“And what if he kisses you and you like it so much that you forget all about fending him off, and when you come to, you realize he has maneuvered you behind a yew hedge.”
“A . . . yew hedge?”
Annabelle flushed. “Any hedge.”
Hattie’s eyes had grown soft and dreamy rather than appalled. “To be kissed like that,” she sighed. “Oh, just once in her life every woman should be kissed in such a way that she forgets herself.” She ducked closer, her voice curious. “How do you know these things, Annabelle?”
Oh, hell’s bells.
Lord Palmer saved her from speaking a grave lie by strolling over to fetch Hattie for the next dance.
Peter had not yet returned. Rather than sit back down, Annabelle took a couple of steps to loosen her legs . . . and found herself face to face with Lady Lingham.
The countess looked comely in icy blue silk with matching fan and earbobs. She was still squarely overshadowed by the young gentleman by her side. Lord. He was one of the most beautiful men she had ever seen—imposingly tall, but neither bulky nor lanky, just right, as if he had been made with ideal proportions in mind. Gleaming auburn hair fell in soft waves around his high-cut cheekbones and perfectly angled jaw. A face suitable for any one of the archangels. His loud pink waistcoat said he was anything but a heavenly creature. It was, in fact, a magenta-colored waistcoat.
She must have stared at the man a moment too long, for his amber eyes shifted to her and promptly began to smolder. Her belly clenched with unease. She knew a predator when she saw one.
To her dismay, Lady Lingham’s fan was beckoning.
She approached the pair reluctantly.
The countess appraised her with a deliberate glance, her mouth smiling as if she were greeting a long-lost friend. “Miss Archer. How splendid you look tonight,” she said. “It’s a Celeste, is it not?”
“Yes, my lady.”
“Consider yourself fortunate,” said Lady Lingham. “Her designs are unforgiving.” She pointed her fan at her stunning companion. “Miss Archer, allow me to introduce Lord Tristan Ballentine. Lord Tristan, it’s a pleasure to present Miss Archer.”
Lord Ballentine dipped his head. A diamond stud winked at Annabelle from in his right ear.
“Lord Tristan has just returned from a ghastly little war in the colonies,” Lady Lingham said. “He received the Victoria Cross for outstanding bravery on the battlefield a few days ago.”
“You are humbling me, my lady,” Ballentine said, not sounding humbled at all. His eyes were busy examining Annabelle’s cleavage. “How come I have never made your acquaintance before, miss? I’m usually familiar with all the great beauties of the ball.”
Lady Lingham pursed her fine lips. “Miss Archer is from the country.”
He looked up and raised a brow. “The country? Whereabouts?”
“Kent, my lord,” Annabelle said.
“Lovely,” he said blandly. “Will you do me the honor of the next dance, and tell me all about that quaint place?”
That was the last thing she wanted. He couldn’t be much older than her, but there was a depraved edge to his mouth that only came with a life of utter dissolution.
“I’m afraid I have a touch of a headache.”
His mouth quirked. “From not dancing a single dance yet?”
That left her speechless. A gentleman wouldn’t press a woman, lady or not. He’d certainly not lead on that he had been watching her. Then again, he didn’t seem to stand on protocol—he had an earring.
“I’m a rather clumsy dancer,” she said. “I fear partnering with me would endanger your feet.”
“Beautiful women usually endanger a man one way or another,” he said. “I tend to find it worth the trouble.”
“How valiant. I can see how the Victoria Cross has come to pass.”
That had been a mistake. Ballentine’s lips pulled into a slow smile, the way a superior fighter might smile just before he picked up a gauntlet. “Indeed,” he drawled, “I cannot help it, the valiance. It’s my family motto, you see—Cum Vigor et Valor.”
No doubt he thought he was outrageously charming, and to someone other than her, he might be.
He presented his arm.
She glared at it. She could not refuse now without causing a scene.
“Oh, do us all a favor and dance with the man, child,” Lady Lingham tutted. “Ballentine never takes no for an answer and we will be bantering coyly until the morning hours if you don’t take a turn with him.”
