Quite simply put, he hated everything about the ton and its mindless drones. He could care less about the latest gossip, the latest fashions and living his life by a set of ridiculous rules meant to exclude anyone with an ounce of originality. His feelings on the matter had been the basis for his rules about sex and women. He couldn’t tolerate taking a woman without an original thought in her head to bed. He’d done it a few times and had detested the coy games that they’d enjoyed playing.
“Mama says you bought a new estate. How many acres?”
He looked down at the woman on his arm. The new expression on her face was calculating.
“How many acres?” she repeated more firmly this time.
“A little over a hundred,” he said carefully, not caring one bit for the new gleam of interest in her eyes. He decided not to mention that he’d sold that estate almost immediately after buying it once he’d realized that the bullshit from his past had followed him. Nor did he mention that he’d already purchased a new estate in America and that he was leaving once he’d fulfilled his promise to his mother to help James.
“Hmmm.” She looked over his clothes as if she were taking inventory. He wore the latest fashion. He didn’t buy clothes often, but when he did, he went for quality. She seemed happy with what she saw if the little nod of approval was any indication.
He desperately wanted to change the subject before she inquired about his other holdings. “So, what play did you attend?”
Her face twisted up in disgust. “It was one of Shakespeare’s I’m afraid. I find them all a dreadful bore, but this one was most appalling. Mother insisted that we leave at intermission and I wholeheartedly agreed.”
He stopped short. He rather enjoyed the Bard’s plays. He couldn’t think of anything in his plays that would be appalling. “What was wrong with the play?”
“A woman was dressed in men’s clothing! It was obscene!”
“Was the woman pretending to be her brother?” he asked, already knowing the answer.
“Yes! It was dreadful.”
“Was the play ‘As you like it’?”
It was one of his favorite plays. That answered that.
“Lady Penelope, allow me to return you at once to your mother. I find that I need some fresh air.”
Her grip on his arm suddenly tightened. “Fresh air sounds lovely.” She licked her lips, invitingly. Christ almighty, the girl wanted to trap him. He practically dragged her back to her mother and without another word he made his way outside.
He avoided the garden and wooded areas. Those areas were for lovers if they were willing to brave this cold night for an affair. The orangery, softly illuminated by the glow of several lanterns, stood a hundred yards away from the house. It was the perfect spot for an escape on a night like this. In this cold he doubted any woman would willingly brave the weather to go there for a tryst. The orangery was the safest spot for him and it would be blessedly warm inside thanks to the fires that were kept lit to stop the orange trees from dying.
He ran the last twenty yards to escape the frigid winds and nearly groaned with relief when he entered the warm orangery. He could easily spend the next four hours here, he decided as the smell of a burning fire and oranges teased him. He looked around the orange trees and nearly groaned in disappointment when he realized that this orangery had probably only been recently built. The trees were a bit small and held oranges far from being ripe.
It was really too bad he hadn’t thought to bring a book or something to eat. He’d only eaten an hour ago and he was already starving. It was nothing new. He was always hungry. It was something that his family had never understood, but thankfully they’d stopped teasing him about it years ago. Four hours in the orangery with nothing to do or eat was not his idea of fun, but then again, neither was attending a ball.
Several lit oil lamps made it possible for him to at least see clearly enough. That was another reason lovers avoided this place, it was too bright. There would be nowhere for them to hide if they were interrupted.
A soft noise caught his attention. Curious, he slowly moved past several orange trees and froze on the spot at the sight that greeted him. A woman with beautiful brown hair that had to be made from the finest silk the way it reflected the light from the lanterns, sat on a padded bench, softly laughing as she read from a small book.
Her laughter was like a balm to his soul, instantly relaxing him even as his heart skipped a beat. It wasn’t until she released a small sigh as she turned a page in her book that he realized that he’d moved closer to her. He had no business intruding. This woman obviously came here to be alone. Reluctantly, he took a step back. In his rush to escape unnoticed, he knocked over a bucket and disturbed the peace of the quiet orangery.
“Who’s there?” the young woman demanded as she placed her book down on the bench beside her and stood.
Robert’s breath caught in his throat at the first real view of her face. She was excruciatingly beautiful with pale baby blue eyes. Easily the most beautiful woman he’d ever laid eyes on and he wanted her. He gave his head a slight shake. He didn’t even know this woman. What in the hell was wrong with him?
* * *
“I can see you, so you might as well come out,” Elizabeth said, placing her small book on the cushion beside her.
She watched as a handsome man with vivid green eyes stepped forward. His black hair was cut short and styled differently than what was popular, but it looked good on him. His skin was tanned like hers. It was one of the many things that her mother complained about, but she loved the outdoors too much to care. She craved the warmth of the sun on her skin too much to be bothered with the fact that it darkened her skin and made it unattractive.
“I’m sorry, my Lady. I didn’t mean to bother you. I’ll leave,” he said in a deep voice that she found soothing as he bowed slightly before taking a step back to do just that.
“No, please. You don’t have to leave. I would be heartless if I sent you back into the cold night if you wished for a quiet escape. I believe this orangery is large enough for both of us to seek a quiet refuge,” she said with a smile, hating the idea of turning anyone out into the cold and forcing him to return back to a ball that she hadn’t been able to escape fast enough.
* * *
“How do you know that I was searching for solitude? Perhaps I was meeting a lover?” he said, regretting it before the last word left his lips.
What the hell was wrong with him? She would probably slap him or faint dead away at his lack of propriety.
He truly was an idiot.
She laughed instead, she actually laughed. It was soft, enchanting and real. It was nothing like the fake little laughs and giggles from women like Lady Penelope. Women like her faked everything in life just to be accepted by the ton and to catch a husband, who wanted nothing more than a warm body to produce an heir and didn’t want the hassle of a woman with a brain.
“What’s so amusing, my Lady? Are you suggesting that I couldn’t charm a woman to meet me for a tryst?” he drawled, wondering if she knew just how enchanting her laugh was.
With a sigh, she stopped laughing, but thankfully she was still smiling. “No, I’m sorry. I’m sure a man as handsome as you would have no difficulties finding a woman to share your time.”