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Authors: Andrea Pickens

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BOOK: Code of Honor
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"Then we shall leave as soon as you have done your duty with Lady Worthington." She smiled fondly at her husband before turning back to Branford. "And you, I have not excused you yet. I shall expect you to call on me in the next days or shall be extremely cross with you."


Branford gave an exaggerated bow. "Heaven forbid that I bring such a fate down on my head, madam. I shall present myself at Berkeley Square without fail."


He watched them depart arm in arm and felt a faint twinge at their obvious closeness. Then he turned on his heel, determined to get down to business.


"How very interesting," remarked Lady Ashton softly as soon as they were some paces from Branford.


"What's that, my dear?


"Sebastian and Alex Chilton."


"Don't be ridiculous! I don't know what he is up to, but a less likely pair I cannot imagine. You know Sebastian — probably just deucedly bored this evening and acting on some strange whim."




"Really, my dear. She is not at all the type of lady who would attract Branford."


"I am well aware she is not at all like the ladies he has been taking to bed, but..."


"Cecelia!" sputtered Ashton.


"Oh, Henry. Don't squeal like a stuck pig. Why on earth do you men think we know nothing about what goes on in the world." She cast a mischievous look his way. "Why, I'm sure the gossip in the drawing rooms at tea is every bit as informative as it is at your club, and every bit as au courant."


Ashton had the grace to look discomfited.


"I have met Alex Chilton on several occasions," added Lady Ashton. "She is a most interesting young lady."


The music began.


"You must trust my judgement on this one. I have known Sebastian for some time now, and if you think he has the least interest in a girl like Miss Chilton you have windmills in your head," said Lord Ashton as he slipped his arm around his wife, a touch more firmly than necessary.


"Oh? You don't think men find intelligent ladies attractive?"


Ashton looked warily at her. "Now Cecelia, don't put words in my mouth. It's just that...." He knew he was trapped. Picking up the pace, he twirled her round and round to forestall any further conversation. Under his breath he muttered," Not a chance."


Lady Ashton only smiled to herself.


Lord Branford turned back and approached Miss Chilton. She was still engaged in an animated conversation with her friend and took no notice of his presence or the notes of the scale that announced the music was about to begin again. The gentleman, however, paled slightly and stammered something that caused her to stop in mid-sentence. She turned to look over her shoulder and it seemed to Branford that he saw a crease of irritation on her forehead.


"Is it really that time," she asked? "Perhaps you could find another partner, my lord — I'm engaged in a most fascinating conversation with Mr. Simpson at the moment."


"No, Miss Chilton, I could not. I am sure Mr. Simpson will oblige you by waiting to continue his discourse until you return." He cocked a dark brow at the gentleman in question.


The man turned even paler and nodded vigorously. "Of course, of course. Miss Alexandra, I shall be more than happy to wait." He swallowed nervously.


Alex shot Branford a black look. "Very well."


As she began to rise she realized that her absorption in the conversation has caused her to neglect her manners. "Forgive me, but I have forgotten to introduce you."


Mr. Simpson's eyes widened and he looked as if he would have been well pleased if she had not noticed the omission. "I'm sure his lordship doesn't care to bother..." he mumbled.


"My lord, may I present Mr. Josiah Simpson."


The man shot to his feet and bowed low. Branford nodded.


"Mr. Simpson, this is the Earl of Branford. You remember. The one who is a bit confused about what grows in his gardens."


The poor fellow looked ready to expire on the spot. She turned to Branford. "Mr. Simpson is Secretary of The Botanical Society. He is giving a very informative series of lectures on native English shrubs. Perhaps you would care to attend?"


Now the man was turning beet red and making choking sounds. Branford had to stifle a laugh. The chit was utterly outrageous, but not in any way he had been led to expect. Imagine, to challenge his intellect in so brazen a manner!


"Perhaps," he replied with an even tone. "But now, if you will excuse us, Mr. Simpson."


The man bowed once more, then sank into his chair in relief, using the large damask napkin to wipe the beads of sweat from his forehead. Branford took Alex's elbow in a firm grasp and guided her out to the dance floor. A slight buzz ran through the room. Eyes turned to see who it was that the Icy Earl chose to stand up with twice in one evening — and the only two dances he deigned to participate in at that.


Branford ignored the looks and concentrated on turning the conversation to his own purpose this time.


"Tell me, Miss Chilton, what do you do in Town for amusement?" he asked before she had a chance to speak.


Alex looked at him blankly.


"Do you ride?" he persisted. It was considered quite fashionable for ladies of the Ton to meet their admirers for a canter along Rotten Row during the afternoon hours. It would provide an excuse to spend more time with her.


"I enjoy riding in the country, but we do not keep much of a stable in Town. It's too expensive. We just have a pair for my aunt's carriage and Justin — that is my younger brother — has his saddle horse, as of course a young man must."


