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Lady Nicole Beaumont sighed as she walked along the terrace of the Elizabethan mansion. The air was surprisingly cool and lightly blowing over the palatial gardens behind the house. It was an immediate remedy to the stifling heat of the ballroom behind her. Tracing her hand along the marble railing, she reached the landing that led down into the meticulously patterned walkways. However, Nicole did not descend. She only listened to the sounds coming from the lake, the focal point of the famed park. She could hear the soft gliding of ducks as they floated across the smooth water. She smiled when she perceived one quacking truant dip its head into the cool pool only to bring it up again in a flurry of feathers.
The smell of roses was strong where she stood, and it took Nicole's thoughts back to her own home in Gloucester. Roses had always been her favoriteshe grew the most beautiful and unusual varieties.
She sighed again as she stood against the sculpted balustrade. London had been so much worse than she had imagined. Why had she allowed her mother to convince her it would be good for her to visit Town during the Season? Everything was at a faster pace, and her problems seemed magnified in the unending bustle of the city. Her incapacities only reminded her of her endless limitations.
This night she was attending a ball at the home of Lord and Lady Swathmore. It was their "country" home, though less than five miles outside of London. Nicole's mother had been overjoyed at the invitation. Nicole had come to hate such fetes, but at least at Swathmore Hall there was an escape to fresh air. The past week had been spent in an endless round of soirees and balls in the sweltering heat of London, where the grand houses were bunched against each other like fancy flint boxes stacked in a row.
On this terrace Nicole could imagine she was back at home, and thought of the peace God had finally given her. She could, for a few moments, pretend the accident had never happened. The night air made her think of evening rides on Solomon. She could not ride very often, and never without her faithful servant, Toby, alongside. But she had to consider the good: now that the rides were more sedate, she could spend her time in prayer and contemplation. It had taken too long to be thankful for that, but she looked for those boons from life now.
Town had not brought Nicole the pleasure her mother had hoped for. Her disability overrode any enjoyment anticipated.
She castigated herself at the thought. Nicole had never truly imagined the trip would provide her much pleasure. Even her dismay at facing the height of the Season had been easy to set aside when she thought of the time she might devote to charitable endeavors that must abound. What she found had shaken her faith in her fellow man. The richest and most lavish city in Europe cared nothing for the poor among them. She had met people who did not give as much as a farthing to help others, while spending hundreds of pounds on a coat cut from the cloth of the famous Weston. Her altruistic intentions met with nothing but disdain. She sent up a silent prayer asking God for the direction He now so often showed her.
Suddenly, Nicole became aware that she was not alone. It came as quite a shock to realize she was so consumed by her own thoughts that she had no notion of the additional presence. She always tried to be very sensitive to her surroundings. Concentrating in earnest, she determined that her silent companion was a man. She could smell the pungent aroma of his cigar mixed with a cologne unfamiliar to her. The fragrance of roses in the air must have overpowered the scents he exuded. Or perhaps her slow pace had only now brought her near enough to notice it.
Unfortunately, the new smells only added to her nostalgic homesickness. Her father's one vice had been his delight in "blowing a cloud," and the memories associated with that pungent pastime were both happy and sad. When she was near him, the smell of horses and books often wafted over her, leaving a sense of security and stability. These were etched in her memory as clearly as every physical trait he possessed.
The cologne worn by Nicole's unknown companion on the terrace was subtle and she liked it. She hated the practice of some of those who avoided bathing. Instead they dowsed themselves in scent, as if that made it better!
Focusing again on the present, Nicole sensed the man was behind her, probably up against the house in the shadows. She remained at the terrace railing and heard the ducks quacking at some disturbance in the distance. Her disquiet fled as she realized her servant, Toby, was close by.
She considered her actions carefully before deciding her best exit. She could easily turn and saunter back the way she had come, returning to the ballroom. But she was ever so reluctant to give up the quiet, cool atmosphere of the terrace for the sweltering heat in the crowded room. Her innate sense of justice also required that she beg forgiveness for interrupting someone else's solitude.
Therefore, Nicole turned slightly and said in a low and clear voice, "I am terribly afraid I must beg your pardon for intruding upon you. I was so enjoying the peace and quiet that I did not realize until just this moment that anyone else was present. Please forgive the interruption. I will allow you to finish 'blowing your cloud' in peace." She made a slight curtsey and turned, her hand retracing the smooth surface of the banister to the double doors she had earlier exited.
The man's low chuckle stopped her.
His voice was deep, and at the moment, dripping with sarcasm. "Let a vision of beauty that is also well versed in such slang get away? Absolutely not! I am charmed and incredibly curious as to how your knowledge was acquired."
Sarcastic or not, she knew a desire to stay and hear more of it. His voice was vibrant, Nicole thought decidedly, and certainly that of a gentleman. His words and manners were quite different from those of the simpering dandies she had met inside. However, she did not know how to respond to his jousting so was momentarily undecided as to her next move.
His lazy drawl interrupted her thoughts. "You have no need to apologize for interrupting my solitude. Studying the profile of a beautiful woman against the backdrop of a full moon is much more a pleasure than an intrusion."
Nicole could feel herself color at his words. And she knew that in the semidarkness of the moonlit terrace, he could have little knowledge of her facial features. She had not heard such compliments in a long time and thought he must be very adept in the art of flirtation. She was glad for the darkness that covered her confusion. She had not responded to either of his statements and she felt awkward and tonguetied.
The gentleman exhaled the smoke of his cigar then continued his preposterous flirting. "I realized quite soon that you were not aware of my existence, a severe blow to my ego by the by, so I determined to enjoy the view."
