London, June 1817
Biting the inside of her cheek, Amelia dâ€™Orsay
suppressed a small cry of jubilation. Even at a rout like
this one, a well-bred ladyâ€™s abrupt shout of joy was likely
to draw notice, and Amelia did not care to explain herself
to the crush of young ladies surrounding her. Especially
when the reason for her delight was not a triumph at the
card table or a proposal of marriage, but rather the
completion of a dinner menu.
She could imagine it now. â€śOh, Lady Amelia,â€ť one of
these young misses would say, â€śonly you could think of food
at a time like this.â€ť
Well, it wasnâ€™t as though Amelia had planned to
stand in a ballroom, dreaming of menus for their family
summer holiday. But sheâ€™d been puzzling for weeks over a
new sauce for braised pheasant, to replace the same old
applejack reduction. Something sweet, yet tart;
surprising, yet familiar; inventive, yet frugal. At last,
the answer had come to her. Blackberry glaze. Strained,
of course. Ooh, perhaps mulled with cloves.
Resolving to enter it in her menu book later, she swept
the imaginary dish aside and compressed her grin to a half-
smile. Summer at Briarbank would now officially be
Mrs. Bunscombe brushed past in a flounce of scarlet
silk. â€śItâ€™s half eleven,â€ť the hostess sang. â€śNearly
Nearly midnight. Now there was a thought to
quell her exuberance.
A cherub-faced debutante swaddled in tulle grasped
Amelia by the wrist. â€śAny moment now. How can you remain
so calm? If he chooses me tonight, I just know Iâ€™ll
Amelia sighed. And so it began. As it did at every
ball, when half-eleven ticked past.
â€śYou neednâ€™t worry about making conversation,â€ť a young
lady dressed in green satin said. â€śHe scarcely utters so
much as a word.â€ť
â€śAre we even certain he speaks English? Wasnâ€™t he
raised in Abyssinia orâ€¦â€ť
â€śNo, no. Lower Canada. Of course he speaks English.
My brother plays cards with him.â€ť The second girl lowered
her voice. â€śBut there is something rather
primitive about him, donâ€™t you think? I think
itâ€™s the way he moves.â€ť
â€śI think itâ€™s the gossip youâ€™re heeding,â€ť Amelia said
â€śHe waltzes like a dream,â€ť a third girl put in. â€śWhen I
danced with him, my feet scarcely skimmed the floor. And
heâ€™s ever so handsome up close.â€ť
Amelia gave her a patient smile. â€śIndeed?â€ť
At the opening of the season, the reclusive and
obscenely wealthy Duke of Morland had finally entered
society. A few weeks later, he had all London dancing to
his tune. The duke arrived at every ball at the stroke of
midnight. He selected a single partner from among the
available ladies. At the conclusion of one set, he would
escort the lady into supper, and thenâ€¦disappear.
Before two weeks were out, the papers had dubbed
him â€śthe Duke of Midnight,â€ť and every hostess in London was
jostling to invite His Grace to a ball. Unmarried ladies
would not dream of promising the supper set to any other
partner, for fear of missing their chance at a duke. To
amplify the dramatic effect, hostesses positioned
timepieces in full view, and instructed orchestras to begin
the set at the very hour of twelve. And it went without
saying, the set concluded with a slow, romantic waltz.
The nightly spectacle held the entire ton in
delicious, knuckle-gnawing thrall. At every ball, the
atmosphere thickened with perfume and speculation as the
hour of twelve approached. It was like watching medieval
knights attempting to wrest Excalibur from the stone.
Surely one of these evenings, the gossips declared, some
blushing ingĂ©nue would get a proper grip on the
recalcitrant bachelorâ€¦and a legend would be born.
Legend indeed. There was no end of stories about him.
Where a man of his rank and fortune were involved, there
were always stories.
â€śI hear he was raised barefoot and heathen in the
Canadian wilderness,â€ť said the first girl.
