A great expanse of mahogany desk stretched between young Cecilia Prescott and the solicitor rifling through her father’s old papers. As he looked up and met her gaze, she felt an even greater distance there in his eyes.
He was trying to tell her and her mother something, and it was something he didn’t think they’d appreciate.
“Pardon me, Mr. Combs,” said Cecilia, “but I am afraid I’ve missed your meaning. Are you saying my father was in some manner of financial trouble?”
The portly solicitor cleared his throat and fumbled awkwardly with the papers yet again.
“The worst manner, I’m afraid.”
Beside her, Cecilia heard her mother gasp. The Dowager Viscountess of Holden, Lady Sophia Prescott, had grown accustomed to life without her late husband over the last arduous year, but Cecilia knew the loss of her current comforts would be a devastating blow.
Cecilia felt again the sharp pain of her father’s loss. He’d never been particularly affectionate, but he’d provided safety and oversight. She felt keenly deprived of those in his absence.
“Last year you said he’d left his fortune to me, his only daughter.”
“That’s true,” Mr. Combs cleared his throat. “A truly unusual occurrence, as I’ve already mentioned.”
“He had no male heir,” Lady Holden interjected. “And he did specify my daughter in his will.”
Cecilia knew what he meant by unusual, but found herself again frustrated by the morays of society that found her promotion as her father’s heir to be so remarkable.
In truth, she would have cared little for the money if it hadn’t been for her mother, who fretted often about the possible loss of status after her husband’s passing.
“I’ve no argument on that point, Lady Holden,” the solicitor seemed to have at last gained the confidence necessary to speak, and placed his hands palms down on the top of the desk.
“Unfortunately, the Viscount’s debts proved more serious than I imagined. It seems he engaged in a bit of unrecommended speculation, and the company in question has gone under.”
“How much?” Lady Holden asked.
“How much what?”
“How much was wagered on this doomed company?” Cecilia filled in for her mother, whose face was growing alarmingly pale.
Cecilia felt an icy panic growing inside her.
She thought of the Carlsons, a well-respected family in Chesire with whom she’d grown up. She’d seen the Carlson boys at dances, and chattered away with the two youngest daughters. Their father had seemed to be very successful, throwing lavish parties and hosting grand hunts during the season.
Then, quite suddenly, they were out of society. Rumors spread quickly in London and the surrounding area that the grand Carlsons were penniless, surviving in a small cottage after they lost house and estate in a reckless gamble.
Cecilia realized with horror that this was her situation, and that of her mother. Vaguely, she refocused on the solicitor, who was explaining the breadth of their misfortune.
“There is no more to draw on, and I’ve drained the last of your account to repay the Viscount’s innumerable debts.”
“Are the debts settled then?” Cecilia asked.
Mr. Combs ventured a coarse laugh, and then stopped when he saw the two women staring at him with earnest eyes.
“No, I’m afraid not. His debts were many, and he did not leave enough to settle them aright.”
“We are penniless.” Lady Holden said the words softly, and they hung unrefuted in the cold air of the office. “We will lose everything.”
“What do you suggest we do?” Cecilia asked the solicitor as calmly as she could manage.
“It is my job to give you the facts, not a remedy,” Mr. Combs said. “But if I may venture an opinion, your daughter is not an unseemly girl. You still have a title. Perhaps some kind of worthy union could solve the issue on the table.”
“Yes. Surely you could find a man of title and wealth who could offer you reprieve from your current troubles.”
Cecilia winced inwardly. Though marriage did seem the most obvious way out of such financial ruin, the solicitor’s immediate recommendation struck her as both unoriginal and frightening.
The Dowager Viscountess had been offering hints for some time now about the marriageability of her only daughter, pushing Cecilia into the arms of wealthy and titled gentlemen. Cecilia had always been able to avoid imminent proposals by pleading her youth or the possibility of a better match.
Now, she knew such arguments would hold no water with her mother. They were poor, and poor women should not expect better matches.
For her part, Lady Holden’s eyes lit with hope at the solicitor’s suggestion, and that light followed the two women long after they’d left Mr. Combs behind in his heavily-curtained office.
“You look lovely tonight, my dear,” Lady Holden said, giving her daughter a good look before the two settled themselves in the carriage for the short drive over to the Sinclairs’ manor.
Cecilia Prescott was still a blushing nineteen years of age, and, though petite, cut a striking figure at local events.
For years, her rich brown curls and piercing grey eyes had been sought after by the lads of the county, and more recently by the respectable sons of titled aristocrats and landed gentry.
She was slim, and even in the mute grey dress that she wore in respect for her father’s passing, she looked like a vision.
“Thank you, Mama.”
She settled her cloak about her shoulders and rested her hand on the door sash with a sigh.
“It feels odd to be travelling to the Sinclairs’ ball as though we are the equals of every person in the ball room.”
“We are more than their equal,” Lady Holden sniffed in response. “You are a lady, and I am the Dowager Viscountess of Holden. They are lucky to have such people in attendance.”
She fiddled with the lace at her throat. “And if you’re speaking about our earlier conversation with Mr. Combs, I hardly think skipping the first ball of the season a good way to keep the news of our precarious financial situation from prying ears.”
“We can’t keep it quiet forever, Mama.”
