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Lady Haughston surveyed the throng of people below
her, one hand resting lightly on the polished black walnut railing. She was aware that heads turned to look at her. Indeed, she would have been disappointed if they had not.
Francesca Haughston had been a reigning beauty of the Ton for over a decade nowat thirty-three, she no longer cared to be specific about the number of years since her coming out. She had been blessed with a naturally beautiful combination of featureslight golden hair and large, deep blue eyes, skin that was as smooth and white as cream, a straight, slightly tip-tilted nose, and well-shaped lips that curled up a bit at the ends, giving her a faintly catlike smile. A small mole sat low on her cheek near her mouth, the tiny blemish only accentuating the near-perfection of her features. She was of medium height, with a lithe, slender form and an elegant carriage that made her appear taller than she actually was.
But even with the natural advantages Francesca had been given, she was always careful to show her looks to the best advantage. One would never find her dressed in anything less than the best, or with a pair of slippers on her feet that did not complement her dress or her hair arranged in a style that did not frame her face becomingly. While always in the forefront of fashion, she was not one to chase after foolish fads but chose only those shades that best suited her coloring and the styles that flattered her shape.
She was dressed tonight in her signature color of ice blue, the neckline of her satin dress low enough to show off her soft white shoulders and bosom in a way that was just a trifle dashing but not at all vulgar. Silver lace adorned the scoop neckline and ran around the hem of her gown, as well as cascading down the demi-train in back. A simple but striking diamond necklace encircled her slender white throat, a matching bracelet was on one arm, and more single diamonds winked here and there in the intricacies of her hair.
No one, she was certain, would have guessed that she hadn't a feather to fly with. The truth was that her late, largely unlamented husband Lord Andrew Haughston, an inveterate gambler, had died leaving her with nothing but debts, a fact that she had been at great pains to conceal. No one was aware that the jewels adorning her were paste copies of the actual ones, which she had sold. Nor did even the most hawkeyed Society matron suspect that the kid slippers on her feet had been maintained with the utmost care so that they were now in their third season, or that the dress she wore had been cut from a different gown worn the year before and resewn by her talented maid into a newer style fresh off the most recent fashion doll from France.
One of the few who knew her true circumstances was the slender, elegant man beside her, Sir Lucien Talbot. He had joined the circle of her admirers during her first season, and though his romantic interest in Francesca was a pleasant fiction in which they both participated, his devotion to her was quite real, for over the course of the years, they had become fast friends.
Sir Lucien was both stylish and witty, facts that, given his perpetual bachelor status, made him a soughtafter guest at parties. It was well-known that his pockets were frequently to let, as had always been the case with the Talbot family, but that did not mar his reputation as being "of very good Ton," a quality that was held in far higher regard, at least by hostesses. He could always be counted upon to liven the conversation with an acerbic remark or two; he never created a scene; he was an excellent dancer and his stamp of approval could establish a party-giver's reputation.
"Egad, what a crush," he commented now, raising his quizzing glass to inspect the crowd below them.
"I believe Lady Welcombe adheres to the notion that a rout must have as many attendees as one has floor space," Francesca agreed lightly. She opened her fan and waved it languidly. "I dread going down there. I know I shall get my toes trampled upon."
"Ah, but is that not the point of a rout?" A deep voice came from slightly behind her and to her right.
Francesca knew that voice. "Rochford," she said before she turned her head. "I am surprised to find you here."
Both Lucien and Francesca turned to face the new arrival, and he sketched a bow to them, replying, "Indeed? I would think that you could reasonably expect to find almost everyone you know here."
His mouth tightened in that familiar way that was almost, but not quite, a smile. His name was Sinclair, the fifth Duke of Rochford, and if Lucien's presence was sought after by a hostess, the attendance of Rochford was the star in her crown.
Tall, lean and broad-shouldered, Rochford was dressed in the impeccable black-and-white of formal wear. A discreet ruby nestled in the folds of his snowy cravat and was echoed in the cuff links at his wrists. He was easily the most powerful and aristocratic man in the room at any gathering, and if there were those who did not care for his dark, saturnine good looks, they were rarely heard to say so. His manner, like his dress, was elegant without a hint of showiness, and he was as much admired by men for his excellent horsemanship or his dead aim as he was pursued by women for his fortune, high cheekbones and thickly lashed, Gypsydark eyes. He was approaching forty and had never married, and as a consequence he had become the despair of all but the most determined ladies of the Ton.
Francesca could not keep from smiling a little at his retort. "Indeed, you are probably correct."
"You are a vision, as always, Lady Haughston," Rochford told her.
"A vision?" Francesca arched one delicately curved eyebrow. "I notice you do not say a vision of what. One could suppose almost anything to end that sentence."
Something glinted in his eyes, but he said in a neutral tone, "No one with eyes to see could suppose that aught but beauty would apply to you."
"An excellent recovery," Francesca told him. Sir Lucien leaned in toward Francesca, saying in a low voice, "Don't look. Lady Cuttersleigh is approaching."
But his warning was too late, for a high-pitched woman's voice cut sharply through the air. "Your Grace! What a delight it is to see you."
A tall, almost skeletally thin woman made her way toward them, her short, rotund husband chugging along in her wake. The daughter of an earl, Lady Cuttersleigh had married a mere baron and was never averse to reminding him and the rest of the world that she had married beneath her. She considered it her duty to marry off her gaggle of daughters to someone worthy of intermingling with her own elevated bloodline. However, given the fact that her daughters strongly resembled her in both face and form, as well as overweening pride, she had found it a difficult proposition. She was one of the stubborn few who had not given up on snaring the Duke of Rochford for one of her girls.
