If there was one thing Lady Selina Balfour could do, it was manage a crisis. The preparations for the ball in honour of the Austrian ambassador had been painstakingly put together over the course of many weeks. And, like all carefully laid plans, they went awry at the worst possible moment. It started that morning, with the news that the delivery of three hundred beeswax candles was delayed until the evening – mere minutes before the guests were due to arrive. From there, matters only got worse. The butler trapped his fingers in a door halfway through polishing the silver. The cook left the cinnamon out of the ambassador’s favourite dessert. A footman took to bed with a stomach complaint. The flowers to decorate the ballroom were only half-open. Selina’s sister-in-law, the Duchess of Loxwell and official hostess of the ball, had returned from Austria in such a delicate condition that none of her ball gowns fit. And now, just as Selina had finished sending for a doctor, comforting the cook, coaxing the flowers open with a hot fire, and assuring the duchess that she didn’t look at all like an Indian elephant in her new dress, the worst of the crises finally broke. “I can’t bear to see him!” cried Edith, Selina’s youngest sister. “Please, Selina, if you love me, you’ll tell everyone I’m sick and let me stay upstairs tonight.” Edith had been crossed in love by a certain Lord Rotherham, and, being her first heartbreak, it was deeply felt. Selina gathered Edith into her arms and kissed her golden hair.
“Now, where’s my brave sister? No man is worth these tears. And he must be a very poor sort of man if he has managed to lose you.” When the girl let out a broken sob in response, Selina placed a loving finger under Edith’s chin, raising her tearstained face to the light. “You are a proud Balfour lady, and nobody has the right to stop you enjoying yourself.” And if Lord Rotherham did not propose to Edith before the evening was through, Selina would be astonished. Edith nodded, dabbing at her eyes with her sleeve, and regained a little of her usual confidence. “You are right. The worst thing I could do is let him see how unhappy I am. He is the one who deserves to be unhappy, after all.” “Quite right.
” Selina smiled, glad she was not in Lord Rotherham’s shoes. Edith would doubtless make him grovel to win her back. “Now, go and take a long, hot bath, and no more tears over Lord Rotherham. It will soon be time to start dressing for the ball.” As Edith left, the housekeeper entered, hands clasped together respectfully. “Yes, Mrs Franklin?” Selina asked calmly, wondering what fresh disaster awaited her. “The candles have arrived at last, my lady. But with so much still to do before the guests arrive, I can’t say that we’ll have them ready in time.” “Not to worry. I sent a note to Lady Northmere and asked her to lend us as many footmen as she could spare.
They should arrive within the hour.” The housekeeper breathed a sigh of relief. “Thank you, my lady.” “Has the second batch of apfelstrudel come out properly?” “I believe so, my lady.” “And have you told the maids to place basins of water beside the flowers? The humidity will help them open.” “I’ll do that at once, my lady.” “Very good, Mrs Franklin. Try not to look so unhappy. I’m sure everything will come together in the end.” Mrs Franklin laid a hand to her chest and said solemnly, “I’ll breathe again when the last guest has gone home, my lady.
Not before.” Selina watched the prim little housekeeper hurry off, privately glad that she did not share Mrs Franklin’s finicky temperament. Life was difficult enough without taking fright at every passing storm. The clock chimed, reminding Selina that it was time she went upstairs to change. On the way to her chambers, she stopped and knocked at the door of the duchess’s private rooms. “Come in!” called Daisy cheerfully. Selina found her sitting on the sofa with her feet up, one hand resting lightly on her beautifully round stomach, and a sleepy mist in her eyes. “I’d thought I’d let you know that everything is nicely underway. We’re all set for a wonderful evening.” “Perfect! Have the candles arrived?” “Didn’t Mrs Franklin tell you?” Daisy gave a rueful smile.
