“Harriet. My dear.” Lady Forbes clasped her hands to her bosom and gazed admiringly at her younger friend. “You look quite delectable. You will be all the rage before the evening is out. Does she not, Clive? And will she not?” Sir Clive Forbes turned from the sideboard at which he was pouring drinks and looked at the lady who had just entered his drawing room and was blushing rosily. “You look very handsome, Harriet,” he said, smiling kindly and crossing the room toward her in order to hand her a glass. “But then I do not remember a time when you did not.” “Thank you.” Harriet, Lady Wingham, laughed a little nervously and took the offered glass. “It still seems strange to be wearing light colors again after a year in black. It feels even stranger to be wearing something so—sparse.” She glanced down at her almost bare bosom and arms. “But I was assured that this design is all the crack.” “If it were not,” Sir Clive said gallantly, “then you would soon make it so, Harriet.
” “You must trust me,” Lady Forbes said. “Did I not promise when you were finally persuaded to come to town for the Season that I would bring you into fashion, my dear? Not that I was taking on an onerous task. You are still as lovely as a girl, even though you must be—?” “Eight-and-twenty,” Harriet said. She grimaced. “A ludicrous age at which to be making my entrée into polite society.” “But still beautiful,” Lady Forbes said. “And widows are always intriguing. Especially young and lovely ones.” “And wealthy ones,” Sir Clive added with a twinkle in his eye. “It helps,” Lady Forbes said.
“Do sit down, dear. We are early. But Robin will be here soon. You will like him as an escort. He quite understands that you are new to London and to the Season and that you have come to meet gentlemen.” “Oh, I have not—” Harriet protested. “It is as well to call a spade a spade,” her friend said, holding up a staying hand. “Of course you have, my dear. You are young and have been widowed for well over a year. And Godfrey, rest his soul, was neither a young nor a robust man.
” “I loved him,” Harriet said quietly, seating herself carefully so as not to crease the delicate lace and satin of her ball gown. “That was obvious,” Sir Clive said kindly. “You were unfailingly good to him, Harriet. But he is gone. He would be the first to want you to go on enjoying life.” “Yes, he would,” Harriet said. “But I am not desperately searching for his successor. I have Susan, after all.” “But daughters do not quite make up for the lack of a husband,” Lady Forbes said. “Besides, Susan needs a father.
” “There is someone at the door,” Sir Clive said. “It will be Robin. Harriet my dear, I can see we have been alarming you. You arrived in town only a week ago and are about to attend your first London ball and already we are talking about your finding a husband. What we should be advising you to do is enjoy yourself. But without a doubt you will do that. You will certainly not lack for partners.” The butler entered the drawing room at that moment to announce the arrival of Mr. Robin Hammond. Harriet rose and curtsied when he was presented to her.
She had not met him before. He was an auburn-haired, fresh-faced gentleman of about her own age. His elegantly clad figure showed signs of portliness to come. He was a cousin of Amanda’s and had kindly agreed to escort Harriet to Lady Avingleigh’s ball. He bowed and gazed admiringly at the pale blue confection of a ball dress that had been made for the occasion. “You see, Robin?” Lady Forbes said bluntly as her husband handed him a drink. “I told you she was a beauty, did I not?” “You did indeed, Amanda,” Mr. Hammond agreed, flushing. Fifteen minutes later the four of them were in Sir Clive’s carriage on the way to the Earl of Avingleigh’s home on Berkeley Square. Harriet shivered beneath her wrap, partly from the slight chill of the evening air and partly from nervous apprehension.
It was still hard to believe that her four-year marriage to Godfrey gave her entrance to ton events. They had lived so simply and so quietly in Bath that she had scarcely been aware of the significance of the fact that he was a baron. And until his death fifteen months before, she had been quite ignorant of the fact that he was a very wealthy man. Though of course he had always been generous to her. He had always insisted that she have pretty and fashionable clothes. He had left a generous portion to their daughter. Everything else he had left to Harriet. Without even being quite aware of the fact, Harriet thought, she had been elevated socially. Although her father had been a gentleman, he had been a mere country parson. His early death had left her mother with only enough money on which to live very frugally in Bath.
Harriet herself had been forced to take employment as a lady’s companion, though she had been very fortunate in her employer. Clara had seemed more of a friend than an employer. But the association had ended eventually after Clara’s marriage and a pregnancy had made Harriet’s position redundant, though Clara had urged her to stay anyway. But there had been another reason for leaving . “We are arriving at the fashionable time, it seems,” Mr. Hammond said, moving his head close to the window and gazing ahead. “There must be five carriages pulled up ahead of ours.” “We will have to be patient, then,” Sir Clive said. “This ball is expected to be the greatest squeeze of the early part of the Season, I gather.” “It usually is,” his wife agreed.
