Love's Misadventure (The Mason Siblings Series Book 1) (4 page)

His brow lowered briefly. “I do not disapprove, precisely…”

“Do tell me what is the matter, Lane. I do not wish to see you upset.”

“I—”

“Lord Devon, good evening.”

Annabel tamped down on her irritation at the interruption and turned to smile as Lord Boxton appeared at her side with two glasses of champagne.

“Boxton.” Lane nodded in greeting.

“Thank you, Anthony.” She pressed her lips together in an artificial smile, accepted her glass, and took a small sip.

Lane cast her a sharp glance of irritated accusation before smoothing his expression. “Tell me, Boxton,” Lane drawled, “Have you by chance read any interesting novels lately?”

Anna’s gaze riveted on Anthony, genuinely curious to hear his answer.

“Lord no, Devon.” Anthony chuckled derisively. “I haven’t the time at my disposal to spend on such frivolous pursuits. My reading material consists of estate and account management ledgers.” He flicked the wrist of his free hand through the air. “And the newspaper, of course.”

Anna’s heart sank at his admission, though she understood that not everyone enjoyed reading for pleasure as much as she did.

She glanced at Lane and stilled at the haughty expression on his face. He had known precisely what Anthony’s reply would be, deliberately encouraging Anna’s displeasure.

Anger abruptly surged through her. Lane had no right to attempt to manipulate her opinion of Lord Box—Anthony in such a way. She turned to the Viscount. “No one can fault you for your diligence in your duties, Anthony. I find that admirable.”

A barely audible snort escaped Lane, and she knew her comment had hit its mark.

“Thank you, Annabel.” Lord Boxton smiled at her. “I happen to know a splendid part of Holland Park that is breathtaking this time of year. Would you, by chance, care to ride with me on the morrow to view it?”

She sent him a blazing smile. “I would be delighted, Anthony. Thank you.”

“Splendid. I shall pick up you up at eleven of the clock.”

“Annabel, may I have a word with you, please?” Lane grabbed her elbow and half dragged, half led her through the crowded ballroom and into the vacant corridor.

“Lane, what in heaven’s name is the matter?” She staggered, pulling her arm from his grip before setting her now-empty champagne flute on a nearby side table.

Lane raked his fingers through his hair. “He is not the right man for you.”

“Not the right man,” she said incredulously. “And who would you suggest I let court me, Lane? I am no beauty. My chances of finding love are slim to none.”
Since you will not marry me
. “At least with him, I can achieve my dream of having children before I am too old to bear them.”

“You
are
beautiful, Anna. And you deserve better.”

Despite the leap to her pulse, she clucked her tongue. “You know that I meant my external beauty, not that of my personality.”

His jaw worked. “He is a fortune hunter, Annabel. Surely you can see that.”

“I
know
he is.” She swung her arms exasperatedly in the air before they dropped to her sides once more, her beaded reticule and dance card bumping against her leg.

Lane’s eyebrows rose in shock while his eyes were alight with anger. “And yet you continue to let him court you?”

“Which one of my
many
suitors would you have me choose in his stead, Lane? Are
you
prepared to begin a courtship with me? Would
you
marry me?”

Anna’s heart beat a tattoo in her chest.
Have I just proposed marriage to Lane? Oh Lord, I think I may have

He blanched, his spine ramrod straight. “I cannot, I
will
not,” his voice rumbled in a low timbre. “I value our friendship too highly to—”

“Rest assured, Lane I do not need to hear an excuse.” Anna hid her hands in her skirts to cover their trembling, her imprudent, hopeful heart aching. But she dared him to look in her eyes. “I believe my point has been made. If no other man will have me, why would I, in good conscience, refuse the suit of a young, titled, handsome, and charming gentleman of the
ton
?”

Before she lost what little nerve she possessed, Anna curtseyed, spun on her heel, and strode purposefully toward the ballroom, her heart breaking a bit more with each step.

 

 

 

Chapter 5

 

 

Lane struggled to focus through the pulse drumming in his ears and the pain clouding his mind as he made his way back into the ballroom. Had that quarrel truly occurred? Had he allowed his unjustified jealousy control over his mouth? Had he slighted the woman he loved?

