The room descended into a funeral hush and Henry looked over to see, standing in the doorway, a most unexpected vision. He blinked. The countess?
How very young she looked. He had expected in the ten years since he'd seen her last that she would have grown into a grande dame, complete with whale bones, and well past her first flush of youth.
Not this girl whose fingering of her fan appeared to contradict the confidence with which she held her frame; a girl who wore a simple cream colored Empire-style dress and not, as far as he could discern, a touch of powder or other artifice. Even her chestnut brown hair was simply styled into the usual ringlets, held together only with pearl-tipped pins. He'd have expected an extraordinary coiffure piled impossibly high with a magnificent comb with a faux bird nestling on it or some such fancy.
And her jewelry was equally understated. An elegant three stringed pearl necklace and... He searched for more in vain.
And then she smiled and what might have otherwise truthfully been described as a rather plain countenance was transformed into a thing of beauty.
Not at all what he'd expected of this evening, not the thing at all.
She looked directly at him, caught his eye. Henry stared, knew that he stared. He didn't waver. The blue of her eyes were dazzling. Sapphire blue. He couldn't remember when he had last noticed the color of a woman's eyes. She lifted her eyebrows fractionally and seemed to appraise him before turning her head ever so slightly and dropping his gaze.
Henry coughed, put his fist to his mouth. Across the room they all smiled at her in return. He could have smiled, couldn't he? No doubt he'd looked to her like a gaping fish.
The truth was he'd been stunned just for that moment, hadn't expected her to single him out at first glance and stare at him like that.
Well, let them all smile at her if they wanted. Henry swallowed something that had risen in his throat that resembled annoyance.
He could see it now. Her simple beauty was an artifice in itself. Designed no doubt to distract, throw every man in the room off his balance because she made it so damned easy to imagine undressing her. A flimsy gown, a necklace and some hairpins were all that needed removing.
Henry unfurled his fingers that were digging into his palms. Yes, he'd fallen for it. He'd been here before. He was here only to do what he had to do. He would not be so stupid as to fall for her again.