As Stephen came to the end of that blunt speech, he watched her expression change from surprise to amused bafflement. Her next remark clarified the reason for her obvious quandary: "If not to beget an heir, what other possible reason could there be for a man such as you to wed at all?"
Stephen's disinterested shrug and brief smile dismissed all the other usual reasons for marriage as trivial, absurd, or imaginary. "For a man such as I," he replied with a mild amusement that failed to disguise his genuine contempt for the twin farces of wedded bliss and the sanctity of marriage—two illusions that flourished even in the brittle, sophisticated social world he inhabited, "there does not seem to be a single compelling reason to commit matrimony."
Helene studied him intently, her face alight with curiosity, caution, and the dawning of understanding. "I always wondered why you didn't marry Emily Lathrop. In addition to her acclaimed face and figure, she is also one of the few women in England who actually possesses the requirements of birth and breeding in enough abundance to make her worthy of marrying into the Westmoreland family and of producing your heir. Everyone knows you fought a duel with her husband because of her, yet you didn't kill him, nor did you marry her a year later, after old Lord Lathrop finally keeled over and cocked up his toes."
His brows rose in amusement at her use of irreverent slang for Lathrop's death, but his attitude toward the duel was as casual and matter-of-fact as her own. "Lathrop got some maggot into his head about defending Emily's honor and putting a stop to all the rumors about her, by challenging one of her alleged lovers to a duel. I will never understand why the poor old man chose me from amongst a legion of viable candidates."
"Whatever method he used, it's obvious age had addled his mind."
Stephen eyed her curiously. "Why do you say that?"
"Because your skill with pistols, and your skill on the dueling field, are both rather legendary."
"Any child of ten could have won a duel with Lathrop," Stephen said, ignoring her praise of his abilities. "He was so old and frail he couldn't steady his own pistol or hold it level. He had to use both hands."
"And so you let him leave Rockham Green unscathed?"
Stephen nodded. "I felt it would be impolite of me to kill him, under the circumstances."
"Considering that he forced the duel on you in the first place, by calling you out in front of witnesses, it was very kind of you to pretend to miss your shot, in order to spare his pride."
"I did not pretend to miss my shot, Helene," he informed her, and then he pointedly added, "I deloped."
To delope constituted an apology and therefore implied an admission of guilt. Thinking he might have some other explanation for standing twenty paces from his opponent and deliberately firing high into the air instead of at Lord Lathrop, she said slowly, "Are you saying you really were Emily Lathrop's lover? You were actually guilty?"
"As sin," Stephen averred flatly.
"May I ask you one more question, my lord?"
"You can ask it," he specified, struggling to hide his mounting impatience with her unprecedented and unwelcome preoccupation with his private life.
In a rare show of feminine uncertainty, she glanced away as if to gather her courage, then she looked up at him with an embarrassed, seductive smile that he might have found irresistible had it not been immediately followed by a line of questioning so outrageous that it violated even his own lax standards of acceptable decorum between the sexes. "What was it about Emily Lathrop that drew you to her bed?"
His instant aversion to that question was completely eclipsed by his negative reaction to her next. "I mean, was there anything she did with you—or for you—or to you, that I do not do when we're in bed together?"
"As a matter of fact," he replied in a lazy drawl, "there was one thing Emily did that I particularly liked."
In her eagerness to discover another woman's secret, Helene overlooked the sarcasm edging his voice. "What did she do that you particularly liked?"
His gaze dropped suggestively to her mouth. "Shall I show you?" he asked, and when she nodded, he bent over her, bracing his hands on either side of her pillow so that his waist and hips were only inches above her head. "You're absolutely certain you wish to take part in a demonstration?" he asked in a deliberately seductive whisper.
Her emphatic nod was playful and inviting enough to take the edge off his annoyance, leaving him caught somewhere between amusement and exasperation. "Show me what she did that you particularly liked," she whispered, sliding her hands up his forearms.
Stephen showed her by putting his right hand firmly over her mouth, startling her with a "demonstration" that matched his smiling explanation: "She refrained from asking me questions like yours about you or anyone else, and that is what I particularly liked."
She gazed back at him, her blue eyes wide with frustrated chagrin, but this time she did not fail to notice the implacable warning in his deceptively mild voice.
"Do we have an understanding, my inquisitive beauty?"
She nodded, then boldly attempted to tip the balance of power into her favor by delicately running her tongue across his palm.
Stephen chuckled at her ploy and moved his hand, but he was no longer in the mood for sexual play or for conversation, and so he pressed a brief kiss on her forehead and left.
Outside, a wet gray fog blanketed the night, broken only by the faint eerie glow of lamplights along the street. Stephen took the reins from the relieved footman and spoke soothingly to the young pair of matched chestnuts who were stamping their hooves and tossing their manes. It was the first time they had been driven in the city, and as Stephen loosened the reins to let them move into a trot, he noted that the curb horse was extremely skittish in the fog. Everything unnerved the animal, from the sound of his own hooves clattering on the cobbled streets to the shadows beneath the streetlamps. When a door slammed off to the left, he shied, then tried to break into a run. Stephen automatically tightened the reins, and turned the carriage down Middleberry Street. The horses were moving at a fast trot and seemed to be settling down a bit. Suddenly an alley cat screamed and bolted off a fruit cart, sending an avalanche of apples rumbling into the street. At the same time the door of a pub was flung open, splashing light into the street. Pandemonium broke loose: dogs howled, the horses slipped and bolted frantically, and a dark figure staggered out of the pub, disappeared between two carriages drawn up at the curb… and then materialized directly in front of Stephen's carriage.