13

It’s one thing to have won over those who know me well,” Jacqueline whispered to Gerrard as, her hand on his arm, they followed her father and Millicent up the front steps of Trewarren Hall. Dragging in a tight breath, she resisted the urge to clamp a gloved hand to her fluttering stomach and plastered a delighted smile on her lips. “Wider society is liable to be another matter entirely.”

“Nonsense.” He smiled at her. “Stop worrying. Just act as you feel you should.” His gaze lingered on hers, then he murmured, “Listen to your heart.”

Difficult when it was thudding. She drew in another breath, aware when his attention shifted to her breasts; she felt warmed by the fleeting touch of his gaze, oddly reassured.

She didn’t need to ask if he would stay by her side; she knew he would. She didn’t need to wonder if his attention would cause comment; in this setting, that was a given. Her mind was racing faster than a bolting pair; she felt starved of breath, yet exhilarated and excitedly expectant.

No wonder her head was spinning.

As they joined the receiving line, she tried not to dwell on the moment in the drawing room when Gerrard had entered in full evening dress. Barnaby had followed him in, but she hadn’t even noticed him for some time. Gerrard in black and crisp white, with a silk waistcoat in subtle swirls of amber and brown, had captured her senses to the exclusion of all else.

The sharp contrast of the black and white emphasized the breadth of his shoulders, the lean, hard lines of his long frame and the austere, patriarchal planes of his face. The harnessed power she’d so often glimpsed in him was tonight on full show, the intensity that was an inherent part of him blatant and unrestrained. Sexuality shimmered, an invisible cloak about him; she could almost taste the raw power and his aggressive brand of passion.

Eleanor was going to swallow her tongue.

They’d never competed for the attention of any gentleman; she wasn’t sure they’d be competing over Gerrard, yet Eleanor’s attempt to monopolize him earlier that day had raised the unwelcome specter in her mind, one factor contributing to the manic frenzy of butterflies swarming in her stomach.

The man beside her-not the gentleman, but the man-was another.

She wasn’t sure of him, either, not now she’d seen him in his true colors. Not now she was standing beside him, her gloved hand on his black sleeve, so very aware of his physical presence-and so very aware of her own.

Since the bronze sheath had been made, she’d gained several inches. One at least in height, which left the hem flirting about her ankles in a decidedly provocative fashion. That was the least of her worries. She’d also gained about her hips and breasts, of all places; if she drew in a large breath too quickly, she might be in serious trouble.

As she infused her smile with even greater brightness and curtsied to Lady Trewarren, she made a mental note to locate the withdrawing room before any disaster could occur, so she would know where to run when it did.

Rising from her curtsy, she saw an arrested look in Lady Trewarren’s eyes, and only just suppressed the urge to glance down and check, but her ladyship’s gaze rose smoothly to her face; her eyes lit with real warmth. They touched fingers and cheeks, then Gerrard led her on in Millicent’s wake.

As predicted, her father’s presence instantly created a stir; guests peered over heads and peeked around others to confirm that yes, Tregonning was there, in the flesh. She was grateful for the distraction he provided.

She was about to glance around when she met Gerrard’s gaze, and realized he’d been watching her.

He leaned closer. “Relax.” His hand closed over hers on his sleeve, a warm and reassuring clasp. “You look superb.” His gaze lazily, and quite brazenly, drifted lower, over her breasts, and down. His lips quirked; fleetingly his eyes met hers again, then he looked ahead. “So nice to be proved right. That color is delectable on you.”

Delectable? Was that why he’d looked, just for an instant in that fleeting glance, as if he’d like to…

She refused to let herself finish the thought; she had distractions enough as it was.

Gerrard knew his role; it was imperative Jacqueline didn’t focus on the whispers, on how people viewed her. Didn’t retreat. Her self-protective shields gave credence to the whispers, hiding what she truly was-a young lady patently incapable of murder.

He was there to distract her; he knew how to do it.

