Viscount's Hidden Truths - Preview
Winter, 1808, London
One rainy winter evening, a dark figure emerged from a house sunken back from the street. This was no estate on Bond Street, but something better described as a hovel, a poorhouse. The streetlamps were hardly lit on this side of town, and it was not the place for anyone respectable. As the dark figure made his way from the doorway, he lifted his coat collar to keep warm, looking from left to right, ignoring the merrymaking happening on the other side of the street.
A candle was lit in one of the windows of the small, sunken-back house, and there was a flutter of lace as a pale face appeared there, watching the figure walk down the street. There was something like hope in the facial expression, as well as gratitude. But the lace was quickly replaced, and the face was gone. On the other side of the street, a drunken man was attempting to light his pipe, just outside the shadowy house of ill-repute which resided there.
The rain was heavy, but he was hidden under a poorly constructed awning. “Isn’t that Tarlington there?” the man said to his clustered group of friends.
His friends turned to look and then turned back. “Aye, so it is, Putney. What of it? He makes his way in the night like we all do.” Drunken chuckles accompanied the response, but Putney scowled at the tall, broad figure he had come to know so well from their fencing matches while still at school. His alcohol-addled mind brought back the frustration of those times, when he’d lost repeatedly, no matter how hard he practiced. He finally managed to light his pipe, and he took a deep puff.
“Well, I think Lord Tarlington, high and mighty, will have something to answer to.” He grinned as an idea formed in his mind. Tarlington had always been above suspicion, and he’d excelled at school to boot. It was too frustrating to bear, and now Putney saw his chance to settle an old score. It had been many years since school, but still, the sight of Viscount Tarlington was enough to set his teeth on edge.
“What on earth do you mean, Putney?” Another of his friends said. “What do you mean to do?”
“Gentlemen, I think it’s time for a rumor to begin. One that involves our Lord Tarlington and the visiting of a fallen woman on the far side of town, quite the unrespectable part.”
One of his friends snorted. “Is that not what all men of quality do, Putney?”
Putney shook his head. “Not our Tarlington. His parents, not to mention his aunt and uncle, would love to know just what he’s been up to. His poor aunt and uncle have suffered such a blow lately, what with their daughter becoming a sort of fallen woman herself. They won’t be able to bear it.” He grinned at his plan and then took another long puff from his pipe. “Yes, I think they’ll be very interested indeed.”
His friends had stopped listening, and Tarlington had already disappeared down the dark road, but Putney was determined. He glanced at the house Tarlington had emerged from, wondering what the man had really been doing there.
October 1811, London, three years later
Benjamin Mason, Viscount Tarlington, spied his best friend calling to him from the far corner of the gentlemen’s club. The sound of his friend’s voice filling the air caused several stern expressions and a few shushes among the other gentlemen, but Ben chuckled to himself.
He had tired of society long ago, and its rules. It was only because of his title and parents that he was even allowed entry to the Goldenrod Gentlemen’s Club, tucked away on a fashionable street. If it was down to his tattered reputation, he’d never be accepted anywhere.
The benefit of being a man in our society, I suppose. People are more apt to forgive.
“Arthur,” Ben said, shaking his friend’s hand warmly. Though he was a viscount, as was Arthur Lacey, the pair always called one another by their first names. They’d first become friends at school, aged six, and they’d been close ever since. Although, things had changed somewhat a few years ago, when Ben’s dear cousin had made a dreadful mistake, and Benjamin had found himself embroiled in scandal as well. It was not true what they said about him, but it was damaging, nonetheless.
“Good to see you, old friend.” Ben sat down, and Arthur waved over one of the waiters. Ben could feel eyes on him, but he was used to it, so he tried to ignore it as best he could.
“Good to see you.” Arthur grinned. Viscount Mason was almost as tall and broad as Benjamin himself. But while Ben was dark-haired, with piercing green eyes, Arthur had reddish hair and blue eyes. He was always smiling, always cheerful, and Ben knew the ladies of the ton found his friend very charming indeed. Almost too charming.
The waiter appeared with two whiskeys, and Ben took his gratefully. Even though it’d been three years since rumors of his scandalous night-time behavior had spread throughout London, it still weighed on him, and he always felt bad for his mother whenever he visited her and his sickly father, which he was about to do. It always made him feel a bit ashamed and nervous, and he knew the whiskey would calm him. He took a sip and said, “Now, tell me the latest news. You know how much I adore gossip.” Ben flashed his eyes knowingly, and Arthur laughed.
“You do, don’t you? Always at the head of some scandal or other. You certainly get around town.” Arthur never judged Ben, and for that, Ben was grateful. Unfortunately, he’d never been able to tell his best friend what he’d really been doing when someone had caught sight of him out on the dark London streets three years before. It would hurt too many people if anyone knew the truth, and so Ben had kept quiet, letting everyone think he was just a reckless rogue, filling his nights with gambling and meeting fallen women.
“Not much gossip to share. Haven’t seen you at any balls lately,” Arthur said, and drank back the whole of his whiskey, waving down the waiter for another.
“As if you’d think I’d go. No woman wants me, Arthur. I am regarded as a rogue within the ton.” He lifted his hands in the air and leaned back in his chair, as if it was all a joke. As if he didn't have a care in the world.
“Well, no woman wanting you is certainly a lie,” Arthur teased. “Whenever you do endeavor to get yourself spotted by the eligible young females at an event, I am always hearing something or other about the very handsome Lord Tarlington.”
Ben rolled his eyes. “I pity you, friend, that you have had to endure such trials.” He glanced at the second glass of whiskey the waiter had brought to Arthur and placed in front of him. “Now, what has you drinking so swiftly on a random afternoon? Something happened?”
