“Lud, you foolish boy! You do not expect us to believe that you have been languishing in the Yorkshire wilds, do you?”
Geoffrey Rathburn, Earl of Tallis, winced at the lady’s strident tones and dodged her fan as she playfully rapped him on the arm. He had barely entered his mother’s ball ten minutes earlier when the lady and her daughter literally cornered him between the staircase and a huge towering column.
“Truly,” he said, his bored drawl showing distinct signs of wear. “I am afraid I must disappoint you, but I was—”
“Faith thays you were thpying for the Home Office,” said the woman’s pasty-faced daughter who, unfortunately, had not mastered the art of a fashionable false lisp without spitting. “How romantic,” she crooned as she fluttered her eyelashes at him.
“Nonsense, Anora,” snapped the poor girl’s mother. “No doubt his lordship was enjoying masculine pursuits.”
The girl pursed her thick lips, forcibly reminding him of the Yorkshire sheep he had just left two days ago. “Oh,” she said with a sly wink. “Mother hath explained all about men’th needth. I’m thure I understand. Explithitly.”
Geoffrey had the grace not to choke, but it nearly cost him his tonsils as he suppressed his natural urge to gag. Finally, when he was able to draw breath, he managed to give the girl and her domineering mother a weak smile. “Then I am sure you will understand that I must wish my mother a happy birthday.” He bowed as politely as he could manage and began pushing his way through a veritable tide of matchmaking mamas and their ever hopeful, ever hopeless daughters.
If only he had known his mother planned to put him on the marriage block tonight, he would have worn a nose ring and a saddle instead of his last good set of fashionable evening wear. And to think that two days ago he had been missing London!
Struggling to maintain his sense of humor, Geoffrey maneuvered his way through the female throng until he caught up to his mother. She was gracefully holding court in one corner of the rented ballroom and looked elegant as always, her silvery hair caught up with ivory combs that perfectly matched her cream-and-burgundy gown.
“Many happy returns, Mother,” he said as he dropped a light kiss on her cheek.
“Geoffrey!” she exclaimed, twisting her diminutive frame around to see him more fully. “You made it after all!”
He dropped into his best courtly bow. “In the flesh, Mother.”
“Oh, darling, you sound glum. You are not going to spoil my birthday just because I decided on a slightly larger celebration this year than usual, are you? With that monster Corsican running wild on the continent, I felt we all needed a little extra cheer.”
“How very patriotic of you,” he offered.
She gave him a searching glance, then pouted prettily.
“You are angry with me.”
He sighed, knowing his mother was incorrigible when it came to restraining her expenses. She was a society butterfly through and through. It was part of her charm. So he smiled, reminding himself they were finally getting their financial heads above water. If his mother celebrated in a slightly larger than appropriate style, it was only in anticipation of the successes to come.
After five years of dedicated labor, the Tallis fortune was beginning to recover.
He felt himself relax, his gaze traveling over the expensive hothouse flowers, the full orchestra, and elaborate dinner buffet. “No, mother, I am not angry,” he said, surprised that he did, in fact, mean it. “Truth be told,” he added with a cheeky grin, “I am in the mood to celebrate.”
“Excellent,” she said as she snared an elegant crystal flute from a nearby table. “Because I have wonderful news of my own.” She wormed her arm through his and drew him aside, her eyes alight with secret information.
He tugged lightly on one of her curls, which had escaped her elegant coiffeur. “Let me guess. You have found the elixir of life and have grown twenty years younger.” He leaned forward, whispering into her ear, “That is not a secret, my dear, because you do not look a day over thirty.”
“Oh, you foolish boy,” his mother said, blushing to the roots of her silver hair. “Drink up.” She pressed the crystal flute into his hand, and he obediently sipped, savoring the best champagne—the only champagne—he had tasted in the last five years. “It is Sophia,” whispered his mother. “She is to wed Major Wyclyff in four weeks!”
Geoffrey stopped mid-sip, the champagne going sour in his mouth. He slowly lowered his glass. “What did you say?”
“Isn’t it wonderful? We shall announce it tonight.” She was smiling, her face glowing with delight. “In truth, they have already wed in secret—after a romantic drive to Scotland—but the formal event shall be in four weeks.” His sister was already wed?