They moved into the throng filling the ballroom. Leaving directly challenging the whispers to Lord Tregonning and Millicent, supported by Barnaby and his deduced facts, they parted from the others; Lord Tregonning and Millicent went one way, Barnaby another. Gerrard turned his attention to keeping Jacqueline absorbed in the whirl of a major ball.

Lady Trewarren had handed all the unmarried young ladies dance cards; the old custom was useful in ensuring, as her ladyship had put it, “No disputes for me to settle.”

“I’ll take the first waltz,” he murmured. “If you’d be so kind.”

She glanced up, met his eyes, then inclined her head. “If you wish.” Catching the tiny pencil attached to the card, she duly inscribed his name on the appropriate line.

“And the supper waltz, too.”

She cast him a glance, but wrote that down, too.

“Jacqueline!” Giles Trewarren appeared out of the crowd. His face was alight with good cheer, and definite approval. “Excellent! I’ve caught you in time. I’d be honored if you would grant me the first country dance.”

In less than a minute, they were surrounded by the unmarried gentlemen of the district, all eager to have their names on her card. Gerrard stood beside her, amused by the surprise he glimpsed in her eyes-she truly had no idea of the effect she, gowned as she was, had on impressionable males.

On less impressionable ones, too.

A certain possessiveness had crept into his manner; he knew it. He said little, but monitored the conversation, ready to step in and redirect it if need be. He didn’t want anyone mentioning Thomas or her mother, and sobering her. Her eyes were alight; she was blossoming, just as he’d known she could.

Matthew Brisenden came up. He cast a dark glance Gerrard’s way, but to Jacqueline his behavior was gentlemanly and deferential; inwardly Gerrard acknowledged it always was. The lad-he had difficulty thinking of Matthew as a peer-continued to act as if he’d elected himself Jacqueline’s champion.

Gerrard quashed the impulse to point out, forcefully, that the position was already filled.

“My dear Miss Tregonning.” A gentleman some years older than Gerrard, well built but tending portly, shouldered through the growing crowd to bow flourishingly before Jacqueline. “You outshine the moon tonight, my dear. Dare I hope to claim the supper waltz?”

Jacqueline smiled and gave the man her hand. Gerrard detected no change in her manner, but to his eyes, the fellow was an aging Romeo.

“Sir Vincent, I would indeed have been delighted, but I fear Mr. Debbington was before you.”

Gerrard recognized the name and was instantly alert. This was the gentleman Millicent had said had his eye on Jacqueline.

Jacqueline glanced at him, then at Sir Vincent. “I don’t believe you’ve met. May I introduce you?”

She did. Sir Vincent Perry eyed him measuringly, but returned his bow. “Debbington.” Sir Vincent turned back to Jacqueline. “Then perhaps you would honor me with the dance after supper, Miss Tregonning?”

Consulting her card, she nodded and wrote in Sir Vincent’s name. “Indeed, sir-the honor will be mine.”

Other gentlemen came and went, joining their circle, securing a dance with Jacqueline, then moving on to meet with other young ladies, but Sir Vincent remained. Jacqueline responded readily to his sallies, but treated him as she did all the others; she did nothing to encourage him.

Gerrard was aware of the increasingly narrow-eyed glances Sir Vincent threw his way.

He ignored them, but kept a mental eye on Sir Vincent while over the heads he tracked the progress of the rest of their party. While crossing the room, Lord Tregonning had paused beside various groups to acknowledge the interest his presence evoked; his attitude, that of a gentleman expecting to be pleasantly entertained without any concern clouding his mind, caused those he spoke with, once he’d moved on, to look at Jacqueline-Gerrard hoped with new eyes.

His lordship had set a steady course for Sir Godfrey, eventually engaging the magistrate; Millicent and Barnaby had swept up in support. Gerrard knew their strategy. Lord Tregonning had introduced Barnaby and his findings, then left it to Barnaby to explain. Barnaby was still explaining. Sir Godfrey seemed to be making heavy weather of absorbing Barnaby’s deductions.

Lord Tregonning excused himself and made his slow, regal way to the cardroom; there, he’d engage the older gentlemen like himself, expressing his shock at the discovery of Thomas’s body and his views on the person responsible, slaying any thought that he entertained the notion that Jacqueline had been in any way involved.

