Elizabeth Harcrest stood on the threshold of the ballroom and scanned Lady Anne Dinsmore’s elegant assembly. The ambience of the room was intoxicating: civet and musk mingled with the scents of pomander and wine. Music, like birdsong rose above the forest of voices. Candlelight shimmered across satins and silks, and danced across the gems that bedecked the hands, the hair, and the bosoms of the ladies and the gentlemen; including the one she most hoped would be present.
Anne Dinsmore glided forward, slim hands outstretched, and blocked the view.
“Lord Moreham, Lady Moreham, Lady Elizabeth, I am delighted you could attend our little soiree.”
“You know we would not have missed it for the world.” Elizabeth’s brother Rafe, the Earl of Moreham, leaned forward and kissed Anne’s cheek. His wife Alix inclined her head politely, “you look lovely Anne.”
Elizabeth thought the gown—a cream-colored satin, trimmed with scarlet ribbons—made the pale, ash-blonde Anne look as if she were struggling to recover from a lingering illness. “Indeed, Anne,” she mustered a smile for the woman, who, when they were children, would pinch her and then complain to Rafe that ‘Elizabeth is a crybaby’, “you should wear those colors more often.”
“And you have grown into quite the elegant young lady.” Anne waved a jeweled forefinger, “I hope you’ve been behaving yourself. A first season is so critical to one’s future.”
“I shall look to your experience.” Elizabeth replied, resisting the urge to say Anne should know, having been out for so long.
Anne turned her attention back towards Rafe, “Lord and Lady Davenport were announced a few moments ago. I believe Cole mentioned an interest in the hazard tables, and of course, Lady Moreham, your mother, Madame La Comtesse, is here. Such an astonishing sense of style! Each time I see her, I am overcome with regret I was never able to attend court at Versailles. But now with the horrid doings of those wicked men in Paris…”
“Ah yes, intolerable how revolution disrupts one’s travel plans,” interrupted Cole Ashbourne, slapping Rafe on the back, “though in truth Anne, I had no idea your interests exceeded the bounds of Mayfair.”
“You see, Lord Moreham,” Anne said with measured politeness, “I told you Lord Davenport had arrived.”
Moreham, a pleasure to see you,” Cole said, the single dimple indenting his cheek deepening as he turned his smile to Alix, “Lady Moreham, an even greater pleasure. My wife has been awaiting your appearance with great impatience.”
“Tell me Davenport, is there anything Phoebe does with patience?” asked Rafe.
“Walk with me, Moreham, and I’ll think on it.”
Rafe turned back towards Anne, “if you’ll excuse us…?”
“Anne doesn’t mind.” Cole grinned at her, “this crowd will be a crush by midnight. Only imagine the reputations she will have flayed by then.”
“You know Cole,” Anne lifted her chin, “if I didn’t cherish the memory of our families’ friendship, I might be wounded by your unkindness.”
“Confess, Anne, family friendship has little to do with the matter,” he winked at her, “it’s my title you cherish.”
Her smile stretched tight. “There are occasions, my lord, when it is the most appealing aspect of your nature.”
He chuckled and offered his arm to Elizabeth. “Come little one, it’s dangerous for small fish like you to linger in the depths among the sharks.”
* * *
“You are terrible you know,” Elizabeth whispered, as she slid her hand around Cole’s claret silk clad arm, and their group moved out of earshot.
“She is right,” Alix agreed, “one of these days you will push Anne Dinsmore too far. And her wrath, I suspect, will be sharper than that of Monsieur le Guillotine.
Rafe sighed, “You said very much the same thing about Anne this past December, when we married; yet she has never said an unkind word, though she fully expected I would offer for her hand…”
“And you would have, if Alix hadn’t rescued you,” Cole interrupted. “I vow, the very thought of Phoebe and Anne sharing a table every Christmas Eve gives me the shudders as if I had caught the ague.”
Rafe glanced down at the mahogany tresses of his wife, “one might debate who rescued whom.”
Alix pinched him through his green velvet sleeve.
“Though suffice it to say,” he smiled, “I’m quite happy with the outcome. Nevertheless, Anne Dinsmore is perfectly respectable. She has behaved with the graciousness I would expect from a Duke’s daughter.”
