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Authors: Andrea Pickens

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BOOK: Code of Honor
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Justin winced as Alex straightened the pillow. "Still aches like the devil," he muttered, fingering the egg shaped swelling on the back of his head.

 

"It's lucky you have a thick skull." she answered with a smile, though a chill knifed through her every time she thought about how things might have turned out. It was a miracle he had suffered no more serious injury than a knock on the head. "And it must be even thicker that I would have imagined, to try to race Artemis. Why, the poor old thing must have stumbled and sent you over his ears."

 

Justin flushed slightly. "He may be no primer goer but a gentleman can't back off from sport with his friends even if his mount is a nag sure to be beaten.

 

It was clear that more than his head was bruised. "Of course not," she said quietly. "Perhaps you might pay a visit to Tattersall's and choose a more suitable animal."

 

"We can't afford it." There was no bitterness in his voice, merely practicality and maybe a touch of longing.

 

"We've managed quite well. Town has not been quite as expensive as Aunt Aurelia and I had thought. I think we can manage the extra expenditure."

 

He frowned. "You should have a new gown, then. Something more, I don't know — dashing."

 

Alex looked away. "We're hardly going to waste money on me," she muttered, trying to push away her own sudden longing. Why in heaven's name should she care about looking well? There was no earthly reason not to be content with the gowns she had, even if they were outdated and not terribly flattering.

 

She quickly changed the subject. "The doctor thinks you need only stay in bed another day or two."

 

"A day or two!" he protested. "I feel quite well enough right now." He made as if to rise, then fell back with a sharp intake of breath.

 

Alex aid nothing, but went to the window to rearrange the curtains in such a manner as to shield the bed from the late afternoon sun.

 

The door opened and the maid brought in a large tray of tea things and a plate of fragrant cakes fresh from the oven. Lady Beckworth followed.

 

"I thought we might take tea with you, Justin, now that you are feeling more the thing. I'm glad to see you have some color back — you had us quite worried, you know."

 

"Sorry." He slanted a glance at his sister. "But as Alex has said, we're both too hard-headed to come to any harm."

 

Lady Beckworth seated herself and began to pour. "Let us hope that no more accidents

 

happen." She turned to Alex. "I just realized, my dear, that I have totally forgotten to ask you how your visit to Kew Gardens was. I know how much you were looking forward to it."

 

"It was more than I ever dreamed. The plants... oh, how can I describe it!" She sighed. Then noting Justin's scowl, she added. "And as you can see, I have arrived safely home with my virtue intact, I assure you."

 

"It's not a joking matter," glowered Justin.

 

Lady Beckworth continued as if unaware of the interchange between the two young people. "I hope Lord Branford did not take offense at things seeming to be at such sixes and sevens in the house."

 

"Of course not. He was quite aware of what had happened."

 

"You asked him in?" Justin's voice rose slightly.

 

"I wished to consult with him on something."

 

"What possible..." began Justin. "No." His eyes closed briefly as he put two and two together. "You didn't ask him about that damned — sorry, Aunt Aurelia — deuced letter !"

 

Alex's chin shot up. "It's none of your concern."

 

Justin groaned. "For heaven's sake, Alex. You know father was in his own world at times, especially at that time. It's nothing but a manifestation of that." he threw up his hands. "It's no doubt nothing more than his own private rantings. Let it go. It's not important."

 

"Then why should you care what I choose to do?"

 

"Because I don't wish to see you made a laughingstock of the Town. Secret codes indeed! Why, the Ton will think we are odder than they already do!" exploded Justin.

 

"I'm sorry we embarrass you," she said quietly.

 

"Alex! I didn't mean that. I meant..."

 

"And I hardly think Lord Branford is one to engage in idle gossip." She rose stiffly. "If you will excuse me, I have some work I would like to finish while the light is still good enough."

 

Justin watched her go with a stricken face, feeling helpless in so many ways.

 

"I trust your brother is on the mend?"

 

Alex gave a start at the low baritone voice, then turned with a smile from watching the country dance in progress.

 

"The doctor finally allowed him out of bed this afternoon. I'm not sure who was more pleased — Justin or myself. I admit I should have been loath to have to listen to his rantings and complaints of boredom for another day."

 

Branford smiled. "Youth has little patience. Or little sense."

 

Alex looked at him with a mischievous expression. "Were you never young, sir?"

 

His mouth twitched. "I can't remember."

 

She laughed lightly, her eyes twinkling with humor. The thought occurred to him that in anyone else it would have been broadly flirtatious. "And just how old are you?"

 

"Thirty five."

 

"Good Lord. Ancient!"

 

He took her arm and guided her to a less crowded part of the room. Then he fetched something to drink, a glass of rataffia punch for her, champagne for himself.

 

"Here is to good health from now on in the Chilton household."

 

Alex's face clouded for a second. "yes," she agreed. "Yes. To no more... accidents."

