Once Upon a Wallflower(10)

By: Wendy Lyn Watson

As he spoke, Nicholas rose, took another scone from the buffet, and moved down to the other end of the table, to sit next to Mira. That was when she realized the maid had disappeared. They were alone.

His sudden nearness made it difficult to concentrate, difficult to breathe. “Yes,” Mira choked out, “I suppose you are correct. But it still does not seem right.”

He waved his hand dismissively. “Speaking of ‘right,’ I must apologize if I startled you last night.” The heat rose in her face as his voice lowered to an intimate vibration. “That was certainly not my intent.”

Mira had no idea where the impulse came from, but she could no more resist taking his bait than she could resist the pull of gravity. “And what exactly was your intent, sir?” She stammered, her voice little more than a whisper.

Nicholas reached out a hand to run one surprisingly soft finger along the curve of her jaw. His touch made her insides turn warm and soft. The sensation was unsettling. Primitive. Delicious. “You may be innocent, Mira-mine, but you are not a child. I believe you know exactly what my intent was.”

She gasped, just a tiny inhalation, and at that moment he leaned forward and kissed her. Her eyes drifted shut as his mouth moved softly over hers, barely touching her yet consuming her. All of her sensation was focused on those gentle brushes of his lips, every other feeling stripped away.

It only lasted a moment, but during that moment time seemed to stretch out forever. When he pulled back and a whisper of cool air caressed her mouth, still warm from his breath, she sighed.

When she opened her eyes, she found him watching her, a troubled look on his face. He cleared his throat and stood abruptly. “If you will excuse me, I have some matters to attend to.” As suddenly as he had appeared, he vanished out the door.

Mira sat stunned. Stunned and bereft. She stared at Nicholas’s half-eaten scone, lying forgotten on the table.

She was still sitting at the table staring dazedly at the abandoned scone, when Nicholas’s half brother, Mr. Jeremy Ellerby, sauntered into the dining room.

In the bright morning light, the contrast between Jeremy and Nicholas was even more pronounced than it had seemed the night before. Jeremy’s build was thicker, less feral, his hair fair like his mother’s, his eyes a piercing blue. The ladies of the ton probably swooned over him, but, from their brief introduction the night before, he put Mira off. His animated good humor, so contrary to Nicholas’s temperament, struck her as forced.

“Hallo. If it isn’t the little bridey. Sitting all alone. Now why is that?” he queried snidely.

Mira pretended she did not take his meaning. “Lady Blackwell, Lady Marleston, and Lady Phoebe have gone to town to visit with the reverend’s wife. My family is, I believe, still sleeping… Our journey was long and tiring. I have not seen Lord Blackwell or Lord Marleston this morning. I could not hazard a guess where they may be.”

“Ah. And Nick, the rogue?”

“Nic…Lord Ashfield had some matters to attend.” She couldn’t keep the chill out of her voice.

Jeremy helped himself to the food, still out on the buffet but all quite cold. He heaped his plate with tongue and kidneys and sardines, balanced three rolls on the top, and came to sit across from Mira. When he caught her eyeing his plate with mild alarm, he laughed. “I confess I eat like this all the time.” His voice dropped to an intimate whisper. “I have very large appetites.”

She could only stare at him, wondering if she had imagined the innuendo in his voice.

“So. My soon-to-be sister. What do you have to say for yourself?”

She said nothing, still at a loss for words. His manner, while ostensibly jovial, struck her as aggressive. She was not certain what tack to take with him.

Jeremy finally answered his own question. “Apparently you have very little to say for yourself. Well, I suppose in that, you and Nick are well suited. He’s a cold one, all right. Rude, some might say. But you have surely made that observation yourself.”

A fierce rush of protectiveness steeled her spine. “Quite the contrary,” she declared, her voice clipped, “I have found your brother—”

“Half,” he cut in, “he’s my half-brother.”

“Yes, well, I have found your half-brother to be a perfectly delightful companion. And he has never lacked for conversation. Perhaps his reticence has less to do with his nature than with his company.”

