Lady Felstead would have accused her of hiding.
Olivia silently disagreed as she strolled down the torch-lit gravel path that led to the marchioness’s Greek folly. Even after her humiliating stumble into the lake with the Netherwood twins, she had returned to the gathering in a borrowed dress that did not quite fit her while she ignored the disapproving glances Lady Grisdale cast in her direction. Later, when everyone had adjourned to the ballroom for supper, her father—much to his credit—laughed when she recounted to him her unexpected dunking in the lake. Gideon had been seated within earshot, so he had embellished the tale for their rapt audience until her father’s hand shook so much he spilled his wine.
She had a few words for Gideon for his bit of mischief.
The gentleman had a gift for storytelling. His additions had made the incident more humorous than embarrassing while casting her in a favorable light. When everyone at the table laughed, there was no malice or blame.
Olivia wondered if Lord Kempthorn would have approved of his brother’s retelling?
She had forgotten how exciting Malster Park could be when Lord and Lady Felstead’s sons were in residence. It was a pity occasions such as this were rare these days.
Humming along to the song the orchestra was playing in the distance, she savored the coolness of the night air, the steady rhythm of her borrowed shoes on the gravel, and the earthy scents of the surrounding woodlands.
Much to her relief, no one else had thought to walk to the folly. Olivia walked up the three steps and wrapped her arms around one of the marble columns. Keeping the palm of her hand against the cool surface, she circled around it and then moved to the next one. Most of Lady Felstead’s guests were too stuffed from their evening meal to wander farther than the lake, where the orchestra played on the large wooden platform while the servants prepared with the assistance of Lord Felstead to set off the fireworks. The trees obscured most of her view of the lake, but she could sit and enjoy the music and fireworks.
Olivia was content to be alone. The quiet gave her time to gather her thoughts. She had had enough excitement for one day.
A soft, almost musical whistle floated on the night’s air, the source coming from the shadowed path. The notes heralding the arrival of one of the other guests. Of someone who knew her habits.
“Who is it?”
The soft footfalls abruptly halted as if she had surprised someone by announcing her presence. The light from the nearby torches and the soft glow of the lanterns illuminating the folly prevented her from seeing too deeply into the shadows.
Her pulse quickened in anticipation to learn the identity of the man approaching the folly. She knew Malster Park as well as her father’s lands. She was acquainted with most of the Felsteads’ guests, but if she encountered an amorous drunken fellow, she was confident that she could slip away before he became a nuisance.
“What are you doing out here alone, Olivia?” a voice demanded, the barest trace of anger hardening it.
She grinned down as the familiar face emerged out of the surrounding darkness. “Gideon! You gave me such a fright,” she said, meeting him at the bottom of the steps.
“And I can see it taught you nothing,” he growled, taking her hand and pressing a kiss to her fingers. The tenderness of the action was an intriguing contrast to his tone. “You are too old to be running about at all hours.”
Hands still clasped, she led him up the three steps so he could appreciate their view. “When Lord and Lady Felstead invite the entire parish to Malster Park, everyone is running about at all hours. I am perfectly safe. What are you doing here? I thought you would be sitting with your family near the lake.”
“I could ask you the same question.”
Lord and Lady Felstead had illuminated the garden walkways and connecting paths with torches. Paper lamps glowed from every tree limb, adding warmth to the darkness. Gideon sat down beside her and leaned against one of the marble columns.
Olivia shrugged. “This seemed a good spot as any to watch the fireworks.”
She adjusted the shawl on her shoulders to conceal the front of her borrowed dress. The marchioness’s daughter was smaller in the chest, and Olivia worried the top of the bodice was showing too much flesh. When she had expressed her concerns to Lady Felstead, the older woman had assured her that she looked quite lovely. However, Lady Grisdale’s disapproving scowl at supper and the admiring glances she had noticed by several gentlemen this evening proved that her worries were not unfounded.
Gideon scratched his jaw and glanced in the direction of the lake. “There are better views,” he said, politely not mentioning the trees that closed in around the folly. “And you are missing the revelry.”
She turned slightly so she could admire his profile. Gideon and his brother were breathtakingly handsome. It was no hardship to stare at the gentleman seated close to her. “How did you know where to find me?”
He braced his elbows on the tops of his thighs. “When I could not find you near the lake, I thought I might find you here.”
Olivia laughed. “Well, after our little accident, it seemed prudent to stay away from the water.”
Gideon cocked his head and gave her a rueful grin. “Angling for another apology, Olivia?”
“Not at all,” she said, circling the column as if it were a dance partner. “I have already forgiven you.”
“And my brother?”
The curious note in his inflection made her pause and stare at him. “Of course. I have no quarrel with Lord Kempthorn.”
