Roberta burst out laughing. “Anyone would enjoy your kisses! But you know I’m in love with someone else.”
His eyes had turned a dark sea green and she knew what that meant. “I think that’s why you’re so irresistible to me,” he said, his voice deep as his eyes. “You belong to someone else.”
“Oh—” she said, but he was kissing her again. And truly, she did love kissing him. In fact, she dimly thought that she could do it all day, except her father must be wondering why she was taking so long to dress.
A while later she gasped when his hand found her breast. She slapped his hand away. “I don’t belong to Villiers yet, but I’m not open territory either.”
“Because you don’t want me,” he prompted, a sardonic note in his voice.
She raised an eyebrow. “Who said that?”
He burst out laughing. “Try to play a docile maiden at least until after your wedding, could you?”
“I am a maiden,” she protested.
“So you do want me.” The words hung on the air, like some sort of challenge.
Roberta wasn’t going to lie. Lust, as any poet’s daughter knows, is nothing beside true love. “It’s not the same way that I feel about Villiers.”
A moment later she felt sorry she’d clarified the point, because something flew across Damon’s eyes, and she thought perhaps she’d hurt his feelings.
She tugged her bodice back into place. “Please help me send Papa back to the country.”
He looked down at her and sighed. “I suppose it’s no more than a cousin’s duty.”
They walked into the drawing room to find the marquess holding forth to a nonplussed Fowle. The butler was standing next to the door, as if he were on the point of flight. Even from the corridor Roberta could tell that her father was on one of his favorite subjects. “She was like a basilisk,” he said, “her eyes killed every man at whom she has glanced.” She realized with a sinking heart that her father had launched into the story of how he fell in love with Mrs. Grope.
“Mrs. Grope is a high-spirited woman,” Papa was saying as they entered. With his hands clasped behind his back, the marquess looked like a rather dapper magistrate. Roberta always found it interesting how very sensible her father appeared to be, though five minutes of conversation were generally enough to convince people of his unique views.
“Papa,” she said, dropping a curtsy. “What a lovely surprise this is, to be sure. Mrs. Grope.” She dropped another curtsy.
Mrs. Grope had dressed her hair enormously high for the occasion. It towered in a series of curls and arabesques before being topped off by a small replica of London Bridge.
Damon came forward and swept a bow. “Papa, Mrs. Grope, this is Damon Reeve, the Earl of Gryffyn.”
“My darling daughter,” her father said, catching her into a hug that ignored her curtsy altogether. “Lord Gryffyn, I remember seeing you in the Tête-à-Tête series, was it a year ago?”
“Papa,” Roberta interrupted. “This is a most unexpected pleasure and yet I must ask…why are you paying me a visit?” That was bald, but straightforward.
“The most delightful thing, dear child!” he cried. “My book, my magnum opus!”
“A publisher?” Roberta asked, feeling truly startled.
“Not exactly—not yet—not entirely—but soon!”
“We were positively longing for some entertainment,” Mrs. Grope said, putting a hand to her bosom. “Withering in the country, that’s what I said to your dear father.”
“But Papa, you said that London was nothing more than a nest of vipers,” Roberta said, feeling as if sand was shifting under her feet.
“But then I bethought me,” he said, beaming at her. “If I accompanied you to London, I could follow up on this matter of a publisher. A publisher is a consummation devoutly to be wished.”
“Indeed,” Damon said, amusement underlying his voice. “And you, Mrs. Grope?”
“I am a creature of the theater,” she said, striking an attitude. “I live for the moment when we enter Drury Lane, scene of my triumph.”
Roberta shuddered. Mrs. Grope had “trod the boards,” as she had it, before meeting the marquess in Bath and returning home with them. After one quick glance at Damon, she had turned herself at a right angle to him and stood with her elegant, if rather long, nose pointed into the distance. She was wearing more rouge than usual, Roberta thought uncharitably; her flush went from her jaw to under her eyes. “Ah, the days of yore when I conquered the boards!” she cried.
“The role of Elisabetina in The Clandestine Marriage,” Papa explained to Damon, who was doing a very credible job of keeping a sober face. “’Tis a sad comedown for a woman of her beauty to leave the stage, especially when the Prince of Wales himself delivered his commendations in person. Yet she did me the inexpressible joy of allowing me to become her patron.” He went down on one knee to kiss Mrs. Grope’s hand.
“Papa,” Roberta began.
“Don’t worry,” he beamed at her. “We won’t get in your way. I’ll assure the duke himself of that. And his lovely duchess. I’ve seen her picture many a time in the Tête-à-Tête column. Many a time! I expect now we’re in London, it’s a matter of time before my own Mrs. Grope is appearing there, but I certainly hope my picture will be opposite hers.”
“In my sister’s absence, I welcome you both to Beaumont House,” Damon interjected, bowing. “Fowle?”
“If your lordship would allow us a few more minutes, Mrs. Friss is readying chambers for our guests. I will ascertain her progress,” he said, bowing himself from the room.
“Papa!” Roberta said pleadingly. “I really don’t—I don’t want you here.”
His face fell, of course. That was the worst of it, and the reason why she was unmarried at one-and-twenty. His face fell, and he looked as if he were about to cry. “Don’t say that, dearest. I haven’t been able to sleep since you left.”
“No more he has,” Mrs. Grope said promptly.
Roberta threw her a beseeching look. She thought that Mrs. Grope, at the least, had understood how important it was that she find a husband. But Mrs. Grope sent her a rueful smile that admitted her total lack of influence.
“I haven’t slept, and I haven’t written a single poem in three days,” the marquess said, opening his eyes very wide. “How could I, when I had no idea with whom my child was consorting? How can I have allowed my own duckling, my little chicken, to wander the cold streets of London by herself?”
“I am hardly wandering the streets of London,” Roberta said, controlling her voice to a reasonable level with difficulty.
“I woke in the middle of the night, and I knew I did wrong,” her father wailed, a tear sliding down his cheek. “What would Margaret say, I asked myself?”
Damon nudged her.
“My mother,” she told him.
She folded her arms and waited; from long experience she knew that her father was only now getting into his stride. “Margaret would say I was wrong—wrong—wrong.” More tears fell down his face. Mrs. Grope patted his face with her handkerchief.