â€śI hear he was barely civilized when his uncle took him
in,â€ť said the second. â€śAnd his wild behavior gave the old
duke an apoplexy.â€ť
The lady in green murmured, â€śMy brother told me there
was an incident, at Eton. Some sort of scrape or brawlâ€¦ I
donâ€™t know precisely. But a boy nearly died, and Morland
was expelled for it. If they sent down a dukeâ€™s heir, you
know it must have been dreadful.â€ť
â€śYouâ€™ll not believe what Iâ€™ve heard,â€ť Amelia said,
widening her eyes. The ladies perked, leaning in
close. â€śI hear,â€ť she whispered, â€śthat by the light of the
full moon, His Grace transforms into a ravening
When her companions finished laughing, she said
aloud, â€śReally, I canâ€™t believe heâ€™s so interesting as to
merit this much attention.â€ť
â€śYou wouldnâ€™t say that if youâ€™d danced with
Amelia shook her head. She had watched this scene
unfold time and again over the past few weeks, admittedly
with amusement. But she never expectedâ€”or desiredâ€”to be at
the center of it. It wasnâ€™t sour grapes, truly it wasnâ€™t.
What other ladies saw as intriguing and romantic, she took
for self-indulgent melodrama. Really, an unmarried,
wealthy, handsome duke who felt the need to command
more female attention? He must be the most vain,
insufferable sort of man.
And the ladies of his choosingâ€”all flouncy, insipid
girls in their first or second seasons. All petite, all
pretty. None of them anything like Amelia.
Oh, perhaps there was a hint of bitterness to it, after
Really, when a lady dangled on the outer cusp of marital
eligibility, as she did, society ought to allow her a
quiet, unannounced slide into spinsterhood. It rather
galled her, to feel several yearsâ€™ worth of rejection
revisited upon her night after night, as the infamous duke
entered at the stroke of midnight, and at twelve-oh-one his
eyes slid straight past her to some primping chit with more
beauty than brains.
Not that he had reason to notice her. Her dowry barely
scraped the floorboards of the â€śrespectableâ€ť range, and
even in her first season, sheâ€™d never been a great beauty.
Her eyes were a trifle too pale, and she blushed much too
easily. And at the age of six-and-twenty, sheâ€™d come to
accept that she would always be a little too plump.
The girls suddenly scattered, like the flighty things
A deep whisper came from behind her shoulder. â€śYou look
Sighing, she wheeled to face the speaker. â€śJack. What
is it youâ€™re after?â€ť
Pressing a hand to his lapel, he pulled an offended
expression. â€śMust I be after something? Canâ€™t a fellow
pay his dearest sister a compliment without falling under
â€śNot when the fellow in question is you. And itâ€™s no
compliment to be called your dearest sister. Iâ€™m your only
sister. If youâ€™re after my purse, you must come up with
something better than that.â€ť She spoke in a light, teasing
tone, hoping against all previous evidence that he would
protest: No, Amelia. This time, Iâ€™m not after your
purse. Iâ€™ve ceased gambling and drinking, and Iâ€™ve thrown
over those neâ€™er-do-well â€śfriendsâ€ť of mine. Iâ€™m returning
to University. Iâ€™ll take orders in the Church, just as I
promised our dying mother. And you truly do look lovely
Eyes flicking toward the crowd, he lowered his
voice. â€śA few bob. Thatâ€™s all I need.â€ť
Her chest deflated. Not even midnight, and already his
eyes held that wild, liquor-flared spark that indicated he
was on the verge of doing something spectacularly ill-
Steering him by the elbow, she left the young ladies to
titter amongst themselves and guided her brother through
the nearest set of doors. They stepped into the crescent
of yellow light shining through the transom window. The
night air closed around them, cloying and humid.
â€śI donâ€™t have anything,â€ť she lied.
â€śA few shillings for the hack, Amelia.â€ť He grabbed for
the reticule dangling from her wrist. â€śWeâ€™re off to the
theater, a gang of us.â€ť
Off to the theater, her eye. Off to the gaming hells,
more likely. She clutched the beaded drawstring pouch to
her bosom. â€śAnd how will I get home, then?â€ť
â€śWhy, Morland will take you.â€ť He winked. â€śRight after
your dance. Iâ€™ve two pounds sterling on you tonight.â€ť
Wonderful. Another two pounds sheâ€™d have to siphon from
her pin money. â€śAt tremendously long odds, Iâ€™m sure.â€ť
â€śDonâ€™t speak like that.â€ť A touch grazed her arm.
Jackâ€™s expression was suddenly, unexpectedly
sincere. â€śHeâ€™d be damned lucky to have you, Amelia.
