Valan Grey, the 6 th Earl of Edmonds, the Marquess of Northington, sipped wine and watched the brown-haired beauty waltz with Mr. Evans, a peacock amid a glittering barnyard of hens. Evans had twice stepped on her toes, yet her smile hadn’t faltered. Valan slowed his stroll and spared a glance for the other wolf, almost a pup, that prowled near the open balcony doors. A breeze ruffled the young man’s styled blond locks. The youth of today relied far too much on well-made coats and coiffured hair in an effort to catch a lady’s attention. Any man of worth understood that what lay beneath the coat mattered far more to a lady of taste. He returned his attention to the beauty. Her partner turned to the music. Valan winced. Evans’ step was off by half a beat. Between pale satin dresses, the swirl of the beauty’s emerald velvet skirt molded around her firm buttocks before she was lost from view in the sea of dancers. Had Lady Peddington suggested the dress? The beauty certainly stood out amongst the demure pastels that flared on the dance floor. She was older than the others who attended the Midnight Ball. Perfect.
Tomorrow, he would send a letter of thanks to Honoria for her invitation to the soiree. She had a knack for knowing just the right lady for a gentleman. Above the music and murmur of guests, a female gasp was followed by a man’s curse. Valan glanced left, toward the small commotion, but a half-closed curtain hid the man and woman in the alcove. He shifted his gaze back to the dance floor. A blur in the corner of his eye registered an instant too late, and a woman collided with him. Wine sloshed over the rim of his glass and onto his crisply pressed, ivory silk waistcoat. He seized the lady’s wrist to stop her fall. Valan glanced down at the now ruined waistcoat, then met the young woman’s wide-eyed gaze. “I assume you learned enough etiquette at Lady Peddington’s to know that it’s bad manners to collide with guests.
Or is this your way of gaining an introduction?” Her brown eyes flicked to the wine-stained waistcoat then back to his face. The fear in her gaze flashed into annoyance. “I do not want an introduction.” “Where is that bitch?” A large man lunged past the alcove curtain, half limping. Valan deftly sidestepped him, pulling the young woman with him. Viscount Hesston stumbled two paces, narrowly missing two ladies. They cast him frowns and hurried past as he whirled. He came up short when his gaze met Valan’s. “What the devil are you doing here, Northington? Didn’t think this sort of place was one of your usual haunts.” The music ended and the last words were overloud in the absence of the orchestra.
The viscount’s eyes narrowed on the young woman. “Looking for another victim, little pigeon?” He grabbed for her. Valan tugged her out of her assailant’s reach. “This ‘little pigeon’ is otherwise engaged.” The man’s face contorted in rage. “She is mine. I’ve spent the evening with her. She owes me.” Valan glanced where he’d last seen the beauty on the dance floor. Gone.
No doubt, claimed by the young wolf. With a sigh, he returned his attention to Hesston. “Ownership is a matter of perspective. As she has ruined a very expensive waistcoat, I believe she owes me.” She tugged in an effort to break free. Valan held tight and nodded at a passing waiter. “My claim supersedes yours,” Hesston said as the waiter stopped beside them. Valan set his wine glass on the waiter’s tray. “I d-do no’ belong to either of y-you,” the girl said. The waiter frowned.
Valan ignored him and turned curious eyes on her. “Where are you from, child?” “That is none of your c-concern,” she said. “Perhaps not,” he replied, “but indulge me.” She shook her head. “Would you rather go with this man?” He nodded at Hesston, whose face reddened. “She is mine,” the viscount growled. “Patience,” Valan said. “She may choose to go with you, in which case I will not interfere.” “You have no right to interfere, at all,” Hesston snapped. Valan turned cold eyes on him.
“Even you can wait sixty seconds.” He looked at the girl and lifted a brow in question. She glanced at Hesston, then looked back at him and shook her head. “N-nae.” “There you have it,” he said. “Even at Lady Peddington’s Midnight Ball, a lady is free to choose her companions.” Hesston cast a disgruntled look at her. “Dumb bitch,” he muttered. She lifted her chin. “I would rather be dumb than cruel.
” The remark earned her a disdainful look from a woman strolling by on the arm of a man. Hesston again lunged for her. Valan stepped between them. “You’re drunk, Hesston. Go home before you irritate the wrong person.” “Like you?” he sneered. Valan shrugged. “I am not the best shot in Edinburgh.” “Damn right, you’re not,” he growled. “I am more likely to set a runner on you,” he said.
