“If you drink any more of that, you’ll end up very wobbly on your feet.”
Hannah blinked up at the gentlemen sitting beside her.
“I beg your pardon. Why would you say that?”
Evan Fleming smiled and gestured at her glass.
“That sherry is supposed to last until you go into dinner, and we’ve barely sat down.”
Hannah looked at her glass and realised that her sherry was almost gone. That would explain why her throat was burning so much; she must have sipped a little too much. God, why had she done that? Evan had to think she was a bumbling fool for doing something very unladylike. It must have been plain to see if he was commenting on it.
Her cheeks getting warm, Hannah attempted a small smile.
“I must be really thirsty, that’s all. It has been a warm day.”
“I know. This year’s summer hasn’t been forgiving for us, has it?” Evan touched the glass, his fingers brushing against Hannah’s. “Do you want me to get you another glass? I’m sure the servants have more prepared.”
Hannah bit her lip and glanced over at her parents, who were at the other end of the room with a couple of their highly-esteemed friends. Her mother was laughing at something, while her father looked smug. At least they hadn’t glanced over in her direction yet. They had always told her that it was just one glass of sherry before dinner and never to take another, especially from a gentleman. If that happened, it would give everyone the wrong impression.
Hannah wasn’t entirely sure if that was part of Society’s rules or something her parents had concocted for her, but she wasn’t about to argue with them.
However, her mouth was parched, so she nodded.
“Alright. But make sure my parents don’t notice. They won’t be too happy about it.”
“Not happy about making sure you get another drink?”
“It … it’s complicated.”
Evan gave her that smile he knew was his most charming. Then he took Hannah’s glass and stood up.
“I’ll fetch you another sherry. Just relax. It’s only a dinner party, after all. We can’t have you fainting from the heat, can we?”
“No,” Hannah said faintly. “We can’t.”
She watched him walk away and noticed that she wasn’t the only one looking in Evan’s direction. Three young ladies close to her age were sitting nearby, and they all openly watched him walk past. Then they turned back to each other and giggled, one of them looking animated as she talked.
Hannah didn’t find it surprising that Evan had caught the eye of other ladies; he was handsome and very easy on the eye. He could capture anyone’s attention as soon as he walked into the room. It was known around the ton that Evan was one of the most eligible bachelors in the country. Given that he was the nephew of the Duke of Buckingham, it made him a prime catch for anyone who managed to get his attention.
And his attention was focused on Hannah. That should have been delightful. Hannah wanted to be happy about it. After all, her parents had been looking for someone to marry her for a while, and things hadn’t been successful. They were delighted when Evan started spending time with Hannah, having reunited since they were small children.
But it didn’t make Hannah happy. That fell a little flat.
“Hannah.” A sharp nudge in her ribs made Hannah jump. “You’re staring again.”
Hannah turned to the petite redheaded woman sitting beside her, peering at her with those big blue eyes.
“I’m staring? At what?”
“At Lord Fleming. I know he’s distracting, but you’re making your focus slightly obvious.” Phoebe Barham giggled. “Although I must admit, it is quite sweet.”
“I suppose it is sweet. He’s a nice gentleman, and his company is pleasant enough.”
“Hmm? What do you mean by that?”
Phoebe nudged her again.
“You can talk to me, Hannah. We’ve known each other for years. There’s a wobble in your resolve, isn’t there?”
“Oh, no! Nothing like that.” Hannah shifted on the cushions, wishing she sounded more convincing. Was it her, or was the settee getting a little too hard for comfort? “It’s just something flitting about in my head, that’s all. It’s nothing I can’t handle.”
“I see,” Phoebe said slowly. “Do you want to talk about it?”
A part of Hannah wanted to. Phoebe was her closest friend. She had been at Hannah’s side since they became neighbours ten years ago. They were each other’s support, and Phoebe was always there when Hannah needed someone to talk to. She was the perfect confidant.
But she felt like she couldn’t do it. Not right now. Hannah needed to figure out her own thoughts before conveying them to Phoebe; they were in a mess that needed straightening out, and she didn’t think talking it out now would help. She shook her head.
“No, it’s fine.”
