It's been a while since my last post but I've been running with this story and hope to have it done by year's end. This post takes place after Orin and Honor have been formally introduced at the ball at his mother's house. This scene takes place there but later in the evening.
Orin nodded and smiled his way through the crowd. He ignored the men who called his name and bowed his way out of conversations with matchmaking mamas and their doe-eyed daughters. He needed out of this ballroom, needed to get away from the deafening noise and the suffocating smells of colognes and perfumes.
How people managed at these functions without throwing up or punching someone was beyond him.
The bank of doors at the other end of the room beckoned him, and he pushed through two of them with a grateful sigh. The nighttime breeze that welcomed him swept the smells and sounds of the ballroom behind him until the quiet snick of the doors closed him off from it. He paused, took a deep breath, and let it go slowly.
Soft feminine laughter from his right broke what would have been peaceful silence. Turning, he glared in the direction of the sound. The laughter got a little bit louder.
"I'm glad you find me amusing," he snapped. "Show yourself."
The gentle swishing of fabric preceded the small figure emerging from the shadows of his mother's flowering archways. The vibrant orange silk he so admired earlier appeared, inches at a time, until the intriguing woman who wore it stood before him. Hands hanging loosely at her sides, head cocked at a slight angle, she watched him with her mismatched eyes and a smile on her lips.
Irritation fled. An unknown, unfamiliar feeling filled his chest, and he rubbed his fingers over his heart as if to ease sensation away. He smiled before he knew what he was doing. "Lady Honor."
She dipped into a curtsy, the movement more smooth and graceful than any he'd seen all evening. When she straightened, she waved a hand toward the ballroom. "Too much, my lord?"
Hardly. His unsaid reply caught him by surprise. Where the hell had it come from?
He cleared his throat and nodded. "I've about had my quota for the night."
She chuckled. "Just the night? Not the year?"
He snorted. "My mother will ensure I don't reach that point." He gestured at a backless bench a few feet away. "Would you care to join me?"
She swept past him and sat on one end of the bench while he took the other. She didn't straighten her skirts, didn't fold her hands in her lap like other women would have. Instead, she rested her hands behind her and leaned back. He watched, fascinated, as she sighed and tilted her head back, gaze fixed on the stars above.
After a few moments, she looked at him. Any amusement from earlier was gone. In its place was an expression so different he wondered if the woman from earlier was nothing but a figment of his imagination. She watched him warily and he wondered why. Had he done something already to offend her? If so, what?
Orin frowned and looked away as he thought back to their brief encounter at the front door. He bowed, kissed the back of her hand, addressed her properly. Maybe it was because he was supposed to be inside playing the proper host?
"Did you come out here for something other than fresh air, my lord?"
His gaze snapped back in her direction. Her voice, so quiet and resigned, stunned him almost as much as a slap across the face would have. Did she really think he'd purposefully sought her out?
Anger began to build in his belly, a low boil that quickly grew to rolling. Who the hell did she think he was? Some kind of bastard who took advantage of--
"I'm sorry," she softly cut in. "The last time I was on a balcony alone with a man..." Her voice trailed off and she shook her head. No more words were needed but he didn't want to hear them. Not from her. Ever.
The reason for his fury changed, and he wondered who the man was that hurt her. Former husband? Lover? Friend? He jerked to his feet and stormed to the balustrade. He took a few deep breaths in an attempt to calm his rage but to no avail. The churning of emotions inside of him surprised him; the desire to rain hell on the man who hurt such a beautiful woman nearly choked him.
"I'm sorry," she said again.
He spun and crossed his arms over his chest. He ached to hold her, wanted to fold her against him and whisper promises of safety for all time. Which was ludicrous! He didn't even know her outside of her name.
Clearly it was time to find a willing woman for just a night if he felt this protective and angry over a woman he just met.
"I shouldn't have said that." She stood. "If you'll excuse me, my lord."
She bowed her head then hurried for the doors.
