Excerpt: Griffin Nathaniel Finnegan Crawford stood in one corner of the crowded ballroom, conversing with his brother, Caleb, and Caleb’s friend, Viscount Aldridge. “I cannot wait for this Season to be over so Mary and I can return to Montvale,” Caleb said. The couple had decided to build a cottage for themselves on the Montvale grounds so they could enjoy a simple life while away in the country. The manor itself would be turned into an orphanage so Mary could continue caring for children in need. “It has only just begun,” Griffin remarked. Contrary to his brother, he missed the busy city life whenever he was away from it. He missed Vienna, with its culture and music and picturesque streets. By comparison, London felt like a grimy slum. “And it will only get busier once parliament is in full swing,” Aldridge said. “Don’t remind me.” Caleb crossed his arms. He glanced at Griffin. “At least Devlin had the foresight to escape while he could.” Devlin was the third brother, born only five minutes after Griffin. All three were identical in appearance save for a few slight differences between them. But Caleb was the oldest, so he’d been the one burdened with the dukedom when their father and older brother had died. It was a responsibility Griffin didn’t envy, though he admired Caleb’s effort to find a balance between his duty and a less demanding existence. Mary’s love and support had undoubtedly helped. “I plan to do so as well,” Griffin said. “I’ve already been away from my place of business longer than I ever intended.” Years ago, when he’d first left England after arguing with their father about not wanting to join the army, he’d gone to Germany where a chance encounter with a man in a tavern had put him in touch with a clockmaker named Herr Fritz. Intrigued by Herr Fritz’s craftsmanship, Griffin had inquired about a position and had quickly become the man’s apprentice. Seven years later, when Herr Fritz had retired, Griffin had travelled to Vienna where he’d opened his own shop, selling not only clocks but mechanical toys to the marvel of all his customers. “Who’s managing it right now while you’re here?” Aldridge asked. “My assistant, Edvard Dreyden.” He was a serious and hard-working young man whom Griffin trusted to run things until he returned. But Griffin had to acknowledge that his extended stay in England was pushing the limit of how long he could afford to be absent. In Edvard’s most recent letter, he’d informed Griffin that the archduchess Marie Anne wished to place a special order, though only if Griffin himself was available to carry it out. “If only you could relocate here,” Caleb said. “I’ve enjoyed your company immensely and will be sorry to see you go.” “Yes, but you have a home to build now, a wife to take care of, and a child on the way.” Griffin snatched a glass of champagne from a passing tray and took a quick sip. “You’ll hardly notice I’m gone.” “And you can come back to visit,” Aldridge pointed out. “Or you could all come to Vienna,” Griffin suggested while glancing across the room. A flash of blue caught his eye, and he followed the movement until a familiar face appeared from behind a cluster of guests. It was Miss Emily Howard, a close friend of Mary’s. Griffin had met her a few times already, most notably at Clearview when he’d gone in search of his brother back in November. She’d stolen his breath once she’d opened the door to admit him, for he had not been expecting to find the most beautiful woman in the world when Aldridge had told him where Caleb had gone. He narrowed his gaze as she exited onto the terrace, escorted by Mr. Bale, who grinned in response to something she said. An uncomfortable squeezing sensation beneath his ribs had him straightening his posture. He didn’t like the way Mr. Bale’s eyes gleamed with the prospect of something illicit. “If you’ll excuse me one moment,” Griffin told his brother and Aldridge. “There’s someone with whom I must speak.” Mr. Bale had always struck him as an amicable fellow. Harmless, by all accounts. But appearances could be deceiving. He’d learned that by falling victim himself to the cruelest form of trickery. Setting his glass on a table as he went, Griffin wove his way through the crowd. By the time he reached the door to the terrace and stepped outside, neither Miss Howard nor Mr. Bale was anywhere to be found. Griffin’s stomach tightened. Surely she would have more sense than to wander off with a bachelor? He glanced around, uncertain of where to look for her first. Voices emerged from the left, so he followed, heading straight for the corner where a cherry tree offered a canopy to the bench that stood beneath it. The voices grew louder, though they could only be described as whispers. And although Griffin