About the book
Ever since his brother died of a flimsy cat scratch, Henry Cobbett, the Duke of Lawson, has never been the same. And the sooner he finds a timid Lady to make his wife, the sooner will he retreat to the peace and quiet of the country.
The moment he stumbles upon a damsel in distress eager to accept his terms for a marriage of convenience, Henry believes himself the luckiest man in the world. But nothing prepared him for his wife’s true colors. For soon he’s covered in cat hair and bewitched by a Lady who defies all his boundaries.
“Who is that lady over there?” Henry asked, tilting his head toward a woman who was standing just off to their right-hand side. It was a fine spring morning, and even though Henry could have thought of a dozen other places he would rather be right now, he was currently escorting his grandmother, the Dowager Duchess of Lawson, around the serpentine at Hyde Park. The lady in question struck Henry’s fancy because the brilliant sunshine was glinting off her fine red hair.
The Dowager Duchess lifted her thin, straight nose, and peered down in the direction Henry indicated. “That’s Lady Eleanor Hart. You must remember her, Henry. Her brother, Frederick, recently inherited the title as the Earl of Barrow when their father tragically passed.”
“The name doesn’t sound familiar,” Henry replied, keeping his eyes trained on the lady. She was standing awfully close to the river. While his grandmother was clutching tightly to his right arm, he lifted his left hand to shield his eyes. He squinted at the lady and then asked, “What is she doing?”
The Dowager Duchess tsked disapprovingly. “Looks like she’s feeding that group of ducks over there.” She nodded to the cluster of fowl that did look like they were grouped very close to the lady near the shoreline.
“That’s nice,” Henry remarked, observing the lady and her actions more closely as they drew nearer.
“Hmph,” the Dowager Duchess harumphed. “It might seem nice, but it’s highly inappropriate. Why, just look how close she is to the water. The hem of her dress is nearly dragging in the tall grass. She’ll get her petticoats all wet.”
“Grandmother,” Henry said, “you’re far too concerned with what people in the ton think. The nice lady is just feeding the ducks. I can’t see any harm in that.”
“Really, Henry,” the Dowager Duchess scolded her grandson. “I will never understand why you fail to see that what the people of the ton think is of importance. These people are your peers, and whenever possible, you should aim to gain their approval.”
Henry snorted. “I shall try to remember that, Grandmother.”
“If you won’t do it for your own sake, do it for mine. You must marry soon, and I wish to see you wed to a lady of fine breeding . . .” The Dowager Duchess continued to lecture her grandson, but Henry stopped listening. Not only was this topic one they discussed far more regularly than Henry would have liked, but he was struck by how close Lady Eleanor was standing to the water. He hadn’t thought much of it when his grandmother had mentioned it, but now that they were nearer to her, he could see she was leaning precariously out over the serpentine It looked like she was trying to coax one of the ducks out toward the middle of the serpentine to come closer so she could feed it.
As Henry looked on, Lady Eleanor stepped directly into the river. The water only came up to her ankles, but he was startled by her outrageous behavior just the same. He pulled his grandmother up short and stood, his mouth slightly agape, transfixed by Lady Eleanor and her actions.
The couple who had been sauntering behind Henry and his grandmother nearly bumped into the Dowager Duchess and she gasped softly. “Henry, whatever are you doing?” His grandmother asked, but he couldn’t take his eyes off Lady Eleanor. The raft of ducks was swimming around her, and she was wading further into the river. The water was now up to her thighs.
Henry extricated his arm from his grandmother’s and began unbuttoning his overcoat. “Henry!” the Dowager Duchess rebuked him, her violet eyes flaring wildly. “What are you doing?”
“I must go in after that lady,” he replied curtly, shedding his jacket, and handing it to his grandmother. She turned to follow his gaze and a small, shocked sound popped from her mouth.
“You cannot. I will not permit it,” the Dowager Duchess said sharply.
