My American Duchess(7)

By: Eloisa James

“So you returned Dermot’s posy as well.”

“He didn’t give me a posy,” Merry said, biting back a smile. “He was very proud of his golden hair, and so he had a ring made from it.”

A moment of dead silence followed, and then the gentleman threw back his head and roared with laughter.

Dermot’s lawsuit had been so unpleasant that Merry tried never to think of their betrothal, but laughter made the pinch of humiliation easier to take.

“So you came to London as a result,” he said, finally.

“My aunt feared that no one would wish to marry me.” She shouldn’t be on a balcony, in the dark, talking to a man like this. She should tell him that a gentleman had, indeed, asked for her hand and she had accepted.

“Your aunt undervalues your charms. I am certain that most men in America would simply assume that you had yet to meet the right man. And that when you did, you would settle as happily as a bird in its nest.”

His eyes were on her unfashionably full lips, and then they drifted down to her equally unfashionable bosom, covered by little more than a few twists of rosy silk.

She took a deep breath, which didn’t help things because she caught a whiff of starched linen again and, beneath that, something more elusive, more compelling. Male. Color was rising in her cheeks, so she fixed her eyes on his jaw.

“In my opinion, it wouldn’t matter if you had discarded three or thirty fiancés,” he stated.

When she ventured to glance back at his eyes, she saw that he was addressing her forehead in a most proper fashion. All the same, the roughness in his voice sent a wanton thrill down Merry’s legs. She suddenly imagined him rumpled and sweaty, his chest heaving.

Her own foolishness was like a shower of cold water. What on earth was she doing? “Thank you,” she said, nodding madly. “That is kind of you, and it has been a pleasure to converse.” Without further ado, she stepped around him and turned toward the ballroom.

A large hand curled around her waist, neatly spinning her about and bringing her up against him.

Sensations skittered through her at the press of a hard male chest against hers. Miss Fairfax would have been appalled. Yet rather than pull away, Merry froze, looking up at him with her heart pounding in her ears.

“Who groped you?” he demanded.

“Who had made you so angry before you came onto the balcony?” she countered. What—or who—on earth would enrage a man like this?

“My fool of a brother. And now I’d like you to answer my question.”

She had already forgotten what he had asked. His gaze was so intense that she felt confused and flushed. She would never allow a man—a complete stranger—to kiss her, if that’s what he was contemplating.

“What was your question?” she asked, wincing inwardly when her voice came out as breathless as a siren’s.

“Who groped you?” he repeated.

He had that warrior look in his eyes that Merry found absurdly compelling. She came out with the truth before she could think better of it. “Lord Malmsbury . . . Lord Malmsbury lets his hands stray where they shouldn’t.”

“Stay away from him,” he said, scowling.

“I appreciate your concern,” Merry said with dignity as she pulled free and stepped back, “but there’s no call to order me about. I have already decided to avoid his lordship—not that he has shown the slightest inclination to deepen our acquaintance, thanks to my hat pin.”

“Between your weapon and his boils, I doubt he will risk further encounters.” His smile reappeared. “I trust that after we are formally introduced, I may request a dance, if I promise not to grope you.”

It occurred to Merry that she would rather like to be groped by this man. It was an appalling realization. She was betrothed.

He executed a perfect bow.

She dropped a curtsy, and this time did Miss Fairfax’s instruction proud, nearly grazing the ground with her knee.

Merry walked back into the ballroom without looking back; no matter what her governess thought, she possessed self-control. Plenty of it.

She had almost reached the other side of the room before she turned her head and looked back.

He was nowhere in sight.

She took a seat along the wall and gave herself a good talking-to. What on earth was she thinking? Was she truly as fickle as the gossips back home believed? She might have made mistakes choosing her first two fiancés, but she had never been truly capricious.

She had truly believed that she was in love with both Bertie and Dermot. She had never flirted with a man while betrothed to another.

Not that she had precisely flirted with this man.

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