Barnaby and Millicent remained talking, low-voiced and serious, with Sir Godfrey. Then Millicent looked up, clearly exasperated. She pointed to a door, linked her arm in Sir Godfrey’s, and all but forcibly towed him off to the library, there, Gerrard guessed, to lecture him at length and make sure he understood the Tregonnings’ stance. Barnaby followed, quietly determined. Gerrard had every confidence the pair would succeed in clarifying Sir Godfrey’s mind.

“Ah, my dear Jacqueline.”

Jordan Fritham’s arrogant drawl recalled Gerrard to nearer events.

Jacqueline smiled and gave Jordan her hand. “Jordan. Where’s Eleanor? I haven’t sighted her yet.”

“Oh, she’s over there somewhere, busily filling up her dance card.” With a nonchalant wave, Jordan dismissed his sister. “I thought I should come and do my part to fill yours.” Assured, he glanced idly over the crowd. “The cotillion, I think, if you please?”

Gerrard tensed; Sir Vincent openly bristled. Jordan’s attitude-tone, stance and clear assumption-was so ineffably superior it bordered on the rude. Yet Gerrard was prepared to wager the egotistical prick didn’t even realize; he was considering ways to puncture Jordan’s ego when Jacqueline spoke.

“I’m so sorry, Jordan, but you’re too late.” With a gentle smile, she held up her card. “My card’s already full.”

Stunned surprise filled Jordan’s face; Gerrard had to fight to keep his lips straight, especially when his eyes met Sir Vincent’s.

“Oh.” Jordan blinked; he seemed to be having trouble assimilating the blindingly obvious-that Jacqueline was a popular young lady who didn’t need his patronage to fill her evening with dance partners. He blinked again. “I see. Well, then, I’ll…leave you to it.”

With an abrupt bow, he swung around and walked away.

“Jacqueline, dear.” They turned to see Millicent sweeping down on them, resplendent in lilac bombazine. She smiled at the circle of attentive males, then announced, “Lady Tannahay and the Entwhistles have arrived, my dear, and they’d very much like to speak with you. And Mr. Debbington, too, of course.” She flashed a smile at the others. “I’m sure these gentlemen will excuse you.”

They did, with swift bows and intrigued expressions.

Taking Jacqueline’s hand, Gerrard laid it on his sleeve, covering it with his. He looked down at her, encouragement in his eyes. “Just be yourself-that’s all you need to do. Don’t be afraid to let what you feel show.”

He felt her fingers quiver beneath his; she drew in a breath, and stiffened her spine. Her attention was already fixed on their destination, a corner of the room where Lady Tannahay stood beside an older gentleman, tall, imposing, but with bowed shoulders, a smaller, rotund lady by his side. The lady wore dark gray, her gown severely cut.

Jacqueline held her head high; Gerrard’s whispered words echoed in her mind. What she felt for the Entwhistles, for Thomas…As they drew near, she concentrated on that, let her emotions well.

Gerrard halted before Sir Harvey and Madeline, Lady Entwhistle. Jacqueline’s eyes locked with her ladyship’s; she was distantly aware of Millicent introducing Gerrard to Sir Harvey, but Lady Entwhistle searched her eyes-in her ladyship’s face she saw understanding, compassion, and the same sense of loss she herself still felt.

“My dear.” With a wavering smile, Lady Entwhistle reached for her hands.

Jacqueline surrendered them readily, returning the light pressure of her ladyship’s fingers.

“I know you share our loss, my dear-that you’ve grieved for Thomas as have we. He was a dear, dear boy and we miss him every day, but you…” Lady Entwhistle struggled to find a smile and squeezed Jacqueline’s hands. “While finding his body is a shock, I hope you can now leave poor Thomas to rest, and go on with your life. We were very happy when he chose you, but we wouldn’t wish his death to ruin your life. I had no idea until Elsie spoke with us that some had even considered…But with what I hear these gentlemen”-her ladyship’s gaze shifted briefly to Gerrard and she smiled faintly-“have learned, the situation should be plain to all.”

