True of Heart – Martha Keyes

Philip Trent, Viscount Oxley, sorely regretted the rash promise he had made to marry when he turned thirty years old. It was the type of idiotic thing one did when one was sitting comfortably at the age of three-and-twenty, naïvely believing that, not only was thirty an eternity away, but that one would be infinitely wiser—almost a different creature entirely—when that time did arrive. Philip’s friend, Julius Finmore, had never been one to tiptoe around unwelcome subjects. “A month to woo and marry a bride,” Finmore said. They held glasses of punch in their hands, watching from the outer walls of the ballroom as couples skipped up and down the set together. “No, no.” Philip swallowed the last bit of his punch and placed it on the silver tray of a passing footman. “I never said by the time I turned thirty—merely that I would marry when I was thirty. It is a vital distinction, and it gives me an entire year.” Finmore leveled him an amused glance. “Afraid, are you? You’re not usually one for putting off unsavory tasks, Ox.” Philip smiled. “No, that is generally your domain, isn’t it?” The thought of marriage wasn’t exactly unsavory. Merely unsettling. But unsettling or no, it was his duty.

And, if his father were still alive, he wouldn’t have hesitated to say as much. According to him, thirty was the perfect age for marriage—“enough time to see a bit of the world but not so much time that a man gets too attached to his independence,” he had always said. Finmore smiled widely but shook his head of sandy blond hair. “I am merely a man who enjoys his…entertainments.” Yes, Finmore certainly enjoyed his entertainments. Women, horses, cards. Philip didn’t envy his friend’s debts, but he did sometimes envy his ease with women. Gentlemen often referred to him as Shark Fin, an allusion to his ability to steal any woman from any man with the stealth of a shark. “Well,” Finmore said, putting out a hand to display the couples dancing. “Which one will it be? There’s hardly a soul missing among the eligible women in London tonight.

If you want a woman fit to become Lady Oxley, this is as good a place as any to decide. Why not choose one? What about Miss Conroy?” Philip shook his head. Her name was on the list of candidates that sat in the drawer of his desk, but there was a neat line through it. There was a hint of instability about Miss Conroy if the scandal her elder sister had caused was any indication. “Miss Welland, then,” Finmore offered. Philip shook his head again. Miss Welland was stable enough, but her family came from new money. Philip’s father would never have approved. “Lady Eliza.” Ancient family but no money.

Philip’s father had made it clear what type of woman he expected Philip to marry: good family, wealthy, poised, free of scandal, and kind. Well, Philip had added that last one. Finmore turned to him, frowning. “Go on, then. Do you already have someone in mind?” Philip’s gaze flickered over to where Miss Rebecca Devenish stood on the far end of the ballroom. His eyes had found her the minute she’d walked in, hand elegantly holding up the side of her lilac gown. Still lilac. He was beginning to think she might never put off mourning entirely. And while he wasn’t precisely tripping over himself in a hurry to the altar, he couldn’t court her very well while she held men at arm’s length. She was everything a woman needed to be to fill the shoes of Philip’s mother.

He had watched her carefully since she had begun attending events again, though she never participated in the festivities. He had never seen her show anything but kindness to those who approached her, and it was that which had finally tipped the scales in her favor. He trusted that his observations indicated an even-keeled disposition—someone his father would approve of but who wouldn’t subject Philip to the hurt his mother had caused her family in private. Finmore didn’t miss the direction of Philip’s glance. “Ah,” he said with a knowing glance. “Right. Of course you would choose the one woman you cannot have.” Philip scoffed. “Cannot have?” Finmore cocked an eyebrow at him. “I have watched your oh-so-captivating transformation from strong, capable viscount to clumsy, blubbering idiot in the presence of women.

Like you, she has the pick of the Town, and I’m sorry, Ox, but she doesn’t seem to be interested in you.” Of course Finmore would have noticed what was a source of severe frustration to Philip. Miss Devenish didn’t seem to care overmuch about Philip’s title or wealth or even his appearance, which was generally thought to be well above the average. She treated him just as she treated every other man. He had hope, though, that once she was no longer in mourning, and once he made his intentions known, that would change. He swallowed uncomfortably at the thought that his hope might be an unfounded one. But he said nothing, merely watching as Miss Devenish and her father exchanged smiling remarks to one another. Her hair gleamed in the candlelit ballroom, arranged as it was in undulating twists and currents, like freshly poured honey. Her cheeks had that healthy, rosy glow that something artificial like rouge could never achieve. She was certainly not unpleasant to look at.

