Authors: Anne Barton
Tags: #Fiction / Romance / Historical / General, #Fiction / Romance / Historical / Regency, #Fiction / Romance / Erotica
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For my beautiful sister, Janis—the kind of friend every girl should have
Authentic: (1) Referring to an antiquity or artifact that is genuine; not a fake or forgery. (2) True and real, as in
Her feelings for the dashing solicitor were authentic—and, vexingly, unreciprocated.
ny girl with a smidgen of good sense would have given up on James Averill years ago.
Olivia Sherbourne’s problem was not so much a lack of good sense as it was an abundance of stubbornness. She’d pined after James for ten long years. No matter that he gave her scarce little encouragement; her patience was born out of a love that was deep, abiding, and true.
Also, she’d once seen his naked chest.
It was magnificent. And it had sustained her for the better part of a decade.
Even now, as Olivia surreptitiously watched him from across Lady Easton’s brilliantly lit ballroom, she could
well imagine what lay beneath his finely tailored jacket. Warm, sun-browned skin, sinewy muscle, and a sculpted abdomen to rival Apollo’s.
Indeed, she could imagine all sorts of things. And she often did.
At the moment, as she spied him talking with her brother, Owen, the Duke of Huntford, she couldn’t help thinking about how she’d love to slide her hands beneath James’s lapels and up his chest, nudge his jacket off his impossibly broad shoulders, and spear her fingers through his short brown curls.
Normally, Olivia was more given to action than fantasy. She spoke her mind freely—her brother might say
freely—and did what she thought was right, even if polite society disagreed. She unapologetically pursued the things she wanted: an education that extended beyond music and French; some semblance of control over her future; and meaningful, if unconventional, friendships. She was not shy about chasing her desires.
Except when it came to James.
Because he mattered more than everything.
She’d loved him, her brother’s childhood friend, from afar for so long that some might think her rather, well, pathetic. But he’d given signs of noticing her of late—distracted glances and puzzled frowns. Granted, they weren’t the most encouraging of signs, but who knew? Perhaps tonight would be the night he finally asked her to waltz. A girl could dream.
And she was willing to wait for his feelings to catch up with hers. In fact, she would have been content to stand there, on the perimeter of the dance floor, catching glimpses of him here and there all evening. She easily
spotted him in the throng. His athletic physique and easy smile turned her bones to jelly, and a soft sigh escaped her lips.
A throat cleared, and she wrested her gaze away from James, focusing it on the classically handsome face of the man standing before her. “My apologies, Lord Dixon. I fear I was woolgathering.” Her cheeks warmed.
“It is I who should apologize, for startling you.” The young marquess smiled reassuringly. “And I must confess I find your ability to daydream amid the chaos of a ball impressive. Not to mention charming,” he added, blue eyes twinkling.
“You are most kind.” Lord Dixon was just the sort of gentleman Owen would like her to marry: well respected, titled, rich, and unfailingly proper. Olivia herself could find only one flaw with him—he wasn’t James.
The marquess smoothed a hand down the front of his waistcoat and cleared his throat once more. “Lady Olivia, would you care to—”
“Ah, there you are.” Rose, Olivia’s younger sister, rushed to her side, breathless and uncharacteristically agitated. “Good evening, Lord Dixon.” She half curtsied. “I hope I’m not interrupting.”
“Not at all. We were just about to—”
“I wondered if I might have a word with you, Olivia.” She cast an apologetic glance at the marquess. “In private.”
Rose’s normally serene expression was marred by worry lines on her forehead. A chill slithered up Olivia’s spine. Her sister wouldn’t dream of impolitely whisking her away unless the matter were truly urgent.
“Of course.” Lord Dixon bowed graciously. “Don’t let
me delay you. We may resume our conversation later, if it pleases you.”
“I shall look forward to it,” Olivia said. “Thank you for your understanding.”
“Yes, thank you,” Rose echoed, even as she began tugging Olivia by the arm. She led her to a secluded spot between two potted palms and wrung her hands.
“You’re frightening me, Rose. What’s happened?”
