Christian suppressed a chuckle when the woman actually snorted. The others in the lecture hall did not find her anywhere near as amusing as he did. It was apparent by their glares. But then again, the audience who generally attended scholarly lectures consisted of stuffy old gentlemen who were perfectly happy to flirt with beautiful young ladies in social settings, but were outraged should one infiltrate their lecture.
He stretched his legs out into the aisle and rubbed his sore knee. He’d been two months in the country working with the spring foals. Only three days back in town, and he was already looking for entertainment. He hadn’t expected anything so diverting as an uproar at a lecture on Greek architecture at Lady Bethel’s salon.
The lady shook her head and crossed her arms over her chest. He’d come to the lecture because of his fascination on the subject, and he’d been disappointed to discover he’d caught the speaker giving bits of misinformation. The fact that this woman seemed to recognize this fact as well was supremely interesting. Of course, he was too well bred to make a public display of the fact he knew more than the expert, but watching her do so was deliciously diverting.
He didn’t know the lady, but he did know the companion who sat with her. Miss Anna Sinclair, his sister’s life-long best friend, fidgeted in the next chair. Anna’s discomfort only added to his amusement, such was his relationship with the woman as close to him as his own sibling. Anna had lived with his family since she was ten, her military father having no idea what to do with her when her mother died. Though there was affection between her and Christian, they had never grown out of their sibling-like rivalry.
The mysterious chit made no effort to conceal her frustration when the lecturer erroneously attributed a lesser known temple to the wrong city. “Oh, for heaven’s sake,” she scoffed. Several voices shushed her, but she ignored them. “But he’s wrong.”
Anna patted the lady’s knee. “I know, but really, Thea, shhhhh.” In obvious discomfort, Anna glanced about at the other members of the audience and made eye contact with Christian. She gave a little shrug and grimaced.
Seeing Anna uncomfortable was a real treat. Usually, her abrupt personality was the cause of other’s distress, and Christian thought seeing the tables turned for once was remarkably satisfying. Anna rarely lost control of a situation, but she clearly was at loose ends here.
He craned his neck to the right, trying to see between the shoulders and past the heads of the men between him and the other woman. He could see frustratingly little of her face with the others in his way.
“Sir.” Her voice was husky. “The town plans are attributed to Hippodamus of Miletus not Pythagoras as you suggested.”
“What?” The man behind the podium seemed flabbergasted that she’d had the gall to interrupt him.
“I can understand how you could confuse them. Hippodamus was Pythagoras’ pupil, after all.”
“Young lady.” The speaker strode closer. “Control yourself.”
“Believe me, sir, I have been.”
Christian still couldn’t make out any of her features even with Anna sliding further and further into her chair. Who was this woman?
“Then I ask you to respectfully withdraw yourself. These gentlemen have come to be educated by an expert on the history of Greek architecture.”
“I apologize. When is the expert speaker coming out?”
Oh, she was delicious. The lecturer’s face turned an alarming shade of reddish purple. Christian believed his valet would have called it puce. The man seemed incapable of forming a retort and sputtered instead.
“Quite right.” The lady stood and Christian saw she was taller than Anna, but then everyone was, and delectably curved. “Let us depart, Anna. We’ll leave these gentlemen to their delusions of scholastic pursuit.” The lady strode from the room, head high. Anna slunk along behind.
Christian stood and nodded to the man on his left then followed the ladies out of the room. There was no way he was missing an introduction. By the time he caught up with them on the sidewalk an argument had broken out.
“But you can’t do that, Thea,” Anna implored. “It’s simply not done.”
“Well that is ridiculous. Those gentlemen were there to learn and that… that… idiot had no idea what he was talking about.”
He wasn’t sure why he expected the typical English rose. After all, her accent clearly pointed to the fact she was foreign. Instead of a milk and cream complexion, a lovely olive-skinned woman looked back at him. Her face was slightly tanned and free of the freckles which plagued his sister when she was exposed to the sun. Black satin curls framed her face. But it was her eyes that mesmerized him. Not gray and not green, her irises were ringed in the darkest brown.
Anna huffed an exasperated sigh.
“I couldn’t let him go on unchecked like that. I happen to know beyond any doubt that he was wrong, and I am right.” The lady’s accent was unusual and Christian couldn’t quite place it. Her mouth did a luscious little thing when she said her vowels, or intriguingly rolled her r’s.
“She’s right,” Christian interrupted and was rewarded by a slight smile, a quick quirk of the lady’s lips. “The man’s a buffoon.”
“Regardless,” Anna insisted to her friend, calmer now. “I know you’re an expert, but you cannot embarrass him in front of the entire room. You’re in London now.”
This time the exasperated huff came from Anna’s alluring companion. Christian couldn’t even pretend he wasn’t entirely fascinated with her. She had a voluptuous figure that didn’t suit the current fashion. While he suspected she found that fact lamentable, it set his mouth watering.