“We can keep it quiet long enough. If anyone finds out, it will ruin your prospects of marriage, my dear. Our only chance now is for you to find a reputable, titled man with a bit of wealth on the side.”
Cecilia smiled in outward allowance, but thought back on the line of suitors she’d seen of late.
She hadn’t minded the sweet boy from Manchester, although he’d been rather simple and not an elegant conversation partner.
Then there was the baron who’d found himself with quite a few gambling debts and was willing to settle them all with an illustrious marriage to a titled lady such as herself.
Aside from the obvious truth that such an alliance in retrospect would have left both penniless, Cecilia had found the baron both preposterous and ignorant. She was glad to be rid of him.
More recently, her mama had been pressing her to meet with an untitled man of vast wealth who owned a collection of periodicals in London.
The lack of title wasn’t as much of an insult to Cecilia as the man’s undeviating view that women were only good for needlepoint and the planning of grand parties.
“I understand my duty,” she said with a sigh. “But even if I were to find such an elusive gentleman, surely he would be unwilling to pursue an attachment once he learned the truth of our financial situation.”
“That is where love comes in,” Lady Holden said, as calmly as if she were talking of the taking of tea at midday.
“You must do your best to be winning and amiable, Cecilia. Try to remember all that we taught you, and what your governess encouraged you to emulate from Fordyce’s. That is the sort of thing that entices a man to deep affection.”
“’Nature appears to have formed the faculties of your sex, for the most part, with less vigor than those of ours,’” Cecilia began quietly quoting the sermons in question, her gaze still fixed outside the door sash.
“’Observing the same distinction here as in the more delicate frames of your bodies.’”
She turned to her mother with a faint smile.
“It would seem Fordyce has not the faith in feminine mental faculties to — how did you put it? — ‘entice a man to deep affection.’”
“You’re taking him out of context, I’m sure.” Lady Holden folded her gloved hands with quiet dignity. “And you can’t deny that women are the weaker sex, in need of a firm hand and a strong provider.”
Cecilia nodded absentmindedly.
In truth, she found Fordyce and all sermonizing men like him to be adding little to the world of literature and thought.
He was trying desperately to hold the rising stars of womanhood in their proper place in the parlor, and she found his argument both unappealing and unoriginal.
For herself, she appreciated the helpful advice of lesser known etiquette books, and even these she preferred to set aside in favor of modern poets and the epics of old.
She drew her mind back to the conversation in the carriage, and found her mother still speaking about her earlier comment.
“It’s just that kind of opinionated stubbornness that will lose you the affections of the gentlemen in attendance tonight. The death of your father has given us the perfect opportunity to show you’ve softened in the last year.”
“Yes, Mama,” Cecilia didn’t protest.
“If you can get a man to fall in love with you, he will not mind assuming your father’s debts.”
“I think you have far too high an opinion of the virtues of the male sex,” Cecilia said wryly.
“On the contrary, I find their hearts fickle and easily swayed by a pretty face.”
A pretty face. It was a familiar phrase for Cecilia. She had never, in all the long line of men at her door, found a single one who’d been drawn to aught but her title and the luminosity of her eyes.
Once, when she was but a girl of sixteen, she’d formed a strong connection with the son of an untitled but wealthy member of the landed gentry.
Young Mr. Phillip Larson had everything to recommend himself. He was handsome and clever and well-read. When he first began to pursue Cecilia, she’d been delighted at the prospect of long conversations and witty banter.
It soon became apparent that while the gentleman treasured her title and the loveliness of her face, he did not want her to weigh in on matters of the mind or society.
It felt remarkable at times, that ladies were encouraged to broaden their minds with reading and conversation, when their ultimate end was to pretend simpering idiocy and vanity for the sake of a wealthy husband’s ego.
“I need to hear you say it, Cecilia.”
“What, Mama? Pardon me, my mind was elsewhere.”
“As it often is. I need to hear you say that you are with me on this. Tonight is an excellent opportunity to show me you are serious about doing your part to uphold our family’s legacy.”
“Mama, I will do what is necessary,” Cecilia said, her heart heavy.
The drive leading up to the Sinclairs’ manor was lined with bobbing lanterns. Even before the carriage came to a halt, Cecilia could hear the music and tinkling laughter of guests over the steady rhythm of the horses’ hooves.
She stayed back a moment whilst her mother exited the carriage in a cloud of amber silk. Then she herself stepped out onto the folding step, resting a moment there as the footman steadied Lady Holden.
It was at that moment of pause that Cecilia glanced up and caught a glimpse of a man riding along the lane crosswise to the party.
She only saw him for a moment, and then caught a few glimpses of his form through windows in the ivy hedge. He seemed so tall and free.
Free… That was the real draw, she realized, stepping down onto the pebbled path with the assistance of the now unengaged footman.
If only someone like that would ride into all this charade and take her away to a place where all her father’s debts and her mother’s expectations couldn’t reach her.
“Lady Holden!” she heard above her, and looked up in time to see Lady Sinclair in the greeting line at the door. Her voice came faintly over the sound of the revelers. “It’s so good to see you, and out of mourning as well.”
“Well, it is a new season, though I try to remain decorous of course,” Lady Holden said as they approached.
“Is Miss Prescott here?”