He leaned forward, wanting to listen to his friend, knowing he couldn’t always be there for him, not with everything else he had to do. Arthur shrugged. He picked up his whiskey, but he didn’t drink it just yet. He leaned back and stared at Ben.
“Just the usual. I’m the eldest, and a man, so I need to help my sister.”
“Help her? Something wrong?” Ben twisted the crystal whiskey glass in his hands.
“Well, here’s the latest gossip for you, I suppose,” Arthur said with a sigh. “My dear sister Amelia, as you know, is quite a tall young woman. She is stately and elegant, and yet my mother believes her unusual height to be the reason she has not received many suitors. Mother kept her at home a little longer than usual because she felt she wasn’t quite ready to come out. Now, she is a bit older than the other debutantes. Her last two Seasons were unsuccessful, and it’s already nearing the end of the third one, and still no success. I am meant to encourage suitors in some way. But I don’t understand why men can’t see what a beautiful, intelligent woman my sister is. I don’t know what I can do to help remove the veil from their eyes. ”
Benjamin nodded, trying to picture Amelia Lacey in his mind’s eye. Since staying away from society, he hadn’t seen her in some time, at least, not face to face. In fact, he hadn’t really seen her since she was about fifteen or sixteen. She was pretty then, but a little shy, and she’d tried to talk to him a time or two whenever he’d visited Arthur. But Arthur had always sent her away, wanting to spend time only with his friend.
“I’m sorry to hear that, Arthur. But what an odd thing to do. Not to court a woman simply because she’s tall. Men are fools. Why, she’s certainly not taller than a man.”
“No, but I think it’s gotten into my sister’s head now. My mother keeps harping on it, as if the poor girl can do anything about it. I don’t even think that’s the real reason why suitors haven’t approached her as much as my mother would like. I think it’s shot her confidence to hell, so she now approaches every event of the Season as if she was being sent to her death. She doesn’t even always attend,” Arthur snorted and took a sip. “I can understand that. I would hate to be in her position, offered up as if on a plate.”
Benjamin nodded, thinking about his cousin Sarah now. The dear cousin who had lost her whole life because of the foolishness and greed of another man. She had paid the price with the loss of her family and her place in society because she had been in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“It’s a shame, you know. That’s part of the reason why I try to stay away if I can.”
“Lucky you. There’s a ball tonight, and I will just have to grin and bear it. My mother will be pressuring me all evening, I’m sure, not only to help Amelia but to find a bride of my own.”
Ben burst into laughter, almost doubling over with the thought. “You? Married, Arthur?” He shook his head. “Now that I can’t wait see.”
Arthur grinned. “Bless you. You know me too well. Yes, but my mother doesn’t seem to remember the great number of faults I have. I think only about my own amusement at this stage in my life. How can I possibly think of anyone else? A wife would tie me down in more ways than I wish to think about.”
“And yet, poor Amelia must marry if she’s to have a life.”
“Yes. I know.” Arthur looked chagrined. He leaned forward. “You should come tonight. Ease my pain. Surely, you’ve received an invitation from Lord and Lady Masterson? Even if you’re not completely spotless in the eyes of the ton.”
He had received said invitation, but he’d barely looked at it, having had no interest in it. Ben gave Arthur a withering look. “You can’t be serious.”
“Consider it. We can have a good chat, a few drinks, and look at all the lovely eligible young misses whom we do not have to make our missus. Unless you are interested in marriage yourself, of course.”
Ben took another sip from his whiskey. He chuckled at Arthur’s obvious joke; it wasn’t that he didn’t want to marry. It was just that it wasn’t really an option for him. Whenever he attended events, he could tell all the mothers were watching him like wary hawks, almost pulling their daughters away from him as he walked by. But the daughters would look at him with interest. He was not unaware of the attraction, but it bothered him. He had to live with his secrets and this reputation, and it had ruined any semblance of a normal, real life.
“I’ll think about it, Arthur,” he said, “but I wouldn’t depend upon it. I wouldn’t want you to be heartbroken if I don’t appear.”
Arthur clutched his chest dramatically. “It will break my heart if I must bear my mother’s remonstrances on my own. You know just how brutal she can be.”
“Yes, I remember her diatribes when we were younger, getting into all kinds of trouble whenever I visited.” Ben grinned, thinking back on the pleasant memories.
“Ah, yes. I sometimes wince when I think about how angry she was that day we lost the croquet ball in the river. The last one, too.”
Ben threw back his head and laughed. He had missed his friend. It had been far too long, a few months at least since he’d seen him last, and he always left Arthur’s side feeling more relaxed and cheerier. Arthur was like a breath of fresh air.
“Yes. I honestly can’t play croquet these days without feeling guilty. Well, tell me how you plan to encourage men to talk to your sister tonight? If you succeed, then your mother will likely stop hounding you about finding a bride for yourself. For a little while, at least.”
Arthur tapped his chin, and his eyes sparkled with mischief. “You’re right. I didn’t think of it that way. Brilliant! I am doubly motivated then.” Arthur paused, and Ben could tell he had some sort of trick up his sleeve.
“You know? I wish it could be one of my friends who took a liking to Amelia. How easy that would be, and I wouldn’t have to go to the trouble of watching the man like a hawk whenever he spoke to my sister. Then I would also be guaranteed a brother-in-law whom I actually liked.” He laughed. “Come now, Ben, any interest in offering your attentions to my dear sister? I daresay she liked you well enough when you used to come and visit during school holidays.”