Thereâ€™s no lady your equal in that room.â€ť
Tears pricked at the corners of her eyes. Since their
brother Hughâ€™s death at Waterloo, Jack had changed, and not
for the better. But in rare flashes, that dear, sensitive
brother she loved would surface. She wanted so desperately
to gather him close and hold tight to him for weeks, monthsâ€¦
however long it took, to coax the old Jack out from this
â€śCome now. Be a sweet sister, and lend me a crown or
two. Iâ€™ll send a runner to Laurentâ€™s, and heâ€™ll send that
garish new landau for you. Youâ€™ll be driven home in the
finest style his copper heiress can afford.â€ť
â€śHer name is Winifred. Sheâ€™s the Countess of Beauvale
now, and you ought to speak of her with respect. Itâ€™s her
fortune that purchased Michaelâ€™s commission and supports
young William at school. Itâ€™s thanks to her and Laurent
that I even have a home.â€ť
â€śAnd Iâ€™m the worthless ingrate who brings the family
nothing but disgrace. I know, I know.â€ť His flinty gaze
clashed with a forced smile. â€śItâ€™s worth a few coins to be
rid of me, isnâ€™t it?â€ť
â€śCanâ€™t you understand? I donâ€™t want to be rid of you at
all. I love you, you fool.â€ť She smoothed that
incorrigible wisp of hair that always curled at his left
temple. â€śWonâ€™t you let me help you, Jack?â€ť
â€śOf course. If youâ€™ll start with a shilling or two.â€ť
With clumsy fingers, she loosened the strings of her
reticule. â€śI will give you everything I have, on one
â€śYou must promise me youâ€™ll join us this summer, at
The dâ€™Orsays always summered at Briarbankâ€”a rambling
stone cottage overlooking the River Wye, down the slope
from the ruins of Beauvale Castle. Amelia had been
planning this summerâ€™s holiday for months, down to the last
damask tablecloth and saucer of currant jelly. Briarbank
was the answer to everything, she knew it. It had to
Hughâ€™s death had devastated the entire family, but Jack
most of all. Of all her brothers, the two of them had been
the fastest friends. Hugh had been just one year older,
but several years wiser, and his serious bent had always
balanced Jackâ€™s wilder personality. Without that check on
his impulsive nature, Amelia feared Jackâ€™s grief and
recklessness were conspiring to disaster.
What he needed was love, and time to heal. Time spent
far from Town, and close to home and familyâ€”what remained
of both. Here in London, Jack was surrounded by
temptation, constantly pressured to keep pace with his
spendthrift peers. At Briarbank, he would surely return to
his good-humored self. Young William would come on his
break from school. Michael would still be at sea, of
course, but Laurent and Winifred would join them, at least
for a week or two.
And Amelia would be the perfect hostess. Just as Mama
had always been. She would fill every room with great
vases of snapdragons, arrange theatricals and parlor games,
serve braised pheasant with blackberry glaze.
She would make everyone happy, by sheer force of will.
Or bribery, if she must.
â€śIâ€™ve a crown and three shillings here,â€ť she said,
extracting the coins from the pouch, â€śand six pounds more
saved at home.â€ť Saved, scrimped, scraped together, one
penny at a time. â€śItâ€™s yours, all of itâ€”but you must
promise me August at Briarbank.â€ť
Jack tsked. â€śHe didnâ€™t tell you?â€ť
â€śWho? Who didnâ€™t tell me what?â€ť
â€śWeâ€™re not opening the cottage this summer. It was just
settled this week. Weâ€™re letting it out.â€ť
â€śLetting it out?â€ť Amelia felt as though all the blood
had been let from her veins. Suddenly dizzy, she clutched
her brotherâ€™s arm. â€śBriarbank, let out? To strangers?â€ť
â€śWell, not to strangers. Weâ€™ve put the word around at
the clubs and expect inquiries from several good families.
Itâ€™s a plum holiday cottage, you know.â€ť
â€śYes,â€ť she bit out. â€śYes, I do know. Itâ€™s so ideal,
the dâ€™Orsay family has summered there for centuries.
Centuries, Jack. Why would we dream of leasing it
â€śHavenâ€™t we outgrown the pall-mall and tea biscuits
routine? Itâ€™s dull as tombs out there. Halfway to
Ireland, for Godâ€™s sake.â€ť
â€śDull? What on earth can you mean? You used to live
for summers there, angling on the river andâ€”â€ť
Comprehension struck, numbing her to the toes. â€śOh, no.â€ť
She dug her fingers into his arm. â€śHow much did you lose?
