The Husband Hunt Chapter nine

"I hope you are feeling better, Miss Madison."

Lisa turned from Suzette to peer at the man who had spoken, her eyes widening slightly when she saw that it was Lord Pembroke . . . whom she was supposed to stay away from. She should have realized he would attend the ball.

"Oh, yes, I - How did you know I was ill?" she asked suddenly, suspicion crowding her mind.

Pembroke's eyebrows rose slightly at the sharp question, but he explained gently, "Because when I sent a calling card today, your sister responded that you were feeling poorly and not accepting visitors in favor of resting up and recovering for tonight's ball. And then Tibald just told me that you were apparently unwell last night and didn't make an appearance then either."

"Oh, yes," Lisa murmured on a sigh, feeling guilty for her brief suspicions. Really, after some thought she found it hard to believe Pembroke could be behind her sudden illness. He seemed a very nice and likeable man. And handsome as he was, it was hard to believe he had to kidnap young women. Most would probably throw themselves at his feet, which reminded her of something Mrs. Morgan had said about the suitor and made her suspicions rise again.

"Are you feeling better?" Pembroke asked gently, reminding her of his earlier question.

"Oh, yes, thank you," she responded, her smile a bit forced now. "Much better."

"Good," he said with a nod. "Then I hope you saved a dance for me."

"Oh . . . I don't think . . ." She made a show of searching the bag at her waist for her dance card, her mind working as she tried to word the lie that she didn't have a single dance left.

However, she was stymied in her efforts to do as Robert wanted and avoid the man when Suzette said, "I have your card, dear. Remember Daniel asked you to save a dance for him and I was filling it in for you."

"Oh, yes, of course," Lisa muttered, turning to her.

"And you do have a dance or two left," Suzette said cheerfully. "See? A quadrille and a waltz. In fact, the waltz still available is the first song of the night and should be starting any moment."

Lisa froze as Suzette stuck the card under her nose so she could see.

"Delightful. I would love to dance the waltz with you," Lord Pembroke said, seeming quite pleased with how things had turned out.

"Oh, yes, of course then," Lisa said faintly, accepting the card to pencil in his name. What else could she do at that point?

Nothing that she could think of, unfortunately, and Lisa instinctively looked around for Robert. He was going to be annoyed, of course, but there was nothing she could do about that now, she thought, almost relieved when she saw that he was leading Daniel and Richard from the ballroom. No doubt in search of someplace to tell them about the events of the night before, she supposed. She knew he hadn't got the chance before now.

Christiana and Richard had been very late returning from the ball last night, and Robert had said he'd dozed off and missed their arrival. Richard had also apparently been up and gone before Robert rose that morning, returning just in time to rush above stairs and change for the ball.

She was quite sure they were about to get the news of last night's events now.

"It's starting. Shall we?"

Lisa forced a smile and accepted Lord Pembroke's arm, assuring herself as she went that all would be well. He would hardly try to drag her kicking and screaming from the dance floor. And, hopefully, the dance would be over before Robert returned to the room.

"Are you sure you are feeling well, Miss Madison?"

Lisa glanced up and managed a smile. "Yes. I . . . well, actually no, not really," she said, thinking she'd found a way to avoid this dance after all. "Perhaps I should skip this dance, my lord."

"Yes, of course," he said, all solicitous at once. "I suppose I shouldn't be surprised if you've been ill for the last day and night. Perhaps you shouldn't have even come tonight."

"No, I probably shouldn't have," Lisa agreed as he began to lead her from the floor, but even as she said it, she realized that was a mistake. Her dance card was full. How would it look if she were to dance with everyone else after claiming she didn't feel well enough to dance with him? Lisa was so vexed at the pickle she'd somehow got herself into that it wasn't until a cool breeze brushed her cheek that she realized he'd led her outside on to the terrace. Damn, this was worse than dancing with him. Robert would be beyond furious with her.

"I thought some fresh air would help," Pembroke said with concern, apparently noting her dismay. "You have a full dance card and some gentlemen aren't as understanding as myself about these things and might insist you dance. Perhaps some fresh air will help you through the rest of the night."

