The Countess reluctantly left Christina's side when Lord Baker offered her his arm. Christina was able to discourage three well-meaning gentlemen from ushering her into the dining room by pretending an errand in the washroom above the stairs. When she returned to the first floor, she saw that the drawing room was empty of guests. The solitude proved irresistible. Christina glanced over her shoulder to make certain she wasn't being observed, then hurried to the opposite end of the long, narrow room. She'd noticed a balcony beyond a pair of French doors nestled inside an arched alcove. Christina only wanted to steal a few precious minutes of blissful quiet before someone came looking for her.
Her hope was in vain. She'd just made it to the alcove when she suddenly felt someone watching her. Christina stiffened, confused by the feeling of danger that swept over her, then slowly turned around to face the threat.
The Marquess of Lyonwood was standing there, lounging against the entrance, staring at her.
The lion was stalking her. She shook her head, denying her own fanciful notions, yet took an instinctive step back at the same time. The scent of danger was still there, permeating the air, making her wary, confused.
Lyon watched her for a good long while. His expression was intense, almost brooding. Christina felt trapped by his dark gaze. When he suddenly straightened away from the wall and started toward her, she took another cautious step back.
He moved like a predator. He didn't stop when he reached her but forced her with his measured steps to back up through the archway and into the night.
"What are you doing, sir?" Christina whispered, trying to sound appalled and not too worried. "This isn't at all proper, is it?"
"Why, you've forgotten to make your presence known to our host," Christina stammered. "Did you forget your duty?"
She tried then to walk around him. Lyon wouldn't let her escape. His big hands settled on her shoulders, and he continued his determined pace. "I know you didn't speak to Lord Baker," Christina said. "Did you?"
"Oh," Christina replied, sounding quite breathless. "It is a rudeness, that."
"I really must go back inside now, my lord," she said. She was growing alarmed by his abrupt answers. His nearness was driving her to distraction, too. He'd confuse her if she let him, she told herself. Then she'd forget all her training.
"Will you unhand me, sir?" she demanded.
Christina suddenly understood what he was doing. Though she tried, she couldn't contain her smile. "You're trying to be as abrupt as I was with you, aren't you, Lyon?"
"I am being abrupt," he replied. "Do you like having all your questions answered with a simple yes or no?"
"It is efficient," Christina said, staring intently at his chest.
She'd mispronounced the word "efficient." Her accent had become more noticeable, too. Lyon assumed she was frightened, for he'd also caught the worry in her voice. He slowly forced her chin up, demanding without words that she look at him. "Don't be afraid of me, Christina," he whispered.
She didn't answer him. Lyon stared into her eyes a long minute before the truth settled in his mind. "I don't worry you at all, do I?" he asked.
She thought he sounded disappointed. "No," she admitted with a smile. She tried to shrug his hand away from her chin, and when he wouldn't let go of her she took another step back, only to find a weak railing blocking her.
She was good and trapped, and Lyon smiled over it. "Will you please let me go back inside?" she asked.
"First we're going to have a normal conversation," Lyon announced. "This is how it works, Christina. I'll ask you questions, and you may ask me questions. Neither of us will give abrupt one-word answers."
"So that we may get to know each other better," Lyon said.
He looked determined enough to stay on Lord Baker's balcony for the rest of the night if he needed to. Christina decided she had to gain the upper hand as soon as possible.
"Are you angry because I'm not afraid of you?" she asked.
"No," Lyon answered, giving her a lazy grin. "I'm not angry at all."
"Oh, yes you are," Christina said. "I can feel the anger inside you. And your strength. I think you might be just as strong as a lion."
He shook his head. "You say the oddest things," he remarked. He couldn't seem to stop touching her. His thumb slowly brushed her full lower lip. Her softness fascinated him, beckoned him.
"I don't mean to say odd things," Christina said, frowning now. "It is very difficult to banter with you." She turned her face away from him and whispered, "My Aunt Patricia doesn't want me in your company, Lyon. If she realizes I'm outside with you, she'll be most displeased."
Lyon raised an eyebrow over that announcement. "She's going to have to be displeased then, isn't she?"
