I Kissed an Earl(7)

By: Julie Anne Long


She peered over the earl’s shoulder in time to intercept Lady Peregrine’s triumphant glance before she was twirled out of her view.

She stared darts at the back of Lady Peregrine’s head.

“I don’t bite.”

The earl’s voice was a low rumble near her ear.

Violet was startled. “I beg your pardon?”

“You were staring at me as if you wondered whether I might.”

His accent was interesting: flat, commanding American crisped about the edges with something like aristocratic English. His R’s were softer, almost rolled. It was as though he’d absorbed a bit of the music in the language of every land he’d traveled.

“Oh. No, I was satisfying…another curiosity.”

“As to the number of eyes I might possess?”

“I ascertained the number rather quickly, thank you.”

“Ah. So you were staring beyond me. I see.” He sounded distantly amused. “What does it say about an evening when bad manners seem refreshing?”

He’d all but murmured it to himself.

Violet was seldom dumbstruck, so this was novel. She stared up at him. She’d been right about his eyes. They were a remarkable, cloudless sky blue ringed in darker blue. Thick lashes, golden tips where the sun had touched them again and again. Lines, three each, at the corners of his eyes, like the rays she used to draw about suns when she was small. Squinting into the sun from the deck, indeed.

“Have you considered it might be bad manners to insinuate that my manners are bad?” she said with some asperity.

This amused him. “You presume that I care whether you care.”

She blinked. What manner of man was this?

His brows went up. Well? Inviting a volley. But his air was still somewhat resigned and detached. As though he entertained no real hope she could ever possibly divert him. She in truth possessed exquisite manners and knew how to employ them, and she considered that she ought to exert a modicum of effort to charm him. He was an earl, after all, the captain of a ship…and he might be able to tell her something about Mr. Lavay.

“How do you find England, sir?”

He gave a short laugh.

She bristled. “I wasn’t trying to be witty.”

“Were you trying to be banal?” he asked politely.

“I’ve never been banal in my entire life,” Violet objected, astonished. He leaned forward as he swept her in a circle, graceful for a large man. As though he were a chariot and she were simply along for the giddy ride. He pulled her a trifle closer than was proper. She smelled starch and something sharp and clean; likely soap and perhaps a touch of scent. She was eye-level with the whitest cravat she’d seen outside of Lord Argosy, and suddenly she was overwhelmingly aware of his size and strength.

“Prove it,” he murmured next to her ear.

And then he was upright again, all graceful propriety, and they were turning, turning, gliding in the familiar dance.

Which suddenly felt astoundingly unfamiliar thanks to her partner. Well.

She was stunned.

Still…she had the peculiar sense that the earl was simply amusing himself. His eyes remained on her but still oddly…uncommitted…even as they moved gracefully together, even as his hand rested warmly, firmly at her waist. She suspected he had already taken her measure, categorized her, and neatly dismissed her, and was now simply prodding at her like a toy that he wished could do more than roll or squeak. To make the waltz more interesting for him. For as long as he needed to endure the tedium of it.

“Customarily,” she said with gentle irony, “in England, it’s the gentleman’s duty to charm his dancing partner. Perhaps you’ve been at sea so long you’ve forgotten.”

He was instantly all mock contrition. “You could very well be correct. It could be I’ve become a savage while I was away.”

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