Lady Entwhistle drew in a steadying breath, and smiled more definitely at Jacqueline. Then she impulsively drew her closer and touched cheeks. “My dear,” she murmured, “I do hope you’ll put all this behind you and go on. I know Thomas would have wanted that.”

Jacqueline drew back; ignoring the tears in her eyes, she smiled at Lady Entwhistle. “Thank you.” Their gazes held. Nothing more needed to be said.

“Ahem.” Sir Harvey cleared his throat. He nodded at Jacqueline. “Good to see you looking so well, m’dear.” He looked at his wife. “I’ve just been talking to Debbington here.”

Gerrard shook hands with Lady Entwhistle, then Sir Harvey continued, “He tells me his friend, Mr. Adair, can explain the details better-ah, here he is now.”

Barnaby, whom Gerrard had beckoned to join them, came up and was introduced to the Entwhistles. Sir Harvey and Lady Entwhistle decided to retire to the library to hear all Barnaby could tell them.

With Gerrard, Jacqueline took her leave of them. As she turned back to the room, Elsie Tannahay caught her eye. “Come walk with me for a little, my dear. It’ll save you from the overly interested, at least until the dancing starts.”

Gerrard offered Lady Tannahay his arm; with a gracious smile, she took it. He offered his other arm to Jacqueline.

Millicent waved them on. “I’m off to talk to that reprobate Godfrey. I want to keep my eye on him.”

They parted. As they strolled down the room, Lady Tannahay relentlessly claimed Jacqueline’s attention, chatting about inconsequential matters; her position in local society ensured that no one attempted to interrupt, but everyone was watching.

Many had witnessed the scene earlier, and had understood the implications; they were now busily explaining to those who hadn’t seen.

Lady Tannahay directed them onto the terrace; they admired the lights strung through the trees. On hearing it was in part Gerrard’s work, Lady Tannahay complimented him on the effect. “Quite a magical creation.”

Music drifted out from the ballroom, summoning the dancers. Accompanying them back inside, Lady Tannahay halted and smiled. “Well, we’ve done our part for the evening’s entertainment-Gertie Trewarren should be thoroughly grateful. Now we can give ourselves over to amusement-enjoy the rest of your evening, my dears.”

With a gracious nod, she moved away.

Roger Myles pushed through the crowd; grinning, he bowed before Jacqueline. “My dance, fairest one.”

Jacqueline laughed, and gave him her hand.

Gerrard squeezed the hand that lay on his sleeve and leaned closer to whisper, “Come back to me here at the end of the dance.”

She cast him a glance, but nodded. He let her go, and watched Roger gaily claim her attention.

Deciding such light relief was precisely what she needed-what would most effectively lighten her mood-he retreated to the side of the room. All was going as planned, and Lady Tannahay had turned up trumps for them. Noting the many ladies and gentlemen who glanced appraisingly at Jacqueline, he felt confident their strategy was working; after tonight, no one would credit any tale of Jacqueline being involved in Thomas’s death.

Barnaby rolled up while the dancers were still whirling. “Sir Harvey’s a shrewd one-he grasped all I had to say immediately. Like Jacqueline, they’ve already mourned Thomas. They have other children, and want to see this put to rest for everybody’s sake. In terms of Jacqueline, they’re definitely in our camp. They’ll help in any way they can in learning who’s behind all this.”

Gerrard nodded, his gaze on Jacqueline twirling down the line of dancers.

Beside him, Barnaby surveyed the nondancers, most of whom were of the older generation. “I’d forgotten what it’s like in the country-the discovery of Thomas’s body is the main topic of conversation.” He caught Gerrard’s eye. “I’m going to circulate and see if, using my status as ignorant outsider, I can draw a bead on who’s behind the whispers.”

Gerrard looked back at the dancers. “Do you think there’s any chance that way?”

“I don’t know, but the more I run up against the effects, the more I realize the whispers have been both subtle and very pervasive. Whoever’s behind it, they have access to a large number of ears.”

With that, Barnaby drifted away. The music came to a triumphant end. Laughing, the dancers halted; the lines wavered, then broke up.

