Wicked All Day
Pocket Star Books, September, 2009
|Excerpt from the novel Wicked All Day|
Surrendering Robin to his fate, Lord Mercer set a course directly across the ballroom. The remaining dancers parted like the Red Sea before him. At his approach, a few of the more practiced ladies snapped open fans and plied them rather too vigorously, their gazes dropping with feigned modesty as he passed. Mercer was not fooled; he knew precisely what such women offered—and had he not, these last few months with his mistress would most certainly have enlightened him.
No, he was far more intrigued by the slender, waif-like creature he had just espied strolling deeper into the gardens. His cousin Zoë, God’s most diligent mischief-maker. And she was hanging upon the arm of one of her more salacious suitors. Mercer sensed another catastrophe in the making.
At the French windows, he hesitated, taking a surreptitious look round to see who might be observing his departure. Zoë’s father, Lord Rannoch, was nowhere to be seen, and the musicians had just struck the first notes of a popular country dance. Everyone seemed to be surging toward the dance floor.
Tucking his cheroot case away, Mercer stepped out onto the terrace. Here, the garden lanterns swayed in the faint summer breeze, casting eerie, flickering shadows across the flagstone and into the garden’s lush foliage. Mercer went down the steps, not entirely sure why he did so. Indeed, he was never certain of anything where Zoë was concerned. He knew only that she was apt to get herself into trouble, and that he would drag her kicking and screaming out of it. Then, undoubtedly, she would rail at him after the fact while he held his tongue and his temper.
A telltale flash of shimmering gold—Zoë’s shawl—led him down the garden path and around the faintly gurgling fountain. Frustrated, he picked up his pace. In the deepening gloom, his every sense heightened. The sound of the crickets. The smell of the Thames far below. And still lingering in the air, unless he imagined it, the fragrance Zoë had long favored; an exotic combination of citrus and jasmine. All these things came to him as Mercer’s feet fell softly on the winding flagstone, and something vaguely sickening—dread or regret, perhaps—began to churn in his stomach.
He had no doubt that he would find the pair—the garden was not large—and little doubt of what he would see once he did so. A rake and a rotter to his very core, Randall Brent was forever on the doorstep of Insolvent Debtor’s Court. Such a man had but one reason for escorting Zoë so deep into the greenery, and Zoë was a fool to have gone. Perhaps, he grimly considered, it would serve the heedless chit right to find herself married off to the bastard. But that notion served to make him more frustrated still.
Just then, Mercer turned a corner near the very edge of the lamplight’s reach. Zoë’s back was to him, her gossamer gold shawl hanging carelessly from her elbow, one end trailing the ground. Her gaze was locked with Brent’s. The scoundrel towered over her slender form, his hand grasping her upper arm. Clearly they did not hear his approach, for though their voices were low, both spoke with an urgency Mercer did not like.
Suddenly, everything happened at once. Brent seized Zoë’s other arm, yanking her nearer. But not near enough. In a flash, Zoë lifted one knee. She stamped her foot hard, ramming her heel into the top of Brent’s arch. On a yelp, Brent let go, and hopped back on one foot, careening sideways into Mercer’s path.
Mercer caught him by the shoulder, and jerked him up sharp. “Brent, you will excuse yourself from my home, sir,” he said tightly.
Brent’s eyes widened. “But she—she—” Here, he cut Zoë a nasty glance. “You minx!” he hissed. “You came out here with me willingly. Tell him, damn you.”
“La, sir,” said Zoë, calmly drawing up her shawl, “I agreed to stroll with you, not to be dragged into the shrubbery like some three-penny strumpet.”
“Zoë, be silent,” Mercer commanded. He thrust out his arm in the direction of the back gate. “Now get off my property, Brent. I don’t give a bloody damn what you thought she intended.”
The man sidled away, still hobbling on one foot. “The little jade was willing,” he hissed. “She came out with me alone into the dark—and I shan’t hesitate to say so.”
