Dear Reader,

When the Wicked Secrets Series opened with Twice as Wicked, the Duke of Wessex and Miss Eliza Benton already knew each other. When it came time to write Wessex and Eliza's book, rather than backtrack, I decided to keep how they met a separate story. Here it is now. I hope you enjoy it.

Chapter One

1815, London

 

            Sebastian Sinclair, Duke of Wessex, surveyed his ballroom and all its inhabitants and found it good. His annual ball was a marvelous creation, if he did say so himself—not that he would ever have to, since all of London said it for him.

            A fortnight ago he had not even been in residence at his London home. As was his custom, he had not decided if and when his ball should take place until a week prior. But once the thing had been decided, of course it must be immediate. A week ago the ballroom had been an empty void, but now thousands of candles glowed upon enormous chandeliers and the room teemed with lords and ladies. Flowers were abundant and so was the punch.

            A week ago, nothing.

            Yet on the seventh day, they danced.

            Wessex drew in a deep, satisfied breath.

            “I shall stay half an hour but no more,” his friend, Nathaniel Eastwood, Viscount Abingdon, said decidedly.

            Wessex deflated slightly.

           “Come now, you mustn’t leave before the supper dance,” he protested. “What will people say?”

           “They will say nothing, as they will notice neither my presence nor my escape.”

           “I will notice,” Wessex said firmly. And since that was all that mattered, Abingdon could hardly argue.

         “Very well,” Abingdon grumbled. “Until the supper dance, but not a moment longer.”

            That would have to do. His friend greatly disliked large gatherings of people—and by Abingdon’s definition, anything more than four persons was “large”—and the dislike intensified to fear and loathing when dancing was involved. That Abingdon attended the ball at all was a miracle he performed for Wessex’s sake.

            Wessex felt the slightest twinge of guilt at being the cause of his friend’s discomfort, but that was easily remedied by not dwelling on it.

Although of course he would pretend not to notice when Abingdon inevitably snuck away to seek refuge in the library. He might be self-serving, but he wasn’t a monster.

              He cast his gaze about the room, pausing on this lovely lady or that. “I do so love the beginning of the Season. So many possibilities.”

              Abingdon did not answer, but Wessex didn’t expect him to. Where the duke saw possibilities, Abingdon saw only danger.

             The back of his neck tickled with sudden awareness and, like a predator catching the scent of prey, his spine snapped straight and he swiveled his head to look.

              There was a knot of men clustered around something—someone?—blocking his view. Then the men parted and a woman stepped forward.        Wessex drew in a sharp breath. She was, without a doubt, the most sublimely gorgeous woman he had ever seen. Her hair was so pale that she seemed bathed in silver moonlight, and he was quite certain he had never seen a nose more perfect than hers. But it was her mouth that captivated him, pink and plump and smiling at Lord Buttonsworth as though he deserved such a benediction.

              “Abingdon,” Wessex said slowly, without taking his eyes from the gorgeous creature, “arrange our introduction.”

               “I don’t want to do that.”

               Wessex sighed deeply. “Very well. Then stand next to me silently and try not to fall over when you make your bow.”

             “I shall do my best,” Abingdon said sardonically.

            “Who are her people, I wonder?” Wessex tapped his chin with one gloved finger. “I am certain I do not know them, for I would remember seeing her.”

           “Perhaps you could ask Lady Benton, who is standing next to her.”

             Ah. So she was. Wessex considered them thoughtfully. The girl looked to be at least nineteen, far too old to be Lady Benton’s daughter. A younger sister, previously hidden safely away in the countryside, perhaps? He snapped his fingers and his footman appeared, seemingly from nowhere. That was Sinton’s particular skill: He was quite good at lurking about.

            “Your Grace.” Sinton did not wait for instruction. “She is Miss Eliza Benton, sister of Sir John Benton. Her father died last year, her mother in childbirth, and she has come to stay with her brother in London.”

             How interesting. They had something in common. Ought he to tell her? His innards shuddered in revulsion. He didn’t deserve his dashing reputation if he had to play that card for her attention.

             “Very good,” he said, dismissing his footman. Sinton bowed and disappeared.

              It was no work at all to separate Lady Benton and her charge from the throng that surrounded them. An icy look, a raised brow, an incline of the head—the men dispersed hastily. It was good to be a duke.

            “My dear Lady Benton, you are as lovely as a summer day.” Wessex bowed. “Please do introduce us to your charge.”

             Lady Benton beamed. “Of course. Duke Wessex, may I present my husband’s sister, Miss Eliza Benton.”