“Of course, I’m chaperoning her revels this evening. May I ask, who is in attendance?”
“The Duke of Belshire’s son is here, and a few noteworthy Mormonts, I believe. You should see the train on Lady Dowding’s dress, it’s woven with imported silk, I’m told.”
“Isn’t all silk imported these days?”
“Well, we are certainly delighted to have you in attendance, my lady.”
Cecilia walked up the stairs, steeling herself for the lights and laughter within.
The idea of a handsome prince was a little fanciful, even for her. She thought how her father would have teased her.
“It’s all those books you read,” he had always said when he was alive. “You’ve got worlds of nonsense at home in your head.”
Reality is nothing like fantasy, she thought, pushing the man on the horse and the freedom he symbolized from her mind.
She took a breath, and went to join her mother on the stairs.
Robert Fanning lowered his quill to the paper and paused for a moment before drawing a thin line and shifting the page across the desk to Mrs. Norris, who sat shivering on the opposite side.
“Do you require a cloak, Madame?” he asked kindly.
She shook her head, and he went on to point out the line at the base of the page.
“If you will sign your name here, Mrs. Norris, we will take your petition before the court. I looked at your documents, and it seems you have a legitimate claim that your employer has withheld proper wages.”
The cook was elderly, and frail. She’d come in with hardly any hope left, on the chance that the rumors about Fanning & Parnum helping the destitute were true.
“But what about peers of the realm? The Lord Bartnam is well-connected.” Her hands shook on the wool of her shawl. “He told me he would drag me into ruin if I told of his misdeeds.”
Robert felt a twinge of anger at the other man’s blatant misuse of his power.
“It will be necessary to connect you with a barrister of good social standing in the court, but I’ve a few who owe me a favor. He won’t appear in the Court of Chancery, but I’ve good hope we can negotiate a settlement outside the courtroom.”
“You’ve nothing to bargain with.”
“I have his good standing in society and the threat of the community getting wind of his mismanagement. For a man of his vanity, it should be enough.”
Mrs. Norris looked up with hope in her weary eyes.
“You think I will get my wages?”
“I think I can get you what you’re owed, and more. You have kept diligent documentation, Mrs. Norris.”
Robert came out from around the desk and helped his client to her feet. “I’d like to see you back in a week to finalize the case. Would you like me to send the carriage?”
She shook her head.
“I can get a ride with the grocer again.”
“Send notice if that changes and we’d be happy to help.”
He helped her down the stairs, one at a time, and then into the carriage, tucking a fur blanket around her knees.
“Thank you, Lord Lothmire,” she said. “Your kindness is much appreciated.”
“You have nothing more to worry about under my care,” he said gently, stepping away from the carriage and closing the door.
When he climbed the stairs back into the office, he met his partner, Roger Parnum, on the stairs.
“You get the cook settled?”
“Mrs. Norris’ case is something we can handle, I think.”
The older man frowned.
“Robert, you know she won’t be able to give us a high percentage of the profits. Just because you’re set for the future doesn’t mean the rest of us don’t need to earn our daily bread.”
Robert knew he was referring to the recent death of Charles Fanning, Robert’s older brother. The unfortunate sickness that stole Charles had inadvertently left Robert with the title of Earl of Lothmire, and an impressive sum of money.
“Cases like this win the trust of the people, and give us a good position in court,” Robert said. “It’s good for business, and you can’t tell me your business hasn’t been prospering since you added ‘Fanning’ to the awning.”
“Don’t let your ego be too significant, my dear Earl,” Roger said, feigning insult. “Why a wealthy man such as yourself would ever put himself through solicitors’ studies is beyond me.”
Robert smiled, following Roger into the top floor of the office and gathering the papers he’d left strewn on the desk.
“I wasn’t planning to be an heir.”
“That’s right,” his partner said, seating himself in one of the low Sheraton chairs and pulling out his pipe. “Just a hardworking lad who stumbled upon a fortune.”
Robert fell quiet. It was a familiar avenue of jest with his partner ever since Charles’ death, and at times it grated on him.
He loved the law, and even with his new title and money he knew he would keep advising.
Roger Farnum knew it as well, and despite his bluster and feigned jealousy, Robert new the other man was glad for his aid.
“What’s this?” he said, picking up a small missive stamped with the Duke of Belshire’s seal. It was shuffled beneath some of Mrs. Norris’ papers.
“Oh, your man brought that in earlier. Said it was important — urgent, perhaps — but we had so much to do with the Norris case and then the indictment hearing before that.”
Robert reached for a letter opener while his friend rambled on.
“Really, Robert. I ask you to look over case files and you are lackadaisical at best. Here you have a letter from this family friend—”
“—and you’re on the edge of your seat.”
“There has been some unpleasant business,” Robert mused out loud, scanning the letter as he went.
It read that the Duke’s son, a man Robert had known his whole life by the name of Gerard Mormont, Marquess of Malbrook, had fallen into a bit of trouble. It did not specify what kind.
Robert bristled as he read. Gerard had been a thorn in his side since the two were boys.
The Duke had taken to Robert from the start, holding his industrious nature up in contrast to Gerard’s laziness many a time. The Duke went out of his way to invite Robert on trips and teach him the necessary skills to succeed in the world of business, and that clearly infuriated Gerard.
