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She could feel his eyes watching her from across the room. Like an invisible protector, warning away anyone who would bother her. Lady Hannah Chesterfield smiled at one of the ballroom guests, but she hadn't heard a word the woman had said. Instead, she was all too aware of Lieutenant Thorpe's gaze and the forbidden nature of his thoughts.
Though she'd only met him a few weeks ago, she hadn't forgotten his intensity. Nor the way he'd stared at her like a delectable sweet he wanted but couldn't have.
He'd brushed his lips upon the back of her hand when her brother had introduced them. The unexpected kiss had made her skin flush, awakening the strange desire to move closer to him. He looked as though he wanted to kiss every inch of her, and the thought made her body tremble. His interest had been undeniable.
It was nearing midnight, the hour of secret liaisons. More than a few ladies had disappeared into the garden with a companion, only to return with twigs in their hair and swollen lips.
Hannah wondered what it would be like to indulge in such wickedness, feeling a man's mouth against her lips, his hands touching her the way a lover would. There was something about the Lieutenant that was dangerous. Unpredictable. He didn't belong here among London's elite, and yet he fascinated her.
She risked a glance and saw him leaning against the back wall, a glass of lemonade in one hand. His black tailcoat was too snug across his broad shoulders, as though he couldn't afford one that fit. His matching waistcoat accentuated his lean form, while the white cravat he wore had a careless tilt to it. His dark hair was too long, and he was clean-shaven, unlike the current fashion.
His mouth gave a slight lift, as though daring her to come and speak to him. She couldn't possibly do such a thing.
Why was he here tonight? It wasn't as if Lieutenant Thorpe could seek a wife from among the ladies. He might be an officer, but he did not possess a title. Furthermore, if it weren't for his unlikely friendship with her brother Stephen, the Lieutenant wouldn't have been allowed inside Rothburne House.
'Hannah!' A hand waved in front of her face, and she forced herself to pay heed to her mother, who had crossed the room to speak with her.
'You're woolgathering again, my dear. Stand up straight and smile. The Baron of Belgrave is coming to claim his dance with you.' With a slight titter, Christine Chesterfield added, 'Oh, I do hope the two of you get on. He would make such a dashing husband for you. He's so handsome and well-mannered.'
An unsettled feeling rose up in her stomach. 'Mother, I don't want to wed the baron.'
'Why? Whatever is wrong with Lord Belgrave?' Christine demanded.
'I don't know. Something. It feels wrong.'
'Oh, for heaven's sake.' Her mother rolled her eyes.
'Hannah, you're imagining things. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the baron, and I have little doubt that he would make an excellent husband.'
A sour feeling caught up in her stomach, but Hannah didn't protest. She'd learned, long ago, that her mother and father had carved-in-stone ideas about the man she would marry. The gentleman had to be well-bred, wealthy and titled. A saint who had never transgressed against anyone, who treated women with the utmost respect.
And likely rescued kittens in his spare time, she thought sourly. Men of that nature didn't exist. She knew it for a fact, being cursed with two older brothers.
Though she wanted to get married more than anything, Hannah was beginning to wonder if she'd ever find the right man. Having her own home and a husband was her dream, for she could finally have the freedom she wanted.
She craved the moment when she could make her own choices without having to ask permission or worry about whether or not she was behaving like a proper lady. Although she was twenty years old, she might as well have been a girl of five, for all that she'd been sheltered from the world.
'Now, Hannah,' her mother chided. 'The baron has been nothing but the soul of kindness this entire week. He's brought you flowers every day.'
It was true that Lord Belgrave had made his courtship intentions clear. But despite his outward courtesy, Hannah couldn't shake the feeling that something was wrong. He was almost too perfect.
'I'm not feeling up to a dance just now,' she said, though she knew the excuse would never hold.
'You are perfectly well,' her mother insisted. And you cannot turn down an invitation to dance. It would be rude.'
Hannah clamped her lips together, suppressing the urge to argue. Her mother would never bend when it came to appropriate behaviour. With any luck, the dance would be over in three minutes.
'Smile, for the love of heaven,' her mother repeated. 'You look as though you're about to faint.'
Without waiting for her reply, Lady Rothburne flounced away, just as the Baron of Belgrave arrived to claim his dance.