“You cannot expect me to stand idly by and let a lady drown,” Henry replied, exasperation creeping into his tone. He glanced back at Lady Eleanor. She didn’t look like she was flailing or even slightly perturbed, so maybe saying he needed to rescue her from drowning was a bit of an exaggeration. Perhaps, Henry should have said he meant to save her from any further humiliation. For her antics had not only roused his attention, but also everyone else’s who was strolling around the pathway on this beautiful day. Not only had the couple behind Henry and his grandmother stopped, but everyone else in the vicinity had paused as well. Most of them were whispering, but some were speaking loudly and critically about Lady Eleanor.
The Dowager Duchess shifted her grandson’s coat in her arms and gave him a stern look. “I forbid you to go into that river.”
Henry chuckled and tossed his head, his long brown hair flopping pleasantly as he moved. He did not wish to argue with his grandmother, and so, without saying another word, he moved to the water’s edge. He stood on the shore and watched as Lady Eleanor reached the center of the river. She plucked a few crusts of bread from the small bag she was carrying and tossed them to a duck. The miniature fowl ruffled its feathers and then bent its head to eat the morsels. Lady Eleanor gave a satisfied smile and then turned and began trudging back toward the shore.
Henry could tell by the way she moved through the river that her garments were beginning to become heavy, but she kept a small smile plastered on her face. Her cheeks were a rosy, red, probably from the exertion, Henry surmised, and slowly, but surely, she made her way back to the shore. As she emerged from the water, Henry extended a hand to assist her through the reeds. Without so much as glancing in his direction, Lady Eleanor stepped ashore. As she did, Henry couldn’t fail to notice how her dress, made of a soft white material, clung to her thighs, and he gallantly moved in front of her to block her from the prying eyes of the people of the ton.
“Well, that’s done,” Lady Eleanor said, not seeming to notice that Henry was standing directly in front of her or that she had refused his offer of assistance just seconds before. She looked down the front of her dress and with her free hand pulled a piece of long grass from it. She examined it closely for a moment, and then let it fall to the ground. “Excuse me, Sir,” Lady Eleanor said crisply as she side-stepped around Henry.
Henry felt his mouth pop open in astonishment. Twice, he had tried to help this lady, and twice she had flat-out ignored his efforts. When she dismissed him just now, she didn’t even bother to look him in the eye. She just moved around him, as if he were a large boulder blocking her way. Her aloof manner flummoxed him, and he watched her figure as she retreated toward the path.
“Eleanor!” A shrill voice sounded, and it startled Henry. He gazed around the crowded pathway, but it didn’t take him long to locate the lady who was shouting. A woman, dressed in a very fine, green, and gold silk day dress, carrying a parasol in the same shades was standing just ahead. He figured this woman must be Eleanor’s mother, the Dowager Countess of Barrow, as she was wrapped in the house colors and her tone was full of disapproval.
Henry stepped up the pathway toward the two women and he overheard Eleanor’s mother hiss, “How could you?”
“I was feeding the ducks, Mama,” Eleanor replied in a bored tone.
“Feeding the ducks,” the Dowager Countess echoed, her voice trembling with barely concealed rage. “Why would you do such a thing? Just look at you. Your dress is ruined. You’re soaking wet, and half the ton is here to witness your folly. What am I going to do with you, Eleanor?” By the end of her speech, the Dowager Countess had lost her temper. While she did not raise her voice, Henry could feel the anger in her words as he drew closer to the pair.
“Forgive me for intruding,” Henry said, politely bowing his head toward the Dowager Countess first and then toward Eleanor.
The Dowager Countess’ face blanched as she looked up at Henry. “Your Grace,” she whispered, sinking into a proper curtsey. Eleanor turned her own gaze on him then and mimicked her mother’s motions.
“Ladies,” Henry returned, “I do not wish to disturb you. . .”
Before Henry could finish his thought, the Dowager Countess cut him off. “Please, Your Grace, think nothing of the intrusion. My daughter and I were just out for a stroll, and she seems to have meandered from the path.” She was clearly flustered and that’s why she felt the need to explain away her daughter’s actions. Her eyes darted around the pathway then, obviously taking in the crowd of onlookers who were still gathered about, whispering about her daughter.
“Yes, well, I merely wanted to offer my assistance to Lady Eleanor,” Henry said smoothly.
“I thank you, Your Grace, but that won’t be necessary,” Lady Eleanor replied, lifting her head defiantly. “As you can see, I’m quite all right.”
