Convenient Proposal to the Lady
"Duty can also be pleasure, Lady Alyssa…"
When politician Benedict Tawny set out to save Lady Alyssa from a nefarious plot, he never expected to find himself trapped in a compromising situation with the alluring lady! Now duty demands he propose…and claim her as his bride!
Tainted by his illegitimacy, Ben knows he can't give Alyssa the life of luxury she deserves. But if he can convince her to succumb to the undeniable heat between them, their convenient marriage might just lead to the love of a lifetime!
"Convenient Proposal to the Lady is a beautifully written, touching romance between two characters whose flaws and insecurities only add to their attractiveness and whose dilemmas feel very real. This is one of the strongest historical romances I’ve read recently, and I’m recommending it without hesitation."
~Caz Owens. Grade A-, Desert Island Keeper, All About Romance
The things one does to soothe one’s conscience.
With that rueful thought, Benedict Tawny led his horse stealthily along the grassy verge of the drive curving through a pretty wood to Dornton Manor, early morning October sunlight just beginning to dapple the few leaves overhead. A gust of wind tugged loose his hat, and he jumped to catch it.
If his fellow Hellions could see him now! he thought with a grin, jamming the cap back on his head. Not that he was the delight of his tailor, but in his worn jacket, serviceable breeches and scuffed boots, he hardly looked like a respectable Member of Parliament, one of the leaders of the Reform movement and a rising force in government. Surprising how easily he’d fallen back into the role of intelligence-gatherer he’d performed for the army in India.
All to safeguard the virtue of a female he’d never even met.
But with the Parliamentary session over until Grey could convene a new one later in the year and the other Hellions out of London, he had time on his hands.
He might as well use it to perform a good deed.
A flicker of light in the woods up ahead caught his eye. Through the slender tree trunks, he could just make out the figure of a young female. Shifting his position to get a better view, he saw that she was short, her dark hair thrust up under a sadly out-of-date straw bonnet—and that her entire attention was focused on the sketchpad balanced on her knee.
Though the gown was as outdated as the bonnet, the cut and cloth were of good quality—the garment too unfashionable a cast-off to tempt a lady’s maid, and too fine to be passed on to a housemaid—so she must be Quality. And only a lady of quality passionate about her art would be out sketching this early in the morning.
Petite, unfashionable, avid artist—the description fit to perfection the lady he sought. Delighted to have been handed the solution to the problem of how an unrelated male would find a way to speak alone with a gently-bred virgin, Ben approached quietly, not wanting to alarm her.
But even as he reached the clearing where she sat on a felled log, she remained so absorbed in her drawing that she didn’t seem to notice him. Finally, clearing his throat loudly, he said, “Lady Alyssa Lambornne, I presume?”
Gasping, the maiden nearly dropped her sketchbook, and the box containing her pastels did go flying. Ben jumped to nip them up before they fell to the forest floor. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you,” he said.
Straightening, he reached out to hand back the box, met the gaze she’d focused on him—and froze. Shock zinged through him, as if he’d walked across the library carpet on a crisp winter day and touched the metal latch.
Her eyes were magnificent--large, fawn-brown, with an intelligence in their golden depths that drew him in and invited him to linger. There was a fierceness and intensity there, too. Not just in her eyes, he thought dazedly, but in the whole set of her body, as if she were poised to flee—or attack.
Indeed, in her drab gown, a wisp of dark hair escaping from under the shabby bonnet, the shawl slipping off her shoulders, she seemed almost…feral, as she were as untamed as the woodland she sketched.
Something primal and passionate and powerfully female about her called to everything male in him. Desire thickened his tongue, thrummed in his blood, sent arousal rushing to every part of his body.
Drawn to capture those lips, he reached out for her--rattling the pastels in the box he’d been about to return.
That small noise, loud in the stillness, broke the spell. He shook his head, searching for his vanished wits.