            Miss Benton dropped into a graceful curtsy.

            Lady Benton began to chatter about flowers in general and gardenias in particular, and how had His Grace found so many at this time of year, why, there must be hundreds—no, thousands!—of the blooms in his ballroom.

He caught Miss Benton’s gaze and arched a brow with good-natured humor. Her blue eyes glimmered back at him, sharing the joke, before she looked away again.

               Lady Benton, he realized, had fallen silent and was awaiting his response. “Hothouse,” he said succinctly.

               “Oh!” She drew in a deep breath and he braced for the onslaught. But instead she said, “You must tell Sir John. If you wouldn’t mind, I will fetch him.”

                 Wessex did not care to elaborate further on hothouses, but he knew an opportunity when he saw one. “Not at all. I will keep Miss Benton safe until your return.”

                 Lady Benton gave him a calculating look. Wessex tried to look like the sort of man who could be trusted with an innocent young miss and not the most notorious rake in all London. Perhaps he succeeded, or perhaps Lady Benton was not above a marriage trap, but either way, she nodded and departed in a rush of silk skirts.

                Wessex returned his attention to the beautiful lady in front of him. “Miss Benton,” he purred, leaning slightly toward her.

                She—unconsciously, he was sure, for she was undoubtedly an innocent—mimicked his posture, leaning closer, and looked at him expectantly. Her lips quirked upward slightly, not in a full smile, but enough that her delightful dimple popped out. “Yes, Your Grace?”

                  “It is not often that an angel from heaven sees fit to grace my ballroom with her presence. I am honored.”

                  “Oh.” She recoiled. “I thought you had something interesting to say.”

                   Next to him, Abingdon made a choked sound, something suspiciously like a laugh smothered by a cough. He cut a glare to his friend, who promptly bowed and murmured a polite excuse before departing. He then returned his attention to Miss Benton’s disappointed face.

                   Disappointed? Surely not.

                   He was a duke.

                 “My compliment bores you?” he asked in disbelief.

                 Miss Benton lifted one perfectly rounded shoulder in an apologetic shrug. “You are the fourth man tonight to call me angel. It’s my hair, I think. If it were dark rather than fair, perhaps you would call me siren instead.”

                 “I most certainly would not,” Wessex said in shocked tones. Siren! A term far better suited for opera singers and merry widows than fair maidens scarcely out of the schoolroom.

                  Her mouth trembled as her lashes swept downward. “No, I don’t suppose you would, Your Grace,” she murmured.

                 Was she…was the chit laughing at him? Perhaps she was not quite so beautiful as he had first believed. Her eyes were a trifle over-large for true beauty, her lips a shade too pink.

               He looked at her curiously. “Do you not like compliments?”

               “Quite the opposite. In truth, I am very fond of compliments. I ought to apologize, Your Grace. I shouldn’t have expected anything else from you, for my maid took special pains with my hair and I am looking exceedingly well tonight. If I had not been told of your wit and humor, I would not have hoped for more.”

               Her words had a curious effect on him. Her confidence in her own appearance, her sly humor…She was quite unlike any person of his acquaintance. She had hoped for more? Well, then, he would give it to her. Miss Benton seemed to believe he was no better than a common fool, easily struck dumb by a pretty face. He would show her how devastatingly charming he could be. He would prove her wrong.

               And then he would never speak to her again.

               Or for a fortnight, at least. Yes, an entire fortnight in which he would not so much as glance in her direction. He would be quite cutting about it.

               “Is your dance card full?” he asked.

               “I have two sets left.” She handed him her card. “You may have one, if you like.”

                “Can I, indeed,” he murmured, greatly amused. He ought to dislike her forwardness in accepting a dance before he’d asked her, but instead he rather enjoyed her self-assurance. There was no artifice about her. She knew she was beautiful and she knew he wanted a dance, and she did not pretend otherwise.

He scrawled his initials twice and handed the card back to her. She glanced at the card and then looked again. Slowly she raised her gaze to his.

                 “You took them both,” she said in accusing tones.

                 “So I did.” Strange that she did not seem pleased. Was she unaware that he was that rarest of creatures, a marriageable duke? He wanted for neither title nor money, he was of a good age, and there was no denying his face was exceedingly pleasant. There wasn’t a lady in the room who wouldn’t give her back teeth to trade places with the ungrateful Miss Benton.

                Hmm.

               How very interesting.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Two

 

            Eliza Benton was of the opinion that dukes in theory were wonderful things, especially handsome dukes. The duke standing before her now was certainly handsome enough. But he was also a nuisance.

