“Yes, but—ouch.” The point of a scroll had scratched her upper arm. The situation was becoming intolerable. Spurred by the beginnings of alarm, she moved restlessly within the snarls of carved wood. “Oh, this is horriculous.”
“Easy. Let me guide your head.”
They both froze as a gruff shout came from just outside the summer house. “What the devil is going on in there?”
The man leaning over Pandora swore softly beneath his breath. Pandora wasn’t certain what the word meant, but it sounded even worse than “bollocks.”
The enraged outsider continued. “Scoundrel! I wouldn’t have expected this even of you. Forcing yourself on a helpless female, and abusing my hospitality during a charity ball!”
“My lord,” Pandora’s companion called out brusquely, “you misunderstand the situation.”
“I’m sure I understand it quite well. Unhand her this instant.”
“But I’m still stuck,” Pandora said plaintively.
“For shame.” The cantankerous old man seemed to be addressing a third party as he remarked, “Caught in the very act, it seems.”
Bewildered, Pandora felt the stranger prying her out of the settee, one of his hands briefly shielding the side of her face to protect her from scratches. His touch was gentle but wildly unsettling, sending a warm shiver through her body. As soon as she was free of the woodwork, Pandora stood too quickly. Her head spun after having been held down for too long, and her balance went off-kilter. Reflexively the stranger caught her against him as she staggered. She had a brief, dizzying impression of a hard chest and a wealth of tightly knit muscle before he let go. Her loosened coiffure flopped forward over her forehead as she looked down at herself. Her skirts were dirty and rumpled. Red marks scored her shoulders and upper arms.
“Damn it,” the man facing her muttered. “Who are you?”
“Lady Pandora Ravenel. I’ll tell them . . .” Her voice trailed away as she found herself looking up at an arrogant young god, tall and big framed, every line of him taut with feline grace. The tiny pendant lamp overhead sent sunstruck golden glints playing among the thick, well-cut layers of his amber hair. His eyes were winter-blue, his cheekbones high and straight, the line of his jaw hard enough to chisel marble. The full, sensuous curves of his lips lent a note of erotic dissonance to his otherwise classic features. One glance at him was enough to make her feel as if she were trying to breathe at high altitude. What would it do to a man’s character to be so inhumanly beautiful? It couldn’t be anything good.
Shaken, Pandora shoved her hand into the pocket of her gown and dropped the earring inside. “I’ll tell them nothing happened. It’s the truth, after all.”
“The truth isn’t going to matter,” came his curt reply.
He motioned for her to precede him from the summer house, and they were immediately confronted by Lord Chaworth, the host of the ball and owner of the estate. As a friend of the Berwicks, he was one of the last people Pandora would have wanted to discover her in a compromising situation. He was accompanied by a dark-haired man Pandora had never seen before.
Chaworth was short and stocky, shaped like an apple set on a pair of nut picks. A white nimbus of side whiskers and beard quivered tensely around his face as he spoke. “The earl and I were walking to the river’s edge to view the setup for the fireworks, when we happened to hear the young lady’s screams for help.”
“I didn’t scream,” Pandora protested.
“I’ve already walked down there myself to talk to the contractor,” the young man beside her said. “As I was returning to the house, I happened to notice that Lady Pandora was in difficulty, having caught part of her dress in the settee. I was only trying to help her.”
The snowy puffs of Chaworth’s brows ascended to his hairline as he turned to Pandora. “Is that true?”
“It is, my lord.”
“Why, pray tell, were you out here in the first place?”
Pandora hesitated, unwilling to turn evidence against Dolly. “I slipped out for a breath of fresh air. I was . . . bored in there.”
“Bored?” Chaworth echoed in outrage. “With a twenty-piece orchestra and a ballroom full of eligible bucks to dance with?”
“I wasn’t asked to dance,” Pandora mumbled.
“You might have been, had you not been out here consorting with a notorious rake!”
“Chaworth,” the dark-haired man beside him intervened quietly, “if I may speak.”
The speaker was ruggedly attractive, with boldly hewn features and the sun-browned complexion of an avid outdoorsman. Although he was not young—his black locks were liberally shot with steel, and time had deepened the laugh-lines around his eyes and the brackets between his nose and mouth—he certainly couldn’t have been called old. Not with that air of robust health, and the presence of a man with considerable authority.
“I’ve known the lad since the day he was born,” he continued, his voice deep and a bit gravelly. “As you know, his father is a close friend. I’ll vouch for his character, and his word. For the girl’s sake, I suggest that we hold our silence and handle the matter with discretion.”
“I am also acquainted with his father,” Lord Chaworth snapped, “who plucked many a fair flower in his day. Obviously the son is following in his footsteps. No, Westcliff, I will not remain silent—he must be held accountable for his actions.”
Westcliff? Pandora glanced at him with alert interest. She had heard of the Earl of Westcliff, who, after the Duke of Norfolk, held the oldest and most respected peerage title in England. His vast Hampshire estate, Stony Cross Park, was famed for its fishing, hunting, and shooting.
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