Pull yourself together, Tawny. This is not a passionate Diana, ready for a frolic in the woods, but a modest, virginal girl.
No matter what his erratic senses were telling him.
The response that so unsettled him seemed to have suspended time, but it must have lasted only an instant, for Lady Alyssa was still studying him, frowning as she evidently struggled to place him.
It was not a girl who sat before him, but a woman, he realized as he returned her scrutiny, still fighting the lingering effects of that sensual firestorm. Her face a perfect oval, the cheeks and nose dotted with freckles that were probably the bane of a Mama trying to make her fashionable pale, she had a pert little nose shadowing full, rose-petal lips.
A “little dab of a thing” she might be, being of shorter-than-average height, and her hair was an unremarkable brown, but that was the only part of the description he’d been given that seemed accurate.
Drab…long on the shelf…a spinster past her last prayers? He’d have rather called her a “pocket Venus.” The unfashionable high-waisted gown emphasized an attractively full bosom, and the worn fabric clung in all the right places to some very pleasing curves.
And how could any man meet that fiery gaze, and not be swamped with the need to possess her?
Anger stirred anew that Denbry would sacrifice this lovely creature to achieve some petty revenge against her brother.
Since the lady had yet to speak—perhaps she was shy—Ben finally mastered himself enough to give her a pleasant smile. “It being such a lovely day, I was walking my mount”—he gestured toward his horse—“when I saw a female in the woods. Thinking some lady might have gotten lost, I came to offer assistance. I see now that you were sketching, and apologize for interrupting you.”
Leaning over to hand her the box of pastels, he caught a glimpse of the scene on her sketchpad. “Your drawing is excellent, by the way,” he added in surprise, craning his head to study it. Every young woman sketched; this one was actually skilled. “How cleverly you’ve caught the form of the bird, as if he were about to take flight.”
“Thank you,” she said at last. “But you have the advantage, sir; you know who I am, while I still cannot place you. I am sure we are not acquainted, for had we been introduced, I would certainly have remembered you.” She scanned him again from head to toe, as if noting every detail. “Are you Lord Fulton’s secretary, perhaps?”
She was observant! She’d drawn just the conclusion he’d been aiming for when he donned this disguise: his cultivated tone of voice indicating he wasn’t a farm worker or a laborer; his clothing well-made, but too worn and unremarkable to proclaim him the sort of fashionable peer Lady Fulton would have invited to her house party.
“But not a newly-arriving guest, either. You’re not dressed for it, nor do carry any baggage. How did you know me, then?”
“I’ve been staying in the village, where the gossip is all about the assembly at Dornton Manor. One of the attendees, Lady Alyssa Lambornne, was described as petite, dark-haired, and very fond of sketching.”
Looking wary now, she said, “Were you asking about me, particularly, and if so, why? I know we’ve never met!”
“Let me rectify that. Lady Alyssa, may I present Mr. Benedict Tawny, Member of Parliament for Launton.” He swept her a bow.
Her frown deepened. “Excuse me for acting as witless as my father always claims me to be, but I’m afraid your parliamentary status doesn’t enlighten me at all about your purpose for coming here. Are you to consult with Lord Fulton?”
“No, I’m not acquainted with either Lord or Lady Fulton. I came here to find you, Lady Alyssa, and am delighted to have encountered you where we could have a private chat, without my having to figure out how to steal you away.”
“You came here to have a private chat with me?” she echoed. “I can’t imagine why! Would you explain, please?”
“Certainly, and I don’t wonder at your confusion. We have not met before, but I was at Oxford with your brother, Lord Harleton. And I’m afraid I have some rather distressing information to impart to you.”
The woman’s puzzled expression cleared. “Now I remember! You were one of the group Harleton called ‘Hadley’s Hellions,’ college mates who intended to go into politics and reform government. Although he usually called you the Chil”—she stopped suddenly, heat suffusing her face. “A name I shall not repeat.”
The Chilford Bastard. Ben clenched his teeth against the automatic wave of anger the epithet evoked.
