She turned back and glared at him over her shoulder, her gaze narrowing as her lips drew into a firm line. When had such judgment grown so…sexy?
They sat about the table and the butler served the first course. Mr. Moorish asked him several questions, all on much easier topics. “Do you live full time in London?” Where else might he live? And… “How was this past season?” I participated minimally. Which was absolutely true. Society was not his preferred pursuit.
Bianca smiled sweetly. “You don’t participate much in society? But why?
It all sounds so exciting and fun. Glittering balls and fancy parties.” She sighed gently. “Not like living here.”
One corner of his mouth turned down. She was young, of course, and didn’t understand what appeared glittery and fancy from the outside was a thin façade to mask a cruel world. “It certainly can seem that way from afar,” he said, staring over at the wall. His own memories of his time in the ton assaulting him. “But it’s also very competitive. Everyone is trying to make the most money or orchestrate the best match. It often brings out cruelty in even the kindest people.”
Bianca tilted her head, her look confused. “Cruelty?” she asked. “Really? I never would have thought it.”
He glanced over to Adrianna, to find her intently staring at him. “And you, Miss Adrianna. Do you believe what I say is true?”
She nodded, her gaze unwavering. “Of course I do. Once in the village a boy found this rare shell. Within a week it was stolen. Even in our wholesome little corner of the world, greed begets the worst sort of behavior.”
That was undoubtedly true and rather astute for someone as young and sheltered as Adrianna. For his own part, he much preferred the honest immorality of the men and women he socialized with to the false piety of the ton. “I agree.” He rubbed his jaw. “I participated in all the glitter, as you called it, in my younger days, but I quickly grew tired of its misleading charm.”
Juliet waved her hand. “How did we get on such a subject?” Then she sat up straighter. “It’s unfortunate you and your friends can’t stay longer. If you did, then we could hold a ball.”
He blinked, wondering if she’d listened to a word he’d said. They’d been discussing what was wrong with such pursuits, not how they should have more of them.
But then he shook his head. He wasn’t here to teach the Moorish clan about the pitfalls of society. Nor did he intend to bare his soul. Rather, he only needed to book passage out of this place to attend his preferred activity of bedding willing women. And in the meantime, perhaps have a bit of fun. Which meant agreeing with Lady Juliet. Perhaps if he did, he’d be rewarded later with a kiss. He ignored the voice that said Juliet didn’t capture his interest at all and gave her a small wink. “I quite agree. It’s unfortunate we aren’t staying longer otherwise a ball would be a delightful idea.”
She nodded, letting out a long sigh. “I’m so glad you agree. The dancing would be such fun. Do you waltz, Lord Crestwood?”
“Of course.” He leaned toward her, giving himself a mental shake. He should be excited that he’d made progress with Juliet. This was what he did, coerced women into his arms, but somehow the idea of doing so with Juliet had lost the thrill. Then he looked over at Adrianna. Or perhaps, he’d simply picked a different mark. Then he smiled. He had his answer. He wanted to kiss Adrianna. His little minx presented a real challenge. Excitement coursed through him at the idea and he sat back in his chair. This was going to be fun.
The party moved from the dining to the music room. Adrianna stood behind the settee trying to plan her next move. Or perhaps she didn’t need one at all. Lord Crestwood had shifted at some point during dinner from troublesome rake to thoughtful gentleman. He’d stopped looking at her sisters, ceased winking and grinning like a fool. He’d grown quieter and she had to confess, at least to herself, she’d been enjoying the challenge he’d presented. His new, more sedated self was somehow…less interesting.
Right now, he sat alone, blandly watching Cordelia play the pianoforte as Bianca and Juliet danced. His gaze did not even flicker toward her sisters. Was this a new plan on his part or had he given up? Had she been victorious already? She spun about and made her way to the doors that led to a series of balconies off the music room. They were open to allow the warm spring air into the house.
She stood breathing in the scent of sea as she stared out into the night that had fallen. She should feel victorious. She’d bested the rake. But somehow, she either didn’t believe she’d been successful, or he was plotting his next move.
Or perhaps, she’d just been having fun.
Stepping out onto the balcony, she held the rail as she drew in another breath. There was some truth to what Bianca had said. Their lives here were so quiet. So she’d eagerly accepted Chase’s challenge to thwart the rakes descending upon her household and village. Her whole life, she’d considered herself clever, tough. This had been her chance to prove her own opinion of herself.
The curtain behind her shifted and she looked over her shoulder to see Lord Crestwood leaning against the frame of the door. “Lovely evening, isn’t it?”
She turned away again, looking out over the black night as the sound of waves crashed in the distance. “That’s the beauty of the country. There are many.”
He chuckled as he stepped out, joining her at the rail. The curtains blew in the breeze, exposing and hiding them at regular intervals. “I suppose it is.”
“But you don’t like the country?” she asked, not looking at him. She wanted to hear his answer rather than see his pretend façade. It wasn’t because he was so handsome, he might steal a woman’s senses, she reasoned with herself.
Out of the corner of her eye, she watched him lean a hip on the rail. “I like the country just fine, except for the fact there are not enough people. Or perhaps there just isn’t enough variety in the type of person you meet.”
She turned to look at him then. His hair had the most perfect wave in the breeze, his cheekbones strong with the half smile that pulled his mouth. His neck was thickly corded where it met his broad shoulders. She swallowed down a lump in her throat. “You don’t like the ton but you want to be around people. What variety of people do you want to be around, then?”
He raised a brow, leaning closer. “The kind that have full pouty mouths that look perfect for kissing.”
Was that a thrill of anticipation or irritation skittering down her spine? She took a step back, as she stared at him. So the rake was still here after all. “Whom might you be referring to, my lord?”
He moved closer, his body taking on an almost predatory stealth. “You know very well of whom I speak.”
“You know that I would never kiss you, don’t you?”
He shrugged. “I was talking about Bianca.”