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Spring had come to London, and the streets were abustle with residents greeting the return of warmth to the land. Fashionable bonnets decorated the city's better districts as ladies young and old joyfully went about their various errands.
Aurelia Amesley, entering Hyde Park on the arm of her cousin Harold, surveyed the crowd with sparkling eyes. After the long winter months closeted in their rooms, she felt exhilarated to be part of London's activity once more. And, what was even more exciting, the lasting good weather meant that soon they could have an ascension.
She adjusted her bonnet, a dull affair with a single pink ribbon rosette, which still had years of wear in it, and looked around her.
Hyde Park was crowded. All the swells were out, enjoying the warm weather, expensively clad ladies gracing their arms. Aurelia smiled. Let the swells have their ladies. And the ladies their swells. She had something far better.
"Ain't it a great day?''
"Yes, Harold. Yes, it is. Thank you for bringing me to the park."
"Wait'll you see her." Harold said. "She's a real beauty. The best yet."
Harold's brilliant red hair stood up almost straight in the breeze. Under a multitude of freckles, his face glowed with pleasure. He would never make a hero like those in the romances she read to liven the long winter hours--she was fairly certain such men did not exist. But Harold was a good man to have for a cousin. And he knew his aeronautics.
She, too, was excited about the new balloon, the one they'd dreamed of and planned for all winter long. But Harold would get to go up in it.
"This balloon's a great deal bigger," he was saying. "Andmade of more durable silk. It should travel..."
Ordinarily, Aurelia would have been as engrossed as he. But it had been a long hard winter. She'd been cooped up for days on end.
Consequently she let her eyes stray past Harold's head, idly surveying the people out to enjoy the park. Suddenly she found herself looking into a pair of vivid blue eyes. Their owner held her gaze for several seconds of lazy amusement before he smiled slightly and turned back to his friends.
Aurelia felt the color flooding her cheeks. That dandy certainly didn't have any manners. But she'd learned long ago to ignore such men, The daughter of a wealthy merchant was fair game to their likes. Thank goodness, she was now four and twenty, past her prime, the fops and fribbles left her to her own devices.
This man, though, didn't look like a fop. Or a fribble. He looked ... The thought registered with an extra little beat of her heart. Why, be looked like the hero in a Lady Incognita book.
The shoulders under his blue coat of superfine stretched the material taut with their wideness. Curling over the collar of his coat and contrasting with his white cravat was an abundance of curly black hair. But it wasn't his shoulders or his hair--though both fit the mold admirably--but his face that had quite imprinted itself upon her mind.
Although they had locked glances only momentarily, she retained quite a clear picture in her mind. Brilliant blue eyes set under luxuriant black brows. A bold Roman nose. A chin that fairly cried determination. A mouth, curled in lazy amusement, full-lipped and somehow exciting.
It was clear from his overall appearance that the man was a real out-and-outer. Everything about him, from his insolent gaze to his gleaming black top boots, spoke of the highest quality. But his face showed the signs of living. He must already have seen the far side of thirty.
Forget the dark stranger. There were many interesting people, in the park. Strolling along beside Harold, she turned her consideration to the fashionable ladies around them. Their expensive gowns, of jaconet, spotted cambric and muslin, striped silk or sarcenet, were bright and colorful. Even the pelisses and spencers were light and cheerful. They made a pretty picture. But how foolish to spend good money on the fripperies of fashion. Especially when that same money could be spent on advancing the fascinating science of air flight.
Her own gown of bombazine was quite sufficient. And her bonnet ... She could not remember how old it was. But it was still good.
Mama had been the one with the passion for the pretty clothes. Sometimes, usually in the spring, Aurelia did think of a new gown or two. And Papa had left more than enough money for that. But when the balloons could go up, who wanted to think about fashion foolishness? Except now, since the gentleman had looked at her--and like that--she rather wished she'd had on something new.
Oh well, it was spring. She was simply feeling the season.
The gentleman and his friends were only a few paces ahead. Unaccountably, she could not forbear staring at the man's broad shoulders. They were so wide, and his coat was extremely well-tailored. So broad were his shoulders, in fact, that they effectively blocked the rest of the group from her sight.