Ben grinned, shaking his head at his friend’s foolishness. He remembered Amelia’s innocent young face as she blushed, asking him questions and wanting to know all about boys’ school.
“Now you really have gone mad, Arthur, and the whiskey has gone to your head. Have you not heard of my less than sterling reputation? I know exactly what your mother would think if I became one of your sister’s suitors.”
Arthur waved a hand in the air. “I suppose so. Ah, well. It was worth a try. But it would not go amiss for you to ask her to dance if you come tonight. She knows we are still good friends and in contact.”
Ben nodded and threw back the rest of his whiskey. He stood and looked down at his friend with a smirk. “We’ll see. I’m off to go and visit my parents.”
“How is your father lately?”
“Not too well, but I hope he will soon be on the mend. Good to see you, Arthur.” He shook his friend’s proffered hand. “Until the next time.”
“Which will be tonight!” Arthur called out, and Ben laughed again when he saw the scowls of the other men around them on his way out.
Ben still had a smile on his face by the time he arrived at his father’s house from the club. Arthur was like that; he could make any situation better and make people laugh, even after meeting him.
Ben wondered how upset Arthur would be to know about all the things Ben had kept hidden from him all these years. In the past three years, they had spent a few evenings out together, but nothing more. Arthur had it in his mind, however, that Ben was doing far worse things than merely enjoying a drink or a game of whist at some establishment or other late at night. And Ben wasn’t going to do anything to make him think otherwise.
But he was surprised that Arthur had actually asked him to court Amelia. Ben knew he was joking, but Arthur didn’t seem to think it was that much of a joke. He seemed genuinely hopeful that a friend would come forward.
Ben shook his head. Why was he even thinking about it? It wasn’t as if he even knew Amelia at all anymore. At the very few social engagements he’d participated in over the last few years, he had kept away from her, knowing that the last person he wanted to taint with his dark reputation was his best friend’s sister.
Under his breath, he muttered, “I suppose it felt nice not to be so flatly rejected for once. To be thought of as a good suitor, even in jest, was a break from the truth of my situation.”
He was chewing on the import of his words as he walked up the steps to the townhouse, but before he could even knock, the door swung open, and the butler of his youth, Carruthers, was standing there, looking pale and worried.
“Thank God you are here now, young master. Your father—he has had another attack!” Carruthers moved aside as Ben raced into the house and up the stairs. His heart was pounding, and he could feel sweat breaking out on his forehead. It had been weeks since the last seizure, and his father had been making improvements, but now this? Not again. Ben wasn’t ready yet to lose his father.
He reached the room, and he burst inside, to see his mother crying softly next to the bed, her hands in front of her face, clasping a handkerchief. Her brown, graying curls were peeking out of the sides of her lace cap. Even though he’d pounded up the steps and rushed into the room like a bat out of hell, when he saw his mother, his footsteps became slow and steady. He knelt next to her and looked at his father.
“Is he—” he asked, unable to say the word.
She shook her head. “He is resting now. The doctor has been called. The attack only lasted a few minutes.” She started to cry again, and Ben wrapped his arms about her. She was so pale and thin these days, and he worried so much for her. Rumors of his reputation hadn’t done anything to help her.
He sat down on the bed and watched as his father’s chest rose and fell. At least he was still alive. “Thank God. Carruthers looked so worried that I feared I was too late.” He reached out to hold his mother’s hand. She took it, but she was frowning at him.
“Ben, there is something I must say to you.” She wiped her remaining tears and clenched the handkerchief tightly in her hand. Ben knew what was coming. It happened almost every time his father had an attack, and now that this appeared to be the worst yet, he could almost repeat word for word what his mother was about to tell him.
“Listen to me now. I have told you this many times, but your father’s health is growing even more precarious. We thought he was improving, but the attack today has shown us that it is not. You need to start thinking about this family and your reputation. When you take your father’s place one day as the Earl of Tarlington, you will need a good wife beside you.”
Ben looked down. Even though he’d known what his mother was going to say, he still didn’t like hearing it. He hated the fact that he had disappointed his parents time and time again.
“I know your feelings on marriage,” she added, but he wanted to tell her that she didn’t, that it was only Society which was preventing him from doing what she wished. “But I ask you to reconsider. Please, go to the Masterson ball this evening. You still have time. I want you to start thinking about putting your nighttime activities behind you and start taking up some more responsibility.”
Ben straightened up and looked at his mother. Her eyes filled with tears again, and she put the handkerchief to her nose. “It is not only about name and honor, although my sister would say differently. It is about you. When your father and I are gone, I do not want you to be alone. Now Nathaniel has been gone these five years, I want you to have a companion, Ben. Someone you can love as much as I love your father.”
Ben didn’t want to think about Nathanial, his younger brother, who had died in the war five years back. It still brought him pain whenever he thought of it. Now, he saw Arthur as more of a brother, but even that was a limited relationship, with all the secrets Ben had to hide. He tried his best to smile.
“Thank you, Mother. I will consider it. I know that this means a lot to you, and I never wish to bring you or father dishonor or shame.” He clenched his jaw for a second, trying to get up the courage to say what he was going to say next. “I will go to the ball this evening. That would make you happy?”
His mother’s eyes widened, and she laughed as she jumped into his arms, giving him a tight embrace. “Oh yes! That would make me very happy, indeed! Go, go now, back to your home! You don’t have much time, and the valet will need to see you dressed perfectly! Please give the hosts our apologies and give our greetings to your Aunt Elizabeth.”