Robert remembered one time when the boys were but eleven and twelve years of age, respectively, when Gerard had been so filled with jealousy after Robert was invited to join a hunting trip, that he loosed a shot into the Duke’s prime hound and ever afterward blamed Robert for the offense.
Robert, unwilling to further fuel the fires of jealousy, had kept silent and accepted his punishment bravely.
“Gerard will grow wise with time,” the Duke always said.
But luxury and title had worked a toxic effect on the young man, and as each year passed, he grew more spoiled and reckless.
The Duke’s hand in this most recent missive was heavy with the pressure of anxiety, and his words were unmistakably urgent.
“I must be away at once.”
“My friend, surely this is not a fortuitous time? Rest the night and leave in the morning.”
“No, they are in London at their townhouse. I will go directly.”
“What could be the matter?”
Robert had ridden to the Marquess’ aid before, for a financial squabble that had threatened the family with unpleasant gossip. He suspected it would be something similar, but didn’t trust his partner with the details.
“It’s a private matter, I’m afraid. You will of course press no further, Mr. Parnum?”
The other man rang the bell, waving his hand dismissively at the doorman who appeared.
“Please bring Lord Lothmire’s coat and hat, and bring round his horse. He has to leave at once on urgent business.”
As he neared the Belshire townhouse, Robert thought foremost of the Duke.
He felt a great debt to his godfather. Even before Charles’s death, the old man had been there for both boys, raising them like his very own sons.
He’d provided them references and opportunities to train and grow in their talents, and after Charles’s death, the Duke had been there to help Robert shoulder the burden of becoming a new Earl, and all that entailed.
A short distance from the townhouse, he passed the stately Sinclairs’ manor, fully alight with music and laughter and twinkling lights.
He’d heard of the dance, but hadn’t any desire to attend. It was one of the many fripperies of the opening of the season, and he’d had his fill of simpering maids and insistent parents.
Still, he glanced in at the gate as he rode by… and there, in a small pool of lantern light, he caught sight of a brown-haired girl dressed in a slip of silver-grey cloth. Her foot was descending from the carriage – her slender arms were white against the dark vehicle.
She looked like the North Star in a sea of meaningless constellations.
For a moment, he thought about turning his horse down that pathway and arriving, unsuitably attired as he was, at that ball he’d so despised moments before. Then, he remembered the Duke, his work, and his own new title.
Life was too complicated for North Stars at present. He rode on.
He left his horse at the foot of the townhouse stairs and bid the boy there take it back to the stables. He entered the house with a heavy heart.
“Lord Lothmire, what a surprise.” The butler let him in, and showed him to the library where the Duke was sitting by the fire, his back to the door.
“Your Grace,” Robert said, his voice low.
“You came.” The Duke of Belshire rose quickly, his once-handsome face now racked with worry. “I wasn’t sure you could get away.”
“Anything for you.”
“You see, there seems to be a bit of… trouble,” the Duke went straight to the point, “and I had hoped you’d be able to bring it to a swift and silent end.”
“What is the matter?”
The Duke cast a glance at the two footmen positioned against the wall. He lowered his voice even further.
“It is a peculiar thing, but I’m afraid it needs to be handled rather discreetly. Would you mind…?”
He motioned to a slip of paper and a quill lying nearby.
Robert nodded agreement, and the older man moved past him and scribbled a few words on the slip of paper. He turned, holding it fast in his fingers.
“It is about Gerard. I don’t want you to think less of him,” he seemed reluctant to part with the note in his hand.
Robert thought it would be hard, after everything he’d experienced at the hands of Gerard as a boy, and later as a young man, to think less of Gerard than he already did.
“Your Grace, I only wish to help. It is not for me to have an opinion one way or the other.”
This at last put the Duke’s mind at ease, and he extended the paper with trembling fingers.
Robert took it and read it with an increasingly sinking heart.
“The matter must be settled fast. You see there is a timeline on the thing.”
Robert tucked the note into his pocket.
“I will arrange it on the morrow if it is at all possible.”
The Duke sank bank into the chair as though he’d recently survived a great trial. He waved indistinctly at the farthest footman, and the man brought him two glasses of sherry. The Duke offered one to Robert, and he took it.
“There’s only one thing for it,” the old man said, drinking deeply and staring into the flames. “We have to get him into a respectable marriage.”
“Marriage may not solve this particular problem,” Robert said quietly.
“It has to. I demanded it of him.”
“What did he say?”
“He is agreeable enough. He does not think he has done any wrong.”
The old man glanced at the drink in Robert’s hand. “He’s at the Sinclairs’ now. I told him he had to find a wife this season, and his solution was to go to the nearest ball in search of her.”
“It’s not a terrible plan.”
“He needs to find a respectable lady.” The man looked up with sudden eagerness. “Could you go and make sure he settles on a woman of good standing?”
“Tonight? I would not be expected.”
“You are the Earl of Lothmire. You are always expected.”
“The Marquess has never been much moved by my opinion, Your Grace.” Robert set the sherry aside, bowing. “But if it would put your mind at ease…”
“It would indeed.”
Robert took his leave, his thoughts weighted with sober review.
