About the book
She never really craved attention, until she tasted his…
Melissa Alford, youngest daughter of the Duke of Greyfield, has always been the black sheep of her family. When her mother arranges a betrothal for her older sister, her life changes in the most unexpected way.
Patrick Dutton, Marquess of Bergon, takes pride in being a very responsible young gentleman. But even though his word is his bond, he immediately falls for the rebellious, youngest daughter of the Duke instead of his intended, whom he finds completely dull.
When Melissa suddenly disappears into the woods, people realize this is not one of her usual games. With wolves as the least of her problems, Patrick is determined to find her before the night is out.
Soon it becomes apparent that someone is behind the disappearance and that the key to the riddle just might lie in a birthmark...
A Birthday Mix-Up
Melissa Alford was up with the birds, as she was wont to do, on the day of her birthday ball. Leaping out of bed, she put on her shoes before slipping out the door and down the back stairs. As expected, Brynn was waiting at the bottom with a hot cup of ale and a plaid shawl for Melissa to wrap around her head.
She led Melissa to the mews where they saddled two horses and took off for Convent Garden, Brynn’s basket looped securely over her arm. They would get to the market just as the fresh produce was arriving and then Brynn would do the day’s shopping; picking two bundles a penny, primroses to put in a vase in the hall, perhaps some fried eels for breakfast. They might get a pint of milk, another of ale, and a bushel of apples.
Melissa never knew exactly the shopping list they were going for, but she loved to accompany Brynn on these early morning runs. It was the only time she felt free as nobody knew nor cared who she was beneath her coverings. As the youngest child of The Duke of Greyfield, a great and powerful gentleman, it was difficult to go anywhere without immediately becoming the center of attention.
So, she tucked her dark hair under the shawl and hid her warm complexion from the casual gaze. Her hazel eyes looked hither and thither, taking in all the sights as they peeked mischievously from the tip of the cashmere wool covering her face.
She knew that she only got away with her escapades because there was no way that her mother would rise before ten in the morning and neither would her sister, Rose. Melissa cherished these few hours of freedom, where she did not have to listen to her mother harping on about her faults and failings. She could simply be nothing more than a girl of nine and ten with nothing to do but sit by her friend as she purchased the household produce.
They arrived back at Greyfield House just as her father was stirring. They stood back as footmen hurried up the stairs bearing hot water for The Duke’s morning ablutions. As soon as they were gone, Melissa hurried to the back stairs and crept back up to her room. Diving under the covers, she closed her eyes and feigned sleep.
Not three hours later, she was roughly shaken by Brynn, only then realizing that her pretense of sleep had become reality.
“Wha…?” she mumbled as she jerked awake.
“Her Grace says for you to join her in the library now, My Lady. She has the dressmaker come to do last fittings.” Brynn hissed in her ear.
Melissa felt irritation burn at her craw. “Last fittings? Why? Does she expect I have gained weight in the three days since we got the gowns?”
“I’m sure I don’t know, My Lady. Are you going to go or do you want to wait for her to come for you herself? You know that she will.”
Melissa grunted resentfully. “Can she curb her impulse to make my life difficult for one day? It’s my birthday.”
“Perhaps you should ask her.” Brynn shrugged, manhandling Melissa out of her nightgown. She wrestled a corset tight around Melissa’s torso before dropping a simple blue muslin gown over her head, paying no heed to her mumbled complaints.
“There. Let me just add some color to your face and sweep your hair into a knot, and you will be ready to face your mother.”
Melissa snorted. “When am I ever ready to face her? Mother is such a nightmare.”
“Well, today is your day, so try and enjoy it, hmm?” Brynn squeezed her shoulder before picking up Melissa’s discarded nightgown and riding clothes and exiting the room.
She would wash the clothes personally, so as to ensure that if there were any traces of Convent Garden mud along the hem of Lady Melissa’s habit, nobody else would be any the wiser.
This was a dangerous game Brynn was playing with The Duke’s daughter but the lady’s maid saw how unhappy Lady Melissa was, trying to live up to her mother’s impossible expectations. If a simple ride to the market at the crack of dawn gave her some relief, who was Brynn to refuse her that?
She had grown up with Lady Melissa, her mother being the Greyfield Housekeeper. When she had turned twelve, her mother had started her off as a scullery maid but she soon got promoted to maid of all work and then to her current position as lady’s maid to The Duke and Duchess’ youngest daughter.
