“You have grown even more lovely with the years,” Axel said in his caressing way.
“A lady would return the compliment. Do you not still find me handsome?”
Rose glanced up at him and had to admit that she did not. “I find you dissipated.”
“Then I have achieved my aim.”
“If looking dissolute were a worthwhile object.” Rose turned her face away, desperately searching for Stanley, or Alice’s petal-pink gown.
“But women love it.” He bent to whisper in her ear. “The more scarred and disheveled I am, the more I have to fend them off.” His sun-bleached blond hair fell mockingly over his brow from its central part.
“Not all women,” Rose corrected, trying to push herself back from his embrace without tripping. “At least one woman sees you for what you are.”
“And what is that?”
“A spoiled, selfish blackguard—”
“Yes, of course.”
“You’re impossible,” she whispered viciously.
“I give you impossible. What else?”
He gripped her even tighter. “Most certainly. I commend you on your excellent reading of my character. Though I think you should have mentioned what a fine dancer I am.”
“I had no intention of complimenting you, sir. I think very ill of you. And do not smolder, Axel. It makes you look childish.”
This last remark seemed to shake his poise. “I am a dangerous man,” he warned.
“I know that,” Rose said, fixing him with her angry green eyes.
“Then why do you not act like other women?”
“Seek you out, you mean? Common sense. A coiled snake has a certain fall-from-grace fascination about it,” she said with disgust. “That does not mean I would stretch out my hand to pet it.”
“You are piercing my hand with your nails,” Axel complained.
“I will draw blood in a moment if you do not put some space between us.”
“Any other woman in the room would be enjoying herself. They are all watching you.”
“I am well aware of that I detest being the object of so much scrutiny.”
“I can take care of that.” Axel spun her into the hallway and dragged her toward the only closed door. It turned out to be the library.
“This is the outside of enough,” Rose complained as Axel kicked the door shut and turned her wrist around behind her back to hold her close to him. “Release me or you will regret it.”
“I don’t think so,” Axel said as he captured her mouth in a hungry kiss.
But Rose had one arm free and that was enough. She drew back and punched him in the throat as hard as she could manage. Axel went to his knees, gasping for air.
The door opened and Bennet appeared, seeming startled to see a guest of his in difficulty. “Are you—Axel, what happened?”
“He cannot talk now. He is choking,” Rose informed Bennet, as though it were an everyday event.
“I can see that. Perhaps we should get him some water,” Bennet said, searching the glasses and decanters on the side table.
“Oh no, let’s not. I mean, it’s only Axel. He’ll be fine.”
“Brandy!” Axel gasped, staggering to his feet and supporting himself with a hand on the edge of the desk.
“See,” Rose replied.
“Still,” Bennet said, repressing a chuckle, “I think I should do something. Can’t have him expiring in the library.”
“Oh, very well,” Rose agreed. “I will get some.” She exited in no particular hurry.
Axel gulped from the glass Bennet put in his hands and had a renewed fit of coughing that lasted several minutes.
“Well, perhaps brandy wasn’t the best choice,” Bennet decided. “What happened?”
“She punched me in the throat,” Axel complained hoarsely.
“No! Really?” Bennet bit his lips to keep from laughing outright.
“Yes, ow!” Axel was still feeling the injured area.
“Dangerous woman,” Bennet observed sympatheti-cally. “Shall I call my carriage to take you home?”
“Devil take you, Varner!”
“He probably will, and you as well,” Bennet said, refilling Axel’s glass and pouring some wine for himself.
“See that this doesn’t get about”
“Would a host gossip about his guests? Besides, I do not even know the lady.”
“Just see to it. And I want a word with you later,” Axel said menacingly as he left the room.
“As soon as you feel up to it.” Bennet sat down at his desk and laughed at the thought of Rose fending off Axel so efficiently. But then, she knew Foy. He had to keep reminding himself of that. The two of them probably knew each other better than he knew either one of them, and that was a sobering thought.
Where the hell was Walters? He wanted to know what was going on. He went to the small side door and unlocked it. Opening it, he stared down the dark back stair that came out in the stable block, but there was no unusual activity so he closed it.
Music flowed into the room as the hall door opened and Rose spun in. “I could not find any water. Will champagne do? Oh, he is gone.”