Home > Dancing at Midnight (The Splendid Trilogy #2)(14)

Dancing at Midnight (The Splendid Trilogy #2)(14)
Author: Julia Quinn

She frowned. It wasn't called Blondwood Manor. But for the life of her, she couldn't remember what it was called. Belle shook her head and kept on walking.

An hour went by, and Belle started to regret her decision not to bring her mare. It was a couple of miles to the edge of Alex's property, and from what John had told her the previous day, she knew it was another couple of miles to his house. Her boots weren't turning out to be as comfortable as she had hoped, and she had a sneaking suspicion that a blister was forming on her right heel.

She tried to keep a stiff upper lip, but the pain soon reached new heights of irritation. With an audible groan, Belle finally gave up and conceded defeat to her blister. She squatted down and patted the grass with her hand, checking to see if it was damp. The early morning dew had already evaporated, so she plopped down onto the ground, unlaced her boot, and pulled it off. She was about to get up and start walking again when she realized that she was wearing her favorite stockings. With a sigh, she reached up under her skirt and slowly rolled one off.

From his position ten yards away, John could not believe his eyes. Belle had wandered onto his property again, and he was just about to make his presence known to her when she started muttering to herself and then sat down on the ground in a most undignified manner.

Intrigued, John darted behind a tree. What followed was a scene far more seductive than he would have ever dreamed possible. After pulling off her shoe, Belle had lifted her skirts well above her knees, giving him a tantalizing view of her shapely legs. John almost groaned. In a society that considered ankles promiscuous, this was racy, indeed.

John knew he shouldn't look. But as he stood there, watching Belle roll off her stocking, he could come up with no better alternative. If he called out to her, he'd only embarrass her. Better she didn't know that he was there. A true gentleman, he supposed, would have the fortitude to turn his back, but then again, John found that most men who took the time to call themselves gentlemen were fools.

He just couldn't take his eyes off of her. Her innocence only made her more seductive-more so than the most professional of performers. Her unintended striptease was all the more sensual because Belle was lowering her stocking with agonizing slowness not because she had an audience but because she seemed to love the feel of the silk sliding along her soft skin.

And then, much too soon for John's tastes, she was done and muttering to herself again. He smiled. He'd never met anyone who talked to herself quite so often-especially not in such amusing tones.

She stood and looked herself up and down a few times until her gaze fell on a bow which adorned her dress. She tied her stocking around the frippery, firmly securing it to her attire, and then reached down and picked up her boot. John almost laughed when she started to mutter again, glaring at her shoe as if it were some small, offensive creature as she realized that she could have just stuffed her stocking into the boot for safekeeping.

He heard her sigh, so she must have done so loudly, and then she shrugged her shoulders and trudged away from him. John quirked a brow at her movements because she wasn't walking home, she was heading toward his house. Alone. One would have thought that the chit would have had the sense to heed his warning. He thought he'd frightened her the day before. Lord knew he frightened himself.

He couldn't contain a smile, however, because with one of her boots off, she was limping almost as much as he did.

John quickly turned and headed back into the woods. After his accident, he had exercised his bad leg religiously, and as a result, he could walk quite swiftly-almost as fast as an uninjured man. The only problem was that overexertion meant that his leg would later ache as if he'd walked-no hopped-to hell and back.

But he wasn't thinking about these consequences as he sped through the woods. Foremost on his mind was how to cut through the forest and intercept Belle closer to Bletchford Manor without her realizing that he had been spying on her.

He knew that the path curved to the right up ahead, so he cut diagonally through the woods, cursing every tree stump he no longer had the agility to leap over. When he finally emerged onto the path about a half mile closer to his house, his knee was throbbing, and he was panting from the exertion. He put his hands on his thighs and leaned down for a moment, trying to catch his breath. Pain shot up and down his leg, and it was pure agony just to straighten it. Wincing, he rubbed his knee until the stabbing sensation receded into a dull ache.

He stood up, and just in time. Belle had just limped around the corner. John quickly took a step in her direction, wanting to appear as if he had been strolling down the path all morning.

She didn't see him right away because she was looking down at the ground for pebbles so that she could avoid them with her unshod foot. They were only about ten feet away from each other when she heard the sound of his footsteps. She looked up instantly and saw him approaching. He was wearing that enigmatic little smile of his, as if he knew something that she didn't. Actually, she thought, it was more like he knew something that she never would.

"Oh, hello, Lord Blackwood," she said, curving her lips into a smile that she hoped matched the mystery of his. She rather thought she failed; she'd never had a mysterious day in her life, and besides, she sounded too cheerful by half.

Amidst all of Belle's turbulent thoughts, John nodded.

"I suppose you're wondering what I'm doing on your property again."

John raised an eyebrow, and Belle had no idea whether his gesture meant: You're an annoying little trespasser, You're an amusing piece of baggage, or Your actions aren't worth the time it would take to think about them. So she plodded on.

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