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'Who is that man you are staring at?'
Rose's question snapped Lydia straight out of her state of heart-fluttering, dry-mouthed, weak-kneed tumult.
'I was not staring at anyone.'
She'd managed to remember she was supposed to be setting an example for her stepdaughter, and behaved with as much circumspection as she'd ever been able to achieve at the age of eighteen. She'd watched him surreptitiously, in a series of thirsty little glances, knowing that gazing at him directly, with her heart in her eyes, would be fatal.
Though not only for herself, this time round. Poor Rose had enough to contend with, during her first Season, without the behaviour of her stepmama adding fuel to the fire. So far, people were treating her as though she was a perfectly respectable widow. To her face, at least. But a woman's reputation was a fragile thing, and she knew—oh, yes, she knew—that there must be talk. How could there not be?
'Yes, but you do know him, don't you? The handsome one. The man over there, talking to Lord Chepstow and his friends.'
'Oh, him,' said Lydia airily, striving to conceal how guilty she felt at having been caught out. Sometimes, Rose reminded her of her own chaperon, Mrs Westerly. Both of them noticed everything.
'Do not waste your time in that direction,' the eagle-eyed woman had warned her, when she'd noticed her doing exactly what she was doing tonight. 'The entire family is atpoint-non plus. Yet again. They have a habit of marrying heiresses to pull them out of the mire. Not that this particular Hemingford is showing any signs of wishing to give up his bachelor lifestyle just yet. But you mark my words, when the time comes, he will do as his forebears have always done.'
'Yes, I do know him, slightly,' she admitted. 'That is the Honourable ' honourable? Hah! Not so as you'd notice ' Nicholas Hemingford.'
'Oh, do tell me all about him.'
'There isn't much to tell,' said Lydia, blushing at the outright lie.
For she'd fallen head-over-heels in love with him. In spite of his reputation. In spite of her chaperon's dire warnings. Like a moth to a flame, she'd been completely unable to withstand the pull of that lop-sided, slightly self-deprecating smile of his, never mind the mischievous twinkle in his blue, blue eyes.
She hadn't stood a chance when he'd decided, for his own typically eccentric reasons, to turn the full force of his charm upon her.
She mocked her younger self for feeling as though he'd thrown her a lifeline, for it had turned out to be no more than a gossamer thread of wishful thinking.
Which had snapped the moment she had to put it to the test.
'I danced with him once or twice during my own Season,' she told Rose, striving to make it sound as though it had been a trivial matter.
'And you have never forgotten him,' observed Rose with typical astuteness.
'No.' She sighed. And then, because if she didn't give Rose the impression she was being open with her, she would never let the matter drop until she'd wrung the very last ounce of the truth from her, she admitted, 'He is not the kind of person one forgets. He is so unique.'
'Really? In what way?'
'Well, for one thing, he was an incorrigible flirt,' she said tartly. 'I used to watch him regularly reducing the prettiest girls in the room into giggling, blushing confusion, then saunter away while they all sighed after his retreating back. Usually straight over to the plainest, most unprepossessing of the wallflowers drooping on the sidelines, where he would make her evening by leading her into a set of country dances.'
'Well that was kind of him.'
When Lydia frowned, Rose added, 'Wasn't it?'
'I do not think kindness forms part of his character,' she said repressively. 'It just amused him to set female hearts a-flutter. His real interest was always gambling. No doubt what he is doing now,' she said, indicating the group of men who had all subtly shifted position to include him in their number, 'is arranging to meet them in the card room later.'
'But ' Rose was frowning ' if he only danced with the wallflowers, how is it—?'
'I was quite ill, if you recall, by the time I met your father. My chaperon insisted I attend every event to which I'd received an invitation, in the hope I would somehow make a conquest. Which wore me down. So I was not in looks.'
What an understatement! Mrs Westerly had insisted she apply rouge to disguise her pallor and rice powder to conceal the shadows under her eyes. It had made her resemble a walking corpse. Or so the charmed circle surrounding that Season's reigning beauty had sniggered, as she'd walked past.
The night she'd tumbled so hopelessly in love with Nicholas Hemingford, she had been, indisputably, the most desperately unhappy female in the place. Her Season had started out badly and gone steadily downhill. And after overhearing the cutting comments about her appearance, she'd started to try to edge her way out of the ballroom, desperate for some respite from the heat, the crush, the overwhelming sense of failure. Otherwise he might never have noticed her.
