Release Date: March 2011
Lady Emily Carroll wished with all her might that the polished parquet floor beneath her satin slippers would open up and pull her down into the fiery pits of hell.
It would be far preferable to Lady Orman’s ball.
Emily hid behind a bank of towering potted palms, the silk-papered wall at her back as she peered between the green fronds at the crowd. Lady Orman’s rout was the invitation of the Season. Everyone who was anyone at all (and a few nobodies who managed to slip by the footmen) was gathered in the sparkling ballroom. Thousands of candles cast their light over the sheen of fine silk, the glitter of sapphires and rubies, and the snap of lace fans.
It was quite the ‘dreadful crush’ that every London hostess longed for. The dance floor was swirling with the patterns of a country dance, while thickets of people packed around its edges to laugh and chatter and stare. Their voices blurred into a high-pitched, echoing cacophony where no words could be made out at all.
Not that it mattered, Emily thought. No one came to such a gathering for rational conversation. They came to be seen, to have everyone know they were important enough to be invited to Lady Orman’s ball. They paid a great deal of money to the modiste and the hairdresser in order to pack themselves into a ballroom like a tight row of salted fish. To have their hems trod on, their ringlets wilted in the heat, their throats made raw from shouting at one another.
And for what? For the dubious pleasure of having their names in the papers? “Mr. and Mrs. Whos-it were seen attending Lady Orman’s ball…”
Emily sighed. There were surely many more useful, not to say more pleasant, things to do with one’s time. But her parents and her brother Robert seemed to enjoy it.
She stood on tiptoe, peering through the palms to see her brother dancing with his new wife, Amy. They were laughing as they spun around, their faces alight with pleasure. Well, Amy did love Society; she was good at being sociable, and that was all the better for Rob’s fledgling political career. They were surely well-matched, even if Amy’s ancient-named family had not much money.
That was what Emily’s parents, the Earl and Lady Moreby, said anyway. Amy’s family name, as old as their own, and her outgoing personality were fine assets, and a good excuse for letting Rob marry where he chose.
Besides, they would add, with sidelong glances at Emily herself. Emily will make our fortune. She is bound to marry very well!
Except that Emily had been a terrible disappointment to them thus far. She had not come close to marrying a title or a fortune. Or marrying anyone at all. And now the Season was almost over.
She instinctively raised her hand to nervously chew at her thumbnail, before she remembered she wore silk gloves. Her hand fell back to her side, tucked into the folds of her silver-embroidered white silk skirts. When, oh when, would that floor open up already?
The whole evening, the noise, the heat, the smell of melting candles and a hundred perfumes, bore down on her like an anvil. Soon, she would have to leave her little palmy sanctuary and join her parents. They would want to find her a partner for the next dance. That was what she did at every ball, let them match her up with rich lords (both young, spotty ones and old, portly ones), let them extol her beauty and goodness while she stood there with her cheeks on fire.
It was the least she could do, after she disappointed them so greatly last summer. They went to the house party at the notorious Welbourne Manor with the intention of matching up Emily with the new Duke of Manning, Nicholas.
Oh, they did not say so explicitly, of course, but it was obvious in their nervous preparations for the party. In all their words to her about how handsome Nicholas was, how great a friend his father had been to the Carrolls.
And she not only had been unable to attach the duke, she had scarcely been able to talk to him. She was always shy around men, of course, but there was something about him that terrified her. He was always most kind and polite, yet every time she looked into his beautiful sky-blue eyes her throat closed, and she felt that ridiculous burning blush spread over her whole body.
And then she saw his affable smile turn puzzled, and felt him withdraw from her. That was a relief of sorts. He and his family were so very exuberant, so full of fun and frivolity, while she was so quiet and serious. They would not be a good match at all, if only her parents could see that! Such a mouse as her would never fit into such a dashing family, and it was better not to even try.
Since that house party and Rob’s marriage that autumn, her parents’ matchmaking efforts had taken on a desperate edge, even as paintings and ornaments began disappearing from their house.
