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Domino de Silva raised her face to the warm sun and breathed a sigh of contentment. The gentlest of waves whispered along the pebbles at her feet and the wide blue dome of the sky spread itself with ease to meet a distant horizon. She closed her eyes in pleasure. For a short time at least she was free; all too soon she would have to return to the house on Marine Parade and her cousin's inevitable questioning. If only her father would send Carmela back to Spain, she might truly enjoy this last summer before the dreary future she was resigned to. But Papa would not do that. Her stern aunts back in Madrid had only agreed to her acting as his hostess if her cousin accompanied her.
'You seem to have dropped this.'
She was startled from her reverie by a warm voice, disturbing in its intimacy. Shading her eyes against the sun's strong rays, she detected the outline of a slim but muscular form. The man appeared to be offering her a crumpled cambric handkerchief bearing all the marks of having been trampled in sand and sea.
She shook her head decisively. 'Thank you, but no. The handkerchief is not mine.' 'Are you quite sure?'
'I think I should know my own possessions,' she responded a little tartly.
'Naturally. But you had fallen into such an abstraction, I thought you might not realise if you had dropped something.'
She felt herself becoming ruffled. Whoever the man was, he was intruding on the few moments of solitude that were hers.
'As I said, sir, I fear you are mistaken.'
Her voice was edged with ice, but it seemed not to perturb him for he took the opportunity to move nearer. She became aware of a pair of shapely legs encased in skin-tight fawn pantaloons and a coat of blue superfine perfectly fitted to his powerful shoulders. Hessian boots of dazzling gloss completed an ensemble ill adapted to a provincial beach.
'It would seem I was mistaken,' he admitted, 'but I shan't repine. It's given me the opportunity to speak to a vastly pretty girl.'
She was astonished at his audacity. His voice and dress spoke the gentleman, but no gentleman of her acquaintance would have addressed a lady so.
'I would be glad, sir,' she said in the most frigid of voices, 'if you would leave me in peace to enjoy this wonderful view.'
He let out a low chuckle and for the first time her gaze moved upwards towards his face and she was unnerved by what she saw. She had not realised how young he was or how good looking. His fair hair fell carelessly over his forehead and a pair of golden-brown eyes lingered over her in a way that made her flush with annoyance. A small scar on his left cheek only enhanced his attractiveness.
The gold-flecked eyes considered her with lazy amusement. 'I'm not impervious to your request,' he drawled, 'but it places me in an awkward situation.'
'How is that?'
'My wish to gratify a lady is at odds with my strong sense of duty.'
Her determined silence did not deter him. 'My wish to oblige requires me to walk away this minute and leave you to your solitude.'
'If only it were that simple,' he exclaimed mournfully, 'but chivalry requires I put my duty first. Since you appear to be entirely without an escort, it clearly behoves me to stay as chaperon.'
'How fortunate then that I can put your mind at rest! Trouble yourself no further. I am used to walking alone and am well able to take care of myself.'
At that moment she was far from feeling so. Her desire to venture out alone had never before exposed her to such persistent harassment. This man would not be shrugged off lightly.
'You're a mere slip of a girl,' he continued blithely, 'and it seems unlikely that you're quite as accomplished as you think in escaping unwanted attentions. Though a most comely slip of a girl, I grant you,' he finished after a slight pause. His eyes, glinting amber in the sunlight, danced with laughter.
There was nothing for it but to turn tail. He was impervious to disapproval and entreaty alike. She turned quickly to make her way back across the beach and her sudden movement impaled the flounce of her dress on a twisted piece of iron, which had detached itself from the groyne. She was well and truly caught. 'Allow me.'
And before she could protest he was down on his knees, carefully unhooking the frill of delicate cream lace from the iron stanchion. She stood rigid with mortification, thankful for the cooling breeze on her heated cheeks. But there was worse to come. Before she could stop him, his hands began to rearrange the crumpled hem of her silk gown and for an instant alighted on her ankle.
'Thank you, sir,' she said in a stifled voice and fled towards the safety of Marine Parade.
'Must you go already?' he called after her. 'I feel we are only just getting acquainted.' He grinned at her departing figure. 'It's not every lady's ankles I get to see before luncheon, you know.'
She hurried away, more shocked than she cared to admit. That would teach her to walk unaccompanied. She must stop breaking the rules; within a year she would be married and there would be no more solitary strolls, no more escapes to the sea. And no chance meetings with impertinent strangers. Relieved, she reached the promenade and looked back to the spot she had just vacated. The man was still there, watching her every step, it seemed. He saw her pause and gave a cheerful wave. Impossible! She turned from the beach abruptly and hurried home.
Joshua Marchmain watched her for some time as she strode rapidly over the wet pebbles and began to climb the worn stone steps to the promenade. He had not meant her to flee quite so precipitately and just as things were getting interesting. He would have liked to spar a little more, for it was an unusual young lady who walked alone and disputed with strangers. And she had cut a most charming figure. The encounter had certainly provided a welcome break from the tedium of ministering to George's whims. How he had become so indispensable to the Regent he hardly knew. For years he had exiled himself from life among the ton and it seemed unlikely that on his return he would become a palace favourite. But he had, and quickly. At first it had been amusing to supplant long-serving courtiers in the Prince's favour, but now it was simply a dead bore.
A summer spent at Brighton had promised new interest, but the reality was proving very different. Or at least not different at all, that was the problem. The Prince's life revolved around banquets, gambling, horse racing, music and his love affairs, whether he were in London or Brighton. The sound of the sea was the only novelty. Joshua had spent that morning, as so many others, idling in the hothouse that was the Royal Pavilion but, faced with the six-course luncheon the Regent felt an appropriate midday snack, he had rebelled to play truant in the salt-tanged air.
Almost immediately he had seen her, a small, trim figure in cream silk and lace with a saucy villager bonnet on the back of her head, barely keeping her unruly dark curls under control despite an enormous bow of azure ribbon. Her face, when she'd raised it to look at him, had more than matched the promise of her figure. Her eyes, dark and tragic, set in a heart-shaped countenance, had sent an unaccustomed longing through him. She would never be a diamond of the first water, but her youth and vulnerability spoke to him in a way that perfect beauty no longer did.
The ripple of emotion was over in a trice. Just as well, he thought breezily. Suppressing inconvenient sentiment had made life a good deal simpler over the years. It might have been amusing to dally a while, but in the event the flirtation was over before it had really begun. Regretfully he retraced his steps; it was time to resume his duties before the Regent noticed his absence.