“I didn’t mean to do that. Should I return and apologize?” The lady glanced back at the house, concern etched across her forehead.
“Anna has a tendency to exaggerate.” He said. Anna flashed him a narrowed glance to which he inventoried his repertoire of expressions and responded with Unrepentant Grin #4. “She also forgets her manners when she’s flustered.”
Waving her hand in annoyance, Anna remembered herself. “Thea may I present Christian, Duke of Morewether. My good friend, Miss Althea Ashbrook.”
He bowed at her curtsey. “At your service.” How could he not be acquainted with this friend? He had been certain he was privy to all his sister’s and Anna’s friends.
“Ah, yes.” She cocked her head to the side and extended her gloved hand.
“Absolutely charmed, Miss Ashbrook.” He unleashed the full force of Seductive Smile #2.
Her lips were the palest pink against her skin and a knowing half-smile slid across them. “I’ve heard all about you, My Lord.”
“And yet I’ve heard nothing of you. How can that be possible?”
“I’m certain I have no idea.” Her chin was slightly pointed and her nose small and round at the tip. “Anna has dragged me hither and yon to every social gathering in London for the last fortnight.”
He chuckled. “Have I been out of town so long dusty gatherings of scholars have become de rigueur for the amusement of the ton?”
Miss Ashbrook grimaced.
“Let’s go home before the scholars converge on us with pitchforks.” Anna peered up the street and waved for a hackney.
He signaled his coachman. “It would be my pleasure to take you anywhere you wish to go.” Anna gave him a look overflowing with suspicion. “I’ve been in the country so long; you can’t deny me the pleasure.”
As Christian handed the ladies into the open landau, Miss Ashbrook paused and gazed into his face. No, this was no perfect English flower, but a wild one, and he found himself uncharacteristically without a pithy, flirty phrase to enthrall her.
“You know,” Anna said, shifting in her seat to face her friend, “I think Morewether here may be of some use to us.”
Christian thought of several ways he’d be willing to be of use. “Of course. I am at your service.”
Anna smiled for the first time. “I’ll wager.”
Christian didn’t take Anna’s bait and turned to Miss Ashbrook. “What made you decide to come to that particular lecture today?”
The breeze sent the ribbons of her bonnet to tangle with her curls. “It was a mistake. I know that now, but I was feeling a little melancholy and homesick.”
“You’re Greek? Did you grow up around the ruins? How fascinating. That must be how you know so much about them.”
“Indeed.” A faraway smile curved her lips. “My home is a spectacular place.” Then her mood darkened. Her mercurial eyes flashed with irritation. “Clearly, that ilìthios has never been on the Peloponnese.”
“Somewhere I have longed to go myself,” he said.
Her gloved hands flitted about, stroking the fine leather of the bench seat next to her, and then finally alit in her lap. He watched them with interest, the fingers long and slim, encased in fine beige leather.
If he concentrated, and he’d been concentrating very hard, there were other things besides her accent that set her apart from Londoners. Though her dress was au courant London fashion, and she was absolutely stunning in it, it still showcased her differences. The neckline that exposed her graceful throat also revealed the lovely soft olive cast to her skin. Her lips were full and bow-shaped, so different from the ladies he’d grown up seducing, and her unusual eyes were so much more soulful.
Christian searched anything to keep her talking. “You’re new to London?”
“Indeed. I’m here to settle family obligations,” she answered cryptically.
“Will you be staying long?”
“Long enough to accomplish what I need to do.” She looked away, giving him ample time to take in the curl of her ear and the shape of her jaw.
The silence stretched on. He couldn’t think of anything further to say to draw her out. He cast about for further conversational fodder—anything to allow the rich tones of her voice to roll over his skin. What would he have to do to hear her laughter? He imagined it already; a husky sensual sound with a lifeline to his groin.
His gaze slid over to Anna, and he hoped she would help him. The pixyish devil smirked at him. Just when he was certain she was making the situation as uncomfortable for him as possible, Anna turned to the lady and smiled.
“Thea, today’s events don’t change our plans for dinner this evening.”
Was that a hint?
Miss Ashbrook’s brow wrinkled. “Are you certain?”
“With whom do you have plans?” Can I come, too?
“I know Lord and Lady Harrington very well,” Anna said to her friend even while she smirked at him. “They won’t care what anyone says about you. Besides, they are probably the best people to know in society. With their influence, many societal sins can be overlooked.”
His sister. They were having dinner at his sister and brother-in-law’s home. Christian almost laughed at his relief. He’d send a note inviting himself as soon as he got home. The cure he’d been seeking for boredom may have just presented itself in a delectable foreign package.
“I’m happy to escort you to my sister’s,” Christian told her in the most solicitous voice in his arsenal.