“You weren’t in the dark,” said Mercer coolly. “Moreover, I have been your escort the whole time, as I am sure Miss Armstrong is aware. You realized, Zoë, did you not, that I was but a few steps behind?”
Zoë lowered her sweeping black lashes in mock contrition. “Yes, my lord. Of course.”
Mercer smiled tightly at her. “Well, that affair is settled,” he said, returning to his former guest. “As to you, Brent, should another vulgar allegation pass your lips with regard to my cousin, you’ll be settling your affairs. I trust I needn’t strip off a glove to make my point?”
A look which might have been fear flared behind his eyes, then Brent turned and slowly melted into the darkness. Mercer watched him go, raw hatred seething in his gut.
But why? Brent was the same scoundrel he had ever been. And Zoë—well, she was the same rash little coquette, and too damned beautiful for her own good. Mercer wanted, suddenly, to rail at her. To shake her until her teeth rattled and her hair came tumbling down. To turn her over his knee and—
Ah, God. What a fool he was.
Abruptly, he turned. “Take my arm,” he gritted, offering it. “I shall see you safely inside.”
Zoë looked at him hesitantly.
“Take it,” he snapped.
Something in his gaze convinced her. Abruptly, she seized it, stepping out in some haste to keep pace with his longer strides. Mercer did not slow, but instead more or less dragged Zoë back up the garden path, stopping only when they were well within view of the ballroom.
On the flagstone terrace, she paused some distance from the doors, lifted her skirts a fraction, and gave a perfunctory curtsey. “You are very kind, Mercer,” she said. “I thank you.”
He gave a humorless laugh, and drew his silver case from his pocket again. “Oh, I doubt it,” he said. “As usual, Zoë, you think you had matters under control.”
Her lips formed a perfect little moue. “Good heavens, Mercer, it was just a flirtation,” she said. “I daresay you mean to rip up at me now.”
He watched her intently across the terrace as he extracted a cheroot. Sometimes it felt as if she wished to torment him. But the urge to rattle her teeth had receded, thank God, displaced by his usual cool distance. “It is hardly my job to lecture you,” he returned. “But it is Rannoch’s—and in my opinion, the man’s a coward for not giving you a good caning eons ago.”
Zoë gave an impudent swish of her skirts as she stepped an inch nearer. “Why, you look rather as if you might like to do the job for him,” she whispered, her voice pitched as if to send a shiver down his spine. “And I swear, Mercer, that scowl quite ruins your good looks.”
Somehow he managed to look unfazed. “Why Zoë,” he drawled, “I didn’t know you cared.”
She tossed her head, the lamplight catching the emerald drops which swung from her plump earlobes. “Well, I don’t, I daresay,” she retorted. “Just be careful it doesn’t freeze like that and stick your haughty eyebrows together. Your pretty vicomtesse mightn’t find you so appealing in bed.”
Despite himself, Mercer gave a bark of laughter. The chit really was quite unrepentant. After shaking his head, he set the cheroot to his lips. “I would ask your indulgence, Zoë,” he said, thumbing open his vesta box, “but I know you aren’t much bothered by smoke.”
A familiar, deeply mischievous smile tugged at her mouth. “Very little,” she agreed, lifting her chin as if to show off her pale, swanlike neck. “I don’t suppose you’d care to share?”
“Absolutely not.” Mercer lit the cheroot, still eyeing her warily. “Now, tell me, Zoë, what would you have done had Rannoch caught you hiding out here with Brent? Do you never consider such things?”
“Dash it, I wasn’t hiding with Brent.” She exhaled on an exasperated huff. “I was hiding from Papa, if you must know, because Sir Edgar told me Papa was looking for me, and those two circumstances taken together never spell good news for me, if you know what I mean.”
“I’m not sure I do,” he replied.
“Oh, never mind!” Zoë threw up her hands. “In any case, Brent merely caught up with me on the terrace, and asked me to stroll. It seemed as good a diversion as any. After all, that’s half the battle, isn’t it?”