He knew his own experience made him far more sensitive than the rest of Society about the disproportionate amount of shame and blame shouldered by a woman caught up in scandal—while the man’s behavior was passed over. But watching the way his mother, whose only sin had been believing the promise of marriage given her by the man she loved, had been treated after his father’s family brought all their weight to bear to prevent their son wedding a woman they didn’t find suitable, he couldn’t help but be rubbed on the raw by a plan to target an innocent female.
Hence his presence here.
Most women of ruined character had no recourse but the streets, if their families rejected them. His mother had been lucky; though he’d hated his father for years for abandoning her for wealth and a title, the viscount had made sure they had a place to live and enough to eat. Which hardly compensated for turning his mother into an outcast, and himself into a child who’d grown up taunted by the bully of the moment for being a bastard.
Pulling himself back to the present, he said, “Thank you for not repeating the name—though I’m distressed your brother would use such language around his maiden sister.”
“If you know Harleton at all, you know he does whatever he feels like, whenever he feels like it, without regard for the wishes—or sensibilities—of anyone else.”
“I’m only too well aware of that,” he said with a grimace. Though he’d made no attempt to hide the fact that he’d been born out of wedlock, most of his Oxford classmates discretely avoided the topic. Not so Lord Harleton, who’d never missed an opportunity to point him out as “the Chilford Bastard.”
“So you are not one of his…particular friends?”
“Far from it. Without wishing to give offense, I must confess that, at Oxford and since, I have avoided your brother whenever possible.”
For some reason, that comment made her laugh. “It seems we have at least one thing in common, then. But why have you discovered so much about me, and why would you want to speak with me? Has something happened to Harleton?”
“It does involve your brother, but as far as I know, he is in good health. I’m afraid it’s rather complicated.”
“If Harleton is involved, I’m sure it is. And probably disreputable, as well.” Setting down her sketchbook, she patted the log beside her. “You’d better explain.”
“It’s disreputable for certain,” he said as he seated himself rather farther away than she’d indicated. Which was only prudent; their exchange of rational conversation might have muted the sensual attraction that had immobilized him upon first seeing her, but nothing save death could eliminate it entirely.
“As I said, I’m a Member of Parliament,” he began. “Some fellow members and I often gather at a public house near the Houses of Parliament, the Quill and Gavel. Parliament being currently out of session, I was there alone about a week ago when another former Oxford acquaintance noticed me, and pulled me into a group of gentlemen who were proposing a wager. Organized by the Earl of Denbry, who is no admirer of your brother.”
“Denbry!” she exclaimed. “Yes, I’ve heard Harleton snarling about him. Apparently they’ve been trying to best each other at various dubious activities since their Oxford days. Was this some challenge, intended to discomfort my brother?”
“It was. But of a particularly venal sort. Your brother recently ran afoul of Debry by overbidding him for a team of horses he wanted. And then, even worse, by stealing away the…loyalty and affection of a woman.”
“That opera dancer?” At Ben’s raised eyebrows, she said, “My brother’s servants love to gossip about his horses, his women, and his gambling, and my maid loves to repeat the stories to me. My brother outbid Denbry for her…affections?”
“Apparently. Which so infuriated Denbry that he designed a revenge he intended Harleton to remember for the rest of his life. Much as I hate to even speak of so despicable a wager to a lady, I felt you must be warned. What Denbry proposed was to have one of his group…seduce and abandon you.”
Her eyes widening in surprise, Lady Alyssa gasped—and then burst out laughing.
“What a faraddidle! Surely you can’t expect me to believe so preposterous a tale. Was that the wager, to get me to believe your outrageous story, so I would go off into hysterics you could report back to my gloating brother?”
“I only wish it were. Preposterous it may be, to say nothing of venal and disgusting, but I assure you, Denbry’s plan to seduce you is the absolute truth. The challenge was accepted by this group of men, who all chipped in a stake, the winner to receive it upon the…successful accomplishment of its terms.”