The lights and corridors of the Sinclairs’ manor were disorienting, and reminded Cecilia of the first overwhelming ball she’d attended as a much younger girl.
Now, it all seemed a bit gaudy, and she navigated the platitudes and proper bows and curtsies like a woman trapped in a dream.
“Miss Prescott, how lovely to have you in attendance this evening, and what a pleasant evening to open the season.”
It was a young man her mother had introduced; she couldn’t at first remember his name, but knew she’d met him two seasons ago at one of the closing balls. Fredricks, was it?
“It is a lovely night,” she agreed.
“I was sorry to hear of your father’s passing.”
“You are kind.”
“May I prevail upon you for a dance later? It would be my honor.”
Cecilia looked at the man’s face. He seemed pleasant enough, but vacant, like an unwritten book.
The thought of walking to the dance floor on his arm, talking harmlessly about the weather and the latest harmless gossip, and pretending interest the whole time seemed an interminable torture.
And yet, she knew the luxury of denying dances did not belong to recently ruined young women with inherited debts.
“A dance would be lovely.” She bowed her head ever so slightly, turning at the tinkling laughter of a young woman behind her.
“Miss Prescott, I presume?”
The woman was tall and lithe, with sparkling blue eyes and shimmering blond hair. Her gown was elegant, fashioned of white silk and trimmed with pearls.
“You presume correctly.”
Cecilia felt the honorable Mr. Fredricks melt away from view, and turned her full attention on the vision before her.
“Lady Sinclair told me to find you and befriend you at once. I’m Lady Lucy Mormont.”
Recognition hit Cecilia in a wave and she blushed. “Of course. Your father is the Duke of Belshire.”
“Indeed. My grand connection until I married my dear Italian count, but I wouldn’t trade my Carino for a host of Papa’s admirers.”
It was all a bit forward for Cecilia, but despite herself she felt a wry affection for the woman before her.
Lucy Mormont wore her wealth and title with the effortless confidence of a woman who’d grown up knowing no hardship or uncertainty.
With a sharp pang, the thought reminded Cecilia of her own financial troubles, but she kept her face in a relaxed smile and let Lucy control the conversation.
“It’s really shocking we haven’t met before,” Lucy said, sipping something out of a crystal-stemmed glass.
“But I lead such a busy life these days. Always to the coast and back, and the Count has such complicated endeavors in the center of the country.”
Cecilia nodded, though in truth she was unacquainted with the busy life of the Mormonts outside of local gossip.
She and her mother had lived a quiet life in the country when her father was alive, and even now they kept to their townhouse more days than not.
“It is good that we have met now,” she ventured. “And how are you finding London this Season?”
“Dismal, but that’s soon to change now that the night is sparkling and alive again,” Lucy said, taking another sip. “My dear, you seem to be catching eyes all across the room. Please let me introduce you to some of my nearest and dearest.”
Cecilia pushed aside the sinking desire to flee and allowed Lucy to take her arm and lead her across the bustling room to first one group, and then another.
Lucy’s nearest and dearest seemed to be a vast and quickly growing crowd.
At one circle, a young baroness seemed particularly taken with Cecilia.
“You’re a dear,” she gushed. “You should consider joining me and the Baron in Bath this year. We don’t go up as often as we should, but he’s airing out the house for the summer months. You know how the waters there help with illness.”
“It’s been two years since I’ve been to Bath,” Cecilia answered. She’d gone with her father in his waning years of health, hoping the fresh air would do him good.
“Do you know the Bartletts? Miss Fanny Bartlett is a positive genius on the pianoforte, and she was at many of our gatherings.”
“I haven’t had the pleasure.”
“Tell me you frequented the Royal Crescent and the Upper Assembly Rooms. Papa always loved their architecture but I feel there’s something so stately about it all.”
Cecilia knew of both places, but she felt keenly the other woman’s posturing.
The reference to architecture and the assumption that all people descending on Bath would have the wealth and connections to spend their time in the Upper Assembly Rooms vexed her deeply.
She thought of the gold gilding, the marble staircases, and the whispering silk in quiet passageways. All that was soon to be behind her, if what the solicitor said was true.
Likely enough, this baroness would soon be whispering behind her fan about meeting the Miss Prescott once at the Sinclair’s ball. “Of course, that was before their fall in fortune,” she would say.
“I did like Pulteney Bridge,” Cecilia answered at last, wistfully remembering the white stone and the pristine river moving lazily beneath.
“You must be much acquainted with local walks,” the baroness said, fanning herself. “I’m one for dances myself.”
“Come now, Miss Prescott.” Lucy interjected, pulling her new friend gently away. “You can’t give your attentions to the ladies all evening. Let’s see if I can find my brother for you.”
She led Cecilia to the corner of the room where two gentlemen stood watching the festivities.
Cecilia noticed at once the tallest of the two, a dark-haired gentleman in formal dress with trimmed sideburns and flashing dark eyes.
“This is the Marquess of Malbrook, Gerard Mormont,” Lucy said. “My brother.”
The tall man bowed gallantly over Cecilia’s hand.
“Enchanted,” he said simply, kissing her fingers. She felt a thrill of excitement, and wondered at it. The Marquess seemed not just handsome, but self-possessed.
“And this is our dear friend, The Honorable Robert Fanning.”