How much do you owe?â€ť
His eyes told her heâ€™d resigned all pretense. â€śFour
â€śFour hundred! To whom?â€ť
â€śThe Duke of Midniâ€”â€ť Amelia bit off the absurd
nickname. She refused to puff the manâ€™s notoriety
further. â€śBut heâ€™s not even arrived yet. How did you
manage to lose four hundred pounds to him, when heâ€™s not
â€śNot tonight. Days ago now. Thatâ€™s why I must leave.
Heâ€™ll be here any moment, and I canâ€™t face him until Iâ€™ve
made good on the debt.â€ť
Amelia could only stare at him.
â€śDonâ€™t look at me like that, I canâ€™t bear it. I was
holding my own until Faraday put his token in play. Thatâ€™s
what brought Morland to the table, drove the betting sky-
high. Heâ€™s out to gather all ten, you know.â€ť
â€śAll ten of what? All ten tokens?â€ť
â€śYes, of course. The tokens are everything.â€ť Jack made
an expansive gesture. â€śCome now, you canâ€™t be so out of
circulation as that. Itâ€™s only the most elite
gentlemenâ€™s club in London.â€ť
When she only blinked at him, he prompted, â€śHarcliffe.
Osiris. One stud horse, ten brass tokens. Youâ€™ve heard of
the club, I know you have.â€ť
â€śIâ€™m sorry. Iâ€™ve no idea what youâ€™re talking about.
You seem to be telling me youâ€™ve wagered our ancestral home
against a brass token. And lost.â€ť
â€śI was in for hundreds already; I couldnâ€™t back down.
And my cardsâ€¦Amelia, I swear to you, they were unbeatable
â€śExcept that they werenâ€™t.â€ť
He gave a fatalistic shrug. â€śWhatâ€™s done is done. If I
had some other means of raising the funds, I would. Iâ€™m
sorry youâ€™re disappointed, but thereâ€™s always next
â€śYes, butâ€”â€ť But next year was a whole year away. God
only knew what trouble would find Jack in the
meantime. â€śThere must be another way. Ask Laurent for the
â€śYou know he canâ€™t give it.â€ť
Of course he was right. Their eldest brother had
married prudently, almost sacrificially. The family had
been desperate for funds at the time, and Winifred had come
with bags of money from her mining magnate father. The
trouble was, the bags of money came cinched tightly with
strings, and only Laurentâ€™s father-in-law could loosen
them. The old man would never authorize the use of four
hundred pounds to pay off a gaming debt.
â€śI have to leave before Morland arrives,â€ť he said. â€śYou
Jack unlooped the reticule from her limp wrist, and she
did not fight him as he shook the coins into his palm.
Yes, she understood. Even if nothing remained of their
fortune, the dâ€™Orsays would cling to their pride.
â€śHave you at least learned your lesson now?â€ť she said
He vaulted the low terrace rail. Rattling the coins in
his palm, he backed away into the garden. â€śYou know me,
Amelia. I never was any good with lessons. I just copied
my slate from Hughâ€™s.â€ť
As she watched her brother disappear into the shadows,
Amelia hugged her arms across her chest.
What cruel turn of events was this? Briarbank, rented
for the summer! All the happiness stored up in those
cobbled floors and rustic hearths and bundles of lavender
hanging from the raftersâ€”wasted on strangers. All her
elaborate menus and planned excursions, for naught.
Without that cottage, the dâ€™Orsay family had no true
center. Her brother had nowhere to recover from his
And somehow more lowering than all this: She had no
place of her own.
Accepting spinsterhood had not been easy for Amelia.
But she could resign herself to the loneliness and
disappointment, she told herself, so long as she had
summers at that drafty stone cottage. Those few months
made the rest of the year tolerable. Whilst her friends
collected lace and linens for their trousseaux, Amelia
contented herself by embroidering seat covers for
Briarbank. As they entertained callers, she entertained
thoughts of begonias in the window box. When sheâ€”an
intelligent, thoughtful, well-bred ladyâ€”was thrown over
nightly for her younger, prettier, lack-witted
counterparts, she could fool herself into happiness by
thinking of blackberry glaze.
Lord, the irony. She wasnâ€™t much different from Jack.