An opening was there for him to take. He decided to cast subtlety to the wind and find out exactly where things stood. He lowered his dark lashes and spoke in a low mellifluous voice that rarely failed to get results.


"In that case, perhaps you will allow me to mount you."


Her face betrayed no understanding of what he had just implied. "I'm sure that is most kind of you sir, but I could not possibly ask my aunt to incur the expense of stabling a mount solely for my own pleasure. She does enough as it is—" She stopped abruptly and bit her lip. "But of course that is no concern of yours. Forgive me for mentioning personal matters."


As she spoke, Branford felt a surge of anger.


The girl was a complete innocent in that regard. No lady the least interested in a dalliance could have failed to catch the innuendo of his last remark. Never had he sought to ruin a young girl! His sense of honor had always found the very idea repugnant and he felt nothing but contempt for men who found excitement in such a thing. His jaw tightened.


"Is something the matter, my lord?"


He brought his attention back to the moment. "What?"


"Your brows are drawn together in a most predatory manner. You look as if you are about to pounce on some poor creature."


"Someone shall feel my talons," he muttered under his breath. Then he added, "My apologies, Miss Chilton. My thoughts were momentarily elsewhere."


She looked at him thoughtfully. "I can hardly blame you, sir. It's all so utterly boring, is it not?"


She had done it again. She had him smiling in spite of his dark mood. One thing was certain. A conversation with Miss Chilton was most certainly not boring.


Once again the music ended sooner than he expected. He escorted Alex back to a chair near her aunt but made no move to leave. "You seem to have a great knowledge of botany, " he remarked.


Alex lifted her chin slightly. "I do, my lord." There was a glimmer in her eye that seemed to challenge him to ridicule her. "In fact, I am working on a book on native wildflowers and hope to have it published." It was obvious she expected him to turn on his heel or mouth some platitudes about the unsuitability of a young lady seeking to do such a thing.


"Indeed. What do you think of the work of Hopkins?"


He repressed a smile at the look of surprise on her face.


"You have read Hopkins?" she exclaimed.


"I have a modicum of education, Miss Chilton. Ignorance is one of the few things I have not been accused of."


She colored. "I did not mean to imply..."


"Of courses you did," he interrupted. "You have been doing it all evening. Perhaps your opinions of the opposite sex are as fixed as those you choose to rail against." He knew he was being harsh, but he was curious as to how she would react to such a set-down.


Alex sat for a moment in silence. "Perhaps you are right, sir. I hadn't thought of it quite like that." She looked up to meet his gaze full on. "I shall endeavor not to act on preconceptions in the future. Now, do you truly care to know what I think of Mr. Hopkins or was that merely a ploy to set up your lecture?"


The girl had real spirit, he thought with grudging respect. Most men would have quailed at his cutting words. "I am most definitely interested in your thoughts, Miss Chilton."


She proceeded to elucidate on them in great detail, though through his own comments and questions, he revealed he was not a total neophyte.


"You are extremely knowledgeable, too, sir" she exclaimed, unaware of the pointed glances she and the earl were beginning to attract. "Do you keep specimen plantings at Riverton?"


"The gardens at Riverton are known for their variety..." He stopped abruptly, his mouth thinning into a grim line.


Did he imagine it, or did he see a flicker of sympathy cross her features?


"I have heard they are very beautiful," she said softly. "And they appear to be in good hands."


Damn the chit! How did she sense what a painful topic the Branford estate was to him?


"Yes, they are, " he snapped, then quickly shifted the conversation to a less disturbing subject. "But as to specimen plantings, you have no doubt seen the latest arrivals from the East Indies at Kew Gardens?"


"Oh, I have heard they are marvelous." She gave a wistful sigh. "Aunt Aurelia's coachman has terrible rheumatism so I feel guilty asking her for the carriage. But my brother has promised he shall try to get his friend Baron Rutledge to drive me there, perhaps later this month."


"I believe I am free considerably sooner than that — say Thursday?


Alex's eyes widened in surprise.


"I shall call for you at ten so you may have ample time to explore the grounds as well."


"Truly, sir? You would really drive me to Kew Gardens?"


"I am not in the habit of making idle promises, Miss Chilton. If I say I shall do something, you may count on it,"


Her smile was radiant, transforming a merely pleasant face into one that was... captivating. "My lord, you are too kind!"


Few would have used such an adjective for him.


Then her face took on a look of concern." I must admit, sir, I am still trying to learn all the rather silly rules which govern a lady's behavior in Town so I do not embarrass my aunt or my brother. Is it permissible for me to drive out with you?"


"My tiger will accompany us and we shall travel in an open phaeton, so it is quite acceptable." He closed his eyes for an instant. How the deuce had he just engaged himself to spend the entire day with such a decidedly odd female?

BOOK: Code of Honor
4.99Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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