The Eligible Earl – Joyce Alec

“This must be a little strange for you.” Frederica embraced the duchess. “No, indeed not,” she laughed as the duchess smiled back at her. “You were my chaperone last Season and this Season, you remain my chaperone—albeit as the duchess rather than a paid companion.” Her heart filled with happiness as she recalled how, a few months ago, she had been present at the wedding of her uncle, the Duke of Ellsworth, to Lady Foster, who had been Frederica’s paid companion. To see the clear and deep affection between them had made her yearn for such a thing herself and she hoped that, with this being her second Season, she might find a suitable gentleman of her own. “Well, our first ball is this evening,” the duchess reminded her, “and you have new gowns to try on this afternoon.” Frederica sighed contentedly and turned to look out of the window, down at the quiet London street. There were only one or two carriages at present although soon, Frederica knew that there would be many afternoon callers coming and going—although none for her yet, given that they had only arrived in London the previous day. “Are you looking forward to the Season?” the duchess asked, coming to stand beside Frederica. “It is your second one, but neither the duke nor I want you to feel any burden when it comes to matrimony. Your father and mother are of the same mind.” “Yet I find myself eager for such a thing,” Frederica replied, thinking fondly of her parents, who, at present, remained back at the estate with the rest of their children. “Last Season, I learned a good deal about society and the like.” “How could you not, given all that occurred?” the duchess asked, a wry smile on her lips.

“Indeed,” Frederica laughed, “but now that all is settled between you and my uncle, let us hope that this Season will be a good deal simpler than the last.” “I am sure it will be,” the duchess replied, smiling. “And I insist that you continue to call me ‘Louisa’. We are just as dear to each other as we were before I wed the duke, are we not?” “We are,” Frederica replied, reaching to embrace the duchess once more. “And I look forward to having your guidance and care during this Season also.” * * * Taking in a deep breath, Frederica lifted her chin and stepped forward into the ballroom, with the duke and duchess by her side. The music and the hubbub of conversation and laughter seemed so very familiar, and Frederica could not help but smile, finding herself quite glad to be back amongst society again. “I am sure you will have many acquaintances greeting you this evening,” the duchess said, slipping her arm through Frederica’s. “There will be many who will remember you.” “And I am sure that many will greet you also,” Frederica replied with a small smile.

“After all, marrying a duke will bring with it a great deal of interest.” The duchess laughed, her eyes bright. “But I shall direct all the attention toward you, have no doubt. I am sure that you will find many gentlemen eager for your acquaintance.” “But I should not like to wed a gentleman that is only considered suitable,” Frederica replied, speaking honestly and knowing that she could do so given the deep friendship between them. “I have seen the love and the friendship between you and my uncle, and I have decided that that is also what I myself seek.” The duchess said nothing for a moment, although there was a gentleness in her eyes that Frederica knew came from the mere thought of the duke. “That is wise, I believe,” the duchess said eventually. “Although I fear it may take you a little longer to find such a gentleman.” “I am willing to wait,” Frederica replied firmly, looking out across the sea of guests and finding her determination growing all the more.

“I do not think I would be satisfied with a marriage of convenience.” “Good evening, Lady Frederica.” In a moment, Frederica was drawn back into society as gentlemen and ladies approached her, speaking to her, the duke, and the new duchess. In only a few minutes, Frederica found her dance card already half full, her enjoyment of the evening growing with every moment. “Might I beg to make an introduction, Lady Frederica?” She turned to smile up at the Earl of Greenford, with whom she was already acquainted. “But of course,” she said, seeing the gentleman standing beside him, who was already bowing. “I should be very glad to meet any of your acquaintances, Lord Greenford.” Lord Greenford, who was a very amiable gentleman, if not something of a fop, given his penchant for dressing in an ostentatious manner, turned to the gentleman beside him and gestured toward him, twirling his hand as he did so. “Lady Frederica, might I present the Earl of Wetherby. Lord Wetherby, this is Lady Frederica, daughter to the Marquess of Dewsbury and niece to the Duke of Ellsworth.

