He was different, though. She'd noticed he didn't bend to any of their laws. No, Lyon seemed determined to make his own.

Christina knew it hadn't been proper to ask him to marry her. According to the laws, it was the man's place to offer for his woman, not the other way around. She'd given the matter considerable thought, then reached the decision that she'd simply have to break this one law in order to be wed before her father returned to England.

Still, her timing might not have been perfect. She knew she'd stunned him with her hastily blurted question. The astonished look on his face worried her. She couldn't make up her mind if he was getting ready to shout with laughter or explode with anger.

Once he'd gotten over his initial reaction, however, Christina was certain he'd say yes. Why, he'd already admitted how much he liked being with her, how much he liked touching her. Life in this strange country would be so much more bearable with Lyon by her side.

And it would only be for a little while… he wouldn't have to be saddled with her forever, as the Countess liked to say.

Besides, she told herself, he really wouldn't be given a choice, would he?

She was the lioness of the Dakota. Lyon simply had to marry her.

It was his destiny.

Thursday evening didn't arrive soon enough to suit the Marquess of Lyonwood. By the time he entered Sir Hunt's townhouse, he was fighting mad.

Lyon had alternated between absolute fury and total disappointment whenever he thought about Christina's outrageous proposal. Well, he sure as hell had her game now, didn't he? She was after marriage, all right—marriage and money, just like every other woman in the kingdom.

He was just as angry with himself. His instincts had certainly been sleeping. He should have known what she was up to from the very beginning. God's truth, he'd done exactly what he accused Rhone of doing—he'd fallen victim to a pretty face and a clever flirtation.

Lyon was disgusted enough to want to bellow. And he was going to set Christina straight at the first opportunity. He wasn't about to get married again. Once had been enough. Oh, he meant to have Christina, but on his terms, and certainly without benefit of clergy to muck up the waters. All women changed once wedded. Experience had taught him that much.

It was unfortunate that the first person he ran into when he entered Hunt's salon was his sister, Diana. She spotted him immediately, picked up her skirts, and charged over to curtsy in front of him.

Hell, he was going to have to be civil.

"Lyon, thank you for asking Sir Reynolds to escort me. He is such a kind man. Aunt Harriett will be arriving Monday next, and you won't have to be bothered with the duty any longer. Do you like my new gown?" she asked, straightening the folds of her yellow skirt.

"You look very pretty," Lyon announced, barely giving her a glance.

There was such a crowd, Lyon was having difficulty finding Christina. Though he was much taller than the other guests, he still hadn't been able to spot the golden crown of curls he was looking for.

"Green is a nice color for me, isn't it, Lyon?"

"Yes."

Diana laughed, drawing Lyon's attention. "My gown is yellow, Lyon. I knew you weren't paying me the least notice."

"I'm in no mood for games, Diana. Go and circulate through the crush like a good girl."

"She isn't here, Lyon."

"She isn't?" Lyon asked, sounding distracted.

Diana's giggles increased. "Princess Christina hasn't arrived yet. I had the most wonderful visit with her yesterday."

"Where did you see her?" Lyon asked. His voice was a bit sharper than he intended.

Diana didn't take exception. "For tea. Mother didn't join us, of course. Neither did you, by the way. Did you actually forget you asked me to invite her, Lyon?"

Lyon shook his head. "I decided against intruding," he lied. He really had forgotten the appointment, but he placed the blame for his ill discipline on Christina's shoulders. Since receiving her proposal of marriage, he hadn't been able to think about anything else.

Diana gave her brother a puzzled look. "It isn't like you to forget anything," she announced. When he didn't comment on that fact, she said, "Well, I was happy to have the time alone with her. Princess Christina is a fascinating woman. Do you believe in destiny, Lyon?"

"Oh, God."

"You needn't groan," Diana chided.

"I do not believe in destiny."

"Now you're shouting. Lyon, everyone is giving us worried looks. Do force a smile. I believe in destiny."

"Of course you do."

"Now why would that displease you?" Diana asked. She continued on before her brother could form an answer. "The princess makes such refreshing observations about people. She never says anything unkind, either. She's such a delicate, dainty woman. Why, I feel very protective around her. She's so gentle, so—"

"Was the old bat with her?" Lyon interrupted impatiently. He wasn't in the mood to hear about Christina's qualities. No, he was still too angry with her.