“I swear I had begun to lose hope,” his mother continued. “I am practically beside myself with delight.”
Geoffrey was happy for his sister as well. After five seasons, Sophia deserved to find love and marriage. It was just that everyone, including the girl herself, had come to regard Sophia as a sweet, maiden woman. She’d told him she would never marry. She’d insisted he use her dowry to purchase new sheep stock.
By God, she’d insisted!
Now she was to marry in four weeks’ time. Where would he find her dower money?
“Drink some more, Geoffrey. You look pale.”
He barely heard his mother. “Can they not wait at least until next year?” If he had a few months, perhaps he could scrape together some of her portion. “They need not wed immediately,” he repeated, speaking as much to himself as to her. “I can manage something in a few months.”
Gradually, his mother’s prolonged silence penetrated his mind, numbing it with added fear.
“They cannot wait, Geoffrey. Sophia is…” She glanced quickly around to make sure they were alone, then dropped her voice to the barest of whispers. “She is in an interesting condition.”
Geoffrey gaped at his mother. Pregnant? Sophia, the woman he once dubbed the Ice Queen, was pregnant? His blood started to boil in brotherly anger. By God, he would show—
“They are in love, Geoffrey.”
His mother’s voice suddenly turned sharp. “Geoffrey Lawrence Thomas Rathburn, I have approved this match. If you do anything to hurt your sister or Major Wyclyff, I swear I shall never forgive you!”
Geoffrey turned to his mother, his eyes pulled wide in shock at her tone. She had not called him by his full name in twenty years. Slowly, his indignation began to ebb. “You want this marriage?”
“Is in alt.”
Geoffrey saw the finality of it in her eyes. His sister would wed. In four weeks time. “Then I suppose all that remains is for me to provide her dowry,” he said bleakly.
He drained his champagne, his eyes burning from the unfairness of it all. Four weeks. How would he find Sophia’s marriage portion in so short a time?
“We do not have it, do we?” His mother’s voice was low, almost fatalistic.
They both knew she referred to Sophia’s dowry. As much as she pretended to know nothing more than the latest on-dit, his mother was not stupid nor willfully blind. She was well aware of their financial circumstances.
“No,” he answered in equally low tones. “We do not have it.”
“Well”—she averted her eyes, leaning over to grab another glass of champagne, which she pressed into his hands—“I believe Major Wyclyff will still marry her without—”
“No!” His one explosive word drew the attention of more than one curious guest, and Geoffrey quickly moderated his tone. “What kind of man would take his sister’s marriage portion?”
“I should not have done it!”
“But you did, and rightly so. Sophia does not blame you in the least.”
“Confound it, Mother.” He ran a hand through his hair.
“It is her money.”
“Speak with Wyclyff. I am certain he will understand.”
“Absolutely not! Wyclyff needs the money almost as much as we do.” His hand clenched spasmodically around his glass. “It is Sophia’s money. She should have it.” He just did not know where he would find it, short of selling off everything he just worked so hard to achieve. Getting that money, in four weeks time no less, would put them back to where they were five years ago when nothing would have saved them but an heiress.
Oh, God. He glanced around the room with renewed understanding. He saw the glittering jewels, the rich fabrics, the money represented in each and every young girl in the room.
“Good God, Mother, you have filled the room with heiresses.”
She sighed, confirming his worst suspicions. “I knew you would go prickly,” she said. “Men are so fastidious when it comes to their honor.”
Geoffrey bit back his retort, knowing acid remarks would not help the situation. Instead, his gaze followed her gloved hand as she gestured at all the flowers of polite society. “They are all here, awaiting your slightest attention.”
“And they shall fall prostrate before me at the altar, no doubt,” he said, frustration making his words too sharp. Why had he worked his back to near breaking these last years if not to avoid the Marriage Mart? He felt like one of his own sheep at a county fair.
“Come along, dearest,” said his mother as she drew him toward the edge of the ballroom. “There is one young woman I especially wish you to meet.”
