His voice grew serious. “It’s not silly, Alex. It’s never easy to discover your parents are more than they seem.”
Alex sensed they were talking about something more than the evening at hand. Noticing they had come upon the entrance to the terrace that overlooked the back gardens, she recognized the possibility for a private conversation and said, “I find I am a little warm. Do you mind escorting me outside?”
He gave her a slightly surprised look but nodded in agreement, and they moved through the open glass doors into the cool London night.
They were not alone on the balcony, however, for they found themselves interrupting the Baron Montgrave and Lucian Sewell, who were deep in conversation.
“There is nothing to do.” Lucian spoke quietly.
“There is everything!” the baron replied, his voice louder, more excited.
That was all they overheard before the men became aware of their presence and Blackmoor spoke, “Apologies, Uncle. Baron. We did not mean to interrupt.” He made a move to turn Alex away from the conversation and return inside, when his uncle spoke.
“No need for apologies. The baron and I were just talking about the war”—he turned toward his nephew with a half smile—“and frankly, you’ve saved me from some embarrassment.”
“I was merely discussing the remarkable part your uncle has played in the war, Lord Blackmoor,” the baron added without looking away from Sewell.
Lucian tipped his head in a manner Alex recognized as affected humility. “Baron Montgrave exaggerates. I am hardly the hero he makes me out to be.”
“Not so. I assume your uncle has kept silent about his actions over the last few years, Lord Blackmoor. I can only hope that someday you will ask him to enlighten you about his…exploits.”
Lucian shook his head and met the eyes of the baron, Alex noticed. His next words were directed at the Frenchman. “My nephew need not hear of my past, Baron. It is just that. The past.” Offering a short bow to Alex, he continued, “Lady Alexandra, a pleasure as always. I think I shall return inside.”
With that, Sewell took his leave, the baron quick on his heels, leaving Blackmoor and Alex on the terrace with the cool night breeze around them.
Alex had the distinct feeling that the conversation they had witnessed had been weightier than it seemed…although she couldn’t quite discern why she felt so. Shaking off her thoughts, she looked for a way to lighten the moment for Blackmoor, who seemed lost in his own reverie.
“Well. They certainly were an unconventional pair.”
Looking off into the darkened garden, Gavin murmured his agreement. “My uncle seems to collect companions who don’t quite fit him.” Distractedly, he continued, “As I was saying…it’s not uncommon to discover that your elders are somewhat different from how they seem. My uncle Lucian exemplifies that point.”
“Your time together has not changed that?”
Blackmoor gave a little laugh. “Not in the slightest. He is as much a mystery now as he was when I was a boy—only now…” He trailed off.
Alex meant to let the silence hang until he was ready to say more. Truly, she did. But, unfortunately, she couldn’t help herself. “Now?”
He stayed quiet, and she thought he might ignore her question—so far away he was from this moment, this night. Just when she was about to change the subject, he spoke quietly. “Now he is the only link I have to my father. And, much as I try, I can’t seem to find any of my father in him. And I wouldn’t be surprised if he said the very same thing of me.”
“Why do you say that?” she blurted out before she could stop herself. Once the question was spoken, she qualified it almost immediately. “Not seeing your father in him—I understand that—they are markedly different men, to be sure. But why do you say that he must do the same?”
He turned to look at her and she was surprised by the troubled expression in his eyes, dark grey in the dim light.
“I never had the chance to learn to be like him.” This time, she stayed quiet, watching his throat work, his eyes darken, as he attempted to find words that would make sense. “He died so early. So much sooner than I had ever—At night, when I am home in that blasted house, all I can think is that I should have been more attentive. I should have paid him more mind.”
The words were tumbling from his lips, and Alex desperately wanted to console him. “You couldn’t have known…”
“I know that. I just wish I’d…I just wish I’d been more. Better.” He took a deep breath, pausing long enough to make her wonder if he was going to speak again. Just when she thought she was going to have to break the silence, to reassure him, he spoke in a whisper, “I wish I’d been a better son.”
Her response was instant. “You were a wonderful son. You are a wonderful son. He believed that. I know that as well as I know my own name.”
“You don’t know that.”
“How could you?”
He looked at her, really looked at her, for the first time since they’d come out to the terrace, and she was surprised by how much a man he appeared in the darkness. The light shadowed his face, harshening the angles of his straight nose, his strong jaw. His eyes glittered with something unnamed and Alex didn’t know if it was a trick of the light, but she couldn’t look away from him.
Instead, she reached out, placing her hand on the warm smooth fabric of his jacket where it hugged his arm, not knowing what to say to make this whole situation well again. She settled for a gentle and impassioned, “I have spent much of my life with fathers and sons. I know a good match when I see one. He loved you, Gavin. He was proud of you. And there is so much of him in you—so much of his strength, his humor, his character.”
Her touch seemed to pull him out of his daze, and he looked down at her slim, white hand, placing his own on hers before recapturing her gaze. One half of his mouth quirked in an attempt at a smile, and he spoke. “That’s the first time you’ve called me Gavin since the season began.” His breath exhaled on a little laugh. “I thought perhaps you’d forgotten my given name.”
She tried to ignore the feelings coursing through her at his touch as she replied, “I’m just trying to get used to your being an earl. I have to keep reminding myself.”
“You’re not alone. I find I have to remind myself most days. And I assure you, I’d much prefer not to be Blackmoor.” His voice quieted. “What I wouldn’t give to be Gavin again.”
Alex searched for the right words. “I cannot imagine how difficult this must be for you.” She paused, then pushed on. “In my opinion, I think you make an excellent earl…I always knew you would. And, more than that, I’m certain your father is very proud, wherever he is.”