“Are you sure? You don’t look too … bright, I suppose you could call it?” Phoebe glanced over at Evan, who was making his way back to them, carrying two glasses. “If you need me to do anything …”
“No, don’t worry about it.” Hannah smiled at her friend and touched her hand. “I’ll tell you another time. Just not right now.”
“Do you promise?”
“Of course I do.”
Besides, how did you tell your friend that you weren’t entirely sure about being around a gentleman who had a clear interest in you?
There wasn’t anything about Evan Fleming that was really wrong with him – he was handsome, charming, and kind, the perfect gentleman – and Hannah did like him. He was good company, and she did find him entertaining. He didn’t treat her like a fool and that she shouldn’t have an opinion on certain topics, unlike her father; he often said that women should keep away from certain subjects as they wouldn’t understand. Evan didn’t do that.
But there was a part of her that felt like something was missing. And that was a bit problematic. Hannah had tried to think before what it could be, but she had no idea. It was bewildering, and Hannah was at a loss. In normal circumstances, Evan would be just right for her, and Hannah should be thinking about marriage in the future. It would make sense, being childhood friends, and Evan had always shown her attention. More so recently than ever. Things would be practically mapped out for her.
However, she couldn’t shake off the feeling that she couldn’t go through with it all. Did she like him enough to be married to him for the rest of her life? Enough to give him children and be happy? Hannah was sure that Evan would work hard to make her happy should he choose her to be his wife, but she didn’t think it would be enough.
Everything just felt … flat.
Hannah looked up, and her nose bumped into something. Evan managed to keep hold of the glass, barely managing to stop it from spilling.
“Careful! You could end up with sherry on the rug.”
“Why were you holding it so close to me?” Hannah asked, touching her nose. “That hurt.”
“I didn’t think you were going to swing your head around like that. Are you alright?”
“I’ll be fine.” Her nose was throbbing. That was going to be a distraction. Giving Evan a tiny smile, Hannah took the glass. “Thank you.”
“You’re really not yourself tonight, Hannah.” Evan sat beside her again, careful not to sit too close. He peered at her. “Is something wrong? You’re not unwell, are you?”
If only it were that simple. Hannah shook her head.
“No, nothing of the sort. It must be the heat. And I think I need some sustenance to stop feeling so light-headed.”
“Oh, Hannah,” Phoebe sighed. “You really should have eaten something at tea. You only had water.”
“You know what I’m like when it’s warmer than normal, Phoebe. It does result in my feeling a bit out of sorts.” Hannah carried on when she noticed Evan frowning at her. “It’s normal, My Lord. It’s nothing crippling. I just don’t have much appetite when it’s so hot outside.”
“I see.” Evan tilted his head to one side. “Are you sure you’re going to be alright? You’re looking a little pale. Do I need to let your parents know?”
“There’s no need. The sherry is just going to my head.” Hannah sipped her drink, fighting back the urge to make a face at the bitter taste. “I’ll just stick to water when we sit down to dinner. I should have my appetite back then.”
Evan didn’t respond, but Hannah could tell he wasn’t sure whether to believe her. Hannah didn’t care if he didn’t; she wasn’t going to force anything down when she couldn’t, and the very warm weather did leave her with little to no appetite. It resulted in her looking pale and slightly light-headed, but she couldn’t do anything about it.
She would be fine once she got into dinner. Hopefully. As long as it didn’t take forever. Shouldn’t they be going into dinner by now?
At least she would be able to listen in on other dinner conversations. Hannah knew she would be sitting next to one of her father’s friends, and he was always regaling her with stories of his youth. He kept things entertaining, and Hannah needed some of that right now.
Although that did feel a little rude towards Evan, there was nothing wrong with him as a conversationalist. But there was nothing to ignite between them. If he were a little less restrained, then maybe things would be different.
That was the problem. They had rules to follow, and nobody could throw caution to the wind. Hannah knew she would be in trouble if she did anything to ruin her reputation. And yet she couldn’t help wondering what it was like.
And if it was worth it.
Colin took another look around the room. There were plenty of people here, and he could see plenty of attractive young women present. This should have been a time for him to be pleased; after all, he was seeking an eligible woman looking to marry.
But Colin couldn’t bring himself to be enthusiastic about it. Looking for a wife felt like a chore, and Colin hated doing chores. Even as a grown man, he still didn’t like it despite knowing it was the right thing to do.