“Thank you, Your Grace,” Thea told him. A soft smile caressed her lips. “I wouldn’t want to put you to any inconvenience, especially after having already ruined your afternoon.”
“I’ll be there anyway,” he informed her and ignored Anna’s snort. “It will be my absolute pleasure.”
Miss Ashbrook tilted her head and gazed at him. Christian resisted the urge to fidget. He gave her a friendly, but not too hopeful, grin.
He couldn’t remember the last time a woman had held him in such thrall. She searched his face, paused again to meet his gaze. Finally her eyes crinkled at the edges when she bestowed upon him a breath-stealing smile.
“Actually, Your Grace, your interest in me is somewhat surprising. You are not exactly what I’ve come to expect.”
Ah, his reputation preceded him. “What nonsense has our dear Anna been filling your ears?”
Again, Anna snorted. The chit had the indignant snort down to a science. “I assure you, not one lie has passed my lips when I bothered to discuss you at all. Besides, it hardly matters what I have to say about the topic anyway. There are more than enough women in London with stories to tell about you without my contributions.”
Christian gave Anna a nudge with his foot. “Almost none of it true, I can attest.”
“None of it? Really?” Miss Ashbrook raised an eyebrow in disbelief.
“I didn’t say none of it. I said almost none.” Anna opened her mouth to protest, and he pointed his finger at her. “You hush, little bird.” Anna’s laugh rang gaily over the sides of the carriage and spilled into the street.
Miss Ashbrook teased him with a husky chuckle that only whetted his appetite for more. “I’ve heard a great many stories about you, Your Grace, and I’ll admit, some of them are almost too outlandish to be believed.”
“Do tell,” he encouraged her. He figured he’d challenge some of the more ludicrous tales, freeing the way for her to ignore any warnings she might have collected from gossips.
The lady’s grin was sly. “There was one incident I thought was ridiculous even when I heard it. They say when you ended things with one of your paramours, she was so distraught she burned all your gifts to her in a pyre in your entry hall.”
“Oh, ho.” Anna snorted, and then turned her face away while she tried to control her giggles.
Damn it. The first rumor she brought up and it was more or less true. Well mostly true. “It wasn’t in the entry hall, actually, it was in the garden.”
“That event was blown way out of proportion. The fire was never that big.”
Anna noted. “It was big enough to catch the big oak aflame.”
Christian glared at the most annoying woman he could possibly have in this carriage at this time and place. She must be reveling in his discomfort. He returned his attention back to Miss Ashbrook. “She burned gowns. That’s why the fire was larger than one would expect.”
“We lost that tree.” Anna clearly was not going be quiet. She claimed to have some sort of attachment to the damn tree, which was absurd. He was certain her fondness only amounted to a way to tease him endlessly about the whole affair.
This time his foot nudged hers a little more firmly, closer to her ankle, and with the toe of his boot. “Obviously, the woman was unhinged. Not long after, she retired to the country.” Christian shot a warning glance at Anna.
I swear to God if she snorts…
“There was also a tale spun involving two nearly naked young women, a goat, and a dip in the Serpentine.”
Christian closed his eyes while he gathered himself. “I was much younger then. Surely you can’t hold a youthful indiscretion against me?” The noises from across the seat sounded as if Anna was choking. If she wasn’t choking now, wait ‘til he got her home.
“I can appreciate the folly of youth,” Miss Ashbrook agreed. Her smile was absent while she seemed to be taking his measure again. “I understand you better than you think, Your Grace.”
He definitely didn’t like the sound of that. “Yes, well, let me prove you wrong. Allow me to escort you to my sister’s home for dinner this evening.”
Miss Ashbrook looked to Anna who shrugged one shoulder and rolled her eyes. Yes, choking her would be a fine, fine thing.
“At the very least, I can’t say the evening would be dull.” Miss Ashbrook extended her hand. “You may collect me at eight o’clock.”
Christian clasped her hand as the carriage rolled to a jerky stop in front of an expansive townhouse near his own. When he helped her down, he took another long glance at her face, a gaze that lingered so long as to be nearly rude. This time, when she held his gaze and curled her lips into a smile, Christian was charmed into thinking he could find his way into her good graces. “Until this evening, then.”
“Ummm.” She nodded to him and waved her farewell to Anna.
He watched her until she disappeared into the house. Sweet Jesus and all the apostles. The woman was astounding, fascinating, and he wanted to know everything about her.
“I can’t believe it.” Anna’s voice penetrated his thoughts. “You are completely, absolutely, beyond a shadow of a doubt smitten with her.”
Christian took the high road and ignored her. The carriage slowed to round the corner to Berkeley Square.
“Oh you are, you are,” she continued when he didn’t take her bait.
“Quiet,” he told her in warning.
“She won’t have you, you know.” Anna’s voice softened. “I know you think you’re every woman’s dream, but you’re not this one’s.”
That was precisely his fear.