“Why do you blush every time you speak of him?” asked Mirabel. “If nothing romantic happened?”
“I know what happened,” said Juliette, eyes dancing. “He dragged her into a corner and subjected her to his uncomfortable habits!”
“Oh, yes,” Mirabel giggled. “He took unforgivable liberties, didn’t he? Perhaps he wishes Harmony would be his mistress.”
“What a terrible thing to say,” Viola gasped.
“Goodness, how sensitive you are.” Mirabel dressed Viola down with a sneer and excluded Harmony from the rest of the conversation.
She didn’t care. She wasn’t here in the garden to simper and chat, but to see the duke return from the hunt. He seemed particularly strong and manly coming in from the fields, in a way that very much affected her, even if he never had a word or glance for her.
It wasn’t long before the hunting party appeared with their attendants and bags full of game. There was much silly flirting and mucking about as the men showed off for the ladies, but it was not the duke’s habit to partake. His Grace ignored her friends when they crossed to his group and contrived to crowd nearby. It gave Harmony a certain sour pleasure that their fluttering and preening was for nothing, especially since they pretended to despise him.
Harmony drifted away from the milling guests to a quieter corner of the garden. She had enjoyed her glimpse of the duke, but she would not crowd about him with the other girls. Instead, she sat on a bench near a clump of flowers, inhaling their sweet scent. She wished she could turn her head and stare at him without inviting mockery. She wished to stare at him all the time, but she couldn’t, which annoyed her. He had looked so earthy and capable in his hunting coat and trousers as he sauntered about the clearing, his shotgun slung over his arm.
Oh, he really had looked so dashing. She decided she would allow herself one more peek. Only one, and a short one at that. She turned to find him in the center of a crowd, talking to his friends as the footmen bore off the gentlemen’s guns for cleaning and storage. Her short peek turned into an extended stare. She could see the ladies giggle behind their hands as his regard passed over them. Silly hens. She was glad now she had left them. She would rather hide here and—
“Ah, if it isn’t the lovely Miss Barrett, fellows.” A strident voice interrupted her solitude as a group of young fops descended on her. She recognized the one who addressed her as Lord Sheffield. She hadn’t made the acquaintance of the others. They smiled at her but they didn’t look like real smiles. She drew herself up, instantly on guard.
“Good afternoon, gentlemen. How was your hunting?”
“It was fine hunting. The Duke of Courtland snared a rare grouse, or so I heard.”
“Eh, Sheffield, was it a Red Grouse?” one of the young men called.
“No, sir. It was a Blonde Grouse.”
Harmony lifted her chin, turning her face away. “If you are making a joke, it is not particularly funny.”
“Aww, Miss Barrett, we won’t tell him you were hiding over here staring til your eyes popped out. Don’t pout now. It’s a lovely day.”
“Not as lovely as you,” one of them cried in a mocking voice. Lord Sheffield elbowed him and turned back to her.
“Don’t be cross, miss. Me and my friends were just saying how majestic you looked sitting over here among the flowers. Like some pretty picture in a museum. I bet the duke likes you a lot. He asked you to dance, after all.”
Harmony picked at a tiny snag in the fabric of her gown. “I do not care if he likes me or not.”
“Don’t you?” Lord Sheffield shifted and looked back at his friends. “You’d be a perfect match, you and that one.” A couple of the young men burst into laughter and reeled away. Harmony stood and began to walk farther from the garden, leaving them to their stupidity, but Lord Sheffield and a few stragglers dogged her heels.
“Do you think he’ll ask you to dance again?” Lord Sheffield’s mouth curved in a grin she very much wished to slap off his face.
“I should think not,” Harmony replied shortly.
“You ought to ask him. He seems so lonely without you.”
Harmony seethed with irritation. Why could he not leave her in peace? No matter where she walked, he followed, and when she paused to face him he stared openly at her bodice, the nasty rat. She tugged up at it a little, and then he laughed, and she decided she had tolerated quite enough. She drew back her hand to give him a sound box across the ear—but then her fist was trapped in a firm grasp. She turned and locked eyes with the Duke of Courtland.
