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The Second Lady Southvale
By Sandra Heath
Robert Hale LimitedCopyright © 2007 Sandra Heath
All rights reserved.
If there was one thing that was certain to cause a stir at the Fourth of July ball at the Carberry mansion in Washington, especially in 1811, when America and Britain were again moving toward war, it was the entirely inappropriate arrival of an English lord who appeared to be the embodiment of all his nation's old-world arrogance.
The ball had been proceeding very agreeably until the announcement of Lord Southvale's name, and Washington society had been enjoying to the full the lavish hospitality of the great house on the southern outskirts of the capital. Mr William Carberry was a wealthy and influential man, and his wife was one of the city's finest hostesses, which meant that invitations to their residence were much sought after, and very few persons of consequence were absent. Lights blazed in every room, hundreds of lanterns glowed in the gardens, and the sound of music drifted out into the humid summer night, where countless insects throbbed unseen in the surrounding darkness. There were few thoughts of impending war as everyone turned their attention to the pursuit of pleasure.
One face was glaringly absent from the occasion, however, for the Carberry's son and heir, John, had failed to put in an appearance. Not that anyone was really surprised, for his conduct over the past year had left a great deal to be desired. Before then he'd been a model son, and a credit to his parents, but now he was more often in drink than not, and was usually to be found losing heavily at the gaming tables. The change stemmed from a fateful afternoon the previous July, when his reckless driving of a curricle had caused the death of his beloved fiancée, Elizabeth Mackintosh. Now he was plagued with grief and guilt, and took refuge in the bottle; but if cognac dulled the pain for a while, it also unleashed the sort of irresponsible behavior that a strict disciplinarian like his father found impossible to condone. In Mr William Carberry's view, a year was more than sufficient time to adjust to bereavement, and a vast improvement in conduct was now expected. Sadly, it was an improvement that had yet to show any sign of coming into being.
William Carberry and his wife had a second child, however, a daughter named Rosalind, and not only was she present at the ball, she was also the credit to her parents that her wayward brother had ceased to be. She was twenty-two years old, a little above medium height, and gracefully slender, with a glory of long golden curls that tonight were worn in a very becoming Grecian style. Her skin was pale and clear, and her large green eyes were unexpectedly dark-lashed, so that they were very arresting and memorable indeed. She liked to wear green, because it brought out the color of her eyes, and tonight she wore a high-waisted, décolleté gown made of sheer ice-green silk, with glass-bead decoration on the bodice, little sleeves, and hem. Long white gloves encased her arms, a knotted white shawl trailed on the floor behind her, and there was an ivory fan looped over her wrist. Her only jewelry was a pair of exquisite drop emerald earrings that had been left to her by her grandmother.
A polonaise was in progress, and she was dancing with George Whitby, the young man she was widely expected to soon accept in marriage. He was a little older than she, and good-naturedly attractive in a sandy-haired, rather freckled way. He'd been paying court to her for six months now, and while neither of their hearts had been truly engaged, they were nevertheless fond enough of each other for her to be seriously considering him as her future husband. Her parents' marriage hadn't been a love match, but had been arranged for them, and their subsequent happiness was sufficient inducement for her to believe a similar match would be right for her.
She was enjoying the evening, until a glance at the gilded clock on the wall above the orchestra's gallery reminded her that it was nearly midnight, and John was still nowhere to be seen. She sighed, for he was a constant source of worry to her. She knew how deeply he'd loved Elizabeth, and knew too that he'd always blame himself for her death, but he was destroying himself because of it, and his sister could only stand helplessly by, for he wasn't open to reason. She'd thought he'd paid a little attention to her that morning, however, when he'd promised to attend the ball in order to smooth over his many recent differences with his father, but evidently it was a promise already forgotten.
The polonaise continued, and George smiled at her as they danced. Rosalind returned the smile, determined not to let her anxiety over John spoil her own enjoyment of the occasion, but at that very moment an announcement was made that proved that John had remembered his promise after all. Two very late arrivals had appeared at the top of the ballroom steps, and as the master of ceremonies struck the floor with his staff, Rosalind turned to see her brother and a tall, dark, exceedingly handsome gentleman whose name was given as Philip de Grey, Lord Southvale.
The ball came to a startled and abrupt halt, and a ripple of whispers spread throughout the distinguished gathering. Rosalind stared at her brother in dismay, noting the slight flush on his cheeks that once again told of a little too much cognac. He was the worse for wear, as he surely had to be to have brought a British nobleman like Lord Southvale to a Fourth of July ball!