"Said what?" he called after her. She skidded to a halt but didn't turn around. She stood tall, back ramrod straight, head held high. Orin stalked toward her, words slipping from his mouth before he could stop them. "The assumption that I had nefarious plans for you? Or hinted that a man hurt you in a similar setting?"
Her shoulders slumped and her head fell forward. In shame? Regret? He didn't know, neither did he care at the moment.
"I might be an ex-military man, Lady Honor, but I assure you I am not that kind of man." He stopped an arm's length from her. "I would never do that to a woman such as yourself."
Bitter laughter poured from her, the sharp sound making him wince. She turned. Fire flashed in her eyes as she fisted her hands on her hips. "And how would I know that? Because you're a Duke?"
She closed the space between them until she stood toe-to-toe with him, head tipping back so she could see him. Laughter threatened to erupt from him, a sound he didn't think she'd appreciate at the moment.
He knew he made the right choice when she poked him in the chest. "So was the other guy."
Orin knew not all men were the same. They might share commonalities in rank, jobs, wealth, power, but they were not all cut from the same cloth. Some knew how precious a woman could be, how treasured the gift of that woman's virginity was. Others didn't, or they refused to believe women were more than breeding machines and access to more power and wealth.
He was not that kind of man.
He stared into the upturned face of the only woman tonight who sparked an interest in him and wondered what the fool man before him didn't see. She was beautiful, stunning in a way that wasn't always seen in society. Dark hair, lightly tanned skin, freckles, small nose, full lips. Delicate eyebrows arched over thick lashes that framed those vibrant mismatched eyes of hers. One brown, one blue. Milky chocolate and icy glacier. Different, a bit frightening if he stared too long, but still beautiful.
Reaching up, he gently wrapped his hand around the finger touching him and raised her hand to his lips. Keeping his gaze on her, he brushed his lips over her soft skin. She inhaled sharply and tried to pull away. He tightened his grip and smiled over their joined hands. Her eyes narrowed; he chuckled and straightened but refused to let her go.
As odd as she might she was, and he had no doubt she did think that, Orin liked her. Physical appearance aside, there was something in her that called to the part of his soul that'd been locked away while he was at war. Death, weapons, and orders had been his life for almost three decades. Women had offered sporadic nights of comfort and relief from the stresses of war but those highs never lasted long.
"I meant no offense with my questions, my lady," he said and gently turned her toward the bench. "And I didn't mean to bring up bad memories." He pulled her forward, tugging a little harder when she resisted. "I promise I just want to sit with you, Lady Honor. Nothing more."
He stopped beside the bench. He wouldn't sit unless she did so first.
Indecision marched across her features. She caught her lower lip between her teeth, worrying it until he feared she'd make it bleed. She glanced from the bench to him and back again.
Orin let her go and took half a step back. He swept a hand toward their seat. "Please join me, my lady. I would be honored to spend a few moments with you, so long as we're not arguing."
She blinked at him, once, twice, then laughed. The tension between them melted as her laughter grew, the warm sound echoing in the night. "Since you asked so nicely and gave your word, I'd love to."
Orin watched her take her seat. The smile that could light up a darkened balcony stayed in place on her lips and her eyes danced with merriment as she watched him. That feeling, that unknown sensation, swept through him once again. It took his breath away, left him lightheaded and anxious for more of whatever this was from and with this woman.
He sat down, closer than before, and shared a wide smile with her. Her lips stretched into a wider grin before she turned and began talking about his mother's garden, making remarks about the plants she could see and the obscenely large fountain that gurgled down below. He didn't dare interrupt. Her voice soothed him so much better than Old Earth Whisky ever did. The part of him that was always on alert, always on the lookout for a potential threat, calmed and stilled.
Lady Honor spoke softly, her husky voice filling the space around them. He leaned back on his hands and closed his eyes. He tilted his head back and offered a silent pray to the Fates for these stolen minutes with Lady Honor. After almost thirty years of war, Orin finally knew what it meant to be at peace.