The Husband Hunt
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"You were not supposed to leave the house."
"No one said anything about not leaving the house," Lisa said calmly, starting up the stairs with Bet on her heels. They had stopped to collect the maid on the way back to Christiana and Richard's home, as well as to wish the other men good day, and then Lord Findlay had returned her and Bet to the townhouse with Robert at their back every minute of the journey like some disapproving parent.
"You are being deliberately obtuse, Lisa," Robert said grimly, following them up the stairs. "I am here to watch over you. How can I do that if you are not even in the house?"
"Well, if you had been there watching me then I wouldn't have gone without you, would I?" she asked mildly. "Besides, I was perfectly safe."
"I was meeting with a Bow Street runner to arrange for the capture of Mrs. Morgan," he hissed, moving up beside her to avoid the possibility of one of the servants hearing. "It was necessary. And I was just up the bloody hall. As for being safe, you don't know that. Findlay could have been planning to run off with you at any moment."
"I don't think running off with me was the plan," Lisa said calmly as she reached the landing and started up the hall. "No. He was too busy kissing you," he muttered.
"Trying to kiss me," Lisa corrected mildly. "However, you do keep interrupting his attempts. I wish you would stop that, Robert."
"You wish . . . You want him to kiss you?" he asked with outrage.
Lisa stopped at her bedroom door and turned to face him as Bet opened it and entered. "Of course I want him to kiss me. Why wouldn't I? He's handsome, eligible and I've never been kissed. I should like to see what it's like. After all, I wouldn't want to marry him do I not enjoy his kisses."
"Marry him!" he squawked with amazement.
"Well, that is what I am in town for, Robert. To find a husband, and Lord Findlay is the handsomest of the options so far. So, I should like him to kiss me so I can see if I like it, or if I should turn my attentions to one of the other men instead, one whose kisses I might like better."
"Are you telling me you intend to just let him kiss you? Then if you don't like it, allow someone else to kiss you, and then someone else?" he asked with slow disbelief.
Lisa nodded. "That seems the most sensible plan to me. If I find them physically attractive, then I talk with them to see if I like their personality, and if so, well then I should see if I like their kisses." "What?" he asked with horror.
She rolled her eyes with exasperation at his expression. "There is more to marriage than sitting across the table every morning talking," she pointed out. "It does seem to me I should see if the man I plan to marry can stir some passion in me. I should like a marriage as wonderful and heated as Christiana and Suzette were lucky enough to find."
"Dear God," Robert muttered and then shook his head. "Lisa, you cannot simply run about allowing every man in London to kiss you until you find the one who - "
"Why not?" she interrupted. "It is just a kiss, but according to Sophie, a kiss can tell you a lot about what kind of lover a man is. Surely I'm not expected to go into marriage just hoping I will enjoy my marriage bed?"
Robert's mouth moved briefly with nothing coming out and then he asked with irritation, "Who the devil is Sophie?"
"She is a . . . er . . . Bird-of-Paradise," she whispered, glancing up the hall to be sure there were no servants about to hear.
"A Bird-of-Paradise?" Robert bellowed. "For God's sake, Lisa. You are friends with a brothel owner and a Bird-of- Paradise?"
She scowled at him for shouting, but said, "Of course not, Robert. I read Sophie's memoirs. And I didn't know Mrs. Morgan was a brothel owner."
"The memoirs of a Bird-of-Paradise," he muttered, running his hand wearily through his hair. "Dear God, you read the most horrid . . . Does your father know about these books of yours?"
Lisa rolled her eyes and turned toward her door, only to be swung back by Robert's hand on her arm.
"Lisa Madison, I forbid you to allow anyone to kiss you," he said firmly. "It is - "
"My choice," she interrupted firmly, and then said more gently, "Really Robert, while I love you like a big brother, you aren't one, and have no right to forbid me anything." Tugging her arm free, she shook her head and turned to enter her room, adding, "I fully intend to kiss whomever I wish. I don't know why you care anyway. It is not like you're jealous."
The door closed behind Lisa, leaving Robert standing there staring at it blankly with her words echoing in his head. She loved him like a big brother? When had that happened? She used to adore him. Good Lord, had a couple of days of having men like Findlay, Pembroke and Tibald fawning over her made that much difference? Impossible.