The Greyfields only had the two daughters which was just one more unusual thing about them. They did not seem eager to try for a son and heir, despite the vast lands and property that The Duke owned. He was one of the most powerful people in the land; why Brynn had heard it said that he had the ear of the Prince!
But his wife was a miserable old hag for all that, seeming to enjoy inflicting pain and misery on everyone around her, most especially Lady Melissa. Only her older daughter, Lady Rose, was immune.
Brynn found it passing strange but it wasn’t her place to comment.
Patrick Dutton, Marquess Bergon was up at the crack of dawn and ready to leave before the majority of his household had yawned their way to full alertness. He had promised to be present at the docks when the new shipment of furniture his father had ordered from China arrived.
Herbert Dutton, Duke of Cheshmill had recently remarried. His wife, Alexandra, much younger than he, could be described as a diamond of the first water with very particular tastes. She had decided to redecorate the Cheshmill Town House in a manner befitting her tastes. Said tastes demanded an entire set of furniture from the Far East and His Grace was in a mood to indulge her.
He was not, however, in a mood to do any of the actual heavy lifting. For that, he had Patrick, his firstborn, always eager to please and perpetually at The Duke’s beck and call. He could rely on Patrick to not only make sure the shipment was intact and accurate but also arrange for it to be installed under his new wife’s exacting instructions.
Meanwhile, The Duke would hole up at White’s until it was done.
Patrick found his stepmother’s new furniture to be garish in the extreme. Just because something was exotic did not mean it was good. His mother had decorated the Town House in earth tones; blending greens and browns together to produce a peaceful whole that invited one to sit back and relax. They were to be replaced with Lady Cheshmill’s furniture upholstered in blood-red silk and wall hangings with stark gold embellishments not to mention a gold-plated dragon sculpture and dozens of red and gold silk pillows.
It rather reminded Patrick of the high-end brothel his uncle Milford had taken him to on the occasion of his twenty-first birthday, two years ago. Pausing, his eyes on the middle distance and a slight smile on his face, he called to mind the spirited redhead that had dived down and swallowed him whole…
A sigh escaped him and he shook his head slightly to clear it of the memories so that he could focus on dealing with the customs agent at hand.
He cleared his throat. “Excuse me, good sir, I am here for the Cheshmill shipment.”
The man looked up, frowning at Patrick, the agent could not believe that the Marquess had the nerve to disturb his day in such a manner.
“Cheshmill? Which shipment is that?”
“The furniture, from China. I believe it was to come in with your ship on the 18th, according to the notice sent to my father.”
Patrick lifted an elegant blonde eyebrow as he looked down at the agent from his six-foot height. He caressed his chin as he waited for the agent to show any sign that he knew how to do his job.
The man sighed, looking up at Patrick like his presence was a huge inconvenience. He got slowly to his feet as if he was fighting arthritic knees before shuffling off to check on the Cheshmill shipment. Rolling his eyes, Patrick turned to watch the ships as they made their way into London Harbor. Even at this early hour, the River Thames was teeming with marine life, the harbor bustling with life. The mud larks were busy already, collecting debris.
The customs agent was back, clutching at a piece of paper as if it was trying to escape.
“Yes, Mr. uh?” he lifted an eyebrow in inquiry.
“I am the Marquess of Bergon, son of The Duke of Cheshmill.”
The customs agent visibly stiffened his spine. “Oh, well, uh, your shipment has er, arrived. You can collect it from Warehouse three. I just need your signature or seal on this document,” he held out the document in question, hand shaking slightly.
With an inward sigh, Patrick took the paper, extracted wax and his father’s signet ring which he used to stamp the paper. He handed it back to the customs agent still in silence. The customs agent led him to the right warehouse, Patrick towering over him as he cut a tall, strong, elegant figure with his pristine white pantaloons tucked neatly into his knee-high boots. His black tail coat provided a suitable contrast while highlighting his broad-shouldered, narrow-hipped silhouette. He wore a tall hat, his blond curls peeking through on the sides.
Patrick was accompanied by several footmen who helped unload the furniture from the warehouse, loading it onto the wagons from whence they would be transported to Mayfair.
He was bleakly hopeful that he would not be pulled into any consultations related to arranging the furniture as his only advice would have been to throw it all out and begin again.
Heaving a sigh of relief that he did not have to live there–and sparing a sympathetic thought for his poor sister–he climbed into his carriage, which lead the team of wagons on their short journey to transport the new furniture to its home. He made sure–as instructed–to take the scenic route so that as many of The Duke’s neighbors as had servants walking about could see that The Duchess was making the Cheshmill townhouse her own.
