Edgar Downes is in London to choose a bride. Although he is a member of the middle class, he has enough contacts among the upper classes, including his sister, who is married to Lord Frances Kneller, that he has been invited to a ton soiree and introduced to several eligible young ladies. However, it is a late arrival, an older lady wearing a daring scarlet gown, who really draws his attention. Lady Helena Stapleton notices him too as she stands on the threshold of the room.
And then her eyes, moving on to another group, alit on a man whom she did not know—and paused on him. At first she looked only because he presented the novelty of being a stranger. And then she looked because he looked back and she would not glance away hastily and in apparent confusion. Though in reality there was more reason to look at him than stubbornness. He was a very tall and very large gentleman. Large not in the sense of fatness. She doubted there was one spare ounce of fat on his frame. But he was certainly not a slender man. It was a perfectly proportioned frame—she looked it down and up again in leisurely fashion, noting at the same time the simple yet very expensive elegance of his clothing. And he had a head and face worthy of such a body. His brown hair was short but expertly styled. His face was strikingly handsome. He gave an impression of strength and power, she thought. Not just physical power. He looked like a man who knew exactly who he was and what he was and was well satisfied with both. Like a man who knew his own mind and was comfortable with his own decisions and would not be easily moved by anyone who opposed him.
She felt a wave of pure lust before he looked away to pay attention to the Graingers, with whom he stood, and the Earl of Greenwald arrived almost simultaneously to greet her. She explained that her aunt had been persuaded to stay at home to nurse a persistent cough.
Who was he? She wondered. She would not ask, of course. It was not her way to signal so direct an interest in a man. But she set about maneuvering matters slowly—there was no hurry—so that she would find out. And not only find out who he was. She was going to meet him. It was quite soon obvious to her that the man was not married, even though he must be very close to her own age. There was no strange lady in the Greenwalds' drawing room. And it was unlikely that he had a wife who was absent. The Graingers took much of his time, and it was an open secret that they had brought their daughter to town in the hope of finding her a husband before Christmas. They were not wealthy. They could not afford to bring their daughter to town during the Season, when there would be the exorbitant expenses of a court dress and innumerable ball and party gowns. And so they had come now, hoping that there would be a single gentleman of sufficient means to be snared. The girl was twenty and perilously close to being on the shelf.
The unknown gentleman must be both single and rich. He certainly looked rich—wealthy and self-assured enough not to have to make an obvious display of his wealth. He was not bedecked with jewels and fobs and lace. But his tailor doubtless charged him a minor fortune to fashion coats such as the one he wore tonight.
She talked with Lord Carew and Lord Frances Kneller and their wives for a while, and then sat with elderly Lord Holmes during a musical presentation. She told Mr. and Mrs. Prothero and a growing gathering of other people about some of her more uncomfortable experiences in Egypt while they all refreshed themselves with a drink together afterward and then accepted Sir Eric Mumford's invitation to join him at the supper table. He did not even realize that she led him rather than submitting to being led once they were inside the dining room. She seated herself beside the still-unknown gentleman, but turned her head immediately away from him to speak with her partner.
She was an expert at maneuvering matters to her own liking. Especially where men were concerned. Men were so easily manipulated. She laughed with amusement at something Sir Eric said.
Her low laugh shivered down his spine. It came straight from the bedchamber, even though she was sitting in a crowded dinning room beneath brightly lighted chandeliers.
She had seated herself in the empty chair beside his and was reacting to something her supper companion had said to her. She was totally unaware of him, of course, Edgar thought, as she had been all evening after that first assessing glance. She had not once looked his way after that. She was Lady Stapleton, widow of Sir Christian Stapleton of Brookhurst. Brookhurst was not so very far from Mobley Abbey—not above twenty-five or thirty mules. But she did not live there now. Sir Gerald Stapleton, the present owner, was only her stepson.
Edgar had been introduced to three marriageable ladies during the course of the evening, all of whose parents had clearly been informed of his own possible interest and had acquiesced in allowing their daughters to be presented to a man whose immense wealth would perhaps compensate for the fact that he was not a gentleman. All three ladies were amiable, genteel, pretty. All three knew that he was a prospective bridegroom and they appeared docile and accepting. His sister and her cohorts had done a superlative job in so short a time, he thought. They had gone about things the correct way, choosing with care, and leaving him choices.
There was only one problem—well, two actually, but the second was not in the nature of a real problem, only of annoyance. The problem was that all three ladies appeared impossibly young to him. It struck him that any one of them would be a perfect choice for just that reason. All three had any number of breeding years ahead, and breeding was one of his main inducements to marry. But they seemed alarmingly young to him. Or rather, perhaps, he felt alarmingly old. Did he want a wife only so that he might breed her? He wanted more than that, of course. Far more.
