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"Are we agreed, gentlemen?" Malcolm, Viscount Breckonridge, glanced around the table in the library of his London town house. He met the gaze of each of the peers who had joined him that evening. The older Walcott was eager; the jowls on his long face quivered in anticipation. Yarmouth was cautious; he chewed his full lower lip like a nervous schoolgirl. Wells, by far the youngest, exhibited his usual studied boredom; he leaned back in his chair, a difficult feat when one considered that the chair was of stiff mahogany like the table and Wells was tall and angular. Yet despite their posturing, Malcolm knew he had them. He squared his shoulders and leaned forward, holding each gaze until he saw commitment.
"Agreed," they chorused, then Walcott and Yarmouth grinned at each other. Wells merely nodded.
Walcott rose and offered Malcolm his hand. "I don't know how you do it, Breckonridge. However intractable we are, you find a way to make peace."
"Frightens us into it," Yarmouth ventured, although his tone was admiring. "Shouldn't like to cross anyone the size of Lord Breckonridge, by your leave."
"There are dock workers with Lord Breckonridge's height and reach," Wells drawled. "I don't fear them."
"Nor should you fear me," Malcolm joked. "Gentlemen, you must know I live to serve."
Walcott chuckled, a deep sound that rumbled through the dusty library. "And serve you do. I would have thought this act was dead before it saw the floor of Parliament."
"An act worth penning is an act worth saving," Malcolm replied as he shook the earl's hand. He had to hide his smile of triumph. They must none of them know the many moments he had doubted, the many hours he hadspent devising strategies to win them over. "May I get you gentlemen anything? Dinner? A glass of brandy? My carriage home?"
Walcott waved him off even as Wells and Yarmouth pushed back their chairs to rise. "I must be going," Lord Walcott replied, making his slow, ponderous way toward the door. "My lady is expecting to go to the theatre this evening."
The more dapper Yarmouth shook his head in obvious pity. "Shame, that. You'll miss all the excitement. Almack's, don't you know. Blasted lottery of sorts. Who would have thought she could pull it off? See you shortly, Breckonridge."
Malcolm froze in the act of opening the door but recovered quickly by turning the movement into a bow of acknowledgement as they filed past him into the marble-tiled hall. Shortly? Had he forgotten a meeting? The Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool, had promised him there would be no session tonight so that he could bring these last three recalcitrant peers into agreement. But Viscount Yarmouth had said Almack's. Had Malcolm lost track of the day again? No, it couldn't be Wednesday, when the lady patronesses held the subscription balls for which Almack's was famous. Parliament was expected to vote on the return to the gold standard Wednesday, and they had only just begun discussing it yesterday.
"Or do you plan to be fashionably late again?" Wells quipped with his usual dry humor. "You may yet earn Lady Prestwick's wrath."
The ball! Anne would have his head if he didn't go. One of the things he admired about Lady Prestwick was that she never raised a fuss, never so much as raised her voice. Yet he'd seen her silences drive people to repentance. He never thought he'd be one of them. He smiled politely and escorted his colleagues to the door, offering additional congratulations, promising to see them shortly. Only when the door was shut safely behind them did he bolt for the stairs.
The clock on the mantle in his bedchamber informed him it was a quarter to three, but that couldn't be right. He had evidently forgotten to wind it again. He kicked off his shoes and began shucking off his trousers. The dressing room door opened, and his valet Appleby stepped to his side to assist him with the tailored coat.
"How late am I?" Malcolm growled.
"It is a quarter after nine," his valet replied. "The ball in your honor started over a half hour ago."
"Leave the vest then," Malcolm barked. "I'll have to go as I am."
Appleby said nothing, but the set of his thin lips told Malcolm he disapproved of wearing the navy striped waistcoat with Malcolm's evening black. An unobtrusive fellow with sandy brown hair, prominent front teeth, and a slight build, Appleby had been part of Malcolm's inheritance when he ascended to the title after his older cousin died. Malcolm had never felt particularly fond of the fellow, although he could have said the same about any of the servants in the town house, in fact of any of the servants on any of his estates across England. As long as the house functioned and he had clothes and food when he needed them, he generally let his staff go their way as he went his.
The problem was, of course, that the house did not appear to be functioning. His dinners, when he bothered to come home for them, were tasteless. His library was a cluttered mess. The house echoed with neglect. Someone needed to get his life in order, and he certainly didn't have time to do it. All the more reason for this ball, even if the thought of courting made him shudder.