He could well understand her need to make an impression. The late Duchess, Patrick’s mother, had been a force to reckon with in the ton. She had been loved and respected. As a consequence, the new Duchess was treated as something of a usurper. Patrick knew this was unfair, and tried his best to demonstrate his good wishes toward her. But Lady Cheshmill did herself no favors by her loud and gaudy disregard of anything and everything his mother had held dear.
They arrived at the Cheshmill townhouse on the dot of ten-o’clock, just in time for Her Grace to receive them in her drawing room, instructing the footmen on where exactly everything went. Patrick excused himself as soon as possible, his duty done.
The air was crisp and a slight drizzle salted his cheeks with cold droplets. Patrick elected to walk, for even though he was a little late, he thought he might pass by Convent Garden and see if the mystery girl was there again today.
He attributed his fascination with her to the mystery she presented. He had noticed her one morning as he took the air on horseback. Although she was dressed similarly to the lady’s maid she rode with, and her shawl covered her head completely, she sometimes forgot to change out of her bedroom slippers. They were very impractical for riding, made of silk lined with gold lame as they were.
The first time Patrick had noticed them, he had been eager to see if he could guess who the young lady was and what exactly she was about. He had no doubt that whoever her unfortunate guardian was, he had no idea of her early morning adventures in produce shopping.
It worried him sometimes when he thought of her out there, unprotected apart from her lady’s maid. There was little he could do about it as he did not know who she was. Still, he liked to watch over her as she haggled inelegantly over potatoes or fresh fish, her voice deliberately roughened to sound similar to that of her maid.
It was ridiculous.
It was amusing.
It was dangerous.
Any day now, her guardian would find out what she was doing and the mystery girl would disappear. Patrick might run into her at a ball or attend her wedding and he would never know that it was her.
What a sad ending that would be to this adventure.
He walked around Convent Garden for a while, keeping an eye out for her or her companion. After an hour, he conceded that it was too late in the morning for her to still be gallivanting about unsupervised and went home to his house on Grosvenor Street.
He intended to ride immediately for the country, in part because he much preferred it to London but also because he wanted to be as far away as possible lest Lady Cheshmill decides she wanted his input in her household design. He put himself out to be civil to the woman because his father had chosen her and surely, he must have seen something worth having. Still, he could not deny that he found her draining to his spirit.
He had an excellent excuse for his flight from Town. He was to hold a grouse-hunting party a week hence and he needed the time to prepare. He had extended an invitation to The Duke and hoped that he would find time to attend. He had a deep respect for his father and cherished the few talks they had on any topic from the health of his horses to that of his finances. Any advice his father could give him was deeply appreciated.
He stepped into his house; coat held out for his butler to take before walking to the morning room in search of breakfast. Stirring some lemon into his tea, he stared out of the window before turning back to the table as his butler walked in with the mail on a tray. He caught sight of his father’s seal on a note and his heart rate sped up.
He had seen his father just the day before when he had sent Patrick on his errand. He could not imagine why The Duke would feel the need to write him a note today unless something untoward had occurred. He snatched the note, tearing the seal so he could read it.
My dear Patrick,
You may hear some rumors about me as you go about your business today. I pray that you take no notice of it. I shall speak with you more on this later.
A Bit of Intrigue
Patrick’s brow furrowed as he read the note again, wondering what his father could possibly mean by it. He felt his heart rate speed up with anxiety as he worried for The Duke’s wellbeing. He was aware that his father had many enemies who might like to see him destroyed. He knew this because his father had told him so.
He got to his feet, breakfast forgotten and strode toward the door, his butler scurrying behind him with anxious questions.
“I need my coat. Have a coach brought around,” he declared brusquely, not bothering to turn around.
“Yes, m’ lord,” his butler overtook him in his haste to get to the coat rack, while simultaneously gesturing for the footman to go around to the mews for the coach and six. He held out Patrick’s coat to him, his face twisted with anxiety. He clearly wanted to ask what had gotten his lordship so riled up but was too well trained to impose on his master in such a manner.
Patrick grabbed his coat, striding out the door without waiting for Andrews to drape it over his shoulders. The day was windy but he hardly noticed. The coach came around from the alley between his house and the next. He hurried forward, not waiting for the tiger to open the carriage door, but doing it himself.
“Take me to White’s Gentleman’s Club,” he called to his coachman as the tiger leaped onto his platform. They took off in a rush, understanding that Patrick did not want to waste any time. It did not take long to get to the club and he, again, bounded out of the carriage without waiting for assistance. He blew into the club like a gale, his eyes seeking hither and thither for his father.