And the problem that was not a problem was his constant awareness—an uncomfortable, purely physical awareness—of the lady in scarlet. Lady Stapleton. His mouth had turned dry as soon as she seated herself beside him and he smelled her perfume—something subtle and feminine and obviously very expensive.
And then she turned his way, leaned forward slightly, ignored him completely, and spoke to the young lady at his other side.
"How do you do, Miss Grainger?" she said. "Allow me to tell you how pretty you look in blue. It is your color."
Her bosom brushed the top of the table as she spoke. And her voice was pure warm velvet. Edgar could see, now that he was close, that the red highlights he had noticed in her dark hair were no reflection of her gown. They were real. He could not make up his mind whether her eyes were hazel or green. They had elements of both colors.
"Why, thank you," Miss Grainger said, blushing and gratified. "But I sometimes wish I could wear vivid colors as you do."
Again that low bedroom laugh.
"Oh," Miss Grainger said, "may I present Mr. Downes? Lady Stapleton, sir."
Her eyes came to his. She did not move back, even though she was still leaning forward and was very close to him. He resisted the urge to move back himself. She looked very directly at him, a faint mockery or amusement or both in the depths of her glance.
"Ma'am," he said, inclining his head.
"Mr. Downes." She gazed at him. "Ah, now I remember. Lady Frances Kneller was a Downes before her marriage, was she not?"
"She is my sister," he said.
"Ah." She made no immediate attempt to say anything else. He could almost sense her remembering that Cora was the daughter of a Bristol merchant and realizing that he was no gentleman. That half-smile deepened for a moment. "You are from the west country, sir?"
"From Bristol, ma'am," he said. And lest she was not quite clear on the matter, "I have lived there all my life and have worked there all my adult life, first as a lawyer and more recently as a merchant."
"How fascinating," she murmured, her eyes moving to his lips for a disconcerting moment. He was not sure if it was sincerity or mockery he heard in her voice. "Pardon me. I am neglecting Sir Eric quite shamefully."
She turned back to her companion. Obviously it had been mockery. Lady Stapleton had found herself seated beside a cit and conversing with him before realizing who he was. She would not repeat the mistake.
He set himself to making Miss Grainger feel comfortable again.
Judith Easton has just come out of mourning for her late husband. She has come to London to enjoy Christmas with her two children and is attending her first evening party with a friend, hoping that no one remembers the scandal of eight years ago, when she jilted her betrothed, the Marquess of Denbigh, in order to marry Andrew Easton. But the marquess happens to be in London too—and attending the same party.
Judith's exhilaration continued. Lord and Lady Clancy received her graciously, and Claude took her about their drawing room on his arm until they stopped at a group where she found the conversation particularly interesting. Soon Claude had wandered off, and she felt as thoroughly comfortable as if she had never been away.
For perhaps the span of ten minutes, anyway.
At the end of that time, the lady standing next to Judith stood back with a smile to admit a new member to the group.
"Ah," she said, "so you did come after all, my lord. Do join us. You know everyone, of course. Except perhaps Mrs. Easton? The Marquess of Denbigh, ma'am."
Was it possible for one's stomach to perform a complete somersault? Judith wondered if her thoughts were capable of such coherence. Certainly it was possible for one's knees to be almost too weak to support one's person.
He had not changed, unless it was possible for him to look even harsher and more morose than he had looked eight years before. He was very tall, a good six inches taller than Andrew had been. He looked thin at first glance, but there was a breadth of chest and of shoulders that suggested fitness and strength. That had not changed with the years either, one glance told her.
His face was still narrow, angular, harsh, his lips thin, his eyes a steely gray, the eyelids drooped over them so that they might have looked sleepy had they not looked hawkish instead. His dark hair had the suggestion of gray at the temples. That was new. But he was only—what? Thirty-four? Thirty-five years old?
The sight of him and his proximity could still fill her with a quite unreasonable terror and revulsion. Unreasonable because he had never treated her harshly or with anything less than perfectly correct courtesy. But then, there had never been any suggestion of warmth either.
She had always wanted to run a million miles whenever he came into a room. She wanted to run now. She wanted to run somewhere where there would be air to draw into her lungs.
"Mrs. Easton," he said in that unexpectedly soft voice she had forgotten until now. And he bowed stiffly to her.
"My lord." She curtsied.
"But of course they know each other," a gentleman in the group said with a booming laugh. "I do believe they were betrothed once upon a time. Is that not so, Max?"
"Yes," the Marquess of Denbigh said, those steely eyes boring through her, not the faintest hint of a smile on his face—but then she had never seen him smile. "A long time ago."
