“You do know that even though your eyes are closed others can still see you.”
Annoyed someone was interrupting her much needed moment away from the stifling crowd, The Lady Jane Blackmore closed her eyes tighter and pretended to be anywhere but in the Braxton’s ballroom.
The whole point of hiding in a corner at the back was to regain her composure, so why didn’t this stranger just go away like any true gentleman would?
Even as she wished this, a warm shiver ran down Jane’s spine, tempting her to take a peek at who owned such a deep and passionate baritone voice.
The entire night had already been a complete disaster. The last thing she needed now was another difficulty, and being caught with this stranger would most definitely fall into that category.
When searching out a good place to which to sneak away, she hadn’t seen anyone hiding in this quiet corner of the ballroom. Jane had really only had enough time to note that the column here was suitably broad enough and the potted ferns growing about it full enough to hide her yellow gown.
And why hadn’t the highly polished floor already opened up and swallowed her? Jane had certainly prayed hard enough for it to do so.
The stranger cleared his throat.
“Shush,” she hissed, immediately horrified at being so rude, but then Jane’s eyes flew open of their own accord. She pressed the tips of her fingers against her lips and finally dared meet the smiling brown eyes of the rich baritone voice’s owner.
Oh my. For the first time in her life she understood the benefits of a good swoon. If only she could carry such a thing off without making an even bigger fool of herself.
“Did you just shush me?” The stranger bit at his bottom lip, as if to suppress a grin.
But the man had such a kind face, she doubted he could have stopped his perfect mouth from doing so even if he had wanted to.
His only imperfection appeared to be a jagged scar that ran from the corner of his mouth to the bottom edge of his left ear. It was still angry and red, so how could Jane not notice and stare? She immediately regretted it, for it brought the man to draw his perfect lips to a thin line as he self-consciously fingered the scar. When she continued looking, he crossed his arms, as though to keep from touching it.
Jane squeezed her eyes tight shut again and once more silently pleaded that the floor just this once swallow her whole. In this year of eighteen-twenty-five, this was the first ball of her third social season, and it was going as she had expected—horribly. She blamed her father. After all, she had repeatedly begged him to let her join a convent.
“But I want babies,” she thought she’d only said to herself.
“Shouldn’t someone formally introduce us first?”
Mortified beyond belief, Jane opened her eyes, despite every instinct telling her not to. All those seemingly wasted years memorizing how to behave in public. Her stepmother was surely going to be disappointed in her conduct when she found out, and find out she would. She always did.
Careful not to lean out too far from the ferns, Jane angled towards the man. There was the ever present danger of her stepmother discovering her hiding place, and Jane wasn’t certain she had what it took to face the harsh judgments of her or the other fashionable guests, not so soon after having so mortifyingly fallen into the punch bowl.
“Did I say that out loud?” she whispered, but not low enough to mask her embarrassment. She hung her head and stared at the toes of her white satin slippers.
Their once pristine state was now marred by the black marks inflicted on them by the ever-so-sweet but rather clumsy Viscount Wellington.
Her toes still ached from her one and only dance of the evening. It was hard to hold it against the poor man that he danced like a blind ox. Viscount Wellington was all bones and loose limbs. Even though the man meant well, he would never be graceful, no matter how hard he tried. It had only been his kind-heartedness that had weakened her enough to accept his request for a dance. The marring of her slippers had therefore been a foregone conclusion once she had pencilled his name onto her dance card.
“You have the scent of lemons,” he observed.
Jane lifted her sleeve and sniffed. “I’m afraid so. Countess Braxton is well known for her wonderful punch. She certainly doesn’t skimp on the sugar. I was so looking forward to having a drink before…” She flipped her fan open and stared at the floor. “Well, you know.”
“It’s a shame, then, that you spilled most of it.”
Jane let her gaze meet his smiling eyes. “But at least I caught the bowl before it hit the floor.”
The stranger did a slow inventory of the front of her ball gown, one that sent a flash of heat coursing from the top of her head to the tips of her toes. Her once beautiful pale yellow gown was now a disgrace, splattered with punch. If he had only seen her before her unfortunate accident at the refreshment table, but then, the way he stared at her now was almost as though he didn’t care.
Jane fanned the harder, hoping her cheeks didn’t appear quite as red as they felt hot.
When the handsome stranger finally met her eyes again, he grinned. Jane only fanned as hard as her tiny wrist would allow, although in no way did it alleviate the heat that still suffused her face. She lifted her long black curls away from her neck and stared longingly at the closed French windows.
It would be heavenly to step outside and walk through Lord Braxton’s rose gardens. They were said to be among some of the finest blooms in England.