The man in question was sitting with a group of noblemen as they played a game of cards, seeming quite unperturbed by any rumor that might be making the rounds.
“Father,” Patrick murmured softly, coming up behind The Duke. His Grace turned his head, rolling his eyes comically in order to see Patrick.
“Bergon? What are you doing here?” he snapped.
“I...” Patrick was at a loss. The tone of his father’s note did not match his current devil-may-care attitude. He frowned; his eyes narrowed as he tried to figure his father out.
“Well?” he Duke prompted.
“I received your note. I thought we might discuss it further as it was rather short on details.”
His father’s eyes first widened, and then narrowed. “Well, this is hardly the place for that discussion. Perhaps we can meet later in your home. I am rather busy at the moment.”
Patrick bowed his head. “Of course, father.” He turned on his heel and walked out, feeling quite wrong footed.
As much as her mother had ambivalent feelings toward her, Thalia Alford, Duchess of Greyfield was determined that nothing would ruin Melissa’s birthday ball.
Like a whirlwind, she swept Melissa up in her preparations. First stop, Mrs. Thomas’ where she was made to stand still while the dressmaker poked, prodded and stuck pins in her one more time, just to make sure her dress was a perfect fit. Next, they had to pick up their hats from Mrs. Bell, before stopping by Wood for their footwear.
Once the clothes were sorted out, there was still accessories. Melissa was to wear an emerald necklace from Rundell and Bridge, exclusively designed for the occasion. It would complement her burnished-gold gown and bring out her tan skin as well as cause her hazel eyes to shine. It was the linchpin that pulled her look together and an excellent talking point for her guests.
Melissa would have preferred to have a nice tea with her best friend, who was also her lady’s maid, Brynn, and call it a celebration, but that was never going to happen. Her family had an image to maintain in spite of anyone’s–her mother’s–personal feelings for her.
She and Brynn were as close as sisters but sometimes Melissa would look at her own sister with regret. The relationship she shared with her lady’s maid should have been one she shared with her real sister. Instead, their mother had them at loggerheads, forever in competition for their mother’s approval. Rose always won that race, and Melissa had reached the point where she was resigned to that outcome. It still hurt her, however, that she could not have a warm, loving relationship with either of them.
Why does she hate me? Melissa often pondered this, for as far back as she could remember, her mother treated her with cold resentment and impatient irritation. What did I do to deserve this?
Her heart twisted with pain even as she thought it. There was a brisk knock on her door and then Brynn was bustling into the room, talking a mile a minute.
“It’s time Melissa, for us to get you ready for your big day. The footmen are bringing the large tub so that you can soak in hot water and rose petals while I lay out your clothes.”
“Are you trying to say I smell, Brynn?” Melissa grinned at her lady’s maid.
“You certainly do not smell like roses, but you will after your bath.”
Melissa sighed. “It’s all so tedious.”
Brynn gave her a sympathetic glance. “Oh, Lady Melissa, you should be excited. It's like you’re a princess. Everyone’s attention will be on you, they will pamper you and toast you and give you presents. How can you not like that?”
Melissa tried to smile, unsuccessfully. “I suppose I sound very ungrateful to you.”
Brynn hurried forward to rub at Melissa’s arm. “No! Of course, you don’t. I know why you don’t like all this. You’re a simple girl at heart who would rather have something real than something ostentatious. But that should not stop you from enjoying the prezzies!”
Melissa rolled her eyes. “I wish we could change places. You would enjoy this much more than me. And where did you learn a word like ostentatious?”
Brynn snorted. “Please. Do you think I don’t read all the same books you do? You taught me to read so why are you surprised that I know words?”
Melissa grinned, squeezing her arm. “I’m not surprised that you know them. I’m taken aback that you use them.”
Brynn shrugged. “When it’s just you and me, I can use any words I want. Other people might think I was bein’ uppity.”
Melissa shook her head. “It’s a lonely life isn’t it.”
Brynn smiled wide at her. “Not really. I have you, don’t I?”
Their conversation was interrupted by the maids of all work, carrying pails of hot water. It was time to get ready for the ball.
When the maids had left, Melissa stripped down to her birthday suit and lowered herself into the heated water. The tub was next to the fire and she lay back, luxuriating in the warmth, appreciating the lap of water against her flesh. Her hand brushed against the butterfly birthmark against her waist and she traced it languidly as Brynn spread rose petals in the water.
She sighed, closing her eyes. “I don’t ever want to leave this tub.”
