I do so love men, Lady Gwen thought with a grin as she finished a dance with yet another handsome young gentleman. He bowed stiffly to her because he was a soldier, and Gwen barely restrained a giggle. He was so adorable in his uniform, all starched and proper, but everyone knew a minute alone with him would be a grave risk to her reputation. She knew, of course, because she had already done it, disappearing into an alcove last week with him to receive a few heated kisses. But now their time was over, his kisses already judged as sloppy, so she dismissed him. After all, there were nearly two dozen other gentlemen awaiting her attention, many of whom would try for a secret caress or a stolen kiss.
She cast a wicked smile at her friend, Amelia, careful to avoid the eye of Amelia’s harridan of a mother. Mrs. Chichester was playing chaperone this evening since Gwen’s own mother couldn’t be bothered, her father was likely drunk in a brothel somewhere, and her brothers were otherwise engaged. Little brother, Jack, was doing a Grand Tour of the Continent, so he was excused; but Robert was right here in London. Well, a pox on them all! She could entertain herself! Then just to prove she wasn’t in the least bit lonely, she cast a dazzling smile at the nearest of her admirers.
Oh, bad choice! The man she’d targeted was a jackanapes and in debt up to his ears. But it was done now. She would let him get her some punch and then later, perhaps a quick turn about the gardens. Amelia had told her that he kissed with amazing skill and she should know as she had heard it directly from Cynthia whose cousin had been all but assaulted by the man! So Gwen would keep to the lighted walks. Enough to allow a kiss or two to discover if he was as good as was rumored but not enough for any real danger.
She smiled at the man. Mr. Sorrenbarr was his name, though apparently his nickname was something rather…well, sorrier. “I think I should like a glass of lemonade, Mr. Sorrenbarr, she said with the right touch of airy mindlessness. Do you think you could escort me?”
Two dozen unchosen gentlemen groaned, but the man in question had a gleam in his eyes that both thrilled and horrified her. Some part of her knew she was playing with fireand with absolutely the wrong manbut as no one seemed to care, most especially her family, then she could do as she pleased.
He took her arm with a grin, and sadly she noticed his teeth were a rather disgusting dark yellow. She was just thinking that she didn’t want to kiss him after all when the most horrendous thing happened.
She was accosted! Bumped into by an idiot. One who carried a glass of punch, no less. And it went flying, spilling pink liquid all over the place.
She squealed and jumped back, saving herself from the worst of the mess. Sadly, the disaster landed on another lady: a poor country girl who’d once been in yellow but was now stained half pink.
“Good God!” cried Mr. Sorrenbarr. “You clumsy fool! Have you no eyes? You practically ran down Lady Gwen!”
Mr. Sorrenbarr’s words were too harsh, and his vehemence made him spit. It was just lemonade after all. Meanwhile the bumbler in question raised an eyebrow in surprise.
“I was in the process of apologizing,” he began. And he had been, though his attention had been on the poor country miss. But Mr. Sorrenbarr cut him off, his sniff of disdain harsh enough that Gwen wondered if he’d just given himself a headache.
“You are a fool and an idiot! You shouldn’t be allowed around decent people!”
Now that was going too far. All he’d done was run into her, but Gwen didn’t have the wherewithal to comment. She was too busy looking at the idiot, taking in his physique, such as it was, and finding herself strangely impressed.
She didn’t know why. He was tall. A good head taller than she, though he tended to slouch a bit as if apologizing for his height. His brown hair curled every which way, and his ears were too big. Even worse, his clothing was rather average and not that interesting. And yet when she looked into his brown eyes, she found a startling presence there. A full consciousness, as it were. As if the man were awake when so much of the world was not. She continued to stare and the impression grew, especially as he was looking right back. His gaze was solid, steady, and filled with some emotion that she couldn’t name, but that touched her all the way down to her toes.
Meanwhile, Mr. Sorrenbarr would not shut up. “Sirrah!” he hissed. “Have you nothing to say for yourself?”
“I am waiting for Lady Gwen to apologize.”
It took a moment for her to realize he was speaking to her. Or about her. Or whatever. She hadn’t been paying attention as she looked into the man’s eyes. Now his words penetrated, but again Mr. Sorrenbarr was there huffing and puffing.
“Her! Good God, man, you nearly killed her. And God only knows what you have done to her gown!”
The tall man arched his brow at her. “Have you nothing to say, Lady Gwen?”
