A Notorious Vow (The Four Hundred #3)(5)

By: Joanna Shupe

Silly. Embarrassed. Tired. Where should she possibly start? She lifted her head so he could see her face. “Sore.”

He nodded as if that was what he expected. I am Oliver, he wrote.

“Oliver.” He could not hear her, of course, but he appeared pleased at her repetition. She wanted to . . . Well, she was not certain, but she wanted to know more about this man. She might never get the chance to ask him questions again and he seemed in no hurry for her to leave. “How does one say that in your language?”

His head jerked, brows dipping, before he bent to write. Why?

Had she offended him? “I was merely curious but I understand if you would rather not show me.”

His gaze remained wary, but he moved his fingers to spell his name. Christina lifted her hands. “Show me.”

Slowly, he formed each letter, waiting patiently as she clumsily shifted to mirror him. Though the placement was unfamiliar, the letters made sense. She tried again, by herself this time, and he corrected her twice. When she finished, he smiled at her, and heat spread over her entire body. Goodness, he had a devastating smile.

She liked this exchange between them, a quiet conversation without shouting or biting criticism. It was refreshingly easy to talk to him. She was not ready for their interaction to end. “Now sign mine,” she said.

He obliged, again teaching her the correct letters. She practiced until she could do it unassisted.

His pen scratched over the paper. Are you a lady?

“Yes. My father is the fourth Earl of Pennington.”

He wrote, Benningson?

She took his pencil and corrected the spelling. Ah, he wrote. Would you care for more tea?

His posture was relaxed, his expression curious. She was not nervous, she realized. Normally, she’d be searching for an escape when a man talked to her, palms sweaty inside her gloves. But Oliver was different than the loud and brash braggarts she had met in New York society. There was a confidence about him that she liked, a calm air of authority. “No, thank you,” she answered. “Do you live here alone?”

He nodded. My sister is away at school, he wrote.

“I would love to live alone. People must think you are lonely but it sounds like heaven to me.”

He frowned and she wondered if he’d misunderstood her. She reached for the paper but he stopped her, writing his own response. I read your lips but I still do not understand.

She lifted a shoulder, not intending on answering. All she’d wanted was to let him know that she envied him. That she did not care if he was a recluse.

In fact, there were days she wished to be left alone, not to be forced to hunt for a husband. Too bad her mother would never allow it. The best she could hope for was to marry a wealthy man who did not beat her and to survive childbirth. Such was a woman’s lot in life.

Oliver bent his head and wrote, I thought you felt sorry for me.

“No, I do not. Should I?”

No, he wrote. Of course not.

Just then the huge dog that had knocked her down trotted into the room. Christina froze, uncertain what the animal would do. Did Oliver allow the beast to roam indoors?

Oliver snapped his fingers and the dog came right to his side, pushing his nose into his master’s palm. The dog did not appear to be vicious, but one could never be certain. It hadn’t hesitated to pounce on her in the gardens. Oliver petted the animal and she edged away, trying to put as much room between her and the dog as possible.

When Oliver noticed her reaction, he bent to write, He will not hurt you.

Before she knew what was happening, Oliver reached to pick up her hand. She had taken off her gloves earlier and the contact of his warm skin against hers sent a jolt through her. What was he about?

She tried to pull away, but Oliver did not release her, holding up his free hand to indicate she should have patience. Then he slowly dragged her palm toward the dog, placing her hand on the animal’s back. The fur was soft and sleek, and she quickly forgot about the impropriety of Oliver’s touch. She gave a few tentative strokes. The dog seemed to like this, his tail wagging, but when he tried to turn around Oliver held him steady. She let out the breath she’d been holding and simply enjoyed the velvety sensation against her palm.

“It is soothing,” she said, her eyes on her hand.

Oliver tapped her arm and when she looked up, he pointed to his green eyes and then her mouth. Ah. He could not read her lips if he could not see her face. “It is soothing,” she repeated.

They sat close to one another on the sofa and the intimacy of the situation struck her, especially because of how intently he was staring at her lips and mouth . . . almost as if he were thinking of kissing her.

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