Sheâ€™d impulsively wagered all her dreams on a pile of
mortar and shale. And now sheâ€™d lost.
Alone on the terrace, she started to tremble. Destiny
clanged against her hopes, beating them down one hollow
ring at a time.
Somewhere inside, a clock was tolling midnight.
â€śHis Grace, the Duke of Morland.â€ť
The majordomoâ€™s announcement coincided with the final,
booming stroke of twelve.
From the head of the staircase, Spencer watched the
throng of guests divide on cue, falling to either side like
two halves of an overripe peach. And there, in the center,
clustered the unmarried young ladies in attendanceâ€”stone-
still and shriveling under his gaze.
As a general point, Spencer disliked crowds. He
particularly disliked over-dressed, self-important crowds.
And this scene grew more absurd by the night: the cream of
London society, staring up at him with unguarded
We donâ€™t know what to make of you, those stares
Fair enough. It was a usefulâ€”often lucrativeâ€”thing, to
be unreadable. Heâ€™d spent years cultivating the skill.
We donâ€™t trust you. This he gleaned from the
whispers, and the manner in which gentlemen guarded the
walls and ladiesâ€™ hands instinctively went to the jewels at
their throats. No matter. It also was a useful thing, at
times, to be feared.
No, it was the last bit that had him quietly laughing.
The silent plea that only rang louder every time he entered
Here, take one of our daughters.
Godâ€™s knees. Must he?
As he descended the travertine staircase, Spencer girded
himself for yet another unpleasant half hour. Given his
preference, he would retreat back to the country and never
attend another ball in his life. But while he was
temporarily residing in Town, he could not refuse all
invitations. If he wished to see his ward Claudia well-
married in a few years, he must pave the way for her
eventual debut. And occasionally there were high-stakes
card games to be found in the back rooms of these affairs,
well away from the white-powdered matrons playing whist.
So he made his appearance, but strictly on his own
terms. One set, no more. As little conversation as
possible. And if the ton were determined to
throw their sacrificial virgins at his feetâ€¦he would do the
He wanted a quiet one tonight.
Usually he favored them young and vapid, more interested
in preening for the crowd than capturing his notice. Then
at the Pryce-Foster ball, heâ€™d had the extreme misfortune
to engage the hand of one Miss Francine Waterford. Quite
pretty, with a vivacious arch to her brow and plump, rosy
lips. The thing was, those lips lost all their allure when
she kept them in constant motion. Sheâ€™d prattled on
through the entire set. Worse, sheâ€™d expected responses.
While most women eagerly supplied both sides of any
conversation, Miss Waterford would not be satisfied with
his repertoire of brusque nods and inarticulate clearings
of the throat. Heâ€™d been forced to speak at least a dozen
words to her, all told.
That was his reward for indulging aesthetic
sensibilities. Enough with the pretty ones. For his
partner tonight, he would select a meek, silent, wallflower
of a girl. She neednâ€™t be pretty, nor even passable. She
need only be quiet.
As he approached the knot of young ladies, his eye
settled on a slender reed of a girl standing on the fringe
of the group, looking positively jaundiced in melon-colored
satin. When he advanced toward her, she cowered into the
shadow of her neighbor. She refused to even meet his
Just as he extended his hand in invitation, he was
arrested by a series of unexpected sounds. The rattle of
glass panes. The slam of a door. Heels clicking against
travertine in a brisk, staccato rhythm.
Spencer swiveled instinctively. A youngish woman in
blue careened across the floor like a billiard ball,
reeling to a halt before him. His hand remained
outstretched from his aborted invitation to Miss Melony
Satin, and this newly-arrived lady took hold of it
Dipping in a shallow curtsy, she said, â€śThank you, Your
Grace. I would be honored.â€ť
And after a stunned, painful pause, the music began.
The clump of disappointed ladies dispersed in search of
new partners, grumbling as they went. And for the first
time all season, Spencer found himself partnered with a
lady not of his choosing. She had selected
How very surprising.
How very unpleasant.
Nevertheless, there was nothing to be done. The
impertinent woman queued up across from him for the country
dance. Did he even know this lady?
