Stanton Horne, Marquis of Wyndham, sat in Lady Alicia Lawrence's opera viewing box, bored. Then the curtains parted behind him. Lady Alicia seemed startled to see him, and hung back in the shadows.
"What are you doing here?" she hissed.
"Did I not make myself clear? I am to be your escort at all times."
"You were entirely clear. I simply ignored you." She looked behind her as if contemplating escape.
Stanton smiled. "Why don't you let me take your cape?"
"I – " She pressed her lips together in irritation. "Oh, I simply do not care what you think!"
She stepped into the light, then dropped the cape and raised her chin defiantly. Stanton felt his mouth go dry. It wasn't her. Lady Alicia Lawrence was a blotchy, ill-kempt creature, swollen like a grape and not as appetizing.
Before him stood an elegant lady, posed with her head high and her shoulders back, showing off a truly prepossessing figure, if one preferred a bit of plump abundance with one's morning cup of tea . . .
Stanton blinked. It wasn't her. Yet lively, cat-green eyes gleamed at him knowingly.
"You seem taken aback, my lord. In the last week I've spent more money than the Prince Regent's new mistress! Have you nothing to say about my accomplishment?"
She was the embodiment – oh, dear God, that body! – of every man's most wicked dream. Whose dream? Yours?
The air re-entered Stanton's lungs in a rush. "What in the seventh level of hell are you wearing?"
He hadn't meant to bellow and he hadn't realized that the orchestra was just finishing the last movement, and he sure as hell hadn't meant his question to resound through the opera house like a bass crescendo.
"Oh, well done," Alicia murmured to him. Then she stepped away in a dramatic flounce of skirts. "You beast!"
Again, her voice carried. Every neck craned to see. A soggy sob followed. "You horrible, cruel man! First you seduce me, then you denigrate me!" She staggered melodramatically, one hand to her brow. "I cannot go on this way," she wailed.
Stanton wasn't sure how it happened. Perhaps she became caught up in her own performance but suddenly Alicia lurched sideways, hit the balustrade with her hip and began to tip over the railing of the box.
The crowd below gasped in delicious horror as Stanton leaped for her. He caught one hand and wrapped his other arm about her waist even as she began to flip backward.
Stanton almost lost her when the railing cracked beneath their weight. Wrapping both arms about Alicia, he swung her high and around, pulling them both back as the railing failed completely.
They rolled across the carpeted box, her ending beneath him. Stanton heard only his own racing heart and Alicia's gasps against his face. He wrapped her tightly in his arms.
She hadn't fallen. She wasn't broken, bleeding on the floor below. That moment when his grip had slipped – he'd never before felt such fear.