My American Duchess(4)

By: Eloisa James



“Well, American ladies prefer to speak rather than warble,” Merry said, with a mischievous grin. “We never faint, and our constitutions are far hardier than those of delicate English gentlewomen. Oh, and we add tea to our milk, rather than the other way around.”

“You are of the impression that ‘delicate’ characterizes the fair sex as represented tonight in Lady Portmeadow’s ballroom?”

Merry pursed her lips, thinking of the hawk-eyed ladies who ruled over London society. “Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Englishwomen aspire to delicacy, and American women do not. For my part, I believe that a woman’s temperament is something she ought to be able to decide for herself. I have no plan to have an attack of the vapors now, nor shall I in the future.”

“I’ve heard about these ‘vapors,’ but I have yet to see a woman faint,” he said, folding his arms over his chest.

He had a nice chest. Her eyes drifted all the way down to his powerful thighs, before she recovered herself and snapped her gaze back to his face. His expression was unchanged, so hopefully he hadn’t noticed her impropriety.

Still, in the back of her mind, she decided that Aunt Bess was right: on the right man, snug silk pantaloons were an undeniably appealing fashion.

He was patiently waiting for her to respond. He had a kind of power about him that had nothing to do with fashion. Now she thought of it, she had seen that kind of self-possession before: in a Mohawk warrior she’d once met as a girl.

She shook her head, pushing the thought away. “Not even once? In that case, you’re either lucky or remarkably unobservant. Didn’t you notice the fuss earlier this evening when Miss Cernay collapsed?”

“I arrived only a quarter of an hour ago. Why did Miss Cernay faint?”

“She claimed a mouse ran up her leg.”

“That is highly improbable,” he remarked, a sardonic light in his eyes. “Lady Portmeadow is notorious for her frugality, and not even mice care to starve.”

“Miss Cernay’s claim is not the point,” Merry explained. “She was likely groped by Lord Ma— by someone, and fainted from pure shock. Or perhaps she feigned a swoon to avoid further indignities. Either way, I promise you that an American lady would have taken direct action.”

He unfolded his arms and his eyes narrowed. “Am I to infer that you know who this blackguard was because he groped you as well?”

“‘Grope’ is perhaps too strong,” Merry said, noticing the air of menace that suddenly hung about those large shoulders. “‘Fondle’ would be more accurate.”

Her clarification didn’t improve matters. “Who was it?” he demanded. His brows were a dark line.

She certainly didn’t want to be responsible for an unpleasant confrontation. “I haven’t any idea,” she said, fibbing madly.

“I collect that you did not faint.”

“Certainly not. I defended myself.”

“I see,” he said, looking interested. “How did you do that, exactly?”

“I stuck him with my hat pin,” Merry explained.

“Your hat pin?”

She nodded, and showed him one of the two diamond hat pins adorning the tops of her gloves. “In America, we pleat silk gloves at the top and thread a hat pin through. They hold up your gloves, but they can also be used to ward off wandering hands.”

“Very resourceful,” he said with a nod.

“Yes, well, the lord in question might have squealed loudly,” she told him impishly. “Everyone might have turned around to look. And I might have patted his arm and said that I knew that boils could be very troublesome. Did you know, by the way, that a treatment of yarrow is used for boils, but it will also stop a man’s hair from falling out?”

She could feel herself turning pink. He had no need of that remedy. Although cropped short, his hair was quite thick, as best she could see on the shadowy balcony.

But he gave a deep chuckle, and Merry relaxed, realizing that it was the first time all week—perhaps even all month—she felt free to be herself. This man actually seemed to like it when a bit of information escaped from her mouth.

“Happily, I am ignorant about boils,” he said. “Are American ladies typically knowledgeable about such matters?”

“I can’t help recalling facts,” she confessed. “It’s a sad trial to me because it’s hard to remember in time that they ought not to be shared.”

“Why not?”

The corners of the man’s stern mouth had tipped upward in a most beguiling fashion. In fact, she found herself starting to lean toward him before she caught herself.

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