About the book
She is held captive by his kisses. And she never wants to be free…
For as long as she can remember, Lady Georgiana Spencer has been living in her sister’s shadow.
With her betrothed’s abandonment serving as the final nail in the coffin of her social life, her cries of despair go unheard. Until a chance meeting with a stranger at a masquerade ball opens the floodgates of desire inside her.
Having spent five years in the Far East to overcome his mother’s passing, Hamish Shaw, the Viscount of Newenham, struggles to belong. That changes the moment his eyes fall on Lady Georgiana, he realizes his place is at her side, with her skin touching his.
When Hamish makes a wager that involves Georgiana, he is forced to learn a harsh lesson. In his determination to win, he makes an oversight that might cost her life: the terms in fine lettering. And Georgiana is the fist of them.
Georgiana Spencer leaned back in the carriage, closing her eyes as she folded her Aunt Mae’s letter. It was a reply to one in which she had lamented to her mother’s sister at length about having to come to London for the Season. Her dearly beloved younger sister, Ester, was to come out, which was a momentous and happy event. However, being in London brought back some of Georgiana’s worst memories.
She turned her head to the side, brushing aside a rebel tendril of auburn hair that insisted on falling over her face no matter how tightly she knotted her hair. Her head was throbbing from the anxiety of going out in society as well as how severely her lady’s maid had pulled back her hair. It tended to break out in curls given the slightest leeway and Lucy tended not to give it any.
“Will I see the Prince Regent when I am presented at court?”
“Of course you will, darling. That’s the whole point of coming out.”
Ester sighed excitedly. “I can hardly wait, Mama.”
“I know, Dear. Me too.”
Georgiana could hear the smile in her mother’s voice. The Duchess of Frashire dearly loved all the bells and whistles that came with the Season. She also wanted her children to make good matches by fully participating in the marriage mart.
Although they shared a similar physical appearance, Georgiana often thought that she could not be more different from her mother. The same green eyes might adorn both their faces, but they looked at the world in vastly different ways. They might sport the same fiery hair, but their tempers were nothing alike.
Georgiana did her best not to furrow her brow. It wasn’t her place to sully her sister’s coming-out experience. Just because her own had ended in disaster did not mean she had the right to spoil Ester’s Season.
“Georgie?” her sister’s voice was tentative and unsure. Georgiana opened her eyes slowly and smiled as genuinely as she could.
“Are you all right? You look angry.”
Georgiana straightened up and tried to relax her face. “I’m fine. Just…tired. I suppose I haven’t been sleeping too well since we arrived here.” She smiled reassuringly at her sister. “I guess I haven’t gotten used to the noise of London yet.”
Ester frowned worriedly. “It’s been three days since we arrived.”
“I guess my old bones take longer to adjust.” Georgiana grinned, trying to divert her.
Ester seemed unsure but smiled back nevertheless. “You’re not that old.”
Georgiana clapped her on the arm mock-pouting at her. “That was a jest!”
“Oh! Of course, I knew that.”
Georgiana rolled her eyes and sighed, exchanging looks with her mother. Ester was a good-hearted girl but not very quick on the uptake. She leaned back and closed her eyes again. They’d just left there, but she already could not wait to go back home so that Lucy could unknot her hair and brush it with a hundred strokes. It was always so soothing. For the duration of her ministrations she could forget her troubles; she could forget everything.
“Mother, we’re stopping at Madame Devy’s first thing are we not?” Ester asked.
“Of course, Dear, we’ll go right away.”
Georgiana suppressed a sigh. “I don’t see why I had to come. Wouldn’t it have been better if I stayed home?”
“No! You have to have a new gown as well!” Ester protested.
I don’t want a new gown.
Georgiana opened her eyes and looked at her sister. “I have plenty of gowns and it’s you who is getting presented.”
Ester’s robin-egg blue eyes widened anxiously in her beautiful face as she leaned forward and squeezed Georgiana’s hand. “But I need you there with me. You are planning to come aren’t you?”
“Of course, Darling! I shall be there.” Georgiana winced inwardly, trying not to think of being back at the palace. The Beau Monde would probably turn out in force and she knew that they still whispered about her. She was a cautionary tale for all the new debutantes. A bed-time story that ladies had their governesses tell their children to let them know the dangers of choosing the wrong man.
She turned away so that her sister couldn’t see the despair on her face or see the lone tear that rolled down her face. Her mother’s warm hand ghosted over hers before squeezing it hard. She turned and gave her a grateful smile before looking out of the window again in resignation.
There is nothing to be done but endure this.
They arrived at the seamstress not ten minutes later and Georgiana alighted as slowly as possible, wishing she had her hair down so she could hide behind it. She could already hear some hissing nearby, no doubt someone alerting her friends to the arrival of the plague in their midst.