"I beg your pardon?" Diana asked.

"The Countess," Lyon explained. "Did she join you?"

Diana tried not to laugh. "No, she wasn't with Christina. I made an unkind remark about her aunt, though of course I didn't call her an old bat, and my comment was quite by accident. Christina was very gracious when she told me it was impolite to speak of the elderly in such a fashion. I was humbled by her gentle rebuke, Lyon, and then found myself telling her all about Mama and how she still grieves for our James."

"Family matters shouldn't be discussed with outsiders," Lyon said. "I really would appreciate it if you'd—"

"She says it's all your fault about Mama being—"

"What?" Lyon asked.

"Please let me finish before you sanction me," Diana advised. "Christina said the strangest thing. Yes, she did."

"Of course she did," Lyon returned with a long sigh.

Lord, it was contagious. One afternoon with Princess Christina had turned Diana completely senseless.

"I didn't understand what she meant, but she did say—rather firmly, too—that it was all your fault, and that it was up to you to direct Mama into returning to her family. Those were her very words."

Diana could tell by Lyon's expression he was just as puzzled as she was. "I tell you, Lyon, it was as though she was repeating a rule from her memory. I didn't want her to think me unschooled, so I didn't question her further. But I didn't understand what she was telling me. Princess Christina acted like her advice made perfect sense…"

"Nothing the woman says or does makes any sense," Lyon announced. "Diana, go back to Sir Reynolds's side. He'll introduce you around. I've still to speak to our host."

"Lady Cecille is here, Lyon," Diana whispered. "You can't miss her. She's dressed in bright, shameful red."

"Shameful red?" Lyon grinned over the absurd description.

"You aren't still involved with the woman, are you, Lyon? Princess Christina would surely be put off if she thought you were seeing a woman of such stained reputation."

"No, I'm not involved with Cecille," Lyon muttered. "And how did you find out—"

"I listen to the rumors, just like everyone else," Diana admitted with a blush. "I'll leave you to your grumpy mood, Lyon. You may lecture me later." She started to turn away from him, then paused. "Lyon? Is Rhone going to be here tonight?"

He caught the eagerness in her voice. "It shouldn't matter to you if Rhone shows up or not, Diana. He's too old for you."

"Old? Lyon, he's your age exactly, and you're only nine years my senior."

"Don't argue with me, Diana."

She dared to frown at her brother before giving in to his advice. When Diana finally left him alone, Lyon leaned against the bannister in the foyer, waiting for Christina.

His host found him and dragged him across the salon and into a heated debate about government issues. Lyon patiently listened, though he kept glancing toward the entrance.

Christina finally arrived. She walked into the salon, flanked by their hostess and the Countess, just as Lady Cecille touched Lyon's arm.

"Darling, it is wonderful to see you again."

Lyon felt like growling. He slowly turned around to acknowledge his former mistress.

What in God's name had he ever seen in the woman? The difference between Cecille and Christina was stunning. Lyon felt like taking a step back.

Cecille was a tall woman, somewhat stately, and terribly vulgar. She wore her dark brown hair piled high atop her head. Her cheeks were tinged with pink paint, as were her full, pouting lips.

Christina never pouted. She didn't pretend coyness either, Lyon decided. His disgust with Cecille was a sour taste in his mouth. Cecille was trying to be provocative now. She deliberately lowered her eyelashes to half mast. "I've sent you notes asking you to call, Lyon," she whispered as she increased her hold on his arm. "It's been such an unbearably long while since we shared a night together. I've missed you."

Lyon was thankful the men he was speaking to had walked away. He slowly removed Cecille's hand. "We've had this discussion, Cecille. It's over. Accept it and find someone else."

Cecille ignored the harshness in Lyon's voice. "I don't believe you, Lyon. It was good between us. You're only being stubborn."

