“Perhaps you can introduce a bill on my behalf into the House of Lords, Your Grace.”
He nodded, enjoying her cleverness. “All young ladies should be free to waltz. Particularly you, Miss Barrett. Yes, it would make a fine bill, and take some of the wind out of those stuffy patronesses.”
She sobered and gave a sad little shrug. “I do not care, anyway.”
Court wished he might slip an arm around her waist and draw her close. He wished he might secure her little hummingbird hand fluttering at her throat and trap it in his own and waltz her around the lake until her sullen mood brightened. His hands flexed into fists, fighting the folly of his will. She stirred him. Her ample breasts, her delicate hands. Her full, pouting lips.
My God, he was developing a tendre for Miss Chaos. He took a deep breath to clear his head and let it out again. “You should not care,” he said. “Almack’s is a crashing bore.”
“But those balls are only a few hours of torture. This house party drags on and on. All anyone does here is gossip, eat, dance, and kill things.”
Court nodded at her accurate assessment. “So what are we to do with you? You dislike three of those four activities, and you cannot eat every hour of the day.”
“Your Grace!” She halted him, eyes wide. “Be absolutely still.”
She stepped forward, practically against him, and darted one gloved hand at his face. Before he could step away, her fingertip slid beneath his left eye, a fleeting touch. She drew her finger back and held it up to him. “You had an eyelash. Now you can make a wish.”
He looked down at her finger, his dark lash perched at its tip. Everyone in the garden was surely watching this young woman plastered against his front. “Quickly,” she said, “or it will blow away on the wind.” She was so close to him now he might have kissed her.
“Quickly what?” he asked, befuddled.
Her blue eyes sparkled at him. “You must blow your eyelash away, Your Grace, and make a wish as you do.”
There was no way he was going to blow his eyelash from her fingertip. Dukes of the realm did not do those sorts of things. He saw the moment she realized he would not do it, for her mood dimmed again.
“Why don’t you take my wish?” he suggested, easing her away from him. “Wish for something marvelous.”
She shook her head. “It doesn’t work that way.”
“Doesn’t it? Why not?”
“It just doesn’t.” She rubbed her thumb over the finger and his eyelash flittered away, perhaps into the lake, the wishful opportunity squandered. She backed away from him, straightening her skirt and tugging at her bonnet. “I wonder if it’s time yet for tea? I am feeling so much better now.” She gave a decisive nod. “Completely better. I’m sorry to have drawn you away from your friends for so long.”
“It is no matter. Let us return to the group or the gossip will be tedious.”
Too late, Courtland. Far too late for that.
“I don’t care about gossip,” she said, staring out at the lake again. “But I regret for your sake that your name has become linked with mine.”
“It is not a matter of our names being linked. Gossip can have dangerous results to a lady’s reputation.”
She gave him a weary look. “I am nearly twenty-three. I will not have another season and I will not marry. My reputation is no longer of any consequence.”
He felt unaccountable anger that this young creature, however brazen, should feel her life over at such a tender age. Although, perhaps, her resignation was for the best. “Miss Barrett, I am sorry to hear you feel this way, but I hope you discover more enjoyment at Danbury House than you have had thus far. Why, have you been to see the artwork in the Darlingtons’ East Salon? There is a gallery of notable family portraits there, if you should find yourself bored and restless.” As he said it, he had inappropriate thoughts of another activity one might do while bored and restless. A considerably more carnal activity. Dukes could do almost anything, but there were a few things they couldn’t do…
For instance, Court could not put his hand at Miss Barrett’s back and guide her up the grand staircase of Danbury House to his guest bedchamber above the Great Hall. He could not, once there, remove her clothing and admire her voluptuous, feminine figure, run his hands over every curve and valley of her person as he clasped her against his front. He could not suck on the curve of her shoulder or fill his hands with the bounty of her tempting breasts. He could not push her back on his bed and tease and pleasure her until every hint of anxiety was erased from her pretty face. He could not drive inside her until his own sordid, restless cravings were expended again…and again…and again…
No. He could not do that. He should not even imagine it, not now, with sad, conflicted Miss Barrett leaning on his arm. Curse civilization and blasted manners.
