Lyon watched her intently. He noticed how protective the princess appeared to be toward the wrinkle-faced woman clinging to her arm; noticed, too, how very correct the beautiful woman was in all her actions. Why, it was almost like a routine of some sort, Lyon thought. The Princess greeted each new introduction with a practiced smile that didn't quite reach her eyes. Next followed a brief conversation, and last, a brisk, efficient dismissal.
Lyon couldn't help but be impressed. The lady was good, all right. No wonder Brummel was so taken with her. The Princess followed all the rules of proper behavior. But Rhone was wrong. She wasn't all that different. No, she appeared to be just as rigid, just as polished, and certainly just as superficial as all the other ladies of the ton. Brummel embraced superficiality with a passion. Lyon detested it.
He wasn't disappointed by his conclusions about the Princess. The opposite was true for he'd felt off balance from the moment he'd first looked at the woman. Now his equilibrium was returning full force. He actually smiled with relief. Then he saw Rhone elbow his way through the crush of guests to get to the Princess. Lyon would have wagered his numerous estates that the woman would pay Rhone far more attention than the other men. Everyone in London knew of Rhone's family, and though he wasn't the most titled gentleman at the party, he was certainly one of the wealthiest.
Lyon would have lost his bet. Rhone didn't fare any better than all the others. A spark of perverse satisfaction forced a reluctant grin onto Lyon's face.
"You're losing your touch," Lyon remarked when Rhone returned to his side.
"What do you mean?" Rhone asked, pretending bewilderment.
Lyon wasn't buying it for a minute. He could see the faint blush on Rhone's face.
He really was starting to enjoy himself, Lyon realized. He decided then to rub salt in Rhone's wounds like any good friend would. "Was it my imagination, or did Princess Christina give you the same treatment she's given every other man in the room? She really didn't seem too impressed with your charms, old boy."
"You won't do any better," Rhone pronounced. "She really is a mystery. I specifically remember asking her several pertinent questions, yet when I walked away—"
"You mean when she walked away, don't you?"
Rhone gave Lyon a good frown, then shrugged. "Well, yes, when she walked away I realized I hadn't gotten a single answer out of her. At least I don't think I did."
"You were too interested in her appearance," Lyon answered. "A pretty face always did ruin your concentration."
"Oh?" Rhone said, drawing out the sound. "Well, old boy, let's see how many answers you gain. I'll put a bottle of my finest brandy up against one of yours."
"You're on," Lyon announced. He glanced around the room and found Princess Christina immediately. He had the advantage of being taller than everyone else in the room, and the object of his quest was the only blond-haired woman there.
She was standing next to his father's old friend, Sir Reynolds. Lyon was happy to see that Christina's dour-looking guardian had taken a chair across the room.
When Lyon was finally able to catch Sir Reynolds's attention, he motioned with an arrogant tilt of his head for an immediate introduction.
Sir Reynolds nodded—a little too enthusiastically for Lyon's liking—then leaned down and whispered to the Princess. Christina's back faced Lyon, but he saw her give an almost imperceptible nod. Long minutes elapsed before the heavyset woman speaking to the Princess paused for air. Sir Reynolds seized the opportunity to say goodbye. Lyon concluded his hasty explanation must have included his name, because the woman gave him a frightened look, picked up her skirts, and went scurrying in the opposite direction. She moved like a fat mouse with a cat on her tail.
Lyon's smile widened. His boast to Rhone hadn't been in vain. He really hadn't lost his touch.
He dismissed the silly woman from his mind when Princess Christina came to stand directly in front of him. Sir Reynolds hovered at her side like a nervous guardian angel. Lyon slowly pulled himself away from his lazy repose, patiently waiting for her to execute the perfect little curtsy he'd seen her give everyone else.
Her head was bowed, but even so he could tell she wasn't quite flawless after all. He could see the sprinkle of freckles across the bridge of her nose. The marks made her look less like a porcelain doll and far more touchable.
The woman barely reached his shoulders. She was too delicate-looking and much too thin for his liking, he decided. Then she looked up at him. Her gaze was direct, unwavering, captivating.
Lyon couldn't remember his own name.
He knew he'd eventually thank God for Sir Reynolds's intervention. He could hear the man's voice drone on and on as he listed Lyon's numerous titles. The long list gave Lyon time to recover.
