“So, if you wish to marry for love, why don’t you enjoy evenings like this more?”

She waved her hand lazily in the air. “This? This is all orchestrated. People come here looking for the right connection, the right amount of money, and the best gossip. No one comes here looking for love. I knew before my coming out that I would never find love at a ball. It would just happen…..somehow, somewhere.”

He took another step forward. “But you came anyway.”

She looked wistful. “Until the day I marry, I belong to my father and then to my husband. I am considered nothing more than property. If I wish to have certain rights or benefits I must make the man in my life happy first. Then if he is generous I might be allowed to follow my own pursuits.” Of course that would all change with her inheritance.

Without a word, he moved to sit next to her on the padded bench. He leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. “Sounds unfair, but I don’t understand what type of pursuits a woman could have that a man would not allow. Surely your father would encourage you to embroider, watercolor, play the pianoforte.”

“I’m afraid that you would find me quite unusual then.”

“Try me.” He tilted his head to the side to watch her as she blew out a deep breath.

“If I don’t smile, look pretty, attend the right function, accept the attentions of the right gentlemen, my father will rule my life with an iron fist. I don’t like to embroider. I would rather sew quilts since it seems a better use of a skill to keep one warm than to make something look frivolous. I enjoy cooking, but I’m not supposed to. No woman in society is supposed to enjoy that. We’re supposed to enjoy ordering other people to do that for us,” she said with a conspiratorial smile that he found utterly adorable.

“But not you,” he murmured, smiling. “I bet you make delicious biscuits,” he teased.

She grinned devilishly. “My brother-in-law and nephews swear by them.”

He took another look at her slender figure. “You don’t look like someone that enjoys cooking.”

She rolled her eyes in a rather fetching manner. “I like to cook, not to eat.”

“My apologies.” He couldn’t stop smiling near this woman. He was sure that he looked foolish, but at the moment he truly didn’t care. “So, tell me what other scandalous pursuits do you enjoy? Smuggling? Piracy?” he teased.

She laughed. “No, I’m not quite that shameful. I enjoy reading, attending the theatre, taking walks, gardening, shooting, and swimming." His eyes widened in surprise at that. “I enjoy things that my father believes are best suited for men,” she explained with an impish smile

“I see.” He nodded, surprised by her list of pursuits. Most women would be outraged to hear another woman enjoying such things. He had to admit that most men would be shocked as well. He’d never understood that since they were all worthy pursuits.

“I’m sure that you do,” she mumbled. “I’m not supposed to tell anyone that. My father would be furious if he found out that I told you. Not that it matters anymore I suppose.”

“Why doesn’t it matter anymore?” he asked in a soft tone.

“It just doesn't," she said with a shrug.

He was willing to leave it alone for the moment, but he desperately needed her to continue talking. “Have you enjoyed being out in society?”

She nodded. “I’ve enjoyed spending more time with my sister. It’s been nice being seen as a friend and not just a little sister. She means the world to me. I’ve enjoyed the theatre, some of the dinners, and even being courted.” She could have sworn he frowned, but it was gone before she could be sure. “All the men that have courted me have turned into dear friends.”

“But you still don’t like being out in society,” he hedged.

She turned her head and met his gaze. Their faces were less than a foot apart. Robert fought the urge to lower his gaze to her lips.

“Do you?”

“No, I don’t. I don’t like the deceptions. I hate gossip. I don’t like being pursued for my position or money. I hate having women trying to trap me into marriage. I despise the game that I’m expected to play. I don’t want a simpering woman to bow to my every whim. It’s ridiculous.”

She nodded in agreement as she looked away. “Yes, it is.”

After a few moments of surprisingly comfortable silence he spoke. “May I ask why you’re here playing along if you don’t want to marry?”

When she looked back at him his eyes dropped to her lips, her full, deliciously pink lips. He raised his gaze back quickly before he did something that he would regret.

“A bargain, I suppose,” she said simply.

“A bargain? Are they trying to force you into marriage? Is your family in need of money?” Another thought occurred to him, one that made his stomach twist in dread. “You weren’t caught…er…” Please don’t let her be carrying another man’s child.

She lightly swatted his shoulder and laughed. “No! Goodness no. The men my parents are pushing my way are tiresome men like Lord Dumford.”

He nearly choked on air.

Her smile disappeared, instantly replaced with a worried frown. “Oh no, he’s a friend of yours and I’ve just insulted him,” she said, sounding truly upset.

He threw his head back and laughed. “Lord Dumford a friend? No! The man quotes bible verses for fun. I couldn’t imagine a fate worse than spending an hour in that man’s company.”

“Thanks. Your words have been really comforting,” she said dryly, earning another chuckle from him. He couldn’t remember the last time that he’d felt so relaxed in another person’s company. He normally kept his guard up, refusing to allow anyone to get the better of him.

“I’m sorry,” he murmured before asking, “Why then are you allowing him to court you?”

She sighed heavily. “I’m afraid my parents aren’t happy with my state of life. I’m twenty-three and while they feel that I should be married by now, I don’t. I’ve turned down every suitor who’s asked for my hand. They’re afraid they’ll end up with another spinster on their hands.” They also didn’t want her inheritance left in her control, but there was no need to tell him that .

“How many men have asked for you?” he asked. He knew that it wasn’t proper to ask, but he somehow knew that she wouldn’t mind. She didn’t seem the type. She seemed honest and forthright. It was a welcome change.

Her face scrunched up delightfully. “Fifty-five.”

“Fifty-five men have asked for your hand and you’re only twenty-three? Good lord!”

She shrugged indifferently. “I’m easy to get along with.”

He liked that. He liked that she didn’t refer to the fact that she was incredibly beautiful or to a dowry that she might have, although he was sure that some of the men who’d asked were after both. If she had a decent dowry, she would be a well sought after target with her beauty.

“I believe it.”

Her hand found his. She gave it a small squeeze before releasing it. “I’m sorry. You came out here looking for some solitude.” She flicked her hand casually in the air. “I’ll leave you.” She reached down at her other side and picked up a small book with a well-worn leather cover.