A pained expression touched Rochford's face briefly before he turned and executed a perfect bow toward the approaching couple. "My lady. Cuttersleigh."
"Lady Haughston." Lady Cuttersleigh acknowledged Francesca and gave a brief, uninterested nod toward Sir Lucien, whose title fell far below her expectations, before she turned back to Rochford, smiling.
"Delightful party, is it not? The party of the Season, I vow."
Rochford said nothing, only giving her a quizzical smile.
"I wonder how many 'parties of the Season' there will be this year," Sir Lucien commented drily.
Lady Cuttersleigh favored him with a look of dislike. "There can be only one," she told him repressively.
"Oh, I should think there will be at least three," Francesca put in. "There is the one with the greatest attendance, which I think this one will surely win. But then there is the party of the year based on how lavishly it is decorated."
"And the one based on who attends," Sir Lucien added.
"Well, I know that my Amanda will be sorry that she missed this one," Lady Cuttersleigh said.
Francesca and Lucien exchanged a glance, and Francesca unfurled her fan and raised it to her face to hide her smile. Whatever the subject, Lady Cuttersleigh could be relied upon to somehow bring her daughters into the conversation.
Lady Cuttersleigh went on to describe in detail the fever that had laid low two of her daughters and the touching way her eldest, Amanda, had stayed home to watch over them. Francesca could not help but consider what it said about the woman's own maternal instincts that it had been her daughter who had felt the responsibility to remain with the sick girls.
She continued to babble about the virtues of Amanda until at last Rochford cut in to say, "Yes, my lady, it is clear that your eldest daughter is a saint. Indeed, I imagine that naught but the most virtuous of men would satisfy as a husband for her. May I suggest the Rev. Hubert Paulty? An excellent fellow, and quite suitable for her."
For once Lady Cuttersleigh was reduced to silence. She gazed at the Duke in consternation, blinking rapidly as she tried to recover from this blow to her efforts. Rochford, however, was too quick for her.
"Lady Haughston, I believe you promised to introduce me to your esteemed cousin," he went on smoothly, offering Francesca his arm.
Francesca cast him a laughing glance, but said in a demure voice, "Of course. If you will excuse us, my lady. My lord. Sir Lucien."
Sir Lucien leaned in close to her, whispering, "Traitor." Francesca could not hold back a small chuckle as she walked away on Rochford's arm. "My esteemed cousin?" she repeated. "Pray, do you mean the one who is far too fond of his port? Or the one who fled to the Continent after a duel?"
A faint smile curved the Duke's dark features. "I meant, fair lady, anyone of any sort who can get me away from Lady Cuttersleigh."
Francesca shook her head. "Dreadful woman. She is ensuring her daughters' destinies as spinsters, the way she goes about trying to marry them off. Not only is she horridly ham-handed about pushing them on people, her expectations far exceed the girls' possibilities."
"You, I understand, are an expert on such matters," Rochford said in a faintly teasing tone.
Francesca glanced at him, her eyebrows lifting. "Indeed?"
"Oh, yes. I have heard that you are the one to consult on one's foray into the marriage mart. One can only wonder why you have not ventured into the lists again yourself."
Francesca released his arm and turned aside, looking out once again over the crowd below. "I find that the status of a widow suits me quite well, Your Grace."
"Your Grace?" he repeated quizzically. "After so many years? I perceive that I have once more offended you. It is, I fear, something I am quite prone to."
"Yes, you do seem to be adept at it," Francesca replied lightly. "But you have not offended me. However, one cannot help but wonder are you asking for my help?"
He let out a laugh. "No, indeed. Merely making conversation."
Francesca turned to study the Duke's face. She wondered why he had brought up the subject. Could it be that there were rumors about her matchmaking efforts? Over the past few years, she had come to the aid of more than one parent struggling to get his or her daughter into a successful marriage. There had always been a gift of gratitude from the mother or father, of course, after Francesca had taken the daughter under her wing and guided her through the tricky shoals of Society's waters and into the arms of the proper husband. But such gifts had always been dealt with most discreetly by both parties, and Francesca did not know how word could have leaked out that a certain silver epergne or pigeon's-blood ruby ring had found its way to the pawnbroker's shop.
Rochford returned her gaze, and Francesca saw the spark of curiosity begin in his eye. She said quickly, "No doubt you find such a skill quite negligible."
"No, indeed. I have met too many formidable mothers bent on making their daughter a duchess to discount matchmaking efforts."
"It is appalling, really," Francesca went on, "how many of those mothers go about the matter in precisely the wrong way. Not just Lady Cuttersleigh. Look at those girls."
She nodded toward a group below them, standing beside a potted palm. A middle-aged woman, dressed all in purple, stood beside two young women, both clearly her daughters, given the unfortunate similarities of their features.
"Invariably, women who haven't the faintest idea how to dress well themselves insist on choosing their daughters'clothes," Francesca commented. "Look how she has them in lavender, a more girlish shade of the color she wears, and any shade of purple is disastrous with their skin, only making it look more sallow. Moreover, they are dressed far too fussilyall one can see are the ruffles and bows and the explosion of lace. And see how she talks and talks, never letting either of the girls get a word in."
"Yes, I see," Rochford responded. "But surely this is an extreme example. I cannot imagine that there would be much hope for them even without their overbearing mama."
Francesca made a disparaging noise. "I could do it."