The Earl’s Defiant Wallflower

Dukes of War Series #2

Oliver York returns from war to find his father dead, his finances in arrears, and himself the new Earl of Carlisle. If he doesn’t marry an heiress—and fast!—he and his tenants are going to be pitching tents down by the Thames. He definitely shouldn’t be trading kisses with a penniless debutante… no matter how captivating she is!

Miss Grace Halton is in England just long enough to satisfy the terms of her dowry. But a marriage of convenience isn’t as easy as she’d hoped. Back in America, her ailing mother needs medicine only Grace’s dowry can afford. Which means the dashing earl she can’t get out of her mind is the one man she can’t let into her heart.

Regency-set Historical Romance Novel

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Tight plot, flowing narration, humor, drama, romance, a little angst, a wonderful hero, and a great heroine!
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Chapter 1

January 1816
London, England

It could be worse, Lord Oliver York reminded himself as he trained his narrowed eyes on this newest battlefield. It had been three years since he’d set foot in a ballroom. The styles had changed and the faces had aged, but London soirées were as treacherous as ever. At least no one was shooting at him.

When he’d left home, he’d been plain Mr. Oliver York, heir apparent to a silent dictator whom he’d been certain would live forever. Full of ennui and patriotism, he’d defied his father and skipped off to fight the French with his three best friends. Because, what was the worst that could happen?

Answer: War.

He’d lost all three of his best friends. Edmund had been felled by an enemy rifle. Xavier hadn’t spoken a word in months. And Bartholomew . . . Oliver had lost his friend when he’d had the bad grace to save the man’s life.

Not that Oliver could blame him. Bart had made it back to England without his left leg or his brother. He would rather have died than let go of his dying twin. He would have succeeded in that endeavor, had Oliver not hefted his mangled body in his arms and speared his way through the bloody battlefield to the last surviving sawbones. It was a miracle the man survived. An even bigger miracle that he hadn’t picked up the first blade he’d chanced upon and driven it between Oliver’s ribs.

Heroes, all of them. Heroes and murderers.

They each had blood on their hands. Scars in their hearts. One couldn’t slice a bayonet through someone’s neck to save one’s own, and then pick right back up in London with carriage races and drunken wagers.

Drunken, yes. He was very good at drunken. Alcohol was the only thing that dulled the anger. And the guilt.

There had been no postal service on the front lines, so he’d actually made it all the way to his front door before the rest of the news had reached him.

He’d lost his father. Oliver was earl now. Congratulations.

His father—per the subsequent scandal sheets—had come to his untimely end in the bed of his latest mistress, when her cook, unaware of his seafood allergy, had sent a tray of salad tossed with lime and prawn to the lovers’ boudoir.

Death by salad. And just like that, Oliver inherited an earldom.

He didn’t know a button about being earl, of course. His father had rarely even spoken to him; therefore Oliver was in no position to replace him.

Nor was he in the market for a wife. He could scarcely be responsible for one. He was having a hard enough time wrangling this beast of an earldom without adding a dependent to the mix. Not with his future uncertain, his past a nightmare.

Men of his class didn’t marry for love. Men with his past shouldn’t marry at all.

War had taught him that there was no vulnerability like being helpless to save someone he cared about. Like his best friends.

Xavier still had a chance to recover. At the moment, he was propped up in the library like a great silent doll, but Oliver had faith his listless friend would come out of his fugue. That belief was precisely why Oliver, savior of all people who did not wish to be saved, had shoved his friend into a carriage and forced them both into an environment alive with lights and color. He might be dead inside, but he refused to allow the same to happen to Xavier.

Captain Xavier Grey had once been the jolliest rattle of them all. Now, he was one ragged breath away from catatonia.

Surgeons were at a loss. He was more dead than alive, but there was nothing visibly wrong with him. Perhaps all he needed was some re-assimilation. Wine. Women. Dancing. A reminder of what they’d fought for, and what was still worth living for.