“I believe she does it to torture everyone,” Finmore said, eyes narrowed as he watched her. “Coming to events like this, I mean, and refusing to dance and make merry. I imagine it gives her a sense of power to hold everyone’s attention and keep the ton on its toes, waiting for her to arrive in anything but half-mourning. I cannot think her brother would wish her to mourn him for this long. Only a tyrant would.” Philip didn’t believe anything of the sort about Miss Devenish. Finmore, while very capable with women, held a great deal of cynicism toward them. Philip admired Miss Devenish’s devotion to her brother, even if he had a hard time understanding such familial affection. Finmore took a drink. “In any case, you will need help wooing her.

” “Wooing her?” Finmore raised his brows. “Yes, wooing her. What reason have you to think she would favor your suit over any of the others?” Philip shifted uncomfortably. He wasn’t arrogant, but one didn’t grow up a Trent of Oxley Court without a certain awareness of one’s desirability. Finmore chuckled, seeming to take Philip’s silence as answer enough. “No, Ox. You have your work cut out for you, I’m afraid. Miss Devenish wants to be swept off her feet by someone who knows how to charm.” “By which I am to understand that I lack such a skill?” Philip knew he did. But he didn’t like the thought that anyone else knew it—even a friend as close as Finmore.

Finmore clapped him on the shoulder. “Yes, Ox. Yes, you do. You are one of those fortunate men who has the luxury of ignoring the art of flattery because you have so many other means of attracting women. Oh, don’t look at me like that, as if I was conveying staggering news. You may be a Nonesuch in every other category, but everyone has their Achilles’ heel, you know. Luckily for you, it is a skill that can be learned.” Philip crossed his arms across his broad chest and laughed. “And you propose to teach me, I take it?” Finmore smiled. “No, I haven’t the patience that Herculean task would require.

” “It is just as well. I need a wife, not a reputation as a rake.” Finmore chuckled softly and lifted a brow as though a thought had occurred to him. “Perhaps what you need is someone like the Swan.” A passing woman sent a coy look at Finmore over her splayed fan, and he gave her a half-smile in return. Philip stifled an eye roll at the silent exchange. “The Swan?” Philip adjusted his cravat, more curious than he cared to let on. The young woman sent another glance over her shoulder at Finmore, and his eyes remained on her as he responded. “Yes. Something I heard from McQuaid the other day.

Apparently he accompanied his mother to some small town outside of London and discovered a self-proclaimed genius in the art of love—this Swan figure. McQuaid ascribes his success with Miss Curran to heeding the Swan’s counsel. I can find the man’s address if you’d like. Apparently, he runs an advice column in the local newspaper.” Philip waved his hand dismissively. “No, no.” Surely he wasn’t so hopeless as that with women. He sincerely hoped not. Finmore shrugged. “Suit yourself.

But I can promise you, Miss Devenish won’t be won by a man without any address, be his family and title ever so ancient. Her parents have promised to let her choose her husband, and she is too sentimental to marry purely for convenience. You might simply set your sights a bit lower. Any other woman in the room would have you willingly—oaf that you are.” He clapped Philip on the shoulder with a smile. “I’m for the card table. Join me?” Philip shook his head, but Finmore seemed to have anticipated the response and was already on his way out of the ballroom. Philip watched his friend disappear into the pockets of people between him and the doorway. The Swan. He scoffed silently.

He needed no such help. His eyes roved around the ballroom, finding Miss Devenish again. He wasn’t entirely sure what love felt like, but he didn’t think it was what he felt toward her. Nervous? Certainly. Awed? Why, yes. But he had chosen her for logical reasons, not sentimental ones. Love had little to do with marriage in a family like his. It was a strategic alliance. It was safer not to be in love, in fact. Love was a slippery, unpredictable thing.

It was chaos and vulnerability, and Philip enjoyed neither. He would rather be in control of himself. He spun the signet ring on his finger for a moment, tugged down on his coat, and made his way over to the far side of the ballroom. With every step closer to Miss Devenish, his heart beat a little more quickly. Devil take Finmore and his words—they were making Philip nervous, and he hated being nervous. It was as if, the moment he finally wished to please a woman, all of his good sense and confidence deserted him. How some silly swan was supposed to help that, Philip couldn’t at all see. The man would have to be very skilled indeed to affect Philip’s heart rate. Besides, he well knew what he had to recommend him—he merely needed to ensure Miss Devenish understood it too. His suit was the logical choice, and she was too smart to ignore such considerations for such a fickle thing as romance.

It wasn’t until the final steps toward her that he felt the sensation of his throat closing off, as if he’d tied his cravat for the neck of a five-year-old. No doubt the Swan would simply tell him to push through such a silly feeling—hardly anything he didn’t already know. “Good evening, Mr. Devenish. Miss Devenish.” His voice sounded small and pathetic, reminding him of the way it would squeak as a child whenever he spoke to his mother. Miss Devenish curtsied, and her father bowed, both smiling amiably upon him. “I know you are not dancing, Miss Devenish. I only wondered if you might desire me.” Philip cleared his throat, and his eyes grew wide as Mr.