Strange that she should be fascinated with this man. Usually, she thought very little of men. Unless, of course, they knew about air flight. But that thinking was not of the same fashion.
She pushed at a curl that had escaped her bonnet and then decided to leave it be. She did rather pride herself on her hair. The color of gold Papa had called it. And for Papa gold was the ultimate compliment.
"There she is!" Harold turned right abruptly, bringing Aurelia around with something of a start. She'd do better to think about the present. Papa and Mama were both gone. But she was fortunate to have Uncle Arthur and Harold, and doubly fortunate they should share her passion for balloon flight.
And there stood the current love of Harold's life--the new balloon he had brought her to admire. The chest-high wicker basket they called the gondola seemed almost too fragile to hold human beings. But Harold insisted it was very strong. And the huge, garishly colored balloon from which it hung suspended was really quite safe.
With a smile, Aurelia thought of Mama. Poor Mama hadn't approved of Papa's interest in air flight. But that hadn't stopped Papa. And it wouldn't stop her. If she could ever get Uncle Arthur to listen to reason.
There was such a wild beauty about the balloon. It tugged gently at its ropes, like some great creature wanting to fly free. Aurelia pulled in a breath. She wanted so much to be up in it. To soar...
"I say, Harold. That is you?"
The deep rich voice came from behind them. Harold turned, taking Aurelia with him. He did it so quickly that she lost her balance and had to reach out with her other hand.
But it was not Harold's arm upon which her fingers closed, but that of the blue-eyed gentleman. For a moment Aurelia stood almost paralyzed.
"Easy there," the gentleman said, covering her gloved hand with his. Again she found herself gazing into those vivid blue eyes. How strange that she could not seem to tear her gaze away.
Indeed, it was his eyes that moved first, sliding down over the black shawl and her dress, then back up to the bonnet with its pink ribbon rosette, before they settled on her face.
He smiled then, a lazy insolent smile that made her hackles rise instantly. She had seen that smile before. She was not some common street girl, and she would not be treated as such. She withdrew her hand and turned to Harold. But he actually seemed to know the man and, beyond that, to be glad to see him!
"Aurelia Amesley," Harold said. "This here's the Earl."
Aurelia stared. "The Earl?" she repeated numbly. How and where had Harold met an Earl?
The Earl smiled, those blue eyes still so warm. "Philip, Earl of Ranfield." He bowed slightly. "I'm pleased to make your acquaintance, Miss Amesley. Very pleased."
Aurelia nodded. She did have some manners, after all.
Ranfield reached out for her gloved hand and raised it to his lips. And she blushed as fiercely as any green girl. How strange. No man had ever made her blush before.
"So," the Earl said, his voice pleasantly deep. "Harold didn't tell me he knew such a beautiful woman."
Harold grinned. She could not believe with what ease the usually shy Harold addressed this lord.
"Reely's m'cousin," Harold said. "Don't actually see relatives."
Why must Harold use that stupid nickname, and in front of an Earl? But he didn't even seem to notice.
"I know," Ranfield said. "Your heart belongs to that beauty over there." He gestured toward the balloon.
Harold nodded. "Yeah, listen. I want to go talk to the men. Whyn't you keep Reely company?"
"But Harold..." Aurelia's protest elicited another sheepish smile from her cousin. But it did little else.
"I won't be long. Honest.''
Aurelia swallowed an unladylike exclamation as Harold loped off. How unkind of him to leave her with a strange gentleman. And one who looked at her so...
"Your cousin's a likable chap."
His comment, when she was thinking thoughts that would have burned her cousin's ears, so startled her that she raised her gaze to the Earl's. And then she could think of nothing to say but, "Yes, he is."
For a moment there was silence between them. Ranfield let himself consider Harold's cousin. What a wide-eyed little miss she was. Pretty, too, in a quiet way--with that heart-shaped face and those great dark eyes in such contrast to the golden hair. But what sensible dull clothes. No flibbertigibbet charmer, this.
"Do you share Harold's interest in things aeronautical?" be inquired.
"Have you been up?"
"I?" Regretfully she shook her head. "No. But, oh, I should like to. I should like it above all else."
His eyebrow rose. Did she really mean she preferred air flight to new gowns, to balls, to routs? "Above all else?" he repeated.