Brynn laughed. “Eventually, the fire will die down and the water will get cold, you’ll change your mind.”
Melissa smiled, her eyes still closed, her head resting on the edge of the tub while dark hair hung in cascades, outside the tub. “That sounds like an analogy for something.”
Brynn snorted. “Analogy? What does that mean?”
Melissa’s eyes opened and she gave Brynn a look. “Ah, so now you pretend ignorance. Convenient isn’t it?”
Thalia Alford, Lady Greyfield, tapped her foot impatiently as she waited for her daughters to join her for a light meal before the ball. Her husband had been scheduled to join them but he had sent a note that he was delayed at Whitehall.
He had been summoned for an impromptu meeting. Closeness to the crown had its advantages, but His Grace was forever at the beck and call of the Prince. It irked Thalia to no end.
Her firstborn, Rose, entered the room and Thalia smiled with approval. Rose was already dressed for the ball in blue and silver, a perfect foil for her sister’s gold and green. If only Melissa would comport herself like a lady for one night, they might just end up having the premiere ball of the year; one which Thalia could boast about for a while.
“You look well, Rose.”
Her daughter curtsied prettily. “Why thank you, Mother. That’s kind of you to say.”
While her silver necklace had not been designed specifically for this night, unlike Melissa’s, Rose’s was garnished with blue diamonds that shone against her alabaster skin. She and Melissa were night and day in every way; Thalia could not fathom how she had birthed two people who were so different.
Even as she thought it, Melissa came rushing into the room, a flyaway curl in her face, walking too fast, breathing too hard. Thalia felt a familiar bolt of irritation streak through her and she frowned.
“Slow down Melissa. That is no way for a lady to move.”
Melissa’s mouth twisted, further irritating Thalia. Nobody liked a bad-tempered girl.
“Yes, mother,” she replied biting off the ‘s’ as if it were Thalia’s finger. Lady Greyfield stiffened in her seat and opened her mouth to snap at her daughter but stopped as she spotted the butler enter the room.
“Your Grace,” he said with a bow, “your mother has arrived.”
Thalia sighed, rolling her eyes. Of course, her mother was early. For some reason, the dowager Lady Belford had a soft spot for Melissa. Thalia could not imagine why.
“Send her in, Biggs. And bring in some refreshment for the girls and me.”
“Yes, Your Grace.” Biggs backed out of the room and not a moment later, Thalia’s mother was bustling in, kissing her grandchildren and generally making a nuisance of herself. Thalia looked away from her mother and focused on her breathing. Tonight, was a big night and anyone who was anyone in the realm was invited.
Thalia’s heart sank as she thought of two men she was not looking forward to seeing. One had blackmailed his way onto the guest list, the other was a close friend of the Prince as well and could not be left out. She feared that the evening might prove too much for her what with having to deal with her daughter’s peccadillos already. She was exhausted and the ball had not even begun.
Melissa opened the dance on her father’s arm. He twirled her across the room, a proud smile on his face, while the assembled audience watched. The ladies whispered behind their fans as they simpered at the gentlemen. Melissa spotted Brynn and the other servants walking about with trays laden with champagne, sherry, and strawberry cordial. Brynn winked when she spotted Melissa’s eyes on her and Melissa almost grinned before remembering herself.
She turned to her father, a smile on her face.
“Are you enjoying yourself?” he asked softly.
“Yes, father. Everything is lovely.”
His eyebrow rose. “You have your mother to thank for that, you know?”
Melissa exhaled sharply, “Oh, father, do stop.”
Her father was forever trying to reconcile Melissa and her mother. She did not know why he had not realized by now, that it was a waste of energy. Her mother hated her, for reasons unknown to Melissa–and she had long since stopped trying to change Lady Greyfield’s mind.
“Hope springs eternal,” Lord Greyfield hummed as he swept her across the room.
“Perhaps I shall find a husband tonight and then she shall not have to deal with me for much longer,” Melissa grumbled.
Her father laughed. “Well, unless you plan to find a husband for your sister as well, your hopes might not come to fruition as fast as you might wish.”
Melissa harrumphed, “Rose would be married by now if she would only accept one of the many offers she has received.”
“Our Rose is very particular, as are you.” Lord Greyfield raised both eyebrows at her in challenge.
“Yes, well.” Melissa looked away because she could not dispute his words. As daughters of the most powerful Duke in the land, the offers of marriage had poured in from the first day of both their coming-out balls. Her father was indulgent of them and let them decide which to accept. So far, both girls had not found a fitting suitor amongst the many.