His gaze left her to settle on Lord Sheffield. “It is not at all the thing to pester a lady.”
A low chuckle issued from one of Sheffield’s friends. The duke silenced it with a cool stare.
That accomplished, he turned back to her. She’d forgotten how large he was up close. Intimidating. She took in his stern, chiseled face, his dark hair and the eyes of a color she still couldn’t place. Green or blue? Dark greenish-blue. She did not know how to describe them, only knew that when he turned them on her she rather lost her ability to think.
“Miss Barrett,” he said, placing her hand over his arm. “Will you walk with me around the lake before tea?”
He couched it as a question but it was a command. She knew she ought to reply with some fluttery thing—Certainly, Your Grace. I would be honored, Your Grace—but she could not summon a word in her disarrayed mood. He sent a withering glance over his shoulder at her tormentors as he turned her toward the path. “If you will excuse us, gentlemen.”
His acerbic tone implied they were anything but. The men shrank away like beaten dogs, slinking toward the house. Why couldn’t she command that type of respect? She hoped His Grace had not heard too much of their mockery, especially the part about her mooning after him. Of course, he probably heard worse things about her, wherever the men gathered and talked about the ladies. Her brother, who ought to stick up for her, probably spoke of her worst of all. Only this man, this near-stranger, had seen fit to come to her rescue—for the second time.
It was both wonderful and infuriating. And embarrassing beyond belief.
She looked away, at tree tops and blue sky, as a whirlwind of emotions assailed her. She didn’t realize until now how much she’d craved his notice, but why did it have to come at a time like this, when she felt so irritable and bleak? She scratched her cheek and fussed with her bonnet’s brim. “You needn’t stay and walk with me,” she said. “But thank you for sending those gentlemen away.”
“I felt obliged to interfere.” He helped her cross from the lawn to a narrow walking path beside the lake. “You might have knocked out Lord Sheffield if I hadn’t.” His deep, sonorous voice held a note of reproach.
“I did not— I would never—”
“Plant a facer aside Sheffield’s crooked nose?” He patted her hand where it rested on his arm. “That’s a lie. I think you tell a lot of lies, Miss Barrett.”
She gawked. “I most certainly do not.”
“You do. Out of necessity, I’m sure, but you needn’t lie to me.”
She stopped still and faced him. Beneath his handsome exterior, behind his intent gaze, she saw some spark of mayhem that unsettled her. She wasn’t sure anymore if he’d rescued her or only wished to toy with her in private. When she spoke, her voice trembled. “I am too stupid sometimes to tell lies from truth. To tell sincerity from cruelty.”
“Are you too stupid to realize when a friend stands before you?”
She had used the word stupid first. He said it with a touch of frustration that made it sound nastier perhaps than he meant. She glared at the burnished gold buttons of his waistcoat. “I can be eminently stupid, Your Grace.”
He made a low, impatient sound. “Come, let us walk.” He guided her forward at the same desultory pace with which he did everything. “If you do not care to continue as an object of gossip and teasing, you must refrain from throwing punches at gentlemen. You are becoming the party’s entertainment and I doubt you wish to be.”
She flushed hot at his words and tugged her bonnet again. “Are you trying to be gallant or to humiliate me?”
“Humiliate you? What an outrageous thing to say.” His eyes were fixed on some distant point, his lips drawn down in what might have been a frown, except that he didn’t look angry. “Why did you not dismiss the gentlemen when they began to tease you?”
“Dismiss them how?”
“A glare, some sharp words. Ignore them if you must. Those young bucks are nobodies, annoying gnats. If you swat at them enough, they will go away.”
On the heels of the gentlemen’s mockery, she must now endure this dressing down? Her throat worked with the effort of mastering her emotions. “The scene you witnessed was not the first nor the last time I shall be mocked,” she said. “I do not suppose you know the feeling of being made fun of, but it is not a very nice one. I cannot come up with the correct words to say in friendly company, much less when I feel attacked.” She stared at some point just above the wrist of his coat, then lifted her face to meet his gaze.