Her mirth fading, she studied him again with that unusual intensity, sending another wave of awareness through him. While he resisted it, she said, “Unless you are the most convincing actor in the history of dramatic farce, I’m forced to consider that you might be telling the truth. So there really is a wager? In this game of besting one another, Denbry seeks to trump a stolen mistress with a ruined sister?”
“I’m afraid so.” Having voiced the despicable proposition, Ben felt sick—and ashamed. Denbry didn’t just give aristocrats a bad name, he tarnished the whole male gender.
“But how could any of them believe they would be able to accomplish it? I’m not such a nodcock that I’d allow myself to be drawn into a compromising position by some sweet-talking gentleman!”
“Denbry somehow obtained a list of the country house parties you were to attend, to which the competitors could wangle invitations. Imagining themselves to be men of great address with ladies, they intended to…persuade you to an elopement, carry you off to some inn, seduce and then abandon you.”
She raised a skeptical eyebrow. “If they abandoned me, why couldn’t I just quietly return home, with no one the wiser?”
“The seducer was to take your gown. If he were nowhere to be found when you were discovered, you’d not be able to accuse him later. Society always believes the worst of the female; you’d make yourself a laughingstock as well as a byword, if you should name him without proof. “
Anticipating her next question, Ben went on, “In case you still managed somehow to keep the matter quiet, the perpetrator was to furnish the name of the inn, the landlord, the maidservants, the grooms in the stable, so Denbry might have a scurrilous broadside created, ‘Foiled Elopement with a Mysterious Gentleman.’ The more you attempted to deny it, the more it would be believed. Even if you revealed the seducer’s name to your family, calling him out would only add more credence to the report. You’d be ruined, your family embarrassed, and in the game of chess between them, your brother’s queen taken by Denbry’s higher one.”
Her face going pale during this recital, Lady Alyssa remained silent for some time after he finished, as if contemplating all the sordid details. Until, alarm widening her eyes, she looked back at him.
“But…you told me you were pulled into the discussion. Not that you merely overheard it. So…you were invited to take part in this?”
As if suddenly recognizing that she was alone in the woods with a man who could easily overpower her, she scooted away from him. Thrusting out her sketchbook, she held it up between them, as if that flimsy bit of paper and cardboard could protect her.
Ben rose and stepped back, giving her more space. “I assure you, Lady Alyssa, you have nothing to fear from me! Your brother…took such great pleasure in taunting me at Oxford, the other men seemed to think I’d be willing to embrace any scheme, no matter how despicable, to revenge myself upon him. If my character were so deficient that I’d agreed to take part, why would I have come to warn you?”
“Perhaps you thought it a clever ploy?” she cried. “If you were asked to participate, you must also be considered a ‘man of great address with the ladies!’ Perhaps you thought your news would alarm me enough that I would fall fainting into your arms, whereupon you could steal away with me to that nefarious inn.”
“I would have to believe you dull-witted in truth, to imagine you would faint into the arms of a stranger, rather than run screaming back to Dornton Manor and the protection of your mother,” he countered. “Nor could I carry you off to the inn against your will, if I wanted us to look like two lovebirds eloping, once we got there.”
“But you would have me believe you were dissipated enough to be present at this conference, but possessed of too tender a conscience to want it to go forward? Or was the reward not high enough to tempt you?” she added bitterly.
He stiffened at that insult, more stung than he should be at that assessment. Ben might be a self-confessed rake, but he considered himself a principled one. He never seduced a lady who wasn’t willing, always paid his small staff and the merchants he patronized on time, and tried as best he could to be a help to his fellow man.
But it wasn’t reasonable to expect her to trust him, an almost total stranger, especially as he’d just identified himself as associating with a group of men who must represent the most idle, spendthrift and useless fribbles the aristocracy had the dubious privilege of counting among its members.