“Never fear my dear, you have plenty of time. Now, this is your night, so turn that frown upside down and smile for me, my dear daughter.”
Melissa did as she was bid. Her father was right. This was her night and she would enjoy it to the maximum. All she had to do was avoid her mother for the rest of the evening.
Patrick stepped into Greyfield House behind his father and straightened his tailcoat compulsively as they were announced. He accepted a glass from a passing serving girl before stepping into the ballroom proper. He looked around; eyebrows raised at the ostentation. Patrick knew the occasion was more about business than pleasure since his father had neglected to bring his new wife with him.
Everything was draped in gold and green; from the floor-length curtains framing the windows to the sashes draped around the servers who were also dressed in green, their white gloves gleaming in the light from the gold chandelier above. The marble floor of the ballroom was crisscrossed with gold-leaf inlays, now filled with dancing couples.
He looked around for their hosts, intending to pay his respects. He turned to say as much to his father and found that he had crossed the room and was now in deep conversation with The Duchess of Greyfield.
“Oh, looks like you beat me to it,” he murmured to himself.
“I beg your pardon?” a light voice asked from his right. He turned to find a young lady, dressed in a blue gown, her neck, and ears adorned with silver and diamonds.
“Forgive me,” he bowed to her, “I do not think we have been introduced.”
“Indeed, we have not. However, if you ask me to dance, we would not have broken propriety.”
Patrick smiled at her forwardness, as well as her cleverness. “You are right.” He held out his hand to her, “Would you do me the honor of this dance, lady?”
“Greyfield. Rose Greyfield,” she said placing her delicate small hand in his.
They took their places on the dance floor, smiling politely as strangers do. “Rose Greyfield you said?” Patrick ventured to ask, “Are you a relation of the birthday girl?”
Rose’s mouth twisted. “I am her sister.”
She did not seem too pleased about it. Patrick lifted an eyebrow in surprise.
“Is she younger than you or older?”
Rose smiled coyly at him, her eyelashes fluttering. “Are you saying I look younger than nineteen years?”
Patrick had been saying no such thing as he had not actually been aware of the age of the birthday girl. Yet he knew he could not say that so he just murmured noncommittally.
“She’s my younger sister actually.” Rose was still giving him that pleased smile and Patrick did not know what to do with it.
They whirled around the dance floor until the song came to an end, and then Patrick dutifully deposited her on a chair. As they had not been formally introduced, he simply took a bow and left in search of his father.
“They do make an excellent couple, don’t they?” Lord Cheshmill whispered in her ear, his voice full of glee.
“I don’t see it.” Thalia looked away from her dear daughter and the man she was dancing with–who was apparently Cheshmill’s son. She had no intention of giving in this time. He could not make her ransom her daughter.
“Don’t you? Personally, I think they are a perfect match. You should think about it, Lady Greyfield. I’m sure you’ll come to agree with me. And look at how she is regarding him with so much adoration already. I feel quite sure Lady Rose will have no objection to this match.”
Thalia exhaled a breath sharply from her nose as she flew her colors. There was very little she could do if The Duke insisted on going this route. He had her well and truly backed into a corner and they both knew it.
“What could you possibly want with Rose?” she hissed.
“Surely you must have heard those ugly rumors about me that are doing the rounds,” his eyes were scanning the crowd and he barely moved his lips as he spoke.
“I have no need to listen to gossip,” she snapped.
He snorted. “Well, you’re missing out. It’s all quite juicy. And the irony is that it’s not even true. However, should it reach certain ears and they believe it, well, my life could become very difficult. But if your family is willing to join with mine then obviously, such talk cannot be true.”
“Just what is it are you rumored to have done this time, Cheshmill?”
“Oh, it's too ugly for polite company. And there is no need for you to know any of it. Simply inform your daughter that she has found a groom and let nature take its course.”
“My daughter will not agree to some arranged marriage.”
Lord Cheshmill looked out at the crowd where his son was steering Lady Rose around the dance floor with the utmost solicitude. She was looking up at him, eyes shining as he led her in the quadrille. “I do not think she will object too much,” he murmured before stepping away from her and losing himself in the crowd.
Patrick made small talk with Lord Fellowes, who cornered him wanting to know about the import/export business. His Grace, The Duke of Cheshmill was known to dabble, however, it was rather vulgar of Lord Fellowes to bring it up. Patrick had heard that he might be punting on River Tick, and judging by the frayed nature of his duds, that just might be true.
It would account for his rather forward questions and general air of desperation.
