Once She Was Tempted (A Honeycote Novel) Online - Anne Barton

Chapter One

Bristle: (1) A coarse animal hair used in making paintbrushes.

(2) To become agitated or irritated, as in

The young lady’s innocent inquiries caused the brooding earl to bristle.

London, 1816

Upon meeting Miss Daphne Honeycote for the first time, Benjamin Elliot, Earl of Foxburn, had two distinct thoughts.

The first was that she appeared to be a suitable match for his upstanding young protégé, Hugh. Her golden hair was smoothed into a demure twist at her nape, and the collar of her gown was prim enough to pass muster in a convent. Her entire person radiated light, goodness, and purity.

The earl’s second thought regarding Miss Honeycote was that he should probably take down the nude portrait of her that was hanging in his study.

To be fair—and to his everlasting regret—Miss Honeycote wasn’t entirely nude in the painting. She reclined on a chaise of sapphire blue, her gown unlaced all the way to the small of her back, exposing slim shoulders and the long indent of her spine. The look she cast over her shoulder was serene and wise.

And utterly captivating.

His butler had once nervously suggested that a less titillating painting—of the English countryside or a foxhunt, perhaps—might be more befitting an earl’s study. Ben had explained to the butler—with uncharacteristic patience—that since he had no intention of hosting the next meeting of the ladies’ Scripture study, he’d hang any picture he damn well pleased.

But now, as he watched poor Hugh fumbling over himself to impress Miss Honeycote at the Duchess of Huntford’s dinner party, he realized he’d have to take down the painting. It would never do for Hugh to see the scandalous portrait and discover that the woman he was courting was not the paragon of virtue he imagined her to be.

Ben wasn’t one to cast stones, but at least he didn’t pretend to be anything other than what he was—a bitter, cynical bastard. Everyone knew what he was, and yet invitations were never in short supply. It was truly amazing what character defects people would tolerate if one had a title, a fortune, and a few interesting scars.

He preferred to eat alone but couldn’t refuse an invitation from Huntford. Especially when he suspected the duchess had arranged the dinner party in order to further Miss Honeycote’s acquaintance with Hugh. This dinner was the social equivalent of advancing a column of infantry and probably involved more strategy. It was the kind of maneuver that Robert—Hugh’s older brother and Ben’s best friend—would have skillfully countered. Ben tucked an index finger between his neck and cravat, which suddenly felt tight.

Robert was gone, killed in the line of duty, leaving his younger brother with no one to look out for him but Ben—a poor substitute if ever there was one. The least he could do was protect Hugh from the mercenary and morally suspect Miss Honeycotes of the world.

Ben kept a wary eye on the stunning blonde throughout the evening. If he didn’t know better, he’d swear she’d stepped out of the portrait in his study and raided the armoire of a prudish vicar’s wife before coming to dinner. The contradiction between the oil-painted and in-the-flesh versions of Miss Honeycote kept his mind pleasantly—if wickedly—occupied during the meal, which was otherwise predictably tedious. Huntford sat at one end of the table, looking more medieval king than sophisticated duke; his pretty wife sat at the other. The duke’s two sisters—Olivia and Rose—and Miss Honeycote were interspersed among the remaining men—Hugh, himself, and his solicitor and boxing partner, James Averill.

It was the sort of social affair Ben had avoided since returning from Waterloo. Cheerful gatherings, replete with inane conversation about the condition of the roads and the prospects for rain made him feel like the worst kind of hypocrite. He sat in one of London’s most elegant dining rooms enjoying savory roast beef while members of his regiment lay buried in the cold ground.

It seemed almost traitorous.

Ben’s leg twitched, signaling its agreement.

Damn. That twitch was like a warning shot before cannon fire. Sweat broke out on his forehead, and he clutched his fork so hard the fine silver handle bent.

Beneath the polished mahogany dining room table, he gripped the arm of his chair while the twisted muscles in his right thigh spasmed and contracted like a vise. He gritted his teeth, keeping his breathing even. The dinner conversation became muffled, as though he listened through a door. Objects in front of him blurred, and he could no longer tell where the tablecloth ended and his plate began. Silently,