He'd never been this rattled. It was her innocent gaze that held him so spellbound. Her eyes, too, he grudgingly admitted. They were unlike any shade of blue he'd ever seen.
He knew he had to get hold of himself. Lyon deliberately dropped his own gaze, settled on her mouth, and realized his mistake at once. He could feel himself reacting physically again.
Sir Reynolds finally ended his litany by stating, "I believe, my dear, you've already been introduced to the Earl of Rhone."
"Yes," Rhone interjected, smiling at Christina.
"Lyon, may I present Princess Christina to you?" Sir Reynolds said, sounding terribly formal.
Her eyes gave her away. Something said during the introduction had unsettled her. She quickly recovered, though, and Lyon knew that if he hadn't been watching her so closely, he would have missed the surprise in her gaze.
"I'm honored to meet you, sir," Christina whispered.
Her voice appealed to him. It was soft, sensual. The unusual accent was noticeable, too. Lyon had traveled extensively, yet couldn't put his finger on the origin. That intrigued him almost as much as his senseless urge to grab hold of her, drag her off into the night, and seduce her.
Thank God she couldn't know what was going on inside his mind. She'd go screaming for a safe haven then, no doubt. Lyon didn't want to frighten her, though. Not just yet.
"Rhone has been Lyon's friend for many years," Sir Reynolds interjected into the awkward silence.
"I'm his only friend," Rhone commented with a grin.
Lyon felt Rhone nudge him. "Isn't that true?"
He ignored the question. "And are you a Princess?" he asked Christina.
"It would seem to many that I am," she replied.
She hadn't quite answered his question, Lyon realized. Rhone coughed—a ruse to cover his amusement, Lyon supposed with a frown.
Christina turned to Rhone. "Are you enjoying yourself this evening?"
"Immensely," Rhone announced. He looked at Lyon and said, "Your questions?"
"Questions?" Christina asked, frowning now.
"I was just wondering where you call home," Lyon said.
"With my Aunt Patricia," Christina replied.
"Lyon, surely you remember Lord Alfred Cummings," Sir Reynolds interjected with a great show of enthusiasm. "He was an acquaintance of your father's."
"I do recall the name," Lyon answered. He tried yet couldn't seem to take his gaze away from Christina long enough to spare a glance for Reynolds. It was probably rude, Lyon thought, even as he realized he wasn't going to do anything about it.
"Well, now," Sir Reynolds continued, "Alfred was appointed to the colonies years back. He died in Boston, God rest his soul, just two or three years ago, and the Countess returned home to England with her lovely niece."
"Ah, then you've been in England two years?" Lyon asked.
It took Lyon a full minute before he realized she wasn't going to expound upon her abrupt answer. "Then you were raised in the colonies." It was a statement, not a question, and Lyon was already nodding.
"Were you born there?"
"No," Christina answered, staring up at him with a hint of a smile on her face.
"But you lived in Boston?"
He really hadn't meant to raise his voice, but Princess Christina was proving to be extremely exasperating. Rhone's choked laughter wasn't helping matters much either.
Lyon immediately regretted letting her see his irritation, certain she'd try to bolt at the first opportunity. He knew how intimidating he could be.
"Sir, are you displeased with me because I wasn't born in the colonies?" Christina suddenly asked. "Your frown does suggest as much."
He heard the amusement in her voice. There was a definite sparkle in her eyes, too. It was apparent she wasn't the least bit intimidated. If he hadn't known better, he would have thought she was actually laughing at him.
"Of course I'm not displeased," Lyon announced. "But are you going to answer all my questions with a yes or no?" he inquired.
"It would seem so," Christina said. She gave him a genuine smile and waited for his reaction.
Lyon's irritation vanished. Her bluntness was refreshing, her smile captivating. He didn't try to contain his laughter.
The booming sound ricocheted around the room, drawing startled expressions from some of the guests.
"When you laugh, sir, you sound like a lion," Christina said.
Her comment nudged him off center. It was such an odd remark to make. "And have you heard the roar of lions, Christina?" he asked, dropping her formal title.
"Oh, many times," Christina answered before she thought better of it.
She actually sounded like she meant what she said. That, of course, didn't make any sense at all. "Where would you have heard such a sound?"
The smile abruptly left her face. She'd inadvertently been drawn into revealing more than caution dictated.