He fixed her with a knowing look, and his mouth turned up in a mocking smile. “Well, well, well. I see the kitten has a claw or two. And all on behalf of Nick. Fancy that.”

Mira forced herself to remain civil while she struggled to control both her anger and her humiliation. “Sir, if you will excuse me, I wish to retire. At the moment, I am feeling quite unwell.” Without waiting for a response, she stood and began walking stiffly toward the door.

“He killed her, you know.”

Mira froze in the doorway, not daring to look back at Jeremy.

“I cannot be certain of the others, but he killed Olivia. And I would have seen him hanged for it, but our father chose to protect him. Better to harbor a killer than to endure scandal, after all.”

In a small voice, Mira forced herself to ask, “Why do you believe he killed Miss Linworth?”

“Miss Fitzhenry, Nick killed Olivia because he was jealous of us. Because she and I were in love.” His voice was thick with bitterness, yet there was a note of truth there that Mira could not dismiss.

The words hung in the air, a noxious cloud enveloping Mira and cutting off her air. With a small, desperate, choking sound, she lifted the hem of her dress and fled.

Chapter Seven

Nicholas stormed into his tower room, his anger increasing with every step.

Pawly was performing his duties as valet, in his own lackluster way, by desultorily brushing one of Nicholas’s evening coats. As he brushed away the nearly invisible specks of lint, he ignored the blaze of ochre paint sweeping down the right sleeve.

He looked up when Nicholas entered, and then visibly cringed. “What—or should I say who—has got your dander up at such an early hour, my lord?”

Nicholas threw himself into his favorite chair. “I do. I am angry with myself. And I suppose I should be angry at you for encouraging me.” He paused to take a steadying breath. “I kissed her.”

Pawly laughed. “So you kissed her, where’s the harm in that? Unless she absconds beforehand, you will be doing a lot more than that in a week.”

Nicholas scowled ferociously. “Watch your tongue, Pawly,” he snapped.

Pawly’s eyes widened in surprise, and he held up his hands in a placating gesture. “Here now, it was only a jest. I meant no disrespect, to you or Miss Fitzhenry. I just do not see what is so horrible about a kiss.”

With a heavy sigh, Nicholas relaxed back in his chair. “Mmmm. Well, for one thing, I did not wake this morning intending to kiss a young woman at the breakfast table. Yet suddenly, I was doing just that. Without meaning to. It was just an, an impulse.”

“And what is so wrong about acting on impulse? It wouldn’t be the first time you have done so.”

“This is different,” Nicholas muttered. “I moved close to her intending to intimidate her, to make her uncomfortable, not to woo her. But I sat next to her in the morning sunlight, eating a bloody scone, and I had this irresistible urge to kiss her.” He took a deep breath, remembering the moment. “She tasted like strawberries.

“Why can I not control myself around her, Pawly, when the rest of the world thinks her so plain? The day after I met Mira, Blackwell went on and on about how he had been duped, how he had heard the available Fitzhenry chit was a stylish beauty, and the Fitzhenrys must be trying to pass off lesser goods.”

Pawly huffed in disgust. “She looked fine to me.”

Nicholas shrugged. “But she is not a fashionable beauty. The Haute Ton is quite particular about what is and is not beautiful, and Mira is too—” he struggled to find the right word “—too lush to fit the current mold.” He paused, thinking. “And then there is the matter of her wit. And her intensity, her passion. Neither is considered an admirable trait in a young woman.”

Pawly chuckled. “Lush, intelligent, and fiery…if that is unfashionable among the upper crust, I am glad to be a poor working man.”

“Yes, well, unfashionable or no, Miss Fitzhenry is like no other female of my acquaintance. She does not look as I expected her to look. She does not behave as I expected her to behave. She seems to lack any sort of guile or experience with the world. I haven’t the slightest clue how to deal with a female of her stripe. I was not even aware that females of her stripe existed. And,” he concluded with an irritated wave of his hand, “the whole situation is going to prove a monumental distraction. I cannot afford a distraction with Midsummer so fast approaching.”

Nicholas did not like Pawly’s expression. It was smug and knowing, and he had the distinct impression that Pawly was amused by Nicholas’s plight.