She blinked, forcing her thoughts together. “Me, sir? I believe I was the one wronged.”
His gaze dimmed and she could tell that she’d disappointed him somehow. Then she cursed herself for being annoyed for failing him. Which made her voice even more tart as she scrambled to make sense of the situation. “Shouldn’t you be apologizing?”
He released his breath. It wasn’t a loud sound or even an obvious grimace. But she saw it and again, she cursed herself for caring. He was rude, damn it! And she saw no reason to
“As I said before, I was apologizing to Miss Carson. After all, it was her dress I soiled and her evening I have just ruined. All you have suffered is an interruption in your ambulation.”
Ambulation? Who spoke like that? But she didn’t have the chance to comment as the man turned his warm gaze onto Miss Carson, speaking in a low voice that sent shivers down Lady Gwen’s spine. Which was all the more vexing, of course, because he was talking to the country miss!
“I am so, so terribly sorry, Miss Carson. Of course I’ll pay to have the gown replaced, but for the moment, I’m not sure what I can do to make amends.” And then he looked at Lady Gwen. There was a silent query in his gaze, a hope that she immediately wished to answer. If only she knew what she could do.
But, of course, she knew. She could take the girl to the retiring room and see…well, perhaps a maid could wash some of the stain out. Perhaps there was a wrap or something that could cover
“What you can do,” snapped Mr. Sorrenbarr as he took a threatening step forward, “is move out of the way. Lady Gwen was on the way to the lemonade.”
The tall man just stood there, obviously waiting for her to do something. And when she didn’t, he spoke with obvious impatience. “Don’t just grimace, he said to her. Stop him.
Had she grimaced? She supposed she had. Mr. Sorrenbarr was becoming rather irritating. So much so that she had decided his kissing reputation must be horribly exaggerated. But beyond that, what was she supposed to do?
“He’s only doing it to impress you,” continued the maddening man. “If you say nothing, he will take it as approval. And everyone else will as well.” He glanced at the men surrounding them. “Aren’t there enough churls in London already? Surely you don’t wish to encourage more.”
He spoke calmly with a straightforward reason. And he spoke directly to her, without condescension or affectation. It was the most bizarre thing. Even her brother Robert, who was boring enough to be prosaic, never actually spoke to her with his eyes on her face and his entire focus on her person. It impressed her so much that she was moved to speak. Or rather, she would have if Mr. Sorrenbarr had allowed her the moment.
“How dare you say such a thing? Dressed like that, speaking like that–”
“I say, Mr. Sorrenbarr,” Gwen interrupted. “I believe your breath is fouling the air. Please stop talking. Immediately.”
Sadly, the man didn’t hear her as he continued his diatribe. Gwen didn’t even bother listening to the nonsense. She knew from experience with her father that once a man got on a roll, it would take something drastic to stop him. Still, she made one last attempt.
“Mr. Sorrenbarr! Sir!” When he still didn’t hear her, she rolled her eyes and punched him. A square blow right on his shoulder as hard as she could hit. There, now I have been reduced to a level I haven’t seen since I was three.
Immediately Mr. Sorrenbarr turned his anxious eyes on her. “Yes, Lady Gwen, how can I help you past this terrible ordeal?”
She blinked, stunned by the man’s obvious thick headedness. Really, what had she been thinking to want to take a turn about the ballroom with him? She pursed her lips, wondering what exactly she should say. If she told him to shut up, he would simply protest his undying mortification. Ad nauseam.
“I believe this terrible ordeal has made me thirsty. I believe I need some punch, Mr. Sorrenbarr. Immediately.”
“Of course, of course, I shall–”
“But not just any punch. It needs to be fresh lemonade. Very fresh lemonade. I don’t trust these servants, you know. Pray, would you go into the kitchen and squeeze me some? Make sure the fruit is perfect. Not a spot or mark on it. And they must be perfectly round, you know. Round lemons give the best taste.”
He blinked at her, then his eyes narrowed in fury, proving that he wasn’t quite the fool she was making him out to be. “You wish to be rid of me, Lady Gwen.”
“It was not me, you know, but this country fool.”
She patted his hand. “No, sir. It was you. Now if you will all excuse me,” she looked to her audience of gentlemen, “I shall take Miss Carson with me to the ladies’ retiring room.”
The tall man nodded his approval, though she could tell his gaze was slightly troubled as he watched Mr. Sorrenbarr withdraw. But the frown only lasted a moment as he once again turned to Miss Carson.
