She pulled her head back in surprise. “A dance? Here in the garden?”
He held out his hand. She’d seen the worst of him last night. He really was normally quite charming. The act. But he’d been doing it for so long, he was sure that he could effortlessly perform for her. “Gardens are lovely places to dance. The birds and the breeze will be our music.”
She stood, dipping into a curtsy. “That is a wonderful thought. Tell me. If a man were interested in me, what might he say?”
He gave her a large smile that felt brittle. The thought of another man touching her made his hand clench and he forced the muscles in his fingers to relax as he took her waist. “You want lessons on how to attract a man’s interest?”
She shook her head giving him a glowing smile. “No. Not at all. I want lessons to detect the first hints of flirting so that I might squash them. Instantly.”
That made him laugh. Good and deep. “Well done, my lady.”
“Ash,” she whispered, lower, though no one would hear them out here. “I’m not highborn.”
He swallowed. “You are to me.” He started the steps of a waltz. The same one they’d danced to last night. “Granddaughter of an earl, born to wealth, you are the sparkling sun set in a crystal blue sky.”
Her breath caught. “Oh, that was beautiful. Did you mean it or is that the sort of thing men will say?”
Men. Bile rose up his throat. He didn’t want another man holding her waist like this. Not ever. Then he started. When had he grown so possessive? Likely about the time he’d stolen her first kiss and it had been magic. “Both,” he murmured, leaning closer to her ear.
She nodded, her hand sliding along his arm. “I shall remember, compliments are a sure sign of flirtation.”
He continued to spin her about. “If he finds excuses to touch you, he’s flirting.”
/> “Got it. No touching.”
He spun her out and then back into his arms. “And no leaning close.”
She gave a single affirmative jerk of her chin. “I shall be very wary of leaning.”
“And if he gives you either of these smiles…” He gave first a soft grin and then a wolfish one. “The first is a sign of affection and the second…”
She tipped her head to the side. “What is the second?” But her breath caught. She knew already.
“If he gives you the second, run away quickly.”
He stopped under the shade of a tree. “Never allow him to take you out into the garden and certainly don’t allow him to lean in close, whispering his breath across your lips.”
She heard her intake of air catch. “You mean like I allowed you to do last night?”
The memories of last night flooded his thoughts. Her taste. The softness of her lips. The feel of her slender body fitted to his own. “That is what worries me, my lady.”
“What?” she asked, her eyes growing unfocused as she stared at his mouth.
He drew in a deep breath because truly the idea of another man touching her did frighten him. He’d watched her for the last several days and when he’d finally broken the silence last night, she’d been everything he’d dreamed she’d be, all that he wished he could have. He would never honor his father by carrying on his line. “That another rake will tempt you again.”
She cocked a brow. “But I already collected my kiss. I got that one chance to know and now I shall focus on my music.”
If her father would allow it. Otherwise, he’d grow tired of waiting and force his daughter into another match. Unless there was something that Ash could do about it.
* * *
Cordelia cocked her head to the other side, trying to discern where her charming rogue had gone. He looked down, but his eyes were distant. “Ash?”
He blinked back into focus. “Sorry, sweetheart. I was thinking.”
“Thinking?” She tightened her grip on his arm. “About what?”
“You,” he said simply. “And your problem.”