So Oliver had sent for his friend and an army of tailors. The two of them could out-dandy Brummel himself. Xavier had been easy enough to shepherd along, since he was mute and pliant as waxwork. Perhaps a smidgen more lifeless.

And now they were at a ball. One look at Oliver’s face ensured no one would deny them entrance. But what was he to do with Xavier? He had fallen off his chair when Oliver had attempted to seat him in the ballroom with the spinsters, so Oliver had been forced to settle him in the library, in a wingback chair with plenty of pillows. That had worked. Somewhat. The man hadn’t changed position in the past two hours, and would likely sit there like a lump of clay right through Armageddon.

Oliver trudged from the library back to the ballroom. He clearly wasn’t curing Xavier tonight. Maybe the one most in need of wine, women, and dancing was Oliver himself.

Except the ratafia was warm, the wine bitter, the music off-pace. The debutantes were only attracted to his ignominiously gained title. The men only approached him to hear gore-splattered war stories Oliver had no inclination to retell, much less relive.

Ballroom Waterloo. The deafening orchestra, the cloying perfume, the swirls of satin and lace—it was as much a hell as the battlefield he’d escaped.

Anybody who fantasized about war was an imbecile. Anyone who fantasized about inheriting a title was an even bigger imbecile. This whole ballroom was chock full of imbeciles, and Oliver was the biggest of them all for thinking Xavier was a soldier he could save, this soirée a skirmish he could win. He didn’t know these people anymore. He wasn’t certain he even wished to. He curled his hands into fists.

Look at them planning their attacks. Sharpening their rapier wits. All of them, pawns in the same war, playing the parts they were born to play. He could no more have escaped inheriting his earldom than a wallflower could avoid being labeled a—

Oliver frowned. Brow furrowed, he squinted through the swirl of dancing couples and frowned again.

There was a girl. Across the room. Pressed into the wallpaper. A pretty girl who didn’t know her part.

Not a wallflower, this young woman, despite her back-to-the-wall stance. True wallflowers dressed in drab colors and did their best to blend with the shadows. This one wore a gown with enough silk and lace to befit an empress. The colors could blind a peacock. Her cleavage would tempt the Prince of Wales himself.

And yet, something about her gave the impression that her come-hither bodice and opulent trappings was nothing more than costuming. The true her—whoever that might be—was hidden from the naked eye. Oliver narrowed his own. Something in the set of her jaw, the stiffness in her spine, the softness of those ripe, full lips . . .

Even as he watched, she trapped her plump lower lip beneath a row of straight white teeth. Dark hair. Pale skin. Voluptuous curves. He shifted his weight.

This Snow White belonged to a different type of bedtime story. What man wouldn’t want those soft red lips on every part of his body? She must’ve infatuated half of London by now. The virginal lace at her bosom, the way those thick black lashes blinked a few more times than strictly necessary . . .

Oliver’s intrigued half-smile died on his face as he realized the truth. This wasn’t coquetry. His enticing wallflower was uncomfortable. Nervous. His fingers curled into fists. Where the devil was her chaperone? Her friends? Hell, her suitors? She was utterly alone. Someone this beautiful, with skin that fair and hair that dark couldn’t have any difficulty attracting a man.

“Got your eye on the new one, Carlisle?” came a sly whisper from behind Oliver’s shoulder. “Better dip your wick now, before all the others have their way. Miss Macaroni won’t be looking half as nubile once she’s had a mouthful of—”

“Macaroni?” Oliver interrupted, barely managing to tamp down his impulse to plug his fist into the speaker’s face, sight unseen. He wouldn’t be able to resist the temptation for long. War did that to a man.

The voice chuckled. “Eh, she’s a Yank. Best thing for anyone to do is keep a hand over her mouth, because you can’t understand a single word coming out of it.”

Oh, mother-loving shite. That was Phineas Mapleton talking. The ton’s worst gossip.