"Yes. Of course."
Her tone was sober, no hint of flirtation. She might have been speaking to her vicar. Was it possible she didn't know him? Surely every young woman in London had heard of the wealthy Earl of Ranfield. Enough of them had been scouting after him.
He summoned the smile reputed to melt even the hardest London lady's heart. And Aurelia Amesley calmly asked, "How did you meet Cousin Harold?"
He swallowed a chuckle. That would teach him to have such an inflated opinion of himself.
"It is quite simple," he explained. "I have an intense interest in things aeronautical."
She could not quite countenance that. "But how? You're an earl."
What a refreshing little thing. So straightforward. "I assure you, even an earl can have legitimate interests. Though I fear that ballooning is at present only a hobbyhorse with me, I am considering giving it much more of my time."
Reaching into his pocket, he drew out his snuffbox. The ladies always admired it. "Yes, I think air flight has great possibilities. I had this made up special. Only one of its kind."
Aurelia took the proffered box. She had never seen one decorated in this fashion. As she reached for it, her gloved fingers brushed against his. The ensuing sensation was both pleasant and alarming. She covered her confusion by bending to examine the delicate cloisonnéed lid, upon which a gaily colored balloon floated against an azure sky. "It's lovely."
Aware now that it was not wise to touch him, she tried to hand the box back without making contact. But the Earl's fingers closed around hers. "Not nearly as lovely as you."
The blood insisted on rising to her cheeks. It was rather like Lady Incognita's latest romance. Where the heroine first met the hero--and her heart began to palpitate. Though, of course, her heart did not do any such foolish thing.
It was just that it had been a long time since a man had paid her compliments. And they'd always made her uncomfortable. But she was aware that this time, under the discomfort, she was also feeling pleasure.
She tried to give him the benefit of the doubt. He was probably behaving in his normal fashion. Compliments--false, true, what difference did it make?--fell quite naturally from the lips of the ton's Corinthians. It was probably second nature with him to make any--and every--woman feel special.
But why couldn't the man discuss something sensible--say something about the newest balloons or the newest gas for propelling them? "Have you read about Monsieur Charles' attempts with gas?" she asked, finally succeeding in disengaging her fingers from his.
His smile was rueful. She liked it even better than his other rakish one. "I'm afraid not. I am just newly come to the mysteries of aeronautical flight. But I am eager to learn."
"Ho, Ranfield. What have you here?"
Aurelia turned. Oh no, another gentleman. And just when this one had promised to turn a little interesting.
She saw a moue of distaste flit across the Earl's face. "Hello, Alvanley."
"Ain't you going to make me acquainted?"
A muscle twitched in his lordship's jaw. Aurelia noted it with surprise. Something had put his lordship's back up. And that something had to do with this other lord.
"This is Miss Amesley, Harold's cousin."
Alvanley's smile turned wolfish. So that was it. She put on her iciest look, but he didn't seem to notice.
"Hmm. Might be interested in air flight m'self. Any more where she came from?"
Ranfield turned to her. "Miss Amesley, will you excuse us for a moment?"
She had a notion to tell him that she knew just what to do with Alvanley's kind. She was no stranger to the set down, properly delivered. But then, somehow, there popped into her mind a scene from Lady Incognita's latest book--a scene in which the hero rescued the heroine from some villain's calumny.
"Of course." She lowered her eyes, demurely, as a heroine would. Could that Alvanley possibly think she was going to be Ranfield's newest ladybird?
She had never considered such an affiliation. She had hardly even considered marriage, since she knew no man she could envision living with and loving as one should. But she could see how easily some women might decide to fall, especially with Ranfield there to catch them.
Though she had turned away, she could not help overhearing the men.
"Don't appreciate this kind of thing," the Earl was saying.
Alvanley's laugh made her hands tighten into fists. That man needed a good facer.
"Don't suppose Sweet Annette's gonna 'preciate it either. Or is it the Little Dove again?"
The Earl's voice deepened. "My private affairs are just that--private. And I'll thank you to remember it."
Alvanley laughed again. "Private? All of London's speculating. Why, you've made the betting book at White's. I put my money on your staying free. Can't imagine the likes of you getting leg-shackled. But now this little mouse..."
