midnight blue. He noted the neckline of the dress and tempting expanse of creamy skin that made an inviting path to her cleavage. His gaze moved further down. Fiddle-waisted, her body was beautifully molded, every curve perfectly proportioned. When she turned her head slightly, he saw her wide, dark eyes, dumpling cheeks, and a mouth definitely worth kissing. He was intrigued, and silently applauded Roger's taste.
The sound of a discreet cough diverted his attention, and he glanced toward the plaza entrance, where a man stood, nervously shifting his weight from one foot to the other. This must be Roger.
"Lord Hymes." The girl beckoned him forward. "I see you found your way through the maze."
The man walked to her side. "Took me a few minutes," he said. "A rather tedious journey."
It seemed the romantic rendezvous was about to begin. Trevor glanced at the entrance again, and realized it was the only one. There was no way for him to escape without being seen. He could simply stand up, rustle the bushes to announce his presence, and make a quick retreat, but he really didn't want to spoil the girl's romantic moment. Besides, he was curious to see if she succeeded in her intention. He would leave if the situation became too intimate, of course. If that happened, they wouldn't notice his departure anyway.
The girl took a step closer to Roger. "I hope it was worth the trouble," she said softly.
Trevor grinned at the girl's hint for a compliment, recognizing it to be the first move in the game.
Roger, however, took no notice of the opportunity she'd given him. He glanced up at the sky. "Lovely night, what? A bit chilly for a stroll perhaps, but warm enough for February."
"Yes, it's a beautiful evening," she agreed, glancing at the moon overhead, then back at the man before her. She gave him a dazzling smile as she leaned closer to him. "Italy is so romantic, don't you think?"
"Er, yes, yes, I guess it is," he stammered, running a finger inside his collar in a stiff and uncomfortable fashion. Trevor's grin widened. What a cold fish, he thought. Was the man frigid, queer, or simply stupid? He felt sorry for the girl, though. It was a shame that such a delectable woman should have to work so hard for a kiss.
Roger cleared his throat. "I must say, I was astonished by your invitation to go for a walk. Delighted, of course, but astonished. You have so many suitors."
"None of my suitors have ever kissed me," she said, abandoning any attempt to be subtle.
Trevor didn't hold that against her. Coy women had never held any charm for him. Besides, subtlety was not going to work with a man like this.
"I should hope not," Roger answered her pompously. "You are a lady of quality. No gentleman would presume to be so forward."
Trevor rolled his eyes. To hell with the proprieties. Kiss her, you idiot. Can't you see that's what she's waiting for?
"Of course not," the girl echoed with such consternation and disappointment in her voice that Trevor choked back a laugh.
"Unless he were engaged to you," the man went on. "Then it would be quite all right, of course." He took a deep breath, as if gathering his courage, then grasped her hands in his and suddenly dropped to one knee. "Margaret—may I call you Margaret?" Without waiting for an answer, he continued, "I have such sincere regard for you, that I feel compelled to express my feelings. I have a deep fondness for you, and I respect you utterly. You would be the perfect wife for me. Will you marry me?"
The sight of a fastidious Englishman down on one knee in damp grass proposing marriage with all the passion of a schoolboy reciting catechism was nearly too much for Trevor.
Despite how silly the man might look at the moment, Trevor knew that most women would have been delighted by such an offer and would have accepted it triumphantly. This woman, however, did not look delighted at all. Nor did she seem to find the situation amusing. Instead, she stared down at the man in astonished dismay. She opened her mouth to speak, then shut it again, as if she really didn't know what to say. This was clearly not what she had been hoping for.
A few passionate kisses, some romantic words, yes. But it seemed a marriage proposal had not figured into her plans. Trevor wondered what she would say.
She tried to pull her hands away, but Roger held them fast and went on, "I've been planning to ask you for your hand almost from the moment we met, but I confess that until tonight, I wasn't certain of your feelings for me. You can be so circumspect, my dear."
"Roger," she said, "I'm afraid that you have mis—"
"But your charming invitation to walk in the garden told me that you care for me a great deal more than I realized," he babbled on as if she hadn't spoken.
Once again, she tried to speak. "But I really—"
"Tell me you'll marry me," he urged. "We would be a splendid match, you and I. All of society will envy us."
"Yes, I'm sure they would," she murmured, "but I really don't think—"
"Mother is quite fond of you, you know, even though you're American. She already told me it was quite all right to ask for your hand."
