Gray offered his arm with a slight inclination of his head, and Lily tentatively laid her hand on his forearm, glancing up at him under her lashes. His faint smile seemed sly and had her biting her lip.
He guided her out the doors before her waffling conscience had a chance to protest. Instead of staying on the balustrade, safe with the other couples and smoking gentlemen, he led her down the steps and into the greenery, his hand clamped over hers, barring protest.
“Now then, a bit of privacy. Tell me, my lady, you never answered my question, has a gentleman won your favor?”
She snatched her hand away and withdrew a few paces. With only dim light cutting the shadows, Gray loomed. An innate fierceness, masked by the pomp of the ball, distilled into the darkness and surrounded her with ominous intent. Did she really know him after so long?
“An offer has been made but my brother is set to decline on my behalf.”
He stroked his bottom lip, and her eyes followed as if he were a mesmerist. “Have you enjoyed your introduction to the ton?”
“That was a mere platitude. Tell me the truth.” He flipped her words, a smile playing behind his finger.
“The truth? It’s been disappointing. Most of the gentlemen have been like Montbatton, obsessed with horses or carriages or cravats. Do they think I give a jot about such things?”
“What do you give a jot about?” he asked with a hint of derisive amusement. “Embroidery? Balls? Dresses?”
“I care about the war. How men come back maimed everyday—body and spirit. How women are left widows to care for their children on almost nothing. How no one here—” she gestured back to the ballroom with her fan, “—seems to notice. Or care.”
Her words wiped the amusement from his face. He took a step forward, close enough to touch, but neither of them made a move. “You speak from experience.”
The darkness was now her friend, offering welcome camouflage. “My brother was horribly wounded.”
“He’s better now.” It was more statement than question.
“Is he? He drinks too much, wakes with nightmares too often, becomes angry with little provocation. He works himself into exhaustion every day to keep from falling into melancholy. I worry about him. What happens if I’m not there to bully him back to life?”
He squinted at the hedge as if it held deep wisdom. “Your brother is lucky to have you.”
“You’ve been in the fighting, haven’t you?”
His gaze travelled back to her face, and the moment stretched. “Yes.”
“Have you been injured?”
Again, he paused before whispering, “I have my share of scars.”
Now she did touch him, laying a hand on his forearm. He covered her hand with his, and for a mad moment, she wished neither of them wore gloves, wished she could entwine their bare fingers. Solid ground beckoned. This talk made her too vulnerable, and didn’t she have a part to play?
She pulled her hand from under his and forced out a false, jarring laugh. “I need to return, sir. My chaperone will surely have missed me by now, and there will be a list of gentleman I’ve disappointed.”
“Of course, let me escort you back inside.” He backed into a shaft of moonlight and waited with an outstretched hand. His hair shone black and he stood straight and strong. He had always been the stalwart port in the violent storm that was her father.
She took his hand, and he tugged her forward too quickly. Her toes tangled in the hem of her dress. She grabbed at his biceps for balance, the thick ropes of muscle flexing. His hands spanned her waist and then slid down to where her hips flared. The sensation set off a fine trembling in her knees.
Their faces were inches apart. Firm lips above a squarely masculine jaw caused her to worry her bottom lip with teeth and tongue. His nostrils flared, and in answer, she inhaled, his scent clean and woodsy. He had never smelled quite so appealing when she was a child.
He moved closer, and she parted her lips. Her brain held no sway. Her body completely ignored its instructions to push away, escape. Instead, her back arched, her face tilted up, and her hands roved over his shoulders. Her heart beat against the tight confines of her stays, trying to escape.
Was Gray going to kiss her? Did she want him to?
Her lungs pulled in much needed air, and on the exhale, she breathed his name.
The intimacy of his name disintegrated his befuddlement. Christ, had he lost all commonsense? First to pull her into him and then to almost kiss her? His body was charged for a full-out sensual assault, his hands ready to explore the too-tempting soft curves pressed into him. He thrust her away and snatched his hands back as if she had the plague.
He covered his confusion with menace. “Lily Drummond. Rafe would spank your bottom if he knew you’d accompanied a man to the gardens.”
“If he knew the man who lured me out was you?”
Her well-made point pierced like an arrow. “I was trying to teach you a lesson,” he said with pompous undertones.
“Perhaps I was trying to teach you one as well.” She sniffed and adjusted her gloves.
“What was that, pray tell?”
“Never steal a lady without first making sure you know her name.” She swept by and tapped him on the chest with her fan.
They walked side by side to the balustrade, but he didn’t offer an arm this time. “Obviously I’m a fool, but you’ve changed dramatically from the little girl I left at Wintermarsh.”
“It’s referred to as growing up,” she said pertly, but then sadness and accusation wove through her words. “If you had come to visit, my changed appearance wouldn’t be such a shock. Rafe needed you. Last autumn was horrid.”
Guilt was not an emotion he allowed lest it overwhelm him. It rose like bile just the same. “Do you not think I wanted to be there? To get Rafe home, I indentured myself to Sir Hawkins. The last eight months weren’t enjoyable for me either.”
She cut her eyes to him, her voice small. “Are you angry with me?”
He had to think on it. In disbelief, flummoxed, shocked, yes. But amused, entertained and fascinated as well. “Devil if I know why I’m not. You led me on quite a merry chase.”