"I'll make up stories about you. It won't matter if they're true or not. Yes," Cecille rushed on, "I'll tell everyone you've slept with several men. Your reputation will be in tatters when I'm done with you. Give Lyon up, Christina. He'd tire of you soon anyway. Your looks are nothing in comparison to mine. Lyon will always come back to me. My beauty captivates him. You will immediately let him know you aren't interested in him. Then ignore him completely. Otherwise—"
"Say what you will," Christina said. "I don't care what your people think of me."
Cecille was infuriated by the amusement in Christina's voice. "You are a stupid woman," she shouted.
"Please don't get so bothered, Lady Cecille. It's upsetting your complexion. Why, your face is full of splotches."
"You… you…" Cecille paused to take a deep, calming breath. "You're lying. You have to care what others think. And your aunt will certainly care, I can promise you that She can't be as ignorant as you are. Ah, I see I've finally gotten your attention. Yes, the Countess will be ruined by the scandal I'm going to weave."
Christina straightened in her chair. She frowned up at Cecille. "Are you saying your made-up stories will upset my aunt?"
"God, you really are a simple one, aren't you? Of course she'll be upset. When I'm finished, she won't be able to show her face in public. Just you wait and see."
Cecille could smell victory. She turned her back on Christina to circle the chair as she began to detail the vile lies she would spread.
Lyon had heard enough. He turned to pull the door wide open, determined to walk into the library and end Cecille's terror tactics at once.
It was time to protect his angel from the serpent.
She must have moved with incredible speed. Lyon had only taken his gaze off Christina for a second or two, but when he glanced back, the scene he witnessed so astonished him that he couldn't move.
He had trouble believing what he was seeing. Christina had Cecille pinned up against the wall. His former mistress wasn't making a sound of protest over the violation. She couldn't. Christina's left hand was anchored around the woman's neck, holding her in place. From the way Cecille's eyes were beginning to bulge, Lyon thought Christina just might be strangling her to death.
Cecille outweighed Christina by a good twenty pounds. She was much taller, too, yet Christina acted as though she was holding up a trinket for closer observation.
The little angel Lyon wanted to protect used only one hand to secure Cecille. She held a dagger in her other hand. The tip of the blade rested against Cecille's cheek.
The victim had just turned victor.
Christina slowly increased her hold on Cecille's neck, then let her see the tip of her knife. "Do you know what my people do to vain, deceitful women?" she asked in a soft whisper. "They carve marks all over their faces, Cecille."
Cecille started whimpering. Christina pricked her skin with the tip of the knife. A drop of blood appeared on her cheek. Christina nodded with satisfaction. She had Lady Cecille's full attention now. The woman looked terrified. "If you tell one lie, I'll hear about it. Then I'm going to hunt you down, Cecille. There isn't a rock large enough for you to crawl under, nor enough men in England to see to your protection. I'll come to you during the night, when you're sleeping. And when you open your eyes, you'll see this blade again. Oh, yes, I'll get to you, I promise. And when I do," Christina added, pausing to dramatically drag the flat of her blade across the woman's face, "I'm going to cut your skin into ribbons. Do you understand me?"
Christina let up on her hold only long enough for Cecille to gulp air and nod. Then she squeezed her up against the wall again. "The Countess is my family. No one upsets her. And no one is going to believe you if you think to tell them I just threatened you. Now get out of here and go home. Though it is unkind of me to say so, you really do look a fright."
With those words of dismissal, Christina moved away from the disgusting woman.
Lady Cecille didn't possess an ounce of dignity. She was weeping all over her gown. She had obviously believed every word of Christina's threats.
Lord, she was a silly woman. Christina had difficulty maintaining her stern expression. She wanted to laugh. She couldn't, of course, and she kept her gaze locked on the terrified woman a long moment before she took pity on her. Lady Cecille couldn't seem to move. "You may leave now," Christina announced.
Cecille nodded. She slowly backed away from Christina until she reached the exit. Her hands shook when she lifted her skirt all the way up to her knobby knees, then she flung the door wide and ran with enough speed to suggest she thought demons were chasing her.
