His Wicked Charm
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Con glanced toward the French doors, standing open to the terrace, then back to her. “Dare I suggest we step outside? I assure you I won’t try to lure you into the garden this time.”
Lilah cast him a speaking glance and took his arm, turning toward the open doors. “One can only wonder why you did so the first time, considering that you think I’m such a prig.”
He chuckled and took a sip from his glass. “I am, as you have pointed out, entirely too impulsive.”
“That’s no answer.” But Lilah was feeling too companionable at the moment to pursue the subject. Her customary annoyance with Con had vanished with the waltz.
They strolled the length of the terrace, now and then passing another couple doing the same. Lilah lifted her flushed face to the cool night air. She began to hum the waltz beneath her breath, wishing she could dance along the terrace. She smiled to herself at the idea of causing such a commotion. Con’s jaw would drop. She had to press her lips together tightly to hold back a giggle.
Perhaps she shouldn’t have gulped down that glass of champagne. It wasn’t like her. Or perhaps it had been the dance, whirling around the room in Con Moreland’s arms. That, too, had been unlike her. Mostly likely it was because she was with Con; there was something about him that encouraged misbehavior.
He said inappropriate things that made her laugh. His smile, his wink, that twinkle in his eye just before he did or said something outrageous, enticed one to go along with him. If he had been a woman, people would have termed him a temptress. She wasn’t sure what one called such a man. Dangerous came to mind.
She glanced up at Con, so close beside her she could feel the warmth of his body. As if sensing her gaze, he turned his head. With only the mellow light streaming from the windows of the ballroom behind them, Con’s face was half-shadowed, his eyes dark. But the dimness could not hide how handsome he was—the firm chin and square jaw, the way his mouth curved up slightly, as if he was about to break into a grin.
It was odd how much he looked like his twin, yet she had never felt a twinge of attraction to Alex. When she first met Con’s brother, she had realized almost immediately that he was not Con. There had been no spark running along her nerves, no tightening of her stomach. Alex was easy to talk to; with Con, Lilah always felt as if she needed to be on her guard.
If she wasn’t careful, she might stumble. And Lilah was a person who liked her feet firmly planted on the ground. It was disconcerting to have this uncertainty. It was even more alarming that it also excited her. Surely that was not how it ought to be.
They reached the end of the walkway and turned to look out over the garden below. Delicate paper lanterns lit the garden paths, but up here on the terrace, they were deep in shadow. Con set his glass on the wide stone balustrade and leaned casually against a column, his eyes on Lilah rather than the view.
Lilah’s pulse picked up.It was dim and secluded here, the occasional sound of a voice a distant background. She remembered the other time she had stood on a terrace with Con, almost breathless with a volatile combination of excitement, anxiety and a guilty certainty that her aunt would not approve.
“Tell me, truly,” Lilah said impulsively, “that night… Why did you ask me to dance, much less stroll in the garden with you? I understand your doing so tonight—I’m your new sister-in-law’s friend, and you must be polite. But why did you ask me to dance back then?”
“Have you looked in a mirror?” Con countered.
“You were swept away by my beauty?” Lilah cocked a skeptical eyebrow. “There were dozens of pretty young girls there, and I would wager I am not the sort you normally dance with. Much less take out on the terrace with ulterior motives.”
“My motives weren’t ulterior. I thought they were quite straightforward.”
Lilah was reminded why she found him irritating. She turned away, fixing her eyes on the flowers and shrubs below. “Was it—did you do it because I was newly out? Because you thought I would be so naive I wouldn’t realize I was risking my reputation?”
“No!” Con’s voice was filled with affront and astonishment. “It wasn’t like that. I didn’t ask you to dance because I thought I could trick you into anything. Do you really think that badly of me?”
Lilah relaxed, surprised at how relieved she was by his indignant response. “No. Well, perhaps I did wonder a bit. Afterward.” When he never approached her again.
“I asked you to dance because I wanted to waltz with you. I asked you out on the terrace to spend more time with you without the noise of the party. And I asked you to take a stroll through the garden because…very well, I did hope I might get a chance to kiss you. But I didn’t want to kiss you because you were the low-hanging fruit on a tree.”
“Or to add another girl to your collection?”
“My collection!” Con goggled at her. “What the devil do you take me for? I don’t have a collection. I’m not some rogue out seducing young ladies. Good Lord, Lilah, but you are a suspicious woman.”
“It’s not absurd to suspect that,” she retorted. “You find me rigid, prim and proper.”
“You forgot judgmental.”
“Oh, yes, sorry—and judgmental.” She crossed her arms, glaring at him. “So why would you want to dance with such a woman?”
“If you must know, it was because you were wearing lilac stockings.”
“What?” Lilah stared at him.