            He had taken her last dance. The disappointment was crushing. She had been saving that dance for a man who was most assuredly not the Duke of Wessex. Was she foolish to have hoped a man of such talent and fame as Sir Albert Penderton, esteemed author of several novels, would ask her to dance? Eliza didn’t think so. Naturally he would reserve most of his sets for women of fortune and power who might advance his writings or serve as his patroness, but perhaps he might also desire a dance with a girl who had only beauty to recommend her.

            But now she would never know, for the Duke of Wessex had stolen it.

He was watching her now, his expression one of mingled bemusement and curiosity. “Why do you not smile, Miss Benton? That is the usual response, is it not?”

             “No doubt.” Her tone dripped honey. “But then, who is to say whether a lady’s smile is false or sincere?”

              She had expected the duke to be affronted by the insult, but instead he just smiled lazily, reminding her of a cat toying with a mouse. “I am to say, Miss Benton. I give you my word that no woman ever has cause to pretend anything with me.”

               Something in his tone that implied more than his words. She eyed him suspiciously. There was a joke there—at her expense, she was sure—but she couldn’t make it out. But he needn’t know that that, did he? Two could play that game.

              “And yet I frown, as women are prone to do when their desires have been thwarted,” Eliza said. She dragged one fingertip down the sturdy ridge of her fan, noting the sudden flare in the duke’s eyes as he followed the movement.

             “But what is it you want?” he asked, his voice slightly huskier than it was a moment ago.

             Eliza stubbornly held her tongue.

            “She won’t tell me,” he said, more to himself than to her. He contemplated the chandelier above them. “But then how am I to help you?”

           She regarded him silently.

          “Hm.” His eyes narrowed. “I propose a game, Miss Benton. I will discover what it is you so desire and deliver it on a silver platter.”

           “What I want won’t fit on a platter, silver or otherwise.”

           He ignored this. “And in return, I request a forfeit.”

            “A forfeit? Oh, I suppose you mean to take a kiss.” She didn’t hide her disdain.

            “Take a kiss, she says!” he told the chandelier. He leaned closer, and his voice became a warm purr. “My dear lady, I do not ever take a kiss. If I wanted one, you would give it willingly and certainly not as your part of a bargain.”

             A frission of awareness tickled her spine. Somehow she knew, with absolute certainty, that the duke was speaking the truth. He could turn a recalcitrant lady into a willing one with all the ease of a spider ensnaring a fly. Her gaze tangled with his and her neck felt hot, the beginnings of a blush she refused to allow even an inch more of skin. How would he go about such a seduction?

             How dare he make her wonder!

             Arrogant, aggravating man. He needed to be taught a lesson.

             And she would rather enjoy teaching him.

            “Do we have a deal, Miss Benton?”

           “We do, indeed.” She offered her hand. He shook it.

           The moment their palms touched she realized he had never said what the forfeit actually was. Damnation. What had she just agreed to? Her confidence faltered and she lowered her gaze to their clasped hands.

            The same realization must have struck him, for his lips parted in a slow, knowing grin. “Is there anything you wish to ask, Miss Benton?”

            She lifted her chin. “No, Your Grace.”

           His grin widened. She glared.

           What did it matter, after all, what forfeit she had promised? Whether it was a kiss or a mountain of gold, the result would be the same. She would win, and the duke would receive nothing.

            “Your Grace!”

            The duke pivoted neatly to allow space for her relatives. “Lady Benton, you have returned. How wonderful.”

           “Yes, indeed, and here is Sir John. He is delighted to hear all about your greenhouse. Nothing would please him more.”

          Sir John looked rather less delighted than his wife indicated, but he nodded. “Horticulture is a particular hobby of mine. I wouldn’t have thought you shared the same interest, Your Grace.”

             Eliza regarded her brother with interest. She didn’t think she imagined the veiled disdain in his voice.

            If the duke noticed, he did not let on. “On the contrary,” he said smoothly. “I am fascinated by greenhouses and their promise to thwart the laws of nature. Imagine the possibilities, if we are not restricted by the changing of the seasons, or if catastrophes such as droughts and floods could not wipe out entire harvests. Suffering might be relegated to the past.”

              Eliza blinked. The Duke of Wessex, who had likely never suffered a day in his life, cared about the suffering of others? That was…unexpected. “It would be a great thing,” she said slowly, “if your greenhouse could ensure the tenants always had plentiful food, no matter what had grown that summer.”