As the other dancers fell into place around them, he
took the opportunity to study her. He found little to
admire. Any measure of genteel poise she might claim had
fallen casualty to that inelegant sprint across the
ballroom. Stray wisps of hair floated about her face; her
breath was labored with exertion. This state of agitation
did her complexion no favors, but it did enhance the swell
of her ample bosom. She was amply endowed everywhere,
actually. Generous curves pulled against the blue silk of
â€śForgive me,â€ť he said, as they circled one
another. â€śHave we been introduced?â€ť
â€śYears ago, once. I would not expect you to remember.
I am Lady Amelia dâ€™Orsay.â€ť
The pattern of the dance parted them, and Spencer had
some moments to absorb this name: Lady Amelia dâ€™Orsay.
Her late father had been the seventh Earl of Beauvale. Her
elder brother, Laurent, was currently the eighth Earl of
And her younger brother Jack was a scapegrace wastrel
who owed Spencer four hundred pounds.
She must have sensed the moment of this epiphany, for
when they next clasped hands she said, â€śWe neednâ€™t speak of
it now. It can wait for the waltz.â€ť
He quietly groaned. This was going to be a very long
set. If only heâ€™d moved more quickly in securing the
jaundiced oneâ€™s hand. Now that Lady Ameliaâ€™s brash
maneuver had been successful, God only knew what stunt the
ladiesâ€”or more likely, their mothersâ€”would attempt next.
Maybe he should start engaging his partnersâ€™ hands in
advance of the event. But that would necessitate social
calls, and Spencer did not make social calls. Perhaps he
could direct his secretary to send notes? The entire
situation was wearying.
The country dance ended. The waltz began. And he was
forced to take her in his arms, this woman who had just
made his life a great deal more complicated.
To her credit, she wasted no time with
pleasantries. â€śYour Grace, let me be to the point. My
brother owes you a great sum of money.â€ť
â€śHe owes me four hundred pounds.â€ť
â€śDo you not view that as a great sum of money?â€ť
â€śI view it as a debt which I am owed. The precise
amount is inconsequential.â€ť
â€śIt is not inconsequential to me. I cannot imagine that
you are unaware of it, but the dâ€™Orsay name is synonymous
with noble poverty. For us, four hundred pounds is a vast
sum of money. We simply cannot spare it.â€ť
â€śAnd what do you propose? Do you mean to offer me
favors in lieu of payment?â€ť He repaid her shocked
expression with a cool remark: â€śIâ€™m not interested.â€ť
It was a small lie. He was a man. And she was a buxom
woman, poured into a form-fitting dress. Parts of him were
finding parts of her vaguely interesting. His eyes, for
example, kept straying to her dĂ©colletage, so snugly framed
by blue silk and ivory lace. From his advantage of height,
he could spy the dark freckle dotting the inner curve of
her left breast, and time and again, he found his gaze
straying to the small imperfection.
â€śWhat a revolting suggestion,â€ť she said. â€śDo you
routinely solicit such offers from the distraught female
relations of your debtors?â€ť
He gave a noncommittal shrug. He didnâ€™t, but she was
free to believe he did. Spencer was not in the habit of
ingratiating himself, with anyone.
â€śAs if I would barter my favors for four hundred
â€śI thought you called it a vast sum of money.â€ť Well
above the going rate for such services, he refrained from
â€śThere are some things upon which one cannot put a
He considered making an academic argument to the
contrary, but decided against it. Clearly the woman lacked
the sense to follow logic. As was further evidenced by her
â€śI ask you to forgive Jackâ€™s debt.â€ť
â€śYou cannot refuse!â€ť
â€śI just did.â€ť
â€śFour hundred pounds is nothing to you. Come now, you
werenâ€™t even after Jackâ€™s money. He was only caught in the
middle as you drove the betting high. You wanted Mr.
Faradayâ€™s token, and you have it. Let my brotherâ€™s wager
be set aside.â€ť
She huffed an impatient breath, and her whole body
seemed to exhale in exasperation. Frustration exuded from
her every pore, and with it wafted her own unique feminine
scent. She smelled nice, actually. No cloying perfumeâ€”he
supposed she couldnâ€™t afford rich scent. Just the common
aromas of plain soap and clean skin, and the merest
suggestion that she tucked sprigs of lavender between her
Blue eyes locked with his. â€śWhy not?â€ť
Spencer tempered his own exasperated sigh. He could
explain to her that forgiving the debt would do both her
brother and her family a great disservice. They would owe
a debt of gratitude more lasting and burdensome than any
debt of gold, impossible to repay. Worst, Jack would have
no incentive to avoid repeating the mistake. In a matter
of weeks, the youth would land in even deeper debt, perhaps
to the tune of thousands. Spencer had no doubt that four
hundred pounds was a large sum to the dâ€™Orsay family, but
it would not be a crippling one. And if it purchased Lady
Ameliaâ€™s brother a greater portion of sense, it would be
four hundred pounds well spent.