"Oh, I - Yes, of course. Hopefully it will help," she ended lamely, glancing nervously about and relieved to see that they were not alone on the terrace. She was less relieved when he began to lead her to the stairs down into the garden, however.

"Oh, my lord, I don't think we should venture far. My sisters will worry," she said anxiously, dragging her feet.

"We won't go far," he assured her soothingly, urging her along. "There is a bench just there and I thought you might do better to sit quietly for a bit and breathe deeply. It might make you feel better." "Oh." Lisa bit her lip and glanced from the house to the bench he was gesturing to. It was close enough she could see it, but it was in shadow. It was possible he planned to knock her out and cart her off, or simply drag her off as the man last night had tried to do. Although it would mean getting her over the wall surrounding the large gardens. But the man last night hadn't seemed worried about dragging her out a window and down a tree.

Come to think of it, how the heck had he thought he would accomplish that? She wondered about that suddenly and found herself halfway to the bench before she managed to shift her thoughts to the problem at hand. But it mattered little. She couldn't come up with a single thing to make him turn back toward the house. Lisa supposed she would just have to hope he didn't have any nefarious plans and that she was returned safely to the house . . . and before Robert returned from talking with Richard and Daniel.

It was a lot to pin her hopes on, Lisa acknowledged unhappily as Pembroke led her the last few feet to the bench.

"Here we are," Pembroke murmured. "Please sit and we shall just enjoy the night air for a bit. It is nicer this way anyway. We can better talk. Although, of course, it means losing out on the chance to hold you in my arms," he admitted wryly as he settled beside her and then added, "But then perhaps I can do both."

"Er," Lisa said uncertainly and then cut herself off on a gasp of surprise as he suddenly turned to slide his arms around her and draw her against his chest.

"Relax," he said soothingly. "I am just going to hold you while we sit here. After all, it is really not that different to my holding you on the dance floor, is it?"

Lisa stared at the shoulder she was pressed against, her eyes wide. It certainly was different. On the dance floor he would never dare hold her this closely. Nor would he let his hands roam over her back so freely as he pressed her tight to his chest.

"My lord," she said, trying to ease away by leveraging her arms against his chest. "This really isn't proper."

"I know, but I can't help myself," Pembroke sighed, squeezing her closer still despite her efforts. "I find myself quite overcome in your presence, Lisa. May I call you Lisa?" Before she could reply, he continued, "I have never encountered quite such a lovely creature as you in my life. The things I dream about doing to you." He released a gusty sigh, and then added, "Of course, I would be most pleased if you would consent to be my wife too."

"Er . . ." Lisa said, still struggling to put some space between them. Honestly, she was beginning to have trouble breathing with his pressing her so tightly to him and she began to worry that perhaps that was the point. Smothering her into a faint, perhaps, and then dragging her off to ravish and marry. Mrs. Morgan did say that the suitor wished to do both.

Good Lord, she never should have come out here with him. The thought was enough to send panic through her, followed closely by a sudden rush of strength that caught Pembroke by surprise and allowed her to break the embrace. She almost sent him crashing to the ground in her fervor to be free, but he managed to save himself. By the time he regained his balance and straightened, however, Lisa was on her feet and hurrying back the way they'd come.

"Miss Madison!"

"Miss Madison."

One call came from Pembroke behind her, but the other came from in front and Lisa chose to turn her attention to the one in front, beaming a relieved smile on Lord Tibald as she recognized the man walking down the steps toward her.

"My lord," she greeted the newcomer a little breathlessly as she paused before him. She took a quick nervous glance over her shoulder to see Pembroke hurrying toward them, and skirted around the other man, toward the stairs.

"Go ahead," Tibald said gently, giving her a gentle push. "I shall handle him. He had a bit too much to drink before the ball and is notoriously difficult when in his cups."