Gerrard saw Jacqueline turn and look for him. Roger Myles went up in his estimation by taking her hand and leading her back. Yet she’d barely regained his side before the musicians struck up again, and Giles Trewarren appeared to claim her hand.

He suffered through that dance, but the next was the first waltz. Meeting Jacqueline and Giles at the edge of the dance floor, he claimed Jacqueline’s hand, chatted with Giles until the first squeak of the violins, then swept Jacqueline into his arms and onto the floor the instant the first familiar strains floated out.

And felt something within him ease as the sensation of having her in his arms once more permeated his brain.

They’d revolved four times before Jacqueline caught her breath. Aware of the subtle shushing of the heavy silk of her gown against his coat, the brush of his long legs against her skirts, the intensity of his gaze as he looked down at her, his attention so focused…she dragged in a huge breath, and gave thanks when his eyes remained locked on her face. “You’re very good at this.”

She didn’t just mean waltzing.

The faint curve of his long lips suggested he understood, but all he said in reply was, “So are you.”

Looking up, he whirled them through the turn at the end of the long ballroom, his hand at her back, heated and heavy, drawing her fractionally closer; when they were precessing once more up the room, he looked down at her once more. “You can’t have been dancing all that much in recent times.”

“No.” Eyes locked with his, she thought back. “Not since before Thomas died.”

And even then, never with a partner so assured, so confident in his ability that she could without a qualm resign all control and simply enjoy the moment, the movement, the indefinable energy of the dance.

“I like to waltz.” The admission slipped past her lips without thought.

His eyes held hers. “So do I.”

They’d reached the other end of the ballroom, and an even tighter turn. While others paused and adjusted, he drew her closer still; she sensed his strength as he swept them through and past.

Exhilaration flared, and raced down her veins.

Desire followed, tempted forth by the look in his eyes, by the knowledge of what he was thinking, seeing in his painter’s mind. She studied his eyes, felt herself falling, drowning in the glowing brown-drawn into his vision, under his spell.

A sensual shiver slithered down her spine; her skin flushed, then prickled. Her nipples furled tight. Heat, not from without but within, burgeoned.

“If I dance much more with you, I’ll need to carry a fan.”

He laughed; his eyes glinted. Yet his gaze, to her unscreened, remained passionate and intense, not an invitation but a promise.

A clear statement that between them there would be much more.

She wondered why she wasn’t frightened, not even trepidatious. With him, such emotions had never surfaced, never colored her view of him, or, more particularly, of them. Of what might be…would be, once she agreed.

The music was building to its culmination; his expression grew more serious, his gaze more intense. “Have you decided yet?”

The words were deep, even, but not demanding. More enticing.

“No.” She held his gaze as they swirled to a halt. “But I will. Soon.”

He studied her eyes for an instant longer, then nodded.

Gerrard forced himself to release her. He led her to the side of the dance floor. Her next partner promptly appeared to claim her hand.

He relinquished it with growing reluctance; he would much rather have led her to some private place where he could spend the next hours convincing her to be his. Instead, mindful of his other goal, he danced with other young ladies, and made sure they had as many of the facts regarding Thomas’s death as he felt they could keep straight.

Then Eleanor came up and made it clear she’d saved a dance for him. Ordinarily, he’d have ruthlessly quashed such presumption, but against the risk of giving her even such minor encouragement, he decided to accept, to see, in light of Jacqueline’s appearance tonight, what Eleanor now thought of the circumstances of Thomas’s death.

But Eleanor wasn’t interested in dead bodies. “It’s all so long ago. I’m sure Jacqueline, poor dear, wouldn’t have had anything to do with it, so there’s really nothing more to be said, is there?” Eyes bright, fixed on his face, she tried to press closer, but he prevented it. Lowering her lids, she favored him with a sultry glance. “I’d much rather talk of more exciting things.”

