“Despite your earlier refusal, I’m glad to finally learn your name. At least, part of it. What is your Christian name?”
“Missus,” she said through clenched teeth, and turned to leave.
“Wait. Please don’t go.”
The desperation in his softly spoken words arrested her movement. Slowly, she turned back to him. His disconcerting eyes traveled over her face with such intensity it seemed a physical touch. She wondered if he looked at every woman thusly. He probably did. The rake!
“I wanted to thank you again for your assistance in the woods.” A seductive tone rumbled his voice.
“You’re welcome,” she snapped. Her own rudeness shocked her, but this womanizing cad deserved to be brought down a peg or two.
“And to apologize,” he added, unperturbed. “I offended you that day. I do not wish to destroy any chance I might have in the future to become better acquainted.”
“I believe we are too well acquainted already.”
“But I’m in your debt. Please allow me to thank you properly.” His lazy smile and smoldering eyes made her wish she had worn a dress with a higher neckline.
She nervously touched the cameo on the ribbon at her throat. “It’s not necessary to thank me. Besides, I doubt I can trust your definition of ‘properly.’ ”
He laughed softly. “You’re a perceptive woman, Mrs. Berkley. However, I have something less nefarious in mind.” He executed a courtly bow. “I thank you, madam, from the bottom of my heart, for coming to my rescue.”
From an inner coat pocket, he retrieved a velvet drawstring bag, opened it, and inverted it in his hand. A perfect pearl lay in his palm.
He held it out to her. “There is an island in the Pacific where the natives harvest these from the ocean. You can’t see it in this light, but it’s pink. The chief gave this to me to thank me for saving his son. So, to thank you for saving the boy and me, I hope you will accept this token of my gratitude. And, I hope, as an apology.”
She stilled at his unexpected words.
He added, “I offended you with my impulsive behavior, and I humbly beg your forgiveness.” A smile lurked around the corner of his eyes despite the contrition in his tone.
Had a man ever left her so thoroughly confused? He was a muddle of a perfect gentleman and an incorrigible tease. Truly he was a cad. She’d just have to ignore those annoyingly strong elemental stirrings he aroused in her; they would be extremely inconvenient if she, as a mother and widow, followed them.
She indicated the pearl. “Truly, this is not necessary.”
“Please take it.” He grinned with roguish charm. “Otherwise, I’ll be honor-bound to find some other way to thank you.”
Something in his tone dispelled her guard. Laughing softly at his audacity, she picked up the pearl and admired it. “Very well, I accept, lest you become even more outrageous in your expression of gratitude.”
A place in her heart was touched that he’d be so thoughtful as to have brought her a gift that possessed sentimental value, rather than merely one of monetary worth—not that she should be accepting either one from a stranger, but somehow, she could not refuse.
Archly, she said, “And as you were clearly not in your right mind after such a terrible ordeal, I forgive you for your misconduct.” She wrapped the pearl in a lace handkerchief and put it in her reticule.
His smile appeared both wicked and relieved. “I cannot express how much that means to me. I have thought of you often since that day.”
“You, sir, continually breach the boundaries of propriety.” If only she could slow down her traitorous heart and force it to accept her decision to dismiss him as beneath her notice. But she couldn’t simply dismiss someone whose very presence filled the entire garden, and whose thoughtfulness touched her more than she cared to admit.
She almost uttered a sound of disgust. When had she become so easily ensnared by the charms of a libertine? She took another step backward and lost her balance. With a cry, she teetered at the edge of the pond.
His hand shot out to catch her by the arms. Laughter leaped into his eyes while he slowly pulled her closer to his broad chest. His clean and earthy and so very masculine scent crept into her senses. For one brief moment of insanity, she enjoyed his nearness, his arms around her making her feel safe, protected, desirable.
Where had she left her wits?
“Thank you,” she whispered, dropping her eyes and shrugging off his touch.
He dropped his hands to his sides. “Do you really fear me so? Or is it that this isn’t proper, either?”
“Of course this isn’t proper. And I’m wise to mistrust a man whose conduct and intentions are questionable, at best. Unless I have my gun, of course.”