All this he might have explained. But he was the Duke
of Morland. As much as heâ€™d forfeited for the sake of that
title, it ought to come with a few advantages. He
shouldnâ€™t have to explain himself at all.
â€śBecause I wonâ€™t,â€ť he said simply.
She set her teeth. â€śI see. And there is nothing I can
say to persuade you otherwise?â€ť
Lady Amelia shuddered. He felt the tremor beneath his
palm, where his hand pressed against the small of her
back. Fearing she might burst out weepingâ€”and wouldnâ€™t
that be the final polish on this sterling example
of awkwardnessâ€”Spencer pulled her tightly to him and
whisked her into a series of turns.
Despite his efforts, she only trembled more violently.
Small sounds, something between a hiccough and a squeak,
emanated from her throat. Against his better judgment, he
pulled back to study her face.
The woman was laughing.
His heart began to beat a little faster. Steady,
â€śIt is true, what the ladies say. You do waltz like a
dream.â€ť Her eyes swept his face, catching on his brow, his
jaw, and finally fixing on his mouth with unabashed
interest. â€śAnd you are undeniably handsome, up close.â€ť
â€śDo you hope to move me by means of flattery? It wonâ€™t
â€śNo, no.â€ť She smiled, and her right cheek dimpled. The
left did not. â€śI see now that you are a positively
immutable gentleman, a veritable rock of determination, and
my every attempt to move you would be in vain.â€ť
â€śWhy the laughter, then?â€ť
Why the question? he berated himself,
annoyed. Why not gratefully allow to the conversation to
die? And why did he find himself wondering whether Lady
Ameliaâ€™s left cheek ever dimpled? Whether she smiled more
genuinely, more freely in situations that did not involve
debasing herself over large debts, or whether the lone
dimple was merely another of her intrinsic imperfections,
like the unmatched freckle on her breast?
â€śBecause,â€ť she answered, â€śanxiety and gloom are
tiresome. Youâ€™ve made it clear you will not forgive the
debt. I can pass the remainder of the set moping about it,
or I can enjoy myself.â€ť
â€śThe notion shocks you, I see. I know there are someâ€ťâ€”
here she raked him with a sharp glanceâ€”â€śwho judge it mark
of their superiority to always appear dissatisfied with the
available company. Before they even enter a gathering,
they have made up their minds to be displeased with it. Is
it so very unthinkable that I might choose the reverse?
Opt for happiness, even in the face of grave personal
disappointment and complete financial ruin?â€ť
â€śIt smacks of insincerity.â€ť
â€śInsincerity?â€ť She laughed again. â€śForgive me, but are
you not the Duke of Morland? The playwright of this little
midnight melodrama that has played to packed houses for
weeks? The entire scene is predicated on the assumption
that we eligible ladies are positively desperate to catch
your attention. That a dance in the Duke of Midnightâ€™s
arms is every girlâ€™s fondest fantasy. And now you call me
insincere, when I claim to be enjoying my turn?â€ť
She lifted her chin and looked out over the
ballroom. â€śI have no illusions about myself. Iâ€™m an
impoverished gentlewoman, two seasons on the shelf, no
great beauty even in my bloom of youth. Iâ€™m not often at
the center of attention, Your Grace. When this waltz
concludes, I donâ€™t know whenâ€”if everâ€”I shall know the
feeling again. So Iâ€™m determined to enjoy it while it
lasts.â€ť She smiled fiercely, defiantly. â€śAnd you canâ€™t
Spencer concluded this must now be the longest set in
the history of dancing. Turning his head, he dutifully
swept her the length of the floor, striving to ignore how
every pair of eyes in the ballroom tracked their progress.
Quite a crowd tonight.
When he risked a glance down at her, Lady Ameliaâ€™s face
remained tilted to his.
â€śCan I persuade you to stop staring at me?â€ť
Her smile never faltered. â€śOh, no.â€ť
Oh no, indeed.
