Lady Callista Taillefaire was a gifted wallflower. By the age of seven-and-twenty, she had perfected the art of blending into the wallpaper and woodwork so well that she never had to dance, and only her most intimate friends greeted her. She could sit against the pink damask in the ballroom or sit against the green silk in the refreshment chamber. She didn't even have to match to be overlooked.
"Did you hear that a carriage came to Madame de Monceaux!" The scarlet plume on Mrs. Adam's headband swayed alarmingly as she leaned near Callie's ear. "I believe it is-" But she suddenly broke off her confidence and took Callie's hand. "Oh, do look down! He is starting this way again."
Callie obeyed, instantly developing a profound interest in the catch on her bracelet. She had not quite succeeded in becoming completely invisible at these affairs. There were always the gentlemen of a certain category who solicited her hand, just in case she might be clutching her eighty thousand pounds in it, Callie supposed, which would save them the trouble of a stop at the bank as they carried her off.
"There, you are safe!" Mrs. Adam said gustily, as if Callie had barely scraped through with her life. "Let him pour the butter-boat over Miss Harper, if she is so foolish a girl as to listen to it."
Callie let go of her bracelet. She had found that looking down and discovering a flounce had come loose from her hem, or a stone had worked its way into her slipper, was evasion enough to discourage the hopeful abductors. Even for eighty thousand pounds they were not very persistent. She was, after all, Lady Callista Taillefaire, who had been jilted three times. Even a gentlemanwith dishonest designs would have to ask himself what, precisely, could be wrong with her.
She had wrestled with this question herself. Indeed, she and her father and her sister and their acquaintance and all the local gossips and probably two or three of the wiser village goats had spent a good deal of time dissecting the matter. No satisfactory answer had been agreed upon. Her father had attributed it to the general decline of British Manhood into Riot and Villainy. Her sister Hermione felt that Callie showed a deplorable lack of respect for the fashion in caps. The gossips largely blamed it upon Napoleon. During the French wars, they had blamed everything on Napoleon, and even five years after Waterloo he had not outlived his usefulness in that regard. The goats, being commoners, very properly kept their opinions to themselves.
It was Callie's own conclusion that she was quite plain, and had red hair, and she was very stiff and shy with gentlemen, even after she became engaged to them. Perhaps more so after she became engaged to them. Her eyes were neither brown nor blue, but some grayish-green middling color, her nose could politely be described as Grecian, having barely escaped the threat of Roman, and her fair skin flamed with unbecoming splotches of pink in the slightest touch of wind.
It was also true that she had a habit of lugging newborn calves into the kitchen from time to time, which might be considered eccentric in the daughter of an earl. But since her family had taken care that no rumors of this peculiarity should escape beyond Shelford, Callie felt that she was not held to be actually dangerous.
Mrs. Adam eased her ample figure from her chair, giving Callie's hand a squeeze and a pat. "Bless me, there is Mr. Hartman going in to tea. I must speak to him about the altar-cloth, but I will be back directly. You'll be quite all right now that the sets are forming."
Callie nodded. Having escaped the looming threat of being dragged off by her hair and ravished, or at least required to dance, she dared a glance at Miss Harper as the young lady took her place. The girl seemed to be enjoying her swim in the butter. Callie gazed at the couple, imagining herself-suitably embellished with golden hair and flower-blue eyes and eyelashes that were the toast of England-dancing gracefully through the figures. She made light and witty conversation. Her smile pierced the fortune-hunting gentleman to his heart. He was so taken with her that he forgot all about her fortune and fell desperately in love for the first time in his cynical and dissolute life. He vowed to give up gambling and drink on her behalf, and fought several duels with men of vague but wicked demeanor in defense of her honor. Finally, when she refused him, having selected from among her large following a gentleman of steadier nature, he threw himself from a sea cliff, leaving a poem of unrequited love in which Callie was thinly disguised as a mythological heroine with a name at least eight syllables long, which she would look up later. The poem was published in all the papers and made the ladies weep over it in their boudoirs.
She blinked, realizing the music had paused. The gentleman who had thrown himself from the cliff in despair was conversing with Miss Harper on the topic of how many sunny days the town of Shelford had enjoyed so far in the autumn.