             “More importantly, I could have my favorite strawberry pie on my birthday.”

            “When is your birthday?”

            “The sixteenth of January.”

             Ah.

            He did not care about the suffering of the poor and downtrodden, then. He merely wanted unseasonal pie on his birthday.

            She pursed her lips and gave him a disapproving stare meant to convey what a frivolous ass she thought him. It was a look that had served her well and cowed many a man into a hasty retreat. Unfortunately, the duke seemed to rather enjoy it. His eyes fairly sparkled with mirth as he returned her gaze steadily.

            Bloody duke.

           A fiddle hummed, signaling that the first dance was about to begin. And la, here came Lord Buttonsworth to collect her for their set. Thank heavens.

Wessex bowed. “Enjoy your dance, Miss Benton. I shall come find you for our waltz and to collect on our bargain.”

             She suspected her grin resembled an animal baring its teeth. “You have not yet won, Your Grace.”

           “Oh, but I will, Miss Benton. I will.”

            Humph. He was certainly welcome to try.

           But it was she who would succeed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Three

 

                 “Abingdon,” Sebastian said thoughtfully as he watched Miss Benton’s mouth approximate a smile at Lord Buttonsworth while her eyes glazed with boredom, “what might a lady want that won’t fit on a silver platter?”

              “Is this a riddle?” Abingdon tapped his chin. “What are the exact dimensions of the platter? Is it a rectangle? An oval?”

             Sebastian gave him a cross look. “We are speaking theoretically. It is a game I am playing with Miss Benton. She wants something and I am to guess what it is. My only clue thus far is that it does not fit on a silver platter. So I ask you, what might that be? What do women want?”

              “Bloody hell, man, if you don’t know I daresay no man does. Certainly not I.”

              There was too much truth in the statement for Sebastian to deny it, so he merely nodded. “I suppose the true question is less to do with women in general and more about one woman in particular. What does Miss Benton want that won’t fit on a silver platter? Not jewelry.”

              “Nor a book.”

             They both fell silent for a moment as they pondered the impossible question.

               “What do you know of her?” Abingdon asked finally. “What are her tastes?”

            “Only that she is unmarried and this is her first London season,” Sebastian said. And she is smart, sharp-tongued, and altogether delightful. But some things were better left unsaid.

             Abingdon laughed. “An unmarried young lady at a ball of her first London season? Perhaps she wants a man.”

            Sebastian stilled. “A man,” he said softly.

            He remembered the look of disappointment on her face when she realized he had claimed two dances. Yet I frown, as women are prone to do when their desires have been thwarted.

             She wanted a man. A man who wasn’t him.

             Damnation.

           “A man is exactly what she wants,” he said. “She’s angry that I took her last dance. I believe she had been keeping at least one reserved for another man.”

            Abingdon blinked. “Who?” The unspoken question being, who could she possibly desire to dance with more than the Duke of Wessex?

            “I haven’t the foggiest idea.” There were literally hundreds of men in his ballroom. How was he to know which one had caught Miss Benton’s fancy?                   “Someone who is not on her dance card.”

            “Hm. It is an interesting predicament you find yourself in, Wessex. First you must discover the man’s identity and then you must decide how to deliver him unto Miss Benton, because whomever he may be, he will not, in fact, fit on a silver platter.”

            Sebastian frowned. An obstacle, to be sure. But no matter. It would take more than a razor-witted miss barely out of the schoolroom to defeat him. He was not a patient man, but he was a calculating one, and once he had determined a thing must happen, why then, happen it must. He would win, and Miss Benton would be properly grateful for it.

             “What is your move, Wessex?” Abingdon asked. It was due to the long years of their friendship that he sounded more wary than curious, and it was due to those same years of friendship that Sebastian forgave him for it.

            “Now I wait.” He straightened the cuff of his jacket. “I have questions and Miss Benton must provide the answers. As she has proven to be rather reticent in providing those answers, I have no choice but to watch her and learn the truth.”

           Abingdon paused. “You will track her every movement in order to discern her most personal inner thoughts. Nothing unseemly in that,” he said drily.

           Sebastian narrowed his eyes. “I prefer to think of it as a game of chess, one that Miss Benton agreed to quite willingly. She is in no danger. I shan’t follow her into the ladies withdrawing room, or attempt to catch her alone on the terrace. I doubt other men could claim the same benign sense of purpose. Lord Buttonsworth, for example.” His annoyance shifted from his friend to the man who was now attempting to lead Miss Benton through the French doors and into the dark garden. He snapped his fingers. “Sinton.”

