The astonished look on Timothy’s face was laughable. Priscilla bit back the urge to react, reminding herself of the seriousness of the matter. “Mr. Netherborne is unfamiliar with London society.”
He lifted an eyebrow, giving him a rather rakish appearance. “Clearly.”
Must he be so deliciously handsome?
“How am I to explain myself if you continue with your rude interruptions?”
His mouth opened, drawing her gaze, but apparently reconsidering, he closed it and motioned with his hand for her to continue.
“As I was saying.” She squared her shoulders with what, she hoped, was a dramatic flair. “Mr. Netherborne believes I shall find London society brash and superficial, sending me running back to find refuge in the country with him and . . . sheep.”
Oh, how he wanted to respond. She could see it on his face. Yet he kept silent, with only his lips quirking in a delightful little smile.
She waited long enough to have the desired effect. “Have you nothing to say about that?”
“I thought I was to keep silent?”
“It’s clear you wish to reply. I give you my permission.”
“Just who is interrogating whom? Don’t turn this around to have the upper hand.”
Oh, how she adored him.
Wait. What?
Her cheeks heated, and she ducked her head lest he see her embarrassment.
“And have you?” he asked, interrupting and unsettling her thoughts. “Found London society unpleasant? Do you wish to return to the country and Mr. Netherborne?”
There was a tinge of something in his question she couldn’t quite place. Worry? Surely not?
“Categorically no. My return to London was more of an escape from the country.”
A muscle in his jaw pulsed, and his posture straightened, leaning toward her. “Escape? Were you in danger?”
“If there is danger in being bored to death. I detest the country. I’ve missed the activity of the city, the parties, the teas—the balls. Granted, this is the first I’ve attended, but merely being in the thick of things has invigorated me. If I hadn’t been able to return, I seriously considered running away.”
He quirked a brow.
“When Mr. Netherborne confronted me, it forced my hand, and I wrote to my father. All things considered, it worked out for the best. If I had run away, I’m ill-equipped to fend for myself.”
He grinned, the sight perfectly adorable. “Except for catching chickens. You seem very adept at that.”
She waggled a finger at him. “Ah, but I was completely ignorant as to how to prepare the poor thing.”
“And your plans for repentance?”
“Contrary to belief, I have already repented. Not a day passes where I do not regret my actions against the duke. However, convincing others of my contrition and repairing my reputation is another matter and a much more arduous task.”
He said nothing, but tilted his head in question. Had he already forgotten the state in which he had found her?
“Upon discovering me here, and before learning my true identity, you asked about my well-being. Although surprised, you at least seemed concerned.”
His gaze slid away, pink rising to the tips of his ears. “I did, and I apologize for my abrupt change. What caused your unhappiness?”
“It would appear no one expected me to be so bold as to attend a ball given by the man I so grievously wronged. I overheard a conversation regarding my past sins, which remain not only unforgotten but unforgiven.”
She took a deep breath, tears welling again in her eyes at the mere memory of the unkind words. “Already I have suffered the scrutiny of self-serving dowagers and their perfect progeny. Apparently mothers are being told to warn their sons about the scheming doxy who has returned to London intent on trapping them into marriage.”
Compassion shone in his eyes, as if he wished to apologize for those who had harmed her. “Surely they didn’t use that term in reference to you?”
“I’m afraid they did.”
“And do you still intend to move forward with your plan to redeem yourself?”
She squared her shoulders. The deflating defeat that had crushed her upon entering the room transformed into determination. If she could face Timothy, she could face them all. “What better place to prove myself than where I fell into ignominy?”
That eyebrow quirked again. “That’s . . . wise. And brave.”
His praise shouldn’t have affected her as much as it did. But the fluttering sensation in her stomach gave testament to how much his good opinion mattered. No one had ever called her either wise or brave. But coming from Timothy Marbry made the words even sweeter.
“And besides redemption, do you hope to accomplish anything else here in London?”
“As I am determined not to return to Belton and marry Mr. Netherborne, I hope to find a suitable husband here.”
He shifted in his seat, and she could envision the cogs turning in his brain.
“Have you not heard a word I’ve said? You may rest easy, sir. I have no plans to cry compromise to secure a husband—even one as desirable as yourself.” She poured every bit of sarcasm into the last as she could muster.
Red blotches formed on his cheeks. So the man had a conscience, after all.
“I had no idea I would see you again.” Never mind that she’d thought about it and even hoped on a daily basis. “I’m as surprised to find you here as you are to find me.”
“I doubt that—considering I thought you a merchant’s daughter.”
She laughed. “I should be insulted, but I’m not. It would appear my ruse worked as planned.”
She considered him for a moment, wondering if possibly their meeting could be more fortuitous than expected. “I would like to be completely honest with you.”
He frowned. “Have you not been?”
“Well, yes. But stumbling into you has given me a brilliant idea.”
“Which is?”
“I want you to help me.”
“How?”
“I would like you to help me find a husband.”