One, two, three, four…Lady Daphne Rosamond counted her steps as she paced the length of the lady’s retiring room at the Hawthorn ball. She should be in the ballroom. Gentlemen should be paying her attention. She should be dancing and flirting. Three seasons, for three long tedious seasons Daphne had sat on the sidelines hoping and praying that some worthy gentleman would take notice. “There you are. I’ve been searching for you.” Daphne’s cousin, Lady Natalie St. Vela strolled into the room with Miss Lulia Vasile at her side. Natalie paused, drawing her brows together as she studied Daphne. “Is something the matter?” “No…yes…I don’t know,” Daphne stuttered, attempting to collect her thoughts. Natalie narrowed her gaze. Daphne’s cheeks warmed under her cousin’s scrutiny. “I’ve grown weary of sitting on the sidelines. Perhaps it is time I accept my fate and give in to being an old maid.
” Lulia drew closer, her violet eyes skeptical. “How do you know such a fate awaits you?” Daphne waved her hands over her body. “Look at me. I’m plump and shy; not at all the type of woman that gentlemen take notice of. In my three seasons, I’ve only danced a handful of times. No-one has ever come to call, let alone court me.” “Oh Daphne,” Natalie rested a hand on her shoulder, “you are lovely. Any gentleman would be lucky to have you. Do not be so hard on yourself.” Daphne closed her eyes fighting back tears.
How she wished Natalie’s words were true, but they unequivocally were not. Daphne possessed and a kind and reserved nature, but she lacked all of the other qualities a man looked for in a wife. She’d never be an English beauty, nor would she ever be comfortable in a crowded room. She shook her head. “You’re wrong.” “Take off your glove.” Lulia notched her chin. “Let me have a look at your palm.” Daphne swallowed as she stared at the woman, confusion muddling her thoughts. “My glove?” Lulia nodded, her raven curls bouncing.
“Yes, your glove.” Natalie reached for Daphne’s hand then began unbuttoning the white satin glove that covered it. “Lulia reads palms. Let her have a look and she will tell you what your future holds.” Daphne jerked back her hand, her gaze flittering from one woman to the next. She did not believe in such nonsense. Fortunetellers were nothing more than frauds—that’s what mama had always told her. “What have you got to lose?” Natalie reached for her hand again. Daphne interlocked her finger’s stopping the assault. “Mama says—” “Blah, blah,” Natalie interrupted.
“Stop stalling and remove your glove.” Lulia smiled, her eyes sparkling. “Your mama says that fortune tellers are frauds. She’s right you know.” Daphne stared at her in shock. How could she admit to such at the very same time she was attempting to read Daphne’s future? “Most of them are, but a well-trained gypsy hones her craft. I spent years working on mine.” Lulia flipped her hand over and began tracing the lines of her palm. “This one is my lifeline. This is my love line.
Our hands reveal much about our fates.” A spark of hope swelled in Daphne’s chest. Perhaps Lulia did possess a true talent. Maybe she really could tell Daphne’s fortune. If so, wouldn’t she wish to hear it? Daphne fumbled with her glove, pulling her Han d free of the satin confines. Lulia took Daphne’s hand in hers and began studying the lines. She trailed her fingertip across one, down another. Daphne tried to relax, but her heart beat fiercely as she watched. What if Lulia only told her what she wished to hear? What if she confirmed her fears? Either way, Daphne feared what would be said. She pulled her hand free.
“This is a mistake. I don’t want to know.” “Nonsense.” Natalie shook her head. “You’re just afraid of what Lulia will find. Get your head out of the sand and take control of your life.” Daphne’s blood warmed, anger sweeping through her at Natalie’s harsh words. “You have no idea what you speak of. I beg you to keep your opinions to yourself.” Daphne snatched her glove from Natalie and tugged it back on.
How unlike her to act is such a brash manner. She never raised her voice. Never grew so angry that she could not cancel the emotion. “Are you sure you do not wish to hear what I have to convey?” Lulia asked. Daphne hesitated, her mind swirling with uncertainty. Part of her desperately wished to hear what Lulia saw; the rest of her feared the outcome. Natalie had been correct; Daphne was a coward. “Of course she wants to know,” Natalie said. Lulia gave a gentle smile. “Daphne?” Daphne drew in a slow breath, exhaling it even slower.
“Yes. Tell me.” You are not destined to be alone. Love may enter your life, true love. The deeply seeded kind that inspires poems and endures for all time.” She recaptured Daphne’s hand then peeled her glove off. “See this?” She trailed her fingertip over the line below Daphne’s pinky. Daphne nodded, tears pricking her eyes once more. The hope welling within her was nearly too much for her to handle. “This is your love line.