He managed to steer her through the rest of the dance without uttering a blistering setdown; releasing her with relief, he wondered that Lady Fritham-who seemed the usual sort of matron-wasn’t aware of Eleanor’s startlingly improper propensities. He might be doing his best to seduce Jacqueline, yet he was quite certain she was a virgin. Eleanor…there was something in her eyes, a blatantness in her behavior, that left him perfectly certain she’d already dipped her toes in Eros’s fountain.

Normally, he wouldn’t hold that against any lady-he wasn’t such a hypocrite-yet in Eleanor’s salacity there was something that repulsed him, and not just him but Barnaby, too. They hadn’t discussed it; they didn’t need to-one shared glance was enough. Neither felt at all attracted to Eleanor, which was mildly strange as she was physically very beautiful.

The thought had him searching the throng for Jacqueline; the sight of her heading his way lightened his mood, even if she was on Matthew Brisenden’s arm. But Matthew was another who failed to see any attraction in Eleanor; unlike Gerrard, he was open in his disapproval, and Eleanor took herself off.

Gerrard swallowed an impulse to thank Matthew, but did catch his eye and incline his head in approval. The evening continued; increasingly guests moved back and forth between the terrace and the gardens, and the ballroom and reception rooms beyond.

At last, the opening bars of the supper waltz sounded; with real relief-real if hopeful anticipation-Gerrard drew Jacqueline into his arms and started them revolving down the floor.

But she smiled, sighed softly and relaxed in his hold, and he didn’t have the heart to press her. Instead, he held her close, but gently, and let his eyes, and their silence, speak.

Between them, that level of communication was growing, deepening, becoming more acute. By the end of the dance, although they’d uttered not a word, Jacqueline’s mind was filled once more with thoughts of him, of them, and the decision she’d yet to make.

Of the sign she’d yet to see, the answer she’d yet to receive.

Gerrard led her into the supper room. Once they’d filled their plates, they were joined at a table by Giles, Cedric, Clara and Mary, and later Barnaby. The conversation was light and breezy; acutely aware of Gerrard beside her, her mind drifted to more private concerns.

They were talking of returning to the ballroom when Eleanor and Jordan came up. Jacqueline smiled at them as they stopped beside the table; it occurred to her that in the past, at any ball, they would have been together. Not tonight; indeed, no longer. Her absence from ballrooms and parties in recent years had meant she and her childhood friends had grown apart. While not so evident when they visited at the Hall, in situations such as this, their divergence was clear.

Jordan and Eleanor joined in the chatter. Then Jordan caught her eye; moving around the table, he came to stand beside her.

Leaning down, he spoke confidentially. “I say, there’s a host of whispers doing the rounds over who killed Thomas-it seems at long last they’ve realized it wasn’t you. Of course, there’s still a lot of ill-informed nonsense about over your mother’s death, but you may be sure I set all those I heard speculating straight.”

Looking down his nose, he straightened. “Nothing more than gossipmongering, of course-we all know there’s nothing to it.”

Her gaze on his face, Jacqueline was excruciatingly aware of the sudden silence about her. Although Jordan had lowered his voice, he’d still been heard.

She didn’t know how to respond.

Her heart grew colder, and sank. A familiar vise tightened about her chest. Briefly she inclined her head. “Thank you.”

Turning back, she forced herself to glance at the others’ faces. And saw uncertainty, puzzlement, frowns that could have denoted any number of reactions.

The lighthearted atmosphere was gone.

Smiling easily, Gerrard pushed back his chair and stood; Barnaby did the same.

“It’s time to get back to the dancing.” Gerrard closed his hand over hers, gently squeezed. “The musicians are tuning their instruments.”

The others followed his lead with alacrity. Talk erupted on all sides. It sounded false to Jacqueline’s ears, but at least it dispersed the awful silence.

On Gerrard’s arm she walked back into the ballroom. Sir Vincent appeared through the regathering crowd. He smiled delightedly, and swept her a bow in his usual florid fashion. “My dance, I believe, my dear.”

She conjured a smile and gave him her hand, noting that he hadn’t acknowledged Gerrard, as if he wasn’t there. She glanced back as Sir Vincent led her to the floor. Gerrard stood where she’d left him, his gaze locked on her.