“Since you know nothing of me or my character, I cannot prevent you from thinking that. I don’t deny I’m claimed to have a certain…reputation with the ladies. But I have never treated any of them with less than courtesy and respect.”
Rather than open himself to more disparagement, he’d convey the rest of the essential information and go. And had to damp down an immediate sense of…disappointment. The unusual Lady Alyssa intrigued him, nor could he remember ever feeling such a powerful initial attraction to any woman.
Both compelling reasons for him to end this little tête-à-tête as quickly as possible.
“Indulge me for one more minute, and I will leave you to your sketching. Let me give you the names of the men currently at Lady Fulton’s party who are participating in this scheme.”
After staring at him, disbelief, wariness and a trace of anger warring in her countenance, she said, “I still find it hard to imagine even men as venal as my brother could have come up with such a despicable scheme. But if they have, it’s not logical you would have come to warn me if you were participating in it. And you are right; I know nothing of you save that you belonged to a university group called “the Hellions” and that my brother mocked your heritage. His disdain is hardly a disqualifying factor, since I have very little respect for him or his opinions. Aside from weaving me this fantastical story, you’ve done nothing to warrant my censure. If you are speaking the truth, you’ve gone to a good deal of trouble to warn me. I owe you an apology, and my thanks—though I am still not sure I believe you.”
Her abrupt about-face spoke well for her sense of fairness in admitting that she might have been mistaken. More than that, rather than turning missish and going off in fit of weeping at his alarming news, as he suspected many a maid of her sheltered upbringing would have, this fierce warrior princess looked like she’d prefer to face the offending gentlemen and level a sword or pistol at them.
Even more intrigued by those observations, he nodded. “Apology accepted. I know the tale must seem—fantastic.”
“It does. Though I still find it difficult to believe the wager exists, neither can I explain why you would suddenly appear out of nowhere to convey such a tale.” She shook her head, looking puzzled again as she apparently tried to sort out all he’d told her. “But—you also said you’d spent a few days in the village? Why, if your purpose in coming to Sussex was to warn me about this nefarious plot?”
“I knew you would be at Dornton Manor, but little else about you. To devise the best way to approach you, I needed to learn more. I also needed to learn who had actually attended the party. While as far as I know, I was the only one to argue against the wager that night, all the participants were rather foxed. Upon sober reflection, others might have decided they wanted no part in it. I didn’t want to present you just a list of those present at the Quill and Gavel, lest I malign some gentleman who later chose to repudiate it.”
“Oh, no, we certainly wouldn’t want to malign any gentlemen,” she said acidly. “Though I don’t see how lingering in the village helped you. I’m not known there, and while I’m sure there is gossip about the party, how could you be certain who was in attendance, unless you actually came to Dornton?”
“Ah, but I did.”
She blinked at him. “You visited, and were not able to see me?”
“I didn’t call at the front door.” At her exasperated raise of eyebrows, he chuckled. “My time in the army taught me that it’s best not to blunder into enemy territory without first doing a thorough reconnaissance. Nor do you want to ride about in full uniform, rattling your saber, so that every spy and sharpshooter on the enemy side notices you. No, such a delicate mission required…stealth.”
“Stealth?” she repeated. Her lips twitched, as if she were suppressing a smile. “What sort of ‘stealth?’”
“I had no possible excuse for calling on you, nor do I move in the social circles that make me the sort of eligible parti Lady Fulton would invite to join her party. But, thanks to the army, I know how to mingle almost invisibly among regular folk. Dornton Manor is the largest estate in the area, which means Dornton Village supplies much of the goods consumed here, and most of the labor to staff the house. Some rounds of ale at the local taphouse, some conversations with the various merchants who provision Dornton Manor, a mention to one of them that, as a returned soldier currently out of work, I wouldn’t mind earning a few coins, and I had a commission to deliver food supplies. That fine fish you enjoyed last night, and the pineapples for the compote for dessert?” He tapped his chest. “Brought here from the village by Ben Tawny. Once at Dornton, it was easy enough, over a mug of ale in the servants’ hall, to learn who was valet to whom, and to flirt with the ladies’ maids and unearth a few details about each of their mistresses. Voila--your size, coloring, and love of sketching.”
