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Paul Talbot, Viscount Leed, stood on the front steps of an elegant London townhouse. Paul's good friend Geoffrey Kane, the Earl of Kanewood, had been blessed recently with an heir and Geoffrey and his wife Rebecca remained in Town to permit well-wishers to call. Paul considered himself lucky to be counted among those well-wishers. He lifted the brass knocker, letting it fall upon the glossy black door.
The Kane butler Miles opened the door, wearing a broad smile for his master's good friend. "Lord Leed! Do come in!"
Paul raised an eyebrow at the man's demeanor, so changed from his former lack of humor. It was surely Rebecca's doing.
He followed the butler into the parlor where the earl and his wife sat.
"Leed." Geoffrey stood. "High time you paid us a call."
Paul reached out to clasp his friend's hand. "How are you, Kane?"
"How do you presume?" Geoffrey answered with a hearty handshake. "Quite well, old man."
Paul turned to Rebecca, bowing low to her. Her black hair shone, her green eyes sparkled. "You look splendid, Rebecca." He gently grasped her hand and brought it to his lips. "Motherhood agrees with you, I daresay."
"Thank you, Lord Leed," she said. "And have you come to see the most beautiful baby in England?"
Paul hid his grin as she smiled at her husband, guessing the comment was meant to tease. The earl wasn't offended. He took her hand from Paul's and tugged her to her feet, placing a kiss on her temple.
"He is the most beautiful baby, Becca," Geoffrey said with a wide grin.
Paul stilled. He almost envied Geoffrey and Becca their easy banter. One year earlier when he'd visited Kanewood,the earl's estate, Paul had been interested in a young lady. Being uncomfortable around the opposite sex, he'd let her believe him indifferent. He wouldn't think of her now, or of what could have been. Other matters had filled his mind during the past year, work and worry enough so he often felt much older than his twenty-seven years.
He presented his gift to Lady Kanewood. "For your son."
"Why, Leed," she said, her head tilted to one side. "What have you done?"
Paul shrugged. "I admit my sister Catherine helped me make my selection, Rebecca."
Becca nodded and opened the package, then expressed her delight over the silver rattle nestled inside. On it was an inscription which read "Michael McClair Kane--the eighth Earl of Kanewood."
Geoffrey leaned over to peek in the box. "Leed, this is exceptional. I'm certain the little lordling will much enjoy getting his mouth on that."
"Oh, Geoffrey." Becca swatted his arm.
Paul smiled. "I'm pleased you like it."
Miles stood in the doorway then. "Lady Michelle Thomas to see you, My Lord. My Lady."
At the butler's announcement Paul's heart began to pound. He glanced at Becca and found the speculation in her eyes disturbing.
"Please show her in, Miles," Geoffrey instructed.
Paul slowly turned toward the doorway and froze. He watched as, with a swish of her skirts, Michelle Thomas came into the room.
"Lord Kanewood," she said, pleasure clear on her lovely face. "Rebecca! How have you been?"
Paul could only stare. She was more beautiful than he remembered. Her fiery red hair was caught up behind her head, rich curls left loose to frame her face. Her eyes, golden brown and fringed by thick lashes, sparkled. The dress she wore, creamy ivory dotted with pink flowers, complimented her porcelain skin beautifully. And Lord, she smelled of lavender. His senses were so filled with her he barely heard Becca speak.
"Michelle," Becca said. "How nice to see you again." She cleared her throat and went on. "I believe you know Lord Leed."
Michelle turned to face him. Her gorgeous eyes widened and he felt her regard like a caress. He quickly tamped down his response to her.
"Pleasure to see you again, Lady Michelle," he said coolly, bowing to her.
Michelle visibly stiffened and returned a look nearly as cool. She squared her shoulders and dropped a short curtsy, her full lips pressed together.
Becca smiled, drawing her husband's attention. He leaned toward her. "Becca?"
Paul saw Becca give a quick shake of her head to silence him. What was this?
"I suppose you wish to see my heir, Lady Michelle?" Geoffrey asked.
His obvious pride caused Michelle to smile and Paul felt his own lips twitch in response.
"Oh, please," she said.
Geoffrey and Becca led Paul and Michelle to the bassinet in the corner of the room. In it rested little Michael, Lord and Lady Kanewood's pride and joy. The baby had his father's honey brown hair and his mother's emerald green eyes. He blinked and flailed his little arms toward the grownups staring down at him.
"He's so small," Paul said.
Geoffrey straightened, mock-indignation on his face. "He's precisely the correct size, Leed. And if you knew anything about babies you'd know that."
Michelle laughed, a musical sound, and he felt a genuine smile curve his lips. She returned the smile and he felt that attraction again.
"I must be going. Kane, Rebecca. Congratulations again on your son. I ... have a meeting this afternoon and I'm afraid I'm late."
As quickly as he could manage without rushing from the room, he turned and left them. He didn't look at Michelle as he took his leave. He couldn't.