Ester and her mother came around from the other side of the carriage and grabbed her hands pulling her into Madame Devy’s sandwiched between them. She barely caught a glimpse of the parasols held by the ladies whispering about her on the street before she was enveloped by the cool darkness of the seamstress’ shop.
Madame Devy herself came forward to greet them and soon Ester, their mother, and the seamstress were twittering away in excitement. Georgiana leaned against a green bolt of cloth, tuning them out. She had no interest in a new gown or the latest styles. She just wanted this to be over as quickly as possible.
Being back in London after all this time caused a burning sensation in her chest. She almost felt as if she was back at the altar of St. George’s Church, awaiting her affianced. She had been smiling so wide, suffused with happiness.
And just as the priest asked, “Let anyone with an objection speak up now or forever hold their peace,” there she was. Long, flowing blonde hair, robin-egg blue eyes, flushed cheeks, pouty lips. She was the very caricature of an English Rose.
Her protruding belly shattered the illusion though, as did the words she shouted at Wernbrook.
His baby in her belly.
She was disgraced, humiliated, and embarrassed. She’d ran out of the church, tears pouring down her face and climbed into the carriage that was supposed to take her away for her honeymoon. Instead, she asked the coachman to just drive and keep going until she told him to stop. She was forever grateful that the coachman had done as she said. Technically, he was the Marquess’ coachman and would have been within his rights to refuse.
Georgiana supposed her distress had been enough to sway him.
Two years and it still feels like yesterday.
She was not one to dwell on the past but that had been one memory she had extreme difficulty getting past. All the ladies who had laughed at her, the gentlemen who had known of Lord Wernbrook’s illicit affair, they all participated in her disgrace. Now she had to face them all again.
If it wasn’t for poor innocent Ester, there is no way I would do this.
Ester had been a mere five-and-ten years old when Georgiana had her coming out. The whirlwind romance with Ambrose Powell, the Marquess of Wernbrook, had ended up at the altar before Ester could come down to London.
She knew something awful had happened but she didn’t really know the details. Every time she asked, their mother would divert her attention or Georgiana would change the subject.
There’s no need for her to know any of it.
Georgiana hadn’t wanted to stop her sister’s anticipation or excitement about her coming out. It would not have been fair.
She looked up to see Ester holding a bolt of cloth against her body, bright eyes looking for Georgiana’s approval. She smiled as well as she could. “It looks lovely against your skin. That shade of gold really does compliment you.”
Ester smiled wide and happy. “Thank you, Sister.” She turned to Madame Devy, “I’ll take this one.”
Georgiana smiled more genuinely at her sister’s excitement, thinking back to her own naïve anticipation when she’d come out. Lord Wernbrook, had swept her off her feet so fast, accosting her at her first ball where she’d been feeling rather gauche, the country cousin, not really knowing anyone. In spite of her father’s extensive business interests, Georgiana and her sister had grown up mostly in their country seat, rarely coming into the city and not staying very long when they did.
He had paid her a flattering amount of attention, going so far as to book two dances on her card. It was a declaration and she didn’t know how she had gotten so fortunate as to attract a gentleman’s attention so fast. Her heart had fluttered with joy and triumph that she would not end up a spinster. Oh no, she’d snapped up a husband right away.
Without even trying!
Lord Wernbrook had definitely had her building castles in the air. He seemed attentive and enamored, presenting himself at the house every afternoon to escort her for a walk or a carriage ride in Hyde Park depending on the weather. He took her to Gunter’s for ice and escorted her to balls and to plays at Convent Garden.
It was everything she expected of a courtship and when he’d formally asked for her hand, she had not even thought of refusing. In fact, she might have felt a bit smug at how easily she had snagged herself a husband when those ladies who had turned up their noses at her were still searching.
“I don’t want to wait, my Darling,” he had said as he stole kisses from her under the cover of the trees at Hyde Park. “Let’s get married right away.”
Her heart had almost burst with joy at his words. She wanted their marriage to work. She dreamed of their future with starry eyes. She hadn’t expected to marry for love and so to have this tall, handsome, square-jawed, golden-haired, blue-eyed gentleman turn his attention on her was so far beyond her dreams coming true. The Marquess of Wernbrook was everything a lady could want and he was all hers!
As a cherry on the cake, her mother was so proud of her. Georgiana could not recall another time that her mother had seemed more pleased. She knew that making a good marriage was important to her mother but the reality of it was really driven home to her when she saw the enthusiasm with which her mother threw herself into the wedding plans.
