The Truth About Cads and Dukes(9)

By: Elisa Braden



“Oh, I’m not.”

She blinked slowly, her lips quirking. “Perhaps that is best, given the performance.”

Groaning in agreement, he chuckled then glanced around. “Are you here with your mother?”

She nodded and stroked her hands over the book cover. “She insisted we should attend in support of Miss Blythfield, who is a friend of my sister. This evening is her musical debut.”

“The one playing the pianoforte?”

“Yes.”

“You are supporting that?”

A helpless grin tugged at her mouth, breaking wide as she shook her head at him. “Perhaps ‘supporting’ is a bit strong, upon further reflection.” When she smiled, little dimples appeared in her cheeks, a sweet surprise in what could only be described as a round, plain face.

He rewarded her with a wink. “Hence, the book, I gather.”

“You are most discerning, my lord.”

“I have been called worse.”

She laughed, a pleasant, slightly husky sound. “One shudders to imagine.”

Deliberately, he leaned toward her, lowering his head near hers. “I came to see you, Lady Jane.”

Eyes flaring wide, a flush rising from her generous bosom to her face, Jane sputtered, “M-me? Whatever for?”

Two chairs away, an elderly woman of considerable bulk cleared her throat pointedly, drawing his eye past Jane and causing him to straighten under the matron’s stern gaze. “Perhaps we should discuss this elsewhere,” he murmured, glancing around the room. The guests must have been anticipating a second round of musical torture, because many were heading back to their seats. Quickly, before Jane’s mother could return and mistake him for a suitor, he surreptitiously covered Jane’s hand with his own. “Wait until the music begins again, then meet me in the front hall.”

Judging by her frown, it seemed Jane would protest, so he squeezed her hand. She looked down at where they entwined and stopped, her teeth worrying at her lower lip.

Marshaling his most persuasive expression—the one his sister, Victoria, had dubbed his “sweet-as-a-spring-lamb face”—he whispered, “Please, Lady Jane. Won’t you grant me this favor?”

Her eyes met his, full of doubt, discomfort … and something else. There, in the dark-brown depths magnified by her spectacles, was the hidden spark of longing he’d noticed during their conversation in the bookshop. Lady Jane Huxley, like any other female of her age, wanted to be courted, to be admired and whispered to in a dark corridor. To be pursued.

Most men overlooked her, this short, plump, brown-haired, plain Jane. And those who did not were eventually dissuaded by her studious absorption in whatever book she had in hand. Even when a gentleman bothered to engage her, she rarely offered more than a few polite words. Given how infrequently men paid her any mind at all, Colin would not blame her for being skeptical of a suddenly ardent suitor. But if he was to be successful, he must gain her trust. And soon.

He could almost hear his brother’s cold sneer. Bloody hell, he’d said it to himself often enough: A man is never so loathsome as when he deceives an innocent for his own benefit.

But he had no choice.

Colin’s breath stopped as he waited for Jane’s assent. They could not have the conversation he needed to have with her here, where members of the ton crowded within earshot. He must get her alone.

She glanced behind him then gave his hand a return squeeze before sliding hers away. Slowly, she nodded, pretending to return to her book. “Very well,” she whispered. “My mother is approaching. You should probably go.”

A rush of elation drove him to his feet and toward the back of the room where a long table acted as a repository for the refreshments.

He was close. He could feel it.

Suddenly, his skin itched. Especially his neck beneath his cravat. He ran a finger between the cloth and his throat, feeling the telltale dampness there. Rolling his shoulders, he sidled past a pair of velvet-clad matrons and avoided the flirtatious gaze of one of their charges.

Since the atrocious months following Harrison’s decision to cut off his funds, his body had almost entirely adapted to its forced sobriety. In truth, as the fog of drink had cleared, he’d even begun to appreciate its benefits. For one thing, he was less likely to be hunched over a chamber pot upon waking. And the odds that his sister would wish to claim him as an uncle to her firstborn improved with every day he did not do something to embarrass her. Of course, she did not know of his plans for her dearest friend. Or why such a thing was necessary.

A twinge of pain tightened his throat. He swallowed hard to quell it.

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