She’d almost relaxed when she felt a looming presence behind her. She pivoted to find herself face to chest with Lucas. She took a shaky step back, trailing her eyes up until they met his.
Would the jolt she felt when she saw him ever fade?
“My lord,” was all she could manage. He took her hand, brought it to his full lips, and brushed his mouth over her knuckles.
“Miss Lancaster,” he said, making the words sound like a dark promise. He turned to the gaggle of men hovering around her and nodded to each.
“Winchester,” came the chorus from the group as a series of heads bowed. Gemma smiled to herself. They looked like nothing so much as a group of puffins.
After paying his respects to Roz, Lucas turned back to her. “Is your dance card open for the waltz, Miss Lancaster? I believe it is the next song.”
She refused to admit she was saving the set for him, lest he become even more insufferable, so she made a show of checking her card. “I believe I am free.”
His eyes lit with humor as he led her onto the floor. Couples in beautiful silk and lace took their places, awaiting the quartet on the small stage by the terrace doors.
She had a thought. “Did you time your entrance to coincide with the waltz, my lord?”
“Merely a happy coincidence, Gemma,” he said, letting her name melt off his tongue, a deliberate intimacy after the
“Miss Lancaster” of earlier. The sweet strains of the strings began, and he swept her into a graceful arc. Colors and light swirled as they spun through the crowd on the dance floor.
Her pulse tripped as the warmth of his hand seeped through the gossamer fabric of her dress. She wanted more. She wished they were alone so he could pull her closer, maybe even kiss her the way he had done after they’d made their deal. She blushed at the memory—and at the urge to repeat it.
Where had these thoughts come from? She had always had a fair appreciation of the male form. But this visceral ache, this need to be closer, ever closer was new and unfamiliar. Scary. But a little invigorating, too, if she were honest with herself. Her fingers dug into the soft fabric covering his broad shoulder.
Then she realized what it was. It was the waltz. She’d always heard it could inflame the senses and cloud logic. That is was sensual and dangerous. She’d laughed the warnings off. The waltzes she had danced before had all been staid, awkward affairs in which she’d been stuck with her partner for half hours at a time. But now she realized why the highest sticklers criticized the dance and restricted who could partake in it.
“Where are your thoughts?” he asked.
Her blush deepened. She hoped he would attribute it to their exertions on the dance floor. “I was simply thinking how much I enjoy the waltz.”
“With the right partner it can be very…stimulating,” he murmured, and she sucked in a breath.
Was he reading her mind?
“And how many times have you danced it with the right partner?” she returned.
His smoldering gaze held hers a moment before he said, “You told me attending balls is your favorite thing about being in London. Were you being truthful?”
She was confused for a brief second by the question before remembering the conversation. She laughed. “Oh, heavens no. The only way I survive them is by hiding behind the protective wall of the puffins.”
“How I think of Roz’s admirers,” she said. She thought about the question. “I do enjoy watching society at these parties. I only wish I did not have to be a part of it.”
“An observer of human nature,” he mused.
“As are you, my lord,” she said. “You do not see only what you are looking for. You see who people are. You saw through my ruse, after all.”
“It was obvious to the most casual observer that you were not what you appeared to be.” His grin was arrogant and peeved her a bit, even though she believed his words were meant to flatter her.
“No one else questioned it,” she reminded him. “What gave it away?”
“Your eyes,” he said. “You could never keep the humor from your eyes.”
Ignoring the warmth of his leg through his breeches, she tried to press on with her questioning. “Do you have any enemies?”
“Plenty, I am sure. I will have to think on this,” his voice was dismissive, as if he suddenly didn’t want to talk about it.
Her suspicions were confirmed when he turned hooded eyes on her at the same time the pad of his thumb found and then stroked the sensitive dip in her palm. He wanted to distract her.
And it’s working.
She tried to tug her hand away in a manner that wouldn’t be obvious. When that didn’t work, she shifted so that she wouldn’t be tempted to lean into the cloying warmth of his solid body. His smile told her she wasn’t being as subtle as she hoped.
“How many enemies do you have, my dear?” he asked, his voice silken, his thumb continuing that maddening pattern against her hand. There was something underneath the question, something persuasive that traced shivers along her spine.
“None,” she whispered. Her voice had deserted her along with her common sense. She cleared her throat hoping to regain both. “Of course.”
“Of course,” he murmured, bringing her palm to his lips. The gentle touch was all it took to set her nerves aflame. This time when she pulled her hand back, he let her go. Amusement glinted in his eyes. “No broken hearts along the way?”
“Oh, a few dozen here or there,” she replied, though her voice was still breathy. Not quite the carefree flirt she’d wanted to portray.Back to the case. That was safe territory.
“So as to the people who could be after you…” she prompted.
“I’m far more interested in the beaux you have left mournful in your wake.” His fingers trapped one of the loose curls that bounced around her face, sliding the strands between the pads.
Maybe he needed time. Time to think and time to digest.
She could relate to that. She was stubborn, but she wouldn’t press him. That’s what partners did, she thought happily. They distracted or listened or prodded or helped. And when necessary, they backed off.
It was a nice feeling, that. Being needed. As a partner. She decided she wouldn’t overthink it for now.
He wants banter? We’ll banter.
“They were legion. But they were all honorable gentlemen—unlike yourself, I may add.”
He gasped his faux outrage.“Are you saying my behavior is anything less than exemplary?”
She slid her gaze to the fingers that were still toying with her hair.
His free hand flew to his heart. She stifled a wholly unladylike giggle at his shocked and offended expression. “I demand satisfaction for this insult. Pistols at dawn,” he roared into the swaying carriage.
She wrinkled her brow. “I believe, as the challenged party, I get to choose the weapon.”
“A thousand apologies, my lady.” He cut a small bow in her direction. “Would you rather it be slow and tortuous?”
“I am not cruel,” she said loftily. “I can take mercy on you if you so humble yourself before me.”
“What if I like it slow and tortuous?” he murmured.
Heat burned in her cheeks and in her belly. She may be an innocent, but she knew he was no longer talking about their fake duel. She wished she could be audacious and meet his gaze, and smile and flirt, but she couldn’t quite muster up the courage. She faltered instead, and he rumbled with a low chuckle. “Is it just a glance then? You could fell a man with your eyes alone, my dear.”
He wasn’t letting her escape the tension that had fluttered to life between them. She felt it, like a palpable thing, almost as if she could reach out and touch the fire that burned in the spaces they didn’t fill.
“Oh posh,” she laughed, trying to douse it. It was getting harder to get air into her lungs; her breath kept catching in her throat. She’d wanted to distract him, but she hadn’t quite pictured it going this far. It was the middle of the day for heaven’s sake.
“Or your…mouth. Is that your weapon of choice?” His gaze dropped to her mouth as she wet her suddenly parched lips.
“I have been told it can be quite savage,” she quipped, though with more bravado than arrogance. There was something dangerous in his answering smile.
“Shall we put it to the test?”
Before she could answer, he pulled her into his lap. She didn’t resist. Couldn’t think to resist. All she could think about was their kiss in the library. She wanted that again. Wanted his lips on hers, that slick rush of heat when his tongue pushed into her mouth. If that made her a wanton, well, she was finding it harder and harder to care. It wasn’t as if she were planning to find a husband when this was over.
He tipped her chin up so that his gaze locked on hers, and the black of his pupils all but swallowed up the color in his eyes.