It was doubly crushing to not only have been embarrassed at the altar but also to have let her mother down so monumentally. It wasn’t just the embarrassment though. Georgiana lost all faith in her judgment. She had fancied that Lord Wernbrook loved her and was completely blindsided by the existence of a mistress. She absolutely had not seen any of it coming. Honestly she’d never felt so stupid in her life.
She had gone to ground at Frashire Manor to lick her wounds in peace. Except that her mother was there worrying at her, urging her to get back on the horse as fast as possible. Georgiana loved her mother, but she had never wanted to be farther away from her.
The first letter from Aunt Mae had come like an answer from heaven. It was not so much what her aunt said but what she didn’t. She didn’t speak about how terrible it must be for Georgiana or offer any platitudes. Instead she spoke of her life in Scotland with the laird she was married to. She opened Georgiana’s eyes to the mystery and magic of Scotland, telling her of the people’s belief in fairies and changelings and other supernatural beings.
It’s all very superstitious, but entertaining nonetheless.
For the duration of the letter, Georgiana found escape from the misery that was her life. She wrote back promptly, asking questions and complimenting her aunt on her vivid descriptions. Aunt Mae wrote back and before she knew it, they had a regular correspondence. She made Scotland sound like quite an attractive place and extended an open invitation to visit, should England get to be too much.
Maybe after Ester’s coming out, I shall go.
The thought heartened her and she straightened up, paying more attention to the shopping. She noted the entrance of three society ladies into the shop and how they stood huddled together, whispering. She tried not to shrink into herself at their presence but it was difficult. Even if she knew that it was unlikely that everyone was talking about her behind their backs, she still could not shake the feeling that they were.
“Mama, can we leave now?” she came close behind her parent and whispered in her ear.
“In a minute, Darling,” her mother was distracted by something Madame Devy was saying about fabrics. Georgiana sighed, wandering toward the door and then venturing outside for some relatively fresh air. It was still early summer and so the humidity was not so ripe and putrid. She breathed in, ignoring the passersby and focusing on enjoying her day.
Someone jostled her from the right and she made a startled sound as a steel band caught hold of her arm and prevented her from falling.
“Apologies Miss. Are you all right?” she looked up and met a pair of concerned hazel eyes and blinked in surprise.
“Um, yes. I’m fine. Thank you.”
He let go of her arm and stepped away with a bow before walking away. She gawped at the chestnut-haired man with the neatly trimmed beard–so unusual to see in these clean-shaven days–as he walked away, before shaking her head and heading back into the shop.
“Oh, there you are Georgiana. We were just discussing some suitable gowns for you. How do you feel about red?” her mother asked.
Georgiana sighed. “Red sounds lovely, Mother. Let’s go with that.”
She really didn’t care and any color would do. So why not red?
“Wonderful!” Ester smiled happily, “It’ll complement my gold gown and we shall look quite fetching together. I feel sure we will both find spouses before the night is done.”
Realization dawned on Georgiana and she flushed with embarrassment. Her sister was not only trying to make Georgiana feel included, she was also trying to help her find a husband.
Georgiana looked away, swallowing the harsh words that wanted to spew forth like poison. She knew that Ester meant well but nobody had asked her to do this. Georgiana was quite sure she would much rather join a convent than go through another failed courtship. Ester was probably worried about being able to marry if her older sister was not, but Georgiana had already decided that she would take up her aunt’s invitation and travel to Scotland if it came to that.
Last season, her mother had dragged her to London yet again for the Season and she had noted the Marquess of Dargue’s interest in courting her. His blonde hair and devil-may-care attitude reminded her too much of the Marquess of Wernbrook and she’d shut him down as fast as possible. She’d removed to the country not soon after, hoping that he would forget about her.
To her surprise, he’d persisted, writing her letters and promising that he would be honest and trustworthy and worthy of her love. She’d found his letters to be insincere and over the top and deigned to ignore them. In her next letter to her aunt, she described his courtship such as it was and was heartened when she agreed with Georgiana about the false note she found them to contain.
Why can’t they just leave me alone?
Hamish Shaw, Viscount of Newenham, came up to the foredeck from his berth to watch the sunrise. They were just coming in to dock as the day broke and it was his first sign of London in almost five years. He was eager to lay eyes on his father’s homeland once again even though his reason for coming back was somewhat poignant.
It was his mother’s death that sent him away, seeking solace in traveling through the Far East and visiting her homeland of India. He had brought the news of her death to his uncles and met kin he otherwise would never have known. The adventure of it all quieted his mind and provided an escape from grief.
But now his father was ill and he needed to come back to be of as much help to him as he could. Perhaps he could not nurse his father to health but he could take away some stress and worry from him, leaving him free to focus on recovery.
The English shoreline came into view and he smiled. In spite of the circumstances, he was glad to see his homeland again. They came into dock an hour after sunrise and he disembarked just as the mud larks were leaving the shores with their loot for the day.