Nicole spoke with wonder in her voice. "Why then did you not make your presence known? I should have left you to your thoughts and your cigar that much sooner."
"At the risk of knowing your first opinion of me will be that I am an arrogant lout," he answered, "I thought you had perhaps followed me here. I kept silent, hoping you would tire of your search and return to the dancing."
She frowned at his logic. "Had I come in search of you, I should have called out to you in the hope of gaining your attention. I would not have stood by silently." Her mind was so far from her calculating counterparts in London, his reasoning made no sense to her. She continued in naive explanation. "In any event, I would not have followed you at all, knowing I could speak to you when you returned to the ballroom. It would be quite obvious that you wished a moment alone when you left it, would it not?"
Lord Devlin sounded almost bitter in his reply. "I have very often found that the women who seek me out are not the least interested in conversation."
She wondered at his comment.
"That is," he drawled, "until her father, or a conveniently placed brother, is within hearing. They then become quite interested in talking, in loud voices and with crocodile tears."
He explained further and with no little sarcasm. "My dear, their desire for 'solitude' is quite insincere. And their 'conversation' consists of one word compromise. You see, I am up to every rig."
In a flash she turned toward him, her clenched knuckles on the balustrade the only indication of concealed fury.
Nicole gasped at the realization that this man had the audacity to assume her on the catch for a husband! Her temper flared, and her mother's reminder that her tongue would one day get her into trouble went unheeded. Nicole ground out in a low and dangerous voice, "Have no fear, sir, I have no brothers, no father, no uncles, not even a distant cousin of the male persuasion waiting to cause you such distress. As I have no idea who you are and no interest in marriage, forced or not, you are completely safe from me."
She never raised her voice during her biting speech. "Furthermore," she continued acidly, "as you have clearly pointed out your arrogant tendencies, I am surprised any female would willingly sacrifice herself on the altar of marriage to you."
She turned to go, but was sorry for losing her temper with a total stranger. Her nature demanded she make an apology, though her heart balked at the idea. She said a quick prayer, asking God to help her convey her sincerity. "I am sorry I intruded. I will leave you to the solitude of the terrace," and in her pique she added, "without feeling trapped and without childish temper tantrums." She did not bother with the required curtsey, but slowly walked away.
In an instant shock replaced her anger he was laughing at her! It brought her up short, and she turned back toward him to find out what had amused him so.
"If you do not be quiet," she shushed him, "you will bring a crowd from the ballroom and cause just the sort of scene you have been trying to avoid." She heard him push away from the wall of the house, and it took only one long stride to reach her side.
Nicole turned back toward the gardens behind the house, still blushing at her outburst. She felt his hands lightly on her shoulders turning her to face him; she would not, however, raise her eyes to his face.
He tweaked her chin with his thumb and forefinger saying, "Put your claws away and cry peace with me. I deserved every bit of that masterful setdown. Indeed, several of my acquaintances would have paid a king's ransom to hear it! I sincerely beg your pardon."
In an apologetic voice he continued, "I realized you were not one of the many 'title hunters' in attendance tonight. Even as I intended to introduce myself to you, you became aware of my presence and we came to blows. Can you pardon me?"
Nicole heard the sincerity in his voice and, not knowing why, believed it. She gently responded, "It seems that we have stepped upon each other's toes in our efforts for a moment alone. I do accept your apology and would ask in return that you forgive my wretched tongue and temper, both of which flare up far too often for my mother's peace of mind."
She discovered that close proximity to this man made her heart do strange things, made her wish for other than what God intended for her. She determined to leave his presence as quickly as possible. "I really must get back inside. My mother will undoubtedly be looking for me. It was a pleasure to make your acquaintance." Nicole turned to go, but once again his voice stopped her.
"I beg to differ, ma'am," he said close to her ear. "I have not yet made your acquaintance, and contrary to your need of fresh air, I had the distinct impression you were hiding from something. If not hiding, you would have remained had I not been here."
Nicole did not respond, but let her thoughts run rampant. She could almost feel him studying her profile so she turned away. With the intuition she had developed, she knew he was not a man in the first blush of youth. Now that her initial anger had subsided, she began to see the humor in the situation and felt an intense wish to stay and converse with this man. She knew it would be quite improper, but the inane pleasantries she had been forced to endure at recent soirees made her long for a normal and intelligent conversation with someone who had no preconceived notions of her. Truth to tell, she asked herself if a moonlight discourse with someone she did not know could be considered a normal conversation.
However, it was too late, and she was beyond rational thinking. She wanted to pretend she was whole and that an interesting man found her company enjoyable. She raised her head at the sound of the agitated ducks.
The gentleman broke into her thoughts. "You will think me mad, indeed I am beginning to agree with you, but since you lost your temper with me, you have I cannot explain it, you have withdrawn. Despite what they say killed that woebegone cat, I find myself curious. Indeed, I have wanted to ask you why such a beautiful woman attending the most exclusive house party in London would be here on the terrace instead of wrapping every man in the room around her little finger." He continued, sounding puzzled. "In fact, while you did not know I was here I even heard a sigh or two."
It was now Nicole's turn to chuckle as she turned back toward the house, leaning her back against the railing. Suddenly Nicole felt she could be herself. "It appears you consider yourself quite perceptive, sir. I admit I may have sighed at the pure joy of the fresh air, however, that is where I draw the line. That borders on a fit of the vapors, and I assure you I have never resorted to those." She raised her nose just slightly in the air, appearing to snub him. His surprised bark of laughter confirmed to her she had met a kindred spirit amidst all the trappings of London.