“Diversion,” she answered impatiently.
“Diversion from what, pray?”
She swallowed, the muscles of her throat sinuous as silk. “Well, from . . . from life’s tribulations.”
“Life’s tribulations, eh?”
Pondering this, Mercer puffed for a time in an attempt to coax the tobacco fully to life, his wary gaze never leaving Zoë’s face. He had never understood her, this dark, dangerous vixen who had somehow grown from a solemn, mop-haired child to an effervescent, giggling pain in his arse, and then into—well, into something that could cause even a sensible man to lose sleep at night, were he fool enough to let it. And no one had ever called Mercer a fool.
“Do you know what Brent is, Zoë?” he finally asked.
“Oh, for pity’s sake, I cut my teeth on men like Randall Brent.” She marched two steps nearer, defiance flashing in her oddly colored eyes. “The man’s an arrant womanizer, yes. On the other hand, so are you—and yet here I stand, perfectly safe.”
He exhaled slowly, sending a long stream of gray smoke into the darkness. “Yes,” he said quietly. “But I am a womanizer of a different sort altogether, my dear.”
“Well, it hardly matters, does it?” She leaned into him, her small, gloved hands still set high on her hipbones. “Indeed, I sometimes think you wouldn’t try to kiss me again, Mercer, if I begged for it.”
“How astute of you,” Mercer murmured, wishing to God she’d step back, and stop reminding him what a fool he was. Wishing to the devil that warm, sensual scent of jasmine and spice didn’t waft up on the heat from her skin. “No, I do not trifle with unmarried ladies, and—”
“You did once,” she persisted, her voice a dusky whisper. “A long time ago. Do you remember, Mercer? I do.”
Did he remember?
Dear God. He remembered every time he saw her—but if ever he laid a hand on Zoë Armstrong again, he likely would not stop at a kiss. Mercer, however, was schooled in self-discipline, so he hid the heated frustration that was ratcheting up inside him. Instead, he merely lifted one brow and forged on.
“Brent is not just a womanizer, Zoë,” he continued. “He’s a rake. He’d ruin you just for the pleasure of it.”
“My, are we changing the subject?” Zoë stepped another inch closer, charging the air with electricity as her voice warmed him. “Are you really so unlike me, Mercer? Do you . . . do you never think about . . . . well, about that one time?”
“Oh, no, don’t try your wiles on me, my girl!” he gritted. “I don’t for a moment think you serious. Now, I believe we were discussing Randall Brent?”
The charge in the air quieted abruptly, and Zoë’s mischievous smile returned. “Hoo!” she said dismissively. “You think I can’t handle his sort?”
“That’s half the trouble, Zoë,” he answered, pensively tapping off his ash. “I’m relatively confident you can.”
At that, her dark, arching eyebrows snapped together. “Then I do not understand why you must be so churlish over a meaningless flirtation.”
Inexplicably, her sangfroid angered him. “And what I do not understand,” he snapped, “is why you cannot see that you deserve something better.”
Her gaze widened.
“And what I cannot understand,” he continued, both his tongue and temper slipping, “is why you throw yourself away on men like Brent. Why you break men’s hearts for sport. Or why you waste an obviously fine mind in frivolous pursuits and pointless flirtations. That, Zoë, is what I do not understand. So, would you like to argue about those things? Would you care to explain to me why you prefer something meaningless to something—or someone—who is real?”
At that, she dropped her hands, still fisted, her glower melting into a look of dumbstruck stupefaction. Her mouth opened, then closed again.
“No,” he said quietly, “I thought not.”
Then Mercer drew one last puff on his cheroot, and hurled it into the darkened depths of the side garden. He had lost his taste for it. Moreover, he’d lost his taste for this conversation. And he certainly did not need his impetuous young cousin reminding him of his own folly, however long ago it might have been.
With one last nod to her, he turned on one heel and reentered the ballroom, his face as emotionless as when he’d left it.