A carriage was waiting for him, emblazoned with the family crest and he paused when he saw the coachman, and grinned. “Sam Croydon, as I live and breathe.”
The coachman tipped his hat at Hamish. “’ello guvnor. Good trip was it?”
Considering the last time that Sam had seen him, he had been dropping Hamish off at the docks to take a ship to Penang from where he’d traveled to Singapore and Malacca round the Cape of Good Hope before ending up in India. Five long years and countless miles. Yet here they were again.
“The trip was all right. You’ve been keeping well yourself.”
“As well as can be expected.”
“Good. Good. And how is my Father?” Hamish put his small carpet bag into the coach before climbing up to sit beside Sam. He had decided to travel light, being in a hurry, the remainder of his luggage following behind him by freight.
“He is as cantankerous as can be. Just as usual.”
“That’s good to know.”
“He’ll be glad to see you.”
“I look forward to seeing him too.”
Hamish looked around the city, trying to see what had changed and what was the same. They drove down Breton Street and Hamish remembered the particular brand of scotch whisky his father favored.
“Stop here. I have something to pick up.”
Sam obliged and came to a stop. Hamish jumped down. He hurried down the street, eager to get the whisky and get home to his father. He was so intent on his goal that he did not see the young lady leaning against a pole by the seamstress’ shop. He almost knocked her over and only his quick reflexes saved her from a tumble.
He’d looked into her impossibly jade-green eyes, at her auburn hair pulled back tight from her face, and lost his breath. He had become accustomed to the dark-haired, dark-eyed beauties of the East. Her vibrant coloring diverted him for a moment, so much so that he forgot himself. He forgot that one did not speak to a lady unless he had been introduced.
Even as he walked away from her, the scent of her filled his nostrils and his palm tingled with the feel of her soft skin. For a moment, he forgot why he had alighted from the carriage. He was veritably disoriented.
Hamish blamed it on his voyage; long months without laying eyes on a woman.
That must be it.
He still turned around to see if he could glimpse the lady again, but she had disappeared.
Once he got the whisky, he let Sam drive him home. His heart was pounding quite rapidly at the thought of seeing his father again. He stepped down slowly and walked through the front door, noting the difference in the scent of the air. In Kandahar where he’d spent most of his time, the air had been hot and close, humidity so high he sometimes found it difficult to breath.
Here in London, the air was sharp and cold, at the end of spring. He wasn’t sure which he preferred, nonetheless he let himself luxuriate in the sounds and scents of his family home. He spotted his father’s housekeeper, Mrs. Bloom, hurrying toward him, a large smile on her face.
“Lord Newenham, how lovely it is to see you again.” She gathered him into her arms and hugged him hard. Hamish smiled into her shoulder, feeling his heart gladden to see her again.
“Mrs. Bloom. I did not know you were still here. I thought you would have retired by now.”
She hit him lightly on the arm. “Go on with you! Retired? I’m not old.”
“Of course not, Mrs. Bloom.” Hamish grinned, recalling the cakes and other savory treats the housekeeper would ply him with when he was younger. His own mother had relied heavily on Mrs. Bloom to teach her the ways of the English and Hamish had not forgotten that. He regarded her as closer to an aunt than his father’s housekeeper.
“Your Father is waiting for you. He refuses to take a nap before he has seen you. Would you go and greet him so that he can know you’re really here?”
Hamish quirked an eyebrow in surprise. “Right away, Mrs. Bloom. Is he in his rooms?”
“Oh, no. He insisted on getting up today. He is in the library.”
He kissed her forehead knowing that it was she who made sure his father had everything he needed at all times. “Thank you, Mrs. Bloom.”
She just smiled at him, pushing him toward the library as she relieved him of his bag. He knew she would pass it on to his valet who would take care to put everything where it should be.
Hamish would not have to think about any of it again. It was far different from his life in India which, while filled with whatever luxuries he wanted, was simpler and more rustic. He spent the time traveling from place to place, utilizing the services of port men, house servants, and coachmen where available while not retaining any of his own.
More than anything, he had not wanted to be responsible for a single soul. His heart was broken and for a time, he wanted to be able to think of no one but himself. So he hunted wild game as a guest of the Maharajahs, smoked tobacco with Portuguese explorers in Indonesia, and generally lived life as it came with as few encumbrances as possible.
All that is over now.
He lifted his hand and knocked on the library door, waiting for his father to bid him enter before doing so. He could not stop himself from lighting up with pleasure as he spotted him sitting in the blue velvet-lined wingback chair by the window, reading a book by the light streaming in from outside.
“Good morning, Father.” He stepped into the room and closed the door behind him.
