Slightly Tempted

Gervase Ashford, Earl of Rosthorn, having seen Lady Morgan Bedwyn at a ball in Brussels and discovered her identity, has arranged an introduction to her. His motive is single-minded. Somehow, through her, he is determined to wreak revenge upon her eldest brother, the cold, autocratic Duke of Bewcastle, whom Gervase holds responsible for his own disgrace and nine-year exile. The following scene, told from Morgan's point of view, includes their first meeting.

Lady Morgan Bedwyn was ever so slightly bored and more than slightly disappointed. She had hated the whole idea of a come-out Season and had fought Wulfric--the Duke of Bewcastle, her eldest brother and head of the family--on the issue for a whole year or more before she turned eighteen. She did not want to giggle and simper behind a fan and become a commodity at the great marriage mart, she had protested, being looked over and bid upon by all the callow, pimply male youth with which London was sure to abound--just as if there were nothing else in life but marriage and nothing else to her except looks and lineage.

But of course Wulfric had insisted--quietly and inexorably without ever raising anything louder than his eyebrows. But Wulf's eyebrows--and his quizzing glass--were at least twice as formidable as the combined voices of a whole regiment roaring out its battle cry. And of course her Aunt Rochester, that veritable old dragon, had taken her firmly under her wing when she arrived in London and had soon had her decked out in the obligatory uniform of a young lady making her come-out. In other words, everything was white and delicate and made Morgan look half her age--not a desirable thing when one was just eighteen. And then Freyja--her elder sister, Lady Freyja Moore, Marchioness of Hallmere--had arrived in London with the marquess her husband to sponsor Morgan's presentation to the queen and her come-out ball and first few official appearances in society.

Finally the whole tedious come-out business had been an accomplished fact. Morgan had hated almost every moment of it. She had felt like a thing--a very exclusive, precious thing, it was true, but still an object more than a person.

She was glad afterward, though, that it had happened. For despite her reluctance to endure a London Season, she did possess a restless, adventurous soul and a lively, intelligent mind that needed constant stimulation. And suddenly, both adventure and food for the mind had presented themselves when Napoleon Bonaparte had escaped from his prison on the island of Elba and returned to France. London drawing rooms had buzzed with the news and with speculation of what it would all mean. Surely the French people would reject him? But they had not done so. Soon London had been buzzing even louder with war talk. Was it possible that the Allies, so cozily ensconced in Vienna while engaged in peace talks, were going to have to fight one more great battle against Bonaparte?

It quickly became apparent that the answer was yes--and that the battle ground would be Belgium. No less a personage than the Duke of Wellington went there in April--to Brussels to be more precise--and other important personages from all over Europe had gone to join him there.

Morgan had found the whole business fascinating from the first moment, and--since she was a Bedwyn and the Bedwyns notoriously flouted convention and never dreamed that certain topics were not suitable for a lady's ears--she discussed the situation and the possibilities endlessly with the rest of her family.

And then she had been given the chance to go to Brussels in person.

The armies had begun to prepare for war, and some of the British regiments and a large number of their officers were in London. The latter began to appear at public functions in their uniforms--and one of them had begun to pay determined court to Morgan. She had found it mildly diverting to consort with the handsome, golden-haired, uniformed Captain Lord Gordon, son and heir of the Earl of Caddick--to go driving with him, to sit with him and his parents and sister in their box at the opera, to dance with him at balls and other assemblies. She had developed a friendship with Lady Rosamond Havelock, his sister.

And then Captain Lord Gordon had received word that he was to go to Belgium with his regiment, and the Caddicks, including Rosamond, had decided to go after him to Brussels. Dozens, maybe hundreds of other members of the fashionable world were going there too. It would be a great lark, Rosamond had said when Morgan had been invited to join the Caddicks, under the chaperonage of the countess.

Everyone had thought, of course, that there was a serious courtship developing between Morgan and Captain Gordon. Although he had seemed to think so too as had Rosamond and the Havelocks, Morgan had been far from ready to make any decision that would bind her for life. But she had desperately wanted to go to Brussels, to be close to the developing crisis and the building action, and so she had pleaded with Wulf to allow her to go.

She had expected it all to be a grand political and intellectual exercise, the conversation wherever she went serious and stimulating. What a foolish expectation!