Ben grimaced. His Aunt Elizabeth was the last person he would speak to. She was always sharp and unkind, but after what had happened with her daughter Sarah and the man who had compromised her, Ben could barely stomach even looking at his aunt. Aunt Elizabeth had cast her daughter out with nary a word as soon as word spread of Sarah’s scandal three years before. It was only Ben who had found her a place to live and gave her money to survive on. Aunt Elizabeth’s primary focus was status, and he thanked God that he had been blessed with the kinder sister for a mother.
“Of course,” he said dutifully. “But are you sure you want me to leave you? What of father? He will want to see me when he awakes.”
“When he does, I will tell him that you are at the Masterson ball dancing with all kinds of suitable young ladies, and I know he will understand. It will most certainly lift his spirits.” She grinned, and Ben smiled too, happy that he could give his mother this small joy. He had no hope of getting married, but if he could do this one thing for her, that would be enough for a little while.
That made him think of Arthur, this placating of mothers. “I will go and get ready,” he told her.
“Yes, yes, hurry! We will speak tomorrow, and I will send word about your father’s condition. Be sure to ask many young women to dance, you know! And wear your blue coat!” She called as Ben left the room and walked down the stairs.
As he passed the butler, Ben said, “All is well, Carruthers. I will hear about his condition later.”
“Thank God, young master. Have a good evening.” The older man bowed and showed Ben out, and soon he was walking on the dark London streets back to his own home. He had placated his mother, and he hoped that Arthur was doing the same with his own. He could just imagine what Arthur’s face would look like when Ben entered the ballroom that evening.
His friend would be far too smug, and it made Ben smile. He would see Amelia again too, and he thought about Ben’s words. It would be nice if he was to ask Amelia to dance, to brighten her spirits a bit, and at the same time, it would please his mother to know that he had offered to dance with a woman. And it wouldn’t be with a complete stranger.
As Ben walked home, he frowned as he became lost deep in thought. He was now in a situation similar to Amelia’s; both under pressure to get married, to restore honor to the family, and to stop ruining the chances they had at matrimony. When he walked through the door of his own townhouse, Ben wondered if it wasn’t fate that had made Arthur mention Amelia’s problem to him that afternoon. Perhaps there was some way in which he and Amelia Lacey could help each other out.
Up in his room, he called for his valet. “You rang, sir?” the man asked when he arrived, his hands clasped behind his back. He had done nothing exciting of late, with Ben keeping to himself mostly, but now, Ben was excited to offer him a new challenge.
“There is a ball this evening, at the Masterson home, John. It is occurring in a very short time, and I mean to attend. Do you think you can produce anything suitable for me to wear on such short notice?”
But, just as his mother had embraced him happily when he told her he would go to the ball, John’s eyes also widened and sparkled with delight. “Yes, my lord, I can! You have some very fine clothes which you have not yet even worn. And your boots are always shined and ready to go.”
Ben chuckled, glad he had made his young valet happy, giving him a little something extra to do. “Well, then, John, let us begin. I leave the choice up to you, although my mother has requested that I wear my blue coat.”
“An excellent choice, sir. “You will not regret it!” John hurried off to the wardrobe, and Ben stood in front of the looking glass trying to think of the best thing to say to his best friend’s sister, to whom he hadn’t spoken in six years.
Amelia Lacey, Lady Brighton, wanted to cry. It was such a familiar feeling these days, but it always got worse whenever she was unable to think of an excuse to get out of attending a society event. She had enjoyed some peace and quiet before the start of her third Season, but now it was in full swing, being late October. All she wanted was to be left alone and forget all about marriage and Seasons and attracting someone of the male sex.
At that moment, she was standing on the outskirts of the Masterson ballroom, her eyes watching the crowd of dancers as they moved in perfect time to the lovely music.
“Isn’t it just lovely?” Olivia Thornton, the daughter of a baron with a rather unfortunate set of teeth was standing next to Amelia and also looking out at the dancers. “I always enjoy coming to a ball at the Masterson’s home. Lady Masterson knows quality. Don’t you think so, Lady Amelia?”
Amelia felt sorry for poor Miss Thornton, who was no beauty and had already been through four Seasons without any luck. She understood the girl’s difficulty well enough, with her mother always harping on at her to try and hide her height. Amelia knew this would most likely be Miss Thornton’s last Season, and while her father was well-off, he had sons upon which to bestow his money and other assets. Yet she was always so cheerful, and Amelia was resolved to be just as cheerful about her fate, even if it hurt.
“Yes, it’s perfectly lovely, Miss Olivia. I like your gown. You have chosen a good color for your complexion.”
Olivia beamed and touched her light cream muslin. “Oh, thank you, Lady Amelia. A compliment from you is one to be treasured.”
Amelia smiled. “That is kind of you to say.”
“And you look beautiful too, in the pale green. I am certain that a worthy young man will ask you to dance this evening.” Olivia looked around. “There are certainly plenty of handsome gentlemen here.”
Amelia sighed as she cast her eyes over the guests in the room. There may be plenty of handsome men but not many kind ones, I’m sure.
“We shall see how the night goes, Miss Olivia. I wish the best for you, too.”
“I have learned all the steps,” Olivia said hopefully, and Amelia admired the way she never seemed downtrodden by her lack of success. If only Amelia could be as strong. But thoughts of her demanding mother made her courage and desire to be stronger waver just a little.
Amelia winced when she heard her name being called in her mother’s scolding tone. She knew there was a lesson coming, and she wanted to groan aloud.
“Yes, Mother?” Amelia reluctantly turned around to see her mother looking at her with her hands on her hips.
“Oh, good evening to you, Countess,” Olivia said with a curtsy, and Amelia’s mother nodded her greeting.
