“Ah, at last,” Drew Finch, Lord Sullivan, murmured as Lady Alicia McKenzie-Wellborne appeared in the Castlereagh’s London ballroom looking lovely in a white silk and lace gown.
The woman was tall and had a willowy figure but was not exactly as fresh to the marriage market as some. She had caught his eye this past week at another party, and the more he considered her, the more he thought he should know her better.
And not because of some giggle or squeak she’d uttered like the rest of the marriage hopefuls were prone to do. If not for catching sight of Lady Alicia just now, he might have considered leaving the ball already. There was no one else of interest, and that frustrated him.
Drew moved to a better position to see the lady from head to toe. She might just do for him. Not too young, not too short, and quite bright by all reports. Unfortunately, he had not been introduced to the lady yet and only had secondhand information to rely upon about her character. Indeed, they had no connections in common save their host for this evening, but that problem would be easily solved once he found her.
He glanced around, looking for Lady Castlereagh. The matron was nowhere to be found unfortunately at that precise moment to perform any introductions. So, he strolled the perimeter of the dance floor, looking out toward the card room and other places, nodding to women he’d already considered and discarded as potential brides since last season, and drawing ever closer to his quarry.
Lady Alicia’s face suddenly turned his way and lit up with a bright smile of welcome. Drew paused, startled that she’d noticed him at all, though pleased, too. He was again hoping for a whisper of a thrill when their eyes met and held. That was all any widow with marriage on his mind could hope for when pursuing a wife. He doubted he could fall as deeply a second time in his lifetime.
A gentleman stepped around him and the connection was lost. Although he tried to catch her eye again, her attention was now diverted to the guests milling about between them.
No matter. Drew would have a better chance once the proper introductions had been made and they spoke. He would ask her to dance immediately.
“Try to smile,” Lord Brandestock murmured, stumbling into Drew. “Your face suggests you’ve a giant turd wedged up your arse.”
“Mind your language,” Drew warned, looking to his right where young Brandestock now stood. Perhaps it was a mistake to have encouraged an acquaintance with Brandestock. They were members of the same clubs—White’s and Bradshaw’s, too—and frequently attended the same tonnish events. But the man’s language was as colorful as his taste in garish waistcoats.
“All I’m saying is smile and let the women come to you like I do,” Brandestock murmured, smiling widely at a widow of questionable morals as she passed them by. “You’re an earl and wealthy and moderately handsome for your age.”
“Why thank you,” he said dryly.
Brandestock grinned widely. “Nothing more needs to be offered but a little encouragement to enjoy a fine night in some lonely lady’s bed.”
Drew would have pinched the bridge of his nose in exasperation if he were anywhere else but a ballroom. Brandestock was years younger than him, a bachelor still, but seemed to think Drew needed his advice on courting women. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Drew knew exactly how to please a lady, in and out of bed, better than he did.
“Excuse me. But I can tell when I’m desperately needed elsewhere,” Brandestock murmured before following after the pretty widow who was beckoning him with just her eyes.
The widow and Brandestock disappeared behind a curtained alcove—as likely a venue for scandalous trysts in any house.
Drew shook his head and shrugged. One of these days Brandestock was going to come undone in the worst ways and pay a heavy price. Like Drew, he had the looks and money to attract dozens of title-hungry women to claim the position of his bride, whether he wanted the woman or not. Not that Brandestock claimed to need a bride yet. Not like Drew seemed to. However, Drew’s own vetting of potential spouses seemed to have dismissed a legion of women from contention. Too timid, too talkative, or simply too silly.
He’d no idea he’d become so particular about who he could live with.
But it seemed he had high standards. His approach to his first marriage had been far different from this. He’d not been looking for a bride when he’d first met Clare but had fallen in love with her at first sight. Marrying her was all he thought about from the moment they’d spoken. She’d been graceful, charming, loving, and irreplaceable it seemed. Clare had been the light and love of his life. Drew had looked around society enough now to realize she’d been one of a kind and had set a very high bar for her successor to reach.
Certainly, too high for anyone he’d met so far in London, and every day a little more of his hope of meeting that one special lady whose presence would change his life in an instant faded.
But surely there had to be someone out there for him.
Everyone claimed there was.
He’d been very patient and thorough in his attendance in society’s ballrooms and other amusements. Unfortunately, she hadn’t made herself known to him yet, and he was growing impatient with the endless waiting.
Drew glanced across the room again and saw Lady Alicia on the arm of a slender gentleman. When the fellow leaned down and boldly placed a kiss on her pink lips right there in view of all, no one around them complained. In fact, they damn well near cheered him on.
Lady Alicia blushed and hugged the man’s arm a little harder, her smile revealing a distinct partiality, the ring on her finger sparkling in the candlelight.