“A mad Duke’s daughter,” Cole muttered
“Just because his lordship prefers to pursue his study of Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps in seclusion—”
“His grace believes he is Hannibal. If Anne and James hadn’t locked him away, he’d have squandered what little remains of the family fortune on imaginary herds of elephants.”
Rafe purposefully ignored his friend, “As I have said, she’s been the very definition of graciousness. Never an unkind word.”
“Not so long as one is facing her,” Elizabeth teased. She cast a questioning look up at Cole, “is it true, his grace believes he is the Carthaginian general?”
Cole lowered his dark head conspiratorially, “I’ve seen his toga.”
“Carthaginians didn’t wear togas,” Rafe interjected.
“Are you certain?”
“Alix, ma petite!” A tiny woman, dressed elegantly in a gown of dark purple velvet interrupted their debate. A matching velvet puff fastened with a large diamond pin perched at a jaunty angle atop her dark curls. “I have been waiting ages for you and Rafe to arrive.”
“Good evening, maman,” Alix kissed her mother’s cheeks.
“Madeleine, you look beautiful,” Rafe said, as he kissed her cheeks in turn.
“Lady Dinsmore’s eyebrows simply vanished into her hairline when I made my entrance” Madeleine, la Comtesse de la Brou, confessed. Then she shook her head. “That woman, did you see the ghastly robe she has on?”
“Ordinarily she dresses in pastels,” Alix laughed, “as if she were just emerged from the schoolroom.”
“I suspect that is her purpose. To convince some unwitting suitor that she has…”
“The man would have to be an exile not to know she has been out for ages,” Cole interjected
“Or nearly blind, like Sir Edmund Bogglesworth,” Elizabeth added giggling.
Madeleine held up a small white hand, “I fear we go too far in mocking our hostess. Sir Edmund may be dull, but I believe he would not be an unkind husband, and, vraiment, he has a fortune that would make Lady Anne most comfortable. You must bear in mind, Elizabeth, not every woman has the fortune, face, and figure to make the choices you shall have.”
An uncomfortable silence settled over the company; Madeleine had been married against her will and at an early age to Alix’s father.
“Choices she shall have,” Rafe broke in lightly, “if she behaves respectably and chooses her companions wisely.” His eyes darkened as they drifted across the ballroom and settled on the figure of James Dinsmore, leaning nonchalantly against the wall. Candlelight from a nearby sconce gleamed on the waves of his loosely dressed blonde hair, and spilled across the broad shoulders of his midnight blue velvet coat.
“How can I do otherwise, brother dear, when you select them for me?” Elizabeth resisted the urge to follow the direction of Rafe’s gaze. She already knew where James was standing. It was the first thing she did when she entered any assembly.
“Your sister has a point, Moreham.”
“My sister, Davenport, has an unfortunate fascination for charming rakes.”
“Perhaps because I have grown up surrounded by them?” she asked with a smile.
James Dinsmore nodded absently at some crude comment tossed off by Arthur Lounsbury, his blue eyes fixed on the Earl of Moreham’s sister. Elizabeth looked charming tonight, dressed in a soft gold color that reminded him of a fragrant chardonnay. Her chestnut hair was swept back, and thick curls tumbled down over the amber velvet of her mantelet. She was guarded, as usual, by her brother and by Davenport. But if he knew Lady Elizabeth Harcrest, and by now he was fairly certain that he did, she would eventually escape their watch and make her way to him.
A slight smile of expectation curved his sensuous lips.
She really was quite amusing, brash and bright, with none of the false timorousness of the other debutantes this season. He suspected she sought him out to annoy Moreham, and he always encouraged her. Moreham that self-righteous prig. He’d treated Anne shabbily, dashing off to France when everyone expected him to make an offer of marriage. And then, entangling himself with Alix de la Brou! Of course, there was something in the Earl’s eyes whenever he looked at Alix, something that had never been there when he’d looked at Anne…Still, Anne had been so certain the émigré would be nothing more than a brief affair. And then Moreham married her! God, he hated to remember how devastating that was…
Elizabeth had linked arms with Davenport and she was laughing.
He might be jealous if weren’t a well-known fact that Davenport was absurdly devoted to his wife. Ridiculous, the notion that he could be jealous over another man’s attention to Elizabeth... He was bored; he desired the amusements of her quick wit that was all.
But her fall from grace would be a loss to the ton.
