AT THE END OF each season, Lady Peddington’s School for Young Ladies threw not one, or even two, but four balls over the course of four weeks. If a young woman couldn’t meet the man of her dreams in that length of time, well, she’d best hope a man awaited her at home because four was the schools’ more than generous limit. To Miss Emilia Glasbarr’s dismay, the first of these balls was stuttering to an end, and she still lacked a suitor. Emilia huddled near the refreshments table and tried to untangle the scene before her. Many of the girls, certainly the ones already spoken for, had retired for the evening. Those who remained, behaved with a lack of propriety that Emilia found moderately shocking. Gloves were removed. Laughter, not polite titters, sounded. Footmen had appeared to snuff out most of the candles, leaving the vast ballroom enshrouded in flickering half-light. Most disconcerting, the few instructors who still chaperone turned a blind eye. Only Emilia’s desperation not to live out the remainder of her days as a country Miss kept her there. Normally, she would retreat from such a scene. A waltz began and Emilia stifled a gasp. No respectable young woman danced the waltz. They’d been taught as much at the very school in which she stood.
Gentlemen reached out, clasped ladies close. Distressed by the bedlam before her, Emilia turned away from the whirling figures. She swallowed, her throat dry, and reached for a glass of punch. The gulp she took burned the whole way down, laced with some strong spirit. She raised incredulous eyes to the woman who oversaw the punch table, their etiquette instructor, and received a wink. Disconcerted, Emilia set out around the edge of the room, unsure what to do with the glass she held. Putting the punch down now would be ill-mannered, but she dared not drink more. The one gulp already left her dizzy. A gentleman strode toward her. Emilia dropped her gaze demurely.
She knew who he was, for the school kept miniatures of all the local nobility, and she knew he wasn’t there to find a wife. He was already wed. She could only assume he came to support the school, to help Lady Peddington’s students practice the art of dancing at a real social engagement, not under the eyes of an instructor. She suppressed a sigh of disappointment that an eligible gentleman refused to appear, for wellbred ladies didn’t sigh, and angled toward the wall to give him room to pass without interfering with the dancers. She stopped in surprise when he stepped in front of her. His too-strong cologne assailed her nostrils. Punch sloshed onto her gloved fingers. Her face heated at her clumsiness. His eyes dipped toward the glass for a moment. “Partaking of Lady Peddington’s famous midnight punch, I see.
” His accent was urbane. Dark eyes looked down at her from under oiled brown hair. “Midnight punch?” she repeated, confused. “No need to play coy. I love Lady Peddington’s special midnight brew, and a girl who drinks it.” He leaned forward as he spoke and used his six inches of superior height to look down the front of her white muslin gown. Emilia’s blush deepened. “I’ve only taken one sip.” She almost choked on her own inanity, but what was one to say to that statement, or that look? He wasn’t behaving the way they’d been taught men should behave, let alone married members of the peerage. “You should drink up then, dear girl.
” He wrapped a hand around hers and lifted the glass to her lips. Emilia was too shocked by his hand on hers to protest. She gagged as the heavily laced punch tumbled into her mouth. She choked it down, for one could hardly spit up on a viscount. “That’s better,” he said when the glass was empty. He dabbed at the corners of her mouth with a glove-encased thumb. Emilia watched him through eyes as wide as saucers. “My lord,” she managed to gasp out. His smile was pleased. “So, you know who I am?” “Indeed, I do, Lord Ailbeart, but I’m sure we’ve never met, and certainly do no’ know each other well enough for you to put your hands on me.
” He raised thick eyebrows. “Don’t we? Perhaps you would care for a bit more punch?” “I most certainly would not.” Already the room had begun a gentle spin. Emilia rarely tasted wine, and had eaten lightly, nervous for the dance. Whatever was in the punch, and she suspected scotch, had gone straight to her head. Far from appearing offended by her rejoinder, the viscount grinned. His fingers grazed her cheek as he tugged on one of her yellow curls before letting it spring back into place. “Spirited, aren’t you? I want a spirited mistress this time. The last one was too well trained. A lady can be too polished.
” Emilia was doubly upset she’d consumed the punch, for she had nothing to throw in his face. “Did I hear you suggest I be your mistress, my lord?” she gritted out. She hadn’t spent her entire dowry on finishing school to become this man’s plaything. “I knew I’d picked a good one in you.” His grin was smug. Emilia glared through narrowed hazel eyes. “Picked?” “Aye. I told the other fellows, stay clear of that golden-haired beauty. She’s mine.” He spoke in a warm, almost sweet tone, as if praising a favored pet.
His gaze roamed over her. Emilia drew in a harsh breath, too offended to be embarrassed. “I do not believe that is for you to say, my lord.” “But it is, and since I have, no one else will dare dance with you.” He closed the distance between them, his voice low and suddenly edged with malice. “And when you find yourself all alone at the end of the fourth ball, with the choice of a fine house in the heart of Edinburgh or slogging back to whatever obscure corner of the countryside you crawled in from, you’ll realize that being my most prized possession is more desirable.” He grabbed the back of her neck, yanked her forward and kissed her. It was a brief, rough kiss that left her reeling as he sauntered away. Emilia was aghast. She jerked her gaze around the room, but no one seemed to have noticed.
