She was halfway up the stairs when she collided with their lanky guest, who again steadied her with strong hands, his green eyes sparkling with mischief. "I was hoping we'd get some private time together, Miss Noelle. Seems like this is my lucky day."
"Lieutenant..." She flushed under his gaze and backed against the wall, trying not to notice how freshly scrubbed and attractive he was. He had changed into simple brown trousers, a tan shirt, and a loose-fitting vest made of simple gray linen. Yet somehow, he still smelled of buckskin, and the effect was dangerously masculine and unfamiliar. Managing a weak smile, she said, "I was delighted to hear you were going to spend some time with us while Father finds you a bride."
"Shouldn't be too hard," he noted, again with mischief in his eyes.
Noelle ignored the inference. "Have you been in Chicago before?"
"Is this your first time in a city?"
Zack chuckled. "Did I make that poor an impression?"
"Of course not."
"Good." He took her hand and kissed her fingertips. "Why don't we start over?"
"Lieutenant, please." She pulled her hand away and glared. "Didn't my father tell you about my engagement?"
Zack nodded. "The dress was a hint, too."
"Oh, of course. How silly of me."
He stepped closer, so that she could almost feel his breath on her cheek. "There's no shame in changing your mind, angel. You couldn't have known--"
"Stop that this instant. For heaven's sake." She tried to take a deep breath as she squirmed along the wall, anxious to gain some distance from the persistent suitor. "I understand they do things differently where you come from, Lieutenant, but--"
"Don't people fall in love at first sight in Chicago?"
"Gentlemen don't accost young women in narrow passageways in Chicago. Nor do they court engaged women. Please excuse me--"
"Noelle." He backed her flush against the wall. "Just spend five minutes with me and you'll understand--"
"What are you doing?" she gasped. Her heart was pounding so frantically, she thought it might come right through the thin cotton fabric of her dressing gown. "Unhand me this instant! Do you suppose I won't scream?"
"You're the most beautiful girl I've ever laid eyes on," he told her, in a voice so soft and humble it almost relaxed her despite the circumstances. "Don't run away from me, angel. There are things that need saying between us."
She might have agreed to listen, if only to forestall a confrontation, had he not lowered his lips to her neck, as though intending to nuzzle her while pleading his case. Aghast, she wailed, "Edward! Father! Anyone!"
Zack laughed fondly. "There's no need for that, angel. You're safe with me."
"Would you stop calling me angel? I'm Miss Braddock to you, and even at that, you do not have my permission to address me, ever again. Is that clear?"
"It's clear to me you're confused. On account of that Prestley fella, right?"
"That Prestley fellow? Are you insane? You make him sound like some inconsequential obstacle. He's my fiance, Lieutenant. I'm marrying him one week from tomorrow, and--Don't you dare shake your head!"
She was no longer cowering against the wall. Instead, she was wagging her finger in his face. "I'm marrying him and that's final. And you'll marry one of Father's brides, assuming she'll have you."
"That's all changed now," he countered stubbornly. "If you'd just listen--"
"Listen to what? To the sound of you breathing on my neck? Do you know what my father would do if he saw you accosting me this way? And 'that Prestley fellow' would tear you limb from limb! Just be thankful neither of them is here to witness this, and go away."
"Miss Noelle?" a guarded voice interrupted from the foot of the staircase. "Did you call out for me?"
"Edward!" She smiled in grateful relief. "Lieutenant Dane lost his way and ended up blocking my path. Could you show him to the study, and let Father know the circumstances of this encounter? In detail?"
"I'll go with this fella, 'cause you want me to," Zack informed her cheerfully, backing down the stairs without taking his eyes off her. "But it doesn't change how it is between us, so don't go getting any ideas about that. Let's go, Edward." He slapped the butler on the back. "But don't take me to the study. I'd rather pay a visit to the kitchen. I can't remember when I've been so hungry. Angel?" he added innocently. "Do you want me to bring you something sweet?"
She was speechless, despite the driving need to tell him, in no uncertain terms, that she wanted nothing from him. Not ever. To tell him to stop calling her "angel," and treating her with such ludicrous familiarity. As though he already saw himself as a member of the family! But all she could manage was a shallow, disapproving growl of exasperation before spinning away from him and bolting up the stairs.