“Hold your tongue,” Lady Berwick told Pandora in an ominous undertone. “Have you taken leave of your senses?”
Pandora twisted to glance back at her. “I’ve done nothing wrong,” she insisted. “Or at least nothing dreadful enough to deserve being married for it.”
“It is for your elders to decide what will happen next,” Lady Berwick snapped.
“But it’s my future.” Pandora’s gaze returned to Gabriel. Her tone became more urgent. “Please leave. Please.”
She was trying desperately to control the situation. Either she didn’t comprehend or wouldn’t accept that it would be like trying to arrest the momentum of a runaway locomotive.
Gabriel puzzled over how to reply. Having been raised by a loving mother, and grown up with two sisters, he understood women nearly as well as any man could. This girl, however, was something entirely outside his experience.
“I’ll go,” he said. “But this situation isn’t something either of us can ignore for long.” He extended his card to Trenear. “My lord, obviously you and your family have much to discuss. You may rely on my honor—the offer for Lady Pandora stands indefinitely.”
Before Trenear could react, however, Pandora had snatched the card from Gabriel’s fingers. “I won’t marry you, do you understand? I’d rather launch myself from a cannon into the sun.” She proceeded to tear the card into tiny pieces.
“Pandora,” Lady Berwick exclaimed balefully as the flakes of paper stock fluttered downward.
Both Pandora and Gabriel ignored her. As their gazes caught and held, the rest of the room seemed to disappear.
“Look you,” Pandora told him in a businesslike tone, “marriage is not on the table.”
Look you? Look you? Gabriel was simultaneously amused and outraged. Was she really speaking to him as if he were an errand boy?
“I’ve never wanted to marry,” Pandora continued. “Anyone who knows me will tell you that. When I was little, I never liked the stories about princesses waiting to be rescued. I never wished on falling stars, or pulled the petals off daisies while reciting ‘he loves me, he loves me not.’ At my brother’s wedding, they handed out slivers of wedding cake to all the unmarried girls and said if we put it under our pillows, we would dream of our future husbands. I ate my cake instead. Every crumb. I’ve made plans for my life that don’t involve becoming anyone’s wife.”
“What plans?” Gabriel asked. How could a girl of her position, with her looks, make plans that didn’t include any possibility of marriage?
“That’s none of your business,” she told him smartly.
“Understood,” Gabriel assured her. “There’s just one thing I’d like to ask: What the bloody hell were you doing at the ball in the first place, if you don’t want to marry?”
“Because I thought it would be only slightly less boring than staying at home.”
“Anyone as opposed to marriage as you claim to be has no business taking part in the Season.”
“Not every girl who attends a ball wants to be Cinderella.”
“If it’s grouse season,” Gabriel pointed out acidly, “and you’re keeping company with a flock of grouse on a grouse-moor, it’s a bit disingenuous to ask a sportsman to pretend you’re not a grouse.”
“Is that how men think of it? No wonder I hate balls.” Pandora looked scornful. “I’m so sorry for intruding on your happy hunting grounds.”
“I wasn’t wife-hunting,” he snapped. “I’m no more interested in marrying than you are.”
“Then why were you at the ball?”
“To see a fireworks display!”
After a brief, electric silence, Pandora dropped her head swiftly. He saw her shoulders tremble, and for an alarming moment, he thought she had begun to cry. But then he heard a delicate snorting, snickering sound, and he realized she was . . . laughing?
“Well,” she muttered, “it seems you succeeded.”
Before Gabriel even realized what he was doing, he reached out to lift her chin with his fingers. She struggled to hold back her amusement, but it slipped out nonetheless. Droll, sneaky laughter, punctuated with vole-like squeaks, while sparks danced in her blue eyes like shy emerging stars. Her grin made him lightheaded.
His annoyance drained away, displaced by a rampage of heat and delight. His heart began to thump with the force of his need to be alone with her. To be inside all that energy. Everything in him had just ignited like a bonfire, and he wanted her, wanted her, with all the reckless, self-indulgent desire he usually managed to keep contained. But it made no sense. He was a civilized man, an experienced one with sophisticated tastes, and she was . . . holy God, what was she?
He wished to hell he didn’t want to find out so badly.
Pandora’s amusement faded. Whatever she saw in his gaze caused a soft scald of pink to spread over her face. Her skin turned hot beneath his fingertips.
Gabriel drew his hand back reluctantly. “I’m not your enemy,” he managed to say.
“You’re not my fiancé, either.”
Gabriel wanted to pounce on her. He wanted to haul her into his arms and kiss her senseless. Instead, he said calmly, “Tell me that again in a few days, and I might believe you. In the meantime”—he reached into his coat for another engraved card—“I’m going to give this to Trenear.”