Hannah forced a smile upon her face and prayed that the remaining hours would pass quickly. And as the baron swept her into the next dance, she caught a glimpse of the Lieutenant watching them, an unreadable darkness upon his face.
Michael Thorpe had a sixth sense for trouble. He often perceived it before it struck, which had served him well on the battlefield.
It was happening again. Intuition pricked at his conscience, when he saw Lady Hannah about to dance with the Baron of Belgrave. Whether she knew it or not, the suitors were circling her like sharks. There wasn't a man among them who didn't want to claim her.
She was an untouched angel. Innocent of the world, and yet he recognised the weariness in her green eyes. Her caramel-brown hair had been artfully arranged with sprigs of jasmine, while her gown was purest white. It irritated him that her parents treated her as a marital offering to be served out to debauched males.
Like the dog that he was, he wanted to snarl at her suitors, warning them to stay the hell away. But what good would come of it, except to embarrass her among her family and friends?
No. Better to remain in the shadows and keep watch over her. He'd seen so much death and war in the past few months, he felt the need to protect something fragile and good. Soon enough, he'd have to go back to the Crimean Peninsula. He'd have to face the demons and ghosts he'd left behind, and, more than likely, a bullet would end his life.
For now, he would savour this last taste of freedom before the Army ordered him back to the battleground. He glared at Belgrave, watching the pair of them on the dance floor. For a brief moment he imagined himself holding a woman like Hannah in his arms.
His good friend, the Earl of Whitmore, approached with an intent glare upon his face. A moment later, Whitmore's younger brother, Lord Quentin Chesterfield, joined them.
'I hope, for your sake, Thorpe, that you weren't eyeing my sister.' The Earl spoke the words in a calm, deliberate fashion. 'Otherwise, I'll have to kill you.'
Lord Quentin leaned in, a mischievous smile on his face. 'I'll help.'
Michael ignored their threats, though he didn't doubt that they meant them. 'Your sister shouldn't be dancing with Belgrave. I don't trust him.'
'He might be a baron, but he looks a bit too polished, doesn't he?' Lord Quentin agreed. 'Like he's trying too hard to impress the women.'
'You could try a bit harder with your own attire.' Whitmore grimaced at his younger brother's dark purple jacket and yellow waistcoat.
'I like colourful clothing.' Lord Quentin shrugged and turned his attention back to the dancing couple. 'I suppose we shouldn't worry. Our father isn't going to allow Hannah to wed a man like Belgrave, even if he does propose.'
Glancing at the ceiling as if calculating a vast number, Lord Quentin thought to himself. 'Now how many proposals does that make for her this Season…seventeen? Or was it twenty-seven?'
'Five,'Whitmore replied. 'Thankfully, from no one appropriate. But I'll agree with you that Belgrave wouldn't be my first choice.' Crossing his arms, the Earl added, 'I'll be glad when she finds a husband. One less matter to worry about.'
From the tension in Whitmore's face, Michael suspected that impending fatherhood was his greater fear. 'How is the Countess?' he asked.
'One more month of confinement, and then, pray God, we'll have this child. Emily begged me to take her to Falkirk for the birth. We're leaving at dawn. Still, I'm not certain I want her to travel in her condition. Our last baby arrived weeks earlier than we'd expected.'
'Emily is approaching the size of a small carriage,' Lord Quentin interjected.
Whitmore sent his brother a blistering look, and Michael offered, 'I'll hold him down while you break his nose.'
A smile cracked over the Earl's face. 'Excellent idea, Thorpe.'
Changing the subject, Michael studied Lady Hannah once more. 'Do you think the Marquess will choose a husband for her this Season?'
'It's doubtful,' Whitmore replied. 'Hannah might as well have a note upon her forehead, telling the unmarried gentleman: "Don't Even Bother Asking."'
'Or, "The Marquess Will Kill You If You Ogle His Daughter",' Quentin added.
The brothers continued to joke about their sister, but Michael ignored their banter. Beneath it all, he understood their fierce desire to protect her. In that, they held common ground.
But regardless of what he might desire, he knew the truth. A Marquess's daughter could never be with a soldier.
No matter how badly he might want her.
'Lady Hannah, you are truly the loveliest woman in this room.' Robert Mortmain, the Baron of Belgrave, led her in the steps of the polka, his smile broad.
