Adalyn stared at the petite redhead before her. She’d imagined Lady Honoria to be the perfect example of propriety and decorum, but she quickly discovered there was much more to the unassuming woman.
“Did you truly hide your parasol?”
Honoria grinned. “I did indeed, first thing this morning. I will admit I did it on a lark, hoping the weather would turn. It was so gloomy, I had no fear then that Susan would fetch it before our walk. But I only hoped it would provide the perfect excuse to send her back to the house.”
“But you are indeed fair and will catch too much sun if you’re not careful,” Adalyn said, worried the delay in fetching the parasol would be detrimental to her new friend.
“Then we should find her a shady spot in which to wait,” Nash said. “And I fear you also might need a bit of shelter, Miss Lovelace. I decided to enjoy a small luncheon a little farther back from the path. Would you ladies care to join me?”
Gooseflesh flared up Adalyn’s arms at the devilish gleam in Nash’s eyes. “That sounds lovely. What do you think, Lady Honoria?”
With Honoria’s agreement, Nash offered both of his arms and led them to a small clearing where a servant stood guard over several blankets laden with domed serving dishes. In the center of the repast, a chiller held a bottle of wine.
“You must have an enormous appetite, Lord Nash,” Adalyn said as she gazed at the sheer quantity of food before her.
A dark eyebrow ticked up. He leaned in, his whispered words tickling her ear. “You have no idea.”
Heat rushed through her at his seductive tone, and she was grateful Honoria seemed preoccupied with something in the other direction.
Nash held out his hand. “May I help you settle?”
Adalyn slipped her gloved hand in his, and even through the fabric, a raw energy passed between them. He lowered her to the blanket, then assisted Honoria in the same manner.
“Wine?” He held out the bottle of a sparkling white.
At their agreement, he poured each of them a glass, then lifted the lids on the plates of food. “Just a light bite. Some fruit, cheese, a bit of sausage, some savory biscuits.” He produced several fine china plates and handed them each one.
After nibbling on a piece of cheese and a few grapes, Honoria said, “Perhaps I should return to the road and watch for Susan.”
Nash rose and helped her up, then resumed his seat, much closer than he had been before. “I owe her a great debt.” His husky voice—or perhaps his nearness—sent a shiver of excitement up Adalyn’s spine.
Scents of spice, leather, and shaving soap, masculine and uniquely him, teased at her nose as he leaned closer.
A gentle breeze ruffled his dark hair, blowing a lock over his forehead and making him appear rather boyish. Or it might have been the mischievous quirk of his lips as he stretched out on his side next to her.
“Tell me.” He raised a piece of cheese to his lips, drawing her eyes to the fullness of his mouth. “What made you wish to study medicine?”
How could she answer truthfully without laying herself bare before him and exposing her most painful memory? Yet, unlike other men who had shown an interest in her, he didn’t speak of domesticity and the number of children he desired. She found it both exhilarating and flattering that he should focus his attention on her choice of occupation, rather than how she would make his life more comfortable.
“There is so much suffering in the world we have no control to ease. The mind is an elusive patient. But the body, under the right conditions, can be mended and made whole.”
Eyes as rich as dark chocolate studied her, their intensity unnerving her to the point she had to look away. It was as if he gazed into the depths of her very soul, seeing it in its true state—damaged and vulnerable to attack—and did not find her lacking.
The acceptance in his eyes took her breath away. Would that acceptance vanish like the morning fog at the first rays of the sun if he knew what had caused the damage?
Trust him, a tiny voice whispered. And oh, how she wanted to, but it was too soon in their acquaintance. In truth, she’d never formed a romantic relationship that lasted long enough to share that dark place of her soul.
Desperate to turn the conversation to lighter topics, she asked, “And what of you, sir? Why did you wish to become a lord?”
His laugh, a bright crack of sound, reached his eyes, which crinkled at the corners. “I’m afraid I had little choice in the matter. My status is a casualty of birth. Guilt by association, as it were.” He sipped his wine. “I’m not titled, if you were wondering. Merely a courtesy as the younger son of a marquess.”
“Do you mean to say that if given the choice, you would not be a lord?”
His eyes no longer reflected his still present smile. “And give all this up?” He waved a hand over the lavish display of food. “However, there are advantages and disadvantages to every station in life.”
Having seen so much suffering of the poor, she opened her mouth to protest.
He held up a hand. “Hear me out. As I mentioned, the perks of being wealthy and privileged far outweigh the less tangible advantages of the less fortunate.”
“Ability to choose whom they love—marry. Not being under the scrutiny of society, waiting for them to make the slightest error.”
“But are they? Truly? Are their choices still not restricted by their circumstances? And I would argue that gossips exist in every walk of life.”
He nodded. “You’re correct, of course. I yield to your superior logic and wisdom.”
Once again, unlike other men who would insist they had the right of it, Nash surprised her, ceding the victory. But sorrow in Nash’s eyes made the victory—hollow.
“Perhaps it’s not logic or wisdom, but more of practical knowledge.”
“Your work with your father and at the clinic?”
She nodded. “Now, shall we turn our conversation to less serious topics?”
He sat up and his attention turned toward the pathway and Lady Honoria. “Like the weather?”
“It seems to be a favorite among polite society.”
“Since no one’s ever accused me of being polite, I suggest we not talk at all.” Lifting a fat, ripe strawberry from the plate, he dipped it in his glass of wine, then lifted it to her lips.
She took a bite, the flavor bursting in her mouth. A bit of wine dribbled down her chin.
“Allow me.” He removed his glove and used his thumb to wipe the drop away.
His dark eyes bored into hers. Birds who had been chirping merrily in the trees stopped their song, the wind stilled, ceasing the rustling of leaves, a hush falling over everything around them.
Or so it seemed.
When his eyelids lowered to half-mast, and his gaze lingered on her lips, she swore even her own heart stopped beating.
She tilted her head toward him in invitation. Like the skilled lover she supposed him to be, he read it with accuracy, lowering his head, his lips tantalizingly close.
A soft puff of his breath brushed against her skin, sending electrical tingles up her arms.
She parted her lips ever so slightly, encouraging him.
He whispered her name, the sound of it caressing her. Then he moved to close the distance between them.