Excerpt from Code of Honor

     
     "May I have the pleasure of a dance, Miss Chilton?" asked Branford. The musicians were striking up a waltz. "Perhaps this one, if you are not taken." He had already noticed that the dance card dangling from her wrist was all but empty.
     Alex seemed to hesitate for a moment, then rose slowly and placed her hand on his arm.
     Ashton was right, he noted. She was no raving beauty. Her hair was merely brown, not a striking blonde or glossy raven, and her mouth was a touch too wide, though obviously expressive. She was also too tall and her curves were not rounded enough for the tastes of most gentlemen.
     But her eyes...
     Her eyes were an unusual hazel color flecked with green, and they had a depth that was intriguing, hinting at hidden facets not readily discernable on the surface.
     However, observed Branford, if her aunt hoped to marry her off she had better employ another modiste. The dress was a disaster. The insipid mauve color clashed with her lovely eyes, and the cut made her look gawky and ill proportioned. Girlish ruffles and bows were in overabundance, and the effect was more appropriate for a female of twelve rather than twenty-four.
     Branford, whose taste was acknowledged to be impeccable, nearly winced as he turned to face her full on.
     However, she danced much better than he expected, moving with a lithe grace and matching his steps effortlessly. As he was deciding to forgo the usual compliments on her dress in favor of another less egregious social lie, she spoke first.
     "As a matter of fact, I have been wanting to meet you, milord."
     Branford closed his eyes for an instant. Now would come the usual outrageous compliments or silly simperings that every unmarried girl felt obliged to offer up to a rich, titled bachelor. He had forgotten how much he loathed all of this. How the devil had he allowed himself to be drawn into such a stupid, senseless bet? Ashton was right on another thing—he had been drinking too much of late.
     Despite such thoughts, he replied in a neutral tone. "Is that so? And why is that, Miss Chilton?"
     "Because in the paper you sent to the Botanical Society on the gardens at Riverton, you are mistaken in thinking that the purple flowers are Petrea volubilis," answered Alex. "They do not grow in this climate. They are no doubt Clytostoma callistegiodes, which look very similar.  Of course it is a reasonable error for someone who is ignorant of botany to make."
     It was not exactly what he expected to hear. He nearly trod on her foot. "What?"
     "The flowers in the south garden," she explained a touch impatiently. "I take it you are the only Earl of Branford in England."
     Branford stared at her, speechless.
     "Mr. Simpson was too afraid to correct you, but I said that was utter nonsense—any sensible person would want to know of his error." Alex paused and regarded his stony face. "Oh dear," she sighed, half to herself. "I had looked forward to talking about the gardens with you, but it appears that, like most gentlemen, you disapprove of ladies who wish to have an intelligent conversation."
     Branford quickly recovered his wits. "No, Miss Chilton," he answered dryly. "Actually, on that topic I have formed no opinion, since I have little experience in making intelligent conversation with a lady."
     There was a pause. Alex smiled. "Touché, my lord."
     In spite of himself Branford found himself smiling back. The girl had wit as well as backbone.
     "You do not look half so dragon-like when you smile, you know," she said after a moment's pause. "Or do you prefer to frighten people with that black scowl?"
     Branford unconsciously drew his dark brows together.
     "There, you see," murmured Alex. "You are doing it again. It is quite intimidating, you know."
     "And you, Miss Chilton. Are you always so outrageous? Or are you just hoping I will take you back to your chair so you can resume your own private thoughts and not have to be bothered with having to do the polite thing." He watched a wave of surprise wash over her face. "You are not the only one capable of observing people," he added softly.
     Her eyes met his for a moment, the green flecks alight with some emotion, before she dropped her gaze in some confusion.
     "Now, about my gardens. What would you like to know...?"
     The music was drawing to an end and the surrounding couples were beginning to leave the floor. Branford found himself irritated that the dance was over so quickly. "It appears we will have to wait for another waltz. Shall we say the one after the supper break?"
     "If you wish, milord." Alex had composed herself and answered evenly, her chin thrust up slightly as if to say that she, at least, was not in the least bit intimidated by him.
     "Good." He delivered back to her aunt and it was only as he was walking away that he realized he had utterly forgotten the reason he had asked her to dance in the first place. He cursed under his breath. Now how had he been distracted? His purpose was to confirm the girl's availability and figure out a plan of seduction—and what had he done but begin a conversation on botany! Well, he had another dance. He would guide the conversation as he wished the next time around.
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