Appleby silently produced a black velvet evening cloak, and Malcolm swung it around his shoulders. He paused to glance in the gilded mirror over the dressing table. Although a thin layer of dust coated the surface, there was no mistaking the gentleman who looked back. As leader of the moderate Whigs, he was a well-known sight. His usual hunting grounds in the halls of Parliament swarmed with prey and predator, and he relished the verbal games that allowed him to tell which was which. But tonight it would not be his fellow lords who sought his time. Tonight he would be the prey, and the predators were closing for the kill.
He could not shake the feeling of impending doom as he rode in his carriage to the assembly rooms on King Street. How his peers in the House of Lords would laugh if they knew that he detested what he was about to do. Malcolm, Viscount Breckonridge, the gilded tongue, the intimidating countenance, the tireless diplomat, balking at persuading a woman to marry him. Truth be known, it wasn't the persuading that concerned him. It was the time that persuasion would take away from his career. He must have been mad to agree to this.
Climbing the stairs of the building to the main salon, he heard the strains of dance music. The ball was apparently in full swing. Still, it was probably too much to hope he might slip in unobtrusively and make his apologies to Anne. He handed his cloak to a waiting servant at the top of the stairs and took a deep breath, stepping through the arched entryway. Lord, it was worse than he'd thought.
The ball was a tremendous squeeze. He was not arrogant enough to suppose it was all because of him. Lord Chas Prestwick had been known for outrageous stunts like betting his best friend he could not somersault from one end of Hyde Park to the other. Even though he had ascended to the title of Earl of Prestwick and married the quiet Anne Reynolds, many in society doubted he'd changed his stripes. They had obviously come hoping for some excitement. He could see one of the stern-faced lady patronesses of Almack's even now, watching his friend Lord Prestwick with narrowed eyes as he did the pretty with his lovely wife on the dance floor. Lady Jersey looked sure he would disgrace the reputation of her famed hall. What did she expect, that he would suddenly leap up to catch the crystal chandelier overhead? She obviously didn't know Anne well.
It was not every young society matron who chose to rent Almack's to host her first ball. The hallowed hall was draped with streamers of multicolored satin, like the tail of a peacock. Fresh beeswax candles glittered in the sconces next to the busts of prominent Greeks. The polished floor gleamed, where he could see it beneath the crush of crowd. Even the sharp-tongued Lady Jersey could find no fault, he was sure.
But he could. Despite his silence on the matter, word had evidently gotten out that Lord Breckonridge sought a bride. What had Yarmouth called it, a lottery? Even now heads were turning to gaze at him, eyes were lighting, ladies were simpering.
He was done for.
But he would go down with honor. Head high, he attempted to stroll around a group of young ladies, all of whom giggled madly as he approached. Detouring to his right, he was forced to sidestep another young lady who gazed at him imploringly all the while dropping a curtsey that revealed far too much of her low décolletage. Across the expanse of floor, he could see the dance ending, and Lady Prestwick smiling at her handsome husband. Surely she would expect him to present himself immediately. He tried another detour.
"Good evening, my lord." The rotund Lady Renderly put herself neatly in his path so that he was forced to stop to keep from ramming the purple ostrich plume in her turban up his nose. She did not bother to drop him a curtsey but merely thrust a young lady toward him. "I believe you know my daughter Elspeth?"
He bowed and smiled at the blushing girl gowned in white. "A pleasure to see you again, Lady Elspeth. Your father speaks of you often."
In loud, lamenting tones, he refused to add as the girl blinked vapid blue eyes at him. Three Seasons on the ton, and the Renderly chit had yet to find a fellow willing to accept her considerable dowry over the dubious honor of being related to her mother. He could not find it in himself to change her luck. "If you'll excuse me, ladies, I must pay my respects to Lady Prestwick."
"I am much put out," Lady Renderly replied in booming tones that set those in the immediate vicinity to staring. "We were promised an interview, and we've barely had a moment of your time."
Malcolm would have liked to have her put out--out of the ballroom, out of London, preferably out of the country. But Lord Renderly was a staunch supporter of the Whig party, and Malcolm could not bring himself to alienate even a single member of the struggling minority.
"I shall be delighted to call on you and your delightful daughter next week," he promised.
Lady Renderly smiled triumphantly, like a cat handed a bowl of cream. "How delightful," she said. "Send round your card any time, my lord. We will be at home. Come, Elspeth."