Thunderation!
He was not in top form this evening.

He nodded at a matron whose name escaped him, then at a lordling he knew from Parliament. Then his gaze found Lord Boxton looking fondly at Anna as she spoke, and that unfamiliar, heated jealousy burned through him once more.

He hadn’t the faintest idea what he intended, but he started for them. Then a hand caught his arm.

“Don’t do it,” Charles Bradley muttered.

Lane narrowed his eyes at Anna’s brother. “Do what?”

Charles shook his head, his grip tightening. “Look around you, Lane. Tell me, what do you see?”

Frowning, Lane turned his gaze on the members of the
haute ton
, the gentlemen, the ladies, the patronesses of Almack’s, all grouped together in one grand space. His gaze reached Lady Juliana Herring, the haughty curiosity evident in her shrewd gaze as she watched Boxton’s exchange with Anna then turned it on Lane.

The woman was not merely a gossip; she took delight in making others suffer from the tales she told. Lane suspected that she was horrid not only because she was in possession of a vile personality, but also to divert attention away from her own proclivities.

Charles was correct. Now was most certainly not the time to confront Boxton, with whatever it was his jealousy-controlled tongue would have spouted.

“I see,” Lane murmured, “enough wagging tongues to embarrass Anna should I do something foolish.”

What has gotten into me
?

The strains of a waltz echoed from the balcony, and Boxton led a smiling Anna among the other couples. Lane’s stomach tightened as though he’d been winded in a round at Gentleman Jackson’s.

“Have a cup of punch,” Charles suggested. “It is dreadfully watered down, but you need something to do other than stare at my sister.”

Lane turned his sharp, searching gaze on the Major. “She is my friend,” Lane asserted. “I merely wish for what is in her best interests.”

“Of course you do.”

The centre of the ballroom was a mass of swirling silk and coat tails. Lane’s chest ached each time Anna and Boxton passed. He was holding her indecently close. Lane tried to make out their conversation, but before he could, they were swallowed into the crush of waltzing couples.

Finally, the music came to its crescendo and the dancers strode to the outskirts of the room. Lane scanned the crowd for Anna’s high, blonde chignon with cherry blossom sprigs, then spotted her striding, her arm linked through Boxton’s, toward the French doors to the balcony.

His jaw tightened. “Nothing good can come of this.”

“Lane,” Charles softened his tone. “Lord Boxton has begun a courtship of my sister. They should have some allowance for a private walk in the garden.”

“Are you not concerned that he is a fortune hunter, Charles? Surely you want better for her?”

“Of course! I want what is best for my sister, and that is for her to be
happy
with her position in life. Despite the common way of thinking, she is a grown woman and is capable of making these choices on her own. If she chooses Boxton as her husband, I shall not stand in her way.” He put his hand on Lane’s arm once more. “And neither shall you.”

Lane stared hard at the man standing beside him, their eyes locked. Charles’ gaze was full of meaning, but that meaning was lost on Lane.
Is it a warning?

“You have had years in which to put your claim on my sister, Lane, if that was your wish. Do not interfere with Anna’s contentment merely because you fear the loss of a friend.”

Lane was lost for words. The truth pained him far more than he thought it could. “I will not impede Anna’s happiness,” he swore.
But I will not allow her to live a life devoid of the adventure she so craves.

“Where are your sisters this evening?” Charles’ enigmatic gaze turned with deceptive disinterest to the milling dancers.

Struggling to adjust to the abrupt change in subject, Lane cleared his throat. “Emaline and Katherine are here this evening and currently standing with my mother. Bridget is at home with the headache.”

Charles’ gaze became alert, but Lane did not take the time to think on it. He watched the French doors through which Anna and Boxton had disappeared and left Charles without another word.

He could not leave Annabel alone with the man any longer. He had to know that she was safe, that he was not attempting anything nefarious. It was
not
because of the pure, aching jealousy that roiled in his gut. Most assuredly not.

He wove his way through the crowed ballroom and out the French doors, halting as the doors closed behind him. It was dark, chill, and silent. He blinked to acclimate his eyes to the shadows. Anna and Boxton were not within sight.