Was finding a wife the right thing to do? Yes, he was the heir to his father’s viscountcy, but he was young. He had plenty of time before he wanted to think about becoming a married man. Unfortunately, his parents had other ideas.
“You’re thinking again, Colin.”
Colin turned to the slim young man at his side, watching him with a sly smile.
“What makes you think that?”
“You’ve been staring at everyone with that calculating look. You’re thinking.” Michael Hardinge chuckled. “That’s very dangerous for you, isn’t it?”
“I sometimes wonder why you and I are close, Michael.”
“We’re cousins, aren’t we? We’re obviously going to be close.”
Colin didn’t know about that, but he couldn’t ignore that he and his cousin were more than relatives. Born only a few months apart, they were like brothers and practically inseparable. Although Colin did get frustrated with Michael being a pain whenever he kept teasing him about finding a woman.
He didn’t have the pressure of being the heir on his shoulders. Michael was the youngest of five, so the chances of him inheriting his father’s title were incredibly low. He could be more carefree about his life. Colin, sadly, couldn’t have that privilege.
“Besides, why are you looking at the other ladies?” Michael asked. “I thought you had your sights set on Lucy Ingram?”
“I’m interested in her, yes, but I’m allowed to look.” Colin shrugged. “She’s not present tonight, anyway. I’m going to have to pass the time without her.”
“Even though you haven’t committed yourself to her, that does sound rather callous.”
Colin didn’t really care. While he found Lady Lucy Ingram attractive – she was a very pretty young woman – he wasn’t that interested in courting her. Not completely, anyway; if they spent a bit more time together, he might be keener on asking her to be official with him. He could see that happening if they were around each other a little more. He just wasn’t quite there yet.
Right now, and for the unforeseeable future, he wanted to take his time. Enjoy his life a bit more and soak up everything. At three-and-twenty years, he was still young. There was plenty of time left. Colin felt that people could wait.
His parents might think they couldn’t wait, but Colin could. Even if something, God forbid, happened to his father and Colin became the viscount, he still had time to find a wife. It wasn’t something he needed to do immediately while his father was still alive, was it?
Colin found himself smiling as he thought about Lucy. She was one of those young women who knew just what she wanted. Beautiful, graceful, and composed, the golden-haired daughter of the Marquis of Oxfordshire was just the perfect choice to be anyone’s wife. And she had her attention on Colin.
He should be flattered, and in a way, he was. But the feelings weren’t completely mutual. They might be in the near future. Just not yet.
He wanted to have his fun first before deciding to settle down.
“Why don’t we go and talk to those ladies over there?” Michael suggested, brushing his dark hair out of his eyes as he pointed towards a group of three young women sitting across the room. “One each, and one to watch?”
“What? You’ve said worse.”
“Not in mixed company.” Colin gestured at their surroundings. “Be careful what you say. We don’t want people to hear you.”
“I doubt anyone is going to notice. They’re too busy brown-nosing whoever is around them.”
“Nobody’s brown-nosing us.”
“Maybe they know it wouldn’t work on us. We’re just young men who mess around and don’t take anything seriously.” Michael sipped his drink. “They’re partially right, I suppose. I don’t take anything seriously.”
“You do have a point. At least we don’t have the older gentlemen and ladies approaching us to discuss the most boring subjects possible.”
“Don’t forget, that’s going to be us in a few years.”
Colin hoped not. He didn’t want life to become boring and talk about things that would make him feel like he was falling asleep. Things had to have something exciting enough for him to get drawn in. If it wasn’t there, he wasn’t interested. That included women.
But the excitement when it came to women didn’t last long. Colin had had lovers, and the flicker of anticipation was there, but it soon fizzled out. None of his lovers lasted long. Colin was fine with that, and he made it clear in the beginning. Nobody had said a word about him going hot and cold all the time. If they did, they hadn’t said it to him.
His father called him a cad, but Colin didn’t see it like that. He was just trying to make life more interesting and live as he wanted before he needed to settle down. Once that happened, he would become just as boring as everyone else. Hopefully, not for a while now.
“I’m getting hungry,” Michael declared, patting his stomach. “I hope they’re not going to take long before we’re called in. I’m sure people are going to hear my stomach rumbling.”