Or was it? he wondered. Other than servants, he had been the only male around while the Madison sisters were growing up. Perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that she would have a crush on him. But now she was surrounded by men. They were flocking to her like bees to honey. It seemed that was enough to cool the longstanding ardor she'd had for him and turn her adoration to filial affection.
He should be relieved, Robert supposed. But, oddly enough, he wasn't. He felt . . . betrayed. Abandoned. And even . . . Dear God, he was jealous. The very idea of her kissing any man, let alone several, had him wanting to gnash his teeth. The problem was, he didn't know if he was jealous because he was just used to her being in love with him, or because he actually wanted her for himself.
Robert really had thought of Lisa as something of a little sister for years, finding her adoration of him amusing and annoying by turn. But finding her in that brothel, dressed in that damned seethrough gown . . . the one she planned to wear on her wedding night to another man.
It wasn't just that though. Lisa was changing and quickly. The attentions of all these men were building her confidence. She laughed more gaily, a full, infectious laugh rather than the shy twitter he was used to hearing. She walked taller, her chin up, and her eyes positively twinkled with life and enjoyment. She was blossoming like a rose in bloom. And it made a pretty, quiet girl into an irresistibly beautiful and charming woman. The kind of woman a man could fall in love with and that many men would want and pursue.
"Damn," Robert muttered and turned wearily from the door. He had no idea what to do with these realizations. He had no desire to be having these feelings for Lisa. And he definitely had no desire to marry and suffer the humiliation and heartache of an adulterous wife. The hell of it was that prior to this trip he would have been hardpressed to believe that Lisa even could be unfaithful. But now, with her wanting to kiss every man in London . . . well, it did seem more likely. And adulterous wives were something of a curse in his family. So much so that, despite her behavior, it probably wouldn't even be her fault in the end.
It just seemed better all the way around for Robert to ignore his changing feelings and keep the girl at arm's length. He would sort out this business of the suitor, but then he would get the hell away from her and let her live her life. It was her best chance of happiness and his best chance of avoiding getting hurt.
"Okay. So what is going on between you and Robert?"
Lisa glanced to Suzette with surprise. "Whatever do you mean? Nothing is going on."
"Right," Suzette said dryly. "He has been standing in that exact same spot across the ballroom, his eyes locked on you all night." "And you have studiously avoided looking at him all night as well," Christiana added with amusement.
"I have no reason to look at him. As for his watching me . . . I cannot control what he does," Lisa said with a shrug, but wished she could. Robert's eyes had been following her since they'd arrived, and she hadn't glanced in his direction because she didn't have to. She could feel his eyes burning holes into her. She wished he'd stop that.
Lisa supposed she wouldn't mind if his look was admiring or something, but it wasn't. Robert had taken an emotional step back. She could feel it. He was watching her with a purely professional disinterest, as if he were a hired bodyguard. She didn't know what had done it, but something had made him erect a wall between them.
There was nothing she could do about that of course, so Lisa just accepted it and smiled and danced with the men on her card, vetting out those who she liked and those she didn't. She was not going to sit around waiting on any man, not even Robert.
Lisa glanced to the man before her and smiled cheerfully. "Lord Pembroke. Is it your dance now?"
"I believe so," he murmured with a smile she suspected would have made the hearts of most girls flutter. Lisa's heart didn't twitch, but he was a nice man and she did appreciate how attractive he was and allowed her smile to widen as she placed her hand on his arm to let him lead her onto the dance floor.
"I hope you do not think less of me for losing the race this afternoon," Pembroke murmured as he took her in his arms.
Lisa glanced up with surprise and shook her head at once. "Of course not, my lord. It was just a bit of fun. In fact, I thought you had let Findlay win so that I could enjoy it more," she added lightly, not surprised to see him puff up a bit.
"Well, you did seem to be enjoying it," he said with a smile, suggesting that might be the case when she was quite sure it wasn't. She didn't mind though. He was now standing tall and smiling again where he hadn't been moments ago.
"Oh, I did enjoy it," she assured him with a laugh. "It was quite exhilarating."