“Miss Thornton. Now, Amelia, do not bury yourself in conversation for the whole of the evening. Gentlemen need to know you are available to dance.” A pair of gentlemen walked by at that moment while her mother was talking, and her mother smiled at them invitingly. Amelia’s cheeks colored, but she was grateful that they passed by having hardly noticed them both.
She nodded at them kindly, and she wished she could apologize for her mother’s strange behavior. I don’t think it would be possible to feel more humiliated than I am at this moment.
“You see? Smile, and appear ready and open to invitations. No one will wish to approach a young woman who does not look confidently into the crowd. But do keep your shoulders sloped, dear.” Just like always, Amelia felt her mother’s hands touch her shoulders and pull them forward, as if by sheer force and strength of she could make her daughter shorter and thus more elegant. Amelia gritted her teeth. It would take all the patience in the world to get through this evening.
“You will have plenty of time to show your true height after you are married.” She grinned at Amelia once she was finished. “There. Perfect. Now, I will leave you to attract the young gentlemen this way. Your brother should be assisting you. Where is he?” The feather in her mother’s hair bobbed as she searched the crowd for her son.
Yes, Arthurs company would be far preferable to this nonsense. She squeezed her hands tightly together, trying to garner her patience.
“Ah, there he is,” Amelia said with relief when she saw Arthur coming towards her, holding two champagne flutes in his hands.
“Arthur, where have you been? You are meant to attend to your sister this evening, you know,” her mother said with a tone of remonstrance.
“Yes, dear Mother, I know it. That is why I have gone to the trouble to bring her some refreshment while she is standing there like a peacock, attempting to attract attention.”
Amelia stifled a laugh, putting a gloved finger to her lips. Her mother lifted a brow at her, and then she looked back at Arthur. “See that something happens tonight, Arthur. I leave you in charge.”
“How generous of you, Mother,” he said and leaned forward to kiss her on the cheek. With a huff, her mother left, and Arthur slid in next to Amelia. “Here you are, my dear. No doubt champagne will do you good at the moment.”
“You are a saint, Arthur,” Amelia whispered, and she took the champagne and took as large a sip as possible while also appearing ladylike. Suddenly, she remembered Miss Thornton’s presence and thought it would be best to include her, especially since Amelia knew just how much her brother was favored by the ladies of the ton.
“Oh, Arthur, do you remember Miss Olivia Thornton?” She moved aside so that Arthur could see Olivia, who had been blushing considerably since Arthur’s arrival.
Amelia knew it would make Olivia’s evening to be introduced to one of the most sought-after young bachelor’s of the ton.
“Why, yes, Miss Thornton. How lovely to make your acquaintance. I have seen you around this Season.” He leaned across his sister to take Olivia’s hand and bow over it. Olivia colored even more, and Arthur grinned handsomely at her.
Her brother was a notorious flirt, but he was also very kind-hearted. She loved her brother more than just about anybody in the world.
“And you, Lord Brighton,” Olivia said softly with a curtsy.
When Arthur straightened up, he asked them both, “Just how bad it is then? Looking out at all these ridiculous creatures, prancing about.”
Olivia said, “I should very much love to be prancing about with them,” and then blushed, looking away.
Amelia shook her head, trying not to laugh at her brother’s vulgarity. “You really are incorrigible, Arthur. Do you pretend that you are not enjoying yourself?”
“I always enjoy myself, Amelia, no matter what I do.” He gave her another wicked grin. “But I would prefer not to have to spend time attempting to force you to do the same.” He squeezed her hand. He lowered his voice. “I am sorry for the way of things. The way mother speaks to you. I think you’re beautiful, Amelia. And the best sister a man could have.”
“I am your only sister, Arthur.”
“Well, then it’s even harder to earn the position of best! There is no one to compare you to.”
Amelia chuckled at her brother’s flawed logic. He looked around the room and said, “I rather hoped Ben would take me up on my invitation to join us. Or rather, my encouragement to join us. He received an invitation from the Masterson’s.”
Amelia’s ears pricked up at the mention of Ben, Arthur’s friend. It had been many years since she’d spoken to him, but she remembered him well enough. His wild, roguish reputation preceded him.
“Ben?” she asked lightly, praying Ben would not come because every time she saw him, even from afar, she remembered her childlike crush on him, as well as her embarrassing attempts to get close to him when she was younger.
“Yes. Ben. Lord Tarlington. You remember him.”
“Ah, yes,” she said with a nod. “I do, but I didn’t think he liked to come to events very often.”
Arthur snorted. “Then he feels just the same as I do. He wouldn’t have come at all tonight, but when I saw him this afternoon at the club, it seemed he might have been convinced. Just a feeling I had.” Arthur shrugged, and Amelia elbowed him, hoping to change the subject.
She whispered, “Why do you not ask Miss Thornton to dance? You will be doing a good service, and we could explain it by saying that you are encouraging gentlemen to ask all available partners.”
Arthur lifted a brow. “True. I think it a wonderful idea. For you, Amelia.”
Arthur swung around and offered his hand to Olivia just as the music for the previous song stopped. “If you will do me the honor, Miss Thornton, I should like to dance with you.”
“Certainly, Lord Brighton,” Olivia said cheerily, and the smile she gave him warmed Amelia’s heart.
At least someone is happy tonight. Amelia tried her best to keep her shoulders from getting too sore from sloping forward, but after a few moments, she couldn’t take it anymore. She watched out for her mother, who was busy in conversation, and since she wasn’t looking, Amelia stood tall again. She sighed with relief and smiled as she watched Olivia and Arthur do the minuet. She smiled, glad to see Olivia so happy, practically beaming in Arthur’s arms.