Lyon waited for her to answer him. Christina gave him a wary look, then turned to Sir Reynolds. She bid him goodnight, explaining that she and her aunt had promised to make an appearance at another function before quitting the evening. She turned back to Lyon and Rhone and dismissed them both with cool efficiency worthy of a queen.
Lyon wasn't a man used to being dismissed.
Princess Christina was gone before he could mention that fact to her.
She knew she had to get away from him. She could feel her composure faltering. Her guardian was seated in a chair against the wall. Christina forced herself to walk with a dignified stride until she reached her aunt's side.
"I believe we should prepare to leave now," she whispered.
The Countess had lived with her niece long enough to know something was amiss. Her advanced years hadn't affected her keen mind or her physical shape. She all but bounded out of her chair, anchored herself to Christina's arm, and headed for the door.
Lyon stood with Rhone and Sir Reynolds. All three men watched Christina and her aunt make a hasty farewell to their host. "I'll be over tomorrow to get that bottle of brandy," Rhone announced with a nudge to get Lyon's attention.
"Rhone, if you jam your elbow into my ribs one more time, I swear I'll break it," Lyon muttered.
Rhone didn't look worried by the threat. He whacked his friend on the shoulder. "I believe I shall go and guard your sister for you, Lyon. You don't seem capable of the task."
As soon as Rhone left his side, Lyon turned to Sir Reynolds. "What do you know about Patricia Cummings?" he asked. "The truth, if you please, and no fancy fencing."
"You insult me, Lyon," Sir Reynolds announced, grinning a contradiction to his comment.
"You're known for your diplomacy," Lyon answered. "Now, about Christina's guardian. What can you tell me about her? Surely you knew her when you were younger."
"Of course," Reynolds said. "We were always invited to the same functions. I know my comments won't go any further, so I'll give the black truth to you, Lyon. The woman's evil. I didn't like her back then, and I don't like her now. Her beauty used to make up for her… attitude," he said. "She married Alfred when his older brother took ill. She believed he'd die at any moment. Patricia was like a vulture, waiting to inherit the estates. Alfred's brother outfoxed her, though. Lived a good ten years beyond everyone's expectations. Alfred was forced to take an appointment to the colonies, else be packed off to debtor's prison."
"What about Patricia's father? Didn't he attempt to settle his son-in-law's debts? I would have thought the embarrassment would have swayed him, unless, of course, he didn't have enough money."
"Oh, he was plenty rich enough," Sir Reynolds announced. "But he'd already washed his hands of his daughter."
"Because she married Alfred, perchance?"
"No, that isn't how the rumor goes," Reynolds said, shaking his head. "Patricia was always an abrasive, greedy woman. She was responsible for many cruelties. One of her little jests ended in tragedy. The young lady made the butt of her joke killed herself. I don't wish to go into further detail, Lyon, but let it suffice to say she doesn't appear to have changed her colors over the years. Did you notice the way she watched her niece? Gave me the shudders."
Lyon was surprised by the vehemence in Sir Reynolds's voice. His father's old friend was known for his calm, easygoing disposition. Yet now he was literally shaking with anger. "Were you the victim of one of her cruelties?" he asked.
"I was," Reynolds admitted. "The niece seems to be such a gentle, vulnerable little flower. She wasn't raised by her aunt. I'm sure of it. I pity the poor child, though. She's going to have a time of it trying to please the old bitch. The Countess will no doubt sell her to the highest bidder."
"I've never heard you speak in such a manner," Lyon said, matching Reynolds's whisper. "One last question, sir, for I can tell this conversation distresses you."
Sir Reynolds nodded.
"You said the Countess's father was a rich man. Who gained his estates?"
"No one knows. The father settled his affections on the younger daughter. Her name was Jessica."
"Jessica was Christina's mother?"
"And was she as demented as everyone believes?"
"I don't know, Lyon. I met Jessica several times. She seemed to be the opposite of her sister. She was sweet-tempered, shy—terribly shy. When she married, her father was extremely pleased. He strutted around like a rooster. His daughter, you see, had captured a king. I can still remember the glorious balls held in their honor. The opulence was staggering. Something blackened, though. No one really knows what happened." The elderly man let out a long sigh. "A mystery, Lyon, that will never be solved, I imagine."