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Perdita Wentworth looked about her with a wondering expression. "This Almack must be the cleverest man in London," she announced. "How on earth has he managed to persuade polite society that this is the place to be seen?"
Her mother hushed her at once. "Do keep your voice down, darling. I know that you didn't want to come here, but at least look as if you are enjoying yourself. When Lady Castlereagh sent us the vouchers she believed that she was doing us a kindness. She had many other requests for them, you know."
"I could wish that she had handed them out elsewhere." Perdita was unrepentant. "Stale sandwiches and weak lemonade? I'm surprised that there hasn't been a riot."
"Now, love, you know that food is not the attraction here."
"Well, it can't be the décor." Perdita laughed. "I've seen many a barn with a more inviting interior. The place is downright shabby."
"You'll forget all that when the music starts, my dear. You know how you love to dance..."
"I do, but not as an exhibit, Mother. Just look at the old biddies seated by the walls. If they haven't priced each item of my clothing I shall be surprised."
"Oh dear, and I was just about to join them." Elizabeth Wentworth twinkled at her daughter. "Sadly, I've forgotten my walking stick and my lorgnette."
Perdita laid an affectionate hand upon her mother's arm. "You had best not let Papa know that you fancy yourself an old biddy," she teased. "He would take it much amiss. In his eyes you will always be the girl he rescued all those years ago."
"Your father does not change, thank goodness," Elizabeth said fondly. "Now, my dear, I see Emily Cowper by the door. I must go and speak to her. Your card is filled?"
"For every dance, Mama." With an effort Perdita refrained from commenting upon her prospective partners, most of whom she regarded as barely out of leading strings.
The gentleman standing behind her was not so charitable. "Dear God!" he said with feeling. "What are we doing here? Almack's hasn't changed in all the years I've been away. Let us leave and go at once to White's or Watier's."
"Adam, you can't!" his friend said bluntly. "If you wish to launch your ward upon the world, you must make yourself agreeable to the lady patronesses."
"And which of them do you suggest?" The Earl of Rushmore regarded the seated ranks of ladies with a jaundiced eye. "Damned if they ain't a bunch of harpies, set on matching up these ninnies with a passel of schoolroom misses."
The Earl had not troubled to lower his voice, and Perdita heard him clearly. It was unfortunate that at that moment her mother had chosen to seat herself with the other ladies. Her anger flared. To hear herself described as a schoolgirl was bad enough, but she would not tolerate the description of her mother as a harpy.
Stepping back, she trod hard upon the speaker's toes, and was gratified to hear a sudden curse. Smiling artlessly, she turned to face him.
"I beg your pardon, sir," she said politely. "How clumsy I must seem!"
The Earl of Rushmore caught his breath. This diminutive creature was quite the loveliest woman he had ever seen. Unfashionably dark, perhaps, with raven-black curls framing the perfect oval of her face, and emphasising a creamy complexion against which a pair of fine eyebrows stood out above huge lustrous eyes.
He didn't know what he had expected. Possibly blushes and maidenly confusion? Instead she looked directly at him. He was quick to make his apologies. "Not in the least, ma'am. The fault was mine alone. My foot was in your way..." He bowed and turned away.
"So it was!" Something in her tone brought him round to face her again. There was no mistaking the light of battle in her eyes. "Did I hurt you, sir?"
Rushmore was no fool. He understood her perfectly now. The chit had stamped upon his foot deliberately. His lip curled as he bowed again. "You'll be delighted to hear that I am quite uninjured."
His sneering tone brought the colour to Perdita's cheeks. She spun round and began to walk away, but was not out of hearing before she heard his comments.
"Who is the beauty?" The question was so casual as to appear almost uninterested.
"That is Perdita Wentworth. She is quite lovely, isn't she? You'll have heard of the family, of course. The Earl of Brandon is one of her connections. Her father is a younger son, and a naval man. This is the girl's first Season."
"Has she caught herself a husband yet? With that face and those connections it shouldn't have proved too difficult."
"I don't think so. Nothing has been announced. Why, Adam, are you thinking of trying your luck?"
"Good God, no! The lady is too obvious for me. I think she knows her worth and is aiming to become a countess at the very least. I've seen it all before— dropped handkerchiefs, twisted ankles, fainting fits, anything, in fact, to effect an introduction. I'll give her credit for one thing. She was, at least, original."
Rigid with fury, Perdita stood riveted to the spot. Then, wheeling round, she turned to confront the speaker.
"Why, you insufferable popinjay!" she cried. "You must think yourself the catch of the Season!"
The Earl was startled into silence, but he heard a snort of laughter from his companion. He ignored it. Always aware of his surroundings, he noticed at once that the young lady who stood before him, bristling with anger, had become the focus of all eyes.
With a winning smile, he took her hand as the music started, and led her into the dance. A young man barred their way. "There must be some mistake!" he said stiffly. "Miss Wentworth is promised to me for the waltz."
"The lady has changed her mind." The Earl's reply was uncompromising. "She will dance with me..."
Disposed to argue, the young man caught the eye of Perdita's companion and changed his mind, retiring in some haste.
"How dare you?" Perdita struggled to release her hand. "I won't dance with you!"
"You will, you know!" The grip on her hand and about her waist was too firm to allow of escape. "Miss Wentworth, pray consider your situation. Every eye in the room is upon us at this moment. A public brawl will do nothing for your reputation."