In fact, being in Brussels was hardly any different than being in London had been--the days and nights were filled with one frivolity after another. She almost wished that Wulfric had refused his permission for her to come with the Caddicks. It was all a little disappointing.

Of course, there were advantages to being in Brussels. There was a wonderful sense of freedom for one thing. There was no Wulfric to watch her every move, quizzing glass in hand, and no Aunt Rochester to frown at her every move, lorgnette in hand. There was only Alleyne, the brother closest to her in age, who was here with the embassy under Sir Charles Stuart. But though he had promised Wulf to keep a brotherly eye on her, he really had been doing no more than that so far. It was more like half an eye, in fact.

Lady Caddick was an indulgent chaperone. She was also a rather silly woman. Lord Caddick lacked all character--or if he had one, Morgan had not yet detected it. She liked Rosamond, but even she liked to talk of little more than beaux and bonnets and balls. Captain Lord Gordon and the other officers with whom they were acquainted liked to bolster their masculinity by telling the ladies not to worry their pretty heads about any topic that Morgan was inclined to find interesting.

It was all somewhat provoking to a young lady who had grown up with Bedwyns and had foolishly expected that other men would be like her brothers and other women like Freyja.

The opening set of country dances at Viscount Cameron's ball was almost at an end. Morgan enjoyed dancing with Captain Lord Gordon because he really did look very handsome and dashing in his uniform and he danced well. When she had first met him she had thought that she might fall in love with him. But now that she was better acquainted with him she was having some serious doubts about him. He had told her earlier in the set, when the figures threw them together for more than just a few seconds, that he felt very strongly about his role as an officer in the fight against tyranny. He was quite prepared, he had added, to die for his country if he must--and for his mother and his sister and... Well, he did not yet have the right to add another name, he had concluded with a smoldering look at her.

It had seemed a little theatrical to Morgan. And more than a little alarming. The Caddicks and many other people, she had realized, assumed that by accepting their invitation she had also acquiesced in a future betrothal to their son. And yet their stated reason for inviting her had been that Rosamond would be in need of female company.

"I was hoping," he said now as the music ended, "that the orchestra would simply forget to stop playing, Lady Morgan. I was hoping we could go on dancing all night long."

"How foolish!" she said, unfurling her fan and plying it slowly to cool her flushed cheeks. "There are other ladies awaiting their turn to dance with you, captain."

"There is," he said, offering his arm to escort her back to his mother's side, "only one lady worth dancing with--but I may not, alas, dance two sets in a row with her."

Could it be true, she wondered, that he was nothing more than a foolish, posturing young man? But he was also a man facing war and possible death. She must remember that--it would be unfair not to. A man could be forgiven a certain measure of sentimentality under such circumstances--as long as he did not overdo it. She smiled at him but spoke firmly.

"No, you may not," she said. "I wish to dance with other partners."

Lieutenant Hunt-Mathers was one of the group around Lady Caddick and Rosamond. He was awaiting his set of dances with Morgan, which came next. He was neither as tall nor as handsome nor as dashing as Lord Gordon, but he was a well-bred, amiable young man and Morgan liked him even if he did have a tendency toward insipidity. She turned her smile on him. removing her hand from Lord Gordon's sleeve as she did so.

But before she could enter into any sort of conversation, she became aware that Lady Cameron was addressing Lady Caddick and asking permission to present the gentleman with her to Lady Morgan Bedwyn. Permission was granted and Morgan turned her attention politely their way.

"Lady Morgan," Viscountess Cameron said, smiling graciously at her young guest, "the Earl of Rosthorn has requested an introduction to you."

Morgan looked assessingly at the earl. He was not an officer. He was dressed elegantly in gray silk knee breeches and silver embroidered waistcoat with a black, form-fitting evening coat and white linen and lace. Neither was he a particularly young man. He was tall and well-formed and handsome enough, though, Morgan conceded as she curtsied and noticed that he had lazy gray eyes, which appeared to be looking back into hers with a certain amusement.

