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Like No Other Lover
"You've gone an alarming shade of russet in the face, Redmond."
This observation from Mr. Culpepper, Pennyroyal Green's resident historian, ended a pronounced lull in conversation, which had begun when the door of the Pig & Thistle swung open, admitting a rush of damp air, a rustle of laughter, and three people. One of the people was Miles Redmond's sister Violet. As Violet was invariably emphatically Violet, she bore watching. Particularly because the person best at goading Violet, his brother Jonathon Redmond, came in the door beside her. The third person . . .
The third person was responsible for Mile's russet color.
Miles watched Cynthia Brightly—of all people, Cynthia Brightly—pull at the fingers of her gloves until her hands were free of them, hang up her cloak on a peg near the door, and say something to Violet that caused his sister to tip back her head and laugh merry peals calculated to draw looks.
Every head in the pub drifted helplessly toward the sound the way flowers turn to the sun.
Normally Miles would have rolled his eyes.
Instead he watched, riveted, as Miss Brightly took a general look about the pub: at the table full of laughing Everseas, at Miss Marietta Endicott of Miss Marietta Endicott's Academy for Young Ladies having supper with what appeared to be two concerned parents and one sullen young lady. At him. Her remarkable blue eyes neither brightened nor darkened in recognition when they brushed his—why would they?—and her faint smile, the aftermath of laughter, remained unaltered. He might well have been the pillar ora hat rack for how seen he'd been.
Whereas the brush of her gaze left Miles buzzing like a struck tuning fork.
What in God's name was she doing in Sussex? In Pennyroyal Green? With Violet?
"I would have said he's gone more of a claret," Culpepper said to Cooke. He threw the words down like a gauntlet. He was irritable this evening, as Cooke had won three chess games in a row, and Culpepper hungered for a controversy, any controversy.If none other was forthcoming, Miles's complexion would have to do.
The two scholarly gentlemen had known Miles since he'd been born, and they'd been particularly proprietary about him since he returned from his now renowned South Seas expedition two years ago. He'd in fact thrilled them into silence when he confided he was in the midst of planning a much grander return expedition and offered them an opportunity to invest in it.
Which was when the door opened and Miles had apparently changed color.
His bloody sister had a gift for controversy, but he never would have anticipated this.
He found his voice. "I've gone claret? Perhaps it's just that we're too close to the fire."
Across from him, two pairs of furry brows dove in skeptical unison. At the Pig & Thistle, Culpepper and Cooke and, by association, Miles, were always close to the fire, as this was where the chessboard lived.
Miles gave what was meant to be an illustrative good-heavens-isn't-it-warm-in-here tug at his cravat. He was surprised to encounter the hard thump of his pulse in his throat.
This, too, was Cynthia Brightly's fault.
He dropped his hand flat to the table and stared hard at it, as though he could read in its veins and tendons the reasons for his response. The scientist in him wanted to know precisely what it was he felt about the woman. Strong emotions visited him so seldom—he could hardly blame them, as he was hardly a hospitable host—it was difficult to know whether it was anger or something else.
Certainly anger was a part of it.
He recalled that help was literally at hand. He closed his fingers around his tankard and poured the rest of Ned Hawthorne's famous dark brew down his throat with long inelegant gulps. It was both cure and courage.
He swiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
"What color am I now?" He asked defiantly.
It was, in a way, the fault of his first South Sea expedition that he'd noticed Cynthia Brightly at all.
It happened at a ball. The guest list for the enormous annual Malverney affair ranged in pedigree from Prinny to far less discriminate choices. Miles, as second son of the staggeringly wealthy and influential Isaiah Redmond, wasn't certain where he fell in the ranking, and didn't care.
Miles's ship had docked in England again so recently his complexion was still fading in degrees from tropical brown to a proper English shade of parchment, and had reached the sallow stage. He was still too thin for his large frame; fevers, bad food, and a long ocean voyage did tend to strip flesh from a man. Roasts of beef and Yorkshire puddings were replenishing his.
He'd taken a ragtag crew on a barely seaworthy ship to a swollen, pulsing, fever dream of a land: brilliant flowers the size of parasols tangling with vines thicker around than a man's arms; snakes as supple and long as the vines themselves; beetles the size of St. Giles rats; ants the length of thumbs. Noisy rainbow-feathered birds and iridescent butterflies the size of Chinese fans spangled the air; dusky-skinned women as entangling as the flora shared his bed at night. Everything was abandoned, moist, outsized and excessive. He learned to move slowly, languidly; he learned he would never be dry or cool, regardless.
Death was as surprising and thickly everywhere as the life, hidden and overt: scuttling through the undergrowth as tiny scorpions, emerging from the trees as a tribe of cannibals with whom he successfully negotiated for his life, as a tenacious fever that nearly killed him anyway.
Miles wasn't immune to awe, but the strangeness and dangers of Lacao never frightened him. Fear was usually rooted in ignorance, and he'd long ago learned to vanquish ignorance with preternatural patience, and acute observation and tempered-steel determination. And he recognized beauty, but he never exalted it. He understood the purpose of beauty in nature was to attract mates or prey—which, he'd decided dryly after more than two decades of observing his parents, his family, and the ton, was, in fact, its purpose in every society. Like No Other Lover. Copyright © by Julie Long. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.