Beguiling the Earl(4)

By: Suzanna Medeiros

Fool that he was, his heart lightened when her eyes sparkled with her customary good humor. Thankful that she no longer seemed upset with him, he held out his arm to lead her out. She placed her small hand on his forearm and his heart threatened to soar.

Ignoring the frown that Louisa cast in his direction, he led Catherine to the center of the room. She didn’t hesitate for a moment but moved into his arms as though she belonged there. And damn his eyes if it didn’t feel as though she did.

He had a feeling his affection for Catherine was going to complicate his friendship with Nicholas and his wife. He’d suspected last fall that Catherine held a tendre for him, and the very last thing he wanted was to cause her any hurt. At the same time, he wasn’t ready to follow his friend’s lead into wedded bliss and would have to make it clear that there could be nothing more than friendship between him and Catherine. Later, though. At the moment he didn’t want to think about anything but the delightful young woman in his arms. The one whom, he told himself, he must think of only as a younger sister.

As soon as they started moving, she started talking. Telling him about the events he’d missed, the plays she’d seen. He couldn’t help but compare her to Rose Hardwick as he gazed down at her. Both were beautiful, but in entirely different ways. Rose’s beauty was earthy and obvious while Catherine’s beauty was delicate, almost ethereal. Her pale hair was piled high on her head in a complicated arrangement with wispy tendrils that curled around her face and neck. Her skin was creamy smooth and her eyes a vivid shade of blue he recalled only ever seeing on one other person—her brother, John, whom he’d met briefly at Nicholas and Louisa’s wedding. Louisa looked very much like Catherine, but her eyes were gray and seemed to reflect her more serious nature.

Looking at Catherine, one could be forgiven for expecting her to be the kind of person who held herself aloof and distant, but she was the exact opposite. She was warm and generous, a discovery that had surprised him at first. When Catherine smiled, she meant it. Her smiles weren’t put on for effect, and they certainly weren’t pulled out and used as a weapon to charm someone into acquiescing to her latest whim. Not like they were with most of the other women he’d met. Not like Rose Hardwick.

He found himself staring down at her in rapt attention as she recounted the lengths to which many of the young ladies had gone to attract the attention of a much sought-after suitor.

Halfway through one particularly amusing story, she stopped. Her brow furled. “You seem so serious.”

“Do I?” He didn’t feel that way. “I am trying to picture poor Mildred Markham falling in the Serpentine while trying to capture Lord Beckham’s attention. I’m sure he will remember her for quite some time.”

She laughed, the sound light and breathy, and he could see that heads nearby turned in their direction. Catherine, however, was oblivious to the interest she attracted.

“I really shouldn’t gossip. Their actions are no different than mine.”

He raised a brow at that. “You’ve fallen into the Serpentine while trying to gain someone’s attention?”

“Oh no,” she said with a firm shake of her head. “I did, however, embarrass myself when I wandered away to look at some of the flowers at Hyde Park last week.”

Kerrick remembered Catherine’s fondness for plants, particularly exotic ones, but she wouldn’t have found anything along Rotten Row to compare with the collection at Overlea Manor. “I fail to see how that could have caused you embarrassment.”

“I wandered quite afield and into a small copse of trees. I was fine, of course, but apparently a panic went up when I disappeared and a search party was arranged. Ten lords who were visiting the park deserted their companions to help search for me.”

Kerrick couldn’t contain his laughter as he pictured the scene. “I find it difficult to believe Louisa or Nicholas would have raised the alarm when they found you’d wandered off.”

“You know me too well,” she said, affecting an expression of chagrin. “However, I was with Lord Thornton. He doesn’t know of my fondness for plants and gardens. We were having a leisurely stroll when he stopped to greet a friend of his. When he realized that I’d disappeared, he assumed I’d been abducted and raised the alarm.”