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Noble Intentions n-1, Page 2

Katie MacAlister

  Weston snorted, pleased to feel the whiskey burning a path down to his stomach. At least he could still feel that. “Polite society. The day I care about what polite society thinks, Harry, is the day hell will freeze.”

  His brows drew together as he watched across the room where Sir Hugh and another man approached the woman who had caught his eye. Tolly was paying far too much attention to the redhead, gazing up into her eyes as if she was the most fascinating woman on earth.

  “Looks as if Tolly has cleared the path. Shall we?” Lord Rosse gave his friend an inquiring glance.

  “Yes.” Surprised by the sharp bubble of emotion remarkably akin to jealousy, Weston gathered the mantle of boredom he habitually wore and sauntered after his friend across the inlaid wood floor toward the gaggle of tittering misses.

  Charlotte’s keen and eager eye, ever on the alert for a titled rake, saw the two men heading toward them from across the room. She was certain after the interested looks the Black Earl had been shooting at Gillian he would claim an introduction and couldn’t decide what attitude to adopt about this unexpected turn of events. A hasty evaluation of the number of suitors gathered around her went far to assuage her plans for reforming the Black Earl, so it was with no sense of pettishness or ill feeling that she turned to mind to plotting the future happiness of her dearest cousin. A quick glance at said cousin showed that Gillian was in her usual state of disarray: her gloves were wadded up into sooty balls, tendrils of unruly red hair were fighting their way out of the once tidy coronet on her head, and her gown showed signs of losing the battle with the fire. Unfortunately, there was no time to rush her off to the ladies’ withdrawing room to affect repairs, but Charlotte was not one to go down without a fight — not when her cousin’s future was at stake.

  “Would it be an inconvenience to ask for a cup of punch, Sir Hugh? I fear the warmth of the evening has made Miss Leigh rather thirsty, but she’s much too shy to ask you herself.”

  She dimpled charmingly at him as he shot a curious look at an equally surprised Gillian, then let her smile fade as he left to fulfill her request. As soon as he was out of hearing, Charlotte swung around to her cousin and began dabbing at the faint soot marks on Gillian’s bodice. “Cousin, pinch your cheeks.”

  “I beg your pardon?”

  Charlotte cast a glance over Gillian’s shoulder to where the two men were approaching. “Oh, never mind, they’re too close, they’ll see you. Bite your lips.”

  Gillian wondered if the stifling heat of the ballroom was affecting her dear cousin’s mind. “Is it the heat, Charlotte? You look flushed. Are you ill? Shall I call your mother?”

  “Oh, heavens no! You know how Mama is, she’ll rattle on about nothing and monopolize all the conversation.” Charlotte waved her fan in a vigorous manner and slapped an artificially bright smile on her face.

  “Monopolize the conversation with whom?” Gillian was becoming concerned; although Charlotte was in truth a vivacious, exceptionally headstrong woman, she made it her habit to adopt the pose of a shy, timid maiden when in public, the better, she said, to snare a husband. Yet here she was smiling with a ferocious intensity that would scare the spots off a leopard.

  “Smile,” Charlotte hissed at her cousin as she deepened her dimples. “Look pleasant. He’s been watching you. I think he’s interested.”

  In a flash, Gillian understood. She’d heard of this. Obviously her cousin had fallen victim to a temporary derangement. She put an arm around Charlotte’s shoulders and gave her a little squeeze. “It’s all right, dearest. Don’t worry, I’ll see that you get home without your mother becoming aware of your…your unfortunate condition.”

  “My what?”

  Gillian took charge, gently turning Charlotte, intent on making their escape before anyone else noticed her cousin’s sad mental condition, when the sight of Sir Hugh approaching with two tall men halted her. Her eyes widened as they met the gaze of the dark man who stopped in front of her. God’s elbows, he took her breath away!

  “Lady Charlotte, Miss Gillian Leigh, may I be permitted to introduce the Earl of Weston and the Marquis Rosse?”

  Gillian’s mouth formed an O, but she couldn’t get any words out. The earl’s gray eyes were flecked with bits of silver and ringed with the darkest, lushest lashes she’d ever seen. She felt her toes curl in her green satin slippers when the Lord of Lusciousness raised her hand to his lips. As his touch sent frissons of fire down her hand, she thanked heaven she had ruined her gloves.