He turned his head to look at her, but remained silent. An emotion she couldn’t define flashed in his eyes—something she’d never seen in them before. She continued, “And, even though you may not recognize him now, Gavin is still there. Still as strong as ever.”
His eyes darkened as he straightened and faced her. He moved his arm underneath her hand, twisting it and lacing her fingers through his own. She was keenly aware of the heat of his skin on hers, the intensity in his gaze. The moment stretched out between them and Alex had the feeling that something she did not fully understand was happening. She met his eyes and he stepped closer to her, leaving little room between them. As he looked down at her, a lock of his hair fell across his forehead. Her fingers itched to push it back from his face.
“You really believe that?”
Her breath caught as he raised his free hand to her face, tipping it upward toward the light. The touch sent a strange feeling through her, something she’d never felt before this moment.
When he spoke, she could hear the surprise in his voice. “You make me want to believe it.” He was mere inches from her and their gazes were locked together.
And all of a sudden, she knew. He was going to kiss her. And she wanted him to. More than she could have imagined. Her breath caught as his gaze moved from her eyes to her lips and her whole body tensed as she watched him move closer. His lips were so close to her own that she could feel the light touch of his breath on her skin. Her eyes fluttered closed and she waited on tenterhooks…all her senses screaming, He’s going to kiss you!
Only, he didn’t.
Instead, just as Alex was sure she was feeling the beginnings of her first kiss, she heard his soft curse. Her eyes flew open as he jumped back from her, loosing her hand. She found herself rather dizzy from his quick movement and the instant loss of his warmth.
“We cannot do this.”
“We cannot?” The words came out soft and bewildered.
“No!” He stopped and raked his fingers through his hair, taking a deep breath, looking anywhere but at her. She had no idea what to say or how to act—after all, it’s not every day one of your dearest friends nearly kisses you. So she stayed quiet.
He cleared his throat and spoke. “We are as good as family.” And that was that. “I should escort you back inside.”
She willed her voice to remain steady and was never so thankful as when her response came out sounding as though she experienced this particular situation most every day. “Of course. I shouldn’t like to miss any of the festivities.”
She ignored his offered arm and brushed past him toward the bright lights of the drawing room, leaving him to follow behind.
It’s all Alex’s fault. If it weren’t for her, we would be able to carry on as we always have without Mother making us do her bidding.” Kit looked across the table at Will, who nodded his head firmly in agreement and dealt the next hand of vingt-et-un, the card game they were playing.
Nick looked down at his cards with an air of superiority. “At least I have a legitimate reason to miss the Salisbury Ball. Mother can’t deny me the trip back to Oxford that’s been planned for weeks. The two of you are on your own!”
He flipped his cards, showing them with a confident flourish, and grimaced when he saw that he’d lost roundly to all three of the others.
Blackmoor, who occupied the fourth seat at the table, commented, “I should say that rather takes the sting off, doesn’t it, Kit? Will?”
The boys all laughed and continued their conversation as Will collected his winnings from the center of the table and began to shuffle the cards for another hand. Kit spoke next. “She can’t force us to go to the ball. We’re grown men, for Lord’s sake!”
Will cocked an eyebrow at his younger brother. “You don’t think she can force us? We are speaking of the same mother, correct? Small frame, enormous will?”
Kit sighed and leaned back in his chair, leveling his older brother with a stare. “How are we going to escape?”
“We’re not,” said Will. “This is one of those balls that we can’t avoid—Nicola Salisbury has been a friend of Alex’s for years. She’s not going to miss this for anything.”
Nick spoke up. “That may be true, but I really am beginning to think that Alex is no more interested in attending the Salisbury Ball than we are. She’s been rather more difficult than usual in the last few days, don’t you think?”
Kit replied distractedly, “No, not that I’ve noticed.”
Blackmoor cut in, his question appearing to all as casual curiosity. “Has she told you that something is bothering her?”
Nick shook his head, waving his hand dismissively. “No, not in so many words. She simply seems to have developed more of a disdain for events of the season. She hasn’t been eager to attend much in the last week.”
Will snorted. “Alex has never been very keen on events of the season. I wouldn’t worry about her. As I said, Nicola is a friend. She’ll want to go. One of us has to chaperone her. And, since I’m older and of a higher rank, I get to decide who that will be. Care to hazard a guess, Kit?” His green eyes twinkled with laughter.
“Bollocks!” This from Kit, who was not about to accept this particular decision without a fight. “It can’t be me!”
Kit paused, clearly searching for a viable excuse to avoid the ball in question. His eyes lit up with excitement when he’d hit on the right thing. “The hunting party I’ve an invitation to is just as viable a location to meet an eligible young lady as any, I daresay. I shall simply tell Mother that.” He looked veritably triumphant.
Will groaned, knowing his mother well enough to see that she would take Kit’s statement to mean that there was a particular eligible young lady to whom he was referring. “Well played, Brother.”
Kit nodded his head in acceptance of the compliment and Will sighed, slowly shuffling the cards, deep in thought as he attempted to devise an excellent excuse to escape from brotherly duties.
Blackmoor, who had been rather silent for the duration of the conversation, cleared his throat, softly interrupting his friends’ thoughts.
“I happen to be attending the ball. I daresay I could chaperone her.”
Will’s eyes lit up at his friend’s words. “Truly?” At Blackmoor’s nod, he continued, “Brilliant! Everyone thinks of you as one of her brothers anyway…you practically are, for goodness sake!”
Blackmoor cleared his throat again. “Indeed.”
Attempting to contain his excitement at his narrow escape, Will tried for a serious, concerned look at his friend. That particular visage did not come easily. “Are you sure, Blackmoor? I can’t think of anything worse than an evening of watching over Alex as she attracts legions of milksop fans.”