Christina let out a long, weary sigh. She replaced the dagger in the sheath above her ankle, straightened the folds of her gown, then daintily patted her hair into place. "Such a silly woman," she whispered to herself before walking out of the room.
Lyon had to sit down. He waited until Christina was out of sight before he went over to Hunt's desk and leaned against it. He tried to pour himself a drink of his host's whiskey from the cart to the side of the desk, but he quickly discarded that idea. God help him, he was laughing too hard to get the deed done.
So much for his conclusion that Christina was just like every other woman. She certainly wasn't raised in France, either. Lyon shook his head. She gave the appearance of being helpless… or had he drawn that conclusion on his own, he wondered. It was an easy mistake to make, he realized. Christina was so feminine, so dainty, so damned innocent-looking… and she wore a knife strapped to her leg.
It was identical to the knife he'd held in his hands the night of Baker's party, the knife that had wounded Rhone. What a cunning little liar she was. Lyon remembered how he'd turned to see who'd thrown the weapon. Christina had looked so frightened. Hell, the woman had turned around to look behind her, too. She'd gone right along with his thought that someone lurked behind them in the shadows. Then, when he was locked in conversation with the gentlemen, she'd quietly snatched her weapon back.
Lyon's instincts were wide awake now. His temper began to simmer, too. Hadn't she told him the night of the robbery she was so frightened she thought she might swoon?
No wonder she'd gone to Rhone to take care of his injury. Guilt, Lyon decided.
He wasn't laughing now. Lyon thought he just might throttle the woman.
"Has trouble telling a lie, does she?" he muttered to himself. Oh, yes, she'd looked him right in the eye when she told him that story. It was very difficult for her… yes, she'd said that, too.
He was going to throttle her. But first he was going to have a long talk with her… his little warrior had a large amount of explaining to do.
Lyon slammed his empty glass down on the tray and went in search of Christina.
"Are you enjoying yourself?"
Christina visibly jumped. She whirled around to confront Lyon. "Where did you just come from?" she asked, sounding highly suspicious. She glanced around him to look at the library door.
Lyon knew exactly what she was thinking. She looked worried. He forced himself to look calm. "In the library."
"No, I just came from the library, Lyon. You couldn't have been in there," she announced, shaking her head.
He almost said that he wasn't the one who lied, then caught himself. "Oh, but I was in the library, my sweet."
His announcement gave her a start. "Was there anyone else in there?" she asked, trying to sound only mildly curious.
Lyon knew she was testing him.
"I mean to ask, sir, that is, did you happen to notice if anyone else was in the library?"
He took his sweet time nodding. Christina decided he looked just like a mischievous devil. He was dressed like one, too. Lyon's formal attire was all of black, save for the white cravat, of course. The clothing fit him well. The man was too handsome for her peace of mind.
She was certain Lyon hadn't seen or heard anything. He was looking down at her with such a tender expression in his eyes. Christina felt safe enough. Lyon wasn't acting the least appalled. But why had he lied to her? Christina decided he must have seen her go inside the study with Lady Cecille. The poor man was probably worried that his paramour had told Christina something he didn't want repeated. Yes, she told herself, he was just prodding for information.
It was a plausible explanation. Still, one did need to be absolutely certain. Christina lowered her gaze to stare at his waistcoat. She forced a casual voice and asked, "You didn't perchance overlisten to my conversation with Lady Cecille, did you?"
"The word is eavesdropping, Christina, not overlistening."
His voice was strained. She thought he might be trying not to laugh at her. Christina didn't know if it was her question or her mispronunciation that had caused the change. She was too irritated with him for lying to her to take great exception, however. "Thank you, Lyon, for instructing me. Eavesdropping, yes, I do recall that word."
Lyon wouldn't have been surprised if she'd started wringing her hands. She was upset, all right, for she'd just spoken to him in French. He doubted she was even aware she'd slipped into the foreign language.
He decided to answer her in kind. "I am always happy to instruct you, love."
She didn't notice. "But you didn't eavesdrop, did you?"
"Why, Christina, what an unkind question to put to me. Of course not."
She tried not to let her relief show.
"And you know I'd never lie to you, my sweet. You've always been so open, so honest with me, haven't you?"
