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There was no sound as the library door was opened, but the slight draft created caused the candle flame to flicker. Crouched in the shadows at the opposite end of the long room. Augusta Ballinger froze in the act of trying to insert a hairpin into the lock of her host's desk.
From her damning position on her knees behind the massive oak desk she stared in stunned shock at the single candle she had allowed herself for illumination. The flame sputtered once more as the door was closed very softly. With a gathering sense of dread, Augusta peered over the edge of the desk and gazed down the length of the darkened room.
The man who had entered the library stood quietly in the inky depths near the door. He was tall and appeared to be wearing a black dressing gown. She could not see his face in the gloom. Nevertheless, as she crouched there holding her breath, Augusta was aware of a deep, disturbing sense of awareness.
Only one man had this effect on Augusta's senses. She did not need to se him clearly in order to hazard a guess as to who lounged there like a large beast of prey in the shadows. She was almost certain it was Graystone.
He was not sounding an alarm, however, which was an enormous relief. It was strange how at ease he appeared to be in the darkness, as if it were his natural environment. Then again, Augusta thought optimistically, perhaps he saw nothing out of the ordinary. Perhaps he had only come downstairs to look for a book and assumed the candle had been carelessly left behind by someone who had come down before him.
For an instant Augusta even dared to hope he had not noticed her peering anxiously at him over the top of the desk. Perhaps he had failed to observe her there at the other end of the big room. If she was very careful she might still get out of this mess with her reputation intact. She ducked her head behind the edge of the heavily carved oak.
She heard no footfalls on the thick Persian carpet, but a moment later the man spoke from no more than a few feet away.
"Good evening, Miss Ballinger. I trust you have found something suitably edifying to read down there behind Enfield's desk? But surely the light is rather poor in that location."
Augusta recognized the terrifyingly calm, unemotional male voice at once and groaned silently as her worst fears were confirmed. It was Graystone.
Just her bad luck that of all the guests who were inhabiting Lord Enfield's country house this weekend, her discoverer was her uncle's good friend. Harry Fleming, Earl of Graystone, was the one man in the house who probably would not believe any of the glib tales she had carefully prepared.
Graystone made Augusta uneasy for several reasons, one of which was that he had a disconcerting manner of looking straight into her eyes as if he would look into her very soul and demand the truth. Another reason she was wary around him was that he was simply too bloody damned clever.
Frantically Augusta began sorting among the various stories she had planned to use in just such an eventuality as this. It would have to be a very clever story. Graystone was no fool. He was gravely dignified, chillingly correct, and at times solemnly pompous as far as Augusta was concerned, but he was no fool.
Augusta decided she had no choice but to brazen out the embarrassing situation. She forced herself to smile very brightly as she looked up with a feigned little start of surprise.
"Oh, hello, my lord. I did not expect to encounter anyone here in the library at this hour. I was just searching for a hairpin. I seem to have dropped one."
"There appears to be a hairpin stuck in the lock of the desk."
Augusta managed another amazed start and jumped to her feet. "Good heavens. So there is. What a very odd place for it to have landed." Her fingers trembled as she snatched the pin out of the lock and dropped it into the pocket of her chintz wrapper. "I came downstairs to look for something to read because I could not sleep and the next thing I knew, I had lost my hairpin."
Graystone solemnly considered her bright smile in the pale glow of the candle flame. "I am surprised you could not sleep, Miss Ballinger. You certainly had plenty of exercise today. I believe you participated in the archery contest organized for the ladies this afternoon, and then there was the long walk to the old Roman ruins and the picnic. All topped off by a great deal of dancing and whist this evening. One would have thought you'd have been quite exhausted."
"Yes, well, I expect the unfamiliarity of my surroundings is to blame. You know how it is, my lord, when one sleeps in a strange bed."
His cool gray eyes, which always made Augusta think of a cold winter sea, gleamed faintly. "What an interesting observation. Do you sleep in a lot of strange beds, Miss Ballinger?"
Augusta stared at him, uncertain how to take the question. A part of her was very nearly inclined to believe there might have been a deliberate sexual innuendo in Graystone's seemingly polite remark. But that was impossible, she quickly decided. This was Graystone, after all. He would never do or say anything the least improper in the presence of a lady. Of course, he might not consider her a lady, she reminded herself bleakly.