She saw nothing in the Earl of Rosthorn to arouse great interest, though. He was just one of dozens of gentlemen who had effected an introduction to her since her presentation. She was aware that she was considered beautiful, though in her own estimation she was too dark and too thin. More to the point, she knew that as the daughter of a duke with a very large fortune of her own she was attractive to single gentlemen of all ages and ranks. She was, after all, a commodity on the marriage mart even if she was now in Belgium rather than London and even if the perception was that she was almost betrothed to Lord Gordon. She responded politely to this newest introduction and asked him how he did, but she dismissed him in her mind as a gentleman who could be of no personal significance to her. And she regarded him with the cool arrogance that usually discouraged attentions she did not welcome. She hoped he would read her expression accurately and not ask to dance with her.

It alarmed her sometimes to realize how jaded she was at the age of eighteen.

"I am doing very well, I thank you," he said in a voice that somehow matched his eyes--both lazy and faintly amused, "and am all the better for having been introduced to the loveliest lady in the room."

The silly flattery was spoken as if he laughed at himself for saying it.

Morgan did not dignify his words with any response. She wafted her fan before her face and looked into his eyes, her eyebrows slightly raised, her expression openly haughty. It was an expression at which all the Bedwyns excelled. Did he really think her that silly and brainless? Did he expect her to simper and blush with pleasure at such foolishness? But why would he not think and expect just that? Most other gentlemen did and thereby displayed how brainless they were.

The humor only deepened in his eyes, and she realized that he must have accurately read her thoughts. Good! But his next words dismayed her.

"Dare I hope," he asked, "that you still have a free set some time this evening and that you are willing to dance it with me?"

Botheration! she thought as her fan stilled for a moment and she searched about in her mind for a polite way to refuse him--she disdained to simply lie and tell him that she had promised every dance of the evening.

Someone else did that for her.

"Oh, I say!" Captain Lord Gordon said in the languid drawl he sometimes affected when talking to someone he considered his inferior. "Every dance of the evening in this corner of the room has been promised, my fine fellow."

Morgan's eyes widened in outrage. How dare he! But before she could have the satisfaction of framing a suitably biting retort to depress such pretension, the Earl of Rosthorn turned the captain's way, a quizzing glass materializing in his hand and raised to one eye, and regarded him with languid disinterest.

"Accept my congratulations, Captain," he said. "But I feel constrained to disabuse you of a misapprehension you appear to be under. It was not you I was asking to dance."

Morgan only just stopped herself from crowing with delight. What a perfectly delicious setdown! Suddenly she was regarding the earl in a totally different light. A man of such quick wit and assurance of manner was a man after her own heart. He reminded her of her brothers.

"Thank you, Lord Rosthorn," she said as if nothing had occurred between his asking and her answering. "Perhaps the set after this next?"

Immaculately dressed and well groomed as he was, she thought, there was something faintly disreputable about his appearance, though she would not have been able to put into words what it was. Perhaps it was just that he was considerably older than she and must therefore know more of the world and its ways. Not that she would ever admit to any naiveté. There was something nonchalant, something ever so slightly dangerous about him.

"It will be an honor I shall anticipate with the greatest pleasure for the next half hour," the earl said.

It must be his lazy eyes, she decided--and his lazy voice. But no, there was something else about his voice that explained more clearly the impression of slight danger she was getting. He spoke with a French accent.

Morgan fanned her face slowly and watched him as he turned and walked away.

"The fellow is fortunate that there are ladies present," Lord Gordon was saying to his circle of cronies, his voice shaking with anger. "It would have given me great satisfaction to slap a glove in his face."

Morgan ignored him.

"My dear Lady Morgan," Lady Caddick said when the earl was out of earshot, "the mysterious Earl of Rosthorn must be very taken with you to have made the effort to be introduced to you."

"Mysterious, Mama?" Rosamond asked.

"Oh, yes, he is quite the mystery," Lady Caddick said. "He succeeded to his father's title and fortune a year or so ago, but no one had seen him for years before that or has seen him during the year since--except now here in Brussels. It is rumored that he has been hiding out on the Continent gathering intelligence for the British government."

"He is a spy?" Rosamond gazed after him in wide-eyed rapture.

"There may very well be some truth in the claim," her mother said. "It would certainly explain his appearance here in Brussels when intelligence concerning the French must be greatly in demand."

Morgan's interest was further piqued. A dangerous man indeed! But the sets were forming for the next dance, and the orchestra was poised to play again. Lieutenant Hunt-Mathers stepped up to her, made her a stiff, military bow, and extended one arm.

© Mary Balogh