"Yes, I have," Christina returned, giving him a quick smile. "It is the only way to be with each other, Lyon. Surely you realize that."
Lyon clasped his hands behind his back so he wouldn't be able to give in to his urge to grab her by her throat. She seemed very relaxed with him now, very sure of herself. "Did you learn the value of honesty from the Summertons?" he asked.
His grip on his control intensified. "The Summertons," Lyon repeated, trying to control his anger. "Remember, love, the people who raised you?"
She couldn't quite look him in the eye when she answered him. He was such a good, trusting man. It was becoming a little bit of a strain to lie to him. "Yes, the Summertons did teach me to be honest in all endeavors," she announced. "I simply can't help myself. I'm not any good at fabrications."
He was going to strangle her.
"Did I hear you say you were in the study with Lady Cecille?"
Her guess had been right all along. Lyon was worried about the conversation. He had seen her go inside the library with Lady Cecille. Christina decided to put his fears to rest. "I was," she said. "Lady Cecille seems to be a dear woman, Lyon. She had some rather pleasing remarks to make about you."
No, he wasn't going to strangle her. He thought he'd beat her first. "I'm pleased to hear it," Lyon said. His voice was as smooth as a soft wind. The effort made his throat ache. "What exactly did she say?"
"Oh, this and that."
"What specific this and that?" Lyon insisted. His hands had moved to rest on Christina's shoulders, and it was all he could do not to shake the sincerity right out of her.
"Well, she did mention that we made a lovely couple," Christina said.
She was back to staring at his waistcoat again. While she appreciated the fact that the English tended to be somewhat naive, she was beginning to feel ashamed of herself for lying so blatantly to Lyon.
"Did she mention destiny, perchance?" Lyon asked.
She hadn't noticed the edge in his voice. "No, I don't recall Lady Cecille mentioning destiny. That does remind me, though, of my question. Have you given my proposal consideration?"
"Lyon, why are you speaking French to me? We're in England, and you really should speak the language of your own people."
"It seemed appropriate," Lyon muttered.
"Oh," Christina said. She tried to shrug his hands away from her shoulders. They were still alone in the hallway, but there was always the chance someone could come along and see them. "Are you going to mate with… I mean, are you going to marry me?"
"Yes, I'm going to mate with you. As for marriage, I fear I will have to decline your proposal."
Christina wasn't given time to react to Lyon's announcement. Sir Reynolds called out, interrupting them. Lyon let go of her shoulders, then pulled her around and up against his side. He trapped her with one hand wrapped around her waist.
"Lyon, I've been looking all over this house for you. Do you approve of my taking your sister over to Kimble's do? We'd stay here until dinner hour is over, of course."
"Certainly," Lyon said. "And I appreciate your taking Diana under your wing, sir."
"Glad to do it," Reynolds said. "Good evening, Princess Christina. I trust you are well?"
"Yes, thank you," Christina answered. She tried to curtsy, but Lyon wouldn't let up on his hold. She settled on a smile instead. It was a puny half effort at best, for Lyon's answer had just settled in her mind.
Though she told herself it didn't matter, that she'd surely find someone else to marry, she knew she was lying to herself. It did matter. Lord, she felt close to weeping.
"My dear," Sir Reynolds said, addressing Christina, "I've agreed to see you home. Your aunt pleaded fatigue and has taken your carriage. She explained she was leaving for the countryside tomorrow. I was given to understand you won't be going with her."
"Yes, that is correct," Christina answered. "My aunt is going to visit a friend who has taken ill. She prefers that I stay in London. I will have to wait for another opportunity to see your lovely countryside."
"I forget you've only been here a very short while," Sir Reynolds said. "But you're surely not on your own for an entire week, are you? Do you wish me to lend my arm Saturday eve? You do intend to go to Creston's ball, of course. Or do you already have an escort?"
"I shall not be going," Christina interjected, her voice firm.
"Yes, you will," Lyon said. He squeezed her waist before adding, "You promised."
"I've changed my mind. Sir Reynolds, I'm also fatigued. I'd be pleased if you'd—"
"I'll take you home." Lyon's voice was hard with anger.