He shrugged and turned away, now the one to keep his eyes on the view. “You asked.”
“But why… How…”
“It’s nice to know I can render you speechless.”
“That’s absurd. How could you know what color stockings I had on? I don’t even remember what color they were.”
“Clearly the sight of them made more of an impression on me than it did on you.” Con glanced back at her. “I was standing at the foot of the stairs when you came in. You were so terribly prim and proper, all in maidenly white, modestly covered to your neck, your face blankly polite, your hair braided and curled into a knot like a governess, your chaperone glued to your side. I thought, there’s a beauty, but she looks an utter bore.”
“How kind of you,” Lilah said drily.
“Then you climbed the stairs, lifting your skirt to keep from stepping on it, and I saw your ankles. You were wearing bright lilac stockings. And I thought, there’s more to her than meets the eye.” He paused, considering. “Besides, you have lovely ankles.”
Lilah gaped at him, then began to laugh. His reasoning was so strange, so very Con-like—flattering, insulting and preposterous all at once—that she couldn’t work up either affront or anger, only a baffled amusement.
“You should do that more often,” Con told her.
“Laugh. You look beautiful.”
“Oh.” She hoped the darkness concealed her blush. Otherwise, Con would doubtless tease her about it every time they met.
Except, of course, she would not see him now that the wedding was over. Constantine Moreland didn’t frequent the sort of parties Lilah attended with her aunt. He preferred more exciting entertainment. Even when they did attend the same function, Con did his best to avoid her. Her life now would return to its usual pattern. Lilah sighed as she thought of the weeks ahead, paying calls and receiving visitors in her aunt’s parlor.
“What is it?” Con asked. When she glanced at him questioningly, he explained, “You sighed just now. Is something wrong?”
“What? Oh. I didn’t realize I had.” Her cheeks, already pink, flamed. “I was, um, just thinking that things would settle back to normal now that the wedding is done.”
“Yes, it will likely be more boring.”
“I didn’t mean that,” she protested. “I meant, it will be quieter. Calmer. But that’s a good thing. One can rest and relax and, um…”
“Embroider handkerchiefs?” Con suggested, raising an eyebrow.
She glowered. “I’m sure there will be nothing so mundane for you. You’ll be off chasing ghosts or seeking the meaning of Stonehenge.”
“Hopefully I’ll find an adventure or two to pass the time.” He grinned down at her. “Here, now, don’t look so grim.” He smoothed his finger over the lines of her frown, then moved to her cheek, lightly skimming a strand of hair that had escaped its pins.
Self-consciously Lilah moved to pin the stray curl back in place, but Con reached out to stop her. “No, don’t. It’s lovely like that.”
“Like what… A mess?” She forced a bit of tartness into her voice to combat the sudden heat his touch stirred in her.
“I doubt that anything about you is ever a mess.” Con stroked his thumb lazily along her cheekbone. His smile was still there, but different now, no longer amused but warm and inviting. There was a look in his eyes very like the one she’d seen in Alex when he gazed at Sabrina. Dark and a little hazy.
Lilah’s breath caught in her throat, and her thoughts went tumbling madly. She definitely should not have drunk that glass of champagne. Con leaned in. Lilah tilted her face up.
Masculine laughter burst from the ballroom as three men stepped out onto the terrace, chatting among themselves. Lilah froze. What was she doing? Con had been about to kiss her. And she had been about to let him. Worse yet, she had been about to kiss him back. “I—I’m sorry—I shouldn’t—goodbye.”
Lilah slipped around him and hurried back into the ballroom.
LILAH WAS BORED. She had spent the morning in the drawing room with her aunt, answering correspondence. There was little of that, as her father, to whom she had once written faithfully, had passed on two years ago, and it had been many years since she’d exchanged letters with his sister, Vesta. Sabrina, with whom she had maintained the longest, largest correspondence, was away on her honeymoon.
She missed Sabrina. Her friend had lived in London for only a couple of months, but for that time it had been as if they were together in Miss Angerman’s Academy for Young Ladies again. Sabrina was not the only one she missed. In the process of preparing for Sabrina’s wedding, Lilah had become friends with the Morelands, as well. All the Morelands had returned for the wedding, along with their spouses and broods of children. It made for an occasionally chaotic environment, but one that was always entertaining and congenial.
There had been any number of lively conversations with the duchess, ranging over a host of topics, and though Lilah and the very forward-thinking Duchess of Broughton had disagreed from time to time, their discussions were invigorating and even enlightening. Megan told entertaining stories about her years of reporting and traveling the world with her husband, Theo Moreland. Kyria, vibrant and warm, was almost impossible not to like—as were the duke and his diminutive uncle Bellard, a veritable treasure trove of knowledge once one got him started.
