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Williams cleared his throat. “Are you certain Lady Noelle will compromise her virtue for any man?”

One sardonic brow rose. “Williams,
woman is attainable, given the right pursuit. André is a master. Few women can tear their eyes off him, much less resist that hot-blooded magnetism of his. As for Noelle, the chastity you astutely perceived might spawn reticence, but it will also beget vulnerability. The time I spent with her convinced me that she’s not only untouched but totally inexperienced at recognizing the signs of seduction.”

With a self-satisfied nod, Baricci began penning his note. “Don’t worry, Williams,” he assured the curator. “Noelle will succumb, virgin or not. She may not be as gullible as Liza, but she is a woman—one who’s young and ripe for conquest. It may take a bit more persuasion on André’s part, but that’s what I pay him for. The important thing is that, difficult though Noelle’s affections may be to acquire, they’re worth acquiring. Because, given her fierce sense of loyalty, her allegiance, once won, will be mine forever.”

That fierce sense of loyalty was the only thing that kept Noelle from turning on her heel and bolting back to her room the next morning.

Squaring her shoulders, she approached Farrington Manor’s sitting room with all the trepidation of a prisoner about to face a firing squad. She knew what was coming, even though her parents didn’t—yet. All they knew thus far was that she was up and about this morning, obviously feeling much better than she had the previous day, and that she’d asked to see them first thing before breakfast.

There was no point in waiting. She had to contend with this now.

She’d been tucked in her bed, allegedly asleep, when they arrived home last night. In truth, she’d scarcely had time to tear off her clothes, yank on her nightgown, and leap into bed—all the while pleading with Grace not to say a word about their outing—before the sounds of an oncoming carriage heralded her family’s arrival.

Grace had glowered at her, vowing to give her until midmorning to tell her parents the truth—after which she herself intended to march into Lord Farrington’s study and reveal every detail of what had transpired in his absence. Then, with a piqued sniff, she’d marched out of Noelle’s room.

Noelle had lay perfectly still, her eyes tightly shut, when her mother tiptoed in, smoothed a gentle palm over her forehead, then kissed her brow and left. She hadn’t even opened her eyes when, an hour later, Chloe peeked into the room, obviously eager to hear about the day.

It was just too soon. She had too much to mull over, too much she needed to sort out herself before she talked with anyone—even her loyal little sister.

But now it was morning. And the moment of reckoning had arrived.

Reaching the sitting-room threshold, Noelle paused, smiling fondly as she spied Chloe perched at the edge of the settee, poised and ready to come to her defense. She could always count on Chloe to be there when she was needed, to offer her support during those infrequent times when Noelle’s antics resulted not in their father’s exasperation, but in his anger.

That anger never worried Noelle. At worst, it resulted in a harsh reprimand and a far-too-lenient punishment.

But today was different. Today it was his hurt, and not his anger, she feared inciting. And
prospect upset her beyond bearing.

Lord, she’d do anything to avoid causing him pain. But no matter how she phrased her revelation, that’s precisely what she was about to do.

Silently, she studied her parents and sister, each one awaiting her arrival with a different aura. Her mother, sitting alongside Chloe, looking as curious and eager as a young girl—the way she always looked when Noelle was about to reveal a secret; glancing at Chloe now and again to see if her younger daughter knew anything more than she’d already disclosed. Chloe, in response, kept her head averted, intently staring at the windows on the far wall of the sitting room. And their father—well, he stalked the length of the room, back and forth, back and forth, resembling an ornery bear about to be goaded beyond restraint.

With a sharp inhalation of breath, Noelle walked into the room. “Good morning.”

Eric’s head snapped up. “Are you all right?”

“Yes, Papa, of course. I’m fine.” She didn’t allow herself the chance to back down. “I always was,” she added softly.

Brigitte’s delicate brow furrowed. “You were ill when we left for the village.”

“No, Mama, I wasn’t. I feigned being sick. I wanted the day to myself.” Renewed guilt rushed through her. “Not because I didn’t want to help Great-Grandfather. I felt terrible about deserting him. But I had to go to London—and I had no other time, no other choice. I hated lying to you, but you never would have agreed. And I had to go, … I simply had to—” She broke off, willing the right words to come.

Eric supplied them for her.