Amelia saw her brother’s smile and knew he could charm the ears off a donkey. She herself, however, didn’t seem to be blessed with the same easy charm and confidence. While that didn’t make her love her brother any less, she did sometimes feel jealous of his easy ability with people. Nothing seemed to scare him, and he could make any situation fun and comfortable.
She took a sip from her champagne, trying to imagine what it would be like to be the belle of the ball. The lovely Miss Whiting was the perfect example, and Amelia couldn’t help but watch as the young girl moved gracefully about the dance floor with what was likely her fifth partner of the evening. She had the most glorious raven-black hair, and her eyes were like two violet jewels. Every man in London was seeking her hand this Season, and the Season had barely begun.
Amelia’s eyes were green, and they weren’t to be sneezed at, so her father always told her. And while she liked her auburn tresses, she knew that reddish hair wasn’t always the fashion, and she’d often dreamed of having long, dark hair like Miss Whiting’s.
If Amelia was anything like the popular debutante, she would take her time to find just the right suitor. If there were so many to choose from, she wouldn’t have to take the first available one. Whereas in her case, her mother would certainly push her to marry whoever came forth, if any came at all. She was nearing spinster status at the age of twenty-four, and she knew her mother regretted sending her out on her first Season a little later than normal.
Amelia let her mind wander to Arthur’s mention of Ben Mason. If Ben didn’t have such a reputation, he might have been at the ball, but she’d heard so many terrible rumors about him that he brought with him an air of dark mystery that unsettled yet intrigued most young women. Her mother didn’t allow her to speak to him because of his reputation, not that she wanted to because of her embarrassment about her former crush on him. He had always teased her as a child as well.
But on the very rare occasions Ben did show his face at balls or other gatherings, she would steal glances at him, noting just how handsome he had turned out to be. He had been handsome eight years ago too, but now, he was fully and completely a man.
Inwardly, she wondered with a breathy sigh, Have I finally become fully and completely a woman?
Amelia sunk into a troubled reverie for a few seconds. She felt the weight of her uncertain future, and every time she thought of it, dark dread would fill her stomach. What if she was never to marry, never to find anyone who could love her? She bit her lip to keep the tears back as she watched the glittering chandeliers and the swaying of cream muslin from the women clearly enjoying dancing beneath them.
Her grip tightened on her champagne glass, and she wanted nothing more than to leave. She would have a better time sitting home reading alone and forgetting all about the difficulty of attracting a suitor, or the extreme difficulty of getting a man to even so much as look her way.
She stepped back, jolted out of her thoughts when a very handsome face with a pair of very familiar green eyes appeared in her view. He bowed his head.
Giving her a devilish grin, he said, “Lady Amelia, it has been far too long. I wondered if you might do me the honor of sharing the next dance with me?”
Amelia tried to keep her mouth from falling open, but she wondered if she was in the middle of a dream. For standing in front of her, speaking to her and asking to dance, was Lord Tarlington himself.
Ben didn’t realize that stepping into the Masterson’s ball would set his heart to pounding as though he’d just sprinted there. Or that it would make his chest feel so tight he couldn’t breathe. He was used to eyes on him, but now, it seemed that everyone’s scrutiny had doubled in the time he’d been away. The last ball he’d attended was months before, and it was only due to thoughts of his mother that he’d gone, just like tonight.
He greeted Lord and Lady Masterson, and while they looked surprised at his arrival, they were kind and polite. “You are most welcome, Lord Tarlington. Your aunt has already arrived. She will be happy to see you, I’m sure.”
He smiled politely. “Yes, she will.” But he knew the opposite to be the case. Once a footman had taken his hat, he followed the sounds of music and entered between the large, carved wooden double doors of the ballroom. He paused at the entrance, still gaining his courage. The ballroom was magnificent. The music swelled, and the center of the room was filled with dancers. An array of colors of gowns and waistcoats met his eyes. There were mostly dark jackets and cream muslin gowns, but the married women and widows made themselves known by the darker, more dramatic colors they chose to wear: deep mauve, purple, and green. It was the widows especially who didn’t seem to mind his checkered reputation, and as he stood there, he could see one or two he recognized glance his way.
The musicians were tucked away in a far corner, and Ben could see many a young girl standing eagerly on the side of the dancefloor waiting to be asked for the next set. A quadrille was currently on display in the center of the room, and he knew that most young people enjoyed the livelier dance.
He couldn’t see Amelia anywhere. So, he leaned against the doorframe, savoring the quiet moment before he would have to step inside and speak to anyone.
“Tarlington, how good to see you again.” David Drake, the youngest son of the Duke of Wincherton stepped up to Ben with a grin. Ben straightened and couldn’t help but smile at his old friend. David was wearing his usual roguish smile, and his brown hair was as tousled as always.
He stuck out his hand to shake, happy that the first person who spoke to him was not looking at him as if he was some evil doer needing to be removed. “Drake. What a pleasure. It’s been a long, long time. Perhaps a year or more?”
“Yes, I think so. I’ve been busy at the publishing house for a long time and can’t always get out to events during the Season. But I usually like to try and come to the beginning balls and social occasions. Always a good way to scout out new customers.” David winked, and Ben laughed.
“Mercenary to the end, I see.” Since David was the youngest of ten children, he had to make his own way in the world in terms of an occupation. His Drake Magazine was one of the most popular places in London for short story authors to have their work published.
“Well, what can I say? I have had to learn to be a good businessman these many years.” David turned back to the dancers and leaned against the wall. “Look out there. See how light of foot our dear Arthur is?”