"Much I care for that!" she hissed. "Then you are a fool, my dear." The Earl swung her into the dance with expertise. "You may dislike convention as much as I do myself, but we live in this world, and we must abide by its rules."
As he spoke he was seized with a feeling of self-disgust. Even to his own ears he sounded like a prosy old bore. Clearly his partner shared that opinion.
"Don't glare at me!" he said sweetly. "A smile would not come amiss. You dance very well, by the way."
"But not with you!" Perdita slipped out of his grasp and turned, intent on leaving him alone on the dance floor.
It took but the barest hint of a hip throw and she stumbled. Then his arms were about her, lifting her off her feet.
"Make way!" he cried in clarion tones. "The lady has turned her ankle."
Perdita was unable to contradict him. A large hand cradled the back of her head, pressing her face into the fine fabric of his coat. Rushmore strode swiftly to an alcove and laid his fair burden upon a sofa. Then, conscious of the interested spectators, he knelt to examine her ankle.
"Don't touch me!" she cried hotly. "You must try to be brave!" came the tender reply. Then, using his broad shoulders to shield her from the gaping crowd, he bent his face to hers. "Use your head!" he muttered in a different tone. "Do you wish to cause a scandal?"
A hand rested lightly upon his shoulder. "Thank you so much, my lord," a clear voice said. "Pray don't feel obliged to trouble yourself further. I have asked that my carriage be brought round to the entrance so that I may take my daughter home without delay."
The Earl rose to his feet and turned to face the speaker. There could be no doubt that this was Perdita's mother. They might have been sisters, but it was clear that the girl had inherited her beauty from the stunning creature who stood beside him.
The Earl bowed. "I fear I am a clumsy dancer, ma'am. It appears that the young lady has turned her ankle. It is not broken, but it must be painful. If you will allow me, I will carry her to your coach. My name is Rushmore, by the way."
"I know who you are, my lord, and I am sensible of your kindness to Perdita." Elizabeth Wentworth looked about her. The interested crowd of spectators was pressing ever closer. "If these people will make way for you...?"
"Mother...! There is no need!" Perdita's mouth set in a mutinous line as Rushmore bent towards her, but an icy glance from her mother silenced her. She was forced to submit to being carried from the ballroom by this giant of a man, much though she detested him. Then she noticed that his chest was heaving.
"Put me down!" she hissed. "I am too heavy for you."
"Light as a feather, ma'am!" He choked. Then she realised to her chagrin that he was laughing uncontrollably.
"You find this amusing?" she ground out. "Vastly amusing, ma'am! Confess it now, you are hoist with your own petard."
"I don't even know what that means, but I make no doubt that it is an insult...to add to your others."
"Not so! I was merely pointing out that your scheme to injure me has rebounded against yourself. And when did I insult you, ma'am?"
"First of all you said that I was a schoolroom miss, and then...and then...you said that I was planning to make myself a countess."
Rushmore looked down at the vivid little face. It was devoid of guile, but there was no mistaking the dagger-look.
"Unforgivable!" he said gravely. "I see now that you are a lady of mature years...almost an ape-leader, if the truth be known...and with not the slightest prospect of becoming a countess."
Perdita could have struck him, but she was helpless in his arms. He was grinning down at her with every appearance of enjoyment. She was tempted to put out her tongue at him, but that would have been childlike. Her chin went up and she turned her head away, determined to preserve what shreds of dignity remained to her.
Her temper was not improved when Rushmore laid her in the coach with exaggerated care, solicitous for her comfort with the most tender of enquiries. Then he stood back to allow Elizabeth to take her place in the opposite seat. He bowed and then, expressing the hope that Perdita would be much recovered by the morning, he stood back to let the coach move away.
Elizabeth called him back. "My lord, allow me to give you our direction. We are staying with the Earl of Brandon. My husband will be anxious to thank you for your kindness to our daughter, if you should care to call upon us."
"I shall be honoured, ma'am!" Rushmore caught Perdita's eye and surprised a look of horror. He gave her a charming smile, stood back, and watched the carriage until it was out of sight.
"Oh, Mother, why did you ask him to call upon us? He's quite the most hateful man I've ever met."
"I asked him for the best of reasons, Perdita. Tonight you made an exhibition of yourself. When, and if, the Earl calls, you will apologise to him for your behaviour."
"Oh, no! I can't! You don't know what he said." 'I don't care what he said, unless he made some coarse suggestion to you, which I think unlikely."
"Of course he didn't. We are all beneath his touch, you know. He said that we were schoolgirls—"
"And you felt obliged to confirm that belief this evening?"
"It wasn't just that. He sneered at everything and he said that the older ladies were a bunch of harpies."
"So that was why you trod upon his foot? Must I remind you that you had been saying much the same yourself not five minutes earlier? You won't deny that your action was deliberate? I saw you do it."
"I didn't hurt him," Perdita mourned. "My slippers were too soft." She stole a sideways glance at her mother. "Are you very angry?"
"Need you ask?" Elizabeth replied in an icy tone. "That action was bad enough, but it might have passed unnoticed as an accident. Why did you go back to challenge him?"
"He was insulting, Mother. He told his friend that I was trying to attract his notice, in the hope of becoming a countess."
"You knew that wasn't true, so why let it upset you?" 'He is detestable!" Perdita cried. "Puffed up with pride, and convinced that he is the catch of the Season! Insufferable nincompoop!"
"You gave him your opinion, I make no doubt?" 'I did, but, Mother, I didn't mean to make a scene. I didn't want to dance with him, you know."