“She has never forgiven me for marrying your brother and usurping your place as mistress of the house, you know. Everybody knows you were born to be a duchess. I, on the other hand…” She patted her stomach. “I am nothing but a dumpling!” “Nonsense. You look radiant.” Selina frowned. “Shall I speak to Mrs Franklin? She mustn’t disrespect you.” “Oh, no, no! I told her I was resting. She must have taken me at my word.” Daisy held out her hand to Selina, who squeezed it warmly.
“Besides, you have done everything to arrange this ball. It must have seemed natural for Mrs Franklin to speak to you first. I can’t thank you enough for all your hard work, Selina.” “There’s no need to thank me. The last thing I’d want is for you to exert yourself in your condition. Besides, I enjoyed it.” “But it does seem unfair that I will get the credit if the evening is a success. I won’t feel right behaving like the hostess at your ball.” “I’m afraid you’ll have to. Our guests have come to see the Duke and Duchess of Loxwell, not plain old Selina Balfour.
” Daisy rolled her eyes. “You are the last person anyone would call plain. Would you be a darling and ring for my maid? I’d like to stay off my feet as long as I possibly can.” Selina obliged and left Daisy to dress. A large mirror hung in the corridor between the bedrooms, reflecting the dying light from the windows on the opposite wall. Selina paused a moment and looked at her reflection. Daisy was right. She was not plain. She had a set of even, regular features, made pretty by the contrast of her dark eyebrows and hair. Where her three sisters had inherited their late mother’s looks, she took after their father – at least, as far as she could remember him.
Tall, with a straight nose and a wilful curve to her lips. No one who had seen her face would be surprised to learn that she was stubborn. Her eyes were softer, though. Her mother had given her those. No, she was not plain. But she did not have the bloom of youth that glowed in Edith’s cheeks, nor the happy sparkle of motherhood that beautified Daisy. Selina was eight and twenty, unmarried. The ton had given up whispering about which suitor’s hand she would accept. Soon, they would start whispering something else about her. Spinster.
Selina watched a smile lift the corner of her mouth. She could hardly wait for the day. If there was one thing Selina was not, it was jealous of others’ success. As she watched her family circulating through the crowded ballroom, a deep sense of satisfaction bloomed inside her. Her brother looked as ducal as he ever had, straight-backed and solemn. The only part of his appearance that was not starched to perfection was the profusion of rowdy dark curls on his head. He had taken charge of introducing the Austrian ambassador to all the most important guests and was battling on manfully against the ambassador’s obvious preference for flirting with pretty young ladies. Daisy glided from one group to another with a hand resting on her belly and a benevolent smile for everyone. The newly made ballgown was still held together by pins in a few places, though no one would know it to look at her. Its silk moiré glimmered red and gold in the light of the three hundred candles that had been set in the chandeliers just in time.
Edith had disappeared from the receiving line while the guests were still arriving, but since Lord Rotherham had also mysteriously vanished, Selina was not much concerned. What was a ball for, if not romance? Well, in her own case, of course, balls were for business. Social manoeuvring. Advancing her brother’s political aims. But she truly hoped Edith was about to find happiness with Rotherham. That would be one more of her siblings safely taken care of. “I’ve taken the liberty of fetching you a glass of champagne.” Selina turned from her happy contemplation of her family to find Malcolm Locke, the Duke of Caversham, standing closer than was strictly necessary with a glass of champagne in each hand and a self-satisfied smirk on his handsome face. “Good evening, Your Grace.” She took a step back and dropped a curtsey that she hoped was sufficiently aloof.
“Thank you, but I have no desire for any more champagne.” If it were possible, the duke’s smirk grew even more impudent. “I suppose you’re about to tell me that you don’t desire a dance, either.” Malcolm Locke had become the ninth Duke of Caversham at an impressionable age, and it showed. His character had hardly improved when, at the age of one and twenty, ladies began referring to him as His Gorgeous Grace. He was three years Selina’s senior, and she had endured the displeasure of every one of her friends simpering over him from her first Season onwards. Now that those friends were all married – and not to the duke – Selina’s dislike for Malcolm had not abated. He was overconfident, outspoken, brash, and as enamoured of his power as he was of his own good looks. Selina was very glad that her brother was not that sort of duke. “A dance? Not with you, Your Grace,” she said coolly.
