Beguiling the Earl(10)

By: Suzanna Medeiros

“Can we start with the plants that have been collected from voyages abroad?”

“You are a woman after my own heart,” he said, holding out his arm for her to take.

Over the next three hours, Catherine saw many plants that she’d only seen in black-and-white sketches, and some that she’d never even heard of. Her favorites were the tropical flowers. It was still early spring and many of them weren’t yet in bloom, but the assortment of vibrant colors and shapes was enough to make her mind whirl.

More than once she’d exclaimed over something and turned to find Kerrick watching her. At first it was with patient amusement, but then something changed. She couldn’t tell what, exactly, and she didn’t want to make too much of it lest she build up her hopes only to have them dashed, but there was definitely a new connection between them.

The duchess seemed to be taking her promise to help bring her and Kerrick together seriously and went out of her way to drag her husband off to secluded corners of the various gardens they saw. She didn’t think Kerrick or Clarington knew what she was doing, the latter probably thought that the romantic atmosphere of the gardens was behind his wife’s desire to spend time with him separate from the rest of the group, but Catherine knew exactly what was afoot and appreciated the duchess’s effort.

When they reached the orangery, the last stop on their impromptu tour, even she was starting to flag.

“I would love to return later in the year and see the trees with their oranges,” Catherine said with a wistful sigh.

“Unfortunately, the site won’t be as impressive as we’d hoped for,” Mr. Clifton said. “The trees are starting to show signs of stress because they are not receiving enough light in here. We’re going to have to move them somewhere that has more windows. Perhaps even a glass roof. Hopefully they won’t decline too much before that can happen.”

“I hope not,” Catherine said. “That would be such a shame.”

She gave the trees one last look before turning back to the others. She was reluctant to leave and made a vow that she would return one day to see more of the gardens.

“What is the matter,” she asked when she saw the odd expression on Kerrick’s face.

“You have something right here,” he said, brushing a finger across his nose.

She reached up and rubbed her own nose and heard Charlotte’s laugh. She turned to look at the duchess, but the woman only gave her a quick wink before dragging her husband and Mr. Clifton away.

“You’re just making it worse,” he said.

She glanced at her hands and grimaced when she saw the dirt on her gloves.

“Here,” he said, removing a handkerchief from his pocket. He was about to hand it to her but hesitated. “If you don’t mind?” He held up the square of crisp white cloth.

Catherine shook her head and it was everything she could do to keep her breathing even as he stepped closer and raised the handkerchief to wipe away what she hoped was only a small smudge of dirt. He was impossibly close—closer than he’d been when they’d danced. His brow furrowed in concentration as he rubbed the dirt away from her nose.

When he was done, he didn’t step back. Instead, he continued to gaze down at her.

“You’re tired,” he said.

The look in his eyes, together with the heat inside the orangery, brought a flush to her cheeks.

“And hot,” she managed when she remembered to breathe again.

His eyes darkened, and for a moment she found herself thinking that he was going to kiss her. But then he looked away and took a step back, and the moment was shattered.

“We should join the others. They’re probably halfway to the carriage by now.”

Catherine could only nod in reply as she took his arm and they exited the building.

Chapter Three

He dreamt of Catherine that night. Heated dreams in which he had separated her from the rest of their party and taken her into a maze that existed only in his dream. He awoke feeling frustrated and more than a little guilty. As he lay in bed, his body still hard and his mind clouded with erotic images, his thoughts went to Nicholas’s warning to stay away from Catherine. If his friend learned that he was dreaming about divesting his sister-in-law of her clothing and making her take note of something other than the infernal plant life that so interested her, he’d have Kerrick’s hide.

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