Code of Honor
Book One—Intrepid Heroines
The death of her eccentric father leaves Alexandra Chilton with no dowry and precious little chance of attracting an offer of marriage—which is perfectly fine with her. A gifted artist with a bold spirit and strong opinions, she has no desire to sacrifice her independence. However, she reluctantly takes part in Society’s parties so that her beloved younger brother can court the lady he loves.
But danger is lurking beneath the glitter of the ballrooms. A cunning enemy is seeking to ruin her and her brother to keep an old family secret from coming to light. His evil plan involves having Lord Branford, a notorious rake, to seduce Alexandra. But things take an unexpected turn when it turns out Branford is a far more honorable man than anyone suspects. A friendship begins to form between him and Alexandra—until lies and innuendo threaten to destroy everything they hold dear.
Now, to triumph over adversity, they both must learn to trust their hearts . . .
Branford took Alex’s elbow in a firm grasp and guided her out to the dance floor. A slight buzz ran through the room. Eyes turned to see who it was that the Icy Earl chose to stand up with twice in one evening— and the only two dances he deigned to participate in at that.
Branford ignored the looks and concentrated on turning the conversation to his own purpose this time.
“Tell me, Miss Chilton, what do you do in Town for amusement?” he asked before she had a chance to speak.
Alex looked at him blankly.
“Do you ride?” he persisted. It was considered quite fashionable for ladies of the ton to meet their admirers for a canter along Rotten Row during the afternoon hours. It would provide an excuse to spend more time with her.
“I enjoy riding in the country, but we do not keep much of a stable in Town. It’s too expensive. We just have a pair for my aunt’s carriage and Justin—that is my younger brother—has his saddle horse, as, of course, a young man must.”
An opening was there for him to take. He decided to cast subtlety to the wind and find out exactly where things stood. Lowering his dark lashes, the earl spoke in a low mellifluous voice that rarely failed to get results.
“In that case, perhaps you will allow me to mount you.”
Her face betrayed no understanding of what he had just implied. “I’m sure that is most kind of you sir, but I could not possibly ask my aunt to incur the expense of stabling a mount solely for my own pleasure. She does enough as it is—” Alex stopped abruptly and bit her lip. “But of course that is no concern of yours. Forgive me for mentioning personal matters.”
Branford felt a sudden surge of anger. Why, the girl was no jaded wanton! No lady the least interested in a dalliance could have failed to catch the innuendo of his last remark. And despite what Society thought of him, he had never had sought to ruin an innocent. His sense of honor had always found the very idea repugnant and he felt nothing but contempt for men who found excitement in such a thing.
His jaw tightened.
“Is something the matter, milord?” asked Alex
He brought his attention back to the moment. “What?”
“Your brows are drawn together in a most predatory manner. You look as if you are about to pounce on some poor creature.”
“Someone shall feel my talons,“ he muttered under his breath. Then he added, “My apologies, Miss Chilton. My thoughts were momentarily elsewhere.”
She looked at him thoughtfully. “I can hardly blame you, sir. It’s all so utterly boring, is it not?”
She had done it again. She had him smiling in spite of his dark mood. One thing was certain. A conversation with Miss Chilton was most certainly not boring.
Once again, the music ended sooner than he expected. He escorted Alex back to a chair near her aunt but made no move to leave. “You seem to have a great knowledge of botany, “ he remarked.
Alex lifted her chin slightly. “I do, milord.” There was a glimmer in her eye that seemed to challenge him to ridicule her. “In fact, I am working on a book on native wildflowers and hope to have it published.” It was obvious she expected him to turn on his heel or mouth some platitudes about the unsuitability of a young lady seeking to do such a thing.
“Indeed. What do you think of the work of Hopkins?”
He repressed a smile at the look of surprise on her face.
“You have read Hopkins?” she exclaimed.
“I have a modicum of education, Miss Chilton. Ignorance is one of the few things I have not been accused of.”
She colored. “I did not mean to imply. . .”
“Of courses you did,” he interrupted. “You have been doing it all evening. Perhaps your opinions of the opposite sex are as fixed as those you choose to rail against.” He knew he was being harsh, but he was curious as to how she would react to such a set-down.
Alex sat for a moment in silence. “Perhaps you are right, sir. I hadn’t thought of it quite like that.” She looked up to meet his gaze full on.
“I shall endeavor not to act on preconceptions in the future. Now, do you truly care to know what I think of Mr. Hopkins or was that merely a ploy to set up your lecture?”
The girl had real spirit, he thought with grudging respect. Most men would have quailed at his cutting words. “I am most definitely interested in your thoughts, Miss Chilton.”
She proceeded to elucidate on them in great detail, though through his own comments and questions, he revealed he was not a total neophyte.
“You are extremely knowledgeable, too, sir,” she exclaimed, unaware of the pointed glances she and the earl were beginning to attract. “Do you keep specimen plantings at Riverton?”
“The gardens at Riverton are known for their variety. . .” He stopped abruptly, his mouth thinning into a grim line.
Was he imagining it, or did he see a flicker of sympathy cross her features?
“I have heard they are very beautiful,” she said softly. “And they appear to be in good hands.”
Damn the chit! How did she sense what a painful topic the Branford ancestral estate was to him?
“Yes, they are, “ he snapped, then quickly shifted the conversation to a less disturbing subject. “But as to specimen plantings, you have no doubt seen the latest arrivals from the East Indies at Kew Gardens?”
“Oh, I have heard they are marvelous.” She gave a wistful sigh. “Aunt Aurelia’s coachman has terrible rheumatism so I feel guilty asking her for the carriage. But my brother has promised he shall try to get his friend Baron Rutledge to drive me there, perhaps later this month.”
“I believe I am free considerably sooner than that— say on Thursday?”
Alex’s eyes widened in surprise.
“I shall call for you at ten so you may have ample time to explore the grounds as well.”
“Truly, sir? You would really drive me to Kew Gardens?”
“I am not in the habit of making idle promises, Miss Chilton. If I say I shall do something, you may count on me to it.”
Her smile was radiant, transforming a merely pleasant face into one that was . . . captivating. “Lord Branford, you are too kind!”
Few would have used such an adjective for him . . .