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Authors: Diane Farr

B006DTZ3FY EBOK (3 page)

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Remorse faded, forgotten. Awe took its place. It was suddenly hard to breathe. He shook his head slowly.
ow can that be?

Her eyes were blue as the morning sky.

t know.

Confusion clouded them briefly, and then cleared. She smiled at him.

t know,

she repeated, but the trouble had vanished from her face.
ome things, one can

t explain. They are simply true.

So of course he kissed her again.

And again.

Eventually he was forced to come up for air. He moved immediately to sweep her back into another kiss, but
pulled away from him, gasping to catch her breath.

... I can

t ... oh, what time is it?

She sat up, seeming dazed.
hat am I

issing me,

he said thickly. Whatever else she had on her agenda, it couldn

t possibly be more important. He reached for her again, but she held him off.

Her face was rosy from his kisses. She looked delightful, but she pressed her hands to her cheeks as if trying to cool them.
erciful heavens. I have never in my life

that is

I mean

oh, this is madness! I don

t even know you.

But on this point, Derek was very sure.
ou know me.

He smiled, besotted, and tucked a strand of her spun-sunlight hair back into her coiffure.
ever doubt that,

She gave a shaky little laugh, seeming to agree w
ith him against her better judge
erhaps you are right. What

s in a name?

she said lightly. With an inward start, he recognized the words; she was not only quoting Shakespeare, she was quoting the same play that

And yet,

she continued, breaking into his jumbled thoughts,
would like to know it.

He took a deep breath.
f course you would. What a dunderhead I am.

He raked his hair back off his forehead and tried to gather his wits.
y name is Whittaker,

he told her.
erek Whittaker. At your service, I need hardly add.


s smile bloomed again.
erek Whittaker,

she repeated. He thought his name had never sounded so well.
nd I am

She seemed to expect the name to mean something to him, but he couldn

t place it. After a tiny pause, she added,
y father is the Earl of Ballymere, you know.

No, he hadn

t known. Derek

s heart sank. This was
good news. Ballymere was obviously an Irish title, but Irish or not, an earl

s daughter was above his touch. Ridiculous, that that would matter so much to him. He barely knew this girl. Was he already planning to court her?

Well, yes. He was. No doubt about it.

Her smile faded. She regarded him gravely.
must go back.

He felt her anxiety suddenly return. Tension ran through her slim body, although her face betrayed none of it.
ir James will have returned to the box by now.

He stared down at her in amazement.
ir James? Never tell me you came here tonight in Filey

s company!

closed her eyes in an expression of pain.
es, I did,

she whispered. Then she placed her palms over her face, sagging with misery.
h, what will you think of me?

Derek placed his arm around her and drew her close. He said nothing. What could he say? Attending the opera with a bachelor, let alone such a one as Filey, was not the sort of thing a respectable young female would do. Had she not already told him she was an earl

s daughter, and had he not already fallen more than halfway in love with her, Derek would have doubted her virtue.

was shaking again, and seemed inclined to burrow into his warmth for comfort.
did not come here alone with him,

she said into his shoulder.

s not as bad as that. My mother is here as well.

Relief flooded him.
hen I shall restore you to your mother,

he said firmly.
ot to Filey.

ou don

t understand.

She gave a mournful little sigh.
ut how could you? I haven

t told you all.

She sat up and faced
him, her expression woebegone.
y mother and I are here tonight as Sir James

s guests. He is…
he is her favorite of all my suitors. I see you find that incredible, but it

s true. She was so pleased
when he invited us.

Another shiver went through her.
he will be very angry with me.

Derek frowned.
or going off alone with him?

shook her head.
o. For running from him.

Distress was in every line of her tense, quivering body.
ut I couldn

t help it,

she whispered. She gazed helplessly up into Derek

s eyes.
e wasn

t you.

Emotion closed over Derek

s heart like a fist
and squeezed. He felt his chest tighten. Their eyes had locked again, and again he felt the undeniable tug of their connection.

But a question had evidently occurred to
. Her delicate brows knit in puzzlement.
erek, how do you know Sir James? For it is obvious that you do.

He gave a short laugh.
ll the world knows Sir James Filey.

Her puzzlement seemed to deepen.
ut he did not know you.

h, there

s nothing odd in that. Nobody knows me.

He grinned, but felt his grin slip a bit. For the first time, his anonymous state struck Derek as a handicap. Whoever this girl was

and she had mentioned



she was unlikely to bestow her affections on a nobody. Miss Fitzwilliam was plainly somebody.

My father is the Earl of Ballymere, you know.
Hell and the devil confound it. She wasn

t Miss Fitzwilliam. Earl

s daughters bore a title. She was
. A small thing, perhaps, but it seemed to place her even further out of reach. Damn, damn, damn.

She must have seen the shadow cross his face.

s amiss?

she whispered. Anxiety filled her eyes.