Mortified, breath ragged, she fled the ballroom. Emilia clutched her skirt in both hands to keep the hem off the floor and ran through the dim halls of Lady Peddington’s School. The stench of Viscount Dunreid’s cologne clung to her. She didn’t know where she went until she burst through the door to the drawing classroom, the room where she always felt happiest. To her relief, Missus Millview, the drawing instructor, was there. “Miss Glasbarr?” Missus Millview rose from her chair. “Whatever is the matter? What are you doing here? It’s well after midnight.” She stumbled across the room toward her instructor. “Lord Ailbeart, that is, Viscount Dunreid kissed me,” she blurted. “I didnae want him to, but he did.
” She burst into tears. Missus Millview reached her side and wrapped Emilia in a warm embrace. “There, there, my dear child,” she murmured. “You shouldn’t be up after midnight. You aren’t the sort. There’s been an error.” Emilia sniffed. “An error?” Did midnight signify in some way? “I don’t understand.” Missus Millview shook her head, eyes sympathetic in her long face. “It’s nothing, child, nothing at all.
Only that you should retire earlier at the next ball, to avoid this sort of thing. Gentlemen tend to get out of hand in the later hours.” “They do?” Emilia pulled away. She wiped at her cheeks with the heels of her hands. “Of course.” Missus Millview gave her a gentle smile. “You dance the early dances from now on and retire before midnight, and forget this incident with Lord Ailbeart ever occurred.” “But I can’t,” Emilia cried. “No one will dance with me. Not one gentleman asked.
Lord Ailbeart said he warned them away because I’m to be…to be…” She couldn’t say it aloud, what he’d propositioned. “What am I to do? I convinced my parents to let me use the money they set aside for my dowry to come here. I told them a man would prefer a cultured bride over one with a small sum. I don’t want to go back to the country. I want to stay here where there is music and art.” Missus Millview’s brow creased, her look one of compassion. Emilia glanced around the nearly dark room. Why was Missus Ailbeart in her classroom at that hour? She took in the desk. The scattered candle stubs illuminated receipts and pages filled with rows of numbers. Missus Millview followed her gaze.
She let out a sigh, and passed a hand over tired eyes. “Yes, we must all worry about our funds, child.” Concern of another sort stole through Emilia. Missus Millview was a good person, and her favorite instructor. “Is there anything I can do?” “Do?” Missus Millview shook her head. “No. I’ll be well enough, so long as I keep my place here.” She pressed her lips into a tight frown and dragged her gaze from her desk, back to Emilia. “I should like to help you, child. You aren’t one who should have been brought to Lord Ailbeart’s attention.
I suspect it’s your beauty that’s the trouble, not that you can help that.” Emilia blinked. Beauty? She knew she had no obvious flaws in appearance, but she hardly thought she had sufficient beauty to garner attention, especially from a viscount. “You can help me?” Her voice caught at the hope that surged within her. Missus Millview looked to her pages of numbers again. She gave a sharp nod. “I can, but you must promise not to tell any of the other girls. I can’t lose my place here. I’m not young or beautiful enough to make my way if I do.” “I promise,” Emilia said eagerly.
“Please, what can I do? I simply want to marry a kind man. I do no’ need a title, or wealth, or much of anything, really. Just a gentleman who lives in the city.” “You won’t tell those three friends of yours?” Missus Millview eyed her shrewdly. “I know how inseparable you four are, and I suspect they may be in the same boat. You must promise not to tell them what I’ll reveal to you, child. I’ve come to care for you, but a woman alone in this world must look out for herself.” Emilia bit back a hasty acceptance. Her friends had all retired earlier as, apparently, proper young women did. They’d been discouraged as they’d also lacked admirers.
Could she consign any of them to men like Lord Ailbeart? She drew in a breath. She couldn’t, but she would find a way to help without breaking Missus Millview’s confidence. “I promise I won’t tell the other girls, even my friends.” Missus Millview offered a relieved smile. “Well then, this should help you.” She crossed to the desk, then pulled free a clean page and began to write. Emilia followed her. She looked over Missus Millview’s shoulder to take in the elegantly penned address and a name. “Sir Stirling James,” she read aloud. Missus Millview turned to offer the page.
“Yes. They call him The Marriage Maker. If anyone can help you, he can.” Her face went stern, as it did when Emilia attempted anything less than her best work. “But don’t forget your promise.” “I won’t, Missus Millview.” Emilia folded the page in half. “Thank you.” “You’re a good child,” Missus Millview said. “Too good for the likes of Viscount Dunreid.
Can you reach your chamber well enough?” Emilia thought about the empty halls. No one had stopped her on her way to the classroom. She nodded. “I can.” She gave Missus Millview a quick hug. “Thank you. You’ve saved me, and I won’t tell the others.” Missus Millview sighed and shook her head. “I hope not, child, I truly do.” Emilia left with a lighter heart than she’d had in hours.
She took the back way to her room, thankful the halls and stairs were as blissfully empty as she’d hoped. As she walked, she formulated a plan. She would write this Sir Stirling James now, before bed. She would tell him of her plight, and include a small portrait she’d done of herself, on the chance she really was as pretty as Missus Millview said. In fact, she would include portraits of her three friends as well, and beg him to help them all. Missus Millview had made her swear not to tell any of the other girls about Sir Stirling James. That didn’t mean Emilia couldn’t tell him about them. She smiled as she reached the safety of her room and lit a candle, pleased with her plan.