An earl did notfret.
But he’d confessed the truth to Bianca. Not because the circumstances of her birth placed her outside the “legitimate” circles of aristocracy, but because of the kind of person she was, and how safe she made him feel.
Ironic that an heir to a marquessate, who need never worry about having a roof over his head because he possessed not one, not two, butthreeentailed estates that could not be taken from him… should find solace in the comforting gaze of a homeless orphan who paid for hackney carriages with bits torn off her own gown.
And yet, her compassionate brown eyes and her unabated teasing made him feel like she saw him, and understood him, and that none of the things he’d spent a lifetime trying to hide mattered to her in the least. She listened when the topic was serious, and flirted when it was not, accepting both parts of him as a single whole.
In a strange way, they were now on equal footing. He had met her knowing the “worst” of her past, yet was seeing her at her best: resplendent in a yellow-and-blue evening gown, the most gorgeous woman by far at the viscountess’s fête.
Bianca could not hide her past from him if she’d wished to. It was there, in the shock of white at her temple, in the color of her skin, in the gossip columns of cheap newspapers.
And now Henry had shown hi true self to her. Not the carefully crafted rakish lord image talked about by the ton, but the concerned brother, the panicked heir, the future groom dreading endless decades of a loveless marriage.
He was more than he appeared to be at first glance. Just like Bianca.
Tonight, she looked like a princess. A long, flowing gown of robin’s-egg-blue that stood out among the relentless pastels of the debutantes. A string of fat white pearls at her throat that enhanced the creamy golden brown of her skin. Her long black hair twisted up high on her head in a pile of braids that exploded into a waterfall of curls. The snow-white ringlet framing half her face bounced becomingly as they whirled through the beats of the waltz. Her blood-red lips, so plump and kissable, were eclipsed only by the flash of straight white teeth when he was fortunate enough to receive one of her stunning smiles.
He could imagine a man spending the rest of his life working to earn those magical smiles. Reveling in victory at each flicker of amusement, then capturing that lush mouth with his own.
How Harry wished they were not waltzing in a crowded ballroom, but rather on an empty balcony that led to a bedchamber! That when their twenty minutes were up, he need not hand her off to someone else, but instead entwine his fingers with hers and tumble onto the nearest mattress. That the only music would come not from an orchestra, but the sounds of two lovers gasping and panting and sighing in pleasure.
A smile quirked the corners of her lips.
His focus sharpened. “What is it?”
Her smile grew wider. “You’re looking at me as if you were thinking about ravishing me.”
“I’m always thinking about ravishing you. No matter what expression I’m making, rest assured that the only things in my head are extremely detailed plans about what I’d do if we were alone with nothing in our way but a few layers of clothing.”
“I don’t know what I want more,” she murmured. “For you to tell me those very detailed plans, or to be surprised when I find out in person.”
God, had there ever been a woman more tempting? Eve had plucked an apple for Adam, but Biancawasthe forbidden fruit. Harry wanted to lick her, nibble her, eat her, until their lovemaking consumed them both.
He could practically feel Lady Regina’s gaze boring into him. Reading his desire for Bianca and swirling into a rage.
Harry did his best to school his expression and control his emotions. It was better for both of them that way. He desired Bianca, helikedher, he respected her, but he could not let lust or even a blossoming friendship prevent him from achieving the only goal that mattered: securing his family’s future.
He could not allow himself to stray from that path. His father was counting on him. His sister was counting on him. His future children were counting on him.
No matter how much he wanted to twirl Bianca out of the ballroom and into the night sky in order to find a nice patch of soft grass upon which to make his most debauched dreams a reality…
Those were just dreams, and could never be anything more.
“Are you staying safe?” he asked her, urgently. He could not be her protector in the sense he most desired, but he would be her champion in every way that he could.
She gave him a quizzical look. “I’m safe. Mrs. Gladwell won’t accept a penny for her hospitality. I’ve seen no sign of Lady Quinseley.”
“You will,” he warned her. “She might not have known where to look for you before, but here you are, waltzing with a lord in a ball hosted by her peers. She will have the news by breakfast, and she will not be pleased to receive it.”
Bianca looked alarmed. “Of course you’re right. I had not thought of her. My life was topsy-turvy with new friends who filled my head with shooting stars and happy-ever-afters. I suppose this must be my last such outing.”
Would that be enough to avoid retribution? Once the Countess of Quinseley learned the location of her erstwhile ward, there would be little to stop her from enacting vengeance on Bianca for having the audacity to flee before she was ruined.
Harry hoped Lady Quinseley would console herself with Bianca living on the margins, knowing she would spend every day thereafter stifling her desire to be part of this world, choosing instead to cower in seclusion out of fear of the countess’s power.
If that sacrificewasn’tenough…
Harry longed to pull Bianca tight against his chest, to wrap his arms about her, to protect her with his name, his title, and his body. He wanted more than to feel her soft curves pressed against him. He wanted her to use him however she liked. As a shield, as a toy, as a lover. He wanted to deflect all of society’s arrows with his own skin if that was what it took to keep her safe. To keep her close. To make her his.