He drew her hand over his arm and she followed a little hesitantly. If odd Miss Barrett hesitated, Court should certainly know better. Why was he doing this? Perhaps because he’d had so little excitement in his life of late. As they walked at a leisurely pace around the corner and down another wide hallway, she did not prattle on as a typical young lady would, and he did not feel compelled to fill the silence. He enjoyed the novelty of strolling beside her lost in his thoughts…too many of which centered on her voluptuous attributes and that damned harem painting.
When they arrived at the Darlington ballroom, there was little light with which to see the painting. He walked in anyway, turning in the expansive, tastefully decorated chamber. When it was lit for a grand ball, as it would be at the conclusion of the house party, a thousand candles would illuminate the space, but at the moment only a single lamp cast shadows for any guest or servant passing through.
He turned to Miss Barrett, who waited by the door. “Are you afraid of the dark?”
She shook her head. “No, Your Grace. I am afraid of ballrooms.”
He laughed at her jest—or perhaps it wasn’t a jest—and beckoned her to join him. They would be here only a short time. Not that he believed Miss Barrett would try to entrap him in marriage, but her brother would in a heartbeat. He pushed that thought from his mind and crossed to pick up the lamp.
“Come.” He led Miss Barrett to a large painting in the center of the far wall and held up the light so she might see it.
She recognized the subject at once. “It is Caesar in the Roman Senate.”
“It’s one of the few paintings I’ve seen of Caesar when he’s not being stabbed to death,” she said. “There is much more to his story than his assassination.”
“I agree. I find Roman history interesting. What I know of it, anyway.”
“Did you know there is an old Roman wall here?” She turned to him, eyes shining in the lamplight. “Well, not here, but north of here? It is very ancient. Thousands of years old.”
“I did know. Have you been to see it?”
Her face fell. “No, not yet. My brother will not take me.”
Court would have escorted her there if she’d asked him, taken an entire day to arrange the outing only to assuage her disappointment. Fortunately, she did not ask him. She was engrossed in the painting, her thoughts someplace far away. How novel, a young woman with such concentration, such intelligence to animate her.
He moved away from her because he had to. He prowled the shadowed perimeter of the ballroom, pretending to study the decorative wainscoting, the plentiful sconces affixed to the walls. When he was the length of the room away from her, he turned to discover the full force of her open gaze. It was enough to give a man thoughts, the way she stared at him across the darkness. In his peripheral vision he saw a footman enter and then back out again.
“Leave it,” he said when the bewigged man moved to close the doors. With a bow, the servant fled.
Miss Barrett stared at the door, at the retreating servant. “We should probably return to the company.”
Something guarded in her expression helped him regain his wits, or at least his sense of propriety. He carried the lamp back to its table near the wall.
“In truth, we’ve been gone too long.” He straightened his waistcoat and coat before he turned back to her. “I shall escort you back to the drawing room.”
“Thank you. And thank you for showing me the paintings.”
“It was my pleasure.”
He walked back with her down the hall, aware of her warmth, her closeness. Her fingertips tightened on his arm almost imperceptibly as they passed the harem painting, or perhaps he imagined it. She helped herself to another long glance. He enjoyed her freshness and curiosity. In fact, he had deeply enjoyed her company, but for appearance’s sake, they needed to part ways—quickly. Publicly. When she told him at the door she would rather retire for the evening, he urged her back into the drawing room so everyone could see them, and delivered her back to her brother’s side.
Court hoped it would be enough to hold the gossips at bay. They had been away from the group far longer than was appropriate. It was rare he behaved so clumsily, so foolishly, especially at a large party such as this. He decided from then on he would avoid her as much as possible. He really had to.
For her sake and his.
Chapter Three: Wish
Harmony thought the Darlingtons’ garden would be pleasant indeed if she could explore its charms in solitude, but instead she sat with the ladies, taking the sun and awaiting the gentlemen’s return from the hunt. Nearby a lake glistened, surrounded by woods to the edge of the property. Flowers bloomed in a landscaped border and paper lanterns twisted in the breeze. It was very picturesque, all of it, but Harmony’s peace was shattered by the constant badgering of her friends.
“You cannot tell us anything else?” Juliette pouted. “He did not act the rake in the slightest? No rude comments? No lurid glances?”
“No,” Harmony said. “He was not lurid at all.”
“Are you sure you’re not leaving anything out?” Viola leaned closer. “We won’t tell.”
“I have told you all I can remember, many times over.”
The Duke of Courtland this, the Duke of Courtland that. For a group of ladies so repulsed by the Duke of Courtland, they were obsessed with every aspect of the man.
“Are his eyes really green and blue?” Mirabel asked. “I wish I could see them close up.”
“He has beautiful eyes,” Harmony said quietly. “Very kind eyes.”
“Kind?” Sybil huffed. “If he was kind he would be civil to the other guests.”
“You mean civil to you,” said Juliette. “He is civil to his gentleman friends, and the Darlingtons.”
“He was civil to Harmony,” Mirabel laughed.
“He should be civil to everyone.” Sybil flushed a hot pink and fanned herself. “I don’t believe he is kind or polite. In fact, I know he is not,” she added, raising an eyebrow.
Juliette snickered. “You are only jealous he did not ask you to dance.”
“I most certainly am not. If he had asked me to dance, I would have said no.”
“Jealous, jealous, jealous,” Juliette taunted under her breath.
This tedious banter had gone on unchecked for a week, ever since His Grace had introduced himself and asked her to dance. She had gone from the least respected member of her social group to the most admired, although in her opinion she was being admired for a very silly thing.
And since that day nearly a week ago, he had not so much as spoken to her, nor looked at her, nor smiled in her direction. He went out with the men to hunt and fish in the day time, and kept to cards and the smoking room at night. From time to time he’d make an appearance in Lady Darlington’s drawing room to watch the dancing, but he did not ask her or any other lady to dance, even the older women who openly flirted with him. After a time, too short a time, he’d disappear back into the side rooms and the young ladies would wink at one another and whisper behind their fans about his showy clothes and his too-long hair, and his big hands.
Harmony did not agree that his clothing was showy. He actually dressed in a rather conservative style. His clothing only appeared showy for being so expertly fitted to His Grace’s compelling physique. The ladies talked about that too, until Harmony’s head would burst from it. His Grace’s broad shoulders, His Grace’s stern features, His Grace’s fine legs revealed in alluring detail by his tight-fitting trousers. And yes, his shoulders were broad, his features were stern, his legs were fine, and his hands were…obscenely large.
“I believe he wanted to kiss you.” Viola made a gleeful sound. “Do you think he meant to kiss you when he took you off to walk alone?”
“We only went down the hall to see some paintings. There were footmen everywhere.”
Sybil tsked. “As if a footman would intervene with a duke. Fortunately His Grace did not choose to take advantage of you.” It was an insult, sweetly spoken. Sybil had been the one most anxious to cut him, and now had become the one most jealous of Harmony’s connection to him.
“The duke only invited me to dance to save me from a scolding,” Harmony explained for the twentieth time. “It was very embarrassing, as I told you. Nothing romantic happened, not the entire time we stepped away.”
She had not told them everything. She had not told them about the pleasant, relaxed way he conversed, or the way he listened when she talked. She let them believe he was what they thought: a highborn, stuffy gentleman, guilty of great perversions. The rest of it she kept in her heart, her special secret she refused to reveal. If they knew how much she thought about him they would never stop teasing her. If they knew the silly fantasies she harbored when her eyes lingered on him…