“Lord Lothmire now, sister,” Gerard said with an affected laugh. “You forget yourself.”
“Yes, of course, Lord Lothmire.” Lucy waved her gloved hand about her face as though dismissing a small annoyance. “He recently inherited the title of Earl of Lothmire.”
“How pleasing for you,” Cecilia murmured, finding the second gentleman’s touch to be colder, and more distant than his handsome friend.
The new Earl of Lothmire was handsome enough, although he was a bit shorter than the Marquess, and had pale, red-blonde hair and green eyes that seemed to look through her to some distant, more interesting thing.
“You must forgive my friend,” Gerard said, raising his eyebrows in a look of shared confidentiality. “He’s a bit preoccupied at the moment.”
“With what, pray tell?” Cecilia asked.
“Naught of interest,” Lord Lothmire responded curtly.
“Oh, Robert, let Miss Prescott be the judge of that.” Lucy laughed and flashed her charming blue eyes at the solemn man. “Come, tell us what was on your mind.”
“I’m sure my thoughts would only bore you.”
“Or perhaps you think us too fragile to comprehend them,” Cecilia interjected with what she hoped was a light-hearted smile.
“I would not do you the dishonor.”
After a moment’s pause, Cecilia attempted another course of conversation.
“What think you of the weather? It is unseasonably warm. I wouldn’t be surprised if we were forced to venture to country cottages a bit earlier than usual this year.”
“Yes,” Lord Lothmire said wryly. “Let’s talk about the weather.”
Something in his tone caused Cecilia pause. It had been some time since she’d come face to face with such aloof behavior.
It was clear that the Earl of Lothmire had no desire to attempt carefree conversation, and it seemed he was reproving her, somehow, for her attempts at just that.
Thankfully, she was saved from further awkwardness by the warmth and charm of the Earl’s more agreeable friend.
“Miss Prescott, would you give me the honor of claiming the next dance?”
“I believe it’s a quadrille,” Lucy said with a smile.
“I’d be delighted,” Cecilia answered, relieved to escape the cold stare of the Earl.
The two proceeded to the dance floor, where they lined up neatly beside one another across from another couple. Two others stood elegantly on the side, waiting their turn to join in the revel.
The music began, joyous and light-hearted, and Cecilia moved through the familiar footwork with ease.
“You’re an excellent dancer,” Gerard said, leaning down as they met in the center for a dip and a turn.
“You’re too kind.” She smiled, and the two parted for the second couple to pass through. In a moment they were together again, parading around the center of the dance floor.
“Tell me, Miss Prescott, what things occupy your passing hours?”
“Are you asking if I am accomplished, sir?” Cecilia shot her partner a teasing smile, and he returned it in kind.
“I’ve no doubt of that, but I learnt years ago that conversation was expected at events such as these, and I am interested in… your interests.”
“A valuable lesson,” she dipped beneath the upheld arms of another couple and then came to rest at Lord Malbrook’s elbow again, promenading forward in smooth movements. “I’ve heard there are some very nice walks in the outlying county near here.”
“I can’t vouch for them with any certainty. I’m a riding man myself.”
“Ah. A lovely occupation on days such as these.”
His eyes were suddenly quite close as they turned in a tight circle, and she looked modestly away from their intensity.
“Perhaps you would join me some time.”
She should have responded at once, but a certain stillness in her heart held her back. She smiled instead, in what she hoped was tacit agreement, and was thankful for the chance to whirl away into the changing pattern of a temporary partner.
When she came back, Cecilia was composed again. She cast a winning smile in Lord Malbrook’s direction.
“A ride would be lovely. You could show me your favorite haunts.”
“And you? Are you a woman of nature or of the written word?”
“I wasn’t aware they were exclusive loves.”
The two came together, hands joined, and then fell apart into a line of four.
“Certainly they can walk hand in hand,” her partner murmured.
“I love books,” Cecilia admitted. “I find the more I read, the more I want to be out in the beauty of nature.”
Lord Malbrook seemed contemplative, and nodded agreement. Cecilia risked a glance at his profile and was pleased with what she saw.
He seemed genuinely interested in her, and he’d yet to make a comment about her pretty face or her father’s title.
They ended the dance with an elegant bow and he led her from the dance floor back to Lucy’s side.
“You make a lovely pair,” Lucy said with a smile. “You should secure her for another dance before the evening gets away from you.”
“What say you?” Lord Malbrook asked Cecilia.
“I have already promised myself to Mr. Fredricks for the next turn.”
“Then I will wait in expectation for you to return,” the dapper man gave an elaborate bow and pressed Cecilia’s hand once more in his own.
She glanced past him and caught the Earl’s eye.
He’d moved away, and was conversing with an older gentleman in the corner. He cast a severe glance in the direction of the two dancers, and then turned back to his own business.
The night was waning into early morning when Cecilia was at last able to find her mother in a throng of ladies on the edges of the party.
The Dowager Viscountess was aglow with the glamour of the highest rings of society, and enjoying the attention due her title. She smiled warmly when Cecilia approached, and bid her take a seat at the table.
“You will not believe our good fortune,” she whispered, a bit too loudly for Cecilia’s taste. “I’ve just had words with the Marquess of Malbrook.”
