The cheek of the statement in such a public locale surprised the older woman, who met Blackmoor’s laughing eyes and shook her head slightly and spoke with disdain, “Young people…so different from the way we were in my day.”

Alex immediately dipped her head in chagrin. “I beg your pardon, my lady.”

The countess nodded curtly in farewell to both of them and moved off to greet the next acquaintance she found on the path, leaving Alex to turn a concerned look on Blackmoor. “Well, that came off rather poorly, it seems.”

Blackmoor tried to hide his humor, somewhat unsuccessfully. “You shouldn’t allow her opinion to dictate your behavior.”

Alex winced. “Lady Shrewsbury is not incorrect. I should endeavor to be more ladylike and less…well…not. More like her.”

“Lady Shrewsbury”—he said the name as if he had just received a whiff of a not altogether pleasant scent—“has always been the portrait of stiffness and staidness. You should endeavor to be nothing like her.”

“Her opinion about my…candor…is shared by many of our parents’ set.”

“Nonsense,” he said, tipping his hat to the Marquess of Houghton, who was riding alongside the eldest daughter of Viscount Grosvenor. “Your candidness is charming and not at all off-putting. Our parents’ friends adore you. You are…lively.”

“Lively.” Alex tested the word on her tongue. “That makes me sound like an unpredictable racing horse.” A broad grin spread across Blackmoor’s face and Alex resisted the urge to hit him. That would have been unpredictable. “Do you think me horselike, my lord?”

Realizing the threat to his personage, Blackmoor wiped the smile from his face and replied, “Not at all. I said I think you charming.”

“A fine start.”

“And I appreciate your exuberance.” His eyes glittered with barely contained laughter.

“Like that of a child.” Hers sparkled with irritation.

“And, of course, you are entertaining.”

“Excellent. Like the aforementioned child’s toy.”

He couldn’t hide a chuckle. “Not at all. You are a far better companion than any of the toys I had as a child.”

“Oh, I am most flattered.”

“You should be. I had some tremendous toys.”

Eyes wide, she turned on him, catching his laughing gaze. “Oh! You are incorrigible! Between you and my brothers, it’s no wonder I can’t manage to be more of a delicate flower!”

Blackmoor stopped in the midst of acknowledging the Viscountess of Hawksmore, who, accompanied by her enormous black poodle, walked past. He turned back to Alex and answered with one eyebrow raised, “I beg your pardon? A delicate flower?”

Alex sat back in the curricle, quoting in a singsong voice, “A young lady should be as a delicate flower; a fragile bud, with care, will blossom by the hour.”

Blackmoor’s eyes widened. “Where on earth did you hear that rubbish?”

“My governess.”

“I do not traditionally speak ill of women, but your governess is a cabbagehead.” Alex laughed as Blackmoor continued in horror, “What a ridiculous sentiment. No one could actually take it seriously. It rhymes, for goodness sake.”

She leaned out to take the hand of Lady Redding, greeting her as she rode past on a magnificent grey. Turning back to Blackmoor, she said, “Of course, it rhymes. It’s supposed to be easily remembered.”

“It should be forgotten. Promptly.”

“Oh, and I imagine you’re going to tell me that it is incorrect? That men don’t want wives whom they can mold into the bloom of their choice? That we are not merely bulbs to be gardened by our husbands?”

“The flower metaphor is insulting in any number of ways. Primarily to our intelligence. I beg you to cease using it.”

“Fine. But the point remains. Men refuse to consider the possibility that women have their own opinions, their own character. And women…well, we are as much to blame. We allow you to believe that we simply wait to be guided by your superior intellect and sense of right. You saw the letters I received this morning, Blackmoor. They want me because I am rich. Or perhaps because I am young. Or attractive enough. But do you truly believe that those men will continue to court me when they see that I joke and tease with my brothers? When they find that I am far more at home in the stables than in the sewing room? When they discover that I read the newspaper and enjoy discussing politics?”

“I think that if they don’t want all those things, you’re better off without them.”

