Robert couldn’t stop the stupid full grin that curled up his lips. Of course he’d been called handsome before, but for some reason that he couldn’t comprehend at the moment, hearing her say it pleased him immensely. “Then what brought you to the conclusion that I was looking for privacy?”
She shrugged as she sat back down, leaning to the side so that she could focus her attention on him. “Well, there’s the fact that this particular orangery is far beyond the appropriate distance from the house. No man is going to come out here with a woman unless he’s looking to be trapped.” He couldn’t help but nod in agreement.
“Then there’s the weather. It’s quite cold out. A woman would probably complain about the distance from the house to the orangery. Then again, she would probably refuse the suggestion outright, knowing that it was too cold outside and that she would not be able to retrieve her shawl without drawing suspicion.”
Once again he nodded in agreement.
“Then of course there is the obvious.”
“Which is?” he asked, moving closer.
“A gentleman would not meet a woman here. He would escort her so that she didn’t have a chance to change her mind or accept another man’s invitation. It would also take both parties from the ball for far too long. If you were to arrive first, there would be the waiting period and then the actual time of your meeting not to mention the time one of you would need to remain behind so that it wouldn’t appear as though the two of you had gone off together."
He couldn’t help grinning. The woman was smart as well as attractive. He looked around the large room as a thought occurred to him. “Hmm, you’ve given this some thought. Are you perhaps meeting someone here? Or did he already leave?” he asked, making sure to add a teasing note to his tone.
Her smile weakened a bit as she shook her head. “No, there have never been any meetings for me and there probably never will be,” she admitted with a small shrug and a wistful tone that he almost missed.
“I don’t plan on marrying,” she explained with a small smile.
“Why don’t you wish to marry?” he asked, forcing himself to sound casual. He wasn’t offering. Oh, hell no. Marriage was not going to happen for him unless he was desperate for an heir for his family’s sake. He had no intentions on being tied down to one woman for the rest of his life, someone that was constantly underfoot and depended on him for her happiness.
She looked thoughtful for a moment before she spoke. “I don’t want to be any man’s property."
“I thought that’s why these things,” he gestured back towards the ball, “were thrown so that young women could find themselves a husband. So, they could select an appropriate husband, someone to take care of them.”
She shrugged indifferently. “Yes, I dare say that many of the women are here for that reason and would find me utterly foolish, because I don’t wish to find a husband at one of these orchestrated events.”
“Then why did you come?” He took another step closer.
“Probably for the same reason that you did.”
“Which is?” he prompted. He didn’t want her to stop talking for fear that one of them would have to leave. He wanted to make this last, but more importantly, he wanted to see her smile and hear her laugh one more time before he had to do the right thing and walk away.
“Well,” she looked thoughtful, “in your case I would assume that either your mother or your father persuaded you to attend. If I had to guess, I would say that your mother was the one that expected your attendance.”
She nodded firmly. “Your mother, definitely your mother. If it was your father you would have simply made an appearance, danced with a few women to make him think that you were looking for a wife and be done with it.”
He agreed. “If it was my mother? What reason would I have to attend then?”
“Most mothers wish for their sons to marry for a simple reason, grandchildren. You came here even though you clearly don’t want to be here. You came to make your mother happy, because she requested your attendance and you obviously care a great deal for your mother. Instead of simply leaving, you searched for a place to hide.”
He arched an eyebrow at that. “Or it could be that I came here in her carriage and I am trapped here until she decides that it’s time to leave,” he drawled.
Her eyes slowly moved down his body in an assessing manner, but not in the same way that Penelope had looked him over. This woman’s gaze didn’t annoy him. Her gaze made him stand straighter as every muscle in his body flexed under her scrutiny, making him feel like an idiot even as he wondered if she liked what she saw.
“You’re obviously a man with means. You could have hired a hack and left. There’s always the card room for escape or you could have simply left with a friend.”
“Or walked,” he added.
She smiled. “I much prefer walks myself. Yes, you could have walked provided that your home was close enough.”
“That’s not too far away.”
“No, it’s not.” He rather enjoyed walks. He found himself taking walks every evening. Even in London he found that he enjoyed walking. The vulgar smells of the city and crowds didn’t seem to dampen his enjoyment enough for him to stop.
He eyed her carefully. Her skin was the color of light honey. She looked fit, but not too thin. Her br**sts were good size, not too big, but perfect for his hands, and from what he recalled from when she stood, her h*ps were generous. He was willing to bet her legs were well defined, probably from hours of walking.
“So, you’re here because your parents want you to marry,” he surmised from what little he knew about her and what he knew about women of her station in general.
She gave him a dreamy smile that made his chest tighten. “When I was a little girl I wanted nothing more than to have a season. It all seemed so magical, balls, dancing, and being courted by handsome men,” she added the last with a teasing tone.
He grinned. “Sounds like every girl’s dream to find Prince Charming. What happened to change that dream?” he asked, coming closer. He was now standing only a few feet away from her. His original thought that she was beautiful shattered. She was nothing less than a goddess.
She sighed heavily. “Anthony.”
He felt a tug of unease. Was it jealousy?
“So, you’re in love with this Anthony?”
Please God, no .
She laughed. “No. He’s my brother-in-law. My sister married for love. She didn’t care about a title or money. He made her happy, still does. They are the happiest couple that I know and their boys are extraordinary.”
“And you want that for yourself,” he surmised.
“It will most likely never happen for me,” she said with a careless shrug that tore at his heart and left him wondering why he cared so much.
She was not going to tell this stranger that she was an heiress. If he turned out to be a fortune hunter she would be in trouble. He could easily sound the alarm and she would be compromised and forced to accept his hand. She wouldn’t be able to survive being trapped in a loveless marriage.