His father looked up with a smile of his own. “Ah, Hamish, you have arrived. And in a timely fashion too. I suppose the ships are much faster now than the last time I was on the water.”
Hamish walked the few steps to his father’s side and squeezed his shoulder affectionately. “I expect so.”
“How was your journey then? Sit and have a brandy. Tell me all about it.”
Hamish’s smile widened even as he took the matching wingback seat across from his father. “Don’t you think it’s a bit early for brandy?”
The Earl of Thessawich gave him a naughty wink. “We’ll just put some in your tea then.”
As if on cue, a knock sounded on the door before a footman entered carrying a tray laden with a kettle of tea, and a plate of samosas. He placed them on the table between the Earl and his son before backing out of the room after pouring each a cup of tea. Hamish smiled at the tray.
“I see Mrs. Bloom is keeping up Mother’s recipes.”
“Yes, yes, now and then as a special treat, she has the chef make some delicacy or other,” the Earl grinned, “She really must be glad to see you.”
Hamish understood that to mean the Earl was glad to see him but was much too English to say so aloud. “I am glad to be home as well. I think I will have a nip of brandy in my tea. The journey has been long and I have not gotten my land legs yet.”
The Earl leaned forward and picked up the brandy glass that sat on the table between them, pouring a tot into Hamish’s tea cup. “Bon Appétit, my Son.”
Hamish picked up his tea cup and lifted it in a toast before drinking. He closed his eyes, enjoying the sharp taste of spices mixed in with the tea as well as the smooth after burn of alcohol. He leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes, feeling very good to be home at last.
His father might be in frail health–Hamish had not failed to notice his weakened demeanor nor the bags under his eyes and pasty skin–but he was still here. He opened his eyes and smiled at the Earl. “So, what news of London, Father?”
His father smiled, settling in his chair and prepared to give Hamish a run-down of all the latest on-dits.
“Nothing much has changed since you left. Society still consists of meddlesome busybodies making everybody’s life twice as difficult as it ought to be.”
Hamish knew his father had never forgiven the Beau Monde for treating his Indian wife with anything less than respect. A few of the ladies had looked down their noses at her despite the fact that she was a Princess and therefore ranked higher than they did.
“Is that so? What have they done now?”
His father shrugged. “I remember two years ago a lady was left at the altar.”
Hamish made a sound of sympathy and distress.
“Yes, it was quite awful for her. Groom had impregnated his mistress you see.” The Earl shook his head. “Very poor form. And then the mistress had the utter nerve to interrupt the wedding with belly on full display. I think they’re still talking about it.”
Hamish made a pained sound and shuddered. “I shouldn’t like to be any of those parties.”
“I happened to be there because the Lady’s Father is a friend. Trust me it was cringe worthy. Felt quite sorry for the old boy.”
“What happened to the bride? Was she banished to a convent?”
The Earl gave him a sidelong grin, “No. She went off to their country seat. I heard she refuses all suitors.”
“Well, and who can blame her? The gentlemen of London have behaved abominably.”
“Indeed. Perhaps you shall come along and save them, eh Hamish? Show them what it means to be a man.”
Hamish grinned at his father before they both burst out laughing. Very familiar with the ton and its antics, Hamish had always tried to steer clear and his father knew that well. He did get invited to the occasional ball or soiree; mostly those thrown by his old school acquaintances or his father’s friends.
“Speaking of the Bon Ton, I have an invitation to a masquerade ball at the residence of the Duke of Apsdin two weeks’ hence. I trust you will join me?”
Hamish shrugged. “I am at your disposal, Father.”
“Good. I shall need you to meet all my business connections if you are to take over for me. That will be a good place to start.”
Hamish nodded, noting that his father had only taken a few sips of his tea and one samosa. “I expect we’ll have plenty of time to discuss that. But first, finish your tea and have another samosa. I feel quite the glutton eating them all myself.”
The Earl’s smile became a bit strained but he did pick up his teacup. “As you wish.” He lifted his cup in toast and drank.
Jack Huxley, Marquess of Dargue alighted his horse, trusting that the footman would take hold of the mare and pass her on to the groomsmen. He took the steps to his front door two at a time, and breezed past the doorman, knowing he was late for dinner–again. His father tended to frown on such behavior and was wont to extend such punishments as withdrawal of membership to his favorite club over it.
He quickened his footsteps and burst into the dining hall just as the soup was served. “Sorry I’m late. The traffic from Trafalgar was unbelievable.”
“Is that so?” his father did not bother to look up. His butter-blond head of hair was all Jack could see.
“Oh, yes. We had the wagons from the market and all the members of Parliament leaving at once. Quite hectic.”
His father, the Duke of Apsdin, looked up, brows beetled. “I wasn’t aware you took your Parliamentary duties so seriously.”