"I think not, Nora," the Marquess of Denbigh had said three evenings before the night of the soiree. He had called to pay his respects to the Clancys between acts at the theater.
"We scarcely see you in town, Max," Lady Clancy protested.. "It must be two years at the very least since you were here last. And yet even when you are here, you refuse to go about. It is most provoking. I am considering disowning you as my cousin."
"Second cousin," he corrected, putting his quizzing glass to his eye and gazing lazily about the theater at all the boxes. "And I am here tonight, so I can hardly be accused of being a total recluse."
"But alone in your box," she said. "It is inhuman, Max. One word and you might have come with us. Are you sure you cannot be persuaded to come to my soiree? It would be a great coup for me. Word that you are in town has caused a considerable stir, you know. If you are intending to remain for the Season, you will be having a whole host of mamas sharpening their matchmaking skills again."
"They would be well advised to spend their energies on projects more likely to bring them success," he said, still perusing the other boxes through his glass.
"One wonders why you have come to town at all," she said rather crossly, "if not to mingle with society."
"I have to call on Weston among other things," he said. "I have fears that after two years I may no longer be fashionable, Nora."
She made a sound that was perilously close to a snort. "What utter nonsense," she said. "You would look elegant dressed in a sack, Max. It is that presence you have. Are you looking for someone in particular?"
He dropped his quizzing glass unhurriedly and clasped his hands behind his back. "No," he said. "I was only marveling at how few faces I know."
"They would begin to look far more familiar if you would just do more with your invitations than drop them in waste basket," she said. "That is what you do with them, I presume?"
"Ah, not quite," he said. "But I do believe that is what my secretary does with them."
"It is most irritating," she said. "December is not a month when society abounds in London, Max. But it seems that there is no reasoning with you. There never was. And there—you have made me thoroughly cross when I am normally of quite sanguine disposition. You had better return to your box and be alone with yourself as you seem to wish to be. The next act must be due to begin."
Lord Clancy had turned from his conversation with a lady guest who shared his box. "Nora has been quite determined to be the first and only hostess to lure you out this side of Christmas, Max," he said. "She has forgotten that since this morning there has been good reason for you not to come."
"Quite right. I had forgotten," Lady Clancy said, "though it all happened such a long time ago that I daresay it makes no difference to anyone now. Mrs. Easton sent an acceptance of her invitation this morning. Judith Easton, Max. Lord Blakeford's daughter."
"Yes," the marquess said, looking down into the pit of the theater, his hands still at his back, "I know who Mrs. Easton is."
"I thought she would have gone to Scotland with Blakeford and his wife," Lord Clancy said. "They have gone for Christmas apparently. But she has stayed here. Nora sent her an invitation to her soiree. It is an unfortunate coincidence that she should be in town at the same time as you, Max. She has not been here for more years than you, I believe. In fact, It do not recall seeing her since she ran off with Easton."
"That is all old news," Lady Clancy said briskly. "You had better take yourself off, Max. I am planning not to talk to you for a whole month if you will not come to my soiree—not that I am likely to see you in that time to display my displeasure to you, of course."
The Marquess of Denbigh sighed. "If it is so important to you, Nora," he said, "then I shall look in for half an hour or so. Will that satisfy you?"
She smiled and opened her fan. "It is amazing what a little coercion can accomplish," she said. "Yes, I am satisfied. Now, will you take a seat here, or are you planning to insist on returning to your own box?"
"I shall return to my own," he said, bowing to the occupants of the box.
But he did not return to his box. He left the theater and walked home, his carriage not having been directed to return for him until the end of the performance.
So she was coming out of hiding at last. She was going to be at Nora's. Well, then, he would see her there.
Eight years was a long time—or seven and a half to be more accurate. He supposed she would have changed. She had been eighteen then, fresh from the schoolroom, fresh from the country, shy, sweet, pretty—he never had been able to find the words to describe her as she had been then. Words made her sound uninteresting, no different from dozens of other young girls making their come-out. Judith Farrington had been different.
Or to him she had been different.
She would be twenty-six years old now. A woman. A widow. The mother of two young children. And her marriage could not have been a happy one—unless she had not known, of course. But how could a wife not know, even if she spent all of her married life in the country, that her husband lived a life of dissipation and debauchery?
She would be different now. She was bound to be.
He wanted to see the difference. He had waited for it a long time, especially since the death of her husband in a barroom brawl—that was what it had been despite the official story that he had died in a skirmish with thieves.
He had waited. And come to London as soon as he knew that she was here. And waited again for her to begin to appear in public. And finally, it seemed, she was to appear at Nora's soiree.
He would be there too. He had a score to settle with Judith Easton. Revenge to take. He had a great deal of leftover hatred to work out of his heart and his soul.
He had waited a long time for this.
© Mary Balogh