Alex rolled her eyes. “That’s not the issue. I’m better off without the lot of you. Perhaps I would consider being married to someone who didn’t mind all my ‘unladylike’ qualities…but I’m safe from the institution either way. The fact is, no man wants a woman who is his intellectual equal.”

“Your generalizations wound me,” he said wryly as he tipped his hat to the Duke of Nottingham, who raised his walking stick in response.

“They shouldn’t. You can’t be expected to feel differently from the rest of your sex.”

“I most certainly feel differently.”

Alex snorted in disbelief.

“You do not think me honest?”

“I think you believe that you are being honest. It’s simply that I saw you last night.”

“Last night?”

“Indeed. Penelope Grayson captured your interest. You’ve admitted as much. And I can only imagine she did it by being a delicate flower. Because I have serious doubts about her being your intellectual equal.”

The words came flooding out of her mouth before she had thought about just how insulting they would be, to both Penelope and to Gavin. Feeling color flood her cheeks, she bit the inside of her cheek, not knowing how to escape from the mess she had so effortlessly created. Instead, she sat quietly, waiting for him to speak, periodically lifting one gloved hand in greeting to one of the hundreds of people who seemed, suddenly, to be crowding around them.

It really wasn’t her business, how Blackmoor felt about Penelope. So why did the idea that he enjoyed her company bother her so very much? She pushed the niggling voice to the back of her mind and tried to convince herself that her outburst was only borne of concerned friendship. After all, she didn’t want Blackmoor making a decision he could very well regret. She was his friend. She was concerned. Hence, concerned friendship.

She wished he would say something.

The statement had been offensive, certainly. Well, more toward Penelope than to Blackmoor. She hadn’t questioned his intelligence. No, I simply questioned the intelligence of the woman he was courting. She started at the thought. He wasn’t courting her, was he? He couldn’t be. If he were, he wouldn’t have had the time to take Alex riding today. He certainly wouldn’t have taken her here, to Rotten Row, where they were certain to be seen by anyone and everyone. Of course, no one here would actually believe that she and Blackmoor were a couple. She didn’t even have a chaperone with her, for goodness sake. It was clear that they were more like siblings than anything else. All the more reason for her to have expressed her distaste for Penelope. Quite. She’d done the right thing. Even if it smarted a bit.

How was it that men could remain so stoically quiet when they wanted?

She stole a glance at him out of the corner of her eye. He was focused on the traffic around them, his jaw set firmly as he wielded the reins of the pair of lovely tan geldings pulling along the curricle. Gone was the teasing humor that had characterized their afternoon. He was not happy, this much was clear. What remained to be seen was just how unhappy he was.

The silence was chipping away at her sanity. Truly.

And then, just when she thought he would never speak, he did.

“You do Penelope a discredit.”

Of all the things he could have said, this was not the one she had wanted to hear. Guilt began to gnaw at her. “I beg your pardon?”

“You have not witnessed my interactions with Penelope. You have no grasp of her intellect and no understanding of our conversations. Have you?”

“I—” He held up a hand to stop her from speaking.

“Nay, Alexandra. No excuses. Have you any understanding of my relationship with Penelope?”


“Indeed. You have judged it—and her, I might add—wrongly. Were she here, you would owe her an apology.”

Alex flushed, embarrassed, and blinked back the tears that had sprung to her eyes in response to his scolding. He was impassioned and filled with intense affront—all for Penelope’s honor. She had no doubt that, were she anyone else, he would have delivered a scathing set-down. Instead, his tone revealed not anger with her opinions but disappointment in her voicing them. All at once, she was aware of his position, not as her friend but as a well-bred gentleman, defending a woman’s honor. And, for a fleeting moment, she couldn’t help but envy Penelope just a little. How would it feel to have Blackmoor defend her?

“That said,” he pressed on, deliberately ignoring her embarrassment, “you are right about most men. We are, of course, initially drawn to the immediate. To beauty, wealth, youth, what have you. Each of us has our own weakness. But without the rest—the intelligence, the wit, the humor—our attraction is short-lived. At least, mine is. And I am not alone. Of that I am certain.”

