Once She Was Tempted (A Honeycote Novel) Online - Anne Barton Page 0,1

he counted. One, two, three… The episode could last ten seconds or ten thousand, but he gleaned a shred of comfort from knowing it would end. Eventually.

He reached eighty-six before the pain subsided and the room slowly came back into focus. After a glance up and down the table, he relaxed slightly. No one seemed concerned or alarmed, so he must have gotten through the spell without grunting. As inconspicuously as possible, he swiped his dinner napkin across his damp forehead. Miss Honeycote cast him a curious look, but he ignored it, took a large gulp of wine, and tried to pick up some thread of the conversation around him.

Hugh was grinning at Miss Honeycote like an idiot. He seemed to fall further under her spell with each bloody course. At this rate, they’d be betrothed by dessert. “I understand you volunteer at the orphanage on Thursdays,” Hugh said.

“Yes, I enjoy being around the children.” She lowered her eyes, as though uncomfortable discussing her charity work. Little wonder. She probably wouldn’t know an orphan if one bit her on her lovely ankle.

“The children adore Daphne,” the young duchess said proudly. “With a smile, my sister can brighten the darkest of rooms.”

“I do not doubt it,” exclaimed Hugh.

Miss Honeycote blushed prettily, while Ben just barely refrained from snorting. He had to admit, she did a fair job of brightening his study.

She probably wouldn’t deign to bat her lashes at Hugh if a viscount’s title hadn’t been tragically plopped onto his lap. Hugh was so smitten he’d already sunk to composing bad poetry in her honor, which meant Ben would have to confront her about the painting—in private, and soon. With any luck, he’d spare Hugh the humiliation of learning that the woman he fancied himself in love with was, for all intents and purposes, a doxy.

“Lord Biltmore tells us you’re something of a hero.” Lady Olivia Sherbourne, the more animated of the duke’s sisters, leaned forward, gazing expectantly at Ben.

He shot Hugh a scathing glance before responding to Lady Olivia. “Hardly. I had the misfortune of finding myself in the path of a bullet. Let me assure you—there was nothing vaguely heroic or romantic about it.”

“Nonsense.” Hugh sat up straighter. “The colonel himself came to visit Lord Foxburn, and he said—”

“Enough.” It was a bark, harsher than Ben had intended. The duchess fumbled her fork and it clattered onto her plate. Accusatory silence followed. The women stared at him with owlish eyes and, at the head of the table, Huntford glowered.

Ben set his napkin next to his plate and leaned back in his chair. If they were waiting for an apology, they were going to wait a long time. In fact, his flavored ice, which had been cleverly molded into the shape of a pineapple, was already starting to melt. Instead, he said, “I’m certain there are more appropriate topics of conversation for a dinner party.”

The duke arched a dark brow.

Ben responded with a grin but didn’t let it reach his eyes. “Better to stick with less distressing subjects when conversing with the gentler sex.” He sounded like an insincere ass, and no wonder.

“Must we limit our conversation to weather and roads, then?” Lady Olivia looked like a chit who’d discovered her diamond earrings were paste jewelry.

“Of course not.” Ben scooped the spike of the ice pineapple into his spoon. “There are plenty of interesting, appropriate topics for young ladies.”

“Such as?”

He froze, his spoon halfway to his mouth. “I don’t know… the color of Lady Bonneville’s newest turban?”

Every head at the table swiveled toward him, and no one looked particularly pleased.

Miss Honeycote cleared her throat, drawing the attention away from him like a matador unfurling a scarlet cape. She smiled, instantly raising the temperature in the room several degrees. “Lord Foxburn, I cannot speak for my entire sex, but let me assure you that my sister, Olivia, Rose, and I are not nearly as fragile as you might think. If you knew us better, you wouldn’t worry about offending our sensibilities. You’d be worried that we’d offend yours.”

The ladies giggled, murmuring their agreement, and even Huntford chuckled reluctantly. Miss Honeycote pursed her pink lips and tilted her head as she met Ben’s gaze. Her knowing smile and heavy-lidded eyes were an exact match to those of the woman in the portrait.

And, coincidentally, to the woman who invaded his dreams.

Daphne took a sip of wine and, over the rim of her glass, marveled at the luxury surrounding her. A fire crackled in