That thought was short-lived, though, for her new friend had moved towards her a couple of steps, thankfully still being careful they both remained hidden.
Jane knew why she was hiding here, but why was this attractive man here with her, away from the most elite people in all of England?
But of course, she reasoned, no doubt there were overbearing mothers amongst the assembly who were trying to press an ugly daughter on him. Jane could only imagine how annoying it would be, for there were so many hideously greedy women trying to ensnare the rich and titled for their daughters. Even if this man wasn’t so rich, and perhaps not titled, he was certainly handsome enough to have to run such a gauntlet.
Once more, Jane closed her eyes, but this time pictured this handsome stranger leading her in a waltz. He didn’t look the type who would step on her toes. She could just see them both twirling in circles—around and around—one of his hands resting on her waist, the fingers of his other entwined through hers.
She smiled at that thought.
“No matter that you’ve closed your eyes again, I can still see you.” He cleared his throat. “You’re extremely lovely when you smile.”
A warmth pooled in the centre of Jane’s stomach. It made it even harder to meet his eyes again but she finally did. After all, she didn’t want him thinking she was a complete ninny. Just because accidents happened wherever she went, it didn’t mean she was a girl just out of school who didn’t know the simplest of things about the social graces.
“Please, do be a gentleman and go away.” Janes tried her best to cover the punch stain on her bodice even though it ran down most of the front of her once lovely gown, not to mention its stickiness that had already plastered her corset to her breasts in a most uncomfortable manner. She hated appearing so dishevelled in front of someone so unnervingly handsome. Why couldn’t fate be kind to her at least once in her lifetime?
Jane had always dreamed of a night such as this, only without the punch bowl having been tipped over her gown. She had been to many balls but had never been asked to dance by any of the most eligible bachelors. They always stared past her, as if she didn’t exist. The only gentlemen who ever asked her to dance were those like Viscount Wellington, those just as studiously avoided as she was herself. Many of them, though, seemed to prefer being bachelors for the rest of their lives in preference to considering her as a prospective bride.
Jane fingered the soft yellow fabric of the skirt of her gown. It was ruined—just like her life. She would never marry nor have children. Jane closed her eyes even tighter to keep the pain from consuming her. She drew in a deep breath and let her thoughts drift to the quaint little cottage by the sea that her mother had left her in her will. Jane would find a way to be happy there. After all, she had her books, but even more importantly, she would finally be rid of her stepmother. That thought in itself was enough to bring a smile to her lips.
When Jane opened her eyes, she found the stranger had moved yet further out of hiding.
“Get back before someone sees you,” she hissed.
He took a step back but then glanced out from behind the column, at the other guests and the dancers.
He hissed back, “Maybe you should re-join the ball before you’re missed.”
Jane shrunk even further into her hiding place. “It’s really better that I stay here. Just a little while longer. You ought to return to the ball before someone sees you here with me. It wouldn’t do to set tongues wagging.”
She tucked a curl of her hair behind her ear and stared at the floor. “You really don’t want your name linked with mine.”
“Now, how could I possibly know that if I don’t know your name?” He stepped even further from their hiding place, now almost certainly visible to anyone who might look their way. Someone was bound to come over and enquire why he had chosen to be so removed.
“But there’s no one here to introduce us, so I think you should run along before we’re the cause of an awful scandal. I do hate scandals, especially when they involve me. My father has already warned me that if I give him cause for concern tonight it will be the death of him. And,” she now whispered loudly, “I just can’t be the death of my father.”
“But what’s life without a good scandal, eh? It would be terribly dull and stuffy.”
His charming smile was enough to draw her gaze from his scar. He must have been the most dashing man in society before his otherwise perfect face was so noticeably marred.
Jane sighed. “It seems, though, that for some reason men can simply walk away from a scandal, far more easily so than a lady.”
She snapped her fan shut and stood straighter. “I’m afraid my father will completely disown me if I do one more thing to cause an uproar tonight, certainly at Earl and Countess Braxton’s ball. You have no idea how long a season can be when one is cause for ridicule and chatter at each and every event.”
She stared at her satin slippers again. “I can’t face another embarrassing season.”
He snapped his fingers. “I know just thing.”
Before Jane could do a thing, the stranger walked over to a group of nearby gentlemen. After a minute or two of discourse, he drew one aside. They stood with their heads together before finally coming over to Jane’s hiding place.
She pressed even closer to the column and once more closed her eyes. How was it that each and every time she went out in public something horrible happened? As huge as the Braxton’s London house was, how was it that she had managed to pick the only corner that had hidden a mad man? She was doomed. There was no way the three of them were ever going to go unnoticed now.