Drew’s heart sank. Clearly, another man had claimed her affections already.
He turned away, acutely disappointed that he’d missed another chance, but thankful he’d not found the hostess to ask her to perform an introduction to an engaged woman. That would have been awkward to say the least.
As he lifted his head, he spotted his father, the Duke of Northport, across the room. Drew scowled that the old man was out in public yet again. That was the third time this month they’d attended the same ball. His father did not usually attend this sort of thing. But there was no mistaking the duke’s reasons for moving about in society so much this season.
Drew studied the duke as he moved in that direction. Northport had a long-term mistress, but she was not here tonight. He was engaged in conversation with a young woman, but he kept looking about the chamber. Most likely he was looking for Drew, so he’d be forced to talk to the woman. Father was eager to have Drew wed again.
Drew pasted a smile on his face when he recognized the young woman before he got too close to turn away. It was Lady Eloise Barclay again—Northport’s friend’s youngest daughter.
Unmarried, of course.
Drew would be expected to dance with her, as he had been every other night they’d met at one event or another. He had done so on several prior occasions with no complaint on his part. The Barclays were old friends of the family. Certain courtesies were required, and it was better to get his duty over with now than be berated by the duke for rudeness later.
Lady Eloise was an adequate partner for one dance—but never more than that. As he watched, a gentleman attempted to speak with the young lady, but Father turned her away from the fellow, monopolizing Lady Eloise’s attention so the gentleman had no choice but to back away, unspoken to and embarrassed.
Drew groaned under his breath. Was Father attempting to keep Lady Eloise from other men now? Not that Drew would marry her. She was so much younger than himself.
He strolled across to his father, feigning delight to see him.
Drew resembled his sire in many ways. Similar height, same dark hair that curled in the rain, same blue eyes that many said were remarkably changeable. But the similarity ended there. Drew was much quieter and more circumspect than his father. But then, Drew wasn’t a duke yet with designs to control the destiny of members of his family, especially his eldest son.
“Ah, here is Sullivan, too,” Father boomed loud enough to be heard in all corners of the ballroom. The Duke of Northport leaned down toward the woman at his side. “I told you he couldn’t stay away. My son is as handsome as you remember, isn’t he Lady Eloise?”
Drew felt his face grow warm as he extended his hand toward the embarrassed young woman his father had been pushing at him for months. Lady Eloise ranked high on the list created by his family as a potential bride for Drew. Only just eighteen and newly presented to the queen, she had impressed many during her first season. Even him, to a small degree. But there was no thrill, no spark of anticipation, to be felt around her when they met. None at all.
And that lack of attraction was specifically why he could not marry her, or anyone he felt similarly unaffected by.
He smiled politely at the young woman. “A pleasure to see you again, Lady Eloise.”
“My lord,” she murmured, touching her fingers to his for the briefest of handshakes. Father beamed them both a smile. To Father and many in the family, it was an inevitable match. Lady Eloise knew the family well enough that she had attended Drew’s wedding to his first wife—as a flower girl tossing petals in the air, for heaven’s sake.
Since Clare’s death, Lady Eloise had often been invited to visit the Northport estate while Drew was there. Father had made his preference quite clear. Drew suspected his father had also been secretly preparing Lady Eloise for the day when Drew and his bride would become duke and duchess of Northport—as Drew’s eventual wife would one day.
But there was a wide-eyed innocence to Eloise that made Drew’s stomach pit at the thought of bedding her if they ever married, and that was as good a reason as any to turn elsewhere in search of a bride. She was too green for a man of his experience.
Not that he was ancient. He wasn’t even thirty years yet. But a lot had happened in the decade between their ages that could not be overlooked. He would not be happy married to someone as young as Lady Eloise. But she was well-educated about current events, she was a duke’s daughter, and got along well with his family, so she was always pushed at him. She had a decent dowry, too, and seemed to like talking to him.
Unfortunately, she did not stir him in the way his first wife had done. Lady Eloise might be at the top of a very short list of possibilities, but Drew himself didn’t bother writing such a list down of potential brides.
When he eventually discovered a woman he wanted to marry, he was sure he’d know it instantly.
He smiled, and asked Lady Eloise if she had any sets free on her dance card, as he was expected to do.
“I do in fact.” Lady Eloise handed him her card to look at. Her next dance was free, as was a number of sets up until the one right before supper. Father had done his work well in monopolizing her time tonight. Her card should have been full by this hour.
“Looks like my timing is perfect.”
If he chose the very next dance, Lady Eloise would be free to accept other partners once their set was over. Perhaps she might even sit down to supper with someone she really liked then. Anyone but him, really.
Their dance was announced, and he offered his arm to her to stroll to the dance floor together. He glanced down at the young woman on his arm briefly and decided to make the most of the opportunity to speak with her, hopefully without being overheard. “I must apologize for my father,” he whispered.