Her glance moved to the lord in question. She knew a little about him, for word had traveled when he'd arrived in the capital a few days earlier in the entourage of the new British envoy, Mr Augustus Foster, who'd been dispatched by London in a last attempt to avert war. Mr Foster was known to be tactfully remaining in the legation on this of all nights, but Lord Southvale was evidently of a very different and much more provocative stamp.
She studied the Englishman in those brief startled seconds. He was in his late twenties, she guessed, and almost too handsome. His thick, wavy hair was the color of coal, and the eyes with which he coolly surveyed the ballroom were a vivid, piercing blue. There was something arrogantly and lazily British about him, for he was every inch the aristocratic London Carinthian, and yet there was a nonchalance in his manner that suggested indifference to the stir his arrival had caused. A starched neckcloth burgeoned discreetly at this throat, his black velvet coat was deliberately cut too tight to be buttoned, and his white satin waistcoat was set off to perfection by the spill of rich lace adorning the front of his shirt. His hips and legs were encased in white silk breeches that managed to reveal every outline of his manly shape, and the shine on his black leather pumps showed that his valet took his duties very seriously indeed.
As the astonished guests continued to whisper, George moved a little closer to Rosalind. 'John appears to have excelled himself this time,' he murmured.
'I fear so,' she replied, glancing quickly toward her parents. Her father, tall, distinguished, and graying, looked positively thunderous, and her mother, a rounded, still-pretty woman in peach satin, looked a little faint.
'The grieving widower grieves no more, it seems,' said George, his disapproving gaze fixed upon Lord Southvale.
'I beg your pardon?'
'Surely you've heard the tale of the late Lady Southvale?' Philip de Gray's beautiful and adored young wife, the former Miss Celia Beaufort, had been lost in a shipwreck off the coast of Ireland the previous year, while on her way to visit her family, and her body had never been recovered. There were distant Beaufort cousins in Washington, and so the story had circulated American drawing-rooms as well as British.
'Yes, of course I know the tale,' Rosalind replied, 'but why do you speak so disparagingly of him as a grieving widower who grieves no more?'
'Because I was told that he hadn't attended a single social occasion since his wife's death, and because when I was introduced to him yesterday, I noticed that he was still wearing his wedding ring. He isn't wearing it now.'
Rosalind's gaze moved to Lord Southvale's left hand, so clearly visible as he toyed with the lace at his cuff. Unlike most of the gentlemen present, he wasn't wearing white gloves, and it was true; there wasn't a wedding ring on his finger.
George touched her arm suddenly. 'Your mother is endeavoring to catch your eye,' he said.
She turned quickly, and her mother gestured toward the two new arrivals. Rosalind's heart sank, for it was plain her mother wished her to greet them and thus attempt to take a little of the sting out of the situation.
George's hand rested reassuringly beneath her elbow. 'I think she's right. She can't go herself, for by the look of your father, he's about to declare war prematurely.'
'Will you come with me?'
'If you wish.'
Her pulse quickened as she and George began to make their way across the floor toward the foot of the ballroom steps. Their progress was closely observed, and fans and quizzing glasses were raised as fresh whispers broke out.
John had perceived his sister's approach and began to lead his guest down to meet her. Rosalind fixed her brother with a dark look, for his smile was a little lopsided and his steps very slightly unsteady. He was two years her senior, with the same blond hair and green eyes, and even when in drink he was possessed of an infectious and irrepressible charm. He wore an embroidered mulberry velvet coat and cream silk breeches, and he grinned at her as he sketched a rather lavish bow.
'Ah, sweet Rosie, how delectable you look tonight, but then you always do.' He nodded at George. 'Good evening, George.'
Rosalind was looking furiously at her brother. 'Don't call me Rosie, you know I hate it!' Then she remembered that her mother wished her to defuse the situation, not add to it, and she made herself smile in an outwardly agreeable way, but her green eyes flashed to show him that he'd incurred more than her mild displeasure.
The orchestra suddenly struck up a lively country dance, and from the corner of her eye she saw her parents taking to the floor in an endeavor to get the ball into swing again. The other guests hesitated, but then several couples began to dance as well, and before long everything was proceeding again, but not in quite the same mood as before, for too much attention was still upon the small party at the foot of the steps.
John still seemed unaware of his faux pas. 'Sis, may I present my good friend Philip de Grey, Lord Southvale? Philip, this is my sister, Rosalind, and this is a close family friend, Mr George Whitby.'
Lord Southvale didn't look at her at first, but bowed to George. 'Your servant, sir.'
George politely returned the salute, but with a rather wry smile. 'My servant? I doubt that very much, sir.'