  The earl raised one beautiful glossy black eyebrow. “Indeed. It makes an introduction so much more personal when the lady has a bare hand.”

  Gillian felt the flush sweep up from her chest as she realized her Unfortunate Habit had once again made itself known. “Oh, blast!”

  A second dark eyebrow climbed upward. The flush reached Gillian’s face. “I’m sorry, my lord, it’s my Unfortunate Habit, you see. It makes me speak without thinking.” She tried for an insouciant smile, but it came out watery instead.

  The corners of the earl’s mouth twitched. Gillian’s knees threatened to buckle at the sight of it. She tried to drag her gaze from his mouth but was fascinated by the sensual curve of his lower lip. Lips like that ought to be made illegal. Sending blasphemous thoughts heavenward about the unleashing of such a stunning creation willy-nilly upon unsuspecting and highly susceptible women, she made a desperate attempt to calm her wildly beating heart. It wasn’t as if she was a silly, naive miss who knew nothing of the way of things — heaven knows, she had been to Boston! She was a woman experienced in the ways of the world, after all. She would not shame herself by expiring on the spot, overcome by one man’s masculine beauty.

  The bespectacled man next to Lord Adonis bowed over her hand, but she missed what he said, so enthralled was she by the earl. She let her eyes wander over the sharp, masculine planes of his features and wondered how he felt about the softening effect the cleft in his chin gave his otherwise harsh face. She knew how she felt about it. Looking at it made her lips burn with the desire to scatter kisses along his jaw and dip her tongue into the indentation…oh heavens, what was she doing, thinking such sinful thoughts? Another wave of heat washed over her as she clutched her hands together in an attempt to get hold of her wild imagination. She shouldn’t be thinking about kissing an earl. Especially an earl who, if the gossip flying around the ballroom was true, quite possibly murdered his wife.

  The earl’s fascinating mouth was moving. Oh, Lord, he was speaking to her and she hadn’t been paying the slightest bit of attention.

  “I beg your pardon?”

  A corner of his mouth twitched again. She didn’t know if it was in irritation or amusement, but she hoped for the latter. “Woolgathering, were you?”

  She smiled, happy he understood. “Oh yes, I’m afraid I was. Another bad habit, you see. You were saying?”

  If she didn’t know better, she’d swear the gray eyes softened for a moment. But they wouldn’t soften — he was a rake earl, and she was a penniless, half-American nobody. Gillian suddenly felt it important that he know she wasn’t one of the ton.

  “I asked if you would honor me with the next waltz.”

  Gillian was sure she wouldn’t be able to drag her gaze from the earl’s eyes if her life depended on it. She mused upon the black flecks interspersed with the silver. The effect was mesmerizing. “I’m afraid I do not waltz, my lord.”

  A flicker of annoyance passed over the earl’s face. “Do not, or will not, Miss Leigh?”

  “Cannot, Lord Weston.” Gillian put her hand on his sleeve and leaned forward. “It’s shameful, I know, but you see, I was raised by my aunt and uncle in Boston.”

  Weston leaned closer. She was drowning in his eyes. Happily, eagerly, willingly drowning. A heady, spicy scent wafted up from him and tickled her nose. She greedily inhaled it, feeling it permeate down to her bones, sure that if she were to expire on the spot, she’d die a happy woman.

  “Do they not waltz in Boston
?” His voice rumbled intimately around her. Gillian’s mouth went instantly dry.

  “Yes, they do,” she croaked.

  “Then why?” Weston took her hand and held it between his palms. Gillian felt the touch burn up her arm and directly into her brain. “Why will you not waltz with me?”

  “Um.” She was lost in the sliver and black and gray of his fascinating eyes. Why was he trying to distract her with talk? And what was he talking about? Waltzing? What was that? “My uncle would not allow me to learn how. He was a very devout man. A Shaker, as a matter of fact.”

  Gillian’s eyes rounded and she stepped back under the influence of Weston’s sudden, feral smile.

  “Then you must grant me the privilege of teaching you how. The next waltz?” He squeezed her hand gently.