Callie could never think of what to say to gentlemen. She could feel her cheeks turning splotchy if she tried. There had been one, once, who had been so easy to talk to that she had quite lost her head over him, but that had not turned out well. It was quite settled by now. She was born to be a spinster. The gentlemen would have to declare their undying devotion to other ladies. Callie would be too much occupied with developing a delicate constitution and a dependable recipe for tapioca-jelly.
Her father, of course, had understood none of this, because he loved her. He had thought her pretty, and stubbornly refused to be convinced otherwise by the abundance of evidence. As long as he lived he had persevered in escorting Callie to each London season, arranging betrothals, signing settlement papers, and raging almost to tears each time the gentlemen broke it off. By the third time, Callie had really been more distressed on her father's behalf than on her own. She was not by nature a violent person, but she had given serious consideration to sewing a teasel-burr into her former fiancé's unmentionables, or even perhaps recruiting a live black-beetle for this mission, but decided in the end that it would be a disservice to the bug.
In any case, she had found no occasion to tamper with his personal linen, although the lawyers had been pleased to make his bank account smart by the removal of ten thousand pounds to avoid a breach-of-promise suit. He had departed on a ship for Italy with his beautiful, penniless new wife, while Callie sat with her crestfallen father in the study and held his hand.
The thought of it made her wrinkle her nose, blinking back the sting. She missed her father painfully, but it would not do to let her eyes fill with tears in the midst of a country dance. She turned her face down, brushing her nose with the feathers of her fan, concentrating on the swish and thud of the dancers' feet on the wooden floor and the off-key note on the pianoforte, waiting for the moment to pass.
It was only a local assembly, nothing so glittering as a London affair, but still Callie would not care to make a scene. For a year after the Earl of Shelford's death, she had at least been spared the agony of any social occasions, but now that they were out of mourning it was her duty to accompany Hermione.
Callie kept a careful eye on her sister's partners. It was up to her to make certain no fortune-hunter stole Hermey. Their cousin Jasper wasn't precisely the sharpest needle in the pincushion, and since his elevation to the earldom, his lady wife was most anxious to see Callista and Hermione packed up and departed from Shelford Hall. An early wedding for Hermey would be just what Lady Shelford liked, and she would not be particular as to the groom. Any person would do as long as he wore trousers and promised to take Callie along with her sister.
So Callie put on her gray gloves, hid her red hair as well as she could under a lavender turban, and sat herself at her guard post on the row of satin chairs along the wall, watching her sister dance with a most suitable baronet. He had taken leave from his promising position as an under-secretary in the Home Office and traveled up from London particularly to pay his compliments to Lady Hermione. Along with his addresses, it was to be hoped, though that had not yet transpired.
Her favored position in the Shelford assembly rooms overlooked the dance floor and the entry. She had only to lift her lashes to see each newcomer, without any noticeable turn of her head. It was late now. The crush of people in the arched doorway had long since cleared, and so she merely glanced when a single figure appeared there.
For an instant she looked away again calmly, seeing only another smartly dressed gentleman who paused to watch the dancers. It was as if recognition struck her heart a moment late-a sudden rush of heat to her face, a squeezing of her throat. She found she could not catch her breath.
It was him.
She threw a panicked look toward him, knew it certainly, and then had nowhere at all to look or to run. She was alone on the wall of chairs. Mrs. Adam was vanished to the refreshment room and everyone else danced. She stared down at her toes with desperate concentration, hoping and hoping and hoping that he would not recognize her.
He might not know her. She had not instantly recognized him. He was older. Of course he was older-one could hardly suppose that she herself had reached the advanced age of twenty-seven without him doing the same. In the first blink of a look, she had seen a dark-haired handsome gentleman; it was only with her second panicked glance that she knew his face: sun-darkened and harder, all the smiling promise of youth matured to a striking man.
He stood with a quiet confidence, as if it did not concern him to arrive late and alone, or to receive no welcome. Any number of people here knew him, but no one had seen him yet save Callie-none who acknowledged him, at least. He had been gone from the vicinity for nine years.