Harriet shivered again and had to make a conscious effort to stop her teeth from chattering. This was not the first time she had been in London. Mr. Sullivan, Clara’s husband, had brought them there once for a brief visit and shown them all the famous sights. On one memorable occasion he had taken them to the theater. On most of those outings his friend had been Harriet’s escort. Lord Archibald Vinney— tall, blond, handsome, charming. Harriet swallowed and remembered the pathetically naive girl she had been then, though she had been two-and-twenty at the time. Although she had thought herself on her guard, she had still believed when he began to propose to her that it was marriage he was offering. An aristocrat, heir to a dukedom, proposing marriage to a little mouse of a lady’s companion! Harriet felt embarrassment for her former self.
It was a very generous carte blanche he had been offering. Finally their carriage drew level with the open doors into the Avingleigh mansion. They waited until a footman let down the steps. Sir Clive helped his wife to the pavement and then Mr. Hammond helped Harriet. She glanced up the shallow flight of steps into the brightly lit hall. It appeared to be milling with liveried servants and splendidly clad guests. Suddenly she no longer felt overdressed. She was not going to be conspicuous after all. But her stomach performed a giant somersault and she took Mr.
Hammond’s offered arm with gratitude. At the grand age of eight-and-twenty she was attending her first London ball and feeling as excited and nervous as a girl. Lord Archibald Vinney, she thought, looking about her nervously as they entered the crowded hall and Lady Forbes whisked her off toward the ladies’ withdrawing room. Was he in London? Would he be at Lady Avingleigh’s ball? Was he married? She had heard nothing about him since Clara’s return to London from her country home six years before had sent Harriet fleeing home to Bath lest she see him again and give in to the dreadful temptation to accept carte blanche. Clara knew of her infatuation and had never mentioned him, though she wrote frequently. And yet, Harriet had to admit, though it would have been easier to deny the truth, he was a large part of her reason for accepting Amanda’s invitation to spend a few months in London for the Season now that her year of mourning for Godfrey was over. It sounded laughable. It was laughable. After six years she could still feel sick with longing at the mere thought of him. She had come to London to enjoy herself, to fulfill a girlhood dream that had seemed unrealizable until very recently.
She had come to shop and to visit, to mingle and to dance. She had come to live out the youth that had passed her by in some dullness. She had come because she was a widow and had found that a dull widowhood did not have the sense of security or bring the contentment that a rather dull marriage had brought. She had come because Godfrey was dead and there was no bringing him back, though she had bitterly mourned his loss. She had come because Susan would enjoy a change of scenery and some of the pleasures of town. And because perhaps— though probably not—she would catch a glimpse of Lord Archibald Vinney again. “No,” Lady Forbes said with a sigh and a laugh, turning away from a looking glass at which she had adjusted her hair and the shoulders of her gown, “there is nothing you can possibly do to improve your appearance, Harriet, dear. One cannot improve upon perfection. Ah, to be young and lovely again. Though I was only ever one of the two.
” She chuckled. “Do you like Robin? He is rather dull, I must confess, but I am fond of the boy.” “He is kind,” Harriet said. Mr. Hammond had made an effort to converse and set her at her ease both in Sir Clive’s drawing room and in the carriage. “I feel like a gauche girl, Amanda.” “I will not argue with the one word,” Lady Forbes said, “but I can assure you that you do not look gauche, Harriet. You will be well received, mark my words.” She was to be proved quite correct. Amanda Forbes was only a baronet’s wife and as such was low on the social scale as far as the ton was concerned, but her father had been a viscount, a title that her brother now held, and she had been careful to cultivate influential connections.
She and Sir Clive had visited Bath regularly each year and had been friends of Lord Wingham. Lady Forbes had grown fond of the baron’s young and lovely wife and had now set herself to make his widow fashionable and to find her a husband of some position. She could not expect to attract anyone above the rank of baron as a husband, of course, since despite her wealth and her title she was not herself of noble birth. But there must be scores of unattached and perfectly eligible gentlemen who were not out of her reach and would be only too happy to attach themselves to such wealth and beauty and charm—even though there was a child who would come along with her. And so Lady Forbes had been busy ensuring that there would be gentlemen ready to be presented to Harriet and to dance with her. And of course she must arrive with an escort since she was not an unmarried young girl but a woman and a widow. Lady Forbes, looking now with an almost envious approval at her young friend and protegée as they turned to leave the withdrawing room to join the receiving line with their men, was quite sure that Harriet would do very well indeed. Before she danced the opening set of country dances with Mr. Hammond, Harriet was feeling flushed and happy. No fewer than four gentlemen had asked Amanda to present them, and three of them had engaged her to dance later in the evening.