“Not that anyone’d want her for conversation anyway,” Mapleton continued. “Every female worth her salt has already given her the cut direct. The only creatures putting themselves in her path now are the profligates planning to give her a tumble or two. Dirty money, dirty gel. Not much else a chit like that can hope for. Old man Jarvis already put his name down in White’s as being the first to tup her. Got fifty quid on it, myself. Want to add your name to the pot?”

His lip curled in disgust. Ballrooms were treacherous indeed. This jackanapes had an innocent American in his sights. One who didn’t even seem to have a duenna, much less friends to keep away wolves like Mapleton.

Oliver’s temple began to throb as he forced his fists to unclench. This was a different type of combat, he reminded himself. The worst thing to do would be to make a scene with Mapleton. The scandal would be horrific.

Yet he couldn’t walk away. Not when the wallflower needed rescuing. His goddamn Achilles heel, no matter how disastrous the outcome tended to be. He wished his heroics would work out for once.

He kept his eyes trained on the pretty black-haired American, every muscle tensed for action. An eternity ticked by. No one approached her. She had no one to dance with, to talk to. She looked . . . lost. Hauntingly lonely. Frightened and defiant all at the same time.

’Twould be better for them both if he turned around right now. Never met her eye. Never exchanged a single word. Left her to her fate and him to his.

It was already too late.

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Chapter 2

The plan had seemed so simple when Grace Halton’s mother had first proposed it. Sail from Pennsylvania to England, meet her long-lost grandparents, and use their modest dowry to attract a husband capable and willing to provide for both Grace and her ailing mother.

Three simple steps. Three exercises in futility and failure.

First catastrophe: the ocean. Grace had spent the entire transatlantic journey with her face in her chamber pot, more than willing to trade the endless waves and deadening horizon for the flimsy, landlocked shack she’d shared with her mother.

Second disaster: her grandparents. They’d been aghast at Grace’s uncanny resemblance to their black-haired, green-eyed daughter. Almost every word out of their mouths since had been a criticism of Grace’s bearing or person or upbringing or education. Or reminding her that the dowry went to her husband, not her, and only if the groom was someone of whom they approved.

All of which made step three—Operation Husband—that much more difficult. She didn’t just need a beau. Attracting a suitor was a brainless, simple goal every debutante in this ballroom expected to accomplish by the end of the Season. Grace didn’t have that long. Not with her mother so sick. She needed someone who could be brought to scratch—and to the altar—in a matter of days.

Time was running out. Grace shook off her misgivings and straightened her spine. There was only one path forward. She needed a wealthy, controllable, kindhearted, grandparent-approved, banns-read-and-bells-rung husband, and she needed him Right. Now. If Grace didn’t return in the next few weeks with enough coin to save her mother and their home, there wouldn’t be a mother or a home to come back to.

It seemed insurmountable. If a gentleman was remotely moneyed and kindhearted and marriage-minded, he’d been snapped up long before Grace’s spindly legs had trembled ashore.

Her accent had taken care of the rest.

She’d set sail believing in her mother’s bedtime tales of glittering ballrooms and bejeweled gowns befitting a princess, promising Grace she’d be likely to have the ton at her feet and her hand on the altar before the first week was through. But the only Brits willing to look down their noses long enough to speak to her were the fops so desperate for attention that even a gauche American would suffice, or the decrepit old libertines so entranced by pretty young flesh that they didn’t much care what her accent sounded like. After all, they didn’t plan to speak with her.

Even the lady’s maid her grandparents kept sending along as a chaperone consistently disappeared within seconds of arrival. If a paid servant had better things to do than be seen publicly in Grace’s orbit, what hope was there for finding a husband?

At this point, what she mostly could use was a friend. But even that was hopeless.

The English roses would have naught to do with her. Grace was not only a penniless American; her grandparents’ small dowry carried the filthy taint of trade. And worse.

Grace’s grandfather had invested in some sort of fabric processing plant during the American Revolution, and then purchased a handful of sword and bayonet armament factories just as Napoleon rose to power. The recent battle of Waterloo had put paid to Napoleon’s rule, but Grace’s grandparents had become rich off the spilled blood of their countrymen. She shivered at the thought. No wonder she was a pariah.