"Then I am happy to have lost and given you such joy," he assured her.
Lisa chuckled. "I appreciate it, my lord. It's very kind of you."
"What else do you like to do, Miss Madison?" he asked, spinning her around the floor. "Perhaps we can endeavor to do it tomorrow afternoon. 'We' being myself and all your other admirers," he added with a teasing grin.
Lisa chuckled with appreciation at his teasing and then considered the question, "I enjoy riding, or did in the country, and long walks. And there is a river by our country home where I enjoy paddling a boat." She paused and shrugged. "I do not know, my lord."
"What of plays and such?" he asked.
"Oh my, yes. I have only seen one or two, but quite enjoyed them," she said easily.
"And do you like flowers?"
"Always, my lord. They are quite lovely and cheering."
"And your favorite sweet?"
"My favorite sweet?" Lisa grinned and teased. "Will you cook it for me?"
He laughed at the suggestion. "Not I. But my cook is known to make the best pastries in London and I would be pleased to have her make whatever you like. I could then bring it to you tomorrow if you would allow it."
Lisa considered it briefly, but finally said, "Of course I will allow it. I'd be happy to see you again tomorrow. As for what to have your cook make, surprise me, my lord. Have your cook make whatever she makes best. Something you like."
"I know just the thing," he assured her. "You shall love it." "I shall look forward to it, my lord," she said with a laugh. "As shall I," Pembroke assured her and then glanced around with a frown as the music came to an end. Grimacing, he murmured, "I guess this is the end of our dance."
"Oh," she said with surprise and glanced around. It had seemed to go by quickly as they talked. Smiling faintly, she turned her gaze back to him and said, "Well, thank you for the dance, my lord."
"Thank you, Miss Madison. It is always a pleasure," he assured her.
"Yes it is."
Lisa glanced to the side at that comment to see Lord Findlay had approached.
"My waltz, I believe," he said with a grin, and then nodded to the other man. "Pembroke."
"Findlay," Lord Pembroke murmured, giving Lisa up to him. Before he left, however, he smiled at Lisa and said, "Till tomorrow."
"Yes." She smiled and then turned her attention to Charles as the waltz began.
"Tomorrow?" Findlay asked mildly as he swept her into the dance. "I take it Pembroke plans to call on you again?"
"It would seem so," Lisa said with a grin. "He is bringing me sweets from his cook who he claims is the best in London."
"I have heard that," Findlay allowed. "I suppose this means I shall have to come as well, bearing something to top his offering."
Lisa chuckled at the suggestion. "Surely it would have to be something special to top the best sweets in London, my lord."
"Yes, I suppose it shall," he acknowledged and then smiled wryly. "I shall have to consider carefully on what to bring."
"Hmm," she said with amusement, finding it heady that two of the most eligible, not to mention the handsomest, bachelors in town were vying for her attention thusly.
"In the meantime," Charles murmured, steering her about the floor. "I believe there is the question of that kiss I have been trying to claim."
"Ah yes, the kiss," she said, lips twitching. "Well, surely you will not try to claim it here on the dance floor, my lord? That would cause quite the scandal."
"Oh, I would never do that and risk damaging your reputation," he assured her.
"I am glad to hear it."
"And of course, if I wait for the quadrille and try to escort you outside for fresh air, your watchdog, Lord Langley, would be on us and no doubt drag you away again before I could do more than take you in my arms."
"No doubt," Lisa agreed dryly.
"Fortunately, I thought of that and made my plans accordingly." "Did you?" she asked with interest. "And what plans are those?" "Well, at this very moment a couple of my friends are talking with him, and blocking his view of us. Unintentionally, of course."
"Oh, of course," she said on a laugh and turned to glance toward where Robert had been standing all night. Sure enough, a group of three men were surrounding him.
"And, I have danced us to the terrace doors," Findlay added. Lisa turned her attention to her other side to see that they were indeed only feet from a set of terrace doors.
"All I am waiting for is your permission to whisk you out for a breath of fresh air and a kiss," he said quietly. "Do I have your permission?"