“I’ve just learned some news. And I wanted to tell you before you heard it from someone else. I’m afraid you’ll find it… distressing.”
Olivia’s fingers went numb. “Is someone ill? Anabelle’s mother? Or the baby?”
“No, no. They’re fine. It’s nothing like that.”
Rose’s eyes shone with compassion. “It concerns Mr. Averill.”
“James?” Olivia’s knees wobbled, and she grasped the edge of a pot for support. “Is he”—dear God, she could barely bring herself to utter the word—“engaged?” Her voice cracked.
Rose shook her head emphatically. “No.”
Olivia took a gulp of air and nodded. “That’s good.” If James was neither engaged nor dead, the news could not be that devastating. Could it?
“He just made an announcement. It seems that he’s preparing to travel to Egypt.”
The ballroom tilted. “Egypt?”
“Yes, where he’ll participate in an archaeological dig—for two years.”
Olivia blinked. “Did you say
“I’m afraid so.”
Olivia swallowed the painful lump in her throat. “When? That is, when will he leave?”
“At the end of the summer. I’m so sorry, Olivia.”
“It’s all right,” she lied. “I knew he was fond of antiquities, of course. I just never imagined…”
A future without James in it
“Would you like to leave the ball? I could tell Owen that you have a headache and we could return home.”
“No. No need to spoil your night.”
“I don’t mind—”
“I know.” Olivia smoothed a few stray locks behind her ears as though composing herself were just that easy. “Summer’s end. That’s only, what, eight weeks away?”
“Yes.” Rose looked as distraught as Olivia felt.
“Then that’s all the time I have.”
“To make him fall in love with me.” Of course, she would first have to make him notice her. And treat her as something other than a piece of furniture that one avoided so as not to stub a toe.
Rose’s brow furrowed with empathy. “I’m not certain it’s possible to
someone fall in love.” As always, Rose was the voice of logic and reason. But certainly there was also a time for passion. Olivia decided that time was now.
“You are right, as usual. Still, I must try.”
“I wish I knew.” She’d already tried daring gowns, turned ankles, and moving bits of poetry. “None of my more subtle tacks has succeeded in capturing his attention.”
“You must remember,” Rose said sympathetically, “that Mr. Averill is a close friend of Owen’s. Our brother can be terribly intimidating.”
Olivia loved Rose for suggesting their brother might be the cause of James’s apparent lack of interest, but she knew better. “James isn’t afraid of Owen—or anyone.” Though James looked a perfect gentleman, he was arguably the best boxer in all of London.
“True. But Mr. Averill is an honorable gentleman and, as such, would respect Owen’s wishes with regard to you. A boxing match is one thing. Sisters are quite another.”
“This is one aspect of my life that I refuse to let Owen dictate. And given tonight’s news, I think I must resort to drastic measures.”
Rose paled. “Your impulsive nature is one of the things I love best about you…,” she began.
“You must think carefully about what you will say to Mr. Averill tonight. Your actions could have serious and lasting consequences—for both of you.”
“I know.” Olivia swallowed, sobered by her sister’s words. “Wish me luck?”
Rose hugged her. “You know I do. Just… be careful. I don’t want to see you hurt.”
Olivia smiled weakly. “Neither do I.” But she knew heartbreak was a distinct possibility.
Her unrequited love must seem ridiculous to her family and friends. Indeed, she questioned her own good sense on a daily basis. But this was no fleeting infatuation. She had a connection with James, understood him. She was charmed by the way his lips moved when he was deep in thought—as though he were talking himself through a difficult problem. She loved the way his eyes lit up when he recounted the latest additions to the British Museum. She even adored his tendency to become distracted by a
rare plant when she endeavored to show off a smart new pair of slippers.
Still, she’d never stoop to snaring James in a marriage trap. She didn’t want to trick him into taking her as his wife.
What she wanted—what she’d dreamed of every single night for the last ten years—was his complete and utter adoration. She wanted to wake up beside him and have cozy conversations over breakfast. She wanted to ride with him all afternoon and then find a shady spot where they could eat sliced chicken, crusty bread, and strawberries. She wanted him to pick wildflowers and tuck one behind her ear and look at her as though he couldn’t believe how fortunate he was that he’d found her.