“Cold, chérie?” A rich but toothless roué grinned down at her over the curve of his gold-plated cane, marriage—or rather, the marriage bed—obviously on his mind. “A turn with me in one of the balconies might warm those bare shoulders, eh?”

Grace leaped to her feet and out from under his calculated gaze. She’d thought herself invisible among the sea of spinsters and chaperones along the far wall, but the come-hither cut of her fashion-plate gown had undoubtedly given her away. Three weeks of seasickness had whittled the plumpness from her body, giving her a wasp waist and actual cheekbones for the first time in her life.

Such a diet was not one Grace could recommend. Especially since it seemed to go hand in glove with attracting the lecherous eye of men older than her grandfather.

“Sorry,” she blurted in a tone that indicated she was anything but. “This set is already promised.”

She all but flew out of his palsied grasp, side-stepping the matrons to squeeze against the shadowed wainscoting at the opposite end of the ballroom. This corner was too close to the orchestra to hear oneself think, too far from the food and drink to engender even idle conversation. The icy draft from a second-floor balcony kept away anyone whose blood was still circulating, and the wax spitting from the last taper in the chandelier overhead marked this square meter as uninhabitable.

She crossed her goose-pimpled arms over her ruched bodice, mindless of the thick moulding digging into the small of her back or the clumps of wax sticking to her silk slippers. Her gaze darted about the ballroom. Elegant couples began a lively country-dance. Grace hugged herself tighter. She had never felt less like dancing.

Not that she’d been asked.

Her jaw clenched. She hadn’t any idea how to accomplish any of her goals. Without her grandparents’ money, she couldn’t return to her homeland. Without a husband, she couldn’t get her grandparents’ money. Without a noble birth and a British accent, she couldn’t attract a man interested in something other than her dowry or her virginity.

Back home in Pennsylvania, she’d had friends of both sexes, who loved her for herself and not for something they might take from her. Back home in Pennsylvania, they would’ve had a right belly laugh to see Gracie Halton trussed up in finery and mincing about a suffocating ballroom. Back home in Pennsylvania, her mother— her mother—

Grace’s breath caught and her eyes blurred. Oh, who knew what was going on back home in Pennsylvania? She’d written her mother and her neighbors every day since she’d stepped off the boat, and had yet to receive a single word of response. Fear gripped her. Was her mother still in the threadbare bed Grace had last seen her in? Was she even still alive? Was there still time? Or had Grace flung herself headlong into a fool’s mission that only ensured she would not be present in her mother’s last hours, when she needed her daughter most?

Blindly, Grace pushed away from the velvet-lined wall . . .

Right into the path of a giant as tall and as hard as an oak.

A firm hand caught her about the waist as strong fingers captured her wrists. She blinked the sting of unshed tears from her eyes to find herself entangled not with an oak, but with a man possessed of dark brown hair and dangerous golden brown eyes. A wry smile curved his lips as the orchestra began the opening strains of a waltz.

The hot muscles beneath her palms were hard and firm—no need for a tailor’s touch to improve this sculpted body. He was impossibly tall and uncomfortably close. But unlike the other trussed turkeys sweltering inside the breezeless room, his clothes didn’t reek of day-old perfume. His eyes weren’t bloodshot or blasé, but rather clear and warm and drinking her in as if he were two seconds away from yanking her close enough to claim her mouth. Her heart thundered.

Everything about him was raw heat and restrained power. The exact opposite of what she was looking for. If a man like this took a wife, he would never let her slip away.

She forced her starving lungs to breathe. She was making a cake of herself. She’d almost mown down this exquisite hulk of a man, like the unsophisticated American they all believed her to be. He was simply protecting the herd by putting himself in the path of the rampaging bull.

Heat flooded her cheeks as she broke eye contact. She’d never felt so foolish and uncultured in her life.

