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Lord Shuttleworth!' Eiliane, the Marchioness of Pemberley and formerly Lady Rhys, exclaimed as she recognised with unaffected delight the vigorous young gentleman strolling towards them across Lady Finchley's ballroom. 'What a pleasure to see you again; it seems such an age since I saw you that I hardly recognised you.'
'I would have known you anywhere, my lady, and must offer my belated congratulations on your remarriage,' the most desirable viscount currently on the marriage mart replied easily, whilst briefly eyeing the lady at Eiliane Pemberley's side as if trying to place her. 'Miss Alstone, I trust you are well?'
'Very well indeed, I thank you, my lord,' Kate Alstone replied coolly, for if he hoped to fluster her by watching her with frost and mockery in his grey-green eyes he was doomed to disappointment.
'Nonsense,' Eiliane swept on, as if she had no idea Kate and Lord Shuttleworth had the least reason to be awkward together and were being over-polite out of sheer perversity. 'You sent a very proper letter and a handsome present, one I didn't have to consign to the back parlour for my own peace of mind, either, in case it gave me nightmares. You should see the epergne my new sister-in-law chose, probably for that purpose! Kate saw itisn't it a horror, my dear?'
'Indeed it is, but perhaps we'd better not let her know we said so.'
'Shuttleworth won't tell her, and he's sure to agree with me when he finally sees it anyway; such a pity you couldn't attend our wedding, my boy, although it was a very quiet affair as Pemberley and I were both married before.'
'Aye, a very quiet affair for about two hundred of your closest friends,' Kate muttered darkly, casting her far-too-innocent-looking friend and mentor a sharp look as she realised she'd invited Lord Shuttleworth to her wedding last summer and not told her chief bridesmaid.
Not that he'd condescended to accept, she added to her silent displeasure with both of them, because he doubtless knew she would be included in Eiliane's vast adoptive family and obviously had no desire to meet or converse with her. That much had become very clear when she'd glimpsed him exiting the first evening party she'd attended this Season very shortly after she had arrived with a group of friends. Then there had been a trip to the theatre when he'd chosen to visit a box no lady could dream of drifting into by design or accident and she wasn't fool enough to think he hadn't noticed her sitting in the one opposite. Watching him enjoy the company of one of the highest steppers of the demimonde and her current keeper had, Kate told herself, been almost amusing. If his lordship wanted it to make it perfectly plain he hadn't been wearing the willow for Kate these last three years, he was quite welcome to do so. At the very least it would provide an antidote to the ennui yet another Season might have held for her without his antics enlivening it.
'And you know perfectly well that keeping it to even that number took the wisdom of Solomon and the tact of a whole diplomatic corps,' Eiliane reminded her friend, with a reminiscent shudder at the very thought of arranging her own wedding to her and her new lord's satisfaction.
'Oh, I do,' Kate agreed fervently, since she'd been caught up in trying to defuse far too many arguments once the Marquis's relatives realised their twenty or thirty closest friends would not be added to the guest list so they could boast of attending the most exclusive and fiercely anticipated society wedding of the year.
'Still, it's done now,' Eiliane said of her triumphant second marriage to a man who adored her as fervently as she did him.
Kate wondered how anyone could begrudge them such happiness and was secretly pleased that Edmund Worth obviously did not, at least if the warmth of his smile as he eyed her rather smug-looking friend was anything to go by.
'Again, I congratulate you on that fact very sincerely,'
he said as a prelude to moving on, but Eiliane wasn't going to let him escape so lightly.
'We will see you later, no doubt, as nobody could describe this affair as a crush and it'll be impossible to avoid bumping into one's friends all night, don't you think?' she said artlessly.
'I do my best to avoid anything so unfashionable,' he returned blandly, but Kate could see the tension about his firm mouth and the hunted expression in those silvery-green eyes even if her most partisan supporter wouldn't.
Eiliane deployed her most unexpected weapon, an awkward silence she quite failed to fill in her usual easy manner.
'I think I see Julia Deben over there, Eiliane; perhaps we should join her before someone else annexes the best seats in the room and you're left with a mere rout chair,' Kate managed in the hope of filling that horrible quietness and giving his lordship an excuse to go.