Thisbe, Theo’s twin, was a scientist who spent much of her time in her laboratory working on things Lilah neither understood nor, really, cared to understand. But Thisbe was also possessed of a dry wit and an easy, outgoing nature much like her twin’s, and Anna, Reed Moreland’s wife, was a quiet spot of serenity amid the noisy bustle of activity at Broughton House.
Lilah had especially come to like Olivia, the youngest of the Moreland daughters. Olivia, though she shared with Constantine an odd interest in the occult, was as devoted a reader as Lilah, and once they discovered their mutual interest in books of mystery and danger, they had spent many a pleasant afternoon chatting.
The days since the wedding had seemed quite empty. Lilah hadn’t any reason to visit Broughton House. Without her friend Sabrina there, it seemed a bit presumptuous to make a social call at the house of a duke, at least until they had called on her. Lilah would hate to be thought a social climber.
Worse…what if Con were at home? What if he thought Lilah was there in the hopes of seeing him? Given the way she had behaved the other night—it made her blush even to think of it—he would be justified in assuming she was setting her cap for him. Nothing could be further from the truth of course. Lilah would never pursue any man, much less someone like Con. He would be the last person she would want to marry—not that he would ever ask someone like her.
Con probably thought it was funny that such a prim and proper woman as Lilah had acted so unlike herself. He knew she had been about to kiss him. No doubt he would tease her about it. He would laugh, that rich, warm laughter that made one want to join him, his lips curving up and his eyes lighting with mischief. It was most unfair that his teasing made him even more attractive.
That was the root of the whole problem with Constantine Moreland—he was so utterly appealing. Lilah liked the straight black slashes of his eyebrows—the way they lifted when he was amused or drew together fiercely when he frowned. She had more than once felt a strange desire to reach out and smooth a finger along one of them. His eyes were such a sharp green, darkened by that thick row of black lashes. Those cheekbones, that jaw, that chin. That mouth. Thank goodness she had always had firm control of herself and had kept such thoughts hidden.
But then she had destroyed all her efforts by going out onto the terrace with him. Standing there in that dark secluded corner with him, a situation so intimate, so warm, so ripe for seduction. Turning her face up for his kiss. If only she hadn’t drunk that champagne. If only he hadn’t asked her to dance.
No. She must not call at Broughton House, even if she could come up with a good reason to do so. She should settle back into her normal life. It might take a bit of time, but she would become accustomed to it. Being around the Morelands had been exciting. Entertaining. But that wasn’t how Lilah lived. She was not flamboyant; she didn’t crave adventure and excitement; she wasn’t driven by wild uncontrollable passion. All she had ever wanted was a quiet, pleasant, rational life. The sort of life she had.
Lilah gave a little nod of her head, feeling a bit as if she had won an argument. She glanced over at Aunt Helena, whose head was bent over her embroidery. Lilah was forcibly reminded of Con’s comment about spending her days on embroidery.
“Do you need anything done?” Lilah asked. “Is there an errand I might run for you?”
Aunt Helena looked up and smiled. She was a small, neat woman, her blond hair now touched with gray at the temples. Lilah felt an upwelling of affection. Aunt Helena had welcomed her and raised her, and Lilah could never repay her for that. It was no easy task to take on a girl of twelve and guide her into womanhood, to train her in proper behavior and the ins and outs of society. Con might sneer about mundane things like needlework—and, frankly, Lilah was not fond of embroidering either—but there was nothing wrong with spending one’s time that way. And her aunt’s work was excellent.
“Oh, no, dear, no need for that. Cuddington has gone to the apothecary to pick up my tonic, and Mrs. Humphrey has the house in order as always. Why don’t we discuss our calls this afternoon?”
Calls weren’t what Lilah had in mind to relieve tedium. They were tedious, more often than not. But Lilah held back her sigh. Making and receiving calls was a fact of life.
“I thought we would go early in the afternoon,” Aunt Helena said. “That way we’ll be back by the time Sir Jasper comes.”
“Sir Jasper is visiting us this afternoon?” Lilah asked in some dismay. “He was here just two days ago.”
“Well, of course, I don’t know he’ll call on you.” Aunt Helena gave her a small, conspiratorial smile. “But given his recent behavior…”
Her aunt had hopes that Sir Jasper had matrimony in mind. Unfortunately, Lilah suspected she was right. She wished Aunt Helena would not encourage the man. But she had no desire to get into a discussion of that, so she said only, “Who were you thinking of visiting?”
“Mrs. Blythe, of course, to thank her for that lovely little dinner party last night. And it’s been some time since we’ve called on Mrs. Pierce.” Lilah couldn’t hold back a small groan at that name, and her aunt smiled. “Yes, I know, dear. Elspeth Pierce is a dreadful gossip. But that’s exactly why one mustn’t get on her bad side.”