"She says you're too shrewd," Christina told him.
"And that is a fault?" Lyon asked, frowning.
"Too wealthy, too," Christina added, nodding her head when he gave her an incredulous look.
"What's wrong with being wealthy?" Lyon asked.
"You wouldn't be manageable." Christina quoted her aunt's opinion.
"See, you agree with my Aunt Patricia after all," Christina returned. "You aren't like the others, are you, Lyon?"
Christina decided to ignore that question. "I'm not a paramour, sir. Aunt tells me you're only interested in loose women."
"You believe her?" he asked. His hands caressed her shoulders again, and he was starting to have difficulty remembering what they were talking about. He could feel the heat of her through her gown. It was a wonderful distraction.
How he wanted to taste her! She was boldly staring up into his eyes now, with such an innocent look on her face, too. She was trying to make a mockery out of all his beliefs about women, Lyon decided. He, of course, knew better. Yet she intrigued him enough to play the game for just a little longer. There wasn't any harm in that, he told himself.
"No," Christina said, interrupting his thoughts.
"No, what?" Lyon asked, trying to remember what he'd said to her.
"No, I don't believe my aunt was correct. You're obviously attracted to me, Lyon, and I'm not a loose woman."
Lyon laughed softly. The sound was like a caress. Christina could feel her pulse quicken. She understood the danger now. Lyon's appeal could break through all her barriers. She knew, with a certainty that chilled her, he would be able to cut through her pretense. "I really must go back inside now," she blurted out.
"Do you know how much you confuse me?" Lyon asked, ignoring her demand to leave him. "You're very good at your craft, Christina."
"I don't understand."
"Oh, I think you do," Lyon drawled out. "I don't know how you've done it, but you've got me acting like a schoolboy. You've such a mysterious air about you. Deliberate, isn't it? Do you think I'll be less interested in you if I know more about you?"
Less interested? Christina felt like laughing. Why, the man would be appalled if he knew the truth. Yes, her aunt was right after all. The Marquess of Lyonwood was entirely too cunning to fool for long.
"Don't look so worried, my sweet," Lyon whispered.
She could see the amusement in his eyes. "Don't call me that," she said. Her voice shook, but it was only because of the strain of the pretense. "It isn't a proper law," she added, nodding vigorously.
"Proper law?" Lyon didn't know what she was talking about. His frustration turned to irritation. He forced himself to take a deep, calming breath. "Let's start over, Christina. I'll ask you a simple question, and you may give me a direct answer," he announced. "First, however, kindly explain what you mean when you say calling you sweet isn't a proper law."
"You remind me of someone from my past, Lyon. And I'm too homesick to continue this discussion." Her confession came out in a sad, forlorn whisper.
"You were in love with another man?" Lyon asked, unable to keep the anger out of his voice.
He waited, and when she didn't expound on her answer he let out a long sigh. "Oh, no, you don't," he said. "You will explain," he added, tightening his grip on her shoulders. "Christina, I've known you less than two hours, and you've got me tied in knots already. It isn't an easy admission to make," he added. "Can we not stay on one topic?"
"I don't think we can," Christina answered. "When I'm near you, I forget all the laws."
Lyon thought she sounded as bewildered as he felt. They'd circled back to her laws again, too. She wasn't making any sense. "I'll win, you know," he told her. "I always do. You can push me off center as many times as you like, but I'll always…"
He'd lost his train of thought when Christina suddenly reached up and trailed the tips of her fingers across the ragged line of his scar. The gentle touch sent shock waves all the way to his heart.
"You have the mark of a warrior, Lyon."
His hands dropped to his sides. He took a step back, thinking to put some distance between them so he could cool the fire rushing through his veins. From the innocent look in her eyes, he knew she didn't have any idea of the effect she was having on him.
It had happened so suddenly, so overwhelmingly. Lyon hadn't realized desire could explode so quickly.
Christina took advantage of the separation. She bowed her head and edged her way around him. "We must never touch each other again," she said before turning her back on him and walking away.