Malcolm threw back his head and laughed, flashing a dazzling set of teeth. “Nor with anyone else, either. I know perfectly well that you never dance. Now take the champagne, Selina, and stop beating me about the head with the Your Graces. Aren’t we better friends than that?” Selina took the proffered glass and emptied it straight into the tall vase of flowers beside her. They had all bloomed beautifully. “I cannot claim that honour, Your Grace.” Malcolm took a sip of champagne, his dancing eyes fixed on her. “Really? But only a true friend would see the pain that lies beneath this elegant exterior.” She put on the coldest of all her polite smiles.
“You are mistaken. I am not in any pain. I am enjoying myself immensely.” Malcolm moved to stand behind her, putting his face beside hers so that he looked out at the ballroom from her point of view. “Don’t tell me it doesn’t pain you at all to watch that upstart girl take all the credit for your hard work. This evening is the event of the Season. You won’t convince me that a heavily pregnant social climber planned it all in the three days since her return to London.” His hand brushed lightly against the gauzy sleeve on Selina’s shoulder. “I would understand, you know, if you admitted you were jealous.” Selina’s eyes landed on Daisy, who was surrounded by laughing friends.
“That upstart girl – which Daisy is not – has made my brother deliriously happy,” she said stiffly. “If I did not already love her for her own sake, I would love her for that.” She whirled around to look Malcolm in the eye. “You are half right. I have worked extremely hard. To ensure that Daisy and my brother are known as the finest hosts in London. If you imagine I had selfish motives, I am afraid you do not understand me at all.” “I wouldn’t call it selfish to desire recognition for your hard-earned skills,” said Malcolm. His eyes, a steely blue, ran appraisingly over every inch of the lavishly decorated ballroom. Selina waited for him to pass judgement, unafraid.
Everything was perfect. She had made sure of it. But Malcolm’s gaze returned unexpectedly to her, subjecting her face to the same calculating assessment. Selina could understand why so many women had swooned beneath those attentive eyes. There were depths to them that reminded her of the ocean. She was quite sure that Malcolm was as shallow as they came, but when she met his eyes, she almost doubted it. “You would make the most wonderful duchess,” he said. “And you know it. Don’t you?” Selina gave a delicate shrug. “If women could inherit dukedoms, my cousin Cecily would be duchess today.
Not me.” He grinned, all trace of seriousness abandoned. “Caversham has an opening, you know.” “Caversham has an incumbent duke.” Malcolm pursed his lips, feigning disappointment. “And he’s not to your taste?” “He’s a powerful man. And I know about powerful men.” Selina turned away, finding something disquieting in the intensity of his gaze. “They don’t appreciate women with independent minds.” Malcolm shrugged and took another swig of champagne.
“I’m not in the business of matchmaking. But you are wasted here, Selina. With the right man beside you, you’d be a force to be reckoned with. You could make anything happen – anything you wanted.” She inclined her head, gracious enough to acknowledge a compliment even when it was not to her taste. “I hope that a woman with all my good fortune does not need to marry to make a difference in the world. I am taking the example of my Aunt Ursula. She never married, and she has not suffered for it. I will never want for money, and, with any luck, I will never want for influence, either.” A real smile, warm and mischievous, found its way to her lips.
“I’m afraid that, when it comes to the position of my husband, no dukes need apply.” Malcolm raised his glass to toast the sentiment. “I’ll spread the word at the House of Lords.” He drained the glass and set it aside. “Good evening, Lady Selina. I hope you enjoy the ball as much as you deserve to.” Selina permitted herself a small sigh of relief as Malcolm departed to try his luck with whichever lady crossed his path next. The dancers were taking their places for the cotillion, and she went to find a good place to watch them, careful to make sure she was on the opposite side of the room from him. If there was one man on earth Selina could not stand, it was the Duke of Caversham.