Excerpt from A DASH OF SCANDAL
A shadow fell across Millicent's paper. Engrossed with her writing, she paid it no mind and adjusted the paper into the pale yellow light again. Within a moment or two, the shadow fell on her card again. Too preoccupied with her writing to look into what caused the light to fade, she turned again toward the brightness. The third time the paper went dark she took notice and looked up with a grimace of annoyance.
Her gaze first landed on a wide chest and straight shoulders covered by a crisp, white shirt that was outlined with a cream-colored brocade waistcoat, and black evening jacket all topped off with a perfectly tied neckcloth. The expensive material and fine cut of his clothing told her that the man standing in front of her was no ordinary gentleman.
So much for thinking she was concealed by the furniture.
Her gaze slowly rose past a strong looking, cleanly shaved chin, glided over a smooth, slightly square jaw line to lips that were so masculine and so close to her own that her heartbeat faltered, then quickened again. She held her breath for a moment before continuing her journey across the narrow bridge of his nose and well-defined shape of his cheek bones. At last she looked into eyes so blue she wanted to melt into them.
Thick, dark blond hair was cropped short over his ears but fell longer at his nape. He stood perfect in stature and impeccable in dress, letting her study him. And she did, without guilt or shame. He was a magnificent looking man who, without saying a word, spoke of power, privilege and wealth.
The sharpened lead in her pencil snapped under the pressure from her fingers.
A knowing grin slowly made its way across his manly lips, intriguing her so she couldn't take her eyes off them. In the depth of her abdomen a quickening started and shuddered all the way up to her breasts and lingered there before moving on to her throat, tightening it. Millicent was quite sure she had never felt this way before.
He watched her, and although not one word had been spoken between them, she sensed he knew she was not only startled by his arrival, but was attracted to him.
With his full lips crooked roguishly into a charming grin, she watched his gaze brush down her face and skim over her breasts and waist before returning to lock on her eyes. This was no shy gentleman standing so close to her that if she lifted her arm, she could touch him.
The narrow hallway suddenly grew hotter.
Millicent took a deep breath. She must shake off her unsettling reaction to this man. She was drawn by his confidence and the ease with which he perused her. This susceptibility was the very thing her aunt had warned her against. She had to deny his strong appeal and behave toward him with the same indifference she had employed with the other gentlemen she had met during the evening.
Feeling calmer, more in control when her wall of defense had been erected, she confidently asked, "May I help you, sir?"
"Pardon me." He bowed slightly. "I was passing by and happened to see you standing in here. I wanted to make sure you are all right."
Unlike her usual sensible self, she wondered what she should say. When she looked into his eyes an excited, tingling sensation washed over her. When she glanced at his lips, she wanted to trace their sculpted shape with the tips of her fingers. When she stared at his chest, she wondered how it would feel to press her cheek gently against the expensive fabric of his coat and savor the warmth and strength of power in his shoulder.
But denying those wayward thoughts and using her most prim voice she said, "I'm quite well indeed, thank you."
"Have you lost your way?"
"Of course not, sir. I know exactly where I am."
"Do you often retreat to such out of the way places when a guest at house parties?"
Millicent's gaze darted around the tight space they were in, acutely aware of the cramped area they occupied and just how close he stood to her. This was not a good situation for her to be in at her first soirée.
"I suspect I retreat no more often than you happen to pass by these out of the way places, sir."
An amused light glinted in his eyes and he nodded his approval of her answer.
"If I may be so bold as to ask, what exactly is it you are doing back here in this area of the house?"
"Oh, making notes." The instant she said it she realized that was the wrong thing to say. What had made her blurt that out without thinking? "That is to say I was writing thank you notes," she said, trying to clarify her answer, but knew the damage had been done.
His eyes studied her face for a moment before they lowered to the card and pencil she held in her gloved hand. His lips twitched with a half-grin, half-smile. "Is this the new rage? Writing thank you notes on the back of a dance card?"
He was not helping her cause. "Oh, no. I'm sure it must look that way. But you see, I meant to say, I'm only making notes of things I want to include when I write them. I didn't get all my thank you letters finished today, and I was trying to catch up."
She stopped, realizing she was making the matter worse not better. Ordinarily, Millicent was not one to ramble, babble or stutter incoherently, but this man had her behaving like a drunken ninny.
She looked down at her broken pencil lead and wondered where she could find another. All the names her aunt had given her were mixing with the names of people she had met over the course of the evening. She would be completely useless to her aunt without notes.
Millicent noticed that the gentleman's gaze was on her dance card and broken pencil, too. Angels above! She opened the fancy-laced reticule that dangled from the drawstring handle on her wrist and slipped the card and pencil inside with the unused spectacles before continuing.
She wasn't sure there was any way to keep him from thinking she was an imbecile but she had to try. "I do believe you startled me so that I wasn't thinking properly."
"That wasn't my intention."
"I'm sure. Let me say, I was writing down ideas for the thank you notes that I will write tomorrow, when I have proper paper, quill and ink." That sounded better.
He reached into the pocket of his frock and extended to her a stubby pencil.
She cleared her throat and said, "Oh, no, I couldn't take your writing instrument."