Geoffrey allowed himself to be pulled, but his steps became heavier and slower with each passing moment. It had been bad enough five years ago when he had tried his hand at winning an heiress. He nearly succeeded, the delectable Amanda Wyndham hand and hand with him at the altar. Except that Amanda turned out to be Gillian Ames, a girl desperately in love with Stephen Conley, the fifth Earl of Mavenford. Bowing to fate and his own second thoughts, Geoffrey quietly stepped aside, annulling his own hasty nuptials so Gillian could marry her true love.
A parting gift from Mavenford had given Geoffrey the breathing room to rebuild his family’s finances. Except now, five years of heart-breaking labor later, when Geoffrey had finally wrested the family clear of debt, he suddenly had to find his sister a dowry commensurate with the Tallis name.
Which meant Geoffrey once again needed to wed an heiress.
For the first time in years, Geoffrey felt a great fury build within him. He was angry at the greedy mamas who pushed their nursery-pure daughters at him in hopes of winning his title. He was angry at his father for throwing his children’s inheritance away at the gaming table. But most of all, he was furious with himself.
By all accounts he was an intelligent man, a financial genius willing to spend long days shearing sheep and long nights studying how best to maximize his yields. Yet for all his labor, he’d still failed. It was a bitter taste in his mouth.
Geoffrey dug in his heels, stopping directly in front of a side doorway. “No.”
His mother paused, turning to him in surprise. “What?”
“I said, no.”
“No what, dear?”
“No more champagne, no more dancing, no more insipid girls.”
“I am tired, Mother. And not in the best frame of mind to tease smiles out of frightened young heiresses.”
“No.” Geoffrey allowed his mother to study him with her intense green eyes, letting her read the fatigue on his face and the worry that had etched fine lines into his features. He was at his limit. She needed to understand that.
“Very well, Geoffrey,” she finally said, her smile fading. “Perhaps you should go upstairs and enjoy a brandy in peace. The music room is decidedly pleasant this time of evening.”
Geoffrey smiled, gratitude welling up inside of him for the temporary reprieve from the Marriage Mart. Dropping a quick kiss on her cheek, he ducked into the side hallway and bolted up the stairs. He needed time to think. To plan.
God, four weeks!
He reached the room and poured himself a brandy, not even bothering to light a candle. Taking a deep breath of the surrounding darkness, he loosened his cravat and wondered what he would do. He knew the answer. He was intimately acquainted with every aspect of the Tallis fortune—or rather lack thereof. Though he searched for an escape, mentally reviewing every sheep, every acre of the family land, he knew there was no hope. There was no way he could provide Sophia’s dowry and still pay the mortgage.
He had to find a rich bride.
But he could not bring himself to accept it. Not yet. The very thought was like a noose tightening around his neck. He had only just poured himself a second glass of the restorative elixir when he glanced at the open window.
Was that a leg?
And a hand braced on the sill?
A girl was climbing in the window. Bloody hell, they were mounting the greenery to get at him!
He was torn between the equally desperate urges to laugh hysterically and to flee screaming in terror. Was there no end to the female determination to get him wed? Like a man drawn to probe his own sore tooth, Geoffrey’s gaze slowly returned to the intrepid woman. The leg was actually quite lovely, curved nicely and shining with pearly whiteness in the moonlight.
In the distance, he could hear the murmuring of his mother’s guests, no doubt milling through the ballroom searching for him. There was nowhere for him to run, he realized with a distinct sense of fatalism. He might as well enjoy the show.
Dropping peacefully onto the settee, he gave himself up to total enjoyment of the lady’s wiggling as she tried to squirm in sideways through the narrow window. He caught a glimpse of brownish-blond curls escaping an elegant chignon, heard the gentle rustle of white silk, and then all was eclipsed by the sight of the shimmering skirt pulled taut against a nicely rounded bottom.
In truth, it happened quite quickly, but Geoffrey knew those few seconds would be forever etched upon his memory. The mysterious woman had given him just enough of a view to enflame his senses, and then, with a final whisper of white silk and a couple tiny hops, she was inside, everything covered and in its proper place, her back toward him.
“Oh, do pull the stick out of your hair,” he drawled. “It quite spoils the effect.”
The girl gasped and spun to face him, her eyes wide with shock.
Was it possible? Had she truly not expected anyone in the room? Geoffrey shook off the thought. Why else would a girl climb the greenery if not to find him?
