He stopped when he was no more than a couple of feet away from Tess. Her violet-blue eyes met his very directly. There was now no nervousness in them. Owen wondered if he had imagined the tension he thought he had sensed in her. But no. He felt it again, and saw the way in which she stepped back, almost imperceptibly, to put more distance between them. She was withdrawing from him. Evidently she was not comfortable with physical proximity. Which was very odd indeed if the rumours about her were true.
“I doubt most men would see marriage to you as a prize if they are not permitted to sleep with you,” Owen said drily. “Forgive my plain speaking,” he added, seeing the flash of anger in her eyes. “I always find it best to be quite frank in discussions of an intimate nature.”
“I have never thought of marriage as an intimate matter,” Tess snapped. The pink colour had come into her face now. “I fear you have a sadly colonial view of the institution, Lord Rothbury. Marriage in the ton is for profit alone. You profit from my beauty and connections and I gain the protection of your name.”
“Forgive me again,” Owen said, “but is that an equal bargain?”
“No,” Tess said, “the bargain favours you by far. I would be the one compromising by marrying a mere viscount.”
“One does not need to possess a thoroughbred horse to admire its beauty,” Owen said.
Tess raised a haughty brow. “I beg your pardon? Is one of us an animal in your analogy?”
“And as for connections in the ton,” Owen continued, “I do not value them.”
“That is short-sighted of you,” Tess said. “So short-sighted I doubt you have the vision to appreciate your thoroughbred.”
Owen smiled. Oh, he appreciated her. She was beautiful enough to turn any man’s head. And at the very least, he thought, if he married her he would never be bored. Conversation with Tess Darent had the astringency of a dose of salts. Though no doubt she would say that a fashionable husband and wife spoke to one another as little as possible and preferably only via the servants.
“And your reputation?” he said. “Many men might balk at taking a wife with the sort of reputation for sin one would normally hope for in a mistress.”
Once again he had been brutally frank and he awaited her response with interest. Her defences were so perfectly in place, however, that he could discern not one flicker of emotion in her: no shock, no anger, nothing. She looked him over with that detached blue gaze he was starting to know.
“You,” she said, after a moment, “have a reputation as a pirate and a mercenary soldier. Most women would prefer such a man as a lover rather than a husband.”
Owen inclined his head. “I was not a pirate, though I suppose you could say I was a mercenary soldier,” he admitted.
“Whereas I have never been a whore,” Tess said. The coolness of her response made him smile. She certainly had nerve. “And were we to wed,” she continued, “I would behave with the utmost propriety. I am marrying to try to rescue my reputation, so there would be no point in my sinking it further.”
“I feel I must point out,” Owen said, “that I found you climbing out of a brothel window last night.”
Her pansy eyes lit with mockery. “We were not betrothed last night, Lord Rothbury.”
He had to give her credit. She played the coolest hand of anyone he knew. Which was perfectly in keeping with a woman who might lead a secret life as a radical sympathiser, who carried a pistol in her reticule and who might well have been in Mrs. Tong’s brothel for purposes other than a night of debauchery.
He was intrigued. Owen admitted it to himself. He had a low threshold of boredom, the product of a lifetime of constantly moving onward and seeking new challenges. He had gone to sea when he was in his teens and had spent his life exploring, fighting and carving out a future. He liked unpredictability and risk. It was what made him feel alive.
Tess Darent was enough of a challenge for one man for an entire lifetime.