"No, my lord, I do not have much opportunity to travel and therefore have not grown accustomed to the notion of changing beds frequently. Now, if you will excuse me, I had best be getting back upstairs. My cousin might awaken and notice I am gone. She would worry."
"Ah, yes. The lovely Claudia. We certainly would not want the Angel to become concerned about her hoyden of a cousin, would we?"
Augusta winced. It was obvious she had sunk quite low in the earl's estimation. Graystone clearly considered her an ill-mannered baggage. She could only hope he did not also think her a thief.
"No, my lord, I would not want to worry Claudia. Good evening, sir." Head high, she made to step around him. He did not move and she was forced to halt directly in front of him. He was extremely large, she noticed. Standing this close, she felt overwhelmed by the solid, unyielding strength in him. Augusta gathered her courage.
"Surely you do not intend to keep me from returning to my bedchamber, my lord?"
Graystone's brows rose slightly. "I would not want you to go back upstairs without that which you came for."
Augusta's mouth went dry. He could not possibly know about Rosalind Morrissey's journal. "As it happens, I feel quite sleepy now, my lord. I do not think I shall need anything to read, after all."
"Not even the item you hoped to find in Enfield's desk?"
Augusta took refuge in high dudgeon. "How dare you imply I was attempting to get into Lord Enfield's desk? I told you, my hairpin simply happened to land in the lock when it fell."
"Allow me, Miss Ballinger." Graystone removed a length of wire from his dressing gown pocket and slid it gently into the desk lock. There was a faint but quite distinct snick.
Augusta watched in astonishment as he eased open the top drawer and studied the contents. Then he waved a casual hand, inviting her to search for what she wanted.
Augusta eyed the earl warily, chewed on her lower lip for a few tense seconds, and the hastily leaned down and began pawing through the drawer. She found the small leather-bound volume beneath several sheets of foolscap. She snatched it up at once.
"My lord, I do not know what to say." Augusta clutched the journal and looked up to meet Graystone's eyes.
The earl's harsh features appeared even more grim than usual in the flickering candlelight. He was not a handsome man by any measure, but Augusta had found him strangely compelling since the moment her uncle had introduced her to him at the start of The Season.
There was something in those aloof gray eyes of his that made her want to reach out to him, even though she knew he probably would not thank her for it. Part of the attraction, she knew, must have been nothing more than sheer feminine curiosity. She sensed a closed door deep inside the man and she longed to open it. She did not know why.
He was really not her type at all. By rights she ought to have found Graystone extremely dull. Instead, she found him a dangerously disturbing enigma.
Graystone's thick, dark hair was flecked with silver. He was in his mid-thirties but he could easily have passed for forty, not because of any softness in his face or form; rather the opposite. There was a hard, somber quality about him that spoke of too much experience and too much knowledge. It was an odd mien for a classical scholar, she realized. Another part of the enigma.
Dressed as he was for his bedchamber, it was clear the breadth of Graystone's shoulders and the lean, solid lines of his body were natural and owed nothing to his tailor. There was a sleek, heavy, predatory grace about him that sent strange sensations down Augusta's spine. She had never met a man who had the effect on her that Graystone had.
She did not understand why she found herself attracted to him. They were complete opposites in temperament and manner. In any event, the effect was quite wasted, she was sure. The sensual thrill, the shiver of excitement that vibrated deep within her whenever the earl was close, the feelings of anxiety and wistful longing she experienced when she spoke to him, all meant nothing.
Her deep conviction that Graystone had known loss, just as she had, and the knowledge that he needed love and laughter to overcome the bleak, cold shadows in his eyes did not matter in the slightest. It was well known Graystone was hunting a bride, but Augusta knew he would not consider a woman who might overset his carefully regulated life. No, he would select another sort of female entirely.
She had heard the gossip and knew what the earl required in a wife. Rumor had it that, being the methodical type he was, Graystone had a list and that he had set his standards very high. Any woman who wished to get herself added to his list, it was said, must be a model of the female virtues. She must be a paragon: serious of mind and temperament, dignified of manner and bearing, and totally unsullied by even a hint of gossip. In short, Graystone's bride would be a pattern of propriety.
