Read an Excerpt:
Owen blinked and turned back around at the sound of the female voice. It seemed to be coming from the large green palm. The plant was speaking to him? He hadn’t had that much to drink tonight. He squinted and ducked, peering through the fronds.
A small female form waved to him from behind the botanical mass. She was beckoning him to join her behind the tree. “It’s me, Alexandra.” Lady Lavinia’s younger sister stood there, blinking up at him with an adorable little half smile. “Er, Lady Alexandra,” she corrected with the hint of a blush staining her pale cheeks.
Owen moved behind the palm to join her. Apparently, the young lady didn’t want the others in the ballroom to see them speaking to one another. Or was it just her waspish sister whom she didn’t want to see? He couldn’t blame her there, having just been stung by the wasp herself.
“Lady Alexandra,” he repeated once he’d joined her behind the palm. “It’s a pleasure to see you again. I regret to think that you overheard my unfortunate conversation with your sister just now.”
Owen couldn’t repress his smile. He liked that she admitted so readily to her crime. That was refreshing. He’d been around far too many women who prevaricated and demurred. Not to mention, her offer intrigued him. How did this little scrap of a lady think she could help him? He narrowed his eyes on her. “Help me what?”
Her look was entirely matter-of-fact. “Help you court Lavinia.”
Despite their location, he glanced back and forth over both shoulders to ensure that no one could overhear them. He eyed her cautiously. “What do you mean?”
“You got off to a poor start with her. Lavinia doesn’t like it when men challenge her. She especially doesn’t like it when a man fails to notice her first.”
“Notice her first?” Owen echoed.
“You asked me to walk with you,” she replied.
That’s because you’re infinitely more appealing than your shrew of a sister.
“You’ve begun on entirely the wrong foot with her,” Alexandra continued, shaking her head at him sadly as if she felt sorry for him. How many times had this lovely girl had to apologize for her sister’s rude behavior?
“So it seems,” Owen allowed, noting that Lady Alexandra smelled like strawberries and sunshine and she was distracting him with the little tug of a smile that never seemed to be far from her lips.
“I can tell you what she does like, make it easier for you to win back her good graces.”
Owen arched both brows. Well, this was fortunate. Not only was Lady Lavinia’s sister pretty and friendly, it seemed she was helpful as well. He severely doubted that Lady Lavinia had any good graces to win. But he did enjoy a challenge, and Lady Lavinia was proving that if nothing else. Not to mention she held the future of his allowance in her irascible grasp.
“Excellent,” he replied to her sister. “What does she like?”
A determined look came into Lady Alexandra’s dark sparkling eyes. “I’ll tell you … for a price.”
Owen regarded the brunette down the length of his nose. Now, this was interesting. What could an innocent like Lady Alexandra Hobbs possibly want from him? But again, he couldn’t help his smile. A bargain? It was exactly the type of thing he might offer, given the right circumstances. He rarely did anything unless he had something to gain or perhaps had lost a bet. He regarded her with increasing interest. At the very least, she’d managed to capture his attention. That was rare for an innocent. “A price, eh? What price?”
She swallowed hard before she responded to him, her throat working up and down. “I want you to come to the next large ton ball … and dance with me.”
Owen’s brows flew together. “Come to—? And dance with—? My dear girl, whyever for?”
She pressed her hands together and began to wring them in a charming manner. She, too, glanced over both shoulders to ensure they would not be overheard despite their location behind the palm. “I’ve been a complete failure this Season. Mother is beside herself. I was forced to cross a smashing debut off my list, but that’s neither here nor there.” She fluttered her hand in the air also charmingly, and Owen got another whiff of strawberry. Was she hiding the fruit in her reticule? Somehow she seemed like the airy sort who might. “I, er, have my eye on a particular gentleman, you could say,” she continued in a rushed whisper. “Though he has failed to notice me.”
Owen straightened his already perfectly straight cravat. “What do you think I can do to help that?”
She lifted her chin, and his admiration for her grew. She had pluck. He liked that. He could tell she wasn’t about to give up. On the contrary, she was preparing to plead her case. “I’m perfectly aware of your reputation, Lord Owen. You’re the biggest rakehell in London. But you’re also immensely popular. A bit of interest from you could entirely make my reputation.”
“Yes, and not necessarily for the better.” Was she serious? She seemed to know a lot about him. Surprising for an innocent, but still … inappropriate. This young woman had absolutely no idea what she was asking for.
She leveled her dark gaze on him and Owen found it a bit off-putting. She certainly had an intriguing way about her. It was as if she already had everything planned weeks, if not years, in advance. She was like a general executing a strategy. For Owen, who usually didn’t have the evening planned, let alone the next morning, she was compelling indeed.
“I disagree,” she stated frankly. More frank than he’d ever known an innocent to be, that was certain. “At present, I’m a no one. A wallflower. No gentleman looks twice at me. If you were to show me a bit of interest, I’ve no doubt my stock in the marriage mart would increase tenfold.”
He regarded her down the length of his nose. Well, well, well. What did he have here? An innocent with a spine of steel? How very interesting. And the girl did have a point. For all that he was considered fast, he was also extremely eligible … and popular. And he never paid attention to innocents. Any interest shown in Lady Alexandra would be sure to increase her cachet. No doubt the entire ballroom was already abuzz about the time they’d spent walking together earlier. He couldn’t argue with her, really, and he had to admire not only her forethought but also her tenacity. Why, most silly young things would have run off by now. Where was the nervousness she’d shown when they were walking earlier? It seemed to have entirely disappeared. He liked her all the better for it.
But how serious was she? Could the girl be dissuaded? Was this nothing more than a burst of false bravado on her part? He had to find out. He brushed at his sleeve. “What if I told you I’m not in the business of dancing with innocents?”
“You didn’t seem to mind my company earlier,” she pointed out, crossing her arms over her distracting bosom.
Well done, Lady Alexandra. “That was different. I was trying to—” He stopped himself, chagrined. There was no gentlemanly way to say it.
“Court my sister, who you thought was me?” Lady Alexandra finished prettily, batting her dark, silky eyelashes at him.
He bit the inside of his cheek to keep from smiling. By God, the girl was not only intelligent, but bold besides. He couldn’t help but like that about her, too. He’d always preferred honesty and forthrightness himself.
“Yes,” he replied, marveling over the most frank conversation he’d had at a social event in some time. “So you see, as I said, I’m not in the business of dancing with innocents.”
Lady Alexandra shrugged and tapped her fingertips along the sides of her crossed arms. “I’m not in the business of taming rogues. I suppose we’ll both have to try something new.”