            The footman appeared. “Your Grace.”

           “Do something about that.” He waved his hand in their direction.

Sinton started forward, but paused when Miss Benton stumbled, managing to somehow stay upright while the less unfortunate Lord Buttonsworth landed in a sprawling heap at her feet. “It appears the lady did something about it herself.”

            Sebastian could not stop his grin. “Quite so.”

            He watched as she reunited with her sister-in-law, where she was almost immediately beset by a throng of gentlemen bleating their concern for her welfare like goats in a barnyard. She smiled and nodded, but her gaze drifted elsewhere. Sebastian craned his neck to follow it.

           No. Surely not.

           He was so old. On the wrong side of forty, without question, and he had a bald spot on the crown of his head. Furthermore, he was known to be less scintillating as a conversationalist than a writer, as he was a shy man.

           He was, however, in want of a wife, as his had recently died, leaving him both wifeless and childless. And his works were highly esteemed, which perhaps mattered more to Miss Benton than his bald spot. There was no accounting for a woman’s taste.

             Sebastian continued to consider Miss Benton and her unaccountable taste as he danced the quadrille with Lady Tennings, who was followed by Lady Claire Harrison and then Miss Beatrice Havingsham. Finally it was time for his waltz with Miss Benton.

             “Your Grace.” Miss Benton lowered in a curtsy.

             Not for the first time, Sebastian wondered if the curtsy had been invented for the sole purpose of displaying a woman’s bosom to the best possible advantage. Miss Benton’s, in particular, was quite delightful.

            He offered his arm, she took it, and he led her to center of the room.

           “Have you enjoyed yourself thus far, Miss Benton?” he asked as they took their places. Their hands cleaved together—his right to her left—and his other found her waist. Her right hand came to rest on his shoulder as lightly as a butterfly landing on a flower. He felt his world constrict to those three points of contact: their hands, her waist, his shoulder, each as hot as a branding iron. She smelled of roses and powder.

            “It has been altogether delightful, your grace,” she said, and he blinked in surprise, having forgotten he had asked her a question. “The next ball is sure to be a disappointment after this splendor.”

            She uttered this banality while looking distractedly over his shoulder. He turned her gracefully in time to the music and was not at all surprised to see who stood there.

           “Do you like books, Miss Benton?” he asked abruptly.

            He had secured her attention at last. Her blue eyes lit like ethereal stars.

           “I suppose it depends on the book,” she said thoughtfully. “A good book is like a welcome friend. But there are also books that remind me of nothing so much as a detestable third cousin who always tells one how tired one looks, in tones of utmost concern.”

              Sebastian burst into laughter. Why must she be so damned delightful? “Is Sir Albert Pendleton a welcome friend or a detestable third cousin?”

             “The former, I should say.” There was the briefest of hesitations as she searched his face, for what, he did not know. “Are you familiar with his novels? He is here tonight, I’m sure you know. Is he a friend of yours?”

            “We are acquainted.”

             He said nothing more and neither did she. She wouldn’t ask for the introduction, he knew. She couldn’t without showing her hand, thus allowing him to win their bet. But he knew the truth as plainly as if she had written it in precise black ink across her forehead.

             She wanted a dance with Sir Albert Pendleton.

            The dance Sebastian had claimed possession of.

             Such irony! He nearly laughed again at the tidiness of it. He could win so easily.

              And yet.

             For the first time in his life, he couldn’t have what he wanted with a woman. It was a new and not entirely pleasant experience for him.

            He could win.

           But first he must lose.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Four

 

            Eliza looked up to find the Duke of Wessex regarding her with what could only be described as a very odd expression. His full lips twisted in an amused grimace, his dark brows furrowed together in concentration.

            “Are you all right?” she asked, concerned. He wasn’t about to take a fit, was he? Heaven knew these long-lined aristocrats were not immune to it.

            He gave a brisk shake that encompassed nearly his whole body, as though he was bringing himself out of a reverie. “Quite,” he said brusquely.

            “The music has stopped. Our dance has ended.”

            “So it has.”

            He glanced at their hands, still clasped together. Slowly they separated. She removed her hand from his shoulder, he dropped his hand from her waist. She felt a slight, sudden chill, even in the heated ballroom.

           “I shall take you to Lady Benton. But first, shall I introduce you to Sir Pendleton? He is just over there, and I am sure your sister will not mind the momentary delay.”

