"Do you receive invitations often, Mr. Christie? To Society functions, that is?"
"More frequently than my status warrants."
"There's status, and then there's fortune." She smiled at his slight look of surprise. "I may be newly returned from distant lands, but I'm not unaware of your accomplishments in trade."
"And Lady Julia apprised you of the more salacious details?"
Catrin had listened with idle interest as her hostess prattled on about the most far-flung acquaintances. Only Mr. Christie's story lingered in her memory. He had spent the previous year's Season in Paris. Quite the mystery, Lady Julia had reiterated. Catrin contrasted the idea of a Scotsman in Paris with her own experiences from that summer: living in bug-infested mud of a siege line outside the Black Sea port of Sevastopol. She would have preferred being in France.
"Oh, Lady Julia and a few dozen other fine ladies. Either they dislike you a great deal, Mr. Christie, or they are in possession of unresolved appetites."
"You are a wicked creature," he said, his tone admiring. "I wouldn't have guessed by your face."
"Rather angelic, isn't it?"
"Rather. Except for your mouth."
Aside from his height and physical vigor--that sensation of dancing with a brawny Highland giant--Mr. Christie possessed two extraordinary features. Catrin found herself entranced by his eyes. Hazel. An absolute, true, marvelous hazel. Green and golden brown twined effortlessly. A fierce intelligence shone from their luminous depths, as if he could calculate the velocity of the moon spinning through the night. However, the heavens were not his fascination. He merely stared at her lower lip.
She licked it. A shiver of victory tickled up her back when his hands tightened. While she had no intention of revealing the details of her experience for the sake of a living, neither did she want to return to Wales. Despite her jests, she knew very well that invitations to events of such magnificent caliber would not be extended indefinitely. Soon people such as Lady Julia would chance upon a new circus freak.
That meant Catrin had until the end of the Season to make the most of the ton's curiosity. Attract one suitor. Others would follow. Then she would have her choice of champions.
It all sounded so . . . sordid. Finding a husband in such a short span of time smacked of presenting herself at auction. But she had seen too much of the world to be satisfied with a country home outside of Aberystwyth. Once, Aldith had been all she wanted. His sudden death by pneumonia had unmoored her life, leaving her the object of pity among such a small community. She'd been grieving, restless, and determined to get out. For a young woman who wanted to keep her reputation--just barely--nursing was the only option. She had volunteered two weeks after her fiancé's funeral.
Five years. Five years and she hadn't been home. She wondered if her notoriety had reached even her parents, and what they might think of her tale. But even if she visited, she wasn't going home for good. She wanted a man with a future, with some boldness and excitement in his soul--a fire to match the one that had yet to dim in hers.
Thus the origins of her ambition to parlay the sinking of the HMS Honoria into an advantageous marriage. Nightmares of that experience would creep under her skin and dig into her sanity for the rest of her life. She might as well find a man to make that life as comfortable as possible.
Mr. Christie was a very good start.
"My mouth, you say? Do explain. Unless you believe your explanation might press the boundaries of propriety."
He flashed a smile that seemed almost condescending, but she did not feel put down. More like she was privy to another unsuitable joke. "I intend for it to do just that, Miss Jones. Will you be able to withstand the upshot? No need for smelling salts?"
"I was a wartime nurse, as you know. Let us say that it would take an exceptional man to shock me."
"I've never been so blatantly dared by a woman."
"But by a man?"
"Dares from men come fast and thick." His splendid hazel eyes skittered away, as if assessing examples of his gender. When he wasn't intent on interpreting her, his gaze moved constantly, as if danger or opportunity lurked in every corner--likely how he'd become so successful. "Sword play, dice, boxing, the pursuit of the same female conquest. I'm certain your experience among soldiers and sailors gave you that impression."
"Very much so. Then tell me, do you appreciate my dare?"
"I intend to rise to it," he said, lips nearly touching her temple.
Catrin had not touched a man in months, and that had been with the efficiency and detached care of a nurse. Cannon fire overhead. Bullets punching into flesh. Since then, she had been touched, but only by the naval captain who discovered her on the beach of Catalan Bay in Gibraltar.
This closeness was entirely different. No bare flesh here, not with their hands wrapped in evening gloves. Yet the big wall of his body created a sense of intimacy in that public space, a shelter hewn of Mr. Christie's bones and brawn.
The quartet began a new waltz, this one slower, almost mournful in its lassitude. Her body melted nearer to his.
"Then tell me, sir. What have you been thinking about my mouth?"
"That I should very much like to kiss it."
Catrin's smile widened into a laugh she could not prevent. "And that was supposed to shock me, Mr. Christie?"
"What a lady claims and what she desires are often in opposition. Hell if I know the way your mind is working just now."
She tsked, then licked her lower lip again. "Such language."
"Shall I apologize?"
"Oh, no. Frankly, I believe you must be capable of a great deal more."
"Are you enjoying our game, Miss Jones?"
"Quite." On the next count of three, lifting on her toes, she briefly rubbed her nose along his jaw. A faint scratch of evening roughness, even more subtle than the grain of leather, was nonetheless powerful enough to shoot a shiver across her collarbones. "Shall I tell you what I've been thinking of your mouth?"
Because that was his other incredible feature. How often did one notice a man's lips? Hardly ever, in Catrin's experience. They hid behind mustaches or dimmed in comparison to high cheekbones or a fine head of hair. Even a nice set of teeth was more noteworthy. But Mr. Christie's mouth was . . . beautiful. A full lower lip. A perfectly symmetrical upper lip, with a sharp curve that suggested devilish possibilities. Although without any apparent intent, he pursed it in such a way as to draw her eye. A sneer, a laugh, a prelude to a kiss. All in one.