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Ariel stepped inside the room and heard the door shut behind her with a click that sounded as irrevocable as a gunshot. She closed her eyes briefly, caught her breath, and took a determined step forward.
"Good afternoon," she said. Another breath. In. Out. She could do this. "I'm Miss Halliday. Miss Ariel Halliday. I know that you're Leon Nicholas Duvanne, the fifth Marquis of Sage. I'm just not sure that you know it yet," she added ruefully.
She set the tray on the small table a few feet from his cot.
"Of course you have a whole mouthful of other titles I shall not even attempt to recite for you now. I believe Lord Sav--Sage will suit nicely for the time being."
Ninny, she thought. Such a slip of the tongue might have made for a most uneasy moment. That is, if he even understood a word she was saying. There was no indication he did. For that matter, there was no obvious sign the man was alive, but for the slow, steady rise and fall of his very imposing chest.
Ariel, trying not to stare in fascination at the wedge of silky, dark chest hair, wet her suddenly dry lips with her tongue.
"Proper manners," she began, "Dictate that a gentleman rise when a lady enters the room and greet her by title and name. I am prepared to overlook your failure to do so on this occasion, overtaxed as I'm sure you must be from your obviously high level of exertion thus far today." He offered no response to her sarcasm.
"I do believe, however," she continued, "that in consideration of the fact that I have gone to considerable trouble to bring you tea, you could at the very least turn your head and acknowledge that I am speaking to you."
To heramazement, the dark head began to turn her way slowly. He understood, she thought excitedly. Either her words or her chilly tone, she couldn't be certain which, but he had clearly understood something. And he had responded.
Her excitement turned to apprehension as he proceeded to swing his feet to the floor and stand, facing her fully. She fought an urge to step back. He made no move to come closer, however, and her heartbeat gradually slowed to as near normal as she expected it to be while she remained confined there alone with him.
His gaze caught and held hers, and Ariel found that the effect of his silent presence was even more daunting when he was staring directly into her eyes. He was, she concluded objectively, without question the most beautiful man she had ever seen. Never before had she thought to describe a man as beautiful, but the word came to her easily and naturally when she gazed at Lord Sage's serene face and strong, lean body. He appeared to her as masculine perfection, chiseled by the hand of the greatest master of all.
His cheekbones were aristocratically high, his jaw beneath the short black beard classically square, his mouth full, with just enough of a slant to add interest to his otherwise perfect face. A stray lock of his long raven hair hung loosely across his forehead, and his eyes, deep-set and almond-shaped, were a quite extraordinary shade. Brown velvet swirled with gold, dark and bright at once, like sunlight on ancient brass. Tiger's eyes, Ariel mused, thinking of the gemstone by that name. Hard and gleaming and exotic.
At that moment the expression in his remarkable eyes was neither warm nor cold, neither friendly nor antagonistic. It was shuttered. She felt certain that the man was no dolt, and that although he would not permit her to be privy to it, there was a great deal of thought and evaluation going on inside his head. In fact, some instinct warned her that his lordship was taking her measure just as calculatedly as she was taking his.
She straightened, smoothing a few stray wisps of light brown hair. Why hadn't she taken more pains in arranging the chignon at the back of her neck that morning, she lamented. And perhaps worn a newer dress, one in a more flattering color. She quickly marshaled her thoughts, reminding herself that she did not possess a newer dress and that gray was a most serviceable hue for everyday wear and that besides, it mattered not at all what the man before her thought of her appearance.
Without warning he shook back his hair, dislodging the lock that hung over his forehead to reveal a two-inch-long scar there. The imperfection, which would have marred the appeal of most men, enhanced his instead. For the first time Ariel noticed the array of other small marks and scars that covered his body, souvenirs, it seemed to her, of a life far more reckless and exciting than her own. Feeling a mixture of curiosity and envy, she lifted her gaze to his to find him watching her with his eyes narrowed in suspicion.