“She is so very beautiful!” Emily overheard her mother wail one day. “Quite ten times prettier than any other young lady this Season. Why can she not bring us a single suitable offer?”
“There was Mr. Browning,” her father tentatively suggested.
“A merchant,” her mother sniffed. “With seven children.”
“He is a wealthy man,” her father said.
“Surely we are not in such straitened circumstances that we must bestow our daughter on a tradesman.”
“Not yet,” her father muttered, as Emily fled in order to not hear any more. The fact that Mr. Browning was in trade did not bother her, but the seven children rather did. Plus he was twenty years older than her, and had such sweaty, grasping hands.
Unlike Nicholas, whose long, elegant fingers had clasped hers once to help her into a carriage. Yet they were both such unsuitable men for her, in their own ways. And surely her parents would not force her to marry someone she didn’t care for, if they knew what had happened with Mr. Lofton that time…
“I don’t mean to be a disappointment,” she whispered. If not for her wretched shyness, the way her mind went all blank and her throat closed up whenever she met a stranger…
“I say, the quality of the gatherings this Season have been very poor indeed,” a man said, close enough to her hiding place that she could hear the actual words and not just an indistinct hum.
“I agree,” his companion said, in a bored drawl. “Lady Orman could once be relied upon to host only the cream of the ton. Now she seems to let in anyone at all.”
Emily peered past the green fronds again to see Lord Barrington and Mr. Fraser, two thoroughly useless dandies. She had once endured a dance with Lord Barrington, as he prattled on to her about a new way to tie a cravat or some such thing. She had no desire to listen to his gossip now, but she could see no way to slip past them. She was trapped.
“If this continues, I shall have to go see if there are more quality amusements to be had in Brighton,” said Mr. Fraser. “Or even abroad. Even the wine tonight is most insipid.”
“I stood over there and watched the ladies pass by for an hour,” Lord Barrington said, gesturing toward one of the walls with his quizzing glass. “I counted only ten that were tolerable, and only two who were truly pretty.”
“Oh? Who were they, then?”
“Mrs. Featherstone and Viscountess Granton,” said Mr. Fraser, mentioning Amy.
“True, none can match Lady Granton for beauty. She is quite the Toast. But what of her sister-in-law, Lady Emily Carroll? She is reckoned to be mightily pretty at my club.”
Lord Barrington gave a contemptuous snort. “She is undoubtedly pretty, with that pale hair and white skin. But a veritable icicle. She can’t seem to bring herself to say three words to anyone, just stares at you with those cold, dismissive green eyes. At my club, she is called the Ice Princess, and we wager on which poor, desperate fool will marry her by the end of the Season. The winner thus far is Mr. Rayburn. Undoubtedly, the marriage bed will mean the freezing off of his…”
Whatever crude word he was going to say dissolved into their snickers. Emily pressed her hands to her face, wishing even more than ever that the floor would swallow her and she could vanish! She didn’t feel like an ‘ice princess’ in the least. Indeed, she felt as if her whole body was on fire with shame.
She longed to cry, to curl up into a ball and disappear, never to come to a hateful ball again.
But she was not a Carroll for nothing. Her family might not be wealthy any longer, but they certainly had a long, proud history. They had faced the Tower under Henry VIII, poverty during the Civil War, riotous parties with Charles II, and her own grandfather, a terrible gambler who had to flee to France twice to avoid creditors and angry husbands. Two giggling fops could not best her, even as she ached with embarrassment.
Emily smoothed her skirts, tucked her silvery hair back into its beaded bandeau, and stiffened her shoulders. There was nothing she could do about the hot color in her cheeks, but she held her head high as she swept out from her hiding place and past the two men.
She might have laughed about the astonished looks on their faces, if she hadn’t been so determined to get away.
Through that sheer determination, she made her way through the press of the crowd, avoiding her mother as she hurried out the double doors into the anteroom. There were still people there, drinking the ‘insipid’ wine, but they paid her no attention as she hurried into the corridor.