Henry bit back a chuckle. “Indeed,” he remarked, arching an eyebrow at the lady. She crossed her arms over her chest and lifted her eyebrow in the same supercilious manner.
“Thank you for your kindness, Your Grace,” the Dowager Countess said hurriedly. “I’m sure my daughter does not mean to appear ungrateful.”
“It is quite all right, Your Grace. As you said, let’s think nothing of it.” Henry paused for a moment, and he eyed Eleanor quizzically. Not only had she waded into the water, but she was wholly unashamed of her actions. Even now, when she might have shown a bit of embarrassment at standing soaking wet in front of a Duke, she held her head high. He smirked at her and then bowed once more toward the ladies. “Enjoy the rest of your walk, ladies.”
Lazily, Henry loped back to the spot where his grandmother was still standing, clutching at his jacket. When he neared her side, she whispered, “I must say, that is the most obstinate young lady I’ve ever seen. She didn’t even have the good grace to thank you for your assistance.”
“I didn’t do anything really,” Henry returned. “She had no reason to thank me.”
“All the same,” the Dowager Duchess replied haughtily, “she acted as though she didn’t even know you existed. Incredibly rude behavior.”
Henry shrugged on his overcoat and buttoned it quickly. “I can’t see any harm in what Lady Eleanor just did. It’s sweet that she should be so inclined to tend to all the animals.”
“Really, Henry,” his grandmother replied with a roll of her eyes. “I don’t know what I’m going to do with you.” She looped her arm back through his, and as they prepared to continue their walk, Henry let his eyes drift back to Lady Eleanor. Even though he’d said it was best they think nothing of the incident that had just occurred, Henry’s mind wouldn’t cooperate. He was fascinated by Lady Eleanor and her indifferent manners.
He watched as she hurriedly followed in her mother’s thundering footsteps. The two were headed out of the park, and undoubtedly toward the privacy of a carriage where the Dowager Countess could berate her daughter properly. Henry admired Lady Eleanor’s determination, but he thought he might be the only one. The people of the ton would surely not forget this scene, as Henry knew he would not be able to, either.
“Of course, Lord Coddington,” Anastasia, the Dowager Countess of Barrow cooed. She dipped her head toward her shoulder and fluttered her eyelashes. “My daughter would love to share the next dance with you.” Eleanor found her mother’s constant meddling irritating. Even worse, she was humiliated by the way her mother simpered and smirked at the men of the ton.
The gentleman returned her mother’s sickeningly sweet smile with one of his own, his white teeth flashing in the candlelight. He extended his hand to Eleanor, and she reluctantly took it. “Thank you, My Lord,” Eleanor said through gritted teeth.
In truth, she found the man to be insufferable. They had shared plenty of dances with one another over the course of the season, and despite her mother’s assurances that she would come to like the gentleman, Eleanor found she was barely able to tolerate him. He was clumsy and as they danced, he trod upon her foot many times. Part of his ungainliness sprang from the fact that he was so consumed with recounting his latest exploits on the falconry range that he didn’t bother to watch where he was going.
Eleanor shuddered at the thought of spending another ten minutes with Lord Coddington. She hated hearing about his falconry hobby, for she believed animals were meant to be loved and cherished, not forced to do the bidding of their master by hunting down other animals. But, as her mother reminded her daily, beggars could not be choosers. Since Eleanor’s debut at the age of eighteen, she had struggled through the tedious London seasons. Now, in her fourth year in the marriage market, speculation swirled that she was bound for spinsterhood.
“You should see the new red-tailed hawk I have acquired,” Lord Coddington said as he spun Eleanor out onto the dance floor.
“Oh, yes?” Eleanor replied.
“Indubitably,” Lord Coddington answered with a grin. “I understand that you are fond of birds, and I was thinking of you when I purchased it.”
Eleanor had to resist the urge to stomp on his foot. Her mother had scolded her thoroughly for feeding the ducks yesterday morning, saying that the people of the ton were appalled by her behavior. She had tried to dismiss what her mother said but looking at the smug look that was etched across Lord Coddington’s face now, she felt as though he were making fun of her. Eleanor met his eyes and lifted her nose in the air. “I do like birds, Lord Coddington. They are gentle creatures that deserve our adoration.”