             Eliza drew in a slow breath and attempted to calm her nerves. She knew very well where Sir Pendleton stood, as she had tracked his movements all night, daring to hope that somehow she could meet him.

              And now the Detestable Duke would bring that hope to fruition. How…unexpected. Perhaps he was not so detestable, after all.

             “If you please, I should like that,” she said carefully, lest she seem overeager.

              He nodded, and something like regret flitted across his face and then was gone before she could fully assess what it was. She took his arm and allowed him to lead her to Sir Pendleton.

             She was dimly aware of the duke making the introductions over the blood rushing in her ears. She knew Sir Pendleton bowed and she curtseyed. She was rather proud of herself for remaining so composed rather than emitting girlish shrieks in his face—as a friend had once done upon meeting Lord Byron, and neither had yet recovered from the shame.

               Lord Byron, at least, was rather used to such displays, and really, could anything shock him after Lady Caroline? Eliza doubted the same could be said for the staid Sir Pendleton.

             “Miss Benton, your dance card?”

             Eliza turned to Wessex, who was holding out his hand expectantly.                     “Pardon?”

             “Your dance card,” he repeated. She handed it to him, too confused to protest. “I had the privilege of dancing the waltz with Miss Benton just now, and nothing would please me more than to repeat the experience. However…”

             Eliza stared at him, horrified. Did he truly intend to remove his name from her card? How unbelievably rude! And in front of Sir Pendleton? How humiliating. She glanced to the man and found, to her surprise, that he was staring at her as though she were Helen and he Paris.

              Well. She was looking exceedingly lovely tonight.

              “You will not mind taking my place, will you?” Wessex continued. “I am quite beside myself with remorse that I must attend to…” He paused.

               Eliza arched a brow and awaited his excuse. No doubt it would be ridiculous.

               They both looked to Sir Pendleton, who had apparently been struck dumb. They looked at each other. He shrugged a shoulder, as though to say, Does it really matter?

              “I must attend to another matter that cannot wait,” Wessex finished vaguely. “I would be indebted to you for your service.”

             “I should like nothing more than to dance with Miss Benton,” Sir Pendleton said so fervently that Eliza found herself wishing he had been just a hairsbreadth less enthusiastic. For all he knew, she was no smarter than a rock.

             “Wonderful.” Wessex handed her card to Sir Pendleton, who replaced the duke’s name with his own. “And now I must take her to her sister, Lady Benton. If you will excuse us.”

              “Well,” Eliza said as they winded their way across the ballroom. “I cannot decide if I should smack you with my fan for abandoning me or thank you for the same.”

            “Are you pleased, Miss Benton?” he murmured.

           She turned to look at him. “Very.” The smile came, unbidden, as impossible to dampen as the sun in a cloudless sky. Her happiness could not be repressed, no matter how the ton might prefer the more stylish cloak of ennui.

He studied her for a long, quiet moment. “So that’s what it looks like. I believe our game has reached its conclusion, Miss Benton. You said I thwarted your desire, but I have rectified that now, have I not? I won.”

             She stumbled. How had he known? “You—you—that was on purpose?”

            He steered her quickly behind a potted tree, which offered privacy without being entirely indecent. “Indeed. You’re welcome.”

            Her eyes narrowed. “And what is your reward, your grace? What forfeit do you claim?”

             Again that odd look crossed his face, of baffled amusement and perhaps a note of wistfulness. “It’s already done. You gave me your smile, Miss Benton—your true smile. I shall never again mistake a facsimile for the real thing. I do wonder, now that I have witnessed it, how I could ever have been fooled.”

           She stared at him. Would he never cease surprising her?

           “Not a kiss, then,” she said.

           “I said as much from the beginning. I may be a rake, but I am not a liar.”

           How odd to be consumed by equal parts relief and disappointment.

Moved by impulse, she laid a gloved hand on his arm. He looked at it and then at her, a question in his dark eyes.

          She rose up on her toes and pressed a light, quick kiss to his cheek. “Thank you.”

            They stared at each other. For a moment neither said anything. Around them were the hums of people talking, laughing, music thrumming. But here, behind the tree, there was nothing so loud as the harsh staccato of his breath and her heart beating against her ribs.

            “It seems you were quite right, your grace,” Eliza said. She took a step back and brushed the wrinkles from her dress. “I have given you a kiss willingly, and not as part of a bargain.”

           He laughed quietly, the sound of his delight causing strange bubbles of happiness inside her.

         “Miss Benton.” He took her hand, kissed the air above her knuckles. “I believe this is the beginning of a very interesting friendship.”

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