Lane’s heels clipped on the stone beneath him as he strode to the edge of the balcony. He peered over its edge but did not see any shadowy figures in the gardens. He walked toward the side of the building where the balcony rounded the corner to a small alcove.

There he saw them.

His heart lurched as rage flowed hot through his veins to pound at his temples. Lord
sodding
Boxton’s arms were wrapped around Annabel’s waist, his lips on hers.

Lane didn’t take the time for rational thought as he let out a roar and pulled Boxton bodily from Anna’s embrace. He heard her cry of protest but paid it no heed. He grabbed Boxton’s cravat and lifted the man to his toes. He pulled his right fist back, ready to deliver pain to the man who would dare to kiss his Anna.

“No, Lane!” Anna’s cry of alarm pierced through his fury. She put a hand to his raised arm, a frown on her pale face. “No. Release Anthony.
Now
.”

“He was taking liberties with you,” Lane said lamely.

“I was
letting
him! For heaven’s sake, Lane, I
have
been kissed before.”


What
?” Renewed jealousy fired his blood as he turned wide eyes on Anna. “Who was he?”

“Lane, I am not going to have this discussion with you right now. Release Anthony this instant.”

Lane reluctantly unclenched his fist, slowly freeing Boxton’s cravat one creaking knuckle at a time.

Once Boxton was free, Anna went to him, spreading her hands over his chest as if to look for injuries.

“I am so sorry, Anthony. Are you well?”

“I am fine, thank you.” He sent a venomous glare at Lane. “Though I think your friend should learn to control his temper.”

“Indeed he should.” She turned her own glare on Lane. “What have you to say for yourself?”

Bloody hell
. “My apologies, Boxton. I thought—wrongly—that your attentions were unwanted.”

“Accepted.” Lord Boxton held out his hand, and Lane reluctantly shook it. “It is admirable that you would wish to protect your friend. Especially one as lovely as Annabel.”

Lane swallowed past the bile that threatened to rise up his throat. How could Boxton so readily forgive him? His financial woes must be great, indeed.

“Anthony, would you be so kind as to give me a moment alone with Lane?”
Anna asked sweetly. “I must discuss something with him.”

Lane caught the stiffness to her spine and the stubborn set to her jaw.
Blazes
. She was furious with him—and rightly so, damn it. He hadn’t thought before he’d acted.

“Yes, of course, Annabel.” The man sent Anna a toothy grin. “I will see you in the ballroom.” He sketched a bow at her then nodded at Lane. “Lord Devon.”

As soon as he was out of earshot, Anna rounded on Lane. “How
could
you? You humiliated me, Lane! What in heaven’s name were you thinking, attacking Anthony like that?”

He ignored her question. “How long have you been calling him ‘
Anthony
’?” He sneered the name.

Anna’s frown deepened. “Stop avoiding my question. That has nothing to do with why you attacked him just now. You storm in here huffing and stomping like a rampaging bull, with not so much as an explanation as to why!”

Her lip quivered and Lane’s heart sank. “I did not intend to hurt you, Anna.”

 

* * *

 

A
nna fought to keep her chin from trembling.

“But you did,” she confessed. “You
did
hurt me, Lane. But more than that, I am so…” she took a shuddered breath, “
cross
with you! You are my closest friend; I thought you would understand my desire, nay, my
need
to have children.” Anna’s eyes began to fog over with unshed tears, and she cursed herself for her weakness. “I am not prepared to become a lonely spinster. I am not prepared to watch life pass me by as acquaintances and friends parent children of their own and live rich, fulfilling lives while I moulder away as someone’s companion or unfortunate relation. I cannot. I
will
not.” She swiped angrily at her eyes and stiffened her spine. “I have made a decision about my life, and I shall not waver from my path. If Anthony should deign to propose marriage, I will accept him.”

“Anna, I…” Lane put a hand to her elbow, his eyes troubled. “I wish you the greatest happiness in life, you know that, don’t you?”

She nodded, unable to speak through the lump in her throat.

“I did not mean to cause you distress.” His hand caressed her upper arm, spreading gooseflesh over her skin. “For that, I am truly sorry.”

She let out a long breath. “Thank you, Lane.”

His jaw tightened for a moment, his gaze calculating. “What of your desire for adventure, Anna?”

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