” Frederica smiled and dropped into a curtsy as Lord Wetherby bowed for what was the second time. “Good evening, Lord Wetherby,” she said, lifting her eyes back to him. “I am very glad to make your acquaintance.” Lord Wetherby smiled back at her as Frederica took him in, seeing a somewhat square jaw, dark green eyes, and dark hair that he had evidently attempted to place into a neat style but that, unfortunately, had already become a little disheveled. “As I am glad to meet you,” he replied, smiling broadly. “Is this your first Season, Lady Frederica?” “My second,” she replied swiftly. “I am very happy to be returned back to London, however, Lord Wetherby.” “And you are here with the Duke and Duchess of Ellsworth, I understand,” the gentleman remarked, casting a quick glance toward the duchess, who was engaged in conversation with another lady. “Yes, my parents remain at home and the duke and duchess have been kind enough to take me back to London with them,” Frederica explained as Lord Wetherby nodded, looking more than a little interested. Frederica wondered silently whether the gentleman was truly interested in making her acquaintance or if, as she had said to the duchess earlier that evening, he merely wanted to make certain that he was now acquainted with the new Duchess of Ellsworth.

Frederica would, of course, have to introduce them both at some point. “I greatly appreciate their willingness.” Lord Wetherby smiled, his eyes darting back toward the duchess for a moment. “But of course,” he said, before looking back at Frederica. “Might I ask, Lady Frederica, whether or not you will permit me to dance with you this evening? I do hope that there are some dances left on your dance card, although, given just how many of the guests have come to speak to you this evening, I fear I have been much too tardy.” Frederica pulled the silk ribbon from her wrist and handed it to him. “But of course, Lord Wetherby,” she replied as he accepted it from her with an inclination of his head. “Thank you for your consideration.” He wrote his name quickly and then handed her back the card. “The quadrille, Lady Frederica,” he said as she thanked him.

“I do hope that I can remember all the steps. It has been some time since I have danced.” “As it has been for me, Lord Wetherby,” Frederica replied with a small smile. “And now, might I acquaint you with the Duchess of Ellsworth?” She turned toward Louisa, who had finished her conversation with the lady, and quickly made the introductions, seeing Lord Wetherby’s eyes light up as he bowed. Sighing inwardly, Frederica felt her shoulders slump just a little. It seemed that Lord Wetherby was more interested in furthering his own situation than being truly interested in Frederica’s company but, Frederica considered, he would not be the first gentleman to do so, or the last. To be known to the Duke and Duchess of Ellsworth, on their first Season in London as man and wife, was something that could be spoken of with great pride and would certainly elevate one’s status a little. “Our dance, Lady Frederica.” Lord Greenford bowed low and then offered her his arm. “The cotillion.

” “Indeed, Lord Greenford,” she smiled, throwing aside her irritation at Lord Wetherby’s behavior. “I thank you.” * * * “I am quite fatigued.” The duchess laughed and handed Frederica a glass of ratafia. “You have danced almost every dance this evening,” she said as Frederica smiled wearily. “I am very glad that all has gone well, however. It is an excellent return to society, my dear.” Frederica took a sip of her ratafia and looked down at her dance card. “I am to dance with Lord Wetherby next,” she said, one eyebrow lifting. “Although I must say that he was more than eager to meet you, Louisa.

” The duchess looked surprised. “Oh?” “He will be able to tell all of his acquaintances that he has now been introduced to you,” Frederica replied, a little wryly. “Not that such a thing should matter to me, of course.” With a small smile on her lips, the duchess patted Frederica’s arm gently. “I am sorry.” “It is not your fault, by any means,” Frederica cried, not wanting her friend to feel at all guilty. “He will not be the only gentleman who, being acquainted with me, will then seek to be acquainted with you also.” She lifted one shoulder in a half-shrug. “I will hope that his conversation will not be solely about my acquaintance with both you and my uncle, else I shall be very put out indeed.” The duchess laughed, only for her smile to become fixed in place and her eyes to round as she looked beyond Frederica and toward someone or something that she could not see.

“Lord Wetherby,” she murmured, now standing a little more stiffly than before. “He has very dark hair, does he not?” “Yes, he does,” Frederica replied, frowning as she looked back at the duchess. “Is something the matter?” The duchess pressed her lips together tightly. “Then I do hope that the dark-haired gentleman approaching is not Lord Wetherby, for I fear that he will not be particularly well able to dance.” Frederica turned sharply, hearing the alarm in the duchess’ voice and aware of her own heart quickening with concern. To her horror, she saw the newly acquainted Lord Wetherby coming toward her slowly, his steps slow as he swayed this way and the next, clearly already in his cups. Frederica caught her breath, her hand fluttering near her heart as she stared at the approaching gentleman. Surely he did not expect her to stand up with him now, not when he was in such a state as this. “Lady Frederica.” Lord Wetherby bowed low, staggering forward and only just managing to right himself in time before he fell to the floor.

