“Thank you for the painting of the mousetrap,” she said. And then added hastily: “That is, the picture of the mouse—the picture of the girl, holding the mousetrap!”

He laughed. “Wasn’t it a marvelous vignette, then?”

“Yes, indeed.”

“Oh, come now. I know you already to be a creature of wit to match your beauty. Surely you have more to say than ‘Yes, indeed’?”

Roberta swallowed a flash of annoyance. “I gather you would like me to comment on your metaphor? I found it interesting that the mousetrap contained a mouse. In fact, given the presence of a very interested looking cat in the corner of the painting, one could say that she was saving the poor wee mouse from being eaten.”

He grinned at her and that smile fired desire in her heart again, for the man she’d glimpsed in the inn, for the deep weight of his silver coat, the reserve in his eyes, the sense—

She realized suddenly that she had never imagined him as domesticated. As truly married to her. She thought of him as a wild animal whom she planned to trap. And by walking straight to her hand, he seemed more docile and less—less wild somehow.

Perhaps she wanted the feral cat, and not the neat little mouse, sitting in a cage.

“So you are rescuing me, are you?” he said with a chuckle. “And what would the cat represent, do you think?”

“Age, perhaps,” she said, giving in to a wish to make him sorry for making her feel young and stupid.

“Alas, age is a predator from which none of us escape.”

But she knew herself to be young and he at least ten years older, and so she merely turned her head, as if it would be petty to respond. ’Twas impolite, but he made no comment.

It was better, she told herself, that he learn not to condescend to her. She was aware of a shocking urge to be rude to him, which was not proper behavior for a woman who has just accepted a gentleman’s hand in marriage.

On that thought she smiled up at him, as if he were a knight come to rescue her from a dour dragon. There was an answering spark in his eyes. As if he realized that she held the trap in her hand, and only she could operate the latch.

She gave him another melting smile. There was more than one way to bait a trap, after all.

Chapter 24

D amon was well aware that he was consumed by lust. It was a dangerous state. He’d never before experienced it as a sort of waking fever dream, as the past few days when he walked the halls of Beaumont House merely so that he could catch a whiff of Roberta’s perfume, or see the flutter of her dress retreat around a corner.

Of course she was a devil of a woman, and had gotten herself engaged to Villiers, for God’s sake. He’d been talking to the Duchess of Berrow when Villiers pulled Roberta to the side of the room and dropped on one knee. There, in front of all of them, although no one seemed to notice except himself and Harriet, who’d fussed at him until he stopped staring and escorted her to a chair.

It was typical of Villiers. He had no need, apparently, no wish to make his marital arrangements in private.

It was the first time in Damon’s life that he had ever felt homicidal. And yet it wasn’t Villiers whose life trembled in the balance. It was hers. He had to have her. And yet…

Her eyes glowed as she smiled up at Villiers, that roué who would doubtless give her disease, and surely despair. She had ignored his bastards, the mistress he flaunted at the opera, the meaningless liaisons in which he had so freely engaged. There was something about him that had shattered her brain.

And that—that—made Damon feel deranged.

He’d never felt this emotion for a woman. He wasn’t that sort of man. He had a clear sense of himself. He loved Teddy more than was seemly; he knew that. He should leave Teddy to the care of servants, and he couldn’t seem to do so, and yet he was probably ruining his son in the process.

A child is like a good horse, he told himself. You should always leave a horse to be broken by a stable master. And yet somehow that was just what he was afraid of—that a nursemaid would break Teddy’s spirit behind his back, when he wasn’t looking.

But to return to the subject: he was a decent enough fellow. He’d never killed anyone in a duel, though he’d had reason and opportunity. He had far more money than people thought, given that Jemma played games of strategy on a board and he preferred to move his Bills of Exchange and Bills of Goods through the markets, as adroitly as any rook.

So why was he maddened—absolutely maddened—by the fact that a young woman had fallen in love and promised to marry another? Roberta thought he was all light and laughter, with no dark streak. She had no idea how furious she made him.

She wasn’t his. She belonged to Villiers, and that was all there was to it. The fact that the very sound of Villiers’s name made his stomach roil, made him think of the exquisite weight of a fencing steel…that was beside the point. If Roberta wanted Villiers, and not him, there was nothing he could do about it.

He had lost.

Unfortunately, he had suddenly realized that Roberta was the first thing in his life that he had ever truly wanted.

He would simply have to get used to it. Likely he only wanted her because she didn’t want him.

Like a magnet to the true north, he strolled toward her and Villiers. “I believe congratulations are in order,” he said, making a leg to the duke.

“The honor is all mine,” Villiers responded, languid as always.

The butler announced the arrival of a young lady, Miss Charlotte Tatlock. Villiers glanced over his shoulder. “One must suppose Her Grace has marked this young lady for your companionship, Gryffyn.” He said it politely enough, but Damon could see the No Poaching signs going up. Roberta belonged to Villiers now.

Damon walked off with a bright smile and a discovery.

The moment he knew of Teddy’s existence, he understood that his life was about to change. The fact that Teddy’s mother wanted nothing to do with her child did not particularly influence his decision. Teddy was his.

He just discovered a great, second truth.

Villiers could post all the signs he wished, but Damon was going to take exactly what he wanted.

Roberta.

He didn’t give a damn what she thought about it, or what Villiers thought about it. She was wrong.

She was his.

Chapter 25

C harlotte found herself seated at the right hand of her host, which was a signal honor. The duchess had placed Lady Roberta at the other end of the table in celebration of her engagement to the Duke of Villiers, between her future husband and her father, the Marquess of Wharton and Malmesbury. On Charlotte’s right was a gentleman named Lord Corbin. Across from her was another duchess, whose name Charlotte didn’t quite catch. Berrow, perhaps? But she wasn’t at all terrifying for someone so noble. In fact, she reminded Charlotte of a nice moorhen, although perhaps she was more of a mourning dove, dressed in soft gray. She smiled at Charlotte very kindly, though she said nothing to her directly.

In truth, the group was so small that conversations flared everywhere, in disregard of all the rules she had learned regarding proper etiquette at the dining table.

Her end of the table was quickly embroiled in a political battle. May had begged her to stay away from politics, but it wasn’t her fault. No sooner had she sat down than the duke informed the Earl of Gryffyn, the duchess’s brother, that she was one of his staunchest opponents.

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