Her breath hitched, but she forced herself to meet his eyes. A warm, honey brown. Someone this gorgeous definitely had somewhere better to be. She tugged at her wrists, signaling he was free to go. Only a fool would try to keep him.

He dropped one of his hands, but did not immediately hurry away, as she had anticipated. He seemed even larger than before.

His free hand tightened at her waist. “Shall we dance?”

Just like that, her legs could barely hold her steady. She tilted into his touch, conscious that he must be able to feel her body tremble beneath his fingers. Why would he wish to dance with her? He was too young to be a roué, too gentlemanly to be a rake, too well-heeled to be desperate for money, too smolderingly attractive to be in want of female companionship.

But it couldn’t hurt to make certain.

She narrowed her eyes and forced her mind back on her mission. She needed a husband with money. “Are your pockets to let?”

He blinked at her in confusion. “What? No!”

“Are you in the market for a wife?”

Hell no!” His sculpted cheekbones flushed a subtle pink as he belatedly recalled he was speaking to a lady. “That is to say, at some point, it is my duty to take a wife.”

“Close enough.” Grace slid her wrist from his fingers and placed her hand in his. “This dance is yours.”

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Chapter 3

It wasn’t until the dark-haired vixen was already in his arms that Oliver realized just how badly he’d bollocksed the rescue mission. He’d swept the incomparable wallflower into a waltz before all and sundry, and he didn’t even know her name. His shoulders tensed. He certainly put the err in knight errant.

Perhaps in America, Yankees could twirl comely strangers about a ballroom, but here in England, proper decorum dictated that gentlemen not even address an unknown maiden until they had been properly introduced, lest he publicly embarrass them both.

Yet it was already done. The slender fingers of her right hand nestled in his left, and his right palm was pressed flush against the delicate silk covering her equally delicate back. Her lips were even more tempting now that they were close enough to taste. She smelled like honey and wildflowers. He tried not to notice.

“What’s your name?” he whispered urgently. Soft black eyelashes framed captivatingly green eyes. He couldn’t look away.

She lifted a brow. “What do the others call me?”

The arch look on her face indicated she already knew the answer. He grimaced. Certainly she could not expect him to repeat the horrible appellation aloud.

She stared back at him without blinking. The seconds ticked closer to minutes.

“Macaroni,” he admitted.

“That’ll be Miss Macaroni to you.” Her eyes laughed up at him.

He pulled her a little closer. And realized that, whether she laughed or not, hearing those words on someone’s lips had to hurt. His mouth tightened. He would not contribute to such rumors.

“We must pretend to already know each other,” he explained as they twirled in time with the music.

She arched a slender black brow. “Why?”

He blinked. What did she mean, why? They were waltzing together without even having been presented. “For your reputation, of course.”

“My reputation is a piece of pasta. What more could you need to know?”

“Smith? Jones?” he pled desperately. Did she not understand the peril to young ladies who broke proscribed rules? “Certainly you have some other name, unrelated to foodstuffs.”

Her lips curved. “Since you’re the first to inquire, I’ll let you in on the secret. I am Miss Halton.”

He smiled back at her. Miss Halton. He liked how it sounded on her lips.

Before he could share his own name, her eyes narrowed. “Why are you dancing with me?”

The practiced words floated from his lips without thinking. “Who wouldn’t wish to dance with a young lady as beautiful as you?”

“Everyone,” she answered flatly. “This is the first I’ve been asked since arriving in England.” She lifted her lips closer to his ear. “The stink of trade keeps the smarter suitors away.”

He choked behind the pointed edges of his cravat. “Who would say such a thing to you?”

She raised her brows. “Nobody. Absolutely no one speaks to me. I’m left to assume the stink of trade is self-evident.”

He caught himself lowering his face closer to the shining black curls piled atop her head. Quickly, he straightened his spine afore any onlookers might notice the gaffe.

She noticed, of course. Her light green eyes twinkled.