Even if no one else asked her, she had four dances to look forward to, with four different gentlemen. The fear she supposed all women experienced at their first ball that they would be wallflowers had been put to rest even before the dancing began. Harriet smiled at Mr. Hammond as he led her onto the floor, and hoped that she would not forget the steps of the dance in her nervousness. But she would not think of such a thing. It was not as if she had never danced at all. Godfrey had often taken her to the assemblies in Bath and had always encouraged her to dance, though his weak heart had prevented him from ever dancing with her himself. She was going to enjoy herself, she thought determinedly. From now until the end of the Season, when she would return home with Susan, she was going to give herself up to pleasure—even though several glances about the ballroom had revealed to her that he was not there. She had not expected him anyway.
And it was as well he was absent. She could expect nothing but misery from seeing him again. Six years had passed. Doubtless he was married by now. The thought caused pain. Foolishly, after six years, she could still feel pain. Heavens, she had been married herself during that time and was now a mother. She would not think of him. She had trained herself over the years to remember him, if at all, only as a rather bittersweet memory. It would be as well to keep it that way.
The music began, and Harriet found that her feet moved gracefully and easily to the steps. She returned Mr. Hammond’s smile. It was really a very pleasant smile, one that set her at her ease. Amanda had made a very good choice of escort. “I cannot,” the Duke of Tenby said with a sigh to his companion when the latter asked him if he would go straight to the card room. They were on their way up the stairs of Lord Avingleigh’s mansion. Their path was clear since they had arrived deliberately late in order to avoid the crush. “I have decided to go shopping in earnest.” Lord Bruce Ingram looked at him with some interest and laughed.
“You have been threatening to do so these four or five years, Archie,” he said. “Has the time really come?” “It has,” the duke said. “At Christmas my grandmother made a point of informing the whole family that it could very well be her last Christmas, since she will turn eighty during August. She made a particular point of ensuring that I was present every time she broached the subject. Privately she reminded me of the vow she made on the death of my grandfather six years ago not to die herself until I was married and my wife safely delivered of our first boy.” Lord Bruce grimaced in sympathy. “The only way I could have helped her keep her vow before next Christmas,” the duke said, “was to have rushed some sweet thing to the altar with the aid of a special license and to have immediately set to work on her.” He yawned behind one lace-edged hand. “The idea has its appeal, one must admit,” Lord Bruce said, turning with his friend at the top of the stairs in the direction of the ballroom. “There is less interesting work to be done in this world.
” His grace frowned at him, not amused by his tone of levity. “It is not easy to rush a sweet young thing to the altar,” he said, “since just any sweet young thing will not do, Bruce. It has been instilled in me since childhood that only females of suitably elevated rank will do as my duchess. Nothing below an earl’s daughter, in other words. Why is it that daughters of viscounts and lower are often appealingly pretty while daughters of earls and upward are invariably antidotes?” Lord Bruce laughed “Ah,” he said, “we have missed the receiving line. That, at least, is a blessing.” “And doubtless we have missed the first two or three sets too,” the duke said with a sigh. “I made my grandmother a promise. I promised that I would be married before September and have my wife swelling with child before next Christmas. Under such circumstances, the old girl undertook to remain alive that long and probably until the birth to make sure I do not commit the unpardonable faux pas of begetting a daughter first.
” “The Season swung to life a week or so ago,” Lord Bruce said. “A trifle slow, are you not Archie?” “As you say.” The duke spoke with haughty gloom. “I have procrastinated too long. But behold me tonight a serious shopper, Bruce. How long will it be before the fact becomes general knowledge, do you suppose?” “Ten minutes?” his friend suggested with a grin. “It is not often you are seen in a ballroom, Archie. The cat will certainly be out of the bag as soon as you single someone out to dance with. All the mamas will turn ecstatic.” The duke frowned as the two of them stood in the doorway of the ballroom and glanced about them.
Already he had been noticed. He could feel eyes on him, and met many of them as he looked around with a forced air of languidness. He fingered the ribbon of his quizzing glass, though he did not raise it to his eye. Of course, Bruce was doubtless receiving his share of looks too, as he was no small matrimonial prize and was an equally unfamiliar sight on the marriage mart. But his grace of Tenby did not for a moment believe that he himself was not the prime object of interest. His lip curled with distaste. He had no wish to be married. Before succeeding to his title, he had persuaded himself that there was no need to think of marriage yet since he was still only the heir to a dukedom. And then when his grandfather died, he had persuaded himself that six-and-twenty was too young to marry and that he would wait until he was thirty. He had turned thirty two years ago and had stopped making excuses.