“Yes, well. . .” Lord Coddington paused to clear his throat. . . “some birds are more majestic than others, you know. My red-tailed hawk, for instance, is quite the specimen.” He continued to rattle away, and Eleanor let him. She felt her eyes glaze over, as she found it difficult to feign interest in the subject. Besides, she knew that Lord Coddington was only trying to make his point. If she was to be his wife, she would need to learn how to properly handle her pets.
Eleanor huffed out a short puff of air.
“Did you say something, Lady Eleanor?” Lord Coddington asked, and then he stepped on her toes. She winced and then shook her head.
“No, I was just listening to what you were saying. Please continue,” she replied, thinking that the dance number could not end quickly enough. Eleanor knew it was right and expected for her to make her match soon, and she was sure that Lord Coddington might have been a pleasant fellow, if she gave him a chance, but Eleanor didn’t want to give him a chance. She didn’t wish to be married.
As shocking as that might seem to someone like her mother, Eleanor was quite comfortable with the prospect. She did not wish to kowtow to her husband’s whims, nor did she think she should agree to marry someone just because they offered her their hand. Not that Eleanor could claim she had occasion to reject any offers. Somehow, she managed to drive away all her eligible suitors, and so now, she was stuck with the blustering Lord Coddington.
Her eyes drifted about the room as they swayed back and forth. She longed to find someone who might appeal to her in even the remotest fashion. She didn’t have an ideal match in mind. She just wanted to find someone with a shared interest. This person didn’t have to love her especially well, but he must be willing to see her for who she was and allow her just a modicum of freedom. As she gazed upon the faces of her fellow revelers, her heart sunk in dismay. There was no one among them who would ever satisfy her simple needs.
And it seemed, she might be very close to losing Lord Coddington as well. “Lady Eleanor, I must say. . .” the gentleman began, “you seem to be in rather ill-spirits tonight. Is something the matter?”
“No,” Eleanor replied swiftly.
He furrowed his brow and the smile that was once plastered across his face collapsed. “I rather think something is amiss, my lady, for I have asked you the same question thrice, and you have neglected to answer.”
“Forgive me, My Lord. Do ask the question again.” Eleanor smiled at him encouragingly, but he must have detected the lethargy behind her eyes. She was just going through the motions, and he could clearly see it.
“I do believe our dance is set to conclude, Lady Eleanor. Perhaps we shall continue our conversation later in the evening,” Lord Coddingtonreplied. He dropped his hand from her waist and without waiting for her to answer, he turned on his heel and walked away, snootily pointing his nose in the air.
“Or perhaps not,” Eleanor whispered to his retreating figure. She turned to see a pair of ladies looking directly at her. They giggled, as they had evidently noted the way she spoke aloud to herself. Eleanor gave them a tight smile and then she wandered off toward the refreshment table.
Eleanor felt her shoulders sag. She was exhausted. She was tired of dancing with bumbling doltslike Lord Coddington. She loathed having to deal with ladies who gossiped about her and made jokes at her expense. She took a glass of fruit punch from the table and carefully lifted it to her lips.
“I will never understand why hosts insist on serving red fruit punch,” a lady snidely remarked as she came to stand next to Eleanor. She turned toward the lady and was relieved to see a friend, Rosalin Button, the Countess of Clay. Rosalin picked up one of the delicate crystal cups from the table and looked carefully at the contents. “It is as if they do not fear what a spill might do to a lady’s gown.”
“As if a lady would spill,” Eleanor returned jokingly. She winked at Rosalin over the top of her glass and then, as a pair, the two women turned toward the dance floor.
“There goes a spill right there. . . and there’s another one. . .” Rosalin said, tipping her head at a couple of dancers who twirled by them.
Eleanor laughed. “How can you tell? They are dancing away so quickly that my head is spinning just trying to watch them.”
“I’m only guessing,” Rosalin replied with a teasing grin. “Someone has to make the critical error of spilling punch down the front of their gown, and if I imagine others have already done it, then it narrows my chances of having it happen to me.”