Just as he had not noticed her tonight. He was sauntering away from the group of men now, heading unerringly for the furthest corner of the ballroom, where a rather plump young lady was sitting somewhat apart from the others, looking a bit forlorn.
Oh lord, he was doing it again.
The plump girl's face lit up when he bowed over her hand. Lydia knew just how that girl felt as he escorted her across the room to the set which was starting to form. She would hardly be able to believe that a man as handsome as Mr Hemingford had actually asked her to dance without any coercion from the matrons who sometimes prompted the younger men to do their duty by the girls who lacked partners. Her heart would be fluttering, her soul brimming with gratitude. Pray God this one didn't mistake his casual fit of knighterrantry for anything meaningful and get it broken.
'Why do you suppose,' said Rose thoughtfully, 'he only dances with plain girls?'
'Well, he would tell you,' she replied, 'that everyone deserves to enjoy themselves when they attend a ball, no matter what. He would say that he hated having to look at long faces, and if nobody else would do anything about it, then he would.'
'But you don't think that was true?'
'Oh, no.' She laughed a little bitterly. 'Once, he actually admitted that there was no point in asking any of the eligible females on the premises to dance, because their chaperons would not have granted him permission. He was considered too dangerous.'
'Dangerous?' Rose's eyes widened. 'And was he?'
'Oh, yes.' To the peace of mind of lonely, desperately unhappy females, anyway.
She inhaled sharply. Then breathed out slowly.
There was no point in getting angry about the way he'd made her yearn for the impossible. Nor the careless way he'd tempted her into believing it was within her grasp. It had all happened what felt like a lifetime ago.
Except that seeing him again made it feel as though it had only been yesterday.
At her first sight of him, she'd reacted exactly as she had done when she'd been an impressionable girl of Rose's age. And she could hardly tear her eyes away from him as he led the plump girl on to the floor.
Though there was some consolation in noticing she was not the only female tracking his progress across the ballroom with fascination.
For there was something about the way he moved that always drew admiring glances. While some men could manage to look impressive only when standing perfectly still, striking a pose, Nicholas Hemingford brought a kind of languid grace to the steps which had the effect of making her insides turn to molten toffee.
When the gentlemen lined up, facing her, he ended up standing practically opposite her. And though she didn't want to, she simply couldn't help taking the opportunity, while his attention was all on his partner, to take a good long look at him.
Oh, but he was just as handsome as ever. His light brown hair was cut slightly shorter nowadays, but other than that, he'd hardly changed at all. Just as fit and trim, and elegantly dressed as ever.
Typical! Why couldn't he have run to fat, or developed the raddled complexion of so many of his contemporaries? But, no—he'd managed to carry on with his dissipated lifestyle and emerged unscathed. Just as he'd always done.
She snapped open her fan and waved it vigorously before her heated cheeks. It gave her something to occupy her hands, instead of clenching them into fists and pounding them into the nearest hard surface.
The movement must have caught his eye, for his head jerked up and for a moment or two he looked straight at her.
Her heart pounded against her ribs. She lifted her chin and stared right back at him.
Yes, Nicholas, it's me. Look. I survived. And now I'm back. And what have you to say for yourself?
To her shock, and fury, his gaze slid right past her without so much as a flicker of recognition.
'It did not look as though he remembered you, Mama Lyddy,' said Rose, unwittingly touching on the bruise he'd just inflicted.
'No. Well,' she bit out, 'why should he? It has been eight years since he last saw me. And I was only one of a large crowd of insignificant females he favoured with his attentions.'
All these years, in spite of everything, she'd hugged her memories of him to herself in secret. But it looked as though he'd forgotten all about her.
Because she hadn't really meant anything to him, had she?
'Is something the matter?'
'It is a little lowering,' she admitted, 'to be so completely unmemorable.'
It was worse than that. Until now, she'd harboured a faint hope that he might have meant what he'd said, even if only for those few heady moments when he'd held her in his arms. The words he'd murmured into her ears that had made her feel as though she was clasped in a lover's embrace when the reality was that he'd only caught her up because she'd almost fainted. And he'd been nearest to her when it happened. Anyone would have been chivalrous enough to carry her into the shade. And yet, for those few minutes it had taken to carry her into the cool interior of the house, it had felt as though he was transporting her to heaven. Feeling his arms round her, being so close she could inhale his unique scent as she burrowed her face into his shoulder, hearing him say the words she'd never believed a man like him could say—words of yearning, and possibility, that had made her heart soar with hope.
