In addition to her lack of natural coordination, they were confounded by a marked difference in size. Until now he’d only seen her under a desk, or across the room where perspective was harder to judge. He was tall like his father and used to peering down at women, but Miss Barrett was shorter than most. Her chin barely reached the height of his chest and her hands were like little hummingbirds in his oversized grasp. She must find his hands monstrous; she eyed them frequently while they danced. At one point she turned the wrong way and collided with him. He righted her and she stopped short in the middle of a promenade.
“I am the very worst dancer,” she said.
“Nonsense. You move with rare eloquence.” She rejected this lie with a thunderous frown. “Perhaps we should take some refreshments instead,” he suggested.
Miss Barrett agreed emphatically with that idea. He had the feeling she would have fled the drawing room if he hadn’t tucked her hand in the crook of his arm. He led her to the punch bowl, nodding in response to Lady Darlington’s smile, and got Miss Barrett a glass of punch she appeared too overwrought to consume. People pretended not to watch them but they watched nonetheless, and Miss Barrett clearly yearned for escape. He might have let her go at that point with a bow and a polite “good evening.” He wondered why on earth he did not.
Instead he asked, “How are you enjoying your books?”
A flush bloomed on her cheeks. “I— Well—about that, Your Grace…thank you for not gossiping.”
“I abhor gossip.”
“I do, too.” Her pleased look warmed him. “To answer your question, as a student of history I found the books fascinating.”
“A student of history? I am glad to hear it. You’ve finished them already?”
“Yesterday,” she admitted.
“And still they gazed, and still the wonder grew, that one small head could carry all she knew,” he quoted in a fit of whimsy.
Miss Barrett looked alarmed. “I am not that intelligent.”
It was a lie every bit as false as his lie about her dancing. She clamped her mouth shut, as if some monologue on the origins and habits of Mongol hordes might otherwise escape her. She was, as his mother had warned, woefully strange in manners, which disquieted and fascinated him at the same time. He took her cup and placed it on a nearby table.
“Miss Barrett, did you know our hosts own several paintings of historical interest? May I escort you to see them?”
She stared up at him. He felt a twitch at his lips, a smile not called up from some sense of politeness or propriety, but a true smile. She smiled back, then her face clouded.
“Is it entirely proper?”
“To view your hosts’ paintings? Of course. They are just down the hall outside this room.”
“Then yes, please. I would love to see them.”
He offered his arm and she took it, holding herself stiffly beside him. She was worried about propriety, was she? His days of seducing young women in secluded galleries were long over, although he did imagine for a moment what it might be like to pull Miss Barrett into a dark corner and surprise her with a kiss. Would she react with a slap? A swoon? Not Miss Barrett of the Mongol hordes. She would more likely glower at him until he stopped.
He looked down and patted her gloved hand, trying to communicate her safety in his care. They left the brightly lit drawing room and entered the wide hallway. It was darker there, but adequately illuminated with lamps. The flickering light reflected off her disarranged hair. His fingers ached to set a couple of errant curls to rights, but it was not something a gentleman would do with any lady other than his wife or mistress.
“Here, Miss Barrett,” he said, stopping at the first one. “A portrait depicting St. Joan of Arc.”
She regarded the painting critically. “It is not how I would imagine her.”
“Oh?” He had viewed this rendition of Jeanne d’Arc before and found her stark, severe expression moving. “She was not like an English lady,” he explained. “She would not have a silk gown and her hair done up in curls. She lived long ago in France.”
“It’s not that I think she should look like the ladies back in the drawing room,” sniffed Miss Barrett. “I am not an idiot.”
Court felt laughter bubble up in his throat. He grunted to disguise it, rocking back on his heels. “I did not mean to insinuate—”
“I think the artist made her too pretty.” She stepped closer, her arms at her sides, still staring at the painting. “Joan of Arc was a fierce warrior. I often wonder how she did it.”
“Convinced all those men to follow her, to fight and give their lives under her command. She commanded armies of men,” she said, turning to him. “I wonder how.”
A thought lodged in his brain at that moment: it was most certainly a blessing Miss Barrett did not know how.
As it turned out, her knowledge of Joan of Arc put his to shame. She told him all she knew of the woman’s birth, childhood, political machinations, and eventual burning at the stake, while he occasionally contributed a polite “Imagine that,” or “Fascinating.” At last Miss Barrett lost interest and he led her to the next painting.
The work depicted a Persian prince surrounded by a harem of voluptuous slaves. Nude voluptuous slaves. The women sprawled on cushions and caressed one another while the prince surveyed them all, master of his domain. Court enjoyed the painting’s sensual overtones, but in the company of Miss Barrett it created an awkward situation, not least because his lewd mind found her robust figure not unlike those of the prince’s lush concubines, and Court momentarily pictured her there among them.
“What do you think of this work, Miss Barrett?” He cleared his throat as she studied it, adding, “It is composed in an appealing baroque style.”
She considered it for a long moment. “Yes.” Tentatively. Then, “Yes, it is very moving,” with an ardent nod of her head. “I should very much like to lie around all day on pillows like those women. Although it might grow tedious after a week or two.”
Court stifled a smile. “Tedious indeed,” he said. “You prefer to stay busy?”
“I do prefer it. Although idleness can be pleasant enough in the right circumstances. And with the right company,” she added, pointing out two embracing women. “They appear to be particular friends.”
Court’s lips twitched. “Shall we move on?”
They lingered next over a series of expertly crafted landscapes, which did not seem to interest Miss Barrett very much. Then they came to the large canvas at the end of the hall, a rendering of Camelot, King Arthur, Lancelot and his knights. She made an ecstatic sound.
“Do you enjoy the Arthurian legends?” he asked.
“I love them. I’ve read all the books I could find about King Arthur and Guinevere and the druids and priestesses and all those myths and legends.” Her excitement delighted him, although no gently-reared lady would ever admit to being so well read. She studied the detailed painting while he stood silent, reluctant to interrupt her thoughts. Finally she turned back to him. “Do you think they really happened? The things that are written in those legends?”
She sounded wistful, as if she hoped they had. “I suppose some of the events really happened,” he said, “while other parts were embellished or contrived. The magic parts, for instance.”
“You don’t believe in magic, Your Grace?”
“No,” he told her truthfully. “Do you?”
She turned back to the painting. “I suppose not, although I wish I did. It is so pleasant a fantasy, that there is magic and mysticism all around us. But I haven’t found it to be so. I suppose I lean more toward belief in fate, and chance.”
“Fate and chance?” Court raised a brow. “Are they not in opposition to one another?”
She pondered this, a small wrinkle forming between her brows. “I think we all have fates to which we must submit ourselves,” she said. “But we can also grasp at chances when they come to us.”
“And perhaps change our fates?”
“We must try, mustn’t we?” She regarded him as if he held the answers, but in truth, he’d never given much thought to any of this. He had been born to a fate of course, that of the Duke of Courtland. She had been born the daughter of a lesser—and peculiar—viscount. Her fate, his fate.
“You are very profound, Miss Barrett,” said Court. “I have never conversed with any lady quite the same as you.”
He meant it as praise, but frustration flitted across her face. “People always say that. That I’m strange.”
“I did not say you were strange,” he corrected her. “I said you were profound. Whenever I ponder magic, fate, and chance hereafter, I shall recall this fascinating conversation.”
She tilted her head as if questioning whether he mocked her. He did not mock. In fact, he did not feel ready to return her to the greater company as he should. “Come, there is a striking painting in the ballroom. I believe you would appreciate it very much.”