She laughed, in spite of herself. “I’d say so. Unless you wish to court my aunt.”
“I wish for you,” he said abruptly, and Elisabeth’s head shot up. It was almost as if he knew she needed to hear it again, and again, and again.
I wish for you.
He crouched before her chair, spreading his arms, putting one hand on either side of her chair, caging her in. “How old are you, Elisabeth?” he asked.
“How old do you think I am?” A whisper.
“Twenty-six?” he guessed.
She shook her head. “No. I am the ripe old age of thirty. Far too old to be called upon by a bachelor viscount, rolling in money.”
“Or”—he arched an eyebrow—“exactly the right age.”
She laughed and finally looked away. And she thought he’d been handsome at nineteen. Her stomach dropped into a dip. She reminded herself to breathe.
“Why me?” she asked, looking out the window. “Why pay attention to me?”
His voice was so low she could barely discern the words. “Because I think you’d make an ideal viscountess.”
An ideal what? Hope became a living, pulsing thing in her chest. It became her very heart. She fell back in her seat and closed her eyes, but the room still swam before her.
He went on, “You are mature, and intelligent, and poised. And devoted to your charity, whatever it is.”
A thread of the old conversation. She sat up, determined to seize it before he could say another thing. “I’ve just told you what the charity is.”
“You spoke in vague generalities that could mean a great many things. I let it go because I hope for more opportunities to learn.”
Elisabeth breathed in and out, in and out. She bit her bottom lip again. She watched his gaze hone in on her mouth.
She closed her eyes. “My lord.” She took a deep breath. “Rainsleigh . . . Bryson.” She opened her eyes. “If your far-reaching goal is to earn an esteemed spot in London society, you’re going about it entirely the wrong way. My charity is . . . unpopular, and no one has ever asked to court me before. It’s really not done.”
“Why is that?”
Because I have been waiting for you.
The thought floated, fully formed, in her brain, and she had to work to keep her hands from her cheeks, to keep from closing her eyes again, from squinting them shut against his beautiful face, just inches from her own, his low voice, his boldness.
“I’m very busy,” she said instead.
“Then I will make haste.”
“Is this because of last night? When I . . . challenged your dreadful neighbor?”
The corner of his mouth hitched up. “It did not hurt.”
“It’s very difficult for me to stand idly by when I hear a person misrepresented.”
“And to think I was under the impression that you could barely abide my company. Your defense came as a great surprise.”
“Oh . . . I am full of surprises.”
“Is that so?” His words were a whisper. He leaned in.
She had the fleeting thought: Dear God. He’s going to kiss me . . .