It’s straight and long indicating a deep and long love.” Natalie rested one hand on her hip, cocking it slightly as a smug grin spread over her face. “See, Daphne, I told you there was nothing to fear. You need only get out of your own way. Stop hiding in corners and welcome love to find you.” Daphne could not argue for she’d long been a wallflower. Her cousin understood her well and knew her even better. All the same, Daphne would never be comfortable in crowds the way that Natalie was. She simply wasn’t the outgoing social butterfly that her cousin was. Lulia gave a gentle squeeze to Daphne’s hand before releasing it.
“I’m afraid your situation is not as simple as all that. Love will not just land in your lap.” Daphne pulled her lower lip in, nibbling on it. This entire conversation was lunacy. She should not be engaging in any of it. Mama would not approve, and the emotional toll on Daphne was quickly proving too much. “Your time is coming to an end. If you do not receive a kiss by Christmastide, you will continue through life unwed.” “Christmastide?” Daphne’s hands shook, her heart crumbling as any hope she’d had fled. “That is impossible.
It’s but a fortnight away and I haven’t a single admirer. Worse, I will be leaving for the country on the marrow.” Natalie took her elbow and leaned closer. “Stop being so dramatic. It’s not at all like you to behave in such a way.” “You’re right and I’m sorry, but you know I speak the truth.” Daphne would be spending the holiday at Natalie’s family home, Harington Gardens. Her uncle, the Duke of Sheridan insisted the entire family grace him with their presence, and her mama and papa had readily agreed. Not that Daphne minded, she enjoyed spending time at the sprawling estate as well as with Natalie, but finding a suitor would prove impossible. She couldn’t very well go around the village hoping for random strangers to kiss her and the estate would be full of her relations.
It was hopeless. “You are giving up before you even begin.” Natalie wrapped an arm around Daphne pulling her close. “But all is not lost, you’ll see.” Lulia gave a sympathetic grin. “Trust in your future and make things happen. You’ll be glad you did.” Daphne nodded, portraying a confidence she most defiantly did not feel. She feared the only thing any of them would be seeing was her fast becoming an old maid. All the same, she would embrace the bit of hope Lulia had bestowed on her as well as Natalie’s encouragement and hope for something more.
One fortnight, fourteen days…Soon she would know her future. C H A P T E R 2 Harrington Gardens, England Daphne alighted from her families’ carriage, following her parents like the dutiful daughter she was. The ride from London had been unbearably long with none other than Mama and Father to keep her company. Daphne had found in near impossible to keep Lulia’s fortune from her mind and desperately wished to discuss it with someone. Alas, she’d remained silent on the topic as she well knew that Mama would not approve. Had Natalie arrived yet? Daphne hoped so for it would give her someone to talk about the fortune with. She arched her back and rolled her shoulders, glancing around at the other nearby carriages. None bore the Nightly crest, but that did not mean much of anything. Natalie may well have arrived the previous day or even earlier this morning. She would ask after her once they were inside.
Pulling her cloak tight against her to block out the cold winter air, Daphne followed her parents up the stairs and into the foyer. She smiled sweetly at the butler when he bowed in welcome then handed her cloak to a footman. “Pray tell, is Lady St. Vella in residence?” She asked the butler. A deep voice answered from behind, “She’s in the rose parlor.” “Thank you.” Daphne pivoted to face the direction of the voice and her smile widened at the sight of Natalie’s brother, Bradford. “Hello cousin,” she said as he approached. Bradford took her hand and dropped a familial kiss on her knuckles. “You look lovely as always.
” He bowed to her parents before kissing her Mama’s knuckles. “Welcome Aunt and Uncle. I trust your travels were not too tedious.” Their ensuing conversation drifted from Daphne’s attention as Marcus Wentworth, the Earl of Clarendon, approached. He lived on a neighboring estate and was a long time friend of Bradford’s. Once upon a time, he had been her friend too. Not that they’d had a falling out or any such unpleasantness, no, they’d simply grown apart as they’d aged. One day they were all ice skating together and then before she’d known what happened, Bradford and his friends had no time for her, or Natalie, or any of the girls they’d previously played with. Good grief, she was staring at him as though he were the most interesting thing she’d ever laid eyes on. Her cheeks warmed at the realization and she averted her gaze.
A moment later she glanced up, her gaze roaming over his polished hessians, tightfitting grey trousers, and snug waistcoat before meeting his familiar blue eyes. My but he’d grown handsome—strikingly so. It was no wonder he’d earned himself the title of rogue. A man possessing such good looks could hardly help it if woman chased after him. But then, he didn’t have to take liberties simply because they swooned at his feet. “Lady Daphne, it’s been a long time.” He bowed. Mortified at her reaction to him, she swallowed past the lump in her throat. “Indeed, Lord Clarendon. It’s a pleasure to see you here.
” She pressed her lips together, inwardly chiding herself for using the word pleasure. What a cake she was making of herself. “And you as well,” he said, taking her hand to brush a kiss over her knuckles. Her cheeks went from warm to burning and she could only imagine how red they must be. When he straightened to give her a rakish grin, she thought she’d ignite from the heat of embarrassment blazing within her. Daphne turned to her parents. “Mama may I be excused to join Natalie?” Mama gave a nod. “Of course, darling. Go ahead.” Needing no more encouragement, Daphne strode toward the stairs.
