Excerpt from Sweeter than Sin

   
      "Are all English aristocrats so unconscionably rude?" asked Rafael once Lady Leverett and her daughters were out of earshot.
     Kyra clenched her teeth, too embarrassed to answer. Spotting her maid and footman at the crest of the hill, she tried to quicken her steps, anxious to escape... though no matter how fast she might run, she could never outpace her shame. It would always be there, clinging to her skirts like a shadow for the rest of her days.
     However his grip tightened, holding her back.
     "Lady Kyra—"
     The sting of tears prickled against the back of her lids. "Please, I am late and I must hurry," she said in a rush.
     "Another few minutes will make no difference," he said gently. "I don't understand—"
     "Milord..." It hadn't occurred to her to call him by Jack's title and she couldn't quite bring herself to do so now. "You have no need to trouble yourself about it. Truly, it is no concern to you. And I—I would prefer not to talk about it."
     "But it does concern me," he replied. "Those ladies were unkind to you."
     As they rounded the tall hedge, Kyra came to a halt. Her throat felt too tight for words, yet she forced herself to speak. "Surely your uncle has explained why."
     Rafael's mouth pinched in at the corners. "He has mentioned your accident."
     "You are being tactful, sir. But I am sure he has also mentioned my ruined reputation." She hugged her arms to her chest, and tried to keep her voice from sounding too brittle. "The truth is, I am considered an outcast, a blot on the family's honor. As you saw, I am shunned by Polite Society." She blinked, refusing to seem even more pitiable by letting the tears pearled on her lashes spill down her cheeks. "I should have known better than to come here. To venture out in public is to invite scenes like you just witnessed."
     He stood silent, his gaze downcast so it was impossible to see his eyes through the thick fringe of his dark lashes.
     "It would be best if you avoid me from now on," she went on. "I should not wish for my own black deeds to somehow rub off on you and sully your introduction to the ton.
     "If Lady Leverett and her daughters are any example of the cruel and callous people who call themselves the flower of English nobility, then I have absolutely no interest in becoming part of their world."
     "You don't understand, sir," she exclaimed, unconsciously echoing his words. "To be cut off from Society is to be isolated, to be..."
     How to describe the feeling of utter loneliness? She deserved it, but he most certainly didn't.
     "To be alone?" He crooked a smile. "I don't need a ballroom full of pompous popinjays flapping around me to feel comfortable. I am very happy with just myself for company, or better yet, a circle of people whose hearts and minds I can respect."
     Respect?
     She swallowed hard, but before she could respond, her maid cut across the lawn, a bit breathless from hurrying down the hill. "I beg your pardon, milady, but your father's carriage is approaching." She bobbed an apologetic curtsey to Rafael. "Please come have a quick bit of sustenance before George packs up the picnic—you haven't eaten since breakfast."
     "Thank you, Anna, but I would rather not delay our return home." Kyra glanced up at the dark clouds scudding in from the west. "Besides, I'm not really hungry."
     Her maid clucked in concern as Rafael pulled his handkerchief from his pocket and unwrapped it to reveal several glossy nut-brown disks. "Take these for the journey."
     Seeing her look of puzzlement, he broke off a small piece. "I shall explain. But first, open your mouth."
     "Wha—"
     He placed the morsel on her tongue.
     A meltingly sweet essence tickled at her senses. Sugar, spice, the crunch of nutmeats, the smooth richness of vanilla...
     Kyra chewed slowly, savoring all the flavors. "Oh, that's divine." She swallowed. "It tastes like chocolate, but how can that be? Chocolate is a beverage, not a food."
     "Edible chocolate has been in existence for centuries," he corrected. "The Ancient Aztecs made it into wafers for their warriors, who consumed it for strength and endurance during their long marches and battles."
     "It tastes too good to be medicinal," she quipped.
     "Medicine can come in many guises." Rafael handed her the rest of the confections. "The art of edible chocolate was more recently perfected by a Frenchman named Sulpice Debauve. He was pharmacist to King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. When the queen complained about the taste of her medicines, he concocted chocolate pistoles such as these to disguise it. Her favorite flavor was said to be almond milk."
     She broke off another bite. "You know such fascinating stories."
     "Chocolate is an endlessly fascinating subject."
     "Lady Kyra," murmured her maid.
     "Yes, yes, I am coming." She polished off the rest of the pistole and put the others in the pocket of her pelisse. "I feel well fortified for the journey, though I am glad not to be tackling tropical jungles or towering mountains."
     "We shall soon have you ready to conquer any obstacle, Lady Kyra," said Rafael softly.
     "Let us not go that far. But thank you." She took back her satchel. "For everything, sir."
     "That's a nice gentleman, if you don't mind me saying so," murmured Anna, as they made their way up to where George was waiting with the hamper and blankets. "He seems ever so kind and considerate."
     "Yes," mused Kyra. "He is very nice."
     The trouble was, she didn't know whether that made her want to smile or sob.
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