 

Branford eyed her curiously, but let the question on his lips die. Instead he spoke of another matter. "I have been meaning to ask you if you would still like me to take a look at the piece of paper you found in your father's books?"

 

"Oh." She was pleased he had not forgotten." If it is not too much trouble..."

 

"Miss Chilton," he interrupted. "I have come to expect a more rational conversation with you than with most young ladies. Please do not simper or prevaricate with me. I would not offer if indeed it was too much trouble. I assure you, I am not in the habit of doing things I do not wish to do."

 

"Yes. I would."

 

"Very well. Shall I call tomorrow at, say, eleven."

 

"That would be fine."

 

"Good. Now that we have settled business matters, perhaps we might enjoy a dance."

 

He placed his hand on her forearm. His touch was surprising light, but for the first time she was aware of the strength in the long, graceful fingers. She found herself enjoying the sensation of them on her bare skin. In fact they sent a tiny shiver up her arm.

 

"Are you cold?"

 

"No, not at all." she replied, hoping he didn't notice the faint blush on her cheeks.

 

The music began.

 

She wasn't even sure what they conversed about. Somehow, her concentration seemed to wander. Indeed, she might have been speaking gibberish for all that she was aware of the words coming out of her mouth. The only things that made any impact on her senses were odd — the presence of his hand at the small of her back the movement of his muscled thighs close to the rustling folds of her dress, the scent of bay rum and something she couldn't name.

 

She was vaguely aware of the notes ending, of couples leaving the dance floor, of being guided across the room to where her friends were arguing over a monograph on ferns. Before she could roust herself from the strange mood that overtaken her, he was gone.

 

He must think her a bloody idiot, she told herself, the earlier blush coming back in full force. Her eyes closed in acute embarrassment. How could she possibly behave in such a..."

 

"Alex!"

 

Her eyes flew open.

 

"I have been looking all over for you," said Charles Duckleigh rather pointedly. However his ill humor could not hold up in the face of his obvious excitement over some matter. "My cousin has graciously arranged for the Duke of Wrexham to invite the members of our Society to view his collection of rare orchids! And he has even offered me use of his carriage for the occasion. Mr. Simpson and Mr. Hepplewith suggest that we go on Wednesday next."

 

Oh, how very nice." It was strange. She seemed to have no trouble focusing on things now.

 

"May I have the honor of escorting you on the trip. We shall bring a picnic to enjoy on the grounds and be back by suppertime."

 

"I shall be delighted," she replied, noting the look of rapture on his face. "How very influential you are becoming," she added with a playful smile.

 

It was said lightly, but Duckleigh couldn't help but throw back his shoulders a fraction, causing his chest to puff out.

 

Oh dear, she thought, the smile still on her lips. Young men could be so very silly at times.

 

"Lord Branford is here to see you, Miss Alex."

 

"Oh, do show him in, Givens." Alex unconsciously smoothed the skirt of her sprigged muslin dress as she rose from the sofa in the small parlor.

 

"Good morning, Miss Chilton."

 

The earl looked as if he had come from riding. He was dressed in snug fitting breeches, which showed off the solid muscularity of his thighs, and polished Hessians. A finely tailored riding coat of claret melton fitted his broad shoulders with nary a wrinkle. His long, dark hair was slightly ruffled by the wind, softening the chiseled planes of his face.

 

"Good heavens, thought Alex with a start, the gossips were certainly right on one thing — he was devilishly good-looking. She pushed such notions quickly aside. "Good morning, my lord. If you'll follow me to the library, please." She hoped she sounded business-like. For some reason, her voice felt as if it were catching in her throat.

 

He gestured for her to lead the way.

 

She pushed open the heavy oak door. "Forgive the disarray," she said, throwing a rueful look at the massive table covered with papers and piles of books, some opened, some stacked one on top of the other. "I fear both my aunt and I are engaged in projects at the moment that occupy all... our attention," she finished lamely. She hadn't realized things looked quite so chaotic.

 

Branford smiled in understanding. "Neatness is, no doubt, the work of idle hands," he remarked as he walked towards a small easel set by tall leaded glass windows that faced north.

 

"Really my lord, I'd rather you didn't..."

 

It was too late.

 

He had already moved around to observe the work in progress. For what seemed like an age he stared at it, not saying a word.

 

"It's not nearly finished," she finally stammered. "Truly, it's not meant to be seen by anyone yet..."

 

He looked up at her words. "It's the hibiscus from Jamaica. The one you admired at Kew Gardens."

 

She nodded.

 

"You are doing it from memory?"

 

She nodded again. "I find I have a good eye for color and detail, though I wish I could do it from life." A guilty look stole across her face. "I did, however, steal a tiny petal and put it my reticule."

 

"It is exquisite." The look that appeared momentarily in his eyes sent a burst of unaccustomed warmth shooting through her. "Do you have some of your other paintings here? I should very much like to see them."

BOOK: Code of Honor
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