“He’s enchanted by you, I can tell it, even if he is too much of a gentleman to say as much. He’s invited us to Clairmont for a few weeks.”
“I know. Isn’t it marvelous?”
Cecilia felt a little light-headed. It was a good sign, indeed, but the room and the lights and the heat of the evening had thrown her off balance. It all seemed to be happening so fast.
“You’ve made quick work of the situation,” Lady Holden said confidentially. “I had high hopes, I admit, but I never could have imagined such a swift conclusion to our situation. The Marquess of Malbrook!”
“He wanted me to visit?”
“Yes, and his family will be delighted to see you, I’m sure. They’re sending a carriage round tomorrow morning and the Marquess insists he accompanies you for the ride. He’s positively enchanted, Cecilia. What did you say to him?”
“We talked of the area walks and some poems.” She paused, reconsidering. “We also spoke of riding. Nothing of consequence.”
“That’s just right, my dear. Conversation of consequence, as you put it, leads to disappointment on both ends, and, in the unluckiest of situations, disagreements.”
“Surely one cannot imagine moving through life with no disagreements whatsoever.”
“It’s perfectly plausible. Your father and I were very happily married, and I never indulged in an argument of any sort.”
“That cannot be.”
“It’s a simple trick, really.” Lady Holden smiled, as though thinking of a fond memory. “You cannot do battle if you’re not in the same room.”
The glow around the Dowager Viscountess continued as the two bundled into their carriage for the evening.
Lord Malbrook followed Cecilia outside and bent low over her hand again, looking up once to catch her gaze with a charming flash of his dark eyes before handing her deftly into the carriage.
“How romantic,” her mother sighed. “If you are very careful, Cecilia, you will be a marchioness one day.”
Cecilia didn’t bother to correct her.
As their carriage pulled out of the Sinclairs’ lane, she remembered the rider she’d seen earlier, and felt her freedom slipping ever further from her grasp.
The steady motion of the carriage lulled Robert into thoughtfulness as it drew ever nearer Clairmont.
He’d agreed to accompany Gerard and Lucy to pick up Miss Prescott and the Dowager Viscountess, and now he was regretting it almost as much as he regretted giving into the Duke’s whim and attending the Sinclairs’ ball.
He tried to focus on the page of Goethe he was reading, but the words assaulted him.
“If the whole world I once could see
On free soil stand, with the people free,
Then to the moment might I say,
Linger awhile… so fair thou art.”
The whole world free. He pondered the words, and wondered why they, like everything since the night of the ball, reminded him of the slim girl sitting across from him now.
She was wearing a simple brown muslin dress, and her hair was simply arrayed, and yet he found it nearly impossible to keep from stealing glances in her direction.
After the ball, Gerard had approached Robert with a singular swagger and asked him what he thought of the little Prescott miss.
“She’s a fine lady,” Robert had responded. “We don’t know her well, but I can hardly imagine any man could do better than Miss Prescott.”
“I’m not any man,” Gerard sent a critical gaze after the Prescotts’ retreating carriage. “But she is a pretty thing.”
It seemed the grandest understatement ever to be spoken. The thought of it now persecuted Robert, who had known since the moment he met Miss Cecilia Prescott that she was the silvery woman he’d seen descending the carriage earlier in the evening.
“She’s more than a pretty thing,” he’d responded, rather more curtly than intended. “She has some wit too.”
“Not an admirable quality in a woman,” Gerard had answered, going for what Robert feared was his fourth glass of wine.
“It is one thing to be properly coy; it is another entirely for a woman of lovely face and form to give in to the temptation of verbal swordplay.”
“Your father would approve of her title.”
“He’d approve of almost anything but my current conquests, and you know it.”
That had ended the conversation, and Robert feared now that his efforts to aid the Duke may have done Miss Prescott a disservice.
“Naught of interest,” had been his answer when she asked what occupied his thoughts.
He winced at the memory. Her words had been sweet, and her intentions innocent enough, but he’d been so preoccupied with the sight of Gerard’s interest and charm that he’d brushed her off.
He wasn’t sure he’d done the lady a favor by commending her to Gerard, as true as his sentiment was.
“I have a thoroughbred, most desirable for both speed and endurance.”
Gerard’s smooth voice broke into Robert’s thoughts. The tall man was leaning toward Cecilia. He’d been talking at length with the lady about horses, and, to her credit, she’d been listening attentively.
“Are any of your horses trained for the races?” she asked.
“Now, that question shows how little you know of the sport,” the Marquess said with a laugh. “I’m far more interested in the paces of a good canter than an all-out gallop, although the latter is more exciting.”
“Come now, Lord Malbrook,” Lucy interjected. “Thoroughbreds were made for galloping. Perhaps Miss Prescott had a point in asking.”
“You, who use your geldings for mere locomotion, are not one to speak. A horse is a fine-tuned instrument; a piece of brilliant artwork. You lash it into a harness and ride behind it in a great wheeled box.”
“Brother, you shouldn’t bore our companion with constant talk about such things. Surely the lady would like to discuss something else?”
“I’m quite content,” Cecilia said.
Robert caught the same restrained look in her eyes he’d seen the first night they met.
She had a sadness about her, buried as it was under her façade of decorum and gentility.
He went back to his book, but the conversation intensified.
