“The whole bonnet?” he asked, leaning back as if he was examining the hat perched on her head. “Including the feather?”
“Especially the feather,” she retorted with a smile she had not bidden.
She pressed her lips together in frustration the moment she had spoken. It seemed she was too willing to abandon her plans the moment Simon turned his charm her way. Gabby said she had to allow his interest to play out, but that didn’t mean she should like the way he looked at her or smiled at her.
“Well, I would not want to be the cause of your indigestion,” Simon said with a shrug. “Therefore, I concede I missed my final shot on purpose.”
“Whatever for?” Lillian asked. “You were doing quite well.”
“I was more interested in speaking to a young lady who is apparently one of the worst croquet players to ever pick up a mallet.”
He tilted his head and though his words were teasing there was a heat in his stare that made Lillian’s very blood tingle and all her objections to his attentions fade away. She swallowed hard.
“That would be you, by the way, Miss Mayhew,” he whispered.
“You are very rude. I am certainly not the worst croquet player I know.” She tried to maintain a light tone, but her voice was suddenly husky.
His eyes widened. “You know worse? Good Lord.” His arm came out to fill the space between them and hovered there. “You must tell me more about this crime against sport and nature. Perhaps while we take a turn about the gardens?”
Again, Lillian swallowed. It seemed her body was determined to war with her mind, for she found herself leaning toward Simon, even as her brain screamed at her that he was the son of a man she hated.
But how could she refuse him with everyone watching? And even if they were pretending not to, they were all watching. Resistance could only bring trouble. In truth there was little choice in the matter.
Suppressing a sigh, she slipped her fingers through the crook of his elbow and allowed him to lead her away from the croquet field into the garden, which was edged by a shrubbery that came up to her waist.
“And now I have another confession to make,” Simon said as they walked slowly down the path through beautiful flowers and carefully trimmed bushes.
“And what is that, Your Grace?” she asked, her mouth suddenly dry.
“I do not wish to talk about croquet,” he said with a light laugh. “Unless that is a true passion of yours.”
She stopped in the middle of the pathway and glided her hand away from him. It felt warm as she clutched it to her breast.
"Your Grace, forgive my impertinence, but why in the world do you insist upon pursuing me?” she burst out. Immediately she wished to snatch the words back or recall the moment.
Years of rejection rose to the forefront of her mind. Men who had seemed interested, but ultimately pushed her aside when they uncovered the rumors of her past. Simon had to know about her mother by now. Someone certainly must have let him know if only to discourage him. And yet he continued in this down this unexpected and unwanted course.
Simon looked at her long and hard before he spoke, but his expression was not one of disappointment or even shock. He seemed to be truly considering her question before he said, “Because, Miss Mayhew, unlike the other woman who have gathered here, you interest me. And truth be told, you confuse me. Not many people manage that feat.”
“Confuse you?” Lillian repeated.
He nodded. “One moment you are playful, the next you seem determined to get as far away from me as humanly possible. I saw a love of books reflected in your eyes when you stumbled upon my library, but you pretended disinterest when I asked you about it. I don’t know what to think of you or how to read you and I like that. I like the uncertainty.”
Lillian blinked. His reply was entirely unexpected. She didn’t think any man had ever been so straightforward with her. Most danced around with pretty words and never really gave an answer. But this… this was an answer.
“Not to mention the fact that you are quite beautiful, Miss Mayhew,” he continued and now he took a small step closer. “Lillian.”
She was suddenly aware of how tall he was. And that he smelled faintly of pine, like he spent a great deal of time outside in the fresh air. She found herself breathing him in subtly. But then she shook her head and backed away, desperate to break the strange spell he had woven around her with pretty words and heated glances.
“There are at least a dozen beautiful women here, Simon.” She flushed as she realized her slip. It seemed her private use of his given name had instilled bad habits in her. “Your Grace.”
But a light of triumph had already brightened his eyes. Her use of his name was only encouragement to him.
She hastened to add something else, to counteract her inappropriate statement with a fact that would crush his interest.
“Those other women are far more appropriate than I am, as well,” she finally whispered. “If you are on this path to court me, I would bring nothing to you, Your Grace. No money, no alliance with a powerful family, in fact my connections would bring you down in the estimation of some. I did not come here to pursue that kind of connection to you, I have no illusions that I shall marry, perhaps at all.”
He smiled again, but this time there was a gentleness to it. “All that you say may be true. However I find that I don’t really care that much. I do find you interesting, Lillian, whether you like it or not, whether you expected it or not. And since I have the power and the access and the time, I intend to pursue my interest.”
Lillian’s lips parted as he moved even closer. She felt his body heat now, suffusing her fine linen gown, warming her beneath in a way that suggested naked skin and writhing bodies. With a start, she turned away, but he caught her wrist and held her steady.
“You are a riddle I intend to solve,” he whispered, his gaze holding hers.