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The Naked Baron
By Sally MacKenzie
Copyright © 2009
All right reserved.
Chapter One Lady Grace Belmont stepped through the wide double doors into the Duke of Alvord's ballroom.
She froze on the small landing. Hundreds of candles lit hundreds of faces-and she'd swear every single face was turned toward her. Men in precisely fitted black coats and snowy white cravats raised their quizzing glasses. Brilliantly-gowned women, plumes bobbing, fans shielding their lips, tittered and whispered.
Dear, dear God. She couldn't escape fast enough-except she couldn't escape at all. A gaggle of elderly women blocked the stairs.
Blast! Grace swallowed and clenched her hands. She tried to take a deep breath, but the air was too thick with the scent of candle wax, perfume, and infrequently washed bodies. Black dots swam before her eyes. Was she going to swoon? That would be an even more entertaining spectacle for the duke's guests-the Amazon from Devon, all five feet nine inches and eleven stone of her, collapsing into an ignominious heap-a very large ignominious heap-on the ballroom floor. What a lovely way to begin her first-and last-London Season.
"Isn't it splendid?"
"What?" Grace looked down at her petite, ethereally beautiful aunt, Lady Oxbury.
"The ballroom, the guests ... isn't it all splendid?" Aunt Kate almost glowed with pleasure. "It reminds me of my own come-out. The room is much the same, but the gentlemen then all wore lace and velvet, of course. They were as colorful as-perhaps more colorful than-the ladies." She sighed, smiling wistfully. "I was completely enchanted."
Enchanted? Enchantment was not one of the emotions swirling through Grace's gut at the moment. Nausea-well, nausea was not precisely an emotion. Terror, mortification, self-consciousness, anger . . . there was a lively stew brewing inside her, but enchantment was not one of the ingredients-it wasn't even one of the seasonings.
"You were only seventeen," Grace said, "and lovely. I am twenty-five and large."
"Grace!" Aunt Kate frowned at her. "Don't say that. You are quite regal."
"Regal." How Grace detested that word! It was uttered kindly by tiny women like her aunt, women who made her feel like a female Gargantua simply by standing next to her. Unless one were actually of royal lineage, regal was merely a synonym for large.
"Yes, regal. You are very striking. Don't you see how the gentlemen are admiring you?"
They were certainly admiring one specific part of her. "They are staring, Aunt Kate. That is not the same thing at all."
"Nonsense. They are all struck by your beauty." Aunt Kate smiled, but the curve of her lips looked strained. "However, if you keep scowling like that, you will scare them all off."
One can only hope. "Aunt, can't you see where all those quizzing glances are directed? Those men aren't studying my expression; they are examining my bos-"
"Grace!" Her aunt fanned her face and glanced quickly to either side. "Mind what you say. You are not at Standen any longer."
No, she wasn't at Standen, was she? And she had only herself to blame. If she'd kept her tongue between her teeth when her aunt had arrived and proposed this hare-brained trip, she'd be home now, curled up with a good book in the drawing room, pretending to listen to Papa discourse on crop rotation and drainage issues.
The thought didn't give her the feeling of contentment she expected.
She suppressed a sigh. Of course it didn't. Life at Standen had been comfortable while Papa had mostly ignored her. Now, however ... for the last year he'd become obsessed with the need to marry her off.
The elderly ladies had managed to navigate the first step. Now they were struggling with the second. Was it going to take them all evening to reach the floor?
Grace swallowed her annoyance. If only she'd done the same at Standen, but how could she have kept her temper in check when Papa had gone on and on about what a laughingstock she'd be if she appeared at the Season's events? She couldn't. So she'd let her temper slip its rein, and it had bolted, taking her good sense with it.
She blew out a short, impatient breath, causing the tendrils that had worked themselves free of her coiffure to float briefly in front of her eyes, and glanced back down at her aunt.
Aunt Kate looked as if she would like to wrap her elegant fingers around her neck in exasperation.
"You are in a pucker over nothing, Grace. Didn't you notice in the receiving line that Miss Hamilton was almost as tall as you? And I'm sure there are other ladies present as"-Aunt Kate blushed and coughed slightly-"well endowed." She patted Grace's arm. "Your father is an idiot. There will be plenty of gentlemen eager to pay you court."
That was highly unlikely, but there was no need to argue the point. "You know I'm not here to find a husband, Aunt Kate. Papa has already arranged everything with Mr. Parker-Roth. I just came to attend a few parties and see the London sights." And enjoy my last gasp of freedom before I give my life over to John.
"But do you truly want to marry this neighbor, Grace?"
"Er ..." She didn't, but she was resigned to her fate. She couldn't live at Standen forever-and marrying for love was a fairy tale reserved to Minerva Press novels. "I'm content with Papa's choice. After all, didn't he choose Oxbury for you? And you had over twenty years of marital harmony."
Aunt Kate's face suddenly assumed the oddest expression, almost as if she'd taken a bite of stewed eels and couldn't decide whether to swallow or spit it out.