  “No, my lord, you mustn’t,” she gasped, horrified at the thought of learning to dance in such a public venue. Given the accidents that inexplicably seemed to shadow her, he’d probably end up with a broken leg — or worse.

  “Ah, I see. You have not yet been given permission to waltz? I will speak with Lady Jersey on your behalf.”

  Gillian frowned up at the quirked brows. “Good heavens, my lord, I don’t care about having permission to dance. It’s not as if I’m…that is, I should warn you…” She glanced over at her cousin for help, but Charlotte had turned away in an obvious attempt to give them privacy. Gillian leaned forward again. “I’m not supposed to be here, you see. On virgin’s row, that is.”

  “Virgin’s row?” One side of the earl’s mouth curved up. Gillian watched it, fascinated. She’d do anything short of murder to run her fingers along those lips.

  “Yes, that’s what I call it. I’m not really here to have a Season, I’m merely accompanying my cousin, Lady Charlotte. I’m not an heiress, you know. I don’t have any illustrious family connections other than my uncle, and I’m not an Original or an Incomparable, so you needn’t feel obliged to dance with me.”

  The other side of that lovely mouth curved up, and Gillian blinked with pleasure at the surprising warmth of the Lord of Sunshine’s smile. She felt her own lips curving in response. Perhaps she had been a little hasty in ruling out murder.

  “I assure you, Miss Leigh, I do not have a standing requirement that my waltz partners be heiresses, titled, or Incomparables.”

  “Or Originals?” Gillian asked with a decidedly mischievous look. Weston noted with interest that her dark green eyes had brilliant little gold flecks that seemed to light up when she smiled.

  He pressed her hand, then released it. “I suspect, my dear, that you fit that title rather well. Ah, it sounds as if that’s a waltz beginning. Shall we?”

  He held out his arm for her.

  “Oh — but — are you sure? I wouldn’t want to hurt you.” She tilted her face up to peer into his eyes.

  Weston noted the fine bone structure of her heart-shaped face. She was heavily freckled on all her exposed surfaces — obviously she was one of those redheads who freckled at the slightest hint of exposure to the sun, and if the golden hue of her skin was any clue, he suspected she spent a good deal of time outdoors. Rather than finding fault with the flaw in her complexion, he found himself wanting to stroke the silky, freckled skin. The warmth of her presence drew him like a moth to a flame.

  He took her hand and, placing it on his arm, led her out onto the floor. “I have survived many worse situations, I assure you.”

  “Not with me,” she mumbled, looking momentarily disgruntled, but immediately that look fled and one of sheer terror replaced it.

  “Just follow my lead,” Weston said, speaking softly into her ear, “and listen to the music. A waltz moves to the count of three.”

  He tried to maintain his amusement at her terror, but truth to tell, he found himself drawn to the warming glow that seemed to surround her. Her unsophisticated display of emotions beguiled him; if she wasn’t voicing her every thought, they were quickly discerned by one look at her easily read face. Weston found such candor refreshing in a society that did its best to hide honesty and truthfulness.

  “Oh, my!” Gillian gasped as he moved her expertly into the dance. She caught her lower lip between her teeth as she concentrated on matching his steps. Despite her stiffness and awkward movements, the earl felt a sudden flash of lust knife through him. His attention was drawn to her lips. They were mirrors of her emotions, twisting into a rueful grimace as she made a misstep or curving into a stunningly brilliant smile when she caught the rhythm of the dance.

  “Look at me, not your feet,” he quietly commanded, wanting to bask in the glory of that smile again. She tipped her head back and flashed him an impish grin that he felt deep in his chest.

  “You’ll be sorry, my lord. Or rather, your toes will.”

  “How old are you?” Weston asked before he could stop himself.

  “Five and twenty. How old are you?”

  “A decade older than you,” Weston answered, amused by her brashness. She was forward, that was certainly true, but he didn’t see any signs that she was putting on an act of innocence for his benefit. One look in her guileless eyes convinced him that she was indeed an Original — open, honest, and completely untouched by the debauched society that made up the ton. The glow from her innocence and gentle femininity washed over him in a wave of sudden welcome warmth. He entertained a pleasant picture of her sitting by the fire in his library, her head bent over a bit of feminine frippery, their evenings spent in quiet, tranquil companionship.