“I congratulate you on your ingenuity,” he commented, his sense of humor softening the bitterness in his voice. “Consider my curiosity well and truly piqued.”
The girl frowned at him, her brow furrowing in thought. “Thank you,” she commented, though her words seemed a bit distracted. “I am counted quite clever.”
“I could not agree more. So clever, in fact, that I cannot wait to know more.” He leaned forward and, with a quick flick of his wrists, lit a nearby candle.
But it was too late to stop him. The candlewick caught and they were both bathed in the soft glow of its light.
She was a pretty thing, older than he first guessed. In the semi-light, her eyes appeared rich blue pools fringed by impossibly long lashes. Her lips were the dark red buds of a woman who…had just been kissed?
Yes, he thought, as he felt his body tighten in response. She had kissed someone. And, she was definitely older than he first guessed, perhaps as much as twenty-one. His gaze dropped, following the graceful curves of her fashionable dress, noting the small, pert breasts and an enticingly slender waist. The rest was hidden beneath her skirt, but his mind had no difficulty replaying his delightful memory of her creamy white thigh and slender leg. It was not until he noticed her slim foot tapping in annoyance that he returned to the present.
“My apologies for staring, fair vision, but it is not often I get to look on a woman brave enough to flaunt Mother Nature herself.”
“Then you clearly do not have any sisters,” she said congenially.
He nearly choked on the thought of his sister, the cool Sophia, forgetting herself so much as to climb a ladder, much less a tree. “On the contrary, my sister is the epitome of serene consequence.” He grinned. “I much prefer the leaf-strewn variety.” Then he gestured to the rose and orange colored leaves still clinging to her hair.
She gasped, her hands quickly flying to her coiffeur as she tried to find the offending objects. Keeping his wicked grin in place, Geoffrey uncurled from the settee and moved closer to her. “Please, allow me.”
He was quite careful not to disturb her coiffeur as he withdrew the fall colors from her hair, but he could not help noticing the silky texture of her golden tresses. Then, suddenly giving in to a wicked impulse, he deftly pulled out two of the pins anchoring her chignon.
“Oh, dear,” he said with false chagrin as her curls tumbled free. “How clumsy of me.” Then he sighed with delight as he touched the riotous glory of those locks.
Unfortunately, he was not allowed to linger for she quickly backed away from him, her mouth pursed in disgust. “Oh, bother. It is forever doing that.”
Geoffrey had to choke back his laugh, unaccountably pleased when she had little success repinning her hair. Stepping away lest he be tempted to pluck out the remaining pins, he gathered his brandy. “Come, fair vision, share a drink with me.”
“And I have lost my fan!” she cried, oblivious to his offer. She began scanning the floor for the missing item. When it did not present itself, she ran to the window to lean out, peering into the darkness. Geoffrey knew he must say something quickly or she would climb back out to find it.
He stepped forward, taking her slender hand as he drew her away from the opening, which, he now noticed, was disconcertingly high off the ground and the tree a rather precarious step from the window.
“Please, allow me to introduce myself. I am Geoffrey Rathburn, son of your hostess.”
“The earl?” The words were apparently startled out of her, and she leaned forward slightly as if to get a better look at him.
“One and the same.” He released her to bow in his best courtly manner, his smile widening as she stumbled into an awkward curtsy.
“Good evening, my lord,” she stammered, her eyes drifting back to the window.
He could not mistake the meaning. She intended to search for her fan despite the depth of the plummet if she slipped. He quickly poured her a glass of brandy. “Please, I suddenly find myself unaccountably lonely. Will you not share a glass with me?”
She hesitated a long moment, and he held his breath waiting for her response. It was truly wicked of him to keep her there. He ought to encourage her down to the ballroom, via the doorway, but he had yet to solve the puzzle of her unorthodox entrance. After all, she might be a beautiful thief come to rob his mother’s guests. It was his duty to learn more about her.
“Come,” he coaxed. “What harm can there be in a simple glass?” He raised his eyebrows, quietly challenging her adventurous spirit.
She did not seem to notice. “I think I should go back out in the tree.”
He felt his mouth go slack. “Just to find your fan?”
“My fan?” She frowned, then suddenly her expression cleared. “Of course not, silly. To think.”
“You think in trees?”