"Ah ... er ... yes." Aunt Kate cleared her throat. "But I do think you might wish-you really might wish-to look around, Grace. Mr. Parker-Roth may be a pearl beyond price, but how will you know unless you see what else is available? I, at least, had a brief Season."
"You can't go home like a beaten dog with your tail between your legs and give your father the pleasure of saying he told you so."
"True." This was her only chance to see London. She should enjoy the experience. She would think of the male population as simply another sight to see, like London Bridge or Westminster Abbey. "I suppose there would be no harm in looking."
"Exactly." Aunt Kate smiled. "And there is so much to look at." She made a small, graceful gesture encompassing the ballroom. "You have all of society at your feet."
"Until these ladies finally move and we descend to join the crush." There was hope. The women had reached the final stair.
Kate's smile widened. "Indeed. So take a moment to survey the scene. I see a number of tall gentlemen, don't you?"
"Perhaps." There did seem to be one or two men above average height, though it was difficult to be certain from this vantage point.
"Perhaps? Of a surety. Look at the man by the ficus over there. Or the one by the windows. Or those two gentlemen by the ... by the-oh, dear God." Aunt Kate turned as white as a sheet and gripped Grace's arm hard enough to leave marks.
"What is it? What's the matter?"
Aunt Kate was staring at one of two men standing by a clump of potted palms. The fellow was tall with dark hair, graying slightly at the temples. Distinguished looking-not alarming in the slightest. What could be the matter with-
Grace's gaze traveled to his companion.
Her heart began to thud; heat flooded her face. For a moment she forgot to breathe.
This gentleman was even taller and roughly twelve years younger. His black coat stretched tight across impossibly broad shoulders, and his hair, dark blond and slightly longer than fashionable, waved back from a broad forehead. He had deep-set eyes, high cheekbones, a straight nose, firm mouth ... and was that a cleft in his chin?
He was staring at her, but not in the highly obnoxious fashion of the other men. Oh, no. She met his gaze and felt a jolt of ... something. The feeling fluttered down to lodge low in her belly.
What was the matter with her? Could the sooty London air be affecting her constitution? She'd never before felt this heat, this heaviness in-
She flushed. Could he tell?
A corner of his mouth turned up in a half smile. He could tell.
Aunt Kate's fingers dug farther into Grace's arm and her voice sounded slightly strangled. "I ... I need to go to the ladies' retiring room," she said. "Now!"
"Damn, this ballroom is crowded." David Wilton, Baron Dawson, grabbed two glasses of champagne from a passing footman and retreated to the relatively quiet spot he'd found by some potted palms. "I can hardly breathe or hear myself think, there are so many people."
"Welcome to London and the ton." His uncle plucked one of the glasses from his hand and took a hearty swallow. "Now you know why I abhor the place, though this gathering may be even more of a squeeze than usual. The on dit is everyone's here to see Alvord's American houseguest-and to see how Alvord's cousin reacts to her."
David grunted and sipped his champagne. Gossip! London must be as bad as-no, worse than-the country. This was his first trip to Town for the Season-and his last, if he had anything to say to the matter. He wouldn't be here now if he didn't need a wife. But he did, and he couldn't choose a woman from the country. He'd grown up with all the females around his estate; he wasn't able to conjure up the slightest spark of desire in his heart-or other organ-for any of them.
He surveyed the blushing debutantes in their virginal white gowns. Faugh! What a collection of silly young geese.
"See anything-I mean, anyone-you like, nephew?"
"No." David swallowed, trying to rid his voice of annoyance. "Not yet, at least. But we've just arrived. Perhaps the more attractive ladies-the somewhat more mature women-have yet to make their appearance." He bloody well hoped these fluttering young girls weren't all society had to offer this Season. He didn't have forever. Yes, he was only thirty-one and had been a baron for just a year, but life was fragile and death too unexpected. He knew his responsibility. He needed to see to the succession.
Even his devil-may-care father had attended to that before splitting his head open on a rock.
"What about that girl? She'd be a pleasant sight over the breakfast table-or over rumpled bed sheets."
David looked at the young woman in question-a blonde in a crimson gown with an exceedingly small bodice. The girl noticed their attention and fluttered her fan.
"I don't think so." The chit was far too short and thin for his taste. "Do you suppose her mantua maker ran out of fabric before she finished that dress?"
"Perhaps." His uncle Alex's voice held a salacious note.
David frowned. "The girl's young enough to be your daughter."
Alex's jaw tightened; something-sorrow, pain?-flickered in his eyes, but it was gone so quickly, David couldn't be sure he'd seen anything but a shadow from the candlelight.
"A man can look, can't he?" Alex waggled his eyebrows in a distinctly lascivious fashion. "Admire beauty in all its manifestations?"
"Especially when the chit has two very lovely manifestations almost leaping from her gown."
David laughed. "Behave yourself, uncle."
Alex scowled. "I am sick to death of behaving myself. I haven't been to Town in over twenty years. If I choose to celebrate with a little misbehavior, who the hell will care?"