“It’s good to have some balance in your life, Gerard,” Lucy said, her words clipped. “Talk about books or some other such thing.”
“We’re quite alright carrying on our own conversation, sister.”
“She’ll begin to suspect you have but one love, and that a four-legged one.” Lucy was teasing, but it seemed to have struck a nerve.
“You’re one to speak about singularity of purpose, when you take every opportunity to work your Italian count into conversation. You’ve caught him already, you are no longer required to pretend infatuation.”
Robert saw Cecilia tense at the harshness of Gerard’s words, and he looked up languidly from his book to put an end to the fight.
“I suspect our Miss Prescott isn’t interested in Italian counts or horses.”
“You presume too much,” her voice, lovely as it was, had a sharp edge. “I’m fascinated with both.”
“I’m sure you’re just being polite.”
“I believe being polite is part of the art of conversation. Perhaps if you’d lay aside your book for a moment and join us, you’d gain a bit more practice in the subject.”
Gerard positively guffawed.
“Well done, Miss Prescott. A bit of wit to put our dear Earl in his place.”
“Don’t be crude, Gerard,” Lucy said sharply.
Robert felt Cecilia’s words sharper than he was willing to admit. He cared little for the opinion of others, but was surprised to find that her lack of goodwill injured him.
“Perhaps if you would all read more books,” he asserted, “you’d have more subjects upon which to converse than that of counts and horses.”
Gerard fell silent, and for a moment the carriage had naught but the enduring rhythm of horse hooves and the awkwardness of uncut tension to fill the silence.
At last, Cecilia spoke, her words as light as a lady’s should ever be.
“I do, in fact, read, Lord Lothmire. Perhaps you would like to discuss books? I’d be more than happy to tell you all about my limited exposure to the written word.”
“Is that so? And where did a lady such as yourself find time to broaden her mind with extensive reading?”
“A lady such as myself?” Cecilia laughed wryly. “Why, we are not often allowed the worthy activities that occupy your sex. What else have we to do but read?”
“And yet,” Robert continued, aware that he was nearing dangerous ground, “I’ve been acquainted with few women of standing who have a thorough knowledge of literature and the arts.”
“I cannot believe that to be true.”
“You yourself have yet to expound on your so-called love of reading. Come, amaze us with your knowledge.”
“Said the circus trainer to the dancing monkey,” she said with a sweet smile.
Robert felt rising frustration at her insolence, coupled with an appreciation for her ready wit. She was a remarkable woman, and not one to be easily put down.
“I did not mean to cause offense.”
“Why do you not rectify it then? Tell me what is so entrancing about Faust.”
“I have not the time,” he thought it the safest answer at the moment.
“Then I will venture an explanation,” she said. “What is it that drives our dear Faust into the arms of Mephistopheles? He becomes weary and depressed with his life as a scholar.
”Perhaps we should set aside our argument about whether or not the fellow should have formed an alliance with darkness, and instead we should ask whether he should have been so engrossed in his studies that he formed not the proper human connections who could have dissuaded his incorrect behavior?”
Robert opened his mouth to retort, but at present found words failing him. Cecilia was sitting forward in her seat, her eyes bright, apparently unaware of the boredom on Gerard’s languid face.
“You give your mind very freely,” was all he could manage.
“It is mine to give, is it not?”
“At present, perhaps.” He lowered his voice. “But a married woman has not the openness to disagree that you now enjoy.”
What he had intended as a warning against Gerard, clearly came across as an example of his own philosophy on the subject, for Cecilia’s face went quite pale, and she chose her next words with acidic care.
“I cannot imagine it is the practice of every man to assume upon himself the intellect of his wife. How dull that would be for both.”
“Have you much enjoyed conversation with yourself, when you ask the questions you want and answer with words that are comfortable? Perhaps for a time this would be amusing but I can only imagine it would lose the shine of interest before long.”
“Certainly.” Robert saw where she was going, and could not stop it. He smiled inwardly at the realization that he did not want to.
“By that reasoning, if you choose for yourself a wife with no wit or opinions of her own, you are choosing a life of talking to yourself, or arguing just to hear your own voice.”
The lady paused, her demeanor once again calm. “How dull that would be.”
“I confess I am beaten,” Robert admitted aloud, realizing she’d missed his warning about the Marquess altogether. “I will allow before you that a wife of intellect is more worthy than a peaceful one.”
“And all that,” Cecilia answered with a barely-concealed smile of triumph, “from a discussion of your reading material.”
“Oh hush, both of you.” Lucy yawned and drew aside the window shade to look out at the passing fields. “There’s nothing so dull as book.”
“Hear, hear,” Gerard agreed.
Robert scoffed inwardly at the realization that the other man had not been listening to his exchange with Cecilia.
It would have been an opportunity for him to show his pretended mettle; come to her defense, and win her opinion. As it was, he’d been lost in daydreams, and missed the exchange.
Robert turned his attention back to his book, but he could still see Cecilia out of the corner of his eye, calm and graceful against the window of the carriage.
She was beautiful, kind, and clever. Even when frustrated, she had a gentle wit, and he was drawn to her unassuming intelligence.
Gerard didn’t deserve her, that much was clear.
Whether the dissolute Marquess would win her despite, was still to be seen.