She had reached the alcove when his voice stopped her. "And do you find warriors with scars unappealing?"
Christina turned, so swiftly her skirt swirled around her ankles. She looked astonished by his question.
"Unappealing? Surely you jest with me," she said.
"I never jest," Lyon answered. His voice sounded bored, but the look in his eyes told her of his vulnerability.
She knew she must reveal this one truth. "I find you almost too appealing to deny."
She couldn't quite look into his eyes when she made her confession, overcome by shyness because of her bold admission. She thought she might be blushing, too, and that thought irritated her enough to turn her back on Lyon once again.
He moved with the speed of a lion. One minute he was standing across the balcony, and the next he had her pinned against the brick wall adjacent to the alcove. His body kept her right where he wanted her. The lower half of Christina's body was trapped by his legs, and his hands were anchored on her shoulders. When he suddenly reached over to shut the doors, his thighs brushed intimately against hers. The touch unsettled both of them. Christina pushed herself up against the wall, trying to break the contact. Lyon's reaction was just the opposite. He leaned closer, wanting the touch again.
Lyon knew he was embarrassing her. He could see her blush, even in the soft moonlit night. "You're like a fragile little flower," he whispered while his hands caressed her shoulders, her neck. "Your skin feels like hot silk."
Her blush deepened. Lyon smiled over it. "Open your eyes, Christina. Look at me," he commanded in a voice as gentle as the breeze.
His tender words sent shivers down her arms. Love words, almost identical in meaning to the words Black Wolf always gave Merry when he thought they were alone. Lyon was trying to gentle her in much the same way. Did that mean he wanted to mate with her? Christina almost blurted out that question, then realized she shouldn't. Lyon was an Englishman, she reminded herself. The laws weren't the same.
Heaven help her, she mustn't forget. "I would never flirt with a lion," she blurted. "It would be dangerous."
Lyon's hands circled her neck. He wasn't sure if he wanted to kiss her or strangle her. The woman certainly did confuse him with her ridiculous comments. He could feel the frantic pulse of her heartbeat under his fingers. "Your eyes don't show any fear, but your heart tells the truth. Are you afraid of your attraction to me?"
"What an arrogant man you are," Christina said. "Why, I'm so frightened I believe I might swoon if you don't unhand me this very minute."
Lyon laughed, letting her know he didn't believe her lie. He leaned down until his mouth was just a breath away from hers. "Didn't you tell me I was too irresistible to deny, Christina?"
"No," she whispered. "I said you were almost too irresistible to deny, Lyon. Almost. There is a difference."
She tried to smile yet failed the task completely. Christina was simply too occupied fighting the nearly overwhelming urge to melt against him, to hold him tightly, to learn his touch, his taste. She wanted his scent to mate with her own.
She knew it was a forbidden, dangerous longing. It was one thing to tease a cub and quite another to play with a fully grown lion. The dark look in Lyon's eyes told her he'd be just as determined as a hungry lion, too. He'd consume her if she didn't protect herself.
"Lyon," she whispered, torn between desire and the need for caution. "You really must help fight this attraction. I'll forget everything if you don't cooperate."
He didn't know what she was talking about. What did she think she'd forget? Perhaps he hadn't heard her correctly. Her accent had become so pronounced it was difficult to be certain. "I'm going to kiss you, Christina," he said, catching hold of her chin when she started to shake her head.
"One kiss," he promised. He nuzzled his chin against the top of her head, inhaled her sweet scent, and let out a soft, satisfied sigh. Then he took hold of her hands and slipped them around his neck.
God, she was soft. His hands slid down her arms, causing goosebumps he could feel. Pleased with her reaction to his touch, he settled his hands possessively on her h*ps and pulled her closer.
He was taking entirely too long getting on with it. Christina couldn't fight her attraction any longer. One small touch would certainly satisfy her curiosity. Then she'd go back inside and force herself to forget all about Lyon.
Christina leaned up on her tiptoes and quickly brushed her mouth against his chin. She placed a chaste kiss on his mouth next, felt him stiffen in reaction. Christina drew back, saw him smile, and knew her boldness had pleased him.