“In other words, you misrepresented yourself to the staff here, and lied to the merchant,” she said, her severe tone at variance with the half-smile curving her lips. “You are the most complete hand! How can I believe anything you say?”
“I didn’t misrepresent!” he protested. “I merely…created an illusion.”
He shook his head. “Not true! I am a former soldier; I grew up poor enough to always be in favor of earning a few coins, and many believe that being a Member of Parliament means I do no work. The staff here may have assumed I was a deliveryman because I brought out supplies, but I never told them I was.”
“I’m sure neither the merchant nor the staff could have imagined you were a Member of Parliament, seeking personal information about Lady Fulton’s guests!”
He shrugged. “If, after I presented ‘A’ and ‘B’, they erroneously arrived at ‘C,’ that’s not my fault.”
She shook her head. “You are a dangerous man.”
He grinned. “I certainly hope so. Are you any closer to believing me now?”
“Yes…no. Oh, I don’t know! Your voice and manner are those of a gentleman, but your stories! If I didn’t recognize your name and your association with Oxford, I would think you a charlatan, traveling the countryside selling shares in bogus canal projects!”
“The army trained me to gather intelligence; it’s surprisingly easy to get even strangers to talk about themselves, with a show of interest and a little prompting. And I did unearth the information I sought. Won’t you let me convey it to you?”
“Very well. Although I make no promises about believing it!”
“Denbry arrives today. Quinlen and Rossiter are already here. Even if you can’t bring yourself to believe the wager, be very careful around them. Watch how they treat you. I think you’ll discover they will be unusually flattering and attentive, quite ignoring the lures cast out by any other females present.”
The mirth fled from her face, replaced by an expression of chagrin.
“They’ve already begun their campaign to win you over, haven’t they?” he guessed.
“Their campaign to sweet-talk me?” she said, recovering her composure enough to scoff. “I still don’t see how they thought they could…”
She broke off abruptly, a flush slowly suffusing her face. “Ah, now, the rationale behind the wager makes sense,” she said. “The men believe that, given my advanced age, unmarried state and lack of feminine charms, I would be so thankful for the attentions of an eligible bachelor, and so desperate to attach one, that with a little flattery, I’d be willing to do anything they ask?”
While Ben hesitated, loath to confirm that was exactly the description Denbry had given, she nodded. “Though it was kind of you to try to spare me that humiliating assessment, I would have understood sooner if you hadn’t.”
“I couldn’t have said such a thing!” he replied, touched as he watched her gather up the shreds of her dignity, and angered on her behalf at the insult. “For one, I would never tell a lady anything that unchivalrous, and secondly, I’ve seen with my own eyes it isn’t true. You are lovely, quick-witted, independent, and highly talented. If you’ve remained unmarried, it must have been through your own choice.”
Though he meant every word, tears sheened her eyes. “I thought it was the other gentlemen who would try to sweet-talk me.”
He shook his head. “The honest truth, as I see it. At least I know now that, even without my intervention, you wouldn’t have been easily duped.”
She swiped the tears away with one impatient hand, that small act of bravery touching his heart. “Even understanding why they would pick me as the linchpin of the wager, I still have difficulty believing it. And for you to come warn me! I appreciate a sense of honor—but you’ve expended a great deal of effort on behalf of a woman you’ve never met, who has no claim to your protection whatsoever. Why would you care so much?”
“I know what it is for a woman to be deceived—and to bear the cost of it for the rest of her life.”
Sudden comprehension lit her eyes. “The Chilford Bastard,” she said softly.
“Exactly,” he said, struggling to keep the bitterness from his tone.
“If it’s true, I owe you an even more sincere apology—and my thanks.”