He had moved past her criticism of Penelope deftly, without allowing for discussion, arguing his side of the debate with cool reason, conceding where necessary, and concluding with an unflappable, quiet certainty.

It was as though her insult had never been uttered. Of course, it had been, and she was going to have to apologize. She grimaced at the thought. She hated apologizing. She took a deep breath. “My apologies. I never meant to imply that Penelope’s intellect was inferior.”

He smiled, reaching out to tap her on her chin, “Of course you did, Minx. However, I appreciate that it has never been easy for you to apologize, and so I will accept this one without argument.” She blushed, chastised, as his eyes narrowed on a point over her shoulder. “Besides, I am not overly fond of certain members of your legion of suitors.”

Confused, Alex turned her head to follow his gaze and broke into a broad smile when she saw Lord Stanhope seated high on a beautiful black gelding riding next to the carriage. Stanhope tipped his hat and offered a greeting. “Lord Blackmoor, this is a stunning curricle. I should like one just like it for myself!” Turning to Alex, his voice dropped. “And you are doubly lucky—for you have found the only companion worthy of such transport. Lady Alexandra, as ever, it is a pleasure to see you.” He allowed himself a lazy perusal of her attire before continuing, “You are particularly lovely this afternoon…that color only makes you more beautiful.”

Alex looked down at the dark blue riding habit she had donned for her outing, appreciating the rich texture of the fabric and the deep color against her bright skin, and she smiled warmly into Stanhope’s glittering brown eyes. Taking in the cut of his dark coat, the perfect knot in his cravat, the tilt of his gleaming black hat, she replied, “Why, thank you, my lord. And you look rather dashing yourself!”

He leaned over with a conspiratorial, flirty whisper: “I took extra care in preparing for this outing, Lady Alexandra. One never knows when one might run into a lady of extraordinary beauty.”

She laughed at his bald statement and replied with a shake of her head, “You’re incorrigible!”

He joined her in her laughter and turned his attention to Blackmoor. “Your companion seems to think I’m rather more than incorrigible, my lady.”

“Indeed,” agreed Blackmoor, darkly, “it’s not the first word I would use to describe you, Stanhope.”

“Come now,” Stanhope teased, “you’ve always enjoyed my exploits in the past, old chap.” He turned back to Alex with a wide smile. “After all, what’s wrong with a little bit of flirting between friends?”

Alex cut in before Blackmoor could speak, “There’s nothing at all wrong with it, Freddie. It’s my fault that Blackmoor is in such an ill humor. I’m afraid I’ve landed him there.”

Stanhope responded with feigned shock, “Surely not! You couldn’t possibly bring ill humor. Shall I tell you why?”

“Please do!” Alex was beginning to really enjoy herself.

Stanhope leaned close. “Too pretty.”

Blackmoor rolled his eyes in obvious irritation as Alex’s laugh tinkled around them. “Stanhope, don’t you have somewhere else to be? Perhaps someone else to ply with your charm and wit?”

His rudeness was undeniable, and Alex felt compelled to speak. “I rather enjoy Lord Stanhope’s charm and wit. I find it quite refreshing, honestly.”

Stanhope’s face broke into a devastatingly handsome grin. “Well said, my lady. However, Lord Blackmoor did win your company this afternoon, and I should hate to take any more of your attention. That said, may I have your permission to call on you on Sunday for a similar excursion?” Reaching for her hand and waggling his eyebrows, he added, “I shall endeavor to be all propriety.”

She couldn’t control the giggle that escaped her at his silliness and she placed her hand in his, watching as he effortlessly bowed over it despite their awkward positions. “I should like that very much, my lord. Sunday it is.”

Stanhope’s “Capital” was lost as Blackmoor urged the curricle forward and Alex’s hand was wrenched from the other man’s grasp. She leaned out the side of the carriage to wave good-bye to her friend, then turned back to her companion. “That wasn’t very nice. Freddie didn’t even get a chance to say his farewells.” Copyright 2016 - 2023