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Where on earth was the blasted man?
Lady Gillian Marley resisted the urge to stalk to her front door, throw it open, and scour the streets of London for him herself.
What if he wasn't coming at all?
The thought tightened the muscles in her shoulders, but she refused to let her well-practiced smile so much as twitch. Instead, she surveyed the room with the air of serene confidence worn only by a hostess who has accomplished the difficult task of melding a diverse group of people into a cohesive gathering.
There were perhaps twenty in attendance at her salon tonight. In one corner, several members of Parliament argued amicably about some obscure issue. Another grouping dissected the latest work of a rising poet, while the merits of a new exhibit of paintings held the attention of yet another duster of guests.
Gillian's skill as a hostess in such a setting was unrivaled, her reputation for gatherings of this nature unequaled. The picture she presented to the world was, as always, cool and controlled and competent.
Not a single guest here would suspect every nerve in her body was stretched as taut as a piano wire. Not even the most astute observer would imagine the upheaval in her stomach. And absolutely no one would ever dream it took every ounce of self-discipline she possessed not to scream aloud in sheer frustration.
Where was Shelbrooke?
Gillian glanced at the doorway once again, just as she had every few minutes since her guests had begun arriving. He should have been here half an hour ago. Oh, certainly it was not unusual for attendees to arrive late. But tonight theonly guest whose presence she wished for, the only guest who mattered, was the only guest who had not yet seen fit to cross her threshold.
Surely, he had not changed his mind? He'd responded to her invitation with a terse note of acceptance, and it would be unforgivable of him to renege now. How could the man be so impolite? Had he no sense of proper behavior? She was not about to align herself with anyone as rude as to accept an invitation then fail to appear without so much as a message of apology. It would certainly serve him right.
Still, her rejection would not have the desired effect on Shelbrooke, since the man had no idea of her intentions.
Gillian forced the subject, and the accompanying flurry of nerves, to the back of her mind and turned her attention to her guests. She dutifully meandered from group to group, offering an observation here, a comment there. Any other evening, she would have taken part enthusiastically in one discussion or another, but tonight she simply couldn't concentrate. She paused at a small knot of guests gathered before a new painting her brother Thomas had sent her and listened halfheartedly.
". . surely, Sir Edmond, you're not suggesting art, has no merit unless it includes figures?"
Sir Edmond, a collector noted for his extravagance but not necessarily his taste, adopted a smug expression. "Come now, Mr. Addison, without depictions of the human form, this is nothing more than a pretty picture. There is a reason why great art typically portrays some significant moment in history--"
"And is there something wrong simply with a pretty picture?" A wry voice sounded behind her, and she turned sharply.
Richard Shelton, the Earl of Shelbrooke, stood with his hands clasped behind his back, studying the painting with an air of thoughtful consideration. Her heart skipped a beat.
So this was the man who'd filled her thoughts in recent days. She hadn't stood this close to him in years. He was a good six inches taller than she, his dark brows pulled together in concentration. His hair was a deep, rich walnut, with an unruly curl and just a shade too long, as if he'd forgotten to keep it trimmed or simply didn't care. Wasn't he able to afford a valet?
Sir Edmond's eyes narrowed as if he couldn't believe this unknown newcomer's temerity to question his opinion. "Without an aspect of humanity, a painting has no emotion. No soul as it were."
"Nonsense," Mr. Addison, a critic of some note, snorted in disdain. "How can you look at a scene like this and say it has no soul? Why, you can almost smell the fresh scent of the grasses and feel the winds blowing the clouds across that sky."
"One could say the painting expresses not the soul of man but the soul of God," Lord Shelbrooke said mildly.
"The soul of God." Sir Edmond's face reddened with outrage. "What blasphem--"
"What perception..." Mr. Addison laughed. "I don't believe we've met."
"I have just now arrived." He turned to her and took her hand. "Please forgive me, Lady Gillian, I was unavoidably detained." He raised her hand to his lips, his gaze never leaving hers.
His eyes, too, were brown, deep and endless and intense, and for the briefest moment she wondered if he could see her soul in her eyes as he'd seen the soul in the painting. The touch of his lips on her hand was unexpectedly warm and intimate even here in the midst of the crowded room, and an odd shiver ran up her spine. She resisted the desire to jerk her hand away and forced a cool note to her voice. "Were you late, my lord? I hadn't noticed."
"Then I shall save my apology for a more noticeable offense."He released her hand and straightened. A twinkle lurked in his eyes, but he did not smile.
She raised a brow. "And do you plan on more noticeable offenses?"
"I plan little beyond the moment, my lady." He nodded and turned to introduce himself to Mr. Addison and the others.
At once, the debate over the value of the work before them resumed, and she was left with an annoying sense of dismissal. Why, she had been right in the first place: the man was definitely rude. Although, she had to admit, his immediate immersion in the discussion saved her from conversing with him alone. And at the moment, she had no idea what to say and not the faintest notion where to begin. The Husband List
. Copyright © by Victoria Alexander. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.