The Marquess and the Maiden(12)

By: Robyn Dehart

“See?” he asked.

“That is only because I am friendly.”

He shook his head. “You also know me, how I am,” he said, recognizing that he was stumbling over his words. “Can you find me a woman strong enough to live with me? I don’t want some simpering miss who cries every time I enter a room.”

“That would be terribly annoying,” Harriet said.

“Then you will do it?”

“I didn’t say that. I was merely agreeing with your statement.” She shook her head. “Though I can’t imagine why any woman would cry because you entered the room.”

“There are those who find me frightening.”

“Do you occasionally strike people with your cane?”

Had he not seen the mirth in her eyes, he would have believed the question to be a serious one. “Not unless their behavior warrants it.”

She smiled. “Then there is no reason for people to fear you. We simply need to show them that fact.”

“Do you have thoughts on how we can do that?” Perhaps this meant she was considering his offer. His heart ticked faster at the thought of spending more time in her presence.

“Well, for one, you could cease your incessant scowling. Try smiling at people. You’d be surprised how far a well-placed smile can get you.”

“I’m not good at smiling at people for no reason. Particularly people I don’t know or like.”

“Then you should practice. You will become good at it.”

“I don’t do that.”

She glanced at him and bestowed him with such a genuine smile that he nearly forgot to breathe. Then she added, “I don’t like you, yet I am able to smile at you. Through practice.”

She blinked up at him with such innocent eyes, it took him a moment to catch the meaning of her words. Then he nearly laughed.

If only he didn’t enjoy her company so much.

She was so pretty it was uncomfortable to look at her, as she reminded him of how things might have proceeded in his life had he not had the accident. Before that, even penniless, he could have had his pick of the marriageable women in this town. Now, though, it would take more than his considerable fortune. People moved away when he walked into a room, cleared a path. People flinched at the sound of his cane on the floor until it echoed so loudly it was the only sound.

Granted, before the accident, he would have been married to Catherine. He wondered how long it would have taken for him to discover her true nature. How many lovers would she have had before he’d caught her? While he’d never be thankful for the fall that had broken his body, he was thankful he’d managed to escape without marrying her.

“Will you help me?”

“If I agree to do this for you…you will do something for me in return?” she asked.

He nodded. “I do not wish to be beholden to anyone. What is it that you want?”

She paused as if considering, then leveled her aquamarine gaze on him. “I want you to stop being so insatiable with your purchasing. Stop spending money on frivolous things. You could give a sizeable amount to charity and do so much good.”

He crossed one arm over his chest and braced it on his other arm. “How is it that you know so much of what I do with my money? And why does it matter to you?”

“It is ostentatious, not to mention obnoxious. There are so many in the world who have nothing. For those of us who have been blessed with much, it is our duty, nay, responsibility, to share with those less fortunate.”

He tapped his cane on the ground lightly a few times, in essence applauding her. “Well done, Lady Harriet. Tell me, is that a rehearsed speech you give to all of the wealthy lords in town?”

Her eyes narrowed into a glare. “No. As best I can tell you are the only lord in town who wastes his money so flagrantly. Not to mention you are continually accruing more and more funds. When will it ever be enough?”

Insatiable. She wasn’t wrong. Her anger caused her breathing to speed up, which in turn made her bosom heave quite provocatively. Pink stained her cheeks and throat, and her rosebud lips parted in exasperation.

Her last question echoed through him. It would never be enough, he knew that. But there was no reason to inform her of that fact. His father had depleted their funds, had sold off two of the properties that had been in their family for generations, all to pay his damned gambling debts. His mother had had to wear old faded gowns that her friends had given her after they’d worn them for a season. Harriet’s mother being the most generous of them.

Harriet had never lacked for anything in her life. She did not know what it was like to wonder if there was enough money to pay for food, let alone new clothing or servants. She couldn’t possibly understand.

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