He waved it away. “Just remain on your guard, and watch the behavior of the men I’ve mentioned. I doubt any of them would be lack-witted enough to try to make off with you against your will, for seduction would be necessary to ruin you and win the wager, to say nothing that attempted kidnapping carries severe penalties under law. “
“I will certainly watch all of them.”
Despite that assurance, he couldn’t seem to rid himself of a vague uneasiness. Then he hit upon something that would not only help allay that concern—but would give him an excuse him to see this unusual woman again.
“Would you meet me here, about this same time tomorrow? If those gentlemen’s behavior does seem suspiciously beguiling, you’ll know I was telling the truth. I can return to London, then, reassured that you believe me, and are forewarned. Could you do that?”
He watched her as she weighed his request, almost visibly ticking off the pros and cons in her head. “I suppose,” she agreed.
“Good. But when we meet tomorrow, bring your maid, even if Molly can’t abide accompanying you on your sketching excursions, since you either walk too fast, or dawdle forever. Don’t go wandering by yourself in the gardens, either.” He grinned at her. “You never know what sort of ruffian you might encounter.”
Relieved, and far more eager to see Lady Alyssa again than he should be, Ben handed her back the box of pastels she’d set on the ground, and strode to the lane to reclaim his horse.
He felt her speculative gaze on him as he rode away.
Lady Alyssa Lambornne certainly wasn’t what he’d expected when conscience had compelled him into this mission, he mused as he directed his horse toward the village. From Denbry’s description, he’d thought she’d be meek and mousy, the sort of shy, self-effacing creature who would never make a good impression on the Marriage Mart. As each year ticked by and she remained unwed, failing to achieve the only respectable occupation most women could hope for, she’d have become ever more anxious, apt to embrace even an unequal match to attain the respectability of marriage.
Instead, he’d found her uncommonly intelligent, self-possessed, and confident, with a truly exceptional talent for drawing. As he’d not told her, far from being a mousy, he’d found her alluringly attractive. With a fat dowry and that physical magnetism, how had she managed to remain unmarried?
Perhaps because most men wanted a conventional and biddable wife, and were put off by the untamed aura she radiated?
It certainly appealed to him. He let the image of her play across his mind…soft lips, full breasts and deliciously rounded hips. The alertness in her body and the feral intensity of her gaze hinted of a passionate nature, barely covered by a thin veneer of civility...
Desire fired up again, and he fought it. Despite her age and that illusion of restrained passion, Lady Alyssa was undoubtedly an innocent. The voice of self-preservation nattered in his ear, warning that he’d never engaged in the dangerous pastime of beguiling innocents, and it was no time to start. That way led to the altar, and he was neither interested, yet, in confining his interactions with females to a single specimen, nor had he attained the position he felt a woman he’d admire enough to marry would deserve in a husband.
And if he were truly honest, having witnessed the misery and depravation a blighted love had caused his mother, he wasn’t sure he ever wanted to care that much about anyone.
He should therefore be extremely circumspect in his dealings with Lady Alyssa. Though she herself appeared to have little interest in entangling a suitor, that unusual attitude was almost certainly not shared by her family, who would probably much prefer her to put down her sketchpad and embrace the role of wife and mother. At her age, even the natural son of a viscount, a man who’d not yet achieved a superior position in the world, might be acceptable to them.
He had to laugh. Her family would have to be desperate indeed to consider a bastard son good enough for the daughter of an earl.
But he could risk seeing her one more time, before prudence dictated he distance himself. To make sure she was taking proper steps to protect herself. And, he admitted, for the simple pleasure of talking with this most unusual lady.
Anticipation filling him, he rode back toward the inn on the outskirts of the village where he’d engaged a room. He’d enjoy the fine fare at the Rose and Crown, wile away the evening playing cards in the taproom, and look forward tomorrow to meeting again the unexpectedly compelling Lady Alyssa Lambornne.