Malcolm bowed and moved around them. Unfortunately, the way between him and Anne was still thronged with hazards. To his right below the gallery that held the musicians, a group of young ladies caught his gaze and whispered behind rapidly beating fans. To his left on the large dance floor, a woman he remembered meeting at a ball earlier in the Season took a turn with another fellow, but her knowing smile was all for Malcolm. Straight ahead near a draped alcove holding a bust of Diana, another aristocratic mama bore down on him with no less than three young ladies in tow. There was nothing for it. He squared his broad shoulders, put on the frown that made the Commons quake, and strode as fast as he dared for the gentlemen's retiring room.
Once through the padded doors, however, he could only shake his head. Was the only way to survive this evening to pretend a weak bowel? A man who managed estates from one end of England to the other should not have this kind of difficulty arranging his life. Neither should that same gentleman, who was a few years from a cabinet post and in line for the prime ministry itself, have trouble making decisions. Malcolm had an unerring sense when a bill was ill-fated. This ball smacked of failure.
"Regretting you agreed to let Anne stage this rout?" Chas asked, stepping into the room.
Malcolm greeted him with a handshake. "I can't blame your lovely wife," he replied after they had exchanged pleasantries. "It seemed like a sensible idea at the time. Rather efficient, actually--bring all the eligible young ladies under one roof and let me take my pick. Unfortunately, picking a bride isn't as easy as choosing a horse at Tattersalls. The horses don't look at your legs or demand your undivided attention."
"What did you expect?" Chas countered. "You may be a famous orator and statesmen, Malcolm, but the London ladies will want to make sure you're as great a catch as they hope."
Malcolm frowned, but it only made Chas grin. Malcolm shook his head. Anne Prestwick wasn't the only one in the family who was unflappable, he was beginning to learn. In truth, he hadn't known what to expect when Prestwick had succeeded to the title. Unlike his dour older brother, Prestwick was quick witted and clever tongued. He was also tall, blond, and handsome, turning ladies' heads wherever he went. Unfortunately, the fellow's reputation for wildness had proceeded him, and he had taken his seat in Parliament under a flurry of ill-bred whispers.
"If he tries climbing the gallery the way he did in Covent Garden two years ago," Lord Sidmouth, the Home Secretary, had murmured behind his hand to Malcolm, "I'll not be surprised."
"If he does, I'll have him horse-whipped," Malcolm had countered. But though there were times Malcolm caught the fellow grinning with eyes alight with unholy glee over some bizarre statement made by a somber politician, Chas had never disrupted Parliament. In fact, he was far more attentive than most of the other young lords. Before Malcolm knew it, they seemed to have developed a friendship based on the unlikely political coin of honesty. He could not cheapen the friendship by hiding his feelings now.
"I doubt I can live up to my own reputation," he told Chas. "I have no intention of spending hours flattering a woman's vanity to win her hand. I believe marriage is a partnership no different from a business venture. And I know what I need in a partner. I need someone who will manage my home efficiently. More, I need someone who'll listen to my positions and find the flaw in my logic. Someone who'll correct the turn of phrase in my speeches so my words will be memorable. Someone who'll tell me when I'm about to make an ass of myself."
Chas clapped him on the shoulder. "Malcolm, old chap, if you attempt to say that to any of the young ladies out there, you will make an ass of yourself. You've just described a very efficient personal secretary. Where's the romance, the fire, the passion?"
"Do you honestly believe in that rubbish?" Malcolm countered. When Chas bristled, he held up a hand in surrender. "All right, all right, I see that you do. But Prestwick, you're young. I feel a great deal older than you."
"Well, you're hardly aged enough to stick your spoon in the wall just yet," Chas replied. "You're in the pink of health. You nearly put me away with that right of yours at Gentleman Jackson's the other day. And that mane of devil's black hair of yours has but a few strands of gray."
"A few more than I'd like," Malcolm grumbled. "Don't try to make me appear youthful, my lad. At thirty and eight, I'm well aware that I need an heir, and a wife who will be an asset to my career, not a hindrance. But I tell you, Prestwick, when I consider marrying one of those simpering misses out there, I feel ancient. Every time I bow I expect to hear my bones creak."
At that moment the door creaked open. Both Chas and Malcolm turned to eye the dandy in the lemon yellow coat who attempted to enter. One look at Malcolm's frown sent him scurrying back into the ballroom. Chas shook his head.
"You can't hide in here all night, Malcolm. Is there anything else Anne should know about your requirements? Should the lady be tall or short? Fair or dark? Willowy or voluptuous? Anne will not rest until she has found you a bride."