"Miss Amesley is a thoroughly respectable young woman." The Earl's voice held more than a hint of steel. "If I hear her name bandied about ... anywhere, you will have cause to regret it."
There was a pause. Aurelia debated stepping even farther away, but something held her in place. She was rather enjoying this, her first experience at playing the heroine. However temporarily she might hold the role, she didn't want to miss any of it.
"Right, right, old chap." Alvanley's voice was plainly conciliatory. "I didn't see a thing. But Ranfield, this here's Hyde Park. I ain't the only man about with eyes."
"Good day, Alvanley."
"G'day to you."
Aurelia kept her eyes focused on the balloon. So, this was how the heroine felt when the hero rode to her rescue. Her heart wanted to beat faster. And she wanted to smile at the hero like some silly green girl.
"Sorry to have left you unescorted for so long," the Earl said, returning to her side. "Alvanley's a bore."
"I would have thought you had much in common." The remark escaped her unaware, and only the Earl's raised eyebrow showed her her mistake. Now she'd gone and insulted the man.
"Touche," he said, smiling pleasantly.
She flushed. "I didn't mean..."
"Yes, you did." His smile didn't waver. "You have wit as well as looks. Don't deny it."
There wasn't much she could return to that. It was certainly pleasant to have someone think her intelligent. Uncle Arthur was discouragingly prone to treat her like some half-witted child, especially when she mentioned going up in the balloon.
Again she found herself looking into the Earl's eyes. Their magnetism pulled at her; deep dark pools, inviting, beckoning. Warmth trembled over her, and she fought to control the sudden shaking of her knees. Oh, these hero-types were patently dangerous.
"There you are." Harold's voice broke the spell. Aurelia and the Earl turned together.
"Listen, Reely, the men need me."
"Harold, you..." .
"I know!" Harold grinned. "Ranny can take you to the Minerva."
For a moment, Aurelia could not find her tongue. She admitted to herself that the prospect of more time in the Earl's company was pleasing. But the man had been imposed upon enough. He would be wanting to get away.
But to her surprise, the Earl said, "I'd be greatly pleased to escort Miss Amesley to the lending library." He actually sounded like he meant it. And he offered her his arm.
"Harold, I can't..."
But Harold wasn't listening. "Thanks, Ranny. See you later."
Aurelia stared after him in utter frustration. Harold was such a nincompoop. How could he just walk off and leave her like that? This man had other things to do.
She swallowed hastily and forced herself to turn back to the Earl. "There's no need for you to put yourself out," she said, schooling her voice to calmness. "I shall take a hackney to the Minerva."
The Earl straightened and his jaw tightened. It was really quite a handsome jaw. "You shall do no such thing," he said.
"Miss Amesley, I will brook no resistance in this matter. Your cousin left you to my care. I would be remiss to neglect my responsibility."
She was perfectly able to take care of herself. But it was kind of him. "Really, milord, I am not your responsibility. I am scarcely a green..."
The Earl took her hand and drew it through his arm. "Miss Amesley, you are wasting your breath. Come, my carriage is waiting outside the gate."
It would be nice to have a carriage ride. They seldom bothered with niceties like that. Uncle Arthur said walking was good for the constitution and the pocket. And he was quite correct. After all, air flight was not a pursuit to be financed on pin money.
In spite of herself, she glanced down at her clothes. The Earl was quite a pattern card of perfection. Not ostentatious, of course. But just so nicely turned out.
While her gown ... But her clothes were quite presentable. Just because she didn't look like the ladies around her ... After all, the Earl of Ranfield was talking to her, not to any of those fashionably dressed females.
Ranfield frowned. "I apologize for Alvanley. The man has no tact." He smiled. "But really, being seen with me is not the worst fate in the world."
Indeed, it was not. It was turning into a rare treat. So she let him guide her through the crowds and out to a carriage that was, quite as it should be, the highest stare of fashion.
The tiger up behind gave her one slightly bemused look. No doubt he was accustomed to more fashionably turned out ladies. But she gave him a smile anyway.
Then the Earl handed her up with all the consideration any woman could desire. In fact, his fingers lingered around hers for so long that her heart started getting those funny notions again.