The Truth About Cads and Dukes(5)

By: Elisa Braden

Jane adjusted her spectacles and glanced at the upper shelves, hoping to spot the book. On her third sweep, she thought she might have found it, but there was only one volume—Emma came in three.

“Blast,” she muttered under her breath. Not only was two-thirds of the book missing, but the third that remained was located on the highest shelf. This called for much stronger language. “Bloody hell,” she whispered, just to try it out. There. That was more satisfying.

“My, my. I had no idea cursing restrictions had loosened this dramatically. How marvelous.” The teasing, masculine voice came from mere feet behind her, slightly to the left.

Frozen in place, Jane prayed he was speaking to someone else. Although, in this little alcove, there was no one else. Perhaps he was addressing one of the shelves. Or talking to himself. Perhaps if she did not move or respond, he would not notice her. Perhaps …

“Lady Jane, isn’t it? Lady Jane Huxley?”

Bloody hell. Inside her head, the curse did not have the same impact. But, then, she suspected nothing short of being divinely transported to another location would make her feel better about this moment. In truth, Jane was shy. Not the ordinary sort of shy—more the sort that tied her tongue, causing her to stumble and bumble over her words, to be stricken with paralysis every time someone unfamiliar spoke to her. Replying to even the most banal expressions of polite inquiry was an exercise in fortitude, but knowing that a stranger had overheard her uttering profanity and apparently knew her name … well. That was mortifying.

It took her a full minute to face him. He waited patiently. Blast. She’d hoped he might leave. But, no. When she finally turned around, he was there, tall, lean, and amused. Golden-blond curls tumbled above sky-blue eyes. A small, straight nose and refined features gave him a youthful, almost feminine beauty—a beauty that was familiar.

Her embarrassment receded in favor of surprise. She knew him. He was Lord Colin Lacey, the younger of Victoria’s two brothers. (The older one was the Duke of Blackmore, but Jane preferred not to think about him.) Lord Lacey, to Jane’s knowledge, was a hopeless drunkard, a wastrel with few redeeming qualities apart from boyish good looks. At least, that was her impression from the one occasion when she’d been close enough to form a judgment—she had been seated next to him at Victoria’s wedding breakfast. Deep in his cups a full hour before the meal was served, he had behaved with all the decorum one might expect from such a condition—none at all. The event had come to an abrupt end, in fact, when Lord Lacey had made a dreadfully inappropriate comment to an entire table full of guests.

What was he doing here in a dusty corner of Norton’s? She would not have thought him much of a reader. And yet, here he was, upright, sober, and rather smartly attired in a light-gray tailcoat and striped lavender waistcoat. Quite puzzling, given that Victoria had recently despaired, “Colin is so far from the shores of dignity, I fear he shall never find his way back again.” Today at least, he appeared quite … well, dashing, she supposed.

“Are you not going to reply, Lady Jane?” He flashed a grin that was both boyish and endearing, like a cherub offering a wink. A handsome cherub. “I was hoping to hear more epithets to add to my collection.”

Jane felt herself flush, knowing the ruddy color did her no favors. “L-Lord Lacey,” she rasped, quickly clearing her throat to cover her nervousness. “A pleasure to see you again.”

His grin widened, a sparkle entering his eyes. “And you, Lady Jane Huxley.” He sketched a deeper-than-necessary bow. It made her wonder if she was being mocked. Gentlemen rarely spoke to Jane, and when they did, they never smiled charmingly or engaged her in witty banter. Usually, if they did not ignore her entirely, they avoided her gaze, as she avoided theirs, saying as little as possible and departing for prettier pastures as swiftly as politeness would allow. But not Lord Lacey. Not today.

“It has been too long,” he said warmly. “Victoria’s wedding, if I am not mistaken.” He glanced around the small space enclosed by books. “Searching for your next favorite novel, I presume? Or perhaps a reference on the vulgar tongue?”

Normally, she would have assumed such a remark was intended to be derisive, but his tone suggested a jest shared between friends. Warily, she nodded, then changed her mind and shook her head.

Eyes crinkling at the corners, he chuckled, the sound as warming as a cup of chocolate. “Feeling contradictory, are we? I cannot blame you. Choosing between fiction and profanity is most challenging. As amusements go, each has its merits.”