could not discern what was being said, he knew everything he needed to know the moment he saw Miss Howard in Mr. Bale’s arms, his face moving closer to hers until… “What do you think you’re doing?” Griffin asked in his most authoritative voice. Mr. Bale leapt away from Miss Howard and spun toward Griffin. His eyes were as wide as his mouth. “I, um…I…that is…” he sputtered. Miss Howard’s hands fisted and Griffin saw she was glaring at him with extreme displeasure. “I think it’s perfectly obvious,” she told him. Mr. Bale cleared his throat. “Miss Howard and I—” “Are not affianced, as far as I know,” Griffin murmured. He could not explain why the possibility they might be grated as much as it did, but there was something about Miss Howard…something that tempted him beyond reason. He cleared his throat. “If that situation has recently changed, then I sincerely apologize for the intrusion.” Mr. Bale stared at him. He then glanced at Miss Howard, who sighed as if she had no doubt of how he would answer. “It has not.” There was a pause, and then, “I was just—” “Leaving,” Griffin bit out. Mr. Bale stared back at him for a brief moment as if considering whether or not it was wise to argue. Don’t. As if hearing him, Mr. Bale turned and gave Miss Howard a curt bow. “Forgive me.” He strode off with an apologetic glance at Griffin. “I’ve a good mind to hit you right now,” Miss Howard announced as soon as they were alone. “You were horribly rude to Mr. Bale, who was merely trying to be helpful’.” “Helpful?” Ha! “He was certainly trying to help himself to something, I’ll grant you that. And you were not protesting.” He considered the sharp look in her eyes and the way her jaw tightened in response to his words. For some inexplicable reason he needed to know what her intention had been, so he took a step closer and gazed down into her upturned face. “Were you?” “Of course not.” She averted her gaze, and he imagined that if it hadn’t been dark, he would have seen her blush. Still, her blasé response shocked him. “Of course not,” he repeated in a low murmur. She sighed. “Mr. Bale and I are friends. Nothing more.” The relief he experienced in response to that statement caught him completely off guard. He had no romantic interest in Miss Howard himself. To suppose such a thing would suggest he was open to marriage. Which he wasn’t. Not anymore. Not after Clara had broken his heart. The keen humiliation he felt whenever he thought back on how she had fooled him still smarted. He fought the urge to tug on his cravat as the air in his lungs grew hot, and forced his attention back to Miss Howard. A dalliance with his sister-in-law’s friend could only lead to the altar, and that was a destination he meant to avoid at all cost. He tried to keep his voice steady so he wouldn’t sound too accusatory. “And yet I caught you embracing him as if you meant to—” “My earring is caught.” Griffin stared back at her, confused. “What?” She turned the left side of her head toward him and raised her hand to point at the strands of hair tangled in a dangling collection of diamonds. “Mr. Bale noticed and offered to put me to rights.” “But…” Griffin’s thought process stumbled as he considered her words. He’d seen her standing inappropriately close to Mr. Bale, so he’d made an assumption. But it was also dark. So dark, in fact, he could not discern her features very clearly. Which meant it was possible he’d imagined something that had not been there. He inhaled deeply and accepted that he had been wrong. “I’m sorry.” His gaze slid to the asymmetrical mess at the side of her head. “If you will permit, I would be happy to offer my assistance. ’Tis the least I can do at this point.” She shook her head. “Thank you, but it would probably be best if I returned inside before someone else mistakes your assistance for something it isn’t.” She stepped around him, moving so close he managed to catch a hint of the sweetest perfume. Honeysuckle perhaps? Or peonies? He wasn’t quite sure, but there was no mistaking the heady effect it had on him or how it beckoned for him to pull her close and press his nose to her skin. He quashed that foolish idea as immediately as it had formed. “I shall ask Mama or Laura for help,” she said as she started strolling away. He followed behind while wondering how he could make her stay. Which was silly since there was no point in furthering their acquaintance when he would depart for Vienna soon. Nothing good could come of it. If anything, the longer they stayed out here together alone, the greater the risk of others imagining they’d had an assignation. But he found he regretted their rendezvous ending so quickly. And with him having ruined what would probably have been an enjoyable walk for her and Mr. Bale. “Can