Hesston’s eyes widened. “They hunt criminals. I have never committed a crime in my life.” “That is a matter of perspective.” A vicious glint lit Hesston’s eyes. “If that is so, then one might contend that you stepped outside the law on at least one occasion. Last I heard, marriage to an underage woman is against the law,” Hesston said. Ah, the viscount had heard that Valan’s old nemesis had returned to Edinburgh just today. Gossip traveled fast when Society smelled blood. Valan gave a bland smile.
“Then I am fortunate not to have committed that crime.” “You tried hard enough,” Hesston declared. “Even I do not always succeed,” Valan remarked. “You succeeded at winning your fortune in a card game,” he snarled. “That is highly illegal.” “A friendly game of cards is never illegal,” Valan said, then added before he could reply, “The important point to remember, my dear viscount, is that runners give an ear to high-ranking peers.” The man’s face twisted into a scowl. “You think well of yourself.” Valan angled his head.” I am on excellent terms with Bow Street.
” Hesston took a step back. “You pay them well, is what you mean.” He sneered at the girl. “A bit of muslin isn’t worth this much trouble.” “I am no bit of muslin,” she retorted. Hesston turned, stumbled past a group of men, then hurried away. Valan looked down at the young lady. “You cost me a great deal tonight.” Her brow furrowed. “The cost of that waistcoat is a pittance for a man like you.
” He thought of the brown-haired beauty. “Money is not the only thing of worth in this world, child.” “I am no’ a child.” He arched a brow. “Pray tell, how old are you?” “Nineteen.” “A nineteen-year-old girl who nearly got herself accosted by a rather nasty viscount.” “Release me.” She yanked the wrist he still gripped. He started when something pricked his wrist. Valan drew her hand upward.
She yanked harder and nearby guests glanced their way. Valan offered them a chilly smile, then urged the girl back three paces nearer the alcove. “I beg your pardon,” she began, then broke off when he tightened his grip. He turned her hand over and forced her fingers apart. A modest diamond stick pin balanced halfway across her palm. Valan looked at her and raised a questioning brow. “That is a gentleman’s pin, if I am not mistaken.” Her mouth thinned in a mutinous line. “Shall I call Viscount Hesston back and ask if he has lost a diamond pin?” he asked. Her eyes widened.
“Nae. D-do not do that. Please.” Valan lifted the pin from her palm then released her. “I assume, then, the good viscount did not give this to you as a token of his, er, undying love?” “Undying love?” she scoffed. “That man loves only himself.” He repressed a smile. “Forgive me, but I am curious as to how you came to be in possession of his pin. It’s unlikely he removed it in order to disrobe. Removal of his cravat would not be necessary to—” “He did not give it to me,” she cut in.
“Then you slipped it from his cravat when he kissed you?” She lifted her chin. “Ladies do not allow strange men to kiss them.” “How wonderful to know you recognize some conduct befitting a lady. I suggest you remember that when next a man asks you to accompany him to an alcove.” She dropped her gaze. Ah, he had her. She slanted a look up at him through her lashes and it was easy to see why she had captured Hesston’s attention. Her innocence was a lure few men could resist. She extended a hand toward him and stepped forward. Then tripped.
She cried out and collided with him. His lapel tugged downward when she grabbed him and Valan caught her. He set her at arm’s length. “That is the second time this evening you have landed in my arms.” He tugged his cravat back into place, then felt the knot in an effort to assess the damage. “Perhaps we should be formally introduced before a third encounter?” Valan paused, then felt along the length of the cravat. His pin— He lowered his hands to his sides and leveled an assessing gaze on her. “My pin, please.” Her eyes sparkled as she opened her left hand. His ruby pin lay on her palm.
Valan took the pin. “It is not often I am shocked, but you have managed to shock me.” The laughter in her eyes vanished and her back went ramrod straight. “A gentleman would give me a head start.” He paused while slipping both pins into the front pocket of his coat. “A head start?” “Before ye call Bow Street.” A corner of his mouth twitched again, harder. He removed his hand from his pocket. “You are safe, my child. I do not set Bow Street on the scent of young ladies.
” She studied him as if uncertain, then her expression cleared, and she flashed a brilliant smile. “You are kind—despite the austere face.” Before he could reply, she added, “Admit it, once you discovered the pin missing, you would have assumed you lost it by accident and would no’ have suspected me—just as that evil viscount will not.” “Fortune favors you on that score,” Valan said. “Hesston would not hesitate to have you arrested —if, that is, you failed to comply with his demands.” She frowned. “Demands? Oh, you mean, he would make me his mistress.” “Nothing so elevated as that, but never mind. Dare I ask how you came to have this, er, talent?” She shrugged, but a steel determination underlay the nonchalance. “A woman develops skills necessary to survive.