“Are you certain? I sensed some tension between you and him when he found us together,” he said, watching her gracefully move between the marble columns.
Her full lips formed a contemplative pout as she considered her words. “Well, he did catch us in a slightly compromising position. Knowing your stiff-necked twin, he was likely offended by our familiarity.”
“Is that how you see him?” Gideon said, humor glimmering in his eyes. “Stiff-necked?”
“Pompous could apply too. Though to be fair, I prefer not to gain his attention. I am not one of your brother’s favorite people.” She stilled and tilted her head as she concentrated on the music playing in the distance. “I adore this Scottish reel.”
“What?” He looked slightly baffled when she held out her hand.
“I cannot dance alone, Mr. Netherwood,” she said, leaning down to take his hand.
“I have not danced in years,” Gideon protested.
“Then you have not been living,” she answered, pulling him onto his feet.
Gideon shook his head, but did not try to ruin her merriment. Olivia was practically bouncing on her heels as they descended the steps and made their way onto the gravel path. She clasped both of his hands, inclined her head, and curtsied.
“We are missing a few people for our reel.”
Gideon bowed his head. “There are plenty of people near the lake.”
Olivia rolled her eyes as they circled clockwise twice around and then reversed directions. Gideon rested his hand on the small of her back as she extended her right arm outward as if she were taking part in a dance position that would have included other ladies. She and Gideon moved in step to the energetic tune. Then they reversed direction.
“Do you know how ridiculous we look?” he asked, resigned that he could not discourage her.
Olivia released his hand and turned toward him. She grabbed the front of her skirt and gave him a flash of her ankles as she hopped from side to side, alternating her feet. “Why? Because we are dancing under the stars and moonlight?”
It pleased her that Gideon had not missed a single step.
“One of many reasons,” he teased as he gripped her elbow and tugged her closer for a quick turn.
Olivia felt her breath catch in her throat as their gazes locked as he whirled them about four times. The air warmed and her chest grew tight. This was Gideon, of all people. She would never live it down if she fainted at his feet. To clear her head, she danced away, her hand positions and feet moving as if in step with other dancers.
“Olivia, you do realize you are dancing alone?” Gideon said. His hands were planted on his narrow hips as he watched her with a hooded gaze.
“Am I?” was her cheeky reply, but she dutifully danced her way back to his side. “I had not noticed.”
She had intended to dance around him, but he caught her elbow and clasped her other hand before she could break away. Gideon turned them in a tight circle.
“You never change,” he said with a laugh. “I have missed your mad, wild ways, Olivia.”
“Have you?” Her right brow arched. “Perhaps the next time you plan an adventure, you will invite me along.”
Gideon stared down at her with a thoughtful, too serious expression on his face. “Maybe I shall.”
Before she could reply, several large popping sounds caught her attention. “Oh look, the fireworks have begun,” she said, moving away from him as she stared above the trees. “Lovely.”
Olivia glanced over at him and was startled to see that he was staring at her instead of the sky. Flustered, she shifted her gaze upward. “Can you see the fireworks from there?”
The orchestra had moved on to another musical composition that might have been played specifically for the fireworks, but the timing was off. Still, it was a beautiful piece that added to the festive mood.
“Come along. We will have a higher perch if we stand at the edge of the portico,” Gideon said, grabbing her hand and tugging her back to the folly.
Olivia happily indulged him. If she had been alone, she would have selected the same spot. She was surprised how easily she and Gideon had slipped into their old friendship, even though years apart should have made them strangers.
“Shared history, I suppose,” she muttered under her breath.
“What?” Gideon halted at the edge and tucked her into his side. His hand touched the small of her back as if he was prepared to catch her if she was clumsy enough to fall.
His lack of faith in her sense of balance was embarrassing, but it was a sweet gesture.
“It’s nothing,” she said, staring above the line of trees. Distant cheers and crackling noises indicated she and Gideon were missing some of the spectacular display illuminating the night sky. “I guess this wasn’t the most ideal location to watch the fireworks.”
She winced at his bluntness. “Well, I do not recall inviting you to join me.”
“Truly?” Gideon waited until she looked at him. “I could have sworn that we had plans to meet again.”
Olivia placed her hand on the column to steady her stance. “What are you talking about? A clandestine meeting?” She fluttered her eyelashes at him. “Why Mr. Netherwood, I do not believe my father would approve of your conduct.”
“Your father would never know,” Gideon said, his hand moving from the small of her back to her left hip. “You do understand what it means to meet in secret.”
“I do, you clodpole,” she said sweetly. “Nevertheless, there is no reason for us to keep our visits a secret. Unless you are worried that your brother will not approve.”
He frowned. “My brother has no influence over me.”