'Thank you,' she murmured without looking at him.
She couldn't deny that Lord Belgrave was indeed charming and handsome, with dark brown hair and blue eyes. Born into wealth, nearly every unmarried woman had cast her snare for him—all except herself. There was something about him, a haughtiness that made Hannah uncomfortable.
Don't worry about it, she told herself. Papa isn't going to force you to marry him, so there's no need to be rude. The problem of Lord Belgrave would solve itself.
Hannah's skin crawled when the baron touched the small of her back, even with gloved hands. As they moved across the floor, she tensed. The smug air upon his face was of a man boasting to his friends. He didn't want to be with her; he wanted to show her off. A subtle ache began to swell through her temples.
Just a few minutes more, and the dance will be over, Hannah consoled herself. Then she could escape to the comfort of her room. It was nearly midnight, and though she was expected to remain until after two o'clock, she might be able to convince her father that she didn't feel well.
Lord Belgrave scowled when they danced past the refreshment table. 'I didn't realise he would be here tonight.'
He was speaking of Lieutenant Thorpe, who was now openly staring at them. Displeasure lined the Lieutenant's face and he gripped the lemonade glass as though he intended to hurl it towards the Baron.
'Why did your father invite him, I wonder?' Lord Belgrave asked.
'Lieutenant Thorpe saved my brother Stephen's life a few years ago,' she admitted. 'They are friends.'
Though how Stephen had even encountered such a man, she'd never understand. Despite his military rank, Thorpe was a commoner—not the second son of a viscount or earl, as was customary for officers in the Army. And were it not for her brother's insistence, she knew the Lieutenant would never have been invited.
There was nothing humble or uncertain about the way he was watching them. Anger ridged his features, and though the Lieutenant kept himself in control, he looked like he wanted to drag her away from Belgrave.
'He's trying to better himself, isn't he?' Belgrave remarked. 'A man of his poor breeding only poisons his surroundings.'
From his intensity and defensive stance, the Lieutenant appeared as though he were still standing on a battlefield. Likely he'd be more comfortable holding a gun instead of a glass of lemonade.
'I don't want you near a man like him.' The baron scowled.
Lord Belgrave's possessive tone didn't sit well with her, but Hannah said nothing. It wasn't as if she intended to go anywhere near the Lieutenant. Even so, what right did Belgrave have to dictate her actions?
None whatsoever. The dance was nearly finished, and she was grateful for that. Her headache was growing worse, and she longed for an escape to her room. When the music ended, she thanked Lord Belgrave, but he held her hands a moment longer.
'Lady Hannah, I would be honoured if you'd consent to becoming my wife.'
She couldn't believe he'd asked it of her. Here? In the middle of a ballroom? Hannah's smile grew strained, but she simply answered, 'You'll have to speak with my father.'
No. No. A thousand times, no.
The baron's fingers tightened when she tried to pull away. 'But what of your wishes? If you did not require the Marquess's permission, what would you say?'
I would say absolutely not.
Hannah kept her face completely neutral. She didn't like the look in his eyes. There was a desperate glint in them, and she wondered if Belgrave's fortunes were as secure as he'd claimed. Forcing a laugh she didn't feel, Hannah managed, 'You flatter me, my lord. Any woman would be glad to call you her husband.'
Just not me. But then, a word to her father would take care of that. Although the Marquess presented an autocratic façade to his peers, he was softer towards her, probably because she'd never embarrassed him in public, or even hinted at rebellion. Obedient and demure, she'd made him proud.
Or at least, that's what she hoped.
Hannah managed to pry her hand free. Even so, she could feel the baron's eyes boring into the back of her gown. She walked towards her father and brothers, who were standing near the entrance to the terrace. From the serious expressions on their faces, she didn't want to interrupt the conversation. She took a glass of lemonade and waited outside the ballroom, in the darkened shadows near the terrace. It wasn't good to be standing alone, but she hoped she was near enough to her brothers that no one would bother her.
Everyone else was still inside, dancing and mingling with one another. Her head was aching even more, a dreadful pressure that seemed to spread.
Oh, please, not tonight, Hannah prayed. She'd suffered headaches such as these before, and they were wretched, attacking her until she was bedridden for a full day or longer.
'You don't look well,' came a male voice from behind her.