The lines to a poem he’d once committed to memory slipped unbidden from his lips, “What! Were you born to be an hour or half’s delight, and so to bid goodnight? ‘Twas pity Nature brought you forth, merely to show your worth and lose you quite.”
“What’s that, Dinsmore?” Arthur Lounsbury frowned in exasperation. “Damn me, if you’ve not heard a word I’ve been saying.”
“Lounsbury,” James reassured his companion, wondering idly how long it would be before the brandy Arthur consumed in such quantities turned his boyish features to florid fat, “I have been listening with unbridled fascination. The bay mare Harding sold you last Tuesday has been wheezing suspiciously, and you’re wondering if you’ve been cozened. Having warned you repeatedly that the man is a scoundrel, I’d wager my fortune the answer is yes.”
“If you had a fortune Dinsmore…”
“You wound me, Lounsbury. I find it most insensitive that you should make light of my impoverished state, particularly as you stand in my family hall drinking my father’s vintage brandy. Indeed, I have no money. Nor have I the dukedom, since my sire persists in surviving into ripe old age while the majority of his fellows have done the decent thing and passed into the great hereafter. Alas, I am forced to live by my wits.” He paused smiling at Lounsbury, “thank heaven I have them.”
“Wounded my arse.” As a footman passed with a tray of brimming brandy snifters, Lounsbury tossed back his remaining liquor and swapped his empty glass for a full one.
Sir Richard Ashton, a man whose nose loomed large over his receding chin, chimed in with an amused chuckle. “Sensitivities? You’ve sensitivities Dinsmore? I’d wager my fortune that even the most skilled surgeon would be hard pressed to find your heart.”
James pressed a hand to his chest, “I am a most sensitive man. Why I anguished over whether to purchase this sapphire blue silk waistcoat. The beauty of the silver embroidery nearly made me weep. It shall break my heart to tell the tradesman that I haven’t the funds to pay him for his exquisite work.”
“Good to make ‘em wait,” Lounsbury snorted between sips. “Incentive for the rascals to work harder.” Ashton chuckled again.
James’s smile did not reach his eyes; not paying tradesman did indeed give them an incentive to work harder— harder at hounding the Dinsmores. As for his heart, he supposed it would take a talented surgeon to find it, he’d buried it deep. Otherwise the pain of seeing Anne stitching together the satins and laces of old gowns so that no one would guess she couldn’t afford fashionable new ones might be intolerable. More painful still, he reflected sipping his brandy, the prospect of her settling for some moneyed dolt like Ashton or Lounsbury, or that half-witted idiot who’d been following her about lately, Edmund Bogglesworth.
Damn Moreham, he could have made such a difference in their lives.
“Why is it, do you suppose,” Lounsbury asked, waving his half-filled snifter at a cluster of young women, “that every pretty girl has to be accompanied by at least two ugly friends? I mean, regard me that threesome over there.”
James eyed his drinking companions over his snifter.
“You’ve got Arabella Norcroft, who looks like a pug in ruffles, and her sister Annabella who isn’t much better.”
“A pug in ruffles,” Ashton actually giggled.
Better than boors in britches, James mused.
“And then you have the delectable Elizabeth Harcrest.”
James made a quick visual sweep of the ballroom. Moreham, Davenport, and their wives were standing to the far right, near the doorway to the card room. Elizabeth had made her way to the center of the room, where she stood chatting with her friends the Norcroft sisters.
“Most delectable,” Ashton agreed, “perhaps I should ask her to dance later this evening...”
“Moreham would have your arm if you attempted to lead her out,” James shot back without thinking.
“Dinsmore, Dinsmore,” Lounsbury tsked, “certainly his lordship is most protective where Lady Elizabeth is concerned, but simply because he spurned your sister doesn’t mean he’d scorn a man with the breeding and the fortune of Ashton.”
“I shall ask her,” Ashton said firmly.
“Move swiftly, my friend, the chit’s dance card is likely to fill up quickly. She’s a title, a fortune, and, from what I hear from the clubs, quite the reputation as a frisky young filly.”
“Plays it fast and loose eh?” Ashton said with a brandied leer.
James took a deep swallow, drowning a sudden urge to defend Elizabeth’s honor. The vintage liquor burned as it made its descent. He had little doubt such rumors bloomed from the seeds of his sister’s careful sowing.
He was Anne’s only brother.
What choice had he but to help her reap her bitter harvest of revenge?