He was trying to form an answer when a strange roaring suddenly swelled in the air around them, echoing faintly in the halls above. Derek was so lost to his surroundings that, for a fraction of a second, he failed to recognize it. T
hen it hit him: it was applause.
Off in the forgotten world where his duties awaited him, the interval had arrived. If he did not hasten back to Lord Stokesdown

s box, his absence would be noticed.

ood Gad!

he exclaimed. He leaped to his feet, pulling
peremptorily up with him.


she stammered.

orry! I lost track of time. It

s the interval, dear girl. Everyone will be leaving their boxes and milling about.

h, heavens.

She paled.
hat will we do?

oin them, I think, and pretend we

ve been milling about, too.

Still, for a moment he cupped her face in his hands, loath to let her go.
cannot stay with you,

he said reluctantly.
wish I could.
, what do you want of me? Shall I take you back to your mother? Or is there somewhere else you might go? I will gladly escort you to a friend

an aunt

o. There is no one. No one who is here tonight, at any rate.

She gave him a shaky smile.
ou may take me back to my mother and Sir James. After all, I must face them again sometime.

He could not argue with her. What she said was logical, and besides

there wasn

t time. He escorted her up the stairs and quickly to the edge of the common areas, where people were, indeed, milling about. But he hung back at the edge of the light, pulling her slightly toward him.
ou will see me again,

he said in a low tone.

She tilted her chin to look up at him. Her eyes were luminous, filled with longing. And, strangely, sadness.

hope so,

she whispered. Then, before he could stop her, she slid from his grasp and melted into the crowd.




Hyde Park, unlike the
haut ton

s elegant ballrooms, did not require an invitation

even during the fashionable hour. For the next three days, Derek Whittaker arrived in the famous gardens promptly at five o

clock, dressed to the nines and neat as wax, and joined the army of exquisites parading up and down. The park was so crowded at this time of year with like-minded gentlemen that Derek had no trouble hooking up with cronies bent upon encountering their latest inamoratas. In company with this one or that, pretending to converse while surreptitiously scanning the crowd, Derek spent several frustrating afternoons patrolling the most-frequented areas of the park

to no avail.

On the fourth day, he hired a hack. The expenditure was more than he could comfortably afford, but the advantages of being on horseback were immediately apparent. Not only could he scour the park more thoroughly, he could view the throng from a height that enabled him to see farther and better. He trotted purposefully along the Serpentine, then doubled back to the more crowded areas of the park. Halfway down Rotten Row, his efforts w
ere crowned with success. He spotted

She was seated in an open barouche, facing him. The barouche

s progress toward where Derek rode was impeded by the crush of other vehicles, a circumstance for which Derek was thankful. The slowness of its approach g
ave him a bit of time to regain
his composure. On seeing her, his heart had given such a bound that the horse, sensing his sudden tension, danced and fretted beneath him.

She was a vision. Sunlight filtered through the plane trees and struck the edge of her parasol, illuminating the lace as it fluttered high above her face. Her face was slightly averted as she listened to her companion

s conversation, but she looked up when Derek

s eyes fell on her, as if she felt his gaze. As their eyes met, he felt again the shock of recognition and the irresistible pull of attraction between them. There was something beyond her beauty that drew him to this particular girl. He felt it as surely as he felt the sunshine on his face.

He urged his mount forward, smiling eagerly. He was actually lifting his hand to his hat brim, preparing to bow, when he realized that
was not acknowledging him. She had glanced away, back to her companion.

Confused, Derek hung back. It was the lady

s prerogative, of course, to recognize their acquaintance or

or not. But surely, surely his
did not intend to give him the cut direct. They had not been formally introduced, but

Well, of course! Ignoring him was a mark of her good breeding, nothing more. They needed an introduction.

He spied an opening. The middle-aged lady sitting beside
he had never seen before in his life, but he recognized the portly chap sitting across from them. What the deuce was the fellow

s name? Henderson. Something Henderson. He had attended a political dinner at Lord Stokesdown

s residence a few weeks ago.

It was a feeble excuse to approach the carriage, but desperate men take desperate measures. Derek approached, tipping his hat to Something Henderson.


he exclaimed, with every indication of pleasure.
ow are you, sir? Fine weather we

re having.


Henderson blinked doubtfully at him.
h. Yes, indeed. Very pleasant.

It was painfully obvious that he had no idea who Derek was.
ow d

ye do?

ery well, thank you, sir.

Derek turned to include the women in his easy smile.

He touched the brim of his hat in a polite salute, being careful to do no more than glance at
. Then he turned back to give poor Henderson a clue.
ou may be interested to hear, sir, that Lord Stokesdown means to give an address next week. On the taxation dilemma, I believe.

Light seemed to dawn. The association with Lord Stokesdown had obviously brought Derek

s face into focus for him.
s that so? Well, well. In the Upper House, I suppose?

ust so, sir.