Michelle watched Lord Leed go, her stomach tight. What ailed that man? Thankfully Rebecca chose that moment to ring for tea, and Michelle was able to put Lord Leed out of her mind as she and her host and hostess discussed some of the upcoming balls.
"We won't attend the bashes for several weeks, I'm afraid," Becca said. "And here it is July, the social Season in full swing. You must share all the most delicious gossip."
"Becca," Geoffrey said. "Don't trouble Michelle."
"Nonsense, Geoffrey," Rebecca said. "I trust her to keep me apprised of the latest goings-on." She turned back to Michelle. "Do you think you might run into Lord Leed again?"
Michelle snorted. "I should hope not." She gasped, holding her hand over her lips.
Geoffrey arched a brow at her response and glanced at his wife, who gave a tiny shake of her head. Michelle uneasily watched their exchange, physically relieved when the conversation turned to other topics.
Not long after her unfortunate comment about Lord Leed the baby began to fuss, drawing Becca's attention. Geoffrey joined her at the bassinet, smiling down at their son. Michelle took the moment to make her own escape. She congratulated them once more and left their townhouse.
As she sat in her carriage on the short ride home she fumed over her response to Rebecca's simple question. Lord Leed's strange behavior was vexing. When his eyes had met hers, the spark had been electric. Oh, my. She'd found him handsome when she met him a year ago. Well, he was devastating now. His dark brown hair, so rich and thick, made her long to run her fingers through it. His brilliant blue eyes captivated her. Her own body had tingled from head to toe, and she was certain he'd felt something as well. Those eyes had widened as they drank her in, and she hadn't imagined the pleasure visible in their depths. But in the next moment a look of detachment had settled on his face.
Although they hadn't spoken much at Kanewood last year, she'd believed him interested in her. He'd had opinions of politics and the state of their great country and hadn't been afraid to voice them in polite company, something that attracted her as much as his handsome face and form. She'd not gotten up the nerve to join those few conversations she'd overheard, a condition not repeated before or since in her memory, but she suspected from the searching glances he'd sent her way more than once that he'd welcome her opinions. After today, however ... Well, if he wished to behave so coldly she'd have to remember to respond in kind should they ever cross paths again.
She couldn't deny that his smile had surprised her, though. How had she forgotten that dimple in his cheek? But then his gaze had turned icy, his gorgeous eyes remote. Just what ailed that man?
The carriage soon rolled to a stop in front of the townhouse she shared with her mother. The Earl of Thomasham had passed away three years earlier, leaving his widow and only child with no financial worries. The house reflected his good taste and wealth in size and elegance, its deep red door a fine accent to the golden yellow bricks.
Michelle alighted the carriage and climbed the front steps. She opened the door with a sigh and pulled off her cream-colored kid gloves, setting them down on the table in the foyer.
She found her mother in the parlor as expected. "Good afternoon, Mother."
Lady Helen Thomas sat on a blue settee. Her hair was just beginning to gray, hair that had once been as fiery-red as Michelle's.
"Hello, dear." She set down her needlework and favored her with a smile. "Did you have a nice visit with Lord and Lady Kanewood?"
"Oh, yes," Michelle said. "The baby is adorable, Mother. He has the most beautiful green eyes and--"
"Was anyone else in attendance?"
Michelle arched a brow. Could she know about Lord Leed? "Anyone else? Such as?"
Lady Helen sighed in obvious irritation. "Any other gentlemen, dear," she qualified.
Oh, that again. Michelle rolled her eyes. "Mother, why must I treat every social engagement as a quest to land a husband?"
"Now Michelle, when you were first out two Seasons past I had such high hopes for you."
Her mother used a tone meant for speaking to a small child, and Michelle felt her back stiffen. "Mother--"
"But when you managed to turn away each and every suitor--"
"Mother, please!" Michelle placed her hands on her hips. "I refuse to spend time with a man simply because he is considered suitable."
"Michelle, you're too willful by half," her mother said, not for the first time. "You're twenty years old now, and should behave as such. I am quite certain if you did not insist on spouting your opinions--"
"Am I not permitted to have opinions!?"
Lady Helen let out a breath. "You may have opinions, dear," she said. "You must simply learn to keep them to yourself."
That was quite enough in Michelle's opinion. She pulled in a breath and let it out in a rush. "I will not discuss this with you." She turned to leave. "I'm going upstairs to ready for this evening."
"Dress with care, dear," her mother called to her, picking up her needlework. "There will most certainly be eligible men present."
With an unladylike snort, Michelle began to climb the stairs.
"Too willful by half," her mother offered in parting.
Paul sat at the worn desk in his study, trying to concentrate on the papers spread on top of it. Since leaving Kane's home that afternoon, Michelle Thomas too often intruded on his thoughts. She was as beautiful as he remembered. God, even more so. Her eyes with their flecks of gold, her full rose lips ... His skin had felt tight, his body hard, as he'd stared at her. He was still drawn to her and it scared the hell out of him.
