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At the Bride Hunt Ball
"Don't fret, my dear. Perhaps one day you'll blossom into a beauty like my Harriet."
Miss Madelyn Haywood nibbled on her bottom lip as she weighed her choices. She could scream, making a frenzied dash for the French doors in the adjoining room, or she could retain her composure and nod agreeably.
"Ah . . . thank you," Madelyn replied. Politeness won.
"Don't look so forlorn." Lady Beauchamp waved her fan vigorously in a vain attempt to mask a belch. Her aunt's stale breath was a clear indication the woman was good and foxed. "There are still two more cards to be presented, yes? You could be so fortunate. It's said miracles happen all the time." She started to giggle, but a hiccup cut her short.
"Let me assure you I haven't the slightest inclination to receive one." Madelyn lifted her chin and pretended to look about the room.
"Oh dear," Lady Beauchamp exclaimed, closing her fan with a snap. "That's why you're here, why we're all here. What great fun is this! Just think, soon even you could have a chance to be a duchess!" Using her fan, her aunt made a stabbing gesture toward four young ladies chatting excitedly by the foot of a grand staircase. "Look at them . . . smiling like simpletons. If my dear Harriet hadn't just received an invitation to the ball, I'd think they were deliberately flashing their cards so that I might see. What an atrocious display! Such a lack of decorum!"
Madelyn gave a short nod in response. Though anxious to quit her aunt's company, she prayed her association with her father's sister would forestall any strange possibility that eitherof the Devine brothers should come near. Lady Beauchamp had a habit of imbibing large amounts of wine at social functions—really, at any function save breakfast—and people seemed to avert their gazes, deftly avoiding the loud, opinionated woman as if she were a knot of rats.
Madelyn rose on the tips of her slippered feet, hoping to spot her friend amidst the crush of guests. "Aunt Lucinda, do you see Miss Greene?"
"Do you mean to say Miss Charlotte Greene? Good heavens, she's here? However does her mother think her scrawny, milk-and-water miss would ever land an invitation to His Grace's estate? Oh, I pity the girl and her mother for they will certainly walk away this evening disappointed. Charlotte Greene, you say?" Her aunt tossed back her head, bursting into unladylike guffaws.
Incensed, Madelyn opened her mouth to defend her friend when the ostrich plumes tucked inside the folds of her aunt's blue turban tickled the nose of the gentleman standing behind her. He erupted into a sneeze, then glared at the back of the viscountess's head. He was still looking at her thus when her aunt turned around, apparently to see what had collided with her headwear.
Madelyn stifled a small grin, satisfied the gentleman managed to give her aunt a scornful glare, encapsulating all of what Madelyn needed to say in defense of her dear friend.
The stout woman slurred her apology, then promptly excused herself from Madelyn's company with a swish of her skirts. She watched her aunt wander directly into the very crowd of young women she'd just admonished—no doubt to find some other young lady to perk up.
After a brief inspection of the room's occupants, Madelyn located her stepmother, arms linked with Lady Beauchamp's Harriet. She made a wide arc around the pair as she passed, putting scores of guests between them. She felt her stepmother's arctic glare prickling the back of her head as she slipped into the adjoining room.
In the ballroom, she was about to give up hope of ever finding her friend when she spotted Charlotte, executing her best impression of a tea rose on the hand-painted Chinese wallpaper at her back. As Madelyn made her way through the sea of people, talk of the duke and his brother rippled around her.
" . . . such a scandalous way to find a wife for the presumptive heir, don't you agree? All those innocent ladies locked away with the Devine men for a fortnight . . . "
" . . . very clever of the old Wolf, wish I thought of it first . . . "
" . . . strange he isn't taking a bride himself and wants his brother to carry on the family line . . . "
" . . . I say, it's damned unfair. He's likely to choose only the best of the lot for his brother, leaving only the seasoned nags for us to pick from . . . "
Seasoned nags? She turned and gave the man who uttered that particular phrase a good glare.
This being her fourth season, Madelyn thought she could pen a novel cataloging the names of all the crafty rakes and pompous heirs she'd come across. Naturally, at the top of her list of insufferable men would be the Brothers Devine.
Arrogance and wickedness never before blended to form such tempting packages. For in the heart of every romantic female of the ton lurked the secret desire to spark the interest of one of the proud Devines. Of course, it helped that they were members of one the wealthiest, most ancient lineages in all of England. With Lord Tristan's wicked recklessness, and the Duke of Wolverest's brooding arrogance, eager mamas looking to marry off their hopeful debutantes rallied to the challenge. Unfortunately for them, the Devines' questionable pursuits didn't include virgins or marriage. Until now.
However, Madelyn was no fool. She could well imagine the brothers held this ball for some darker purpose. She knew men like them well—the sort who gave little more care to a woman's heart than they did the roast pheasant they had enjoyed for dinner. Lord Rothbury was one, and her stepmother had ordered her to accept it along with the earl's proposal last season. Madelyn had flatly refused. She had been locked in the wine cellar for a day as punishment. It would have been longer had their butler quit sampling the Haywoods' stock of spirits as he had promised. At the Bride Hunt Ball. Copyright © by Olivia Parker. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.