Excerpt from Undone by the Earl
An hour before the carriage was due to leave for the ball, Adrian strolled into the sitting room and found Miss Colbrook alone, reading in the far window seat. She reclined against a pile of white velvet cushions, her legs tucked under her. Her blue and silver shoes rested on the floor beside her, and her stockinged toes peeked out from beneath the hem of her gown.
As he approached, she briefly lifted her head from her book.
“Where are the other ladies?” he asked.
“Still dressing, I imagine.” She didn’t glance up again. “They may be quite a while. Madeline is always late for outings.” She had already changed into her evening clothes: a plain, dark blue gown and only the barest jewelry–tiny gold ear bobs and a thin necklace that fell almost to her waist. Still, she looked far more ravishing than most women did in much finer clothes.
“What are you reading now?” He stepped close and bent to scan the cover of her book.
A Gentleman’s Guide to Prudent Investment.
“Investment?” Good Lord. Next she’d be reading about fencing or how to tie a cravat.
She glanced up only to frown at him. “It’s fascinating.”
“I’m sure,” he said. “Do you mind if I sit?” He didn’t wait for a reply but dropped onto the cushions at the other end of the window seat. He leaned back, facing her, his knees a few feet from hers. She shifted the book so it blocked him from view.
“I need to speak with you,” he said. He began tracing the edge of the windowpane with one finger.
“About what?” she asked from behind the book.
“Marriage.” He watched the volume slide from her fingers and land beside her shoes with a soft thud. She quickly bent over to retrieve it. Despite the conservative cut of her gown, he was afforded a brief, tantalizing view of her breasts. His body reacted instantly, far too strongly for a mere glimpse of cleavage, however voluptuous.
This was what happened when a man behaved like a monk for too long.
She frowned. “Marriage?”
“Yes. I am offering my assistance.”
“Thank you, but I am in no need of help.” She opened her book and reclined against the cushions again, pretending to read. A lock of hair fell in front of her eyes. He resisted the impulse to lean forward and tuck it behind her ear. What on earth was wrong with him, to be thinking such things?
“It is true, then,” he said, “that you have no desire to marry?”
She snapped the book shut and dropped it in her lap. “I shall not be pressured into a match.” She tucked her hair back into place and shifted, sitting up straighter. Oddly, her necklace was suddenly shorter, falling only to the top of her bodice.
“Then you might marry someday?” He restrained himself from asking about the suitor Madeline had mentioned. Miss Colbrook had already denied his existence. If she did have a serious admirer, the gentleman would almost certainly make himself known soon, perhaps even tonight.
“I might,” she said. “Or I might not.”
“But you refused the offer six years ago from Mr. Harley?”
“Is that not common knowledge?” She glanced out the window.
He frowned. She wasn’t actually answering the question. He recalled the anxiety in her eyes when his aunt had raised the subject on his first night at Wareton. Was she hiding something?
“Did you refuse Mr. Harley?” he asked bluntly.
He assumed she would respond as curtly and evasively as before, but she surprised him.
“No,” she said softly, meeting his gaze. “The old earl refused him.”
“But you did not?”
She slowly shook her head.
Interesting. Perhaps he’d discovered the real reason she remained a spinster. His aunt and apparently everyone else believed that she’d refused Mr. Harley, but this changed everything. Perhaps it wasn’t fear of repeating her mother’s unhappy marriages that made her reluctant to wed. Was it possible she was still so heartbroken that she simply wasn’t interested in other suitors? He felt a stab of annoyance that Mr. Harley might have captured her affections so deeply.
She glanced at him, then down at her hands.
“Why did the old earl refuse him?” he asked.
“He was a miserable old man,” she said. She shifted and tugged at her necklace. “That was reason enough.”
He wouldn’t argue that fact, but she was still being evasive. There was something more, something she didn’t wish to tell him.
“Miserable as sin,” he said, “but—”
“I am caught on something.” She reached awkwardly behind her back, trying to free the chain, but it wouldn’t budge.
“May I assist you?” he asked.
“No, I believe I can get it.” She struggled for a moment longer. “It is caught on the cushion.”
“Let me help. You risk breaking it.”
She looked at him gravely. “Very well.”
He stood and moved beside her, trying to ignore the disturbing effect she had on him. As usual, she smelled good, like fresh cut roses and linen. He fought the desire to lean closer.
“A link is tangled in the pillow cover,” he said. She clasped her hands in her lap as he bent behind her. “Lean back,” he said. She did, briefly brushing her back against his arm. She stiffened.
He wondered how she would react if she knew the alarming thoughts running through his mind. No doubt she would be appalled. Perhaps amused, but more likely horrified. He couldn’t forget the disappointment in her eyes after her awkward discovery of the account entries. And Mr. Harley, from what little Adrian recalled of the gentleman, was as straight-laced as they came, suggesting her taste in men leaned toward the puritanical. She wasn’t likely the type of woman who would find a gentleman with his past at all acceptable, no matter how reformed.
He carefully pulled the white threads out from around the chain. “There. The cushion cover needs mending, but your necklace is undamaged.”
“Thank you,” she said. As he returned the freed chain to her neck, his fingers touched just below her chignon, brushing the soft, fine hair too short to pin up.
She jerked away.
“Forgive me,” he said. “I did not mean to startle you.” He straightened, feeling a stab of anger. Was she so repulsed by him that one touch made her draw back so?
Still holding the necklace against her chest, she glanced up at him. In that instant he saw something in her eyes he never expected to see. It wasn’t revulsion. It was quite the opposite.
She quickly looked away and a bright flush of red coursed up her neck and onto her cheeks. In all the times he’d encountered her, she’d never once blushed, even under the most obnoxious and improper comments. She’d always been cool and imperturbable.
“You are blushing,” he said softly.
She turned and faced the window. In the glass he could see the faint reflection of her eyes, wide and nervous. He had the sudden urge to touch her again, to stroke the soft hair that fell from her chignon and touch the smooth column of her neck. He wanted to turn her to face him, to caress her flushed cheeks, and to see if her mouth tasted as soft and sweet as it looked.
He should step away. He was too near.
“Miss Colbrook,” he said. He stepped even closer.
Slowly, she turned her head and met his gaze. Her lips were parted, and she seemed about to say something.
He wanted to hear nothing she could say. More than anything at that moment, he wanted to kiss her.
Copyright 2018 by Elizabeth Rue All Rights Reserved