“Usually. I have the most wonderful tree house at home, and so I suppose I just developed the habit. Aunt Win says it is very odd and I must try not to do such things in London, but sometimes I cannot help it.” Her eyes once again wandered to the towering oak. “I feel certain that in this case Aunt Win would understand, except in the moonlight my white dress would be rather conspicuous. And though Aunt Win has been most tolerant of what she calls my unusual nature, she has warned me that others might not forgive so easily.”
Geoffrey nodded, strangely enchanted by the ebb and flow of her lyrical voice. Her every word was spoken like an individual note on a page, almost with scientific precision, even when her thoughts wandered in chaotic directions. But taken all together, especially when mixed with moonlight and brandy, her words seemed to mesmerize him, luring his thoughts to places he never would go on his own.
“So you see,” she continued, “when I saw the open window, I decided it would be best if I thought in here.”
Geoffrey frowned at the sudden stop to her conversation. “So you were not looking for me,” he stated, oddly piqued at the thought.
“I had no idea the room was occupied. I will go back to the tree.” As if that resolved the matter, she stepped to the window and lifted her skirt in preparation of climbing the sill.
She paused, her eyes wide with surprise, and he racked his brain for a suitable reason to keep her with him.
“I, uh, cannot let you go out. You might fall—”
“I never fall.”
“But you might.”
“Do not concern yourself, my lord. I admit I did fall once. My father said I bounced quite nicely, and although I did break my arm, it healed in a few weeks. In fact, the confinement forced me to catch up on my studies. So, all in all, it was a positive experience.”
When he had no response to that, she nodded politely to him and jumped neatly to the windowsill.
“No! Uh, just think of my mother.”
She frowned. “The countess?”
“Why, yes,” he continued, finally thinking of something suitable. “It is her birthday today, you know. And although you might bounce quite nicely, it would give her the vapors just to think of it.”
Her frown deepened. “Why would your mother have the vapors if I fell?”
He shrugged, a smile pulling at his lips. “I have no idea, but I assure you, she would. Therefore, as her son, I must insist you refrain from climbing the tree. At least during the remainder of her ball.”
She sighed heavily as she nimbly dropped back to the floor. “Oh, very well. But then where am I going to think in peace?”
“Why not right here? I assure you, I can be quiet.”
She eyed him narrowly. “Promise?”
He nodded, his lips pressed tightly together to hold back his smile. Then he pushed the brandy into her hand. She took it, but did not deign to drink. Instead, she settled neatly into a nearby chaise as he returned to his place on the settee.
Unfortunately, despite his promise, he found it exceedingly difficult to sit in silence with the odd creature. She stared down at the floor, idly tugging at her hair as she apparently fought with her thoughts. Then, every once in a while, she released a sigh so heavy it seemed to press her deeper into her chair.
He could not stand more than ten minutes of it. “Perhaps you would do better if you thought aloud,” he offered.
Her body jerked slightly as she glanced up at him. “You promised to be quiet,” she accused.
“I did not realize you would be so very loud.” She tilted her head, clearly confused.
“You are sighing. Quite loudly. I am surprised they have not heard it downstairs.” He was teasing her, although he kept his expression somber, and suddenly she smiled, her entire face lifting with an inner delight.
“Do not try to gammon me, my lord.”
“I would not think of it.”
She sighed again, and her long lashes closed over her eyes making dark half moons on her cheeks. “It is nothing really. My aunt would tell me it is undoubtedly all my fault.”
Geoffrey touched her hand, pushing her brandy toward her mouth. “Take a drink, angel, then you can tell me what happened.”
She opened her eyes, obediently sipping from the snifter. Then she spoke, her voice trembling with self-recrimination. “It is my fault, my lord. I am cursed with the most insatiable curiosity. Or perhaps,” she added on a softer note, “it is the weakest of wills. It has gotten me into more trouble than I can count.”
Geoffrey narrowed his gaze, noting for the first time her hands trembled slightly as she held her brandy and that her throaty whisper was not a seductive affectation but a sign of true distress.
He silently cursed himself for his stupidity, suddenly remembering the rosy blush of her just-kissed lips. The girl had not been running him to ground, but had been escaping something—or rather someone. Someone had just accosted her, and at his mother’s ball no less.