He had tried not to think of marriage. Or of that nasty duty of begetting heirs. He had considered marriage only once in his life. Quite madly, the only reason having been that the girl was adamantly unwilling to be bedded as a mistress and he had very badly wanted to bed her. At the time he had described his feelings to himself as being in love. He had since realized that he had been merely in lust. But he had come perilously close. If his grandfather had not died when he had, it would have been too late. He had been preparing to go after the girl to offer her marriage when he had been summoned to what had turned out to be his grandfather’s deathbed. By the time that was over and the funeral and all the business of mourning and getting himself acquainted with his new position as Duke of Tenby and head of the family, he had recovered from his madness.
A good thing too. His grandmother and his mother and all his uncles and aunts and cousins would have had a collective heart seizure if he had married so far beneath him. And if he had done anything as plebeian as marry for love. “There is Kingsley’s daughter,” Lord Bruce said. “Fresh from the schoolroom and a marquess’s filly, Archie. What more could you ask for? It is hard to decide, though, which end of a horse she most resembles.” The duke allowed his eyes to rest for a moment on the young girl in question. “Unkind, Bruce,” he said. “But frankly the mere thought of deflowering an infant makes me shudder. She must surely have left the schoolroom early.
” “Barthorpe’s girl, then,” Lord Bruce said a short while later. “An earl’s daughter. As low as you dare go, Archie. She is in her third Season, of course. One does wonder what is wrong with the girl.” “Perhaps no more than the fact that she is discriminating,” the duke said, turning his glance on Lady Phyllis Reeder, daughter of the Earl of Barthorpe. “Or perhaps she likes attention. She was apparently the toast of the last two Seasons.” “She had better marry this year, then, before she gets long in the tooth,” Lord Bruce said. “She cannot expect to be the toast forever.
She is not a bad looker, Archie.” “Hm,” the duke said. “Good-natured too. I have been in company with her once or twice. I could do worse, I suppose. Grandmama would be ecstatic. Lady Phyllis is one of a list of ten females that have her unqualified approval.” “Well, then.” His friend laughed heartily. “What are you waiting for, Arch? There is a distinct air of anticipation about us.
Everyone is waiting to see if you will advance into the ballroom and perhaps even dance, or if you are merely teasing and will turn and disappear into the card room for the rest of the evening.” The duke fingered the ribbon of his quizzing glass and pursed his lips. “If life were only that easy,” he said. “I shall make my bow to Lady Phyllis and the countess, then. And take the girl out for a dance if I am unfortunate enough to find that she has one free. In a moment, Bruce. Give me that moment to collect myself.” He looked about the ballroom again, reluctant to move. Once he stepped inside, and made his bow to any unmarried lady below the age of thirty, he believed, he would have taken an irrevocable step. Word that the Duke of Tenby was finally shopping for a duchess would be out almost before he had taken that step and made that bow.
There were a few ladies present that he did not know. The new Season had brought some new faces to town as it always did. Some of them were even pretty. Perhaps he should find out who exactly was in town before embarking on anything that might be construed as a courtship of one particular lady. That one, for example, he thought, his eyes coming to rest on a particular young lady who had just finished dancing with one partner and was smiling with engaging and unfashionable enthusiasm at two prospective ones who had converged on her at the same moment. Small, girlishly slim, dainty, blondhaired, exquisitely gowned in pale blue satin overlaid with lace. She reminded him… The Duke of Tenby relinquished the ribbon of his quizzing glass in order to grasp its jeweled handle and raise it to his eye. The woman—or girl—had turned her head away, so that all he could see were the soft and shining ringlets at the back of her head, the creamy skin of her back above the low cut of her gown, and the suggestion of slim shapeliness beneath its loose folds. Delicious! He waited for her to turn her head, oblivious for the moment to the fact that he was still under close observation himself. And then she did turn her head so that suddenly he saw her full face as she laughed at one of her would-be partners with upward-curving lips and sparkling eyes.
The duke lowered his glass hastily and turned without a word to hurry from the ballroom. Lord Bruce Ingram appeared at his side again after a few moments. He was laughing. “You have turned craven already, Archie?” he said. “You know, I seem to remember having heard somewhere that it is permitted to dance with a lady without being obligated to offer for her the very next morning. Of course, you could just defy your grandmother and order her to live for another ten years or so if she wants to see your offspring. You are head of the family after all, Arch. It is your place to give orders, not hers.” He laughed again.