"Thank you, my lord," Lisa said with relief and hurried up the stairs and across the terrace. She had nearly reached the doors when a dark shape swooped out of the shadows, caught her arm in a steel grip and urged her along the terrace to the doors of a dark room. Lisa was so taken by surprise, she didn't even scream or struggle until it was too late and she was being bundled into the lightless room.

"What the devil did you think you were doing? I told you not to go near Pembroke and yet I return to have Suzette tell me that you were dancing the waltz with him. Only you weren't anywhere on the dance floor; you'd allowed him to take you outside."

"Robert," Lisa said with relief, recognizing his voice as he closed the terrace doors, enclosing them in darkness.

"Dammit Lisa, I am doing my best to keep you safe," he muttered as he struck a match and used it to light a candle on a nearby table before continuing. "But it would help if you would use some common sense and not throw yourself into danger at every turn."

"Throw myself into danger at every turn?" she gasped with amazement as he turned to glare at her.

"Yes," he snapped with frustration. "Running off to tea in brothels, opening your window to kidnappers and disappearing to the gardens with a man who could be the one behind all your trouble. What the hell are you thinking?"

"I didn't know Mrs. Morgan ran a brothel!" Lisa protested with outrage. "And I certainly didn't open the window for that man, I just wanted some fresh air and - dammit! I didn't want to leave the ballroom tonight. And I didn't want him mauling me as he was. In fact I was struggling to get free."

"Well, you certainly didn't look like you were struggling in Pembroke's arms down there in the gardens," he snarled. "You looked as cozy as a two-bit - "

His words broke off in surprise as her hand connected with his cheek in a sharp slap that echoed in the sudden silence.

Lisa was rather shocked that she'd done it. She hadn't intended to, didn't even realize she was going to until her hand connected with his face. Now she watched Robert raise a hand to the cheek she'd hit, and arch an eyebrow as he rubbed it.

"Interesting. You'll slap me, where you didn't slap him, yet claim you were unwilling. I guess that says just how unwilling you really were."

Lisa's hand flew up again, but this time he caught it. "Once will do," he growled, holding her by the wrist firmly. "Try it again and I shall have to punish you."

In response, Lisa let her other hand fly. She was so mad she wanted to flail at him; hit, slap, scratch and even pull hair. But she suspected it wasn't just anger at Robert for what he'd nearly said. She was furious that he was too obtuse to love her, angry that she'd felt so helpless in Lord Pembroke's hold until she'd broken free. Mad as hell that a woman she'd thought was a friend had tried to kidnap and drug her, primp and present her for the pleasure of some unknown man, and downright enraged that that unknown man thought he could and should be able to ravish and marry her if he so chose, against her will or not. She was mad about everything, and Robert was a handy target, so she let her other hand fly too.

But he caught her second hand as well. They glared at each other briefly, both breathing heavily with an excess of emotion, and then Robert suddenly used his hold on her wrists to tug her forward against his chest and then swung her arms down and behind her back, forcing her closer against his chest as he covered her mouth with his.

As punishments went . . . well . . . she rather liked it, Lisa decided as his mouth moved firmly over hers and urged her lips open. He definitely kissed differently from Lord Findlay. There was no softness here, no nipping, or nibbling, no teasing or that feeling of wanting something more, something that was undefinable to her.

She was now getting the something more - Robert's tongue thrashing her own and then receding before returning to slide around hers again. That was what had been missing with Findlay, Lisa realized as she responded to the kiss, her body pressing instinctively closer and her tongue entering the dance.

"Christ," Robert muttered, tearing his mouth from hers to pepper kisses across her cheek and then down her neck to nibble, suck and nip there.

Lisa moaned in response, struggling instinctively to free her hands to touch him.

"You're driving me insane," he growled, shifting her wrists to one of his hands so that his other could slip around and move up her waist.

Lisa gasped, rising up on tiptoe as his hand closed over one breast through her gown, trying to escape the caress even as she instinctively arched to press into it. She moaned when his mouth then trailed down across her collarbone, toward her neckline and then whispered his name urgently as she felt him tugging at the neckline of her gown, trying to free her breast as his tongue crested the slope above it.