The sort of female who would never dream of rifling through her host's desk in the middle of the night.
"I would imagine," the earl murmured, eying the small volume in Augusta's hand, "that the less said, the better. The owner of that journal is a close friend of yours, I assume?"
Augusta sighed. There was little to lose now. Further protests of innocence were useless. Graystone obviously knew far more than he ought about this night's adventures.
"Yes, my lord, she is." Augusta lifted her chin. "My friend made the foolish mistake of writing down certain matters of the heart in her journal. She later came to regret those emotions when she discovered that the man involved was not equally sincere in his feelings."
"That man being Enfield?"
Augusta's mouth tightened grimly. "The answer to that is obvious. The journal is here in his desk, is it not? Lord Enfield may be accepted in the most important drawing rooms because of his title and his heroic actions during the war, but I fear he is a despicable cad when it comes to dealing with women. My friend's journal was stolen immediately after she told him she was no longer in love with him. We believe a maid was bribed."
"We?" Graystone repeated softly.
Augusta ignored the veiled inquiry. She certainly was not going to tell him everything. Most especially she was not going to enlighten him on the matter of how she had arranged to be here at Enfield's estate this weekend. "Enfield told my friend he intended to demand her hand in marriage and that he would use the contents of her journal to ensure that she accepted."
"Why would Enfield bother to blackmail your friend into marriage? He is exceedingly popular with the ladies these days. They all appear to be quite enthralled by his account of his own actions at Waterloo."
"My friend is the heiress to a great fortune, my lord." Augusta shrugged. "Gossip has it that Enfield has gambled away a great deal of his own inheritance since returning from the continent. He and his mother have apparently decided he must marry money."
"I see. I had not realized word of Enfield's recent losses had spread so quickly among the fair sex. He and his mother have both worked very hard to keep the matter quiet. This large house party is evidence of that."
Augusta smiled very pointedly. "Yes, well you know how it is when a man begins hunting for a very particular sort of bride, my lord. The rumors of his intentions precede him and the more intelligent of the quarry take note."
"Are you implying something about my own intentions, by any chance, Miss Ballinger?"
Augusta felt the heat in her cheeks but refused to back down before his cool, disapproving gaze. After all, Graystone invariably looked disapproving when he was talking to her.
"Since you ask, my lord," Augusta said firmly, "I may as well tell you that it is well known you are looking for a very specific sort of female to marry. It is even said you have a list."
"Fascinating. And do they say who is on my list?"
She glowered at him. "No. One hears only that it is a very short list. But I suppose that is understandable when one considers your requirements, which are said to be extremely strict and exacting."
"This grows more intriguing by the moment. What, precisely, are my requirements in a wife, Miss Ballinger?"
Augusta wished she had kept her mouth shut. But prudence had never been one of the stronger suits of the Ballingers who descended from the Northumberland side of the family. She plunged on recklessly. "Rumor has it that, like Caesar's wife, your bride must be above suspicion in every way. A serious-minded female of excessively refined sensibilities. A pattern of propriety. In short, my lord, you are looking for perfection. I wish you luck."
"From your rather scathing tone, I have the impression you think a truly virtuous woman is not going to be easy to find."
"That depends upon how you define virtuous," she retorted crossly. "From what I have heard, your definition is unduly strict. Few women are true paragons. It is very boring being a paragon, you know. Indeed, sir, you would have a somewhat longer list of candidates from which to select if you were searching for an heiress, as Lord Enfield is. And we all know how short in supply heiresses are."
"Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on one's view of the situation, I do not happen to be in need of an heiress. I can, therefore, set other standards of suitability. Your information concerning my personal affairs amazes me, however, Miss Ballinger. You seem very well informed. May I ask how you came to have so many details?"
She certainly was not going to tell him about Pompeia's, the ladies' club which she had helped form and which was a bottomless well of rumors and information. "There is never a shortage of gossip in town, my lord."