Perhaps there was a section in Debrett’s Etiquette Manual on how to fend off a joint attack by a countess and a viscount. If there was, she hadn’t read it.
Slowly, she placed her hand on Ballentine.
Lady Lingham smiled and tapped the scoundrel’s shoulder with her fan. “Do behave yourself.”
The first notes of the music already filled the air.
She promptly forgot her displeasure and felt a sting of panic. She had not waltzed in over seven years.
A big, warm hand settled on her waist.
“Eyes on me, darling.” Ballentine’s silky voice came from high above and she tipped back her head to face him. He really was absurdly tall.
And then her heart stumbled over itself.
Over Ballentine’s right shoulder, her gaze locked with Montgomery’s.
He stood right above her on the second floor at the balcony railings, his eyes blazing slits of silver.
She yanked her gaze away, fixing it on Lord Ballentine’s tanned throat. It was a very fine throat, but it managed to hold her attention for all of three seconds, and then she glanced back.
Montgomery was gone.
The music picked up, and Lord Ballentine swept her into the first turn. Her worries about having forgotten all the steps quickly proved needless—the viscount could have partnered a sack of flour and made it look good. He led her with a firm hand, a languid grace in his movements that was unusual in a man of his size.
“Is it true, then,” he asked, “you have no idea who I am? No rumors have blackened your opinion of me beforehand?” He was watching her with lion eyes.
How long was a waltz? Surely she could handle him for a couple of minutes.
“I know that you have received our highest military honor, and who would find a fault with that?”
The corner of his mouth kicked up. “Are you awfully impressed?”
“Of course,” she said. “What woman is not impressed by a brave man in uniform?”
“Ah yes, the uniform. Alas, that bright red does not suit my coloring in the slightest.”
He winked at her.
Almost against her will, she was intrigued by his outrageous vanity.
“The war—was it the Zulu invasion?” she asked.
His shoulder tensed beneath her palm. “No,” he said. “Afghanistan.”
Oh. “I hear it was devastating,” she said earnestly.
“It’s always devastating in Afghanistan,” he said, “but it is rare to find a woman interested in politics.” His expression had turned polite, so polite it was almost blank. Admittedly, he was right to block that avenue of conversation. War was a most unsuitable subject for small talk.
“Perhaps you should have been warned of my reputation, my lord,” she said.
That rekindled the spark in his eyes. “Now you tell me. What danger am I in, miss?”
“I’m a bluestocking,” she said. “I study at Oxford and I read all the pages of a newspaper. Especially the pages on politics.”
His gaze darkened and in the next turn, he pulled her closer, and she could smell sandalwood and tobacco on him. “Careful,” he murmured, his voice impossibly low, “some men consider intelligence in a woman a rather potent aphrodisiac.”
He’d probably consider it an aphrodisiac if a woman was looking his way and breathing. She strained slightly against his hold, and mercifully, he gave an inch.
“If you are at Oxford, you know Lady Lucie,” he said.
Surprise almost made her misstep. “She’s a friend, my lord.”
An odd expression crossed his handsome face. “How wonderful,” he said. “Does she still have her cat?”
“Her . . . cat?”
“Yes, Boudicca. A fierce, clever little thing, much like its owner.”
She hadn’t known Lucie had a cat, so how did he know?
She realized then that the music had ceased and that he was still holding her hand.
She gave a light tug.
Ballentine placed her hand onto his arm. “Where may I escort you, miss? I’d suggest the terrace.”
“I’d rather sit down again.” She scanned the ballroom from the corner of her eyes. Where was safe, manageable Peter?
“Come now,” Ballentine said, perusing her face with his half-lidded gaze, “we both know you are utterly wasted as a wallflower.”
He began to walk unerringly toward the terrace doors, and she had to follow.
“My lord,” she said tightly, but he only grinned.
Ballentine never takes no for an answer.
Panic raced down her spine, and her heart began to drum. She would have to cause a scene. She would have to dig in her heels and it would cause a scene, but she couldn’t end up alone with this randy giant . . .