He thought he had better change the subject before Henderson realized that Derek

s face, although vaguely recalled from the Stokesdown dinner, had not been among those actually at table with him. He bent his most charming smile upon the middle-aged woman sitting with
ut we mustn

t bore the ladies with political talk.

He had always had a way with older women. She visibly unbent, permitting herself to smile at Derek.
ot at all, young man. I don

t believe we

ve met,

she remarked, arching a brow in polite inquiry.

Derek silently blessed the woman. To save the unfortunate Henderson from further embarrassment, he lifted his hat and bowed.
erek Whittaker, madam, at your service.

ery pleased to meet you. I am Maria Henderson, as you have no doubt surmised. I see that you are acquainted with my husband, but have you met Lady
, my dear, allow me to present Derek Whittaker. Mr. Whittaker, Lady

Derek bowed very low.
am honored.

lifted limpid blue eyes to his and murmured something polite. Her poise was remarkable, but he noticed that her cheeks were pinker than they had been two minutes ago. She lowered her gaze modestly down to her lap, but a tiny quirk of mischief trembled at the corner of her mouth. It stayed, although she steadfastly regarded her gloves while Derek fell into easy conversation with chatty Mrs. Henderson.

He dared not overstay his welcome. He and
had been officially introduced; that was enough for today. After a few more pleasantries, he bowed and bade farewell. As he gathered the reins and prepared to ride off, however,
threw him a bone. She looked up again, actually daring to meet his eyes, and uttered two sentences.

t was a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Mr. Whittaker,

she said. Her expression was perfectly neutral and there was no hint of warmth in her voice. He had to admire her show of indifference.
daresay we shall meet again at the embassy ball.

Mrs. Henderson laughed.
h, all the world and his brother will be there.

Derek, naturally, knew nothing about the embassy ball. But he instantly resolved to attend it, by hook or by crook. He managed a bland smile, expressed a conventional hope that

s prediction would prove true, and with a last bow

nicely aimed at the air precisely in the middle of the carriage, rather than to any one person in it

rode away.

He lost little time in returning the hack and striding purposefully back to Lord Stokesdown

s town house, where he tossed his hat on a table, shut himself in the library, and dug briskly through a stack of discarded invitations. If
all the world and his brother

were expected at this ball, Derek had no doubt that Lord Stokesdown had been included in their number. Ten minutes later, he emerged from the library triumphant with a square, white card in his hand.

The embassy ball would be held three nights hence, and the embassy in question was that of the Austrians. All that remained was for Derek to convince his employer that the ba
ll would be worth attending…
for political reasons. This would doubtless be a stretch, but political reasons were the only considerations likely to weigh with his lordship

which is why Derek

s duties too
k him to many excellent dinners and
occasional theatrical excursions, but few balls. An embassy ball was even less likely than most to appeal to Derek

s employer, since his tastes ran to domestic policy rather than foreign affairs. Still, Derek did not despair. Lord Stokesdown had come to rely on Derek

s judgment regarding which invitations to accept and which to decline, so if Derek recommended that he attend this particular ball, his lordship might agree without a murmur.

The more difficult hurdle would be to convince Lord Stokesdown that his secretary

s presence at the ball would prove useful. Derek decided, after nervously weighing and discarding several arguments, that he would cross that bridge when he came to it.

As it turned out, however, no convoluted arguments were required. When Derek casually suggested that Lord Stokesdown appear at the embassy ball, secretary in tow, a strange little pause ensued. Then his lordship gave a sudden bark of laughter.

he exclaimed, clapping his startled employee on the back.

ve met a girl.

Derek felt himself flush to the roots of his hair.

Lord Stokesdown waved this off.
o, no, my boy, no need to color up. I

d be glad to see you creditably established.

h, as to that



sir, I have only just met her.

ho! Who cares for that? You must be well and truly smitten, to try cajoling me into attending some rubbishy ball, just to catch a glimpse of her.

Another crack of laughter escaped him.
ll go, never fear! If only to watch you trying to wheedle your way into the
Should be most entertaining. If you expect to encounter this chit at the embassy, she must be well-connected. Eh? Excellent! A very good thing for you.

ell, sir


m afraid, sir

that is, I think she might be a bit

Derek took a deep breath and faced his employer squarely.
m afraid you

ll think she

s above my touch. Sir.

The friendly twinkle in Lord Stokesdown

s eyes dimmed a bit.
ou don

t say. Who is she?

Derek wished he hadn

t been quite so candid. It was one thing to be above-board with one

s employer, but quite another to bandy

s name about.

He swallowed hard.

s my understanding that she is Lord Ballymere

s daughter, sir.


Lord Stokesdown

s smile faded. He stroked his chin, apparently troubled.
allymere. Well, it

s an Irish title, of course. And there

s nothing wrong with your breeding, dear boy. If your family

s estate hadn

t been left in that havey-cavey way, I

d call it a respectable match. Not brilliant, of course. But respectable.

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