"You must allow me to do this. After all, it was my fault the lead broke in yours."
"What do you mean by it was your fault?"
"For startling you."
"Yes, of course. But no, I don't need it. As you can see, I've finished writing and have put my notes away."
He continued to hold the pencil out to her. Worse yet, he continued that knowing grin that should have irritated her but instead, thoroughly intrigued her. Heavens, could he possibly know that she had been completely enchanted by him?
Millicent tried to take a step back but was brought up short by the wall.
"I insist," he stated again.
In an effort to hurry him along, she kept her voice level and said, "All right. Thank you."
She took the pencil and as she did, his fingers boldly caressed the inside of her palm. Even through her gloves and his, a shiver of awareness shuddered inside her. Her breath snatched in her throat. The touch was no innocent, accidental brushing of her hand. He had orchestrated it so that she would be certain it was a brash, deliberate act and not an unintentional one.
Millicent did the only thing a proper young lady should do. She pretended not to notice the contact and give him the benefit of the doubt. She was, however, truly grateful to get the pencil so she could continue making her notes. Not that this man would ever know that.
Eager to change the subject, she quickly said, "Now that I've given my perfectly reasonable explanation for being in this hallway, tell me what brought you by this secluded section of the house."
He took his time in responding to her, and when he did, it was with a question of his own. "Were you forthright in your answer to me or did you color the truth a little?"
His question was direct and the implication was clear so she answered honestly. "If I colored it at all, sir, rest assured it was only with a hint of shading and not with a painter's heavy brush."
His smile deepened, lightened. "I thought as much and to answer your question with the same dash of shading, I was looking for someone. I thought I saw a person turn down this hallway. Obviously, that was you."
"Yes, it must have been me for there are no others here that I am aware of."
He leaned forward just a fraction and lowered his voice as he said, "You're the only one I see."
No doubt as handsome as the gentleman was he had planned to have an assignation with a young lady. Millicent had heard that secret liaisons were quite common among members of the ton. But she couldn't afford being caught having one. Either the lady hadn't arrived or she had seen Millicent and hurried away. In either case, Millicent did not need to be seen in the dim hallway with a dapper gentleman. That would surely bring the attention her aunt insisted she avoid.
"Well, no doubt she will be along shortly, so if you will excuse me, I'll take my leave so you can have the privacy you desire."
In a gentle, fluid movement he placed his hand on the candle stand preventing her from passing. His head dipped lower, bringing his face even closer to her eyes, her lips, and her nose. They were so confined she felt his warm breath, heard his shallow breathing and caught the masculine scent of him.
This time, his forward behavior should have frightened her or at the very least upset her, but it didn't. He tantalized her in a way that no man ever had. Another time or place she would have been eager to match wits with his mischievous deportment, but here in London, doing her aunt's work, she could not.
In a low-pitched voice that sounded far too intimate, he smiled ruefully and asked, "What makes you think I was looking for a lady?"
Feeling no need to cower or back away, Millicent looked up into his unbelievable blue eyes. She didn't even hint at a blink as she said in a far too sensible voice, "You are quite handsome, sir, it would be a shame if you were looking to meet secretly with a man."
For a moment surprise gleamed in his eyes, then he threw back his head and laughed softly, genuinely. It was a wonderful, infectious sound that made him even more charming, if that were possible.
"Indeed, it would."
Millicent found herself smiling at him, knowing she would like to continue the conversation with him, but she'd already stepped too far over the line of propriety in even speaking to a gentleman who hadn't been properly introduced to her. And his motives were highly suspect because in the short time they had stood there, he'd crossed the lines of gentlemanly behavior more than once.
"I've never seen you before," he said, "yet, you don't look like--" He paused abruptly as if catching himself before saying something he shouldn't say.
"I don't look young enough for this to be my coming out year," she finished for him. "And I am not, sir, but you are correct in that you haven't seen me before. This is my first visit to London."
"Then I feel free to say that you are far more beautiful and discerning than any girl fresh out for her first year in Society."
"I can see you are skilled at flattery, sir."
"You wound me. I speak the truth. Flattery is what you bestowed on me."
Oh no. I was being honest. He is by far the most handsome man I have ever met.
Quickly she said, "Tell me, will you be able to obtain another?"
His expression questioned her before he asked, "Another lady?"
Millicent was pleased to give him a knowing smile and held up his pencil in front of his eyes. "I would hate for you to miss the next promenade because you couldn't sign a dance card."
He nodded and gave her a grudging smile. "I think I can find another."
"In that case, perhaps now, if you will excuse me, I believe I promised a gentleman the next dance."
His gaze swept over her face once again before he placed his open gloved hand to his lips. He kissed his palm then slowly blew toward her.
An unexpected thrill of desire rushed through her. She couldn't have been more surprised if his lips had actually brushed hers.
Keeping an indulgent gaze on her face, he slowly, reluctantly removed his arm, freeing her.
Millicent hesitated for a moment longer than she should have, then she darted past him.
She didn't look back. Oh, but how she wanted to.
A DASH OF SCANDAL
Jove Pubns; ISBN: 0515134015