“Miss Weatherby!” squealed a young lady Priscilla had helped earlier in the season, as their carriages drew close. “If you come to my church on Sunday, you’ll hear a familiar name in the banns!”
“Congratulations,” Priscilla said warmly.
It was not a path she would have chosen. Priscilla thought of her time in London as a prelude to her life as an explorer. A necessary inconvenience, nothing more.
“Miss Weatherby!” Another young lady Priscilla had helped the previous season beamed at her next to her new husband. “I wanted to thank you for—”
Whatever it was she had done, Priscilla did not hear it. There, not forty yards away, sat Thaddeus Middleton atop a smart bay. The very man she’d been trying her hardest not to think about. Of course he’d be part of the Hyde Park crowd. He looked dashing in biscuit-colored buckskins and a stylish wool coat of olive green. Even his smile was delectable.
As if he felt the whisper of her breath upon his skin, Mr. Middleton abruptly lifted his head and turned in her direction. His gaze locked with hers, too far away to see the golden flecks in his dark brown eyes, but hot enough to warm her to her toes all the same.
“Blast and damn.” She flung herself around to face forward and waved a nervous hand toward her driver. “Go! Go!”
The driver could go, but not far. Hundreds of other carriages trudged like treacle down the same gravel road as all the others.
She pushed the warming brick toward the maids and fanned her throat. One sighting of Mr. Middleton and spring had turned to summer.
Her high color was due to the wind, not to the handsome rider who absolutely positively was not coming this way, even as her barouche fled inch by painstaking inch behind an armada of horsemen and carriages.
Was she attracted to Mr. Middleton? Of course. She had a pulse, didn’t she? But she also had a brain. If she let this foolish attraction go any further, she would lose everything.
The only choice was to mind her distance and stay far, far away.
“Miss Weatherby,” came a meltingly rich, low voice from just outside the carriage. “A pleasure to see you.”
The last thing Priscilla wanted to do was look at him again. The mere sight stole the breath from her lungs and filled her pounding heart with dangerous emotions.
“Mr. Middleton,” she managed to croak. “Likewise.”
There. Was that enough? Would he go away, after having performed his duty by greeting every acquaintance, no matter how fixedly she avoided looking at his face?
“I hoped the fine weather would bring you out today,” he continued. “I was disappointed when I didn’t see you yesterday.”
Damn and blast. Priscilla’s pulse raced wild in her ears. No one had ever hopedfor her before, let alone voiced disappointment at going a single day without her company. What the devil was she meant to say in response to that?
“I…” Witty banter failed her. “I’m sure you have other people to greet.”
“This is my sixth circuit about the park,” he replied cheerfully. “If you didn’t appear soon, my beleaguered friends would start greeting me with rotten tomatoes.”
Oh, very well. Her high color was definitely due to Mr. Middleton, and not the wind.
“That’s a lovely bonnet,” he said, his gaze warm and sincere. “The indigo ribbon makes your eyes seem even more luminous than usual.”
She would toss the ribbon into the fire the moment she returned home. The bonnet’s lack of flowers and ostrich feathers was meant to make her lessremarkable, not more so. Certainly not… luminousto cheerful, happy-go-lucky ton gentlemen.
This situation required a sharp, no-nonsense setdown.
“I like your cravat,” she mumbled.
She liked his cravat?Brilliant.
It was all Priscilla could do not to bury her face in her hands and throw herself from the excruciatingly slow-moving carriage.
If she did, Mr. Middleton would likely catch her in his warm, strong arms and cradle her to his wide, firm chest and—
“Thank you,” he said, as if people frequently complimented him on the one item of clothing all men wore, with little variance in location or color. “If you’re in the market for a fine neckcloth, I can introduce you to an absolute wizard of the craft over on Bond Street.”
He was teasing her, Priscilla realized in wonder. Mr. Middleton was neither rebuffed nor insulted nor bored, but rather having a spot of fun. Not at her expense, but withher. As if they were friends.
Now was definitely the time for that setdown.
“Bond Street,” she said instead, with a sad shake of her head. “I assemble my own linen by hand, one thread at a time.”
“That’s because you’re a lady,” he said solemnly, “and ladies have skills. All the gentlemen I’ve ever known are helpless as babes.”
“Not all men,” she assured him. “I believe I read a travel journal once, in which the intrepid explorer wasn’t completelyuseless.”
“If he wrotethe journal,” Mr. Middleton whispered, “it’s probably lies.”
Priscilla placed her hands to her chest in faux outrage. “A gentleman? Exaggerating his accomplishments?”
Mr. Middleton nodded earnestly. “It happens more than you think. In fact…” He sent a furtive glance over each shoulder before leaning close. “I don’t even know any linen-drapers on Bond Street. My valet handles that. I was just hoping to see you again.”
Damn and blast.
Priscilla’s voice failed her. Any other woman would have melted right then and there. Come to think of it, she’d actually begun the melting process twenty minutes ago, when she glimpsed him from afar.
Of course she wanted to see him again. Any other woman would be halfway onto his lap by now.
Carnal possibilities aside, he seemed like a man a woman could have a wonderful time with, even when they weren’t kissing. The sort that would make a fine lover anda cherished friend.
But Priscilla couldn’t risk any of that. She’d had her moment of fun, experienced her first flirtation. No matter how rude she had to be to make it happen, it was time to discourage his attentions once and for all. Nothing could jeopardize her inheritance.
Especially not her heart.