Jack drew in a shaky breath, trying to shake off the nervousness his father always engendered in him. “Well, I do.”
“It’s good to know you take something seriously. I had begun to despair.”
His wife favored him with narrowed eyes. “Paul,” she said softly.
“What? I am only telling it like it is. The man seems to be quite useless. I despair of him daily.”
Jack took his seat quietly while seething inside. His father could not even wait for the servants to leave before laying into him.
“Why, he could not even secure for himself a disgraced bride. That must be the pinnacle of rejection.” His father continued, not even addressing Jack but directing his remarks toward Jack’s mother. A hot spark of humiliation spread through him and he ground his teeth together. Whatever appetite he’d had disappeared.
Her Grace was quick to change the subject however. “Well, he’ll have a chance to try again as Lady Ester, the younger sister will be having her coming out this year. If you are determined for our families to be joined, there you are.”
“I cannot court the elder and then the younger!” Jack blurted in surprise. “That would be beyond the pale.”
His mother laughed. “I did not mean for you to court her. Lady Georgiana will be in attendance at all the balls as well. You will have your chance. She did not give you a chance last year, but I’m sure you will make it this year. Who can resist you?”
He gave his mother a strained smile. “Indeed.”
Even Georgiana was surprised at the number of invitations they received to balls, Venetian breakfasts, plays, and other soirees. The first assembly of the Season was at Almack’s. Georgiana knew that it would likely be packed with every single debutante and their hopeful suitors.
Feigning a bellyache, she bowed out of that event. She felt a vague regret that she could not do it again as she entered Ester’s chambers and found her lady’s maid sewing black lace onto her mask. She frowned, not at all anxious to attend a masquerade ball at the Duke of Apsdin’s London manor. She had quite hoped not to see the Marquess of Dargue on this trip. She found his pushing demeanor rather off putting and would have preferred to go the whole season without seeing him.
Alas she could not escape him at his own father’s ball.
I’ll just have to make the best of it.
Pasting a smile on her face, she bounced over to her sister and sat by her on the bed. “Are you excited for tonight?”
Ester shrugged. “I’m a bit nervous. I hope my dance card doesn’t remain empty for too long.”
Georgiana studied her sister critically. Ester’s hair was the color of whisky, or fallen leaves turned shades of brown. but still glossy with the first rain of autumn. When she moved, the highlights glinted and reminded Georgiana of looking at sunlight through a glass jar of thick honey.
Her thick waves had been corralled and disciplined into artfully laid curls lying across one shoulder in shining light-brown tresses. She blinked innocent blue eyes at Georgiana, awaiting her verdict. Her purity shone through like a beacon, probably beckoning everyone in her vicinity to dash themselves against her in a bid to be allowed in.
Georgiana smiled. “I expect that it will not stay empty long. Everyone will want to dance with you.”
Ester snorted in a rather unladylike manner. “I doubt that very much if you are next to me.”
Georgiana lifted an eyebrow in surprise. “What do you mean by that?”
Ester sighed, rolling her eyes. “I mean, I know that I am…well appointed. But you, Georgiana, are like…a fairy glimpsed in the tall glass, ethereal and forever out of reach. You make people yearn for you from afar and don’t even notice.”
Georgiana laughed. “I told you to stop reading those Scottish fairy tales, Ester. Look now they have filled your head with fancies.”
Ester didn’t smile. “You don’t see yourself so you do not know.” She picked up Georgiana’s hands, running her finger along her the blue vein that ran from wrist to elbow.
“Everything about you is perfect from your perfectly natural curly hair, which glints with every red hue from bright orange to russet dark and yet…is quite inadequately described as auburn. It is so long and thick and surrounds your face like a halo.” She blinked at Georgiana’s wide-eyed surprise, seeming unbothered that her words had come out of nowhere.
“And should one be fortunate enough to be able to tear their eyes away from that mass of flaming magnificence, they meet your eyes, so honestly green they feel like an entire world you can step into and be lost to this one forever.” Ester sighed, letting Georgiana’s hand go. “I do not know what happened with your first beau, but I do know there is no way he does not regret it. There is nobody else like you.”
Georgiana took a deep steadying breath and blinked at her sister. “Well…if I was inclined toward feeling sorry for myself you have cured me of it.”
“Indeed. Now I feel quite underappreciated and will be requiring all my loyal subjects to pay homage to me.” She tossed her head dramatically, making Ester laugh.
“If the Prince Regent was old enough, he would marry you for sure,” Ester assured her.
“That is indeed heartening to know. For now, however…” she got to her feet, patting Ester on the leg, “we must get ready for this masquerade and I fear my mask is nowhere near ready. I must go.”
