"Don't let's trade insults just now." He gave her a glance that was more concerned than any he'd given her in recent memory. His tone was low and urgent. "Bear up, sis—there's someone here you don't want to see. And he's coming this way."
She rolled her eyes. "If you mean Mr. Rohan, I assure you, I'm perfectly?
"No. Not Rohan." His hand went to her waist as if anticipating the need to steady her.
And she understood.
Before she even turned to see the man who approached them, Amelia knew the reason for Leo's strange reaction, and she went cold and hot and unsteady. But somewhere in the internal havoc, a certain resignation lurked.
She had always known she would see Christopher Frost again someday.
He was alone as he approached them—a small mercy, as one would have expected him to have his new wife in tow. And Amelia was fairly certain she couldn't have tolerated being introduced to the woman Christopher had abandoned her for. As it was, she stood stiffly with her brother and tried desperately to resemble an independent woman who was greeting her former love with polite indifference. But she knew there was no disguising the whiteness of her face—she could feel the blood shooting straight to her overstimulated heart.
If life were fair, Frost would have appeared smaller, less handsome, less desirable than she had remembered. But life, as usual, wasn't fair. He was as lean and graceful and urbane as ever, with alert blue eyes and thick, close-trimmed hair, too dark to be blond, too light to be brown. That shining hair contained every shade from champagne to fawn.
"My old acquaintance," Leo said. Although his tone held no rancor, neither did it evince any pleasure. Their friendship had been shattered the moment Frost had left Amelia. Leo had his faults, certainly, but he was nothing if not loyal.
"My lord," Frost said quietly, bowing to them both. "And Miss Hathaway." It seemed to cost him something to meet her gaze. Heaven knew it cost her to return it. "It has been far too long."
"Not for some of us," Leo returned, not flinching as Amelia surreptitiously stepped on his foot. "Are you staying at the manor?"
"No, I'm visiting some old family friends—they own the village tavern."
"How long will you hang about?"
"I have no firm plans. I'm mulling over a few commissions while enjoying the calm and quiet of the countryside." His gaze strayed briefly to Amelia and returned to Leo. "I sent a letter when I learned of your ascendancy to the peerage, my lord."
"I received it," Leo said idly. "Although for the life of me, I can't remember its contents."
"Something to the effect that while I was pleased for your sake, I was disappointed to have lost a worthy rival. You always drove me to reach beyond the limits of my abilities."
"Yes," Leo said sardonically, "I was a great loss to the architectural firmament."
"You were," Frost agreed without irony. His gaze remained on Amelia. "May I remark on how well you look, Miss Hathaway?"
How odd it was, she thought dazedly, that she had once been in love with him, and now they were speaking to each other so formally. She no longer loved him, and yet the memory of being held by him, kissed, caressed … it tinted every thought and emotion, like tea-dyed lace. One could never fully remove the stain. She remembered a bouquet of roses he had once given her… he had taken one and stroked the petals over her cheeks and parted lips, and had smiled at her fierce blush. My little love, he had whispered?'Thank you," she said. "In turn, may I offer my congratulations on your marriage?"
"I'm afraid no felicitations are in order," Frost replied carefully. "The wedding didn't take place."
Amelia felt Leo's hand tighten at her waist. She leaned against him imperceptibly and looked away from Christopher Frost, unable to speak. He isn't married. Her thoughts were in anarchy.
"Did she come to her senses," she heard Leo ask casually, "or did you?"
"It became obvious we didn't suit as well as one would have hoped. She was gracious enough to release me from the obligation."
"So you got the boot," Leo said. "Are you still working for her father?"
"Leo," Amelia protested in a half-whisper. She looked up in time to see Frost's wry, brief grin, and her heart twisted at the painful familiarity of it.
"You were never one to mince words, were you? Yes, I'm still employed by Temple." Frost's gaze moved slowly over Amelia, taking measure of her brittle guardedness. "A pleasure to see you again, Miss Hathaway."
She sagged a little as he left them, turning blindly toward her brother. Her voice was tattered at the edges. "Leo, I would very much appreciate it if you could cultivate just a little delicacy of manner."
"We can't all be as suave as your Mr. Frost."
"He's not my Mr. Frost." A pause, and she added dully, "He never was."
"You deserve a hell of a lot better. Just remember that if he comes sniffing around your heels again."
"He won't," Amelia said, hating the way her heart leaped behind her well-manufactured defenses.
Just before the Hathaways had arrived, Captain Swansea, who had spent four years serving in India, had been regaling some of the guests with an account of a tiger hunt in Vishnupur. The tiger had stalked the spotted deer, brought it down with a pounce, and clamped the back of its neck in its jaws. Women and even a few men had grimaced and exclaimed in horror as Swansea described how the tiger had proceeded to eat the chital while it was stilt alive. "The vicious beast!" one of the women had gasped.