Lisa turned to face him, taking in the solemn question on his face as she debated her response. It was one thing to decide to allow a man a kiss should he make the attempt. It was another thing entirely to be asked and actually have to give permission. For some reason saying yes felt, well, a bit bold. It turned it from allowing something to be taken, to actually giving. Which was just silly, she supposed.
Was she not eager for this first kiss business? Had she not been disappointed that Robert had interrupted them now twice? She really did want to know what it was like, and if she would like it.
Forcing her head up, Lisa opened her mouth but couldn't actually find it in herself to say yes. Instead, she closed her mouth, swallowed and simply gave one small, quick nod.
Fortunately, it was enough. In the next moment, Charles was turning, whirling them out through the open doors and onto the terrace so fast that she felt sure no one had noticed. Once out in the cool evening air, he broke their embrace and walked her to the railing at the shadowed edge. Lisa went silently, her head bowed now as nervousness roared up within her. He was going to kiss her. Dear God. Her first kiss and it wasn't going to be Robert.
That didn't matter, she reminded herself grimly. What did matter was . . . what if she was a bad kisser? She hadn't a clue what she was supposed to do in a kiss. Did she just stand there with her eyes closed and lips puckered? Was she expected to kiss back? If so, how? Her sisters and their husbands had kissed in front of her, but mostly they were merely quick pecks. However, she knew from her reading that there was much more than a simple brushing of lips in a proper kiss. There was nibbling and thrusting tongues and sucking and all sorts of things that sounded rather silly but were apparently quite delightful. On the other hand, perhaps he wouldn't give her a proper kiss. Perhaps he would just brush her lips with his this time and -
"I can almost hear your mind whirring."
Lisa glanced up with surprise at Findlay's amused words to find that while she was fretting, he'd urged her back up against the railing and stepped in front of her.
"You look nervous," he commented solemnly, slipping one arm around her to draw her closer, while using his free hand to tilt her chin up and then let his fingers trail down her throat. "Have you never been kissed before, Lisa?"
Eyes wide at the goose bumps his touch raised in her, she shook her head.
"Ah." For some reason the news made him smile, and then his expression turned solemn and he said, "Never fear. It is like dancing. The man leads, the woman follows. I will teach you. All right?"
She gave a jerky nod, and then held her breath as his mouth lowered toward hers. Some part of her mind was waiting for Robert to bark out her name and interrupt again. In fact, she was quite surprised when Charles's lips brushed over hers without that happening. She was even more surprised when the pressure of his lips increased and then softened as his mouth opened and he nipped at her lips teasingly.
Lisa moved instinctively closer then, feeling some of that warmth she'd read about slide through her body, along with a desire to feel more. Her own mouth opened a bit, her lips nipping back as he was doing and her arms slipped around his shoulders. The action raised her breasts, which were suddenly pressed against his chest as he tightened his embrace and the action sent a frisson of interest through her that had her pressing closer still.
When his hand slid up the back of her neck to cup her head and tilt it slightly to his preference, that sent another little shock of pleasure through her. She quite liked his handling her so. Certainly, she had no idea what to do with her head. It was all very pleasant and making her tingly, so when he suddenly broke the kiss and eased back, she opened her eyes to peer at him with disappointment.
"Is that all?"
A surprised chuckle of amusement burst from Findlay. Once it passed, he shook his head and said solemnly, "No, my dear, that is certainly not all. However, that is as much as a gentleman would permit himself with a lady such as yourself."
"Oh," Lisa breathed, and smiled crookedly as he eased her out of his arms. She supposed it was good that she wanted more. That was certainly a promising sign. But at the moment she just felt a bit frustrated, as if she'd been given a taste of something that might be quite delicious, but hadn't got enough to tell for sure.
"We should go back in," Findlay murmured, easing her to his side. "My friends cannot keep Langley busy forever."
"Yes, I suppose we should," Lisa agreed quietly as he walked her back across the terrace. They were nearly to the doors when movement out of the corner of her eye made her glance to the side. Her step faltered and her eyes widened slightly when she saw the man watching them. Robert. Stock still and silent in the shadows, his expression unreadable. It seemed Charles's friends hadn't been able to keep him busy for long at all. She wondered how long he'd been there . . . and why he hadn't intervened this time as he had the others . . . and what he was thinking as he watched them slip back into the ballroom.