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Much to her relief, he freed her wrists then, allowing her to slip her arms around his shoulders as he brought his other hand around to work at the difficult neckline of her gown until he got one breast free. Robert immediately latched onto it, squeezing the soft globe as he sucked the entire nipple and aureola into his mouth.

"Robert," Lisa gasped, shocked by the bursts of pleasure that sent shooting through her. This then was the warm tingly stuff Fanny and Sophia had spoken about in their books. They really hadn't described it very well at all, she decided, clawing at Robert's shoulders with excitement until she couldn't stand it anymore and had to grab him by a handful of hair to drag his mouth back to hers again.

Robert obliged, his kiss this time demanding rather than punishing. But his hands continued to caress and squeeze, one at her exposed breast and the other now on her behind and urging her hips against his as his tongue worked its magic.

Lisa was vaguely aware of his moving her backward, but didn't understand why until she felt something press into her bottom, and then his hands gave up their squeezing and caressing to catch her by the waist and lift her to sit on that something. A desk, she thought, or a table. Lisa was too busy to look around and see. And then his one hand was back at her breast, but the other was tugging her skirt up one leg until he could slip his hand beneath and run it up from her knee along her outer thigh.

Lisa moaned and squirmed under the caress, her bottom shifting on the hard surface she sat on, and her own kiss becoming wildly demanding now. Her fingers tugged eagerly at his hair even as her palms pressed him closer. When his hand then slid back down her thigh only to ride back up, gliding along the inside of her thigh this time, she began to squirm in earnest, little gasps of excitement puffing from her mouth to his. When his fingers brushed against the curls between her legs, Lisa positively jumped, bucking up and back at the same time and legs squeezing together trapping his hand there.

Distracted as she was by what Robert was doing, Lisa wasn't at first aware that her actions and their weight had set the small table she was sitting on tumbling backward. Robert was a little quicker on the uptake and did try to save them both, but he was off balance and merely managed to stumble and fall with her. His weight crashed down on her chest even as her back hit the hard floor. Lisa groaned in pain from both that and the pain suddenly radiating from the backs of her knees which were caught on the edge of the table. "Damn," Robert muttered, scrambling to get off of her. "Are you all right?"

Lisa winced, but opened her eyes and managed a crooked smile. "I think so. A little bruised maybe, but otherwise all right." "I'm sorry," he apologized, shifting to help her up.

Lisa stood carefully, grimacing at the pain in her back and legs. Once he had her on her feet and was sure nothing was broken, Robert immediately turned to quickly right the table and replace the few things that had been on it besides her and him. Realizing that she was standing there with one breast still out, Lisa quickly tucked it back in her dress. She then checked her hair with her hands, and blindly tried to repair any damage that may have been done, but it was difficult when she couldn't see what damage the incident may have caused.

Frowning, she glanced around the room and spied a mirror hanging on one wall. Moving to it, Lisa was relieved to find that not too much damage had been done. She quickly straightened her hair and then brushed down her skirts before turning nervously back to Robert to find he had finished with his task and was now eyeing her silently. The look was one she recognized. She had known him a long time after all. That look was the one he wore when contemplating a troubling puzzle or problem he couldn't quite sort out.

It was rather lowering to be considered a troubling problem after what they'd just done and Lisa instinctively raised her shoulders in self-defense against whatever he was about to say. But all he said was, "We should probably return to the ball.

Suzette said you have a full dance card. Your absence will not go without notice."

Lisa stared at him silently for a moment, as disappointed as if he had insulted or slapped her, and then she simply turned away toward the door.

"Of course, you're right," she murmured, and then as she reached the door, she added, "After all, I am not going to find a husband in here, am I."

She dragged the door open and strode quickly up the hall toward the music and chatter coming from the ballroom.

"There you are. I have been looking everywhere for you. Our dance is about to begin."