you forgive me for thinking the worst?” he asked. She drew to a halt and turned to him, her face more visible now that they were nearer the light from the terrace. A polite smile captured her lips. “Of course. It was an understandable mistake.” “You’re not upset?” “No.” He registered the mistruth because of how bluntly it was delivered. “Are you sure?” She’d always seemed honest and forthright, so it bothered him that he’d somehow caused her to put up a barrier between them now. “I am not so sensitive that I can’t handle a set down.” Or at the very least an honest response. Her chin rose and she crossed her arms, affecting the pose of a woman who was rapidly reaching the end of her patience. Griffin braced himself in anticipation of what she would say. Her words, however, where most unexpected. “You ought to know me well enough by now to realize that I am not the sort of woman who would ever invite a man to ravish her at a social event where anyone might happen to see.” Her eyes were almost black, shimmering fiercely in the moonlight. “The fact that you did so is a testament to your opinion of me, which is frighteningly low.” “I did not think you’d let Mr. Bale go quite so far as to ravish you, Miss Howard.” And now that she’d put that picture in his head, he was having a damned hard time dislodging it again. Which added a terse element to his voice that she did not deserve. She marched forward, closing the distance between them “Nor would I throw away a kiss so easily, without a thought or a care in the world.” Griffin did his best to come to terms with her statement. There was something in what she had said. Something meaningful just beyond his grasp. “I take it the men you have kissed in the past were important to you, then?” A sudden dislike for these men swept through him, and his desire to learn their names and discover who he would have to avoid in the future was particularly unsettling. She stared back at him for a long, hard second and eventually snorted. “No such man exists, Lord Griffin, which is rather the point, don’t you think?” Spinning about, she started toward the terrace once more. Griffin blinked, the relief easing the tension within so soothing, it took him a second to respond. He hastened after her without even thinking and grabbed her wrist before she reached the stairs. She turned, eyes wide with surprise and wonder. “Kisses are overrated,” he murmured, his voice almost breathless. What was it about her that made him so desperate to keep her out here with him and away from the ballroom? He did not know and wasn’t even sure it mattered. But the fact that she’d never been kissed…that was important. And yet, the only thing he could think to say, most likely in an effort to make her feel better, was, “You have not missed much.” A soft little scoff conveyed her derision. “What a comforting sentiment from someone who’s likely enjoyed the experience a dozen times by now.” Griffin raised an eyebrow and watched her surprise sink deeper. “Two dozen times?” His lips quirked. “Three dozen?” “I believe the number’s so high it would take you a while to reach it at this rate,” he muttered. She rolled her eyes. “Oh, for heaven’s sake.” Her gaze found his and he was surprised to find humor there. “I suppose you’re just as roguish as all the ladies claim then?” He knit his brow. “I was not aware such a rumor existed.” “I’m sure it arose because of your scar,” she said as if this was so evident that his not knowing it surprised her. “My scar,” Griffin echoed flatly. He’d allowed himself to forget about that while they’d been talking, to forget the way it slashed his left cheek in an ugly red line. It was thick and uneven, puckering his skin in a way that was most unappealing. “There are those who find such things attractive.” What about you? he wanted to ask. He dropped his gaze to her lips and wondered if she would retreat if he made an advance. “We should probably go back inside.” Anything else would be a mistake. He meant to return to Vienna, to live a peaceful life there without the complications of marriage. The last thing he needed was to kiss Miss Emily Howard out in the open where anyone might see. And yet, Griffin desperately wanted to chase away all the anger and pain her comment had stirred by distracting himself in the simplest way possible. She wants her first kiss to matter. You cannot take that from her. But when she licked her lips and whispered, “Yes,” his restraint took off like an army fleeing a battle. Because the truth was he’d wanted to kiss her since the first time he’d seen her at Clearview. So he did the only reasonable thing he could do when she was standing right there, stunning and utterly tempting. He leaned in closer and pressed his mouth to hers.