Ester nodded. “Yes, well, I shall see you later.”
Georgiana left the room smiling; and in a quite different mood than when she came in.
Younger sisters are good for something other than being annoying.
Jack stood on the parapet overlooking the courtyard and watched the guests arrive. He was still in a black mood, his father’s words echoing in his mind.
I am no failure!
He gritted his teeth angrily just as a new carriage–bearing the crest of the Duke of Frashire–came to a stop in front of the great front doors. A footman got down from the bench next to the coachman and opened the door. The duke was first to alight, tall and straight backed, his thick head of butter-yellow hair blowing slightly in the breeze. Truly a man among men with his piercing blue eyes, cheek and jowl always tucked in, paunch tightly concealed in his rich brocade waistcoat.
Next, he saw a hint of pale leg as someone turned in their seat and then Lady Georgiana was descending from the steps, her auburn curls unmistakable even from this distance. She swished this way and that, the very picture of grace before lifting her hand to put on her mask. A matching burgundy concoction of lace and silk that matched exactly the shade of her velvet gown.
She was truly a picture to behold and here she was, taunting him. Well, she had come to his residence and so he could not be faulted if he spoke to her…perhaps sought her for a twirl about the dance floor.
It’s practically expected of me.
He gave a smug smirk as he turned, meaning to make his way down the stairs and intercept her. His plan was foiled by his father who was waiting by the landing, conversing with a tall distinguished-looking gentleman with butter-yellow hair, accompanied by an equally upright younger gentleman. He resembled the older gentleman in his sharp cheekbones and alert hazel eyes. They stood the same way, shoulders back, spine straight as if they were soldiers.
Jack lifted an eyebrow. He could have sworn he knew every cove in London, but the younger gentleman was unfamiliar. He had seen the older gentleman confer with his father now and then. He had a vague notion that they might be in business together.
The younger gentleman, sporting a full beard–an oddity all on its own–was listening intently as his father said something to Jack’s father. He was not altogether surprised when the Duke stopped his forward descent in an effort to introduce him to the two gentlemen.
“You know the Earl of Thessawich do you not?” the slight quirk of his father’s eyebrow told him that the only acceptable answer he could give was yes.
“Of course. I remember you from…the gentleman’s boxing club I believe?”
The crease in his father’s brow deepened. “Lord Thessawich is not inclined toward sports of that kind,” he ground out. That was a surprise to Jack. The gentleman looked like the sort to enjoy spectating a sport requiring physical exertion such as pugilism. Perhaps even participated in such a sport in his younger days. He had thought it was a good guess anyway.
“Well, then I must say I am at a loss. I suppose our paths must have crossed in Parliament?”
“Not lately, no. I have been under the weather of late. But yes, you may have seen me there. However, I do recall that both of us were frequent visitors at the Duke of Frashire’s residence last year, although our purposes differed.”
Jack narrowed his eyes.
Is he smirking at me?
It was all he could do not to flush like some gauche boy. How dare this lesser being bring that up?
“This is Lord Thessawich’s son, Hamish Shaw, Viscount of Newenham. He is newly returned from India.” His father interrupted his increasingly murderous thoughts. Finding a smile from somewhere, he moved to greet the younger gentleman.
That would explain the beard.
The gentleman’s hazel eyes twinkled as if he could think of nothing better than befriending Jack. “Very pleased to make your acquaintance.”
Jack bowed, pasting a smile on his face. “Indeed. You must tell me of your travels some time.”
“Why don’t you take him off with you now? Lord Thessawich and I have matters to discuss.”
Just like that, Jack found himself alone with Lord Newenham. He refrained from wrinkling his nose at the scent of spices emanating from the gentleman’s clothes. “Well, this is awkward. My Father is nothing if not blunt.”
Lord Newenham’s mouth quirked in amusement as he continued to consider Jack closely as if trying to figure him out. “I do not mind. Being a stranger here, I barely know anyone.”
Jack began to walk toward the ballroom. “But you must have grown up here?”
“Yes, I did. I only left five years ago, after my Mother’s death.”
“Oh, my condolences, My Lord.” He clapped Lord Newenham familiarly on the back.
The Viscount nodded. “Thank you.”
“Come, let’s get ourselves a drink. Do you play billiards? I think they have a game going in the other room.”
“That would be nice. I am not really one for dancing.”
Jack threw back his head and laughed. “Well, I am sure that will be a huge disappointment to all the young hopefuls wanting to fill their dance cards.”
Lord Newenham smiled. “I suppose they will somehow overcome that disappointment and go on living.”
Jack stared at him in surprise. “So there’s a sense of humor behind the neatly trimmed beard, good to know.”
“Yes, who knew it doesn’t actually leech all the joy out of life?”