Lisa paused abruptly and forced a smile when Lord Findlay suddenly appeared in front of her as she entered the ballroom. "I - " She paused and glanced over her shoulder when his gaze suddenly moved past her and narrowed. He'd spotted Robert, of course. Following her. Only Lord Langley hadn't thought to stop and check his appearance and his hair was disheveled as were his clothes. He looked like . . . well, like he'd been ravishing a young woman, she supposed, and wondered with dismay if her lips were as swollen and bruised as his.

"The music is beginning, my lord," she said desperately.

Lord Findlay shifted his gaze back to her face and then gave a small nod and smile. "Then we should dance."

Lisa let her breath out on a small puff of relief, hoping that meant she didn't look like she'd just been kissed silly, and allowed him to lead her onto the dance floor. But her hopes were dashed when Lord Findlay took her into his arms murmuring, "Do I need to call Langley out to defend your honor?"

Sighing, she sagged briefly in his arms and then forced herself upright again and blurted, "We were arguing."

Not surprisingly, that brought a dubious rising of one eyebrow. "And then I slapped him," she continued reluctantly, before babbling, "and then I slapped him again, and he kissed me for punishment and then the table fell over and he picked it up and we came back out." She grimaced as she finished, aware that she was probably blushing furiously.

Lord Findlay was silent for several seconds and then cleared his throat and asked, "And does he often punish you with kisses?"

"No, of course not, never," Lisa assured him, and then babbled nervously, "Well, except tonight, but you see he wanted me to stay away from Lord Pembroke, but I had to dance with him because of Suzette. Only Pembroke could tell I was uncomfortable and thought it was because I'd been sick and insisted on taking me out for air. Then he grabbed me, and I got away and Lord Tibald took care of Pembroke for me while I tried to come inside. But then Robert saw everything and dragged me off to rant at me about being with Pembroke, which is when I slapped him and . . . well, all the other followed and we returned to the ball," she ended weakly. "I see," Findlay murmured.

Lisa was doing her damnedest to avoid looking at him, afraid of what she would see in his eyes. But when his shoulder began to shake under her hand, she glanced at him nervously, amazed to see him struggling to stifle what appeared to be mirth.

"Are you laughing, my lord?" Lisa asked with amazement.

"I am sorry," he assured her sincerely, but the sincerity cracked under amusement as he added, "Truly you are the most delightful female. Sometimes I simply cannot make heads or tails of what you're saying."

"Oh," she muttered and supposed her explanation had been a little less than coherent.

"Why are you supposed to stay away from Pembroke?"

Langley asked.

"Because - " Lisa paused abruptly, and avoided telling the truth by repeating what Tibald had said. "Because he is notoriously difficult when in his cups."

"Ah, yes, he is," Findlay agreed solemnly. "I take it he is in his cups tonight?"

"Lord Tibald seemed to think so," Lisa muttered.

"Right." He nodded. "And how is it that you had to dance with Pembroke because of Suzette?"

"Oh," she sighed unhappily. "He came up asking about a dance and Suzette announced that the first waltz was still free, so of course I had to dance it with him."

"Of course," Findlay agreed wryly. "And did you enjoy Langley's punishing kiss?"

Lisa was so startled by the unexpected question that she actually stumbled in the dance. Lord Findlay immediately tightened his hold on her, drawing her closer against his chest to prevent her falling and she took refuge there briefly to avoid answering the question. "Are you all right?" he asked, easing her back a moment later. It was the smart thing to do. It really wasn't proper to be hanging on a man like that.

Lisa nodded, still avoiding his eyes. "I - yes, thank you."

He allowed a moment of silence to pass, and then pointed out gently, "You have not answered the question . . . but then perhaps that is answer enough," he added quietly, sounding disappointed. "I - it's not - I liked your kiss," she said finally if a little weakly. "Did you?" Charles asked, cheering somewhat, and then tilted his head and said, "Better or less than his?"

He would have to ask that, Lisa thought with vexation and then said, "They were two entirely different kisses. Yours was gentle and . . . er . . . sweet. His was . . ." She briefly sought her mind for an acceptable description. Certainly, hot, passionate and overwhelming wouldn't do. Finally, she said, "Hard."