“Yes, well, it doesn’t matter much if you are covered in red punch,” Eleanor said begrudgingly, taking another small taste of the cool drink, “for you are already married. Should you make a mess of yourself, no one would think any worse of the matter.”
Rosalin pouted her lips prettily, “Having a bad night, Eleanor?”
Eleanor grimaced, “Nothing out of the usual way.”
“So, the great husband hunt is still on, and the game is afoot?” Rosalin asked playfully and Eleanor had to resist swatting her with the back of her hand.
“I don’t know how you can be so cavalier about all this,” Eleanor said, glancing at her friend through the corner of her eye.
While she enjoyed Rosalin’s company, she always felt a little intimidated by her presence. The two women shared similar features, what with their silk spun, red hair, and their crystal-clear blue eyes, but where Eleanor was small and curvaceous, Rosalin was tall and elegant. She was a whole five years older than Eleanor, and she carried herself with a regality that Eleanor was sure she couldn’t even attempt to mimic.
Rosalin had married in just her first season, tying the knot in a grand ceremony to George Button, the Earl of Clay. He was a boorish man, with a balding head and a brash manner. Rosalin had confessed to Eleanor that she only agreed to marry him nine years ago because her mother had forced her into the union. And so, every season since, Rosalin made the rounds, dancing with eligible bachelors, making it just a teensy bit more difficult for women, like Eleanor, to find their own suitable matches.
“As you said,” Rosalin said with an impish grin, “I’m already married. I don’t really care what any of these gentlemen think of me.”
“Yes, you do,” Eleanor rejoined, putting down her glass of punch and turning to look at Rosalin squarely.
“Yes . . . I do. . .” Rosalin said slowly. She finished off her own drink and then put the glass daintily on the table. “You know, Eleanor, finding a husband is only part of the challenge.”
“Indeed?” Eleanor questioned, her thin eyebrows quirking in surprise.
“Oh, yes,” Rosalin replied. “A lady must also seek out happiness.”
Eleanor groaned. “I’m perfectly happy as I am. Why must I rely on a man? It’s not as if he can fill some void in my life. . .” As Eleanor was turned so she was looking only at Rosalin, she did not notice her brother Frederick’s rapid approach. She only quieted when she realized that Rosalin was looking just over her shoulder and no longer paying any attention to what she was saying.
“You need a husband, little sister, because I am quite through with you,” Frederick said in a light-hearted way. When she turned to him, he gave her a cold smile and she knew that even though he said his words in a nonchalant tone, he was not joking.
“But Frederick-” Eleanor began, and he cut her off abruptly.
“Lady Clay, you are looking as lovely tonight as ever,” Frederick said, bowing his head respectfully toward Rosalin.
eyes blue eyes brightened, and she gave him a charming smile. “Thank you, Lord Barrow. I am happy to see you this evening. I thought we locked eyes earlier, but my glance must have escaped your notice.”
“Oh, nothing escapes my notice,” Frederick whispered roguishly and then he winked at Rosalin. Eleanor made a disgusted face as she looked back and forth between her friend and her brother.
“Rosalin. . .” Eleanor started, but again, Frederick spoke over the top of her.
“I am hoping to entice you to join me for the next dance number, Lady Clay,” Frederick said, a smile spreading onto his fine features. Frederick and Eleanor might be related, but they had very little in common. Frederick had dark brown hair, that carried tints of red in it. His eyes were light, like Eleanor’s, but they tended to look more green than blue. His complexion, while as fair as his sister’s, was dotted with tiny freckles, giving him a boyish look, even though he was several years older than his sister.
Rosalin nodded her head, “I accept your invitation, My Lord.”
He smiled appealingly at Rosalin and then he averted his eyes momentarily to glance at his younger sister. Eleanor straightened her spine and stood proudly under his withering gaze. “Now, as for you, little sister, I suggest you find yourself a suitable dance partner. The time has come for you to marry and you cannot entice any eligible bachelors if you spend all night here at the refreshment table.”
“But Rosalin secured your hand for the next dance, and she is standing right next to me,” Eleanor replied, a challenge in her voice.