Malcolm knew that for the truth. In the first year of their marriage, Lady Prestwick had managed to find a husband for each of her two widowed aunts. It was her success in marrying off the elder of her aunts, the crusty Lady Agatha Crawford, that had made Malcolm believe she might be similarly adept at pairing him up.
"I am not so arrogant as to think I can dictate the lady's hair or eye color," he informed the young earl. "Though, mind you, I'd like the lady to be neat and simple. She must also be sensible. My real love is politics. Any woman who marries me must accept that."
Chas shook his head. "You sound cold, Malcolm. But I've seen the fire in you when you're out on that floor debating for something you believe in. Do you really intend to share that heart only with your work?"
"Did I hear something about heart?" Rupert Wells strolled through the door to the gentlemen's retiring room, dark head high, face bland. Malcolm knew him well enough to see the light in those heavy-lidded gray eyes. "Do not tell me you've succumbed already, my lord," Wells drawled.
Malcolm inclined his head in acknowledgment. "Good evening again, Wells. Enjoying the ball?"
"Tolerably," Wells pronounced, moving to eye his reflection in the looking glass affixed to one wall. He must have decided his evening black was acceptable, for he turned quickly to meet Malcolm's gaze once more. "And you?"
"Something seems to have disagreed with my lord Breckonridge's disposition," Chas said, making an easy excuse for their prolonged visit to the retiring room. "I'm sure he'll return to the ball shortly."
"I should hope so," Wells replied. "The young ladies appear to be getting restive. We wouldn't want a riot, would we?"
"You give me too much credit," Malcolm told him. "By the way, thank you for your assistance this afternoon. The act won't come up for a vote until next session at this rate, but I appreciate your support. We appear to have a majority now."
Chas raised an eyebrow. "Both the Tories and the Whigs in agreement? You are a miracle worker, Wells."
The young man inclined his head. "You are too kind, my lords. I hope you finish your discussions soon. Barrington is bouncing up and down from foot to foot outside the door. If he doesn't have a moment in here soon, he'll likely make a further spectacle of himself."
"Tell him I won't eat him," Malcolm said. "And assure Lady Prestwick we'll be out shortly."
"Always your servant, my lord." Wells bowed again and quit the room. Chas shook his head.
"I'm not sure why you trust him, Malcolm," he said as the door creaked open and the bright-coated Barrington put in a pale face. Malcolm waved him in, and the fellow scurried to the screen in the corner to make use of the chamber pot provided there.
Malcolm stood silently until the fellow had scurried out again. Then he sighed. "Young Wells deserves a chance that he likely won't get unless I sponsor him. I knew his father. Thank God, Wells appears to be made of stronger stuff. He could have a brilliant career ahead of him if he'd learn to let his passions show more often."
"Ha!" Chas proclaimed. "This from a man who doesn't consider love important in a marriage."
"You're an idealist, Prestwick," Malcolm replied with a sigh. "A well-meaning one, I'll grant you, but an idealist none the less. My life is politics, and politics is compromise."
"Or perhaps learning what you're willing to compromise and what you're not," Chas suggested. "Very well, then. I'll tease you no more on the matter. I can't make the same claim about Anne. She'll be disappointed if you don't find someone of worth after all this effort. Perhaps if you were to spend a bit more time with each lady, you might be able to form a more accurate assessment."
"I've never needed time to form an accurate assessment of character before," Malcolm countered.
"Perhaps you could try putting them at ease by dancing."
"If a woman is so timid she cannot speak until we dance, she can hardly be the woman I seek," Malcolm pointed out. "Besides, I abhor these tedious country airs. God bless Sally Jersey for bringing home the waltz from Vienna. Almost makes me forgive her Tory tendencies."
"High praise indeed," Chas acknowledged. "Well, Malcolm, I don't know what to do for you. I only know that if we don't return soon, Anne will likely sally in here to get us."
Malcolm sighed. "Very well. Let us not disappoint your unflappable bride. Lead on."
They exited the room and stepped back into the press of the ballroom. However, no one seemed to notice. Indeed, all eyes were turned toward the entrance to the room, where a young lady stood framed in the archway. Her golden curls tumbled back from a perfectly oval face of translucent cream. Her curves in the demure violet gown were willowy. She held herself with the command of a duchess. Malcolm raised an eyebrow, intrigued.
Chas grinned. "Perfect. Here's a lady for you, old man. Allow me to introduce you to the belle of the Season, the Incomparable Miss Persephone Compton."