“Dammit,” he ground out. “You went to Baricci. You promised me you wouldn’t. You gave me your word, yet you—”

“I didn’t break my promise, Papa.” Noelle’s heart sank at the bleak expression on his face. “I said I wouldn’t seek Mr. Baricci out, and I didn’t. I just went to the gallery to catch a glimpse of him. That’s all. It was something I had to do—for my own peace of mind. Please try to understand.”

“Understand?” Eric raked a hand through his hair. “I told you what a snake the man was. He’s disreputable and unfeeling. He could be dangerous, for all I know. The thought of you—”

“Eric.” It was Brigitte who interrupted, rising to walk over and touch his forearm. “Let’s listen to what Noelle has to say. It’s clear she thought this idea out quite thoroughly before she acted. Evidently, seeing Mr. Baricci meant a great deal to her.”

Eric swallowed. “She’s barely eighteen. And she was alone in London with a scoundrel.”

“No she wasn’t, Papa,” Chloe chimed in. “Grace was with her. Noelle insisted on that, just so you’d have more peace of mind about the whole notion of …” Her voice trailed off as Eric’s accusing stare shifted to her.

“You knew about this?” he demanded.

“Don’t blame Chloe; she couldn’t have stopped me if she’d tied me to the bed,” Noelle inserted quickly. “Papa, this was my decision. The blame is mine. Please—leave Chloe out of it.”

“I don’t think blame is an issue,” Brigitte continued in that reassuring voice of hers. “As I said, Noelle obviously needed to do this. She’s never lied to us before nor, for that matter, has she ever taken the time to so carefully plan her actions. Usually she just dives right in. So I suggest we dispense with all apologies and accusations and get to the issue: Mr. Baricci.”

She walked over, took Noelle’s hands in hers. “Did you see him?”

Tears of gratitude filled Noelle’s eyes, and she nodded. “Yes.”


“And it was nothing like what I expected. I mean, he
a great deal like I imagined, but his manner—”

“I thought you only glimpsed him, then left,” Eric interrupted.

“That’s what I intended to do.” A hard swallow. “Then he sent for me.”

“He sent for you?” Brigitte repeated incredulously.

“Yes.” Noelle was thankful for the comfort of her mother’s presence—a soothing balance to the inexplicable events of the previous day. “He asked that I come to his office. We talked. Or rather, he did.” Candidly, omitting nothing, Noelle relayed the unexpected conversation she’d had with Franco Baricci.

“He actually made fatherly overtures to you,” Brigitte said, shaking her head in amazement. “As if a simple explanation and apology could either excuse or erase his unforgivable behavior.”

“Obviously, I rejected everything he said. Then I left. Lord Tremlett saw me back to Waterloo Station.”

Eric’s head came up anew. “Who? I thought you said you were alone, other than Grace.”

Noelle shifted uncomfortably. “We were—more or less. At least that’s the way I planned it. Lord Tremlett just happened to board our railroad carriage at Southampton. And, as luck would have it, his destination was also the Franco Gallery. So when I beat him at piquet, he offered a most practical form of payment: to have his carriage take us to and from the gallery.”

“Lord Tremlett, …” Brigitte murmured, not even a tad surprised by Noelle’s typically unconventional actions. “Isn’t that the Duke of Markham’s son?”

“It is. And he was incredibly kind. He made the entire excursion much easier.”

Relief flooded Brigitte’s face. “I feel much better knowing you weren’t unescorted.”

“I don’t,” Eric countered. “Tremlett’s over thirty and a flagrant womanizer.”

Amusement tugged at Brigitte’s lips. “I don’t think escorting two women to an art gallery constitutes debauchery, darling.”

“It doesn’t,” Noelle put in eagerly. “In fact, Ashford was a perfect gentleman. We played cards, ate, talked about our families, and …”

“Ashford?” Eric’s jaw was clenched. “I see you became quite friendly during your game of piquet and your debt-repaying carriage rides.”

Fingers crossed, Noelle took the plunge. “We did. In fact, he’s asked to call on me.” She waited, uncertain of her father’s reaction.

She hadn’t long to wait.

“Absolutely not,” Eric pronounced. “I won’t hear of it. And not only because of Tremlett’s reputation with women, either. You’re being brought out in several months. There is a long line of gentlemen waiting to meet you—gentlemen whose social commitments are far less extensive than Tremlett’s, I might add. Still, if he wants to introduce himself at that time, fine. I haven’t seen him in years, so I’ll make a judgment about his suitability when I do.
your presentation at court.
your appearance at the Season’s balls.