Frederick gave her a cold glare. He leaned in closely and whispered in her ear, careful not to allow Rosalin to overhear what he said, “Listen closely, Eleanor. I’ve had enough of your childish antics. You have made a laughingstock of our family with your ridiculous manners. Find yourself a husband tonight. For if you do not, I will be forced to act.”
Eleanor pulled away from him incrementally and stared intently up into his stern face. “But Frederick, what if I am unable? What if I cannot find a husband tonight?”
Frederick smiled at Rosalin over top of Eleanor’s head and then he inched closer to his sister so that they were nose-to-nose. “Should you be unable to secure yourself a marriage proposal this evening, I will be forced to drive you from the house. You and all your preposterous pets will have to find yourselves a new abode.”
“You wouldn’t dare,” Eleanor seethed, her chin jutting out as she ground her teeth.
“Try me,” Frederick returned darkly.
“But you cannot do such a thing,” Eleanor protested, keeping her voice low, so as not to draw attention.
“Watch me,” Frederick answered. He tipped his head toward hers so that their foreheads were nearly touching. “Find yourself a husband tonight, Eleanor, or be prepared to see exactly what I’m willing to do.” His green eyes sparkled maliciously, and Eleanor felt her stomach lurch. She knew Frederick was not having a go at her. He was perfectly serious.
“I shall try,” Eleanor whispered.
“See that you make it a priority,” Frederick murmured and then he straightened his spine. He glanced at Rosalin once more, and his features which had darkened considerably, became light again. “I look forward to our dance, Lady Clay.” He inclined his head toward her and then strode off at once. Eleanor turned to Rosalin, and she felt defeated. She tried to hide her dismay, but she knew she was doing a poor job of it.
“It’s not all bad, you know,” Rosalin said at length.
“You heard what Frederick said?” Eleanor asked, feeling miserable that her friend should have borne witness to her brother’s scolding.
Rosalin nodded. “I couldn’t help but overhear.” She paused and gave Eleanor a sympathetic look. “Your brother has a way about him. Even when he is trying to be subtle, all eyes are on him.” She tilted her chin in the direction where Frederick had moved, and her point was made clear. Just seconds before, Frederick had been threatening Eleanor, but now, he was moving through the crowd, clasping hands with gentlemen he met and laughing merrily at something one of them said.
Eleanor felt tears prick the corners of her eyes. “What am I to do?” she asked her friend helplessly.
Rosalin turned to Eleanor and the look of pity that had been on her face before was suddenly gone. “You must marry,” Rosalin said plainly.
“But. . .” Eleanor stammered.
“There is a certain freedom that comes with being someone’s bride,” Rosalin murmured, lowering her voice so that Eleanor had to take a step closer to hear her properly. “I know that you cannot see it, as you are on the outside looking in, but once you are wed, you will be able to do as you please.”
Eleanor furrowed her eyebrow. That didn’t sound accurate. From all her own observations, she had come to see that once a woman wed herself to a man, she was required to bow to his needs. “I don’t think you have that right, Rosalin.”
“No?” Rosalin answered, arching her eyebrow severely. “Find yourself the right husband, Eleanor.”
“Have you found yourself the right husband?” Eleanor asked, feeling rather confused by the whole matter.
Rosalin chuckled delicately. “My husband allows me to do whatever I please, and that suits me perfectly.” Her eyes left Eleanor’s then and they cast about the room. Eleanor craned her neck and followed her gaze. Rosalin was staring directly at Frederick. “Find yourself the right husband, Eleanor,” Rosalin repeated, “and you will be able to do whatever you want.”
“Whatever I want?” Eleanor echoed, baffled by this new way to look upon marriage.
“Whatever you desire,” Rosalin purred seductively. As the musicians concluded the current dance number, Rosalin sauntered off toward the place where Frederick was now waiting for her. Eleanor watched her friend sashay through the crowd toward her brother.
If I marry, I could be free to do whatever I want? The thought muddled in Eleanor’s brain. She needed to think it over more thoroughly, and so, she turned away from the crowded ballroom. As she headed out toward the gardens, she thought about the ultimatum her brother had just placed before her. She dropped her head as she dismally thought: Even if I would be able to secure my freedom through the union, how will I ever find a husband tonight?