“I think I can hear it now.” Colin gestured at the room. “Which lady are you going to escort into dinner? Have you decided?”
“I don’t know yet. I could take my pick.” Michael winked. “Or maybe I can walk two in. I’m sure nobody would mind.”
“Michael, you’re impossible.”
There was no shame in it. Michael didn’t care what people thought of him. His confidence was far greater than Colin’s. He had to admire that.
Colin was getting hungry as well. He was surprised that nobody could hear his stomach growling. If there were a lull in the conversations around him, it would be the loudest objector in the room.
Finishing his sherry, Colin put it on the dresser behind him.
“I’ll see you later.”
“Where are you going?”
“Just to get some air outside. It’s getting a little warm in here.”
“You do realise that it’s going to be warmer outside, don’t you? The heat today has been rather tough to handle.”
“I’m sure there’s a breeze now at this time of the evening. I’m not going to die from it.” Colin tapped his fist on his cousin’s shoulder. “Come and get me when we start going into dinner. I don’t want to miss anything.”
“I will do. Don’t get lost.”
Colin ignored that as he made his way through the other guests, managing to get around people before they realised someone else was there that they needed to talk to. Why did everyone need to speak to anyone who crossed their eyeline? It was really annoying.
Somehow, he got to the hall without being accosted, and Colin breathed a sigh of relief. There weren’t that many people in the drawing room, but it did make the temperature rise with how close everyone was to each other. It was getting a little stifling, especially at this time of year when the summer was at its hottest.
Even so, it hadn’t been this hot in a long time. Colin couldn’t remember the last time it had been this intense in the summer.
Making his way through the house, Colin stepped out onto the terrace. The sun was still up, but it was lower in the sky, and a breeze tickled his face. It was nice and cooled off the evening. Who knew just a short time between entering the house and leaving it could change a lot?
There was a bench against the lower stone wall lining the terrace, and Colin made his way over to it. He could sit there and look over the gardens for a while, allowing the breeze to cool him down, and then he could manage to go back inside for dinner. Baron Barclay’s cook was very good, and the food was always excellent. Colin did enjoy meals here when his father’s friend invited him.
He also wondered how much the gardener was paid because he did some fantastic work on the garden. Colin normally wouldn’t care about something like that, but he had to admit that Baron Barclay had a beautiful estate. Inside and out. The man liked looking at the finer details.
Perhaps this would be more interesting with Lucy here. She could turn a bland situation into something Colin could pay attention to. She was good at that.
Her parents were eager for her to marry, Colin’s parents were interested in having him wed, and Lucy Ingram was a good match. It would be perfect for everyone, and once he thought about it, Colin agreed. Maybe if he spent more time with her, then he would be more inclined to agree with everyone that he should marry her.
Just not yet. Things had to be done in his own time. Colin didn’t want to do anything where he was forced. His parents had to know that. If they didn’t, he would certainly remind them.
A movement out of the corner of his eye had Colin turning his head. And then he shot to his feet, sure that his jaw had hit the floor. A young woman had come out of the house, brushing reddish-blonde hair out of her eyes and tucking it behind her ear. Her hair seemed to match the colour of her pale red dress, although Colin was sure it shimmered with gold in the light. Was that a trick of the light, or did the dress actually do that?
She looked like an angel with her milky-white skin, high cheekbones, and sensual-looking mouth. If she had been a model for a painting, Colin wouldn’t have been surprised. She was lovely.
Who on earth was she? Colin knew he had to find out.
Hannah paused when she saw the young gentleman sitting on the bench. She hadn’t expected to find anyone outside at this time; everyone else was in the drawing room, engaged with whatever topic they thought was engaging. It was getting a bit too much for Hannah, and she needed to get some fresh air.
She thought she would be alone. Evidently not.
Now he was staring at her, his mouth agape as he openly looked her up and down. Hannah resisted the urge to squirm, feeling like she was up on some stage being visually dissected. That shouldn’t have been erotic at all, but somehow, it was.
It was strange, as was the fluttering in her belly. Hannah’s mouth went dry, and her lips felt chapped. She licked them and cleared her throat.
“Forgive me. I didn’t realise anyone was out here.”
He couldn’t have been any older than her, but that voice was deep. It was like a rumble, and Hannah felt it vibrate across her skin. Was she getting goosebumps just from someone’s voice?
