"Hasn't your heart ever urged you to pursue where your reason resisted?"
"Once or twice." He shifted in his seat, ambushed by a long ago memory of a girl running through spring grass, a tumble of lithe limbs, breathless laughter… . . .
She smiled and he had the lowering suspicion that she realized his discomfort and it amused her. "Oh . . . ?" The word was drawn out invitingly.
If he were the sort given to snickering—which he wasn't—he would have snickered then because really, did she honestly think he was going to sit here trading girlish confidences with her?
"Yes. Twice. Both times at Tattersall's," he said. "And a damned good thing much-reviled reason held way, because to date neither filly has ever won a race."
She sat back with a snort of disgust.
They had much work to do before he introduced her into Society. Even given her genius, no one would believe he would ever tolerate a protégé who snorted.
"That's not what I meant," she said.
A light blush tinted her cheek. She dabbed her mouth with napkin and set it beside her empty plate. "Fine. I understand. I am overstepping. But pray recall that I was never schooled in deportment. Now, what do you propose is the next step in our plan?"
"I shall invite Sir Isbill to dine with us during which time you shall dazzle him with your astronomical expertise."
"Excellent." She rubbed her hands together. "At your club?"
"Hardly," Strand said. "No woman has stepped foot in White's in forty-one years. There are some holy of holies that I refuse to trample just so you might achieve astrological immortality."
"Ach." It was not precisely a snort, this time, though it carried just as clear a message. "So what if a woman's feet tread across a few yards of marble and her hands touch a fork and she wipes her mouth with linen napkin? Bury the fork, burn the napkin, and salt the tiles."
He pressed his lips together to keep from laughing. She was so utterly unimpressed with his consequence. Not to mention his club's sovereignty. It had been years since anyone had surprised him like she did. But then she always had.
"Besides . . ." She stood up, spurring him to rise hastily to his own feet. She might not think of herself as a lady, but she was, and, despite some proof to the contrary, he was still a gentleman. She blinked at him owlishly and a scowl started as if she thought he was mocking her.
"Now what insult were you about to levy?" he quickly prompted.
"What makes you think it was going to be an insult?"
"Let's call it a hunch. You had said, 'besides.' Besides what?"
She grinned. "Besides, you're the only one who would know. The rest of your precious club members would be blissfully ignorant, a state in which, I am loathe to say, it appears the majority of the peerage spend most of their time. Why are you smiling like that?"
"It's gratifying to have one's predictions fulfilled," he said. "And I don't believe you are loath to say that at all."
"You may be right," she readily admitted. "But the fact remains that given how perceptive the average aristocrat is, I'd bet there have been women loitering undetected about the halls of your clubs for decades."
He burst out laughing. He couldn't help it. The picture she painted was too delicious. After a second of looking alarmed by her own audacity, she joined him, her laughter rich and beguiling. Alas, that was not the only thing about her that beguiled.
As she'd risen, his silk dressing robe had fallen open at her throat, exposing a pale, satiny looking expanse of skin and the shadowed vale of her breasts. Her dark blue eyes glittered like sapphires and her lips, curving in a smile, looked as red and lush as if she'd been eating brambleberries. And it was then, quite without volition, that he realized something he had almost forgotten, as he had forgotten so much of who he'd been.
Four years ago, he'd thought her the most desirable woman he'd ever known.
And that is as far as he would allow that particular thought to travel, because his father had already done quite enough to complicate Avery Quinn's life and he wasn't going to do more. He would instead continue doing his damnedest to see that something of value came out of the old marquess's interference and machinations.
And if that allowed him to enjoy her unique and interesting company, that was all he would enjoy.