Not that hope had lasted all that long.
The moment he'd put her down, he'd backed away, his face a picture of regret.
And he'd never come near her again.
The band struck up, the gentlemen bowed to their partners, and Lydia delved into her reticule for a handkerchief.
Rose was looking at her with concern.
Lydia blew her nose rather crossly, since if there was one thing she hated it was letting her emotions get the better of her. 'That is what comes of dwelling on memories of my own Season.'
'They do not look as though they were very happy memories,' Rose observed.
Lydia grimaced. 'They were not.'
Rose sighed and glanced up at her half-brother, who was standing behind their chairs, glowering at the entire assembly.
'Was it worse than this?'
'Oh, Rose, are you not enjoying yourself?'
'How can I,' she muttered mutinously, 'when Robert is being so impossible?'
Since the orchestra was going at full pelt and they were muttering to each other behind their fans, Lydia did not think Robert would overhear, even though she suspected Rose half-hoped he would.
'I am sure he is only trying to be protective.'
'Well, I wish he wouldn't. I don't see why he would not let me dance with Lord Abergele.'
Nor had Lydia, not really. Though since she'd got into the habit of playing peacemaker between the siblings, she said, 'I expect he had his reasons '
Rose turned to her, muttering crossly, 'He probably thinks he is just a fortune hunter.'
'Oh? Well, then.'
'But I don't care! It's not as if I have come to town to get a husband, only to find my feet in society. And how am I ever going to do that if he will keep every man who shows an interest in me at arm's length? Lord Abergele has a sister, who has the kind of connections that would be most useful. Now that he's offended the brother, I have no hope of making a friend of her either.'
And what was worse, now that he'd turned down a perfectly respectable dance partner on her behalf, Rose couldn't dance with anyone else this evening.
'I will have a word with him,' said Lydia. Not that it would do much good. He was far too much like his father, firmly believing he knew best, and expecting his family to fall in with his wishes without question.
And, yes, she conceded that it must be particularly hard for him to listen to her opinion, because she was four years younger than him. She could understand why he'd taken to treating her as though she was another of his younger sisters, rather than with the respect he should have accorded a stepmama, but it didn't make it any less annoying.
Particularly when he stood over them both, as he was doing tonight, like some kind of guard dog, his hackles rising when anyone he considered unsuitable came anywhere near his beautiful sister. Signalling to the entire world that he did not quite trust her to keep Rose safe.
At the exact moment she firmed her lips with pique, and flicked her fan shut, the line of gentlemen stepped forwards in unison, and Hemingford's eyes lit on her, briefly.
He did not smile this time, either, but he did grant her a slight nod of his head.
So he'd finally dredged up a memory that hadn't troubled him for years, had he?
Or perhaps he had recognised her before, but it had been his guilty conscience that made his eyes slide away from her. Just as he'd slid out of the room, and out of her life, after uttering the statement he'd so clearly regretted the moment it had left his lips.
'Oh, he does remember you after all.'
Rose was looking, not at him, but at her, with a perplexed expression. And she realised she was trembling. She'd become so angry at the casual way he'd broken her heart that she was physically quivering with it.
What was happening to her? For years she'd managed to preserve an outward semblance of serenity no matter what she'd been thinking. In fact, the last time she'd got so worked up she couldn't control her physical reaction had been her wedding day.
Her knees had been shaking so badly she'd started to worry she might not make it all the way down the aisle. But even so, she'd managed to lift her chin and force a smile to her lips, determined that nobody should guess how scared she was. Particularly not her husband. Colonel Morgan had frowned when he'd taken her hand to slip the ring on her finger, feeling her tremors. He hadn't liked the notion she might be afraid of him, of what she'd agreed to. So as she'd spoken her vows, she'd made secret ones of her own. That she was never, ever, going to let her feelings get the better of her again. She would keep a mask of calm acceptance firmly in place at all times.
And until tonight, she'd been able to do so.
Before she could pull herself together sufficiently to form some plausible excuse, Robert leaned down and growled into her ear, 'I quite forgot that you knew him.'