Shaking his head, he focused his attentions on the papers once more. He couldn't make the ledgers balance, and the tallies were smaller each month. The landed estate that went with his title was tied up in such a way he couldn't sell any of it to defray its expenses. As a result, the estate was a constant draw on his dwindling reserves.
His father was still alive and well, and Paul was grateful. But the Earl of Talbot appeared to be squandering what fortune the family had left. And with Paul's two sisters to dower ... He stacked the papers and laid them aside.
His butler, Starks, rapped on the open door. Paul looked up to find the proper servant standing ramrod stiff. He'd tried repeatedly to ease the young man's demeanor, but to no avail. The servant remained as dour as the Earl of Kanewood's butler Miles used to be.
"Yes, Starks," he replied. "What is it?"
"Lord Chester to see you, My Lord."
Paul knew a simple nod wouldn't do, and if he didn't word his request in precisely the correct manner, Starks would stand there until he did. Just who served whom? "Please show him in."
Starks nodded and turned on his heel.
"Leed." The Earl of Chester, blond-haired with merry brown eyes, strode into the study. "What have you been about this fine day?"
Paul stood up to grasp Chester's hand. "Hello, Chester."
"Stopped by Kane's this afternoon." Chester settled his big frame in the chair facing Paul's desk and crossed his legs. "Thought you were paying a call there today."
"I did." Paul nodded and took his seat. "I didn't stay overlong."
Chester's eyes sparkled. "I heard a certain red-haired young lady frightened you away."
Paul leaned forward. "Chester, if you believe that had anything to do with Lady Michelle Thomas--"
"Ah ha!" Chester cut in. "Then what Rebecca said was true."
Paul swallowed. "And just what did she say?"
Chester appeared to be giving the sleeve of his jacket at great deal of attention.
"Oh," Chester began at last. "Rebecca said the lovely lady rendered you speechless." He looked at Paul and smiled. "A feat to be sure."
"Never mind," Paul grumbled.
"I remember the lady from Kanewood last year, Leed. Quite outspoken, no?"
"I've heard." Paul recalled the time they'd nearly conversed on the state of the Royal Navy last year. He'd seen the interest in her eyes as the subject bounced about the parlor but she'd kept that lovely mouth of hers closed tight. "We didn't speak much, however."
Chester eyed the stack of ledgers and Paul knew better than to dismiss them to one of his closest friends. "Trouble?"
"No more than I've come to expect."
Chester's eyes narrowed. "You know, Leed. A woman of Lady Michelle's status could be just what you need."
Paul stiffened. "For a romp? Hardly."
"You know precisely what I mean. Her father left her well off, it's rumored. Why, with her as a wife--"
"Wife?" Paul waved a hand. "Chester, I can't think of taking on a wife with my father's ... You know my situation."
"Money, Leed. That's the crux of the matter. She has it and you need it."
"So I should sell myself, then?"
Chester leaned back. "Would it be such a sacrifice? She's quite a picture."
Paul thought of her again as he'd left her at Geoffrey and Rebecca's. Michelle was more than a picture. She was a goddamn vision and more temptation than he'd ever encountered. But he wouldn't be beholden to a rich wife.
"It won't serve, Chester."
Chester gave a nod. "Very well. Are you going to the Winslow bash this evening?"
Paul relaxed at the change of subject. "Yes. My sisters have been prattling on about it all week."
"Catherine and Elizabeth will both be in attendance?" Chester rolled his eyes. "God help us all."
Paul laughed. "Yes. The two of them are like butterflies, never standing still for a moment."
"More like magpies, Leed."
"They do tend to chatter on, don't they?"
The gentlemen talked about the upcoming evening, wondering aloud over who would attend the Winslow ball. Paul prayed one lady in particular would be absent. It would be torture to see her twice in one day.
Michelle stood in her chamber, at last ready for the evening. She regarded herself in the cheval mirror. Her curls were piled atop her head, twined with ribbons that matched her dark green gown.
The dress hugged her curves, accentuating her full breasts and slender waist. The bodice was daring for her, dipping lower than Michelle was accustomed to wearing. Her mother said her new gowns were suited to a girl of twenty well out of her first, and second, Season but Michelle wished to remedy the situation.
She crossed to her vanity and opened a wooden box resting on the polished surface. She withdrew a small brass key and opened the center drawer of the vanity. Inside were several velvet jewelers' boxes. She opened one of dark gold and traced her fingers over the emerald necklace inside. She fastened the necklace behind her neck and turned once more to the mirror, admiring the small gems. They were arranged in a lacy pattern, falling to a V just below the hollow of her throat. Surely the stones would detract from her exposed bosom.
Now she was ready for the Winslow ball. She left her room and went downstairs to the waiting carriage.