Olivia snorted indelicately. “He is your twin. If his opinion did not matter so much, you would not chafe against the restraints you feel he has imposed on you.”
“You have no notion of what you are talking about,” he said through clenched teeth.
“Clearly I have overstepped my bounds,” she said, unapologetic and undaunted by his anger. “There.” She pointed at the sky. “Did you see it?”
“You speak of old rivalries,” Gideon continued, not paying attention to the fireworks.
“What do you know of my relationship with my brother? It has been years since we have lived in the same household.”
“The moment you and Lord Kempthorn were in spitting distance of each other, I ended up in the lake,” she countered. His open-mouthed expression had her swallowing her annoyance. “So you must forgive me if I do not wish to be placed in the middle again. I doubt your sister has another clean dress that will almost fit me properly.”
Gideon noted the uncomfortable way she had pinched the edges of the shawl together with her fist. When they had been dancing together, she had forgotten about the tight bodice or the indecent amount of flesh revealed. Had he noticed? He had not mentioned it, but that did not mean he had not looked.
“Are you cold?”
The change of subject threw her off-balance. “Cold? Uh, I—no.”
“Here. Allow me,” Gideon said, gently prying her fingers from the shawl. “If you keep tugging on the shawl, you’ll end up strangling yourself.”
He brushed her hand aside and adjusted the edges so he could see a small portion of her bodice. “Better?”
Olivia nodded, acutely aware of the warmth from his hands, of the light tingles his touch created as his knuckles grazed her skin. She swallowed to ease the dryness in her throat. “We are missing the fireworks.”
“Are we?” he softly asked. “Look at me, Olivia.”
Butterflies battered the walls of her stomach as she stared at his hands. No, that was not helpful at all. She shut her eyes. Unable to explain her reluctance, she shook her head. She heard several explosions overhead. Fireworks.
“You are missing—”
Olivia dutifully tilted her chin upward and opened her eyes. Without speaking, Gideon blocked her view of the sky as his mouth descended on hers. Her body started at the first brush of his warm lips. It was a revelation. The awareness. Her body came alive as his lips pressed against hers. The heat. It was not just her cheeks that burned. She felt like she had taken her first sip of liquid fire. It flowed over her tongue and down her throat and spread through her entire body. She leaned into him, wishing for—what? Olivia was uncertain of what she was yearning for.
Gideon groaned against her mouth, and that seemed to break the enthrallment.
She took a step backward and he caught her to him. Otherwise she would have fallen off the portico. She tried to push him away.
“What is this? What are you doing?” she demanded, feeling off-balanced and slightly betrayed.
“It’s called a kiss,” he said, sounding amused.
“I know what a kiss is,” she hissed, pulling away from him. “That was not my first kiss.”
“I should hope not,” he teased. “You are almost twenty years old. You are too young to forget your first kiss.”
Damn him. He would pick this moment to remind her that she had shared her first kiss with him. It had taken place the year Gideon had seduced her final governess. He and his brother were leaving Malster Park the next day for London. Olivia had not expected to see him again until autumn. He had come to bid her farewell. To this day, she did not know what possessed him to kiss her.
Nor had he mentioned it until now.
She took a fortifying breath. “Not all kisses are memorable, Mr. Netherwood.”
“Is that a dare, Miss Lydall?”
The ice in his voice reminded her of Lord Kempthorn. She already felt muddled by Gideon’s kiss. “Not in the slightest. Once is enough.”
“You mean twice, my dear lady.”
The look she sent his way was one of utter loathing. She pushed him, and this time he moved out of her way.
“Where are you going?”
“Back to the main house,” she said over her shoulder. “You are not invited to join me.”
“Was it something I said?” he said, causing her shoulders to stiffen at his mocking tone.
Olivia ignored him and kept her eyes focuses on the dimly lit gravel path as she increased the distance between her and Gideon. Her hearing felt muffled, but if she concentrated, she could hear the crackling and hiss of the fireworks and the cheers from the crowd gathered around the lake.
Olivia tried not to think about Gideon’s kiss. Her mouth tingled and burned. She had almost forgotten about their first awkward kiss, and she could not fathom why he had decided to kiss her again. It was the tight bodice, she thought as she brooded, recalling the undisguised heat she had glimpsed in his eyes.
The borrowed dress had brought her nothing but trouble.
* * *
Olivia had been too angry to notice the man who stood in the shadows. Gideon stared at her departing figure, and waited until he no longer heard her footfalls. Thorn had much to explain for his latest mischief. He stepped on to the gravel path and headed toward the folly.
Copyright © January 2017. Excerpt from WAITING FOR AN EARL LIKE YOU by Alexandra Hawkins. Published by St. Martin's Paperbacks. All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher or Author.