  Charlotte watched as the pair danced, a smile playing about her lips. Gillian and the Black Earl were well suited, in her opinion, Gillian’s height matching the earl’s well. She grimaced when Gillian stepped on the earl’s toes yet again, stifled a giggle when Gillian laughed at the earl’s response, and watched with surprise when the earl suddenly stumbled and came to a halt for a moment before picking up the tempo of the waltz again. What had Gillian said that disconcerted him so?

  Gillian couldn’t believe her mouth had blurted out the words she had been thinking. The earl’s eyes glittered silver as she held her breath for his response, and hoped he’d realize that she hadn’t meant to be impertinent, it was just natural curiosity. If he hadn’t distracted her by staring at her lips, she’d have been paying attention to their conversation. God’s toes, he drove her wits straight from her mind when he looked at her lips like that. It was surely his own fault if she babbled at him as a result.

  “I must decline the opportunity to answer your question, my dear.”

  Put in my place, and rightly so, Gillian thought with relief, and gave herself up to the heady pleasure of being in the arms of the handsomest man at the ball. She wasn’t concerned with what people were saying about him — she prided herself on being an excellent judge of people and was quite confident that he was innocent of the crime society had pinned on him. No man could hide a soul capable of such a heinous act behind those forthcoming, open, beautiful eyes.

  “Is there a particular reason you wish to know?” Weston was curious as to why a well-bred young woman would approach him of all people with such a question. She must have been listening to the gossip, and yet she had enough courage to ask him about it. Her bravery annoyed and pleased him at the same time.

  “There usually is a reason for everything I ask,” Gillian replied dreamily, dismissing his frown as she gave herself up to the music and the magic of the dance. The earl was right — there wasn’t much to the waltz once you remembered to count. She felt pleased she had picked it up so quickly, stepping on his toes only eight or nine times in total, and wondered if Charlotte was watching her triumph.

  “Oh, I beg your pardon! I forgot to count. Did I hurt you badly?”

  The wry twist to the earl’s lips belied the attempt he made to brush off her apology. Gillian cursed her clumsiness as the music ended and the earl escorted her back to her aunt’s side. Weston expressed his appreciation for the dance with Gillian, bowed over a speechless Lady Collin’s hand, and
made a graceful exit.

  Lady Collins stared at her hand as if there were hairy, eightlegged insects crawling on it, but quickly recovered both her poise and her voice.

  “My dear, do you think — was that at all wise accepting — he is an earl, but — Lavonia is so certain — oh, why wasn’t Theodore here when he asked you to dance?”

  Gillian frowned as she tried to follow her aunt’s convoluted thoughts. “Lord Weston? Why would Uncle Theo have an objection to my dancing with him?”

  Lady Collins looked at her niece as if the insects were now on her. “My dear Gillian, surely you must know — I was quite certain Charlotte would warn you — but then, you’ve been around no society but that of Red Indians — and such a nice-looking man, too. Tragic. Always in black, you see — but still, murder! No, indeed! And the Duke of Sunderland has cut him, they say. Just this evening! His own cousin! Not good ton at all, not even with eighty thousand pounds a year.”

  It took a strong person in their prime to follow her aunt’s thought process, but Gillian was learning the knack. If you didn’t listen too closely, and allowed your attention to wander slightly, it was possible to glean enough kernels of information to respond.

  “You mean I should not have waltzed with him because it’s said he killed his wife? Aunt, I’m surprised at you for believing such a ridiculous and patently untrue falsehood. Why, one only has to spend a short amount of time in the earl’s presence to ascertain his innocence. Of all the maligned men of my acquaintance, he certainly has suffered the most at the hands of the very people who should stand at his side, offering him support and succor rather than tearing his reputation and character to shreds. Society should be ashamed of itself for slandering him in such a manner! I for one won’t tolerate the sort of base lies and cruel implications that seem to delight the ton, and I must say, Aunt, I’m appalled that you would be cozened into believing such blatant untruths and can only hope you do nothing to encourage similar vile and reprehensible fabrications! Indeed, I would hope you do your part to help that poor, lonely, troubled man regain the sterling reputation that was tarnished by the unexpected death of his no doubt very beloved wife. I know I shall do all that I can to help him!”