“Ladies,” Stephen said, forcing a smile. “How wonderful to see you again so soon. Edwards and I were just discussing how much we are enjoying our time here.”
Yet instead of pleased looks or demure nods at the compliments, one of the dark-haired young women pushed her way to the front of the group in a flurry of puce-ruffled skirts and loudly stomped her foot.
“Lord Westleigh, Papa said you and Mr. Edwards would dance with each of us.”
“Did he now? That sounds delightful. Perhaps later, Miss Br—”
“I’m Peaseblossom, remember? And we would all so enjoy dancing right now. As the oldest here, I get first choice. I believe you’ll find me most adequate in all areas.”
Somehow suppressing a horrified laugh, Stephen forced himself to re-meet the girl’s eerie golden stare. Dear God, she resembled her father, and not in a good way. “Of course, er…Peaseblossom. Do you have a card?”
“A dance card?” she replied, face falling. “Oh yes, everyone has cards in Town, don’t they? I mean, I could make one. Would you help me, Lord Westleigh? Perhaps if we retired to Papa’s library before the dancing starts…I really am a fast learner.”
The offer enticed like a tooth extraction. Informing her of the ten thousand reasons why not, tempted him beyond measure, as did feigning a heart attack or violent illness. Unfortunately none of the options were viable. He wanted to make it back to London and his fiancée in one piece, not wake up in the forest with antlers strapped to his head and a horn sounding in the distance. Or chained to a sickbed, while some quack forced unidentifiable elixirs down his throat.
Stephen coughed, reluctantly about to give the eldest Miss Bruce his arm.
Then the unthinkable happened.
“Terribly sorry, Peaseblossom dear,” drawled an icy voice. “Westleigh promised me the next dance and George will be partnering Louisa here. Perhaps some other time.”
Glancing sideways at Caroline Emily Edwards, he resisted the urge to bend down and retrieve his jaw from the floor. His dedicated nemesis of the past decade hadn’t stood back and cheered as he’d been ruthlessly cornered, or set up a stand to offer odds and refreshments to fascinated onlookers. She’d actually shouldered into the fray and rescued him. Obviously hell had just frozen over. Either that or the four horseman of the apocalypse were about to charge through the ballroom to signal impending doom. Nothing else could explain it.
Surreptitiously, he pinched himself. But the golden-haired Amazon in a familiar pose—back ramrod-straight to ensure every inch of her six foot one frame was used to best advantage, hands resting on curved hips, jade green eyes spitting frozen fire—continued to direct her scorn at someone other than him. In less than a minute the entire pack of Bruce sisters wilted and collectively slunk away, no match at all for a single hellion’s wrath.
Eyes narrowing, Stephen offered Caroline his arm and escorted her to the dance floor.
“So,” he said casually, curling a hand around her waist as the music commenced for a waltz. “Who are you and what have you done with Caroline Edwards? It’s not that I miss the original, but I do feel a certain obligation to report those impersonating George’s family members. Especially when the act needs refining as much as yours. Everyone knows the real thing would never intercede on my behalf for any reason.”
“My goodness, your manners are improving,” she shot back. “A whole minute transpired before I became overwhelmed with profound regret.”
“So why did you, then? Rescue me, I mean.”
“Fine. It’s nothing to do with you. I like your mother far too much to see her forced to concede her title to Peaseblossom Bruce, I’m not convinced that girl is entirely human. But why are you even here? George and I had no choice, yet you are voluntarily dallying in the backwaters of Kent.”
Stephen scowled. “According to your damned twin, the invitation promised three days of cards with an open cellar before the Season began. It sounded quite good. Gaggles of frightful females were not part of the deal.”
“Surely you aren’t that foolish. If one hadn’t died, Sir Albert would have an even eight daughters to marry off.”
He almost missed a step at the thought, but somehow managed to avoid crushing a rather sour-looking dandy’s foot.
“One died? Oh wait, I do vaguely remember that. Nasty business about four years ago, out walking and she slipped down a cliff or something. What was her name? Hannah? Helen?”
“Hermia. Her parents are quite the admirers of Mr. Shakespeare. But when a penniless clerk looks promising as a husband, you don’t think Sir Albert and Lady Bruce would do and say anything to have a wealthy, titled bachelor trapped in their home for a few days?”
“All the ladies were supposed to be entertained elsewhere, but apparently the weather forced a return,” he snapped, yet even as he said the words he felt his cheeks heat at how idiotic they were.
As expected, Caroline’s eyes widened mockingly, and a smirk played about her lips.
“It was apparent on arrival that our esteemed hostess had very clear intentions for the next few days. You and George simply fell prey to a matchmaking mama; surely you know the species have little care for rules, propriety and truth.”
“Excuse me? We did not fall prey to anyone!”
“Ha. Cannon fodder from the start, the pair of you.”
“Cannon fodder?” Stephen spluttered, insulted to the tips of his toes. “Excuse—”
“Actually, apologies to the incumbent titleholder, but now I wish I’d waved the enemy through the city gates. Peaseblossom Forsyth, Countess of Westleigh has a certain ring to it don’t you think?”
“Like hell it does. And I should point out that smug, unholy glee does nothing for your complexion. Twenty-five candles this birthday isn’t it?”
Caroline smiled angelically, but he smoothly moved aside before her heel could mangle his toes.
“So transparent, my dear Miss Edwards. Surely everyone knows the sweeter your expression, the more diabolical your intent.”
“Such an acute sense of self-preservation, my dear Lord Westleigh! Obviously honed in response to the legions of women desperately wishing to do you bodily harm.”
“What can I say? Some men enjoy that sort of thing, but it’s not a pleasure of mine.”
“Indeed. You prefer to resort to dull rakish statements when your argument is failing. I almost pity the woman who does end up shackled to you.”
“No need,” Stephen said, grinning at the perfect opening to cannonball his news into the conversation. Very shortly he would be wallowing in an extremely rare moment, one where he actually surprised Miss Too smart for her own good Edwards. “Flora Hartley will be content in every way.”
Caroline froze, but he received neither a wild-eyed look nor hoped for jaw drop. Instead, she made an odd choking sound like he’d punched her in the stomach, and for the first time in all the years they had danced—and warred—together, stumbled awkwardly. Frowning, he instinctively dropped his other hand to her waist to halt a fall and her forehead connected sharply, painfully with his cheekbone. Yet seconds later his abused face was forgotten as her statuesque body plastered itself full-length against him, inciting an immediate and entirely unexpected response.
What the bloody hell?
He should not be noting her skin felt as soft as freshly churned butter. Or that rather than reeking of some heavy perfume, she smelled fresh and citrusy, like a newly-cut lemon. He definitely shouldn’t be noting how perfectly her hips cradled his, or wondering what the lush curves currently crushed against his chest would feel and taste like without any clothing to impede a slow and very thorough exploration…
This was Caroline Edwards. Unashamed hellion, dedicated nemesis and his best friend’s sister.