“You smell like jasmine,” he said, after clearing his throat. “It’s quite a lovely scent.”

“It’s bath soap. I’ll have to write a note of appreciation to the manufacturer.”

So would he. He took another sniff. His pulse raced as he fought the urge to twirl her right out of the ballroom. Either the scent or the woman—or likely a combination of both—had infiltrated his brain with images he really ought not to be having about Miss Halton in nothing but warm water and a few jasmine-scented bubbles. His throat convulsed.

He needed to steer this conversation back to safety. Such as completing the bloody introductions. Unless she hadn’t asked because his title had already preceded him?

“If you didn’t know,” he said, “I am the Earl of Carlisle.”

“I . . . did . . . not,” she replied. “How splendid for you.”

“Is it? I much preferred being Mr. Oliver York,” he found himself admitting. He nearly stumbled as his words sank in. Why on earth would he say something that heretical to a total stranger, when he wouldn’t confess it to his best friends?

Perhaps because Miss Halton was a total stranger, he realized. An ostracized American who not only held little interest in English propriety, but also had an utter lack of ears to gossip to, should the inclination ever cross her mind.

“I should have preferred that as well,” she said, much to his surprise. “Pity.”

He blinked in shock. She might not care about British nobility, but there was nothing abhorrent about being an earl, for shite’s sake. Before he could reply, her rosebud lips were once again parting.

“It could be worse. At least you’re not out hunting dowries.”

“How gratifying you’ve found something to recommend me,” he said between closed teeth. Why was she even here, if she held such disdain for his compatriots?

“Oh, I wouldn’t recommend you.”

He stared at her twinkling eyes for a second and then found himself biting back a grin. Had she really just set him in his place? The corners of his mouth twitched. He seemed far more in need of rescuing than the sharp-tongued Miss Halton. Being titled certainly hadn’t impressed her. For someone cast into the lot of social pariah for nothing more than an accident of geography, she seemed to delight in acting the role of termagant.

He was appalled to find it a bit . . . refreshing.

After escaping the dark cloud around his usual companions, it was a relief to converse with a disinterested third party. Someone who didn’t want something he could never give. Someone who had never seen the ravages of war. Someone with whom he did not share a past.

Someone with knowing eyes and pouting lips and a slender waist.

He forced himself to loosen his grip. “What shall we say when people ask us how we met? It needs to be something respectable. And believable.”

“There’s nothing more believable than the truth. We’ll simply say I was strolling about, minding my own business, when you appeared out of nowhere and dragged me bodily to the dance floor.”

He nodded once. “I’ve a better idea. Let’s make up something completely untruthful.”

The corners of her mouth twitched. “Aha. We’ll say I was in my nightrail, brushing my hair in peaceful solitude, when you climbed up to my balcony and—”

“Do you even have a balcony?”

She pursed her lips. “You’re not invited upon it, regardless.”

He gave her a slow, naughty smile. “No one’s ever invited to scale a balcony.”

“Some women might be convinced to let you try.” Her teasing gaze heated his skin.

“Let’s start over,” he suggested, rather than consider what the fictional Oliver might do after climbing up her balcony. Answer: everything.

“Why?” Her lips quirked. “Are we not having fun?”

“We’re having far too much fun.”

“These parties are supposed to be boring?” She lifted an eyebrow.

He gave her a stern nod, well aware his eyes betrayed his humor. “Precisely. You’re meant to remark upon the weather, and I upon . . . the teacakes . . .”

“Good heavens, that is boring,” she replied with mock horror. “How does anyone find a match with conversations as dull as those? I should think marriage requires an understanding built upon something more substantial than weather and teacakes.”

He frowned. “I thought you weren’t looking for marriage.”

She lifted her chin. “We established you were not.”

His fingers tightened possessively. He tried to relax them. She was free to do as she pleased. “So you are on the hunt?”

“It’s complicated,” she admitted. “And, as you may have noticed, not going very well.”

He lowered his voice conspiratorially. “I think everyone has noticed.”

