In the scene below, American heiress May Sedgwick isn't fitting in as she should with Henry, Lord Devenham, the man she knows she ought to marry. Complicating matters, her former love, Rex Leighton (who's changed his name and remade himself as a successful entrepreneur in London) is present at the same society events, trying to marry his own aristocratic bride.
They are competing, you see, to win a duke's wager and see who can marry a blueblood first.
From Chapter Nine...
A footman scurried to open the door and she stopped on the front step, sucking in long gulps of cool night air. Moments passed before she tamed her frustration, as much with herself as with Henry’s cousin and friends. She’d never run away from a drawing room skirmish. Worry over her father seemed to be fraying her nerves.
“Escaping before the evening is over is my style, not yours.” Rex had found her.
Before she could put back her armor and guard against him, the deep tone of his voice sent a wave of heat rushing through her body, igniting memories she’d vowed to forget.
“I intend to return to the ballroom momentarily, Mr. Leighton. You needn’t have come to rescue me.”
He moved to stand next to her. Too close. So near his citrus and spice cologne made her mouth water.
“You’ve never struck me as a woman who required rescuing.”
May sensed him watching her, not appraising her as those in the ballroom had. His gaze was different. It always had been. He looked at her as if she mattered. Not her fine clothes, whatever beauty she’d inherited from her mother, or her father’s wealth. Just her. What she thought and needed and desired.
“Which sort of woman do I strike you as?” She hadn’t meant to speak the question so softly, to let him know how eager she was to hear his opinion. Even now, after so many years apart.
He turned fully, facing her, though she continued to keep her focus ahead. His gaze pressed like the stroke of fingertips against her face.
“Strong willed.” His voice was too deep, too full of admiration.
“You mean stubborn?”
He chuckled and a bit of her armor began to crumble. “Well, you are your father’s daughter.”
“I won’t tell him you said that.”
“You’re a clever sort of woman.” He crossed his arms as he watched her. “Too intelligent to waste your time talking about horse races.”
She swiveled to face him. “How did you know we were talking about horseracing? You were on the other side of the room.”
“Does Devenham ever talk about anything else?”
He smiled and May felt an answering tug at the corners of her mouth. She tried for one of those English sniffs of disdain and only managed to get a whiff of him. Not his cologne, but the unique scent of his skin, his essence. She'd never forgotten it.
“I’m sure Henry can speak on many interesting topics. He would have been tutored in polite conversation as he was in all the other rules of etiquette.” Her throat burned as she spoke. She loathed the brittleness in her tone as she reminded Rex of Henry’s virtues. Perhaps she was attempting to convince herself.
“Fascinating man, the earl, I’m sure.” He seemed as unconvinced as she was and flashed one of his potent grins. “Yet you knew where I was in the room. His chatter was so interesting you took the time to look for me.”
“Don’t flatter yourself. I was looking for Emily.”
“Liar.” He took a step closer, hovering over her.
A single step forward and she could touch him. Kiss him, if she lifted onto her toes. She bit her lip, resisting the urge to move toward the wide, heated wall of his body.
“You can’t lie to me, May. I know your tell.”
He raised his hand as if to touch her. She leaned, aching to feel his skin against hers. He offered her no satisfaction.
“Your right eyelash flutters.” He traced his finger in the air over the arch of her brow. “Not quite a squint. Just an agitated little quiver.”
“I do not quiver.” But she was, if one counted her belly, her thighs, the tickle up her spine, and, probably, that traitor of an eyelash.
He lowered his face toward hers. Looked her straight in the eyes. “Don’t deny what you want. That’s not the May I remember.”
“Perhaps I’m different now. As you are, Mr. Leighton.” May took a step back. She hated that he knew her so well, that she’d allowed him into her heart, let him see parts of herself no one else had. If he’d valued those moments, loved her as she’d loved him, it would hurt so much less. But he hadn’t.
“Because you’ve learned the etiquette of London aristocrats?” He closed the distance she’d created by stepping toward her. “You needn’t follow all their rules, May.”
How dare a man who barely knew the rules of polite society lecture her on ignoring them?
“Not all of us can remake ourselves and do as we please.” Her tone was more complimentary than she meant it to be. Wistful, even. Hadn’t she considered remaking herself weeks before when presenting her sketches to Emily? Dreamed of starting her own business, as he had, and succeeding in design rather than the drawing room.
“There’s a difference between you and me.” His voice dipped low, a husky tone she felt like a whisper feathering against her skin. “You’re lovely just as you are. No changes required.”
Her heart thrashed in her chest as she bit back the words that welled up. She wanted to tell him that he was lovely. With the moonlight setting his eyes aglow and casting all the striking angles of his face in light and shadow, he was beautiful. Far more appealing than any chiaroscuro drawing she’d ever attempted. And the man he’d become—his confidence and accomplishments—all of that impressed her too.
“No,” she said, to herself and to him. She couldn’t allow herself to be drawn in again. If she’d changed at all, it was because he’d taught her not to trust too readily. “We should return to the ballroom. People will talk if we’re both gone too long.”
He took a step back when she pushed past him toward the door, then he reached an arm out to stall her. “Will you dance with me?”
“No, I don’t think we should.” She imagined it, could already feel the tingle of his hand clasped in hers, the press of his palm at her back.
“Because you’re saving all your dances for Devenham?” It was the first time he raised his voice since joining her on the front step.
“As you’ve promised Caroline all of yours?”
He shifted his arm to grip her lightly around the waist, finally offering the touch she’d been craving from the moment he’d joined her outside. Her body betrayed her and she pressed against his hand. Some part of her needed this—his touch, his warmth, his nearness.
“I’d rather dance with you,” he whispered.
Yes. She wanted to dance with him too. They’d never danced before. It would be new and fresh between them, untainted by past hurts. But she’d want more. She already wanted more.
“What about the duke’s wager?” Grasping, she searched for any reason, any excuse, that would allow her to deny her desire to waltz with him. “Dancing with me won’t win you the funds for your hotel.”
Rex lowered his arm and shoved his clenched fist down at his side. “Go, then. Devenham will have missed you by now.”
He’d rarely spoken to her in anger, but she heard it now in his tone, felt it radiating off of him, as hot as the heat of his touch.
“Enjoy the rest of your evening, Mr. Leighton.”
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