“Thank you, Grandmother,” Henry said through gritted teeth. He had been forced, through some heavy cajoling on his grandmother’s end, to dress sharply and attend the ball that was being given tonight. Henry couldn’t quite recall the name of the viscount who owned this residence and was thus hosting the affair, but he did remember every single young lady, as well as her mother, his grandmother had painstakingly introduced him to thus far this evening. By Henry’s count, the blushing young beauty standing in front of him was eligible bachelorette number nine, and her name was Anna Stephens.
While Anna had confident brown eyes and glossy chestnut-colored hair that Henry usually found quite attractive, he had no desire to trip the light fantastic with yet another debutante. More than anything, Henry craved a moment of solitude. But, since his grandmother was watching him with her flashing violet eyes and her expression was fixed in a shrewish way, he knew that he best invite Anna to join him on the dance floor.
“Shall we?” Henry said coyly, extending his hand toward Anna. Her cheeks colored at once, giving away her pleasure at the invitation, and she accepted Henry’s hand. He led her into the center of the room, and as the musicians began the next number, he wrapped a hand tightly around her waist.
“Your Grace, I’m sorry we haven’t had occasion to cross paths with one another earlier in the season,” Anna began, stepping lively in time to the music.
Henry nodded, “Yes, it is hard to believe there is nary a young lady in the ton who has not made my acquaintance. My grandmother has insisted I come to these balls, and she has been making my introduction into society quite steadily.”
“I see,” Anna replied, lowering her eyelashes delicately. “Your grandmother, the Dowager is Duchess, is a very formidable woman. You must be searching for a bride who will be far more attentive to your needs.”
Henry’s blue eyes flashed at the young woman. He could not determine her meaning. Either she was being audacious and implying that she would like to satisfy his needs, or she was being presumptuous and assuming that if she behaved demurely enough, he might find her attractive and propose she be his bride. Henry loathed this ambiguity. He didn’t think it was charming, nor did he find it tempted him in any way. What he wanted from a woman, more than anything, was for her to drop the pretensions.
But Anna kept up the conversation that was laced with a double meaning. “I understand that you have been abroad for some time, Your Grace. Did you find many treasures to tickle your fancy?” Her soft brown eyes widened, and her eyebrows lifted innocently, and Henry found that very vexing.
“I have enjoyed my travels, but I have come home to England to stay,” Henry replied, but his mind thought of what he was leaving behind.
“I’ve heard whispers that you enjoyed your time touring the continent. Did anything or anyone in particular appeal to you?” the young woman blushed now, and Henry knew that she wasn’t as adept at hiding her innuendo as she might have thought herself. For they both knew now she was referencing his reputation as a notorious rake. Henry had no wish to deny such rumors, as he had rather enjoyed his time in the company of many exquisite women while he traveled; however, that did not mean he wanted to discuss his exploits here, in polite society, with this woman who he had just met.
Henry cleared his throat and spoke quietly. “I enjoyed my journey through Spain. The sunrising over the mountain range there was most extraordinary.”
“Indeed,” Anna whispered, her voice lilting in a thrilled way.
Henry glanced over Anna’s head at the crowded ballroom. Dancers swirled by, chatting happily to their partners. Henry searched out his grandmother and tried to get her attention. He very much wished for his conversation to be over with Anna. He found her attractive, certainly, but this discussion was tedious. When he couldn’t discreetly get his grandmother to notice him, he decided to make the best of the situation and try to ask Anna questions about herself.
“Tell me, Miss Stephens. What do you like to do in your spare time? We both know that I like to travel. What do you like to do?” Henry looked down at his companion and saw her brow twitch minutely.
“What do you mean, Your Grace?” Anna questioned, gazing up at him through her long eyelashes.
Henry looked at her dubiously. His question had not been complex. Surely, she must have some hobbies or recreations of which she could speak. “I see that you are a lovely dancer, Miss Stephens. But aside from dancing, what do you like to do to occupy your time?”
“What do you like to do, Your Grace?” Anna countered, smiling at him beatifically.