He smiled at the eye roll she did not quite manage to hide. He did not smile at the twist to his stomach upon the news she was on the hunt for a husband.

Not that he was available, he reminded himself. Good lord. What should have been an unremarkable waltz was becoming much more dangerous than he could have dreamed.

He put a bit more distance between them. Tried to, anyway. “Do you dance often in America?”

“Never.”

“Then how did you learn to waltz?”

“My grandparents hired a tutor when I arrived in London.”

Grandparents! His lungs expanded with pleasure. He should not feel so victorious at having teased another personal detail from that rosy mouth but, well, there it was. Although, come to think of it, he hadn’t learned much. If there was no dancing in America, why would her grandparents have hired an instructor? And if her grandparents were British, what had she been doing in America? “Where do—”

“York!” came a familiar voice at Oliver’s back as the last strains of the waltz faded away. “Introduce me to your friend.”

The owner of the deep voice had to know that Miss Halton had not yet made any friends. Oliver turned to flash a cold smile at the Duke of Ravenwood. He was not a friend either. Not anymore. The war had changed them both for different reasons, and neither of them much liked who the other had become.

“It’s Carlisle now,” Oliver corrected, his voice low and dangerous.

Ravenwood flinched, as if the slight had been accidental rather than premeditated. “That’s right. I was very sorry to hear the news. The two of you weren’t close, but . . . A father is a father.”

Oliver glared at him in silence. Anything said now would be disastrous to them both.

Ravenwood turned his gaze toward the siren Oliver still hadn’t relinquished. “Does this delightful young lady have a name?”

Oliver released Miss Halton’s hand. Their moment was clearly over. “Miss Halton, this is His Grace, the Duke of Ravenwood. Ravenwood, this is Miss Halton, of America.”

Ravenwood lifted Miss Halton’s gloved hand to his parted lips. “The honor—and utter delight—are most assuredly mine, my dear lady. May I have the pleasure of your company during the next set?”

Oliver kept his fists at his sides. The giant stick up Ravenwood’s arse would keep him from putting Miss Halton’s honor in any danger. And it was time to slip back into the library and check on Xavier. Perhaps he would finally come around.

Miss Halton, for her part, was gazing at Ravenwood with eyes filled with suspicion, not seduction. Very wise. She’d gone from no dances at all, to being on the arm of both an earl and a duke in quick succession.

The gaggle of nervous young bucks lining up behind them for a chance to add their names to her dance card? Also Oliver’s fault. When he’d sought to save Miss Halton’s precarious reputation from the evil of wagging tongues, he’d acted as Oliver York, rescuer of people who wished he’d leave them alone. In the heat of the moment, he’d forgotten that he was now the Earl of Carlisle, as well as a decorated war hero whom these dandified idiots had been emulating from the moment Oliver strode back ashore.

Having won both Ravenwood’s and Oliver’s attentions, Miss Halton would no longer be in want of dance partners.

Ravenwood passed Miss Halton’s dance card to the next addle-pate in line, but was not so quick to release her hand. “However did you meet an old caterpillar like Carlisle?”

Oliver’s smile froze as he flashed Miss Halton a warning look. He knew they should’ve gotten their stories straight when they’d had the chance.

She blinked up at Ravenwood innocently. “Didn’t he tell you? We’ve known each other a shocking length of time. If you can credit it, Lord Carlisle is even the first man I ever danced with.”

Ravenwood shot a surprised glance at Oliver, who was struggling not to smile at Miss Halton’s clever response. Every word was true, yet gave the impression they’d known each other for ages. Which, given that he and Ravenwood had known each other all their lives, would mean Oliver had been keeping her a secret for decades. Splendid idea, that. He wished she were his secret. He found himself quite disinclined to share.

He grinned at Miss Halton until the butterflies in his stomach churned into nausea. He was sinking fast. With a gallant bow, he broke free of her web and forced himself to walk away from those enchanting green eyes. Far, far away.

He could not dare risk his heart.

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