Ben looked to see Arthur dancing the delicate minuet with a young woman who had an unfortunate set of teeth. So unfortunate that one could see them from a distance.
“I never knew Arthur enjoyed dancing. There must be some reason. To get his mother off his back, perhaps?” Ben teased.
“A very good reason to do anything, let me tell you. Come, have a drink with me, and we can discuss what you’ve been doing all this time.” David patted Ben on the shoulder, and Ben was relieved to have found another friend at the ball. It would make his evening far easier. He was about to follow David to the refreshment table when his eye caught a young woman on the edge of the ballroom. He stopped, and his mouth opened slightly in surprise.
It was Amelia Lacey, and he was astonished at how much difference the last six months had made to her appearance. While her hair had always been quite red as a child, it had changed over the years to a lovely auburn. Tonight, she was wearing it curled and pinned up, an array of pearls glinting under the light from the chandeliers. She was on her toes, looking out at the dancers, her gloved hands holding a champagne glass.
Arthur was right. His sister was stately and elegant, and she reminded Ben of a lovely statue of a Greek goddess, looking out into the distance. Her skin was perfect, alabaster and smooth, and her lips were parted as she watched the dance. She wore a very pale-green gown, and it was cut perfectly to fit her. He had never seen her so close before, nor had he ever had such an unobstructed view of her in the last few years; ballrooms had always been so dreadfully crowded. He blinked, wondering if he was really seeing young Amelia Lacey. She seemed transformed. Now, she was the most ravishing woman he had ever seen, and he knew just what he must do.
“Excuse me, David. I’ll be back in a little bit, but there’s something I must do first.” He didn’t take his eyes from Amelia, and he left an amused-looking David behind him as he made his way to Amelia’s side.
Amelia was speechless. She was staring into Ben’s green eyes, and she couldn’t think of a single thing to say. Words completely eluded her as she tried to set her mind to rights. She swallowed, begging her mind to start working. But now that she could see him up close, she was surprised at just how handsome Ben had turned out to be. And large. And strong.
He was almost a head taller than her, and his shoulders were broader than they’d appeared from across a ballroom. His blue jacket fit him perfectly, like a glove, and it showed off his strong frame to the best advantage. His dark hair was styled in a roguish sort of fashion, and his sideburns were razored with perfect precision to flatter his square jaw, drawing her gaze to his mouth.
“Lady Amelia, are you quite all right?” he asked, and she could see a tiny furrow form between his brows.
“Yes!” she said quickly, and she could feel her cheeks heat as she realized just how long she had gone without speaking. “Forgive me. I was just so surprised to see you, I suppose. It is not often that you come to these kinds of things, and you never speak to me.” She looked from left to right, hoping and praying that her mother wouldn’t come right then and make a scene.
The music ended and couples began leaving the floor. “Will you dance, Lady Amelia?” Ben asked again, reaching his hand out for her. Her breath stalled in her chest, and she felt a little lightheaded as she looked at Ben’s handsome and encouraging smile.
She knew she should say no because of his reputation, but a tiny part of her was grateful to have finally been asked. He was the last person in the world who should be asking, but she finally felt she was being seen, even briefly, by another member of the ton. “Yes, of course,” she said, taking his hand.
Giving her a handsome grin, he led her out to the center of the floor. She wasn’t sure if she was imagining it, but she could feel eyes on her. When she spied Miss Whiting with her new partner, Miss Whiting was watching her with surprise, and maybe even a little jealousy. It was true that Lord Tarlington was a very handsome man, and his name was whispered among the debutantes, but his reputation made him the least likely man to be chosen as a possible suitor.
Deep down, she was kicking herself now for accepting him. Everyone would think she was desperate, allowing a known rake to accompany her on the floor. Her mother would be furious, and she would receive a tongue-lashing of the worst kind once it was all over.
But in this moment, she thought to herself, perhaps enjoy it for what it is. A man has asked you to dance.
The song began, and when she and Ben first touched hands, he said, “It has been a very long time, Lady Amelia. A very long time since we spoke last.”
“Yes, so it has,” she replied, and she blushed at the sound of her voice, almost trembling, as if she’d never spoken to a man before in her life. “How have you been keeping yourself of late?”
As she turned away from him to touch another partner’s hands, she winced at the awkwardness of her question. But when she faced Ben again, he was smiling. “Well enough. Although I can say that now, I am spending it quite pleasantly.”
Amelia looked away as his green eyes threatened to unseat her. He was far too handsome for his own good, and she didn’t want to be just one of many with whom he flirted and then discarded, as the rumors went.
“You are forward now, I see,” she said boldly, making him laugh. She remembered that laugh; it was the same one he’d had when he used to visit her brother, and it made her heart swell with misguided affection. That was the Ben she remembered. This Ben, with his dark side and his dangerously flirtatious ways, she didn’t know at all.
“Yes, I suppose so. The world can be a difficult place and one where people hide behind all sorts of masks. I find it’s better to say things clearly and truthfully.”
“I see,” she said, admiring him for his words but at the same time afraid what this dance might now mean for her reputation. She couldn’t see her mother, but she was certain she was watching. Like a hawk.
“For example, I would very much like to tell you how lovely you look this evening.” His startling green eyes moved from her face down the line of her gown before returning to meet hers.
Amelia felt butterflies in her stomach as her younger self savored the compliment as well as the obvious appraisal from the object of her foolish, childhood affection.
“Thank you,” she said tightly, unsettled by the smell of him whenever the dance brought them close; it was the scent of spice, mint, and perhaps even woodsmoke. It was manly yet fresh and somehow comforting at the same time.