She looked him over. Tall, broad-shouldered, and firmly built, he seemed to tower over her even across the terrace. His dark hair was curly and fell across his forehead, and he had a trimmed beard that framed his square jaw. Hannah wasn’t too keen on facial hair, but it suited him. It made him look … something. Hannah didn’t know what, but he looked good with a beard.
Why was she marvelling over the fact he had a beard? What was wrong with her?
“My Lady?” He was peering at her. “Are you alright?”
“You’re swaying, and you look pale.”
“Oh.” Hannah shook herself and wished she had her shawl with her; it was cooler than she anticipated out here, or it could be because goosebumps still covered her. “It was … a little warm in there.”
“I agree. That’s why I came out here.” He gestured at the bench. “Do you wish to have a seat?”
“What? Oh!” Hannah shook her head. “I can’t take your seat. You were here first.”
“And what sort of gentleman would I be if I didn’t give a lady a seat?” He stepped towards her. “Would you prefer that I leave you be?”
She should. They shouldn’t be alone without a chaperone. He would have to go back inside while Hannah stayed on the terrace alone. But that made her feel lonely. And he hadn’t even gone into the house yet.
She bit her lip.
“I don’t mind if you stay,” she mumbled.
“I beg your pardon. I don’t think I heard you correctly.”
Where was her confidence? It seemed to have deserted her. Hannah cleared her throat.
“I don’t mind if you stay. Just don’t sit next to me.”
He stared at her. Then he gave her a smile that made Hannah’s pulse stutter to the point that she thought she would keel over. Oh, my.
“I can be the gentleman if you so wish, My Lady.” He held out a hand. “Let me help.”
Hannah wasn’t sure what she thought about that. Probably not a good idea to touch him, not when she was feeling unsteady on her feet just moments after meeting him. Then again, she hadn’t had much to eat today, and she’d had two glasses of sherry. That was probably going to her head.
That had to be it.
Why did it feel like she was lying to herself?
Hannah made her way carefully to the bench and slowly sat down. The bench was cold and hard under her seat, making Hannah wince.
“Are you alright?”
“I’m fine,” Hannah lied. “I just wasn’t expecting it to be so cold.”
He chuckled. Why did that sound have to be more erotic than his voice? What was wrong with her?
It had to be the drink. It was making her feel odd. Hannah shifted until she felt relatively comfortable. Now she had to figure out what to say to him without sounding like a fool. Her mind had gone blank, and Hannah didn’t think something as mundane as discussing how warm it was would be appropriate.
She could manage to converse with a duke’s nephew. In fact, Hannah liked that she could simply talk to anyone when the situation arose. So why was she struggling with a complete stranger?
Maybe because you’ve never had this sort of reaction to a gentleman before, and all he did was look at you.
I doubt that’s the reason.
“I hope they start dinner soon,” he said, leaning against the low wall. There was quite a respectable space between them, but Hannah was sure she could feel the heat from his body as if he were pressed against her. “I’m getting hungry.”
“So am I.” Hannah nodded. “The food here is always really good.”
“You’ve been here before?”
“My parents are friends with the host. What about you?”
“Baron Barclay and my father are childhood friends. They went to school together.” He shrugged. “Although I think it was a case of Baron Barclay keeping my father out of trouble. They’ve known each other for thirty years.”
Hannah didn’t know what to say after that. There was tension in the air, and it was like it was crackling as well. What was going on?
A squeaking close to her elbow had Hannah crying out and almost falling off the bench. But then she saw it was a squirrel, edging its way along the wall with its nose twitching. It squeaked again and gave her a curious look. But it didn’t run away.
The gentleman chuckled.
“When I was told the squirrels on this estate were very tame, I never thought it was true.”
“The squirrels are tame?”
“Baron Barclay’s children were big animal lovers. They would go out of their way to feed any animal they came across when they were little. Most of them were squirrels. They got so used to people feeding them that they would always come up to anyone they came across looking for food.”
“Oh. I see.” Hannah wasn’t sure how she felt about that. “I don’t have any food on me.”
“I think you can pet them.”
“Pet a squirrel?”
“It’s not that difficult.” He leaned over. “I’ll show you.”
