Winning a Lady's Heart

By: Christi Caldwell

There was something oddly suspicious about Nathaniel Michael Winters, Fifth Earl of Pembroke.

It wasn’t the kind of oddly suspicious that aroused one’s fear, per se.

But more the kind of—something was…well, off.

Lady Alexandra Foster cocked her head and studied Nathan from her spot on the Pomona green silk brocade settee in her father’s parlor. Nathan stood staring out the window, his tall, broadly muscular frame stiffly erect, his hands folded behind his back.

Her eyes darted to the loudly ticking ormolu clock on the fireplace mantle.

Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock.

She’d counted no fewer than twenty beats of the grating rhythm filling the ominously quiet parlor. Counting had always been something of a calming technique for Alexandra since she’d mastered her numbers in the schoolroom. Nathan had teased her about it since the moment she’d confessed the oddity to him.

“Nathan, I—”

He spun on his heel as if suddenly alerted to her presence, as if he hadn’t been aware that twenty beats of the clock’s grating rhythm had passed since she’d taken her seat.

Alexandra’s heart sped up as it always did when he trained that beautiful sapphire gaze on her. She still couldn’t fathom that he, in all his stunning demonstration of male beauty, should have deigned to notice her. She could never tire of appreciating him. The six-foot, lean, lithe form. The sinfully dark curls that complemented his olive tone. The perfect, strong lines of his face, marred by a slight bend in his nose from a break that had never healed properly. Alexandra found it only added to his charm.

Her heart thumped against the wall of her chest so loudly he could surely hear the telltale beat. This time the intensity with which he studied her caused something other than happiness to quicken her heart.

“I counted twenty beats on the clock,” she said nervously.

She waited for that slow, seductive smile that he always reserved just for her.

Except this time, no teasing smile tilted the corners of his lips. This time, there was no witty rejoinder. Nor a playful flick of one of her errant curls.

“You are scaring me.” She flinched at the edge of fear lacing her words.

Nathan opened his mouth, paused. Whatever he’d been about to say remained unspoken.

His arms fell to his sides, and he paced the floor.

“That is hardly reassuring,” she muttered in an attempt at levity.

He paused mid-stride and suddenly crossed to Alexandra. He dropped to a knee beside her and claimed her hand in his. She studied the two hands entwined like old lovers. Hers pale and delicate, his olive-toned and powerful.

She shoved aside the cloying fear threatening to overwhelm her. “Why this darkness today?”

“I must offer my apologies.” He rose and sat next to her. “It is not my intention to alarm you,” he said. “There is a matter of business that distracts me today.”

In spite of his close positioning, it seemed the gulf between them remained greater than Westminster Bridge.

Still, Alexandra calmed at those words. She and the rest of ton were aware of the shambles the previous Lord Pembroke had left for his son. The Fourth Earl of Pembroke had been something of a lecher, a known reprobate who’d squandered much of his wealth at the gaming tables. Alexandra could say definitively, Nathan was nothing like his predecessor.

“Maybe it will help to speak about it?” Alexandra suggested.

A hollow laugh, devoid of any mirth, escaped him. The sound raised gooseflesh along her arms.

“No one and nothing can help me.”

She reached for his hand and pulled it close, squeezing it for reassurance. “Regardless of the problems you face, I will always stand beside you. You must be assured of that.”

His throat bobbed up and down, and then he raised his eyes to meet hers.

The agony reflected in those blue pools nearly bowled her over.

“If only I could erase your hurt,” she murmured.

Alexandra reached a hand up and made to caress his cheek, but he flinched, and she let it fall uselessly to her side.

Nathan reclaimed her hand and carried it to his mouth. He placed his lips sweetly, caressing the top of her hand, and then turned it over. His hot breath fanned the inside portion of her wrist, and she shivered. “Do you know the moment I fell in love with you?” he asked on a hoarse whisper.

Her breath caught and held when his lips achingly loved her wrist. Her eyes slid closed. She was incapable of words. “Mmm?”

He ceased his ministrations and raised his head. “The moment I saw you come to the aid of a child being spanked by his nanny in Hyde Park. I fell in love with you then.”

Tears popped behind her lids and her vision blurred. “I love you.”