She’d run if she thought she could get away with such unladylike behavior. She wished she were invisible as it were, for surely the others had noted her reaction to Marcus. Odd that she’d become so flustered in the presence of an old friend. It wasn’t as though she had designs on him. In fact, she most certainly did not fancy him. Even if she did, they would not suit. He was a worldly rogue and she a wilting wallflower. Even in their youth, the pair hadn’t been interested in one another beyond friendship. Even. That relationship had been precarious, resting on the fact that Bradford shared a connection with each of them.
He’d been the glue. Nothing had changed. She was still Bradford’s cousin and Marcus his friend. If not for their ties to Bradford the two would never so much as speak to one another. Even now, Daphne was at Huntington Gardens because her family resided here and Marcus came to see Bradford. She’d only reacted as she had because she’d not seen him recently—not noticed how he’d changed with age. He’d caught her off guard was all, and true to her shy nature she’d reacted thusly. Daphne focused on her breathing, a slow breath in followed by a steady exhale, as she traversed the maze of hallways leading to the rose parlor. Her pulse calmed more with every breath and by the time she reached Natalie, her body was behaving normally once more. “I am so glad to see you.
” Daphne strolled into the parlor then sat on the sofa across from Natalie. “I’ve only just arrived but had to come find you straight away.” Natalie twisted the green paper she held in her hand. “What’s the emergency?” “Oh no, everything is as it should be. No-one is hurt or missing or anything. I simp—” Natalie’s sudden laughter stopped Daphne’s onslaught. She swallowed back her words and peered at Natalie, sharing none of her amusement. “Stop teasing.” Natalie sobered, but her grin remained in place as she said, “One can hardly help jesting when you make it so very easy.” Admonishing Natalie further would garner her no benefit.
She had always been a minx, the most incorrigible one in the family. Rather than saying anything else on the subject, Daphne shook her head then turned her attention to the table between them. Stacks of colored paper, lace, and evergreen bits were spread across it. Deciding to help make paper flowers, Daphne reached for a red piece. For long minutes she and Natalie sat in relative silence as they worked on their crafts. The tick of the mantle clock, crunching of paper, and crackling of the fire provided the only sound beyond their breathing. Then Natalie sat her flower aside and turned her gaze on Daphne. “I’m glad you sought me out.” It was the best apology Daphne would likely receive. Besides, she did not wish to sit in silence.
She’d had enough of that during her travels. Daphne sat her paper rose in her lap and smiled at Natalie. “The ride here was dreadfully long. I spent most of the time pondering what Lilia said to me at the ball.” “I’ve been thinking on it as well. Surely we can get someone here to kiss you.” Natalie reached for a piece of mistletoe. Grinning mischievously, she held it in the air between them. “If nothing else we can lure someone under the kissing bow.” Daphne sighed, her frustration growing over how impossible her situation was.
“Even if I stood under it all night with my lips puckered, there’d be no guarantee of someone kissing me. And if they did, it would most likely be a family member. I don’t believe that counts.” “Nonsense.” Natalie shook the mistletoe, her eyes glinting. “Bradford has several friends coming to the Christmas Eve ball. Marcus is already here and Mr. Ashe will be coming as well. Plus Pippa will be here. The two of us will help you entice a non-related gentleman.
” A shuffling sounded at the door and Daphne angled her head to look. A footman entered, his attention turning to Natalie. “Lady Maddox to see you.” He stepped aside and Pippa strolled into the parlor. “We were just talking about you.” Natalie stood to greet her, dropping a kiss on her cheek. “Do join us.” Pippa gave a bright smile as she settled onto the sofa beside Natalie. “I came the moment I discovered you’d arrived. Of course, Lucas and I will attend your parent’s ball, but I didn’t want to wait until then to see you.
” She met Daphne’s gaze, her friendly smile firmly in place. “And what a pleasure to see you again, Daphne.” “Likewise.” Daphne smiled back at her. “My favorite part of the Christmastide season is having the opportunity to see old friends.” Pippa reached for a sprig of Hawthorne. She rolled one of its red berries between her fingers as she arched a brow curiously. “You said you were talking about me a moment ago.” “Indeed. I was telling Daphne that we would help her steal a kiss.
” Daphne shrunk in embarrassment, sinking back against her chair wishing it would swallow her whole. This was pure madness. She’d never be able to steal a kiss. Pippa turned a curious glance her way. “Of course I’ll help, but why do you desire a kiss?” “I…well…” Daphne worked to speak past the lump in her throat. Finding the task impossible she turned to Natalie for help. Natalie smiled. “Lulia told her that if she did not receive a kiss by Christmastide, she’d never marry.”