Jack gave a surprised bark of laughter before taking him by the arm. “Come and meet my particular friends. I think they’ll like you…”
Hamish found himself back in the ballroom, having tired of the billiards game. He had spent a fairly large amount of time playing the game while in the Far East and so he was quite good at it. Not wanting to humiliate his new acquaintances at the game, he had his work cut out for him, making sure he just lost. It was exhausting.
So he’d given up after two games and thought to come to the ballroom. Perhaps he could lurk in the background like a wallflower and not have to dance with a soul.
That was his plan until he saw her.
He recognized the thick auburn curls at once, the graceful set of her shoulders and even though her eyes were hidden behind a mask, he thought he glimpsed the slightest glimpse of green. He was walking toward her before he could think.
He bowed low as he reached her, and made a leg. “Good evening, My Lady. May I have this dance?”
She seemed to stiffen. Perhaps she recognized him too? His mask was the most rudimentary thing, barely covering his eyes. His dark hair gleaming in the candlelight and his beard would make him stand out for sure.
She gave him a curtsy before putting her hand in his. Uttering not a word, she let him lead her to the dance floor where a foxtrot was just beginning. Her movements were measured and graceful and he stared without shame.
Her luxuriant locks bounced slightly as she moved, the burgundy lace mask about her green eyes making her seem like an unearthly creature walking among them for its own purposes. Perhaps looking for acolytes. If that were so, Hamish was ready to kiss her feet. Or any part of her she liked, he was not exacting about it.
How fanciful of me.
He almost grinned in surprised delight at his own imaginings but remembered himself in time. He had thought that his time in London would be filled with painful memories but he was finding that this creature, whose name he did not know, provided for sufficient distraction. He needed to find his new friend Lord Dargue, so that he could properly introduce them–after the removal of the masks of course.
As they circled each other, he caught her eye and smiled. Her lips twitched as if she meant to smile back but then she looked to the side and away from him. He frowned, wondering why she felt the need to play coy.
Is she already promised elsewhere?
Hamish was surprised to find that he felt sick at the thought. He was already certain that this was the most interested he had ever been in a lady in his life. It would be tremendously disappointing if someone else had already snatched her up. He thought about telling her his name but just then, they whirled away before coming back together.
It was not the best time.
The dance came to an end and they stopped in front of each other. She gave him a curtsy and he returned it with a bow. Picking up her velvet burgundy gown, she glided away toward a group of ladies. He watched her go with a sigh. A hand clapped down on his shoulder and he looked to the side to see Lord Dargue watching him.
“You should forget that one. She is out of your league.”
“Is that so?” Hamish was noncommittal.
“She is the daughter of a Duke.”
Hamish merely lifted an eyebrow. “That is…interesting.”
He could see that Lord Dargue was frustrated with his uninformative answers. The truth was he was hoping to coax a name out of him without asking directly. Unfortunately, Lord Dargue seemed to have given all the information he was willing to give for he walked away just as the announcer declared that it was time for masks to come off.
Hamish reached up and took off his mask, his eyes on the lady. Slowly, she lifted her arms, untied her mask and let it fall. Her jade-green eyes met his across the dance floor and he sighed, knowing in his heart that she was the one.
He felt a presence at his side and turned to see that it was His Grace, the Duke of Apsdin–his host–watching him with a raised eyebrow.
“You seem preoccupied. Is there something I might help you with?”
“Well, since you asked, if you would be so kind as to introduce me to the lovely young auburn-haired lady across the room I should be most grateful to make her acquaintance.”
His host huffed a laugh but casually searched the opposite side of the room for the lady that fit Hamish’s description. His eyes found her and he sucked in a breath.
Hamish frowned worriedly. “Is anything the matter?”
“Nothing. Are you sure that’s the one you wish to meet, My Lord?”
“Yes Your Grace, if you please.”
His host sighed, much to Hamish’s chagrin before leading him diagonally across the room and coming to a stop before the lady. “My Lady, it is indeed a pleasure to see you again. May I introduce to you, Hamish Shaw, the Viscount of Newenham, newly returned from the Far East?”
The lady shifted her eyes to study him as if she’d never seen him before. Finally, she held out a delicate hand for him to take. He bent over it, kissing the air above it gently before returning it to her.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, My Lord.”
“And may I present, Lady Georgiana Spencer,” the Duke of Apsdin said to Hamish.
Hamish made an elegant leg. “A pleasure to meet you My Lady. May I say that in a roomful of daisies you are a rose?”
She blinked, looking startled at his compliment. “Th…thank you, My Lord. That’s very kind of you to say.”
Georgiana wondered why such a frilly remark would have her so aflutter. She could barely keep from clutching her pearls and swooning dead away.
Who is this man?
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