The squirrel saw a hand coming towards it and scampered forward. It went to him willingly, sniffed his fingers, and then bumped his hand with its head. He then petted its head, and Hannah was surprised to see the squirrel looking for affection. In all her life, she had never expected to see a tame squirrel.
“That … I’m shocked.”
“There are a lot of them, and unfortunately, they’re close to overrunning the garden, but Baron Barclay can’t bring himself to get rid of them.” He grinned. “Even if they jump onto the table when they’re on the terrace and steal the biscuits.”
“I’ve witnessed it myself.”
Hannah laughed. Now that was something she could see a wild animal doing. And the squirrel seemed to be enjoying the attention. Then it came closer to her, sniffing her curiously.
“I think it wants you to pet it,” he said.
“I can’t believe a squirrel is acting like a curious dog.”
“That’s the joy of life. Things are not as you expect in life.” He nodded at the squirrel. “Go on, give it a try.”
Hannah hesitated. Petting a squirrel? Phoebe would laugh at her, and her parents wouldn’t be impressed with this. But curiosity got the better of her, and she reached out to touch the squirrel’s hide. She expected it to be coarse, but the hairs were soft and warm. And the squirrel didn’t run away as she expected.
This was one of the most fascinating things she had done in a long time.
The squirrel allowed her to pet it for a little bit, and then it twitched and scampered away, jumping off the wall and rushing across the grass. Hannah watched it go, unsure of what had just happened.
“Well, that … that was something,” she murmured.
“It is. You’ll find a lot of surprises at this estate.” He paused. “And with life. Lots of surprises turn up when you don’t expect them.”
“I suppose that’s the point of a surprise. They’re meant to be unexpected.”
He smiled, and Hannah felt her heart miss a beat yet again. What on earth was wrong with her? Just a couple of smiles, and she was weak at the knees. That couldn’t be possible, could it?
She needed to get her composure back.
“So, I suppose we should introduce each other.” He pushed himself off the wall. “I’ve been forgetting my manners. That’s not something I normally do.”
“I don’t normally converse with a man with no name.” Hannah smiled. “A name might make a conversation easier to handle, My Lord.”
“I’m sure.” He put a hand to his chest. “I’m …”
Hannah jumped. Phoebe was storming out onto the terrace, her expression one of shock. She was moving so quickly that Hannah was surprised she wasn’t running.
“Phoebe, what …?”
“I’ve been looking for you everywhere! We’re going into dinner now.” Phoebe grabbed her arm and hauled Hannah to her feet. “It happened faster than I anticipated. Everyone’s going into the dining room now. Lord Fleming is also looking for you.”
“But …” Hannah looked back at the gentleman, but he had pulled back, watching the scene with a frown. “But I thought …”
“I thought as well, but things have changed.” Phoebe tugged on her arm. “Come on, Hannah. We can’t be gone for too long; otherwise, people are going to ask questions.”
She didn’t let Hannah get a word in as they returned to the house. Hannah managed to keep herself upright, looking back at the gentleman as they went inside. He was still there, watching her go with a bemused expression. Even with that look, his stare was piercing.
She wanted to stay. But with Phoebe pulling her along, that wasn’t going to happen. And Hannah didn’t even know his name.
Hannah managed to get away from Phoebe’s tugging once they were back inside. Hannah tripped over the edge of a rug and stumbled. That had Phoebe’s hold loosening, and Hannah managed to fall away. But it just resulted in her ending up on her hands and knees, her knees scuffing on the rug through her skirts. Biting back a wince at the brief burning sensation, she managed to get to her feet as Phoebe reached for her.
“Don’t, Phoebe.” Hannah pushed her friend’s hands away as she got up. “I can manage.”
“Are you sure? That was quite a tumble.”
“I’m not that much of a clumsy fool. And you have some explaining to do.” Hannah folded her arms, ignoring the smarting pain in her knees as she frowned at her friend. “What’s going on? Why on earth did you think you were doing?”
“I was getting you away from a gentleman you shouldn’t be talking to; that’s what I was doing.”
“Someone I shouldn’t be talking to?” Hannah snorted. “Just because Lord Fleming is paying attention to me, I can’t converse with anyone else? That’s not logical.”
“I didn’t do it because of that.” Phoebe peered at her in surprise. “Do you not know what you were doing?”