"Very true." Graystone's gaze narrowed speculatively. "Gossip is as common as the mud on London's streets, is it not? You are quite correct when you assume I would prefer a wife who will come to me without a great deal of it sticking to her."
"As I said, my lord. I wish you luck." It was very depressing hearing Graystone confirm everything she had heard about his infamous list, Augusta thought. "I only hope you do not regret setting your standards so very high." She tightened her grip on Rosalind Morrissey's journal. "If you will excuse me, I would like to return to my bedchamber."
"By all means." Graystone inclined his head, gravely polite as he stepped aside and allowed her to pass between him and Enfield's desk.
Relieved at the promise of escape, Augusta stepped quickly around from behind the huge desk and rushed past the earl. She was all too well aware of the intimacy of their situation. Graystone dressed for riding or a formal ball was impressive enough to capture all her attention. Graystone dressed for bed was simply too much for her unruly senses.
She was halfway down the length of the room when she remembered something very important. She stopped and swung around to face him. "Sir, I must ask you a question."
"Will you feel obliged to mention any of this unpleasant business to Lord Enfield?"
"What would you do if you were in my place, Miss Ballinger?" he asked dryly.
"Oh, I would definitely maintain a gentlemanly silence on the subject," she assured him quickly. "After all, a lady's reputation is at stake."
"How true. And not just that of your friend. Yours is just as much at risk tonight, is it not, Miss Ballinger? You have played fast and loose with the most valuable jewel in a woman's crown, her reputation."
Damn the man. He really was an arrogant beast. Too pompous, by half. "It is quite true I have taken some risks tonight, my lord," she said in her most chilling tones. "You must remember that I am descended from the Northumberland Ballingers, not the Hampshire Ballingers. The women of my side of the family do not care a great deal for Society's rules."
"You do not consider that many of those strictures are designed for your own protection?"
"Not in the least. Those rules are designed for the convenience of men and nothing more."
"I beg to differ with you, Miss Ballinger. There are times when Society's rules are extremely inconvenient for a man. I can promise you that this is one of those occasions."
She frowned uncertainly and then decided to let that enigmatic comment pass. "Sir, I realize you are on the best of terms with my uncle and I would not have us be enemies."
"I quite agree. I assure you I have no wish to be your enemy, Miss Ballinger."
"Thank you. Nevertheless, I must tell you frankly that you and I have very little in common. We are completely opposite in terms of temperament and inclination, as I am sure you will acknowledge. You are a man who will always be bound by the dictates of honor and correct behavior and all those pesky little rules that govern Society."
"And you, Miss Ballinger? What will bind you?"
"Nothing at all, my lord," she said candidly. "I intend to live life to the fullest. I am, after all, the last of the Northumberland Ballingers. And a Northumberland Ballinger would sooner take a few risks than bury herself beneath the weight of a lot of very dull virtues."
"Come, Miss Ballinger, you disappoint me. Have you not heard that virtue is its own reward?"
She scowled at him again, vaguely suspicious that he might just possibly be teasing her. Then she assured herself that was very unlikely. "I have seen very little evidence of that fact. Now, please answer my question. Will you feel obliged to tell Lord Enfield about my presence here in his library this evening?"
He watched her with hooded eyes, his hands shoved deep into the pockets of his dressing gown. "What do you think, Miss Ballinger?"
She touched the top of her tongue to her lower lip and then smiled slowly. "I think, my lord, that you are well and truly tangled up in the snare of your own rules. You cannot tell Enfield about this night's work without violating your own code of behavior, can you?"
"You are quite right. I will not say a word to Enfield. But I have my own reasons for keeping silent, Miss Ballinger. And as you are not privy to those reasons, you would be well advised not to make assumptions."
She tipped her head to one side, considering that carefully. "The reason for your silence is the obligation you feel toward my uncle, is it not? You are his friend and you would not want to see him embarrassed because of my actions this evening."
"That is a little closer to the truth, but it is not the whole of it, by any means."
"Well, whatever the reason, I am grateful." Augusta grinned suddenly as she realized she was safe and so was her friend Rosalind Morrissey. Then it suddenly struck her that there was still one very large question that remained unanswered. "How did you know what I had planned here tonight, my lord?"
