“Charles? Is that you?” Edward called to his friend, scarcely able to recognize him through the hubbub of the ballroom. “I can barely believe it. Since when do you hide behind drinks tables nursing brandies in your hand?”
“I do these days.” Charles stepped forward, revealing a face that had a particularly wan complexion, with lips pressed together and no hint of a smile.
Edward faltered, staring at his friend in wonder. There had been a time when Charles was the jester of any group. Edward had loved his company, at every event of the ton that he attended, Charles was always at his side, ready with a joke and a jest to lighten the mood.
Not these days, it would seem.
Edward sighed and looked away, feeling the disappointment grow. Charles was not the only reason Edward did not enjoy balls as much as he used to. There was another reason, but that one was something he kept firmly at the rear of his mind, and back home, hidden away.
Do not think of it tonight.
Seeking distraction, Edward looked around the ballroom. It was a busy place tonight. Between the standing candelabras draped with the autumnal bows of rust-like leaves and golden flowers, people wandered back and forth. Ivory gowns mingled with sharp black suits, the whole monochrome atmosphere contrasting the russet colors of the décor. Fans fluttered in front of eyes and chests, as the bearer of those fans tried to draw attention to their assets, whilst gentlemen’s eyes lingered in an ungentlemanly like fashion.
“You seem lost in thought.” Charles’ words made Edward look back round.
“I’m surprised you noticed,” Edward laughed, showing he was in jest. “You are much in your own world these days.”
“I know.” When Charles offered no more explanation, simply taking another hearty gulp of his brandy so that his auburn hair tipped back from his forehead, Edward felt he had to push the point.
“You have not been yourself for a few months now in fact. Charles, will you not tell me what is wrong?”
“A ball is hardly the place for morose conversation, is it?” Charles forced a smile. “Here, let me get you a drink, and you can be happy for the both of us.”
“That may be some effort tonight,” Edward whispered low, so that his friend could not hear him. As Charles poured a glass of wine and passed it to Edward, he fidgeted, pushing back his curly brown hair that was hanging loose over his forehead. Once the sparkling wine was within his grasp, he joined Charles in taking hearty swigs. “Come, let us play a game.” Edward latched a hand over his friend’s shoulder, determined to raise his spirits.
“A game?” Charles asked, looking a little afeard at the idea.
“Ha! No need to shake. You used to like this game.” Edward gestured at the crowds in the ballroom with his glass. “What ladies do you recognize tonight?”
“Ah, I remember this game,” Charles said, revealing his first proper smile. “If I am to help you choose what lady to pursue next, then I fear I will have to have another drink to steel myself for it.” Charles laughed and downed what was in his glass, before pouring himself another. “I see Lady de Winter is here again tonight. Was she not one of yours?”
Edward let his eyes dance on Lady de Winter. It had been some time since he and the lady had kept each other company. When he had first earned his reputation as a rake, this lady was the one at his side, happy to spread the rumors of him, not that he had minded. He was very content for ladies to think him an ill possibility for a husband.
“She was once,” Edward acknowledged with a nod. “Until she found herself a new husband to be. They are to be married come Michaelmas.”
“Very well, how about Lady Rowena Myers?” Charles gestured across the room once more to a young lady that was dancing.
Edward smiled when his eyes landed on her. Lady Myers was a recent newlywed, who had clearly discovered that her husband, who was over twice her age, had little appetite for anything to do with the marriage bed. She had barely returned from her honeymoon before she started dropping hints at Edward, asking him to dance and if he could spare the time to join her on a promenade or two.
“A good possibility for this evening.” Edward chewed over the idea. Tonight, it could indeed by the night where he and Lady Myers became something more to each other. She clearly knew what the situation would be, that he offered no more than a night, but she desired it anyway.
When her eyes found his across the room and she smiled, Edward smiled too.
Yes, this is what I need. This constant distraction. It makes the world a bearable place.
“Or how about a challenge instead?” Charles asked.
“Challenge? Who?” Edward spun round, returning his eyes to his friend.
“I have just seen an old sparring partner of yours. Now, that would be an impressive thing, if you could win over a lady who wants nothing to do with you.” Charles topped up his glass as he nodded his head across the room toward the door. “The Earl of Finch’s daughter.”
“Lady Julia Clarke,” Edward said her name aloud as she stepped into the room.
Either side of her were the Earl and Countess of Finch. Lady Finch was on her arm, gripping rather tightly to her daughter and shaking the dance card at her wrist. Lord Finch seemed much more eager to look anywhere else in the room other than at his wife and daughter.
“You think I could ever win that challenge?” Edward laughed with his friend. “Then I’m flattered, for you think me a better charmer than I do, which is saying a lot. I have been told I am a vain man.”
