The Debutante Is Mine(10)

By: Vivienne Lorret


Crossing the room toward the settee, she intended to sit between her aunt and her cousin. She needed to nurse her sore bottom on a soft surface. Unfortunately, once Juliet sat on one of the settee’s cushions, Lord Pembroke quickly took the other. This left Lilah to take the only vacant seat remaining—the spindle chair near the door. Make that the hard spindle chair. She did her best not to wince when she sat down.

From that point on, both her cousin and aunt set about reintroducing Lilah to every man present. Lord Ellery was among them. He was the only one in the room who didn’t require a wealthy bride. And, as luck would have it, his country estate in Surrey bordered her family’s land.

After Jasper’s death, her father’s death, and the subsequent reading of the will, Lilah’s primary hope was not only to find a gentleman to marry, but to marry one who could help her improve the lives of the tenants residing on her family’s land. Viscount Ellery was the perfect candidate.

Now, if only she could get him to remember her for more than a single minute.

Juliet seemed to share the same thoughts, because she turned toward the viscount. “Did you know that Miss Appleton lives very near your country estate, Lord Ellery?”

When Juliet offered a smile, Lord Ellery’s eyes went round and vacant. “Miss Appleton?”

Juliet gestured toward Lilah, her brow slightly, albeit prettily, knitted. Lilah imagined that her cousin, up until now, hadn’t completely believed the claims of empty parlors and forgetful gentlemen. Blatant proof, however, was difficult to deny.

After another brief introduction, Aunt Zinnia and Juliet directed conversation in clever ways to ascertain each gentleman’s interest in marriage, learning their family pedigree, fortunes, and so forth.

Lilah had observed this type of inquisition before from many of the ton’s matrons in various ballroom settings and social gatherings. Yet Aunt Zinnia was one of the best. Once subjected to her subtle barrage of questions, a gentleman had no hope of withholding anything worth knowing. It was usually entertaining to watch.

This time, however, Lilah was feeling a bit overwhelmed and a bit wounded by the events of the past few minutes. Rising carefully, she excused herself from the room, stating a need to ensure there were enough tarts and biscuits to withstand the onslaught of callers. Even now, her words were accompanied by the pounding of the doorknocker. Soon, there would be more than twenty men crowded into the small parlor.

Lilah knew she wouldn’t be missed.

After informing a vase-toting Myrtle of the low supply of refreshments, Lilah walked straight down the hall to the garden door and slipped outside to her walled haven.

Once in her favorite spot beneath the arbor, she drew in a deep breath and released it slowly. The air was chilly, but there was no breeze to make her too cold without a shawl. Overhead, clematis and rose vines were still brown and dormant. On the ground beside the stone path at her feet, a myriad of crocuses bloomed gaily, while tulip shoots were coming into their full height, hinting at their splendor. And halfway up, between the white arbor post and the slatted wooden bench, a spider’s web fanned out, its occupant hidden from view.

She was just leaning closer to study it when she heard the door open and close with a quiet click. Assuming it was Myrtle on an errand for Aunt Zinnia, Lilah didn’t bother to turn. “You may tell my aunt that I will return shortly. I have need of a breath of air.”

“Do you breathe better when you’re bent at the waist?” a man’s deep voice asked.

Startled, Lilah jerked upright, whipping around to face the stranger.

Only he wasn’t quite a stranger. She’d seen him before. In fact, not more than an hour ago. And he looked just as out of place in this manicured garden as his Destrier had trotting along the London streets. She imagined, however, that man and beast would look perfectly at home galloping across an untamed moor or into battle. The man had a feral, warrior look about him. Especially with the golden, hot-ember color of his eyes beneath the arch of a tawny brow. And instead of walking with perfect pedestrian form, he prowled toward her—agile but controlled, as if always prepared for battle.

Beneath a gray tailored coat, his broad shoulders subtly rolled and shifted. The black buttons of his striped waistcoat were in a flat, straight line, suggesting a firmness, about which she likely shouldn’t ponder. The same way she should not admire the storm-cloud gray shade of his riding breeches and the way they encased his thighs, displaying every gradation of his impressive musculature.

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