“He’s a dear man,” she murmured.
“He’s grown fond of you, and hopeful where there is no hope to be found, I’m afraid,” he said somewhat bluntly, deciding honesty was the best policy where making a marriage was concerned. He wouldn’t have this young woman led on about his intentions toward her another moment more.
She nodded slowly, a frown marring her complexion. “That is what I suspected, but he was adamant that…”
Drew inclined his head. “He’s mistaken.”
“Oh,” she murmured softly. “I see.”
Did she? He hoped she was not offended by his disinterest in her.
The music began, and they danced, but Lady Eloise said nothing more after his confession. Had he upset her with his disinterest in marrying her? Could she really be surprised? She’d met his wife. There was very little similarity between the two.
When the dance was over, he found himself steered around with subtle pressure toward a distant doorway, away from his father and her family. Alarmed, he glanced down at her. “What are you doing?”
“Getting what I really want,” she said.
Her tight smile was a little unnerving. Had she misunderstood that he wouldn’t be offering for her—no matter what she said or did? “Lady Eloise, I don’t think you understand…”
Her face lit up in a smile, but it was aimed at a young man ahead of them. She made Drew stop in front of the fellow by digging her heels in and could not be moved. “My lord,” she said, beaming. “What a lovely surprise to see you tonight. I feared you’d be dancing with someone else.”
The fellow, the very one Father had turned her away from earlier, appeared startled by her appearance, but offered Lady Eloise a genuinely delighted smile and bowed deeply. “Not yet, Lady Eloise. I feared we might never have a chance to speak tonight.”
Drew was not introduced, and he stood silent on the sidelines, watching the brief press of fingers, the matching flushed cheeks as the pair revealed all the signs of a budding attachment. The besotted stares as they drank each other in wordlessly for a few minutes was decidedly awkward to watch.
Drew had felt and behaved this exact way around his first wife before he’d blurted out a hasty proposal. Looking on, it was a devastating reminder of what he’d lost.
He would have taken a step back, but Lady Eloise had a manacle grip on his arm. Drew couldn’t move away to allow them privacy to speak of their feelings. He had to stay and listen as the pair bumbled through his asking her to dance, and her breathless acceptance when he claimed the supper dance.
When the card was returned, and more halting words were exchanged, Lady Eloise looked up at him suddenly. “You can return me to my family now, my lord.”
He inclined his head, bemused by the exchange and by Lady Eloise ordering him about like he was almost a brother to her. “Of course.”
He nodded to the besotted young man and then escorted Lady Eloise back toward her family. “You could have introduced me.”
She fluttered her fan before her face. “To whom?”
“To the young man who is clearly smitten with you, and you with him, I suspect,” he suggested. “I wonder if I might look forward to seeing him again many times in the years to come.”
Lady Eloise blushed prettily and looked over her shoulder. When she turned back, her smile was strained as she whispered, “If you hold me in any affection at all, you will hold your tongue about him. My family…”
“Enough said. I can forget everything I just didn’t see,” Drew promised without a moment’s hesitation. If Lady Eloise’s choice was not popular with her family, he was the last man who wanted to meddle. It could be true love, even if the fellow was poor as a church mouse. Only Lady Eloise should have the right to decide who was the man for her. It wouldn’t be Drew, and he was very glad she might have someone better in her sights.
He returned her to a married female cousin. Stayed until Lady Eloise was approached by other bachelors and had the remaining spots on her dance card claimed for the later night.
The smitten young fellow was nowhere to be seen now, though. Who exactly had he been? No one Drew had ever met before, certainly. After a time, Drew excused himself from Lady Eloise and left the ballroom, looking for other forms of excitement to be expected at a ball of this size.
He went to the card room, won a small sum eventually, but in the end returned to the ballroom, biding his time as he waited for the right woman to appear.
His next wife really was taking her sweet time putting in an appearance.
So, he amused himself by discreetly keeping an eye on Lady Eloise as she was being swept around the dance floor by countless well-off gentlemen. When the smitten young man appeared to claim his turn before supper, her family started to whisper among themselves, clearly surprised and more than a little disapproving.
Drew hid a smile as Lady Eloise and her would-be suitor swept past him. They had nothing but eyes for each other as they danced. His blunt words to Lady Eloise had been made at the right time, it seemed. He wanted her to set her sights on someone else, perhaps this young man, by whom she had a better chance of being loved in return. Either way, whatever happened in Lady Eloise’s life was none of his concern anymore. It never had been, either.
Drew turned away. He was ready for his own match. More than committed now to finding someone who lit a spark in him. He wanted what he had with Clare again. He just hoped when he finally tied the knot, he was granted more wedded bliss than the first time. Fate couldn’t be so cruel as to shortchange him twice in his life.
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