A Tale of Two Lovers (The Writing Girls #2)(19) by Maya Rodale

They stood opposite, with fists raised and at the ready.

Roxbury would never admit it to anyone, but he felt the stirring of feelings for Lady Somerset. Those messy, inconvenient, confusing things that led to all manner of desperate behavior and heartache.

Feelings were no stranger to him. While most of his lovers were, admittedly, casual flings, he did have some passionate affairs of the heart. Those had sparked instantly and burned out quickly.

But this slow, smoldering interest in Lady Somerset was troubling because it was based on learning her rather than a sudden explosion of attraction, a passionate indulgence, and an interest that faded swiftly. All this, when by all rights he ought to despise her.

Around and around he and his opponent circled, fists at the ready. The buck had a vaguely familiar face, but he couldn’t place it, or attach a name. His opponent, whoever he was, attempted a jab to Roxbury’s jaw, which was easily evaded. Apparently, they were not playing by gentlemen’s rules.

It was something about the way she strolled into White’s dressed as a man, yet still accepted his hand when alighting the carriage. It was the sharp twists and turns of their conversation that were so enthralling that he forgot about ogling her . . . almost.

She had a marvelous figure, that Lady Somerset. Too bad she kept it covered.

In short, she appealed to both his brain and body. She might have been the first one to do so, and he couldn’t remember a face or a name of one of his previous women. Only Julianna came to mind.

Roxbury’s fists burned, and sweat beaded on his forehead but brushing it away wasn’t worth the risk. Another jab evaded, another blow avoided.

This thing he felt about her was new, even though he was a renowned lover of women. He loved loving them, he enjoyed their company and delighted in bedding them. But when it came to an attachment beyond physical desire—well, that was uncharted territory that he did not intend to travel.

Of course, he also intended that he should never marry.

His fist shot out, blocking a potential blow from his opponent.

That damned ultimatum . . . it hung over his head like a blade from a guillotine. The clock ticked, the days passed, the sweat dripped into his eyes and his heart pounded.

All the while, his hands were bound, rendering him powerless, frustrated, and hopeless. He couldn’t honor that damned ultimatum even if he wanted to. But he didn’t want to.

Another punch blocked, another light step out of range, again dodging the onslaught.

Roxbury did not want to lose by default, either. He was a proud man, a wealthy aristocratic man. He did not passively accept his lot, but forged his fate with his bare hands and force of will.

Even if a woman did everything she could to destroy him. At the thought of her, and his fate, and the image of the guillotine and her voice—by God, her voice—reciting her latest “Fashionable Intelligence,” Roxbury’s blood hit the boiling point and spilled over.

His fist shot out, sure, quick, and steady. It landed solidly in his opponent’s gut. The man doubled over, breathless, and then collapsed.

That’s how he felt when he’d read Lady Somerset’s latest column.

He thought of it now and heard it again in her voice. It was the sound of betrayal:

Lord R— was seen obviously enjoying the company of his ‘cousin’ from Shropshire—a fetching young man, by all accounts—at White’s, where they spoke at length in a private tête-à-tête over the wager book.

And the contents of that wager book? Dear readers, I am delighted to share . . .

Chapter 18

Roxbury’s house, the study

Later that evening . . .

With a brandy in his very bruised hand, Roxbury dwelled upon the rest of the bad news—there was more, beyond Julianna’s column once again depicting him as having a taste for men, and now young men! He shuddered.

Though he knew they were not, it seemed as if Lady Somerset, the Man About Town, and his own damned father seemed to be conspiring against him.

The Times featured another tell-all from a courtesan whom he had not, in fact, bedded. Between these two gossip columns he had reportedly tupped most of London—female and male. He was exhausted just reading about it.

The Man About Town also reported the following:

Lady Hortensia Reeves was overheard saying of Lord R—, his lovers, and the rumors: she didn’t care who, what, where, when, how, he bedded; she would have him as her husband any day.

