The Truth About Cads and Dukes(6)

By: Elisa Braden

“I—I am … neither, actually.” Her fingers automatically fussed with her spectacles. “I was searching for a gift. For Victoria.”

“For Tori? Really? Her birthday is not until July, you know. You have ample time. No need for cursing—unless it is simply for fun. In which case, I heartily endorse it.”

Feeling more at ease, Jane released a small laugh. “It is not for her birthday. I promised I would send her a copy of Emma, so she might read it during her confinement.”

For a moment, Lacey’s smile froze, something like surprise, then regret, moving through his eyes. Then it was gone. “Ah, yes, of course. And the babe will be coming … soon.”

It sounded almost like a question, so she found herself nodding, although he must surely know. Victoria was his sister, and this her first child, after all.

“Quite right,” he continued briskly, clapping his hands together. “Shall we find this Emma, then?”

“You—you intend to help me locate the book?”

His brows arched in surprise. “Naturally. You are a damsel in need of assistance. What sort of man do you take me for?”

Her mouth quirked. “I’m not certain you wish me to answer that.” The response escaped before caution could filter it. Immediately, she felt herself blush, and her hand flew up to cover her mouth. Too late for that, you ninny.

He laughed. “Well done, Lady Jane. Indeed, given my past misdeeds, you may be correct on that score.” For a moment, he appeared almost bashful. “I can only hope to improve your opinion of my character. Perhaps offering my assistance is a way to begin anew.”

Dropping her fingers, she hesitated before giving him a nod, then pointed to the top shelf. “I have managed to spy one of the volumes up there, but I have not seen the other two.”

He moved the few feet necessary to reach the book, close enough that his sleeve brushed her shoulder. Stretching a long arm up, he plucked a third of Emma from its hiding place with the enviable ease of a tall man. She took it from him, running her fingers over the cover, and marveled at the pleasantness of not being ignored. “Thank you, my lord.”

He waved his hand dismissively. “Let us dispense with formalities, shall we? We are, for all practical purposes, family. Please call me Colin.”

She paused, considering his request. On one hand, he was right—their families were closely connected, and given her friendship with Victoria, formality did seem a bit, well, formal. On the other hand, she was an unmarried woman in her third season, and calling a gentleman by his given name implied a certain intimacy. That could lead to assumptions, which could lead to scandal. Hmm.

On the other hand (drat, she was running out of hands) who would possibly care? Jane was hardly a diamond of the first water—more like a stone at the bottom of a river: round, plain, and utterly unremarkable. In some ways, it allowed her greater freedom than many other young ladies, as she escaped the scrutiny assigned to those with better prospects.

Lord Lacey tucked in his chin and gave her a questioning smile. “Still thinking about it?”

She pressed her lips together. He really was rather charming. “I shall call you Colin when we are alone,” she decided aloud. “But amongst company, you shall be Lord Lacey, as is proper. Fair?”

“Perfectly so. And I will continue to address you as Lady Jane.” He tilted his head toward her. “Perhaps one day, I may earn the right to call you simply Jane.”

His eyes sparkled the way Victoria’s did when she gave someone a sincere compliment. It warmed the recipient right through, and Jane was not immune. Apparently, this sort of charm was a family trait. An image of their older brother, the Duke of Blackmore, sprang to mind, and immediately she revised her assessment. Clearly, charm neglected to land on some branches of the family tree.

She focused on Colin, who had returned to perusing the shelves for the other two parts of Emma. “Lord Lacey—Colin,” she began haltingly. “I must say, while I am grateful for your assistance, I cannot help wondering …”

He stopped and looked over his shoulder. “Yes?”

“Well, why?”

“Why what?”

“Why would you bother?”

He sighed then was silent for a long while, his gaze falling to his feet. “Have you ever made a mistake, Lady Jane? I mean a mistake so grievous that you doubt redemption is possible?”

My, my, she thought. When did this conversation become so grave? She shook her head, but he wasn’t looking at her. Then he turned, and he was.

“I have. More than once. For far too long, I followed a path of darkness, realizing only recently that redemption shall never be possible if I do not pursue it. And to do that, I must change my course.”