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Ye Gods, he'd known it would not be easy, but he hadn't expected them all to be quite so predictable.
Lord Deben strode out on to the terrace, deserted since the night air was damp with drizzle, made it to the parapet and leaned heavily on the copingstone, where he drew in several deep breaths of air blessedly unadulterated by perfume, sweat and candle grease.
First to run true to form had been tonight's hostess, Lady Twining. Her eyes had practically popped out of her head when she'd recognised exactly upon whose arm the Dowager Lady Dalrymple was leaning. He had only ever once before had anything to do with a come-out ball, and that had been his own sister'sa glittering affair which he'd hosted himself some four years ago. He could see Lady Twining wondering why on earth he had suddenly decided to accompany such a stickler for good form to such an insipid event, held in the home of a family who would never aspire to be part of his usual, racy set.
While they had slowly mounted the stairs, he'd watched her rapidly working out how to deal with the dilemma his attendance posed. She could hardly refuse to admit him, since she'd sent his godmother an invitation and he was evidently acting as her escort. But, oh, how she wanted to. She clearly felt that letting him in amongst the virtuous damsels currently thronging her corridors would be like opening the hen-house door to a prowling fox.
But she didn't have the courage to say what she was thinking. And by the time he'd arrived at the head of the receiving line, it was all what an honour to welcome you into our home, my lord, and we did not think to have such an august presence as yours
No. She had not actually said that last phrase, but that was what she'd meant by all that gushing and fluttering. The presence of a belted earl was such a social coup for her that it far outweighed the potential danger he posed to the moral tone of the assembly.
And as for those assembled guestshis lip curled in utter contempt. They had divided neatly into two camps: those who reacted solely to his reputation by clucking and fluttering like outraged hens in defence of their precious chicks and those, he grimaced, with an eye to the main chance.
He'd felt their beady eyes following his progress into the house. Heard the whispered swell of speculation. Why was he here? And with Lady Dalrymple, of all people? Was it a sign that this Season he was at last going to do his duty to his family and take a wife?
On the outside chance that the most notorious wom-aniser of his generation, the most dangerous flirt, was actually going to look about him for a woman to take her place at his side in society, as his legally wed countess, the most ambitious amongst them had promptly begun elbowing each other aside in their determination to thrust their simpering charges under his nose.
The fact that they'd guessed correctly didn't make their approaches any less repellent. Which was why he would have to attend more events such as this and endure the vapid discourse that passed for conversation and the gauche mannerisms and sometimes even the spotty complexions. How else could a man be absolutely sure that his first child, at least, was of his own get unless he married a girl who'd only just emerged from the schoolroom? And the duty he owed his proud lineage made that an absolute imperative.
But did they really think he'd propose to the first chit he met, at the first event he attended since he'd made up his mind it was time, and past time, he knuckled down to the fate his position made inescapable?
He leaned back and tilted his face to the rain. It managed to cool his skin, even if it could do nothing to soothe the roiling bitterness churning in his guts. Nothing could do that.
Unless He stilled, as the most fantastic thought occurred to him. He didn't think he could face many more such events as this. And what was there to choose between all those pallid, eager, young females, after all? Why the hell shouldn't he just propose to the very first chit to cross his path when he went back inside? That would at least get the whole unpleasant business over and done with as quickly and painlessly as possible.
What would it takea year out of his life? Propose to one of those girls who'd been paraded before him like brood mares at Tattersalls. Get the banns read, go through the travesty of a ceremony, bed her, then keep on bedding her until he could be certain she was increasing. Hope that the child was a boy. Then, with the succession sorted, he could return to his carefree existence and she could.
He sucked in a short, sharp breath, bowing his head again as he considered what his wife would get up to, left to her own devices.
Anything. Anything and everything. Nobody knew better than he just how far bored young matrons would go in the pursuit of sexual adventure.
With an exclamation of impatience he pulled his watch from his waistcoat pocket and turned to catch the light from the ballroom windows so that he could check the time. His brow raised in disbelief. Had he only been in this house for thirty minutes? It could be hours before Lady Dalrymple was ready to leave. She would want to watch the dancing, gossip with those of her cronies who were present and take supper.
So be it. His mouth twisted with distaste. He had to fill in the time somehow, so it might as well be following his impulse to deal with the marriage situation as swiftly and cleanly as possible. He would return to the ballroom and ask the first girl to cross his path to dance with him. If she accepted, and if he didn't find her too repulsive, he would locate her father and start talking settlements.
There. The whole abominable, damnable thing settled. He would not even have to alert the ton to his intent by setting foot in that hellhole known as Almack's.
And yet, when he replaced his watch in his pocket, his feet remained welded to the spot. And his gaze stayed fixed straight ahead, though his eyes were not seeing the dampening gardens below the terrace, but the abyss into which he was about to throw himself.
It would not matter if he could not grow to like the anonymous chit who waited for him inside that house very much, as long as he could contemplate bedding her for the requisite amount of time to get an heir. If he didn't grow fond of her, she wouldn't have the power to hurt him. Humiliate him. He could watch her carrying on her love affairs with the same kind of amused indifference displayed by all the husbands he'd cuckolded over the years. Whose bored, dissatisfied wives had been actively seeking younger, more energetic men to provide them with the spice their dutifully contracted marriages so singularly lacked.
Within the bounds of such a lukewarm arrangement, he might even be able to tolerate her offspring. Perhaps even treat them with kindness, rather than calling them bastards to their face. And they'd think of each other as brothers and sisters, and care for and support each other, instead of.
A swell of music issuing from the ballroom pulled him abruptly from the maelstrom of negativity that always churned through him whenever a stray thought escaped its confines and crept back towards his childhood.