The Englishman's sharp blue eyes flickered over him, but not icily, for there was a hint of humor in their glance. Then he turned to her. 'I'm honored to make your acquaintance, Miss Carberry,' he said softly, raising her gloved hand to his lips.
His voice was low and vibrant, and now that she was really close, she thought him even more handsome than she had before. His face was romantically good-looking, fine-boned but not in any way weak, and his lips curved in a way that told her he would be quick to smile. She was suddenly very unsettled, for his gaze was disconcertingly direct, and even though he'd kissed her gloved hand, she felt as if his lips had brushed her naked skin.
The many glances from the guests at last made an impression on John. He ran his fingers through his blond hair and smiled a little sheepishly at George. 'I've put my foot in it again, haven't I?'
'Just a little.'
Lord Southvale was apologetic. 'The fault is mine, I fear. I'd have been wiser to have stayed away.'
Rosalind was in crushing agreement. 'You would indeed, sir.'
John was appalled with her. 'Sis, have you no manners?'
She wasn't repentant. 'Well, it's true, he would have been wiser.' Her green eyes rested critically upon the Englishman. 'If you're here on a diplomatic mission intended to avert war, sir, diplomacy would appear to be the very quality in which you're somewhat lacking.'
He smiled a little. 'You're quite right to be angry with me, Miss Carberry, for I fully deserve it, but I am anxious to repair any damage my tactlessness may have caused. It's too late to undo what's already been done, and if I were to leave again immediately, it would look even more glaring, so perhaps we should just observe dull convention for a while, before I discreetly remove my unlovely British hide from this place.'
She wasn't sure of him, for his reaction to her attack wasn't what she'd expected. 'Observe dull convention?' she repeated cautiously. 'What, exactly, does that mean?'
He glanced toward the dance floor, where the country dance would soon end. 'I believe it would be appropriate if you honored me with the next dance, Miss Carberry. War may be in the air, but it hasn't quite broken out yet, and neither of us will be guilty of high treason if we tread a measure together.' He smiled at her, his eyes warm and just a little teasing. There was no suggestion of cool mockery in his glance, just a wish to put matters right.
He smiled again. 'At least allow me the chance to right the wrong, Miss Carberry.'
She met his eyes and found herself returning the smile. 'Very well, sir,' she said.
The country dance finished, and a minuet was announced. He took her hand, leading her onto the dance floor. His fingers were warm and firm around hers, and again she felt as if he touched her bare skin. She was acutely conscious of everything about him, and her heart had begun to beat unaccountably more swiftly. A breathless sense of anticipation enveloped her, an excitement that had stirred instantly into life when he'd smiled into her eyes. This man, this English lord, was different from all the men she'd met before, compellingly different....CHAPTER 2
There was something dreamlike about that minuet. She barely heard the orchestra, and yet her steps didn't falter as she was led effortlessly through the precise sequence of steps.
Faces she knew swam past. She saw her mother still endeavoring to divert her father, whose controlled anger was directed not at Lord Southvale, but at John. John was still with George, and looked a good deal more sober now as he contemplated the likely parental reaction to this latest example of his excesses. George watched Rosalind as she danced, and his face was thoughtful. Other eyes were upon her, too, as the cream of Washington society observed the telltale flush on her cheeks as she danced with the handsome English lord.
As the minuet at last came to an end, Rosalind and Lord Southvale found themselves close to the French windows that stood open onto the lantern-lit terrace. The orchestra played the final notes, and she sank into a curtsy.
He held her hand for a moment longer than required. 'Miss Carberry, a breath of fresh air would be more than agreeable to me. Would you care to accompany me onto the terrace?' He spoke softly, his voice barely audible as a ländler was announced and couples began to take up their positions.
She had to reluctantly shake her head. 'My father wouldn't approve, Lord Southvale.'
'Such a brightly lit terrace is hardly a den of impropriety, Miss Carberry. Besides, I see quite a number of guests out there, so good conduct will be seen to be observed.' He smiled into her green eyes.
Her halfhearted resistance crumbled away. 'You're quite right, sir, so I would be pleased to accompany you.' She was conscious of a frisson of pleasure as he took her hand again, drawing it over his arm.
She heard whispering break out again behind them as they stepped out of the ballroom, but she didn't glance back. The guests who were already on the terrace made little secret of observing the evening's most fascinating twosome, and the color heightened on Rosalind's cheeks, but Lord Southvale gave no sign of being aware of the stir they were causing.
Excerpted from The Second Lady Southvale by Sandra Heath. Copyright © 2007 Sandra Heath. Excerpted by permission of Robert Hale Limited.
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