“I was just being nice to another guest. We were simply talking. I’m sure you noticed that he was not anywhere near me.” Hannah grimaced. “And he’s probably going to think that we’re complete fools because of the way you dragged me away. Is he contagious or something?”
“Do you have any idea who he is?”
“No. We didn’t exchange names.”
Hannah inwardly winced at that. She had always been taught to introduce herself properly or allow her parents to introduce her. And never to talk to anyone without knowing their name. Somehow, the need to say who she was never came up. Hannah had liked the tranquillity that had passed over her, and she didn’t want to ruin it by asking who he was.
From the look on Phoebe’s face, she found this shocking.
“How do you talk to a gentleman and not get his name?” she demanded.
“Phoebe, would you tell me what you’re talking about? I’m seriously confused as to what is happening.”
Phoebe shook her head.
“If your father finds out you were talking to the Marquis of Cambridgeshire’s son, he will be furious.”
It took a moment for the words to sink in. Hannah couldn’t grasp them properly. She shook herself.
“I beg your pardon. That was Lord Colin Hardinge?”
“It was. How do you not know what the eldest son looks like?”
“It’s not like we have their paintings up in our house for reference, Phoebe!” Hannah protested. “All we did was talk.”
“I believe you, but if your parents find out about this, I’m sure they’ll think anything but talking happened.”
“I’m telling the truth!”
“And I told you that I believe you. It’s not me you have to convince. And I’m sure you don’t want your parents to know about this.” Phoebe sighed. “Let’s get back to everyone else; otherwise, your mother is going to ask where you’ve gone.”
Hannah felt like Phoebe had picked up a nearby vase and hit her head with it. She had been talking to the son of the Marquis of Cambridgeshire? How had she not known who he was? If she had known, she wouldn’t have gone anywhere near him.
She wouldn’t have gone anywhere near any of the family. Not after the marquis’ brother, Lord Quintin Hardinge had an affair with her aunt Barbara and then went off to marry someone else once their affair was revealed. He hadn’t cared about anyone but himself, and Barbara had been left to deal with the scandal on her own. Her reputation was completely ruined, and she had ended up withdrawing from Society because of this. She lived with Hannah’s family, mostly keeping to herself despite it. Hannah’s heart had broken when she heard the full story about Aunt Barbara’s younger days.
Her parents called the family many names, some of which Hannah wasn’t meant to know. They had nothing nice to say about the marquis’ family and how they covered up Quintin’s involvement, painting Aunt Barbara as a wanton woman wanting to marry above her station. Quintin Hardinge had been a cad, a womaniser, and Aunt Barbara had fallen for his spiel.
That man came from that family? God, Hannah felt like a fool.
Phoebe turned, and Hannah saw a tall, slim man with fair hair walking towards them. There was something about him that made her stiffen. He looked so much like the gentleman she had left on the terrace.
He glanced over at her, and something flickered in his eyes before turning back to Phoebe. Phoebe stiffened.
“Lord Hardinge. I didn’t know you were also present.”
“My cousin and I were invited by the baron. He went for a walk earlier.” Lord Hardinge paused. “Do you know where he is?”
Phoebe didn’t respond, just giving Hardinge a haughty look, and Hannah licked her lips.
“He might still be outside,” she suggested. “I take it that means dinner is ready?”
“It is. And also Lady Ingram has arrived.” Hardinge’s tone was a little cool but not as stiff as it normally was. “She wants to know where my cousin is. I believe she wants an escort into dinner.”
Was that all she could say? Hannah thought she could think up something better than that. Phoebe sniffed.
“Just what we need,” she grumbled. “Lady Lucy Ingram barging in and spoiling the party.”
“I see that you’re abrasive as normal, Lady Barham.” Hardinge sounded bemused. “Do you have a kind bone in your body?”
“Only with those that deserve the kindness. Lady Ingram doesn’t deserve it.”
Hannah had to silently agree on that. Lucy Ingram was a marquis’ daughter and well-known in the ton, although not for the right reasons. She was very focused on looking for a husband and tended to get in the way of the other ladies looking. She had a cutting tongue and an acerbic attitude towards the ladies, which just made her unpopular with the fairer sex. Most gentlemen liked her, but Lucy knew when to turn on the charm.