Anger burned within him, and he silently swore to avenge this odd creature before him. He barely gave thought to such uncharacteristically gothic behavior on his part. It was simply necessary. But first he had to ascertain the facts, and as delicately as possible.
“I am counted quite discreet,” he offered softly as he reached forward, capturing her small hand in his. He had not intended to touch her, merely wanted to discover the name of the boorish gentleman, but somehow he found himself possessing her small hand, caressing its velvety softness. “Tell me from beginning to end what happened.”
She gazed at their entwined hands, slowly tilting her head as if considering the sensation. Then she abruptly stood, pulling her hands away as she began to pace. “Do you know Alvina Morrow? She is to wed Baron Heise next month.”
Geoffrey blinked, wondering if she were trying to distract him with an on-dit or whether it was important. “I have only recently returned to London and have not had the pleasure.”
She shrugged slightly, her gown shifting in the soft light, giving Geoffrey a distinctly unchivalrous thought. “It makes no matter. She is a dear friend of mine. She had an offer from an earl, but turned him down for the German baron.”
Geoffrey remained silent, his attention focused on the shifting planes of her face. He had not realized a person’s features could be so totally expressive.
“We were having a comfortable coze just yesterday,” she continued. “And I asked her about her choice. Her mother had been mad for the higher title, you understand.”
She glanced up at him, and he nodded, silently encouraging her to go on.
“She said she loved the baron. Actually, she said it quite a bit more eloquently than that, with a great deal of heartfelt sighs and doe-eyed looks, but that was the essence of it.”
“Then I congratulate her on her good fortune.”
She glanced over at him, clearly catching the cynicism in his voice. “You do not believe she was in love.”
“As I do not know either party involved, I am unqualified to judge.”
She shrugged and again his gaze wandered to the shifting fabric of her gown. “I did not believe her either. I asked her how she knew she was in love, and…” Her voice faded, and she frowned down at her brandy. “She said he made her tingle when they kissed.” Even in the soft candlelight, he could see the blush staining her cheeks as she continued speaking.
“Naturally, I thought it was all nonsense, but I did check my father’s library, especially the Greek love poems.” She looked up, pinning him with her dark gaze. “Did you know that literature offers hundreds of references to various physical responses?”
He gaped at her, not quite sure how to respond. “I, uh, believe I am familiar with some of the references.”
She nodded, as if pleased with his intellectual abilities. Then she spoke again, her words punctuated by the swish of her skirts as she paced to the window and back. “I have never been kissed, you understand. Harry’s and my family have had this understanding since we were born. Our properties connect, and so I wondered if…if—”
Geoffrey finished her thought, his tone excruciatingly dry. “If you would tingle when he kissed you?”
She shrugged, her gaze back on her brandy. “I was curious.”
He sighed and tried to keep his voice bland despite the anger still hot within him. “Angel, did he hurt you? Do I need to summon a doctor?”
“Oh no!” she exclaimed. Then she bit her lip, and he was sure she struggled to restrain a grin. “Unless it is for Harry, er, Lord Berton, that is. I am afraid I hit him rather soundly. I…I may even have broken his nose.” She paused to gulp some of her brandy. “It is quite ironic really as he is the one who taught me to punch in the first place. We did grow up together, you know.”
Geoffrey did not know what to say. Here he was delicately trying to ease her past the trauma of an over-amorous beau, only to discover the girl handled the situation quite neatly on her own. And with fisticuffs, no less. “Please, tell me what happened,” he urged, suddenly more relaxed.
Her hand strayed to her lip, touching it lightly. “We were taking a turn about the garden, and then I asked him to kiss me.” She frowned as she continued. “Do you know, he never gave me a moment to explain my interest when…” She blinked and looked directly at Geoffrey, her eyes growing wide. “When he kissed me!”
Geoffrey felt his eyebrows rise in surprise, fairness compelling him to defend the unknown Lord Berton, hamhanded though the boy must be. “You had requested as much.”
“Well, of course I asked him to kiss me. But not with such…such…”
Geoffrey was grateful he had set down his own brandy otherwise he surely would have spilled it.
“It was like pressing my lips to a wet fish,” she said. “Then when he put his hands…” She raised her own hands and waved them about the area of her bodice. “Well, that is when I hit him.” She glanced at him with an impish grin. “Knocked him flat, I fear.”