Emily drew in a shaky breath, rubbing hard at her hot cheeks. Now that it was a bit quieter, her nerves not so jangled, she knew she had to get away, even if only for a moment. She needed to be alone, to breathe some fresh air.
Not sure where exactly she was going, she dashed down the curving staircase. When they arrived at the ball, that sweep of marble and gilt was packed tightly with revelers, waiting their turn to enter the ballroom, calling out greetings to each other and loudly admiring one another’s attire. Now, it was blessedly deserted, the candles sputtered low to cast dim, shifting shadows on the walls.
Gradually, the cacophony of the party faded, and Emily could hear only the whisper of her slippers on marble as she ran down the stairs. The swish of her skirt. The pounding of her heart.
So intent was she on escape that she didn’t see the man at the foot of the stairs until his silhouette suddenly shifted on the white wall. Startled by the movement, Emily lost her footing on the bottom step. Her stomach lurched as her feet slid out from under her, ripping her hem and pitching her toward the cold stone floor.
She cried out, flinging her hands in front of her to catch herself. But she didn’t collide with painful, unyielding stone.
She fell against a warm, well-muscled chest, arms wrapping around her to lift her up safely into the air. Shocked, Emily clung to her rescuer’s shoulders, her heart racing.
“Lady Emily!” he said, his voice deep, roughly out of breath. “Are you hurt?”
She stared down at him in the fading light, the red-orange glow playing over his golden hair, the lean, elegant angles of his sharp cheekbones and knife-blade nose. His blue eyes, those eyes she remembered so well from last summer, were narrowed with concern.
Nicholas, the Duke of Manning. Of course. He did always seem to see her at her worst.
And being pressed so very close to him, alone in that half-light, had her far more flustered and frightened than any mean-spirited gossip. He smelled so delightful, of lemony cologne and clean starch, a faint tang of sweet smoke, as if he had snuck away for a cigar. And how strong he was, she thought irrationally. He held her up as if she weighed no more than a snowflake—or an icicle.
Did he think her an icicle, too? A cold, unfeeling princess? That seemed to be the general consensus, and surely in his voluble family she would seem so even more. That shouldn’t make her feel sad, yet it did.
“I am quite unhurt,” she managed to murmur. “Thanks to you, Your Grace.”
He smiled up at her, a bright, merry grin that reminded her of that house party. Of his laughing, teasing, romping family, and how she so wanted to be a part of all that fun. She just didn’t know how, and she probably never would.
“Well, that’s my duty at these routs, you know,” he said. “To stand about waiting to rescue fair damsels in distress.”
“You’re very good at it, I’m sure,” Emily said. What damsel wouldn’t dream of being rescued by him? If she was a different sort of female, she surely would. He was handsome and charming and Very Ducal. And such a man would never be interested in an awkward lady like herself.
“You can put me down now, Your Grace,” she whispered.
Nicholas glanced down, seeming surprised to find that he still held her close to him, suspended in his arms as if he held her above the mundane, everyday world. Slowly, he lowered her to her feet, her body sliding along his. The sensation of that strange, delicious friction of silk against wool made her sway dizzily, her head spinning.
“You are hurt,” he said, his voice concerned. “Here, sit down on this step, Lady Emily. Did you turn your ankle?”
Emily let him help her sit down on the marble she had just slipped from, smiling at him weakly. “Oh, no. It was just the heat in the ballroom…”
“Wretched, isn’t it?” he said, sitting down beside her as if he had all the time in the world. “I nearly fainted myself.”
She almost laughed aloud. Surely he had never fainted in his life! He glowed with robust good health and vibrant energy, as if he could conquer all the world and still have strength for a dance and to rescue a maiden or two.
“It’s quite irrational how these hostesses cram so many people into their ballrooms,” he said. “One can scarcely even move, let alone have a good conversation with friends.”