There was never any charm when it came to the ladies, though. Phoebe had clashed with Lucy quite a few times, a rarity for someone who liked to get on with everyone around her.
Then again, she wasn’t exactly getting along with Lord Michael Hardinge. They appeared to be glaring at each other. Then Hardinge turned away abruptly.
“I’d better go and find him. I’m sure he’ll be pleased to see Lady Ingram.”
“If he’s pleased to see her, then he’s got bad judgement when it comes to his company,” Phoebe sneered.
Hannah stared at her. Where was this coming from? Hardinge simply raised an eyebrow.
“And it’s nice to see that you can still charm the birds out of the trees, Lady Barham. Don’t lose that ability, please; otherwise, you will become quite boring.”
Phoebe’s mouth dropped open, and Hannah had to bite back a laugh. Not quite the response she expected, but it was better than Hardinge commenting in a harsher tone. Hardinge caught her eye and held it for a few seconds before giving her a nod and walking away. Hannah couldn’t bring herself to say anything; she often came across Hardinge, who lived not too far away, and while they weren’t exactly friendly, they were cordial. They could handle being in the same room.
Of course, they would never be friends, given what had happened with their respective family members.
How had she not noticed that the gentleman she was speaking to was Hardinge’s cousin? They were physically very similar. They could pass off as brothers at a pinch.
Although Hannah had never felt a reaction to Hardinge, unlike his relative. Not like that.
Hannah could feel her heart sinking. Why was the one person who made her heart race and interested her more than Evan Fleming had ever done Lord Colin Hardinge? It felt like life was laughing at her for being duped.
Hannah jumped. Lady Chalmers was hurrying towards her, her skirt swishing as it brushed along the floor. Hannah managed a small smile.
“Where on earth were you?” Viscountess Chalmers demanded, reaching her daughter’s side. “We were beginning to wonder where you were, and everyone is going into dinner.”
“I just …” Hannah glanced at Phoebe, who gave a small shake of her head. “I just wanted to explore the house. It’s fascinating, Mother.”
Lady Chalmers sniffed.
“Honestly, you seem to have your head in the clouds. You’re going to get yourself into trouble one of these days, wandering off on your own.” She took Hannah’s arm. “Now come along. Lord Fleming is looking for you.”
Hannah didn’t respond as she was tugged along, Phoebe falling in behind them. While Hannah knew it was wise to return to everyone else, she didn’t want to.
She wanted to go back outside and listen to Lord Colin Hardinge talk about squirrels with his smile that made her heart stutter.
“A Lady’s Path to Sin” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
As a proper lady, Hannah Savery always played by society’s rules, but when she has a chance encounter with the son of a family that ruined her aunt’s reputation, she finds herself torn between family duty and forbidden desire. As burning passion sets fire to her heart for the first time, she keeps wondering… Why, of all the people she could find tempting, did it have to be the one person she should not be anywhere near?
Will falling for the wrong Lord lead her to have the same fate as her aunt?
Colin Hardinge did not plan on seeking out the daughter of Viscount Chalmers, nor did he plan on becoming attracted to her. He knows he should walk away and put his attention elsewhere, but the passion between them simmers. Each glance at the fiery Hannah is a temptation he can barely resist. Being well aware of their families hatred, he knows that this romance is destined to fail.
Yet, this forbidden lady presents a unique challenge…
Being unable to deny their growing feelings, they will soon become entangled in a scandalous affair. What they don’t know is that their secret liaison is being watched by suitors willing to tear them apart and steal their spark. As their feuding families will never accept their union, can the revelation of an untold truth put an end to the long-lasting rivalry? Or will history repeat itself, leaving two more lovers apart?
“A Lady’s Path to Sin” is a historical romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.
3 thoughts on “A Lady’s Path to Sin (Preview)”
Hello there, my dearest readers! I hope you enjoyed this little treat! I will be waiting for your comments here. Thank you 😊
I enjoyed this book very much and will be giving it a review. I am very frustrated by the links to the extended epilogues from you and other writers do not work. Even when I do a search on your site for extended epilogues or A lady’s Path to Sin, I only get the preview – not what I wanted. Frustrating and disappointing.
Glad you enjoyed the story dear Terry! Please try to open the Extended Epilogue – links by using another browser. Hope that helps!