Then Eleanor appeared by his side, and slid her hand onto his arm. Gerrard turned to her.

Jacqueline looked ahead, amazed at the sharp feeling that lanced through her, at the sudden tensing of her muscles, and the way her mind reacted. She’d expected Jordan’s words and their effect to claim her, to drag her thoughts back into the uncertain vortex of how people saw her. Instead, while her dance with Sir Vincent did indeed pass in a blur, her mind was wholly occupied with Gerrard.

With what Eleanor was almost certainly doing, and how Gerrard might respond.

With the possibilities, with her decision. With how much of a sign she was waiting for…and why.

The music finally ceased, and she blinked back to her surroundings. They were close by the terrace doors at the other end of the ballroom from where she’d left Gerrard.

“My dear, I wonder if I can claim a few minutes of your time? The next dance won’t start immediately.” Sir Vincent gestured to the doors to the terrace. “Perhaps we could stroll in the quiet-others are out there, too. Quite proper, I assure you.”

The ballroom was stuffy; a few minutes of cooler, fresher air sounded like an excellent idea. She needed to clear her head so she could think. “That would be pleasant.”

On Sir Vincent’s arm, she walked onto the terrace. They paused to look around. Lantern-lit paths led away, crossing the lawn to meander between the shrubs and trees. A light breeze blew, shifting leaves; the lanterns winked and blinked, myriad tiny stars.

Numerous other couples were strolling the terrace and lawns. Glancing along the terrace, Jacqueline felt her heart stop. Gerrard stood at the other end with Eleanor on his arm; from her gestures, she was attempting to entice him down the steps and into the gardens.

She and Sir Vincent stood in relative shadow, but Gerrard and Eleanor were lit by light pouring from the ballroom. Eleanor was facing their way, but hadn’t seen them. Her attention was focused on Gerrard, on…seducing him. Apparently he didn’t wish to be seduced; curtly he shook his head and shifted back, attempting to disengage, but Eleanor brazenly clung to his arm-even more brazenly raised her face to his and tried to step closer still.

Gerrard stepped back. With icy precision, he lifted Eleanor’s arm from his and dropped it.

He said something; Eleanor’s face fell.

Turning brusquely on his heel, Gerrard strode back into the ballroom.

“Ahem!” Sir Vincent cleared his throat, and belatedly turned Jacqueline in the opposite direction. “I have to say I did wonder-never do know with London bloods-but Debbington seems to have his head on straight. I wouldn’t mention it normally-I know she’s a friend of yours-but Miss Fritham needs to take a powder.”

They’d reached the end of the terrace. Sir Vincent looked around the corner of the building. “Ah, yes. Just the ticket.”

He continued around the corner. Absorbed with what she’d just witnessed, with her relief that Gerrard had dismissed Eleanor so ruthlessly even though he hadn’t known she’d been watching-and with the kernel of competitive pleasure that was blossoming, nurtured by the thought that he preferred her less fashionable beauty to Eleanor’s-it was an instant or two before Jacqueline registered the oddity in Sir Vincent’s words.

Just the ticket for what?

By then he’d led her, unresisting, to the French doors leading into one of the minor parlors. The doors were unlocked; Sir Vincent opened them wide, and guided her in with his usual courtly suavity…She went, uncertain, suspicions flickering.

The moon shed enough light to see by, but Sir Vincent immediately lit a lamp; the glow spread, easing Jacqueline’s nascent fears. This, after all, was Sir Vincent; despite his occasionally too particular attentions, he’d always accepted her rebuffs like a gentleman. As he turned to face her, his expression resolute, she wondered if perhaps he was going to warn her about the whispers; mentally composing a suitable reply, she waited for him to speak.

To her shock, he threw himself on his knees before her.

“My dear!” He grasped her hands.

Stunned, she tugged, but he tightened his grip.

“No, no-don’t fear! You must excuse my intemperate passion, sweet Jacqueline, but I can no longer stand by without speaking.”

“Sir Vincent! Do, please, get up, sir.” Jacqueline cast a glance at the side terrace. Just because no one had been there didn’t mean no one would venture that way, and the lamplight was now shining out through the open doors, a beacon.