'Will you do me the honour of promising me a dance tonight, Miss Alstone?' The wretched man seemed to take perverse pleasure in asking her after all.
She silently handed over her dance card, refusing to gush or let him know the idea of dancing with him filled her with far more dismay than he could ever be allowed to know. Once they'd danced together so easily, their steps so harmonious there was no need to think about it. It had been the one thing they agreed on without any effort at all, and now even that would be blighted by his profound dislike of her. He handed the card back and she saw he'd put his initials beside two dances with a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach. Now she must endure two cold and indifferent waltzes with himthe very prospect made her shiver.
'Until later then, Miss Alstone, Lady Pemberley,' he said with an elegant bow and a social smile that made Kate's heart ache for some odd reason.
She managed to curtsy with equal elegance and flash just as bland and indifferent a smile. 'Later, Lord Shuttleworth,' she managed to agree airily and kept that mere upturn of her lips in place for several moments after he walked away, lest anyone see her flinch at how her formerly impassioned suitor had grown so cold and distant towards her.
'Are you actually going to find yourself a husband this Season or not, Katherine Alstone?' Eiliane demanded with would-be carelessness that didn't deceive Kate one iota about which particular one she had in mind, despite Viscount Shuttleworth's obvious antipathy to the very idea.
They strolled across the room to greet friends and acquaintances, whilst Kate considered her answer and tried to tease Edmund Worth out of her errant thoughts. How very like Eiliane to ask the question nobody else dared, just when she didn't want to be asked most.
'Maybe,' Kate replied cautiously as Eiliane plumped down on an elegant sofa. She fervently hoped nobody else would be able to hear the conversation she'd been trying not to have for a week or more against the babel of noise caused by musicians tuning up and the general hum of greetings and gossip.
'Well, if you're not sure, I might as well make a superb match for your sister Isabella while you make up your mind if you want marriage and a family of your own, or would prefer a lifetime of dull spinster-hood and worthy causes. Miranda and I have wasted three years of effort on you between us already, and I'm not inclined to seek out a man you won't turn your nose up at if you have no intention of marrying him when I finally manage to find him,' Eiliane continued relentlessly, just as if the most eligible gentleman Kate had ever refused to marry hadn't just crossed their path again mere minutes ago to remind them what a fool she was.
'How kind of you to point out that I'm one and twenty and almost on the shelf, Eiliane, but you'll have to wait for Izzie to recover from the mumps first.'
Her so-called friend waved the exquisitely painted fan her besotted husband of nearly a year had presented her with before he'd left her alone in London for a whole weekbarring his entire London staff, Kate herself and Eiliane's legion of friends, of course.
'The Season's hardly begun yet, so if your sister is a week or two late in arriving it will only add to the sensation she'll cause when she does get here. I feel I can safely predict that dearest Isabella will be proclaimed a diamond of the first water the instant the gentlemen of the ton set eyes on her.'
'Of course she will be,' Kate agreed equably, 'but I still don't intend to snap up any available bachelor who crosses your path before she arrives to eclipse me.'
'Sometimes, Kate Alstone, you make me completely furious,' Eiliane accused contrarily. 'You just will not realise your looks are out of the common run and none the worse for being unusual. You'd have been the toast of St James's ever since you came out if you'd just hold your tongue and simper winningly for once. The gentlemen quake in their shoes when they're rash enough to pay you a compliment and receive one of your waspish disclaimers instead of a polite smile for their pains.'
'And I suppose you always held your tongue and smiled until your cheeks ached when you were a debutante, your ladyship?'
'I was different,' her ladyship admitted with a reminiscent smile that made Kate wonder just how different her chaperon had been and envy her a little.
'You still are,' she replied with her real smile that always showed the warmth of her affection for the recipient and this time made Eiliane chuckle, despite the apparent urgency of her quest to marry Kate off.
'Well, if you say so, my love, although I never had any looks to speak of, and only got dear Sir Ned Rhys and then my darling Pemberley to look at me twice by being good company, instead of twittering at them endlessly as the mercenary females who flocked round like a pack of vultures insisted on doing.'