"Surely you don't intend to take after my disreputable father at this late date?" David hoped the alarm he felt wasn't reflected in his voice.
"Perhaps I will. Luke's life may have been short, but it was intense. He knew what he wanted and he took it."
"Mr. Wilton! Oh, Mr. Wilton! I say, can it really be you?"
"Wha-?" They both turned. An elderly woman with a cane and elaborately powdered hair was hobbling toward them as quickly as she could.
"Oh, God," Alex muttered. "Lady Leighton. I thought she'd been put to bed with a shovel."
David bit back a laugh. "She looks very much alive-and delighted to see you."
"God only knows why."
Lady Leighton grabbed Alex's arm as soon she got close enough. "About time you came back to Town, Mr. Wilton. It's been so long, I hardly recognized you."
David turned his laugh into a cough. Poor Uncle Alex was apparently rendered speechless by Lady Leighton's enthusiasm.
The lady frowned and turned her grip into a pat. "I want to tell you I was so sorry to hear of your parents' passing."
A muscle jumped in Alex's cheek. Bloody hell. This time David was certain what he saw in his uncle's eyes-that stricken, bleak look was sadly all too familiar. When would Alex realize he was not responsible for Grandda's and Grandmamma's deaths?
David cleared his throat.
Lady Leighton turned her attention to him. "And who might this be?" She put up a hand as David opened his mouth to reply. "No, don't tell me-the resemblance is too great. Lord Dawson, correct?"
Damn. Was everyone going to see his ignoble father in his face? That was a trial he'd not anticipated when he'd mentally listed all the reasons not to come to Town. He inclined his head as unenthusiastically as he could manage. Perhaps the woman would take the hint and drop the subject.
No such luck. Lady Leighton thumped her cane on the floor. "Just as I thought. Luke's son. Does everyone tell you you're very like your father, my lord?"
David's stomach clenched. No, thank God. "I've been told I resemble him physically." He had tried his entire life to ensure that was the only way he resembled the man.
"Ah." She nodded. "Not a scapegrace, eh? Well, for all his faults, Luke Wilton was charming." She shook her head, sending a flurry of hair powder drifting down to her ample bosom. "Such a senseless tragedy."
She looked back at Alex. "And such a tragedy Standen insisted on thrusting a spoke in your wheel all those years later, Mr. Wilton. I hope this visit to Town means you've finally got over your disappointment? It's not too late to find a nice girl and start your nursery, you know. You can't be much above forty."
She patted his arm again. "It is time to get on with your life, sir. Past time. Some woman will have you-you'll see." She turned back to David. "And are you in London to go shopping on the Marriage Mart as well, my lord? Very good. I like a man who recognizes his duty and gets down to business." She laughed. "Should I wager which of you will be the first to produce an heir?"
"Ah." It was David's turn to be less than coherent.
"I don't need to tell you-" she said.
He and Alex both shook their heads.
"-but-" Blessedly, Lady Leighton stopped and waved at someone. "Oh, there's Mrs. Fallwell. I have something of a very particular nature to say to her. I hope you don't mind if I run off?"
"No, please-" Alex said.
"Don't let us keep you." David said.
"Well, then." Lady Leighton squeezed both their arms. "Good luck with the ladies, my dear fellows," she said before she toddled off to accost Mrs. Fallwell.
"Thank God." They looked at each other and laughed.
"I never thought I'd be grateful for Mrs. Fallwell's presence on this planet." Alex took another long swallow of champagne. "She's a gabble-grinder of the first order, you know."
"Hmm." David studied his uncle. "What did Lady Leighton mean about your 'disappointment'? About Standen putting a spoke in your wheel?"
Alex's ears turned red. "I have no idea." He gulped the rest of his champagne and grabbed another glass from a passing footman.
"Is there something you haven't told me?"
"I can't think of anything." Alex stared into his champagne glass.
Why wouldn't his uncle meet his eyes? "Lady Leighton seemed quite-Damn!"
"Damn?" That made Alex look up.
"Yes. The Addison twins are here." David glanced around, looking for a suitable hiding place.
Alex gave a low whistle. "So they've tracked you all the way to London. Very impressive." He chuckled. "I'd say one of the Misses Addison plans to bag herself a baron."
"Not this baron." Those palms might conceal him. And look-a splendidly stout pillar as well.
"Don't be so certain. You'd best tread carefully if you don't want to stumble into parson's mousetrap."
David didn't bother to reply, he was too busy putting as many barriers as he could between himself and the Addisons. There was nothing so terribly wrong with the girls, besides the fact that he'd known them since they were in leading strings. Some man would be delighted to wed one of them, but not he. He couldn't tell them apart for one thing. Confuse his wife with her sister? That would be exceedingly awkward. And they were both far too scraggy.
Excerpted from The Naked Baron by Sally MacKenzie Copyright © 2009 by Sally MacKenzie. Excerpted by permission.
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