Instead of rising, Sir Vincent lifted her hands to his lips and pressed impassioned kisses to her knuckles. “Dear Jacqueline, you must listen. I cannot allow you to become infatuated with these London bloods-they’re not worthy of you.”

“What?” She stared down at him. “Sir-”

“I’ve waited too long not to speak. At first I thought you too young.” Still holding her hands, Sir Vincent clambered to his feet. “Then came that unfortunate incident with Entwhistle, and then, just as you were going about once more, Miribelle died, and I had to wait again. But I’ll wait no more. My dear, I desire to make you my wife.”

Jacqueline felt her jaw drop. “Ah…” She struggled to marshal her wits. “Sir Vincent, I never dreamed-”

“No? Well, why would you? I’m a man of the world, while you’ve little experience of it, but I’ve had my eye on you for some time-your mama was aware of my intentions. She insisted I wait before addressing you, and so I have.” Stepping nearer, he tightened his grip on her hands and looked down at her. “So, my dear, what do you say?”

Jacqueline dragged in a huge breath. “Sir Vincent, you do me a very great honor, but I cannot agree to marry you.”

Sir Vincent blinked.

She tugged, but he still wouldn’t release her. He seemed to be thinking-too hard for her liking. “Sir Vincent-”

“No, no-I see my mistake. No doubt you have dreams of being swept away by passion.” He pulled her to him.

Her heart rising to her throat, she braced her arms and fought to keep her distance. “Sir Vincent-no!”

“No need to fear, my dear.” Inexorably, he drew her closer. “Just a kiss to show you-”

“Perry.”

The single word fell with the crushing weight of a millstone. Clipped, hard, resonant with menace, it shook Sir Vincent to his toes. Jacqueline felt alarm ripple through him; she wasn’t surprised.

Gerrard stepped into the room. “I suggest you unhand Miss Tregonning immediately.”

There was a quality to his voice that rendered any “or” redundant.

Sir Vincent blinked, then, as if abruptly coming to his senses, released Jacqueline.

She stepped away, closer to Gerrard, flexing her crushed fingers.

Gerrard turned to her. “Did he hurt you?”

She looked into his face; a primitive promise of immediate retribution was etched in the austere lines, unforgivingly hard in the moonlight. She was relieved she could say, “No. I was just…surprised.”

Looking back at Sir Vincent, she saw he was blushing furiously, shaken, embarrassed and, she suspected, annoyed. “Sir Vincent, I repeat, you do me a great honor, but I have no wish to become your wife. Please believe that nothing, no persuasions of any kind, will change my mind.” She thought, but there was nothing more she wished to add. Inclining her head, she held out her hand to Gerrard. “Mr. Debbington?”

His eyes were locked on Sir Vincent. She waited; transparently reluctant to leave without administering appropriate justice, Gerrard eventually glanced at her face, then, accepting her unspoken edict, he took her hand, set it on his sleeve and, turning, escorted her from the room.

Behind them, she heard Sir Vincent exhale.

Barnaby was waiting by the door. He fell back to let them through.

Once on the terrace, Jacqueline dragged in a huge breath. Beneath her fingertips, the steel that had infused Gerrard’s muscles remained. They walked slowly back to the main terrace. Barnaby strolled beside them.

She sighed, trying to lighten the atmosphere. “Thank you. I had no idea he was intending that.”

“Hmm.” Barnaby was frowning. “I did hear correctly, didn’t I? He just asked for your hand?”

Jacqueline recalled their hypothesis; she shivered. “Yes. But I can’t believe-” She broke off, remembering.

Gerrard’s gaze raked her face. “What?”

Could it be? “He said he’d told Mama. And he was at the house the last time Thomas called. Sir Vincent left before Thomas…or at least we thought he did.”

Barnaby shook his head. “Your stablemen said he didn’t come to fetch his horse until later-they assumed he’d been down to the cove.”

They reached the main terrace and paused.

“Down to the cove, or in the Garden of Hercules.” Gerrard glanced at Barnaby, then at her. “Who’s to say?”

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