Right-ho, Trevor thought, Mummy has given permission. How nice.
The girl was now trying desperately to free herself. "Oh, Roger, do get up!" she said, finally jerking her hands out of his grip. "I should have known this wasn't going to work. Let's just forget the whole thing."
The man stared up at her in bewilderment. "Forget the whole thing? I don't understand."
"I know you don't. You've made a charming offer. I'm flattered, really. But I can't possibly marry you."
"You are refusing me?" he asked in disbelief. "But you invited me out here! You led me to believe—"
"I'm sorry if I misled you, I truly am. That was not my intention. But we are ill-suited, I'm afraid, and if we were to marry, it would be a grievous mistake for both of us."
Trevor heartily agreed. This was a girl clearly out of the common run, a girl who desired passion even though she was obviously innocent of its ramifications. He doubted Roger was capable of giving her what she longed for, in the marriage bed or out of it.
There was a long, uncomfortable silence before Roger finally spoke. "I see," he said coldly, and stood up. "You're right, of course. It would be a mistake." His voice grew more contemptuous with every word he spoke. "I should have known better than to waste my affections on an ill-bred American. Good-bye."
He bowed stiffly and departed.
"Oh, hell!" she muttered after he had gone. "My first real kiss and he had to act like such a prig and spoil it all!"
Trevor couldn't help it. He burst out laughing.
Margaret whirled around with a gasp. She stared in shock as a man she had never seen before emerged from the shadows, a man of formidable height and wide shoulders, with rumpled clothes, rakish black hair, and an unshaven face. But the clothes were of excellent cut, and his voice, when he spoke, was deep, cultured, and very much amused.
"You can't blame me for laughing." He came so close to her that she had to lift her chin to look into his face. She caught a glimpse of angular features and deep-set eyes, then everything suddenly began to blur. She shook her head from side to side and hastily took a step back, then another, trying to clear her champagne-drugged senses.
"If you step back any further, you'll be in the fountain," he pointed out.
Her heel hit the tiled surround of the fountain, and she was forced to halt her retreat. "Who are you?" she demanded.
"I don't know when I've seen anything so amusing in my life," he said without answering her question. "He is a prig, and I'm glad you refused to marry him."
She realized that he must have seen and heard everything, and her shock turned to outrage. "How dare you lurk back there in the shadows, eavesdropping!"
"I was here first," he replied. "If you wanted privacy, you should have made certain there was no one else here."
That did not pacify her, but she had the feeling it wasn't intended to. "You should have made your presence known immediately."
"And interrupt one of the greatest moments of a girl's life? I couldn't possibly."
"It was a private conversation!" she shot back furiously.
He smiled at her, a slow, teasing smile, and began to walk toward her. "Somehow, I got the impression it was kissing, not conversation, that you had in mind."
She was humiliated that this stranger had witnessed the embarrassing scene. But she refused to let it show. She tried to gather her dazed wits and muster some dignity. She lifted her chin and gave him her haughtiest stare. "I don't know what you mean."
"No?" He gently brushed her lips with the tip of his finger. The light touch paralyzed her, and she felt her heart pounding hard in her breast. Who was he?
"If you really want to experiment with kissing," he murmured, slowly stroking her lower lip, "you ought to choose a man who knows how to do it properly."
His words galvanized her into action. She grasped his wrist and violently pushed his hand away. "Like you, I suppose?"
"Is that an offer? Of course, I'd be happy to step in for poor old Roger." He leaned closer and added in a confidential whisper, "I promise I won’t ruin the moment by proposing."
His teasing smile widened, and she was certain that he was laughing at her. She opened her mouth to reply, but she could think of nothing sharp enough or scathing enough to shatter his arrogant self-assurance. Hot with embarrassment, dazed by too much champagne, and speechless with frustration and fury, she did the only thing she could think of. She ran away.
Still smiling, Trevor watched her hasty departure until something glittering in the moonlight caught his eye. He picked up the object and whistled. It was a woman's hair comb of gold filigree set with a multitude of diamonds. Toying with the jeweled comb that must be worth over a hundred pounds, he thought of the girl's enticing figure, trembling mouth, and innocently provocative attempts at seduction. It was an unusual and tempting mixture, and he felt a sudden rush of desire. A pity he hadn't been the one to take her for a moonlight walk. Perhaps she might have found her experiment a bit more gratifying. He certainly would have enjoyed it.