” “Aye,” he agreed. “Women are very adept at surviving. I take it, then, you need the money.” She frowned. “I do not steal for money. Well, not for myself. By-the-by, please return my pin.” He lifted a brow. “Your pin?” “It certainly isn’t yours,” she said. “Neither is it yours,” he said.
“Finders keepers.” “Is that what you call your talent, ‘finding’?” She scowled. “You don’t need it.” “My dear, if you pawn this pin, you will surely find yourself hunted by Bow Street. Unless—tell me, have you already a relationship with a pawn broker?” She gave him a haughty stare. “I do not.” “Then we shall not begin now.” She shook her head. “Everyone thinks they know what is best for me. I don’t not want—” Valan grimaced.
“Pray, say no more. Surely, Miss Peddington taught you not to use double negatives in a sentence.” She dropped her gaze. “Aye, she did.” “Will you throw away every penny your father spent to send you here by speaking like a common fishwife?” “M-my mother sent me here.” Valan regarded her. “Do you only stutter when you’re afraid?” Her cheeks reddened even as her chin lifted. “I cannot help it. If you don’t like it—” her cheeks pinked more “—then you are no gentleman.” “Your judgment of what constitutes a gentleman is sorely misguided.
” She opened her mouth to reply, but he lifted a hand, palm out. “Please, we will save that discussion for another time. I happen to agree. You cannot help the stutter. You can, however, choose the words you speak. I suggest you make a habit of choosing them more carefully.” Movement beyond the girl’s shoulder drew Valan’s attention. He recognized the tall man who approached. “Wedded bliss losing its luster so soon?” Valan asked when Sir Stirling James reached them. Stirling grinned.
“Not at all.” He looked pointedly at the young lady. “I cannot make introductions,” Valan said. “I don’t know the young lady’s name.” “Then allow me.” Stirling bowed. “Miss Jeanine Matheson, I am Sir Stirling James, and this is his Lordship, the Marquess of Northington.” She extended her hand and Valan bowed over it. “A marquess?” she said. “You did not tell me you were a peer.
” “You did not ask,” he said, then looked at Stirling. “Do you know all the young ladies? Never say you come here often.” Stirling shook his head. “I saw ye two together. Honoria told me who she was.” “Ah,” Valan intoned. “It is Lady Peddington you came to visit.” “Honoria and I are old friends,” Stirling said. “Not that kind of old friends,” he added when Valan started to reply. “But if we were, the past is the past.
” Valan angled his head. “As you say.” “You knew Lady Peddington before she started the school?” Miss Matheson asked. Stirling smiled. “Indeed, I did.” “I want to have a school like this someday,” she said. “Good God, why?” Valan asked. “To be an independent woman. Lady Peddington says a lady will do best if she finds a nice gentleman to care for her. But that is not what she did.
She started the school. She makes her own money and spends it any way she pleases.” “Much responsibility comes with running a business,” Valan said. She waved her hand dismissively. “Running a gentleman’s household is just as big a responsibility.” “When a lady has a gentleman to look after her, she has someone to care for her should something go wrong,” he said. She frowned. “I have known too many ladies whose husbands do not take care of them.” “She has you there, Northington,” Stirling said. “That she does,” Valan said.
“On that note, I shall say goodnight.” “Leaving so early?” Stirling asked. “Aye. The hunt is finished for tonight.” He looked at the young lady. “Good evening, Miss Matheson.” She took a step toward him. “Must you go?” He flashed a bland smile. “Old gentlemen need their rest.” She grimaced.
“You are not old.” “Old enough.” “The choice of gentlemen to dance with has dwindled,” she said. “I hoped perhaps…” “Perhaps his lordship will dance with you.” He nodded at Stirling. She frowned at Stirling. “Lordship? You introduced yourself as Sir Stirling James.” “He is both,” Valan said. “The marquess suffers an unnatural modesty. He seldom admits his title.
” “The title is a courtesy, and hardly signifies,” Stirling said. Valan glimpsed Hesston talking with Lady Peddington near the far right wall, not far from a cluster of ladies. Valan returned his attention to Miss Matheson. “The marquess is probably the only gentleman present. If, that is, he’s still a gentleman.” Stirling chuckled. “You would have to ask Chastity.” “Chastity?” she asked. “His wife,” Valan said. “You’re married?” The young lady wrinkled her nose.
“Then it will not do for me to dance with you.” “You are refreshingly forthright,” Stirling said. “She is naïve,” Valan said. “A married man has his uses.” She narrowed her eyes. “Are you married?” “Nae, and I have no wish to be. Goodnight, Miss Matheson. Sir Stirling.” He bowed and left.