I Kissed an Earl(10)

By: Julie Anne Long

“How are you finding London, Lord Lavay?” she tried. It was a perfectly acceptable nicety, she told herself. A nicety, not a banality. “Have you been here long?”

“We docked but a fortnight ago. But oddly, Miss Redmond, I now greatly regret that we must set sail tomorrow.”

He said it lightly, but it was edged all around in flirtatious heat. The remark was entirely about her. His eyes glowed the subtext.

Violet nodded her recognition approval, gave a slight encouraging smile. Very good beginning. Monsieur Lavay’s eyes lit, amused, encouraged.

“And have you visited London before, Monsieur Lavay?”

“Under other circumstances, many years before the war. We are here on business for the King, and to deliver a diplomat from service in Spain. And of course, to be feted at parties and balls, for it is not every day one’s captain is styled an earl.”

Violet smiled. “And it is our family’s pleasure, of course, to participate in the celebration of the new earl.”

This wasn’t entirely true. But Violet did know the appropriate things to say, the sort of things one laid out like paving stones at the outset of a friendship before one gets comfortable enough for frankness. She’d heard her father curse but twice in his life: once, when Colin Eversea didn’t hang as scheduled, and next when word arrived that the new earl would be Captain Asher Flint.

Generally, she preferred to dodge frankness when it came to men, however. And as she was a tester and risk-taker, she chose her next question deliberately.

“Are you acquainted with a Mr. Hardesty by any chance, Lord Lavay?”

The name brought a similarly intriguing reaction. Silence.

And then: “Are you, Miss Redmond?”

His manner was now a degree or two cooler.

“It’s just that the earl thought my brother Jonathan resembled him, and described him as a fellow sailor.”

She refrained from describing the earl’s profoundly visceral reaction. But Lavay’s rueful smile told her he’d guessed at it anyway. “Ah. Did he. Interesting. Given that we’ve thought of almost nothing else recently, perhaps it is understandable the earl is seeing Hardesty everywhere. And I suppose it’s not entirely an insult to your brother.”

“I am eager to hear which part is an insult, then.”

Monsieur Lavay smiled. “Well, to put your mind at ease, one hears that Mr. Hardesty is charm personified. And he is pleasant to have at one’s elbow during a supper, as I have on one occasion. His manners and speech are exceedingly refined and he is clearly well educated, though how he came by all of this charm and wealth and excellent conversation remains a mystery. He was all that is correct and knowledgeable about trade. He has been seen in France and Belgium, in Portugal and Spain, in Morocco. Primarily he brings in goods from the West Indies and Cuba.”

“He sounds delightful. And yet my impression is that your reunion     with Mr. Hardesty would not be a joyous one.”

Lavay enjoyed her circumspection; his brows went up. But there was another hesitation.

“I suppose there is no harm in telling you. We believe this Mr. Hardesty is in fact a man they call Le Chat. Who, as it so happens is a—well, privateer is the polite word—a more accurate word is pirate.”

Good heavens. Violet was thrilled into silence. Which likely wasn’t the reaction she ought to have.

She seldom had the sorts of reactions she ought to have, however.

“What on earth would a pirate be doing in a ballroom?”

“Miss Redmond, I’m certain Le Chat would brave the gallows if he knew he might have an opportunity to dance with you. Perhaps he prowls balls for just this reason.”

Violet laughed and gave a surprised toss of her head. The compliment was cognac-smooth and unexpected enough to dissolve the fog of her ball ennui. The French accent that clung to the edges of his flawless English made listening to him a pleasure akin to hearing the strains of a minuet floating in from a distant room.

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