As Miranda turned to face him, Julian realized she had taken off her golden mask. It rested on one of the wingback chairs by the fireplace; flickers from the glow of the dying fire sent spark-like glints off the finely painted porcelain.
“Forgive me, Miss Parkman. I had not meant to intrude on your sanctuary.” He crossed the room, keeping his voice low. He most definitely did not want to attract attention now. With his conscience pricking him, he could not allow this unparalleled opportunity to pass him by before he spoke with her.
“I am surprised to find you here, Miss Parkman. After all, isn’t this masquerade being held in your honor?”
Miranda looked at the floor, though he could not tell if she blushed. Remembering back, Julian thought he recalled a propensity to blush when she was unnerved. He smiled. Her cheeks were most likely tinted a charming pink.
“I find such crowds to be a little pressing, Lord Hetherton. London life seems quite fast, when compared to the country, and I am not used to such a frantic pace. It soothes me to retreat into quiet on occasion.”
“Such sentiments are rare during the bustle of the Season, Miss Parkman. If I may ask, why did you come, if you find social events so distressing?”
“I did not say I found it distressing, Lord Hetherton. Simply overwhelming on occasion.” Miranda fidgeted for a moment with the tassels on the shawl. “I had originally come to London…” She faltered, revealing acute embarrassment at the question.
Her words and her hesitation thoroughly intrigued him. “Do continue. I am very interested.” Though he stood close beside Miranda, Julian could swear she had angled herself to maximize the distance between them. He reached to take her hand, but to his surprise, she moved away from him. She did this in spite of the scant room between his person and the wingback chair cornering her on the other side.
“I had originally come… I had originally come to find a husband.” The last words came out in a rush, as though she were mortified to say them.
“It is nothing to be ashamed of, Miranda,” Julian soothed, trying to ease her apparent embarrassment. He enjoyed the way her name rolled off his tongue, realizing how much he had missed saying it.
“I am not ashamed of it, Lord Hetherton.” A touch of heavy emotion tinged her voice.
“Then why such reluctance to answer?” Julian pressed his advantage, moving closer.
Miranda inched farther away. “It is not a subject that I find easy to discuss, Lord Hetherton. It recalls memories best forgotten.”
Memories best forgotten
. So Miranda Parkman had not forgotten his cruel decampment. This time Julian was the one to shift away in discomfort. He could not wonder at her coolness, nor her reluctance to be in his presence. The subject had become just as uncomfortable to him. He had left her waiting eight years before, waiting for a declaration that never came. He had trifled with her feelings, encouraging a young girl’s hopes, only to dash them without so much as an explanation. Worse, he had left her to discover the reason through gossip and stories. Her change no longer surprised him, nor did her quiet manner. Instead, it amazed him that she spoke to him at all.
“Forgive me, Miranda. You remind me obliquely of my offense, though you have the right to chastise me with far more censure than you have shown thus far.”
Miranda stiffened at his words, turning her face toward the door. Her longing to be gone from the awkward situation shone plainly in her eyes. Her fingers clutched the delicate golden shawl ruthlessly to her bosom, as though to shield even that bit of flesh routinely displayed by any au fait woman.
Julian cursed under his breath. Then he executed a deep bow. “I must humbly beg your pardon, Miranda. My behavior eight years ago was inexcusable. I should never have abandoned you without even the smallest explanation.”
For just a moment, Miranda looked at him, her eyes fixed on his, shaming him for such a paltry apology. Her lips pressed together in a tight line, hiding the soft, plump curves of her mouth with her disapproval. “Your behavior to me
”—she emphasized the personal—“was not inexcusable. It was cruel. What you did to the Marquis of Huntsford was unforgivable.” She looked away. “As your friend, he deserved far better.” Miranda almost whispered the last words.
Julian heard what Miranda Parkman left unspoken. Her brother, too, had been Julian’s friend. He, too, had deserved far better than Julian’s shabby treatment of his friend’s beloved sister. Julian had no answer to give that would clear the leaden weight of guilt gnawing at his conscience.
He bowed his head instead, in mute acknowledgment of Miranda’s words.
She did not respond to that silent apology but sidled around him, trying to step past the chair. In her haste to escape his presence, she caught the edge of her shawl on the corner of the mantelpiece, giving a small cry of alarm as the golden material began to slide off her shoulders. She made a wild grab for the silken cloth, smiling in relief as she clutched the shawl to her.
Hastily, she tugged the shawl into place around her shoulders, as though exposed to too many prying eyes. As she edged away again, a puzzled expression crossed her face. “My necklace—” Her hand flew to her throat. She looked frantically about her, scanning the floor for the missing piece. “My brother gave it to me just today.”
Julian hesitated, torn between amusement and something else he could not name. He had already spotted the wayward piece, but any mention of its location could embarrass her. On the other hand, it would be ungentlemanly of him to allow her to leave the study with the necklace hanging where it had snagged. He cleared his throat, drawing her attention. “It is in your décolletage.”
This time the darkness did nothing to hide the scarlet on her cheeks. She glanced down at the pendant, avoiding his eye, and then turned her back to him. He looked on as she fumbled to retrieve the necklace, but all her efforts were in vain. She turned back at last, her mortification clear on her face.
“It is caught,” she whispered, clearly embarrassed. “I cannot get it loose.”
He hid a grin at her unspoken plea for help. A ludicrous situation. But one much to his benefit. He was torn between amusement and the knowledge that he needed to tread gently. Even so, he had not been this amused for a while. “Do you need assistance?” At her nod, he moved to stand in front of her. His fingers brushed the filigreed pendant where it had snagged on the braided ribbon of her bodice.
“What are you doing?” Alarm colored her voice, but not enough to suggest real fright.
He looked up, doing his best not to smile. “I am going to try to work it loose. Calling for your maid would only attract unwanted attention, particularly since we are alone together in a darkened room.”
At Miranda’s indrawn breath, he did smile. She stood still for him while he attempted to work the filigree loose from the fine braid, but the difference in their respective heights made his efforts awkward at best. Once or twice, his fingers brushed against the swell of her breasts over the edge of the gown, distracting him from his purpose.
As he worked, he became uncomfortably aware of Miranda Parkman as a very desirable woman. The heat from her sent a tingle through his fingers that ran all the way through him. The sensation took him by surprise, for he had never really looked at her as anything but the sister of a friend. Eight years ago, her enthusiastic enjoyment of life had drawn him to her, not any real desire for her person.
Now, however, he struggled to keep his mind on freeing the pendant from the intricate braiding. His fingers were unaccountably clumsy, particularly when they brushed her warm flesh. What it would be like to trail his lips across the creamy skin? The unexpected surge of desire almost overwhelmed him. His heart hammered into his ribs, and only the darkness of the room kept his reaction hidden.
I am losing my mind.
The flood of heat to his groin caught him off guard. When had Miranda Parkman become such a siren? He continued working at the stubborn braid, which refused to release its hold on the necklace. He did his best to avoid contact with the tantalizing flesh just beneath his fingers, but failed miserably. “Blast this braiding!”
Miranda jerked at the sudden explosion of sound, giving Julian an abrupt glimpse beneath the bodice of the gown as she pulled away from him, though his hand still grasped the pendant. He let go, and her gown settled properly into place, though somewhat loosened.
“I am sorry, Miranda. I did not mean to startle you. The necklace is much entangled.” The reprieve gratified him; it gave him precious moments to quell the sudden urge to loosen her gown further and expose more of that tantalizing display.