“Papa, I
him to call on me. I was very …”—Noelle searched frantically for a description that wouldn’t further antagonize her father—“intrigued by him. He’s an insurance investigator—as a matter of fact, that’s why he was going to the Franco Gallery. He’s checking into some missing paintings for Lloyds, and he had a few questions for Mr. Williams, the gallery curator. And as I said, Ashford was delightful company and a consummate gentleman. You can ask Grace, who planted herself between us like a hardy oak. He spent his time protecting me, not threatening my virtue. Honestly.”

“I don’t give a damn if he slew dragons for you right in the middle of Waterloo Station. The answer is still no.” Eric’s palm sliced the air, cutting off whatever protest Noelle was about to utter. “And don’t bother arguing with me. I won’t change my mind—not on this issue, Noelle. Your mother and I have made all the arrangements for your debut. I want you to have this chance to meet a healthy number of appropriate gentlemen. Once you do, you’ll be in a better position to decide what traits appeal to you, and what traits don’t. An excursion through London hardly affords you that opportunity.”

“It affords a better opportunity to get to know someone than a few cursory dances will.”

“Indeed—if it is one ‘someone’ you intend to get to know. But it offers little in the way of variety.” Seeing the disappointment on his daughter’s face, Eric softened, walking over to ruffle her hair as he had when she was a child. “This isn’t a punishment, Noelle. Nor is it a rejection of Lord Tremlett, who will doubtless cross your path many times this Season. I admire his family tremendously. If he possesses any of their qualities, I’m sure he’s a decent enough fellow—other than his rather wide array of women, that is.”

Noelle tipped up her chin, met her father’s gaze. “You want me to experience variety. Why not Ashford?”

A purposeful glint. “You know damned well we’re not talking about the same thing. You yourself told me—when you were twelve years old—that you knew the facts of life. So let’s not play games. This is one time you’re not going to cajole or maneuver me into changing my mind.”

“But Ashford already declared his intentions to call on me,” she tried. “So we’ll have to receive him, given the fact that I have no idea where to contact him to tell him otherwise.”

“Nice try.” A grin tugged at Eric’s lips. “But I can procure the address of Tremlett’s London Town house with little effort. You write him a note. I’ll have my solicitor find him and deliver it.”

Noelle’s unhappy gaze shifted to her mother, who gave her a don’t-bother-it-won’t-work look that extinguished the last of Noelle’s hopes. “Fine. But I doubt that any of the gentlemen you intend for me to meet will measure up to Ashford Thornton.”

At that moment, Ashford was thinking much the same thing about Noelle.

Pacing restlessly about the bedchamber of his London Town house, Ashford tightened the belt of his dressing robe, sidestepping the breakfast tray his valet had delivered moments ago, and instead walking over to stare moodily out the window.

He’d been up since dawn, his mind too busy to tolerate his body’s need for rest.

It was bad enough that he couldn’t sleep. But, given its existence, his wakefulness should be caused by thoughts of his investigation.

Instead, it was caused by thoughts of Lady Noelle Bromleigh.

That he’d been instantly and entirely captivated by her was an understatement. That it was a first-time occurrence for him was equally true, and equally unexpected. He was a worldly man—a man who’d been exposed to more women than he could enumerate. Some had been acquaintances, some polite social companions, and a fair number of them lovers.

Although that number was not nearly as significant as his reputation touted.

As for those women who had shared his bed, none of them could be even remotely described as chaste debutantes, youthful innocents who hadn’t the experience to recognize his intentions much less share them. In truth, he’d never so much as entertained the notion of pursuing a virgin. Virgins, like married women, were taboo—at least to him.

His reasons were simple, and he’d enumerated them to Noelle when he denied being a womanizer: he had rules, rules that included respecting both untouched and married women. Like him, his relationships were straightforward, lacking pretense or sham. They were also very mutual. No one was compromised, no one misled.

Thus, his sexual liaisons were restricted to seasoned and unattached women, women who were not only practiced and sophisticated, but who were at least five or six years older than Noelle Bromleigh—and, as a result, knew precisely what they were doing and why.

BOOK: Andrea Kane
12.78Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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