“I know you, Edward. That is simply a front you like to wear, not the truth.” The surprisingly honest words from his friend made Edward fidget and take another sip of his wine, turning his gaze back to Lady Julia.
She was a particularly beautiful lady. He had thought the same the first night he had seen her at her debut some years ago. Tall and striking, with such curves that were barely hidden by the Pomona green gown she wore that she made Edward pull at his cravat, needing a sudden looseness there after heat had crept up his spine and his neck. The eyes in particular were something that he had always admired. Brown, almost amber, they could pierce a man across the room to the spot.
“A beauty, is she not?” Charles whispered at his side, elbowing him in the rib.
“She is. The problem is at some point those fine lips start talking,” Edward jested, relieved when his friend gave way to firm laughter. “No, Charles, she is too great a challenge for me, and I would not dishonor her so regardless. Lady Julia does not wish for any man to join her in life, least of all does she want a rake to join her for a night or two and no more. I would not sully her.”
“I knew you had honor in you somewhere, even if you like to hide it.” Charles teased him some more as he took the wine glass from Edward’s hand, topping it up for him.
Edward moved his eyes away from Lady Julia, rather reluctantly. He had been honest in his refusal of considering Lady Julia, for the two had spoken a few times before, and that conversation had never ended in anything but arguments. She clearly thought him a wastrel and a pointless use of space. He could not exactly find a good argument to counter her.
I know exactly what I am.
“Speaking of ladies, there is another that is missing here tonight,” Charles said as he returned Edward’s glass to him.
“Oh? Who’s that?” Edward asked as the champagned tickled his tongue.
“Your sister. Where is Lady Esther Thorne?”
Edward had to work hard not to choke on the champagne as he lowered the glass once again, coughing it clear of his lungs.
“Is something wrong?” Charles murmured, stepping forward.
“Not at all.” Edward forced a smile to his face. “My sister simply has no enjoyment for events such as these at present.”
“Edward, you have said that for the last two months at least.”
“Because it is true.” Edward nodded his head. “She has no wish to join such events, and I will not be one of those elder brothers that forces their sister to such events for the sake of seeing her marry someday. Let her decide to return in her own time, I will not pressure her to do so.”
“That is a kind thing.” Charles nodded, showing no inclination to renew the subject, but Edward was irked all the same.
Ah, Esther, what are we going to do?
He could not speak of her freely at this moment. Not without fear.
“If you would excuse me, my friend, I am in need of some air. I will return shortly.” Edward bowed his head to Charles and turned away, aware that Charles’ lips parted to say something more, but Edward gave him no more time to do so.
A minute alone with my thoughts. That is what I need.
“Julia, it is time we take you to Lord Gillet.” The Earl of Finch’s words made Julia freeze, feeling her hand tighten around the dance card at her wrist.
She could remember all too well the last time she had danced with the man that was to be her future husband. He’d had wandering hands, and she’d had to subtly slap one of those hands away to stop him from touching her any further. No one else on the dancefloor had noticed, but it had angered him, that was plain in the tightening of his jaw and how firmly his hand had taken hers.
“Are you so eager to be rid of me, Father, that you wish to place me in the Viscount’s hands tonight?” Julia asked tartly, aware that her mother beside her was smiling sweetly at passersby. Susannah was rather good at keeping up appearances, even when it was the last thing that she felt like doing.
“Do not be churlish, child,” her father said, shaking his head in dismay.
“Child? If I am a child, then surely, I am not old enough to marry?”
“No more, Julia. No more.” The Earl stepped toward her and darkened his tone. “Wait here a minute whilst I find him.” He flounced off so quickly, that the flap of his tailcoat whipped against Julia’s arm.
“Mama, this is madness,” she said as she turned to her mother.
“I know, but there is nothing we can do.”
You mean, there is nothing you can do.
Julia had her plan, she now just had to put it into action. She looked away from her mother and glanced across the room, seeking out the perfect man for the role she needed someone to play tonight.
One kiss, it is all that is needed. One kiss and a few seconds will be enough to destroy my reputation and leave any chance of a marriage in tatters. I will be free!
Julia couldn’t help thinking of where she would rather be spending her evening. She thought of the orphanage and the children there. She could have been reading to them at this very moment, with Lucy on her lap and the twins sitting at her feet, listening attentively. Robinson Crusoe was their favorite at the moment, and she would have happily spent an evening reliving that story, rather than having to stand in this ballroom.
“Mama, you must acknowledge that Father has done an ill job of choosing a husband for me. I did not ask him to choose one at all, but he could at least have done a better job of it, do you not think?” Julia’s wit made her mother smile a little, before that smile fell flat.
“I understand Lord Gillet is fond of… money.” Susannah hissed the word in a whisper, as if it were a great sin to gossip in such a way. “Your dowry is a healthy one, and clearly one that he wanted.”