“I . . .” Henry stuttered, feeling confused by this rapid turnaround. “I like to travel. . .”
“Then I like to travel, as well,” Anna responded, her smile widening.
“Yes? Where have you been?” Henry prompted.
Anna blushed furiously. “I have not travelled anywhere yet, but I hope to do so once I am married.”
Henry couldn’t stop the sour expression from creeping onto his face. He was mightily disappointed in Anna Stephens. In the span of just a few moments, not only had she asked vague questions, but she also feigned interest in matters of which she had no knowledge. Henry bit back the follow-up questions he had been intending to ask, and he counted backward from one hundred as he waited for the dance to conclude.
Once it did, he bid Anna adieu and that made a beeline for the garden. Unfortunately, his grandmother was spry for her age, and she met him as he prepared to exit the ballroom.
“Where do you think you’re going?” the Dowager Duchess demanded.
As a gentleman who respected his elders, Henry slowed his pace and turned to look at his grandmother. Her violet eyes looked disheartened, and he wished to comfort her. “I’m only going to step outside for a breath of fresh air. I’ve been dancing all night long, and I need just a moment of repose.”
His grandmother eyed him skeptically and her expression changed from despondent to disbelieving. Her thin lips drew into a tight line. “You’re not trying to abandon the festivities, are you?”
“Of course not, Grandmother,” Henry replied smoothly.
“There are many other ladies who wish to make your acquaintance, and I have promised to introduce you at the earliest convenience,” the Dowager Duchess persisted.
Henry couldn’t stop the groan that escaped from his lips. He loved his grandmother, and when he traveled, he had missed her tremendously. But ever since he had come home, she had been following him night and day, hounding him to find a bride. “Quite frankly, I’m not sure how much more I can take,” Henry said, giving voice to his thoughts.
Grandmother’s eyes became as wide as saucers. “If you found yourself a wife, you wouldn’t have to keep meeting new ladies.”
Henry recognized the truth in what she was saying, and as he couldn’t argue the point, he decided to approach it from a different perspective. “The problem is, Grandmother, that I cannot find a woman who appeals to me.”
His Grandmother scoffed, “I highly doubt that to be the case. Many attractive ladies have danced with you this evening alone. Miss Stephens was very fetching, and she comes from a nice family, too.”
Henry shook his head. He rubbed a hand over the back of his neck, as he tried to think of the best way to explain his predicament to his grandmother. “The ladies are lovely. I won’t deny it. And if I only wanted to marry a beautiful woman, I am sure someone like Miss Stephens would be acceptable.” When Henry paused, his grandmother’s eyes brightened, so he held up his hand to stop her from jumping to the wrong conclusions.
“The trouble is . . .” Henry said slowly, “when I was traveling, I found companionship with many different women, but then, a few days later, I was back on my own again. I find a necessary reprieve in that kind of solitude. I crave space. . .” Henry broke off and glanced around the crowded ballroom, “. . . and I wish for a wife who will appreciate the same sort of tranquility.”
“Tranquility?” the Dowager Duchess repeated, as if the word were foreign to her.
“Yes,” Henry said, “I wish to marry a lady who will have her own interests and will wish to pursue them at her leisure. I don’t want to feel tied to a woman whose every happiness is intertwined with my own.”
“I see,” Henry’s grandmother said, tipping her head to the side. “Your grandfather possessed a similar independent streak.”
“He did?” Henry asked, feeling shocked to learn that he and his grandfather had anything in common. He had not known his grandmother’s husband well, as he died when Henry was but seven years old, but he also thought of the man as being stern and domineering.
“Of course,” the Dowager Duchess said with a haughty laugh, “But I broke him of that.” She gave Henry a tight-lipped smile, but he could see the mirth dancing in her eyes.
“Now, if you will excuse me, Grandmother,” Henry said, bowing his head toward her, “I will take my leave.”
“You’re just going out into the garden?” His grandmother asked, arching her eyebrow. “You won’t leave without telling me?”
“I’ll be right here. I’ll take a quick walk and gather my thoughts.” Henry reached out and patted his grandmother affectionately on the hand. “Take heart, what could possibly happen while I’m taking a short walk through the gardens?”
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