My American Duchess(6)

By: Eloisa James

“No!” she said hurriedly. “The truth is . . . The truth—” She should tell him that she had become betrothed to Cedric that very evening. But for some reason she blurted out a different truth.

“I earned myself a reputation.”

He stared at her for a second. “You surprise me.”

“Not that sort of reputation! It’s just that I—well—to be honest, I have fallen in love more than once. But I wasn’t truly in love, because each time I came to see that it had been a terrible mistake. I had to break off two betrothals.”

He shrugged. “You’ve learned a valuable lesson about that overrated emotion, love. Why should that earn you a reputation?”

“I’m appallingly inconsistent,” she explained. “I truly am. I made a particularly regrettable choice with my second fiancé, who was far more interested in my fortune than my person. He sued me for breach of promise, and everyone learned of it.”

“Surely that speaks ill of him, not you,” he said, clearly amused.

“There was nothing funny about it,” she said tartly. “Dermot had borrowed on his expectations. That is, the expectation that he would marry me.”

“Did the suit go to trial? I can’t imagine that a jury would award damages to such a b—” He stopped. “Such a blackguard.”

“Oh, it didn’t go that far. My uncle settled the case. But I’m afraid that the news spread, and because I’d broken off my previous betrothal, there are those who said that I am . . .”

“Chronically faithless?”

And, at her nod, “What happened to your first fiancé?”

“Bertie had a lovely nose, but he was terribly bellicose,” she confessed.

“I have never thought much about noses,” the gentleman observed. He bent slightly to look at her nose, almost touching her.

Merry’s mouth went dry. He smelled wonderful, like starched linen and wintergreen soap. She licked her bottom lip, and for a second his eyes caught there before he rocked upright. He looked completely unmoved, whereas Merry’s heart had started pounding in her chest.

“Your nose is quite lovely,” he said.

“As is yours,” she blurted out. It was. Merry was something of a connoisseur, and his nose wasn’t too sharp or too narrow or too wide. It was just right.

“Still, I could be bellicose,” he suggested.

Merry felt a sense of breathless pleasure that almost made her giggle. “Have you engaged in any duels?” she asked, putting on a severe expression.

“Not one.”

“Bertie had two.”

“That seems—”

“During the first month we were betrothed,” she clarified.

“Perhaps he was provoked?” There was something thrilling in his eyes. “I can imagine that a man betrothed to you would not take kindly to other gentlemen’s attentions.” His eyes stayed, quite properly, on her face, and yet her entire body prickled with heat. “I expect you garner quite a lot of attention,” he said softly. “I wouldn’t blame Bertie for wanting to keep you all for himself.”

Merry’s pulse was beating so quickly that she could hear it in her ears, like a river rushing downhill. “Both opponents had accidentally jostled him in the street,” she managed. “The duels had nothing to do with me.”

“Bellicose, indeed,” he murmured.

His voice enveloped her like a warm cloak, and Merry had the sudden dizzying idea that the balcony had broken away from the rest of the house, leaving the two of them stranded on a dark, warm sea.

“When I returned his posy ring, I thought I might be challenged,” she said, trying to lighten the atmosphere.

“He gave you a posy ring? In England those are exchanged between young girls. An apprentice might give one to his sweetheart.”

“It was quite pretty,” she said, defending Bertie. “The flowers spelled out my name.”

“Really,” he drawled. Somehow, she didn’t know quite how, he had eased even closer to her. She could feel his warm breath on her cheek. “How in the hell does a posy spell anyone’s name?”

“With the language of flowers,” she said, starting to babble. “Each flower means something, so you communicate as if you were speaking French.” Her voice faltered because his dark eyes were so intent. “Or something,” she whispered, her voice just a thread.

A sudden burst of music sounded from the ballroom and Merry jumped. “I should—”

“But first you must tell me the rest of the story.”

Something about his voice commanded obedience, and even though Merry never allowed herself to be ordered about, she found herself answering. “It’s not merely a story,” she said, giving him a little frown. “I was heartbroken to return Bertie’s ring. And Dermot’s as well.”

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