â€śYou see,â€ť she whispered in a husky tone, that from any
other woman he would have interpreted as sensual
overture, â€śitâ€™s not often a spinster like me has the
opportunity to enjoy such a prime specimen of virility and
vigor, and at such close proximity. Those piercing hazel
eyes, and all that dark, curling hairâ€¦ What a struggle it
is, not to touch it.â€ť
He shushed her. â€śYouâ€™re creating a scene.â€ť
â€śOh, you created the scene,â€ť she murmured coyly. â€śIâ€™m
merely stealing it.â€ť
Would this waltz never end?
â€śDid you wish to change the subject?â€ť she
asked. â€śPerhaps we should speak of the theater.â€ť
â€śI donâ€™t go to the theater.â€ť
â€śBooks, then. How about books?â€ť
â€śSome other time,â€ť he ground out. And instantly
wondered what had possessed him to say that. The odd thing
of it was, despite her many, many unpleasant
attributes, Lady Amelia was clearly possessed of some
intelligence and wit. He could not help but think that in
another time, in another place, he might have enjoyed
discussing books with her. But he couldnâ€™t possibly do so
here, in a crowded ballroom, with his concentration
unraveling on each successive twirl.
His control of the scene was slipping.
And that made him frown.
â€śOoh, thatâ€™s a dangerous glare,â€ť she said. â€śAnd your
face is turning a most impressive shade of red. Itâ€™s
enough to make me believe all those dreadful rumors about
you. Why, youâ€™re actually raising the hairs on my
â€śI am all honesty,â€ť she protested. â€śSee for yourself.â€ť
She stretched up and tilted her head to the side,
elongating the smooth, pale column of her neck. No
freckles there. Only an enticing curve of creamy, soft-
looking, sweet-smelling female skin.
Now Spencerâ€™s heart slammed against his ribs. He didnâ€™t
know which he yearned to do more. Wring that neck, or lick
it. Biting it might be a fair compromise. An action that
mingled pleasure with punishment.
Because she deserved to be punished, the impertinent
minx. Accepting the futility of her first argument, sheâ€™d
chosen to wage a different battle. A rebellion of joy.
I may not wrest a penny from you, but I will wring
every possible drop of enjoyment at your expense.
This was the very attitude responsible for her brotherâ€™s
debt. Jack would not quit the card table, even when he had
no hope of recouping his losses. He stayed in, risked
hundreds he did not have, because he wanted to win one last
hand. It was precisely the temperament one might expect
from a family such as the dâ€™Orsaysâ€”a lineage rich with
centuries of pride and valor, perpetually strapped for
Lady Amelia wanted to best him at something. She wanted
to see him brought low. And through no particular skill or
perception of her own, she was perilously close to
Spencer came to an abrupt halt. Implausibly, the room
kept spinning around him. Damn it, this couldnâ€™t be
happening. Not here, not now.
But the signs were unmistakable. His pulse pounded in
his ears. A wave of heat swamped his body. The air was
suddenly thick as treacle, and tasted just as vile.
Devil, damn, blast. He needed to leave this place,
â€śWhy have we stopped?â€ť she said. â€śThe waltz isnâ€™t
over.â€ť Her voice sounded as though it came from a great
distance, filtered through cotton-wool.
â€śItâ€™s over for me.â€ť Spencer swung his gaze around the
room. An open set of doors to his left beckoned
promisingly. He attempted to release her, but she clutched
at his shoulders and held him fast. â€śFor Godâ€™s sake,â€ť he
said, â€ślet meâ€”â€ť
â€śLet you what?â€ť Her eyes darting to the side, she
whispered, â€śLet you go? Let you abandon me here on the
dance floor, to my complete and total humiliation? Of all
the unchivalrous, ungentlemanly, unforgivableâ€¦â€ť When she
ran out of descriptors, she threw him an accusatory glare
that implied a thousand more. â€śI wonâ€™t stand for it.â€ť
â€śVery well, then. Donâ€™t.â€ť
He slid his hands to her waist, grasped tight with both
hands, and bodily lifted Lady Amelia dâ€™Orsayâ€”two, fourâ€¦six
inches off the floor. Until they looked one another eye-to-
eye, and her slippers dangled in mid-air.
He spared a brief moment to savor the way indignant
shock widened those pale blue eyes.
And then he carried her out into the night.