He still had options: he could marry Lady Hortensia Reeves, secure his fortune, and carry on with his affairs while his wife pined away for him. All of her property—those collections of dung beetles, bottle caps, embroidery samples, four-leaf clovers, and assorted house pets—would become his.

The thought made his stomach churn—though not as much as the letter he received from his father.

The old man was writing from Bath, where he and the countess were visiting with relations and taking the waters. Rumors were reaching them about Roxbury’s exploits, but the earl still expected him to tie the knot by the end of the week—or accept the consequences.

Seven days. He had a mere seven days to determine his fate.

It was tempting to say to hell with the ultimatum. With some concessions to frugality and economization, living off of the income from his own small estate was possible.

Here he paused, thoughtful, took a sip of his drink, and began to pace in his study, which was one of two rooms in his house that had not been violated by an angry ex-mistress.

The temptation to refuse marriage, to refuse to be manipulated, to refuse to participate in this ultimatum was more than great. It was a seductive, empowering course of action he didn’t know why he hadn’t thoroughly considered earlier.

He would not need to marry Lady Hortensia Reeves. He would not need to marry anyone.

He could afford to laugh off Lady Julianna’s column and wait for the ton to forget. In time, they would. And, in time, he would inherit—that was a given. Until then, he would just make do with a little less and live on credit. That was not as horrendous a prospect as it had been before.

His pulse began to quicken. He hadn’t been desperate enough to consider this earlier, but now that he was—

There was a knock at the door.

“Enter,” he barked. It was Timson, his valet, who was discrete (had never uttered a word about his master publicly), and unflappable (never batted an eyelash when Roxbury returned the next morning in clothing that had spent the better portion of the night crumpled on the floor in a lady’s bedchamber).

He was also anything but subservient.

It was as appalling as it was fiendishly amusing.

“My lord. Will you be needing to dress for the ball at Lord and Lady Rathdonnell’s tonight?” Timson asked.

“Rathdonnell? Ball?” Roxbury echoed. It’d been some time since an invitation graced his home.

“You had replied favorably to the hostess when she sent her invitations out.”

“When was that?”

“A few weeks ago,” Timson said with a shrug.

“Ah. Before.”

Timson wisely elected not to say anything. Like anyone else, he read the papers.

“Well, I don’t know if I shall attend,” Roxbury said grandly, sipping his brandy. Since he might not take a wife after all, that certainly negated any reason for him to go.

Yet, a glance around the study at the fire in the grate and all the fine things gave him second thoughts.

Timson leaned against the doorframe, utterly bored.

“The invitation has not been revoked, which suggests that Lady Rathdonnell is half hoping that I will come if only to provide amusement for her guests and fodder for the gossip columns.”

Timson sighed.

“However, I also ought to take a wife, quickly.”

Timson raised an eyebrow. He was not aware of the ultimatum shadowing his master’s life. Should he refuse to comply? Choose poverty? He was not yet certain.

“Lord knows there are not any potential wives for me lying around the house.”

“Aye, that there ain’t.”

“Are not,” Roxbury corrected. “Yet, given my precarious social standing at the moment, and my experiences of the past week, I cannot expect that any sort of decent female would acknowledge me at the ball, were I to attend.”

Other than Lady Hortensia Reeves or, possibly, Julianna. Both women were reasons to consider disregarding that damned ultimatum.

Back and forth, he paced, pausing only to occasionally take a sip.

“It’s not a simple matter, Timson.”

To his valet, it was just an issue of whether or not to attend a party. To Roxbury, this was somehow his future. To adhere to the ultimatum, or not? Poverty or matrimony? Subservience to his father, or the master of his own destiny?

While Roxbury paced and debated a decision that was now taking on epic proportions, Timson brushed imaginary lint off his jacket.

“Can you not even pretend to care?” Roxbury demanded.

“If you paid me more,” his servant drawled.

“No other employer would tolerate such insubordination. You know that, do you not?”

“Aye, my lord,” Timson said with a grin.