Although, in actuality,
. But she loved him too much to quibble over such trifling matters.
And that’s why the thought of confessing her feelings to James terrified her.
After tonight, she wouldn’t be able to delude herself with platitudes like
He simply isn’t aware you hold him in such high regard
He must believe his attentions would be unwelcome
She had to face the very real and terrifying possibility that he did not return her affections.
A shiver stole through her limbs, but she shook it off. Ten years of dreaming and two and one-half seasons of waiting could
be for naught.
Their fairy-tale romance would begin tonight.
Olivia simply refused to believe anything different.
James Averill could be forgiven if he arrived at the Easton ball slightly foxed.
He was celebrating, damn it.
In a couple months he’d be on a ship headed to the land of archaeological wonders.
It had taken years of meticulous planning, but he’d finally realized his dream. He’d saved enough money to ensure his mother and brother would be comfortable. He’d taken on a partner so that his clients wouldn’t be left in a lurch.
In just eight weeks, he’d leave behind his office, complete with stacks of mind-numbing contracts and sleep-inducing law books, and set off for the adventure of a lifetime.
Which called for another drink.
He swept his gaze around the already bustling ballroom. Huntford and Foxburn were a head taller than most of the other guests and easy to spot in the crowd.
James smiled and nodded politely to a viscount and several older ladies as he meandered toward his friends. Thanks to his finely tailored coat and practiced manners, he blended into this privileged world rather well. Like certain species of lizards in the desert, he was capable of mimicking the landscape. However, at times such as this, he was acutely aware that ballrooms were
his natural environment.
He was a solicitor, someone who worked. For his living. Huntford and Foxburn didn’t hold that against him, but then, they both knew he could kick their asses from London to Edinburgh and back again.
“Good evening, gentlemen.” James had to admit that marriage agreed with both the duke and the earl. Huntford still brooded, but James suspected it was mostly for show. Foxburn now smiled with startling frequency.
“Averill,” Huntford replied, welcoming him with a slap on the shoulder. Foxburn signaled to a passing waiter and James deduced that his drink was on its way.
The duke leaned his large frame toward James and lowered his voice. “There’s a matter I need to discuss with you.”
“Business?” James hoped it was nothing terribly complex. His mind was not at its sharpest.
Huntford frowned. “Of a sort. Can we meet at your office tomorrow?”
James raised a brow. “Of course.”
“Very good. We will deal with it then.” The duke pinched the bridge of his nose and shook his head, as if to clear his mind of troubling thoughts.
Foxburn idly tapped the foot of his cane on the parquet floor. “I understand congratulations are in order, Averill.”
“Yes. Everything’s been arranged. I leave for my expedition at the end of the summer.”
“Egypt.” Foxburn seemed to consider this as he took a large swig of his drink. “You’re giving up all this”—he waved his cane in an arc to indicate the sparkling ballroom—“to ride camels?”
“And unwrap mummies,” Huntford added.
“And sleep in a tent.” Foxburn was really enjoying himself now. “Be careful you don’t get sand in your drawers.”
All three men squirmed at the thought.
“The discomfort will be worth it,” James said confidently, “if I unearth one ancient artifact—one clue to the civilizations that came before us.”
“What might that be?” Huntford asked, skeptical. “A bit of broken pottery? Something that
have been the tip of a spear but is more likely a plain old rock?”
“Well, yes.” Actually, he hoped to discover something with pictures or writing—a unique piece that had never been seen before—but explaining himself to these two seemed a waste of breath. “If I find some old pottery or rocks, I’ll consider the trip a success.”
Huntford and Foxburn stared at him as though he should be carted off to Bedlam.
James was about to say the devil could take them both when the waiter returned with his drink. He took a long draw and found his mood improved almost immediately.
As the strains of a waltz carried through the ballroom, the duke and earl craned their necks in search of their wives. The duchess and countess were sisters, and although they didn’t resemble each other, each was beautiful in her own right.
“You’d better hurry to your wives’ sides,” James advised. “There are half a dozen rogues here hoping to claim them for a dance.”