“Wonderful, so as well as philanderer, narcissist and cruel, I need to add money-grabbing to his list of vices.” Julia sighed and lifted her eyes to the ceiling, ready to plead with the heavens for help. When she lowered her eyes to peer through the candles and the other guests’ faces that were glittering orange in that candlelight, she saw the answer to her prayers. “If you would excuse me, Mama, I wish to greet Lady Beatrice.”
“Lady Beatrice?” Susannah said, her dark eyebrows lifting in alarm. “You always say she talks nonsensical gossip.”
“Indeed, she does.” Julia nodded, trying to hide her mischievous smile. “Yet it is the right thing to do to greet an acquaintance, is it not? I will return shortly.”
She stepped away before her mother could make another attempt to stop her. Susannah was clearly uncomfortable, looking back and forth, ready for the return of her husband with Lord Gillet, but Julia turned her focus away from her mother. If her plan was to succeed, then she could not afford to dally.
I must take action now!
“Lady Beatrice, how lovely to see you.” Julia curtsied when she reached the lady.
“Oh, Lady Julia,” she said, giggling already, in such a way that her pudgy cheeks shook. Lady Beatrice was a woman with a fast smile, ready to laugh when no joke had even been made. Not only was she good company, but her habits suited Julia well tonight.
“I trust you have been up to your usual games,” Julia said good-naturedly in jest. “Any scandals to share with me tonight?”
“Oh, you do me credit, my friend. I will admit, I am rather good at pulling out one or two secrets,” Lady Beatrice said, fluttering her fan in front of her face, “but I do hope there are more yet to be unearthed, otherwise where would be the fun in coming at all tonight?”
Julia forced herself to laugh with Lady Beatrice, wanting the lady to trust her in this moment.
“Here, I have a few tales to share.” Lady Beatrice linked arms with Julia and turned her to face the crowds, pointing out to individuals as though they were at the theatre, watching acts on the stage. “They say old Mr. Thomas has a new friend. Do you see that remarkably young lady next to him?”
“I do.” Julia nodded, watching two individuals together.
“They are extremely close. Imagine my surprise when I discovered his wife is sick at home, and he is escorting a young lady this evening? Unattached! What a scandal indeed.” Lady Beatrice giggled all the more.
“Once again, your skills have exceeded expectation,” Julia said, gritting her teeth. In truth, she had no love for gossip, and the way those such as Lady Beatrice fed off others’ misfortune and unhappiness made Julia burn to say something sharp in retort, but tonight, Lady Beatrice could prove useful. “Tell me, do you know anything of rakes here tonight? My mother tells me volumes could be written on some of the gentlemen in attendance.”
“Oh, your mother is not wrong.” Lady Beatrice turned Julia once more, looking in a different direction across the room. “There is Lord Davenport, of course, quite a rake indeed, though his latest lady has lasted longer than they usually do.”
He will not do.
Julia’s eyes rested on Lord Davenport who was dancing with a particularly beautiful young lady. To her mind, Lord Davenport was quite smitten, and he might not be known as a rake for much longer judging by the way he was gazing at his dance partner.
“There is Mr. Harrison too.” Lady Beatrice gestured across the room to where an older man was sat, nearly falling out of his chair. He was so in his cups that he couldn’t sit straight.
Good Lord, no one would believe I had any inclination to kiss such a man!
“But ah, I think I have just seen the finest rake of them all,” Lady Beatrice giggled with the words. “This man in particular has certainly given me much amusement over the last few years. He keeps me guessing.”
“Do you see him there, Lady Julia? The Duke of Stapleton!”
Julia followed Lady Beatrice’s motioning hand to where the Duke was crossing the room. He seemed to be making an effort to get somewhere, but young ladies kept stopping him, moving in his way, eager to speak.
Julia had met the man before.
An egotistical, vain and insufferable man!
He had a habit of thinking his opinion was always the right one, and she could not stand him for it. It led to her trying to avoid his company at events such as these as much as possible. Yet here was a real possibility for her plan. The Duke of Stapleton was not only an incredibly handsome man, with curly brown hair and midnight blue eyes, so much so that it would be believable for Julia to lose sense of her decorum and fall prey to a kiss, but he was also a man who had no inclination to marry. She had once overheard him speak of marriage with a friend of his.
“You think I should marry someday? Ha! Then you are quite wrong. I’d sooner vow myself to a spider than to a lady.”
“He could be perfect,” Julia whispered.
“What was that?”
“Oh, nothing. Do go on, Lady Beatrice,” Julia encouraged, but her eyes never left the Duke of Stapleton, not once. He was perfect for the role she needed him to play. She could steal a kiss, destroy her own reputation, and nothing would come of it.
Now all I must do is wait for my opportunity.