“I feel certain he deserved it,” Geoffrey commented, startled by the grim satisfaction he derived from the image.
She shook her head, her eyes filling with genuine distress. “Oh no. I did truly ask for him to kiss me. It is not Harry’s fault the experience was so…” She wrinkled her tiny nose. “So repellant. Truly, my lord, if this is a foretaste of marriage, I am afraid I shall not be able to bear it.” She poured herself some more brandy before delicately sipping. “It was not at all pleasant.” Then she looked back at the tree, its leaves fluttering silently in the moonlight. “You see now why I went in search of a tree.”
Geoffrey smiled, amused by her phrasing even though he did indeed see the crux of the problem. It was not that the woman had been heinously attacked, although clearly the overeager Lord Berton had much to learn about the gentler sex. It was that the poor girl contemplated a lifetime of carnal relations with a boy who could not even make a first kiss pleasant.
Geoffrey mulled over the situation, a wicked thought stirring his loins. She was beautiful. And curious. He could do no less than teach her that Harry was definitely not representative of his gender. In fact, was not that what riding instructors taught—to get directly back on the horse that threw you?
Lifting his brandy, he kept his voice lazy with just the slightest hint of challenge in it. She would not know that inside his blood pounded in his ears.
“I would not worry about marriage overmuch,” he said. “It was just one kiss, you know, and a bad one at that. There are other men who are less, um, wet in their attentions. One might even say you could find someone to make you tingle.”
He smiled at her, a long, lazy smile borne of too much brandy and a beautiful girl who’d turned to him for advice on kissing. She responded in kind, her sweet lips lifting in a delicate curve, her eyes alight with curiosity as she considered his words.
Suddenly, she nodded. “You are quite right, you know. It was only one kiss. Certainly not enough evidence to warrant a lifetime of chastity.”
She tilted her head, her gaze wandering over him in a way that made his skin heat with a sensuous hunger. “I suppose there must be others who could handle the situation with more skill.”
“Scores.” His voice was rough with desire.
“It is not as if Harry and I are engaged. There was merely an understanding. In fact, my aunt financed this entire season just so I might have the opportunity to meet other eligible gentlemen.”
He watched her take another sip of brandy, her perfect mouth pressing against the edge of her glass, parting to allow the entrance of that dark liquid.
“I, myself, am counted quite an eligible gentleman,” he commented, his gaze still on her moistened lips. “And quite good at kissing.”
Her eyes sparkled with the candlelight. “Indeed, my lord?”
“And do ladies tingle when you kiss them?”
He set down his glass, only vaguely aware of the impropriety of this conversation, more deeply aware of the rosy glow of her skin in the candlelight, the gentle lift and lowering of her breasts as she breathed, and the slight part to her sweet, red lips.
“I have never thought to ask,” he replied as evenly as possible. “Perhaps we could try an experiment.”
“Why,” she suddenly exclaimed, “that was exactly my thinking. Exactly what led me to Har—”
“Forget Harry,” he said abruptly. “Focus on gathering more information.”
She set down her glass with a determined click. “An excellent suggestion. Stand up, my lord.”
He blinked. “I beg your pardon?”
“Stand up. Harry kissed me standing up. I feel that in the interest of fairness, we should duplicate the situation as closely as possible.”
Geoffrey frowned at the half-full brandy glass in his hand, wondering why he suddenly felt completely foxed. “I beg your pardon?”
“You do wish to know if your ladies tingle, do you not?”
Geoffrey looked back at her, his mind feeling slow and dull. Suddenly, he had an odd surge of sympathy for the unknown Harry. “Uh, yes,” he began. “I suppose I do.”
“Well, I promise to share all my information with you.”
He grinned, delighted that she had taken up his suggestion with such alacrity. Except that honor required him to mention the unusual nature of her plan. “You do realize this is most improper.”
“Nonsense, my lord. This is science.”
He nodded, pleased with that explanation. This was science, he told his conscience. He had his duty to perform in the name of investigative research. He pushed himself upright. “You wish me to stand?”
“Yes. Right about there.” She pointed to a spot directly beside her left shoulder, and he dutifully stepped forward, his body tightening with anticipation.