“If you can even find your friends at all.”
“Exactly so,” he agreed. “At routs such as this, I’m sure I know scarcely a quarter of the guests.”
“Well, I’m sure they all know you,” Emily said.
He gave her a quizzical glance. “How on earth could they? I haven’t even met half of them.”
Emily laughed. Somehow, sitting beside him in the quiet and the shadows, just the two of them, she didn’t feel so paralyzed with shyness. Those gossiping men mattered not at all. “Everyone knows a duke. Or at least they know of you, and in a world where gossip races around so quickly they think it’s the same thing.”
Nicholas laughed, too, a surprised chuckle. “I think you are quite right, Lady Emily. People do seem far more interested in me since my father died.”
From under the veil of her lashes, Emily studied the way the candlelight cast his handsome face in intriguing, shadowed angles. The hair that fell over his brow in unruly waves gleamed like an ancient gold coin. “Oh, I’m sure they were interested in you long before that,” she murmured.
“I beg your pardon, Lady Emily?”
“I said—why do you attend these balls, Your Grace? Surely one of the advantages of being a duke should be doing what one pleases.” Unlike being an earl’s daughter, who could never do what she pleased. Unless it was in secret.
“I’m afraid being a duke means doing a great many things one would rather not,” he said, as if he read her unspoken thoughts. “There are so many expectations, obligations.”
“Including dancing at crowded London balls?”
He gave a comical sigh. “Sadly, yes, Lady Emily. I fear it was one of the duties my father failed to tell me about.”
It seemed to Emily the last duke had not been very dutiful at all, or he would not have eloped with the married Lady Linwall all those years ago! But Nicholas seemed different indeed from his father and stepmother. He wanted to do his duty the best he could—just as she did. But sometimes it was so, so hard.
Emily gave him a tentative smile. “I fear you are failing in your task then, Your Grace.”
“Am I indeed?”
“Yes. For you are not dancing at all, but sitting here talking to me.”
“So I am,” he said, laughing. “And believe me, Lady Emily, it is a far more pleasant party for it. I would much rather sit somewhere in quiet conversation than be crowded into an overheated ballroom with a lot of strangers.”
“Me, too. Balls are…” Hateful things. “Most inconvenient.”
“But a necessary evil for people such as us, you were quite right about that, Lady Emily.” He rose to his feet, offering his hand to help her rise.
Emily hesitated for a moment as she studied that hand, remembering that strange, wondrous sensation of being held by him. She slowly slipped her hand into his. His fingers closed over hers, just as warm and strong as before, and she had the wild wish that they could just stand there for the rest of the night.
But they could not, of course. His touch slid away from hers. “Since I must dance, Lady Emily, would you favor me with the next set?”
“I…” Oh, how her parents would love that. Their daughter dancing with the Duke of Manning for everyone to see. But her legs still felt none too steady, and she feared that rather than inciting envy at her handsome partner and graceful movements, she would fall again and make a fool of herself.
And the last thing she wanted was for him to think her a fool. He and his family surely already thought that after last summer’s party.
“I think I need to find the ladies’ withdrawing room, Your Grace,” she said. “I seem to have torn my hem when I tripped.”
He smiled at her, and bowed politely. “It is my loss, then. Perhaps we can dance at the next ball.”
And perhaps cows would take wing and fly around Berkley Square. “That would be most pleasant.”
“Shall I escort you to…”
“Oh, no,” Emily said quickly. “No, I’m sure our hostess will be wondering where you are. I am quite well now, Your Grace, thanks to your gallant rescue.”
“I hope the rest of your evening is less perilous, Lady Emily.”
Emily bobbed a hasty curtsy, and hurried away across the foyer. She knew not what direction she was going, or where. She just had to be away from him, from the way he made her head spin so confusingly, in order to think clearly again.
But she felt the warmth of his stare on the back of her neck as he watched her go.
Congratulations to Sarah King, winner of the Cozy Night In Basket!
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