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While attending a ball given by the reserved and self-conscious Earl of Ayersley, her brother’s childhood friend, beautiful Roxana Langley is unexpectedly jilted by her cavalry-hero fiancé. When Roxana retreats to the earl’s library to regain her composure, Lord Ayersley follows to check on her. Roxana tells him the news of her broken engagement, and his reaction is typically but frustratingly understated.
What a Job’s comforter he was, refusing even to feel sorry for her. “But don’t my feelings count for anything? And what about my reputation? I have two choices open to me, to appear a jilt or to appear something even worse—the kind of girl who deserves to be jilted.”
“Your friends will know better.” All the earl’s usual reticence had vanished. Standing only inches from her, he dipped his dark head low enough to look her in the eye, his hand still holding hers. “You think people will talk. So they may. But it will be a nine days’ wonder and then something new will take its place. You must believe that. In the end, you’ll be the happier for this.”
“Be the happier?” Incredulous, she tore her hand from his grasp. “I’m twenty-three years old. I waited five years for George Wyatt while he fought on the Continent. I dreamed of marrying him. Now everyone will point me out as the girl Major Wyatt would not marry, and make guesses at the reason why. And you think I’ll be the happier?”
She was shaking.
Ayersley stretched out a hand toward her again. “I’m sorry, but…it’s not easy for a man to face a woman and tell her it’s over. If Major Wyatt broke off your engagement, you can be sure tonight wasn’t the first time the possibility crossed his mind. You’ll save yourself a good deal of pain—and Wyatt, too, though that may not matter to you now—if you’ll only let him go.”
“But I love him.” To her horror, she began to cry. At first the hot tears simply stung her eyes and she tried to blink them back, but as one after another spilled over her cheeks, she gave up the attempt. Her face crumpled and she let out a sob.
“Miss Langley!” The earl, stricken, stepped toward her and held open his arms. She fell into them gratefully.
Suddenly everything that had gone wrong in the past few weeks came welling up, to pour out of her at once in a storm of emotion—George’s infidelity and neglect, her awful mortification when Ayersley caught them kissing in the church, and now this long, humiliating night.
Sobs choked her, making her breath come in harsh gasps like those of a frustrated child. She was always making a fool of herself, and now she could add to the list of her stupid blunders having blindly devoted herself to George Wyatt, only to be unceremoniously thrown over. She shut her eyes against the betraying tears, but they only fell faster.
“Oh, Roxana, he isn’t worth it,” the earl whispered. Still the sobs racked her shoulders, shaking her, making her head pound. She leaned her forehead on the earl’s white waistcoat and let the tears come, hot and bitter. How silly and laughable she must seem to him.
Her sobbing went on for what felt like forever, while Ayersley held her, patient. With her upraised hand against his chest, she could feel the strong beat of his heart. At last the flood of emotion began to exhaust itself and she sniffled and turned her head. Ayersley took his handkerchief from his pocket and handed it to her. She wiped her face. The tears were still there but they were slower now and she could breathe again. Still Ayersley went on holding her.
“I think I’m better now,” she managed after a time.
“Yes, I suppose you are.”
He sounded strange. Roxana looked up at him, his face swimming a little because she’d been crying. Their eyes locked.
“You can let me go now, Ayersley.”
Instead, he leaned his head down and kissed her. The kiss was salty from her tears and she must have been dizzy from having sobbed out her misery a moment before, for her head sang. His lips were warm and gentle. She’d wanted to pull away from George’s kisses, but if anything she pressed closer to Ayersley, clutching the lapels of his coat with a swooning feeling. His hard thighs were against her thighs, his arms strong around her. How shamefully needy she was, losing all sense of discretion simply because another man had broken her heart.
Ayersley took a half step back, and like a waltz partner following his lead, she took it with him. The library table stood just behind him and he sank back against it, pulling her almost onto his lap. His arms tightened around her, and when he opened his mouth, she followed suit as if it were the most natural thing in the world for them to kiss that way. He tasted faintly of champagne, and had to be half-foxed. A sober Ayersley would never have kissed her this way.
A voice in her head screamed, This is wrong. Yet when he eased her back on the table beside him and leaned over her, making a low groaning sound in his throat as they kissed, she grew so breathless she was sure she would faint. The whole world seemed to spin and tilt around her. It had never been like this with George.
Was she really kissing another man—flat on her back—lost to all sense of propriety—less than an hour after the love of her life had cast her aside? Was Ayersley’s hand really traveling up the curve of her waist, really sliding experimentally over her décolletage? Twisting her face away, she gasped a feeble and halfhearted “Don’t.”
Immediately the earl lifted his head. He looked surprised, as if he’d been roughly woken from a dream. For the space of several seconds they stared at each other, Roxana with her chest rising and falling as she struggled to catch her breath again.
“Oh my God,” the earl said suddenly in a shocked voice, and moved off her so quickly she might have been a viper. “I’m—oh, God, I’m sorry.”
He turned his back to her. She sat up slowly, self-conscious and confused, to straighten her gown in embarrassed silence. She’d behaved like a fool, throwing herself on his neck. He’d probably thought this was what she wanted, after seeing the way she’d let George grope her. And she had wanted Ayersley to kiss her, at least in that brief moment of misery and need.
She got to her feet. Ayersley was standing stock-still, staring blankly at the wall of bookshelves before them as if he couldn’t bear to look at her. Her immodesty must have shocked the daylights out of him, to judge by his reaction.
The whole scene felt so awkward Roxana had no sense of the right thing to say or do. “We’d better get back to the ballroom,” she said, twisting his handkerchief in her hands.
He turned to face her again, his face strained. “Yes. You should go before you’re missed.”
She nodded and wiped the last vestiges of tears from her cheeks, glancing at her reflection in the garden windows. The silver fillet she’d threaded through her hair had gone wildly askew. She reached up to right it.
Ayersley opened the library door for her. Her breathing had not quite slowed to normal as she slipped past him on her way out. Still lightheaded from too much emotion, she couldn’t pull her thoughts together.
She started mechanically up the corridor to the ballroom. A small figure was sitting on one of the silk-upholstered benches set at intervals along the walls. Roxana closed the distance. It was Miss Penn, the mousey girl who’d attached herself to Edward Sherbourne. The girl was fanning her face, but when she saw Roxana, she stopped fanning and gave her an appraising stare.
Roxana ducked her head and hurried past her, hoping Miss Penn couldn’t see she’d been crying.