'And you're always so outstandingly modest with it.'
'Any woman who is wilfully ignorant of her own advantages constitutes a danger to herself and every sentient male who has the misfortune to set eyes on her,' Eiliane announced with queenly dignity and a significant look in her direction Kate managed to pretend she hadn't seen.
'Izzie hasn't the smallest chance of being unaware of her looks when most of the unattached gentlemen of the ton will line up to tell her what she can easily see in her own mirror,' she said cheerfully, for she'd never envied either of her sisters their spectacular looks. 'Not that she'll relish the sort of nonsense the silliest will pour over her at every turn when she does finally arrive. So the answer to your very rude question, Lady Pemberley, is that, yes, I must marry if I don't want to become an antidote, and finding me a suitable gentleman to wed will prevent you foisting some handsome idiot on my little sister out of sheer ennui,' Kate said, eyeing one such gentleman who'd proposed once, all too certain he'd succeed where others had failed.
'You've kept too many of his ilk at a distance for too long, Kate my love.'
'I'd certainly never encourage such a straw man,' Kate replied, but the prospect of her fourth London Season had made her think very hard about what she wanted out of life before she'd come to town this year.
Over the long winter months she'd decided mutual interests and a sincere friendship with her future husband would last longer than an uncomfortable heat and irrational passion disguised as love. Of course, she was too cool and sceptical a lady now to feel that sort of midsummer madness for a gentleman anyway and, imagining how that sensible decision would be applauded by most noble families, she gave vent to a long-suffering sigh.
Her own family didn't even seem to realise how tedious it could be to be watched with misty-eyed speculation whenever she met a new gentleman. 'Would this be The One?' they seemed to ask themselves constantly and Kate had even detected signs of such mawk-ishness in her brother-in-law, Christopher Alstone, Earl of Carnwood, of late. She'd always thought him far too hard-headed and cynical to think that because he'd made a love match, she must necessarily want to do the same.
His marriage to her elder sister Miranda demonstrated that passionate love existed, of course, and then her one-time governess had tumbled headlong into love with Kit's best friend and business partner, Ben Shaw, to prove it beyond all doubt. Ben and Charlotte clearly adored each other, for all they sparred constantly, and now even Ben's natural father and dear Eiliane Rhys had joined in the conspiracy and wed each other at last. Yes, love obviously wasn't a myth, but she'd seen the damage it could do as well and had no intention of succumbing to such an unreliable emotion herself.
'Any woman in search of an amenable husband should discount that one immediately,' she added distractedly, considering the idiotic man striking a pose nearby and wishing she could recall his name. Meeting Shuttleworth seemed to have interfered with her memory as well as her ability to think rationally. 'I want a gentleman good-natured and polite enough to make me an amiable husband, not one with too high an opinion of himself to treat me with any consideration.'
'Advantages we have wasted our breath pointing out to you in various gentlemen until we're nigh hoarse for the last three years and in all that time you've proved as indifferent as a marble statue. If you don't mean to fall in love, at least banish the thought of such a wicked travesty of marriage from your mind this instant, Katherine Alstone. You possess completely the wrong temperament for a cold and businesslike alliance and would be wretched within a month if you made one,' Eiliane Pemberley pronounced in a fierce whisper that spoke volumes of her disapproval and her new position, for she'd never harm her husband's public dignity, even if she had little concern for her own. 'Besides which, I couldn't bear to watch you belittle yourself and whomever you chose to make miserable for the rest of your lives. Most men deserve better than that from a wife, Kate, even if you don't seem to think you do from a husband for some odd reason.'
'Most of our kind think it perfectly normal to feel no more than friendship and a polite affection for their spouse,' Kate muttered mulishly, 'and all those deluded gentlemen must actually want to marry me, since they keep begging me to say yes.'
'Which is precisely why they're so unsuited to make a so-called convenient husband, although, given the way you treat them, I can't but wish the lot of them would come to their senses and teach you a lesson or two in humility.'
'I'm always perfectly civil,' Kate said defensively.