“Do not forget to touch my bodice,” she reminded him.
“I shall endeavor to remember.”
She peered at him, apparently confused by his dry tone. “Unless you would rather not. I would not wish to impose. You are being most helpful.”
His grin widened. “I shall attempt to force myself. In the interest of scientific discovery.”
She returned his smile with a pleased one of her own. “Excellent, my lord. I was sure you were a game one.” She lifted her head. “You may begin.”
He looked down at her upturned face and had the oddest sensation of falling, sinking deep into the swirling sparkle of her dark blue eyes.
“My name is Geoffrey.”
“Geoffrey.” His name was like honey on her lips, dizzyingly warm as it heated the air between them. She lifted her chin a bit more, raising her lips to his, but he did not take them. Not yet. Instead, he traced the curve of her face with the tip of his index finger, noting the exquisite lift of her cheek and soft brush of her eyelashes. She was clearly startled, her mouth parting in surprise that he had not simply claimed her lips.
“Harry did not do that.” Her voice was thick, and he grinned at the indication of his effect on her.
“My apologies.” But he did not stop. He let his hand trail lower across her brow, skating across the tip of her nose until he outlined the gentle flare of her lips. He felt her breath, warm and seductive as it caressed his fingers. Pressing downward, he let his thumb trail inward, soothing the jagged flesh torn by the impatient Harry.
He felt her breath catch, and her body melt against him. His restraint gave way. His resolve not to frighten her crumbled beneath the silken heat of her body pressed against him. He claimed her lips abruptly, almost savagely. Her lips tasted of the brandy they had sipped, dark and rich and full of promise. She tasted sweet, her innocence fresh, her response open and easy.
He deepened the embrace, pulling her harder against him, opening her to his plunder. He took it all, tasting, exploring, touching her totally with just this one kiss. She responded eagerly, learning his movements and adjusting to them, meeting them, then adding her own unique flair.
It was a kiss to enflame passion, and he nearly lost himself to it. Only the muted sounds of the orchestra beginning another set kept him from disgrace. With a supreme effort of will, he broke away, stunned by the pain the movement caused, shocked by the raggedness of his own breath.
His only comfort was that if he was discomposed, she was even more so. Her eyes were dazed, turned dark and wide with ardor, and her lips were a haunting red, urging him back to their forbidden depths.
“Angel,” he rasped. “I think we had best return you to your heavenly realm.”
She blinked, clearly coming back to herself with an effort. “What?”
He smiled, pure masculine pride salvaging what the kiss’s unexpected intensity had stripped away. “I asked if that was a satisfactory experience.” He was teasing her. Her answer was written clearly across her face and body.
She appeared to rally her scattered thoughts, straightening her shoulders and smoothing down her skirts. “I believe you are right, my lord. I will definitely have to conduct more research before committing to a lifetime of chastity.” Then suddenly she frowned at him. “Especially since you forgot to touch my bodice.”
He gaped at her, then suddenly the ridiculousness of the situation overcame him in a wave of hilarity. Lord, but the woman was a complete hand. Standing before him now, she was as cool and composed as the most proper matron in his mother’s ballroom. Only he knew what fire lay just beneath her calm exterior. Whatever man was lucky enough to marry her would enjoy a lifetime of ecstasy in his marriage bed. Assuming, of course, the man was not too stupid to discover it.
He reached out a hand and smoothed a curl away from her eyes. “You almost tempt me, my dear. But now, I think, I should call your…aunt?”
She nodded, though disappointment clouded the dark crystal of her eyes. “Mrs. Winnifred Hibbert. She will be with the dowagers.”
“And what is your name?”
“Oh!” She colored slightly in embarrassment. “I am Caroline Woodley. My father is Baron Alfred Woodley.”
He bowed in his best courtly manner. “Then I am most pleased to meet you, Miss Woodley. Now I shall fetch your aunt.”
It was not until much later, after the orchestra played the last dance, after the candles were extinguished and the ballroom doors closed that Geoffrey relived the exquisite moments of their kiss. In the darkness of his bedchamber as he gazed out on the delicate rose of a new dawn, he recalled her words.
I will definitely have to conduct more research.
More research? Into kissing? She could not be serious.