“My God, I’m an idiot!” he gasped. “Debra, your new dress is in the carriage. The one from the dressmakers that my sister picked up for you this afternoon. Shall I fetch it and send a maid into the retiring room with it?”
The girl was white-faced with mortification, but she managed a trembling nod. Meanwhile, Gwen noted irritably that the tall man had called the girl by her Christian name. What did that mean? Were the two engaged?
“I think that’s a marvelous idea,” said Gwen as she looked at the girl’s left hand. No ring on her finger. That was good news.
“It will take me a bit of time to get the package,” the man said to her, not the feeble Debra. “Would you mind terribly sitting with Miss Carson while I fetch it? I know she would be grateful. And I, of course, would be in your debt.”
“Of course,” Gwen murmured. “I could do no less.” She said the words, but her mind wasn’t on them. The tall man had hold of Miss Carson’s other arm and was closing the distance between the three of them. That put them nearly face to face with the small Miss Carson between them. Or rather, face to cravat, given his height. But Gwen was looking up and he was looking down, which brought their mouths into rather scandalous proximity.
Not truly, of course. There was a whole person in between them. But Gwen’s thoughts weren’t in the least bit aware of the distance. And she was looking at his mouth and seeing his even, white teeth. And his well formed lips.
He would be an excellent kisser, she thought. And even if he wasn’t, he would be quite good. Definitely worth a walk about the garden with just to find out.
She was so mesmerized by her thoughts that she didn’t realize when he began walking with Miss Carson. Gwen stumbled slightly, but then caught up quickly enough. He noticed, of course. She got the unwelcome feeling that he noticed quite a lot of things.
Ah, he said. There is the door. I shall go fetch the dress immediately, he said to Miss Carson as he released the girl’s arm. Then he looked to Gwen, his eyes extraordinarily . . . something. Sincere? Warm? She couldn’t put a name to the look in his eyes, except that she wanted to see it more. Especially directed at her. It stole her breath away.
But then he arched a brow and she realized with horror that he had been speaking.
I beg your pardon?
I was just expressing my thanks to you, Lady Gwen. For your assistance.
Of course, she murmured. It took another half dozen heartbeats before she realized she was supposed to be going to the ladies’ retiring room. Good lord, what was it about this truly unimpressive man that had her thoroughly . . . well, impressed?
She scrambled to gather her witsand Miss Carson’s armand then moved through the crowd. The girl was still shaking but walked steadily enough. Not so Gwen as her thoughts continued to spin and spin about kissing the tall man. It was highly inappropriate, so she chided herself over and over.
But her mind would not stop. It even led her to look back over her shoulder to see him conversing with a maid, presumably about waiting while he fetched the new gown. But the maid was rather short, so he was forced to bend down a bit, which meant that his hair fell forward across his cheek. Curly brown hair that went every which way but looked rather dreamy like that, the way it lay across his cheek.
Then he chanced to look up. Damnation, he’d caught her looking! And then, cheeky man, he winked at her. It was a quick flash. In truth, she couldn’t really be sure that he had winked. Perhaps it was a trick of the light. Perhaps he had merely blinked, and she was confused. Whatever he’d done, she had no business looking or thinking or caring about it.
He was a country squire or some such thing, she reminded herself. Here for a ball or two, then gone. His sort never stayed in London for long. And she would do well to remember it.
Unless, of course, she could find a way to kiss him before he left. But that would require planning and careful thought. First and foremost, she had to learn the man’s name! Gracious, was she really thinking about maneuvering to kiss a man without even knowing his name? His reputation? His anything?
Well, yes, she was. Especially since she had the perfect means to find out all sorts of things about him. So thinking, she turned her attention to the obviously shy Miss Carson.
“Right in here,” she said as they finally made it to the hallway that led to the retiring room. “And while we are waiting for your dress, you and I can have a comfortable chat.”
Baron Edward Murray moved slowly along the edge of the ballroom. His height was an advantage here. He was able to keep Debra and Lady Gwen in his peripheral vision even as he
moved to retrieve the dress they’d put in the carriage for just this situation.
It had gone better than either of them had planned. He’d finally managed to catch Lady Gwen’s attention, and Debra now had a half hour to charm the woman. If she succeeded in that, then they were well on their way.
He wasn’t a fool. He knew this was just the opening gambit and he was a long, long way from done with this scheme. But a good beginning was half the battle. And from the way she had been looking at him, he’d managed a very, very good beginning indeed.