They began to walk more slowly as they neared their company. The crowd in the garden had not dissipated in the slightest. If anything, the audience had grown. Court knew with some pain that the universal topic of discussion was them. He delivered her to the younger group of women, greeting the fluttering circle with a tight smile before bowing over his companion’s hand.
“I wish you a pleasant evening, Miss Barrett.”
I wish you were beneath me all this pleasant evening. But that is only because, deep down inside, I am even more uncouth and mannerless than you.
She inclined her head to him and muttered something he couldn’t make out. Perhaps she said, “I wish it for you too.” He heard, I wish for you too.
He thought of his eyelash, and her body sliding against his. Make a wish. Quickly, or it will blow away on the wind.
Chapter Four: Escape
For three more days, Court managed to avoid contact with Miss Barrett. He turned his attention to cards and male conversation, and hunting, and more cards. And more male conversation, sprinkled with the squawking of his mother and Mrs. Lyndon, who’d heard the whispers about he and Miss Barrett. She ripped up at him the day after their lakeside stroll, berating him in their private parlor as the ladies took tea.
“She is so much worse than I expected,” said his mother. “She lacks the most basic of manners. Why, she is practically a savage. It is unkind but it must be said.”
“Her mother died too young,” Mrs. Lyndon agreed. “She has no social graces.”
“And now she has abandoned her set completely and taken to keeping company with Lord Darlington’s books.”
“I believe he granted her permission to do so.” Court knew it, in fact, since he was the one who had quietly arranged it.
“She spends hours in there, reading!”
“Horrifying,” he murmured. “If she does not take care, she may learn something.”
In unison, his mother and Mrs. Lyndon puffed out their cheeks.
“You must avoid her, Courtland.” Her eyes widened in horror, as if the savage Miss Barrett might rip out his throat. “I can’t understand how Lady Darlington tolerates that girl and her brother under her roof. And to have her name linked to yours! You cannot imagine how humiliated I was when Lady Myra whispered you’d stolen off to the ballroom with her. Can it be true, my son?”
His lips drew into a tight line. “I was showing her a painting. Not that I must give an accounting to you, or to any of the gossips in this house.”
His mother rapped her fan on the table at her side. “Ah, you will turn into that Barrett girl now, disregarding basic manners and acting like an impulsive child.”
He believed he might. He felt the most impulsive urge to upend his mother’s tea cup over her head, an urge he subdued with an iron will. He was glad “that Barrett girl” was likely engrossed in some book, blissfully unaware of the talk about the two of them. He was pleased for her to have that respite.
But for him, the house party lost much of its glow. Above and beyond his mother’s fretting, the daily repetition of activities began to chafe. One could only shoot so much game before one grew bloody tired of the sport. One could only hash over so many political arguments and play so many hands of cards before one nearly lost one’s mind. So when the other gentlemen amassed for their daily foray the fourth day after Miss Barrett’s retirement to the library, Court begged off and donned his town clothes and walking boots instead.
He wasn’t sure where he planned to go. Away. Away from the temptation of visiting her in the library. Away from salons and crowded halls and servants who spied. He wanted to go where he might be a solitary, anonymous man taking the fresh northern air. He strolled down the road from Danbury House into the outskirts of Sedgefield proper, realizing he should have dressed down if he’d sought anonymity. No one bothered him, but some of the children stopped to stare at the well-turned-out gentleman in their midst.
Court decided he would amble about Sedgefield until tea time, perhaps even longer. Perhaps he wouldn’t return to Danbury House until dinner, until he had two great lungs full of fresh air to sustain him through another evening cooped up with irritating ladies and obsequious men. At least he would not have to contend with his mother; she’d set off that morning with Mrs. Lyndon to a nearby manor to visit a friend. With any luck, she would remain there a week or more. Not that he didn’t love his mother—he just preferred her in small doses.