“I’m sure if you come by my office at Westminster, we can discuss it in further detail,” Patrick said quellingly. He looked around for someone who might rescue him and caught sight of his father milling about. “I see my father,” he murmured. “Must go.”
With that, he hurried away as fast as he could not wanting to give Fellowes even a moment to come up with a further reason why they should remain in conversation. He cast a look over his shoulder, to make sure he had shaken the man when he bumped into someone.
“Oh, I’m so…” he began to say before looking forward to seeing the most intense hazel eyes he had ever laid eyes upon. They were so alive and aware, that they stopped Patrick dead in his tracks.
“Oh,” he said softly, “Good evening.”
She smiled at him, wide and amused. “I can’t speak to you,” she whispered, “we haven’t been introduced.” Her eyes were dancing with mirth and mischief that he just had to know who she was.
“In that case, may I have this dance?” he said at once.
“I would like nothing better. Unfortunately, my dance card is full,” her eyes really did look regretful. Right on cue, a hand took her elbow as Lord Mountbatten appeared at her shoulder.
“I do believe this is my dance, Lady Melissa,” his smile was pleasant enough as he looked between them, still Patrick found himself suppressing a growl. He had it on good authority that Mountbatten was in the marriage mart this season.
He watched Mountbatten lead her to the ballroom floor, an inexplicable burning in his chest. “Melissa.” he murmured softly to himself, watching her smile at Mountbatten, those hazel eyes seemingly focused solely on him. He sighed and then stiffened in remembrance.
A ball to celebrate the nineteenth birthday of Lady Melissa Greyfield.
That was what the invitation had stated. Patrick could not believe he had forgotten. He raised his eyes to her again, studying her features. The burnished-gold gown she wore matched well with the décor yet managed to outshine it. The emerald at her throat was surely one of a kind, and Patrick knew his jewels. His father was forever sending him to buy some for his stepmother. She moved with easy grace, her smile lighting up the room.
“I must find someone to introduce me,” he murmured. Perhaps if he cornered her with Lord Mountbatten after the dance, he could get an introduction that way. Or perhaps he could find his father who evidently knew the girl’s mother.
That would be much simpler.
He resumed his search for The Duke and before too long, found him in an adjacent hall, at a game of whist. He stood patiently waiting by his father’s chair for him to be done with the round. His father was aware that he was waiting, yet seemed to slow down his game as a result, as if he meant to test Patrick’s patience.
Patrick took a deep breath and called on all his reserves of strength so he could wait uncomplainingly until his father was done.
“What is it, Bergon?” The Duke asked, getting to his feet.
“Father, I was hoping that you might introduce me to the belle of the ball. Lady Melissa Greyfield.”
“Mmmph. Her sister is much more your speed,” The Duke said making his way back to the ballroom.
“Perhaps you can introduce me to them both then,” Patrick said not wanting to argue with his father. He had met Lady Rose and she was indeed lovely. But she lacked the spark her sister exuded so effortlessly. It really was no competition. However, he was willing to make both their acquaintances if it achieved his goal.
They were just in time for the toasts from The Duke of Greyfield, as well as the Prince Regent. Patrick waited until The Duke had taken the Regent off elsewhere before urging his father forward so that he could introduce Patrick to The Duchess and her daughters.
Her Grace’s brow furrowed ever so slightly as she set eyes on them but then it cleared and she gave a tight smile. His father gave an elegant leg.
“Your Grace, may I introduce my son, Patrick Dutton, Marquess of Bergon?”
Patrick bowed to The Duchess, taking her hand and bestowing a kiss above it in the manners of the French, before turning to her daughters with a smile.
The Duchess gestured toward them with her fingers. “My daughters, Lady Rose and Lady Melissa Greyfield,” she said in a rather offhand manner.
Patrick smiled wide, “It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance.” He made a leg first to Lady Rose and then to Lady Melissa. When his blue eyes met her bright hazel, hers were dream-catching sunbeams and sparkling with merriment.
He was fascinated.
Melissa was enjoying herself, savoring all the attention she was receiving as well as the good wishes, the camaraderie, even the occasional proposal. She had taken Brynn’s advice and immersed herself in the experience.
But then she’d been craning her neck wondering where Lord Mountbatten had gone to when someone bumped into her from behind. She had turned around, eyebrows already haughtily raised when she fell into eyes the color of sky crystal, regarding her with the kind of fascination one usually reserved for exotic animals.
Her eyebrow rose of its own volition and she smiled, taking him all in. She had never seen him before which was strange as the ton was not that large.