Lyon dismissed Cecille from his mind. He didn't want to waste his anger on her. No, he told himself, he was saving all of it for Princess Christina. He turned to find the woman he sought to reject and spotted her immediately. She was standing next to their host, smiling sweetly up at him. She looked entirely too pretty tonight. Her gown was the color of blue ice. The neckline was low-cut, showing a generous amount of her full, creamy-looking bosom. The gown wasn't as indecently fashioned as Cecille's, but Lyon still didn't like it. Hunt was giving Christina's chest lecherous looks. Lyon thought he just might kill him.

There were too many dandies at the party, too. Lyon looked around the room, glaring at all the men openly coveting his Christina. He knew he wasn't making any sense. He wasn't going to marry Christina, but he wasn't willing to let anyone else have her, either. No, he wasn't making any sense at all. It was Christina's fault, of course. The woman had made him crazy.

Cecille stood beside Lyon, watching him. It didn't take her long to realize he was mesmerized by the Princess. Cecille was irritated. She wasn't about to let anyone compete for Lyon's attention. No one was going to interfere with her plan to marry him. Lyon was a stubborn man, but Cecille was certain enough of her own considerable charms to believe she'd eventually get her way. She always did. Yes, Lyon would come around, provided she didn't prod too obviously.

From the way Lyon kept his gaze directed on the beautiful woman, Cecille knew she'd better act quickly. The little Princess could cause trouble. Cecille made up her mind to have a talk with the chit as soon as possible.

She had to wait a good hour before she gained a proper introduction. During that time she heard several comments about Lyon's preoccupation with the woman. There was actual speculation that Lyon was going to offer for her. Cecille turned from irritated to incensed. It was obviously far more serious than she'd first guessed.

She waited for her opportunity. When Christina finally stood alone, Cecille nudged her arm and begged for a private audience in their host's library to discuss an issue of high importance.

The innocent little Princess looked confused by her request. Cecille smiled as sweetly as she could manage. She felt like gloating. In just a few minutes she'd have the silly girl terrified enough to do anything she suggested.

The library was located in the back of the main floor. They entered the chamber from the hallway.

Three high-backed chairs were angled in front of a long desk. Christina sat down, folded her arms in her lap, and smiled up at Lady Cecille expectantly.

Cecille didn't sit down. She wanted the advantage of towering over her adversary.

"What is it you wish to say to me?" Christina asked, her voice soft.

"The Marquess of Lyonwood," Cecille announced. The sweetness was missing from her voice now. "Lyon belongs to me, Princess. Leave him alone."

Lyon had just opened the side door to the library in time to overhear Cecille's demand. It wasn't by accident that he happened upon the conversation, nor was it coincidence he'd chosen to go around to the door connecting the kitchens to the study. Lyon remembered from past meetings with Sir Hunt that there were two doors leading to the library. And he'd kept his attention on Christina since the minute she'd entered the townhouse. When Cecille had taken hold of Christina's arm and led her down the hallway, Lyon was right behind her.

Neither Christina nor Cecille noticed him. Lyon knew it was bad form to listen in on their private conversation, yet he believed his motives were pure enough. He knew what Cecille was capable of. She could make mutton out of a gentle little lamb. Gentle Christina wasn't up to handling anyone as cunning, as vicious as Cecille. Lyon only wanted to protect Christina. The beautiful woman was simply too naive for her own good.

"Has Lyon offered for you, then?" Christina suddenly asked.

"No," Cecille snapped out. "Don't give me that innocent look, Princess. You know he hasn't offered for me yet. But he will," she added with a sneer. "We're intimate friends. Do you know what that means? He comes to my bed almost every night. Do you get my meaning?" she asked in a malicious voice.

"Oh, yes," Christina answered. "You're his paramour."

Cecille gasped. She folded her arms across her chest and glared down at her prey. "I'm going to marry him."

"No, I don't think you are, Lady Cecille," Christina answered. "Was that all you wanted to say to me? And you really don't have to raise your voice. My hearing is sound."

"You still don't understand, do you? You're either stupid or a real bitch, do you know that? I'm going to ruin you if you get in my way," Cecille announced.

Lyon was puzzled. He'd thought to intervene the moment Cecille started her insults, but the look on Christina's face kept him from moving.

Christina seemed to be totally unaffected by the discussion. She actually smiled up at Cecille, then asked in an extremely casual voice, "How could you ruin me?"



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