“You’re trembling,” Tristan interrupted. His expression grew dark. “And no wonder. Out of doors in November without a bonnet, gloves or cloak. Have you no respect for the Yorkshire weather?” He began to remove his greatcoat. “Just because this estate is sheltered from the worst of it doesn’t mean you still won’t catch your death of cold. In case you hadn’t noticed, it’s been raining for three days straight.”
Miss March watched him, wide-eyed, as he divested himself of his greatcoat. “I ran out of the house in rather a hurry. There was no time to find gloves or a bonnet or— Oh!” She drew back from him. “What are you doing?”
Tristan paused, his greatcoat held open in his hands, poised to drape around her. “Lending you my coat, you little fool.”
Her bosom rose and fell on an unsteady breath, but she made no further objection as he settled it around her shoulders. “Thank you,” she said. “It’s quite warm.”
Tristan moved away from her. “I should think so. I’ve been wearing it the better part of the morning.”
His words brought a fierce blush to her cheeks.
At another time, in another place, he might have laughed. A woman so innocent that the very thought of a man’s body heat put her to the blush? A fine joke, to be sure. But as he looked at Valentine March, swallowed up in the folds of his caped greatcoat, he did not feel very much like laughing. Instead, he felt an aching swell of tenderness. It was so disconcerting that he almost swore aloud.
“What difference does it make if Miss Brightwell is married?” she asked.
Tristan rubbed the side of his face in an effort to collect his scattered thoughts. The scratch of uneven stubble abraded his palm. He had sent his valet, Higgins, ahead with the carriage. As a result, this morning at the inn he had been obliged to shave himself. And done a damned poor job of it, too. “When she marries, she’ll go to her husband’s house. Then you’ll see her but rarely, I imagine.”
“She is looking for a husband,” Miss March conceded. “It’s why we’ve come to this house party.”
Tristan’s mouth curved in a sardonic smile. “If that’s so, Lady Brightwell isn’t half the matchmaker I thought her to be.”
“Why do you say so?”
“There are no gentlemen at Lord and Lady Fairford’s house parties who are suitable for marriage. They invite only those of their same ilk. Inveterate gamblers, rakes, reprobates. The dissolute dregs of polite society.”
“That can’t be true, for Lady Brightwell said specifically that she brought Miss Brightwell here to further her interests with a particular gentleman. I believe he’s considered to be a great matrimonial prize.”
Tristan’s eyes were already upon her, but at her words his gaze sharpened. “And who might this unfortunate soul be? Did Lady Brightwell name him?”
“Viscount St. Ashton.” She looked up at him. “He’s not one of those bad sorts of gentlemen you mentioned, is he? The rakes and the reprobates?”
Tristan gave a humorless laugh. It was a hoarse and bitter sound, edged with something very like anger. “My dear, Miss March,” he said. “The Viscount St. Ashton is the biggest rake and reprobate of them all.”