A Notorious Vow (The Four Hundred #3)(9)

By: Joanna Shupe

She performed it perfectly, so he showed her signs for no, yes, and please. She paid attention, her eyes steady and thoughtful, a slight pinch between her brows as she concentrated. It had been a long time since he’d taught anyone how to sign and he had forgotten the joy of discovery in another’s face. In a different life he might’ve quite enjoyed the role of professor.

He decided to teach her a two-step sign. Touching his lower knuckles together, he arched his hands, thumbs out, then rolled his wrists until his thumbs nearly faced her. “How,” he signed and pointed at her. “You?” He did both motions together. “How are you?”

She nodded, ready. She lined up her knuckles but closed her palms. Without thinking, Oliver reached forward to correct her hand position. When he touched her bare skin, he inhaled sharply. Soft. She was so damn soft. Sparks raced through him, a shimmering heat that he could almost taste, scorching every part of him. He recognized the sensation, though he had never felt it this strong. Desire.

She trembled, as if affected as well, and he jerked his hands away. Then he took a step in the opposite direction. Her eyes found his and he saw the question there, a curiosity that boded ill for them both. “I apologize,” he said aloud before he could think better of it.

She cocked her head and considered him. “Why do you not talk more often?”

Suddenly self-conscious, he picked up his pencil. I know it sounds strange. I try not to talk unless absolutely necessary. He well recalled the strange looks and the comments.

What is wrong with that man? He sounds unpleasant.

Even his own cousin treated him as if he were stupid, a freak. Like one of Barnum’s oddities. Oliver refused to give them an opportunity to laugh any longer.

Christina tapped his arm to get his attention. “It does not sound strange in the least. You have a nice voice,” she said then picked up her gloves and hat. She signed good-bye and then proceeded out the door.

He found himself grinning long after she had left.

Christina sipped her lemonade and watched as the melting ice sculpture dripped all over the buffet table. Waterlogged canapés and soggy salmon were arranged in a morose line. Still, the dining room made an excellent place in which to hide from the other girls and their cutting comments. Most unmarried ladies never ate in public if they could help it, as this was considered bourgeois. Once her mother ripped a tart clean out of Christina’s hands when she had foolishly attempted to eat in a crowd.

Someone touched her arm, startling her. It was her cousin, Patricia. Christina blew out a breath. “Oh, it is you.”

“Did I frighten you? I apologize. You were staring at the ice sculpture.” At eighteen, Patricia had just come out and, unlike Christina, seemed to enjoy the never-ending stream of parties and events. She linked their arms together and gestured a free hand toward the buffet. “That is the most disgusting thing I have seen all day—and that includes the dead frozen horse I saw lying in the street this morning.”

“It has certainly ruined my appetite.”

“Well, I have a craving,” Patricia said quietly, “but it is not for food.”

“What on earth does that mean?”

“Mr. Felton asked me to meet him in the gardens in a few moments.”

“Patricia! Tell me you are not going.”

Glancing over her shoulder, Patricia pulled Christina toward the wall, away from the few people gathered at the buffet. “Of course I am going. I am mad for him. He is the sweetest, most handsome man.”

“Yes, but you must not act inappropriately. What if your mother found out?”

Her cousin waved her hand. “Please. My mother would jump with joy if Felton ruined me. She’s hoping I have a proposal within the month. Gracious, the way he kisses . . . I tell you, I am besotted.”

“He has kissed you?” Christina could not believe it. She was both horrified and terribly curious. What was it like when a man pressed his mouth to yours? It sounded terribly messy. And weren’t tongues oftentimes involved? “Was it . . . Did you enjoy it?”

“It was divine—and I am planning to doing it again the second I have the opportunity tonight. You know how hard it is to stay away when you fancy a gentleman.”

Christina nodded and forced a knowing smile. Yet, she did not know. She had no idea, actually, but admitting as much only made her appear foolish. Silly Christina. Such ignorance was the very reason she was a terrible conversationalist. The minute she opened her mouth she sounded like an imbecile.

No one wants to hear a lady’s thoughts, her mother always said. Just smile and look pretty.