June 3, 1815, The ballroom at Frieth Hall, The Grange, North Baslemere, Surrey, England
By the time Alec McHenry Fall, who had been the third earl of Dane for a very short time, made his way around the ballroom, Philippa was by herself. She sat on a chair backed up against the wall, her chin tipped toward the ceiling. Her eyes were closed in an attitude of relaxation rather than, so Dane hoped, prayer.
Her position exposed the slender column of her throat to anyone who might be looking, which was almost no one besides him since the room was nearly empty. Her hands lay motionless on her lap with the fingers of one hand curled around an ivory fan, the other held a corner of a fringed shawl the color of champagne.
He continued walking, not thinking about much except that Philippa was his good friend and that he was glad to have had her assistance tonight. He stepped around the detritus of a hundred people jammed inside a room that comfortably held half that number. A gentleman's glove. A bit of lace, a handkerchief, silk flowers that had surely started the evening pinned to some young lady's hair or hem.
Dane stopped in front of her chair. "Philippa."
She straightened her head and blinked at him. Her shawl draped behind her bare shoulders, exposing skin as pale as any Englishwoman could wish. Her legs were crossed at the ankles and her feet were tucked under her chair. Dane was quite sure she smiled before she knew it was him. He didn't remember her eyes being quite so remarkable a shade of green. An usual, light green. How interesting. And yes, disturbing, that he should notice any such thing about her.
He grinned and reached for her hand. He'd removed his gloves for the night, but she still wore hers. "A success, my little party, don't you think?"
A concoction of lace, ribbons and silk flowers covered the top of her strawberry blonde hair, a fashionable color among the young ladies of society. That he was now the sort of man who knew such things as what was fashionable among the ladies remained a source of amazement to him. He'd known Philippa his entire life. Her hair had been that shade of reddish-gold before it was fashionable.
Philippa was no girl. She was a mature woman. Thirty-one, though she could easily pass for younger. Her features were more elegant than he had called to mind during the time he'd been away. The shape of her face and the definite mouth above a pointed chin balanced out her nose, and her eyes, as, for some reason, he was just noticing tonight, were striking. Her smile, in his opinion, came too rarely.
"My lord." Her eyes traveled from his head to his toes, and he quirked his eyebrows at that. She meant nothing by the perusal, after all. Another smile played about her mouth. "How dare you be so perfectly put together after dancing and entertaining all night."
Dane knew he was in splendid form. His clothes fit with the perfection only a London tailor achieved for a man of means. He wasn't a sheep farmer anymore, except by proxy when his steward forwarded the income, and he was inordinately pleased that Philippa had noticed the change. Made him feel a proper sort of aristo.
"I was about to ask you the very same question." He bowed, returning her smile with one of his own.
Philippa had agreed to act as his hostess tonight because he was a twenty-five-year-old bachelor, his mother was in Bath with his eldest sister, and he was alone at Frieth House for the first time since leaving four years ago. He made a mental note to send her flowers tomorrow. Was there even a florist in North Baslemere? Gad. He might have send to Guildford for roses. Pink or white, he wondered? Or perhaps tulips if they could be found.
"Flatterer." She opened her fan and waved it beneath her chin. Her eyes twinkled with amusement. He did like the sound of her voice. Definite, controlled. And yet, there was a fullness to the tone that made him wish she'd keep talking. "Do go on, my lord."
He laughed, but that he'd said such a fatuous thing embarrassed him. He'd been in London long enough that empty words came to his lips without thought. There was no good reason for him to flatter Philippa, particularly when doing so made him look a bloody damn fool.
Was it flattery if what he'd said was true?
The only other people in the room now were servants, most of them hired by Philippa on his behalf since he no longer made Frieth House his primary home. He'd come back to North Baslemere for a number of reasons. This was his birthplace, for one, and he had deep and lasting connections here despite the changes in his life. For another, Philippa was going to remarry, and he wanted to celebrate the happy event when she and her prospective groom formally announced their news.
"Not too tired to walk a little more, I hope?" He cocked his head in the direction of the terrace door and looked at her sideways. She'd taken a great deal of care with her appearance tonight. Something he hadn't noticed before, what with the excitement of a party so perfectly managed he'd had nothing to do but enjoy himself. Pink roses. "Did I remember to compliment your appearance?" This wasn't flattery, he told himself. "If I didn't, you have permission to shoot me."
"No, Alec, I don't believe you did." These days Philippa was the only person to call him by his given name. He rather liked the informality. From her. She held out her hand, and he took it as she rose. "A breath of air would be delightful."
Now that he'd spent time in London, he saw Philippa with a more experienced eye. She was not quite beautiful, but she had something that appealed. Her looks were in no way inferior, but her confidence, her utter satisfaction with herself as she was, made her interesting for more than her face and figure. During his time away, he had learned that even perfection was tedious in a woman one did not otherwise admire. She glanced at him, mercifully unaware of his inventory of her physical attributes. Christ. London and its courtesans had made him a lech before he was thirty. What business had he noticing her that way? Before she tucked her hand in the crook of his arm, she adjusted her shawl and in the process gave him a flash of bare shoulder. He hadn't seen her in an evening gown before, and, well, this close to her and with none of his earlier distractions he could see her skin was perfectly smooth and white from her forehead to her bosom.
They continued to the set of double doors that led to the terrace, leaving the servants to the task of cleaning up. If it were daylight they would be able to see the roses that had been his mother's pride while she lived here, before his sisters had given their mother grandchildren upon which to dote.
"I've asked a maid to make up a room for you," he said. They were outside now and crossing the terrace. He'd also never realized she was as delicate as she was, thought one also had to take into account the fact that he was a bigger man now, taller and broader through the shoulders than when he'd left North Baslemere.
"It's not so late," she said. "I'll walk home."
"Nonsense." He put his hand over hers. "I won't hear of it."
Philippa tilted her head in his direction. "I'm not sure that's wise, my lord."
"What isn't wise?"
"My staying the night."
"Why ever not? You're family." Even before the words were out, he understood, with a disconcerting thump of his heart, what she meant. He'd thought of her as an older sister for years and years. Twenty-five years, to be exact. But she wasn't his sister. Appearances were everything, and if she stayed the night, a youthful widow in the home of a London buck, there might be unpleasant speculation.
A rather explicit image popped into his head. Him covering her, thrusting into her, while she held him tight against her naked body.
Good God. Had he gone entirely mad?
"And yet, not family." She adjusted her shawl.
"If not family, then fast friends." Dane had the oddest conviction that he'd somehow stepped out of time and that now nothing was familiar to him. Not his childhood home. Not this terrace or the garden he'd grown up with. Not even Philippa, who he admired as a friend.
"Yes," she said, tightening her hand on his arm. "We are friends, aren't we? Lifelong friends." They stopped at the furthest edge of the terrace. She took a deep breath of the night air.
Dane who, by coincidence, happened to be looking down, saw the swell of her breasts against her neckline. In his out-of-place mood, he thought of sex. With Philippa. And that sent another jolt of heat through him.