Lord Findlay blinked at the word. "Hard? What was?"

"His kiss," she said with a frown. "That is what we are talking about, my lord. If you will insist on discussing this, please at least try to follow the conversation."

"Yes, of course, my apologies," Charles murmured quickly, his lips twitching again.

"So you see, they were two entirely different kisses. Impossible to compare."

"I would imagine," he said agreeably.

"However, perhaps if you were to kiss me hard, well, then I could compare the two," she suggested as the idea came to her. Robert's kisses had been heart stopping. He'd wrung passion from her as easily as the maids at home wrung water from a soaking rag. Really, it had been the most exciting, most enjoyable experience of her life. She was not willing to live with a lesser passion in her marriage bed. But she wasn't likely to get Robert to marry her with him being such a dense and stubborn idiot of a male. But surely he wasn't the only one who could wring such passion from her?

Perhaps if Lord Findlay used a bit more fervor in his kisses and didn't treat her as if she were so fragile she might crumble under his passion . . . well, perhaps he too could stir those depths of passion from her.

It seemed perfectly reasonable to her. Findlay had already kissed her once. It was just that his had lacked the passion and fervor of Robert's, but then it was possible that he had just been considerate of her being a lady.

She raised her head to peer at Lord Findlay to see what he thought of the suggestion and found him staring down at her with quite the most startled expression.

"Are you . . . ?" He paused to clear his throat and then said carefully, "Are you suggesting you would like me to give you a punishing-type kiss?"

"Well I would rather that than ask Robert to give me a gentle kiss," she admitted wryly, and Lord Findlay released a burst of startled laughter that made the arms holding her shake and vibrate. Lisa smiled wryly, glad she'd amused him this time, and then, in the next moment, Charles began to whirl them to the side and right out of the ballroom.

Lisa glanced around with surprise as he walked her across the terrace. She hadn't realized they'd been so close to the doors while speaking and hadn't expected the moment to come quite this soon.

Actually, she hadn't really been thinking at all when she'd made the suggestion: she'd mostly been desperate to have Lord Findlay wipe the memory of Robert's kisses from her memory, and hopefully stir the same passion he had. If Charles could . . . well, perhaps all would be well after all.

Lord Findlay stopped walking and she glanced around to see that he'd led her to the darkest corner of the terrace where no one was likely to notice or see. When he then turned her to face him, she shifted nervously, her eyes shooting everywhere but to his face. "Punishing, huh?" he murmured thoughtfully, seeming reluctant.

Lisa was about to call it off, and let him off the hook when he suddenly caught her arms, dragged her up against his chest and planted his mouth on hers. This was definitely punishing, Lisa decided as his mouth crushed hers bruisingly against her teeth. Had Robert really been trying to punish her? Not bloody likely if this was punishing, because this was nothing like what Robert had done, she thought with dismay as Charles bit at her lip and forced her mouth open with his tongue. When it then swept inside, it wasn't with the questing grace of Robert's, but with a conquering fervor, filling her until she thought she would choke on it or suffocate.

Robert may have called it punishment, but his kiss hadn't been punishment at all compared to this. Good Lord, and she'd asked for it, she thought with dismay as Lord Findlay continued to mash his mouth over hers. What on earth had she been thinking?

The kiss, if that's what it was, seemed to be interminable, and Lisa was more than relieved when it finally ended and he lifted his head.

"Well?" he asked, breathing a bit heavily.

Lisa stared at him blankly for a moment and then cleared her throat and offered, "It was much more masterful than . . . er . . . you know."

Really, it was the best she could do under the circumstances.

She could hardly criticize it when it was exactly what she'd asked for.


Sighing as she recognized the owner of that sharp voice, she turned and grimaced at Robert as he paused a few feet away. He was angry, of course, his hands clenched and back stiff as a board, but then he always seemed to be angry with her lately, she thought unhappily.

"I am right here, my lord," she said grimly. "There is no need to bark at me like a dog."

"Inside," he growled, which really wasn't much better than barking, in her opinion.
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