It was Graystone's turn to smile. He did so with a curious twist to his mouth that sent a chill of alarm through Augusta.
"With any luck that question should keep you awake for a while tonight, Miss Ballinger. Consider it well. Perhaps it will do you good to ponder the fact that a lady's secrets are always prey to gossip and rumor. A wise young woman should, therefore, take care not to take the sort of risks you took tonight."
Augusta wrinkled her nose in dismay. "I should have known better than to ask you such a question. It is obvious someone of your high-minded temperament cannot refrain from issuing reproving lectures at every opportunity. But I forgive you this time because I am grateful for both your help and your silence tonight."
"I trust you will continue to feel grateful."
"I am certain I shall." On impulse Augusta hurried back toward the desk and came to a halt directly in front of him. She stood on tiptoe and kissed him lightly, fleetingly on the edge of his hard jaw. Graystone stood like stone beneath the soft caress. She knew she had probably shocked him to the core and she could not resist a wicked little chuckle. "Good night, my lord."
Thrilled by her own boldness and by the success of her foray to the library, she whirled around and dashed toward the door.
"Yes, my lord?" She halted and turned back to face him once more, hoping that in the shadows he could not see that her face was flaming.
"You have neglected to take your taper with you. You will need it to climb the stairs." He picked up the candle and held it out to her.
Augusta hesitated and then went back to where he stood waiting for her. She snatched the candle from his hand without a word and hastened out of the library.\
She was glad she was not on his list of prospective wives, she told herself fiercely as she flew up the stairs and down the hall to her bedchamber. A Northumberland Ballinger female could not possibly chain herself to such an old-fashioned, unbending man.
Aside from the marked difference in their temperaments, they had few interests in common. Graystone was an accomplished linguist and a student of the classics, just as was her uncle, Sir Thomas Ballinger. The earl devoted himself to the study of the ancient Greeks and Romans and produced imposing books and treatises that were well received by people who knew about that sort of thing.
If Graystone had been one of the exciting new poets whose burning prose and smoldering eyes were currently all the rage, Augusta would have understood her own fascination for him. But he was not that sort of writer at all. Instead he penned dull works with titles such as A Discussion of Some Elements in the Histories of Tacitus and A Discourse on Certain Selections from Plutarch's Lives. Both of which had been recently published to critical acclaim.
Both of which Augusta had, for some unknown reason, read from beginning to end.
Augusta extinguished the candle and let herself quietly into the bedchamber she was sharing with Claudia. She tiptoed over to the bed and took off her dressing gown. A shaft of moonlight seeping in through a crack in the heavy drapes revealed her cousin's sleeping form.
Claudia had the pale golden hair of the Hampshire branch of the Ballinger family. Her lovely face with its patrician nose and chin was turned to the side on the pillow. The long sweep of her lashes hid her soft blue eyes. She deserved the title of the Angel which had been bestowed upon her by the admiring gentlemen of the haute ton.
Augusta took personal pride in her cousin's recent social success. It was Augusta, after all, who, at four-and-twenty, had undertaken to launch the younger Claudia into the world of the ton. Augusta had decided it was the least she could do to repay her uncle and her cousin for taking her into their home after her brother's death two years ago.
Sir Thomas, being a Hampshire Ballinger and therefore quite wealthy, had the blunt to pay for his daughter's launch and he was generous enough to underwrite Augusta's expenses as well. Being a widower, however, he lacked the female contacts to manage a successful Season. He also lacked any knowledge of style and dash. That was, of course, where Augusta could contribute mightily to the project.
The Hampshire Ballingers might have the money in the family, but the Northumberland Ballingers had gotten all the style and dash.
Augusta was very fond of her cousin, but the two of them were as different as night and day in many ways. Claudia would never have dreamed of sneaking downstairs after midnight to break into her host's library desk. Claudia had no interest in joining Pompeia's. Claudia would have been appalled at the notion of standing around in one's wrapper at midnight chatting with a distinguished scholar such as the Earl of Graystone. Claudia had a very nice sense of the proprieties.
It occurred to Augusta that Claudia was probably on Graystone's list of prospective wives.