“I suppose.” She didn’t really mind the woman’s gossiping; it was the insipidity of her conversation that wore on Lilah’s nerves. But her aunt was right; when Mrs. Pierce took a dislike to one, she was deadly.
“I really should call on the vicar’s wife,” Helena continued. “But their daughter is ill, so that will excuse us from that.”
“It seems visiting people shouldn’t be such…a chore.”
Aunt Helena smiled. “It would be nice. But we cannot shirk one’s social obligations, can we?”
Lilah thought somewhat resentfully that the Morelands seemed to be able to do so easily enough. But, of course, Lilah wouldn’t want to be viewed as the Morelands were. She cast about for something to occupy her until this afternoon’s calls.
“Perhaps I shall go to the bookstore first.” Lilah popped up from the sofa as a sudden thought occurred to her. “On my way, I can drop off a book for Lady St. Leger. I have a Wilkie Collins she has not read yet, and I promised to lend it to her.” Olivia wanted the book; it wouldn’t be rude or out of place to visit the Morelands as long as she had a reason. Indeed, the proper behavior would be to take the book to Olivia, as Lilah had promised. And there was no reason to worry about running into Con; he was doubtless off on one of his adventures.
“Lady St. Leger?” Her aunt’s forehead wrinkled a bit. “Do I know her?”
“She’s one of Sabrina’s sisters-in-law. She and her family came to stay at Broughton House for the wedding.”
Her aunt’s frown grew. “One of the Morelands? Dear, do you think that’s wise?”
“I promised, Aunt Helena. I can hardly ignore a promise.” Lilah was feeling more cheerful by the moment. It would be good to see Olivia again, to have a nice long chat about books. Much as she loved and respected her aunt, Helena was not a reader. Maybe Kyria would be there, too. Or the duchess.
“Of course not,” her aunt agreed reluctantly. “I just thought now that the wedding is over, you wouldn’t be seeing them as much.”
“I haven’t seen them. It’s been four days,” Lilah reminded her. “I should go now so I’ll be back in time for our afternoon calls.” She turned toward the door.
“It’s rather early for paying a call, don’t you think? Not yet noon.”
“The Morelands pay no attention to things like that.”
“I know,” Aunt Helena said darkly. “Well, if you must go, take your maid with you.”
“Aunt Helena…I hardly need a chaperone to go from here to Broughton House in broad daylight.”
“Of course not, dear. It’s how it would look.”
“Society’s rules are not so rigid anymore,” Lilah protested.
“That may be. But that’s no reason for us to lower our standards.”
“Poppy has several things to do—um, mending my clothes and, uh…”
“I wish I hadn’t sent Cuddington to the apothecary. She could accompany you.”
“No, no, I’ll take Poppy with me.” The last thing Lilah wanted was to drag her aunt’s dour maid along with her.
Lilah hurried upstairs, calling for her maid, and opened her wardrobe closet. Her casual morning dress would not do for paying a visit; it required something more stylish—this honey-colored walking dress with the rust-brown piping, for instance. It went well with the reddish-blond color of her hair, and the nipped-in waist gave her tall, willowy figure a more fashionable hourglass shape.
She could wear her new half boots. They were, perhaps, a trifle unusual, with their paisley print and curved line of gold buttons, but the colors went well with her dress, and anyway, no one would see them beneath her skirts. Well, except someone like Con, of course, who apparently made it a habit to keep an eye on ladies’ ankles. But that sort of man was not interested in either fashion or propriety.
She set off for the Morelands’ home, book in hand, Poppy trailing along a few steps behind her. It was annoying having to take her along. Perhaps Lilah should visit her home in Somerset, where she could hike wherever she wanted and not worry what society might think. It would provide her with an escape from the tedious round of courtesy calls—not to mention Sir Jasper’s attentions. She could relieve her boredom.
The problem, of course, was that Aunt Vesta was there. Lilah hadn’t stayed at Barrow House since her father’s sister had returned. Lilah had been fond of her as a child, but children were so undiscerning, so easily pleased. And Aunt Vesta hadn’t yet plunged the family into scandal.
Smeggars, the Morelands’ butler, greeted Lilah with a smile but said, “I fear the duchess is out today.”
“It was actually Lady St. Leger I wished to see.”
“Lady St. Leger is with the duchess.”
“I’m sorry. I should have inquired before I came,” Lilah said in disappointment.
“Perhaps you would like to speak with the duke or, um…”
“No, I’ll just leave this,” Lilah began, holding out the book.
At that moment Con came trotting lightly down the stairs. “Miss Holcutt.” He grinned. “The ladies are all out. I’m afraid you’ll have to make do with me.” He turned to the butler. “I think tea would be in order.”
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