He turned slowly, annoyed to have his brief interlude of solitude interrupted, though he hadn't expected to see a female silhouette in the doorway that led back to the house.
'Why, Lord Deben!'
The girl gasped and raised her hand to her throat in a dramatic gesture, intended, he supposed cynically, to betoken surprise.
'I did not think anyone else would be out here,' she said, glancing along the length of the otherwise deserted terrace and back.
'Why, indeed, would anyone venture forth in such inclement weather?'
Undeterred by the dryness of his tone, she advanced a step or two and giggled.
'I should not be out here with you, all alone, should I? Mama says you are dangerous.'
Now that she was closer he could see she was quite a pretty little thing. Good features, clear skin, expensively and fashionably clad. And well used to male attention, to judge from the way she was preening under his leisurely, not to say insolent, perusal of her assets.
'Your mama is correct. I am dangerous.'
'I am not afraid of you,' she said, sashaying right up to him. She came so close that the perfume she wore wafted to his nostrils from her hot little body. She was breathing hard. She was excited. A little nervous, too, but mostly excited.
'You have never been known to harm a virtuous damsel,' she said breathily. 'Your reputation has all been gained with young matrons, or widows.'
'Your mama should have warned you that it is not the thing to discuss a man's amours with him.'
She smiled. Knowingly.
'But, Lord Deben,' she murmured, sliding one hand up the lapel of his jacket, 'I am sure you want your future wife to understand these things. To be understanding '
He gripped her hand and detached it from his clothing, filled with a gut-deep revulsion.
'On the contrary, madam, that is the last thing I want from the woman I shall marry.'
It was no good. He was more like his father than he'd thought. Even if he took the greatest care never to fall in love with his own wife, he wouldn't be able to bear the thought of her being understanding. Of expecting him to carry on as though he was still a bachelor, so that she could enjoy her own sexual adventures.
In short, of becoming a cuckold.
'You had better return to the ballroom. As you yourself said, it is quite improper of you to be out here, alone, with a man like me.'
She pouted. 'It is absurd of you to preach propriety, when everyone knows you have never had any time for it.'
Then, in a move so swift it took him completely by surprise, she flung both arms about his neck.
'God dammit, what are you about?' He reached up and tried to disentangle himself from her hold. He managed to prise one hand off, but then she dropped her fan, leaving her other hand free to find purchase. When he stepped smartly back in a more determined effort to evade her grasping hands, she clung tighter, so that he found himself dragging her with him.
'Let go of me, you impudent baggage,' he growled. 'I do not know what you think you will achieve by flinging yourself at me like this, but '
There was a shriek. Light flooded the terrace as the doors from the house burst open. The girl who had been clinging so tenaciously slumped against him, pressing her cheek to his chest.
'Lord Deben!' A well-built matron stalked towards him, her jowls quivering with indignation. 'Let go of my daughter this instant!'
He still had his hands on her wrists, from when he'd been trying to prise her off. As he attempted to push her upright, she gave a little moan and arched theatrically backwards, as though in a faint. Instinctively, he caught her as she began to fall. And though part of him would have dearly liked to let her slump into a crumpled heap on the damp flagstones, another part of him knew that were he to give in to such a base instinct, it would only make the situation look worse for him.
At any moment, another person might take it into their heads to come outside, and what would they see? The wicked Lord Deben standing over the prone body of a shocked, half-ravished innocent? Or the wicked Lord Deben standing with the swooning victim of his attempted seduction clasped in his arms? With the indignant mother demanding the release of his supposed victim?
Whichever tableau they would see, the outcome would be the same. These two females would expect him to make reparation by marrying this scheming little baggage.
He had never been so angry in his whole life. Caught in the kind of trap a greenhorn should have seen coming. And on his first foray into the world of so-called innocents! How could he have so woefully underestimated the predatory nature of womankind? He'd dismissed those virtually indistinguishable white-clad girls in the ballroom as vapid, brainless ciphers. But this girl had a quick mind. And an immense amount of ambition. He was the wealthiest, youngest, most highly ranking man she was ever likely to get within what he guessed was her limited social reach. And she had taken ruthless advantage of his momentary lapse of concentration to compromise him. She didn't care a whit for his character. Or have a qualm about marrying a man she believed was incapable of fidelity. In fact, she'd told him she would condone it.
What was worse, the chit was not to know he was, in actual fact, looking for a wife. For all she knew, he was still an obdurate rake.
And yet she had persisted in setting out to ruthlessly snare him.
Cunning, ambitious, ruthless and amoral. If his mother were still alive, she would have seen this girl as a kindred spirit.
'It is quite obvious what has been going on out here,' said the girl's mother, drawing herself up to her full height. Then, just as he'd expected, she said, 'You must make amends.'
'Offer marriage, you mean?' That did it. He no longer cared if the old besom did think him ungallant. He thrust her clinging daughter from him with such determination she tottered a few steps and had to clutch at her mother to prevent herself tripping over.
Had he really been toying with the idea of proposing to the first apparently eligible female to cross his path? Was he mad? If he married a creature like this one, history would repeat itself, with the added twist that he would never be entirely certain who had fathered any of the children for whom he would be obliged to provide.
He leaned back against the balustrade and folded his arms. He was just about to inform them that no power on earth would induce him to offer this girl his name when another voice cried out, 'Oh, please, it is not what it looks like!'
The three of them at his end of the terrace whirled towards the shadows at the far end, from whence the voice had emanated.
He could just make out a slender female form wriggling out from between two massive earthenware planters, behind which she had clearly been concealing herself.
'For one thing,' the still-shadowed girl said, reaching down to free her gown from some unseen obstruction, 'I was out here the whole time. Miss Waverley was never alone with Lord Deben.'