“Arthur tells me that you do not enjoy balls?” he continued, and Amelia felt her stomach sink.
“Arthur spoke to you about my dislike of balls?” She knew her brother could sometimes be a fool, but she wasn’t sure that he would go so far. What else had he told Ben?
“Yes, well, he was simply stating that he doesn’t care for them himself, and how they are sometimes . . . difficult for you—”
“Difficult?” she cut him off, lowering her voice when she realized she had been too loud. “What a terrible thing to say.”
Ben was now no longer attempting to flirt with her or lure her in with his handsome smile. He looked genuinely surprised. “Forgive me. I meant no offense, Lady Amelia. I only meant to say that I do not enjoy them much either, or yet I am here, having an excellent time.” He smiled again, but Amelia couldn’t wait for the music to be over. It had been a terrible mistake to dance with him in the first place.
The tune finally ended, and Amelia tried not to breathe a sigh of relief too loudly. “Thank you, Lord Tarlington, but I must go. I must attend to my mother, for she is very worried about how difficult these events are be for me.”
She bobbed a quick curtsy, and then she left a speechless Ben behind her, trying her best not to think about how his scent lingered tantalizingly in her nostrils after she had walked away.
Ben could have kicked himself as he watched Amelia walk away, her shoulders high and proud. He was so out of practice with interacting with people of good society, especially women, he never could seem to say the right thing. And he clearly hadn’t done that just now.
“Blast,” he said under his breath, and he left the dance floor, nearly bumping into Arthur, who had come his way.
“Ben! You came! I knew you would.” Arthur was grinning as he shook Ben’s hand.
“You didn’t know,” Ben said with a sarcastic drawl. He was so irritated with himself that he’d upset Amelia. “But I can tell you feel very smug upon the subject.”
“So I do, so I do, and I’m so glad you’re here.”
“David is around here somewhere too.” Ben looked around and caught his friend’s eye. He pulled on Arthur’s arm. “Let’s go and see him, and you can tell us both how it went with Miss Thornton. I never expected to see you dancing.”
Arthur sighed and smiled. When they met David, his eyes flashed with amusement. “Come to tell me of your dancing adventures, gentlemen? Never would I have thought to see the two of you dancing with eligible females on the same night. It’s even hard to believe you’re both here at all! Arthur, I was telling Ben earlier just how light of foot you were. Such a delicate dancer for a man of your size.”
Arthur grimaced, making David laugh harder. “I need a drink for all this kind of talk.” He led the way to the refreshment table, and once they had glasses of wine in hand, Arthur got a mischievous look in his eye. “I would rather discuss how it went with my sister. Ben, you did well in asking her to dance. You see, you are doing just as I asked.” He sighed with contentment. “Things are coming together.”
Ben’s mood darkened. He didn’t want to admit to Arthur that he’d offended his sister, but he was sure to find out anyway. “It went well, I believe, although she was surprised at my asking her and looked a little fearful that her mother would see us together.”
Arthur clicked his tongue. “My mother will likely say something, but I think she will be forever grateful that someone asked Amelia to dance. Grateful, deep down, of course, for I’m certain she would never say it.” He took a sip, and Ben continued.
“I told her what you told me about her difficulty finding partners during the Season, and she took offense. You’ll have to forgive me for that, I’m afraid. I think I will need to take some lessons from David here on how to phrase things properly.”
Both Arthur and David burst into merry laughter. David said, tears of mirth in his eyes, “And here we have heard so much about the flirtatious nature of one Lord Tarlington, but he fumbles over his words and says the most terrible things to women, knowing exactly how to offend them.”
“It was not on purpose, of course,” Ben said hotly, his anger growing. Not only could he still feel eyes of judgment on his back, but he had now made a mess of things with Amelia. His idea had been for them to help each other, but he had merely made himself look a fool. Not only that, but her expression of embarrassment would be forever etched in his memory. “I was just trying to make conversation.”
Arthur put a hand on Ben’s shoulder, and together, they looked out over the crowd of dancers. Arthur clinked his wine glass with Ben’s. “I believe, old friend, that I will have to teach you a thing or two about how to speak to a lady of quality. According to your reputation, you are well-versed in speaking with other types of ladies, but the ladies of the ton are a whole different story.”
Ben grimaced, but he paused, waiting for instruction. Perhaps it was best to hear Arthur’s thoughts, even though they were said with annoying smugness. He had been away for so long, and Arthur had not. Arthur was very popular with ladies of all kinds, and he was the sister of the woman upon whom Ben wished to bestow his attention.
“Go on, then. Perhaps you, David, would like to add your opinion into the mix as well?”
David held up his hands in mock surrender. “I shall defer to the expert in this matter, my friend. Arthur has far more experience with ladies of the ton than I. I am but a mere journalist and a wallflower.”
Arthur rolled his eyes as he chuckled. “Listen here, gentlemen. The key to wooing ladies of quality is that you speak to them on their level. They do not want to hear about brutish things or be spoken to sharply. They want charm, humor, quick wit, and they certainly do not want to hear about how much difficulty they have in finding partners to dance with them.”
Ben rolled his eyes, and even though he was angry and feeling ashamed, he couldn’t help but laugh. Arthur had lightened his spirits yet again. He looked out across the floor and made eye contact with Amelia. But she turned away quickly, speaking to another young woman. He wondered idly if they were speaking of him.
He leaned in closer to hear the continuation of Arthur’s instruction. “You must first compliment them on how well they look that evening. . .”
Ben was comforted to know that he’d at least done the right thing there. Arthur droned on and on, and Ben wondered if he had made the right decision in coming out that evening.
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