Jane might have remained close up against the column all night had she not recognised the deep resonating throat now being cleared.
Why couldn’t he just go away? “Shush.”
“Stop shushing me and open your eyes.”
He clearly wasn’t going to take the hint, and he was certainly no gentleman. Jane only opened her eyes again because she despaired that it was time to give up at last.
She only hoped the nuns would be kind to her.
Her determined new acquaintance grinned before turning to his friend. “Robert, we have a slight difficulty that only a man of your good standing can help us with.” The handsome stranger dipped his head to the other man. “Would you be so kind as to introduce the two of us?”
Jane knew Robert, but seriously doubted the viscount would know her own name. After all, he was first rate marriage material, so Jane had hardly ever been near the handsome man. It hadn’t, though, precluded her from admiring Viscount Worthington’s guileless, even if a mite too beautiful face. Never having been this close before, she had never noticed how brilliant blue were his eyes, stunningly beautiful but ever so kind. The viscount clearly thought his friend had lost his mind, but his good manners and gentle nature kept him rooted before Jane.
Over the previous two seasons she had kept a conceit: that the viscount had been her brother. She had often thought that if she had had an older brother he would have put a stop to all the vicious attacks she had had to endure since her coming out. And now that he was standing in front of her, Jane saw that he was every bit the man she had always dreamed him to be. There was no hiding the strength of character in his eyes and in his confident demeanor.
Jane’s make-believe brother bowed and then smiled. Deep dimples in his cheeks came out of nowhere, and if she hadn’t before understood why all the unmarried ladies chased after him, in that moment she did.
“But, my dear Phillip,” he implored, “the lady is far too lovely to draw into what is certain to become a scandal. We must escort her back to the dance floor before such a thing can happen.” The viscount smiled at Jane, as if to apologize, but she knew that scandal seemed drawn to her every appearance in polite society. But the man who seemed intent on engineering her next one now gave a polite bow.
“And one of the many reasons,” he grinned, “why we should hurry the introductions along.”
Jane had become distracted by the way her dashing stranger’s unruly dark curls fell into his eyes every time he bowed, although she did note a certain reticence held the viscount back.
“My good lady,” he finally said, a smile lifting a corner of his mouth, “if you would permit me to introduce my best friend, The Duke of Greystone. And, Phillip, this is the beautiful Lady Jane Blackmore.”
Jane couldn’t help but blink at hearing the stranger’s name, although she tried to remain calm. It had only recently come up in conversation, that afternoon as it happened, whilst enjoying high tea at Lady Harper’s home.
Jane’s gaze wandered back to the man’s scar, her interest piqued as to whether or not the rumour was indeed true. But then here he stood in front of her, his face scarred just as Lily had said it would be.
If Phillip noticed her staring, he didn’t show it but took her hand.
His devilish grin returned. “My friends call me Phillip, and I think by now you should consider us good friends, since we’ve shared such a special moment here behind Lord Braxton’s ferns.”
Jane’s mouth fell open.
He grinned again. “Why is it we’ve never met?”
Trying to recover from her shock, Jane curtsied. The Duke of Greystone? Her father was simply going to kill her when he discovered she had made a total fool out of herself in front of a duke.
She hoped by the time she met his eyes again her expression would once more be the fake smile her stepmother had drilled into her since the vile woman had married her father, what now felt far longer than ten years earlier.
Jane glanced at the wet stain running down her yellow ball gown and then back at the duke. “Unfortunately, I seldom make it past the first dance before disaster befalls me and I have to leave.”
The two men looked at her punch-stained dress but Phillip recover his good manners first. He took Jane’s hand and kissed it. “Then the fault lies with me, because I should have been by your side to stop such a cruel disaster from ruining your night. I’ll certainly make a point of doing so in the future.”
It was a kind gesture and it did what it was clearly meant to do—Jane blushed again.
“Thank you, but we both know this will be my last time out in public if we don’t soon go our separate ways. Someone is bound to notice us huddled here in this corner. Please excuse me and I’ll go find my father. I may as well accept defeat before he comes looking for me.”
Jane didn’t immediately leave, though, but flipped her fan open and yet again furiously fanned her hot cheeks. There was something rather marvellous about being surrounded by two handsome men. Why not enjoy these last few moments of freedom before being locked away in a convent, where she would no doubt die of either boredom or a rash from her woollen habit?
But then she looked over Phillip’s shoulder and her heart sank, the best night she had ever had about to come crashing down around her ears.
Before either man could notice her distracted look, she pointed her fan over their shoulders and told them: “Gentlemen, you are about to meet my father, His Grace Stratton Blackmore, The Duke of Rutherford.”