“I apologize if I am tardy.” A broad smile settled across his face, his eyes glazed. “The dance is to be ours, is it not? Although, I confess that I have entirely forgotten what it is to be.” A swell of anger rose in Frederica’s chest. “Lord Wetherby, I hardly think that you should even be considering dancing in your present state,” she said firmly, lifting her chin as her jaw tightened. “You surely cannot think that I will be at all willing to stand up with you.” Lord Wetherby frowned, his smile fading. “Why ever not?” he asked, spreading his arms wide and accidentally hitting another gentleman across the back, although he did not once turn to apologize. “My name is on your dance card, is it not?” “It is,” she agreed tersely. “Then you have already consented to dance with me, Lady Frederica,” came the triumphant reply.

“Why should you now refuse?” He tilted his head and smiled at her, as though she ought to relish the fact that she was to dance with him, as though he fully expected to be able to do so without any difficulty. “Lord Wetherby,” Frederica replied as the duchess looked on, her brow furrowed. “You are foxed.” “I am not,” Lord Wetherby demanded, only to sway forward and backwards again as he did so, frowning hard as he attempted to right himself. “I may have had one or two—” “I may have your name on my dance card, Lord Wetherby, but nothing could induce me to stand up with you at present, given that you will, most likely, stumble, fall, tread on my feet, or fail to recall any of the steps that are required of you.” She spoke with calmness, her voice steady and her expression fixed even though a deep anger was filling her heart at Lord Wetherby’s drunken state. He was not behaving at all as a gentleman ought and she was becoming weary of his determination to dance with her regardless. “Therefore, despite the fact that I do have your name on my dance card, I cannot accept a dance from you. I will remain here, Lord Wetherby, and despite the fact that you might consider me somewhat rude, I will refrain from accepting your offer.” Lord Wetherby’s frown deepened, and he made to say something more, only for Lord Greenford to step forward.

He put one hand on Lord Wetherby’s arm, clearly aware of just how foxed his friend was and how difficult the situation was for Frederica at present. “I think the lady is correct, Lord Wetherby,” he said kindly. “Remain here and I will take your dance for you.” He smiled at Frederica, who closed her eyes for a moment with relief. “That is, Lady Frederica, if that would be amenable to you?” Frederica opened her eyes and smiled back at Lord Greenford, a sense of relief in her heart. “Thank you, Lord Greenford, I should be glad to dance with you again,” she said as Lord Wetherby muttered something under his breath and looked away. “You are most understanding.” “But of course,” Lord Greenford replied, his hand falling from Lord Wetherby’s arm as the gentleman turned away entirely, stumbling off into the crowd. Frederica’s eyes followed him for a long moment, her brow puckered as she shook her head to herself, thinking that Lord Wetherby was the most ridiculous of all the gentlemen she had been acquainted with thus far. “Forgive Lord Wetherby,” Lord Greenford said, evidently seeing the direction of her gaze.

“He will regret his actions and his words come the morning, I am quite certain.” “If he recalls them,” the duchess added, making Frederica smile and chasing the frown from her forehead. “Thank you for stepping in in such a manner. You are very kind.” Lord Greenford bowed and offered Frederica his arm. “It is my honor to do so,” he said as Frederica accepted him. “Shall we dance, Lady Frederica?” “We shall,” Frederica replied contentedly as she made her way out with Lord Greenford, relieved beyond expression that she would not have to stand up with Lord Wetherby. Silently, she promised herself that she would never again accept a dance from Lord Wetherby, thinking quietly to herself that a gentleman such as he had already shown her the true depths of his character. If he could not remain in control of himself, if he could not do anything but indulge his own desires, then what did that say of his character? Giving herself a slight shake, Frederica took her place and smiled back at Lord Greenford, before dropping into a curtsy, as was expected. Lord Greenford bowed and then the music began, encouraging Frederica to think only of the dance and to push all thought of Lord Wetherby from her mind.

Yes, she had been a little insulted and yes, he had behaved in the most ridiculous fashion but there was no need to consider him any longer. Lord Greenford had come to her rescue and Frederica was quite certain that the rest of the evening would be quite splendid. With a smile on her face and a contentedness returning to her heart, Frederica stepped forward into her dance with Lord Greenford and forgot all about the ridiculous Lord Wetherby.

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