But when she found out who his father was, she was indeed not surprised that she did not know him. They did not run in the same circles. Even though Cheshmill was a Duke, he was hardly top of the trees. He was known to have a hand in commerce and was little better than a mushroom or a nabob.
Not that Melissa cared about such things, but her mother certainly did. She was quite surprised that The Duke and his family were even invited to her ball. His wife was known to be quite vulgar. It was all a little too finicky for Melissa, given her early morning activities, but whatever the reason they were here, she was glad. The Marquess of Bergon had certainly piqued her interest with his glacial eyes and his blatant stares.
“It is very nice to–formally–meet you,” Rose said stepping in front of Melissa and blocking her view of the Marquess. Her lips twisted as she took a step to the side so that she could keep him in sight. He looked startled by Rose’s abrupt interruption of the conversation they had been carrying on with their eyes; which Melissa supposed was something.
Her musings were interrupted by Sir Rogers, who came to claim his dance. Sighing inwardly, she followed him to the ballroom floor, hoping that she would get to exchange a few more words with the Marquess before the night’s end.
Meanwhile, she meant to continue enjoying herself.
Lady Rose and her mother entreated Patrick to stay a while and socialize with them. He was very flattered by the attention even though something in his chest was hot and tight with annoyance at the evident popularity of Lady Melissa on the ballroom floor. She had not been joking when she said her dance card was full.
Lady Rose, however, unlike her sister, rebuffed two suitors who came to claim a dance, in favor of speaking with Patrick. Her mother watched them covertly and Patrick could not tell whether she was pleased with her daughter’s interest in him or horrified. Patrick knew well his family’s reputation, knew that men of His Grace of Greyfield’s caliber barely tolerated his father and if it were not for the title, they would likely experience the cut direct.
He knew it because he spoke not just with the nobility but their servants as well, and for the right coin, they were quite happy to tell him what their masters and mistresses really thought of him and his family. As a man of business, it was an important ace up his sleeve.
He knew that the problem was that many noblemen envied them; for title or not, there were quite a number who were impoverished. His father’s cleverness in investing in the Far East, though seen as vulgar, was also very profitable. They might call The Duke of Cheshmill a merchant behind his back, but to his face, they were all gushing platitudes.
Patrick regretted that he was forced to negotiate the fine line between commerce and nobility without any offense to both. It was a delicate undertaking that took him out of town a lot. It was no wonder he had not met the Greyfield daughters before today.
He kept one eye on Lady Melissa even as he chatted pleasantly with Lady Rose. The former was talking animatedly to her dance partner and Patrick wondered idly what she could possibly be saying.
He lazily alternated between watching Lady Melissa and listening to Lady Rose and it was during one of the periods when his eyes swung toward the younger woman, that he saw a man snaking his way over to her, his eyes malevolently bright with intent. Patrick tensed, not knowing what could be going on. He watched the man approach Lady Melissa, and involuntarily took a step toward the ballroom floor. His heart rate sped up as he sensed the onset of danger. Suddenly there was a piercing scream, the music stopped and the man had a knife to Lady Melissa’s throat!
Patrick took another step closer to the action, as the man shouted for everyone to stay back.
“I only want th’ necklace,” he declared, dragging Lady Melissa toward the French doors.
Patrick took another step toward them. Lady Melissa’s eyes were so wide and scared, he felt compelled to remove that look from her face. Stepping lightly, he made his way to the wall, using the crowd of people to disguise his hurried advancement to the French doors. He stopped to grasp a heavy brass candlestick along the way. The man was still shouting to everyone to stay back, the knife had nicked Lady Melissa’s throat and there was a round red bud of blood hanging off his knife.
Patrick moved faster.
“I won’t hurt her. I won’t. I just want th’ necklace,” the man repeated again as Lady Melissa struggled in his arms.
Patrick crouched by the windows, lying in wait. As soon as the man stepped over the threshold, he got up to his full height and hit him across the base of his head.
The man made a strange sound of surprise and loosened his hold on Lady Melissa who promptly leaped away from him. The man wheeled around to face Patrick, his eyes were wide and unfocused.
“What?” he said before Patrick hit him across the temple again, hard enough to put him on the ground. Immediately there was a surge of noise, movement, and excitement but Patrick only had eyes for one person.
“Are you well?” he asked Lady Melissa.
She nodded slowly, her breath hitching slightly, “Thank you.” Her hand went to her throat, caressing her neck in disbelief.
“You’re very welcome, My Lady.”
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