Devenish’s brows went up slightly. “That is, what I meant was, I wondered if she might desire to take a turn about the room with me.” He swallowed the massive lump in his throat, wishing he could disappear. Apparently, his throat hadn’t closed off quite enough to prevent him from saying ridiculous and humiliating things. “I would be happy to procure a glass of lemonade for you as well, Mr. Devenish.” Mr. Devenish smiled but shook his head, nudging his daughter along with a hand on her back. “Go on, Rebecca. I shall be quite content to stay right here until you return.

” She took Philip’s offered arm with a polite smile that made his tongue feel too large for his mouth. He hated the uncertainty—not knowing what to say or how to please. It brought back too many unpleasant memories. As they threaded through the room toward the refreshments, Philip noted the various men whose eyes rested hungrily on Miss Devenish. He was grateful that the task of navigating through the crowd prevented him from needing to speak to her. They passed by Sir Allan with one of the Chesford twins on his arm, and Sir Allan sent Miss Devenish the type of intimate glance that caused Philip to set his jaw. Miss Devenish returned the glance with a smile then addressed herself to Philip. “And how are you this evening, Lord Oxley?” Her voice had a deep, pleasing quality to it that made her sound dignified and more mature than her twenty years. “Very well, thank you,” he said, glancing at the different glasses on the table and wondering whether he should offer her lemonade, ratafia, or punch. Everything he did seemed to carry great significance—as if the drink he offered Miss Devenish might determine whether or not she would receive his addresses.

His hand hesitated between the lemonade and the ratafia. “Lemonade will do, thank you,” she said. “I can never refuse a fresh batch on the occasions where it’s offered. So often it is made with powder now, and I do prefer it fresh squeezed.” She smiled gratefully as she took the glass from his hand. Seeing an opportunity, Philip took it. “I am pleased to know that you like it. We always serve it fresh at Oxley Court, so you will feel quite at home—would. Would. You would feel quite at home if—that is—” Miss Devenish looked bereft of speech, blinking at him wordlessly.

“Ah, Miss Devenish.” An unwelcome voice spoke from behind them, and Philip shut his eyes in consternation before turning toward it, at which point he was subjected to the theatrical bow of Finmore who, evidently, had changed his mind about the card table. Miss Devenish curtsied to Finmore who met Philip’s gaze with a humorous glint in his eyes. “I thought,” Finmore said, donning his most charming smile, “that you might enjoy seeing the magnificent ice sculpture that has just been put on display. I believe they are serving flavored ice at the table, which I imagine you will enjoy even more than that.” He indicated the glass of lemonade in her hand. “Ices?” she said with a hint of curiosity reflected in her blue eyes. Finmore nodded. “I would have brought you one, but I thought you might wish to choose between the flavors—a lemon and a parmesan, I believe.” Finally finding his tongue, Philip interjected.

“My apologies, Finmore, but I told Miss Devenish’s father that I would return her to him, and she hasn’t even had the chance to taste the lemonade she holds.” Finmore’s eyes gleamed with mischief. “I promise to return her to her father directly after visiting the ice sculpture—I have a matter I wish to speak with him about, in fact. But we shall let the lady decide, of course.” He looked to Miss Devenish with an attitude of patient confidence, and Philip suppressed the desire to throw a glass of lemonade in his friend’s face. Finmore was proving his earlier argument, and Philip well knew it. Miss Devenish glanced up at Philip, a hint of apology in her eyes. “I confess I have been wishing to try an ice, and I can only imagine how much I shall like it flavored with lemon. But of course, I shouldn’t wish to abandon you, Lord Oxley.” He was fairly certain that abandoning him was precisely what she wished to do.

He managed a small chuckle. “Not at all. I cannot speak for the lemon flavor of ice, but the parmesan is very enjoyable. I imagine Finmore intends to ensure you a taste of both—he is always so very giving of himself—so I shall leave you in his capable hands.” Miss Devenish’s mouth broke into a smile, and she handed her glass of lemonade back to Philip before taking the arm proffered by Finmore, dipping into a curtsy, and thanking Philip. “Oh, and Oxley,” Finmore said, guiding Miss Devenish away from the refreshments. “You might take a look at the ice sculpture when you have a chance. I imagine you will enjoy it. It is carved in the shape of two swans.” And with that Parthian shot, Finmore escorted his stolen charge gracefully through the ballroom, not even sparing a backward glance for Philip, who stood with two glasses of untouched lemonade in his hands.

.

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